Friday, December 18, 2009

Fiction: The After House

The After House (Mary Roberts Rinehart, Dell, 1960)
Though not exactly a household name today, Rinehart was in her day one of the most successful writers around, and her mystery novels have influenced pop culture in a multitude of ways, both direct and indirect. For example, her work and style can be seen echoing in the writings of the more famous writers Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie, and her indirect and distant influence can actually be tied to Bob Kane’s The Batman.

Born August 12, 1876 to a relatively poor family in what is now Pittsburgh PA (but was then a small town called Allegheny), by the time she died in New York on September 22, 1958, she was living in an 18-room apartment at 630 Park Avenue. A forerunner of the Stephan King school of extreme daily verbiage, long before the advent of the word processor she claimed that a good day saw her scribbling up to 4,000 words. It is no wonder then that by the time of her death she had written or co-written over 50 books, numerous plays, hundreds of short stories and an untold number of articles, travelogues, poems and other such stuff. A rather auspicious final tally for a woman who supposedly originally began writing in 1903 simply as a distraction from depression, but then, she had the luck of immediate success, her first novel, The Circular Staircase (1907) being an immediate best seller (it was made into a film in 1915).

Her biggest and perhaps everlasting and most influential success came in 1920. Deciding that she wanted to conquer Broadway as well, in 1917 she began reworking the basic plot and structure of The Circular Staircase, changing the sex and job of both the bad guy/girl and various victims, the time frame as well as other aspects of the story, and with co-writer Avery Hopwood’s help, premiered the play The Bat three years later at the Morosco Theatre. A hit, the play lasted 867 performances there and has been filmed at least three times. Aside from the two versions by Roland West, The Bat (1926) and The Bat Whispers (1930), The Bat was also remade with Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price in 1959 (trailer).
And, actually, it can be argued that Rinehart’s play was more or less plagiarized by John Willard for his (today) much more famous play The Cat & The Canary (1922), which has been filmed and re-filmed too many times to count, Paul Leni’s 1927 version being the best, Radley Metzger’s 1978 version being the worst. (How much Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap owes to The Bat is also arguable.) And, as mentioned previously, it has been stated that Bob Kane saw West’s 1926 version of The Bat and was so impressed by the bat costume worn by the bad guy that he used it as inspiration for his own much more famous and influential creation, The Batman. (West, by the way, while a forgotten filmmaker today and probably only remembered—if at all—as the main suspect in the famous but still officially unsolved murder of Thelma Todd, his girl at the time, was a stylistic maestro whose current status as forgotten belies the unbelievable visual creativity and experimentation of his films, a style comparable at times to that of filmmakers as varied as Karl Freund and Sam Raimi.)
All that said, The After House isn’t really all that good. Originally published in 1914, the best thing the 1960 Dell printing has going for it is the cover painting by Victor Kalin, one of the top mystery novel cover illustrators of the early 60s. Incorporating various important aspects of the story itself, the dark, brooding cover painting is a sort of natur morte featuring an ax with a blood-red handle buried in the deck of a desolate boat, a key tied to its head, an empty liquor bottle lying next to it.
Told in retrospect by the book's nominal hero, The After House is the story of “a hodge-podge of characters, motives, passions, all working together towards that terrible night of August twelfth, nineteen hundred and eleven, when hell seemed loose on a painted sea.” Well, the description on the seventh page might be true, but it fails to mention how boring the book is, and how easy it is to spot the murderer, even if his motivations as revealed in the end are unbelievably lame.

Leslie—the manly name of the manly hero—gets himself hired for a cruise and way out at sea one crewmate disappears, two people get seriously hacked to death while a third simply gets it in the head. Who killed the four? Leslie? One of the women? The drunken alcoholic owner of the boat? The second mate? Why not the only other nominal character introduced, the super-religious sailor? Of course, everyone suspects everyone, and others try to protect others by destroying evidence. No one is likable, so in the end, the reader doesn’t even care and begins to think “come on with it, get the story over with!”

Like most of Rinehart’s stories, the killer is revealed at the novel’s end not by any subtle detection, but through a contrived event resulting in the revelation and confession of the killer. In this case, it’s via an unexpected midnight meeting between the killer, the hero and the hero’s friend aboard the boat. Talk about lame. No wonder this book never got made into a film—not only is it predictable, it bores as well.

Thus The After House reveals that Mary Roberts Rinehart also had a huge influence upon Stephan King in other ways than just verbiage.....

Images (all from the web, top to bottom): The cover of the print reviewed here; the god lady herself; another reprint; yet another reprint.

Non-Fiction: Tales from the Prom

Tales from the Prom (Elissa Stein & Daniel Mailliard, St. Martin’s Griffen, 1998)
A great idea done moderately well. Described as a selection of "the most heartbreaking, hysterical, pathetic and true prom stories ever," the book does indeed contain such a collection, and they are indeed wonderfully, embarrassingly entertaining. Regrettably, rather than concentrate on such stories, the authors pad out the relatively slim volume—actually, considering the price and type size, the very slim volume—with unnecessary and unentertaining passages containing such things as condensed synopsises of Prom related movies, pointless reinterpretations of old Prom themes and unfunny comments about Prom fashions of the past and present. Had they simply included more true stories, the book would be much, much better, not to mention much more entertaining. Prom stories—like first date stories, first sex stories and first drunk and/or drug stories—are usually so awkward and mortifying that they need no assistance to keep the reader interested.

True Crime: Silent Testimony

Silent Testimony (Roger W. Walker, 1990, St. Martin's True Crime)

"One late summer night in 1976, Florence Busacca,
a former opera singer, was reported missing."

True crime? More like truly boring. A reprint of a book that was originally printed in 1984, telling of the trial Thomas Busacca, convicted of killing his wife of 25 years despite the fact that there was no body. (The body of Florence Busacca was only found three years later, and then by accident.) Walker may have been one of the detectives working on the case, but it doesn't help him any in writing an interesting book. Most of the book is simply the trial transcripts regurgitated as dialog. Boring. No: BOORRIINNGG!!
There is little insight into the people involved, and that which is told seems gleamed only from the evidence collected or what was used during the trial. Likewise, all the photos also seem to come from police files. Input from the family members themselves must have been little, as is the book's entertainment level. In truth, the story of the family would be the interesting tale to tell. How and why the couple ever became one, how the marriage lasted as long as it did, what went on at home – that would be interesting to know, not all the boring talk talk talk that took place in court. Perhaps the case is memorable for once being one of the only two cases in which a man was found guilty for murder despite the lack of the corpse, but the book is only memorable for being unbelievably tedious.
Basically, son and daughter come home to find a bloody house, dad shows up with a bloody car and claims to have left his wife alive propped up against some fence. Sure, and I have a bridge to sell you. The trial must have been a bore, though the jury got a lot of leg exercise because they continually had to leave the courtroom while the judge and lawyers argued technicalities. This book is only for the most forgiving readers; others should avoid it at all costs.
The husband, by the way, has since died in prison.
And did I mention that the book is, like, really boring?

True Crime: The Corpse Had a Familiar Face

The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (Edna Buchanan, Charter Books, 1989 — the cover shown here is of the up-dated re-release of The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, which came out in 2004.)
One of the most readable true crime books around, despite the stupid chapter about why Edna Buchanan loves cats. Written in a style that often brings Dashill Hammett or Raymond Chandler to mind, Buchanan is not one to mince words or shy from an apt description, no matter how tasteless or shocking. But then, she has years of experience as a journalist, and her natural talent for the catchy turn of a phrase is not only apparent but has obviously been honed well.
Partially an autobiography, The Corpse Had A Familiar Face also narrates how the young inexperienced lady from New Jersey, who wants to write, ended up becoming a journalist, moving to Miami and establishing such a solid career. Not that she was taken seriously at the beginning, what with her high heels and all. But over five thousand corpses and a Pulitzer Prize later, she has a career behind her that few journalists’ can compare.
The biggest problem with the book is that she manages to refer to the most minute murder in such a way that the reader wants to learn more about how the case ended or how the murder even ended up happening, but she rushes ahead at such a speed that almost everything is covered superficially. Too much information and too little detail, so to say—at least when it comes to crime: the bits about herself are not always that much fun to read. Buchanan comes across slightly, well, damaged, as if she is unable to relate to living people on an adult level. Why she might be so she does not reveal, but somewhere along the way something must have happened to make her such a cat-loving workaholic.

The book leaves one with the impression that if she can plot half as well as she can put together a sentence, then she could probably write some killer fiction. A quick look on the web proves that she did indeed go on to write fiction: her first novel Nobody Lives Forever came out in 1990. More about her and her work can be found here at her website.

Images: Above, the cover. Below, the good lady herself. Both taken from the web.

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