The Dastardly Past: Sidney Paget.
Today (October 4th) marks the anniversary of the birth of illustrator Sidney Paget in 1860. If his name is not immediately associated with that of Sherlock Holmes, his images surely are. In the course of his successful career, he created 356 Holmes illustrations–mostly for The Strand magazine. They have been a source of inspiration for actors throughout the past century, giving life to the postures, mannerisms, and expressions of Holmes, Watson, LeStrade, et al.
Sadly, Paget passed away at the age of 47 from a mediastinal tumor–a tumor located between his lungs, sternum, and spinal column. The area also touches on the heart, esophagus, and aorta, and is therefore a tricky place to operate. Such tumors are rare and, in the early twentieth century, they represented a death sentence. In his short life, however, he created work that seems destined to remain immortal.
The Dastardly Past: Edmund Crispin.
On October 2, 1921, Robert Bruce Montgomery, pen name Edmund Crispin, was born. Crispin attended St. John’s College, Oxford, and began producing his breezy mystery novels at a young age. Employing a facetiousness that bordered on the farcical, Crispin is a writer you either love or you don’t. He lampoons academia, indulges in outrageous puns, and uses exaggeration in a way more reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse than P. D. James. Detractors have referred to his style as “coy.”
Crispin’s best known work is The Moving Toy Shop, which relies on outrageous plot devices yet remains beloved of mystery aficionados the world over. Sadly, Crispin ran out of writing steam in the 1950s. Afterwards he concentrated on music and became a prominent critic of detective fiction, often writing for the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, his novels have remained in print and fans return to them again and again, if not for the puzzles they contain, then for the tone and wit in which he presents them.
The Dastardly Past: Colin Dexter.
Today’s post will be short, but I could not let the anniversary of the birth of Colin Dexter pass without comment. I am a huge Dexter fan, and I love reading his books as much as playing Spot the Author in various episodes of the television series starring John Thaw. I was heartened to learn that Colin Dexter came to writing mystery novels later in his life—his mid-forties. I think it gives hope to those of us wanting to follow in his (impressive) footsteps as part of our post-children, nearing retirement plan. We lost Mr. Dexter this March, but he left us an impressive legacy as consolation.
On September 27, 1947, Warner Bros. studios released the movie Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This was the real-life couples’ third movie together; their last would be in 1948 in John Huston’s Key Largo. The use of the “subjective camera” technique (which I personally find annoying) in the beginning of the film is more than compensated for by the many location shots of San Francisco, looking its post-war best.
Dark Passage was adapted from a novel, originally published as Convicted, by the lesser-known writer of noir, David Goodis. It was his first successful novel, after years of writing advertising copy for PR firms and publishing short stories in pulp magazines. Goodis had arrived in Hollywood to work as a screenwriter in 1942 and would continue to live and work there until 1950. Dark Passage alone netted Goodis $25,000 in serial rights from the Saturday Evening Post, as well as a new, more remunerative contract with Warner Bros., and film deals for two more of his novels. Goodis could not sustain this level of success, however. He eventually returned home to Philadelphia to look after family, and wrote original paperbacks for Fawcett. His spent his later years as a near recluse, and died in 1967 at the age of 49. Dark Passage remains his best-known work.
The Dastardly Past: Agatha Christie & Max Malowan
The date of September 11th holds many grim associations. A happier occasion, however, occurred in 1930, when the queen of mystery writers Agatha Christie married British archaeologist Max Mallowan. During his lifetime Mallowan earned a reputation in the field of near eastern archaeology almost a formidable as his wife’s reputation among mystery fans. Dame Agatha used many of Sir Max’s digs as settings in her own works, and also wrote a non-fiction book about their lives as diggers in the desert called Come Tell Me How You Live. Their marriage lasted until Dame Agatha’s death in 1976; Mallowan himself passed away two years later.
The Dastardly Past: Mein Kampf.
July 18, 1925 marks the publication of the first volume of Mein Kampf, a semi-autobiographical book by Adolph Hitler that addresses his political ideology, at great length. He wrote it in 1924 in Landsberg Prison (Bavaria) while serving time for treason after his failed Beer Hall Putsch. During his rise to power, copies of the book sold so successfully that he had accumulated a tax debt equivalent in 2015 dollars to $1.5 million. Conveniently, this obligation was waived as soon as he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Throughout the duration of the Third Reich, Hitler decreed that the German government give complimentary copies of Mein Kampf to all newlyweds and all serving soldiers—with the royalties from government expenditures on these books going straight into his own pockets. The magnitude of evil he unleashed on the world tends to obscure the fact that, in addition to achieving almost total European domination, Adolph Hitler also became a very wealthy man.
The Dastardly Past: E. C. Bentley.
On July 10, in 1875, E. C. Bentley was born. Bentley was the author of Trent’s Last Case, frequently listed as one of the all-time greats of mystery fiction and praised by G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, alike. Chesterton even dedicated his own mystery novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, to Bentley. Bentley was also the inventor of the clerihew—his middle name—humorous verse in irregular meters highlighting historical and popular figures—rather like the poems of Ogden Nash but with a biographical twist.