Sidney Paget

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.

Edmund Crispin

The Dastardly Past:  Edmund Crispin.

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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.

Colin Dexter

The Dastardly Past:  Colin Dexter.

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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.

Dark Passage

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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.

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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.

 

Death in Kentucky

The Dastardly Past:  Death in Kentucky.

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September 20, 1937 saw the close of a nearly year-long melodrama that had gripped the state of Kentucky.  Brigadier-General Henry H. Denhardt, age 61 and the state’s former Lieutenant Governor and Adjutant General, lay dead from several gunshot wounds.  The three Garr brothers, accused of attacking him in front of the Armstrong Hotel in Shelbyville, Kentucky, sat in jail.  And not a single member of the public questioned how this had happened.  They knew.

A year earlier, on November 6, 1936, the general’s fiancé, Verna Garr Taylor, had been found shot to death in a wet ditch along a lonely road outside of Louisville.  The beautiful forty-one-year-old widow had spent the day in the city with the general and they were returning to her home that night when the car stalled.  After that the sequence of events grew murky.  The general testified that Mrs. Taylor walked ahead for help at a nearby gas station.  A passing motorist stopped and spoke to the general, offering help.  Later another car passed and its driver reported seeing the general standing by his car.  According a nearby farmer, he heard a shot fired.  Then another.  He went to investigate.  The exact positions of Denhardt and Taylor during this time isn’t clear from reports.  Eventually the investigating farmer encountered the general near the road and they discovered Taylor’s body several hundred yards from the car.  Denhardt’s service revolver rested beside it.

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Police arrested Denhardt for Mrs. Taylor’s murder.  He was known to have an “overbearing” personality, and several members of her family, including her two daughters and her three brothers, had opposed their engagement.  Denhardt could not consistently explain the minute traces of blood on his overcoat.  As a defense, he asserted that Mrs. Taylor had been threatening suicide, despite testimony to the contrary as well as their recent engagement.  Authorities ruled out robbery, since the victim still wore her $1500 engagement ring when discovered.  A two-week trial ensued in the late spring of 1937, but it resulted in a hung jury.  The judge ordered a new trial set for September.

Many people believed that Denhardt, given his influential connections, would escape justice a second time.  Certainly Mrs. Taylor’s three brothers believed it, despite the fact that several more witnesses for the prosecution had come forward.  The day before the new trial began, somebody telephoned the hotel to ask if Denhardt was registered there.  The desk clerk said they were expecting him.  That evening Mrs. Taylor’s brothers, Jack, Roy, and Dr. E. S. Garr, encountered Denhardt on Main Street and shots rang out, killing the general.  In a nod toward public opinion, state officials declined to lower the flag over the capitol building in deference to the passing of the former lieutenant governor.  And, as a postscript, a jury acquitted the Garrs of all charges two months later.

Counterfeiting Pound Notes

The Dastardly Past:  Counterfeiting Pound Notes.

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On or around September 18, 1939, someone in the upper echelons of the Nazi regime proposed the plan that eventually became Operation Bernhard—the large-scale counterfeiting of five-, ten-, and twenty-pound British notes in order to destabilize England’s economy.  SS officer Bernhard Kruger ran the operation using as many as 130 professional counterfeiters and skilled Jewish craftsmen incarcerated at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  These individuals both created bills of the highest quality and “seasoned” them, making them look like money that had circulated for a while, producing them in industrial quantities.  Scholars estimate that the amount of counterfeit currency approached $150 million pounds.  Germany passed the fake notes throughout the Empire—the first came to light in West Africa.

The use of counterfeiting currency as a method of warfare had been practiced at least since counterfeited coinage in ancient Greece; it occurred in many European wars as well as the Civil War in the United States.  England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer repeatedly, and confidentially, asked to withdraw the old bills in favor of newly designed “forgery-proof” bills, but England only began to take action toward the close of the war.

 

 

 

NBC Saturday Mystery Movies

The Dastardly Past:  the NBC Saturday Mystery Movies.

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On September 15, 1971, NBC launches its popular NBC Saturday Mystery Movie “wheel” series.  The network’s idea was to feature a revolving series of movie-length episodes with a variety of sleuths.  Introduced with theme music composed by Henry Mancini, the initial programs included Columbo, starring Peter Falk; McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver; and McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James.  Hec Ramsey starring Richard Boone was a second-season addition, when NBC shifted its mystery “wheel” to Sundays.  The network added another mystery wheel series, first on Wednesday nights and then on Tuesday nights.  Some of the detectives featured in these slots included some heavy caliber Hollywood names, such as George Peppard as Banacek, Richard Widmark as Madigan, Dan Dailey in Faraday & Company, and Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as The Snoop Sisters.  The initial three series, however, remained the staples of the wheel’s success and few baby boomers will forget Columbo, McCloud, or McMillan & Wife.

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