Books

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BOOKS FROM APAR/GUARDIAN: For more information, go to the APAR BOOKS site. 


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Faux Tarzan

Excerpted from Tom Soter's upcoming book DRIVING ME CRAZY

What is one to make of Tarzan: The Lost Adventure? It has a terrible title (more a blurb than a proper name for a book) and was released in 1995 by Dark Horse Books with much fanfare: the cover has an illustration of Tarzan (looking a bit like the version in the Disney cartoon) crouching with a knife before a panther. The J. Allen St. John logo (from the ninth novel Tarzan and the Golden Lion in 1922) sits at the top of the art, with a little gold circle below it proclaiming, “First time in print! Burroughs’ final Tarzan novel.”

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Don’t be fooled. If this were a Hollywood film, the credits would read “By Joe R. Lansdale, based on material by Edgar Rice Burroughs.” For this dreadful novel has about as much connection to Burroughs as the Bush Administration’s tales of Iraq had to the truth.

Lansdale, a prolific writer of mysteries, horror fantasies, and science fiction novels and short stories, might seem to some like just the man to finish the 82-page manuscript left unpublished at the time of ERB’s death in 1950. Lansdale – who has been called “a genre unto himself” – has written screenplays, television series, and comic books and has a dedicated following of his own, probably dwarfing the current following of ERB and the original stories. I can picture some marketing type asserting to the publisher: “If the Tarzan name doesn’t draw them in, then the Lansdale brand is sure to. We can’t miss.”

Sadly, he would probably be right. But for fans of the true Tarzan and the fast-paced writing and plotting of “The Master of Adventure,” this book is a disaster. When renowned science fiction author Fritz Leiber wrote the authorized “25th Tarzan novel,” an adaptation of the 1966 film Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, he took great pains to sublimate his own prose style and try to match ERB’s. He also worked hard to tie the novel in with the previous books, recalling (and even footnoting) past characters and situations. The pastiche read almost like Burroughs and was certainly more true to the spirit of the novels than was the film on which it was based.

Lansdale says he grew up watching the old Tarzan movies on TV and read Burroughs’s novels some time after that. It doesn’t show. Unlike Leiber, Landsdale demonstrates no appreciation for Burroughs’s skill at storytelling – his pacing and prose style in particular – and rewrites Burroughs relentlessly, recklessly, and ruthlessly. He presents a Tarzan that few real fans would recognize.

Take the opening pages, which introduce the ape man in typical style: “The man, naked but for a G-string, moved as silently through the forest as did the man-eater behind him. He was moving up wind, and the scent spoor of' the carnivore was carried away from him. But he had another keen sense always on guard to warn him of approaching danger, and when one of' Numa's padded paws snapped a little twig the men turned and f'aced the lion. With only a knife, he faced the king of' beasts.”

Burroughs’s writing is clean and to the point. To this paragraph, Lansdale makes unnecessary additions (in italic): “The man, naked but for a loin cloth and his weapons – spear, bow and arrow, knife, and rope – moved as silently through the forest as did the man-eater behind him.”

Two sentences that follow have been changed as well. The original: “…when one of' Numa's padded paws snapped a little twig the men turned and f'aced the lion. With only a knife he faced the king of' beasts.” The rewrite (indicated by italics):   “…when one of' Numa's padded paws snapped a little twig the men wheeled and f'aced the lion. He dropped the rope, bow, and quiver from his shoulder, let go of the spear he was carrying, and drew his great knife. With only a knife, the man faced the king of beasts, and at this close range, that was the way he preferred it.”

These changes are subtle but demonstrate Landsdale’s basic misunderstanding of the character of Tarzan. The apeman is not a  macho redneck, preferring to fight a lion with only a knife. He fights with a knife because he has to, not because he prefers it.

In subsequent paragraphs, Lansdale adds unnecessary similies (for instance, to the sentence, “And constantly the knife rose and fell,” he adds, the phrase, “the man clinging to Numa as tight as entwined ivy vine.”) and equally unnecessary descriptions (a whole paragraph is added essentially repeating the description already given of the battle by ERB). And in place of a simple but eloquent description (“Suddenly the lion stood still on wide spread f'eet. It stood thus for brief seconds; then sank to the ground”), we get banality (“Suddenly, the lion went limp and sank lifeless to the ground”).

Some may say I’m a purist, that I’m just a nit-picking fool. Certainly George McWhorter would. The curator of the Burroughs Memorial Collection and editor of the Burroughs Bulletin, you’d think he’d know better. But for whatever reason, he has decided to act as an apologist for Lansdale’s hatchet job.

Apparently anticipating the complaints of true followers of Burroughs, he excuses Lansdale’s rewrites in an introduction to the book. First, he offers an outright lie: the 82-page manuscript “was not a finished product, scarcely more than an outline, and we have no proof that [ERB] lavished much time and care on it.” The original manuscript is much more than “an outline” – it is roughly one-third to one-half the length of a regular Tarzan novel, has a fully-drawn set of characters and plot elements, and is certainly more polished than the poorly written (but published) nadir of the series, Tarzan and the Forbidden City.

Disingenuously, McWhorter also claims that “a few minor changes were made, but his prose reads fluently and the story now has a beginning, a middle, and an end that holds the reader’s attention.” To which one might add, “like watching a car wreck.”

David A. Adams, in the online Edgar Rice Burroughs Summary Project clearly contradicts McWhorter’s claims, observing that ERB’s original, untitled manuscript consists of 83 numbered pages. It is typewritten and double-spaced with 16 numbered chapters but no chapter titles. There are four main villains in the story and four safaris: Hanson, Gromovitch, Hunt, and lastly, Hanson’s Friends, who are to meet him at Ur, but they never show up since the manuscript ends before they reach that goal…[this is] rather more than an incomplete beginning of a novel."

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The book is full of anything but “minor changes”: a plot involving “man-apes” in the lost city of UR and wholesale alterations to the character of Tarzan have been grafted onto the original manuscript. Those who study him, know that ERB’s ape-man is a stoic individual, who smiles infrequently, and is a man of few words. He never brags about his prowess, does not often threaten (he doesn’t have to, his presence is so strong), and does not take pleasure in death. He is fluent in a dozen languages, although French was his first.

It is hard to recognize ERB’s work in the new pastiche, but Landsdale’s  heavy hand is obvious when Tarzan says: “Do not cross my path again or I will kill you”; “Let the woman go or I will kill you…I want the pleasure [emphasis added] of killing you myself.” Then there is the “grin thing”: “Tarzan almost grinned”; “a faint smile [was] on his lips”; “‘I might be an ape’s mate,’ [she said]. Tarzan grinned.”

And Lansdale adds a description of Tarzan that ERB never used:  “His English, though good, was odd. Not quite American or British. Formal and stiff. Accented, but with no influence Hanson could name.” Considering that the Tarzan of this book speaks (and speaks a lot) in a casual colloquial manner, adding that description is bizarre, to say the least (unless it is there to show off Landsdale’s knowledge of the first Tarzan novel, in which Tarzan learned to speak from a Frenchman).

Adams, in The ERB Summary Project, offers these keen insights: “As it stands, [the unfinished manuscript] might take on the appearance of one of Michelangelo’s so-called ‘incomplete’ statues made as the end of his life. People seem to be pushing their way out of the stone to become whole, well-defined entities, yet the very restraint of the naked stone that holds them fast gives these works their uncommon power. Who would ever think of finishing one of Michelangelo’s statues by carving away the ‘useless’ stone?

“…I suppose the most appealing thing to me about this torso is the fact that it IS unfinished and thus rather modern in effect. The lost city of Ur remains a promised goal to the north which [is] not reached within the written pages of the manuscript…

“Knowing what Burroughs wrote and did not write in the Lansdale pastiche is extremely important in considering late ERB..”.

Adams is too polite. Tarzan: Lost Adventure is an abomination, an insult to Burroughs, Tarzan, and the fans who love both. Rather than stitch together this unholy monster, the Burroughs estate would have been better off simply publishing the original unfinished manuscript. It worked for Dickens’s incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and I think ERB’s many followers would have been happy to have the original not some bastard child.

May 15, 2015

BOOKS R US

LOOK AT THEM NOWI'm very excited about some new books. Top of the list is Look at Them Now, which features short fiction by my longtime friends Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, and Christian Doherty, and me. We wrote the 40 stories in this volume between 1968 and 1975, and most of them have gone unseen since their first appearance. To prepare the volume, I went through many stories, some great, others not so good, before I came up with ten tales per author. I then had to digitize them (and clean up the scanning artifacts), and lay them out with appropriate art from the magazines in which they initially appeared (mostly by Corky Miller, but also illustrations by Pierre Vaz and Doug Picirillo). There are some really terrific stories in here – even though they were written by teenagers – and I urge you to pick up a copy today.

DRIVING ME CRAZYAvailable now is my third (or fourth, see below) collection of personal essays in the ongoing "Tom Soter does anyone really care?" memoir project. Actually, I know many people care because of the favorable remarks I've gotten concerning my first two volumes, Overheard on a Bus and Disappearing Act. This one is a little different: although it features many (what I believe are) amusing anecdotes about my life and family (I’m particularly pleased with my story about online dating), it also includes my interview with James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die) and my conversation with Carol Schindler about improv comedy. Check it out!

A DOCTOR AND A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT. And speaking of improv, this volume, which came out late last year and which my co-author Carol Schindler and I modestly dubbed “The Essential Guide to Improvisation,” has received some nice remarks from some people who know something about the art of improv: actors Mark Ruffalo (“I highly recommend this book”) and Hal Linden (Barney Miller, “I wish I had this book when I was first starting out”), and master teacher Rob McCaskill (“This is a great teaching tool for anyone who wants to improvise well”). It’s available now from Amazon.

BEDBUGS, BIONDI & METhis could be called my third book of memoirs, although it’s a little different from the other books in the series. It features pieces I wrote for Habitat magazine over the past five years for my monthly “From the Editor” column (there are also three stories that didn’t appear there: a report of my talk with actor Charles Grodin about a play he wrote about prejudice in co-ops and two stories about ex-boxer Nick Biondi, who was accused of racism and paid out thousands of dollars in penalties and legal fees). I had a number of people come up to me and say, “You know, I don’t have much interest in real estate, but I found this book fascinating.” See for yourself!

MEMOIRS OF A WANDERING WARTHOG. You should also check out another volume,  Memoirs of a Wandering Warthog. The Warthog is the creation of Tom Sinclair and he appeared in roughly two dozen stories between 1970 and 1975. A sort of combination Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage, the wart is an erudite adventurer who travels to and from Phobos (where he encounters the horrifying Giant Bees of Phobos), returns to battle poachers on earth, solves "The Mystery of the Peridot Emerald," and meets the magical and mysterious Fabulous Twins from another dimension. Sinclair, who started writing these stories when he was barely 14, is putting them out in this collection from Apar Books. It has great illustrations by E.C. "Corky" Miller, and some introductory remarks by yours truly. I highly recommend this book.

Christmas will be here before you know it, so it's a good time to stock up on gifts for your family and friends. Also, join us for a book-signing event on Friday, December 4, at 6:30 at 448 Riverside Drive (Apt 52, Slon). Saly, Sinclair, and I will be reading and signing books while they last! See you there!

BOOKS R US

Add Image: 

ERB Ace Books Covers

COLLECTORS' CORNER

ACE BOOKS COVERS

of EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS NOVELS

More treasures from my private collection, this time of the terrific series of Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel covers of novels by the great Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was enjoying a comeback in the late 1960s when I acquired these editions.

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ERB Book Covers (2)

COLLECTORS' CORNER
 

In honor of Edgar Rice Burroughs' September 1 birthday, here are some more vintage ERB covers from my private collection (all Balantine, from  the mid-sixties).

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ERB Book Covers (3)

COLLECTORS' CORNER

More vintage ERB covers from my private collection.

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Holmes Sweet Holmes

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Investigating Couples: Excerpt


Chapter 1
THE DETECTIVE

Second book

“Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can’t solve. When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution. They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to a final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep. If I have given millions that sort of relaxation, it is reward enough.”
Erle Stanley Gardner (1)

“Hasty conclusion easy to make, like hole in water.”
Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) (2)

The crime is perfect – and perfectly bizarre. A man is found dead in a locked room, without the possibility of murder. And yet he was murdered! So says the eccentric detective whose name could be Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, or Fox Mulder.

The bizarre, the unknown, and the inexplicable have always fascinated us. The legends of the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster – even the so-called “second gunman” theory of the John F. Kennedy assassination have left many saying, “The truth is out there.”

Did George Reeves, TV’s Superman, really kill himself? Was Mark David Chapman acting as a brainwashed hireling of the CIA when he shot John Lennon? Is there really a Santa Claus? The truth is out there.

Hollywood has long tapped into the fascination with the popular and the paranoid. Although TV’s The X-Files and its imitators and sequels are only the latest manifestation of the trend, the story goes back even further, to the beginning of time, in fact, and the Bible’s story of how God created the world in seven days. Seven days? How is that possible? And was there a talking serpent? Or a world-wide flood? The truth is out there.

Any mystery story always ends up with detectives. Some are amateur sleuths, others work for the police. Some are offbeat, others conventionally dry. If the public loves a mystery, then the public has also long had a fascination with sleuths – and it was the particular genius of The Thin Man movies to combine that fascination with gumshoes with a host of other public obsessions.

The first literary detectives were men and the first was an eccentric character named C. August Dupin who solved the “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Edgar Allan Poe was the author, and the story lays out all the conventions of the detective genre. Indeed, according to Jeff Siegel, in The American Detective: An Illustrated History, “Someone once analyzed ‘Rue Morgue,’ and discovered that Poe invented thirty-two conventions of the mystery story...” (3)

Edgar Allan Poe.Edgar Allan Poe.

There is the bizarre and brutal murder, with no apparent motive. In this case, an elderly woman and her daughter butchered in their Paris home: the mother’s head severed by a razor blade, the younger woman thrust up a chimney, jammed up so forcefully that many men had to pull her down.

There is the contradictory accounts of witnesses, laid out like a mathematical puzzle: all agreeing that two voices were heard, a Frenchman saying, “My God,” and a second, indecipherable language that no one in a building which houses French, English, Spanish, and Italians, can understand.

Then, too, there is the absence of motive, and the impotence and frustration of the police, who have no clue as to who did it. “A murder so mysterious, and so perplexing in all its particulars was never before committed in Paris – if indeed a murder has been committed at all,” observes the local newspaper. “...There is not, however, the shadow of a clew apparent.” (4)

But the truth is out there, waiting for the right man to uncover it. In this case, it is Dupin, the amateur, armchair sleuth, who asserts that everything about the case is a clue. He is the classic detective of this type: a thinking machine who observes, reasons, and sees things that others miss, all the while explaining his motives to his “common man” associate, the narrator.

“We must not judge by the means,” he says, “by this shell of examination. The Parisian police, so much extolled for acumen, are cunning but no more. There is no method in their proceedings, beyond the method of the moment...” (5)

Dupin – like all the detectives of his ilk, both literally and celluloid, leading right up to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully – sees things that others ignore. He goes to the site of the bizarre, savage murders (naturally, on the Rue Morgue, literally “Street of Corpses”) and, with his associate, puts the clues together in a rationale, ordered way.

Poe offers the detective as an intellectual superman, a man with a muscular brain and mental powers that go beyond mere mortals. “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in the moral activity which disentangles,” explains the narrator. (6)

In fact, the sleuth is the representative of a higher force – a righter of wrongs, but also a seeker of justice and truth – a justice and truth that are often not seen or not available to us in everyday life. Erle Stanley Gardner, a mystery writer in the 1920s who went on to create the classic lawyer-detective Perry Mason in 1933, once explained the appeal of such heroes and the stories in which they appeared. “Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can’t solve. When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution. They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to a final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.” (7)

Dupin is like a magician: he does not dirty his hands or spend much time canvassing the crime scene or witnesses as real police might. He talks volumes; in fact, “Rue Morgue” shows its age by its lack of action; it is more a monologue than a story. Dupin observes a great deal, and then, like the wizard he is, not only produces the solution – the murderer is a monkey – but also tricks the killer’s owner into coming to him (Sherlock Holmes would later practice the same gimmick quite often). Dupin doesn’t even break a sweat doing all this; in fact, he looks on the solution of the crime as a game, a contest between himself and the prefect of police. “I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle,” he says at the conclusion, as though it were a chess match and not a murder investigation. (8)

Dupin set the pattern (the determined Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1860 novel The Moonstone was the second great detective), but it took Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to set the formula in stone. Holmes – almost infallible, certainly virtuous, amazingly eccentric – was to become a fixed point in the changing world of detective fiction. He was, in fan and follower Vincent Starrett’s words, “the perfect sleuth,” (9) more popular than other heroes of the time because, like Dupin, he makes sense of the nonsensical (“You see but you do not observe” [10] he would often say by way of explanation). He is the hero who brings order where there is chaos, overcoming problems instead of letting them overcome him.


Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget.Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget.

George Bernard Shaw called Holmes “a drug addict without a single admirable trait,” [11] yet Holmes’ addiction to a seven percent solution of cocaine is hardly his most noteworthy characteristic. In fact, the drug addiction was a canny early move by Conan Doyle that made the character more human than Poe’s Dupin, a thinking machine. Holmes had vices; he became bored; he loved flamboyance, presenting his solutions in as melodramatic a fashion as possible.

Holmes started many trends, and one of them was to be among the first fictional sleuths with a list of eccentricities. In the first mystery, A Study in Scarlet (1887), Holmes himself appears to be an enigma to his roommate, Dr. John H. Watson, who observes: “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy, and politics, he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled around the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.” (12)

Indeed: Holmes knows nothing of literature, philosophy, or astronomy, has a feeble grasp of politics, a practical understanding of geology, but a profound and accurate knowledge of human anatomy, chemistry, and sensational literature. He knows British law well.

Holmes explains his selective education to his friend: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands on it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing in his work...” (13)

Holmes later gained more “impractical” knowledge, quoting literary types and politicos with ease (Doyle was not as consistent as his detective in following through on his stated theorems), but he remained an enchanting eccentric throughout his career. His violin-playing became legendary; as did his thin face and flaring nostrils, the deerstalker cap (added by an illustrator), pipe, and distinctive expressions: “The game is afoot!” “You see, but you do not observe.” “When you have eliminated all the possibilities, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the answer.”

But, most of all, Holmes was dramatic and flamboyant, as in the famous exchange from the short mystery, “Silver Blaze” :

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” one character asks Holmes.

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident.” (14)

Holmes was the sleuth par excellence, eccentric and unchallenged, an amateur who knew more than the professionals who practiced “the science” of deduction, not the improbable guess work more common in literary (and real-life) criminal detection work at the time. The “Great Man,” as his fans called him, rarely faltered in a series of short stories, which began appearing in The Strand Magazine in 1892. He was one of the first literary detectives to jump into muti-media, appearing on stage, in silent and sound movies, and in radio dramas. Holmes and Watson.

Holmes and Watson.

Holmes’s earliest film role combined the public fascination with the magic of the movies with its equal fascination with the magic of literary sleuthing. He appeared – oh so briefly – in Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a 1903 short which had more to do with technical trickery than the deductive powers of the Victorian-era detective. In it, an intruder in Holmes’ flat literally “pops” in and out of the sleuth’s grasp. Although more a means of showcasing camera gimmickry, the movie captures the essence of the genre’s appeal: there are more things in Heaven and earth than we can explain. A vanishing villain? Can Holmes find the answer?

It was tongue-in-cheek, magical, and had to deal with detection – sort of. Subsequent mystery movies carried on the literary tradition of Poe and Conan Doyle, even when the detectives couldn’t talk. After his debut in 1903, Holmes himself appeared in a wide range of silent adventures – a long-running series starred Eille Norwood in the 1920s – but because these detectives were without sound, the stories relied more on the fantastic and the thriller aspect.

“The whole language and construction of the silent film worked against a figure who needed conversation and interrogation,” noted William K. Everson in The Detective in Film (15). “In the earlier days of film, the stress was on action or at least physical movement, often backed up by lengthy explanatory subtitles. In the twenties, when the movies rapidly achieved increasing sophistication, the pace slowed, meaning was expressed via visual subtleties, and the [sub]title was used less and less. Neither period made the detective an easy character to handle.”

In fact, the early detective movies de-emphasized detection for cliffhanger mysteries, often in serial cliffhanger form.The Exploits of Elaine (1915) features scientific criminologist Craig Kennedy (Arnold Daly) battling a master villain known as The Clutching Hand. Foreshadowing future super-sleuths of the big and small screen, Kennedy used deductions, intuitions, and scientific gadgets to track down The Hand. The villain also has his own super-weapons, including a death ray, a wrist-watch that injects poison into its owner, and a suspended animation device.

There were also, surprisingly for the period, female sleuths. Ruth Roland appeared in the “Girl Detective” series in 1914-15. The was also the heroine of The Penalty (1920), a drama in which Lon Chaney plays Blizzard, a legless lunatic master criminal. According to Everson: “The heroine is a government detective who is to infiltrate Chaney’s vice headquarters. A predecessor who tried it wound up in the river; she is warned by her superior; and discovery will almost certainly mean death or (an ominous pause) – worse.” (16)

Some of these detective adventures were serials, some were features, and all pushed the envelope with their outrageous adventures and ridiculously over-the-top gadgets used to murder people.

The absurd quality of such adventures was ripe for parody, of which Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1923) is a prime sample. In it, a young projectionist (Keaton) literally dreams of being a famous detective, Sherlock Jr., who solves the disappearance of a missing necklace. Keaton pokes fun at detective story traditions – when he “shadows” a man, he is so close to him and mimes him so perfectly that he could actually be his shadow – as well as spy movie/thriller conventions (a car chase, an exploding pool table ball).

There is also Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s two-reeler, Do Detectives Think? (1927). The movie combines comedy and slapstick with the detective/murder genre, in a way that anticipates both The Thin Man series and The Avengers. Laurel and Hardy aren’t really detecting anything, of course; in fact, they’re just a pair of high-class bodyguards for a man being threatened by a vicious killer.

But the movie shows how the genre, so ingrained in the public consciousness, was open to lampooning. Instead of the almost omniscient characters like Holmes and Dupin who know it all, we have two “detectives” who actually know less than we do. When they see a photo of an escaped killer in the newspaper, Hardy asks Laurel, “Where have we seen that face before?” not recognizing the butler (the killer in disguise) who just said “good night” to them moments before.

In the 1920s, novelists, too, began having fun with the absurdities of the genre, creating heroes who were flamboyant, slightly tongue-in-cheek, and operated outside the law. These “Gentlemen Outlaws” were more ingenious than police detectives and had colorful nicknames like The Toff, The Baron, Nighthawk, and Blackshirt. They also followed in the Robin Hood tradition: a well-bred, well-dressed hero helping the underdog against a muddled establishment.

Roger Moore as The Saint.Roger Moore as The Saint

One of the most famous of these was The Saint, who in the 1960s was linked with The Avengers on television. Often dubbed “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime,” the character was an iconoclastic adventurer, whose credo, as expressed in the short story, “The Melancholy Journey of Mr. Teal,” was straightforward: “To go rocketing around the world, doing everything that’s utterly and gloriously mad – swaggering, swashbuckling, singing – showing all those dreary old dogs what can be done with life – not giving a damn for anyone – robbing the rich, helping the poor – plaguing the pompous, killing dragons, pulling policemen’s legs...” (17)

The Saint stories are fast-paced, intricately plotted, and highly unpredictable, dealing with stolen jewels, unexplained murders, and hair’s breadth escapes. And they are all executed in a tongue-in-cheek style that readers of the thirties found uniquely brash (a typical Saintly rejoinder: “I hate to disappoint you – as the actress said to the bishop – but I really can’t oblige you now” [18]).

The plots swing from action-packed boy’s adventures to murder mysteries to psychological studies, all written in a distinctive, nonchalant air. In The Saint’s Getaway (1932), for instance, Templar intervenes in a sidewalk beating and is soon swept away in a rollicking saga involving multiple murders, torture, and jewel theft, as our hero dangles from speeding cars, moving trains, and castle windows. “The Story of a Dead Man,” an early short, finds Templar masquerading as a member of a notorious gang in a multi-layered mystery that keeps the reader guessing right up until the climax, when The Saint is trapped in a gas-filled dungeon. “The Unfortunate Financier,” another short story, shows The Saint playing mind games with a con man who is too clever for his own good.

“When I start to plan a story,” explained Charteris in the 1960s, “the tests which they must meet to satisfy me, are (1) Is the story line conventional? If so, then how can it be twisted to outrage convention? (2) Is this character someone I can see and feel as flesh and blood, or is it a cardboard cut-out that I saw on some screen? If so, what does it need to make it different? I have always wanted to be an originator: let the others imitate me.” (19)

Readers apparently loved Simon Templar’s brand of insouciant adventure, with seven Saint books appearing in only two years. “...the public of the grey, Depression-cowed early thirties needed The Saint so badly that nothing would have induced them not to believe in him,” observed William Vivian Butler in The Durable Desperadoes. “Or to surrender that all-important illusion that maybe with the help of the right tailor, maybe by continually polishing up their drawling repartee, they might, if only for a moment or two, bring themselves to resemble him.” (20)

“I was always sure that there was a solid place in escape literature for a rambunctious adventurer such as I dreamed up in my own youth, who really believed in the old-fashioned romantic ideals and was prepared to lay everything on the line to bring them to life,” Charteris once explained. (21)

Not surprisingly, Hollywood soon came calling. Louis Hayward was the first cinematic Saint in The Saint in New York (1938), based on a Charteris novel that depicts Templar as a paid avenger, assassinating a series of criminals the law cannot touch. The character’s dark side was considerably softened in subsequent motion pictures (the most well-known of which starred George Sanders) and radio series (one of which featured Vincent Price, who played The Saint as a gourmet whose greatest peeve was being interrupted while dining).

Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, with Boris Karloff.Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, with Boris Karloff.

If The Saint spoofed the genre, Charlie Chan turned it on its head. In a time when literary and film sleuths were universally white males, usually erudite and upper crust, Oriental detective Chan was an amazing anomaly. He was Chinese and definitely middle-class. He was smarter than the white men and women around him. He may have been “inscrutable,” but, in that, he was no different from Holmes, Dupin, and many other sleuths who had gone before him. Yet he was also the first crack in the traditional detective role, clearing a pathway for the gender-bending that would eventually lead to The Thin Man and The Avengers.

Chan didn’t spring full-blown from a Hollywood scriptwriter’s brain but was the creation of American novelist Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933), who wrote six Chan mysteries between 1925 and 1932 upon which 46 movies were built. Having an Oriental detective was highly unusual for the 1920s, when the norm was to depict the Chinese as exotic villains. To put it in perspective: “...almost every Chinese or Asian character appearing before Chan’s debut was an insidious devil, part of the Yellow Peril that hounded the west between the two world wars,” writes Jeff Siegel in The American Detective: “The most famous was Dr. Fu Manchu, a creation of Sax Rohmer, who was bent on world domination and the destruction of the Western way of life...” (22)

Indeed, Biggers went out of his way to break conventions, proving to be a man ahead of his time who knew that the detective story had been parodied and pummeled and done to death. “Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff,” the author once explained, “but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order had never been used.” (23)

His Chan stories are leisurely, intricate affairs, with the detective usually being under-rated by those who first encounter him. Much as TV’s rumpled police lieutenant Columbo did years later, Charlie plays on those lowered expectations to follow the tried-and-true detective mantra: observe and deduce.

Chan himself commented on the tunnel-vision of America. In the novel, Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), he observes about the Chinese: “We are not highly valued in the United States, where we are appraised as laundrymen or maybe villains in the literature of the talkative films. You have a great country, rich and proud, and sure of itself. About the rest of the world – pardon me – it knows little and cares extremely less.” (24)

The Chan adaptations began in 1926, with The House Without a Key, starring George Kuwa as the detective. Swedish actor Warner Oland took over the role in Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) and The Black Camel (1931). Since Holmes, sleuths were expected to have endearing eccentricities, and Charlie Chan was no different. Many of the Chan elements were unusual for the genre at that point: he was not a lone wolf but a family man (he had at least nine children). He was not physically fit or man of action, but was portly and slow-moving. He delivered colorful aphorisms (“Alibi like dead fish, cannot stand test of time”; “Perfect crime, like perfect donut, often have hole”). And he was, frequently, only reluctantly drawn into a case.

The movies were also significant in cementing a pattern that would later become a formula of such genre movies, The Thin Man included. The early portion introduces the characters (all potential suspects in the murder-to-come, everyone with shady pasts and reasons to kill the victim-to-be), the middle portion features more murders, as the detective tracks down clues, usually aided by the comic relief: a none-too-bright assistant (in the Chans, an eager “Number One” or “Number Two” son; in the Holmes movies, Dr. Watson). Along the way, the sleuth must avoid various ingenious assassination attempts (“That was meant for us!” an assistant invariably says) while he also turns up more bodies.

Chan had imitators – Mr. Wong, Mr. Moto – and was in the forefront of a flood of sleuths who turned up in literature and films of the 1920s and 1930s: Nick Carter, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, and a certain martini-drinking, retired gumshoe named Nick Charles.

The Thin Man was about to be born.

FOOTNOTES
Chapter 1: The Detective
1. Quoted in Albin Krebs, “Erle Stanley Gardner, the Author of Perry Mason Mystery Novels, Is Dead at 80,” New York Times, March 12, 1970, p. 1

2. Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935), screenplay by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan.

3. Jeff Siegel, The American Detective: An Illustrated History (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1993), p. 7.

4. Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 112.

5. Poe, Tales, p. 113.

6. Poe, Tales, p. 94

7. Krebs, New York Times, p. 1.

8. Poe, Tales, p. 138.

9. Vincent Starrett, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1975), p. 132.

10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (London: Leopard, 1996), p. 18.

11. Quoted in Peter Haining (ed), The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1974), p. 7.

12. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (London: Leopard, 1996), p. 25

13. Doyle, Study, p. 25

14. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Berkley Medallion, 1968), p. 27

15. William K. Everson, The Detective in Film (Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1972), p. 15.

16. Everson, Detective, p. 34

17. Quoted in William Vivian Butler, The Durable Desperadoes (London: Macmillan, 1973), p. 132.

18. Quoted in Butler, The Durable Desperadoes, p. 124.

19. Quoted in Burt Barer, The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television of Leslie Charteris’ Robin Hood of Modern Crime, Simon Templar, 1928-1992 (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1993), p. 113.

20. Butler, The Durable Desperadoes, p. 125.

21. Quoted in Burt Barer, The Saint, p. 243.

22. Siegel, American Detective, p. 77

23. Quoted in William L. DeAndrea, Encylopedia Mysteriosa: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television (New York: Prentice Hall, 1994), p. 55.

24. Earl Derr Biggers, Charlie Chan Carries On, (New York: Pyramid Books, 1969), p. 148.

KIRKUS REVIEWS ON "CAT"

"Nearly everyone will find something of interest in this volume, a compilation that’s as diverse and surprising as life on a New York City block." 

In his most recent collection of essays, Tom Soter (Driving Me Crazy, 2015, etc.) explores a wide range of personal and cultural experiences. 

The author, a lifelong New Yorker, returns with another installment of his collected works. He returns to favorite topics, such as reminiscences of his Greek-American family, and also takes on other issues, such as his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. In the introduction, he compares his ongoing project to the clip books that he kept in the early days of his writing career, in which he gathered every piece of his published journalism. Here, he gathers together published and unpublished work, and his topics range across his many interests, including the cats that he’s owned over the years, his encounters with cyclists on the streets of New York City, his love life, and his pop-culture obsessions, such as the 1960s television program Combat!.

The pieces differ not in only in content, but in form and structure as well. There are witty one-pagers about life in the big city; a lengthier piece about some of the more memorable students in Soter’s improvisational comedy classes; an interview-based article about co-op doormen; a memorial poem for Soter’s mother; and even a sci-fi story.

Although the author’s sharp, journalistic prose is consistent throughout, the four-decade span of the content naturally makes some pieces feel fresher than others. The author is at his best when describing characters he’s met, such as an overly enthusiastic fan of Soter and his pal’s homemade films and an old-school London taxi driver.

Some readers will wish that the collection was more cohesive, though; as it is, this volume could easily have been two separate books—one of personal memoir and another of cultural journalism. However, other readers will delight in the surprise of stumbling from a rumination on childhood birthdays to an unpublished, intimate interview with the legendary comedian John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) within a few pages.

In any case, nearly everyone will find something of interest in this volume, which also includes more than 100 black-and-white images, including photographs and print ephemera

A compilation that’s as diverse and surprising as life on a New York City block.

Order Books


ts

Available from this Page, at a Special Discount!

"He got it right. This is a terrific book."
~ Patrick Macnee, star of The Avengers, about...

Book 2 Investigating Couples: A Critical Analysis of The Thin Man, The Avengers, and The X-Files
Tom Soter's Acclaimed Book Published by McFarland & Co

Also...

Bond and Beyond: first book. Bond and Beyond:
007 and Other Special Agents

I am proud to announce that you can purchase my book, "Bond and Beyond: 007 and Other Special Agents," a study of the James Bond movies as well as the entire spy film genre, including television series, published by Image Press.

There are a limited number of copies left. The book is out-of-print and some bookstores are selling it for as much as $150. I have a handful left, which I am offering for $50 a copy. To order Bond and Beyond, at $50, plus $4 for postage and handling, please send your check or money order, made out to SOTER INK, to the address below.

I am also offering my new book, Investigating Couples, at an internet discount of $30 a book, plus $4 for postage and handling. To order, send your check or money order, made out to SOTER INK, to:

Tom Soter
1264 Amsterdam Avenue Suite 3B
New York NY 10027

Please remember to include your full name and address.

 

THE REVIEWS
“ENTERTAINING, WELL-WRITTEN, AND VERY INFORMATIVE…YOU’LL WANT TO INVESTIGATE INVESTIGATING COUPLES.
Scarlet Street

 

“HE GOT IT RIGHT. A TERRIFIC BOOK.”
Patrick Macnee, star of The Avengers

BOOK REVIEW AS SEEN IN SCARLET STREET MAGAZINE

INVESTIGATING COUPLES
Tom Soter
McFarland & Co., 2001
239 pages $39.95

Subtitled in that subtle McFarland manner A Critical Analysis of The Thin Man, The Avengers and the X-Files, Tom Soter’s Investigating Couples is, not surprisingly, a critical analysis of The Thin Man, The Avengers, and The X-Files.

Soter traces the history of his titular twosomes––Nick and Nora Charles, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, John Steed and Cathy Gale, John Steed and Emma Peel –– back to their ancestors in hard-boiled detective fiction and romantic screwball comedies. Dashiell Hammett, the pulp magazine scribe who hit the big time with such mysteries as Red Harvest (1927), The Dain Curse (1928), The Maltese Falcon (1929), and The Glass Key (1930), broke fresh ground when he combined the two genres in his last novel, The Thin Man (1934).

Hammett, a Pinkerton detective before becoming a writer, based the retired shamus Nick Charles and his heiress wife, Nora, on himself and playwright Lillian Hellman. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer refined Mr. And Mrs. Charles in the persons of William Powell and Myrna Loy (in the process rescuing Loy from playing one Oriental villainess after another in such camp classics as 1932’s THE MASK OF FU MANCHU), and the Investigating Couple was born.

THE THIN MAN (1934) and its five celluloid sequels showed that it was possible to treat such matters as murder with a light touch, a fact not lost when it came time to create THE AVENGERS for British television in the sixties.

Though they are unquestionably the direct descendents of the ladylike Nora Charles, Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), and Tara King (Linda Thorson, who goes uninvestigated in the book) were considerably different. For one thing, two of them wore a lot of leather. For another, they kicked ass.

“To me, the great secret of THE AVENGERS,” said Patrick Macnee in an interview with Soter, “is the knowledge that women can not only keep it going with men, and rescue men, but can top men, and rescue men, and they can treat men as their friend and equal without emasculating them. There’s too much made of the male-masculine thing, I think.”

As John Steed, Macnee subdued his opponents with a well-aimed swipe of his umbrella, while his distaff partners did so with well-aimed fists and feet. Steed didn’t mind, and neither did viewers. Macnee himself much preferred Steed’s stylishness to the posturings of another secret agent––James Bond.

“Somebody gave me a Bond book and said, ‘I think this will help you with your character.’ I read it and found it, as I always have, totally repulsive. Bond is a repulsive man. A sadist. He’s completely upper-class, frightfully snobbish. He’s exactly like Ian Fleming was. No, Bond is totally reprehensible to me.”

The book’s concluding chapters cover the most recent of Soter’s subjects––FBI agents Mulder and Scully. It’s more immediately familiar territory, but no less interesting for that. You’ll want to investigate Investigating Couples. –– Drew Sullivan

Perry Mason Covers

COLLECTOR'S CORNER

From my collection: some Perry Mason hardcover (Walter J. Black) and paperback (Pocket Books) covers

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 from the 1950s and 1960s.

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The Cave of Thith

 

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PRESENTING A STORY FROM LOOK AT THEM NOW, by Tom Sinclair

Jon fleetwood rested his gaunt frame against the bole of the tree and scrutinized the cave from a distance. He reached into his weather-beaten knapsack and withdrew a pair of binoculars. These he lifted to his eyes and peered into intently. What he saw surprised him. Jon Fleetwood was no expert on botany, but even he knew it was strange to see such a great abundance of plant life within a cave. It grew wild and unfettered, and he could see more of the same luxuriant foliage extending back deep into the cave.

He had originally intended to spend the night underneath the huge tree, which he now leaned carelessly against, but what he had seen with his binoculars had filled him with curiosity and he knew that he would not be able to rest until he had further investigated this fascinating matter.

Hoisting the knapsack to his back, Fleetwood started towards the cave, which, he judged, was no more than a quarter of a mile away. He made his way easily across the rocky terrain, and as he drew near the cave he perceived that it was even more dense than he had imagined and took a gigantic chunk out of the mountain in which it was carved.Fleetwood entered the cave and began to inspect the plant life. There were flowers, many, many flowers, growing together in clusters; flowers of all shapes and colors. Jon Fleetwood pulled up several handfuls of these to get a look at the soil in which they were rooted. It wasa kind of fine, white powder, not at all the type of earth in which one would expect such beautiful flowers to be growing. However, nature was a strange and unpredictable thing, and in his travels Jon had learned to accept its many quirks.

He next examined one of the many large trees. It was very hard and of a deep amber hue. Its trunk was thickly strewn with branches and he climbed up the tree with the aid of these. When he was midway up, he stopped and looked about him.

Looking into the cave he saw before him the same collection of flowers and trees stretching ahead, until they melted into a panorama of glorious colors in the distance. He lowered himself from the tree and, without giving his actions a thought, began to walk into the depth of the cave that lay in front of him.

Such had always been the way of Jon Fleetwood: to wander impetuously into new fields of wonder. He had been born with a phenomenal love of nature and a simple, kind-hearted openness that had driven him out of society into the world of open fields and rolling hills in which he loved to wander.

He moved along at an easy pace which he could continue for hours and gradually the cave grew wider, until finally it opened up onto a great plateau covered with vegetation much like that which he had discovered inside the cave from which he had just emerged. Here he noticed, for the first time, signs of animal life; also, several of the trees bore fruit, and of these he was not the least bit reluctant to take. As he further explored this vast land, he noticed a lake of goodly proportions. He quickly stripped himself of his ragged clothes and entered this.

As he struck out for the middle of the lake, Jon Fleetwood was aware for one moment of a vague fear, but this he ignored. He swam with long, powerful strokes that drove him swiftly through the water.

Suddenly, however, the water seemed to come alive and Fleetwood was raised on high into the air and then he struck the water again, as though he had been dropped from a great distance. He came up, sputtering, and tried to swim but could not, the water was in such a turmoil. Treading water furiously, he looked above him. The sight that met his eyes was absolutely staggering.

Towering above him was a fantastic, serpentine beast, which resembled nothing more than a gigantic eel. It was thrashing about wildly and suddenly dived towards Fleetwood, its jaws opened wide, exuding venom.. As the jaws approached him, Fleetwood caught the scent of moldy and long-dead flesh on the creature’s breath. Frantic with fear, he dived back under the water.

The creature’s head plunged in after him. Fleetwood’s vision was distorted because of the water, but he remained alert, moving rapidly. Sheer fear drove him on, as the creature’s head lunged wildly about beneath the surface of the water. However, Fleetwood knew that flight from the water demon was useless and that he would be caught eventually by the rapidly moving head.

He decided he would risk all on one final effort. As the monster head came towards him, he dove forward to meet it. He tensed his body and was suddenly upon the beast’s neck. He encircled it with his body, locking his arms and legs around it, and in this manner tried frantically to choke the thing, which began to buck its entire body urgently. Fleetwood could feel half-vocal rumblings struggling to escape the hellish throat. And still the man exerted more pressure. His eyes were shut tight, and his body shook for want of air, but he held his breath and held onto the grotesque neck. The sea-thing was now half-mad and the entire lake must have been in chaos. Suddenly, the beast shook and was still, its body trembling as in the aftermath of an orgasm. Fleetwood let himself float back to the surface of the water and sucked in oxygen in great, greedy gulps. He swam slowly back to shore and there he fell into an exhausted sleep.

When Jon Fleetwood awoke, he found himself standing naked in a narrow glass cylinder. He was at one end of a long hall and apparently its sole occupant. He tried to move but discovered that he could neither feel nor see his body. He simply existed.

How long he stood there (was he standing?) he did not know, but suddenly a door at the end of the corridor opened and two figures entered. As they approached him, Fleetwood noted that they were both wrapped in black cloaks and had long, black beards hanging limply from their chins. They regarded him with interest. His mind formed the question that his lips could not ask: where am I? He was surprised when he himself answered his own question: the Cave of Thith. How had he known that?

The two men turned to leave, conversing between themselves in words Fleetwood could not comprehend. Assoon as the men closed the door behind them, Jon Fleetwood found himself back by the lake. Only now the entire atmosphere was different. The flowers had wilted, the trees were old and gnarled and the lake’s surface was covered with a green film. The sun in the sky was somehow colorless and there were no signs of animal life. Jon Fleetwood was then struck with such a fear as he had never known existed, a fear that smote his soul and sent his brain reeling, his heart beating and his entire body trembling. Then from across the lake Jon Fleetwood saw a great army of men, such as the two he had just seen, marching towards him on the water. He cried out in horror and leapt to his feet, panic engulfing him. He frantically snatched up a moss-covered stone and hurled it across the water at the fiends who came towards him. It fell far short of its goal, striking the water near the shore. And then, at the spot where the stone had struck, emerged the head and body of the giant creature he had killed. This was too much. Jon Fleetwood turned and bolted towards the back of the cave from which he had come.

Screaming in terror, he ran through the cave, stumbling clumsily. He heard weird and obscene chanting coming from behind. “Thith, Thith,” was what the figures screamed and the word struck Jon with terror. He scrambled through the entrance to the cave and bolted across the intervening terrain. He did not stop until he again stood beneath the tree where he had first sighted the beautiful and enticing cave. He lifted the binoculars to his eyes and gazed into them.

He saw, standing at the entrance to the cave, the black-robed figures and their serpent god. Fleetwood stood his ground, for somehow he knew they would venture no further. Then, suddenly, the figures disappeared and the flowers and trees were beautiful again. Jon Fleetwood shook his head and turned away. He moved on…into new fields of wonder.

AFTERWORD

 “The Cave of Thith” is a remarkable tale, which Sinclair, not surprisingly, has labeled a favorite. Clearly showing the influences of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, the moody story features a resourceful, Burroughs-like hero who wrestles a monstrous sea creature to its death (without a weapon, to boot!), and the mysterious cloaked figures, with the whispered, terror-inspiring word “Thith” right out of Lovecraft.“Jon Fleetwood (any relation to Mick?) was a one-off hero,” said Sinclair. “As a mix of Burroughs and Lovecraft, this one still satisfies me more than 40 years later.” The only frustrating element of the piece is that it is too short. There is so much going on, it would have been wonderful if Sinclair had turned this into a full-length novel.

The Ten-Minute Paper

Excerpted from DISAPPEARING ACT, available from AMAZON

If Mr. Riordan hadn’t pissed me off,I never would have met the professor.

It started when I was in my last years in high school. I had been at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s since kindergarten, and I was comfortably settled there. I had my friends, my girlfriend, and the teachers and classes that I enjoyed. I wasn’t thinking much about college.

Nonetheless, in my junior year, I took the standardized exam, called the PSAT, which was meant to prepare me for the SAT (scholastic aptitude test). On the PSAT, I received a very high score on the English portion of the test (literature, history, and all things not math), and a low score on the math. No surprise; I had never been good at math.

Although the results of the exam were supposed to be confidential, my math teacher, Mr. Riordan, apparently got a look at them. Math was Mr. Riordan’s life, and he couldn’t understand why anyone could do poorly at it. If they didn’t do well, he believed, they simply weren’t applying themselves. In fact, those are the words Mr. Riordan used to berate me, publicly, in class.

I was mortified – and angry. What business did he have reading my confidential reports and chastising me in front of my classmates? I was so pissed that when I filled out the application for my SATs, I checked “No” to the question, “Do you want us to send your high school a copy of your test results?” How little things can snowball.

That was in the fall or winter of 1973. I had not made a great number of college applications: St. John’s University in Maryland (it had a renowned “great books” program), the University of Chicago (my father’s hometown alma mater), and Columbia University, right up the street from us. Although I had visited the two out-of-town schools, neither was for me. In my heart, I knew I’d go to Columbia.

Near the end of July, a month before college was to begin, I received a letter from Columbia.

I had been rejected.

I was stunned. After some investigation, we discovered what had happened. As a matter of routine, when reviewing my application, the university had contacted my high school, asking for my SAT scores. The person who looked into the matter found no record of my results – how could they? Because of Mr. Riordan, I had blocked my school from receiving them – and without making any further inquiry, this person had blithely told Columbia that I had not taken the SATs. Although the university stated in its brochures that the SAT was only one factor in its decision-making, it was apparently the one factor that was more important than the others.

I sent Columbia my SAT scores as soon as I discovered this, but the university – now delighted to accept me – said it was full up, and that I’d have to go on the waiting list.

Not wanting to jump off the educational wave, I hopped a train to Washington Square Park and interviewed for a spot at New York University (NYU). I was accepted immediately, and began studying at NYU in the fall of 1974.

And that’s when I met the professor. 

He was my first college professor in my first college class. It was called “19th Century English Literature,” and met on Thursday at 1:30 P.M. I remember getting there early. Standing at the podium, peering through reading glasses as he studied various papers, the silver-haired, slightly portly man reminded me of W.C. Fields, even down to a reddish, bulbous nose.

Students were shuffling in, and they were still taking their seats at exactly 1:30 when the man at the head of the room began speaking. He told us his name was Professor Egerer (he had written it on the blackboard) and this was a class in 19th century English literature. Someone opened the door and entered. 

The professor stopped speaking. His gaze remained steady as he silently watched the latecomer take a seat.

He resumed speaking. Two more latecomers entered, talking to each other. The professor stopped speaking. His gaze was steady as he silently watched the latecomers be seated.

After this happened a few more times, the professor broke off his lecture and told the assembled students: “This class does not begin at 1:29 or 1:31. It starts at 1:30. If you can’t get here on time, don’t bother to come.”

A profound silence settled over the room. I’m sure few of the students were thrilled with the reprimand – indeed, one complained to me  after class that the professor seemed to be a nasty man and that she was dropping out of the class. I wasn’t upset, however. I was intrigued.

Text Box: It turned out that punctuality wasn’t the professor’s only quirk. He gave us a list of nine mammoth books we were supposed to read – if I remember correctly they were Jane Austen’s Emma, Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Trollope’s novel alone was over a thousand pages, so that was a lot of reading for a one-semester course.

The professor didn’t believe in term papers. He always thought (as he later explained to me) that students would not read any of the course books until they had a paper to write, and by then, it would be impossible to read them all, meaning they would rely on the then-popular summaries called Monarch Notes. So to get us to do the reading, the professor scheduled dates when we were supposed to have finished each novel (roughly every two weeks or so), and then we would have to write a half-hour, in-class essay on a subject he would give us on that same day. Classes were filled with biographical and historical facts about the novelist and the period. He rarely offered analysis or interpretation of the novels; we had to do that, so we really had to know our stuff. 

The class helped make me a better writer. I could knock out a half-hour paper pretty easily – I got top marks on them – and after struggling over a term paper in another class, I said to myself, “If I can write a good essay like this in a time-constrained situation, why couldn’t I do that with longer, written-at-home term papers?”

I tried it. I prepared the same way I had prepared for Professor Egerer’s papers; absorbing all the background material I could on the subject, and “drowning” myself in the books for the class. Then I got an egg-timer and set it to 60 minutes (and after that another 30 minutes, since egg-timers didn’t go to 90 minutes), and I’d sit down with the term paper question, and just write – from memory, without consulting research books, as though I were taking a test. And, you know, it worked. I got the basic draft of my ideas written out. Then I went back and added quotations and citations, and then did some editing, expanding, and rearranging of the text. But the hardest part, which was getting the first draft written, was done in 90 minutes. I’ve used that technique – minus the egg-timer – ever since.

I wrote even faster than that when I took the final exam. We were given ten questions to answer in two hours. Here’s where my poor math skills really came into play. Once the test began, I made a quick calculation: two hours, ten questions, that’s 20 minutes a question. A snap! I wrote at a leisurely pace and before I knew it an hour had elapsed and I was only just starting on question four. That’s when it hit me: there were 120 minutes in two hours, not 200, and for me to finish completely, I’d have to move at warp speed. Never did someone write so briefly and so quickly about so many questions. I got writer’s cramp, but I apparently did okay: I passed.

I got more than technique out of that class. I developed a friendship with the professor. We talked about literature after class, and I was always impressed with the breadth of his knowledge. It led me to take three more courses with him: “The Bible as English Literature” and “The Romantic Poets: Parts 1 and 2.” In these classes, we’d have a weekly ten-minute paper to write at the start of class. These were pretty open-ended; the professor would assign us sections of The Bible or a set of poems by Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats to read, and then, in class, he would write a phrase like “Lot’s Wife” or “The basic problem in ‘Lamia,’” and we’d have to craft an essay out of it (since the phrases weren’t always questions, we’d have to have thought a bit about the material before we came to class. Thinking! What a concept!).

Those were heady days, and after I graduated (from Columbia, where I had transferred in 1977, on the advice of all my NYU teachers, who said, “It’s a better degree”), I kept in touch with the professor. The routine was the same: we’d have lunch at his club in midtown, talking mostly about literature and rarely about ourselves. We wouldn’t speak for months – on the breaks from school, he often traveled to Italy – then I would send him a postcard or an article I had written, and soon after (if he was in town), I would receive a phone call asking me to lunch at his club.

That ritual went on for years: an odd extension of my school years, and one in which I always felt slightly out of my depth. The professor would often begin sentences with the phrase, “As you must remember in…” and then he would cite a novel, a play, or some poem that I usually did not remember or even know about, and I felt I must eventually be caught out in my ignorance.

But I never was. For the professor was off-duty now, not testing my knowledge, but sharing his. It was a peculiar friendship, if you can call it that, because outside of knowing that he lived near Washington Square Park, I knew next to nothing about him: whether he was gay or straight, married or divorced, had brothers or sisters. All I really knew was that he enjoyed teaching, and that he had a vast wealth of knowledge to back him up.

Then, one September day, when I knew he’d be back from his summertime journey to Italy, I sent him a postcard. Although I waited for the expected lunch call, it never came. After some weeks, I called the professor’s home, and somehow, I was not surprised when a strange voice answered. I asked for Professor Egerer, and there was a slight pause before the voice, with all the precision of a ten-minute paper but none of the compassion, said: “I’m sorry. Mr. Egerer died four months ago.”

July 27, 2014

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Excerpted from Tom Soter's new book BEDBUGS, BIONDI & ME

Currently available from AMAZON

“The building is overrun by rats,”Ellen Kornfeld, vice president of the Lovett Company, said to me at a recent meeting, and as she spoke, I had a fleeting image of a scene out of Willard or Ben, the rats-are-out-to-get-you horror flicks of the 1970s. “It’s not over yet,” she said, citing an 80-unit Upper West Side building she had recently begun managing. “I’m in the throes of dealing with it.”

Her words reminded me of my own, much smaller cooperative in Manhattan, and its battle with rodents last year. The ground-floor residents had first reported the rats, and the five of us on the board – I am the president – asked the manager to look into it immediately. Kornfeld’s board also responded quickly but simply told her to hire an exterminator. She suggested that before they do that, they should get an analysis done of the 102-year-old building. “Very often,” she said, “the attitude is: ‘Rats, schmatz, what can you do? Everybody has rats.’ One board member even said to me, ‘I’m not going to spend the money on a building analysis; just get the exterminator.’ I wish it were that simple.”

Her reasoning was clear: the exterminator can kill the rats, but unless you get to the heart of the problem – their entry and exit points into the property – you might win the battle but lose the war. “An exterminator can do the job from the outside, but you can’t blame the exterminator [for failing] if the building doesn’t so what it has to do to get things under control on a preventive measure.”

I remembered our building’s problem: we had simply hired an exterminator who came by multiple times a week, placing traps with poison. But like the multi-headed Hydra of myth, they never seemed to stay dead for long. As one died, two more seemed to take its place, a situation that was, in part, caused by a poor tenant education program on my board’s part. Residents would leave the garbage can lids ajar and the rats would climb in, only to leap out of the cans when you went to deposit the trash. (Once, our super actually trapped one in a can and – well, I won’t describe the gory details beyond saying that it was an epic battle.) We also had restaurants on either side of our building that were supplying attractive lures – ill-packaged waste products – to the creatures.

Kornfeld’s property had different woes, however: the rear courtyard was crumbling, a drain had collapsed, and a retaining wall was in disrepair. All three offered hiding places and/or entry spots for our modern-day Bens. “I’m also dealing with a property that owns a neighboring lot. You’ve got that vacant lot contributing to your condition, you’ve got Central Park across the street, and with all the construction going on – every time you rip up the street or you knock down a building you contribute to the problem.”

The situation was becoming intolerable, she noted with dismay. “We’ve just planted beautiful flowers at the entrance of the building. And we’re talking a gorgeous building; it looks like the Dakota. You’re talking 12-room apartments – in some instances, quite lovely. We have a circular planter when you come into the building, and the rats, brazen as they are, went into the circular planters and dug out the plants.”

The planter assault proved too much for the board’s resistance to spending money – “Once the people are afraid of rats getting into their apartments, they will do whatever they have to do,” Kornfeld explained to me – and the manager got her way. A building-wide inspection was conducted and a number of suggested steps were undertaken: new concrete was poured in the courtyard, new sealed steel sheds were put out for garbage – “I think every building at the very least should keep garbage in a sealed container. I’m shocked they didn’t have this already” – and there are plans to rip out the sidewalk and plug all the holes. The total cost? Between $300,000 and $400,000.

My much smaller building had a much smaller bill – $5,000 – but that was still too high by our standards. Unlike Kornfeld’s property, we had just hired a man to come by and bait traps. At $75 a visit, that was an awful lot of baiting. We told our manager each month that we wanted to terminate the exterminator as too pricey, but, like the rats themselves, he wouldn’t go away. Either because our agent didn’t tell him or because of an Ahab-like obsession with our rodents, the man kept returning every few days. Unnoticed by anyone, he would silently bait the traps, and then just as silently depart, leaving little Kilroyesque notes for us that he had been there. Besides our concern over security – how did he keep getting in? – we were frustrated by our inability to fire him. Some $2,000 later, however, he finally got the message: he was history. We didn’t pay the extra money and we never saw the little man again. We also got rid of the rats eventually, thanks to our super’s diligent efforts.

As for Kornfeld? Her approach seems as methodical as it is practical and has a good chance of success. “Every board tries to get their building so buttoned up and tight that the rats go somewhere else,” she said. “That’s what’s happened at the building next door – they redid their backyard, they redid everything in their building so the rats can’t go there. If they can’t go in, they go elsewhere. We’ve got to do the same thing.” She added: “You know, we have this notion that rats only go into slums. That’s not true. They go everywhere.”

September 2008