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Investigating Couples: Excerpt
“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)
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”  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.
George Bernard Shaw called Holmes “a drug addict without a single admirable trait,”  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’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.
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” ).
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).
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.
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.