Thursday, August 29, 2013

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe

Nero Wolfe Mysteries
By Rex Stout(Bantam)

     One of my fellow bloggers for The Macomb Daily recently wrote a post about book series that have gone on too long, citing several fairly recent series and authors.
        I haven't read any of the books she mentions (except for One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, the first, the last and only Stephanie Plum novel I've read or care to read), but I agree with her that most series overstay their welcome.
      Not always, though. Sometimes the author seems to tire of the character before the readers, and simply stops writing them. More often it seems authors stick with characters long past their interest in them because they like the checks they receive for them. Other series end when the writer dies, sometimes while the stories are still enjoyable and with unresolved plot points. All three could apply to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, which Doyle tried to stop writing at least once, but was persuaded by reader demand and the lure of the money he could earn to continue long past the time he stopped caring about quality. After his death, of course, hundreds if not thousands of writers wrote their own Holmes' pastiches.
     One of the few series that I find enjoyable from beginning to end is Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries. Between 1934 and his death in 1975, Stout wrote 39 novels and almost as many shorter works about the gourmet orchid fancier armchair sleuth and his legman/biographer Archie Goodwin. The series has its ups and downs, but the last book is better than the first, and there are few that I don't enjoy re-reading from time to time.
     Nero Wolfe is a detective who almost never leaves his home, where he employs a full-time gardener to raise orchids on his roof and a Swiss chef to prepare gourmet meals. The rest of the time he reads, drinks beer and, when unavoidable, solves crimes for exorbitant fees. He is frequently described as overweight or fat, but his exact weight is rarely mentioned (usually Archie says he weighs a seventh of a ton, which comes to about 285 pounds). To do the necessary legwork, he employs another, more active detective, Archie Goodwin, who narrates the stories and whose chief function seems to be to prod Wolfe to take cases.
      A&E aired A Nero Wolfe Mystery for two seasons, there was an earlier NBC show for one season (starring William "Cannon" Conrad and Lee Horsley), and several radio adaptations and series (one starring Sydney Greenstreet), but you can't beat the original books. (There were only two film versions, which Stout despised so much that he forbade any future ones, but The Zero Effect features Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller as detectives with a relationship similar to Wolfe and Goodwin's.)
      The first Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, is not the best place to start, in my opinion. The characters are not quite formed, the plot doesn't move quite as smoothly, the language isn't completely engaging. Book two,  The League of Frightened Men, is better, but a first-time reader might want to start with some mid-period Wolfe such The Silent Speaker, Plot It Yourself or the Arnold Zeck trilogy: And Be a Villain, The Second Confession and In the Best Families. Some of my favorites are later still, including Too Many Clients, The Doorbell Rang and Death of a Doxy.
     Though the Wolfe books brim with contemporary details (Prohibition is a fact of life for Wolfe in Fer-de-Lance, and Watergate is prominently mentioned in A Family Affair, the last novel), Wolfe and Goodwin are ageless and timeless.
      There are other books about Wolfe and Stout, notably William S. Baring-Gould's Nero Wolfe of 35th Street, plus an authorized series of sequels (and one prequel) by Robert Goldsborough, and a pair of novels about Auguste Lupa (a son of Sherlock Holmes who may later become Nero Wolfe) by John Lescroart.

Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout:

Fer-de-Lance (1934)
The League of Frightened Men (1935)
The Rubber Band (1936)
The Red Box (1937)
Too Many Cooks (1938)
Some Buried Caesar (1939)
Over My Dead Body (1940)
Where There's a Will (1940)
Black Orchids (1942)
Not Quite Dead Enough (1944)
The Silent Speaker (1946)
Too Many Women (1947)
And Be A Villain (1948)
The Second Confession (1949)
Trouble in Triplicate (1949)
Three Doors to Death (1950)
In the Best Families (1950)   
Curtains for Three (1951)
Murder by the Book (1951)
Prisoner's Base (1952)
Triple Jeopardy (1952)   
The Golden Spiders (1953)
The Black Mountain (1954)
Three Men Out (1954)
Before Midnight (1955)
Might As Well Be Dead (1956)
Three Witnesses (1956)
If Death Ever Slept (1957)
Three for the Chair (1957)
And Four to Go (1958)
Champagne for One (1958)
Plot It Yourself (1959)
Three at Wolfe's Door (1960)
Too Many Clients (1960)
The Final Deduction (1961)
Homicide Trinity (1962)
Gambit (1962)
The Mother Hunt (1963)
A Right To Die (1964)
The Doorbell Rang (1965)
Trio for Blunt Instruments (1965)
Death of a Doxy (1966)
The Father Hunt (1968)
Death of a Dude (1969)
Please Pass the Guilt (1973)
A Family Affair (1975)
Death Times Three (1985)

More about "Murdoch Mysteries," aka "The Artful Detective"

The Artful Detective/Murdoch Mysteries
Starring Yannick Bisson, Helene Joy, Thomas Craig, Jonny Harris and Georgina Reilly
(Ovation, CBC)

     When you discover a new TV show you love, you can now binge on episodes by buying or renting the DVDs, or occasionally by watching a season at a time On Demand. But in the days before whole series were readily available on DVDs, in states that border Canada at least, you could sometimes see two or more episodes a week by watching them on U.S. and Canadian TV channels ... if you weren't too hung up on watching them in chronological order anyway. That's how I watched The Sandbaggers, a British spy series. Our PBS station began broadcasting the show, I got hooked, and then noticed CBC was also showing the series, and was a season or two ahead. This caused some mystery and worry when a character from Season One was not in Season Three.
     A month ago, as I've posted before, the Ovation cable channel began showing Season One episodes of Murdoch Mysteries (inspired by the novels of Maureen Jennings), two episodes each Saturday, under the title The Artful Detective. I quickly became hooked on the show, set in Toronto in the late 1890s, featuring historical personages as characters and cutting edge (sometimes futuristic) criminal forensics methods and technology. Since this was a retitling of Murdoch Mysteries, which my research showed was due to air a seventh season on CBC in September, I thought it possible that CBC was currently showing reruns of earlier seasons, and they were: seasons five and six, anyway (the first four seasons were originally on a different network).
     Episodes I've seen so far have featured Nikola Tesla -- who was preparing to harness Niagara Falls to produce his alternating current, viciously opposed by Thomas Edison (who attempted to discredit AC by using it to electrocute dogs) -- and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who at the time had given up on writing Sherlock Holmes and was beginning to support Spiritualism. Another episode -- somewhat facetiously but with a straight face -- featured an assassination/murder using language and situations closely modeled on JFK conspiracy theories (including the episode's title: "Back and to the Left"), and another that depicts the turn-of-the-century fears of anarchists in similar terms to today's "War on Terror."
     So far I've been able to watch four -- sometimes five -- episodes a week: two from season one (Saturday evenings on Ovation), one from season five (late night Tuesdays on CBC) and one from season six (Monday evenings on CBC).
     The problem with such viewings is that you don't see the episodes in chronological order, so the Ovation viewer will be left to wonder why and how the characters and the relationships between the characters had shifted radically -- and, in one case, why and how Dr. Julia Ogden's hair color had changed to blond (a fact which is distracting my wife to no end).
     Of course, the first five seasons are available to buy or rent (and season six should soon be out, too), along with The Murdoch Mysteries Movie Collection -- three pre-TV series TV films based on Maureen Jennings' William Murdoch novels with completely different casts -- and all seven of Jennings' Murdoch novels are also in print. That should keep me busy for a while.
     Season seven begins Sept. 30 on CBC.

Monday, August 26, 2013

'War of the Worlds' Revisited

The War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells
(Multiple editions)

The Martian War
by Kevin G. Anderson
(Titan Books)

     I recently purchased a book, The Martian War by Kevin J. Anderson, that retells H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898), adding real historical figures such as T.H. Huxley and Wells himself as characters, as well as other of Wells' fictional characters such as Griffin (The Invisible Man) and Dr. Moreau. (I thought it was a new title, but it's really a reissue from 2005, originally as by Gabriel Mesta).
     From the description, it sounded like a steampunk variation on the tale, and I was curious to see what and how it was done. Before reading it, however, I realized I had never actually read Wells' original.  I've read other books by Wells, including The Time MachineThe Invisible ManThe Island of Dr. Moreau and The First Men in the Moon, but for some reason I've always ignored WotW. I knew the general story from various sources -- a Classic Comics adaptation, Orson Welles' radio dramatization, Jeff Wayne's rock concept album (with narration by Richard Burton), Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman's Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds pastiche and Alan Moore's and Kevin O'Neill's second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel series (which  centered around the Martian invasion, also adding Griffin and Moreau, as well as Capt. Nemo, Mina Harker, Alan Quatermain and Mycroft Holmes) -- but not the original book itself (or, curiously, any of the film versions).
     Now I realize why: it's deathly dull, and I must have instinctively knew it.
     The plot is fairly simple: explosions are observed on the surface of Mars, followed by a capsule landing in England, from which emerge tentacled, big-brained Martians. They are equipped with heat rays, giant tripod siege engines, a deadly black dust and river-blocking red weed. Then, just when it seems they are unstoppable, they perish due to their immune systems being unaccustomed to Earth bacteria (or perhaps any bacteria). The end.
     There is little dialogue, because the narrator spends most of the book alone, observing the Martians. Since there is no omniscient narrator, we only know and experience what he knows and experiences, and he is more a plot device than a character.
     Orson Welles overcame this problem in the first half of his radio drama by the device of making it a live newscast of the events of the Martians' arrival, and in the second half by using the one scene with appreciable quantity of dialogue as the centerpiece. While other Mercury Theater of the Air adaptations seem rushed by this process (such as its version of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days), here Welles makes a virtue of brevity by conflating the boring narrative.
     I've always been amazed that radio listeners were fooled by Orson Welles' radio play of the story because I thought it was extremely well-known. Then I stumbled across a quote on Wikipedia where Wells said something like he ought to thank Welles for drawing attention to one of his "more obscure titles" (though maybe Wells was being ironic himself when he claimed that). Now, having attempted to read the (relatively) short work, I can understand that obscurity.
     Apart from the notoriety occasioned by the radio broadcast (which many ignorantly still call a deliberate hoax), the main attraction of the story is the Martians' arrival, their appearance and especially the tripods. The actual details of their invasion are rather boring. The fact that they drink human blood seems rather silly. Their method of launching their capsules into space seems to be by giant cannon, as depicted earlier in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and seems no more likely in Wells' time than it did in Verne's. Then the Martians are defeated by the deus ex machina of germs, which is nicely ironic but falls a little flat.
     Of the different versions and interpolations of the book that I've read, seen or heard, Welles is pretty good, Wayne has its good points (though the songs aren't all that engaging, Burton's narration is wonderful) and Moore has fun with the metafictional aspects (which I think directly influenced Anderson; he even gives Griffin's first name as Hawley, which appears nowhere in the Wells original).  The Wellmans, alas, mostly just replace Wells' narrator with Holmes and Watson so we have two characters basically just watching the events and telling us about them (though they do add the Crystal Egg from another Wells story).
     I've yet to read Lavie Tidhar's The Great Game, which seems to be a steampunk metafictional riff on the War of the Worlds (incorporating Lucy Westenra from Bram Stoker's Dracula, Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Harry Houdini and airships), but it's on my list. It's part of Tidhar's Bookman Histories.
     I passed on Zdenko Basic's Steampunk H.G. Wells, his third steampunk illustrated classic collection, in part because I don't care for the interpretation of Wells' tripods featured on the cover. The volume also includes The Invisible Man and the short story The Country of the Blind.
     Anderson also edited an anthology, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches (1996), which explores how humans from other parts of the world fared during the Martian invasion; it will be reissued in September by Titan Books.
     (Two other "sequels" which I've never seen but probably should mention are the Marvel Comics series Killraven: The War of the Worlds -- which has a future Earth overrun by a second Martian invasion, with the titular hero leading the resistance movement -- and the syndicated TV series The War of the Worlds, in which the stored bodies of the Martians are revived, whereupon they possess humans to gain immunity to Earth's bacteria.)
     Even if the book was "obscure," it must have been popular at one time. Only weeks after the original novel was serialized, an unauthorized sequel had Thomas Edison leading a retaliatory counter-invasion of Mars. Now there's a film I  might watch.

Monday, August 5, 2013

'Walter Mitty: The Motion Picture'

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,"
from My World -- And Welcome To It
by James Thurber
(Harvest Books)

     My first encounter with James Thurber was the marvelous (in memory, at least) 1969-1970 TV show My World and Welcome to It, which combined a family sitcom with Thurber's (animated) illustrations and stories, but my second encounter with him was probably the Danny Kaye film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (At the time, I was probably most interested in the film because of Boris Karloff's presence as a villain.) The story is little more than a succession of daydreams by a henpecked husband as he goes about his day. Naturally, a film version has to add quite a bit of story to flesh it out to 30 minutes, and since wimpy protagonists aren't interesting as lead characters, he becomes the man of his daydreams, and trades in his shrewish fiancee for a beautiful and more affable woman.
     Now there's a new film based on the Thurber story soon to be released, this time starring Ben Stiller, and Kirsten Acuna of the online site Business Insider is confused by its trailer, stating that "it plays like a bunch of wacky dream sequences." Well, that's a fair description of the source story, so I can only assume that Business Insider hasn't read the story or seen the earlier film, though Acuna does cite the film, noting that this film is a "remake." 

     I doubt it. I don't consider a film a remake unless it replicates significant parts of the previous film that are not present in the source material. For example, last year's Total Recall is a remake of the 1990 Paul Verhoeven-Arnold Schwarzenegger film, in my opinion. This Walter Mitty seems completely different.
     That doesn't mean it will be good. I enjoyed the Kaye film as a child, but the bits and pieces I've looked at since don't look appealing. I'm intrigued by the trailer though, which depicts Stiller's Mitty as a man harassed and beaten down at work, attracted to a woman in the building but without the gumption to say anything except in his daydreams, who suddenly embarks on a real adventure or journey. It may bear even less relationship to the events of the story than the earlier version, but it looks promising. Something to look forward to.
     In the meantime, you could pick up a copy of Thurber (the Library of America has a nice hardbound collection, James Thurber: Writings and Drawings) or read "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" online. (The TV series is not available on DVD, alas.)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The cost of copyright

     I've written before about how I couldn't find an in-print edition of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. I wondered if it might be a problem of copyright, that publishers might want to publish the book but couldn't get their hands on the copyright permissions. I even wondered if the book was about to go out of copyright and the publishers were just waiting for the opportunity.
     Probably not, as it turns out. While copyright law is complicated for books published after 1923 and before 1978 (after 1978, they remain under copyright for 70 years after the death of the author; before 1923, they are already in the public domain), but The Demolished Man was probably under copyright when Bester died, and will probably remain so for decades more.
     Then just a few days ago, I wondered if I could find a new copy of Isaac Asimov's Asimov's Mysteries -- a collection of his science fictional mystery stories -- and couldn't find an edition in print.
     Then I wondered why there had been no move by a publisher to do the complete short stories of Isaac Asimov in uniform, chronological editions, as had and is being done with other, lesser-known and less popular authors. Only a few years after Philip K. Dick's death, there was a five-volume hardcover set of his complete short stories. Asimov's complete short stories would take many more volumes, but there would surely be a demand for it.
     Now The Atlantic offers a possible explanation: publishers are ignoring copyrighted titles, even comparably recent ones. Rebecca J. Rosen's The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish quotes research by Paul Heald, who concludes that, because of "publishing business models," "Publishers seem unwilling to sell their books on Amazon for more than a few years after their initial publication," while "Copyright law then deters (the books') reappearance as long as they are owned."
     The reason that copyright law mandates ownership for so long after the author's death is supposedly so the writer or his heirs will maximize their profit, but seems really to ensure that publishers of certain perennially popular books can maintain their profits without competition. If the laws were to protect writers, a book that was out-of-print for, say, five years would revert to the author (or his heirs) who could then resell it to another publisher, or even self-publish.
      Many writers' contracts do have such a clause, which leads to their having to first prove the book is out of print. Why do publishers hang on to books they don't plan to keep in print? I suppose because an author might become hot, write a bestseller that will make his or her back catalog more appealing and worth reprinting.
     The rise of e-books and print-on-demand technology might solve this problem, at least for new titles, but what of older titles that never became e-books? Brick-and-mortar and online used book stores, I guess.

The three worlds of Elmore Leonard's 'Raylan'

By Elmore Leonard
(William Morrow)

Justified, Seasons 1-4
(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

     As I have previously mentioned, Raylan Givens, the protagonist of the FX TV show Justified, originated in a couple of novels and a novelette by Elmore Leonard, but the TV Raylan is not slavishly consistent with the literary Raylan. So when Leonard came out with a new novel about Raylan Givens, I wondered which Raylan it would be.
     Turns out, he's neither. Raylan takes place in a third universe with some similarities to both earlier versions. It also has some plot points that were used in the third and fourth seasons of Justified, leading me to believe that Leonard gave the TV showrunner a copy of the manuscript (or at least the broad plot), and said something like, "Feel free to use any of this that you want."
     Unlike with the literary Raylan, his ex-wife Winona is a court reporter and still living in Harlan County, Kentucky and, unlike the TV Winona, still married to a real estate guy. Boyd Crowder, Raylan's sometime friend and foe, survived the events of the short story "Fire in the Hole" like the TV Boyd, but without the exact same checkered career he has had on the TV show.
     The novel is somewhat episodic, merely covering a certain period of time in Harlan County, rather than having a single overall story arc or plot. It contains in-jokes (for instance, there's a character named Valdez, so someone -- Raylan? -- says, "Valdez is coming," the name of a Leonard western) and a lot of dropped g's -- somethin instead of something (or somethin', which my copy editor's soul insists is the correct usage).
     I read the book quickly, and more or less enjoyed it, but I couldn't help feeling that Leonard wrote it as quickly -- maybe too quickly -- and also enjoyed it. It feels unfinished, incomplete, like something not meant to be published as a novel but as notes or a guideline for a TV series or film.
     I was reminded of The Third Man, a film by Carol Reed and Graham Greene that Greene first wrote as a novel, though not one meant for print. The popularity of the film resulted in the novel being published after all,  but it was not as polished as Greene's usual work, and contained significant differences from the finished film. One was the improvised line Orson Welles says to Joseph Cotten before they part at the Ferris wheel, and another is the ending; in the book, Cotten does get the girl.
      I did like Raylan, but not as much as I liked Pronto (the novel that introduced Raylan Givens) or as much as I generally like episodes of Justified. Again, it occupies a separate reality, an alternate universe. It just tries too hard to have a foot in each of the other universes, too.