Columbo: Season Two (Part 2)

Concluding our look at Columbo’s second season. Part one is here.

“Requiem for a Falling Star” by Jackson Gillis

Former movie queen Nora Chandler (Anne Baxter) once produced a movie and did a lot of creative accounting while doing it. Gossip columnist Jerry Parks (Mel Ferrer) knows too much about it; Nora sets a deathtrap…

In many ways this is a typical Columbo, with a perfect crime and several plot twists before the killer is arrested, but somehow there’s less to chew on than in most episodes. I think it’s because there’s nothing really new here – the murder isn’t particularly ingenious, and the twists were all pretty familiar ones, even on TV, by 1973. It adds up to an acceptable, forgettable outing.

“A Stitch in Crime” by Shirl Hendryx

Dr. Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy), heart surgeon, knows he could really go places with his research if only his superior, the eminent Dr. Edmund Heidemann (Will Geer), weren’t holding him back with his conservative approach. When Heidemann himself needs a cardiac operation, Mayfield sabotages the procedure so that the patient will die in a few days, apparently of natural causes. Nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis) catches on to what Mayfield is doing, so now he has another murder to plot…

It’s interesting that several of the best Columbos were written by authors who never did another episode. “A Stitch in Crime” is one of them. While the medical background is vital to the plot, it never gets confusing, and is the source of several ingenious clues. And the way Columbo springs the final trap on Mayfield gives us one of the show’s cleverest endings.

And a word about the performances of Falk and Nimoy. For once, Columbo is up against an opponent so very arrogant that at one point he actually shows a moment of raw anger. It’s a startling departure and would not work nearly as well if Nimoy hadn’t set it up by being wonderfully insufferable for the past hour.

“The Most Dangerous Match” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link

Grandmasters Emmet Clayton (Laurence Harvey) and Tomlin Dudek (Jack Kruschen) are in Los Angeles to play for the chess championship of the world. The night before the opener, they bump into each other at a restaurant and play an impromptu game. Dudek wins so handily that Clayton decides to kill him in a staged accident rather than face humiliating public defeat…

This episode was clearly inspired by the 1972 chess championship contested by Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, but the fictional players in this episode are entirely original characters. Clayton is unusually nervous and insecure for a Columbo killer, and Dudek is a sympathetic and grandfatherly grandmaster who gets more screen time than most of the show’s murder victims. Clayton’s scheme and Columbo’s unraveling are both clever, but the ending is problematic. And since I can’t discuss it intelligently without committing a massive spoiler, I’m going to put the next paragraph in rot-13. 

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“Double Shock” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link

Identical twins Dexter and Norman Paris (Martin Landau) both need money and lots of it, but though we see one of them kill their wealthy uncle, we don’t know which one it was. Columbo faces his first (from our perspective) whodunit, albeit one with only two suspects.

A clever variation on what had already become the “classic” Columbo formula, and Martin Landau is good in any role, but the chain of reasoning that leads our hero to the solution isn’t one the viewer has a real chance to come up with independently.

So the second half of Columbo’s second season give us one gem, one bog-standard TV mystery, and two episodes that are flawed but still well worth watching.

To be continued with Season Three eventually…

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Joseph Commings: Banner Deadlines (2004)

(All biographical information in this piece is gleaned from editor Robert Adey’s introduction to Banner Deadlines, and Edward D. Hoch’s afterword). 

Joseph Commings (1913-92) never made it big as a writer, but nonetheless had a career that spanned the years from World War Two to the early 1980s. A lot of his output was the kind of soft-core sex paperbacks that are a lost art today, but he also wrote some 33 short stories about Senator Brooks U. Banner, an amateur sleuth who specialized in impossible crimes. Fourteen of those stories are collected in this posthumous volume.

The Banner stories fall into four periods:

1947-50: eight stories appeared in surviving old-school pulp magazines: Ten Detective Aces, 10-Story Detective and Hollywood Detective (home of Dan Turner, the private skulk whose cannon yammered “chow-chow!”). When these mags went out of business, there was no more market for Banner stories until…

1957-63: fourteen stories appeared, most of them in a magazine called Mystery Digest. Before and during this period, Commings kept trying to sell to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the top publication in the field, but never succeeded; his explanation was “the editor took a dislike to me.” (But that may not be the whole story, as we shall see.)

1963-68: after Mystery Digest folded, Commings kept trying to sell Banner stories; four made it into print, three in The Saint Mystery Magazine and one in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. 

(In the early 1970s, Commings had two strokes, which pretty much put an end to his writing career. Not entirely, though…)

1979-84: In 1979, Commings and Edward D. Hoch collaborated on a new Banner story and sold it to MSMM. Encouraged, Commings dusted off six unpublished Banners and found them a home in the same market over the next five years.

Adey’s introduction also says that as the short-story market dried up, Commings wrote no fewer than four novels about Banner, only one of which appears to have involved impossible crimes, and none of which found a publisher. No copies of any of the manuscripts appear to exist.

I think there are several reasons why Commings never made it to the top rank of mystery writers.

1. Style

There’s no way around it; Commings’ writing style is adequate at best. At worst, it’s just plain clumsy, to the point where it made the stories in this book tough for me to slog through. Commings learned his trade during the early 1940s, when pulp magazines were already starting to die off but were still significant players in the magazine game. It’s no secret that many of the most successful pulp writers ground out their tales fast and with little to no regard for graceful prose, and not only was Commings of that school, he continued to write that way throughout his career, long after commercial short fiction had moved on.  Here’s the first paragraph of “Murder Under Glass”, the first story in Banner Deadlines: 

In his soup-and-fish [i.e. his tuxedo] Senator Brooks U. Banner stood waiting under the six-arm crystal chandelier and juggling a cocktail glass in his thick fingers as gingerly as if it were a soap bubble. He was tall and girthy. His stiff, horse-sized collar was rasping the folds of his thick red neck. His ancient claw-hammer coat had cloth-covered buttons and trick pockets in the tails. There was an acre of boiled shirt front; his black shoes were mirrors. He weighed 270 pounds stripped – and wished he were.

Let’s compare that with how John Dickson Carr introduces a detective. From the first page of his novella The Third Bullet:

Colonel Marquis was a long, stringy man whose thick and wrinkled eyelids gave him a sardonic look not altogether deserved. Though he was not bald, his white hair had begun to recede from the skull, as though in sympathy with the close cropping of the grey mustache. His bony face was as unmistakably of the Army as it was now unmistakably out of it; and the reason became clear whenever he got up – he limped. But he had a bright little eye, which was amused. 

In introducing Banner, Commings just states one physical detail after another, which is how a lot of the pulp writers did it. Carr’s description is a lot smoother and not only tells us what Colonel Marquis looks like, but hints at what kind of character he will turn out to be. 

There were writers who got their start in the pulps but later developed a much smoother style; Erle Stanley Gardner is the most famous example. (See Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer for an instructive look at the way he wrote the original draft of the first Perry Mason novel, and how he later revised it to make it far less pulpy.) I suspect that Commings’ failure to evolve this way, more than any personal animus, was why he never cracked the Ellery Queen’s market. Choose a random issue of EQMM from the Forties or Fifites; pick a random story from that issue; whichever one it is, I promise you it’ll be better written than the Banner stories.

2. Characterization

Brooks U. Banner resembles nothing so much as an American version of Sir Henry Merrivale: a big fat man, a walker of the corridors of power, a man impatient with social convention, to whom the police gladly defer when there’s an impossible crime to be solved. For me, though, Banner never comes alive the way H.M. does even in a poor book like The Cavalier’s Cup; he’s a person, while to me Banner comes across as more a collection of traits. (It doesn’t help that the way he talks is annoying. Carr knew how often to use “lord love a duck” and “burn me” and so on, and when enough was enough.)

Nor are the supporting characters in the various stories any closer to three-dimensional. Of course, there are plenty of mystery writers, from Christie and Carr on down, who make extensive use of stock characters, but most of Commings’ are plain old cardboard.

3. Plotting

“Okay,” you may be saying, “but I don’t read impossible-crime stories to savour the author’s style. It’s nice when the prose is graceful like Carr’s, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me if it’s less adept. And as you admit yourself, Carr pretty much had a standard traveling company of characters who reappear from book to book. It’s the impossible crimes and their solutions that count. How are Commings’?”

I’m sorry to say… most of the ones in Banner Deadlines are not very good. More precisely, Commings comes up with some intriguing situations, not just typical “locked rooms,” but for the most part the solutions made me say “saw that coming” or “there’s a flaw there” or “that would have a one-in-a-million chance of working in real life.” To be sure, I sometimes have one of those reactions with, say, a Dr. Sam or Great Merlini story, but Commings provoked them in me over and over again while I was reading this book. Even the collaboration with Hoch is well below the latter author’s standard; if you don’t guess how the impossibility in that one was pulled off, you may turn in your amateur detective’s badge.

Well, so much for my analysis of Commings’ writing. I had originally planned to do a story-by-story analysis of Banner Deadlines, but on reflection I’m not going to bother. What I just said of the stories in general is true of most of them individually, so why repeat myself?

That said, I did flat-out enjoy one story, “The Spectre on the Lake”. In this one, two men row out into the middle of a lake where they’re both shot in the head at close range, even though neither had a gun, there wasn’t one in the boat, and no one else came near them. I  think it was inspired by a passing reference in a mystery by another author that was published before this tale came out, but I won’t be any more specific than that.

There’s also “Fingerprint Ghost,” in which a murder is committed using a dagger (polished just before the crime) that retains a clear set of fingerprints, which don’t match those of anyone who could physically have done it. What’s good about the solution: it could work, and it’s completely different from the one in Carter Dickson’s Nine – And Death Makes Ten. What’s not so good is that I’d already seen it in a short story by another writer, whom I won’t name here. I imagine Commings and the other writer came up with the gimmick entirely independently, and if you haven’t read the other story, this one may baffle you.

And a word about “The X Street Murders,” which was reprinted in impossible-crime anthologies in 1994 and 2006 and is certainly the best-known Banner story. As you may already know, it involves a locked- (or rather, observed-) room shooting in an office, followed immediately by a courier delivering a sealed envelope to the murder site. The envelope turns out to contain a gun, which the crime lab reports to be the murder weapon. For me, this one had an intriguing set-up followed by a disappointing solution (and one really silly clue), but some other people hold it in higher regard. If you do, you may like the other stories in Banner Deadlines better than I did.

Diagnosis: Impossible by Edward D. Hoch (1996) (Part 2)

Concluding our look at the first collection of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories with the second half of the book. I covered the first half here.

“The Problem of the Christmas Steeple” 

What seems to happen: just before Christmas of 1925, a band of itinerant Romanies set up camp outside Northmont, and local pastor Wigger wants to help them. He’s alone with the leader of the band in the steeple of his church when he’s knifed to death, but the other man swears he didn’t do it…

The basic situation is reminiscent of Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window, although with a completely different solution. Not a new one, but a neat use of an old one with some good clues.

“The Problem of Cell 16” 

What seems to happen: a notorious criminal known as the Eel, famous for his escapes, is arrested in Northmont and locked up in Sheriff Lens’ state-of-the-art new jail. Of course he gets out, with the doors and windows still locked after he’s gone.

Unfortunately this story is not a patch on Jacques Futrelle’s classic “Problem of Cell 13”. The Eel’s escape method sounds as if it could work, but it didn’t dazzle me.

“The Problem of the Country Inn” 

What seems to happen: a masked robber shoots the proprietor of the titlular inn, runs down a corridor and vanishes – even though the only door providing an exit remains barred from the inside.

A great setup, but I couldn’t believe Dr. Sam and the Sheriff would overlook a certain piece of evidence as long as they did.

“The Problem of the Voting Booth” 

What seems to happen: Sheriff Lens is up for re-election. On Election Day, his opponent Henry Oatis walks into a voting booth to cast his ballot under the eyes of several witnesses, including Dr. Sam. After a few minutes he staggers back out, dying from a stab wound with no weapon to be found and nobody having come near him.

Locked-room expert Robert Adey says this is one of the best Dr. Sam stories, but I found the solution a letdown. 

“The Problem of the County Fair” 

What seems to happen: A time capsule containing various 1926 artifacts is buried at the Northmont fair. When widely-disliked Max McNear goes missing and a bloodstained book (that was supposed to be one of the artifacts) is found on the fairgrounds, Dr. Sam insists the capsule be dug up. Sure enough, McNear’s body is in it, even though it hadn’t been at the time of burial, and the capsule never budged in the meantime.

A very good, original impossible crime with some clever cluing. One of the best in this collection.

“The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”

What seems to happen: while shooting a movie, a stuntman skydives from a plane and gets his chute tangled in the branches of an oak tree. When Dr. Sam rushes up to help, he finds the man’s been strangled with the wire still wrapped around his neck.

Another good one and a fine ending to the first collection. There were four more; while this one has 12 stories in it, the rest have 15 each, following Dr. Sam’s career as far as the middle of World War Two. No doubt there would have been further impossibilities in later years, but Hoch’s death prevented him from telling us about them.

Q. Patrick: S.S. Murder (1933)

Following an appendectomy, New York Star reporter Mary Llewellyn does what we all do when we’re recovering from surgery: she books passage on a passenger liner bound for South America. To kill time while she’s on board, she starts keeping a journal to record her experiences on S.S. Moderna. It quickly turns in to the record of a murder investigation; first night out, someone poisons wealthy Alfred Lambert during a game of bridge. And there are plenty of suspects…

“Q. Patrick”, “Patrick Quentin” and “Jonathan Stagge” were all pseudonyms used by the writing team of Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb.  Martha Mott Kelley and then Mary Louise Aswell collaborated with Webb on some of the earlier titles credited to Q. Patrick, the first of the names to be used, before Wheeler came along. S.S. Murder is the work of Webb and Aswell, according to Wikipedia. Amusingly, at one point Mary mentions Q. Patrick as the author of a book she’s reading. Not surprisingly, his first name is Quentin.

S.S. Murder is a fun read, in spite – or because? – of the sometimes melodramatic narration (“Never again shall I think of her as the Moderna. To me she will always be – S.S. Murder!”). (In fairness, a lot of women reporters in the Thirties affected this kind of style.) As a mystery, though… well, there is one part of the murderer’s scheme that I don’t think is fairly clued, and without a square opportunity to figure this aspect out, I don’t think the reader has a real shot at working out the complete solution.

A contemporary reader should also note that S.S. Murder was written when bridge was at the height of its popularity, and early on, the reader is presented with records of a couple of the hands Mr. Lambert was playing before his death. The details of bidding and play will be incomprehensible to a reader who doesn’t know the game (“Lambert, after losing one heart, was able to throw his diamonds on dummy’s clubs and easily made the contract”), but don’t let that throw you – Patrick eventually explains the importance of all this, well before unveiling the solution. I mention the matter only because a non-playing reader might come across all this bridge stuff, get discouraged, and go looking for another book.

So I give S.S. Murder my qualified approval – you may end up disagreeing with me about the fairness of that one clue I mention, and in an case it kept me well entertained for an evening.

And now, another mystery associated with this book… when Mary mentions that Q. Patrick book, Patrick guesses in a footnote that it’s his Death for Dear Clara. Now, according to Wikipedia and other sources, S.S. Murder was published in 1933 and Clara in 1937. So what gives? My best guess is that originally the reference was to some other Patrick book, and in later printings it was changed for some reason. I’ve seen a Kindle edition of S.S. Murder and a paperback from the Forties, but never a first edition. 

Banacek: Season One (Part 2)

Concluding my look at the first season of Banacek, the ’70s series about the insurance investigator who specialized in solving impossible thefts. Part One is here.

“A Million the Hard Way” by Stanley Ralph Ross (who also wrote one of the best Columbos, “Swan Song”). What seems to happen: A Las Vegas casino keeps guess-how-much in cash in an unbreakable display case as an attraction (“Have your picture taken with a million dollars!”). A distraction causes everyone in the vicinity of the case to look in another direction for a few seconds; by the time someone looks back, the money has disappeared.

Clever, but I’m not convinced the vanishing method would work so smoothly in real life. In retrospect, it’s hilarious how low-rent the casino looks compared to the glitzy palaces they have in Vegas nowadays.

“To Steal a King” by Stephen Kandel. What seems to happen: the owner of a collection of ten rare coins locks them in a hotel safe overnight; when he opens it again in the morning, the coins are gone. It’s a time vault, so no one could have opened it as he slept.

An impossibility with a solution you have probably seen before, but may still fail to recognize till Banacek explains all. A very enjoyable episode.

“Ten Thousand Dollars a Page” by Paul Playdon (who wrote some of the best episodes of the 1960’s Mission: Impossible). What seems to happen: a rare book vanishes from a vault despite security cameras being on it the whole time. 

Like “Project Phoenix” in Part One, this one has an overcomplicated solution that failed to dazzle me.

“The Greatest Collection of Them All” by Theodore J. Flicker (co-creator of Barney Miller). What seems to happen: a collection of paintings is loaded into a panel truck, but when the truck arrives at its destination, only one painting is still inside.

Another echo of “Project Phoenix” – in this case, because again something disappears from a vehicle during a nonstop journey – but with a completely different and much neater solution. 

“The Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack” by Stanley Ralph Ross, Shirl Hendryx (who wrote a top-notch Columbo, “A Stitch in Crime”), Pat Fielder and Richard Bluel. What seems to happen: a security guard, carrying a satchel containing two million in stock certificates, enters an elevator. When the car stops on another floor after an uninterrupted ride, the satchel is still there, but the guard and certificates aren’t.

I’m a sucker for a good elevator-based impossible crime, but seeing that four people wrote a screenplay gives me a bad feeling – too many cooks, and all that. Well, I don’t know why “Cap’n Jack” needed so many writers, but this is one of the best Banaceks, with an awesomely simple solution. The first season ended on a high note.

I will get to the second and last season eventually…

Ellery Queen: “Mr. Short and Mr. Long” (1943 radio play)

Ellery Queen, in bed with a cold, is showing secretary-turned-nursemaid Nikki Porter that he is not the world’s best patient. His mood does not improve when his father, Inspector Queen, drops by to crow about how he’s finally got the goods on that notorious swindler, Little Jim Phillimore. Jim is planning to flee the U.S. with a bagful of ill-gotten money, but thanks to a tipoff, the Inspector’s men are surreptitiously watching all the exits from his house, and when he does try to leave, they’ll grab him. 

It’s not going to be that simple, though – when the Inspector returns to the house and Jim steps out his front door, he announces that it looks like rain and he needs his umbrella. He goes back into the house…

Well, if you remember “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” you can guess what happens next. The cops wait for Jim to come out again, and wait, and wait… and when they finally search the house, no one is there except a six-foot, four-inch butler who physically couldn’t be the five-foot-tall Phillimore. Ellery, still laid up, has to play armchair (or sickbed) detective to figure out how Jim pulled off his impossible disappearance, and where he is now.

Although this story was inspired by one of Conan Doyle’s references to untold Holmes cases, the great man isn’t mentioned in the script – audience members who knew the canon would have smiled and nodded as they listened, and those who didn’t would not have realized there was an in-joke.

A while back, I had high praise for John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Highgate Miracle”, their version of the Phillimore case. How does Queen’s measure up?

Well, the explanation for the impossibility isn’t bad, but it seems to me there is one question the Inspector should have asked his men that would have led him straight to Phillimore without needing Ellery to solve the case for him. It’s an example of what they call “fridge logic” (something you think of after the show is over and you’re at the fridge getting a snack), and I think it will occur to enough people reading the script that we probably know why it was never turned into a print story. You can get away with more when the audience can’t pause and think things over!

Still, this is an entertaining half-hour, and it’s fun to follow Ellery as he comes up with and discards one wrong solution after another.

I bought this for my Kindle for 99 cents a long time ago, but you can find a copy online free at https://www.genericradio.com/show/RBT2UGWGC . Or you can listen to it on YouTube.

Diagnosis: Impossible by Edward D. Hoch (1996) (Part 1)

My recent post on Banacek got me to thinking about detectives who specialize exclusively in impossible crimes. 

Dr. Fell and H.M. don’t quite qualify, as they both had the occasional non-impossible case. 

Thomas Banacek solved 17 cases, which is impressive. 

Wikipedia tells me that Joseph Commings’ Senator Brooks U. Banner was in 33 stories; I’ve only read one, but as far as I know they all involve some kind of impossibility. (I’m trying to get my hands on the collection Banner Deadlines without having to take out a second mortgage on my house; if I do get a chance to read it, I’ll report back in a future post.) 

Arthur Porges wrote series about several different detectives who had this specialty (Cyriack Skinner Grey, Dr. Joel Hoffman, Ulysses Price Middlebie), but I don’t know how many there were about each, or if they ever had any non-impossible murders. I look forward to catching up with Porges at some point.

As far as I know, the all-time champion in this class, going by number of cases solved, is Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the creation of Edward D. Hoch, who starred in 72 stories set between 1922 and 1944 (and published between 1974 and 2008). Crippen and Landru have published all these tales in five volumes; the final one, Challenge the Impossible, came out last month. 

I’ve read the first four collections (going to take my time with Challenge, since there won’t be any more), and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the 12 collected in the first one, Diagnosis: Impossible. I’ll deal with the first six here and the second in a future post…

“The Problem of the Covered Bridge”

What seems to happen: The morning after a snowfall, newly engaged Hank Bringlow drives his horse and buggy over fresh, unbroken snow into a covered bridge. There are no tracks showing an exit from either end and neither he nor the vehicle is anywhere on it. Hours later, he turns up again, still seated in the buggy but now dead from a bullet wound. 

A very neat problem and solution and a fine launch to Dr. Sam’s crime-solving career. This would be a good story to start someone off with if they wanted to check out some impossible-crime fiction and you weren’t sure if they’d care for John Dickson Carr’s style; Hoch’s is a lot plainer, an’ his use o’ New England country dialect doesn’t make for heavy goin’. (According to the introduction, Hoch was against putting in a lot of dropped G’s and so forth, but that was how Frederic Dannay wanted it; after a few years, Dannay agreed that the stories would be just as good without them.)

“The Problem of the Old Gristmill”

What seems to happen: a strongbox filled with documents is shipped by rail from Northmont (the New England town where Dr. Sam lives) to Boston. It is not tampered with in any way, but when it’s opened, it’s empty.

Hoch usually based his Dr. Sam stories on some topical-for-the-period subject: here, it’s bootleggers. The story is not bad but the impossibility is a pretty simple one. There’s also a murder to solve, but it’s non-impossible.

“The Problem of the Lobster Shack”

What seems to happen: Hired as an entertainer at a society party, Julian Chabert (a Houdini-type escape artist) boasts he can escape from a shack despite being chained up and locked inside. When he doesn’t come out, the guests break in and find that not only did he not make good on his boast, but someone cut his throat.

Dr. Sam’s first actual locked-room (or building) mystery. Pretty good, but I have some trouble believing the murder method would have worked as smoothly as it does in the story.

“The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand”

What seems to happen: At a Fourth of July celebration, a cloaked and hooded attacker runs up to the mayor of Northmont and stabs him to death before literally vanishing in a puff of smoke.

I can’t resist a story where someone literally vanishes in a puff of smoke, but in real life you’d have about one chance in a million of doing it this way and getting away with it. However, Hoch realized this and gave the murderer a strong enough motive that they’d be willing to take that long shot.

“The Problem of the Locked Caboose”

What seems to happen: Pretty much what you’d guess from the title, except technically it’s a locked-and-bolted caboose. Nonetheless, someone’s murdered the man inside it and stolen the jewelry he was guarding.

Another good one, and this time I have no trouble believing the solution. Plus there’s a dying message!

“The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse”

What seems to happen: a kid playing on the swings by a one-room schoolhouse vanishes in the few seconds during which his teacher was looking the other way.

Not one of Dr. Sam’s greatest challenges. The inspiration for this one was the Loeb/Leopold kidnapping case, which took place shortly before the story is set.

To be continued eventually…