I’m researching a mystery novel set in 1948, working title The Fifth Man. That year was memorable for many notable events, including:
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Mr Bazalgette’s Agent is the first British detective novel to feature a professional female detective. Written by Leonard Merrick and published in July 1888, Mr Bazalgette’s Agent slipped into obscurity partly because the author disliked the book and set about buying and destroying all the copies he could lay his hands on. However, despite the occasional use of words that we now find offensive, history has been kinder to the story and the book is now regarded as a novel of some worth.
Mr Bazalgette’s Agent chronicles the adventures of twenty-eight-year-old Miriam Lea. Unemployed, Miss Lea responds to an advertisement placed by Mr Alfred Bazalgette’s private detective agency. She secures a position with the agency and her first task is to find Mr Jasper Vining, a banker’s clerk, who has absconded with a large sum of money. The trail leads to Europe and the diamond mines of South Africa, familiar territories to the author, Leonard Merrick.
Leonard Merrick was born in London in February 1864 as Leonard Miller. His family were prosperous and young Leonard enjoyed a privileged education. In his late teens Leonard Miller changed his name to Merrick when he embarked on a career as an actor. The profession did not satisfy him so he turned to writing. His first novel, Mr Bazalgette’s Agent, was not a critical or commercial success. Even so, he persevered eventually achieving success and the accolade ‘the novelist’s novelist’, offered by J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. Despite receiving rewards and accolades, Leonard Merrick was admired more by his fellow writers than by the public, which is something many authors of today can identify with.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Although considered a spy story, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also a detective story with oodles of class.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was broadcast on the BBC in 1979. The series was adapted from the 1974 novel of the same name, written by John le Carré, and it starred Alec Guinness, Michael Jayston, Anthony Bate, George Sewell, Bernard Hepton, Ian Richardson, Ian Bannen, Hywel Bennett and Beryl Reid. Critically acclaimed, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy won a number of awards, including a Best Actor BAFTA for Alec Guinness.
The plot of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy centres on George Smiley (Alec Guinness) and his search for a ‘mole’ at the heart of the Secret Intelligence Service, the ‘Circus’. As the story unfolds we learn that Smiley was forced to retire as deputy head of the S.I.S. because of a bungled operation in Czechoslovakia and that he is estranged from his wife, Ann, played by Siân Phillips. World-weary, but determined, Smiley embarks on a secret investigation, trawling through the murky waters of Cold War espionage and his past.
Because the theme of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is one of betrayal the identity of the ‘mole’ is no great surprise. However, a fine ensemble cast hold your interest throughout and Alec Guinness, in his first major television role, makes the character of George Smiley his own.
While researching the role of George Smiley, Alec Guinness asked author John le Carré to introduce him to a real spy – forgetting that John le Carré had himself worked for MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s – and a meeting with Sir Maurice Oldfield, the Chief of the British Intelligence Service from 1973-78, was arranged. At the meeting, in a Chelsea restaurant, Alec Guinness studied Sir Maurice Oldfield intently, from the way he walked, to the way he carried his umbrella, to his mannerisms when he picked up and drank from a wineglass. And it was that attention to detail from the writer, actors and producers that made Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy such a special series.
Van der Valk
Van der Valk first appeared on British television in 1972. The series was based on the novels written by Nicolas Freeling, although individual episodes were created by other authors. In the books Nicolas Freeling allows Van der Valk to talk and think in untranslated French, which can be a challenge for non-French speakers, and his views can come across as bombastic and opinionated at times. Sceptical and cynical about bureaucracy and officialdom, Van der Valk also has compassion, especially for the young who find themselves in trouble.
In the television series Barry Foster took the lead role as Commissaris “Piet” van der Valk and he was supported by Michael Latimer, who played Inspecteur Johnny Kroon. Regular characters also appeared in the series; however, these characters were played by a variety of actors because Van der Valk had three incarnations: the first series, of six episodes, was aired in the autumn of 1972 and a second series of seven episodes followed in 1973. The second incarnation was produced four years later when twelve episodes were broadcast in the autumn of 1977. A break of nearly fourteen years then ensued before Van der Valk was revived once more, this time in the form of four two-hour episodes, broadcast in January and February 1991, and three two-hour episodes, aired in February 1992. Personally, I think the first series and the last two films are the highpoints of Van der Valk’s run.
Van der Valk highlights a perennial problem for authors – what do you do with the detective’s spouse. Quite often the detective is male and the spouse is female and she is left with the role of cooking dinners for the detective that he has no time to eat because he is too busy crime-busting. A solution to this problem is to ensure that the detective-spouse relationship develops over the series and that the non-detective character has a strong part to play in the emotional and/ or criminal aspect of the story. This engages the character in the series and the readers with the character. To its credit at least Van der Valk gave its detective a family background, which is after all closer to reality than many of the detectives portrayed in film and literature.
Currently, I’m enjoying a 1945 serial, Brenda Starr, Reporter, starring Joan Woodbury, on DVD. The serial is made up of thirteen twenty-minute episodes for screening at cinemas and each episode ends in a cliffhanger, to tempt the cinema-goers back the following week.
Brenda Starr started life as a comic strip, the creation of Dale Messick. The comic strip first appeared on 30th June 1940 and was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Initially, the strip was relegated to a comic book supplement within the Chicago Sunday Tribune, but by 1945 it was running daily and attracting a loyal following. This following increased during the 1950s, the comic strip’s heyday, when Brenda Starr appeared in over two hundred newspapers.
Brenda Starr was based on a 1930s debutante, Brenda Frazier, and movie actress Rita Hayworth. Inevitably, the comic strip incensed the narrow-minded guardians of public decency on the grounds that it was drawn by a woman and, gasp-horror, Brenda sometimes revealed her cleavage or her naval. This was too much for the censors who promptly reached for the smelling salts and removed the offending body parts.
The serial I’m currently watching was the first cinematic attempt to depict Brenda Starr. A TV movie starring Jill St John was released in 1976 and a film starring Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton was released in 1992. Unfortunately, the latter was not a commercial or critical success.
The 1945 serial is of its time and displays its comic book origins. Nevertheless, if taken in the right manner it provides a great deal of entertainment. The writing and performances are sold, and filming is up to standard. With a sympathetic writer and production crew Brenda Starr could well be a hit today, though any modern version would do well to pay tribute to the series’ mid-twentieth century origins.
Spenser is the creation of Robert B. Parker, 1932 –2010. He is a tough, wise-cracking detective from the ‘hard-boiled’school of crime fiction who prides himself in his self-belief and his autonomy. The series is largely set in Boston, USA, and Robert B. Parker’s skilful pen brings the city vividly to life. The Boston backdrop is one of the highlights of the series, which runs to thirty-nine books, along with Spenser’s laconic narration, an easy voice that offers pleasure to the reader.
Boston, the setting for the majority of the Spenser books
Spenser is an ex-boxer and a Korean veteran. He is also ageless and his physical attributes remain undiminished by the passing of time. The reader can see this as a flaw in that it requires too much suspension of disbelief, or you can accept the premise if you subscribe to the notion that ‘heroes never get old’. What is more troublesome, however, are Spenser’s references to his mother: in some of the books, Spenser’s mother died in childbirth, while in others he refers to her homilies and cooking. Given that an international publisher of some repute published the Spenser series, you feel that someone somewhere should have addressed this anomaly.
Robert B. Parker wrote lean, mean prose and personally I think his books are at their strongest when they are lean and mean as well. As Robert B. Parker’s career progressed he changed publishers and his new publishers seemed to insist on longer books, which meant a lot of ‘middle’and chapters that did little for the overall story. Therefore I would recommend the early books, God Save the Child through to Crimson Joy as the strongest in the series.
To many readers the strongest character in the series is Hawk, Spenser’s sidekick. Hawk is a mercenary, an assassin, a man without apparent emotion. In less skilful hands, Hawk would come across as hard and cold, but the genius of Robert B. Parker makes Hawk the centre of attention whenever he appears; the character consistently enlists the sympathy and support of the reader. Without doubt, Hawk is one of the finest creations in crime fiction.
The other leading character in Spenser’s world is Susan Silverman. Susan Silverman first appears as a guidance counsellor in book two, God Save the Child. In many respects, this is the highlight of her involvement in the series. In the fourth book, Promised Land, Spenser and Susan discuss marriage; she is keen, he is reluctant. By the end of the book, Spenser comes around to Susan’s way of thinking and proposes marriage only for Susan to say that she has changed her mind. As a relationship study this book is excellent and I regard it as my favourite Spenser novel.
In A Catskill Eagle, Susan runs off with a lover. She decides that she cannot escape from him, even though she is not being held against her will, and asks Spenser to ‘rescue’ her. This he does, leaving a trail of devastation and murder in his wake – one of the accepted premises of the Spenser series is that he can commit murder with the tacit approval of the authorities – and when he does finally ‘rescue’ Susan, she offers little gratitude. Maybe none of this matters, except that Spenser’s love for Susan is a central part of the series. In A Catskill Eagle, and the middle series novels, Susan comes across as a self-centred, selfish character and it is difficult to understand why all the other regular characters in the series love her as much as Spenser does. Robert B. Parker wrote from life and he based Susan on his wife, Joan. Maybe it says something about Susan when even Joan Parker stated that she did not like the character! The tiresome nature of Susan’s character is a frustration; with a more sympathetic female in her stead, you feel that the series would qualify as the best in private detective literature. As it stands, it is still essential reading for all fans of the genre.
In defence of Susan she is very much her own woman and in the later books there is a mellow glow to Spenser’s relationship with her that displays the familiarity of a long-standing couple. Susan comes across as a more appealing character in these books, especially when compared to the woman who ran off in A Catskill Eagle. This Susan is likeable, and for this reader certainly more likeable than the character portrayed through the middle books of the series.
The Spenser characters were adapted for television as Spenser: For Hire. The show ran for three seasons and sixty-five episodes with Robert Ulrich in the title role, supported by Avery Brooks as Hawk and Barbara Stock as Susan Silverman. Four movies were also made. Unlike the majority of the TV series, the movies were based on Robert B. Parker’s books. These movies were followed in 1999 by three more movies, made with a new, non-TV series, cast.
Completed the writing phase of Ripper today, book four in the Sam Smith Mystery Series. This story is a modern day version of Jack the Ripper and it takes my narrator, Sam, on an emotional rollercoaster ride as she seeks to uncover Jack’s identity, a trail that leads to a shocking discovery. Hopefully, the editing phase will be completed by the end of July and the book is due for publication in October.