Thursday, April 19, 2018

still in the mood for thrillers

Here are some recent reads:

And Then There Were None, 1939, by Agatha Christie

This one is unlikely to be reimagined by Kenneth Branagh, but you never know. And Then There Were None is one of Christie's grimmest, and most famous tales. Due to its original title, it is also one of her most controversial. Christie loved to use nursery rhyme references in her book titles, and this book actually incorporates an entire rhyme in the book as a twisted framework for a crime:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one of them and then there were five.

Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got all frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

["Ten Little Indians" - based on "Ten Little Injuns" written in 1868 Septimus Winner to be performed in minstrel shows]

Ten people, strangers to each other, are invited to a remote island for a holiday weekend. Once there they are each accused of a crime, a murder, for which they had never been charged. As one after another guest is found dead, paranoia reigns, as the remaining people on the island suspect one another and fear for their lives.

And Then There Were None could be viewed as the precursor of modern horror movies, where each character is bumped off in succession. It was also spoofed in the classic comedy film Clue. The book, although ingenious, is a bit of a downer. Clearly even Christie thought so herself, and changed the ending when she adapted her novel into a play in 1943. That ending is followed in the 1949 film version of the tale, And Then There Were None, directed by Rene Clair (which I recently viewed and liked on Amazon Prime). I prefer that take on the story, although a more by-the-book adaptation was recently filmed in 2015, starring Aidan Turner.

Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts, 1978, by Ira Levin

Continuing my Ira Levin binge, my local library had Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts. I had only seen the movie version, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Maybe taking a nod from Ms. Christie, there is really no innocent person in Deathtrap. A twisty-turny puzzle of a play, Deathtrap centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose last play was a huge flop, and who seems burnt out, humiliated, and out of ideas.

A draft of a play is sent to him by a former student, and a diabolical light bulb goes off over Sidney's head ... as he tells his wife, Myra, "It is a thriller in two acts. One set, five characters. A juicy murder in Act One, unexpected developments in Act Two. Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places. Highly commercial." Levin has a ball winking at the audience, and the play, written in 1978, was deservedly a big hit on Broadway. It reads well, too.

Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, 2008, by Richard Matheson

This is an eclectic collection of stories by the author of What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes. The title story has been adapted twice - as a Twilight Zone episode and a feature film, The Box. I have yet to see either one, but I liked the story, which features a fun and creepy twist ending. Another of the stories in the book, "Dying Room Only," is a great, tense read, but may discourage the reader from ever stopping again at an out-of-the-way spot to grab a bite while on a road trip. Most of the stories were written and published previously in the '60s and '70s. They are a bit of a mixed bag - some good ("Clothes Make the Man"), some humorous, some dated ("The Creeping Terror"), some some just strange ("A Flourish of Strumpets," "'Tis the Season to Be Jelly"). Button, Button is a diverting read, but makes me wish the library had I Am Legend or Hell House instead.

By the Pricking of My Thumbs, 1968, by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's most famous detectives were Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. But she also wrote five books featuring the detective couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They met in The Secret Adversary (1922), were married in the collection of short stories Partners in Crime, on the track of German spies during WW2 in N or M? (1941), were retired with grown children in By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), and elderly in the last novel she wrote, Postern of Fate (1973).

In By the Pricking of My Thumbs the Beresfords visit Tommy's elderly Aunt Ada in a nursing home. While Tommy is with his aunt, Tuppence meets a strange old lady, Mrs. Lancaster, in the common room, who points at the fireplace and asks her, "Was it your poor child?" The next time they visit the home Aunt Ada has died and Mrs. Lancaster has disappeared.

The title comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes." She is not kidding. This is one of Christie's creepier mysteries. It is also, like its writer and her detectives, a little bit older and unfocussed. But there are enough thrills and a truly sinister ending to make this book not one of her greats, but definitely worth a read.

speaking of mustaches ...

I have been into thrillers lately ...

Murder on The Orient Express, by Agatha Christie, 1934

I had to re-read this classic Agatha Christie novel after recently seeing the Kenneth Branagh movie version. I have always been a huge fan of David Suchet and his version of Christie's most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. I was initially horrified at the promotional photos of Branagh's take on the inimitable Belgian's famous 'stache, but I actually enjoyed his lively take on the character. Maybe some of that enthusiasm carried over when I was reading the novel, which is not as smooth or fast-paced as its many screen versions. But I found myself not getting caught up in Christie's clues and red herrings (a dropped pipe cleaner, monogrammed handkerchief, etc,) and instead enjoyed his conversations with a train full of suspects and his unique take on the solution of the crime.

Can Branagh's Poirot and his magnificent mustaches solves the case?

The Mystery of the Blue Train, by Agatha Christie, 1928

Christie didn't just set one murder on the famous and luxurious Orient Express, or Blue Train, as it was sometimes called. Poirot shows up about halfway through the book, written before Murder on The Orient Express. The mystery features plenty of adultery and romance, centering on a married couple who are both involved with other partners. Christie is said to have not liked this book, but that may be because she was writing it both before and after her infamous disappearance and the dissolution of her first marriage. Whether she liked it or not, Poirot is at his most charming - flirting with young ladies on the Riviera while he tracks down a murder and solveds the disappearance of a famous ruby known as the "Heart of Fire."

Agatha Christie, by Mary S. Wagoner

This is an O.K. biography of Agatha Christie. The author gives a brief biography of her life, leaning heavily on Christie's own autobiography for the majority of her quotes. Readers who are not familiar with all of the author's intricately plotted books might want to steer clear of this one, as major plot points and solutions are revealed. It is a fun but slim read for the Christie-phile who might want to learn a little bit more about the author, including lesser known features of her life, like the numerous long-running plays she wrote when not cranking out her best-selling mysteries, and the romance novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

Lori, by Robert Bloch, 1989

This book was just ... strange. It tells the story of Lori Holmes, definitely no relation to Sherlock, who comes home from college with her boyfriend/fiance to find out that her parents are dead and her childhood home has burnt down. Bloch, the author of Psycho, seems to not know whether this should be a supernatural thriller or murder mystery. Not that a book can't be both, but this book never seems to find its voice. Lori has strange, sometimes disturbing dreams, but she seems to be more a girl of the 50s than the almost-90s. She passively accepts tons of tranquilizers from the men in her life who just want to shut her up. And most of those said men have mustaches, and similar attitudes, so seem hard to tell apart. Were mustaches really a thing in 1989? I remember men being more clean-shaven. Anyway, it's not horrible, I got through it, but not so good, either. It was more than a little hard to hang in there to find out if any of Lori's dreams or hallucinations would pay off.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

down the rabbit hole with ira levin

My latest writing project is of a spooky nature, so I thought I might get a little inspiration from one of my favorite horror movies, Rosemary's Baby. It didn't disappoint and holds up after many viewings.

Mia Farrow is having a tough trimester in Rosemary's Baby

After the umpteenth time of watching poor Mia Farrow find out what was really behind her linen closet, I got to wondering about the source material. A trip to the library resulted in a bag full of Ira Levin thrillers:

Rosemary's Baby (1967)

While reading this thriller I was surprised to discover that pages of word-for-word dialogue made its way into the film version. This book is as tightly, subtly plotted as the film. Book Rosemary may seem slightly more naive than Movie Rosemary, and the sinister characters a bit more sinister. But there is also quite a bit of humor in it, too. And it was and still is absolutely brilliant of Levin to take the state of being newly wed and newly pregnant and turn that into horror, with its built-in nine-months of build-up. I really enjoyed this book, maybe appreciated it even more when I knew what was happening between the lines.

Son of Rosemary (1997)

Levin wrote this sequel decades after Rosemary's Baby. It starts off with Rosemary waking up from a coma, which she fell into in 1973. She soon reunites with her now 32 year-old son Damien, I mean, Adrian, I mean Andy - and it goes downhill from there. Rosemary doesn't exhibit nearly enough awe or interest in how things have changed in the 30-odd years she's been comatose, not to mention how she's up and at 'em in record time with no physical side-effects, except shock at her reflection in the mirror, which reminds her of her 50-something year old aunt. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no suspense or any surprises in this book. If you can't predict just about every turn the plot takes, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I can get for you real cheap ...

The Stepford Wives (1972)

This book was definitely a palate cleanser after Son of Rosemary. It is another cult classic, which has generated movie adaptations good (starring Katharine Ross) and bad (Staring Nicole Kidman). NOt to mention countless mediocre TV movie adaptations featuring Stepford wives, husbands and children. It is very similar to Rosemary's Baby in that it has a female protagonist, Joanna, who finds that certain conventions that she has taken for granted (marriage, life in the suburbs) may not be all that they seem. You have to hand it to Levin, whose book has coined a term that we are now all familiar with, a Stepford wife, and the scary perfection that term implies. But I still think readers will be surprised and horrified when they read about Joanna's life in Stepford, and interested to discover how deeply entwined this book was with the Women's Lib movement of the time. The Stepford Wives is a thriller and a relatively quick read, but its story has echoes which are eerily reminiscent of some of the "let's go back to the good old days" rhetoric that is being spewed today.

Sliver (1991)

Sliver is a very creepy book. It is not in the same league as Rosemary' Baby or The Stepford Wives, but it is just as tuned in to its time as they were. It features another female lead, New Yorker and book editor Kay Norris, who after two bad break-ups moves uptown with her amazing cat Felice into a huge, new, shiny, silver building, a "sliver." What she and the hundreds of other tenants don't know and we find out from the first sentence (so no spoilers) is that they are being watched, recorded, and taped, 24-7, by the building's owner. Ick. The book is set up as a murder mystery, but the real suspense is not so much whether Kay will find out who is behind the snooping and/or the killing, but what she will feel or do about it/them when she finds out. This book was written before cell phones or smart phones were a part of our daily lives, and reality television the norm. The intrusiveness of the Peeping Tom and his justification for spying on his tenants - It's so real and it can't hurt them if they don't know you're watching - has real echoes for our current obsession with screens and over-sharing and reality television. It's also got a ridiculously implausible ending, but readers might find its predictions of the Big Brother era we now seem to have no trouble inhabiting, interesting.

Ira Levin didn't write many novels. What he did write has proved fodder for many films on the large and small screen. I don't have any interest in trying The Boys from Brazil, but the two others, A Kiss Before Dying (his first, written in 1953) and The Perfect Day (1970) are still out there, waiting to be read. My local library has his play Deathtrap, too, so that could be fun.

Friday, September 15, 2017

spring and summer reads: horror and autobiography

I have been so busy the past few months with my own book and now assorted hurricanes, that I didn't have a chance to post reviews of all of the books I have been reading. The first bunch is a combination of horror and autobiography, which pretty much sums up my interests of late. Anyone have a good horror autobiography to recommend?

In the meantime, here are a few titles from my recent reading list:

The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan - Patricia Bosworth

This is a fascinating glimpse into a woman's life in the art and theater world of 1950s New York. Patricia Bosworth was born into a wealthy San Francisco family. Her father, attorney Bartley Crum, saw his career and fortunes dive after he defended the Hollywood Ten (Hollywood directors and writers who were blacklisted as Communists during Senator Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare fear campaign - Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, and Adrian Scott.) Crum moved the family to what he hoped was a more open and understanding New York, but he never really bounced back.

Complicating matters was his drug and alcohol abuse, which landed him in multiple unsuccessful dry-out attempts. He did manage to acquire a few  high-profile clients, including actors Rita Hayworth and Montgomery Clift, who would visit the house and gave young Patricia a glimpse into Manhattan's film and theater world. She would later join the famed Actor's Studio and work with, or at least brush up against, actors and artists like Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, Diane Arbus, Gore Vidal, and Helen Hayes, among many others. Her most notable film role was a small part in The Nun's Story, starring Audrey Hepburn. But Bosworth's tale of that time on a movie set in Rome was far from glamorous, coinciding with a harrowing personal and physical event that shines a light on how far women have come since the 1950s and how we need to keep it that way.

Family tragedy was compounded when Patricia's younger brother, Bart Jr., committed suicide. It is clear to the reader that Bart was homosexual. After he and a friend were found in a compromising position at school and the friend subsequently killed himself, Bart sank into a deeper and deeper depression until he ultimately chose to take his own life.The family seemed helpless or oblivious to Bart's plight. Although Bosworth doesn't address issues of homophobia and mental illness directly, there are echoes of depression, addictive behavior, and denial of true self between both the father and son. What is even more tragic is that young people in Bart's position sometimes still feel compelled to take their own lives today.

Bosworth ultimately gave up acting to pursue her real passion, writing, and she has become well known for insightful biographies of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Jane Fonda, and Diane Arbus, as well as writing in more detail about her father and the Hollywood Ten (Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story, 1997).

I found her story fascinating and am eager to now try some of her other biographies.

Patricia Bosworth in her Actors Studio days

Echoes From the Macabre - Daphne Du Maurier

I have always loved Du Maurier's Rebecca and have read Don't Look Now before in some other edition, but I don't think I had ever read the original version of The Birds, which was the basis for the classic Alfred Hitchcock horror film. Set in England the story is just as scary, and even more bleak, if that is possible. The rest of the stories are also very good, in a suspenseful, and in some cases, very creepy kind of way. They include: The Apple Tree, The Pool, The Blue Lenses, Kiss Me Again, Stranger, The Chamois, Not After Midnight, and The Old Man. I honestly don't want to even give a summary for any of these, as I think it is best to read them with no preconceptions. It is clear to see why Hitchcock loved Du Maurier's sometimes twisted take on life.

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

A true classic of horror, which tells the tale of four paranormal researchers who decide to spend some time in one of the most horrible-looking and possibly -acting houses of all time - Hill House. Dr. Montague, an erudite ghost chaser, enlists the help of three young people to prove that Hill House is truly haunted and evil. What could go wrong? Luke, who is a descendent of the original owner and builder of the terrible manse, chooses to treat the experiment as a joke. The beautiful and mysterious Theodora's motives to being there are unclear, but it is likely that she approaches the situation as a thrill seeker. Eleanor, an unhappy and possibly unstable young woman, hopes that Hill House will be the exciting new chapter in a previously dull and uninteresting life. When the cook and her husband tell the guests that they won't stay after sundown that should be the quartet's first clue that something is very wrong about Hill House.

I Shock Myself - The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood

To end things on an up note, I am including this wonderful autobiography of the little-known artist and ceramicist Beatrice Wood. Sometimes called "The Mama of Dada," she died in 1995 at the age of 105. During her long and eventful life she associated with some very interesting people, including Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, J. Krishnamurti, and the art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Wood is also considered to be the inspiration for the the woman who is loved by two men in Jules et Jim, which was written by Henri-Pierre Roché, who she was involved with. Their mutual close friend Marcel Duchamp fills out the third side of the eternal triangle. What was Wood's secret to her long and storied life? "I owe it all to chocolate and young men." Check her out. She was pretty amazing.

The colorful Beatrice Wood in her studio