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The Welcome Escape of a Mystery

We will certainly get back to politics, and all the bad people out there trying to ruin things for everyone but themselves, very soon. I am glad that RD seems to be having a very nice vacation, which she more than deserves!

I just wanted to share a couple of mystery stories: a book from 1940, and a movie from 1948, that I had very recently read and seen again. The book is “Sad Cypress,” by Agatha Christie, one of her very best novels. The movie is “I Love Trouble,” certainly not a great noir film, but a very good one, with elements which make noir so much fun to watch. It was on Eddie Mueller’s weekly feature, “Noir Alley,” I had seen it before, but one can see a good noir over and over.

These two works are obviously different, from the two different genres of mystery. “Sad Cypress” is an absolutely elegantly plotted and written mystery novel of the British form, and the so-called “Golden Age of Mystery,” which may generally have been from 1930-1960. There were so many classic mysteries written during that period, so many fine writers. Of the British style of mystery., Agatha Christie was the very best, with dazzling plots and a very fluid and entertaining writing style.

Oh, she is not Graham Greene or Dickens or Emily Bronte, but Christie does not get enough credit for writing ability in my view. “Sad Cypress,” the title from a poem in Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night,” may be her best novel. It has a haunting quality, as if it took place in a distant era, though the characters are of the time. It features a very compelling leading character, Elinor Carlisle; and the novel begins with her being on trial for the murder of a young woman whom her longtime love, whom she was soon to be married to, had fallen in love with.

The chapters are interspersed with the testimony at her trial, as we learn the story. What makes this story so special, is that it could have been a novel without the mystery. Agatha wrote novels under the name Mary Westmacott, which I have not read, but which been favorably reviewed. And most of her mystery stories did have interesting human plots, the characters seem to matter.

This is the thing which distinguishes her, and the other great mystery writers, such as Ross Macdonald and P.D. James, from the more run-of-the-mill writers in this genre. The characters are not cut-out figures, just there to serve the mystery elements, the clues and surprises. Those are always fun, but a really good mystery is about people who seem real; and often one wants to know more about them after the story has ended, but of course you almost never do.

All of the characters in “Sad Cypress” are interesting, and well drawn. The story is in some sense a tragedy of a life which was not allowed to reach its potential, due to the evil of another. There is a happy ending; Agatha seemed to be a romantic at heart, and more than a few times created a well earned and happy result.

The thing that always impressed me so much about her writing, is that the climax, the solution, almost always seems psychologically understandable. She never seemed to be just tossing in an ending, trying to fool you with the least likely suspect, as some people who do not read many mysteries seem to think. The solution, the identity of the murderer, and his or her motivation, makes sense; and one does not feel manipulated or misled, though of course there are red herrings and misdirections.

If you like Christie’s mysteries, but have not read this one, you definitely should. It is a masterpiece. I read some review of screenwriter/director Rian Johnson’s high-grossing “Knives Out,” a movie which I hated. I will not risk boring you with where I thought the plot did not hold together, where characters acted in ways which did not make logical sense within the mystery. This reviewer said something about how Agatha Christie’s work does not measure up to the greatness of Johnson’s mystery, which made me want to yell loudly at him for such an idiotic perception. Johnson is a self-indulgent amateur who thinks he is far cleverer than he is. He said that he was influenced by such movies as “The Last of Sheila,” but that is a superb mystery movie, and “Knives Out” is a third-rate knockoff. So now he’s got another one, which I will never see, and I am sure it will make hundreds of millions. Read “Sad Cypress” instead.

As to the movie “I Love Trouble,” I am just writing about that because it was on the other night, and while it is not a classic, it is a lot of fun. It was written by a young Roy Huggins, who did a few more movies, then became famous for creating TV hits like “The Rockford Files,” “Maverick,” and “77 Sunset Strip.” This movie was from a novel he had written. It was directed by S. Sylvan Simon, who seemed to have much talent, but sadly died at a young age, from a heart attack.

The story is Chandleresque, and Eddie Mueller seems to think that Huggins was copying, but I know all of Chandler’s novels, and this was a different story, though certainly many writers wanted to emulate Chandler’s remarkable style. This movie involves a private detective in 1940’s Los Angeles, always such an evocative setting. He is played by Franchot Tone, whom I had not seen too much, but he is fine, though obviously not Bogart. He is first seen shadowing a woman in what looks like Mid-Wilshire, as part of an assignment working for an influential businessman.

The story thus has him going to various places, and meeting the kind of people who populate the noir landscape. The plot itself is quite circuitous, and I was left wondering about some of it at the end, but it made some sense, it was not just cobbled together. But the best part of the film is the forward pacing, it always moves ahead, and is never boring. The dialogue is quite clever at times, but never lapses into a cuteness which can grow tiresome. You want to see what will happen next.

Tone meets the apparent sister of the woman he is looking for, who is the wife of the businessman. She is played by a bright, charming, and even sexy Janet Blair. Their repartee has an innocence to it, underneath the wariness. He also meets Janis Carter, who I think should have been a big star; she was not only beautiful, but was excellent in the noir movies “Framed,” and “The Night Manager.” He also encounters Adele Jergens, and other attractive women who always seem to like him, but he is polite. And his assistant/secretary is played by Glenda Farrell, who starred in such roles, as the quick-thinking and wisecracking sidekick. Also, Sid Tomack was great as the former comedian Buster Buffin, who now runs a fish diner but is always looking for an angle.

Oh, and there is a great scene in a diner, where Tone is trying to find out something from the woman at the counter, who has a snooty New York accent, and refuses to tell him anything. He calls her Millie, because that is the name on her blouse, but she says that the woman who used to work there had that badge, and she took it. She says, “My friends call me Jackie.” He addresses her by that name, and she says again, “MY FRIENDS call me Jackie.” He says, “What shall I call you?” “Miss Phipps.” He then says that he bets that she has a certain piece of information. She says, what do you want to bet? He says, $5, and he hands her the bill. She looks at for a minute, puts it away, and says, “You lose.” A great scene, one of the treats which sometimes come up in a noir. The actress was Roseanne Murphy, and the scene is written and played beautifully.

The bad guys include John Ireland, always menacing in that role, and a very brief appearance by Raymond Burr. The print is not good (the one I got when I bought it, was worse), and the soundtrack is not good. But the movie is lot of fun, it is well acted, there is a mystery, and 1940’s Los Angeles atmosphere. It is definitely worth a watch if it shows up on TV.

What a classic British mystery novel, or a well done late-’40’s American noir movie offers, is escape. to a different milieu, a different time. Any good book or movie can do that, but I think that mysteries, if well written, and populated with interesting characters, can be particularly appealing in that regard, a very welcome respite from the anger and agenda which we hear more than enough of as we try to keep abreast of current events.