Crime on my Hands – George Sanders

One of my favourite scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is during the inquest. The wreck of a boat has been found, a boat that contains the body of a woman, Rebecca De Winter. An inquest is called & Rebecca’s widower, Maxim, is being asked some very difficult questions about the night his wife disappeared. During the luncheon adjournment, Maxim & his new wife are sitting in their Rolls Royce not eating the lunch sent from Manderley by their staff. Rebecca’s louche cousin, Jack Favell, played by George Sanders, slides into the car, eats a chicken leg & tosses it out of the window, all the while making sly insinuations about Rebecca’s death & threatening blackmail in the most suave way (you can see this scene here).

George Sanders made a living playing suave, smooth cads in Hollywood movies from the 30s to the 50s, including his Oscar-winning role as critic Addison De Witt in All About Eve. He also wrote, or co-wrote, two mysteries, Crime on my Hands, & Stranger at Home, as well as an autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad. All three books have just been reprinted by Dean Street Press. I’ve just spent several very enjoyable hours reading Crime on my Hands. The story is narrated by George & I could hear his voice in every line. What a pity he’s not still around to narrate the audio book.

As well as playing cads, George Sanders also made a successful series of mystery films playing a detective known as The Falcon. When the novel opens, George is making yet another Falcon movie & is starting to feel typecast. His agent, Melva, gets him a terrific part as the lead in a pioneer Western epic also starring screen goddess Carla Folsom. This could be the role that sends George’s career in a whole new direction. The company are shooting a scene on location, when one of the extras is shot. It looks like a tragic accident, one of the prop guns must have been loaded with live ammunition rather than blanks. When it emerges that the man was shot with George’s gun, a different calibre to the other weapons, which has since gone missing, it looks as though George is being framed for murder.

How different this was from my screenplays. As The Saint, or The Falcon, I had been confronted many times with situations more baffling than this, and always I had penetrated to the heart of the matter, seen a clue, reconstructed the situation and acted unerringly. But here was a nameless bearded corpse sprawled inside the circle of wagons on baking sand. There were no dropped collar buttons, no cartridges of an odd caliber, no telltale footprint with a worn heel, no glove lost in haste. … A nameless corpse, and the only clue to the killer was my gun, planted by a nameless hopeful who thought he could match wits with me. Only, this time the lines weren’t written for me. I had to make them up as I went along.

However, it seems that the extra, listed as Herman Smith, wasn’t Herman Smith at all, but Severance Flynne, an unsuccessful small-time actor who changed places with Smith, but with what motive? All the extras wore beards, so had the bullet been intended for Smith or Flynne? George is drawn into the investigation & there seem to almost too many suspects – Riegleman, the director, anxious not to lose any time on a strict shooting schedule; Sammy, the prop man who should have made sure the weapons were safe; Paul, the casting director who was supposed to keep track of the extras. Then, there’s Carla Folsom & Wanda Waite, both actresses with a lot riding on the picture for their future careers. Somebody in the cast & crew must have known Flynne but who was it & what could have been their motive to kill him?

Deputy Sheriff Lamar James is an intelligent, ambitious policeman who can run rings around his boss, Sheriff Callahan. He reluctantly allows George to do some investigating on his own & George is soon entangled in more complications than he imagined possible. The murder was caught on camera but when not only the murder weapon but also the vital reel of film go missing, George looks like the only viable suspect. He needs to not only clear his own name but find the murderer if he’s going to avoid arrest – & the end of the best career break he’s ever had. Then, when the vital scene is reshot & George deduces that the shot had to be fired from behind the camera, the circle of suspects narrows, more murders are committed & George finds his own life in danger.

Crime on my Hands is a fantastic mystery. The atmosphere of a film set in the 40s is fascinating & I loved the evocation of the whole Hollywood system. George’s agent, Melva Lonigan & his press agent, Fred, are terrific. They’re totally committed to George’s career – & the cut they take of his earnings. Melva is smart & sassy, I imagined her played by Myrna Loy or Rosalind Russell. Vampy Wanda Waite could be played by Lana Turner & maybe a young Henry Fonda as Lamar James? I couldn’t help casting the movie in my head as I read. The producer of the movie, Brewster Wallingford, must have been at least partly based on director Michael Curtiz. Curtiz’ mangling of the language was notorious in Hollywood; David Niven used one of his most famous phrases, “Bring on the empty horses” as the title of one of his memoirs.

George Sanders is a witty narrator with a very dry, self-deprecating sense of humour. I found him infinitely more charming on the page than I ever have in the movies. For me, he’ll always be Jack Favell or Miles Fairley, the sly cad in The Ghost and Mrs Muir. I really want to track down more of his movies now though. I’d like to see him playing a charming character rather than a cad. I don’t know how much of the book Sanders actually wrote, it’s co-written with Craig Rice, a popular crime writer who had written screenplays for Sanders’ films. The dedication reads To Craig Rice, without whom this book would not be possible. George in the book certainly seems to owe quite a bit to Sanders’ screen persona & aspects of his life such as his hobby as an inventor & his ability to cook are featured. I don’t know that it really matters how much of the book is Sanders & how much is Rice. I enjoyed it very much & I think any fan of 1940s Hollywood or classic detective fiction would enjoy it too.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me review copies of all three George Sanders books that they’re reprinting & I’m looking forward to reading the others. They also have plans to reprint other mystery authors, including Ianthe Jerrold, who was featured by Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow in his truly remarkable list of women mystery authors.

Conundrums for the Long Week-end – Robert Kuhn McGregor with Ethan Lewis

… the fictional history of Peter Wimsey has become emblematic of its time. Unlike practically any of the other famous fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey’s career was fully defined by a single epoch. He came to life as the long week-end began in the wake of the Great War; he disappeared as World War II sealed the week-end’s close.

The subtitle of this book is England, Dorothy L Sayers & Lord Peter Wimsey. The authors have combined literary criticism & social history to place Peter Wimsey & Dorothy L Sayers in the England of the interwar period. As Sayers is my favourite Golden Age detective novelist, this book was always going to appeal to me. It was written in 2000 & I’m almost sure I read it back then. However, seeing it in a recommended list of e-books on Amazon was enough to inspire me to download it & read it again over the last few days.

McGregor & Lewis have looked at the life of Dorothy L Sayers & tell the story of how she came to write the Wimsey books. At first, she wrote them for the money. She was an avid reader of detective stories & thrillers & throughout the series she makes some quite pointed comments about other writers. She was also unhappy in her personal life with several frustrating & unfulfilling relationships & the birth of her illegitimate son, John Anthony. She kept her son’s existence a secret from almost everyone & especially her parents. She worked as a teacher &, more famously, at Benson’s advertising agency, until the success of the Wimsey novels enabled her to concentrate on her writing.

The other focus of the book is the political & social history of the period between the wars. Famously called The Long Week-end by Robert Graves & Alan Hodge in their book of this name, McGregor & Lewis trace the preoccupations of Sayers & her world in the themes & settings of the novels. Each chapter begins with an overview of the political & social situation in England & Europe & then the discussion moves on to Sayers’s life & the novels she was working on. This certainly focuses the reader on the topicality of many of the plots & social settings of the books, especially the far-reaching impact of the Great War on England. Peter Wimsey suffered from shell-shock & the after-effects of this are evident in the early books of the series. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club begins on Armistice Day & features several characters who have been damaged by their war service. Have His Carcase is set at Wilvercombe, a watering place where middle-aged women fall in love with gigolos & the agricultural slump leads to the commission of a horrible murder.

Sayers had an intellectual interest in the writing of detective fiction & wrote Introductions to several collections of stories by the best-known authors in the genre. She especially acknowledged the influence of Wilkie Collins & Sheridan LeFanu, the 19th century writers who paved the way for Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace & the Golden Age writers. As a graduate of Oxford, Sayers was also interested in the role of women in society & her creation of Harriet Vane, detective novelist, accused murderer & the woman Peter Wimsey wants to marry, allows her to explore this theme. Through Harriet, Sayers is able to discuss the writing of detective fiction as well as provide a compelling portrait of a professional woman. My favourite novel in the series, Gaudy Night, is the least conventional as a detective novel. Set mainly in a women’s college at Oxford, Harriet takes centre stage as she tries to discover the identity of a malicious poison pen. Discussions about the place of women in society & the importance of the intellectual life are just as important as the detection.

The final book about Peter & Harriet, Busman’s Honeymoon, started life as a play &, apart from the beginning of a novel, Thrones, Dominations (later finished by Jill Paton Walsh in 1998) & a few short stories written during WWII, that was the end of the story. McGregor & Lewis examine the reasons behind Sayers’s decision to abandon this unfinished novel. Apart from having finally married off her two leading characters, Sayers was writing Thrones, Dominations during the period of the death of George V & the Abdication crisis of 1936. Suddenly the theme of marriage was just a little too delicate. Sayers was also becoming interested in other work, including her plays on religious themes & so the novel was put aside & never resumed.

Conundrums for the Long Week-end is a book for Wimsey fans who have read all the books as the plots are fully discussed & the murderers are named. You have been warned! I enjoyed it because of the way that the authors tied together the wider social history of the period with Sayers’s life & the progress of her creation of two of the most intriguing characters in detective fiction.