Sax Rohmer, writing in The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu (1913):
Imagine a person tall, lean and feline, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect. Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu.
Rohmer’s yellow peril tales were regularly serialized in America by Collier’s Weekly beginning in the 1910s. These editions were visualized by Collier’s excellent team of in-house illustrators: first Joseph Clement Coll, then John R. Flanagan. Both artists worked in pen and ink, delineating the lurid stories in a style somehow reminiscent of J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow shirt collar advertisements as well as the future genre of comic book superheroes.
Peter Cushing’s notes on playing Sherlock Holmes for his performance in The Hound of the Baskervilles [Hammer Films, 1959]:
Morning suit—hat—gloves?—cane. Cape over tweed suit (no hat). Put stains and burns on gloves. Don’t make Holmes obvious—or his suspicions. Suspect everything. Don’t do jackets up at all. Get nervous energy over. Just slip pipe to mouth (not open mouth). Puff clouds of smoke. Sardonic sense of humour. Flashes of steel after laconicness. The deerstalker has been dyed a little. Do cuffs up as if buttoned—short links. Make top quiff of hair stand up a little. Have hypnotic quality. Slight mystic quality.
Dialogue from Horror Express [Granada Films, 1972]:
Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster? Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know!
The Broadway actor-manager William Gillette was famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. His 1899 production was the first stage play authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The image of the character with his deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, and curved meerschaum pipe is largely derived from Gillette’s stage persona.
A native of Connecticut, Gillette built a large and eccentric country house in Hadlyme near the mouth of the Connecticut River. The estate is now operated as a state park.
Gillette Castle re-opened this summer season after being closed for more than a year. I took the opportunity to visit on opening day back in May.
The exterior could pass for a gothic ruin weathered by centuries. The interior is Arts & Crafts. The walls are covered in woven rattan. Secret doors communicated between rooms so Gillette could surprise (or avoid) his guests.
While the house was being built he lived on a boat named Aunt Polly. It was later destroyed in a fire but a few details remain.
Upstairs in the tower is a collection of theatrical memorabilia, including sketches of Gillette in character by Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot.
A miniature railway once traversed the estate. Gillette housed his engines in a shed he called Grand Central Station. Walking trails now follow the route of the rails.
In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.
In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.
At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.)
In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.
His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.
As a voracious consumer of mystery novels I have a certain fondness for The Shadow. Introduced in 1930 by pulp publishers Street & Smith as the host of their radio program Detective Story Hour the character was developed in a series of novels by Walter B. Gibson, writing under the name Maxwell Grant. The Shadow had a corresponding but not-entirely-overlapping identity in pulps, radio (where he was voiced most famously by Orson Welles), and film—but it was Gibson’s stories that set the standard. Costumed in trench coat and fedora with a crimson scarf half covering his face, The Shadow became a template for comic book heroes like Batman.
Deadlinereports that Condé Nast, which owns The Shadow, has contracted advertising executive turned writer James Patterson to revive the character “in a series of books that will also aim to be adapted for the screen.” The new series will evidently update the setting from the 1930s to “the modern age,” no doubt forgoing the ambiance of grotesquerie and chinoiserie. Suffice it to say, the project does not appeal to me.
Gibson wrote literally hundreds of Shadow stories, which are enough to keep any reader busy. I collect the reprints published two-titles-to-a-book by Nostalgia Ventures/Sanctum Books. Last year Sanctum announced that their reprints would end with Volume 151 because “Condé Nast would not renew rights.” Now we know why. Happily all but three of Gibson’s titles had already been reprinted.
Writing in the New Republic, Colin Dickey describes the influence of Thomas De Quincey’s 1823 essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” as it relates to the suspense genre:
There’s a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, Frenzy, when the murderer Robert Rusk, a serial sexual predator, finds himself in a bit of a bind. Having just loaded the corpse of the hero’s girlfriend onto a truck carrying sacks of potatoes, Rusk realizes he’s left some incriminating evidence on the body. He climbs back up to retrieve it, but the truck begins moving, taking him further from London and into the country. As Rusk struggles to retrieve his tie-pin from his victim’s hand, he discovers rigor mortis has set in and he’s forced to break her fingers to get it free. It’s an elaborate, perversely comic scene in which a loathsome monster is strangely empathetic: Like any workaday slob, he’s made a small mistake in his job, and fixing it has turned into an increasingly complex comedy of errors. Who couldn’t sympathize with him? This is one of the great hallmarks of Hitchcockian suspense: The moment when, against all your instincts, you find yourself developing some measure of sympathy with the Devil.
More than a hundred years before Hitchcock began making films, Thomas De Quincey first pegged this affect in an 1823 essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” The essay turns on the moment when Macbeth is in the process murdering King Duncan. Macbeth is momentarily disturbed by MacDuff’s knocking at the gate, and he panics that his crime might be discovered. Why, when we know Macbeth’s crime to be immoral, do we switch allegiance, ever so momentarily, from the victims to the murderers?
De Quincey had no language available in the canon of Shakespearean criticism to describe how such a moment engendered “a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity,” it fell to him to invent it. “Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” he reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.”
De Quincey and his subsequent essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” are treated at length in a chapter on the origins of the mystery genre in my new book Victoriana.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think Agatha Christie had any relevance in a conversation about Victorian art. A Golden Age queen, her novels are decidedly modern, reflecting a world after first one then another world war, and filled with skittish women, world-weary men, and murders galore. However, the more you read her novels, the more her Victorian roots show. Take for example, the short story ‘Miss Marple tells a Story’, where Miss Jane Marple tells her nephew Raymond (a novelist) and his girlfriend Joan (a modern artist) all about how she solved a murder that was brought to her by her solicitor and the accused man (husband of the deceased). I won’t spoil the plot for you, but when Miss Marple wants to explain how she isn’t as ‘up-to-date’ as her companions she says ‘I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they are hopelessly vieux jeu.’ Miss Marple is the archetypal maiden aunt, born around the 1870s (as she appears to be a woman of 50-60 in her first appearance in 1927, and grows older up to the 1950s). Jane Marple expresses many examples of what it meant to be a Victorian, for example in ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, Miss Marple says ‘When I was a girl Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach’, together with admonishments that a lady would never be over-emotional in public. I especially love her inability to talk frankly about what litmus paper is used for, in ‘The Blue Geranium’, even though she knows from experience of being a nurse. She is shrewd but always finds a way of being delicate about matters of bodily fluids.
The entire post is wonderful with lots of references picked out of various novels and a gallery of Christie paperback covers with Pre-Raphaelite influences.
In 1950 LIFE magazine published a photo-essay by Jack Birns on the Orient Express railway line—then past its prime but still wonderfully romantic. Birns traveled the classic route from London to Istanbul, detailing the entire journey. The vintage travel blog Retours has a multipart retrospective on Birns’s article including previously unpublished photographs.
The Orient Express was a favorite of royalty, diplomats, and spies—Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, King Leopold II of Belgium, T.E. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Mata Hari were among the noted passengers at the turn of the twentieth century. The train entered popular culture through novels like Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and of course Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
The first leg of the journey was the shortest—from Victoria Station in London to Folkestone in Kent, and from there by ferry across the English Channel to Calais.
At Calais passengers boarded a train with the distinctive blue livery of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Arjan den Boer writes at Retours:
Wagons-Lits sleeping cars had a daytime and a nighttime setup. During the day passengers were seated on a comfortable couch, which was converted by the conductor into a regular-sized bed at night.
First-class travellers had their own sink cabinet with hot and cold running water. There were no showers and toilets had to be shared…
In addition to its sleeping cars, Wagons-Lits was renowned for its dining cars which were every bit as good as fine restaurants. Although the luxury of the interwar period had faded, in 1950 full meals with good wines were still served at fully-set tables. This was accomplished by a seven man brigade, with three of them working in the kitchen.
Naturally, the journey through France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Balkans afforded views of beautiful scenery. And also a way of life that had survived both World Wars but was now disappearing. Arjan den Boer writes:
Until 1951, a stagecoach or sleigh ran over the Simplon Pass from November to June to transport passengers, mail and supplies to the villages on the pass. The difference with the train in the Simplon tunnel was huge: a journey of 20 minutes versus 10 hours over the snow-filled pass.
Jack Birns was intrigued by the coach and the coachman he photographed in the border village of Gondo. Six months later he returned to make a separate photo report on the Simplon coach, which shortly afterwards was replaced by a mail bus.
Penzler has been collecting first edition detective fiction for more than fifty years. In the early days, he says, “It was easy to find a half dozen first editions in collectable condition within my five-dollar-a-week budget. My primary drive was buying a book in the mystery world that I could afford. It was the pure joy of collecting.” In 1979 he opened The Mysterious Bookshop.
Fine Books magazine visited Penzler’s home library last year. Nicholas A. Basbanes writes:
One of the very first things bibliophile-for-all-seasons Otto Penzler wants you to know about the 58,000 books he keeps in a Tudor-style chateau in the Connecticut countryside is that it was not something put together willy-nilly by someone with a fortune to throw around on first editions.
“I am not a rich guy,” he insisted, even though the trappings of this graceful manor eighty miles north of Manhattan in bucolic Litchfield County—especially the triple-level library that at times suggests the soaring interior of a ducal chapel—would suggest otherwise. “This took an entire railroad car of mahogany wood to make,” he said of the exquisite shelves, fittings, and hand-hewn storage areas he was about to show me, all built to his design and specifications over a two-and-a-half-year period more than a decade ago.
I am sorry to see a collection like this broken up, but many collectors will undoubtedly walk away happy.
The sale is being conducted by Heritage Galleries. Part One will be held at their Rare Books Auction on March 6 in New York. This lot emphasizes American authors and hardboiled literature. Online bidding has already begun. Part Two will be held on September 5 in New York, with an emphasis on British authors.