The Art of Fu Manchu

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.

Coll’s illustrations appear above, Flanagan’s below.

Tweed Archive: Cushing and Lee Edition

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 House That Sherlock Holmes Built

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.

Gillette Castle is currently opened for tours through September 6, 2021.

Cast a Long Shadow

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.

Deadline reports 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.

Sherlock Holmes and the English Opium Eater

Last year I wrote about the literary connections between Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Machen in The Baker Street Journal. This year I write about the influence of Thomas De Quincey on Conan Doyle.

Founded in 1946 by Edgar W. Smith, the BSJ is the preeminent journal of Sherlockian scholarship.

My essay, “Sherlock Holmes and the English Opium Eater” appears in the Autumn 2019 issue on newsstands now.

Subscribe to The Baker Street Journal here.

Knocking at the Gate

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.

Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelites

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Kirsty Stonell Walker connects two of my favorite subjects: Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelite artists:

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.

A Photograph of Thomas De Quincey

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Frances Wilson writes in Guilty Thing that Thomas De Quincey “was the only Romantic to have had his photograph taken.” The daguerreotype was done by James Howie in Edinburgh in 1850. De Quincey was around sixty-five years old at the time. An engraving was subsequently made from it by Frank Croll.

In a letter to the Editor of The Instructor dated September 21, 1850, De Quincey gives his amusing opinion on the likeness:

My Dear Sir,—I am much obliged to you for communicating to us (that is, to my daughters and myself) the engraved portrait, enlarged from the daguerreotype original. The engraver, at least, seems to have done his part ably. As to one of the earlier artists concerned, viz. the sun of July, I suppose it is not allowable to complain of him, else my daughters are inclined to upbraid him with having made the mouth too long.

Penzler’s Collection

Otto Penzler, publisher and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York, is selling his personal collection of rare books at auction.

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.

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Photo: Nicholas A. Basbanes/Fine Books

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Photo: The Mysterious Bookshop/Twitter

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Photo: The Mysterious Bookshop/Twitter

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Photo: Heritage Auctions

A De Quincey on the Bookshelf in ‘The House of Fear’

Last year I wrote a long post about the influence of Thomas De Quincey on the mystery genre, broadly, and Sherlock Holmes, specifically. Thus I was pleased to catch a reference to De Quincey in the 1945 film The House of Fear starring Basil Rathbone. This was the tenth film in the long-running series with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson.

The screenplay is an original story very loosely based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips.” In the film, Holmes and Watson are summoned to a remote castle in Scotland where seven men live together under a strange agreement by which they benefit from each other’s life insurance policies. Someone is murdering them one by one.

While searching for clues Holmes inspects the volumes on a bookshelf, selecting one titled Murder As a Fine Art. This is obviously De Quincey’s 1827 classic, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”

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