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Countdown to Mystery: Locked Doors

September 30th, 2020

A woman enters a room. Closes the door. Then, from inside, a voice cries “Murder!” When her father breaks down the door, he finds her bleeding on the floor. She is alone. The windows are barred. There is no other exit. Yet the perpetrator is gone!

And so begins The Mystery of the Yellow Room (Le mystère de la chambre jaune) by Gaston Leroux (1908), a novel considered by many to be one of the greatest locked-door mysteries of all time.

Over the years, some of mystery’s greatest writers have tried their hand at the subgenre, each attempting to outdo those who went before. Consider, for example, this locked-door scenario from the back cover of the 1983 Signet reprint of Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934):

No one had seen the fat man enter the luxurious suite; no one knew his name. All his clothes were on him backward, and all the furniture around him was reversed. The room […] was locked from the inside, and aside from him, was empty. [And now …] the man was dead.

How can you not want to read that one? And if you’re a writer, how could you not want to play in that sandbox?

In this series of posts, I’ve been recommending mysteries that feature elements you’ll find tomorrow should you accept Prime Time Theatre’s invitation to join me for the first installment of A Knavish Piece of Mystery. The story features an eccentric detective in the mold of St. John Lord Merridew (Sleuth) and Hercule Poirot (Murder on the Orient Express); a sidekick who complements the qualities of that detective (Zero Effect), an ensemble cast (The Last of Shelia, Murder on the Orient Express), a writer who blurs the lines between life and fiction (Sleuth) and a locked-room puzzle (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, The Chinese Orange Mystery). The fun starts tomorrow at Noon. I hope you’ll join us then … or any time during the days that follow.

That’s one of the nice things about podcast theatre. You can attend at your convenience. Here’s the link.

In the meantime, click the link below to view a 1931 adaptation of the locked-door mystery The Speckled Band, based on a Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyal. It stars Raymond Massey (in his first starring role as a film actor) as the master sleuth and Athole Steward as his sidekick Dr. Watson.

Enjoy, then stop back tomorrow as we unlock the door to A Knavish Piece of Mystery.

Countdown to Mystery: Zero Effect

September 29th, 2020

Some of the greatest detectives don’t work alone. Think of Holmes and Watson, Cagney and Lacey, Batman and Robin.

You get the idea.

Among the most interesting pairings are Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, from the series that the members of Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention) nominated as the “Best Mystery Series of the Century” in 2000. What sets Stout’s detective team apart from most others is that Wolfe is a morbidly obese recluse who never leaves his home, while Goodwin is a gregarious womanizer – a kind of Wolfe-avatar who goes out into the world to investigate the mysteries that the reclusive mastermind contemplates in solitude.

The contrasting images below: Nero Wolfe depicted in The American Magazine (1940) and Archie Goodwin, The Saturday Evening Post (1958).

The Wolfe-Goodwin team has been featured in a number of stage and screen adaptation over the years, most recently in A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001-02), the A&E television series starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton.

There have also been a few films that seem loosely inspired by Rex Stout’s pairing of opposites, and it’s of these – the under-rated Zero Effect (1998) – that I’d like to recommend today.

Written and directed by Jake Kasdan, whose father Lawrence Kasdan wrote the mystery Body Heat (1981), Zero Effect centers on reclusive detective Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) who solves a complicated mystery with the help of assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). Though not as well know as my previous recommendations (Sleuth, Deathtrap, Murder on the Orient Express, The Last of Shelia), the Zero Effect is worthy of rediscovery – both for the ingenuity of its mystery and its odd detective team.

Despite its relative obscurity, Zero Effect is available across most streaming platforms as well as on DVD and VHS. Sadly, no Blu-ray or 4K.

I have one more recommendation as we countdown to Prime Stage Theatre’s upcoming A Knavish Piece of Mystery. Look for it tomorrow. In the meantime, enjoy Zero Effect.

 

Countdown to Mystery: The Last of Shelia

September 28th, 2020

One strategy for writing an effective mystery: plot backward. Determine the ending, build from there.

I’ve heard that’s the strategy employed by actor Anthony Perkins (Murder in the Orient Express, Psycho) and Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, West Side Story) in writing their only produced screenplay – the intricately plotted who-done-it The Last of Shelia (1973).

The film has a set-up similar to that of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, in which mystery writer Andrew Wyke  (Laurence Olivier) invites stylist Milo Tindle (Michael Cain) to a game-filled mansion in South West England. Similarly, In Shelia, we have film producer Clinton Green (James Coburn) inviting a screenwriter (Richard Benjamin) to his game-filled yacht in the south of France. But he doesn’t come alone. Like Murder on the Orient Express, Shelia features an ensemble cast of eccentric characters – each of whom has something to hide.

Moreover, as with Deathtrap, the ensuing mystery becomes self-referential, with characters discussing a film project titled The Last of Shelia.

It’s great fun, and I dare say no more for fear of spoiling the surprises. (Check out the no-spoiler trailer below if you aren’t already hooked.)

This is the fourth installment in our countdown to Prime Stage Theatre’s release of A Knavish Piece of Mystery – an audio who-done-it that employs many of the tried-and-true elements mentioned above. Nevertheless, as with all of these recommended films, I trust you will find that A Knavish Piece makes something fresh with the mix of classic ingredients.

Like Sleuth, The Last of Shelia is overdue for a home video upgrade. Though available on a Warner Archive’s DVD and a panned-and-scanned VHS (for those nostalgic for the pioneer days of home video), the film has not yet been released on Blu-Ray or 4K. I suspect it has something to do with limiting the film’s circulation in anticipation of a remake, which has been rumored for a few years now.

Streaming is available through Prime (SD only) and Apple TV.

Stop back tomorrow for another mystery recommendation. Three days to go!

Countdown to Mystery:
Murder on the Orient Express

September 27th, 2020

We’re counting down to Prime Stage Theatre’s release of A Knavish Piece of Mystery, the first installment in a roster of virtual programming running this fall on Prime Online. The series has been generating good press in the past few days, with preview stories appearing on Local Pittsburgh and Trib Live. And I understand there are more to come in the next few days. Stay tuned!

Our two previous posts highlighted Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth and Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. Both feature writers who find themselves caught in real-life mysteries, a device that you will also find featured in the forthcoming Knavish Piece.

Today, we’ll consider Murder on the Orient Express, the Agatha Christie who-done-in that began life as a novel (1934) and went on to become a well-regarded film (1974) directed by Sidney Lumet.

The plot centers on Christie’s Hercule Poirot, a master detective in the mold of St. John Lord Merridew (Sleuth) and Augustus LaFleur (A Knavish Piece), who investigates a murder on a snowbound train. The ensemble cast is at the top of their game, and the film has the kind of style and elegance you’d expect from one of cinema’s greatest directors.

While selecting plays and films to highlight in this series of posts, I was initially tempted to recommend Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which has the distinction of being the longest-running play in theatre history (opening in London in 1952!), but, as a film version is not readily available and live performances are on hiatus, I have decided to go with the more accessible Express.

(Theatrical aside: Both The Mousetrap and A Knavish Piece take their titles from the same source. Can you name it?)

Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express is readily available on most major streaming platforms, including Prime and Vudu. And, for those of you who prefer physical media, it’s also available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VHS.

There’s also a remake (2017) directed by Kenneth Branagh and produced by Ridley Scott. Though not as well regarded as Lumet’s film, the newer version is likewise available on Prime, Vudu, and the usual assortment of physical media (including 4K!).

That’s it for now. Check out the trailer below, and I’ll meet you back here tomorrow for another recommendation.

Four days and counting!