THE NINE TAILORS (1934)

The moment I realized Dorothy L. Sayers’ THE NINE TAILORS was a special sort of murder mystery novel was when I encountered one passage and thought: “Wow, she’s really leaning hard on the details of this old church’s bells.” Ten pages later: “Cripes, I never knew that I wanted to know this much about bell-ringing!”

Sayers is best-known for her murder mysteries, specifically her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, featuring a rich, compassionate, gregarious but astute man who often finds himself surrounded by death. GAUDY NIGHT (the tenth Wimsey story, published in 1935, one a year after THE NINE TAILORS) is perhaps her best-known, but sadly, nowadays unless you’re attending an Edgar Awards afterparty, you’re probably unlikely to hear her name or accidentally stumble over a visual adaptation of any of her novels.

This is a shame — and something The Dorothy L. Sayers Society is trying to rectify — because, as THE NINE TAILORS exemplifies, she’s exceptional at weaving a engaging world, one dense with intriguing and idiosyncratic individuals, where actions are richly detailed, and each work is ornately penned to soothe even the most high-minded snob. In her hands, the murder contained in THE NINE TAILORS almost fades away as we’re drawn into this small town and its denizens.

In other words: THE NINE TAILORS is the complete package. It’s thrilling, it has depth, it goes unfathomably deep into the world of bell-ringing in ways that manage to be highly entertaining, and it sticks the landing in an amazingly satisfying way. It’s an absolute classic, one that should certainly not be overlooked by any mystery fan.

Read here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.512291

SEARCH PARTY (2016-2021)

(HBO MAX/hoopla) SEARCH PARTY would have been a memorable cult TV show even if it were a one season-and-done and, while I was a bit gobsmacked to see that it was renewed not twice, not three times, but four! — I had no idea how this show could sustain itself for a second season, much less five — it’s always had a very singular dry, but confident and clever, comedic voice.

The first season introduces us to a group of self-centered, off-putting millennials tearing themselves away from their guac-and-toast brunch to solve the mystery of a missing acquaintance they barely know, and matters go amazingly awry.

I can’t quite describe the following seasons without diving into spoilers regarding the end of the first season, but each season tackles a different sort of genre: the second turns into a crime thriller, the third a legal procedural, the fourth centers around a kidnapping, and the fifth jumps into the a cultish future before going full horror.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind as to how all that works without it becoming some sort of Ryan Murphy-ish anthology series, I don’t blame you. On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers and, in reality, it’s a high-wire balancing act without a net that they manage to walk without barely a wobble.

It’s the rare show that gets to have its cake and eat it too: the actors (including Alia Shawkat as Dory, the propulsive element of the group) imbue the characters with a certain quizzical ennui that is irrestable, so you both love and hate them. You get to see them reckon with their selfish attitudes, but also empathize with them. Add to that some whipsmart dialogue, vibrant cinematography, a haunting electro score, and a litany of fantastic cameos from actors you’d never expect to see on a TBS show* (including Michaela Watkins, Ann Dowd, and one of Louie Anderson’s final performances which, unsurprisingly, is amazing), and you have an idiosyncratic show for the ages (or at least for ages 25-40).

For those brave enough to endure a trailer for the first two seasons (and the second season spoilers are very vague):

  • It’s worth noting that the last two seasons were HBO MAX-exclusives.

THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (1962)

As noted in my ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER post, in 2021 I completed a seven-year-long endeavor to read every Poirot novel. Why? I wanted to scrutinize how Christie adjusted Poirot and his scenarios to adapt to the passage of time, given that the initial Poirot novel — THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES — was first published in 1920, and the last-penned novel — ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER — was published in 1972. A single author continuing the journey of a character explicitly created to examine human nature, over the span of fifty years, is a curious thing indeed.

However, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was not my first Christie book; that would be the second Miss Marple book THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, which I picked up on a whim while in London, several months prior to reading my first Poirot novel.

While I haven’t found the need to burn through all of Christie’s Marple novels, I became intensely curious about THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (CRACK’D from here on out), as it features Marple diving into the world of Hollywood, specifically the world of acting, when the acclaimed-but-aging actress Marina Gregg moves into Gossington Hall*. While throwing a lavish introductory party, one of the locals ends up being poisoned, and Scotland Yard presumes that the murder was misplaced, that Marina was the actual target, and the mystery is then investigated.

While CRACK’D takes place in the early sixties, its reliance on the Hollywood of old, and Christie’s demeanor and approach makes it feel more like a post WWII mystery novel, even down to the scandal trades that she notes (CONFIDENTIAL and the like) makes the tale feel aged and artificial, as if it’s something Marple is regaling a relative with as opposed to living in the moment. In other words, it’s not one of Christie’s finest moments.

There’s also the fact that the mystery is nakedly cribbed from real-life events. Spoilers follow, so reader beware.

CRACK’D is essentially the story of Gene Tierney, perhaps best known for the enigmatic film noir adaptation of LAURA. Tierney was quite the starlet during the 40s, was the model for Mariana Gregg, and whose child was afflicted due to being in close proximity to someone inflicted with German Measles. If you know that fact going in, the mystery is quite straight-forward. Whether it was common knowledge in the early 60s is questionable, but given the fact that I knew it going in, it cast a bit of a pall over the story, especially since Marple barely bookends the story, leaving the heavy-lifting to Detective-Inspector Craddock.

Nonetheless, it’s an eminently brisk read, one worth your time if you’re interested in the inside baseball of 40s Hollywood, but if you aren’t, and aren’t a fan of Miss Marple? Feel free to return to the library.

  • Gossington Hall was where the titular body in the library was found in THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, bringing my Christie journey full-circle.

ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (2021+)

What could have been a lazy riff on the self-absorption of modern true crime podcasts became something far more interesting, bolstered by some of the best performances by Steve Martin and Martin Short in years. Also, as someone who constantly extolls the use of silence in visual works, I was gobsmacked by the seventh ep of season one, ‘The Boy from 6B’. Additionally, Selena Gomez is a triumph who constantly overshadows both Martins.

It’s a legitimately thrillingly suspenseful tale that, honestly? Didn’t need to be.

COLUMBO: The Most Crucial Game (1972, S02E03)

(peacock/tubi/VOD) Gutted to hear that the world has lost Dean Stockwell. While he was in two COLUMBO episodes, my favorite of his is THE MOST CRUCIAL GAME. Dean Stockwell plays Eric Wagner, a hedonistic playboy who owns a Los Angeles football team who is murdered by the team’s manager Paul Hanlon (classic COLUMBO villain Robert Culp).

For the roughly ten minutes Stockwell is on-screen, he’s hilariously languid, lazy, high and hungover, and it’s the highlight of the episode — which is saying a lot considering how brilliant the interplay between Culp and Peter Falk always is. It’s not quite what I’d label as a classic episode of COLUMBO, but it’s an extremely enjoyable 75 minutes and, thanks to director Jeremy Kagan — perhaps best known for helming THE CHOSEN (1981) — features some of the surprisingly experimental camerawork and editing that the early COLUMBO eps are known for. You’ll be missed, Dean.

CURIOUS TOYS (2019)

I discovered the novel CURIOUS TOYS via a ‘most exciting upcoming horror novels in 2019’ post and was immediately gripped by the fact that it took place in 1915 Chicago and featured carnival workers. Buy me a ticket for that ride!

Upon reading it, it brought back memories of Lauren Beukes’ THE SHINING GIRLS (finally being realized as an Apple TV+ mini-series after many setbacks, under the title SHINING GIRLS). Both take place in old Chicago, both feature a predatory serial killer who kills young girls/women, and both have far more to say about women living in Chicago than to be victims, and both are well-worth your time.

(That said, CURIOUS TOYS isn’t nearly as high-concept as THE SHINING GIRLS, but to explain why would wade into spoiler territory, and I’ve digressed enough.)

CURIOUS TOYS starts off in Little Hell, a.k.a. Little Italy, a section of Chicago mostly ruled by the ‘Black Hand’ mafia. If you’ve seen CANDYMAN (the original — I can’t vouch for the latest as I have yet to see it) then you’ve seen the locale of Little Hell, as the Cabrini-Green projects were built there. If you’re wondering, Little Hell was named that because of the monstrous industrial factory there that lit up the horizon like a nightmare, and was often used by the Black Hand to incinerate bodies.

14-year-old Pin is a young, headstrong, burgeoning but confused queer girl, moved from Little Hell to live in a shack on the Riverview Park carnival, passing the summer until Pin can enrole in high school. Her stern, young mother has wrangled a job as a fortune teller, and dresses Pin as a boy ‘just until it’s safe.’ Pin does odd jobs for the ‘She-Male’ carnival performer Max (barkers declare him as ‘half-man/half-woman’), mostly delivering drugs to Chicago’s nascent film production studios, including screenwriter Lionel who works at Essanay Studios, which briefly produced many of Chaplin’s early films.

One day, Pin witnesses a girl a few years younger than her jump in a boat for the ‘Hell Gate’ water ride with an older man. She sees the man return solo, and she investigates the ride and finds the dead girl’s body.

What follows is a trifurcated detective fiction story, featuring real Chicagoan outsider artist Henry Darger — who has tasked himself with overseeing the girls in Riverview Park — and ex-detective, current Riverview Park muscle Francis Bacon (no relation to the artist), and Pin trying to track down this killer of girls.

Despite the fact that author Elizabeth Hand lives primarily in Maine and London, this is a surprisingly in-depth historical detective fiction novel that does right by Chicago. I’m familiar with the Riverview Park because of the old Riverview Tavern that was located by Roscoe & Damen. The Riverview Tavern not only had great burgers, but they also had a ton of Riverview Park memorabilia artfully placed around the significantly sized pub. (Sadly, they closed a few years ago. Hopefully they found a good home for the memorabilia.) While the Riverview Park was centrally located at Roscoe & Western, it took up a surprisingly large area of northern Chicago while it was active, until it closed in the mid 1960s.

As you may have guessed by some of the quoted terminology used above, some elements of this story may be problematic. I can’t go into most of them without delving into spoilers, but I believe Elizabeth Hand does attempt to contextualize them, but I feel the need to note it. (I’m not the only one to question this: if you aren’t afraid of spoilers, see https://www.npr.org/2019/10/20/771315664/curious-toys-gets-itself-into-unnecessary-trouble )

That aside — and that’s a pretty big unspoken matter to set aside but, chances are, if you’re reading this and would be upset by it, you know what I’m talking about — it’s an exacting, thrillingly, plotted tale about the city I hold dear, and the city I love to learn about, and I especially appreciated the epilogue, but I wish the author had handled the crux of the book differently.

If you’d like to know more: Chicagoan mystery novelist Lori Rader-Day (UNDER A DARK SKY, -also- well-worth your time, and the author of the upcoming DEATH AT GREENWAY) interviewed her during the CURIOUS TOYS press tour.

DREAM GIRL (2021)

Reading Laura Lippman’s DREAM GIRL after NIGHTSHADE was a real treat. Both novels are about two successful creatives who believe they’ve lived their lives in justifiable ways, but are often lying to themselves.

Whereas NIGHTSHADE was a suspenseful character drama about an acclaimed artist, DREAM GIRL is a psychological thriller about an acclaimed writer. Gerry Anderson is a successful novelist whose breadwinning accomplishment was that wrote an evocative LOLITA-esque story which, despite pre-dating 9/11, also managed to convey the cultural feelings of a post-9/11 world. It was enormously successful, but he’s constantly hounded about exactly who the titular ‘Dream Girl’, Aubrey, is based on. Gerry consistently replies that she is a complete work of fiction, not based on anyone.

Gerry’s moved from New York City to Baltimore to be with his dying mother but, a few days after he closes on a high-rise apartment, she dies. He takes a tumble down his newly acquired floating staircase which leaves him bedridden and at the mercy of his new assistant Victoria, and his night nurse Aileen. Shortly after, he starts receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be Aubrey, and he starts to wonder if he’s losing touch with reality.

Lippman’s probably best known for her Tess Monaghan detective fiction series, about an ex-Baltimore newspaper journalist turned private detective, but she’s become increasingly known for her one-off novels, such as WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and LADY IN THE LAKE, which are far darker and more self-indulgent. DREAM GIRL definitely fits that mold, as it’s peppered with all sorts of references to old-school noirs and detective fiction, novels like THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, references to her friend and author Megan Abbott (who penned my favorite neo-noir novel QUEENPIN), so many riffs on classic Hollywood and horror films, and even a quick moment with Tess Monaghan herself. In other words, it was tailor-made for me, but there’s also a lot to appreciate about the novel from a structural standpoint. Lippman’s exceptional at setting everything up so that, right before the reveals come, the curtains fall from your eyes, and you can’t help but appreciate the breadcrumbs she’s strewn through the prior pages.

It’s a gripping work, slightly bogged down by the fact that, if you know the works she namedrops, she telegraphs how this will play out. That said, the book has a few more surprises once you get to that point, so you can forgive her for that, and Gerry is an intriguing enough character study to set aside the suspense story itself.

http://www.lauralippman.net/dream-girl

THE SINNER: Season One (2017)

(Netflix/VOD) I watch more horror films than the average filmgoer, and I read a fair number of thrillers and murder mysteries, but I’m rarely disturbed by them. Call it desensitization or practiced separation, but all too often I see it as an academic matter.

THE SINNER S1 fucked me up. It’s a nasty, heartbreaking story but, more than anything else, it’s an extraordinarily cruel tale of abuse, one that I can rarely verbally discuss without finding a bit of a hitch into my breath.

THE SINNER S1 is about a woman, Cora (Jessica Biel), who goes to the beach with her husband and toddler, who then kills a man kissing a woman in broad daylight, amongst a number of witnesses. Cora is arrested, confesses to the killing, and Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) gets assigned to the case and he becomes obsessed with deducing exactly why she killed this man.

The first season of the show is based on the 1999 novel of the same name, written by Petra Hammesfahr, widely considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith. (I disagree with that comparison because, for better or for worse, there will never be another Patricia Highsmith.) While the show hews relatively closely to the book, it does drop some of the darker and stranger elements* while also modernizing the material, tweaking the locale, and changing one noteworthy song.

I won’t go into the hows or whys, but it cuts to the quick of trauma in a way that made me very uncomfortable, but can’t help but extoll. Once I finished the final episode, I immediately started rewatching it, not to see how the pieces added up, but to examine how they pieced Cora’s character together. It’s a surprisingly controlled effort from first-time show runner Derek Simonds, one to be applauded.

If you’d like to read more about it, I highly suggest Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece regarding the first season.

The following second and third seasons are completely separate cases and allegedly, apart from Detective Ambrose and his private life, have nothing to do with the first season or the novel. (I have not seen them, so I can’t say for sure.) A fourth season is in the works.

  • Yes, the book is quite a bit darker than the series. I read the novel a good year or so after watching it, so I’d forgotten what quite what the show excised, but it was probably for the best. For a list of differences, check out the following spoiler-filled article: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/the-sinner-book-differences-incest-murder-nazi-abortion-orgy-usa-network-1201878805/

** Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zg8-AbXqv4M

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (2021)

(Netflix) I’m not going to say that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is good, and I’m definitely going to ignore the author of the source material — I haven’t read the original novel and have no plans to do so, but if you need some backstory, here you go: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/a-suspense-novelists-trail-of-deceptions — and I can certainly see why Tracy Letts was drawn to it. If you’ve seen (previously recommended) BUG, you know how entranced he is by writing about Hitchcockian women, plus it allowed him to indulge his love for classic Hollywood films. (The film runs through the gamut of Hitchcock’s many suspense films and thrillers, but especially the previously recommended THE LODGER and, naturally, REAR WINDOW.)

Allegedly, it got away from him, but it does seem like the film started off with good intent. While the Brooklyn townhouse seems wildly unrealistic as an urban space, I can’t help but marvel at the use of color, space, and general production design. The cast is tremendous, and it’s well-paced, at least until the final act.

Again, I don’t want to oversell this film. Letts has gone on the record saying that adapting it was an extremely unpleasant experience due to the litany of studio notes, and then there were endless rewrites and then reshoots, and I can’t wait for the inevitable oral history of the production that’ll come about in five years or so. That said, if you can overlook the reveal, ending, and epilogue, it’s far more interesting than say, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.

FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR (1988/2021)

When the original FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR was released in 1988 (solely in Japan for the Famicom add-on Family Computer Disk System) it was deemed an adventure game, but nowadays this HD remaster for the Switch would almost certainly be labeled a ‘visual novel’, even though the HUD does feel quite a bit like a verb-based LucasArts SCUMM interface. (I’ll define the difference as: adventure games rely on puzzles to break up the narrative storytelling. Visual novels lack puzzle-based obstructions, relying on narrative-based ones, although THE MISSING HEIR does have one very weak puzzle that reminds me of Sierra’s MANHUNTER which, if you’ve ever played it, should make you wince.)

THE MISSING HEIR, written by Yoshio Sakamoto — also responsible for many METROID games, as well as KID ICARUS and WARIOWARE — features a bit of interactive detective fiction, along with a lot of soap opera: the head of a family business has died, and the heir cannot be found. An extremely young detective — around the age of 17 — has been brought in to investigate, at the request of a long-lasting butler of the Ayashiro family.

Unfortunately, the young detective — who, as in the style of the times, you named yourself — has taken a tumble and has amnesia, and essentially has to restart his investigation into the Ayashiro family.

I don’t want to give too much away about the tale so, apart from a few frustrating interface facets — there are times where you have to select certain menu options five or six times before a character will open up (rule of thirds, folks) — it’s a enjoyable but slight murder mystery, one of which is completely in my wheelhouse, and I’m looking forward to playing the HD remaster of the prequel, THE GIRL WHO STANDS BEHIND.