Murder, treachery for the ages

Ten crime and espionage novels by British, American, Belgian and Japanese authors published between 1928 and 1978 are in a new series from Penguin Random House, dressed in their signature vintage look with green-and-black-and-white paperback covers, the originals of which are now very collectable, probably quite expensive and, dare we say it, rather iconic.
13. August 2023 6:32

The titles in Penguin Modern Classics’ Crime and Espionage series are “Beast in the Shadows” by Edogawa Rampo (1928), “Journey into Fear” by Eric Ambler (1940), “In a Lonely Place” by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947), “The Franchise Affair“ by Josephine Tey (1948), “The Drowning Pool“ by Ross Macdonald (1950), “The Night of the Hunter“ by Davis Grubb (1953), “Maigret and the Headless Corpse“ by Georges Simenon (1955), “Call for the Dead“ by John le Carré (1961), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” by Chester Himes (1965) and “SS-GB” by Len Deighton (1978).

Each one looks sure to have an interesting story, whether it be the book, the author or the actual plot and action. Good art, in whichever form it is, lives on through the decades.

Edogawa Rampo, for instance, was the pseudonym of Taro Hirai (1894-1965), and according to our research he was “generally viewed as the greatest of all Japanese suspense and mystery authors… a prolific novelist and short story writer… much influenced by writers such as Conan Doyle, Chesterton and Wells”.

One crime fiction lover we consulted says “Beast in the Shadows” is assuredly pulp, in many ways like its American counterparts – full of twists and turns, action-packed and fast-paced. One striking difference is the eroticism, with sado-masochism central to Rampo’s  tale of obsession. The writing is described as highly sophisticated.

Amusingly, we learn that the Edogawa Rampo pseudonym is a Japanese transliteration of Edgar Allen Poe’s name, and further, turning to a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word transliteration, we find it defined as the act, process or result of writing letters or words using the corresponding characters of another alphabet or writing system. Live and learn, as they say.

One obituary of Eric Clifford Ambler, OBE (1909-1998) describes him as an English author of thrillers, in particular spy novels, who introduced a new realism to the genre. And “Journey into Fear” earns kudos as a “thrilling, intense, and masterfully plotted classic suspense tale from one of the founders of the genre”.

The book relates how, returning to his Istanbul hotel room after a late-night flirtation with a cabaret dancer, an English armaments engineer is surprised by an intruder with a gun. What follows is a nightmare of intrigue as the man makes his way home aboard an Italian freighter. Among the passengers are a couple of Nazi assassins intent on preventing his returning to England with plans for a Turkish defence system, the seductive dancer and her manager husband, and a number of surprising allies.

Ambler began his writing career in the early 1930s and quickly established a reputation as a thriller writer of remarkable depth and originality. He is often credited as the inventor of the modern political thriller, and fellow novelist John Le Carré called him “the source on which we all draw”.

“In a Lonely Place” is well known at The Budapest Times for the 1950 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame rather than for Dorothy B. Hughes’s book, but now we will be on a mission to read it. It appears that the film differs from the novel in several substantial ways. Mostly notably, in the film, despite being a violent man with a hot temper, airman Dix Steele is innocent of the murder he’s suspected of committing, and is sincere in his desire to be a successful screenwriter; in the novel, he is a misogynistic, sociopathic killer who claims to be a crime novel writer in order to sponge off of a wealthy uncle.

Isn’t that often the way in Hollywood, where stories are snapped up and then rewritten. And sorry if we forget our spoiler alerts at The Budapest Times. Still, readers can look forward to what is said to be a classic of golden age noir from American writer Hughes (actually Dorothy Belle Flanagan, 1904-1993). This effort is said to have a controlled elegance and a tension that is at once an early indictment of a truly toxic masculinity and a twisty page-turner with a surprisingly feminist resolution.

“The Franchise Affair” by Josephine Tey is another pseudonymous affair, Elizabeth Mackintosh of Scotland (1896-1952) appropriating her mother’s first name, Josephine, and the surname of an English grandmother, Tey. She wrote six mystery novels featuring Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant, and this is the third of them.

British director Alfred Hitchcock filmed her novel “A Shilling for Candles” (1936) as “Young and Innocent” in 1937 and “The Franchise Affair” itself was filmed in 1950. As further recommendation for this author, her “Brat Farrar” was filmed as “Paranoiac” in 1963 and a number of her works have been dramatised for radio.

“The Franchise Affair” follows the investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a local young woman. In 1990, the UK Crime Writers’ Association named it one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time.

“The Drowning Pool“ by American-Canadian writer Ross Macdonald is the second novel in the series featuring Lew Archer, a private detective working in Southern California. Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, the character appeared in 18 novels and a handful of shorter works as well as several film and television adaptations.

According to one analysis, Initially Archer was similar to (if not completely a derivative of) Philip Marlowe, the pioneering sleuth created by Raymond Chandler in the 1930s. However, Macdonald eventually broke from that mold, though some similarities remained. Archer’s principal difference is that he is much more openly sensitive and empathetic than the tough Marlowe.

He also serves a different function from Marlowe. While Chandler’s books were primarily studies of Marlowe’s character and code of honour, Macdonald used Archer as a lens to explore the relationships of the other characters. in “The Drowning Pool” Archer investigates threatening letters but the case quickly devolves to murder.

It all sounds fascinating stuff for the crime and cloak-and-dagger buff. A second Budapest Times article will take a look at the other five titles in the series.

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