Helen Hayes: Will Live Forever

I was delighted to learn that Helen Hayes, arguably the finest American actress of the Twentieth Century, recently got honored by being pictured on the latest “anytime”U.S. postage stamp, now on sale nationwide for 44 cents and usable for first-class postage at any future rate from now on. Miss Hayes, dubbed “The First Lady of the American Theater,” died in 1993 at 92. She was the only performer to win the show business “grand slam” of Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy. 

She became the first stage actress to win an Oscar, for her role in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” in 1932. She won her second Oscar 38 years later for her supporting role in the 1970 film “Airport.” 

What particularly pleases me about this recent honor is that Helen Hayes appeared in my first “Snap Malek” Chicago historical mystery novel, “Three Strikes You’re Dead,” from Echelon Press. I set that story in 1938 and found in my research that Miss Hayes happened to be in Chicago that year in the long-running stage drama “Victoria Regina,” in which she portrayed QueenVictoria over a half-century span. Every evening, the actress aged fifty years over the duration of the performance. 

In my book, I had Malek, a Chicago Tribune police reporter, introduce himself to Miss Hayes in a restaurant, and the two of them ended up talking about the newspaper business, a natural topic since the actress was married to journalist Charles MacArthur, who with Ben Hecht co-wrote the famous newspaper stage play “The Front Page.” 

That fictional meeting between Malek and Helen Hayes remains my favorite scene in the book. And the great actress will be in my thoughts once more later this month, when I attend a revival performance of “The Front Page” at a theater inChicago.

A Sherlockian Mystery, Russian-Style!

“Where was Sherlock Holmes when we needed him?” A St. Petersburg, Russia, police officer spoke these unlikely words recently after a bizarre crime with eerie echoes of a 120-year-old Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Here’s what police surmise happened, according to London’s Daily Mail newspaper: Thieves paid a 74-year-old St. Petersburg woman to stay out of her flat for an extended period. While she was gone, they broke through her walls to get into the jewelry store next door. Although a burglar alarm went off twice after the break-in, security guards treated it as a false alarm because the doors remained locked and the windows untouched.

St. Petersburg police believe the thieves tricked the Russian woman in exactly the same way as a shopkeeper whose store adjoined a jewelry store in Conan Doyle’s story “The Red-Headed League,” which first appeared in the August 1891 issue of Strand Magazine and was one of 12 stories comprising “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” published the next year. In that story, Holmes apprehended the thieves.

The Russian burglars, apparently conversant with the Holmes canon, made off with hundreds of gold and silver valuables. They remain at large.

A Dramatically Short Career

When I talk about my Snap Malek Chicago historical mysteries to book clubs, schools, and service groups (e.g. Rotary), the real-life character in these novels I get asked most often about is Al Capone. I find this interesting, given that Capone’s rule of the Chicago crime syndicate was so brief.

Indeed, Capone’s fame is far out of proportion to his tenure as the Windy City’s mafia kingpin. He reigned over its underworld for barely six years before being sent to prison for tax evasion in 1931 at the age of 32. He never again was a major factor in organized crime.

In all, Capone spent more time behind bars then he did as the head of the Chicago syndicate. And his successor, Frank Nitti, although primarily a front man for Tony Accardo and Paul Ricca, led the local mob longer than Scarface Al did.

So what drew attention to Capone? He was flamboyant, colorful, and quotable. The newspapers ate up his act. He outlandishly suggested he was a modern-day “Robin Hood,” taking from the rich and giving to the poor. He wore bright colored dress shirts and was a highly visible figure around town, patronizing the best restaurants and getting the best seats to big-league baseball games. And Hollywood loved the Capone persona. More than a dozen actors portrayed him on film, including Rod Steiger, Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, and Robert DeNiro.

The man’s fast and loose living caught up with him, even in prison. Suffering from syphilis and with his mind deteriorating, Al Capone was paroled from the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz in 1939. He spent his last years in Florida, little more than a vegetable, and died in Miami Beach on Jan. 24, 1949, a week after his forty-eighth birthday.

Joe Gores: A Noir Master

I regret I never met mystery writer Joe Gores, who died at 79 in January 2011 in California. Gores, who wrote the kind of hard-boiled short stories and novels that harkened to mystery literature’s “golden age,” lived a life that itself was the stuff of fiction.

Although he was a college graduate, Gores also spent plenty of time experiencing a world far removed from cloistered academia. He worked as a logger in Alaska, an automobile repo man, a truck driver, the manager of a hot-pillow motel, a teacher at a boy’s school in Kenya, and a private investigator in San Francisco. All undoubtedly provided fodder for his spare, crackling prose and his taut, noir plots.

Although Gores won three Edgar Awards for his mystery writing, his last major work, “Spade & Archer” (2009) stands as my personal favorite. This prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 classic, “The Maltese Falcon,” faithfully captures Hammett’s gritty, lean style.

Hammett’s daughter had liked his work so much that she gave her blessings to “Spade & Archer,” the storyline of which ends at the moment “The Maltese Falcon” begins. (Personal note: In both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, reviewers of “Spade & Archer” were kind enough to also mention my continuation of the Nero Wolfe adventures after the death of Rex Stout.)

Gores arrived on the scene in the late ‘50s, when the era of pulp magazines such as “The Black Mask” was coming to a close. But he was very much a part of that tradition, which had its origins in the 1920s and ’30s, when Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Carroll John Daly and other classic crime novelists of the hard-boiled school were honing their craft. Joe Gores very much belongs in their ranks.

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