In Praise of John Nettles

Actor John Nettles

Actor John Nettles

If, after reading the headline, your reaction is “Who Is John Nettles?” you cannot call yourself a fan of television detectives, particularly the British version. In terms of longevity, Nettles is the reigning champion of TV detectives by a wide margin. For 13 seasons, he has portrayed Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby in the series “Midsomer Murders,” episodes of which are regularly telecast on Public Broadcasting stations throughout the U.S.

Midsomer Murders

Midsomer Murders

The series, adapted from the books of Caroline Graham (born 1931), is set in England’s fictitious Midsomer County, with most of the filming done in picturesque rural and small-town Buckinghamshire. Nettles portrays a calm, clear-eyed and happily married detective who remains unrattled as the deaths pile up all around him in the unlikely bucolic settings.

In his Barnaby role, Nettles appeared in 81 “Midsomer” episodes, far surpassing the late, great Jeremy Brett’s 41 episodes as Sherlock Holmes from 1984 to 1994. Nettles, 67, made his final Barnaby episodes earlier this year. During his long tenure as Barnaby, he had three different sergeants as his sidekicks. Jane Wymark played Barnaby’s wife, Joyce, in all 81 episodes, stoically putting up with him upsetting the family schedule by dashing off to a case in mid-meal or during a stage play in which their daughter is performing.

Although Nettles is departing, “Midsomer Murders” will continue. New episodes, filming this year, feature Neil Dudgeon as Detective John Barnaby, Tom’s cousin. It will be interesting to see how he is received by viewers.

The Good, the Bad, the Sequel

The recent announcement that the late Robert B. Parker’sSpenser” and “Jesse Stone” mysteries will live on under new authors is just the latest in a long line of series continuations. Mystery writer Ace Atkins is writing a Spenser novel for Spring 2012 publication, while Hollywood producer Michael Brandman will bring Jesse Stone back in a novel this September.

Series continuations under later authors have been both lauded and damned. As the one who extended the life of Rex’s Stout’s famed private eye Nero Wolfe with seven novels in the 1980s and ’90s, I got both praise and derision–praise from readers who were glad to have more tales of Wolfe and his loyal right-hand, Archie Goodwin, and derision from those who either lamented that “you haven’t got it right” or who felt fictional characters should be allowed to die with their creators.

Otto Penzler, longtime mystery publisher and bookstore owner, falls into that latter camp. Quoted in an April Wall Street Journal article about the Spenser continuations, Penzler said he has “a philosophical opposition to people picking up other writers’ series.”

In many instances, the estate of the creator approves a continuator. Such was the case with the new Spenser stories, which were approved by Parker’s widow, Joan. The estate of Margaret Mitchell has okayed multiple sequels to her iconic “Gone with the Wind.” Several writers including my friend Raymond Benson got the green-light from the estate of Ian Fleming to do more James Bond stories. And I received the blessing of the Rex Stout estate in my continuations. Interestingly, Parker himself also was a continuator, completing the unfinished Raymond Chandler manuscript of “Poodle Springs,” a Philip Marlowe story. He also wrote “Perchance to Dream,” a sequel to Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”

In another recent development, novelist Jamie Freveletti has been invited by the estate of the late Robert Ludlum to continue Ludlum’s “Covert One” series. So the beat goes on, and it is a good bet we have not seen the last of continuators rising up to carry on the adventures of fictional characters that have engendered and strong and fiercely loyal followings.

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.

Terror at the Fair (On Sale Now)

Terror at the Fair by Robert Goldsborough
A Snap Malek Mystery Book 5

It’s the summer of 1949 and Steve “Snap” Malek has been assigned by his editors to cover the Chicago Railroad Fair. For three months this sprawling and lavish event will draw visitors to the showcase on the city’s beautiful Lakefront. Malek, used to getting his headlines covering the gritty Police Headquarters, sees this as the first step in being put out to pasture. Deciding that a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, he accepts the assignment, grumbling all the while.

However, violence has a way of finding the intrepid Snap Malek, even in this least likely of locales. Striking indiscriminately, a killer bearing a grudge against railroads in general, threatens to shut down the highly publicized and well-attended national exposition with a series of bizarre murders.

Before this reign of terror ends, famed filmmaker Walt Disney enters the scene with a theory about the killer, and Malek himself, bloodied and wounded, becomes a target of the madman’s wrath.

Excerpt:

Prologue

He had laid the last of the iron bars in place across the rails, making sure their positioning would cause the ancient and relatively lightweight locomotive to derail and crash, taking with it the open-side excursion coaches crowded with fairgoers. He checked his watch again: twenty minutes until the next train came by, and it always ran on schedule.

This being the darkest stretch along the line, the lethal bars on the track wouldn’t be seen by some chance passerby, not that people walked in this remote area of the fairgrounds anyway.

His work done, he stepped back into a cluster of bushes and knelt to wait, feeling the bulge in his hip pocket. He felt comforted to have it there, although it seemed beyond the realm of possibility it would be needed. No, this would be simple and efficient, the final act in his crusade.

It is almost over now, Papa. Just a few more minutes…

He heard something–footsteps? No, probably just leaves on a tree along the tracks rustling in the breezes wafting off Lake Michigan on the August night. There they came again, louder this time. Definitely footsteps! Perhaps one of the janitorial crew. They seemed very good about picking up rubbish. Whoever it was would have moved on long before the train came along.

He saw the beam of light before he saw the figure. A silhouetted man carrying a flashlight walked slowly along the tracks, playing the light back and forth, back and forth, until its yellow halo rested upon the iron bars. The interloper with the flashlight squatted down to study the bars, then began picking them up and tossing them off the tracks.

He rose from his crouch in the bushes and wrapped his hand around the pistol in his jacket pocket. He walked toward the man, whom he now recognized, and called to him by name, pulling the weapon out. So now, one more must die.

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