Thursday, June 18, 2020

"Dead Time" by Eleanor Taylor Bland (1992)

Originally published in 1992, Dead Time is the debut novel of Eleanor Taylor Bland, and the first in her Marti MacAlister series. MacAlister is a police detective and recently widowed mother of two (daughter Joanna and son Theo) who has relocated from Chicago to Lincoln Prairie, IL, a small city of 90,000 (and modeled after Waukegan, IL where Bland lived). As a black woman on the police force, MacAlister battles racism and sexism at work and in the community as she struggles to keep the peace in her town as well as keep her still-grieving family together.

Bland's book was a literary milestone. According to Frankie Y. Bailey's African American Mystery Writers: A Historical and Thematic Study, it marked “the first Black female police detective in a series by an African American mystery writer.” Publisher's Weekly called it “An auspicious debut.” Unfortunately, Dead Time is currently out of print, as is much of the work of this critically-acclaimed novelist, but used copies can be found online.

Dead Time begins with the murder of a woman in her mid-30s at the Cramer, a low-rent hotel. The victim, Lauretta Dorsey, was found dressed in vintage clothing listening to a Victrola. Dorsey was a former Navy physical therapist technician who was diagnosed with schizophrenia before being discharged. Since then, she had led a reclusive life at the Cramer, lonely after the death of her fiancé, Nelson, and shunned by her family because of her mental illness and that she was white and her fiancé had been black. While MacAlister and her partner, Vik, bring in suspects and question family and friends, two orphan children who may have witnessed the crime continue to elude them. But as the murders continue, MacAlister realizes the kids might be the next victims.

Dead Time is a deftly-written police procedural with a chilly, wintry Midwestern atmosphere, and the Lincoln Prairie setting has both a sense of urban desolation and decay as well as the cozy and at times constricting familiarity of a small city. Bland is an exquisite writer, combining prose that is sharp and to the point—not a word is wasted on unnecessary detail or digressions—with subtler stylistic nuances that quietly reveal moments of great thoughtfulness, despair, and humanity. When MacAlister is on the job, Bland displays an Ed McBain-like eye for professionalism and operation, using sentences that are short and observations that are like bullet-points; and when MacAlister is at home, Bland’s language becomes more languid, giving way to more intimate descriptions of her children as well as more pensive reflections. Bland also manages to be both critical of law enforcement and child services and their deficiencies but also sympathetic to the people like MacAlister in those institutions who are trying to create meaningful change from within, and the pressure they face from their own organizations as well as from the public. It’s both funny and telling that, while chasing a suspect, MacAlister is more scared of her own colleague holding a gun than she is of apprehending an armed suspect. Twenty-eight years after its initial publication, Dead Time’s social insights into race and gender in the United States are still relevant.

Bland, who passed away in 2010 from Gardner's syndrome, has been honored by Sisters in Crime with an award named after her. “The Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award is an annual grant of $2,000 for an emerging writer of color. This grant is intended to support the recipient in crime fiction writing and career development activities. The grantee may choose to use the grant for activities that include workshops, seminars, conferences, and retreats, online courses, and research activities required for completion of the work. An unpublished writer is preferred, however publication of several pieces of short fiction and/or up to two self-published or traditionally published books will not disqualify an applicant.” For more information, please visit Sisters in Crime.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

"The Maltese Falcon" (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (Roy del Ruth, 1931): Two years after it was first serialized in the pulp pages of Black Mask, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon hit the big screen in this first of three adaptations. Ricardo Cortez stars as Private Eye Sam Spade, whose inquiry into the disappearance of Ruth Wonderly’s (Bebe Daniels) missing sister quickly lands him in a heap of trouble. The cops want to nab Spade for his partner’s murder, Wonderly’s trying to play him for a sap, and a crew of double-dealers are nipping at his heels, all because of some mysterious icon of a black bird. Director Roy Del Ruth emphasizes the libidinous and scandalous pleasures of Hammett’s original story. Unlike the later and more famous performance by Humphrey Bogart, Ricardo Cortez plays Spade like a playboy. With his slicked back hair and a licentious smile, it is clear that this Spade is more interested in the fringe benefits of the fleshy kind than the Falcon. Most strikingly, Cortez’s spade is not homophobic (as in the original text), and he seems to take great pleasure in miming bondage while Joel Cairo searches for the treasure. In keeping with the free-wheeling Pre-Code spirit, Cortez’s Spade scorns the cops, mocks his clients, sleeps with his partner’s wife, strip-searches the ladies, cops every potential feel, and even at the end takes this whole falcon shebang—murder and all—with a grain of salt.

(Originally published July 21, 2011 at Mubi.)

"The Mind Reader" (1933)

That scoundrel-among-scoundrels Warren William is at his scheming best in The Mind Reader. William plays Chandler, a sideshow swindler who thinks he’s found the perfect racket. Wrapping a towel around his head, he becomes "Chandra the Great." Along with cohort Frank Franklin (Allen Jenkins, one of pre-Codes most endearingly shady character actors), Chandra aims to leave the fairgrounds far behind and conquer high society…as long as an honest woman (Constance Cummings) doesn't un-corrupt him first. Co-writer Wilson Mizner's colorful past (at various times a Klondike prospector, fight manager, robber, gambler, and general con-about-town) spices up the script with the right blend of tall-tale exaggeration and first-hand believability. Director Roy Del Ruth delivers what is arguably his finest picture. Certainly it is his most stylish, with bold lighting designs and copious canted camera angles. But it is Del Ruth's characteristically humanist touch and understanding for the underdog (no matter how crooked) that ultimately distinguishes this picture. Warren William’s "Chandra" stands among the most sympathetic, lovable and fully realized of the pre-Code charlatans.

(Originally published July 11, 2011 at Mubi)

Available on DVD in Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 5 from Warner Archive.

"Employees' Entrance" (1933)

In the grand spectrum of Department Store Cinema, Employees' Entrance (1933) may be less visually fanciful than Julien Duvivier's nightmare of modernity, Au bonheur des dames (1930), but it is undoubtedly the funnier and more charming of the two. That isn't to deny Employees' Entrance its serious side. Director Roy Del Ruth, the unsung hero of pre-Code Warner Brothers, was a master at slipping in socially apt observations in the midst of speedy narratives brimming with snappy dialogue and good-natured humor. Here, Warren William plays Kurt Anderson, a ruthless department store manager who refuses to entrench in the face of the Depression. But after ousting the old-timers and daring to sell men’s undergarments to women customers, Anderson has created a long list of enemies, including the wrath of his rivals, the board of directors, and his contemptuous assistant (Wallace Ford) and his wife (Loretta Young). Del Ruth’s uncompromising temperament balances Williams’ nastiness with Ford and Young’s rom-com roller coaster. In between, careers are crushed, men throw themselves out of windows, and lovers are united. Del Ruth knew that his audiences came to theaters wanting entertainment, and he gave it to them—but he never forgot the real world pressures they faced in their own lives, and that sensitivity adds to the credibility of his characters and narratives.

(Originally published July 11, 2011 at Mubi)


Available on DVD in Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 7 from Warner Archives.