Sunday, October 28, 2007

Book report: "Blackmailer"

George Axelrod isn't exactly a household name these days. And perhaps he wasn't exactly a household name in the 1950s and 1960s either, but that's when he was at the top of his form. For quite a while he was hot stuff in the entertainment world. And you would have been hot stuff, too, and deservedly so, if you had written "The Seven Year Itch" for Broadway and the screenplays for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the original film version of "The Manchurian Candidate." He also directed a couple of movies.

Axelrod's stock-in-trade was sophisticated satire, and though his work was mostly limited to plays and screenplays, in the early 1950s he tried his hand at a crime novel. "Blackmailer," recently republished by Hard Case Crime, was the result.

The book begins as a mysterious woman comes to the offices of Conrad, Sherman, Inc., Publishers, and says she has only copy of the book that literary lion Charles Anstruther (think Hemingway) finished before he died. (We later learn that Anstruther, like Hemingway, died of a gunshot wound -- perhaps a case of Life Later Imitating Art, or, perhaps, Art Taking a Lucky Guess.)

Our hero, Dick Sherman, has trouble understanding why the woman would bring such a literary bonanza to Conrad, Sherman, considering that the company mostly publishes textbooks and puzzle books.

And so begins what might be described as a literary version of "The Maltese Falcon," though the plot of "Blackmailer" is so dizzying, what with double and triple crosses and one or two developments that might make The Long Arm of Coincidence say "Uncle," that Dashiell Hammett's story by comparison seems as complex as a robust game of tic-tac-toe. Even as I was reading the story, I didn't always believe it, any more than I always believe a cabbie in a strange town who says he knows the quickest way from the airport to the hotel. But this didn't matter much to me, because despite this, "Blackmailer" was a fast, enjoyable ride.

The book is particularly notable for what we now call Attitude and its portrait of a bygone literary-entertainment scene.

As for Attitude, here is Sherman discussing one of his firm's top money makers, whom he unwillingly has to take to lunch:

"Lorraine Carstairs is the middle-aged alcoholic who is the author, or inventor, or whatever you call it, of the Triple-Cross-O-Gram. Triple Cross-O-Grams are a combination crossword puzzle and twenty-question game. I have never been able to solve one. I have never desired to be able to solve one."

This seems like a barely veiled reference to Elizabeth S. Kingsley and her Double Crostics, which were long a mainstay of the Saturday Review. I have no way of knowing whether Ms. Kingsley was actually a "middle-aged alcoholic," or whether she had a legal staff that was well-versed in libel. (Or whether Axelrod's original publishers also had good lawyers.)

Another character is either based on Truman Capote or on the person Capote would eventually become. (Another well-taken guess?)

Given Axelrod's background in playwriting and movies, it's not surprising that "Blackmailer" seems to want to be a movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if some filmmaker optioned it. It's too bad that Axelrod, who died in 2003, isn't around to direct it himself.

1 comment:

Dan Valenti said...

Nice piece on Perry Mason. I first remember seeing Raymond Burr in a Japanese sci-fi film, "Gorgo," I think. Then, when my parents would turn on the tube and watch "Perry Mason," I thought: "...but where's the guy in the rubber monster suit?" I was a kid, you see.

If I had to dedicate a work of art to Raymond Burr, I would write:
"To RB, the man who taught us how to inhale." The reference is to his way of absolutely gulping huge quantities of air in mid line.

Johnny once had a line about his "Ironsides" days, about the in-thing being detectives with handicaps: "George Pappard ("Banicheck") can't see, Raymond Burr ("Ironsides") can't walk, and David Janssen ("Harry-O") can't smile." Following the joke, Doc began playing "Tea for Two" and Johnny did a timestep.

Keep up the good work.
-- Dan Valenti