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Showing posts from October, 2009

Chatting with the Dead, A Steampunk Haunted House, the Village Halloween Parade and Other Events For Halloween Week in New York

From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century many prominent scholars and writers professed a faith in spiritualism, the idea that one could communicate with departed spirits through a gifted "medium." Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was an early believer. So, too, were evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, New York physician John Franklin Gray and American psychologist William James. Many followers came from the middle and upper-middle classes, holding seances in their living rooms, while many popular mediums lectured in concert halls to sell-out audiences. While spiritualism had its heyday in the Guilded Age, clairvoyants are still popular, showing up for appearances on Larry King and such. Even one fictional medium, a typical suburban mom, is assigned to an Assistant District Attorney's office in a popular TV drama. For those seeking answers for questions about life after death, the appeal of spiritualism is understandable,…

E. L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley, the sweet, funny and often heartbreaking novel by E. L. Doctorow, is inspired by the true story of the famous Collyer Brothers, Homer & Langley, reclusive siblings shuttered behind the doors of their Fifth Avenue mansion in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in the early decades of the twentieth century. The shocking discovery of their deaths in March 1947, the police finding their bodies amidst an extraordinary amount of useless hoarded debris and clutter, raised profound questions about the lives of these two particularly eccentric brothers. The inventory of the clutter alone raised questions about the motive and purpose for the clutter - dozens of pianos of every type (Homer is the musician), a Model T Ford, their doctor father's jars of human specimen parts, tens of thousands of newspapers stacked from floor to ceiling, eight feral cats, sewing machine parts, a baby carriage and more. By imagining their story through the eyes of Homer, the blind brot…

"I love this dirty town": J.J. Hunsecker and the New York of Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is one of the great and final dramatic noir films set and filmed in an alluringly dangerous New York. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick with a brilliant script by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, the 1957 classic, shot in glorious black and white by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, is a dark tone poem about the moral hazards accompanying the nearsighted pursuit of power, fame and fortune.

At center stage of the drama is the relationship between two cold warriors of smears and innuendo, the powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, and Sidney Falco, a sycophantic press agent, played by Tony Curtis. The pulsing neon lights of Broadway, the Theatre District and Times Square provide the unnatural illuminations for their corrupt and bereft power plays. The city brings out the rawest of motivations - sex, power, and control, all wrapped in the tinsel of blackmail and full-length mink coats. 

Everyone in town fears J.J. Hunsecker, …

Gumshoes: A Partial Lineup of New York Detectives in American Crime Fiction

The word gumshoe can be used as an intransitive verb, meaning to work as a detective, but more commonly gumshoe refers to the investigators themselves. While the etymology is a little murky, the term most likely refers to the new soft-soled gum that replaced leather on some shoes in the late 19th century. The soft rubber shoes, precursors to sneakers, sounded quiet on the pavement, allowing the wearer to sneak (get it?) around. In popular parlance, gumshoes may have originally referred to the perp, like a sneaky thief. By the early 20th century, gumshoes in literature mainly referred to detectives. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first instance to A. H. Lewis's 1906 Confessions of a detective, a feisty little book full of New York street slang. Here, the word characterizes both a sneaky criminal - "One of Red Bob's gang had crept upon me, gumshoe fashion, and dealt me a blow with a sandbag" (33) and a detective - "Cull, you're d'gum-shoe guy I…

A Month of New York Mysteries, Ghosts, Detectives, Gothic Tales and Noir

Thursday afternoon, the first real chilly day of the season with strong west winds, I visited two bookstores that specialize in mysteries. The chilly day, coupled with the passing of dark clouds, signaled the advent of many beloved autumn pleasures - sweaters, apple and pumpkin pies, hearty soups, and cozy bookstores. In October the residents of the island turn inward, leaving the sunny shoreline of Manhattan for comfortable places indoors. So, I was in one of those autumn moods, gathering stories of the mysterious, ghostly or noir variety to bring home and place next to a comfortable chair inside. In sync with the season, the gathering felt like a literary harvest.

Taking the train to the W. 4th. St. station, flipping through an anthology of classic mystery stories, I noticed three NYPD officers standing in my subway car. They looked nonchalant, occasionally yawning and staring at their feet, but of late New Yorkers have been asked to be alert to yet another security threat. I knew …