Monday, September 10, 2007

Bill Shakespeare, sleuth / A question for readers

Like crime stories beyond number, Hamlet begins at night. Like fictional sleuths beyond counting, its protagonist sets a trap to snare a murderer ("The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.")

Hamlet, like Philip Marlowe, is prone to bitter jokes, and, like Lovejoy, Keller, Quiller and Parker, he has just one name. He goes undercover, in a sense, to impersonate a madman. And you can keep all your self-doubting Kurt Wallanders, Harry Holes or John Rebuses; Hamlet was there first.

Shakespeare has long inspired crime writers. Murder Most Foul is a line from Hamlet (Act I, Scene v, Line 27). And does the title of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand seem familiar? Macbeth says those words after slaying Duncan.

And now, dear readers, what have I missed? What other crime writers have taken titles and other cues from Shakespeare? I'll start you off: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon paraphrases Prospero in The Tempest when he calls the black bird "the stuff that dreams are made of." Now, help me build this list.

(image from http://www.leoyan.com/global-language.com/ENFOLDED/YOUNG/index.html)



© Peter Rozovsky 2007



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22 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

It's not crime, but Mary Stewart used "This Rough Magic" as the title of one of what I think was one of her best books. That's from Prospero's renunciation of his powers in Act 5 Scene 1, also from "The Tempest."

"But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book."

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Then there's Rex Stout, who took a cue from Antony's line "I've come to bury Caesar, not to praise him" in "Julius Caesar," Act III Scene 2 and titled one of his earliest books "Some Buried Caesar."

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

This Rough Magic, Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury -- one could eat up much bandwidth with such a list. It will be interesting see if, as I suspect may be the case, crime-fiction writers turn to the tragedies for inspiration more than to the comedies, the histories or the romances.

Then there's Hammett and the Tempest reference that I cited, so so much for that idea.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I wonder if Nero Wolfe would have admired Caesar's cunning or deplored him as a vulgar upstart for appealing to the people.

Or forget the "if ... would have." I've read some Rex Stout but not lots. Does he ever have Nero Wolfe express an opinon about Julius Caesar or Shakespeare?

September 10, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Agatha Christie was fond of borrowing titles from The Bard - 'By the Pricking of my Thumbs', 'Taken at the Flood' and, of course, 'The Mousetrap'...

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

And Sad Cypress as well, a quick search tells me. I should brush up my Christie.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

This is taking me well beyond crime fiction and into a far more entertaining waste of time than I had intended.

This site: http://www.barbarapaul.com/shake.html links to titles of works taken from Shakespeare. It lists 150 titles ... from the "To be, or not to be" speech alone. The titles from Hamlet take up five pages, including eleven books calls Words, Words, Words, one of them by an author named Babs.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger pamos1949 said...

One of Michael Innes' best is titled 'Hamlet, Revenge!' and revolves, as I recall, around an amateur production of the play. Ngaio Marsh went to Macbeth for 'Light Thickens'.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger book/daddy said...

Noel Coward was fond of pinching his titles from the Bard -- notably Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit.

But more to your topic: I'm surprised you didn't mention Theater of Blood, the 1973 horror/serial killer film with Vincent Price. Even its alternate title was Much Ado about Murder. In it, Price plays an over-the-hill tragedian who seems to be taking his revenge on his critics by killing them in the manner of famous murders from Shakespeare's plays, poisoning one through the ear (Hamlet's father), drowning one in a cask of wine (Duke of Clarence, Richard III). One would think the entire tradition of copping murderous titles from Shakespeare would have died an inglorious death from that film alone. Today, it's mostly a campfest except for the presence of Diana Rigg.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

In one of the Wolfe stories Archie spends a paragraph or two describing Wolfe's method of marking his place in his current book; which bookmark Wolfe uses indicates how highly he regards the book. I think Shakespeare merits the gold one, indicating most meritorius.

Wolfe removed Sir Thomas More from his shelves, concluding that More had framed Richard III. Stout namechecks Josephine Tey and Daughter of Time somewhere, but I'm not sure it was in the same story.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comments. Ngaio Marsh is a natural for the army of Shakespeare title-coppers, with her theatrical background. And I should make sure that Innes' book is on the list that I cited in the comment right before yours.

I have vague memories of Theater of Blood, or at least of its title. I did think briefly about what the authors and publishers I had in mind had borrowed from Shakespeare, and in no case was it anything as clumsily literal as Vincent Price's serial murders. But Shakespeare, that towering, timeless, even protean figure, is obviously strong enough to survive Vincent Price, as attested by this year's Dagger awards, which honored Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I like Nero Wolfe's quiet tribute to Shakespeare. And it's like Wolfe to stick up for Richard III. I wonder if the Richard III society was around when Rex Stout wrote the book or even if Stout was around for its founding.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

The UK branch of the Richard III society was formed in 1924. The American branch wasn't formed until 1961, at which point Stout had been publishing for nearly 30 years. He's not mentioned in its history, but anything's possible. If I were really a nerd, I'd go dig up my copy of John McAleer's biography, but I'm lazy.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps the American branch ought to make Nero Wolfe an honorary member. I visited the Tower a few years ago. If I recall correctly, our amiable beefeater guide left open the question of Richard's guilt in the death of the two young princes.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Grins. The crowd I was with in 1987 was too polite to ask any of those guards, and the ravens weren't talking.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Our beefeater brought it up. He made a point of emphasizing that the beefeaters are on active military duty. In that case, the U.K. army has some gifted actors and comedians. As I recall, our guy discussed the princes with the same air of amusement and mystery he used for the verifiable executions in the tower.

September 10, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

Winter of Our Discontent. It's no crime, but it's from Macbeth. I think I spotted at least four references from Macbeth when I was Polanski's film some ten years back, but the others escape me now.

Thomas Disch has a wonderful collection of essays of SF called DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF.

September 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Juri, did you see this link, which I posted a few days ago? http://www.barbarapaul.com/shake.html. It catalogues a massive number of titles taken from Shakespeare. There must ne thousands of them. The marvelously titled Disch book is on the list.

September 12, 2007  
Blogger Juri said...

Must look at that. I noticed the link, but didn't pursue it - I just don't see how people have the time to check all the links in the world! Does anyone do any actual work anymore?

September 13, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

"Does anyone do any actual work anymore?"

There is probably a link to that information somewhere.

September 13, 2007  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I was searching your blog looking for comments with the tags related to "titles" and "title changes" -- I knew you'd had them before -- as the book I'm reading now received a title change for the US market that also falls under the heading of "things that drive you nuts."

I realize this is ancient history by now, but just for the record, nowhere in the book "The Maltese Falcon" does Sam Spade say that the falcon is "the stuff that dreams are made of." Such is the power of that 1941 film. A number of lines do come straight from the novel, many of them late script changes Huston resorted to when the film did not seem to be going right, but not that one.

August 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't remember whether that line was in the book or not. I do know that it seems to be responsible for people thinking that the line from The Tempest is " ... the stuff that dreams are made of." But Shakespeare's line is "We are such stuff As dreams are made on."

August 05, 2009  

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