Saturday, July 18, 2009

John Buchan on disappearances and returns

The introduction to this 2008 Penguin Classics collection of John Buchan's stories (You may know Buchan as author of The Thirty-Nine Steps) offers some incisive thoughts on disappearances and returns. Here's the opening of Buchan's story "The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn":
"Any disappearance is a romantic thing, especially if it be unexpected and inexplicable. To vanish from the common world and leave no trace, and to return with the same suddenness and mystery, satisfies the eternal human sense of wonder."
Buchan wrote adventure and espionage stories, but the themes of disappearance and return have attracted spinners of all kinds of stories almost forever, crime novelists among them. (Brian McGilloway's novel Gallows Lane begins with a return, as does Håkan Nesser's The Return, to cite two recent examples.) It's a hell of a way to begin a story, fraught with mystery, wonder, and—

But you tell me: What's the appeal of tales of disappearance and return? And what are your favorite such tales?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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56 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Carol O'Connell's Bone by Bone looks interesting. A fifteen year old disappears in the woods and decades later his bones start showing up on his family's doorstep.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't have returns piece by piece in mind, but I could make an exception for this. Thanks.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Forget the religious aspects and Aimee Semple McPherson's would still have fascinated, I think. And I want world rights to the story if Judge Crater ever turns up!

The situation is rife with the classic journalism questions: Who, What, When, Where and Why, particularly the latter two. Almost irresistible.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Love the quote from the Buchan story ;it might even give me inspiration for my next plot...Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey plays nicely with the idea of disappearance and return. And of course the return of Sherlock from the Reichenbach Falls is unforgettable.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if our knowledge of the circumstances of Holmes' return robs the story of some of its romance and mystery. At least it might for the cynical among us.

That Buchan quote could inspire any number of plots. I'd read two of the Hannay novels and had always thought of Buchan as an adventure writer, but that quote reveals a keen appreciation for romance and mystery as well. I'll pin it up on my mental bulletin board.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I now know more about her than I did a few minutes ago. That story would have great resonance in the United States today, to say the least. Claiming to have walked the desert, claiming to have walked the Appalachian Trail ...

That would make a good crime story or a good Saturday Night Live sketch.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

Agatha Christie has a book TAKEN AT THE FLOOD which has a return-based-plot. The World Wars and the consequent upheaval gave a lot of scope for such plots, and Christie exploited this post-war setting here.

And Hercule Poirot stages his own disappearance and return in the patchily written THE BIG FOUR, though it is not one of Christie's better efforts.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Christie herself had a celebrated disappearance and return, about which there has been much speculation. Does that episode predate the stories you mention?

Buchan was famously involved in World War I as a correspondent and intelligence and propaganda officers, and his most celebrated stories take place amid war. I shall have to see if his stories of disappearance and return grew out of his war experience.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Manning Coles (a pseudonym for two neighbors) wrote several Tommy Hambledon spy novels, one of which involved Hambledon disappearing from England during WW 1 and reappearing at the beginning of WW 2 (and I'm not sayin' any more, because I'd spoil them. If anyone's interested, the Wikipedia entry has the details). Suffice to say they're funny, they're good, and they've always got an element of surprise.

One of the writing neighbors worked for MI5 through the 1950s.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like this detail from the Wikipedia entry: " ... during school vacations, a spy in Germany for the Foreign Office." I didn't read much more than that, but I think I did see enough to create a spoiler. Still, the books look like fun, so thanks.

July 18, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Although it's not usually considered a mystery, The Return of Martin Guerre is almost the archetype of this form. For those who don't know it, it was based on a famous French court case about the true identity of a returning husband to his rural village. I saw the movie with the great Gerard Depardieu, and then read Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre but it has been rendered by others as well. It's a fascinating tale, open to many interpretations.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I was waiting for someone to mention that.

Mystery is often used interchangeably with crime or detective, at least when discussing fiction in the U.S. Martin Guerre is mystery in its truest sense, even if not crime. All these stories are full of mystery: Who is the returnee? Is he who he says he is? If not, who? If yes, is he really the same person now that he has returned?

She, too, not just he. First time I remember thinking of these great mysteries was when I saw Robert Wilson's production of Euripedes' Alcestis.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You know, I read that Alcestis won a prize at Athens' City Dionysia festival in 438 BC -- second prize. 438 BC must have been the 1939 of Athenian drama. Either that, or the year the Atenian Academy of Dramatic Arts and Sciences honored Kevin Costner over Martin Scorcese or almost anyone over Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. (Did you know that Hitch and Hawks combined for zero best-directing Oscars in their careers?)

July 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

No, I did not know that. I think that fact alone should make anyone struggling along with the creative process in whatever form realize that although it's great to take the laurels where you get them, for the most part, the conferring of prizes by committees is not worth the time it takes to want them. It's not that you should have a sour grapes attitude, just a kind of 'you know, they may very well be wrong' kind of attitude about it.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know what Hitchcock's attitude was to his lack of Oscars (and he did eventually win one of those Lifetime Achievement dinguses).

I looked at who won for direction the years Hitchcock was nominated or released his best movies. He was losing to some pretty good directors, though only John Ford was his equal or close to it. So I'll try to adopt the same attitude I urged to my fellow bloggers who were steamed when Fred Vargas won the International Dagger this year: Relax. It's an honor to be nominated.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

It is an honor to be nominated. But sadly, no one ever really seems to feel that way.

I suppose winning does turn out to be more lucrative than coming in second. Hard for most people to just ignore that.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if any crime-fiction award has anything close to the impact on sales that an Oscar does on movies. I suspect not.

In crime fiction, one might console one's self with the thought that it is sufficient honor to be Stieg Larsson's publisher (though in my blogging circles, it was Johan Theorin and Karin Alvtegen who seemed to be the Dagger favorites). I have not read all the nominated books, but the more I think about The Chalk Circle Man, which won, the more impressive it seems.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Well this isnt exactly your question and I have sawed on this fiddle before, but I would like to mention The 39 Steps as an instance of a film superior to the book. To my mind the film is funnier, racier, wittier and faster. I'm not faulting Buchan's skill as a novelist, I just think that Hitchcock really make that material cook.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The only reason to disagree with your judgment is that Hitchcock did not so much make the material cook as utterly transform it through significant additions and deletions.

I had not read Buchan's short stories before now, but I think they may have an affinity with some of the adventure authors you like. The introduction that I mentioned, and it's a fine one, is by Giles Foden, the Last King of Scotland guy.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I have to agree that the film version of _Thirty-nine Steps_ is better than the novel. I think Hitchcock did it again with _Rear Window_, which I felt is also superior to the short story.

These are two rare exceptions to the rule that I normally favor the print version over the film version.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

In terms of scale, no, I'm sure film awards have much greater commercial value, but in it's own world, winning a crime fiction award matters a lot. In this country I'd say that the Edgar matters significantly more than the others in terms of sales, and best novel of the year over any of the other categories, but in grubby commercial terms, if I can put the word 'award' somewhere on a shelf talker, it's a lot more likely that I will sell it and resell it for a long time than if I can't.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred: As with The Thirty-Nine Steps, it's probably unfair to compare the source material to the movie in the case of Rear Window. Once again, because of the changes Hitchcock made -- in this case, adding characters and humor -- he did not so much improve Cornell Woolrich's story as transform it beyond recognition.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I had not considered the question in commercial terms. "Winner" might well sttract my attention to a book I had not considered before.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Perhaps you are right that it is unfair, although I wouldn't say that Hitchcock transformed Woolrich's story beyond recognition.

However, I would definitely see both films again, while I doubt I will reread either story.

Off Topic comment: I just discovered there are two versions of _The Maltese Falcon_ that came out before the one with Bogart, and Netflix has both of them on one DVD. It's now in my queue along with "THE" Maltese Falcon.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, thanks for the reminder on The Maltese Falcon. I've been meaning for some time to look for the older version, which I think dates from 1931 -- just before the advent of the motion picture production code. That movie came up at a panel discussion about The Maltese Falcon in New York a year or so ago, and one of the panelists said that earlier version was a lot more explicit in its sexual references.

It's been a while since I read Cornell Woolrich's story, but think of the movie Rear Window. I suspect that many viewers will cite Grace Kelly's and Thelma Ritter's characters as well as the movie's romance and humor as among its highlights. All are of these were Hitchcock's (or at least the script's) additions. None occurs in Woolrich's story.

This is entirely in keeping with Hitchcock's stated approach to adaptations. He said he preferred popular literature to classics for adapting to the screen because the author of a classic had made the story thoroughly his or her own. Of course, he did adapt Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Fred, that's very interesting. It is hard to believe that there is even room in the universe for another The Maltese Falcon, let alone two...

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

seanag,

That's what I would have thought also. However these came out before the one with Bogart, and as far as I know, there have been no other versions since.

Perhaps the "no room" status came after the Bogart version.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Three Maltese Falcons, not two: 1931, 1936 and the Bogart/Huston/Greenstreet/Lorre/Astor version of 1941. No room after Bogart is right, I'd say, though that did not prevent a remake of The Big Sleep.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I had known about the 1931 version but had forgotten about the 1936. Think of that: three movie versions of the novel within eleven years. That's nice testimony to the impression that Hammett and hard-boiled writing made.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oops, sorry, Fred. I see now that your original comment referred to "two versions before before the one with Bogart." I misread that as two versions including the one with Bogart.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

From what I've been able to find out, the 1931 version had Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels as Spade and Wonderly. The brief blurb suggests that it was an attempt to stay fairly close to the novel.
The object of interest remains the Falcan, as the title indicates.

The second came out, as you say, in 1936 and really is a take-off on the novel or genre, as it's listed as a comedy. Warren William plays Ted Shane (Sam Spade) and Bette Davis is Valerie Purvis (Wonderly). The object of interest in this version is an "antique ram's horn."

I am surprised that no one has attempted to remake the film.

I am looking forward to watching all three shortly.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may head out and try to rent both the earlier versions now. I have seen neither.

The 1931 version apparently had more sexual innuendo than the 1941 version. That ought to make interesting viewing side by side with a comic version.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Remake of _The Big Sleep_. That's the one with Robert Mitchum, I think. I haven't seen that one yet. It would be interesting to watch them in tandem, also.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I haven't seen the two earlier versions of The Maltese Falcon either, so I have all three lined up on my queue.

Netflix has the two earlier versions on the same DVD, which makes it easy. The title of the 1936 version is _Satan Met a Lady_.

Not sure what to say about that.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wrote here about the Web of connections among Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and various movie versions of The Big Sleep.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The title Satan Met a Lady has a sound basis in the book. A passage describes Sam Spade thus:

"Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by the thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point upon his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."

And the action begins, of course, with his meeting a lady.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Hitchcock's version of Conrad's _The Secret Agent_. Yes, I saw that one--title is _Sabotage_. Now that one I would say is unrecognizable. I think Hitchcock took far more liberties with Conrad's story than he did with Woolrich's "Rear Window."

Perhaps this is the film that caused Hitchcock said he preferred doing popular fiction to the classics.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Thanks for the reminder. I had completely forgotten about that passage describing Sam Spade's appearance.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I referred to the description some time back when I wrote about "Spade and Archer," Joe Gores' "prequel" to "The Maltese Falcon." Gores' picks up some features of it in his own clever description of Sam Spade.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Don't forget the 1975 spoof of "Falcon," The Black Bird.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I may get around to The Black Bird soon. I have just rented a two-DVD set that includes the 1931 Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady and, to my surprise, the Bogart/Huston Maltese Falcon.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

That is going to be one interesting comparative study.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

seanag,

A very interesting comparative study. I suspect there will be several blog entries on this one.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A study upon which I've made a good start. I've just watched the 1931 Maltese Falcon. I defy anyone who knows that Bogart version to watch this without his or her jaw going slack three or four times.

John Huston obviously retained some apsects of this movie for his version. I'd say he had Sidney Greenstreet use the 1931 Casper Gutman as a starting point for his own version, for example.

As for the rest of the cast, my guess is that the director didn't know what to do with them, or else took an odd approach, much lighter at times that Huston and his gang.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I may well make several blog entries on this. The 1931 movie is, except in two or three very brief instances, so staggeringly different that it demands discussion. What in heaven's name were the producers thinking of when they cast Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, for instance? He seems like he would he have been likeable and competent as the second lead in a light, romantic comedy, but as Sam Spade?

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

The Robert Mitchum "Big Sleep" is appealingly noir-ish, but overall I was left with a distinct feeling of "what's the point?" Mitchum also looks nothing like Sam Spade (or Bogart, for that matter), even to me with my lack of visual imagination.

As far as the earlier Falcon, which I've also seen (but years ago), I'd say it's a good example of something that seems pretty common for the period - take a fairly well-known story, an available cast though not spectacular cast, a not-too-large budget, and produce something that's sort of an A minus film. Not a B film in the "lady on the railway tracks" sense, but never intended to be a smash. Besides, noir as a classic American film genre was only just kicking off. "Little Caesar" is from the same year, and a classic, but it's not as if there's a huge range of films to use as a model or comparison.

Re: the casting of Cortez, the idea that Latino (or indeed other ethnic mintory) = underworld has a long history in film and television. Not that Sam Spade's a gangster, but from what I've read about studio bosses in the period, most of them weren't going to be making such nuances.

It is funny to see the bits Huston lifted. I believe one of the justifications for such a speedy remake was that the original wasn't much like the book.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Oh, and on The Thirty-Nine Steps, I like both the original film and the book (the latter fractionally more than the former), but the similarities are really minimal. Richard Hannay is an entirely different person, though I'm not sure whether that's down to the script or to Robert Donat - he's a great actor, but nothing like the returned-from-the-colonies hero of the book.

And if the issue was giving Hannay a love interest, there's a perfectly adequate one in Mr Standfast. This book also has an interesting "return" or two for previous characters, though the religious elements may be slightly overplayed for my tastes.

re: Hitchcock and literature, I was always surprised he kept so closely to the novel when he directed "Rebecca."

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

It will be interesting to get various reactions to the three versions.

One point is that it's rare, at least in my experience, that the classic version of a film turns out to be the remake, in this case the second remake. Usually the classic is the first, which is followed by remakes hoping to cash in on the classic's popularity.

The only other example I'm aware of is _Gaslight_, which I was surprised to find that the classic 1944 Boyer/Bergman version was a remake of the 1940 version with the same name.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I wonder if it was actually Hitchcock who made people able to get Hammett as something beyond the standard detective fare, rather than this being obvious to everyone from the start. The two earlier attempts make this seem possible, but I don't know the literary reception of the book.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, the Mitchum "Big Sleep" must not have made much of an impression on me, because I don't remember much, good or bad. I do recall two differences: The remake changes the first names of the Sternwood daughters, and Carmen (she'll always be Carmen; I don't care if Sir Lew Grade and Michael Winner shifted the story to England and made some of the names sound more English) is shown topless when Marlowe finds her at Geiger's house. This makes better sense that mores of the 1940s would have allowed. She was shooting dirty pictures, after all.

It's hard for me to judge where the 1931 "Maltese Falcon" fits on the A/B scale. The movie looks reasonably good, so its "production values" must have been high, and some of the people involved in its making were fairly big names, at least later in their careers. On the other hand, the line readings are ludicrously bad in the tough-guy scenes, and Bebe Daniels and Cortez seemed totally incapable of anything like the intensity of their successors in 1941, or else the director, Roy del Ruth, made the odd decision to have his actors play it light.

I've seen "Little Caesar" just once or twice, though relatively recently. I think it has dated extremely poorly.

The minority-casting stereotype that Ricardo Cortez reminded me of was that of the Latin lover, and he certainly hammed up that aspect in "The Maltese Falcon." (Incidentally, Ricardo Cortez's real name was Jacob Krantz, and he was born into an Austrian Jewish family in New York City.)

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There have been at least three movie versions of the "The Thirty-Nine Steps" and the recent stage version, which stuck to Hitchcock's story but turned it into a Benny Hill-style farce. Hitchcock also added the story about the bitter old crofter and his young wife, who helps Hannay. Or rather, he took that story from another source.

I have never read "Rebecca," and it was not one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, so I'll leave the commentary to the Rebeccists among us.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, you're probably right. But then, as Lauren mentioned, a remake of "The Maltese Falcon" was apparently in the cards almost from the beginning because the moviemakers were unhappy with how the 1931 version turned out.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, did you mean John Huston rather than Hitchcock? It was Huston who directed the 1941 "Maltese Falcon," though Hitchcock did direct filmed adaptations of a number of thrillers and crime stories that have been mentioned here.

I don't know the details of the popular or critical reception of Hammett's novel, but I suspect the popular reception was pretty good, since it did not take long to get a movie version into the theaters.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger the editor., said...

Hi! Peter Rozovsky,

"What's the appeal of tales of disappearance and return?"

I think curiosity and mystery reader’s fascination with a mystery..., what happen to…, and why did it happen?

...And what are your favorite such tales?

They both been mentioned and they are…director Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, and author Agatha Christie disappearance.

Thanks,
DeeDee ;-D

July 23, 2009  
Blogger the editor., said...

"Director Martin Scorsese's is set to release a psychological thriller entitled Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson and Max von Sydow.

The film, is set to open on October 2nd, is the story of two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels(DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo), who are summoned to a remote and barren island off the cost of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island's fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane."


I’ am not sure if his (Scorsese) film is based on a book, but my curiosity is "piqued."

DeeDee ;-D

July 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Shutter Island is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. I haven't read it and did know its plot outline until now, but it seems to fit in to the tradition under discussion here.

I love Rear Window, and I've read the story on which it's based. Its action certainly is sparked by a disappearance, though I guess one could say Lars Thorwald's comings and goings form his apartment count as appearances and disappearances, too.

July 23, 2009  

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