Friday, September 30, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A POCKETFUL OF RYE (1953) by Agatha Christie

Of course I've read this Miss Marple book (7th in the series) many times over the years, but I'm enjoying it now in audible form for the first time, narrated by the wonderful actor Richard E. Grant.

Highly recommended, especially if you're (God forbid) not familiar with Miss Marple or Agatha Christie or even, Golden Age mysteries. A POCKETFUL OF RYE is as good a place to begin as any.

I don't know about you, but there's just something about Christie (no matter the mayhem involved) that I find soothing and comforting when I'm feeling agitated. And if this current election cycle hasn't agitated you then you haven't been paying attention. I also find English accents of a certain sort VERY soothing and comforting. Don't ask me to explain - it must be some kind of leftover childhood thing.

England, 1953. Living at Yewtree Lodge near London is a family which would, in Regency times, have been called 'Cits' - self-made rich folk of the slightly vulgar variety. The head of the family is shady business man Rex Fortescue, elderly and unscrupulous and altogether a bad lot. He has recently married a much younger woman, a manicurist whom he met in Brighton. (He and she are both types, certainly, but Christie was so good at categorizing with a few broad strokes.) One morning Fortescue goes off to work at the family firm, Consolidated Investments, and promptly suffers a very unpleasant death (well, strictly speaking, he dies later in the hospital, but he comes close enough in his office to call it a day).

It is wickedly amusing (if somewhat exasperating) to read how the frightened and bewildered office staff goes about prolonging Fortescue's death agony while they fumble about trying to figure out what to do for their boss who, in the meantime, is left writhing in his office. Christie could be wryly cruel when she wanted to be.

There's very little question that poor Rex has been poisoned and so Scotland Yard is on the case almost immediately. We meet the likable Inspector Neele whom I don't remember meeting before, though his name rings a bell. At any rate, the book belongs to Miss Marple even if she doesn't make her entrance until later in the story. The elderly sleuth becomes involved in the mystery in a very understated way, insinuating herself into the case in the cause of justice after the callous death of a gullible and not very bright young woman who'd once worked for her as a maid. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Let's back up. Rex Fortescue dies in hospital and during an examination of his clothing, a pocketful of rye seeds are discovered in his jacket. This perplexing clue will begin to make more sense after the second murder. But it is Miss Marple who first points out the nursery rhyme aspect. (Christie had a thing for nursery rhyme titles and tricks.)

The Fortescue family are not a nice bunch. (Their housekeeper calls them 'odious'.) So it is not an especially unhappy event when several of them are done away with. Even the unfortunate young parlor maid, ex-employee of Miss Marple, leaves a lot to be desired - her gullible stupidity offsets any sympathy one might have felt for her. There's hardly anyone to like here except for maybe one of the wives - an outsider named Patricia Fortescue, wife of Lancelot Fortescue, the black sheep of the family. And even she seems a bit drippy. Well, I mean, she's already buried two husbands, how cheerful could she be?

Rex Fortescue's young wife, Adele (30 years younger than hubby) is a blond babe with a roving eye. She is currently getting it on (when she's supposed to be out playing golf) with a gigolo (and boy did Christie know how to fashion gigolos - apparently once upon a time, this was practically a profession) named Vivien Edward DuBois. Don't have to describe him, you get it all from the name.

Second son and junior partner in absentia is Lancelot Fortescue (mentioned previously) who had until recently lived in Kenya, having gone off in a sulk to lick his wounds after a big dust-up years before with dear old dad. Left behind and still working for the family company is his older brother Percival (obviously the boys' mother had a thing for romantic literature), an unsavory sort with an eye on the main chance and not above skirting the law - so much so that Inland Revenue has their eye on him. He lives with his  unhappy wife of three years, Jennifer. There is also a Fortescue daughter named Elaine who wants to marry a man her father doesn't approve of (don't they always?) and a dizzy old aunt, Miss Ramsbottom (Aunt Effie), religous zealot and older sister of Rex Fortescue's first wife, who spends a lot of time bemoaning the morals of the younger generation.

As an aside: Only the women in this tale seem to have what you might call 'normal' names.

But my favorite name has to be, Crump, the butler. A n'er do well who is tolerated only because Mrs. Crump is such a good cook. You see, the butler drinks. But good cooks are hard to find.

There is also an unlikely housekeeper named Miss Dove who has her own unvarnished take on the family and her own secrets to hide, so she fits right in. Lots of secrets in this house and when they all begin to unravel, it's like, 'Whew!' didn't see that one coming. That's part of the fun of this book, the mind-bending revelations and also the fact that there are quite a few murders. Lots of corpses usually mean a rip-roaring Christie tale.

As to how the nursery rhyme aspects rounds the thing up, you'll have to wait and see. There is a very satisfying amount of obfuscation in this tale of greed and family madness and if the ending is not exactly what one might have wished, it is satisfying enough.

The denouement is brought about by Miss Marple's knowledge of human character - character and pattern are the major clues here, so much so that if we pay close enough attention we too will know who is behind the killings almost from the beginning. Christie was a master of the sleight of hand and she often passed the card right in front of your nose while you were busy looking elsewhere.

Preordained destiny is the key here as well as in several other Christie tales. 'In my character is my fate' - something Shakespeare and others knew quite a bit about and is something Christie obviously believed as well.  But this sort of thing seems to have gone out of fashion. Though I can't help but think that Christie and the others had it right. People will behave in recognizable patterns. They can't seem to help themselves.

This sort of character reading is probably the main reason Miss Marple was such an astute detective to begin with. Here, she is practically omniscient.

Read this book if you're in the mood for an excellent cozy mystery with plenty of clues, red herrings and Miss Marple at her sharpest. This is a book, by the way, that could also have been named, NEMESIS. For that is exactly the role Miss Marple plays, yet again.

P.S. It is interesting to note (at least to me) that the BBC or Granada or whatnot version of this particular story (done many years ago with Joan Hickson, the one and only Miss Marple as far as I'm concerned) is amazingly true to the book and very well worth watching - if you can find it.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE FOLD by Peter Clines

This book is from 2015 so it hasn't really had a chance to be forgotten or even overlooked, but what the heck I only discovered it by sheer circumstance so for me, it is an overlooked find.

You know, as much as I claim not to read science fiction hardly at all, I see that this year I've read a few and enjoyed them. So maybe I ought to stop disclaiming and shut up. Or maybe it's just that I only like a certain type of sci-fi (I know, I know, not in use anymore, indulge me) and when I stumble across an example, I enjoy all heck out of it.

THE FOLD by Peter Clines has a kind of a wild west rock'em/sock'em High Concept story-line with an intriguing main character of the sort I adore. So you not only get a seat of your pants story-line but a remarkable leading character with incredible talents essential to the plot. In other words, only he could have steered through to the eventual denouement. (Though I could have done without the love story. More about that later.)

Not that this is any sort of western, no. (Though it does take place out California way.) But it does have the vigor and color, the excitement of venturing into unknown frontiers. Even if the book begins quietly enough with a dinner invitation which almost immediately turns into a mysterious job offer impossible to refuse.

Well, actually, the book begins with one of those off-putting (at least for me) segue entries (clumsy in execution) in which we meet people who are not the main characters and something ominous happens which doesn't make any sense until later in the book. I don't like when an author does this because it is distracting and can often stop a story before it begins. But maybe that's just me. However, do not let this prevent you from reading further. Because if you do, you will have missed an exciting yarn which if it isn't turned into a movie really soon then I don't know what High Concept means.

Our hero is Leland Erikson (aka Mike) who is, at the moment, a high school teacher in Maine intent on staying below the radar. You might say that he is currently in a holding pattern, luxuriating - if you will - in day to day non-distracting routine while teaching early American Lit.

But the times they are a'changing.

Mike's friend Reggie Magnus runs a hush-hush government agency called DARPA (forgot what that stands for but is it important in a book of this kind? Nope.). He is in charge of funding various and sundry high level experimental projects. In that capacity (and because they are close friends) he shows up at the high school one day and invites Mike to have dinner with him.

During that dinner, Mike is offered yet another job of the sort uniquely suited to his special abilities. Though these offers have been turned down in the past, this time out the head of the specific project Reggie is dangling is Arthur Cross, a brilliant physicist and author of the best selling book, THE HISTORY OF WHAT WE KNOW.  Mike is coolly fascinated when he learns that Cross and his team have fashioned a kind of teleportation mechanism called 'a fold' which is, in effect, a distance hopping thing - a doorway. (Don't ask me to explain, except that it sort of makes sense when you read about it.)

At any rate, something is apparently not quite right with a project which has already cost millions and Reggie can't put his finger on what exactly is amiss. But before he hands Cross anymore money he intends to find out. To that end, he wants his friend Mike on the scene.

Long story short: Mike accepts the job and shows up at the lab in San Diego to observe and theorize. There he meets Arthur Cross who, naturally enough, questions the need for an 'outside consultant' on his very hush/hush project. He wants to know the 'why' of Leland Erikson.

'Mike took a deep breath and weighed his words. "I have some abilities that make me a worthwhile observer and theorist. Reggie's been trying to get me on the payroll for almost a decade. Your project's been the only thing he's ever told me about that interested me."

"He said something similar at the budget meeting. Could you be more specific?"

"Do I have to be?"


He sighed again. "I maxed out the only IQ test I ever took. I was given a few extra problems by the tester and she ballparked my IQ at over 180. Granted, I was under the recommended age, and it was the old Stanford-Binet, not the Titan Test or the Mega, so it isn't terribly accurate at that scale, but I confirmed the general range myself. On top of that, I've got an eidetic memory. Complete, instantaneous recall of anything I've ever seen or heard."

"You're joking."


"I thought eidetic memory was something made up for science fiction stories."

"There are a few confirmed cases, although it's tough to prove someone remembers everything without having them remember everything for you."

As you might imagine, Mike's sort of 'gifts' are double-edged swords. One of the reasons he had preferred to stay an 'under the radar' high school teacher.

However, once his observational talents are engaged at project center in San Diego, he begins to note that things are, indeed, a bit 'off' and everyone at the site is behaving oddly. Not 'oddly' as in OMG! but just oddly enough to seem, well, odd. Nothing you can put your finger on at first, but as Mike continues to interact and observe he can't help (literally) but note that things are definitely not as Arthur Cross and his colleagues would have us think.

My main affection for this book arises from watching (reading) how Mike uses his skills and intelligence in ways that a 'normal' person might envy. In this situation it is just as well that his gifts are other-worldly seeming, since a 'normal' man would probably have been engulfed by the plot and the world as we know it would have come to an untimely end.

Okay, that's all I'm going to say. Except that there are some horrifically mind-bending things going on and even when all is explained I still had questions. Well, hey, I'm no physicist. There are monsters of course. They come in later in the book at just about the time we've come to realize that a big 'uh-oh' moment is upon us. There is death and destruction and all that sort of thing. There are even bugs. There are mutants. There is general ghoulishness and hair-raising escapes. And just when you think you know what's going on, turns out that it wasn't what you thought but something else.

There is also a love story that needn't have been except that it was one way to note the one character had changed in a certain way. I can say no more since it is a defining moment.

I wasn't happy with the love angle because I felt it didn't belong and slowed the action down. I was perfectly content just going along with Mike's mental cogitations (it involves ants), getting in groove with the fanciful way he went about his cerebral business. I would almost say that the emotional entanglement didn't fit in with the character, but maybe I would be wrong. (Note:Though Mike's name is really Leland, his nickname comes from a derivation of Mycroft, i.e. Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter brother. So that gives you an idea why maybe the love story seemed forced.)

Some reviewers online have noted that the ending seems like something brought in from another book but I didn't find it too bothersome other than to note that yes, certain aspects of it were almost overwhelming. And of course, this sort of over-the-top monster fest comes off as less than cerebral. But since this book is first and foremost a thriller, I shrugged off the incomprehensible.

(Having said that and just to be contrary, would someone explain to me how a Victorian physicist's fanciful equations on the likelihood of alternate realities results in the kind of monstrosity conjured up by the plot? That part of it, I admit, made little sense. But maybe it was chaos theory and that as we know can lead to all kinds of mischief.)

Believe me when I tell you that these are not major stumbling blocks. They certainly didn't keep me from continuing to read and note how much I was enjoying the improbabilities while thinking to myself - what if? Needless to say, I love a story that features a well-adjusted genius (not one given to  sturm und drang and bouts of self-doubt and obnoxiousness) - my kind of hero.

In conclusion: THE FOLD is a terrific sci-fi thriller even for those of us who might not think we are fans of the genre. It is that rarity in thrillers: a story where the main character is not a gun toting behemoth righting wrongs using heft and belligerence. (Unless you want to think of intelligence as 'heft' and I often do.) I think you will also be impressed with the author's dexterity and gift for naturalistic dialogue in the midst of chaos.

 And lest you forget, the main character is a keeper.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's website, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS (1939) by Eric Ambler

This is a slight re-working of a review I wrote and posted in 2001 and thought apropos to re-post now. Someone was very recently talking about A COFFIN FOR DEMETRIOS (Tracy, was it you?) and I thought I'd dredge this up to see what I'd thought of the novel. I'm thinking it's time for me to reread Ambler. Especially JOURNEY INTO FEAR which remains one of my other favorites of his.

I liked the first line of DIMITRIOS though apparently it is the comment of an omniscient narrator whom we, somehow, lose along the way. But no matter:

A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.

The book takes a few beats to get going and that's my only quibble, -other than that it's a pretty perfect sort of spy story - revealed layer upon layer, picking up speed as it goes along. I haven't seen the film (I think it stars Zachary Scott one of the wierdest actors - in my view - that Hollywood has ever produced), but I think I just might watch it after this.

(Note: Never did get to watch the film.)

Here's the basic story:

Mystery writer Charles Latimer (I've always been fond of the name Latimer) is exhausted; after writing a string of relatively successful books, he goes on holiday to Turkey, hoping that taking it easy for awhile might refresh him. It is an uneasy time, war is fermenting in Europe and without doubt exotic travel will soon be curtailed.

Latimer is a noticing sort of man as most writers are. He is also a curious man and it is this inchoate curiosity which gets him into trouble once he arrives in Turkey and, typically, gets invited here and there for drinks and other sophisitcated social niceties. At one of these social events, he meets the oddly voluble Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and lover of British thrillers. He casually draws Latimer into a mystery telling him of the dead body dredged that very night from the river.

The murder victim has been identified as Dimitrios Makropoulos - a known criminal type whom no one will mourn. On an impulse, Latimer asks to see the body, reasoning that it wouldn't do a mystery writer any harm to see an actual victim of violence. 

Once he's viewed the body, Latimer, usually a reserved English gentleman, decides then and there to try and fine out more about the victim. What caused this particular man to be stabbed to death and thrown in a river? What were the vicissitudes of fate that wound up costing Dimitrios his life in such a brutal manner? Bit by bit, the more Latimer finds out, the more intrigued he becomes, the more he wants to know about Dimitrios Makropoulos who was not, obviously, just a petty sort of criminal but a mastermind, an international gangster of the most vile sort.

One of the things I like most about the story is how Dimitrios is shown from various perspectives, as Latimer searches out and interviews past acquaintances. There is no softening of his criminality, except a mention that Dimitrios' early life was hard - but not everyone with a hard life turns to crime with such ease. No, Dimitrios appears to have had an enormous affinity for it.

And of course, this being a novel of sinister machinations and dark doings, there will be a not too surprising revelation which will confront Latimer in his quest to get at the truth, a revelation which will almost cost him his life and teach him a hard-earned lesson about indulging curiosity.

This is all revealed in a kind of non-theatrical, pragmatic sort of way. There's not much unnecessary explanation of the criminal mind, and evil is discussed with a kind of rational resignation:

Three human beings had died horribly and countless others had lived horribly that Dimitrios might take his ease. If there were such a thing as Evil, then this man...

But it was useless to try and explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than Baroque abstractions. Good business and Bad business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange...and Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Good writing, that. It brings to mind the current view of and rationale for the most hideous acts in a supposedly even more enlightened age. Don't we view evil in the same way even now? Business is still all, it seems to me - what with corporate America's hold on government actions stronger than ever and the widening dominion of social  media and a seemingly smitten, indulgent press which more and more abdicates its charge to ferret out the truth unless it means higher ratings.

 New theology, indeed. Look at the upcoming election and the charlatan running for office. Trump's vile exploits are explained away as 'business' as if that, in and of itself, is explanation enough. 

At any rate, if you care to read one of the true masters of the spy genre, pick up Eric Ambler and indulge in his very well written, often prescient, novels. These guys from the past are called great for a reason.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MISTRESS OF MELLYN (1960) by Victoria Holt

"There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances," my Aunt Adelaide had said. "One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility."

I know, I know, similar in cadence to the beginning paragraph of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but nicely done just the same. For it tells you right away (in case you hadn't noticed the cover of a woman in her nighty running away from a mysterious castle/house) that you are in for a specific sort of book. And that is exactly the delight I take in gothic romances - that they are, indeed, a specific sort of book.

Even though I rarely read them anymore (except as rereads) I still have very fond memories of discovering the genre for myself many MANY years ago after finishing JANE EYRE and looking around for something in a similar vein. Oh yes, JANE EYRE was the first and remains the finest example of the style. Had she but known she was formulating a genre or, at least, a style of story telling, I wonder how Charlotte Bronte would have felt about it all. There's lots of the 'had she but known' thing going on in gothic story-telling, so who knows.

But Bronte owns the responsibility of having created the two essentials of the gothic romance: the penurious, strong-willed but shy and soft spoken plain-jane heroine forced to earn a living and the tall, willful, craggy-handsome hero with regrets and a bad first marriage.

I feel comfortable in saying that MISTRESS OF MELLYN will turn you into a gothic romance reader (if you aren't one already) especially if you happen to stumble across it at just the right time in your life. Of course it helps if you have already read JANE EYRE and are willing to be further enticed by romantic gloom and doom - not that Holt is the writer Bronte was, of course. But she knows how to create the necessary sinister ambience and has the knack for making her heroines likable and her heroes enigmatic.

An intelligent heroine is a given, but the key is the hero: he must never come off as a dark-browed jerk who poses in riding pants and cracks a whip. And he must always, ALWAYS be nursing a broken heart that is aching to be mended by the right sort of woman. AND most importantly, he must not be a brute. AND even if he once was, he must have gotten over it by the time the heroine comes into his life.

Gothic Romance is a phase many of us go through - mine lasted for many years and I'm happy enough now and then to revisit my favorites. I actually own a paperback copy of MISTRESS OF MELLYN as well as the hardcover (though not the first edition). It's one of those books that sort of refuses to go away.

The heroine is Martha Leigh (aka Marty to friends and family), a brave, intelligent, stalwart, plain-spoken spinster who has given up on ever having a husband. Truth is she is just too outspoken and, of course, not beautiful enough to attract a 19th century male. (Little does she know.) We first meet her as she travels to Mellyn, an eerie mansion on the Cornish coast of England. There she will be taking on the job of governess to a young headstrong girl named Alvean (she has vanquished three other governesses), at a lonely estate full of secrets. Her brooding employer, Con TreMellyn, is a handsome but stiff-necked country gentleman who has never gotten over the fact that his first wife ran off and left him and their daughter. He is not a happy man and has the money to indulge his unhappiness.

Enter Miss Leigh, the diffident red-haired governess. She almost immediately piques TreMellyn's interest, of course. That is a requisite for this sort of tale. But this interest manifests itself as annoyance, even anger.

Unaware (she's not worldly), Miss Leigh settles into her routine and begins making headway with the difficult young girl. Almost from the beginning though, she can't help but sense menace lurking within the walls of the huge house. There is something about the place that disturbs her and as she grows to like her charge and even to admire her employer, she realizes that unless the family's secrets are vanquished, Alvean's happiness (much less her father's) can never be realized.

That's always the way of course and what else is a poor inquisitive governess to do but get involved, risking life, limb and sanity.

In the end, there is a horrifying revelation as the truth finally dawns on all concerned but not before poor Miss Leigh almost pays for it with her life.

Motivation for the truly dark deeds is a bit thin, but other than that, this is a wonderful story told exceedingly well by a terrific writer who truly understands the name of the game. Holt (a pseudonym for Eleanor Hibbert) went on to write dozens of books in this genre, several of them quite memorable. Another off the top of my head: KIRKLAND REVELS.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE STAR MACHINE (2007) by Jeanine Basinger

"It's a crackpot business that sets out to manufacture a product it can't even define, but that was old Hollywood."

The luminous machine that was the movie studio system of the 1930's, 40's and 50's is gone forever. That incredible movie-making era is now the stuff of legends. But while it lasted, the system gave us stars, stars and 'more stars than there are in the heavens!'  - at least according to MGM, one of the more prolific star-making studios of the time and home to the dazzling extravaganzas that still enchant us today.

But if you had asked anyone then and now to define what exactly made a 'movie star' they would be hard-pressed to respond except to note various examples and say, now 'that person is a star' or 'that person' but just HOW that particular person personified stardom remains (to this day) almost impossible to define.

THE STAR MACHINE is not meant, I think, to be full of surprises (though there are a few), instead the book evolves in rather calm fashion as more of a biography of the extraordinary American star machine shops of the day. Shops which, with a clockwork regularity, turned out star after star, movie after movie over the span of many years. Films we consider classics today were part of this movie-making factory efficiency, evidence of the richness of talent and genius working in Hollywood at the time.

Jeanine Basinger's engaging compendium of behind the scenes stories and back-stage machinations has moments of 'who knew?' and misty 'what ifs', not to mention, bios of stars such as Tyrone Power, Lana Turner, Loretta Young, Eleanor Powell, Mickey Rooney, Abbott and Costello, William Powell, Jean Arthur, Wallace Beery and Loretta Young, among many others. (A lot of this stuff the real movie maven will have picked up along the way watching and reading about their favorite movies, but probably not all of it.)

The stars Jeanine Basinger concentrates on are purposely NOT the absolute tip-top tier of Hollywood stardom, but most of them were - at least - well known household names. The author assumes that if you want to read about first tier stars in more detail, i.e. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and their ilk (though they are not overlooked in the book), it is easy enough to find sources. Instead THE STAR MACHINE concentrates more on the 'how-to' of the studio process - which is fascinating. Stars that worked their way up through the system are a more interesting study, I think, than stars who were 'instant' hits. After all, it is difficult if not impossible to explain why one person shines on the big screen and another person has no glow at all.

I especially enjoyed reading the author's take on William Powell and THE THIN MAN series of movies:

'The Thin Man series is unique in movie history...At the heart of the original movie was an ultramodern married relationship. (The screenwriters were married to each other, and not enough credit has gone to them for creating the witty, sparring, modern couple whose marriage worked.) In the depth of the Depression, Nick and Nora had clothes, money, cars, and plenty of pizzazz. Watching Powell swan around nonchalantly in the Thin Man movies explains why no one can make screwball comedies today. It's not, as everyone supposes, that they can't write them; it's that there's no one to play in them. Powell fills the frame, but without seeming even to care that he's in it. While players all around him are chewing up the scenery, their entire performances coming out of their mouths, Powell cocks an ear, leans casually forward, stuffs his hands in his pockets, raises an eyebrow and steals the show.

There is no actor today who can pull off Powell's elegant thumbing of the nose at society while maintaining the sense of a man who can be counted on, a loyal, loving husband and father, but, still, a dude, an outsider. And no one can toss off a line like Powell. After Nick and Nora have a son, Charles is asked, "What's the big idea of the kid?" He replies, "We have a dog...and he was lonesome." He turns to Loy. "That was the big idea, wasn't it Mommy?" His cadence is perfect. His emphasis impeccable.,,"

Basinger is one hundred percent right, there is no actor today who can do what Powell did seemingly without effort. Actually, there is no actor today who can do what dozens of stars did then. Hollywood has evolved, and not for the better. The screwball comedy has come and gone. But thankfully we have the films online or in DVD form for us to swoon over. Of course to my mind, there are other sorts of movies that cannot be done today precisely because the necessary actors with the necessary talents no longer exist. For instance: the swashbuckler or the musical with original music (or even with borrowed music), or the goofy mystery, etc. Yes, they occasionally are duplicated or worse, 'brought up to date', but they rarely work well; precisely because the actors are imitating a style. There is nothing original going on. It's all poser-y and fakery. And of course it doesn't help that most  young actors today look alike.

But enough about my own prejudices, let's get back to the book:

One of many things I enjoyed about THE STAR MACHINE was learning how the studios selected actors in (often misguided) attempts to 'manufacture' stardom; these lucky few were 'tested' in early two-bit roles to gauge audience reaction. The audience was polled and whomever they were most excited about in the movie (sometimes NOT the actor or actress, the studio was pushing) got a nod for the next slightly larger part and so on and so forth. In a way it was almost like school. Though sometimes, as with Errol Flynn, lightning could strike and did. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, Flynn - a relative unknown - was cast as the lead in CAPTAIN BLOOD (his previous film roles had been tiny with little or no dialogue), and that was all it took. Sometimes an actor only has to find the right role (often by chance) and the rest is movie history.

But that didn't happen often and most of the time, as a matter of course, stars had to be fashioned, built from the ground up. Author Jeanine Basinger takes you behind those scenes: make-up trials and tribulations (freckles were considered a scourge, unless they weren't), costume debacles, hair-dos and don'ts and other fascinating stuff of legends. Imagine if Rita Hayworth's low hairline hadn't been lifted (electrolysis) and her hair not dyed red. She would probably have remained Margarita Cansino, type cast as a B-movie Spanish dancer till the end of her days.

(By the way, if you want to see Rita BEFORE electrolysis, catch her in a bit part as, naturally enough, a dancer, in CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT.)

The author also covers the lives of several actors. (you can hop, skip or jump through those depending on your mood - I simply have no interest in Loretta Young or, really, for that matter, Eleanor Powell. Though I liked Powell more than Young.) The studios then had thriving public relations units which concentrated on keeping stars and their personal idiosyncrasies looking neat and clean and appealing - occasionally failing spectacularly, as in the case of Lana Turner whose messy personal life (grimly laughable in its extremes) was a trial and tribulation to all involved. But this isn't a book about gossip. So there aren't very many juicy revelations and there is little or no mention of certain stars' sexual preferences. Though of course it doesn't stop us from wondering.

These people worked feverishly day to day, making believe, pretending emotions, having little free time to develop their own personalities and or live a 'normal' sort of life, it's no wonder some of them crashed and burned. Very few of these actors were able to break free from the prevailing system (though Deanna Durbin was one who did so successfully), hence the excess drinking, drugs and sloppy love lives I suppose. Though those excesses don't seem to have changed much, judging by the personal lives of today's actors.

In comparison to the one or two films a year working schedule of most major actors today, the old routine of movies churned out every few months is startling. Actors signed on for seven year stints then and as employees of the studio (glamorous employees, yes, but employees none the less) did what they were told. (Well, most of them did, at any rate. It was later when some of them balked that the system began to fall apart.) In the 30's through the 50's, studios churned out films on a regularly scheduled basis. These huge operations had the necessary mechanisms in place to shoot movies concurrently, lot to lot, soundstage to soundstage, shuffling actors back and forth. It is amazing to me, how many of these movies went on to become classics, considering how quickly some of them came together. But I suppose when you have a concentration of genius, talent, artistic intelligence and artistry all toiling away in a concentrated hothouse atmosphere, there were bound to be some spectacular results.

On the whole, this is a very engaging book about a time in movie making history that will never come again. I recommend THE STAR MACHINE for those of us who are nutty about old movies and consider too much information never enough. If you know what I mean.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.