top of page
  • Nick Cardillo

For those of you who have been following my output on social media recently, you will know that I am currently at work on my first detective novel. There have been many aborted attempts made in years past, but 2022 is the year that I have set myself the goal of writing – and more importantly finishing – a full-length detective novel in the region of 60,000-80,000 words.

In writing this story, I have taken a number of cues from my favorite Golden Age Mystery writers, though – as I wrote back in December – I have taken most of my inspiration from Dame Agatha Christie. Her pared-down prose and the care and subtlety with which she planted important information in the text have been guiding lights during both the planning and writing stages. One central clue is, I think, pure Christie and inspired by one of my favorite moments from one of her finest books. (No, I cannot say which one; that would spoil everything!) However, as I continue to forge a path through the tangled skein of hidden motivations, uncertain timelines and plenty of red herrings, I am finding myself inspired by another favorite mystery writer from the Golden Age: Ngaio Marsh.

I am sure there is legion of Golden Age Mystery readers who have probably clicked away from this article now that I have even invoked Marsh’s name. Marsh does not have the greatest reputation in the classic mystery community, though I am beginning to find that there are just as many defenders of hers out there as there are critics. Marsh’s books are often accused of lacking energy; her narrative momentum curiously screeching to a halt after the central murder of the novel has occurred. What then follows are repetitive rounds of interviews between her detective character, Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard, and the suspects. This stretch of story is often (un)affectionately referred to as Dragging the Marsh. Therefore, as I continue to write, I remind myself not to let those suspect interviews go on too long and I am always looking for ways to make sure the middle section of the book does not drag.

I can imagine what you’re thinking: how can I call Marsh a favorite? Despite my recognition and acknowledgement of the common criticisms leveled at her, I do consider myself a fan of Dame Ngaio Marsh. She has certainly earned her place in the pantheon of Crime Queens alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham (plus or minus a few more names). Marsh’s literary output was a strong one: her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, was published in 1934 and she would add new exploits to the prestigious career of gentleman sleuth Roderick Alleyn into the early 1980s. I have written on this blog before of my fondness for her final novel, Light Thickens (published in 1982), which may not hold up as a cleverly-plotted mystery, but is a fascinating look at theatrical life in the midst of a turbulent production. Marsh was known to have called the theatre her first love and was intimately involved with the arts throughout her life. The books set in theatrical and artistic circles remain some of Marsh's finest. The amateur theatrical society at the center of her book Overture to Death (1939) is rendered with such care, such accuracy, and more than a helping of biting wit that it remains an incredibly real and laugh-out-loud portrayal to this day.

Therein lies Marsh’s strengths as a mystery writer. Her characters and settings are wonderfully realized, often described from Marsh's first-hand knowledge of her subjects. As such, Marsh is poised at a interesting spot on the mystery writer continuum: one can draw a direct line from Dorothy L. Sayers and early Agatha Christie through Marsh to the psychologically rich detective stories of P.D. James and a new generation of writers of mysteries' Silver Age. I have a little theory that I am developing about the most famous Golden Age writers and how you can easily divide them into two camps: mystery writers and writers of mystery. The former are those creators who prioritize the puzzle plot above all else; neatly hoodwinking the reader with an artfully-concealed culprit but at the expense of solid characters or sense of place. The latter are more interested in telling stories populated by genuine human beings whose world is disrupted by a murder. The guilty party may be easier to identify during stories like these, but in service of the capital-S Story, such an ending was inevitable. Marsh may not dazzle modern readers like Christie, Carr, or Queen could, but her skill as a writer is arguably strongest of them all.

I cannot claim to be an expert on Marsh, but as I have learned to appreciate more of the writers from the Golden Age, she has emerged as one of my favorites and as I forge ahead with my own writing, I will strive to make my characters feel as real as Marsh's. To further honor Dame Ngaio Marsh, I am sitting down to read one of her novels for February and I urge you to join me. Consider this my informal challenge to you all – the Ngaio Marsh Challenge. Read or re-read a Marsh novel, post your review and judge it on its own merits without comparisons to the works of Marsh's illustrious contemporaries. Though you may not love her books, I think many of you will, nevertheless, be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

There’s No One like Ngaio.

142 views5 comments

By the time that filmmaker Billy Wilder stepped behind the camera to direct The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970, he had already released a string of hits which endure as some of the most beloved films of classic cinema with titles including Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959) just to name a few. Wilder’s stab at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation remains one of his lesser-known films to general audiences, but persists in the Great Detective’s fan community for its quirky yet lovable approach to Holmes and Watson. Its legacy is a strong one and it remains one of the finest Holmes films yet made, and certainly one of the most unique.

Like so many pastiches that have sought to add new installments to Holmes’ ever-growing casebook, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was originally envisioned by Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to be made up of a series of vignettes each of which represented a heretofore unrevealed manuscript penned by Dr. Watson. Famously, these scenes were shot but cut from the film prior to its release amounting to nearly an hour of footage which is today totally or partially lost. In my writing on this film in the past, I have bemoaned what could have been. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes could have been a three-hour Holmesian epic which is as tantalizing a thought as any to this particular Sherlockian. Yet, on a recent re-watch, I realized that this point-of-view fails to truly appreciate what is left of the movie and I re-focused my attention on the tightly-wound script and the expert performances that anchor the film and make it as utterly charming as it is.

What makes The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes even more unique is its position as the only bit of Sherlockian cinema that is helmed by a filmic auteur; Wilder having complete control over his narrative and its production. What is important to remember is that the film is, at its core, a parody of the Conan Doyle characters, but its humor is never mean-spirited nor does it make light of Holmes, Watson, or their world. Indeed, the screenplay is one long love letter to what made the Doyle originals so beloved in the first place and why those same stories continue to resonate with audience today. If there is a defining scene in the film, then perhaps it is the first: Holmes and Watson return to 221b Baker Street following the successful completion of a case and, as the detective goes about busying himself to alleviate the boredom that comes from the lack of work, Watson proudly displays the latest copy of Strand Magazine containing his latest story. It is a scene that should feel familiar to fans, yet Wilder and Diamond undermine the tableau’s patina by establishing there is little about the Great Detective which is not some creation of the Good Doctor’s for the benefit of his reading public. Holmes is not as tall as he is made out to be, the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape are not his preferred method of dress, and his violin abilities have been over-exaggerated as has his distrust of women. Everything that follows will return to this dialogue as if it were the film’s thesis. To quote Mark Gatiss, co-creator of the TV series and global phenomenon, Sherlock, a series which he admits was heavily inspired by this film, it “gently take[s] the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes.”

Yet, for all that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes does to force its audience to reconsider the Baker Street detective duo, it is clear that much of the film’s comedy comes from its reverence to Doyle. The film’s heightened scenarios are clearly an homage to the writer who never allowed such pesky things as logic or simple science get in the way of telling an engaging story. In the same opening scene noted above, Holmes says that he has been contacted by the owner of a circus who asks for the detective’s help in tracking down a group of performing dwarves who have disappeared without a trace. Much to Watson’s awe, Holmes theorizes that the group are actually anarchists gone off to assassinate the Russian czar disguised as little children concealing bombs in bouquets of flowers. Of course, it’s all an elaborate fiction spun to take the wind out of Watson’s sails, but one cannot help but sense the nucleus of a true Doylean plot in the midst of the farce. After all, Doyle’s original Sherlockian tales included such curiosities as cannibalistic dwarves armed with poison arrows, snakes slithering down bell-pulls, and priceless gemstones found in the gullet of a Christmas goose. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not the logical extreme of Doyle’s most stylish excesses as a writer and, as the film’s plot ropes in spies disguised as monks, coded messages via parasol, and the Loch Ness Monster itself, the argument that the screenplay is really a love-letter to the whole Sherlockian Canon is only strengthened.

Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely as Holmes and Watson

Despite these allusions to its own illustrious progenitor, the film does just as much to touch on what was not written by Doyle. The issue of women in the Holmes Canon is central to the film and is nowhere more prominent than in the film’s hilarious opening. Holmes and Watson are mysteriously lured to the Russian ballet on the pretense of accepting a case but as it transpires, the company’s leading ballerina, Madame Petrova, wishes for Holmes to father her child so that they may conceive the perfect offspring with her beauty and his brains. The detective, aghast, claims that “women are not his cup of tea”; the object of his affections lying elsewhere. More specifically, with Dr. Watson. In doing so, the film of course addresses the decades of misconstrued readings of the two men’s deep Victorian-era kinship and does so in a gentle and playful manner; the script never revealing the truth about Holmes’ true feelings for his friend and constant companion. Of course, the issue of Holmes’ love life is only complicated further by the introduction of Gabrielle Valladon played by Geneviève Page, whose dramatic arrival at Baker Street sets into motion the film’s central plot and whose unreadable countenance the detective seems to admire both intellectually and romantically. Come the film’s melancholic but inevitable finale, the audience is still left in a state of unknowing and the film is made all the stronger for it.

The subtlety with which the script raises these questions is expertly handled by the central cast lead by Robert Stephens’ impenetrable performance as Holmes. Stephens may not carry with him much name-recognition today, but he was one of the most revered actors of his generation and a major player in the Royal National Theatre, noted as one of the worthiest of successors to Sir Laurence Olivier. Stephens’ Holmes accentuates the marginalia of the Doyle original and he is by turns foppish, arrogant, witty, and deeply melancholic. Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson turns in just as noteworthy a performance, his comic take on Watson being one of the most calculated to date. Generally speaking, it is so easy to make Watson the slow-witted and ignorant of the pair, accentuating the worst excesses of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling and mumbling characterization, but The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes avoids this trope. Even when Watson is made to look the fool, the film never puts him down. Indeed, the scene in which Watson drunkenly dances with a group of Russian ballerinas remains the film’s finest visual gag. Blakely’s Watson is a deeply human character perfectly grounding the excesses of the script and serving as the moralistic opposite of Stephens’ Holmes.

When The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was released in the autumn of 1970, its reception from critics was muted at best. Reviewers failed to grasp its razor-sharp satire deeming it just another mystery, and not a very good one at that. Oddly enough, their criticism seems to have isolated one of the uniquely misunderstood aspects of the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves. Viewed from a modern perspective – a lens informed by over a century of imitators and appreciators who have pushed the mystery genre beyond anything that Doyle could have possibly realized – the Sherlock Holmes adventures are best enjoyed for their atmosphere and beautifully-realized depictions of Victorian London. The stories rarely baffle readers expecting the “fair play” parameters of writers like Agatha Christie and her ilk, but rather they surprise and beguile us with demonstrations of Holmes’ observational and deductive prowess; they fascinate us with their strikingly-rendered characters of heroes and villains alike; and – as Wilder’s film is keen to point out – they entertain us with their baroque displays of mystery, horror, and deception in a world that is just ever so slightly off-center. There is a reason, I think, that the stories are often referred to as “The Sherlock Holmes Adventures” because they resonate so strongly as adventure yarns above all else.

The enduring pleasures of returning time and time again to 221b Baker Street are preserved in amber in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; a film with a deeper understanding and more profound appreciation of its source material than even some of the more slavish adaptations thereof. I cannot recommend the film highly enough as both a late-day masterpiece from one of the most revered names in Hollywood history, but as one of the handful of great versions of Sherlock Holmes to ever reach the screen.

97 views0 comments
  • Nick Cardillo

I was not alive when the release of a new Agatha Christie novel was an anticipated annual event. In my lifetime, I have only known Christie as the omnipresent “Queen of Crime”; a name synonymous with mystery fiction and whose very evocation conjures up images of another world. Christie’s world is one of opulence and decadence; the shining, cultured, urbane sphere of English upper-class society thriving between the World Wars. Yet, Christie’s world is also one that is cast in shadow: her world is one where scheming servants and maid cavort below stairs; where deadly poisons are always at hand, nimbly slipped into unattended tea cups; where preposterous-looking little round men and unassuming old ladies can pierce the veil of the human unconscious and unravel a baffling crime.

If there is a season for all things, then there is something about Christmastime when I find my thoughts drifting (more than usual) to Christie. There is perhaps some historical precedent for this: By the 1940s when Christie’s literary output began to slow after her unparalleled output of the ‘30s, her books were released in the run up to the Christmas season boosting sales tremendously. This became known as A Christie for Christmas. Beyond the marketing strategy, however, the end of the year holidays make for the perfect backdrop to read a Christie novel. Many Christie readers rebel against the word cozy being used to describe her body of work, but there is something comforting in picking up a Christie novel and letting her take you on a journey as a reader. Oftentimes this could be a literal journey – an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia, the Orient Express hurtling through the Balkans, a Caribbean island – but even in the books that did not feature a globetrotting expedition, Christie’s books always relied on their forward momentum. At their core, Christie’s books are journeys toward the truth with each new clue bringing the reader closer and closer to the reveal of whodunit!

The period between the First and Second World War were turbulent times, and it is easy to underestimate the value that detective fiction had for so many readers. Someone picking up a detective novel could expect a host of eccentric characters, a unique setting, a baffling crime, and could rest assured in the knowledge that the detective would wrap it up successfully in the last chapter. Therein lies the unbeatable comfort of a classic mystery novel, and it is no wonder that readers’ tastes returned to these books over the past eighteen months as we faced an unprecedented pandemic rife with uncertainty and hardship for so many. This is not to say that Christie always played by these rules. The ending to what is arguably her most famous novel, And Then There Were None is incredibly bleak and as Christie grew as a writer she continued to challenge the conventions of the genre always to dazzling effect.

Yet, even when she did “follow the formula” few writers could match Christie for her sheer brilliance. Christie's sense of place, the way she hides the most important information amongst the seemingly innocuous, and the manner in which she manipulates space and time to deliver a brilliant solution are only a few of her many virtues as a writer. There is a reason that Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time and more so than perhaps any other writer of the Golden Age, Christie defined what a detective story is or ought to be. Her legacy is strong decades after the publication of her final stories and new legions of Christie devotees are born each day when they open up one of her books for the first time.

I don’t remember how or when I first heard of Agatha Christie. Odds are it was a passing reference in the PBS kids’ television show Arthur which - when it wasn't parodying that other PBS institution Masterpiece: Mystery - was habitually dropping the names of famous writers and their works. As a childhood fanatic of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Christie’s mysteries were the natural next step, and though my seven-year-old brain couldn’t properly fathom the concealed identities and motives in the 1974 movie version of Murder on the Orient Express (borrowed on VHS from the local library), my jaw was nonetheless on the ground when I found out who committed the murder. From that point on, I became a true Christie acolyte. I have never tired of Christie’s mysteries or the many television and film adaptations of her work. This holiday season, my celebrations will include an Agatha Christie novel. Just don’t ask me which one. I haven’t picked it out yet…

This year, my thoughts are with Christie more than usual. As a writer, it has long been my goal to write a mystery novel in the Golden Age style; Christie’s work serving as an obvious inspiration. While my attempts have been mixed to this point, today I am making my 2022 New Year’s Resolution public. In the coming year I plan to complete the first draft of a Golden Age-style mystery novel and I invite you to check back in on this blog or follow me on Twitter for updates on that process. I do not anticipate smooth sailing in the days ahead as I plot, write, and fret over writer’s block, but at the same time I am excited to begin this journey that began in earnest when I read my first Agatha Christie novel. With the undisputed Queen of Crime as a guiding light, I should have little to fear.

60 views1 comment
bottom of page