Saturday, October 1, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Hardhearted Huckster"

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Ellery Queen is a TV show, even if it doesn't always look like one. And yet TV hasn't been much of a factor in the context of the stories. Characters listen to the radio, go out to the movies, go out in general. They don't sit on the sofa and stare at the tube. There's a certain amount of realism to this, as the stories take place mostly in 1947, several years before the Lucy-driven explosion in TV set ownership.

Once previously television played a major part in the story. That was in the pilot movie, where what was broadcasting at a particular time turned out to be the key to a dying clue. In the pilot TV was treated as a gimmick, a fad that would pass in a few months without leaving a mark. There are words to that effect in this episode as well, notably from the victim. But by this time the dismissal has lost any force it may have had. TV may not have hit its stride yet in terms of viewership, and there are clearly some technical refinements that will have to be made. Yet the infrastructure is unmistakably there. It's not going away.

As pretty much every episode takes our heroes to a different professional or social milieu - ah the pleasures of standalone episodes that we seem so determined to abandon - this is Ellery Queen's advertising business mystery. It also intersects heavily with the tobacco business, which highlights some interesting facets of the show. When Ellery Queen was created, smoking was considered one of those things that an adult - especially a man - just did, unless he was an athlete in training or a mama's boy. So the Ellery of the books is a pretty heavy smoker, if not a chain smoker. His ashtray gets alarmingly full when he's got writer's block.

On the show, Jim Hutton never lights up as the title character. In part this is part of an overall strategy to emphasize the boy-next-door aspects of the category, a strategy which no doubt influenced Hutton's casting in the first place. It's possible that the Surgeon General's report had something to do with it as well. By the mid-seventies tobacco was on its way to being seen as a not-very-good industry. It's plausible that the makers didn't want to/felt they shouldn't encourage smoking, and since Ellery was technically not part of the famously hard living police profession, they had an opportunity to create a non-smoking hero. (That said, Velie is frequently seen chomping on a cigar, although I'm not sure I've ever seen it actually lit.)

Why that side trip? The victim for the night is James Bevan Long, an executive in charge of promotions for the Quicksilver Tobacco Company. And as they often are, he's a massive tool. Among other things, he blackmails a mistress into spying on one of his competitors.

He also seems to be something of a fool. He's first seen rejecting a TV ad for his product, as well as dismissing the entire medium of television. To be fair to his judgment the ad looks terrible, a spot of a dancing girl dressed up like a cigar box, followed by an unconvincing cowboy shooting prop guns in a way that would have most viewers just scratching their heads. But rejecting the entire idea of TV advertising raises serious questions about his judgment.

The advertising industry doesn't come off that well either. This is a case where the killer doesn't show much aptitude for the "get away with it" part. Said killer has a stroke of luck, though, in that everyone else acts so thoroughly shifty that they make themselves guilty, confusing the issue for the police and for Ellery.

The other big distraction is Frank Flanagan, appearing on the show for the last time. Flanagan exhibits his usual need to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral (metaphorically speaking, natch) vacuuming up every item on the murder legitimate or not for his column. In this case he's also angling for a radio show, which is then bumped up to a TV show. Whenever Inspector Richard Queen sees him he looks pained, and who can blame him?

The climax takes place on Flanagan's new television talk show. Well, on the demo for a TV talk show. A motormouth in nearly every other situation, he clams up on the air, appearing stiff and frail. It's all he can do to introduce his only remaining guest, Ellery Queen. Ellery then goes on to provide a solution to the case of the week, showing an eerie calm on the set of a collapsing program.

All in all, it seems more fun to go on Simon Brimmer's radio show, though.


susan said...

I've probably said so before but one of my better childhood memories is having been able to listen to the radio shows that my parents listened to in the living room once I was already in bed. What was really good about them was that you didn't even bother wondering what things looked like because your imagination provided the scene based on the sound effects. The actors were more than equal to voicing the drama or comedy routines - never mind the mysteries. Comedians went on doing it for a long time as I'm sure you remember (as in The Firesign Theatre and Bob and Ray). Radio as a storytelling medium actively encouraged us to exercise our visual imaginations and it's true television went a long way toward spoiling that aspect of our capabilities. Proof of that was easily determined when, rather than stay in bed listening until I fell asleep, I'd very quietly (I thought) climb out of bed and hide behind a loveseat near the door so I could see what was going on that was making my parents and the tv audience laugh. Yes, I was always sent back to bed but not until the particular show had ended. My mother was pretty cool that way. At the same time it was a good lesson that reading aloud would always be a good thing to do for children.

Anyway, on to the show: It's true that advertising really took off once television came along as there were so many more ways to distract our attention than there had been with radio sound effects alone. I think there really were dancing cigarette box ads, or maybe that was just in cartoons. There's no doubt that smoking was so normalized that almost everyone indulged the habit. One of the things that was interesting about reading the Nero Wolfe books was that nobody in Wolfe's brownstone smoked although there were ashtrays. Inspector Cramer, like Velie, always had a cigar that he chewed on but never lit. That Ellery smoked in the novels is a surprise to me only because I never read more than a few of them and that was long ago. Mostly, Ellery Queen for me is Tim Hutton.

While the story was entertaining enough the culprit was pretty easy to identify early on even though the details took a bit of explaining at the end. That the victim was indeed a total ass was proven in several details revealed throughout the narrative.

I loved your description of Frank Flanagan's need to always be in the spotlight. He was always so annoying that it was really a delight to see how tonguetied he got when the tv cameras were switched on. That was such a perfect comedy performance he actually managed to steal the show for a few minutes. It was funny too that it took Ellery a few moments to pick up on the fact that Frank was at a complete loss for words - something Ellery never is.

I agree it was likely more fun for him being on Simon Brimmer's show.

Thanks for another great review.

Ben said...

It's interesting to think about what storytelling purely in sound does with your imagination, the way it visualizes and the way it doesn't. You "see" as much of a room or a person even as you need to. Beyond that the level of detail is pretty much up to you. Of course reading is often like this as well. While an author can go on and on in visual description, confident ones very often leave off while having actually said very little. And speaking of reading, yes, reading aloud is indescribably valuable. I worry about families where this doesn't happen.

It's funny to think about how advertising on television became a big business so quickly so early in the medium's development. Millions of dollars were being spent, and they were already bringing in psychologists, when people watching could very easily lose reception in the middle of your ad and not get it back until the show was almost over. Anyway, it seems your right about dancing cigarette ads, although I still have to credit Ellery Queen for coming up with such a hilariously tacky one. The part about Ellery smoking while stricken with writer's block I got from a book I read recently called The Player on the Other Side which was partly written by Theodore Sturgeon. Yeah, it's a bit of an adjustment. Jim Hutton came up with a new take on the character, and in a lot of ways it's deservedly become the definitive one.

The culprit was pretty apparent from the beginning. The challenge was figuring out what the evidence would be. I liked the way that cooking show gave Ellery his moment of inspiration.

Poor Frank, didn't think he'd get stage fright at all, never mind so bad. Kind of like when Peter O'Toole tries to bolt in My Favorite Year screaming "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" Ellery has no illusions about being either, but he knows what he's talking about.

I'm glad you've enjoyed this little feature. It's been fun.