#859: “You’re a wicked man to be thinking such things…” – Shooting Script and Other Mysteries [ss] (2021) by William Link and Richard Levinson [ed. Joseph Goodrich]

William Link and Richard Levinson are undoubtedly best known today for their work done in creating TV crime-fighters Lieutenant Columbo, Jessica Fletcher, Joe Mannix, and Alexander and Leonard Blacke, as well as for a host of guest writing spots on other classic crime shows from the 1950s onwards. Shooting Script and Other Mysteries (2021) collects 17 stories by the pair that were published over a period of twelve years, mostly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

I don’t know who I think the best writer of short mystery fiction was — Edmund Crispin is certainly up there, as is Arthur Porges — but I’ll die on the hill of the best writer of short crime fiction, with a focus on character and situation over plotting and clewing, being Stanley Ellin. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until I reread them and find my memory is embarrassingly faulty once again: The Speciality of the House (1979), which collects all Ellin’s short crime fiction into one volume, is staggering in not just the breadth but the brilliance on display. ‘The Cat’s-Paw’ (1949), ‘Death on Christmas Eve’ (1950), ‘The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby’ (1950), ‘The Faith of Aaron Menefee’ (1957), ‘The Last Bottle in the World’ (1968), ‘Generation Gap’ (1976)…goddamn, so many classics from one mind.

Anyhoo, I’m diverted into this reminiscence because I see fingerprints of Ellin’s work in these Link and Levinson tales, and that’s about the highest praise I’m able to give any such writing. ‘Whistle While You Work’ (1954), written when these two were teenagers, has the grit-under-the-fingernails feel of the best American crime stories, bringing home the intrusion of violence and death into an otherwise predictable milieu. The final line resonates with the sort of delight Ellin would drop into his straightforward tales of intrigue, and you can feel the justified satisfaction of the young authors radiating off the page.

Link and Levinson were in their thirties by the time these stories were published, and straight away the tonal shift is evident, concerned less with immediate narrative cleverness than with capturing the intrusion of crime as a terrifying-but-regenerative thing. ‘Shooting Script’ (1959), ‘Operation Staying-Alive’ (1959), and ‘Robbery, Robbery, Robbery’ (1959) — this last also published under the title ‘Robbery, Robbery!’, which manages to miss the point quite impressively — seeing ordinary people pulled into the maelstrom and emerging in different ways: bewildered, energised, sometimes terrified…

He cut into a side street, stumbled into a trashcan, and sent it clanging across the curb. Buildings again, high and black, on either side. The sky was dark, starless.

Henderson started running…

Sometimes the protagonists are inspired into further misdeeds, but sometimes it’s simply in trying to do the right thing that catches them out. And, even then, the likes of ‘Child’s Play’ (1959) hits hard precisely because of its lack of emotional stakes, the discovery of the drowned body of a boy who was attending a summer camp told, like ‘Generation Gap’, from the supposedly “wrong” side and thus so much more interesting. And the Frances Iles-esque ‘Suddenly, There Was Mrs. Kemp’ (1959) shows the possibility for easy savagery in Link and Levinson’s world, the working man worn down by life both winning and losing out for once.

“I guess we’ll have to read it to find out what that means…”

These two guys in their thirties do stumble a bit when trying to capture the sense of regret and resignation at the end of a long life, however. ‘The Hundred-Dollar Bird’s Nest’ (1959) takes the long way round to what feels like an intended zinger of a final line that falls a little flat, even if the writing itself is still wonderfully on point at times:

Doctor Mowbray closed his eyes and the daydreams descended. He could picture himself taking a Caribbean cruise, or sunning himself on the lush shores of the Riviera. That was the way to die. Not sitting on the porch of a rotting boarding house, smoking a dime cigar, while the world, the real world, spun brightly out of reach.

And while the reluctance of the sheriff three weeks from retirement in ‘One Bad Winter Day’ (1959) contrasts neatly with the enthusiasm of a young deputy raised “on law enforcement the way it happened in films and on television”, this story of an escaped convict returning to the snowbound scene of his crime lacks direction and purpose. The little delays the sheriff tries to introduce, that they might get to the scene too late, are nice touches, but this again feels geared towards a final line where you’re definitely supposed to feel some kind of somethin’…probably about masculinity or bravery…but I have no idea what.

It was clearly around this time that the concept of unbreakable alibis occurred to Link and Levinson, because, with the exception of ‘The Joan Club’ (1959) — which isn’t criminous, being instead a very good joke — the theme gets repeated in quick succession. Starting with “two hen-pecked fools distilling bravery from a bottle”, ‘Memory Game’ (1959) sees a return to unhappy marriages, brings to mind half a classic from nine years earlier, and cuts off just as it gets interesting, and ‘Who is Jessica?’ (1960) is a well-wrought piece of domestic suspense, playing on the entrenched neuroses and anxiety of a wife whose husband has whispered the eponymous name in his sleep and then headed off on a suspiciously sudden business trip:

Then, quite suddenly, she understood why the house was so quiet. It was Thursday, the maid’s day off. She would be alone for hours, no one to talk to, no one to protect her. How in heaven’s name could Arthur have been so cruel?

Best of the bunch, though, and possibly highlight of the collection, is the magnificent ‘Dear Corpus Delicti’ (1960), in which we follow a man’s perfect scheme to murder his wife and start a new life with his mistress. Not only is the character of our murderer revealed as suitably unpleasant through a couple of superbly subtle turns of phrase, the clicking into place of the events he masterminds builds to a beautifully savage ending. Maybe this story is famous already but, if it isn’t, it deserves to be.

“We’ll start spreading the word…”

‘No Name, Address, Identity’ (1961) is the first appearance of Mannix…Dr. Ralph Mannix, that is, whose name and address a young man finds in his pocket along with a thousand-dollar bill. The only problem is that this young man was hit by a car a few minutes previously and has lost his memory. Keen to find out who he is and why he’s carrying no identification of his own, he heads to the address and really only one of two options is likely from that point on. It’s light, quick, and fun, but short of these guys at their best.

There’s more than a little of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected about ‘Top-Flight Aquarium’ (1962) — concerning, as with ‘The Hundred Dollar Bird’s Nest’, the universal theme of temptation put in the way of someone minding their own business but hoping for more — a story that’s very successful if only because of the extra time spent establishing its slightly sombre air behind its off-kilter setting (“People get old, they need company, he decided. Human or animals, it doesn’t make any difference. As long as they have something to take care of.”). ‘The End of an Era’ (1962) and ‘Exit Line’ (1962) show Link and Levinson running on fumes a little, crying out for even the slightest smidge of further information to make their eventual end points land more effectively (I don’t need a full timetabled breakdown of everything, but a hint about Miles Grubb’s wife would turn the former into something of a classic, I’m sure). Still, the plots barrel along nicely and prose remains taut and full of purpose:

The two men stumbled across the pavement with the drunken lurch of amateur ice-skaters…

Finally, ‘The Man in the Lobby’ (1966) is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in impetus: a police officer spotting a man he thinks is a murder suspect checking in to a hotel, and hauling him down to the station for questioning. From the suspect’s perspective, this could be a classic Wrong Man thriller, but the authors here have other ideas that, arguably, make this a less than criminous note on which to end. It’s not a bad story by any means, however, and rounds this collection off in a more serious than playful mood.

~

As someone possessed of a broad appreciation of Link and Levinson’s TV work, who nevertheless gets a little mumbly where specifics are concerned, I found a lot to enjoy in this collection. The clustering of dates gives an impression of the themes that they were seeking to explore, and the chronological ordering of them in this collection helps appreciate the development of the two as writers and plotters where prose stories are concerned, and speaks of a keen, questing intellect that would transfer itself to the small screen very well indeed.

Were I to pick a top five, I guess they’d currently be:

  1. ‘Dear Corpus Delicti’
  2. ‘Whistle While You Work’
  3. ‘Suddenly, There Was Mrs. Kemp’
  4. ‘Top-Flight Aquarium’
  5. ‘The Man in the Lobby’

…but ‘The Joan Club’ is a perfectly-formed gem of a story that doesn’t really bear comparison with the rest and so should be taken as an entity all of its own. All told, this is a very enjoyable collection, and its contents more than warrant the attention that the names attach will draw. With thanks to Jeff Marks for the review copy, Shooting Script and Other Mysteries is available now from Crippen & Landru.

~

Only three weeks until the titles for the forthcoming spoiler-heavy discussions of Agatha Christie books are announced; make sure you’ve voted

17 thoughts on “#859: “You’re a wicked man to be thinking such things…” – Shooting Script and Other Mysteries [ss] (2021) by William Link and Richard Levinson [ed. Joseph Goodrich]

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these and reminding me that I wanted to get a copy of this! It sounds like an interesting collection and I obviously love the writers’ TV work.

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    • I can’t compare this to their TV work in the way that others could, but there’s definitely quality enough to make it a very, very worthwhile read on its own merits. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

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      • Their early TV work, prior to MURDER, SHE WROTE, is superb. ELLERY QUEEN is the best-ever American TV mystery series. MANNIX is great fun. They’re examples of just how good American TV could be.

        MURDER, SHE WROTE on the other hand sums up everything that was wrong with American television.

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          • I suspect it was the network’s fault. If you look at American television in the 60s, 70s and 80s you find over and over again that if a series possessed any originality or quirkiness or intelligence the word would come down from the network to remove those disturbing and offensive elements.

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            • I completely disagree about the idea that MURDER, SHE WROTE is a poor show or that there was an obvious drop in quality in the work by Link and Levinson around this time. Their hard-hitting TV Movies such as THE GUARDIAN, HOSTILE WITNESS and PROTOTYPE as well as their mysteries GUILTY CONSCIENCE and VANISHING ACT. At which point Levinson died tragically young. MSW is a properly clued mysteries and features an older leading lady – any idea how rare that was and how unlikely it was to succeed? Like EQ it was meant to be light and fun. And it is. And it was a gigantic hit. What are these 1980s US TV shows that you think were do much better in the genre? I can’t really think of any.

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            • The best episodes from Murder, She Wrote can (IMO) be found in its first season and suspect some of the episodes were originally intended for Ellery Queen before it got canceled. It’s not difficult to imagine Ellery Queen in episodes like We’re Off to Kill the Wizard and Murder Takes the Bus. There’s even an often overlooked Easter egg hidden at the end of the first episode, The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, which is a call back to the ending of the Ellery Queen pilot episode (Too Many Suspects). But the plots became less complicated after the first season, which no doubt helped a lot to keep the show on the air.

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            • With American television there has always been that pressure from the networks for bland programs that will offend nobody, and for programs that have no plot complexity so as to appeal to the broadest possible audience. It’s like fast food – bland and boring but innocuous and inoffensive.

              Lots of American TV series started off being quite interesting but by season two the network would always get what it wanted – maximum blandness and a minimum of originality. The networks were terrified of originality. They wanted no-risk programming.

              ELLERY QUEEN has such a glowing reputation because it only lasted one season. Had it been renewed for a second season it’s likely that the plots would have become less challenging and less interesting and all traces of quirkiness would have been removed.

              I don’t hate MURDER, SHE WROTE. I just find it to be, on the whole, disappointingly bland. But I agree that there were some good first season episodes.

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    • There’s virtually no detection in the “clues and slip-ups” sense, but from a crime story and suspense perspective there is a huge amount here to admire.

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  2. Great review JJ. I love Ellin and his work is definitely a big influence, and I think one can definitely add Roald Dahl and John Collier to that list too. I agree, DEAR CORPUS DELECTI is probably the standout, the finale just brilliant stuff (Levinson and Link’s original title before the editor changed it was “May I Come In” and I certainly prefer it). Worth pointing out that “the boys” (as they were known during their two decades under contract at Universal Studios) were actually only in they mid to late twenties when most of the stories were published (most are from 1959 and ’60 and Link was born in 1933 and Levinson in 1934).

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    • A fascinating review and a reminder that I really need to get around to all those C&L volumes that have accumulated on the big pile.

      “…written when these two were teenagers…”

      Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the editorship of Frederic Dannay, deserves some long overdue praise for encouraging aspiring, teenage writers by publishing their stories and allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them (see James Yaffe’s “Cul de Sac”). I believe they even published an issue with short stories (or short-shorts) written by children.

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  3. Yes, without EQMM we would have missed so many stellar achievements. With every lapidary Ellin story treated as an event by Dannay, it certainly makes sense that he (along with Collier and Dahl) would be a touchstone for the young Levinson and Link and I look forward to finally checking these out.

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