Thursday, November 20, 2008


Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007 by Robert M. Gorman & David Weeks (MacFarland, 2008)

It's books like this that make me realise that yes, it really is a wonderful world. Extensive, exhaustive, obsessive and authoritative without being dull, boring or pedantic, this is my kind of reference book. Messrs. Gorman and Weeks are university librarians and card-carrying SABR members who have combined their passion with their profession to uncover as many baseball-related fatality as possible, from Carl May's fatal beaning of Ray Chapman to a toddler getting hit by a thrown bat at the playground.

A must for the coffee tables of the sardonic, they classify the deaths into 13 broad categories such as beanings, on field collisions, and "Fan Fatalities From Falls, Risky Behavior, and Violence." Each category is broken down according to level (majors, minors, amateurs). In all, almost 1,000 deaths are covered. Although the longest write-ups are reserved for the small number of major league incidents, the minor-leaguers merit a page or so each, and even the sandlot players get a few lines. Although the writing is neutral in the reference book tradition, it's pleasantly readable and informative. Sometimes, you just gotta let the facts speak for themselves, especially when you're writing about the surprising number of guys killed by their own foul tips.

As long-time Murder Can Be Fun readers know, sports deaths is a particular passion of mine. Over the years, I've amassed a fairly thick file on the subject. But in going through my notes, I can find but six minor league fatalities. They found 16: 9 beanings, one chest pitch, one other thrown ball, three on-field collisions, and one lightning strike! Best trivia: two of the beanings took place at Winnipeg's Sherburn Park!

However, comprehensive is not a synonym for completel. I do have two significant cases that aren't in the book. Frankly, I'm surprised they missed the 1964 incident at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, where a bunch of Little Leaguers were chewed up by the escalator, one fatally so. (see MCBF #18 for full details). The other is a little more obscure. On June 21, 1904, Grove Thomas, catcher of the Babcock Baseball Club of Johnstown, PA took a foul tip in the chest that killed him almost instantly in game with the Indiana Normal (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) nine. My source, Baseball's Greatest Tragedy by Bob McGarigle, claims it was the first actual on-field death, although DatBP clearly disproves this.

But this isn't even a quibble, just a few minor details that will undoubtedly make it into the next edition. As if anyone who reads this blog is going to wait. As is, this book is essential.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The Ususpected by Charlotte Armstrong (1945)

Judging strictly by the cover art, I've always pigeonholed Charlotte Armstrong in the Had-I-But-Known school--Mignon Eberhart plus a few IQ points, perhaps, or Mary Roberts Rinehart minus the brooding mansion. Hardly the stuff of which noir is made.

And judging from The Unsuspected, the eponymous basis for the 1947 Michael Curitz film, I haven't been missing much.

The premise, albeit uninspiring, is not without hope. Rosaleen Wright, secretary to Luther "Grandy" Grandison, a noirish stage/screen director, has committed suicide under suspicious circumstances: hanging herself at her desk in the middle of the workday! Her cousin Jane and fiancee Francis smell a rat. Her "suicide note" was copied from a book of old Scottish trials. They suspect Rosaleen stumbled on Grandy's scheme to bilk to fortune of Mathilda, one of his two wards. In search of evidence, they infiltrate the Grandison compound: Jane as secretary, Francis as the conveniently missing-at-sea Mathilda's "secret husband." If this all sounds familiar, you've been reading your Woolrich!

Alas, unlike Mr. W., Ms. Armstrong's gift is for taking bad melodrama and making it worse. Mathilda quickly re-enters the picture (apparently she couldn't be bothered to radio the news of her dramatic rescue) but only makes a muted fuss over her "husband." Meanwhile, Grandy manipulates his wards as he continues his evil plot. Unfortunately, his other ward Althea (the one without $$) tells Francis that one detail that implicates him. Grandy quickly arranges an "accident" for her and attempts to have Francis tossed into a municipal garbage incinerator. Unfortunately for cynics, Mathilda plunges into the garbage pit and forestalls this most dramatic of ends. And yes, one character tells Francis that they needn't have gone through all this fuss "...if only you'd known."

It's actually a lot worse than it sounds. Armstrong leaves out huge chunks of interesting stuff like how Francis ingratiates himself into Grandy's home. Hell, she doesn't even include the text of the "suicide note." Although Grandy does have the makings of an interesting noir heavy and the garbage pit has its cinematic possibilities, this is one case where the movie can't help but to be better than the book.

"The Unsuspected" screens at the Castro Theater on Friday, January 30.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein (Dell, 1953)

The basis for Fitz Lang's 1956 film While the City Sleeps, Einstein's The Bloody Spur has a small reputation for being one of the first serial killer novels. Alas, the serial killer plays second fiddle to a bunch of typically larger-than-life characters battling for corporate glory written with more than a casual eye towards the bestseller list.

The action starts with the death of the Executive Director of the Kyne Newspaper publishing empire. The donnybrook between his potential successors (the flagship paper's editor, the photo service head, the feature syndicate director, and the wire service chief) over the job starts at the funeral and doesn't let up over 250 pages of corporate infighting, journalistic scheming, sexual shenanigans, and metaphorical throat-cutting. Only two things save this from being an ink-stained rehash of Executive Suite: the vividly realized mid-century newspaper office background, and the occasional chapter from the point of view of the William Heirens-style "Lipstick Killer" who's terrorizing the city to the great joy of the Kyne circulation department.

The "Lipstick Killer" is Robert Manners, a 20-year old college student with severe Oedipal issues as only a character in a 1953 novel can have. He has graduated from breaking into women's apartments to steal their soiled handkerchiefs and used panties and defecate on their floors to strangling and stabbing them. On the wall of one victim, he ensures his immortality by scrawling in lipstick "Help me for God's sake." A handful of delightfully noirish chapters follow Manners about his rounds: stalking his victims, going on bad dates, having an excruciating discussion with his mother about her handkerchiefs and underwear, and most memorably, his finally flight from pursuers through a subway tunnel. He looks down at his feet and sees a fragment of newspaper headline: "Stalks Killer." Most cinematic!

Sadly, Manners barely appears in the last quarter of the book as the little matter of corporate succession is not-so memorably settled. The book works out to 90% corporate and 10% killer, but I'm betting the film is going to come in at a 50/50 split.

While the City Sleep screens at Noir City on January 28th.