Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by Don Ward

Originally published in 1948
Adapted from the film Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock which an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play.
This novelization is attributed to Don Ward.

This is the story of a murder – committed without apparent motive, accomplished by a piece of rope, in cold blood and without passion. The only motive of its two bright young authors is the desire for the supreme thrill of proving superior to humdrum everyday human beings.
Brandon is brilliant and arrogant, a young egomaniac proudly convinced of his place in a select group of individuals whose acts are above any moral law. Philip is a gifted pianist, but a weakling, influenced by Brandon to try murder.
But the act of murder is not enough. Because Brandon believes that thrills come only from the experience of great danger, the young men arrange for their “guest of honor” to be present at a dinner they are giving for several guests.

The map on the back cover of the Dell paperback
Mapback 262: This map of the apartment is hardly essential but captures the space well, though a crucial object, the trunk, is conspicuous in its absence.

A few years ago I came across my first Dell Mapback which kicked off what has become something of an obsession for me. Like many fans of vintage mysteries, I adore a good map and so this series of paperbacks, accompanied by a lovely color visualization of a crime scene or location, quickly became a focus for my book collecting efforts.

When I learned that one of the series was a novelization of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I naturally wanted to get my hands on a copy. This was not because I expected much from the book on a literary level but purely out of fondness for the source material. I was curious to see what choices the novelist, apparently an uncredited Don Ward, would make in adapting a film which is itself an adaptation of a famous stage play by Patrick Hamilton.

I haven’t really written about Rope here before but certainly do intend to do so in the future, so I hope you’ll forgive me leaving my reasons for loving that film for another day. Those who read me regularly can probably guess many of them anyway. Instead, let me begin by giving you a little background to the story.

Rope takes place on a single evening in “real time” during a dinner party. The story begins moments after a pair of young men, Brandon and Philip, have murdered one of their old school friends, shoving his body into a trunk. Their victim, David, was not killed out of malice (though some of what Brandon says may contradict this) or in a heat of passion but rather because the two young men are keen to experience the sensation of murder which they have come to believe is ‘a privilege for the few’.

To heighten their excitement, Brandon has arranged for a small dinner party to take place in their apartment. The guests include the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and her ex, as well as their former schoolmaster Rupert Cadell who was responsible for introducing them to the philosophies that fascinate them while in prep school. All of whom will spend their evening just feet away from the body, the dinner being served off the top of the trunk that contains the body.

Tensions build throughout the dinner as Brandon and Philip find themselves reacting quite differently to their actions, one becoming ever more outrageous and daring while the other becomes jumpy and fearful. As the dinner progresses we wait to see how those tensions will develop and if anyone will open that trunk…

Ward sticks pretty closely to the content of the Hitchcock film, albeit with some minor alterations, the most obvious being that Brandon Shaw is instead called Wyndham Brandon, as in the stage play. This is a pretty cosmetic change but I think calling the character by a last name instead of their given name reminds us of those prep school ties that are so important to this story.

The most significant different though is perhaps a consequence in the change of medium. One of the challenges Hitchcock had with bringing Rope from stage to screen was that the play quite overtly depicts the two young men and their mentor as being gay. Hitchcock’s film could not be as direct and so uses more coded language and visual suggestions, particularly in the aftermath of the murder, to allow the viewer to infer it.

A novel like this, written in an authorative third person voice, allows us some direct insight into the thoughts and mentalities of its characters. This means that inevitably the author has to address and define that relationship, opting to eliminate the sexual angle with the relationship characterized as Brandon having ‘an older-brother interest’ in Philip. The dynamic shifts to become that of one very strong voice dominating their weaker, more malleable but entirely platonic friend. While it would certainly be possible to interpret the relationship in the film that way, it does seem to fly in the face of its most obvious reading.

Ward’s text is quite lean, driven largely by the dialogue. Descriptions are usually quite brief and functional, typically used to convey movement in the space or a character’s body language. He clearly understood that the tension here would come from the conversations and the games that the characters are playing with each other and prioritizes keeping their rhythm to allow that tension to build as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

What keeps me as dismissing this as an entirely functional exercise in converting a screenplay to prose is that there are a few points in the story where Ward does provide us with more, particularly towards the end of the story. These are the moments at which the dialogue slows down and he steps in to fill those moments, capturing the rising tensions quite well. At these points he injects some of his own reading of the story into the book, making it clear what characters know, believe and suspect at key points. Some of those moments may differ at points from the way I had interpreted the scenes but it does show an intention to engage with and interpret that action rather than simply transcribe it, making the work a little more interesting.

It is not enough however for me to suggest that this is a distinct and worthwhile experience in its own right. There are no ways in which this novel is superior to its source material and, at best, it merely reproduces its successes. While the characters are surprisingly vibrant on the page, they still cannot compare with the performances from John Dall or Farley Granger and it does, and I note above, lose some character context and diminishes the complexities of those characters as a consequence.

While I would not recommend reading this ahead of watching the film or experiencing Hamilton’s play (there was an excellent radio version done with Alan Rickman in the Rupert part that is worth a listen if you can track it down), I did find it quite readable and enjoyed it as a supplement to those experiences. Not unlike the experience of reading a Target adaptation of a Doctor Who serial. Hardly essential, but entertaining enough.

The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur

Originally published in 1964
The Three Investigators #1
Followed by The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot

Finding a genuine haunted house for a movie set sounds like fun — and a great way to generate publicity for the Three Investigators’ new detective agency. But when the boys arrive for an overnight visit at Terror Castle — home of a deceased horror-movie actor — they soon find out how the place got its name!

Some of you may have deduced that lately I have found myself in a bit of a reading slump. That is not actually reflected in the posts I have made on this blog but rather the absence of new material. This past fortnight I have found myself either abandoning books or, in one case, finishing it but deciding against writing a post as I have no wish to vent my dislike of something I was never likely to enjoy anyway and which I was reading for a professional obligation.

I have previously shared the importance of the Three Investigators stories to my first becoming interested in mystery fiction and have made a habit of acquiring any copies I come across in second-hand bookshops. When I recently stumbled onto a copy of The Secret of Terror Castle, the first in that series, the timing seemed auspicious and I decided the time was right to revisit one of the old favorites…

The story outlines the formation of the investigative team after Jupiter Jones wins the rights to the use of a gold-plated limo and a rather starchy (but ultimately quite lovable) chauffeur for a month. Hearing that movie director Alfred Hitchcock is in town in search of a haunted house for his new picture, Jones proposes that the three try to find one that will suit his needs.

The house they find is the ominously-named Terror Castle, the former home of a silent movie star who died in a mysterious accident many years earlier. The house seems to unsettle anyone who steps foot in it after dark which the trio confirms when their own initial expedition meets with failure as the boys find themselves fleeing in terror. Determined not to fail however, Jones pushes his friends to return and discover the house’s secrets.

One of the surprises for me in revisiting this was that the process of forming the investigative team is essentially glossed over. The competition where Jones wins the limo provides the means but we are told that this is something that he had long thought about and it is presented as something of a fait accompli where he tells his friends and they basically just go along with the idea. That would clearly not work in a teen or young adult book but it feels pretty appropriate in this context, particularly as it reinforces that Jones can be rather domineering.

He is the standout member of the team, displaying a much stronger personality than either of the other investigators. While the other two are basically defined by their roles – the bookish one and the sporty one – Jones is given something of a backstory to justify some of his skills, such as a talent for mimicry which is used rather amusingly early in this story. My memory is that the others fare better in some of the subsequent stories but the choice to focus on one character is probably the right one for an introductory story as it does rather streamline the decision-making process.

I enjoy a lot about the early chapters of the book with the attempt to get into the studios to see Mr. Hitchcock being a particular delight. While they enjoy a great degree of luck and some elements that might frankly be described as pure fantasy (why exactly is a schoolmate working as his secretary?), it makes for pretty amusing reading and gets things off to a promising start. There is even a hint of a rivalry with another kid from school that will be called back nicely later in the story.

While I enjoy the way Arthur pulls the elements into place, I think the premise for this adventure is rather weak. There is, of course, the practical question of why Hitchcock would not be aware of a house in his immediate vicinity that meets the needs of his production. Even if we accept that though, I think that there is a broader question as to why, having established that the house is pretty freaky, they need to explain why to meet their client’s needs. Sure, Jupe gives a justification for this in the book but it isn’t very convincing – at least to this now-adult reader.

Fortunately the setting for the story, the titular Terror Castle, is appealing and intriguing enough to get me to overlook my issues with the setup. The question of why the house is able to elicit a sense of terror in those inside it is an intriguing one and I quite enjoyed the explanation for the house’s reputation, even if the explanations for a few individual components of that are a little less convincing.

Along the way we get to follow some rather solid investigative work done by the boys, turning up some pretty good clues. An encounter with a neighbor offers some particularly strong examples of this and while they are unlikely to trouble adult readers, this is exactly the sort of material that caught my imagination and really appealed to me when I was first reading this as a preteen.

It is this aspect of clueing that I think is the reason this series retains much of its appeal for me as an adult. While this is clearly a simple mystery by adult standards and there are some childish aspects to the setup, Arthur never talks down to his readers. Nor are we asked to believe that his child protagonists have unnatural abilities (or luck) – instead they use observation and deduction to work out what is going on.

While The Secret of Terror Castle may not be one of the best Three Investigators mysteries, it is still a really enjoyable, engaging read and, more importantly, it sets things up beautifully for the adventures to follow. There is even a nice lead-in to the next adventure which, if memory serves, is rather a good one…

The Verdict: This does a fine job of introducing the characters and the premise, even if the case is not one of their strongest.

The Mystery of the Screaming Clock by Robert Arthur

Originally Published in 1964 (this date may well be wrong – Google has it as 1968 but the copyright page of my copy says 64 while Goodreads says 65).

Three Investigators #9
Preceded by The Mystery of the Silver Spider
Followed by The Mystery of the Moaning Cave

The alarm clock went off with the bloodcurdling scream of a woman in mortal terror! Who could have made such a clock – and why?

The Three Investigators immediately set out to discover where the mysterious clock came from. When they come across a run-down house in Hollywood, they find an entire room full of dreadful clocks – and time is running out!

Today’s post will likely feel a little different from my usual style, being as much about the impact this book (and the series) had on me as about its individual or distinctive features.

I was prompted to pick up a copy of this book off my shelf by a conversation I had with some of my colleagues during an online meeting. As an icebreaker we each presented a book that meant a lot to us as a child – my own choice was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was the first book I recall setting out to read entirely by myself.

After the meeting was over though I started thinking about the mystery fiction I had read during those formative, preteen years. In particular, I thought about The Five Find-Outers, The Secret Seven, Joe and Frank Hardy and The Three Investigators. Of those I have the most fond memories of The Three Investigators.

Part of it was, I suspect, that I identified strongly with Jupiter Jones who, like me, was a bit of a know-it-all and somewhat big-boned. I felt far more affinity for Jupiter – a boy who used his brains and reasoning – than the impossibly clean-cut and athletic Hardy brothers or the prim types that filled Enid Blyton’s stories.

The reason I am writing about this title – the ninth in the Three Investigators series – is that it is one of the first I remember reading. I first picked up a copy of this book at a store somewhere in the vicinity of the world’s largest pear drop at Oswaldtwistle Mills in Lancashire (my memory is that it was in a gift shop associated with it but I cannot understand why they would have been selling it). I can only assume it was second-hand as my copy was one of the earlier editions presented by Alfred Hitchcock – a fact that led me to erroneously believe that he had actually written these until I was well into my teen years.

This is a pile of regularly-sized pear drops. The world’s largest pear drop is similar but bigger.
Image by Katie Hopkins – this has been cropped slightly. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

I enjoyed those first few volumes enough that I went on to pick up most of those early titles in the series although I was a little baffled by the sudden replacement of Alfred Hitchcock by some interloper by the name of Hector Sebastian. The Paragraph Paperback edition I read recently had been rewritten to feature Mr. Sebastian.

This particular installment in the series involves our intrepid trio of investigating chums finding a strange alarm clock that has been sold to Jupiter’s Uncle Titus as part of a box of junk. The alarm clock gives out a strong shriek when it goes off, leading Jupiter to think that there is a mystery there to be solved. He wants to find out who created the clock and why.

I noted in my response to JJ’s review of this story, this is one of the stories I remember best from the series. In my comment I speculated that this may be as much to do with the setting in which I bought and read it as the material itself – a trip to visit my grandparents. I do however recall shivering at the thought of a screaming alarm clock which perfectly hit the sort of creepy notes that were one of the chief appeals of the series to me (Whispering Mummy and Talking Skull are the other ones I clearly remember).

It soon transpires that this case will take the form of a sort of treasure hunt as the trio work with a teenaged boy to decipher clues that have been left for them. This device is quite a lot of fun, particularly as the clues involve a mix of general knowledge and lateral thinking, making them fair and accessible for an inquisitive preteen.

There is also a pretty surprising amount of action, some of which must have been quite gritty for a book aimed at this audience. Arthur puts several of the boys in pretty serious physical danger at points. While my adult self was confident that the trio would emerge unscathed, I am pretty sure that preteen Aidan would have been firmly perched on the edge of his seat.

Another aspect of this book I recall really finding interesting was the depiction of an aspect of the entertainment industry. In this case it was the idea of having an expert screamer for a radio series. Radio was an obsession of mine at that age (and I still love it) and so that idea really appealed to me.

What I think pleased me most in revisiting the story nearly twenty-five years after first reading it was that I felt it held up pretty well. There are a few far-fetched elements but Arthur pulls everything together very well towards the end, providing a logical explanation and making sense of what has happened and why.

Rereading it took me back to staying in my grandparents’ home in Preston, reading this on a very rainy afternoon while eating Eccles cakes and laying on their sofa. It is funny how a book from childhood can be bound up with so many other memories…

This leads me to wonder if you have any similar titles from childhood (or later) that are so tightly associated with a place or time. I’d love to read some of your own special titles.

The Verdict: To my delight this book held up to my memories of it. It’s a strong case with a great treasure hunt component.