Mischief, Murder, and the Crooked Hinge

Back in April, I had a friendly email from David Bibb, who was reading my Rough Guide to the Titanic. He took issue with my comment in the introduction that “the evidence suggests that [the Titanic disaster] faded from prominence with the coming of the Great War”.

As well as echoing received wisdom about the Titanic’s place in history, I was thinking of an assertion by the doyen of Titanic authors, Walter Lord. In his book The Night Lives On, Lord wrote that “From 1913 to 1955” – which is to say, before his own  A Night To Remember – “not a single book was published about the disaster”.

The Titanic story certainly didn’t disappear from popular consciousness during those years, however. As my own book makes clear, full-length Titanic movies were released in 1929, 1943 and 1953; countless popular songs re-told the tale; and it figured in all sorts of plays and novels.

Funnily enough, I’ve just stumbled across The Crooked Hinge, written by American author John Dickson Carr in 1937, and hailed by Martin Amis among others as a classic of detective fiction. My wife bought it a few weeks ago, because she’s currently writing a book about Kent, and it happens to be set in Kent. It’s an “impossible crime” mystery, which centres on two boys who may or may not have swapped identities aboard the Titanic as she was sinking. Twenty-five years later, one turns up to claim the inheritance that the other has already received. Murder swiftly ensues . . .

The Crooked Hinge is an entertaining romp, so I don’t want to give away its truly bizarre solution, as painstakingly worked out by amateur sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell. One thing that struck me, though, with my Titanorak hat on, was that I don’t think any modern novelist would get away with getting the details of the disaster quite so wrong.

It doesn’t bother me that Mr Carr strayed far beyond the confines of truth. I just think crime writers couldn’t do it these days, when – thanks to Walter Lord, James Cameron, and many others – their readers would probably know so much more.

To buy the book from Amazon in the US, click here; from Amazon UK, click here.

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S.O.S. – The Titanic Centenary at the BFI

Here’s the full schedule for the Titanic season organised by the British Film Institute.

March 20 6.20pm NFT1, BFI Southbank

Titanic (TV miniseries, 2012)

A special preview screening of episode 1 of Julian Fellowes’ eagerly awaited four-part miniseries, plus a Q&A session featuring Fellowes, director Jon Jones, producers Nigel Stafford-Clark and Simon Vaughan, and cast members.

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April 5 onwards BFI Imax

James Cameron’s Titanic  (USA, 2012)

The new 3D version of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster.

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April 11 6.20pm NFT3, BFI Southbank

Hitchcock’s Titanic Project

A talk by Professor Charles Barr. Alfred Hitchcock was originally scheduled to make his Hollywood directorial debut with a Titanic movie in 1939. He called it a “marvellously dramatic subject for a motion picture”, but the film was never made. Professor Barr will show a sequence edited from his other work to illustrate how it might have looked.

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April 11 8.40pm NFT3, BFI Southbank, and April 15 4pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Atlantic (UK, 1929)

The first talkie to tell the Titanic story – albeit, thanks to pressure from the White Star Line, under a different name – was based on Ernest Raymond’s play, The Berg.

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April 13–28 times vary NFT3 & Studio, BFI Southbank

April 16 8.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank; special showing with introduction

A Night To Remember  (UK, 1958)

More of a docudrama than a conventional narrative, the affecting and beautifully made movie version of Walter Lord’s bestselling book stars Kenneth More as its stern-jawed hero, Second Officer Charles Lightoller.

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April 18 6.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 25 8.30pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

In Nacht und Eis (Germany, 1912) and Titanic  (Germany, 1943)

By the time the dramatic silent In Nacht Und Eis was released in August 1912, footage of icebergs and the Titanic were so familiar that the trade papers were already saying “they don’t attract audiences any more”. As for the so-called “Nazi Titanic”, it’s a fascinating propaganda piece, commissioned by Josef Goebbels, which calls the disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”.

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April 24 8.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 28 6.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Titanic  (USA, 1953)

Romance and redemption against the backdrop of appalling maritime disaster. The young Robert Wagner falls for Audrey Dalton, and estranged couple Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck face the prospect of separating forever – and that’s before the iceberg intervenes.