The Butler Did It

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson
Photo credit: Wikipedia

For many mystery readers and writers, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned four novels and 56 short stories featuring the character. Additionally, from 1939-1946, a total of 14 films were made starring British actor Basil Rathbone who was indelibly defined in the minds of movie fans as THE Sherlock Holmes. 

(Sorry, Robert Downey, Jr. You were outstanding as Chaplin but you can’t match Basil’s Sherlock)

As imaginative and puzzling as the Holmes mysteries were, a real-life mystery that personally involved Basil Rathbone rivals any fictional tale penned by Conan Doyle. I ran across this tidbit in the Spring 2022 issue of Mystery Scene magazine.

Rathbone relates the story in his autobiographical memoir, In and Out of Character, originally published in 1962 by Doubleday.

In either 1929 or 1930, Rathbone and his second wife Ouida returned to London after several years away. A friend of Ouida’s insisted on helping find servants to staff their new home. A good-looking blond, blue-eyed man named Dennis Poole arrived for his interview with excellent references and was hired as Rathbone’s butler.

The class system in Britain dictated strict conduct that had to be observed by servants toward their employers. Although they were privy to the most intimate details of their masters’ lives, there was a line that must never be crossed. Aristocrats had their station in life and servants had theirs.

Poole came from a long line of butlers. His aspiration was to be the best in the business. To all appearances, Poole was the ideal gentleman’s gentleman, respectful, deferential, anticipating the desires of his employer and fulfilling them quickly and efficiently.

Rathbone soon trusted him enough to leave “considerable sums of cash” on his dressing table without worry of theft.

During the actor’s morning tea and shave, Poole would entertain Rathbone by reciting poetry by Kipling. In conversation, Rathbone learned Poole had never been married; his self-confessed failing was he didn’t care to stay long in one place; and someday he planned to retire and travel.

Poole also charmed the other servants in the household, regaling them with tales of adventure that were colorful but not necessarily believable.

One evening, Poole asked for the night off which was granted. Rathbone encountered Poole as he was leaving the house, splendidly dressed in “white tie and tails, a boutonniere, fur-lined coat, gold-topped cane—and wearing a monocle in his left eye.” He explained his finery to Rathbone with the excuse he was going to the “Servants’ Ball.”

This English tradition was held around the Christmas holiday season. In Rathbone’s book, Ouida is quoted as saying: “Lords and ladies of the realm dancing with cooks and butlers and no condescension on the part of the titled folk, and the domestics like soldiers on parade.”

This was evidently an attempt by the privileged aristocracy to mollify servants’ resentment toward the ruling class.

One stormy winter night when Poole was out, Rathbone, his wife, and a maid entered the butler’s room to close a window that had been left open to the rain. What they found stunned them.

Poole’s dressing table might well have surprised almost anyone entering his room. I looked at my wife, and she was giggling rather self-consciously. Laid out on the dresser, very neatly, were two gold-backed hair brushes and a gold-backed comb; a beautiful Swiss watch as thin as paper; a manicure set in an ivory case, and a row of cut-glass bottles. I lifted the stopper from one of them—eau de cologne; another contained an excellent cognac. I looked at his bed, turned down for the night, silk sheets! Silk pyjamas marked Sulka, and an elaborate and expensive oriental dressing gown were laid out for his return!

“Seems to me I married the wrong man!” My wife giggled again, but somehow I didn’t think what she had said was too funny.

When Rathbone later questioned Poole about the luxurious possessions, he explained, “Some of my gentlemen have been more generous to me than I deserve.”

The episode temporarily raised Rathbone’s suspicions but he dismissed them and life went on with the ideal butler.

The following summer, Poole went on holiday and didn’t return when scheduled. The Rathbones were concerned for his wellbeing but couldn’t locate him. “Poole had been the cornerstone to our comfort all winter, and we hated the thought of losing him.”

Then a woman visited them, saying she was Poole’s sister, Edith. She was visibly upset and very pregnant. She held a newspaper clipping in her hand.

“They got him.”

“Who got him?”

“The police.”

The tale of a double life began to unfold.

One night, near Ciro’s, an elderly socialite couple was approached by a handsome man in full evening dress. They exchanged pleasantries then the man asked for a match. The elderly man felt in his pockets but, when he looked up again, the handsome man now held a revolver. “Whatever you have, hand it over.” To the woman, he said, “That necklace and earrings please.”

Then the thief—Poole—darted away with his loot.

Another night, Poole was dining at the expensive Carleton Grill when he spotted his next victim. He followed the gentleman to the cloak room and engaged him in conversation about which public school he had attended. Poole mentioned he’d gone to a different public school whose name the man also recognized.

(Note: in England, “public school” actually means private exclusive facilities where the wealthy send their offspring).

They bantered about sporting events where their teams might have played against each other while Poole thought, This old school-tie stuff was too good to be true.

They continued their cordial visit as they walked in the evening until they reached the man’s door. As he pulled out his key, Poole pulled out his revolver and robbed the man.

By varying his hunting grounds, Poole continued his successful streak of robberies for months. Posing as the well-dressed “man about town,” he used his upscale appearance to disarm his victims into putting caution aside, allowing him to get close enough to steal from them.

His undoing happened one evening at The Embassy with his wife, Mildred. He had apparently lied to Rathbone about never being married and in fact was providing Mildred with a life of luxury.

Additionally, he may have been supporting his sister who had been impregnated by “His Lordship” who was never named. Apparently, Poole ultimately convinced the anonymous lordship to provide for Edith and her child.

Back to dinner that night at The Embassy.

Poole spotted a couple who looked like “sitting ducks.” While Mildred was powdering her nose, he followed the couple outside the club into a deserted street.

“Excuse me, you dropped something,” he said. When the couple turned, he reached for his revolver but realized he didn’t have it. He tried to bluff, ordering them to give him their valuables.

But…the couple was actually a pair of decoy cops who arrested him.

They escorted him back to the club where a waiter greeted him with his revolver on a silver tray. “This yours, sir?” the waiter asked. “It was found in your coat in the cloak room.”

At Poole’s trial, Rathbone testified as a character witness but to no avail. Poole was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison and nine lashes with the cat o’ nine tails for carrying a weapon.

The “cat” had been a particularly cruel punishment in the British Army and Navy that was abolished in the late 1800s. However, due to a sudden upsurge of violent crimes in the early 1920s, it was brought back for a period of time but ultimately outlawed by England, Scotland, and Wales in the Criminal Justice Act of 1948.

Rathbone wrote: “I have heard it said that most prisoners stand up better under the death sentence than one that carries with it the additional penalty of ‘the cat.’”

Rathbone answered Poole’s letters from prison. He never mentioned “the cat” but wrote that he was composing songs. A few weeks after his release, Rathbone and Poole met.

Mildred had divorced Poole and he was living with his mother. He claimed he learned his robbery technique “from the movies” and said he had never hurt anyone during his crimes.

Poole had learned to play the saxophone and had a job with an orchestra. One of his songs had been published and he gave a copy to Rathbone with a personal inscription, “From your devoted servant, Dennis Poole” followed by a Kipling poem.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Photo credit: Wikipedia

They parted, after Poole helped Rathbone on with his coat, like the gentleman’s gentleman he’d always been.

In 1939, Basil Rathbone began his run playing Sherlock Holmes in the first of 14 films that would forever identify him as the brilliant, enigmatic detective.

Rathbone never saw Dennis Poole again but later learned that Poole ultimately gave his life for his country during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The origin of the phrase The butler did it is widely considered to have been inspired by Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1930 novel, The Door.

Could Rinehart’s inspiration have actually come from the strange tale of Sherlock Holmes’s butler?

~~~

TKZers: Had you heard the story about Basil Rathbone’s butler? (It was news to me!)

Which is your favorite Sherlock Holmes movie?

Who’s better? Rathbone or Downey?

Interview with Blackstone Publishing’s Rick Bleiweiss

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, please welcome Rick Bleiweiss, Head of New Business Development for Blackstone Publishing. Rick is a former record company senior executive, Grammy-nominated producer, podcaster, and journalist. He is also the author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, a mystery set in 1910 in a sleepy English village, to be released in February 2022.

Rick Bleiweiss

 

…What I’m doing at 77 years of age [is] an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

 

 

 

Debbie Burke: Thanks for visiting with us, Rick! Blackstone Publishing is unusual in that they started with audiobooks then later added print and ebooks. Could you tell us about that shift and the reasons behind it?

Rick Bleiweiss: The decision to begin publishing books and ebooks in addition to audiobooks was made about seven years ago. We published our first books in 2015. It was primarily driven by three things.

First, the more popular audiobooks became the more other publishers held onto those rights, made their own audiobooks, and stopped licensing them to other companies, such as Blackstone.

Second, we felt that we could succeed well as a publisher of books and audiobooks and have those as another income stream. And we felt we could ramp up quickly as we already were evaluating manuscripts, involved with authors and storytellers, and selling and distributing audiobooks to many of the same buyers at accounts whom we’d be selling books and eBooks to. So that would make it an easy transition.

An added benefit of licensing all rights to a book – print, ebook, audiobook – is that we would be getting the audios, which would start making up for the ones we were no longer getting from some other publishers.

Third, the vision of Blackstone’s CEO (and owners) was to make Blackstone into more than just a traditional publishing company, but rather to turn it into a media company that has publishing and storytelling as its foundation, but also is involved in securing film & tv deals and being a media producer, creating intellectual properties, doing video games, comic books and magazines, and creating and selling merchandising. And we are doing all of that today and more, including owning our own printing plant so that we can make everything in house and never be out of print.

Regarding how we started our print program, early on we obtained the rights to the Max Brand and Loius L’Amour catalogs and signed a number of authors who had some past success but were not yet major sellers. Then it really kicked up a notch when I signed PC & Kristin Cast and we published the last their books in their 12-million selling House of Night series. Then our visionary CEO Josh Stanton and I got the James Clavell catalog, and I signed Natasha Boyd, who has had one of our biggest on-going books, the USAToday best-seller, The Indigo Girl. That was closely followed by signing Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his Hell Divers series.

DB: In 2019, Blackstone, a family-owned, independent press, made news by luring heavy hitters Meg Gardiner, Steve Hamilton, and Reed Farrel Coleman away from Penguin Random House. Without spilling any secrets, do you anticipate Blackstone’s further expansion of authors who may be disgruntled with the Big Five?

RB: Actually, they were not the first nor have they been the last, although they were major signings. I wouldn’t characterize it as disgruntled with the Big Five as much as wanting to go with a different publisher paradigm. Josh Stanton and I were able to license the aforementioned entire James Clavell catalog (including his classic Asian Series featuring Sho-Gun) and Gregory McDonald’s catalog (Fletch and Flynn series) both of which I believe had been with Dell for many years but whose estates were looking for something different. Other authors who we have signed to do print and eBooks who have also been with major publishers are Sherilyn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Catherine Coulter, Rex Pickett, James Carroll, Peter Clines, Andrews & Wilson, PC & Kristin Cast, Josh Hood, a good part of the Leon Uris catalog, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Al Roker, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Adrian McKinty, Orson Scott Card, M.C. Beaton, Matthew Mather, Don Winslow, Shelley Shepherd Gray, Catherine Ryan Howard, The Black Berets series and quite a few others.

I think that many people are starting to realize that we are expanding well beyond the role of a traditional publisher and that we are looking at what tomorrow’s successful media/publishing companies will be like and look like, rather than what it the traditional way of doing things. Hopefully, we have taken the best time-honored industry practices and augmented them with newer ways of looking at what a publisher can and should do. As an example, we have a head of film/tv who got deals for eight of our books within the last three months.

DB: Please describe a day in the life of Head of New Business Development.

RB: Fortunately, because it keeps my business life interesting, there have been many different things I’ve done in that role. I’ve bought other companies for Blackstone (such as the direct-to-consumer company, Audio Editions), licensed our technology to other audiobook companies, arranged distribution deals with other publishers, made introductions between Blackstone and high-profile tech and content companies, I am on Blackstone’s Board of Directors, I put together the relationship between Blackstone and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which resulted in Grammy-winning audio versions of their Shakespeare plays, I co-created a series of books by Native American elders to preserve their wisdom, humor and teachings.

In short, I have had my fingers in a lot of different pies and strive to be one of the people at the company who keeps Blackstone moving forward as well as in new directions.

DB: What specifically captures your attention when you review submissions?

RB: Since the majority of the acquisitions work that I’ve been doing lately has been more focused on celebrities, best-selling authors and hit catalogs, rather than on debut authors, I look for different things now than I did when I was evaluating day-to-day acquisitions. When I did that, I would look to see if the synopsis intrigued me, if I thought the story was something that the public would be interested in, what the author’s background, social media involvement and overall commitment to being a writer were, and what our sales and marketing people thought they could do with the book. And, of course, finally, was the writing any good?

For an author who wants to submit a query to an agent or a publisher (and submitting to an agent is probably a way lot easier than submitting directly to a publisher) they should make sure to know something about each person they are submitting to so they can personalize each letter/email. The author has to make sure the genre they are submitting is a genre the agent or publisher works in. The query letter should also contain a short, but effective, synopsis of the story, the author’s bio, comps to other books, anyone they could get to endorse the book who would be meaningful (if anyone), and, if possible, something that perks the reader’s interest and sets the query letter apart from the hundreds of others that the agent/publisher has received.

DB: Tell us about your own writing.

RB: When I was twelve, I hammered out the first two-page sports newspaper that I wrote on my old Royal manual typewriter and sold the two carbon copies I made of it to neighbors. Over the decades since that time, I have written multiple newspaper columns, magazine columns and articles (including cover stories), blogs, copy for a local political committee and candidates, contributed chapters to two anthologies of short stories, and have written six, as yet unpublished and unproduced books and plays, and a rock opera.

My “breakthrough” came when I wrote Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, an historical fiction mystery novel set in the countryside town of Haxford, England in 1910 (which will be published in hardcover by Blackstone on February 8, 2022. An eccentric, but gifted, police inspector named Pignon Scorbion, who possesses the skills of Poirot and Holmes, comes to Haxford to head its law enforcement. Through a prior friendship with the town’s barber, Scorbion begins solving his cases in the barbershop assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuth assistants – the barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant, female bookshop owner who is more than a match for Scorbion in observation, deduction and brains.

Scorbion’s ‘universe’ includes Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Dr. John Watson, with whom Scorbion has become friends, and I’ve written the book in the style of the authors of that time and genre.

DB: What’s in the future for author Rick Bleiweiss?

RB: I’ve completed writing over 95% of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Book 2 which I believe will be published in early 2023. Without spoiling anything, it contains a case about a man who is shot and killed by an arrow while riding alone in a hot air balloon, another about the shoeshine man’s visiting cousin who is attacked and brutally beaten, a third involving a blacksmith who is murdered while walking home in the early morning, and lastly, a moneylender who is poisoned and dies in one of the barber’s chairs.

I also have a piece in an anthology of mystery short stories called Hotel California that is publishing in May, 2022. I join some real heavyweights in the book including, Heather Graham, Andrew Child (who has contributed a new Jack Reacher story to the anthology), Amanda Flower, Reed Farrel Coleman, John Gilstrap, Jennifer Dornbush, and Don Bruns, all of whom have written new stories for the volume.

My story is about a premier NYC hitman named Walker who escapes a hit on his life and hides out in Maui while another hitman is sent to finish him off. It’s a cat and mouse game of who gets who.

I also will have another Walker story in the follow-up anthology, Thriller, due in mid-2023.

Lastly, at least for now, in January I have stories being published in Strand Magazine detailing a lot of the research I did for the Scorbion book, and another in Crime Reads Magazine in which I talk in depth about my favorite all-time mystery authors.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: We are launching Scorbion in a somewhat unconventional manner. There is a Pignon Scorbion ‘Find the Hidden Objects” video game that will be available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. It will have six levels based on scenes in the book, but you will have to input an unlock code to play the last two – and that code is in the book and the audiobook. Shane Salerno of the Story Factory made a wonderful video trailer for the book, there will be retail display contests, we are making and will be selling Scorbion t-shirts, the book has already been voted the Buzz Book of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn’s fall conference, has been featured multiple times in Publishers Weekly (including an excellent review), will be featured by BookBub on publication date, I am hosting a YouTube show interviewing authors and literary agents as they talk about their careers and give advice to aspiring authors, and we are going to make a strong media push hoping to get what I’m doing at 77 years of age as an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

~~~

Thank you, Rick, for joining us at The Kill Zone. Best of luck with the February 2022 launch of Pignon Scorbion & The Barbershop Detectives!

 

The Magic of Sherlock Holmes

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Spring break is nearly upon us so forgive my rather brief blog post (we are preparing to take my 9 year old twin up for a spot of skiing in the beautiful mountains near us – so things are a little crazy).  Luckily, both my boys are great readers (so we get to take lots of books with us!) and I love how we can now discuss books we’ve all read and how I can give them recommendations now that don’t (usually) provoke a whole lot of eye-rolling.  I also still read to them every night and have recently started introducing them to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. 

A few pages into the Hound of the Baskervilles, however, and my boys were already terrified (not a good idea just before bed!) so we started instead with A Study in Scarlet and have just recently moved on to The Sign of Four. What is amazing to me is how, despite the old-fashioned language and pace, both my boys are already totally hooked – and I think it’s not really the mystery that draws them in but the character of Holmes himself. It really is amazing to think that a character which in many ways is such a product of his times can be still so intriguing over a hundred years later. As a mum of course, I do have to explain his drug use and the smoking…but, hey, I think of these as…er…’teachable’ moments!

I came to Sherlock Holmes quite late  (I was well into my twenties before I read my first Holmes’ story) – compared to my husband who devoured all the stories when he was in the 5th and 6th grade at school in Australia. Though I enjoyed the stories, I don’t think I appreciated the mesmerising qualities of Sherlock Holmes as a character until I started reading the stories aloud to my boys. I’ve been interrogated by them on every aspect of his character – from whether he was based on a real person, to why he knows so much, to how, on earth, he can make such amazing deductions…He’s like a super-hero in many ways but also an enigmatic and  flawed hero – which is what, I suspect, makes him so intriguing. 

I’m looking forward to continuing to read these stories to my boys and then, I hope, handing the books over to them to read for themselves. To me, one of the great pleasures of being a parent, is passing on a love of reading. I already see each of my twins developing their own reading preferences and am glad that, at least in so far as Sherlock Holmes is concerned, they are gaining an appreciation for mysteries:)

So – tell me, are you are Sherlock Holmes fan? Do you have a particular favourite story? What do you think makes both him (as a character) and Conan Doyle’s stories endure? 

What’s in a Name?

by James Scott Bell

Mystery writers everywhere honor the name of that master detective, Sherrinford Holmes, and his good friend, Ormond Sacker.

Or not.

And what about that great heroine of the Civil War South, Pansy O’Hara? Remember her?

Of course you don’t. Because Margaret Mitchell thankfully scotched it after briefly considering it for her lead in Gone With the Wind. Props also to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for choosing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, after toying with those other names.

The name of a Lead character, especially one who will be the star of a series, is not to be randomly selected. Sherlock Holmes is perfect. (Doyle admired Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Sherlock may have been the name of Doyle’s favorite cricket batsman). And Scarlett is just right for Miss O’Hara.

Travis McGee, the popular creation of John D. MacDonald, has a sound like the character himself–living on a houseboat, few cares in the world, hard when he needs to be.

Could any gumshoe be tougher than Sam Spade?

Ignatius J. Reilly and Myrna Minkoff definitely belong in John Kennedy Toole’s oddly structured comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

And so it goes, with other names like: Winter Massey, Kate Gallagher, Cotten Stone, Ursula Marlow, Jonathan Grave and Kelly Jones.

Good, solid monikers all. I wonder what the naming process was for the creators of these characters? Perhaps they’ll share it with us.

Here is what went into naming my own series character, Ty Buchanan, whose latest appearance is in Try Fear.

Tyler is from Fight Club. Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the film) is primal, nihilistic, violent. In Try Dying, the first book in my series, Ty Buchanan has to contend with similar feelings as his world is turned upside down. An up-and-coming lawyer in LA, Ty has it all. But his fiancée is killed (on page 1) and when he goes looking for answers, he’s forced into a street existence that both engenders and requires a hard-edged response.

Buchanan is from a favorite Western of mine, Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, dir. Budd Boetticher), starring the iconic Randolph Scott. He is, in the best western tradition, an anti-hero and loner, but with a strong inner code of honor. He doesn’t look for trouble, but when it finds him, he fights. And he always displays an insouciant good humor.

I wanted these two dynamics to play out within Ty Buchanan. They provide counterpoint and inner conflict, as the Buchanan side is often at odds with the Durden aspect. Thus, the name.

So, writer, how did you choose names for your Lead characters? Is it more than a sound for you? Is there a deeper meaning you look for? Or do you just run your finger down the white pages of a phone book?

And you, reader, what names come to your mind when you think of memorable literary heroes?

New Characters Wanted

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
http://www.clareangleyhawthorne.com/

Jane Austen was a vampire…Pride & Prejudice meets Zombies or Predator…

What next – Charles Dickens as a serial killer? Charlotte Bronte as a transgender PI? I’ve had enough of people ripping off famous authors, famous characters and famous historical figures. Create your own bloody characters I say!

Inspired by yesterday’s blog post on creating powerful characters that jump off the page I simply had to vent today (yes, it’s my Monday rant!) about the use of what I call gimmicks rather than characters. I know that in today’s commercial environment, the publishing industry (just as the movie industry) wants name recognition but really…WTF???

In Australia we used to have a segment called ‘what cheeses me off’ – and here’s mine for today – a list if you will of character gimmicks that drive me nuts.

  1. The rehash of past literary detectives – enough with Sherlock Holmes already! The only one who has pulled this off (in my mind) is Laurie R King and she created her own terrific character in Mary Russell on top of pulling off the aged beekeeping Holmes with aplomb…but for everyone else – enough!
  2. The ‘other perspective’ gimmick – Does the world really need Mr Knightly’s diary? What next – Uriah Heep’s peeping tom memoirs? Confessions of a rake by Mr Willoughby?
  3. The never ending sequel – Once a classic is done, it’s done as far as I’m concerned – so I don’t need to read Mr. Darcy’s Daughters or Pemberley the sequel (the latter was particularly bizarre I felt, though I confess I did read it!). The only ‘sequel’ I appreciated was the two books written by Jill Paton Walsh based on Dorothy L. Sayers unfinished notes.
  4. Real life historical figures as sleuths….I’m just not buying the King/Queen who can sneak out of court and go sleuthing…

Now don’t get me wrong, some people have managed to pull off these things and more power to them if their book sells. Jasper Fforde has a hilarious series featuring Thursday Next that spoofs all sorts of literary figures (I particularly loved the therapy session for the cast of Wuthering Heights in which Healthcliff [now a porn star known as the Black Stallion] arrives and then the session is disturbed by a bomb thrown by the pro-Catherine faction) – but unless you can achieve that level of sublime satire, I say, leave well alone.

In this environment, however, everyone seems to want the easy fix – the ‘hook’ that will draw in the sales without having to do the hard work of creating new ‘jump off the page’ characters. Call me old fashioned but the classics of tomorrow are not going to be reheated leftovers from previous classics – or are they? I sometimes wonder and despair…

So what ‘cheeses’ you off when it comes to rehashed characters…any others to add to my list?