"Who in hell are the Sons of the Desert?" Hilary Quayle asked.
"We're an organization devoted to Laurel and Hardy films. Sons of the Desert is the name of one of the best of the Laurel and Hardy feature films."
But what Hilary Quayle's secretary, Gene, didn't tell her was that women were not permitted to join the organization. When Hilary found out, she wasn't pleased, so she crashed a Sons of the Desert meeting. She wasn't intending to stir up major trouble; she certainly didn't expect to witness an on-stage murder.
As always, it is Hilary who must solve the crime. Smart, independent, and enterprising, Hilary conducts her search for the killer in her usual methodical way. She takes the reader with her on a journey deep down into a show business netherworld that is rarely seen by outsiders.
The characters in The Laurel and Hardy Murders include several real peoplesome of them celebritieswho are members of the society of film buffs founded by the late Stan Laurel as a parody of all fraternal organizations. Marvin Kaye, in real life the one-time president of the Sons of the Desert, recreates the outrageously rowdy atmosphere of the club, shatters it with a spectacular murder, and then leads the reader through the tortuous process of finding and apprehending the killer.
|Publisher:||Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated|
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The Laurel and Hardy Murders
By Marvin Kaye
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Marvin Kaye
All rights reserved.
WHEN WAYNE POE DROPPED dead during the June banquet show at The Lambs, most members of the Sons of the Desert agreed it was the first really funny thing he ever did onstage. But I knew differently. In Philadelphia, a few weeks earlier, the comic received a standing ovation from a roomful of people who hated his guts.
Why was Poe so unpopular? Hal Fawkes or Natie Barrows or Dutchy Hovis would give three different answers based on personal enmity, and Frank Butler (an S.O.B. in his own right) would naturally contribute an ear-blistering paragraph or two of particulars. But the real reason no one could stand Poe was best expressed by the venerable trouper Jack Black, of the old vaudeville team of Black and White.
It was the afternoon of the June banquet. O. J. and I picked Black up at the upstate home for retired AGVA artists. He was our guest of honor, and fortunately the weather was mild enough to permit him to venture forth. He was, after all, well past ninety. During the ride, Black took O. J. to task for permitting Poe to appear on the evening's program. "Smith and Dale. Laurel and Hardy. Bobby Clark. Chaplin. Harold Lloyd. Langdon. Keaton." The nonagenarian's thin, sharp, cracked voice continued for nearly a minute cataloging the comedy greats of half a century. "And you have the nerve to include Wayne Poe?" he challenged O. J., who smiled his eternally diffident grin. "Producing laughter is an art. Poe is a disgrace to that tradition!"
It wasn't because Poe was incapable of making people laugh. Some of his pirated punch lines—stolen from new comics he heard at the Improv, Catch a Rising Star, the Champagne Cellar, and other showcase clubs—were funny enough to garner guffaws if pronounced by a computer. But Poe's delivery was lousy, his timing was dreadful, and he indulged in slapstick without having the technique to bring it off. He never knew when to get offstage, so no matter what audience response he started with, it eventually slid downhill. When the inevitable slump set in, he would shift to the desperate comic's terminal ploy, insult humor.
On top of everything else, Poe thought he was a born singer, and sometimes prolonged his already overlong turns with uninspired musical interludes which at least had the virtue of being marginally better than his undisciplined assays at shtick.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, Wayne Poe was an incurable punster. I say "perhaps" because the point is arguable. Hilary, who likes plays on words, holds that the pun is a form of cerebration distantly related to logic problems and acrostic puzzles. Personally, I regard incessant punning as excellent grounds for excusable homicide.
At any rate, all of Poe's doubtful professional accomplishments were mine to witness firsthand in Philadelphia, at the annual banquet of the Two Tars.CHAPTER 2
"WHO IN HELL ARE the Sons of the Desert?" Hilary Quayle asked without looking up. Her eyes were glued to a press release about Brian Lucas, the singer, which her fingers were swiftly constructing in the carriage of her Adler automatic. "And since when," she added, "do you support the U.A.R.?"
"Not guilty," I said, placing my membership card to the parent tent (or founding chapter) of the Sons under her pert nose so she could see the picture of Stan and Ollie. "We're an organization devoted to Laurel and Hardy films and, by extension, the furtherance of the comedic art."
She nodded. "No wonder you're a member."
I ignored it. "Sons of the Desert is the name of one of the best of the Laurel and Hardy feature films."
She turned the card over and examined the escutcheon designed for the society by Al Kilgore. It consisted of a lion and a unicorn, smugly and sleepily resting against the crown that the mythic beasties were reputed to prize enough to fight over. Beneath the golden round, a buckled oval housed and bore, respectively, the immortal neck- and headwear of Laurel and Hardy: a bowtie for Stan, a cravat capable of being twiddled for Ollie, and two bowlers, one thin, the other fat. Comedy and tragedy masks resembling the boys' faces, and a Latin legend completed the shield.
"What does this mean?" Hilary inquired, her finger tapping the inscription. "Duae tabulae rasae in quibus nihil scriptum est."
I could have commented on her lack of a classical education, but I was studiously avoiding repartee. "Literally," I replied, "it means something like 'Two slates on which nothing has been written.' It's a proximate translation of the motto Stan himself suggested for the club."
Holding up a hand for a moment's patience, I went to my room and fished out the copy of the SOTD by-laws. I opened the booklet to page two and waited while she read it.
Constitution of The Sons of the Desert by John McCabe, Exhausted Ruler
Article I. The Sons of the Desert is an organization with scholarly overtones and heavily social undertones devoted to the loving study of the persons and films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Article II. The founding members are Orson Bean, Al Kilgore, John McCabe, Chuck McCann and John Municino.
Article III. The Sons of the Desert shall have the following officers and board members who will be elected at an annual meeting:
Vice-Sheik (Sheik in charge of vice)
Grand Vizier (Corresponding Secretary)
Sub-Vice-Vizier (Treasurer and in charge of sub-vice)
Board Members-at-Large (This number shall not exceed 812)
Article IV. All officers and members of the Board shall sit at an exalted place at the annual banquet table.
Article V. The officers and members of the Board shall have absolutely no authority whatever.
Article VI. Despite his absolute lack of authority, the Grand Sheik or his deputy shall act as chairman at all meetings, and will follow the standard parliamentary procedure in conducting same. At the meetings, it is hoped that the innate dignity, sensitivity, and good taste of the members assembled will permit activities to be conducted with a lively sense of deportment and good order.
Article VII. Article 6 is ridiculous.
Article VIII. The Annual Meeting shall be conducted in the following sequence:
b. Business meeting and cocktails.
c. Dinner (with cocktails).
d. After-dinner speeches and cocktails.
f. Coffee and cocktails.
g. Showing of Laurel and Hardy film.
h. After-film critique and cocktails.
i. After-after-film critique and cocktails.
j. Stan has suggested this period. In his words: "All members are requested to park their camels and hire a taxi; then return for 'One for the desert'!"
Article IX. Section "d" above shall consist in part of the following toasts:
4—"To Mae Busch and Charley Hall—who are eternally ever-popular."
Article X. Section "h" above shall include the reading of scholarly papers on Laurel and Hardy. Any member going over an 8½ -minute time limit will have his cocktails limited to fourteen in number.
Article XI. Hopefully, and seriously, The Sons of the Desert, in the strong desire to perpetuate the spirit and genius of Laurel and Hardy will conduct activities ultimately and always devoted to the preservation of their films and the encouragement of their showing everywhere.
Article XII. There shall be member societies in other cities called "Tents," each of which shall derive its name from one of the films.
Article XIII. Stan has suggested that members might wear a fez or blazer patch with an appropriate motto. He says: "I hope that the motto can be blue and gray, showing two derbies with these words superimposed: 'Two minds without a single thought.'"
These words have been duly set into the delightful escutcheon created for The Sons of the Desert by Al Kilgore. They have been rendered into Latin in the spirit of Stan's dictum that our organization should have, to use his words, "a half-assed dignity" about it.
We shall strive to maintain precisely that kind of dignity at all costs—at all times.
By the time she finished it, Hilary had a crease at one side of her mouth, her self-conscious version of a grin. I was glad to see it. Lately, we'd been snipping at one another because of the phone-call argument, but since I now had a favor to ask, it behooved me to establish a lighter atmosphere.
The phone-call quarrel was an offshoot of the anxiety Hilary started to feel between April 15 and the mid-year estimated assessment. First, she began to grumble about being tax- poor, then went on an economy kick. Finally, she accused me of running up her phone bill by making too many outside calls to other women. This was absolutely untrue. A few times, I received calls from Pat Lowe and Penny Saxon, but Hilary wouldn't believe they were incoming. Yet I've told her repeatedly that the only times I use the office telephone for personal reasons are when I want to fix my fast-running wrist-watch or check on the weather conditions on Westside Highway.
Of course, I'm well aware that the phone hassle is really symptomatic of deeper trouble between us. First, Hilary is not only jealous, but percipient enough to recognize it and resent both the emotion and the source. Second, and more important, she and I sorely need to redefine our somewhat intricate relationship. Two years earlier, when I joined Hilary Ultd. as her secretary, she was definitely boss; I was chattel. But then she learned I have a New York detective's license, and this appealed to her as a frustrated sleuth, so she put me on a more equal footing with the clients. I've suggested we might become partners in a snoop agency like her father's, but she hasn't warmed to the notion yet. Meanwhile, to further strain a taut situation, we have become equal romantic partners and though she hasn't mentioned it, I think Hilary both likes and resents it. She has a profound conviction that all men are out to dominate her, and the fact that I haven't tried probably only suggests to her overly subtle mind that my laissez-faire policy is actually the subtlest of all ploys for gaining psychological ascendancy.
At any rate, at that particular moment, Hilary was in a good humor, thanks to Jack McCabe's risible document. She pointed to article nine (the suggested sequence of toasts) and asked me who Fin was.
"Jimmy Finlayson. He usually played the heavy in Laurel and Hardy pictures. You must have seen him—bald, squint eye, a bushy mustache. He and Charley Hall and Mae Busch were perennial supporting players in their films."
"And Babe? I take it that's Ollie?"
I nodded. "The story is in McCabe's official bio, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. When Hardy was a young movie actor, he used to go to this barber who evidently 'liked boys' and who always used to say 'nice-a baby' whenever he patted powder into Hardy's cheeks. People started to kid him about it and call him 'baby' and eventually the nickname became affectionate and abbreviated—'Babe'—and it stuck."
"You are a repository of information," Hilary said, amused and interested. She flicked off the power button of the Adler and gave the machine a rest while she recalled for my benefit the few Laurel and Hardy movies she'd seen, most of them on television.
"It's not fair to evaluate them by what you viewed on the tube," I remarked. "Local stations butcher them, or, even if they run the pictures intact, there are so many commercials stuck in that the timing Stan worked on so hard is totally ruined."
"Stan? You mean Laurel directed the films?"
"Practically. He was the idea man. He invented the gags and at the end of the day, when Babe headed for the golf course, Stan would stay and work with the editor to assure the proper timing of each bit. The main reason the last few pictures the team made were substandard was because M-G-M and 20th Century-Fox forbid Stan to exercise artistic control over the product."
"I would like to know," Hilary said abruptly, "why you never mentioned the Sons of the Desert to me before. It sounds like a lot of fun. I might like to join."
It was a touchy subject. I steered around it by inviting her to go to the annual banquet in June with me. She accepted with pleasure. Deciding that the time was at last ripe, I asked if she'd mind my taking off a few days to go to Philadelphia.
"Why on earth would you want to do that?" Her reaction was that of a typically insular Manhattanite: life anywhere but New York was a hardship. In Philadelphia, it would be positively unthinkable.
I explained that I was a newly elected delegate-at-large for the Sons of the Desert in New York. At the most recent executive committee meeting, I said, the president of the tent, O. J. Wheete, read a letter from the Two Tars tent in Philly proposing a joint regional convention sometime in the fall. "The Two Tars annual banquet is coming up next week," I further explained, "so we figured somebody from our board should go to it and talk about their ideas for such an event."
"But why you? Why not one of the chief officers? Or is a delegate-at-large an important Sons position by some kind of inverted comic logic?"
I shook my head. "That's too subtle for the Sons. Sounds more like Gilbert." As I flipped through the by-law booklet, I told Hilary that I didn't even get a vote at committee meetings. "My main function is to take notes in case other members want to know what the executives are trying to put over on them."
I located the article entitled "Spying customs of the delegates-at-large" and read a few choice passages for Hilary's benefit: "Delegates-at-large ... will ... be free to demand large money votes be brought before the general membership. The committee will be free, however, to take exception to such demands by politely escorting the dissenting delegate to the East River.
"Once a year, at the last spring meeting, the delegates-at-large will be elected from the general membership. Nominations will be taken from the floor, where most of the Sons end up, anyway. Election will be determined by voting customs outlined below, or by bribe, whichever comes first. Because success is a rare commodity in the SOTD, delegates-at- large may succeed themselves once.
"Delegates-at-large shall be the chief communications link between members and the committee. Consequently, delegates shall make themselves available to general members for pertinent discussions, provided such demands on time do not extend to The Lambs' rest rooms. However, should a delegate be obliging enough to discuss SOTD business even in the latter contingency, he will be entitled to call himself the Privy Counsellor."
The last clause cracked her up. "All right," Hilary laughed, "you can go, Gene. (Or should I call you John?)" Then she knit her brow. "But you still didn't answer. Why did they pick you instead of the president or another chief officer?"
"Maybe because I'm an ex-Philadelphian. Or maybe because the rest of them wouldn't be caught dead in the City of Brotherly Love."
She shrugged. "The natives would hardly know the difference."
The flippancy annoyed me, but I didn't comment. The more arguments I could avoid with Hilary in the next few weeks, the better.
I knew I was going to need all the goodwill I could get when Hilary found out that the New York parent tent of Sons of the Desert positively refuses to accept women as members.CHAPTER 3
Long Shot. Interior. Evening.
The main dining room of the Penn Country Club was ostentatious in its lack of ostentation. Sconced wall lights and wine-red textured wallpaper were warm and the overstuffed chairs comfortable.
The meal was at an end, and whatever coffee remained was cold in the cups. The lights were off and some one hundred members of the Two Tars tent watched Laurel and Hardy portray bumbling sailors in the film from which the chapter derives its name.
Guests of honor sat opposite the screen at the head table, which was perpendicular to two long ones; together, the three festive boards comprised a C-shaped mesa of white linen. I was seated with the other guests, feeling uncomfortable in the company of performers like Hurd Hatfield, Mae Questel, and even Wayne Poe. But as emissary from the parent tent, it was my duty to fill a chair and try to look somewhat important.
I was supposed to meet with Jerry Freundlich, the president of the tent, but since he was banquet program co-chairman, he was busy readying the show to be given live after the films, so there was nothing for me to do but relax and enjoy the entertainment.
On the screen, Stan and Ollie engaged in a ridiculous battle with Charley Hall and a gumball machine. A few minutes later, they and their dates (Thelma Hill and Ruby Blaine) kicked off one of the most famous sequences in cinematic comedy, the incredibly protracted reciprocal destruction of innumerable stalled automobiles.
Excerpted from The Laurel and Hardy Murders by Marvin Kaye. Copyright © 1977 Marvin Kaye. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFIRST REEL: 8mm silent.,
SECOND REEL: 35mm sound.,
WINDUP AND REWIND: 16mm home movie.,
In Lieu of Acknowledgments,