- - Thursday, November 28, 2019

Almost as much as I love novels and short stories, I love films, especially crime films. Throughout my life I’ve watched many good films that led me to read the novels or short stories that the films were based on. Likewise, I’ve also gone to see films that were based on novels and short stories I’ve read and enjoyed.

Delving behind the movie theater’s curtain, as it were, “The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films” offers a collection of fine short stories that were later made into classic crime films. The book is edited by Otto Penzler, who previously edited other books in “The Big Book” series. Mr. Penzler knows crime stories. In addition to being an editor, he is the president of MysteriousPress.com and the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

In “The Big Book of Reel Murders” he has selected a good variety of stories from well-known writers, as well as some writers that are not as well-known by today’s readers. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s story that was the basis for “The Body Snatchers” film, to Aldous Huxley’s story that was the basis for “A Woman’s Vengeance,” Mr. Penzler offers notes on the film adaptations and the accompanying stories.


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“The history of motion pictures is closely intertwined with mystery, crime, suspense, espionage, and detective fiction,” Mr. Penzler writes in his introduction to the stories. “Crime is a greater motivating factor in motion pictures than any other — even love — and audiences delight in seeing the criminal confronted and defeated on the silver screen.

“The detective, whether amateur sleuth, official crime fighter, private eye, or espionage agent, is a necessary component of these narratives. These (mostly) heroic figures have had a rich life in films, and this volume barely scratches the surface as it focuses on a single literary form, the short story.”



While admitting that most of the greatest mystery and crime films were adapted from novels or original screenplays, Mr. Penzler states that he believes that the best crime films made from short stories are “Psycho,” “On the Waterfront,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Letter,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Lodger,” “The Wild One,” “Gun Crazy” and “Bad Day at Black Rock.” He would have added Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” to his list, but he was unable to get permission to use the great short story in his collection.

In my view, no collection of short stories would be complete without a story by O. Henry, one of my favorite short story writers. Mr. Penzler offers O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” which was the basis for the film “Alias Jimmy Valentine.” The story is about a retired criminal, a fugitive safecracker, who must make a choice between cracking a safe and saving the life of a child locked inside or continue his happy life in hiding. (One of my favorite Christmas films is “O. Henry’s Full House.” Made in 1952, the film features five O. Henry short stories; “The Cop and the Anthem,” “The Clarion Call,” “The Last Leaf,” “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi”).  

One short story that is far better than the film is Ian Fleming’s “From a View to a Kill.” The film version, called “A View to a Kill,” was Sir Roger Moore’s last outing as James Bond and was the worst Bond film in the series, in my view. The short story, like Ian Fleming’s other 007 stories, is darker and more complicated than the popular films.

Another favorite writer, Dashiell Hammett, has three short stories included in the collection. “The House in Turk Street,” published in 1924 in Black Mask magazine, was made into a 2002 film called “No Good Deed.” Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op character is featured in the “The House in Turk Street.” The Continental Op, created before Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Thin Man characters, may be bald, overweight and middle-aged, but he is smart and tough.

The story collection also includes what many people believe is the first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Also included are stories from W. Somerset Maugham, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Irwin Shaw and many other fine short story writers.    

“Mystery, crime, and suspense movies remain among the most popular films of this era, just as they have been since the creation of motion pictures, and I confess to being a devotee,” Mr. Penzler writes. “Sometimes I preferred the story, other times the film. They provide different pleasures in most cases, none of which I would willingly give up.”

Devotees of crime stories and crime films will enjoy “The Big Book of Reel Murders.”

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism. 

• • •

THE BIG BOOK OF REEL MURDERS: STORIES THAT INSPIRED GREAT CRIME FILMS

Edited by Otto Penzler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $28.95, 1,200 pages

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