We’re pleased to present our first excerpt from Silver Screen Sleuths, an exclusive look at Jon Black’s story.
Basil Rathbone plays a game of deduction and death against a madman who is convinced he’s as good as Sherlock Holmes.
Thursday, April 25th
“Honestly, I’m surprised the movies do so well,” Basil Rathbone said. “Sherlock Holmes is an anachronism in the age of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.”
While the reporter from Motion Picture Magazine took notes, Basil stirred his coffee as the pair sat in the Universal Studio commissary.
“It sounds as if you don’t like Holmes very much?” The journalist, a middle-aged gentleman with a bushy white walrus mustache, had a trace of the Continental in his accent.
That relieved Basil. His English accent often so charmed American reporters that they didn’t pay attention to his words. “After shooting on Dressed to Kill wraps up next week, I will have played Holmes twelve times. Twice for Fox. The rest for Universal. After playing one character a dozen times, any actor would be ready to move on.”
Basil paused, deciding whether to continue. “Counting my stage career, I’ve played fifty-two roles from twenty-three of Shakespeare’s plays. My first professional acting work was with the official company at Stratford-on-Avon. I gravitate toward roles with nuance. Even a bit of darkness. I’ve played Iago, Cassius, Tybalt, Dickens’ Murdstone, Pontius Pilate, even Judas Iscariot. Even my screen villains like Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood had some depth.”
“Don’t you have anything good to say about Holmes?” The reporter sounded shocked.
A true fan of Sherlock Holmes, then. Basil met them often. Though their enthusiasm for the character mystified him, he felt a pang of sympathy accentuated, perhaps, by the band of pale skin around the reporter’s finger. An absent ring meant a likely widower. “I will say this,” Basil began, “Sherlock Holmes is unwavering in fighting for good even in danger’s face. In that, he is an example to all of us.”
The four o’clock interview had been his last task for the day. Leaving the commissary for his studio dressing room, he looked forward to relaxing before driving home. Jane, Basil’s personal assistant, intercepted him. “Mina Reeves is here to see you. She had a key to your dressing room so I told her to let herself in.”
Basil often found his assistant’s dark eyes difficult to read. This time Jane’s expression clearly asked Did I do right?
“Very good, Jane.” Basil glanced at his pocket watch. “Isn’t it time for you to head home? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
It surprised him that Mina came calling after so many months. True, they’d spent time together last year. But they had drifted. Such things happened. Yet now she warmed his chair. Blonde curls bounced with a will of their own and her curves were precisely as the year 1946 declared they should be. Like many others, she had chased big dreams to Hollywood from the Midwest. But Mina never learned to project her real life beauty onto the screen. So her career languished amidst walk-on parts and bit roles.
Despite efforts at touching up her makeup, she’d clearly been crying. “Oh, Baz.” She looked at him with despair.
Perhaps it was that tender diminutive, Baz, which got to him. It hadn’t passed her lips since they’d grown apart. Feeling unexpectedly protective, Basil knelt beside her. “Mina, what’s wrong?”
Suppressing a sob, she handed Basil a cream-colored paper from her purse.
Miss Reeves, I possess photographs of you and a certain Universal Studios actor in a private moment at Arroyo Burro Beach during August of last year. If you do not wish those photographs made public, be at 3627 Mission Road at 10 P.M. this evening and bring your actor friend.
Basil remembered the day. After picnicking, they slipped further up the beach to a secluded spot. How someone had obtained photos, he didn’t understand. But he understood Hollywood’s hypocrisy. Photos would barely touch him. They would ruin her. A gentleman did the right thing, and he had been genuinely fond of Mina. Of course, he would help her.
Basil reached for the phone, wanting to tell Ouida he would be home late, before remembering she had was in New York for a screenwriter’s conference. That was just as well. Explaining would be complicated. Ouida was the love of his life. And he, hers. But they had an understanding. Neither asked how the other spent private time.
Escorting Mina to the Universal Pictures parking lot, they left the studio in his beloved ’39 Packard. At the lot’s exit, a portly security guard he knew only as “Chester” gave a friendly wave. But Basil was not unaware of the slight tightening around the corner of the Chester’s eyes, as if to say Oh, are you two together again? Inwardly, Basil sighed. Studios were like giant small towns. Negotiating through the tight Universal City streets, Basil nudged the Packard onto the highway.
Though the twilight, the lights on the HOLLYWOODLAND sign already twinkled in the distance. It took 4,000 bulbs to illuminate the 13 white letters atop Mount Lee, each over 50 feet tall, flashing, in turn:
HOLLY WOOD LAND
A dispute over the sign’s electric bill raged between the city and the developer who originally erected the sign. Many suspected the landmark would soon go dark. Basil had no feelings either way.
Though hours remained until their mysterious appointment, Basil’s foot pressed heavily on the Packard’s gas pedal. He loved speed, but tonight it was speed with a purpose. He wanted to reach his bank before it closed. Everything pointed toward blackmail. But no dollar amount or other demands had been given. Either they were dealing with an amateur or something stranger was afoot. Both possibilities unnerved Basil.
It would be lying to say he had no concerns for himself. Or for Ouida. But Mina was the one in real professional, and personal, jeopardy. Knowing how the system worked, he cringed. It wasn’t having the affair that would ruin Mina. It was the getting caught.
There were, of course, means for procuring cash after banking hours. But, reflecting that they increased risk of the very publicity he wished to avoid, Basil rode his accelerator even harder.
With minutes to spare, he sloppily double-parked the Packard at the bank’s entrance. Normally, such a parking job would have driven him to distraction but time was of the essence. Already halfway out the door, he turned back to Mina. “Will you be alright waiting here?”
She nodded. Striding toward the bank, he heard her whisper after him “Thank you, Baz.”
Five minutes later he was back in the car. In absence of specific instructions from their blackmailer, he had discretely withdrawn funds sufficient to cover any price the maligner would likely ask.
Basil drove southeast through the deepening dusk. As natural illumination dimmed, the city’s million electric lights winked to life. Looking around, it was difficult to believe that the world had been in flames just a year ago. Sure, this city experienced some war nerves in those dark, final days of 1941. And, throughout the duration, L.A. had been America’s great arsenal. Of airplanes. Of vehicles. And of morale. Hollywood had gone to war, too. But L.A. never looked back.
Like magic, new ribbons of concrete highways, and legions of speeding new cars to fill them, spilled across the map. At every off-ramp, new neighborhoods swelled with returned GIs and their young families. With much of the world still in recovery, Basil found something unseemly yet alluring about it all. The future was being made in L.A. And it fell to Hollywood to properly instruct the rest of the world about what the future looked like.
Finding the silence uncomfortable, Basil asked Mina how she’d been keeping busy.
Her last screen role had been Girl on the Spot, a crime drama mixed with a musical which Universal released, amid not much fanfare, earlier in the year. From the beginning, Basil had been skeptical about its dubious mix of genres. Mina relayed how, after being signed for a small chorus role, she had been bumped down to a non-speaking extra. Until she landed another film role, she was keeping body and soul together with catalogue modeling; her most notable coup as a swimwear model for Broadway Department Store.
Basil suggested she audition for Little Miss Big. The upcoming frothy, family-friendly comedy would play to Mina’s strengths. As would its director, Erle Kenton. The Missourian was known to have penchant for hiring supporting actors who shared his middle-of-the-country origins. Knowing a little of the man, Basil offered Mina some suggestions for getting on Kenton’s good side.
After their awkward discussion of Mina’s modest successes, she visibly relaxed while talking about her family in Illinois. But, after running out of things to say to about her parents, the grocery they owned, and her eight brothers and sisters, she lapsed back into silence. For lack of anything else to say, Basil shared his feeling about leaving Dressed to Kill, and Sherlock Holmes, behind.
“I will miss Nigel Bruce,” he confided, regarding the Scotsman who had been his Watson through all 14 Holmes pictures. As a light went on in his mind, Basil slapped the steering wheel. “That’s something I should have told the reporter. He would have appreciated it.” Basil recounted his interview with the Motion Picture Magazine reporter. “As wooden as Doyle’s writing can be,” he expounded to Mina “the interplay between Holmes and Watson always had real life. Real feeling. That’s hard to do. It’s a very tricky chemistry. You might think you have it when you don’t. Or, when you’re not expecting it at all, suddenly it’s there.”
Basil showed more enthusiasm discussing his previous film, Heartbeat. “I played Professor Aristide, a Fagin-esque character operating a school for pickpockets in Paris.” He could hardly blame Mina for showing greater interest in Ginger Rogers, who played the film’s ingénue protagonist, than Basil’s role as her foil. Still, in defense of his pride, he added “Though hardly high art, at least Professor Aristide was role with some meat on it!”
With his thoughts brought back to Sherlock Holmes, Basil made a candid admission, “Mina, I fear Holmes will cast a long shadow over me. He is someone I must not and will not play again, regardless of circumstance.”
Though Basil had not recognized the addresses 3627 Mission Road, in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, he instantly recognized the destination: the Los Angeles Alligator Farm. Ostensibly an aquaculture business with an educational sideline, everyone in L.A. knew what the alligator farm really was. A tourist trap.
Finding its parking lot empty, Basil wondered if their man might be more professional than he had thought. At least he avoided the amateurish mistake of making his means of transportation obvious…and allowing his victims to note his car’s make and model. Taking the lead into an unknown and possibly dangerous situation, Basil felt like thirty years had fallen away and he was once again leading patrols in the Great War.
Approaching the alligator farm’s white faux-Greek Revival main building and gift shop, they passed signs proclaiming “Over 1,000 Alligators” and “See the Trained Alligator Show” intermixed with paintings of strapping young men and buxom young women wrestling the creatures.
Finding its front doors locked, Basil peered through the building’s windows. The darkened interior appeared depopulated. Whomever they were meeting wasn’t inside. Making their way around the farm’s outer wall, Basil discovered a side gate left ajar…a gate leading directly into the open area containing the farm’s toothsome exhibits. The gate creaked. Mina jumped as Basil pushed it open.
Tensely, they searched the immediate area for their blackmailer. “Please tell me you have some funny story about being in a movie with an alligator to take my mind off this,” Mina said hopefully.
“Me personally? No.” As Basil responded, he began purposefully scanning the area near the main entrance until he found a circular tank occupied by a single, massive alligator. “Billy” proclaimed a sign at the tank’s edge. “But I’ll bet this fellow could tell you a story or two. Would you believe I’m jealous of this reptile?”
“Why?” asked Mina, perplexed.
“Because he’s been in more movies than I have. Almost any time you see an alligator or supposed crocodile on the big screen: jungle movies, swamp movies, horror movies, it’s been played by Billy here.”
The reptile regarded the pair with lazy indifference. Not too different, Basil thought drolly, from what most other big Hollywood stars would give their fans. “I hear he’s even trained. After a fashion. Dangling a bit of meat above him, just off camera, he always opens wide. You would expect other alligators to do the same. Apparently they don’t. Supposedly, he even lets his trainer ride around on his back. I don’t suggest we put that to the test.”
Fascinating as it was to meet the world’s most famous reptile, Billy wasn’t why they were here. But they had yet to find any sign of the person who had summoned them. Apparently, Basil and Mina were expected to work for the privilege of being blackmailed.
They picked their way along paths winding past concrete ponds and through replica bayous hung with faux Spanish moss as they sought their mysterious host. Deserted and dark, the alligator farm possessed a surreal, almost nightmarish quality. Shadowy shapes floating in the water remained so silent and still it was difficult to believe they were alive. Occasionally, one became agitated, splashing furiously about while uttering their distinctive primordial bellow. Basil couldn’t say whether the statue-like stillness or the sudden bursts of frenzied activity unnerved him more. As Mina reached forward to take his hand in hers, Basil expected he felt as comforted as she did.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said as they crossed a narrow causeway between two reptile-infested ponds “If this place operates without its attractions eating its visitors on a regular basis, they must keep their animals gorged to the point of gluttony. I suspect our danger is actually minimal.” Basil knew his reasoning was entirely sound. He didn’t know who he was trying to convince. Mina? Or himself?
His fondness for animals did not extend to the beasts surrounding them. And had not since he was very young. Involuntarily, against his better judgement in fact, Basil shared a story. “I think I told you that I was born in South Africa? We lived there until I was three, when the local Boers started suspecting my father was a British agent and we had to flee on short notice.
“One of my last memories of Africa was a country outing with my parents. While picnicking by a stream, a reedbuck appeared. I don’t know if you’ve seen a reedbuck, Mina. It’s an antelope. With elegant, inward curving horns and beautiful, nearly human eyes. Normally they’re quite skittish. But this one, after taking our measure for a few moments, walked confidently past us to drink. For a child, there was something magical in that moment. But, mid-drink, a crocodile shot from the stream, took the reedbuck’s neck in its jaws, and dragged it into the water where several its fellows appeared and joined in tearing the poor animal to pieces.”
“Thanks, Baz. I feel so much better now,” she replied with sarcasm so thick that even the alligators could have detected it.
“Sorry,” Basil replied, slightly embarrassed. “It’s just such a vivid memory. It made quite an impression on me. For whatever it may be worth, I’ve heard alligators are not as aggressive as crocodiles.”
In the end, it was Mina who spotted the Manila envelope taped to the property’s rear wall. Opening it, Basil discovered the photographs and negatives, accompanied by another letter. To his surprise, the missive was written in Greek. As a young man at Repton School, he’d studied the language. Basil was the first to admit he had not been a diligent student and, anyway, that was 40 years ago. Still, he could fumble his way along.
Dear Mister Rathbone,
I hope finding a Greek Interpreter has not taken overlong. Thank you for coming. Please excuse this theatrical means of getting your attention. You have the once in a lifetime opportunity to play your greatest role…in reality. Unless you stop me, at sunset next Friday I will unleash calamity upon your city. Please do not go to the police or otherwise publicize this matter. Otherwise, I shall be forced to move up my timetable or take other drastic action.
“I am sorry, Mina,” Basil said, shaking his head as he handed her the envelope and its contents. “Your worry and our wasted time were for nothing. I, not you, was the target all along.”
“What is it?” she asked looking, uncomprehending, at the Greek letters.
“Only some deranged fan playing an elaborate prank.”
Saturday, April 27th
Putting the bizarre incident behind him, Basil dove into finishing Dressed to Kill. Studios didn’t stop for weekends. At the commissary, over an unenviable lunch of pea soup with ham, Basil caught a bit of conversation from a nearby table.
“The alligator farm? Can you imagine?” said the blonde.
“And at night. It would have given me the creeps,” her redheaded friend, with hair precisely the color of an Irish Setter’s coat, replied.
Basil recognized them, vaguely, two of Universal’s regular stable of extras. Men and women who, while not fast-tracked for stardom, had not been shown the door either. Instead, they existed in perpetual limbo while the studio evaluated their potential. Though there could really be only one story they were recounting, that he had previously seen both women in Mina’s company clenched it.
Realizing Mina had been discussing their adventure, Basil felt ambivalent. But when the Setter-haired actress added “I don’t care how handsome he is. I wouldn’t go,” it definitely appealed to his vanity.
“But a secret admirer? How romantic! Who do you think it is?” her friend replied, leaving Basil confused.
“I don’t know. But Mina said the letter at the Alligator Farm promised she’d get further clues about him.”
Finally, Basil understood. Mina had taken liberties polishing the story, removing both Basil and the incriminating photos while creating the character of a mysterious secret admirer. No doubt she hoped a bit of gossip would bolster her career. Well, Basil wished her the best.
As it turned out, all the well-wishing in the world couldn’t help Mina. After filming ended for the day, Basil sat in his dressing room leafing through Variety.
After a knock at his door, Basil bade his visitor to enter. He looked Jane over as she stood in the doorway. To his assistant’s enigmatic gaze had been added a hardness, a distance. He thought he detected a quiver in her upper lip.
“Jane? What is it?”
As that quiver became a tremble, Jane found she couldn’t answer. Shaking her head, Basil’s assistant deposited a newspaper beside him, departing without another word.
Picking up the day’s copy of the Daily News that Jane had dropped, it didn’t take long to find the blurb.
ACTRESS RUN DOWN
His hand trembling as he held the paper, Basil read.
Mina Reeves, 23, originally of Peoria, Illinois, died during a hit-and-run collision in the 3900 block of Fountain Avenue. Reeves was on her way to an audition, her roommate informed police. While crossing the street to reach her appointment, a vehicle struck Reeves while traveling at an excessive rate of speed. Police pronounced her dead at the scene.
While witnesses did not get a good look at the driver, several described the car as an older Buick Roadmaster. One witness alleged the original wooden paneling of the driver’s door had been replaced by a newer metal version. Members of the public with information relating to the incident are requested to contact the LAPD.
Basil threw the paper down, losing himself in thought. The story didn’t feel right. Fountain Avenue was a strange place for an audition, especially so far out.
Requiring a moment to compose himself, Basil exited the dressing room. At her desk, Jane had likewise put herself back together.
“I’m sorry about Mina,” she told him.
“Thank you, Jane. The rest of your tasks for the day can wait. Instead, call the usual places. Find out who had an audition on Fountain yesterday,” he instructed. “If anyone did,” he added as much to himself as to her. Returning to his dressing room, Basil made a call of his own. Jane wouldn’t know who Mina’s agent was. Basil did. He dialed.
“Lawrence, this is Basil. Did you get Mina that audition yesterday?”
“Hell no,” the agent’s New York accent boomed through the receiver, “You’re her big benefactor. I figured you lined it up.”
Basil returned the phone to its cradle. No, this didn’t feel right at all.
Later, Jane poked into the dressing room. Basil understood the meaning behind her shaking head. To be honest, he had expected it. Nobody had an audition scheduled at that place and time.
Jane looked at Basil curiously. Only after a moment did he realize that, at some point, he had subconsciously placed the prop pipe from Dressed to Kill in his mouth while turning the strange circumstances of Mina Reeves’ death over in his mind.
“Should we notify the police?” Jane asked as Basil sheepishly sat the prop aside.
“No.” The strange letter stipulated ‘no police.’ He grew inclined to take it seriously.