Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hake Talbot

The magical life of Henning Nelms

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Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on June 22, 2012.

“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.

I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.

The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

The magical life of Henning Nelms

with 4 comments

“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.

I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.

The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.

Written by nevalalee

June 22, 2012 at 9:57 am

Confessions of a Bookavore

with 2 comments

I’m addicted to books. Not so much to reading—although I do a lot of that, too—but to the physical act of buying and owning books themselves. This has been the case for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, I’ve tried to be more selective. The first turning point came in my move to Chicago, when I had to ship most of my belongings across the country. This involved paring down my library to what I saw as its essentials and donating the rest, which included hundreds of books that I had accumulated over seven years of weekly browsing at the Strand. (In the end, I wound up giving away eighteen boxes of books.) Another purge, on a smaller scale, took place before my recent move to Oak Park. And even though I’m settling into my house here for the long term, I’ve been trying to keep my book purchases to a minimum, mostly because I don’t have any shelves at the moment—although I’m hoping to have them installed this week.

It came as a bit of a shock, then, to realize that over the past month, I’ve bought no fewer than twenty-two books, at least as far as I can remember. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s those coupon sites: whenever a daily deal involving books is offered, I have no choice but to take it. This is how I ended up buying a bunch of stuff this month at a discount from Better World Books: A Life and The Arrangement by Elia Kazan, who has been on my mind a lot these days because of the recent revival of Death of a Salesman; Draw! by Kurt Hanks and Larry Belliston; and Thinking With a Pencil by Henning Nelms. This last book is one I’ve been trying to find for a while, having lost my old copy years ago, and it’s led to a sudden fascination with the life of the extraordinary Mr. Nelms, also known as Hake Talbot, a magician, illustrator, stage director, playwright, and not incidentally a master locked-room novelist. It’s inevitable, then that I would pick up a copy of his Magic and Showmanship on Amazon, bringing our count for the month to five.

Things only got worse when I got another daily deal for Open Books, one of the best bookstores in Chicago, which runs largely on donations and uses the proceeds to fund local literacy programs. A month ago, I’d used the first of my two coupons to pick up The Tangled Bank by Stanley Edgar Hyman and Showman by David Thomson, so when my wife and I ended up back in the bookstore’s neighborhood on Saturday, I knew I had to use the other one. After an hour or so of browsing, my wife had found The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlanksy, but I still hadn’t seen anything that met my high standards. (My eye was caught by Adhocism: A Case for Improvisation by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver, but at $75, it struck me as a bit rich—although I may still go back and get it.) Then, to the sound of a heavenly choir, I saw a pristine copy of Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants for only $8. With a coupon, I got it for only $5.50—which, considering the fact that the cheapest used copy goes for $70 on Amazon, might be my best book bargain ever.

Of course, that was only the start. My other great weaknesses, as regular readers know, are thrift stores and book sales, and this month had some corkers. At my old favorite, the Brown Elephant, I found Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch and Notes on a Cowardly Lion by John Lahr. From the Economy Shop in Oak Park, I got The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte and Frank Capra’s The Name Above the Title. And the annual book sale at Oak Park Temple yielded a ton of treasures: my wife got the collected letters of Margaret Mitchell and the best columns of Mike Royko, while I got The Evolution of Man and Society by C.D. Darlington, the two volumes of The Outline of History by H.G. Wells, the first volume of Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, and a nice copy of Mimesis by Erich Auerbach, to replace my current edition, which is getting worn out. Combine this with a few miscellaneous purchases (Sophie’s Choice, a double edition of novels by James M. Cain, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood), and it’s clear that these bookshelves need to come soon.

Written by nevalalee

April 3, 2012 at 10:17 am

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