The Slow & Ambling Paths of Plot Percolation

“So, where do your ideas come from?”

It’s one of the more common questions writers are asked.

While still promoting the current Wagstaff novel, I’m also into the develop-the-outline stage of Wagstaff 3 at this point, even while I hone the edges on a different series of books that will appear shortly.

Bow down, helots! I’m a multitasker!

I also made a fresh fettucine bolognese completely from scratch today, but you already knew I’m a CULINARY GENIUS.

Anyway, to get back to the “where do my ideas come from?” tack, since the Wagstaff series regularly features motifs, actors and plot points from all sorts of old movies and TV shows all mashed up together, damn near anything I watch might wind up in one, somewhere.

Especially if all that pop culture junk turns up in some off the wall dream I have. Every dream Wagstaff has in both of the books that turn out to be clues are ACTUAL dreams I’ve had in real life, by the way.  But that’s for another post.

Today, I wound up watching a couple of obscure movies I can tell you about.

I’ve already thought of the main-plot-drivin’ films I think I want to mine for the plotline of Wagstaff 3, but if any quasi-related tangential material crosses my radar, I usually feel obliged to watch it, just in case some detail or odd factor inspires me to use it. It’s basically the same mentality I use when browsing yardsales and thrift stores – I never know what might turn up, but after something does, it feels totally natural.

Today I started by watching Nick Carter: Master Detective, the first of three Nick Carter movies made by MGM in 1939-1940 with a young Walter Pidgeon as Carter. This one was the second movie directed by Jacques Tourneur, who would go on to make some truly memorable B-movie scifi a few years later, like the wonderful Cat People and The Leopard Man.

A silly plot about airplane sabotage on the cusp of World War 2, with the always wonderful Donald Meek as Pidgeon’s wanna-be sidekick. Meek plays a beekeeper with dreams of crime ‘n’ detective action who tags along and provides some comedy relief.  All the villains in the film speak with unacknowledged quasi-German accents, rather a daring thing for a 1939 film when maybe except for the Warners producing Confessions of A Nazi Spy, a movie pushing the idea of America fighting Germany was too hot to handle. Even by 1940, Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, with its ending call for America to wake up & get involved in defending Europe, was a hot potato to most studio chiefs.

No foreign policy in this one, however – just Pidgeon figuring out the sabotage/spy ring stealing airplane secrets, rounding up the gang and flirting with the female lead.

I’d never read any of the countless Nick Carter detective stories. The character dates back to late 19th century dime novels and has gone through several different authors. Carter’s persona also underwent changes over time, becoming more hard-boiled in response to the popularity of that style of detective genre by the 1930s. When MGM produced these movies, it struck me how they were trying to find some middle ground, sorta, between the Nick & Nora Charles Thin Man series and late 1930s glib-talkin’ detective/spy material like the Louis Hayward/George Sanders Saint films. In any case, the thing was quick and serviceable. And a plane crash sequence showed some slick shot choice & editing which make me think of how well Tourneur could do with a limited budget.

Even though the Nick Carter angle was not the reason I checked this one out, I got curious and started reading up on other adaptations, and came across this, an unsold 1972 pilot for a Nick Carter TV series starring Robert Conrad.

I’m thinking – hey, Robert Conrad, from one of my faves Wild Wild West, playing a detective, that’s cool. He’s always a good cop/spy/detective. And it’s set in Victorian New York for some reason, so I immediately think that perhaps putting Conrad in some old historic setting was a selling hook with him coming off of Wild Wild West only a few years earlier. I’m also thinking that one of my current favorite shows is Canadian Broadcasting’s The Murdoch Mysteries, shown by Ovation as The Artful Detective, featuring a Toronto police detective circa 1900 who uses & often invents modern forensic methods, like fingerprints, blood typing, hidden recordings and the like. Maybe Conrad’s version of 1910-ish Nick Carter in New York might be something like that, I’m thinking…

Well, not so much.

It featured a lot of what I always suspected Conrad actually had written into his contract for Wild Wild West – that in every episode, he gets to engage in numerous fistfights and takes his shirt off to show off his bod.

And the cast? Good GOD! Broderick Crawford, Shelley Winters and Neville Brand for starters, along with a young Dean Stockwell, Pernell Roberts, Laraine Stephens… and hang on! Pat O’Brien as an informant priest! “Juicy” Jaye P. Morgan, pre Gong Show, as a nightclub singer!  And then, just to make sure we throw in some other ubiquitous TV character performers from the era, Ned Glass and Arlene Martel!

But a viewing tells you why this pilot didn’t fly. The plot is muddled and a little confusing, Conrad/Carter’s actions don’t always make sense at key given moments, his use of disguises seems very forced (and a stretch to incorporate the Ross Martin end of Wild Wild West into the show without Martin), but mostly his character isn’t developed enough. There are few, if any, characters indicating a long history with Carter, no backstory or biography hinted at in the least, and no particular personality quirks or methods unique to his detecting methods.

Throughout the entire show, though, I kept wondering – why the Victorian setting?

If I had been there at the script level of this thing, that would have been my biggest question.

Other than the ability to throw in the costumes and the old cars, there’s absolutely no reason for it. None. Nothing about that time period or its limitations affects the plot in the least. Even the issues of corrupt cops could easily translate into a modern setting. The Victorian setting of Murdoch is key to the series – in the social attitudes depicted both forward and backward looking, in the science and technology, and in the overall milieu of the whole thing. In this Nick Carter pilot, the setting simply lays there. Why? Why have it if you’re not going to use it? Especially for a TV series, it’s only gonna cost you money!

The youtube play served a useful purpose to keep me occupied while the dough for the fettucine rested before I rolled it out and cut it to shape. But I don’t think it will make the cut to Wagstaff 3, at least I don’t think so now.

I think I’d rather search through youtube for more obscure 1970s TV movies since there seems to be a lot of them on there. I bet I can find something to inspire me, even if no one has uploaded Bad Ronald in their entirety.

Hey! Satan’s Triangle IS posted in its entirety!

I guess that’s why it takes me a while to write a new book. I wind up watching too much crap.




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