Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Practice to Deceive: Black Widow (1952), by Patrick Quentin

the 1991 IPL edition
with cover art by Nicky Zann
Poor Peter Duluth!  Over the course of the series of Patrick Quentin mysteries in which he appears his creators (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler) landed him into some real messes, but arguably the worst of them all is the one that takes place in Black Widow (1952), the last book in which Duluth plays the starring role.

The novel was filmed under the same title two years later, in an adaptation starring Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, Ginger RogersGeorge Raft and Peggy Ann Garner (a review of this film is coming soon).

Peter Duluth and his wife, Iris, would appear two years later in the Patrick Quentin novel My Son, the Murderer (written solo by Wheeler, after Webb had retired from the partnership), but in that novel it is his brother, Jake, who has the lead role, not Peter himself.

And that was the end of the Duluth trail, if not of the Patrick Quentin novels, which continued to appear until 1965.

The innovation of the Peter Duluth series, which was launched in 1936, was wedding the formal deductive mystery to the personal anxiety, or suspense, tale, associated with such writers as Mignon Eberhart in the 1930s, Dorothy B. Hughes in the 1940s (though some of Hughes' stuff is more genuine noir) and Ursula Curtiss in the 1950s. There is resemblance to Cornell Woolrich as well, though the series is not dark enough to qualify quite as true noir, in my opinion.

This arrangement must have suited the two authors, as Webb was the plotter and had excelled at plotting in his earlier "Q. Patrick" books, some of which were written with others before he teamed up with Wheeler, while Wheeler was the actual writer.

the 1952 first edition
complete with a rental library sticker
My impression, however, is that over the course of the series the anxiety elements gradually muscled out the formal deductive element, so that by the time we get to Black Widow, the novel resembles the fiction of psychological suspense--or domestic suspense, as Sarah Weinman terms it--that was produced by a number of American women authors of the period. Patrick Quentin arguably was the leading male purveyor of this sort of "suspense" in the 1950s. Women writers of the period are often said to have had a keener perception of domestic detail than men, but Patrick Quentin was a major exception to this generalization (both Webb and Wheeler likely were gay, incidentally, and apparently lived and traveled together as a couple for years--see Mauro Boncompagni's essay in Mysteries Unlocked).

In Black Widow the narrator of the novel, Peter Duluth, a celebrated play producer, is having to stag it in New York, his wife Iris, a celebrated actress on both stage and screen, having left New York to spend some time with her sick mother. When the novel opens he is attending a party in the luxury apartment above his own that is occupied by Lottie Marin, celebrated stage actress and absolute drama queen, and her amiable kept hunk of a husband, Brian (domesticated, not celebrated).

The marital relationship between Lottie and Brian inverts fifties heterosexual norms:

She had discovered him when she did her only picture in Hollywood five years before.  He was a Montana boy who had been in the Coast Guard during the war. He had all the standard male requirements except any visible ambition....But Lottie really preferred to keep him at home as a private asset and he never objected.  He seemed perfectly happy answering her fan mail, cooking for her, running errands, and reminding her how wonderful she was.

At the party Peter meets Nanny Ordway, an earnest young Greenwich Village would-be writer, and he takes a personal (non-sexual) interest in her.  Over the several weeks that Iris is out-of-town, he takes her out occasionally and is even persuaded by her to let her have a key to his apartment, so that she may have a better place to write in the mornings and afternoons, when he's not around (okay, I found this a little hard to swallow too).

Unhappily, when Iris gets back, the pair finds that Nanny has not left the apartment that day. Rather, she is hanging from the ceiling light in their bedroom, a seeming suicide.

the fifties Dell edition
Here commences the anxiety on Peter's part, as he finds that not all was as he thought it was and that everyone around him--eventually including even Iris--is convinced he was sleeping with Nanny. For his part the police force's Lieutenant Trant--he of the pre-WW2 Q. Patrick books Death and Dear Clara, Death and the Maiden and The File on Claudia Cragge--makes sufficiently clear he thinks Peter is a complete louse, who two-timed his wife and trifled with an ingenuous, star-struck young woman.

But it could get worse yet.  What if it turns out Nanny Ordway was murdered? Peter decides he has to investigate Nanny's enigmatic past to save his own neck.

This is a slickly told tale that demands reading at one sitting, and it's not surprising at all to find that it was filmed not long after its publication. There's the customary twist PQ twist ending, though with the small circle of suspects provided, PQ has set himself a challenging task in misdirecting readers. In retrospect one can see there were some clever clues to the solution provided in the text, but one is apt to be so carried away on the tide of anxiety that one may miss these!

As Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler were major contributors to mid-century American crime fiction, though their books all are out-of-print in the Anglo-American world today, a regrettable situation that one hopes will be corrected in the not-too-distant future.

Patrick Quentin's Peter Duluth Mystery Novels
A Puzzle for Fools 1936

Puzzle for Players 1938
Puzzle for Puppets 1944
Puzzle for Wantons 1945
Puzzle for Fiends 1946
Puzzle for Pilgrims 1947
Run to Death 1948
Black Widow 1952
My Son, the Murderer 1954 (sporadic appearances by Peter and Iris Duluth)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pfui on Fair Play: Rex Stout on Rules for Writing Detective Fiction

In an essay titled "The Mystery Story," which apparently first appeared in 1950 in The Writer's Book, a collection of essays on writing edited by Helen Hull, crime writer Rex Stout casts aside the much-touted rules for writing classical detective fiction (what Stout calls "the detective story of the classical pattern," where "the detective himself (or herself) is and must be the hero").


Pronounces Stout:

Lists of pontifical dicta have been drawn up by various experts, but they seem to me to be a lot of nonsense....The most frequently repeated rule, generally assented to, is the most nonsensical.  It says, "You must play fair with the reader," meaning that in the course of the narrative the reader must see and hear everything that the detective sees and hears. I don't know why people like S. S. Van Dine and R. Austin Freeman and Dorothy Sayers have insisted on it, since every good writer of detective stories, including them, has violated it over and over again.

Stout says Sherlock Holmes often found evidence he did not tell Watson (and the reader) about, and it "is the same with Dupin, Lecoq, Father Brown, Poirot, Wimsey, Perry Mason--practically all of them." He declares that a detective fiction writer need not worry about practicing "fair play," then, but s/he does need to have "the required qualifications for a storyteller":

You can create people in your mind that you get excited about; you can devise and develop a plot situation, you have a sense of structure and form; and you can write readable narrative and dialogue. Thus equipped, you can write good stories, but it doesn't follow that you can write good detective stories.  For them you need something more.

What, you must be asking.  Stout answers:

You need, not the kind of mind that likes to solve puzzles, but the kind that likes to construct puzzles, which is quite different.  You also need considerable ingenuity if they are to be not only puzzles but good ones.

What do you think?  Is "fairness" in the presentation of clues important to you in a classical detective fiction, or do you care more about the other elements--storytelling skill and ingenuity in puzzle construction--outlined by Rex Stout?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Circe of Suspense: Two Novels of Suspense by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and The Blank Wall (1947)

The 2002 Quality Paperback
Book Club edition of this
classic Holding suspense "twofer"
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novels The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and The Blank Wall (1947) may not necessarily be the peak of her crime writing achievement--I haven't yet read all her books to say-- but they certainly are high points in a mighty range. It's hard to imagine her doing better than these superlative crime novels.

This pair of short novels of about 60-70,000 words apiece--The Blank Wall is the longer of the two--were reprinted together in one volume by Academy Chicago (now Chicago Review Press) in 1991, after a long, nearly three-decades-long drought, during which none of Holding's books were in print. After the success, a decade later, of the critically acclaimed film The Deep End (starring Tilda Swinton in a Golden Globe nominated performance), the Quality Paperback Book Club issued an edition of the same "twofer" in 2002.

The next year, in 2003, the small publisher Stark House began reprinting additional Holding twofers (through this series Stark House currently has ten of Holding's eighteen crime novels in print, and two more are on their way next year). Finally, a decade later, in 2013, Persephone Books, an excellent press devoted to older fiction by women authors, reprinted The Blank Wall solo.

An excellent Holding novella was included in Sarah Weinman's Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which also was published in 2013.  Reviews of Weinman's anthology have repeatedly referred to the writers collected therein as "forgotten," "overlooked," "unjustly neglected," etc., while never mentioning the laudable efforts of Academy Chicago and Stark House, among others small presses,which I think is a shame. Small presses have been doing great work for decades keeping fine authors from the past in print, but they often don't have access to the publicity mills. So consider this my shout-out to Stark House and other fine smaller presses. Let's hope you get some of the attention (and the sales) you deserve.

the striking cover illustration of the
first paperback edition of
The Innocent Mrs. Duff
In an article entitled "The Godmother of Noir," Jake Hinkson compares Holding's The Innocent Mrs. Duff to the work of noir author Jim Thompson, claiming that this book and others by Holding read as if they "could have given birth to Jim Thompson's unhinged psychos." This may strike people as an extravagant comparison, but, having read Duff, I understand what Hinkson is talking about here.

To be sure, I disagree with the tendency these days to proclaim ever crime novel with serious or dark elements as "noir." When Hinkson writes that Holding "was a woman [publishing] in a distinctly masculine field," he errs, in my view. Hard-boiled and noir may have been a masculine field, with some exceptions, but psychological suspense, which is what Holding wrote, was more a feminine field (Weinman has adopted the term "domestic suspense" for these books).

Having published her first suspense novel in 1929, Holding is more accurately seen as, along with Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart of the once-derided "Had-I-But-Known" school, an American founding mother of psychological suspense.

Holding, however, feels distinctly more modern than Rinehart, whose roots go back to Gothic fiction according to Catherine Ross Nickerson, and most definitely more original and interesting than Eberhart, who all too quickly devolved into the bland, if highly profitable, formula fiction of the slicks (the hugely popular glossy women's magazines of the 1930s, so loathed by Raymond Chandler). Holding's books--some of which were serialized in the slicks as well--are darker and more adventurous; though they are not noir, from what I've read, they definitely have affinity with it.

The Innocent Mrs. Duff certainly is not anywhere as viscerally horrific as Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1952), but in its more genteel way it remorselessly anatomizes a main character who is utterly loathsome to spend time with, just as in Thompson's novel. Jacob Duff is another of Holding's middle-aged drunks from an upper crust New York background (as indicated in my last blog post, there is a similar, though much more sympathetic--and much less interesting--character in Holding's earlier The Obstinate Murderer, 1938).

Jacob Duff, we soon learn, is easily bored and perennially dissatisfied.  He invariably locates the sources of his unhappiness in others besides himself. After the death of his first wife, Helen, he married, on the rebound, young Regina "Reggie" Riordan, a photographer's model--a move he now bitterly regrets.  Once Reggie was charming to him, but now everything she does he finds alienating.

He sees her no longer as charmingly unsophisticated, but irksomely common, indulging in slang (even the very name "Reggie" he can no longer stand), enjoying doing housework herself ("You'd never have caught Helen alone in the kitchen with an apron on, he thought") and associating much too freely with servants. Additionally he deems her annoyingly inexperienced sexually  ("she's like a schoolgirl"). Already Duff's roving, bleary eye has alighted on Miss Castle, governess of Jacob Duff, Jr., his seven-year-old son with his first wife, the dead and sainted Helen.

the "mapback" of the Dell edition
showing the beach cottage of the Duffs
Just what happens there?
Read it and see for yourself.
Irony abounds in all this, because we, the readers, see the tremendous gap between Duff's perception of Reggie and the way she seems to be to us and everyone else, which is remarkably charming, forbearing and empathetic.

The more self-consciously refined sort of Anglo-American crime writer of the period--Theodora Dubois, for example--might have portrayed Reggie as gratingly "vulgar," to use a favorite word of this sort of author, but Holding does no such thing.  It's Duff's condescension to Reggie (and others) that she skewers.

Late in the book, there's an amusing exchange between Duff and a gas station attendant in a village where Duff owns a beach cottage, which illustrates the more democratic ethos of Holding's novel:

"I'd like to rent a car for a couple of hours," said Duff.
"Couldn't do it," said the man, a young man with a broad, turned-up nose.
"My name is Duff," said Duff.
"Well, I can't help what your name is," said the other.  "We don't rent cars no more."

This goes on for a while, Duff getting more and more flustered at the phlegmatic young man's refusal to be impressed by his name and his property-holding status ("Look here! I told you my name was Duff! Jacob Duff. I'm a property owner here. Everyone knows me."/"Well, I don't," said the young man.)

Over the course of the novel Duff becomes more and more dependent on on liquor (he progresses from whisky to gin, which at the start of the novel he hates) and more and more loathful of his wife. He begins to think how much more pleasant marriage with the superior Miss Castle would be....

Jacob Duff's truest love
The Innocent Mrs. Duff is a wonderful crime novel, achieving all those things that advocates of the form want to see.  Unquestionably it's a suspenseful "page-turner" (I read the book in two sittings and was tempted to go for one).

Yet the novel is also a fine study of a repellent drunk in a state of advanced moral and mental disintegration. This is where the comparison with Jim Thompson holds (liquored) water. Jacob Duff makes you cringe, but you can't look away; you feel compelled to keep reading about him.

Other characters are well observed too. There's "innocent" Reggie Duff of the title; the circumspect Miss Castle; little Jacob Duff, Jr. (Holding clearly understood children as well as she did middle-aged drunks); Mrs. Albany, Jacob Duff's wise and wealthy aunt (from whom he has great expectations); and Nolan, the Duffs' attractive and enigmatic chauffeur, late from the war.

Jake Hinkson says that in Duff "we find domestic life rendered as a kind of living hell."  I would argue that it is Jacob Duff who has made domesticity a kind of hell for those around him.  It's Duff who condemns life in suburbia and likes to imagine himself as a "natural man" who should be free to act however he desires.  It's clear, however, that Duff would never rest content for long in any environment.  "The worst sort of unfaithfulness there is," Mrs. Albany tells him, "is to get tired of people, as you do.  You're fickle, Jacob....You've got tired of [Reggie]--and when you're tired of people, you're inclined to be ruthless...."

As good as The Innocent Mrs. Duff is (it came as no real surprise to me to learn that Raymond Chandler, who greatly admired Holding, worked on a screenplay adaptation, sadly uncompleted, of the book when he was in Hollywood), Holding excelled it the next year with the novel commonly regarded as her masterpiece, The Blank Wall.  I'll have some words about this novel next week.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Obstinate Murderer (1938), by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Obstinate Murderer (1938) was her fourth book published by the heavy-hitting American crime fiction publisher Dodd, Mead, after The Death Wish (1934), The Unfinished Crime (1935) and The Strange Crime in Bermuda (1937) (these crime novels had been preceded by two early crime novels, Miasma, 1931, and Dark Power, 1930).

Holding's earlier Dodd, Mead crime novels were much praised, and The Obstinate Murderer was so as well.  Saturday Review was struck by the "amazing deviltry and horror" that animated "the entire tale."  The New York Times Book Review noted that, in addition to being a "mystery story," Obstinate was "a fascinating study of twisted mentalities."

The novel, which Holding dedicated to Frank E. Blackwell then editor-in-chief of Detective Story Magazine, is strikingly short by today's standards, barely, in fact, at some 42,000 words by my count, a novel.  It's an interesting book for its time, though one that may be too economically sketched for many readers today.  It's also a needed reminder that the psychological crime novel existed in the US in the 1930s, right along with the hard-boileds, the cocktails and quips mysteries, the zanies and the neo-Gothics.

In the novel Arthur Van Cleef, a leisured idler and semi-drunk in early middle-age, is sought out by Russell Blackman, an eighteen-year-old lad he had briefly befriended ten years earlier, when Blackman was just eight and Van Cleef thirty.  Van Cleef had been friends with Blackman's Aunt Hilda, who died tragically young.  Blackman fondly recalls his friendship with Van Cleef (something the latter man barely remembers):

"When they realized how ill [Aunt Hilda] was, they sent me off to board at the day school I went to.  It was in the Easter holidays; nobody else there.  It was the first time I'd been away from home, and it was hell.  I didn't know what to do with myself.  I felt--forgotten.  And then you came, in your car. You brought me a steamer-basket full of cakes and chocolates, and fruit, with a big silver gauze bow on the handle....When my aunt died, you came again....You drove me home and you talked to me."

Blackman has grown up to be something of a universal genius, good at everything, but instinctively disliked by everyone.  Now idle, with an allowance of $6600 month (in today's dollars) to sustain him financially but emotionally cut off from his family, Blackman has decided to look up Van Cleef, the one person who was once kind to him.

Today it's easy to discern in Holding's depiction in the novel of the relationship between Van Cleef and Blackman--whom Holding describes as "an extraordinarily handsome boy, slim, almost slight in build, with a dark narrow face, brilliant with life"--a homosexual subtext on Blackman's part.  Later in the novel another exchange occurs between the two, about women:

"You're interested in women, aren't you?" said Russell.

"After all, such a lot of 'em around..." said Van Cleef.  "It would be a bit hard, not to notice 'em."

"But you like them."

"And you don't?"

"I don't."

"Unrequited love-making make you bitter?"

"I'm not bad-looking.  I'm not stupid.  And I have money.  I could have a pretty wide choice--if I wanted."

On the same day as his meeting with Russell, Van Cleef is called by his old friend Emilia Swan, whose husband, Bill, died suddenly a few years ago, to come visit her at her mansion in the small town of Blackhaven, which she now runs as a guest house.  She's being blackmailed, she hysterically tells Van Cleef.  Russell Blackman has a car, so off the pair goes to pay Mrs. Swan a call.  Blackman tells Van Cleef, he'd "like to be a super-detective, one of the scientific kind," and he soon gets his chance, when one of the guests at Mrs. Swan's guest house is poisoned.  More poisonings follow, along with deaths.

In some ways this novel resembles a book by Agatha Christie (at least as stereotyped), with a sort of American country house/ village setting, a genteel milieu, a closed circle of for the most part, rather flat suspects and a dialogue-heavy prose.  At one point in the novel, Van Cleef, beset by a rash of misdoings in a mansion, even wonders whether "there are any of those private detectives?  Like in a book...Quiet, gentlemanly young fellow....

But with Holding the emphasis is on not clues, but psychology.  I enjoyed The Obstinate Murderer, though I would not rank it, I must admit, with the best Holdings.  It's one time I felt that a Golden Age crime novel would have benefited from some greater fleshing-out of its ideas, characters and situations But check it out for yourself; it's available both in paperback and Kindle.  In its blurb for the book, Dodd, Mead recommend it to "the mystery connoisseur...the reader who appreciates a detective novel with substance and background"--surely you're one of those people, since you read this blog!

More on Holding coming to the blog, with a review of probably her best "twofer" novel collection from Stark House.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Missing Queen and Other Mysteries of Genre History: The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction (2010)

The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction is a book of fewer than 200 pages with fourteen essays, including an four-page introduction by editor Catherine Ross Nickerson.  The other essays, all ranging from 8 to 15 pages, that follow Nickerson's introduction are:

Early American Crime Writing 
Poe and the Origins of Detective Fiction
Women Writers before 1960
The Hard-Boiled Novel
American Roman Noir
Teenage Detectives and Teenage Delinquents
American Spy Fiction
The Police Procedural on Literature and on Television
Mafia Stories and the American Gangster
True Crime
Race and American Crime Fiction
Feminist Crime Fiction
Crime in Postmodernist Fiction

There is lots here about hard-boiled, noir, police procedural, gender and race, as one would expected from a modern academic survey of American crime fiction.

In the "American Crime Fiction Chronology" given at the beginning of the book, fifteen works, chosen to reflect the content of the essays, are listed as milestones for the period 1841 to 1939:

1841 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
1866 Metta Fuller Victor, The Dead Letter

1878 Anna Katharine Greene, The Leavenworth Case
1908 Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase
1923 Carroll John Daly, "Three Gun Terry"
1925 Earl Derr Biggers, The House without a Key
1927 S. S. Van Dine, The Benson Murder Case (actually 1926)
1927 Franklin Dixon, The Tower Treasure
1929 Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
1929 Mignon Eberhart, The Patient in Room 18
1930 Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Old Clock
1934 James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
1934 Leslie Ford, The Strangled Witness
1938 Mabel Seeley, The Listening House
1939 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

A clear pattern can be discerned in this material:

The Distant Founder: Poe
The Women: Victor, Green, Rinehart, Eberhart, Ford, Seeley
The Tough Guys: Daly, Hammett, Cain, Chandler
The Brains: Biggers, Van Dine
The Juveniles: Dixon, Keene

Going strictly by this outline one would conclude that American men after Poe gave little to the detective fiction genre, outside of hard-boiled and juvenile mystery. The only male authors of classical detective fiction listed for the near century between the appearances of "Rue Morgue" and The Big Sleep are the creators of Philo Vance and Charlie Chan.

When we look at the actual text of the essays themselves, even Van Dine and Biggers don't come out so well.

On page 1, Van Dine's rules for writing detective fiction are mentioned, dismissively.

On page 29 he is again dismissed, as an imitator of Agatha Christie.

On page 43 he is called an imitator of Arthur Conan Doyle and used as the usual hard-boiled punching bag for not writing about "reality" (though interestingly he is deemed "the era's most popular writer").

On page 136 it is claimed that his novel The Benson Murder Case is "widely acknowledged as the first American clue-puzzle mystery."

Earl Derr Biggers gets one lone mention, on account of having created an ethnic detective (see "Race and American Crime Fiction").

Rex Stout
Of course at least Van Dine and Biggers are mentioned.  The hugely popular and admired Rex Stout is another such fortunate fellow.

Though he missed out on the list of milestones, Stout nevertheless is mentioned in the text.

On page 47 he is noted for having cleverly merged hard-boiled and classical styles for commercial purposes.

On page 136 he is criticized, along with Van Dine, for having ignored race and gestured "more toward Europe than toward actual American cities," by writing about rich white bankers, stockbrokers and attorneys ("Race and American Crime Fiction").

Jacques Futrelle gets one mention, on page 29, as a "famous but ultimately minor" mystery writer (how the determination was reached that he was "ultimately minor" is not explained).

On the other hand, if you are looking for anything on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur B. Reeve, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr--was he counted as British?--or Ellery Queen, you will search in vain (wait, Gardner is listed as the author of an article).

Meanwhile, Anna Katharine Green gets two pages, Mary Roberts Rinehart three and Mignon Eberhart, Leslie Ford and Mabel Seeley together as a trio another two (even Carolyn Wells gets a line).

The editor of the Companion, the aforementioned Catherine Ross Nickerson, is the author of The Web of Iniquity, an interesting book that is about--you may not be surprised to learn this--Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart.  She also authored the Companion essay "Women Writers before 1960."

In her introduction to the Companion she writes:

It is only fairly recently that the multiple genres of crime writing have been taken up as subjects of academic study; before that, they were entirely in the hands of connoisseurs and collectors, with their endless taxonomies, lists and value judgments.  What Chandler opened up was a new way of looking at crime narratives, or rather looking through them, as lenses on the culture and history of the United States.

All well and good--though Nickerson sure seemed to be making a "value judgment" about Futrelle--and anyone familiar (alas! too few!) with my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, Clues and Corpses or various blog articles knows that I too am very interested in mining detective fiction for what it may tell us about cultural history.  But it seems to me that the book Nickerson edited too often looks not through American crime fiction, but past it--past it, that is, when the crime fiction does not fit preconceived and circular notions of what American crime fiction is.

According to Nickerson there were two indigenous creative strains in American mystery: the female domestic novel/female Gothic (the English Bronte sisters and Mary Elizabeth Braddon are admitted as influences here, but not Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu) and the male hard-boiled/noir.

It seems that what we think of as the "classical" Golden Age detective novel was about as American as spotted dick. Nickerson writes dismissively of Golden Age detective novels with their "puzzles and country houses full of amusing guests," declaring that they were "presided over by Agatha Christie and imitated by Americans like S. S. Van Dine."

just in case you were wondering....

So, if you were an American man writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class class/wealthy milieus, you were part of a British country house mystery tradition and thus not worthy of inclusion in a historical survey of American mystery fiction; but if you were an American woman writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class/wealthy milieus, you were part of the American female domestic novel/female Gothic tradition--even though some of this tradition was British and male--and you make it into the survey.

So the result is Leslie Ford, for example, but no Ellery Queen.  Ellery Queen is the American detective story, Anthony Boucher once wrote--but then I suppose Boucher was just one of those mere connoisseurs and collectors.  What did he know?

Note: This piece is a revision of an article originally written for Steve Lewis' Mystery*File. Looking back at it now, I see that I should have noted that the Companion overlooks Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly, Cornell Woolrich and most mid-century American women suspense writers as well. I have a feeling that the latter omission won't be happening again in any future edition of the Companion (these women suspense writers are coming soon to the Library of America).

For more of my genre literature encounters with Catherine Ross Nickerson, connoisseurs and collectors, see my Mabel Seeley's Murders in MinnesotaPart One and Part Two.

Also you can use the search box to check out the numerous past posts I have made on Leslie Ford, Mignon Eberhart, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Carolyn Wells, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly and, yes, even Ellery Queen.  Check out the posts on Rufus King, Patrick Quentin, Cornell Woolrich, Hugh Austin, George Bellairs and Todd Downing too.  Those guys were no slouches either.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)
Lauren Bacall, who passed away two days ago at the age of 89, had not only a fabled film career, but was in a number of interesting crime films, including most notably The Big Sleep (1946), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), based on the Agatha Christie novel. She also starred in Dark Passage (1947), based on the David Goodis novel, Key Largo (1948), based on the Maxwell Anderson play, Harper (1966), based on the Ross Macdonald novel The Moving Target, and Appointment with Death (1988), based on the Agatha Christie novel. To sum up, that's a Chandler film, two Christie films, a Ross Macdonald film and a David Goodis film (and I may be leaving out something)!

Bacall of course is known for the films she did with her first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart.  Since The Big Sleep and Key Largo are better known, I thought I would take a look at Dark Passage, based on the novel by mid-century crime writer David Goodis, who has been enjoying a great revival the last decade or so, since his embrace by the cultural gatekeeper Library of America.  I had never seen this film before, but happened to have the DVD around the house, so popped it in the player and found it quite interesting, though not, I would say, an absolute classic.

In Dark Passage Bogart plays an escaped convict, Vincent Parry, sentenced to life for the killing of his wife.  The film opens with his thrilling, if improbable, escape from San Quentin State Prison in a metal drum (the stunt where the drum falls off the truck and rolls down the hill is impressive, but I have to wonder whether Bogart's character really would have survived, let alone walked away like it was nothing). Parry hitches a ride with a young guy named Baker (Clifton Young, in a nice performance), who starts asking too many questions, so Parry knocks him out. Exit Baker--or does he?

be careful who you hitch with....

Happily, a beautiful young woman, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), shows up, offering to hide Parry in her San Francisco apartment (Parry is having some day!). Jansen, an heiress whose father was unjustly executed for the murder of her stepmother, followed Parry's trial closely, believing that he too was innocent (I believe she heard he had escaped and was driving around looking for him in the vicinity of San Quentin).

Parry can't stay with her for long, however, so he sets out on his own (with $1000 she has given him!). Again Parry lucks out when the cabby he gets a ride with (an appealingly empathetic Tom D'Andrea), upon discerning Parry's identity, tells Parry he knows a doctor (a memorable Houseley Stevenson) who can surgically alter his appearance!

a cabby (Tom D'Andrea) takes a shine to a con

Parry is hep to this suggestion, but first he stops off with best friend, trumpet player George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson--another good performance), and we get some back story on the murder of Parry's wife.  After Parry gets his surgery done he returns to Fellsinger's, only to find him dead, bludgeoned with his own trumpet! Not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, Parry picks up the trumpet and gets his fingerprints on it, assuring that he will be fingered for Fellsinger's murder, before hot footing it back to Jansen's apartment.

Oh, did I mention that up until now we haven't actually seen Bogart, just heard him?  The action has been cleverly filmed from his point of view (the film version of Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, which appeared the same year, was shot the same way as well, but less successfully as I understand it).

Anyway, for the next half hour we see Bogart in bandages and he can't speak (though he does some voice-overs).  During this time there is some more exposition when at Jansen's apartment we meet Jansen's friends Bob (Bruce Bennett) and Madge (a deliciously bitchy Agnes Moorehead; oddly Bennett and Moorehead both popped up in the film Without Honor, which I reviewed here recently).

a post-op Vincent Parry with Irene Jansen
at Jansen's to die for apartment

Finally Parry gets the bandages off and we are left with these questions: Will Parry find out who really killed his wife and who killed Fellsinger?  Will he ever make it out of San Francisco?  Will he get the beautiful girl?  There also is an additional plot wrinkle, which I won't detail.

I enjoyed Dark Passage, though it had one of the more unlikely plots I have encountered in a mystery film. Also I didn't find it very close to noir, with Parry not being, really, a very flawed guy at all (besides being kind of dumb, frankly).  Parry is not a character that gives Bogart a whole lot to do--though he does get a great naughty one-liner when, after getting out of the shower in Jansen's apartment, he thanks her for giving him a towel large enough "to cover my embarrassment."

Bacall is sultry yet sympathetic, all good girl, no femme fatale.  Most of the supporting performances are outstanding, especially that by Moorehead (her scene with Bogart was, I thought, the best acting scene in the film). Additionally, the exterior shots in San Francisco are great and I now want to own an apartment just like Irene Jansen's--Wow!

Parry pays a call on Madge (Agnes Moorehead)

So, while Dark Passage is not an immortal classic of mystery film, it is an enjoyable movie, and of course especially great viewing for Bogart and Bacall fans (and the DVD is great quality, with a nice special feature on the film). Lauren Bacall will be much missed.  I hope she and Bogart are sharing quips together again in some swanky bar in the beyond.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Digging Deep into the Mysteries of Character and Place: The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

"There's no gas in the mine, they tell us," Billy keened over his empty glass. "Do you remember them telling us that in 1938, was it?  They're as pure as the mountain air.  And sure the graveyard's swimming with the pieces."  His voice rose like an evangelist's. "Their souls were exploded to heaven."

                                                             Dorothy Salisbury Davis, The Clay Hand (1950)

The Clay Hand (1950) followed The Judas Cat (1949) by a year
--both are superlative crime novels
(featured are the striking 1952 Bantam reprints)

In 1963 Collier Books reprinted Dorothy Salisbury Davis' The Clay Hand (1950), the author's second crime novel, as part of its Mystery Classics series.  In his short introduction General Editor Anthony Boucher praised the novel, set "somewhere near the point where West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio meet" (I'm guessing Wayne County, WV), for its convincing regionalism and depiction of character.

Boucher made note especially of the novel's sheriff character, Sam Fields, with his "almost Maigret-like patience and insight," and also what Boucher termed "two of the most interesting and uncategorizable women that ever a detective had to cope with."  He also praised Davis, with perhaps a whiff of mid-century chauvinism, for having, though a woman, "brought off the feat of successfully writing from a wholly male viewpoint."

I rib Boucher a bit for this last statement (matched by the Chicago Sun, which declared that Davis in her narration "never once betrays herself with a 'feminine' accent"), but in my estimation he was keenly perceptive in his praise of The Clay Hand, though this praise may have fallen rather on deaf ears at the time. While the novel also was lauded, several decades later, by Jon L. Breen, it was never reprinted again for half a century, when Open Road Media produced it, along with Davis' other crime novels, as an eBook, not too long before Davis' death this month, at the venerable age of 98.

Davis' third novel, A Gentle Murderer
(1951), was also part of the
Bantam 1952 reprint series
Readers familiar with Sarah Weinman's writing on mid-century women "domestic suspense" authors (much blogged about here lately) will know that Weinman laments the comparative neglect over the last several decades of these writers. While big presses certainly have been guilty of this neglect, smaller presses since the 1980s in my view have served some of these authors, such as Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, well.

Yet I have to concede that for a long time Davis' older crime novels, with the partial exception of A Gentle Murderer, which was reprinted by Gregg Press and Avon in the early 1980s, disappeared down the cracks of commercial neglect (see here for an interview Weinman conducted with Davis last year; Weinman has also written about Davis in the most recent issue of Mystery Scene Magazine).

Why Davis, when not Millar or Armstrong?  Well, in the case of The Clay Hand, perhaps its sober regionalism made it less easy to sell in the mystery market.  It is difficult to pigeonhole the novel as "psychological suspense," the niche into which Millar and Armstrong--as well as other fine mid-century women crime writers such as Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Ursula Curtiss and the English author Celia Fremlin--have been placed (nor would I call it domestic suspense, nor that egregiously overused word, noir).

The Clay Hand really is, as Boucher says, a regional mystery novel--an uncommonly fine one. It is a long novel for the period, giving Davis room to create a convincing canvas of the drab, decaying coal mining town of Winston and its odd denizens. There is an intriguing mystery as well, one that dovetails wonderfully with character and place.

Dick Coffee, crusading newspaper journalist, has died in Winston, apparently of a fall over a cliff.  His best friend, sports editor Phil McGovern, and his widow, Margaret, come to Winston, where an inquest on his death is to be held.  Phil has a love-hate relationship with beautiful Margaret, which only gets more complicated when it becomes clear that Coffee may have been murdered (the novel is told from Phil's viewpoint).

There are many questions for Phil and the likable county sheriff, Sam Fields. Who was the woman with green wings (a wonderfully bizarre detail) the local boy reports having seen with Coffee in the hills above Winston before Coffee's death?  And what was Coffee doing in Winston, anyway?  He earlier had reported on that mine disaster in Naperville--was there something untoward also going on with the mines in Winston?

Then there's that wizened, widowed boarding house keeper, Mrs. Norah O'Grady, with whom Coffee was staying--what does she know?  And was Coffee having a fling with Rebecca Glasgow, the married daughter of Clauson, that eccentric old magician?  And does the recent asphyxiation death of loony Kenneth Laughlin in a closed section of one of the mines have any relation to Coffee's death?

As these questions indicate, there is an intricate, engrossing mystery in The Clay Hand, but the book also succeeds wonderfully as a study of character and place (there is an eventful climax as well). It is an unusually sophisticated mid-twentieth-century crime novel, and I hope it reaches a broader audience now, in the twenty-first century.