Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Blonde Walked into a Bar.... Gold Coast Nocturne (1951), by Helen Nielsen

The way Casey figured it, life was a sour deal.  It was something with a beginning you didn't ask for, an ending you couldn't help, and nothing in between that would sell even at a charity auction.  But it came in a package, like a Christmas tie, and once the package was opened you were stuck with it.

                         --opening lines of Gold Coast Nocturne (1951), by Helen Nielsen

Her eyes, he noticed 
(among other things)
were like purple smoke and her mouth
was full and young....The purple-smoke
eyes were measuring Casey's face now,
every inch of it, from the unruly,
dun-colored hair to the squared-off chin
 that was just right for leading with....
Casey meets Phyllis for the first time
in Gold Coast Nocturne (1951)
Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) is one of the authors included in Sarah Weinman's engrossing anthology of mid-twentieth-century women crime writers, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (much discussed here of late!).

She published eighteen crime novels between 1951 and 1976, getting off to a strong start with The Kind Man and Gold Cost Nocturne (retitled, for no good reason, Dead on the Level in paperback and, for somewhat better reason, Murder by Proxy in the UK), which both were strongly praised in the US and the UK.

In the UK Rupert Croft-Cooke (the British mystery writer Leo Bruce) said of Nielsen, in his review of The Kind Man, "I consider her the most worth watching of all new arrivals in the world of detection."

She was also more recently praised by Marcia Muller in Muller's and Bill Pronzini's 1001 Midnights (1986) and, of course, is being currently promoted by Sara Weinman.

Since  John Norris at Pretty Sinister has already reviewed The Kind Man, I thought I would take a look at Nielsen's second crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (it's often erroneously listed as her first).

It was adapted into a 1954 British film, Murder by Proxy (Blackout in the US), directed by Terence Fisher and starring "regular Joe" American actor Dane Clark (I specifically recall him from Angela Lansbury's Murder She Wrote in the 1980s) and lovely blonde British actress Belinda Lee.

Murder by Proxy (1954) aka Blackout
aka Dead on the Level aka Gold Coast Nocturne
Whew! Can't these people settle on a title?!

I noticed some of the reviews of Murder by Proxy/Blackout on imdb.com complain that the film is not true noir, but rather a detective story, and that the mystery plot is confusing. There is one point of character motivation that I feel was a bit skirted in the book, yet overall I thought Nielsen managed the complex plot wonderfully. I plan to watch the film to see how it matches the book (from clips it looks like a close match). Like the film adaptation, it seems, the book is not true noir, but rather a (medium) hard-boiled detective novel--and a very good one.

Like so many American mysteries of this era, Gold Coast Nocturne has as its protagonist a down-on-his-luck World War Two vet (Pacific theater, as so often seems to be the case in these books), Casey Morrow, aka Casimir Morokowski, who left his mother and stepfather to join up with the armed forces, then, after the war, went into business in California.

His business went belly up, however, and when the novel opens Casey is in a bar in Chicago, miserably drowning his sorrows with his very last dollars.

There he is approached by beautiful young blonde, expensively attired, who has a proposition for him--a business proposition.

The mystery blonde wants him to marry her, in exchange for $5000!  Casey is so drunk he's not exactly sure what he's agreeing to, but he goes off with her. He wakes up the next day in the apartment of another woman, plucky artist Maggie Doone, and discovers he was dumped here by last night's blonde, who turns out to be heiress Phyllis Brunner, whose rich Daddy just happened to get his head bashed in with a poker in his study the same night she was being squired by Casey.

the British edition
Casey suspects he's been set up as a patsy for a murder.  In classic fashion, he decides he's going to have to try to solve the murder for himself, before he's hauled off to the hoosegow by the police.

This is an efficiently constructed mystery novel, with a plot that keeps one in suspense until near the very end. The author makes a sympathetic figure of Casey, who, while no Chandlerian wisecracker, is a good everyman character. There are as well interesting glimpses of Chicago, including not only the abodes of Gold Coast swells but Casey's old Polish immigrant neighborhood. While I would not rank Gold Coast Nocturne with the greatest masterpieces of the more hard-boiled detective novel, it is, I would say, a top-drawer example.  I will read more by Helen Nielsen.

Gold Coast Nocturne is available for Kindle on Amazon (under the title Dead on the Level), from Prologue Books. There is also that killer Dell paperback edition, a dreary British hardcover first by Gollancz and a scarce American hardcover first by Ives Washburn.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hudson Strode and Highsmith: The Tale of "The Heroine" and the 1946 O. Henry Prize Stories

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
It is frequently stated that Patricia Highsmith won "an O. Henry Award" for her story "The Heroine," recently anthologized by Sarah Weinman in her book Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

It is true that "The Heroine" was one of 22 "O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1946," published that year by Doubleday in an annual anthology, along with, among others, Truman Capote's "Miriam" (another fine portrait of mental disintegration), Kay Boyle's "Winter Night," Dorothy Canfield Fisher's "Sex Education," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "Black Secret" and Eudora Welty's "A Sketching Trip."

However, four specific cash prizes were awarded to stories in this anthology: first, second and third prizes, plus a special prize for a first published short story.  Highsmith did not win any of these prizes; neither did Capote, Welty, or any of the other authors listed above.

First prize went to John Mayo Goss, for "Bird Song."  Second prize went to Margaret Shedd, for "The Innocent Bystander."  Third prize went to Victor Ullman, for "Sometimes You Break Even." And the special prize for first published short story went to Cord Meyer, Jr., for "Waves of Darkness."

There were three judges for the O. Henry Prize Stories that year: James Gray, "novelist, authority on the Middle West and book reviewer, now literary editor of the Chicago Daily News"; Helen Hull (1888-1971), "novelist, short-story writer, and teacher at Columbia University"; and Hudson Strode (1892-1976), "author of travel books, lecturer, and outstandingly successful teacher of courses in creative writing at the University of Alabama."

What?  You haven't heard of Hudson Strode, "outstandingly successful teacher in courses of creative writing at the University of Alabama"?  Well, allow me to remedy this (stick with me, this will ultimately take us back to Patricia Highsmith).

Hudson Strode (1892-1976)

I have some familiarity with what might be called "the Legend of Hudson Strode," having graduated, eleven years after Strode's death, from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the center of his academic domain.  Professor Strode was famed in Alabama for his ability to get his creative writing students published. Perhaps his best-known students are Borden Deal, who wrote some crime genre stories as well as mainstream novels, and Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump (1986), who came along to UA in the early 1960s, at the very end of the Strode regime (Strode retired in 1963).

A great deal was made of Strode in Alabama academe, even though when it came to his own writing Strode himself for most of his life was distinguished for his raft of travel books, such as The Story of Bermuda (1932), The Pageant of Cuba (1934), Finland Forever (1941), Sweden: Model for the World (1949; for this one Strode was awarded the Order of the North Star by King Gustav VI Adolf, something which became an essential part of the Great Man's bio) and Denmark is a Lovely Land (1951).

Strode loved world traveling and hobnobbing with the rich and/or famous (if the truly rich and/or famous were not available, minor European royalty and aristocracy would do). When noting in his memoirs, The Eleventh House (1975), that his book on Cuba was turned down by the famed leftist publisher Victor Gollancz--the publisher, incidentally, of a great deal of crime fiction--on the grounds that the book was too conservative, Strode bemusedly reflected

I had not known that this highly successful publisher was a Communist.  I was told that he gave most elaborate and costly parties.

a cover apparently inspired by
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(I think that's our King Gustav on the
lower left, below F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Later in life Strode also published an admiring three-volume biography of Confederate president Jefferson Davis that is not taken seriously within the academic community today. His book of memoirs is the sort that is inevitably called chatty, not to mention possibly the greatest case of major (and very often minor) celebrity name-dropping ever committed to paper.

I didn't mind his recollections of the time he spent two hours sitting on a porch swing with my teenage writing idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald:

I had never met him before.  Scott was not drinking that week.  He looked as fresh as he was handsome....He was wearing plus fours and jacket of a muted mixed green color....I found his conversation fascinating....

However, Strode's prolix preoccupation with seemingly each and every member of each and every royal house in Europe grew wearying:

In the upper box above Mrs. Hanson, wife of the Prime Minister, and her companions, appeared three royal princesses: first, Sibylla, wife of the Crown Prince's eldest son; then Ingeborg, Danish-born sister-in-law of King Gustav and mother of the Crown Princess Martha of Norway and the late Queen Astrid of the Belgians.  Last, to the front seat of honor, came Crown Princess Louise, sister of England's Lord Louis Mountbatten and aunt of Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh and consort of Queen Elizabeth II.  All three ladies wore their court jewels and evening gowns of pastel colors....

If this kind of thing really interests you, there is a lot more of it in The Eleventh House. Or, of course, you could just grab a random copy of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage.

Yet as a teacher Strode clearly was beloved by his students (who were locally-known as "Strodents") and he obviously labored to help get them into print and publicized. A case in point can be seen with the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946.

Mulling his loss to John Mayo Goss?
Truman Capote (1924-1984)
Who was John Mayo Goss, who won first prize over Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, Eudora Welty, etc., for the stories considered in 1946?

Why, he was a "Stroder"--a Hudson Strode student!

Herschell Brickell, selector and editor of the volume that year, obviously realized there was a potential conflict-of-interest issue here, with Hudson Strode serving as one of the three judges, for he addressed the matter head-on in his introduction:

It needs to be explained that Mr. Strode has had Mr. Goss in his classes...in an honest attempt to lean over backward, he placed [Goss' story] second, giving Miss Shedd's "The Innocent Bystander" first place.

Of course, Goss won first prize anyway (I assume the other two judges placed him at the top of their ballots), so all worked out well for the University of Alabama creative writing program. Goss later published a novel, This Magnificent World (1948).  Patricia Highsmith and Truman Capote went on to publish a few things too, as we know, Highsmith primarily and Capote occasionally (In Cold Blood) books about crime.

Herschell Brickell seemed to feel the comparative snubbing of Capote keenly, writing (chidingly?) in his introduction that the young man--who spent some crucial childhood years in Alabama but unfortunately did not take classes in creative writing with Hudson Strode--was in his opinion the "most remarkable new talent of the year" and would "take his place among the best short-story writers of the rising generation."

Helen Rose Hull (1888-1971)
not high on Highsmith 
Little was said about Highsmith's "The Heroine" and that which was said was critical.  Judge Helen Hull dismissed the story as "having no significance," being "merely the projection into action of the daydream of a disordered mind."

Ironically, Helen Hull herself would publish, near the end of her long fiction writing career, a psychological crime novel, A Tapping on the Wall (1960). Was she inspired by Patrica Highsmith's success? Over at Goodreads, Geert Daelemans does not think too much of Hull's Tapping.  However, unlike Highsmith's "The Heroine," the novel did win a cash prize ($3000 from Dodd, Mead for the best mystery/suspense novel written by a professor). I'm going to judge for myself!

For more on 1946 literary prizes involving crime fiction, see Faulkner vs. Wellman: The Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine 1946 Showdown.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Women on the Edge of a Deserved Revival: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman

home is where the hurt is
In Penguin's anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives [TDTW] Sarah Weinman has put together an important collection of female-authored suspense fiction from the 1940s through the 1970s--one that has been needed for some time.

While I do not agree that the writers Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar were really "forgotten" when this anthology appeared--in the last thirty years these women had work reprinted by small presses (IPL, Carroll and Graf, Crippen & Landru, Stark House, The Feminist Press)--they had not received, to be sure, the attention they deserved, either from important presses like Black Lizard and Library of America or, for the most part, academic surveys.

Like many worthy male crime writers, these women authors have tended to get overlooked, I believe, because they do not fit conveniently into the tough/cozy bifurcation paradigm that critics have fashioned for older crime fiction.  Critic and crime writer Jon L. Breen noted the error in this paradigm nearly a decade ago, in his essay The Ellery Queen Mystery, and I have written about the matter at length in my books Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) and Clues and Corpses (2013) and most recently in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), the collection of essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene that I edited.

Twentieth-century women suspense writers--going back to Mary Roberts Rinehart in the United States and Marie Belloc Lowndes in the United Kingdom, and up through, among others, Margaret Millar, Celia Fremlin and Ursula Curtiss--have not received their critical due; but neither have what Breen terms "male classicists," such as Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Leo Bruce and Freeman Wills Crofts (the latter a functional stylist at best, but an important figure within the history of the genre), to name a few.

While much remains to be done for the male classicists (and, for that matter, female classicists who have not been crowned "Crime Queens"), with TDTW Sarah Weinman certainly has advanced the cause of the women suspense writers: Library of America will be issuing some works by women suspense writers next year, she tells me.

Of course TDTW has merit beyond that as a piece of advocacy: the stories are interesting and entertaining--if not all necessarily precursors to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, as some reviews have suggested. One can quibble about the inclusion of some of the tales (I found the Shirley Jackson story, "Louisa, Please Come Home," uncharacteristically flat for Jackson and would have much preferred "The Possibility of Evil", while Dorothy Salisbury Davis' "Lost Generation" and Dorothy B. Hughes' "Everybody Needs a Mink" did not seem to me to illustrate the "troubled/twisted" women theme so well), but the book nevertheless is a highly notable collection.

Patricia Highsmith
TDTW opens with Patricia Highsmith's "The Heroine," a 1945 tale about a most devoted nanny; and this psychologically perceptive and superbly chilling piece makes a strong beginning indeed, being a masterful example of what Weinman calls "domestic suspense" (I'll have more to say about the early history of this story this week).

Weinman notes that Highsmith has over the last decade or so been lovingly embraced by the critical community (she currently is the only female writer with a novel included in the Library of America), yet, she adds pointedly:

Highsmith largely wrote about, and was more comfortable with, men. When she wrote about domestic situations in her novels and stories, they were largely to do with male perception, misunderstanding, and delusion.

Weinman deems "The Heroine" as, for Highsmith, "a 'path not taken' tale."

Among the shorter tales, Nedra Tyre's "A Nice Play to Stay," Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" and Miriam Allen deFord's "Mortmain" are superb--and dark--twist stories.  Perhaps Callahan's is most striking in its evocation of the hold of childhood memory, but they are all wonderful.

Joyce Harrington's relentless "The Purple Shroud" is memorably macabre and gruesome, even though I don't know that I find myself quite so sympathetic as some reviewers have been to the protagonist's way of ending what Weinman calls a "toxic marriage."

Aside from "The Heroine", probably my favorite tales in this collection are Vera Caspary's "Sugar and Spice," Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car," Charlotte Armstrong's "The Splintered Monday," Margaret Millar's "The People Across the Canyon," and Celia Fremlin's "A Case of Maximum Need."

Armstrong's tale felt more like an actual detective story, rather than "suspense," but the detective figure is a wonderful, wise old woman (what Kevin Killian calls one of Armstrong's "Norns"); and it's certainly the quintessence of unnatural domestic death.

Like Millar's "McGowney's Miracle," previously anthologized in The Lethal Sex, Millar's "The People Across the Canyon" has a poignancy that lingers with the reader.  One cannot help but feel that this tale, which probes the failures with a daughter of two no doubt "good" parents, reflects anxieties Millar and her husband, Ross Macdonald, had about their relationship with their own troubled daughter, Linda.

In "The People across the Canyon"
Margaret Millar silences Perry Mason
With the poignancy in Millar's tale there is a certain mordant humor. Clearly condemnatory of parents who have fallen enslaved to television, Millar zings a then tremendously popular television series, based on the books of a then tremendously popular crime fiction writer:

Marion went over and snapped off the television set....
Well, let's have it," Paul said, trying to conceal his annoyance.

"Have what?"
"Stop kidding around.  You don't usually cut off Perry Mason in the middle of a sentence."
....
Paul went over and turned the television set back on.  As he had suspected, it was the doorman who'd killed the nightclub owner with a baseball bat, not the blonde dancer or her young husband or the jealous singer.

Celia Fremlin's "A Case of Maximum Need" is a creepy story of an octogenarian woman who is adamant to a young social worker that she does not want a telephone installed in her "Sheltered Housing Unit for the Elderly." The career of Celia Fremlin (1914-2009) overlapped that of her "sister" Englishwoman and crime writer Ruth Rendell, with whom she shared much affinity, I believe.  Both women wrote (Rendell of course still does) crime fiction with precise hands and penetrating eyes:

Sunday was the day when relatives of all ages, bearing flowers and pot plants in proportion to their guilt, came billowing in through the swing doors to spend an afternoon of stunned boredom with their dear ones....

Celia Fremlin's death five years ago was little noted, which is a shame.  Her debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, won the Edgar Award for best crime novel in 1960, and for some time before her death she was remembered, if at all, primarily for this one work; yet she gave us a rich corpus of suspense fiction. Happily, her books have been reprinted in the UK; unhappily, they have not been reprinted in the US.

This brings us to the anthology's two novelettes or novellas, Caspary's "Sugar and Spice" and Holding's "The Stranger in the Car."  These both are rich works, full of interesting social observation and suspense (Holding's more legitimately "domestic").

The ironically-titled "Sugar and Spice" is a "rich woman-poor woman" story of an intense and deadly rivalry between two cousins and has an interesting narrative structure, typical of this clever author. My only criticism, a matter of personal taste, is that it is perhaps a tad "slick" (incidentally, don't believe the reviewers who fashionably, if carelessly, label all the tales in TDTW "noir"; they aren't--nor do they need to be such to stand on their own as fine fiction).

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
I preferred "The Stranger in the Car," which I found darker and twistier than "Sugar and Space."  In fact, I think it's my favorite piece in the entire anthology.

Only at the end does one fully realize all that has been going on in this impressive crime novella, about a businessman husband and father who tries to stomp out all the fires he sees kindling in his mostly female household. The psychological clueing in this novella has, like the best novels of Margaret Millar, a Christie-like deftness.

Holding was much praised by Raymond Chandler and Anthony Boucher, among many others, and her novel The Blank Wall (1947) was successfully filmed twice (The Reckless Moment, 1949, starring Joan Bennett and James MasonThe Deep End, 2001, starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic), but more recently has not received the critical attention that she merits (some of her novels have been reprinted by Stark House).

If you haven't read TDTW and you like suspense fiction, my advice to you is to read it as soon as you can, and then read some of the novels by the fine authors Sarah Weinman has included in this excellent anthology.

PS.: Here's John Norris' take on TDTW over at his Pretty Sinister blog.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Some Wicked and Wounded Women: The Lethal Sex (1959), edited by John D. Macdonald


....As you read each [story], keep in mind that a woman wrote it, and try to imagine what special qualities inhabit the mind and heart and soul of that woman.  And after you are through, take all of those qualities and form of them a composite woman.

She will be magic and mystery, sensitive, earthy, compelling, wry, humorous, humble, arrogant, diligent, lazy, neat, careless, spiritual and bawdy.  I guess this is a love note to that woman.  She is a very special gal.  And she is, of course, any woman, anywhere....

....Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents...and their savage little minds.

--John D. MacDonald, Introduction to The Lethal Sex 

Reading John D. MacDonald's introduction to the 1959 Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Lethal Sex, that he edited, I was struck, 55 years later, by what seemed an awfully patronizing tone (the introduction reads like a proposition en masse).

At least the MWA focused exclusively on women writers, even if they did get a hard-boiled male author to edit and introduce the book (having recently edited a book, I think I have to cut MacDonald some slack).  Now, shall we join the ladies?

There are fourteen stories in The Lethal Sex.  Interestingly, there's not a huge amount of crossover with Sarah Weinman's recent Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.  We again have the magnificent Margaret Millar, Miriam Allen deFord and Nedra Tyre, but that's it.  However, many of the stories that Weinman collected in her anthology are post-1959, from the 1960s and 1970s.

Macdonald writes that he wanted in his anthology "bite and violence and atmosphere....If you adore those comfy little predictable puzzles, you've bought the wrong book."

Two British authors, Christianna Brand and Anthony Gilbert (yes, AG is a woman), contribute excellent and highly characteristic pieces, Brand's, "Dear Mr. Macdonald," a coy and clever murder story about two sisters, and Gilbert's, "You'll Be the Death of Me," another of this author's parables of the plain woman and the handsome devil (who may be a murdering devil).

Millar's story, "McGowney's Miracle," is an odd--and oddly moving--story about a mortician and the "client" he didn't actually bury.  It definitely has a noirish quality to it.

The concluding tale is a novelette/novella by Juanita Sheridan, whose mystery novel series in Hawaii has been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press and sounds charming.  "There Are No Snakes in Hawaii" tells of an artist and his philistine wife and how their marriage becomes dangerously unglued in Hawaii. It's a compelling tale with excellent local color.

Of the remaining ten stories, my favorites were:

"Snowball," by Ursula Curtiss, one of the most important "domestic suspense" writers of the 1950s and 1960s in my view.  At the snowbound country cottage did the husband murder the wife or the wife the husband?  Or something else?

"He Got What He Deserved," by Bernice Carey, a fine piece or irony about a mother and a daughter and the man who comes between them.

"Two for Tea," by Margaret Manners, which was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents the previous year, pits a calculating wife against a scheming mistress. Who will win?

"To Be Found and Read," by Miriam Allen deFord, with a male protagonist and a whipsaw final paragraph.

"What Is Going to Happen?", by Nedra Tyre, a dramatic monologue by an eight-year-old girl who seems to have done something very bad.

"Thirty-Nine," by D. Jenkins Smith, about a wife reaching the "dangerous age," is in some ways the most striking of the bunch, visceral in a way I wasn't expecting from such a volume, like a precursor to some of the books by Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott.

This tale would have made a fine addition to Sarah Weinman's anthology (about which I hope to writing here on Sunday).  Weinman provided some excellent short bios of the authors, something Macdonald did not do.  What about D. Jenkins Smith?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Neglected Writers, Forgotten Lines

When Troubled Daughters, Twisted WivesSarah Weinman's anthology of tales of psychological suspense fiction by women crime writers, was published last year, the project received much critical praise (just the blurbs in the book itself--all from women writers--go on for three pages). I fully concur that a book like Weinman's was long overdue and I recommend it to readers (I'm planning a full review next week).

Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the stance of some of the commentators on the book, who seemed prone to make the comparative neglect of some of these authors all a matter of gender. These women writers were neglected, so the argument goes, by men, because these writers were women. Yet, as Weinman herself recognizes, these writers were much praised in their day (by women and men), and were award-winning and popular.

Additionally, some of them who wrote novels, like Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, were kept in print into the 1980s and 1990s by presses like IPL and Carroll and Graf. Carroll and Graf recognized that Hughes was every bit a master of her craft, just like Cornell Woolrich, say, and reprinted both authors.  Douglas Greene, who was an advisor to IPL, has gone on, with his excellent Crippen and Landru press, to publish short story collections by two of the authors Weinman anthologizes (Millar and Vera Caspary) and soon will be publishing a collection by a third (Armstrong).

Margaret Millar
Potentate of Page-turners
I've had numerous conversations with male mystery fans where they highly praised some of these women writers, especially Margaret Millar (with, in Millar's case, the resultant debate about whether she or her husband, Ross Macdonald, was the better writer).

I was introduced to mystery fiction (and "mature" fiction in general) in 1974 at the age of eight by a wise old woman named Agatha Christie. As a young man I read and enjoyed a multitude of British crime queens: Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Heyer, Tey, Brand, Ferrars. When I started reading Margaret Millar in the 1990s (those IPL editions, readily available at my local Barnes & Noble), I was floored. She is one of the few mystery authors I have read where I found that I really "couldn't put the book down."

So it's hard for me to view the modern neglect of these writers as simply another round of conflict in the gender wars.  In my own work on neglected crime fiction writers, male and female, I have come to conclude that the Higher Powers of the publishing world (excluding small and micro presses, which are doing great work resurrecting forgotten authors) find it convenient to cram older crime writers into two gendered boxes:

(1) British "cozy" writers (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Tey, Heyer, etc.--the occasional donnish male Brit, perhaps Michael Innes or Edmund Crispin or maybe Nicholas Blake, is thrown in)

(2) American "tough" writers (hard-boiled and noir: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, etc.--of late Patricia Highsmith is likely to be included)

Look at the Grand Poobah of prestige publishing, Library of America.  LOA has opened its sanctum to crime writers, but apparently only if these writers are hard-boiled, noir, tough and, yes, it seems, with one exception, male.  Here from their website is their list of published crime writers with individual volumes:

Raymond Chandler (2 vols.)
Dashiell Hammett (2 vols.)
David Goodis
Elmore Leonard

LOA's American Noir set includes novels by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Patrica Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis and Chester Himes.

Fifteen writers, and one of them, Patricia Highmith, a woman.  While it's not merely women writers who are being neglected by LOA--evidently no male writer who wrote crime fiction that was neither noir nor hard-boiled need be considered--the gender disparity is dramatic.

The Only Woman? Patricia Highsmith

However, elsewhere things are looking up for once-prominent older women crime writers. Digital editions of books by Armstrong, Hughes, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart for example, are now available from Mysterious Press (they've brought back Ellery Queen too, by the way: a male writer(s) who has been, like these women, "unjustly neglected").

For my part, before reviewing Sarah Weinman's anthology of women crime writers, I'm going to take a look at a much older one: The Lethal Sex, the 1959 Anthology of the Mystery Writers of America. Fourteen crime stories, all by women writers, in an anthology edited by--John D. MacDonald!  Check in for it tomorrow!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Death (and Life) in the Land of Quenan: And on the Eighth Day (1964), by Ellery Queen

parable and mystery
The second of the Period III Queens, the period when Frederic Dannay began for a time writing Ellery Queen novels without his cousin Manfred B. Lee, was And on the Eighth Day.  It is one of Ellery Queen's most daring experiments in detection (Avram Davidson, 1923-1993, did the writing, based on Frederic Dannay's outline).

The 1992 HarperPerennial edition carries on the back cover the one-word blurb "Astonishing."  This comes from Anthony Boucher's New York Times Book Review notice.Yet the real story of the review is a tad more complex than this one carefully chosen word suggests. A bemused Boucher explained in his review that he had given the novel two readings, a month apart, and still didn't know whether he liked it or not!

I still have not decided whether this is a small masterpiece in an unconventional genre (limited, so far as I know, to this one book), or whether it is an unfortunate error in the Queen career.

I suspect the devoutly religious though avowedly liberal Boucher didn't know quite what to make of a such an in-your-face detective-novel-as-religious-parable book.

The novel, which is set in 1943-44, opens with Ellery spending Christmas with his father, Inspector Queen, in New York, then setting out across America in his "antique Duesenberg" (trains are full, its being wartime) for LA, to visit his old friends the Walshes (see The Four of Hearts, 1938), before taking up his job working on military propaganda (V. D. Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out).


Ellery arrives in LA on December 31 and by April 1 is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  He is let go and heads back to "New York, its April damps and dirt-flecked beauty."  "Did they give squeezed-out writers Purple Hearts," Ellery tiredly wonders to himself.

However, in Death Valley, after visiting the prophetically named "End-of-the-World Store" (Otto Schmidt, prop.), Ellery finds himself lost in the desert in his Duesenberg.


Fortunately (and here we leave the regular world for the land of the fantastic, or dare I say The Twilight Zone), Ellery comes upon a lost settlement in a valley, Quenan, inhabited by followers of some strange religion.  The leader of the community, known as the Teacher, hails Ellery's coming as having been prophesied in the religion's recently rediscovered holy book. It seems it has been foretold that the community soon will face a crisis and will need Ellery's help.

Knowing Ellery's track record, we can be pretty certain murder will be involved!

As indicated above, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) came to my mind when I was reading this book, as did the M. Night Shyalaman film The Village (2004). One just has to accept the basic premise that this community could have been hidden away for seventy years. In addition to The Twilight Zone, another contemporary influence, one would think, may have been Margaret Millar's crime novel How Like an Angel (1964).


Whatever its influences, I found this novel an original tour de force.  It has many of the hallmarks of classic Queen: wordplay, symbolism, the twist.  I thought the the religious parable elements were intriguing and quite enjoyed seeing how Dannay and Davidson played around with them.

It would be fun to discuss the book more in depth, but spoilers concerns prohibit this.  I'll just say that in addition to its basic cleverness, the novel succeeds, I think, in making some serious points about humankind.

It does seem to be a love it or hate it book, however, so the prospective reader is warned: you have to be able to embrace Queenian fantastification.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wicked Gifts: The Origin of Evil (1951), by Ellery Queen

As fans of Ellery Queen (Queenians?) know, the Ellery Queen mysteries have been divided by EQ expert Francis Nevins chronologically into four periods: Period I (1929-1935), Period II (1936-1940), Period III (1942-1958) and Period IV (1963-1971).

Period I Queen is the period of the most materially rich (i.e., clue dense) Queens, when the author--actually, as we know, two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee--was emulating the classic, puzzle-oriented detective novel of the Golden Age.

This was the period of the famous "Challenge to the Reader," a point near the end of the novels, when the authors informed their readers that they now had all the clues they needed to solve the puzzle.  Many people see some of the Queen novels from this period (The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of X, and The Tragedy of Y seem to be the most consistently named, but I would definitely add as well The Siamese Twin Mystery) as being at the apex of the Golden Age art.

Manfred Lee and Fredric Dannay
together comprised Ellery Queen,
one of the greatest American crime writers
Period II Queen was when Queen went "slick," seeking success in serializations in the glossy magazines and in the films.  Plotting complexity was downplayed, in favor of increased emphasis on emotions (including-gasp!-love). This seems to be everyone's least favorite Queen period.

Period III was when Queen went for greater psychological realism and thematic depth, although there is significant variance in the books of this period as well.

There is convincing naturalism (particularly in some of the Wrightsville novels, set in a "heartland" town, located either in upstate New York or New England), but often as well there is quite fantastic plotting that seems at war with the naturalism, as Lee himself complained in correspondence with Dannay.

Still, many people prefer this period to Period I (and certainly Period II), seeing it as more artistically mature and complex.  In particular, Calamity Town, Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails are typically acclaimed as masterpieces by Queen fans.

Period IV is, for me anyway, rather harder to categorize.  Most obviously, Manfred Lee, who had written the novels from Frederic Dannay's outlines, bowed out of the writing of a number of the books in this period, causing Dannay to seek out ghost writers for his plots (this was not acknowledged at the time). This period is seen by some as having produced some of the best Queens (The Player on the Other Side, And On the Eighth Day, Face to Face), as well as some of the worst (The House of Brass, The Last Woman in His Life, A Fine and Private Place) and some of the downright oddest (Cop Out).

the 1992 HarperPerennial
quality paperback edition
(a wonderful series)
I have to admit I tend to gravitate to Period I myself, but I recently read Queen's Period III detective novel The Origin of Evil (1951) and was quite impressed, with a few caveats.

The Origin of Evil is one of the three Queen novels that the Queen cousins discuss in depth in the correspondence collected by Joseph Goodrich in his splendid 2012 book Blood Relations.

This kind of correspondence--in such depth and from such notable figures in the history of the American crime novel--is a true rarity.  It's fascinating to get the insights of the actual authors into the novels they were writing, and I again urge people to get this book (though ideally after you have read Evil as well as Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails, the other two novels discussed).

In Blood Relations Joseph Goodrich deems Evil inferior to Ten Days' Wonder and Cat of Many Tails. He writes that Evil is "too many things at once--a Hollywood satire, a treatise on the nature of humankind, and a report on the state of the world as well as a typically clever Queen excursion."

I think there is truth in this, although if you want a Period III Queen novel where you can enjoy the problem without having to grapple so much with Queenian strivings for deeper cosmic meaning, Evil is a good choice.There are some interesting ideas in the novel, yet it remains primarily a problem in deduction.

In Evil, Ellery Queen's amateur sleuth--also named Ellery Queen of course--has returned to Hollywood after a considerable absence (a couple of the Period II novels are set in Hollywood). He's trying to get a mystery novel written, but real-life mystery keeps intruding. The mystery Ellery is dragged into this time concerns the households of the late Leander Hill and his jewelry business partner, Roger Priam.

Leander Hill's heart gave out after his receipt at his home of a bizarre "gift": a dead dog with a tiny silver box attached to its collar. A message was in the box and the reading of it by Hill precipitated his collapse. Hill's lovely and plucky nineteen-year-old adopted daughter, Laurel, declares that her father was murdered by fright.  She now wants Ellery to find out who is behind it all.

Ellery finds himself drawn to Delia
Hill's partner and neighbor Roger Priam also received a "gift," packaged in a small cardboard box, but he's not saying what it was. Priam is a wheelchair-bound giant of a man, who had to retire fifteen years ago from active participation in Hill & Priam, Wholesale Jewelers, on account of his deteriorated physical condition. When additional sinister gifts/warnings are sent to Priam, the surviving partner, it appears that someone with a vendetta against Hill & Priam is determined to finish a double job of murder.

Other characters of note in Evil are Priam's lusciously ripe forty-four year old wife, Delia (she's the same age as the Queen cousins when they wrote this novel), with whom Ellery becomes lustfully smitten; Priam's sardonic manservant, Alfred Wallace; Delia's muscle-rippled son from a prior marriage, Crowe Macgowan; and Delia's philosophical father, Cap Collier, who lives at the Priam mansion. There's also family man Lieutenant Keats of Hollywood Homicide, a temporary stand-in for Ellery's own New York cop father.

Crowe Macgowan actually lives above the Priam house, in a tree to be precise, and has been dubbed by newspapers the Atomic Age Nature Boy. Clad only in a loincloth, he says he is preparing for life after the atom bombs fall. At first this seems like an anti-atomic weapons statement on the part of the cousins, but the ultimate resolution of this plot strand undermines this reading, as Francis Nevins has noted (in his Royal Bloodline, 1974, and its 2013 revision, Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection).*

*(the resolution of Crowe's story-line seems to have a real-life parallel: see here those of you have read the book--it concerns the individual pictured immediately below)

back to nature

The Korean War had broken out in 1950, when the Queen cousins were working on Evil, and the war is much alluded to in the novel. In Nevins' view

the major trouble with this book is that Queen's treatment of the Korean war and of impending nuclear holocaust is completely at odds with his grim view of man. The conflict in Korea is portrayed not as one more monument to man's power-hunger and blood-lust but in the standard propaganda terms of the filthy Commies from the North attacking their peaceful democratic neighbors in the South.... (Royal Bloodline, 149).

Nevins does find a saving excuse for this purported failing on the part of Queen, however, as we see in this (rather didactic) passage:

We must remember, of course, that in those days when Joe McCarthy ruled the land, thousands of Americans had their careers ruined for raising doubts about matters such as these; and it seems clear that in 1951 Queen was not yet ready to put his body on the line. So if The Origin of Evil fails to cohere thematically, the reign of terror in which it was written is more to blame than Queen (Royal Bloodline, 149-150).

Interestingly, in Nevins' revision of Royal BloodlineThe Art of Detection, Nevins also faults what he calls Manfred Lee's "fervid anti-Communism" for this aspect of the novel, so apparently the Queen cousins were not actually forced to write this way by a McCarthyite reign of terror, but chose to do so of their own volition (particularly, it seems, Lee). In any event, while it's clear that in the novel Queen portrays resistance to the North Korean invasion of South Korea as a morally positive thing, given the state of affairs in the two countries today I can't say I disagree with Queen! Admittedly, this attitude does make Evil more redemptive and less pessimistic in nature.

"one more monument to man's power-hunger and blood-lust"

Evil opens with a wonderfully observant description of post-war Hollywood, some of Manfred Lee's best writing, in my opinion. However, most of the rest of the novel takes place indoors at three locations (the Hill house, the Priam House and Ellery's temporary abode), so there in fact is little local color, despite the presence of some colorful Hollywood characters.

Ultimately this is a heavily plot-driven novel, dominated by Frederic Dannay's lifelong fascination with intricate patterns and symbolism.  On this level it is a great success, I think. Trying to detect what is the meaning behind the menaces is intriguing fun. However, the characterization in my view is not sufficiently deep to give full impact to the darker themes at which Queen so obviously was aiming in this novel.

Delia Priam unloads on Lt. Keats
and Ellery with her killer gams
By far the strongest character in the book, I think, is Delia Priam, but her handling by Queen is something I find problematical.

Without going into detail, I'll just say that Ellery and Lieutenant Keats reveal themselves as rather displeasing prigs (okay, utter a-holes) in their attitudes and behavior toward her when they learn certain facts about her sex life.

In discussing Delia with Dannay, Lee pronounced that he found her "morally about as appealing as a guinea pig." Modern audiences are more apt to see things differently, I think, and will be more disgusted with Ellery than with Delia (his attitude toward her is, as Joe Goodrich puts it, "severely judgmental and hypocritically punitive").

In this case the cousins seem to have been influenced by elements of the hard-boiled school--particularly those in the books of Raymond Chandler and also, of course, the then hugely popular Mickey Spillane--that they themselves sometimes harshly denigrated. As is so often the case with Chandler, they seem to have been simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by the sexuality of their key female character. It feels off-putting today. Delia Priam deserved more from this novel than what she gets.

I want to stress, however, that despite my criticism of some aspects of the novel, I agree with Nevins that The Origin of Evil is one of the best Queen books from the 1950s (in fact, I think I would say it's the best, but then I don't share Nevins' great admiration for The Glass Village, 1954). Evil has a wonderfully clever, twisting, fairly clued plot and an engaging narrative with an admirably ambiguous conclusion. It may not be perfect, but it is damn good.

See also my review of Halfway House (1936).