Monday, May 20, 2019

Murder, Mayhem and Molly Maguires: The Bartholomews on the Case in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania

Mr. [Lin] Bartholomew is in some respects a most remarkable man.  He is brilliant, witty and eloquent, possessing in a high degree magnetic power of voice and manner; is a good judge of human nature, and understands the motives and hidden springs by which human conduct is governed. As a consequence he selects a jury well, exercises judgment in his offer of testimony, and cross-examines witnesses with prudence.  His strong position is before the jury. 

[Lin Bartholomew was] a rising young lawyer with a tongue as sharp as a razor.

--contemporary accounts of  Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew (1834-1880), prominent criminal attorney of Pottsville, Pennsylvania and father of Frances Ritter Bartholomew of Phialdelphia (1873-1939), a close friend of crime writer Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb (1901-1966)

"Character!  Character!  What can I say of this despicable wretch, this curse let loose from hell, a confessed murderer, a participant in the most fearful of crimes."

--Lin Bartholomew dramatically impeaching a witness who turned state's evidence against his miner client in one of the Molly Maguires trials conducted in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in the 1870s

Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew
father of Frances Ritter Bartholomew
one of the Philadelphia friends of
Richard Wilson Webb
One of the most infamous episodes of the often murderously violent Victorian-era labor-capital struggle in the United States took place in the 1860s and 1870s in the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where miners found themselves pitted, if you will, against mine owners, as embodied, respectively, by the sinister secret organization known as the "Molly Maguires" and its twin nemeses, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, both of which were headed in the 1870s by attorney Franklin B. Gowen, who in my view more than matched the putative Molly Maguires for covert nefariousness.

Determined to break the power of his labor opposition, Gowen in 1873 approached the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and obtained the services of one of their operatives, James McParland

The wily Pinkerton Op was tasked with infiltrating the Molly Maguires, an organization so nebulous that it was claimed by many not even actually to exist in the United States.  (It was also said that the the members of the MM had sneakily hidden behind a supported peaceable front group, the Irish fraternal organization known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.) 

For a period of over two years, James McParland industriously collected evidence of supposed Molly Maguire involvement in more than fifty murders in Schuylkill County that had occurred over the last dozen years. (Good gad!  You would think the United States was a violent country or something.)

Franklin B. Gowen
After Franklin Gowen broke a strike among Schuylkill County miners in 1876, he lodged murder charges against supposed Molly Maguires, with the result that twenty men were executed, hanged on a gallows in Pottsville, the seat of Schuylkill county.  Ten men were hanged on a single day, known ever after to the Irish Catholic mining community as "Black Thursday." 

In an outrageous conflict of interest, the sort of thing that makes one despair for American democracy as anything but a hollow sham, railroad president Franklin Gowen acted as the state's special prosecutor in the trials, with his hired man, Pinkerton spy James McParland, serving as his chief witness. Certainly Gowen showed no lack of zealous ruthlessness in destroying his enemies.

One authority commented acerbically that the whole thing was essentially a private prosecution, with the State of Pennsylvania providing only the courtroom and the inevitable gallows.  Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries, as they presumably would be more sympathetic to the miner defendants, themselves all Irish Catholics.  Whether or not the defendants were really guilty of murders, these trials were most iniquitously conducted. 

The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories in American History states it well:

a menacing "coffin notice" suppsoedly left by members
of the Molly Maguires to intimidate their enemies
in the management of the mines

The convicted men were members of an alleged secret society called the "Molly Maguires," said to have been imported from the Irish countryside, where a society of the same name was active in the 1840s....Their trials, conducted in the midst of enormously hostile national publicity, were a travesty of justice.  The defendants were arrested by the private police force of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, whose ambitious president, Franklin B. Gowen, had financed the Pinkerton operation.  They were convicted on the evidence of an undercover detective who was accused (somewhat half-heartedly) by the defense of being an agent provocateur, supplemented by the confessions of a series of informers who had turned state's evidence to save their necks.  Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries as a matter of course.  Most of the prosecuting attorneys worked for railroad and mining companies.  Remarkably Franklin B. Gowen himself appeared as the star prosecutor at several trials, with his courtroom speeches rushed into popular print as popular pamphlets....

....Even by nineteenth-century standards the arrests, trials and executions were flagrant in their abuse judicial procedure and their flaunting of corporate power.  Yet only a handful of dissenting voices were heard....

illustration of miners from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear

A decade later, Franklin Gowen was found dead from a shot to the head inside a locked hotel room in Washington, DC.  Some said he committed suicide (supposedly there was a history of insanity in his family), while others boasted that the Molly Maguires must have gotten to him at last.  It would have made a great scenario for a John Dickson Carr detective novel, but Carr, himself a native Pennsylvanian, sadly never spun such a tale. 

The most famous mystery that did come out of the labor-capital conflict in Schuylkill was Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1915), which draws heavily, forty years after the event, on what were not remarkably impartial accounts of the episode provided by Pinkeron Detective Agency founder Allan Pinkerton and his son, the latter of whom met Doyle during a Trans-Atlantic cruise after the turn of the century. 

Pinkerton Op McParland
who detected in the coal country
a massive criminal conspiracy among
native Irish miners--or so he testified
Doyle might have heard a different story from Lindsay Coates Batholomew, a Civil War veteran, former state legislator and prominent Schuylkill County attorney, who was a key member of the team of defense attorneys at the Molly Maguires trials. 

At the trials "Lin," as he was known, went toe-to-toe with Franklin Gowen, a florid and fearsomely fluent speaker who published his courtroom orations as commercial pamphlets which he sold to his adoring public, to whom in their eyes he was a staunch upholder of public order and the divinely ordained prerogatives of capital.  Gowen, incidentally, had hired substitutes during the Civil War to avoid military service, in contrast with Lin, who after having resigned his post as private secretary to the controversial Secretary of War Simon Cameron, another native Pennsylvanian, had joined the northern army, fighting at the Battle of Antietam.

At one point Lin, who was said to have a tongue as sharp as a razor, damned a witness against his client as a "curse let loose from hell," a character indictment I'm going to have to try out myself sometime! 


Lin was not always on the side of the defense, however.  A few years earlier, in 1872, he had assisted the county attorney in trying a teenager named Joe Brown for a terrible double murder. 

On the morning of Sunday, February 25, 1872, 17-year-old Joe Brown, who lived with his 82-year-old father Daniel, attended Summer Hill Lutheran Church in Washington Township, Schuylkill County.  He had big plans after the service.

Washington Township was an unremarkable community of placid farmers of mostly German heritage, most of whom had come to the New World from the Old in the eighteenth century.  It seemed itself a world away from the strife-ridden coal mining districts, populated as they were with poor, exploited and angry Irish immigrants.  My own maternal German heritage great-grandparents lived about thirty miles west of Washington Township at the time of the murders.

Later in the afternoon, as twilight descended on the township, Joe Brown walked over to the nearby Kremer farm to call on his neighbors.  Before entering the house he stopped to pick up a piece of lumber from the Kremers' woodpile.

Summer Hill Church,
where the murderer worshiped
on the morning of the double murders
62-year-old Daniel Kremer, dubbed in the neighborhood "rich old Kremer, had recently sold some property and was said to have a quantity of gold and silver stashed in the house, as well as several hundred dollars in cash concealed in an "old-fashioned clock."

When Joe Brown entered the farmhouse, Daniel was reclining on a chest in the parlor and his wife, Annetta, a relative of Brown's, was sitting in a chair.  Candles had not yet been lit.  Joe Brown persuaded Daniel to accompany him to the family mill, located only 400 yards away, but they never made it to Brown's Mill.  In the lane halfway to their purported destination, Brown suddenly struck Daniel several times on the head with the piece of wood, leaving the older man prone and unconscious on the ground.

Brown then returned to the farmhouse, where 52-year-old Annetta had begun lighting candles.  He promptly set upon the woman with the makeshift club, beating her on the head and causing her to drop the candle as she fell to the floor.  After pausing to retrieve and relight the candle, Brown rained down yet more blows on Annetta's head.  Then he grabbed an ax and smashed the desk drawer where he believed the gold was kept, absconding with a small bag of it worth about $100 in total.  (He missed about $500, for a total of about $15,000 in modern value.)  Daniel's 93-year-old mother, Magdalena, was upstairs all the while, but she heard nothing.

Heading back down the lane, Brown paused with his club to finish off Daniel, who had not expired.  When he was through Daniel was doubtlessly dead.  Brown then caught the train to Pottsville at Moyer's Station, where he started selling off the gold.  After one of the Kremers' sons found his parents the next day--Annetta was still alive and implicated Brown with her dying words--the authorities were quickly able to round up Brown, who first denied knowledge of the crime, then tried unavailingly to pin it on some of his friends. He later confessed to the murders at the magistrate's office and to another prisoner in jail.

Brown's Mill, near the scene of the murders
Brown was convicted of murder but on appeal the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Annetta Kremer's dying declaration and ordered a new trial, which commenced in 1873.  Lin Bartholomew dominated the prosecution's closing address, at the completion of which the spectators at Lyceum Hall, where the trial was being held, burst into uproarious applause.  The defense thereupon called for a new trial, arguing that the commotion would influence the jury against their client, but the judge demurred.  He declared that the crowd had merely signaled their aesthetic admiration of Lin's oratory (which undeniably had been of "unusual power"), not that they necessarily agreed with the lawyer's conclusion. 

Despite the judge's decision, it appears that Brown at least received a fairer trial than the supposed Molly Maguires would shortly thereafter.

Joe Brown was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, which sentence was carried out on a snowy day on March 21, 1875, three years after the original murders, before a crowd of 4000 people.  (Who says justice was always swift back then?)  In the days leading to his execution, Brown had confessed again, this time to a newspaper man, with the prison warden as a witness.  He had reflected stoically that his impending death was but God's will. 

Certainly it reflected the will of man.  The Pennsylvania governor himself had earlier pronounced: "After waiting 28 years, the outraged majesty of the law was to be avenged and Schuylkill County to be the scene of a second judicial hanging....the wholesome influence of at least one execution was felt to be needed in this county of ours."

10,450 copies of the execution edition of the local newspaper, illustrated with grim wood cuts, sold the next day.  There had not been a public execution in Schuylkill since 1847, so there was considerable novelty value in a hanging--something which would soon be lost with the mass executions of purported Molly Maguires.  

"Jesus have mercy on me.  I am a poor sinner.  My soul I recommend to Jesus.  Jesus, dear Jesus.  Jesus, Lamb of God," intoned Joe Brown in German before he dropped.


Lin Bartholomew would have recalled the previous execution in Schuylkill.  He was 13 years old at the time and his father, Benjamin, has been co-counsel for the defense. 

James Riggs was a black man who had run afoul of a dangerously violent German named Gunder, who himself had earlier served nine years for murder.  (He had been pardoned by the Governor.)  Over a period of time Gunder had made threats against Riggs' life and Riggs, who had unavailingly sought legal redress, upon encountering his enemy shot and killed Gunder.  At his murder trial Riggs plead self-defense, but his attorneys were unable to save him.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death, the judge telling him:

"Your unfortunate situation excited our deepest sympathy and fills us with unutterable anguish, but you were fatally bent on mischief."

Was that sympathy really very deep after all?  I can't help but feeling that in this case Riggs's skin color may have counted decisively against him.  Justice talked, but it was not remotely merciful.

Riggs briefly escaped from prison but was caught and returned to his cell.  He later tried to starve himself and when that failed he drank a mixture of whiskey and blue ink.  After being administered a dose of sulphurate zinc, he vomited the whiskey and ink mixture and lived to see his execution day.  He left a widow and young child.

Pottsville gallows
Frances Ritter Bartholomew, Benjamin's granddaughter and Lin's daughter, barely knew her celebrated father, as she was just six when his promising career was cut short in 1880 by a sudden heart attack at the age of 45.  Frances was an only child, her slightly older sister Helen having died at the age of three months in 1872, before Frances was born.  In 1888 her mother Mary Pomeroy Allen after nearly a decade's widowhood wed again, to a doctor, John Beale Howard Gittings (1837-1905).

Interestingly enough given the fate of the Molly Maguires, Dr. Gittings was a practicing Roman Catholic.  Yet Mary died just a year later at the age of 40, leaving 15-year-old Frances in the care of her new stepfather.  Fortunately he seems to have been a good man. 

Hospital of the Good Shepherd
Dr. Gittings taught medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and was a visiting physician at the Hospital of the Good Shepherd, which had been founded by the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in the wealthy Philadelphia Main Line to care for children, young lambs of God, whose parents could not afford to pay for medical services.  The hospital evinced the kind of charity in which the American legal system often was grievously lacking.

Frances remained single all her life, and she usually seems to have lived alone as an adult, although she, a woman of social consciousness like her forebears, did much good work that kept her most usefully occupied.  She did for a time become friends with crime writers Rickie Webb  and Martha Mott Kelley, however, and in the guise of a fictional character she would figure very prominently in their second detective novel, Murder at the Women's City Club.   More on it soon!                    

Saturday, May 18, 2019

From Cottage to Club: Q. Patrick's Initial Deadly Duo, Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), Part One

Cottage Sinister is a good try.  It opens well with the death of two ladies' maids on a visit to their mother's country cottage.  Ladies' maids are so rarely murdered, especially at tea.  It has a neat, though unconvincing, explanation.  But it gets rather bothered about love--mother and other--and it appears to treat seriously the notion that a girl about to make a good marriage might poison off her family one by one in order not to hamper her husband's career.  It seems, somehow, such an extreme method; is moving to London so useless?

--an English review of Cottage Sinister, by Q. Patrick

Contrary to this post-WW2 Swedish English-language edition,
the "Q" in Q. Patrick did not stand for Quentin--at least as far as we know--
though Q. Patrick also was Patrick Quentin

Sometimes you read about debut mystery writers producing a fine first mystery, taking flight on the wings of some brilliant central idea, unfortunately following it with the product of a "sophomore slump."  In the case of Q. Patrick, however, the slump came first, with the first mystery, Cottage Sinister (1931), being rather a curate's egg, happily followed by an excellent second tale, Murder at the Women's City Club (1932) (Death in the Dovecote in the UK). 

The marked improvement can't be attributed to a change in authors, because these initial Q. Patrick novels both were written collaboratively by the same people, Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelley.  I chalk it down simply to experience.  The more you write, if you have any hope as a writer at all, the better you get at it.

Of course readers of this blog should know all about Rickie Webb at this point.  Born in England, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1924, spent some time during the Roaring Twenties in Berlin, Paris and South Africa and then finally ended up ensconced in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, where he would take an executive position with the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline and French (makers of Benzedrine inhalers) and reside from the late Twenties throughout the Thirties.

When Martha Mott Kelley, a recent graduate of Radcliffe who had already published short stories and book reviews and was a niece of prominent progressive social reformer Florence Kelley, joined forces with Rickie in 1930 to write detective fiction, they coined their pseudonym by shortening their nicknames "Pat" and "Rick" and adding in front the letter "Q," which they pronounced the most interesting letter of the alphabet.  Really?  "Q" rather than the mysterious "X" or the elusive "Z"?  Well, I have my own theory as to why Rickie, anyway, thought "Q" was so interesting.

Their first mystery, Cottage Sinister, has all the trappings of a classic English village mystery, but something about it just doesn't work like it should, in my view. That notorious mystery-hating scold Edmund Wilson once accused Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealand native who wrote mysteries mostly set in England, of populating one of her novels with a bunch of "tricked-up" English country people; yet while Marsh's country people may or may not be fully accurate representations of the England of her day, her books to me nevertheless at least feel truer to real life than those in Cottage Sinister.

I don't know whether Patsy Kelley, who came from a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family (famed abolitionist, feminist and pacifist Lucretia Mott was a relative), ever had visited England, but Rickie, who was the son of a headmaster, spent the first 23 years of his life there, and Cottage Sinister is even set in the part of England whence he came. 

I think the problem may have been that for whatever reason the pair decided to make their England the deliberately artificial England of books, the England about which they thought the readers, whether in the US or the UK, wanted to read.  JJ Connington did the same thing with his first British mystery, which similarly felt false to me.  So maybe they succeeded in what they were trying to do, but I think trying to do it in the first place was an error of judgment.  It's just too twee really to be.

In Cottage Sinister, explicitly set in 1930, we have murder in the quaint village of Crosby-Stourton, located in a valley in Somerset, Rickie's native county.  But Crosby-Stourton is rather less wide awake than Rickie's Burnham-on-the-Sea:

As it lay somewhat off the main road that runs between Bridgewater and Bristol, it had not yet been discovered by the American tourist or the marauding automobile, and its rustic charm was still unspoilt by the flamboyant road-signs and advertisements which are assiduously defaming the English countryside in their attempt to inflict unwanted goods on an unwanted public.

Harrumph!  In this stodgy, slumberous village, we have, naturally, a local country landlord of ancient family, Sir Howard Crosby, the eleventh baronet, "a good landlord if somewhat severe and unbending."  His son Christopher, however, "the young squire and future baronet," is studying medicine in London, with the aim of practicing as a doctor.  He's such an odd duck, indeed, that, saith the bemused villagers, "he do talk to us poor folk as though he were nobbut a plain village lad and not one of the gentry at all."  Imagine!  Must be one of they Bovrilvikings you hear tell about in that there heathen Russia, I reckon.

And that's another thing I didn't really like about Cottage Sinister: the abundance of dialect speech, whether it that sort of Mummerset above or some excruciatingly heavy cockney speech that the authors manage to drag in.  As I see it the emphasis on "colorful" dialect speech in Golden Age mystery only serves to make unreadable lengthy passages of text spoken by cheeky London cockneys, lofty Scottish lairds, Cape Cod fisherman and black Americans, the latter whether they reside in northern cities or in southern plantation country.  Good writing, in my opinion, doesn't need such crutches.  Step lightly, I say!

Golden Age mystery writers spent a lot of time on this sort of thing, time which would have been better spent plotting better mysteries.  Even the most famous names in the genre, like Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell, prided themselves on rendering unto their poor readers ostensibly authentic (and nearly unreadable) local dialect.  Although he was not nearly so good a detective novelist as those others, Milward Kennedy, I will say to his credit, hated it.  He was right.

Worse yet, there are malapropisms.  One of Lucy's less educated sisters says "internals" when she means "interns," for example.  The worst offender in this respect is the comic village constable, but naturally, who I was hoping would be one of the murder victims before the tale was over.  This is how he converses:

"I was hambulating 'ome past Lady's Bower on Sunday evening at about six o'clock--while they must 'ave been 'aving tea inside--and the hindivdual was as it were 'anging on the garden gate."

"Did you speak to him?"

"No sir.  But I fixtured 'im with my eye.  Might 'ave been about fifty, say.  'E was a bit dressy, you know, like a gentleman, but you never can tell because sometimes these rapscalliwag poachers....

nothing like this scene
happens in the novel
as I recall
You get the idea.  For me passages like this are as funny as a root canal.  They wouldn't work with me, in any case, because I just want to get on with the clue finding. And I wonder whether anyone really would say "fixtured 'im" rather than simply "fixed 'im"?  But then I suppose we would miss all that hilarity if they got it right.  It's like spell check gone awry.

Anyway, back to nobbut Crosby-Stourton!  There is also a Lady Cynthia Crosby, who has given her loyal old nurse, Mrs. Lubbock (who long had to care for Lady Crosby's crotchety, wealthy invalid mother), a generous pension and the use of Lady's Bower, the loveliest, quaintest cottage in the village.  Additionally Lady Crosby has made a protege of Mrs. Lubbock's youngest daughter, Lucy, giving her "the best of educations, and finally equipping her for the profession of nursing, her chosen field." 

Of course this proficiency makes Lucy suspect number one when the poisonings at Lady's bower commence.  There are also poison pen letters, did I mention?  Verily, this is the English village mystery that has everything, barring some silver--Miss Silver I mean.

Lucy is now a lovely and highly competent nurse in the Village Hospital, where naturally she is resented by all the locals, who of course feel that Lucy has been "educated above her station" (that phrase gets used numerous times), upsetting the social system of this reeking feudal section of England, where a small segment of the population is entitled to own and the much larger segment required to serve.  Just how we like it in our Golden Age English mystery!

I knew a girl in middle school who liked reading mysteries, but she always felt cheated unless there were two murders, preferably three (or more).  Well, she would have loved Cottage Sinister, where there are four deaths.  All poisonings too, as indicated above.  Rickie, a pharmaceutical executive as I mentioned, did know how to ingeniously poison people, to be sure.

And for that matter the basic mystery plot is rather nice, although the motive which the investigating man from Scotland Yard, Archibald Inge (known as the Archdeacon because of his resemblance to a higher churchman), attributes to his #1 suspect, the beleaguered Lucy Lubbock, is beyond absurd, literally nonsensical.  He, "no socialist but a devout believer in the divine right of the landed gentry," deserved to fall flat on his face in the end, nobbut else can I say. 

I will give Rickie and Patsy props for recalling, with the name Archibald Inge, England's famed churchman Dean Inge (1860-1954), who was criticized for being a medievalist in his social philosophy.  Also, it's possible that Rickie in Cottage Sinister had the bizarre--and still unsolved-- 1928 Croydon Poisonings in mind.

In short, Cottage Sinister seems to me a case of a novel of promise, had the authors gotten the trimmings right.  As it stands, it's only "good in spots."  Happily, there followed Murder at the Women's City Club, which is set not in Merrie Olde England but in America's City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia (though the it goes under another a name in the book).  Both authors knew this setting well, Patsy Kelley having grown up there and Rickie having lived there for the last five years, and it shows.  In future most of Rickie Webb's novels would be set in the US, and they are none the worse for it.

But then on Amazon the new Open Road edition of Cottage Sinister has two reviews, both of them for five stars, so Rickie and Patsy may have been on to something.  What do critics know, anyway, right?  Cheeky buggers they be!

Coming soon, Murder at the Women's City Club.  It's been favorably reviewed by some percipient bloggers, to whom I will provide links, but I think I have some new things to say about it.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant (2019), by Q. Patrick (Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler)

I am excited this Easter weekend to announce that another collection of short stories by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler is due out this year (probably in the summer): The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant.  This volume gathers all 22 of the known Timothy Trant detective tales published by Webb and Wheeler under their Q. Patrick pseudonym. 

cover illustration by Gail Cross
Fans of the novels written by the two men known together as Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin no doubt will be familiar with grey-eyed Lieutenant Trant, the suave yet steely police detective who features in the long form mysteries Death for Dear Clara (1937), The File on Claudia Cragge (1938), Death and the Maiden (1939), Black Widow (1952), My Son, the Murderer (1954), The Man with Two Wives (1955), Shadow of Guilt (1959) and Family Skeletons (1965)--the last five of these written by Hugh Wheeler alone.  The 22 Trant tales in this new collection originally appeared in print in magazines and newspapers between 1940 and 1955, making them contemporary with most of the Trant novels.  With them we now know that the Trant oeuvre consists of nearly 30 murder investigations.

The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant was originally supposed to appear last year, but with the help of fiction treasure finder Tony Medawar we were able at a late date to identify an additional Trant short story, "Death at the Fair," which seemingly had been previously published only in a British newspaper.  (The majority of these tales appeared as well in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.)  We also located a forgotten novella, "She Wrote Finis," which actually is the first known appearance of Timothy Trant in short fiction.  This set the book publication schedule back some months, but I think fans will find the addition of two more Trant tales worth the wait.

After my introduction, the volume opens with a brief biographical entry on Timothy Trant that was penned by Webb and Wheeler.  Then comes the aforementioned "She Wrote Finis," a cleverly clued novella about the murder of ambitious and unscrupulous aspiring novelist Minna Lucas, which originally was serialized in December 1940 and January 1941. 

White Carnations (Cecil Kennedy)
The next story in the collection, a longish tale called White Carnations (wherein Trant is prevailed upon by lovely Angela Forrest, a lovely Princeton dance partner from nine years earlier, to investigate the dire menace to her family and herself symbolized by birthday gifts of white carnations), was published in Collier's in February 1945, when Webb and Wheeler's service in the Second World War was soon to come to an end. The remaining 20 tales, including the novelette "The Wrong Envelope," a superb exercise in screw-tightening feminine tension of Mignon Eberhart proportions, were published between 1946 and 1955, in the US mostly in EQMM

All of them are genuine detective stories, fairly clued puzzles that were highly praised for their skillful construction by noted American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher.

Herein the reader will find a delectable box of poisoned chocolates, including, besides the three tales mentioned above, such deliciously deadly delights as:

Hugh Wheeler
partly the model for Trant
The Plaster Cat, wherein Trant investigates the suspicious death of Madeline Winters at the prestigious Ruskin School for Girls

The Corpse in the Closet, which introduces Trant's amusingly overbearing sister Freda (probably named for Webb's own favorite sister)

Who Killed the Mermaid?, wherein a train passenger is strangled with his own hideous necktie

Woman of Ice, another moving case of death in Venice

Death on Saturday Night, in which matinee idol Tyrone Power provides a key to a clue in a murder which takes place in a New Hampshire skiing village where Trant is vacationing

Girl Overboard, an ingenious shipboard mystery with modern-day resonance

This Looks Like Murder, in which a melodious Strauss waltz inspires Trant in his hunt for a killer

Death before Breakfast and Death at the Fair, in which respectively debut Trant's sister Freda's pet dachshund Minnie and her young son Colvin, both of them equally and amusingly demanding of Trant's attentions

Richard Webb
On the Day of the Rose Show and Going, Going, Gone, wherein murder incongruously takes place at, respectively, a stately Connecticut country house and an antiques auction

Lioness versus Panther, the last known published piece of Trant short fiction, which wryly pits a pair of rival acting divas against each other when murder--the real thing--takes place on stage.

And there are seven more tales too!  This is a fine collection indeed of classic crime fiction, one of my personal favorites from publisher Crippen & Landru, masters of vintage mystery in its shorter, but no less deadly, form.  At least one additional volume of Webb and Wheeler tales is in the works as well.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Americans in Paris and Notre-Dame Cathedral

Adam and Even and the Forbidden Fruit
(stained glass detail)
Hearing of and watching the horrific devouring fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral today reminded me of a post (linked here) which I made at The Passing Tramp over four years ago, about crafty real life thief and crime fiction lover Asa Guy Gurney.  Evidently the American once strolled the streets of Paris with his wife browsing for tomes at the bookstalls.  His personal book plate commemorated this (see the link), with Notre-Dame Cathedral looming magnificently in the background.  The great cathedral could not help but make an indelible impression.

I was also reminded of some reading I coincidentally just did over this weekend, while helping plan a new edition of short crime fiction by Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb.

Nearly seven decades ago, in 1950, Wheeler and Webb published a novelette, titled "Mrs. B.'s Black Sheep," about a murder which takes place in Paris over Easter, which impacts a group of visiting errant American society debs who are chaperoned by the eponymous Mrs. B..  The dignified chaperone, who has her capable hands full with these tempestuous young ladies, happens personally to discover the murder victim, under most inconvenient circumstances. 

Notre Dame is mentioned:

Laura Black sat opposite Paul Merton at the long nightclub table, feeling happy and at peace with the world, a suitable mood for Easter Saturday in Paris.  At first she had been dubious about bringing Mrs. B.'s Tour for Girls--all four of them--to so Bohemian an establishment as Les Caves.  But everything had been going swimmingly....These cellar nightclubs, where intense aesthetic types danced and argued to the hot strains of American-style jive, were as essential a part of the Paris education as Notre Dame or the Sacre Couer....

At noon she was to take the girls to Notre Dame for Easter Mass....

Paul Merton was waiting outside Notre Dame.  While the majestic Easter Mass had taken place, Laura definitely decided to tell him everything....

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Tea and 'teckery: Speaker of Mandarin (1983), by Ruth Rendell

Nigel stood in the doorway and looked at him [Inspector Alleyn].

"He isn't in the least like a detective," thought Nigel....He's faunish.  And yet he's got all the right things for 'teckery.  Dark, thin, long.  Deep-set eyes...."

"Are you lost in the pangs of composition, Bathgate?" asked Alleyn suddenly.

"Er--oh--well, as a matter of fact I was," said Nigel.

--from Death in Ecstasy (1936), by Ngaio Marsh

I'll leave young journalist Nigel Bathgate, ostensibly heterosexual, to moon a bit more, if he must, over faunish "Handsome Alleyn," but as an aside I wonder whether "all the right things for 'teckery," as Bathgate puts it, needs must include a dark, thin and long corporeal form and deep-set eyes?

Notice, for example, how American paperback publishers in the 1970s visually portrayed Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford, surely one of the most accomplished of fictional detectives, with no fewer than 31 solved criminal cases to his credit in long and short form over half a century. 

52 years old at the time of his first recorded case, From Doon with Death (1964), and in physical appearance not exactly a poem, Wexford as visualized below resembles film comedian Oliver Hardy rather more than Handsome Alleyn.  (As Oliver Hardy might say, "Hmph!") 

However, Wexford, unprepossessing appearance aside, is a smart fellah indeed, quite a bit smarter than his fit and fashionable underling of many years standing, Inspector Mike Burden. 

Kitty Grasemann Melosch (1861-1939), 1st
cousin, 3 times removed to Ruth Rendell
(courtesy Robert Lincoln)
Case in point: the twelfth Wexford detective novel: Speaker of Mandarin, in which during the summer of 1980 Wexford travels halfway around the world but finds unnatural death still dogging his tracks.  (The American edition drops the "The" before "Speaker" in the English title; herein I have adopted this version of the title.)

About a third of the novel is devoted to Wexford's China tour, which he very much enjoys, with a few things excepted, like the summer heat (consuming copious amounts of tea helps with that), the officious Communist Party tour guide Mr. Sung and the fact that the hotels routinely play "White Christmas" for the enjoyment of their Anglo guests.

Then there are the recurring appearances of a haunting, elderly Chinese woman with bound feet, who seems to be following Wexford around the country!  What is the explanation of this strange manifestation?

This latter element in the novel is Ruth Rendell's tribute to classic British supernatural fiction; and as a fan, like Rendell, of such stories, I was intrigued to encounter it.  Rendell in fact wrote the introduction to the first collection of M. R. James short horror tales I ever read, and references to James and other British terror masters like Sheridan Le Fanu are found throughout her own writing.

But there's a plain old murder, or at least a odd death, which takes place as well, when a Chinese man  falls to his death into the river from the boat on which Wexford and a party of Anglo tourists is traveling.  (There is travel by boat, plane and train in this novel, making it reminiscent, in this section, of certain classic Thirties mysteries by Agatha Christie.)  "Not one of us," indifferently pronounces a British woman snapping pictures on the boat, when Wexford asks who has gone overboard.  "A Chinese."

"Here's another nice mess
you've gotten me into!"
Burden and Wexford in the 1970s
A few months after Wexford returns to England, this same woman, Adela Knighton, is found shot to death at Thatto Hill Farm, her country home near Kingsmarkham, Sussex, where Wexford is Chief Inspector.

A leading suspect in her murder is, as is so often sadly the case, the dead woman's husband, wealthy retired attorney Adam Knighton, whom Wexford noticed behaving oddly during the China tour. 

Yet Knighton, past sixty and to all appearances contentedly married with four children, doesn't really seem like a murderously-inclined individual, nor does he seem to have had, even where he such, any compelling motive to murder his wife.  Could there be a connection to someone else in the tourist party, the members of which soon start to seem in retrospect to have been rather a shifty bunch?

This is an enjoyable Wexford detective novel, written at a time when Rendell was at her dexterous plotting prime, and there's a nice twist of the dragon's tail very near the end.  The first few pages can be oddly off putting to modern readers, however, as Rendell saddles us with tour guide Mr. Sung, whom Wexford, it is quite evident, doesn't like at all. 

"He would have given a good deal to have been rid of baby-faced, pink-cheeked, slant-eyed Mr. Sung," writes Rendell of Wexford on the second page; and in the next page or two she saddles Sung with opportunities to use "l's" in place of "r's": e.g., "light" for "right," "velly well" for "very well" and even "I aflaid you be solly" for--well, you get the idea. 

I suppose this r/l bit is for comedic effect at the expense of a minor Communist Party flunkie, but it seems dated for 1983, let alone 2019 of course.  Predictably in modern reader reviews the book has received criticism for "outdated stereotypes" and "racist depictions.  It's just a scant few pages where this occurs, right at the beginning, and it could easily be edited by modern publishers; but in truth all of the Chinese characters in the story are window dressing.

Ruth Rendell (1930-2015)
However, what compelled me to take a recent second look at Speaker of Mandarin, Rendell's "Far East" mystery (I first read it 23 years ago) was my discovery that Ruth Rendell herself had distant Asian relatives. In my previous post I discussed at some length her Grasemann ancestors, without going into her Asian connections.

The gr-gr-gr grandfather of Ruth Rendell (aka Ruth Barbara Grasemann) was Christian Frederick Grasemann, who migrated from Frankfurt am Main, Germany to London, where he married a young woman from Lavenham, Suffolk in 1810.  Christian's youngest son John Charles was Rendell's gr-gr grandfather, but John Charles had a rather more successful elder brother, George, who migrated to Moulmein (Mawlamyine), Burma, where he was First Superintendent of the Bombay and Burma Trading Corporation.

St. Matthew's Anglican Church, Moulmein,
where Grasemann marriages took place.
George Orwell attended church services here
in 1926 when he was an Imperial Policeman.
Relatives are buried in the church cemetery.
Before his death from smallpox during a business trip to Calcutta, India in 1879, George Grasemann had five children by his native Burmese wife, Mah Tsee.  Two of his and Mah Tsee's daughters, Kitty and Lizzie, first cousins of Ruth Rendell's great-grandfather Frederick Charles Grasemann, died in Moulmein when Rendell was a young girl. 

Lizzie Grasemann of 103 Upper Main Road, Moulmein passed away in the city in 1942, not long after the Japanese occupation of the city.  Her will was not probated in the UK until 1956.  Kitty is pictured above.

Did Ruth Rendell know anything of her Burmese Grasemann relations?  I have no idea, though it is interesting that she herself toured the Far East and wrote a detective novel with a far eastern setting which was based on her experiences.

Burma is mentioned but once in Rendell's novel, when a character recalls that in 1941 Adam Knighton, the murder victim's husband, "had to go off with his regiment to the Far East somewhere, Burma I think it was...."

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Women on the Verge--Or Even Past It....The Fallen Curtain (1976), by Ruth Rendell

Part I
Ruth Rendell's first volume of short fiction, The Fallen Curtain, was published in 1976, 41 years before her posthumous and presumably final collection, A Spot of Folly, was published in 2017 (review here).  The 1974 title story had recently won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, the first of many prizes which the distinguished crime writer, whose first mystery novel appeared 55 years ago in 1964, would win over the course of her career in crime (fiction). 

My copy of The Fallen Curtain, given me by my kind and considerate friend Michael Moon, is an American reprint by Bantam which dates from 1978, when Ruth Rendell was still relatively little known in the US.  There's two pages of bio and blurbs in the back, all about "England's New Mistress of Mystery" (who had been publishing mystery fiction for 14 years). 

Bantam at the time was also reprinting their small stock of highly lucrative Agatha Christie novels, including Death in the Nile, which premiered as a film starring Peter Ustinov that same year.  Christie, who had died just two years earlier, had two #1 bestselling novels after her death, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the latter to which Bantam also had the rights. 

So perhaps not surprisingly the front cover of Bantam's edition of The Fallen Curtain heralds the books as being "In the great Agatha Christie tradition."  Perhaps not surprisingly, but to Ruth Rendell distastefully.  When she inscribed this copy I have to Albert Newgarden, she felt compelled to demur from what she deemed the fulsome Christie blurbage:

Not a compliment,
surely, to be
compared to
Dame Agatha!

Oh, Ruth, for shame!  Yet it's true that both she and PD James, England's other modern-day Crime Queen, all through the Sixties and Seventies chafed under the shadow of Agatha Christie, feeling relief only in the Eighties when they were finally able to step fully into their own light.

She was not amused.
Yet there are similarities between Rendell and Christie, whatever the author herself thought.  Rendell's then most recent Inspector Wexford novels, Shake Hands Forever (1975) and A Sleeping Life (1978), are clever little puzzles indeed; and even some of the stories in The Fallen Curtain resemble Christie's more sinister manifestations of short fiction.

Christie stories like "Philomel Cottage," "The Red Signal" and "Wireless" certainly remind me of Rendell at her eerie and malevolent best--though in some of her stories Rendell seems to be striving to leave the mystery genre behind her.  Maybe the obligatory parlor tricks began to seem too artificial to an author yearning to psychoanalyze her characters.  But she was good at parlor tricks too.

Part II
Some cynics might say that the title story of The Fallen Curtain seems like a natural to have won an Edgar Award for crime fiction, because it's well-written fiction that doesn't have much to do with actual crime.  It does involve a man who as a six-year-old boy was said to have been briefly kidnapped by a strange Man, but he doesn't remember much at all about the incident. 

What happens, then, when the curtain falls, and his memory clears?  It's an interesting story but also one which "transcends the genre" so much that in my view it maintains only a tenuous connection with it.

There are 10 other stories in the collection.  (Odd--why not 12?  Interestingly the title story of the posthumous Rendell collection A Spot of Folly was originally published in 1974, in EQMM like most of these tales, yet is was left out of the collection, even though it would have rounded it off with an even dozen.)  Some of them to me have a similarly tenuous connection with real crime fiction, but a half dozen are superb crime pieces.

"People Don't Do Such Things" (quoting Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler) is a classic domestic triangle tale, with a wicked twist.

"You Can't Be Too Careful" is fine piece of irony about a compulsively safety-conscious, "control freak" young woman.  Today we would call her behavior evidence of extreme OCD.

"Venus' Fly-trap" is about the "friendship" of two older women, one a brash, never-married career woman and the other a reticent, twice divorced mother of three.  The ending seems a bit forced by the structure of the story but it's nevertheless a well-poisoned little pill.

"The Vinegar Mother" has a similarly ill-assorted pair, young schoolgirls Mop and Margery, spending a break at the country cottage of Mop's parents.  Chilling events ensue, symbolized by the titular piece of gobbldygook ("a horrible a bit of liver in a bottle"), which transforms wine into vinegar.  I think this, with all due respect to "The Fallen Curtain," is the best devised short story in the collection, objectively speaking.

red wine vinegar mother
"The Fall of a Coin" is Rendell's take on England's classic gas meter murder stories.  Honestly, how many people died were killed by gas maters in the UK, accidentally or otherwise?  You wouldn't get me near one of those things!

And my favorite in the collection, the clever "Divided We Stand," which deals with the problem of providing health care for elderly parents unable to manage anymore for themselves.  Hey, I'm living this one.  I liked it very much at the time when I read it two decades ago, but now I appreciate even more its grim pathos.

Part III
Esteemed horror writer T.E.D. Klein, who markedly contrasts with Rendell in having a decidedly tiny output of long and short fiction, in 1988 penned an unenthusiastic review of Rendell's Collected Short Fiction (which gathered 38 short works from her first four collections).  In it he declared that "one of the most striking features of these tales is their misogyny."

It's true that there are some remarkably "nasty women" (as the American president might put it) in these collections, something which really jumped out at me on rereading.  Rendell may have considered herself a political leftist, but it's hard for me to see these stories being written quite this way today by someone of a similar political persuasion.  Certainly there are a lot of unpleasant people in general in these tales, but the women are to me especially striking.

The mother in "The Fallen Curtain" is, as Klein says, "nagging" and "suffocating"--and it gets worse from there.  Besides figuratively smothering and castrating sons and lovers, women in these stories frequently "get hysterical" and end up either provoking murder or planning it themselves. I suppose it's a testament to the durability of these tropes in fiction that they were still so omnipresent in Rendell's Seventies short stories.  Or is there something about them which pertained particularly to the author herself?  Did these tropes speak personally to her?

Of course in the Seventies sexual mores were being pervasively challenged and Rendell reflects this changing state of affairs in her writing. 

There are lots of unsatisfied wives looking for happiness in the sack with another man and conversely wives who are suffering, much to their husband's chagrin, from that great Seventies bete noire, frigidity.  (Frigidity also pops up in "The Irony of Hate," another story from this period collected in A Spot of Folly.) 

At the age of 45 Ruth Rendell herself divorced her husband of a quarter-century's standing in 1975 (she had married him in 1950 at barely twenty years of age); however, they remarried two years later.  Rendell's only child, a son, had just graduated from college.  Mid-life crisis?   Rendell herself thought so.  It does suggest that at the time the author felt she was missing out on something in life, like so many of the women in her stories. 

After Rendell's death in 2015, Chrissy Iley in the Daily Mail claimed that in an interview with Rendell, the author admitted to her that she had separated from her husband "for some years" before their 1975 divorce and that she had in fact gone "off with somebody else for a bit. And then that fell apart."  Rendell declined to name the other person in her romantic life at this time.

Feed me!
Certainly you see restive married women in The Fallen Curtain, yet they generally aren't portrayed by the author with much sympathy.  Women such as Gwendolyn in "People Don't Do Such Things," who comes to feel she likes handsome, womanizing novelist Reeve Baker rather better than her devoted husband.  Or frigid Nina Armadale in "The Fall of the Coin," who has loathed the very notion of having sex with her husband since her honeymoon and refuses to do the dirty deed more than six time a year, but capriciously is venomously spiteful when after years of marriage he tells he has finally fallen for another woman.  Or Mrs. Felton in "The Vinegar Mother," so unutterably bored in her marriage with a wealthy older husband and so cruelly neglectful of her unhappy young daughter.

Even the happily married Marjorie Crossley in "Divided We Stand" is a mostly unsympathetic figure, as she doesn't want to be saddled with any responsibility for caring for her eighty-year-old stroke victim mother and thoughtlessly palms everything off on her younger sister, Pauline, who has had to give up her job and any hopes of a relationship and has even had a nervous breakdown in the process.  In her bland way Marjorie is one of the most unlikable people in the Rendell canon, even if you can understand her impetus toward selfishness in this instance.

Pauline is a single career woman for whom Rendell allows us to have some sympathy, but other such women in the tales come off as grotesques and monsters, like Della Galway in "You Can't Be Too Careful" and, worst of all, Merle in "Venus' Fly Trap," one of the most repellent embodiments in Rendell's oeuvre of her lifelong disdain in her fiction for loud, overbearing and overweight women.

Ruth Rendell grew up in an unhappy home with ill-assorted parents, like her sister Crime Queen PD James, and, like James, she identified much more with her father than with her afflicted mother.  Rendell's father was Arthur Grasemann and her mother Ebba Elise Kruse.  Born in Sweden of Danish descent, Ebba was the daughter of a machinist, Max Kruse, and his wife Anna Larsen, who moved to London with their family in 1905. 

The Grasemann's ancestry in England goes back to the 18th century, the family having come originally from Germany.  Rendell's gr-gr-gr grandfather, merchant and commission agent Christian Frederick Grasemann, son of Johann Gottlieb Grasemann of Frankfurt am Main, in 1810 married Mary Petley, of Lavenham, Suffolk, at St. Leonard's Church in Shoreditch, London. The couple had three sons and eight daughters, the last of whom, Bertha, was born in 1837, when her father was nearly 60, and died in 1921, less than a decade before Ruth Rendell was born.

Plymouth Co-operative Society Store

Family fortunes declined in Rendell's branch of the family over the next couple of generations, with members have descended socially, as it was perceived, from business to manual labor.  Christian's grandson, Ruth's great grandfather Frederick Charles Grasemann, labored in a brewery in Bristol, in his later years making his rounds on the premises as its nightwatchman.  His wife Emma Mary Vine, daughter of a cooper and the source of half of Rendell's "Barbara Vine" pseudonym, was a seamstress.  Their son Frederick Charles, Jr., Ruth's grandfather, who married Ada Hockaday, the daughter of a drayman, delivered milk bottles for the Plymouth Co-operative Society (perhaps a source for some of Rendell's leftist ideals).

Frederick and Ada's son Arthur Grasemann, Ruth's father, left school at 14 and was apprenticed in the dockyards.  However, according to Rendell he somehow managed with the support of his determined mother Ada to get into a university, upon graduation becoming a teacher of mathematics and science.

In early 1929 Arthur, who was nearly 29, married Ebba Kruse, an elementary schoolteacher who was was nine years older than he. The couple's only child, Ruth Barbara Grasemann, was born in London the next year.  Regrettably for their young daughter, the marriage was not a successful one. 

Ebba had come to England when she was fourteen and not then even an English speaker.  She never really adjusted to the country and the couple experienced considerable prejudice.  Rendell's Grandmother Ada refused even to attend her son's wedding with a "foreigner."  Rendell termed her parent's union "a great disaster."  In addition to the challenge of her "foreignness," Ebba, it seems, was not the domestic type and she failed to live up to her Arthur's exacting standards. 

As a result, Rendell recalled, she grew up with "highly emotional parents who were always fighting and generally expressing their feelings, bursting into tears and so on, which, though hazardous at the time, I think didn't do me any harm"--though she admitted it did imbue her "from a very early age with a sense of doom."  Elsewhere she stated, "I felt exasperated with them, because I felt people least put up a show of getting on in front of their child."

Northleach vicarage

Rendell spent some time in the Thirties with Danish relatives as a child (from whom she learned to speak Danish and Swedish).  Did her parents actually stay together?  In 1939, when Rendell was nine years old, Arthur and another male schoolmaster were living in Oxford and boarding with a married couple, William and Dorothy May Pinkney, while Ebba with another female schoolteacher was living away to the east in the Cotswolds, at the market town of Northleach in Gloucestershire.  They boarded at the Vicarage with elderly Reverend Griffith Wight  Jenkins and his organist and housekeeper, Eunice Heaven (seriously).  In 1942 Rendell herself at the age of 12 was evacuated from the London environs to Northleach.  She recalled: 1942 I was evacuated to the Cotswolds....I lived in one house in the village and my mother was in the vicarage.  The vicar had a maidservant who was pregnant and she drowned herself in a pond.  I don't think it was particularly uncommon....But I wonder that they told me--I was only twelve.

Rendell makes it sound like this was the first time both her mother and herself had been in Northleach, but records show her mother was already living at the Northleach Vicarage in 1939, so what's the story, I wonder?

Rendell herself with stark contrast characterized her father Arthur as "a very good, sweet and caring father" and Ebba as "a very vague strange woman."  Nearly forty when Ruth was born, Ebba began exhibiting symptoms of multiple sclerosis when Ruth was a child, which didn't help the trying family situation.  It was Rendell's father, a great reader who quoted extensively from his favorite authors, who taught her the value of self-discipline in life, she recalled.  Rendell's son later pointed out to her that Arthur Grasemann, who died in 1973, shared many attributes with Rendell's benevolent series detective Inspector Wexford.  Rendell had to agree.  Was her mother, no Dora Wexford she, conversely a source of some of those problematic women in Rendell's fiction?

It does seem that the men come off better than the  women in The Fallen Curtain, with a major exception being callow Peter Milton in "The Double."  Even the Man, as he's called, in the title tale...well, read it for yourself and see how it turns out, if you haven't yet done so.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Just a Drop! A Spot of Folly (2017), by Ruth Rendell

When a beloved, highly prolific crime writer passes away while still sitting in their writing saddle, their publisher naturally seeks some way to keep money coming in with yet another new book if possible.  You can't always have an author like Agatha Christie, who kindly set aside a couple of mysteries for publication after her death. 

Sometimes there will be the completion (by means of another hand) of an uncompleted novel.  Or there might be enough uncollected short stories out there for a book.  This was the case after the twin demises of the late, great modern Crime Queens PD James (1920-2014) and Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), who seemed like they would never die but then abruptly did, within a short span of time from each other.  (Rendell's stroke, which proved fatal a few months later, took place just six weeks after James passed away.)

I'll be reviewing PD James's two posthumous short story collections soon (about which I'll have lots to say, both about the stories themselves and about Faber & Faber's odd packaging of them), but here I want to talk about the posthumous Ruth Rendell collection, A Spot of Folly (subtitled Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem), which first appeared in the UK in 2017.  (Shorn of Sophie Hannah's introduction, it was published last year in the US by Open Road.) 

Ruth Rendell was an awesomely prolific author both of novels and short fiction, the latter of which during her lifetime was collected into seven volumes containing 64 short stories and 5 novellas, published between 1976 and 2000.  That slightly surpasses even the number of Rendell's published novels and novellas, which I think stands at 67.  Although Rendell kept publishing a novel a year up until the year of her death, her short fiction production declined precipitously after 2000.(See my review of Rendell's Blood Lines here.)

So what on earth could have been left uncollected at this point?  Happily that industrious forgotten (or sometimes merely misplaced) fiction bloodhound Tony Medawar discovered some attractive lost gems for A Spot of Folly, though the book is, to be sure, rather a ragbag collection, including not just crime stories but a couple of "weird" tales and one piece of apocalyptic fiction.

The "quarter" tale (really more like a tenth), Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror, is, as the title suggests, a weird story.  I can't lavish too much verbiage on a three-sentence, 51-word fragment, but it's nicely done and does make one want to heed the injunction of the title.

Of the ten remaining pieces seven are crime or crime-ish.  The longest piece (at sixty pages, a fourth of the volume) is The Thief, a novelette that was originally published in 2006.  It's a weak piece in my view and I can't help wishing that her much more interesting novella Heartstones, originally published separately in 1987, had been chosen for inclusion instead, or that The Thief had simply been left out of the collection.  It adds nothing to Rendell's legacy.

As for the remaining six crime pieces, half of them, regrettably, are poor, but the three others can safely be recommended.  The duds are The Price of Joy, Digby's Wives and A Drop Too Much.  Aside from the clever title, The Price of Joy--a whimsical homage, shall we say, to O Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief--has little to recommend it.  Digby's Wives simply fizzles and A Drop Too Much has one of those ludicrously labored murder-your-wife plots and a far too obvious twist.  One is tempted to conclude that these stories were deliberately left out of past Rendell short fiction collections.

A Spot of Folly and The Irony of Hate (excellent titles both) are also 70s twist tales, but these actually come off, exploding with a nasty bang.  Most of Folly takes place in Paris, and it has some genuinely tense moments there.  Hate is the cleverest of the bunch, I think, the only one which totally flummoxed me with its twist. The may lack the depth of the best Rendell short fiction, but they are cleverly done.

In the Time of His Prosperity is an anomaly, being the only "Barbara Vine" short story which Rendell ever wrote.  It also was the last short story Rendell published, of which I am aware anyway.  Like other Vines it is retrospective and evocative, though I imagine you will see the twist coming well before the end, just as I did.  I was reminded of Roald Dahl.

This brings us to the remaining three pieces, all of them short stories.  The Haunting of Shawley Rectory is Rendell's homage to M. R. James and it offers a nice twist indeed on the supernatural genre.  Just what is the nature of the haunting?  The story bears a certain resemblance to the other supernatural tale in the collection, The Long Corridor of Time, the oldest story in the collection, having been published way back in 1974.  It's an atmospheric and eerie piece which reminded me of Evelyn Berckman's splendid Seventies crime novel The Victorian Album, published a year before Rendell's short story.  Was it an influence?  (Review here)

Last but not least is my favorite piece in the collection: Trebuchet, published in 1985, back during the Cold War when people were worrying about nuclear war between the US and USSR and the two countries' respective allies.  In the US the television film The Day After had made a big splash a couple of years earlier, and nuclear disarmament was actively pursued by many groups in both the US and Europe as American president Ronald Reagan in a calculated bid of brinkmanship ratcheted up pressure on successive Soviet leaders. 

Anti-nuclear groups feature in Rendell's detective novel The Veiled One (1988), as well as PD James' Devices and Desires (1989).  People might be reminded in Trebuchet of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach, but there are also other crime writers who, like Rendell, wrote apocalyptic novels, including Moray Dalton.  Rendell does a superb job with her effort, reminding me as well of Daphne du Maurier--and you know that can't be a bad thing.

So this eighth and final (?) Ruth Rendell short story collection is for me almost a fifty-fifty affair (I really only liked six and a quarter of the pieces), but then, a spot of folly is better than no folly at all, eh what?