Friday, July 29, 2016

Classic Crime, Classic Parodies

Classic crime fiction, both in its "cozy" British and American hard-boiled versions, for decades has exercised such a hold over the popular imagination that it has inspired many modern parodies.  Here are two favorites of mine.

This first, which I believe originally aired as a sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus (a series which was broadcast by the BBC between 1969 and 1974), sees the great comedy troupe taking on classic British country house mystery.  People have labeled this an "Agatha Christie sketch," but in fact the obsession all the characters have with railway timetables suggests that the author being parodied surely must be a popular Agatha Christie crime writer contemporary, Freeman Wills Crofts, undisputed king of the railway timetable and alibi mystery.  Can you beat Inspector Davis in spotting the dastard who shot Sir Horace?

Clearly influenced by Monty Python, Canada's The Kids in the Hall, had a television sketch comedy series which originally aired in Canada and the United States between 1989 and 1995.  "Detective Peter Prince" is a short film which offers a decidedly queer take on the memorable fictional world of Raymond Chandler, as a pacifier-sucking shamus is hired by distraught wealthy matron Mrs. Gold to look into the disappearance of "Kitty."  In Mrs. Gold's odd mansion Prince encounters stiff-lipped British butler Baltimore and sexy cabana boy Carlos, but will he ever discover what happened to Kitty?  Warning: there's a bit of blue language at the climax!

the shocking climax of Detective Peter Prince

This six-minute film is available here on YouTube and all of the Kids in the Hall television seasons (including Season 4, where this film debuted) are available on DVD. I loved this series when it first aired and am very pleased that it is out on DVD.  I just wish these clever lads had done more mystery parodies!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

All in the Family: Helen Reilly (1891-1962), Mary McMullen (1920-1986) and Ursula Curtiss (1923-1984)

Helen Reilly was 53 when her husband died in 1944, the year she published her nineteenth detective novel, The Opening Door.  Four years later, the third of her four daughters, Ursula, published her debut crime novel, Voice Out of Darkness (1948), under her married name Ursula Curtiss.  Another Curtiss crime novel, The Second Sickle, would appear in 1950 and yet another, The Noonday Devil, in 1951, by which time one of Ursula's older sisters, Mary, published her own debut crime novel, Strangle Hold, under the pseudonym Mary McMullen (Her married name was Wilson.) The debut novels by the young Reilly women both won awards, Darkness the $1000 Red Badge Prize and Strangle Hold the Edgar for best debut crime novel. 

Ursula Curtiss went on to publish a total of 22 crime novels, becoming one of the best known mid-century American authors in the mystery subgenre then known as "psychological suspense"; yet in the case of Mary McMullen 23 years elapsed before she published her second crime novel, The Doom Campaign, in 1974. 

In the dozen years between 1974 and her death in 1986, McMullen published 18 crime or suspense novels, almost catching her sister in terms of quantity. (Neither sister, both of whom passed away in their sixties, lived to catch her mother, who wrote nearly three dozen mysteries.)

Additionally one of Helen Reilly's talented trio of brothers, James (former press secretary to NYC mayor Fiorella LaGuardia), published a paperback original crime novel, Come Murder Me, in 1952, the year of his death.  So you could say this was a family that definitely had the crime fiction bug!   

Helen Reilly herself was rather a popular American crime novelist for some four decades.  Frequently her novels were Doubleday, Doran Crime Club Selections and they were reprinted in paperback from the 1940s into the 1970s, years after the author's death in 1962.  No doubt Reilly's personal example and her prestigious name smoothed the publishing path for her daughters, who were themselves quite talented, however.

In the US Curtiss was published by Doubleday, Doran by rival Dodd, Mead (with their Red Badge mystery line), while Mary McMullen's debut mystery was issued by Harper, who under editor Joan Kahn (1914-1994) was in the vanguard of the prestigious "suspense" movement in crime literature.

A testimonial from Ursula Curtiss to her mother (probably written around 1944, when Curtiss was 21 and still "Ursula Reilly") in the mid- to late-late Forties ran on the back flap of Helen Reilly dust jackets, like the one on The Silver Leopard (1946).

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in reading this, so here it is, in full:

Growing up under the fond if preoccupied eye of a detective-story writer is calculated to turn even the gentlest of daughters into a hardened character.  While other little girls were prattling of their dollies, my three sisters and I were arguing ferociously about the relative merits of strychnine, strangulation or scythe.  In addition, we were looked upon as curiosities all through school, for it was common knowledge that, while the other children's mothers were out decently playing bridge, ours was home plotting a crime. 

In general, the emotional atmosphere of the house is up and down like the stock market; high when the book is running smoothly, low when it has struck a snag.  Solely unaffected are the nine cats; they come and go just as though the motive hasn't been invalidated by an unexpected footnote concerning ballistics on page 793 of Hans Gross, the world-renowned author on firearms.

Reading, a sensitive subject in a writer's household, is Mother's chief diversion, and, ranging widely, returns to Trollope, Jane Austen, Maugham, plays by everybody, and very, very occasionally, when the spirit takes her and her nerves are equal to it, a detective story by SOMEBODY ELSE.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Secrets Can't Be Kept: The New Pack of Punshons is Here

The new set of E. R. Punshon "Bobby Owen" detective novel reissues are available now in eBook form (paper coming soon) from Dean Street Press at and other Amazon sites.  These are:

The Dark Garden (1941)
Diabolic Candelabra (1942)
The Conqueror Inn (1943)
Night's Cloak (1944)
Secrets Can't Be Kept (1944)
There's a Reason for Everything (1945)
It Might Lead Anywhere (1946)
Helen Passes By (1947)
Music Tells All (1948)
The House of Godwinsson (1948)

As with the first fifteen Bobby Owen reissues by Dean Street Press, I wrote separate introductions of roughly 1000 words apiece for each of these latest reissues, a not inconsiderable though an enjoyable task.

In the introductions I look at E. R. Punshon's life, the books themselves of course and the literary, social and political context of the times, as Britain passed from the crisis of world war to a challenging postwar environment.

Punshon was quite aware of and engaged with his times, and numerous elements of life as he and other Britons then lived it appear in these novels, making them not only interesting mysteries but engrossing social history.  If you look at the books on Amazon, you can read the introductions by clicking "look inside."  Give 'em a look if you'd like.

Name Your Poison (1942), by Helen Reilly (Tuesday Night Bloggers)

Helen Reilly's Inspector McKee mysteries reminds me considerably of the great American crime writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, in that the plots are quite complex, with a strong dose of love interest.  Not Mignon Eberhart level love interest, say, but still quite a bit of the tenderer emotion.

However, as Mike Grost and others have noted, there also is a good deal of police procedure in Reilly as well, distinguishing the author from Rinehart. Where in Rinehart the narrative tends to focus on a single character (usually a genteel unmarried woman), in Reilly it seems usually to alternate between Inspector McKee and his team of investigators and a female character impacted by a murder case.

Name Your Poison (1942), the fourteenth Inspector McKee mystery, is my Reilly mystery choice for the Tuesday Night Bloggers' grand month of poison.  There are a lot of poison deaths in this one: five to be exact!  There's also a fatal shooting, and another poisoning, though that last one isn't fatal.

The initial round of poisonings brings about the deaths of four people in New York.  Following how the police connect the dots in their investigation of these deaths makes engrossing crime fiction treading.  Eventually, however, the novel settles down into a classic enclosed location murder mystery at the tiny, privileged community of Hoydens Hill, Connecticut.

When a woman expires one evening in the living room of Brian Moore's Hoydens Hill house (see the back cover of the Dell mapback edition, right) after consuming a cyanide-laced Coca-Cola (!), police suspicion focuses on ten well-born people connected with the little community.

(Incidentally, it seems that there is an internet rumor that drinking Pepsi or Coke while eating Mentos will lead to death from cyanide allegedly produced by chemical reaction, but it has been debunked.)

This is a well-plotted mystery, with a nice twist solution (the second in a row which I have encountered from Reilly), and characters who keep interest in the tale going, even if memory of them doesn't linger as it does with some of the greatest mystery writers from the period.

Most interesting of all to me was a middle-aged married couple, Francis and Sam Ashe, who seem in some ways to be autobiographical, evidently having been drawn from Helen Reilly and her husband Paul H. Reilly, a once nationally-prominent illustrator and cartoonist whose livelihood had greatly diminished after the Depression, making Helen's crime novels the couple's main source of income (see my previous post).

After her husband's death in 1944, two years after the publication of Name Your Poison, Helen Reilly told a journalist in an interview that while it was she, after she started writing, who had made the family's living (the Reillys had four children, all daughters), it was her husband who had made the living worthwhile.

In the novel we learn that "Ten years earlier [1932] Sam had been one of America's foremost illustrators.  New men and new fashions had come up and he had lost most of his markets, but he could still paint like nobody's business."

Interesting, I think!  Incidentally, Name Your Poison is one of the few Helen Reilly novels available in a new, eBook edition.

The next posts here will continue this Reilly family affair, dealing with crime novels by Reilly's accomplished author daughters, Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Life of Helen Reilly

Mystery writer Helen (Kieran) Reilly (1891-1962), whose Kieran family background was discussed by me in my previous post, graduated from Hunter College in 1914 and in the same year wed cartoonist and artist Paul H. Reilly (1882-1944). Nearly ten years his new wife's senior, Reilly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and appears to have been an only child raised by a single mother, his father having passed away when he was but a toddler.  Paul and Helen Reilly had four daughters: Helen, Mary, Ursula and Katherine.  Two of these daughters, Mary and Ursula, would follow in their mother's footsteps by themselves writing crime novels.

By the 1920s Paul Reilly's cartoons were appearing in major national magazines like Life and Harper's.  Reilly's career declined in the 1930s with the onset of the Depression, however, and, like other artists at this time, he found work with the New Deal era Works Progress Administration (WPA), producing 182 easel works for educational books and brochures.

It was at this time that Helen Reilly became the main breadwinner for the family, publishing her first detective novel in 1930.  (I don't know whether, like Margery Allingham's artist husband, Philip Youngman Carter, Paul Reilly ever designed any book jackets for his mystery writer wife.)  "Even when my husband was alive," Helen later pointedly but poignantly recalled, "I made the living, but he made the living worthwhile."

Although Helen and Paul married in 1914, they did not begin a family until five years later, with the birth of the eldest Reilly girl, Helen.  Mary followed the next year, in 1920, then Ursula in 1923 and finally Katherine around 1929.  During the earlier years of the marriage the Reillys and their children (as well as Paul's mother, Mary) resided together in Yonkers, New York; but by 1930 the group had moved to Westport, CT, where Helen settled down to a constant regimen of writing and child rearing.  At Mystery*File nine years ago, a neighbor of the Reillys, Max Roesler, charmingly recalled the Reilly menage in the early years of the Second World War:

Helen's husband Paul, [a] failed artist but [a] kindly soul, had [a] studio on [the] top floor, shared with [a] parrot.  Helen was probably [the] main support of the family.  Mother's and my cat "James" disappeared, [and] later a James lookalike showed up at Helen and Paul's, [and] proceeded to bear many litters, some with stubby Manx tails.  They and all but Paul and the parrot inhabited the rest of the house.  Because I had noticed smoke from [an] iron left "on" burning its way down on [the] Reilly's ironing board and had alerted my mother, who took action, I was free to visit whenever [I wanted], to pet cats, and to enjoy shoestring French fries, a Reilly staple.  World War II shortages meant that frying fat was used over and over, and the house smelled of cat, but the hospitality was warm and genuine.  I remember [Helen and Paul and Ursula] most.  Quirky household, but many in Westport, CT, were.  The town was a curious mix of art colony and NYC suburban/exurban dormitory.

Helen Reilly
Paul Reilly died a few years later at the age of 61, just a few days after undergoing an "apparently successful appendectomy."  Ursula and Mary would publish their first crime novels in 1948 and 1951, as, respectively, Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen.  Helen Reilly would keep writing crime fiction right up to her death in 1962, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she resided with her daughter Ursula, having moved out there in the 1950s. 

Described as a "salty" and "witty" woman, Helen Reilly was but 4'8" but she left a large legacy of crime fiction.  I will be looking at some of it this week, including one novel with plenty of poison in it!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Touch of the Irish: Helen Reilly and the Kierans

Helen Reilly's Inspector McKee series, launched in 1930 (and rebooted in a matter of speaking after two books in 1934), ultimately encompassed thirty novels, the last appearing in 1962, the year of the author's death.  The series has been called an early prominent example of the police procedural subgenre, though it has also been pointed out, rightfully I think, that it is something of a hybrid in this regard.  (For the best single write-up on Helen Reilly's crime fiction of which I am aware, see this account by Mike Grost and also his voluminously-detailed website as well.)

Reilly was born Helen Margaret Kieran on April 25, 1891, in Manhattan, the daughter of educators James Michael Kieran and Mary Katherine Donohue.  Both of her parents were Irish Catholics, as you might guess from the surnames, as well as the children of immigrants.

Katie Donahue was the daughter of Philip and Anne (Moran) Donohue of the town of Banagher, Ireland.  Born in 1805, Philip Donahue served in the British East India Company's army, rising to to the rank of sergeant-major.  After qualifying for a pension in the 1840s he returned from India, accompanied by his native batman, to Banagher, where he married Anne Moran, a woman over two decades his junior.  Fortunately possessed of the resources to withstand the Great Famine, the couple and their children during the 1850s resided in a rented house, with a garden and yard, on Banagher's main street. 

houses in Banagher

"An inveterate pipe smoker," Philip Donohue died from cancer in November 1867 and his widow migrated with her children to New York City the next year.  Anne Moran Donohue died in Manhattan three decades later.  The tombstone at her grave features a motif of carved shamrocks, emphasizing her Irish nativity and Catholic faith.

One of the Donohue boys became a gunner in the US Navy, serving on admiral Dewey's flagship, the USS Olympia, during the Battle of Manila Bay, and another was a sergeant in the US Calvary, serving in conflicts with Native Americans in Arizona and Wyoming.  When growing up Helen Kieran and her siblings thrilled to "Indian war stories" told them by their uncle.  Two Donohue daughters, aunts of Helen, were employed as governesses to the superintendent at the New York Asylum for the Blind, where they taught students as well.

New York Asylum for the Blind

Helen's father, James Michael Kieran, was born in 1863, the year of the New York City draft riots. His parents, Michael and Catherine (Lynch) Kieran, at some point may have farmed in Orange or Duchess County, outside the city. (One of Helen Kieran's brothers recalled that the family his parents owned a farm, on which as a young man he tried unsuccessfully to launch a career as a poultry farmer.)  James Kieran grew up in the city and was educated in local primary and secondary schools, before receiving advanced degrees from the City University of New York, St. Francis Xavier University, Columbia University and Fordham University. 

James Kieran taught in public schools for twenty years before coming to the Normal College of the City of New York (known today as Hunter College), where he capped his career by serving as President between 1929 and 1933.  One of the Bronx schools he attended as a child is named after him today: James M. Kieran Junior High School.

James M. Kieran Junior High School

James and Katie Kieran had seven children together and brought them up in quite a bookish home.  Katie Keiran was an early graduate of Hunter College and schoolteacher who, a son recalled, would quote "the classics on the slightest provocation.

Besides Helen these offspring included John Francis Kieran (1892-1981), a New York Times sportswriter, radio personality (with Oscar Levant and Franklin P. Adams, he was a regular panelist on "Information Please," a popular quiz show hosted by Clifton Fadiman) and naturalist (author of the prizewinning A Natural History of New York City); James Michael Kieran, Jr. (1901-1952), a New York Times reporter and press secretary to NYC mayor Fiorella LaGuardia; and Leo Kieran (1899-1952), yet another Kieran family New York Times reporter as well as an aviation expert who in 1928 made a celebrated 24-day circuit around the world on commercial airline flights in company with Dorothy Kilgallen

Information Please (John F. Kieran center)

Given the author's family background it is easy for me to see how her crime novels came to be so informed not only about elite and artistic New York families but police procedure in the city as well.  In the next blog post I will talk some more about the family that Helen Reilly herself made, as well as the crime novels that she wrote.

Note: this piece draws on genealogical information posted by Kieran descendant Chris Hunton.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Golden Age and Modern Age: Cops in Crime Fiction

One of the great misconceptions you run into about classical, puzzle-oriented detective fiction from the Golden Age (c. 1920-1940, but arguably longer than that) is the idea that the detectives from that era were almost invariably amateur or private sleuths, often gentlemanly "glamour boys" (as author Jonanna Cannan derisively termed them) like Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion--whom some readers, and perhaps the authors themselves, fell in love with--but also less romantically-inclined eccentrics of varying stripes, like Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Lancelot Priestley and Reggie Fortune, and inquisitive older women, such as Miss Marple, Miss Silver and Mrs. Bradley. 

The game is afoot, what?

It's no wonder these brilliant, larger than life figures grabbed so much attention from readers (often aided by radio and film adaptations), but in fact a terrific number of the series sleuths in the Golden Age, both in the US and the UK, were policemen.  Even among the "Crime Queens" Agatha Christie's Superintendent Battle headlined a few of the author's novels and Ngaio March and Josephine Tey had policeman sleuths (admittedly highly sensitive ones).  And you don't have to look far to find additional examples.

recently finished my 25th introduction in E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen detective series and was thinking about the depiction of policemen in crime fiction then and now.  Henry Wade was one of the British authors from the period who actually broached the idea of police corruption in his work, but British crime writers from the period tended to shy, I would say, from "making the police look bad" (as people put it), at least intentionally.  The view generally seemed to be that venality and "third degree" interrogation methods were things which happened across the pond, in America naturally, but not at home in the mother country, where people (and the institutions which they staffed) had standards.

Inspector French on the case
Sometimes British authors inadvertently made police detectives look not quite so admirable in many modern eyes, however, as when Freeman Wills Crofts has his ostensibly squeaky clean Inspector French--who of course would never get drunk (let alone get high), take a bribe or bed a woman besides his wife--making illegal searches, lying to and threatening witnesses to get information and, with a great show of post-WW1 xenophobia, nastily bullying a "German Jew" he deems insufficiently forthcoming.

The author himself, a highly religious man, likely thought that such behavior was justified in the good cause of fighting "evildoers" (to use his term); and possibly many British crime writers, not to mention much of the British public, agreed with him at the time.

In his books E. R. Punshon, a member of the UK's Liberal Party, makes a point of having Bobby Owen behave with greater scruples concerning citizen's rights and he also indicates that the police, Bobby naturally excepted, often do not, in fact, treat every citizen the same, having a tendency to be overawed by socially eminent people in positions of power.  These observations are part of what makes Punshon's writing interesting to me.

Of course anyone following news from the US is aware of how questions concerning the relations of police and civilians in this country currently are undergoing great discussion and debate (probably there's more debate than discussion).  That's a matter I choose not to get into here, but I thought I would look at some modern police fiction in which some of these issues are raised.

In particular I will be writing about an interesting new police series by Canadian author John McFetridge and a much-admired, long-running one by British-Canadian author Peter Robinson.  I have a high opinion of the work of both of these writers and I look forward to making some comparisons between their writing and that found in the Golden Age, as I did over four years ago in a piece about Freeman Wills Crofts and Ian Rankin.  Please stay tuned!