Friday, October 23, 2020

Friday Fright Night Four: Too Terrifying for Television? Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1957)

Here's are this week's frightabulous Friday links!

Clothes in Books

Cross Examining Crime

My Reader's Block

Sweet Freedom

Pretty Sinister

And here's my FEARSOME contribution!

....eerie tales of the supernatural make up a part of the book, but the chief staple is that ever popular crime--murder.   

However, you will look in vain for the story of an underworld killing--homicide as practiced by hoodlums.  I have nothing against gangsters, you understand.  Some very delightful murders have been committed by professional criminals.  By and large, however, the more interesting work in the field is done by amateurs.  Highly gifted amateurs, but still amateurs.  They are people who perform their work with dignity, good taste and originality, leavened with a sense of the grotesques. 

Furthermore, they do not bore you afterward by telling you how they got the way they are.  Here is polite and wholesome mayhem as practiced by civilized people and I think it makes good reading.   

--preface to Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1957)

Alfred Hitchcock (or more accurately someone else under his name) edited a half-dozen crime and horror story anthologies in the 1940s, but these "Alfred Hitchcock" anthologies really came into their own only in 1957, when the book series was relaunched, due to the popularity of the superb television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents [AHP], which ran from 1955 to 1965 (the last three years under the title The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and was famously introduced to the mirthfully macabre strains of Charles Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette

The revamped book series would run for over three decades until 1989, outlasting the series and even Hitch himself (by nearly a decade).  They used to be familiar to me on bookstalls back in the 1970s, along with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, launched in 1956 and still around today.  You could say that Hitch had a brand, and he made the most of it.

The first of these relaunched book anthologies was Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV.  Ostensibly these were stories that were "too shocking, macabre or grotesque" for television in the Fifties.  But some of them did make it on to television, after all--some of them even presented by Hitch himself.

It's a huge anthology of twenty-five stories (one a novella), which, when reprinted by English paperback publisher Pan in 1960 in their "Giant" series, ran to nearly four hundred pages.  About half of the tales are what I would call suspense/horror chestnuts.  How many of these do you know? 

The lead off story, Being a Murderer Myself, (1948) by Arthur Williams, is about a chicken farmer in South Africa who murders a tiresome ex-girlfriend. 

The police follow the woman's tail--I mean her trail--to the narrator's farm, but then are stymied because they simply can't find the woman's body.  What happened to her?  Only the narrator knows....

Two years after the publication of Stories they Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV, an adaptation of Being a Murder Myself aired on AHP, under the title "Arthur." 

It was directed by Hitchcock himself and starred Oscar-nominated Angry Young Man actor Laurence Harvey and film Scream Queen Hazel Court and co-starred Patrick Macnee, I recollect, in a familiar pre-Avengers role as a police inspector.  It's one of the classic Hitchcock television episodes, buoyed by Hitch's creative direction, a wicked script (an improvement on the story) and Laurence Harvey's brilliantly sardonic performance.  If ever there was a man who charmed like the Devil himself, it was Laurence Harvey.

Laurence Harvey as Arthur putting an end
to a domestic problem

The actual author of the story was Peter Barry Way (1917-1969), a South African himself, who likely based his account on a real life murder case from the Twenties in England.  Although, to be sure, "Arthur" came up with a much better way of getting rid of the body....

Next is Lunkundoo (1927) by Edward Lucas White, one of the classic African curse stories.  What a source of imaginative horror was Africa for writers of the colonial era! 

Certainly this one was too grotesque for television as it is written, though it's a bit derivative of a superb, and more subtle, HG Wells story, Pollock and the Porroh Man (1895), which had been previously anthologized by "Hitchcock."

From here, I'm going to highlight the more successful stories in the collection, in my view.  "The Perfectionist" (1946) is oddly one of only two stories by women in the collection, the one here being Margaret St. Clair.  It's about a scapegrace nephew (a familiar character from fiction of this era), who comes to live with and do odd jobs for his well-off Aunt Muriel, a nice older lady who has developed a nice new hobby: still life art.  This is a clever tale, reminiscent of Roald Dahl, though like several in the collection you can deduce ahead of time where it's going.

The Price of a Head (1919) by John Russell is another warning to white men about the dangers of tropical locales, this time the Solomon Islands.  It's a good story but it was spoiled for me because I read a cribbed version of it years ago in the gruesome Tales from the Crypt comic book.

Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico, where Love Comes to Miss Lucy climaxes

Next is Love Comes to Miss Lucy (1947) by Q. Patrick, or more accurately Hugh Wheeler, who will be quite familiar to readers of this blog.  Hugh Wheeler and his partner Richard Webb spent the winter of 1946-47 in Mexico, and this superb short story was one of the fictional fruits of that stay.  In a way it's another peril in sunny climes tale, although it has emotional resonance to go along with its shock value, and in my view it thereby cuts deeper than older tales like Lunkundoo and The Price of a Head.  Also the protagonist is a woman, not a man.

In the story Miss Lucy Bram is touring Mexico with two other proper middle-aged Quaker ladies from Philadelphia (people with whom Wheeler and Webb were quite familiar, having lived in Philadelphia), when she shockingly (to herself) becomes enamored with her young Mexican tour guide, Mario.  This a very cleverly constructed story with an ending which is both jolting and moving.  Probably the best thing Wheeler and Webb ever did in the way of the short crime story.

Lucy was never aired on AHP, but belying the title of the anthology, it aired six years before the book was published as part of the television anthology series Danger, in an adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Maria Riva, the only child of Marlena Dietrich, who is still around at age 96.  Anyone ever seen Danger?  I'd love to see this episode.

Sredni Vashtar (1912) is one of the classics by the great satirical short story writer Saki (HH Munro), and another one of his tales about a child pitted against the cruel adult world; if you haven't read it, read it!  It is highly cathartic if you had an unhappy childhood.

Love Lies Bleeding (1950) by English crime writer Philip Macdonald is a much-praised and awarded short crime story with an ending that I suppose must have been a shocker in its day, but to me has lost some of its impact.  Still, it's one you often see mentioned.  Once you read it, you'll know why it would have presented problems for Fifties television.

Casting the Runes (1911) by the great English Edwardian supernatural writer MR James is here as well, probably on account of the fact that the story had been filmed as Night of the Demon the same year in which the anthology was published.  I was exposed to MR James' horrors in the 1990s through a volume of his selected stories introduced by the subject of last's week entry, Ruth Rendell, who was a great admirer of MR James (as well as PD of course); and I was impressed indeed with his work. 

Until I read MR James, I had only known American horror writers like HP Lovecraft, who for me was always a tad much.  Rereading Runes two decades or more later it feels rather like a detective story, albeit one with major supernatural underpinnings! There is, however, a splendid horrific bit which has always stuck with me, though it's told only at second-hand, about the villain of the piece terrorizing a group of children with a diabolic slide show.  Ever so malevolent, it was ripped off to good effect in the first of the two-part It films.

I simply adore the film version of the story, Night of the Demon, possibly my favorite horror film of all time.  It was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (of Cat People fame) with an Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Niall MacGinnis as the antagonist.  (Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins head the cast.)  And the interesting thing is that, despite its being a huge expansion of the story, Demon is quite faithful to James' concept and even what details there are in the story. 

By the by, as someone with experience in the academic world, I have always loved the idea of a man summoning a demon to avenge himself on the person who blackballed his proposed journal article.  But naturally!

It's certainly one way to deal with rejection!

The Voice in the Night (1907) by William Hope Hodgson and How Love Came to Professor Guildea (1900) by Robert S. Hichens are Edwardian/Victorian chestnuts of horror, the first about the fate which befalls a couple shipwrecked on an uncharted and deserted (?) isle and the second about the horrible thing which befalls a scientist who declares affection an abomination to himself.  The former was adapted as the freaky Japanese film Mantango in 1963.

The Moment of Decision (1955), about the run-in between a know-it-all man and his retired magician neighbor, is by the great American crime writer Stanley Ellin.  Arguably the story is his nod to the classic tale "The Lady or the Tiger," beloved of middle school English classes.

Nunc Dimittis (1953) by Roald Dahl is one of his delightfully nasty little tales about humanity, in which a priggish old bachelor gets his highly vindictive revenge on a woman he believes insulted him--but where does that get him?

Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game (1924) is the one about the great white hunter who hunts humans, the source for the classic 1932 film of the same title.  Classic notion, but the film is better!

Rockstown Castle, Ireland

The Lady on the Grey (1951) is by the English author John Collier, one of the great writers of mid-century weird tales.  At least four of his stories were adapted as AHP episodes--though not The Lady on the Grey, which is brilliant little episode drawing on Irish folklore (and yet older).

The Waxwork (1931) by AM Burrage made it to AHP in 1959.  It's the classic tale of the man who spends the night in the popular Murderers' Den of a wax museum. 

What happens?  Nothing good you can be sure!

Couching at the Door (1942) is a supernatural story by DK Broster, aka Dorothy Kathleen Broster, the only other woman author in this collection.  It tells of the comeuppance of Decadent poet Augustine Marchant.  It's very convincingly fin de siecle, hard to believe it was published in 1942.

Three of the last ones are The October Game (1948) by Ray BradburyWater's Edge (1956) by Robert Bloch and The Jokester (1952) by Robert Arthur.  Despite being exceedingly nasty and gruesome in the events it details, to be sure, the Halloween-set Bradbury story somehow didn't scare me, perhaps because I could see it coming from a long way off.  Bradbury always seems so full of humanity and human understanding to me too, he's like the Charlotte Armstrong of horror. 

Ann Sothern (!) and John Cassavettes in
Water's Edge

The story by Robert Arthur, an important person in the Alfred Hitchcock publishing empire, as he wrote some of the Three Investigators books and edited Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, was also too predicable to me.  If I described the plot in a line or two, you could tell me the ending I'm sure. 

However, Bloch's Water's Edge was terrific, though somewhat reminiscent of a similarly terrific Cornell Woolrich story, The Living Lie Down with the Dead (1936).  (See my blog post on Cornell Woolrich short fiction here.)  

I hadn't read Water's Edge before, although it was discussed seven years ago by John Norris at his blog.  (You should read the story before reading John's blog post, on account of spoilers.)  

Water's Edge appeared originally in Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine and it's definitely hard-boiled, a superbly hateful slice of noir about an ex-con who will do anything to get his hands on some hidden stolen money--even seduce and plot the murder of his former cellmate's wife!

Water's Edge made it to AHP in the series' last season in 1964, where it was one of the highlights of the season, along with Ethel Lina White's fantastically eerie An Unlocked Window.  Even then they had to tone down the ending for television.  Just what you'd expect from the author of Psycho.  Read it for yourself and see--and then have yourself some sweet dreams!

Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Fright Night 3--Death Card: The Lake of Darkness (1980), by Ruth Rendell

Week three of Friday Fright Night.  How fright flies!  You have the heebie-jeebies yet?  We'll see about that.  Here are your creepy links:

Cross Examining Crime

A Reading Life

Sweet Freedom

Pretty Sinister (last week)

Pretty Sinister (this week)

And here is my contribution this week. Read on, ye stout of heart!

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.... 

--King Lear (William Shakespeare)          

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending others' possessions.  Scorpios are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers.  The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card on the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius.  He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

Emotions, passion, jealousy, desire, even hatred, were beyond or outside his understanding.  They bored him.  He preferred magic.

--The Lake of Darkness (Ruth Rendell)


Under the zodiac I, like Ruth Rendell's Finn and the Roman emperor Tiberius, am a Scorpio, meaning my birthday falls at this time of year.  I could never quite figure out how I was meant to be a Scorpio, because my personality does not seem to accord at all with this passionate and rather fearsome celestial sign.  But that would mean astrology is hooey, and that surely can't be right, can it?  It is written in our stars, is it not?

Astrology and the role of fickle fate in our lives are major elements in Ruth Rendell's non-series crime novels, of which The Lake of Darkness (1980) was the ninth to be published.  It appeared at a time when Rendell was growing restive with her Inspector Wexford series of novels, of which ten had appeared up to this time.  After 1980, up to the year of her death in 2015, Rendell would publish fourteen more Wexfords, but nineteen Wexfordless Rendells and fourteen novels written under another pseudonym, Barbara Vine.  Over time it seems that Wexford became for Rendell more of an obligation than an enthusiasm.  

The Lake of Darkness receives much less attention than another non-series Rendell from around this time, the unpleasant tour de force A Judgment in Stone (1977), but in a crucial way, in my opinion, The Lake of Darkness was more pivotal to her development.  While Judgment is more of a social problem novel dealing, quite murderously to be sure, with the problem of illiteracy, Lake plunges us into more familiar topics in crime fiction: deep-dyed deception and madness.  What seems original about Lake to me is how Rendell brings this seemingly unconnected group of characters together with quite deadly results, like a criminous version of Thornton Wilder's 1927 bestselling mainstream novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  

This was a pattern which Rendell would use over and over in her non-series Rendell crime fiction, right up to her final, posthumous novel, Dark Corners (2015). but rarely did she do it better than in the compulsively readable and lean and tightly plotted Lake of Darkness, a novel of around 75,000 words (about half the length of some of her later ones).  Sometimes less is more!

The main characters in Lake, which like so many of Rendell's books is set in London, are psychopathic hit man Finn (see quotation above); twenty-eight-year-old Martin Urban, an accountant of the social genus people soon would be calling "yuppie"; Tim Sage, an stunningly attractive old college chum of Martin's (Rendell unaccountably loved that name, Martin), who works as a freelance journalist; and a lovely young woman half-prosaically named Francesca Brown.

The already well-off Martin has won 105,100 pounds in a football lottery (over a half million pounds today) and being, in contrast with the yuppie stereotype, an altogether modest and conscientious-to-a-fault fellow, he decides to give much of the money away to deserving, needful people.  This, of course, is where he gets himself into deep trouble.  

Martin is one of Rendell's early examples of the dangerously ingenuous protagonist, someone who wants to help others but is impeded by his own naivete and ingrained conservatism.  He is also, I think, the first really notable gay male in Rendell's non-series crime fiction--although Martin being the dunderhead that he is, he takes an unaccountably long time in the novel, at age twenty-eight, to realize that he might be gay.  It may be be harder for people today to buy this, but personally I, who was half Martin's age when this novel was published, can believe there were people like this in 1980.  Indeed, I think we still have them today, four decades later.  

Unlike much of Rendell's later crime fiction, Lake keeps plot firmly at the forefront and can be safely recommended, I think, to people who prefer plot-driven mysteries.  In terms of structure, the story looks back to the prestidigitation of, say, the landmark 1955 French suspense film Diabolique (based on the 1952 novel She Who Was No More), rather than forward to the meandering, portentous formlessness of much modern-day character-driven crime fiction.  The characterization in the novel is sufficient to carry the story along, in my view, although you may have trouble sympathizing with Martin because of his, well, utter cluelessness about life.  He seems a born victim.  But then look at the maddeningly dense protagonist in Francis Iles' landmark suspense novel Before the Fact (1931).

The message of Lake seems to be that acts of kindness can ironically redound on one with devastating results.  I often wonder about Rendell's politics.  She used to tell people over and over again that she was a hardcore leftist and she aligned with the Labour party in Parliament, but I always get the sense with Rendell that there was a conservative within her struggling to get out and hector people.  Later in life she repetitively denounced what she termed "political correctness" in her fiction and she he often seems to have viewed members of the white working class with outright disdain.  Black and Muslim women she adored (I'm not so sure about the men), but that seems more a matter of race and gender than class per se.  

Certainly in Lake Martin and his parents, for all their knowledge about moneymaking, seem, on account of their lucre, insulated from and oblivious to unpleasant realities.  However, one of the most irksome characters in the book is Martin's cleaner, Mr. Cochrane, who presumptuously calls Martin by his first name but flies into a fury when asked for his own, and is, in the author's words, "a ferocious racist."  Rendell's writing is at her most dryly ironic as she details how poor Martin got stuck with Mr. Cochrane:

That his cleaner was a mister and not a missus was due to the Sex Discrimination Act.  When Martin put his advertisement in the North London Post he had been obliged by law not to state that he required female help, and when Mr. Cochrane turned up similarly obliged not to reject him.  He was lucky enough to get anyone at all, as his mother pointed out.  

[Upon Mr. Conchrane's arrival Martin] wished that he was about to admit a large motherly charwoman, an old-fashioned, biddable creature, who, if she didn't exactly call him sir, might nevertheless treat him with respect and show some consideration for his wishes.  He had read about such people in books.

Another way in which this novel looks back to the past is in its seeming nostalgia for an earlier era, when good help--or any help at all--was not so hard to find.  Even, as lovers of a certain classic Agatha Christie Miss Marple detective novel from three decades earlier will appreciate, a ditzy, caricatured au pair refugee from Middle Europe named Mitzi.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Friday Fright Night 2--Gorey Night: Edward Gorey's Lost Dust Jacket Design for Margaret Erskine's Dead by Now (1954)

Well, dear readers, I see you have survived to week two of our Friday Night Frights!  (Or perhaps at this rate we should call them Saturday Shudders?)  Here are this week's spooky links.  Click them for ghastly literary insights, if you dare! 

Cross Examining Crime
Clothes in Books
Sweet Freedom
My Reader's Block
A Reading Life
Pretty Sinister (this is John Norris' piece from last week)


Although he has been dead for two decades now, author and book illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) lives on!

rejected jacket design for Margaret Erskine's
mystery Dead by Now by Edward Gorey

Dubbed high camp macabre, Gorey's work is well-known within the Gothic fiction genre and surely was a major influence on such younger artistic figures as author Lemony Snicket and filmmaker Tim Burton.  Indeed, before his death at century's end Gorey had become a minor celebrity with a devoted cult following. 

Less well-known, however, are Gorey's illustrations for mystery fiction.  In the next few days I am going to look at additional examples of Gorey's works within the mystery genre, but for now I want to focus on his design for the cover of Margaret Erskine's detective novel Dead by Now (1954)--some of his best cover work in my opinion, though ironically it was never published.  It sold in a 2016 auction for over $9000.

Despite his affiliation with horror (or camp horror), Edward Gorey grew up reading not masters of shudders  like HP Lovecraft but mystery mavens like Agatha Christie.  On a 1943 scholarship application he admitted that mysteries were "my favorite form of reading" and listed specific titles he had perused by John Buchan, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Dorothy L. Sayers, GK Chesterton and the indubitable Agatha.  Four decades later he avowed that "Agatha Christie is still my favorite author in all the world."  A few years before his death he estimated that he had read each of her books "about five times."  (See Mark Dery's excellent 2018 Gorey biography, Born to be Posthumous.)  

This revelation didn't surprise me so much, because I came to know Gorey on American television through PBS' Mystery! series, which debuted in the United States in 1980.  I used to watch this series, which was then hosted by Vincent Price (later the late Diana Rigg), with my parents in the early eighties, with the big television set on the corner of the brick fireplace and our drowsy Spitz dog Sheba curled up in a ball underneath it.  Gorey did the series' drolly spooky title sequences, which included a distressed, moaning woman in white on top of a high brick wall (see above).  Sheba, no lover of mysteries, would always prick up her ears at that part!

Doubleday's bland cover
In 1953 Gorey, then twenty-eight, moved to New York, where he had secured a job with the art department of publisher Doubleday, Doran.  That same year he submitted a design for the jacket to Margaret Erskine's detective novel Dead by Now, which was published by Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club reprint. 

It's a superb piece of work (see top pic, above left), immediately recognizable as Gorey with its black and white images of Victorian/Edwardian macabre.  Gorey in fact was ideally suited for Erskine, whose novels typically involve wealthy English families living in creepy old piles of decayed mansions.  Although Erskine published mysteries until 1977, her books often have an anachronistic feel to me, like they would be easily at home in pre-WW2 days. 

Additionally there often is, as is emphatically the case with Dead by Now, more than a touch of pitch, usually in the form of frightening spectral hauntings, or rumors of such.  Erskine herself grew up in a great haunted mansion in Devon.

Dead by Now concerns mysterious events around a private family theater, the Luxuria, constructed in neoclassical style back in the Victorian era for a retired stage actress, Rosette, by her doting husband, "a very rich gentleman by the name of Julius Cadell,"  in order to showcase Rosette's thespian talent.  Tragically, however, she expired from a fall down a theater staircase (or was she pushed?!), after which the desolated Julius hanged himself. 

Edward Gorey and friend: an illustration of the illustrator

Now, in the present day after the Second World War, the Luxuria Theatre seems to be haunted by Julius' ghostly presence, bowler-hatted with a bent neck.  Gorey's jacket beautifully captures this aspect of the story, but evidently it was too much for his employer, who opted instead for a flatter, much more utilitarian design by a Sam Fischer.  You can still see the ghost, but barely, and, honestly, from the picture you wouldn't even know that it's supposed to be a ghost (see pic above right). 

Pretty tepid, really.  Perhaps Doubleday was afraid that people might think the novel was a horror story rather than a mystery.  Apparently Gorey's jacket design was too atmospheric for its own good.

jacket design for English edition
of Dead by Now
No such doubt assailed Erskine's English publisher, Hammond, who published Dead by Now with a memorably macabre cover (see pic to left).  However, I believe that Gorey's fine handiwork survives in the content and design of the lettering of Doubleday's description of the book's plot (see pic below).  What do you think?

As for the novel, it's good Erskine.  The spectral stuff is nice if you like that kind of thing in a mystery (I do), but what I actually enjoyed most of all was the banter between Erskine's series detective, Inspector Septimus Finch, and the policemen of Grovely Wood Division, where Finch is temporarily in charge.  Finch is considered distinctly odd by the locals (the story gets round that he's a drunk who has fallen madly in love with the dead actress), and this is entertainingly portrayed by the author. 

In fact, I can't understand why Finch has been dismissed as a colorless sleuth.  To me he seems clearly to come from the Roderick Alleyn gentleman tec school, quoting poetry and everything, though he's not treated with unstinting adoration by the author.  He's just the sort of sleuth you'd expect to find on a case concerning a crook-necked ghost in a haunted theater.

the hand of Edward Gorey?

Friday, October 2, 2020

Friday Fright Night One Murder is the Devil: Mr. Splitfoot (1968), by Helen McCloy

prepare yourselves for
ghoulies and ghosties and
long-leggedy mysteries

This month some of us vintage mystery bloggers are devoting Fridays to posting about spooky mystery and horror fiction, so prepare yourself, dear readers, for some Friday night frights! 

Herewith, the links!

Clothes in Books
Cross Examining Crime
My Reader's Block

My contribution follows....

"My youngest child, Katie, said, 'Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,' clapping her hands.  The sounds instantly followed her with the same number of raps."--testimony concerning the outbreak of spirit rapping at the Fox house in the village of Hydesville, New York

"Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!"--Lucinda Swayne in Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968)

172 years ago, in March 1848, two young sisters, Maggie and Katie Fox, aged fifteen and eleven, effectively launched the spiritualism movement (which is based on the belief in communication with the dead), when they convinced their parents and many of their neighbors in the village of Hydesville, New York that inside their parents cottage, which was reputedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered itinerant peddler, they could converse with this dead man, whom they dubbed "Mr. Splitfoot." 

Four decades later, after having become two of the most renowned spirit mediums in the world, Maggie supported by  Katie shockingly recanted their story (only to recant the recantation later), explaining that they themselves had created the raps and knocks which they had mendaciously attributed to Mr. Splitfoot.  Coupled with the Salem Witch Trials, this Hydesville spirit rapping phenomenon seems to demonstrate that there is no end to the mischief which precocious and bored young ladies can cook up.  

There is a precocious and bored young girl in Helen McCloy's penultimate Basil Willing detective novel, Mr. Splitfoot (1968), fifteen-year-old Lucinda Swayne, who plots some mischief of her known, accompanied by her teenage neighbor, a boy of Russo-Italian heritage whom Lucinda calls Vanya.  (His real name is a matter of some dispute.)  Lucinda resides at Crowe's Flight, a secluded house located deep in New York's Catskill Mountains (where the Fox family originally had lived), with her novelist father, Francis, and her stepmother, Folly, whom she despises.  

Maggie and Katie Fox

When Lucinda discovers that there is a hidden room and attic in the old house, which was originally built in 1840, she and Vanya decide they will stage some fake spirit rapping of their own to frighten the adults staying over the weekend at Crowe's Flight.  But their game backfires spectacularly when, in a scene recalling Banquo's Chair, a famous episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the rapping they had planned to stage takes place seemingly of its own volition!  Does Crowe's Flight have its own "Mr. Splitfoot"--for real?  And is it Mr. Splitfoot who is responsible when one of the houseguests dies mysteriously in the haunted room at Crowe's Flight, where three people have mysteriously died before?

Originally published in 1968, Mr. Splitfoot appeared as the great generation which produced the detective fiction of the Golden Age was itself passing from the scene, into the netherworld.  Many of these writers had died already and in another decade others would go, including titans Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.  Furthermore, no one would argue that Christie, Carr and company were producing their best work in this period. 

In Mr. Splitfoot, however, Helen McCloy, then sixty-four, produced one of the best of her thirteen mysteries starring psychiatrist sleuth Dr. Basil Willing, who had debuted three decades earlier, at the tail end of the Golden Age, in 1938.  The novel makes use of some of the genre's hoariest tropes--the breakdown of the sleuth's car in the countryside, the country house party, the snowbound mansion, the Christmastime setting, the haunted mansion, the locked room--and triumphantly succeeds in giving them a fresh gloss.  I first read the novel over two decades ago and upon rereading it this week I found that I enjoyed it every bit as much as I did the first time round.  It's a late flowering of Golden Age ingenuity to be cherished by lovers of vintage mystery.

Dr. Willing and his wife Gisela are on their way to a skiing vacation after Christmas when their car ends up in a snow drift and Gisela fractures her ankle.  Happily, like with Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there's a light...over at the country mansion Crowe's Flight, and the couple is taken in to stay for the night.  The adults staying at Crowe's Flight on that fatal night are, aside from Francis and Folly Swayne, who are renting the house (and planning to buy), David Crowe, heir of Crowe's Flight, and his wife Serena; and publisher Bradford Alcott and his wife, Ginevra. 

David Crowe works for Bradford Alcott and Francis Swayne is one of his authors.  There is also a cook, Martha, who appears briefly and blessedly speaks without resort to the heavy dialect speech which McCoy employed in a much earlier McCloy novel I reviewed here.  Then there is Vanya's mother, Vittoria Radanine, who lives at a neighboring house.  That's pretty much the whole cast of this tightly-knit closed circle mystery, aside from a couple of investigating cops.

During the Willings' short stay at Crowe's Flight, the aforementioned ghostly rapping occurs, leading to a discussion of the house's haunted history.  It seems that there is a small bedroom at the top of the stairs, which is always kept locked, on account of three people having mysterious died there since 1870.  David Crowe tells the story, which involves the three daughters of the original builder of the house and the young man with whom they all were infatuated.  (The daughters, Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis, were named for the three Fates of Greek mythology.)  Basil Willing offers to spend the night in the room to dispel belief in deathly manifestations, but instead the four men--Basil, Francis, David and Bradford--draw lots to see who will sleep in the room.  The "winner" soon dies there--of no apparent cause!  After having rung a bell to let the men downstairs know that he was not in the room alone....

Although the door to the dead man's room was open when he died, the entrance was observable to the other men downstairs and the dust on the floor (the room had been closed for decades) was undisturbed.  So we effectively have a "locked room" situation, as Basil Willing explains, when a character tells him, "The room wasn't locked....the door was left open so we could hear the bell.  Remember?"

When I said a "locked room" I meant a room that no one but the dead man could have entered before death.  No one could have gone upstairs to the room where Crowe was without our seeing and hearing him....No one could have scuffled with Crowe without leaving some marks in the dust on the floor.  To all intents and purposes, it was a locked room even though the door stood open.

The novel's locked room situation is a nice one indeed, the mechanics of which are very fairly clued.  I don't know who else besides John Dickson Carr himself was still doing locked room mysteries in 1968, but McCloy constructed a fine addition to the canon.  The solution in the matter of culpritude also turns on a nice point of psychology.  Additionally, McCloy's novel, with its setting of the lonely old house in the brooding Catskills, is a memorable one.  The climax of the mystery has a nice twice and is satisfyingly dramatic.  The novels closes with an elucidation scene with Dr. Willing that is firmly in the classic mold.

While the adult characters are not more than sufficiently characterized, I would say, the heart of the novel lies with her appealing young people, Lucinda and Vanya.  Here in 1968, a dozen years after the appearance of the previous Basil Willing detective novel, McCloy was interested in the "generation gap" and the sweeping changes being made in Western society and she writes about them with greater assurance than not only Christie but Carr, who was actually slightly younger than she was.  You can tell that McCloy disapproves of a lot of modern fashions and permissive attitudes--in dress (Moira at Clothes in Books really needs to write about this one), in architecture, in her perennial favorite subject, psychology--but she doesn't come off as blindly reactionary either.

when a character in a mystery novel is wearing
something like this, you know it's the Sixties

Some of McCloy's asides can maunder on a bit in what is a short novel (I think it's not a great deal over 60,000 words), but McCloy had always been hipped on psychology, for example, since her first novel.  Basil Willing, after all, is a psychologist; yet all the characters, even the teenagers, like to talk about psychology, like other people talk about the weather.  In McCloy's defense they do come from an arty, intellectual milieu.  Overall, this is a model of the Thirties "manners mystery" from the Swinging Sixties, highly literate while not neglectful of the fundamentals of the puzzle.

One of the bits from the novel which I recalled after two decades was Vanya's silly mother--who we are told is an "inverted snob" from the downtrodden Thirties (Ngaio Marsh also was much concerned with inverted snobbery. i.e., prejudice against wealthy people)--announcing "We are mug people" when she offers people coffee.  Mrs. Radanine serves coffee in mugs, you see, not cups and saucers.  And, worse yet, it's instant!  I am old enough to remember people with their jars of instant coffee, dropping a few teaspoonfuls of desiccated crystals in a piping hot mug of microwaved water and thinking this was a great innovation.  It certainly saved time! 

I used to have a small jar of instant coffee myself when I was in law school.  I remember relating this bit in the book to my Mom years ago, when I was telling her she should read it.  It's little things like that which make this novel such a pleasure to read, though I suppose S. S. Van Dine would have condemned it as "literary dallying."

For fans of the Willing series in particular and vintage mystery in general, there are additional pleasures.  Although Basil's wife Gisela does not play too great a role in the book, her presence is welcome as the couple recollects episodes from their past history in the series.  At several points characters make meta observations on mystery fiction, as McCloy looks over the genre from her thirty years' experience within it.  This comment won't be appreciated by fanciers of "Humdrum" detective fiction (about which I literally wrote the book):

" and I should be able to solve this case and find the murderer long before they [the adults] do."

"Oh, Vanya!" Lucinda looked at him with a respect that must have satisfied even his adolescent ego.  "You are wonderful!  How do we go about it?  Will we have to draw up lists of suspects and timetables and all that sort of thing?"

"Certainly not!" said Vanya.  "That's the part I always skip in detective stories.  The really good ones don't even put it in."

The spirit of Freeman Wills Crofts would not have been pleased.  But he was a nice guy so he would probably have let it pass.  As an orthodox Christian I don't know that he would have believed in spiritualism anyway.  But even old, timetable-loving Freeman devised a few locked rooms and I think he would like the one in Mr. Splitfoot.

McCloy does seem to bobble the timeline, but it is not really an important matter.  As near as I can figure out, the sisters Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis would have been born around 1850, so when David Crowe announces that one of the sisters is still alive in her nineties, this does not add up, since the novel is clearly set in the late Sixties.  Atropos would have to be nearly 120.  Elsewhere it's stated that she has died.  I almost wondered whether McCloy might have originally written this novel twenty years earlier and not published it for some reason, later substantially expanding and updating it. 

After all, 1948 would have been the one hundredth anniversary of the advent of the remarkable spirit rapping at the house at Hydesville, how appropriate it would have been for Mr. Splitfoot to make its appearance then.  Two decades later the novel seemed like an anachronism in crime fiction (McCloy herself had been writing suspense novels for the last decade.)  However, it is a most charming one indeed, a perfect read for a lonely winter's night--though when I reread it I was sitting outside in a deck chair on an eighty degree late September day.  That worked too, actually!

Note: this novel has been reviewed quite a bit my vintage mystery bloggers in the last decade.  I will try to post links later.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Making America Grim Again: Shirley Jackson's Dark Tales (2017)

"Well," he said again.  "Never been summer people before, at the lake after Labor Day."

--"The Summer People" (1950), by Shirley Jackson

Having grown up in a state with a substantial rural white population that often proved profoundly hostile to the liberalizing tendency of the twentieth century (and, seemingly, is now winning out against it here in the twenty-first, by means of the cunning anti-democratic devices embedded in the American Constitution by our ingenious Founders), I have long been fascinated by depictions of rural America by writers of mystery and horror fiction, my two favorite genres.  How did these arty types respond to the American heartland?

Particularly fascinating to me are those writers who themselves came to reside in rural America, like contemporaries Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) and Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987), though they originally came from bigger, more sophisticated places.  The authors were born respectively in San Francisco and London and were significantly "othered" from "traditional" America (Jackson was a "working Mom" married to a Jewish intellectual, while Wheeler was a gay man who had two successive long-term same-sex partnerships); yet they resided for much of their lives about sixty miles apart from each other in small towns in New England, Jackson in Bennington, Vermont, where her collage professor husband taught classes in English literature, and Wheeler in Monterey, Massachusetts.  (Granted, Bennington's then population of about 12,000 makes it seem like a vast metropolis compared to Monterey's 400 odd.)  

Hugh Wheeler always spoke highly of his tranquil home in the Berkshire Mountains, which he said was the once place he could really work, and he spent the majority of the last three decades of his life there, dying in a hospital in the area from a long-term illness in 1987. However, two decades earlier, in his New England Patrick Quentin crime novel The Man in the Net (1956), Wheeler darkly imagined a pastoral New England town like Monterey producing a lynch mob of locals to pursue an innocent man, an artist from New York, over a murder he didn't commit.  

For her part Shirley Jackson became famous in the writing world almost overnight with her shocking little New England village horror story, "The Lottery," one of the best known American short stories ever published; and she also enjoyed great success with her final completed novel, the mystery/horror tale We Have Always Lived in a Castle, which pits a New England town against a couple of eccentric sisters, though the villagers meet more than their match in the form of an adolescent girl nicknamed Merricat.  Most fittingly from my perspective, Hugh Wheeler adapted Castle into a stage play which was performed on Broadway, albeit very briefly, a year after Jackson's death.  He must have seen a connection.

While as a novelist and a short story writer Wheeler never really successfully broke free from crime fiction (it took writing for film and stage to do that), Jackson "transcended" genre, assuming she was ever really confined to it in the first place.  Yet much of her writing falls in the category of psychological horror and some of it has strong elements of mystery and certainly crime.  Jackson was, after all, thrice nominated for Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America, once during her lifetime and twice posthumously, winning once.  Arguably she has been more recognized by the MWA than any other literary body. 

In 2017 Penguin Classics published Dark Tales, a collection of short fiction which culls seventeen tales from Jackson's three posthumous volumes of short stories: Come along with Me (1968), Just an Ordinary Day (1996) and Let Me Tell You (2015).  IIs it a perfect collection of short stories?  Not for me, as some of the stories are mere vignettes and some trail off inconsequentially, yet there are two masterpieces, "The Possibility of Evil" and "The Summer People," bookending the volume, and about seven or so additional stories, in my estimation, which richly reward reading. (It also includes all three of three of Jackson's Edgar nominated tales.)

"The Possibility of Evil" was published in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1965, four months after Jackson's death.  It won the Edgar for best short story the next year, beating out Holly Roth and Charlotte Armstrong and someone named Brian Cleeve, of whom I know nothing.  It's Jackson's classic contribution to the poison pen subgenre, in which a disturbed individual terrorizes a village (it always seems to be a village) by means of anonymous letters making scurrilous accusations against neighbors.

In this case the letter writer is genteel, seventy-one year old Miss Adela Strangeworth, granddaughter of the founder of the town's lumber mill and a longtime cultivator of prized roses.  Miss Strangeworth is very much an insider, yet there are signs she is losing touch with the changing town ("It had been a long time since she had known the name of every child....") and she very much disproves of any change and contamination from the outside world.  "There were so many wicked people in the world and only one Strangeworth left in town," after all.  "Besides, Miss Strangeworth liked writing her letters."  This is a highly sinister "cozy" crime story, with a kicker of a last line.

As a fiction writer Jackson specialized in old women, variously sinister and sympathetic, who are at odds with time.  She also excelled at portraying troubled wives and disturbed young women, in the manner of mid-century domestic suspense crime writers.  In the moving "Louisa, Please Come Home" (1960), Jackson tells of what happens when a nineteen-year-old woman, Louisa Tether, who has successfully run away from home for three years (after having been expelled from college for untold reasons), finally returns home again.  

Much of the story is devoted to detailing the young woman's ingenious devising of her disappearance.  Like Jackson's novel Hangsaman (1951) and her short story "The Missing Girl" (1957), "Louisa" surely was inspired by unsolved 1946 disappearance of Paula Jean Welden, an eighteen-year-old Bennington College sophomore who went out hiking one December day and unaccountably vanished.  The unsolved case, which also inspired Hilary Waugh's landmark police procedural crime novel Last Seen Wearing (1950) and in some ways seems oddly anticipated by Hugh Wheeler's Q. Patrick novel Death and the Maiden (1939), seems to have obsessed Jackson. "Louisa" was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1961, but it lost to John Durham's "Tiger," about which I know nothing.

Paula Jean Welden (1928-?)

Two other great tales in this collection about dissociative young women are "Family Treasures" and "All She Said Was Yes."  The former story, which went unpublished until 2015, was nominated for an Edgar in 2016.  (It lost to Stephen King, who had already won best novel the year before.) 

"Family Treasures" tells the tale of the plunge into petty crime--pilfering--of a rather anonymous college sophomore, Anne Waite, whose mother has recently died, leaving her alone in the world.  Jackson gives us an incisive and sardonic look at college dorm life as well as another balanced portrayal of an unbalanced mind.  

"All She Said Was Yes," which was published in Vogue in 1962, takes us into sci-fi territory in telling about fifteen-year-old Vicky Lanson, whose parents have just been killed in a car accident.  The bearer of this bad news to Vicky is a well-meaning but dense neighbor, a woman of the age of Vicky's mother who narrates the story.  This narrator can tell that Vicky is different from other girls her age, like her own daughter, Dorrie, (distinctly odder), but she proves perilously unable to discern the reason why.  

brides in the bath murderer
George Joseph Smith, 40, with his 
first victim, Beatrice Mundy, 31

Other stories take a dim view of the marital relationship between husbands and wives, in the manner of mid-century mystery writers of "domestic suspense."  In "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith," a new bride's neighbors suspect that she has married a serial murderer, of the "brides-in-the-bath" variety, but they do hate to say anything.  When one of them does speak up, finally, she finds that the bride is oddly laconic about the whole thing.  In "What a Thought" a seemingly contented housewife suddenly imagines, during another cozy evening at home, picking up a heavy glass ashtray and smashing it over her husband's head.  Now that the nasty notion has insinuated its way into her brain it becomes queerly resistant to leaving....

In "Paranoia" it's a husband who finds on his way home that he is being pursued by a man wearing a light hat.  Minor irritation becomes overmastering fear as the man, Halloran Beresford, just tries to get home unaccosted.  Will he make it?  And if he does, what will happen when he gets there?

The last two stories take us to that favored theme of Jackson's which I mentioned at the beginning of the piece: the conflict between rural New Englanders and urban interlopers from New York.  "Home," published in The Ladies' Home Journal in August 1965 around the time of the author's death, seems to be a genuine supernatural story.  Why do the taciturn townspeople seem surprised that supercilious Ethel Sloane, summering at the grand old Sanderson place with her writer husband, Jim, would dare drive to town down the Sanderson Road on a wet and rainy day?  Ethel didn't think the road was that bad, but she sure is getting glances....

This leads us to "The Summer People," published in Charm in 1950, which to my mind is the finest story of disquiet which Jackson ever wrote.  (At least it is after the blunt force trauma of the twist in "The Lottery" dissipates.)  Mr. and Mrs. Allison have been summering at their lake cottage in rural New England for seventeen years.  (He's now sixty and she's fifty-eight.)  This year they decide to stay after Labor Day, feeling that with their children grown there is not all that much in New York to go back to anymore.  This decision is met with, in their understated way, much surprise by the villagers.  None of the "summer people" have ever stayed on past Labor Day, they keep announcing....

This superb story builds with mounting unease to a memorable finish, providing not only fascinating observations on the clash of culture and class, but a poignant meditation on aging which stays with you--though, really, the characters should be ten years older to my mind, our conception of what is aged having changed in the last seventy years.  Jackson herself was only thirty-four when the story was published, making her almost a quarter-century younger than the fictional Mrs. Allison (though Jackson fell far short of her fifty-eighth birthday, tragically dying at the age of forty-nine).  

I'd love to say more about both the summer people and the natives, but, unlike some reviewers, I shall restrain myself.  The darkly discomforting pleasure of reading Shirley Jackson's dark tales should be left to readers alone, as darkness descends upon them.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Copper Mines and Soap Kettles: Money and the Making of Mystery Writer Margaret Erskine (1901-1984)

Landed wealth was such a common feature of between-the-wars British mystery that ever since, despite periodic efforts to delimit this formalization, between-the-wars British mystery and "country house mystery" frequently have been considered virtually synonymous.  (See the 2001 film Gosford Park and its reviews, for example.)  Sometimes we will find some parvenu crashing the country house gates who is "new money"--meaning that they are descended from some pushing nineteenth-century commoner who made a fortune not in land but rather something exquisitely undignified like patent cough medicine or corn plasters. (It's the latter, I believe, in Agatha Christie's After the Funeral.)  But whether it's about old money or new, how many British mystery writers actually had much experience personally with what they were writing?  Not that many, I think.  Most of them were solidly, if not always virtuously, middle class.

The monumental neoclassical Temple House, home of Margaret Erskine's
flinty ancestor, copper baron Thomas Williams of Llanidan (1737-1802)
razed in the Roaring Twenties

One definite exception to this rule, who represented old money (or sufficiently old, anyway), is Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, a landed gentleman and the son of a baronet (and later one himself), who wrote classic crime fiction as Henry Wade.  Another, representing new money (or comparatively new, anyway), is Margaret Erskine, a descendant of extremely wealthy copper mine owners and soap manufacturers from the Georgian and Victorian Ages.

Until now, biographical information on Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), who wrote 21 Septimus Finch detective novels between 1938 and 1977 (all but the first of them between 1947 and 1977), has been sparse.  She does have a Wikipedia entry, which tells us that she was born on May 2, 1901 and died on July 9, 1984; that she was born in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada and raised in Devon, England; that her parents were Thomas Wetherby Williams and Elizabeth Erskine; that she was privately educated; and that she was a member of the Crime Writers Association (though not the Detection Club).  Happily I am able to add a good deal to this rather limited biography.  

Through Margaret's father, Thomas Wetherby Williams, who was born in England in 1854, Margaret was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron from Llanidan on the isle of Anglesey in Wales.  (Her father was a civil engineer, while her paternal grandfather, also named Thomas Williams, was simply what was known as a gentleman, a "proprietor of mines.")  Like my own Evans ancestors (it will surprise no one to learn), Margaret Erskine's paternal ancestry was predominantly Welsh, although mine were Quakers who left Wales for Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century.  Thomas Williams, on the other hand, stayed in Wales--and made a mint in so doing.  

Thomas Williams of Llanidan was a figure of note in Britain's industrial revolution.  Befitting any such figure worth his salt--or copper--Williams was denounced by Matthew Boulton, business partner of James Watt, as "the despotick sovereign of the copper trade" and a "perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word [who] will screw damn hard when he has got anybody in his vice."  Of the mine owners of Cornwall, who were being ground by Williams, Boulton wrote colorfully, "They would not have consented to be kicked and piss'd on by me as they have by [Williams and his partner]."  Sounds like Boulton was pretty envious!

ruined windmill at the former Parys Copper Mine, Anglesey, Wales, 
which closed in 1904--this was the source of Thomas Williams' fortune

Williams, a lawyer, became the managing partner of the Parys Copper Mine on the Isle of Anglesey, which during the 1780s was the largest copper mine in Europe, employing 1200 people.  (The mine finally closed in 1904, leaving a pockmarked alien landscape.)  Copper from the mine was used to sheath the ships of the British navy's men of war (and apparently the ships of other countries as well).  Unhappily Williams' copper was also used to make trinkets to trade in Africa for enslaved humans, who were sold to plantations in the West Indies.  Out of his own financial interest, Williams opposed the abolition of slavery after he became a member of parliament.  No William Wilberforce like conversion for him!

In 1788, Williams bought the Temple Mills near Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire and began using the mills for smelting copper from his mines.  He built a great mansion in the area, which he predictably called Temple House, and became, unfortunately (see above), Marlow's M.P.  Temple House was demolished around 1922.  Coincidentally my Buffington ancestors came from Great Marlow, but Richard Buffington left the mother country for the colony of Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century, so you can't pin this on him.  Besides he was a devout Baptist and opposed slavery.

Williams' descendant Thomas Williams, Margaret Erskine's paternal grandfather, married Louisa Thomas, who was the daughter of Charles Thomas, a wealthy soap manufacturer of Bristol who came originally from Carmenthenshire, Wales.  When he died in 1909 his estate was valued at, in modern worth, around 15 million U. S. dollars.  That's a lot of bubbles!

formerly the Christopher Thomas and Brothers Soap and Candle Works, which
Margaret Erskine's great-grandfather Charles Thomas managed in the late 19th century

Margaret Erskine's father was, as I have mentioned, a civil engineer; and it was in connection with work that he moved for a time out to Kingston, Ontario, where Margaret was born in 1901.  Three years earlier he had married (whether in Britain or Canada I'm not sure), Elizabeth Erskine, whom Margaret later claimed was descended from a martial lowland Scots family that was "connected to the Stuarts."  Could Margaret Erskine the author have been claiming a relationship to Margaret Erskine, the favorite mistress of King James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots?  Sounds like it, especially since she adopted the same name for her pseudonym.

In 1907, six years after Margaret's birth, her father returned to England with her (and presumably her mother, though I don't know this), settling three miles from the city of Plymouth, Devon at a great manor house, Widey Court.  The mansion, which had been offered to let for a term of five or ten years, had been "thoroughly renovated and modernized," according to a 1900 newspaper notice.

Located near Widey Court were the villages of Crownhill and Eggbuckland.  The former was originally known as Knackersknowle, and I can't help wishing that it had retained this splendid olde English name.  With Knackersknowle,  Eggbuckland and Widey Court, I couldn't think of  a better setting for a vintage English mystery!

St. Edwards' Church, Eggbuckland
(fifteenth century, with additions,
including the clock!)
The 1900 to let notice described Widey Court as

beautifully situated in a well-timbered lawn on rising ground, with highly picturesque views.  Fine  timber trees shelter the house, which has a southern aspect, and the Dartmoor hills are in the background.  On the ground floor are an entrance hall and billiard room, spacious dining room and drawing room communicating with a conservatory 68 feet in length, a breakfast room, and library.  On the the first floor are a morning room, a bed room, and two dressing rooms; eight other excellent bed rooms in two galleries; and eight good attics; eight stall-stables, double coach-house, laundry, etc., with the higher lodge and two other cottages, a large walled garden, paddock of four acres, with shippen for cows, and lawn tennis court.

"The parish church of Egg Buckland is less than a mile," the notice added, and "hunting and fishing are to be had in the immediate neighborhood."

The notice termed Widey Court a "historic mansion," most justifiably.  King Charles I stayed for a time at Widey Court during the English Civil War (hence the addition of "court" to its name).  From the house he issued a proclamation calling on Plymouth to surrender to the Royalist forces commanded by the King's nephew Prince Maurice.  The ballroom of the manor house was used as a care ward for casualties during the siege of the city, and the King Charles' suite of rooms were carefully preserved by later owners. 

Sadly, this history was not enough to save the house.  Requisitioned during the Second World War and left in a derelict state, Widey Court was demolished in 1954, long after Margaret Erskine had departed from the vicinity.  Evidently the contents, incredibly it seems to me, were destroyed, including even the King's bed.  Apparently no plans or photographs of the mansion were made at the time.  One individual rescued a couple of fragments from a marble fireplace.  A rather unattractive school, built in 1963 and named for the manor, stands on the cite today.  

marble fragment salvaged from the 1954 demolition
of Widey Court
The Erskines had left Widey Court over two decades earlier, when the great mansion was put up for sale.  The house and  its grounds were described in 1921 as 

Commanding a South aspect and a sheltered site at an elevation of about 330 feet above sea level standing in a beautifully timbered miniature park and approached by two carriage drives above a mile long, guarded by two picturesque lodges and embracing an area of about 53 acres.....

The house itself consisted of, on the ground floor, an outer hall, an inner hall, corridor, two conservatories, a drawing room, a dining room, a morning room, a library, a billiard room with entrance from the library, cloak room, lavatory, water closet, main and secondary staircases, servery, servants' hall, kitchen, scullery, larder, pantry, boot hole, store room, and a laundry composing three rooms and servants' water closets

The first floor had eight bedrooms, three dressing rooms, a bathroom, a water closet, day and night nurseries, a housemaid's room and a linen room, while the attic had eight additional bedrooms, a box room and a storeroom.  There were cellars in the basement for wine, coal and wood.  All totaled, there were 21 bedrooms, which, like in classic English mysteries, seem to have been severely under supported by bathrooms.

On the grounds there were stables and a harness room with loft, a coach house, dairy and dog kennel, flower and vegetable gardens, a tennis lawn and summer house, a rookery and extensive woodland paths.  

Widey Court, probably around time of 1921 sale

Like modern pupils at the school, Margaret Erskine received her education at Widey Court, where in 1910 her father employed as her governess native Englishwoman Ada Annie Mckenzie, a former music teacher and daughter of sail maker and Royal Navy quartermaster Murdo Mackenzie and sister of Arthur Murdo Mackenzie, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who perished in the Great War.  Born in 1881, Ada grew up in the town of Stoke not far from Widey Court.  With a father from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (Ballalan, on the Isle of Lewis) and a mother from Cornwall, Ada presumably had a powerful Celtic imagination.

Margaret Erskine later recalled, "I was brought up in an old country house in Devonshire, complete with a ghost who had his being in the nursery wing.  I was educated by a governess but, like the mock turtle in Alice, with extras'."  These extras included "the vast resources of her father's library."  It isn't hard to see how Margaret developed a vivid imagination in this atmosphere.

Actually there are said to have been two ghosts who haunted Widey Court: a proverbial lady in white and a Cavalier soldier.  Supposedly the latter sat down at dinner next to a woman guest and rudely never spoke to her during the entire time.  Perhaps he wasn't the bookish sort and stayed out of the library.
Widey Court in its pastoral heyday--it was later town down in 1954,
with not even King Charles's bed being rescued for posterity


Why did Margaret Erskine, then well into her Thirties, start writing detective fiction in 1937?  Mystery scholar Ellen Nehr, writing shortly after Erskine's death in 1984 (it's not clear Nehr knew that Erskine was dead), claimed that Margaret Erskine once asserted that she had done so as a form of revolt against her high-toned family.  Nehr noted that Erskine specialized in "eccentric British families with long-held secrets, social pretensions, and heads of household with streaks of cunning," though she added disparagingly that Erskine "wrote the same book...twenty-one times."  

the poor thing will catch her death
running round half-naked like that 
--or my name ain't Ommanney!
Of course this is the same charge that has been leveled against mystery master Ross Macdonald, for example.  Yet whether you like Erskine or not, I think that, having learned something of his family history, you can see why she wrote what she wrote.  Erskine definitely wrote what she knew.  And a lot of mystery fans in both the US and UK enjoyed both her milieu and her mysteries.  In the US, where she particularly benefited from the Gothic craze of the Sixties and Seventies (you recall all those pretty ladies fearfully wandering around mansion grounds at midnight in their white nightgowns), she was reprinted in paperback in multiple editions.  Yet this misleading, as Erskine's books are more true detective novels than Gothics, despite the trappings.

Nehr might have added as well that above all Erskine, like the Gothic writers, wrote about great mansions.  (Donald Westlake famously said that Gothic novels are about a girl who gets a house.)  These mansions appear over and over in her books and are one of the things I, who have long been fascinated with old houses, find engaging about Erskine.  

Perhaps in crafting her mysteries the author was recreating parts of her past in her novels.  She died at the age of 83 on August 10, 1984 (not July 9) at Greathead Lodge, a senior care home in St. John's Wood, London, long after the golden ages of the detective novel and the great country houses had passed.  Greathed Lodge was named for Mrs. Mary Greathed, who founded "The Ladies' Home" there in 1859.  The property formerly had been a single family dwelling, the residence of one Alexander Tod, Esquire (excluding the wings, which were added later).

An 1867 article on The Ladies' Home explained that the institution was opened 

for the benefit of a very suffering, uncomplaining, and unfortunately numerous class: namely, ladies who have been reduced by reverses of fortune to a state of penury and privation; and who, unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials, are yet more unwilling than any other class to make their distresses known.

Applicants from this uncomplaining class, sadly "unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials," had to be "gentlewomen of good education, between 60 and 75 years of age."  I'm reminded of Dorothy Bowers 1941 detective novel Fear and Miss Betony and its memorably named Toplady Endowed Homes for Decayed Gentlewomen, which looks dubiously upon daughters of greengrocers (however well-educated).  

Greathed Lodge (formerly The Ladies Home), unoccupied today, at 41 Abbey Road
where Margaret Erskine passed away in 1984, one of the last of Britain's 
Golden Age mystery writers

Earlier in her life Margaret Erskine was known to have been active as a volunteer with the Women's Royal Voluntary Services and the Friends of Guy's Hospital; perhaps she was familiar, in such a capacity, with The Ladies' Home as well.  Interestingly one of the inhabitants of the Ladies' Home in the Thirties was the twice widowed Marian Laura Hampson Simpson (1846-1937), a daughter of Mercer Hampton Simpson, the celebrated Victorian-era impresario of Birmingham's highly-regarded Theatre Royal.  Marian Simpson successively married two Anglo-Indian army officers, John Gannon, by whom she had a son who predeceased her, and Edmund Pipon Ommanney (1841-1910), who came from a distinguished family of army and navy officers and was a grandson of Sir Francis Molyneux Ommanney.  Was there ever someone named Molyneux who wasn't from the upper class?  A relative of Edmund's, Manaton Collingwood Ommanney (Those are some handles!) was rather gruesomely slain in 1857 at the siege of Lucknow during what was then known as the Sepoy Mutiny.

Mrs. E. P. Ommanney, as she was known after her second marriage, died at The Ladies Home at the age of 91 in 1937, by which time Erskine was, I believe, living in London.  (Widey Court had been out of her father's hands at least since 1921.)  Had Erskine known her?  I ask, because one of her detective novels, set in Devon, was titled, in the United States, Old Mrs. Ommanney Is Dead (1955).  In England the title was changed to the more hackneyed Fatal Relations, perhaps because "Ommanney" surely was not that common a surname? 

dashing Charles Ommanney whom
George W. Bush nicknamed "Lion King"
on account of his hair--his most dangerous ground, 
however, was on Real Housewives of DC
Ironically Ommanney became familiar to American watchers of reality television though Cat Ommanney, once one of the fabled Real Housewives of D. C.  Reality TV stars being our modern gentry, I suppose.  Yes, Cat's ex, Charles Ommanney, an award-winning photo journalist who covered the White House, is a relation of THE Ommanneys (Are there any others?), as this New York Timearticle points out.  Charles whimsically noted that once, had "you Googled Ommanney, you would have discovered three centuries of naval admirals all going back to his great, great great grandfather.  Now you find rumors about the marriage breakup and snarky tattling on the show."

The Ladies Home could have served as the inspiration for the house in Erskine's detective novel No. 9 Belmont Square (1963), one of several I shall review here soon.

Sadly, the dignified structure, so long beneficently devoted to elder care, became derelict about a quarter century after the author's death, after the care home closed.  In 2013 residents of St. John's Wood complained of "squatters who had turned the five storeys [of the house] into a giant marijuana nursery."  Plans were afoot, at least before Covid struck, to put the building again into use as a senior care center, but these plans entail demolishing all but the building's facade.  If you want to see the house where Margaret Erskine died, better schedule a day trip!

There are a couple of Margaret Erskine's former residences which are still standing, very much so indeed: one at 16 St. James' Gardens in Holland Park and another at 58 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge. 

At the latter location you can get a lovely one bedroom one bath flat for only 650 pounds a week! It may not be Temple House or Widey Court, but it sure ain't slumming.