Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Country Cottage Murders of Elizabeth Ferrars (1907-1995): The Lying Voices (1954)

When I rediscovered classic mystery in the 1990s, when I was in graduate school pursuing a degree in history, I also discovered that public libraries still carried a lot of old mysteries going back to the Sixties and even Fifties.  I remember even finding a copy of John Rhode's detective novel Three Cousins Die, for example, which I believe dates to 1958 or 59.  Not one of his good ones unfortunately!  In fact this was the title which inspired Julian Symons ironically to dub Rhode, with the recent passing of recent the slightly elder Freeman Wills Crofts, "our reigning master of the Humdrum Mystery," a passing shot which inspired the title of my 2012 book, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, a salute to the "Humdrum" British mystery writers whom Symons influentially disparaged in writing for over three decades.

But the mystery writer I enjoyed whose books were especially prevalent in libraries then was a younger British writer, Elizabeth Ferrars, who, like her contemporary Christianna Brand, might be seen as a very late Golden Ager.  Ferrars preceded Brand into print with her first detective novel by one year, in 1940, and mysteries by her appeared practically every year for the next five decades, until 1995--a 55 year span which rivalled that of Agatha Christie (1920 to 1976).  Had Ferrars not suddenly expired in 1995 at the age of 87, there's every reason to believe that she would have keep going with her writing, perhaps even into the 21st century--in the last Ferrars books there's no sense of the steep mental slippage that is evident in the last two novels Christie wrote, Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate.  I believe Ferrars published a total of 71 crime novels, outpacing Agatha Christie by five.  (At the beginning of her career she also published two mainstream novels; Christie wrote six of these herself, including the brilliant Absent in the Spring, meaning their total output would be even, at 72 apiece.)

Her longevity in and of itself makes Ferrars interesting, as she straddled the Golden and Silver ages of detective fiction and even what we might call the Bronze Age.  When Ferrars died in 1995, PD James and Ruth Rendell were well into their reigns as Britain's premier Crime Queens, Val McDermid had just published her CWA Gold Dagger winning novel, The Mermaids Singing, and Ian Rankin was on his seventh Inspector Rebus novel.  (He would win the Gold Dagger for the eighth in 1997.) Where the ingenious Christiana Brand, who maintained a devoted following among fans of classic mystery, essentially flamed out after 1955, after the publication of Tour de Force, her seventh detective novel in 14 years (though she did manage another one in 1979), Ferrars kept on going, like the Energizer bunny, waving a revolver and a blunt instrument in his paws.

But Ferrars' work is remarkable not simply for being prolific but, like Brand's, for its content as well.  Over the decades her writing illustrates, to a considerable extent, the changes going on in British crime fiction.  She is an important though underappreciated figure within the history of the genre.  

Her first five mysteries, published  between1940 and 1942, are written with fidelity to Golden Age norms, then still prevalent, although under attack on all sides, especially in the United States.  Hence we have a sort of amateur gentleman detective figure, Toby Dyke (good name for that sort of 'tec) and his working class sidekick, George, reminiscent of Margery Allingham's Lugg and Dorothy L. Sayers' Bunter, except in that George actually solves the cases--a subversive touch that!  The writing is good, though the author doesn't allow herself to delve too deeply into the characters, who are primarily pieces in a puzzle.  Three of the novels in this series are excellent, in my opinion.  One of them I have reviewed here way back in 2013 and I plan to review my other favorites soon.

However, when a new Ferrars detective novel appeared in 1945, after a lapse of three years, Toby and George had gone, never to return.  In fact Ferrars dispensed with amateur series detectives entirely until much later in her life, publishing instead a long succession of standalone mysteries, beginning with I, Said the Fly in 1945.  This title, along with Murder among Friends (1946) and With Murder in Mind (1948), are not my favorites in her output, but they are significant books for being precursors of the modern crime novel, where there's a great focus on "regular people" (in practice this means white, college educated professional types) impacted by murder.  There's a lot of talking in these books--too much of it to my mind.  With Murder in Mind actually is the novelization of a patient discussing a murder case with her analyst--an interesting idea in theory, but rather a tedious slog in practice.  Yet you can sense the author straining  to produce something newer and "realer" in crime fiction, something more like the conventional novel.

By 1950, Ferrars finally hit upon her forte with Milk of Human Kindness: the domestic murder mystery, set among the professional middle class in provincial locales not far from London.  (Both I, Said the Fly and Murder among Friends had taken place in wartime London.)  It took her a few years for her really to hit her stride, but when she did she never looked back.  One Fifties crime fiction critic referred to these books as "country cottage" mysteries, distinguishing them from the country house mysteries of the Golden Age.  Here you tend not have stuffy gentry and comic servants and great mansions and weekend house parties and stolen jewels and bodies bludgeoned in libraries, but college-educated, middle-class commuter professionals, modernized cottages and bungalows, and grumbling women from the village who come in once week to clean.  

From this time until around 1980 Ferrars' crime fiction held in place stylistically, while accommodating changing social mores.  (Seventeen years younger, Ferrars adapted a bit better than Christie to Sixties/Seventies sex, drugs and rock and roll.)  With the introduction of the Virginia and Felix Freer series in 1978 and, especially, the Andrew Basnett series in 1983 (the latter of which has been reprinted in charming editions by Felony & Mayhem), Ferrars' mysteries began to show signs of cozification.  There were 16 of these series mysteries published between 1978 and 1994 and only 10 non-series mysteries in the same period (plus one posthumously published one in 1995). But all of them are pretty comfy.

Ferrars' best mysteries, in my estimation those which appeared from roughly 1954 to 1982, typically have clever, clued murder plots with credible characters and settings.  The Lying Voices comes from the beginning of this period.  Ferrars later recalled to writer Douglas Greene that John Dickson Carr after reading this novel in 1954 told Ferrars later that year that "he had come to the conclusion that I could solve anything."

The Lying Voices of the title are clocks, and any Agatha Christie fan should immediately find something striking a chime in this passage, where the author describes the room where the novel's first corpse is discovered:

….the room contained at least one hundred clocks....

    The clocks ticked in a hundred rhythms, loudly or softly, on high or low notes, some striking the hours sweetly and some with a jangle and some letting them pass without comment of any kind.  But one thing all the clocks had in common.  Every single one in that room, big or little, shabby or splendid, grotesque or beautiful, was wrong.

Yes, Christie swiped this murder mise en scene for her Hercule Poirot novel The Clocks nearly a decade later in 1963.  Or at least it would sure seem that she did.  I have to say that, although I like The Clocks more than most people I've found, I think Ferrars did a better job of actually incorporating this time element into the mystery.

The Lying Voices details how Justin Emery, returned to England from six years living in Australia, stops at the market town of Archersfield to call upon his old friend Grace DeLong out at her country cottage in the nearby village of Fallow Corner ("A grey stone house with a blue door outlined in pale yellow with pale yellow window frames"), where soon finds himself plunged into the murder investigation of Grace's friend Arnold Thaine, a high end furniture designer and clock collector.  When Arnold is found shot dead the very day of Justin's arrival, suspects in his murder include his assistants Ben Eagan and Lewis Brillhart, his attractive younger wife, Hester, and Grace herself, who clearly is hiding something--or perhaps a multitude of somethings.  As Justin himself admits, "Grace was a very irritating woman."  

I could say more about the plot but I really don't feel inclined to.  I was pleasantly flummoxed and I enjoyed seeing the clues that I had missed which led to the truth.  I found the characters credible and I particularly enjoyed the ambiguity in the relationship between Justin and Grace.  Are they going to end up together at the end of the novel or not?  Could Grace actually be the murderer?  We are a long way off here from those dewy innocents, the young lovers in Patricia Wentworth novels!  By all means look up and read The Lying Voices for yourself (though watch out for careless internet plot descriptions which thoughtlessly give away too much about the plot and will surely spoil your enjoyment of the novel).  As one contemporary reviewer wrote of Voices, there's "plenty of psychology and painstaking clue-work," which should please vintage mystery fans of different stripes.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

To the Lighthouse; or, Good Fences Make Good Murders: Deathblow Hill (1935), by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Deathblow Hill was Phoebe Atwood Taylor's (henceforward PAT) seventh detective novel, and the first of them, I believe, to be narrated in the third person, which would remain PAT's narrative voice in the Asey Mayo series from then on.  (I think all of the previous books in the series had been narrated by a series of matronly lady sidekicks--Watsonettes, if you will--of Asey's.)  

I sometimes have read that the earlier books in the Asey Mayo series are "darker," and I have always thought, to be honest, you've got to be kidding me.  Well, Deathblow Hill, while not exactly dark, is the first book in the series where I could kind of see what people were getting at with the dark talk.  It's a long way off from Cornell Woolrich, say, but it's also much more restrained than the Forties Aseys, when everyone in Cape Cod, headed by Asey's Cousin Syl's wife, Jennie Mayo, seemed to be having a lovely, madcap war indeed.  It seems that as Jennie became more prominent in the series, the zanier it became.  Or maybe it was just the influence of PAT's Alice Tilton series, which is tres zanee to be sure, very definitely mystery of the genus screwball.

Anyway, Deathblow Hill actually does have some dark threads in the crazy quilt.  In the first few pages PAT not only provides some lovely scene painting of Cape Cod's Weesit Harbor in June, she sets up some genuine conflict between two rival family factions, all of them relations of wealthy old sea trader Captain Bellamy Howes.  

On the one side we have Suzanne Howes and her son Lance, Suzanne being the fifty-something widow, for the last twenty-six years, of Bellamy Howes' adopted son Eben.  Her son Lance was born after his father's death, so he must be about twenty-six himself, like the author herself at the time.

On the other side there are Abby, Captain Bellamy's daughter, and her husband Simon Keith.  Their two houses are in sight of each other up on Deathblow Hill (indeed the Keiths, a spiritually unprepossessing pair, frequently spy on the Howes with binoculars), but they are separated by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, reflecting the bitter personal division between the two families, who have long been feuding over the missing money from the Captain Bellamy's estate.  The old man was said to have been worth over a million dollars (!) when he died, but all the lucre that was found in the bank amounted to merely some $40,000.  That's a big discrepancy, it is.

Suzanne and Lance live at the old Howes Homestead, which comes complete with an abandoned lighthouse, while the Keiths reside in the "gingerbread, fretwork and colored glass monstrosity" that Captain Bellamy built for himself when he struck it rich.  (Ever notice how many Golden Age mystery writers, American and British alike, hated Victorian architecture?)

Mayo's Beach Lighthouse (Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum)

These are all well-drawn characters, and you can actually feel some of the acrimony which runs among them.  It helps that, among his many other ill qualities, Simon Keith is more or less a peeping Tom and  rapist in waiting who lusts hungrily after Suzanne, whose "shape's  better than it was thirty years ago," as he puts it to his disgusted wife Abby as he spies on her with his binoculars.

Another good character in the novel is Jerusha Sekells, nicknamed Broody Mary "because they say I never see nothin' but the dark side of things," who comes in the summer to help with the boarders whom Suzanne takes in to try and make ends meet.  Speaking of boarders there's Tabitha Newell, another one of PAT's indomitable Boston matron types, whom PAT always does to a turn.  (A little earlier in the series "Tab" likely would have been the novel's narrator.)  And there's Joan House, a plucky and pretty young Boston secretary to a rather dodgy New York business tycoon named Benjamin Carson, who's there to provide the novel with some of that old LI (love interest).  All these young women in PAT's books, I've noticed, seem to embody aspects of PAT herself, who briefly tried the old secretary racket herself after graduating from college, before turning her hand to writing.  

Yes, Tab and Joan are boarders at the Howes house--they even get, as I recollect, coveted rooms in the lighthouse itself.  And, oh yes, Tab's nephew pops up at the old Howes place too; he glories in the name of Levering Newell and is another good character.  

(Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum)

Of course there's murder done at Deathblow Hill, and it's all part of a tangled affair indeed, but I thought it was pretty nicely untangled.  There's at least one whopping coincidence,  to be sure, but you just have to realize that in PAT's Cape Cod, everyone is going to be related somehow.  My Mom's home town in Pennsylvania was the same way, actually.

PAT's paternal grandfather,
Joshua Nickerson Taylor (1841-1928) 
photographed at age 20/21.
Maybe he didn't have the beard
when he was ship cook at age 8!

And, sure enough, you will find that PAT drew on her own family genealogy for this book.  Her father's father, Joshua Nickerson Taylor, was a sea captain who sailed all around the world, finally expiring in Orleans, Cape Cod, attended by his physician son, PAT's Dad, at the age of eighty-seven in 1928, when his granddaughter PAT was a nineteen-year old college sophomore. His first voyage had been nearly seventy years earlier in 1850, when he was eight years old (nearly nine).  He served as the cook aboard the schooner Pennsylvania, on its voyage to harvest cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

So much for PAT's father's side of the family.  On her mother's side, PAT's grandfather, Ebenezer Tilton Atwood, was a fourth cousin of William Newcomb Atwood, who, like Joshua Nickerson Taylor, had gone to sea on ship as a boy, serving as the ship cook. 

Unlike Taylor, Atwood lost an arm in the Civil War, at the Battle of Fredericksburg.  He returned home to Wellfleet, unemployable in his former vocation, married Sarah Cleverly--now there's a good surname--and in 1865 was appointed keeper at--drum roll, please--Mayo's Beach Lighthouse at Wellfleet.  

Now I think we know where Pat's keen sleuth Asey got his Mayo.  Asey's home town is, after all, Wellfleet.

Sarah Cleverley Atwood (1836-1920)
wife of PAT's mgf's 4th cousin and
keeper of the Mayo's Beach Light
for 15 years
(Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum)

William Atwood died in 1876 at the age of fifty-five and his forty-year-old widow Sarah, who now had to raise the couple's four young children alone, was appointed his successor.  She served for fifteen years until 1891 and passed away at Wellfleet in 1920, when PAT was about ten years old.  You won't persuade me that the genealogy-obsessed PAT didn't know all this stuff about her maternal grandfather's fourth cousin's family.  I imagine the Atwood domicile at Mayo's Beach with its lighthouse was the genesis of the main house in Deathblow Hill.

The lighthouse at Mayo's Beach was decommissioned two years after Sarah's death and it finally ended up in Point Montara, California, where it remains today.  The modest Victorian house where the Atwood family lived, sans lighthouse, is still there at the same spot in Wellfleet--where it's now valued at 2.6 million dollars!  I mean they added a garage and indoor bathrooms, but still....  

It's sobering to think that few of the rustic native Cape Codders in PAT's books could actually afford to own a home there today.  Well, Asey probably could, as the series develops he's revealed as sort of a universal genius (same thing happened with Sherlock Holmes); but I have doubts about poor Syl and Jennie!

the Mayo's Beach lighthouse today, at Point Montara, California

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Detective Waxed His 'Stache: Some Sidelights on the Fascinating Family of Phoebe Atwood Taylor

My title, you may have guessed, is indebted to the title of a Peter Lovesey novel.  Do you know which one?

As I have written about here in the past, regional New England crime writer Phoebe Atwood Taylor [aka PAT] was the deepest-dyed of Yankees, her ancestry on her mother's paternal side (the Atwoods) and paternal side (the Freemans) respectively going back ten and eleven generations in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  (Her father's side of the family, the Taylors, was composed of comparative upstarts, going back merely eight generations in Cape Cod.) 

Indeed, Freeman married a granddaughter of Mayflower passenger William Brewster, making PAT a Mayflower descendant, like, I as surprised to learn, some 35 million other people around the world.  That's actually a lot of people, considering they are all descended from a pool of only 22 passengers Mayflower, which anchored off the tip of Cape Cod over 400 hundred years ago on November 11, 1620.  

1932 map of Cape Cod--the town of Wellfleet is the pink section in the middle of the tip,
Orleans the yellow section below it

For generations the Atwoods stayed put in the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, which is mentioned over and over in PAT's books.  Wellfleet's population in 1930, a year before PAT published her first Cape Cod detective novel, was only 826, the town having declined steadily with the demise of the whaling industry from its recorded high of 2411 in 1850. 

However, things picked up again after World War Two and by 2010, Wellfleet had made it up to a new high of 2750.  In her books PAT captures this Depression era sense of decline, as well as the area's growing dependence on the nascent tourist industry from Boston and others parts, as Americans became increasingly interested in the country's "quaint" colonial past.  

Thomas Atwood house on Bound Brook Island on the west side of Wellfleet, centerpiece
of the Atwood-Higgins historic district. (Historical American Buildings Survey, 1930s)
Originally erected as a half-house by Thomas Higgins in 1730, the expanded cottage was
purchased in 1805 by Thomas Atwood, a fourth cousin once removed of PAT's grandfather
Ebenezer Atwood.  After many years of no vacancy, the house was purchased in 1919 by 
George Higgins, a relation of the original owner, who restored it and added a number
of outbuildings to give it the feel of a living farmstead.  After Bound Brook Island Road
was improved, connecting the island to the mainland, the site became more accessible.
 (To me this recalls the house in PAT's 1935 novel The Crimson Patch.) 
Altogether, the district represents the original story-and-a-half Cape Cod cottage
architecture as well as 20th century restoration efforts. (See National Park Service.)
All too prosaically, however, PAT's maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Tilton Atwood (1835-1900), had moved with his wife, Clara Maria Freeman (1842-1911) and two daughters, Josephine and Alice Tilton (a son, Freeman Dana, had died as a child), to the Eagle Hill neighborhood of East Boston by 1900, the year of his death, where he was employed as a salesman of plumbing supplies.  (No wonder there's a plumber character in PAT's detective novel Octagon House!)  That year the Atwood family also took in a boarder, a young bookkeeper from Wellfleet.  

PAT's second cousin
Richard Rich Freeman III, who died
in the sinking of Lusitania in 1915. 
This was the passport photo
which he took for the fatal trip.

Clara's marriage to Ebenezer must have been a love match, one gathers, for Clara was one of thirteen children of Captain Richard Rich Freeman (yes, "Richie Rich"), who "from his early years followed the sea" to great success, becoming President of the Boston and Provincetown Steamship Company, President of the Wellfleet Savings Bank and and a Director of the Wellfleet Marine Insurance Company.  His youngest son, Clara's youngest brother, Richard Rich II, was a prominent Boston shipping broker and said to be one of the best golfers in the state.  His only son, Clara's nephew and PAT's second cousin from this line, was Richard Rich III, a Harvard educated mining engineer.  He stood 5'11" with spectacles, a chiseled face, cleft chin, blue-gray eyes, crinkly auburn hair and a long straight nose, in contrast to PAT's pug one, which she inherited from her father. 

In 1915, when PAT was six, he embarked on an ocean liner to Russia, having taken a mining job there.  Unfortunately the ocean liner he embarked upon was RMS Lusitania.  The moving story of the 28-year-old's death is told here and here.  His body was never recovered.  

As with so many Cape Codders, the livelihoods of many of PAT's relatives were derived from the ocean waters, which sustained life as well as claimed them.  As a young man Clara's husband Ebenezer had been a sailor on the whaler Hector, so perhaps it was there that he learned about plugging leaks, as it were.  He himself a son of Simeon Atwood (1792-1863), owner of a stove and hardware store in Wellfleet, which much more recently was the cite of The Juice restaurant.  

former Wellfleet store owned by PAT's maternal great-grandfather, Simeon Atwood

After Ebenezer's death, his and Clara's daughter Josephine married Dr. John Danforth Taylor, a 1900 graduate from Harvard medical school, and they moved a three minutes walk away from the rather boxy and dull Atwood family home at 126 Princeton Street to an attractive frame Italianate house with bay windows and a mansard roof at 31 Princeton Street.  Josephine's elder sister Alice remained at home with her mother Clara, until Clara's death in 1911.  Alice herself stayed at this home for two decades after the death of her mother, living there alone with a series of maids, until PAT herself moved in.  

former Taylor residence in east Boston (red painted house)
--no black lives matter signs back in those days!

PAT had graduated from Barnard College in 1930 at the age of 21 and probably soon thereafter moved in with with her Aunt Alice, with whom she would stay with until the elder woman's death in 1942.  PAT obviously must have had great affection for her, naming her most famous pseudonym, Alice Tilton, after her aunt.  (Her other, minor, pseudonym, Freeman Dana, under which she produced a single mystery, was drawn from her uncle of that name, who had died as a child long before PAT was born.) 

Still it seems unusual for a young college graduate to want almost immediately on graduation to move in with her spinster aunt and remain with her for a dozen years, unless she literally has to as a sort of paid companion (a situation that certainly arises in classic mysteries).  Clearly PAT had more in mind for her life than that. 

Next to her Barnard College yearbook photo is the quotation, drawn from a translation of German poet Heinrich Heine, "I crave an ampler, worthier sphere."  From her own interview comments, PAT had been bored at college, yet she obviously had intense ambition to be something out of the ordinary.  She was known to her classmates as "a bland, imperturbable young woman with a Boston accent, an inquisitive pug nose, and a mind like a two-edged sword."  In fiction writing she found a creative outlet for her brilliant, effervescent mind.  

PAT at Barnard age 20 or 21

Jeffrey Marks has written that PAT returned to Cape Cod, to "Weston, Massachusetts" to care for her "invalid aunt," this being Alice Tilton Atwood, so perhaps her aunt stood in special need of a companion, and this made a convenient arrangement for PAT, the younger woman getting lodging from her aunt where she could write.  (Incidentally, there is a Weston, Massachusetts, but as the name suggests it's west of Boston, not in Cape Cod, so perhaps Marks meant Wellfleet; yet Ebenezer and Clara Atwood had left Wellfleet decades before and as far as I can tell PAT never resided at Cape Cod, contrary to what Marks writes, unless one counts her summering with her parents at Nauset Beach near Orleans, her father's native town.)

In a newspaper piece PAT joked that she was a comprehensive failure in a short succession of jobs after graduating from Barnard, so that helps explain why she did not live on her own when she started writing her first novel in 1930.  But could she not have moved in with her own parents?  She certainly would not have been the first, or last, college graduate to do that.  What was going on down the street in the Taylor household at this time?

Quite a lot of upheaval, actually!  In March 1929, when PAT was still attending Barnard, her mother Josephine died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage during a Unitarian Church supper in Boston, when she was only 52.  (Josephine was a committed member of both the Unitarian Church and the Daughters of the American Revolution.)  Dr. Taylor, PAT's highly opinionated, rationalistic father, who regularly aired his secularist, progressive opinions in letters and journal articles, was left a widower at age 53.  

PAT's father, whom I think she favored,
as we say in the South

Less than a year later, however, Dr. Taylor remarried, to a woman nearly two decades younger than he memorably named Hazel Aurelia Schmeltz, who hailed from Detroit, Michigan.  I have no idea how this marriage came about, but could PAT have taken a dim view of suddenly acquiring a strange new stepmother, only fourteen years older than she, so soon after he mother's sudden death?  Hazel herself was a former dental assistant and a  divorcee, having divorced her first husband in Michigan less than three years earlier, after a marriage of less than a year's duration.  Interestingly, Hazel's own father Henry P. Schmeltz, a Detroit police lieutenant, had himself divorced, back in 1909, the year of PAT's birth.  

It was a divorce that was messy enough--and quirky enough--to make Detroit newspaper headlines:

Wax on Schmeltz Mustache Helps to Chill Wife's Love; Gun Play Freezes It

Is that your nightstick or are you just 
happy to see me? According to his wife
Patrolman Schmeltz was a player.

Wax applied to the moustache of Patrolman Henry P. Schmeltz was among the primary causes of a decree of divorce granted to his wife, Anna, by Judge Hosmer yesterday.  The decree was granted on Mrs. Schmeltz's cross-bill.

Schmeltz began the suit, declaring that his wife was inordinately jealous and had accused him of personal adornment to make himself more agreeable to other members of the fair sex.

Mrs. Schmeltz in her cross-bill alleged she had reason enough to be jealous, and that her husband spent not only time and money on other women, but that, when she objected, he had threatened to shoot her and once shot through the leg of the table.  Judge Hosmer decided that she was entitled to a decree on the ground of extreme cruelty.

This could have come out of one of PAT's novels, except for its being in Detroit, Michigan.  Could this be one reason cops always seem like a dimwits in her books, or did Hazel not volunteer this information about her family to her new stepdaughter? 

In any event, Dr. Taylor and his new bride soon were taking cruises together, to Europe and to Hawaii, and one can see how PAT might have felt out of his place in this situation.  After World War Two, Dr. Taylor moved with Hazel across the country to San Diego, California, where she died in 1961 and he died three years later at the age of 87.  They are buried next to each other in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Dr. Taylor having served as a major in the Medical Corps Reserve in both World Wars.  A cenotaph was erected for the doctor at the Taylor family plot in Orleans at Cape Cod.

Tudor-style home in Newton, MA purchased by PAT, probably not long before she began 
writing her first Alice Tilton mystery set in fictional Dalton, MA.  The pen name was derived from
 the maternal aunt with whom she lived, Alice Tilton Atwood.

Josephine Taylor has a cenotaph in her name in Orleans as well, though she was buried with her family at Wellfleet, as was PAT after she died at the age of 66 in 1976.  Was there acrimony within the Taylor family?  Dr. Taylor and Josephine are only together in the sense that their cenotaphs, presumably erected by PAT, are side by side.  Their actual remains lie on different coasts, separated by a continent.  

tombstone for sisters Josephine and 
Alice Tilton Atwood, PAT's mother and
aunt, at Oak Dale cemetery at Wellfleet
As for PAT and her "invalid Aunt," the duo sometime in the 1930s moved together, presumably on the strength of PAT's royalties, from East Boston to the neighborhood of the Highlands in the town of Newton, Massachusetts, a few miles west of Boston (and not far from Weston), where they resided at an attractive Tudor-style house of about 2100 squared feet and built in 1926.  (Today the house, which had been heavily modernized on the interior, is valued at nearly a million dollars.)


In 1940 PAT was listed as the head of the household, which included as boarders a married couple, a childless middle-aged salesman and his wife.  Jeffrey Marks writes that the town of Dalton in the Alice Tilton mysteries ("Dalton" was another family name) was based on Newton, where, he notes, "Taylor spent a great deal of time."  

PAT actually lived in Newton for years (possibly as long as two decades), so she must have spent a great deal time of there, yes.  I'm guessing she moved to Newton not long before she commenced the Alice Tilton series, set in "Dalton," in 1937.

Coming soon: More on PAT's background and the origin of "Asey Mayo."

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Clue of the Ambergris: Octagon House (1937), Phoebe Atwood Taylor

"Marina used to brag that she lived in an eight-sided house, with an eight-sided barn....It never mattered then if some other child said that her father made more money than our father.  Marina would just curl her lip and say that they didn't live in an eight-sided house....There was something final about that."

Octagon House (1937), by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Rodney J. Baxter house (1850), Barnstable, Cape Cod, MA
Photo by Magicpiano

If one judges the appeal of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Cape Cod mysteries from the Thirties and Forties, when all but one of them were published, by their local color and general air of folksy Americana, Octagon House must surely be deemed one of the author's most successful books.  The novel is chock-a-block with the stuff.  

First, we have the titular octagon house itself, part of the octagon building craze in the late antebellum era inspired by American reformer Orson Squire Fowler's 1848 book, A Home for All; or, The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building.  The largest number of the octagon houses listed in the National Register are located in New York and New England, including one in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable, which in 1940 had a population of a little over 8000 people.  This domicile, the Captain Rodney J. Baxter home, which comes complete with an octagonal "carriage barn" on the grounds, might very well have served as the inspiration for the fictional octagon house in Taylor's novel.  

octagonal carriage barn on grounds of Rodney J. Baxter house
Photo by Magicpiano

Then there is the newly unveiled post office mural, which inflames the citizens of the fictional town of Quanomet, where the novel is set, with its myriad insulting caricatures of actual citizens.  This reflects real life art created in the era of the New Deal, when the U. S. Department of the Treasury commissioned thousands of such pieces throughout the United States.  Most of the art I have seen from them is strikingly beautiful and surely noncontroversial, but what good would that be to Phoebe Atwood Taylor's [henceforth PAT] impish criminal imagination?  (To be sure, a lot of federally funded art projects in those days, as in these, got condemned as leftist propaganda.)  

Below are post office murals in from East Wareham, Massachusetts and Southington, Connecticut.  The second one looks pretty anodyne, with its Norman Rockwell-ish portrayal of a farm, a mill and a church, but maybe the portrayal of freedom of the press--I assume that's what it is--in the first one bothered some people.  It probably would today!  (Note also the gratuitously shirtless male hunk.)


Finally, we have the one hundred pound lump of ambergris which washed up on shore and is estimated to be worth about $50,000--or, in modern value, close to a million dollars.  As someone wrote in the front endpapers of my copy of Octagon House, ambergris is a gray fragrant substance, found on the seashore, from a spermacete [sic] whale, used as a perfume base, very rare and valuable, worth $35 an ounce

This would be about $450 a pound, so you can tell this was a long time ago as the stuff is worth even more today!  Today news stories occasionally pop up about about million dollar finds of ambergris--waste byproduct from the sperm whale's intestinal tract--made by lucky people at seaside locales around the world.  

ambergris (aka whale poop) on the beach

What a trove of colorful circumstance there is, then, in this novel.  Let's dig into the characters.  First, there's Pam Frye, pretty, twenty-three-year-old chatelaine of the "old eight-sided Sparrow place," aka the much decayed Octagon House.  She and  her father, Aaron Frye, have to take in paying guests, the most recent of whom are Timothy Carr, a prep school teacher from Boston, and his grandmother, owner of a cat named after anarchist political activist Emma Goldman.  (The cat is a "red Persian" that hates cops, you see.)  

Speaking of which, I note this comment from Tim Carr, as an indicator of social views of the police in those days: "This is my first actual contact with the police, you know, and it amazes me to find that they think the way they do in movies and books.  I suppose it's like stupidity in housemaids.  If they had brains they wouldn't be housemaids.  Or police."  

You often find, in Golden Age mysteries, people of "good" social standing taking a rather condescending, even contemptuous, attitude to the police, and this would certainly be an example of it!  (And poor housemaids never catch a break, do they?)  To be fair, cops in Taylor's books often remind me of the Keystone variety, so Tim Carr may not be too off here, in his own fictive world.  

Moving on, we also have Pam's wicked sister, the glamorous model known as Marina Lorne (formerly Mary Hosannah Frye).  She's married to Jack Lorne, the painter of the infamous Quanomet mural, and they live near Octagon House.  Marina also pals around with local playboy and all round bad egg (like Marina herself) Roddy Strutt. 

Then there's nosy village gossip Nettie Hobbs, the "pickle lime lady," who runs the Women's Exchange and has set her cap at widower Aaron Frye.  Oh that's right, pickled limes, that was another New England thing (they are mentioned in Little Women), although I think by 1937 they were not the rage they once had been.  

We also have Pam's friend Peggy Boone, a commercial artist, and then there's volatile selectman and plumber Earl Jennings, who keeps popping up in conversations.  Oh, and the local Republican congressman, a slick pol by the name of Elliott, who was responsible for getting that post office mural the town despises and is now trying to figure out how to get rid of it.

It's wicked Marina who gets murdered, with Pam's own knife, after she and Pam carry that aforementioned one hundred pound lump of ambergris from the beach back to the garage at Octagon House, bickering all the way over the matter of its ownership.  Pam is the number one suspect of the police, so she takes flight; and then it's up to folksy series detective Asey Mayo to save the day.  Which he does, of course.

map on back of first pb
American edition, showing
the house and the carriage barn

Octagon House was actually the first PAT novel I ever read and I have to admit I got exasperated with it after an unknown dubbed by everyone, fairly enough I suppose, the Biffer, successively bashes on the head Asey, Tim Carr, two cops and Aaron Frye, and not one person among them has even a mild concussion afterward.  This beats hard-boiled mysteries!  That same year, 1937, PAT would debut her blatantly slapstick Alice Tilton series, where these "biffings" are routine. It starts to feel like a Punch and Judy show.

Yet while all the biffings and bashings in these books get a little old for me, I find on rereading the book, now that I have become more acclimated to PAT's oddball mysteries, that there was a lot I liked in Octagon House.  For PAT the mystery is pretty straightforward.  I mean, there's complication of incident, but overall the plot isn't too convoluted.  

Further, there are one or two quite good clues and overall I would say this is probably the best of PAT's Asey Mayos which I have read so far.  

Of course it doesn't hurt that I love octagon houses and can well recall touring Alabama's lone surviving contribution to the craze three decades ago, in the small "wiregrass" town of Clayton.  It inspired a mystery too!  But that's another story, I reckon.  

first (only?) English edition with
superb jacket art by Alex Jardine

Humorous Bit: After Congressman Elliott and Asey call on local millionaire Carveth Strutt, Rodney's craven uncle, they are left cooling their heels at the mansion, surrounded by plates of hors-d'oeuvres.  Asey sardonically observes:

I never see 'em...that I don't think of the time that I took Jennie an' Syl [his cousin and his cousin's wife] to a birthday party of Bill Porter's.  Jennie, she had a fine time, but I knew somethin' was worryin' her, an' when she got home, I asked her what it was.  'Twas about the hors d-oeuvres.  She kept worryin' if the hired help had to make those things every day, just on the chance of comp'ny droppin' in, or if they was somethin' special. She knocked the Ladies' Aid cold, at the next meetin', with her versions."

Racist Bit: At the Strutt mansion there are two "slightly repulsive" native Filipino servants, one with a squint and the other with a cauliflower ear, who patrol the grounds and warn off Asey, who responds by humming the "old Filipino song of insurrection days," written after President William H. Taft referred to to Filipinos as our "brothers": "Oh, he may be a brother of William H. Taft, but he ain't no brother of mine."  

Later we learn that Asey was a veteran of the bloody Philippine-American War and the Moro Rebellion, which successively lasted from 1899 to 1913, not to mention the Boxer Rebellion in China.  So I suppose we shouldn't be surprised at his chauvinistic views.

Octagon House, Clayton, AL

plan to ground floor

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Sheila, Take a (Partial) Bow: Sheila Radley's Death and the Maiden (1978) and The Chief Inspector's Daughter (1981)

The 1970s were a transition period in classic crime fiction, with the Golden Age generation of mystery writers dying off by the year seemingly, yet with no new constellation of replacements firmly affixed in the sky, no new pantheon unshakably established on the bloodstained heights of the criminal Mount Olympus.  By the end of the 1980s all the Golden Agers had breathed their last, as far as I'm aware, and a consensus had arisen that there were two new British "Crime Queens," roughly comparable to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, these being Ruth Rendell and PD James; and that there were other notable figures, mere men these, like Peter Lovesey, Robert Barnard and Reginald Hill.  Then there were additional individuals who arose for a time, getting acclaim as new PD Jameses and Ruth Rendells, if they were women, but then somewhat faded over the long haul.  

One of these women crime writers was Sheila Radley, who for a few years looked like a real up and comer, heralded not only by newspaper reviewers but by persnickety traditionalist Jacques Barzun.  Radley published nine Inspector Douglas Quantrill detective novels between 1978 and 1994, six of them in the Eighties, when her reputation stood highest.  Her last Inspector Quantrill mystery was not even published in the U. S. however, despite the fact that almost all of her earlier novels not only had been published there but reprinted in paperback as well.  

Four of Radley's novels are currently in print with Felony & Mayhem, yet I had to look long and hard to find much at all about about the author on the internet, including the not incidental fact that she passed away in 2017, at the age of of 88.  Even Felony & Mayhem's webpage on Radley does not have this highly pertinent information!  Nor did I find any obituary on the author, who seems to have been rather publicity shy.

From literary agency Curtis, Brown, however, we find that Radley's real name was Sheila Mary Robinson and that she also wrote a trio of romantic novels (before she commenced writing mysteries) under the name Hester Rowan.  Born in 1928, she served in the Women's Royal Air Force from 1951 to to 1960 before "settling down" in a Norfolk village as a storeowner and assistant postmistress.  The Pan Macmillan South Africa webpage on Radley provides some additional detail:

Sheila Radley is the pseudonym of Sheila Robinson, who was born and brought up in rural Northamptonshire, one of the fortunate means-tested generation whose further education was free.  She went from her village school via high school to London University, where she read history.  She served for nine years as an education officer in the Women's Royal Air Force, then worked variously as a teacher, a clerk in a shoe factory, a civil servant and in advertising.  In the 1960s she opted out of conventional work and joined her partner in running a Norfolk village store and post office, where she began writing fiction in her spare time.

I found that the the Northamptonshire village where Radley was born and grew up in the Thirties and Forties was Cogenhoe (population about 1500 today), where her father, Wallace Robinson, was a postman.  Through her father and her mother, Mabel, who died when Radley was twenty, Radley was descended from generations of agricultural laborers and, on the female side, lace makers, including her maternal great-grandmother, the memorably named Comfort Dawkes Labrum (?) (1834-1911).  (For more on the interesting subject of Northamptonshire lace making, see here.)  Radley apparently never married (I'm guessing her Sixties partner was a woman), but her only sibling, an elder sister, did, after the war, in 1946.  You can certainly see how Radley's personal background comes out in her writing.  

From Felony & Mayhem we learn that Radley in her words thought "the really interesting thing" in mysteries was "not whodunit, but why," which is fine, but it certainly is not the ethos of Jacques Barzun, who put detection of the culprit above all else in a mystery.  Yet Barzun highly praised several of Radley's detective novels, particularly her first, about which he wrote:

Here is a new voice, unmistakable, and if she keeps up the good work, she can quickly take her place among the great women masters of the genre [Query: Why not just "the masters"?--TPT].  She rivals P. D. James for combined strength and delicacy of touch, and she is as adept as Sayers or Marsh in constructing and conducting a plot.  Humor of the best English kind, that is, arising from social perception, is present throughout, and altogether the books is a delight.  [The motive is peculiar but] it is by no means outré or incredible--and the romance is very fine.

Wow!  Most authors would kill, so to speak, for that king of praise.  JB also liked her second and fourth detective novels, although he criticized her third for having unpardonably diffused interest between detection and character study--"this is hardly a detective story," he complains--and he hated her sixth.  All in all, however, a pretty good track record with JB for a modern mystery writer.  

I bought Radley's first two detective novels back in the 1990s in pb at a used bookstore, but only recently got around to reading them--a lag of over two decades!  I think that, applying Barzun's own standard of detection above all else, he was a bit generous to Radley.  Applying my own more hybrid standard, however, I think her first novel is quite good, and the second not so much.

Death and the Maiden is one of several mysteries, the first of which I believe is Q. Patrick's Death and the Maiden (1939), which use that title, made famous by the 1824 Franz Schubert string quartet of the same title, which in turn drew on Schubert's own 1817 lied of the same title, which had been inspired by Matthias Claudius' poem of the same title.  The image of death coming for the beautiful young maiden is a very powerful one.  Gladys Mitchell also used the title for a 1947 detective novel.  

humpbacked bridge at Cogenhoe

In Radley's take on the theme, Mary Gedge, a promising young middle class village girl, Cambridge bound, is discovered dead below a humpbacked bridge, drowned in a stream, Ophelia-like, with wildflowers strewn around her.  Suspects are found among her family and friends, as well as the teachers at her school.  Investigating the case are Chief Inspector Douglas Quantrill and his new smart, young, cocky and conceited sergeant--he's been college educated, don't you know--Martin Tait.  (By the by, have you ever noticed how often the name "Martin" occurs in English mysteries--so much more so than in American ones.)

Perhaps what struck me most of all about Radley's Death and the Maiden is how old-fashioned it seems here in 2021, over four decades after its publication, despite the fact that it's technically a "modern" mystery.  Yet, after all temporally 1978 was much closer to 1958 than it is today, and it rather shows, despite being published in the "Swinging Seventies."  It's a reminder that despite the much heralded changes that were impacting modern society, things moved much more slowly in many parts of the world.

Women in the police force are almost a non-factor, being "policewomen" who are called in to do particularly "feminine" tasks, like breaking bad news of loved ones' deaths to relatives and figuring out what to do with squalling children.  Wives are mostly strictly homemakers, career women are mostly single.  Everyone is white and, seemingly, straight.  

Douglas Quantrill and his handsome, college educated sergeant replicate police pairings that were novel in the 1930s, when John Rhode and Freeman Crofts started them, but already routine by the 1950s.  Which isn't to say that Radley doesn't limn the pair nicely.  Both men are immediately memorable--Quantrill with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his lack of education, Martin very much the ambitious young upstart.  Admittedly, one of the memorable qualities about Quantrill, whose boredom and unhappiness with his home life--particularly his wife, whom he married young--has itself become a cliché today: the glum police inspector dissatisfied with his personal life.  But it was a lot fresher back in 1978, when there weren't necessarily Dalglieshes by the dozen.

yes, he did

Early in the novel there's an amusing scene with Sergeant Tait and bucolic Constable Godbold, who started his professional life as a village bobby riding a bicycle, but now complains that he covers the district in a police van and consequently knows the local people far less well.  When Tait hears this his response is one of utter bemusement:

He turned in his seat and looked at Godbold with interest, as though the constable were the sole survivor of a dead civilization.  "Did you really ride round on a bicycle?" he asked.  

I liked Godbold.  I was half hoping he would come upon a crime scene demanding, "Now then, what's all this?"  But, alas, no.  

Death and the Maiden is set in the Breckland country of Suffolk (not far from Christopher Bush Norfolk country), around the communities of Ashthorpe and Breckham Market.  The various locales, especially the buildings, are minutely described, providing a real sense of rural place which reminded my of the later novels of John Rhode/Miles Burton.  While the point-of-view remains firmly that of the investigating men, Quantrill and Tait, there is one superbly rendered woman character in the form of middle-aged school administrator Jean Bloomfield. I couldn't help suspecting there were some strong autobiographical elements in this character from Radley herself, who was fifty years old when her first detective novel was published. (Read the book for yourself, if you haven't, and see what you think.)  

For Father's Day: Women with Daddy Issues!

Radley gives this character real nuance, though she is much more heavy-handed with the lamentable, lower-class Pulfers, mother and daughter, who in the novel Gone with the Wind would have been called "po' white trash."  It seems the lushly sluttish  Pulfer daughter, Julie, inveigled Derek Gedge, Mary's brother, into marriage by claiming (falsely) that he was the father of her child.  In the chapter in which she appears we are damningly told that trampy Julie is clearly not wearing a bra--oh, mercy, get me my fainting couch--and she thumbs through no less than three trashy magazines like True Confessions.  

Because of the Pulfers, Derek has been forced to give up his own shot at Cambridge and work at a chicken processing plant, which Radley describes a mite too graphically for my taste.  (In short, blech!)  Actually, I could never understand why Derek, a grocer's son, had to work in a chicken processing plant in the first place, even if he was dumb enough to give up attending Cambridge; but I have to guess that Radley was vegan.

Where I'm surprised Barzun valued this novel so highly is that it's the very strength of the detective story as a novel that somewhat mars it as a puzzle.  There are some good physical clues, but it's the psychological clues that made me virtually certain who the murderer was pretty early in the story.  This is the kind of thing detection purists of the Golden Age like S. S. Van Dine used to warn about in their rules for the form.  The moving ending is so psychologically apposite that no other finish would have worked artistically, which is great in a novel, but not necessarily so in a Golden Age style mystery, where death is a contest of wits between the reader and the author, or so the theory goes.

This aside, however, I liked Death and the Maiden much better than The Chief Inspector's Daughter, which appeared after a lag of three years.  Here's there's a more ostensibly sophisticated milieu, the story being about the murder of a woman romance novelist.  (Quantrill's younger daughter Allison is the murder victim's secretary and finds her body.)  But all the stuff about "women's lib" seemed dated in a bad way and the big surprise, which wasn't as original in 1981 as the author seemed to think (and certainly isn't today), I could see coming a mile off.  In fact, 60% of the way through the book I turned to the end to see if I was right and I was.  Here I didn't find that the characters offered adequate compensation for the predictable plot, the literary stuff falling surprisingly flat, aside from the depiction of a washed-up, middle-aged "Angry Young Man" playwright who lives with his mother, which I found quite interesting.

How conservative was Radley, anyway, I wonder?  In the book there is a "hippie-type" character who smokes pot and everyone in the police refers to him highly condemnatorily as a "druggie," which seemed a bit hysterical to me--and in 1981 I was living in Alabama, where we had more pot smokers than hippies, actually.  Heck, in the 1978 film Foul Play, the hip police detective played by Chevy Chase smoked pot.  Of course this was in San Francisco.

Also the way Quantrill and Tait treat the gay antiques dealer (go figure) is really repulsive, like something out of Ngaio Marsh, c. 1936.  Actually on this one Tait, who generally seems meant to be the less sympathetic character of the two, is slightly more sympathetic than Quantrill, who thinks with "distaste," as he observes the antique dealer talking with his obvious boyfriend, that "he knew a couple of queers when he saw them."  Oh, you're ever so keen, aren't you, Dougie, my dear boy!

Of course one could argue that Radley--who I have a notion may have been a lesbian herself, though the same has been suggested of Ngaio Marsh, who never once in her long writing life, in my recollection, portrayed a queer person remotely positively--was simply showing up rural English police for what they were.  Still, many of her contemporaries managed more nuanced treatments than this.  And it's a problem when it's the identifying sleuth who thinks this way, or at least I find it so.  Maybe Quantrill improves over the series.  I hate to imagine what his reaction might have been after he perceptively "spotted" the sexuality of antiques dealer Ian Towning! (See YouTube clip below.)

Anyway, I'm encouraged enough to stick with the series.  I'm intrigued by the third one, A Talent for Destruction (1982), which sounds like a (much shorter) Barbara Vine novel and greatly disappointed Jacques Barzun.  I've come to think that's not necessarily a bad thing!

Friday, May 14, 2021

Transitions

I just noticed in my previous post that the article I published was a modified version of my original Hunt in the Dark introduction, but it does include the original references to The Red Balloon and The Predestined, which were supposed to be included in the original collection. So that will have suffice. I can't help feeling sorry for Rickie Webb, getting it in the neck again with the exclusion of his two Fifties stories, probably the last fiction he ever wrote. Maybe I can resurrect them with another publisher, as well as the rest of the uncollected novelettes.

 I will be talking about Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler both at the Bodies from the Library conference tomorrow, so I hope to "see" some of my blog readers there! The story of the two men's creative and personal life together is a very interesting one indeed, I think, and his occupied much of my writing time for three years now.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Murder No Frolic: The Pulp Fiction of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler

It's not Stephen King but
"The Red Balloon" appeared in
Weird Tales and it is one of the
weirdest tales in the Q. Patrick canon.
It's one of two stories that was cut
from Hunt in the Dark 
Hunt in the Dark and Other Deadly Pursuits, which was just published by Crippen & Landru, will be the last book I do with that entity. Here at my blog, which is entering its tenth year and where I have the last word, I thought I would publish my Hunt introduction in its original form, before I was told to cut and rework it by the new publisher of C&L, who wanted to shorten the length of the book. 

I was rather displeased and for this and additional reasons, which I won't go into here, I decided to end my affiliation with the publisher today.  So here please enjoy my last Crippen & Landru introduction, slightly modified, but including reference to the two deleted stories.--TPT

Under the pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, mid-century mystery authors Richard “Rickie” Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, native Englishmen who became naturalized American citizens, wrote and published, both together and separately, nearly forty detective novels and over fifty works of short crime fiction.  Since 2015 American publisher Crippen & Landru and I have been devoting effort to recovering Rickie Webb’s and Hugh Wheeler’s rich legacy of short crime fiction, which for the most part was published under the Q. Patrick pen name.  Crippen & Landru’s newest book, Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits, collects six of Q. Patrick’s works in shorter forms: two novellas, two novelettes and two short stories.  Included are the presumably final recovered tales of the criminous adventures of Rickie Webb’s and Hugh Wheeler’s series characters Peter and Iris Duluth (“Hunt in the Dark”) and Dr. Hugh Westlake (“The Frightened Landlady”), as well as four other tales of deathly doings: the ingenious shorts “Killed by Time” and “The Woman Who Waited” and the noirish novelettes “The Hated Woman” and “This Way Out.”  In these tales readers will find dark fantasies of murder, full of flawed men and fatal women, as they walk the wilder, pulpier side of Rickie Webb’s and Hugh Wheeler’s rich legacy of short crime fiction.  Additionally, there are two final murder stories by Rickie Webb which, though they are not included in Hunt in the Dark, offer a queer but compelling coda to a talented man’s own complicated journey. 

*******

            Initially in the 1930s Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler lucratively tapped diverse markets for their short fiction in Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, one of America’s premier purveyors of “pulp” crime fiction (so named for its cheap pages made from wood pulp), which aimed primarily at a male audience, and in The American Magazine, a so-called “slick” (so named on account of its more expensive, glossy paper) with a readership composed to a great extent of middle-class women.  Among the pulp detective fiction Rickie and Hugh published at this time were three serial novels and a novella, all of which appeared under the pseudonym Q. Patrick in Detective Story Magazine, about Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake, a widowed New England country doctor with an irrepressibly rambunctious young daughter, Dawn, who manages, albeit usually inadvertently, to help her bemused father solve, with the considerable help of series policeman Inspector Cobb, the myriad fiendish murders which cross his path.  That Hugh Cavendish Westlake shares the same initials—H. C. W.—with Hugh Callingham Wheeler surely is no accident.

            The serial Dr. Westlake novels--The Dogs Do Bark, The Scarlet Circle and Murder or Mercy?—all were later published in hardback editions by “Jonathan Stagge,” albeit in the case of The Scarlet Circle only after a lag of seven years, due perhaps to the possibility that the novella in 1937 may have helped inspire two horrific real-life copycat murders in Queens, New York.  However, the second Hugh Westlake adventure, the novella “The Frightened Landlady,” which was originally published in Detective Story Magazine in December 1935, a month after The Dogs Do Bark, was never expanded as a novel.  It now appears in print in English for the first time in eighty-five years—an exciting event for admirers of Jonathan Stagge’s ingenious murder cases.

            Dr. Westlake’s daughter Dawn does not put in an appearance in this exceptionally grim story, happily for her being “away at the shore with friends.”  However, the doctor’s investigative partner Inspector Cobb, Chief of Police of Grovestown (where the doctor, who normally resides twenty miles away in Kenmore, is substituting for his vacationing colleague Dr. Hammond), provides some timely assistance.  Young Dawn, who is present in spirit if you will, manages to do her part as well to help her father and Inspector Cobb crack the weird and gruesome case, which turns extremely nasty.  “The affair ended with a brutal murder and the unearthing of another crime so fantastic in its twisted abnormality that I cannot help wondering whether I am violating the ethics of my profession in setting it down,” Dr. Westlake forebodingly announces in the first lines of the novella.  What stouthearted mystery fan could resist?

            In an opening reminiscent of the strange consultations once held by a certain eminent detective at 221b Baker Street, Dr. Westlake is visited by Mrs. Eva Bellman, a highly respectable sixtyish Grovestown landlady who believes she must be suffering from some malady of the eyes (like Hugh Wheeler in real life), on account of the seemingly impossible transformations which she imagines have been taking place around her in her building.  Gladioluses in a vase have turned into zinnias and back again, for example, while a pet canary has gone from life to death (stabbed with a paper knife and pinned to a pillow) to life again.  Dr. Westlake assures the frightened landlady that there is nothing physically wrong with her, yet he is highly intrigued all the same by her problem.  “Possibly my recent connection with the unpleasant series of murders near my home in Kenmore had given me a taste for the bizarre,” he speculates, recalling the ghastly case earlier detailed in Detective Story Magazine in The Dogs Do Bark. 

            It is not long before Dr. Westlake calls upon Mrs. Bellman at her building, where he finds that things are even queerer than he had imagined.  “The Frightened Landlady” is a fine baroque mystery tale with some classic twists and a twisted crime.  To be sure, it shares affinities with another Webb and Wheeler work, “Danger Next Door,” a novella published in Detective Story Magazine in May 1937 which fourteen years later was expanded under the same name as a novel (now long out-of-print); yet Hugh Westlake fans will by no means want to miss “The Frightened Landlady.”  It makes an exciting addition to the distinguished Hugh Westlake crime canon.

            “Killed by Time” and “The Hated Woman” like “The Frightened Landlady” are among the earliest pulp crime pieces published by Rickie and Hugh.  They appeared in Detective Story Magazine in, respectively, October 1935 and February 1936.  The former is a pure problem detective story, though a rather memorably gruesome one, along the lines of something mystery genre master John Dickson Carr might have devised.  In it Inspector Groves (of Grovestown perhaps?) is summoned on the scene to investigate the murder, at the home of esteemed brain surgeon Doctor Cobden (shades of Inspector Cobb), of Cobden’s son-in-law, Julius van Holdt, a woman-chasing wastrel.  The dead man was discovered gruesomely slain on the couch in Doctor Cobden’s office, his face “no long calm or handsome”: “One eye was closed as if in sleep, but the other—or rather, the place where the other had been—was a hideous red gash, a gaping void.  It was as though someone had stabbed persistently and accurately at the eye with a sharp, thin weapon.”  “[P]ossibly an ice-pick,” speculates the phlegmatic medical examiner.  Steel yourselves, readers!

            The novelette “The Hated Woman” presents one of the most unsympathetic daughters of Eve in the Webb-Wheeler canon in the person of Lila Trent, the eponymous hated woman of the title.  Lila, it soon becomes manifest, is very hated indeed, and deservedly so, being a selfish, spiteful individual concerned only with preserving her own diminishing physical charms (past forty, Lila’s looks are being “killed by time”), so that she can continue successfully to pursue handsome young men, her longtime marriage notwithstanding.  When she is discovered dead in the kitchen of her apartment at the Vandolan Hotel, her head bloodily battered by blows from a wood hatchet, there is no shortage of suspects in her murder, including her long-suffering husband, Paul Trent, a chemistry researcher at the local university; Larry Graves, a strapping yet weak-willed blond whom the smitten Lila had loaned five thousand dollars, with sexual conditions attached, to start an auto garage; Larry’s girlfriend Claire French, the coolly attractive and determined owner of her own beauty parlor; and Sam Nolan, the Vandolan Hotel’s strapping brunet electrician, patently on the make.  (“If you ever need me, Mrs. Trenton, it’s easy to get me,” he pointedly advises Lila.)  The police are stymied by the multiplicity of suspects (truly Lila and Paul’s apartment was something like Grand Central Station on the night of the murder), leaving Paul Trent’s likeable colleague in the chemistry department at the university, Professor Gilbert Comroy, to bring the crime home to its perpetrator. 

            Like “The Frightened Landlady” and “Killed by Time,” “The Hated Woman” has the fingerprints of Rickie Webb all over it, in its depictions of nasty people and grisly murders and its transgressive gay subtext, among the most prominent in the writing of Webb and Wheeler.  In Lila’s relationships with Larry Graves and Sam Nolan, it is easy to discern what Marc Fisher, in his essay “The Life of a Trophy Boy”--a meditation on the life and death of Andrew Cunanan, a “high-class gay prostitute” and serial murderer who infamously slew fashion designer Gianni Versace in 1997--termed the “gay paradigm” of an older gay sugar daddy, his looks fading, avidly pursuing hustling young hunks.  “You’re nothing but a gigolo—a gigolo,” a disgusted (and somewhat priggish) Claire castigates Larry at one point, while studly Sam Nolan, clad in his overalls, provocatively comments to Lila, “Geez…I wish I was a girl.  Maybe then you could use me around this place, Mrs. Trenton.  I’m pretty good at housework, too.  Used to be a houseboy when I was a kid.”  A positive portrayal in the novelette of a same-sex relationship can be seen with middle-aged academic colleagues and best friends Paul Trent and Gilbert Conroy, who resemble pals of Rickie’s from the University of Pennsylvania and other colleges.  Seven years after the publication of “The Hated Woman,” Rickie Webb ironically made a disastrous six-month marriage with a noted woman popular author, Frances Winwar, starkly contrasting with the years of contentment he enjoyed with his writing partner Hugh Wheeler, who also was his companion of many years. 

            A much more positive depiction of a heterosexual couple is found in “Hunt in the Dark” (published in 1942 in Short Stories), which--like “Death Rides the Ski-Tow” and “Murder with Flowers,” both of which appeared in The American Magazine the previous year (and have since been collected in Crippen & Landru’s 2016 volume The Puzzles of Peter Duluth)--is another thrilling wartime adventure of theater producer Peter Duluth and his charming and glamorous actress wife Iris, lead characters in Rickie and Hugh’s Patrick Quentin “Puzzle” series of novels.  (Even here, however, some gay subtext is slipped in when Peter tells us that on a sleuthing visit to a Manhattan book and record shop, he pauses occasionally to pretend to glance at something, like “an old copy of Leaves of Grass” and “a Strength and Health magazine from 1936.”)

            This time Peter and Iris run afoul of a deadly terrorist plot against the United States, recalling the “Black Tom” explosion of 1916, an act of German sabotage at a major munitions center at Black Tom, an artificial island adjacent to Liberty Island in New York Harbor.  (Peter specifically mentions the Black Tom attack.)  On the side of Peter and the irrepressible Iris in their desperate against-the-odds attempt to foil the Nazis’ deadly machinations (Iris has “always been the Lady Macbeth of our team, taking danger and disaster in her stride,” observes Peter), are the couple’s indomitable black cook Aloma and her hulk of a husband, Rudolph, the latter, we are cheekily told, mysteriously returned “after a long absence upstate.”  The ultimate moral of “Hunt in the Dark” seems to be, “Good help is hard to find,” so hang onto it when you find it.  Within a few years, Rickie and Hugh at their home at Twin Hills Farm in Monterey, Massachusetts would hire a handsome black cook, Johnny Grubbs, a move which ironically would help lead to the irrevocable sundering of Rickie and Hugh’s companionship, something which had not happened when Rickie had been briefly married to Frances Winwar.

            We return to the formal problem detective short story with “The Woman Who Waited,” a fine brief tale of detection which would have melded perfectly with the lauded Lieutenant Trant short stories that Rickie and Hugh published over the decade from 1945 to 1955 (and which have since been collected in Crippen & Landru’s 2019 volume The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant).   In “The Woman Who Waited,” which first appeared in The Shadow in January 1945, Trant stand-in Inspector Macrae is tasked with determining the identity of the mysterious woman in black who shot and killed Ellery Trimble with his own gun in his parked car outside his Twin-Town Department Store, “the one big league emporium in the dual community of Stuart-Cartersville.”  Left bizarrely sprawled across the dead man’s corpse are a dozen “pairs of silk—real silk—stockings,” resembling nothing so much as “grotesque, elongated caterpillars.”  Macrae manages to pin the guilt for a truly audacious act of murder on the correct culprit, doubtlessly one whom Lieutenant Trant, with his well-known penchant for murderesses, would have relished encountering. 

            Like “Hunt in the Dark” and “The Woman Who Waited,” “This Way Out,” published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947, has sophisticated touches reflective of the fine hand of Hugh Wheeler, a still youngish man of thirty-five when the novelette was published.  Hugh’s writing talent had burgeoned over the years while that of Rickie, who suffered from various debilitating physical and mental maladies after his return from wartime service with the Red Cross in Hollandia, New Guinea, had declined.  (Hugh, who suffered from diplopia, or double vision, for a time served stateside in the Medical Corps at Fort Dix, New Jersey.)  In Hugh’s hands “This Way Out” rises from the pulpish danses macabres of the “The Frightened Landlady” and “The Hated Woman” to the operatic heights of the tragically doomed romances of Forties film noir. 

            As in many of the postwar film noirs, the protagonist of “This Way Out” is a disillusioned World War Two veteran returned home, like Rickie Webb, from overseas service.  In this case it is Steve Glenn, who when he beats up playboy Tony Dort at the beginning of the story has been officially honorably discharged from the Army for but a few hours and symbolically is still wearing the uniform he had donned to fight the Japanese.  Getting even with Tony was something Steve had been living for over “eighteen long, bitter months” of combat in the Pacific, at New Guinea and Leyte, since Steve’s beautiful blonde ex-wife, Celia, had commenced a wild fling with Tony and persuaded Steve to divorce her.  The embittered vet exits Tony’s apartment, having left the playboy knocked out and flat on his back, and he heads for liquid consolation to a bar.  Later, however, with the assault and the drinks having failed to make him feel any better about the situation, Steve decides to check up on Tony at the apartment, where he discovers to his mortification that in the interim someone has shot Tony--dead. 

            Finding Celia’s small white-gold, emerald-encrusted compact, a gift from him during their marriage, at the scene of the crime, Tony jumps to the conclusion that Celia must be Tony’s killer, and he sets out at all costs to protect her from the consequences of the crime he thinks she committed.  However, Steve soon learns there are other promising candidates besides Celia for the role of the odious Tony’s murderer, including Celia’s virginal younger sister Dennie, who during the war has blossomed into a lovely blonde simulacrum of her sibling; Virginia Dort, Tony’s cynical estranged wife; 4-F Roy Chappell, who fashions metal into jewelry and trinkets of exquisite beauty, like Celia’s compact; Goody Taylor, aging man-about-town (“Goody Taylor?  I thought he’d been embalmed years ago.”); and a “cool, metallic blonde” named Janice, the latest of Tony Dort’s flings. 
            Things get so very complicated, Steve reflects morosely during the course of this twisting tale: “[T]he perversity of life got under his skin.  Celia loved Tony; Steve loved Celia; Dennie loved Steve.  He felt a sudden, savage hunger for the old world of mud and death in the Pacific.  At least you knew where you were in a foxhole.  Nobody loved anybody there.”  Like Roy Chappell’s intricately bejeweled creations, “This Way Out” is exquisitely fashioned, a moving tale of fatal misunderstanding that, though it likely was mostly composed by Hugh Wheeler, seems to have been informed by some of Rickie Webb’s recent disillusioning experiences, as the two men’s own relationship, like the fictional one of the seemingly imperishably insouciant Peter and Iris Duluth, became more “complicated” during the postwar years. 

            Rickie and Hugh had permanently parted ways by 1952, with Rickie leaving the house they had shared at Twin Hills Farm for France, never to return again except for occasional visits, when his failing health permitted.  He passed away fourteen years later, at the age of sixty-five.  Hugh, who remained with Johnny Grubbs at Twin Hills Farm for the rest of his life, survived Rickie by twenty-one years, during which time he worked with entertainment world giants Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, among many others, and attained prominence as a writer for stage and screen, producing the scripts for the films Something for Everyone (1970), Cabaret (1972) and Nijinsky (1980), authoring the acclaimed 1961 plays  Big Fish, Little Fish and Look: We’ve Come Through and winning three Tony Awards for his books for the musicals A Little Night Music (1973), Candide (1974) and Sweeney Todd (1979).

            Until Rickie’s death Hugh continued to write crime fiction under the pseudonym Patrick Quentin, without any contribution from Rickie.  Nevertheless, in the 1950s Rickie himself, using the Q. Patrick pseudonym, made a few sporadic stabs at crime writing, including two strange short stories, “The Predestined” and “The Red Balloon,” appropriately published in 1954 and 1953 in Weird Tales, and likely the paperback original The Girl on the Gallows, a study of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case that was published in 1954 (since reprinted as an eBook by Mysterious Press/Open Road).  At the end of his writing career Rickie had returned to his grim beginnings in the pulps, even as Hugh inhabited the more rarefied and lucrative world of the “slicks” and the sophisticated Patrick Quentin novels.  Rickie’s two weird crime tales, although not included in Hunt in the Dark, constitute a strange but ultimately sadly fitting legacy to his and Hugh’s noirish crime fiction. 

            “The Predestined,” an inverted crime story which first appeared in Britannia and Eve in August 1953, is a malevolent tale reflective of Rickie Webb’s preoccupation in his crime fiction with cruelty and sadism as well as aging and its concomitant physical decay.  It shares affinity with a 1937 short story, “Frightened Killer” that Rickie and Hugh published in 1937 in Detective Story Magazine, under their seldom used pen name, “Dick Callingham,” as well as two Q. Patrick school crime tales later collected in 1962 in the Edgar-winning volume The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow (since reprinted by Mysterious Press/Open Road), “Little Boy Lost” and “Portrait of a Murderer.”  All three of these earlier stories likely were written by Rickie.

            “The Predestined” episodically traces the life in England, from indulged childhood to youthful years at public school and Cambridge University to dissolute adulthood, of a selfish, greedy brute named Jasper Dogerty, who recurrently suffers from painful constricting sensations at his throat that leave ephemeral purple welts.  Over the course of the story Jasper transitions from a public school and Cambridge athlete with a “perfect physique and regular features” to a balding thirty-four-year-old with an incipient double chin who works for a perfume company and sponges off gullible older women like Sophie Cain, a wealthy widow whom out of financial calculation he marries.  Unfortunately, Sophie, though she gratifyingly makes Jasper the heir to her sizable estate, comes encumbered with the intensely religious and to Jasper extremely objectionable Miss Grace Goodman, a censorious busybody companion who keeps zealous watch over both her mistress and the household accounts.  Jasper comes to feel that something will have to be done about this situation….  The end result may not surprise you, but the uncompromising bleakness of the story, which includes certain biographical elements from Rickie’s own life, leaves its mark, if you will.

            The weirdly compelling “The Red Balloon” saw the penultimate appearance in short fiction form of peripatetic series sleuth Lieutenant Timothy Trant, who began as a series character in a couple of 1930s Q. Patrick novels and a Crimefile, appeared between 1940 and 1955 in nearly two dozen Q. Patrick crime tales and in the 1950s and 1960s was occasionally employed by Hugh as a murder investigator in his solo Patrick Quentin novels.  Although the title of the tale recalls the Oscar-winning French children’s film, Le Ballon Rouge (1956), it could not be more different from that whimsical French fantasy, being an account of the investigation into the horrific unnatural deaths of two young girls, Minnie and Evie Greiser, found gruesomely slain behind some bushes outside the Braeside School for Girls, where they had been participating in a rehearsal for a nativity play for the school’s forthcoming Christmas festival.  The bodies of the dead girls were “shriveled and shrunken like two little old monkeys, or like corpses deep-buried centuries ago.”  In classic fashion, falling snow covered any possible traces left by the murderer.  The only clue to the crimes (if clue it indeed is) is a vanished red balloon that witnesses reported seeing floating near where the girls’ bodies were discovered. 

            The narrator of the story, a newspaper reporter who is himself the father of a Braeside student, is sent to cover the case, putting him, in an additional coincidence, in contact with the head of the murder investigation, Lieutenant Timothy Trant, an old Princeton classmate whose name is “synonymous with homicide.”  The great Trant, however, reports that for once even he is stymied.  “It’s all very well for you,” he gloomily tells the reporter, summoning the sinister shades of pulp fiction: “You journalists can spin out yarns on vampires, murderous balloons, flying saucers, little men, unknown poisons, impossible maladies—anything your readers will swallow.”  He, however, has to deal in rational facts. 

            These, such as they are, come to Trant courtesy of an eccentric, Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor Edgar Saltus, who, in yet another coincidence (they evidently come in threes), happens to be the uncle of the narrator.  Invoking the name of Charles Fort, the famed researcher into anomalous phenomena, Saltus points out to Trant that over recorded history around the world there has been a cyclical series of sudden, localized, unexplained mass deaths among children, their strange demises all resembling that of the Greiser girls.  Saltus has an explanation for the whole ghastly parade of death, but it seems utterly fantastic.  Only the dramatic finale reveals the truth, as Professor Saltus alludes to King Claudius’ memorable lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions!”
            In the Forties and Fifties sorrows certainly came in battalions for Rickie Webb, as he lost his health, his looks, his writing career and his longtime companion Hugh Wheeler, the love of his life.  Many of Rickie and Hugh’s stories in Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits capture some of the darkness Rickie often felt in his own heart, never more bleakly than in “This Way Out,” when the narrator observes, “During the evening there had been moments of wild racing hope. Moments when he thought he was on top and could thumb his nose at doom.  They hadn’t been real of course….He’d been licked from the start.”  Much of Golden Age detective fiction, in which death so often is nothing more (or less) than an amusing diversion, recalls lines from another great Shakespeare play, King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport.”  In some of the finest examples of the crime fiction of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, however, murder is no frolic.