Sunday, April 26, 2015

Pick a Peck of Penguin Punshons

In a writing career lasting over half a century, English mystery writer E. R. Punshon (1872-1956), published over fifty mainstream and mystery novels, but he became best known for his 35 Bobby Owen detective novels, which appeared between 1933 and 1956, the year of Punshon's death. Although they had a spottier publication record in the US, the Bobby Owen series was quite popular in the UK, having been well-launched by a series of laudatory reviews from Dorothy L. Sayers in the Sunday Times.  Like Sayers, Punshon also was an early, and active, member of the Detection Club. (He was one the most featured members in my CADS booklet "Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play.")

Five of Punshon's Bobby Owen mysteries were reprinted as Penguin paperbacks, between 1948 and 1955.  After Punshon's death in 1956, however, his books, with the exception of a couple of English library market editions, fell entirely out-of-print until 2009, a year that saw the reappearance of Diabolic Candelabra, a Punshon novel I had included on an internet list of 150 personal favorites by Golden Age authors and which since has been reviewed very favorably on several blogs.  Dean Street Press now plans to reprint the Bobby Owen series, beginning with the first five books in the series, the same five Penguin reprinted sixty and more years ago.

I'll be having more to say about Punshon in the weeks to come, as well as other vintage mystery writers, of course.  I have just about finished the index to my book on the detective fiction of Henry Wade and GDH and Margaret Cole, which along with the introductions, has been taking time away from the blog.  But I expect to be back to it more regularly by next week.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Golden Age and the Modern Reprint Revolution

One thing I find fascinating about the Golden Age of detective fiction--traditionally defined as falling between the First and Second World Wars--is just how diverse the period actually was, though appreciation of much of this diversity has been considerably lost in public awareness today (see the recent book by Lucy Worsley, for example).  I don't mean to say that no one has acknowledged this diversity before the last few years; that is certainly not the case. But despite worthy work being done (in monographs, essays, reviews and blog pieces), we keep hearing so much about the same old Golden Age dichotomy: England, cozy women puzzle writers (and some men who wrote like them); United States, hard-boiled men who eschewed puzzles.  We've seen this show--(Tough) Guys and (Detection) Dolls--so much now!

there's more to it all than a duel between Hammett and Chandler, Christie and Sayers

With the recent, and ongoing, revolution in mystery reprints--getting more attention, now, to be sure, due to the efforts of the British Library--I hope that we will find a wider range of books by Golden Age mystery writers more readily available than at any time since the Golden Age itself.  Then we'll be seeing that while puzzle-oriented mystery fiction--including books authored by the "Humdrums"--continued to thrive throughout the period, on both sides of the Atlantic (and other parts of the world as well), other types of mystery developed (or redeveloped) as well, such as the manners mystery associated with Sayers, Marsh and Allingham but also produced by others in and out of England; humorous/satirical mystery; psychological mystery (something more than the so-called "Iles School" associated with Anthony Berkeley Cox); local color mystery; and even the police procedural.  

And of course the traditional mystery thriller associated with Edgar Wallace, then one of the most popular writers in the world, was still very much a factor in the 1930s.  The Golden Age of detective fiction was also the Golden Age of the traditional thriller.  In truth, it was an exceptionally rich and varied time for crime fiction fans and I very much look forward to seeing more books from this era getting reissued and acknowledged.  Not every one of these new reprints, to be sure, will always be a masterpiece--indeed, some no doubt will be rather more mundane--but many will be well worth while and together they will, I believe, hugely enhance our understanding of the fascinating world of Golden Age crime fiction.

I've been involved personally with reissued American titles by Coachwhip and reissued British titles by Dean Street Press and Orion Books' The Murder Room imprint.  For the latter I wrote a 4000 word introduction to their complete J. J. Connington eBook reprint series, while for Dean Street Press I've written introductions for the reprints of The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), the two Golden Age detective novels by Detection Club member Ianthe Jerrold, and have just finished five for the E. R. Punshon series, averaging about 1000 words apiece.  I'm very pleased to be doing the Punshon introductions, for by the end of the process I will have put together what I believe will be a significant study of this undeservedly neglected English mystery writer.

With the British Library series, with which I am not personally involved, I am especially pleased with the Jefferson Farjeon reissues--having, as readers of this blog will know, made pleas on his behalf here over three years ago--and with a reissue of a Christopher St. John Sprigg title (see more on Sprigg here).  It's very pleasing to see Rufus King back in print too, by Wildside Press, though I wish Wildside would put some more effort with their reissues into the purely aesthetic aspect.

More to come soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Myths of the Golden Age I: Aesthetic Change in Mystery Fiction during the Turbulent Thirties

With Martin Edwards' book The Golden Age of Murder coming out in another week and increasing interest in reprinting "forgotten" Golden Age mysteries (besides the British Library, other presses involved in this recovery effort include Arcturus, Bello, Coachwhip, Dean Street Press, Open Road/Mysterious Press, and Thomas & Mercer), it appears the publishing world finally may be more receptive to views of the Golden Age of detective fiction--traditionally understood as the period from roughly 1920 to 1939, when the puzzle-oriented tale of detection ostensibly was the dominant form of crime fiction--that revise the common understanding of the period advanced over the last forty years in the popular works of Julian Symons, Colin Watson, P. D. James, Lucy Worsley.

The truth is, our convenient and tidily framed Golden Age construct has been ripe for challenge.  Just look at some of the most common beliefs about Golden Age detective fiction:

1. Golden Age detective fiction was written primarily by British authors.
2. Golden Age detective fiction was written primarily by women.
3. Throughout the Golden Age detective fiction was hostile to innovation, as typified by the "rules" for the genre laid down by such people as Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine.

Neither of the first two beliefs is true, and the third needs considerable revision.  Of the popular studies by Symons, Watson, James and Worsley, Symons' Bloody Murder remains the best, not only because it is the most informed by knowledge of the genre (Watson's book gives over a great deal of space to the thriller, while the James and Worsley books have huge gaps), but because Symons at least recognizes that change was occurring in the 1930s--though he mostly credits change coming not from "classical" detective novelists themselves but the American hard-boiled school (the "American Revolution").  In this construct, reactionary classical detective fiction, ultimately unable to reform itself (despite some efforts), had to be toppled by revolutionary aesthetic insurrectionists opposed to everything for which the classicists stood.

In writing Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (2012), I looked at the careers of three once-popular "Humdrum" novelists (so dubbed by Julian Symons, because of their focus on puzzle at the expense of literary graces). In the first chapter I charted their rise and fall in popularity and critical esteem, which followed the fortunes of the puzzle-oriented mystery.

I had already concluded that by the 1930s the supremacy of the puzzle in the detective novel was undergoing great challenge from a host of sources, including people who were seen themselves as "traditional" detective novelists.

I discussed this point in a 20,000 word essay, published in 2011, a year before Masters, under the title Was Corinne's Murder Clued: The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953 (I am planning on republishing this essay as the lead piece in a new book; you can see reviews of the essay by Jon L. Breen and Martin Edwards here and here).  "During this decade [the Thirties]," I write

members of the Detection Club, old and new, devoted and casual, were themselves testing the boundaries of the detective fiction genre, despite the Club's reputation as a bastion of puzzle orthodoxy. To no small extent, the revolution against the primacy of the puzzle in British detective fiction came from within.  Perhaps the most important Detection Club revolutionaries in this regard were, among the original members, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Milward Kennedy and Henry Wade and, among later members, E. R. Punshon, Anthony Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham and Nicholas Blake.  None of these authors ever totally abandoned the puzzle in their genre writing, but all of them in their works de-emphasized puzzles relative to other, purely literary, elements.

I then scrutinize the Thirties writings of these authors, along with some traditionalists who were changing in some ways as well, like John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street.  "By the time World War Two erupted in 1939," I conclude, the Detection Club "had demonstrated that its membership was not a hopelessly reactionary, backward-looking group determined to maintain the supremacy of the pure puzzle novel at the cost of characterization and literary style."

In short, the literary landscape of mystery fiction saw great change between 1929 and 1939, from numerous sources.  The purportedly halcyon Golden Age was in fact an era of aesthetic flux.  It is exciting that the publishing world may be more broadly recognizing this, and that the Golden Age's iron paradigms finally may be breaking.

More discussion of Golden Age myth-breaking to come.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Fatal Floor Plans: Toper's End (1942), by GDH Cole

My book on the detective fiction of Henry Wade and GDH and Margaret Cole has been delayed by some other projects, but it is in its final, final stage now, indexing.  Should be out next month.

I reviewed GDH Cole's  Toper's End here last year, but have only just now located my English edition, with the frontis floor plan of Excalibur House, where the drunkard Rowland Moggridge is found dead from poison. I've always liked this one because of the three floors.  What are your favorite murder mystery floor plans?

Dear friends are full of horror,
Predict a toper's end for me.
They ask: "How long, O sorrow,
Wilt thou remain wine's devotee?"
--Yehuda Halevi

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Foxy Little Literary Tricks": Sherwood Anderson on Detective Novelists

Last night I spoke in Oakland....I was haunted all night by the newspaperwoman who came to see me at my hotel yesterday and later appeared at my lecture quite drunk.  She is a successful trick writer--detective stories, I think--is clever.  Lately she has had trouble. Her man has left her.

She is sensitive enough to feel dirty about her work. Jesus Christ but the tricksters sure do pay for their foxy little literary tricks, selling out their own imaginations, getting dirty inside.  


Down capitalism.  It has so many little subtle ways of selling people out.

--From Ray Lewis White, ed., Sherwood Anderson's Secret Love Letters (1991)

Sherwood Anderson: no fan of tricksters

On this blog we've heard opinions expressed on detective fiction from various notable writers, including John Updike, Sinclair LewisWilliam Faulkner and Vladimir Nabokov. And now Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) chimes in, not very sympathetically to say the least!

Detective stories, written by "trick writers" at the behest of a spiritually vapid marketplace ("Down capitalism"), constitute a "sell-out" of the imagination that makes one feel dirty inside. Case in point, according to Anderson: the newspaperwoman who appeared drunk at his 1932 Oakland lecture.

Who was this woman?  It was Nancy Barr Mavity (1890-1959), a longtime reporter for the Oakland Tribune.  She was said to be "intrepid, brilliant, whimsical and with a curiosity about and liking for life at all levels. (though evidently she was not brimming with joie de vivre that night she saw Sherwood Anderson--she sounds more like a character from Winesburg, Ohio).

But how good a detective novelist was she?  Find out soon! Or has anyone read any of her mysteries? If so, what did you think?

Fab Freemans: My Ten Favorite Freeman Wills Crofts Detective Novels (Plus Five Alternates)

I thought that since yesterday I discussed the British Library's Freeman Wills Crofts reissues I would continue in this vein a bit and list my ten favorite novels by the author. Again, these are my personal favorites, as opposed to ones I find socially significant for varying reasons (there is not always an overlap there). 

Purely for entertainment I prefer the Crofts novels that focus firmly on puzzle, because I think puzzle construction is where Crofts' strengths as an author lie.  I will follow with five titles I didn't like as much, but that others perhaps might rate more highly (these concentrate more on developing character interest).

1. Inspector French and the Starvel Hollow Tragedy (1927)

A complex plot, well-managed.  There's some uninspiring love interest, but it's allowed to fade (the male half of the love interest is named, rather remarkably I thought, Pierce Whymper).

2. The Sea Mystery (1928)

It should have been called The Crate, though that would have too closely resembled the title of Crofts' earlier landmark mystery, The Cask (1920).  Well-paced and plotted.

3. Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930)

One of Crofts' most highly-regarded mysteries in his day, this one involves trains and much traveling over Britain, in the author's best vein.

4. Mystery in the Channel (1931)

What Journey does for trains, Channel does for boats.

5. The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) (reprinted in 2015 by the British Library)

Another masterpiece of logistical detection.

6. Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)

This is semi-inverted mystery of corporate espionage, rather unique for the period I think.

7. Crime at Guildford (1935)

More corporate shenanigans.  This is the one that Raymond Chandler, a Crofts reader, said got "too fancy"; and there indeed is a point that stretches plausibility, but it's still a well-plotted book.

8. The Loss of the "Jane Vosper" (1936)

This title was recommended by Julian Symons and is Crofts' closest approximation, I think. of a full police procedural.

And two late ones that eschew the rather heavy-handed moral parables of his later works:

9. Enemy Unseen (1945)

An appealing village mystery.

10. Death of a Train (1946)

Espionage involving, yes, a train; Inspector French figures quite heroically.

Some others people might like (especially if you enjoyed Antidote to Venom):

1. Sudden Death (1932)

A country house tale that Crofts also adapted for the local stage.  I find it rather melodramatic, but it does get more into the emotional aspect of murder.

2. Death on the Way (1932)

Lots of a good railway workplace detail, but does the central gambit really work?

3. The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

Crofts' most famous inverted mystery, weighed down for me by the love element (Crofts never does sexual passion convincingly in my view).

4. Found Floating (1937)

Partially a shipboard mystery, reminiscent of a Christie in milieu, but again the characters are not done as well as those in a Christie.

5. Fatal Venture (1939)

An attack on floating gambling casinos (there's a murder problem too, of course).  In his novels Crofts continually indicts gambling, improvident living and getting into debt.  He would not be pleased with the world today.

And, of course there's his 1920 landmark, The Cask, but you've read that one already--or have you?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Freeman Wills Crofts, The British Library and Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery

Included among the recent reissues of Golden Age detective novels by the British Library are a pair of tales by Freeman Wills Crofts, Antidote to Venom and The Hog's Back Mystery.  In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) I provide the longest and most substantive analysis of Crofts' detective fiction to date (the other two "Humdrum" authors I analyze at length are Cecil John Charles Street, aka John Rhode/Miles Burton, and Alfred Walter Stewart, aka JJ Connington), so I am pleased to see his cause taken up by the British Library.

I am a strong admirer of The Hog's Back Mystery (1933), one of the greatest logistical detection Golden Age mysteries, a form of which Crofts was the period's leading practitioner. The thematically ambitious Antidote to Venom (1938), however, is more problematic for me, though it definitely has strong points of interest to a student of the genre.

As I explain in great interpretive detail in Masters, Crofts, like a number of other detective fiction authors in the 1930s, moved away from the pure puzzle mystery toward novels aimed at providing greater emotional engagement for the reader.  Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh deservedly are much celebrated for doing this through the so-called "manners mystery" (although they were not alone in this), while for Crofts the process involved designing detective novels and short stories as religious parables providing moral instruction for his audience (see The Golden Age in Modern Memory for a blog take by me on these matters).

the British first edition
Antidote to Venom, an inverted mystery with an explicitly religious narrative framework, is the premier example of this tendency in Crofts' work, though there are other examples as well, discussed in Masters. I provide a discussion in Masters on Antidote to Venom specifically, wherein I treat the novel as of interest primarily on social history grounds.

I suspect that what may have been a major mover in motivating the British Library to choose to reprint Antidote to Venom was John Norris' eloquent and enthusiastic review of the novel on his fine blog at Pretty Sinister Books. John mounts a detailed case on behalf of the plot of the book and its pull on the reader (he also shows how the original American hardcover edition has a killer endpaper map).

In my view Crofts' ability to depict complex characters is too slight to make this novel work as it should on the emotional level, but, as John's review indicates, others may well differ with me on this matter. Harriet Devine's Blog says of the novel, "modern readers of different [religious] persuasions [from Crofts] may find [the ending] a little jarring." For me, what makes the novel interesting historically does not make it a compelling or convincing novel of character, but, as always, readers will differ in their takes on a book and they should see for themselves what they think.

The Hog's Back Mystery, on the other hand, is one of my favorite Golden Age detective novels, although there might be some who think it overly analytical. Personally, I think it's a beaut of a book (there's an endpaper map too, as well as a clue key). To be sure, it's less thematically ambitious then Antidote to Venom, but it's also a perfect example of the deliberate pure puzzle English mystery at which the "Humdrums" (as Julian Symons termed them) excelled.

One could have paired it, for this reprinting outing, with its twin logistical detection masterpiece, Crofts' railroad mystery Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930); however, I see that on his blog Martin Edwards, who I believe writes all of the introductions for the series, was not taken with the book (Martin's view of Crofts generally has improved since, however). Then there is Crofts' most famous inverted mystery, The 12.30 from Croydon (1934), which has always had its advocates.

I also have highly praised the boat puzzle tale Mystery in the Channel here.  Readers interested in Crofts are urged to check out Masters of the Humdrum Mystery for my takes on all Crofts' other works (it's rather dear, I know, but there are always the libraries).

I mention my book here on my blog because I think people who read and enjoy Crofts through the British Library series should have some chance to hear about Masters, which in my view is the master source on so-called "Humdrum" British mystery.  Jon L. Breen called Masters "an important book of detective fiction history and criticism, with all the scholarly care and rigor of a first-rate academic study, combined with an enjoyable literary style,"  while Martin Edwards declared, on his blog, "This is a book to which I will, I'm sure, return again and again."  I do hope Martin keeps returning to it, and that perhaps other interested readers may find their way to it for the first time.