Thursday, June 21, 2018

Death in the Heart of Dixie (and the Windy City too): The Forties Crime Novels of Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993)

Rosemount, Eutaw County, Alabama, southwest of Tuscaloosa
ancestral home of Sara Mason's Glover relations
Historic American Buildings Survey, W. N. Manning, 1934

Rosemount today

The piece below is drawn from my general introduction to Coachwhip's new two-volume edition of Sara Elizabeth Mason's four mysteries, originally published between 1943 and 1948. 

Three of them are steeped in the atmosphere of Alabama in the 1940s, which is of special interest to me, as Alabama, a fascinating if sometimes frustrating land, is a state where I lived for about 23 years. The last of the books is set in Chicago, where Mason attended graduate school.  (Her thesis was on, yes, Alabama.)

I also wrote individual introductions to each novel, and the mystery writer Dean James (aka Miranda James) kindly contributed a most interesting afterword to the first volume on his own experience as a white author from the Deep South.

Carl Carmer (1893-1967), a charismatic and imaginative young northerner who in the 1920s had been employed for a half-dozen years as an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, attained enviable fame in 1934 with the publication of Stars Fell on Alabama, his bestselling book about the state.

When during his six year sojourn in the Heart of Dixie Carmer took the occasion to visit Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County, the charming and gracious chatelaine who guided him around this aged yet still breathtaking relic of Old South domestic Greek Revival architecture was Amelia Walton Glover Legare (1869-1941), a granddaughter of the original builder and a first cousin, once removed, of Alabama educator, librarian and Forties crime writer Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993), the subject of this introduction.

Sara Elizabeth Mason published her entire corpus of mystery fiction—four novels to be exact—between 1943 and 1948, a period in American history when many white non-fiction writers, whether they hailed from the South or the North, tended to wax comfortably nostalgic over what they deemed the genteel living of the plantation aristocracy of the Old South, as can be seen in the fervid moonlight and magnolia mythography which perfumes the pages of such popular books about the South from the Thirties and Forties as Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama, J. Frazer Smith’s White Columns (1941), Clarence John Laughlin’s Ghosts Along the Mississippi (1948) and Medora Field’s White Columns in Georgia (1952). 

(For more questioning approaches to the subject see Clarence Cason’s 90 Degrees in the Shade, which was published in 1935, shortly after the author, an esteemed UA journalism professor fearful about what the local reception to his book might be, tragically committed suicide, and The Mind of the South, the classic 1941 study by Wilbur J. Cash, who similarly is believed to have killed himself in Mexico, not long after his book was published.)

While the last of Sara Mason’s mysteries, The Whip, takes place in Chicago, where the future crime writer in 1938 received a master’s degree in history (her thesis was “Sectionalism in Alabama, 1840-1860”), her first three mysteries all are firmly rooted in Alabama soil.  Yet all three books are mostly lacking in the Old South romance dreamily indulged in by the starry-eyed Carl Carmer and other of his contemporaries. 

In the debut Mason mystery, Murder Rents a Room,  the titular room belongs not to some bustling urban lodgment, but rather a remote and timeworn plantation house in rural Greene County, Alabama, where the descendants of the original owners are simply struggling to hold on to what they still have by taking in paying guests.  They have little time to spare in their harried present for apotheosizing the leisured past of their ancestors.

Williamson Allen Glover
Nine decades before the publication of her mysteries Sara Elizabeth Mason’s great grandfather Williamson Allen Glover (1804-1879) had erected in Greene County, on land given him by his father Allen Glover, Rosemount, one of the finest of the state’s antebellum mansions.  Rosemount’s design, which included a front portico with six ionic columns and a massive columned cupola adorning the top of the house, was devised by William Nichols, then the state architect of Alabama.

At this stately home, imposingly set on a star-shaped knoll in the heart of Alabama’s richest agricultural country (dubbed the “Black Belt” for the color of its fertile alluvial soil), there grew to adulthood a dozen of Glover’s children by his two successive wives, Amelia Tillman Walton (of nearby Strawberry Hill plantation) and Mary Sophia Haden.  (An additional four Glover children died in infancy; neither of Glover’s wives survived past her forties.)             

The most historically significant marriage made by one of the many Williamson Allen Glover offspring was that concluded in 1850 between Glover’s eldest daughter, Amelia Walton Glover, and wealthy Mississippi planter James Lusk Alcorn, a bitter opponent of secession who during the era of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War joined the Republican party and served successively as governor of Mississippi and one of the state’s U. S. senators (the other being Blanche K. Bruce, an African-American); yet it was younger Glover daughter Mary Willie Ann “Mollie” Glover’s Reconstruction-era marriage to Greene County farmer John Stanhope Brasfield which ultimately gifted vintage mystery fans with Sara Elizabeth Mason.  

Amelia Walton Glover
Born on September 2, 1911, Sara Elizabeth Mason was one of two children (the other being her elder brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason) of Mollie and John Stanhope Brasfield’s daughter Fenton Amelia Brasfield and her husband, Edwin Bolton Mason, a hardware merchant in the town of Demopolis in Marengo County, strategically located at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers about a dozen miles below Rosemount. 

In Demopolis had lived not only Sara’s great-great grandfather Allen Glover, sire of Williamson Allen Glover, master of Rosemount, but her great-aunt Sara Serena Glover Lyon of Bluff Hall and her great-aunt Anne Gaines Glover Lyon of Lyon Hall, as well as her great-aunt Laura Davenport Glover Prout, wife of banker Daniel Fowler Prout, through whom the twentieth-century Glovers were connected, in a manner of speaking, with Hudson Strode (1891-1976), a celebrated English professor at the University of Alabama for nearly a half-century, from 1916 until 1963 (although the second husband of Strode’s mother, Hope Hudson, was, like Sara Mason’s father, a Demopolis hardware merchant, Hope’s third husband, William Sylvester Prout, was the only son of Daniel Prout and Laura Glover and his father’s successor as bank president).

Both Glovers and Glover relations were interred in Demopolis in a white-stuccoed classical mausoleum, completed in 1845, which still stands in the town today, vainly warded by remnants of a Gothic Revival cast iron fence, upon a chalk bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River.

Glover Mausoleum, Demopolis, Alabama

Edwin Bolton Mason came of humbler social origins than the storied Glovers, being the son of Sumter County, Alabama farmer Edwin Francis Mason and his first wife, Jessie Bolton, who died when Edwin Bolton, the couple’s only child, was less than two years old.  Leaving his young son behind with his mother-in-law, Edwin Francis Mason left Alabama for Mer Rouge, Louisiana, where he became an overseer on Isaac Brown’s cotton plantation.  Shortly afterward he wed Brown’s daughter Jennie and with her had three daughters, one of whom was named Sara Elizabeth and presumably was the woman for whom Edwin Bolton Mason and his wife Fenton named their own daughter.

Not long after the First World War, Fenton and Edwin Mason with their two children left Demopolis and the world of the Old South behind them when they moved to the rapidly developing New South industrial city of Gadsden, perched in the highlands of northeastern Alabama, where Edwin managed another hardware store and the family resided in a one-story bungalow on 602 South 11th Street (see below).

Between 1900 and 1940 the population of Gadsden leapt by more than nine times, from roughly 4000 to 37,000 inhabitants, as a slew of businesses, such as the Dwight Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts (a maker of cotton textiles), the Jefferson Lumber Company, the Alabama Steel and Wire Company and the Gadsden Car Works of the Southern Railroad, established plants in the area. 

Gadsden high School, where Sara Mason tought history in the 1940s

During this same period the population of Demopolis grew much more slowly than that of Gadsden, increasing from around 2600 to 4100.  The contrast between bustling Gadsden and somnolent Demopolis may have inspired Sara Mason’s setting for her second crime novel, The House That Hate Built (1944).

Both of the Mason children attained distinction in life as adults.  Sara’s brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason, graduated from West Point in 1928 and rose to the army rank of Major General in 1951, having served during the Second World War as chief of staff of the 1st Infantry Division (famously nicknamed “The Big Red One”) and the V Corps. 

Sara Mason at Agnes Scott
around 1930
Sara between 1929 and 1938 attended Agnes Scott, a woman’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and earned degrees from both the University of Alabama--she matriculated at UA just two years after Carl Carmer left the school under a cloud, the married yet dangerously sociable professor having developed what was deemed too intimate a relationship with a female student—and the University of Chicago before she was awarded an MS degree in library science from Peabody College in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University). 

When Sara was a student at the University Of Alabama, Sara’s distant relation-through-marriage Hudson Strode had not yet inaugurated his vaunted creative writing workshop, but then the late Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016), who attended UA some dozen years after Sara had graduated, would manage rather well without it.

Sara Mason at Gadsden High School
During the Second World War Sara returned to reside with her parents in Gadsden, where she taught American history to students at Gadsden High School; yet after the war, Sara like her brother traveled to chaotic postwar Europe, where she found employment as a teacher in Frankfurt, Germany with the American High School, which served the children of American government, military and civilian personnel. 

Returning to Alabama after a few years, she took positions at the University of Alabama at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, built a decade earlier on the site of the antebellum Rotunda, burned during the Civil War ; the Birmingham Public Library, where she was head of the catalog department and curator of the cartographical collection; and the Gadsden Public Library, where she was appointed Assistant Director. 

Her third crime novel, The Crimson Feather, the last of her mysteries with a southern scene, is set in Tuscaloosa among the local elite, including members of the University faculty.  Before her death in Homewood, near Birmingham, on August 15, 1993, she published A List of Nineteenth Century Maps of the State of Alabama (1973) and, reflecting her interest to the end of her life in her own family heritage, The Glovers of Marengo County, Alabama (1989).   

During Sara Mason’s short career as a crime writer, reviewers lauded the good writing and authentic mise-en-scene that graced her four mysteries, in the first three of which the author adhered to the tried-and-true romance and ratiocination formula of such hugely popular American authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhert and Leslie Ford. In the last of them, The Whip, Sara Mason veers more from traditional suspense to the manner and form of the psychological crime novel that such authors as Margaret Millar, Very Kelsey, Dorothy Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong were developing at this time.

Two of her novels, The Crimson Feather and The Whip, were reprinted in paperback, the former by Dell in 1947 (as part of their “mapback” series, beloved by modern collectors) and the latter by Bantam in 1950, but all four of them received good notices in the newspapers. 
Murder Rents a Room, which introduces rural county Sheriff Bill Davies, was deemed by Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review a promising first detective story, while William C. Weber in the Saturday Review declared that the tale had “plenty of zip” and influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle enjoyed the “pleasant romance about nice people in a timeless southern setting.”

Boucher found The House That Hate Built, set in the fictional mill town of Monroe, a “[m]inutely detailed small-town novel,” while Weber praised it as “[c]apably plotted, with some rather surprising situations” and “interesting characters.”

Weber was similarly praiseful of The Crimson Feather, wherein county Sheriff Bill Davis returns to investigate a murder, this time in nearby Tuscaloosa (though the town in the novel is not so named).  Weber lauded Feather’s “[a]bly concocted plot, enlivened by sharp pictures of southern small-town life and family squabbles,” and he additionally admired the novel’s “[u]nostentatious sleuth,” who performed a “believable job” of criminal investigation.  Anthony Boucher echoed Weber’s words in his review of Feather, noting the “shrewd inspection of Sheriff Bill Davies” and the tale’s compelling “family atmosphere.”

After a lapse of more than two years (when she was teaching school in Frankfurt, Germany) and a change of American publisher from Doubleday to Morrow, Sara returned to print in January 1948 with The Whip, structurally her most unusual crime novel in that it relies heavily, in the manner of noir cinema, on a flashback narrative and the analysis of disordered emotional states (the hero is a psychiatrist); reviewers found the author had not lost her touch in the interim. 

In the Saturday Review a pleased William Weber judged that the psychological crime novel, which he colorfully termed a “believable brain-prober,” presented a rare “case where [the] flashback method of narrative” did not “retard action.”  In the New York Times Book Review Isaac Anderson, obviously impressed with Mason’s new tack, declared that the “excellent novel” was “a moving narrative of unfeeling cruelty practiced upon a sensitive young girl by a selfish old woman and her relatives.” 

For fans of Sara Mason’s mysteries it is disappointing to see that her interesting and entertaining fiction writing career came to an end after so brief a span of time, with places like Birmingham or even Frankfurt, Germany left unexplored, but it is pleasing to know that she went out on a high note.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Alas, a Poor Yorke! Grave Matters (1973), by Margaret Yorke

When I started reading PD James and Ruth Rendell back in the 1990s British crime writer Margaret Yorke (1924-2012) was a name I sometimes used to see elevated with their own, into a sort of triumvirate.  Subsequently Yorke has much faded compared to Rendell and James, which may be a bit unfair.  Before the current book under review, I had only ever read one book by Yorke, No Medals for the Major (1974)--a minor classic of the suspense genre, I think, one which lays bare the cruelties that can lie beneath those lovely little English villages about which we vintage mystery fans love to read.  It's a brave, unflinching book about mass hysteria and groupthink that holds up a dark mirror to cozies like those by MC Beaton, where the worst that ever can be said about the villagers is that they can get rather silly at times (but they always have Hamish Macbeth to straighten out their minor foibles and follies).

No Medals for the Major was the first of York's true mystery suspense novels, and it appeared in the middle of the author's short-lived Patrick Grant detective series, about the detective exploits of a handsome amateur sleuth, Oxford don Patrick Grant.  The Grant series, consisting of five books, ran between 1970 and 1976, when Yorke abandoned it. 

When I was in Boston last month I bought at a used bookstore there a pb copy of the middle book in the series, Grave Matters, and unfortunately was far less impressed than I was with Major.  It's a short book of about 55,000 words or less and it took me about a month of off-and-on reading to finish it, so you can guess I wasn't  exactly entranced.

Yorke's Patrick Grant certainly comes right out of the classic mystery character closet of Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, being a good-looking, charming, well-educated and eligible bachelor who likes to solve mysteries.  There's a younger woman romantic interest in the book, although Patrick's closest relationship, appealingly done (and not incestuous!), is with his married sister.  The problem for me with this book is that Grant simply isn't that good of a detective.

There are two human deaths in the novel for most of its length (and that of a dog), but since they are written off as accidents (both of them are old ladies who fell--or were pushed--down steps, one in Athens, Greece, one in the British Museum in London) the police don't come into the book for a long time.  Grant's desultory amateur detection mainly consists of sneaking into a house in the chraming village of Meldsmead on two separate occasions and stealing a blackberry pie and a photo album.  Most of the novel is devoted to his wooing of an attractive relation of the first murder victim, a retired headmistress of a girls school.

A lot of it reads like a suspense novel, as it looks like the object of Grant's romantic interest may be having an affair with a man who is trying to murder his wife, both of them recently having moved to Meldsmead.  The detection portion comes back near the end, in rather a huddle, when we have another murder, then two more attempted ones, and a fire and a fatal car crash!  The motivation for this murderous mayhem seems highly implausible, so we get characters suggesting that the murderer must have been mad, which feels rather a cop-out in a detective novel.

Another thing which bothered me was the title.  Why "Grave Matters"?  Yes the matters are grave, as in any murder story, but one expects something of a pun, like a burial plot or a cemetery having something to do with things, and nothing doing here!  It's a bland title for a bland mystery.  "Serious Business" would have worked just as well.

Yet Patrick Grant, along with his sister and brother-in-law, are appealing enough characters and I plan to read another in the series, to see whether the mystery and detection are better done.  Yorke seems quickly to have grown restive with the detective novel format, devoting herself in her writing between 1977 and 2001 entirely to suspense fiction, or crime novels (28 of them), for which she is far better known today--perhaps for good reason!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Platinum-Plated Certainty: The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), by Christopher Bush

“I suppose you haven’t heard our local sensation?” I said.

“No,” she said, and, “I didn’t know there could be a sensation in Cleavesham.  What was it?  An air raid?”

“Only a murder,” I told her.

                                                     --The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944)

1st American edition, published in the
US in 1949, 5 years after the British
edition, 4 years after WW2 had ended
After having had his series detective, Ludovic “Ludo” Travers, become involved in a couple of investigations concerning highly nefarious activities in wartime London, The Case of the Magic Mirror (1943) and The Case of the Running Mouse (1944), Christopher Bush in The Case of the Platinum Blonde, which is to be reissued by Dean Street Press this month, sends Travers vainly for a break to the lovely and seemingly placid little village of Cleavesham, Sussex. 

There Ludo learns that there is something of the truth in Sherlock Holmes’s famous declaration (in the short story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”) that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” 

Travers has come to Cleavesham to rest and to visit his charming younger sister, Helen Thornley, who for the duration of the war has let Pulvery, her and her husband Tom’s Sussex country house (familiar to devoted Bush readers), and with her “old maid” Annie taken Ringlands, “what she calls a cottage,” while Tom is in military service in the Middle East. 

Soon Ludo encounters in Cleavesham a number of inhabitants who will play parts in the upcoming murder drama that afflicts the village, including Major Chevalle, the chief constable; his wife, Thora, young daughter, Flora, and Thora’s poor relation, Mary; village warden Bernard Temple; Lieut.-Commander Santon, wounded in the knee at Crete and now retired, and Tom Dewball, his manservant; Herbert Maddon, “quite a superior old man,” and his daily, Mrs. Beaney;  and odd duck “Augustus Porle,” a devout believer in harnessing the power of the Great Pyramid. 

No blond he:Christopher Bush (1885-1973)
at the time of the Second World War
Like any amateur sleuth worth his salt, Travers has not been long in Cleavsham when he runs across a dead body, in this case that of the seemingly inoffensive Mr. Maddon, who has been shot to death at his cottage, Five Oaks.  Evidence points overwhelmingly to the suspicious presence that day at Five Oaks cottage of a headily-scented, chain-smoking platinum blonde—and the identity of this blonde proves problematic indeed for Ludo Travers and Superintendent George Wharton, whom Scotland Yard has sent to investigate the case at the behest of Major Chevalle. 

This is but the intriguing opening to one of the most ingenious mysteries Christopher Bush ever penned, one that in the final pages will leave the reader facing the same moral dilemma as Ludovic Travers (who finds himself increasingly playing his own hand in the series, in the independent manner of an American private eye): now that I know the truth, just what do I do about it

WHO??? is
the mystery
Reviewing The Case of the Platinum Blonde in the Times Literary Supplement a reviewer commented on the “exasperating” tendency of amateur detectives in crime fiction to conceal “incriminating evidence from the police.” 

Yet the reviewer concluded that in this case Ludovic Travers so thoroughly justified his fancy for obstructive behavior “that in future amateur detectives will be able to continue the bad habit [of obstruction] without objection.  Readers who have asked ‘Why?’ impatiently at the beginning of this book will be twice shy.” 

Will modern readers react to the outcome of The Case of the Platinum Blonde as predicted in the TLS?  You will have to read the book for yourselves and see!

Note, this novel and nine others in Christoper Bush's Ludovic Travers mystery series, #'s 21-30 in the series, are being reissued this month by Dean Street Press.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Memorial: A Mystery Writer at War, Christopher Bush and His Ludovic Travers Military Mystery Trilogy

Christopher Bush in the Second World War
After the Francophile Christopher Bush completed series sleuth Ludovic “Ludo” Travers’ nostalgic little tour in France (soon to be overrun and scourged by Hitler’s legions) in the pair of detective novels The Case of the Flying Ass (1939) and The Case of the Climbing Rat (1940), Bush published a trilogy of Ludo Travers mysteries drawing directly on his own experiences in British military service: The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942). Together this accomplished trio of novels constitutes surely one of the most notable series of wartime detective fiction (as opposed to thrillers) published in Britain during the Second World War. 

There are, to be sure, other interesting examples of this conflict-focused crime writing by true detective novelists, such as Gladys Mitchell’s Brazen Tongue (1940, depicting the period of the so-called “Phoney War”), G. D. H. Cole’s Murder at the Munition Works (1940, primarily concerned with wartime labor-management relations), John Rhode’s They Watched by Night (1941), Night Exercise (1942) and The Fourth Bomb (1942), Miles Burton’s Up the Garden Path (1941), Dead Stop (1943), Murder, M. D. (1943) and Four-Ply Yarn (1944), John Dickson Carr's Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) and She Died a Lady (1943), Belton Cobb’s Home Guard Mystery (1941), Margaret Cole’s Knife in the Dark (1941), Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (1943) and Died in the Wool (1945) (both set in wartime New Zealand), Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger (1944), Freeman Wills Crofts’s Enemy Unseen (1945) and Clifford Witting’s Subject: Murder(1945).  Yet Bush’s three books seem the most informed by actual  martial experience.

death in captivity--murder strikes at No. 54 POW Camp
Like his Detection Club colleague John Street (who wrote mysteries as John Rhode and Miles Burton), Christopher Bush was a decorated veteran of the First World War (though unlike Street his service seems to have been entirely in administration rather than fighting in the field) who returned to active service during the second “show” (as Bush termed it), albeit fairly briefly.

53 years old at the time of the German invasion of Poland and Britain’s resultant entry into hostilities, Bush helped administer prisoner of war and alien internment camps, initially, it appears, at Camp No 22 (Pennylands) in Ayrshire, Scotland and Camp No 9 at Southampton, at the latter location as Adjutant Quartermaster. 

In February 1940, Bush, promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain, received his final commission: that of Adjutant Commandant at a prisoner-of-war and alien internment camp established in the second week of the war at the recently evacuated Taunton’s School in Highfield, a suburb of Southampton. 

Throughout the United Kingdom 27,000 refugees from Germany, Austria and Italy (after the latter country declared war on Britain in June 1940) were temporarily interned in camps like the one in Highfield, on the assumption that they might pose potential threats to British security.  Bush thus held a controversial wartime position, like John Street during the First World War, Street after the armistice having become involved in British "information" (i.e., propaganda) efforts in Ireland during the Black and Tan War.

Bournemouth refugee Fritz Engel--a Jewish Austrian dentist who in May 1940, after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and inaugurated his sweeping “Collar the lot!” internment policy, was interned at the Highfield camp--recalled the brief time he spent there, before he was transferred to a larger camp on the Isle of Man, for possible shipment overseas.  “I was first taken into Southampton into a building belonging to Taunton’s School,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, “already surrounded by electrically loaded barbed wire….” (See Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox, Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century, 1999.)

Similarly, Desider Furst, another refugee Austrian Jewish dentist wrote in his autobiography, Home is Somewhere Else: "[Our bus] stopped in front of a large building, a school, and the bus was surrounded by young soldiers with fixed bayonets.  We had become prisoners.  A large hall was turned into a dormitory, and we were each issued a blanket.  The room was already fairly crowded....We were fed irregularly with tea and sandwiches, and nobody bothered us.  We were not even counted.  I had the feeling that it was a dream or  bad joke that would end soon." He was wrong, however: "After two days we were each given a paper bag with some food and put onto a train [to Liverpool] under military escort.  The episode was turning serious; we were regarded as potential enemies."

Taunton's School, Highfield
today part of Southampton University
Soon finding its way in one of Bush’s detective novels was this highly topical setting, prudently shorn by the author of the problematic matter of alien refugee internees.  (Churchill’s policy became unpopular in the UK after the Arandora Star, an internee ship bound for Canada, was torpedoed by the Germans on July 2, 1940 leading to the deaths of nearly 1000 people on board, a tragic and needless event to which Margaret Cole darkly alludes in her pro-refugee wartime mystery Knife in the Dark.) 

All of Bush’s wartime Travers trilogy mysteries were favorably received in Britain (though they were not published in the U. S.), British crime fiction critics deeming their verisimilitude impressive indeed.  “Great is the gain to any tale when the author is able to provide a novel and interesting environment described with evident knowledge,” pronounced Bush’s Detection Club colleague E. R. Punshon in his review of one of these novels, The Case of the Murdered Major, in the Manchester Guardian.

Christopher Bush in the First World War
For his part Christopher Bush in August 1940 was granted, after his promotion to the rank of Major, indefinite release from service on medical grounds, giving him time to return full throttle to the writing of detective fiction.  Although only one Ludovic Travers mystery appeared in 1940, the year the author was enmeshed in administrative affairs at Highfield, Bush published seven more Travers mysteries between 1941 and 1945, as well as four war novels attributed to "Michael Home," the pseudonym under which he had written mainstream fiction back in the 1930s. Bush was back in the saddle--the mystery writer's saddle--again.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Up the River: Swing, Swing Together (1976), by Peter Lovesey

Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest-breeze;
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees,
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees,
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees.

--Eton Boating Song, by William Johnson Cory (epigraph to Swing, Swing Together, by Peter Lovesey)

In 1889 English author Jerome K. Jerome published Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a frequently comical semi-fictionalized account of a two week boating holiday on the Thames taken by JKJ himself and two friends.  (The dog Montmorency, regrettably, is entirely fictional.)  Despite print criticism of the book's use of "vulgar" slang (or perhaps in part because of it), the book was a huge commercial success (it has never gone out of print) and it inspired jolly trios to get themselves into boats and follow the route laid out in JKL's book in their own river excursions.  In 2014 Robert McCrum in the Guardian ranked TMIAB #25 on his list of the 100 best novels.

The book was four times filmed in England, in 1920, 1933, 1956 (with Laurence Harvey) and for television in 1975, with Michael Palin and Tim Curry, two chaps who were having a great year in 1975, what with the release, additionally, of, respectively, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

author Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)
Enter mystery master Peter Lovesey.  I didn't ask him about the timing when I got to talk to him at the Edgar Awards a few weeks ago, but as he was looking for background for his seventh Sergeant Cribb Victorian mystery--he had already done the athletic endurance competition known as a "wobble," bare knuckle boxing, the Fenian movement, spiritualism, bathing resorts and music halls--did Lovesey find the 1975 film a source of inspiration?

In any event, he produced one of the best mysteries in the Cribb series in 1976, with Swing, Swing Together, a murderous fantasia on Three Men in a Boat with, like its predecessor, great dollops of good humor amid the bloodletting.

The novel opens, unexpectedly, at Elfrida College for the Training of Female Elementary Teachers, where student Harriet Shaw, at the urging of two classmates (the kind you avoid in college if you are wise), is taking a moonlight dip in the Thames.  Yet more unexpectedly, the young women are overtaken by, yes, three men in a boat (to say nothing of a dog), resulting in in a flurried panic that leads to Harriet being carried rapidly downstream, where she is rescued, rather embarrassingly in the altogether, by a fortunately polite and quite personable young policeman by the name of Hardy.

Awkward as all this has been for Harriet (and she's naturally in rather a spot of trouble with the starched Head of the College, Miss Plummer), Constable Hardy is very personable indeed....Yet any thought of romance is set aside when Harriet finds she is now the leading witness in a murder investigation, the three men in the boat being the main suspects in the slaying of--oh my goodness dare I say it--a passing tramp. 

So many times is a passing tramp suspected of murder in classic British mystery (however unjustly); very few times indeed is the passing tramp the murder victim!  Why shoot a butler, Georgette Heyer once queried (you should have seen the sneer of the bookstore clerk who sold me a copy of that title)--one might also ask, why purge a passing tramp?

Constable Thackeray and Sergeant Cribb
(William Simmons and Alan Dobie)
in the Sergeant Cribb series adapatation
of Swing, Swing Together
Series sleuth Sergeant Cribb, like Sergeant Beef another candidate of mine for a Great Detective, takes Harriet under his wing while he conducts the murder investigation, which involves trailing the suspects up the Thames with Harrriet; redoubtable Constable Thackeray, the series's superb second banana; and, of course, Constable Hardy. (Will love bloom?)  Eventually the gang ends up in Oxford, and the novel becomes a college mystery of sorts, as there is a second murder, this time of a don fishing on the river.

Swing, Swing Together is simply a superb detective novel, arguably the best in the Cribb series.  There is so much to like: the clever homage to JKJ, the relationship of Cribb and Thackeray, Harriet and her classmates and her amusing romance (Lovesey handles women characters much better than your average male detective novelist, at least his spiritual forebears from the Golden Age of detection). 

And the plot is quite clever indeed.  There is excellent use of some classic gambits, and some brilliant feints and twists.  (At one point you will ask yourself, is he really going to go there?  I'll leave it to you to see whether he does.)  Lovesey fooled me once again, concerning the matter of culpritude, something I flatter myself that it is hard to do, but it's all done fairly.  Surely someone who quotes the Eton Boating Song would always play fair!

Peter Lovesey told me he thought the Cribb series was getting a little too lightly humorous with this novel, and he wrote the rather grim Waxwork, the last in the Cribb series, as something of a corrective to mirth.  Waxwork is a brilliantly done book, but I must admit I prefer Swing, Swing Together.  Lovesey's gift for this sort of ebullient manners mystery is immense, and it makes for a memorable and delightful crime novel.  They don't all have to be noir, folks!  As Robert McCrum has stated, "Humor in literature is often not taken as seriously as it deserves."  The same holds true of crime fiction, a branch of literature, whether in its lighter or darker forms.

Obligatory ancestor mention:  Some Passing Tramp readers have noticed that I tend to mention ancestral connections to books and authors on the blog.  Well, here we go again with another: my ancestor Richard Buffington, though whom I'm connected to Raymond Chandler, as well as singleton mystery writers Alfred Meyers and Ada Lingo, recently reissued by Coachwhip.

Richard Buffington, who came to American shores in 1677 as I recollect and died many decades later in Pennsylvania at the age of 94 (his 85th birthday was written up in Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia Gazette), came from Marlow on the Thames (or Great Marlow as it was known in his day), a town which plays a significant role in both TMIAB and Swing, Swing Together

Buffingtons lived at Marlow (pictured upper right) for many generations, though I don't know whether they ever were involved in any murders!  In America the New England branch of the Buffingtons included witnesses at both the Salem Witch Trials and the Lizzie Borden Trial, so they did seem to have something of a flair for being on the scene, so to speak.  Suspicious, eh?

To say nothing of the dog!

And some very good news: Now nearing fifty years since its launching, the Cribb series, already available from Soho in the US, is being reissued this year in the UK by Sphere.  Get to reading, if you haven't already!  Swing, swing together, with your bodies between your knees!  Or, wait--that's rowing, not reading, right?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Criminal Records: Crime Writers Christopher Bush and Rupert Croft-Cooke

By his own admission Christopher Bush as a young man (christened Charlie Christmas Bush, on account of his Christmas Day nativity) growing up in rural Norfolk participated in his tenant farming family's side business: poaching.  However, I had not realized until recently that CB had actually been arrested on account of this activity.  But arrested the future author was in January 1904, when he was 18 years old, along with his immediately elder brother, Ernest James Bush, 20, and Ernest Edward Hensley, 22, a woodman and neighbor who in 1917 would marry one of the Bush sisters, Hilda Elizabeth Bush.

Here are the shocking, dare I say hare-raising, details of the case:

Church of St. Andrew, Illington, Norfolk

Before Major Keppel (chairman), Mr. ANC Hemsworth, Mr. B. Morris, and Lord Bury

Ernest James Bush, Hockham, was charged by Police-sergt. Potter with taking 12 pheasants, 2 hares, and 4 rabbits at Illington on December 28th.  Police-sergeant Potter said he was at Illington, where there was a shooting party.  He met the defendants driving a horse and cart.  He asked [Ernest] Bush what he had got in the cart, and he replied, "Nothing."  Witness said he must look, and upon searching the cart he found 18 head of game (produced).  There were several nets in the cart, and the game was covered with nets. 

Charles Christmas Bush and Ernest Edward Henley were charged with aiding and abetting.  Defendants pleaded guilty.  Ernest Bush was ordered to pay penalty and costs L3/4/6, in default 21 days hard labour;the other two defendants were fined L1/10, in default 14 days' hard labour.  

Now, crime writers have landed in greater spots of trouble and notoriety than this.  One popular modern crime writer infamously was involved in a shocking real life murder.  Agatha Christie "disappeared" for over a week, transfixing the nation with the mystery of the missing mystery writer.

1894 likeness of
Arnold Allan Cecil Keppel,
8th Earl of Ablemarle, Viscount Bury
Scourge of poachers? (1858-1942)
Rupert Croft-Cooke, along with his Indian companion-secretary, was arrested in 1953, during Britain's Pink Scare in the Furious Fifties, for committing sexual assault on two sailors who had spent the weekend at Croft-Cooke's house in Ticehurst.  The sailors, who had been arrested for physical assaults committed on others (an unfortunate altercation with a road mender and an intervening policeman) after they had left Croft-Cooke's house, were informed, after the local police learned where they had spent the weekend, that their assault sentences might be mitigated if they made assault complaints against Croft-Cooke, who was 50 at the time, and his secretary, who was all of 5'4". 

The desired statements having been obtained, Croft-Cooke and his secretary, Joseph, thereupon were charged with committing assault and acts of "gross indecency" upon the two sailors.

The sailors soon recanted their claims, but the presiding judge ruled their new retractions inadmissible.  Croft-Cooke was sentenced to a prison term of nine months and Joseph to a term of three months.  (The Army also tried to have Croft-Cooke's war medals taken away for good, or bad, measure.)  Upon his release in 1954, Croft-Cooke left England with Joseph and did not return for two decades.  Ironically, almost all of Croft-Cooke's very English Carolus Deene mystery novel series, which ran from 1955 to 1974, was written in foreign locales.

One of Croft-Cooke's two sailor "accusers" was a Harold Altoft, said to have been 20 years old at the time.  There was a Harold Altoft, born on September 24, 1932 and died in 2006, at the age of 73, who would have been 20 at the time of the Croft-Cooke affair.  This Harold Altoft came from Kingston, Yorkshire, where his parents were John Harold Altoft of Kingston, Yorkshire, an iron keg and drum maker, and Ida Reed, daughter of Walter Reed, a coal heaver.  He married in the Spring of 1954, about the time, I recollect, that Croft-Cooke was completing his prison sentence.  Was is it the same "Harry"?  At this time I have no idea.  If he was it would have been wonderful to get his side of the story before his death a dozen years ago.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Beefing Up: Case with Ropes and Rings, by Leo Bruce (1940)

A few weeks ago I urged that Leo Bruce's series sleuth Sergeant Beef be classed as one of the Great Detectives.  All eight of his cases--too few of them were written--have true detection, often ingenious twists and, of course, the paired delights of plainspoken commoner Sergeant Beef and his priggish public schooled Watson, Lionel Townsend.

Wartime British hardcover edition, amusingly noting
that Beef--Sergeant Beef--has not been rationed
Leo Bruce, aka mainstream author Rupert Croft-Cooke [RCC], was one of the early Golden Age iconoclasts, a man who very much cocked a snook at class conventions in classic British mystery, subverting its sometime condescension and snobbery while staunchly adhering to its puzzle traditions. 

Bruce's sleuth hero was not some sophisticated gentleman detective of polished manners and posh mien who captured the hearts of his women readers (and some of the men), but rather a darts-playing, brew-swilling cop--not even an inspector, mind you--with poor grammar and an undignified draggling, beer-soaked ginger mustache.

A gay man who grew up in all-too-briefly prosperous circumstances in Edwardian England, RCC developed an ingrained skepticism of England's public school system and its entrenched elites with their inherited class privileges.  When RCC has Lionel Townsend primly declare, "I have always considered the public school system to be an integral part of the great tradition of English superiority to every other race and regime in the entire world," you can be certain there is more than a measure of sarcasm here.

RCC became interested in a different sort of British milieu from that commonly associated with classic British mystery: working class life, with its barmaids and mechanics, denizens of pubs and circuses and gypsies and foreigners from central and southern Europe and parts yet farther from English shores. (Gasp!)  This attitude led to the creation of Sergeant Beef when RCC as Leo Bruce began to write detective fiction in 1936.

In a class by itself is the first Beef mystery, Case for Three Detectives, a genre classic which pits lowly Sergeant Beef, a village policeman, against splendidly acute parodies of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown, and sees Beef best all three.  And it's a locked room mystery too!

Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) is not in the same league, but it's an amusing story with a clever culmination to its murder plot.

In the novel Beef, having gone into business as a private detective, is called in to investigate the suspicious demise of a student in the gymnasium of Penshurst Boys School.  Young Lord Alan Foulkes, a senior at the school and the second son of the Marquess of Edenbridge, was found hanging from a beam in the gymnasium on the morning after he had won the school's heavyweight boxing championship. 

For Beef good cases like this one (as he deems it) have not been plentiful, to a great extent because "respectable" people, the type of people who rent detective fiction from lending libraries, don't want murders which personally impact them chronicled in a book (Yes, like all true Great Detectives, Sergeant Beef's "Watson" writes up Beef's investigations in novel form.)

As this Watson, Lionel Townsend, explains:

I had made several attempts to get [Beef] a job, but these had been frustrated by a number of circumstances.  In the first, a nice little murder up in Shropshire, the wife of the murdered man had explained tartly that even if she did employ an investigator, she would not have the killing of her husband with a meat chopper made the subject of a novel.  Another, a parson in Norfolk, who was having all sorts of trouble in his parish on account of a deluge of anonymous letters, had shaken his head sadly.  "The publicity, my dear Sir, the publicity!"

The perfect Watson?
E. M. Forster (with Bob Buckingham)
The Leo Bruce novels include a lot of this sort of meta-style japery.  An admirer tells Beef in Case with Ropes and Rings that what the sleuth really needs is a more literary chronicler than Townsend: has he thought about trying E. M. Forster or Aldous HuxleyA Passage to Murder, anyone?  How about Howard's End?  You wouldn't even have to change the title of that one to make it a mystery!

Townsend is doubtful about Beef's taking on this school case, given the tragic circumstances (the death by hanging, deemed by the police a suicide, of a teenage boy, and an aristocrat at that).  Beef naturally has little time for noble sentiment:

"Tragic circumstances...have never been sufficient to put off an investigator.  They love tragic circumstances, the whole lot of them.  Haven't you ever noticed in detective novels what a good time is had by everybody with a few tragic circumstances?"

Beef gives Townsend a right proper scare by suggesting, concerning the Beef mysteries Townsend has penned, that he, Beef, should have "a cut at the book rights," not to mention the "American rights, and the serial rights, if there are any, and the film rights, if your agents are ever clever enough to sell them."  The ex-cop suggests that actor Gordon Harker, then at the height of his Inspector Hornleigh radio and film fame, should play him on film. (In the films Hornleigh was a comical Cockney detective, so Beef--and his creator--may have been on to something here!)

Gordon Harker (right) as Insepctor Hornleigh
with his sidekick, played by Alastair Sim
The whole matter of money quite properly vexes and perplexes Sergeant Beef:

"I should very much like to know what the other investigators would advise...You never hardly find them discussing money.  How do you suppose Dr. Thorndyke and Amer Picon [Hercule Poirot] and them get on?  I know Lord Simon Plimsoll [Lord Peter Wimsey] has a private income.  Do you suppose the rest of them do it for love?"

Beef thinks this public school hanging case is a bit of all right, however:

"It's just what we need, lords and Old Schools and all that....People like to read about those with money and the goings on of the aristocracy."

Yet one of the schoolboys involved in the case is an Indian classmate of the dead boy Foulkes--though admittedly he is "the son of a fabulously rich merchant"--and for once in vintage British mystery a darker complected member of the Empire is presented without any trace of condescension from a native English author.  Indeed, the "extremely handsome young Indian," one Barricharan, happily fits right in with the native English crowd, and he is surprised at Beef's suggestion that it might be otherwise:

"Do you like being in the school?" asked Beef suddenly. 
"Very much."
"You never feel sort...out of place, in any way?"
"Out of place?" repeated Barricharhan, quite honestly perplexed.
"I mean, by being a different color, and that?"
"Good lord, no.  They're a good crowd here."

Just a few years later, incidentally, RCC, while serving in the Army in India, would meet a handsome young Indian who would become, for the next 35 years, his companion and secretary.  (By the end of RCC's life in 1979 this formerly young Indian, now 52, had become a confirmed cricket fan and Tory voter.)

When a second murder of a young boxer takes place, this time in seedier environs in London (prompting Townsend to wonder whether a serial killer of boxers is at work), a new set of characters is introduced: expatriate Spanish Republicans (the late Spanish Civil war having recently ended, to the dismay of much of the liberal world, in favor of the Nationalist faction led by Francisco Franco.) 

Although RCC, like George Orwell, became skeptical of both the Left and the Right in the war, he presents without caricature these people, who as leftists and "dagos" would have been mocked in much of British crime fiction of the day. In Case with Ropes and Rings RCC provides a topical, if all too brief, look at an important aspect of the international political scene, and he integrates it into the mystery plot as well.

But perhaps most mystery readers of the day simply weren't that interested in this sort of thing.  Case with Ropes and Rings was not published in the US, unlike the earlier Bruce books, and at several points in the novel RCC tellingly has Townsend grumble about his disappointing book sales with the Beef mysteries: "I approached to help [Beef], and as I did so he dropped [the mat] back into place, covering with dust the new blue serge suit which I had purchased out of the meagre proceeds of Case with Four Clowns."

Young Barricharan, we learn, is the only person to have borrowed Case with Four Clowns, the immediately previous Leo Bruce detective novel, from the school library.  For his part Sergeant Beef  deflatingly explains that he simply had assumed Townsend's books "don't sell enough to get down here."

Looking serious: Rupert Croft-Cooke
By 1940 RCC was well aware that is was the women known as the "Crime Queens" who were making the real killing out of British crime fiction, as we see in this passage where Townsend is mocked by an obnoxiously precocious schoolboy, obviously the model for Rupert Priggley in Bruce's later Carolus Deene mystery series.  (Carolus Deene was a gentleman amateur detective--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!):

God, how that sort of thing bores me!  All these fearful women writers and people like you, working out dreary crimes for half-wits to read about.  Doesn't it strike you as degrading?

I decided to keep my temper.

"One can scarcely expect schoolboys to appreciate the subtlety and depths of modem detective fiction," I said.  "I have only to quote the name of Miss Sayers to remind you of what this genre has already produced."

It wasn't the first time--and it certainly would not be the last--that the weighty name of Dorothy L. Sayers was invoked to defend the intellectual and artistic credibility of the detective novel.  But in this case you may be justified in suspecting that the invocation was done with mock solemnity, and with laughing gas, not incense, wafting through the air.

RCC derides the love interest in the detective novel of manners associated with the Crime Queens Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham by having Townsend again amorously pursue a lovely young woman, again with utter futility.  "This isn't a love story," Beef chides the crestfallen Townsend, thwarted in love yet again.  "It's a detective novel.  I never like to see the two mixed up.  None of the best of 'em ever did it.  We'll stick to crime."

Yet although he's the clueless straight man in the Sergeant Beef mysteries, Townsend does get the funniest lines in the book (wittingly or not), particularly on the next to last page, where he concludes with the outraged exclamation, "The man must be an absolute cad!"  I wish I could quote the rest, but--spoiler, don't you know.