Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Poet, Preacher, Plagiarizer, Crime Writer and Confidence Trickster: The Kaleidoscopic Criminal Career of Maurice E. Balk (1900?-1981)

Bexhill-on-Sea, boyhood home of Maurice E. Balk
see Sussex Photo History
            Maurice E. Balk was, as the saying goes, a man of many parts, many of which were doubtlessly attractive on the surface yet resoundingly repulsive beneath it.  Among other surprising and often sordid things, Balk was a preacher, a plagiarizer, a crime writer and a consummate confidence trickster.  A survey of the man’s kaleidoscopic criminal career as it unfolded in at least three countries and two continents reveals an ingenious and insinuating man of seemingly no conscience who in his damaging wake left a trail of cruelly deceived victims. 
            Born in London in 1900, Maurice E. Balk was the son of Leon and Minnie Balk, Russian Jews who around the turn of the nineteenth century migrated to England, where they became naturalized British citizens.  Leon Balk, who during the first decade-and-a-half of the twentieth century owned photography studios in the Sussex seaside resorts of Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea, was born around 1873 in the city of Tarage (now part of Lithuania) to David and Jehudith Balk.  After moving from Lithuania to England he initially settled in London, where Minnie gave birth to Maurice, the couple’s eldest child.  Probably by 1902 Leon and Minnie had relocated from London to Eastbourne, where their second son, Phillip, was born.  By 1911, Leon and Minnie, along with young Maurice and Phillip and newborn daughter Bessie, resided at 23 Sackville Road in Bexhill-on-Sea, where Leon until 1915 operated a photography studio at 69 Devonshire Road.  Leon was doing well enough at this time with his business to employ a single house servant.  Possibly he passed away during or shortly after the Great War.
            Whatever happened to Leon Balk, his wife Minnie, who died in London in 1923, saw her last years darkened by the activities of Maurice, who by 1917 had commenced upon a lengthy career in crime.  In September of that year Maurice, who formerly had been employed as a messenger with J. C. Meacher, a longtime Finsbury pharmacist, was arrested and arraigned before London’s Mansion House Police Court on the charge of obtaining, by means of forged orders purporting to come from his former employer, a quantity of pharmaceutical and photographic goods, as well as first-aid and medical cases, together valued at several hundred pounds, from several London business firms, including Kodak, Ltd, which he then sold to a pair of City businessmen, Henry Peter Koski, a fancy-goods dealer, and Richard Wilson, a chemist.  Both Koski and Wilson were charged with receiving stolen property, although the two men claimed that they had been bamboozled by Balk, who at an early age already had become something of an artful fraudster.  Koski declared that Balk had represented himself as an American who wanted to get surplus goods “off his hands,” while Wilson, who abjectly proclaimed himself “stupid” for being so duped by the youth, contended that Balk had convinced him that he was selling the goods on behalf of “a friend at Brighton.”
            Maurice Balk pled guilty in November but seems to have avoided--or to have served a minimal amount of--jail time, perhaps because of his “tender years.”  By the next year, 1918, Balk remarkably had ventured into the British film business, at the age of eighteen writing, directing and starring in a crime film, Cheated Vengeance.  Only three other cast members for the film are listed on the international movie database (imdb.com), Doris Vivian Earle, E. James Morrison and Connie Sweet, as well as one co-scripter, H. V. Emery.  Like Balk himself, none of these people have any additional film credits listed on imdb.  Nor does the film’s production company, Britamer, which would turn up six years later as the Chicago publisher of a collection of short stories authored by Balk.  One would like to know something more about this film and the people who were involved with it, particularly actress Doris Vivan Earle, whose surname Balke may have appropriated for his own use.
            Balk’s venture into filmmaking proved short-lived, for in 1920 he was on his way to the United States, and not to Hollywood.  On February 29--the fact that it was a leap year seems appropriate--Balk embarked from Southampton aboard the S. S. New York, destined for Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Balk gave his occupation as “student” and his “race or people” as Russian, though an official hand, presumably, wrote “Hebrew” in cursive script over the typed word Russian.  For “name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in the country whence alien came” Balk listed his mother, “Mrs. Balk,” and 230 Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury (today the site of Zamzam, a Somalian restaurant).           
            What it was that prompted Balk to leave London for Winston-Salem in 1920 is not clear, but contemporary newspaper accounts list a “Dr. Maurice Balk, a recent arrival from London, England,” as a guest at a “very jolly little party” given in late May of that year by Miss Dora Levy, daughter of Winston-Salem shoe store owner Louis Levy, at her home at 1504 East Third Street—an indication that in a mere three months Balk had become an accepted member of society (or Jewish society at least) in Winston-Salem.  (All the guests at Dora Levy’s dance appear to have had Jewish surnames.)  Along with Dora’s friend Miss Bess Horowitz, the ever helpful and ingratiating Balk assisted the hostess with serving refreshments.
            Later that year Maurice Balk left Winston-Salem for New York, where he established an acquaintance with the beloved American poet Edwin Markham (1852-1940), author of the once much-celebrated poem “The Man with the Hoe,” who lived with his third wife in a book-bedecked home on Staten Island.  On March 23, 1921, Balk wrote Markham a letter from Boston’s Gordon Bible College, a non-denominational evangelical Christian school that had been founded in 1889; evidently Balk was a student there (with Balk, one can never be sure of appearances, however).  In a floridly signed note that accompanied the missive Balk informed the esteemed man of letters that he had enclosed his own poetry for an forthright evaluation: “I am sending you the first lines I have written.  You said you would pull them to pieces for me.  Do so, and in so doing please remember that however ‘hard’ you may be in your criticism,----my love for you dear, Edwin Markham, will ever remain the same.” 
            Balk’s acquaintanceship and correspondence with Edwin Markham lasted a couple of years, during which time the young man was carrying on further dubious activity in Canada.  On March 18, 1922 Balk wrote the poet from the village of Tusket, in southwestern Nova Scotia, addressing him, as he did in all his letters, as “My dear Edwin Markham.”  A wheedling note is detectible underneath the fulsome flattery:

            Have you had the opportunity to look over the poems which I sent you last year?  I am really anxious to know what you think about them.
            There is no living writer, and very few among the dead, whose approbation I should be more glad to earn than yours.  I write this to say so.
            A book entitled “TO-DAY” is to be published in the course of a month or so, and I have taken the liberty of dedicating it to you.
            Hoping to hear from you in due course, with best wishes,

                        Believe me, to be,
                        My dear Edwin Markham,
                        Ever your faithful friend,
                                    M. E. Balk

            “M. E. Balk” is prominently underlined, while beneath this name is written first “Morris Balk” in lead and then “Maurice” in ink.  Balk need not have worried about Markham’s inattention, for on February 25 the poet had sent Balk two pages of criticism, though evidently this had not yet reached the youthful supplicant, whose supposed book of poetry, To-Day, seems never to have appeared in print.  Unhappily for Balk, he soon would find himself harried by a more immediately pressing matter.  A notice appeared in the November 4, 1922 issue of the church journal The Baptist giving warning to Canadian congregants to take care in dealings with a certain Maurice E. Balk:

                                                                        NOTICE
            This Is To Inform any person concerned, particularly home mission churches, that one known as Maurice E. Balk, recently in Western Nova Scotia, has no recognized standing as a minister of the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces.  By order E. S. Mason, Cor. Secy., Home Mission Board, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

            Canada evidently having become too hot for him, Maurice Balk returned to New York and pleasant literary chats with Edwin Markham.  He also secured himself a bride, in Manhattan on April 8, 1923 wedding Teresa Trucano, the twenty-four year old daughter of an Italian immigrant who mined copper in Meaderville, Montana.  In June the newlywed couple spent a day with the Markhams, about which Balk was soon rapturously reminiscing in a letter written to Markham from 321 West 75th Street in New York City:

I shall never forget the day in June my wife and I spent with you at the Y Birch.  Had I the power of language to express my great love and reverence for you, I would not hesitate to do so in this letter.  But there are some feelings in a mans [sic] heart that can never be spoken or written.  Believe me, my dear Edwin Markham, when I say, that I hope (and my wife also) to have many more afternoons with you, and listen to your song, and leaving you feel, as I felt that last time, as one born again.

            In his letter Balk detailed his latest reading, specifically mentioning Herbert Paul’s 1902 biography of English poet and critic Matthew Arnold and Swiss moral philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel’s Journal Intime, which, one imagines not altogether incidentally, had been named by Markham in a 1909 symposium as one of the books that had most influenced him.  Balk declared that he was going to read Amiel’s Journal “for the third time,” as well as Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.  He closed by praying, “May the Grace of God, and the Love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you alway [sic].”  Markham wrote Balk a five page letter in reply, discussing his own literary views, but this is the last recorded letter exchanged between the two men.
            During this time Balk, now labeling hismelf the Assistant Director of Education for an organization called the English Language Bureau, made a practice of sending letters not only to Edwin Markham but to the New York Times and the Saturday Review, confidently if not always entirely coherently addressing an array of subjects, including divorce, the provenance of great men, the declining quality of American stage plays and Einstein’s theory of relativity, in an apparent effort to flex his intellect before a wider audience.  In his letter on great men, entitled “The Hero’s Birthplace,” Balk expressed bemusement for the public fascination with learning all about the humble birthplaces of great men—a telling sentiment from one who had carefully cloaked his own modest origins.  (Balk also made certain to drop the name of his poet friend into the letter: “….as Edwin Markham said to me….”) Notably ironic are his letter on stage drama, in which the career criminal, who in my view bore the hallmarks of a classic sociopath, complains that “[n]ow, it seems, psychology, pseudo-philosophy, the hideous, the horrible—and worse—must be the basis of nearly everything put on,” and, given his treatment of his wife (see below), his letter on divorce, in which he allowed that “[o]ne should honestly be sorry for [married] individuals who are unhappy” yet urged nevertheless that marriages should be kept intact, as marriage constituted “the very foundation both of personal morality and social stability.”
            In 1924 Maurice and Teresa Balk moved to Chicago, where Teresa gave birth to the couple’s son, Gerald Langston, on June 6, 1924.  That year Maurice also published with Britamer, a Chicago press that suspiciously shared its name with Maurice Balk’s 1918 film production company, what was apparently Britamer’s sole publication: Madona of the Inn, and Other Tales, a slim collection of six lachrymose short stories, including two about loyal pets, one of them whose faithfulness extends into the afterlife, answering the age old question of whether dogs go to Heaven.  Another tale is set, unrewardingly, in Nova Scotia, outside Tusket. 
            Balk dedicated the book “To Teresa Louisa,” including with the dedication a well-known verse from proverbs about the subject of wifely devotion, which begins: “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her….”  Unhappily, Teresa’s heart did not safely trust in Maurice.  Nine months after Gerald’s birth, Teresa, heartlessly deserted by her husband, returned with her son to Meaderville, Montana, where she obtained a divorce from Maurice in 1926.  She later married bond salesman Louis Martin Fabian, son of an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who had risen from miner to businessman and county commissioner. 
            Maurice seems to have left his wife and son in Chicago for Manitou Springs, Colorado (near the larger locality of Colorado Springs), where he started a newspaper, probably in 1925, under the posh cognomen M. E. Sackville Balke.  (Presumably the name “Sackville” was inspired by his family’s home address on Sackville Road in Bexhill.)  Characteristically, Balk’s latest business venture seemed to consist of the confidence trickster separating other people from their money in order to line his own pocket.  He served a term in the county jail for passing a bad check and in 1926 was sued for wages by his angry employees, who, according to an article in the Typographical Journal, “had been unpaid in most cases since the paper was started.” 
            The next year Balk, all his schemes having crumbled, was ingloriously deported from New York back to Great Britain, the United States having decided that it had had enough of the incorrigible offender.  A deportee aboard the R. M. S. Berengaria, Balk set foot in Southampton on September 7, 1927.  His occupation was listed as “preacher” and his proposed address in the United Kingdom his mother’s house on Seven Sisters Road (though in fact his mother had died four years earlier).
            Like a moth to a flame, however, Balk seemingly could not keep his mind off the beckoning lands across the pond, and less than a year later, on March 10, 1928, he set out on the Minnesdosa from Greenock, Scotland for Canada, giving as his last address in the United Kingdom his brother Philip’s domicile at 160 (or 166) Oxford Street, Glasgow and his occupation as “publisher.”  Balk’s ultimate destination was Toronto, where he had found employment (allegedly) with Robinson & Heath, a firm of customs brokers and forwarders. This time his stay was short; less than six months later, on August 3, 1928, he was deported from Canada on board the Melita.  His occupation was listed as “medical student” and his proposed address once again his brother’s home on Oxford Street in Glasgow. 
            Back in the UK--and with the US and Canada warded against him—Balk, now settled in London, turned first to his father’s field, photography, then went back, after another stint in prison, to publishing.  Along with two other “well-dressed” men, Balk, whose occupation was given as “photographer,” in court in 1929 pled guilty to several charges of obtaining, by means of bad checks, goods (including a camera and film projector) from West End salesmen; he was sentenced to a year at hard labor. One wonders whether Balk had been contemplating taking up film production again.
            Out of prison, Balk started a new venture, under a new name, Philip Earle.  In 1931 he established another book publishing press, named Philip Earle after his new identity, at 39 Jermyn Street in London.  Although short-lived, “Philip Earle” had rather more substance than Britamer, his 1924 effort, in that the press actually published something more than books written by--or plagiarized by--Balk.  Volumes issued by Philip Earle in 1931 include Margaret Hunter Ironside’s Young Diana, Elsa Lingstrom’s Jeddith Keep, two respectfully reviewed contemporary novels, Jane Austen’s epistolary tale Lady Susan (adapted to film in 2016 under the title Love & Friendship) and American journalist Ben Hecht’s controversial novel A Jew in Love—a book proverbially banned in Boston, not to mention Canada, yet which quickly sold 50,000 copies and made the bestseller lists in the US.
            And then there was Maurice Balk’s own effort, in a manner of speaking: a detective novel called Cat and Feather, which he published under the pseudonym Don Basil.  Maurice Balk had good reason for employing a pseudonym, for he had stolen Cat and Feather nearly word for word from an American mystery, Roger Scarlett’s The Back Bay Murders, which the previous year had appeared in the US.  The Beacon Hill Murders--the first detective novel by “Roger Scarlett,” the pen name of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page--had been published in the UK in 1930 by Heinemann, a major British publisher, but I do not believe The Back Bay Murders had a UK edition.  This of course would have made it easier for Balk to carry out his shameless theft of Blair’s and Page’s intellectual property, but Balk characteristically went a step too far in his roguery when he published Cat and Feather with Henry Holt, a reputable--if in this case rather too credulous--American firm.  In the US, Balk’s blatant plagiarism was soon discovered--the fraudster had only bothered, for the most part, to alter obvious Americanisms and explicit references to The Beacon Hill Murder (Balk in his novel changed what had been a reference in the Roger Scarlett book to the “Beacon Hill murders” to a reference to the “Bexhill murder mystery,” recalling his boyhood home, and the name of Scarlett’s series sleuth Inspector Kane to Inspector Storm, recalling a character, Doctor Storm, in his 1924 short story “Behind the Veil”)--and Henry Holt promptly withdrew the book from distribution.  The publishing firm of Philip Earle thereupon succumbed to this latest Balkian brouhaha, while the publisher himself received his comeuppance three years later, albeit for another crime.
            In 1934 Phillip Earle was committed, along with a purported aunt, Lucy Griffiths, to trial in London on the charge of conspiring to filch by false pretenses 3389 pounds (a tremendous amount of money today, something like 220,000 pounds, or 290,00 dollars) from an elderly widow, Mrs. Kate Christie Miller.  When the case came to trial in January 1934, Balk was found guilty and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, Sir Ernest Wild, the senior presiding judge at the Old Bailey, sternly lecturing the prisoner that “[a]nything more hypocritical and wicked than your frauds is impossible to imagine.” 
            It seems that Balk had rediscovered religion--at least as a means of obtaining monetary gain for himself--and that he had employed its consoling snares to grab Mrs. Miller’s money.  After his release from jail in 1937, Balk adopted yet another authorial guise, Maure Balque, under which name he wrote an inspirational book of religious verse, The Christ I Know, and a booklet on the 1937 coronation of King George VI, which were published, most conveniently, by “M. E. Balk.”  What happened to Balk during the Second World War at this point I can only wonder, but I am tempted to suspect that the gentleman did not cover himself in martial glory.
            Four years after the end of the conflict, when Balk applied for a discharge of his debts in 1949 bankruptcy proceedings, he was residing at 16 Colville Mansions in Bayswater, in a neighborhood that had become “largely a slum area,” with “large houses turned into one-room tenements and small flats.”  A vivid contemporary portrait of Colville Mansions is provided by the Liberal Democrat MP Shirley Williams, who in her memoirs has recalled for two-and-a-half years during the early 1950s sharing with two friends a “rickety flat” located

on the top floor of a Victorian terrace called Colville Mansions, just off the Portobello Road.  We had found it after a discouraging search through West London, in which we were offered flats without baths, flats with cockroaches in possession, and even flats with mirrors in the ceiling, a reminder that Bayswater had long been a favourite venue of the world’s oldest profession.  Colville Mansions was at least reasonably light and airy, but the trouble was the roof.  It leaked so badly we had to sleep with buckets around our beds, and eventually with a tarpaulin draped over the worst holes.  This, however, was but a foretaste of what was to come.  One evening, with a mild roar, the entire front cornice of the building collapsed into the street below.
           
            However poorly the many people victimized by Maurice Balk over the years may have thought of him after the wool had been pulled from their eyes, there is no question that Maurice Balk was a survivor.  He lived to see his eighth decade, passing away in 1981 (thus surviving his brother Philip by a decade).  Currently I know nothing about Maurice Balk’s later years, aside from the facts that he had the effrontery in 1958 to renew the copyright on Cat and Feather, that for a time he supposedly edited something called the Journal of Auxiliary Medicine and that he is said to have composed a Memorandum on Prison Reform—this last, at least, a subject to which Balk doubtlessly brought considerable authority.
          
Gerald Langston Fabian (1924-2012)
son of Maurice Earle Balk (1900-1981)
            Postscript: Readers of this article may wonder whatever became of Maurice Balk’s son, Gerald Langston Fabian, last glimpsed as a waif in Meaderville, Montana residing with his mother, Teresa, and his stepfather, Louis Martin Fabian, after Maurice had deserted his wife and son in Chicago.  Teresa and Louis Fabian moved with young Gerald to Los Angeles, California, where Louis was an investment banker and later president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce.  A graduate of the US Naval Academy and an officer in the Naval Reserve, Louis during the Second World War served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Pacific theater.  In this capacity he was awarded the Navy Cross, in recognition of “extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as the Senior Squadron Beachmaster, during action against enemy Japanese forces at Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, on 20 November 1943.”
            At the beginning of 1943, eighteen-year-old Fabian was a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley.  (Precociously, he had entered college when he was sixteen.)  On February 25, he enlisted in the US Navy at San Francisco (he was living with his family in a penthouse apartment in the Russian Hill neighborhood at the time); according to his obituary in the Bay Area Reporter, Gerald like Louis served in the Pacific, including “once under his stepfather who commanded [his stepson’s] ship at Iwo Jima.” After the war Gerald returned to attend classes at UC Berkeley, where he majored in Romance Languages, but he was, according to a friend, the San Francisco writer Lew Ellingham, “expelled…because he was gay.”   
           Despite this setback, Gerald, who according to his obituary was a “person of culture, erudition, and talent” who had become acquainted while at Berkeley with Jack Spicer and other members of the San Francisco Renaissance, over the next half-century taught language classes at the University of San Francisco and elsewhere, worked as an actor in San Francisco stage productions, published poetry and was active in gay community groups in the City by the Bay.  In 2003, nine years before his death in 2012 at the age of 88, Gerald gave an interview to the Monferrini in America website about his Italian heritage, concerning which he was tremendously well-informed and justly proud.  “I think it’s important to find out as much as possible about one’s background and history,” he commended at the time.  Whether Fabian knew anything about his birth father, however, is currently unknown to me.  Gerald Fabian appears to have had some of the mental capacities of the undeniably able Maurice E. Balk, yet happily Gerald developed these capacities in pursuit of rather more admirable aims.

             Note: Credit for making the connection between Maurice Earle Balk and Don Basil, the Roger Scarlett plagiarizer, goes to Jamie Sturgeon (see the comments section here).  Jamie also dug up key details on the Balk family, as did I and David Simkin, of the Sussex Photo History website.  For information on Gerald Fabian, I also drew on an interview with him conducted by author Kevin Killian on 19 September 1993.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Little Murder Tour in France 2: Blood from a Stone (1945), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

[The authors] discovered, owing to the experience of the husband of one of the ladies, M. Paul Vaillant-Coutourier, who contributes to the book over a hundred pen-and-ink drawings, a cave containing relics of prehistoric man.  This was situated at Montardit, on a limestone ridge of the Plantaurel, five miles from the famous caves of Les Trois Freres.  They lived close by in a peasant's cottage, and worked all of the summer.  Their discoveries read like a romance.  The book contains, too, some admirable descriptions of other caves in France, and thrills the reader again and again as he reads of the exploration of the haunts of prehistoric man.

--Spectator review of Primitive Hearts in the Pyrenees, by Ruth Sawtell Otis/Ida Treat

"Ah, Mademoiselle," a gleam rose to the blue eyes bright in the old face.  "You also?  You already love this country of mine?  And what do you love?  Ruined towers, ghosts, caves?

                                                       
--Blood from a Stone (1945), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

a step back in time
Foix, France
When anthropologist Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) wrote her third mystery novel, Blood from a Stone,  she drew heavily on Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees, a popular work she had published eighteen years earlier with her then work colleague, the paleontologist (and future journalist and Vassar professor) Ida Treat (1889-1978).

Wallis's deep knowledge of the French Pyrenees (the southernmost region of France, separated from Spain by a rugged mountain chain) is one of the great strengths of Blood from a Stone, but happily the novel's mystery plot and its characters (whether American, British, Russian or French) are strong assets as well.

The novel is set back ten years to the summer of 1935, in the valley of St. Fiacre, not far from the actual commune of Foix, located between the city of Toulouse and the Spanish border.  In it Wallis paints an interesting portrait of culture clash, as the red-haired, young and single anthropological researcher Susan Kent shocks the traditionalist natives by residing with another young, single woman in a house, locally dubbed La Catine ("The House of a Woman of Bad Habits"), and intrepidly venturing forth, with only a male assistant in tow, into ancient mountain caves to dig in the hard rock and earth for bones, flints and shards.

It walks by night....
Beware la dame blanche!
Blood from a Stone is steeped in history and legend, reminding me of the tale of the impossible murder that takes place on top of a ruined medieval French tower in John Dickson Carr's splendid--and splendidly eerie--detective novel He Who Whispers, which appeared a year after Blood from a Stone. Could Carr have read it in 1945, I wonder, though I believe, recalling Doug Greene's biography, that a source of inspiration for Carr's novel was his own early tale "Vampire Tower."

At the beginning of Blood from a Stone Susan Kent is even mistaken (?) by a nightcrawling group young boys for an ominous supernatural dame blanche/dama blanca (white lady), presaging the miasma of animus and suspicion that later envelops her, as dead bodies--recently slain ones--start to turn up in the most unexpected corners of Saint Fiacre.  Susan knows that she is not the source of the menace--but just who is, and what could be his/her motive for this perpetrating this mayhem?

woman's best friend
Suspicious characters abound, including even Susan's sumptuous friend and housemate, the Latvian (of white Russian heritage) Neva Borodin, who is exceedingly free in her behavior and outspoken on all matters, including sexual ones. (This is one of the few crime novels of the day where I have seen the word abortion uttered, especially without any explicit condemnation.) Then there are:

Susan's lovely house servant Moise

the local priest, Father Bigorre

the schoolteacher and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Dumas

members of the gentry, the elderly Comte de l'Arize and his aloof son, Marc

earthy Madame 'Ri and her offspring, Jean-Marie, who moonlights as Susan's assistant

dilettante scholar and textbook correct Englishman Sir Cyril Brooks-Brooks

In this bewildering nailbighter only Susan's feisty pet dachshund, Seppel, seems unquestionably above suspicion--and even he has taken to behaving oddly, as when he simply will not let go of that primitive ochre-painted stone Susan brings back with her from the cave to La Catine....

Murder!  But by whose hand? French cave painting

I found Blood from a Stone an immensely enjoyable crime novel--well and fairly plotted, atmospheric and suspenseful and peopled with intriguingly ambiguous characters. The lead character, Susan, is nicely fleshed out and given even to sounding the occasional feminist note, as on one occasion when she explains why she needs to locate another scholar, a man, to verify her findings, even though she herself is clearly rather more than capable in her own:

American hardcover edition (Dodd, Mead)
It's the custom of my profession.  When you find something important, you call in another to check your findings.  Particularly if you are young.  And a woman."

Arguably Blood from a Stone is an even better book than Wallis's previous one, No Bones About It. It was raved by the esteemed Anthony Boucher as "a honey" of a book on account of its "[f]ine emotional tensions, well-conceived characters and locale, fascinating scientific dividend and superlative economy of narration," while the Saturday Review praised the novel as "expertly mixed" mystery story with "some exceptionally shivery scenes." I can't disagree!  Highly recommended.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Life of Crime: Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)

Ruth Sawtell Wallis, is a good example of the sort of person whom detective fiction boosters used to use in the Thirties and Forties to bolster the intellectual respectability of classic crime writing. (Actually, we're still doing it today as well, for crime fiction has its pooh-pooh'ers today as it did yesterday.)  If someone as brainy as Ruth Sawtell Wallis not only liked mysteries but wrote them, so the thinking went, no one should be embarrassed about being fervent mystery fiction addicts, no matter what judgmental scolds like Edmund Wilson and Q. D. Leavis had to say.

Barring sexism prevalent at the time (something with which we are still dealing today too), Ruth Sawtell Wallis might never have written any mysteries at all, however.  The future crime writer was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Grace Quimby and Joseph Sawtell, owner of a haberdashery and a descendant of Thomas Cogswell, a figure of some note in the world of 18th century American politics, when he was, during the Revolution, an officer at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and the Continental Army's chief wagon master (in this latter capacity his logistical expertise was instrumental in pulling off the Anglo-French victory over the British at the Battle of Yorktown), and, after the conflict, Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Court of Common Pleas and an Anti-Federalist pamphleteer.

Ruth Sawtell in 1923, age 28
Ruth Sawtell clearly had much of her ancestor's fighting spirit.  She attended Vassar and Radcliffe Colleges, graduating with a BA in English from the latter school in 1919.  She thereupon decided to do graduate work in anthropology at Radcliffe, obtaining her MA in 1923.

Awarded a Radcliffe Traveling Fellowship in Science, Sawtell went to Europe, where she did research work in France, Germany and England. During this time Sawtell with her colleague Ida Treat excavated Azilian culture graves at the village of Montardit in the French Pyrenees. 

With Ida Treat, Sawtell published both a scholarly account of her findings and a most entertaining popular one, Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees (1927).  Nearly two decades later she drew on this material for her similarly entertaining crime novel Blood from a Stone (1945).

On returning to the US in 1926, Sawtell transferred to Columbia University, where she worked as research assistant for Franz Boas, chair of the Anthropology Department there and often dubbed the "Father of American Anthropology."  One of her jobs with Boas was to take measurements of Sicilian heritage families in New York, which partly explained her hiring it seems, since, as she told friends, "Sicilian men in 1926 would never have allowed a male researcher to measure their wives." (With all the groping scandals getting reported these days, perhaps it might not have been Sicilian men alone who might have been concerned!)

Between 1926 to 1930 Ruth Sawtell worked as a physical anthropologist in New York City for the Bureau of Educational Experiments (now the Bank Street College of Education), a progressive institution founded by a trio of women which operated a demonstration nursery school.  Her work there served as the basis of her doctoral dissertation, which she successfully submitted in 1929 at Harvard University.

Rhodes scholar Wilson Wallis at Oxford
1911, age 25 (pictured upper left)
With her PhD in hand, Sawtell in 1930 became a charter member--one of only two women to do so--of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the University of Iowa hired her as an assistant professor of anthropology. 

The next year she published an academic monograph, How Children Grow (1931) and she wed the distinguished cultural anthropologist Wilson Dallam Wallis, a widower nine years her senior with two children, moving with him to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was a professor of anthropology.

Ruth Sawtell Wallis, as she was now known, took a position as an assistant professor of sociology at Hamline University in adjacent St. Paul. 

She was, however, terminated at Hamline in 1935, in her belief because of "envy over the dual incomes" that she and her husband enjoyed "in the midst of the Depression." (Even my mother, some three decades later, recalls hearing the same thing from people about her teaching employment prospects after her marriage to a university professor.)

Over the rest of the 1930s, with university employment seemingly barred to her on account of her marriage and her gender, Ruth Sawtell Wallis was employed in positions with the US federal government, first with the Works Progress Administration and then with the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Home Economics

During the Second World War she served as a labor department analyst for the War Manpower Commission and additionally she began writing detective novels (ultimately five of them in all): like other women of her generation who had had promising career paths closed to them on account of cultural biases prevalent at the time, she sought fame and fortune in the field of crime fiction.

More on this and her accomplished crime novel Blood from a Stone, coming soon!  See my earlier review of her mystery No Bones About It here.

Source for much of this post: Patricia Case, "Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)," Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies, edited by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Monday, November 6, 2017

What's in a Name? Edith Caroline Rivett, ECR Lorac, Carol Carnac and the Rivett-Carnac Baronetcy

As seems appropriate to their profession, mystery writers often disguise themselves with pseudonyms.  One of the authors about whom I have written most, Cecil John Charles Street, reveled in such deception, puckishly doffing the punning authorial guises of John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye.

Edith Caroline Rivett is known among vintage mystery fans as ECR Lorac and Carol Carnac.  The pen name ECR Lorac can be deciphered as ECR representing her initials and Lorac as the name she went by, Carol, spelled backwards.  The Carol in Carol Carnac also is easily understood, but why Carnac?

the First Baronet
My guess is that this was Carol Rivett alluding to one of the notable English families, the Rivett-Carnacs. Indeed, it used to be assumed by some that Edith Caroline Rivett was actually Edith Caroline Rivett-Carnac

The September 1999 issue of Book and Magazine Collector included a piece on Lorac by DW Blake, wherein Blake erroneously declared that Carol, as I'll call the author here, was connected to the Rivett-Carnac baronets, being, ostensibly, the daughter of the Reverend Sir Clennell George Rivett-Carnac, Sixth Baronet and the sister of Sir Henry George Crabbe Rivett-Carnac, Seventh Baronet.  For the true story of the author's rather humbler ancestry, see here.

The Rivett-Carnac baronetcy was created in 1836 for James Rivett-Carnac, then chairman of the East India Company.  The name Carnac was added to the Rivett family name in 1801 through James Rivett-Carnac's brother in law, General John Carnac, Commander-in-Chief of India (i.e., the Supreme Commander of the Indian Army).  Rudyard Kipling once named the Rivett-Carnacs as one of the four leading (British) families of India.  James Rivett-Carnac also had a prominent brother, Admiral John Rivett-Carnac, an explorer of Western Australia for whom Carnac Island is named.

Interestingly, there was a lost heir in the Rivett-Carnac family, whose sad tale was the sort of thing you might have expected to see in a Victorian meller from the day, or even a "lost heir" Golden Age detective yarn, like E. R. Punshon's Ten Star Clues, or, better known, Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar.

In 1908 Claude James Rivett-Carnac--thirty-year-old son and heir of the Third Baronet, Sir James Henry Rivett-Carnac, and a valiant veteran of the Boer War--after an awful dispute with his family left home, angrily vowing never to return.  And he never did. 

Claude's father died the next year, but the family estate was not settled until 1924, when a judicial order was given allowing the presumption to be made that Claude's death had taken place on 31 December 1909.  His much older cousin, Sir William Percival Rivett-Carnac, succeeded to the baronetcy and the boodle.  The current baronet, the Tenth, is Sir Jonathan James Rivett-Carnac, is a grandson of Vice-Admiral James William Rivett-Carnac, rear-admiral in charge of the Normandy Beaches during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, and a brother of "Lulu" Guinness, a prominent British fashion accessories designer. (Perhaps this is more a case for Clothes in Books!)


So what happened to poor Claude?  No one knows, or if anyone does they haven't told.  Claude's sister said he did not give a damn for the baronetcy and according to rumor he traveled the world for many years.  In 1924 she gave an interview to a newspaper in which she declared that

we have heard of him as being in the South Seas Isles and in Canada, on the Pacific Coast of American, and in South Africa.  The latest news we have of him is that he was seen in South Africa three years ago.  He is believed to be married.  The only evidence, however, that we have of this is a report which appeared in a Sunday newspaper in 1915 that he had married an actress in San Francisco.

I can see how Carol Rivett might have been interested in the Rivett-Carnacs, even to the point of employing the Carnac surname in a pseudonym.  But was she an actual relation?  If so, it would appear to be quite a distant one.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Remarkable Case of Plagiarism: Don Basil's Cat and Feather (1931) and Roger Scarlett's The Back Bay Murders (1930)

stalking text
Plagiarism can be subtle or it can be blatant--sometimes jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly blatant. 

Case in point: Englishman Don Basil's Golden Age detective novel Cat and Feather, published in 1931 and lifted nearly word-for-word from American Roger Scarlett's The Back Bay Murders, published in the US the previous year. (The five Roger Scarlett detective novels, readers of this blog will recall, has recently been reprinted by Coachwhip).


In his January 1978 column ("The Uneasy Chair") in the landmark fanzine The Armchair Detective, edited by Allen J. Hubin, detective fiction collector Ned Guymon, who had corresponded about the matter a few years earlier with both Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, the two women who in the 1930s had written detective novels under the name "Roger Scarlett," called Don Basil’s Cat and Feather “probably the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist.”

Guymon explained that the novel
 did not involve a simple matter of "similarity of character or plot or situation."  Rather, it was a "word for word copy"

The English characters have different names, English locale has been substituted for American and there are a very few English words used to clarify American terms.  Otherwise this book is a flagrant and larcenous case of plagiarism.  You should see it to believe it.

I have seen a copy of Don Basil’s book (which is extremely rare), and, having seen it, I certainly do believe it.  Here are two pairs of matched quotations from the novels that illustrate the breadth and brazenness of Basil’s plagiarism:

the plagiarism was bold and bloodcurdling
I had known Kane for many years, but not until some months ago had I been associated with him in one of his cases.  On that occasion I had been present, as the family lawyer, at a dinner party which had a fatal ending, and had called Kane, my only friend among the police inspectors of Boston, to my assistance and to that of the Sutton family.  His spectacular solution of that case, widely known as the Beacon Hill murders, had put him in the limelight as far as the public was concerned.  (The Back Bay Murders)

I had known Richard Kirk Storm for many years, but not until some months ago had I been associated with him in one of his cases.  On that occasion I had been present, as the family solicitor, at a dinner which had a fatal ending, and had called Storm, my only friend among officials of Scotland Yard, to my assistance and that of the Stafford family.

His spectacular solution of the case widely known as The Bexhill Murder Mystery had put him in the limelight as far as the public was concerned. (Cat and Feather)

oyster stew, with flocks of oysters serious eats
Twenty minutes later Kane was propelling me through the doors of Thompson’s Spa.  “Don’t let a murderer get the best of your appetite, Underwood,” he cautioned me, grinning down at my gloomy face, “whatever else he does to you.  Here’s an empty counter and an idle handmaiden.  Sit down.”  He slapped a stool.  Without a word I climbed up on it and he sat down beside me.  “It’s past eating-time and I know it.  We’ll have oyster stew, with flocks of oysters, and, let’s see—for a climax—“  He debated gravely, and then brought out with gusto, “Pumpkin pie."

I forced a smile.
  The mention of food gave me no pleasure.  “That’s just where you’re wrong,” Kane announced when I explained this to him.  “You know,” he looked at me quizzically, “I’d lay a bet that nine out of ten really good murderers lose their appetites right after shooting.  And a heavy-eating gumshoe gets them on the hip every time. 
So forget your troubles.

He ordered for us both.  When we were served I fished about in my stew with as good grace as I could muster.
  (The Back Bay Murders)


college pudding lost recipes found
Twenty minutes later Storm was leading me through the doors of a restaurant.  “Don’t let a murderer get the best of your appetite, West,” he cautioned me, grinning down at my gloomy face, “whatever else he does to you.  Here’s an empty table and an idle handmaiden.  Sit down.”

Without a word we sat down at the marble table….

“It’s past lunch-time, and I know it.  We’ll have steak and kidney pie, with stacks of chips, and, let’s see—for a climax—“  He debated gravely, and then brought out with gusto, “College pudding.”

I forced a grim smile.  The mention of food brought me no pleasure.

“That’s just where you’re wrong,” Storm announced, when I explained to him.  “You know,” he looked at me quizzically, “I’d lay a bet that nine out of ten really good murderers lose their appetites after the murder.  So forget your troubles.”

He ordered for us both.  When we were served I toyed with my food with as good grace as I could muster. (Cat and Feather)

original drawing by Elena Kolotusha
copies available at Fine Art America
Aside from changes in paragraph structure and in character names (Kane becomes Storm, Underwood West, the Sutton family the Stafford family, the Beacon Hill murders the The Bexhill Murder Mystery), as well as some alterations of Americanisms (police inspectors of Boston becomes officials of Scotland Yard, lawyer solicitor, Thompson’s Spa a restaurant, oyster stew steak and kidney pie, flocks of oysters stacks of chips, pumpkin pie college pudding and fished about in my stew toyed with my food), the text of Cat and Feather is identical to that of The Back Bay Murders all through the book. 

This really is a remarkable--remarkably egregious--case of plagiarism.

Irony is added, as Ned Guymon noted, by the fact that “Don Basil” (if that truly was the author’s name) dedicated “his” novel as follows, “To Basil Holland, who once said, ‘Uncle, please write a detective story for me’.”  To this Ned Guymon witheringly commented: “Basil Holland got his detective story all right but his uncle didn’t write it, he copied it.”

Don Basil's perfidy went undetected in the UK, but in the US, where the novel had been picked up for publication by Henry Holt, Cat and Feather was pulled from circulation and "Don Basil," as far as we know, disappeared from the annals of mystery writing.

So who was the devious Don Basil?  Was the name a pseudonym or truly his?  If anyone knows any more about this subject I would love to hear about it!

A Little Murder Tour in France (with apologies to Henry James) Part One: The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner

"That's as may be, but you'll never stop people taking in Bellerive by saying nothing.  The less you say the more they talk."

                                                         --from The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner

My last visit to not French crime fiction but rather crime fiction set in France was over a year ago, with Katherine Woods's intriguing reissued mystery Murder in a Walled Town (1934), but this month I have three French-set mysteries up for review, one by an Englishman, one by an American woman and one by a certain clever Belgian famously associated with France (and I'm not talking about Hercule Poirot).

the postman cometh
The first of these crime novels is The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Stuart Horner (1900-1983), an interesting individual best known not for his writing but for his having been the longtime companion of English baronet and author Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell (1892-1969) of the eccentric and ever-so-aristocratic Sitwell clan, much written about over the years though not nearly as much read. Outspoken academic intellectual FR Leavis once acerbically declared, noted Brooke Allen in a review of Philip Ziegler's biography of Osbert Sitwell, that the Sitwells belonged "not so much to the history of literature as to the history of publicity."  They were, notes Allen

among the earliest examples of that twentieth-century phenomenon, the person who is famous for being famous....for every person who had read [Osbert's] books there were ten who knew something of him and his family.  Today the ratio would probably be more like one to a thousand.*

Though the status-conscious Sitwells did not stress the fact, the family fortune was built not on the land but what lay under it, their 17th century ancestor George Sitwell, builder of the lavish family seat in Derbyshire, Renishaw Hall, having been an extremely wealthy collier and ironmonger.  Among other things, George Sitwell was the world's largest manufacturer of iron nails. For the want of some nails, the Sitwell fortune might well have been lost, or at least substantially diminished.

Osbert Sitwell
Osbert Sitwell's first novel, Before the Bombardment (1926), was a critical success, his later ones less so, though one of his works, the short ghostly tale A Place of One's Own (1940), was adapted as a film starring a young James Mason and an even younger Margaret Lockwood.  He also produced five heavy volumes of autobiography.

Osbert met David Horner in 1921, when the exquisitely decorative and well-pedigreed young man was still an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.  The pair hit it off rather well, though for much of the Twenties they were personally involved with other individuals, Osbert with future art critic Adrian Stokes and David with the Vicomte Bernard d'Hendecourt, with whom he lived for several years in Paris and from whom he inherited a competence. 

Osbert, writes biographer John Pearson (The Sitwells: A Family Biography), "was inclined to be romantically protective to good-looking, well brought-up young men," and the slim, blond and exquisitely profiled David offered no exception in this regard.  Osbert rapturously termed David "orchidaceous," a word denoting, as Nero Wolfe no doubt would know, exotic or luxuriant beauty.  David's looks, agrees Pearson "were literally his fortune.Continues Pearson:

[David] dressed superbly, had an amusing line of gossip about all the best people, which he recounted in an engagingly basso profundo voice, and after leaving Cambridge was soon floating, as unattached, good-looking, upper-class young Englishmen could float in those more gentle, far-off days, through a rarely failing world of dinner-parties, long weekends and holidays abroad.  He was the perfect guest, the ideal ornament for any party, charming to women and agreeable to men, better connected and far better read than the usual run of gilded social butterflies, and equally at home in the best society in Paris or in London.

David was like the man-about-town you often see in Golden Age mystery, though with rather more substance and sophistication than usual and a sexual orientations that typically remained encoded in books.

the orchidaceous David Horner
Accounts I have seen indicate that David, who was the youngest son of a youngest son, was left little patrimony at his father's death in 1923, though his father actually had accumulated a sizeable estate.  Was there acrimony within the family over David's life choices?

David thus was possessed, as he left college, of little more than those celebrated orchidaceous looks of his and an "immaculate french accent" (and, one might add, a BA degree in History and Modern Languages, though he seems to have had no plan to employ that degree in an actual career).

David trumpeted throughout his life his descent from the ancient Horner family of Mells Manor.  "The Horners are probably one of the few Saxon families still extant," he (half?) joked to Osbert. "I am rather bored with the Normans and consider them nouveaux riches."  David could bask in the fact that he was included in the Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal.

The back flap author bio on The Devil's Quill, published when David when 59, makes mention of his service in his forties as a Squadron-Leader in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, but devotes more time to the author's Mells Manor connection, David himself writing:

I am directly descended from Little Jack Horner (Henry VIII) who was lampooned in the nursery rhyme--the  "Plum" being the property of Mells bought by my ancestor when the monks were kicked out of Glastonbury Abbey--his enemies said that he had stolen the title deeds: Mells, which now belongs to my first cousin Katharine [Horner] Asquith, is once again in the hands of a Catholic.

Mells Manor
For decades Osbert and David resided together in Derbyshire at Renishaw Hall; there was also a  London flat, and before and after the second World War the couple wintered at the Sitwell's Italian seat, the Castello di Montegufoni. During the war David's author sister Edith Sitwell, who like her brother had also loved, even adored, a gay man (Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew), moved in with Osbert and David at Renishaw, when David was serving in the RAF. 

Unfortunately Edith did not take well to David, nor he to her.  With Osbert and later David, once seemingly the perpetual golden boy, suffering increasing health problems, the relationship of the two men began to deteriorate in the 1950s and they became estranged in the 1960s, several years before Osbert's death in 1969.

Renishaw Hall
In his biography of English author LP Hartley, with whom David was a good friend for many years, Adrian Wright has complained that the Sitwell biographers "have sometimes suggested there was little more to Horner than his machinations among the Sitwells and his sex-seeking escapades."  Adrian Wright challenged the Sitwell supporters, however, asserting that David is due credit as a "man of taste and literary ability.

Having read The Devil's Quill, I would agree about the matter of David's literary ability--it was not insignificant by any means.  It is a shame that he did not write more fiction. 

Before the advent of The Devil's Quill, David published two other books, both of which, like The Devil's Quill, drew on his life in France: Through French Windows (1938), a combination travelogue and novel that one British reviewer presciently praised for its "Sitwellian sensibility to detail" ("he describes the interior of a bathroom better than a landscape or a church.") and Was It Yesterday? (1939). However, The Devil's Quill, which followed these two novels after a lag of two decades, is David's only crime novel--if we choose to term it such.

David Stuart Horner
1900-1983
Why was their such a lag between the publication of David's first two novels and his last, and why was his last a murder tale?  Intriguingly, David's next elder brother (he had two elder brothers as well as five sisters), Maurice Stuart Horner, was brutally killed in 1943, at the age of 49, and his murder remains unsolved today.  Though married, Maurice Horner in fact was gay like his brother, and he was beaten to death by a Canadian soldier he had brought home with him while his wife, who apparently knew about his sexual predilections, was out driving an ambulance. (For his part, Maurice, editor of Commercial Motor magazine, was a lance corporal in the Middlesex Home Guard.) Certainly this event, something of we have seen all too much, would have brought David up close to sordid murder in civil society.

Apparently inspired by a real life criminal case, The Devil's Quill, which is set a few years before the occurrence of the First World War in 1910, concerns an outbreak of poison pen letters (aka doxing in the pre-internet era) that afflicts Bellerive, a smug provincial French town not far from Lyons.  Before the novel is over social relations will be seriously disrupted and there will be murder done as well, though the murder is not dovetailed into the plot with the seamlessness of Agatha Christie in her own poison pen mystery novel, The Moving Finger (1942).

However, The Devil's Quill is not meant to be a Golden Age homage, a Christie-like clue-puzzle detective novel.  It is, rather, a mid-century crime novel, giving great attention to Balzacian social detail.   (It is not a crime novel demeueble!)  Atmosphere is the novel's greatest strength; as one reviewer noted, Horner "reproduces the atmosphere [of a small French provincial town] with a masterly sureness of touch.

the Sitwell siblings
Osbert, Edith, Sacheverall
David Horner paints a broad yet minutely detailed canvas of his little town, capturing the country gentry, the bourgeoisie, the servants, the police and the clergy equally well, something that cannot always be said of Golden Age detective fiction.  However snobbish David himself--not to mention the Sitwells--may have been, his novel never fails to incisively satirize its many snobbish characters, who are so preoccupied with their petty gossip and little scandals and social competition. 

The Devil's Quill
is not only a suspenseful novel, but an amusing one, in a sardonic way.  Social prejudices remain, even as envenomed letters fly around town:

"Not that I have anything against Odile, but the trouble is they have bad blood.  Etienne is quite different, but you must remember that the Girodets were in commerce.

"But, after all, your Aunt Louise's husband was in commerce."

"There you are entirely wrong.  To begin with, he was no blood relation of mine, and in addition to that he was not in commerce, he was in industry, and that makes just all the difference."


What a relief this must have been to the Sitwells!

For more on David Horner and Osbert Sitwell, see:

David Horner and Sir Osbert Sitwell

"The Golden Squirrel": The Esoteric Snap of the Day! The Week of Sitwelliana! June 11 2013, The Esoteric Curiosa

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Nightmare on Elm Street Hill: No Bones About It (1944), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis (Haunted House Series)

The Peckham house dominated Elm Street Hill.  It was not the largest house, the finest, or the oldest.  There was the Duncan-West French provincial chateau next door, an acre of gray stone.  For two hundred years before Mattie Peckham's father got his architectural inspiration at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, houses in Watson, Massachusetts had been simple and lovely.  But beside this embodiment of his dream, eclectic manor houses and Early Americana faded away.  The Peckham house was the most horrible in town.

Ir would perhaps not be too much to say that it was the most horrible house in the United States of America, at least in so perfect a state of preservation.  In shabby sections of little towns you can sometimes find the tottering remains of the monstrosities of 1876, but on the Peckham house the paint was shiny new.  A fine shade of mustard-and-water brought out its every feature: the central Gothic spire, flanked by four balconies, the overhanging peaks of the second-story windows like little Swiss chalets, and the miles of jig-saw carvings that enlaced porches, piazzas and porte-cochere.  From the street a walk of bulging bricks led up between a weeping willow and a cedar of Lebanon.  On the right the lawn showed a patch of pale green whence an iron stag had been tardily removed.

On closer view the house was worse.  There was a mad quality about it.  Under second-story gables, doors opened out onto space.  The jig-saw patterns were insane.  It smelled of owls in the attic and suicides in the cellar.  It was not a house you would want to meet on a lonely road at midnight.  It was hag-ridden.

On this sunny April afternoon the door opened and the hag stepped out....


                                                             From No Bones About It, by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

One of the considerable number of American intellectuals who enjoyed reading mysteries during the Golden Age of detective fiction, Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) in her late forties finally decided herself to dabble in the fine art of fictional murder (more on her life on the way).

Between 1943 and 1950 Wallis published five well-received detective novels, beginning with the prizewinning Too Many Bones, reviewed by blogger John Norris here. The next year came another accomplished crime tale from her pen (or typewriter): No Bones About It

This title suggests that Wallis (or her publisher, Dodd, Mead) had a "bones" series in mind, but in fact none of her remaining mysteries used the "b-word," if you will, in the title--which is just as well, because the title of No Bones About It is pretty meaningless anyway.  (William F. Deeck's 1990 reviews of Wallis's first two novels have been reprinted here at the excellent Mystery*File site.)

The jacket to the hardcover edition of No Bones About It is by an H. Koerner, who also designed the jackets around this time for Agatha Christie's Towards Zero and John Stephen Strange's Look Your Last, but I don't know who H. Koerner was, unfortunately.  I do know s/he was not W. H. D. (Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev) Korner, the noted Westerns illustrator, because Korner died in 1938, before any of these mentioned mysteries were even conceived, let alone published (also the surname spelling is different, the "o" in the latter man's name carrying an umlaut, which I haven't produced here).

Whoever H. Koerner may have been, his Bones cover is a superbly creepy jacket design, looking for all the world beyond like something out of Charles Addams

they're creepy and they're kooky
mysterious and spooky
Vintage mysteries of this era tended to associate the romantic domestic architectural styles of the Victorian era as disturbingly symbolic of disorder and unreason, the preferred building style in these books, especially in Britain, being classically and sanely symmetrical. I feel sure that although Hercule Poirot was an aesthetic modernist who lived in an art deco flat, he shared this preference during the Golden Age of detective fiction for classical over romantic architecture.

Of course what imaginative kid walking by a sprawling Victorian house, with queer turrets and jumbled jigsaw porches popping out all over, doesn't have a thrilling frisson of fear immediately and think "haunted house"?  You always expect to see someone (or something) peeping out at you from behind a window, or perhaps a hand clutching at a curtain.

In mystery fiction there was a whole subgenre of spooky "old dark house" mysteries that, drawing on age-old Gothic tropes, took full advantage of such sinister settings.  They went hand-in-hand with a slew of old dark house mystery films in the silent and then the talkie eras that lasted well into the 1940s.  (See, for example, my review last Halloween of Abbot and Costello's Hold That Ghost, 1942).

American "Atmosphere Mystery" Queens Mary Roberts Rinehart--who authored, among other mysteries, The Circular Staircase, translated to stage and film as the influential old dark house film The Bat--and Mignon Eberhart specialized in menacing old dark house settings; and they had a host of female followers, many of whom were dismissed by male critics of the time as cornily foreboding HIBK (Had-I-But-Known) authors.  But they were very popular and they remain so today among vintage mystery fans.

Massachusetts design at the 1876 Centennial Exposition
Anthony Boucher, who to his credit often promoted mysteries by women yet on the other hand numbered among those who regularly jeered at HIBK, highly praised Wallis's No Bones About It, which takes place mostly in 1932, in part for its not being HIBK:

Good sketching of people and houses, well-integrated and suspenseful narrative, fine period flavor of 1932, and not a single Had-I-But-Known make this a leading entry in the atmosphere-romance stakes.

I share Boucher's opinion.  Bones is an excellent mystery, successfully drawing on on one of the hoariest yet most perennially appealing themes in vintage mystery: the awful old relative who dominates her family to malign effect.  Here the nastily-disposed oldster is the wealthy widow Mrs. Mattie Peckham, the "hag" in the quotation that heads this review.  She's marvelously described by Wallis:

Mattie Peckham did not really look like a walking corpse.  It was not that her face was so old, but that her teeth and her hair were so new. Too white, too back, and far too abundant.  Under the inky puffs and pompadours her skin was shriveled and yellow, and the lips around the sparkling denture she wore were purple and wide.  But seventy years of peering into other people's business had not worn out the small, bright black eyes.

Malevolent Mattie knows too much about people, and after taunting her relatives--her lately-returned "cousin" from Minneapolis, Minnesota, pretty and progressive-minded young career gal Janet Carter; her brother, Virgil West; and Virgil's family, consisting of Charlotte, his wife; Duncan, his son, lately returned from a dozen expat years in Paris; Louise, his dull daughter; and her fishing enthusiast husband, Ralph--with her dangerous knowledge, she ends up quite dead indeed, snuffed out in her bedroom by fumes from a can of the prophetically named stain remover OUT.

There's also a Polish (or Polack, as many of the narrow-minded locals put it) family, the Balutas, whose fortunes seem to be tied up with those of the old-money Peckhams, Carters and Wests.  And then there's Mattie Peckham's Irish maid and all-round yes-woman, Bridie; the uppish West chauffeur, Jerry; and an enigmatic visiting Hollywood film star, Miss Mary Alden.

Before this suspenseful and well-plotted novel is over, there will be another death, rather graphically committed with a wicked knife everyone calls a snick-a-snee (also known as a snickersnee--see here for a blogger's visit to Ye Olde Snickernsee Shoppe), as well as two more attempted slayings.  There's also that tragic fatal affair that took place on Christmas Eve 1920, poignantly detailed by Wallis in a prologue.

Eric Lund, an appealing investigator of Scandinavian heritage, debuts in this novel and would appear in two more Wallis tales.  He's a nicely-drawn character, as are the others in No Bones About It.  Wallis was a natural novelist and it is a matter of regret to me that she left the field of detective fiction after producing only five mysteries.  No Bones About It is highly recommended--especially, as one reaches the startling denouement--for reading in lonely old houses on dark and stormy nights.

Happy Halloween!