Sunday, September 15, 2019

Modern Art: Ruth Fenisong's Early Gridley Nelson Detective Novels (1942-43)

The first four Gridley Nelson detective novels, part of a new wave of modern American detective novels that attempted to more accurately reflect the world as it was while not sacrificing mystery and its detection,  were published, in a flood of productivity on the part of the author, Ruth Fenisong (1904-78), in 1942 and 1943.  It's impressive how she hit the ground running with a fully developed world of her own in these books, which she began not long after the House Un-American Activities Committee put her and thousands of other people out of work in 1939 when it effectively shut down the Work Progess Adminstration's Federal Theater Project. As I discussed in my last post, Fenisong had worked with the FTP in children's puppet theater.

What would Forties dust jacket designers
have done without surrealist Ruth Fenisong
contemporary Salvador Dali (1904-89)
In the first of her novels, Murder Needs a Name (1942), "Grid" Nelson is introduced as a privileged yet sensitive gent who "joined the police force to annoy an ambitious father and a snob of a brother.  He had a real interest in the motivation of people and no creative talents that might express this interest through the medium of the arts."

So Grid became a cop, essentially to advance his interest in the empathetic study of, and personal contact with, the mass of the people.  His father heads a political machine in some unnamed town, and thus was able to send Grid to an elite university, Princeton.  However, having inherited a "small income" from his late mother, young, idealistic Grid was able to eschew following in his father's compromised footsteps. 

After a few years spent in finding his career bliss, in fields ranging "from garage mechanic to little theater," he became a rookie cop, rising four years later, when Murder Needs a Name was published, to Detective Sergeant, a position he holds throughout the first four novels.  Physically, Grid is a handsome specimen, just under six feet tall, with olive skin, a pointed face, a head of prematurely, but ever so distinguished, white hair and "width in the all the right places--width to his brow, to the space between his sad, deep-dug brown eyes, and to his strong shoulders."  He's like Roderick Alleyn (if you cut the preciosity and tweeness-level by about 90%), except he's conceivably real as a cop.

Grid's boss is Inspector Waldo Furniss, chief of the Homicide Division, "a tall, active old man with soft silver hair, bright blue eyes, and a great profile," who is "very much in demand as an after-dinner speaker and as master of ceremonies on benefit radio programs."  There are other cops detailed too, like the amusingly named Detective Cricket, my favorite however being Joseph Sugsden, known as "Sugs", a clerical man in the force with the heart (if not the brains) of a hero, who dreams of being on the beat, collaring crooks.  (I'm rather reminded of actor Ron Carey's forever striving, never achieving Police Sergeant Carl Levitt on the old television series Barney Miller.)

Another Ruth Fenisong contemporary,
Pegeen Fitzgerald (1904-89) with
her husband Ed co-hosted
Breakfast with the Fitzgeralds and
other "at-home" radio programs,
popular in the Forties and Fifties
And then there's Sammy: a "tall Negress" with a "magnificent head," "skin the warm color of apricots" and an expression on her "carved African features...of dignity and strength.

If you've read enough crime fiction from the period, you'll know how unusual it is to find a black character so positively described.  The treatment of black characters in entertainment media was starting to change in the Forties, but there were still a great deal of exaggerated comic relief black servant characters, rolling eyes as they get easily frightened by "hants" and the like and speaking in heavily caricatured, allegedly "negro" dialect.  Sammy is a real advance in this regard, as Anthony Boucher noted at the time.  (He deemed Sammy an "incomparable Negress.")

Sammy first shows up as a maid for radio personality Catherine Verney, who hosts one of those sponsor-laden domestic radio shows for housewives from the time that reminded me a lot of the one in Rex Stout's terrific Nero Wolfe mystery And be a Villain (1948) and another in Jonathan Stagge's excellent The Three Fears (1949). 

Unfortunately, Murder Needs a Name is simply not nearly as good as that book, though admittedly those set a high standard indeed.  The plot struck me as rather muddled in the telling and some of the writing gets a bit ripe.  In these early years Fenisong's writing could  distractingly exuberant, though she soon toned it down.

when spring comes...
Williamsburg Houses (see Ephemeral New York)
 However, there's a big improvement, as I see it, in Murder Needs a Face, from later that year, where there's a great deal of interest going on, but Fenisong manages nonetheless to hold the plot together more coherently.  This one concerns a murder at a housing project, "Greenhedge."  Now how often do you see that as a setting in Golden Age mystery?  (Published in 1942, Face qualifies as such I think, though that's a debate for another time.)

In the U.S. the Housing Act of 1937 authorized the federal government to provide subsidies for low-income housing.  In New York City this led to a burst of housing projects that are still standing today (some of them historic landmarks), including the Williamsburg Houses, a group of twenty Modernist buildings in Brooklyn (with 1622 apartments), designed in part by famed Swiss architect William Lescaze, that opened in 1938.  It was highly praised at the time, with President and Mrs. Roosevelt even paying it a visit and Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia poured the first concrete at the groundbreaking.  Prominent modern artists painted murals for the project's common rooms, which by the 1980s were covered over by layers of paint, but happily they were recovered and restored and are now on exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. (For more, see The Living New Deal.)

Fenisong definitely paints a positive portrait of Greenhedge (murder aside) in her detective novel, writing through Franca's eyes:

one of several wall murals
once in the recreation areas
of the Williamsburg Houses
this one is by Paul Kelpe (1902-1985)
another close contemporary of Ruth Fenisong
They walked though Greenhedge, a city of modern units, each with a separate entrance.  Thousands of windows have on precious bits of landscaped courts and gardens.  Benches sat smugly on neat paves strip of ground fronting well-cared-for lawns....Spring would see many baby carriages placed along the paved walks, where mamas sat sewing and gossiping with their neighbors.  And children who had outgrown their carriages would come up out of the game rooms in the basements of Greenhedge where real play space had been provided for them the winter long.  And they would skate and shoot marbles or just skip rope, or just shout, turning their cold little faces to the warming sun.

Housing experts had labored to give to each tenet the space thought necessary for comfort and decency.  And the funds of the tenants had been investigated so that those who earned more than the embers of the low-income group for which the project had been designed might not gain entrance.  Franca never saw Greenhedge without drawing a breath of gratitude and reciting a silent prayer that she might meet expenses each month and do nothing to incur the displeasure of the management.  It was a dwelling place to be proud of, and she wanted no more than to remain there.


Fenisong here definitely voices the social idealism of progressives of her era, but don't worry, pure puzzle fanciers, there's not too much of this.

Greenhedge, we find, is the "darling" of philanthropist G. V. Kuvicek, an eccentric millionaire philanthropist and native Oklahoma oil man.  The murder is not actually of him--the traditional rich male victim--but of an unknown man, found dead outside one of the Greenhedge buildings.  There are numerous people in the project who seem implicated in the death in some way, including:

another Paul Kelpe mural at Williamsburg Houses
retired Italian puppeteer, Peppino Settani, and his lovely blonde eighteen-year-old daughter, Franca, a puppeteer herself (she gets her blondness from her northern Italian mother)

the Murtrees, coarse, brazen Julia and careworn husband Henry, aka "Hen" (as in henpecked?)

diminutive, bulldog torch singer Mady Cooper and her blind father

and several other, definitely suspicions, characters.

Oh, and there's also the project manager, Paul Curtis and his secretary Arlene Decker.  He seems smitten with Franca and she seems smitten with Grid.

The setting of the novel is strong and unusual, and the puppeteering stuff obviously is something Fenisong knew well.  The police are convincingly done, though Franca, who seems like she will be the protagonist of the tale at first, is disappointingly allowed to fade into the background for most of the story, only to reemerge at the end.  However, Sammy reappears early on in the story, to be hired by Grid as the cook and housekeeper as his bachelor gentleman policeman pad.  This happily gives Sammy a chance to butt into Grid's case and help him solve it.  "Bless Sammy," thinks Grid:

He wondered what Sammy's life would have been had her background permitted a formal education to supplement native intelligence.  Probably just plain unhappy....in a world that kept dreaming up bigger and better prejudices with every passing moment.

Williamsburg Houses
came equipped with first floor store fronts
In Murder Needs a Face some of the action
takes place at the Greenhedge drugstore
here "Sugs" eats breakfast (ham, eggs, toast and coffee),
exclaming: "Ah, here's chow!"
see Ephemeral New York
It's asides like that which make Fenisong's mysteries something commendably different for the period.  Saturday Review praised the book's "shrewd portrait of life among the lowly--sharp-tongued, colorful and occasionally shifty," while Anthony Boucher enthused: "Novel background and admirable writing recommend this to every type of [mystery] fan."

After Murder Needs a Face, there came the whimsically titled The Butler Died in Brooklyn (1943), perhaps Fenisong's most Crime Queenish novel, in that it deals with one of those wealthy families presided over by a domineering, elderly, eccentric relation. 

The family has relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn (Oh! the humanity!) and, yes, it's their butler, newly laid-off, who gets done in there.  Personally I found it a bit disappointing after the more original Murder Needs a Face, though Saturday Review praised the "brisk and breezy characters" and the New York Times the "good puzzlement plus entertainment."  Me, I think butlers are always better in Britain.

Better, I think, is Murder Runs a Fever, from later that year.  It's a full-scale wartime mystery, dealing with the FBI and suspected Nazi spies; yet there is also a legitimate murder problem to be dealt with too.  Shockingly a man, popular radio war commentator Captain Orrin L. Shay, is found strangled in the apartment of Louise Cotter, an old childhood friend of Grid Nelson, with whom he has long been more than half smitten.

view of Brooklyn Bridge on cover
Louise married not Grid, of course, who is ostensibly a confirmed bachelor in the traditional fashion of Great Detectives (even ones on the force), but rather Charles Cotter, a jeweler who has joined the Army and is stationed at a base in Texas.  Charles has just come home on leave when Captain Shay is found slain in his apartment, making him a suspect in the crime (for Shay seemed to show quite a bit of interest in Louise)--even though Charles seems to have come down with a serious illness indeed (the "fever" of the title). 

Also present at the scene of the crime and viewed suspiciously by the police, especially Waldo Furniss, were Louise and Sammy herself (!), the latter having been on hand to cook a dinner for Louise and the returning Charles. 

Oh, and let's not forget, there was on the scene as well Louise's blondly beautiful cousin, Kyrie Martens, who happened to have come on a visit to New York from Washington, D. C.  Under the alias "Madge Carter" Kyrie is an FBI agent (Do such female characters appear much in wartime American crime fiction?), and a goodly section of the novel is devoted to her activities, which eventually merge with Grid's (as do his and Kyrie's personal fates).  And Sammy provides a key clue.

Saturday Review called Murder Runs a Fever a "lively yarn of murder intrigue with [a] personable sleuth, much action and [a] pleasing dash of romance" while the New York Times opined that it was a "cleverly constructed tale of Nazi espionage."  Anthony Boucher chimed in as well, lauding the "skillful story-telling" though noting the presence of "a couple of pretty fearful coincidences."

All these early books have the quality of sheer readabilty, not always present in mystery fiction (or mainstream fiction for that matter).  I'll be reviewing some more Fenisong mysteries next week.  She kept getting better!  And I'm not trying to see you a bridge.

1930s view of Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Life of Crime: Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)

American author Ruth Fenisong published twenty of her twenty-two crime novels between 1942 and 1962, putting her at the temporal heart of mid-century American murder fiction, yet like many of the prominent women crime writers from that period, she fell out of publishing fashion after her death.  Most underservingly so, for in her day she was a justly praised crime writer, with the dean of American crime fiction critics, Anthony Boucher, leading Ruth's estimable cohort of admirers.

Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)
Although Ruth Fenisong published nine non-series crime novels (five in the 1940s and two in the 1950s), all of which are well worth reading, she was best known for her thirteen-novel Gridley Nelson police detective series, about an empathetic Princeton-educated, private- income-blessed, prematurely white-haired New York City cop.  Four Grid Nelson novels appeared in 1942 and 1943, followed by a seven year hiatus.  Then in the dozen years from 1950 to 1962 there came nine more Grid Nelson detective novels, including the much praised Deadlock, selected by Anthony Boucher as one of the ten best crime novels of 1952, and ending with Dead Weight, about malfeasance and sudden suspicious death at a swanky weight reducing spa patronized by wealthy city matrons. 

Boucher stated that the empathetic Gridley Nelson was one of his favorite Fifties police detectives, no doubt finding him a relief from the bellicose, tough guy, third degreeing cops one sees so much of in American crime fiction of the period.  Indeed, Boucher favorably compared Fenisong to the English Crime Queens, especially Ngaio Marsh, but he also noted--and I agree with this--that Fenisong explored grittier milieus than the Crime Queens, giving her writing similarity as well to police procedural authors like Ed McBain and Hilary Waugh

I love this cover
(the original title is Widows' Plight), as it's
so redolent of the American mid-century
As a great admirer of mid-century mysteries by women writers, I enjoy Fenisong's work immensely; and I'm pleased to say that Stark House is reprinting a Ruth Fenisong "twofer" volume, composed of her novels Deadlock and Dead Weight, marking the first time Fenisong crime fiction has been in print in English in nearly fifty years.  I will have some blog pieces on Ruth's novels coming soon (I wrote the introduction to the Stark House volume), but in the meantime I wanted to look at little at her life, both inside and outside of crime (fiction).

Ruth Fenisong was born in 1904 in New York City, under the name Ruth Feinsong.  Although the author's deliberate transposition, later in life, of two letters in her surname obscured the telltale linguistic traces of her actual ethnic identity, Ruth's parents in fact were immigrant Jews.

These were Maurice Feinsong, a tailor and clothes designer originally from Russian-occupied Poland, and his wife Janie (or Jennie) Bobbe, who came from a family of Hebraic Dutch extraction, though by the time she was born her family had moved to the Whitechapel district of  London, where her father worked in the garment trade.  Janie left London for New York City, joining a couple of her brothers, not long after Jack the Ripper had terrorized the East End.  One of her brothers, Louis, became the advertising manager for the New York department store Koch & Co.  She and Maurice Feinsong wed in 1895.

Whitechapel garment workers c. 1910

Ruth's elder sister married a film projectionist and had one son, but Ruth herself never married, though from the 1930s onward she did have a life partner, native Irish schoolteacher Kathleen Gallagher, the daughter of a lace importer.  Like a contemporary mystery-writing same-sex couple much written about here, Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, Ruth and Kay, as Kathleen was familiarly known, traveled to Europe, Bermuda and the Caribbean together, Ruth employing those settings in some of her books.  For most of the time, however, the pair resided, like Irving Mendell and his wife (see below), in Greenwich Village, including at an apartment in a five-story turn-of-the-century row house at 227 Sullivan Street.  Now quite pricey, it was until recently located above a Chinese eatery, since moved I believe, called Dumpling Kingdom. (Yum!)

Koch & Co. c. 1900
Ruth's maternal uncle Louis Bobbe
was advertising manager of the store
when she was growing up
It's unclear where Ruth went to school or what sort of employment she had in her twenties, but when during the Depression the American national government's Works Progress Administration launched the Federal Theater Project, Ruth was one of some 350 people in the project who worked with marionettes in children's puppet theater.  Ruth wrote a number of puppet plays at this time, including Katcha and the Devil, The Mighty Mikko and A Valiant Little Tailor, all adaptations of European folk tales (the latter one her father should have especially enjoyed); The Totem, concocted from Iroquois tribal legend; Babar the Elephant, based on the beloved (and then contemporary) children's books by French writer Jean de Brunhoff; and classic English tales by literary giants Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, Oliver Twist and The Speckled Band.

The FTP was de-funded and shut down by Congress in 1939 after being attacked by the red-baiting, racist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group whose pernicious activities began long before the Cold War era of Joe McCarthy.  Irving Mendell, another Jewish New Yorker who later as the anagrammatic "Amen Dell" wrote a single mystery novel (that we know off), Johnny on the Spot (since reprinted by Coachwhip and highly recommended here), and was head of the FTP's Living Newspaper unit, was, sure enough, a Communist, but whether Ruth Fenisong's views were so doctrinaire is unclear.  In short, I tend to doubt Ruth was an actual " card-carrying Red."

227 Sullivan Street
where Ruth and Kay Gallagher resided
in the 1940s, when Ruth began writing
detective fiction (center building)
Certainly some of Ruth's plays suggest a left-liberal slant, however, like The Children of Salem, about two Puritan children who nearly provoke the killing of a purported witch (the play was billed as a "strong indictment of superstition"), and The Boiled Eggs, which has been recently reprinted. 

The latter play is a mordant satire in which a ruthlessly scheming restaurant owner (Landlord) and his equally atrocious Wife. attempting to fleece a simple Farmer of $2000 for a meal of a dozen boiled (and very rotten) eggs, have the tables deftly turned on them by a wily Lawyer and a goodhearted Waiter.  By the end of the play the waiter has joined a union and is picketing  the Landlord's restaurant, which in a literal burst of poetic justice is destroyed when the remaining rotten eggs explode. 

No "Dumpling Kingdom" this place!  Ruth portrays predatory capitalism battening off consumers like a bloodsucking parasite consuming the substance of its host.  Goodness, what would Sean Hannity say?!

puppet theater performance of Snow White (Ralph Chessee)
see Filmic Light
In the Ruth Fenisong crime novels I have read I have never detected such a blatant political subtext as one finds in The Boiled Eggs, yet to their advantage the series novels very much do evince, in the character of Gridley Nelson, a marked empathy for people of all social, racial and income groups and a strong concern with fairly providing justice to both the guilty and the innocent.  I have no doubt this was a key aspect of her books which attracted Anthony Boucher.

Ruth began writing detective novels (suggested by that puppet play The Speckled Band) not long after the FTP was shut down, publishing her first pair, both of them Gridley Nelson novels, in 1942, followed by two more Gridley Nelson novels in 1947. 

children watching marionette theater in New York
After that there were seven fallow years for Grid, with the non-series novels Jenny Kissed Me, The Lost Caesar, Desperate Cure, Snare for Sinners and Ill Wind, taking the place of the Nelson series mysteries.  In 1950, however, Grid Nelson returned in the theater mystery (anticipating Ngaio Marsh's Opening Night), Grim Rehearsal. Grid dominated Ruth's Fifties output, finally making his last bow in 1962 with Dead Weight, which was followed by only two more Fenisong mysteries, Villainous Company and The Drop of a Hat, and then a long silence for eight years until Ruth's death in 1978 at the age of 74.  Kay passed away but a few years later.

The Seventies, era of "Women's Lib," Roe v. Wade and the E.R.A., was a hard time for mid-century American crime writers of "domestic suspense" who came from the "Greatest Generation."  There were a few who kept going in this period, like Margaret Millar, though even she vanished for half the decade, after the publication in 1970 of Beyond This Point Are Monsters (see here). 

Interiors
Sullivan Street bedroom
I'd say maybe people no longer wanted to read about imperiled women in the home, but what about the runaway success in 1975 and the years that followed of Mary Higgins Clark's Where are the Children?  I was around back then and if mothers weren't reading Helter Skelter or Jaws or The Amityville Horror they were reading something in paperback by Mary Higgins Clark.

But in any event, as people have come to appreciate again just how good mid-century mysteries by these forgotten American women writers are, they have been enjoying a splendid resurgence.  I hope that with her republication by Stark House, Ruth Fenisong "joins the ladies" in reconnecting with a diverse and appreciative mystery reading audience.

The Crime Novels of Ruth Fenisong (aka Ruth Feinsong)

Gridley Nelson Series
Murder Needs a Name (1942)
Murder Needs a Face (1942)
The Butler Died in Brooklyn (1943)
Murder Runs a Fever (1943)
Grim Rehearsal (1950)
Dead Yesterday (1951)
Deadlock (1952)
The Wench Is Dead (1953)
Miscast for Murder (1954)
Bite the Hand (1956)
Death of the Party (1958)
But Not Forgotten (1960)
Dead Weight (1962)

Non-Series
Jenny Kissed Me (1944)
The Lost Caesar (1945)
Desperate Cure (1946)
Snare for Sinners (1949)
Ill Wind (1950)
Widows Plight (1955)
The Schemers (1957)
Villainous Company (1967)
The Drop of a Hat (1970)

Friday, September 6, 2019

Back in Print: Virginia Rath, Dorothy Cole Meade, Laverne Rice, Ruth Fenisong

I thought I'd do a short post to get caught up on some of the things that have been going on lately.  First, I don't believe I ever mentioned that I have been writing for CrimeReads since summer started.  There have been three articles so far, on TS Eliot, Raymond Chandler and Anna Katherine Green.  You can find them at my CrimeReads page here.

Second, while you should already know about my involvement with Crippen & Landru's The Cases of Lieutenant Trant short story collection, since that was published I have been writing some book introductions for Coachwhip, for reissues of vintage mysteries by Virginia Rath, Dorothy Cole Meade and Laverne Rice.  Cover wraps for the first two authors are posted below.  More is coming for Rath.

I also am excited to report that Stark House, who recently reprinted Bernice Carey, is publishing a volume of two crime novels by accomplished mid-century American crime writer Ruth Fenisong, who has been out of print for almost fifty years.  I have been reading and researching the author for some time now and I have contributed the introduction to this volume.  More on Ruth and her crime fiction is forthcoming in my next blog post.

Lastly (but not, um, leastly), I have a new book coming out next year, Members of the Club.  More on this too soon.


These Raths are Rocky Allan mysteries number one through five; number six, Murder with a Theme Song, which has Michael and Valerie Dundas too, will be coming soon, as well as another Michael and Valerie Dundas title, Death Breaks the Ring, where Rocky makes a brief cameo.  There will be six other Dundas mysteries as well.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Life of Crime: Dorothy Cole Meade (1893-1979)

I have it on the very best authority that no really great writer fails to write at least one pretty snappy detective story before he or she dies.
                --G.C.N., “Malayan Detective Fiction,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 12 March 1930

Over the years one of the things that I have become fascinated with chronicling in the various fora for which I write is the lives of the people who wrote mysteries during the Golden Age of detective fiction.  I'm not talking, for the most part, about the really famous people, but rather the largely forgotten ones, the ones who wrote for a few years (or sometimes more) but then drifted away from the genre, or died young, and whose reputations faded. Often these lesser known were rather interesting people in their own right.  Like Dorothy Cole Meade, for example....

First, a family tree might be convenient (just like in those classic murder mysteries).  You can see this was a female dominated family, the presiding matriarch of which was a woman named Marilla.  I'll admit right up that all the family photos are of prominent men in the family, but I haven't been able to find photos of the women.  Which itself says something about the historical nature of public fame.  (Incidentally, I've had the devil of a time posting photos for this piece in general, and wasn't able to get any posted in the last part of the article.  My apolgies, I tried my best.)

Harold Wyatt Cole (1873-1922) 
m. Susan Marilla Callender (Marilla 1)(1871-1950)
     (1) Dorothy (1893-1979)
           m. Patrick Meade (1894-1972)
                no children ?
     (2) Marilla Rathbun (Marilla 2)(1901-1939)
           m. Felix Cole (1887-1969)
                 (1) Marilla Callender (1931-1999) (Marilla 3)
                 (2) Catherine Dewey (1933-1974)
     (3) John Orton Cole (1906-1961)
           m. Karolyn Greene (1905-2006)
                (1) Susan Berry
               
(2) Karolyn

Dorothy Cole Meade (1893-1979), the author of three detective novels, published between 1933 and 1939, that are set in British Malaya, came from a prominent American family composed partly of old New England Puritan stock.  In contrast with modern anti-globalist attitudes (so redolent of pre-World War Two anti-globalist attitudes), however, the Coles wholeheartedly embraced the outside world.

The eldest of three children of Harold Wyatt Cole (1873-1922), a leading figure in the American ice and refrigeration industry, and his wife Susan Marilla Callender (1871-1950), daughter of an Albany, New York newspaper editor, Dorothy Cole (1893-1979) grew up first on Madison Avenue, New York and then in Montclair, New Jersey with her younger siblings, sister Marilla Rathbun (1901-1939) and brother John Orton (1906-1961). 

Captain Patrick Archibald Meade
husband of Dorothy Cole and
her window onto southeast Asia
In the 1920s Dorothy married world adventurer Captain Patrick Alexander Meade (1894-1972), a larger-than-life Scots-Irishman originally from the United Kingdom who for many years led a colorful martial life abroad, serving in Cairo and the Sudan with the Egyptian Camel Corps when barely out of his teens, in Archangel with the British Army during the ill-fated Allied anti-Bolshevik North Russia intervention of 1918-19 and in Singapore with the Singapore Police Force between 1920 and 1928.
  

Through her marriage to Captain Meade, Dorothy gained experiences in Southeast Asia in the Twenties that would lend distinction to her Thirties detective fiction, which chronicles the investigations of an unprepossessing but canny Malayan Muslim police investigator named Ismael.  The phlegmatic yet wily Ismael stands inevitably apart from the European and American colonials whose seamy and secret affairs he politely yet remorselessly examines during his murder inquiries, yet he proves again and again that it is he, not the incidental occidental interlopers in his native land, who is the Great Detective. 

Commitment to expansive conceptions of liberty and justice for all characterized the family of Dorothy Cole.  The author’s father, Howard Wyatt Cole, was a grandson of John Orton Cole, a prominent state judge and War of 1812 veteran who had been part of the official delegation accompanying iconic American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette on his stop, during his triumphal 1824-25 American tour, in the state of New York. 

Howard’s parents were Charles Wadsworth Cole, Superintendent of the Schools in Albany, New York, among whose accomplishments was, as his 1912 obituary in American Education proudly stated, seeing “corporal punishment overthrown never to rise again,” and Joan McKown Cole, the descendant of a Scottish tavern keeper at McKownsville, New York who became the first president and “leading spirit” of the Albany Mothers’ Club, which organized and maintained five playgrounds for children in the city, while his sister, Elsie LaGrange Cole Phillips, distinguished herself as a Vassar graduate, social worker, trade unionist, suffragist and socialist.  

Dorothy Cole Meade's father
Harold Cole, though less obviously iconoclastic than his crusading sibling Elsie, was obliquely though still suggestively described, in his 1922 obituary in the trade journal Ice and Refrigeration, as a consummate American idealist: “Hating injustice and unnecessary suffering, believing deeply that a new and better social order was essential and possible, he stood courageously for ideas little understood and hence often unpopular.”

In 1893 Harold married Susan Marilla Callender, a daughter of Albany newspaper publisher and editor William Nelson Callender and a granddaughter of Scots-Irish immigrant and lumber manufacturer David Callender.  Through his connection to his father-in-law, Harold became the editor of The Ice World, which he consolidated with another magazine as Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal; he would later become the moving force behind the establishment of the Natural Ice Association of America.  For her part, Marilla, it was said, “always displayed an active interest in Mr. Cole’s activities in behalf of the ice industry.” 

During the early years of their marriage, Howard, Marilla and Dorothy lived at Madison Avenue, New York with Marilla’s younger brother William Nelson Callender, Jr., advertising manager of the New York Journal.  After the turn of the century, William married stage actress Sadie Lauer and the Coles moved to a large 1900 Tudor arts and crafts style house at Nine Mountain Terrace Montclair, New Jersey, a rapidly growing city of some 15,000 souls located not far from New York. 

Unitarian Church, built in 1905, where the Cole family worshipped.

In Montclair Howard and Marilla would raise Dorothy and their two younger children, enjoying the services of gardener Richard McCluskey, who came, like Patrick Meade, from Northern Ireland, and James and Fanny Carroll, a black couple from Virginia  employed respectively as chauffeur and cook.  There too the Coles became pillars of Montclair’s progressive Unity (Unitarian) Church, led by Reverend Edgar Swan Wiers, President of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice, who was lauded by the late African-American author Carrie Allen McCray as “a white fighter for justice for negroes in our town.”

It was at Unity Church on September 22, 1928, in a ceremony over which Reverend Wiers, three years before his death, officiated, that Howard and Marilla Cole’s second daughter, Marilla Rathbun (Marilla 2), wed a second cousin, Harvard graduate and diplomat Felix Cole (1887-1969), a grandson of the first governor of Wisconsin, Nelson Dewey.  Dorothy, now Dorothy Cole Meade, served as Marilla 2’s matron of honor; and Felix’s best man was Donald D. Shepard, tax attorney for none other than millionaire Republican U. S. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, a man of rather a different political and economic outlook from the President of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice.

Nelson Dewey, first goveronor of Wisconsin
and grandfather of Felix Cole
Some years prior to his marriage to Marilla 2, Felix had served in 1916-17 and 1918-19 as U. S. Vice Consul at, respectively, Petrograd and Archangel (probably meeting Patrick Meade in the latter location); and during this time of troubles he had wed a Russian woman, Tatiana (Tanya) Sergeia Imshenetzki, with whom he had a daughter, Marion (1916-1998).

After returning to the United States in 1919, Felix become the State Department’s Chief of the Division of Russian Affairs, from which position he resigned in December 1920 in order to become Consul General at Bucharest, Rumania, an office he held for a year before resigning to take a position investigating economic conditions in Russia on behalf of the Department of Commerce.  After his marriage to Marilla 2, he and his new bride departed the United States for Warsaw, Poland, where he had been appointed Consul General.  Felix later became Consul General at Frankfurt, Germany and Charge d’Affaires at Riga, in the Baltic state of Latvia.[1] 


Felix Cole, longtime American diplomat
and brother-in-law and second cousin
of  Dorothy Cole Meade
During this period Felix and Marilla Cole had two daughters: Marilla Callender (1931-1999) and Catherine Dewey (1933-1974).  In 1938 Felix became Consul General at Algiers, the largest city in French colonial Algeria, where he would serve until 1943.  Not long after her arrival in Algeria with her husband and daughters, Marilla 2 died, apparently from the grave nerve disease known as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which was most commonly triggered by a bacterial infection derived from consuming undercooked poultry.

The couple's now motherless children, Marilla 3 and Catherine, returned to the United States to live with their widowed grandmother, Marilla 1, their Uncle John, an insurance broker, his wife Karolyn and John and Karolyn's own two daughters, Susan and Karolyn.
 

In the spring and summer of 1940, however, sixty-eight-year-old Marilla 1 returned to Algeria with Marilla 3 and Catherine (eight and six years old respectively) to visit their father Felix.
  On May 10, the Germans launched the Battle of France, which culminated in the Fall of Paris on June 14 and the signing of the Armistice between Germany and France on June 22.  The next day, June 23, Marilla 1 and her two young granddaughters departed from Casablanca, in the French protectorate of Morocco, for Lisbon, Portugal, where Marilla 1 had booked passage for a return journey to the United States aboard the luxury liner SS Manhattan. 

Once arrived in Lisbon, the three Coles fatefully encountered another family of three seeking passage to America: Abraham and Eugenia Rozenfeld and their six-year-old son Stefan, Polish Jews fleeing the decimating Nazi advance across Europe.  Marilla 1 and her granddaughters naturally were quite familiar with Poles, with Felix Cole having served as Consul General in Warsaw. 

When Felix became Consul General at Algiers, he and the late Marilla 2 had even brought with them to his opulent Algiers residence two Polish servants, Marianna the cook and Lutzina the maid, both of whom were deemed “treasures.”
[2]

Stefan and Eugenia Rozenfeld
see Sousa Mendes Foundation
In January 1940 Eugenia Rozenfeld had dauntlessly managed with her young son Stefan to make a harrowing trek from conquered Poland across Germany to Belgium to join her husband Abraham, a ribbon manufacturer who had been in Belgium on business when the German army invaded Poland. Eugenia spoke German and instructed six-year-old Stefan, who could not, to keep quiet during the train trip so as not to attract onto themselves any suspicion. Stefan followed instructions.

However, the family soon found themselves compelled to flee Belgium for new shelter after the Germans stormed the Low Countries on May 10.  Two weeks later Abraham Rozenfeld obtained for the family visas to Portugal from the kindly Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, Aristide de Sousa Mendes; yet after their arrival in Lisbon, now the hub for continental European refugees from Nazism, Abraham finally ran out of funds. 

Aristide de Sousa Mendes
Most happily for the Rozenfelds, Marilla Cole, upon her encounter with the little family in Lisbon, used her pull with the Foreign Service to book the family passage on a ship, the Nea Hellas, which was bound for America, and lent them the money to pay for their passage. 

The Rozenfelds arrived at Hoboken, New Jersey on July 12, six days before the Manhattan docked in New York with the Coles.  (Fortunately, Abraham was from Ukraine, rather than Poland, a country for which restrictionist American immigration legislation had set a low immigrant quota.)

Later that year the Rozenfelds were guests of Marilla 1 at her house in Montclair.  Abraham corresponded with Marilla 1 during the war, writing her in February 1941, for example, that “Stephen [as he was now called] is going to school and is doing very well.  He speaks already English and you and the children [Marilla 3 and Catherine] would be surprised hearing him.” 

Unfortunately, Abraham noted that, aside from his brother-in-law and his wife, who had escaped from Poland to Lithuania and thence to Japan, the position of his and Eugenia’s relatives, who had remained behind in Poland under Nazi occupation, “is very bad.”  He added grimly: “One thing is clear: it is impossible to get them out from there.” 

Stephen Rozenfeld, today eighty-five years old and a citizen of the United States for nearly eighty of those years, had grandparents and an uncle who never did make it out of Europe, becoming casualties of the Nazis’ many crimes against humanity.  Of Marilla 1’s benevolent intervention in his and his parents’ lives, Stephen has stated that he deems it to have been a “miracle.”[3]


By this time Dorothy Cole Meade had published her final detective novels and she and Patrick had moved to Woodstock, Connecticut, after having resided for over a decade, since their return to the United States from Singapore, at the Cole house in Montclair.  Apparently in Woodstock they initially occupied themselves by raising Seeing Eye dogs for the blind.  With the advent of World War Two, Patrick commenced working for the Atlantic Arms Company, located in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D. C.  In those capacities, recalls historian Richard Rabinowitz, the “exotic” Patrick was “mysteriously involved in providing more war materiel to the British forces than was publicly acknowledged in the Lend-Lease agreement.”[4] 


After the war, Dorothy’s brother-in-law Felix reached the formal pinnacle of his career (though in fact his early service in Russia during and after the First World War remained his most important contribution to history), serving as Minister to Ethiopia and Ambassador to Ceylon.  Felix retired from the Foreign Service in 1949 and returned to the house in Montclair, where he passed away two decades later.  Marilla 1 died in 1950, at the age of seventy-eight, a year after Felix returned, and the teenaged Marilla 2 and Catherine went to live with their Aunt Dorothy and her husband in Woodstock, where they both married a few years afterward. 

Thereafter Dorothy and particularly the outsized Patrick became well-known personages in the area, the latter serving as a longtime host and lecturer at Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum located across the border from Woodstock in Massachusetts.  Richard Rabinowitz recalled Patrick, whom he met a year before Patrick’s death in 1972, as “the embodiment of Anglo-American order and tradition, my own personal Churchill.  He cherished rural New England as the perfect tempering of British courtesy and American democracy.”  Dorothy followed her charming husband Patrick to a grave in the rocky New England earth in 1979, passing away at the age of eighty-six. She had survived not just her husband but her father, mother, sister, brother and brother-in-law.



[1] On Felix Cole’s appointments in the early 1920s see the Consular Bulletins for the period.  This matter is significant in light of Daniel Okrent’s contention, in his recent book The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of America (Scribner, 2019), that Felix Cole, in his supposed capacity as Consul General in Warsaw, was to blame for the Warsaw section of a State Department report which condemned prospective immigrants (largely Jewish) as “filthy and ignorant and the majority…verminous” (p. 282).  This report was influential in the passage and signing into law of the severely restrictionist 1921 Emergency Immigration Act, which, among other things, cut immigration from Poland by seventy percent.  Were Felix to have been responsible for this section of the report, it would not have been merely reprehensible on his part but deeply ironic, given his future mother-in-law Marilla’s action on behalf of the Rozenfeld family two decades later.
[2] Hal Vaughan, FDR’s Twelve Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa (Lyons Press, 2006), 106. 
[3] See the page on the Rozenfeld family at the Sousa Mendes Founadation website at http://sousamendesfoundation.org/family/rozenfeld.  Quotation from Abaraham Rozenfeld letter with permission from Leah Rozenfeld Sills.
[4] Richard Rabinowitz’s Curating America: Journeys through Storyscapes of the American Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 61.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Call Him Ismael: The Malaysian Detective Fiction of Dorothy Cole Meade

Note: Recently Coachwhip has reprinted, in one volume, two detective novels by American author Dorothy Cole Meade (1893-1979): Fatal Shadows (1933) and Death over Her Shoulder (1939).  With their settings in British Malaya and native Malayan series sleuth, Ismael, they seem to me rather unique in Golden Age mystery.  I have written an introduction to this volume, but I will say something here on the blog too, first on the books themselves and then on the author and her interesting family.

“This is certainly one devil of a case, Ismael,” Campbell admitted, knitting his sandy eyebrows….Give me a nice straightforward Malay or Chinese killing every time, what?”


“They are simpler certainly.  When a Malay kills it is plain sailing….Nevertheless…I have found that the same passions rule the hearts of all races.”

--Fatal Shadows (1933)

“I’ve tried to play cricket with you, but it’s impossible.  A man is coming up from Johore to take over the investigation, and he wants everyone kept here until he arrives.”

“Who’s coming?  Anyone we know?” Mike Sullivan asked, with an undertone of anxiety in the voice he tried to keep casual.

McCleary, who had started to turn away, stared at him with hard eyes.
  “Sergeant Ismael will take charge.  He is leaving at once.”

“Ismael!” Betty Harvey sniffed.  “Sounds like a native.”

Sullivan, with a worried expression in his cat-green eyes, said slowly, “He is a native—and one of the smartest detectives in the East.”


--Death over Her Shoulder (1939)



Chauvinistic white interlopers’ perceptions of the native peoples of the foreign lands over which they have presumptuously attempted to exert lasting dominion figure throughout Dorothy Cole Meade’s corpus of detective fiction, consisting of three novels, Fatal Shadows (1933), , The Shadow of a Hair (1939) and Death over Her Shoulder (1939).  (From 1938 there is also a fourth, mainstream or “straight” novel, Hostages, set in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, aka modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia.)  All three of the author’s detective novels are set in colonial British Malaya, not long before the deluge of the Japanese invasion that would help precipitate the sweeping away of European colonial regimes in the Eastern hemisphere after the Second World War. 

Fatal Shadows
introduces the Malayan Muslim series sleuth Ismael, a police sub-inspector in the Sultanate of Johor (spelled Johore in the novels), one of Britain’s so-called protected states in the Malay Peninsula throughout the 1930s, the decade in which Dorothy Cole Meade published her mysteries. 

On first encounters with Detective Sergeant Ismael, native European sojourners in British Malaya tend to underestimate the diminutive and self-effacing Malayan, who resembles “an ordinary Malay servant dressed up in a khaki uniform.”  Yet later they find to their dismay what Ismael’s white police colleagues already know: that those who discount Ismael do so very much at their own peril, for the shrewd and misleadingly mild Muslim is no white man’s (or woman’s) patsy.  As Ismael’s superior, the Scotsman Campbell, reflects to his assistant in Fatal Shadows: “It has been you who has solved most of the crimes in Johore.  I just do the hack work that gives you the inspiration.”

Campbell goes on with unintended irony to observe to Ismael, “It’s a damn shame that you aren’t white so that you could have proper recognition,” never perceiving that the larger “damn shame” might be the entire colonial system which prevents non-white men (or women) from receiving “proper recognition” for their abilities and accomplishments.  However, Ismael responds politely to his superior (in title) with reflections that are both practical (“My place is in the background beside you.  With you before me, no one notices a fat old native, and I can work better.”) and philosophical (“What could the government give me that could bring me happiness?  The Malays have the art of living.  I wouldn’t change with a white man.”)  To which Campbell concedes: “I guess you’re right at that, Ismael.  Look at these people we’ve been talking to tonight.  All of them are miserable about something or other.”

In Fatal Shadows (dedicated to Dorothy Cole Meade’s remarkable mother Marilla), Ismael’s criminal investigation concerns the stabbing slaying, on the grounds of the old stone Rest House in Johor Bahru, capital of Johor, during the evening of the natives’ raucous celebration of the Sultan’s birthday, of beautiful and compulsively alluring Ailsa Brownley, whom many a miserable white man (and woman) in Johor had more than enough reason to want to murder. 

the scene of the crimes
in Dorothy Cole Meade's mysteries
In Death over Her Shoulder, Ismael’s criminal investigation concerns the stabbing slaying, at her bungalow on the isolated Semang Rubber Estate (fifteen miles outside of the city of Kluang), of another, this time seemingly inoffensive, woman, Lydia Bosworth, of whom it emerges that many may have had ample reason to want to see her dead too.

Both Fatal Shadows and Death over Her Shoulder (and for that matter The Shadow of a Hair) are interestingly plotted and peopled, with real characters of flesh and blood and sometimes surprisingly “modern” passions and a sleuth who is unique, as far as I am aware, in Golden Age Anglo-American mystery; yet the quality in them which most stood out for contemporary reviewers was the atmospheric setting.  A review of Fatal Shadows in the Catholic journal America observed stresses this point:


Dorothy Cole Meade has given us a mystery that is decidedly out of the ordinary, not so much in the skeleton of the plot, but in the unique setting and the mode of development.  It is always refreshing to read a story in a land we little wot of, provided we feel sure the events narrated really occurred in the alleged place.  There is no better word to describe what is meant than the trite one—atmosphere.  Fatal Shadows darken the picture in Johore, and the Malayan atmosphere forms a fitting background for Ismael, “an inscrutable native, whose soul technique is the application of his intuitive knowledge of human nature.”  Over all the characters, American, English, Dutch, there blazes down the merciless Asiatic sun, rendering away the folds of pretense with which caution is wont to cloak the human emotions.  Thus Ismael is able to read aright the riddle of several deaths and the Fatal Shadows are lifted.

Similarly “Judge Lynch” of the Saturday Review delivered a very favorable summation of Death over Her Shoulder: “Good background, tense atmosphere, ready-made hero, sophisticated friends and cross-currents of emotion help make a pretty tangle.”  The novel marks a step up, in my view, from Fatal Shadows, both in concealment and characterization and in the fact that Ismael pleasingly plays a greater role in the narrative, taking over the investigation from the floundering local man, McCleary, who admits to being “out of my element” in this, his “first white murder case.”  The investigation which follows is, indeed, Ismael’s final recorded triumph, though Ismael, calculatedly self-effacing to the end, on parting from the dazed surviving white people at the Semang Rubber Estate once again dons the humble yet deceiving mask of the native Malay servant, leading one of his former suspects to reflect, now with some measure of disappointment, “Why…he’s nothing but a native after all.  I’d forgotten.” 

The artful Ismael has fooled them yet again.