Friday, November 21, 2014

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Rio? The Farm at Paranao (The Farm at Santa Fe) (1935), by Laurence Kirk

Tomorrow should come the full review of Laurence Kirk's suspense novel The Farm at Paranao (The Farm at Santa Fe in UK) (1935), one of the novels I have most enjoyed this year.  I'll have more on Laurence Kirk and his work as well.

For the time being, let me just note that The Farm at Paranao is one of those genus suspensicus marry-in-haste-repent-at-what-little-is-left-of-your-leisure books, about a young Englishwoman, Fanny Verney, escaping life in a stultifying provincial town when she marries a handsome but moody Brazilian farmer (of Scottish derivation). But with this marriage just what has she let herself in for, exactly?

This is a marvelously well-written book that for much of its length is brightly amusing in a satirical style reminiscent of the Crime Queens and the Detection Deans (Innes, Blake, Crispin).  But what happens when Fanny reaches the farm at Paranao?  I'll leave you with the words of a reviewer:

It is a fine yarn, well told, and the publisher's advice not to read the last few chapters in bed is not merely a good may need a sedative.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Medora Field's Who Killed Aunt Maggie (1939) and Blood on Her Shoe (1942) Are Back in Print

Anyone following this blog regularly knows I have written a good bit about American women mystery suspense writers of the 1930s, often termed "Rinehart school," after the mysteries of the hugely popular author Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Medora Field, an Atlanta, Georgia journalist and good friend of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, was considered one of the better Rinehart school suspense authors of that era, though she only published two mysteries, at the tail-end of the Golden Age, Who Killed Aunt Maggie? and Blood on Her Shoe.

These novels were well-reviewed and very successful in their day, though there were detractors of the Rinehart school, who dismissed it as the HIBK (Had-I-But-Known ) school.  Personally I've increasingly come to see the merits of this style of mystery writing over the a last few years.  I enjoyed both of Field's two mysteries and I wrote a 5000-word introduction about the novels and the author for the new editions published by Coachwhip (they also have reprinted Anita Blackmon).  I think these are quite attractive book designs. The books should be available in about a week.  Both essentially are American versions of the classic country house party mystery, with quite a bit of "domestic suspense."

Friday, November 14, 2014

Now Before You: The Dagger (1928), by Anthony Wynne

She raised her eyes.
"That is how men love me....Suddenly--like a gale."

Having been thinking a good bit about "pulp fiction" this week, I was struck by how in its more circumspect British way Anthony Wynne's detective novel The Dagger (1928) resembles what people usually think of as "pulp."

In the novel there's a striking character at the center of events, a disturbed Apache dancer named Muriel Deans, "in whose own breast," the dust jacket blurb of the American edition dramatically tells us, "lay a dagger more deadly than any weapon of steel...."

I love the stylized jacket of the American edition of The Dagger, which depicts a sinister and sexy Deans with this deadly weapon in her hand; but I couldn't help thinking how well this design could have been updated to the mean streets realism of post-war paperback "pulp" art, when classic sleaze cover illustrations enjoyed their heyday--though perhaps the title would have been changed to something like The Derringer.

Anthony Wynne (Robert McNair Wilson)
Anthony Wynne in fact was published in the pulps in the 1920s (both short stories and serialized novels), along with other British mystery writers not normally seen as "pulp" fare today, such as Agatha Christie and J. S. Fletcher--though by the 1930s Christie had moved on to more lucrative slicks. However in the United States Wynne was never warmly embraced by paperback publishers. (I'm only aware of one American paperback edition of a Wynne novel, from 1942, and it was not a major edition.)

Indeed, while all of Wynne's first two dozen books of crime fiction--23 novels and a short story collection, Sinners Go Secretly--were published in the United States between 1925 and 1939 by Lippincott, who also published the redoubtable traditionalist mystery writers Patricia Wentworth and Carolyn Wells, I believe only one of Wynne's last four novels, which appeared between 1940 and 1950, was taken up by an American publisher, and this publisher a relatively minor one.

So Wynne was abandoned in the United States just at the time paperback fiction was ascending. (In the mid-1930s, Wynne's political views began to intrude into his novels, slowing down the narratives--see my review of his Death of a Banker--and this missionary zeal on the author's part may have reduced his popularity in the United States.)

Although Wynne was never really able to participate in the paperback revolution, many of his mysteries, with their considerable melodramatic content, would have been well-suited to lurid paperback cover art of the 1940s and 1950s.  Certainly this is true of The Dagger, which tells of the plague of murders that afflicts the Dangerfields, a family of ancient Northumbrian gentry stock, when Muriel Deans, scion John Dangerfield's first wife--believed for a year to have been been drowned off the coast of southern England--resurfaces, most unpleasantly alive. John's father, Sir Magnus, promptly disappears, and the disfigured body of an elderly man, both his hands severed, is found in the neighborhood--but is it or is it not Sir Magnus?

Soon additional mutilated corpses are cropping up, with alarming frequency.  Could Muriel Deans be the culprit?  But her interest seems to be blackmail, not murder. (John Dangerfield inadvertently committed bigamy by marrying again.) Muriel, however, has quite a seamy past, what with her vocation as an Apache dancer and her association with some rather violent and unsavory characters....

Apache dancers
--for more see the fascinating blog article
"Shocking Violence...Or Fantastic Dance? The Apache!"

Admittedly, Anthony Wynne's prose is rather stodgy, but The Dagger reads like a Victorian sensation novel updated to the Jazz Age. (I think it could film wonderfully.) Moreover Wynne and his sleuth, Dr. Hailey, are clearly interested not just in the puzzle (which, though lacking one of Wynne's customary locked room problems, is interesting), but in psychology as well. Of the main characters in The Dagger only Muriel Deans really draws the breath of real life, but she has a vivid enough presence to brighten the cardboard figures around her.

One censorious contemporary English reviewer of the novel primly avowed "we like our detective fiction to be of rather less gory a type than is here presented in a narrative of not one but a number of violent crimes:"; but I would say that The Dagger left its mark on me.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pulp Poseurs: Paula Rabinowitz's American Pulp (2014) and the American Paperback Revolution

Just what is "pulp"?  One seems more likely these days to get a strictly accurate definition, historically speaking, down in the streets of crime fiction fandom than up in the air with the denizens of academe's ivory tower.

In Paula Rabinowitz's American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) the professor of English, in her search for broader theoretical meaning, declines to limit herself to the traditional definition of "pulp."

Crime fiction authority Jon L. Breen has written that "'Pulp fiction' refers to material written for pulp-paper magazines that flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s and died out in the 1950s."  Breen allows, I should add, that some commentators have extended the term pulp fiction "to include material written for the digest-sized fiction magazines and paperback-original publishers that took the place of pulps in the marketplace--or as much of the marketplace as the rise of televison left them."

However, in her new book on the paperback revolution in mid-twentieth-century America, Paula Rabinowitz goes considerably beyond this definition, equating pulp generally with mass-market paperbacks produced between 1939 and the mid-1960s.

"What is pulp," Rabinowitz asks, then continues:

Steamy fiction?  Sleazy magazines? Cheap paper? Or might it be technology, a vehicle that once brought desire--for sex, for violence--into the open in cheap, accessible form? Or, and this is the question that motivates this book, might it be part of a larger process by which modernism itself, as high literature and art but also as a mass consumer practice, spread across America?  

This is a story of paper, or rather of paperback books, produced in massive numbers between the late 1930s and early 1960s.  These throwaway items hold within their covers a rich history of literary tastes; they point to, even reflect, a democratizing literacy and the new forms of identity and community that emerged in mid-twentieth-century America....The mechanisms of pulping a work entailed a process of redistribution or, more precisely, remediation: writing often created for an educated and elite audience took on new lives by being repackaged as cheap paperbacks....In this way, Tess Durbeyfield, Daisy Miller, Connie Chatterley, and Holden Caulfield, not to mention Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, were among the thousands who made it onto Main Street.

The paperback revolution (or the pulp era, as she sees it) ended, according to Rabinowitz, with the coming of

 "higher-priced trade paperbacks used in college courses....By then, paperbacks favored text over image on their covers [partly prompted, Rabinowitz explains, by "Censorship trials and government surveillance"--TPT]....The heyday of 'the great American paperback,' as collector Richard Lupoff calls it, lasted a mere generation."

Rabinowitz explains a bit more about her definition of "pulp" in a footnote:

Since Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction the word "Pulp" has become a triggering term that conveys the sleazy underside of American culture and life.  Obviously, I expand the term considerably from its more narrow reference to B-genre fiction....In the bibliography of writings about pulp, the usual definitions confine it to genre writing--crime, mystery, romance, sci-fi--first written for the dozens of pulp magazines....

The reason the "usual definitions" of "pulp" confine the word so is explained by Ed Hulse in his The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction (2007; expanded edition 2013): Pulp, as this term used is traditionally understood, specifically refers to genre magazines "published during the first half of the 20th century, printed on cheaply produced woodpulp paper." There were many such magazines (one of the most famous being, of course, Black Mask) in the 1920s and 1930s, spanning varied genres of fiction: crime, horror, sci-fi, romance, adventure, aviation, war, sport.

Rabinowitz uses "pulped" in a far broader, metaphorical sense to describe a process by which books, including "highbrow" works, were broadly disseminated to the American masses, as "pulp," or cheap paperback books. One might question why this process, once expanded so, should be limited to mass-market paperback fiction published from 1939 to the mid-Sixties.

One could argue that "pulping," as defined by Rabinowitz, has been going on since the since the invention of the mechanized printing press. Perhaps we can designate, under this definition, the Gutenberg Bible as the first "pulp"?  Or argue that the lending libraries so popular in 1920s and 1930s America were figuratively pulp mills, churning out for readers not only the adventures of Hercule Poirot but the adultery of Hester Prynne (see Murder at 3 Cents a Day on lending libraries).

And we could extend this pulp era forward as well, I suppose.  Though Rabinowitz sees this period as ending in the 1960s, I recall in the 1980s at strip mall bookstores buying "cheap" (say $3.50) copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and others in the 1980s, right along with identically-priced mysteries by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.  To be sure, this decade did see the rise of the trade, or quality, paperback; but what can today's cheap eBooks be called, under Rabinowitz's definition, but pulp--ePulp, if you will?

Okay, wise guy, define pulp for me!
And ya better make it snappy!
Thus, pulp, it would seem in this approach, is everything that is part of mass reading culture (assuming we limit pulp to books).

However, if everything is pulp, how helpful, really, is this word as an organizational definition? As Jon L. Breen puts it, "If Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, P. G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen are now pulp writers, the designation has lost all meaning."

Of course efforts to expand the word's definition have been ongoing, both in academia and popular culture, since Quentin's Tarantino's Oscar-winning crime film. Pulp has been increasingly linked with hard-boiled/noir post-WW2 paperback fiction, made infamous (and highly collectible) by the sexy/sleazy covers so ubiquitous at this time.

Geoffrey O'Brien described this period well in his 1981 book, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks. Therein he never defined these books, however, as "pulp." Nor was Richard Lupoff's 2001 opus, The Great American Paperback, called Great American Pulps.  Similarly, Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007), an anthology of genuine pulp fiction, states that pulps "were replaced by the widespread popularity of paperback books, virtually unknown as a mass market commodity before World War II."

But others have not let themselves be constrained by mere technical definitions.

For example, The Feminist Press' Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series, which has reprinted classic crime novels by Vera Caspary and Dorothy B. Hughes, carries a publisher's foreword which unambiguously equate pulp with both pulp magazines and with mass-market paperback fiction in general:

Pulp emerged as an alternative format for books in the 1930s, building on the popularity of pulp magazines, which flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s....Printed on wood-grain, or pulp, paper, and cheaply bound, the books were markedly different from hardbound, cloth editions.

(In American Pulp Rabinowitz, by the way, similarly emphasizes the cheapness of 1940s and 1950s paperbacks, but many of those paperbacks are much more durable than the real pulp, the old genre fiction magazines, which have paper so browned and brittle it's often hard for one to turn pages--heaven forbid!--without chipping off pieces. Additionally, some wartime hardcover fiction, published at a time when austerity measures were in force, is none too well made.)

A decade ago Jon L. Breen pointed out the incongruity in classifying Dorothy B. Hughes as a pulp writer and Vera Caspary, author of the crime novels Laura (1943) and Bedelia (1945), certainly is not someone I would have considered "pulp"; yet such they are now both declared to be--the term "pulp," like "noir" and "hard-boiled," having proven a talisman to tastemakers.  Frequently these words, which really do mean different things, are used interchangeably. (It's all fashionably dark--The Feminist Press on the back of their "pulp" edition of Caspary's Bedelia tells us that "Vera Caspary anticipates today's real-life female serial killers.")

Ed Hulse is having none of this in his Blood 'n' Thunder Guide, pronouncing that therein he will not be "lavishing attention on sub-genres often mistaken for pulp: splatterpunk, lesbian fiction, Fifties J.D. [juvenile delinquent] novels and the like....after a thorough reading of this book, you'll have a much better understanding of what pulp fiction is--and what it isn't."

It may seem to some that Hulse is quibbling, but treating "pulp" and "paperback" as interchangeable terms pushes Rabinowitz into awkward sentence constructions in American Pulp, as when she writes, at the beginning of Chapter 8, that "Pulps were essentially products of the Second World War."

Since pulps as traditionally understood came into being long before the Second World War this sentence naturally will strike the traditionalist as nonsensical.  Could Rabinowitz really not simply here have written the word "paperbacks," since they are what she is discussing?

Similarly, Rabinowitz writes at one point that the "post-Korean War" recession led to "the pulping of millions of unsold paperbacks," using "pulping" to mean, I believe, withdrawn from sale and destroyed/recycled; yet a few pages earlier she writes that the Mickey Spillane novel Kiss Me, Deadly was "pulped" by the paperback publisher NAL in 1953, by which I presume she means published in paperback and not, well, pulped--i.e., destroyed.  This confusion arises from the author's refusing to say that Spillane's book was "published in paperback."

But paperback is not sexy, nor is the perfectly good term the paperback revolution, which used to be applied, aptly enough, to this period.

There's no question there is a link between the true pulps, the genre fiction magazines, and the mass-market paperback fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. Crime fiction was a hugely important element of both forms of "pulp," as were, until a government backlash took force in the 1950s, the notorious--and beloved by collectors and academicians alike--sexy/sleazy cover illustrations of pulp fiction, highlighted in both Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America and Hulse's Blood 'n' Thunder Guide.

In case anyone ever doubted that sex sold prewar pulp magazine fiction, Hulse's book amply illustrates this matter. Though pulps relied on poor quality paper, a lot was put into highly-dramatic, indeed often eye-popping, color cover illustrations. (Hulse's book includes hundreds of examples, though regrettably only in black-and-white.)  Some pulps were more "family-friendly," to be sure, but Spicy pulps and the Weird pulps were especially prone to exploiting the allure of sex. Certainly dazzling distressed damsels in dishabille (along with hard-fisted, pistol-packing men of course) were found in abundance.

It was only natural that to sell books paperback publishers in the Forties and Fifties would deploy sexualized cover art, especially as visceral hard-boiled fiction stormed the market, so to speak, guns-ablazing. But sexy/sleazy covers alone do not convert paperbacks into "pulp."  And, in any event, Rabinowitz and others in academia today are going beyond making this connection, in their works "pulping" everything that was published in softcover up to the mid-1960s, from Jane Austen to Mickey Spillane. At times, however, Rabinowitz seems as well to fall back on the sleaze definition of pulp, as when she writes that with the rise of trade paperbacks "stressing quality and refined taste...sleaze was coming to an end." Perhaps the academic definition of pulp has not yet settled.

If we put aside the pulpy question of definitions, there are definitely things to praise about American Pulp.  For one thing, it is a gorgeously-produced book (the publisher is Princeton University Press), affordably priced, including a two dozen page section of color plates depicting mid-century paperbacks. Academic tomes don't come more nicely produced than this one!

In the text Rabinowitz does not offer a full formal history of the paperback revolution, but she does provide interesting glimpses of some of the skirmishers.  I especially enjoyed her chapter on the paperback Armed Services Editions and reading by members of American military during the Second World War.

It is quite interesting seeing in their own words what these readers actually perused:

In my opinion, the reading of the men with whom I serve can be summed up in one word, "escape." When you have breakfast with a man and at supper time he has been buried--your relative values change.  High cultural values seem silly to a jungle fighter....

I used to be quite discriminating in my choice of books....Now, I'll read anything I can get my hands on, including the "who-dunits."

One serviceman concluded that among his compatriots "the Most Popular Books are Mysteries, following it with a ratio of about 3:2 are Westerns, and a ratio of 3:1 to mysteries are adventure stories."

I also enjoyed Rabinowitz's chapter on efforts to censor paperbacks in the 1950s.  Not only their often risque covers but their widespread distribution across the United States (and, indeed, beyond American borders) made them exceptionally egregious to our designated moral guardians, fulminating politicians.

In American Pulp there is a comical quotation from Congresswoman Katharine St. George (R-NY), a cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, in which she condemns the very paperback edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles to which I once devoted a blog post.

Fraud on the public perpetrated by paperback publishers, the congresswoman declared

has been carried to absurd lengths in some cases, even in one case, in my recollection, of taking a Sherlock Holmes book--and surely nobody has less sex in him than Sherlock Holmes--and I think it was The Hound of the Baskervilles and how in the world they were able to develop a sexy cover on The Hound of the Baskervilles is beyond me.

As I recollect, a captive woman indeed is bound in Hound, though this outrage is described secondhand.  I'm reminded of the 1952 play (later famously filmed) The Seven Year Itch, wherein a paperback publisher wants to issue an edition of The Scarlet Letter, under the title I Was an Adulteress, with Hester Prynne depicted wearing "a real tight, low-cut dress," "with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth."  The only concern is somehow finding space on her dress "for a big red letter." (this is originally recounted, I believe, in Hardboiled America).

Rabinowitz also covers such hot topics in academic literary studies as "lesbian pulp" and juvenile delinquent novels and there is often something of interest to be found in these discussions, although sometimes the speculations seem opaque. (There's a lot about the symbolic significance of the slip in cover art on lesbian paperbacks; from a practical standpoint I'm reminded of prewar writing guidelines for the Spicy pulps: "Try and keep at least a shred of something on the girls"--on the covers one couldn't depict full nudity, of course, but it was important to have considerable exposure.)

Another culprit exposed
by Mike Hammer?
Regrettably Rabinowitz does not actually spend much time on crime fiction per se in American Pulp. (There is a chapter on Jorge Luis Borges and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine that has a great deal about Borges and very little about Ellery Queen.) Sometime I felt that Mickey Spillane was the (rogue) elephant in the room, demanding detailed attention that he never gets. When Rabinowitz writes that "From its inception, New American Library took pride not only in its discerning literary taste but also in its progressive attitude toward sexual and racial minorities"--in support of this point she quotes from a letter by editor Arabel Porter in which Porter condemns the 1930s mystery novel A Bullet in the Ballet for "chortling and sniggering about the male dancers who are fairies."--I had to remind myself that this was the same NAL that under its Signet imprint published Spillane, not exactly known for his advanced attitudes about alternative sexuality.

To be sure, some mid-century paperbacks aided, as Rabinowitz notes, in the development of "new sensibilities aware of racial, gendered, and queer expressions." (I discuss this matter myself in Clues and Corpses, my book on mystery writer and critic Todd Downing). Yet there also was a great deal in the paperback crime fiction of that era that was regressive and reactionary.

Of course if one wants to learn in detail about crime fiction's key role in the paperback revolution, there are plenty of books besides American Pulp, such as Hardboiled America.  And if one has a hankering to try some really pithy pulp, there is always The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction, which, as its author says, will tell you what pulp is--and isn't.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Foul Play at Ferris Court: The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade

the 1932 British hardcover edition 
"This is a detective story for connoisseurs, for those who value clear thinking  and good writing above mere ingenuity and easy thrills."--Times Literary Supplement review of The Hanging Captain

Having recently updated my writing on Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole for my forthcoming book on these authors, The Spectrum of English Murder, I had occasion to reevaluate some of their work, including Henry Wade's The Hanging Captain. I still think this novel is inferior to its three most immediate predecessors, The Duke of York's Steps (1929), The Dying Alderman (1930) and No Friendly Drop (1931), but nevertheless it stands as a fine example of the more cerebral Golden Age English murder.

The Hanging Captain marks the return of Wade's sardonic Inspector Lott, who appears in two Wade novels, this and The Dying Alderman. Lott actually is rather more likable in this one, and there is even a tantalizing suggestion  in the novel that he may find love among among the winsome chorines of Birmingham (I wish Wade had given us a third Lott novel so we would know just how this particular plot strand was resolved).

The hanging captain of the title is Captain Herbert Sterron of Ferris Court, "the Tudor home of twelve generations of Sterrons."  Sterron resided at Ferris Court with his wife, the ironically-named (the reader will see) Griselda.  When the captain is found hanging from a curtain rod in his study, it is first thought that he committed suicide, but an officious houseguest, Sir James Hamsted, shows that Sterron was actually murdered.

the 1981 paperback reissue
The most obvious suspects in the murder of the hanging captain are Sir Carle Venning, baronet and High Sheriff of the country, who seems to have been rather personally close to Griselda Sterron, and Herbert Sterron's brother, Gerald, a merchant late of Shanghai. Also frequently on the scene at Ferris Court is Father Luke Speyd, a fervent Anglo-Catholic minister and counselor to Griselda.

With such prominent people involved in the affair it is not long before Scotland Yard, in the person of Inspector Lott, is called in by the Chief Constable of the county; and, as in the earlier Dying Alderman, Lott soon is in competition with a local policeman, this time Superintendent Dawle, in a race to catch a killer. Dawle is no dim copper, however, so Lott has his work cut out for him!

Once again Henry Wade, one of the major Golden Age English crime writers, presents his readers with a sound problem and credible characters (both suspects and investigators). The Hanging Captain is recommended to all connoisseurs of classic English crime. It's intelligent stuff--plus there's a house plan!

See also John Rhode's The Hanging Woman (1931).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Enter First Witch: Suffer a Witch (1958), by Nigel Fitzgerald

Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-1981)
Irish crime writer Nigel Fitzgerald (1906-1981) was born at Charleville, County Cork and read for the bar at Trinity College, Dublin, but left school to become a stage actor.  During the Second World War he served in the British army as an artillery officer in Africa and Italy. He published his first novel in 1953, a mystery, when he was 47.

In total Fitzgerald authored a dozen crime novels between 1953 and 1967 (11 of them between 1953 and 1963), a number of them true detective stories, like 1958's Suffer a Witch, which Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor selected as one of their 100 Classics of Crime Fiction.

Suffer a Witch is set, like most of Fitzgerald's tales, in Ireland, this time in the western town of Dun Moher, where witchcraft rumors run rife. Could there be an actual witch cult in Dun Moher?

Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), seems, along with various works by Montague Summers, like The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926), to have sparked an interest in witchcraft among Golden Age mystery and thriller writers, which we see in novels like Francis Beedings' The House of Dr. Edwardes (1927), John Buchan's Witch Wood (1927) and Miles Burton's The Secret of High Eldersham (1930). Probably the greatest Golden Age mystery in this tradition (certainly that I have read) is John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court (1937). And of course the writer Dennis Wheatley made an entire writing career out of this stuff!

Murray's and Summers' depictions of a widespread European witch cult was debunked by academic scholars over the years, but they kept a firm hold for a long time on the popular imagination, particularly Summers' lurid depictions of bloodthirsty Satanists.

Nigel Fitzgerald's Suffer a Witch is a later manifestation of the classic Golden Age detective novel that makes effective use of the literary devices witchcraft and Satanism. The title of the novel of course is drawn from the Exodus line "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

For modern authority Fitzgerald even quotes Robert Fabian, a Scotland Yard superintendent who authored a number of popular true crime books after his retirement and had a 1950s BBC television series, Fabian of the Yard, based on his memoirs, declaring that "The practice of diabolical sacrilegious rites in the heart of London is undoubtedly on the increase." Fabian himself had investigated a supposed "witchcraft murder" in England in 1945.

I think this belief in witch cults has led to outrageous cases of public hysteria and abuses of justice, like the West Memphis Three case, though, to be sure, it can make for good crime fiction, like in Suffer a Witch.  In this novel Fitzgerald depicts a mystery surrounding the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl who believed herself to be a witch. Somehow she vanished from the Dun Moher post office (see map), only to be later found, naked and strangled, in a country house associated with a history of witchcraft.

page 81 map from Suffer a Witch
(note a previous reader's dog ear)
The vanishing is a genuine Carrian/Queenian miracle problem, well-presented, and there is impressive ratiocination concerning the identity of the murderer by Fitzgerald's series police detective, Superintendent Duffy. Local color is excellent and there are some fine eccentric Irish characters and even a love story.

Suffer a Witch seems something of a transition between the more anodyne detective fiction associated with the Golden Age and the more gloomy (i.e., realistic) stuff of PD James, etc., in modern times. Much of the novel feels light, yet the cruel murder of a disturbed adolescent girl, quite a sympathetically presented character really, should give the reader a genuine pang of distress, and the author does not balk this. Perhaps the balance of elements is uneasy at times, yet there is much in this novel that is really excellent.

Traditionalists will be pleased to find not only a map but a timetable provided.  And they are actually relevant!  How often does one see that in 1950s mystery fiction?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rather a Shocker: Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) and Adelaide Phillpotts (1896-1993)

Eden Phillpotts
I have come across material about a grave personal transgression concerning the Golden Age crime writer Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) and his daughter, Adelaide.  Having been for years now an admirer of much of Phillpott's writing, both genre and non-genre, I was especially distressed by this.

I suspect most mystery fans know Phillpotts, if they know him, for his having encouraged a young Torquay neighbor, Agatha Christie, with her writing career. When a hugely successful writer herself, Agatha Christie retained fondness for the older author who had given her youthful writing promising words of praise. When Phillpotts died in 1960, at the advanced age of 98, Christie penned an affectionate obituary of him, singling out for praise his children's novel The Flint Heart (1910), recently reprinted in a fine new edition.

Eden Phillpotts was an extraordinarily prolific author, authoring by my count over 250 books, ten percent of which were crime and detective novels. His last novel (not a mystery) was published in 1959, just a year before he died.  Overall he is probably most admired, as a writer, as Devon regional novelist, though his contribution to mystery fiction is, I believe, notable. I have written about Phillpotts' career in crime fiction here.

Earlier in life Eden Phillpotts had married Emily Topham and with her had two children, a son, Henry (1895-1976) and a daughter, Mary Adelaide Eden (1896-1993), who grew up to be an able writer in her own right and who lived nearly as long as her very long-lived father.

Eden Phillpotts was also prominent as a playwright--his hit rustic comedy play The Farmer's Wife was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928--and he and Adelaide collaborated on several plays, the best-known of which was Yellow Sands.

James Dayananda, an English professor, interviewed Phillpotts' daughter Adelaide in 1976 for a book he was writing on her father, Eden Phillpotts: Selected Letters, published by University Press of America in 1984. In the book Dayananda writes that Adelaide Phillpotts "remained unmarried until the age of 55....In 1951 she married Nicholas Ross, an American from Boston settled in Britain, much against the wish of her father.  Eden Phillpotts cut her off, and never met her again after her marriage, despite several attempts of Adelaide at reconciliation....The letters...throw some light on the ups and downs of the relationship between Eden and Adelaide Phillpotts."

In her 1976 interview with Professor Dayananda, Adelaide Phillpotts shockingly declared that her father had sexually abused her as a child (as far back as when she was six or seven) and that he kept up an intimate relationship--elaborated as "fondling, kissing, intercourse (not penetration)"--with her, off and on, until 1929, when he married his second wife (Adelaide was in her early 30s at this time). She also claims that her father was obsessively jealous of her relationships with other men and, as indicated above, that he never spoke to her again when she finally did marry, against his will, at the age of 55.

This is, of course, a very disturbing bunch of revelations, to say the least, like something out of a modern crime novel.  More can be found here, in the Oxford DNB entry on Adelaide Phillpotts by Professor Dayananda.

Some of the letters from Eden to Adelaide included in Professor Dayananda's collection, invariably addressed to "My precious love," "My dearest love," "My sweet love," etc., are suggestive, even if there is not a "smoking gun," so to speak:

"Today I had hoped to welcome my precious girl and have my arms around her again." (1914, when Adelaide was 18)

"But I am exceedingly thankful you did what you have done [breaking off with a man-TPT] for it would be destructive to your art to tangle yourself in an engagement to be married at present and I should deplore it exceedingly. Plenty of time for that." (1917, when Adelaide was 21)

"I was not surprised after your first mention of that Jew and his politeness to hear he wanted you. The damned swine saw you were alone. You must not go to a hotel in future where that sort of vermin harbours for he might have been wickeder than he was and have planned to compromise you in some way." (1929, when Adelaide was 32)

Of course there are myriad fiction writers who seem to have been unpleasant and erring people in real life. But I have to admit these charges against Eden Phillpotts, if true, take things to a new level, as far as I am aware, regarding iniquities of Golden Age crime writers.

Cornell Woolrich'
s relationship with his mother has been seen as having incestuous overtones, but here in the case of Eden Phillpotts, it's the crime writer accused of monstrously blighting his child's life.  Oddly enough, there's a striking resemblance to one of Agatha Christie's own detective novels, written in the 1940s.

Is there any suggestion of a preoccupation with incest in Eden Phillpotts' own fiction?  I have never discerned any, though his last mystery novel, George and Georgina, published the same year his daughter married, when he was ninety years old, concerns the relationship between a much-devoted pair of male-female twin siblings.  I may take a look at this novel in the future.