Saturday, October 13, 2018

Poisoned Apple: A Taste of Power (1966), by W. J. Burley

"But are the police the best people to investigate a thing of this sort?...I was thinking of Dr. Pym...."
Sanders swore as the lighted match burned down to his fingers and he dropped it on to the carpet.
"Pym?  you mean Henry Pym?"
"You know him?"
Sanders laughed.  "Who doesn't?  His father was my tutor at Oxford.  But he wouldn't do it, the man's almost a recluse."
"He's been mixed up in one or two murder cases."
"So I've heard--he's a friend of some big noise at the Yard--but this is quite different!  The very idea is absurd!"

"Yes,"  Henry agreed.  "What fascinates me is the arrogance of these schoolteachers.  It's so ingrained they don't even know it's there."


--A Taste of Power (1966), by W. J. Burley

Silver Age crime writer W. J. Burley (1914-2002) has been dead for 16 years, the last of his 23 Superintendent Charles Wycliffe detective novels having been published three years earlier in the year 2000.  (The fittingly titled Wycliffe and the Last Lap was left unfinished at the author's death at the age of 88.)  A 1990s television series  based on the Wycliffe books was aired originally in the 1990s and the Wycliffes are still in print today; but how much read is Burley now, I wonder? 

Despite this laudatory 2006 piece on the late author from Martin Edwards, a fellow fan of his work, I don't get the impression that a great many people are reading Burley these days.  If this is so, I think it's a shame, as Burley should qualify, in my view, as one of the more notable British mystery writers from the last third of the 20th century.  Personally I like the body of Burley's work  better than that of the late PD James (sacrilege!), just as I prefer Burley's Wycliffe better to James's Adam Dalgliesh. 

Although Burley became identified with Wycliffe, he first detective novel, A Taste of Power, saw the debut another detective, Dr. Henry Pym.  While Wycliffe, who debuted in the oddly-titled Three-Toed Pussy two years later, is an archetypal example of the introspective (if not depressive) police detective so popular today, Dr. Pym is a deliberate throwback to the brilliant amateur detective from the golden days of detective fiction yore and his investigations are exercises in classic fair play ratiocination.

In his second of three careers, Burley, a native of Cornwall (where the Wycliffe mysteries are set) became a schoolmaster, teaching biology for two decades at Newquay Grammar School.  (He retired in 1974, I presume because due to his success at crime writing.)  Not altogether surprisingly, then, Burley's first detective novel is a school mystery, and a very good one at that.

A Taste of Power belongs to that great body of British mysteries that portray primary/secondary schools as natural places for murders.  (I don't believe that college mysteries are nearly as depressing a body of work.)  Reading this novel I was reminded of books like Christopher Bush's acerbic Golden Age classic, The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934) (recently reissued by Dean Street Press), Leo Bruce's gloomy Death at St. Asprey's School (1967) and Robert Barnard's sardonic Little Victims (1983). 

Not coincidentally, these three latter authors all taught school as well at one time or another and all of them hated it (though Barnard was a college professor, and in his books he blasted colleges as well--along with many other things). Are women teachers turned crime writers as sour on primary/secondary education as a vocation?  Gladys Mitchell and Elizabeth Lemarchand were not (see Lemarchand's contemporaneous girls school mystery, Death of an Old Girl.

Had Burley turned on teaching by the mid-Sixties, when he was writing Power?  I don't know, but he takes pains in a prefatory note to explains to readers that "My teaching colleagues have been, generally, pleasant and patient people, but it is very difficult to write stories about pleasant and patient people."

And, to be sure, the teachers at the coeducational Huntley-May Grammar School fit the bill when it comes to coeducational unpleasantness.  Someone is sending poison pen letters to teachers and students alike, making all sorts of nasty allegations.  Sensing that emotions are reaching a crisis, but chary of involving the police, Headmaster Tristram-Jones, a relatively new arrival to the school, seeks the help of amateur detective Dr. Henry Pym.  But of course!

Pym is a true Great Detective figure, endowed with independent means and strange fancies, which the author, fully conscious of the tradition in which he is working, takes time to detail at some length:

Henry Lancaster Pym, M.A., D.Phil., D.Sc....was the sole survivor of an ancient and wealthy family, and despite the ravages of death duties, he was still extremely well off.  It was said that he could lay claim to a peerage had he been so minded and Henry would have been the last to deny such a rumour.  But the Pyms were of a scholarly bent.  Henry's father, now dead, had been a fellow of a minor Oxford college.  He had believed himself to be an authority on fifteenth-century England and had written a very bad book on the Wars of the Roses, which a critic had described as a "rather belated propaganda for the House of Lancaster."  It was this partisan foible of Pym Senior which gave Henry his baptismal name and cast a blight on his formative years.

Georgian slip-ware teapot (see antiques atlas)
Resultantly hating history, young Pym went to Oxford to read zoology, which he loved, all the while finding zoologists themselves "impossible." So at the age of 30, Pym, relying on his private means, retired to a village in Cornwall, taking up residence at a house he had built called "The Labyrinth." 

There in splendid and eccentric isolation he continued his zoological studies, establishing himself as an authority on chilopods and diplopods (centipedes and millipedes); and carrying on a wide range of secondary interests, including "gardening, English water colours, horseracing, seventeenth-century English slip-ware, Restoration drama, music and criminology."

There's more, but you get the idea.  In writing Power, Burley was going for a full-fledged eccentric genius amateur crime solver, and he succeeded with such in my estimation.  Pym also has a manservant, Perkin, and a pretty young secretary, Susan, who accompanies him on his sleuthing excursions.  Susan is required to wear dresses rather than slacks in Pym's presence, an edict she challenges but to which she ultimately complies.  She does get to call her boss by his first name though. 

I didn't sense that there were carryings-on between the two--how would Henry Pym have time for hanky-panky with all that attention lovingly devoted to slip-ware and watercolors?  The chauvinistic tang of this again recalls classic mystery, though the best character in the book is a middle-aged woman teacher in my estimation.

Tristram-Jones is able to get Pym to emerge from Cornwall to search for the poison pen writer (assisted by Susan), but it's not long after Pym arrives that a suspicious death takes place among the faculty, when one of the schoolmistresses is found dead at the bottom of a cliff.  Accident, suicide or...murder???  What do you think?

I found A Taste of Power a splendid mystery, with some fine examples of true detection, something that was becoming increasingly rare in mysteries of a a half-century ago.  (Authorities Barzun & Taylor agree.)  There's an interesting, if somewhat depressing, view as well of middle-age and midlife crises, with the portrayal of proud and able though variously thwarted people suffering from mounting fear that the lives which they had wanted for themselves have eluded them, perhaps irrevocably.  It's a view I've encountered before in English school mysteries, written by English mystery writers who seem to have been rather relieved for their own parts to have left teaching behind them.

Dr. Pym would appear in one more detective novel (where his interest in slip-ware would prove useful) before W. J. Burley irrevocably abandoned him for in favor of his cop Wycliffe.  Without meaning to cast shade at the excellent Wycliffe series, I feel that this was a mistake artistically.  However, the times were not so very understanding and tolerant of odd and privileged amateur sleuths. 

Unfortunately, A Taste of Power is out-of-print today, and pretty rare, as it was never published in the US. It is certainly worth seeking out, however, for fans of a classic detective fiction--particularly  that frequently dark and gloomy subgenre, the English school mystery.

English watercolor (courtesy Passing Tramp)

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Art of Detection: Murder of an M.P.! (In Search of a Villain) (1927), by Robert Gore-Browne

"Have you noticed," [Lucien Clay] asked us as he bent over his packing, "that while films are quite untrue to Life, Life is very often true to films?"
    I confessed that I had not.
    "At Lincot, for instance, you might have been living inside the brain of a Hollywood movie magnate.  [Sir Arthur] Baxter would have been his beau ideal of an Old English country gentleman.  In reality he was a very average die-hard back-bencher.  Only a communist would have taken him seriously, just as he took communists seriously.  He was a precise, rather fussy man, but not to the point of murder."
    "He was a J.P.," I remarked, "and did valuable service on various boards."
    "I dare say," said Clay. who seemed to like to monopolise the conversation, "he hadn't much to do."

    "But we did not fully understand the part [X and Y] had played in the tragedy."
    "So far from fully," interrupted Clay, "that we began by arresting Rothmann."


--Murder of an M.P.! (In Search of a Villain), by Robert Gore-Browne

Read it and keep the secret of its ending!
Eight years ago I included Robert Gore-Browne's Murder of an M.P.!: A Study of Detection on a list of my favorite Golden Age detective novels.  The novel was highly praised in their Catalogue of Crime by Golden Age detective fiction authorities Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, who quoted the second passage above ("so far from fully") as one of the "gems" of mystery literature.

With all the reprinting going on of late, I thought to myself, why not become an advocate here for this title?  Cause it's a damn good detective novel, as I see it.

Robert Gore-Browne's mystery, which was published in 1927 by Collins (as well as in the US, under the title In Search of a Villain and by Robert Gore-Brown, with no "e" on the end), introduces as amateur sleuth the arrogant and bibulous artist Lucien Clay, who appears not only here but in Death on Delivery, which was published in the US and UK two years later (in the US under the title By Way of Confession). The latter novel, unfortunately from my perspective, is more of a thriller.  Also appearing in both books is mild and phlegmatic Scotland Yard policeman Inspector Heppel, one of the more credible English coppers from the period.

The other key character in Murder of an M.P.! is Lucien Clay's "Watson" (or might I say his "Hastings"), a rather stolid London stockbroker by the name of Dale.  He and Clay first meet in the opening chapter of the novel on a nasty night in Soho at a thinly-populated Italian restaurant.  The conservative Dale at first dismisses Clay as a "dissolute Bohemian," but he soon realizes that the huge, red-bearded artist has a keen eye not only for painting subjects but for murder suspects. 

Clay, who boasts that the "Clays are the oldest family in Kent," is given to airy dismissals of tradesmen and middle class morality and he makes the occasional "humorous" remark about Jews that was then fashionable in the pages of other Golden Age mysteries, including those from novels by greats like Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley.  I find him an outsize, though perfectly believable, character from his time.  He makes a memorable, if not always likable, Great Detective figure.

At the restaurant Dale and Clay get into a discussion about the police and Clay proves exceedingly dismissive of the mental capacities boys in blue, including even his friend Inspector Heppel, who is also at the restaurant.  Heppel has tailed there a murder suspect, a pale unshaven Russian-born Jew named Max Rothmann, who had been arrested for inciting violence during the General Strike of 1926, which set many in the middle class against left-wing "radicals." Dale distastefully compares Rothmann in physical appearance to a suet pudding, "if a suet pudding can be imagined that needs a shave before dinner."

Clay insists that policeman, being of middle class origin, cannot understand murder cases that are out of the common rut.  The "perfect sleuth must be well bred," he airily pronounces (like himself).

Clay tells Heppel and Dale that Rothmann cannot possibly be guilty, from a psychological standpoint, of the crime of which he is accused: the dastardly murder, in the locked library of his country house, Lincot, of Sir Arthur Baxter, a conservative member of parliament known for his leadership of "the movement 'to turn out the Reds.'

Shortly before midnight on the night of the murder, the Lincot butler, Freeman, discovered Sir Arthur dead in his library.  He had been fatally stabbed in the back with a bayonet--a Russian bayonet from the Battle of Balaclava--that had been mounted on the wall.

from one field of death to another

Rothmann was known to have been admitted to see Sir Arthur Baxter in his library shortly before Sir Arthur's death (an odd circumstance in itself).  The radical leftist left by the French window to the terrace, leaving the doors to the library locked.  The terrace flower and gravel beds show that on the evening of the murder no one entered the house by means of the French window, and the other windows and doors to the house were locked in the evening.  So if it wasn't Rothmann who killed Sir Arthur, as Lucien Clay declares ("Trust a bobby to down on a Dago," he sneers), the killer seemingly had to have been someone who came from inside the house itself.  These individuals are, aside from the minor servants (who alibi each other):

*Sir Arthur's nephew, John ("I refused to believe that a young fellow of one's own class, outlook, and upbringing, could murder an old, unarmed man who was his near relation and who had shown him every kindness," declares Dale loyally.)
*His cousin and unpaid housekeeper, Sophie de Manca (Young Sophie Baxter married a purportedly wealthy Portuguese count, who died in the African colonies, pronounces Clay, of "gin aggravated by malaria" and left his widow only worthless shares in a gold mine, throwing her on her cousin's benevolence.)
*His lovely young typist and adopted daughter, Delia Eyre ("Typed his speeches about the Red Peril and the Hand of Moscow," explains Heppel.)
*His plump and platitudinous private secretary, Lewis Hope
*His butler, Freeman (He insists "on putting out a clean collar...every day," complains Clay.  "Face like a cod.")  But then butler never really do it--do they?

Then there's the mysterious American who was hanging around Lincot (you knew there would be one), who claims to to be a newspaperman, but is he really?

This has all the ingredients, masterfully blended, of classic English mystery from the High Golden Age: country houses, a floor plan. a knight, a butler, a body in a library, a pretty girl, scheming adventuresses, unwashed Russian Communists, quirky Americans, General Strike references, gratuitous potshots at any non-English nationality/ethnicity (tongue-in-cheek, I think), a brilliant and condescending amateur sleuth, his idiot friend (Dale really is like Christie's Hastings), a murder weapon taken from a trophy wall and an audacious but fairly clued murder.  And the writing is rather bright and witty for the period.  Maybe I'm asking for trouble with this pronouncement, but I can't imagine any fan of classic English crime not liking this one (if you can get past occasional indelicate comments from some characters).

So who was the author, Robert Gore-Browne?  More coming on him in the next post!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Lady Croftster: Death of an Old Girl (1967), by Elizabeth Lemarchand

Elizabeth Wharton Lemarchand, daughter of Anthony Wharton Lemarchand and his wife Ethel Agnes Clark, was born on October 27, 1906 in Barnstaple, Devon.  She passed away, at the age of 93, in Exmouth, Devon in 2000 and was buried at Topsham Cemetery, Exeter.  Coming late to writing crime fiction, she published her first detective novel at the age of 60 in 1967.  This novel, Death of an Old Girl, became, however, the first of seventeen detective novels by her hand, the last of which, The Glade Manor Murder, was published in 1988, when she was 81.  With the deaths in the 1980s of Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Christianna Brand and Josephine Bell, Lemarchand at this time was probably the oldest living writer of classic British detection.  (Elizabeth Ferrars, who was still publishing at her death in 1995, was ten months younger than Lemarchand.)

Lemarchand was part of the "second wave" of Silver Age of Detective Fiction women mystery writers who began publishing crime fiction, for the most part, in the Sixties, when Golden Age Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham seemed still to be going strong.  Besides Lemarchand, there were:

Gravestone of Michael Joseph Lemarchand
and Sarah Sophia Wharton, Instow, Devon
great-grandparents of Elizabeth Lemarchand
Patricia Moyes (1923-2000), who debuted with Dead Men Don't Ski in 1959
Ellis Peters (1911-1995), who actually had been publishing mysteries, along with mainstream novels, for years, but achieved a new height in the 1960s, with her second "Felse Family" detective novel, Death and the Joyful Woman (1961), which won the Edgar Award for best crime novel.
PD James (1920-2014), who debuted with Cover Her Face in 1962
Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), who debuted with From Doon with Death in 1964
Catherine Aird (1930), who debuted with The Religious Body in 1966
Margaret Yorke (1924-2012), who debuted (as a series mystery writer) with Dead in the Morning in 1970. 

Margaret Yorke soon abandoned true detective fiction for crime novels of suspense, but James and Rendell by the 1980s would become known as England's reigning Crime Queens--and, much to their disdain, as the new Agatha Christies.  (Could there be more than one?) 

In truth, Moyes and Aird probably were closer fits to Agatha Christie, at least as the writing careers of James and Rendell evolved into "character" crime fiction; but Moyes and Aird, lighter writers, never attained the renown (and sales) of James and Rendell, despite esteemed American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher's boosting of Moyes, in particular, in the US.  (Heretically, Boucher much preferred Moyes to PD James.)

Elizabeth Lemarchand tilted more to the Moyes-Aird side of things, her seventeen murder mysteries being focused firmly on the elucidation of problems rather than the agonies of the characters.  But if Moyes and Aird were most like Christie, Lemarchand was more like that other great criem writer who appeared in 1920, Freeman Wills Crofts, whose once famous detective Lemarchand has her series character Detective-Sergeant Gregory Toye actually reference in Death of an Old Girl.

I first read Death of an Old Girl back in the 1990s, when in used bookstores you could find Lemarchand's books--some of them, anyway, the ones that were reprinted in those often rather ugly paperback editions by Walker, the American mainstay publisher of second-tier British mystery in the 1970s and 1980s.  But it was only on rereading the novel more recently that I was struck by the terrific resemblance in her work to Freeman Wills Crofts, a big name from the Golden Age and one of the authors I write about in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery

A religiously devout railway engineer, Freeman Crofts focused intensively on the murder problems in his mysteries, most of which were solved by his stouthearted Everyman policeman detective, Inspector Joseph French.  Crofts was considered a poor hand at characterization, but in his heyday between the wars he was very popular indeed in both the UK and US, as well as other countries, with fans of pure puzzle mysteries, who then were rather considerable in number.  I will discuss these similarities below, but, first, I have some more about the life of the author.

You may have noticed above that Lemarchand was considerably older than her Silver Age Crime Queen compatriots, being essentially a generation removed from them (Ellis Peters excepted).  Alone among these women (Peters again excepted), Lemarchand was born before the First World War, and, indeed, she would have remembered the war well, being 12 years old when it ended.  (As we will see, she very much had personal reason to remember it.) 

She was 14 when Crofts seminal detective novel The Cask was published, in 1920, the year of PD James' birth.  She was actually a month older than John Dickson Carr, one of the greatest names from the Golden Age, and only two years younger than another, Margery Allingham, who passed away a year before Death of an Old Girl was published.  When it came to classic detective fiction, Lemarchand was herself something of an "old girl," doubtlessly a classic detective fiction fan of long standing.

                                                                    *******

Lemarchand family crest

As we saw in my last blog post, Lemarchand's father was a very busy doctor in Barnstaple, quite familiar there with death, both natural and unnatural.  His wife, Ethel Agnes Clark, was the daughter of Octavus Deacon Clark, a prominent civil engineer who did much work in India under the British Raj.  Both husband and wife had been born in British colonies, Ethel in Narsinghpur, India and Arthur in Colombo, Ceylon.

Arthur was of Anglo-Dutch descent.  His great-grandfather Joseph Jeremiah Lemarchand, was born in 1760 in Utrecht in the Dutch Republic.  He emigrated to the Dutch colony Demerara (now part of Guyana), where he married Rebecca Alleyne (presumably no relation to Edward Alleyn, the inspiration for Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn).  However, he was living in Cecil Street in The Strand, London, when he died in 1812.

His son, Michael Joseph Lemarchand, who was born in Demerara in 1792, at St. Anne's Church, Soho married Sara Sophia Wharton a year after his father's death.  By 1819 the couple had moved to Ghazipur, in Bengal, India, where Michael became an indigo planter.  Francis Wharton Lemarchand, the couple's ninth of eleven children, was born there in 1828.  Michael Lemarchand did very well out in India and was granted a family crest, which included a bee (symbol of industry), ship and motto, Perseverando.  The family followed the motto.

In 1858 Francis Wharton Lemarchand at St. Peter's Church, Colombo married Alice Capel Higgs, who died from childbirth after less than a year of marriage.  (Their one son from the marriage would die in Tehran, Persia forty years later, under what circumstances I don't know.) Two years later Francis wed Clara Maria Bradstock, daughter of a minister, at Instow, Devon, where his parents had retired and were buried.  Francis, an investment banker, died in 1893 and was buried, like his parents, at Instow.

Besides Elizabeth Lemarchand's father, Arthur, Francis and Clara from their holy union produced seven children, including Frederick, an Oxford-educated schoolmaster (at Oxford he was a champion hammer thrower three years running), and Hugh, who served as a District Commissioner in southern Nigeria. The most remarkable thing about the Lemarchands, however, is that Arthur converted to Catholicism.  When he died in 1923 (when his daughter Elizabeth, was only 16), the family had moved a few miles from Barnstaple to Instow, but he was buried back in the Roman Catholic section of Barnstaple Cemetery.  More typically, Arthur and Francis as boys both attended public school at Malvern College, where both of them played cricket.  (I don't know whether Francis did any hammer throwing there.)

In Death of an Old Girl, the murder weapon, a stone paperweight "with veins of quartz or something, which made a pattern like the Sphinx," was brought by one of the schoolgirls back from Westward, Ho!, a seaside resort village located just a few miles from Instow that was founded a decade after the publication of Charles Kingsley's bestselling 1855 novel of the same name.  No doubt Elizabeth Lemarchand spent time there herself.

Elizabeth Lemarchand's eldest sibling and only brother,
Francis, who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-20
http://www.stanwardine.com/cgi-bin/malvernww1.pl?id=249

In addition to Elizabeth, or Betty as she was known, Arthur and Ethel had three children: a son, Francis Wharton, and two daughters, Margery and Constance Mary.  Latecomer Betty was the baby of the family, her elder siblings having been born between 1893 and 1898.  Constance, who died in in 1995 at the age of 97, became a headmistress, while Francis joined the navy, serving during the Great War as a Surgeon Lieutenant.  During the war he participated in major naval actions off the Belgian coast (returning to the onetime domains of his ancestors).

In March 1918 the dapper and handsome naval officer wed an 18-year-old bride, but less than a year later he expired at the age of 25 from pneumonia, contracted during the influenza pandemic of 1918-20--an event which surely must have constituted a devastating tragedy for his family.  His father Arthur passed away four years later, at the age of 56, though his mother Ethel, enjoying the longevity of the Lemarchand ladies, died in 1961, at the age of 94.

3 Elm Terrace Instow, where the Lemarchands lived during and after the Great War
3 is the third bow window from the left

view of the estuary from Elm Terrace

In the last year of the war, when she was in her 12th year, young Betty enrolled at the Ursuline Convent at nearby Bideford, which she attended for eight years, until 1926.  In 1927 she received a BA with Honors from the University of Exeter, followed by an MA in 1929.  The same year in Geneva, Switzerland she attended the Graduate Institute of International Studies, which at the time was closely associated with the League of Nations.

In the 1930s Betty, now Elizabeth, Lemarchand served in suburban Bristol as an assistant mistress at Clifton High School for Girls, where bestselling lesbian author Mary Renault had been a student in the 1920s, and at Sutton High School for Girls in London.  (Clifton was also home to the Albert Villa School, conducted by relatives of Rickie Webb of Patrick Quentin fame.)  In 1940 she joined the staff at The Godolphin School at Salisbury.  Becoming Deputy Headmistress in 1943, she would serve in this position until 1960.  Notable graduates of the school in the mystery field, before and after Lemarchand's time there, were Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Bell and Minette Walters.

During her last year at The Godolphin School, Lemarchand was Acting Headmistress, and for a single year she was Headmistress at Lowther College for girls in Wales, before retiring from teaching in 1961.  With Gertude Mary Jerred, who had been Headmistress at The Godolphin School during most of Lemarchand's tenure there, she bought a cottage in Dartmoor, and there the two women resided together for most of the rest of their lives. (Jerred died at the age of 96 in 1998, two years before Lemarchand.)

Multi-faceted author Antonia Fraser (who also managed to compose a few mysteries) recalled that, when her Catholic parents transferred her from Goldolphin to St. Mary's, a Catholic school, in 1946, when she was 14, Elizabeth Lemarchand, "on hearing of my future fate, had pressed a novel into my hands, Frost in May by Antonia White which had been published in the early Thirties, in order, as she put it, to warn me.  As a warning it had exactly the opposite effect.  I was tremendously excited.  The plot concerned a Protestant girl...who, like me, was sent to a Catholic school...."

Kate Macdonald's review of Frost in May may, judging from Antonia Fraser's comments above, summarize Elizabeth Lemarchand's view of Catholic education, based on her own experience (she attended Catholic school the same time Antonia White did):

It's a novel about power over innocents, within a Catholic context....the nuns are (mostly) passionately abusive, expressing always their love and care and exalted hope for the girls under their control, as the punish, humiliate, bully, terrify and dominate them.  

Interestingly, in Death of an Old Girl Lemarchand is critical of traditionalists, who, like the titular "old girl," oppose liberalizing the school environment and relaxing both physical and mental restraints on the girls.

Ursuline Convent, Bideford, early 20th century

                                                                     *******

Look at that chap Inspector French [thought Sergeant Toye].  First thing he always did in the tales was to make up his mind to come back to the scene of the crime for his next holiday.  Personally, he didn't feel all that stuck on Upshire.  A bit tame....Now a case in Devon or Cornwall at some nice place on the coast would suit him down to the ground.

--Death of an Old Girl (1967)

After her retirement in 1961, Lemarchand began publishing short stories; and her detective novel Death of an Old Girl appeared, as mentioned above, in 1967.  It was not published in the US at the time, though it did appear there in the 1980s, after Lemarchand had been taken up by the publisher Walker, who published a great many of what might be termed second and third tier British mystery writers, of the more traditional sort.  (They also published, among others, Marian Babson, Emma Page, Josephine Bell, W. J. Burley and George Bellairs.)

Highly praised by puzzle purists Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in a Catalogue of Crime and only recently reprinted after being out-of-print for thirty years, Death of an Old Girl employs a well-rendered girls' school setting that certainly would have been familiar to the author.  It is a highly traditional concoction that, in spite of occasional period references to androgynous young people, could just as easily have appeared in the 1930s.

Godolphin School, early 20th century

The "old girl" of the title is meddlesome Beatrice Baynes, a hidebound traditionalist alumnus of Meldon School for girls (she was there around the turn of the century), who reflexively opposes all of the innovations of new headmistress Helen Renshaw.  BB lives in an ancestral country house located conveniently adjacent to Meldon School.  The school itself is of that ultra-rational Georgian style so beloved by Golden Age detective novelists, "with its mellow rose-red brickwork, beautifully proportioned windows and fine portico"--the only word we're missing here is elegant, PD James' favorite word...well, either that, or atavistic.

At a school reunion BB makes rather an ass of herself, denouncing the artwork fostered by new art teacher Ann Cartmell, a protege of London art bigwig Clive Torrance, on whom Ann has rather a pash.  Aside from offending people at Meldon, BB's other favorite pastime is lording it over her dependents, great-nephew George Baynes, who could be a feckless man-about-town from a 1920s English detective novel, and sad sackette Madge Thornton, music teacher at Meldon and BB's godchild.  When BB is found dead from a bop on the head in Ann's classroom, her body stuffed under a puppet theater, all of the above people become suspects in the police investigation conducted by Scotland Yard's Inspector Bill Pollard and Sergeant Gregory Toye.

For lovers of traditional English mystery, this is as traditional gets--indeed, rather astonishingly so for 1967, a year after the ultimate bulwark of British detection tradition, Agatha Christie, gave us the ever-so-groovy Third Girl and a year before Ngaio Marsh decided to tackle race relations in Clutch of Constables.

There's not one but two timetables, a family tree, a "rough sketch" of the school grounds, police constables on bicycles, fine brandy as a murder case medicinal, a reference to "our old friend the blunt instrument," a local police inspector named Beakbane, Sergeant Toye pulling out an ordinance survey, multiple people referring to money as "lolly," a hoity-toity suspect surprised and impressed when a policeman actually addresses him in "public school English," a dour groundsman named Jock who utters heavy sarcasm to the schoolgirls in equally heavy Scottish dialect  ("I saw ye baith the nicht in yon carr parrkt b' the gates.  Wi' yer brithers, nae doot."), a working class character who says "stummick" for stomach and vigorously denounces the "bloody Japs," and a housekeeper, Mrs. Hinks, who soon reaches the "stage of pleasurable self-importance" as a witness in a murder case.  Murder will make people uppish.

Inspector Pollard reminded me  a lot of Crofts' Inspector French, or "Soapy Joe" as he was known, on account of his calculated soft soap interviewing techniques

"Contrary to popular belief the police aren't out for an arrest at any price, you know, Miss Renshaw
," explains Pollard.  "A wrong one in this case could easily put paid to my own chance of promotion."  (To his relief, this technique was successful.

I also liked when Pollard took time solicitously to ask a suspect, "Have you had any tea?" and uttered apparently his strongest oath, "my foot."  I don't know whether such policemen ever really existed, but it sure beats the cops in pre Warren Court American mysteries, who are always tiresomely threatening people with the "third degree" and the like.

There's another very French moment when Pollard indulges himself in rosy anticipation of brilliantly solving the case, only for it to be "suddenly extinguished by a cold shower of realism."  This is a highly Croftisan passage, the elder author having obviously enjoyed chronicling his Everyman detectives mental ups and downs during his investigations in a sort of "Pilgrim's Progress" fashion.

Unfortunately about a fifth of the way though the novel a key clue went clunk and at that point I was sure I knew whodunit and why.  It doesn't help that the author seems to go out of her way with her narration to exonerate three of the major suspects for the reader.  By the tenth of the novel's 21 chapters I had absolutely no doubt who the killer was, and when I turned at that point to the last pages I saw I was exactly right.  This left little of interest in the book for me, as the crime mechanics themselves were not particularly fascinating.  So while this book was a lot like Crofts (with better characterization), it regrettably was, in my view, second or third rank Crofts. 

However, I can promise you that Lemarchand went on to write some better books.  And if you miss the clue that goes clunk, you may be more favorably impressed with the novel than I was.  Though if you do miss it, shame on you! (Just kidding.)

On the new edition, issued by Sapere, there's attractive modern cover art, although it's rather misleading as you don't see an elegant school or country house on the cover but rather a decrepit country cottage.  This and the description might make you think it's a gritty village mystery, which it absolutely is not.  Also the map was not to be found in my Kindle edition.  However, the price was very good indeed! 

I think it's exciting news for fans of traditional British mystery that Lemarchand's novels are being brought back into print, and you should expect to hear more from me about them in the future.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"I stabbed Lyddie at the bottom of Sticklepath Hill": The 1906 Brown-Ash Murder-Suicide at Barnstaple, Devon and the Doctor in the Case


Around 7:30 on the evening of December 3, 1906, a terrible outbreak of homicidal violence took place at the bottom of Sticklepath Hill outside the ancient British habitation of Barnstaple, Devon.  In the roadway just behind the old turnpike gate, under the pitiless glare of an electric streetlamp, two little boys larking about rather late on the hill witnessed, to their horror, a man savagely setting upon a woman with a black-handled lambsfoot pocket knife, stabbing her in the chest and shoulder and fatally slashing her throat. 

The two frightened boys ran to the nearby farm of a Mr. Copp and brought help in the form of one of Copp's horsemen, William Alford, but by the time they arrived upon the scene of the crime they found only the remains of senseless carnage: the woman, 32-year-old Lydia Brown, lying quite lifeless amid a pool of her own blood.  Alford ran to the Barnstaple Railway Junction Station and alerted authorities, but by the time they appeared, in the form of a Barnstaple doctor and police constable Corney, Screech and Braund, the murderer, 22-year-old Henry John "Jack" Ash, himself was dead.

Immediately after killing Lydia Brown, his estranged girlfriend, Jack encountered a courting couple, Willian Dean and his fiancee Gladys Perrin.  Glimpsing the fallen woman, Dean asked Jack if she was ill, whereupon JAck cried, "Yes, she's done for!" and plunged his knife into the unfortunate onlooker.  Miss Perrin promptly fainted at the sight of blood gushing from Dean's shoulder, and Jack went on his way.  He ran up Sticklepath Hill toward his parents' home, Myrtle Cottage, in the hamlet of Lake, stopping briefly at Mr. Copp's farm to wash his blood-spattered hands in a cattle trough.  He then stopped at Myrtle Cottage, where he told his brother Jim that he had "stabbed Lyddie at the bottom of Sticklepath Hill" and begged his brother to "see what you can do for her." 

Barnstaple Railway Junction Station
The pair started off for the crime scene, but Jack shied, heading instead toward the London and Southwestern Railway line, where Jack, after composing a short note to his family, threw himself in front of the 8.25 mail train from Barnstaple.  Ten minutes later his mangled remains were discovered on the track, along with his note, in which he had explained that the dead woman had forsaken him and plaintively declared that he could "not die without Lyddie."

The murder, assault and suicide created a sensation in Barnstaple and its surroundings, which had seen nothing like it in nearly three decades, when, back in 1877, a drunken butcher by the name of William Hussell had stabbed his wife to death in the town.  Over the next two days thousands of gawkers were said to have visited the murder site, where there could still see be glimpsed Lydia's Brown's weltering gore.  (Afterward sawdust was placed over the fatal spot.)

Lydia Brown, the youngest of seventeen children, had come to Barnstaple fourteen years earlier, in 1892.  At the time of her death, her parents having for some time lain buried in the churchyard, she had been employed as a buttonholer in a shirt collar factory (which the year before had been charged with employing underage girls as workers).  Of late she had resided with a widowed aunt, Mrs. Mary Anna Pine, a well-known Queen Street wardrobe dealer (i.e., a seller of second-hand clothes).  Formerly she had boarded at Myrtle Cottage with the Ash family, but her doctor, concerned about the state of her appendix, had warned her that it would be prudent to move into Barnstaple. 

Jack also suffered from health problems.  He had, indeed, come to believe that his digestive problems were going to be the very death of him.

Barnstaple Long Bridge, spanning the River Taw, over
which Lydia Brown traversed moments before her murder
On the fatal Monday, Mrs. Pine had last seen Lydia around seven, when the younger woman returned from work to have her tea.  While Lydia ate and drank and Mrs. Pine sewed, Lydia informed her aunt that at work she had received a note from Jack asking her to meet him at the bottom of Sticklepath Hill. Noting that Jack had dropped in at her house for a chat that morning, Mrs Pine, who seemed to have sensed danger in the offing, stated doubtfully:

My goodness...why not have left the note here?  That is funny....The chap is bad.  Better fit he was home instead of coming to meet you at that time of night at the bottom of the hill....Lydia, I should not go if I were you.

Lydia demurred, saying should would go as far as the Bridge, at the end of the hill, see just what Jack wanted and "tell him not to come after me, as I don't want him."  She asked her aunt's daughter, Grace, to go with her, but Grace declined (perhaps saving her own life in so doing).  So shortly after seven, Lydia set out fatefully (and fatally) from Queen Street across Barnstaple Long Bridge (which dates to the fifteenth century) to meet her doom below Sticklepath Hill.

Raleigh Cabinet Works
see barnstaplehistory.com
Lydia and Jack, a former packer at Raleigh Cabinet Works who was currently unemployed on account of his poor health, had been "keeping company" and it had been understood until recently--by Jack's family at any rate--that the two were to marry around Christmas.  Just last Saturday before the Monday murder, the couple had attended a promenade concert given in the Barnstaple Market and danced together. 

However, Jack had been seeing his and Lydia's doctor about his physical maladies, about which he had become increasingly morbid.  Lately he had told Lydia that he thought he was dying, driving her and himself to tears. On the morning of the murder, he had visited Lydia's aunt at her home in Queen Street, where he sat on the sofa and and engaged her in queer conversation (as revealed in Mrs. Pine's testimony at the coroner's inquest):

I said I thought he was too bad to come to town.  He replied: "I cannot stay at home I am too worried.  I am under the doctor, but no doctor's medicine don't do me no good."  I said "Jack, have a cup of cocoa or coffee," as it was on the table; but with the reply, "No thanks, I believe I have something alive in my stomach," he got up and walked out, saying he would be in again directly....[he] also said the doctor ordered him to have bread and cheese.  I said "bread and cheese, and you so bad?!"  He answered "Dr. Lemarchand ordered me that last Saturday, I had it for me dinner yesterday."

The jury at the inquest wanted to hear about Jack's physical and mental state from his aforementioned physician, Dr. Lemarchand (who also had been Lydia's physician as well); and the doctor compliantly testified as follows, concluding the inquest:

Dr. Lemarchand (on Jack's digestive troubles):

I had not seen him for some time until last Saturday [two days before the murder], when he came into my surgery.  I asked him how he was getting on, and he replied "I have been pretty well until about the last week, and the old pain is coming back again."  I asked him when the pain was worst, and he said "About three hours after the midday meal."  He added that it was his heaviest meal....I suggested that he should have his heaviest meal in the evening, about six or seven o'clock, and at midday have a light meal of eggs or fish.

Coroner: You said nothing about eating bread and cheese?

Dr. Lemarchand (smiling): No, sir.  But I don't think bread and cheese would have hurt him.

lambsfoot knife
It was learned at this point that shortly before he had gone for his fatal rendezvous with Lydia below Sticklepath Hill Jack had stopped at Dr. Lemarchand's surgery at Litchdon House, where he left his empty bottle of medicine and said that he would return at eight, when the doctor was expected back.  However, that hour instead found Jack running about Sticklepath Hill like a man possessed (as, in a sense, he was).

Jack's mental state then was discussed.  Dr. Lemarchand defended the soundness, and indeed the keenness, of Jack's brain.

Coroner: Was Ash a person of weak or unsound mind?

Dr. Lemachand: Certainly not, he was a very intelligent lad.

Foreman: He never gave you any indication as being of unsound mind?

Dr. Lemarchand: Certainly not.  One night he called me out in the middle of the night to go and see Lydia Brown at Lake.  We talked the whole way, and he was a most intelligent boy.

Despite Dr. Lemarchand's final observations, the jury ritually brought in a verdict of willful murder and suicide "while of unsound mind."

London and Southwestern Railway, on which line Jack Ash met his demise

Dr. Lemarchand was no stranger to tragic death in Barnstaple.  Around this time he also attended and testified at a dismaying number of additional inquests on deaths natural and unnatural in the town and its vicinity. 

There was Mr. Hopkins, whose heart gave out after his consumption of a hearty dinner of fried fish and cocoa; chemist Thomas Davies, who deliberately poisoned himself with prussic acid; carpenter John Henry Featherstone, who drowned himself in the River Taw; railway fireman George Abraham Garlick, who died from blood poisoning that had resulted from a scratch he sustained at work; Florence Amelia Greenway, wife of a locomotive department foreman, who cut her own throat; Rosina Twigg, wife of a purveyor's agent and confirmed alcoholic, who hanged herself (Dr. Lemarchand was of the opinion that "people who drank like Mrs. Twigg were...more or less insane, or they would not drink so much."); Samuel Beer, an engine driver who was killed in a railway accident; Joseph Blackmore, a laborer and another drowning suicide in the River Taw; Thirza Tucker, wife of a police constable, who choked on a piece of rabbit; Emily Wiggins, a laundress killed when her clothes were ignited by an upset oil lamp; and John Manning, a slaughterhouse worker who died from exposure to anthrax. 

Murder may have been rare in this corner of Devon, but ghastly untimely death certainly was not.


At the time of the notorious murder of Lydia Brown, Dr. Lemarchand and his wife were the parents of four children, a son, their eldest offspring, and three daughters.  Their youngest daughter, Betty, was born only five weeks before the Brown murder.  Betty Lemarchand would grow up to reveal that she was no stranger to death either, at last in fictional form.  After publishing her first detective novel, Death of an Old Girl, at the age of 60 in 1967, six decades after the Lydia Brown slaying, Miss Lemarchand would go on to publish a total of seventeen mysteries, the last of which, The Glade Manor Murder, would appear in 1988, when the author had entered in 82nd year.  In that novel one of the main characters is named Stephen Ash.  Coincidence?

Betty (or Elizabeth as she was known as an adult) Lemarchand's novels are now being reprinted, and shortly there will be more about the author posted here, at the home of The Passing Tramp.

For another case of a crime writer with an ancestor involved with criminal cases, see here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Succeed at Murder Without Really Trying: The Reluctant Murderer (1949), by Bernice Carey

I had never cared for detective stories, and for a moment I regretted it.  If I had read more of them I might now be familiar with different means of doing away with people.  I am not one to leave things to the last minute, nor to be vague about my plans; but somehow I had put off really getting down to business on working this thing out.  After all, one has a natural reluctance about taking human life....

--The Reluctant Murderer (1949), by Bernice Carey

pick your victim....
Bernice Carey's 1949 debut crime novel, The Reluctant Murderer, is a wickedly devious suspense tale where one of the characters, no-nonsense forty-year-old San Francisco career woman Vivian Haines, is planning to carry out a murder.  She doesn't want to do it, you see, but the idea irresistibly comes to mind while she reading a letter from her sister Anne inviting her to a weekend house party at Anne's cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos.

With her new notion now firmly lodged in mind--"murder was the answer" she says to herself--Vivian departs for Anne's house with her phlegmatic salesman fiancee, Culbert, an old friend of the family's. 

At Anne's country place Vivian and Culbert encounter the war widow's handsome new boyfriend, Johnny Lloyd.  About Johnny Vivian expresses decided disdain:

I got his number the first time I ever saw him, lounging around on [Anne's] fancy outdoor furniture in sloppy slacks and huaraches, and no shirt--so he could show off his muscles and his nice, evenly browned skin, and the black hair on his chest....

He was, it seemed, going to be the next John Steinbeck, or maybe it was William Saroyan--I forget which.  He had a shack two ravines over from Anne's house, and I judged that he was at that time living off his discharge pay from the Army and his unemployment insurance.  She had known him for a year now and to my knowledge he hadn't done a day's work in all that time.

malice domestic in the Santa Cruz mountains
Also present at the cabin--a really cool-sounding shingled structure with multiple levels and decks--is Vivian and Anne's wealthy and eccentric spinster aunt, Maud Twilliger, of whom Vivian sourly observes:

Any northern Californian knows that the southern part of the state is populated almost exclusively by screwballs, and I do believe Aunt Maud is the epitome of southern California crackpots.

Anne and Vivian are Aunt Maud's heirs, though Vivian fears the influence on her odd aunt of her demonstratively doting companion, self-effacing Miss Pringle, and her chauffeur, Alphonse.  All the ingredients for a nice domestic murder--not the between-the-wars English country house type but rather the mid-century modern California country cabin sort.

But just who will be murdered?  Like in Pat McGerr's celebrated crime novel Pick Your Victim, published three years earlier, considerable suspense is maintained in The Reluctant Murderer over the matter of the murderee's identity.  It adds to the suspense when scheming Vivian begins to suspect that someone is trying to murder her!  Will this be the case of the biter bit?

This is a fine crime novel, arguably a classic of mid-century domestic suspense, with a pleasingly tangled (and untangled) plot.  It was an impressive debut indeed for the author, and it was rightly designated "something special" by Bernice Carey's publisher, Doubleday.  I have hopes this title will be reprinted in the not so distant future.  I will keep you posted!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Woman Alone: The Beautiful Stranger (1951), by Bernice Carey

[Terese] noticed that the women who talked the most about how busy they were, how they just never got caught up with their work, were the very ones who spent the most hours having morning coffee in one anothers kitchens and standing on the path talking when they met coming to and from the store. Talking. And there had to be subjects for the talk.
"You think," she said slowly, "they gossip a lot here?"
"Think?...I know....I don't know why it is, in a little place like this where everybody knows everybody else, they should be so willing to think the worst of everybody else all the time."

"I've seen enough of human nature, and most of the time it ain't a very pretty sight....It's the little mean, petty things.  I tell you, I'd almost rather see 'em ram a real knife into somebody else than do the way they do, running around sticking knives in each other in ways it don't show."

"There's something about murder.  You're so shocked at it, it being so unexpected in the first place, and then your mind gets all taken up with who might have done it; and it's sort of like you said...people forget about the human side."


--The Beautiful Stranger (1951), by Bernice Carey

Too beautiful to live--in Conway?
Bernice Carey was born in 1910 on a farm near the small town of Chetek, Wisconsin, the child of farmers. (Her mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.) She moved in 1923 to California, where between 1949 and 1955 she wrote eight highly praised crime novels.  At the age of only 45 a curtain fell over Carey's crime writing career, however, though she lived for another 35 years. 

The mid-century dean of American crime fiction criticism, Anthony Boucher (who died 50 years ago this year), highly praised several of Bernice Carey's crime novels, including The Beautiful Stranger (1951), which concerns a brutal killing in a California company mill town. 

Although he was always a devoted fan of classic mystery from the Golden Age, Boucher welcomed the turn in the middle of the 20th century toward more realistic, everyday settings, rather than the baronial country manors and posh urban penthouses so often found in classic-style mystery:

Bernice Carey (1910-1990)
There's a belief among publishers and editors that American readers prefer, in their escape entertainment, a "nicer" sort of life than that which they themselves lead.  I'm not sure how justified this belief is; but it results in the fact that the lower middle class and the working man are almost completely absent from the detective story, save for incidental witnesses, comedy-relief bit-parts and an occasional Pegler-type labor racketeer.[This is a reference to right-wing curmudgeon journalist Westbrook Pegler, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1941 for his work exposing racketeering in Hollywood labor unions.] 

The man from Mars, reading a year's crop of whodunits, would wind up with some strange ideas as to the prevalence of penthouses and country estates, and would never learn even of the existence of trade unions.  (Which is particularly odd since most writers belong to a trade organization of some sort, the Mystery Writers of America or the Authors Guild.)

Bernice Carey and her husband Walter H. Fitch, whom she married in California at the age of 18, not long after graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School (where she was a classmate of future mystery writer Floyd Mahannah, about whom more is coming soon).  The couple knew all about trade unions. 

In 1930, Bernice and Walter were living in Ventura, California, where Walter worked in the oil fields as a rotary helper on a drilling rig.  Later in the Thirties they moved to the company town of Spreckels Salinas Valley, once home to the world's largest sugar beet factory, where Walter was a factory foreman.  Famed author John Steinbeck once worked in Spreckels, where he heard stories which ended up in his book Tortilla Flat (1935). 

In 1940, Bernice and Walter were living to the east of the city of Salinas in Alisal, then known as "Little Oklahoma" on account of the heavy migration there of Oklahomans, or "Okies," displaced by calamitous dust storms in the American Plains.  (The Okies experience was famously chronicled by Steinbeck in the 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.)  Bernice gave birth to two sons and published poetry in magazines.  Both she and Walter were active in left-wing politics.

Bernice Carey's fourth crime novel, The Beautiful Stranger, reflects this labor background.  The titular character is Terese, a young woman said to be even more attractive than Elizabeth Taylor who has come to the small company mill town of Conway, which is named for the Conway family, fabulously wealthy absentee owners who live palatially in San Francisco. 

In 1951, the same year that Doubleday's Crime Club published The Beautiful Stranger, Kay Williams, fifth wife of Adolph Bruno Spreckels II, divorced her husband after six years of marriage and the birth of two children.  Actor Clark Gable was named as a party in Spreckels' countersuit, which accused Kay of having lured Gable into intimacy on the grounds of the Spreckels mansion with the immortal line, "Clark, come down here, I want to show you the bougainvillea."  For her part Kay claimed Spreckels was a drunk who once ripped off her clothes and chopped down the door of her dressing room with an ax in order to get at her.  She later married Clark Gable and bore him a son.  I'm guessing there was plenty of bougainvillea planted at the couple's digs.

I think Carey alludes to the adventures of the Spreckels clan in this passage from the novel:

Kay William and her third husband,
Clark Gable
Of course they [the townspeople] all knew, when they stopped to think about it, that there was a higher authority centered in an office in...San Francisco, where presumably there were flesh-and-blood Conways sitting at mahogany desks Making Decisions. 

Some of the old-timers had actually seen one or more Conways, getting out of limousines at the steps of the front office, or flanked by worshipful attendants during inspection tours of the mill.  Tom McGowan had actually had his hand shaken by old T. J.  Now, of course T. J. seldom left the seventeen-hundred-acre ranch in the Peninsula hills below San Francisco....

The people of Conway took a casual, friendly interest in the doings of the family who owned their mill.  If they read in the papers that Felicia Conway was being sued for divorce by another of the scions of the old European families whom she deemed to have a fancy for marrying, they would sometimes shake their heads in tolerant amazement at the size of the settlement reputedly made on the disillusioned ex-prince as the price of Felicia's freedom; but they didn't think much about it.  Nor of how many of young Tyler Conway's race horses won prizes at Bay Meadows or Santa Anita. 

They were, in fact, strangely indifferent to the Conways.....If word had come one day that the whole Conway tribe had been wiped out by an atomic explosion, the population of Conway would have thought, "That's too bad," and gone calmly ahead with its conveyor belts in the mill and its lawn-mowing on the East Side.


Adolph Bruno Spreckels Mansion in San Francisco (left)
now the home of Danielle Steel, 4th documents
bestselling author in history, after Agatha Christie
William Shakespeare and Barbara Cartland
The greatest strength of this novel is its depiction of life and attitudes in a mid-century company mill town.  The Conways not being an actual presence in the novel, its focus is on the mill "boss," Miles Faber, and his family (especially his daughter, Marguerite), and the various workers in the mill and their womenfolk, especially Jim McGowan and Terese, Jim's stunningly beautiful new bride, a former shopgirl from San Francisco. 

To her dismay Terese finds that most of the women of Conway view her with suspicion, on account of her great beauty and seeming remoteness. Why would someone who looks like that ever come to this little place, is the prevailing view.  Here we get another study in a crime novel of the subject of individualism vs. conformity, but less in the Gothic terms I discussed in an earlier post than in realistic ones.  There are both social and political implications (see below).

Carey digs in deep into the town's social attitudes, and it makes very interesting reading, filled with insight.  "In Conway people never really expected to get the Best, in women or in anything else about life," Carey observes.  "Somehow in Conway you just accepted the fact--without even thinking about it--that there were all kinds of things that were too good for you, things that only people like Mr. Faber and the almost mythical Conway family could have."

1920 3br/2ba craftsman house in Spreckels
(today's asking price $623,000)

When the would-be town wolf, Les Coleman, starts flirting (futilely) with Terese, rumor alights from the idle tongues of housewives (who seem often to have too much time on their hands) that Terese must be somethign akin to a floozy.  When Les is found beaten to death in an alley, suspicion focuses on Jim, though blame for Les' death is placed firmly on Terese.  If Jim killed him, so the view runs, Terese must have driven him to it.

But is there an alternative explanation for Les's death, one having to do with the recent drive to expand union membership?  The CIO has come to town, we learn, wanting to unionize every worker at the mill, and the owners and management aren't happy about that at all.  In addition to being a wolf, it seems, Les had also been something of a stool-pigeon....

1946 2br/1ba ranch house in Spreckels
(today's asking price $399,000)

Anthony Boucher praised The Beautiful Stranger for achieving "an unusually successful blend of a study of union difficulties with a purely personal plot" and concluded that it "makes a movingly real novel."  I have to agree that Carey does a wonderful job of bringing the town and its people to life in what constitutes a fascinating variant on the English village mystery, one however that happily sheds classic mystery's often condescending attitude toward the working class. 

The labor issues couldn't be more timely for readers in the U.S. these days, with the attitudes of the white working class having become a much discussed topic from the 2016 presidential election. Conway seemingly is almost an all-white town, though the Fabers bring in a black maid from San Francisco, Dora, and there is a major second-generation Mexican-American character, Johnny Rodriguez.  How much, readers may ask themselves, have popular attitudes changed since the 1950s, as portrayed in the novel?

True Romance, February 1947
(so that can't be Nicole Kidman on the cover)
Carey doesn't neglect the women, though--far from it.  Terese is an extremely well-rendered portrait, as are several more minor female characters in the novel, and the social observation of these women is on the level we find in the best Golden Age British mystery (though with genuine interest in all the classes, and not rendering the working class at the level of caricature).

This 1951 novel provides a great snapshot of the postwar years in the U.S., when women were being urged to shed wartime jobs, get married, keep house and raise kids, all for the good of the good old USA.  Most of the women of Conway seem to have fallen in with this way of thinking.  I immediately thought of the various Betty Friedan critiques from a decade later.  (See this Ursula Curtiss blog post of mine.)

Wives tend to be more cautious about pushing the union issue, being fearful of jeopardizing their economic security and their tidy homes filled with "automatic" appliances and labor-saving devices.  ("You men. Always taking things so seriously," chides Jim's mother about the union squabbles.)  Yet they often are bored too.  ("There was only so much housework one could find to do.")  Jim's younger sister, Florence, idling in her life after high school, is addicted to romance magazines, her mother reflects.

Here's an example of some of the novel's social observation that accompanies the murder, as the author discusses Terese's modest dreams for her life in Conway:

But can it rinse away guilt?
Terese was wearing a yellow sun-back dress with only straps over her shoulders, and even at ten in the morning she looked fresh as a daffodil.  Lorraine noticed that, and it fretted her a little. 

Somehow, even when they wore clean, starched house dresses, most wives seemed to look slightly bedraggled until early afternoon.  During the course of dishwashing and bedmaking and scrubbing out the bathroom washbowl, your lipstick faded and face powder mysteriously vanished and your hair separated and the starchiness departed from your skirt. 


Lorraine did not stay long, but Terese went back to her ironing with a new buoyancy, thinking already of what she would wear the next evening and dreaming ahead of the days to come, when the rigidity would relax between her and Lorraine, and Lorraine would come and sit in the kitchen while she went right on with the ironing and they talked over all kinds of intimate things, like how soon they wanted to have babies and how much they had paid for their washing machines and whether an automatic was really the best....

This really is the essence of a crime novel, i.e., a study of how a murder impacts people's lives and, as such, it is a very good one indeed.  People expecting the twistiness of a Margaret Millar or the British Crime Queens will be disappointed, but this novel, the first by Carey which I had then read, made me want to read more by the author.  More soon to come on the author and her mysteries.

The crime novels of Bernice Carey:

The Reluctant Murderer 1949
The Body on the Sidewalk 1950

The Man Who Got Away with It 1950
The Beautiful Stranger 1951
The Three Widows 1952
The Missing Heiress 1952
Their Nearest and Dearest 1953
The Fatal Picnic 1955

Monday, September 3, 2018

Workers Unite (and Detect)! Johnny on the Spot (1943), by Amen Dell


“But, Johnny, we’ve got to trust somebody.”
 “Not I!  I don’t trust anybody until I know where they stand. When the F.B.I. starts investigating Martin Dies and Hamilton Fish and the rest of that crew, then I’ll know I can trust them—not before.”

“….in every country the aim is the same….Make the people within each country hate each other.  Put white against black, gentile against Jew, boss against worker.  Keep them busy hating each other.  The old divide and conquer idea.”

                                                                        
--Johnny on the Spot (1943), by “Amen Dell


Note: For Labor Day I thought I would take a look at a Forties thriller reprinted by Coachwhip, Johnny on the Spot (1943), for which I wrote a long introduction.  The book was much praised by crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher.  On the interesting life of Irving Mendell, aka Amen Dell, see this earlier blog post.  As the years go by I come to believe more and more that we have much to learn (or relearn) from the Thirties. Another review of a "labor" mystery, one from the 1950s and by a woman author, will be posted here soon.


Irving Mendell’s crime novel Johnny on the Spot is a spirited wartime thriller with an engaging cast of characters, strong sense of time and place and an admirably snappy narrative pace, yet its most striking feature is the perceptible leftist tilt of the narrative.  Although in their different ways authors as popular yet diverse as the Communist Dashiell Hammett and the Catholic G. K. Chesterton cast doubt in their crime writing on the morality of the capitalist system, mystery novelists from this era tended to take a far more complacent view of the western status quo, portraying political leftists as, at best, comically naïve Utopians and, at worse, dangerously unhinged firebrands.  In Johnny on the Spot, however, Irving Mendell portrays the political state of the world in rather a different light.

            In the novel, which is set during the first year of American entry into the war, the titular on-the-spot character is Johnny Angel, “mechanic, grade 1, at the huge Hirdler Automotive (H. A. to the public) plant,” now doing defense work for the government.  As his surname broadly hints, Johnny, a union representative at H. A., is on the side of the forces of light, having conceived an ingenious plan to increase war production at his factory, materially aiding the fight against fascism, though so far the higher-ups at H. A. have evinced little interest in it.  In making the case that unions are essential to carrying on the war effort, Johnny on the Spot is reminiscent of another wartime mystery novel, Murder at the Munition Works (1940), by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, prominent English public intellectuals and socialists who also dabbled in detective fiction. However, Johnny is much more entertaining.
            Through a case of mistaken identity Johnny Angel is handed, while standing outside his third-floor apartment on Charles Street in Greenwich Village (where Mendell himself resided), a piece of paper containing what appears to be some sort of numerical code.  It soon becomes clear that certain mysterious dastards are more than willing to kill to get this piece of paper back.  Along with his goodhearted but luxury-loving girlfriend, Janie Allen, and a ravishing redhead suggestively named Mae Wells, Johnny soon finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery with grave implications indeed for the security of the United States. 
            Mendell took the opportunity in Johnny on the Spot not only to jab at conservative congressmen like his own personal nemesis Martin Dies and the arch-isolationist Hamilton Fish III, but also to flay crooked cops and capitalists, racists, anti-Semites and fascist fifth columnists.[1]  Even Johnny’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Janie, a spirited lass evidently based partly on Mendell’s own wife, Anne, is continually tempted from the path of righteousness by the lure of life’s luxuries, on account of the independence they represent.  “You have no idea how fed up a girl can get on R.K.O. and ice cream sodas,” she sighs at one point.  In a conversation with Johnny, she attempts to analyze her conflicted feelings:

“Johnny….I don’t know what I’d do without you.  Sometimes, I wish—well—that I could be like other girls and be satisfied with the idea of marriage and babies and all the rest of it.  But I’m not and that’s all there is to it.  You’ve been swell about it, Johnny.  And I promise you this: if the time ever comes when a husband and babies are more important to me than the prospect of having satin sheets and forty pairs of evening slippers and rooms full of gowns to choose from and a penthouse apartment--
            She noticed his face and gripped his arm.  “Oh, Johnny, can’t you understand?  I don’t want satin sheets because they’re comfortable.  They’re a—a token—a symbol of freedom—of independence.  For as long as I can remember I’ve had to take orders from somebody….That’s why I don’t want to tie myself down.  To start taking orders from a husband instead of a boss.  I want to be free!  I’m tired of counting pennies….
[2]

            Johnny at one point accuses Janie of being “dumb when it comes to unions,” explaining to her that he and his fellow workers at H. A. would never actually go on strike during the war: “What do you think we are, anyway?  The army needs the things we make.  That’s what we’re fighting Hirdler about.  If he’d use our plan, we could turn out twice as much.  But he won’t listen.  But while Janie may be naïve about unions, other individuals in the novel, like Lieutenant McWilliams of the New York City Police Department, are openly hostile.  He’s just the kind of cop who goes out breaking up picket lines for his own amusement,” scornfully observes Johnny of McWilliams, while policeman John Joseph Swazey opines that McWilliams would not hesitate for a minute to frame Johnny Angell for murder on account of Johnny’s being a union official, because McWilliams deems unions “un-American.  (Swazey himself, a decent cop at heart though something of a palooka, admits, “Before I joined the force I worked in an auto plant for a coupla years.  We had a union, a good one, too.  Did plenty for the men.  And today it’s doing plenty for the war.  But that doesn’t change Mac’s feelings.”)  Similarly, as evidence of a widespread rightist conspiracy mounts around him, Johnny complains that United States Attorney General Francis Biddle “piddles over guys like Harry Bridges” (an Australian born labor leader whom the AG tried to have deported under the 1940 Smith Act, on the grounds of his having been once “affiliated” with the Communist Party USA) while letting “rats run loose.
            Mendell sees the rats, the real threats to American democracy, as racist right-wing authoritarians, sometimes organized in groups like the Christian Front (associated with the controversial radio priest Father Charles Coughlin), who, if not themselves necessarily Nazis, are ideological “fellow-travelers,” if you will.  The anti-Labor, anti-British, anti-Russian, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-American sons of bitches!” an appalled Johnny exclaims after finally cracking the dire meaning of the coded message, rolling out in a rising wave of “anti’s” all the objectionable qualities of these people.  Referencing President Roosevelt’s fireside chat of April 28, 1942, Johnny thinks how true it is that “Bogus Patriots and Noisy Traitors” are insidiously undermining the war effort and the country.  Readers of Johnny on the Spot should of course rely upon their own powers of discernment to determine which characters in the novel are (and are not) to be trusted; suffice it to say here that, when you find that your neighbors read The Brooklyn Tablet, you might well take heed.[3]





[1] Dies, a critic of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (a group that had supported Mendell during his fight with Federal Theater Project New York City director George Kondolf), declined to run for reelection after the CIO began a voter registration in his Texas district and found a candidate to oppose him.  The same year Hamilton Fish III was defeated in his bid for reelection in his New York congressional district.  Fish sourly credited his defeat to “Communistic and Red forces from New York City….”  Another, rather more famous, crime writer who abominated Hamilton Fish III was Rex Stout, who in 1930 built his house in Connecticut across the state border (though his mailbox was in New York), so he would not have Fish as his representative. 
[2] Mendell tellingly dedicated his novel to ANNE, who also wants satin sheets, but who would never enjoy them if she knew Fascism still anywhere in the world.
[3] Spoke the President:

This great war effort must be carried through to its victorious conclusion by the indomitable will and determination of the people as one great whole….It must not be impeded by a few bogus patriots who use the sacred freedom of the press to echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin. And, above all, it shall not be imperiled by the handful of noisy traitors—betrayers of America, betrayers of Christianity itself—would-be dictators who in their hearts and souls have yielded to Hitlerism and would have this Republic do likewise.

Seventeen men, all residents of Brooklyn and most Christian Front members, were arrested by federal agents in January 1940 and charged with stockpiling weapons as part of a plan to overthrow the government.  Although the charges were dropped the next year, the incident assuredly was in Mendell’s mind when he wrote Johnny on the Spot.  The Brooklyn Tablet was a prominent diocesan newspaper that backed the Christian Front.