Saturday, September 12, 2020

Copper Mines and Soap Kettles: Money and the Making of Mystery Writer Margaret Erskine (1901-1984)

Landed wealth was such a common feature of between-the-wars British mystery that ever since, despite periodic efforts to delimit this formalization, between-the-wars British mystery and "country house mystery" frequently have been considered virtually synonymous.  (See the 2001 film Gosford Park and its reviews, for example.)  Sometimes we will find some parvenu crashing the country house gates who is "new money"--meaning that they are descended from some pushing nineteenth-century commoner who made a fortune not in land but rather something exquisitely undignified like patent cough medicine or corn plasters. (It's the latter, I believe, in Agatha Christie's After the Funeral.)  But whether it's about old money or new, how many British mystery writers actually had much experience personally with what they were writing?  Not that many, I think.  Most of them were solidly, if not always virtuously, middle class.

The monumental neoclassical Temple House, home of Margaret Erskine's
flinty ancestor, copper baron Thomas Williams of Llanidan (1737-1802)
razed in the Roaring Twenties

One definite exception to this rule, who represented old money (or sufficiently old, anyway), is Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, a landed gentleman and the son of a baronet (and later one himself), who wrote classic crime fiction as Henry Wade.  Another, representing new money (or comparatively new, anyway), is Margaret Erskine, a descendant of extremely wealthy copper mine owners and soap manufacturers from the Georgian and Victorian Ages.

Until now, biographical information on Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), who wrote 21 Septimus Finch detective novels between 1938 and 1977 (all but the first of them between 1947 and 1977), has been sparse.  She does have a Wikipedia entry, which tells us that she was born on May 2, 1901 and died on July 9, 1984; that she was born in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada and raised in Devon, England; that her parents were Thomas Wetherby Williams and Elizabeth Erskine; that she was privately educated; and that she was a member of the Crime Writers Association (though not the Detection Club).  Happily I am able to add a good deal to this rather limited biography.  

Through Margaret's father, Thomas Wetherby Williams, who was born in England in 1854, Margaret was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron from Llanidan on the isle of Anglesey in Wales.  (Her father was a civil engineer, while her paternal grandfather, also named Thomas Williams, was simply what was known as a gentleman, a "proprietor of mines.")  Like my own Evans ancestors (it will surprise no one to learn), Margaret Erskine's paternal ancestry was predominantly Welsh, although mine were Quakers who left Wales for Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century.  Thomas Williams, on the other hand, stayed in Wales--and made a mint in so doing.  

Thomas Williams of Llanidan was a figure of note in Britain's industrial revolution.  Befitting any such figure worth his salt--or copper--Williams was denounced by Matthew Boulton, business partner of James Watt, as "the despotick sovereign of the copper trade" and a "perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word [who] will screw damn hard when he has got anybody in his vice."  Of the mine owners of Cornwall, who were being ground by Williams, Boulton wrote colorfully, "They would not have consented to be kicked and piss'd on by me as they have by [Williams and his partner]."  Sounds like Boulton was pretty envious!

ruined windmill at the former Parys Copper Mine, Anglesey, Wales, 
which closed in 1904--this was the source of Thomas Williams' fortune

Williams, a lawyer, became the managing partner of the Parys Copper Mine on the Isle of Anglesey, which during the 1780s was the largest copper mine in Europe, employing 1200 people.  (The mine finally closed in 1904, leaving a pockmarked alien landscape.)  Copper from the mine was used to sheath the ships of the British navy's men of war (and apparently the ships of other countries as well).  Unhappily Williams' copper was also used to make trinkets to trade in Africa for enslaved humans, who were sold to plantations in the West Indies.  Out of his own financial interest, Williams opposed the abolition of slavery after he became a member of parliament.  No William Wilberforce like conversion for him!

In 1788, Williams bought the Temple Mills near Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire and began using the mills for smelting copper from his mines.  He built a great mansion in the area, which he predictably called Temple House, and became, unfortunately (see above), Marlow's M.P.  Temple House was demolished around 1922.  Coincidentally my Buffington ancestors came from Great Marlow, but Richard Buffington left the mother country for the colony of Pennsylvania in the seventeenth century, so you can't pin this on him.  Besides he was a devout Baptist and opposed slavery.

Williams' descendant Thomas Williams, Margaret Erskine's paternal grandfather, married Louisa Thomas, who was the daughter of Charles Thomas, a wealthy soap manufacturer of Bristol who came originally from Carmenthenshire, Wales.  When he died in 1909 his estate was valued at, in modern worth, around 15 million U. S. dollars.  That's a lot of bubbles!

formerly the Christopher Thomas and Brothers Soap and Candle Works, which
Margaret Erskine's great-grandfather Charles Thomas managed in the late 19th century

Margaret Erskine's father was, as I have mentioned, a civil engineer; and I presume it was in connection with work that he moved for a time out to Kingston, Ontario, where in 1898 he married Elizabeth Erskine, whom Margaret later claimed was descended from a martial lowland Scots family that was "connected to the Stuarts."  Could Margaret Erskine the author have been claiming a relationship to Margaret Erskine, the favorite mistress of King James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots?  Sounds like it, especially since she adopted the same name for her pseudonym.

Not long after Margaret's birth, her father returned to England with her (and presumably her mother, though I don't know this), settling three miles from the city of Plymouth, Devon at a great manor  house, Widey Court.  The mansion, which had been offered to let for a term of five or ten years, recently had been "thoroughly renovated and modernized," according to a 1900 newspaper notice.

Located near Widey Court were the villages of Crownhill and Eggbuckland.  The former was originally known as Knackersknowle, and I can't help wishing that it had retained this splendid olde English name.  With Knackersknowle,  Eggbuckland and Widey Court, I couldn't think of  a better setting for a vintage English mystery!

St. Edwards' Church, Eggbuckland
(fifteenth century, with additions,
including the clock!)
The 1900 to let notice described Widey Court as

beautifully situated in a well-timbered lawn on rising ground, with highly picturesque views.  Fine  timber trees shelter the house, which has a southern aspect, and the Dartmoor hills are in the background.  On the ground floor are an entrance hall and billiard room, spacious dining room and drawing room communicating with a conservatory 68 feet in length, a breakfast room, and library.  On the the first floor are a morning room, a bed room, and two dressing rooms; eight other excellent bed rooms in two galleries; and eight good attics; eight stall-stables, double coach-house, laundry, etc., with the higher lodge and two other cottages, a large walled garden, paddock of four acres, with shippen for cows, and lawn tennis court.

"The parish church of Egg Buckland is less than a mile," the notice added, and "hunting and fishing are to be had in the immediate neighborhood."

The notice termed Widey Court a "historic mansion," most justifiably.  King Charles I stayed for a time at Widey Court during the English Civil War (hence the addition of "court" to its name).  From the house he issued a proclamation calling on Plymouth to surrender to the Royalist forces commanded by the King's nephew Prince Maurice.  The ballroom of the manor house was used as a care ward for casualties during the siege of the city, and the King Charles' suite of rooms were carefully preserved by later owners. 

Sadly, this history was not enough to save the house.  Requisitioned during the Second World War and left in a derelict state, Widey Court was demolished in 1954, long after Margaret Erskine had departed from the vicinity.  Evidently the contents, incredibly it seems to me, were destroyed, including even the King's bed.  Apparently no plans or photographs of the mansion were made at the time.  One individual rescued a couple of fragments from a marble fireplace.  A rather unattractive school, built in 1963 and named for the manor, stands on the cite today.  

marble fragment salvaged from the 1954 demolition
of Widey Court
The Erskines had left Widey Court over two decades earlier, when the great mansion was put up for sale.  The house and  its grounds were described in 1921 as 

Commanding a South aspect and a sheltered site at an elevation of about 330 feet above sea level standing in a beautifully timbered miniature park and approached by two carriage drives above a mile long, guarded by two picturesque lodges and embracing an area of about 53 acres.....

The house itself consisted of, on the ground floor, an outer hall, an inner hall, corridor, two conservatories, a drawing room, a dining room, a morning room, a library, a billiard room with entrance from the library, cloak room, lavatory, water closet, main and secondary staircases, servery, servants' hall, kitchen, scullery, larder, pantry, boot hole, store room, and a laundry composing three rooms and servants' water closets

The first floor had eight bedrooms, three dressing rooms, a bathroom, a water closet, day and night nurseries, a housemaid's room and a linen room, while the attic had eight additional bedrooms, a box room and a storeroom.  There were cellars in the basement for wine, coal and wood.  All totaled, there were 21 bedrooms, which, like in classic English mysteries, seem to have been severely under supported by bathrooms.

On the grounds there were stables and a harness room with loft, a coach house, dairy and dog kennel, flower and vegetable gardens, a tennis lawn and summer house, a rookery and extensive woodland paths.  

Widey Court, probably around time of 1921 sale

Like modern pupils at the school, Margaret Erskine received her education at Widey Court, where in 1910 her father employed as her governess native Englishwoman Ada Annie Mckenzie, a former music teacher and daughter of sail maker and Royal Navy quartermaster Murdo Mackenzie and sister of Arthur Murdo Mackenzie, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who perished in the Great War.  Born in 1881, Ada grew up in the town of Stoke not far from Widey Court.  With a father from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (Ballalan, on the Isle of Lewis) and a mother from Cornwall, Ada presumably had a powerful Celtic imagination.

Margaret Erskine later recalled, "I was brought up in an old country house in Devonshire, complete with a ghost who had his being in the nursery wing.  I was educated by a governess but, like the mock turtle in Alice, with extras'."  These extras included "the vast resources of her father's library."  It isn't hard to see how Margaret developed a vivid imagination in this atmosphere.

Actually there are said to have been two ghosts who haunted Widey Court: a proverbial lady in white and a Cavalier soldier.  Supposedly the latter sat down at dinner next to a woman guest and rudely never spoke to her during the entire time.  Perhaps he wasn't the bookish sort and stayed out of the library.
Widey Court in its pastoral heyday--it was later town down in 1954,
with not even King Charles's bed being rescued for posterity


Why did Margaret Erskine, then well into her Thirties, start writing detective fiction in 1937?  Mystery scholar Ellen Nehr, writing shortly after Erskine's death in 1984 (it's not clear Nehr knew that Erskine was dead), claimed that Margaret Erskine once asserted that she had done so as a form of revolt against her high-toned family.  Nehr noted that Erskine specialized in "eccentric British families with long-held secrets, social pretensions, and heads of household with streaks of cunning," though she added disparagingly that Erskine "wrote the same book...twenty-one times."  

the poor thing will catch her death
running round half-naked like that 
--or my name ain't Ommanney!
Of course this is the same charge that has been leveled against mystery master Ross Macdonald, for example.  Yet whether you like Erskine or not, I think that, having learned something of his family history, you can see why she wrote what she wrote.  Erskine definitely wrote what she knew.  And a lot of mystery fans in both the US and UK enjoyed both her milieu and her mysteries.  In the US, where she particularly benefited from the Gothic craze of the Sixties and Seventies (you recall all those pretty ladies fearfully wandering around mansion grounds at midnight in their white nightgowns), she was reprinted in paperback in multiple editions.  Yet this misleading, as Erskine's books are more true detective novels than Gothics, despite the trappings.

Nehr might have added as well that above all Erskine, like the Gothic writers, wrote about great mansions.  (Donald Westlake famously said that Gothic novels are about a girl who gets a house.)  These mansions appear over and over in her books and are one of the things I, who have long been fascinated with old houses, find engaging about Erskine.  

Perhaps in crafting her mysteries the author was recreating parts of her past in her novels.  She died at the age of 83 on August 10, 1984 (not July 9) at Greathead Lodge, a senior care home in St. John's Wood, London, long after the golden ages of the detective novel and the great country houses had passed.  Greathed Lodge was named for Mrs. Mary Greathed, who founded "The Ladies' Home" there in 1859.  The property formerly had been a single family dwelling, the residence of one Alexander Tod, Esquire (excluding the wings, which were added later).

An 1867 article on The Ladies' Home explained that the institution was opened 

for the benefit of a very suffering, uncomplaining, and unfortunately numerous class: namely, ladies who have been reduced by reverses of fortune to a state of penury and privation; and who, unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials, are yet more unwilling than any other class to make their distresses known.

Applicants from this uncomplaining class, sadly "unfitted by early habits and education to cope with hardships and trials," had to be "gentlewomen of good education, between 60 and 75 years of age."  I'm reminded of Dorothy Bowers 1941 detective novel Fear and Miss Betony and its memorably named Toplady Endowed Homes for Decayed Gentlewomen, which looks dubiously upon daughters of greengrocers (however well-educated).  

Greathed Lodge (formerly The Ladies Home), unoccupied today, at 41 Abbey Road
where Margaret Erskine passed away in 1984, one of the last of Britain's 
Golden Age mystery writers

Earlier in her life Margaret Erskine was known to have been active as a volunteer with the Women's Royal Voluntary Services and the Friends of Guy's Hospital; perhaps she was familiar, in such a capacity, with The Ladies' Home as well.  Interestingly one of the inhabitants of the Ladies' Home in the Thirties was the twice widowed Marian Laura Hampson Simpson (1846-1937), a daughter of Mercer Hampton Simpson, the celebrated Victorian-era impresario of Birmingham's highly-regarded Theatre Royal.  Marian Simpson successively married two Anglo-Indian army officers, John Gannon, by whom she had a son who predeceased her, and Edmund Pipon Ommanney (1841-1910), who came from a distinguished family of army and navy officers and was a grandson of Sir Francis Molyneux Ommanney.  Was there ever someone named Molyneux who wasn't from the upper class?  A relative of Edmund's, Manaton Collingwood Ommanney (Those are some handles!) was rather gruesomely slain in 1857 at the siege of Lucknow during what was then known as the Sepoy Mutiny.

Mrs. E. P. Ommanney, as she was known after her second marriage, died at The Ladies Home at the age of 91 in 1937, by which time Erskine was, I believe, living in London.  (Widey Court had been out of her father's hands at least since 1921.)  Had Erskine known her?  I ask, because one of her detective novels, set in Devon, was titled, in the United States, Old Mrs. Ommanney Is Dead (1955).  In England the title was changed to the more hackneyed Fatal Relations, perhaps because "Ommanney" surely was not that common a surname? 

dashing Charles Ommanney whom
George W. Bush nicknamed "Lion King"
on account of his hair--his most dangerous ground, 
however, was on Real Housewives of DC
Ironically Ommanney became familiar to American watchers of reality television though Cat Ommanney, once one of the fabled Real Housewives of D. C.  Reality TV stars being our modern gentry, I suppose.  Yes, Cat's ex, Charles Ommanney, an award-winning photo journalist who covered the White House, is a relation of THE Ommanneys (Are there any others?), as this New York Timearticle points out.  Charles whimsically noted that once, had "you Googled Ommanney, you would have discovered three centuries of naval admirals all going back to his great, great great grandfather.  Now you find rumors about the marriage breakup and snarky tattling on the show."

The Ladies Home could have served as the inspiration for the house in Erskine's detective novel No. 9 Belmont Square (1963), one of several I shall review here soon.

Sadly, the dignified structure, so long beneficently devoted to elder care, became derelict about a quarter century after the author's death, after the care home closed.  In 2013 residents of St. John's Wood complained of "squatters who had turned the five storeys [of the house] into a giant marijuana nursery."  Plans were afoot, at least before Covid struck, to put the building again into use as a senior care center, but these plans entail demolishing all but the building's facade.  If you want to see the house where Margaret Erskine died, better schedule a day trip!

There are a couple of Margaret Erskine's former residences which are still standing, very much so indeed: one at 16 St. James' Gardens in Holland Park and another at 58 Rutland Gate in Knightsbridge. 

At the latter location you can get a lovely one bedroom one bath flat for only 650 pounds a week! It may not be Temple House or Widey Court, but it sure ain't slumming.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

How Fell of Bell to Blue the Jews: The China Roundabout (1956), by Josephine Bell

How odd of God/To choose the Jews--William Norman Ewer (attributed)

The presence of antisemitism in the Golden Age British detective novel is well-established (for example, see my post on it here), but it's comes as a jolt to come across it as late as 1956, in Josephine Bell's fifteenth or sixteenth detective novel, The China Roundabout, which seems to have been one of her best reviewed books.  (For examples, see Nick Fuller's page on the novel at his vintage mystery blog.)

Bell's publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, was particularly fortunate in being able to "blurb" a seeming rave review from highly regarded Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen.  Perhaps the ellipses left out some negative criticism, but what's quoted is pretty damn ecstatic: 

With an opening demure, domestic as a page from Jane Austen, The China Roundabout has an end like an Elizabethan tragedy.  More and more mystery, tinged with violence, accumulated in what seemed, that first afternoon, a drab but highly respectable Hampstead house...Full marks for atmosphere.

For his part longtime mystery reviewer Maurice Richardson pronounced that the novel was "[n]icely written as usual in Miss Bell's careful, concise style" and "in its best moments" had "affinities with the Victorian mystery masters, even the great Wilkie Collins."  Wow!

The person who threw the stink bomb into this praise party was Christopher Pym, who while conceding that "Miss Bell writes competently, and sometimes beautifully," nevertheless expressed "pity that her plot should be quite so old-fashionably improbable, and that she should make it so patent that such of her own creations who aren't English, upper-middle-class, Gentile and chaste are 'horrors,' 'curious' or 'abnormal.'"

While the novel is well-written, it's also the most dismayingly antisemitic classic British detective novel from the hand of an intelligent crime writer that I have encountered from the Fifties, a time when there really should have been no excuse for it to exist at all in such a form.  What in the world was publisher Hodder & Stoughton thinking when it published Josephine's parade of hateful stereotypes?  (Of course H&S gave us Sapper, but even he somewhat cleaned up his racist act before his premature death in the Thirties.)  Or, frightening thought, had they actually toned Bell's book down before publishing it?

I say this as someone who likes Josephine Bell's mysteries, while recognizing that she was a wildly inconsistent writer and that even some of her best books have notable flaws.  Setting the antisemitism aside (if you can), you might well enjoy The China Roundabout.  But it's a shame that it had to be there in the first place.  

"characters human and likable"
pronounced The Times

The novel concerns a mother and daughter, Mildred and Eileen Forrestal, who have come to stay in the Hampstead house of Mildred's late brother, Major Monte Beresford, who passed away suddenly, leaving his only sibling the house and its belongings and a substantial amount of money.  There's also a much beloved object from Mildred's youth, an exotic family heirloom: a china roundabout, a miniature music box and merry-go-round, as we would say in the States, which was gifted to a nineteenth-century Beresford Indian Army ancestor by a certain maharajah whom he had served.

Unfortunately, the china roundabout proves to be of great interest as well to all the tenants of Monte's large Hampstead house, which he had divided into flats.  These tenants are:

Advertising model and kept woman Amanda Powell

Mrs. Pickard, whose mostly absent husband is in something by way of commercial traveling

And, most revolting of all, the Rosenbergs, mother, daughter Sarah and son Heime.  ("He is in the National Service call-up, poor Heime," explains Mrs. Rosenberg, disloyally, of his absence.)  There's also an uncle, Ernst Meyer, who owns a local antique shop.  

Mrs. Pickard seems okay to the genteel Forrestals, and the very smartly dressed and heavily made up Amanda Powell, though "a bit tartish" looking is not "repellant, like Mrs. Rosenberg."  Oh! that Rosenberg clan!  Here is how Josephine describes that first meeting, seen though the discriminating eyes of Eileen Forrestal:

As she opened the first door she came to, which she took to be the kitchen, the door next to it opened, and a short, stout, greasy-haired woman came out.

"Oh," said Eileen, and she could not think how to go on.

But her visitor was not at a loss.  She offered a plump, dirty hand, bowed jerkily from the waist, and said, in a markedly foreign accent, "Rosenberg."

Eileen avoided the hand by stepping back a little.  

Remember, Eileen is the supposedly sympathetic "nice girl" focal character.  Her mother, admittedly, is presented as not all that likable (but still genteel and proper, which are all-important things in Bell's world).  So when the mother scoffs, "What a dreadful name, Heime!" maybe we should let that pass. 

The problem is that Eileen sticks her nose up in the air nearly as much as her mother, always deeming people, in her words, repellent and revolting, like Mrs. Rosenberg.  It's interesting that an author who was a doctor, who must occasionally have dealt with unclean, poorly groomed and smelly people, should present her ostensibly sympathetic focal character this way.  Josephine must have hated her day job!  Of course she relocated from London to Guildford, Surrey in 1936.  (Maybe there weren't any Jews there.)  Freeman Wills Crofts, who grew to hate the big city too, was a neighbor. 

Some of Bell's experience as a doctor in London went into her Thirties crime novels Murder in Hospital (1937) and The Port of London Murders (1938), which are better books.  The latter book, which as I recollect is an impressive example of Thirties social realism in the detective novel, is being reprinted by the British Library.

Back to Roundabout, however, here are the adjectives associated with the book's Jewish characters so far:

short, stout, greasy, dirty, foreign

Mrs. Rosenberg's daughter, Sarah, is better, but not much: "She had a handsome, sulky face, framed by too much dark, curly hair."  Her accent is "Cockney, overlaid with traces of B. B. C."  A "vicious flash of rage" appears in her "dark eyes" when Eileen asks her a question she doesn't like, then she summons her mother, who appears, "rubbing her hands on a dirty apron."

Heime of the National Service call-up never appears in the book, but old Uncle Ernst does; and though he looks better than his niece, he's obviously a scheming crook too.  As is Amanda Powell's Jewish sugar daddy, upon whom Bell lavishes the most hostile description of all:

Mrs. Forrestal introduced the stranger.  A Mr. Mackenzie; obviously from that branch of the clan whose chief headquarters originally were from Palestine.  His suit fitted his well-fed figure too closely, and its pin-stripe was too wide.  He wore three rings.  His blue-black hair was carefully oiled.  Eileen, passing thoughtfully to the windward of him, put down the tray near her mother.  

Later he flashes a smile full of "well-fitted" teeth.

Well-fed, flashily-dressed, rings, oiled hair, false teeth--Josephine really got them all in here!  Well, she did leave off his wearing a fur coat, but then the book is set in late summer.

One has to wonder whether Bell chose the surname "Rosenberg" as a nod to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed for pro-Soviet espionage in the United States in 1953.  I mean, would she really have chosen that surname coincidentally, when she was writing the novel but two years later?

To be fair to Eileen, she's repelled by a non-Jewish character as well, a shady lawyer named Mr. Digby, whom she finds a "frightful little tike."  Eileen realizes to her abject horror that Mr. Digby bites his nails (!) and she make a strenuous effort "not to look at Mr. Digby's fingers."

All this brings to my mind, minus the actual antisemitism, Ngaio Marsh, who often seemed more appalled by poor breeding and physical appearances (see her epic fat-shaming in Black as He's Painted) than the moral fact of murder.  Seemingly bad manners, in the eyes of these hyper-sensitive and desperately superior British mystery authors, are worse than an evil character.  This may be one reason why many writers in the hard-boiled school, like Raymond Chandler, had no use for genteel mystery.

No doubt Josephine Bell would have countered that she just "called things like they are." (Donald Trump's supporters say the same thing today.).  However, when you include several Jewish characters in your novel and make them all highly objectionable, in many respects drawing them in the most "repellent" stereotypical fashion, and you're doing all this not long after World War Two and the Holocaust, to me it seems not a matter of overzealous "political correctness," but rather something that is simply, well, repellent.  Even Bell herself seems to recognize that there may be an issue here, only to immediately dismiss it, in a conversation between two of her characters, old Mother Forrestal and Mrs. Pickard:

You mean the Rosenbergs?  Not quite--Refugees, originally, I believe.  Her husband was left behind, and died in a concentration camp.  You can't help feeling sorry, but all the same--"


Amid all those delicate pauses and polite hesitations, I get the feeling that these two "nice" ladies are thinking maybe Hitler wasn't all that far on the wrong track, actually.

Score one for Old England
Miss Pross vs. Madame Defarge

If you can get past all this revolting garbage, there's actually a decent little story here.  The mystery around the roundabout is compellingly presented and Bell maintains a high level of suspense throughout the first half of the novel, when a memorable death occurs.  "It sound like the worst kind of Victorian melodrama," pronounces one character, but if you are a mystery fancier, Victorian melodrama can be a lot of good fun.  I'm not surprised that at least one critic invoked the spirit of The Moonstone

There's a plateau in the second half of the novel, as Bell gets a little tangled up in complications (as she often does), yet all is brought to an enjoyable finish, when a valiant, old, sensible Englishwoman (Mildred's old friend and companion, Amy Henderson) faces down the deepest-dyed villainy, like Miss Pross valiantly fending off Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.  With the appearance of Bell's amateur detective, David Wintringham, to help sorts things out, this is a lot more like a Thirties mystery than a Fifties police procedural, although Bell's presiding policeman, Superintendent Steve Mitchell, is on hand and active as well. 

Admittedly it doesn't help the case for authenticity when David, after a crazed drug addict tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, attributes this attack to "a typical advanced case of marijuana poisoning."  Bell would get better on modern crime and police procedure after she exiled David Wintringham from her books.  As for the antisemitism, I hope Bell bade it adieu by the 1960s.  It really was way past time for it.  A a person on another blog post of mine commented of Bell, "She's a good writer, but in some ways she makes even Christie look like a free-loving liberal."  Too true!  Christie in her books seems to me to have been much less hidebound than Bell.

The China Roundabout, incidentally, was not published until 1965 in the United States, in a paperback edition by Ballantine, under the title Murder on the Merry-Go-Round.  It's an awful title, but obviously "roundabout" was a no-go in the United States.  I don't know what was done with the rampant antisemitism.  I will have to get a copy someday and see.

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Merape Papers: The Crippled Muse (1951), by Hugh Wheeler

After his 1951 publication, under his own name, of The Crippled Muse, a novel about a "poetess" (as many reviewers insisted on calling her) who has "gone silent," if you will, for some thirty-five years, Hugh Wheeler as such went silent himself, not publishing again under his own name until his first two plays were performed in 1961.  During this ten-year gap there came, rather than anything under his own name, seven Patrick Quentin crime novels, which were written by Hugh solo, his partner of nearly two decades, Richard "Rickie" Webb, having left their home and the United States in 1951, the same year that The Crippled Muse, ironically dedicated to Rickie, was published.  After the success of Hugh's first play, Big Fish, Little Fish, he published only one additional Patrick Quentin crime novel, in 1965; after Rickie's death the next year no more original Patrick Quentins were ever to appear again.  Hugh, now in his fifties, had won the favor of a munificent new muse and devoted himself, in the writing line, solely to play and screen writing, with astonishing success in the Seventies, when his books for a variety of smash Broadway musicals netted him three Tony Awards.  

American edition
Back in 1951, however, Hugh must have found the critical response to The Crippled Muse somewhat disappointing, and perhaps this led to his multi-year silence.  Muse was published as a mainstream novel and reviewed as such, although notices in the heavyweight Saturday Review and New York Times Book Review essentially dismissed it as just a slick piece of mystery fiction.  The reviewer in NYTBR even went so far as casually to "spoil" the central mystery of the plot (Don't you hate that?), while in the Saturday Review English professor Walter Havinghurst complained that the novel's " all but crowded out by its plot" (though he allowed that "no one is likely to put this novel down.")

I think the problem was that The Crippled Muse really is a crime or mystery novel, after all, misleadingly marketed as a "straight" novel.  There are two mysteries, a literary one and a murder one (which becomes one of double murder before the story is over), but they are intertwined and the mystery problems are the most interesting part of the book. 

There is a great deal of literary name dropping in this novel, most notably, I think, to the great American fiction writer Henry James, whose novella The Aspern Papers, about an academic trying to wheedle letters from a famous dead writer out of an old woman, seems to me an obvious influence on The Crippled Muse.  But when I was reading Muse I soon found my visions of The Aspern Papers departing, because Muse simply does not have that sort of power and serious intent.  As a crime novel, The Crippled Muse is quite good; as a "serious" novel, it's, well, a good crime novel.  It was not until Hugh started writing plays that he made a real break from the demanding muse of popular mystery.

The Crippled Muse depicts five hectic days spent on the Italian isle of Capri by Horace Beddoes, a priggish young professor of English at Wentworth College in Ohio.  A couple of mysteries concern Horace right from the get-go.  How on earth, at age 28, has Horace "for some time" been a full professor at Wentworth?  And, is Wentworth College the same Wentworth College in Rickie and Hugh's  Q. Patrick mystery Death and the Maiden (1939), and, if so, how did the school move from New York to Ohio?


Horace is at Capri because he hopes to meet reclusive expatriate Ohio poet Merape Sloane, the subject of his dissertation (which Hugh calls a thesis) and write her authorized biography.  And what a story there is to tell about Merape!  A young, tubercular, lame woman, Merape had been taken to Capri in the 1910s by a beneficent believer in her poems in order to restore her health.  At Capri Merape made an improbable  recovery and her poems became world-renowned.  However she soon stopped writing and largely withdrew from the world.  When the novel takes place at the mid-century, she is attended by two women, a lesbian couple, Liz Lewis and Loretta Crane, who act as Merape's gatekeepers.  Horace hopes to crash through and solve the central mystery of Merape's life: why she stopped writing at the very height of her success.

In Capri, however, Horace is crushed to find that Merape has authorized another man to write her biography.  Worse yet, this individual is Michael McDermott, the author of "two novels of the fashionable-dirty school which Horace had not read, but which had mushroomed to success from ecstatic critical acclaim.  His latest novel, Horace believed, dealt with a delicate twelve-year-old boy's infatuation for a one-armed Mexican field-worker."  When Horace first meets Mike he sees a "young man, dressed in a black shirt and black pants," with "startling red hair worn in bangs and the round disingenuous eyes and face of a very clever and corrupt baby."  

Three guesses on this one.  Or how about two.  Surely it's no other than Truman Capote, who had variously awed and outraged the literary world with his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, which was published in 1948, when Capote was only 23.  Much of the notoriety of the outre southern Gothic novel had to do with the photograph on the back of the dust jacket, which is provocative to say the least (see below).  Rooms made the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than 26,000 copies in hardcover and gained Capote a great deal of publicity, drawing the ire of rival gay author Gore Vidal, who took a potshot at Capote in his Edgar Box mystery Death Before Bedtime in 1953 (reviewed by me here).  So here's Hugh Wheeler doing the same thing two years earlier in Muse.  Jealous much, boys?

literary prodigy Truman Capote

I don't have any evidence that Hugh and Tru knew each other, although Rickie Webb's former collaborator Mary Lou Aswell was an editor and friend of Capote--and an important person in his life.  In any event, karma got Hugh in the end re: Capote.  In 1963, dancer, choreographer and director Bob Fosse and Hugh were staying in Jamaica, where for two months they had been working on a script for a stage musical version of Truman Capote's short novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Fosse was informed that Capote had decided that stage star Gwen Verdon, playing the beloved lead character of Holly Golightly, was too old for the part.  (Verdon, Fosse's wife, was thirty-eight.)  When Fosse returned from Jamaica, he and Gwen had Tru over for breakfast to give Gwen the once-over, as it were, but all to no avail.  The project was shelved, to be revived a few years later, sans Hugh and Fosse and Vardon, in a production starring 30-year-old Mary Tyler Moore (!) as Holly Golightly and a new book by Edward Albee (!); it ignominiously closed during previews.  

Interestingly Hugh also worked on the screenplay for Bob Fosse's Cabaret, both in its stage and film incarnations.  In his own words Fosse considered Hugh's doctoring of Jay Presson Allen's screenplay "close to a total rewrite" and was impassioned about Hugh getting shared credit for the screenplay, but Allen refused to share credit with Hugh and had the technicalities on her side, as the basic structure of the film had not been changed, even if everything had been rewritten.  So Hugh missed his chance at an Oscar nomination and had to content himself, poor boy, with his three Tonys.  (And let's face it, nothing ever was going to beat The Godfather for the adapted screenplay award that year.)

Anyway, back to The Crippled Muse! On the evening of Horace Beddoes' first meeting with the dreadful Mike McDermott, Mike is bashed with a champagne bottle and pushed off a cliff into the sea. When his body is subsequently discovered the next day, it is decided that he met with an accidental death.  Horace, who happened to stumble on, and dispose of, the bloody champagne bottle, knows that Mike was murdered, but he keeps quiet, already "corrupted," as it were by the carefree Capri atmosphere.  

Happily for Horace,with Mike out of the way he is offered the chance to write Merape Sloane's biography, his dream of a lifetime.  However, there are all those Capri women about him, distracting him in various ways.  There's his nosy, cat-loving landlady, Mrs. Clara Pott, for example, the widow of the man who "rescued" Merape Sloane from rural poverty in Ohio and took her for restoration to Capri.  And then there's the charming but aging Duchesa Gordoni and her handsome kept boy, a Latvian gigolo named Askold.  ("He has another name," explains the Duchesa.  "But no Christian could pronounce it.")  

Vittoria Carpaccio (c.1465-1525)

In the younger set there's Pamela Fishbourne-Grant, an ingenuous English rose who first met Horace when he was doing post-graduate work in London in 1945.  She has come virtuously to Capri to take care of her dissolute father but finds the isle alien ground. 

But most of all, there's intoxicating Girlie Winters--"big-bosomed, blonde, luscious as a Carpaccio courtesan."  (To Horace "[i]t was as if his most private dream of Woman had miraculously taken on bodily form.")  How with a distraction like Girlie on his hands will Horace ever get his biography written?  Or figure out--out of Horace's own self-preservation, if for no other reason--who killed Mike McDermott?

As usual, Hugh excels with his portrayal of women characters, although the most convincing sexual episode takes place when Askold, whose tastes lie more with men than women (he had been intimate with Mike), comes on to Hugh, hoping that the American will take him back to that land of moolah, milk and honey, the good old U. S. of A.  But Horace, a literal straight man to all these colorful Capri characters, of course is not interested in that.  

Hugh Wheeler as Patrick Quentin

Which brings us back to writer Christopher Fowler's reiterated complaint of the last decade, that Hugh Wheeler was not being honest with his readers by trying to hide his "natural instincts"--i.e., his homosexuality. 

It is true, I think, that Hugh could have gone farther than he did in portraying male homosexual relationships in Muse.  Both Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar had been recently published in January 1948, for example, but there was always the danger that too frank a depiction of the" love that dare not speak its name" would limit a writer's career as someone who was "too interested" in the subject.  As a writer of popular mysteries, Hugh probably felt like there were limits.  Later in his career, his stage plays and screenplays often would deal with unorthodox sexuality, although Hugh has been recurrently accused by some of soft pedaling the subject, or, even self-hatingly presenting homosexuality in a negative light.  

The late gay scholar Drewey Wayne Gunn wrote dismissively about The Crippled Muse in his book Gay American Novels (2016), pronouncing: "It is puzzling why a gay writer should feel compelled to introduce gay characters in order to derogate them."  Of course at the time Hugh was writing Muse he was having a very hard time of it with his partner Rickie Webb.  I think it's possible that Hugh, a very handsome and much desired man, may at times have felt exploited in his relationships and friendships.  It's an attitude one finds as well in his play Look: We've Come Through (1961) and his film script for Nijinsky (1980), as I recollect. 

On the other hand, this aspect of the novel which so vexed Professor Gunn didn't seem to bother blogger  John Norris at all, when he rave reviewed Muse seven years ago.  Hugh himself was appalled by the frankness and coarseness of the controversial, pathbreaking gay film The Boys in the Band (1970), the trailer for the 2020 version of which has just been released; but he certainly dealt with the subject of homosexuality in the films Something for Everyone (1970) and Cabaret (1972), the former of which notoriously scandalized film reviewer John Simon, who penned a review oozing with disgust for homosexuality. 

In the mysteries which Hugh wrote, with Rickie and alone, homosexuality often is sublimated in depictions of relationships between older women and younger men.  Hugh himself of course was in a relationship of two decades with an older man, Rickie Webb, his former mentor, which was the pivotal relationship of his life, even though it was never acknowledged during their lifetimes, nor for long afterward.  One might argue that Hugh's dedication of The Crippled Muse to Rickie was more of a kiss-off than a kiss.  Happily, the two men achieved some measure of a reconciliation before Rickie's death, though it's doubtful that Rickie ever fully reconciled himself to his loss of the younger man as a companion.  Hugh Wheelers don't come into your life every day, or every decade, or, all too often sadly, over an entire lifetime.

Monday, August 31, 2020

I'm Afraid I Don't See It! The Seeing Eye (1958), by Josephine Bell

Pity the poor mystery writer, expected to grind out her (or his) annual thriller (sometimes two) for her (or his) insatiable audience, whether or not she (or he) really has any good food for thought this time around.  I think this is what happened, unfortunately, to Josephine Bell with The Seeing Eye (1958), the last of the dozen detective novels featuring her genteel amateur sleuth Dr. David Wintringham, and his equally genteel wife, Jill.  Josephine Bell introduced David, a medical student, and Jill, his fiancee, as young adults way back in 1937, in her very first and much superior mystery, Murder in Hospital, which I reviewed here.  Over the course of the series, they marry and have children, while David dilettantishly (Is that a word?) solves mysteries, with varying degrees of help from Jill. 

In some ways you might argue Bell did more to humanize the Great Detective than even Dorothy L. Sayers, who, after all, mostly quit having anything to do with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane after she married them off to each other, referring huffily to the "sentimental Wimsey addicts" who expected her to keep writing about them.  Sure we got the wartime short story "Talboys," but there were no novels after Busman's Honeymoon, except an unfinished one, which many decades later was completed by another hand.  

The Fifties were an unkind decade to genteel amateur sleuths, with critics like Julian Symons attacking the very idea of such characters as unrealistic and even undemocratic.  Professional detectives were the order of the day, and even extremely successful Golden Age mystery writers seem to recognize it.  Peter Wimsey vanished, while Margery Allingham greatly cut back Albert Campion's appearances.  For Bell's part she published six David Wintringham mysteries between 1937 and 1940 (six in four years), but only six between 1944 and 1958 (six in fifteen years).  During the latter period she published four non-series mystery novels, which represented the direction her interest was headed.  Twenty-five of her forty-five detective novels were published between 1959 and 1982 and they are mostly non-series, with a few exceptions where she halfheartedly introduced new series detectives, who only stuck around for a few books and weren't much missed when they were gone.

Based on The Seeing Eye, I would say that Bell made the right decision to push David and Jill down the hill, as it were.  Bell just doesn't seem very interested in them anymore.  Their children are only mentioned in one scant paragraph, though we do get to see a bit of their old nanny.  But of course there's an old nanny, referred to as Nanny, in the family!

The novel concerns the murder of a a celebrated art critic, Oswald Burke, at an art gallery where an exhibition of modern art is taking place.  This reflects contemporary events, in that English art galleries were finally getting around to"discovering" American modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (the former of whom had died in 1956), though as far as I know there were never any murders in the process.  But considering that Bell had known the very interesting Alan Cutton-Brock, a prominent British art critic and author of a single mystery (her husband and his first wife had been killed together in a car accident in 1936, about which I've written here), Bell doesn't really do much, after the first chapter, with the subject.  Nor is Oswald Burke posthumously made into a compelling character, though we are told repeatedly about his penetrating eyes (hence the title).

There's an angry young man artist with a sketch book (see the front panel of the splendid jacket, above right) and his self-denying, desperately supportive girlfriend (there are so many of this sort of woman in Fifties mysteries), both of whom benefit over the course of the novel from the well-scrubbed, civilizing influence of David and Jill (and Nanny).  But the central mystery is not handled very well, with Bell huddling too much information into the final chapters, making for a confusing and unconvincing solution--at least in my eyes!  I can't honestly say much good about this one, even though I have enjoyed Bell's mysteries in the past.  (See here and here, for example.)  Better luck next time, I hope!

On a happier note, Alan Clutton-Brock's sole detective novel, Murder at Liberty Hall (1941), which I reviewed here three years ago, is being reprinted, by Moonstone Press, with an introduction by me.  More on this soon.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Circling Back: Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936 and 1943)

Jonathan Stagge's Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novel The Scarlet Circle (1943), in which the good doctor and his daughter Dawn encounter a rash of highly queer serial killings during their annual late summer fishing vacation at the decaying seaside New England village of Cape Talisman, has long been one of my favorite Stagge mysteries--indeed, one of my favorite mysteries period.  I reviewed it, very favorably, on my blog eight years ago.  But I only more recently came to realize that The Scarlet Circle originally was published in January 1936 in the pulp Detective Story Magazine and in the last quarter of 1942 heavily revised for publication by "Jonathan Stagge" co-author Hugh Wheeler, who added some 30,000 words and restructured much of the story.

ocean front of the Sakonnet Inn, Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island
also known as the Lyman Hotel (see Little Compton Historical Society)

All we know from the story is that The Scarlet Circle takes place along coastal New England, likely Connecticut, Rhode Island or southern Massachusetts, with my choice leaning toward Rhode Island, possibly the area of Little Compton, in the far southeastern part of the state.  At the far southern end of Little Compton, jutting out into the sea, is Sakonnet Point, where earlier in the previous century there used to be a thriving fishing village of a couple hundred souls, which catered to the summer tourist trade.  This would have made as excellent place as any, I think, for the site of the the fictional Cape Talisman in The Scarlet Circle, just as the real life Sakonnet Inn could have stood in for the fictional Talisman Inn.

1930s view of Sakonnet Point--for the writing on the back of the postcard see the picture below

The community of Sakonnet Point was wiped out by the catastrophic New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, which killed around 600 New Englanders, mostly in beleaguered Rhode Island, and in Connecticut imperiled Kathrine Hepburn, who at that time happened to be staying at the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  The '38 hurricane is referenced more than a few times in the 1943 edition of The Scarlet Circle.

North View on Lloyd's Beach at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton RI by Jeff Hayden
superimposed on the modern photo is an image of what the spot looked like
before the Great Hurricane of 1938, probably in the 1910s or  1920s
(purchases of this image help to support the Little Compton Historical Society)

Today Sakonnet Point offers visitors "long sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and is a haven for birds"--so appropriate for Hugh Wheeler, who in England had been, with his elder brother, an avid birdwatcher.  As the Our Natural Heritage website puts it:

Looking out from the easternmost tip of [Lloyd's] Beach [at Sakonnet Point], all you can see is the vast Atlantic Ocean in front of you, as you gaze out toward Portugal.  In the summer the beach and the surrounding scenery are pure heaven, and in the other seasons it is wild and wavy and exhilarating....I'll never forget how the wind howled so fiercely it almost sounded like sirens were calling from the the beach.

Anyone who has read the '43 version of The Scarlet Circle will know how the book memorably captures the images described above.

Cape Talisman, as envisioned by Hugh Wheeler and his partner Richard Webb, also seems to draw from the famous "drowned city" of Dunwich, in Suffolk, England, which for centuries now has been crumbling into the North Sea.  Very little is left today of what once had been (by medieval English standards) a large city.  Dunwich's All Saints' Church, which survived at the edge of a cliff into the twentieth century, became a much photographed iconic image in England.

"The tower went [over the cliff] on 12 November 1919," notes Simon Knott at the Suffolk Churches website,

leaving just a single buttress, which was rescued and reset in the graveyard of the new church at St. James.  Hauntingly, it carries graffiti from sightseers who visited it during its lonely sojourn on the clifftop....Throughout the twentieth century, people have come to Dunwich to see the last relics of All Saints.  Until the 1950s it was still easy to find identifiable lumps of masonry on the beach.  When I first came here in 1985, the bones of those buried in All Saints' graveyard protruded gruesomely from the cliff, and a single gravestone, to John Brinkley Easey, stood in an inconceivably bleak loneliness at the clifftop.  But this now has gone, removed to the safety of the churchyard at St James, and one would not think that there ever was anything like a town hear now.

like a sentinel, the solitary tower of All Saints Church once overlooked the cliff at Dunwich

I think that in The Scarlet Circle Hugh Wheeler and Rickie Webb, native Englishmen both, boldly placed All Saints and its churchyard with its exposed graves on the crumbling cliff in fictional Cape Talisman, New England, where they are to play an important role in the plot.

Here's how the 1936 pulp version of The Scarlet Circle describes Cape Talisman (Both versions are, like all the Dr. Westlake tales, narrated by the crime solving doctor):

grave of John Brinkley Easey (1738-1811)
in Dunwich, England
the last grave that was left lying in All Saints cemetery
September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, is the shore of Cape Talisman.  It is one of those spots against which the elements seem to have  a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves are encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which once was a flourishing community, is now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there is a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing is really safe.  The Talisman Hotel, so strong, so modern when I first visited it ten years ago, now has its foundations on sand and the beach for a front garden.  Soon it will have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church was recently abandoned when the spring tides approached the churchyard and threatened the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart fisher folk.  

And here's 1943:

September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, was the shore line of Cape Talisman,  It was one of those spots against which the elements seem to have a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves were encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which was once a flourishing community, was now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there was a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing was really safe.  The Talisman Inn, so secure, so prim when I first stayed there fifteen years ago, now had the beach for a front garden.  Soon it would have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church had been abandoned a couple of years ago when the hurricane had induced the Atlantic Ocean to surge into the churchyard and threaten the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart forebears.  

How convenient was the hurricane for Hugh's revision of The Scarlet Circle.  So much more sudden and dramatic than the "spring tides."

The changes in the above passages were light, outside of the addition of the mention of the '38 hurricane.  In much of the novel, however, the changes are considerable indeed.

Little Compton, Rhode Island
exposed Sakonnet Point is at the southernmost end
it was greatly unchanged a century later
Most significantly, Hugh Wheeler tremendously expanded the role of Dr. Westlake's willful daughter, Dawn, who is at her most willful here.  She is involved in a subplot with another determined child, five-year-old Bobby Fanshawe, the son of an artistic couple staying at the Talisman Inn, which becomes much more important in the '43 version.

Reviewing the novel in 1943, Anthony Boucher complained that Dawn "hasn't grown a month nearer puberty in six years"; but of course Boucher didn't appreciate that The Scarlet Circle was actually Dawn's second published adventure, rather than her sixth. 

Indeed, the pulp version of the tale even gives Dawn's age as nine, which is a year younger than she starts off in the the first Stagge mystery, The Dogs Do Bark, so she's literally regressing.  To be sure, Dawn behaves more immaturely here than she does in The Yellow Taxi (1942), where her age has advanced to twelve, but she her absolute determination is also tremendously amusing, in my view, if you don't find humor in an otherwise creepy serial killer story too discordant. Somehow it all seems to seems to work for me; and Dawn here is really integral to the plot, more so than she is in some of the other stories.

Clearly Hugh is more interested than Rickie was in the Dawn subplot.  Compare the passages in the respective version where Bobby is introduced into the story:

Bobby Fanshawe was a small, solemn infant of five who looked as though life were altogether too confusing for him--as probably it was if he modeled it upon his father and mother.  After breakfast I took him and Dawn out onto the beach.  (1936)

landward side of the Sakonnet Inn,
showing the observation tower, which later became a guest suite

Within a few moments [Dawn] walked in, leading little Bobby Fanshawe by the hand.  

It was a most unfortunate moment, because I had gotten out of bed and was struggling with my pajama top which had become twisted around me during the night.  Bobby Fanshawe was very small for five years.  He had very black hair, cut in a flat oriental bang, and very black sooty eyes which stared with archiepiscopal solemnity.  

He just stood there with his hand tightly clasped in Dawn's and gave me one of those long Bobby stares.

Suddenly, in a voice deep and husky as a truck driver's, he said: "Who's that man?"

"It's my Daddy," said Dawn  "You know that perfectly. You've seen him every day for two weeks."  

Bobby's expression showed no fractional alteration. 

"I don't like him," he said.  "He looks silly.  He's a silly man." (1943)

Postcard written from Sakonnet Point
written on September 3, 1936,
almost two years to the date before
 the Great New England Hurricane,
to Ethel Hale Freeman (1882-1960), Smith
College graduate, academic, composer and artist.
The island of Bermuda--another favorite vacation
destination of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, about
which they wrote about in the detective novel
Return to the Scene (1941)--is mentioned
Rickie in the '36 version is more interested in discussions among investigators, which are toned down in the '43 version, about the presumed sexual deviancy of an evidently grotesquely depraved serial killer:

"Of course, you've always got Jack the Ripper to back you up," he admitted.  "But his were sex crimes, Gilchrist.  And the autopsy showed that there was nothing of that sort in this case."

Gilchrist smiled grimly.  "We don't want to get into the complications of sex perversions, Sweney.  But if you ever read Kraft-Ebbing [sic] you'll find some pretty little chapters on fetishism, sadism and even necrophilia."  

The serial killer, you see, strangles women and then draws circles with red lipstick around single prominent moles on their dead bodies.  It certainly appears to be prime material for pioneering sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing, with whose landmark work, Psychopathia Sexualis, Rickie Webb clearly was familiar (see his book The Grindle Nightmare, 1935), but Hugh doesn't speculate about this so explicitly. 

Nor does the '43 version point out that Dawn herself has a large mole, which might tempt the killer!  In the later version Dr. Westlake attempts to pack Dawn off to his Aunt Mabel out of concern for her safety, but we don't into the matter of Dawn's moles, which is good because in the pulp version it's kind of icky.

Overall, Hugh enriches the writing.  I'll give just one more example here, comparing the passages where Dr. Westlake goes for a walk on the beach with Mr. Usher (!), an oleaginous undertaker staying at the Talisman Inn:

Uriah Heep (1939 Royal Doulton figurine)
....he seemed utterly out of place against the sunlit background of the beach with its turquoise waves and its long, silver stretches of sand.  He wore a dark inappropriate suit which heightened the waxy pallor of his skin and the redness of his hair.  Everything about his face was mean and foxy except his full-lipped sensual mouth.  His hands he kept running nervously in front of him in a pose which was strangely reminiscent of Uriah Heep.  I noticed that the joints of his fingers were sprinkled with warts.  

Doctor Westlake, I--er--wonder if you would care to go for a stroll.  There's a little matter-" (1936)

There was a horrid smile on his full red mouth--a smile, too, in the ginger-brown eyes.  He wore no hat, and his red hair gleamed in the sunlight above the waxy pallor of his cheeks.  Under his arm was a black leather book, probably the Bible, and his hands, with their spray of warts, were kneading each other in a Uriah Heep fashion.  He glanced rather furtively at Buck and then more steadily at me. 

"Ah good morning, Dr. Westlake.  A shocking tragedy--but a beautiful morning.  The Lord's compensation."  He hesitated.  "I was wondering if you would care to take a little stroll with me."  

There was nothing I would care to take less.  I was about to say so when he added: 

"There is something--ah--quite important.  I would be grateful to have your advice."  (1943)

"Touch the screen!"
capture of Phil Collins mugging it as a smarmy,
wealthy televangelist in the satirical 1991
Genesis video of the song "Jesus He Knows Me"
That added pious, empty platitude about "The Lord's compensation" (as if nice weather can compensate for a woman's tragic murder) shows the hand of true natural writer.  How many times over the decades have we seen those horrid smiles on the faces of sickeningly fulsome, donations-beseeching celebrity television ministers?

Whether or not it's my favorite Stagge, The Scarlet Circle--the '43 version--is certainly in my top three or four of them. 

I'm glad the time was taken to get right its peculiarly captivating blend of terror and whimsy, so characteristic of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Completing the Circle: The Evolution of Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle from Pulp Magazine to Hardcover Novel

Jonathan Stagge's mystery The Scarlet Circle originally appeared in the January 1936 edition of Detective Story Magazine as a short novel of some 50,000 words.  It was the third adventure of country doctor and amateur sleuth Dr. Hugh Westlake to appear in DSM, following fast on the heels of The Dogs Do Bark, another novel, and The Frightened Landlady, a novella of under 30,000 words.  Next came Murder or Mercy?, published in DSM in June 1936.  Then there was a three year lull in Dr. Westlake mysteries, until 1939, when The Stars Spell Death appeared in serial form in Argosy.

The first Dr. Westlake murder case, The Dogs Do Bark, also became the first published in book form, in late 1936 (the title changed to Murder Gone to Earth in the United Kingdom).  The next Hugh Westlake tale to be published in book form was not The Frightened Landlady or The Scarlet Circle, however, but rather Murder or Mercy?, in late 1937 (the title changed to Murder by Prescription in the US).  Why were both The Frightened Landlady and The Scarlet Circle, Hugh Westlake's second and third adventures respectively, skipped over in favor of Murder or Mercy? 

The Frightened Landlady
would have needed to have been at least doubled in length to be published as novel and, quite frankly, I'm not sure there is enough story for that, with its talking place entirely at an atmospherically shabby boarding house in Grovestown, twenty miles from from Dr. Westlake's home in Kenmore.  (TFL is being published this year, however, in a Crippen & Landru collection.)

front cover of my copy of the January 1936 issue of DSM with
The Scarlet Circle as lead story
note the prominent scarlet circle on the first murder victim's cheek
and also that someone outlined a circle in pencil
above her right eye on the red paper lantern--who done it?
As for The Scarlet Circle, which in serial form was nearly twice as long as TFL, we have a different explanation, I suspect. As I've discussed before, the real life scarlet or red circle slayings, which occurred on Long Island in October 1937, when a teenage boy and his girlfriend were shot and killed in a parked car and red circles bizarrely painted in lipstick on their foreheads, may have dissuaded Jonathan Stagge from publishing this story in novel form for several years  The 1937 murders creepily have all the markings of  a copycat crime and, in any event, for anyone after the murders to have published a novel called The Scarlet Circle, about a serial killer who painted red circles on his victims in lipstick, might have struck some as egregiously opportunistic and in very poor taste indeed.

Rather than publish The Scarlet Circle in book form as the next Jonathan Stagge after Murder or Mercy?, Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the men behind Jonathan Stagge (and Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin), as mentioned wrote an original Stagge story, The Stars Spell Death, serialized in Argosy and published as a novel in 1939.  It is, in my opinion, the poorest of all the Stagge, a rather noveletttish spy story which fizzles out in sheer silliness after a good beginning.  Still, even after that The Scarlet Circle remained set aside for several years, with the new Stagge novels appearing in print being Turn of the Table (1940) and The Yellow Taxi (1942).  But by then the Unites States had entered World War Two (with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941), and Rickie and Hugh, who had finally become American citizens, were both slated to enlist in the US Army.

The two men's incredible productivity as authors lasted throughout the mid to late 1930s and into the 1940s, but with the war it was beginning, finally, to wind down in 1942.  Let me illustrate:

The Grindle Nightmare, Q. Patrick (novel) (August)

Killed by Time (short story) (Detective Story Magazine, October) (to be reprinted in Hunt in the Dark and Other Deadly Pursuits)
The Frightened Landlady (novella) (DSM, December) (to be reprinted in HITD)


The Scarlet Circle (novel) (DSM, January)
The Hated Woman (novelette) (DSM, February) (to be reprinted in HITD)
Death Goes to School, Q. Patrick (novel) (February)

A Puzzle for Fools, Patrick Quentin (novel) (October)
The Dogs Do Bark, Jonathan Stagge (novel) (December) (serialized November 1935)
The Jack of Diamonds (novelette) (American Magazine, November)

Danger Next Door (novel) (DSM, May)
Exit before Midnight (novelette) (American Magazine, October)
Death for Dear Clara, Q. Patrick  (novel) (October)
File on Fenton and Farr, Q. Patrick (crimefile) (November)
Murder or Mercy?, Jonathan Stagge (novel) (December) (serialized June 1936)

File on Claudia Cragge, Q. Patrick (crimefile) (October)
Puzzle for Puppets, Patrick Quentin (December)

Death and the Maiden, Q. Patrick (February)
The Stars Spell Death, Jonathan Stagge (November)

Another Man's Poison (novelette) (American Magazine, January)
Turn of the Table, Jonathan Stagge  (November)

Death Rides the Ski-Tow (novelette) (April) (published in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth)
Murder with Flowers (novelette) (December) (published in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth)
Return to the Scene, Q. Patrick (September)

Portrait of a Murderer (short story) (Harper's, April)
The Yellow Taxi, Jonathan Stagge (May)
Hunt in the Dark (novelette) (Short Stories, October) (to be reprinted in HITD)

So in the eight year period from 1935 to 1942, Rickie and Hugh produced:

12 book form novels (5 Q. Patricks, 5 Stagges and 2 Patrick Quentins)
2 Q. Patrick Crimefiles, which might be termed documented novels
2 serial novels not at that time published in book form (The Scarlet Circle and Danger Next Door)
1 novella
7 novelettes
2 short stories

February 1938 True Detective article
on the October 1937 Red Circle Slayings
By the summer of '42, however, Rickie and Hugh, looking ahead to enlisting in the army in the fall, were trying to get another novel ready for fall publication, not knowing what precisely the wicked, warring world held in store for them.  Noting the two authors' predicament, one newspaper columnist expressed the hope that "the Stagge books will continue whatever else their authors are doing for Uncle Sam.  A good book can do as much for the country's morale as all the public relation work."  That pleasant thought notwithstanding, Rickie entered the US Army in September without him and Hugh having finished revising their new book project: an expansion of The Scarlet Circle.

Yes, after more than six years Rickie and Hugh, eager to get another book out, in 1942 reached back to an old pulp publication from 1936.  In the event, it was left to Hugh to complete the expansion before he entered the army in December, three months after Rickie (though they did complete a Peter and Iris Duluth mystery novelette, "Hunt in the Dark," which was published in October).  Over the three months between their respective enlistments, Hugh, Rickie's onetime protege, added some 30,000 words to The Scarlet Circle, heavily revising the text and making of it a much improved book--in my view one of the best of the Stagges.

The Scarlet Circle finally appeared in book form in May 1943, along with, later that year, a Q. Patrick spy novelette entitled "The Gypsy Warned Him."  These would be the only products of the Stagge-Patrick-Quentin consortium that year.  The next year Hugh, stationed in a cushy post at Fort Dix, New Jersey, would revise, with some limited epistolary input from Rickie, who was on his way out to the Southwest Pacific, the novelette "Murder with Flowers" into a full Patrick Quentin novel: Puzzle for Puppets, which marked the return in book form, after six years, of series characters Peter and Iris Duluth. 

This would be the Rickie and Hugh's only crime fiction publication in 1944.  As I said, the boys' output was slowing down over these war years, but, significantly for the future, Hugh, forced to go it mostly alone, was finding he was quite cable of going it mostly--or even entirely--alone.  When Rickie returned to the US in the summer of '45, he would find that his relationship with Hugh had changed in more ways than one.  Consider Rickie and Hugh's partnership yet another war casualty.

Coming soon: I take a closer look at the two Scarlet Circles, the original pulp text and the later published novel.