Friday, March 27, 2015

Neighbors! Disturbance on Berry Hill (1968), by Elizabeth Fenwick

I never can resist a map....
I bought my copy of Elizabeth Fenwick's Disturbance at Berry Hill at a used bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana back in the 1990s, when I was in school down there.  I have to be honest, it was the frontis map that did it.  I recently came across the book again and decided to read it, having never actually done so before, making this probably a near twenty-year lag between purchasing and reading! Well, better late than never, right?

Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996) is an interesting author in that she illustrates the case of talented mid-century women mystery writers who in the 1940s and 1950s moved away from true detective novels to "psychological suspense," or "domestic suspense," as Sarah Weinman calls it.

Fenwick published three detective novels during World War Two, the several straight novels in the 1940s and 1950s, before moving into suspense crime fiction with Poor Harriet in 1957.  Over the next dozen years she published seven additional crime novels, ending the run with Goodbye, Aunt Elva in 1968.

Fenwick's crime fiction was quite praised in its day by critics, including the influential reviewer Anthony Boucher. However, since then she seems to have been mostly forgotten, although Academy Chicago reprinted one or two of her books in the 1980s or 1990s.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that Disturbance on Berry Hill, her penultimate crime novel, was a a disappointment to me. In some ways it reminds me of Mary Roberts Rinehart's crime novel The Album (1933), which I also found disappointing.  Both have excellent closed settings in exclusive suburban northeastern U. S. neighborhoods, rather resembling what we Americans call "gated communities" today; but the mystery plots fall flat (that in The Album is too convoluted, that in Berry Hill too predictable).

Someone in Berry Hill is causing disturbances, prowling about and sneaking into homes, etc., causing people in the neighborhood to lock their doors for the first time (this was along time ago). Eventually there's a death, which is an even greater disturbance.  Who is behind all this? The answer, I must admit, was not a great surprise to me.

Berry Hill is a short novel, probably not too much over 40,000 words, and although I thought the setting was interesting, the characters were not as developed as I would have liked. I did note how "traditional" Berry Hill was, with all but one of the adult women residents being homemakers (one with a live-in maid) with commuting husbands; the one middle-aged career woman is sympathetically presented, but exceptional.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did, but the suspense is a tad tepid and the characters insufficiently engaging. However, from past reading I have a good opinion of Elizabeth Fenwick's writing, so I will take another look at her work, in a post that will have more about the author herself.  Also there's exciting news about Sarah Weinman and domestic suspense fiction, which I will be writing about more next week too.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carolyn Considers: "Why Women Read Detective Stories" (1930)

In 1930 True Detective Mysteries published a column by American mystery writer Carolyn Wells, in which she considered the question, "Why Women Read Detective Stories."  This may seem an odd question today, when we read so many articles about how men do not read fiction at all anymore. I recall several years ago reading a post on Martin Edwards' blog where he pointed out that at his talks on mystery fiction his audiences were mostly women.  The comments on Martin's piece as I recollect seemed to be the effect that men didn't like reading fiction or, if they did, they gravitated to action and event. Women, on the other hand, liked the cerebral aspect to detective fiction.

George Orwell: men's "consumption of
detective stories is terrific"
This view often is applied backward in time as well, to the Golden Age itself, in explaining the popularity of the British Crime Queens, read, so the argument runs, more by women; yet it is in fact precisely the opposite of the then current wisdom of those days, which was men wrote and read detective fiction in greater numbers than women.

Recalling his days working in a bookshop, George Orwell, for example, wrote that while "women of all kinds and ages" read novels by such mainstream bestsellers as Ethel M. DellWarwick Deeping and Jeffrey Farnol, "men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories....[T]heir consumption of detective stories is terrific."

To the extent that women were seen as mystery readers in the 1920s it was more as readers of "thrillers," books that were less about cogitation than palpitation. The English shocker king Edgar Wallace was said to have kept more women up at night than any man in England.

It was only with the rise in the 1930s of the novel of manners mysteries associated most strongly today with the British Crime Queens Dorothy L. SayersMargery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (and the concomitant decline of the "Humdrum" mysteries associated with male writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, J. J. Connington and John Rhode/Miles Burton--see my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery) that observers began to associate women more with detective fiction per se (in the US women readers had long been associated with the mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart and the so-called feminine HIBK--Had I But Known--school, yet these books were not considered pure detective fiction but rather watered-down "mystery" bearing some considerable relationship to the thriller).

This perceived gender shake-up accelerated after the Second World War, with the paperback revolution and the great success of hard-boiled, noir and espionage novels, all of which were seen as being more read (in droves) by sensation-oriented men in search of the visceral thrills of violence and sex, the two qualities often emphasized on the paperback covers of these books.

The "traditional" detective novel now was being associated, in a way it had not actually been for much of the Golden Age, with women readers and writers (increasingly the "official" British Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham, but also Patricia Wentworth, Georgette Heyer, Josephine Tey, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars and others).

Often elements besides the detective plot were emphasized in discussions of these books, like "love interest" (romance rather than raunch), wit (genteel repartee rather than slangy wisecracks) and minute social observation (quaint villages rather than "mean streets"), qualities that, again, were seen as appealing more to a female than a male audience. (Although in paperback these books too sometimes received the sexed-up covers we associate with hard-boiled and noir "pulp.") Eventually the term "cozy" began being broadly applied to these books and their modern day incarnations, cementing the idea that these were more "women's mysteries," the visceral American tough stuff being the natural province of the male reader.

What did Lou do?
Lou Henry Hoover and her husband, an
American president and acknowledged
detective fiction fan
But before the Second World War (certainly before the mid-Thirties), the situation was, as discussed, much different, with its being assumed that it was the male sex was the one that more preferred genuinely ratiocinative detective fiction.

So when Carolyn Wells in 1930 wondered "Why Women Read Detective Stories" this was not an odd or quirky question. Women detective fiction readers often still were seen as something of a novelty.

Wells began her article by asserting that "woman's interest" in detective fiction, though of "comparatively recent growth," was real:

The list of detective story fans, continually appearing in newspapers, includes Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Statesmen, Scientific giants, and celebrated men of all types, but never does a woman's name appear on those lists.  We are not informed that Mrs. Hoover or Queen Mary eagerly buy thrillers at the station news stands or order them from the booksellers by half dozens.  Yet recent statistics compiled by the editor of this magazine, tend to show that the interest in detective fiction is about evenly divided between the sexes.

Of course True Detective Stories, founded in 1924, was a true crime magazine and, according to authority Leroy Panek, lent "toward sensation"; but it's interesting to see Wells challenging what was then conventional wisdom about detective fiction readership.

Wells then argued that concerning detective fiction authors in the United States "there are more well-known feminine names than masculine." (However, she claimed--this may surprise people--that just the opposite was the case in England, where "there are many more celebrated masculine pens...writing detective fiction than feminine.")

Wells believed that when, after the Great War, "the better class of writers...combined the horrors of murder with the intellectual interest of problem solving, the keen logical interest present, even if partially dormant in the feminine mind, awoke, and women began to see that detective stories had a lure of their own, as compelling as crossword puzzles or village gossip."

no doubt she's now planning to curl up
with a good detective story
In the 1920s, according to Wells, women became desirous of emulating "all male pursuits," including reading detective fiction.  Woman "wanted to vote, wanted to cut her hair short, wanted to smoke, wanted to ride astride, wanted pajamas, and wanted the same untrammeled frankness of speech that man hitherto had hitherto monopolized.  These things she achieved, and it may be that detective stories fell into line."

Wells asserted to that the "feminine mind is often quicker and more direct than a man's mind....women are coming to realize more and more that detective stories appeal to the feminine mind that is willing to exercise its own peculiar gifts of logic and deduction."

Yet, Wells allowed, detective novels also offered women readers "scope for the working of their a well-written detective story [a woman reader] finds someone to pity, someone to hate, someone to become enraged at, someone to love....she tingles with fear, she sighs with relief, she revels in the dangers and dilemmas, and her quick wits try to outrun the detective in his deductions and often do.

"As for the old love stories," Wells concluded, the woman reader "knew all seven of their plots and they held no surprises for her experienced interest....detective stories proved a new field, and women have fallen for it."

"Intellect is impartially distributed between the sexes," Wells significantly added, "and if in all ages man has achieved more lasting fame, raised to himself more enduring monuments, it is not because of a superior brain, but because of a multitude of other reasons and causes, which may not be enumerated here, however."

Perhaps the male readers of True Detective Mysteries weren't ready for such an enumeration!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Classics of Negativity: A Contemporary Review of The Bronze Hand (1926), by Carolyn Wells

The hard-working Miss Wells has not often turned out so inferior a specimen of "Fleming Stone" detective story as she here exhibits.  Its faults are overwhelming in number and variety, its merits nil, and its appeal to the imagination unprovocative of the faintest response whatever.  A shady and dissolute millionaire is murdered on board a liner bound for Liverpool, his head battered in by blows of the sinister bronze hand, modeled from Rodin's original, which the victim prizes as his mascot. The tale thereafter is incessantly padded by the gabbling of the ship's passengers, false suspicions, circumstantial nonsense, precipitous love-making and the imbecile maundering of amateur sleuths.

--Review of The Bronze HandThe Saturday Review of Literature, 20 February 1926

That is one of the most complete demolitions of a mystery novel in just over one hundred words that I have read. (My review of The Monogram Murders was much longer!)

For over three decades Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was one of the most successful mystery writers in the United States.  One of John Dickson Carr's favorite mystery writers when he was an adolescent, Wells likely helped form in him his lifelong love of locked room problems. (Wells often had locked room problems in her mysteries, though unfortunately she almost invariably invokes secret passages in her solutions of them.)

After the Second World War Carr went prowling bookshops with Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen fame, collecting all of Wells' mysteries; and he had them shipped to him after he returned to England. Unfortunately, when he started reading the books he found that, as so often happens, gauzy memory did not match reality. (However, he did have an early Thirties mystery, Poison in Jest, in which a hand--alabaster?--played a role, and also from this period a shipboard mystery, The Blind Barber, so maybe he had memories of Wells' The Bronze Hand?)

In Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, I contributed an essay on Wells that offered a more positive assessment than the one offered by Bill Pronzini in Gun in Cheek, his classic book on bad mystery fiction, but even I had to admit that most of the stuff she produced in the last twenty years of her mystery-writing career ranges from indifferent to dreadful.  I still maintain that in particular her novel Vicky Van (1918) has much merit, and G. K. Chesterton agreed, so there!

Previous Classic of Negativity here.
Previous Carolyn Wells pieces: Fatal FrontispiecesRaspberry JamThe Mark of CainTrick or Treat! A HalloWells Celebration

These are some of her earlier, and better, books, but it must be admitted that she produced a lot of extreme clunkers! See Gun in Cheek and "From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: The Fleming Stone Detective Novels of Carolyn Wells" in Mysteries Unlocked for more.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sound and Fury: Enter Sir John (1928), by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Like Ianthe JerroldClemence Dane (1888-1965) and Helen Simpson (1897-1940) became original members of the Detection Club on the strength of a single detective novel, in their case the well-reviewed stage milieu mystery, Enter Sir John (1928). Also like Jerrold, at the end of their first year in the Detection Club Dane and Simpson produced a second detective novel, this one set in the publishing world, Printer's Devil (1930) (in the US Author Unknown).

After that, Helen Simpson published Vantage Striker (1931) (in the US The Prime Minister Is Dead), a sort of political crime thriller, before reuniting with Dane for a final detective novel, titled, appropriately enough, Re-Enter Sir John (1932). After the appearance of that novel, Sir John exited from the fictional stage--aside from an appearance the next year in the joint Detection Club novel Ask a Policeman (1933), in a chapter written by another hand (Gladys Mitchell, as I recollect)--and Dane and Simpson ended their own performance as collaborative crime writers.

Enter First Author
Clemence Dane
Both Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson (again like Ianthe Jerrold) were already praised mainstream novelists when they published their first detective novel.  Dane's first work of fiction, Regiment of Women (1917), drawn partly from her experience teaching at a girls' school, was quite favorably received; and her 1921 play A Bill of Divorcement was a big stage hit, later adapted as a 1932 film starring Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore (this was Hepburn's first film).

Helen Simpson, who published her first novel in 1925, had attained less success than Dane by 1928, but greater renown was to come to her when she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, for her sprawling novel Boomerang (1932).

Simpson's novel Under Capricorn (1937) in 1949 would serve as the basis for an Alfred Hitchcock film, as had Enter Sir John itself, which in 1930 Hitchcock filmed, in what I believe is an unusually faithful adaptation for the director, under the blunt title Murder! The film, one of Hitch's first talkies, stars Herbert Marshall as the actor-manager turned sleuth Sir John Menier (Sir John Saumarez in the novel).

Enter Second Author
Helen Simpson
Enter Sir John concerns the brutal poker murder of backbiting provincial stage actress Edna Druce (she's Magda Druce in the American edition, "Edna" apparently having been deemed an insufficiently lofty handle by publishers across the pond).

Martella Baring, another actress from Edna's company, is arrested for the murder, as she was discovered at the scene of the crime with the bloody poker at her feet and is believed to have had a motive for the murder.

Even Martella herself thinks she may have done the gruesome deed, albeit in a state of what the psychiatrists term mental fugue (there's discussion of this psychic malady in the book).

After her trial and conviction, actor-manager Sir John Saumarez (cradle name Jonathan Simmonds), brooding over a discrepancy in the evidence missed by everyone else and impressed by Martella's good looks and fine breeding, decides to investigate the case for himself, contending that actors can make good sleuths by applying "the technique of our art to the problems of daily life."

With the help of the wonderfully-named Novello Markham and Doucebell Dear, an appealing married couple from Martella's and Edna's acting company, Sir John finds evidence clearly pointing to one particular person as the murderer. The rest of the novel concerns Sir John's effort to attain some kind of justice.

Enter Sir John is  a well-written novel, especially effective when it focuses on provincial English stage life.  Unfortunately, as a detective novel it struck me as somewhat thin. About 40% of the novel is devoted to the arrest, trial and conviction of Martella; then Sir John begins investigating and quickly discovers the truth.  What he does about it takes up most of the rest of the novel.

In short, the book seemed to me less a tale of detection than a crime novel, with the focus more on emotional drama (although admittedly there is some detection).  This is fine, of course, except that I did not find the characters compelling enough to provide sufficient emotional tension, absent a strong puzzle interest.  I think Ianthe Jerrold's The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), like the detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, offer a better balance of good writing and plot.

Moreover, I got a bit tired of hearing about how wonderfully bred Martella was and how the dead Edna was so common and vulgar.  To be sure, Sir John makes a successful amateur sleuth character, but he did not seem to me quite memorable enough to carry the tale himself.  For me the most interesting characters were the married actors, Markham and Dear, but they remain secondary figures (for my part I would have enjoyed a whole novel about them, with or without a murder; and I should note that a few years after Enter Sir John appeared Clemence Dane published one of her most popular novels, Broome Stages, a tale about several generations of actors).

Also problematic is the resolution of the mystery, about which I feel the best thing that can be said is that it is dated. It's not likely to go over all that well with modern readers, I suspect.  Interestingly, the authors' foreword to Enter Sir John gives credit for the plot to the publisher C. S. Evans, who the authors state, should be the "third name added to the two which stand at the head of this story....they owe Mr. Evans gratitude for the happy weeks spent in developing the story...."  With all due respect to Mr. C. S. Evans from Mr. C. J. Evans (alias the Passing Tramp), I would say the plot in this case was not the strongest aspect of the story.

Reviewing Enter Sir John in the Saturday ReviewDashiell Hammett, about to forever shake up the mystery publishing world with own novels, gave the book somewhat equivocal praise. He declared that while Sir John himself had "earned a place in the small company of amateur sleuths who aren't altogether unbearable," the story had an unfortunate tendency to "slip over from mellowness into sentimentality" and was "very soggy in spots."  Nevertheless, he deemed it "agreeably told," with "an interestingly devised crime."  On the whole I would say Sir John came out far better at Hammett's hands than Philo Vance had a couple years earlier, when Hammett reviewed S. S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case.

People should read the novel themselves and see what they think, of course, but regrettably it was never reprinted in paperback and relatively cheap copies have become hard to find.  I was fortunate some dozen or so years ago to be able to purchase from a bookseller a few novels from the Detection Club library that the Club had allowed to come upon the market, and my copy of Enter Sir John is one of these (three of the books, incidentally, I sold to Martin Edwards, archivist of the Detection Club; before Martin came along the Club hadn't had an archivist, which it looks like was something it rather needed).

This copy has the Detection Club bookplate, designed by the artist Edward Ardizzone, beloved for his illustrations for children's books by Eleanor Farjeon, sister of Jefferson Farjeon, and his cousin and Detection Club member Christianna Brand, among others (see my comment on this 2010 blog post by Martin).  It also bears a dedication, dated February 1929, not long after the book was published, from Clemence Dane to Helen Simpson (as John Norris suggests below, did they exchange copies dedicated to each other?).

The game is afoot!  On the
Edward Ardizzone bookplate a mystery addict stalks
the bookshelves of the Detection Club library

Helen Simpson was an active member in the Detection Club in the 1930s and a good friend of Gladys Mitchell, one of the Club's stalwarts. My guess is that Simpson, or perhaps her husband after her death, donated this copy of Enter Sir John to the Detection Club library. She died far too young, at the age of forty-two.

Having been diagnosed with cancer in 1940, Simpson was a patient in a London hospital when the Germans began their horrific air assault on England's capital on September 7, 1940.  Under wretched conditions Simpson and other desperately ill patients were evacuated to the countryside for safety. There she died five weeks later, on October 14. She was survived by her husband and her only child, a daughter named Clemence, after her collaborator in crime fiction.  Clemence Dane lived another quarter century, but never produced any more crime fiction as far as I know.

Perhaps in this second decade of the 21st century Sir John will stage another grand entrance, and the crime fiction of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson will be brought back into print.  These books surely merit some renewed attention, given the talents of their authors.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Deadly Diversions from Detection Medley (1939), edited by John Rhode: "Blue Lias," by Ianthe Jerrold

a menagerie of murders
Detection Medley (1939) is a massive 528-page anthology of 35 mystery/crime short stories and essays by 25 members of the Detection Club, with a foreword by editor John Rhode (John Street) and a droll introduction by A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and author of, within the mystery genre, The Red House Mystery (1922).

Unlike other Detection Club works from the 1930s, like The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman, Detection Medley has not yet been reprinted (are copyright hurdles insurmountable?) and it is quite rare in its English edition. There was as well a contemporaneous American edition, Line-Up, that is easier to find, but from it were cut, most regrettably, a number of the selections.

I discuss John Street's heroic efforts to put together Detection Medley in my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, a good chunk of which is devoted to Street's career.  At one point Street discussed with Dorothy L. Sayers some suggested titles for the book, including Detective's Ditty-bag, Detection Pie and Here's to Jack Ketch. Street dryly declared he was not exactly enthralled with any of them and urged Sayers to put her "brilliant brain to work" on the problem. Perhaps it's to Sayers we owe thanks for the fact that the book was not called Detective's Ditty-bag.

With a few exceptions--for example, Margery Allingham's ironic "The Same to Us," Agatha Christie's superb "Wireless" and "Death by Drowning" and Sayers' middling "Striding Folly" and charming "The Haunted Policeman"--most of the short stories in Detection Medley should not be overly familiar (or perhaps even familiar at all) to most mystery readers.  Certainly one of the most obscure tales in the collection is "Blue Lias," by Ianthe Jerrold, whose two excellent Golden Age detective novels, The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), are shortly to appear in print again, after over eight decades, as discussed here.

I have to confess that when I saw the title of Jerrold's story I didn't know to what it referred.  I have since learned that blue lias is a formation of layered shale and limestone, rich in ammonite fossils, found in coastal southern England (my understanding is that "lias" is derived from "layers," or "lyers"). 

Southern coastal England is indeed where Jerrold's nasty little murder story takes place. "Blue Lias" bears certain resemblance to one of Freeman Wills Crofts' parable-like inverted murder stories, collected in Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) and two additional volumes, which often concern businessmen in dire need of money who resort to murder (an aspect of Crofts' work that I discuss in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery is how after the onset of the Depression Crofts' portrayal of the business world becomes quite dark).

Where Crofts tends to follow a simple moral structure and focus on material investigation, however, Ianthe Jerrold, a talented mainstream novelist, offers a more complexly characterized and psychologically persuasive tale in "Blue Lias."  In this story of about 10,000 words, petrol station owner Don Leadley feels driven to desperate measures after it becomes increasingly apparent that farmland he bought speculatively for building development likely will not be purchased by the District Council after all, to a great extent due to the influence of Mr. Cutts, a retired science professor who wants to see the area largely preserved as a scenic beauty spot.

Mr. Cutts, irreverently dubbed "Old Ammonite" by the locals on account of his predilection for treks up and down the beach in search of fossils in fallen blue lias formation, has become a mortal enemy in Leadley's eyes. What can he do about Cutts?  What do you think?

The conflict between developers and preservationists is a perennial theme in classic mystery fiction, and usually, in my reading experience, authors seem to come down on the side of the preservationists. I suspect that is where Ianthe Jerrold's heart lay as well, but she does a commendable job in "Blue Lias" of portraying the point of view of a striving 'thirties petrol station owner, driven to desperate remedies....

My only regret about Ianthe Jerrold's genre fiction is that there isn't more of it (that we currently know of).

Cwmmau ("cooma") Farmhouse in the Wye Valley,
home of Ianthe Jerrold and her spouse George Menges,
brother of concert violinist Isolde Menges
--the home is now part of the National Trust

Sunday, March 8, 2015

No Past Is Dead: The Last Talk with Lola Faye (2010), by Thomas H. Cook

the American hardcover edition
by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's
(an Otto Penzler book)
--a beautfiul edition

Lola Faye peered at me with what seemed quite deep sympathy.  "It's a sad sort of story, the one we've been going over."

"It's Southern gothic, that's for sure," I told her.  "Families with dark secrets.  The war between fathers and sons.  Selfishness.  Greed.  Violence.  The debts of the past.  Old bills too high to pay, but which keep coming in."

           --The Last Talk with Lola Faye (2009)

Anyone who reads one of the classic crime novels by Thomas H. Cook should not be surprised to learn that the Alabama-born author is an admirer of the works of the great Mississippi-born author William Faulkner. One of the famous Faulkner quotations is "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The same can be said of the past in so much of Cook's fictional work as well. In his books, as in Faulkner's, the past is palpable.

Thomas H. Cook was born in the small town of Fort Payne, Alabama, in 1947.  When Cook made his entry into the world, Fort Payne's population numbered around 6000; it has since crept up past 14,000.  Like Cook's fictional Glenville, Alabama in The Last Talk with Lola Faye, Fort Payne is not of the American South of cotton fields and crumbling plantation houses that people associate with William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.  It is not part of Alabama's Black Belt--named for the rich, dark soil--but rather the state's Appalachian Highlands.

Fort Payne, Alabama

Cook received a BA in English and philosophy from Georgia State in 1969, then went on in the 1970s to obtain advanced degrees at Hunter College (history) and Columbia University (philosophy).  He taught English and history for several years but since 1982 has made a career from writing.  His great breakthrough came, I think, when his 1996 novel, The Chatham School Affair, won the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers Association for the best novel of the year.  It was in the 1990s that Cook really hit his stride as a writer, producing what I believe are a series of crime fiction masterpieces.  The Last Talk with Lola Faye is, in my view, fully up to that 1990s standard.

In Lola Faye one can see Cook's resemblance to Faulkner as a writer (with more readily intelligible sentences).  Faulkner himself enjoyed crime fiction and wrote some legitimate mystery tales, as I discuss on the blog here.

When I first read Faulkner in high school and college in the 1980s I had been an Agatha Christie reader since the age of eight and I immediately was struck by the resemblance in some respects between classic mysteries and Faulkner's novels.  The intricate plots, the fractured narratives, the unreliable narrators--these are all literary elements that have been long familiar to mystery readers.

I found Faulkner novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! to be real page-turners, in part because of the driving need I felt simply to find out what had happened. For all the prolixity of Faulkner's (seemingly endless) paragraphs, I felt he was a terrific storyteller at heart.

So I feel about Thomas H. Cook. In prose leaner and less ornate than Faulkner's but still richly rewarding (part of the joy of reading Cook is purely the prose, his wonderful turns of phrase, such as "all our actions justified, none of them justifiable" or "life's darkest acts pool and swirl, but never go under the bridge"), Cook in Lola Faye tells another one of his intricately plotted and narrated tales of deceits and deceptions that cause grievous death and lasting despair.

Lola Faye concerns a series of deaths that struck the narrator's home town of Glenville, Alabama two decades earlier. The narrator, Luke Paige, is an embittered history professor who once had aimed to produce great narrative histories, but now churns out a dismal succession of works written in dull academese, definitely unloved and mostly unread (invariably, writes Cook of Luke, he would start out big with a "passionate concept," then watch it "shrink to a bloodless mongraph").

I won't deny that Luke is a character of particular appeal to me.  I grew up in Alabama (though farther South, in a university town) and have a history MA and PhD. I even have dared to aspire to write prose that people might actually want to read.  But the character of Luke has broader appeal, I think, as a fascinating portrait in unfulfilled aspiration, whatever the reader's exact background.

After twenty years Luke encounters another past Glenvillian, Lola Faye Gilroy, on a wintry night in St. Louis, at a sparsely attended lecture he is giving on his latest dull book.  After the lecture the two go for drinks in the lounge at his hotel.  It is clear Lola Faye wants to have a good talk. This talk between the two lasts most of the rest of the book.

Who is Lola Faye?  Well, I don't want to give away too much, but Lola Faye knew Luke's father--many said quite intimately--when she worked for him at the Glenville Variety Store. Luke's father was shot dead one night in the kitchen of his house twenty years ago, evidently by Lola Faye's jealous husband.

As Lola Faye and Luke talk, Luke's mind travels back to the past, giving us his view of these earlier events. We start to realize, of course, that the accepted explanation of things may not provide the full picture.  We also start to wonder, with Luke, about Lola Faye's motivations.  Why did she determine to meet him in St. Louis?

stopping for an appletini and a chat
--a fateful December evening meeting in St. Louis

I should add that, in addition to the strong plotting, narrative dexterity and moving characters in Lola Faye, there is a powerful sense of place, conveyed both in the overt narrative of Luke, who despises his home town, and the subtext.  One of my favorite passages in the novel occurs where Luke contrasts the Faulknerian southern town of fiction with the shabby reality that is Glenville:

Now take that domed courthouse and replace it with a gray concrete monstrosity that sits on a parched brown slope overlooking a single narrow street of squat buildings artlessly festooned with crude hand-lettered signs....

DeKalb County Courthouse, Fort Payne, Alabama--
a "gray concrete monstrosity" on a stark, slight slope, 
built in 1950,when Thomas H. Cook was but a toddler, 
replacing an improbably grandiose Victorian structure.
Happily, the grim 1950 courthouse was remodeled
a quarter-century later. For more see

This courthouse description called to my mind a bit the Barbour County, Alabama courthouse in the town of Clayton (see illustration below). In the novel there also is a Confederate war memorial in Glenville, as there is in Clayton (on the other hand Clayton also boasts an octagonal house and a tombstone shaped like a whiskey bottle, so top that). Coincidentally, just across the Barbour County northern borderline in Russell County is an unincorporated community named Glennville (two "n's"--though this was once a place where cotton planters lived.

Barbour County Courthouse, Clatyon, Alabama

For me The Last Talk with Lola Faye has, among crime novels, all the compulsive readability and narrative tension of a classic Barbara Vine or Margaret Millar (French blogger Xavier Lechard has compared Cook to Millar and he is right), along with a lasting poignancy in its depictions of place and people. It's an impressive piece of fiction.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

By the Bookplate II The Philanthropist Forger: Moe Turman, The House of the Missing and the Money that Vanished

Are people who commit crimes more likely to be attracted to crime fiction? Or does fictional crook stuff inevitably fizzle with crooks?

From this blog we know it's possible that shortly before his shoot-out with federal agents outside the Little Bohemia Lodge in 1934 John Dillinger may have relaxed by reading Rufus King's Murder on the Yacht; and we know that Asa Guy Gurney, who illegally extracted $22,500 from a bank in 1894 and was exposed by a thumb mark in a celebrated case of forensic detection, owned a copy of Christopher Bush's Dead Man Twice.

Now let's peruse the story of Moe Turman (1896-1957), the once nationally known Jazz Age financial whiz, philanthropist and forger.

the Turman bookplate
The attractive book plate of Moe Turman and his wife Anna, depicting the Hebrew Temple Menorah, graces the edition of Sinclair Gluck's first crime thriller, The House of the Missing, that I own (see illustration to the right)

The House of the Missing was originally published in 1922 by the Inter-Continental Publishing Corporation of New York and was reprinted in 1924 by Dodd, Mead and Company, one of the powerhouses of American mystery publishing during the Golden Age of detective fiction (it's this slightly later edition that the Turmans owned).

Moses "Moe" Turman was born in 1896 in the Lithuanian city of Vilna (today Vilnius), then part of the Russian Empire.  Moe was a son of Pincus and Sarah Schlossberg Turman (Moe had four siblings: Irving, Jack, Sylvia and Esther). Pincus Turman, a Vilna rabbi, brought his family to the United States in 1903, where they initially settled in Trenton, New Jersey, residing at 209 Fall Street.

Pincus Turman became rabbi of the Congregation Brothers of Israel Synagogue in Trenton for some half-dozen years before moving on to Chicago.  A 1908 booklet, Trenton's Foreign Colonies, praised his children for "attending the American schools [in Trenton] and outstripping many of their American school-mates in progress." In a dozen years young Moe would be making a name for himself in New York City, in the world of finance.

Congregation Brothers of Israel Cemetery

After working as an office boy for Samuel Phillipson & Co. in Chicago, Moe following the death of his father moved to New York in 1914, where he took courses at New York University and later attended Eron Business College from 1918 to 1921. Now the breadwinner for his family, Moe, so the story goes, in 1914 or 1915 borrowed $100 at 50% interest to send to Chicago in support of his widowed mother and his four siblings--a fateful decision. He started borrowing from others to pay off previous obligations ("borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," as Turman put it), setting up a pyramid of debt that eventually collapsed on him in 1925, making newspaper headlines around the nation.

In 1921, Turman, but 25 years of age, formed the Equity Finance and Service Company to lend money to businesses. For a time the firm seemed to be prospering and, with his wife, Anna Krasnow Turman, the "boy financier," as he was called, went in for philanthropy and society. Turman served as president of Young Judaea, a Zionist youth group founded in the US in 1909, as well as secretary of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, built in 1920.

the impressive Brooklyn Jewish Center opened in 1920

In an attempt to keep afloat a financial boat that in reality was foundering, Turman began forging the signatures of prominent businessmen on notes.  When he was arrested in 1925, prosecutors claimed that his outstanding monetary obligations totaled 1.3 million dollars, while his bank account amounted to just 14 dollars (Turman claimed his actual debt was "merely" $400,000).

sensation of 1920
Charles Ponzi (1882-1949)
Turman's forgery trial made national news in 1925, with papers comparing him, perhaps inevitably, to that infamous grandiose Twenties schemer Charles Ponzi (the Chicago Tribune dubbed Turman "Ponzi Moe").

Despite such evident scorn in the press, Turman seems to have retained a certain amount of popular sympathy within the Brooklyn Jewish community, where he had been well-liked and, indeed, much admired for his commitment to social welfare and seeming business acumen.

It was avowed that Turman had never defrauded any of the philanthropic associations with he had been involved. Turman himself fervently denied insinuations that he might have cheated charities.

The young man even declared to reporters, "I hope when it's all over I can go back to my work with charities."  And for his part the New York District Attorney stated of Turman that if his story was true he was no Ponzi but rather "a frightened young Jew who went from one debt defalcation to another."

When Turman was found guilty of second degree forgery, however, he was sentenced to five to ten years at Sing Sing.  Judge Alfred J. Talley, who presided at Turman's trial, a few months earlier had debated famed liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow on the matter of capital punishment (this shortly after the Leopold-Loeb murder trial, where Darrow had been the defense attorney); he was not a man who took a lenient view of misdoing.

Sing Sing prison by night

After the murderers Leopold and Loeb were spared death at the behest of Darrow, Judge Talley thundered: "It is not the criminals, actual or potential, that need a neuropathic hospital, it is the people who slobber over them in an effort to find excuses for their crimes." At his trial a few months later, Turman got no sympathy from Talley, who additionally recommended that the young man, who had never become a naturalized US citizen, be deported from the country at the expiration of his prison term (as Charles Ponzi would be when he was released from prison in 1934).

"I realize that deportation would be a harsh sentence for him," Judge Talley lectured Turman's defense attorney, "and that is the reason I make the recommendation.  I am sorry I cannot issue the order for deportation myself.  I want this case to be an example to young foreigners who come here and attempt to become captains of finance through criminal means."

Ultimately Turman served a little less than four years in prison.  When he was released in 1928, he was not deported, surely to Judge Talley's disgust. Indeed, in 1933 Turman was pardoned and he prospered again, more permanently this time, as the president of an office furniture company. He and his wife again became active in charities, including the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the Hudson Guild.  At his death in 1957 it is said that he had paid back "virtually all" of his debt.

As his world was about to come crumbling apart all around him in 1924, did Moe Turman seek "escape" at his house at 1047 President Street, Brooklyn, with Sinclair Gluck's thriller The House of the Missing?

Was he one of those "tired businessmen" of publishers' promotional copy who liked to relax with a good mystery?  Or maybe it was Anna Turman who read the stuff? Whatever the case, even the events that take place in The House of the Missing may not have been quite as thrilling to a lot of people as the real life secrets about to be divulged to the world concerning Moe Turman's tempestuous business ventures.

Note: a picture of Moe Turman can be seen in this contemporary news article (and don't miss the bit on "John Hoover" directly below.