Friday, December 30, 2011

Making a Killing: A Review of Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, by John Curran


In this second volume of extracts from Agatha Christie's notebooks and personal papers, author John Curran offers further illumination into the working life of Agatha Christie and how Christie became the world's most successful mystery writer.  In contrast with his first such foray, Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks, Curran this time adopts a chronological approach to his material, which I think works quite well.  Christie fans and fans of Golden Age mystery more generally will surely not want to miss this fascinating volume.

John Curran
Curran structures Murder in the Making by decade (1920s-1970s), so that we read about The Secret of Chimneys, say, on pages 95-109 and Passenger to Frankfurt on pages 375-382.  This is a more cohesive and coherent approach then was used in the first book, in my view, and it enhances the newer book significantly.

Additionally, there are interesting scraps tossed in the pot here and there: a trial section deleted from Christie's first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles; Christie's manuscript version of her article "How I Created Hercule Poirot"; a different--and superior--version of a Miss Marple short story; Christie's copious references to poisons in her notebooks; Christie's booklists and unused ideas (did you know she considered writing a detective novel based on the famous mystery game Cluedo/Clue--I didn't!).

almost became a character
in a Christie novel

Curran's opening chapter, however, is an assessment of how much Christie adhered to the detective fiction tropes established by Edgar Allan Poe and the rules for writing detective fiction promulgated by Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine.  Curran supports the view that Christie "mischievously"  and "gleefully" and "joyously" tweaked, bent, "broke" and "shattered" the rules set down by Van Dine and Knox.

What rule could this woman
be mischievously tweaking now?!

This makes for interesting reading (and Curran obviously knows the Christie books like the back of his hand--better than the back of his hand probably!), though I think Van Dine's and Knox's rules can be overemphasized.  There was no requirement that, like Jews and Christians with the Ten Commandments, Golden Age mystery novelists devoutly follow the "Rules" in detail (as Curran notes, Van Dine's injunctions are especially fussy and fiddly).  Even "Humdrum" detective fiction writers like Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street broke the rules on occasion (one of Street's books even anticipates by a quarter century a rules-bending trick used by Christie).  Heck, even Van Dine broke his own rules!

I tend to agree with Alfred Walter Stewart, who wrote Golden Age mysteries under the pen name J. J. Connington, that there was "only one reasonable convention" in detective fiction, that of the very basic principle of fair play: "The reader should always know exactly as much as the detective is supposed to know, and certainly not less than this."

Alfred Walter Stewart (J. J. Connington)
urged that basic fair play is what matters--
the reader must get all the information
that the detective gets

I believe Christie adhered to the fair play convention (though she certainly pushed boundaries). Whatever critics like Van Dine and Raymond Chandler may have said, there is nothing unfair about the solutions of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.

"Only a halfwit could guess it," complained Chandler of the solution to Orient Express.  Guess who didn't guess it.

I have this feeling that certain very intelligent people (like, oh, S. S. Van Dine and Raymond Chandler) did not like being fooled by this unprepossessing, everyday English gentlewoman named Agatha Christie. But fooled they were--and fairly fooled too.

Raymond Chandler:
sour grapes or stern truth telling?

I think the majority of Golden Age critics and readers were with me on this one.  Curran is too knowledgeable to repeat the popular canard that Christie was threatened with expulsion from the Detection Club over her solution to Roger Ackroyd (the Club did not exist when Roger Ackroyd was published), but he does write that the "civilised outrage that followed the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926 showed what a serious breach of the rules its solution was considered at the time."  I would like to see some evidence of the extent of this "outrage."  I have seen contemporary reviews praising the book in glowing terms.

This carping of mine aside, Murder in the Making is filled with notable insights, a good many of which I will list:

Curran points out that despite the fact that country house and village whodunits "have become synonymous with the name of Agatha Christie," in fact only a minority of her books--about one-third--actually take place in such settings.

We learn from Curran that Christie adapted her perennially popular mystery thriller The Secret of Chimneys into a play.  Curran deems both novel and play entertaining but "littered with loose ends, unlikely motivations and unconvincing characters" (though clearly a huge fan of Christie, Curran does not hold back from occasional negative criticism).  He is right when he asserts that the thrillers The Man in the Brown Suit and The Seven Dials Mystery "are, if not more credible, at least far less incredible" than Chimneys (and I think as a result they are superior).

The Seven Dials Mystery--
far less incredible than   
The Secret of Chimneys?

When in her eighties Christie listed And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, A Murder is Announced, Murder on the Orient Express, The Thirteen Problems, Towards Zero, Endless Night, Crooked House, Ordeal by Innocence and The Moving Finger as her favorite books among her immense output.  Curran speculates that "most fans would probably also select most of the same titles," except perhaps for The Moving Finger and The Thirteen Problems.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  For my part, I would choose And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, A Murder is Announced, Towards Zero, The Murder at the Vicarage, Death on the Nile, The A.B.C. Murders, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Five Little Pigs and Curtain.  At least at this moment!

Curran is right to stress the great popular appeal of Christie's miraculous combination of ingenuity and simplicity (the plot of Lord Edgware Dies is "audaciously simple and simply audacious," he writes). Accomplished detective novelists like R. Austin Freeman and John Street often are ingenious, but their rigorously applied scientific methodology can seem trying and "heavy" to some modern readers, no doubt.  The same is true, one might argue, of many of Dorothy L. Sayers' clever plots.

"audaciously simple and simply audacious"

Curran notes the sophisticated milieus of both Lord Edgware Dies and Three Act Tragedy.  It may surprise condescending Christie critics today, but many critics and fans in the 1930s considered Christie a witty and sophisticated writer, just like Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Curran discusses the discrepancy between the motives given for the killer in the American and English editions of Three Act Tragedy (something I noted last year in an article), but unfortunately the reason for this discrepancy is one mystery the notebooks do not solve!

"The Mystery of the Altered Motive"

Curran notes Christie's deepened interest in character development in many of the 1940s tales, like Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs and The Hollow, a point that cannot be made often enough as far as I am concerned.  Christie's condescending journalistic critics have missed this point completely, though academics have been aware of it for some time now.  I think you can see this trend beginning in the late 1930s with Death on the Nile, however (it has far more interesting characters than, say, the earlier Murder on the Orient Express).

Curran accurately notes the darkness at the heart of The Body in the Library, a book recently rather mocked by P. D. James for its alleged artificiality and supposed lack of forensic credibility.

dark heart

Curran provides a brilliant analysis of Hercule Poirot's under-appreciated swan-song, Curtain, the best such I have read.  Curran shows the idea for Curtain percolated several years in Christie's brain before it was written (probably in 1940). Fascinating stuff here!

brilliant analysis

Curran shows Christie considered including the egregiously jolly Tommy and Tuppence in They Came to Baghdad.  Blessedly, she had second thoughts.  She also thought of including Ariadne Oliver and her brother (?!).  Now this would have been interesting.  Curran notes that Christie took over 100 pages of notes for Baghdad and that the lightweight thriller gave her more trouble with plotting than many of her much more complex whodunits.

Curran praises Cat Among the Pigeons, despite what he terms its "abundance of femininity."  Well, it is set at a girl's school!  Interestingly, there is a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel, Mystery on Southampton Water, that has not a single female character in it.  Maybe the two books should be read concurrently, as gender antidotes to one another!

Cat Among the Pigeons--
an "abundance of femininity"

Curran contends that Christie "used poison as a murder method more often than any of her contemporaries."  I would like to test this assertion against Christie's contemporary John Street. Though John Street was the Golden Age Master of Murder Means and could design practically any way humanly (or inhumanly) conceivable to kill a person he, like Christie, loved poison and used it a great deal in his books.  He wrote over 140 mysteries.

Christie and poison: a match made in...


Curran contends that Christie wrote only two "pure whodunits" in the 1960s: The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side and A Caribbean Mystery.    He deems her best novels from this period The Pale Horse and Endless Night, a judgment with which many Christie fans (including this one) would agree, I think. Yet I think that he is a tad hard on The Clocks*("an inexplicably disappointing offering" he calls it) and I believe At Bertram's Hotel has its appeal, even if the plot is a bit dodgy.  Curran reveals that as she aged Christie increasingly relied on a Dictaphone, to the detriment of her work (the same thing happened with John Street).

(*note to John on The Clocks--could "Florence Elks" be the American woman mystery writer Craig Rice?)

Curran shows that the notebooks reflect Christie's slackening grip on plotting in the 1960s and 1970s. There is the narrative shakiness of Third Girl, for example, the novel which Curran deems the weakest of Christie's 1960s mysteries.  "This [narrative] uncertainty [in Third Girl] is mirrored in [Christie's] notes," writes Curran.  Similarly, By the Pricking of My Thumbs has notes "more unfocused than usual."  There are good ideas, to be sure, but they are shakily developed.

Curran is equally forthright about the weaknesses of Christie's 1970s books. Nemesis "is more impressive in its emotional power than its plotting....rambling and repetitive"; "there is little in the way of plot at all in Passenger to Frankfurt....the only reason that [it] was even published is that it had the magic name of 'Agatha Christie' on the title page"; "Postern of Fate is the poorest book of [Christie's] career...one which, in retrospect, should never have been published" [very true--and yet it's still in print and is still being read--the name "Agatha Christie" indeed is talismanic!].

"should never have been published"
 (let alone endlessly reprinted)
Despite the weakness of the 1970s novels and the confusion in the later notebooks, Curran notes that Christie started up with a new plot idea in late 1973, right after the publication of the dreadful Postern of Fate.  He thinks the idea a quite intriguing one that would have marked a "radical departure" for the aged Queen of Crime (it is rather psychological in approach).  But, unfortunately, Christie, who had just over two more years to live and whose health was rapidly declining, was unable to carry her bright idea beyond its initial jottings.

There is additional interesting material in Murder in the Making besides the notebooks and Curran's analysis of them.

From Christie's booklists we learn that the Queen of Crime read John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Leo Bruce, Ngaio Marsh, Andrew Garve, Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, Hilary Waugh, Mignon Eberhart, E. R. Punshon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Clayton Rawson, Elizabeth Ferrars and Georges Simenon.

From Christie's 1938 essay on Poirot (written in 1937) we learn that Christie, sounding rather like her esteemed sister in crime Dorothy L. Sayers, is taking "more interest in my characters" and seeing "them more as real people and less as pawns in the game."

Especially interesting is the Miss Marple short story "The Case of the Caretaker's Wife," appearing in this version for the very first time in Murder in the Making.  Curran is right that this version of the tale is vastly superior to the earlier published version, "The Case of the Caretaker."  Indeed, it is now one of the best Miss Marple short stories, with a much better-grounded village setting.  Yet the basic problem remains that Christie cannibalized the story for one of her most admired novels, Endless Night. Probably most people still will prefer the novel to the story.

As I come to the close of this long review, I will just express my hope that I conveyed some of the interest Murder in the Making has for the Christie fan.  No true fan of the Queen of Crime would want to miss it.  Moreover, all admirers of Golden Age mystery fiction in general should give it a look as well.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Tale of Mr. Fergus Hume and Mr. William Freeman; or, The Reviewer's Comeuppance

Despite having produced over 130 mystery novels between 1886 and 1932, the year of his death, the English born, New Zealand raised author Fergus Hume (1859-1932) is known — to the extent he is known at all today — mostly for one work, his debut murder tale, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886).
Fergus Hume
at the height of his success
Accounts typically claim that over 500,000 copies of Hansom Cab were quickly placed into eager purchasers’ hands (some sources suggest up to as many as a million copies may have been sold), making the novel a landmark financial success within the mystery genre.

After relocating from New Zealand to Australia in the 1880s and finding employment as a barrister’s clerk, Fergus Hume soon manifested marked literary tendencies. He published a few stories and began writing plays, but the latter efforts went nowhere. Determining that what the public really desired was a murder tale, Hume pored over the celebrated mystery novels of the French author Emile Gaboriau (1832-1873). Then he produced his own crime story, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

Finding resistance among Australian publishers to this work too, Hume was forced to the expedient of privately printing it. To everyone’s amazement the novel sold briskly. Hume then made the mistake of his life, for a pittance parting with the book’s copyright to an Australian publisher who soon had it flying off shelves not only in Australia but Great Britain and the United States. Apparently Hume never made a penny off the book again.
The novel that made Hume's name
if not his fortune
Undaunted by this ill turn of economic fortune, Hume determined to make his living as a novelist. By 1888 he had moved to England (where he would live the rest of his life) and had ditched his grasping Australian publisher. The next year saw the publication of Hume’s first mystery novel set in England, The Piccadilly Puzzle.
the first Hume mystery novel
to be set in England
A fascinating review of The Piccadilly Puzzle appeared in the inaugural issue of Zealandia, a short-lived New Zealand literary journal (it ran for twelve issues). The reviewer of Puzzle, William Freeman, was also the editor of Zealandia and a prominent New Zealand journalist of his day. Freeman's review of the tale is acute--most notably in my view it persuasively faulted Hume's tale on what can be seen as fair play grounds (a criticism we tend to associate today only with the Golden Age of detective fiction, c. 1920-1939)--but it also is strikingly harsh in tone. However, if Hume was offended by this review, he soon enough had the last laugh on Freeman.

Before I get to the Zealandia review and the bizarre fate of the reviewer, however, some words about The Piccadilly Puzzle are necessary.

Clearly inspired by the recent Jack the Ripper murders (as was another Victorian mystery novel published at this time, Benjamin Farjeon’s Devlin the Barber--see my previous post), The Piccadilly Puzzle revolves around the mysterious murder of a woman on a foggy night in a major London thoroughfare.
The horrific Ripper murders likely inspired both
Hume's The Piccadilly Puzzle and Farjeon's Devlin the Barber
The woman, initially thought to be a “streetwalker” (shades of the Whitechapel killings) soon is identified as a certain Miss Sarschine, the mistress of a prominent lord who, it seems, has just eloped to the Azores on his private yacht with another lord’s wife. The dead woman was not strangled or stabbed but, rather, poisoned — the poison apparently being one of those convenient tropical toxins utterly unknown to Western science, the use of which later would be much frowned upon in the Golden Age of the detective novel.

Perhaps not coincidentally, poor defunct Miss Sarschine, that lovely lady of easy virtue, had a pair of Malay kris, complete with fatally poisoned blades, hanging on a wall of her love nest (apparently deadly poisoned kris on the wall add just that right final touch to a romantic evening).
A Malay Kris--
 just the thing for love nest decor?
The London police put a private detective named Dowker entirely in charge of the case (something which struck me as rather odd). As a character this Mr. Dowker is not interesting at all, but, worse yet, he has a “colorful” Cockney sidekick, a street urchin named Flip, who speaks like this:

“ ’e gives me sumat to eat when I arsks it, so I goes h’up to cadge some wictuals, I gits cold meat, my h’eye, prime, an’ bread an’ beer, so when I ’ad copped the grub, I was a-gittin’ away h’out of the bar when a swell cove comes in — lor’ what a swell — fur coat an’ shiny ’at. Ses to the gal, ses ’e….”

As much as I admire Hume’s perseverance in producing so many apostrophe marks, I have to confess my eye flew past Flip’s speeches as fast as was possible (did the Baker Street Irregulars ever speak quite so irregularly?).

The mystery in The Piccadilly Puzzle is certainly as convoluted as Flip’s speech (in addition to untraceable poisons, Hume for good measure also throws twins — another Golden Age no-no — into the mix as an additional plot complication); but, alas, it is not really fair play, an overheard confession being necessary to accomplish the killer’s exposure.

Hume became known for having a favored narrative construction in many of his mystery tales, whereby a series of individuals are suspected in turn, only to have Hume pull a “surprise” culprit out of his top hat.

To be sure, this keeps the story churning along, but makes the wary reader immediately look for the culprit among the characters whom no one suspects. It’s the least likely suspect gambit famously associated with Agatha Christie, but Hume lacks the great Golden Age Crime Queen’s uncanny finesse.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Piccadilly Puzzle is not merely the sexual immorality (or amorality) of the characters--after all sensation novels are nothing without sensation and were criticized on moral grounds before--but the striking casualness in which it is portrayed by the author.

One would conclude from this tale that the English aristocracy in 1889 was hopelessly debauched. One lord seduces a young woman, sets her up in a London love nest, then commences an affair with a woman married to another lord (in an exceedingly odd twist, this woman turns out to be the identical twin sister of his aforementioned mistress).

Additionally, we learn that the straying wife had already had a sexual affair with another, younger man, before breaking with this man to marry the lord (she was ambitious for a title). After learning of his wife’s wayward ways the lord she married regrets that he impulsively wed the hussy rather than simply made her his mistress, as the other lord did with the other sister.

“Sounds like the second act of a French play,” remarks one character. Indeed!

It is perhaps worth noting that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published a year after The Piccadilly Puzzle. Wilde’s famous short novel incurred some considerable criticism that year as “nauseous,” “unclean,” “effeminate” and “contaminating.”

While Fergus Hume clearly had not attempted a work of literary ambition in The Piccadilly Puzzle, he nevertheless in the tale gave readers a whiff (whether fragrant or foul depending on the individual) of fin de siecle decadence.
Was Fergus Hume's The Piccadilly Puzzle 
 as "unclean" and "contaminating"
as Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray?
Which brings us, finally, to William Freeman’s hostile piece on The Piccadilly Puzzle in the pages of Zealandia. It's one of the most scathingly detailed review of a mystery novel I have encountered. In Freeman’s eyes, the work was a failure on all counts: (1) literary (2) technical (3) moral.

At the time Freeman wrote his condemnatory review of Hume’s fifth mystery tale, Hume was a New Zealand national celebrity, author of, as Freeman put it, “the most successful novel of the day.”

To be sure, Hume soon would be overtaken and surpassed by Arthur Conan Doyle, who had already published A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and would produce, in an explosion of creative genius, The Sign of Four and the dozen short stories comprising The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1890-1892.
Sherlock Holmes tales such as this one
soon eclipsed the works of Fergus Hume
Yet by producing mystery tales at an awesome rate — he was, along with the later Edgar Wallace and John Street, one of the most prolific producers in the history of the mystery genre — Hume managed to maintain a relatively successful writing career over the next quarter century or so.

Only after the outbreak of World War One, when he lost his American publisher, suffered the onslaught of superior detective fiction writers of the Golden Age like Freeman Wills Crofts and Agatha Christie and saw his health decline did Hume find his financial prospects darkening. His last years were spent in a single rented room in a bungalow and he died in near poverty, only a couple years after his onetime rival Conan Doyle.
Fergus Hume later in life
Yet those dark days were a long way off in 1889, when Hume was still big news and interest in his literary fate was high, especially in New Zealand, where he was the colonial who had astonished the writing world (even if he had not always impressed it: “What a swindle The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is,” wrote Arthur Conan Doyle disgustedly in a letter at this time. “One of the weakest tales I have read, and simply sold by puffing.”).
Not Fergus Hume's No. 1 Fan
Like Conan Doyle, William Freeman, a noted controversialist in his day, was not one to be intimidated by fame. Freeman himself had authored in 1889 a sensation tale (modeled on Charles Dickens) entitled, with unwitting prescience on his part, He Who Digged a Pit.

In the very opening lines of of his review of The Piccadilly Puzzle, Freeman made his poor opinion of Hume’s latest crime novel brutally plain. The book, he wrote damningly–

“…is not a tale: it is a bald bare plot, with nothing good and pleasing to recommend it. It has absolutely none of the touches of poetic descriptive, pathos and humor which explain the popularity of [Hume's] earlier books. There is not a fine sentiment in it from cover to cover; no tender chords are stirred by a single passage; there is no delicate shading, no touch of an artists’ hand; nothing new–no anything but a sombre, highly sensational plot, and an unadorned description of an impossible detective’s unavailing efforts to unravel the tangled clues of a crime, the original of which is clearly one of the Whitechapel murders.”

In addition to finding The Piccadilly Puzzle poorly written — its prose lacked the “beauties which hid the repulsiveness of the plots in [two of Hume's earlier tales, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and Madame Midas]” — Freeman damned the book as well for essentially failing to adhere to what some thirty years later, in the Golden Age of the detective novel, would be called the fair play standard.

In Freeman’s eyes Fergus Hume did not play fair with his readers but, rather, with shameless mendacity led them down the garden path:

“The most remarkable feature about the characters is that very nearly all of them (the hero included) scatter about a reckless profusion of lies, introduced not at all because they are necessary but solely to mystify the reader. The author leads the way himself in this deception, for at the very outset he deliberately misleads the reader as to the thoughts of the murderer (pp. 5 and 7) and throws suspicion on the hero by making him start at hearing mentioned the name of the street in which the murder is committed (p. 6), though at the time he had no idea that any murder had been perpetrated and there was no reason he should attach more importance to a mention of Jermyn Street than any other street in the city. It is permissible in fiction to so relate actions as to infer [sic] that an innocent man is guilty, but surely both the above artifices are unjustifiable.”

Freeman also takes Hume to task at length for the numerous improbabilities the author scattered throughout his tale, ending by asserting, “to solely construct a whole plot out of nothing else [but improbabilities] is straining the credulity of readers too far.”

Having disposed of Fergus Hume’s writing and plotting to his own evident satisfaction, Freeman then proceeded to blast The Piccadilly Puzzle for sundry moral transgressions. This line of argument was to prove ironic in the face of Freeman’s own subsequent behavior.

“The worst feature of the book,” thundered Freeman righteously, “is its moral tone.” In Freeman’s horrified eyes, the characters of The Piccadilly Puzzle wallowed “in a seething mass of moral corruption which the author cynically disdains to hide behind the slightest shadow of the veil of decency."  Even the heroine's moral conduct Freeman deemed objectionable.

In Freeman's view, Hume seemed “to consider it natural that everybody should be immoral.” The author portrayed this immorality “with a coarse fidelity” that Freeman found “positively repulsive.”

Freeman closed his resoundingly minatory review article by expressing his “emphatic condemnation” of other New Zealand writers embarking on such a “dangerous” literary course as Fergus Hume had. Hume now represented New Zealand before the eyes of the world, Freeman noted. Sadly, he had shirked his duty as an author to stand with that “which is clean, wholesome and pure-minded.”

I personally would love to know what Fergus Hume made of Freeman’s review of The Piccadilly Puzzle.  And of the sudden and surprising downward turn in Freeman’s own personal fortunes.

Zealandia soon went defunct and in 1890 Freeman (whose full name was William Freeman Kitchen) had become the editor of the Dunedin Globe. A year later he resigned from the paper, amid great controversy. (The paper under his management made what were later determined by government investigation to be baseless charges against the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, its offices were subjected to arson and Freeman was found to have lied about the large amount of money the paper was losing each month).  Then, over the next few years, Freeman's own life suddenly became something out of a sensation novel.
After Zealandia went defunct
Freeman's fortunes took a sharp turn--
for the worse
By 1893 Freeman had moved to Australia, where it was announced in a newspaper that he had died, leaving behind his wife and two children in New Zealand. Yet that same year Freeman was discovered in the flesh, very much alive and in the company of a female correspondent. He had, it seems, falsely announced his own death. He was arrested and tried for desertion and bigamy. Ultimately he committed suicide in 1897, at the age of 34.

Truly, a turn of events almost (if not quite) as odd as those in The Piccadilly Puzzle! As far as I know, however, no twins and no tropical poisons unknown to science were involved in the real life William Freeman Kitchen mystery.

Fergus Hume would go on for about another three decades to write an unbroken string of nearly one hundred more mystery tales–though his name survives in genre history mostly as the author of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. While Hume’s The Picadilly Puzzle may be justly forgotten as a mystery tale, William Freeman’s fascinating review of the novel deserves to be remembered.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Eminent Victorian Sensationalists: Short Works by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and Benjamin Farjeon

For this piece I read three succinct “sensationalist” works by a trio of popular Victorian authors: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “The Mystery at Fernwood”(1862), Wilkie Collins’ “Who Killed Zebedee?” (1881) and Benjamin Leopold Farjeon's short novel Devlin the Barber (1888).
Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Wilkie Collins
Braddon and Collins of course are very well-known writers today.  Benjamin Farjeon, like one of his sons, the Golden Age mystery writer Jefferson Farjeon (see my previous blog posts), has been largely--and undeservedly--forgotten.
Benjamin Farjeon
All three of these works offer believable characters and intriguing and emotionally compelling situations, although they offer more "mystery" than fair play detection as the Golden Age understood it.

“The Mystery at Fernwood” and “Who Killed Zebedee?” are longer short stories (about forty and twenty-five pages, respectively; the latter is also known, more prosaically, as "Mr. Policeman and the Cook").
Grandmother of Gothic fiction
In “Fernwood” Mary Elizabeth Braddon effectively mines the Gothic tradition that had first been struck in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and that perhaps produced it richest early lode of ore with Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). In some of Braddon’s triple-decker sensation novels, appealing mystery elements in my view are too much submerged in love stories, but that is not so with the lean and spare Fernwood.

In this tale, a young woman finds not only mystery but grave menace when she visits Fernwood, the decaying Yorkshire country estate of her fiancee.
Just the right spot for a murder....
“No, Isabel, I do not consider that Lady Adela seconded her son’s invitation at all warmly,” fatefully announces the heroine’s aunt in the first line of the story.

“Fernwood” is a rattlingly suspenseful tale (even if you pierce the veil of the mystery quickly, as you probably will) and a fine example of the grand and hallowed Gothic tradition that has extended right up to this day in such mystery genre works as Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur (2005).
With its title and its setting (a lodging house full of eccentric characters), Wilkie Collins' "Who Killed Zebedee?" at first seems to have popped straight out of the pages of a 1920s or 1930s Golden Age short story collection, yet amazingly it was published in 1881.
In the opening pages of the tale, a frantic cook bursts into a police station, armed with a doleful tale of murder at the lodging house in which she is employed. The victim is one John Zebedee, who was stabbed to death in his bed.

Suspicion immediately falls on Zebedee’s wife, a somnambulist. People fearing a repetition of another Wilkie Collins tale that shall remain nameless will be pleased to see other suspects emerge among the company of lodgers, most obviously the dandified Mr. Deluc. Desirous of helping the law is the nosy elderly spinster Miss Mybus, an interesting early incarnation of a mystery genre character type most strongly associated today with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

In "Who Killed Zebedee?" nosy, elderly Miss Mybus
anticipates Miss Marple by nearly half a century
The attention to police procedure and the thumbnail character sketches in “Zebedee” are strikingly  good, making one wish that the tale had been expanded into a full-length novel. As it stands,”Zebedee” is a disappointment as a tale of detection, with the solution coming essentially fortuitously.

To be blunt, “Zebedee” is more luckstone than Moonstone. Collins is more interested here in exploring character, however, and he does this very well indeed, even providing a surprisingly ambivalent ending in the modern fashion.

The only novel among these three works is Devlin the Barber, a potent admixture of mystery and horror elements authored by the prolific novelist Benjamin Farjeon (also father of, in addition to Jefferson, Eleanor Farjeon, the beloved children’s book writer).

Luridly advertised on London billboards with an illustration of a young woman bloodily stabbed by a seeming maniac, the book appeared the same year as the Jack the Ripper serial killings horrified England (what are considered to be the "canonical" Ripper murders took place in 1888 between the dates of August 31 and November 9; Farjeon’s work appeared in serial and book form later that year). Devlin the Barber seems quite obviously to draw on the Ripper killings, as well as the gruesome folk legend of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber.
Sweeney Todd: like Jack the Ripper
a clear influence on Devlin the Barber
Devlin the Barber was called a “disagreeable but certainly ingenious tale” when it first appeared and since then has customarily been deemed the best of Farjeon’s many fictional works (only a small number of which were of sensationalist nature). Three years before the appearance of Devlin, Farjeon had written Great Porter Square (1885), the first of several praised mystery novels. The man clearly had a talent for crime writing, even though Devlin surely to an extent has to be seen as an opportunistic effort (if an inspired one).

Despite its obvious linkage with Jack the Ripper, Devlin opens with only one slaying, that of a proper, middle class young woman who for some reason was keeping a secret late-night assignation. After she is found fatally stabbed, it is learned that her twin sister has disappeared (twins were quite popular in crime books before the stricter rules-making Golden Age frowned on them).

The young ladies’ wealthy uncle, lately returned from Australia, for no particularly compelling reason offers the narrator of the tale, an out-of-work, middle-class friend of the family, a grand sum to solve the case (naturally he has no faith in the police being able to do it).

The narrator soon finds that the murdered woman had a gentleman friend, but he seems like a winning young man (he is even wealthy and has a responsible guardian). The most striking event occurs, however, when the narrator is called upon for help by his former nursemaid, Mrs. Lemon (could this have been the mother of Hercule Poirot’s future secretary?!). It seems Mrs. Lemon has a very odd lodger indeed, a barber named Mr. Devlin….
Could the mother of Hercule Poirot's secretary
have encountered Devlin the Barber?
Mrs. Lemon’s tale of her frightening lodger, which takes up over a fourth of the book (fifty of the Arno Press edition’s 190 pages), is a tour de force of horror narration. It is almost a disappointment when we come back to the mystery investigation. But now we have a new investigator of the heinous murder: Mr. Devlin himself! If you thought this novel was going to take the same turn of events as Marie Belloc Lowndes’ fine Ripper tale, The Lodger (1913), think again.

More could be said about this fascinating novel, but I will leave the reader to seek out the book for herself. I will simply add that, in contrast with some lesser Victorian tales of sensation, the narrative throughout Devlin the Barber is smooth and idiomatic, a reader’s delight. Even the cry of the murdered woman’s beloved is not nearly so melodramatic as the contrived speeches one often finds, for example, in the works of the noted American mystery writer Anna Katharine Green: 

"Neither will I rest till I discover the murderer of my darling girl! And when I discover him, when he stands before me, as there is a living God, I will kill him with my own hands!”

As the plaint of a grieving young Victorian-era man it rings true to me.

The long section of narrative that Farjeon gives to Mrs. Lemon is especially impressive. Like the better-known Braddon and Collins, Farjeon was an effective spinner of tales; and he very much deserves at least a modest revival.

Anyone wanting a good murder story from the Victorian era is advised to seek out these works by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and Benjamin Farjeon. They may be old, but they still speak to us today. During the last decade “The Mystery at Fernwood” and “Who Killed Zebedee?” have been reprinted in attractive editions by Hesperus Press, an admirable publisher of shorter literary classics. Devlin the Barber merits inclusion in this eminent company of Victorian writers.

Did you catch his name?...

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Late Christmas Number: Mystery in White (1937), by Jefferson Farjeon

No, it's not the Orient Express....

"It snowed all day and all night.  On the 22nd it was still snowing.  Snowballs flew, snowmen grew.  Sceptical children regained their belief in fairyland, and sour adults felt like Santa Claus, buying more presents than they had ever intended.  In the evening the voice of the announcer, traveling through endless white ether, informed the millions that more snow was coming....

More snow came.  It floated down from its limitless source like a vast extinguisher.  Sweepers, eager for their harvest, waited in vain for the snow to stop.  People wondered whether it ever would stop."

--Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White (1937)


A classic English mystery setting

People stranded in a country house cut off from the outside world by snow, with murderous events afoot.  It's a classic and beloved Golden Age murder mystery scenario and it's one Jefferson Farjeon used in his 1937 thriller Mystery in White.  To top it all off, the tale takes place over Christmas eve and Christmas day.

As the splendid dust jacket reveals, a train is involved too, albeit briefly.  Like Agatha Christie's Orient Express, this train gets stalled by snow.  Five passengers--a clerk, a chorus girl, an elderly paranormal investigator and a genteel brother and sister--make their way off the train with their luggage to find a connection at a nearby station. 

The wayfarers get lost in the snow, of course, but providentially they come upon a large country house, front door unlocked.  No one seems to be in the house (though what was that noise in the attic?!), but fires are set and the table is properly laid for tea (though what's that bread knife doing on the floor?!).

Was the bread knife used on something
besides bread?!

In short, we, the readers, are encountering a favorite Jefferson Farjeon thriller scenario: stranded people encountering mystery and murder in an isolated building (this pattern goes all the way back to the author's 1920s mystery play No. 17, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock; see also such novels as Sinister Inn and The Windmill Mystery). Queer noises occur, strangers--some perhaps malevolent--wander in and out, mysterious circumstances pile up like the snow drifts outside the house.  By adding Christmas to the mix, Farjeon has made a cozily creepy crime confection for our delectation. It's not over-taxing for the brain, but it's quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Dorothy L. Sayers
 declared Jefferson Farjeon
"quite unsurpassed for creepy skill
 in mysterious adventures"

"Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures," Dorothy L. Sayers once proclaimed of one of her favorite mystery writers, gifting Farjeon's publishers on both sides of the Atlantic with a pleasing blurb for years to come.  Other critics who shared Sayers' esteem for Farjeon were the American author and playwright Paul Wilstach ("Jefferson Farjeon writes corkers....He inevitably gives delight") and the American critic and scholar William Lyon Phelps ("Jefferson Farjeon is one of my favorite providers of murder.  He knows how to give distinction...by an excellent literary style").

English thriller tales from the 1920s and 1930s generally have a bad reputation today, frequently being condemned for their exhibitions of racism and xenophobia.  Certainly this is true of much of the work of the egregious Sydney Horler, say, or the more talented but still sometimes admittedly quite objectionable H. C. McNeile ("Sapper").

Some Golden Age crime thrillers by Sapper
have a rather unpleasant edge

H. C. McNeile ("Sapper")
creator of Bulldog Drummond
Yet Jefferson Farjeon's thrillers tend to be more gentle and whimsical (even as the body count rises).  Farjeon himself by all accounts was a mild and kindhearted man, a brother of children's author Eleanor Farjeon and a son of Benjamin Farjeon (1838-1903)--a popular Victorian author who venerated Charles Dickens--and himself a vegetarian and pacifist (his Cold War apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Death of a World, is a passionate protest against the post-WW2 arms race).  Surely not unexpectedly, his thrillers reflect his family background and personality.

Jefferson Farjeon
a kindler, gentler English thriller writer

In Mystery in White, Farjeon presents his chorus girl and clerk with empathy (in one chapter a Walter Mitty-like fantasy sequence representing the fever-dream of the clerk is quite amusingly done), though in this one the genteel brother and sister play more active roles.  Events get quite tangled, but all finally is revealed (though not really deduced).  The dilatory police eventually do show up near the end of the novel, but in another resemblance to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None England's finest don't get things quite right. 


Mystery in White (1937) shares a certain affinity
with The Mousetrap (1952)

In addition to And Then There Were None, Mystery in White also somewhat resembles the celebrated Christie play The Mousetrap, though it must be admitted that it's neither as clever nor as sinister.  But Christie fans (and all "cozy" English mystery fans) should enjoy this representative Farjeon tale.  It's not his best, but it makes a nice holiday Golden Age mystery treat.

For more on Jefferson Farjeon, see http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/11/another-pass-by-jefferson-farjeon-1883.html and http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/11/passing-tramp.html

My ex-library copy of Mystery in White
(obviously nearly read to death)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lord Ernest William Hamilton (1858-1939), Mystery Writer

Lord Ernest William Hamilton (1858-1939) certainly came from one of the more elite backgrounds among British mystery writers.  His father was James Hamilton, first Duke of Abercorn (earlier he had been merely Marquess of Abercorn--and before that there had been nine Earls of Abercorn, going back to 1606).  During the reign of Queen Victoria, the Duke served in the Privy Council and was twice Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.
James Hamilton,
1st Duke of Abercorn, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland,
and, last but surely not least, father of a mystery writer
Ernest Hamilton was the youngest of fourteen children of the Duke of Abercorn and his wife, Louisa, daughter of John Russell, the sixth Duke of Bedford.  Like four of his brothers, he served for a time as a Conservative member of parliament, but he was also known in his day as an accomplished man of letters, publishing several volumes of memoirs, as well as theological studies and novels.
John Russell,
6th Duke of Bedford,
Lord Ernest Hamilton's maternal grandfather
Among Lord Ernest's novels, which include several works of historical fiction (such as The Outlaws of the March, 1897 and The Mawkin of the Flow, 1898) are at least two books that clearly fall with the mystery genre: a thriller, The Perils of Josephine (1899), and a much later detective novel, published when Lord Ernest was seventy years old, The Four Tragedies of Memworth (1928).

Both Perils of Josephine and Tragedies of Memworth (particularly the former tale) bear resemblance to the Victorian triple-decker sensation novel associated with Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, among others.  A contemporary review of Perils of Josephine, in which rather bored reference is made to Lord Ernest leading the title character, Josephine ("that unhappy young person"), "through a series of experiences with bolting horses, sliding panels, crazed cousins, wicked priests, and burning houses," gives some idea of the style in which it was written (yes, it even draws on traditional English anti-Catholicism).
Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Queen of the Victorian Sensation Novel

Wilkie Collins
King of the Victorian Sensation Novel
The admittedly jaded reviewer went on to dismiss, in rather amusing fashion, the whole sensation or Gothic fiction genre as hopelessly outmoded and old-fashioned at the dawning of a new century (the twentieth):

"A strong impression remains with the [modern] readers that 'these things are not done.'  In our well-policed days, the most malevolent of wicked uncles whom our father's will is keeping out of his rights is hardly the cloaked and sinister figure that he was.  Our rival in love is not so likely to drop poison into our tea as to pity us for our unfortunate taste in collars.  Our athletic young women, with their inches and their biceps, cannot be counted upon to swoon when the panel slides back, but would probably make things unpleasant for the slider."
The athletic, bicycling young women of the 1890s
could not be expected to swoon at the sight of a sliding panel
When, nearly three decades later, Lord Ernest published The Four Tragedies of Memworth, it was at the height of the Golden Age of detective fiction, with its rules (one of the most famous sets propounded by Ronald Knox) designed to mark a clear aesthetic boundary between the detective novel and the thriller (or shocker, as it was sometimes called).  The novel was grabbed by the up and coming firm of Victor Gollancz, who also would publish such prominent Golden Age names in the English mystery writing field as Dorothy L. Sayers, E. R. Punshon and J. J. Connington.
Gollancz was one of the prestige publishers of Golden Age English detective fiction
For his part, Lord Ernest dutifully attempted in Tragedies of Memworth to move away from the tad lurid style of Perils of Josephine toward the more purely cerebral pleasures of the modern, 1920s detective novel; yet some affinity with the sensation style clearly remains.  As I indicated in Part One of this review essay, there is in the novel, for example, the lurking presence of a certain Asian gentleman with a vengeful agenda.  Yet Ronald Knox proclaimed Memworth an honorable exception to his anti-Chinaman, anti-thriller rule for the writing of detective fiction.  In Part Three of this review essay, I will assess just how successful a detective novel The Four Tragedies of Memworth really is.
Though it may have fallen out of critical fashion after 1900,
Victorian melodrama lived on in England--
in the 1930s, for example, in the films of Tod Slaughter--
and full scale critical revival lurked just around the (dark) corner!
Note: I do not have a photo of the actual Lord Ernest Hamilton.  If anyone finds or has one I would love to add it to the blog.  And for more on Lord Ernest Hamilton, see
http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/12/ronald-knox-his-detective-fiction.html