Now, 66,266 views since, I want to thank everyone who has read the blog (and even commented!). It's tremendously gratifying to know there is some wider interest around the world in my writing on detective fiction. It's a great passion of mine and it's wonderful to see that it is shared. Let's keep the books of these older twentieth century authors alive today, in this still young new century.
Most of what we know about Milton Morris Propper (1906-1962), who published fourteen detective novels between 1929 and 1943, comes from Francis M. Nevins' 1970s/1980s pieces about him in Allen J. Hubin's Armchair Detective and Bill Pronzini's and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights (caution: Nevins is explicit about some of Propper's plotting techniques; if you follow the 1001 Midnights Propper article link to Nevins you might want to skip Nevins' paragraphs five and six).
We are indebted to Nevins for these pieces, because he was able to correspond with Propper's younger sister' the late Madelyn Hymerling (1913-2003), and obtain some personal information about the author that would otherwise have been lost, but I have to take issue somewhat with some of Nevins' take on Propper.
|Freeman Wills Crofts|
I've read three Propper novels and the resemblance between these books and those of Freeman Wills Crofts is quite striking (correspondence I have from Propper confirms that Propper was a tremendous admirer of Crofts).
In One Murdered Dead, Two Dead (1936), the Propper title I just read, not only is the plot of interest in its own right but additionally the book mimics the structural approach and narrative style of Freeman Wills Crofts.
The older British author may never have known it, but he had a right proper disciple in this young Philadelphian.
Milton Propper was the Golden Age's great chronicler of criminal misdeeds among the upper crust of of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Propper's occasional portrayals of other social milieus typically are not notably successful.
Francis M. Nevins has strongly criticized Propper for allegedly flaunting "like a medal of honor his belief that the rich and powerful can do no wrong," yet it seems doubtful to me that Propper, as a Jew and a Democrat during the era of the New Deal, really held any such belief personally, however one perceives his fiction. And, in fact, in One Murdered, Two Dead, many of the wealthy people behave rather despicably, and Propper's detective, Philadelphia cop Tommy Rankin, is quick to condemn them.
What it seems to me that Nevins misses is the tremendous influence that the mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts had on Propper.
In a 1931 letter to an admirer of his first two detective novels, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929) and The Ticker Tape Murder (1930), Milton Propper wrote: "I am in complete agreement with you as to the general superiority of English detective stories, especially those of Lynn Brock and Crofts, who also happen to be my favorite authors...."
Crofts' influence on Propper is especially obvious in Propper's earliest books, which are larded with complicated transportation-based alibis, the thing for which Crofts was most famous as a mystery writer.
However, it's also easy to see this influence, for one familiar with Crofts' books (for more on them see my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery), in the later One Murdered, Two Dead, the eighth of Propper's fourteen detective novels. We have:
1. The methodical checking of alibis. Not so deliberate and drawn out (probably a plus for most people) as in his earliest books, to be sure, but there still is quite a bit of this.
2. Intricate fair play plotting. At his best Crofts was an excellent and scrupulously fair plotter and One Murdered, Two Dead is, like the best Crofts, quite cleverly plotted indeed, with some excellent clues (I was pleased to be fooled by the author over the solution).
3. Lots of travel. Crofts loved to send his various police detectives (the most famous of whom is Inspector Joseph French) by plane and by boat to various European countries--Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands--and so did his disciple Milton Propper. In One Murdered, Two Dead, the most notable trip Tommy Rankin makes is to Florida, but he also goes to Pittsburgh and various locales in New York.
4. Love of dialect speech. One of Crofts' less pleasing qualities as a writer derives from his apparent conviction that he was skilled at the portrayal of local dialect. When a character is Irish, Scottish or working class, we are sure to be subjected by Crofts to heavy--very heavy--dialect speech (When it's working class speech watch out! There are so many h's dropped you might well get concussed if you aren't careful).
Propper does the same thing, sadly. During Rankin's Florida sojourn, we get a horrid double dose of dialect when the local good old boy cop interrogates an Italian immigrant roadhouse operator:
"Please, Meester Stiles, that ees a most unusual request....You know een thees business we 'ave to be ver' discreet about the clients who stop here. Now, eef you 'ave permission to look..."
"Ah reckon Ah don't need no warrant, Tony....We ain't private dicks, trying to cook up divohce evidence. It's much mo' serious than that--a murdeh case. Yo' don't want to get mixed up in that kind o' mess and maybe lose yoh license....Besides, we haven't yet settled that mattah o' the patron who claimed he was robbed heah, back in August, remebah."
There's five pages of this! Incidentally, another Croftsian thing about this scene is just the fact that we have a cop threatening an "ethnic" proprietor of some semi-sleazy concern. Crofts often has a scene like this in his books (in Crofts' case, in his earlier books the proprietors are likely to be Jewish, a choice from which Propper would have shied).
The upper class characters, on the other hand, usually sound rather stiff and formal in both Crofts and Propper. Says a Philadelphia man-about-town suspect to Rankin in One Murdered, Two Dead: "You see, I spent the entire night at the apartment of a well-known, respected society matron whose husband was away." What were they doing, one wonders, reading the social register together?
5. A sexless police detective. Crofts' Inspector French is married, but it's extremely hard to imagine him and his perpetually socks-knitting wife, Emily ("Em"), in the throes of heaving passion. In the first French mystery it's made clear that the Frenches had two children, but Crofts soon completely forgot about them, and it's probably just as well that he did.
Propper's Tommy Rankin is a good-looking young man, but although we hear frequently about Rankin's "bachelor apartment" it seems that no one ever visits him there! At least we sure never hear about it.
How different these two are from modern police detectives, who hardly have time to actually solve their cases due to their myriad character flaws and dysfunctional personal relationships.
Note, too, that by this time, some fictional detectives had emotional and sexual lives (Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles being two obvious examples). Not Tommy Rankin!
6. A passion for illegal searches and seizures. This aspect of Propper's writing really riles Nevins, who at one point throws out the interesting suggestion that members of "the Watergate gang" might have "read these novels in their formative years."
Well, we can debate whether it's fair or not to pin responsibility for the Watergate crisis on poor old Milton Propper, but it is clear to me that Tommy Rankin's frequent illegal searches of suspects' properties come straight out of the books of Crofts. As I write in Masters, French's illegal searches occur so frequently (sometimes abetted by the medium of a "bent wire") that one comes to suspect that Inspector French is indulging burglarious tendencies.
Well, I hope I have made my case for Crofts' influence on Propper by now. But just what, you may be asking, is One Murdered, Two Dead actually about, anyway?
|the scene of the crime|
To be sure, this rather grisly crime does set the novel apart from Crofts' books, for it's very difficult to imagine the gentle Crofts coming up with such a scenario.
The death of the child along with its mother leads Rankin into a complex matter of inheritance and paternity, and four suspects soon emerge (in addition to the house burglar nabbed on the scene):
Madeleine Emery's wastrel husband (a "handsome devil" and former golf instructor); her wastrel cousin (mounting gambling debts--another common feature in Crofts); her slick society doctor (questionable ethics); and the married man (heavens! an artist) whom she was sexually pursuing with considerable avidity.
Nevins is tough on Propper's characterization, but by the standards of the "pure puzzle" detective novel, I would say the characterization is not badly done. It kept me interested anyway! Besides the clever plot, there is an unexpected sexual frankness for the day (another element distinguishing Propper from Crofts). And I don't think the rich come out of this tale well.
Fans of Freeman Crofts and classical Golden Age mystery should enjoy One Murdered, Two Dead. Maybe with luck we will be able to get it and some of Milton Propper's other mystery fiction reprinted.
Here's an additional review of a Milton Propper novel, by another blogger:
The Study Lamp (review of The Divorce Court Murder)