Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Faulkner vs. Wellman: The Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine 1946 Showdown

Conversation with Douglas G. Greene over my William Faulkner blog piece prompted me to further explore the matter of Faulkner's 1946 loss of the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine short story contest to Manly Wade Wellman.  Three years after this loss, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which probably was a bit of a facer for Ellery Queen (the mystery writing duo of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee; it was Dannay who ran Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine). However, Wellman also enjoyed a prestigious literary career, which included a Pulitzer Prize nomination in the 1950s, and today he is considered one of the great American genre writers.

How on earth did she expect to escape
that contraption in those shoes?
At the time of the 1946 Faulkner-Wellman genre fiction showdown, however, Wellman was known as a pulp fiction and comic book writer (Faulknerian digression here: in addition to writing for a myriad of pulps, Wellman played a seminal role in the creation of Captain Marvel--he himself viewed his comics work as degrading slumming, though Captain Marvel was hugely popular in the 1940s, before DC Comics, home of Superman, got Captain Marvel shut down on dubious copyright infringement grounds); while Faulkner was the author of, among other highbrow works, The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom Absalom! (1936), and Go Down, Moses (1942).  In terms of literary prestige, then, there was obviously something of a discrepancy between the two men.

That Faulkner would lose a mystery short story contest thus admittedly seems kind of incongruous.  On the other hand, great literary skill does not necessarily translate into great detective writing ability (and of course vice versa).

For my part, as discussed in my last piece, I think the story that Faulkner entered in the EQMM contest, "An Error in Chemistry," is a brilliant work; but I have not yet read the Wellman story (this is pending), so cannot comment on whose tale really was better.  But I do want to explore a bit further the Faulkner-Wellman showdown, because it seems a certain amount of legend has grown up around it.

I've read accounts on the internet that Faulkner attended the awards banquet and was so upset when he heard he had lost to Wellman that he--drunk again it seems--looked for Wellman to start a fight, then saw Wellman was much larger than he and quickly relented (Wellman played center for the football team of  Wichita State University in the 1920s; he got his B.A. there before going on to Columbia University and getting an M.A. in literature).

Here follows a representative version, in a comment on Ed Gorman's blog:

You remember the anecdote in which Manly Wade Wellman won an EQMM-sponsored award that Faulkner was shortlisted for, and a drunken Faulkner made himself personally unpleasant to Wellman...who apparently did not take the opportunity to deck Faulkner, though tempted. Faulkner showed up, one gathers, because he both wanted and need the cash prize, but I suspect Dannay got no little delight in rubbing his face in it.

In this corner--
the Wichita Warrior!
As you can see, this is a pretty colorful account!  But it seems not to be an accurate one. To invert the cliche, truth so often in fact is duller than fiction, whatever people may tell you otherwise.

For what follows I am relying on Jeremiah Rickert, "The Faulkner Incident," Oregon Literary Review 2, which may be found here.

This seems a judiciously researched piece and I urge you to follow the link if you are interested in this matter.  There's lots more there on Wellman, who enjoyed a fascinating literary career and interesting life in his own right (truth be told, his life sounds rather more eventful than Faulkner's).

According to Rickert, the three finalists for the 1946 EQMM Award were Wellman, Faulkner and T. S. Stribling, yet another prestigious southern writer (indeed, he had already won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1933).

In this corner--
the Oxford Orator!
The panel of judges in the contest consisted of writer and famed Sherlock Holmes enthusiast Christopher Morley; Howard Haycraft, author of Murder for Pleasure, one of the most significant histories of the mystery genre; and, naturally enough, Ellery Queen (both Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee).  According to Rickert, who says he draws this from Wellman, each contesting author had one "partisan" among the judges who refused to budge; thus no one had the votes to win.

Supposedly the popular crime writer Rex Stout was called in to break the deadlock. Stout went with Wellman, making Wellman the winner (ironically, Faulkner himself read Rex Stout mysteries and in his 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech may have appropriated, consciously or not, the phrase "the last ding-dong of doom" from Stout's Nero Wolfe mystery The League of Frightened Men, 1935).

After the announcement, Stout shook Wellman's hand, exclaiming: "You deserved it Manly, you wrote a great story!"  Manfred Lee congratulated Wellman too, declaring: "You know how I love the Red Man" (Wellman's story, "A Star for Warrior," has a Native American detective).  Was Manfred Lee and (and "Ellery Queen") Wellman's "partisan" among the judges?  Sounds like it.

Wellman's award win evidently
prompted him to write a
mystery novel, headlined in this
Signet edition as "A New Mystery
by an Ellery Queen Prize Winner"
Wellman, obviously, was very much present at the affair, but I don't see how Faulkner could have been (it doesn't sound like something he would have done anyway), because Faulkner was informed in a letter from his agent Harold Ober that he, Faulkner, had won second place in the contest, netting $500.

Ober saw this as good news for the cash-strapped Faulkner, who was working, like Raymond Chandler, on Hollywood screenplays to supplement his too-meager income from fiction writing.  Faulkner, however, was downcast, writing:

"What a commentary.  In France I am the father of a literary movement.  In Europe I am considered the best modern American, and among the first of all writers. In America, I eke out a hack's motion picture wages by winning second prize in a manufactured mystery story contest."

But three years later, Faulkner was to win the Nobel and he would live the last dozen or so years of his life in company with Ernest Hemingway as the Grand Old Man of American letters, so perhaps things all worked out for the best.

When Faulkner died in 1962, writes Rickert, "the University of Virginia offered their Writer-in-Residency position, held by Faulkner since 1957, to Wellman.  He turned them down."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Literary Dynamism: Knight's Gambit (1949)--William Faulkner

When a literary titan deigns to dabble in detective fiction, it's always of interest, on account of this question: Can the Great Personage perform the challenging feat of combining traditional "literary" appeal with a competent puzzle?

Could that be a detective story he's reading?
I can't tell, but William Faulkner did read them.

It used to be considered axiomatic by aestheticians of the detective story that the genre could not absorb what were called the higher literary values.  Too much emphasis on character interest would wreck the "glittering mechanism" of the puzzle plot, declared Dorothy L. Sayers, the great Golden Age Authority on such things, at one point (she later Changed Her Mind).  Modern mystery genre critics tend not to concern themselves overmuch, if at all, with mere "glittering mechanisms" and thus are free to praise anything that the Literary Titan might produce in a vaguely mysterious line, whether or not it offers an interesting puzzle plot.

a Queen's Quorum title
William Faulkner, one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century American literature, published Knight's Gambit, a collection of what are called "six mystery stories," in 1949, though they were written at various times in the 1930s and 1940s.  The publication history is as follows:

"Smoke" (Harper's Magazine, 1932)
"Monk" (Scribner's Magazine, 1937)
"Hand Upon the Waters" (Saturday Evening Post, 1939)
"Tomorrow" (Saturday Evening Post, 1940)
"An Error in Chemistry" (1941, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in1946)
Knight's Gambit (1942, rejected by Harper's and subsequently revised for Knight's Gambit, 1949)

In 1949, the same year Knight's Gambit was published, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Ellery Queen gave Knight's Gambit a place in the Queen's Quorum of the 125 most important collections of shorter detective fiction works (however, when Faulkner a few years earlier entered "An Error in Chemistry" in the premier Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine short story contest, ironically the story only took second place, losing to "A Star for Warrior," by Manly Wade Wellman).

Is Knight's Gambit one of the cornerstone mystery short story collections? Personally, I would say no. First, half the stories are not even really detective, or even mystery, stories. Second, one of the three that is a mystery/detective story is not very good. The remaining two, "Smoke" and"An Error in Chemistry," are great, but a two out of six success rate means that the majority of Faulkner's plotting gambits fail. There's a lot of literary dynamism in Faulkner, God knows, but also fatal structural weaknesses, if one is looking at him as a detective fiction writer.

grisly crimes
To be sure, in some respects Faulkner and the mystery story seem like a natural fit. Sanctuary, the Mississippian's 1931 self-described "potboiler," had a great impact on American crime writing, with its unsparing and for the time quite explicit combination of violence, sex, and violent sex (the corncob rape sequence has lived in infamy right up to this day, when infamy seems commonplace).  It's visceral stuff indeed.

Moreover, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)--arguably Faulkner's greatest work--seems to me essentially a Gothic novel, with its dark, decaying southern mansion, enshrouded in a complex and horrid history of moral transgressions and murders.  One could say, I think, that Absalom, Absalom! is perhaps the greatest Gothic novel ever written.

Faulkner also worked on Hollywood film scripts in the late 1930s and the 1940s, including most famously the script for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (Faulkner couldn't figure out who killed the chauffeur either).  Additionally, according to Blood on the Stage, Faulkner voraciously read genre fiction and admired, besides Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout (in the 1950s he also confessed to admiring Georges Simenon, though that in itself is not necessarily a guarantee that one likes true detective stories).

Yet despite all this, Knight's Gambit doesn't quite come off in full, at least for a detective fiction fan.

Gothic horrors
The stories in Knight's Gambit are unified by the setting--Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi--and by the presence of the garrulous county attorney Gavin Stevens and his nephew, Charles ("Chick") Mallison.  Stevens and nephew appeared in the (successfully filmed) novel Intruder in the Dust (1948), as well as The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), the concluding volumes of the Snopes trilogy.

Stevens had been called by literary critic Irving Howe "surely the greatest wind-bag in American literature" and I have to admit that I tend to agree with this assessment.  The lawyer, who became kind of a fictive alter ego for Faulkner, speaks in this incredibly, implausibly ornate, oratorical fashion that Faulkner himself increasingly adopted for his own third person narration in his novels (one is also unfortunately reminded of John Dickson Carr characters in Carr's later novels).  This ornate style works in the highly Gothic and sensation-ridden Absalom, Absalom! but is too heavy a burden, I think, for a ratiocinative detective story to bear.  Simply put, the detective story is too slight a structure to withstand the crushing weight of all Gavin Stevens' (and Faulkner's) rhetorical baggage.

This narrative style prevents me from enjoying as much as I would like the Gavin Stevens novels and the Stevens novella Knight's Gambit.  At about 120 pages Gambit makes up about half the length of the Knight's Gambit collection.  The basic plot might have made an interesting short had Faulkner kept it to forty pages or less or--dare I suggest it--just handed it over to Mignon Eberhart to write.  A wealthy, word-traveling plantation widow at the dangerous age in those days for women (she's nearing forty) has brought back from her South American tour an Argentinean house guest, one Captain Gualdres.  She also has two young adult children: a daughter who may love the captain and a son who definitely hates him.  And there's the local farmer's daughter in the mix.  Faulkner himself refers in the story to the characters being "like the stock characters in the slick magazine serial, even to the foreign fortune hunter."  He's certainly right about that, so why try to dress it up as Great Literature?

The prolific American mystery writer
Mignon Eberhart
could have made aces with the plot of
Knight's Gambit
None of the characters in the novella every become really interesting, though Faulkner makes some effort with Captain Gualdres.  There's also a lot of coming-of-age/World War Two stuff for Gavin's nephew (the novella is set in 1941-1942) and the story of an old romance for Gavin himself (I think this uninteresting plot line was ditched by Faulkner when he came to writing The Town and The Mansion in the late 1950s).  And way too much overwriting, like the 300+ word sentence describing the approach to a plantation (at least I think that's what it was describing).

Basically Gambit could be called an inverted crime story, I suppose (or an inverted attempted crime story), but there's way too much else going to sustain much interest in the basic plot line.

The remaining works in the collection are much shorter pieces, and benefit from being such (Faulkner disciplines himself rhetorically). However, two of them, "Monk" and "Tomorrow," are not even really detective, or even mystery, stories, but, rather, character studies ("Tomorrow" was made into an excellent though quite depressing Robert Duvall film in 1971)--though "Monk" interestingly does use a device associated with several Ellery Queen novels.  Another of the stories, "Hand Upon the Waters," is a detective story, but a weak one, slight as a puzzle and as character study alike.

Yet fortunately there are two grand successes: "Smoke" and "An Error in Chemistry."

"Smoke" (1932)

Anselm Holland came to Jefferson many years ago.  Where from, no one knew....

Melville Davisson Post
creator of Uncle Abner
This story of the accidental (?) death of the tyrannical farming family patriarch Anse Holland and the shooting murder of Judge Dukenfield, the man appointed to be Chancellor of Anse Holland's heir-taunting will, is a delight. With its rural courtly formality it rather reminded of the classic Uncle Abner tales of Melville Davisson Post. Although regrettably it is not really a fairly clued detective story, we do at least get to see Gavin Stevens legitimately ratiocinate and spring a tour de force trap for the killer.  I enjoyed it immensely and even found that old gasbag Gavin Stevens appealing.

This exchange reminded me of John Rhode's series detective Dr. Priestley, who loathes conjecture with an abiding passion:

"Conjecture is all well enough--"
"All right," Stevens said.  "Let me conjecture a little more...."

Gavin Stevens is no Dr. Priestley, and I don't believe Priestley would tolerate the garrulous gasbag at table for a minute, but he's a whole helluva lot of fun in this tale.  This most definitely is the closest Gavin Stevens ever comes in the short tales to being a Great Detective.  He most certainly is a great showman.

"An Error in Chemistry" (1946)

It was Joel Flint himself who telephoned the sheriff that he had killed his wife....

Faulkner, cigarette in hand,
 closer to the time he wrote "Smoke"
It's not surprising Faulkner submitted "An Error in Chemistry" to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, because it's the best detective story he wrote.  This one concerns Joel Flint, Yankee and "outlander" who marries the spinster (nearly forty again!) daughter of yet another tyrannical farming family patriarch (the county seems to have these in abundant supply) and admits to shooting her a couple years later.  But the crime makes no sense!  What is going on here?

Gavin Stevens finds the answer by means of a (nicely presented) accident, but an astute, experienced reader likely can deduce what's going on beforehand, because wily William Faulkner employs numerous classic mystery devices like a genre fan of long standing.

There also is some definite similarity in theme with Faulkner's brilliant Gothic story "A Rose for Emily," but honor compels me to refrain from saying more.

In "Error" Stevens has an interesting friendship with a Bible-quoting sheriff. I particularly liked this exchange, on the nature of truth versus justice.

"I'm interested in truth," the sheriff said.
"So am I," Uncle Gavin said.  "It's so rare.  But I am more interested in justice and human beings."
"Ain't truth and justice the same thing?" the sheriff said.
"Since when?"  Uncle Gavin said.  "In my time I have seen truth that was anything under the sun but just, and I have seen justice using tools and instruments I wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot fence rail."

The question of what is true justice and just truth sometimes gets addressed in regular old detective stories by regular old detective writers as well, but it's pleasing to see a leading literary light like Faulkner address it.

So would you want to buy Knight's Gambit?  I'm glad I did, for these two stories are very good indeed. Take a chance on it if you haven't read them--you might even like some of the others better than I did.

By the way, here's an interesting paper on Faulkner's use of detective story devices, by Makoto Ohno:
"Faulkner in Mystery" (big spoilers to "An Error in Chemistry," "Monk" and Intruder in the Dust.)--TPT

Death in the Deep South

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In the Bleak Midwinter: Todmanhawe Grange (1937), by J. S. Fletcher and Torquemada

Summer's right upon us here in the United States, but if you can try imagining a cold winter's night for this one--TPT

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan....

How often do long-lived, prolific mystery authors write their best books at the end of their lives?  To take two famous examples, compare Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate (1973) with her The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), published over a half-century earlier, and John Dickson Carr's The Hungry Goblin (1972) with his It Walks by Night (1930).  The comparisons are not flattering to the later books, I think most would agree.

Yet in contrast with Postern of Fate and The Hungry Goblin see the case of Todmanhawe Grange (The Mill House Murder in the United States), the final mystery novel published by the extremely prolific mainstream and mystery genre novelist J. S. Fletcher (about eighty Fletcher mystery novels, as well as numerous short stories, appeared between 1901 and 1937).

Todmanhawe Grange is, if not Fletcher's best mystery novel, certainly the best mystery novel by him that I have read.  And it was published posthumously, two years after the seemingly indefatigable author's death, at nearly seventy-two years of age.  Fletcher was working on the novel write up until he died.  After his death the manuscript was completed by Edward Powys Mathers, aka Torquemada, the creator of infamously challenging crossword puzzles and the crime fiction reviewer for the London Observer, who himself died four years later at the untimely age of 46.

How much did Torquemada's participation influence the result in Todmanhawe Grange?  I think to some considerable extent, though I also believe that Fletcher exerted himself at the end to produce something out of his ordinary rut.

Journalist Joseph Smith Fletcher turned to the mystery and thriller genre in 1901, after having enjoyed some early success as mainstream novelist, particularly as an English regionalist in the manner of Thomas Hardy and Eden Phillpotts.

After 1901 Fletcher continued writing mainstream novels--largely about his native Yorkshire--but mystery tales increasingly dominated his output, especially after the publication in 1919 of The Middle Temple Murder, the mystery novel that became famous within the literature for having been praised (allegedly) by the United States President, Woodrow Wilson. Alfred Knopf, Fletcher's canny american publisher, never tired of reminding the reading public of this fact.

Knopf's publicity campaign for Fletcher probably was the best by an American publisher on behalf of a 1920s mystery writer prior to Charles Scribner's promotion of S. S. Van Dine in the second half of the decade. Fletcher became known for a time in the United States as the greatest English mystery writer after Arthur Conan Doyle.

Naturally appreciating the money that this publishing success was bringing in, Fletcher responded by producing ever more works of mystery fiction, both novels and short story collections. Many of his earlier, pre-Middle Temple Murder mystery novels that had not been originally published in the United States were reprinted in the country at this time as well (without informing readers that they were reprints), resulting in the regular publication of four or more Fletcher mystery novels a year.  Critics justly began to refer to the "Fletcher Publishing Mill."

President Woodrow Wilson
The man who "made" The Middle Temple Murder

By the 1930s the Fletcher vogue had passed, however.  Newer detective novelists like S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, John Rhode, J. J. Connington and Freeman Wills Crofts had become well-known in the United States as well as England, and Fletcher's less intricately woven and technically sophisticated mysteries paled in comparison.

After Fletcher's death, his books quickly fell out of print and today he survives in mystery genre history essentially as a one-work writer, the author of The Middle Temple Murder (praised--have you heard--by President Woodrow Wilson).  Yet, lo and behold, when I read Todmanhawe Grange I found that it was quite good, succeeding both as a fair play puzzle (something that can said of very few Fletcher mysteries I have read--which I why I call them mysteries, not detective novels) and as a crime novel of atmosphere and local color.

alias "Torquemada"
Surely, as I suggested above, some of the credit for the merit of the puzzle in Fletcher's last mystery tale must go to the brilliant crossword puzzle mind of Fletcher's posthumous collaborator, Torquemada.

Fletcher often cavalierly declined the fair play clueing convention of the Golden Age detective novel, but not in Todmanhawe Grange.  The novel also is the most atmospheric and engrossing mystery tale that Fletcher had written in some years.

In Todmanhawe Grange, we read of the last crime fighting exploit of Ronald Camberwell, a private inquiry agent introduced by Fletcher late in his writing career, in 1931.  Camberwell himself remains as interesting as he ever was (i.e., not much at all), but Fletcher's setting, a Yorkshire mill town, is quite well-conveyed, as are the people residing there.

Torquemada is credited in the
English edition of Fletcher's last mystery
The murder centers around the tangled affairs of James Martentoyde, head of a wealthy textile manufacturing family. Martenroyde, affianced to a much younger woman, contacts Camberwell's firm to investigate certain delicate matters.  On the blustery winter's night of Camberwell's arrival in the mill town John Martenroyde is found dead in the mill weir.  Ostensibly he slipped off the weir bridge.  However, his death turns out not to have been a natural one (surprise!).

Two additional murders follow, as well as Fletcher's much-loved lengthy inquests.  The reader is kept engaged throughout all these events, even the inquests (which admittedly can be dull in lesser hands).  Much of the second inquest was written by Torquemada, who provides excellent material and forensic detail that Fletcher himself tended to skimp in his mysteries.

Torquemada's name was ungenerously
effaced from the American edition
The tale takes a rather striking Gothic twist and ends up bearing some resemblance, interestingly, to something out of the mind of Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine. This interesting twist seems to have been Fletcher's conception, as the older man is said to have plotted the entire tale (Torquemada wrote the final quarter of the narrative from Fletcher's outline; the very last line is Fletcher's).

The U. S. edition of Todmanhawe Grange, The Mill House Murder, does not acknowledge Torquemada's contribution to the novel, which seems churlish. Torquemada should be credited for his valuable contribution, but Fletcher also should be lauded for, like Puccini with his grand opera Turandot, going out with something very good, if not quite completed by his own hand.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Country House Murders of "Edgar Box": Death Before Bedtime (1953)

In part one of the piece on Gore Vidal's Edgar Box mysteries, originally published in the 1950s, I wrote about their origin as the joint brainchild of Gore Vidal and Victor Weybright (publisher of Signet paperbacks) and then went into some detail on the first one, Death in the Fifth Position, which is the most pronounced of the three in what might be termed outre subject matter (especially in the 1950s).  Although the last two Boxes, Death Before Bedtime (1953) and Death Likes It Hot (1954), both include coital couplings between Vidal's amateur detective, Peter Cutler Sargeant II, and lady friends of the moment, on the whole the sex element (certainly the gay sex element) is toned down somewhat and there is a more concentrated focus on detection.  While neither novel, particularly Bedtime,  has as memorable characters as those in Fifth Position's ballet company (who tend to dance away with the tale), both books are more successful than Fifth Position as true detective novels.  And both books admirably display the wickedly satirical writing that graced the first. Both are herewith recommended.  Bedtime is reviewed here, Hot in the last installment.

Death in the Fifth Position belongs to what surely is a tiny subgenre, the ballet mystery/thriller (as additional examples there's the three novels published from 1937-1940 by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon and Lucy Cores' Corpse de Ballet, 1944, available from Rue Morgue Press).  Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes it Hot, on the other hand, essentially are country house mysteries of the sort most commonly associated today with Agatha Christie, with a slightly hard-boiled twist.

Although it is the fashion today in many circles to disparage Agatha Christie and her novels, Vidal, like John Updike (see this earlier piece by me) admires Christie as a writer.  During an interview last year conducted between Gore Vidal and Stephen Heyman of the New York Times ("Gore Vidal, P. I."), the following exchange took place:

England's Queen of Crime
influenced "Edgar Box"
Heyman: Agatha Christie is a particularly strong influence in these books.
Vidal: In everybody's books.  Don't single me out.

Heyman: And there's also one passing reference to Holmes...
Vidal: I like Christie because I thought she was a great naturalist--those are real villages she writes about--and it's fascinating.  I used to like to read not for the mysteries but I read her for the characters.  They are of no use to an American writer, but anyway they are very nice to read.

Heyman: Edmund Wilson called detective stories a vice that "ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles."
Vidal: I don't think mystery stories are any lower than stories of how George and Emily failed to get status at the university or to English department politics.  That to me is about as tedious as it can get in print.  

P. D. James, for example, has credited Dorothy L. Sayers with effectively portraying an English village in her 1930s detective novel The Nine Tailors, but contrarily she often has scoffed at the notion that anyone could find much to praise in the writing of Agatha Christie; so it was quite pleasing to me, as an admirer of such English village mystery tales by Christie as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and A Murder Is Announced (1950), to see a literary titan like Gore Vidal come to Christie's defense (the last of these Christie novels, incidentally, even includes a quite effective portrayal of a lesbian couple).

Christie "cozy" mysteries
often are quite satirical
And Vidal says he read Christie "not for the mysteries," but "for the characters"!  Himself a brilliant satirist, Vidal appreciates that there in fact is fine satire in Christie's village mysteries.  What would journalists who have written so condescendingly of Christie's novels--such as Rachel Cooke ("hack-work") and Lindsay Duguid ("One can hardly bear to read on")--say of Gore on this score?  That this "upstart" doesn't know good writing when he sees it?

Christie's influence can be seen in both the Edgar Box books under review here (there is also a healthy splash of Christie's purported antithesis, Raymond Chandler).  Basically these two Box novels are 1950s American versions of the stylized closed-circle English house-party mysteries of the Golden Age of detective fiction (roughly 1920 to 1940), of which Christie today is the most renowned exemplar.

Death Before Bedtime takes place in the Washington, D.C. mansion of an unscrupulous, ultra-conservative Midwestern senator with presidential aspirations, Death Likes It Hot in the Hamptons "beach house" of a socially ambitious matron.  In both cases Vidal's amateur detective, publicist Peter Sargeant, is hired by the mansion owner to do a publicity job and thus is conveniently on hand when murder inevitably strikes (under the circumstances it's surprising the police don't come to suspect that Sargeant is a serial murderer).

Senator Thomas Pryor Gore (1870-1949)
Gore Vidal's maternal grandfather
Gore Vidal's maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore (1870-1949), was a prominent United States senator from Oklahoma.  T. P. Gore began his political career as a Populist Democrat but later became an isolationist in foreign affairs, opposing America's entry into World War One under Woodrow Wilson,  and in the 1930s criticizing much of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal (FDR engineered Senator Gore's defeat in 1936, when Gore Vidal was eleven years old).

Vidal himself today sounds rather like his famous grandfather on foreign affairs, though less like him on other matters.  He also appears to have idolized his grandfather.  In contrast, Vidal despised his egocentric, tipply and flighty (as he portrays her) mother, Nina Gore Vidal, who divorced his father and later, through her second marriage, ultimately became inter-connected with the Kennedy family (see Vidal's 1995 memoir).

This material is brought into Bedtime in rather an interesting way by Gore Vidal.  Leander Rhodes, the villainous Midwestern senator who is murdered in the novel (by explosives planted in his fireplace) would not appear really to be a portrait of Thomas P. Gore, but it sure seems to me that Senator Rhodes' dissipated daughter Ellen was inspired by Vidal's mother Nina.

Gore Vidal
Bedtime opens memorably with Ellen Rhodes and the always ready and willing Peter Sargent about to commence copulation on a D.C.-bound train:

"You know, I've never gone to bed with man on a train before," she said, taking off her blouse.
"Neither have I," I said, and I made sure that the door to the compartment was securely locked.
"What innocents we are," she sighed, then: "I wish I had a drink."

This gives you a pretty good idea of Ellen.

On the whole, it must be admitted, the characters in Bedtime are less interesting than those in Fifth Position, despite Vidal's own fascinating background among the country's political elite; yet Ellen Rhodes makes up for any deficiencies in this regard.

After Senator Rhodes is messily blown up in his own study, the guests in his home act as all guests should in a proper country house mystery, where death essentially is a game.

In short they're blase.  Explains Peter Sargeant:

I was surprised at how calmly the guests took the sudden, extraordinary turn in their affairs...especially Ellen, who was the coolest of the lot.
"Do fix me a Scotch," she said....I sat beside Ellen on an uncomfortable love seat....
"This is awful," I said inadequately, conventionally.
"I should hope to hell it is," said Ellen, guzzling Scotch like a baby at its mother's breast.

Ellen quickly loses interest in Peter and begins pursuing another eligible young male, a virginal writer for an advanced leftist intellectual magazine that was doing an expose on Senator Rhodes when the Senator suddenly and violently expired.  Here is more frank repartee between Peter and the not-so-blushing Ellen:

"By the way, have you gotten into the Langdon boy yet?"
"What an ugly question!" she beamed; then she shook her head.  "I haven't had time.  Last night would have been unseemly...I mean after the murder.  This afternoon I was interrupted."
"I think he's much too innocent for the likes of you."
"Stop it...you don't know about these things.  He's rather tense, I'll admit, but they're much the best fun...the tense ones."
"What a bore I must have been."

grandfather and grandson
Not for nothing is the cover of the Black Lizard edition of Bedtime illustrated by a woman's eyes looking out of a brandy snifter!  The fantastically uninhibited Ellen is something of a female version of Louis from Death in the Fifth Position.  Still, there is barbed humor directed at other subjects besides (I think) Vidal's mother.  Note this bit:

I found [Camilla] off by herself in a corner of the drawing room, studying the latest issue of Harper's Bazaar.  She was reading the thin ribbon of text which accompanies the advertisements; this thin ribbon was, I could see, the work of the latest young novelist: it concerned a young boy in Montgomery, Alabama, who killed nine flies in as many minutes on the eve of the Fourth of July...I had read it earlier, being of a literary turn (though I belong to the older literary generation of Carson McCullers and have never quite absorbed the newcomers even though they take mighty nice photographs).

Truman Capote
Gore Vidal was not his number one fan
Perhaps needless to say, another one of Gore Vidal's great dislikes (besides his mother), extending back over half a century now, is In Cold Blood author Truman Capote (1924-1984).

It looks like in Bedtime Vidal handed "Edgar Box" a stiletto to deftly stick between Capote's ribs!

But what of the mystery, you may well be asking, at this late point in the review?  I found the detection in Bedtime superior to that offered in Fifth Position. Though the later section again is too huddled, here Vidal makes more serious stabs at clueing.  There certainly are plenty of suspects as well, including, in classic fashion, a butler and a private secretary (John Dickson Carr warned readers to watch out for those private secretaries).

I thought the ending was a surprise, though in retrospect I should have seen it, which is always a nice feeling with a detective novel. And Vidal does provide some real--and rather subtle--clues.

In Death Before Bedtime Vidal shows he was learning the game--and playing it. In my view, he went on to produce the best of the Edgar Box bunch with his last mystery, Death Likes It Hot. See my next blog post for more!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gore-y Death: The Edgar Box Detective Novels of Gore Vidal, Part 1

Death legs it
Although not, to be sure, exactly on the level, in terms of fame and repute, as the works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the short "Edgar Box" series of  detective novels by the distinguished man of letters Gore Vidal--Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Breakfast (1953) and Death Likes it Hot (1954)--also is not exactly forgotten, either.  The novels were frequently reprinted over the years since their original publication, but as of last year they had been out of print for two decades.  Now all three of the Box novels have been brought back in stylish new paperback editions by Vintage Books' Black Lizard imprint--you know, the one that also brings us Hammett and Chandler, as well as Ross Macdonald (No slouch, that Black Lizard!).

Girls with Guns: a Signet combo
Are Gore Vidal's mysteries on the exalted level of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald? The blunt answer (and Gore Vidal himself is nothing if not blunt) is no.  Gore Vidal himself terms them potboilers, claiming that each was written in eight days, in order to earn money after the critical shunning he received over the publication of his pioneering gay novel The City and the Pillar in 1948.  This story has always struck me as exaggerated: The City and the Pillar was a bestselling book and Vidal's novels continued to be reviewed in the following years in the New York Times Book Review--some of them favorably.  Still, there's no question they did not sell like The City and the Pillar--controversy could do wonders for a novel's sales back then just like today--and Vidal needed needed money, especially after buying a stately 1820 New York Greek Revival mansion in 1950.  

"SPILLANE IN MINK"
the sort of blurb
for which publishers yearn
Happily, along came Victor Weybright, the publisher of Signet Books (what Vidal calls "an extremely adventurous paperback series"), with the suggestion that Vidal write mysteries, in the style of Mickey Spillane, who was making a fortune for Signet with his racy and violent Mike Hammer novels.  These would be reprinted in paperback by Signet, with the same sort of titillating covers Signet used for books not only by Spillane, but also for higher-browed authors such as James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner.  According to Vidal, Weybright declared that with a salacious cover he could sell any book, even a "nearly unreadable" William Faukner novel like Absalom, Absalom!--though comprehensible sex and violence in the text was a plus. These Signet covers are fascinating mementos of the literary culture in the 1950s: the sort of stuff that could get Congressional committees all hot and bothered but that sold books like hotcakes.

Spillane's canny combination of sex and
violence--along with steamy illustrations--
had paperbacks flying off shelves
In the Edgar Box detective novels Gore Vidal seems not to have been interested in violence (he loathed Mickey Spillane), but he did supply the desired sex (the name Edgar Box, by the way, was derived in part from a famous "Edgar"--Vidal thought Poe, while Weybright thought Wallace).  In short, Gore Vidal clearly did his best to live up to Signet's reputation in the sex line! Ultimately the Box series as a whole is most interesting for the sex elements, plus the lightly biting, satirical tone Vidal adopts.  To be sure, as detective novels the Boxes are pikers compared to the great Dame Agatha, or, for that matter, to the hard-boiled boys Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald; though it must be conceded they do show improvement as detective novels over the course of the series (Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes It Hot will be discussed in part 2).

John Kriza of the American Ballet Theatre
was one of Gore Vidal's ballet interests
Because of knee damage he sustained while serving on a ship based in Alaska during World War Two, Gore Vidal after the war took ballet lessons as restorative therapy.  During this time he became interested in ballet and ballet dancers--particularly male ones.  With dancer Harold Lang Vidal had an affair, discussed in the 1995 Vidal memoir, Palimpsest, which also shows a photo of Vidal on the beach with John Kriza, best known for dancing the lead role in Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid.  I wondered whether Louis Giraud, the most memorable character in Death in the Fifth Position, might have been partly drawn from Lang and Kriza, but Vidal does not say.  However, Lang was known as "the Beast of the Ballet" according to Vidal, which certainly accords with the character of Louis (on this matter see below)!

Death in the Fifth Position concerns a rash of violent demises afflicting the Grand St. Petersburg Ballet Company while it is performing at the New York City Metropolitan Opera House.  Vidal's amateur detective in this novel and its two sequels is the brash P.R. man Peter Cutler Sargeant II, Pacific War veteran and Harvard graduate.  Vidal himself saw neither actual fighting in World War Two nor a Harvard degree (he published his first novel at the age of twenty), but in other ways he seems rather similar to Peter Sargeant. Like Vidal, Sargeant has a biting wit and he despises fifties Red-baiters and American police in general.  Here's Sargeant (i.e., Vidal, on the subject):

I have a dislike of policemen which must be the real thing since I've never had anything to do with them up to until now, outside of the traffic courts.  There is something about the state putting the power to bully into the hands of a group of subnormal, sadistic apes that makes my blood boil.

Gore Vidal and a really big ship
(not the one on which he served in WWII)
Sargeant also resembles Gore Vidal in being a sexual swordsman, though Sargeant's conquests are female and Vidal's were male (of Harold Lang's promiscuity during the time of their relationship, Vidal in Palimpsest writes: "This hardly bothered me, since I was almost as promiscuous as Harold"). Sargeant's frequent couplings with the ballerina Jane Garden and Jane's fetching physical features are described at length by Vidal.  

Yet much of the historical value of Death in the Fifth Position stems from the gay subject matter, which is rather remarkably detailed for the 1950s.  The star male ballet dancer Louis Giraud--who, we are informed, "started life as  a longshoreman in Marseilles"--hits on every attractive man who crosses his sight and it seems that for most men resistance is futile.  To his displeasure Sargeant becomes Louis' particular object of interest over the course of the murder investigation.  This is humorously treated by Vidal, in contrast to how one imagines Spillane would have handled it (one suspects Mike Hammer would have killed Louis in some particularly unpleasant fashion).  Here's a bit of conversation between Sargeant and his girlfriend of the moment, Jane, about Louis, which should demostrate how this novel must have been quite spicy in the day:

"[Louis] pads, you know."
"He what?"
"You know...like a falsie: well, they say he wears one too, when he's in tights."
"Oh, no, he doesn't," I said, remembering my little tussle with the ballet's glamour boy.
"You, too?"  She sat bolt upright.
"Me too what?
"He didn't...go after you, too, did he?"
"Well as a matter of fact he did but I fought him off."  And I told her the story of how I had saved my honor.
She was very skeptical.  "He's had every boy in the company... even the ones who like girls...I expect he's irresistible."
"I resisted."

this Signet cover gives full force
to the phrase "a come hither look"
Even detection purist Jacques Barzun praised Louis in Death in the Fifth Position ("There is...one extreme parody of a homosexual bruiser-type dancer, which is really funny because free from sniggering"), so Louis apparently is irresistible--at least as a comic character, anyway.  There are some other good amusing characters too, particularly the "elderly" (she's 51) prima ballerina assoluta, Anna Eglanova. Unfortunately the detection is not so good.  Vidal indulges himself in what can only be called an information dump near the end of the novel.  Sargeant intuits the solution (heck, who couldn't at this point), but he has no proof, since the whole thing is conjectural.  So Vidal allows his hero to literally stumble over the proof he needs. This is kind of unsatisfying if you are a detection fan!  Vidal takes the easy way out in this respect, but after all he was just a beginner in this one.

Gore Vidal (alias Edgar Box)
 gets the Signet treatment

So in all honesty I cannot recommend Death in the Fifth Position as a tale of detection.  Yet I can recommend it as an entertaining satirical 1950s American novel.  In its witty depiction of sexual farce in a ballet company confronting a murder investigation, it gives us an interesting picture of the fifties that we don't get on television!  As Peter Sargeant puts it:

[I]t's all very confusing and I intend one day to sit down and figure the whole thing out. It's like that poem of Auden's, one of whose quatrains goes:

Louis is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.

Kind of flip but the legend of our age.

this dame means trouble year round
In part 2, I will discuss Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes it Hot, where sexual content (particularly gay sexual content) is reduced and the detection, coincidentally or not, improved.  In Bedtime, Gore Vidal lets his satirical eye wander over to the political world of Washington, D. C., while in Hot, he takes on the upper crust society of the Hamptons.  Both novels essentially are country house mysteries in the classical English tradition, with the difference that both the men and women in them are something less... inhibited, shall we say?

For more on Edgar Box, see my reviews of Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes It Hot.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

By the Light of the Television: Jonathan Creek, Season 2 (1998)

It's a cool night!  Pull yourselves up and get warm by the glowing television! It's Jonathan Creek!  A murder has just been committed...By a dead man....


I only watched Season One of the British mystery series Jonathan Creek for the first time last summer, but was rather impressed with it.  Earlier I had only seen the first three episodes of the third season and could not quite see what all the fuss was about.  Having watched all of Season Two to go along with Season One, I now definitely see what all the fuss was about.

As the fans already know, Jonathan Creek is an homage to the subgenre of impossible crime/miracle problem mysteries most strongly associated with Golden Age detective novelist John Dickson Carr, but which also appeared in the work of other writers from the period, such as Clayton Rawson, Hake Talbot, Anthony Boucher, Ellery Queen and John Rhode/Miles Burton.  Even Agatha Christie gave us a "locked room" mystery in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (though her sister Crime Queen Ngaio Marsh heretically once had her detective, Roderick Alleyn, declare: "Don't let's have any nonsense about locked rooms").

Today we live in an age that scoffs at mystery miracles, even rationally explained ones, and the miracle problem story is not what is used to be, though it still pops up, notably so, for example, in the Bryant and May series (2004--) of Christopher Fowler--and in Jonathan Creek, which ended as a regular series in 2004 but had one-off episodes as recently as 2009 and 2010.

an impressive set of impossible crimes
 is found in Season Two

In Season Two, Jonathan Creek, trick designer for magician Adam Klaus, is still confronting incredibly bizarre crimes, along with his Watson, journalist Maddy Magellan.  Season Two, from 1998, had five episodes (one a two-parter); plus there was, much later in the year, a Christmas episode.  These are:

Danse Macabre, Time Waits for Norman, The Scented Room, The Problem at Gallow's Gate (two-parter), Mother Redcap, Black Canary (Christmas episode)

Except for one episode, Time Waits for Norman, where the resolution of the problem seemed limp to me, I thought this was a collection that would have done the master himself, John Dickson Carr, proud.

Danse Macabre deals with the Halloween murder of a bestselling, schlock horror writer (hmmmmm) and the subsequent disappearance of her murderer from a sealed garage.  How did this happen?  I hadn't a clue--well, actually I had, plenty of them, but I didn't interpret them correctly, as Joanthan Creek did!    I thought his solution was brilliant, though motivations were a bit implausible.  There was plenty of the macabre too (especially that ending, which explains one last little element of the mystery....).

The Scented Room is not sinister and it does not involve murder, but it offers a very clever problem anyway: the seemingly impossible theft of a valuable painting from a small room, the only entrance to which was under observation the whole time.

The two part episode, The Problem at Gallow's Gate, is possibly my favorite of the series.  Here the murder, the strangling of a woman in a locked house, seems to have been committed by a man who a few weeks earlier just happened to commit suicide by leaping out a window.  Like Danse Macabre, there are plenty of creepy elements in this story and some very nice miracle elements.  Also, simply as a fairly clued classical mystery, the episode was utterly superb.

Mother Redcap concerns the fatal stabbing of a British judge marked for death by a criminal gang, in his bedroom, which was under police observation the whole time.  Somehow this links in with a series of unexplained 1940s deaths at a sinister old London inn named Mother Redcap.  The explanation of both occurrences is clever indeed, as is the way they are linked.  The murder means reminded me of those in a couple Golden Age novels, one by John Dickson Carr and one by John Rhode.

Black Canary offers a classic scenario: a corpse is found dead, shot, in the snow, with no footprints in the snow except those of the victim.  This was the type of scenario worked superlatively in his heyday by John Dickson Carr, and it is carried off superlatively in Jonathan Creek.  For good measure the victim is an identical twin: figure it all out if you can!

After watching Jonathan Creek
I feel this great urge to live in a windmill
Besides the clever problems, what makes Jonathan Creek work are the characters.

Jonathan and Maddy are not matinee idols--and what a nice change of pace that is!  Jonathan is kind of a nerd, with Peter Frampton hair (all the rage in 1977, I'm sure) and Maddy can be kind of frumpy (her appetite is a running joke).  Yet they have fantastic chemistry together and are a humorous, delightful couple.  There's an ongoing will-they-or-won't-they plot common to mystery series (see Castle, for example) that I thought might get irritating but is really enjoyable, because it is handled with such humor.

I was familiar already with Alan Davies, who plays Jonathan, but not, I think, Caroline Quentin, who plays Maddie.  I can see why she was missed when she left the series after season three--she is just a delight, a totally indomitable, unstoppable force.  If she's asking you questions and you go into the men's room to get away from her, she won't let that stop her, oh no!  She's about the best Watson ever.

our delightful mystery couple

A staple of the series also is its sexual comic relief, much of it involving Stuart Milligan, who plays Jonathan's infinitely lecherous magician boss, Adam Klaus. I have to admit some of these bits are really funny.  I particularly liked Adam's latest ill-advised affair in Black Canary and how that ironically dovetailed with his fear of hospitals.  It was nice seeing him get his deserved comeuppance!

Now all I have to do is dig up that Season Three set and watch those three episodes I missed....They seem to have vanished into thin air! Jonathan Creek, where are you?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Forgotten Novel: Crime in Corn Weather (1935), by Mary Meigs Atwater

"Corn as high as an elephant's eye"--I was reminded of this line by this forgotten mystery novel from 1935: Crime in Corn Weather, by Mary Meigs Atwater.  Though the line comes from the musical Oklahoma! I don't see why it shouldn't appy to Iowa as well, especially after reading Atwater's book.  The atmosphere of corn is so palpable that as you read you feel it all around you...As in fact do the citizens of the town of Keedora, Iowa, the setting of the novel:

Keedora lay like an island in a sea of corn that lapped at the fringes of the town. Houses that ventured out only a little way beyond the concrete, the iron lampposts, and the clipped lawns were overwhelmed in it--a vast green tide that stood half-roof high like a tidal wave about to break.

smoldering, baby-killing, soul-sickening weather

Atwater describes "corn weather" as "smoldering, baby-killing, soul-sickening weather." Corn may thrive in that sort of weather, but humans don't. Yet excitement comes to enervated Keedora citizens when Will Breen, "president of the People's State Bank, ex-mayor, and prominent citizen"--disappears.  Like banker Mr. Potter of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), for whom he could have served as a prototype, Will Breen is hated by everyone in his home town, so if he's been murdered (and he has--readers are shown the killing at the beginning of the novel), there's no shortage of suspects. Heading the list is his nephew, Harold, whose inheritance Will was to control until Harold turned 25.

I'd say "Murder is Corny"
but Rex Stout beat me to it
Atwater does a fine job of portraying life in small Iowa farm town in the 1930s.  She shows how a murder is, first and foremost, just plain exciting to the locals, especially when the victim is Will Breen, someone no one liked anyway, not even his mother, old (she's all of seventy) Grandma Breen.  Although, in contrast with some of the people who have read Corn Weather (it was reprinted in 1992 by Interweave Press--see left--but since forgotten), I do not see the book as a comic novel, there are some excellent sardonic passages about the townspeople's reaction to the "tragedy" in their corny midst.

When a spade is discovered that might have been used to bury Will Breen in a shallow grave somewhere in the cornfields, there's considerable morbid fascination among the townspeople:

The spade was carried, in great excitement, to the sheriff's office.  For months it might have been seen there, standing in a corner against the wall.  Perhaps it is still there. Mrs. Belinda Blum, the Woman's Club poetess, wrote a sonnet to it, beginning:

O implement of honest, useful toil,
To what dread use hast thou been put, alas!

She sent the poem to the Bugle and it appeared, in a neat box of black lines, in the middle of the editorial page on the day of the great mass-search for the "corpus delecti," and it was later copied by many papers all over the country.  So it was to William Breen that Mrs. Blum owed her literary triumph.  She later delivered a paper on "The Art of Poesie" before the Woman's Club in which she explained just why she had decided on "implement of honest, useful toil" rather than "honest implement of useful toil" or "useful implement of honest toil."  It made a very profound impression.

I was reminded at times of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. although I would say Atwater's satire is more affectionate than condescending (Atwater ultimately is more Willa Cather than Sinclair Lewis).  She seems genuinely to like many of the people in the town and to have sympathy for their troubles.  Among others we have:

Grandma Breen, forced to endure the indignities of her cold son gradually taking over her house;

Norman Jeffers, a Great War veteran who never recovered from his battlefield experiences (he sneers in disgust when someone mentions his local medal ceremony of long ago);

Milly Slater, the nice young woman "in trouble" who in desperation visits an abortionist (the harrowing aftermath of this visit is directly described by the author: the patient, suffering from hemorrhages, is bundled out of the house by family members, the abortionist all the while demanding that the bedsheets the girl is wrapped in be returned to her). To allude to out-of-wedlock pregnancy and even abortion by a "nice" middle-class girl in a mystery genre novel from the 1930s is extremely unusual in my reading experience.

In addition to her bluntness on sexual matters and her strong grasp of setting and character, the author has a nice touch with prose imagery.  See, for example, this passage that comes from the section of the novel detailing Keedora's carnival-like "corpus delecti" hunt, for which practically every citizen--man, woman and child--has turned out:

The big ice-cream freezers standing under a tree were guarded by a severe woman armed with a long spoon, who was holding off with difficulty the usual swarm of small boys that always gathers about a parked ice-cream freezer as fruit flies gather to a basket of grapes.

Gradually, it dawns on us that Crime in Corn Weather is less a a detective novel than a novel about a murder and its impact on a community (and that impact isn't quite what W. H. Auden--see his "The Guilty Vicarage" essay--thinks it should be!).  In fact Corn Weather is more an inverted crime novel, with memorable rural local color (pretty early on the reader should realize who the murderer is, by the author's intent).  It is well worth reading as such--just don't expect an Agatha Christiesque clue puzzle!

Mary Meigs Atwater (1878-1956) and son
Who was Mary Meigs Atwater (1878-1956)?  A granddaughter of Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892), Quartermaster General of the United States during the American Civil War, she was born in Illinois but raised in Iowa and educated in design at the Chicago Art Institute and in Paris.

After marrying mining engineer Maxwell W. Atwater, she traveled with him around the American West, Mexico and South America, after his death settling permanently in Montana, where she organized a nationally influential hand loom weavers' guild (today she is known as "the dean of American handweaving").

According to Linda Ligon of Interweave Press, author of the preface to the 1992 reprint edition of Crime in Corn Weather Atwater was fascinated with the criminal mind and "frequented the scenes of violent crimes, attended local trials, and wrote 'whodunits' and articles for True Crime magazine in the wee hours of the morning, after finishing her work for the Shuttle-Craft Guild of American Handweavers."

Linda Ligon comments that Crime in Corn Weather "doesn't fit into either of the major mystery genres of the day--the 'tough guy' stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler or the bucolic 'cozies' of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayer [sic]." Of course there were many, many mystery novels of the day that did not fit "cozily" into these two "genres" (and I dispute the claim that all the novels by Christie and Sayers were bucolic cozies), but Crime in Corn Weather is still something out of the common rut.

Reading Crime in Corn Weather--a small number of copies of the reprint edition can still be found at low prices--is educational as well as entertaining.  Try it!

Note: For more on Mary Meigs Atwater, see the Thrums blog.--The Passing Tramp.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Poetics of Murder: How Strange a Thing (1935), by Dorothy Bennett

On the back cover of Jack, the Lady Killer (Poisoned Pen Press, 1999), the detective tale told in poetic form by the late H. R. F. Keating, Jack is described as "one of the rarest forms known to literature, the detective novel in verse."

How strange indeed: a 1930s mystery
in the form of a narrative poem
Well, just guess what your Passing Tramp has come across: How Strange a Thing, a narrative murder mystery poem of 96 pages by one Dorothy Bennett, published in 1935 by Caxton Printers of Caldwell, Idaho.  It was published simultaneously with Murder Unleashed (Doubleday, Doran), a regular old prose detective novel, also by Bennett.

Who was Dorothy Bennett?*  I hardly know, beyond that she was unmarried in 1935, a university graduate, a Berkeley, California native and the daughter of Mrs. Mary Richardson Bennett, to whom How Strange a Thing is dedicated.  I would like to know more about Bennett, for in producing How Strange a Thing, she at least claimed the merit of doing Something That Is Not Done Every Day.

Aline Kilmer, wife of poet
Joyce Kilmer (above)
 praised How Strange a Thing
as "an excellent work of art"
On the back cover of its dust jacket How Strange a Thing carries praise from (1) Aline Kilmer (1888-1941), widow of Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), famed author of "Trees," and a poet, author and essayist in her own right and (2) T[homas] K[ing] Whipple, a prominent literary critic (in 1928 he authored Spokesman: Modern Writers and American Life), Princeton classmate of Edmund Wilson and American literature professor at the University of California at Berkeley (I'm guessing Dorothy Bennett may have been a student of his).

Edmund Wilson famously despised detective stories, but his former Princeton classmate Professor Whipple must have felt differently, for the latter man praised How Strange a Thing for having, among other fine qualities, "the excitement and suspense of a good detective story" (Whipple also felt it had "the verve and speed of good narrative, and the insight into people's minds of good fiction").

I am not quite as enthusiastic about Dorothy Bennett's verse mystery as the distinguished T. K. Whipple. However, I found How Strange a Thing an interesting reading experience, and it certainly has kindled my interest in the idea of mystery made in verse.

How Strange a Thing is set in San Francisco, a locale about which Bennett writes evocatively:

Before their feet steep Sacramento street
Plunged like a rocket swiftly down to meet
The dark and glittering bay.

The city lay before them; Danny and Phil
Stood watching it a second from Kearny's hill;
Before their feet steep Sacramento street
Plunged like a rocket swiftly down to meet
The dark and glittering bay; and sweetly sang
The night and the cool wind, the distant clang
Of little cable cars, glow-worms that crawled
From Market street up to a fog-bound world,
The foothills of the stars, and from there hurled
Themselves in haste down to earth-light again.

Earlier Danny found himself landed in a great deal of trouble.

"Danny Tiernan went up the steps of his little brown house," we are told in the first line of the poem. "Into horror."  

The police are waiting for Danny to question him about a murder:

You knew a girl, we understand--a player
Of small parts in the theatre--Mary Thayer?

Mary has been stabbed to death.  Danny knows he is in trouble when he gets the police warning:

On either side of him stood plain-clothes men,
One said, "We warn you--anything you say
We can use against you, from this day."

The police take Danny away to a police station for interrogation.  Danny is subjected to three hours of American third degree.  Fortunately, Danny's housemate Phil turns up--and Phil is a newspaper journalist:

Phil's press badge flashed to sight upon his vest.
"The stars fight for you, Danny.  This is a charm.
That shall stand stout between you and all harm.
And if you think their second thought is best,
I will match star with star, and, saint, or sinner,
I will assuage you, Danny.  Let's go to dinner."

Oyster stew in cream
the perfect accompaniment for alibi discussions
Over dinner ("oyster stews in cream") the matter of alibis are discussed.  It emerges that Mary ran round with a flash set, including a couple Italians named D'Avila and "Dry" Martini, described with characteristic 1930s ethnic chauvinism:

Danny grinned faintly.  "Martini wasn't pleasant.
Just scratch him and you get original peasant."

Oh, and we learn, that Danny didn't really love Mary, but another young woman, Clare.  Cue love interest!

So, who killed Mary Thayer?  We do find out, and the solution has a certain interest, in terms of character study.  If you are looking for a fair play mystery in the form of verse, however, forget it!  I wish Bennett had shown more interest in clue placement and perhaps trimmed some of the Big Philosophizing about Death.  But then I am a detection fiend!

On the whole, despite my disappointment with How Strange a Thing as a fair play mystery, I did enjoy the poem.  At the very least, it is an interesting novelty, and it made me want to seek out H. R. F. Keating's effort in this field, Jack the Lady Killer.

I bet Keating gives us real clues along with the verse!

*Note There appears to be another Dorothy Bennett, a playwright and screenwriter, who was active in the 1930s and 1940s, but she does not seem to be the same Dorothy Bennett who in 1935 published How Strange a Thing and Murder Unleashed. The Passing Tramp.