|Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960)|
The awesomely prolific and long-lived Dartmoor regional novelist Eden Phillpotts (considered a literary disciple of Thomas Hardy) came late to sustained crime writing, with the publication of his mystery The Grey Room in 1921, when he was nearly sixty.
To be sure, Phillpotts had produced some crime fiction before 1921, but it was only in the 1920s that he began publishing it regularly. From the 1920s until the early 1940s he was a fixture on the mystery scene, both in his native England and in the United States.
Here follows a breakdown of his crime genre work in this period:
1921-1927 (8 novels, 1 short story collection)
The Grey Room (1921)
The Red Redmaynes (1922)
Number 87 (1922) (as Harrington Hext)
The Thing at Their Heels (1923) (Hext)
Who Killed Diana? (1924) (Hext)
The Monster (1925) (Hext)
A Voice from the Dark (1925)
Peacock House and Other Mysteries (1926) (short stories)
The Jury (1927)
1931-1944 (18 novels)
Found Drowned (1931)
Bred in the Bone (1932) (Vol. 1, The Book of Avis)
A Clue from the Stars (1932)
The Captain's Curio (1933)
Witch's Cauldron (1933) (Vol. 2, The Book of Avis)
A Shadow Passes (1933) (Vol. 3, The Book of Avis)
Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb (1934)
The Wife of Elias (1935)
Physician, Heal Thyself (1935)(aka The Anniversary Murder)
A Close Call (1936)
Lycanthrope: The Mystery of Sir William Wolf (1937)
Portrait of a Scoundrel (1938)
Awake, Deborah! (1940)
A Deed without a Name (1941)
Flower of the Gods (1942)
They Were Seven (1944)
|Eden Phillpotts, much later in life|
This is a substantial legacy, at least in terms of sheer quantity. But what about quaility?
Although today Eden Phillpotts' crime writing is mostly forgotten (he now is best known for having encouraged a certain young neighbor of his, a woman by the name of Agatha Christie, to stick it out with writing), in fact his genre work was much praised back in the Golden Age of detective fiction.
In 1927 S. S. Van Dine, then near the height of his own fame as a mystery writer, pronounced: "Eden Phillpotts has written some of the best detective stories in English." Author and New York Herald literary critic James Lauren Ford ranked Phillpotts as a detective novelist with Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins (and, less thrillingly it must be admitted, J. S. Fletcher).
Another reviewer declared that Phillpotts' crime fiction possessed, rare for the genre, "qualities of psychological understanding, of interpretation of character and motive, together with an admirable force, fineness and spirit in the narrative style." Dare I suggest that this sounds like it transcends the genre?
|James Lauren Ford (1854-1928)|
In addition to his success publishing detective novels, both under his own name and that of "Harrington Hext," he made a great hit on the London stage with rustic comedies, particularly The Farmer's Wife, adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.*
*(Phillpotts shares with genre writers Daphne du Maurier, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ethel Lina White, Jefferson Farjeon, Francis Beeding, Josephine Tey, Cornell Woolrich, Selwyn Jepson, Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson of having work translated into film by Hitch)
Yet Phillpotts' novels tend to be slow-moving and talky, with characters speaking in highly formal, stylized speech that fell out of fashion over time. By the late-1930s, Phillpotts' mysteries were becoming lengthier and slower; and while he still had his admirers, the influential critic Anthony Boucher was openly contemptuous of the grand old man in the 1940s, writing of his novel Flower of the Gods, for example, "infinite talk and no action. A doctor's prescription should be required for this powerful soporific."
In the 1970s, Julian Symons summarily dismissed Phillpotts in his influential genre survey, Bloody Murder, apparently on a reading of a few of the Dartmoor regionalist's 1920s mysteries. On the other hand, the late Jacques Barzun and his colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor were great admirers of Phillpotts and his genre fiction. Barzun selected Phillpotts' Found Drowned as one of his 100 Classics of Crime Fiction.
|Agatha Christie remembered Phillpotts fondly|
Agatha Christie dedicated her classic 1932 Hercule Poirot detective novel, Peril at End House, to Phillpotts, and, when he died in 1960, Christie published a warm obituary for him in the Sunday Times, not mentioning his detective fiction, but highly praising his 1910 children's fantasy novel The Flint Heart, recently reprinted in a modern edition.
For my part, I have more to say about Eden Phillpotts' detective fiction. See you soon.