Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Tale of Two Citizens, Part 2: Oklahoma Crime Writers Todd Downing (1902-1974) and Jim Thompson (1906-1977)

Todd Downing, c. 1930
Last week I wrote about the Oklahoma life of noir novelist Jim Thompson, who was a near exact contemporary of Todd Downing, the Oklahoma mystery writer and book reviewer.  I've written about Todd Downing before on this blog (as you probably know!), but while working on Clues and Corpses, my book on Downing and his crime fiction and book reviews, I decided it would be interesting to explore independently the stories of these two contemporary Oklahoma crime writers, alike in some ways, but so different in others.

Physically, they were very different in height, with Jim Thompson standing high at 6'4" and Todd Downing a modest 5'6".  However, both had Native American ancestry (as was often the case in Oklahoma).

Thompson is said by his family to have been one-eighth Cherokee through his maternal grandmother, while Downing believed he was one-fourth Choctaw (though a modern family researcher says that Downing's paternal grandmother, who died when Downing's father was five, was not full-bood, but rather half-blood, Choctaw, which would make Downing, like Thompson, one-eighth Indian).  Certainly in photos of the two men Thompson's high cheekbones and Downing's dark eyes and hair carry the suggestion of indigenous ancestry.

Jim Thompson's literary reputation certainly is alive and well
Will there be any sort of Todd Downing revival?




Robert Polito, Jim Thompson's biographer, reports that though "all through his life Jim Thompson voiced pleasure in the awareness that he was one-eighth Cherokee," nevertheless "his Native American heritage never composed a conspicuous plank in his personal identity."

This is far different from Todd Downing's case. Both Todd and his father, Sam Downing, were enrolled and active members of the Choctaw Nation (Todd's mother, Maud Miller, was a native Iowan of German, English and Scotch-Irish descent).

Sam Downing all his life was involved in Choctaw social and political affairs and Todd for his part signaled his views in 1926 when he, then a student at the University of Oklahoma, published a short piece in the Oklahoma journal The American Indian called "A Choctaw's Autobiography," wherein he unambiguously signaled his ethnic identification as a Choctaw.

Todd Downing's Choctaw heritage and his interest in indigenous culture influenced him to study Mexico in college, to become an instructor in Spanish at the University of Oklahoma and to set most of his detective novels in Mexico.  His exploration of Mexican culture in his detective novels is his signature achievement in the mystery genre.

In addition to sharing a Native American heritage, both Jim Thompson and Todd Downing had scandals in their family backgrounds.

Caddo County courthouse, completed in 1906
the year Jim Thompson was born and a year before
the Thompson family fled Oklahoma
Jim Thompson's farmer grandfather, a casualty of the Panic of 1873 and the years of economic distress that followed, fled Ipava, Illinois with his family to escape possible imprisonment over his irredeemable financial obligations.  Three decades later, Thompson's father, the sheriff of Caddo County, Oklahoma, with his family in tow fled Oklahoma when he was accused of embezzlement and threatened with imprisonment.

As discussed in part one of this piece, this latter event led to a downward spiral of wandering and privation for Thompson's family and it hugely influenced Thompson's dark crime fiction (psychopathic sheriffs figure in two of his most famous novels).

In Todd Downing's case both his grandfathers committed crimes of varying sorts.  In 1866, Todd's grandfather George Thornton Downing left his Texas wife and children (after deeding over all his property to a son) and moved to Indian Territory, Choctaw Nation, where he married a Choctaw woman, Melissa Armstrong, said to have come to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears as an infant.

Before their deaths (Melissa probably in 1877, George in 1880), the couple had four children, including Todd's father, Sam.  Apparently the children of the second marriage never learned that their father was a bigamist; certainly Todd Downing and his sister Ruth never knew such was the case, for they believed that their grandfather's first wife had died before he came to Oklahoma.

Todd's other grandfather, Daniel Miller, originally had been an upstanding citizen of Albia, Iowa.  A Civil War veteran, Secretary of the Albia Lyceum, former Deputy District Court Clerk and dry goods merchant, Miller married Awilda Shields, the daughter of a respected doctor, in 1868.

Victorian commercial block in Albia, Iowa
Seven years after his marriage, Miller became cashier of the newly formed Monroe County Bank.  Miller was one of the most popular men in Albia, according to a contemporary account, until it was discovered that the bank's liabilities greatly exceeded its assets.  In 1883, Miller was convicted of embezzlement, forgery and fraud and sentenced to seven years in the Iowa state penitentiary.

After his release (with time off for good behavior), Daniel Miller and his family made their way by 1891 to Atoka, Oklahoma, where his wife Awilda had prominent cousins.  Daniel's and Awilda's daughter, Maud, married Sam Downing in 1899.

Although both Todd's grandfathers had scandalous secrets in their pasts (and one served jail time), his parents were model citizens.  Left motherless at five and fatherless at eight, Sam Downing was taken into the home of a prominent local merchant family, the Blossoms, and raised to be a devout Presbyterian and Republican.  The parents of Sam Downing's foster mother had been Quaker teachers and Sam was educated for two years at Earlham College, a prominent Quaker college in Indiana (the school began admitting non-Quakers in 1865).

Downing House, Atoka
After Sam Downing returned to Atoka he became County Clerk and later started a successful drayage business.  When the Spanish-American war broke out, he served in Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, as a Choctaw and Chickasaw interpreter in the Indian Territory Cavalry.  After his marriage to Maud Miller Sam built a two story Victorian foursquare house that still stands today.  Here, Sam and Maud Downing raised their children Todd and Ruth.

Also living with them, after her husband's death, was Awilda Miller, Todd's one surviving grandparent.  She would live in the Downing home until her death in 1939 and was a great influence over her grandchildren.  Like Sam and Maud Downing, Awilda Miller was a highly devout Presbyterian. 

As I discussed in part one, Jim Thompson hated his own pious maternal grandmother and when his family's financial circumstances forced his mother to take him and his sisters back to Nebraska to live with her parents his grandmother's presence was a torture to him, by his account.

In Todd Downing's case, however, the maternal grandmother was a warm and supportive presence, even standing behind Todd's sister Ruth when she turned down a chance of marriage and moved to New York to do graduate work at Columbia University (she became a social worker of note).

So the Thompsons were a family that led an economically volatile, peripatetic and often unhappy existence, while the Downings, despite scandals in their past, became pillars of their small Oklahoma community, Atoka, and provided a stable, happy and ordered upbringing for the Downing children.

As I also discussed in part one, Jim Thompson, despite the difficulties in his childhood, became a great reader of imaginative literature, thanks to the good offices of an uncle. Todd Downing did as well.  He read, for example, a great deal of Sir Walter Scott and H. Rider Haggard.  In the 1910s his eye was caught by the books of Arthur B. Reeve, creator of scientific detective Dr. Craig Kennedy, and Sax Rohmer, creator of the diabolical criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu (Edgar Wallace would follow in the 1920s).

one of the Arthur B. Reeve books read by Todd Downing as an adolescent

Jim Thompson attended classes at the University of Nebraska but dropped out after two years, married and sought to make a living during the Depression-wracked 1930s as a freelance writer in Oklahoma City. Todd, on the other hand, got both a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Oklahoma, and he also taught there as an instructor, from 1925 to 1935 (he resigned as a teacher in the latter year, hoping to make his living solely from writing).

Jim Thompson wrote true crime articles for magazines in the 1930s before becoming, as discussed in part one, head of the Federal Writers' Project in Oklahoma between 1936 and 1940.  After he left Oklahoma and moved to San Diego, California in 1940, Thompson would publish two mainstream novels, one in 1942 and one in 1946.  He would not launch the crime fiction career that would make his name until 1949, when he was 43.

Todd Downing, on the other hand, published his first novel, a mystery called Murder on Tour, in 1933, when he was 31 (it was written, mostly in Mexico City, the previous year).  Downing would write a total of nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941, seven of them with his most important series detective, U. S. Customs Agent Hugh Rennert.

Todd Downing's first detective novel, soon to be reprinted

Like Jim Thompson, Todd Downing had aspirations to be a mainstream novelist, and he planned in 1942 to publish a historical novel about Mexico called Under the Rose, but it never appeared (in 1940 he did, however, produce a well-regarded non-fictional study of Mexico, called The Mexican Earth).

Also like Jim Thompson, Todd Downing would leave Oklahoma in the 1940s.  Thompson once disgustedly referred to Oklahoma City as "a God-forsaken place" while Downing in 1939 wrote that he had of late become "rather at odds with Atoka and all it represents."

After Downing left his native state, he worked in the advertising business in Philadelphia in the 1940s, then taught at schools in Maryland and Virginia in the 1950s.  Yet, in marked contrast to Jim Thompson, Todd Downing returned to Oklahoma in the 1950s and spent the rest of his life there.

After his father Sam died in 1954, Downing came back to Atoka to live in the old family home with his mother Maud, now an octogenarian.  He lived there for about two decades, from 1955 to his death in 1974, three years before Jim Thompson's demise.  During this time Downing  taught at Atoka High School and later Southeastern Oklahoma University, in the nascent Choctaw language program.

Todd Downing's own crime writing is much different from Thompson's noir fiction.  For one thing, it's true detective fiction, each book offering readers a puzzle to be solved.  As Downing's book reviews show, he loved the fair play detective fiction of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, S. S. Van Dine and many others.

Moreover, Downing's detective fiction looks outward, to Mexico and its culture, which Downing believed could impart North Americans lessons of value about life (and death).  Thompson's fiction, on the other hand, looks inside himself, seemingly, to a midnight place of darkness and despair.

There is evidence that Todd Downing himself had in his life some times of darkness and despair, deeply personal unto himself (for more on this see Clues and Corpses); yet, though he believed detective fiction could have higher literary elements to it, he accepted the then prevalent view of the genre as escape literature, something to put oneself on better terms with life.

Hell on Earth
When Jim Thompson portrays a Mexican locale in his famous crime novel The Getaway (1958), it's an existential nightmare, a hell on earth.  Downing hardly had a polyannish view of the world--in fact there's a great deal of tension in, for example, his novels Vultures in the Sky (1935) and Night Over Mexico (1937) (in the one novel people are trapped and dying on a train, the other in an isolated ranch house)--but he thought knowledge of Mexican culture could help one better cope with life's myriad cruelties.

It's also interesting to note how in Thompson's novels The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964) Thompson portrays southern sheriffs as horrific murdering fiends (of course they're hardly alone in this respect in Thompson's novels).

Conversely, Todd Downing's Texas sheriff Peter Bounty, introduced in the Hugh Rennert mystery The Last Trumpet (1937) and the solo detective in Death Under the Moonflower (1938) and The Lazy Lawrence Murders (1941), is an admirable human being--as is Hugh Rennert himself.

Left unasked, until the very end, has been the question: Did these two men, both crime writers molded by Oklahoma in the first decades of the twentieth century, ever actually meet?

Jim Thompson's friend Louis L'Amour
like Todd Downing was a book reviewer
for Oklahoma City's major newspaper
Robert Polito has no answer, nor do I.  Todd Downing's mentor, University of Oklahoma languages professor Kenneth C. Kaufman, knew both men, or at least knew of both.  He's mentioned several times in Polito's biography of Thompson.

Todd Downing reviewed books for Oklahoma City's major newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, as did Jim Thompson's friend from the Federal Writers' Project, future bestselling Western novelist Louis L'Amour.

The newspaper's literary page was edited by Kenneth Kaufman.  Polito refers to "the lively Sunday literary page that University of Oklahoma Professor Kenneth Kaufman edited for the Daily Oklahoman."

Yet by the time Thompson became involved with the Federal Writers' Project in 1936, Todd Downing had left the University of Oklahoma (located in Norman, which neighbors Oklahoma City, home of the University) and returned to live with his family in Atoka (he became known back in the university community as "the hermit of Boggy Creek," after Muddy Boggy Creek, which runs by Atoka).  Still, he occasionally sallied forth to participate at writers' conferences at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma state, until he stopped writing fiction and left Oklahoma in 1942.

Did Jim Thompson and Todd Downing ever meet?  This remains an unsolved mystery.  Yet whether or not the two authors actually met, they are both products of the Oklahoma of a century ago, and they both did the state proud with their fine--if very different--works of crime fiction.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Short Life of Crime: Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937)

Christopher St. John Sprigg
on the left side of the blog
Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937) is one of those fascinating people who briefly entered the field of detective fiction during its Golden Age, but is better known for other things besides his mystery writing.  He published six detective novels in a flurry between 1933 and 1935.  A final tale appeared in 1937.

The first six of Sprigg's seven detective novels are delightful, whimsical tales that should find favor with fans of writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes and Nicholas Blake.  Dorothy L. Sayers herself praised Sprigg's mystery fiction, as did Todd Downing (you just knew Downing's name would pop up somehow, didn't you?). Sprigg was aware of Sayers' praise for one of his novels and sent her a thankful letter.

Born a Catholic, Sprigg like many in the 1930s transferred his spiritual fervor into Marxism.  He was soon scorning his detective fiction as "trash" written to make money and immersing himself in massive, serious, intellectual  tomes that attempted to interpret everything in the world through Stalinist lenses (the word bourgeois is mentioned a great deal, and naturally not in a good way).  Sprigg's volumes of Marxist thought, published under the name Christopher Caudwell, are considered significant contributions in this field.

Much of Sprigg's work, including the final, post-conversion detective novel, The Six Queer Things, was published posthumously, for Caudwell was killed in the Spanish Civil War, before his thirtieth birthday (like many idealistic leftists of the day he had gone to Spain to support the Republican side).

In contrast with his other detective novels, The Six Queer Things, an attack on Spiritualism, is quite grim in tone, with a notably nasty last line (see this interesting review of the novel at The Study Lamp).

Back in 2012 I came across two unpublished detective stories by Sprigg, as well as an unpublished mystery play.  I'll be commenting more about these works in my next forgotten book post (plus there will be reviews of The Bughouse Affair and more on Anthony Gilbert and part 2 of the Jim Thompson-Todd Downing article, also another Life in Crime--wow, I'd better get busy!).

The Detective Novels of Christopher St. John Sprigg (Christopher Caudwell)

Crime in Kensington/Pass the Body (1933)
Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) (not published in the US)
The Perfect Alibi (1934)
Death of an Airman (1934)
The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935)
Death of a Queen (1935) (not published in the US)
The Six Queer Things (1937)

Downing Contest: And the Winner Is....

Agatha Christie was one of the favorites
of Todd Downing (he's not alone here!)

I know everyone has been nervously awaiting this announcement, so here goes!

It was close, but the winner of the Downing Contest is...Patrick!  A certain someone with whom you may already be familiar in the mystery blogosphere.

But it was so close that I'm going to give offer a consolation prize to the second place finisher, David, out of the same group of five books, after Patrick has picked one.

I hope both these percipient gents will find something to their liking.Thanks to those who participated!

The top six contestant guesses for the most reviewed authors by Todd Downing were:

1. John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson
2. John Rhode/Miles Burton
3. Ellery Queen/Barnaby Ross
4. Agatha Christie
5. Mignon Eberhart
6. Rufus King

Which actually wasn't all that far off from the actual top six.  Out in front among authors reviewed by Downing is:

Ellery Queen/Barnaby Ross (eight books)

followed by

Agatha Christie and Eden Phillpotts (tied at seven)

and

H. C. Bailey, John Dickson Carr and Carolyn Wells (tied at six).

The highest anyone ranked Baily was sixth, Phillpotts seventh, Wells eleventh.

So you could say Carolyn Wells was the real dark horse here.  But the truth is, Downing's reviews of Wells books are some of his best, quite wry.

like Todd Downing and Bill Pronzini
John Dickson Carr was a onetime reader of Carolyn Wells
 
Downing with considerable prescience writes about Wells's dotty crime fiction in the same splendid satirical manner as Bill Pronzini three decades later in Gun in Cheek, Pronzini's wonderful salute to "alternative" classics (if you haven't read this book and its sequel already, you really should get copies on the used book market).  Wells can become addictive, alternatively speaking, as Pronzini can tell you.

The truth is, though, that Carolyn Wells was a tremendously prolific mystery writer during the Golden Age and had quite a devoted following who took her quite seriously, including a young John Dickson Carr (he later went back and reread her in middle-age and was crashingly disappointed--you can't go home again!).

The other five authors most reviewed by Downing--Queen, Christie, Phillpotts, Bailey and Carr--Downing held in the greatest esteem.

You will find much, much more on the authors reviewed by Todd Downing in my Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.


Reviews are a great primary source for people who want to have a better understanding of what Golden Age mystery fiction was really like (you can't simply judge it from handful of authors still widely in print today); and there are hundreds of fascinating (and fully annotated) reviews in Clues and Corpses.

Additionally, you get a good picture of the personality of Todd Downing as a man, mystery writer and mystery reader.  At his death in 1974, his library was donated to an Oklahoma university, where it is kept intact today, so I was able to even further analyze his aesthetic tastes in mystery (mystery fiction made up about 25% of his library).  The man not only wrote accomplished detective fiction himself (now reprinted by Coachwhip), he reads great quantities of it for many decades.

I hope more collections of mystery reviews will appear in future.  In particular, those by Dorothy L. Sayers and Dashiell Hammett should be available in book form.  There is so much still to be learned about the earlier decades of the ever-fascinating literary genre of crime and mystery fiction.

Monday, January 28, 2013

By the Light of the Television: Poirot Season 5 (1993)

This was the last season of filmed adaptation of Agatha Christie's Poirot short stories, pending the story cycle found in The Labors of Hercules.  As with the others, I will rate these on a one to five star (or asterisk) scale.

The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb*****

He who robs the graves of Egypt...dies!
A superlative Poirot outing: eerie, suspenseful, great on location shooting and sense of period, lots of horrid murders.  Obviously it's all a nod to the sensation that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's fabulous tomb in 1922 (and the supposed curse that followed members of the expedition).

Here, the members of a tomb-hunting expedition are dropping like flies in the heat, dying right and left.  Is there a supernatural curse, or is some diabolical human fiend at work?  Will Poirot save the day?  But of course, mon ami! Hard to find any fault with this one.  Even Hastings gets something to do, making a solo side trip to New York (pay attention!).

The Underdog***

A somewhat flat country house murder story.  This one's not really bad; there's just nothing particularly memorable about it. Here the adapters seem to have been stymied by the source material.  While quite long, the story "The Underdog" is just not very interesting.  nor is this adaptation.

Yellow Iris*****

Another superlative episode, based on one of Christie's best short stories (she later expanded it into the novel Sparkling Cyanide).

This one shifts from Argentina to England, as murder in nearly identical circumstances strikes twice among the same circle of people (with Poirot on hand of course).  It's rather a sinister outing for the series, and more serious than was the norm back in the 1990s.

The puzzle is excellent too.  Though it uses one of Christie's classic ploys, chances are the viewer will miss it!  The ploy is impressively carried off, even though it's more challenging to do on screen than on the written page.

The Case of the Missing Will*

They say where there's a will there's a way, but here while the adapters may have found the will they couldn't find their way (sorry for the terrible puns).  They have my sympathy to some extent, however, because they were faced with having to adapt this lame tale, which is barely a sketch, and, indeed, probably the worst Poirot story Christie wrote.

They responded by completely rewriting the story (though there is still a missing will of course) Unfortunately, the story concocted for this episode, which deals with the higher education of women, feels like it came out of Dorothy L. Sayers, not Agatha Christie.  And as a fair play (or even coherent) mystery it's an absolute botch.  Call it Gauzy Night, if you will.  Agatha Christie herself never exhibited  poor plotting until near the very end of her writing career.

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman*****

Who killed the count?
The original Christie story, about the murder of an Italian count, has a clever little puzzle, though the background, as is the case with many of the Poirot short stories, is thin. 

The adapters here did a marvelous job of fleshing out the short story.  Here we have diplomats, gangsters and blackmailers, all mixed up in an entertaining and lively way.

The adapters had the brilliant notion of giving Miss Lemon (who was not much used this season) a romance of sorts with the manservant of the dead count, a device that works splendidly.  It's not textual Christie, admittedly, but it's tremendously entertaining.

The Chocolate Box****

sweet death
A step into Poirot's past is occasioned when he accompanies Inspector Japp to Belgium, where Japp is to receive an award in honor of his distinguished police work (no kidding!).

Poirot tells the story of a murder case he was involved in long ago, when he was a young member of the Belgian police.  There's appealing pre-WW1, Continental atmosphere and nostalgia, though the murder plot is pretty simple.

Dead Man's Mirror*****

This is one Christie's best short stories (which in fact exists as both a short story and a novella).  This adaptation is a fine one, preserving the story's first-class fair play puzzle (which employs a classic motive).

Outside of a vivid fire sequence, Mirror takes place mostly in the confined setting of a country house (complete with a most proper butler), but it's one of those fantastic modern ones this series showcased so frequently and evocatively.

The murder victim is one of the series' most memorable ones, plummily played by the late Iain Cuthbertson.  A youngish Jeremy Northam is in this one too, as the nephew, but he's pretty bland, sadly.

Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan****

the pearls were just too tempting
The swan song of the short stories, this is a sprightly jewel theft case.

The original tale had a good plot, which is preserved and ably expanded in this adaptation.  It's all about the theft of a famous pearl necklace that in a publicity gimmick is being used as the key stage prop in an Edgar Wallace mystery thriller play about...the theft of a pearl necklace (cool! meta!).

A nice young couple gets the blame, but we know that can't be right--can it?

Fortunately Poirot, on a rest cure, is on hand!  As ever, he finds that crime is the best restorative.

Well, that completes my reviews of all the short story adaptations.  See these links for the others:

Season One

Season Two

Season Three

I will be back soon with my listing of the top twelve Poirot short story adaptations, according to Passing Tramps.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Books To Try For (if you can find them): A Review of Christopher Fowler's Invisible Ink (2012)

"Sadly, we live in a time where there is no patience for barmy British sleuths who uncover insanely complex murders."

                   Christopher Fowler, Invisible Ink (2012)

they faded into air....
And how sad that is, isn't it, Mr. Fowler!  If you love old books, particularly mystery novels from the 1920s through the 1960s, Christopher Fowler's Invisble Ink is a book for you.

Readers of this blog will recall how I discussed Christopher Fowler's recent piece decrying what he sees as the omnipresence of police procedural gloom in modern British crime writing.  Fowler urged that more modern crime writers look back (like he does) to the past.

Maintaining as I do a blog that is to a great extent righteously devoted to keeping alive the memory of old mysteries, I naturally was pleased to see Fowler's impassioned advocacy for yesterday's crime fiction.

Looking at Fowler's blog I found that he recently published in England a short book on past writers, Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared (2012).  It's a small book of about 200 pages that collects his Independent columns on the subject of "forgotten authors" from the last several years.  Not having read most of these columns, I was interested to see Fowler's thoughts on this subject in book form.

Christopher Fowler
There are a few oddities to Invisible Ink that should be noted, some arising out of discordance with that subtitle, some perhaps out of the fact that the columns were written for an English newspaper and may not have been updated before appearing in book form (there also is no table of contents, which is rather exasperating in a list book).

For example, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde are two of Fowler's forgotten/disappeared authors, and--Wait, what?! you might be saying right now.

Ah, but you see, what Fowler means is that certain works of theirs are forgotten, or not as well known than they should be. 

Okay, I'll accept that; yet there are some questionable statements too, like when Fowler writes that one of his "disappeared" authors, Georgette Heyer, "is not entirely out of print."

I'll say she's not!  In fact, if there's anything by Heyer that's not in print, both in the U. S. and the U. K., I'm not sure what it is (maybe those early, self-suppressed mainstream novels?). There's now also a second biography of Heyer, published less than two years ago.

Heyer "has fallen into a strange and rather airless niche market," writes Fowler, meaning the fans of Heyer's beloved Regency romances, apparently.

Well, I don't know.  As a blogger who writes about old books on a regular basis, I can tell you I would love to get the sort of blizzard of comments on my blog that you see on some of those "airless" Regency literature blogs!

this lady is actually pretty popular
One of Heyer's most admired books, The Grand Sophy, is ranked #27, 923 currently on internet bookselling giant Amazon.com.  Not bestseller status to be sure, but the tale is ranked above several million books!  In the United States, that ranking puts it ahead of, for example, reprint novels by two great Ians--Fleming and Rankin (on the other hand the Ians edge out Heyer on Amazon.co.uk).

Similarly, Fowler writes that the "first Judge Dee novel [by Robert van Gulik, disappeared author #68] has since been republished, but the rest are harder to find."

Not if you're looking on Amazon or its affiliates (this is starting to sound like an Amazon commercial, I know), they're not!

They've been available for years in attractive paperback editions by Harper Perennial and The University of Chicago Press.  And these editions are available in Britain too.

Similarly, Margery Allingham is a "disappeared" author?  Fowler admits "many readers know her name, even if they haven't read her."  "However," he argues, "very few of [those who have read her] have really got to grips with her novels."  Well, again, I don't know. It seems to me that people who have read Allingham (quite a few, actually, by the standard for long-dead Golden Age British mystery writers not named Agatha Christie) tend, like Fowler, to admire her writing rather intensely.

the old gel's still kicking
And if one thinks that "many of Allingham's books appear to have vanished" one had better look again.  The Campion books were reprinted by Felony & Mayhem a couple years ago (and they are available in the UK too--heck, even the non-fictional The Oaken Heart is available in the UK).  All "disappeared authors" should be so fortunate!  The same, by the way, can be said about Fowler's disappeared author #47, Eric Ambler.

So admittedly one certainly can't take everything in this book as gospel, but nevertheless one should give due credit to Invisible Ink for its being what it is: a commendable effort on Christopher Fowler's part to kindle--I'm not talking about Amazon this time!-- broader reader interest in the following worthies:

1. utterly vanished authors

2. kinda/sorta vanished authors

3. arguably not as well-remembered as they should be authors

4. remembered but really rather insufficiently appreciated authors

5. actually quite well-remembered authors who, nevertheless, have some particular books that are forgotten

Discussing these books, Fowler reveals a good sense of authorial worth.  Since this is a crime fiction blog, I'll confine myself (mostly) to the crime writers he includes:

#3 Margaret Millar
# 5 Horace McCoy
#6 Boileau and Narcejac
#14 Harry Hodge (launched the Notable British Trials series)
#18 Charlotte Armstrong
#21 Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon
 #22 Sarah Caudwell
#38 Margery Allingham
#40 Hugh Wheeler (Although if I read this correctly Fowler seems to think that Wheeler was solely responsible for all the crime fiction of Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  If Fowler thinks Hugh Wheeler is forgotten, he should consider Wheeler's longtime collaborator in many of the books written under those pseudonyms, Richard Wilson Webb--now that is forgotten, to go unmentioned in a book on forgotten authors in which your collaborative partner is included!)

the product of two minds, actually

#44 John Dickson Carr (actually the last few years more of Carr's books have made it back into print in some form, including some titles from Rue Morgue, who also reprinted Dorothy Bowers, see immediately below)
#45 Dorothy Bowers (as Fowler notes, however, Bowers' small body of work has been brought back into print by Rue Morgue, so she's not really "disappeared," is she?--So add another category: once disappeared, but recently rescued from oblivion by a valiant small press)
#47 Eric Ambler (Fowler's included with Nevil Shute, so we actually have 101 authors in this book--wait, actually there are even more if we count the actual collaborators separately)
#58 Lionel Davidson
#62 HRF Keating (Fowler singles out for praise the 1965 detective novel Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal. The late HRF Keating deserves notice, to be sure, but Fowler also mistakenly asserts that Keating "produced the definitive biography of Agatha Christie." Keating himself would have demurred at this over-generous declaration; what he did do was edit a collection of essays on Christie, back in 1977)


#67 Georgette Heyer (though the piece is devoted to her Regency romances)
#68 Robert van Gulik
#69 Gavin Lyall
#72 Marjorie Bowen (Another writer who defied boundaries, best known for her supernatural fiction today; but she also was important in the field of crime fiction.  Fowler also includes William Fryer Harvey and Shirley Jackson, two other fine genre-straddlers)
#77 Edmund Crispin (yet, again, this is another "disappeared" author who was reprinted several years ago by Felony & Mayhem)
#84 Gladys Mitchell (although as much as I like her writing, was Gladys Mitchell ever really widely judged one of the "Big Three" women mystery writers, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers?  Mitchell never had the mass popularity of and, to be honest, the broad critical acclaim afforded Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Ngaio Marsh)
#89 R. Austin Freeman (Hooray for this one, the father of the "Humdrums"!  Yet though Fowler writes that Freeman's books began as "homages" to Sherlock Holmes, my impression is that Freeman was trying to debunk what he saw as Holmes' bad science!  Certainly Freeman's detective Dr. Thorndyke is a much better scientist than Holmes, though the latter is a superior showman)

"certainly worth rediscovery"

#93 Edgar Wallace
#97 Michael Gilbert
#98 SS Van Dine

So, about one quarter of the entries are on crime writers and a good lot of selections they are (there are also quite a few brilliant supernatural fiction writers, such as Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman).

Interesting observations are scattered throughout this volume.

"Her novels were concise and short, very much in the style of the 1950s," writes Fowler of Margaret Millar, "but the ideas they contained were unusually complex, so that her characters took on a life of their own.  This is a hard trick to pull off; we're used to modern mysteries clocking in at over 400 pages with everything explained and examined, often to the detriment of the book."

brevity is the soul of fright?
I feel this point cannot be emphasized enough.  People forget today that waaay back in the 1970s the great Ruth Rendell, to cite another example in addition to Margaret Millar (and Charlotte Armstrong), wrote some of the best suspense novels ever (The Lake of Darkness and A Demon in My View, for example), and they are short books.

Suspense stretched out too long can snap and become tedium, I find.

However, I have to query Fowler's argument that Millar's "books fell from fashion partly because their psychology dated."  As an example of this "dated" psychology he notes that in one of Millar's novels a "gay character kills himself after the shame of exposure."

Sadly, one might question whether Millar's psychology has really completely dated in this instance (see the Tyler Clementi suicide, for example).  For my part, I find Millar's writing and grip on character is so strong that I don't see the works primarily as "period pieces," as Fowler says.

Yet in any event, let's give Fowler credit for highlighting Millar, who indeed is one of the timeless greats.  It's barmy, to use Fowler's word, that Millar is mostly out-of-print.

Similarly, I liked this point from Fowler in the entry on Eric Ambler (and Nevil Shute):

"What links them...is their ability to tell 20th century stories filled with enthralling action sequences and characters you care  about, linking events into larger political settings.  This basic storytelling skill lately seems to have become buried within vast self-important volumes, so it's a shock to note the brevity of most Shute and Ambler novels."

Hey, I said this point about brevity couldn't be emphasized enough, didn't I?  Hope I haven't gone on about it too long!

oddly, no murders
Concerning other authors in the book, I have to applaud Fowler for including another one of my favorites, Arthur Machen, about whom he writes, "Shockingly, a recent straw poll among young authors yielded just two recognitions of Machen's name in a group of twenty."

And I was delighted to see EM Delafield (disappeared author #1 no less), for her Provincial Lady Diary series of novels from the 1930s and 1940s (Invisible Ink emphatically is not just a boys' book of boys' books).

"The English sense of humor is almost impossible to explain," pronounces Fowler drolly; yet this American found these books charmingly amusing when he read them fifteen years ago (there's sharp social satire too).

Fowler writes forcefully here:

"[The publisher] Virago did [Delafield] no favors a few years ago by shoveling four volumes of the diaries into one dense, ugly paperback prefaced with a foreward explaining why we should not find the books funny.  In America, facsimiles were printed with the original drawings, and found a new audience that was prepared to appreciate [Delafields's] qualities of grace, endurance and quite optimism."

This describes this American to a T (I even bought and admired the same attractive facsimile editions that Fowler mentions).

Fowler also recommends Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven (Renault is disappeared author #46).  That's one of the titles from Todd Downing's personal library, I should note.  There definitely are interesting authors in the book as well who are not crime writers!

So, despite some quibbles, I believe Invisible Ink is a book that will repay a book lover who seeks it out.  And if you weren't a book lover, why would you be here, reading all this?

P.S. Don't forget the Downing Contest.  You have only today to enter!

Guessing Contest: Todd Downing Edition

Which authors do you think were most reviewed  in Todd Downing's mystery book review column in the 1930s (these reviews are collected in my Clues and Corpses: the Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing)?

 
See if you can correctly rank Downing's fifteen most reviewed authors, in order from most reviewed of the fifteen to least reviewed of the fifteen. Winner (determined on points) gets a hardcover mystery by either Andrew Garve, Anthony Gilbert, E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode or R. A. J Walling (you'll get some choice of books).

I think I will have to confine the prize to American and Canadian viewers, because of shipping expenses (unless you want to pay shipping; the book would still be free of course), but everyone can compete for the sheer honor of it of course!  Click my "about me" (upper right on this page) to get my email address on my about me page and put the label Downing Contest in the subject area.  Also give me at least your first name.

I'll have to close the contest after Sunday, because some people will be getting the book next week and they will be able to determine the correct ranking for themselves!

Here are the fifteen authors you have to rank in order from most reviewed to least reviewed (I've listed them alphabetically and included secondary pseudonyms):

Herbert Adams
H. C. Bailey
John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson
Agatha Christie
Mignon Eberhart
Harry Stephen Keeler
Rufus King
Eden Phillpotts
Milton Propper
Ellery Queen/Barnaby Ross
John Rhode/Miles Burton
Dorothy L. Sayers
Carolyn Wells
Patricia Wentworth
Anthony Wynne

How many of these authors had you heard of, by the way?  Or read?  Coming in behind this group above, by the way, to make the top 25 are Anthony Abbot, Hugh Austin, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, J. S. Fletcher, Walter S. Masterman, Darwin Teilhet, Sir Basil Thomson, John V. Turner (aka Nicholas Brady and David Hume), S. S. Van Dine and Valentine Williams.

There are plenty of additional authors reviewed too, including the hard-boiled, like Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer and George Harmon Coxe, and psychological crime novelists like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Marie Belloc Lowndes.  Lots to love!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Marriage is Murder: Murder Comes Home (1950), by Anthony Gilbert

The 1950 Anthony Gilbert mystery Murder Comes Home is the best pure detective novel I have read by this author (who actually was a woman, Lucy Beatrice Malleson).  It has the qualities characteristic of Gilbert mysteries--a sprightly writing style and good characterization--plus, less commonly with this author, a murder problem that holds the reader's interest till the very end.

It all starts with a nice young couple being called in by a doctor to witness an old lady's will.  Not long afterward, the nice young husband finds in the newspaper that the old lady was murdered, smothered to death apparently.

Evidence provided by him and his nice young wife leads to the arrest of the old lady's insolvent sister and brother-in-law, both of whom are out-of-work actors. This pair were the beneficiaries of the old lady's new will, which is rather odd, since they had for years been estranged from the old lady, on account of the sister having run off long ago with --gasp!--an actor.

Anthony Gilbert's series detective, Cockney defense attorney Arthur Crook, comes to the defense of the arrested actor couple.  His investigation turns up surprising new leads....

Anthony Gilbert knew London well and her portrayal of the locals--particularly landladies and housekeepers--is first-rate.  Further, the novel was published at the time of the many sudden changes wrought by the aftermath of World War Two and the rise of Labour; and there's a good deal of interesting social observation regarding all this sprinkled throughout the novel.

And there's some pithy writing too:

It was not so much marrying out of her class as marrying out of her own kind.

Mrs. Bennett looked rather startled.  She wasn't used to people quoting the Bible in her own lounge.

It's easy enough to find evidence of Anthony Gilbert's feminism in Murder Comes Home.

With noticeable regularity widows frequently express themselves better off without their blessedly dead husbands, while wives regret the ones they have.

Indeed, there's not one happy marriage in the book that I recall, besides that of the nice young couple (and give them a few years!).

Then there's this:

"Father had the most old-fashioned ideas.  He thought it was beneath his daughters to work in a shop or an office but not beneath them to marry anyone who could provide them with a roof and three meals a day."

This sentiment clearly expresses Gilbert's own life experience.  When her stockbroker father suffered financial reverses in the 1910s and the family's standard of living precipitously declined, Gilbert found that her genteel ladies education failed to provide her with the qualifications she needed to get good work. 

Fortunately with her natural talent and intelligence Gilbert eventually attained success and a steady income as a mystery writer.  Yet she never forgot her troubles earlier in life, which won't surprise the reader of Murder Comes Home.

(Still some more to come on this writer, next week I think! TPT)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Citizens: Oklahoma Crime Writers Todd Downing (1902-1974) and Jim Thompson (1906-1977)

"A future writer of crime fiction and westerns could do worse than turn-of-the-century Oklahoma."

             --Robert Polito, Savage Art (1995)

the native ground of crime writers Jim Thompson and Todd Downing
 
Both Todd Downing, a largely forgotten though once admired (and happily now reprinted) detective novelist, and Jim Thompson, the today much-toasted titan of twisted and terrifying noir fiction, were born within just a few years of each other in that quintessentially American space that soon was to become the state of Oklahoma (Thompson was born to the west at Anadarko in Oklahoma Territory, in the blue patch in the southwest corner of the map above, Downing to the east at Atoka in Indian Territory, in the purple patch in the southeast corner of the map above).

Jim Thompson's nightmare tale of 
wasting, sucking nihilism
These two men, sons of the nascent Oklahoma of a century ago, had some interesting similarities. Yet they also were markedly distinguished from each other in notable ways, which helps to explain why two crime writers from one time and place produced such very different books within their specialized genre.

Changes in critical standards helped create a situation where Jim Thompson became more famous after death, with all his books reprinted by a major imprint, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, while Todd Downing languished forgotten and out-of-print for decades, only recently brought back into print by a little press called Coachwhip (eight Downing detective novels, all but the rare first one, are now available at Amazon; the first will be available as well soon; also see my review of Downing's third mystery, Vultures in the Sky, here).

After his death Thompson's art in all its uncompromising bleakness was enthusiastically endorsed by intellectuals and filmmakers, helping to win him much posthumous attention from a larger audience (for example, the 1990 film The Grifters, based on a Thompson novel and true to the author's aesthetic spirit, was nominated for four Oscars).

Thompson may have been a writer ahead of his time, but the times finally caught up with him and his dark vision of life (and death).

Noir is where it's at for many modern readers of crime fiction.  To call a work "noir" is to bestow it with genre-transcending literary significance (for my part, I've taken to calling Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None noir--and I'm not really joking either).

Todd Downing
a more life-affirming writer
Yet Todd Downing's life and body of work has unique and impressive qualities that should make him better known than he is.  This is something I talk about in my new book, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (just out; see here).

Now that Downing's work has been reprinted, perhaps posterity, having embraced Jim Thompson with the greatest ardor and affection, will afford Todd Downing at least a few chaste yet fond caresses. 

Nearly twenty years ago, the biography of Jim Thompson, Savage Art (1995), was published by Robert Polito to much critical acclaim.  This 543-page tome received both the National Book Critics Circle Award and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.*

*(incidentally, Polito's main competition at the Edgars was Doug Greene's wonderful biography of the great Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr, a book surely beloved by many readers of this blog)

Let Robert Polito describe Jim Thompson's twisted crime fiction (Savage Art, pp. 7-10):

Buried under the shabbiest conventions of pulp fiction--all but three of the twenty-six novels he published between 1942 and 1973 were paperback originals--and picking at the banality with offhand brilliance, his books pursue the most debased imaginative materials....

Crime fiction, however violent or macabre or sordid, ordinarily--if paradoxically--constitutes a comforting and conservative genre.  Whether the prose is soft- or hard-boiled and the author is Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers or James M. Cain, most crime novels tend to borrow their trajectory from (for all the obvious differences) classic comedy [Polito goes on to argue that this comedy-derived trajectory involves the containment of "a demonic impulse" and "a calamitous action"]....

Thompson's boldest writing about criminals transgresses, even inverts, the consolations of the genre....he overturns the formal and thematic resolutions of the crime novel for a more disruptive, devastating ambiguity. In The Killer Inside Me, for example [Thompson's most famous novel, originally published in 1952 ]....both Thompson's hero and Thompson's society achieve not a new life but a terrifying nothingness.

The nods to hard-boiled conventions do not so much toughen Thompson's novels as humanize them--they're all we have to hang on to in the downdraft.  Everything else is wasted, sucking nihilism that's as unsparing as the most lacerating rock'n'roll...and as final as snuff film.

savage tales
My own experience with Thompson's writing is described in Going to Hell in a Samples Case, my 2011 Mystery*File review of the author's nightmarish tale A Hell of a Woman (1954).  I disliked The Killer Inside Me so intensely it put me off Thompson for some time.  I still would never want to make a steady diet of his bleak and twisted work, but I can see the power in it that many find so compelling.

From what particular hell does such a dark vision arise?

"Crime fiction," writes Polito, "offered Thompson a scaffolding to stage his obsessions and inward dramas, and to transform his chills and fevers into vivid literature."

Polito argues that Thompson's obsessions--which he jarringly deems "as American as a serial killer"--arose from the circumstances of the novelist's life in the American Midwest in the first part of the twentieth century.

Jim Thompson's father, James "Big Jim" Thompson,  was the sheriff of Caddo County, Oklahoma when young Jim was born, at Anadarko, the county seat.

Big Jim Thompson was descended from Pennsylvania Quakers, though the family had become Baptist by his time.  His father Samuel had been a successful farmer, but he suffered severe reverses in the 1870s and with his family fled the home in Ipava, Illinois to avoid prison.  "Like a fairy tale in reverse," writes Polito, "the Ipava mansion was transmogrified into a two-room log and sod cabin in Wahoo, Nebraska."

sod house, North Dakota, 1895

In Nebraska Jim Thompson taught school and became a principal but in 1900 he sought more exciting work in law enforcement.  In 1902, he became sheriff of Caddo County.  He also married Birdie Edith Myers of Nebraska, who apparently was one-fourth Cherokee (she also had Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite ancestry).

Jim's and Birdie's son, Jim, the future author, was born in 1906, in the family apartment, right over the Anadarko jail cell block.  This made a good story for a future crime writer.

Sheriff Thompson's success was sadly short-lived.  In 1907 an audit of the sheriff's department disclosed nearly $5000 in missing funds.  Embezzlement accusations were made.  Big Jim, like his father Samuel had before him, fled with his family "in the middle of the night, under threat of imprisonment."

The future author grew up in less than ideal, less than stable, circumstances, variously in Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.  His much-absent father worked a myriad of jobs, and sometimes had money, but more often did not.

Birdie Thompson and her children were often packed off to live with her father and mother, the latter of whom was a devoutly religious individual who "never left the house except to attend Sunday services at the First Christian Church and to witness evening prayer meetings."  Young Jim Thompson hated his grandmother intensely.

Thompson did have fondness for a Nebraska uncle, a successful grocer, who introduced him to the delights of reading fiction: Lewis Carroll, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and many more. But more often there was poverty and rootlessness, wearisome work as a bellboy in Fort Worth and a manual laborer in Texas oil fields, heavy smoking and drinking.  Thompson by fifteen had already shot up to his full height of six feet, four inches.  But he was rail thin and looked distinctly malnourished.

Texas oil field worker, 1930s

And there was always his embittered resentment of his father.  Polito sees much of Thompson's fiction as fueled by the boy's rage against the father, who failed his family and finally impotently "receded into dullness and paralysis."  Thompson's novels The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280, writes Polito, "roil with Oedipal anger: popular, smooth-tongued sheriffs unmasked as psychopathic killers."

see pulpoftheday.com
In 1929 Jim Thompson enrolled at the agricultural college of the University of Nebraska, where, majoring in farm journalism, he evinced an interest in and talent for creative writing, but he dropped out of college two years later.

Now married, he moved to Oklahoma City, where he maintained a tenuous existence as a freelance writer.  During this time he wrote sensational true crime articles for True Detective.

Two big events took place in Thompson's life in 1936: he joined the Communist Party and found employment with the Oklahoma's Federal Writers' Project, one of the many New Deal programs started during the Depression-wracked decade of the thirties.

One of Thompson's colleagues on the Project was the future famous writer of Westerns Louis L'Amour.  At this time L'Amour also wrote book reviews--mostly of Westerns, appropriately enough--for what Polito calls the "lively" literary page of the Oklahoma City newspaper the Daily Oklahoman (Todd Downing reviewed crime fiction for this paper).

Louis L'Amour (center) and Jim Thompson (right)

Eventually Thompson would become director of the Project, but antagonisms arising out of his left-wing sympathies eventually would result in his resigning and leaving the state in 1940, in the hope of finding greener pastures in California.

Thompson would publish his first novel, a mainstream tale portentously entitled Now and on Earth, in 1942, his first crime novel, Nothing More Than Murder, in 1949.  In the 1950s he would become one of the key figures in the transformation of the mystery tale into the crime novel, but his signal importance was not realized at the time.

How did the life of Todd Downing compare and contrast with that of his crime writing Oklahoma contemporary Jim Thompson?  Did their paths ever cross in the 1930s?  We will see in Part Two!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Life of Crime 3: Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson) (1899-1973)

Lucy Beatrice Malleson is, by any objective historical standard I believe, one of the most noteworthy English crime novelists who began writing during the Golden Age of detective fiction (c. 1920 to 1939), yet she receives very little notice in genre studies and has been out-of-print for some time.  We don't even have a photograph of her (though I understand Martin Edwards does).

In the nearly half-century from 1925 to 1973, the year of Malleson's death, over seventy detective and crime novels by Malleson were published, most of these under what was her by far most famous pseudonym, Anthony Gilbert (she also published two mysteries under the the abortive pseudonym J. Kilmeny Keith and a few important early psychological crime novels--very hard to find--under the name Anne Meredith, the best known of which is Portrait of a Murderer).


Although Malleson was not, as is sometimes erroneously stated, a founding member of the Detection Club, she was a very early initiate, joining this august institution in 1933, along with Gladys Mitchell and E. R. Punshon (Margery Allingham would join the next year, John Dickson Carr in 1936). 

One of the core members of the Club, Malleson, along with Dorothy L. Sayers, kept it from completely disintegrating during World War Two (for more on the valiant efforts of these two women, see my CADS booklet Was Corinne's Murder Clued? see reviews by Jon L. Breen and Martin Edwards and Patrick Ohl).

Anthony Boucher was a great admirer of the Anthony Gilbert books, routinely praising them in the New York Times Book Review in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when many Golden Age British mystery writers, if they were still writing at all, were losing favor with reviewers (if not necessarily readers).

The sleuth in the Gilbert books from 1936 onward, the earthy, pugnacious, Cockney lawyer Arthur Crook, was considered an original contribution to the great phalanx of fictional detectives.

Malleson's novels often evince a liberal social consciousness and great empathy for the down-and-out and socially marginalized, especially spinsters and the elderly.  Malleson herself was a supporter of the British Liberal Party, not a Tory as so many Golden Age British mystery writers are presumed to be; incidentally, her good friend and fellow Detection Club member, John Street, was also a Liberal, at least until the aftermath of World War Two, when the Labour government soured him on the alternatives to Toryism). 

Appropriately enough, the first series detective in the Gilbert novels, Scott Egerton, was a Liberal M. P.


Malleson was a good writer too.  She produced mainstream novels as well as mysteries.

So why is Malleson so forgotten today? (I should note here that intrepid bloggers like TomCat have written about her work the last few years)  I will look at this question this week, when I review Malleson's detective novel Murder Comes Home (1950).  I will also have more to say about her life, about which I have found some interesting new material.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mr. Campion's Continuation The Youngman Carter Crime Novels, Part 1: Mr. Campion's Farthing (1969)

After Margery Allingham's untimely death in 1966, her husband, Philip Youngman Carter ("Pip") briefly continued the Albert Campion mystery series until his own untimely death in 1969. Pip completed Margery's Cargo of Eagles (1968) and then wrote two Campion novels of his own, Mr. Campion's Farthing (1969), said to be based on an idea of Allingham's, and Mr. Campion's Falcon (1970), published posthumously.

No, it's not the Penguin a Week blog!

Like a lot of fans, possibly, I passed for years on reading the "Pip" Campions, simply because they aren't by Margery (they were reprinted by Carroll & Graf twenty years ago, but more recently Felony & Mayhem seems to have opted not to when they reprinted Allingham's novels).  But Barry Pike, who after all should know, assures us they actually are quite good.  I'm halfway through with the first one and I have to say that I agree so far.

Pip, Margery and pet
Youngman Carter's writing, like Allingham's, is fluent, colorful and expressive.  He tells an interesting story and peoples it with some memorable characters.

How much does his work resemble that of Margery Allingham's?  Quite a bit, actually.

Mr. Campion's Farthing, which I discuss in this part, has turns of phrase and types of characters that are quite reminiscent of Allingham's work.  Campion himself is rather sober and recessive, but then as I recall it he is rather so in Allingham's later work as well.

Written at the midst of the Cold War, the plot of Farthing involves Russians and spies and is somewhat thrillerish, but, again, that resembles some of Allingham's later work (The Mind Readers certainly), as well as some of her earliest work (Sweet Danger).

In Farthing, sinister events converge on Inglewood Turrets, a great Victorian pile in metropolitan London, now operated as a house museum by Lottie Cambric, great-niece of the original builder, with the help of her nice Perdita Browning.

 Miss Cambric specializes in entertaining the the great (and the greatly talked about) at her ancestral mansion.  Among her frequent guests are international diplomats.  One of these personages, a Russian named Vassily Kopeck (i.e., Farthing), disappears after staying at Inglewood Turrets.  Soon the Russians, as well as the British, are looking for Kopeck.

And Mr. Campion is concerned in the matter as well, of course.

The grafting of an Eric Ambler/John le Carre international espionage plot onto all this Victoriana may be offputting to some Allingham fans.  However, the Victoriana is really well done.

As for the characters, grande dame Lottie Cambric is a classic Allingham personality ("I hate getting out of period but sometimes one has to be modern"), and Perdita Browning and her young man Rupert are a charming pair of Allingham-ish nice young lovers.

Here's an exchange that gives you an idea of Lottie Cambric:

"You have a full house next weekend?"

Yes, Albert, a full house next weekend.  Twelve, or thereabouts.  I cheated--just a little--by inviting Molly and Jack Croesus, who are as poor as church mice and have been ruined by their name.  I asked her once why she didn't change it but she said her maiden name was Gold and that was nearly as bad.  They're sculptors and never pay any bills anyhow, but very good entertainers--always on my free list.  I hope you'll be here?"


There's also a nasty capitalist conglomerate, Danmark Holdings, which reminded me of the evil business firm in Sweet Danger.  Seemingly Youngman Carter shared Margery Allingham's apparent distaste for leviathan transnational corporations, which don't come out one whit better in Farthing than British politicians or Soviet agents.

Cold War spy stuff

Youngman Carter has rich descriptive writing as well.  Some of the passages definitely reminded me of Allingham.  He even uses the that/which sentence construction Allingham loved so much ("the buzz of conversation had reached that particular pitch of intensity and warmth which to an experienced ear spells success").  And there's much employment of clever verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  An oil stove, we're told, "sulked ineffectively in the fireplace."  The "first impact" of an explosion at Inglewood Turrets is described as "more insulting than terrifying."

There is plenty of pithy stuff here.  One character declares that one of Lottie's employees, an Indian,is a "suspicious character" because he "reads Chairman Mao and Trollope in his spare time."

I couldn't help wondering if one character, Felix Perdreau ("a theatrical figure more elegant than reality by the merest fraction"), wasn't a bit of a self-portrait by Youngman Carter, who is known to have philandered quite extensively (we have learned of late, for example, that in the early 1950s Youngman Carter fathered a child with writer Nancy Spain).  Here's Lottie Cambric on Felix:

He likes admiration but he gets bored very easily and I think that the trouble is that the girls he finds entertaining mentally don't attract him in other ways and, of course, vice versa.  It so often happens with that sort of man. 

And here's Youngman Carter on the fashionable set, c. 1969:

About them circulated the latest and least repressed of modern novelists, a couple of drama students of indeterminate sex and a picture dealer whose fortune was as new and outrageous as the imitation tattooing which covered most of his mistress's shoulders.

still with it, man

In this late Campion tale, Lugg is nowhere to found, nor Campion's wife.  However, Guffy Randall is mentioned (I recall him from Sweet Danger).

At one point a villain mocks Campion as follows:

"You're a friend of old Guffy Randall, who's a member of my club, and I've heard him yakking about your talents.  Tedious.  Both of you seem to be as up to date as a model T Ford....You're not with it, old man."

Of course, even in the Swinging Sixties, Campion is the one who proves he's still with it!  And Youngman Carter was with it as well--at least sufficiently to make Mr. Campion's Farthing an enjoyable tale.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

That Son of a Gun Pronzini! A Review of Son of Gun in Cheek (1987)

Bill Pronzini at the time of
Son of Gun in Cheek
I just got my copy of Marcia Muller's and Bill Pronzini's The Bughouse Affair and will be reviewing it soon.

Meanwhile I finally got round to reading Bill Pronzini's Son of Gun in Cheek (1987), the follow-up to his classic, Edgar-nominated study of "alternative" crime fiction (stuff so bad it's good"), Gun in Cheek.

I should have read this a long time ago.  Like its predecessor it's very funny and genuinely informative too.  I can't recommend it enough.

Gun in Cheek was originally published just over thirty years ago, in 1982.  It was reprinted in 1987 by Mysterious Press, who also published Son the same year.

Why both these books haven't been reprinted since I don't know, but that's publishing for you.

Pronzini cheerfully admits that Son is a "hugger-mugger," but, he adds, it's a "funny hugger-mugger."  And he's right.

even cheekier than Gun in Cheek!
There are discussions (with lots of ripe quotations) of astoundingly bad books, be they hard-boiled or drawing-room mysteries, and also of classically awful book titles, blurbs and mystery films.

Pronzini also takes a look at sex--bad sex, of course--in mystery fiction (it's not hard to find this chapter, it's called Sex, Sex and More Sex!) and the works of two alternative masters, the hard-boiled Michael Avallone and the--well, it's hard to say what he is, exactly--Harry Stephen Keeler.

As for the novels Pronzini discusses, my personal "favorite" is his exploration of the astoundingly abysmal The Face of Stone (1952), by Sydney Horler. 

Horler was a truly awful thriller writer, inexplicably popular in England.  I will defend the thriller king Edgar Wallace to the death but as a writer Horler was utterly hopeless (actually he seems to have been so as a person as well).

As Pronzini puts it: "Sydney Horler was, as they used to say in the old days, a caution.  An outspoken caution, a priggish caution, a racist caution, an elitist caution, and an alternative caution."

I don't mince words about Horler because Horler never minced words about--anything.  Offended by a review Dorothy L. Sayers gave one of his books, Horler struck back in print in a characteristic fashion.

"I know I haven't the brains to write a proper detective novel," he declared huffily, "but there is no class of literature for which I feel a deeper personal loathing."

Not altogether surprising that attitude, really, from the man who, according to Pronzini (and he's right!) "devised some of the most illogical and inane plots ever committed to paper."

not Stephen (see left), but Sydney Horler
I really enjoyed as well Pronzini's chapter on "the very first, and certainly the greatest, of the schlock [publishing] houses," The Macaulay Company.  Some of these Macaulay books have to be, well, read, to be believed--if you dare!

There are great quotations from alternative masterworks scattered all though the book (Pronzini  likens them to gold nuggets and himself to a prospector), such as this one from James Corbett's The Merrivale Mystery (1929):

The look on Stephen's face was distinctly unpleasant.  It contained all the malignity of hate, all the malevolence of evil, and even at a normal moment the features were not prepossessing.

The chapter on hard-boiled author Michael Avallone (the "nabob of non-sequiturs," among titles Pronzini bestows upon him) is fascinating.  I might have thought that Avallone was deliberately writing the way he wrote as a spoof, but apparently not (some of his books, by the way, are available to Kindle on Amazon at really low prices; I have purchased several).

Sometimes "he outdoes himself," in the alternative writing way, declares Pronzini of Avallone:

Usually when he's dealing with one of his favorite subjects.
Baseball.
Old movies.
Patriotism and/or right-wing politics.
Breasts.
Nobody writes about breasts the way Avallone does, with such flair, such reverence, such passion.  Not that he neglects thighs, of course.  Or calves.  Or hips.
Or faces.
Eyes, noses, cheeks, lips.  Even ears.  Described lovingly, eloquently, innovatively. 

You'll have to read the book and see for yourselves, people.  This is a family blog, dammit.

In his chapter on mystery book titles, Pronzini ruminates on the good old days, when mystery publishers demanded that titles always have such giveaway words as murder, death, body, corpse, case, mystery, etc., so readers would have no doubt the book was actually a murder mystery (god forbid they mistakenly have stumbled on something else).

Who knew?
I've noticed this phenomenon myself.  For example, I was struck when I found that the American publishers of Anthony Gilbert's Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1942) had changed her splendid, evocative title to Mystery in the Woodshed

How dense can you get?  Or were they afraid that the first title made it sound like a sex novel?

Pronzini laments that no one ever used the titles Death Takes a Stroll Down Memory Lane or Murder Invites Some Friends Over for a Few Beers.  I agree!  But they did use, amazingly, Murder Does Light Housekeeping (I'm seeing a skeleton in a cap and apron, wielding a feather duster).  Also Death Turns a Trick and Murder Makes Us Gay.

Mysterious Press calls Son of Gun in Cheek, like its predecessor, "an affectionate guide" to alternative crime fiction.  It really is too.  Pronzini's love for and knowledge of the crime and mystery genre shines through every page.  You can tell he really enjoyed these books--if not quite in the way their authors may have intended!

You'll enjoy Son of Gun in Cheek--exactly as its author intended.  Get youself a copy, and laugh and learn.