Friday, May 30, 2014

Road Show: Having Wonderful Crime (1943), by Craig Rice

Having Wonderful Crime (1943), the seventh installment of Craig Rice's John J. Malone and Jake and Helene Justus mystery series, ended an impressive streak for Rice.  While seven Malone/Justus novels appeared between 1939 and 1943, none appeared in 1944, then one in 1945 and one in 1948.

After that there was a long drought before the publication of two additional Malone/Justus novels, My Kingdom for a Hearse (1956) and Knocked for a Loop (1957), the latter published the year of Rice's untimely death at the age of 49.

I reviewed Rice's The Fourth Postman (1948) here last year.  I enjoyed that mystery, though I detected some signs the Rice's liquor-n-laughs formula was getting thin (as was the author's hold on anything approaching sobriety). What did I think of Crime, published five years earlier (and which, oddly, alludes to the later postman murders as an earlier case)?

Check in this weekend and see. At least I hope!  I am winding up indexing for Mysteries Unlocked and am running a bit behind on the blog.  I also am planning to get a review posted, finally, of one of my very favorite Rex Stouts, And Be a Villain (now running a week behind on that one!).  At least I feel the essays in Mysteries Unlocked are looking pretty darn good!  More on that next week.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Stout Reads: See What Rex Read and How He Rated It

For only $300 apiece (heh) you can get a mystery novel owned--and presumably read--by Rex Stout. There are 22 such books listed on Abebooks by Between the Cover--Rare Books, Inc., all once stored in the carriage house of Stout's home.

Better yet, some of them were rated by him:

Christopher Hale, Rumor Hath It (1945) (B+)
Helen Reilly, Murder on Angler's Island (1945) (B2) (they don't know exactly what the 2 signified)
Christopher Hale, Hangman's Tie (1943) (S) (?)
Ethel Lina White, Her Heart in Her Throat (1942) ("surrender on p59") (Oh, Ethel! TPT)
George Harmon Coxe, Murder for Two (1943) (A-)
William L. Stuart, The Dead Lie Still (1945) (C+)

There are other books, but I didn't see others with ratings.  I have to say Stout's Ethel Lina White comment is hilarious, even though I quite like this author.  I don't believe her later books, from the 1940s, are that good, however.  Have you read any of these books?  Was Rex Stout right that George Harmon Coxe was the best bet?  I'll be talking more about Mr. Coxe soon.

Detection Medley (1939), by the Detection Club (edited by John Rhode)

Detection Medley (1939), edited by John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street), was the last Detection Club book published before war disrupted the Club's activities. This work came up for discussion in the Facebook Golden Age detection group, so I thought I would post the table of contents for people to see. It's a collection mostly of short stories, with some essays.  Sorry about the "bleed"--there are over 500 pages and they are rather thin.

Maybe this will be reprinted someday. In Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012), I write about Major Street's struggle to put it all together.



My copy was owned by A. Petrie of 113 Woodhall Lane, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, the second garden city in England.  Sounds a nice place!

Morsels of Murder: Rex Stout's Death Times Three (1985) Part Two: Frame-Up for Murder (1958)

Rex Stout's "Frame-Up for Murder," the second Nero Wolfe novella from Death Times Three (1985), exhibits some of the routine qualities of which Julian Symons complained concerning Stout's post-1950 work.

In this one a pretty young woman, Flora Gallant, wants to hire Nero Wolfe to find dirt on another woman, Bianca Voss, who has established an insidious influence over the business of her "illustrious dressmaker" brother, Alec Gallant.

From his office Wolfe talks to this woman, Voss, on the telephone, only to hear her scream out guttersnipe insults at him (mostly concerning his weight) before she seemingly is attacked and murdered. Investigating, Archie finds that Voss is indeed dead, having been bludgeoned and strangled.

There is a complicating element involving another woman, a very recently deceased actress named Sara Yare, which is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Lord Edgware Dies (1933). In fact Stout, through Archie Goodwin, does not even attempt to pretend that we, the readers, are being fooled anymore by the mystery of the telephone call:

I will not explain at this point why Wolfe wanted to know if any of the subjects had known Sarah Yare and if so, how well, for two reasons: first, you have spotted it yourself; and, second, since I am not as smart as you are, I had not yet come up with the answer.

Including Flora Gallant, there are five suspects.  Wolfe identifies a killer, but, in truth, Stout could just as easily have made the culprit any one of four people (only one of the group is exonerated in an interesting way); there's not really a pleasing inevitability to the solution. While "Bitter End" (1940) is one of the best Wolfe novellas, not the same thing can be said of "Frame-Up for Murder," in my view; it has a rather perfunctory feel to it. I suppose I could call it "Lower End."

Good news though, the Wolfe novel And Be a Villain is one of the best, I think.  I'll have the review up soon, before I move to another author for Friday.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Rex Stout on Writing

Rex Stout
In December 1971, a day before Rex Stout's 85th birthday, the New York Times published an interview with the author by Israel Shenker.  In the interview Stout made some interesting observation on writing.

I couldn't help thinking how this interview with the elderly author--who, after the recent death of Erle Stanley Gardner for most people at this time probably most symbolized, along with Agatha Christie, the "traditional" mystery story (apologies to the brilliant Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr and Ngaio Marsh)--came out not long before the publication of, yes, the first edition of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder.  Symons and Stout agree on some subjects, but disagree on others.

Stout gets in some very clear political digs, reminding readers of his political liberalism. Noting that his mailbox is in New York State but that his house is just across the border line in Connecticut, Stout wryly declared that he had built his house in 1930 "and I didn't want Hamilton Fish as my representative.  So what did I get?  Clare Boothe Luce."  He also adds that he hopes to outlive the presidency of Richard Nixon: "If he's reelected I'll have to live another four years" (Nixon of course was reelected but, plagued by scandal, resigned the presidency in August 1974; Stout died in October 1975).

Hamilton Fish III (1888-1991)
he and Rex Stout were not members
of a mutual admiration society

Stout had launched firmly on his novel-writing career in 1929 at the of 43, with the well-received psychological novel How Like a God (earlier he had some novel-length works published in All-Story Magazine). He went on to publish some additional "serious" novels before he turned to mystery writing with the Nero Wolfe debut tale Fer-de-Lance in 1934. By that time, he declares in his 1971 interview, he had realized "I was a storyteller and I was not a great writer" (I believe Stout means--ahem!--A Great Writer).

Those who have what they see as higher artistic aspirations for the mystery/crime tale (that it be Great Literature), will probably find Stout disappointingly lacking in nobler aspiration here.  I think this is how Julian Symons felt when, in the 1950s, he suggested that Stout should consider killing off Nero Wolfe.  In Symons' view Stout, a talented writer, had been coasting too long on his corpulent sleuth's tremendous popularity.

In the 1971 interview Stout continues: "It seemed apparent to me [in the 1930s] that writers of the first rank get themselves involved in the difficulties of the people they write about.  It was obvious in a paragraph the way Dostoyevsky felt about Raskolnikov, or the way Tolstoy felt about Natasha, and their feeling was of a degree that I wouldn't get."*

*(of course some crime genre theorists have urged consideration of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as a crime novel; Julian Symons once took this position himself, but later came to believe, as he states in Bloody Murder, that Dostoyevsky's works "far transcend anything the crime novelist achieves or even aims at").

Stout however urges that creating memorable characters "has nothing to do with the level of literature." Tarzan and Scarlett O'Hara are great characters, he says.  He doesn't like the fiction of Bernard MalamudPhilip Roth and John Updike, because these authors are interested in problems, not people.

"the best American
detective story writer
not counting Poe"
As for mystery/crime writers, Stout gives mixed praise to Georges Simenon ("Simenon has written some damn good ones, but he's also some written some damn lousy ones") and Ross Macdonald ("a hell of a good storyteller, but I wish he'd quit telling the same story over and over again").

However, he's unequivocally higher on Josephine Tey and Dashiell Hammett (a coupling I think Julian Symons would have found rather odd):

I'd put Josephine Tey...just after Dashiell Hammett, who was the best American detective story writer not counting Poe, who started the whole thing.  In The Glass Key Dash Hammett did the thing Hemingway tried to do in every book he ever wrote, and a better job of it--establishing the essential manliness of the hero by telling a story about him, what he did and what he said and how he handled a situation.

Symons enthusiastically agreed about "Dash."

Vera Season 2 (2012)

In Season Two of Vera DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) is still nosing out nasty murders in Northumberland with subordinate DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon) and I'm still enjoying following along the track.  I've been blogging about the Great Detective tradition of late and Vera certainly does have Great Detective qualities, such as social isolation and eccentricity, but, on the other hand, in Season 2 she starts, in the modern fashion, to get more of personal back story (character development) and there are hints that she may "grow."  We gets more glimpses of Joe's home life too, with his wife and kids.  Also DC Kenny Lockhart (Jon Morrison) happily becomes less a cipher this season (DC Holly Lawson, on the other hand, leaves Vera's force after the first episode).

Once again, the season has four episodes:

The Ghost Position


Vera with an old friend moments before a tragedy

A former colleague of Vera's in the police force commits suicide in a horrific and spectacular way after his daughter has been put into a coma by a firebomb attack on his house.  Who was the bomber and why did this person bomb the house?

This was a good opening for the series, moving in rather an unexpected direction.  I did not find the characters quite so interesting as usual, however, the most compelling one having committed suicide in the first ten minutes of the episode.

Silent Voices

Joe lends a thoughtful presence

The only one of the four episodes based on an Ann Cleeves novel, this episode, dealing with the deliberate drowning of a seemingly beloved middle-aged female social worker, has a typically intricate, clued Cleeves plot, but, once again (see my Season One review), I had some trouble buying into the motivations and behavior of the murderer.

Sandancers

Vera conducts a campaign

This episode, about the murder-staged-as-suicide of an Afghanistan veteran, has an interesting milieu among soldiers and a believable plot, but here we face just the opposite problem from that in Sandancers: the plot is too straightforward, leaving little of a surprise element.

A Certain Samaritan

On the beach: Vera and the beekeeper (Sean Campion)

As in Season One, I think, the best episode in Season Two of Vera is the finale.  I found this quite a moving and intricate tale about the stabbing death of a young man.  The emotions of his survivors--and Vera's suspects--are powerfully portrayed (especially memorable are Phyllis Logan as the young man's mother and Sean Campion as his older male beekeeping friend). As in the best modern mystery, the solution of the puzzle arises organically out of a believable, if horrible, human situation and gives us something to think about after the light from the television has faded

the mother of the dead man (Phyllis Logan)

We are also left with a tantalizing fragment of back story concerning Vera's life, brought to us by the splendid Judy Parfitt in an interesting cameo appearance.  I'll certainly be getting Season Three.

The Top Ten Mystery Writers of 1941?

the winner--with her mystery muse?
In 1941 Columbia University Press surveyed the mystery reading habits of the "literary world," via the Press' weekly newsletter.  I'm somewhat dubious that the entire "literary world" actually read this newsletter, but, however broad this sample was, herewith are its ten most popular mystery writers:

1. Dorothy L. Sayers ("by a wide margin")
2. Agatha Christie
3. Arthur Conan Doyle
4. Ngaio Marsh
5. Erle Stanley Gardner
6. Rex Stout
7. Ellery Queen
8. Margery Allingham
9. Dashiell Hammett
10. Georges Simenon

It's fascinating how this group of writers was to maintain its popularity for decades (within the last forty years, however, Queen and Gardner have faded).

In the British contingent we see an early sign of the coalescing of the four Crime Queens (the late Arthur Conan Doyle was the only British male writer included), while the Americans are a pretty traditional lot, with only Dashiell Hammett representing what would be the rapidly rising hard-boiled movement.

Of course it's important to remember this would have been a more highbrow sample than the norm (hence the appearance of Simenon).  Perhaps most striking to me is not the absence of Raymond Chandler, who was new on the novel scene, but that of bestselling mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Had the "literary world" begun to see her and the so-called HIBK ("Had I But Known") gang as old hat?  Or was she, perhaps, a few rungs behind, somewhere in the top twenty?

For more on the "upholstered" mystery reading habits of early-forties readers see this post from earlier this month.

Zecking Out Stout, Part One: And Be a Villain (1948), by Rex Stout

As readers of this blog will have noticed, I have been writing more about American mystery writers the last year or so.  With the current book I am working on, I have become fascinated with the impact that American mystery had on British mystery.  Julian Symons called it "the American Revolution," but Symons, interesting as he so often is, has somewhat misjudged the exact nature of its impact, I think.

So earlier this month I was reading Cornell Woolrich, and now I am looking more intensively at Rex Stout, a writer I have enjoyed for nearly twenty years.

However, I have not read all the Stout crime novels, nor even the entire "Arnold Zeck trilogy" so well-known to Nero Wolfe fans.  Back in 2008 I read the first installment of the trilogy, And Be a Villain (1948), and very much enjoyed it. It has everything I love about Stout's mid-century Wolfe, including an amusing portrait of post-war corporate America.

I am reading over the book now and hope to have a post ready on it by tomorrow, as well as a second "Morsels of Murder" post, on the Wolfe novella "Frame-Up for Murder."

In the meantime, enjoy the image of the splendid Bantam paperback edition of And Be a Villain, one of the best in the 1990s Rex Stout Library series I think (this is my actual copy). The color scheme and the illustration are, well, to die for, I think!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Like Some Vestigial Limb, the Great Detective Lingers on...." Julian Symons on Nero Wolfe

Julian Symons
Central to crime writer and critic Julian Symons' view of crime writing in his original edition of Bloody Murder (1972; rev. eds. 1985 and 1992) is his opinion that the traditional detective novel was essentially played out.  As part of this view, Symons sees the Great Detective as irrelevant in the modern age.

Exhibit A: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe.

....But time went on and books piled up, Wolfe had sometimes to be taken away from home, and the problems involved in all series characters who appear in many stories became evident. These are, of course, greater when the characters are built up from a few superficial attributes, like love of beer and orchids and a gourmet's appreciation of food.  The decline became very steep after the end of the forties, which produced some books very near to Stout's best work....There are good things to be found in the later novels...but most convey a sense of effort, of  a man going through the motions of creating one more story about characters who have ceased to mean much to him.  

--Julian Symons, Bloody Murder

And here's what Symons, as a Sunday Times book reviewer, wrote contemporaneously with Stout, in a review of Stout's Nero Wolfe novella collection Three for the Chair back in the 1957:

Might as well be dead?
Nero Wolfe
Like some vestigial limb, the Great Detective lingers on, although the social conditions that encouraged his omniscient amateurism have long since vanished.

Consider, for example, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe....Three for the Chair...is...a sad comment on past glories....Could not Mr. Stout arrange for [Nero Wolfe] to pass away after an excess of salmon mousse and blueberry pie?

But, no, Nero did not die; he not only lived on to appear in yet more Rex Stout novels and novella collections--some of them quite good--he has appeared in books written by Robert Goldsborough, after Rex Stout's death in 1975.  Wolfe remains quite popular (as an advocate of "forgotten authors" would it be out of place for me to add that today many more people read Stout's books than do those of Julian Symons, just as people did in the 1950s?).

Symons' objection to the Great Detective in crime fiction seems as much political as aesthetic. Is the Great Detective inherently a product of conservative social conditions, as Symons thinks?

With the modern Sherlock Holmes film and television revival, the continued popularity of Papa Poirot and Miss Marple, the appearance on the last decade or so of successful television series like Monk and The Mentalist, it would seem that people still very much like the idea of a Great Detective who can solve seemingly unsolvable conundrums, even in a very different time. We aren't just relying on gloomy Scandinavian cops to save the day for us (though arguably even a lot of cops in crime novels have Great Detective attributes, and they are very much series characters).

The fondness for more "traditional" mystery even Julian Symons has to ruefully acknowledge in the final edition (1992) of Bloody Murder:

Why is it, the Spanish-Mexican crime writer Paco Taibo asked me a year or two ago...that the British...produce books that are firmly embedded in the cosy world of the past, hopelessly out of date? At the time I simply denied the suggestion, but reflection showed substance in the comment. In Britain the cosy crime story still flourishes, as it does nowhere else in the world. We are a long way from the fairy-tale crime world of Agatha Christie, but a large percentage of the mystery stories published in Britain are deliberately flippant about crimes and their outcome in a way not paralleled in American crime writing or, if one can judge by translation, that in other countries....

....This is a product for which there is still a steady demand, as the recent foundation in the United States of a club for the preservation of the Cosy Crime Story shows [Could Symons be referring to Malice Domestic here? TPT]

Paco Taibo wondered back in the early 1990s why
British mysteries were so hopelessly out of date

Symons comments critically on the "refusal" of some British crime writers (he lists Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham and Christianna Brand) "to be serious about anything except the detective and the puzzle."

Setting aside the unfairness, as I see it, of so broadly referring to Agatha Christie's fictional world as "fairy-tale" and categorizing Allingham and Brand as authors who invariably refused seriousness (I have written about Allingham numerous times here and, as for Brand, I think some of her characters and situations in books like Green for Danger and Tour de Force are moving), it would seem that Symons near the end of his life was having to reassess his confidence about the inevitability of the shift from what he saw as the conservative, puzzle-oriented, superficial, "cosy" detective story to the liberal, psychologically and socially realistic, gritty crime novel. He would have had to reassess even more had he picked up on the American "cozy crime" phenomenon!

A lot of these modern cozy mysteries are, I should add, conventionally liberal, not conservative (to be sure, we are not likely to get probing explorations of myriad social ills in a book entitled Peach Pies and Alibis, but there are more serious books that are categorized as "cozy," like those by Louise Penny and Margaret Maron). Stout, despite being saddled with a Great Detective, himself certainly gave expression to liberal sympathies in his books, even if he remained first and foremost a tale spinner.

And some, perhaps most, of these modern cozy mysteries, despite investing a lot of effort in series detectives, do not actually take the matter of the puzzles all that seriously, while some of the tougher, more socially probing books have very good puzzles. I'm guessing Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake (1943) has a better puzzle than, say, Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Said Cheese (1996). As Doug Greene has argued, puzzles do not foreclose social commentary in mystery novels, authors do.  If an author has the inclination, she can produce mysteries with both social commentary and puzzles.

All in all, I think change in the mystery genre over the decades has been not quite as linear as Symons' original formulation makes it out to be.  The Great Detective, the puzzle, to "cozy" milieu have proven more durable than he and others thought they would be, and have now outlasted Agatha Christie herself by nearly forty years.

By the way, despite my great admiration for Stout's Some Buried Caesar (1939), I think the greatest period for the Wolfe books was 1946 to 1965.  Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe saga in these years may well have been as popular as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series and to me is, in terms of sheer quality, one of the very greatest achievements in American mid-century mystery. It should be getting more attention from academic scholars interested in American cultural history, even if it is considered "cozy."

don't underestimate the durability of the Great Detective

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Rose and the Orchid: John Rose's Rex Stout Book Jackets

Only one of these English Collins Crime Club jackets, the one for Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novel The Mother Hunt (1963), is signed "John Rose," but the jacket of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novel Gambit (1962) is attributed to John Rose as well, and I wonder about the jacket for the Nero Wolfe novel that immediately preceded these two, The Final Deduction (1961).

Certainly the jackets of The Mother Hunt and Gambit (the latter one of my favorite Wolfe novels) are reminiscent of each other, with their bold colors and striking images.

I love the giant chess pieces and the poison bottle on the endless board on Gambit and the dripping, jaggedly "broken" heart, held together by a safety pin, on The Mother Hunt: these are memorable symbolic designs that dovetail wonderfully with the plots of the books (also dig that sixties avocado background color on The Mother Hunt).

The Final Deduction jacket is less original, I think, with its skeletal hand at the adding machine on a dollar-green background, but I like the image and the graphics.  Could this be John Rose as well?

So who was John Rose?  Here is an informative post at Bear Alley books on the man who surely must be Rex Stout's John Rose.

Rose was born in the 1920s, we are told, somewhere in Yorkshire. In the 1950s he did a great many covers for Fontana paperbacks, including mystery titles by Agatha Christie. Pictures of his Fontana work are found here.

Here is a nice little interview with the man, not long before he died in 2010, that his daughter posted on YouTube. Rose discusses how work as a storyboarder in 1960s films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He kept at it as late as 1996, with the Glenn Close film 101 Dalmatians, a flick I recall seeing at the theater with my nephew.

It would have been wonderful to talk to the man about his work as a cover artist, particularly in the mystery genre field. Sadly, this is another opportunity missed, but at least his work lives after him for classic mystery fans to enjoy.

Coincidentally, there was a John Rose who was a draftsman on one of the Iraq archaeological expeditions of Agatha Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan, back in the 1930s, but unless "our" John Rose was a true child prodigy, I don't see how the ages work out.

No doubt a question for John Curran!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Morsels of Murder: Rex Stout's Death Times Three (1985) Part One: "Bitter End" (1940)

I haven't read Bad for Business (1940), the Tecumseh Fox novel version of the Nero Wolfe novella "Bitter End" (1940), but I know I quite enjoyed reading another installment of the Nero Wolfe-Archie Goodwin saga.  Bitter End ranks, I think, high among the Nero Wolfe novellas.

Part of the fun of reading a Nero Wolfe tale is seeing how Wolfe, who hates actual detective work, will end up taking a job this time. He's an immovable object that seemingly must meet an irresistible force. In Bitter End, this force comes in the form of a jar of Tingley's Tidbit's: It seems that someone has sabotaged the company by putting quinine in their liver pate.

Reduced by the indisposition of his cook, Fritz, to tasting Tingley's Tidbits, Wolfe gets a quinine-tainted batch and is spewing liver fragments everywhere, including all over his unflappable professional assistant, Archie Goodwin.  If anything could be calculated to vex Wolfe, this was it (Archie turns a liver-spotted cheek).

Soon Wolfe is investigating the question of who tainted the tidbits. Coincidentally, there is a pretty young "girl" who arrives on the scene, wanting him to investigate as well. Naturally murder must follow.  Someone coshes Arthur Tingley, owner of Tingley's Tidbits, then cuts his throat.  Suspects in his most unnatural death include employees, business rivals and family members.

Bitter End has all the Stout elements fans expect: Wolfe's outraged dignity, Archie's snappy patter (I loved his observation, "That's the spirit that wins ball games"--see the novella for the context), Inspector Cramer huffing and puffing (yet never succeeding in blowing Wolfe's brownstone down), a pretty girl in trouble and a nice murder.

And there's also something fans don't always get in Stout tales, which is a fairly clued, interesting little murder problem. Like all good Stout, Bitter End goes down smooth.

Coming Soon: my review of "Frame-Up for Murder" (1958), the second novella in Death Times Three.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Death Times Three (1985), by Rex Stout

The final collection of Nero Wolfe novellas by Rex Stout (1886-1975), Death Times Three, appeared in 1985, a decade after Stout's death. It is an interesting collection, in that all the novellas included therein had previously appeared in two different versions.

Bitter End (1940) was originally the Tecumseh Fox novel Bad for Business (1940), while Frame-Up for Murder (1958) was a rewrite of Murder Is No Joke, which appeared in the novella collection And Four to Go (1958), and Assault on a Brownstone (1959) was reworked as The Counterfeiter's Knife (1961), which later appeared in the novella collection Homicide Trinty as Counterfeit for Murder (1962).  That's quite a publication history!

Stout's biographer, John McAleer, who wrote the introduction to Death Times Three, makes good cases for each of the novellas. With Bitter End, what Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin fan wouldn't prefer a Wolfish adventure to a Foxy one, even if it is a novella versus a novel?

As for Frame-Up for Murder, McAleer argues it is clearly superior to Murder Is No Joke. While on the whole he seems to prefer Counterfeit for Murder to Assault on a Brownstone, he also thinks Brownstone has its unique virtues.  Certainly the first two novellas are musts for Wolfe/Goodwin fans and all for are vintage Stout from his best period.  I'll be saying more about them here soon.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014)

Mysteries Unlocked, a collection of essays on detective fiction in honor of Doug Greene, will be out in late July, in both paper and electronic versions, so expect to hear more about the book over the next few weeks!  I thought I would discuss the book some here today.  I plan to follow this with interviews with some of the contributors over the next six weeks or so.

The book is what is known in the academic world as a festschrift, a collection of essays relating to the field of research of the honoree.  Our honoree in this case, Doug Greene, professor emeritus at Old Dominion University, is one of the most distinguished names in mystery genre history, with a long list of writings on the subject going back to the 1970s, the best known of which is his landmark biography of locked room mystery master John Dickson Carr, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained and Miracles (1995).

Doug also wrote a series of introductions for International Polygonics, Ltd.'s reprints of classical mysteries in the 1980s and 1990s.  Chances are if you're of a certain age, let us say, and you loved classic crime, these IPL editions will be fondly remembered by you. They are by me!  Since the 1990s Doug's name has become synonymous with the publishing firm he founded, Crippen & Landru, which publishes volumes of previously uncollected mystery short stories.

Mysteries Unlocked has a prologue by Steven Steinbock and an afterword by Boonchai Panjarattanakorn, where they talk about Doug on a personal level.  In the introduction I assess Doug's place in mystery genre history and discuss the essays in the volume.

Of course when one puts out a call for essays, one never knows quite how things are going to end up and how the book will finally be organized.  I wanted to get essays on Victorian/Edwardian crime fiction and Golden Age detective fiction, of course, but hard-boiled was fine as well, because Crippen & Landru had supported hard-boiled crime fiction.

When everything was finally submitted (with time conflicts some people were not able to participate from the start) there were a few issues with content suitability, release forms and other publishers, so we lost a few essays (including what would have been a great piece on Fergus Hume by Lucy Sussex) and some adjustments had to be made.

To keep the sections as evenly balanced as I could balanced, I added a Raymond Chandler essay and one on Carolyn Wells (written about ten days before deadline but I think a good piece).  Having the Carolyn Wells essay also got another woman writer in the mix.  This book is designed as a tribute to Doug, both directly and personally but also by making a contribution to mystery scholarship in its own right.

So here is what the table of contents looks like (right click to print or image in new tab to get  abetter look).  There are five sections, on Edwardian crime fiction, British classic detective fiction, American classic crime fiction/intellectuals and crime fiction, hard-boiled (or semi-hard-boiled) crime writers and a final section dealing with different forms of mystery fiction, the short story, radio mystery and pastiche.  There's also a wonderful coda essay on the Detection Club by Peter Lovesey.

One thing I hope this book gets across--something which Doug's work over the years has shown--is the sheer variety and adaptability of mystery fiction to different forms and styles. I think the mystery tale, despite its dependence on having a puzzle or problem at its core, is really an amazingly protean form of fiction.



Monday, May 12, 2014

The Black Legend: The Private Life of Cornell Woolrich and The Perils of Popular Memory

Blurred Image
Cornell Woolrich to this day
remains a frustratingly elusive figure
In honor of Cornell Woolrich's Black series of novels, I call this piece, about the stories concerning Cornell Woolrich's personal life that have accreted over the decades, The Black Legend.

Herewith the legend of Cornell Woolrich, dark as his darkest fiction:

Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich was born on December 14, 1903 in New York City to Genero and Claire (nee Attalie) Hopley-Woolrich.  In 1907 the family moved to Mexico and Genero and Claire divorced soon after.  Cornell stayed with his father in Mexico for the duration of his childhood.  As a teenager, he returned to the United States and lived with his mother, his aunt, and his grandfather on West 113th street.  Cornell attended DeWitt Clinton High School and went on to attend Columbia University. He would have graduated in 1925, but dropped out his senior year.

Upon leaving school, Woolrich had a brief marriage to Gloria (Violet Virginia) Blackton....they married on December 6, 1930....Gloria Blackton discovered his diary and realized that he had been having daily affairs with men throughout their marriage. She quickly divorced him.  Woolrich moved back in with his mother and lived with her in the Hotel Marseilles until she died in 1957....

...he became even more of a recluse after his mother died.  Woolrich stayed in his hotel room until he died in 1968.  There is very little information about his personal life and the information that exists may or may not be true....

History/Biographical Note, Cornell Woolrich Papers, Columbia University

By all accounts, Cornell Woolrich was a real son of a bitch.  A self-hating gay man who once married a naive young woman as a cruel joke, refused to sleep with her and then left her a written account of his escapades with other men, he lived most of his life with an overbearing mother who said she would die if he ever left her.  When she finally did die years later, Woolrich drank himself into a decade-long stupor, developed gangrene and died weighing 89 pounds.  It was a miserable end to a thoroughly rotten life.

Review of Fear in the Night (1947) by Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor blog

Woolrich was himself, alas, pretty much a miserable son of a bitch....A self-hating gay man who tormented a young wife for a short time before retreating to a booze-soaked codependency with his beloved/despised mother, as a person Woolrich was as unpleasant as many of his darkest scenarios....He channeled that vision not only into a life of debauchery and cruelty but also into his fiction....

Pulp Kafka: The Nightmares of Cornell Woolrich, Jake Hinkson, criminalelement.com

I say it again, the man was a creep--not because he was gay, but because of the diary, and because he left it behind for Gloria to read.  Then there's the fact he lived with his mother until he was 53, when she died.  By itself that would just be kind of odd; taken with everything else it tends to red-line the creep factor. (It sounds like Sebastian and Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer.)

Lost & Found: Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Jim Lane, Jim Lane's Cinemadrome, 6 May 2011

Was Cornell Woolrich this miserable, self-hating, misanthropic creep described by Jake Hinkson and Jim Lane, or has the legend of Cornell Woolrich over the years grown taller in the telling?  Let's try to look at what we really know.

As the note on the Cornell Woolrich papers at Columbia University states there is, in fact, "very little information" about the author's personal life.  We know that after his parents Genaro and Claire divorced he lived in Mexico for a time with his father, then resided with his mother at his maternal grandfather's house in New York; that he attended Columbia University but dropped out before getting a degree, publishing his first book, a Jazz Age novel inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, at the age of 22; that he was briefly married in California; that after his divorce he moved back to New York and lived with his mother until her death; that he lived a solitary, lonely life until his own death a decade later.

Happier Days?
back cover of Woolrich's short fiction
collection Violence (1958), which
appeared about eight months after
his mother's death at the age of 83
In Francis M. Nevins' Edgar-winning, evocatively-titled critical study of the author, Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die (1988), there is comparatively little personal detail about Woolrich, given the mammoth size of the book (613 pages of fairly small type).

Most of the book is given over to close detail and analysis of, I believe, every story and novel Woolrich wrote, as well as the numerous film, radio and television adaptations of his work.

Nevins I'm sure did all he could to dig up information, but there just does not seem to be all that much primary material out there about this reclusive man, who by his own declaration was born to live a solitary life.

A rather similar case in some ways is that of Raymond Chandler, where almost all the personal detail on Chandler that has fueled his three (and counting) biographies comes from the letters he wrote during the last twenty years of his life (he lived to be seventy). However, these often brilliant letters that Chandler wrote in the 1940s and 1950s make a tremendous difference, bringing his remarkable personality vividly alive.

We have nothing like that from Cornell Woolrich.  There are astonishingly few Woolrich letters quoted in Dream. For personal detail on Woolrich we are largely dependent on the author's unfinished memoir, Blues of a Lifetime, which Nevins thinks is to a great extent unreliable, and recollections from people--some, like the noted science fiction writer Barry Malzberg, still with us--who got to know Woolrich in the 1960s, that sad decade when the author had to learn to adjust to life without his mother.

Personal recollections of Cornell Woolrich's earlier years that are offered by Nevins in Dream are sparse (we don't even get to see childhood, high school or college photos of Woolrich, nor photos of his father or mother or his maternal grandfather's house, where he probably spent his happiest years).

An early, and to me quite incisive, recollection about Woolrich comes from an interview by German filmmaker Christian Bauer with a Woolrich Columbia University classmate, the great public intellectual (and mystery fan), Jacques Barzun (1907-2012):

"We happened to sit side by side and, as the custom was, one spoke to one's classmate without any particular introduction or any particular purpose.  I found Cornell very shy indeed, very retiring, very suspicious.  But somehow...he and I got into more and more conversations. As far as I could see, I was the only person in either of those classes with whom he had any sort of human dealings. He always rushed out of the class without lingering with any other students."

Barzun recalled that Woolrich sometimes broke off conversations with words to this effect: "I've got to go now. I've got to see Mother."  He added that Woolrich

"had a sense of humor, particularly a sense of the grotesque, the ironic.  He was a rather bitter young man.  He made sarcastic comments very easily...about life in general, about other people, about institutions, about the older generation.....He had a sense of destiny, both on the positive side, that he was going to accomplish something, and on the negative side, that he couldn't possibly do it, that something would interfere, the ceiling would fall in on him just as a contract was being signed for the next book, or something of the sort."

In a portion of the interview I did not find mentioned in Dream, Bauer asked Barzun if he would be surprised to find out Cornell Woolrich was "homosexual" and Barzun said, yes, he would be. However, he added, he would not be surprised to find out that Woolrich was "asexual."

the legend of the "self-hating gay"
The accepted view that Woolrich was gay--or, to be more precise, a "self-hating gay"--comes from Nevins' Dream, which draws on two 1970s interviews that Nevins conducted with a pair of elderly women, Marian Blackton Trimble and Lee Wright, concerning events from several decades earlier.

Attaining some success as a youthful Jazz Age fiction writer in the mold of his literary idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woolrich moved out to Hollywood in 1928, to work on the film adaptation of his novel Children of the Ritz.

After more than two years had passed, he married Gloria Blackton, the younger daughter of a pioneering Hollywood film producer.

Woolrich in his memoir Blues of a Lifetime writes of having fallen in love over the course of his youth with three women. "The third time," he explains, "I married her, and it was only after it happened that I realized I wished I hadn't."

Gloria Blackton's half-sister Marian Trimble provides a more detailed--and darker--account of this marriage.  Nevins interviewed her 1977, nearly fifty years after the marriage, when she was 76 years old. Nevins quotes excepts from the interview, in which Marian says Gloria told her:

(1) the marriage was never consummated ("....she flung herself on the couch and burst into tears and said: 'He's gone. Cornell's gone.' And she began to tell me that things had been very bad then, she was...[still] a virgin....)

(2) Woolrich had had homosexual encounters before and during the marriage ("but what hurt her, I think, more than anything else was the great mistake he made in leaving a diary....It covered the period from the time when he came to Hollywood until just before he left...he also spoke in this diary of how it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton. I think that bit into her more than anything he wrote. I mean, she overlooked the grosser part of the diary.")

Frustratingly, Nevins breaks off the block quotation at this point, writing "The bulk of the diary, Marian told me, recounted a large number of homosexual encounters, 'in sordid and dreadful detail.'"  Then Nevins goes back again to a block quotation from Marian telling the now infamous story of Woolrich and the sailor suit.

Woolrich had a mysterious locked suitcase, Marian says, that "one day he left open by mistake." Gloria "could see that there was a sailor suit in it.  And he would don the sailor suit, get up in the night and leave her.  In the dark he would put on the sailor suit and go down to the waterfront and find whatever experience he was looking for."

This is a dramatic story indeed, but, absent the evidence of this sex diary, it remains hearsay. Marian Trimble says Gloria sent the diary back to a desperately importunate Woolrich.  Nevins allows that "No trace of such a diary remains among Woolrich's papers."  Interestingly, Gloria had another sibling, a brother, who apparently didn't corroborate any of this in an interview with Nevins in 1987, although he did declare to Nevins that he had thought Woolrich was "a jerk."

Despite these qualifications, however, Nevins writes as if the matter is factually established:

Clearly [Woolrich's] homosexual life was of the most furtive and sordid variety, a side of himself that he despised and was ashamed of, that he could neither accept or suppress, that he never acknowledged publicly and dropped down the memory hole even in Blues of a Lifetime, which he claimed to have written for himself alone.  How many of the young women he mentions in his autobiography were really young men?

Of course this must be a rhetorical question on Nevins' part, because there can be no answer to it (unless this putative diary shows up someday).  But even if we accept everything Marian Trimble says, what sort of self-despising gay man records his homosexual sex acts "in sordid and dreadful detail" in a diary--and then proceeds to leave this diary behind him when he walks out on his wife?  This sounds much more like a proud and self-proclaiming gay man!  The whole episode, as described, seems bizarre.

Dressing up to Play Sailor?
(Brad Davis in Querelle, 1982)

I personally would not be comfortable stating emphatically that Cornell Woolrich was gay based on this evidence (it would have been nice had Nevins provided some historical background on gay life in LA at that time). Yet Nevins' view has been generally accepted, and indeed embellished upon, over the years.  Nevins himself urges the point throughout Dream.  For example, he states in passing on page 129 that "the likelihood that any of these pulps' editors would want to buy a mystery from a pale, puny, homosexual recluse who wanted to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald hovered close to the zero mark" (was there a questionnaire or something?).

Nevins gives examples in Dream of what he views as "homosexual symbolism" in Woolrich's work:

"'I was carrying Death around in my mouth," the reporter tells us near the end [of the story "Death Sits in the Dentist's Chair," where a dentist fills cavities with cyanide], and if one is determined to find subtle traces of Woolrich's homosexuality everywhere in his work, one might as well begin here. (p. 129)

While struggling with Cook over a gun, the hobo is shot in the mouth (here we go again, homosexual symbol seekers!) (p. 141)

....they arrange for a pickpocket accomplice to take a ride on the same train that is bringing Bull to the state pen, sit in the seat behind the mobster and quietly puncture Bull's rear end with a hypodermic full of germs (homosexuality symbol hunters take notice!).... (p. 157)

the evocation of [a male character's] death...suggests a savage homosexual coupling.... (p. 299)

These examples seem rather reductive to me (not to mention in dubious taste).  Since Woolrich was a gay man, so the reasoning seems to go, inevitably any time in his tales that poison, bullets or germs enter a man's mouth or buttocks it symbolizes homosexuality. Also it is disappointing to see Nevins in his hunt for "homosexual symbols" focus so relentlessly on sex acts.  Is it Woolrich who associated gay sex with death, or is it Nevins who has imposed this supposed meaning on Woolrich's texts?*

*(to be sure, Dream was published in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, something that may have influenced Nevins' view of this matter; yet Woolrich--unless he was endowed, like his seer character in Night Has a Thousand Eyes/"Speak to Me of Death," with second sight--could not have foreseen this development).

sometimes a hypo is just a hypo....

I have read my share of Woolrich (granted, Nevins has read everything, as Dream makes abundantly clear) and I can't say I am overwhelmingly struck in his work by intimations of gay feeling on Woolrich's part (the closest it gets that I have seen is the story "Murder, Obliquely").  I am struck by  a powerful depiction of of loneliness, despair and doom, but this is not a state of mind specific to gay men. Any person, whatever his or her sexual orientation, might have these feelings and give expression to them in fiction.

In the work of Rufus King, Milton Propper* and Todd Downing, American mystery writers from the 1930s and 1940s whom I believe were gay, I see an interest in men that to me is indicative of homosexuality. In the case of Todd Downing, about whom I have written extensively, there is a suggestion in his later mysteries that his bachelor series detective Hugh Rennert is desirous of male intimacy (I have not taken stock of guns/drills placed into men's mouths or needles stuck into their posteriors).  I just do not see this same thing in Woolrich. To change my mind it would take something more than the Nevins examples from Woolrich's work that are quoted above.

*(Nevins also has written about Milton Propper, who he sees as another tragic homosexual. See my review here of Propper's 1936 detective novel One Murdered, Two Dead, as well as the comments.)

Nevins also draws on a 1979 interview he conducted with the longtime mystery editor Lee Wright, two years after his interview with Marian Trimble.  Wright shared Nevins' view that Woolrich was gay. When Nevins asked her how Woolrich felt about his mother, she answered: "A combination of dependence, adoration, hatred, all the things you'd expect of a homosexual's relationship with his mother."  A rather invidious stereotype of gay men is on display here!

Wright corroborates Marian Trimble's claim of Woolrich's homosexuality with her own story, entirely hearsay.  Writing of Woolrich's life in the 1950s, Nevins concludes that "Woolrich left the Hotel Marseilles (where he lived with his mother) almost never, just to get a haircut or a few drinks, or perhaps to see a movie, or for sex."  He then quotes Wright:

"He would tell me how lonely he was, that nobody loved him.  And I would say to Cornell: 'Well, it's probably your own fault.  I mean, you sort of put people off. You're too shy. Why can't you be more outgoing?  You'll find that people will like you very much. You're very likable.'"

Nevins immediately follows this with a story from Wright about how she invited Woolrich and a Simon & Schuster sales representative to dine with her at her apartment.  Around eleven in the evening, the two men left together and the salesman told Wright afterward that he had faced "a terrible time protecting himself from Cornell on their way home on the Elevated. It almost amounted to a physical attack...."

So the "pale, puny, homosexual recluse" who was "too shy" came near to sexually assaulting a man on the Elevated?

a book about a man
who desperately needs
to find the right woman
Barry Malzberg, who was Woolrich's literary agent near the end of the author's life, has been quite critical over the years of Nevins' take on Woolrich's sexuality.

In his 2012 introduction to Centipede Press' edition of Woolrich's Phantom Lady, Malzberg writes of his "sheer exasperation with Frances M. Nevins' incessant fag-baiting in his otherwise bibliographical useful biography of Cornell...."

What he calls his earlier "bleat of protest" was made in Mystery Scene in 1992, in a piece entitled "Presto: Con Malizia":

Nevins is convinced...that Woolrich was a practicing homosexual and that his fiction...was wholly framed by his sexuality, that the fiction can only be understood or appreciated in terms of a condition which Nevins regards as pathological....The only evidence which he was able to produce (we had extensive correspondence about this in the late seventies and early eighties) was a poorly recorded, almost inaudible cassette recording of an interview Nevins stated that he had conducted with Woolrich's sister-in-law....Two (or counting Nevins) three levels of hearsay were invoked and none of them constituted the kind of evidence which would stand up in a court of law for five minutes.

As for Lee Wright's testimony, Malzberg continues: "I knew Lee Wright and she thought a lot of people were homosexuals and liked to say so.  Many of them who she chattily named are alive but one other of them is dead: Raymond Chandler."*

*(ironically there seems to me to be more gay-suggestive material in Chandler's work than in Woolrich's; however I don't believe Chandler was gay, even latently so)

Cornell Woolrich in the 1960s
near the end of his mortal tether

Malzberg, like Barzun before him (who knew Woolrich at the other bookend of his life), did not get any impression from Woolrich that he was gay. Absent the discovery of the alleged Woolrich sex diary it is unlikely we will ever know.

To be sure, Woolrich may have been gay.  Or he may have been asexual/unsexual, as Barzun suggested ("writing for him had taken the place of sex," even Nevins writes at one point in Dream). Or he may have been genuinely attracted to women (or the idea of women), but, mother-dominated to an unhealthy degree (I think this point is beyond doubt), unable to consummate a physical relationship. This is the train of thought that is suggested by Woolrich's memoir Blues of a Lifetime. In her interview with Nevins, Lee Wright herself seems to echo this latter view: "He was, the way it was with his mother, too much in awe of women."

Just how much did Woolrich's sexuality--whatever it was exactly--inform his writing and how exactly did it do so?

In a 2006 radio interview with Leonard Lopate, Nevins declared: "The secret of understanding Woolrich: self-hatred, self-contempt."  I don't know.  I would say the secret, if there is one, might lie more along the lines of what Jacques Barzun noted about Woolrich back in the 1920s: a crippling shyness and resultant loneliness coupled with an inclination to pessimism arising from a bitter conviction of the inexorable indifference, or even malignity, of fate.  As Barzun strikingly put it:

He had a sense of destiny, both on the positive side, that he was going to accomplish something, and on the negative side, that he couldn't possibly do it, that something would interfere, the ceiling would fall in on him just as a contract was being signed for the next book, or something of the sort.

This attitude, I believe, lies at the heart of so much of Woolrich's crime fiction and gives it such bleak power.  Not self-hatred, but despair over the isolation and ultimate annihilation of the self.  "They both kept looking troubledly out and up," writes Woolrich of characters in "Speak to Me of Death," "at those distant inscrutable pinpoints of brilliance, that no man can defy or alter."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mysteries of the Night: Speak to Me of Death (2012), by Cornell Woolrich

For the pulps Cornell Woolrich wrote scores of short stories and novelettes, yet to this day they have never been systematically collected and published.

Fortunately as part of its Cornell Woolrich series Centipede Press has released Speak to Me of Death, what they call Volume One of The Collected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich. It was originally available both in hardcover and in a much cheaper, but still high quality, paperback version. I recently bought the paperback edition and it is very nice indeed.

This volume includes fifteen of Woolrich's short works, originally published between 1935 and 1942, including some of the author's most reprinted tales as well ones that are more obscure today.

The best-known reprints in the collection are "It Had to be Murder" (1942), retitled "Rear Window" after the famous Alfred Hitchcock film based on the story; "Post Mortem" (1940), filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "Three O'Clock" (1938), filmed by Alfred Hitchcock (as "Four O'Clock" for some reason) for the short-lived anthology series Suspicion; and "The Night Reveals" (1936).

One can easily imagine Woolrich, who became an increasingly apartment-bound recluse over his life, coming up with the famous scenario for "Rear Window," a tale of an immobilized voyeur who believes one of his neighbors has murdered his wife. Hitchcock's film became the most enduring adaptation of a Woolrich tale, yet it is said that Woolrich complained later in life that Hitchcock never even sent him a ticket to see the film when it premiered.


"Three O'Clock" and "The Night Reveals" are four-alarm spousal friction suspensers, the first one about a man plotting to annihilate his wife who gets caught in his own trap and desperately attempts escape and the second one about a man who suspects his wife of pyromania.

"Post-Mortem" is a blackly humorous tale of a woman whose husband has won the lottery. Problem is, it's her dead husband and she and her new husband can't find the ticket! Where could it be?... It's all rather in the same vein of a wickedly ironic domestic suspense story by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham or Dorothy L. Sayers.

Of the remaining eleven stories, I quite enjoyed eight, finding some of these superior even to their better-known counterparts.

"Dead on Her Feet" (1935), one of Woolrich's earliest published crime stories, is an actual clued whodunit, a form Woolrich mostly eschewed, judging from what I have read, in favor of pure suspense. It's about the (unnatural) death of a young woman at a dance marathon.


The story was published the same year as Horace McCoy's similarly-themed novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and is similarly bleak in its depiction of the moral scuzziness of the dance promoters, the anguished desperation of the exhausted contestants and the casual brutality of the police.

Remarkably, it manages to provide readers, as mentioned, with a clued murder problem, while ultimately withholding from them any sense of the comfort and closure we are frequently told is supposed to result from the presentation of the solution of a mystery.

"Marihuana" (1941), the longest tale in the collection (something like 17,000 words) is a brilliant crime story, if one can get past the premise that puffing some reefers can turn one into a murdering fiend.


Bill Evans and Wash Gordon decide to take their pal King Turner, despondent because his wife has left him, out to "a ranch to blaze weed"--with horrific results. This is a gripping, shocking tale that would film beautifully (again, if one can accept the premise).

In his later fiction Woolrich had, I believe, a predilection for overwriting, straining for portentousness, but here he's sharp as a knife, as in his descriptions of sudden violence:

The trigger sliced back.  The blast seemed to lift the booth clear off the floor, drop it down again.  A pinwheel of vacancy appeared in the glass, flinging off shards and slivers.

I liked the expression of a cop's thoughts on Bill Evans and Wash Gordon too:

He didn't like either one of them, after what they'd just finished telling him.  He probably wouldn't have even without that.  He had them typed at a glance.  No-good bums. Dressed up, and with jobs, and money in their pockets, but bums just the same.

"Murder in Wax" (1935), the partial basis for Woolrich's 1943 novel The Black Angel, is a great short story about  a loyal wife trying to clear her death-row husband of a murder rap: the slaying of his own mistress, with whom, on the night of her murder, he had planned to run away ("Angel Face," the wife's nickname, would have been a better title for it). The tale is told in powerful first person narration by the wife.


"Speak to Me of Death" (1937) is one of the all-time great short works of crime fiction, in my view. It's another long tale, about 14,000 words I would say. The material is so rich that Woolrich later expanded it into his highly-regarded, lengthy novel Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), but for pure suspense it's hard, I think, to top the novelette, which never lets up for a moment, never allows suspense to attenuate with wordiness.

The story concerns a millionaire, John T. Bridges, whose death--"at the jaws of a lion"--has been foretold at an exact time and date by the oddest of prophets: Jeremiah Tompkins, a drab, middle-aged clerk. Time will soon run out and the millionaire's niece, Ann Bridges, has come to the police in desperation. The police think the whole thing is an elaborate scam--but it it?

The second half of the novelette takes place, classically, in winter at the millionaire's country mansion, and has some of the most gripping suspense writing I have ever encountered, with a powerful last line.

"The Corpse and the Kid" (1935) tells of a loyal son who will do anything to help his father--including taking care of the body of his stepmother, who has father has just slain in a fit of passion (it seems she had been sleeping around). This is another Woolrich tale that surely would make an incredibly tense visual adaptation.

"The Living Lie Down with the Dead" (1936) is a criminal scheme story--an especially outre one. A daft but rich old woman willed that after her death she be entombed in her family crypt, clad in her wedding dress (she was jilted on her wedding day the classic literary manner) in a glass-paned coffin with her hoarded jewels spread out before her dead gaze.

Two cheap hoods have come up with a plan to burgle the mausoleum. Will their scheme work?  What do you think?  This clever, ghoulish tale reads like it must have been the inspiration for countless "Tales from the Crypt" type stories.


"Finger of Doom" ("I Won't Take a Minute") (1940) is what Francis M. Nevins calls an "annihilation tale"--a story about a woman who seems to have vanished off the face of the earth.  Her boyfriend waited for her at the front of the building while she went up to an apartment to deliver a package--and she never returned! This is a fine suspenser, made even more nerve-wracking by the presence of a repulsive thug cop who doesn't believe the boyfriend's story.

"The Corpse Next Door" (1937) starts with the problem of who is stealing milk bottles in an apartment complex and soon leads the reader into the realm of nightmare.  In addition to masterfully stoking suspense, the tale superbly conveys the atmosphere of Depression-era urban life.

If, like I do, you believe that Cornell Woolrich was one of the great twentieth-century masters of the crime short story (and the king of the crime novelette), this collection from Centipede Press is cause for rejoicing.  Let's hope Volume Two arrives soon!

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Hanging Woman (1931), by John Rhode

dust jacket by
Arthur Hawkins, Jr. (1903-1985)
John Rhode's The Hanging Woman (1931) begins with a coroner's investigation into the crash death of pilot Andres Vilmaes that took place when he was attempting to make a landing at the private country airstrip of his employer, Charles Partington, the highly esteemed research scientist.

Soon after Vilmaes' death is ruled an accidental one, the body of Cynthia Bartlett, a London woman with whom Vilmaes was believed to have been romantically involved, is found hanging from a beam in the basement of a deserted--and supposedly haunted--country house. Suicide, evidently.

Cynthia Bartlett's friend and flatmate Miss Carroll, a feminist and secretary of the Women's League of Amity, scoffs at the police notion that her friend would have committed suicide out of a sense of despair over the loss of a man:

I suppose you think that because a woman has committed suicide, there must be a man concerned in the matter.  Let me assure you, once and for all, that Cynthia's regard for men, collectively or individually, was not sufficiently great to induce her to commit suicide on their account.

When the inquest on Miss Bartlett's death confirms Miss Carroll is right--it was not suicide but murder--Inspector Hanslet of the Yard, not all too keen on his own, is soon on his way to consult with that eccentric scientist and amateur detective, Dr. Lancelot Priestley. Through a brilliant series of on-site deductions Priestley determines that not only Bartlett but Vilmaes was murdered. The hunt is on!

The Hanging Woman is a good example of an early Dr. Priestley detective novel, with Priestley still quite active (he later becomes strictly an armchair detective) yet just as wonderfully acerbic as ever. The novel brims with material clues and fascinating ratiocination and should appeal to lovers of the art of deduction. "The most captious mystery addict may read it with pleasure," wrote reviewer William C. Weber of The Hanging Woman in the Saturday Review.

The crime novels of John Street's
friend John Dickson Carr tended to
have more of a touch of brimstone
Although, as mentioned above, a dead body is discovered in a creepy old "haunted" country house, not much is made of this, as it would be in a John Dickson Carr detective novel (compare the Rhode novel with Carr's Castle Skull, which was published the same year).

Carr's good friend, John Street (the man behind John Rhode) with his detective novels was typically more interested, it must be allowed, in analytical investigation than Gothic shudders.

Yet despite lacking brimstone atmosphere, The Hanging Woman is a fine problem-focused Golden Age English detective novel that leaves the reader with interesting matters about to which speculate after finishing the book. In some ways it is reminiscent of an earlier, excellent Dr. Priestley novel, The Davidson Case (1929).

Unfortunately, pending John Street's heirs and literary agency allowing his books to be reprinted (or someone in Canada or Australia reprinting them next year when the copyrights lapse in those countries), you will have to willing to pay $60-$300 to get a copy of The Hanging Woman. It was published in both the United States and England and reprinted in hardcover in both countries in the 1930s, but still is quite rare today.

A query: how many other death by hanging mysteries can you recollect?

Offhand I am thinking of Henry Wade's The Hanging Captain (1932), which came fast on the heels of The Hanging Woman, Nicholas Blake's The Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941), which followed by a decade, and, forty-one years later, P. D. James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). But there must be plenty others, I would think.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Formal Affair: More Arthur Hawkins Book Jackets

Some more artwork by Arthur Hawkins, Jr. (1903-1985), in the 1930s surely one of the mystery genre's finest book jacket artists.  I love the first especially, for its eye catching use of planes and colors (follow this link for a great website devoted to vintage facsimile dust jackets).




Most people will have not have heard of the above authors, I suspect, but the jacket designs are great. Below are some of Hawkins' jackets for books by certain Detection Club luminaries:




In the 1930s books evaluating the Soviet "experiment" were popular in the United States as well.  Here are  a couple impressive Hawkins jackets for such books, plus one more mystery novel--one with a similarly "exotic" setting--by the greatest of them all: