Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Meeting of Minds on Mystery: Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty Discuss Classic Crime Fiction

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long discussed the affinity great writers and intellectuals have had over the decades for classic crime fiction, reading it and occasionally dabbling in it themselves.  I do this in part because of a still-prevalent dismissive attitude toward classic crime fiction--or to be more specific, what some have called "clue puzzle" mystery fiction: i.e., works that place emphasis on presenting a "fair play" problem for the reader to solve.

Typically we hear, for example, about how T. S. Eliot loved Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.  So often people making this observation are meaning to convey that T. S. Eliot liked mysteries, but only, don't you know, the "good"--i.e., literary--stuff.

In his introduction to the prestigious Oxford University Press World's Classics edition of The Moonstone, literary critic John Sutherland pronounces in passing:

Literary pontiff that he was, Eliot was less than well equipped to pronounce on the excellence of pulp fiction....Even by 1928 [when Eliot wrote the introduction to the original OUP World's Classics edition of The Moonstone), there were more works of detective fiction than could be read in a normal lifetime--even by a fan (which T. S. Eliot was not).

Yet T. S. Eliot's Twenties articles and reviews in the Criterion reveal that he was, in fact, an inveterate reader of detective fiction, most emphatically including "mere puzzles": he refers to numerous detective fiction titles, new and old; he theorizes about it; he names favorite authors (Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, J. J. Connington, S. S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie); and he even lays out his own rules for the writing of it, preceding authorities S. S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox.  What more does an intellectual have to do to be considered a "fan" of detective fiction?

With the publication of Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan's Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, we now can see a similar case, more recent, with the great American novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty.

What Eliot did for Wilkie Collins, Welty attempted to do for the American hard-boiled writer Ross Macdonald, showering his novel The Underground Man with praise in a prominently-placed piece in the New York Times Book Review and for years lauding him both publicly and privately in correspondence with the mystery writer, to whom she became quite personally attached (as a reading of Letters will show).

Until I read this fascinating collection of letters I had no idea that Welty was such a devoted of reader of classic crime fiction.  All I really could have told you about Welty and that subject was that she loved Ross Macdonald (and his books).  I also recall once seeing a book blurb by her praising an early crime novel by Michael Gilbert--Fear to Tread, I believe.  However, from a reading of Letters it's crystal clear that Welty, like Eliot, was quite a "fan" of crime fiction, including puzzle-oriented works like those by Agatha Christie. (For his part Ross Macdonald liked Christie too.)

two writers' discussions
Ross Macdonald wanted
Eudora Welty's input
on his suspense anthology
Particularly interesting in this regard was the correspondence between Welty and Macdonald concerning an anthology he was editing for Knopf, Ross Macdonald Selects Great Stories of Suspense.

RM asked Welty's advice on selections for the volume in a letter dated 29 September 1973:

I'm sorry (for my own sake) if I gave the impression that my anthology will exclude detective stories. On the contrary, it will probably include a Christie (what do you think of is Miss Marple? I like her, and as of now propose to use What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw [4:50 from Paddington], which moves beautifully.) and, if I can get away with it, include a Margaret Millar [RM's crime novelist wife].  I'd be most grateful for any nomination you might have, English or American, long or short.

Welty got back to RM in October, assuring him

I've been reading over people I like, without seeming to hit upon the very book I like--I forget all books' titles.  Julian Symons's "The Plain Man" I just reread and started "The Belting Inheritance" again--it wasn't "The Color of Murder"--and I wonder what it was. Yes, I do like what "Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw"--that's the train one, isn't it--also I like "Mrs. McGinty's Dead"--do you remember that's Poirot and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver--Christie is endlessly diverting to me.  I haven't tried her again but did you ever read anything of Elizabeth Daly?  I like "The Book of the Lion"--well, all of hers.  I re-read a dreadful Ngaio Marsh--whom I enjoy mostly--which was maybe the first one, where Alleyn goes home each night from his case in the family Daimler sent by his mother, Lady Alleyn, and sits on her bed and let's her guess what's happened and pronounce on who couldn't possibly be the murderer, while they drink sherry and call each other "Darling."  He is just meeting Troy in time--I've already forgotten the name of the book [Artists in Crime or Death in a White Tie]....Of course Margaret Millar's got to come in!  Do you know which one?

"Christie is endlessly diverting to me"--Eudora Welty: Why have we never seen that blurbed before on a Christie novel?  This will be a bitter pill to swallow for those journalistic lit snobs and modern crime writers who have belittled Christie's writing over the years. Interestingly, like Christie, Welty also enjoyed the American classic crime writer Elizabeth Daly.  Welty's comments on the sick-making relationship between Ngaio Marsh's Alleyn and his mother--presumably cribbed by Marsh from Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and his mother--I thought highly amusing.  "He is just meeting Troy in time" indeed!

a train mystery that moves beautifully

Later that month RM thanked Welty for her input:

Your letter was most welcome, as always, and I was glad to be reminded of Elizabeth Daly, though I haven't found any of her books yet.  Glad, too, that you should mention Margaret whom I'd like to include simply on her merits--perhaps Beast in View, which I've just recently read and consider very strong.  Also read, and was impressed by, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, a poet who wrote only two mystery novels [the other being Dagger of the Mind]....I'm glad you mentioned Julian Symons, by the way....I haven't found any one book in which his great talent shows itself fully, though I enjoy everything he writes--the most recent one as much as any [presumably The Plot Against Roger Rider]. 

Still in October, Welty wrote RM that she was on the job for him, but that the task was made difficult for her by the high standard that RM's own novels had set:

I read a mystery every time with thoughts of what you're looking for, as I imagine that to be, in view. I have  a lifetime habit of reading them, and am really re-reading. But with the fondest memories of a book--such as Andrew Garve's "The Cuckoo Line Affair"--I come to the conclusion none of them are good enough to mention to you.  These are the books I've kept on my shelves as the best--I can only think I've been too easy to please!  Learned from yours!

RM agreed some mysteries did not read as well on a second perusal:

....I have to admit that I share your disappointment in rereading some of the mystery fiction I used to consider first-rate.  Helen Eustis' The Horizontal Man, for instance, turned out to be quite a disappointment. Chandler stands up less well than Hammett. But Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock still has power to interest and excite.  And an unambitious police-procedural like Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing seems to have more meat on its bones than Charlotte Armstrong's novels, say.

Agatha Christie's favorite American mystery writer and one of Eudora Welty's favorites too

In November Welty fretted

I read again 8 or 10 of the mysteries in the house that I've cherished as "best" while I was down with flu and none seemed good enough for you.  I would have thought The Horizontal Man would stand up (!)  It's good The Big Clock does--As I recall Kenneth Fearing's other mystery [Dagger of the Mind]was a disappointment when it came out, wasn't it?  I made a packet of 3 Elizabeth Dalys to send you but didn't get to mail--but not that I think they're strong enough to be candidates, probably, but because she's a nice writer and I like her work--Only I can't send you the one I think may be very best one because I no longer have it, & can't find another copy.  The Book of the Lion--Joan Kahn gave me Julian Symons's new one yesterday [The Plot Against Roger Rider] which I'm anxious to get into--

Eudora Welty
On 11 January 1974, RM reported to Welty that, with the Book-of-the-Month Club "now actively involved" in the project, Margaret Millar's Beast in View had been nixed, along with a couple of short stories, on the grounds that the anthology otherwise "might be too literary."  "I think they underestimate the public," complained RM, "not for the first time."

Margaret Millar's book was to be replaced with one of RM's, The Far Side of the Dollar, which Welty duly praised as "securely among your strongest and best ones."

When Welty received a copy of the anthology in January 1975 she wrote immediately RM:

I've just finished reading dear Agatha's [4:50 from Paddington] again--The book introduced me to James M. Cain, whom I'd never read--"The Baby in the Ice Box" was great fun, so I read The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity--both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I can remember, in the 1930's I guess, my mother, a great mystery reader, saying "That old James M. Cain! I wouldn't give you 2 cents for all he's written!" (Well, you know the times--she was reading S. S. Van Dine and Mary Roberts Rinehart along then).....

There are still some classic mystery fans who would agree with Eudora's mother!

Eudora Welty and mother Chestina Welty
There's more on this subject in this wonderful collection of letters, which you should read for yourselves if you haven't already, but I'll add a postscript with a bit more on Welty's "dear Agatha."

RM had just completed what sadly would be his final novel, The Blue Hammer, when he and Welty learned that Agatha Christie had passed away, at the age of 85. (The final novels of both RM and Christie would be published in 1976, Christie's, Sleeping Murder, like RM's dealing with old family secrets.)

Welty wrote RM

Just now I heard on the news that Agatha Christie had died.  Was she a friend?  I remember hearing from Elizabeth Bowen, who came to know her well, what a marvelous person she was.  She really was an era all in herself, wasn't she?  Her life sounded very contented and benign for her--I hope it was so.

Ross Macdonald
RM answered

No, I never knew Agatha Christie except though her books.  I think she wrote well, don't you? People I know who have known her have nothing but praise for her courtesy and goodwill.  She was even modest.  Her early life, by the way, was marked by what for her was a tragedy [here RM tells the story of Christie's infamous disappearance]....

You know, one nice thing about us detective-story writers is that there are so many different kinds of us, and we don't envy each other, though we compete.

On that happy, ecumenical thought I'll close, except to note that RM's detective fiction and the classic English variety was not quite so different as some might think, at least in terms of plotting and structure. More on this soon, I hope!

10 comments:

  1. Great article. This book sounds like a must-read and an obvious candidate for an Edgar nomination next year (provided the committee has heard of Ross MacDonald and Eudora Welty -- and no new Holmes book appears)
    Interesting that RM, one of the finest stylists in the history of the genre, thought Christie wrote well - not something you hear often! May his disdain for Charlotte Armstrong be ascribed to the fact that she was maybe his wife's number one rival (I leave Highsmith aside as she was too much sui generis to be said to compete with anyone)?

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    1. So true about RM and Christie! I wanted to highlight that because it goes so against the grain of conventional wisdom. I think given RM's criticism of Chandler and praise of Christie, we may need to start reappraising him as a detective fiction writer. Welty herself and others have wanted to elevate him as someone who "transcended the genre" into the ranks of Literature, but I'm more interested in the question of whether he transcended hard-boiled into the ranks of classic crime fiction. I have some more thoughts on that for later.

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  2. Just got this from the library. Love both of them as writers, sure I will love them as correspondents.

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    1. It's a very interesting correspondence. My one quibble with the book is that Margaret Millar seems to come out more as a "villain" in this book than she does in Nolan's biography of RM, where I thought she seemed much more sympathetic. This book appears to "see" things more as Welty saw them. I do like Welty, but she certainly was not an impartial observer of the Millars' marriage!

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  3. When I started rereading Christie a couple of years ago I was immediately struck by her sparkling prose. She was a very witty and perceptive writer.

    What has probably counted against her in the eyes of critics is that she had no overt political axe to grind and she wasn’t cynical. You don’t get to use words like transgressive when you discuss her. But she was a shrewd observer of human nature.

    In fact what make Poirot a great detective is that he likes people and he understands what makes them tick. Christie uses Poirot to make her observations on human motivations and human foibles.

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  4. That was fascinating Curt, just sooo interesting. Thanks for sharing it - I can't imagine coming across it anywhere else...

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    1. Thanks, Moira, I always find this sort of material fascinating myself and I like to share it with people when I can. Nolan and Marrs put together quite a trove.

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  5. Absolutely fascinating- their enthusiasm for the books, and the affection for the writers they actually know as people, simply shines through. a lovely post.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed, I love this sort of thing as well!

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  6. "RM:You know, one nice thing about us detective-story writers is that there are so many different kinds of us, and we don't envy each other, though we compete." So true. I think most of us genuinely like each other and have forged strong friendships.

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