Thursday, June 21, 2018

Death in the Heart of Dixie (and the Windy City too): The Forties Crime Novels of Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993)

Rosemount, Eutaw County, Alabama, southwest of Tuscaloosa
ancestral home of Sara Mason's Glover relations
Historic American Buildings Survey, W. N. Manning, 1934

Rosemount today

The piece below is drawn from my general introduction to Coachwhip's new two-volume edition of Sara Elizabeth Mason's four mysteries, originally published between 1943 and 1948. 

Three of them are steeped in the atmosphere of Alabama in the 1940s, which is of special interest to me, as Alabama, a fascinating if sometimes frustrating land, is a state where I lived for about 23 years. The last of the books is set in Chicago, where Mason attended graduate school.  (Her thesis was on, yes, Alabama.)

I also wrote individual introductions to each novel, and the mystery writer Dean James (aka Miranda James) kindly contributed a most interesting afterword to the first volume on his own experience as a white author from the Deep South.


Carl Carmer (1893-1967), a charismatic and imaginative young northerner who in the 1920s had been employed for a half-dozen years as an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, attained enviable fame in 1934 with the publication of Stars Fell on Alabama, his bestselling book about the state.

When during his six year sojourn in the Heart of Dixie Carmer took the occasion to visit Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County, the charming and gracious chatelaine who guided him around this aged yet still breathtaking relic of Old South domestic Greek Revival architecture was Amelia Walton Glover Legare (1869-1941), a granddaughter of the original builder and a first cousin, once removed, of Alabama educator, librarian and Forties crime writer Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993), the subject of this introduction.

Sara Elizabeth Mason published her entire corpus of mystery fiction—four novels to be exact—between 1943 and 1948, a period in American history when many white non-fiction writers, whether they hailed from the South or the North, tended to wax comfortably nostalgic over what they deemed the genteel living of the plantation aristocracy of the Old South, as can be seen in the fervid moonlight and magnolia mythography which perfumes the pages of such popular books about the South from the Thirties and Forties as Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama, J. Frazer Smith’s White Columns (1941), Clarence John Laughlin’s Ghosts Along the Mississippi (1948) and Medora Field’s White Columns in Georgia (1952). 

(For more questioning approaches to the subject see Clarence Cason’s 90 Degrees in the Shade, which was published in 1935, shortly after the author, an esteemed UA journalism professor fearful about what the local reception to his book might be, tragically committed suicide, and The Mind of the South, the classic 1941 study by Wilbur J. Cash, who similarly is believed to have killed himself in Mexico, not long after his book was published.)
 


While the last of Sara Mason’s mysteries, The Whip, takes place in Chicago, where the future crime writer in 1938 received a master’s degree in history (her thesis was “Sectionalism in Alabama, 1840-1860”), her first three mysteries all are firmly rooted in Alabama soil.  Yet all three books are mostly lacking in the Old South romance dreamily indulged in by the starry-eyed Carl Carmer and other of his contemporaries. 

In the debut Mason mystery, Murder Rents a Room,  the titular room belongs not to some bustling urban lodgment, but rather a remote and timeworn plantation house in rural Greene County, Alabama, where the descendants of the original owners are simply struggling to hold on to what they still have by taking in paying guests.  They have little time to spare in their harried present for apotheosizing the leisured past of their ancestors.

Williamson Allen Glover
Nine decades before the publication of her mysteries Sara Elizabeth Mason’s great grandfather Williamson Allen Glover (1804-1879) had erected in Greene County, on land given him by his father Allen Glover, Rosemount, one of the finest of the state’s antebellum mansions.  Rosemount’s design, which included a front portico with six ionic columns and a massive columned cupola adorning the top of the house, was devised by William Nichols, then the state architect of Alabama.

At this stately home, imposingly set on a star-shaped knoll in the heart of Alabama’s richest agricultural country (dubbed the “Black Belt” for the color of its fertile alluvial soil), there grew to adulthood a dozen of Glover’s children by his two successive wives, Amelia Tillman Walton (of nearby Strawberry Hill plantation) and Mary Sophia Haden.  (An additional four Glover children died in infancy; neither of Glover’s wives survived past her forties.)             

The most historically significant marriage made by one of the many Williamson Allen Glover offspring was that concluded in 1850 between Glover’s eldest daughter, Amelia Walton Glover, and wealthy Mississippi planter James Lusk Alcorn, a bitter opponent of secession who during the era of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War joined the Republican party and served successively as governor of Mississippi and one of the state’s U. S. senators (the other being Blanche K. Bruce, an African-American); yet it was younger Glover daughter Mary Willie Ann “Mollie” Glover’s Reconstruction-era marriage to Greene County farmer John Stanhope Brasfield which ultimately gifted vintage mystery fans with Sara Elizabeth Mason.  


Amelia Walton Glover
Born on September 2, 1911, Sara Elizabeth Mason was one of two children (the other being her elder brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason) of Mollie and John Stanhope Brasfield’s daughter Fenton Amelia Brasfield and her husband, Edwin Bolton Mason, a hardware merchant in the town of Demopolis in Marengo County, strategically located at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers about a dozen miles below Rosemount. 

In Demopolis had lived not only Sara’s great-great grandfather Allen Glover, sire of Williamson Allen Glover, master of Rosemount, but her great-aunt Sara Serena Glover Lyon of Bluff Hall and her great-aunt Anne Gaines Glover Lyon of Lyon Hall, as well as her great-aunt Laura Davenport Glover Prout, wife of banker Daniel Fowler Prout, through whom the twentieth-century Glovers were connected, in a manner of speaking, with Hudson Strode (1891-1976), a celebrated English professor at the University of Alabama for nearly a half-century, from 1916 until 1963 (although the second husband of Strode’s mother, Hope Hudson, was, like Sara Mason’s father, a Demopolis hardware merchant, Hope’s third husband, William Sylvester Prout, was the only son of Daniel Prout and Laura Glover and his father’s successor as bank president).

Both Glovers and Glover relations were interred in Demopolis in a white-stuccoed classical mausoleum, completed in 1845, which still stands in the town today, vainly warded by remnants of a Gothic Revival cast iron fence, upon a chalk bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River.

Glover Mausoleum, Demopolis, Alabama

Edwin Bolton Mason came of humbler social origins than the storied Glovers, being the son of Sumter County, Alabama farmer Edwin Francis Mason and his first wife, Jessie Bolton, who died when Edwin Bolton, the couple’s only child, was less than two years old.  Leaving his young son behind with his mother-in-law, Edwin Francis Mason left Alabama for Mer Rouge, Louisiana, where he became an overseer on Isaac Brown’s cotton plantation.  Shortly afterward he wed Brown’s daughter Jennie and with her had three daughters, one of whom was named Sara Elizabeth and presumably was the woman for whom Edwin Bolton Mason and his wife Fenton named their own daughter.


Not long after the First World War, Fenton and Edwin Mason with their two children left Demopolis and the world of the Old South behind them when they moved to the rapidly developing New South industrial city of Gadsden, perched in the highlands of northeastern Alabama, where Edwin managed another hardware store and the family resided in a one-story bungalow on 602 South 11th Street (see below).



Between 1900 and 1940 the population of Gadsden leapt by more than nine times, from roughly 4000 to 37,000 inhabitants, as a slew of businesses, such as the Dwight Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts (a maker of cotton textiles), the Jefferson Lumber Company, the Alabama Steel and Wire Company and the Gadsden Car Works of the Southern Railroad, established plants in the area. 

Gadsden high School, where Sara Mason tought history in the 1940s

During this same period the population of Demopolis grew much more slowly than that of Gadsden, increasing from around 2600 to 4100.  The contrast between bustling Gadsden and somnolent Demopolis may have inspired Sara Mason’s setting for her second crime novel, The House That Hate Built (1944).


Both of the Mason children attained distinction in life as adults.  Sara’s brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason, graduated from West Point in 1928 and rose to the army rank of Major General in 1951, having served during the Second World War as chief of staff of the 1st Infantry Division (famously nicknamed “The Big Red One”) and the V Corps. 

Sara Mason at Agnes Scott
around 1930
Sara between 1929 and 1938 attended Agnes Scott, a woman’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and earned degrees from both the University of Alabama--she matriculated at UA just two years after Carl Carmer left the school under a cloud, the married yet dangerously sociable professor having developed what was deemed too intimate a relationship with a female student—and the University of Chicago before she was awarded an MS degree in library science from Peabody College in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University). 

When Sara was a student at the University Of Alabama, Sara’s distant relation-through-marriage Hudson Strode had not yet inaugurated his vaunted creative writing workshop, but then the late Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016), who attended UA some dozen years after Sara had graduated, would manage rather well without it.

Sara Mason at Gadsden High School
During the Second World War Sara returned to reside with her parents in Gadsden, where she taught American history to students at Gadsden High School; yet after the war, Sara like her brother traveled to chaotic postwar Europe, where she found employment as a teacher in Frankfurt, Germany with the American High School, which served the children of American government, military and civilian personnel. 

Returning to Alabama after a few years, she took positions at the University of Alabama at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, built a decade earlier on the site of the antebellum Rotunda, burned during the Civil War ; the Birmingham Public Library, where she was head of the catalog department and curator of the cartographical collection; and the Gadsden Public Library, where she was appointed Assistant Director. 

Her third crime novel, The Crimson Feather, the last of her mysteries with a southern scene, is set in Tuscaloosa among the local elite, including members of the University faculty.  Before her death in Homewood, near Birmingham, on August 15, 1993, she published A List of Nineteenth Century Maps of the State of Alabama (1973) and, reflecting her interest to the end of her life in her own family heritage, The Glovers of Marengo County, Alabama (1989).   

During Sara Mason’s short career as a crime writer, reviewers lauded the good writing and authentic mise-en-scene that graced her four mysteries, in the first three of which the author adhered to the tried-and-true romance and ratiocination formula of such hugely popular American authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhert and Leslie Ford. In the last of them, The Whip, Sara Mason veers more from traditional suspense to the manner and form of the psychological crime novel that such authors as Margaret Millar, Very Kelsey, Dorothy Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong were developing at this time.

Two of her novels, The Crimson Feather and The Whip, were reprinted in paperback, the former by Dell in 1947 (as part of their “mapback” series, beloved by modern collectors) and the latter by Bantam in 1950, but all four of them received good notices in the newspapers. 
Murder Rents a Room, which introduces rural county Sheriff Bill Davies, was deemed by Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review a promising first detective story, while William C. Weber in the Saturday Review declared that the tale had “plenty of zip” and influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle enjoyed the “pleasant romance about nice people in a timeless southern setting.”

Boucher found The House That Hate Built, set in the fictional mill town of Monroe, a “[m]inutely detailed small-town novel,” while Weber praised it as “[c]apably plotted, with some rather surprising situations” and “interesting characters.”

Weber was similarly praiseful of The Crimson Feather, wherein county Sheriff Bill Davis returns to investigate a murder, this time in nearby Tuscaloosa (though the town in the novel is not so named).  Weber lauded Feather’s “[a]bly concocted plot, enlivened by sharp pictures of southern small-town life and family squabbles,” and he additionally admired the novel’s “[u]nostentatious sleuth,” who performed a “believable job” of criminal investigation.  Anthony Boucher echoed Weber’s words in his review of Feather, noting the “shrewd inspection of Sheriff Bill Davies” and the tale’s compelling “family atmosphere.”

After a lapse of more than two years (when she was teaching school in Frankfurt, Germany) and a change of American publisher from Doubleday to Morrow, Sara returned to print in January 1948 with The Whip, structurally her most unusual crime novel in that it relies heavily, in the manner of noir cinema, on a flashback narrative and the analysis of disordered emotional states (the hero is a psychiatrist); reviewers found the author had not lost her touch in the interim. 

In the Saturday Review a pleased William Weber judged that the psychological crime novel, which he colorfully termed a “believable brain-prober,” presented a rare “case where [the] flashback method of narrative” did not “retard action.”  In the New York Times Book Review Isaac Anderson, obviously impressed with Mason’s new tack, declared that the “excellent novel” was “a moving narrative of unfeeling cruelty practiced upon a sensitive young girl by a selfish old woman and her relatives.” 

For fans of Sara Mason’s mysteries it is disappointing to see that her interesting and entertaining fiction writing career came to an end after so brief a span of time, with places like Birmingham or even Frankfurt, Germany left unexplored, but it is pleasing to know that she went out on a high note.

5 comments:

  1. Chad sent me some of Mason's work a little while ago so I hope to give them a go soon. Thanks for introduction.

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  2. She was my Great Aunt and a True Lady. Always the educator, with trips to discover Moundville, AL. to trips to the Birmingham Library. On a personal note she taught me to read and one would think the greatest gift one could ever receive. She would take my brothers and I on our annual Christmas shopping tour at the Downtown Woolworths, their she taught us patience and taught us how to wrap a gift, always the educator. Without any doubt the smartest Lady I have ever known. To family and friends she was known as Sissie as for me she was my other Mom I will always miss but never forget.

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  3. Thanks you so much for commenting. I did try to get in touch with some of her relations, but had no success. It was a great pleasure to me getting to write about her, as it took me back to my own days in Alabama.

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  4. She was the same age, by the way, as my Uncle Louis, my mother's oldest brother, someone about whom I felt like you describe. Such a smart man, a privilege to know him. He died three years after your Great Aunt.

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