Friday, July 13, 2018

Prepped for Murder: Death Goes to School (1936), by Q. Patrick

"Murder at Craiglea!  Why, it's impossible!"

"When I think of this lovely English village, I can scarcely believe it myself."

  --Death Goes to School (1936), by Q. Patrick

Though Raymond Chandler thought fictional murder belonged, like the real stuff, in the mean streets, many mystery readers of his day wanted nothing more from their favorite reading fare than to escape into a nice English murder story set in a lovely little village, enjoying the very incongruity of foul play in fair places.  Seemingly even more incongruous was the idea of murders taking place among children in schools (although of course in the modern United States it's sadly become almost a casual affair); yet in the 1930s the setting was fairly common in English mysteries. 

Death Goes to School
(1936) is the last of the six Q. Patrick novels that is not credited jointly to authors Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, and thus it marks the end of the first phase of a pseudonymous author's life: the one in which the author adhered most scrupulously to the clues and cogitation formula of classic detective fiction.  Three of these novels--Murder at Cambridge, The Grindle Nightmare and Death Goes to School--were copyrighted to Rickie Webb alone, though the latter two titles likely had some input from Rickie's apt apprentice Hugh Wheeler, whom we know at the very least typed the manuscripts and would have been talking over the details with his guide and mentor.  The other three novels had women co-authors, two of them Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelly and one Mary Lou White.

Three of the six pre-Hugh Q. Patricks take place in Britain (while another is an ocean liner mystery), contrasting with most of the Rickie-Hugh Q. Patricks.  (I will call them QPs from here.)  Like other authors, Rickie wrote about what he knew, and though he was well-traveled what he knew best was England's green and pleasant--though in fiction at least quite murderous--land.  Additionally, one of the Rickie-Hugh QPs takes place in Bermuda, where he and Hugh annually vacationed in the Thirties.

Not long before he left America for France in 1952, Rickie complained to Hugh--who had decided, much to Rickie's dismay, to move on from their relationship both personally and professionally--that he had never really felt at home in America, a country where he had spent half his life and in 1943 had become a naturalized citizen, going into armed service for his adopted nation in the Pacific War.  Hugh seemed to better adapt, but then Hugh was a most flexible individual.

Death Goes to School has Rickie's fingerprints all over it.  The novel is dedicated to his parents, who when he was growing up in England had run a girls school at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, situated on the Bristol Channel not far from the city of Bristol, and is set at a boys school in, sure enough, Somerset, overlooking the Bristol Channel.  With 68 boarding pupils, the school seems larger than that of Rickie's parents and boys are concerned rather than girls, but the setting otherwise is very much on point.  Additionally, one of the major characters in the novel, a spirited young boy named Lucas who proves to have considerable skill as a code breaker, shares the surname of his mother's family.

In all the book seems, like Rickie's earlier college mystery Murder at Cambridge, an exercise in nostalgia--of a murderous kind, of course.  This nostalgic novel is lacking the bloody horrors of The Grindle Nightmare, the ghoulishness of which, with its descriptions of rather ghastly subjects (torture murder victims, including a child; animal mutilations; impotence; sexual depravity), was much commented upon by titillated reviewers of the day.  In School, the two victims of murder are pupils, but the details of their murders are scamped and no one really seems to miss the victims much.  Nor are they, as presented, seemingly people one would much miss.

As an aside, I might mention that Golden Age English mystery writers seem to have been much less sentimental about children than both earlier and later generations, with some notable exceptions like H. C. Bailey, who vies with Charles Dickens and Benjamin Farjeon when it comes to sentimental piety concerning youngsters.  (Bailey even invariably gives them plaintive lisps.)  In Margaret Cole's Scandal at School, for example, the murdered schoolgirl is portrayed by Cole, the mother of three children, as a blackmailing brat whose death is regretted by no one, including her father, who is treated seriously as a suspect in her murder.  But let's hear how cozy all these books are again!

Rickie's parents' school in Burnham-on-Sea
Murders at British primary schools became popular in detective fiction after the publication of Murder at School (1931) a 'prentice novel by James Hilton, who shortly became renowned as the author of Lost Horizon (1933) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934). 

Some other prominent British primary school mysteries, many of them from some of the biggest names in British detection, are, before Death Goes to School (1936), R. C. Woodthorpe's The Public School Murder (1932), Anthony Berkeley's Murder in the Basement (1932), Christopher Bush's The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934), Gladys Mitchell's Death at the Opera (1934), Nicholas Blake's A Question of Proof (1935), Margaret Cole's Scandal at School (1935) and, after Death Goes to School, Leo Bruce's Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) and Alan Clutton-Brock's Liberty Hall (1941).  An impressive group of murder stories!

Death Goes to School opens at the Parents-Boys cricket match which marks the half-term holiday at Craiglea Preparatory School.  (Rickie himself was captain of his cricket team at his public school.)  It seems a lovely June day, but storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, both literally and figuratively.  The next day the body of one of the wealthy American Jewish twins who had arrived at Craiglea that term is discovered unceremoniously stuffed in a laundry cupboard, the boy having been smothered to death in his bed in the night.  He is Eric Bernard-Moss--or Moses ma. (i.e., Moses Major) as he is known to his schoolfellows, contrasting with his brother Irving Bernard-Moss, naturally Moses mi. (Moses minor).

Evidence suggests that the murder must have been an "inside job."  So who, you may well wonder, was on the inside?  Well, there's the headmaster, Reverend Samuel Dodd, his wife and their "English rose" daughter Sophonisba (named for a Carthaginian princess who committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome--I had to look that one up); the handsome blond and blue-eyed English master, Harvey Nettleon, just down from Oxford, who reads Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and William Faulkner (Sanctuary); the hunky new school porter, Stephen McFee, who is blessed, we are promptly informed, with a most "splendid physique"; the Moss boys' new American orchid-lush stepmother, Myra Bernard-Moss; Cyril Heath, the pub-crawling mathematics master; Mademoiselle Santais, the sallow-cheeked French mistress; school matron Mrs. Blouser, who discovered the body; freckled, snub-nosed schoolboy St. John Lucas, son of the portly and pacific Bishop of Saltmarsh (a nod to Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders?); and schoolboy Derek Pemberly, overdeveloped physically and underdeveloped mentally and the son of peppery county constable Sir Wilfrid Pemberly, who tends to wax "hot as chutney over Indian reminiscences."

However, a bombshell soon is figuratively dropped at the school when it is learned that Moses ma. may have been a victim of a political murder.  It seems that the boys' Jewish father, a prominent judge in St. Paul, Minnesota, presided over a trial of Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans who killed "many people" in a "serious outcrop of Hitlerian anti-Jewish riots," the grand object of which was to "drive all Jews out of the country." 

In the aftermath of the riots, the judge sentenced one German-American man, Bruno Heller, to death in the electric chair, and his brother and sister vowed vengeance on the judge and his family.  Could the culprit in this new crime at Craiglea be a vengeful German-American terrorist?

This is an unusually up-to-date motive in a detective novel of this era, when countries still were clinging to a splintering hope that "peace for our time" could be established, despite mounting evidence to the contrary from the militant German nation, which had passed the grotesquely anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

While the view of the US expressed in the novel may seem histrionic, recall that in the 1930s lynchings of black men still occurred in the American South and that southern congressmen did everything in their power to block federal anti-lynching legislation.  Indeed, Germany contrasted its "humane" Nuremberg racial legislation with horrific American lynchings, which were graphically documented by beaming murderers in sickening photos. 

Additionally, there existed in the US in the Thirties the German American Bund, designed to promote Hitlerian ideology in America.  Across the country the Bund and its affiliates launched Nazi summer camps, like Camp Siegfried on Long Island, where streets audaciously were named after Hitler and Goebbels.

This might seem to take the book into thriller territory, but in fact it remains a full dress detective novel, with the focus on clues and investigation, although the narrative is fleet, the writing amusing and the characterization lively.  Especially successful are two "viewpoint" characters, young St. John Lucas and winsome Sophonisba.  Patrick manages a nice twist solution, in the manner of such virtuosi as Ellery QueenJohn Dickson Carr and Anthony Berkeley.  Some technical details are scamped, but overall this is an impressive example of a story that "conforms to the best tradition of the detective novel," as the book blurb on the American hardcover edition puts it.  There's a little flutter of Hugh, I think, in the description of some of the boys' love of birding (Hugh and his brother were great birders as lads), but overall this book reads Rickie and as such it is a tribute to his own skill, when he chose to exercise it, as a mystery writer.

See review at Pretty Sinister Books here.

It can't happen here?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Who Dun It? The Authorship of the Early Q. Patrick Novels

We enthusiasts of the Golden Age--or GADers as I will call them in honor of the original Golden Age Detection group at Yahoo which served, as the intellectual seedbed for much of the modern internet crime criticism that has done so much to catapult its current revival (more on this soon I hope)--have discussed many topics over the years, but one which has especially engaged a number of us is the question of the authorship of the of the books by Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  This is a subject Mauro Boncompagni and I both have tried to clarify over the last several years, and I'm feeling more confident about the matter these days.  (See essays in Mysteries Unlocked and Murder in the Closet; more as well is forthcoming.)

Here is how I see the breakdown of the earlier books:

Q. Patrick Books
Cottage Sinister, 1931 (Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelley)
"Q. Patrick" was created when two people living in Philadelphia, native English pharmaceutical executive Rickie Webb and recent Radcliffe graduate Patsy Kelley, combined the first syllables of their nicknames "Patsy" and "Rickie" to make Patrick. (Cute, huh?)  The "Q" was chosen, in their words, as the most "intriguing" letter of the alphabet, and you can draw your own conclusions from that.  The duo went detecting again in a second novel, called

Murder at the Women's City Club, 1932 (less straightforwardly but more alliteratively titled in the UK Death in the Dovecote) (RWW and MMK)
Patsy became engaged and married in England in 1933, leaving Rickie rather  in the lurch.  So Rickie wrote the next Q. Patrick by himself.  This book appeared in February, not long before Patsy's spring wedding, and was titled

Murder at the 'varsity, 1933 (Murder at Cambridge in the US). (RWW)
The English edition preceded the American one by about a month, but I think for today's readers the American title is the better one. 

Rickie, however, liked collaborative writing, plotting being his first love, and the actual writing second.  So he found a replacement for Patsy in another talented Philadelphia woman, Mary Lou White (later Mary Lou Aswell, and as such a very prominent American literary editor).  Together in October 1933 they published

S. S. Murder, 1933 (RWW and Mary Lou White)
On a visit to London in 1933, however, Rickie met a brilliant and handsome newly minted college graduate who was desperately keen to write fiction, become rich and successful and see America: Hugh Callingham Wheeler.  With Rickie's considerable help in the earlier years, Hugh would attain all of these objectives. 

Hugh went to live with Rickie in Philadelphia and the two would establish a personal and commercial partnership that would endure for nearly two decades.  Yet it's still not established quite which books they wrote together. (Like with Ellery Queen, Rickie tended to be more the plotter and Hugh more the actual writer).  Nothing appeared from Q. Patrick in 1934, but then a flood of works appeared in 1935-37, both in hardcover and serial forms.  There was so much stuff, indeed, that the pair created two new pseudonyms, Jonathan Stagge, and their best known one, Patrick Quentin.  Then there appeared the most famous Q. Patrick novel

The Grindle Nightmare (1935) (RWW)
Originally published serially in May as Darker Grows the Valley, this novel has long been attributed to Rickie and to Mary Lou White, but in fact is copyrighted solely to Webb, as Mauro Boncompagni has pointed out.  But it never really made sense to think that Mary Lou would have co-written this book with Rickie, when Rickie was living, and had begun writing, with his protege Hugh Wheeler.  The bigger question would be, was Hugh involved in writing this book?  I think Hugh may have influenced it thematically (at the least, they would have been discussing the book, and Hugh would have been typing it), but it very much seems to me like a Rickie book, as does the next Q. Patrick

Death Goes to School (1936) (RWW)
This was published in February, about six months after Grindle was published as a book, and is a public school mystery.  Again, it is copyrighted solely to Rickie, as Mauro has pointed out, and in fact is dedicated to his parents, who were the headmaster and mistress of a girls school.  There's even a character with the same surname as Rickie's mother's family.  I'll be reviewing this book here soon and pointing out a few "Hugh" elements in it, but it still seems a Rickie book to me.  The big changeover came with the next Q. Patrick novel, which also introduced a new series detective, Lieutenant Trant (the first six QP's were standalones)

Death for Dear Clara (1937) (RWW and HCW)
Here there is so much more emphasis on "Hugh" elements: American moneyed society setting, sophisticated detective, lovely and lethal women, emotions and pure writing.  The first six Q. Patrick books, while fluidly and intelligently written, are much more single minded in their emphasis on clues and investigation and sparer in their portrayal of emotions and characterization.  And, yes, this book is copyrighted to both authors, as are the first Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools, and the first Jonathan Stagge, The Dogs Do Bark, both of which were published in 1936.  My own theory is that the first works really written more by Hugh were the 1935-36 serialized Hugh Westlake adventures, later published as Stagge novels.  That may be why Hugh Cavendish Westlake shares Hugh Callingham Wheeler's first name and initials.  A little hint of things to come, perhaps?

Monday, July 9, 2018

"Some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales": Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936/43) and the Scarlet Circle Slayer

Jonathan Stagge--I say this in the most congratulatory sense--has a really nasty mind.  I recommend him to all who have a sound head and a strong heart.

                                                                --Torquemada (English crime fiction critic)

Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler's "Jonathan Stagge" novels, chronicling the investigations of Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake, a small town New England--or possibly Pennsylvania, but I'm pretty sure it's New England--doctor, have rather an unusual origin and chronology.

The hardcover novels, nine in number, appeared as follows (I give my preferred titles first for novels with different US and UK titles):

The Dogs Do Bark (1936, in UK Murder Gone to Earth)
Murder or Mercy? (1937, in US Murder by Prescription)
The Stars Spell Death (1939, in UK Murder in the Stars)
Turn of the Table (1940, in UK as Funeral for Five)
The Yellow Taxi (1942, in UK as Call a Hearse)
The Scarlet Circle (1943, in UK Light from a Lantern)
Death and the Dear Girls (1945, in US Death, My Darling Daughters)
Death's Old Sweet Song (1946)
The Three Fears (1949)

However, these are not the order in which the Hugh Westlake adventures originally appeared.  The original Westake investigations, attributed not to Jonathan Stagge but to Q. Patrick (Richard Webb's original pen name), appeared in serial form in Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, in this order:

The Dogs Do Bark (November 1935) (published as book in late 1936)

The Frightened Landlady (December 1935) (not otherwise published to this date)
The Scarlet Circle (January 1936) (published as book in 1943)
Murder or Mercy? (June 1936) (published as book in late 1937)

The Frightened Landlady, a novella that was Hugh Westlake's second case, has never appeared in book form, while The Scarlet Circle, Westlake's third serial adventure, was only the sixth Hugh Westlake mystery published as a book, seven years after it originally appeared in a magazine.  Why was The Scarlet Circle not published earlier, either in 1937, instead of Murder or Mercy?, or in 1938, when no Stagge book was published?

Could real life events have played a hand in the delayed publication of The Scarlet Circle?  I think so.  Let's go back in time, nearly 81 years to be precise, to a horrific double murder that took place in the borough of Queens, New York.  The following account I have put together from several newspaper sources, not all of them, I must admit, fully congruent with each other (more on that).  So here we go....

On Saturday October 2, 1937, Louis Weiss, a recent honors graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, returned to his home in Queens Village from seeing local favorite the Manhattan Jaspers lose 14-7 in a football contest with visiting Texas A&M at the New York Polo Grounds.

At home Louis ate dinner, put on some old clothes and told his mother (an only child, he lived with his parents and maternal grandparents) that he was going to the Mineola Roller Skating Rink, near the Mineola Fair Grounds in Nassau County, with girlfriend Frances Hajek.  Promising to get home early (he said he was tired from being at the game all day), Louis at 8:30 got into his second-hand coupe, of which he was extremely proud, and drove off, his pet Spitz dog, Teddy, eagerly yapping after him from the house.

A sturdy 6'1" 200 pound 20 year old who had been an esteemed star athlete at Brooklyn Tech and in his free time still loved to play basketball and baseball in vacant lots in Queens Village, Louis worked days at the offices of the American Steel and Wire Company in the Empire State Building and studied nightly at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, hoping to become an electrical engineer.  In the meantime he dutifully turned over his weekly paycheck to his mother.

Louis' girlfriend, vivacious and popular Frances Hajek, auburn-haired and about 5'5" and 115 pounds with a captivating smile, was considered "unusually attractive" by her set, but she was a dutiful young woman and like Louis an only child who lived with her parents.  There she worked the counter of the downstairs bakery of her father, Frank Hajek, an immigrant from Bohemia, who with only an 8th grade education had become a successful businessman, owning the $25,000 two-story building in Queens Village where his bakery was located (today Jamaica Discount Liquors).  Frances had recently graduated from Jamaica High School and was a member of the Queens Village Junior League.

Jamaica Discount Liquors (formerly the site of the Hajek house and bakery)

Louis and Frances left the Mineola Rink around 10:30, stopping off briefly at the Belmont Roller Skating Rink, not far from the Belmont Racetrack.  On their way home they stopped at a bar on Jericho Turnpike to have some beer.  Shortly after midnight they were seen by Thomas Owens, who was driving a newspaper delivery truck.  Owens met the couple in Nassau County, near the Mineola Rink, and gave them instruction on how to get back to Queens. He claimed that there was another man in the back seat of the car, dressed in a soldier's uniform.  Police concluded that this man was a stranger whom Weiss had offered a ride, either in the beer parlor or hitching along the road toward Queens.

Weiss House, Queens Village (middle with green shutters)

Some time around one in the morning Louis drove down a dark dirt road leading off from Springfield Boulevard and Central Parkway, Queens and parked in a local "lovers' lane" deep in Hollis Woods.  Shortly before three in the morning, judging by Louis' smashed wristwatch (that great cliche of Golden Age detective fiction), the lovers' lane became a nightmare alley.

Suddenly a man hopped on the right running board of Louis' coupe, pulled the unlocked door open, leaned in and shot the young man twice in the head, killing him.  Next he grabbed Frances, paralyzed with shock and fear, by her wine-colored zipper combination suit, fired two bullets into her temple, and then, as she breathed her last, repeatedly plunged an ice pick or stiletto into her upper torso.  When discovered by a hiker the next day, Louis still sat slumped over the wheel, as if ready to start driving the car again, while Frances lay sprawled, half-in and half-out of the machine.

1936 Ford Coupe

It was a horrific scene indeed.  The most grotesque detail of all (and pertinent for the purposes of this blog piece) I have saved for last: After shooting Louis and shooting and stabbing Frances, the killer took the young woman's' scarlet lipstick and drew circles on the dead couple's foreheads.  Not unnaturally, newspapers took alliteratively to dubbing the unknown murderer the "scarlet circle slayer."

Police believed that, given the savagery of the attack of Frances, the motive was not robbery, but a raging hatred of the young woman, presumably inspired by intense jeolously.  Police dismissed the idea that the killer of Louis and Frances might have been the "3-X Killer" (so called for the 3-X signed notes he had left at his crime scenes), who achieved national notoriety by shooting two men in lovers' lanes on two separate occasions in 1930.  The women 3-X had let go, suggesting a totally different modus operandi from the scarlet circle slayer.

crime scene photo of the dead couple (note scarlet circles)
See Getty Images for a more graphic photo here
(WARNING: very graphic)
Newspapers screamed bloody murder (FIEND KILLER CAUSES FEAR IN NEW YORK) and dozens police were assigned to investigate the ghastly case, but little headway was made.  A sweep was done of Hollis Woods, but nothing seemingly of significance was discovered besides Frances' red lipstick, which had been discarded by the right front wheel of the car.  The crude camp of, yes, a passing tramp had been discovered, but the tramp had already been arrested for vagrancy and placed in a jail cell when the murders occurred. A perfect alibi! 

Also with alibis were the sizable contingent of patients at nearby Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital. (This case really did have it all.)

With punitive justice all-too typical of its day, one suspects, a young black woman named Betty May McCall also was arrested on a vagrancy charge after admitting to police that she had invented a story of having witnessed the murders of Louis and Francis, and she was committed to the King's County Hospital in Brooklyn.  There were the usual crackpot confessions, like Betty May's fake witness claim, but the police investigation quickly petered out, to the intense dismay of the victims' families.

Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital

The next year in an interview with a print journalist, Frances' father stated that he had surrendered any belief that his beautiful daughter's vicious slayer ever would be found.  Coming out of his bakery kitchen in his white apron and cap to talk the reporter, Frank Hajek declared sadly, "In my mind I have no hope.  There were so many wrong ones.  We [my wife and I] talk about it every night and every morning, but it would be best not to talk at all because then we would sleep better."

last rites for Frances Hajek
the dead girl's parents had to be supported
down the church steps
Frank and his wife Anna rejected the idea that their daughter was participating in a petting party with Louis, arguing that she and Louis must have been forced at gunpoint to drive down that dirt road to their deaths.

Mina Hengst, Louis' maternal grandmother, told a similar sorrowful tale, avowing, "My daughter still cries every day and she cries every night.  She has to go out every day so that she will not think about it too much."

However, it was at this time that the police believed they finally had made a major break in the case, when there came to their attention a local "tough" in Queens Village, Walter Wiley, a nineteen year old newspaper delivery man and sometime movie theater usher who was known in his recreational time, if you will, to brandish both gun and knife.  Walter had boasted to his thug pals that he had robbed Good Humor ice cream trucks and preyed on petting parties in lovers' lanes. 

Walter vanished the day the bodies of Weiss and Hajek were discovered, not reappearing until  November 20 in Baltimore, where he enlisted in the army.  By April 1938 he had deserted. 

In July Walter was extradited to New York from Reno, Nevada, and police hoped to break him down and secure a confession in the Red-O killings, but nothing seems to have come of it.  In fact, the case remains unsolved to this day.  Walter was serving time in Sing Sing Prison in 1940, but on account of other crimes.  Three years after this he was living in Florida, where he married and died three decades later.

Brooklyn Tech

I have a lot of questions about this case, myself.  For one thing, who the heck was the soldier, or the man dressed in an army uniform, whom Thomas Owens saw in the coupe with Louis and Frances?  Why was he not suspected of the crime?  The police discounted robbery, in part because Louis' wallet and black signet ring and Frances' jewelry were not taken, but what happened to her handbag?  One account notes that Louis' wristwatch was not stolen, but if it was smashed, naturally it would not have been. But speaking of the smashed watch, the medical examiner early on supposedly set the time of death as between 11 and midnight.  If, as the other later account states, it took place around three in the morning, this seems at odds with what we early on were told about Louis and Frances being so scrupulous about returning home early to their parents' houses. 

Cooper Union
Frances always "came home early at night, it was said."  Well, if she was in the coupe with Louis until three in the morning, then something unusual was going on.  Friends and family were eager to discount the petting theory.  Herbert Beech, Louis' "close chum" who had attended the football game with him, insisted that Louis was so fussy about his car that he never of his own volition would have driven down a narrow wooded lane like the one in Hollis Woods. Nor did he "park and pet," according to Beech. 

Medical examiner Howard W. Neail speculated at one point that since Frances' lipstick was not smeared, the young couple must have been set upon before any petting could have commenced.  But how does that square with the account that says they were in the car for nearly two hours, from around one to three a.m.?

Jamaica High School

The scarlet circles themselves influenced police thinking that the crime was committed by someone with a warped adolescent brain (i.e., a teenager).  "Most of the detectives held that the symbols might be the work of some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales," says one report.

"It could have been anything," helplessly pronounced the floundering Deputy Inspector Ryan.  "It could be a sadistic maniac, it could be some kid whose been reading mysteries about signs and symbols, it could be someone with a grudge against the girl, or against both the boy and the girl--but we have no direct evidence on anything."

It was even suggested that the killer might have disguised himself as a police patrolman and deviously directed Louis to Hollis Woods and his and Francis' doom.  According to one report Louis' wallet and driver's license lay in the dead boy's hand when he was discovered, as if he had been requested to show it to someone at the car window.

The grave of Frances Hajek
at St. John's Cemetery, Queens
But whatever the solution to this real life mystery, wouldn't it have been rather awkward for mystery writers Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler and their publisher to have published as a hardcover novel a few bare months after this terrible crime The Scarlet Circle, a story which originated in a pulp fiction magazine about a serial murderer who strangles female victims, then draws scarlet circles on their bodies with their lipsticks?  Especially when the police are bemoaning the impact on adolescent minds of "cheap mystery tales"?  Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time to let The Scarlet Circle lie until 1943, when Rickie and Hugh, about to go into the army, needed something that could quickly be published as a hardcover book and reached back to an old pulp fiction piece--one which may have partly inspired a depraved and never detected murderer.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Hot Enough For You? Red, White and Blue Murder (2003), by Bill Crider

The governing body of each of Texas's 254 counties is the commissioners court.  In Texas the court has five members: the county judge and four commissioners.  

                                                      --Commissioners Court (Texas), Wikipedia

Rhodes tried the door, and the knob turned in his hand.  He wasn't surprised.  Hardly anyone in a town like Thurston bothered locking the door.  There hadn't been a major crime there in quite a while, and only a few minor ones.  Not counting armadillo hunters.

--Red, White and Blue Murder (2003), Bill Crider

I wrote about the Texas regional background of Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes' mysteries in my blog piece on A Romantic Way to Die (2001), the eleventh Dan Rhodes mystery.  Red, White and Blue Murder, the next installment in the series, followed ARWTD by two years, seeing light in 2003.

This one takes place over a few 95 degree days around the Fourth of July, a time when Americans celebrate the greatness of their nation by attending patriotic parades, blowing up fireworks and eating themselves sick on barbecue and ice cream. 

But not barbecue ice cream, one hopes! Don't think there isn't such a thing.  Ick.

Blacklin County's Sheriff Rhodes, who is getting awfully tired of people asking him if it's "hot enough for you," finds himself embroiled in another great American tradition--murder--when he is called to investigate the suspicious death of electrical repair shop owner Grat Bilson--whose preoccupation, up until his death, was getting fireworks banned throughout the county.  (Though they are a fire hazard, particularly during 95 degree weather in July, only Blacklin County municipalities have up to this point banned them.)

map of Bill Crider's native Limestone County, Texas
presumably the model for Sheriff Rhodes' Blacklin County
Bilson is found dead in a burned-out home--and he did not die either from the fire (which, it transpires, was deliberately set) or from natural causes. 

It turns out that he may have been the informant for local reporter Jennifer Loam who was filling her ear with tales of corruption in high places, including in the sheriff's office itself.  Moreover his wife was having affairs and he may have been having one himself.  So there were more than a few people who might have had reason to want to kill old Grat Bilson.

Soon Bilson's murder is followed by another suspicious death, which takes place picturesquely at a barbecued ribs eating contest on the Fourth--and it looks to the locals like Rhodes himself, who was one of the contestants, may be the killer!

Red, White and Blue Murder is pretty action packed by the standards of this country casual series, with Sheriff Rhodes getting attacked and/or shot at by four different people during the course of his murder investigation, not to mention nearly blown up in a fireworks stand explosion.  This is not as amusing a book as A Romantic Way to Die, with its send-up of the romance novels industry, but it has a good mystery involving local political corruption--another great American tradition--and the writing is as pleasingly droll as one expects from a Crider (see the second quotation at the top of this piece, with its classic Crider qualifying "afterthought" sentence.)

If you like rural local color in an American mystery, the Crider Sheriff Rhodes books are a must.  To me they are cozies--in fact I'm rather reminded, with the usual stuff involving Rhodes' pet dogs Yancey and Speedo, of MC Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series, though Crider's mysteries are much better plotted, to be frank--but cozy mystery is another great American tradition (a happier one this time ); and I hope to review some more modern American cozies this month.  Meanwhile I'm looking forward to a modest cold front coming through here where I live, where the last few days it's been, well, around 95 degrees. 

That's hot enough for me!

Kosse, Limestone County, Texas