Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Heirs of Edgar Wallace, Part 1: Robert George Curtis

After Edgar Wallace's untimely demise in 1932 at the age of 56, mystery thriller authors launched a sort of literary succession struggle, each of them claiming to be the one true heir of the Crime King-- including, as readers of this blog know, notorious truth-fudger Nigel Morland (about whom I will have yet more to say here.) 

With apologies to the self-aggrandizing Nigel, surely the first person to start with in this respect is Robert George Curtis, Wallace's longtime secretary.  Curtis typed Wallace's crime thrillers for most of the period between 1913 and Wallace's sudden death two decades later, which took place when he and Curtis and Robert Downs, Wallace's valet, were out in Hollywood, where Wallace, a lavish spender always in need of money despite his huge books sales, had contracted with RKO Studios at $2000 a week (nearly $40,000 today) to work on a variety of film treatments, most famously King Kong.  With a few exceptions, perhaps most notably The Four Just Men (1905) and Sanders of the River (1911), Curtis typed most of Wallace's novels and short story collections, transcribing them from the words Wallace dictated onto recording cylinders at his famously breakneck speed.

Robert Curtis met Edgar Wallace in 1913, when the twenty-four-year-old Curtis, was working, fatefully, for the Dictaphone Company.  In the beginning Curtis didn't know that the work he was typing was Wallace's: "All I knew of the mysterious author," he recalled in his 1933 book Edgar Wallace--Each Way, "was that his voice had a curious husky quality, that his mispronunciation of certain words made me shudder, and that he was always in a desperate hurry for the typescript.

Eventually, Curtis made a point of personally delivering the next lot of manuscript to the unknown author, and thereupon discovered the man was none other than Edgar Wallace.  (All the Edgar Wallace books at the man's house helped tip him off.) Wallace soon hired Curtis as his personal typist, and Curtis found himself working on assignments like typing a 75,000 word serial over a single weekend, as cylinders on which Wallace had recorded his words kept arriving one after another at his lodgings in Hammersmith. (Curtis later started his own typewriting agency in the West End, while still working for Wallace.) 

The Great Man and His Secretary
Robert Curtis (left) and Edgar Wallace (right)
This is one of the three published photos
from their less than three month sojourn
in Hollywood, from late November 1931
to Wallace's death on February 10, 1932.
In April 1915, Curtis joined the British armed forces, then in their second year of conflict with the Kaiser.  Wallace was first peeved at the loss of his secretary, then after a week magnanimous.  Curtis was in Egypt until 1916, when he was invalided home, and for the rest of the war he worked as personal secretary for Field-Marshal Lord French, Commander-in-Chief of the First British Expeditionary Force during the first year-and-a-half of the Great War, typing French's notorious book 1914, a war memoir denounced in one bitter postwar review as "one of the most unfortunate books ever written."

Curtis was happy to get back to typing crime yarns for Edgar Wallace, who in Curtis' absence had engaged a new secretary, a pretty young woman named Ethel Violet King, with whom Wallace commenced a relationship that helped lead to his divorce from his wife, Ivy, in 1918. 

Edgar Wallace and Violet King married three years later.  Wives might come and go, but Robert Curtis was imperishable.

"[H]e was certainly never at a loss for a plot," Curtis loyally recalled of his bestselling employer, "indeed, he crowded into some of his more thrilling novels enough material for half-a-dozen full-length books.

Curtis further explained how the Wallace writing process worked in his book Edgar Wallace--Each Way.  I thought this account quite interesting.  People often talk as if Edgar Wallace exclusively used a Dictaphone, but in fact he did some of the writing in longhand:

He invariably wrote the first few thousand words of a story in manuscript.  Almost as invariably he made two or three such starts, until he found the right one.  He devoted more attention to the opening chapters a serial than to the remainder of the book.

"Get the start right, and the story's half written," he was fond if saying.

Once the story was under way, a look of relief came into his face and he dropped his pen.

"Now we can turn to the Dictaphone," he said, and swung half left in his red leather swivel armchair to where the machine stood on a low pedestal.

From that moment everything was plain sailing with a good following wind, and one was then quite safe in promising delivery of the completed manuscript in a  few days.  It was often difficult to get Edgar to make start, sometimes even more difficult to persuade him to sustain the effort  up to the entrance of the Dictaphone; but once at that point the story "went with a bang."  Hour after hour he would sit in a flowered dressing gown, smoking innumerable cigarettes, drinking large cups of tea about twice an hour, dictating his story evenly, smoothly and almost without hesitation.

He did not make a good record; his voice had a curious, husky quality which did not add to its distinctness; he would slur his words and drop the pitch at the end of a sentence in such a way as made transcription of his cylinders impossible to the average typist.  In fact, it is safe to say that only two people in the world could transcribe Edgar's dictation accurately, the other being Mrs. Wallace, whose attainments as a typist were of a very high order.

I have taught scores of people typewriting and Dictaphone transcription, and have had them devote hours to Wallace's dictation, and have never found one who could produce anything like an intelligent manuscript.

Another circumstance that in the early years caused me a little difficulty was his mispronunciation of words.  Wallace knew to a grain the exact shade of meaning conveyed by every word he used, but some of his solecisms of pronunciation had to be heard to be believed.  Usually I manged to deduce the correct word from the context but once he beat me, and I reluctantly had to leave a gap.  When I subsequently saw him I asked him what the word was.  He seemed gratified that there was something I hadn't been able to hear, and smiled complacently.

"Ah, that got you, didn't it?  I don't suppose you know the word, Bob," he said loftily.  "Nayveet."

I was chagrined.

"I'm afraid I don't," I said.  How do you spell it and what does it mean?"

"It's spelled n-a-i-v-e-t-e," said Edgar.  "There's an accent on it somewhere, but I'm not sure where."

"Oh, naivete!" said I, sternly suppressing a dawning smile.

"Is that how
you pronounce it?" asked Edgar.  "I always call it nayveet."

He may have persisted in calling it nayveet, but I do not remember that he ever again used the word.

Here Wallace would pass away on February 10, 1032, Curtis and Downs, as well as
the actor Walter Huston, a recent Hollywood friend, at this side

Wallace was considered such a prolific writer that it is was often asserted he employed ghost writers, beginning, naturally enough, with Curtis himself.  Curtis explains:

[I]n spite of his repeatedly published denials that he was guilty of the practice, applications were regularly received from journalists of all grades, as well as from people who could not even write English, for positions as "ghosts" in what one bright gentleman described as Edgar's "literary factory."

The belief has gained currency circles in certain  that I had something more to do with the writing of his books than was connoted by secretarial duties.  It was a rumor very flattering to my ability if not to my intelligence; for if one could write stories to well enough to pass them as by Edgar Wallace, why continue as a humble secretary?"


Why indeed?  After Edgar Wallace's death, however, Robert Curtis tried his hand at writing Edgar Wallace thrillers.  However, unlike his rivals, Curtis could claim that most of his books had some actual connection to the Great Man (assuming Nigel Morland's claims cannot be taken seriously).  The last crime novel actually written by Edgar Wallace was The Frightened Lady, which was published posthumously in 1933, after serialization in late 1932.  After that the great Wallace well seemingly had run dry.  However, publishers, reluctant to let go of a good thing, will find a way, whether it's Agatha Christie today or Edgar Wallace eighty-five years ago.

Edgar Wallace and his humble secretary worked on the play The Green Pack
and the novel The Frightened Lady (based on a play) while in Hollywood

Between 1933 and 1936 Robert Curtis published six novels which carried Wallace's name as well as his own.  There are:

The Green Pack (1933)
The Man Who Changed His Name (1934)
The Mouthpiece (1935)
Smoky Cell (1935)
The Table (1936)
Sanctuary Island (1936)


The first four of these books were Curtis's novelizations of Edgar Wallace crime plays.  The first of these four, The Green Pack, was actually the last of Wallace's plays, premiering in London in 1932 as Wallace lay dying in Hollywood.  It was a hit, but the other three novels had not been successful plays (dating from 1928, 1930 and 1930 respectively).  The term "scraping the bottom of the barrel" comes to mind.  The last two books claimed a remoter connection to Wallace in that they supposedly had their origins in film treatments Wallace had written in Hollywood.  (I'll be looking at the last of these soon.)

Curtis also wrote two crime novels that were completely of his own: The Children of Light (1935) and Invitation to Murder (1936). By those years, he was starting to achieve something of the pace of Edgar Wallace, publishing three books a year, but he himself passed away on August 29, 1936, at the age of 47.  He had followed his master to the grave in less than five years.  One of Edgar Wallace's "heirs" thus already was out of the running, with only eight books to show for his name (and on six of them he shared name space with Edgar).

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Many Fancies of Mr. Morland: More on the Famous (and often Infamous) People Nigel Morland Knew (or Not)

illustration from The Armchair Detective
In 1978, seventy-three-year-old crime writer Nigel Morland sat down for an interview with freelance writer Pearl Gold Aldrich and left her, as seems to have been his wont, beguiled.  Like a kind of modern Scheherazade, Nigel wove a tale of the seemingly 1001 famous people he had known. 

Aldrich's awed impressions of this charming man with a knack for meeting famous--or more often infamous--people she collected in an article, "Nigel Morland--Fifty Years of Crime Writing," that was published in 1980 in Allen J. Hubin's and Otto Penzler's The Armchair Detective [TAD], a primary source of information about classic crime writing in the days before blogs.  (Remember those days?)

Part of what impressed Pearl Aldrich about Nigel was his manifold stories of amazing people he had met over the previous seven decades.  Nigel, it seems, was a man

whose nurse had her medicine mixed up by Dr. Crippen; who found himself lined up at a bar one afternoon with the great detective, Fabian of Scotland Yard; John George Haigh, who became the "acid bath murderer"; Neville Heath, who became a sadistic murderer, ripping his victims to death, and his first victim, Margery Gardiner, whom Heath had only just met; who lived next door to Heath's second victim; whose American aunt introduced him to Madeleine Smith and Lizzie Borden's sister; and who grew up practically at Edgar Wallace's knee....

Nigel said we were at a bar together?
He must have been on acid
!
John George Haigh speaks out
about Nigel's claims
This is an impressive roster indeed, and it's only the first paragraph of the article!  But, wait, there's more.  As readers of this blog will know, Nigel went to Shanghai in very late 1922, when he was seventeen.  (This is documented.)  There he apparently worked as a "cub reporter" for several years.  This gets embellished in the TAD article, where Aldrich states that Morland "set off for China alone at 14 to become a newspaper reporter."  That alone would have set off alarm bells for this reporter, but Aldrich swallowed this pearl of invention whole.  But it gets better yet.  Quoting Morland in the article:

"Then in 1919 Mother had to go to China on a visit and, when she was out there, I suddenly decided I would like to go there too.  So I wrote, Mother agreed, but I missed the boat and went on the next one.  In the meantime, she started for England, and we met in the Red Sea. 

We had established contact by wireless, and the captains brought the ships as close as they dared.  I saw her from the deck of the ship as we passed, and we managed to wave to each other in the Red Sea as we went through."


Honestly, I was expecting Nigel to divulge that Moses popped up and parted the Red Sea so that mother and son could get out of the boats and have a nice chat together, perhaps a nice cuppa too, but maybe Nigel saved that revelation for later, along with that time when he helped Moses out on that mountain when he got stuck after the ninth commandment.

Let a hundred of Nigel's tales bloom
but I swear I never met the man!

Mao Zedong in 1927
a few years after Nigel said he
saved his life, referring to him as a
"little, round-faced, chubby Chinese."
In China, where Nigel says he was for the years 1923-25, he accompanied, wouldn't you know it,
a sergeant from the Shanghai Municipal Police Force on his investigation of a hotel crime scene.  He--well, let's let Nigel tell it:

"The officer was a big, tough, red-headed, very rough looking man, what I call a knock-about-third-degree-type of policeman.  As we went into this hotel, there were a few people in the lobby, including a little, round-faced, chubby Chinese with some friends.  He bowed and smiled.  The policeman went ahead, and as he did so, the little Chinese stepped in his way.  The sergeant pushed him violently aside.  Unlike most Chinese, the little fellow came back and started arguing, and the sergeant, whose face was growing red, and I could see was beginning to burn up with temper, opened the holster of his revolver and started pulling it out. 

I was scared stiff because I thought he was going to shoot the little Chinese, and I sort of pulled his arm and said, 'Look, let's get upstairs.  I don't want to get involved in anything.'  He cursed and swore at the Chinese, but we went up stairs. 


I later learned who he was.  His name was Mao Tse Tung.  I saw him several times afterward, and he always bowed and smiled at me.  I've frequently wondered what would have been to story of China if that sergeant had shot him.

Wow, what were the odds?  So to Nigel Morland we owe the Cultural Revolution, amazing.  Thanks, Nigel!


Nigel's a radge!  We never had tea together!
He wouldna have been saying
sich blether afterward if he had, ya ken?

A vehement Madeleine Smith
angrily lapsing into dialect when
asked about her knowing Nigel
Nigel also told Aldrich that he helped with rescue work in Japan following the 1923 earthquake. Indeed, he was so busy helping out he forgot to file a story with his paper. But in 1925 the newspaper stories which were filed by Nigel, who termed himself a "young, brash idealist" warning the world about the "yellow peril, the Japanese"--got him placed at #3 on the "Japanese death list." (Who were #1 and #2, I wonder?)  So he had to take a slow boat to back to Britain. 

"[A] few years later the Japanese invaded China and took over Shanghai," Nigel reflected.  "I could have been shot, if not worse, for my virulent anti-Japanese writing."  Not bad for a twenty-year-old cub reporter!

Nigel's friend Arthur Conan Doyle goes unmentioned, amazingly, in this article, as does Nigel's claim, made elsewhere on several occasions, that during a trip home in 1923 he interviewed one of the investigators of the Jack the Ripper murders, who implicitly implicated Queen Victoria's grandson Prince Eddy.  (See my last blog post.) 

However, there is quite a fair bit about Edgar Wallace, Nigel's alleged mentor.  Here it's claimed by Nigel that he first met Edgar Wallace in 1915 at the age of ten, in company with his mother Gertrude, who instantly "became the closest friend of the [Wallace] family until Edgar died."  But naturally!

Nigel adds:

"[Mother] became a kind of general factotum, helpmeet, housemother, and everything, remaining so even after Ivy and Edgar divorced and Edgar remarried.  She was great friends with Ivy after the divorce, too, because she was a kind of middle ground to which they all turned.  When the second Mrs. Wallace died, she made mother executor of the estate.  That's how close they were."

I'm trying to assess the truth of all this and I did find that in 1933 Edward Ashley Lomax, retired rancher, along with Sydney Edmonds Linnit, theatrical producer, were co-executors of of the estate of Ethel Violet Wallace, who survived her husband Edgar by barely more than a year.  Six years earlier, Lomax had married Nigel's mother.  So there is some connection of a sort, though it appears to be more to Nigel's mother's second husband. 

It is impossible not to disbelieve Nigel Morland.
Edgar Wallace speaks out
Violet, incidentally, left an estate valued at a nearly a half million pounds in today's worth.  The first Mrs. Wallace, Ivy, had persuaded her husband to divorce her in 1919 so that she could marry a Belgian refugee named Leon, whom after the divorce she found was already married.  (Ivy was cited as the offending party, though in fact Edgar was having it off with both his secretary, the soon-to-be second Mrs. Wallace, and a mistress named Daisy.)  Ivy, writes Wallace biographer Neil Clark, was left high and dry by Leon and "was to to go rapidly downhill."  She died in 1926, leaving an estate worth just 23,000 pounds in modern value.  Where "housemother" Gertrude, Nigel's mother, exactly fit into all this I don't know.

Nigel says he returned to England from China in 1925 (I had thought he went to the US, but I guess not) and what did he do first?  Visit Edgar Wallace, naturally!  To quote Nigel again:

"When I got back to England, I dumped all this stuff, all this fiction, on Edgar Wallace's lap, as it were, and he looked through some of the stories and said, 'Nigel, this is dreadful.  You're writing yourself out before you've even started.'  he said, 'I'm going to impose a penance on you.  You just don't write any more for a year or two and, in that time, you read and think, read and think, but you write not a single word.  Give yourself a chance to mature, to catch your breath, and to learn something about style.  You are a born crime writer, but what you've got to do in the time you've got this kind of sabbatical is think about the detective.

Now, let's think about the detective.  What shall we have?  I've just been reading a book about a Cromwellian soldier named Pym, John Pym.  I like that name.  Think about that.  We'll call him Pym.  No, we wont!  We wont!  We've got a better idea.'  Incidentally, Edgar was always fond of using the royal 'we.'  He said what we'll do is to change the sex to a woman. 'Let's think of a woman detective, a tough, hard-boiled woman, not a private detective, but a real detective of Scotland Yard.  Take that away and brood over it, and that figure will mature in your mind.  When you come to write that book, you'll find it will come out like nobody's business.'

And a few years later, that's just what I did.  I wrote the book and sent it to Desmond Flower of Cassell, the publishers. Flower was on the phone in twenty-four hours, saying he'd buy it."

Nigel's claims are simply outrageous! 
My sister is so angry about this
she said she would take a hatchet to him!
A scandalized Emma Borden
responds to Nigel's incredible assertions
This is the most detailed version of Nigel's claim that Edgar Wallace inspired Mrs. Pym.  Indeed, he's essentially claiming that Edgar created Mrs. Pym.  One queer part of this claim is that the conversation (which Nigel remembered amazingly well) allegedly took place in 1925, but the first Mrs. Pym book, The Moon Murders, wasn't published until 1935, a decade later.  That's a long sabbatical.  Interestingly, it wasn't until after the deaths of both Edgar Wallace and Edgar's first and second wives (the latter of whom made Nigel's stepfather co-executor of her estate) that Mrs. Pym appeared in print, along with all these stories of Nigel's close connections to the Wallace family.

There are other interesting assertions in the article, like the one that Nigel wrote "over 300 novels" ("bestsellers") and "almost as many factual books."  I can't come up with anywhere near that many books by Nigel, but perhaps he wanted badly to be able to say he had outdone his master, Edgar Wallace, in some respect, even if it was merely a case of quantity over quality.

Note: The late Pearl Gold Aldrich (1922-2007) served in the US Marine Corps during World War Two and was an officer in the WACS from 1949 to 1955.  She later became a member of the English faculty at Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD.  She was a member of MENSA and Sisters in Crime and she published in both The Armchair Detective and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Aside from Nigel Morland, however, I don't know what mystery writers she might have met.  Or murderers.

Stretching it a bit?
Nigel Morland claimed to have a connection not merely to depraved psychotic murderer
Neville Heath, but to both of Heath's murder victims as well

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Many Mysteries of Mr. Morland: Was He Really Edgar Wallace's Secretary, Did He Really Know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Did He Really Sit on Dr. Crippen's Knee--and What about that Business Concerning Jack the Ripper?

Introduction
I'm already doing cleanup on my last, extremely long blog post, which is all about vintage crime writer Nigel Morland (1905-1986).  For example, The Phantom Gunman was not actually the first Morland Mrs. Pym mystery as many sources state, but rather The Moon Murders (as John Norris states in his review).  That's my mistake, made because I have neither of those (very rare) books; but another possible error in my last post, indeed I think a probable one, would be due to a major misrepresentations made by Morland himself, along with his publishers. 

Was Nigel Morland really Edgar Wallace's private secretary at some point, as was claimed?  Even as I typed this assertion I tended to doubt it.  When would this have happened?  But authors--and publishers--don't ever lie, do they?  Perish the thought!  Yet...

I.
As explained last time, Nigel Morland was born Carl van Biene in London on June 24, 1905, putting him at the younger age range of GA crime writers, along with, for example, Margery Allingham (1904-1966) and John Dickson Carr (1906-1977).  He grew up at a nice address in Tooting, northern London with his presumably Protestant mother, Gertrude Ada Brown, evidently the daughter of a civil servant.  His Jewish father, a musician named Benjamin (formerly Benoit) van Biene, a son of famed cellist and actor Auguste (formerly Ezechiel) van Biene, seems to have left his wife and child not long after Carl was born.  By 1911 he was living apart from his family and declaring himself single, while Gertrude was maintaining that she was still married.

After the Great War Benjamin had his name officially changed to Barton van Biene (new name, new life) and in 1922 he married, presumably legally, another woman, Edith Myra Wesley, also a daughter of a civil servant.  Maybe in the UK the thing was civil servants' daughters rather than farmers' daughters?  This marriage stuck, however.  Barton, as he called himself now, died in 1939 at the age of 58 in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill, leaving in modern worth the modest sum of about 8300 pounds (about 10,300 dollars) to his widow Edith.

teller of tales (in more way than one?)
Nigel Morland (1950s?)
What were Carl aka Nigel and his mother Gertrude doing in these years?  Well, according to Nigel (I'll stick to this name now), Gertrude became associated sometime around the start of the Great War with famed crime thriller writer Edgar Wallace, in the Twenties the bestselling author in the UK.  (It is said that in 1928 one out of four books sold there was by Wallace.)

Wallace lived with his wife and children at a flat in swanky Clarence Gate Gardens, next to Regent's Park in Marlyebone, about six miles due south of the Van Benoits, mother and son, resided.  Frequently, according to Nigel, his mother was there, often with Nigel in tow.  Nigel later wrote of this experience in a 1981 article, "A Day with Edgar Wallace," which is referenced in Neil Clark's recent biography of the Thriller King.

According to Nigel, Gertrude had been employed by Wallace during the latter years of the Great War as a "presiding Mother-Friend-Counsellor-Manager--PRO or what have you." (This is rather amorphous--What have you, indeed!) 

Young Nigel, who would have been about ten to fourteen years old at the time, thereby spent a great deal of his time at the flat at Clarence Gate Gardens in the company of the Great Man, whom he idolized.  (He even had his own key to the flat.)  According to Nigel, Wallace called him "Niggie"--I hope the first "i" was long--and once Wallace  even bought "Niggie" an expensive scooter at Harrods when the poor lad was convalescing from an illness.

Edgar Wallace (1875-1932)
"He was like a human dynamo to be with--
you just could not get enough of his company."
--Nigel Morland (1905-1986)
But where, pray, does Nigel being Edgar Wallace's secretary come in exactly?  Presumably Wallace did not hire adolescent boy secretaries. To be sure, his longtime secretary, Robert George Curtis (1889-1936), who typed all of Wallace dictated novels, had joined the armed forces in 1915, when Nigel was ten.  However, Curtis' replacement was eighteen-year-old Violet Ethel King (1896-1933), a brunette bobbed daughter of a Battersea solicitor and newly minted secretarial college graduate.  She remained in the position until Curtis returned from the war in 1919.  (Two years later, incidentally, the not so shrinking Violet became the second wife of Wallace, who was over two decades her elder.) 

Curtis stayed with Wallace for the rest of the author's life, and was with him at his death in 1932 in Hollywood, where he had been working on the script of the film King Kong.  Neil Clark does mention that Wallace hired a supplementary correspondence secretary, twenty-three-year-old Jenia Reisser, an attractive Russian  emigre, but nowhere does he mention Nigel Morland performing in any such a capacity. Aside from the redoubtable Curtis, Wallace seems to have been drawn to pretty and pert young women as secretaries.

posh Clarence Gate Gardens
where Edgar Wallace lived with
his menage at the time during
the Great War when Nigel Morland
claimed he regularly visited him
All I really know about Morland's whereabouts in the Twenties is that on December 9, 1922, when he was only 17, he indeed did embark for China, as he claimed, aboard S. S. Teiresias, listing his occupation as "printer" and his home address as the not exactly posh 19 Crouch Hill, Stroud Green, London (today the home of Max's Sandwich Shop, which, incidentally, has produced this book). 

Nigel spent 1923 in Shanghai, where he is said to have worked as a journalist of some sort for the Shanghai Mercury and where he published his first fiction, including a short story, "The Thousandth Man," in Shanghai Stories, the first short fiction anthology published by the Shanghai Short Story Club, which met every month in the city.  Nigel surely must have been about the Club's youngest member.

Nigel seems to have spent some considerable time in the United States too, on the West Coast.  (Certainly Nigel's books evince familiarity with the good old U. S. of A.)  By 1930, however, he was back in the mother country, where he had made the acquaintance of the artistically inclined Peggy Barwell, a daughter of a wealthy furniture store executive.  For a couple of years the two together published several books (non-criminous) before marrying in 1932, the same year Edgar Wallace died. 

So when it was that Nigel might have been employed as Wallace's secretary, I just don't know.  Perhaps Nigel used to fetch cups of sweet tea for the Great Man, a notoriously copious imbiber, back during the Great War?  But it's rather a long distance to go from Edgar Wallace's private secretary to Edgar Wallace's chai wallah.

19 Crouch Hill, Stroud Green (today home of Max's Sandwich Shop)

As mentioned I don't have a copy of The Moon Murders, the first of Nigel Morland's Mrs. Pym mysteries, which when it was published in 1935, when Nigel was 29, made his name in the crime fiction genre, however equivocally.  On the jacket, I see from internet images, it says nothing about Edgar Wallace, though the symbol on the jacket, which Morland used for the rest of his life as a mystery writer, bears a marked resemblance to Wallace's famous crimson circle.  However, John Norris in his review of the novel notes that Morland dedicated the book to the memory of Wallace and credited Wallace with inspiring the character of Mrs. Pym.

That notwithstanding, the real push for Nigel Morland as the western world's "new Edgar Wallace" seems to have come with the first publication of a Mrs. Pym novel in the United States, The Clue of the Bricklayer's Aunt (review coming soon), in 1937.  (It was the fourth Mrs. Pym crime novel, published in the UK the previous year, immediately after The Street of the Leopard.) To an English crime writer, snagging American book sales was a very big deal indeed.

Aunt
's American publisher, Farrar & Rinehart, did not hold back on the ballyhoo, no indeed:

Introducing a Mystery Writer whom Edgar Wallace nominated as his Literary Successor....

Edgar Wallace, before he died, trained a young man to follow in his footsteps, and furthermore he created and gave to the young man the germ of a character, "Mrs. Pym of the C. I. D."


Weeellll, this is getting pretty florid and fancy, I must admit.  Yet it should be noted that, however exaggerated this may be, Nigel's mother Gertrude had at least one definite verifiable connection to Edgar Wallace.  In 1927 she married Edward Ashley Lomax, a 42-year-old "gentleman of independent means"--yes, he's actually described that way--who owned the mansion of Grouville Court on the Isle of Jersey.  Lomax--or perhaps his wife?--claimed the copyright to the 1928 Edgar Wallace crime thriller play The Man Who Changed His Name. (With such a title this play could have been about Nigel Morland and himself and his forbears.)  Lomax died in 1946, incidentally, leaving Gertrude with an inheritance valued in modern worth at about 1.5 million pounds (1.8 million dollars).  So she had come up in the world quite a great deal since her marriage to Benoit/Benjamin/Barton van Biene.

This Robert Curtis thriller was based on
an Edgar Wallace play that opened when
Wallace lay on his deathbed in Hollywood
The play, which was not one of Wallace's more successful ones, was later adapted as a novel by Robert Curtis, who in the brief time between Edgar Wallace's death and his own untimely demise strove to grab Wallace's crown by publishing thrillers based on the Great Man's plays and film scenarios, the last shreds of fiction with actual links to Wallace's own imagination.

I think it's interesting that the more grandiose claims about Nigel's relationship with Wallace only were advanced, apparently, after the death of (1) Wallace's second wife (his first wife had already predeceased him) and (2) his actual private secretary, Robert Curtis. 

Indeed, if you want to get bookish, the most untimely deaths of Mrs. Wallace (age 37) and the private secretary (age 47), following so rapidly on the heels of the Master (age 56) would make a great plot for a Golden Age murder mystery.  It's like something out of Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye.  Whodunit?  I'm looking at you, Nigel!  (Okay, just kidding.)

There were three older Wallace children from his first marriage, who were roughly Nigel's own age, but the primary heir of the Wallace estate--which when Wallace died consisted mostly of debts incurred from his lavish spending, though this was soon turned around from book sales--was Wallace's beloved daughter from his second marriage, Penelope, who was only eight years old when her father died. So Nigel may have believed that he was free to aggrandize himself vis-a-vis Wallace pretty much unchecked.  Would Nigel have done such a thing?  The short answer seems to be is heck, yeah, he would.

S. S. Teiresias

II.
Decades after Wallace's death, in the mid-Sixties, Nigel had taken over the editorship of Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine and was promising that he had an Edgar Wallace biography in the works.  (The latter was never published.)  But his takeover of the editorship of EQMM was not effected without leaving bitter feelings in its wake on the part of the previous editor.

EWMM was started in 1964 by twenty-one-year-old Keith Chapman, former editorial assistant of the Sexton Blake Library.  For a nominal fee the Edgar Wallace family allowed him the use of the Great Man's name for a crime fiction magazine, and soon EWMM was off and running. 

But it didn't get very far.  In a few months the company that owned the magazine found itself in a difficult financial position and the Wallace family stepped in, in the event sacking Chapman, who was left quite irate about the whole thing.  Forty-four years later, he complained about the affair at the website Mystery*File, laying emphasis on what he deemed Nigel Morland's mendacious conduct:

the young Keith Chapman with Edgar's children
Brian Edgar Wallace and half sister Penelope
see James Reasoner's Rough Edges
I have letters on file from Nigel Morland ostensibly offering me support, telling me how "impressed" he was [with EWMM], how it was "first class" and "excellent."  But many [of these letters] were written when he must at least have had an eye on taking over my role.

"Dear Keith, I had the new issue, and really do think you are doing it well.  You've set a standard, and that is a high one.  So far you seem to better it a little with each issue, which, after all, is the heart of all really good editing. 

Congratulations.  Every good wish, Yours, Nigel."


Two months later after Morland wrote this letter, Chapman was fired and replaced by Nigel, whom, Chapman recalled, "I was told by Penelope Wallace and her husband...was older and more experienced than me, and therefore would make a better job of the magazine."

Chapman claimed that many crime writers and contributors to EWMM supported him during this tough time, including T.C.H. Jacobs, another Thirties pretender to Wallace's throne who had been a prime mover, like Morland, in the formation of the Crime Writers Association.  Jacobs wrote Chapman the following commiserating message:

Their choice of an editor astonishes me.  I have known Morland for many years and am unaware he has ever had any editorial experience.  But I do know that he has always claimed some connections with the Wallace family.  Maybe it is true.  I don't know.  He is certainly older than you, sixty.

Chapman was at the helm of his brainchild EWMM for merely four months.  Nigel Morland only made it for two and a half additional years before the magazine failed in 1967.  Chapman seems to have seen it as poetic justice.

"...he has always claimed some connections with the Wallace family.  Maybe it is true.  I don't know." 

And there you have it, in the form of T.C.H. Jacob's words, in a nutshell.  Jacobs had known Nigel for years as a colleague and presumable a friend of sorts, but he didn't know whether what Nigel said, over and over and over again. about his connection to Edgar Wallace could be believed.  Not much of an endorsement of Nigel's veracity.

III.
Other people  have expressed similar doubts about Nigel's truthfulness.  In the large community of devotees of the Jack the Ripper murders, known as Ripperologists, Nigel's name, it doesn't seem an exaggeration to say, is mud.  Why is this?  Because in the community he is generally seen as, well, a liar or, shall we say more politely, a fabulist or fantasist.

young rip(per): Prince Eddy
see Gods and Foolish Grandeur
for some terrific photos
In Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates (2006), Stewart P. Evans and Donald Rumbelow write that Nigel, a "self-proclaimed criminologist," was one of the Ripper writers who had a habit of "inventing tales that posed as factual events."  In 1978 Nigel wrote the introduction to Frank Spiering's 1978 book Prince Jack: The True Story of Jack the Ripper, in which the author strenuously advances the theory that Queen Victoria's grandson Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (aka Prince Eddy) was guilty of the Ripper murders.  In it Nigel claimed that as a youngster he had become interested in the Ripper story when no less a personage than Arthur Conan Doyle (But naturally!) told young Nigel that the identity of the Ripper belonged "somewhere in the upper stratum." As Nigel put it decades later:

I was interested in the Ripper in a purely academic way when I was a youngster, intrigued by a mention to me by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle remarked to me that the Ripper was "somewhere in the upper stratum," but he would never enlarge upon that statement.

Had Sir Arthur just happened to come to over to have tea at the Edgar Wallaces at Clarence Gate Gardens when young "Niggie," that scamp, was there, or what?  I don't know that Wallace and Doyle ever even actually met.  (If anyone does, please let me know.)  On an internet message board Stewart P. Evans has commented humorously that the late criminologist Richard Whittington-Egan "knew Morland and said that if you mentioned Dr. Crippen to [him], Morland would then tell you how he sat on Crippen's knee as a child.

And, sure enough, Morland did tell people he had sat on Crippen's knee as a child.  His nanny just happened to have take him on a visit to the Crippens, you see....Interestingly, one of the book Nigel published with Peggy Barwell was tellingly titled, People We Have Never Met: A Book of Superficial Cameos (1931).

"Morland had met just about anyone who was anybody in his day," observe Evans and his co-author Donald Rumbelow sarcastically in their book, before they dig into Nigel's claim of having in the Twenties interviewed Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline, one of the lead investigators of the Ripper case (this around the time he was running round with Wallace and Doyle).  Evans and Rumbelow view dubiously indeed Nigel's account of interviewing the elderly retired policeman in the early 1920s, when he was "home on leave from his job as a crime reporter on a newspaper in Shanghai."  (Remember, Nigel was eighteen at the time.)  "According to Morland," write the authors:

Abberline said, "I cannot reveal anything except this--of course we knew who he was, one of the highest in the land."  This alleged statement flies in the face of everything that Abberline had been reported to have reliably said about the case in the past.  And why?  The answer must be obvious.  Morland had made the whole thing up, but the damage was done.  This alleged statement by Abberline is now often quoted.

Another of Morland's besties?
J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972)
I think it's clear that when it comes to Nigel's divulgences many grains of salt must be taken.  He also said he was on terms of friendship with American FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and he self-servingly dedicated the American edition of one of his Mrs. Pym books to the top G-Man.  Perhaps had Nigel lived a little longer, until the claim that Hoover was a cross-dresser surfaced in 1993, he might have confirmed to his public that while living in the US in the 1920s he once had helped fit Hoover into a dress.

Nigel Morland was a handsome man and he was said to be quite a charming raconteur.  I can well believe it.  It's clear on meeting the crime writer Anthony Gilbert (aka Lucy Beatrice Malleson) in 1953 that he rather impressed her. (See my previous post.)

Of course the cynical will suspect that the of-a-certain-age "spinster" Gilbert was, shall we say, susceptible, having unrequitedly fallen, according to catty Christianna Brand, for Detection Club colleague John Dickson Carr.  However, there seems to be no question that Nigel had an exceptionally  persuasive personality.

Nigel Morland may well have been a serial fibber, in some ways resembling, in a far more limited manner, sociopathic conman and mystery plagiarizer Maurice Balk.  Though unlike Balk, Nigel had some writing ability and his lies, if lies they were, did no harm to anyone personally, unless you count gulling people into buying his books by making the author seem more exciting than he actually was (though admittedly I can see how his treatment of Keith Chapman was hurtful to the latter man).  Yet even if many of Nigel's truths were lies, he is still an intriguing person, in part precisely because of those lies.  In life as in fiction brazen scallywaggery always seems to be more fascinating than bland goodness.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Many Faces of Mr. Morland: The Story of Nigel Morland (1905-1986), aka Nigel van Biene, aka Carl van Biene and Quite a Few Other People Besides

detail from Synagogue of El Transito, Toledo, Spain
founded in the 14th century by Samuel ha-Levi
an ancestor of crime writer Nigel Morland

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!
--The Priestley Blessing (Birkat Kohahim)
(see My Jewish Learning)

The sudden death of crime thriller writer Edgar Wallace from diabetic coma at the age of 56 on February 10, 1932 in Hollywood, where he was working on the script of RKO's "gorilla picture," King Kong, was an epochal event within the world of British crime fiction, comparable in its own admittedly more restricted way to the death of Queen Victoria three decades earlier.  At least in the late Queen's case the line of succession to the throne was clear and secure.  In the case of "shocker king" Edgar Wallace, however, Death sent numerous pretenders scrambling to grab the master's highly lucrative crown, with all the glories it entailed. Call it vintage crime fiction's Game of Bones.

What followed wasn't the War of the Roses but the War of the Rozzers, if you will, as authors attempted to show that they had what it took to become the new King of Shockers, producing book after book about tough, square-jawed Scotland Yard police detectives, sinister criminal masterminds with queer handles and queerer underlings, wild-eyed Bolsheviks, wicked "Chinamen" (and other foreigners and minority group members) and imperiled lovelies whose virtue was as unquestioned as their marked knack for getting kidnapped, bound and gagged and flung to their watery dooms into rapidly flooding cellars.

Nigel Morland in 1975, forty years after
publication of The Moon Murders
the first of 22 Mrs. Pym mysteries
which Morland would publish
One of the most important pretenders to the Wallace throne was Nigel Morland (1905-1986), who though only 26 years old when Edgar Wallace died had been, supposedly, the Great Man's secretary at one time.  Three years after Wallace's demise, Nigel published The Moon Murders (1935), the first of his Mrs. Palmyra Pym thrillers, which he dedicated, but naturally, to the late Edgar Wallace.  The Mrs. Pym series would run well past the end of the Golden Age until 1961, spawning 22 novels and a number of short stories as well. 

Mrs. Pym, Nigel's most famous series character, was nothing if nor outsize: a snarling, scowling, brawling (one is tempted to say ballbusting) lady detective--specifically Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police--who has been dubbed "Mike Hammer in a dress," a description which also had occurred to me. 

Yes, this sounds like a weird and fantastic--indeed unbelievable--character, but Mrs. Pym was popular in her day, at least in the UK.  Not that many of her adventures were published in the US (a reason the books are rare ones today), where Anthony Boucher dismissed Nigel Morland as a "third-rate Edgar Wallace" and another reviewer, aggrieved at having to review yet another Mrs. Pym story, complained:

We have never been given any rational explanation of how Mrs. Pym came to occupy the position she does in Scotland Yard, but there she is and there she will stay so long as Mr. Morland continues to write stories about her....One might gather from this that we do not like Mrs. Pym, and the conclusion would be quite correct.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Nigel Morland's fiction was not published in the US after the onset of World War Two, but in the UK the battered old bird maintained a following of Pym enthusiasts. Today my keen fellow blogger John Norris is a fan.

Like his contemporaries Sydney Horler and Leonard Gribble, Nigel was an extremely prolific author, publishing crime fiction and other works under a myriad of pseudonyms.  There was Norman Forrest (two books), John Donavan (six books), Roger Garnett (eight books) and Neal Shepherd (four books), not to mention a couple of singletons, Vincent McCall and Mary Dane.  Then there were the crime books signed "Nigel Morland" that did not have Mrs. Pym in them--at least 13 of those.

Even the last of the Mrs. Pym mysteries
The Dear Dead Girls (1961) kept
 the Edgar Wallace tradition alive with
Wallace's symbol, the crimson circle
We are up to 57 books and I haven't exhausted his output yet.  There was also true crime as well as books on criminology and scientific detection, but the crime fiction writing seems to have dried up in the Sixties, Nigel later confessing, according to 100 Great Detectives (1991), that detective stories "bored him to tears."  He sure waited to tell people!

During the decade, Nigel's ennui notwithstanding, he for three years in the mid-Sixties edited the Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, which is certainly full of detective stories.  He also frequently publicly stated that he was writing a biography of Edgar Wallace, although this sadly never actually appeared.

Nigel Morland died at the age of 80 in 1986, having lived long enough to have been briefly "in touch with" our own Martin Edwards (and this before email and text messaging). He was, to be sure, one of the last true Golden Age crime writers.

I haven't been bowled over with the Morland mysteries myself, having had the misfortune to start of with the early Mrs. Pym opus, The Street of the Leopard (1936). This dazzling doozy of a crimextravaganza pits sinister Japanese and menacing Africans against each other in the city of London, with the kind of results you might expect from a Thirties British thriller.  However, given John Norris' praise of The Moon Murders (1935), which I had overlooked, I will have to try again. 

the crimson circle (could it be a moon?)
appeared on this early title too
Nigel Morland wrote so many different series (mostly short-lived) that one would think there is bound to be something somewhere to appeal to everyone.  There are even some which more approximate my idea of classic detection.  I hope to be reviewing some of these on the blog soon.

One thing is beyond doubt, however: Nigel had a vastly interesting life experience and family background, which in theory should have made for interesting books.  His real name was Carl van Biene, which ought to be something of a tip-off that there was something "un-English," as they used to say (and I suppose still do), about our dear Mr. Morland.  Indeed, how much more interesting than merely English he was!

Carl van Biene was born in London in 1905, not long after the death of Queen Victoria.  (He would grow up in a postwar era that the Queen would not have recognized.)  His parents were Benoit van Biene, a musician, and the rather unexotically named Gertrude Brown, apparently the daughter of a civil servant. 

18 year-old Gertrude married 24 year-old Benoit, or Benjamin as he came to be known, in early 1905; Carl was born a few months later.  In 1911 he was residing with his mother at an attractive villa at 42 Church Lane, Tooting, South London; whether Benjamin was away temporarily or for good in unclear.  (Gertrude still listed herself as married.)

Nigel Morland's paternal grandfather
famed cellist and noted Lothario
Auguste van Biene (1849-1913)
Benjamin's parents were Jews named Ezechiel Van Biene, known as Auguste, and Rachel Cohen de Solla. The son of a Dutch actor, Auguste van Biene (1849-1913) came to London as a teen and survived as a street musician before finding success as a concert cellist.  His composition "The Broken Melody" became a "pop" standard of Victorian/Edwardian England, with Auguste himself performing it over 6000 times.  If it ain't broke don't fix it!  See the YouTube clip at the bottom.

In London in 1871 Auguste married Rachel Cohen de Solla (1851-1922), who came of a distinguished Jewish family of Dutch (and before that Iberian and Babylonian) extraction   Her father, Jacob Mozes Cohen de Solla (1808-1883), was a well-respected immigrant clock maker who married Sarah Israel de Vieyra (1813-1873) and with her had ten children, seven sons and three daughters.

Son Benjamin followed his father's career path as a clock maker and David became a solidly bourgeois glass importer, but the other sons--Maurice, Henri, Isidore, Abraham and Raphael--all were concert singers and composers of note in their day (The youngest son, Raphael, was a celebrated "boy tenor" who died on tour before thirty and is buried in Philadelphia.)

popular sheet music featuring on cover
Auguste van Biene and lady friend
--not the broken melody but it'll do
So it's no wonder sister Rachel married a musician and composer (and quite a distinguished one too), though the marriage, which produced five children--Joseph (a schoolmaster), Eva, Emanuel, Benoit (Benjamin), Jacob--had its rough passages and finally hit the rocks.  Writes Michael Kilgarrif in his entry on Auguste van Biene in Sing One of the Old Songs: A Guide to Popular Song 1860-1920:

Discovered by Michael da Costa playing cello in the street and given job playing in Covent Garden opera orchestra.  Became musical director at the Gaiety.  Went on Halls with dramatic musical sketches, one of which, The Broken Melody, ended with him dying over his cello as the curtain fell.  On Thursday, 23 January 1913, at the Brighton Hippodrome, with exquisite timing, he actually did die as the curtain fell. 

His great-grandson, the actor Roland MacLeod, to whom I am indebted for this information, also tells me that Auguste "spread his image about a bit" and that a letter from Bransby Williams said: "Whenever I was on the bill with Van Biene he always seemed to have a different Mrs. Van Biene with him."


He's going to break that melody!
see "Victorian Melodrama"
at Fluff on the Needle
Rachel divorced the philandering Auguste, who around 1893 married Clare Lena Burnie (1876-1955), who was 27 years younger than he and had been born in Hong Kong, the daughter of solicitor Alfred Burnie.  (I'm not clear who her mother was.)  With Lena he fathered six more children: Eileen, Karl, Olga, Violet, Marjorie and Derek, the latter of whom, three years younger than his half-nephew Carl van Biene, ended up dying in California in the 1990s.

After Auguste's death in 1913 (though I'm not sure he was living with Lena when he died), Lena moved with part of her brood to the United States, settling at an apartment at 112 Haven Avenue in Manhattan; she died at Freehold, New Jersey at the age of nearly ninety.

Getting back to Auguste's first wife, Rachel de Solla, and his Jewish family, we find that through the de Sollas, the young man who became "Nigel Morland" was descended from the prominent Levi Maduro family of the Dutch colony of Curacao, part of the Lesser Antilles island chain in the Caribbean Sea. 

Pedro the Cruel strikes a pose
in between cruelties
Jacob's paternal grandfather Solomon Aaron Cohen de Solla married Rachel Levi Maduro of Curacao, who came from a wealthy shipping family.  Through the Levi Maduros, Morland descended from Samuel ha-Levi (c.1320-1360), treasurer to Pedro I, "the Cruel," of Castile, who ultimately had Samuel tortured to death to discover where his treasure was.  (Tip: Never work for a monarch whose handle is "the Cruel.") 

Samuel ha-Levi was responsible for the construction of the beautiful El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, which survives today.  Another relative from those days was burned at the stake for secretly practicing Judaism.  I'd say those days were positively, well, feudal, but then things got even worse in the 20th century.

Another of Nigel's lines traces back to the Ibn Yahya family of Portugal, the progenitors of which migrated from Babylonia to the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century. 

Nigel's family lineage is impressive indeed, making him, along with his contemporary thriller writer Jefferson Farjeon, one of the most certifiably "Jewish" of British GA crime writers--not the most ethnically and racially diverse group of people in history, to be sure, though, hey, there was Leslie Charteris, who had a Chinese father.

Nigel's grandmother  Rachel had come from one of those ancient, "pure-blooded" Jewish lines that crime writer Anthony Berkeley's impudent sleuth Roger Sheringham had praised in The Silk Stocking Murders (1928), though his own blood was "hybrid," to use Roger's terminology.  Nigel also was unique among British GA crime writers in having had relatives who were murdered in Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz, the Nazis not valuing as Roger did pure Jewish blood.

detail from Mikve Israel-Emanuel
Willemstad, Curacao
the Americas' oldest synagogue
see  Curacao for 91 Days
Nigel later claimed that his nanny took him at the tender age of two on a visit (professional?) to see Dr. Crippen, who bounced the tiny tot on his knee.  (I hope they stayed out of the cellar.)  Perhaps inspired thereby, Nigel published first work of crime fiction, a work called The Sibilant Whisper, in 1923, when he was only 18. 

By this time young Nigel like so many of his ancestors had gone abroad.  He was living in China, in the great city of Shanghai (he had left school at 14), where he worked as a journalist for the Shanghai Mercury.  In 1924 he published Miscellanea, a book of verse, and Ragged Tales, a short story collection, as well as "The Thousandth Man," a single story in a volume of short fiction by the members of the Shanghai Short Story Club.  Verily, he was prolific from the beginning, even with these modest efforts.

After leaving China, Nigel under pseudonyms (for which he had a great penchant) wrote for American pulp magazines, producing, he later estimated, thirty to fifty thousand words a week.  (Whatever you think of the quality of Morland's crime writing, there's certainly a lot of it.)  He also ghosted show business memoirs for industry names and wrote for Movie Day and the Hearst newspaper chain. 

For a time, as mentioned, Nigel supposedly served as Edgar Wallace's secretary--a most important position, to be sure, as Wallace's secretaries were tasked with typing the Great Man's novels, which the he reeled off at racing speed into a Dictaphone.  This employment, if Nigel in fact held it, changed the course of Morland's life, by focusing it on the writing of crime fiction.  After Wallace died the path to the shocker succession lay wide open, though not uncontested, and Morland rushed into the breach, Mrs. Pym barreling along at his side.

James Shoolbred & Co. display at
the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876

In the early 1930s Nigel, as he was now known, collaborated with Peggy Mabel Barwell, a young woman from a wealthy family four years younger than he, on several volumes of books for children, including The Goofus Man and Mary! The Story of the Magdalene (an interesting project for someone of ancient Jewish lineage); both books were illustrated by Peggy as well. 

Nigel and Peggy wed in 1932, although their marriage seems barely to have survived the Second World War.  Peggy wed another man in 1951. Nigel married three more times, fathering a son by one of these good ladies.  His second wife, Pamela Hunnex, whom he married in 1947, was 20 years younger than he, so he seems to have followed in his paternal grandfather's (and possibly his father's) footsteps in being attracted to younger women.  Which perhaps explains some of his later books.

Before the couple broke up after the war, Peggy worked with Nigel on the screenplay for Mrs. Pym of Scotland Yard, a film version of Nigel Morland's novel The Clue in the Mirror (1938), and the same year she also wrote a play with Miles Malleson, a well-known actor and cousin as I recollect of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Nigel's crime writing contemporary "Anthony Gilbert." 

In the years before they married, Peggy resided at The Red Cottage, Waltham St. Lawrence, Berkshire, while Nigel stayed eight miles away at The Green Cottage, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire.  This sounds like a most convenient and charming arrangement!

Peggy was one of three daughters of Augustus Leycester Barwell (of "The Tower," Ascot), an executive with James Shoolbred & Co., a prominent London furniture store.  Peggy grew up as a young girl at The Tower with six live-in house servants: a children's nurse, under nurse, house maid, cook, parlour maid and kitchen maid.  It was quite a prosperous household.

Years earlier, on the eve of the Great War, Peggy's handsome older brother, Frederick Leycester Barwell, a golden boy graduate of Malvern College, at the age of nineteen was set to enter Pembroke College, Cambridge University when the shooting at Sarajevo took place, with its fatal results for millions, including Frederick, who promptly volunteered for martial service.

Frederick served first with the Queen's Westminster Rifles, seeing much action in the event. He was finally invalided out in September 1916 with a wound in the knee. There were other things wrong with the young man as well, it seems:

In addition he is suffering from exhaustion neurosis brought on by 15 months continuous & arduous active service.  At Gommecourt on July 21st his battalion was wiped out, only 150 men remaining after an attack on the German trenches.  He has been suffering from diarrhea, palpitations, headaches, exhaustion, dyspepsia, & insomnia & is subject at times to attacks of nervousness.

Can't imagine what he had to be nervous about!

trees twisted like corpses and a chateau reduced to rubble
a scene of he carnage at Gommecourt

In 1917 the resilient Frederick joined the Royal Air Force, but he was shot down and killed, not long after he completed his training, during an aerial reconnaissance on April 29th.  It has long been stated that he was fatally dispatched by German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, but this has been disputed.  I suppose it makes a more glorious death to have been sacrificed to the  cult of the Red Baron.

Not long after the Great War, in which he was too young to have served, Nigel Morland seems to have moved away from the lives of his Jewish forbears, changing his name from what must have been deemed the "foreign sounding" Carl van Biene, first to Nigel van Biene (did Carl sound too German?) and then to the impeccably English sounding Nigel Morland.  Certainly it was not a great time to be known as a Jew in much of the world.  How much easier to slip into the very pleasant, "English" world of the Leycester Barwells.

Public School Hero
Frederick Leycester Barwell
1895-1917
an RAF pilot shot down in
the Great War
When Nigel came to Shanghai in 1923, the magnificent classical revival Ohel Rachel Synagogue had only recently been completed.  Construction had started at the instigation of the fabulously wealthy Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, baronet of Bombay, in honor of his late wife, but he had passed away before it was completed in all it glory.  During the Second World War, when the forces of Imperial Japan occupied Shanghai, the city's thousands of Jews were herded into the Shanghai Ghetto and the grand house of worship was converted into a stables.  In the aftermath of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the synagogue was closed; and by 1956 almost all of the city's Jews had left the city, never to return.  During the Cultural Revolution, the magnificent building was used as a warehouse.  In the last two decades, however some restoration efforts happily have been made to the structure, and today it makes a most imposing sight indeed.

Then American First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the house of worship in the 1990s, when relations between China and the US were thawing. (Remember those days?)  Judaism outlived Communism, as it has so many other of its nemeses.

I don't know how interested Nigel was in his own Jewish heritage, but even if, as he claimed, he didn't take his crime fiction seriously, he does seem so to have taken his criminology researches.  In 1939 he rather grandly listed his occupations as "scientific criminological expert," as well as "author and journalist."  I'm guessing he probably would have been pleased to have become a member of the UK's Detection Club, but such was not to be.  Scroll past the photos below for the rest of the story.

Below: four images of Ohel Rachel Synagogue, for which see PhilipGoldbergPhotography. Please take a look at this terrific photography website!

front view (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)

street view (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)

street view (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)
interior (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)

In 1953 Anthony Gilbert, cousin as mentioned above of actor Miles Malleson, who fourteen years earlier had co-written a play with Nigel Morland's ex-wife Peggy--met Nigel, who up till then had been, she asserted, "nothing but a name to me."  Despite this lack of familiarity, Gilbert deemed the handsome Nigel, who was said to have quite a charming raconteur, a plausible candidate for admission to the Detection Club, which after a sad wartime and postwar depletion, stood desperately in need of new, relatively youthful and energetic members.  Nigel, observed the appraising Gilbert, was "young--I should say forty--and very active." Actually Morland was 48, which is a testament either to his youthful looks or to 54-year old Gilbert's deceived eyes.

"nothing but a name to me"
Anthony Gilbert (1899-1973)
met Nigel Morland for the first time in 1953
Gilbert divulged to Club president Dorothy L. Sayers that in her chat with Nigel the younger author had displayed "great interest in the Detection Club" and she speculated that he "would probably jump at the chance of becoming a member."  Sayers, however, seemed unimpressed: "Afraid I know nothing of Nigel Morland."  Moreover, Milward Kennedy, another active Detection Club member and onetime successor to Dorothy L. Sayers as Sunday Times crime fiction reviewer, back in the Thirties had dismissed Nigel's The Clue in the Mirror as "not a detective story but a tale of mystery...the kind of thing which Edgar Wallace did infinitely better."  Harrumph!

Nigel Morland never became a member of the Detection Club, though I don't know whether or on what basis the Detection Club failed to act on him or simply turned him down.  Julian Symons had become a member of the Club two years earlier, causing, Christianna Brand later sardonically recalled, some of the members to have to swallow their habitual antisemitic remarks.  But even had Nigel's being partially Jewish been something that would have been a problem with some of the Club members, it's not clear that anyone knew in the first place that he had any Jewish ancestry.

Nigel Morland in early middle age
around the time he first met Anthony Gilbert
Perhaps the members simply felt, as Milward Kennedy had said, that Nigel's books, the most recent of which were The Moon Was Made for Murder and Sing a Song of Cyanide, simply didn't sufficiently excel--however alliterative the titles may have been--at the fine art of detection--something which the Club ostensibly demanded of its members.  But times were changing and as an alternative to the Detection Club there was always the vastly less persnickety and judgmental Crime Writers Association, which Nigel Morland that very same year himself would play a major role, along with the even more prolific and popular crime writer John Creasey, in founding.

With the more populist and democratic Crime Writers Association lay the future of British crime writing (though Detection Club members Agatha ChristieMargery Allingham and ECR Lorac turned down membership invitations*); and Nigel Morland--the public face of Carl van Biene, grandson of Auguste van Biene--seems emphatically to have been both a survivor and a man of the people.  Often to be the former, it seems, you need to be the latter.

*(Margery Allingham, whose own commitment to "fair play"detection in crime fiction had loosened, later joined the CWA, however.)


Auguste van Biene's "The Broken Melody"
and Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei"
recorded by Auguste van Biene
not long before his death in 1913
when his grandson Carl van Biene
aka Nigel Morland was eight years old