....Transient members had the privilege of obtaining room and bath together with protection of their virtue and respectability at the rate of $2.00 a night--sponsored guests fifty cents extra....
--Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), by Q. Patrick (Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Martha "Patsy" Kelley)
Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935) and Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes (1946) are celebrated early examples of detective novels set at women's educational institutions, where the main players in all the mysterious goings-on are female (Sayers' sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, absent for much of Gaudy Night, partially excepted). An even earlier example of a detective novel which takes place at a women's institutional setting, however, originated across the pond from the United Kingdom in the good old U. S. of A. This is Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), the second novel by Q. Patrick (Rickie Webb and Patsy Kelley), which is set in the American city of Philadelphia (called Desborough in the novel). To me it's a remarkable collaboration between two friends, a man and a woman, working in full artistic synchronization.
|New Century Guild, Philadelphia|
at 1307 Locust Street, near the
Racquet Club of Philadelphia
and about a mile from
Rickie Webb's digs
at 2105 Locust Street
Not known, to be sure, for mayhem in real life, women's clubs had been, when Murder at the Women's City Club was published in 1932, an important part of Philadelphia society for over half a century. The New Century Club traces its origins in the city to the Women's Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition held at Philadelphia in 1876; the actual club was founded the next year. Founders included former abolitionist and current suffragist Eliza Sproat Turner, city journalist Sarah Catherine Fraley Hallowell, and Clara Marshall, physician and later dean of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania.
A few years later Eliza Sproat Turner, assisted by Patsy Kelley's prominent aunt, Florence Kelley, and artist Gabrielle Clements, founded the New Century Guild, which had as its goal succoring working women. In 1906 the guild relocated to a building at 1307 Locust Street, formerly a doctor's elegant Italianate rowhouse.
The new premises, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, included a lending library (the doctor's former library), a second floor auditorium for programs and classes advancing a female viewpoint, a dining hall providing luncheons and, on the third and fourth floor (where family and servants' bedrooms had been located), rooms where members could stay overnight, for up to three nights.
The action in the novel takes place almost exclusively at the club and the suspects in the crimes which take place there are mostly female.
Moreover, while the police sleuth is male--indeed, rather obnoxiously so--the novel's amateur sleuth is a woman. And, like Billie Jean King at her 1973 "Battles of the Sexes" match against opportunistic male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, it is the female sleuth who gets the better of her male rival in Murder at the Women's City Club [MATWCC]. What a delightful and uncharacteristic Golden Age detective novel this is.
For the most part the murderees and suspects in MATWCC, which is precisely set in October 1930, a year after the Wall Street Stock Market Crash, harbinger of the Great Depression, are resident members of the club. Comparatively few in number, these are:
- Miss Deborah Entwhistle, genteel daughter of a judge, who had been obliged by a bad cold "to spend the night at the club some fifteen years previously, and having once settled in...had stayed...." After emerging as one of the police inspector's main suspects in the murders, she decides to investigate matters for herself.
- Mrs. Mabel Mulvaney, overbearing club president
- Dr. Diana Saffron, ex-Dean of the Desborough Women's Medical College and current Professor of Internal Medicine there
- Dr. Freda Carter, Dr. Saffron's "brilliant young satellite," who plans to wed, much to the dismay of the ardently feminist Dr. Saffron
- Miss Constance Hoplinger, aka popular detective novelist Gerald Strong, who sees the murders as material for future books
- Miss Amy Riddle, "ardent social service worker"
- Miss Millicent Trimmer, who receives "her room and board (plus thirty odd dollars a week) in recognition of her services as secretary, treasurer and official receiver of complaints."
More on these ladies soon. But in the meantime, fear not, my good mystery loving bros, there are a few significant male characters in the novel, these being, respectively, a sleuth and two suspects:
- Inspector Manfred Boot of the Desborough Police Force. He's unprepossessing and obnoxious, yet not an utter fool either, though unimaginative, FACTS being his one and only guiding light: "Nature had given him a receding chin and a lack-lustre eye, and he had assisted nature to carry out her intentions by a tendency to let his lower lip sag and his eyelids droop. But this show of indifference masked a burning, though so far unsatisfied, ambition to figure in some bizarre, spectacular murder case....Of course, playful gangsters potted each other in busy streets, and picked off an occasional innocent bystander on the way. But Desborough suffered no more in this respect than many other [American] cities of equal size and importance, and the very monotony and crudeness of gang depredations may serve to account for Inspector Boot's almost habitual boredom and for his still unshaken reliance on the obvious but frequently misleading Fact."
- Sebastian Thurlow, accountant and fiancee of Freda Carter, a "tall, muscular young man of perhaps thirty-two or thirty-three, with blonde hair, blue eyes that were thoughtful rather than solemn, and a capacity for doing the unexpected. Some people suffer trials and embarrassments though the possession of this capacity, but not so Sebastian. In fact, so adequate were his safeguards of poise and assurance, that he generally left those about him with the feeling that everyone except himself must be out of step." Although Sebastian is somewhat physically unlike Rickie Webb, in that when the novel was published Rickie was a short, muscular young man of thirty-one, with dark hair and eyes, the second attribute described--that of a confident and independent-minded attitude--seems rather similar to that of Rickie. More on these two below.
- Rudy, the club's live-in "colored" janitor, supposed husband of the club's live-in "colored" maid, Cornelia. And, since the vexed matter of race in the Golden Age detective novel has hereby raised itself, I will go ahead and quote the full passage from the book where these two characters are first discussed.
|former lending library at the New Century Guild (see Hidden City Philadelphia)|
Yes, Rudy and Cornelia are comic servants, but the authors actually take more time to develop this pair as characters than is customary in the Golden Age detective novel. (Granted, it's setting a low bar.) And there are hints--in the suggestion that a "casual manner" was only "supposed to be peculiar to the colored race" and that the pair are not exactly content with their stations in life--of a different attitude from the norm on the part of the authors.
We learn that Cornelia, with her "dark, really beautiful eyes," is attached to only one woman at the club. That person is Miss Deborah Entwhistle, who, we are informed, "was one of the few [white] persons who really understood colored folk." Indeed, we learn that "many an unusual confidence had been imparted to [Deborah by Cornelia]" over "clandestine" cups of tea in early-morning tete-a-tetes in Deborah's room. When another member of the club accuses Rudy and Cornelia of being behind the murders, Deborah comes vigrously to their defense, albeit in somewhat patronizing tones:
"Those two are as innocent as the babe unborn. Oh, yes, it's quite true I could imagine either of them whipping out a knife with intent to kill in a sudden quarrel. They're primitive and uncontrolled, if you like. But as for a brutal, premeditated murder, it's unthinkable. There isn't enough malice in them to carry out such a thing."
When Inspector Boot asks, "with exaggerated politeness," "Are they friends of yours?" Deborah answers simply, "Yes...very dear friends."
|former bedroom at the New Century Guild (see Hidden City Philadelphia)|
Inspector Boot (as in Give him the boot, one suspects) heartily dislikes all the women at the club, on account of their disinclination to submit to his bullying (so unladylike!), but he dislikes Deborah most of all, as she begins to emerge as a rival sleuth. Deborah was a particular friend of Dr. Diana Saffron, the first person to die (suspicious coal gas poisoning in her room), as well as a great friend to Dr. Freda Carter and her fiancee Sebastian Thurlow, whom she first brought together.
Of the seemingly orthodox Sebastian, we learn that he
had plenty of other, less stereotyped friends, whom he never mixed with his more conventionally social connections. Among these was Miss Deborah Entwhistle for whom he always displayed an affectionate regard since chance had thrown them together in an amateur theatrical performance where Deborah had been successfully impersonating an aunt of Pocahontas.
Rickie wrote MATWCC with Patsy Kelley in 1931, when he was lodging in an elegant row house on Locust Street in downtown Philadelphia with his close friend Robert Elson Turner and an older woman, Miss Frances Bartholomew, a co-founder of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP who had been the longtime head resident of Philadelphia's Eighth Ward Settlement House, founded to aid the black population of that part of the city. Like the fictional Deborah, Frances was known for her empathetic attitude and indeed devotion to black Philadelphians.
|Locust Street locale where Rickie lodged with Robert Turner and Frances Bartholomew|
(building with blue treatments in center)
It seems not a stretch to conclude that the Rickie-Frances friendship has been fictionalized as that between Sebastian and Deborah in MATWCC, though there was no Freda Carter in Rickie's life. "Freda," however, was the name of Rickie's sister and Rickie more than once in his fiction gave the name to strong women characters.
Additionally, just as the fictional Deborah brought Sebastian and Freda Carter together, so might the real-life Frances have done the same for Rickie and Patsy. (Both Frances and Patsy came of genteel Quaker backgrounds, and Patsy's aunt, Florence Kelley, was a prominent Progressive reformer who died the year MATWCC was published.) However, Rickie's and Patsy's partnership, in contrast with the one in the book, was strictly professional.
Indeed. the year after the MATWCC was published, Patsy would marry an Englishman and move to England, while Rickie on an overseas sojourn would meet his own English prince, a handsome and prodigiously talented young man named Hugh Wheeler, who would come to America to live with Rickie in Philadelphia, where he would take Patsy's original place as Rickie's writing partner.
The fictional Deborah in MATWCC is the daughter of a judge, while the real-life Frances was the daughter of a prominent criminal lawyer. The greatest difference between the two, however, is that Deborah, in contrast with Frances, is not a social worker. (Indeed, Deborah has no salaried occupation at all.)
The actual social worker character in the novel, Amy Riddle, is portrayed comically as a earnest, humorless ideologue, constantly denouncing public utilities and traditional phallocentric social institutions and preaching in favor of "free gas, free electricity, five-month marriages and a feminine oligarchy with an executive Comrade Amy at the helm." In Amy Riddle, the more militant reformers of Frances' and Florence's generation come in for considerable spoofing.
|Dr. Clara Marshall (1847-1931), Dean of the|
Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania
A more frivolous, though highly amusing, character is Constance Hoplinger, who churns out baroque detective novels under the masculine nom de plume Gerald Strong, all of them with a different color in the title:
Terror in Jade, The Purple Alibi, The Amethyst Stain, The Black Serpent
Inspector Boot reads the latter Gerald Strong novel and reluctantly concludes that "if Miss Constance Hoplinger had conceived all these crimes in her own peroxide head, then she was certainly a woman with a fertile imagination, a prolific pen and a pregnant fancy. In short, she possessed what, in a writer of mystery stories, passes for a brain." Ouch!
Miss Hoplinger hopes to make use of the murders as material for her next novel. Waste not, want not, right? Oh, those mystery writers! So mercenary.
Included in the MATWCC, in something of a tour de force, is a five page plot summary of The Black Serpent. It's an obvious parody of bestselling American detective novelist S. S. Van Dine, with a fancy pants Philo Vance clone named Lorenzo as Great Detective, that I suspect was composed by Rickie:
The amateur sleuth is an effeminate creature with marcelled hair, mauve shirts and a passion for Sudanese cigarettes which he imports in enormous quantities weekly from Timbuctu. When using the mighty brain to its full capacity, Lorenzo subsists on nothing but clams and grapefruit juice. Symphony concerts and chess problems are his main source of inspiration and spiritual pabulum. He dashes off to them--between deductions, as it were.
The blondes all conspire to vamp and vex him. (They become blonder and more exquisite as the tale proceeds.) But he imperviously flicks them from his heart just as he flicks the Sudanese tobacco ash from the sleeve of his velvet smoking jacket. When begged by the district attorney for explanations of his cryptic and apparently irrelevant utterances, he waxes encylopaedic on Sapphic Odes, Etruscan pottery, the symbolism of Picasso and the binomial theorem--anything, in fact, except the point at issue.
But he always gives his harassed friend to understand that he knows exactly who did it--how--when--where--and why, and that he will disclose his certainties when the appropriate moment arrives for a dazzling display of his omniscience. He laughs to scorn all the clues that the Inspector thinks are important and lays much stress on unimportant details which nobody else notices. He sets special store by the finger nails, ear lobes and what he calls the "metaphysical makeup" of the people concerned. (See his monographs on these subjects in the British Museum.)"
|the dilettante sleuth at work |
Basil Rathbone as Great Detective (and Total Twit) Philo Vance
This whole witty and amusing novel anticipates the mystery novel of manners most associated with Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, which fully began to gel in the mid- to late- Thirties. Like famed American mystery writer Rex Stout, Rickie Webb was a great admirer of Jane Austen and declared that his favorite novel was Austen's Emma, so the wry and wise comedy found in this tale of murder should not necessarily come as a surprise, though Rickie Webb wrote nothing quite like it again. His follow-up novel, Murder at Cambridge, written solo, is not nearly as good as MATWCC, in my opinion. So I presume Patsy Kelley deserves a great deal of the credit too. If so, as I think it is, it's a shame that she evidently retired completely from writing after her marriage, at the very young age (for a writer) of twenty-six. She seems to have had rather a knack for malice domestic.
See here and here for laudatory reviews of MATWCC by Jason Half and John Norris. Unfortunately, this novel is one of the few Q. Patrick books which has not been reprinted by Mysterious Press/Open Road, though in my view it's one one of the top three or four QP's. Having been published by very minor presses in the US and UK and never been reprinted since in either country, it's a very hard book to find, perhaps even for Otto Penzler. The single English language copy on the internet is priced at about $250--and that's without the dust jacket.
|The detective's on the case!|