Thursday, July 2, 2020

Archie Goodwin and That Bottle of Dom Perignon: Some Thoughts on Masculinity in Mid-Century Mystery

WARNING: In the following post there are SPOILERS to the Rex Stout detective novel Too Many Clients (1960).  Not to the identity of the murderer but to other aspects of the mystery concerning two of the characters.  Read ahead at your own peril.

Rex Stout's Too Many Clients, reviewed by me in my last post, concerns the murder, in his secret "love nest," of satyric plastics company executive Thomas G. Yeager.  Archie gets pulled into the case by a man claiming to be Yeager, who tells Archie that he thinks he is being followed to a certain location (said love nest) and asks Archie to trail him to that location to determine whether this is indeed true.  It turns out that this man is impersonating Thomas Yeager, the real Thomas Yeager having been murdered, though only after the impersonation was carried by out by this man.

Over the course of the case we learn that said impersonator is really Austin Hough, an assistant professor of English literature at New York University (Those professors!), and that his wife, Dinah ("Di"), was one of Thomas Yeager's many lady friends.  Archie had been dubious about Hough from the start, as Hough had come to visit Nero Wolfe's brownstone wearing a $39.95 suit that "didn't fit and needed pressing" and a $3.00 shirt "on its second or third day."  But it's more than that too: "There was nothing wrong with his long bony face and broad forehead, but he simply didn't have the air of a man who might make a sizable contribution to Nero Wolfe's bank balance."  Sad Sack Hough does not have the confidence of the rich and entitled.

And that's indeed true, since Hough is actually a downtrodden college assistant professor (not even a full one), wearing gray socks with little red dots, the tops of which fall down "nearly to his shoes."  Later on, Archie encounters Dinah Hough at the Yeager love nest, where she had come to retrieve an umbrella; and though she claims her visit to the love nest had been purely innocent, Archie can tell that she's a hot to trot filly, as it were.  Later, when Archie meets up with Austin Hough again, at Nero Wolfe's office (Hough plaintively demanding all the while, "Where's my wife?"--he never seems to refer to her any other way), Archie tells us:

I seldom feel sorry for people Wolfe has got in a corner....but I had to move my eyes away from Austin Hough.  His long bony face was distorted he looked more like a gargoyle than a man. 

Hough admits that he perpetrated the imposture with Archie because he wanted the real Thomas Yeager to know that someone knew about his affair with his wife, so that his wife would know too.  "I couldn't tell her," he explains, "but I wanted her to know I knew."  A self-flagellating Hough reflects:

Of course my wife shouldn't have married me....I was a fool to think that I might still save our marriage, but I did.  She wanted things that I couldn't supply, and she wanted to do things that I am not inclined to and not equipped for.  She couldn't do them with me, so she did them without me. ...About a year ago she suddenly had a watch that must have cost a thousand dollars or more.  Then other things--jewelry, clothes, a fur coat....occasionally she came home after dawn....I descended to snooping....

Archie wonders what this pathetic cuckolded man will do when he sees his wife again, knowing that his fears were true and that she definitely was having it off with Thomas G. Yeager.  (Archie tells him he knows Di lied when she told that she had only been there once and had not stayed long.)  "[W]hat was he going to say?" Archie thinks: "Was he going to explain that he was responsible for her finding a reception committee when she went to get her umbrella?  Was he going to admit--I turned that switch off.  He had married her, I hadn't."

Some college professors are manlier than others.

Later, when Archie sees the Houghs at their apartment, he finds a now assertive Hough, who vulgarly says things like "Balls," rather than moonily quote prose and poetry.  Archie finds Hough has beaten his wife up, very badly.  "I have seen better-looking corpses," he pronounces after getting a looks at Di.  "I was afraid of what would happen if I told her [that I knew about her]" Hough explains.  "Now it has happened."

The couple answers Archie's questions and Hough tells Archie that he can go now.  "She's your wife, not mine," Archie reiterates (out loud this time), "but has a doctor seen her?"  "No," responds Hough.  "I was filling the ice bags when you rang the bell."  Archie makes his eyes go to the stricken woman (just like he had to make his eyes go to the pathetic, gargoyle like Hough on his early visit) and he asks her if she wants to see a doctor, to which she simply says, "No."

"Send her a bottle of champagne," Hough says snidely as Archie leaves.  Di had been drinking champagne and flirting with Archie when he met her at the love nest.

Archie does order champagne--not for Di, however, but for Hough.  He specifically asks for a bottle of Dom Perignon, which was the champagne that Yeager had stocked at the love nest.  He signs the card to Hough, "with the compliments of Archie Goodwin."  He adds to the reader: "I have often wondered whether he dumped it in the garbage, or drank it himself, or shared it with her."

Exit the Houghs, but they leave questions in their wake, like what Archie was doing when he sent Hough that bottle of Dom Perignon?  For some people the episode is a clear cut matter of Archie congratulating a fellow male for asserting his masculinity against an errant wife who had undercut it.  You beat your naughty wife until she looked worse than a corpse, here's to you!  

At the Thrilling Detective website Marcia Kiser writes that "Archie is always the White Knight [in relation to women]....which makes Archie's actions in Too Many Clients (1960) surprising when, after he learns Arthur Hough has beaten his wife, Archie sends Mr. Hough a bottle of Dom Perignon, with his compliments and paid for by him personally--tacit approval of the beating."  And at the LibraryThing message board, a disgusted commenter, AdonisGuilfoyle, writes: "Archie's celebration of the cuckolded husband's cowardly attack on his wife--yeah, your a real man now, Professor!--went too far for me."

This simply can't be right, in my estimation.  Such behavior seems utterly at odds with the Archie we know and love from Stout's series of tales.  (Archie must be one of the most beloved characters in series detective fiction.)  Not only that, but Stout goes out of his way to describe how badly beaten up Di is and how Archie is appalled to have even to look at her bruised face.  In the television series, a clearly angry Archie bellows at Hough, when he answers for Di, "I was talking to her!"  However, this is an invention, the episode remaining more ambiguous in the book, especially for modern readers.  The past, as someone like Austin Hough might remind us, is a foreign country.

A real man?  James Cagney and Mae Clark in The Public Enemy (1931)

Certainly vintage mystery is full of retrograde and reprehensible attitudes about women, representative of their times.  So is older fiction in general, and cinema as well.  In the Thirties there was a lot of talk, including from women themselves, about women wanting "cavemen" for husbands, assertive he-men who will take charge and take no prisoners.  Actor James Cagney made a big splash when he shoved a grapefruit into a woman's face on the big screen, Clark Gable when he, playing a wicked chauffeur, viciously decked Barbara Stanwyck's night nurse.  Why, these were men with red blood in their veins!  Or so the thinking ran.

After World War Two, when many women under patriotic impetus had ventured out into the workplace and ran households all by themselves, men, home from the war, wanted to reassert themselves; and emblematic of this is the hugely popular detective fiction of Mickey Spillane, whose series sleuth Mike Hammer knew how to put women back in their places.  He even shoots one in the stomach.  In Spillane, not only is feminism stillborn, it seems, but chivalry is dead.

Archie Goodwin, however, is nothing if not chivalrous.  I will say again, it's inconceivable to me that he cold have been back slapping Hough for so viciously beating a woman.   To be sure, a point is made that Hough is a milquetoast in the beginning of the novel, perhaps even impotent.  (She wanted to do things he is not equipped to do.)  He's not much of a man, by Fifties mid-century standards, or even, one might argue, today's.

Hough goes from one extreme to the other, from cuckold to beating his wife to a pulp, in order to assert his masculinity.  That's not real manhood either, however.  One state signifies the loss of control over one's wife, the other the loss of control over one's self.  A real man maintains control over himself.  At least in the world of Nero Wolfe.

Archie is no knuckle-dragging neanderthal, a brute man like Spillane's Mike Hammer.  Rather he's a charming roguish trickster, or a joker as the perpetually fuming Inspector Cramer calls him.  How would Archie respond, in an era where it was still widely believed that a husband had the right to chastise his wife for her misbehavior ("She's your wife, not mine," Archie says), when a husband snidely tells Archie to send his wife champagne to make her feel better.  Why, sarcastically of course, by ironically sending to the husband the same champagne his wife drank with another man, who gave her the kind of relationship she wanted.  Here you are, big man, you beat up a woman, congratulations!  Now what? 

What would Hough do with that champagne, Archie wondered: Dump it, drink it, or share it with his wife (possible reconciliation?).  Archie, and we the readers, never find out.

Subtlety can be frustrating but it can be mentally stimulating too.  I put my bean to work on this problem and this is the answer I came up with.  I hope I'm right!  Readers, what say you?

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bower of Carnality: Too Many Clients (1960), by Rex Stout

Archie (Timothy Hutton)
interviews a client (the ubiquitous Kari Matchett)
in the  2002 film adaptation of
Rex Stout's Too Many Clients

Director Billy Wilder's titillating best picture Oscar winning film The Apartment, about an insurance clerk who climbs the corporate ladder by lending his domicile to his superiors for use as a cite to carry on extramarital sexual liaisons opened in American theaters on June 30, 1960. Author Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novel Too Many Clients, about the murder of a randy plastics executive at his "bower of carnality" (as its colorfully termed in the novel), was published just under four months later, on October 28.  Stout's novel was already in the hands of his publishers by the time The Apartment opened, for Stout had written it in just thirty-five days, between May 6 and June 22; but one has to wonder if publicity about the upcoming film influenced the writing of Too Many Clients.  Or perhaps it was simply coincidence.  In any case, both the film and novel offer an interesting wry look at mores, sexual and otherwise, in the urban white collar world in the American mid-century.

Speculation about The Apartment doesn't come up in John McAleer's biography of Rex Stout, which, despite the bio's massive length, provides only limited literary analysis of individual Nero Wolfe detective novels.  After noting the time it took Stout to write it--I think McAleer diligently does this for almost all of the Wolfe books (Stout kept good records)--McAleer adds: "Archie here is at his funniest and most visible.  Maria Perez is the liveliest foreign girl to appear in the series since Anna Fiore in Fer-de-Lance, and the late Thomas Yeager...is a superb portrait of the businessman type that Rex despised."  And that's it.  There's not a lot to hang a hat on here, really, so in the lines below I shall provide my own take on this excellent detective novel.

Author and critic Julian Symons, as I noted in the last blog post, maintained that the Nero Wolfe books drastically declined after 1950, but a decade after that with Too Many Clients, I couldn't see evidence of that decline.  To the contrary, this is a strong Wolfe indeed.  It begins originally, with Archie getting requested to perform an investigative service for a man pronouncing himself to be Thomas Yeager, senior vice president of Consolidated Plastic Products.  It seems that Yeager thinks he is being followed to a certain location and he wants Archie to trail him to that location to discern whether this is true.  Archie soon discovers, however, that Yeager has been murdered and that the man identifying himself as Yeager was not in fact he.

The real Yeager's dead body is found covered over with a tarpaulin at an excavation cite in a slum district, across from the very building which the false Yeager had identified as his destination.  Upon further investigation Archie finds that the building conceals a love nest, or sex pad as it might have been called a few years later: Thomas Yeager's aforementioned bower of carnality.  He also finds that Yeager actually was murdered there, his body being later removed outside of the building.

The bower is maintained by resident caretakers Cesar and Felita Perez, who knew about their employers' goings-on (they had to clean up after him), but they insist that their beautiful sheltered though rather inquisitive daughter, Maria, knew nothing about it. 

In fact it was Cesar who moved Yeager's body out into the street, but he and Felita insist to Archie they did not kill him; and they want to hire the gumshoe to help them out of this jam. (Out of respect for the body, Cesar put the tarpaulin over Yeager's body, leaving fingerprints, which the police surely will trace to him if they ever find out about Yeager's bower.)  While he's in the bower with the Perezes in comes one of Yeager's lady friends (she has her own key), a stage actress named Meg Duncan.  She wants to retrieve a cigarette case which she thinks she left there and she ends up hiring Archie to find it for her and return it.  (You will be getting now, oif you haven't read it, why this book has its title.)

Ace detective Saul Panzer not being available, Archie installs Fred Durkin there to watch for future visitors and he tries to convince Wolfe, quarterly taxes being due, that they might have a lucrative case here.  Eventually they do, when Fred catches another lady in the bower, Julia McGee, who claims that she is Yeager's secretary and that the only thing she ever did there was a little dictation.  She brings in the president of CPP, pompous Benedict Aiken, who ends up hiring Wolfe, with the connivance of the board of directors, to keep the existence of the bower from becoming known.  (Scandal, don't you know.)  Another would-be client, Thomas Yeager's overbearing widow, comes into the picture as well, demanding that Wolfe find out who killed her husband, since CPP doesn't really care about that matter per se.  There's also yet another one of Yeager's lady friends who comes into the picture, but I've probably said enough (or more than enough) about the plot already.  Some people say plotting was not a strong suit of Stout's, to which I say, like certain characters in this books, "balls."

In this novel we learn more here about Wolfe's and Archie's (and implicitly Stout's) attitudes about sex, in a book that I actually found more serious than a lot of the works in the Stout canon.  (There's even a case of spousal abuse, about which I would like to say more, but it's too spoilerish; let me just say that the meaning of Archie's response raises some interesting questions.)  Stout again gets in some good licks at mid-century corporate culture, a subject in mystery which I find perennially fascinating (Stout's contemporary author Patrick Quentin was good on this subject too, but he wasn't nearly so prolific as Stout.)  I love when Wolfe contemptuously asks the sputtering Aiken, "How the deuce did you get to head a large and successful corporation?"

Puerto Rican Maria in the film version of West Side Story, played by actress Natalie Wood,
who was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko

Of course in his focus on upper class white America (people with the money to pay Wolfe's fat fees), Stout has been accused of, like film director Woody Allen, portraying a New York denuded of black and Hispanic people; and one senses that in Too May Clients Stout wanted to rectify that oversight a bit by introducing into the story the poor Puerto Rican couple, Cesar and Felita Perez, caretakers of the rich man's bower, and their daughter Maria.  Apropos of The Apartment, I might note that the next year's best picture, West Side Story, concerned poor Puerto Ricans and a beautiful girl named Maria.  I find it strange that in his Stout biography Professor McAleer refers to Maria Perez as a "foreign girl."  I presume she was born in the continental United States, but in any event her parents as Puerto Ricans would have been U. S. citizens.  Puerto Ricans had been so under American law for decades.  "My name is Cesar Perez," Cesar announces.  "I am a citizen of the United States of America."  Maria was not a "foreign girl."  But then a lot of people miss this point even today.

As for the mystery, it's nicely carried out by Stout, though Wolfe has some of the investigation done by Saul Panzer, invisibly to Archie and thus invisibly as well to the reader.  (However, one key point I would argue, is still surmisable by the reader.)  All in all the book is a delight for the mind.  In his introduction to the 1994 Bantam edition Malcolm, aka Steve, Forbes, Junior praises Stout for writing a mystery about a "high-powered, sex-crazed business executive" with such "nonprurient, critical detachment"; and, indeed, Archie's one single mention of a woman's nipples is as direct as the book gets when it comes to copulation and sexual allure.

Moreover, Stout as usual delights with his style and as his faultless sense of social observation. "Another point against him was that he had no hat," observes Archie.  "Ninety-eight per cent of men who can pay big fees wear hats."  Steve Forbes points out in the introduction that the next year John F. Kennedy would go hatless at his inauguration and soon hats for men would become "old hat."  Somehow the Nero Wolfe books were never quite the same.  Mid-century style helped give them their pulsating life.

Critics embraced Too Many ClientsAnthony Boucher, who on the whole preferred the Nero Wolfe novellas to the novels, found it "markedly ingenious.Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review of Literature pronounced Stout's novel "easily among his best.James Sandoe declared it "one of Mr. Stout's brighter books" and an "[e]xcellent diversion."  Just over eighteen years ago now (Where does the time ago?), a fetching adaptation of the novel aired as part of the excellent Nero Wolfe series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin.  It may not be the best film of the series, Clients being perhaps a little cerebral for television, but it's worth it all just to see the visualization of the Thomas Yeager's bower of carnality.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The biggest compliment Julian Symoms can pay to any book is to dislike it"--Mary Stewart Critiques a Critic

When British author Mary Stewart died six years ago at the venerable age of ninety-seven, she was hailed as a pioneer of the "romantic suspense" subgenre in mystery.  American authors Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart and Leslie Ford, to cite three examples, had been at this sort of thing for years, but Stewart, a graduate with first-class honors in English from Durham University, gave it a lustrous new gloss of sophistication.  "Stewart's classic education served her splendidly,observes the Guardian in a 2014 obituary of the late author.  "Informed by lightly worn research, her books were intelligent and full of literary allusion.  It might be said that in subject matter and treatment she was a natural successor to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte."

Mary Stewart (1916-2014)
Pretty impressive, eh?  Nor was the Guardian alone in its praise for Stewart.  Despite this, Mary Stewart goes unmentioned, in crime writer and critic Julian Symons' once highly influential survey of mystery and crime fiction, Bloody Murder (originally published in 1972), wherein romantic suspense is not particularly placed on a pinnacle, let us say. 

Symons, however, does not go unmentioned in a letter which Mary Stewart penned, five years after the publication of Bloody Murder, on November 28, 1977.  Stewart's letter was written in reply to one from John McAleer, a Boston College English professor and biographer of the late American mystery writer Rex Stout.

An evidently plaintive McAleer had written to Stewart concerning a Symons' review of McAleer's biography of Stout, which had been published in the New York Times Book Review on November 13.  Symons' assessment of the book was, to out it charitably, mixed; and it also managed to get in some rather dismissive asides against McAleer's highly esteemed subject, who had passed away at the age of eighty-eight two years earlier.

"No livelier man (than Stout) been the subject of a duller book," pronounced Symons bluntly.  "The art of biography rests in selection, and what you omit may be as significant as what you include.  This biography gives the impression of omitting nothing....The biographer's own comments are always jejune or banal."

As for Stout, Symons faulted the Nero Wolfe creator for being unwilling to put his soul into his detective novels.  "At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth," lectured Symons,

Julian Symons (1912-1994)
it must be said that [McAleer]absurdly inflates the [Nero Wolfe] stories' merit.  On the evidence of the Wolfe saga, Stout was simply not in the same stylistic league with Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald.  His prose is energetic and efficient, nothing more.  His plots lack the metronomic precision of Ellery Queen's....The truth is that Stout wrote too much too easily, and that like all crime writers dependent on repeated introduction of the same characters--including Doyle and Simenon--his work was subject to the law of diminishing returns.  The early Wolfe books, those produced up to 1950, are infinitely better than those that followed, with "The Doorbell Rang" and "Death of a Doxy" offering exceptions to this rule....[Stout's] achievement was to create a Superman detective who will be remembered as long as people read crime stories; his limitation was that this figure operates in the context of books that are consistently entertaining, but for the most part just as consistently forgettable.

I have devoted a lot of my life now to writing about the people who wrote mystery and crime fiction, but I am a historian by training and have always tried to be a historian first and a "literary critic," if I indeed am one, second.  Taste is such a subjective matter that I often have shied in the past from making grand pronouncements beginning with words like "It must be said" and "The truth is."  I have found over the decades that the more I have read of mystery and crime fiction, the more catholic and generous my tastes have become.  The restrictive dogmatism of the Julian Symonses and the Jacques Barzuns I have increasingly abandoned, though it's interesting to write about it, as I am doing here now.

Certainly Julian Symons brought his own personal biases to bear on his assessment of Rex Stout.  (As for the McAleer biography, I will allow, as someone who has written biography myself, that I wish McAleer, an astoundingly proficient pack rat, had been more selective of the detail in his book--however he won an Edgar and I haven't, so there is that.) 

As someone who himself never in his crime fiction created a memorable series character (and I say this as someone who enjoys Symons' crime fiction), Symons believed that the commitment to an outsize Great Detective as series sleuth, whether it be Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Albert Campion or Gideon Fell, throttled originality in mystery fiction and kept it from developing into something more akin to mainstream literature.  Thus in his view Rex Stout had surrendered his considerable talent as a serious writer to a fundamentally superficial endeavor, even if yielded a character, Nero Wolfe, who would be "remembered as long as people read crime stories."  Paradoxically, Wolfe was an unforgettable character who appeared in mostly forgettable stories (at least after 1950).

The truth is (as Symons would say), though I can only speak for myself, I don't find the Wolfe stories generally forgettable, even if they do lack, like most everything under the sun, the "metronomic precision of Ellery Queen" (for some that might be a good thing).  Again generally speaking, I don't find the stories forgettable before 1950 or after 1950, to use Symons' somewhat arbitrary cutoff point.  (It won't surprise Wolfe fans to learn that Symons really liked Stout's Arnold Zeck saga.) 

Indeed, although my favorite Wolfe novel was published before 1940, I find the fecundity of and overall quality of Stout's production in the two decades between 1946 and 1966 astonishing and I personally favor this latter period of his writing as a whole.  I don't believe, as Symons declares in Bloody Murder, that after 1950 Stout stopped caring about his characters.  The carefully planned culmination of the Wolfe saga in A Family Affair (1975), for example, would suggest otherwise.

Before he died, Rex Stout saw
that Nero Wolfe had entered the
pantheon of Fiction's Great Detectives
Are the Wolfe tales, taken as whole, as memorable as those of, say, Sherlock Holmes?  I think not, yet what a high bar that is setting.  In that sort of race, it's okay to place second (or third or fourth, or fifth, etc. as the case may be).  Creating a character, or series of characters, and a world to go with them which people want to immerse themselves in year after year after year, even long after the author's death, is a singular achievement, one which rates higher than Symons' chary assessment of Stout in his review essay seems to credit.

What's the more memorable book from 1957: Stout's If Death Ever Slept or Symons' deliberately drab and dreary The Colour of Murder, which won the Gold Dagger from the British CWA for that year?  (Crime writers' awards groups love all things drab and dreary.)

I know what my pick would be, but that's subjective.  All I can say--and it must be said--is that I'm pretty confident more people would choose Stout's novel, even with the recent advocacy of the latter work by the British Library's vintage crime fiction reprint series and its distinguished editor, a great admirer of Symons.

But enough with my opinions!  What interests me here is the opinion of Mary Stewart.  She took two weeks to get back to Prefessor McAleer with a letter, but when she did, gracious, did she rain down hellfire and brimstone on the head of Julian Symons.  If McAleer ever read Stewart's letter aloud, Symons ears surely would have burned.

Stewart urged McAleer to "try to forget" that "silly Julian Symons' article."  He knew, and the public knew, Stewart assured him, that he had written a good book.  Yet she spent more time defending Stout's reputation and assailing that of Symons:

You also know that Rex Stout is an incomparably better writer than the pathetic and jealous Symons (or any of the grubby merchants he admires), and that this [jealousy] is the motivation of the review....It is typical of the man that he singles out Rex Stout's "sexy" novels as "among the best."  I only read one of them, How Like a God, and it was not in the same street as The Doorbell Rang and A Family Affair, or indeed any of the lucidly-written, mature works.  It is also nonsense to say that his style was not comparable to, say, Ross Macdonald.  To my eye and ear, RM's style is derivative, strained and totally predictable.  I can feel him trying.  Rex Stout's style was--is--flawless.  

....do, please, ignore the man's opinions, even if you can't quite ignore his spite.  I have met him; he is a boor, and a second-rate writer, and has no sense of style--I mean, he would not know good English if he saw it.  The biggest compliment Julian Symons can pay to any book is to dislike it. 

....Believe me, everyone I know rates the wretched little man as I do.  Forget him.  You did a good job.  Have a happy Christmas.

a good murder never goes out of fashion
Well!  That is an uncategorical take-down.  Was it fair to Symons?  Personally I doubt that Symons was really motivated by jealous spite of Stout.  If so, why would he have praised Ross Macdonald, who was also, being an American bestseller, a much more successful writer than Symons?  No, I think Symons meant what he wrote, whether one agrees with him or not.  Obviously I don't, though I value his work more than Mary Stewart did.  Was Symons a boor?  Well, I know that Mary Stewart was not the first British crime writer of her generation to resent Symons' forcefully aired opinions, and nor was she the last. Symons in my view definitely had an "I have spoken" air about him that doubtlessly rankled.  Stung by his reviews of her later Campion novels, as I recollect, an outraged Margery Allingham wanted to have bounced from the CWA.

Symons had something of an aversion to the works of genteel lady mystery writers, whether British or American (excepting Agatha Christie, whose puzzle crafting ability he admired), while Stewart expressed disdain for the "grubby merchants" (one suspects the hard-boiled boys) whom Symons admired.  If one can but take a broader view and free oneself of one's partialities, one might say that there is merit to go around.  Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and Stout all were fine stylists--and as for Symons and Stewart, well, in coming days I will have something more to say about them.

Note: The Julian Symons review and the Mary Stewart letter both can be found here, though I arrived at them independently several years ago.  Other people came to Stout's defense against Symons's critique, and several letters were published in the New York Times.  I quote from them here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"I decided just to write stories": Rex Stout on his Mystery Fiction

In 1935 thirty-two year old literary critic John Rensselaer Chamberlain published, in the Books of the Times column in the New York Times Book Review, a review of Rex Stout's newly published Nero Wolfe detective novel, The League of Frightened Men, Stout's second in what would prove a long, hugely popular and critically acclaimed series of murder mysteries.  John Chamberlain's review of Stout's novel encapsulates much of what mystery writers hate about literary critics, praising the book in a condescending backhanded way, seemingly in order to let people know that while he, John Rensselaer Chamberlain, may read and enjoy mysteries on occasion, he always--like the man who guiltily (though after much anticipation) visits the occasional house of ill repute--returns home at the end of his fun to the wife and mother of his children (this noble lady being Serious Literature in this possibly strained analogy). 

John Chamberlain also thoughtlessly revealed the identity of the murderer in his review of Stout's novel--because, one supposes, Chamberlain believed that only insignificant minds could actually care about the whodunit aspect of a mystery.  I have always felt there should be a special place in hell for book reviewers who deliberately spoil mystery solutions in their reviews, and I make no exception for John Rensselaer Chamberlain.  See ya in hell, John!

Like the man who read Playboy for the articles
American critic John Chamberlain (1902-95)
read mysteries for the Norman apses
Of Rex Stout's second Nero Wolfe detective novel, The League of Frightened Men, John Chamberlain pronounced in his NYTBR article:

[It] is a mystery story that has imaginative qualities beyond the ordinary....The writing...is good-humored, breezy, colloquial.  The characterization is sharp, and reminds me constantly of the fact that Rex Stout was a legitimate novelist before he took up the trade of mystery monger.

And. there you go!  Into Rex the critic slipped the sharp knife.  Although Stout had written a detective novel beyond the ordinary, in the very act of writing detective novels at all he had cravenly abandoned the ranks of "legitimate novelists." 

It is this sort of condescension that became a bugbear to altogether too many mystery authors, inducing them, in the hope of being taking seriously as writers, to seek to become "crime novelists"--people who "transcend the genre" by emphasizing in their mysteries everything but the actual mystery.

The year before, in reviewing Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, John Chamberlain had adopted a similar line:

....Hating the usual run of mystery stories, we were decoyed into reading [Dashiell Hammett's] "The Thin Man" by virtue of a nonchalant Greek detective's knowledge of speakeasy mores.  Somehow the mystery went down easy with a round of old-fashioneds.  Could it be that we were weakening? We swore it could not be true.  But maybe we were weakening. For, dipping into Dorothy Sayers' "The Nine Tailors," we were beguiled by her manner of mingling an essay on the ringing of church bells...with a novel about theft and murder.  And when Lord Peter Wimsey turned from change-ringing to deduction, we somehow stayed for the show.  

The show (and we admit it through clenched teeth) is not at all bad.  It is not, thank Heaven! pure mystery; that would be too much.  Miss Sayers makes the sleuthing go down easy by mixing it up with an antiquarian's interest in fourteenth century Norman apses, in the character of the abbots of Catholic England, in the art of change-ringing, in the history of the casting of bells.  

[...]

Reading Dorothy Sayers, who is an intelligent woman as well as a writer of mystery stories, we wonder how much of our prejudice against the heirs of Sherlock Holmes is justified....More mysterious than her mystery is the way in which she makes the abstruse art of bell-ringing a living, integral part of her story.  Sooner or later she will be making chess, the Einstein theory, the art of concocting Welsh rabbits, heraldry or cricket germane to a mysterious death.  She ought to be hired by the schools to mix textbook matter with gumshoe work; then every student would pass.  

Perhaps Sayers might even have become a "legitimate novelist," had she tried.  Well, John Chamberlain had yet to read Gaudy Night.  (Reviewing that novel that same year in the Books of the Times column was left to Robert Van Gelder, who proclaimed Gaudy Night--whether with exaggeration or not I will leave for you to decide--"the Louvre Museum, the Coliseum, the Mickey Mouse of detective stories.  In it the mystery writing technique is lifted from the plane of checkers to the plane of chess, and the chess figures come alive.  Ideas rather than mechanics move the plot....")

John Chamberlain liked mysteries, when there was something else besides the actual mystery on which to focus his mind.  You don't read a detective novel to find out whodunit, really: you read it to learn all about bell ringing and Norman apses!  Increasingly this became the prevalent view in mystery criticism in the Thirties, marking the beginning of the decadent period in detective fiction, when the pure and austere detection of, say, Freeman Wills Crofts was beginning to seem simply passe, even banal, to many reviewers.  And much of the public seemed to follow along.

To Rex Stout's credit, however, he never fell into this trap.  He found a way to make his mysteries interesting to readers without resorting to mining details from pamphlets on church bells.  For the next four decades Stout penned his tales of Great Detective Nero Wolfe and his snappy assistant Archie Goodwin, never failing to, alas and for shame! entertain.  Of course it's no doubt true that many of Stout's readers peruse his books more to enjoy the patter between Wolfe and Archie and to soak up the atmosphere of Wolfe's brownstone than to solve the given murder mystery at hand, but Stout at least never neglected the mystery element in his books.  If you truly love mystery for mystery's sake (unlike, say, Mr. Chamberlain), Stout always provided you with one.

Dorothy L. Sayers may never have been aware of John Chamberlain's praise for her, across the pond, as an "intelligent woman as well as a writer of mystery stories," but Stout for his part read Chamberlain's review and immediately was provoked to pen a characteristically self-effacing yet still wryly pointed response. 

Why did Rex Stout cede the laurel of the "legitimate novelist"?  The answer lies below, in Stout's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (a defense of one's life), which was published in the Times a week after the appearance of John Chamberlain's review of The League of Frightened Men.  Appropriately for the creator of noted gourmand Nero Wolfe (Archie has a healthy appetite too for that matter, though throughout the series of mysteries he retains his boyish figure, much to the delight of the ladies), the answer to this literary riddle seemed to revolve around eating.  Stout wrote:

Once I lived in humble hovels
And wrote a few legitimate novels.
Now, tiring of the pangs of hunger,
I ply the trade of mystery monger.

Murder, mayhem, gun and knife!
Violent death, my staff of life!

I wrote, though eating not bewhiles,
Of fate profound and secret trials.
Now--calmed the empty belly's fury.
I write of guilt and trial by jury.

Suspense, excitement, thrills, suspicion,
Sources of excellent nutrition!

I took men's souls on bitter cruises,
Explored the heart and necked the Muses.
But now to me I say: poor critter,
Be fed, and let who will be bitter.

Clues, deductions, right and wrong,
O Mystery! Of thee I mong!

Of course Stout's "legitimate novels" have been out of print for decades, I believe, while his mysteries have gone through printing after printing.  It seems that there's nothing like a little murder puzzle to enliven our everyday lives.

the author at home, necking the mystery muse
 if a lesser lady, perhaps, she is still most winsome to my mind
 (see WNYC.com)

Over three decades later, at a 1966 Books and Authors luncheon, Rex Stout, now an octogenarian and President of the Authors' League of America, commented knowingly to his audience of authors, "we all know what book reviewers are."  Perhaps John Chamberlain was one of the reviewers he had in mind.  Even in his eighties, Rex Stout had a good memory.

Stout explained that thirty-seven years ago he had decided to have a go at writing mainstream novels and had spent five years hard at it, before realizing "that if I went on trying to make serious comments about human character and human problems I would never turn out to be a Dostoevsky or a Balzac, so to hell with it, I quit."  At that point he resolved "just to write stories and to try to make them as good stories as I could."  Thus were Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin born.

Stout complained that today, in 1966, his latest Nero Wolfe novel, The Doorbell Rang, was being lauded by critics and commentators alike not for being a particularly good story, but for cocking a snook at the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.  However, when he wrote the novel, Stout modestly protested, "all I had in mind, as I always have, was to try to make it as good a story as I could."  He was not trying, he declared, to make some grand political statement about the state of American society in the Sixties.  He lamented that to keep getting such acclaim for future novels he supposed he would have to find a series of new satirical targets, such as "the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Boy Scouts, the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

"Maybe that's what I ought to do," he ruminated whimsically.  "Instead of trying to write good stories, maybe I ought to be a professional crusader."  After all, that way Stout might, after three decades, finally "transcend the genre."  Fortunately for fans of mystery in mysteries, Stout would publish five more novels over the decade of life which remained to him, and they continued to be good stories--though Stout I suppose disappointed those who wanted Nero and Archie take on the Boy Scouts!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Would a Rosewater by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet? The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett and Victor Rosewater

One of the characters in the Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man whom I didn't mention in my recent review of the novel is a man named Victor Rosewater.  He is an elusive presence in the novel, almost as elusive as "the thin man," aka Clyde Wynant, himself.  We learn that several years before the start of the novel Victor Rosewater believed that Wynant, an inventor, had stolen some sort of lucrative process from him and that he was making threats against Wynant, only to get warned off and into hiding by Nick Charles, back when Nick was working as a private detective.  When Wynant's secretary is murdered, one of the possible suspects in the crime is Rosewater, who based on his erratic past behavior is rightfully considered a rather dubious individual.

In what seems to me an odd coincidence, Victor Rosewater is also the same of a once well known Republican newspaper editor and author, who died in 1940, six years after the publication of The Thin Man.  Rosewater was the editor of the Omaha Bee, the demagogic paper which helped provoke the 1919 Omaha race riot and lynching, which I blogged about recently.  In the blog article I speculated that the events at Omaha in 1919, which included a white mob attacking and sacking the county courthouse, might have helped inspire Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest.  Omaha at the time was struggling with the kind of pervasive civic corruption which has engulfed the fictional Personville in Red Harvest, and Victor Rosewater played a big role (and a perfidious one) in what happened at Omaha.

like a bee
Rosewater stung Omaha in 1919
though this didn't prevent him from
receiving a laudatory obituary in the
New York Times at his death 21 years later
Omaha had a boss, Tom Dennison, a Democrat who ran the town and managed the vice (liquor, gambling and girls) for three decades, excepting two years when a reform mayor managed to get into power.  "Dennison's main business," writes an authority, Jan Voogd, "appeared to be maintaining the availability of prostitution, gambling and drinking."

In Dennison's view, something had to be done about the dread specter of reform in his city, so, it is believed, the boss had his ally Rosewater, the anti-Progressive Republican editor of the Bee (he had inherited the job from his immigrant Jewish father, the founder of the paper in 1906), commence a campaign of agitation against the reform mayor and his newly-appointed police commissioner, based on the notion that there was an unimpeded black crime wave washing over the city, imperiling the virtue of Omaha's white women.

To again quote Jan Voogd:

The new police commissioner persevered in his mission to root out prostitutes, bootleggers and gamblers, but in doing so, his detractors claimed, he was diverting limited police resources from keeping other crime in check.  Rosewater's newspaper, the Bee, used sensationalized coverage of crime to promote the idea that the city's law and order had been undermined.  The came the race riot.

I go over this in more detail in my earlier blog post, but after a woman and her boyfriend (who had connections to Dennison) claimed that a single black man had assaulted them and raped her, police arrested a forty year old meat packer afflicted with rheumatism named Will Brown and took him to the courthouse, where not long afterward a mob of thousands of furious white Nebraskans descended, determined to lynch Brown.  They smashed gun shop windows and looted arms and ammunition and proceeded to fire on, and set fire to, the courthouse, forcing the authorities inside to turn over the dubiously accused man, who they promptly hanged, shot, dragged behind a car and finally incinerated.  For good measure some in the mob tried to lynch the reform mayor as well, but at the last second he was rescued from the noose.  Remember this next time Donald Trump and his myrmidons say that we are having an unprecedented breakdown of law and order in this country.

note sent out to the lynch mob
as the courthouse smoked and burned
threatening to choke and incinerate everyone inside
"The Judge says he will give up the negro Brown
He is in the dungeon
There are 100 white prisoners on the roof
Save them
"
Two days after the lynching, the city's leading local paper, the Omaha World Herald, published an editorial which memorably characterized the lynch mob and its actions as "wholly vile, wholly evil and malignantly dangerous."  The World Herald editor, Harvey Newbranch, won a Pulitzer Prize that year for this anti-lynching editorial. 

Meanwhile Victor Rosewater kept on disgracefully demagoguing matters over at the banefully busy Bee, trying to help rioters evade the wheels of justice.  He went on the attack against the grand jury investigation into the manifold crimes committed by the lynch mob, going after the police department as a whole and specific police officers who testified against rioters.  Rosewater in the event was charged with obstruction of justice and later found guilty of contempt of court and fined $1000.

Rosewater's tactics worked, however, for though scores of arrests of rioters were made, no one was ever convicted of a crime and the reform mayor was defeated when he ran for reelection in 1920.  In an outcome like something out of a Roman Polanski film ("Forget it, Jake, it's Omaha") Tom Dennison was back in charge, with Victor Rosewater's help.  (For more on these tragic times, see Jan Voogd's Race Riots & Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919 [2008], a timely book if ever there were one.)

Victor Rosewater sold the Bee in 1920 and moved to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.  Was he getting out of Dodge, so to speak?  In the last twenty years of his life he authored several books, including a history of the Liberty Bell.  He was celebrated as one of the nation's prominent Jewish Americans and received a long and laudatory notice in the New York Times when he died at the age of 69 in 1940.  The role he and his newspaper played in the bestial Omaha race riot and lynching went unmentioned in the account of a noble life well-lived.  It was an outcome the dark irony of which which should have appealed to the author in Hammett, a man who had seen it all.

Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
(Twenty-five year old Victor Rosewater, a recent graduate of Columbia University,
where he majored in philosophy, upper right)

The corruption of urban political machines and the role of newspapers in that corruption is a focus of both Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) and The Glass Key (1931), so it seems quite a coincidence that Hammett would have accidentally latched on to a name like Victor Rosewater in The Thin Man.  In the film version of The Thin Man, the name of Victor Rosewater is changed to Victor Rosebury, suggesting that the filmmakers wanted to avoid the possibility of a legal wrangle.  One wonders how the name got by Hammett's publishers at Knopf.  (In the novel the name of pianist, composer and wit Oscar Levant is changed to Levi Oscant.)  Perhaps this offers further evidence that Hammett really had paid attention to, and thought about when he was writing, the mass violence at Omaha and other American cities in 1919-21. Certainly the civil liberties of black Americans was a matter which would preoccupy him over the remaining years of his life.  More on this soon.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Mysteries You Have to Read 1--Through Thick and Through Thin: The Thin Man (1934), by Dashiell Hammett

Nora returned with two drinks and another question: "What's he like?"
"Tall--over six feet--and one of the thinnest men I've met.

Andy shook his head gloomily.  "Nobody sees him come, nobody sees him go.  What was that joke about a guy being so thin he has to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow?"

--The Thin Man (1934), Dashiell Hammett

It's customary for modern critics to pronounce that Dashiell Hammett's fifth and final completed novel, the mystery The Thin Man, is the "weakest" of all his books.  Although he found The Thin Man a "continuously charming and sparkling performance," fervent Hammett admirer Julian Symons, for example, detected in it evidence of "a slight decline."  Most professional opiners compare the novel unfavorably to Hammett's earlier works, particularly Red Harvest (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931), which starkly portray grittier, darker criminal worlds.

I don't know that The Thin Man is the ninety-eight pound weakling, if you will, in Hammett's output, so much as it is deliberately light stylistically, but to most crime fiction critics--such serious and sober people they are--darkness inevitably covers light.  (I'm sure nine out of ten critics would tell you that they far prefer to Hammett and Raymond Chandler to Rex Stout or Ellery Queen, for example.) 

At the time, however, critics applauded Hammett's latest novel and the public lapped it up like champagne.  The Thin Man sold 32,000 hardcover copies in its first year in print, this at a time when mysteries ingloriously averaged merely 2000 sales in hardcover, mostly to rental libraries; and it spawned the famed Thin Man series of six films, all of them starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the wise-cracking, hard-drinking series husband and wife detecting team, Nick and Nora Charles.

The success of The Thin Man, novel and films, created the vogue for bright and sophisticated "couples" sleuths in the United States, although one might argue that across the pond Agatha Christie had laid the predicate for this sort of thing back in 1922, when she introduced her flippant amateur snoopers Tommy and Tuppence in her second mystery novel, The Secret Adversary.  Hammett's admiring public had stuck with him through the early novels, where blood ran thick indeed, and I have no doubt that they would have stayed with him had he opted to write a series of Thin Man novels over the course of the Thirties.  Instead he contributed a couple of screen treatments for the next two Thin Man films, which were reissued in 2013 as "novellas," a misleading claim.  (Perhaps some enterprising modern mystery writer should rewrite them as such.)

And then there came silence, aside from a mainstream novel, Tulip, which Hammett desultorily worked on for two decades and never completed.  I think that Hammett, like a lot of talented crime writers, felt the urge to become a "serious writer," but could never pull it off; so instead his energies when into booze and left-wing political activism.  It was a huge loss to mystery fans.  But certainly Hammett never became a "hack" novelist.  His integrity's gain is our enjoyment's loss.

With The Thin Man there is always the danger of letting memories of the charming and frothy film series manipulate one's memories of the book.  Hammett's novel is not "screwball," as much of the film couples mysteries of the Thirties were, it is much more sexually explicit, and it has a certain ribbon of darkness twisting through it.  It's a long way from the world of Red Harvest, to be sure, but Hammett addicts can still tell, while perusing it, that they are addicts in Hammett-land.

When the novel opens in the dying days of December 1932, Nick and Nora, who reside in San Francisco, are visiting New York for Christmas, seemingly spending most of their time lapping up liquor at their hotel suite and myriad speakeasies.  Forty-one year old Nick Charles (aka Charalambides) is a retired private detective who six years earlier married lovely Nora, an heiress fifteen years younger than himself.  After the marriage her father died (naturally, I hope) and Nick quit the detecting biz to devote himself, when he isn't drinking (which is most of the time), to managing his wife's business interests.

1992 Vintage Books edition
Nick is leaning against the bar at a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street (the same street as the one in the 1979 Billy Joel album title), waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when in come small, blonde and rather pretty Dorothy Wynant, whom Nick hasn't seen in six years, when she was but eleven or twelve and he knew her eccentric millionaire inventor father, Clyde wynant.  Dorothy wants Nick's help in locating Clyde, whom she hasn't seen since he and her mother, Mimi, divorced and Mimi, a fat settlement in hand, departed with Dorothy and her slightly younger brother, Gilbert, for Europe.  They have since returned to the US, Mimi complete with a new younger "gigolo" husband, Christian Jorgenson, who generously helped her spend all the money she received from Clyde after the divorce.  They whole gang is now seriously in need of more dough.

Nick suggests that Dorothy try contacting her father's attorney, Herbert Macaulay.  Then in comes Nora, with her and Nick's dog Asta--who unexpectedly for fans of the films is female and a Schnauzer--in tow.  Out goes Dorothy.  As the chapter closes, Nick and Nora have this conversation, which is typical of their lively patter throughout the book (and had to be toned down for film):

Nora said: "She's pretty."
"If you like them like that."
She grinned at me.  "You got types?"
"Only you darling--lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."
"And how about that redhead you wandered off with at the Quinns' last night?"
"That's silly," I said.  "She just wanted to show me some French etchings."

Two days later Clyde Wynant's secretary, Julia Wolf, is discovered shot to death at her apartment by Dorothy's mother Mimi Jorgenson (formerly Wynant), who had come to pay a call on the secretary concerning the whereabouts of her ex-husband.  So who murdered Miss Wolf? 

A leading suspect is Wolf's boss, Clyde Wynant, the "thin man" of the title, who may have been her lover as well.  But Clyde has been absent from New York since October and cannot be located now, although he periodically sends letters to his lawyer and there are various people who claim recently to have seen or heard from him.  Booze-guzzling Nick wants nothing to do with the case, but he keeps getting dragged into it by Clyde's screwy family, as mixed-up a bunch of Freudian head cases as you will ever find in a vintage mystery.

Mimi and her "little white whips"
To Dorothy, Nick dismisses the utility of psychiatry, telling her: "I'm not a psychiatrist.  I don't know anything about early influences.  I don't give a damn about them.

However, it seems like the Wynants, or Jorgensons, could use the services of a good head shrinker.  Young Gilbert, a callow intellectual ("His head's so cluttered up with reading"), seems fixated with his own mother, while Dorothy is seethingly jealous of Mimi, who is Nick's age and still head-turningly attractive. 

As for Mimi herself, she seems to get some kicks, if you will, from beating her daughter, of whom she is jealous in turn.  "You must come over to our place some time [echoing Mae West?] and bring your little white whips," Nick cuttingly tells Mimi at one point. 

On another occasion he tells Dorothy that her mother "hates men more than any woman I've ever known who wasn't a lesbian."  To lawyer Macaulay, Nick sums up the Wynants' problems in a single memorable line: "They're all sex-crazy, I think, and it backs up into their heads."  Freud might not have put it quite that way (Ach!), but the train of thought arrives at the same place in the end.

The most famous of these sexually frank lines from the novel also involves Mimi, who certainly is a femme fatale in nature, whether or not she is one in fact.  Nora, who is a rather tough little number herself, asks Nick, after he tussles with a furious and violent Mimi, "when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn't you get an erection?"  Nick, responds "Oh, a little."

Although Hammett's publisher Knopf was able to make hay with the controversy generated by this naughty passage, even brazenly directing readers in a newspaper ad to the page where the exchange occurs, it was subsequently excised from later editions, including, amazingly to me, my modern Vintage Books edition.  (In the new version Nora euphemistically asks Nick whether he got "excited" when he wrestles Mimi.)

"How'd you happen???"
Nick (William Powell) with son "Nick Jr." (Dickie Hall)
in  Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), the fourth in the popular six film series.
Like Frankenstein's Monster, the Thin Man seemingly could not be stopped.

Certainly you won't see Myrna Loy querying William Powell in the Thin Man flicks about his erections, though presumably Nick got them on occasion, since Loy's Nora had given birth to a baby by the third film in the series.  In this sense the book is rather coarser than the films, linking them more to the Hammett novels (and to Hammett's own messy and rather sordid personal life). 

To many readers at the time, this sort of sexual frankness must have been titillating indeed.  Was this the first time the word "lesbian" had ever been uttered in a detective novel?  I recall how Hammett supposedly had to sneak the word "gunsel" (meaning young male homosexual) into The Maltese Falcon a few years earlier, yet apparently Knopf gave him no trouble over "lesbian."  Nick and Nora also use the words Jesus and Christ as oaths, something you won't be hearing in the film either.

There are gangsters aplenty in this world of screwy sybaritic rich people, though they play subsidiary roles in the tale, as well as cops, who while they are more upright than those you find in Red Harvest, nevertheless routinely third degree and beat up suspects with abandon, so long as they aren't rich.  When at one point in the novel Gilbert gets beaten after fleeing and resisting a cop (who didn't know who Gilbert was), he at least gets an apology from the lead police detective.

Also popping briefly up is a stray Communist type (Nick never gets his name), who opines at a cocktail party, "Comes the revolution and we'll all be lined up against the wall--first thing."  Nick dryly declares: "He seemed to think it was a good idea."  Maybe Hammett did too.  Like a lot of writers, I find, he had the ability to stand outside himself and criticize his own behavior, whether or not he changed it.  Maybe that's one reason he drank so much.  Self-awareness is can do things to you.

the clever couple
As for the mystery, it's workmanlike and thorough, with one particularly clever clue I thought, though I suspect any seasoned vintage mystery reader will beat Nick to the solution.  When Nora, who between drinks has become an enthusiastic amateur detective, suggests to Nick that "we make a list of all the suspects and all the motives and clues," Nick snidely puts her off:

"You do it.  I'm going to bed.  What's a clue, Mamma?

Yet Hammett devotes the last chapter of something under two thousand words to having Nick explain all about the murderer to Nora, who amusingly is somewhat skeptical that everything will really wrap up so nicely as Nick thinks it will.  For his part, Nick, when Nora asks him what will happen to everyone else in the case, replies "Nothing new....Murder doesn't round out anybody's life except the murdered's and sometimes the murderer's."  To which a vaguely deflated Nora replies, "That may be...but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."

Subversive words indeed with which to end a Golden Age mystery!  One of the many reasons why you have to read The Thin Man.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Whatever Happened to Elise De Viane? The Mystery Woman in Dashiell Hammett's 1931 Sexual Assault Case

A plague on these women who, lengthily wooed,
Are not to be won until one's out of the mood.
And who then discerning one's temperateness,
Accuse one of cooling because they said yes!


--"Curse in the Old Manner," by Dashiell Hammett (The Bookman, September 1927)

For all the admirers landmark crime writer Dashiell Hammett has today (I count myself among their number), one can make the case, as one can with the similarly legendary crime writer Raymond Chandler (another favorite of mine), that the man, however impressive were his writing achievements (and they were), was, well, something of a bastard.  For, after all, Hammett was a compulsive womanizer and nasty drunk; a family man who left his family; a spendthrift who neglected to pay his taxes while he lectured others about the blessings of Communism; and, above all, if you care about his writing, a fritterer away of his glorious natural talents in inglorious debauched excess. 

A 1982 review of a Hammett biography in the New York Times Book Review bluntly lays Hammett's unpleasant attributes on the line:

He made over a million dollars, but he spent and gave away more than he made.  He surrounded himself with loungers and spongers, with a chauffeur, a cook, a factotum, with secretaries (some of whom had to sue him for back wages), with actresses (he had walked out on his wife and two daughters, who never got to see much of his money), with call girls (he liked black and Oriental [sic!] prostitutes best), with women writers (first Nell Martin, then Lillian Hellman, whom he met in 1931).  He had his own table at swanky restaurants and charge accounts at fashionable stores.  He ran up huge hotel bills and then snuck out without paying.  He lost large sums playing poker and betting on the ponies.  

Above all, he drank.  When drunk the otherwise untalkative Hammett became noisy and argumentative.  He made scenes, broke windows, tyrannized waiters, slugged women, made plays for his friends' wives and passed out flat on his face, in barrooms, in living rooms, in publishers' offices, on streets.  He died broke, owing the Government $163, 286.48, plus interest, in back taxes.  

Then around 1937 this self-indulgent and self-destructive man apparently became a devoted member of the Communist Party and, like many others in the artistic community at the time, "damn well towed the line" in the face of manifold contrary evidence, twisting his views around like a pretzel to stay in accord with whatever was the party line being laid down at the time, as dictated by Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin.  Hammett's commitment to Communism laid the predicate for the shameful persecution he would suffer at the hands of the U. S. government some fourteen years later, when he was continually harassed and ultimately jailed for nearly six months.

There are some points I would like to discuss about that later period in Hammett's life, but here I want to look at an episode from the summer of 1931, after the money from the book and film adaptations had begun flowing into Hammett's coffers and he had begun really to enjoy what is facilely termed the good life.

It was in 1931 that Hammett, having left his wife and daughters several years earlier, met, and commenced a longtime, on and off again, relationship with writer Lillian Hellman.  Being involved with Hellman did not put a stop to Hammett's casual affairs with other women, however.  One of these causal affairs would have consequences--though they were not so consequential as they would have been today, one imagines.

Elise De Viane's native Belgian father
Alphonse (1867-1939), who
brought his family to America in 1910
On visits to their father's suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Hammett's two daughters Mary and Jo, frequently encountered his many lady friends.  Mary, the elder of the two girls, would tell her sister not to mention these ladies to their mother.  The latest lady friend--who, according to Hammett biographer Sally Cline, had "met and charmed" the girls while they were on a shopping trip to find a gift for their mother--was one "Elise De Viane," whom Cline terms an "exotic starlet."  An earlier Hammett biographer, Diane Johnson, wrote that Mary Hammett remembered "the ravishing but silent Miss De Viane."  (How the ravishing but silent Elise charmed Mary and Jo without ever speaking, to square these two accounts, is unclear.)

Exotic starlet Elise De Viane played the leading role in a scandal that, in today's culture, might well have then and there crushed out Hammett's career like a burnt-out cigarette butt. Let me quote the separate accounts of the shocking incident that are made Sally Cline and Diana Johnson:

Ambassador Hotel, where Elise said Hammett's
violent sexual assault upon her had been committed
During winter 1931-1932, Dashiell invited Elise to supper in his hotel room.  Later, she called the police and had him charged with assault, claiming that Hammett had raped and beaten her.  She sued him for $35,000 in damages in California's Superior Court.  On June 30, 1932, he was found guilty in absentia, and the New York Times reported Elise was rewarded $2500.  (Cline)

Elise was, as events proved, a real old-fashioned girl.  One night after dinner at his place, he knocked her around a little.  Sober, later, this scared him.  And now she was charging him with assault and asking for damages.
(Johnson)

Johnson notes that after Hammett failed to pay the judgment (he seems to have had the same attitude toward civil suit damages that he had to taxes), Elise successfully garnished his wages.  "Miss Deviane caught up with me and so my paycheck is sewed up," Hammett laconically wrote Lillian Hellman, "but I hope to get it fixed up tomorrow so that only a little is taken out each week--if $300 a week for nine weeks can be called a little.  But I'm stuck for it so I suppose there's no use bellyaching."  This letter was written in November 1934, over two years after he had lost the lawsuit, so he kept Elise waiting for quite some time.

Needless to say neither of these accounts put Hammett in a good light, but in Cline's version Hammett is charged with rape, in Johnson's with knocking Elise around "a little."  Cline also claims that Elise called the police at the time of the alleged assault at Hammett's suite (which was said to have taken place on July 14, 1931, not the winter of 1931-32 as Cline vaguely states), but I have never seen a newspaper account stating that.  As I have deciphered it, on August 5, 1931, Elise brought a civil suit against Hammett in the California Superior Court for battery committed on her person by the author, asking $36,700 in damages (over $600,000 today).  As noted above, she won her suit, with Hammett not even appearing in court to contest it, but she had to settle for $2500, or about $42,000 in modern dollars.  To the victor, for whatever reason, went much reduced spoils.

Why so serious?
Dashiell Hammett in 1933
Surprisingly, given Hammett's increasing celebrity as a popular and prestigious crime writer, the report of the judgment against him received only the scantest of mentions in the New York Times, and few details from the trial ever seem to have leaked into the press.  Elise was quoted, however, as testifying that she had called at Hammett's apartment to have dinner.  As recounted by her, it hardly seems that she could have had in mind a steamy sexual tryst when she knocked on Dash's door: "I was accompanied by my niece, Eleanor Gerg, seven years old....Mr. Hammett was very drunk and he insisted on my drinking.  I refused and he tried to make love to me.  I resisted and he carried me into into the bathroom.  I fought him off and he beat me."

Giving some notion of the different environment of that day, a writer for one newspaper, the Manhattan (Kansas) Republic, flippantly quipped:

Dashiell Hammett, novelist, was ordered by a court to pay $2500 damages to Miss Elsie de Viane, actress, who charged he made violent love to her, then beat her.  Probably he was only studying her reactions and getting material for a modern novel.  

Newspapers often didn't even get Elise's name right, the cardinal sin, we proverbially hear, against the Hollywood publicity seeker.  As you can see, the Manhattan Republic called her Elsie.  The Wilmington Morning News called her Elsie De Maine.  The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph called her Elsie DeMaine.  The Oakland Tribune called her Elsie De Diane.  The Detroit Free Press called her Eliss De Viane.  When these newspaper stories were methodically gathered earlier this year on Evan Lewis' davycrockettsalmanack blog, Lewis responded to a commenter who speculated from all this that Hammett seems to have been a precursor to Harvey Weinstein by countering, "Except Hammett was only accused once, and that by a woman with seven different names."  The implication being, I think, that this actress was, like Hammett's femme fatale Brigid O'Shaugnessy, a lady of  doubtful character, making a dubious claim.

So who was Elise De Viane (to use her most common newspaper appellation)?  Surprisingly, no one seems to have tried to find answers to this question, despite the fact that Elsie made rather a damning accusation indeed against Hammett's character.  In "Unbecoming Dashiell Hammett," Steven Gore's 2015 article on Hammett in the LA Review of Books, Gore states that the allegation that Hammett "battered and attempted to rape actress Elise de Viane" went unrebutted by Hammett and thus must be presumed true.  I can't go as far as that myself, but I have to admit the facts which we have, paltry as they are, seem extremely damning to Hammett. 

Can't we go farther and add to the facts, however?  Can't we at least try to find out whatever happened to Elise De Viane?  Was she just another one of Hammett's "loose women," as Joan Mellen, author of a book on power couple Hammett and Hellman put it in a 2009 lecture?

Knickerbocker Hotel, where Elise was living
when she met Dashiell Hammett
First, just who was she, really?  All we get told is that she was an "exotic starlet," or dismissive variations thereof.  As far as her calling goes, I have been able only to find a 1929 newspaper reference to her being a Hollywood chorus girl contracted to First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, in a brief piece about pretentiously fancy stage names adopted by ladies of the chorus:

Broadway or Hollywood, chorus girls simply will have their fancy names. 

Here are a few selected at random from the First National-Vitaphone Chorus: Madelin Dorraine, Sugar Geiss, Diana Verne, Day Porter, Elise de Viane, Bonnie Winslow, Vivian Du Vaud, Doriane Wilde, Fleata Crawford, and--believe or not!--Lotis Dear! 


So exotic starlet Elise De Viane was kicking it in the chorus line two years before she met Dashiell Hammett.  In 1930, she was residing at the famed Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel and she gave her occupation as "motion pictures actress," which may have been a bit of hopeful embellishment.  By this time she was already thirty-one years old (four months to the day older than my paternal grandmother, an Oklahoma schoolteacher), which made her a bit elderly, perhaps, for an "exotic starlet."  Probably for this reason she had shaved five years off her age, claiming to be twenty-five.

Gold Diggers of 1935 was one of the later First National pictures

Whatever fibs Elise may have told about herself, however, she was not lying about her name.  It really was Elise De Viane, or more accurately Elise De Viaene.  Later in life it became simply Elise Deviane.  She was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1899, and first came to the United States with her family in 1910, settling in Chicago.  Her parents were John Alphonse and Marie De Viaene and her younger sister Louise.  Although when he immigrated to the United States he listed his occupation as "baker," Alphonse was working in Chicago in 1910 as a garden laborer and later in life as a janitor. 

I included a photograph of Alphonse near the top of this blog post (regrettably I haven't found one of fetching Elise).  A handsome and well-preserved gentleman of fifty-four years of age, the Belgian Alphonse has, I think, that certain gravity and formal bearing which one sees in still photos of Hammett, who through his mother had French Huguenot ancestry--although in marked contrast with Hammett, Alphonse stood only a diminutive 5'5".  Like Hammett, Alphonse was a father of two girls.  What did he make of his elder daughter's troubles in paradise, one wonders?

In 1920, likely not long before she made it out to Hollywood, Elise was prosaically working as a bundler at a tailor's shop.  Louise, who worked as a nursemaid to a wealthy Jewish family engaged in the advertising business, stayed in Chicago for the next two decades, successively marrying Scandinavian-Americans Henry Olaf Lawson, a self-employed carpenter nearly twenty years her senior, and an Alex or Allen Berg, a man in the motor trade.  By Henry Lawson she had a daughter, Eleanor Jean, who is the Eleanor "Gerg" (actually Berg of course) who accompanied her Aunt Elise to Dashiell Hammett's place on a visit out to California, becoming an inadvertent witness, if you believe Elise's account, to her attractive aunt's violent beating and attempted rape at the hands of a drunken and aroused crime writer.

Elise had made the classic trek to Hollywood, like so many other young hopefuls in the Twenties and Thirties.  She never became a star, her biggest claim to fame being, sadly, that she narrowly avoided getting raped by Dashiell Hammett.  By 1940, nine years after the event, she had become a naturalized American citizen and had married Max Shagrin.  A mellifluous-voiced native Slovakian Jew a dozen years older than Elise, Shagrin with his twin brother Joe had managed a theater in Youngstown, Ohio before moving out to California to manage a chain of theaters in San Francisco for Warner Brothers.

the Shagrin brothers (Max, who married Elise, on the left)

By the time he married Elise, Max had moved down to LA (residing at the Knickerbocker), where he had become a successful Hollywood agent.  His stable of clients included child actress Jane Withers, film foil to Shirley Temple, and George Tobias, who later attained fame as Abner Kravitz on television's Bewitched.  Max was less successful with a skinny nineteen year old young man from New York.  He advised this youngster, who had taken the stage name Tyrone Power, to go back home and gain more experience and more weight.

Elise died in Los Angeles in 1974, five years after Max, whom it appears she may have divorced many years earlier.  Evidently no one had ever come to her over the space of more than four decades to dredge up memories of her fateful 1931 affray with Dashiell Hammett, even though the author's reputation had been decidedly on the upswing since a collection of his stories, The  Big Knockover, had been published in 1966, complete with a moving, if not always necessarily truthful, introduction by Lillian Hellman, who had wrested control of Hammett's literary estate (and the profits therefrom) away from his wife and daughters.

In 1940 Elise's niece, Eleanor Lawson (as she now called herself), was a senior in high school and resided out in LA on Sunset Boulevard in the household of Elise and Max.  She died in California a year after her aunt while only in her early fifties, but her mother and Elise's sister Louise, who had also moved out to California and married yet again in 1943 (to Charles Kendall Marks), survived to the age of ninety-five, passing away near the end of the century in 1997, by which time the full scale Hammett revival was roaring along.  Louise had had a son as well, a half-brother of Eleanor's named Ronald Berg, who was born in 1928 and may, for all I know, still be alive.  I advise future Hammett biographers to get on the trail before it's too late!  Inquiring minds want to know.  Or at least your friendly neighborhood Passing Tramp does.