Sunday, August 2, 2020

Circling Back: Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936 and 1943)

Jonathan Stagge's Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novel The Scarlet Circle (1943), in which the good doctor and his daughter Dawn encounter a rash of highly queer serial killings during their annual late summer fishing vacation at the decaying seaside New England village of Cape Talisman, has long been one of my favorite Stagge mysteries--indeed, one of my favorite mysteries period.  I reviewed it, very favorably, on my blog eight years ago.  But I only more recently came to realize that The Scarlet Circle originally was published in January 1936 in the pulp Detective Story Magazine and in the last quarter of 1942 heavily revised for publication by "Jonathan Stagge" co-author Hugh Wheeler, who added some 30,000 words and restructured much of the story.

ocean front of the Sakonnet Inn, Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island
also known as the Lyman Hotel (see Little Compton Historical Society)

All we know from the story is that The Scarlet Circle takes place along coastal New England, likely Connecticut, Rhode Island or southern Massachusetts, with my choice leaning toward Rhode Island, possibly the area of Little Compton, in the far southeastern part of the state.  At the far southern end of Little Compton, jutting out into the sea, is Sakonnet Point, where earlier in the previous century there used to be a thriving fishing village of a couple hundred souls, which catered to the summer tourist trade.  This would have made as excellent place as any, I think, for the site of the the fictional Cape Talisman in The Scarlet Circle, just as the real life Sakonnet Inn could have stood in for the fictional Talisman Inn.

1930s view of Sakonnet Point--for the writing on the back of the postcard see the picture below

The community of Sakonnet Point was wiped out by the catastrophic New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, which killed around 600 New Englanders, mostly in beleaguered Rhode Island, and in Connecticut imperiled Kathrine Hepburn, who at that time happened to be staying at the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  The '38 hurricane is referenced more than a few times in the 1943 edition of The Scarlet Circle.

North View on Lloyd's Beach at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton RI by Jeff Hayden
superimposed on the modern photo is an image of what the spot looked like
before the Great Hurricane of 1938, probably in the 1910s or  1920s
(purchases of this image help to support the Little Compton Historical Society)

Today Sakonnet Point offers visitors "long sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and is a haven for birds"--so appropriate for Hugh Wheeler, who in England had been, with his elder brother, an avid birdwatcher.  As the Our Natural Heritage website puts it:

Looking out from the easternmost tip of [Lloyd's] Beach [at Sakonnet Point], all you can see is the vast Atlantic Ocean in front of you, as you gaze out toward Portugal.  In the summer the beach and the surrounding scenery are pure heaven, and in the other seasons it is wild and wavy and exhilarating....I'll never forget how the wind howled so fiercely it almost sounded like sirens were calling from the the beach.


Anyone who has read the '43 version of The Scarlet Circle will know how the book memorably captures the images described above.

Cape Talisman, as envisioned by Hugh Wheeler and his partner Richard Webb, also seems to draw from the famous "drowned city" of Dunwich, in Suffolk, England, which for centuries now has been crumbling into the North Sea.  Very little is left today of what once had been (by medieval English standards) a large city.  Dunwich's All Saints' Church, which survived at the edge of a cliff into the twentieth century, became a much photographed iconic image in England.

"The tower went [over the cliff] on 12 November 1919," notes Simon Knott at the Suffolk Churches website,

leaving just a single buttress, which was rescued and reset in the graveyard of the new church at St. James.  Hauntingly, it carries graffiti from sightseers who visited it during its lonely sojourn on the clifftop....Throughout the twentieth century, people have come to Dunwich to see the last relics of All Saints.  Until the 1950s it was still easy to find identifiable lumps of masonry on the beach.  When I first came here in 1985, the bones of those buried in All Saints' graveyard protruded gruesomely from the cliff, and a single gravestone, to John Brinkley Easey, stood in an inconceivably bleak loneliness at the clifftop.  But this now has gone, removed to the safety of the churchyard at St James, and one would not think that there ever was anything like a town hear now.

like a sentinel, the solitary tower of All Saints Church once overlooked the cliff at Dunwich

I think that in The Scarlet Circle Hugh Wheeler and Rickie Webb, native Englishmen both, boldly placed All Saints and its churchyard with its exposed graves on the crumbling cliff in fictional Cape Talisman, New England, where they are to play an important role in the plot.

Here's how the 1936 pulp version of The Scarlet Circle describes Cape Talisman (Both versions are, like all the Dr. Westlake tales, narrated by the crime solving doctor):

grave of John Brinkley Easey (1738-1811)
in Dunwich, England
the last grave that was left lying in All Saints cemetery
September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, is the shore of Cape Talisman.  It is one of those spots against which the elements seem to have  a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves are encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which once was a flourishing community, is now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there is a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing is really safe.  The Talisman Hotel, so strong, so modern when I first visited it ten years ago, now has its foundations on sand and the beach for a front garden.  Soon it will have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church was recently abandoned when the spring tides approached the churchyard and threatened the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart fisher folk.  

And here's 1943:

September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, was the shore line of Cape Talisman,  It was one of those spots against which the elements seem to have a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves were encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which was once a flourishing community, was now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there was a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing was really safe.  The Talisman Inn, so secure, so prim when I first stayed there fifteen years ago, now had the beach for a front garden.  Soon it would have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church had been abandoned a couple of years ago when the hurricane had induced the Atlantic Ocean to surge into the churchyard and threaten the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart forebears.  

How convenient was the hurricane for Hugh's revision of The Scarlet Circle.  So much more sudden and dramatic than the "spring tides."

The changes in the above passages were light, outside of the addition of the mention of the '38 hurricane.  In much of the novel, however, the changes are considerable indeed.

Little Compton, Rhode Island
exposed Sakonnet Point is at the southernmost end
it was greatly unchanged a century later
Most significantly, Hugh Wheeler tremendously expanded the role of Dr. Westlake's willful daughter, Dawn, who is at her most willful here.  She is involved in a subplot with another determined child, five-year-old Bobby Fanshawe, the son of an artistic couple staying at the Talisman Inn, which becomes much more important in the '43 version.

Reviewing the novel in 1943, Anthony Boucher complained that Dawn "hasn't grown a month nearer puberty in six years"; but of course Boucher didn't appreciate that The Scarlet Circle was actually Dawn's second published adventure, rather than her sixth. 

Indeed, the pulp version of the tale even gives Dawn's age as nine, which is a year younger than she starts off in the the first Stagge mystery, The Dogs Do Bark, so she's literally regressing.  To be sure, Dawn behaves more immaturely here than she does in The Yellow Taxi (1942), where her age has advanced to twelve, but she her absolute determination is also tremendously amusing, in my view, if you don't find humor in an otherwise creepy serial killer story too discordant. Somehow it all seems to seems to work for me; and Dawn here is really integral to the plot, more so than she is in some of the other stories.

Clearly Hugh is more interested than Rickie was in the Dawn subplot.  Compare the passages in the respective version where Bobby is introduced into the story:

Bobby Fanshawe was a small, solemn infant of five who looked as though life were altogether too confusing for him--as probably it was if he modeled it upon his father and mother.  After breakfast I took him and Dawn out onto the beach.  (1936)

landward side of the Sakonnet Inn,
showing the observation tower, which later became a guest suite

Within a few moments [Dawn] walked in, leading little Bobby Fanshawe by the hand.  

It was a most unfortunate moment, because I had gotten out of bed and was struggling with my pajama top which had become twisted around me during the night.  Bobby Fanshawe was very small for five years.  He had very black hair, cut in a flat oriental bang, and very black sooty eyes which stared with archiepiscopal solemnity.  

He just stood there with his hand tightly clasped in Dawn's and gave me one of those long Bobby stares.

Suddenly, in a voice deep and husky as a truck driver's, he said: "Who's that man?"

"It's my Daddy," said Dawn  "You know that perfectly. You've seen him every day for two weeks."  

Bobby's expression showed no fractional alteration. 

"I don't like him," he said.  "He looks silly.  He's a silly man." (1943)

Postcard written from Sakonnet Point
written on September 3, 1936,
almost two years to the date before
 the Great New England Hurricane,
to Ethel Hale Freeman (1882-1960), Smith
College graduate, academic, composer and artist.
The island of Bermuda--another favorite vacation
destination of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, about
which they wrote about in the detective novel
Return to the Scene (1941)--is mentioned
Rickie in the '36 version is more interested in discussions among investigators, which are toned down in the '43 version, about the presumed sexual deviancy of an evidently grotesquely depraved serial killer:

"Of course, you've always got Jack the Ripper to back you up," he admitted.  "But his were sex crimes, Gilchrist.  And the autopsy showed that there was nothing of that sort in this case."

Gilchrist smiled grimly.  "We don't want to get into the complications of sex perversions, Sweney.  But if you ever read Kraft-Ebbing [sic] you'll find some pretty little chapters on fetishism, sadism and even necrophilia."  

The serial killer, you see, strangles women and then draws circles with red lipstick around single prominent moles on their dead bodies.  It certainly appears to be prime material for pioneering sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing, with whose landmark work, Psychopathia Sexualis, Rickie Webb clearly was familiar (see his book The Grindle Nightmare, 1935), but Hugh doesn't speculate about this so explicitly. 

Nor does the '43 version point out that Dawn herself has a large mole, which might tempt the killer!  In the later version Dr. Westlake attempts to pack Dawn off to his Aunt Mabel out of concern for her safety, but we don't into the matter of Dawn's moles, which is good because in the pulp version it's kind of icky.

Overall, Hugh enriches the writing.  I'll give just one more example here, comparing the passages where Dr. Westlake goes for a walk on the beach with Mr. Usher (!), an oleaginous undertaker staying at the Talisman Inn:

Uriah Heep (1939 Royal Doulton figurine)
....he seemed utterly out of place against the sunlit background of the beach with its turquoise waves and its long, silver stretches of sand.  He wore a dark inappropriate suit which heightened the waxy pallor of his skin and the redness of his hair.  Everything about his face was mean and foxy except his full-lipped sensual mouth.  His hands he kept running nervously in front of him in a pose which was strangely reminiscent of Uriah Heep.  I noticed that the joints of his fingers were sprinkled with warts.  

Doctor Westlake, I--er--wonder if you would care to go for a stroll.  There's a little matter-" (1936)

There was a horrid smile on his full red mouth--a smile, too, in the ginger-brown eyes.  He wore no hat, and his red hair gleamed in the sunlight above the waxy pallor of his cheeks.  Under his arm was a black leather book, probably the Bible, and his hands, with their spray of warts, were kneading each other in a Uriah Heep fashion.  He glanced rather furtively at Buck and then more steadily at me. 

"Ah good morning, Dr. Westlake.  A shocking tragedy--but a beautiful morning.  The Lord's compensation."  He hesitated.  "I was wondering if you would care to take a little stroll with me."  

There was nothing I would care to take less.  I was about to say so when he added: 

"There is something--ah--quite important.  I would be grateful to have your advice."  (1943)

"Touch the screen!"
capture of Phil Collins mugging it as a smarmy,
wealthy televangelist in the satirical 1991
Genesis video of the song "Jesus He Knows Me"
That added pious, empty platitude about "The Lord's compensation" (as if nice weather can compensate for a woman's tragic murder) shows the hand of true natural writer.  How many times over the decades have we seen those horrid smiles on the faces of sickeningly fulsome, donations-beseeching celebrity television ministers?

Whether or not it's my favorite Stagge, The Scarlet Circle--the '43 version--is certainly in my top three or four of them. 

I'm glad the time was taken to get right its peculiarly captivating blend of terror and whimsy, so characteristic of the Golden Age of detective fiction.