Monday, November 18, 2019

Murd'rous Queer Witchery It Be! The Condamine Case (1947), by Moray Dalton

'Tes a queer place seemingly....Full of ghostesses, what with beasts coming down from the church roof and her that walks up to Great Baring and her hair blowing like smoke in the gale. T'esn't a place to be out alone at night."  Constable Puddock slowed down and sounded his horn as they came out into the road, and added rather hastily, "'Tes only old tales and ignorance."

"The Condamines have a name for being queer...."
--The Condamine Case (1947), by Moray Dalton

In Moray Dalton's Inspector Hugh Collier saga there came, after The Art School Murders in 1943, The Longbridge Murders in 1945.  Then two years after that there came The Condamine Case, followed the next year by The Case of the Dark Stranger in 1948. 

I'm hoping all of these titles, which I personally enjoyed immensely, will be reprinted next year, but in the early batch there will be the non-series The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), reviewed here, The Art School Murders, reviewed here, and The Condamine Case, reviewed in this post, as well as two earlier Dalton Hugh Collier titles, to be reviewed, I hope, later this month.

In my review of The Case of Alan Copeland, I wrote about how darkly portrayed the English village was, with a monstrous regiment of women who might almost be seen as "witches" of a sort, while in my review of The Art School Murders, I noted how the author mentioned American films and and Hollywood stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Robert Taylor.  Well, in The Condamine Case we have actual witches, plus an English film crew making a movie involving witchcraft, at a remote English village, Little Baring in Somerset, apparently located somewhere in the vicinity of the actual village of Wookey, a name I had not, until reading this book, encountered outside of a Star Wars film.  What fan of classic English mystery would want to miss this?

In London rising whiz kid director Stephen Latimer (he's been compared to no less than and Orson Wells and Rene Clair, the latter of whom had recently directed the films I Married a Witch and And Then There Were None) learns of a gentry family in Somerset by the name of Condamine who has a history of witchcraft and haunting.  He decides this would make an excellent subject for his next film, so over he goes to the Condamine ancestral manor with his self-effacing assistant, Welshman Evan Hughes, the focal character of the novel, to scout out the location. 

Leigh Court, Somerset

In Somerset Stephen and Evan stay at the Ionic columned mansion of the Condamines: middle-aged husband George, who is desperately anxious that the film be made, and his beautiful, jaded younger wife of two years, Ida, who acts indifferent to the whole thing.  Also integral members of the household are George's beloved old spaniel Punch and his ill-used young poor relation Lucy Arden, who serves as Ida's beleaguered dogsbody.

Matthew Hopkins
(c. 1620-1647)
infamous hunter of witches
and mass murderer
According to legend, a seventeenth-century ancestor of George's kept a beautiful but humbly-born mistress in the village when he married an heiress from London, and the jealous and vindictive new wife saw to it that the mistress and her mother were accused of witchcraft and drowned (via the barbaric witch-revealing practice known as "dunking").  Unfortunately for the wife, the dead mistress returned from the dead as a ghost and haunted the wife unto her death.  All this supernatural legend stuff is really well done by the author, reminding me of those masters of spooky shudders John Dickson Carr and Marjorie Bowen (high praise indeed). 

Stephen Latimer wants to spice things up yet more, however, by adding to the script the presence of notorious English witch-finder, aka demented mass murderer, Matthew Hopkins, although Evan Hughes informs him that Hopkins never actually came near these parts.  What English witchcraft film wouldn't have Matthew Hopkins, right?

Dalton knew southern England, her native ground, extremely well and there is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the natural and man made environment, which is based on real places in Somerset, like Glastonbury Tor and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Croscombe

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Croscombe
Standing before the Anglican Church at Little Baring while scouting locations for the film, which is located "on high ground, with a field, probably the glebe, between it and the nearest cottages, where the grass grew long and rank among the sparse headstones," Evan is impressed by bell tower's height as well as

the extraordinary and menacing effect produced by the multitude of carved stone gargoyles thrusting forward from the roof like the garrison of a fortress preparing to repel all comers....horrid heads, grimacing, open-mouthed: giant lizards, pig snouts, figures from a nightmare, with scaly shoulders and outstretched sinewy necks and sharp talons gripping the eaves.


The eccentric bachelor rector of this memorable church, Sebastian Mallory, is another important figure in the novel's present day plot, as are, by the by, George Condamine's bluntly garrulous widowed sister-in-law, Julia Condamine, and her indolent young adult son, Oswald ("Ozzie"), both of whom, since George married Ida, have been banished from the manor to a cottage (a picturesque one, to be sure).

Church of St. Mary the Virgin
Stephen and Evan leave Little Baring to return to London, but return with their actors and film crew a few months later, only to learn that Death has unexpectedly come to Little Baring.  Soon there arrives upon the scene as well "a man of about fifty, with a slim, active-looking figure, hands tanned by the sun but noticeably well-kept, a lean brown face with shrewd grey eyes and a humorous mouth."  Readers of the series will know who this is.

It's Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard, of course, in the crime detection game for nearly two decades now.  With him is his phlegmatic assistant of many years, Sergeant Duffield.  Together they face a case that eventually will concern not one murder, but two. Whodunit?  Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring?  Or someone farther afield, perhaps?  Is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?  Test you mettle against Inspector Collier!

Dalton mentions, in a not incidental way, a Condamine ancestor who came from Suffolk, recalling the author's own mother, who was born at Valley House at the village of Stratford St. Mary, and there's also a cute aside about contemporary American crime fiction of the Forties, which seems to be the lamentable Ozzie Condamine's favorite reading:

The sofa springs creaked under his weight as he settled himself more comfortably to follow the hair-raising escapes of a private dick who, on a diet of hamburgers and alcohol, made love to every woman he met while he bluffed his way though the jungle of American Big Business.

A pretty keen assessment there!  It's always fun to read the observations of classic British crime writers on the heady new stuff that getting distilled in the U. S. of A.

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

This is another fine Moray Dalton detective novel, with true detection as well as interesting characters and compelling atmosphere.  The film crew involvement adds a new wrinkle (I was reminded of John and Emery Bonett's 1951 detective novel A Banner for Pegasus) and the supernatural legend aspect is superb.  Parts of the book felt ahead of its time, like something out of a Sixties Ruth Rendell novel.  Highly recommended--but watch out for raven-tressed women that walk by night!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Willoughby Sharp, Claude Kendall and Murder

Madison Hotel
where Claude Kendall was murdered
Six years ago Coachwhip reprinted two vintage mysteries by stockbroker turned mystery writer Willoughby Sharp, Murder in Bermuda (1933), and Murder of the Honest Broker (1944), for which I wrote introductions.  Sharp's two detective novels were published in the United States by onetime Golden Boy publisher Claude Kendall, who for a few years in the Thirties made a great hit with such salacious and controversial books as Tiffany Thayer's Thirteen Men (1930) and its inevitable follow-up, Thirteen Women (1931), the latter of which John Norris reviewed. Such books made Kendall rich for a time, but soon his success faded and his eponymous publishing company failed in 1936.  Researching further into Claude Kendall's life, I found that he was murdered under mysterious circumstances the next year.

Recently Kendall's unsolved murder received two short paragraphs in an excellent book, Indecent Advances: a Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice before Stonewall, by James NYU scholar James Polchin.  (I hope to post a review here soon.)  Given this renewed attention to Claude Kendall, I thought the occasion called for a new article about him and Sharp (who briefly became his publishing partner as well), which I wrote a few months ago and contributed to CrimeReads.  They have just published it under the title "The Playboy and the Publisher: A Murder Story."  Go here to read.  I hope you find it interesting.

Incidentally, you may recall that Claude Kendall's name popped up in the Henry von Rhau saga which I have recently been chronicling here.  I will have the last part of that story posted this week.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Bumped off in the Blackout: The Art School Murders (1943), by Moray Dalton

A blackout during war, or in preparation for an expected war, is the practice of collectively minimizing outdoor light....to prevent crews of enemy aircraft from being able to identify their targets by sight....
--"Blackout," Wikipedia

The association between the blackout and the threat of sexual violence altered the way in which women used blacked out and poorly lit spaces....The effect of the perception of security and the associated moral response is seen in the heavy sentences handed down to offenders who were believed to have exploited the blackout for criminal gain.  That was also seen in the exploitation of the blackout for sexual purposes.  While the evidence for increased sexual violence as a result of the blackout is mostly anecdotal, there was a clear perception of it increasing....
--The Blackout in Britain and Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Marc Wiggam

London's ghastly series of blackout murders, as they came to be called, began--and fortunately ended--in the drear, chill week of Feb. 9, 1942.  The killings, four of them, launched the most dreadful reign of terror, as well as the greatest manhunt, since the Jack the Ripper days more than half a century before.
--"Blackout Killings of London Women Terrorized City," Peter Levins, Knoxville Journal, August 2, 1942

"I'm worried....This damned blackout.  I'm afraid of what may happen in the dark."

--Inspector Hugh Collier in The Art School Murders (1943), by Moray Dalton

If the malevolent malefactor who savagely slew five women in London in 1888--forever known to his public, if you will, as "Jack the Ripper"--has ever conversed in Hell with Gordon Frederick Cummins, executed for the monstrous murders of four women that took place in wartime London in February 1942, perhaps they have discussed the capriciousness of fame (or more accurately notoriety), which made the one depraved maniac eternally famous while allowing the other quickly to become largely forgotten.

Part of the reason for this disparity in renown is the fact that the Ripper was never caught.  Indeed his (?) identity remains unknown, fueling endless speculation and theories in books, articles and internet postings. 

Conversely, Gordon Cummins was quickly apprehended by police and executed for his terrible killings.  The jury deliberated for only thirty-five minutes before finding him guilty as charged, and he was hanged on June 25, only two months after his trial. 

Of course the fact that Britain was fighting a war for survival around the world that deadly week when Gordon Cummins violently prowled in London naturally had something to do with it too.  What were the deaths of four obscure London women--horrific as those deaths had been--compared to the manifold calamities--the mayhem and mass slaughter--going on around the world?

better safe than sorry
two women (one in uniform) putting up a blackout curtain
to shut out the dangers that lurked outdoors
Nevertheless, the killings made a stir.  There was much talk about how the blackout had made Londoners, particularly women, less safe by making it easier for villains to commit heinous crimes under cover of the night.  Ill deeds done in darkness, don't you know. 

Gordon Cummins was only caught because he left his registered gas mask behind after fleeing from the scene of an interrupted attack he had made on a woman.  As a newspaper put it, Cummins' target "might have been killed but for the sudden appearance of a small boy with a flashlight."

Whatever its deleterious impact on society, the blackout certainly should have been a boon to mystery writers.  And, sure enough, in 1940 there came, for example, The Black Out Murders, from the hand of the ever-opportunistic crime writer Leonard Gribble, who after the war also would give readers Atomic Murder (1947). 

Then there was J. Russell Warren's Gas-Mask Murder from 1939, which when it was published in the United States the next year was re-titled, yes, Murder in the Blackout.  (Expect to see Warren back in print next year.)  The blackout also appeared in Gladys Mitchell's Brazen Tongue, likewise published in 1940.

dreamy murderer Gordon Cummins,
who mutilated his murder victims
with a jagged can opener
Classic genteel detection, either in print or on film, could never encompass the bloody horror of the "Blackout Ripper," who it was reported, had sexually mutilated some of his victims with a can opener, but in 1943, there appeared a dullish "Poverty Row" (i.e., cheapie) American film, scripted by Curt Siodmak, called London Blackout Murders,  which specifically references Jack the Ripper, as well as a fine novel by mystery author Moray Dalton, the title of which--The Art School Murders--gave no hint of its wartime setting, though in fact it was, I believe, the author's only mystery actually published during the war.

Although erroneously listed as a non-series mystery, The Art School Murders is in fact an Inspector Hugh Collier story--by my reckoning the tenth of fifteen Collier tales.

The Art School Murders, which will be one of the Moray Daltons reprinted next year by Dean Street Press, is an excellent tale,  representative of the author's more stripped down postwar, proto police procedural style.  Certainly it's reminiscent of works by the four major Crime Queens (Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham), with its overall genteel setting and its keen-eyed social observation; yet it has a bit of a harder edge, I think, than much of their work, lacking in the little snobberies and petty condescension often associated with the Crime Queens (particularly to my mind Ngaio Marsh, as readers of this blog will know).

Yet Dalton's Hugh Collier, while a more believable cop than Marsh's oh-so-impossibly-exquisite Roderick Alleyn, is cut as well from genteel (though not aristocratic) cloth, being one of those attractive, kindly, charming and gentlemanly police detectives whom we associate with the British Crime Queens.  (He especially reminds me of ECR Lorac's Inspector Macdonald.)  One of the lines in the book which I loved explains of Collier that "Crude manners always put him on his mettle." So typical of a Golden Age fictional sleuth, as imagined by the Crime Queens!

And so different from today's depressing viral American cop videos, where every other word that seemingly gets uttered by one of our men in blue begins with an "F" and ends with a "K" or "G"!

It is a pleasure to accompany Hugh Collier as he politely but persistently pursues and finally brings to justice a particularly nasty killer, who over the course of the story murders three women in the London suburbs, two of them for an exceedingly callous reason.

Dalton gets right down to business, producing her first dead body on page four.  Scotland Yard, as embodied by Hugh Collier, enters ten pages later.  The main setting of the novel is an art school founded by a highly regarded though hugely egocentric native Italian portrait painter, Aldo Morosini.  The initial murder victim is Althea Greville, a luscious though somewhat long in the tooth blonde (she's over forty), who until her stabbing death served as a life model at the school.  Two more murder victims follow (one of them a female student at the school, who is stabbed to death at a cinema). Finally, however, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle and identifies the culprit.

I use the term puzzle piece advisedly because four-fifths of the way through the novel the author herself writes this of Collier's thought process:

As he pondered his notes on the case he had a worrying feeling that he had missed something, that he had picked up the false clues and left the one that really mattered trailing.  Was there anything to be gained by turning back?  In all these statements taken from the students at the school, the staff of the cinema, was there one revealing sentence, one operative word that had been passed over, unnoticed at the time?

Yes, dear reader, there was!  Can you find it before Collier?

Collier pursues a fairly limited number of suspects, in contrast with those Golden Age country house mysteries where absurdly there are about a dozen guests (or more) staying for the weekend (though there's only one bathroom--see the detective's "rough sketch"), all of whom had some motivation to have bludgeoned the baronet at midnight in his study.  However, Dalton still manages to put quite a bit of suspense into the telling.

I also liked how Dalton was able to present her lower, middle and upper class characters alike as real human beings, something I recently discerned that Agatha Christie had failed to do in Murder in Easy (1939), where her lower class characters seem strictly stock. 

The mother of the young murdered boy in Christie's novel barely misses him because she has so many other children, don't you know.  Indeed, Christie explains that the woman derives "melancholy enjoyment" from detailing the deaths of her offspring.  It's an attitude that fosters on the part of readers a state of emotional detachment, placing the focus of the story exclusively on the puzzle rather than on any sort of sympathetic emotional connection with the characters.

In The Art School Murders, however, it's the frostily genteel aunt who hardly misses her murdered niece, in contrast with the old family servant, Emma, who feels the young woman's absence keenly.  We, the readers, are invited by the author to empathize.

woman (theater usherette?)
checking the wartime blackout
Aside from the blackout bits in Dalton's novel, there are some other nice details for readers of vintage mystery who enjoy social history as well as murder puzzles, primarily concerning the influence of American culture on wartime Britain, a subject which drew the dismayed interest of George Orwell, among other prominent English commentators of the day.

The murdered art student is a great fan of American films, particularly comparative "oldies" starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  "She's got what they call a pash on that Fred Astaire," explains the maid Emma.  "I heard her humming one of the tunes.  She's got a record of it.  'The Way You Look Tonight.'

The young woman's murder discordantly occurs at a showing of the classic 1936 Fred and Ginger film Swing Time.  Meanwhile Collier's assistant, burly Sergeant Duffield, "goes regularly to the pictures with his wife on his evenings off duty" and is "gradually acquiring a transatlantic vocabulary."  Collier, we learn to our amusement, looks "forward hopefully to the time when his sergeant would refer to his colleagues as bulls."

In 1930 and 1931 three of Moray Dalton's crime novels had been published in the United States, yet over the next two decades, the remainder of her writing career, none were.  Dalton stopped writing, as far as we know, in 1951, and she was soon forgotten, though the discerning Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor praised her highly in their Catalogue of Crime

Was Dalton disappointed with the relative lack of success of her books?  I don't know, but she certainly had every right to be, for in my estimation she produced (I'll say it again) some of the finest British crime fiction of mid century.  Sometimes writers never receive their dues in their lifetimes (just think of the fantastically egregious cases of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson), but occasionally time redresses the balance.  I hope that such happens in the strange case of the proverbially "unjustly neglected" Moray Dalton.

In Dreams: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936)

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Poetry Corner in the Murder Room: Agatha Christie, Moray Dalton, Frances Cornford, tomcats and Rupert Brooke

Frances Cornford (1886-1960) was an English poet and contemporary countrywoman of crime writers Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and Moray Dalton (1881-1963).  Cornford's most famous poem, during her own life and afterward, was To a Lady Seen from a Train:

gloveless tea: Frances Cornford
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk though the fields in gloves,

When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk though the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

Oddly in two books I just read successively, Agatha Christie's Murder Is Easy (1939) and Moray Dalton's The Case of Alan Copeland  (1937) (to be reprinted next year), both authors reference "To a Lady Seen from a Train." 

Or maybe not so oddly, perhaps, as Christie and Dalton (the latter actually Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir) had rather similar backgrounds in many ways, both having been born of wealthy "mixed" marriages (both had English mothers and well-off gentleman fathers from "across the pond," Christie's father being American and Dalton's Canadian) and both having been privately educated.  Why shouldn't they have liked some of the same poetry?

Perhaps Christie read The Case of Alan Copeland before writing Murder is Easy, but the coincidence may simply have been that: a coincidence.  A character in Murder Is Easy recalls the poem at a critical moment late in the story (you who have read it will know what I mean), while in Alan Copeland it is the author herself who references it, on page seven:

The way from the farm to [Miss Gort's] house was open to the wind, a little used path through untilled fields that had lain fallow since the end of of the agricultural boom that had followed the Great War.  Miss Gort's four-roomed brick villa with its grey slate roof wore an air of bleak gentility that might have reminded a passerby, knowing Frances Cornford's poem, of the lady who walked though the fields in gloves.  Emily kept her little garden neat, but there was nothing in it but a few hardy shrubs in front.  At the back she grew potatoes and cabbages and catmint to please Bobo, the great ginger tomcat who came down the path to meet her, purring and arching his back as the gate clicked behind her.  The house struck cold as she entered it, but it was hardly worth while to light the sitting-room fire so late in the day.  It was very clean and very bare.  The floors in all the rooms were covered with linoleum.  There was a pervading smell of furniture polish and moth balls.


Interestingly just as in Dalton's novel we have the ginger-haired Bobo, in Christie's we have the memorable orange-haired Persian Wonky-Pooh.  Both of these handsome lads are scene stealers.

Moray Dalton also wrote a lot of poetry during the Great War, including a poem dedicated to the memory of their beautiful contemporary Rupert Brooke, taken, like so many others in that foolish war, long before his rightful time.  (He died of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite aboard a British battleship moored off the Greek island of Skyros, shortly before the commencement of the Gallipoli campaign.)  So too had Frances Cornford commemorated Rupert Brooke in verse.

too close to the sun
 Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Rupert Brooke
In Memoriam
by Moray Dalton


I never knew you save as all men know
Twitter of mating birds, flutter of wings
In April coverts, and the streams that flow--
One of the happy voices of our Springs.

A voice forever stilled, a memory,
Since you went eastward with the fighting ships,
A hero of the great new Odyssey,
And God has laid His finger on your lips.


On Rupert Brooke
by Frances Cornford


A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.


I give the laurel to Frances for those four elegant lines, especially "the long littleness of life."  But it's interesting just to see the links these women writers of that war generation shared with each other.  Of course it wasn't by any means solely English women who adored Rupert Brooke, the so-called "handsomest young man in England"!  But that's another subject for another time and place.

A is for for Adenoids: The Adenoidal Agatha Christie

"The adenoid...is a mass of lymphatic tissue located behind the nasal cavity...where the nose blends into the throat.....An enlarged adenoid....can obstruct air flow enough so that breathing through the nose can require an uncomfortable amount of work, and inhalation instead occurs through the open mouth.  The enlarged adenoid would also obstruct the nasal airway enough to affect the voice....Enlargement of the adenoid, especially in children, causes an atypical appearance of the face...."
                                                                                             --"Adenoid," Wikipedia

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I started reading Agatha Christie at the age of eight, going straight to her from L. Frank Baum, so the Queen of Crime was my literary entree into the adult world.  I learned new words and phrases from her, like, as mentioned last time, "old pussies" (in reference to elderly spinsters), as well as "dark horse," "Old sins have long shadows," "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small," and, most unacceptable today, "There's a n----r in the woodpile."  I also learned from her that most maids back then were named "Gladys" and that they, like girl village shop assistants, almost invariably suffered from adenoids.  Just what were adenoids, anyway?  I had no idea.  I just hoped I didn't have them!

Gladys Martin (Annette Badland)
in a Pocket Full of Rye
The classic adenoidal maid in Christie probably is poor Gladys Martin, found murdered with a clothes peg clipped to her nose in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953):

"Gladys Martin is the parlourmaid or waitress, as they like to call themselves nowadays.  She does the downstairs rooms, lays the table, clears away and helps Crump wait at table.  Quite a decent sort of girl, but very nearly half-witted.  The adenoidal type."
[Inspector] Neele nodded.

"I never even saw [Gladys]," said Pat.  "Was she a pretty girl?"

"Oh no," said Miss Marple, not at all. Adenoids, and a good many spots.  She was rather pathetically stupid too...."


Recently when I was rereading Christie's Murder Is Easy (1939), in came an adenoidal maid, near the end of the story: One Emily (not Gladys!), house servant to the genteel spinster Miss Honoria Waynfleete, who in some ways is rather a Miss Marpleish sort of character.  Poor Emily is described as "a small, clumsy-looking girl with pronounced adenoids."  Unlike Gladys, who is a rather tragic character meant to be seen with sympathy by the reader (though the blunt descriptions of her failings many will find cruelly repellent today), Emily seems to be played by the author strictly for laughs:

"If you blease, biss, did you bean the frilled billow cases?"

Christie seems directly to relate lack of intelligence with adenoids, when it fact it seems simply a physical malady that could strike anyone.  She recalls in her Autobiography having two regular playmates, Dorothy and Dulcie, "stolid children with adenoids whom I found dull."  Adenoids strike again!

Apparently, though, adenoids can sometimes deceive.  There's maid Beatrice King in the short story "The Lernean Hydra" in The Labors of Hercules  (1947), who appears to Hercule Poirot as

a short, rather sly-looking girl with adenoids.  She presented an appearance of stolid stupidity but her eyes were more intelligent than her manner would have led one to expect.  

Maybe Beatrice King is a dark horse, adenoids notwithstanding.  M. Poirot had better keep his eye on this one!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Literary Munchausen: The Amazing (and Sometimes Appalling) Adventures of Henry von Rhau, Part 2

For part one of Henry's saga see here.

The headline was horrific.  "Wife, Beaten for 6 Years, Can't Take It Anymore," blared the title to the story about Aline (Stumer) von Rhau's divorce suit against her husband, author Henry von Rhau, in the New York Daily News on April 27, 1933. 

Before a Bridgeport, Connecticut courtroom packed with "society folk," the Daily News reported, "the wealthy and socially prominent Aline Stumer von Rhau" testified before Superior Court judge Arthur F. Ells that the "six years of her married life were marked by one long series of beatings, featured by an occasion when her husband devoted an hour and a half to punching and kicking her."  The "stunning brunette" and "attractive brunette society woman" pleaded for a divorce from her "tall, dashing husband, Major Henry von Rhau, United States Army, retired, now a novelist and actor," on the grounds of intolerable cruelty.

Once the story got into the nasty nuts and bolts of the case, things did not seem to get any better for Henry's cause.  Testifying in support of Aline were friends Mary Messmore, daughter of famed New York society art dealer Carman H. Messmore, and Katherine Fiske, daughter of the late Haley Fiske, president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.  Miss Messmore told of being on a visit to the couple's summer estate at Fairfield, Connecticut when she saw the Major stride into the house, elegantly clad in his riding habit, and kick Aline. 

it was testified that Henry had beaten Aline
over a game of backgammon
(pictured: Gracie Allen and George Burns)
Henry was just as unpleasant to Aline when in the City, according to the testimony of Miss Fiske, which was was briefly quoted in the Daily News.  "I was sitting with Mrs. von Rhau in her apartment at 955 Park Avenue one afternoon playing backgammon when Major von Rhau came in," she related.  "'Haven't you two got anything to do but play backgammon all the time?' he demanded."  Thereupon, she claimed, von Rhau punched Aline in the jaw and ordered her, Miss Fiske, out of the apartment.

Another newspaper account, in the Scranton Times Tribune, rather less formally quotes Miss Fiske's testimony on this point as follows: "He cried: 'You lousy so-and-so, haven't you two got anything to do but play backgammon all afternoon?  And he punched her on the jaw and said to get out of there."

Details of the worst episode in the von Rhau's married life together came directly from Aline herself.  She contended that Henry had conspired with one of his friends, Thomas McHugh, to frame her for infidelity, giving von Rhau an excuse for administering to her the worst beating that she ever received from his hands.  According to Aline, on the night in question she had been on her way to have dinner with her GBF Claude Kendall, publisher of the first book written by her husband (and the two novels of Kendall's and von Rhau's friend Willoughby Sharp), when she received a phone call from McHugh inviting them to have cocktails at his apartment before dinner.

fighting continued after cocktails
(pictured Clark Gable and Constance Bennett)
At McHugh's place it was not long before Claude Kendall, who by the time likely was suffering from increasing alcohol addiction, had passed out from imbibing too many cocktails, leaving Aline alone with McHugh, who, she said, suddenly got up and left the room.  No sooner had he left than von Rhau entered the room and locked the door, announcing fiercely to Aline, "Now, I am going to kill you."  Stripping to his waist, he proceeded, in Aline's words, "to beat me with his fists and [knock] me around the room for an hour and a half, ripping my clothes."  When McHugh finally returned to the room, leaving the door open behind him, Aline fled for her life, out of the building and into a taxi.  She spent the next month recovering in bed.

To top off this tale of wanton masculine viciousness, Aline added that during their marriage she had essentially "kept" her spouse, supplying Henry with four saddle horses, a valet and a car, paying all the household expenses and advancing him money so he could continue writing.  "He could never find a publisher," one newspaper noted, "so finally she organized her own firm and put one of his novels on the market, but she lost money on it."  (Was this Inwood Press, which originally published Henry's satire The Hell of Loneliness?  Did Aline get a friend, American expat John Mullins, to help finance von Rhau's Tale of the Nineties?)

Additionally (and rather humiliatingly), Aline had even born the cost of her three-week honeymoon trip to Bermuda with Henry, even to the extent of picking up the tab for the travel fare of the freeloading Thornton Wallace "Wally" Orr, "Manhattan clubman and crony of the Major's, who made the voyage with them."  According to Aline, her new husband actually had spent most of the honeymoon not in her company, but that of Wally Orr, who, it will be recalled, had been best man at their wedding.

Aline found three a crowd on her honeymoon in Bermuda,
when Henry's best man tagged along
Of course the defense did not allow Aline's parade of horribles to go unchallenged.  Henry's attorney demanded of Aline to know why she had married von Rhau when she knew that he was a man of "nervous and irritable" temper, to which Aline invoked the power of a woman's true love, replying, "I thought if I married him and gave him a good home, which he had never had, it would cure him.

Additionally, several former army associated and friends of von Rhau's took the stand in his defense, making the case very much of a "boys versus girls" affair.  (The newspapers did not quote the men, however, so I do not know whether such pals of Henry's as Willoughby Sharp, Jack Boissevain and famed playwright and Henry's GBF John Colton took the stand.)

For his part, Henry emphatically denied that he had ever beaten Aline.  One newspaper reported that the former bit part actor "presented a picture of abject humility on the stand."  He called himself "the world's worst husband," explaining that he was "temperamental because I'm a literary man, selfish and thoughtless."  Yet he insisted that although "my shortcomings as a husband were of the gravest kind,,,,I love her, and I never beat her."

Henry admitted to only one physical misdeed with Aline, which took place, he said, at a dinner party they had given, where Aline had twice abandoned their guests to go for a car ride with the same male guest.  "On the second occurrence I slapped her.  I'm sorry I did."  On another occasion Henry admitted to using force with Aline, but in that instance it was done "to keep her from jumping out a window."  Von Rhau insisted that he wished to reconcile with Aline, in part for the sake of their four-year-old son, Anthony, but also because he still loved her.  Aline remained "the loveliest girl I have met," he declared on the stand, bringing tear's to his wife's eyes.

Impressed with von Rhau's testimony that "his one idea in life was to become reconciled with his wife," Judge Ells "summoned the couple to his chambers, excluding even lawyers, and sought to bring them together."  This attempt was unsuccessful, however, with Aline emerging after thirty minutes with Henry in the judge's chambers still resolved upon obtaining a divorce.  Such was granted a week later, Judge Ells having determined that "intolerable cruelty was proved by a fair preponderance of the evidence."  Yet Judge Ells, in a pregnantly suggestive comment, also made a point of commending von Rhau's "chivalry during the trial."  Had "dirt" about Aline been left out of the courtroom?

Perhaps Judge Ells heart was gladdened when, just a few weeks after he granted the divorce, Aline and Henry remarried.  The next year Aline gave birth to the couple's second child, a daughter named Cynthia, on November 28.  A month later the von Rhau hosted a Christmas Eve "cocktail party for intimate friends."  Over the next two years, newspaper society pages were full of accounts of the whirl of activities engaged in  by the seemingly happily reunited Mr. and Mrs. van Rhau.  In February 1935, the couple departed on an eighteen day cruise to South America.  The next year the von Rhaus left New York for Los Angeles, perhaps with the goal of introducing Henry to Hollywood.  Their doings were frequently detailed in newspaper society pages.

Soubrette, by Alexander Mann
In LA the couple was frequently accompanied by Henry's playwright pal John Colton, in keeping with Henry's habit of having a stag male friend tag along with him and Aline. 

In June Henry and Aline attended a buffet supper dance in costume.  Henry was decked out as a Prussian military officer--seemingly his favorite performative role--while Aline, recalling  Henry's bawdy book Tale of the Nineties, came dressed as an 1890s burlesque soubrette.  (One imagines the couple enjoyed a lively fantasy life.)  John Colton was present as well, though sadly no information was provided about the costume he wore.

Aline and Henry made news as well when they appeared separately.  In August Aline attended a "Bavarian party" (questionable taste, perhaps, in 1936), where famed soprano Rosa Ponselle "sang Strauss waltzes divinely," and attended a performance of John Colton's new stage comedy, She Tripped up the Queen.  In September Henry along with John Colton attended a dinner party given by screenwriter and composer Sam Hoffenstein and his wife Edith in honor of Chester Alan Arthur III (aka Gavin Arthur), grandson of the American president of the same name and a future pioneering gay rights activist.  Other guests included author Anita Loos and her husband, director John Emerson; actor Fredric March and his wife, actress Florence Eldridge; and pianist Alex Steinert, who during the "wee small hours" played the entire score of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, along with his own arrangements of pieces by the Russian composers Rimsky-Korsakoff and Borodin.

dude ranching in the Thirties
(not Henry and Aline)
It was for relaxation from this hectic social whirl that Aline and Henry, with John Colton in tow, went to a California dude ranch, the Rancho Verde, in October, a chatty LA Times society column informed its readers:

While "Hank" was busily learning to become a cowpuncher by chasing...steers around and around, John relaxed on the front porch of his cottage with his feet in the sun and head in the shade and a flit gun in his hand.  Oh, for a camera! 

Aline got aboard a horse for the first time in ten years and isn't sitting down with any comfort yet.  And it all comes under the head of fun--which as a matter of fact it really is.


But the fun was over by December, when, five days after Christmas, Aline again filed for a divorce from Henry, accusing her husband for a second time of intolerable cruelty and asking for custody of their two children, eight-year-old Anthony and two-year-old Cynthia. 

This time no details of the divorce suit were published in the newspapers, but Aline's suit had been granted seven weeks later, in February 1937, when French Riviera habitue John Edward Mullins, who it will be recalled had underwritten (At Aline's behest?) Henry's book Tale of the Nineties, was divorced at Grasse by his wife, Silvia Marietta Jose, on grounds of desertion.  Immediately after the divorce, Mullins announced his engagement to Aline Stumer, formerly von Rhau.  Mullins planned to depart from Marseilles aboard the steamship Excalibur, his destination being Beverly Hills and Aline.  In the event, however, Mullins wed not Aline, but one Gladys Celene Carroll, on April 26 in Manhattan.  Two months later he died aboard the Italian ocean liner Rex, the diagnosed cause being "delirium tremens, with hepato-cardiac insufficiency" (meaning, I assume, that chronic long-term alcohol abuse on Mullins' part had led to fatal heart failure).

Riviera expats
Sadly, the perils of Aline would continue over the next dozen years, much to the enjoyment of the newspapers, which liked nothing better--with the exception of murders of course--than lurid tales of erratic heiresses.  In 1938, while residing in LA at 7959 Hollywood Boulevard, Aline was arrested with her twenty-two-year-old brother Louis on suspicion of drunk driving and embarrassingly booked at the county jail, where she gave her name as Mrs. Aline von Rhau--von Rhau, to be sure, having more aristocratic cachet than Stumer. 

Meanwhile multiple-handled Aline's mother Blanche Regina (Griesheimer) Stumer Giddens did her part to keep the Stumer clan in unfavorable headlines.  In 1938, having divorced her second husband, Blanche at age fifty-five married forty-six-year-old Count Eugenio Casagrande, an Italian Great War hero, celebrated aviator and naturalized American citizen who not long after Pearl Harbor was detained as a dangerous enemy alien by FBI agents at an internment camp at Ellis Island.

Casagrande, "a darling of the Park Avenue circles" who before his arrest had been general secretary of the Unione Italiana di America, a federation of three hundred Italian and Italian-American societies, was characterized  by the ever-informative New York Daily News as "an original Fascist." Blanche--or, as she was now known, Countess Casagrande--divorced the Count the next year.  The Stumer women seem to have relinquished their own Jewish heritage, incidentally.  Blanche, for example, altered her hefty surname Grieseheimer to Gresham, as did her daughters, and all three women seem to have had Christian weddings.  Doubtless those Park Avenue circles that were so admiring of Eugenio Casagrande would not have had it any other way.

Eugenio Casagrande
Although apparently politically anodyne, at least, Aline's matrimonial record in the Forties proved every bit as disastrous as her mother's, if not more so.  Successively she wed and divorced three different men in under a decade, beginning in 1940 with Ernest Irving Rodehau, a salesman and son of German immigrants, continuing with Walter C. French in 1943 and concluding, most enticingly ingloriously, with Turkish native Orhan Lambiro in 1949. 

From the last listed of the spouses, Aline sought a divorce after merely twelve days of marriage, bringing to mind the appellation "Aline of a Dozen Days."

Although with her third and fourth marriages and divorces (after the two with Henry), Aline seems to have avoided adverse notice from the press, the third sequence simply had too many outre elements, by postwar American standards, to let pass unmentioned in the newspapers.  At the time he wed forty-five-year-old Aline, Orhan Lambiro was but twenty-three, working as a lifeguard and "beach boy" at Miami Beach.  Initially newspapers reported that Lambiro was the son of Turkish diplomat, but the modest young lifeguard--described, predictably, as "dark" and "husky" by the newspapers--corrected the record.

Speaking to reporters Lambiro explained that he was not the son of the Turkish delegate to the United Nations, his father being merely an employee of the Turkish delegation.  Aline, he claimed, had been responsible for the propagation of that falsehood: "She didn't want her fourth husband--me--doing common work, so I suppose she didn't want my father to be a working man either."  Lambiro added that he had been an American Army staff sergeant during the Second World War, serving overseas in Europe.

Aline had her own complaints, however, as she had years ago concerning Henry.  Lambiro, she asserted, had pressured her to finance a Miami Beach bookie joint and additionally had, like Henry, beaten her.  (Lambiro did have gambling offenses in an arrest record.)  She demanded one hundred dollars in weekly alimony from Lambiro, who attested that as a lifeguard he made but fourteen dollars a week (about one hundred and fifty dollars today). 

Lambiro countered with his own tale of woe, insisting that Aline had humiliated him by frequenting bars with another man.  He also claimed she told him that she had married him "solely for spite."  He asked that the divorce petition be dismissed at Aline's cost.  Certainly Aline's case was not helped when her attorney called off the alimony hearing upon learning that Aline had an income of seven hundred dollars a week--today about $7500 a week, or $360,000 a year.  $360,000 may have seemed like penury to Aline, but it would not have seemed so to most people, and certainly not to Orhan Lambiro.

However it was all finally worked out, the unblissfully wedded couple successfully divorced the next year.  Aline would marry one or two more times before she passed away at the age of seventy in 1975.  But what of Henry van Rhau?  He married again too.  How did that marriage turn out?  More soon, in the last part of the saga of "Baron" Henry and his wives.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Hallow Read: Murder Is Easy (1939), by Agatha Christie

A few day ago I wrote a piece about Moray Dalton's excellent, soon to be reprinted crime novel The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), in which I commented that the novel is a village mystery filled with figurative witches.  However, the admittedly much better remembered Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, published a couple of mysteries with characters professing to be actual village witches: The Pale Horse (1961), arguably the best later Christie, and Murder Is Easy (1939), published eighty years ago, during the Christie's considerable heyday as a mystery writer.

In the United States Murder Is Easy was originally published under the title Easy to Kill, perhaps because in 1935 American mystery writer Armstrong Livingston had used the title Murder Is Easy for a novel.  (The next year, contrarian Richard Hull asserted Murder Isn't Easy.)

Although maybe not, because the title Easy to Kill had already been used too, eight years earlier, by American mystery writer Hulbert Footner, for one of his Madame Rosika Storey mysteries.  So both titles, really, had been previously "taken."

Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth
NPG, London
Anyway, Christie's novel, under whichever name you care to call it, has special distinction for me, because it was among the first Christies I ever read. 

Forty-five years ago, in the summer of '74, my family and I were living in Mexico City, where my father taught at the National University.  One day at Sanborns department store I, just a wee young lad back then, was along when my mother bought, at fourteen pesos apiece, four paperback Pocket Christies.  These were The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, After the Funeral (titled Funerals are Fatal) and, yes, Murder Is Easy (still titled Easy to Kill). My Mom had good taste in Christies!

I read all four of these Christie novels myself that summer, up in our apartment while curled up on an upholstered brown, yellow and orange love seat in a corner by a big window overlooking the street.  The only one of them I still have, complete with the fourteen peso stamp inside, is Murder Is Easy.  This edition had been published in March of 1974.

I was all of eight years old at this time and these books--along with my Mom's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines (in the latter I remember a story called, I think, "The Machete Murderer," about a maniac who chopped up women with a machete, that scared the hell out of me)--constituted my first "adult" reading.  You can see how I was fated to be a mystery reader!

my pb copy, which makes me think
Diana Rigg and Rod Taylor
What do you think?
I have to admit each of these ingenious Christies bamboozled me utterly.  When I read these books again years later, I had forgotten many details of the plots, yet in each I recalled the identity of the killer, which had come as a tremendous shock to me each time.  (The first Christie in which I ever correctly deduced "whodunit" was Towards Zero, which I read at the age of seventeen.)

I read Murder Is Easy again in 2007 and again just a few days ago for this blog post, and I remain impressed with the skillful plot construction.  Most mystery writers have, let us say, X, the obvious suspect, and Y, the real culprit.  However, Christie holds in her hand Z, the "real" real culprit, if you will, while she tries to force Y on you.  In Murder Is Easy, you can see how cleverly she tries to lull you into suspecting Y and thinking how clever you are the the whole time, when you're really just being deviously led up the a deadly garden path.

Murder Is Easy also benefits from a marvelously memorable and sinister opening.  The novel's hero, Luke Fitzwilliam, a relatively young retired colonial policeman (happily he already has "a pension, with some small private means of his own"), is traveling by train to London on his return to England when he encounters Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly spinster (or an "old pussy" as they say in the book, a term which I found tremendously funny even as an innocent eight year old). 

Ditheringly Miss Pinkerton tells Luke that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report that a certain someone in her village, Wychwood-under-Ashe, is systematically knocking off the inhabitants, already having killed several people, with another slated for imminent extermination.  She doesn't give this fiendish person's name.

This is great stuff for a mystery fan, with perfect conversational cadence:

Luke's eyebrows rose.
"Murder?"
The old lady nodded vigorously.
"Yes, murder.  You're surprised, I can see.  I was myself at first...I really couldn't believe it.  I thought I must be imagining things."
"Are you quite sure you weren't?" Luke asked gently.
"Oh, no."  She shook her head positively.  "I might have been the first time, but not the second, or the third, or the fourth.  After that one
knows."

Helen Hayes as Miss Pinkerton and Bill Bixby as Luke Fullerton
in the 1982 American film version of Murder Is Easy

Luke thinks the ironically named Miss Pinkerton is highly imaginative, if not gaga, but then finds the next day that she has been killed, run over by a Rolls Royce which didn't stop.  I say! 

And then he learns that the person in the village whom Miss Pinkerton predicted would be killed next has suddenly died too!  Well, what else is there for Luke to do but travel to Miss Pinkerton's lovely but somewhat sinister village (as the name suggests there is a history of witchcraft there) and investigate the strange matter for himself, under the guise of an author who is researching a book on folklore?

Once at Wychwood, Luke meets--and within three days falls in love with (ah, books!)--bewitching (heh), raven-haired Bridget Conway, whom, Christie unsubtly informs us, looks like she could be a "girl on a broomstick flying up to the moon...."  Unfortunately, Bridget is already engaged to marry the local boy made good, portly, pompous and proud Lord Easterfield, a publishing tycoon who seems modeled after real life contemporary figures like Viscount Rothermere.  Bridget, who comes of local decayed gentry though she doesn't go on about it, has been serving as as Easterfield's admiring secretary.

first Viscount Rothermere
(1868-1940)
Bridget is a great character, rather cynical (some would say just realistic) and, like a lot of women in Christie's works, decidedly smarter than than the hero.  Luke in fact struck me as a real dunderhead, and it's probably a good thing for the colonies that he retired from the police at such a young age.  He's so naive he probably still believes in the stork.

Luke wanders around questioning a number a rather cardboard villagers under his flimsy guise as a folklorist.  Unfortunately unconvincing is the local witch coven leader, an effeminate antiques dealer with fluttering hands named Mr. Ellsworthy.  Christie seems to want to portray him and his acolytes comically, as in the following passage, where a decidedly rational Bridget is speaking:

"Three extraordinary people have arrived at the Bells and Motley.  Item one, a man with shorts, spectacles and a lovely plum-colored silk shirt!  Item two, a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals.  Item three, a fat man in a lavender suit and co-respondent shoes.  I suspect them of being friends of our Mr. Ellsworthy!  Says the gossip writer: 'Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches' Meadow tonight.'"

the satanism in Murder is Easy is kind of goofy
(like Aleister Crowley here, pictured in regalia)
I think Christie's urge heavily to satirize "queer" people gets the better of her here.  If the witch cult is so silly, why should we fear it or suspect it of any truly dangerous underhanded doings?  Her contemporaries John Street, John Dickson Carr and Gladys Mitchell, who actually seriously studied witchcraft scholarship (or what was deemed scholarship at the time), wrote about this sort of thing more convincingly.

There's some additional infelicitous writing here, in my view.  Murder Is Easy was written during the height of what we might term Christie's pregnant ellipses phase, when she relied heavily on suspensive dots (...) to convey suspense or rumination, as here:

"What's true?"
"The look on a person's face..."


In my '74 Pocket edition, the editor (I assume) eliminated the ellipses entirely, and I can't say I miss them.  Indeed the editor went further and eliminated actual passages from the original edition, like this one, about Luke's first encounter with Bridget:

He had had an unacknowledged picture at the back of his mind during his voyage home to England--a picture of an English girl flushed and sunburned--stroking a horse's neck, stooping to weed a herbaceous border, sitting holding out her hands to the blaze of a wood fire.  It had been a warm gracious vision...

Now--he didn't know if he liked Bridget Conway or not--but he knew that that secret picture  wavered and broke up--became meaningless and foolish...


Unless you've ever been enchanted by the vision of a woman stooping to weed a herbaceous border (and even know what a herbaceous border is), this passage may have limited impact, so perhaps the editor was right in deleting it.  There also is such a lot of punctuation in that passage!

just in case you were wondering...
all it needs is the hand of a flushed and sunburned Englishwoman....

Christie's romantic writing in general can get rather novelettish in this novel:

She said in a small childlike voice: 
"Luke, I'm frightened...."
He said, "It's all over, darling.  It's all over...."
She murmured:
"Be kind to me please--please.  I've been hurt so much."
He said: "We've hurt each other.  We won't do that anymore."  


Another minus is when Christie slips into those "there was/were" passages when describing a place or room:

There were shops, small Georgian houses...there were picturesque cottages....There was an inn....There was a village green.....

There were some Dresden china shepherds and shepherdesses....There were framed water-colours....There were some photographs....and some good furniture....

The ellipses are all mine here....

Utilitarian writing, to be sure, but hardly entrancing.  Of course at the opposite end is someone like PD James who was known to devote pages and pages to room description, which could get rather tiring, unless you are really into interior decoration.

Generally Christie's characterization of women is much more engaging that it is of men.  Lord Easterfield you remember, but Luke is a conventional dull hero type and Ellsworthy is a lazy caricature.  (Mr. Pye in The Moving Finger is better done if you go in for queer stereotypes.)  The other male characters are utterly forgettable, aside from the retired Anglo-Indian major, who, however, is like every other retired Anglo-Indian major you find in Christie. (And they are plenteous in the Christie canon!)

a magical mystery
Even with the plotting there are a couple of false steps.  Bridget has an aunt named Mrs. Anstruther who seems to serve no discernible purpose in the novel that I could see (Was she there to chaperone Bridget?); while the late doctor's widow, Mrs. Humpleby, functions improbably as a late stage deus ex machina to prod Luke into finally doing something sensible.

What Christie really excels at are, at one end, her smart and bold modern women and, at the other, her splendid "old pussies."  (There's also an actual pussy, Wonky-Pooh, Miss Pinkerton's memorably named Persian cat.)  I love whenever Christie is writing about them.  And when the novel builds up to its climax in the final fifth of the novel, it gets superbly eerie again, with one of the author's finest finishes.

And for that I will forgive the lovey-dovey stuff (with yet more ellipses) at the end. In some ways Christie's village mystery novel is like an Edgar Wallace thriller, but the plotting is better than what you usually find in Wallace.

I would have loved for there to have been one final twist of the knife in Murder Is Easy, but convention at the time would not have had it (although John Dickson Carr might have done it).  After all, you can't expect to get a timeless mystery masterpiece like The Burning Court or And Then There Were None every year!