Saturday, September 8, 2018

Woman Alone: The Beautiful Stranger (1951), by Bernice Carey

[Terese] noticed that the women who talked the most about how busy they were, how they just never got caught up with their work, were the very ones who spent the most hours having morning coffee in one anothers kitchens and standing on the path talking when they met coming to and from the store. Talking. And there had to be subjects for the talk.
"You think," she said slowly, "they gossip a lot here?"
"Think?...I know....I don't know why it is, in a little place like this where everybody knows everybody else, they should be so willing to think the worst of everybody else all the time."

"I've seen enough of human nature, and most of the time it ain't a very pretty sight....It's the little mean, petty things.  I tell you, I'd almost rather see 'em ram a real knife into somebody else than do the way they do, running around sticking knives in each other in ways it don't show."

"There's something about murder.  You're so shocked at it, it being so unexpected in the first place, and then your mind gets all taken up with who might have done it; and it's sort of like you said...people forget about the human side."


--The Beautiful Stranger (1951), by Bernice Carey

Too beautiful to live--in Conway?
Bernice Carey was born in 1910 on a farm near the small town of Chetek, Wisconsin, the child of farmers. (Her mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.) She moved in 1923 to California, where between 1949 and 1955 she wrote eight highly praised crime novels.  At the age of only 45 a curtain fell over Carey's crime writing career, however, though she lived for another 35 years. 

The mid-century dean of American crime fiction criticism, Anthony Boucher (who died 50 years ago this year), highly praised several of Bernice Carey's crime novels, including The Beautiful Stranger (1951), which concerns a brutal killing in a California company mill town. 

Although he was always a devoted fan of classic mystery from the Golden Age, Boucher welcomed the turn in the middle of the 20th century toward more realistic, everyday settings, rather than the baronial country manors and posh urban penthouses so often found in classic-style mystery:

Bernice Carey (1910-1990)
There's a belief among publishers and editors that American readers prefer, in their escape entertainment, a "nicer" sort of life than that which they themselves lead.  I'm not sure how justified this belief is; but it results in the fact that the lower middle class and the working man are almost completely absent from the detective story, save for incidental witnesses, comedy-relief bit-parts and an occasional Pegler-type labor racketeer.
[This is a reference to right-wing curmudgeon journalist Westbrook Pegler, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1941 for his work exposing racketeering in Hollywood labor unions.] 

The man from Mars, reading a year's crop of whodunits, would wind up with some strange ideas as to the prevalence of penthouses and country estates, and would never learn even of the existence of trade unions.  (Which is particularly odd since most writers belong to a trade organization of some sort, the Mystery Writers of America or the Authors Guild.)

Bernice Carey and her husband Walter H. Fitch, whom she married in California at the age of 18, not long after graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School (where she was a classmate of future mystery writer Floyd Mahannah, about whom more is coming soon).  The couple knew all about trade unions. 

In 1930, Bernice and Walter were living in Ventura, California, where Walter worked in the oil fields as a rotary helper on a drilling rig.  Later in the Thirties they moved to the company town of Spreckels Salinas Valley, once home to the world's largest sugar beet factory, where Walter was a factory foreman.  Famed author John Steinbeck once worked in Spreckels, where he heard stories which ended up in his book Tortilla Flat (1935). 

In 1940, Bernice and Walter were living to the east of the city of Salinas in Alisal, then known as "Little Oklahoma" on account of the heavy migration there of Oklahomans, or "Okies," displaced by calamitous dust storms in the American Plains.  (The Okies experience was famously chronicled by Steinbeck in the 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.)  Bernice gave birth to two sons and published poetry in magazines.  Both she and Walter were active in left-wing politics.

Bernice Carey's fourth crime novel, The Beautiful Stranger, reflects this labor background.  The titular character is Terese, a young woman said to be even more attractive than Elizabeth Taylor who has come to the small company mill town of Conway, which is named for the Conway family, fabulously wealthy absentee owners who live palatially in San Francisco. 

In 1951, the same year that Doubleday's Crime Club published The Beautiful Stranger, Kay Williams, fifth wife of Adolph Bruno Spreckels II, divorced her husband after six years of marriage and the birth of two children.  Actor Clark Gable was named as a party in Spreckels' countersuit, which accused Kay of having lured Gable into intimacy on the grounds of the Spreckels mansion with the immortal line, "Clark, come down here, I want to show you the bougainvillea."  For her part Kay claimed Spreckels was a drunk who once ripped off her clothes and chopped down the door of her dressing room with an ax in order to get at her.  She later married Clark Gable and bore him a son.  I'm guessing there was plenty of bougainvillea planted at the couple's digs.

I think Carey alludes to the adventures of the Spreckels clan in this passage from the novel:

Kay William and her third husband,
Clark Gable
Of course they [the townspeople] all knew, when they stopped to think about it, that there was a higher authority centered in an office in...San Francisco, where presumably there were flesh-and-blood Conways sitting at mahogany desks Making Decisions. 

Some of the old-timers had actually seen one or more Conways, getting out of limousines at the steps of the front office, or flanked by worshipful attendants during inspection tours of the mill.  Tom McGowan had actually had his hand shaken by old T. J.  Now, of course T. J. seldom left the seventeen-hundred-acre ranch in the Peninsula hills below San Francisco....

The people of Conway took a casual, friendly interest in the doings of the family who owned their mill.  If they read in the papers that Felicia Conway was being sued for divorce by another of the scions of the old European families whom she deemed to have a fancy for marrying, they would sometimes shake their heads in tolerant amazement at the size of the settlement reputedly made on the disillusioned ex-prince as the price of Felicia's freedom; but they didn't think much about it.  Nor of how many of young Tyler Conway's race horses won prizes at Bay Meadows or Santa Anita. 

They were, in fact, strangely indifferent to the Conways.....If word had come one day that the whole Conway tribe had been wiped out by an atomic explosion, the population of Conway would have thought, "That's too bad," and gone calmly ahead with its conveyor belts in the mill and its lawn-mowing on the East Side.


Adolph Bruno Spreckels Mansion in San Francisco (left)
now the home of Danielle Steel, 4th documents
bestselling author in history, after Agatha Christie
William Shakespeare and Barbara Cartland
The greatest strength of this novel is its depiction of life and attitudes in a mid-century company mill town.  The Conways not being an actual presence in the novel, its focus is on the mill "boss," Miles Faber, and his family (especially his daughter, Marguerite), and the various workers in the mill and their womenfolk, especially Jim McGowan and Terese, Jim's stunningly beautiful new bride, a former shopgirl from San Francisco. 

To her dismay Terese finds that most of the women of Conway view her with suspicion, on account of her great beauty and seeming remoteness. Why would someone who looks like that ever come to this little place, is the prevailing view.  Here we get another study in a crime novel of the subject of individualism vs. conformity, but less in the Gothic terms I discussed in an earlier post than in realistic ones.  There are both social and political implications (see below).

Carey digs in deep into the town's social attitudes, and it makes very interesting reading, filled with insight.  "In Conway people never really expected to get the Best, in women or in anything else about life," Carey observes.  "Somehow in Conway you just accepted the fact--without even thinking about it--that there were all kinds of things that were too good for you, things that only people like Mr. Faber and the almost mythical Conway family could have."

1920 3br/2ba craftsman house in Spreckels
(today's asking price $623,000)

When the would-be town wolf, Les Coleman, starts flirting (futilely) with Terese, rumor alights from the idle tongues of housewives (who seem often to have too much time on their hands) that Terese must be somethign akin to a floozy.  When Les is found beaten to death in an alley, suspicion focuses on Jim, though blame for Les' death is placed firmly on Terese.  If Jim killed him, so the view runs, Terese must have driven him to it.

But is there an alternative explanation for Les's death, one having to do with the recent drive to expand union membership?  The CIO has come to town, we learn, wanting to unionize every worker at the mill, and the owners and management aren't happy about that at all.  In addition to being a wolf, it seems, Les had also been something of a stool-pigeon....

1946 2br/1ba ranch house in Spreckels
(today's asking price $399,000)

Anthony Boucher praised The Beautiful Stranger for achieving "an unusually successful blend of a study of union difficulties with a purely personal plot" and concluded that it "makes a movingly real novel."  I have to agree that Carey does a wonderful job of bringing the town and its people to life in what constitutes a fascinating variant on the English village mystery, one however that happily sheds classic mystery's often condescending attitude toward the working class. 

The labor issues couldn't be more timely for readers in the U.S. these days, with the attitudes of the white working class having become a much discussed topic from the 2016 presidential election. Conway seemingly is almost an all-white town, though the Fabers bring in a black maid from San Francisco, Dora, and there is a major second-generation Mexican-American character, Johnny Rodriguez.  How much, readers may ask themselves, have popular attitudes changed since the 1950s, as portrayed in the novel?

True Romance, February 1947
(so that can't be Nicole Kidman on the cover)
Carey doesn't neglect the women, though--far from it.  Terese is an extremely well-rendered portrait, as are several more minor female characters in the novel, and the social observation of these women is on the level we find in the best Golden Age British mystery (though with genuine interest in all the classes, and not rendering the working class at the level of caricature).

This 1951 novel provides a great snapshot of the postwar years in the U.S., when women were being urged to shed wartime jobs, get married, keep house and raise kids, all for the good of the good old USA.  Most of the women of Conway seem to have fallen in with this way of thinking.  I immediately thought of the various Betty Friedan critiques from a decade later.  (See this Ursula Curtiss blog post of mine.)

Wives tend to be more cautious about pushing the union issue, being fearful of jeopardizing their economic security and their tidy homes filled with "automatic" appliances and labor-saving devices.  ("You men. Always taking things so seriously," chides Jim's mother about the union squabbles.)  Yet they often are bored too.  ("There was only so much housework one could find to do.")  Jim's younger sister, Florence, idling in her life after high school, is addicted to romance magazines, her mother reflects.

Here's an example of some of the novel's social observation that accompanies the murder, as the author discusses Terese's modest dreams for her life in Conway:

But can it rinse away guilt?
Terese was wearing a yellow sun-back dress with only straps over her shoulders, and even at ten in the morning she looked fresh as a daffodil.  Lorraine noticed that, and it fretted her a little. 

Somehow, even when they wore clean, starched house dresses, most wives seemed to look slightly bedraggled until early afternoon.  During the course of dishwashing and bedmaking and scrubbing out the bathroom washbowl, your lipstick faded and face powder mysteriously vanished and your hair separated and the starchiness departed from your skirt. 


Lorraine did not stay long, but Terese went back to her ironing with a new buoyancy, thinking already of what she would wear the next evening and dreaming ahead of the days to come, when the rigidity would relax between her and Lorraine, and Lorraine would come and sit in the kitchen while she went right on with the ironing and they talked over all kinds of intimate things, like how soon they wanted to have babies and how much they had paid for their washing machines and whether an automatic was really the best....

This really is the essence of a crime novel, i.e., a study of how a murder impacts people's lives and, as such, it is a very good one indeed.  People expecting the twistiness of a Margaret Millar or the British Crime Queens will be disappointed, but this novel, the first by Carey which I had then read, made me want to read more by the author.  More soon to come on the author and her mysteries.

The crime novels of Bernice Carey:

The Reluctant Murderer 1949
The Man Who Got Away with It 1950
The Body on the Sidewalk 1950
The Beautiful Stranger 1951
The Three Widows 1952
The Missing Heiress 1952
Their Nearest and Dearest 1953
The Fatal Picnic 1955

Monday, September 3, 2018

Workers Unite (and Detect)! Johnny on the Spot (1943), by Amen Dell


“But, Johnny, we’ve got to trust somebody.”
 “Not I!  I don’t trust anybody until I know where they stand. When the F.B.I. starts investigating Martin Dies and Hamilton Fish and the rest of that crew, then I’ll know I can trust them—not before.”

“….in every country the aim is the same….Make the people within each country hate each other.  Put white against black, gentile against Jew, boss against worker.  Keep them busy hating each other.  The old divide and conquer idea.”

                                                                        
--Johnny on the Spot (1943), by “Amen Dell


Note: For Labor Day I thought I would take a look at a Forties thriller reprinted by Coachwhip, Johnny on the Spot (1943), for which I wrote a long introduction.  The book was much praised by crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher.  On the interesting life of Irving Mendell, aka Amen Dell, see this earlier blog post.  As the years go by I come to believe more and more that we have much to learn (or relearn) from the Thirties. Another review of a "labor" mystery, one from the 1950s and by a woman author, will be posted here soon.


Irving Mendell’s crime novel Johnny on the Spot is a spirited wartime thriller with an engaging cast of characters, strong sense of time and place and an admirably snappy narrative pace, yet its most striking feature is the perceptible leftist tilt of the narrative.  Although in their different ways authors as popular yet diverse as the Communist Dashiell Hammett and the Catholic G. K. Chesterton cast doubt in their crime writing on the morality of the capitalist system, mystery novelists from this era tended to take a far more complacent view of the western status quo, portraying political leftists as, at best, comically naïve Utopians and, at worse, dangerously unhinged firebrands.  In Johnny on the Spot, however, Irving Mendell portrays the political state of the world in rather a different light.

            In the novel, which is set during the first year of American entry into the war, the titular on-the-spot character is Johnny Angel, “mechanic, grade 1, at the huge Hirdler Automotive (H. A. to the public) plant,” now doing defense work for the government.  As his surname broadly hints, Johnny, a union representative at H. A., is on the side of the forces of light, having conceived an ingenious plan to increase war production at his factory, materially aiding the fight against fascism, though so far the higher-ups at H. A. have evinced little interest in it.  In making the case that unions are essential to carrying on the war effort, Johnny on the Spot is reminiscent of another wartime mystery novel, Murder at the Munition Works (1940), by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, prominent English public intellectuals and socialists who also dabbled in detective fiction. However, Johnny is much more entertaining.
            Through a case of mistaken identity Johnny Angel is handed, while standing outside his third-floor apartment on Charles Street in Greenwich Village (where Mendell himself resided), a piece of paper containing what appears to be some sort of numerical code.  It soon becomes clear that certain mysterious dastards are more than willing to kill to get this piece of paper back.  Along with his goodhearted but luxury-loving girlfriend, Janie Allen, and a ravishing redhead suggestively named Mae Wells, Johnny soon finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery with grave implications indeed for the security of the United States. 
            Mendell took the opportunity in Johnny on the Spot not only to jab at conservative congressmen like his own personal nemesis Martin Dies and the arch-isolationist Hamilton Fish III, but also to flay crooked cops and capitalists, racists, anti-Semites and fascist fifth columnists.[1]  Even Johnny’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Janie, a spirited lass evidently based partly on Mendell’s own wife, Anne, is continually tempted from the path of righteousness by the lure of life’s luxuries, on account of the independence they represent.  “You have no idea how fed up a girl can get on R.K.O. and ice cream sodas,” she sighs at one point.  In a conversation with Johnny, she attempts to analyze her conflicted feelings:

“Johnny….I don’t know what I’d do without you.  Sometimes, I wish—well—that I could be like other girls and be satisfied with the idea of marriage and babies and all the rest of it.  But I’m not and that’s all there is to it.  You’ve been swell about it, Johnny.  And I promise you this: if the time ever comes when a husband and babies are more important to me than the prospect of having satin sheets and forty pairs of evening slippers and rooms full of gowns to choose from and a penthouse apartment--
            She noticed his face and gripped his arm.  “Oh, Johnny, can’t you understand?  I don’t want satin sheets because they’re comfortable.  They’re a—a token—a symbol of freedom—of independence.  For as long as I can remember I’ve had to take orders from somebody….That’s why I don’t want to tie myself down.  To start taking orders from a husband instead of a boss.  I want to be free!  I’m tired of counting pennies….
[2]

            Johnny at one point accuses Janie of being “dumb when it comes to unions,” explaining to her that he and his fellow workers at H. A. would never actually go on strike during the war: “What do you think we are, anyway?  The army needs the things we make.  That’s what we’re fighting Hirdler about.  If he’d use our plan, we could turn out twice as much.  But he won’t listen.  But while Janie may be naïve about unions, other individuals in the novel, like Lieutenant McWilliams of the New York City Police Department, are openly hostile.  He’s just the kind of cop who goes out breaking up picket lines for his own amusement,” scornfully observes Johnny of McWilliams, while policeman John Joseph Swazey opines that McWilliams would not hesitate for a minute to frame Johnny Angell for murder on account of Johnny’s being a union official, because McWilliams deems unions “un-American.  (Swazey himself, a decent cop at heart though something of a palooka, admits, “Before I joined the force I worked in an auto plant for a coupla years.  We had a union, a good one, too.  Did plenty for the men.  And today it’s doing plenty for the war.  But that doesn’t change Mac’s feelings.”)  Similarly, as evidence of a widespread rightist conspiracy mounts around him, Johnny complains that United States Attorney General Francis Biddle “piddles over guys like Harry Bridges” (an Australian born labor leader whom the AG tried to have deported under the 1940 Smith Act, on the grounds of his having been once “affiliated” with the Communist Party USA) while letting “rats run loose.
            Mendell sees the rats, the real threats to American democracy, as racist right-wing authoritarians, sometimes organized in groups like the Christian Front (associated with the controversial radio priest Father Charles Coughlin), who, if not themselves necessarily Nazis, are ideological “fellow-travelers,” if you will.  The anti-Labor, anti-British, anti-Russian, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-American sons of bitches!” an appalled Johnny exclaims after finally cracking the dire meaning of the coded message, rolling out in a rising wave of “anti’s” all the objectionable qualities of these people.  Referencing President Roosevelt’s fireside chat of April 28, 1942, Johnny thinks how true it is that “Bogus Patriots and Noisy Traitors” are insidiously undermining the war effort and the country.  Readers of Johnny on the Spot should of course rely upon their own powers of discernment to determine which characters in the novel are (and are not) to be trusted; suffice it to say here that, when you find that your neighbors read The Brooklyn Tablet, you might well take heed.[3]





[1] Dies, a critic of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (a group that had supported Mendell during his fight with Federal Theater Project New York City director George Kondolf), declined to run for reelection after the CIO began a voter registration in his Texas district and found a candidate to oppose him.  The same year Hamilton Fish III was defeated in his bid for reelection in his New York congressional district.  Fish sourly credited his defeat to “Communistic and Red forces from New York City….”  Another, rather more famous, crime writer who abominated Hamilton Fish III was Rex Stout, who in 1930 built his house in Connecticut across the state border (though his mailbox was in New York), so he would not have Fish as his representative. 
[2] Mendell tellingly dedicated his novel to ANNE, who also wants satin sheets, but who would never enjoy them if she knew Fascism still anywhere in the world.
[3] Spoke the President:

This great war effort must be carried through to its victorious conclusion by the indomitable will and determination of the people as one great whole….It must not be impeded by a few bogus patriots who use the sacred freedom of the press to echo the sentiments of the propagandists in Tokyo and Berlin. And, above all, it shall not be imperiled by the handful of noisy traitors—betrayers of America, betrayers of Christianity itself—would-be dictators who in their hearts and souls have yielded to Hitlerism and would have this Republic do likewise.

Seventeen men, all residents of Brooklyn and most Christian Front members, were arrested by federal agents in January 1940 and charged with stockpiling weapons as part of a plan to overthrow the government.  Although the charges were dropped the next year, the incident assuredly was in Mendell’s mind when he wrote Johnny on the Spot.  The Brooklyn Tablet was a prominent diocesan newspaper that backed the Christian Front.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Natural Laws of Mystery Writing: Q. Patrick's The "Naughty Child" of Fiction

In an essay called "The 'Naughty Child' of Fiction," which was published sometime around 1940, Q. Patrick--almost certainly Richard Wilson Webb rather than Hugh Wheeler, for Webb took on this name for essay writing, while Hugh Wheeler took Patrick Quentin--laid out his own rules, or laws I should say, for the writing of detective fiction.

waiting to see how the mystery turns out

QP declared that "just as any good mystery story can also be a good novel, so any good novel can also be a good mystery story."  He noted that when asked in an interview what his favorite mystery story was, he had replied that it was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  He explained:

The answer may have seemed flippant, but there was a certain amount of seriousness in what I said.  The mystery in Jane Austen's work, of course, is not Who killed Whom, but Who will marry Whom.  And Elizabeth Bennett is a charming detective, very suitably and very prettily involved herself in this problem. 

As an aside, I should mention that Webb was finding solace in the pages of Jane Austen when he was serving in the Red Cross in Indonesia during the Second World War by reading Austen's Emma, which in a letter to Wheeler he again praised, like PD James later would, as a mystery.  Interestingly, Emma, was, as I recollect, the favorite novel of Rex Stout, who made a point of reading it every year.

In his essay Webb also noted that his second favorite novel was Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which he also maintained was a mystery, because the author, "with consummate skill, keeps his readers in continuous and almost unbearable suspense as to when and how the murderer will have to pay for his crime."

These preliminary observations made clear, QP noted that he belonged "to the school which deplores the fact that mystery novels and 'straight' novels are so widely differentiated, in rental libraries, reviewers' columns, and in reader's minds." He hoped the day would soon arrive "when the mystery story will no longer be considered the 'naughty child' of fiction, but will step boldly forward and assume the high rank it really deserves."

Crime writers are still hoping that today! 

QP modestly allowed that "as yet no really great mystery novel--in the modern understanding of the word--has been written," but he insisted that the art of the mystery, "like that of the cinema, is still in its infancy," and he predicted that the great day eventually would come.

To help along the advent of that great day, QP laid down some of his own rules for writing mystery fiction.  Or rather I should say guidelines, as QP deprecated the idea of rules, in the process taking some potshots at S. S. Van Dine and England's Detection Club (and, implicitly, Ronald Knox).

Stern maker of Rules: S. S. Van Dine
From time to time a foolhardy detective story writer will set forth a new ten commandments for an awestruck tribe of neophytes.  The late S. S. Van Dine, himself an admirable craftsman, did this.  Of his numerous and arbitrary laws, one stands out for its conspicuous absurdity.  Mr. Van Dine stated categorically that in the ideal mystery detective novel there should be no love interest.  He might just as well have denied to the mystery story a business interest, a sporting interest, a money interest, an ambition interest, a society interest, of any of the countless other interests that are not exclusively deductive.  Mr. Van Dine might just as well have said that no mystery story writer should refer to an ice box or a tooth brush. 

Love, in common with business and tooth brushes, is part of the everyday interest of normal people.  Consequently, it not only should not, it cannot be eliminated from any work which, like the mystery novel, must attempt to portray human beings as they are, might be, ought to be or ought not to be.


Turning to mock the Detection Club, QP added that

Several of the worthiest and most established English detective story writers have also succumbed to the temptation of proclaiming to the world that they have caged the murderous peacock for good and all in one particular cage (of their own construction).  With the British tendency toward medievalism, these authors have banded together into a Guild--a mystic cult to keep sanctified their own special brand of mystery novel, a cult in which they are their own Vestal Virgins.  One of their holiest axioms proclaims that more than one murder per novel is mere vulgar display.  This lady-like dictum seems to me to be as willful and unnecessary as Mr. Van Dine's prudish veto on love.  Perhaps they will be saying shortly that no heroine in any work of fiction should show interest in more than one man.
Shall there be none of this in the
detective novel?
This attack on the supposed prudery and "ladylike" fastidiousness of traditional detective novelists is amusing, although I don't actually recall a Detection Club rule against more than one murder?  Certainly Van Dine proscribed love interest, and I have seen claims made that more than one murder in a detective novel dilutes the pure deductive interest, making the novel more a thriller.

The freethinking QP propounded that "there should be no rule whose function is purely negative or which forces writers into the straitjacket of hidebound traditionalism....the first and only unbreakable rule is that anything goes, provided the 'anything' is handled well enough.

I'd say QP pretty much predicted the future of the crime novel here!

However, QP declared that while

I believe that the incipient detective story writer should be given an absolutely free hand as to plot, choice of character, technique, style, I am by no means a nihilist.  There are certain unbreakable laws which govern the detective story as sternly as they do any other type of literary endeavor.

So no rules, but unbreakable laws.  Got it!  These are (get out your notebooks):

1. The law of Clarity

By its very nature, the mystery story runs the grave risk, when it is trying to be mysterious, of becoming merely confusing.  The ability to differentiate between mystery and confusion is perhaps the detective story writer's most essential requirement....a competent detective story must be written with the maximum of clarity in a clear, concise and controlled prose.

2. The law of Honesty

One's allegiance to Clarity should be linked with an equally unswerving allegiance to Honesty.  Just as the reader cannot be confused, so also can he not be cheated....Every detective story writer should print in blazing capitals on his office wall, that single word: MOTIVATION.  A reader, reading a detective story, assumes he is embarking upon a fair contest of wits with the author.  The author, if he wants to keep his public, cannot foul.  The most brilliant mystery in the world loses all of its stature if its final motivation turns out to be inadequate or "contrived."

QP urged that to achieve honesty, writers should write "about places you know.  Write about the people you know and skip the Duchesses and the Florida crackers, unless you happen to have some of either in the family."

3. The law of Originality

Novice mystery writers should avoid imitation.

Let Dashiell Hammett alone with his own two fists; leave Dorothy Sayers' intellectual tongue in her cheek; yield to Mignon Eberhart her doomed brides; walk quietly away when Leslie Ford tortures herself with that anguished cry: Had I But Known.  They are doing their jobs their own way and they are doing them well.  They and their public have no need of you.  Write your own kind of mystery story.

QP went on to explain what distinguished his Q. Patrick writing from Webb and Wheeler's other two pseudonyms, Jonathan Stagge and Patrick Quentin,  This may interest the fans out there.

Patrick is a plodding, methodical sort of chap who pins up a huge chart above his desk from which he can tell you where any given character was, what he or she was doing, at any crucial moment in the book.

Stagge is a mixture of the homespun and the scientific.  He surrounds himself with medical books and at the same time finds himself watching his friends' children for pointers on adolescent psychology and dialogue.

Quentin is a hard-boiled guy who rattles off his stories in the vernacular with no books of reference but a slang dictionary.


However, all three shared this trait in common: "They spend several weeks of fevered thought and conference on each plot before the first word is committed to paper."  QP urged new writers to "see that your [story] is thought out before you begin.  Think of your plot forwards and backwards."  They should put themselves first in the place of the murderer, planning the crime, then successively in the place of each of the major suspects in turn, thinking through their motivations for their actions.

QP concluded, somewhat forbiddingly, that "writing a mystery story is quite an undertaking.  It needs not only genuine writing ability; it needs ingenuity, patience, originality and hard work.  It needs absolute clarity and absolute honesty.  It is not to be embarked upon unless one is prepared to shun delights and live laborious days."

Are you ready to assume the mantle of a mystery writer?

New England Gothic I: The Man in the Net (1956), by Patrick Quentin

It was after six and the train had passed Sheffield [Massachusetts].  John Hamilton...looked out at the familiar New England summer evening--the parched meadows, garish with black-eyed Susans and devil's paint brush, the distant, wooded mountains, the scattered white clapboard houses, lawns shaded by sugar maples, a peony or two, narrow beds of phlox--sedate, pastoral, faintly sad.
                                                               --The Man in the Net (1956), Patrick Quentin

After publishing The Man with Two Wives (1955), Hugh Wheeler set his next Patrick Quentin novel, The Man in the Net (1956), not in swanky New York City but rather in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, where he himself had primarily resided since 1940 (excepting the period of time during World War 2 when he was stationed at Fort Dix) and would live until his death in 1987. 

Wheeler loved the home he made in the Berkshires, first with his writing partner Rickie Webb and then with his black chauffeur, cook and companion, known simply as "Johnny" to his friends; yet the rural New England he portrays in The Man in the Net is hardly idyllic but rather more in keeping with the dissonant portrayals one finds in the fiction of Edith Wharton (Ethan Frome, 1911, "Bewitched," 1925, "All Souls," 1937) and the contemporary fiction of crime writer Ellery Queen (The Glass Village, 1954) and genre-bending author Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery," We Have Always Lived in a Castle, 1962).  Rather than celebrating rural New England as the star-spangled cradle of American Independence, these books portray the region as a frightening backwater festering with ignorance and intolerance toward outsiders and nonconformists.

Although New England is synonymous in the public mind today with "liberalism" (as represented by progressive pols like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) at the time Wharton, Wheeler, Queen and Jackson were writing their books singificant swathes of the region were still highly conservative and "rock-ribbed Republican." 

In the 1932 presidential contest between Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover and Democratic challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt, which took place when the country was in the midst of a calamitous economic depression largely blamed by the public on Republican misgovernance, Hoover lost by a landslide, winning only six states, four of them in New England.  The Republican barely won New Hampshire and Connecticut, but he bested FDR in highly rural Maine by 13% and Vermont by 17%.  Massachusetts he lost by only 4%, though he lost Rhode Island by 12%.--all the while losing the country as a whole by a whopping 18%.


In 1936, Roosevelt won reelection against his hapless Republican opponent, Alf Landon, by 24%, with Landon managing to take just two states--Vermont and Maine, by about the same margins the Republicans had won by four years earlier.  New Hampshire went for FDR by only 2%, while Massachusetts went for FDR by 9%, substantially less then the national average. 

Vermont and Maine stood steadfast against FDR in every presidential election, in fact, and then in 1948 they were joined again by New Hampshire and Connecticut in favoring Republican Thomas Dewey over Democratic incumbent Harry Truman.  Truman won nationally by 4.5%, but in Vermont there was a Republican rock slide against him, with Dewey flattening Truman by 23%.  And naturally in 1952 rural New England "liked Ike," even more than the rest of the country did.  Dwight D. Eisenhower won over Adlai Stevenson nationally by 11%, but in Vermont, the war hero beat the egghead by 43%.

This perhaps tedious political exegesis may help to partly explain the negative portrayal of rural New England in the writing of the liberal Wheeler, Queen and Jackson.  (Wharton was no liberal in a lot of ways, but she was a cosmopolitan--some might say a genteel snob--who ultimately left the U.S. for France.)  And New England was conveniently at hand to these writers, which helps explain why they weren't writing about actual terrible things going on at this time in the American South, where state Democrats maintained sway through systematic, institutionalized racism, but rather imagined horrors in the home of American Puritanism.

Cosmopolitan Hugh Wheeler spent much of the year in the Berkshires, between jaunts to New York and the Caribbean, Shirley Jackson lived in North Bennington, Vermont, where her highly intellectual husband, Stanley Hyman, was on the college faculty, and native New Yorkers Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee of Ellery Queen were familiar with upstate New York and New England, a region which in their Forties and Fifties crime fiction they both idealized as apple-pie Wrightsville and damned as crabapple Shinn Corners, a brutish hamlet of repulsive bigots.

In Wheeler's The Man in the Net, the setting is the deceptively lovely Berkshires village of Stoneville, perhaps named with Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in mind.  (Readers of the story, which apparently was inspired, like We Have Always Lived in a Castle, by North Bennington, will get the reference.)  To Stoneville from New York City has come John Hamilton and his wife Linda, a, well, brittle, nasty, neurotic, viciously scheming drunk--though quite charming, don't you know, on the surface.  John has left his good job as a commercial artist and brought Linda with him to Stoneville to get them out of the New York social rat race, which was driving Linda positively dispso, and also to take up painting full time.  The man is determined to follow his muse, art, while keeping his wife away from her muse, booze.

John has managed to keep Linda's drinking a secret in Stoneville, and not only has she won social acceptance into the tiny snobbish clique of wealthy families of Stoneville--Brad Carey and his California-born wife, Vickie; old Mr. Carey and his wife, owners of a paper mill; and Gordon and Roz Moreland, authors of "almost-best-selling"historical novels" (the Fosters are out-of-town for the summer)--she has charmed the humbler locals of "the village," especially the strutting "local Don Juan," Steve Ritter, owner of a gas station and ice cream parlor and town sheriff, who is "almost a parody of the comic-strip muscle-boy hero."  The type that kicks sand in the faces of 98-pound weaklings.

From the film adaptation of The Man in the Net
Linda Hamilton (Carolyn Jones) only has...eyes
for swaggering local country hunk Steve Ritter
as her husband John (Alan Ladd) looks on ineffectually

Linda is getting bored with one-horse (and no bars) Stoneville, however, and with that boredom comes restless drinking and scheming to get back to New York.  John's one-man art show seemingly has failed, and both the elite and the villagers in Stoneville look on him with bemused contempt, saving their sympathy solely for the plight of the putatively long-suffering Linda, forced to submit to her eccentric husband's odd whims.  Linda deviously decides to play on this misplaced sympathy.

The only denizens of Stoneville whom John really gets along with are a small gang of village children: Emily and Angel Jones, daughters of the village postmistress; Leroy Phillips, son of the young Careys' butler and cook; Buck Ritter, son of Steve Ritter and his put-upon wife; and Timmie Moreland, son of Gordon and Roz Moreland.  Modern readers, hearing seemingly continual news of church and college sex scandals, perhaps will be apt to look askance at the relationship of this thirty-something man with these young children, but if you can take it as it no doubt was meant--the epitome of innocence--it's an interesting aspect of the book, which was published in an era when children in mystery fiction were increasingly becoming not only seen but heard.*

*(Of course it doesn't help with modern perceptions that Emily and Angel are portrayed in somewhat hard-boiled terms, as the "good girl" and "bad girl" respectively.  But then compare with Fredric Brown's portrayal of the adolescent girl in the much-lauded and award-winning crime novel The Fabulous Clipjoint, 1947.)

John's problems with the all-too adult Linda come to a head when she, attempting at a party to explain a puffy eye incurred in a drunken fall, accuses John of having belted her a rather good one.  When Linda disappears a few days later, it's not altogether surprising that Stoneville--seemingly to a man and a woman if not a child--soon comes to believe that John killed her and disposed of her body.  John thinks he's been set-up--but just by whom?  Will he have time to find out before he gets jailed--or lynched?  In this tense section of the novel I was forcibly reminded of the works by Ellery Queen and Shirley Jackson mentioned above.

For lovers of anxiety crime fiction, The Man in the Net certainly fills the bill.  At the same time, there is a neat central crime puzzle to solve and some excellent acerbic writing and character portraits.  Wheeler is withering in his portrayal of Gordon, the village's pompous "conventional eccentric" (as Wheeler cleverly puts it), and Roz Moreland, his artificial-to-her-core wife.  Here she is prating of her son, Timmie, and his friendship with Leroy, the son of the younger Carey's butler and cook, and another boy of color:

caught in a trap....
"Timmie dear, go out and look for that cunning little colored boy who's such a pal of yours.  You know, Mr. Hamilton, Gordon and I think it's absolutely absurd to put up barriers.  In Marakeesh, winter before last, Timmie had such a cute Arab side-kick.  Abdullah, such an enchanting Arabian Night's name."

"His name is Ahmed," said Timmie.  "That's his name.  Ahmed."

Roz Moreland patted her son on the head.  "Now, darling, don't be difficult.  Just run off an play with your little friend."


After you, my dear Alphonse!

Leroy and his parents, some of the few black characters I can recall in the author's oeuvre, are very sympathetically presented and obviously draw partly on real life acquaintance.  As does Linda, herself, Wheeler having had ample reason to know firsthand the problem of what to do with a needy, substance-dependent partner whom one once had greatly loved but now just wears one down.

In the latter part of the novel it's Leroy and the other children whom John finds himself relying on for help when the adults of Stoneville turn on him (with one or two exceptions) and he becomes a fugitive from Stoneville's law.  Can the kids help get him out of the net?  And just what has really happened to not-so-lovely (on the inside) Linda?

The Man in the Net was filmed, under the same title, in 1959, but apparently the film was not too successfully done.  A 46-year-old Alan Ladd played John and a 29-year-old Carolyn Jones portrayed Linda.  The latter thespian, much underrated, I can definitely see in the role, the former, Ladd, not so much.  Maybe a few years earlier they could have gotten Montgomery Clift.  Patrick Quentin was not that well-served by American film adaptations on the whole, though Black Widow is pretty good.  I reviewed that film here, almost four years ago to the day.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Trant Intervenes: The Man with Two Wives (1955), by Patrick Quentin

2018 is a good year indeed for Police Lieutenant Timothy Trant, the New York Homicide Squad detective created in 1937 by Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler.  Mysterious Press has brought some of the Trant novels, successively published under the Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin pseudonyms of the two men, back into print (although not all of them, which is confusing to the reader wanting to follow Trant's cases in order) and Crippen & Landru is reprinting his 20 shorter adventures, all of them originally published under the Q. Patrick pseudonym, most familiarly in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, where they were lauded as models of fairly clued short detective fiction. 

Also included is a never collected novelette about Dr. Hugh Westlake, lead character in Webb and Wheeler's Jonathan Stagge novels.  More on this wonderful collection, to which I'm happy to say I wrote the introduction, soon!

I reviewed the first Trant detective novel, Death and Dear Clara (1937), and I plan to review the third, Death and the Maiden (1939) this week.  I also reviewed Trant's second adventure, the CrimeFile opus File on Claudia Cragge (1938).  (Query: should the latter book be counted as a novel; I think so.)

Although he appeared in 20 shorter works between 1946 and 1955,  Trant would not appear again in a detective novel until 1952, when Hugh Wheeler conceived the brilliant notion of pitting his and Webb's persistently perils-dodging Patrick Quentin series hero, Peter Duluth, against an unstoppable force, Lieutenant Trant, in Black Widow, where Trant implacably pursues Peter as his main murder suspect. 

This was the last Patrick Quentin which was to feature Peter Duluth as the lead character, but it was not the last book in which Trant featured as the lead police investigator.  In fact Black Widow, possibly the first Patrick Quentin to have been written entirely by Hugh (though I think it was probably the previous PQ novel, The Follower), set the template for most of the future PQ books, all of which were written after Hugh and "Rickie," as the latter man was known to friends and family, parted ways.

In My Son the Murderer (1954), Trant is pitted against Peter Duluth's brother, Jake, who tries to rescue his son Bill, Peter's nephew, from being ensnared in a murder investigation.  In the remaining six PQ books there are no more Duluths, Hugh evidently having decided that he couldn't keep on having Duluth family members suspected of murder.  But the pattern usually is the same: a male focal character, who sometimes serves as well as the narrator, is implicated in a murder affair, either through becoming a suspect himself or through trying to shield someone close to him who is suspected of murder.

Mid-century American murder: stylish, sexy and deadly--
and only 35 cents in paperback!

Hugh was able creatively to ring changes on this theme in successive novels throughout the decade of the Fifties, though only one Patrick Quentin was published after he shifted his career to writing plays and films, like, respectively, Big Fish, Little Fish (1961) and Five Minutes to Midnight (1962).  (Piece coming up on that latter title!)

Without the distraction of the Duluths, interesting and enjoyable as the adventures in murder had been, Hugh was left free to fully explore new sets of characters within his preferred milieu of wealthy New York society, specifically some rich, dysfunctional family beset by deadly tensions that erupt in murder.  The books are models of the mid-century mystery: sleek and fleet and filled with emotional tension and genuine detection.  One might say that in them Wheeler has replaced the traditional stately Anglo-American country house murder stage with the swanky Manhattan apartment.  (The novels The Man in the Net and Suspicious Circumstances offer more originality of setting.)

The anxiety formula is reminiscent of the mysteries of the American Queen of Anxiety herself, Mignon Eberhart, but Wheeler is a wittier as well as an appealingly astringent writer, more resembling the brilliant Margaret Millar.  Like Millar too his novels are genuine detective novels.  Cases in point are the Trant tales The Man with Two Wives (1955) and Shadow of Guilt (1959).

Following hard on the heels of My Son, the Murderer, The Man with Two Wives follows the deadly predicament of Bill Harding, the titular man with two wives. 

The first wife is Angelica, a wayward Bohemian who met and married Bill not long after the war when he was an ex-Marine finishing college on the GI Bill at a nowheresville university in Iowa and she the beautiful, restless daughter of a widowed English professor.  After publishing a successful novel, Heat of Noon,  he moved with Angelica to Europe, where Angelica gave birth to the couple's son, Rickie, and Bill tried--and repeatedly failed--to produce a second novel.  The marriage collapsed, with Angelica leaving Bill and Rickie for another man.

(In case you are wondering if there's any meaning in Hugh's giving the little boy in the novel the same name as his old writing partner and companion, you may well be on to something.  Of course "Rickie" was the name of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's boy too--well, "Little Ricky," to be precise.)

Having divorced Angelica, who didn't contest the suit, Bill now has married into the wealthy New York Callingham family, led by arrogant mogul and pompous patriarch C. J. , who reminded me of Earl Janoth in Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock.  (The surname you'll note is Hugh's own.)  Bill has discarded his ambitions as a writer, and now works for CJ.  His second wife, Betsy, the unloved elder daughter of CJ, has started her own successful charity, the Betsy Callingham Leukemia Fund, which is managed by Bill's old Marines buddy Paul Fowler, husband of lovely, bubble-headed and bauble-bestrewn Sandra, sardonically nicknamed the Prop by her husband Paul.  CJ, incidentally, much prefers his pampered second daughter, the willful and spoiled Daphne, to dutiful Betsy. Virtue is its own reward, so they say.

the skull beneath the skin
Passing through Greenwich Village, Bill encounters his first wife and through her he meets her new lover, Jamie Lumb, a would-be writer of ample good looks ("He looked about nineteen," observes Bill, and "he was one of the handsomest boys I had ever seen.")

Soon Jamie has inveigled his way into the entitled lives of the Callingham clan, especially man hungry Daphne, who reminisces after meeting him, he "looked beautiful and charming.  Honestly, you could have eaten him."  And soon Daphne is making the rounds with Jamie. When it turns out that Jamie has rather a nasty past in the offing there are most decided ructions within the family circle. 

After beautiful and charming Jamie is found shot dead in his apartment, however, all the clues seem damningly to point not to the Callinghams, but to Angelica, for whom Bill, most inconveniently for himself, may still be carrying something of a torch.  What is a man with two wives to do?

Enter Lieutenant Trant, the deceptively polite and charming man from the Homicide Bureau, whom Bill intriguingly compares to one of the monks painted by 17th century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran.  Soon Trant is rending--ever so gently--the webs of deception the people involved in the case have woven around the facts.  Hugh Wheeler does a great job of making the menace posed by this man scarily palpable to readers.  Trant is so much more impressive than the countless blowhard cops who huffed and puffed their way through the pages of vintage crime fiction, often to utterly no avail.  He adds considerably to the strength of the novel. (Compare to The Green-Eyed Monster, 1960, where Trant doesn't appear.)

This is a fine mid-century detective novel, the essence of a page turning thriller, but one which neglects neither clueing nor characterization.  It was praised as one of the best PQ novels by Julian Symons, and I won't argue with that, though personally I might give the nod, among the later Trant books, to Shadow of Guilt, which followed a few years later.  Review coming soon!

Incidentally, The Man with Two Wives was adapted in 1967 as the Japanese film Two Wives/Tsuma Futari, directed by Yasuzo Masamura.  If anyone reading this review has seen it I would love to hear about it!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Murderers Beeware, Inspector Knollis Is on the Case! The Singing Masons (1950), by Francis Vivian and the Reprinting of the Inspector Knollis Mysteries

Arthur Ernest Ashley (1906-1979), the son and grandson of Notthinghamshire photographers and picture framers, led an interesting and unusual working life.  His elder brother, noted freelance photographer Hallam Ashley (1900-1987), followed the family muse.  Ernest from a young age worked as a sign painter and decorator, however, until in 1932 he successfully established himself as a short fiction writer for newspapers and general magazines. Five years later, under the pseudonym "Francis Vivian," he published his first detective novel, Death at the Salutation.  After publishing these and five more mysteries, in 1941 he produced his first Inspector Gordon Knollis novel, The Death of Mr. Lomas, the first of ten series tales of murder and detection.

After the Second World War, Ernest went to work as an assistant editor and "color man" (writer of local color stories) for the Notts Free Press, but he managed to produce no less than nine Knollis novels between 1947 and 1956, which, though largely forgotten today, proved quite popular. (Indefatigable Barry Pike authored a short piece in CADS on the Francis Vivian detective fiction a few years ago.)

During the late 40s and early 50s, when the Francis Vivian books was published in hardcover by noted crime novel polisher Hodder & Stoughton, a colleague at the Notts Free Press later recalled (possibly with some exaggeration), that Francis Vivian was "neck in neck [in hardcover sales and library rentals] with Ngaio Marsh in second place after Agatha Christie."

Ernest Ashley, or Francis Vivian as I shall call him henceforward, was a dabbler in many fields, about which he gave talks on the popular lecture circuit.  Inevitably this esoterica would find its way into his detective novels, to the enjoyment of his fans.

Cover depicting Samuel Heatherington
"a retired carpenter and wheelwright
seventy-two years of age,
grey-haired, straight-backed, kindlyeyed
and a bee-master of the old schoo
l"
(and a very large bee!)
Francis Vivian's former work colleague recalled of his crime fiction:

But what plots.  He couldn't write a straightforward tale of A killing B for complex motives and call it a day.  A and B would also be involved in archery, or black magic, or some subject which Ernest had researched to the nth degree, and you could be sure the denouement would depend on some fine point of archery or black magic.


One hobbyist passion of Francis Vivian's--one with the finest of crime fiction pedigrees--was beekeeping.  It provided the background of his sixth Knollis detective novel, The Singing Masons (1950).  The title is drawn from Shakespeare's Henry V, eighteen lines from which are quoted as an epigraph.  I quote this in part:

For so work the honey bees/Creatures that, by a rule in nature, teach/The act of order to a peopled kingdom....their emperor/Who, busied in his majesty, surveys/The singing masons building roofs of gold....

Francis Vivian's former work colleague recalled of The Singing Masons that Vivian

a natty beekeeper at work
added to an already complicated inventory of blackmail, lust, counter-lust, social climbing, and murder the fact that the protagonists happened to be bee-keepers, and before you knew it somebody's life was hanging by the thread of American Foul Brood, a dead bee which clearly was an Italian-Caucasian cross, and a misplaced WBC hive with a foundation frame susceptible to wax moth infestation.  Cyanide was not omitted. 

However, Ernest took great pride in the fact that the reader could always arrive at a correct solution simply from the given data.  His Inspector (Knollis of the Yard) never picked up an undisclosed clue which, it was later revealed, held the solution to the mystery all along."


When reading The Singing Masons several years ago I enjoyed the beekeeping material and thought it nicely intertwined with the mystery, which concerns the grisly death of a handsome, socially ambitious  philanderer in the rural English borough of Clevely.  Inspector Knollis of the Yard is called in to assist local man Inspector Wilson, who finds Knollis too cerebral and dispassionate about this nasty case, where human malice stings like, well, bees:

Italian honeybee at work
"It's a most interesting case, Wilson.  Fascinating, in fact!"

"You make it sound horrible," grumbled Wilson, "almost as if we're doing you a good turn!  Murders arranged to meet the convenience of investigators.  Hangings arranged at the shortest notice.  Quotations by return of post.  Apply Police Headquarters, Victoria Street, Clevely.  Bah!"

"In a job like ours we have to concentrate on the purely intellectual aspects of a case, Wilson.  If we paused too often to consider the emotional side we'd go mad.  Don't mistake my enthusiasm.  It's entirely intellectual.  Somewhere in this district is a person with brains to use them.  It's going to be a battle of wits--and it isn't going to be an easy case!"

Marlowe at work (Why so serious?)
It is indeed a hard case, involving Croftsian alibis and movements.  To help readers along a map is provided (and who doesn't love that in a vintage mystery).  One alibi hinges partly on the person having attended a showing of Robert Montgomery's film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake!  But all the clues don't come out of the Croftsian bag of tricks, and there's a clever solution indeed, as well as an unexpectedly hard-hitting conclusion.

The Singing Masons
is one of my favorite Francis Vivian mysteries.  Dare I say it's a honey?  I am glad to be able to announce that it and all the Inspector Knollis will soon be back in print, courtesy of Dean Street Press.  More on this soon!  I'll also have some additional detail on Masons.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

126 Years Later and We're Still Axing Questions about It: Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Horror

The theory of Lizzie's guilt...springs from some sadistic instinct, latent in almost everyone, which thrills to the thought of a respectable, churchgoing New England virgin bludgeoning her parents to death with an ax.

To me, however, it is grotesque that Lizzie should be held guilty simply because it has been fictionally fashionable to make villainesses out of virtuous spinsters....


 --Q. Patrick, The Case for Lizzie Or A Theoretical Reconstruction of the Borden Murders

Lizzie Borden
Will the black brocade curtain ever be parted
so that we learn the truth about what happened
at the Borden house on August 4, 1892?
There's something about the month of August--possibly the "August Heat" (to recall the title of a superb William Fryer Harvey horror tale--and murder. 

In the United Kingdom the first of Jack the Ripper's shocking and horrific serial slayings was committed in the early morning hours on August 31, 1888, while across the Atlantic four year later in the United States, on the morning of August 4, 1892 (126 years ago today), some unknown in Fall River, Massachusetts infamously took an ax and gave a decidedly unhealthy number of whacks to the elderly heads of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother of two proper Victorian ladies, Emma and her younger sister, Lizzie.

Is the Borden murder case America's most fabled real-life murder story?  Today people continue to spin theories about just whodunit (if not Lizzie)--despite the fact that there is rather a shortage of on-the-spot suspects.  Both Lizzie's sister, Emma, and a visiting maternal uncle (who seemingly had no motive for the crimes anyway) had alibis, which as far as I know no one has ever broken.

Andrew Borden House
the scene of the crimes
and now a bed & breakfast.
One can even sleep in the room where
Abby Borden was axed (no thanks).
(Photo by The Passing Tramp)
That leaves, apparently, Bridget, the proverbial Irish maid (whom the family lazily called Maggie, after their previous Irish maid) and Lizzie herself.  Or was it some passing stranger (surely not a tramp) who somehow got into the house undetected, slew Abby is the upstairs spare bedroom, where she was making the bed, then lurked around the house for over an hour, avoiding both Lizzie and Bridget until he/she slew Andrew, who to his misfortune had returned home and was innocently napping downstairs on the stiff horsehair couch in the sitting room. 

And then somehow made his/her escape from the house, blood spattered from the ax blows, yet again undetected, like GK Chesterton's invisible man.  Talk about an "impossible crime"!

Famed criminologist and Lizzie Borden obsessive Edmund Pearson was certain that Lizzie was guilty (she resented her stepmother and was unhappily tied to her father's purse strings), but she had an equally vociferous defender in a later true crime writer and Pearson nemesis, Edward Radin. The latter man argued that the manic ax-wielder was actually the maid Bridget, whom, he posited, freaked out after being told by Abby to "do windows" on a sultry August day. Evidently you just couldn't get good help anymore.

Alternatively, crime writer Ed McBain scandalously suggested that Lizzie and Bridget were lovers who had been caught in the act, so to speak, prompting Lizzie to resort to murder to hide her shame.  Judging by its just-released trailer, a new film about Lizzie, bearing that title, adopts the McBain lesbian lovers theory, while positing that Andrew was not merely a skinflint, but a something of a sex fiend as well. (See video below.) 

I've always found this theory a stretch.  Whatever Lizzie's sexual inclinations (and they may have been same-sex), I tend to doubt she was having it off with Maggie, erm, Bridget.  Class was really a long bridge to cross in those days!  There is no evidence, either, which I'm aware of, suggesting that the Irish lass was inclined in that direction.


For a few years in the 1960s Radin's "I don't do windows" theory held sway, with both that esteemed democratic American mystery critic dean, Anthony Boucher, and the brilliant cosmopolitan mystery enthusiast and confirmed elitist Jacques Barzun believing that Bridget was a better bet as murderess than Lizzie. 

A onetime mystery writer himself, Boucher, I imagine, disliked going with the obvious solution, while Barzun, I suspect, deemed someone of Irish country stock far more likely to fatally flip her lid than an elite New England WASP gentlewoman. But as Q. Patrick argues at the top of this page, I think it's just that very notion--that a proper Victorian miss might have committed a bloody double ax murder--that has fascinated people for so many years.

A very desirable residence
Maplecroft, the swanky house on the hill
which Lizzie and Emma purchased in 1893.
Lizzie lived here from 1893 to her death
in 1927. Emma moved out in 1905,
for reasons unknown. (Passing Tramp)
In 1942 Anthony Boucher was looking for contributors to The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories, a true crime anthology he was editing.  (You can learn all about this, as I did, in Jeffrey Marks' 2008 book Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography.)

Boucher, a true true-crime aficionado, produced an excellent anthology indeed.  Of special interest to me, naturally, are two essays from crime writers Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler, one submitted by "Q. Patrick" and the other by "Patrick Quentin." 

I have a strong suspicion that the Patrick Quentin essay, on accused murderess Florence Maybrick, was written by Hugh Wheeler, while the Q. Patrick essay, on Lizzie, was written by Richard Webb. What follows is in accord with that assumption.

Webb's essay, The Case for Lizzie Or A Theoretical Reconstruction of the Borden Murders, is, like his crime fiction, heavily plot-focused, while the Wheeler essay is more concerned with character and exhibits finer literary flourishes.  But Webb's essay is quite readable and, best of all, succeeds, in my estimation, in fashioning an original and plausible new culprit of the murders (though there is one major hitch, I think).

Anthony Boucher himself, then still a believer in Lizzie's guilt, was delighted with, if stubbornly unconvinced by, Webb's essay, wryly writing Rickie of the piece, "I am delighted with it and entranced by it and I don't believe a word of it.  I wish I'd thought of it and I can't poke a possible finger through its logic, but I still think Lizzie did it."

The Passing Tramp outside Maplecroft
You can see where in 1909 Lizzie had her house's name
inscribed on the steps, an action said to have been
deemed tacky by her snooty neighbors
Webb opened his essay by declaring that he had informed Edmund Pearson of his theory in correspondence shortly before Pearson died in 1937 and that the eminent anti-Lizzieist had replied that his, Rickie's, theory of the case was a "new and original one."  Webb added that Pearson "assured me that, so far as he knew, I had in no sense transgressed against facts, and he acknowledged the possibility and plausibility of my argument while tacitly admitting that it did not agree with his own."

Webb expressed "forlorn hope" that the late Pearson's "mantle may descend, if but rustlingly, upon me."  Yet this never happened; and, indeed, I have never seen Webb's theory acknowledged anywhere on the internet. 

Happily, however, Rickie Webb's enlightening essay, as well as Hugh Wheeler's fetching Florence Maybrick piece, are soon to be reprinted.  Lovers of Lizzieana (and Maybrickabrac) everywhere take note!  Maybe filmmakers should too.  There's sure to be another Lizzie movie in the works someday.  Whether or not she wielded that infamous killing ax, Lizzie Borden, as a result of the Fall River murders and the mystery surrounding them, belongs forever to the annals of the bloodstained ages.

journey's end
view from Maplecroft of cooling towers 
at Brayton Point Power Station
(Passing Tramp)