Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Sound and Fury, Signifying...Sumthin: In Spite of Thunder (1960), by John Dickson Carr

Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle's Nest)
Nazi gathering place and
intriguing scene of retrospective death in
John Dickson Carr's In Spite of Thunder
pictured in life magazine after the
Second World War
Once more Brian had the feeling that his wits were flying loose and that nothing made reasonable sense.

In another instant the emotional temperature would have been out of all control.

Once more the threat of disaster spread its wings.

Emotion rises too high.  It ends in murder.

"My friend...there is a limit to one's patience."

"That's why I say: deliver me from people with temperament!"

--In Spite of Thunder (1960), by John Dickson Carr

When John Dickson Carr's detective novel In Spite of Thunder was published in 1960, it was heralded as the famed mystery author's fortieth book in thirty years (the first being It Walks by Night in 1930).  This actually understates Carr's achievement, because it leaves out twenty-five books that Carr wrote under the pen name Carter Dickson; but no matter.  The point is that it was an occasion for celebration of the career of someone who indisputably was, though then only fifty-three years old, a "Grand Old Man" of mystery.

For the occasion Carr's American publisher, Harper, revived its "sealed mystery" device of three decades earlier, whereby a band was put over the last chapter of the mystery, daring readers to return the book for a full refund if they could resist breaking it to get to the end of the story and find out whodunit. 

Additionally Harper hosted a luncheon in New York City in honor of Carr (who at this time was living in the nearby enclave of Mamaroneck), at which Harper's president presented the publisher's renowned mystery author with an inscribed, leather-bound copy of his new novel.

At this event Carr sat down for an interview with syndicated book reviewer John Barkham to discuss the parlous state of the detective story--"a genre," declared Barkham darkly, "now in serious decline."  In Barkham's eyes, the name of John Dickson Carr shone, for fans of classic mystery, as a brightly burning beacon of hope:

Harper edition
Unlike current practitioners on this side of the ocean [i.e., hard-boiled writers], who have substituted toughness and violence for deduction and subtlety, Carr prefers to mystify his readers, plays fair with them by presenting all his clues, and endows his stories with human plots that lift them out of the "chess puzzle" category[in contrast with the "Humdrums," in Barkham's view]. 

Carr, wrote Barkham, "is a small, dapper man who looks like a competent bank clerk, until he starts talking.  His conversation sparkles with literary allusions, and he can outline to you the plot of any well-known detective story of the past 30 years.

Carr, whom I suspect would have hated being compared to a "bank clerk" (however dapper), agreed with Barkham "that it was much harder to write a story whose solution requires pure detection than the currently popular bang bang mystery."  In discussing "the most memorable mysteries of the past," Carr invited his enthralled audience "to recall any of them."  They did as urged and the titles which were recalled "all proved to be tales of pure detection."

"This seems to me inevitable among intelligent readers," Barkham concluded loftily.  "The tough tales are as much alike as television westerns."  Happily, Carr assured his audience that he planned "to go right on writing his kind of detective story, compounded equally of ingenuity and human interest."  Declared Barkham: "I have no doubt that he will continue to be read around the world for precisely this reason.  Time, I would say, is on his side, for it is only a matter of time before readers become wearied of slam-bang violence and return to deductive skill."

Alas for predictions!  Carr would publish two more detective novels over the next, The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961) and The Demoniacs (1962)--the latter really more a historical mystery-adventure tale--before suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of fifty-six in 1963.  Although he was able to continue writing and would publish eight more novels between 1964 and 1972 (the first of these, Most Secret, a revision of an obscure thirty-year-old novel), Carr as an author was never the same man again. 

His last novels, with the exception of Most Secret and perhaps The House at Satan's Elbow (which I am rereading and finding somewhat better than I recalled), are tired affairs reminiscent of the weak later works of Agatha Christie.  If classic detection was to have a banner holder in the Sixties and Seventies, it sadly was not to be John Dickson Carr.

But what about the book that provided the occasion for Carr's luncheon with John Barkham and others: In Spite of Thunder, "Carr's fortieth book [actually sixty-fifth] in thirty years"?  How did it hold up?

Certainly it got a thumbs up from Carr's influential New York Times book reviewer friend, Anthony Boucher, dean of American crime fiction critics.  Or did it?

On the front cover of the  1987 Carroll and Graf paperback edition of the novel, Boucher is quoted as pronouncing Thunder "a sensational detective story."  On the inside, however, it quotes Boucher as saying, rather, "an admirable detective story and probably a sensational one."  That sounds kind of weird.  Which is it, admirable or sensational?  Trying to have it both ways, Open Road, who has recently reprinted the novel, on its Amazon page provides the same quote, only with ellipses: "An admirable detective story and...a sensational one."  Well, now we have ellipses in the quotation, begging the question, what exactly is left out from there?

I read the entire review once and the gist of what's left out as I recollect is that Boucher thought the novel would be deemed as "sensational" by newcomers to Carr.  So I think the implication was that to longtime fans who had read his older, often sensational, work it was merely "admirable."  But, hey, admirable ain't bad for a fortieth book.  In England, one review pronounced that Thunder was written in Carr's "best, which is to say fiendishly ingenious, manner."

However, some other newspaper reviews were not so favorable.  Bob Hill in the Spokane Chronicle complained that the novel's "solution...seems ludicrously contrived--and scarcely plausible," while the characters, even "allowing for the fact that the main emphasis quite properly is on the puzzle and not the people" made for "singularly dreary and uninteresting company."

This observation caused Hill, a longtime Carr admirer, to ruminate about the Master's past glory:

In the past John Dickson Carr has not always been so slapdash with his characterizations.  He created a memorable character named Fay Seton in "He Who Whispers," one of his most ingeniously plotted and atmospherically compelling novels.  The people of such a lively period piece as "The Devil in Velvet" have an authentic vitality and dash.  "In Spite of Thunder" will have to be listed as one of the more listless entries in the Carr canon.  

For his part, novelist Russell Thacher in the Hackensack New Jersey Record deemed Thunder a "cluttered and hectic book" that "doesn't seem to get very far very fast."  He added disappointingly:

And when it does get there--to the solution of the mystery about which there is a great, great deal of talk--one impatiently feels that Carr, his famous detective, Dr. Gideon Fell, as well as the innumerable other characters might have arrived there a good deal sooner if people had only stopped trying to be pointlessly evasive and answered a few pertinent questions.

Thacher, I should not, was another longtime Carr fan, writing that

Throughout his career Carr has maintained a remarkable standard for readable writing and an even more remarkable talent for sound, logical plotting,  It is a Carr trademark that the element of suspense never falters in his books, but at the same time, he doesn't outrage one's sense of credibility.  Nor does he cheat his reader--the clues to solve the mystery are there if you can detect them....

It hadn't quite worked out that well in Thunder, however.

To be sure, other newspaper reviewers besides Anthony Boucher gave the novel positive notices.  Ann Fair Dodson of the Springfield (Missouri) Leader and Press, for example, gave the book a fair rave, declaring that Carr, "long a master in the field of eerie entertainment," had outdone himself in Thunder.  More recently, Doug Greene in his biography of Carr, deems the novel "a successful exercise in ingenuity and suspense." though he also concedes the book has flaws:

[P]eople often speak like no one living in the twentieth century.  Some of the dialogue resembles a radio script, with conversation providing stage directions....Not only Dr. Fell but many of the other characters speak portentously and pretentiously.

I quote from these negative reviews (and Doug's criticisms) because unfortunately they express some of my own sense of disappointment with the book, which remains on rereading it after many years.


I first read In Spite of Thunder some two decades ago and on returning to it I recalled virtually nothing about it but the basic murder setup and the pivot upon which the puzzle turns, which is a charmingly clever device (insofar as murder devices can be charmingly clever), apparently drawn from real life, of which murder means master John Street, a great friend of Carr's, would have been proud.  (There's something similar in principle as I recollect in an Agatha Christie as well).  Like a lot of later Carr novels, there's the germ for a terrific short story.  The problem comes from Carr's effort to build a full-length novel around it.  There's a surfeit of emotional hot air to go with the thunder.

you would think it would be
Audrey Page who gets
would be more understandable
than the actual murder
First, a bit about the plot in Thunder.  In centers on aging retired screen actress (She's in her forties!), Eve Ferrier (aka Eve Eden--not to be confused with Eve Arden), who when the novel opens in 1956, has invited a disparate group of people to her home outside Geneva, Switzerland, the Villa Rosalind, which she shares with her third husband, retired stage actor Desmond Ferrier, and Desmond's stolid son from an earlier marriage, Philip Ferrier.  The following people are guests at the villa:

famed painter Sir Gerald Hathaway
lady journalist Paula Catford
appalling nitwit Audrey Page

Said nitwit, Audrey, has been followed to Geneva by another painter, Brian Innes, who was asked by Audrey's surely long-suffering father to retrieve her from what may prove to be a sticky situation at the Villa Rosalind.  And how right Father was!

You see, seventeen years earlier, in 1939,  Eve Ferrier, then Eve Eden, had been a notorious Nazi-admiring actress and had made a triumphal tour of Germany (which cost her her career--sounds vaguely like Sonja Henie, though that's probably unfair to Henie).  The delighted Germans invited Eve to visit with Hitler at Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle's Nest), the recently constructed Nazi mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps. 

Fatefully it was at Eagle's Nest that Eve's fiancee, Hector Matthews, fell to his death from the sun terrace, with Eve standing near (but apparently not touching) him.  Some think she contrived his death (she inherited his fortune), but how could she have pulled off this nasty trick?  Yup, it has all the appearances of a cool "locked room," or miracle, problem, this time an "impossible" defenestration.  But, wait, there's more!

sun terrace at Eagle's Nest
the actual setting for the retrospective death in
In Spite of Thunder (Third Reich in Ruins)
Eve now in 1956 wants to stage a career comeback, though she's getting old--She's in her forties, did I mention?--and as part of this comeback attempt she hopes to clear her name of suspicion once and for all.  So she invites Gerald Hathaway and Paula Catford, who were present at Eagle's Nest when Eve's boyfriend was ostensibly defenestrated.  Audrey Page, who is involved with Eve's stepson Philip Ferrier, is invited too. 

So now the stage is set for another murder, which when it comes turns out to an apparent replication of the defenestration death from seventeen years ago!

This is all pretty neat (apparently the central device came from a Carr radio play), but in the end it makes a lumbering reading experience.  Part of the problem is the characters, who are awfully stock and rather tedious individuals indeed.  The protagonist, Brian Innes, is the usual Carr-substitute hero.  When Carr started publishing mysteries in the Thirties, this stock character, like Carr himself, was a younger man, but now that Carr was in his fifties, the character had aged as well.  Brian Innes states that he is forty-six years old and looks older.  He's a painter, but might as well be a writer of some sort, the usual occupation of Carr's stock heroes.  (Incidentally, did Carr ever have a businessman protagonist?  For a conservative, he sure hated the business world!)

Brian's love interest is said nitwit Audrey Page, who is, Brian says, twenty-seven and looks "much younger."  We later learns that she looks nineteen to be specific, or barely legal, as they say.  Middle-aged men who are attracted to much (indeed inappropriately) younger women are a recurrent and important feature of later Carr novels--see my recent post on Carr's mid-life crisis.  Amusingly at one point a character says Brian is old enough to be Audrey's father and Brian objects, "I'm not quite as old as all that, you know," but of course he is.  There's a full generation's difference between his and Audrey's ages.

Audrey is a stock character too, and not just because she's a young and sexually attractive "heroine" and live interest.  There is nothing else to her personality besides that she's a maddening ditz.  She's there simply to bewitch and frustrate, to tantalize and tease, the hero, Brian, through a series of annoyingly capricious actions.  This sort of thing became a given in Carr novels, but the problem here is that Audrey really is exceptionally irksome even by Carr's standard of irksome women.  "I've been very silly, you know, and I've behaved about as stupidly as anyone could behave," she admits to Brian.  Yes, indeed you have, Audrey!  But does that stop her from continuing to behave that way?  As a Carr character would say: "No, no, a thousand times no!"

We learn that Audrey came to Geneva simply to get Brian Innes to chase after her, because, you know, she simply couldn't tell Brian she loved him, I guess.  It's interesting that Carr expressed hatred for hard-boiled crime fiction, because characters like Audrey behave a lot like femmes fatales in those books, existing solely to bedevil the hero, though ultimately Carr's young "charmers" usually prove to be good girls after all, just rather maddeningly flighty and childish.  She "began to slap at the table like a woman in a frenzy or a child in a tantrum," writes Carr of Audrey at one point, mentally likening women to children in an unflattering comparison. 

All Brian and Audrey do the whole book (until the very end) is bicker.  This "battle of the sexes" motif is a prominent feature in later Carr (indeed it features in earlier Carr too), but it's so damn obtrusive in this novel.  It's hard to understand just why these two love each other--they certainly don't seem to like each other,  What they really need is not a murder investigation but a relationship counselor:

"But can't you s-say you love me," Audrey cried out at him, "without swearing at me and looking as though you wanted to strangle me?" 
"No I can't.  That's how you affect people."
"All right.  I don't mind; I love it."

Brian tells Audrey, in the anachronistically stilted language characters in which male characters speak in this book, "You're a female devil, a succubus of near-thirty masquerading as nineteen....I've been looking for you my whole life."  What a charmer!  I guess Audrey, who seems to have masochistic tendencies, loved that endearment as well.  Was Carr's relationship with his mistress, who threatened to commit suicide when they broke up, like this?  Carr's wife and the mother of his three daughters, Clarice, doesn't seem to have been anything like this.

Through the course of the novel Audrey promises Brian that she will stay put in Geneva, but then several times proceeds to run off somewhere she swore she wouldn't, all for insufficiently motivated reasons.  She's the most frustrating of Carr's female characters that I can remember and truly a woman who could only have been created by a man. 

Some of the other characters aren't any more appealing, however.

Eva Braun and sister at Eagle's Nest
Sir Gerald Hathaway--"fashionable portrait painter, ladies' man, amateur criminologist"--is another stock character: the pompous, pontificating older artist or intellectual.  Gerald can't address a woman by her name, it's always "dear lady."  He's investigating Eve Ferrier, whom he's convinced is a murderess, and functions as a sort of rival to Carr's series sleuth Dr. Fell, who eventually comes upon the scene, making cryptic utterances and harrumphing and ejaculating "Archons of Athens!" and "Oh, my ancient hat!" every so often, which is his equivalent of Hercule Poirot's "Mon Dieus!" and "Sacre bleus!" but somehow more irksome. 

Hathaway rather resembles the character Professor Rigaud from arguably Carr's best book, He Who Whispers (1946), although I never found Rigaud irritating.  Indeed, In Spite of Thunder rather resembles He Who Whispers in its framework (investigation of a crime in the past alleged to have been committed by a "fatal woman"), but Thunder is but a weak rumble compared to Whispers.

Paula Catford isn't so irritating, but she's another stock character, the second banana female, who cattily despises the lead female.  Carr lets us know she's actually feminine, despite being a working woman, don;'t you know; and throughout the novel she is, to be sure, essentially motivated by her feelings of love and spite, like other Carr women. 

Brian Innes "had half expected," before seeing Paula, "a globe-trotting woman journalist to be a tough and strident egomaniac with elaborate gestures and too much makeup [Think Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat--TPT]"; but in truth Paula is a "gentle, modest, well-rounded girl."  "You thought 'girl' rather than 'woman,'" Carr helpfully explains, "though she must have been in her middle or later thirties."  Actually if Paula was at Eagle's Nest in 1939, seventeen years earlier, I would have expected her to be past forty when the book takes place, but then I guess in that case she wouldn't be a "girl" anymore.

American soldiers commemorating the
downfall of the Third Reich  at Eagle's Nest
Definitely irritating is Desmond Ferrier, one of those outsize theatrical types in Carr's books who is always roaring and bellowing and who I always hope will be murdered but never is.  Ultimately you feel that this is a character Carr believes we must find charming at heart.  "You would cheerfully seize any woman from fifteen to fifty," wheezing, avuncular Dr. Fell tells Desmond indulgently at one point, "and think it a good day's work.  But marry for money you would never do.

Um, what a guy?  So teenagers of fifteen involved with a guy in his fifties are "women" now, but thirtysomething, non-virginal Paula is a "girl"?  Someone really needs to explain to me the metaphysics of this whole women/girl thing, as Carr saw it.

Desmond Ferrier's actions often seems as inscrutable as Audrey's and, when they are explained, don't come off as much more believable.  Indeed, this is one of those books where, as Doug Greene has noted of Carr's writing at this time, Carr tries too hard to make everything mysterious.  Can you have too much mystery in a mystery?  I think you can.  This tendency makes Carr at times read more like Sophie Hannah than Agatha Christie.  You get exhausted and are left scratching your head at some of the improbable explanations the author comes up with at the end to account for why people acted the way they did.  (Christie only wrote like this near the very end of her career, when she was in her seventies and eighties.)

GI enjoying the view at Eagle's Nest

I still don't understand, for example, where the sulfuric acid in the perfume bottle in the handbag came in, except to provide an exciting ending to one of the chapters, for which Carr had to come up with an explanation after the fact.  (Carr at all costs wants every chapter to close with a thrill, like a vintage serial cliffhanger.)  Or that late second murder attempt at the nightclub the Cave of the Witches.  That felt like it only came about because Carr wanted another thrill and one with a supernatural motif at that (recalling his reputation as a master of eerie atmosphere).  It's a good scene, but it felt utterly forced.  (Why did Audrey and Desmond meet there again?)

Indeed, the whole modern murder plot seemed to me improbable in the extreme (Why was it even necessary to resort to murder?)--though I did guess the murderer immediately on his/her appearance, because I know the type which Carr tends to cast for that role.

Again, for someone who professed to hate hard-boiled mysteries, Carr evidently felt that in his story he had to pile on incident (shouting and screaming if not actual fisticuffs and sex).  If "Humdrum" mysteries can err on the side of being too cerebral, Carr's books at this time can err on the side of being too emotional.  Carr is always telling us, as if we can't tell for ourselves from all the exclamation points, that the emotional temperature in the room is going through the roof, etc.  Yes, there's a very heavy use of exclamation points (!), what with characters shouting and roaring and crying "Yes!" and "No!"  You just want everyone to calm the f--- down already.

Occasionally people become so overwhelmed with emotion that they find it necessary to speak (or rather shout) in triplets, as in:

"Yes, yes, yes!"  (I was reminded of the Meg Ryan character in When Harry Met Sally)

"Stop, stop, stop!" (Okay, that's definitely not the Meg Ryan character)

"Dear, dear, dear!"

"It must, it must, it must!"

To which I say: "Too much, too much, too much!"  I think Carr must have lost some confidence in himself as a writer by this time to come to feel he needed to write this way.  Or maybe it was unfortunate carryover from his period mysteries, set in the Jacobean and Georgian eras, where when people act this way it seems more believable (although I'm not sure that anyone in The Bride of Newgate, say, is as hysterical as they are in In Spite of Thunder.) 

In any event, I think this level of emoting is fundamentally at odds with the aesthetics of the classic detective novel, which should maintain a certain level of calm, or decorum if you will.  It's hard to cerebrate when emotions are dialed up to level ten (or eleven!) throughout the whole book.  And you shouldn't have to scratch your head over some of the revelations at the end.  (He did what because why?)  This novel might better have been titled, for those who still like it, In Spite of Bluster.  To me, however, all the bluster in the telling spoils a potentially good tale.

Happier news for the fans, however: two other Carrs I recently reread came off in my eyes rather better than Thunder.  I'll be posting about these soon, I hope.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

John Dickson Carr at the Heights

John Dickson Carr
presumably taken in 1927,
after Carr had left Haverford College
and was about to travel to Europe

There seems to be a tradition that fiction writers be poor students in mathematics and science, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr certainly seems to have lived up to that fine tradition.  At Haverford College, located near Bryn Mawr about three miles west of Philadelphia,where future crime writers Richard Webb and Milton Propper then lived, Carr attended classes for two years, from 1925 to 1927. However, we learn from Doug Greene in his biography of "Jack" Carr (as he was known in his college years) that in Carr's sophomore year at Haverford his combined grade was 52.6, when an average grade of 65 was required to move on to the next level.  His total score in algebra was a 2 (out of a possible 100), which his economics score was 16--admittedly eight times better than his algebra grade!  (How's that for math?)

Doug reports that, all this notwithstanding,  Haverford nevertheless was willing to allow the precocious Carr, who had already already distinguished himself for his writing if not his ciphering, to return to school for the junior term-- but only if he passed the entrance examination for plane geometry. 

"For almost the first time," Doug writes, Carr "studied for a mathematics test."  Carr made an "astonishing grade" by his standard--a 35--but that was nowhere near good enough; so out went he.  At the age of twenty, Carr found he would have to prove himself as a writer or be condemned by his father to pursue a career in law.  Horrors!  (He did get to take a trip to Europe though.)

Brooklyn Heights houses
Carr's house was demolished but these
brownstones suggest the ambience
In 1930, three years after leaving Haverford, College, Carr published his first detective novel, It Walks by Night, with American publisher Harpers, whose mystery writers stable also included Freeman Wills Crofts, then one of the most prominent mystery writers in the world. Carr's debut novel proved successful enough to launch his own career as a mystery writer.  At the age of twenty-three Carr left his parents and moved to Brooklyn Heights, New York, where with Edward Delafield, an employee at Harpers, he rented a third floor apartment with a bedroom, kitchen and an octagonal front room facing New York Harbor. 

Henry Tomlinson, another Harper's employee, sometimes shared the apartment with Carr and Delafield as well.  Both Tomlinson and Delafield recalled Carr furiously crafting crime fiction there, according to an article about Carr's life at this time:

[Carr] was apt to come sprinting out of the shower, crying, "I've got it!"  He would pick up a newspaper and, seeking out the crime notes, as was his habit, seize cheerfully on a brief, routine suicide.  "He would twist it and turn it around," says Delafield, "and before long it would emerge as a full-fledged book plot.  And the next thing we knew, he'd have it written and published."  Tomlinson once asked Carr if he had undue trouble with plots.  Fixing him with a Holmesian glare, Carr replied, "I've had exactly hundred and twenty complete plots outlined, for emergencies, since I was eleven years old." 

Appropriately enough Carr and his friends played the fashionable game of Murder at the Brooklyn Heights apartment, and, less happily, Carr in these days also commenced his many years of heavy drinking.  After he completed the typescript for a book, Doug Greene writes, Carr "would often get drunk on the bathtub gin that he, Delafield and Reynolds produced."

Another of Carr's friends was Jack Reynolds, who met Carr, Doug notes, "at a party given by Harpers to celebrate the release of Carr's second novel, The Lost Gallows."  Reynolds worked for the Munson Steamship Company (his father was the company secretary), and he arranged a trip to Cuba for Carr in May 1931.  As what Carr termed a prank, Reynolds had his friend sent on the Norwegian steamship Gunny as a supercargo: i.e., a representative of the ship's owner, responsible for overseeing the ship's cargo and its sale.  Built in 1920, SS Gunny was later torpedoed in the West Indies by the Germans in 1942.

SS Gunny
Carr, who was listed as being 5'6" with brown hair, fair complexion and gray eyes, surrendered his 1930 passport in exchange for a seaman's certificate.  The photo attached to his certification is pictured above, I think for the first time.  Presumably this photo was taken in 1927, when Carr was but twenty years old.  Of the 1927 photo Doug has written:

Unlike most passport photos, John's shows him at his best.  The unprepossessing boy had matured into a good-looking man, with large, almost dreamy eyes and the hint of a smile.

It was on board another ship in 1930 that Carr would meet and fall for his future wife, Englishwoman Clarice Cleaves.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Mid-Century Mid-Life Crisis: John Dickson Carr's Crime Fiction in the Second Half of the 1900s

For whatever reasons, the Fifties and Sixties saw a decline in the work of many surviving Golden Age detective fiction authors, and John Dickson Carr, one of the most important figures in Golden Age mystery, was no exception.  The overall decline in his works from the Thirties and Forties was steep, although, to be sure, he managed to reinvigorate himself for a time by writing historical mysteries that were set in what the incurably romantic author deemed more colorful eras. 

Anyone who has read Douglas Greene's landmark biography of John Dickson Carr knows that the author's weariness with the postwar world impacted his writing.  With his historical mysteries he successfully took refuge from his soul-draining ennui for a time, but writing about the present became increasingly difficult for him.  In truth there was a decline in all of his writing, whatever the setting, over time, a decline which the debilitating stroke he suffered in 1963 greatly exacerbated.

In an essay by me published in a volume of essays on crime fiction dedicated to Doug Greene, Mysteries Unlocked, I wrote the following of Carr's attitude to the postwar world:

"The period after World War Two," observes Douglas G. Greene in John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, "was a time of increasing dissatisfaction, disillusionment and restlessness for John Dickson Carr."  The great Golden Age emigre American mystery writer's romantic view of the world seemed to have cindered to ashes amidst the blaze of atrocities committed during the Second World War and the postwar imposition of a drab gray regimen of regulations and restrictions by Britain's Labour government.  "The kind of world [Carr] admired seemed irrelevant," notes Greene.  ""It was difficult for him to pretend that it had anything to do with modern life."  In his postwar mysteries Carr would increasingly seek refuge in an idealized fictional past.  Period novels like The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Devil in Velvet (1952) took the author and his readers back to what a colleague of his characterized as colorful eras of "sword play and sudden personal dramas, with costumes and carriages, and beaux and belles."

For John Dickson Carr (1906-1977)
recovering the mirth of his lost youth
proved to be rather more
than a three-pipe problem
However, Carr's advancing case of writer's bloc probably cannot be attributed solely to his undeniable disillusionment with the modern world. In his Carr biography, Doug writes that the author's charming English widow, Clarice (who was then alive and corresponded regularly with Doug) certainly thought as much:

She believes that her husband's unhappiness was based on more than his dislike of the postwar world.  She thinks that he was somehow running away from himself, but can make no suggestion about what he found wrong with being John Dickson Carr except, possibly, his physical size. 

Carr was physically separated from Clarice and his daughters over much of this time.  As Doug puts it in his biography:

No matter where he took up residence during the 1950s...he could not be happy and he would soon pull up stakes to try somewhere else.  Sometimes he would simply tell Clarice and the children that it was time to move, and he would go to London or Tangier and expect her to sell the house and pack up the belongings....

Carr...had at least eight different homes between 1951 and 1954.  Clarice was often but not always with him during these peregrinations.  Bonnie and Mary needed regular schooling, so after Clarice's father died in 1952 and she inherited property in Kingswood, she often resided there while John was elsewhere.  As was the case in the middle 1940s, however, they did not consider themselves separated, and when they were on the same continent, stayed with each other over long weekends.

Mid-century college students at play
In the 1950s John Dickson Carr was nostalgic not only
about the Jacobean era but his own lived past
in the Twenties and Thirties--one of
clubs and drinks and tipsy frolics
In was in the middle 1940s, during the war, when Carr, separated from his wife and family and working in radio, cohabited with another woman in London, with whom he was intimately involved.  Previous to this, Doug writes, Carr had had several brief affairs, or what Doug terms "encounters.

Although Doug notes that Carr "doted on Clarice" and the couple remained affectionately married until Carr's death in 1977, is it possible that Carr had additional "encounters" after the war, or that part of him wanted to have them? 

A recurring feature of his books in the Fifties and the Sixties is the attraction of middle-aged men to much younger women.  Did Carr experience a classic "midlife crisis" after the war, when he had reached his forties?  (He was born in 1906.) 

The Daily Telegraph--and what doesn't the Daily Telegraph know?--tells us that the male mid-life crisis on average starts at age forty-three and lasts from three to ten years.  Carr turned forty-three in late 1949, so if he conformed to this supposed average, he could have been in crisis throughout the entire decade of the 1950s and possibly into the 1960s, not long before his stroke.  Today lists these "signs" of a mid-life crisis:

1. He says life is a bore
2. He is thinking about (or already is) having an affair
3. He is suddenly making impetuous decisions about money and/or his career
4. He makes a dramatic change in his personal style or appearance
5. He has little interest in spending time (or having sex) with you
6. He is drinking too much or abusing other substances
7. He is displaying the classic signs of depression--sleeping more, loss of appetite, malaise
8. He is overly nostalgic and constantly reminiscing about his youth

I don't know about you, but it seems to me self-evident that Carr displayed a lot of these symptoms.

While visiting New York in 1945, Carr, accompanied by his bibliophile friend Frederic Dannay (one half of Ellery Queen), toured New York's antiquarian bookshops, in search of works by an author who was one of his adolescent favorites: the recently deceased mystery writer Carolyn Wells, about whom readers may recall I have blogged quite a bit here.  Carr zealously purchased a complete set of Wells' eighty-two detective novels, but when he returned to England later that year, he found that customs officials would not allow him to bring the books--American imports--into the country.  Only after some six months of wrangling did the British government finally relent.  Recalling the incident in a letter to Dannay, Carr thundered: "The regulations in this country grow more and more damnable.  One more war for liberty and we shall all be slaves."

If purchasing eighty-two Carolyn Wells mystery novels is not an "overly nostalgic" and an "impetuous decision about money," I don't know what is.  Not to mention buying them without checking with British customs first.

At some point later in his life, either in the 1950s or mid-sixties, Carr nostalgically (that word again!) reminisced to the much younger Edmund Crispin (born in 1921, he was fifteen years younger than Carr) about the fun of the many bibulous antics they enjoyed together in the late 1940s.  Check off more bullet points on that Today list!

clarinettist at the Mandrake Club, Soho
"London's only Bohemian rendezvous,"
where Carr, Crispin and Anthony Berkeley
divulged "sexual preferences"
(photo by Harold Chapman)
Those were the days, weren't they?

When, e.g., I fell drunkenly asleep on Christianna Brand's ample bosom in a taxi, and she had the greatest difficulty in shifting me; when you and Tony Berkeley and I indulged in maudlin confessions of our sexual preferences one late afternoon in the Mandrake Club; when I tried, after four bottles of champagne and two of brandy apiece, to fight a duel with you in your Hampstead flat with (unbuttoned) foils; when your splendid little Holmes parody was mounted with the utmost grandeur, and a stunning cast, at the Detection Club; when I had to prevent you, at the IMA, from attacking single-handed six RAF men whom you conceived (I don't know whether correctly) to have said something derogatory about you; and many, many other things, in other places, on other occasions.

Lucky Christianna Brand!  I'm sure there's no fun like having a drunk in a taxi fall asleep on your "ample bosom" and not want to dislodge himself.  When you recall that both Carr and Crispin were alcoholics whose lives were blighted by that disease, some of this "fun" pales, I think.  Carr's disgruntlement with his present and nostalgia for his younger, better days reminds me of this recent SNL skit with fifty-one-year-old comedic actor Will Farrell.

Whatever the causes, that Carr's writing began changing, generally to its detriment, around mid-century is clear.  Although he produced several really fine books and at least one genre masterpiece in the Fifties, these were all historical mysteries.  The non-historical mysteries are inferior to their predecessors, sometimes markedly so.  And the historicals from the late Fifties and early Sixties are generally inferior to the ones from the early to mid-Fifties.  After Carr's stroke in 1963, the decline in the quality of his work became steep indeed.  Characters in these books desperately try to recapture their youth with affairs and juvenile hi-jinx (playing baseball and singing college songs and goosing women), but reading about all this is merely tedious, if not sad, to the Carr fan simply in search of a good mystery.

Below I rank the Carrs from this period, which extended from 1950 to 1972, about half of Carr's career as a mystery novelist.  It's definitely the inferior half.  It's hard to recover the vim of lost youth.

John Dickson Carr Novels, 1950-1972

1. The Bride of Newgate (1950) ****
Carr immediately reinvigorated his writing with this grand swashbuckling historical mystery.  (His previous two novels, Below Suspicion and A Graveyard to Let, both published in 1949, had his old series sleuth standbys, respectively Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.)  A nice little miracle problem (vanishing room) and considerable narrative elan.

2. The Devil in Velvet (1951) *****
The first of Carr's time slip novels (where a modern-day character somehow enters the past), this is an even stronger historical mystery than the zestful Bride, in my view. It's set in Carr's favorite time and place, Jacobean England, and is a character-driven mystery novel with a sinister edge, courtesy of Lucifer himself. 

Like his characters, Carr himself doubtlessly fantasized about going back to the seventeenth century and swashing away; and he really put his heart into this superb mystery fantasy, something of a companion piece to his non-fictional true crime study, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey.  It's a tour de force, and, in my estimation, his last true masterpiece in the crime fiction genre.

3. The 9 Wrong Answers (1952) **1/2
Some people really like this one, indeed they rank it as a genre masterpiece, but I don't share that enthusiasm.  It takes us back to the present day, but I find it to be a sort of stunt story, reflective of Carr's (excellent) radio plays.  Indeed, it was as I recollect based on a terrific radio suspense play, "Will You Make a Bet with Death?".  As a novel, it seemed contrived and unconvincing to me, with an uninteresting set of characters with whom we have to spend a lot of time.  The twist packs a punch, however--if you find it fair.  Critic Anthony Boucher didn't!  Doug Greene also questioned the veracity of one of those famous footnotes.

4. Captain Cut-Throat (1955) ****
Another fine historical.  Terrific tension and some memorable action scenes put it up to the level of the previous two.  It's Carr's take on a popular mystery form in the Cold War Fifties, the espionage novel, though characteristically he takes us back to an earlier time: the Napoleonic era.  It would make a wonderful film.

5. Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956) *1/2
Carr returned to the present with regrettable results.  He brings back the odious Patrick Butler, one of those modern-day Carr characters who postures intolerably as if he's stepped out of the seventeenth century, and throws in some of his most exasperating women, all of whom parade around in a miracle problem plot adulterated with extraneous matter. 

Patrick Butler was more bearable in his first book, Below Suspicion (1949), when he shared the stage with Dr. Fell.  Here Carr seems more interested in some sort of "battles of the sexes" social comedy, which would best have been left to the Crime Queens and their followers.

6. Fire, Burn! (1957) ****
A solid historical mystery, time slip again, with probably the best formal detection of any of his historicals.

7. The Dead Man's Knock (1958) ***1/2
Carr takes us to an American college campus and introduces us to the most dysfunctional group of professors this side of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Brings back Dr. Fell after a near decade's absence (!); Sir Henry Merrivale came to America, why not Dr. Fell?  Better than Patrick Butler for the Defence, thankfully, with a modest but neat and tidy locked room problem amid the emotional theatrics.  It's actually more restrained than the books which followed.  I call this one underrated.

8. Scandal at High Chimneys (1958)**1/2
Subtitled a "Victorian melodrama," and whoo-boy is it.  Somehow Carr isn't as convincing with the Victorian period as he is the Jacobean and Georgian.  I suspect he just wasn't in sync with the prevailing spirit of the age (i.e., surface decorum and pious public moralism).  But the period window dressing in this one is still nice.

9. In Spite of Thunder (1960)**1/2
Like in the previous book, the author strives too hard to excite by making everything under the sun mysterious.  Also too many characters behave like they stepped out from earlier centuries.  However, the basic puzzle, to the extent we are allowed to focus on it, is quite intriguing (though in the end I thought it fizzled somewhat).  Somewhat reminiscent, if much weaker than, Carr's Forties masterpiece He Who Whispers.  Dr. Fell appears again, but only sporadically, in this, his last appearance for five years.

"We are all demoniacs."  Indeed!
10. The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961)***1/2
Again, there are too many attempts at creating High Tension! However, the puzzle is a good miracle problem one, probably the last of his major, really well-executed ones.  Murder in a bathing hut, with no footprints left on the beach....Also a decent police detective adversary to out hero. memorably named Twigg.  It almost passes as a "modern" mystery, taking place in 1907, just after Carr was born.

11. The Demoniacs (1962) ***1/2
An underrated historical.  There's yet another bickering male-female couple, but somehow they are easier to take in earlier centuries.  I wrote Doug Greene over twenty years ago that while I loved his biography of Carr I thought that in it he gave this novel short shrift.

12. Most Secret (1964) unread
Published after Carr's stroke, but a substantial revision of a novel published thirty years earlier.

13. The House at Satan's Elbow (1965) *1/2
Read nearly thirty years ago by me, a few years before Doug's Carr bio was published.  So I didn't know why it was so disappointing to me.  Now I know that Carr had had a stroke, and nothing he wrote after that, with the exception of Most Secret, was good at all.  The narrative is plodding, characters pose and orate endlessly and attempted murder is not really very exciting, is it?  Lots of classic elements however: an English country house, a diabolical ghost and a locked room, um, near murder.  And Dr. Fell returns (again), though it's not that much of a return.  Still, it's better than what followed.

14. Panic in Box C (1966) *
Horrendously chauvinistic treatment of women, characters act like immature idiots, and, Archons of Athens!, all those dreadful nicknames.  There's an "impossible" murder, but interest in it fades with all the tedious padding and poor writing.  It's the books that's impossible--to read.

15. Dark of the Moon (1967) 1/2
Everything that marred Panic but more so.  So tedious and discursive I couldn't care what happened to anyone.  As far as I'm concerned this is Carr's Postern of Fate, or, to be more generous, since there is an actual locked room problem, his Elephants Can Remember (unless The Hungry Goblin deserves the distinction).  Dr. Fell's final farewell--Harrumph!  I always liked Sir Henry Merrivale better as a sleuth (at least he's often fun), but the elephantine, scholarly, beer-swilling doctor deserved a better exit.  At least Merrivale's last appearance was in an excellent Fifties novelette, as bad as The Cavalier's Cup may have been. (To be fair, though, not everyone agrees.)

16. Papa La-Bas (1968) *
With this one Carr returned to historicals, maybe realizing he simply couldn't recapture his narrative elan in the present day.  Sadly, this shows he couldn't do it in the past either.  Carr was, in short, played out at the age of 62.  It's New Orleans with the inevitable voodoo (I used to have hardcover copy I bought in Baton Rouge), but somehow Carr, the past master of atmosphere, manages to make it all utterly boring.  Not to mention his ideas about the antebellum American South are pretty dreadful (and the postwar South too for that matter).

17. The Ghosts' High Noon (1969) **
Better than its immediate predecessors but still weak broth.  If you must read one from this period, this would be it, however, unless you have a really high tolerance for claptrap.

18. Deadly Hall (1971) *
Should have been called Deadly Dull Hall.  To be sure it's more restrained that Panic and Moon, but it's just bo-ring!

19. The Hungry Goblin (1972) unread
Nothing I have read about this book makes me want to read it, except the idea of Wilkie Collins as a detective.  Doug Greene thought it was too poor to reprint, but can it really be worse than Dark of the Moon?  Doug says yes!  Here is a contrary view.

Novels as Carter Dickson, 1950-1953

This one gives me a headache too!
1. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) *
One of Carr's most synthetic attempts at an English village mystery.  People behave like maniacs, led by Sir Henry Merrivale, whose comically eccentric behavior from past novels here tips over from amusingly bizarre to appallingly antisocial.  The villagers are almost as bad.  For a conservative writer, Carr by this time seems remarkably hostile to organized religion.  His over-the-top hatred for Russian novelists is striking as well.  There's a miracle problem, but it didn't impress me.  More invective than entertainment. Certainly not a great mystery!

Merrivale went on to have two more adventures in novel form, but I've never read them because Doug's comments in his bio are not encouraging.  These are:

"You fool!  How could you like this novel?!"
2. Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) unread

3. The Cavalier's Cup (1953) unread

4. Fear Is the Same (1956) ***
Another time slip period mystery. To me this was the least interesting of the bunch but it's not bad.

So to sum up, of the 23 mystery novels Carr published between 1950 and 1972, I would rank my favorites as follows (obviously discounting the unread ones):

1. The Devil in Velvet (1951)

Very Good
2. Captain Cut-Throat (1955)
3. The Bride of Newgate (1950)
4. Fire, Burn! (1957)

5. The Dead Man's Knock (1958)
6. The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961)
7. The Demoniacs (1962)
8. Fear is the Same (1956)

And the worst:
1. Dark of the Moon (1967)
2. Panic in Box C (1966)
3. Papa La-Bas (1968)
4. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)

Behind the Crimson Blind or The Cavalier's Cup surely are contenders, however!  Not to mention The Hungry Goblin, which still awaits.  Brrrgh!!!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Wicked Belgraveians: The Belgrave Manor Crime (1935), by Moray Dalton

My copy of Moray Dalton's The Belgrave Manor Crime--it's the fifth Inspector Hugh Collier novel, first published in 1935 and will be reprinted next year by Dean Street Press--has a stamp from Blackdown High School, located on Park Road in Leamington Spa, a lovely small city in Warwickshire, which isn't, I imagine, too dissimilar from the author's favored settings in southern England.  Belgrave Manor, the sinister locus of the novel, is located near Lewes in East Sussex, the area where Dalton spent most of her life.

Belgrave opens with a new character in the Dalton crime novel corpus  (at least I hadn't encountered him before): psychic investigator Cosmo Thor.  (You know he has to be a psychic investigator with a name like Cosmo Thor.)  He's not actually a new character, however.  Cosmo Thor originally appeared in a series of six short stories published between July and December 1927 in Premier Magazine, under the title "The Strange Cases of Cosmo Thor," wherein Thor features as "a detective with remarkable empathy and insight," according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

In Belgrave, Thor is described by the author as "an authority on what had hitherto been a kind of No Man's Land between that covered by the C.I.D. and the alienist."  When the story opens he encounters, while returning to London by train from a case in the Midlands, a young palmist he knows, a certain Madame Luna, who has been released from jail after three weeks for practicing her mystical art.  (A police "trap," she explains, led her into saying more than she should have.) 

The palmist tells Thor that she is on her way to get back to her little girl, Allie, who was left in the care of her landlady while she was incarcerated.  After parting ways with Madame Luna and arriving in London, Thor resolves to take a restful weekend in the country.  On returning home, he learns from his not overly bright landlady that Madame Luna had desperately wanted to see him over the weekend, but was turned away.  Concerned, Thor consults his policeman friend, Hugh Collier, and learns from him that Madame Luna may be the woman who was found dead from a fall from a cliff in Devon.  But what in the world was Madame Luna doing in Devon, if the dead woman indeed was she? 

Thor's investigation leads him to Belgrave Manor, a Sussex country house of ill-favored reputation to the inhabitants of the nearby village of Mitre Gap.  After long abandonment, Thor learns from local father-and-son house agents John and Dennis Garland, Belgrave Manor was purchased by wealthy London philanthropist Mrs. Maulfrey.  To Belgrave Manor Mrs. Maulfrey, who soon took custody of Madame Luna's daughter Allie while her mother was incarcerated, sent the young girl, in care of a pretty young governess, a Miss Celia Kent.  (Does that name remind you of anyone?)

After a tense visit to Belgrave Manor, Thor is sidelined from the case (perhaps permanently), but fortunately the intrepid Hugh Collier is on hand to pick up the threads in what turns out to be a remarkably sinister case, one in which Hugh himself will be put in grave peril of his life.  If you don't like Hugh Collier by now, you certainly should after reading this story.  He's a good bloke.

Admittedly, The Belgrave Manor Crime is more of a thriller than a detective novel, although there is detection (as well as a nasty series of murders).  However, I found it a terrifically enjoyable one, richer than most of the plethora of Edgar Wallace and sub-Wallace thrillers that were published in this period.  I was rather reminded of Margery Allingham's "Maxwell March" mysteries.  The story actually gets rather dark (especially for the period), and, as with other Daltons, it was easy for me to imagine its being filmed by modern film makers who like "darkness" in their mysteries.  It's an impressive tale of outre mystery and lurid crime, with a cast of compelling characters, both good and bad. 

And, be warned my dear readers, when those bad characters are bad, they are horrid!

One additional warning: You really should read The Belfry Murder (1933), which will also be reprinted next year by Dean Street Press, before perusing The Belgrave Manor Crime, because there is some important continuity between the two novels.  A review of The Belfry Murder is coming soon!

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)