Friday, July 13, 2018

Prepped for Murder: Death Goes to School (1936), by Q. Patrick

"Murder at Craiglea!  Why, it's impossible!"

"When I think of this lovely English village, I can scarcely believe it myself."

  --Death Goes to School (1936), by Q. Patrick

Though Raymond Chandler thought fictional murder belonged, like the real stuff, in the mean streets, many mystery readers of his day wanted nothing more from their favorite reading fare than to escape into a nice English murder story set in a lovely little village, enjoying the very incongruity of foul play in fair places.  Seemingly even more incongruous was the idea of murders taking place among children in schools (although of course in the modern United States it's sadly become almost a casual affair); yet in the 1930s the setting was fairly common in English mysteries. 

Death Goes to School
(1936) is the last of the six Q. Patrick novels that is not credited jointly to authors Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, and thus it marks the end of the first phase of a pseudonymous author's life: the one in which the author adhered most scrupulously to the clues and cogitation formula of classic detective fiction.  Three of these novels--Murder at Cambridge, The Grindle Nightmare and Death Goes to School--were copyrighted to Rickie Webb alone, though the latter two titles likely had some input from Rickie's apt apprentice Hugh Wheeler, whom we know at the very least typed the manuscripts and would have been talking over the details with his guide and mentor.  The other three novels had women co-authors, two of them Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelly and one Mary Lou White.

Three of the six pre-Hugh Q. Patricks take place in Britain (while another is an ocean liner mystery), contrasting with most of the Rickie-Hugh Q. Patricks.  (I will call them QPs from here.)  Like other authors, Rickie wrote about what he knew, and though he was well-traveled what he knew best was England's green and pleasant--though in fiction at least quite murderous--land.  Additionally, one of the Rickie-Hugh QPs takes place in Bermuda, where he and Hugh annually vacationed in the Thirties.

Not long before he left America for France in 1952, Rickie complained to Hugh--who had decided, much to Rickie's dismay, to move on from their relationship both personally and professionally--that he had never really felt at home in America, a country where he had spent half his life and in 1943 had become a naturalized citizen, going into armed service for his adopted nation in the Pacific War.  Hugh seemed to better adapt, but then Hugh was a most flexible individual.

Death Goes to School has Rickie's fingerprints all over it.  The novel is dedicated to his parents, who when he was growing up in England had run a girls school at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, situated on the Bristol Channel not far from the city of Bristol, and is set at a boys school in, sure enough, Somerset, overlooking the Bristol Channel.  With 68 boarding pupils, the school seems larger than that of Rickie's parents and boys are concerned rather than girls, but the setting otherwise is very much on point.  Additionally, one of the major characters in the novel, a spirited young boy named Lucas who proves to have considerable skill as a code breaker, shares the surname of his mother's family.

In all the book seems, like Rickie's earlier college mystery Murder at Cambridge, an exercise in nostalgia--of a murderous kind, of course.  This nostalgic novel is lacking the bloody horrors of The Grindle Nightmare, the ghoulishness of which, with its descriptions of rather ghastly subjects (torture murder victims, including a child; animal mutilations; impotence; sexual depravity), was much commented upon by titillated reviewers of the day.  In School, the two victims of murder are pupils, but the details of their murders are scamped and no one really seems to miss the victims much.  Nor are they, as presented, seemingly people one would much miss.

As an aside, I might mention that Golden Age English mystery writers seem to have been much less sentimental about children than both earlier and later generations, with some notable exceptions like H. C. Bailey, who vies with Charles Dickens and Benjamin Farjeon when it comes to sentimental piety concerning youngsters.  (Bailey even invariably gives them plaintive lisps.)  In Margaret Cole's Scandal at School, for example, the murdered schoolgirl is portrayed by Cole, the mother of three children, as a blackmailing brat whose death is regretted by no one, including her father, who is treated seriously as a suspect in her murder.  But let's hear how cozy all these books are again!

Rickie's parents' school in Burnham-on-Sea
Murders at British primary schools became popular in detective fiction after the publication of Murder at School (1931) a 'prentice novel by James Hilton, who shortly became renowned as the author of Lost Horizon (1933) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934). 

Some other prominent British primary school mysteries, many of them from some of the biggest names in British detection, are, before Death Goes to School (1936), R. C. Woodthorpe's The Public School Murder (1932), Anthony Berkeley's Murder in the Basement (1932), Christopher Bush's The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934), Gladys Mitchell's Death at the Opera (1934), Nicholas Blake's A Question of Proof (1935), Margaret Cole's Scandal at School (1935) and, after Death Goes to School, Leo Bruce's Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) and Alan Clutton-Brock's Liberty Hall (1941).  An impressive group of murder stories!

Death Goes to School opens at the Parents-Boys cricket match which marks the half-term holiday at Craiglea Preparatory School.  (Rickie himself was captain of his cricket team at his public school.)  It seems a lovely June day, but storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, both literally and figuratively.  The next day the body of one of the wealthy American Jewish twins who had arrived at Craiglea that term is discovered unceremoniously stuffed in a laundry cupboard, the boy having been smothered to death in his bed in the night.  He is Eric Bernard-Moss--or Moses ma. (i.e., Moses Major) as he is known to his schoolfellows, contrasting with his brother Irving Bernard-Moss, naturally Moses mi. (Moses minor).

Evidence suggests that the murder must have been an "inside job."  So who, you may well wonder, was on the inside?  Well, there's the headmaster, Reverend Samuel Dodd, his wife and their "English rose" daughter Sophonisba (named for a Carthaginian princess who committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome--I had to look that one up); the handsome blond and blue-eyed English master, Harvey Nettleon, just down from Oxford, who reads Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and William Faulkner (Sanctuary); the hunky new school porter, Stephen McFee, who is blessed, we are promptly informed, with a most "splendid physique"; the Moss boys' new American orchid-lush stepmother, Myra Bernard-Moss; Cyril Heath, the pub-crawling mathematics master; Mademoiselle Santais, the sallow-cheeked French mistress; school matron Mrs. Blouser, who discovered the body; freckled, snub-nosed schoolboy St. John Lucas, son of the portly and pacific Bishop of Saltmarsh (a nod to Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders?); and schoolboy Derek Pemberly, overdeveloped physically and underdeveloped mentally and the son of peppery county constable Sir Wilfrid Pemberly, who tends to wax "hot as chutney over Indian reminiscences."

However, a bombshell soon is figuratively dropped at the school when it is learned that Moses ma. may have been a victim of a political murder.  It seems that the boys' Jewish father, a prominent judge in St. Paul, Minnesota, presided over a trial of Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans who killed "many people" in a "serious outcrop of Hitlerian anti-Jewish riots," the grand object of which was to "drive all Jews out of the country." 

In the aftermath of the riots, the judge sentenced one German-American man, Bruno Heller, to death in the electric chair, and his brother and sister vowed vengeance on the judge and his family.  Could the culprit in this new crime at Craiglea be a vengeful German-American terrorist?

This is an unusually up-to-date motive in a detective novel of this era, when countries still were clinging to a splintering hope that "peace for our time" could be established, despite mounting evidence to the contrary from the militant German nation, which had passed the grotesquely anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

While the view of the US expressed in the novel may seem histrionic, recall that in the 1930s lynchings of black men still occurred in the American South and that southern congressmen did everything in their power to block federal anti-lynching legislation.  Indeed, Germany contrasted its "humane" Nuremberg racial legislation with horrific American lynchings, which were graphically documented by beaming murderers in sickening photos. 

Additionally, there existed in the US in the Thirties the German American Bund, designed to promote Hitlerian ideology in America.  Across the country the Bund and its affiliates launched Nazi summer camps, like Camp Siegfried on Long Island, where streets audaciously were named after Hitler and Goebbels.

This might seem to take the book into thriller territory, but in fact it remains a full dress detective novel, with the focus on clues and investigation, although the narrative is fleet, the writing amusing and the characterization lively.  Especially successful are two "viewpoint" characters, young St. John Lucas and winsome Sophonisba.  Patrick manages a nice twist solution, in the manner of such virtuosi as Ellery QueenJohn Dickson Carr and Anthony Berkeley.  Some technical details are scamped, but overall this is an impressive example of a story that "conforms to the best tradition of the detective novel," as the book blurb on the American hardcover edition puts it.  There's a little flutter of Hugh, I think, in the description of some of the boys' love of birding (Hugh and his brother were great birders as lads), but overall this book reads Rickie and as such it is a tribute to his own skill, when he chose to exercise it, as a mystery writer.

See review at Pretty Sinister Books here.

It can't happen here?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Who Dun It? The Authorship of the Early Q. Patrick Novels

We enthusiasts of the Golden Age--or GADers as I will call them in honor of the original Golden Age Detection group at Yahoo which served, as the intellectual seedbed for much of the modern internet crime criticism that has done so much to catapult its current revival (more on this soon I hope)--have discussed many topics over the years, but one which has especially engaged a number of us is the question of the authorship of the of the books by Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  This is a subject Mauro Boncompagni and I both have tried to clarify over the last several years, and I'm feeling more confident about the matter these days.  (See essays in Mysteries Unlocked and Murder in the Closet; more as well is forthcoming.)

Here is how I see the breakdown of the earlier books:

Q. Patrick Books
Cottage Sinister, 1931 (Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelley)
"Q. Patrick" was created when two people living in Philadelphia, native English pharmaceutical executive Rickie Webb and recent Radcliffe graduate Patsy Kelley, combined the first syllables of their nicknames "Patsy" and "Rickie" to make Patrick. (Cute, huh?)  The "Q" was chosen, in their words, as the most "intriguing" letter of the alphabet, and you can draw your own conclusions from that.  The duo went detecting again in a second novel, called

Murder at the Women's City Club, 1932 (less straightforwardly but more alliteratively titled in the UK Death in the Dovecote) (RWW and MMK)
Patsy became engaged and married in England in 1933, leaving Rickie rather  in the lurch.  So Rickie wrote the next Q. Patrick by himself.  This book appeared in February, not long before Patsy's spring wedding, and was titled

Murder at the 'varsity, 1933 (Murder at Cambridge in the US). (RWW)
The English edition preceded the American one by about a month, but I think for today's readers the American title is the better one. 

Rickie, however, liked collaborative writing, plotting being his first love, and the actual writing second.  So he found a replacement for Patsy in another talented Philadelphia woman, Mary Lou White (later Mary Lou Aswell, and as such a very prominent American literary editor).  Together in October 1933 they published

S. S. Murder, 1933 (RWW and Mary Lou White)
On a visit to London in 1933, however, Rickie met a brilliant and handsome newly minted college graduate who was desperately keen to write fiction, become rich and successful and see America: Hugh Callingham Wheeler.  With Rickie's considerable help in the earlier years, Hugh would attain all of these objectives. 

Hugh went to live with Rickie in Philadelphia and the two would establish a personal and commercial partnership that would endure for nearly two decades.  Yet it's still not established quite which books they wrote together. (Like with Ellery Queen, Rickie tended to be more the plotter and Hugh more the actual writer).  Nothing appeared from Q. Patrick in 1934, but then a flood of works appeared in 1935-37, both in hardcover and serial forms.  There was so much stuff, indeed, that the pair created two new pseudonyms, Jonathan Stagge, and their best known one, Patrick Quentin.  Then there appeared the most famous Q. Patrick novel

The Grindle Nightmare (1935) (RWW)
Originally published serially in May as Darker Grows the Valley, this novel has long been attributed to Rickie and to Mary Lou White, but in fact is copyrighted solely to Webb, as Mauro Boncompagni has pointed out.  But it never really made sense to think that Mary Lou would have co-written this book with Rickie, when Rickie was living, and had begun writing, with his protege Hugh Wheeler.  The bigger question would be, was Hugh involved in writing this book?  I think Hugh may have influenced it thematically (at the least, they would have been discussing the book, and Hugh would have been typing it), but it very much seems to me like a Rickie book, as does the next Q. Patrick

Death Goes to School (1936) (RWW)
This was published in February, about six months after Grindle was published as a book, and is a public school mystery.  Again, it is copyrighted solely to Rickie, as Mauro has pointed out, and in fact is dedicated to his parents, who were the headmaster and mistress of a girls school.  There's even a character with the same surname as Rickie's mother's family.  I'll be reviewing this book here soon and pointing out a few "Hugh" elements in it, but it still seems a Rickie book to me.  The big changeover came with the next Q. Patrick novel, which also introduced a new series detective, Lieutenant Trant (the first six QP's were standalones)

Death for Dear Clara (1937) (RWW and HCW)
Here there is so much more emphasis on "Hugh" elements: American moneyed society setting, sophisticated detective, lovely and lethal women, emotions and pure writing.  The first six Q. Patrick books, while fluidly and intelligently written, are much more single minded in their emphasis on clues and investigation and sparer in their portrayal of emotions and characterization.  And, yes, this book is copyrighted to both authors, as are the first Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools, and the first Jonathan Stagge, The Dogs Do Bark, both of which were published in 1936.  My own theory is that the first works really written more by Hugh were the 1935-36 serialized Hugh Westlake adventures, later published as Stagge novels.  That may be why Hugh Cavendish Westlake shares Hugh Callingham Wheeler's first name and initials.  A little hint of things to come, perhaps?

Monday, July 9, 2018

"Some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales": Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936/43) and the Scarlet Circle Slayer

Jonathan Stagge--I say this in the most congratulatory sense--has a really nasty mind.  I recommend him to all who have a sound head and a strong heart.

                                                                --Torquemada (English crime fiction critic)

Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler's "Jonathan Stagge" novels, chronicling the investigations of Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake, a small town New England--or possibly Pennsylvania, but I'm pretty sure it's New England--doctor, have rather an unusual origin and chronology.

The hardcover novels, nine in number, appeared as follows (I give my preferred titles first for novels with different US and UK titles):

The Dogs Do Bark (1936, in UK Murder Gone to Earth)
Murder or Mercy? (1937, in US Murder by Prescription)
The Stars Spell Death (1939, in UK Murder in the Stars)
Turn of the Table (1940, in UK as Funeral for Five)
The Yellow Taxi (1942, in UK as Call a Hearse)
The Scarlet Circle (1943, in UK Light from a Lantern)
Death and the Dear Girls (1945, in US Death, My Darling Daughters)
Death's Old Sweet Song (1946)
The Three Fears (1949)

However, these are not the order in which the Hugh Westlake adventures originally appeared.  The original Westake investigations, attributed not to Jonathan Stagge but to Q. Patrick (Richard Webb's original pen name), appeared in serial form in Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, in this order:

The Dogs Do Bark (November 1935) (published as book in late 1936)

The Frightened Landlady (December 1935) (not otherwise published to this date)
The Scarlet Circle (January 1936) (published as book in 1943)
Murder or Mercy? (June 1936) (published as book in late 1937)

The Frightened Landlady, a novella that was Hugh Westlake's second case, has never appeared in book form, while The Scarlet Circle, Westlake's third serial adventure, was only the sixth Hugh Westlake mystery published as a book, seven years after it originally appeared in a magazine.  Why was The Scarlet Circle not published earlier, either in 1937, instead of Murder or Mercy?, or in 1938, when no Stagge book was published?

Could real life events have played a hand in the delayed publication of The Scarlet Circle?  I think so.  Let's go back in time, nearly 81 years to be precise, to a horrific double murder that took place in the borough of Queens, New York.  The following account I have put together from several newspaper sources, not all of them, I must admit, fully congruent with each other (more on that).  So here we go....

On Saturday October 2, 1937, Louis Weiss, a recent honors graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, returned to his home in Queens Village from seeing local favorite the Manhattan Jaspers lose 14-7 in a football contest with visiting Texas A&M at the New York Polo Grounds.

At home Louis ate dinner, put on some old clothes and told his mother (an only child, he lived with his parents and maternal grandparents) that he was going to the Mineola Roller Skating Rink, near the Mineola Fair Grounds in Nassau County, with girlfriend Frances Hajek.  Promising to get home early (he said he was tired from being at the game all day), Louis at 8:30 got into his second-hand coupe, of which he was extremely proud, and drove off, his pet Spitz dog, Teddy, eagerly yapping after him from the house.

A sturdy 6'1" 200 pound 20 year old who had been an esteemed star athlete at Brooklyn Tech and in his free time still loved to play basketball and baseball in vacant lots in Queens Village, Louis worked days at the offices of the American Steel and Wire Company in the Empire State Building and studied nightly at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, hoping to become an electrical engineer.  In the meantime he dutifully turned over his weekly paycheck to his mother.

Louis' girlfriend, vivacious and popular Frances Hajek, auburn-haired and about 5'5" and 115 pounds with a captivating smile, was considered "unusually attractive" by her set, but she was a dutiful young woman and like Louis an only child who lived with her parents.  There she worked the counter of the downstairs bakery of her father, Frank Hajek, an immigrant from Bohemia, who with only an 8th grade education had become a successful businessman, owning the $25,000 two-story building in Queens Village where his bakery was located (today Jamaica Discount Liquors).  Frances had recently graduated from Jamaica High School and was a member of the Queens Village Junior League.

Jamaica Discount Liquors (formerly the site of the Hajek house and bakery)

Louis and Frances left the Mineola Rink around 10:30, stopping off briefly at the Belmont Roller Skating Rink, not far from the Belmont Racetrack.  On their way home they stopped at a bar on Jericho Turnpike to have some beer.  Shortly after midnight they were seen by Thomas Owens, who was driving a newspaper delivery truck.  Owens met the couple in Nassau County, near the Mineola Rink, and gave them instruction on how to get back to Queens. He claimed that there was another man in the back seat of the car, dressed in a soldier's uniform.  Police concluded that this man was a stranger whom Weiss had offered a ride, either in the beer parlor or hitching along the road toward Queens.

Weiss House, Queens Village (middle with green shutters)

Some time around one in the morning Louis drove down a dark dirt road leading off from Springfield Boulevard and Central Parkway, Queens and parked in a local "lovers' lane" deep in Hollis Woods.  Shortly before three in the morning, judging by Louis' smashed wristwatch (that great cliche of Golden Age detective fiction), the lovers' lane became a nightmare alley.

Suddenly a man hopped on the right running board of Louis' coupe, pulled the unlocked door open, leaned in and shot the young man twice in the head, killing him.  Next he grabbed Frances, paralyzed with shock and fear, by her wine-colored zipper combination suit, fired two bullets into her temple, and then, as she breathed her last, repeatedly plunged an ice pick or stiletto into her upper torso.  When discovered by a hiker the next day, Louis still sat slumped over the wheel, as if ready to start driving the car again, while Frances lay sprawled, half-in and half-out of the machine.

1936 Ford Coupe

It was a horrific scene indeed.  The most grotesque detail of all (and pertinent for the purposes of this blog piece) I have saved for last: After shooting Louis and shooting and stabbing Frances, the killer took the young woman's' scarlet lipstick and drew circles on the dead couple's foreheads.  Not unnaturally, newspapers took alliteratively to dubbing the unknown murderer the "scarlet circle slayer."

Police believed that, given the savagery of the attack of Frances, the motive was not robbery, but a raging hatred of the young woman, presumably inspired by intense jeolously.  Police dismissed the idea that the killer of Louis and Frances might have been the "3-X Killer" (so called for the 3-X signed notes he had left at his crime scenes), who achieved national notoriety by shooting two men in lovers' lanes on two separate occasions in 1930.  The women 3-X had let go, suggesting a totally different modus operandi from the scarlet circle slayer.

crime scene photo of the dead couple (note scarlet circles)
See Getty Images for a more graphic photo here
(WARNING: very graphic)
Newspapers screamed bloody murder (FIEND KILLER CAUSES FEAR IN NEW YORK) and dozens police were assigned to investigate the ghastly case, but little headway was made.  A sweep was done of Hollis Woods, but nothing seemingly of significance was discovered besides Frances' red lipstick, which had been discarded by the right front wheel of the car.  The crude camp of, yes, a passing tramp had been discovered, but the tramp had already been arrested for vagrancy and placed in a jail cell when the murders occurred. A perfect alibi! 

Also with alibis were the sizable contingent of patients at nearby Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital. (This case really did have it all.)

With punitive justice all-too typical of its day, one suspects, a young black woman named Betty May McCall also was arrested on a vagrancy charge after admitting to police that she had invented a story of having witnessed the murders of Louis and Francis, and she was committed to the King's County Hospital in Brooklyn.  There were the usual crackpot confessions, like Betty May's fake witness claim, but the police investigation quickly petered out, to the intense dismay of the victims' families.

Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital

The next year in an interview with a print journalist, Frances' father stated that he had surrendered any belief that his beautiful daughter's vicious slayer ever would be found.  Coming out of his bakery kitchen in his white apron and cap to talk the reporter, Frank Hajek declared sadly, "In my mind I have no hope.  There were so many wrong ones.  We [my wife and I] talk about it every night and every morning, but it would be best not to talk at all because then we would sleep better."

last rites for Frances Hajek
the dead girl's parents had to be supported
down the church steps
Frank and his wife Anna rejected the idea that their daughter was participating in a petting party with Louis, arguing that she and Louis must have been forced at gunpoint to drive down that dirt road to their deaths.

Mina Hengst, Louis' maternal grandmother, told a similar sorrowful tale, avowing, "My daughter still cries every day and she cries every night.  She has to go out every day so that she will not think about it too much."

However, it was at this time that the police believed they finally had made a major break in the case, when there came to their attention a local "tough" in Queens Village, Walter Wiley, a nineteen year old newspaper delivery man and sometime movie theater usher who was known in his recreational time, if you will, to brandish both gun and knife.  Walter had boasted to his thug pals that he had robbed Good Humor ice cream trucks and preyed on petting parties in lovers' lanes. 

Walter vanished the day the bodies of Weiss and Hajek were discovered, not reappearing until  November 20 in Baltimore, where he enlisted in the army.  By April 1938 he had deserted. 

In July Walter was extradited to New York from Reno, Nevada, and police hoped to break him down and secure a confession in the Red-O killings, but nothing seems to have come of it.  In fact, the case remains unsolved to this day.  Walter was serving time in Sing Sing Prison in 1940, but on account of other crimes.  Three years after this he was living in Florida, where he married and died three decades later.

Brooklyn Tech

I have a lot of questions about this case, myself.  For one thing, who the heck was the soldier, or the man dressed in an army uniform, whom Thomas Owens saw in the coupe with Louis and Frances?  Why was he not suspected of the crime?  The police discounted robbery, in part because Louis' wallet and black signet ring and Frances' jewelry were not taken, but what happened to her handbag?  One account notes that Louis' wristwatch was not stolen, but if it was smashed, naturally it would not have been. But speaking of the smashed watch, the medical examiner early on supposedly set the time of death as between 11 and midnight.  If, as the other later account states, it took place around three in the morning, this seems at odds with what we early on were told about Louis and Frances being so scrupulous about returning home early to their parents' houses. 

Cooper Union
Frances always "came home early at night, it was said."  Well, if she was in the coupe with Louis until three in the morning, then something unusual was going on.  Friends and family were eager to discount the petting theory.  Herbert Beech, Louis' "close chum" who had attended the football game with him, insisted that Louis was so fussy about his car that he never of his own volition would have driven down a narrow wooded lane like the one in Hollis Woods. Nor did he "park and pet," according to Beech. 

Medical examiner Howard W. Neail speculated at one point that since Frances' lipstick was not smeared, the young couple must have been set upon before any petting could have commenced.  But how does that square with the account that says they were in the car for nearly two hours, from around one to three a.m.?

Jamaica High School

The scarlet circles themselves influenced police thinking that the crime was committed by someone with a warped adolescent brain (i.e., a teenager).  "Most of the detectives held that the symbols might be the work of some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales," says one report.

"It could have been anything," helplessly pronounced the floundering Deputy Inspector Ryan.  "It could be a sadistic maniac, it could be some kid whose been reading mysteries about signs and symbols, it could be someone with a grudge against the girl, or against both the boy and the girl--but we have no direct evidence on anything."

It was even suggested that the killer might have disguised himself as a police patrolman and deviously directed Louis to Hollis Woods and his and Francis' doom.  According to one report Louis' wallet and driver's license lay in the dead boy's hand when he was discovered, as if he had been requested to show it to someone at the car window.

The grave of Frances Hajek
at St. John's Cemetery, Queens
But whatever the solution to this real life mystery, wouldn't it have been rather awkward for mystery writers Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler and their publisher to have published as a hardcover novel a few bare months after this terrible crime The Scarlet Circle, a story which originated in a pulp fiction magazine about a serial murderer who strangles female victims, then draws scarlet circles on their bodies with their lipsticks?  Especially when the police are bemoaning the impact on adolescent minds of "cheap mystery tales"?  Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time to let The Scarlet Circle lie until 1943, when Rickie and Hugh, about to go into the army, needed something that could quickly be published as a hardcover book and reached back to an old pulp fiction piece--one which may have partly inspired a depraved and never detected murderer.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Hot Enough For You? Red, White and Blue Murder (2003), by Bill Crider

The governing body of each of Texas's 254 counties is the commissioners court.  In Texas the court has five members: the county judge and four commissioners.  

                                                      --Commissioners Court (Texas), Wikipedia

Rhodes tried the door, and the knob turned in his hand.  He wasn't surprised.  Hardly anyone in a town like Thurston bothered locking the door.  There hadn't been a major crime there in quite a while, and only a few minor ones.  Not counting armadillo hunters.

--Red, White and Blue Murder (2003), Bill Crider

I wrote about the Texas regional background of Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes' mysteries in my blog piece on A Romantic Way to Die (2001), the eleventh Dan Rhodes mystery.  Red, White and Blue Murder, the next installment in the series, followed ARWTD by two years, seeing light in 2003.

This one takes place over a few 95 degree days around the Fourth of July, a time when Americans celebrate the greatness of their nation by attending patriotic parades, blowing up fireworks and eating themselves sick on barbecue and ice cream. 

But not barbecue ice cream, one hopes! Don't think there isn't such a thing.  Ick.

Blacklin County's Sheriff Rhodes, who is getting awfully tired of people asking him if it's "hot enough for you," finds himself embroiled in another great American tradition--murder--when he is called to investigate the suspicious death of electrical repair shop owner Grat Bilson--whose preoccupation, up until his death, was getting fireworks banned throughout the county.  (Though they are a fire hazard, particularly during 95 degree weather in July, only Blacklin County municipalities have up to this point banned them.)

map of Bill Crider's native Limestone County, Texas
presumably the model for Sheriff Rhodes' Blacklin County
Bilson is found dead in a burned-out home--and he did not die either from the fire (which, it transpires, was deliberately set) or from natural causes. 

It turns out that he may have been the informant for local reporter Jennifer Loam who was filling her ear with tales of corruption in high places, including in the sheriff's office itself.  Moreover his wife was having affairs and he may have been having one himself.  So there were more than a few people who might have had reason to want to kill old Grat Bilson.

Soon Bilson's murder is followed by another suspicious death, which takes place picturesquely at a barbecued ribs eating contest on the Fourth--and it looks to the locals like Rhodes himself, who was one of the contestants, may be the killer!

Red, White and Blue Murder is pretty action packed by the standards of this country casual series, with Sheriff Rhodes getting attacked and/or shot at by four different people during the course of his murder investigation, not to mention nearly blown up in a fireworks stand explosion.  This is not as amusing a book as A Romantic Way to Die, with its send-up of the romance novels industry, but it has a good mystery involving local political corruption--another great American tradition--and the writing is as pleasingly droll as one expects from a Crider (see the second quotation at the top of this piece, with its classic Crider qualifying "afterthought" sentence.)

If you like rural local color in an American mystery, the Crider Sheriff Rhodes books are a must.  To me they are cozies--in fact I'm rather reminded, with the usual stuff involving Rhodes' pet dogs Yancey and Speedo, of MC Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series, though Crider's mysteries are much better plotted, to be frank--but cozy mystery is another great American tradition (a happier one this time ); and I hope to review some more modern American cozies this month.  Meanwhile I'm looking forward to a modest cold front coming through here where I live, where the last few days it's been, well, around 95 degrees. 

That's hot enough for me!

Kosse, Limestone County, Texas

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Going Stagge: The Jonathan Stagge Mysteries, Introduction

It probably won't surprise readers of this blog to learn that I have been busy with several projects concerning Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, "two brilliant young men who write as one" as the publicity material immodestly put it (It was probably written by Rickie Webb himself, he fancying himself to be something of a marketing whiz); and this has been taking me away from the blog for a bit.  But in the coming months I will be blogging about, well, more or less everything Rickie and Hugh wrote under their pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, so prepare yourselves for the onslaught! 

Happily many of their novels are being reprinted this summer by Mysterious Press/Open Road, and by next year most all of their work may be out in print in English, a first for these authors, who in fact were two of the most important figures in the mystery field over a period of  three decades. 

I'm certainly not the only person to blog about Jonathan Stagge.  You can find other pieces at Mystery*File, Pretty Sinister Books, Death Can Read and Tipping My Fedora, for example.  This devotion is especially remarkable in that Jonathan Stagge has been out of print since the 1950s.  Patrick Quentin, the best known of the Webb-Wheeler pseudonyms, was reprinted in English in the 1980s and 1990s and Q. Patrick's name was kept alive by The Grindle Nightmare (see John Norris' great review here and mine here; I also wrote about the book extensively in the Edgar-nominated Murder in the Closet, in a chapter about the relationship of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, which has only been recently recognized for what it was: a longtime companionship.)  However, Jonathan Stagge rather faded, in public memory, though count on the international corps of classic crime fiction bloggers to keep the flames of memory burning!

my battered copy of the
American hardcover edition
of Jonathan Stagge's first
 Dr. Hugh Westlake mystery,
which originally appeared
in a serial in 1935
Jonathan Stagge was the product of of an intensely fertile period of creation which took place after Hugh Wheeler, a recent graduate from University College London, moved to the US in 1933 to live and write with pharmaceutical executive and occasional mystery writer Richard Webb.  Hugh returned to the UK for his brother's wedding but came back to the US in 1934 and by 1935 the collaborative works began cascading from Hugh's typewriter. 

1935 saw not just The Grindle Nightmare, but a serial novel and two novellas, two of which, the novel The Dogs Do Bark and the novella The Frightened Landlady, concerned the adventures of Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake (notice the first name and those initials), who in his amateur murder investigations is often aided, however unwittingly, by his rambunctious 10-year-old daughter, Dawn (in the earlier books unsentimentally dubbed "Brat" by Dr. Westlake, which is an accurate enough description for some readers.)

The serial Dr. Westlake mysteries were published under the Q. Patrick pseudonym, though when The Dogs Do Bark (Murder Gone to Earth in the UK) was published, in expanded form, as the first Dr. Westlake hardcover novel in late 1936, it was attributed to the new Jonathan Stagge nom de plume.

Two other serial Westlake novels were published under the Q. Patrick pen name in early 1936, The Scarlet Circle and Murder or Mercy? The latter was published as the second Westlake hardcover novel at the end of 1937 (in the US under the title Murder by Prescription), but The Scarlet Circle was not published as a hardcover novel until 1943, when Rickie and Hugh were going off to war (Rickie to New Guinea, Hugh to, well, Fort Dix, New Jersey), making it the sixth Westlake hardcover novel, even though it was third Westlake adventure actually published.

Why this delay in publishing The Scarlet Circle in hardcover?  It can't be because the quality was deemed doubtful, because it's one of the best of the Stagge books. (See my review here.)  But I have a theory, and it's coming soon, along with a piece on the first three Stagge novels.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Death in the Heart of Dixie (and the Windy City too): The Forties Crime Novels of Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993)

Rosemount, Eutaw County, Alabama, southwest of Tuscaloosa
ancestral home of Sara Mason's Glover relations
Historic American Buildings Survey, W. N. Manning, 1934

Rosemount today

The piece below is drawn from my general introduction to Coachwhip's new two-volume edition of Sara Elizabeth Mason's four mysteries, originally published between 1943 and 1948. 

Three of them are steeped in the atmosphere of Alabama in the 1940s, which is of special interest to me, as Alabama, a fascinating if sometimes frustrating land, is a state where I lived for about 23 years. The last of the books is set in Chicago, where Mason attended graduate school.  (Her thesis was on, yes, Alabama.)

I also wrote individual introductions to each novel, and the mystery writer Dean James (aka Miranda James) kindly contributed a most interesting afterword to the first volume on his own experience as a white author from the Deep South.

Carl Carmer (1893-1967), a charismatic and imaginative young northerner who in the 1920s had been employed for a half-dozen years as an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, attained enviable fame in 1934 with the publication of Stars Fell on Alabama, his bestselling book about the state.

When during his six year sojourn in the Heart of Dixie Carmer took the occasion to visit Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County, the charming and gracious chatelaine who guided him around this aged yet still breathtaking relic of Old South domestic Greek Revival architecture was Amelia Walton Glover Legare (1869-1941), a granddaughter of the original builder and a first cousin, once removed, of Alabama educator, librarian and Forties crime writer Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993), the subject of this introduction.

Sara Elizabeth Mason published her entire corpus of mystery fiction—four novels to be exact—between 1943 and 1948, a period in American history when many white non-fiction writers, whether they hailed from the South or the North, tended to wax comfortably nostalgic over what they deemed the genteel living of the plantation aristocracy of the Old South, as can be seen in the fervid moonlight and magnolia mythography which perfumes the pages of such popular books about the South from the Thirties and Forties as Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama, J. Frazer Smith’s White Columns (1941), Clarence John Laughlin’s Ghosts Along the Mississippi (1948) and Medora Field’s White Columns in Georgia (1952). 

(For more questioning approaches to the subject see Clarence Cason’s 90 Degrees in the Shade, which was published in 1935, shortly after the author, an esteemed UA journalism professor fearful about what the local reception to his book might be, tragically committed suicide, and The Mind of the South, the classic 1941 study by Wilbur J. Cash, who similarly is believed to have killed himself in Mexico, not long after his book was published.)

While the last of Sara Mason’s mysteries, The Whip, takes place in Chicago, where the future crime writer in 1938 received a master’s degree in history (her thesis was “Sectionalism in Alabama, 1840-1860”), her first three mysteries all are firmly rooted in Alabama soil.  Yet all three books are mostly lacking in the Old South romance dreamily indulged in by the starry-eyed Carl Carmer and other of his contemporaries. 

In the debut Mason mystery, Murder Rents a Room,  the titular room belongs not to some bustling urban lodgment, but rather a remote and timeworn plantation house in rural Greene County, Alabama, where the descendants of the original owners are simply struggling to hold on to what they still have by taking in paying guests.  They have little time to spare in their harried present for apotheosizing the leisured past of their ancestors.

Williamson Allen Glover
Nine decades before the publication of her mysteries Sara Elizabeth Mason’s great grandfather Williamson Allen Glover (1804-1879) had erected in Greene County, on land given him by his father Allen Glover, Rosemount, one of the finest of the state’s antebellum mansions.  Rosemount’s design, which included a front portico with six ionic columns and a massive columned cupola adorning the top of the house, was devised by William Nichols, then the state architect of Alabama.

At this stately home, imposingly set on a star-shaped knoll in the heart of Alabama’s richest agricultural country (dubbed the “Black Belt” for the color of its fertile alluvial soil), there grew to adulthood a dozen of Glover’s children by his two successive wives, Amelia Tillman Walton (of nearby Strawberry Hill plantation) and Mary Sophia Haden.  (An additional four Glover children died in infancy; neither of Glover’s wives survived past her forties.)             

The most historically significant marriage made by one of the many Williamson Allen Glover offspring was that concluded in 1850 between Glover’s eldest daughter, Amelia Walton Glover, and wealthy Mississippi planter James Lusk Alcorn, a bitter opponent of secession who during the era of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War joined the Republican party and served successively as governor of Mississippi and one of the state’s U. S. senators (the other being Blanche K. Bruce, an African-American); yet it was younger Glover daughter Mary Willie Ann “Mollie” Glover’s Reconstruction-era marriage to Greene County farmer John Stanhope Brasfield which ultimately gifted vintage mystery fans with Sara Elizabeth Mason.  

Amelia Walton Glover
Born on September 2, 1911, Sara Elizabeth Mason was one of two children (the other being her elder brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason) of Mollie and John Stanhope Brasfield’s daughter Fenton Amelia Brasfield and her husband, Edwin Bolton Mason, a hardware merchant in the town of Demopolis in Marengo County, strategically located at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers about a dozen miles below Rosemount. 

In Demopolis had lived not only Sara’s great-great grandfather Allen Glover, sire of Williamson Allen Glover, master of Rosemount, but her great-aunt Sara Serena Glover Lyon of Bluff Hall and her great-aunt Anne Gaines Glover Lyon of Lyon Hall, as well as her great-aunt Laura Davenport Glover Prout, wife of banker Daniel Fowler Prout, through whom the twentieth-century Glovers were connected, in a manner of speaking, with Hudson Strode (1891-1976), a celebrated English professor at the University of Alabama for nearly a half-century, from 1916 until 1963 (although the second husband of Strode’s mother, Hope Hudson, was, like Sara Mason’s father, a Demopolis hardware merchant, Hope’s third husband, William Sylvester Prout, was the only son of Daniel Prout and Laura Glover and his father’s successor as bank president).

Both Glovers and Glover relations were interred in Demopolis in a white-stuccoed classical mausoleum, completed in 1845, which still stands in the town today, vainly warded by remnants of a Gothic Revival cast iron fence, upon a chalk bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River.

Glover Mausoleum, Demopolis, Alabama

Edwin Bolton Mason came of humbler social origins than the storied Glovers, being the son of Sumter County, Alabama farmer Edwin Francis Mason and his first wife, Jessie Bolton, who died when Edwin Bolton, the couple’s only child, was less than two years old.  Leaving his young son behind with his mother-in-law, Edwin Francis Mason left Alabama for Mer Rouge, Louisiana, where he became an overseer on Isaac Brown’s cotton plantation.  Shortly afterward he wed Brown’s daughter Jennie and with her had three daughters, one of whom was named Sara Elizabeth and presumably was the woman for whom Edwin Bolton Mason and his wife Fenton named their own daughter.

Not long after the First World War, Fenton and Edwin Mason with their two children left Demopolis and the world of the Old South behind them when they moved to the rapidly developing New South industrial city of Gadsden, perched in the highlands of northeastern Alabama, where Edwin managed another hardware store and the family resided in a one-story bungalow on 602 South 11th Street (see below).

Between 1900 and 1940 the population of Gadsden leapt by more than nine times, from roughly 4000 to 37,000 inhabitants, as a slew of businesses, such as the Dwight Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts (a maker of cotton textiles), the Jefferson Lumber Company, the Alabama Steel and Wire Company and the Gadsden Car Works of the Southern Railroad, established plants in the area. 

Gadsden high School, where Sara Mason tought history in the 1940s

During this same period the population of Demopolis grew much more slowly than that of Gadsden, increasing from around 2600 to 4100.  The contrast between bustling Gadsden and somnolent Demopolis may have inspired Sara Mason’s setting for her second crime novel, The House That Hate Built (1944).

Both of the Mason children attained distinction in life as adults.  Sara’s brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason, graduated from West Point in 1928 and rose to the army rank of Major General in 1951, having served during the Second World War as chief of staff of the 1st Infantry Division (famously nicknamed “The Big Red One”) and the V Corps. 

Sara Mason at Agnes Scott
around 1930
Sara between 1929 and 1938 attended Agnes Scott, a woman’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and earned degrees from both the University of Alabama--she matriculated at UA just two years after Carl Carmer left the school under a cloud, the married yet dangerously sociable professor having developed what was deemed too intimate a relationship with a female student—and the University of Chicago before she was awarded an MS degree in library science from Peabody College in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University). 

When Sara was a student at the University Of Alabama, Sara’s distant relation-through-marriage Hudson Strode had not yet inaugurated his vaunted creative writing workshop, but then the late Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016), who attended UA some dozen years after Sara had graduated, would manage rather well without it.

Sara Mason at Gadsden High School
During the Second World War Sara returned to reside with her parents in Gadsden, where she taught American history to students at Gadsden High School; yet after the war, Sara like her brother traveled to chaotic postwar Europe, where she found employment as a teacher in Frankfurt, Germany with the American High School, which served the children of American government, military and civilian personnel. 

Returning to Alabama after a few years, she took positions at the University of Alabama at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, built a decade earlier on the site of the antebellum Rotunda, burned during the Civil War ; the Birmingham Public Library, where she was head of the catalog department and curator of the cartographical collection; and the Gadsden Public Library, where she was appointed Assistant Director. 

Her third crime novel, The Crimson Feather, the last of her mysteries with a southern scene, is set in Tuscaloosa among the local elite, including members of the University faculty.  Before her death in Homewood, near Birmingham, on August 15, 1993, she published A List of Nineteenth Century Maps of the State of Alabama (1973) and, reflecting her interest to the end of her life in her own family heritage, The Glovers of Marengo County, Alabama (1989).   

During Sara Mason’s short career as a crime writer, reviewers lauded the good writing and authentic mise-en-scene that graced her four mysteries, in the first three of which the author adhered to the tried-and-true romance and ratiocination formula of such hugely popular American authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhert and Leslie Ford. In the last of them, The Whip, Sara Mason veers more from traditional suspense to the manner and form of the psychological crime novel that such authors as Margaret Millar, Very Kelsey, Dorothy Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong were developing at this time.

Two of her novels, The Crimson Feather and The Whip, were reprinted in paperback, the former by Dell in 1947 (as part of their “mapback” series, beloved by modern collectors) and the latter by Bantam in 1950, but all four of them received good notices in the newspapers. 
Murder Rents a Room, which introduces rural county Sheriff Bill Davies, was deemed by Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review a promising first detective story, while William C. Weber in the Saturday Review declared that the tale had “plenty of zip” and influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle enjoyed the “pleasant romance about nice people in a timeless southern setting.”

Boucher found The House That Hate Built, set in the fictional mill town of Monroe, a “[m]inutely detailed small-town novel,” while Weber praised it as “[c]apably plotted, with some rather surprising situations” and “interesting characters.”

Weber was similarly praiseful of The Crimson Feather, wherein county Sheriff Bill Davis returns to investigate a murder, this time in nearby Tuscaloosa (though the town in the novel is not so named).  Weber lauded Feather’s “[a]bly concocted plot, enlivened by sharp pictures of southern small-town life and family squabbles,” and he additionally admired the novel’s “[u]nostentatious sleuth,” who performed a “believable job” of criminal investigation.  Anthony Boucher echoed Weber’s words in his review of Feather, noting the “shrewd inspection of Sheriff Bill Davies” and the tale’s compelling “family atmosphere.”

After a lapse of more than two years (when she was teaching school in Frankfurt, Germany) and a change of American publisher from Doubleday to Morrow, Sara returned to print in January 1948 with The Whip, structurally her most unusual crime novel in that it relies heavily, in the manner of noir cinema, on a flashback narrative and the analysis of disordered emotional states (the hero is a psychiatrist); reviewers found the author had not lost her touch in the interim. 

In the Saturday Review a pleased William Weber judged that the psychological crime novel, which he colorfully termed a “believable brain-prober,” presented a rare “case where [the] flashback method of narrative” did not “retard action.”  In the New York Times Book Review Isaac Anderson, obviously impressed with Mason’s new tack, declared that the “excellent novel” was “a moving narrative of unfeeling cruelty practiced upon a sensitive young girl by a selfish old woman and her relatives.” 

For fans of Sara Mason’s mysteries it is disappointing to see that her interesting and entertaining fiction writing career came to an end after so brief a span of time, with places like Birmingham or even Frankfurt, Germany left unexplored, but it is pleasing to know that she went out on a high note.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Alas, a Poor Yorke! Grave Matters (1973), by Margaret Yorke

When I started reading PD James and Ruth Rendell back in the 1990s British crime writer Margaret Yorke (1924-2012) was a name I sometimes used to see elevated with their own, into a sort of triumvirate.  Subsequently Yorke has much faded compared to Rendell and James, which may be a bit unfair.  Before the current book under review, I had only ever read one book by Yorke, No Medals for the Major (1974)--a minor classic of the suspense genre, I think, one which lays bare the cruelties that can lie beneath those lovely little English villages about which we vintage mystery fans love to read.  It's a brave, unflinching book about mass hysteria and groupthink that holds up a dark mirror to cozies like those by MC Beaton, where the worst that ever can be said about the villagers is that they can get rather silly at times (but they always have Hamish Macbeth to straighten out their minor foibles and follies).

No Medals for the Major was the first of York's true mystery suspense novels, and it appeared in the middle of the author's short-lived Patrick Grant detective series, about the detective exploits of a handsome amateur sleuth, Oxford don Patrick Grant.  The Grant series, consisting of five books, ran between 1970 and 1976, when Yorke abandoned it. 

When I was in Boston last month I bought at a used bookstore there a pb copy of the middle book in the series, Grave Matters, and unfortunately was far less impressed than I was with Major.  It's a short book of about 55,000 words or less and it took me about a month of off-and-on reading to finish it, so you can guess I wasn't  exactly entranced.

Yorke's Patrick Grant certainly comes right out of the classic mystery character closet of Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, being a good-looking, charming, well-educated and eligible bachelor who likes to solve mysteries.  There's a younger woman romantic interest in the book, although Patrick's closest relationship, appealingly done (and not incestuous!), is with his married sister.  The problem for me with this book is that Grant simply isn't that good of a detective.

There are two human deaths in the novel for most of its length (and that of a dog), but since they are written off as accidents (both of them are old ladies who fell--or were pushed--down steps, one in Athens, Greece, one in the British Museum in London) the police don't come into the book for a long time.  Grant's desultory amateur detection mainly consists of sneaking into a house in the chraming village of Meldsmead on two separate occasions and stealing a blackberry pie and a photo album.  Most of the novel is devoted to his wooing of an attractive relation of the first murder victim, a retired headmistress of a girls school.

A lot of it reads like a suspense novel, as it looks like the object of Grant's romantic interest may be having an affair with a man who is trying to murder his wife, both of them recently having moved to Meldsmead.  The detection portion comes back near the end, in rather a huddle, when we have another murder, then two more attempted ones, and a fire and a fatal car crash!  The motivation for this murderous mayhem seems highly implausible, so we get characters suggesting that the murderer must have been mad, which feels rather a cop-out in a detective novel.

Another thing which bothered me was the title.  Why "Grave Matters"?  Yes the matters are grave, as in any murder story, but one expects something of a pun, like a burial plot or a cemetery having something to do with things, and nothing doing here!  It's a bland title for a bland mystery.  "Serious Business" would have worked just as well.

Yet Patrick Grant, along with his sister and brother-in-law, are appealing enough characters and I plan to read another in the series, to see whether the mystery and detection are better done.  Yorke seems quickly to have grown restive with the detective novel format, devoting herself in her writing between 1977 and 2001 entirely to suspense fiction, or crime novels (28 of them), for which she is far better known today--perhaps for good reason!