Saturday, January 21, 2023

Eudora! Eudora! The Fatal Urge to Transcend the Genre: How Ross Macdonald Took the Plunge into the Mainstream and Drowned His Talent

"I seem to be moving further in the direction of the 'mainstream novel,' a development which is deeply satisfying to me."--Ross Macdonald on his novel The Goodbye Look, 1968

I don't know how often these days the phrase "transcend the genre" is used wholly un-self-consciously, but it once was used with great seriousness when referring to certain pet crime writers of the literary set, like Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Eric Ambler, Ross Macdonald, PD James and Dorothy L. Sayers, to name a few names.  Certainly all these writers excelled within the genre, but how many of them actually transcended it?  I assume by this phase what is meant is that they began writing "mainstream literature," with murders.

a book as dull as its cover

In some cases, at least, I think the ostensible transcendent mystery writer simply began writing dull novels, be they mainstream or mystery.  Having completed The Underground Man (1971)--the bestselling detective novel by Ross Macdonald that was famously raved in a 3000+ word review by noted mainstream literature writer  Eudora Welty in the New York Times ("Mr. Macdonald's writing is something like a stand of clean, cool, well-branched, well-tended trees in which bright birds can flash and perch.  And not for show, but to sing.")--I have to conclude that Ross was lured to his artistic destruction by such siren singers as Miss Welty.  No doubt they meant him well, but they enticed a talented mystery writer away from writing entertaining mysteries into composing rather dull ones--or mainstream novels, if you will so have it.

I personally think Ross Macdonald's books got progressively worse between his first critically raved bestseller, The Goodbye Look (1969) and his last one, the convoluted The Blue Hammer (1976).  The Goodbye Look still paid some attention to the elements of mystery plotting, while in The Underground Man, RM's series sleuth, Lew Archer solves the case simply by having gobs of information handed to him when we get near the point for the novel to end.  One gets the impression that Ross is not even really trying anymore, with respect to ingenuity in the mystery plotting, which had been one of his cardinal virtues.  (At his best Macdonald was a much stronger plotter than either Chandler or Hammett.)

The mystery is yet another one by RM with murders and other misdeeds committed fifteen years in the past, but there's nothing particularly clever or ingenious about any of it.  Rather it's all just arduous, both to write, no doubt, and to read.  There's not a single memorable character in the book, unless it's the little boy who ends up getting kidnapped in chapter one.  (There's a nice scene there, probably drawn from real life, of Lew Archer and the boy feeding peanuts to blue jays.)  Otherwise it's Ross' usual miserably unhappy middle-aged couples, imperious oldsters and misunderstood youth, much more dully and lifelessly presented than ever in the past.

There's also a forest fire raging across California in the book, which initially lends some excitement, but that burns itself it out soon enough, while the book itself meanders onward.  (By my count it's around 100,000 words, making it much longer than most of his earlier books, written back when he was an economical writer.)  I gather the fire is supposed to be symbolic of something--the troubled times, or something of the sort.  The point of the novel mostly seems to be about how elders screw up their children, which no doubt caught the tenor of the time, when the "generation gap" was much discussed.  One is reminded of the Philip Larkin poem with the memorable line "They fuck you up your Mum and Dad."    Larkin said in seven words what it takes Ross 100,000 to get across.  There is something to be said for elegant brevity.

Near the end of the novel Lew Archer goes into full family counsellor mode with such pearls of wisdom as "You have the chance to put it back together.  You're the only one who can."  and "Let her know you're human, anyway."  The days when Lew slugged it out with both cops and killers are long gone, though latterly he might possibly talk someone to death.

RM's young people aren't very convincing, being ultimately too sentimentally presented.  They awkwardly use some Seventies lingo and neither they nor anyone else in the book actually uses any real bad language.  Why was Ross so squeamish on this score, by the by?  Even Chandler used bad words, albeit with a dash, three decades earlier.

a happy couple

I get the feeling that Ross was trying to mediate his own personal traumas with his own lost daughter in these later novels, but it's much better done in earlier books.  It's a great irony that this solemn bore of a book sold 50,000 copies in hardcover, over ten times as many as some of his earlier mystery masterpieces, like The Galton Case, which is actually a clever mystery while managing to present some moving characters and present some compelling themes as well.  Does The Galton Case "transcend the genre"?  Damned if I know, but at least it's a damn fine detective novel, from both the puzzle and character standpoint.  I can't ask for more than that myself.  

At least Eudora Welty got closer to Ross as a result of it all, though I don't believe RM's wife, crime novelist Margaret Millar, was crazy about that!  (Indeed, in that sense Eudora's New York Times review might be deemed a highly literary mash note.)  By the way during this period Millar wrote two superior books, considered both as mysteries and novels.  they are Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)and Ask For Me Tomorrow (1976).  By all means read them.  Ross Macdonald enjoyed after long last achieving bestseller status in his lifetime; his wife was not so fortunate.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Missing Children: The Goodbye Look (1969) and The Galton Case (1959), by Ross Macdonald

Wake up and check the mail

Hoping to find a letter from you

But all I find are missing children

Turn on the morning news

Hoping to see a resemblance of you

But all I see are missing children....

--"Missing Children" (2000), by Teddy Thompson 

Ross Macdonald mystery criticism has largely accepted his biographer Tom Nolan's contention that the "mature" Ross Macdonald dates from his books The Doomsters (1958) and more particularly The Galton Case (1959), when, spurred by a personal tragedy concerning his and his wife Margaret Millar's daughter Linda, he stopped imitating Raymond Chandler, found his own voice and developed a "kinder, gentler" hard-boiled fiction, assuming by this point that it was hard-boiled at all.  

I don't want to diminish the significance of The Galton Case, one of Macdonald's best books, but I think this schemata simplifies the author's development as a writer.  Even from his first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, which Chandler himself derisively deemed a pastiche of his own work, Macdonald's own unique voice is discernible amid all the Marlowe-ish wisecracks and attitude.  

Indeed I would include several early Archers among Macdonald's best novels.  My own top RM ten would be as follows (admitting I still have not read Find a Victim and The Underground Man):

The Passing Tramp's Ross Macdonald Top Ten

The Dark Tunnel (1944) (non-series)

The Moving Target (1949)

The Way Some People Die (1951)

The Ivory Grin (1952)

Meet Me at the Morgue (1953) (non-series)

The Galton Case (1959)

The Ferguson Affair (1960) (non-series)

The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)

The Chill (1964)

Black Money (1966)

That's five pre-Doomsters/Galton books!  For me the weakest periods for RM are from the Forties (his three books following The Dark Tunnel) and from the late Sixties and Seventies, this latter period, ironically, when he achieved his greatest fame during his lifetime and penned four bestsellers, beginning with The Goodbye Look.  

She laid the clippers down on a hall 
table but kept the rose, which exactly
matched the color of her mouth.
(p. 5)
"She's a  phony blonde with a big red
sloppy mouth and poisonous eyes."

(p. 16)
cover art by Bantam John Marsh

The late academic, public intellectual and deep-dyed mystery fan Jacques Barzun was a warm RM admirer, but he gave the kiss-off to The Goodbye Look in his (and colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor's) book A Catalogue of Crime

[There are] too many strained metaphors, too many couple whose wives or husbands have deserted, too many crimes committed 15 years earlier, too many people who live together but do not understand each other, and finally, too much of Archer's feeling that these lives and his are identically dreary and pointless.

As mentioned, I still haven't read The Underground Man, which immediately followed The Goodbye Look, but the last two of these late RM's, Sleeping Beauty (1973) and The Blue Hammer (1976), share the essential dreariness of Goodbye Look and the slightly earlier Instant Enemy.  Indeed, when critics of RM say he wrote the same book over and over, I really think they are referring to these last four or five books.  

All of them are packed to the rafters with runaway/kidnapped children, miserable mismatched couples, the insurmountable generation gap, crimes in the past and old sins with long shadows, false identities, extensive psychoanalysis and existential gloom, all acted out by the too numerous and insufficiently memorable characters on a series of too bare stages (usually mansions and hospitals).  

It might well be classic Greek drama, played out on a sparsely furnished amphitheater--appropriately for an author whose works have been called Oedipal!  But additionally, the novels share specific plot points: the stolen box and purloined painting in Goodbye Look and Blue Hammer, the essentially nice, misunderstood college students, the nicked and overdosed upon prescription pills, the crimes going back to World War Two naval service, etc.  To me, cumulatively, it makes for dullish reading.  It seems to me as if RM was running out of plotting inspiration. 

At the height of the Golden Age The Goodbye Look would have been called The Mystery of the Florentine Box, which might actually have made more sense than its actual title.  The stolen box serves as the catalyst to events in Goodbye Look, whereas the term the goodbye look is merely metaphorical, referring to the look you give when you want to kill someone and be killed.  It's a catchy title though!  It also evidently inspired the title of a darkly sardonic 1982 Donald Fagen song, although the lyrics sound a lot more like something from Graham Greene.

Florentine boxes

I recently reread The Goodbye Look and, while I have to tip a nod to the plot's complexity, I would also have to argue that it's overly-complex to the point of murkiness, like a Sophie Hannah novel.  It's one of those books for which you have to diagram the characters, in order to try to keep track of the all those family members across generations and false identities.  For this to really click the characters would have to be more remarkable, but alas they are not.  They are a dull lot.

I'm reminded of PD James' later books (she lived a lot longer than RM so there are a lot more of them), which got longer and longer but for my money were never as memorable or ingenious as her early work.  Industriousness is not the same thing ingenuity, sadly.  Not to mention the unending dreariness in the later RM novels just weighs one down (another similarity with PD James--no wonder she liked RM's books so much--chroniclers of misery love company, apparently!).

Yet it was The Goodbye Look, or rather the front page attention it received in the New York Times Book Review, which led to RM finally achieving bestseller status in the US.  Over the years sales in hardcover of RM's book had inched up from a bare several thousand to 10,000, due to the success of the 1966 Paul Newman film Harper, based on the first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target; yet all that cover space in the Times effectively quintupled RM's hardcover sales for the rest of his life (and led to a boom in paperback reprints).  

In the Times the late William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Harper, lavishly lauded Macdonald as "one of the best American novelists now operating."  But as to the plot of the mystery Goldman pronounced: "Telling the plot of any novel is unfair.  Telling the plot of an Archer is impossible."  This is pretty close to the truth, at least in regard to the later Archers.  See here my attempt to discuss in detail the unilekly, Byzantine plot of The Blue HammerThe Goodbye Look is a better book than that one, though the plot still gets hard to follow.

Personally, I think one should be able intelligibly to discuss the plot of a mystery novel.  Clarity in mystery plotting is a virtue to my mind, but people who are post-plot in mentality don't think so, I gather. Goldman is interested in RM more as a great novelist than a great mystery writer.  And he's right when he says of Goodbye Look: "Ghosts is [Macdonald's] theme....Nobody writes southern California as Macdonald writes it....there's something unalive about it all."  Sure, but to me it makes for dreary and drab reading.  If I want to take in zombies, I'd sooner watch Shaun of the Dead.


Go back a decade to The Galton Case and there is a lot of similarity in plot and setting and characters yet somehow RM make it live and move much better.  Sure, a great many of the characters of miserable and screwed-up, but the telling is so much more vivid, the settings more varied, the characters more individual, the plotting more dexterous.  And, yes, there's even still some of the hard-boiled snark, for which we owe much to Chandler but some to Macdonald too.  I guess this is the difference between the Fab Fifties and the Psychedelic Sixties, around the time the latter had od'ed on the mayhem of Manson and Altamont.

Massive traditional houses stood
far back from the street, 
behind high masonry walls 
or topiary hedges.
Bantam cover art by John Marsh

Galton Case is really still a transitional work, however, something insufficiently recognized.  There's a partial chapter where Archer gets arrested and handcuffed by some dumb cops (though it's really played more for laughs than toughness), not to mention an entire chapter, set in Reno, Nevada, where Archer gets beaten up--very badly indeed--by a gangster's minions.  I hate that rough stuff and skimmed the chapter, but I still loved Galton Case, because it's compellingly staged, peopled, narrated and, last but not least, plotted.  

The plot, RM's variation on the inspiration for a large number of classic mysteries, the historical Tichborne Claimant case (Mrs. Galton, a rich old widow, hires Archer to find her long lost son John Galton), really zings and there are some beautiful twists.  As Tom Nolan has written, RM draws on his own unhappy Canadian childhood in this one and this adds considerable poignancy and heft to the plot.  And though there is much to depress, the ending has some promise of redemption and uplift.  

The writing on the whole is really quite beautiful, though we have to accept that Archer is capable of these lovely conceits and metaphors.  Admittedly there are a couple of boners, looking ahead to later RM, like "I had a delayed gestalt after I'd given up on the subject" (much ridiculed a dozen years ago here) and "His face looked porous and moist like a deliquescent substance" (Wha--???  This from someone who in this novel admits he doesn't know about Rimbaud or the Praxiteles Hermes!).

Yet then we also have:

The [suitcase] lock was broken, and it fell open.  Its contents emitted  a whiff of tobacco, sea water, sweat and the subtler indescribable odor of masculine loneliness.

With dark circles under them, and heavy eyeshadow on the upper lids, [her eyes] were like two spreading bruises.

Flowers bloomed competitively in the yards.  

It's tough to live with a case for year and then watch it elope with a casual pickup.

I sat there like a penitent while the minute hand of the clock took little pouncing bites out of eternity.

Is The Galton Case really the very best of Ross Macdonald's mysteries?  It's certainly a strong candidate.  And that to my mind makes it one of the finest mysteries, hard-boiled or otherwise.  Say hello to this one if you haven't read it yet.  The Goodbye Look deserves more of a side eye, in my view, despite its front page NYTBR notice and bestselling status.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Noiry New Year! FOXy Film Noir: The FOX Film Noir Series, 2005-2008

Between 2005 and 2008 entertainment conglomerate Twentieth-Century Fox released 26 DVDs in its so-called Film Noir Series.  I bought a bunch of these over the years.  And while DVDs may be old hat now, I still love them like I love actual books!  

The titles and original dates of the films in this interesting series are given below, in the the order they were issued.

I guess you can't blame FOX for starting as its big #1 entry with the classic mystery film Laura, based on the Vera Caspary novel, but ironically it's one of the least "noiry" ones in the bunch!  Sure, Gene Tierney's Laura is suspected of murder (after the cops realize she isn't the victim) and Dana Andrews plays a great tough, deadpan police detective smitten by love, but the film is a sophisticated manners mystery in essence, rather resembling the better work of the more tony British Crime Queens.  Noir--dark, dismal, doom-laden--it ain't, sorry.

I've recently been trying to track down all my DVDs in this series to evaluate just how noir the films in it really are.  (Below I have starred the ones I found.)  I was inspired in this effort by recently writing the introduction for Stark House's coming reissue of lady noirish mystery writer Marty Holland's novel Fallen Angel, the 1945 film adaptation of which was included in the FOX series.  I'll be doing intros to additional novels with film noir connections this coming year, 2023.

Over the next few weeks I will try to review as many of these films as I can and assess them on a noir scale of one to five--what?--heartbreaks, backstabs, broken dreams?

*1. Laura 1944

*2. Call Northside 777 1948

*3. Panic in the Streets 1950

4. House of Bamboo 1955

5. The Street with No Name 1948

6. Nightmare Alley 1947

*7. The House on 92nd Street 1945

*8. Somewhere in the Night 1946

*9. Whirlpool 1950

*10. The Dark Corner 1946

*11. Kiss of Death 1947

*12. Where the Sidewalk Ends 1950

13. No Way Out 1950

*14. Fallen Angel 1945

*15. The House on Telegraph Hill 1951

*16. Boomerang! 1947

*17. House of Strangers 1949

*18. I Wake up Screaming 1941

19. Vicki 1953

20. Shock 1946

*21. Fourteen Hours 1951

*22. Black Widow 1954

*23. Daisy Kenyon 1947

*24. Dangerous Crossing 1953

25. Moontide 1942

*26. Road House 1948

How many of these have you seen?

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Deck the Halls with Bouts of Horror! Hall of Death (1960), by Nedra Tyre

State Training School for Girls at Chalkville, Alabama, which operated for over a century,
from 1909 until it was hit by a tornado in 2012.  More pics here

Her cabin'd ample Spirit,

It flutter'd, and fail'd for breath.

Tonight it doth inherit

The vasty Hall of Death

Requiescat, Matthew Arnold

Earlier this year crime fiction publisher Stark House reprinted as one of their "twofers" a pair of mystery novels by one of the more original and interesting mid-century American crime novelists, Nedra Tyre (1912-1990), a native of the state of Georgia, which has been much in the news of late.  A social worker by vocation, Tyre also published six mystery novels and more than forty short crime stories.  These latter works start, I believe, with "Murder at the Poe Shrine" in 1955 and cease with "The Teddy Bear Crimes" in 1987, just three years before Tyre's death in a Richmond, Virginia area nursing home at the age of 78.  All of the short stories were published either in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

The American hardcover edition
reminds me of the 1962 horror film
Carnival of Souls or a brunette
Village of the Damned (1960)

I hope to see Tyre's short stories collected soon, but in the meantime Stark House this year reprinted one of Tyre's most highly regarded crime novels, Death of an Intruder (1953), together with her final effort in the novel line, Twice So Fair (1971); and they likely will be following up this year with two additional lauded Tyre mysteries, Mouse in Eternity (1950), her debut crime novel, and Hall of Death (1960).  This pair of novels most draws, among her crime writing, upon her own field of social work.  

I like Death of an Intruder, but Hall of Death is perhaps my favorite among Tyre's novels.  It is, I think, a more substantial book, at about 65,000 words versus, as I recollect, Intruder's barely 40,000.  (Arguably Intruder is really a novella.)  

Hall if also more firmly tethered in reality (albeit a nightmarish sort) than Intruder, which is really a kind of fantastical horror tale.  In her subtitle to the latter novel Tyre herself termed it a horror tale in three partsHall of Death, on the other hand, is a genuine detective story.

Tyre clearly found real life inspiration for Hall of Death in the 1950s scandals at the Georgia Training School for Girls in Adamsville, Georgia, now a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Atlanta.  (The Georgia Training School of course was segregated.)  Below are some evocative recent pics of the area on Youtube:

Tyre's novel is set primarily (and unnervingly claustrophobically) at the Training School for Girls in the city of some unnamed, obviously southern and rather backward, state.  However, as Tyre's friend Celestine Sibley, a beloved longtime columnist at the Atlanta Constitution, noted when reviewing Tyre's novel in 1960, the connection of her pal's fictional school--more a prison, really--to the Georgia school for delinquent girls is obvious.  

Six years earlier Celestine Sibley herself had written a series of articles about the problems at the Georgia school, contrasting it very unfavorably with Florida's Industrial School for Girls at Ocala.  Sibley condemned Georgia's school for its "inhuman treatment of students" (including shaving their heads as punishment--see this pic from the Digital Library of Georgia), not to mention "recurrent runaways, old and inadequate facilities and unsuitable or untrained staff."  

Sibley thought it telling that at the Florida School the entrance sign cheerily read "WELCOME!" while at the Georgia school the sign read forbiddingly "Enter on Business Only."  At the Florida school, walls gleamed with fresh paint, while at the Georgia school walls were scrawled with profanity.  At the Florida school, "shining window panes [were] framed with crisp curtains and potted plants," while at the Georgia school "shattered window panes" had been replaced with "boards and iron bolts."

In Hall of Death, Tyre excels at portraying this grim atmosphere of pervading gloom.  "If you've ever been in a penal or reform institution of any kind," Celestine Sibley assured her readers, "....You'll smell the tired old plumbing, hear the rats in the walls [and see the cockroaches in the kitchen--TPT], taste the sponge cake and canned fruit."  

Ace pb reprint
obviously trying to appeal to the
market for delinquency fiction

What the girls at the school are forced to endure, Sibley noted, is not wanton cruelty, but the banality of bland societal indifference--"a terrible bleakness engendered by the fact that the state, which held them as wards, was really indifferent to them.  They were cared for by the 'Manual of Operation' put out by the State Department of Welfare and there was nothing in the manual that mentioned love or healing damaged spirits or restoring confidence. So the girls themselves and the nine women staff members are grimly suitable figures for Miss Tyre's drama of hatred and murder."

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Miss Michael (I don't believe we ever learn her first name), is the idealistic new assistant to the stolid, by- the-book school superintendent, Miss Spinks.  At one point the latter woman bluntly tells her new assistant (who also teaches English and grammar at the school): 

"Miss Michael, please don't philosophize.  Just try to protect yourself."  

So Miss Michael keeps speculations like these to herself: 

No one ever seemed to look directly into a girl's eyes.  I suppose there was too much agony and defiance in them.

To establish contact with angry, hostile persons the easy way is to appeal to their anger and hostility, to claim their emotions and hatred as your own.  The way to love and kindness is infinitely more difficult. [This applies to politics too--TPT]

Sounding like a lot of people today in her bleak commitment to blanket punitive incarceration, Miss Spinks lectures Miss Michael with fatalistic finality:

We're carrying out instructions and it's not for us to question them [Just following orders!--TPT].  I'd like to have an adequate staff.  I'd like to have comfortable buildings.  But we have to make out with these barns.  You'll get along much better, Miss Michael, if you don't criticize.  We haven't a rehabilitation program.  The girls are here to be punished.  They don't want to change themselves and there's nothing we can do to change them.

In spite of Spinks, Miss Michael tries to reach the girls somehow.  She makes connections of a sort with two of them in particular: an angel names Lucy and a devil named Johnny.  With interesting results, to say the least.

For readers interesting in learning about a certain horrid place in terrible time, Hall of Death delivers.  In its own way it's as memorable a female institution mystery novel as Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night or Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes, though it would never be as generally popular on account of its pervasive gloominess.  Nedra Tyre herself loved British novels of manners, including manners mysteries, but her tone in this particular book is altogether more earnest and frequently dark.  

However, there is also a very nice little mystery tucked away in the text of this book, which, after all, includes two suicides, a couple of murders and another attempted one.  It's fairly clued, with some nice strategies of deception.  In other words, it's a genuine detective novel, unlike Death of Intruder.  Like Celestine Sibley, Anthony Boucher, a great fan of the author, highly praised the book, as did others.  "Told with a perception and sensitivity that few mystery novels can match," declared the Miami Herald of Hall of Death, "it is a story of chilling violence."  

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Birds and Beasts Were There: The Eighties Ross Macdonald Bantam Paperback Cover Art of James Marsh

1984 Bantam ed.

James Marsh (1946) is said to be best known for his cover art for the British New Wave band Talk Talk. (In the US you may remember their top forty hit "It's My Life," from nearly forty years ago now--I did.)  

Speaking for myself, I had no idea that James Marsh did the Talk Talk album covers, but I did know he did the cover art for this intriguing series of Bantam paperback Ross Macdonald reissues from the early Eighties (same time Talk Talk was getting off the ground). Indeed, I think he did cover art for every single RM novel. 

The Marsh covers are pretty hard to find today, fairly cheap and in good condition, but I always snap them up when I see a good deal on one, as I think Marsh's very distinctive covers are the best RM art out there.  

Marsh seems to have been especially fascinated with birds and beasts, as it were, especially insects and reptiles.  Around this same time, I see, he published an illustrated book entitled Bizarre Birds and Beasts.  Enjoy!'

Featured Right: Marsh's highly symbolic design for Ross Macdonald's penultimate novel, Sleeping Beauty, shows prescription pills falling down a n hourglass, transmuted into blood.  At the bottom is the flaming oil rig that is a recurrent image in the novel.  Those of you who have read the novel will know how cleverly this design captures themes of the novel.  

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Moray Dalton reprints 2023

It's been a while now, but a new group of Moray Dalton reprints is coming in the spring of 2023, to be followed, I hope, by another group in the winter.  I wanted to go chronologically with the remaining books in the Inspector Hugh Collier series, and now this is what we are going to do!  The first group coming (I'm just finishing the introductions now) will be:

Inspector Hugh Collier Series

The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman (1936) Hugh Collier #7

Death in the Dark (1938) Hugh Collier #8

Death in the Forest (1939) Hugh Collier #9


The Murder of Eve (1945)

Death at the Villa (1946)

The next group will be:

Inspector Hugh Collier series

The Price of Silence (1939) Hugh Collier #10

The Longbridge Murders (1945) Hugh Collier #12

The Case of the Dark Stranger (1948) Hugh Collier #14

Inquest on Miriam (1949) Hugh Collier #15

Death of a Spinster (1951) Hugh Collier #16

The first six Hugh Collier detective novels, along with The Art School Murders (1943), Collier #11, and The Condamine Case (1947), Collier #13, have been reprinted already.

I'm hoping for one more group of nonseries Dalton mysteries for 2024, including a certain much requested title!

I'll have more to say soon about the individual titles in the next group of Daltons.  I very much enjoyed reading them.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Annus Murderbilis: Doris Miles Disney's Dark Road (1946) and Who Rides a Tiger (1946)

Debates about when the Golden Age of detective fiction ended will go on, but obviously the decade of the 1940s accelerated the flux of traditional detection.  Espionage novels predictably became the vogue with the explosion of the Second World War, while hard-boiled mystery continued to increase in popularity, much to the chagrin of George Orwell.  The wartime paper shortage constituted a death knell for the leisurely ratiocinative prewar detective novel, for the most part, as novels of 60-80,000 words (or even fewer) became the norm.  The page numbers of most books in the Collins Crime Club shrank by 20% and the lost wordage went unrecovered with peace.  Readers became used to a more rapid pace in crime fiction, with less thinking and more acting.

Admittedly, bestseller Mary Roberts Rinehart, with her leisurely, mammoth mystery novels, soldiered wordily on, but more and more the American grand old mistress of mystery seemed an honored anachronism in an impending age of atom bombs, TV dinners, instant cake mix and space rockets.  Rinehart, a young matron when Queen Victoria passed away, had published her first mystery novel the year Henry Ford introduced the Model T and it had been filmed when movies remained silent.    

The term "psychological suspense"--generally called domestic suspense today, due to the missionary work of Sarah Weinman--had not quite come into vogue in mystery, but its practitioners were gathering in the dawn, murder weapons glinting in their hands.  Two of the biggest coming names in the U.S. were Margaret Millar of Canada and California (even Julian Symons, often chary of women writers imo, acknowledged her) and Charlotte Armstrong of Michigan and California.  Another fatal femme, vastly less heralded today (surely to some extent on account of the fact that her books unaccountably remain out-of-print), was Doris Miles Disney, a deep-dyed New England Yankee.  

Each women, each of whom was young enough to be a Rinehart daughter (or granddaughter in Millar's case), followed a similar pattern of publishing relatively traditional detective novels in the early Forties, followed by a shift to psychological suspense by the mid-Forties.  Let's take a quick look at chronology:


The Invisible Worm 1941 

The Weak-Eyed Bat 1942

The Devil Loves Me 1942

Wall of Eyes 1943

The Iron Gates 1945


Lay On, Mac Duff! 1942

The Case of the Weird Sisters 1943

The Innocent Flower 1945

The Unsuspected 1946


A Compound for Death 1943

Murder on a Tangent 1945

Dark Road 1946

Who Rides a Tiger 1946

I think The Iron Gates and The Unsuspected are pretty well-acknowledged classics of crime fiction, but so too should be Disney's Who Rides a Tiger, beyond cavil I think, and Dark Road as well.  For Doris Miles Disney 1946 was, one might say, annus murderbilis.  At the beginning of the year came Dark Road, at the end of it Who Rides a Tiger.  In my view Disney's accomplishment is the sort of artistic feat that recalls what Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine regularly used to be able to pull off in the 1980s and 1990s.  Someone gets this woman back in print!  If, having read all the books she had then written, I had been asked back in 1946 who was the greatest talent of these three (Millar, Armstrong and Disney), I would have said it was Doris Miles Disney (though later on the balance shifted I would say).

Now that I have gone and unwisely raised expectations, let me expound.

DARK ROAD is a classic inverted crime novel in the manner of Freeman Wills Crofts, yet with much more credibility in the depiction of human emotions.  To my mind the inverted crime novel needs a strong emotional core as well as a ratiocinative one, in order to foster the building up of suspense.  The inverted mystery  is a cat-and-mouse game between investigator and investigated and if we don't care at all about the characters a lot of the potential dramatic impact is lost.  

Crofts, a modern Puritan at heart, could only really portray one emotion--one sinful emotion--successfully: avarice.  Lust for gold he could envision, not lust for sex.  

And his moralism made his inverteds predictable: Crime does not, must not, pay!  Of course all too often it does pay, and pay very well, as Crofts doubtlessly knew, and the wicked flourish like the green bay tree.  But for Crofts depicting life as it really often unpleasantly was would have been altogether too demoralizing and bad for impressionable youth.  

With Doris Miles Disney (DMD), you never know what might happen, however.  She's not afraid to go there.

In Dark Road Disney introduces, as reviewers at the time noted, quite a flawed set of characters, beginning with her Madame Bovaryish, suburban housewife Hazel Clement, a blonde beauty of regrettably low social origins who in the Thirties snagged a modestly well-off businessman husband, much older than she and physically unappealing to her (he's pink, hairless and flabby), with a decided tendency to tip the  bottle, yet a good provider nonetheless.  

Hazel has been getting along with steady if boozy Ralph, taking pride in their house and their lakeside cottage and fending off his occasional need for nookie, until she meets her old flame Eugene.  The latter man slept with her but never married her on account of her coming from the wrong side of the tracks, but now some fifteen years later he is bored with his proper, right-side-of-the-tracks wife and ready to start something up with Hazel again.  

Hazel falls, and she passionately decides that if she can just get rid of Ralph, Eugene will divorce his wife and they can start over again, as they were meant to do.  Now it's just a matter of how to get rid of Ralph....  

Once Hazel decides on an extermination plan she carries it out with ruthless efficiency, baffling the local police but not, it increasingly seems, insurance investigator Jeff DiMarco, who is investigating the insurance claim on the late Ralph from his ex-business partner.  There's also Ralph's vengeful sister in the mix, who hates Hazel like poison.  As DiMarco closes in, what will the resourceful Hazel do next?

I found Dark Road a tremendously suspenseful crime novel, with some shades of James M.  Cain's classic 1943 crime novel Double Indemnity.  DiMarco, for example, is rather attracted to the alluring Hazel.  The reader, further, is given some grounds to sympathize with her, although the nasty way she chooses to deal with Ralph should be alienating.  However, I found Ralph's sister genuinely awful, as I think we are meant to.  In a more conventionally pious crime novel, the avenging female would be more angel than harpy.  This moral ambiguity is just one of the ways Dark Road is ahead of its time, another being its credible depiction of sexual desire.  It's a real, living, heavy breathing thing in Disney, not a theoretical construct as it is in Crofts (which is fine for a classic puzzle but not so much for an inverted mystery).

Dark Road is a strong novel all through but what really turns it up to the top notch is its denouement, about which I shall say nothing, dear readers!  See for yourselves--at least if the novel gets reprinted!  It was previously reprinted a few times in paperback, but the copies have been vanishing off the market.  DMD is a highly collectible author. 

Even better than Dark Road is Who Rides a Tiger, which deliciously anticipates the brilliant nineties mysteries of Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) in the way it weaves back and forth between the present day (World War Two when DMD was writing it) and the past (mostly the last two decades of the nineteenth century).  I was amused to see one contemporary review complain that the time hopping, as it were, made the novel too confusing!  Verily, some readers just weren't ready for this sort of thing back then.  Not Anthony Boucher, however, who called it a "warm, full-bodied, well-written reconstruction of the past."  A great DMD fan from her second crime novel, he called Dark Road "a well-written and well-plotted novel of murder, ironic and moving."

Tiger opens with the thoughts of a dying bedridden woman, octogenarian Harriet Lowden, a wealthy, curdled old lady who hates her own relations (like poison!) and has resolved to leave all her money away from them.  Her great-niece Susan Lowden, who happened to spend Harriet's final day with her, resolves to find out more about Harriet and her life after she discovers the old woman's diaries.  She is fascinated with the enigma of how Harriet turned out like she did--and she'd like to find some way of proving that the old woman was of unsound mind too.  She and her father could use some of Aunt Harriet's money!  

So off the diaries take us on the story of Harriet's life--and a gripping tale it is too, full of passion, both bound and boundless.  Those of you who read Barbara Vine might immediately think of Asta's Book, published almost a half-century after Tiger in the way DMD's tale sets a modern-day framing story around a narrative from the past, made available by a diary record.   Both these books are exemplary crime novels, but DMD's central enigmatic figure, Harriet, may be the most memorable character in either tome.  I won't soon forget poor Harriet.  Neither did Disney, who declared later in life that Tiger was her favorite among her many books.  For once a prolific mystery writer made a good estimate of her own work.

Going against some of what I said above, Tiger is a long book for the period by my count, some 100,000 words, though I think it's still quite a bit shorter than Asta's Book.  But it benefits from that depth and spaciousness.  Dark Road is about 80,000 words and somewhat longer than the average for the period too.  Disney went on to write over forty more books in thirty years and as reliable a producer as she was, these two early novels, especially Tiger, suggest to me that her work might have been even stronger had she perhaps cut back a bit on the book production.  Yet she was the primary--and all too soon only--breadwinner in her family with a young daughter to raise, which I suspect was a spur to production.  It would be lovely to sit back and write leisurely as out wimsey takes us, but in the real world all too often privation is the primary spur--and it doesn't relent!

NOTE: There are copies of Tiger available on the used market, but at all costs I implore you to avoid even glimpsing the Eighties/Nineties Zebra edition of the book.  Zebra had a set design for the Disney reissues which was remarkable stupid, is all I can say.  It's especially bad with Tiger, but also for another title by her, The Magic Grandfather, as blogger John Norris has noted.  The Reade is Warned!  I'm trying to get DMD reprinted now.