Monday, November 12, 2018

Black Mass and Cozy Class: The Unexpected Convergence of Whitey Bulger (1929-2018) and Charlotte Macleod (1922-2005)

"I once received a lovely letter from a lady who told me how she had got this book, made herself a cup of tea and drawn the curtains because it was a dismal cold day.  Then she'd set a fire in the fireplace and sat down and read my book.  Isn't that a nice goal for a writer to think about?  It certainly keeps me at my typewriter."  

--Mystery author Charlotte MacLeod in "Murder, She Writes," Interview with Peter Gorner of the Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1988

His attack was lightning fast.  Whitey seized [Debbie Davis] by the throat with his hands and began to shake her like a rag doll.  Debbie, gasping for breath, was dying....Whitey was still not done with the ghastliness.  He handed Stevie a pair of pliers and and instructed him to yank the teeth from the lifeless Debbie Davis to hamper authorities from ever being able to identify her through dental records....Whitey and Stevie wrapped Debbie in plastic, then dragged her body upstairs and out into the late afternoon light.  They threw the bundle into the trunk of a car and drove off.  Later in the  evening they headed to what would become known as the Bulger burial ground--a stretch of marshland along the Neponset River, beneath a bridge connecting Boston's Dorchester neighborhood to the city of Quincy.

--Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss (2013)

Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005)
she of the white gloves and hats
and impeccable grammar
Over a two-decade period (1978 to 1998 to be precise) Canadian-American detective novelist Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005) published 32 crime novels representing no less than four mystery series, all of which to the delight of her fans were brought back into print in the US five years ago by Mysterious Press/Open Road.  Today MacLeod, an Edgar-nominated mystery writer, is considered one of the key progenitors of the modern cozy mystery.  Her books, those who wrote about her were fond of noting, "eschewed gore, graphic violence, sex and vulgar language" while indulging in "a little romance and a lot of laughs" (see the author's obituary in the LA Times). For her part MacLeod pronounced herself a "backwoods Michael Innes" and an author of manners novels with murders, in the style (admittedly folksier) of Dorothy L. Sayers.

How surprising it is, then, that in real life Charlotte MacLeod had a close family connection to the notorious Boston mobster James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger (1929-2018), leader in the Seventies and Eighties of the Winter Hill Gang, a confederation of Boston area organized crime figures of mostly Irish and Italian descent. 

Whitey Bulger's funeral was held in South Boston just three days ago.  The 89-year-old Bulger, a one-time mob informant serving consecutive life sentences for the murders of 11 people he committed while informing to the FBI (and that was only part of his suspected death toll), was savagely beaten to death in prison two weeks ago.  His features after the attack were said to have been so battered as to be unrecognizable.  It was a violent end to a violent life.

Just how far removed Whitey Bulger's real life crimes (not to mention his horrible demise) were from those found in the comfy pages of cozy mysteries this line about Whitey from his New York Times obituary indicates:

[H]e shot men between the eyes, stabbed rivals in the heart with ice picks, strangled women who might betray him and buried victims in secret graveyards after yanking their teeth to thwart identification.

Felon in fedora: Whitey Bulger at
the start of his life in crime in 1953
While there are, to be sure, bizarre and nasty murders in Charlotte MacLeod's books (in Wrack and Rune, for example, a man is killed by having his face shoved in a bucket of quicklime, something you could imagine happening in a Martin Scorsese film), it's all done decidedly tongue in cheek by the Cozy Crime Queen.  In Whitey Bulger's world, on the other hand, tongues were more likely to have been found outside of cheeks, having been bloodily ripped from bodies. Yet Whitey Bulger's highly respected brother William simultaneously rose, during the commission of Whitey's ghoulish carnival of crimes, to become president of the Massachusetts state Senate (1976-1994) and the University of Massachusetts (1995-2003).

William Bulger resigned from the latter position only under pressure from then Governor Mitt Romney and others, after the media spotlight focused on his relationship, about which he was not altogether forthcoming, with his brother Whitey, who was then a fugitive from federal justice. So perhaps the Charlotte MacLeod-Whitey Bulger connection is not so incongruous after all! 

First some family background on Charlotte MacLeod, as it's essential to this story.

Baptist church at
St. Stephen, New Brunswick
where Charlotte McLeod's father
Edward Phillips MacLeod, grew up
Although she grew up in the United States on the South Side of Boston, Charlotte Matilda MacLeod was born on November 12, 1922 in another, rather gentler country: Canada.  Specifically she was born in a flat above a grocery store in the quiet little village of Bath, in the western section of the maritime province of New Brunswick, not far from the Canadian border with US state of Maine. Charlotte's parents--Baptists Edward Phillips MacLeod (1893-1972), a plumber and son of lumber surveyor Alexander MacLeod, and Mabel Maude Heyward (1897-?), daughter of farmer and mail carrier Clarence Edgar Heyward--had wed two years earlier; and Charlotte had a slightly older brother, Walter Ernest.  The young family moved to Massachusetts in 1923, when Charlotte and Walter were toddlers, settling in Weymouth, a city on the South Shore of Boston. There Edward continued lucratively to ply the plumbing trade and two more children, daughters Helen and Alexandria, were born to him and Mabel.

Also moving to the Boston vicinity at about the same time was Edward's sister Marion Cecilia Mackay (1889-1982), wife of John Mackay, a former Halifax, Nova Scotia accountant who in Boston worked as a librarian/archivist for the Boston Herald newspaper.  Marion Mackay likely was the 91-year-old aunt to whom Charlotte MacLeod affectionately dedicated A Pint of Murder (1980), which is set in New Brunswick and is the first of her Alisa Craig mystery novels.

Brotherhood Bible Class, St. Stephen Baptist Church, 1916
Possibly Charlotte MacLeod's father Edward, then 19, was a member 

Among the children of John and Marion Mackay was daughter Ailsa, ten years her cousin Charlotte's senior and a business school graduate and stenographer.  I wonder whether Ailsa Mackay had any connection to the creation of Charlotte's mystery pseudonym Alisa Craig, said to have been drawn from "Ailsa Craig," a spectacular island--actually the plug of an extinct volcano--off the coast of Scotland.  Certainly the MacLeods were a very Scottish family, like so many others in New Brunswick.

the house on Gilmore Street
In the 1930s the MacLeod family moved a 966-square-foot white clapboarded house, originally built in 1918, on a large lot on Gilmore Street in Weymouth.  You can see pictures of the house and its interior here, when it was sold in 2012 for $135,000.*

*(It has since been sold and nicely refurbished and is now estimated to be worth around $330,000; see pics here.) 

There is a kitchen, 9x12, dining room, 9x10, living room, 11x11, master bedroom, 12x13, second bedroom, 7x11 and bonus room, 5x7, plus a single bathroom, a nice enclosed front porch, a basement laundry, a detached single car garage and a storage shed. 

In the 1930s Charlotte and her slightly younger sister, Helen, presumably would have shared the larger upstairs bedroom, while Walter would have occupied the smaller upstairs "bonus room."  Baby sister Alexandria didn't come along until 1937, when Charlotte was fifteen and soon to leave the family nest for college.

the house in Jamaica Plain

The Mackays lived about a dozen miles away from their MacLeod kinfolk, in a pretty white Italianate house built in 1860 in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in west Boston.  Besides Ailsa, the children in the Mackay family included Donald Alexander Mackay (1914-2005), a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and an accomplished artist and illustrator in the second half of the 20th century.  Also living with the Mackay family in 1940 was Charlotte's widowed grandmother, Matilda Lenora (Hughes) MacLeod, daughter of Canadian Baptists Edward Phillips Hughes, a native Welsh house carpenter and Charlotte Cecilia Yerxa, daughter of a native Dutch farmer.  So Charlotte's family was an admixture of Scottish-English-Welsh-Dutch nationalities, but seemingly in religious persuasion 100% Baptist.

You might be surprised to find there were so many Baptists in Canada (whether of Scottish, English, Welsh or Dutch extraction), yet that remarkable mystery plagiarizer and all-round scoundrel Maurice Balk, a true sociopath about whom I blogged here last year, masqueraded for a time in the 1920s as a Baptist minister in Nova Scotia, another of the maritime provinces.  For all I know he might have ministered to credulous MacLeods and Mackays, Heywards and Hughes, and even the odd Yerxa.

During the Second World War, when her brother Walter and her male Mackay cousins fought the original Axis of Evil overseas (Walter was a POW in the Philippines), Charlotte MacLeod attended the Art Institute of Boston (now merged into Lesley University).  After the war she worked, like her Cousin Donald, as a commercial artist, in her case in the employment of the catchily-named Stop and Shop supermarket chain.  However, in 1952, about the time Whitey Bulger was first arrested in Beantown, Charlotte accepted a copy writing position with a Boston advertising firm. Three decades later she retired at the age of sixty, at which time she had risen to a position as vice-president. Thenceforward, she found plenty of things to occupy her time.

Like PD James, another accomplished career woman turned mystery author, Charlotte MacLeod saw her success in crime writing come later in life, but she did very well for herself in the field from then onward.  James' great breakthrough came with her transatlantic bestseller Innocent Blood (1980), published when she was sixty years old, after eighteen years of periodic crime writing on her part.  Only two years younger than James, MacLeod concurrently enjoyed mystery writing success which was less spectacular but very steady.

Just over four decades ago, in October 1978, the 55-year-old MacLeod published Rest You Merry, the first of her Peter and Helen Shandy series of mysteries, headlined by a professor of horticulture and his librarian wife at the fictional Balaclava Agricultural College in Massachusetts.  The next year came The Family Vault, the first of her "Boston Brahmin" milieu mysteries with genteel Sarah Kelling and her art expert beau Max Bittersohn, while 1980 saw her initial "Alisa Craig" Canadian Mountie Madoc Rhys mystery, A Pint of Murder, set as mentioned in New Brunswick, and 1981 the first of her Grub-and-Stakers mystery series (the less said about this last cray-cray series the better, in my opinion). 

Amazingly, MacLeod kept all four of these series going, like a juggler twirling a multitude of plates, until 1996, 1998, 1992 and 1994 respectively.  Only the onset of Alzheimer's Disease put an end to an impressively prolific, popular and critically praised crime writing career.  MacLeod died in 2005 in a nursing home in Lewiston, Maine, a state which she had made her home for the previous two decades.  Until her health failed, she dwelt at a 200-year-old house, a quaint former inn, in the small town of Lisbon Falls.

in honor of Charlotte MacLeod
a plate of yummy Joe Froggers
most certainly made with molasses
See New England Magazine
for the lore and the (very good!) recipe
Charlotte's brother Walter died three years after Charlotte in 2008, while still living in Weymouth, where he had been employed by the city as a heating engineer.  Their baby sister, Alexandria, died five years after Walter in 2013.  During her sister's years as a mystery writer, Alexandria had loyally served as Charlotte's business manager and typist.  After Charlotte's death, Alexandria described her as a true lady who wore white gloves and large hats and had impeccable grammar.

Of the mysteries which Charlotte wrote, Alexandria pronounced that her sister had written them "specifically for people who did not want blood and guts, at least not a whole lot of it anyway.  Everybody drank tea and ate molasses cookies.  It was that kind of thing."

Presumably it was not over tea and molasses cookies--it was not that kind of thing--that Lindsey Chester Cyr, Charlotte's niece by her other sister, Helen, who died in 1995, made her fateful meeting with Whitey Bulger in 1966, at a Boston cafe where the attractive 20-year-old woman, a part time legal secretary and occasional model, worked as a waitress.

For Lindsey it was love at first sight with the 37-year-old ladykiller.  "He was gorgeous," she recalled.  "There wasn't anything not to be attracted to.  He was blond, blue-eyed, very well-built and handsome." Yet the multiple murderer was also, in Lindsey's eyes, "a perfect gentleman who made her feel safe."  Hey, what's not to like!

again with the hats
MacLeod niece Lindsey Cyr
onetime lover of Whitey Bulger and
the mother of his son Douglas
Lindsey and Whitey quickly launched a romantic relationship, which inadvertently produced a son, Douglas, the next year.  However, Douglas died tragically young from Reye's Syndrome in 1973 (Whitey attended the funeral of the boy, in the upbringing of whom he had been involved).  Lindsey, who was involved with Whitey for about 15 years, first spoke out about their relationship in 2010, a year before the fugitive was arrested and imprisoned for what turned out to be the last seven years of his life.  A film about Bulger, Black Mass, was released in 2015, with Johnny Depp playing Whitey and Dakota Johnson playing Lindsey. In the last decade Lindsey Cyr has continued to talk about her relationship with Whitey, as she did when she pronounced that Black Mass was an "awful" film and loyally declared of Bulger that she will always love him

As far as I know, however, no one had ever connected all this real world drama with the comfortable, tidy life of the great Queen of Cozies, Charlotte MacLeod.  Sometimes very different worlds do indeed collide and truth really is stranger than--or at least every bit as strange as--fiction.

Stay tuned for more on Charlotte MacLeod's mysteries this week, if not the late Whitey Bulger.  Though we occasionally do vintage hard-boiled stuff here, and even sometimes enjoy it, molasses cookies and chatty confidences are more our thing at the home of the Passing Tramp than straight rum and revolting gangster rub-outs.

see Boston Magazine

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Voter Suppression! The Election Booth Murder (1935), by Milton M. Propper

voting can be murder
In 1926 wealthy Republican building contractor and machine politician William Scott Vare, dubbed the "boss of Philadelphia," was elected to the United States Senate, in a contest mired in a murk of accusations of voter fraud and civic corruption.  The losing Democrat charged that there had been "massive corruption" in the contest, with Vare and his supporters having "padded registration lists, misused campaign expenditures, counted votes from persons who were dead or never existed and engaged in intimidation and discouragement of prospective voters."  In one particularly outrageous example of political sneakiness, Philadelphia Sheriff Thomas "Big Tom" Cunningham somehow managed to make a $50,000 donation to the Vare campaign on his annual salary of $8000.

The state's governor, progressive and patrician Republican Gifford Pinchot, who that year had lost to Vare in the GOP senate primary, refused to certify Vare as the winner, leading to a three-year Senate investigation of the contest.  Having barely survived a stroke in 1928, the partially paralyzed Vare was summoned to the Senate the next year and informed that he would not be seated. 

"The fraud pervading the actual count by the division election officers is appalling," the investigating Senate committee concluded.  "The average Philadelphia voter had a one-in-eight chance of having his ballot recorded accurately on Election Day."

Allies: Sheriff "Big Tom" Cunningham with
Boss Vare (right); a railway porter looks on
An enraged Vare the next year supported the Democratic gubernatorial candidate against Governor Pinchot, who was running for reelection, but to no avail.  Three years later, on Election Day, November 7, 1933, Philadelphia Democrats, who had been utterly eclipsed from power in the city for more than eight decades, won the municipal election, following several years of the Depression and the promise of the New Deal of newly-installed US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Vare himself was ousted as head of the Republican Central Campaign Committee of Philadelphia in June 1934, just a couple of months before his death at age 67 on August 7, a day before the 29th birthday of politically engaged mystery writer Milton M. Propper, an devotee of FDR and the New Deal.

These recent events inspired the writing of Propper's seventh detective novel, The Election Booth Murder (1935), about the shooting murder of a reform political candidate on Election Day in Philadelphia.  (This being a Milton Propper novel a plan of the murder scene is included.) 

UPenn student Milton Propper
when he was around 19 years old, a few
years before he published his first novel
The novel's murder victim, Sidney Reade, is running for city District Attorney not as a Democrat but as a member of the "Popular Party," while his opponent, corrupt Sheriff Leon Connell, is of the "Regulars" (not the Republicans); yet despite this obfuscation I imagine the implications were sufficiently clear to mystery readers of 83 years ago--at least if they lived in Pennsylvania!

Certainly when Propper writes that "To Philadelphians, for the last quarter of the century, there was only one boss--Harvey Warren, erstwhile national senator, party leader of the Regulars, and the unchallenged czar of politics in eastern Pennsylvania," state mystery fans reading the book would easily have recognized the allusion to Willam S. Vare.

As I discussed in my previous blog piece, Francis Nevins in a 41-year old article in The Armchair Detective castigated Milton Propper as a snobbish, police-worshiping authoritarian, while Propper's sister insisted to the contrary that her brother was a political idealist full of in admiration, as were so many young people at the time, for the sweeping New Deal reforms proffered by the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  I think Propper's sister had a better grasp in the facts than Nevins, who never knew the man and was writing about him at second-hand fifteen years after his death in 1962.

Milton Propper in later life
(after he lost weight evidently)
In fact correspondence Propper wrote to Time Magazine in the Thirties shows him praising FDR and condemning Philadelphia's corrupt machine politics.  A dislike of political corruption pervades The Election Booth Murder.  Certainly Propper doesn't have the visceral quality of Dashiell Hammett (his formal, deliberate prose is far more redolent of Freeman Wills Crofts), but in its modest way The Election Booth Murder paints a strong picture of urban malfeasance. 

Today of course we would be more likely to see Republicans criticizing urban Democratic "machines," but in the Philadelphia of Propper's day it was the Republicans who were running the show and long had been, though their machine was facing what would prove, seemingly, permanent breakdown.  (The GOP elected its last mayor in Philadelphia in 1947.)

In 1935, the year of Propper's publication of The Election Booth Murder, the GOP faced a strong challenge in the mayoral race this year, the Democratic nominee being popular John B. "Handsome Jack" Kelly, Sr., brother of playwright George Kelly, father of future actress and princess Grace Kelly and himself a wealthy contractor (though one, unlike Vare, of Irish Catholic descent).

Handsome Jack Kelly, father of grace
A Great War veteran and Olympic rowing champion, Kelly lost the election by some 45,000 votes, vastly less than the usual losing margin for Democrats of 300,000.  (Four years earlier the Democratic mayoral candidate in Philadelphia had received only 10% of the total vote.)

The Kellys, incidentally, resided in a handsome colonial house built by Handsome Jack in 1929, the same year his daughter Grace was born, located about a mile from the colonial house where the Proppers lived in Roxborough.  It was recently purchased by Princess Grace's son, Prince Albert II, with the plan of turning it into a house museum. (The Propper home is now a children's daycare center.)

To me this historical background detail adds a lot of resonance to Milton Propper's mystery.  Like his model Crofts, Propper may not have been strong on characters, but he was always pleasingly precise with his Philadelphia settings. 

When Detective Tommy Rankin of the Philadelphia police force is sent to help monitor voting at the 52nd Ward station in South Philly (trouble is expected from gangs of toughs at the polls), this is how Propper describes the scene:

Like many houses in that vicinity, [the voting station] was untenanted and dilapidated, in temporary use only, for the elections.  On the corner, it fronted Mifflin Street, with a weathered porch of sagging boards, unpainted for years.  It was two stories high, of faded red brick; the windows were dirty and many panes were missing.  A thin line of patiently good-natured people trickled into its murky interior.  Outside, the walls and convenient posts held their usual placards, pictures of respective candidates, instructions for balloting, and assessors' lists.  Little groups gathered on the pavement: neighbors passing the time of day; loungers inevitable attracted to the polls; and politicians, embryo or otherwise, pressing their special interests on bewildered voters.  

Shortly the Popular DA candidate is shot through a window as he votes, however, and all hell breaks loose!  Is Detective Rankin up to solving this seeming political hit job?

South Philly rowhouses

Is this as good a mystery as Propper's One Murdered, Two Dead, which I reviewed here four years ago?  I think not, as I was able to put my finger on the culprit as soon as s/he appeared, on what you might call general mystery principles.

scene of the crime
the similarity to the rowhouses pictured above is evident
However,  I still found The Election Booth Murder an enjoyable example of the formal investigative detective novel, written along severely Croftsian lines. 

To be sure, Robert Van Gelder complained in the New York Times that in the novel Milton Propper had placed too much emphasis on "reportorial exactness," but then this is a proto-police procedural sort of detective novel; and you will either like that or you won't.

For me The Election Booth Murder made for a pleasant brief diversion and provided an interesting faded snapshot of a place in time.  Sure, I could have done without the heavy dialect speech which Propper, following Crofts, felt compelled to convey; but then I feel the same way about Dorothy L. Sayers' scrupulously but rather tediously rendered Scottish accents in The Five Red Herrings. To which I can but say och!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sex and Politics in the Golden Age Detective Novel: A Propper View

My only comment is that you omitted a reference to my opinion that Milton was not hopelessly conservative.  My immediate family, like the rest of our neighborhood and friends, were rock-ribbed Republicans, and Milton scandalized all by becoming an ardent Roosevelt supporter.  He had a very great influence on me in those early, happier days, and my thinking by the time I went to college was slightly to the left of his.

--letter to The Armchair Detective (October 1977)

I. Death of a Mystery Writer

On March 4, 1962, the dead body of a 55 year old man was discovered slumped in his automobile outside his residence at 1841 Tioga Street in the Nicetown-Tioga section of northern Philadelphia.  An autopsy revealed that the man had died from an overdose of sleeping pills.  This was the sort of death scenario that has been known to appear in the stories of mystery writers (though of course in those cases the man actually would have been murdered); and, in fact, as brief national newspaper obituaries of the dead man at the time noted, the deceased, Milton Morris Propper (1906-1962), had indeed been, in the years from 1929 to 1943, a mystery writer. 

In the 1950s Milton Propper had ended up living in a one-room apartment in Nicetown, a lower-income, formerly Irish and German neighborhood which was then undergoing an influx of African-American and Puerto Rican immigration. After the Second World War, Propper, perhaps exhibiting mental dissociation that would worsen over the rest of his life, had imprudently left his job with the Federal Social Security Administration, futilely determined to revive his failing mystery writing career; and later he found that he was unable to get his government post back after he was arrested for committing a "homosexual offense."  The Fifties was not a good time for a government bureaucrat to have known "queer" tendencies.

No Hope?
the site of Milton Propper's last residence in Nicetown-Tioga
is now an empty lot located across from Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church

Milton Propper's parents had been well-off Philadelphians, the children of immigrant Jews from the former Austro-Hungarian empire who achieved great success in the City of Brotherly Love.  His father, Sigmund Jacob Propper, had been a partner, along with  his uncles Moritz and Samuel, in Propper Brothers Furniture Store, overlooking the Schuylkill River in Manayunk, a beloved local institution that closed a few years ago but lives on today as Propper View Apartments.  In 1944 Milton's parents passed away within a few months of each other, however, leaving him a small inheritance which was soon mostly spent; and as his personal problems accumulated he became alienated from his married sister in New Jersey, with whom he had once been very close.

Today the apartment building where Milton Propper last lived is gone.  In its place there is simply a grassy empty lot, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, which seems symbolically if sadly fitting.  Just across the street ironically stands the Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church (known at the time of Milton Propper's lonely, hopeless death in his car as Our Lady of the Holy Souls), a grey Romanesque structure that had been erected four decades earlier, in 1922.  (See Philadelphia Church Project.)

How different from the site of Milton Propper's end was the charming grey fieldstone colonial-style house where between 1906 and much of the 1930s he had grown up and lived with his father, mother and sister, Madelyn (there was also a slightly older brother, Walter), which was located at 546 Walnut Lane in the Roxborough neighborhood of northwestern Philadelphia, just a mile away from Propper Brothers.  Milton's uncle Julius, a prominent doctor and the father of a future municipal judge, lived a few doors down with his wife and two sons, Milton's cousins Leonard (the future judge) and Mortimer.

Milton Propper was educated at Nazareth Hall, a boarding school originally founded by Moravians in the 18th century, and the University of Pennsylvania.  A precocious young lad, Milton wrote book and theater reviews for the Philadelphia Public Ledger while still a student at Penn, from where he graduated at the age of 19 in 1926.  He went on to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, serving as an Associate Editor of the Law Review and receiving his law degree in 1929, the same year mystery writer John Dickson Carr, a fellow Pennsylvanian who was about three months younger than Propper, graduate from Haverford College, located about eight miles to the northwest of Penn. 

Milton qualified for the bar the same year, but he never actually practiced law, having that same year published his first detective novel, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young, to wide acclaim.  He preceded his contemporary Carr into print with a mystery by a year.

With a sale of film rights in the offing (though the film never actually materialized), Milton Propper seemed convinced that great success as an author of detective fiction lay ahead of him.  This was, it must be recalled 1929, a year when S. S. Van Dine had successively placed three mysteries on the American bestseller lists, his new one, The Bishop Murder Case, being the most talked about of them all.  (All were made into films as well.) 

In the event Milton Propper did publish fourteen detective novels between 1929 and 1943, an average of one a year, but that was not nearly enough for him to make a lucrative career as a mystery writer.  At this time, before the launching of the paperback revolution, American mystery writers did well to sell 3000 hardcover copies of any given title, mostly to rental libraries.  For about a decade Milton derived his main income not from writing but from working for the federal government in Atlanta.  When he returned to Philadelphia after the death of his parents, the initial brightly glowing promise of his mystery writing career had guttered.

the Propper family home Roxborough

II. The World of Milton Propper

Much of the above detail is drawn from "The World of Milton Propper," a 41-year-old article which Francis Nevins published in the July 1977 edition of The Armchair Detective, which in turn drew on communications between Nevins and the late author's sister.  The article has always been an odd piece to my mind, in the way it goes from less than half praising Milton Propper to more than half damning him, both as a writer and a person.

The article is composed of a little biography and a lot of plot analysis of Milton Propper's mysteries (the latter always Nevins' strength as a genre scholar), plus copious highly moralistic obiter dicta on the proper (if you will) views that one should hold of politics and society.  Of Milton Propper as a detective novelist Nevins derided him for dull writing and characters crafted of "something less than one dimension," while seemingly paradoxically allowing that "the man knew his craft well" and that his books "hold something of the intellectual excitement of the early Ellery Queen novels.

Nevins observed that in his detective novels Milton Propper

Propper's well-received first detective novel
published the same year as Ellery Queen's
The Roman Hat Mystery and S. S. Van Dine's
The Bishop Murder Case and a year before
John Dickson Carr's It Walks by Night
likes to begin with the discovery of a body under bizarre circumstances, to scatter suspicion among several characters each of whom has a great deal to hide, to juggle clues and counterplots with dazzling dexterity.  As a special attraction, Propper arranges his stories so that as often as possible he can introduce either some form of mass transportation, or some complex problem of succession to a large estate, and occasionally both in the same book.  His delight in these subjects somehow penetrates even through his flat and stately style.

Milton Propper, in other words, was a Golden Age "Humdrum" detective novelist, this term being coined by noted Silver Age mystery writer and critic Julian Symons to describe detection-focused Golden Age mystery writers who, in his view, fatally neglected the literary graces. 

I discuss three of the most successful British Humdrums, John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington, in my 2012 book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  But there were numerous other Humdrums, many of them now forgotten by time.  While Milton Propper is not exactly forgotten, due primarily to Nevins' article, he nevertheless still remains rather obscure.

By his own admission Milton Propper was a great admirer of Twenties British detective fiction, and he  himself specifically referenced, in this regard, Freeman Wills Crofts.  As I have discussed in an earlier blog piece, Milton Propper's detective fiction is obviously modeled heavily on Crofts, though I would say, based on my readings, that Crofts was the cleverer plotter of the two men.  As in most cases, I suspect, the original is best. 

Still, for fans of the workmanlike Golden Age detective novel, which puts a premium on the methodical investigation of the problem, Milton Propper still holds appeal--though Nevins' Ellery Queen comparison is ill-advised, I think, Propper lacking Fredric Dannay's higher flights of detection fancy.  Even John Street is more imaginative than Milton Propper, with superbly baroque and bizarre--but to be sure scientifically accurate!--murder methods.

I and others have written about Milton Propper's mysteries on the net, but my effort to get him reprinted has not been successful, my attempts to reach out to his family having been, to my great regret, uniformly rebuffed. 

Did Milton Propper's relations feel burned by the Nevins article?  If they did, I don't think it was so much because of Nevins' handling of his subject's sexual life (although this is bad enough, it seems to me, as Nevins frames the life of Milton Propper--"a poor, drab, haunted soul" to quote Nevins--as that of the stereotypical tragic homosexual with a mother fixation, just as he does, at much greater length, with Cornell Woolrich in his Edgar-winning biography of the master of noir).  Rather, I imagine, it would have been because of the way Nevins handles Milton Propper's politics.

Rather in the manner of someone using a sledgehammer to smash a mosquito, Nevins in his article repeatedly stomps on Milton Propper for what he perceives as the author's retrograde social and political views, based on his own reading of his books.  A few scathing excerpts from the Nevins article:

He...flaunts like a medal of honor his belief that the rich and powerful can do no wrong, casually justifies all sorts of criminal conduct when perpetrated by the police....

Whenever a suspicion against someone crystallizes in [the mind of Propper's sleuth, police detective Tommy Rankin], he himself or a subordinate proceeds to burglarize the person's house for confirmatory evidence....Even when Rankin has no specific suspicions he still indulges in illegal searches....I leave it to historians to determine how many of the Watergate gang read these novels in their formative years.

This was the man who celebrated the perquisites of being born with money and justified the illegal acts of anyone with a badge on his chest.

After referring to what he terms the author's "contempt for everyone who lacks money or power saturating every page" of his mystery The Election Booth Murder, Nevins allowed that Milton's sister Madelyn asserted "that Propper's social views were much more enlightened than his novels suggest--which shows once again how damnably difficult it was for an author to express any but the most reactionary sentiments in the classic detective novel."  But then Nevins repeatedly damns Milton Propper anyway for allegedly holding reactionary views.

At the opening of his article Nevins thanked Madelyn for her "generous cooperation" which made it possible to attempt a sketch of the author's life.  But the sister Nevins thanked wrote a letter-- printed (at least partially) in the next issue of The Armchair Detective, with no response from Nevins--complaining that Nevins had gotten Milton's politics all wrong.  I quoted this missive above, but will quote it again:

the article in question
My only comment is that you omitted a reference to my opinion that Milton was not hopelessly conservative.  My immediate family, like the rest of out neighborhood and friends, were rock-ribbed Republicans, and Milton scandalized all by becoming an ardent Roosevelt supporter.  He had a very great influence on me in those early, happier days, and my thinking by the time I went to college was slightly to the left of his.

What Nevins seemed not to have appreciated is how the things which bothered him so much about Milton Propper's writing all characterize the writing of Freeman Wills Crofts, especially in the 1920s, with the notable exception of Freeman Crofts' occasional outbursts of antisemitism. 

In Masters I wrote at length, rather less thunderously than Nevins I hope, of Crofts detectives' improper behavior--their illegal searches, their outright  lies to suspects (or "bluffs" as Crofts calls them) and abuse of witnesses--of Crofts' patronizing treatment of the working class and his terrible penchant for heavily rendered dialect speech.  In all these perceived failings, to the extent that he exhibits them, I think Milton Propper was merely imitating Freeman Crofts (though of course neither Crofts nor Propper was alone, for that matter, in this regard.) 

Certainly we can fault Milton Propper for too slavish devotion to his literary master, yes, but to attribute all these retrograde views (some perhaps not so retrograde as we like to think) to Milton himself seems unfair to me--especially given Madelyn's claim about her author brother's politics, which seems to have been true.  I will explore all this more in my upcoming review of Milton Propper's seventh detective novel, The Election Booth Murder (1935).

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

My 13 Favorite Country House Horror Haunts in Film, from the Thirties to the Sixties, Part 1

The Golden Age detective story is said to have represented an attempt to impose humane reasoned order on an increasingly irrational and cruel world.  (As bad as things seem to some of us today, try imagining what it must have seemed like between the First and Second World Wars to people in the ostensibly "civilized nations," with the rise around the globe of totalitarian regimes in Germany, the USSR and Japan which committed mass murder with modern efficiency.)  Be that as it may, the Golden Age horror story fearsomely envisions the forces of irrationality freed of restraint and let loose, like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, upon the suffering world. 

Both fiction forms flourished between the wars, and today the two genres often, though not always, appeal to the same people.  Certainly they both appeal to me.  One of the things I wanted to do for Halloween in 2018, with this look at classic films, was to look not at country house mysteries, per se, but at country house horror, often adapted from literary sources.  So, here we go, in chronological order, my favorite vintage country house horror films, from the Thirties to the Sixties. Order may be restored by the end of many of these films, but there certainly is serious travail along the way.

Source: Benighted (1927), by J. B. Priestley

Won't you come in?
Boris Karloff as Morgan, the butler from hell

The film that gave its name to a whole subgenre of horror films, The Old Dark House is my favorite of the path breaking Universal horror films of the Thirties.  Directed by the brilliant and eccentric Englishman James Whale, the film may not rise to quite the heights of Whale's Frankenstein (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but it's just so much darn wicked fun. 

Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart)
gets a helping hand
Based on British novelist JB Priestley's novel of post-First World War disillusionment, Benighted, and co-scripted by R. C. Sherriff, Great War veteran and author of the tragic and often filmed war play Journey's End, The Old Dark House certainly makes some serious points, like the novel, and has plenteous scares, like Frankenstein.

Yet it's also a darkly funny film, mainly due to the presence of world treasure Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore, mother of Laurence Olivier's first wife, as those highly eccentric and beyond belief bizarre siblings, Horace and Rebecca Femm.

At their crumbling and drafty old stone house in the rocky Welsh countryside, the Femms are forced to play reluctant hosts, on a dark and stormy might (naturally), to stranded travelers Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his beautiful blonde wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their constantly quipping war veteran friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas).  Soon joining the company are a wealthy north country businessman with a chip on his shoulder, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his chorus girl chippy, seemingly, Miss Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). 

the knives are out at the Femms
Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas)
Four Oscar nominees (Gloria Stuart making the roster late in life for her role in Titanic), two of them Oscar winners.  Gorgeous blonde Gloria Stuart in her famous white dress is a sight to behold and a black and white cinematographer's dream, but it's cheeky brunette Lilian Bond, of the two pretty ladies, who touches the heart.  Raymond Massey is a bit stiff (surprise!) but has presence, while Laughton and Douglas are both terrific.

Was this the best assembled for a Thirties horror film, I would think so.  I haven't even mentioned the fearsome drunken, lustful, scarred mute butler Morgan, played so memorably by Boris Karloff.  And, aside from Morgan, there are manifold unmentioned and indeed unmentionable horrors in the old dark house as well, some of which by comparison make Morgan seem almost angelic.  It's like a carnival thrill ride--of terror.

An extraordinary film, in my view, with amazing cinematography and editing and set design.  Don't fault the film for the countless bad imitations over the years, including the 1963 alleged "remake" by horror showman William Castle. However, if you like humor and horror, try Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost (1944).

2. REBECCA (1940)
Source: Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine)
Anderson is scarier than Karloff.  Just ask the second Mrs. de Winter.

British novelist Daphne du Maurier's modern Gothic novel was a massive bestseller in the US and it's no surprise that it was quickly adapted into a prestige Hollywood film, by American producer-impresario extraordinaire David O. Selznick and recent English import Alfred Hitchcock no less (and co-scripted by another British emigre, mystery writer Philip Macdonald).  The film won best picture at the Academy Awards and received numerous other nominations, including Actor (Laurence Olivier), Actress (Joan Fontaine) and Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), though its only other Oscar win was for the splendid cinematography.  (How did Judith Anderson not win, ugh.)

A horror film, you say?  Yes it is.  When the second Mrs. de Winter (Fontaine), a painfully shy, young former lady's companion, arrives at Manderley, a massive Cornwall country mansion, as the new wife of handsome and brusquely charming aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Olivier), she finds that Maxim's ancestral pile is haunted (okay figuratively) by Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, and guarded by a pale gaunt Gorgon dressed in black, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessively and indeed rather scarily loyal to the memory of her former mistress--the bright, beautiful, well-born and now very dead (at least physically) Rebecca.

Dramatic Revelations: Mr. and Mrs. de Winter
(Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine)

In the second half of the film, after an impressive lengthy near soliloquy from Olivier, who was already an old hand at such things, the story takes an unexpected turn and we enter the world of the Golden Age detective novel, with investigations and inquests.  (That wonderful rogue George Sanders, playing Jack Favell, the cad to end all cads--and who better to do so--pops up too around this time.) 

But there are some memorably eerie moments up till then, mostly involving the seriously creepy Mrs. Danvers and magnificent Manderley itself, the superbly designed, seemingly impossibly sprawling de Winter mansion.  And the ending is unforgettable.  For once Alfred Hitchcock, under pressure from the interfering Selznick, was mostly loyal to his source material (though censors did force a significant change) and thank goodness.  This won't be the last we see on the list of Alfred Hitchcock, however.

Source: Uneasy Freehold (1941), by Dorothy Macardle

a spirited discussion
Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey
One of the great genuine ghost stories, based on another very popular novel by an Irish novelist, The Uninvited is a  superbly atmospheric spook film, long on charm as well as frights, that was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography; and it certainly deserved that nomination.  (Why, though, wasn't the score nominated?)  It's a beautifully and eerily filmed ghost tale, with an intriguing and mysterious story as well, one which involves genuine investigation and detection by our heroes, the posh and witty sibling duo Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey). 

In a scenario familiar in both classic detective and supernatural fiction, Rick and Pamela purchase a gorgeous, unoccupied--by humans anyway--cliffside home in Cornwall, for a positive steal of a price--or so they think!  They then befriend a pretty young woman in the nearby town (luminous Gail Russell), whose grandfather owned the house.

Russell's character becomes the love interest of Milland, who was then pushing forty, though she's not even out of her teens,  Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ruth Hussey is stuck with a kindly but dull local doctor who is played by Alan Napier, doomed forever to be known to the world as Alfred the butler from the Batman television series (hope he got residuals), who always manged to look about twenty years older than he actually was.  Here he's actually only forty, but, yup, he could pass for sixty.  Heck, he wasn't much older than Ray Milland,  Maybe they should have paired him with Gail Russell--just kidding!

Anyway, the brother and sister to their discomfort begin to learn, from their sweet, ingenuous neighbor and the kindly doctor, a great deal about the house's very strange--and rather frightening--history.  In addition to the actors above, all of whom give fine performances, there is a memorable Cornelia Otis Skinner in a decidedly Mrs. Danvers-ish role, who holds in her highly capable hands many of the keys to the mystery.

4. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
Source: mostly original, I believe, though one story in the film is based on an EF Benson horror story

ventriloquist and friend
Michael Redgrave and Hugo

A hugely influential anthology of tales with a shocking wraparound story (see all those Amicus horror anthologies from the early 1970s), this British film is best known for its disquieting final installment, about a nervous ventriloquist (a superb Michael Redgrave) and his increasingly obnoxious and assertive dummy.  It is creepy as hell (even if the scenario is cliched now), but the film's frame story is decidedly scary too. 

After having a terrible nightmare, an architect (Mervyn Johns) decides to spend the weekend working on renovations he is supervising at a country house.  Once he is sitting down with his client and the client's assembled guests and they share eerie stories (like the dummy story above), he begins to get the uncanny feeling that he is living out the exact events that take place in his nightmare....

This is one that really gets its cold clutching fingers around your throat....

Source: Some Must Watch (1933), by Ethel Lina White

some must watch

Probably the best film that people think was directed by Alfred Hitchcock but which wasn't directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  In fact it was directed by Robert Siodmak, no slouch himself when it comes to the horror/mystery/suspense genres.  He directed the odd noirish horror film Son of Dracula (1943, set back by the incongruous casting as Dracula of Lon Chaney, Jr.), Phantom Lady (1944), The Suspect (1944), Christmas Holiday (1944), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1946), Criss Cross (1949) and, a sort of noir coda, The File on Thelma Jordan (1952). An impressive roster indeed!

With my partiality toward proper British horror (you'll notice that all of the films which I have chosen have British settings so far), The Spiral Staircase may be my favorite Robert Siodmak nail-biter, though all of the films above that I have seen have superb shudder sequences.  Based on (and intelligently altering) British mystery writer Ethel Lina White's ahead-of-its-time crime novel, the adaptation was scripted by Mel Dinelli, who started off writing plays for the classic American radio series Suspense and later did fine film adaptations of Cornell Woolrich (The Window, 1949) and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (The Reckless Moment, 1949, aka The Blank Wall).

woman with flickering candle dares
the depths of the spiral staircase
an iconic mystery/horror image
(with Dorothy McGuire)
In The Spiral Staircase action is transferred to the United States, to a country house outside a village in Vermont, and moved back in time to the early 1900s, when silent films were coming into vogue but carriages still remained horseless.  It still has a very British feel, however. 

Though the setting is archaic, the film feels path-breaking, for it's essentially a stately precursor of the modern-day slasher film (aka Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc.)  It seems there's a mad serial killer (and very early in the film we at times see things from this person's point-of-view) running loose in and around the town, slaying women with physical disabilities. This is bad news for shy, pretty Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who works as a domestic servant/companion to the bedridden but still decidedly peppery Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), widow of an outsize big game hunter.  (Her bedroom is decorated with elephant tusks and a lion skin rug.) 

Sweet young Helen, you see, is mute, though her condition, we learn, is actually more psychological than physical.  (Dorothy McGuire, a natural for such roles, gives a very good performance.)

Also living at the house are: Mrs. Warren's callow and quippy blond playboy son (back from Paris), Stephen (Gordon Oliver); her stolid dark-haired professor stepson, Albert (George Brent); the professor's pretty live-in secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming, still with us, bless her); put-upon Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood); and Mr. and Mrs Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester), the domicile's cook and handyman.  And then there's the mild village constable (James Bell) and Dr. Parry, the kindly, handsome physician who seems to have his eye on Helen while he attends Mrs. Warren. 

With all these people around, Helen can't be in any danger, can she?  Think again!

some must cease
Ethel Barrymore received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for this film, and like McGuire she's very good, though all of the above players range from competent to terrific. 

Elsa Lanchester, though comparatively underused in the film, is such a treat, and George Brent, who usually seems quite forgettable in his films (at least when he's beside Bette Davis), is actually memorable here.

Good as well is the ever-reliable mild "nice guy" B-film leading man, Kent Smith, most known to people today as the object of twisted affection in Val Lewton's and Jacques Tourneur's superb shocker Cat People (1942).  He also has a good part in Joan Crawford's underrated noir The Damned Don't Cry, 1950, and his first film appearance was in the SS Van Dine mystery The Garden Murder Case in 1934.) 

Blink and you'll miss Hitchcock favorite Ellen Corby, who would secure a supporting actress Oscar nomination in 1949 and achieve fame in the 1970s as Grandma Walton in The Waltons television series, and the killer's unblinking eye is played by...well, ask me in the comments if you don't know!

Perhaps there is too much "love interest" for some in this short film, but the last 20 minutes or so is superbly scary and overall it's a very smart script in my view.  Making the heroine mute (she emphatically is not in the book) was a stroke of genius, I think.

6. DRAGONWYCK (1946)
Source Dragonwyck (1944), by Anya Seton

life at Dragonwyck offers many surprises--many of them unpleasant
(Vincent Price and Gene Tierney)

This film seems not as well known as it should be today, I'm not sure why.  It's a terrific period Gothic film, sumptuously set and shot and with a powerful performance by the leading man, Vincent Price.  There's mystery, murder, madness and ghosts--and did I mention Vincent Price?

For me, growing up as a kid in the 1970s who loved vintage horror films, of course I was well-familiar with Vincent Price.  But at that time he was a genial, campy elderly veteran of television.  Oh look, there's Vincent Price guest starring with Don Ho on that Brady Bunch two-parter (or was it a three-parter?) in Hawaii!  (Don't wipe out, Greg!)  Hey, there he is on The Donny and Marie Show!  I'm surprised Price wasn't in the Star Wars Christmas Special.  (Wait, was he?)  Well, at least he got to do that spooky rap on Michael Jackson's hit song and video Thriller, that is pretty damn cool.  I remember him talking about it on The Tonight Show when Joan Rivers was subbing for Johnny Carson.

Not being a great fan of all those William Castle and Roger Corman drive-in shockers which titillated kids in the Fifties and Sixties, for which Price became best known, I never really saw anything he was in that seemed actually scary to me until I saw those two Dr. Phibes films from the 1970s, which were full of the colorful mod style of The Avengers television series, episodes of which director Robert Fuest also directed.  (I forgive him for giving us The Devil's Rain and Ernest Borgnine as Satan.)  Vincent Price was larger than life, and these cheeky but stylishly gory films work, for me anyway.

You have to go earlier in Price's career for the fine "serious" film performances (well, there was that very late turn in the tad slumberous The Whales of August, with Bette Davis and Lilian Gish).  He's good in the classic mystery Laura (1944) and the melodrama Leave Her to Heaven (1945), but those are actress Gene Tierney's films, not his.  However, Dragonwyck, another Forties film which he did with Gene Tierney, sees Vince stealing scene after scene from his gorgeous gal co-star.

tyrannical yet tormented
When Dragonwyck starts, it is 1844.  Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney)--a simple young God-fearing Connecticut farm girl--  after persuasion of her puritanical father is taken to live with her fabulously wealthy distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, who resides in splendor with his wife, Johana (Vivienne Osborne), at their opulent New York Hudson River estate, Dragonwyck.  The Van Ryns want Miranda to look after the couple's young daughter, Katrine. 

At first Miranda is awed and thrilled with her new surroundings, but she starts to finds things at Dragonwyck decidedly...strange. Nicholas and Joahana's relationship doesn't seem quite...right.  And what is it about all the white oleander in the house? And just who is playing that haunting harpsichord tune in the dead of night?

Oh and there's some political stuff about the Van Ryn estate tenants and their dissatisfaction with their rents (Harry Morgan, later of M*A*S*H, pops up here) and there's that kindly young democratic doctor neighbor, Jeff Turner, played, woodenly, by Glenn Langan (Kent Smith where were you?).  Just how many kindly doctors were in these films, anyway?  But let's get back to Vincent Price.

As a leading man Price was banished to horror films, the point of no return being that string of popular sci-fi and mystery horror flicks he made in the late Fifties (The Fly/The Return of the Fly/The House on Haunted Hill/The Tingler/The Bat).  Hollywood just didn't know what to do with him as a "straight" leading man, seemingly, though Dragonwyck showed the way, had it but been heeded.  (Glenn Langan's dull Dr. Turner can't be taken seriously as a leading man.) 

Price makes a magnificent Byronic hero/anti-hero type, proud and regal, autocratic and aristocratic, defiant yet tormented. Price and his second wife were, incidentally, great friends indeed of Hugh Wheeler, who, as readers of this blog will certainly know, was one-half of the Patrick Quentin mystery writing team.  What a shame Price was never cast in a Patrick Quentin film!

Mary Grant Price, Hugh Wheeler and Vincent Price in Tijuana, Mexico in 1950
four years after Dragonwyck

Dragonwyck was the first film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who was soon to win back-to-back directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).  His last directing Oscar nomination was for the classic mystery film Sleuth (1972, with Laurence Olivier again and Michael Caine.

Well, that's all for now.  Come back to visit the rest of the haunts I've chosen for you--if you dare!!  Be warned, it's a dark and stormy night....

Sunday, October 21, 2018

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Felicity Worthington Shaw, aka Anne Morice (1916-1989), and Her Life in Crime Fiction

Between 1970 and 1990, Anne Morice published 25 detective novels (the last of them posthumously).  All but two of them were part of the Tessa Crichton series, Tessa Crichton being a professional actress and lighthearted though pertinacious amateur sleuth.  After 1973 all of the Anne Morice mysteries were published in both the UK and the US, and in the latter country a few titles were reprinted in pb in the Eighties by Bantam, as part of their "Murder Most British" series, which included such stalwarts from both past and then-present as Agatha Christie (at the time Bantam controlled the American copyrights to nine Christie titles), Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy Simpson, Catherine Aird and Elizabeth Daly

Not bad company I would say!  Morice earlier had joined additional distinguished company when she became a member of the Detection Club in 1976, the same year as Margaret Yorke and a year before Ruth Rendell, not to mention two years before Reginald Hill

Despite this onetime seeming popularity, however, Anne Morice's novels are out-of-print today and there are very few posts about her writing on the internet, with practically nothing on her life.  (Even her given birth year, 1918, is mistaken.)  This is surprising not merely because at one time in the recent past she was a fairly popular author, apparently, but because her family background was rather interesting indeed.

The author was born Felicity Anne Worthington Shaw in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, on February 18, 1916 (not in 1918, as book sites commonly state).  Her parents were Harry Edward Worthington (1867-1936), a "respected and loved" village doctor, and his rather younger wife Muriel Rose Morice (1881-1956).  Besides Felicity, the couple had three other daughters: Elizabeth (born 1907), Angela Muriel Darita (born 1912-1999) and Yvonne (born 1918).

All seemingly a pretty unexceptional provenance for an English mystery writer--yet in fact Felicity's complicated ancestry was like something out of a classic English mystery, with several cases of children born on the wrong side of the blanket to prominent sires and their humbly born paramours.

Her father Harry Worthington was the son of George Fitch Jennings Worthington, an apothecary and boardinghouse keeper, who in 1868 authored the earnest guide Bathing: Its Uses and Advantages, Shewing When and How to Bathe.  However, his wife Muriel Rose had a much more vivid story. 

Muriel Rose Morice was the natural daughter of Charles John Morice, a Harrow graduate and footballer who played in the 1872 Scotland/England match.  He later became a stockbroker, like his father Charles Walter Morice, his brothers and his nephew Percy John de Paravicini, son of Baron James Prior de Paravacini and Charles Morice's only surviving sister, Valentina Antoinette Sampayo Morice.  Baron de Paravicini and his family resided as Riverside House in Datchet, Berkshire.  (Actress Billie Whitelaw owned the house on the Sixties.)

Riverside House, Datchet, Berkshire, home of Anne Morice's great-aunt
Baroness Valentina Antoinette Sampayo Morice de Paravicini.  Whew!

Charles Morice's grandfather, John Morice, was a Scottish merchant who settled for a time in Lisbon, Portugal, where he married Charles' and Valentina's mother, Marie Valentine O'Neill.  I'm guessing that through marriage there was a good deal of Catholic blood in this family.

Footballer Charles Morice played the fields of romance as well.  Two years before the 1872 Scotland/England football match, he fathered with Clementina Frances Turvey, daughter of  coachman George Turvey, a son, Charles Ernest Turvey. It was not until three decades later, apparently, that the couple finally would marry (in Ireland), after Clementina had borne another son with Charles, in 1893, whom the couple named William Charles Morice.

In between these two births, another child was born to Charles Morice, the aforementioned Muriel Rose Morice, mother of Felicity.  Like her half-brothers, Muriel Rose was of natural birth, being the daughter of Rebecca Garnett Gould, a dressmaker who was the daughter of Yorkshire tailor Joseph Garnett and the widow of schoolmaster George Richard Cambermere Gould.  Rebecca passed away just four years after Muriel Rose's birth, leaving Muriel to be raised by her half-sister Katherine "Kitty" Gould Richardson, who recently had wed a commercial traveler. (Many years later, in 1914, two years after the death of her first husband, Kitty would make a prestigious second marriage, wedding Alfred Douglas-Hamilton, a connection of the Dukes of Hamilton.)

Frederick Lonsdale
National Portrait Gallery, London
Muriel Rose lived with her half-sister Kitty in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, where she met local doctor Harry Worthington when Harry was treating her for measles.  The couple wed in 1904, when she was 22 and he was 36.  (Not content with the actual substantial age difference, Muriel Rose later falsely told people, including her daughters, that she was 30 years younger than Harry.)  Together Harry and Muriel Rose had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1907, but Muriel Rose's later three daughters--Angela, Felicity and Yvonne--were fathered by another man, a fact later related by Angela in a tell-all book (more on this book below).

All through the 1910s Muriel Rose, the "pretty little wife" of Birchington's beloved village doctor, carried on with other men, the most steady lover of whom was the married London playwright Frederick Leonard Lonsdale (1881-1954), author of On Approval, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and other popular stage works, many of which were later adapted as films.  Supposedly Fredrick originally had attempted a seduction of Muriel Rose's beautiful elder half-sister, Kitty, only to have her advise him to "Go and amuse the little sister."  He promptly did so--and how!

With his increasing stage success in the Twenties, Frederick's interest in Muriel Rose evaporated, however.  He arranged for his secretary to send his cast off lover 100 pounds annually for each of his illegitimate daughters, provided the two never met again.  Angela Worthington vividly and somewhat bitterly recalled the result:

His offer was accepted.  From that moment forth my mother canceled out love from her life.  She taught us that men have no feelings whatever and that they never, never, never speak the truth about anything (unless they are good and unattractive like Harry, and that does not count).  The man she had loved had proved a bastard, and didn't give a damn about the Love Children.  He didn't either.  I have never had a kiss from a mother or father. 

As this suggests, the Worthington girls lived rather strange lives.  The three younger daughters had not much to do with their elder half-sister Elizabeth, who had been sent to a "rotten boarding school which she loathed."  They were permitted to leave their nursery only by permission of their Nanny, Angela recalled: "Mummy was not going to have small children 'rampaging around the house.'  Even then I knew this was because she 'entertained' in her pretty bedroom on the floor below.

Later in life their wayward mother explained to them that "Poor Harry's impotent, you know....He can't do it--Thank God!"  Inconveniently for Muriel Rose, daughter Angela explained, she "needed men physically," though "for a woman of her class, that was something to be deeply ashamed of.  And affairs could be very messy, especially in a small, tight community like Birchington."

Muriel Rose seems to have been a woman of golden flights and fancies, who couldn't be satisfied merely with her life with an impotent, unattractive (though happily well-off) husband whom she didn't love.  She wanted something more dazzling out of life.  At some point she had adopted a suggestive new name for herself, Lucy Glitters.  She told her girls that her father, Charles Morice, had christened her with this appellation on account of his having won a bet on a horse by that name on the day she was born. 

Jesus in the nursery
He is meek & he is mild
He became a little child
This all sounds highly romanticized (apparently the girls never knew their mother's name was really the prosaic Muriel Rose), but in fact there once indeed was a pedigree English racehorse named Lucy Glitters, who had been born four years before Muriel Rose.  Presumably the horse had been named for the character "Lucy Glitters" in R. S. Surtees' popular novel Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour (1853), wherein the title character weds Lucy Glitters, a former showgirl who is, in Surtees' memorable words, "tolerably virtuous."  Lucy Glitters does seem a better appellation for the well-admired wife of Dr. Worthington than Muriel Rose.

Yet all that glittered was not gold.  There were what Angela called her mother's "black rages" when her bright romantic fantasies were dashed.  Angela recalls a day when she

must have been making some tiresome noise in our nursery.  This more often than not exceedingly charming and amusing woman [Lucy Glitters] appeared at the door in her dressing gown, seized me violently and, pushing me ahead of her, hit me repeatedly on the head.  I fell down the stairs to the landing, finally hurting myself quite badly, on an oak chest on which she had carefully arranged her willow pattern china. 

Worse yet came when the girls' nanny was sacked. Nanny Bowler was a devout Chapel-going Wesleyan Methodist.  "God-fearing, goody-goody, wispy and delicate," recalled Angela, Nanny Bowler placed pictures in the nursery of Jesus Christi which depicted the Christian savior as a "droopy, rather colourless man, draped in a white sheet, clutching a lamb.  He had a sickly-sweet expression and a halo." 

Nanny adored Jesus and Dr. Worthington but held the doctor's wife in rather lower estimation.  Faithful to the doctor's dictates, Nanny took the girls swimming every summer.  (Dr. Worthington seems to have been influenced by his father's bathing pamphlet.) Although she thought salt water bathing "a lot of nonsense," Nanny, Angela in tow, would pack Felicity and Yvonne "into the pram along with buckets and spades, towels, bathing costumes, warm clothes to change into and Petit Beurre biscuits, and [with them] set out for Minnis Bay and the beach."

Nanny got the sack when Angela was around seven, after Nanny had a "blazing row" with Lucy Glitters below the staircase to the nursery over Lucy's "continuing infidelities."  It was not merely another day of "black rage," however, but

also a day of growing up, of being aware for the first time of other people's misery, and for the first time of feeling affection for Nanny, even gratitude, compassion, if you like.  I decided in a moment that I, too, would get out, but voluntarily, and as soon as I could.  I felt impotent fury toward my mother, and throughout my childhood, that never quite left me. 

It was at Quex Park, the "Big House" in Birchington-on-Sea, that Angela found out she was "illegitimate," when she overheard (and was meant to overhear, she thought) a conversation between the mistress of the house, Hannah Powell-Cotton, and her girls' nanny, in which the nanny exclaimed of Angela, "Well, of course she's difficult, isn't she, illegitimate and all that?  Mr. Lonsdale, her father, doesn't even work!  Poor Dr. Worthington is what we all say."

Major Powell-Cotton of Quex Park,
African explorer and big game hunter.
The Worthington girls pretended that
he was secret Service
Quex Park was owned by celebrated English explorer and hunter Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, creator of the Powell-Cotton Museum, located on the grounds of Quex Park.  Of the Major Angela recalled that he "had a beard and we hardly ever saw more of him than a glimpse, a detached smile: I would pretend to myself that he was Secret Service."  She remembered the Major's museum too, as well as an even more frightful exhibit, the Major's wife:

Major Powell-Cotton had an amazing museum full of wild animals he had shot and stuffed: elephants, lions, tigers, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes--nothing had been spared....The Major [also] had a huge, beautiful, patronizing wife called Hannah and I wished that he had shot and stuffed her too.

Ouch!  Considering that the Powell-Cotton daughters, Diana and Antoinette, contemporaries of Angela and Felicity,  were still alive at the time (1986), this was a pretty blunt comment.

Angela had a better opinion of neighbors Gladys Cooper, the noted stage (and later film) actress, and the influential actor-manger Gerald du Maurier, father of future bestselling author Daphne, who was a bit older than the Worthington daughters and proved a rather remote girl:

I remember Daphne du Maurier as a small girl as if she were in my garden now, with her wonderful blonde hair and straight, slim body.  She invariably dressed in an emerald green stockinet pullover and shorts but never played with the rest of us: always, when I recall her, she is lying face down in some long grass, reading, never talking, never joining in, always reading.  Her sisters, Angela an Jeanne, were fairly friendly to me.

du Maurier sisters (Daphne on left)
neighbors of the Worthington girls, three of whom, including
Felicity Worthington (future mystery write Anne Morice),
were actually daughters of playwright Frederick Lonsdale
In the 1920s, after  "poor Dr. Worthington" began exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and he had been packed off by his wife to a "tiny cottage on the Powell-Cotton estate," attended by a nurse, "a huge woman in a pleated white bonnet," Lucy Glitters, now in straitened financial circumstances (by her standards), moved with her daughters to a maisonette above a cake shop in London at 16a Lower Belgrave Street.*

*(This was located very close to the address of the notorious 1974 Lord Lucan murder.)

According to Angela, Lucy Glitters' move to Belgravia was a daring gamble "to help her daughters achieve what she believed to be their rightful position in life":

"In private she would still yell and scream and lambast us for being lazy, irresponsible and ill-mannered, but [in public] she exercised great charm" and she gave the girls a "really inspiring sense of the enjoyment of day-to-day living, no matter what the problems were."  Angela could well imagine people saying of her mother, "you could almost say the mother was a lady."

Angela went into acting for a profession, and her mother's theatrical ambition for her is said to have been, though in her memoir Angela doesn't discuss the matter, the inspiration for Noel Coward's amusingly biting 1935 song "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington":

The profession is overcrowded
And the struggle's pretty tough
And admitting the fact
She's burning to act
That isn't quite enough
She has nice hands
Give the wretched girl her due
But don't you think her bust is too
Developed for her age?
I repeat, Mrs. Worthington
Sweet Mrs. Worthington
Don't put your daughter on the stage

The greatest contribution to acting made by this "wretched girl" Angela came when she married Robin Fox and became the mother of actors Edward (1937) and James (1939) and film producer Robert (1952).  I remember Edward Fox quite well from 1970s films, having as a child been taken by my father to see the classic crime thriller The Day of the Jackal (at the age of seven!) and, five tears later, the sprawling war epic A Bridge too Far.  (In the latter film Fox and Anthony Hopkins made the greatest impression on me out of the huge all-star cast; having recently re-watched the film, I well see why--Fox deserved his BAFTA award for this role, even if it was essentially for one bravura scene.) 

In the 1980s I recall James Fox in the pivotal role of the school superintendent and decent Englishman Richard Fielding in David Lean's adaptation of EM Forster's A Passage to India.  Christie fans should also recall Edward Fox, superbly droll, as the butler Gudgeon in the 2004 adaptation of the Hercule Poirot mystery The Hollow.  And Colin Dexter fans that James Fox is the father of Laurence Fox, aka Sergeant Hathaway in the Lewis mystery series.  Interestingly Laurence Fox attended Harrow like his noted footballer and stockbroker great-great-grandfather, Charles Morice.

I had no idea, when I first read an Anne Morice mystery back in the 1990s, that the late Anne Morice, aka Felicity Worthington Shaw, was an aunt of the Fox brothers.  Angela Worthington Fox details much of this is her first volume of memoirs, Slightly Foxed (though a good bit of the above is not in the book).

a Fox as the Jackal
Although Felicity, in contrast with her sister, eschewed the acting profession, she married a director, Anthony Shaw, and like her sister had three children.  After writing a couple of mainstream novels, she successfully turned to mystery writing in 1970, when she was 54 years old.  It's not surprising given her family history that her lead character was an actress.  More soon on Felicity and some of her crime fiction!