Saturday, January 28, 2012

Had I But Known Authors #2: Margaret Armstrong, HIBK Patrician

Another of the lesser known HIBK (Had I But Known) authors praised by Howard Haycraft in his classic 1941 mystery genre survey, Murder for Pleasure, is Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944), a remarkable woman of many talents who happened to write three critically praised mystery novels near the end of her life (for Part One of this series see Anita Blackmon: HIBK Queen of Arkansas ).

Born into one of New York's most socially prominent families, Margaret Armstrong surely had one of the most privileged backgrounds of any mystery writer from the Golden Age, on either side of the Atlantic.

Armstrong's father was David Maitland Armstrong (1836-1918), an interesting combination of diplomat and stained glass artist.  Born at the family country home of Danskammer, an imposing Greek Revival mansion overlooking the Hudson River just north of Newburgh, New York, Maitland Armstrong, as he was known, was admitted to the bar after graduating from Trinity College; but rather than continuing with his practice he traveled to Italy in the 1860s to study painting.  During his time in Italy he served for four years as the United States Consul General to the newly unified Italian state.

David Maitland Armstrong, diplomat and artist

After returning to the United States with his family (he had married Helen Neilson, a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant and a niece of Hamilton Fish, United States Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant), Armstrong continued artistic work, most notably in the field of stained glass, where he was a preeminent figure, along with his daughter Helen Maitland Armstrong (1869-1948).

Margaret Armstrong's great uncle, Hamilton Fish
(named for Alexander Hamilton, a friend of his parents),
Governor of New York and U. S. Secretary of State

Maitland Armstrong maintained two homes, the one on the family country estate of Danskammer and a splendid New York City townhouse on 58 West Tenth Street.  Family friends included the great stained glass artist John La Farge, Winslow Homer, William Dean Howells and Mark Twain.

Danskammer, overlooking the Hudson River above Newburgh

the ionic columns salvaged from Danskammer,
now located at the Storm King Art Center, New York

the 58 West Tenth Street townhouse

Family friend Stanford White designed
the town house's skylight 

Like their father, Margaret and her sister Helen achieved great distinction in artistic endeavors, Helen as a stained glass artist like her father and Margaret as a book designer.  Margaret Armstrong has been called "the most productive and accomplished American book designer of the 1890s and early 1900s."  Additionally, their youngest brother, Hamilton (Ham) Fish Armstrong, was editor of Foreign Affairs from 1928 to 1972 and, as such, an influential voice in American foreign policy for over four decades.

front row, left to right:
Maitland Armstrong, Helen Armstrong, Ham Armstrong, Margaret Armstrong
a family canoe excursion in Canada:
Helen (?) first from left; Margaret second from left, Ham fifth from left

Another brother, Edward Maitland Armstrong, married into the King family of Newport, Rhode Island and with his wife and children resided at the renowned Newport "cottage" of Kingscote, picture below.

Some examples of Armstrong stained glass design are give below, the first pair by Helen Armstrong, the latter by her father (to whom Helen was principal assistant during his life).

And here are some of Margaret Armstrong's book designs, equally stunning.

note at top Margaret Armstrong's
"MA" signature

Margaret Armstrong produced much less book design work after 1910, when dust jackets became increasingly popular.  She spent several years in the American West, camping and hiking.  In 1915 she produced the fruit of these years, the standard botanical reference book, "Field Book of Western Wild Flowers."  Armstrong's experiences also resurfaced in her final murder tale, The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (1941), set in a fictionalized Taos, New Mexico.

In her seventies Margaret Armstrong's artistic career went into a sudden late bloom, as Armstrong published two bestselling biographies, Fanny Kemble: A Passionate Victorian (1938) and Trelawny: A Man's Life (1940) and three praised murder mysteries: Murder in Stained Glass (1939), The Man with No Face (1940) and The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (1941).  After this impressively fecund four years, Armstrong spent the remaining part of her life residing with sister Helen and brother Ham in the old family townhouse in New York City (the mansion at Danskammer had been torn down in 1935), dying in 1944 after a short illness at the age of 76.

What of these murder mysteries, you must be asking at this point!  Well, check back in with the passing tramp in a few days and find out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nancy Spain and the Game of Murder

Journalist, television and radio personality and “iconic lesbian” Nancy Spain (1917-1964) was a well-known individual in fifties and early sixties Britain. (conversely she was little known in the United States and remains so today.)

Although Spain had many accomplishments, one of her most significant undertakings was a series of ten mystery novels published between 1945 and 1955, a period when the classical British detective story was being increasingly marginalized by the crime novel, which placed less emphasis (sometimes no emphasis) on fair play puzzle construction.

While Nancy Spain’s mysteries maintain a formal commitment to the puzzle structure, nevertheless the author typified the period in which she wrote in placing far greater emphasis on other elements besides ratiocination, namely humor and character.

Spain was considered for membership in the Detection Club in the early 1950s but was turned down, on the ground that her mysteries offered much more in the way of belly laughs than brain burning (for more on Nancy Spain and the Detection Club see my CADS Supplement 14, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953).

Especially notable in Nancy Spain's books is the author's sly subversion of the sexual mores of the post-WW2/pre-sixties era, a time not remarkable for its embrace of alternative lifestyles (note, for example, the arrest and incarceration of the English writer Rupert Croft-Cooke--who wrote mysteries as Leo Bruce--for "homosexual offenses" in 1953-54; see my essay The Man Who Was Leo Bruce ).

As her 1997 biographer, Rose Collis, notes, Spain was a “trouser-wearing character” — a sort of “not in though not exactly explicitly out” lesbian who humorously winked at her straight audience (not all of whom got the joke) and inspired her gay and lesbian one. One sees this quality as well in her mysteries.

Nancy Spain’s best-known mystery is Poison for Teacher (Hutchinson, 1949), which was reprinted by Virago Press’ Lesbian Landmarks series in 1994. At the drolly named girls school Radcliff Hall (obviously a play on the name of author Radclyffe Hall, author of the milestone 1928 lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness), murder strikes a blackmailing, scheming teacher during the performance of a school play. Another murder of a teacher, this time a shooting, follows.

On hand, rather improbably, are Spain’s amateur (very amateur) detectives. The first of these is Natasha DuViven, former Russian ballet star and estranged wife of Johnny DuVivien, an Australian former wrestler and current English nightclub owner who was Spain’s amateur detective in her first four detective novels (Poison in Play, Death Before Wicket, Murder Bless It! and Death Goes on Skis).  The second is Miriam Birdseye, an actress Spain based on the real-life English actress Hermione Gingold (who, incidentally, was married at one time to Eric Maschwitz, who under the name Holt Marvell co-wrote crime novels with Val Gielgud, Sir John Gielgud’s brother).

Herminone Gingold (not Terence Stamp in drag),
model for Nancy Spain's humorous if improbable
actress turned detective, Miriam Bridseye

Natasha is, like her soon-to-be ex-husband Johnny, a well-conveyed character (Spain has a particularly good ear for native dialect).  Although indolent by nature, she does most of what actual detecting is done in the novel.

On the other hand, the irrepressible Miriam Birdseye (who debuted in Death Goes on Skis), though she has rather surprisingly set up a detective agency, making her technically a professional, I suppose, is in the tale solely for humor, such as that which we see in this exchange:

“And she is telling you that you are going mad, I suppose?” said Natasha.
“Yes,” said Miss Lipscoomb, and sank into a chair. She put her head in her hands. “I think it is true,” she said. “But how did you know?”
“That’s an old one,” said Miriam briskly. “I always used to tell my first husband he was going mad,” she said. “In the end he did,” she added triumphantly.

There’s also a local policeman, one Sergent Tomkins, who is an enjoyable character (in grand tradition he immediately, though unbelievably, works in tandem with Natasha and Miriam). Also assorted “queer” lady teachers (some lesbian, some not); some objectionable students; an amusing if stereotypical recurring gay male character, Roger Partick-Thistle (we learn here that he is hiding a scandal from his past that took place when he was a scout leader, something played for laughs); a male detective novelist (much inferior to the Crime Queens, we learn); and a Jewish doctor (Spain emphasizes his Jewishness, just as she emphasizes the “queerness” of the obviously gay characters).

There is humorous satire directed against girls’ schools (Spain herself went to Rodean) and sexual foibles, as well some interesting asides on detective fiction. Regrettably, the mystery is rather a mess, however. While there is fitful investigation, intricate clueing is absent; and the solution is handed to the investigators.

You may be left with questions at the end, assuming you care about the mystery. Most of Spain’s readers probably did not! (for another review see

Though Poison for Teacher is Spain’s best-known detective novel, I preferred the earlier Death Before Wicket (Hutchinson, 1946). Johnny DuVivien, Spains’ first series detective, is a good character and an energetic investigator; and though the mystery plot in no classic, to be sure, it is better managed than the one in Teacher and its resolution is more plausible.

The setting is again at a girls school, this one in Yorkshire (Johnny’s daughter from his first marriage, Pamela, is a student there); and in addition to the school satire there is convincing and amusing portraiture of the local gentry (Spain herself came from northern England, of “good stock”).

The murder victim in this tale is a fetching games mistress who before her untimely demise slept with an impressive number of men, including an odd ex-army gent with a pronounced sexual fetish for mannish women.  More alternative sexuality turns up in a brief visit to a club with a gay clientele, of your standard “flaming queen” variety (here portrayed more harshly than in the case of Roger Partick-Thistle).  While not quite as quirky as Teacher, Wicket has a more comprehensible plot, something I, for one, appreciated.

Nancy Spain had a gift for humor and character portrayal that makes her mystery novels worth reading even today, over half-a-century after the last of them was originally published. Just don’t expect anything close to Crime Queen level plotting, and you should not be disappointed.

Today Nancy Spain is best known in the mystery world for having had, despite her longtime relationship with another woman, a brief fling with Margery Allingham’s husband, Philip Youngman Carter (an affair that produced a child--see ). But her enjoyable madcap mysteries should get some attention as well.
Nancy Spain adored
Margery Allingham's detective fiction
--and also had a fling with
Allingham's husband

The Crime Novels of Nancy Spain
Poison in Play (1945)
Death Before Wicket (1946)
Murder, Bless It (1948)
Death Goes on Skies (1949)
Cinderella Goes to the Morgue (1950)
R in the Month (1950)
Not Wanted on the Voyage (1951)
Out, Damned Tot! (1952)
The Kat Strikes (1955)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Forgotten Books by Forgotten Authors: The Copper Bottle (1929), by E. J. Millward

Recently I mentioned The Copper Bottle, by one Edward J. Millward, in my post "Forty from the Twenties," wherein I recommended a list of thirty-six British detective novels and four mystery short story collections from the 1920s (see Forty from the Twenties ).  Today I look more closely at this novel, which I believe has much to recommend it.--The Passing Tramp

Published in 1929 as part of Methuen's "Clue Stories" series (it was also published in the United States),  The Copper Bottle is a strong example of a Golden Age British rural detective novel.  Unusually, it takes place in Wales, as the stunning endpaper maps indicates:

If you need more confirmation that this novel is set in Wales, let me add that one of the characters is a Constable Evans (perhaps a grandfather of Rhys Bowen's Constable Evans?).  Of course you can't have a Welsh mystery without a character named Evans!

The narrative structure of the tale is rather different from the norm.  It opens with a cyclist on a dark, snowy winter evening stopping at the Castle Vale Hotel.  The guests at the hotel learn that the newcomer is Erle Stallard, local poet, and that he has the latest news of the investigation into the recent murder at "The Copper Bottle," near the town of Five Wells.  At the urging of the guests, Stallard unfolds the story....

From this point on the narrative continues in Stallard's voice.  He tells of visiting his old Great War comrade, Police Inspector Greer, and Greer's friend, Sammy Fork, a detective, and during his visit learning that George Smith has been found dead of a rifle wound at "The Copper Bottle," a former inn now converted into a private residence (the map above includes an inset floor plan of the building--note the image of the genie's/demon's head carved above the doorway).

Erle Stallard soon emerges as our Watson, with Fork as a Holmesian Great Detective and Greer as the more bumbling Lestrade figure.  Stallard soon finds that he is personally impacted by the murder, the dead man turning out to be rather closely connected to Stallard's own family (Stallard is a grandson of the recently deceased Sir Reginald Griffith of Castell Griffith, a picturesque ruin evocatively described by the author).

An interesting plot unfolds, as a number of suspects in the George Smith killing emerge, including George Smith's friend, Hector Smythe; a Japanese manservant (problematically named "Jap," though we are spared pidgin English); Erle Stallard's cousin, Frank; a neighbor couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Derney; and a private detective nosing about the vicinity.  In a touch of Moonstone, there is even a cursed gong from the East that sounds seemingly of its own accord.  There is a rumor that angry priests are out to recover the gong and avenge its theft....

Did the gong do it?

The strongly conveyed setting is a great plus, and the whole story is original in several ways (besides the narrative structure, there is also the fact that the tale ends with a poem).  The tale was well-reviewed in its day, but for some reason there was a six-year lag before another Millward mystery, The House of Wraith (1935), appeared. It was followed by The Body Lies (1936) and The Aero Clubs Mystery (1939).  And that was that for Mr. Edward J. Millward.

According to William Rubinstein, Millward was a direct descendant of John Bunyan, was born in South Africa and educated at Leeds Training School for Teachers, and was a farmer and a newsagent.  This is absolutely all I know about the man currently, but further reviews of his books will be forthcoming.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Murder in the Family: The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), by Winifred Peck

In Part One of "Murder in the Family" I reviewed Ronald Knox's detective story Still Dead (1934).  In Part Two I review the crime novel The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), by Ronald Knox's accomplished literary sister, Winifred Peck.--The Passing Tramp

Winifred Peck
Ronald Knox

In 1933, Catholic priest and writer Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, one of the talented Knox siblings, children of Edmund Arbuthnott Knox, former Anglican Bishop of Manchester, published The Body in the Silo, a detective novel.

This was not really a surprise. Father Knox, best known in the mystery genre today for having formulated an influential set of “rules” for the writing of detective fiction, had before 1933 already published three well-received detective novels and been enrolled as a founding member of England's Detection Club in 1930.  There was a five year lag between The Footsteps at the Lock (1928) and The Body in the Silo (1933), to be sure, yet the appearance of the latter could not exactly be called unexpected.

However, another Knox sibling also published a detective novel in 1933: one of Ronald Knox’s sisters, Lady Winifred Knox Peck (1882-1962). Entitled The Warrielaw Jewel, this mystery tale by Peck, a once successful though today mostly forgotten mainstream novelist, received extremely favorable reviews and holds up well today. Like her brothers, Peck clearly had a first-class mind, reading Modern History at Oxford before her marriage to James Peck, a prominent figure in Scottish education.

A few years ago, Persephone Books, a fine publishing house commendably committed to reviving overlooked but worthy women writers, reprinted Peck’s House-Bound, a mainstream novel with a World War Two period setting, with an introduction by Peck's (and Ronald Knox’s) niece, the late novelist Penelope Fitzgerald.

(see )

The Warrielaw Jewel deserves reprinting as well.  Jewel is notable as an early example of a Golden Age mystery that, in its shifting of emphasis from pure puzzle to the study of character and setting, helped mark that gradual transition from detective story to crime novel which Julian Symons celebrated in his influential history of the mystery genre, Bloody Murder.

A tale of deep Victorian/Edwardian familial dysfunction, Jewel rather resembles such Golden Age mysteries as Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral (1931) and More Work for the Undertaker (1948), Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Album (1933) and S.S. Van Dine’s The Greene Murder Case (1928).

The Warrielaw Jewel bears a certain resemblance
in milieu to Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Album,
published the same year as Jewel.

The writing in Jewel is excellent, in my view on a level with that of Rinehart as well as Allingham and her Crime Queen contemporaries Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.  As one pleased reviewer noted of Peck’s mystery novel, “the writing, atmosphere, and characterization” make the story “something quite distinct."

The Warrielaw Jewel actually is set in the Edwardian era, 1909 specifically (“that period, so far away from modern youth," writes Peck, "when King Edward VII lived, and skirts were long and motors few, and the term Victorian was not yet a reproach”).

The narrator, Betty Morrison, wife of the lawyer for the eccentric, decaying gentry family of Warrielaws, tells the tale from the vantage point of the early 1930s, looking back over those shocking events in the vicinity of Edinburgh, Scotland, which included the death of elderly family head Jessica Warrielaw and the trial of her favored nephew for murder.

Involved in the affair is a treasured family heirloom, a so-called fairy-jewel, said to have been given to the Warrielaw family centuries ago by a glittering enchanted lady carried off and married by a dark and brooding laird ancestor. A curse is said to have been laid upon the jewel. Certainly dreadful happenings, whatever the cause, overtake the family in 1909.

There is investigation and detection, performed by a retired policeman friend of Betty Morrison’s husband; yet it is Betty herself who provides the final, crucial piece of evidence. The mystery itself is engrossing, although the best elements of the tale are found in the characters — particularly the various odd Warrielaws and their remaining retainers –and the Edwardian Scottish atmosphere.

I hope that one day Winifred Peck’s The Warrielaw Jewel is republished and honored as one of the more literarily accomplished mysteries of the Golden Age, for it certainly is deserving of such recognition, in my view.

When one reviewer declared The Warrielaw Jewel “in a class by itself” and added that “it looks as if [Mrs. Peck] were going to beat [Father Knox] at his own special game,” he was not, in my view, exaggerating.

Note: Winifred Peck went on to produce mostly mainstream novels, though after World War Two she returned to genre, writing a supernatural tale, Unseen Array (1951), and one additional mystery, the provocatively titled Arrest the Bishop? (1949).  Judging from The Warrielaw Jewel, both of these later novels would be worth seeking out.--The Passing Tramp

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Murder in the Family: Ronald Knox and Winifred Peck

Many classical mystery fans have at least heard of the English detective novelist Ronald Knox; few, however, know of Knox's novelist sister, Winifred Peck, who also contributed to the field of crime fiction.  In this two part article I will discuss genre works by this pair of sibling crime writers.  First up: Ronald Knox and his novel Still Dead.--The Passing Tramp

P. D. James contends that it was
Dorothy L. Sayers who made the
Golden Age detective novel
intellectually respectable

Although in her recent short genre survey, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009), mystery doyenne P. D. James asserts that it was Dorothy L. Sayers in the middle 1930s who made detective fiction intellectually respectable (with such “manners” crime novels as The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night), in fact many intellectuals were attracted, both as readers and writers, to detective tales at the very beginning of the Golden Age (roughly 1920), because of those tales’ ratiocinative appeal as puzzles.

For these individuals, the intellectual appeal of detective novels lay in the quality of their puzzles, not in any attempts on the part of their authors to ape the mainstream “straight” novel with portrayals of social manners or emotional/psychological conflicts. Indeed, during the Golden Age too much emphasis on purely literary elements often was seen by common readers and more lofty genre theorists alike as detrimental in detective novels, because it distracted readers’ minds from what was deemed the proper business in such fiction: the cold analyses of clues.

An undeniably intellectual mystery fan and mystery writer, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, held this obsolescent view of the proper nature of detective fiction.

Ronald Knox
an intellectual who respected puzzles

Knox, a son of the Bishop of Manchester and an Eton and Oxford educated classical scholar who converted to Catholicism in 1917 (soon becoming a priest and one of England’s most prominent and articulate Anglo-Catholics), published his first detective novel, The Viaduct Murder in 1925.  Two more detective novels appeared in the 1920s (The Three Taps, 1927, and The Footsteps at the Lock, 1928), as well as Knox’s famous Detective Fiction Decalogue, wherein he laid down rules for the writing of detective fiction (all of which emphasized the puzzle aspect, or “fair play”--see ).

On the strength of these accomplishments, Father Knox was invited in 1930 to become a founding member of the Detection Club. Three more detective novels would follow — The Body in the Silo (1933), Still Dead (1934) and Double Cross Purposes (1937) — before Knox gave himself completely over to his religious scholarship.

Less donnishly facetious than the 1920s tales, The Body in the Silo and Still Dead are commonly considered to be Father Know’s best detective novels, though oddly and frustratingly, they are two of the most difficult to find.  Both novels are well worth reading for fans of the pure puzzle sort of detective novel, as they have rigorous fair play problems and even include footnotes listing the pages where clues were earlier given.

Still Dead concerns the death of Colin Reiver, the thoroughly undesirable heir to the Dorn estate in Scotland. Colin’s dead body was glimpsed by one of the estate’s employees, but had disappeared by the time he had left for help and returned to the spot with others.

Two days later, however, the body reappears at the same spot (and still dead, hence the title). Colin is pronounced to have expired from exposure, but is that really true and, either way, why were morbid shenanigans played with the corpse?

If Colin was murdered, there is no shortage of suspects. There is another employee, a gardener, whose child was run down by a drunken Colin (the latter was exonerated in court on the strength of false testimony from an Oxford friend, once again proving the value in Golden Age mystery of old school ties). There also are several family members, including Colin’s own father, Donald, as well as Colin’s sister, brother-in-law and cousin (truly, nobody liked Colin). Then there's a family physician and also a leader of the odd religious sect to which Donald Reiver adheres.

The police write off the case (all to the good, since Father Knox apparently knew nothing and cared less about police procedure), but insurance investigator Miles Bredon--Knox’s series detective in five novels and a single, classic, short story, “Solved by Inspection”--is called in, because the question of when Colin actually died bears directly on a crucial insurance settlement (the dissolute Colin was heavily insured in his father’s favor and the Dorn estate is sadly diminished).

There are strange goings-on indeed
at the Dorn estate in Scotland
Still Dead reveals both Father Knox’s strengths and weaknesses as a detective novelist. Positively, the fair play cluing is exemplary and reading the solution is quite enjoyable. Negatively, human interest is minimal and the narrative moves slowly.

Aside from a gentrified old lady at a hotel, Colin Reiver’s military martinet-ish cousin and a eugenics-professing doctor, none of the characters has more than a bare semblance of interest. Even these three aforementioned characters do not come to life as they might have, given the basic material.

To be sure, Knox provides some lightly humorous verbal byplay, courtesy of Miles Bredon’s wife, Angela (she always seems to accompany him on his investigations, despite having a child — or children, Knox is inconsistent on this point — at home). Yet Miles and Angela are no Lord Peter and Harriet, despite having preceded them into print as a mystery genre male-female duo by three years.

I found Still Dead more slow-moving than novels by Freeman Wills Crofts or John Rhode from this period, because Bredon’s sleuthing is peripatetic. Knox’s fictional works lack the relentless investigative drive we see in mystery tales by those other, “humdrum”, authors, who focus so resolutely on the problem. Nor is Knox’s problem itself, though very well-clued, as interesting as the alibi and murder means conundra presented by Crofts and Rhode, respectively.

In the blurb for Still Dead, Father Knox’s English publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, called Knox “a master of the English language.” To be sure, Knox is a very good writer indeed; yet in my opinion his strength as a writer is that of an essayist, not a novelist. Scattered throughout Still Dead are fine scenic descriptions, pithy observations on religion and interesting digressions on the fate of England’s aristocracy, the nature of English gardens, chess, books, caves, hotels, etc.; yet while they are quite interesting in themselves, by themselves they do not sustain the dramatic situation desirable in a crime novel.

Of course Knox would counter that he was merely trying to provide readers with a good puzzle, and this is a perfectly reasonable point. Still Dead is a good puzzle. Yet the basic material here — a dissolute gentry heir having killed a young child while driving inebriated — is interesting enough to have deserved a more serious treatment.  Knox’s handling of the material is on the dry side, even in the final chapter when the philosophical implications of the problem are discussed by the characters (though this is a good discussion).

Just a few years later Nicholas Blake (the pen name of poet Cecil Day-Lewis) would take a rather similar plot and inject it with real human pain and suffering, in The Beast Must Die (1938), a novel much better-remembered today than Still Dead.  In Knox's case, however, there seems to have been a reluctance to grapple with deeper, darker emotions in his detective novels. (One sees this quirk as well in the half-dozen mild mystery tales by a Knox contemporary, Anglican minister Victor Whitechurch.)

Blake's mystery novel
has greater emotional heft
than Knox's Still Dead

Despite these reservations on my part, Still Dead is well worth reading for admirers of classical British mystery. If you can find the Hodder & Stoughton hardcover edition, you also will find a beautiful endpaper drawing of the Dorn estate and a dramatic frontispiece of stark Dorn House, both by Bip Pares, as well as that footnoted clue page guide.  The Pan paperback edition of from 1952 lacks these graces, so charmingly redolent of the Golden Age detective novel, when many writers in their mystery tales unashamedly emphasized puzzles.

See Part Two for Winifred Peck.  Special Note: The mystery/crime fiction world suffered a great loss with the recent death of Reginald Hill, one of the towering figures in the genre.  I plan to devote  a piece to him in the upcoming week.--The Passing Tramp

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Had I But Known Authors #1: Anita Blackmon, Crime Queen of Arkansas

aka Anita Blackmon, mystery writer

In Murder for Pleasure (1941), Howard Haycraft listed ten women authors who constituted what he called the “better element”of the so-called HIBK, or Had I But Known, school of mystery fiction, which was effectively founded by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) over three decades earlier with the publication of her hugely popular novel The Circular Staircase (1908).

The Had I But Known school of mystery fiction--as it was so dubbed by (mostly male) mystery critics after the term was used by Ogden Nash in a satirical 1940 poem, "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You" (Personally I don't care whether a detective story writer was educated in night school or day school/So long as they don't belong to the H.I.B.K. school)--typically included mysteries with women narrators given to digressive regrets over the things they might have done to prevent the novel’s numerous horrid murders, had they only been able to foresee the awful events that were shortly to unfold.

Ogden Nash: definitely not enrolled in the HIBK School
Haycraft’s list of the ten premier Rinehart followers includes several names still fairly well-known to genre fans today, namely Mignon Eberhart, Leslie Ford and Dorothy Cameron Disney (he gives Mabel Seeley her own sub-section, classifying her, in contrast with the rest, as an equal of Rinehart), but also more obscure names as well.

Three of these writers, Charlotte Murray Russell and the sisters Constance and Gwenyth Little, have recently had works reprinted, but the remaining four, Anita Blackmon, Margaret Armstrong, Clarissa Fairchild Cushman and Medora Field, remain mostly forgotten.

In this series I plan to highlight genre work by these forgotten HIBK authors. I begin with Anita Blackmon, the HIBK Queen of Arkansas.

Anita Blackmon (1892-1943) published two mystery novels, Murder a la Richelieu (1937) and There Is No Return (1938). In the United States, both of Blackmon’s mysteries were published by Doubleday Doran’s Crime Club, one of the most prominent mystery publishers in the country. 

Murder a la Richelieu was published as well in England (as The Hotel Richelieu Murders), France (as On assassine au Richelieu) and Germany (as Adelaide lasst nicht locker), while There Is No Return was published in England also (under the rather more lurid title The Riddle of the Dead Cats).

In classic HIBK fashion, Blackmon employed a series character in both novels, a peppery middle-aged southern spinster named Adelaide Adams (and nicknamed “the old battle-ax”).

In the opening pages of Adelaide Adams’ debut appearance, Murder at la Richelieu, Anita Blackmon signals her readers that she is humorously aware of the grand old, much-mocked but much-read HIBK tradition that she is mining when she has Adelaide declare:

“Had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels.”

Yet, sadly, Adelaide confides:

"There was nothing on this particular morning to indicate the reign of terror into which we were about to be precipitated. Coming events are supposed to cast their shadows before, yet I had no presentiment about the green spectacle case which was to play such a fateful part in the murders, and not until it was forever too late did I recognize the tragic significance back of Polly Lawson’s pink jabot and the Anthony woman’s false eyelashes.”

Well! What reader can stop there? Adelaide goes on with much gusto and foreboding to relate the murderous events at the Hotel Richelieu, a lodging in a small southern city (clearly Little Rock, Arkansas; see below). Adelaide is a wonderful character: tough on the outside but rather a sentimentalist within, given to the heavy use of cliches yet actually rather mentally acute.

The life in and inhabitants of the old hotel are well-conveyed, the pace and events lively and the mystery complicated yet clear (and at the same time played fair with the readers). Perhaps most enjoyable of all is the author’s strong sense of humor, ably conveyed through Adelaide’s memorable narration.

Blackmon clearly knows that, looked at strictly logically, HIBK tales can be a tad implausible in their incredible convolutions (as can the classical Golden Age mystery in general) and she has a a lot of fun with the conventions. Her readers should have a lot of fun too.

Blackmon’s follow-up from the next year, There Is No Return, finds Adelaide coming to the rescue of a friend, Ella Trotter, embroiled in mysterious goings-on involving spiritual possession at a backwoods Ozarks hotel, the Lebeau Inn (in fact the novel could well have been called, admittedly more prosaically, Murder a la Lebeau).

Return opens with yet another splendid HIBK declaration in the part of Adelaide:

“....had I foreseen the train of horrible events which settled over that isolated mountain inn like a miasma of death upon the afternoon of my arrival, I should have left Ella to lay her own ghosts.”

Though the isolated setting is excellent (classically, the guests are trapped at the Lebeau Inn after the bridge washes out) on the whole the novel is less amusing than Richelieu, yet creepier.  Indeed, the cavernous, lonely hotel corridors where a murdering maniac might be lurking began to remind me after a while of Stephen King's The Shining.  There Is No Return is a worthy sequel and it is very pleasing to encounter the old battle-ax one final time.

Adelaide Adams and the other guests at the Lebeau Inn are trapped seemingly with either
 a demonic spirit or a maniac killer after the bridge washes out--had they but known!
for the image see

When Howard Haycraft published Murder for Pleasure in 1941, he clearly classed Blackmon as a major figure in the HIBK school, though she in fact had not published a mystery novel in three years. Two years later Blackmon would die at the age of fifty, and her fiction would be largely forgotten. I have discussed her genre work a bit, but have so far left unanswered this question: who was Anita Blackmon?

Anita Blackmon was born in 1892 in the small eastern Arkansas town of Augusta. The daughter of Augusta postmaster and mayor Edwin E. Blackmon and his wife, Augusta Public High School principal Eva Hutchison Blackmon, both originally from Washburn, Illinois, Anita Blackmon revealed a literary bent from a young age, penning her first short story at the age of seven.

the public high school in Augusta, Arkansas

By all accounts, Blackmon grew up into a vivacious, attractive, outgoing young woman. The future novelist graduated from high school at the age of fourteen and attended classes at Ouachita College and the University of Chicago. Returning home from Chicago, she taught languages in Augusta for five years before moving to Little Rock, where she continued to teach school.

ladies dormitory, Ouachita College

In 1920, Blackmon left teaching and married Harry Pugh Smith in Little Rock. The couple moved to St. Louis, where Blackmon had an uncle who served as a St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad vice president, and in 1922 Blackmon published the first of what would be over a thousand short stories. Blackmon’s short stories appeared in a diverse collection of pulps, including Love Story Magazine, All-Story Love Stories, Cupid’s Diary, Detective Tales and Weird Tales.

Blackmon began publishing novels in 1934 with a work entitled Her Private Devil, one that provoked some scandalized talk back in Augusta. Devil was published by William Godwin, a press, as described by Bill Pronzini, that specialized in titillating novels that pushed the sexual envelope of the day.  Godwin titles by other authors in the writing stable such as Delinquent, Unmoral, Illegitimate, Indecent, Strange Marriage and Infamous Woman give some idea of the nature of most Godwin fiction.

Blackmon’s book, which detailed the unhappy life of a southern small-town girl who gives into her overmastering sexual desires, is fairly bold, but by no means a “dirty” book. In actuality it is a serious study of a troubled young woman handled with considerable sensitivity and it is certainly not explicit by today’s standards. Still, the book raised something of a stir in conservative Augusta, with some in the town expressing disapproval.

Over the next few years Blackmon published traditional, mainstream novels under the name Mrs. Harry Pugh Smith, some of which had been previously serialized, before concluding her run with her two mystery novels, published, like Her Private Devil, under her maiden name.

The best known of the Mrs. Harry Pugh Smith novels was Handmade Rainbows, a tale of middle class Depression-era life in small southern town very like Augusta. Part of the enjoyment one gets from Blackmon’s better novels stems from the author’s effective depiction of unique southern local color.

Blackmon’s Murder a la Richelieu clearly is set in Little Rock, where there was in fact a Richelieu Hotel, while There Is No Return is set far in the Ozarks. Certainly many Golden Age mysteries with Arkansas settings do not come to my mind.

Why Anita Blackmon produced no more Adelaide Adams mysteries in her last five years of life is unknown. However, Blackmon died after a lengthy illness in a nursing home in Little Rock, where she moved after the death of her husband.  Perhaps under the circumstances she was not up to plotting and writing another full-length mystery novel, though she is said to have continued writing until shortly before her death.

Although Blackmon’s novel-length mystery output is very small, both her Adelaide Adams novels merit reprinting as significant examples of the HIBK tale.  Also worth noting are the many now-unknown short stories that Blackmon wrote, some of which (those published in Detective Tales) might well be of interest to mystery genre fans. Clearly, further delving is in order!

Information on Anita Blackmon’s life was drawn from Woodruff County Historical Society, Rivers and Roads and Points in Between 3 (Fall 1975), pp. 21-22 and interviews with Rebecca Boyles and Virginia Boyles. Special thanks for his generous help to Kip Davis, Augusta City Planner.

 In part two of this series I will take a look at the distinguished Margaret Armstrong, the next of our so-called HIBKers.--The Passing Tamp