Sunday, April 29, 2012

Elimination at Sea: Cartwright is Dead, Sir! (1934), by Hugh Baker (Forgotten Books by Forgotten Authors 3)

"[A]board this ship is a murderer who has the power to kill almost instantaneously without leaving  a mark, without inflicting a wound, without leaving a trace of his presence except the body of his victim."

Quite a handy set of abilities in the hands of a mass murderer!  Will he (or she?) be stopped?...

Houghton, Mifflin, publisher of Cartwright is Dead, Sir!, assured prospective readers of the novel that so tension-filled were its pages they would never regain "peace of mind" until they had reached the very end.

I wouldn't go quite that far, but Cartwright is Dead, Sir! is a fast-paced, fairly clued (well, for the most part) tale that should keep a mystery fan entertained for several hours.

The novel deals with a fateful voyage of the fruit steamer Napoc from New Orleans to the Latin American Republic of Costa Blanca. Wireless messages have been received, from one M. O. D.,  demanding that the ship change course, or dire consequences will result.  These messages are ignored...and the deaths commence.  No traces are apparent of how the victims have come by their deaths. Could they have been slain by a "death ray," as M. O. D. claims?

And what is the motive behind this madness?  Could it have something to do with the machinations of rival American fruit companies in Costa Blancan politics?  And what does the vanished good luck piece have to do with it all?  And the man who can't abide the smell of oranges?

1934's other shipboard mystery,
rather better known than Cartwright!
Aspects of this novel certainly remind me of John Dickson Carr (there's an obvious general resemblance to Carr's shipboard mystery, The Blind Barber, coincidentally also published in 1934; and the death ray business was like "teleforce" from The Reader Is Warned).  To be sure, Cartwright is not as good as John Dickson Carr's 1930s mysteries, but that is setting quite a high bar!  I enjoyed this one for the fast pace, the suspense, the solid plot and the look at American-Latin American commercial and political relations in the 1930s.

"Hugh Baker" is the pseudonym of Hermann B. Deutsch (1889-1970) and Donald Hugh Higgins.  About the latter man I know nothing, but Deutsch was a prominent Louisiana journalist in his day and authored additional works, both fiction and non-fiction.

Hugh Baker also published a mystery short story or novelette with a title redolent of Edgar Wallace thrillers: "The Whispering Terror" (Mystery Magazine, 1935).  Judging by Cartwright is Dead, Sir! this work would be worth a read.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thirsty Evil: "A Bottle of Perrier" (1926), by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's significant contribution to supernatural fiction is well-known (see her short story collection Ghosts, 1937), but it seems that her story "A Bottle of Perrier"--originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926 under the title "A Bottle of Evian" and reprinted in Wharton's short collection Certain People (1930)--is less heralded as the great crime/mystery genre tale that it is.  It is always a pleasure for me to go back and read this story, for in artistic merit as a genre tale it is comparable, I think, to such inspired short stories as Lord Dunsany's "The Two Bottles of Relish" (1932) (what is it about bottles?), John Collier's "The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It" (1941) and Stanley Ellin's "The Specialty of the House" (1948).  It also harks back to such sinister Edgar Allan Poe tales as "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" (bottles again!).

Perrier in the desert....

Edith Wharton evidently did not think much of detective fiction (in her 1913 novel The Custom of the Country she uses the fact that a family has The Hound of the Baskervilles displayed to suggest the family's comparative illiteracy), yet she gave mystery and murder fans a corker of a story in "A Bottle of Perrier."

Edith Wharton
When the story opens "young Medford, of the American School of Archeaology at Athens" has gone to visit "his queer English friend, Henry Almodham," who, himself a lay archaeologist with sufficient private means to indulge his eccentric whims, lives in a crumbling crusader's castle in the desert.  As Medford leans against "the roof parapet of the old building, half Christian fortress, half Arab palace," he looks out around him at the vast "mystery of the sands, all golden with promise, all livid with menace, as the sun alternately touched or abandoned them."

Medford is informed by Almodham's servant, Gosling, speaker of "a sort of palimpsest Cockney lined with Mediterranean tongues and desert dialects," that Almodham was suddenly called away by a friendly Arab chief to explore some ruins to the south, but will be back shortly; meanwhile, Medford is to make himself at home.

At Medford's first meal at the castle Gosford offers him wine, which Medford, still recovering from a bout with fever, has been forbidden.

"Just a mineral water, then, sir?"
"Oh yes--anything."
"Shall we say a bottle of Perrier?"
"Perrier in the desert!  Medford smiled assentingly....

I've just taken you through the first three pages of the story; there are eighteen pages of beautifully-written, steadily-mounting tension to go.

After several days have passed, Wharton writes:

Medford found sleep unrecoverable. He leaned in his window and watched the stars fade and the dawn break in all its holiness.  As the stir of life rose among the ancient walls he marveled at the contrast between that fountain of purity welling up into the heavens and the evil secrets clinging bat-like to the nest of masonry below.

What happens over those days at the crumbling crusaders castle that looms up, in majestic isolation, out of the desert? If you're like I am, you will have to keep reading, because you will simply have to know.

Happily, "A Bottle of Perrier" is available on the net and also was reprinted by Scribner's in 1991 in The Selected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, which also includes some of the author's best ghost stories: "The Lady's Maid's Bell"; "The Eyes"; "Kerfol"; "Mr. Jones"; "Pomegranate Seed" and "All Souls'."  It also appears in the 2002 collection The Ghost Feeler: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (though it is not a supernatural story), along with an introduction by Peter Haining.  See this review at darkecho.

Next up: a shipboard mystery--a very obscure one!--The Passing Tramp.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rhineland Romance: Castle Skull (1931), by John Dickson Carr

John Dickson Carr's first detective series, which chronicled the exploits of French magistrate Henry Bencolin, is a short one, comprised of four novels Carr published from 1930 to 1932, plus a final volume, The Four False Weapons, that appeared in 1937.

Castle Skull (1931) is the third of the Henri Bencolin mysteries.  Like the other early novels in the series (It Walks by Night, The Lost Gallows and The Corpse in the Waxworks), it has  a splendidly lurid title, redolent of exoticism, the outre and horror.  Although Carr continued to employ these elements in many of his books over his long and successful mystery writing career, he toned them down somewhat from the early novels, where the horrific really predominates (as has been observed, I believe, by S. T. Joshi, It Walks by Night might be a pulp horror novel title).

Certainly Castle Skull is steeped in the outre.  To begin with there's the highly Gothic setting, in the German Rhineland.

Many mysteries of the Golden Age take place in country houses, but how many take place in castles?  And what a castle is Castle Skull!  Yes, its highly eccentric owner, the larger than life magician Maleger, deliberately designed it to resemble a skull.  This 1940s Pocket edition captures the castle rather well, I think (except for the lovely sunny sky).  Not only does the castle look like a skull, but it is equipped with all the creepy paraphernalia you could ever ask for in such an abode; and Carr, as was his wont, makes the most of this.

The novel opens with quite a bit of back story.  Maleger, we learn, was murdered some twenty years earlier, his body thrown out of a train carriage into the Rhine.  Somehow this was accomplished even though Maleger's carriage was under observation the whole time and no one else was seen entering it (one of Carr's patented miracle problems, very nicely worked out too).

Maleger's estate was left to two friends, a Belgian banker named D'Aunay and a prominent English stage actor named Myron Alison.  A few weeks before the novel opens, something very bad happened to Myron Alison.  He was shot several times and then for good measure set on fire.  His blazing body was espied on the crazily grinning battlements of Castle Skull.

Bencolin investigates
the dark depths of
Castle Skull
Just imagine what an opening this would make for a film! It strikes me once again what opportunities modern filmmakers are missing in treating John Dickson Carr as mystery's Mr. Cellophane, even as they film the umpteenth version of a Miss Marple mystery (now with rewritten ending!).  Unfortunately Carr himself does not make the most of it, because the the story of the murder is told secondhand to Bencolin and his young Watson, Jeff Marle, rather than being shown directly to the reader.  Obviously, it seems to me, the novel should have opened with the immolation scene.  We know from such later bravura Carr set-pieces as the exploding hot-air balloon sequence in Carr's wonderful historical mystery novel Captain Cut-Throat (1955) that Carr was absolute aces at directly depicting evocative action scenes.  But enough about that--back to further developments at Castle Skull!

Henri Bencolin is brought into the case informally and is soon investigating with good old, forgettable Jeff (first in a long, long line of many writer stand-ins for the author).  Across the river from Castle Skull is the country house of Myron Alison, where a house party was taking place during Myron's murder, conveniently providing us with our suspects.  There's Myron's sister, Agatha, known as "The Duchess"--even though she's not one; a famous violinist; D'Aunay and his wife; a young English gentleman; and a nice young woman, though modern.  There's also a middle-aged journalist hanging about the place, who happily is chock full of nuggets of Maleger-Myron Alison back story.

The mental duel between Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh
and Basil Rathbone's Baron Wolf von Frankenstein
in Son of Frankenstein (1939) is similar to the
 of Bencolin-Von Arnheim in Castle Skull
Soon Bencolin and Jeff are joined by Baron Sigmund von Arnheim, one of those stock monocled, know-it-all Prussian types common to Anglo-American books and films of that era. Von Arnheim and Bencolin are longtime rivals, so the two engage in a competition to solve the case, bandying much surfacely polite, improbably theatrical language with each other, in the highly archaic fashion that Carr, who seems to have wanted to live as an English cavalier in the seventeenth century, so much admired.

Just 25 when this novel was published, Carr handles the solution section of the novel (40 pages!) with laudable dexterity.  Von Arnheim solves the case!  Or does he....

Besides being grippingly narrated, the solution is eminently fair play, I think.  One has to admire not only Carr's ingenuity with murder designs--a skill John Street, for example, had too--but also Carr's admirable clue placement, which at times rivals the great Agatha Christie.  My only complaint (besides the absence of a castle floor plan--but see this extraordinary webpage on this matter) with Castle Skull is that the characters really don't do justice the superb setting.

The two really interesting characters in Castle Skull are Maleger and Myron Alison, both of whom, as murder victims, are off the stage when the novel opens.  As Douglas G. Greene has noted in his superb biography of Carr, John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995), Carr somewhat softened Bencolin in Castle Skull, making him "slightly more human," but this softening "doesn't fit the personality that Carr has developed for Bencolin"--it merely makes him duller.  As for the country house crowd, they are sticks, with the exception of Agatha Alison, who is interesting because she is such an outlandish and improbable character.  I would have sworn Carr meant her to be a broad parody of Dorothy L. Sayers, but Carr would not have known Sayers in 1931.

Dorothy L. Sayers
"Duchess" of Deception
Here is Carr's description of the stout, mannish, Duchess (who also smokes cigars, drinks stout and plays poker), which really does seem to foreshadow Sayers at Detection Club meetings in the 1940s and 1950s (judging by the uninhibited recollections of Christianna Brand): "She floundered in, her bulk compressed into a tight black gown which caused startling bulges in extraordinary places."

But it's the way the Duchess talks that's really extraordinary:

"Come right in, young fella-me-lad!  Have a bottle of stout.  Always drink three, myself, before I turn in."

"Well, well, you just tell the old Duchess about it!  Plague take me!  When all your fancy detectives are stumped, I'm going to take a hand!"

"H'm.  Is that so?  Damme!...H'm.  Writer, b'Gad!  Play rugger, don't you?"
"Baseball," I said, "I'm an American."
"You do?  Well, hang me!--And look here, laddie, don't you think that because I'm a bloody Britisher I don't know the outfield from home plate.  Listen.  I saw the whole world series in '09, the year Wild Bill pitched against the Pirates...."

Put Sir Henry Merrivale in a dress
and you get Agatha Alison
And so on.  All this conversation is uttered while Agatha is sitting "behind her table in a flaring negligee, drinking Guinness' stout."  From the words--especially recalling how Carr's later series detective Sir Henry Merrivale loves baseball too--I felt certain the Duchess was really Sir Henry Merrivale in drag, perhaps on a secret undercover mission in this very queer castle.

Heck, even now I still think "she" may have been, although this was one question even the great Henri Bencolin did not resolve!

Well, this finishes for now my Continental tour.  I'm headed back to the States (There's no place like home!), but will be stopping off briefly in a desert clime.  Who will I visit there?  Stop by tomorrow and see!--The Passing Tramp.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Who Killed Cécile? Cécile est Morte/Maigret and the Spinster (1942/1977), Georges Simenon

I am due to tramp up to the scenic Rhineland and Castle Skull with our old pal John Dickson Carr, but I paid one last call, for now, on Georges Simenon, who is always a solid bet to show a reader a good time.  This time the book in question is Simenon Cécile est Morte (1942), reprinted in the United States and Great Britain in 1977 as Maigret and the Spinster.

poster for the film version of the novel
Why did it take thirty-five years for a translation into English?  This is perhaps the best Maigret novel that I have read.  It was filmed in France in 1943, apparently the fastest novel-to-film translation in the Simenon canon.  The book should made quite a good film.

When in 1940 Simenon commenced Cécile est Morte/Maigret and the Spinster (I will refer to this novel as Spinster), his last Maigret novel had appeared in 1934.  Simenon's sales had dropped since he stopped writing Maigrets to concentrate on his roman durs (hard novels, or noir) and he evidently turned back to the Maigrets as a way of adding more coins to his coffers.

Despite this mercenary motivation, when Simenon returned to writing Maigret mysteries his style of writing to some extent had changed. While not sacrificing an interesting mystery plot, Spinster is even stronger than earlier Maigrets in its depiction of character and atmosphere.  And while this particular Maigret exploit still offers the reassurance of a problem solved and justice done, it has its discomforting, bleaker elements as well.

Cécile in the film
looking decidedly unspinsterly to me
The spinster of the title is Cécile Pardon, only twenty-eight years old, but worn out before her time as a general slavey to her wealthy, miserly aunt, Juliette Boynet.  Cecile is one of Simenon's pathetic women, tragically unblessed with good looks (she even has a squint).

The poor girl has been in the habit of constantly visiting Maigret at his office, assuring him that someone has been entering her aunt's flat on certain nights.

Nothing has been stolen, but objects have been moved around. Maigret's colleagues make a joke of the visits, pretending to believe that squinty Cécile is Maigret's mistress; and Maigret has become hardily sick of Cécile.

So when Cécile visits yet again and Maigret puts her off it is no surprise.  When he finally decides to see Cécile, she has gone, but the message left by her for Maigret strikes a new--and very urgent--note: "It is essential that I should see you.  Something absolutely frightful occurred in the night."

Maigret decides to go to the flat of Cécile and her aunt.  There he finds Cécile's aunt dead, strangled, lying on her bed--but no Cécile. When Cécile later is found at police headquarters she is quite dead--strangled and stuffed in a broom closet.

Suspects aplenty in this now double murder case soon emerge:

Cécile's brother and sister, who hated their tightfisted aunt.  The brother, Gerard Pardon, particularly needed money, as he is out of work, with a wife shortly to give birth to their first child.

The relatives of the aunt's deceased husband, from whom she inherited a substantial amount of money, which she invested in numerous lucrative properties, including the apartment building in which she lived.

Her lawyer and business adviser, Charles Dandurand, who has served time for corruption of minors and encouraged her to invest money in houses of prostitution.

The perverse Dandurand is just one of the questionable tenants in the building, all of whom are memorably limned by another vivid character: the concierge nicknamed "Madame Saving-Your-Presence" by Maigret, on account of her reiterative use of that phrase.  This gossipy old lady is a wonderful character, straight out of Agatha Christie, though Simenon takes us out of the cozy territory by noting that Madame's room smells of "stale cat's urine" and by lingering over the dinner table's "glutinous remains of a pig's trotter"--Madame's dinner.

Simenon photo on the back of
Maigret and the Spinster
Though Maigret explains rather mystically to a visiting American criminologist that he solves cases intuitively ("I feel things"), I, a materialist mystery fan, found the plot of this particular novel immensely satisfying.  In it there are interesting twists that would not shame an Agatha Christie tale.  People may say they don't read Maigrets for the mystery plots, but anyone who, like me, does read Maigret and the Spinster at least partly for its mystery plot should not be at all disappointed.  Nor should they forget the characters and the setting any time soon--a splendid bonus!

Next we head from the realism of Simenon and Maigret to the romanticism of John Dickson Carr and his French detective, Henri Bencolin, in the last of our French-flavored mysteries.

I hope to see you at Castle Skull.  Be sure to bring flame retardant!--The Passing Tramp.

Friday, April 20, 2012

20,000 Views and Six Dead Men, by Stanislas-André Steeman

First, let me mention that as I type this I've just passed 20,000 views, having entered into my fifth month of blogging.  It's nice to know some people are finding this a place worth stopping by for a time.  I will try to keep it interesting!

Like Georges Simenon, Stanislas-André Steeman (1908-1972) is another Franco-Belgian writer of mysteries; yet Simenon is much better known, certainly in the English-speaking world.  The most detailed information I could find on the subject of Steeman comes from this fascinating entry in Xavier Lechard's blog, At the Villa RoseLost in Translation: Stanislas Andre-Steeeman.

Lechard calls Steeman "arguably one of the greatest mystery writers of all time."  He notes that, in contrast with Simenon, Steeman was fascinated with the detective fiction genre and its conventions, or rules, treating them respectfully in many orthodox works.

Despite the fact that one can find more orthodox Simenon mysteries in some of the Inspector Maigret series, there is no getting away from the fact that on the whole Simenon was one of the major influences in shifting the mystery genre away from formal puzzle plotting toward an emphasis on such things as milieu, character, psychology, etc., that one associates, traditionally at least, with the mainstream novel.  And for many readers Simenon's name is synonymous with French crime genre writing in the twentieth century.

So when presented with the prospect of French language mystery author who emphasized classical detection I had to go a-digging for this gold! Unfortunately merely two of his books were ever translated into English and only one of those two seems at all locatable: Six Dead Men/Six Hommes Morts (1930/31--I have seen both years given for its original publication date).  So I had to make do with this one title, a pleasure and a frustration, because while it's a very good book, it makes one wish for more, which simply isn't there, at least not currently.

So, what is the nitty and the gritty, as an instructor of mine used to say, of Six Dead Men?

First of all, the novel bears a striking resemblance in conception to The Sweepstake Murders, by J. J. Connnington, which was published in 1931.  In Connington's mystery--one of his best--nine individuals form a sweepstakes syndicate, so that if any one of their tickets wins they all will share the winnings equally among themselves.  One of their tickets does win, but there is a legal delay in the awarding of the money.  When one of the syndicate members accidentally dies, the survivors formally agree that only living members of the syndicate will share in the winnings, when they eventually are awarded.  Bad idea! Suddenly other members of the syndicate start to expire--this time from someone's deliberate design.

quite similar in conception to Six Dead Men

Well, now, what mystery fancier wouldn't fancy such a plot as this?  Steeman's plot in Six Dead Men is quite similar  to that in The Sweepstake Murders (before writing his own did Connington, who was fluent in French and regularly read French novels, read Steeman's book, assuming it originally appeared in 1930?).

This time the tale concerns not nine, but, yes, six men, who agree to set out in the world for five years, make their fortunes, return and share those fortunes among themselves.  Well, when the novel opens they have started returning, five with fortunes (an impressive bunch!). And, perhaps not coincidentally, they also have started dying.  One man falls overboard from an ocean liner (or was he pushed?), another is shot, another stabbed.  The police seem helpless is stopping this campaign of slaughter.  Can anyone stop it?

rather like an Edgar Wallace....
One is immediately struck by Steeman's adherence to the classical form in Six Dead Men.  Many Simenon tales from the period, such as, say, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett (Pieter-le-Letton) and The Crossroad Murders (La Nuit du carrefour), feel more like Edgar Wallace thrillers then true detective novels.

In the early 1930s both Simenon and Steeman were dubbed "the French Edgar Wallace," an appellation that seems more suited, both in terms of output and subject matter, to the Simenon novels of this period (the early 1930s) than to the Steemans, judging from what Xavier Lechard has written about Steeman.  Six Dead Men indisputably is a true detective novel.

The ploys of deception in Six Dead Men are truly classical. While they may not fool the experienced reader of Golden Age detective fiction, who likely will have seen variations of the ploys in Sayers or Christie or Crofts, for example, they are delightfully and ingeniously handled by Steeman.  I particularly liked the deductions made about one of the murders, which takes place in an apartment lift (Ngaio Marsh later used this locus with great effect in one of her novels, Surfeit of Lampreys).  And, yes, there's even a floor plan!

there's something eerie
about those old lifts....
There is also a bit of love interest, in the form of the novel's only significant female character, the lovely Spanish woman Carmen, fiancee to one of the six men. Two of the other men fall in love with her over the course of the tale, adding complication.  But is Carmen really what she seems?...

As befits a classical detective novel, the writing and characterization is sparely, but effectively, done. Carmen, the rivals for her love, an investigating magistrate and Steeman's series detective, Wenceslas Vorobeitchik (understandably he goes by "Wens"), all are efficiently and economically characterized.  Suspense is artfully maintained (I was quite on edge during the novel's penultimate climax).  This would be a great novel to read alone in a 1930s apartment building at midnight on a stormy night.  Creaky lift an extra!

Six Dead Men was reprinted in the United States in 1932 as part of the French crime wave that hit Anglo-American shores at that time.  Simenon was at the crest of this wave and today is by far its best-known component.  But on the strength of my reading Six Dead Men, I would conclude that Stansislas-André Steeman deserves to be much better known today than he is.

Note: The American edition of Six Dead Men was published by Farrar & Rinehart in 1932, in an attractive edition with what seems to be a good translation by Rosemary Carr Benet (1898-1962). She was the wife of Stephen Vincent Benet, renowned author of the Pulitzer prize winning narrative poem John Brown's Body (1928) and the much-anthologized short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1937).  On the couple, see Patricia McAndrew, "Stephen and Rosemary: A Love Story," in David Garrett Izzo and Lincoln Konkle, eds., Stephen Vincent Benet: Essays  on His Life and Work (McFarland, 2002). Stephen's brother, William Rose Benet, wrote an early Agatha Christie review raving The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  The Benets, it seems, had good taste in detective fiction!

Next stop: the Rhineland, with your pleasant guide, John Dickson Carr.  He wants to show us a castle where certain unpleasant events have occurred of late.  Come along now, don't hesitate....

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"As Flat and Artificial as a Picture Postcard?" Maigret in Holland (1931), by Georges Simenon

Maigret had only a faint idea of what it was all about when he arrived one May afternoon in Delfzijl, a small town squatting on the low coast in the extreme northeast of the Netherlands....

So begins one of my favorite Maigret mysteries by that publishing phenomenon Georges Simenon (1903-1989).

Un Crime en Holland is the eighth of ten (ten!) Maigret crime novels Simenon published in 1931, although it was not published in English until 1940, under the title of, naturally enough, A Crime in Holland, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.  Since 1980 it has been published in Britain and the United States under the title Maigret in Holland, evidently in an attempt to distinguish  the novel as one of the Maigret series, rather than one of Simenon's roman durs, or hard ("noir") novels*

*(note: the publishing history detail above is drawn from the fantastic Maigret website).

So, why do I like this novel so much?

Three reasons, I think: first, Simenon's portrayal of the Dutch setting; second, the novel's resemblance to a classical British mystery, which is much more pronounced than what one usually encounters in the Maigret series; and third, though the novel is written in Simenon's rather spare early style (and a new English translation is badly needed), there is in it some interesting character psychology and wit.

Maigret is in Holland semi-officially, to look into the shooting death of a native that has involved a French citizen, Professor Jean Duclos, a distinguished criminologist traveling on a lecture tour through northern Europe.  On page two, we are given a list provided by Duclos to Maigret of the victim, Conrad Popinga, a teacher of cadets on the training ship at Delfzijl, and potential suspects in the killing: Liesbeth Popinga, his wife, daughter of the headmaster of a lycee in Amsterdam; Any van Elst, Liesbeth's younger sister, a would-be professional woman recently awarded a law degree; and Beetje Liewens, a nearby farmer's daughter.

Maigret soon discovers additional suspects, including the father of the fetching Beetje and Cornelius ("Cor"), a cadet on the training ship possibly infatuated with her.  Then there are the actual material clues, the butt of a Manila cigar and a sailor's cap left at the scene of the crime....Could the killer have been someone from Popinga's past life as a captain in the merchant service?

This is one Maigret that actually could have used a house floor plan (plans are referred to in the text, but we never see them).  Popinga was shot outside his house by someone, the police believe, in the house. The logistics of who was where when come under serious scrutiny; and they do matter, though Maigret seems to discount those clues of the cap and the cigar and psychology plays an important role in his deductions.  In the closing chapters Maigret even stage manages a reenactment of the night of the murder.

When writing Maigret in Holland Simenon seems to have been thinking of the more classical style, clue-oriented English detective novel, for in the book he includes satire about the methodical, materialistic, scientific detective, as represented by the criminologist, Professor Duclos. The Great Man condescends to Maigret at every turn. Simenon portrays Duclos as a pompous ass of an intellectual, arrogantly certain that he can reduce crime investigation to an exact scientific formula.  We enjoy seeing him naturally getting his ultimate comeuppance at the hands of Maigret.

Maigret in Holland also is of interest for Simenon's portrayal of the straitlaced, conservative, bourgeois Dutch community in which Maigret uncomfortably finds himself. Fans of classical English detection often maintain that the incongruity of murder in genteel surroundings heightens reader interest in the story, and I think Maigret in Holland supports this contention. Certainly Simenon himself through his character Maigret seems to express such a point of view:

Georges Simenon
Such quiet, such serenity--it was almost too perfect, so perfect that it was difficult for a Frenchman to believe that life here was life at all.  Was it?  Or was it all as flat and artificial as a picture postcard?

Turning his back on that scene to study the town, [Maigret] was faced by well-built, well-painted houses, windows beautifully clean, curtains spotless, cactuses on every windowsill.  But what was behind those windows?

Raymond Chandler thought murder needed to be taken out of the Venetian vase and dropped into the alley, but what happens when murder shatters one of those fine Venetian vases (or perhaps in this case we should say a Delft vase)?  Maigret of course eventually answers the question of what messy things went on behind those pristine Dutch windows--to his own satisfaction, if not that of the local inhabitants:

Early next morning Maigret took the 5:05 from the small station at Delfzijl.  He was alone. Nobody had thanked him. Nobody had come to see him off.

Monday, April 16, 2012

An Orgy of Death: Desire to Kill (1934), Alice Campbell

In his interesting and influential but in my view often rather biased and one-sided analysis of classical English detective novels and thrillers, Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and Their Audience (1971), Colin Watson portrays the Golden Age English mystery as quite straight-laced, sexually speaking, with blushing crime fiction writers of the day able to bring themselves to refer only “obliquely” to “coital encounters.”

"The political tone [of the between-the-wars English mystery novel] was conservative save in a handful of instances,” pronounces Watson.  He expounds:

As for morals, it would be difficult to point to any other single branch of popular entertainment that conformed more strictly to current notions of decency. [...] An almost Victorian reticence continued to be observed in crime fiction for decades after treatment of unsavory topics had come to be accepted, within limits, as a legitimate feature of the straight novel.

Colin Watson likely never read Alice Campbell’s 1934 crime novel Desire to Kill.

Admittedly, the novel is set in France (specifically Paris), where, as I mentioned in the other's day's Virgil Markham piece, many Anglo-American readers no doubt could more easily accept the presence of moral decadence in human life. Still, the plot itself quite strikingly involves elements (drugs, homosexuality, prostitution and sexual voyeurism) that would be right at home in the unbuttoned and unzipped modern mystery.

Alice Ormond Campbell (1887-?) herself was an American, though, like John Dickson Carr, she is associated with the English school of mystery. Originally she came from Atlanta, Georgia, where she was part of the socially prominent Ormond family.

Alice Ormond moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and quickly became a socialist and women’s suffragist (this according the blurb on a 1939 Penguin paperback edition of one of her books — evidently Penguin did not deem it necessary to shield potential readers from knowledge of this author’s less than conservative background).

The adventurous Ormond moved to Paris some time around 1910 ("Paris was where the twentieth century was," memorably declared Gertrude Stein).  There she married the American-born artist and writer James Lawrence Campbell and had a son in 1914. After World War One, the family left France for England, where Campbell continued writing crime fiction until 1950 (the year The Corpse Had Red Hair appeared).

The first Alice Campbell mystery novel was Juggernaut, a highly-praised tale of the murderous machinations of a villainous doctor.  Some delighted critics compared it to works by Wilkie Collins, A. E. W. Mason and Marie Belloc Lowndes.  Additionally, Juggernaut was adapted into a film starring Boris Karloff in 1936--see left.)

Throughout the rest of the pre-WW2 period, most of her crime tales were set, like Juggernaut, in France.  Desire to Kill is one of the French novels. Like many Alice Campbell crime stories, it is more a tale of suspense, though there is notable detection in the form of attempts by a couple amateur investigators to pin the crime on the true villain (after World War Two Campbell was admitted to England's prestigious Detection Club).

The Sunday Referee pronounced that Desire to Kill "denotes a master craftsman of the mystery genre," due to lifelike characters, brilliant dialogue and "unusually ingenious" plot; while Dorothy L. Sayers praised the novel “for the soundness of the charactersation and the lively vigor of the writing,” which helped lift the narrative out of “sheer melodrama.”

And melodramatic the tale is! The opening sequence, which concerns the events at socialite heiress Dorinda Quarles’ bohemian drug party, is well-conveyed. Sybaritic “Dodo” Quarles imbibes deeply and frequently at the well of moneyed decadence:

The girl was by all accounts coarse, flamboyant, untrammeled by scruples or breeding; indiscriminate in love, and with a capacity for drink which led her to the open boast that, like a certain gentleman of Half-Moon Street, she never breakfasted, but was sick at eleven….

Dodo’s latest wicked pash is the cult-like new religion of the Bannister Mowbray--obviously, in the eyes of the respectable, an utter charlatan and degenerate (Mowbray almost assuredly is modeled after the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley, 1875-1947):

Rumour had it he came of a good Highland family, his mother a Greek, and that in a remote past he had been sent down from his university for dubious practices. At all events he was known to have delved deep into mysteries the normal being eschewed, and to have founded a cult which, after being hounded from place to place, was now domiciled in Corsica. Just what went on in the circle of his initiates no outsider could definitely state, but credible report declared the man’s readiness to prey on the infatuated disciples who clung to him with a strange devotion.

Bannister Mowbray sounds suspiciously
like Aleister Crowley
Bannister Mowbray’s current “henchman and slave” is Ronald Cleeves, the handsome son and heir of Lord Conisbrooke. The author compares him, in a suggestive image, to a “pure Greek temple…invaded by a band of satyrs.”  

Later on Campbell’s amateur detective, the brash, American-born freelance journalist Tommy Rostetter, visits the two men at Ronald’s Parisian abode and finds them “wearing dressing-gowns” and sitting “close together, in earnest discussion over bowls of café au lait.”  

About the nature of the relationship between this pair the author dares everything but shriek its name--surely even the most ingenuous 1930s reader got the idea!

Other characters in the novel — all guests as Dodo’s party — include:

Peter Hummock, originally of South Bend, Indiana. “Ranked as the most pestiferous social nuisance in Paris,” Hummock nominally deals in antiques and designs tea-gowns “for middle-western compatriots” but spends most of his time “in a tireless dash from one gay function to another, impervious to snubs, detailing scandal.”

Mrs. Cope-Villiers, “familiarly known as Dick…a reputed addict to cocaine.”

“The glum and taciturn Australian poetess, Maud Daventry.” A neighbor of Tommy’s first mentioned in Campbell’s earlier Rostetter mystery, The Click of the Gate (1932), Tommy has “nothing against her, little alluring as she was her soggy complexion, mannish dinner-jacket, and untidy mop of hair invariably flecked with cigarette-ash."

Announcing that Dodo’s party guests have consumed a powerful hallucinogenic drug, Bannister Mowbray promises them the thrill of intense dreams:

They will tend toward wish-fulfillment, of course, but the character will vary with the individual. All I can predict is that if any one of you cherishes a desire ordinarily forbidden, he may…taste an illusory joy of accomplishment.

This one involves drunks, not dopers.
During the period when all the guests at Dodo’s party are ostensibly in drug-induced stupors, Dodo is brutally stabbed to death—a rather Manson-like culmination of events (the situation also resembles that found in Adam Hobhouse's The Hangover Murders, published the next year--though in that novel the particular sybaritic group stupor is alcohol induced).

Apparently someone indeed had cherished an ordinarily forbidden desire, a desire to kill; and its accomplishment in those dark hours was not at all illusory.

When a woman he believes innocent is implicated in Dodo’s murder, Tommy investigates to discover what truly happened at this decadent affair. He finds that the dead Dodo is not exactly missed:

“Who cares a hoot if she did stick a knife into the worthless bitch?”
 “Well, what was she, then? You tell me a nice name for her.”

Despite encountering indifference and resistance on almost all sides, Tommy perseveres in his investigation and eventually discovers an amazing answer to his problem. Proving it, however, becomes a perilous endeavor indeed for him.

Desire to Kill looks at numerous naughty
aspects of Parisan nightlife
Much of the later part of the novel involves goings-on at a house of prostitution where, for a price, the madam allows those voyeurs who like to look but not touch access to strategically placed peepholes, so that they may watch the house’s illicit couples coupling. The lingering look that Alice Campbell provides of sexual voyeurism strikes me as unusual fare for a book published by the respectable Collins Crime Club!

Though Campbell never directly describes sexual acts, reticent she is not in Desire to Kill.  In terms of subject matter the novel certainly offers something outside the beaten Golden Age track — and the mystery is not at all a fizzle either.  I found the tale superior to the immediately preceding Tommy Rostetter mystery, The Click of the Gate (a suspense thriller about a kidnapping, also set in France).

Desire to Kill is herewith recommended as an antidote to conventional wisdom about the detective fcition genre in its Golden Age and for its sheer entertainment value as an intriguing and exotic mystery.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"It's French this time, but don't let that dismay you": Red Warning (1933), by Virgil Markham

Virgil Markham (1899-1973) spent over half his life in the shadow of his father, the once renowned and much beloved poet and man of letters Edwin Markham (1852-1940), author of "The Man with the Hoe," in the first half or so of the twentieth century one of the most celebrated American poems (it was inspired by the famous Jean-Francois Millet painting).  Actually, I should say more than half his life, because even after his father died, Virgil Markham was the tender of his father's literary reputation, still best known for being the son of Edwin Markham.

Virgil Markham's fourth mystery novel takes place in France
--a good part of the time on a train

Yet Virgil Markham was an interesting person in his own right.  He received a B.A. from Columbia University and an an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley (his 1923 thesis was titled The Satirical Method of Addison and Steele).  In the 1920s he taught at UC-Berkeley's Cora L. Williams Institute for Creative Education and the University of California Extension Division. Under the auspices of the latter Markham in 1929 launched what was called the first university class on mystery literature, "The Development and Technique of the Mystery Story."

The Markham Home in Staten Island
After traveling in Europe for half of 1925, Markham in 1926 published The Scamp, a picaresque historical novel set in Europe.  He would use European settings as well for six of the eight mystery novels he published between 1928 and 1936.

These are:

Death in the Dusk (1928)
The Black Door (1930) (in England, Shock!)
The Devil Drives (1932) (reprinted by Ramble House)
Red Warning (1933) (in England, Song of Death)
Inspector Rusby's Finale (1933)
The Dead Are Prowling (1934)
The Deadly Jest (1935)
Snatch (1936)

Markham's work often won positive critical notice (his last six novels were published in England by the prestigious Collins Crime Club), but are little remembered today.  I suspect the books may have been victims of their own originality (not to say strangeness).

Virgil Markham obviously was not content to do the same old thing with the mystery story, to steer his narratives over worn-out ruts, but rather was looking for different and exciting ways of working with the form.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940),
famous father of Virgil Markham
He certainly found them!  In a very interesting piece on Markham's first and best-known mystery novel, Death in the Dusk, blogger TomCat asserts that it rivals Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Frederic Brown's Night of the Jabberwock "in the race for most outlandish detective story ever contrived."*

*(see"The Grim Fairy-Tale of Parson Lolly")

On the other hand, that great detective fiction traditionalist Jacques Barzun lauded Markham's novel Inspector Rusby's Finale in the highest terms and more reservedly praised another, The Black Door.

So!  What,do I think of the Markham title under review here, Red Warning?

Inscribing a copy of Red Warning to an American friend, Markham humorously warned him, "It's French this time, but don't let that dismay you."

Certainly the novel is unbridled in its modernism, doubtlessly owing something to its French setting (Anglo-American readers seem to have had an easier time accepting that racy things happen in France).

Dust jacket flap
of Snatch
showing a photo of
Virgil Markham
Jack Bishop, the hero of Red Warning, is a former California philosophy professor gone to seed, living his life among cafe inebriates and prostitutes due to a failed love affair with rising American opera star Elsie Ritter.

Jack clearly is not a model mystery genre hero for the day, nor is Elsie a typical heroine, being that rarest  of things among Golden Age putative good girls, a girl who is CNAV (Clearly Not A Virgin). For good measure she also smokes, drinks and swears (how long will she keep her voice?).

During the course of the novel these two--who their despite their falling-out are still madly in love with each other--are thrown back together by criminal circumstance. Someone has been sending Elsie "red warnings"--threats of danger and impending death, all with something red in the design.

There is also the matter of the fantastically valuable emerald necklace given to Elsie by one of her most infatuated admirers, the wheelchair-bound American millionaire Waldo Torrens.

The necklace is the object of desire of the Fox, the greatest jewel thief in Europe.  Rather worrisomely, it appears that the Fox not only has the habit of theft, but also that of strangling his victims, all the while singing operatic totenlieder in the most superb basso profundo.

the suspects, erm, passengers board the death train

Also in the character mix is the enigmatic Baron Gluck, yet another of Elsie's admirers. What is his game, exactly?  And are Torrens' valet and secretary really what they seem to be?  Is Madame Torrens, the millionaire's addled mother, quite all there?  And what about Elsie's doctor and another American who is so obviously American as to seem ersatz? Or the mysterious scientific researcher, M. Roche?

The plot device of the red warnings reminds me a great deal of two detective novels from the 1980s, Photo-Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh (threatened opera star again) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) by P. D. James (threatened actress).

However Markham's narrative unfolds much more impressionistically and confusingly, as the scene shifts from Paris then to a night train then to a villa in Avignon.  The reader sometimes may wonder whether everything that is happening is really happening. Red Warning reads less like a classical detective novel and more like an Edgar Wallace mystery thriller, with heavy lashings of Georges Simenon and William Faulkner.

The basic plot of this 1980
Ngaio Marsh detective novel
resembles that of Red Warning--
but oh! what different places they go!
Yet when the explanation is offered at the end, one realizes there were clues embedded in the text.  I think I understood it all by then, though I am not completely sure.

I may have to read The Psychology of Thought, by American psychologist and college professor Harry Levi Hollingsworth (1880-1957), apparently a former teacher of Markham's at Columbia University.  This book gets quite a work-out from the author in the final pages of Red Warning.

Red Warning is quite a sophisticated book for the period--not an easy read, but an interesting one.  I am glad I read it, and I will read more works by this author--no matter the country in which they happen to be set!

Note: The tour of France will continue the upcoming week with reviews of works by Alice Campbell, Georges Simenon and Stanislas-Andre Steeman.  See you soon!--The Passing Tramp.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Bosh!": The Marvelous Marginalia of Lieutenant-General Coote Synge-Hutchinson (1832-1902), Part 2

Note: For Part One of Bosh! see here.

In his personal copy of Great Porter Square: A Mystery (1885), Benjamin Farjeon's first sensation novel, Coote Synge-Hutchinson writes words in the margins of sixty-nine out of 372 pages, nearly a fifth of them.  Additionally, there are copious lines, question marks and squiggles.  If the marks are included, scarcely a page is left unscathed.

Coote Synge-Hutchinson found this novel
something less than sensational
Some modern readers have declared over the years that they find the sentimentality and plot contrivances of some Victorian sensation novels unbearable.

Coote Synge-Hutchinson (let's call him CSH from here on out), though a Victorian himself, in this respect appears to belong in the company of the scoffing moderns.

CSH initially contented himself with making question marks challenging the author on a number of points concerning simple logic or matters of politics.

In regard to the latter, CSH questioned, for example, aspersions cast by the author on the police.  When Farjeon writes that

It is a peculiarity of policemen in private clothes that they are always ready to suspect, and that in their eyes every poor-looking person with whose face they are not familiar is a disreputable character.

This earns a ? from CSH in the margin of page 35.

It is not until page fifty, however, that CSH apparently felt compelled to put words to paper to protest the course of the events in the tale.

As represented by Farjeon, the character Antony Cowlrick has been released by the court on the grounds of the prosecution's not being able to present any evidence against him on the charge of murder.

Cowlrick attempts to evade the mob outside the court and is pursued by it, its bloodlust having been stirred. After the chase has gone on a bit, Cowlrick's attorney, Mr. Goldberry, and the novel's heroic reporter character (called our Reporter) step up and defuse the situation.  "How," demands CSH

did Mr. Goldberry and the Reporter manage to be here considering that AC has been represented as running though several streets?

Once he started in this vein, CSH evidently found it hard to stop.  When Farjeon tells of a lady who "was young, and an orphan" and "whose relatives were far away in the country" so that "she was alone in London," CSH responds:

a curious position for a young lady to be in?

Much of Farjeon's novel is told in the form of ostensible newsppaer accounts from our Reporter.  Often CSH doubted the plausibility of these accounts, such as this one:

Amused, and, as he declared to her, charmed out of himself, our Reporter said, somewhat jocosely:
"Why, what would you have done if you had been born a man instead of a woman?"
"I am afraid," she said, in a half-whisper, and with her finger on her lips, as though enjoining him not to betray her, "I am afraid I should have been a dreadful rake."

To this CSH dryly declared:

curious conversation to put into a newspaper

Sometimes CSH's protests involve not logical points but philosophical or political ones. When Cowlrick tells Mr. Goldberry that he is not grateful to him for his legal service, because God would not have allowed an innocent man like himself to be convicted of the murder and God does not need the assistance of lawyers, CSH points outs, in a challenge to this piece of high-flown oratory:

Yet he [God] has ordered us to use human means.

When a character pronounces, with fine democratic idealism, that a certain woman is a "daughter of Eve, and therefore the equal of a queen," CSH is disgusted:

What utter rot: I suppose the author goes in for manhood suffrage!

When a character approvingly refers to the United States as "the wonderful country which one day is to rule the world," CSH patriotically is having none of that, vehemently scribbling:

Bah! Stuff! Nonsense!

Unlike Farjeon, CSH seems to hold the press in contempt.  When our Reporter assures Cowlrick that the press will keep covering his story, because newspaper readers are eager for details about anyone "connected with an atrocious crime," CSH disapprovingly queries:

Is not that pandering to a morbid sentiment?

When Farjeon writes "Such is the power of the newspaper.  To convey to remote distances, into village and city, to the firesides of the poor and rich, the records of ennobling deeds," CSH again is having none of it:

Papers, I should say, have been a far greater curse than a blessing.

Farjeon gives us Fanny, the plucky little match girl,
though Coote Synge-Hutchinson disputes
 the contention that more happiness
 is to be found among the poor than the rich
Our Reporter offers what the great anti-Victorian mystery writer John Dickson Carr no doubt would have called a pious hymn, to the effect that "more happiness is to be found among the poor than among the rich" (this in the section where the author introduces to us a sweet-natured street waif named Fanny, who is, I kid you not, a little match girl).  To this CSH scoffs:

Oh really!

After the first 100 pages, CSH was no longer able to restrain himself at what he saw as the novel's illogic and sentimentalism and began openly denouncing various characters as asolute idiots, often adding his seemingly favorite exclamations, "Bosh!" "Rot!" and "Stuff!"  

When CSH finds that the young orphan lady's bonds, her sole source of income, are forgeries and that her prospective banker, Mr. Holdfast, generously declares he will cover her loss, CSH is thunderstruck:

What an idiot he must have been!

When the young lady lightly confesses to Mr. Holdfast that the purse of money he gave her was snatched from her in the streets of London and that she spent her absolutely last coins buying cakes for two poor children, Mr. Holdfast is "almost overcome with her childish innocence, simplicity, and kindness."  Not CSH, who sneers:

Oh crikey, what an idiot.

When one character reflects that a young man's fondness for a young woman is nothing to worry about, because "He is but a boy," CSH counters:

What an idiot!

CSH frequently was unmoved and unpersuaded by the author's depiction of events.  When the little match-girl Fanny and her protector Becky happen in the streets of London to stumble into each other after some time has passed, CSH is not touched but disgusted:

How is it all these convenient things happen in novels?

In the early 20th century Carolyn Wells
declared that gravity clues were overdone
Coote Synge-Hutchinson would have agreed!
Similarly, when a woman drops a ring and earring at the crime scene and cannot find them (mystery writer and critic Carolyn Wells called these oh-so convenient droppings "gravity clues"), CSH declares:

Bosh.  Why should she not find them.  All these things so conveniently happen in novels.

It is the ingenuous character of Frederick Holdfast (son of Mr. Holdfast) who most gets CSH's goat, however.

Frederick Holdfast informs us that a male character set up a female character, a lady thrown on hard times, in a house in the suburbs, but that the relationship was completely platonic:

"[T]he intimacy between the two was perfectly innocent...Sydney treated and regarded Grace with such love and respect as he would have bestowed upon a beloved sister.  It was not as a sister he loved her, but there was no guilt in their association."

"To believe this of most men would have been difficult," concedes Frederick Holdfast, to which CSH responds knowingly:

I should say so, indeed.

When Frederick explains that Sydney was able to cajole London society into treating Grace respectfully, CSH demurs:

Utter bosh.  London society, however bad it may be, cannot be cajoled.

When Frederick finds the woman his father loves is a ruthless schemer, he holds his tongue, provoking CSH to comment:

What utter stuff.  He must have been a queer son never to have said anything to his father.

When Fredrick like an absolute ninny continues to allow himself to be bamboozled by this adventuress, on account of her womanly pleading, CSH writes disgustedly:

The author appears to have collected about the greatest lot of idiots I ever came across.

A few pages later he simply writes Bah!

When Frederick gets a condemnatory letter ostensibly from his father, CSH sensibly asks:

Was it in his father's handwriting?

Sure enough, it wasn't, but Frederick, like all the nice people in Farjeon's novel, naively steps into the bad people's snare.

"Oh indeed," reiterates a triumphant CSH, "does he not know, as a son, his father's handwriting?"

As perhaps is clear by now, I enjoyed the marginalia of Coote Synge-Hutchinson more than the novel itself.  For me his acerbic commentary made an excessively sentimental tale much more bearable.  But about these matters perhaps I am as cynical as the Lieutenant-General appears to have been.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Bosh!": The Marvelous Marginalia of Lieutenant-General Coote Synge-Hutchinson (1832-1902)

First, prepare yourself for some Synge-Hutchinson genealogy!

Coote Synge-Hutchinson (1832-1902) was a son of Francis Synge-Hutchinson (1802-1833) and Lady Louisa Frances Synge-Hutchinson.  Coote Synge-Hutchinson's grandfather, Edward Synge-Hutchinson (1756-1846), was an Anglo-Irish baronet. The baronetcy was inherited in 1846 by Coote Synge-Hutchinson's slightly older brother, Edward Synge-Hutchinson (1830-1906).

Coote Synge-Hutchinson went into the British army, a common course for younger brothers not inheriting baronetcies.  This action put him on a path toward momentous events in India in the 1850s.

In his twenties as a Major in the Second Dragoon Guards Coote Synge-Hutchinson was awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal, with Lucknow clasp, for his service with the 2nd Dragoon Guards at the Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (located in northeastern India, Lucknow today is the capital city of the state of Uttar Pradesh).

detail from "The Relief of Lucknow, 1857," (1859)
by Thomas Jones Barker
see here for a interesting webpage
with this illustration and also that of an
Indian Mutiny Medal with Lucknow Clasp

Eventually Coote Synge-Hutchinson was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.  At the age of 56, long retired from bloody colonial contretemps, Coote Synge Hutchinson married Emily Charlotte Jecks, with whom two years later he produced a daughter, Haidee (1890-?). Haidee married and had a twin son and daughter, Patrick and Jean, in 1910.  Five years ago, in 2007, family members sold Coote Synge-Hutchinson's Indian Mutiny Medal, along with a ribbon bar awarded to his nephew Major Edward Douglas Brown, at auction for 2128 pounds.

In 1885, a few years before Coote Synge-Hutchinson achieved the state of matrimony, a contemporary, the prolific author Benjamin Leopold Farjeon (1838-1903), published Great Porter Square: A Mystery, one of his most popular books.  Farjeon himself called the novel "my first great success in sensational fiction."  

Coote Synge-Hutchinson's copy
of Great Porter Square
I am a great admirer of Farjeon's Devlin the Barber (1888) (see my review) and another, lesser-known work by him called The Nine of Hearts (1886), but Great Porter Square is one of those really long Victorian sensation novels--for me too rife with sententious and sentimental utterance--that tends to try my patience.  Farjeon himself reflected that he had no idea where the plot of Great Porter Square was going from day to day: "Each installment of that story ended with a sensation, and I never knew when I wrote it what the sensation was to lead to."  (for Farjeon's comments see Current Literature: A Magazine of Record and Review 26 (July-December 1899), p. 20)

In my view this perhaps is not the greatest recipe for higher artistic success in a murder mystery.

Apparently neither was it for Lieutenant-General Coote Synge-Hutchinson, as we shall most definitely see!

Benjamin Farjeon was described in The Author in 1891 as "below the medium height, with a jolly, round face and small side-whiskers."  Farjeon was a loving, open-hearted family man with a wife, daughter of the American actor Joseph Jefferson, and four delightful, precocious children: Harry, Joe (future Golden Age thriller writer, as readers of this blog will know--see here), Nelly (future children's author) and Bertie.  He also was, one surmises, though a staunch royalist somewhat politically liberal for the day (certainly he was much concerned with the plight of the poor).  All in all, no doubt a wonderful fellow, the best one could expect of a family man at the height of the Victorian age.

Benjamin Farjeon, author of Great Porter Square
Those side whiskers look rather large to me!
Was Coote Synge-Hutchinson more the choleric, conservative, intolerant and imperious ex-Indian army man, so familiar a fictional stereotype to generations of Agatha Christie readers ("Major Porter, late Indian army, rustled his newspaper and cleared his throat. Everyone avoided his eye, but it was no use....")?

I do hope to learn more about Coote Synge-Hutchinson someday; but in the meantime we must judge the man by his fascinating marginalia in his copy of Great Porter Square.  For this, please return for our second installment (coming soon!).