Saturday, September 15, 2012

Social Death: Death for Dear Clara (1937), by Q. Patrick

Q. Patrick is one of the more complicated mystery pseudonyms, hiding as it does four different people:

Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966)
Martha Mott Kelley
Mary Louise White Aswell
Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987)

The two women, Kelley and Aswell, participated in four of the first five Q. Patrick books--Kelley in the first two, Aswell in the last two--with Richard Webb: Cottage Sinister (1931), Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), S. S. Murder (1933) and The Grindle Nightmare (1935). Webb authored Murder at Cambridge (1933) solo.

It seems that Dear Clara
was not such a dear
Beginning in 1936 with the sixth QP book, Death Goes to School, Richard Webb found a new writing partner, Hugh Wheeler.  Born in 1912, Wheeler surely must rate as one of the youngest mystery novelists of the Golden Age of detective fiction (1920-1939). Webb and Wheeler (described by their publisher Simon & Schuster in 1937 as "two very brilliant young men who write as one") went on to author four more Q. Patrick novels after Death Goes to School including the book under review here, Death for Dear Clara (1937), as well as two 1938 crime file type books (collections of documents laying out a murder puzzle), The File on Fenton and Farr and The File on Claudia Cragge.

It gets even more complicated, however, because Webb and Wheeler began writing another series of mysteries, under the name Patrick Quentin (who knows how they came up with that one).

Between 1936 and 1952, the two "brilliant young men" (okay, Webb wasn't so young by 1952), published nine PQ mysteries, to go along with the five QP mysteries (and the two crime file books). After 1952, Webb dropped out of the partnership and Wheeler went on to write seven more PQ crime novels, from 1954 to 1965 (did he deliberately retire the series when Webb died, one wonders).

But, wait, it gets more complicated yet, because Webb and Wheeler started yet another mystery series in 1936, under yet another pen name, Jonathan Stagge.  The pair published nine Stagge detective novels between 1936 and 1949. 

So Webb and Wheeler proved quite a prolific team, under three pseudonyms producing 21 novels and 2 crime file books, all in the years from 1936 to 1952.  Connoisseurs of Golden Age mystery fiction consider their work to be some of the best from their time, yet their books are out of print and have been so since the 1990s, when some Patrick Quentins were reprinted by the late lamented IPL (International Polygonics, Ltd).

You want mysteries, now there's a mystery!  Making this neglect even queerer is the fact that Hugh Wheeler went on to become even more prominent after 1965.  Wheeler won Tony Awards in the 1970s for his books for the musicals A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd.  You may have heard of those little shows!

Back to Death for Dear Clara, however.  This is a fine example of a Golden Age detective novel, with a sophisticated milieu, some amusing writing and an impressively twisty ending.  QP has the skill of the greatest detective novelists--Christie, Carr, Queen--of keeping readers guessing.  Yet as with Christe, Carr and Queen, the problem also is fairly clued.  I would say Death for Dear Clara is a model of the more sophisticated 1930s Golden Age detective novel.  In a sensible world, this book would have remained in print.

The "Dear Clara" of the title is hoity toity Clara Van Heuten, who was forced to find employment of some sort after losing her money at the age of fifty (hey, this is something people should be able to relate to today).  She ran an apparently highly remunerative literary advice bureau (I was kind of reminded of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis going into book editing later in life).  When Clara is found stabbed to death in her office, however, it turns out that this respectable society matron had something to hide, as do her clients.  There prove to be quite a few suspects in her murder.

Timothy Trant, the police detective introduced by QP to solve the murder of dear Clara, is a pleasing character.  An amiable, attractive graduate of Kent School, Connecticut and Princeton, he gets all those high society murders that would, of course, flummox your typical flatfoot cop (or so runs the thinking in much of Golden Age mystery, in both the United States and England).

QP dubs Trant "the force's professional amateur," signaling to readers that they are in for a hybrid detective, on the order of Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn (a professional police detective who behaves something like a gentleman amateur).

My favorite passage from the book is one describing his "bachelor apartment" abode.  QP goes out of the way to distinguish Trant from your classic eccentric detectives, your Wimseys, Wolfes, Holmeses, Queens and Vances.

unlike this smart guy
Tim Trant is no orchid fancier
[Trant's] apartment was comfortable without being ultra-modern or depressingly decadent.  It boasted no orchids, no priceless objet d'art, no first editions.  There were no specially monogrammed Persian cigarettes, no quaintly shaped pipes of meerschaum or any other material.  At his bedside there lay no limply leathered Religio Medici.  And his colored boy, Oscar, while reasonably efficient, was utterly without story value.

Now, I know that the last line quoted above used a term that is objectionable today, but I have to agree with the implied barb about the ostensible "story value" of Ellery Queen's Romany (?) houseboy, Djuna.  By the way, here's an interesting piece by Margot Kinberg on the subject of insensitive language in Golden Age detective novels: You Can't Say That!!  Ellery Queen and Djuna are mentioned.

Another good character is the mercurial Princess Patricia Walonska (nee Cheney).  Once "the debutante to end all debutantes" ("Her wild escapades had run neck and neck on the front pages with the downward careening of stock pices"), then a liberal do-gooder--"the champion and the terror of Manhattan's unemployed"--the one-time madcap heiress, having married a Russian aristocrat, is now a royalist with "a regal bearing worthy of Marie Antoinette and an imminent guillotine."

Fans of Golden Age detective novels should definitely like this one.


  1. As a fan of Patrick Quentin/Quentin Patrick (etc), I've been trying to find an affordable copy of this book for a while. No luck yet.

    Inspector Trant appears in a number of novels, including the excellent Death and the Maiden, one of my all time favorites. Unfortunately, most of the rest are quite hard to find.

  2. Mark,

    I checked Maiden and, yes, I see Trant appears there. Also in The File on Claudia Cragge, one of the Crimefile books. Don't believe he appears in others?

    It's a shame about the rarity of so many of the, um, conglomerate's books.

  3. Trant also appears, alongside Duluth, in the excellent Black Widow.

  4. TomCat,

    Thanks for the link. I see you review Death and the Maiden as well. Sounds like one I should be reading soon.

  5. Thanks for your insightful review, Curt. You should try “Death and the Maiden”, to me one of the all-time classics, even better than “The Grindle Nightmare”, a book that Anthony Boucher praised so much.
    You are right, many books of this strange collaboration are very hard to find (specially the first UK editions of the Q. Patrick books; by the way, the year of publication of “Danger Next Door” is 1951, NOT 1952; I have a first edition of that book and I have checked it).
    I think that a full length biography/study on the lives and works of this fascinating partnership is very much required now, and I think also that only you have the strength and the expertise to begin a hard job like that. It would be a wonderful gift for all of us.
    The Webb/Wheeler collaboration started in 1936, but the first book they published that year was written almost certainly by Webb alone. It was dedicated to his parents and when the copyright expired, it was renewed only by Webb.

    1. Hi Mauro,

      that's very interesting, are you referring to Death Goes to School? Death for Dear Clara does seem like a break from the past, with its setting and introduction of Trant.

      It would be interesting to do a book on these people, thanks. I did get in touch with a daughter of Aswell a couple years ago, but Jeff and I never got off the ground with the project, got on to other things.

  6. I've never seen a copy of this book. Do you know which singleton or group was the Q. Partick who wrote "The Girl on the Gallows" for the Gold Medal classic murder trial series?

    1. Bill,

      I assume given the date it would have been Wheeler solo, but that's simply a surmise based on the publication date.

  7. Yes, Curt, I’m referring to “Death Goes to School”, another fascinating book that surely deserves to be reprinted (if only publishers all over the world knew their backlists!). In the first paragraph, there is the famous sentence that enchanted Maurice Bernard Endrebe, a personal friend of Webb’s in France and a excellent translator of the Patrick/Quentin opus: “It was the middle of the year, the middle of the week, the middle of the term, the middle of the afternoon…” Endrebe speaks also of an curious encounter in Paris between the young Webb and Marcel Proust, no less.
    I still hope that you and Jeff can do that Patrick Quentin biography. And surely Wheeler’s name will be still remembered at Hollywood. So no mission impossible for you both! 
    Here in Italy, at least, Patrick Quentin’s name is far to be forgotten. Last August, Mondadori republished on my advice another strong entry in the Peter Duluth series: “My Son the Murderer” (written by Wheeler alone).

    1. Somehow these authors seem to be able to get reprinted in Italy (a few John Rhodes have been too, though I can make no headway with American publication).

      I have a copy of Death Goes to School, but it's the abridged paperback version with cheap, cheap paper and terrible type.

    2. Who do you think advised Mondadori to publish those Rhode/ Burton titles in Italy? Yes, your obedient servant. I'm specially proud that an excellent novel like "Three Corpse Trick", one of Major Street's masterpieces, could finally be read also by the Italian public.

  8. I had a paperback copy of this and had I but known the book itself was a true rarity (not just the paperback edition) I would have held onto it for dear life. Of course, I sold it in one of my desperate moods when we needed to raise cash for a well deserved vacation. Now that paperback copy is nowhere to be found from any online seller! And I never got to read it either. Bummer.

    Trant has near supernatural powers in DEATH IN THE MAIDEN, his debut in mysterydom. He's called a wizard several times, he seems to read minds and can predict behavior of the suspects. He calls the protagonist by her full name ("Lee Lovering, you are a smart girl." "Tell me, Lee Lovering..." You get the idea.) making him seem like one of those kindly aliens from 1950s sci-fi cinema. I made several notes about this and intended to write about it on my blog. Then I discovered there were already several blog reviews of DEATH AND THE MAIDEN and I bagged the idea.

  9. I have checked again my first edition copies (US and UK)of “Death Goes to School” and I have just discovered an interesting thing in the Cassell edition (the true first). The printer’s code opposite the title page says “1135”, that’s to say, as was usual with Cassell in those years, “November 1935”. So if the book went to the printer at the end of 1935 and NOT in 1936, that is the proof that it was written by Webb alone (or in any case not by Wheeler, as their partnership began the following year).
    I seem to be the first to have realized that; no mention in any reference book on detective fiction known to me. It could be a starting point for the biography, Curt. :)

    1. Mauro is too humble. In recent times, the following titles have been published: not only "The three corpse trick", but also "Poison for 1", "Shadow of an alibi", "Invisible weapons."
      Who do you think advised Mondadori to publish those Rhode/ Burton titles in Italy?
      Yes, He.
      Mauro is right. Only you could write an essay on Patrick Quentin. I think I told you in the past, and you replied to me that you thought of writing for four hands.
      No need to wait for others to associate with you: you are able to write it, you own.