Friday, October 5, 2012

The Scarlet Circle (1943), by Jonathan Stagge

October is here and thus I thought I would choose as my Friday book a spooky detective novel: Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle.

As mentioned previously here, the Jonathan Stagge series of mysteries was the brainchild of those literary wunderkinds Hugh Wheeler and Richard Wilson Webb, aka Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin.

This great Zaccone dust jacket illustration of an open grave in a dark churchyard suggests the macabre quality to The Scarlet Circle:

The Scarlet Circle benefits tremendously from its creepy setting: Cape Talisman, one of those crumbling (literally) H. P. Lovecraftian oceanside New England villages where seemingly everyone is sitting around waiting for Yog-Sothoth or some such creature to appear from another dimension.

Surprisingly there is to be found in this dying village a place of lodging: the Talisman Inn.  Equally surprisingly Jonathan Stagge's series detective, middle-aged widower Dr. Westlake, likes to vacation at the Talisman Inn with his daughter Dawn (who debuted in the series with her father seven years earlier at age ten and seems not have aged one month since).

And the Westlakes' favorite time to come visit is in September, after Labor Day, when the inn is nearly empty and the wind is apt to squall....

This year murder is added to the list of local attractions.  Three of them actually!  It seems that there is a serial murderer afoot, strangling women, laying their bodies out artistically under the eerie light of red Chinese lanterns and drawing circles with scarlet lipstick around each of their single most prominent moles.  Meanwhile, graves are being dug up in the church cemetery, also by the light of red Chinese lanterns.

How's this for a bizarre set-up?  The Scarlet Circle should be guaranteed to please devotees of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Hake Talbot, to name some of our most admired outre detective novelists.

In The Scarlet Circle the dead don't stay buried

Under the conventions of this sort of tale, Dr. Westlake is invited by the local police (in over their heads of course) to participate in (i.e., take over) their investigation.  He's solved some murder cases before, don't you know.

I suppose that the most original contribution of the Jonathan Stagge novels is the character of Dawn Westlake.  Children aren't too common a feature of Golden Age mysteries.  Dawn seems to be in the book mainly to provide comedy relief, she being one of those irrepressible Tom Sawyeresque hellions you often find in books.  Some may find her irritating (I kind of did), but I must admit that Stagge manages to integrate her into the book's resolution pretty effectively.

The setting is perfect and the characters sufficiently memorable.  Particularly striking is Mr. Usher (hmmm), the unctuous undertaker who seems rather too interested in female corpses.  Then there's Buck Valentine (now there's a name you won't forget!), the terrifically muscled lifeguard at the Talisman Inn ("Standing there in his swimming trunks, he looked like a maiden's dream of Flash Gordon"), who may have been romantically linked to all three murder victims.

There is in fact no shortage of suspects.  Moreover the plot is pleasingly complex and the clueing fair.  The Scarlet Circle is a top-drawer baffler in the classical style, and the best of the Jonathan Stagge books that I have read.


  1. I like the sound of this one! Thanks, Curt!

  2. I love these books. I've finally read all of them, having recently found an affordable copy of The Yellow Taxi (normally around hundred bucks). The Scarlet Circle is probably my favorite, with Death's Old Sweet Song being a close second, though the plotting of The Scarlet Circle pushes it ahead.

    I happen to like Dawn, but I could see how she would annoy some people. As an example of the kind of comic relief she provides, in Turn of the Table, her father sends her to camp. She sends him the following telegram to try to get him to come get her.


    I happen to find that funny and charming, but I know it would make some people gag.

    The odd thing about her role in the books is that in most of the books she's seems to barely be aware of the murders going on. She just sort of stumbles on some important bit of evidence which helps solve the case. That makes it sound like plotting is weak, but they're better than that. The solutions are generally logical and well-developed. I'm only sorry that there are no more that I haven't read.

  3. Patrick,

    Another one that should be reprinted.


    That telegram is very funny. I think Dawn got really out of hand in Scarlet though! You are right how she seems oblivious to the mystery,even as she does something important to solve it. No Flavia de Luce, she!

  4. Sounds tremendous, I must try and track it down.

  5. Really glad you enjoyed this one Curt - I'm a big fan of the Stagge books but am surprised by how little read they are these days. Bill Prozini, who in my house is known only as 'the great Bill Pronzini', is susprisingly damning of these books in 1001 MIDNIGHTS and this is a book where BP tried to be generous to a fault.

  6. I am one of those readers who finds Dawn to be a pain in the ass, far from darling or cute. Those scenes with her driving the car in The Star Spells Death? Ugh. I've only read two of these and she is the number one reason I have been reluctant to continue with the series. But this is oh so definitely a Pretty Sinister Book! Mark McGlone's seal of approval (who bought a 1st edition of The Star Spells Death from me) has decided me to find a copy ASAP.

    BTW -- That Flash Gordon analogy quoted above is another sign of Wheeler's erotic fascination leaking into the books whether as Stagge or Quentin or Patrick.

  7. John,

    Yes, Dawn's pretty out-of-control in this one, so be prepared!

    "Stagge" writes about Buck's build a good bit in this book, it's definitely noticeable.

  8. Thanks for this excellent description of this book and author. My grandmother is Charlotte Armstrong Lewi. She is a mystery novelist extrordinaire. I have read all of her books and need new authors to check out in this genre. Charlotte Armstrong Lewi's earliest books are classic who-done-it's where as later works were deeper and even more detailed and characters and places just jump of the page."The Unsuspected" is a pretty famous book. "A Dram of Poison" was a Edgar(Allen Poe) Award winning book. Thanks again for this blog.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment and for Charlotte Armstrong! I have blogged about her here several times. A Dram of Poison is one of my great favorites.

  9. Thanks you very much for your review. I just read the book, following your recommendation. It is indeed most enjoyable: nice plot, great writing, colorful characters, and--something rarely care about--a strong sense of place. Also, I found Dawn cute and, though indeed a handful at times, adding to rather than detracting from the appeal of this tale.

    1. I'm glad you liked it Christophe. This remains perhaps my favorite Stagge. Some people thought the plot was too easy but all I can say is I picked up on it pretty late in the tale and flattered myself I was clever in doing so!

    2. Stagge indeed did not make it overly difficult to have a solid suspicion of who the killer is by about half or at least two thirds of the book. But even then, I had not grasped the full picture. I have noticed that Brian Flynn did that in some of his books as well. Personally, I tend to enjoy this gentle gradual-reveal approach more than the gee-whiz-I-never-saw-that-coming wizardry at which Agatha Christie was such a master. Maybe I like to flatter myself a bit while reading :-).

    3. If I judged mysteries by the standard of whether they kept me in the dark until the very last pages, very few would make the cut, even a lot of dear Agatha's.