Friday, November 30, 2012

From Laughter to Tears: A Girl Died Laughing (1934), by Viola Paradise

In last week's forgotten book post, on Milton Propper's One Murdered, Two Dead (1936), I mentioned that the Golden Age detective novelist Milton Propper was Jewish.  Another Jewish writer who contributed to the mystery field in the 1930s was Viola Isabel Paradise (1887-1980), social worker, novelist and playwright.

A University of Chicago graduate who worked at Jane Addams' famous Hull House settlement, Viola Paradise was a vocal advocate of immigrant rights who published a number of articles about immigration matters during the Golden Age of detective fiction (c.1920-1940).  By the 1930s she had moved to New York City and was a member of the New York Jewish Social Service Association.

murder in blue
Viola Paradise found time in her busy, accomplished life to publish a single detective novel, A Girl Died Laughing, in 1934.  It was quite well-received in its day--in Saturday Review Judge Lynch, for example, rendered the verdict "Excellent" upon it--and it was published in England as well (in 1935) and reprinted in paperback in the United States (in 1944), but it is quite forgotten today.

This is a shame, for A Girl Died Laughing is a good detective novel, with a interesting, genuinely clued mystery plot and able depictions of New York City life in the 1930s.

My copy has a full page inscription from the author, about which more later.

While stopping at the apartment building of his fiancee, Adelaide Sayre, to take her out for the evening, archaeologist Sheridan Dinard (now there's an amateur detective name if I ever heard one--except he's not one) hears, behind the door of another apartment, the laughter of a "girl" (this is the 1930s, so what is meant, of course, is a woman in her twenties).

The laughter is suddenly cut off, but Dinard thinks little of that.  However, since we know we are reading a murder mystery, we know better than Sheridan Dinard, of course.

It's only when Dinard and Sayre return to the apartment building that they learn that this laughing girl--whose identity seems to be unknown--was murdered (stabbed).  And Dinard seems to the police's leading suspect!

Even though the girl who died laughing (as she is dubbed by the press) is unidentified, the crime seems to be linked with Dinard's place of work, a private archaeological museum.  The museum caretaker, an Englishman named Marlin, has disappeared.  Has he simply absconded, believing he was being accused of theft, or was he actually involved in the murder?  Has he been murdered himself?

The slain laughing girl was found in the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Coggs, Adelaide's grasping landlords from Hell (this couple is memorably portrayed).  Do they know more than they admit?

apparently Philo passed on this case
The detection is done by neither Dinard nor Sayre, but rather by the police (imagine!), most particularly Addison Alby, Assistant District Attorney.  Alby, a smart fellow and no brute (rather in contrast with Inspector Higgins), is under pressure to arrest Dinard, but he resists, clearly because he has strong reservations about Dinard's guilt.  Dinard says he is being set up by the real murderer. But why would that be?

There's a nice bit when Sheridan Dinard introduces himself to Assistant D. A. Alby (it's pleasing to think these characters all inhabit the same universe!):

"I had the pleasure of meeting you once, Mr. Philo Vance's, with Mr. Markham."

There's also help from young Joey Timmott, a hotel bellhop with ambitions to become a detective.  He's a nicely done character.

The police are convincingly portrayed too (there's even a policewoman).

All in all, A Girl Died Laughing is, I would say, a book that should please fans of Golden Age mystery, particularly those who like the Dorothy L. Sayers, S. S. Van Dine and Mignon Eberhart.  You can see influences from all these authors, I think.

a note from Paradise
Now, as mentioned above, my copy of this book has a full page inscription from the author, where she explains that she is donating this copy to the Exiled Writers Committee of the League of American Writers, to become part of its collection of Americana.

The League was formed in 1935, with the stated purpose of fostering "a truly democratic culture."  The Exiled Writers Committee succored persecuted anti-fascist writers in Europe.

Apparently the League was a Communist Front group--though of course that doesn't mean that given individual members actually were Communists (in Paradise's case, by the early 1960s at least, she had become critical of the Soviet Union). 

"This book comes unpretentiously into the collection, just to be going along," writes Viola Paradise modestly.  "And in the hope that some one will find a few hours' diversion in its pages."

Someone has, Miss Paradise.  I thank you!

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Proper Crofts, He Is! One Murdered, Two Dead (1936), by Milton Propper

First off I wanted to note that The Passing Tramp first made his appearance on the internet one year ago.

Now, 66,266 views since, I want to thank everyone who has read the blog (and even commented!).  It's tremendously gratifying to know there is some wider interest around the world in my writing on detective fiction.  It's a great passion of mine and it's wonderful to see that it is shared.  Let's keep the books of these older twentieth century authors alive today, in this still young new century.

Most of what we know about Milton Morris Propper (1906-1962), who published fourteen detective novels between 1929 and 1943, comes from Francis M. Nevins' 1970s/1980s pieces about him in Allen J. Hubin's Armchair Detective and Bill Pronzini's and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights (caution: Nevins is explicit about some of Propper's plotting techniques; if you follow the 1001 Midnights Propper article link to Nevins you might want to skip Nevins' paragraphs five and six).

We are indebted to Nevins for these pieces, because he was able to correspond with Propper's younger sister' the late Madelyn Hymerling (1913-2003), and obtain some personal information about the author that would otherwise have been lost, but I have to take issue somewhat with some of Nevins' take on Propper.

Freeman Wills Crofts
For me, the most striking thing about Milton Propper as a mystery writer is his similarity to the great British "Humdrum" detective novelist Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957).

I've read three Propper novels and the resemblance between these books and those of Freeman Wills Crofts is quite striking (correspondence I have from Propper confirms that Propper was a tremendous admirer of Crofts).

In One Murdered Dead, Two Dead (1936), the Propper title I just read, not only is the plot of interest in its own right but additionally the book mimics the structural approach and narrative style of Freeman Wills Crofts.

The older British author may never have known it, but he had a right proper disciple in this young Philadelphian.

Milton Propper was the Golden Age's great chronicler of criminal misdeeds among the upper crust of of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Propper's occasional portrayals of other social milieus typically are not notably successful.

Francis M. Nevins has strongly criticized Propper for allegedly flaunting "like a medal of honor his belief that the rich and powerful can do no wrong," yet it seems doubtful to me that Propper, as a Jew and a Democrat during the era of the New Deal, really held any such belief personally, however one perceives his fiction. And, in fact, in One Murdered, Two Dead, many of the wealthy people behave rather despicably, and Propper's detective, Philadelphia cop Tommy Rankin, is quick to condemn them.

What it seems to me that Nevins misses is the tremendous influence that the mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts had on Propper.

Milton Propper
 Like his close contemporaries, the great John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) and the Oklahoma Golden Age mystery writer Todd Downing (1902-1974), Milton Propper was a voracious reader of romantic adventure literature from an early age and was consuming mystery literature at a prodigious rate by the 1920s. 

In a 1931 letter to an admirer of his first two detective novels, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929) and The Ticker Tape Murder (1930), Milton Propper wrote: "I am in complete agreement with you as to the general superiority of English detective stories, especially those of Lynn Brock and Crofts, who also happen to be my favorite authors...." 

Crofts' influence on Propper is especially obvious in Propper's earliest books, which are larded with complicated transportation-based alibis, the thing for which Crofts was most famous as a mystery writer.

However, it's also easy to see this influence, for one familiar with Crofts' books (for more on them see my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery), in the later One Murdered, Two Dead, the eighth of Propper's fourteen detective novels.  We have:

1. The methodical checking of alibis. Not so deliberate and drawn out (probably a plus for most people) as in his earliest books, to be sure, but there still is quite a bit of this.

2. Intricate fair play plotting.  At his best Crofts was an excellent and scrupulously fair plotter and One Murdered, Two Dead is, like the best Crofts, quite cleverly plotted indeed, with some excellent clues (I was pleased to be fooled by the author over the solution).

3. Lots of travel.  Crofts loved to send his various police detectives (the most famous of whom is Inspector Joseph French) by plane and by boat to various European countries--Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands--and so did his disciple Milton Propper.  In One Murdered, Two Dead, the most notable trip Tommy Rankin makes is to Florida, but he also goes to Pittsburgh and various locales in New York.

4. Love of dialect speech.  One of Crofts' less pleasing qualities as a writer derives from his apparent conviction that he was skilled at the portrayal of local dialect. When a character is Irish, Scottish or working class, we are sure to be subjected by Crofts to heavy--very heavy--dialect speech (When it's working class speech watch out! There are so many h's dropped you might well get concussed if you aren't careful).

Propper does the same thing, sadly.  During Rankin's Florida sojourn, we get a horrid double dose of dialect when the local good old boy cop interrogates an Italian immigrant roadhouse operator:

"Please, Meester Stiles, that ees a most unusual request....You know een thees business we 'ave to be ver' discreet about the clients who stop here.  Now, eef you 'ave permission to look..."

"Ah reckon Ah don't need no warrant, Tony....We ain't private dicks, trying to cook up divohce evidence.  It's much mo' serious than that--a murdeh case.  Yo' don't want to get mixed up in that kind o' mess and maybe lose yoh license....Besides, we haven't yet settled that mattah o' the patron who claimed he was robbed heah, back in August, remebah."

There's five pages of this!  Incidentally, another Croftsian thing about this scene is just the fact that we have a cop threatening an "ethnic" proprietor of some semi-sleazy concern.  Crofts often has a scene like this in his books (in Crofts' case, in his earlier books the proprietors are likely to be Jewish, a choice from which Propper would have shied).

The upper class characters, on the other hand, usually sound rather stiff and formal in both Crofts and Propper.  Says a Philadelphia man-about-town suspect to Rankin in One Murdered, Two Dead: "You see, I spent the entire night at the apartment of a well-known, respected society matron whose husband was away."  What were they doing, one wonders, reading the social register together?

5. A sexless police detective.  Crofts' Inspector French is married, but it's extremely hard to imagine him and his perpetually socks-knitting wife, Emily ("Em"), in the throes of heaving passion.  In the first French mystery it's made clear that the Frenches had two children, but Crofts soon completely forgot about them, and it's probably just as well that he did.

Propper's Tommy Rankin is a good-looking young man, but although we hear frequently about Rankin's "bachelor apartment" it seems that no one ever visits him there!  At least we sure never hear about it.

How different these two are from modern police detectives, who hardly have time to actually solve their cases due to their myriad character flaws and dysfunctional personal relationships.

Note, too, that by this time, some fictional detectives had emotional and sexual lives (Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles being two obvious examples).  Not Tommy Rankin!

6. A passion for illegal searches and seizures.  This aspect of Propper's writing really riles Nevins, who at one point throws out the interesting suggestion that members of "the Watergate gang" might have "read these novels in their formative years."

Well, we can debate whether it's fair or not to pin responsibility for the Watergate crisis on poor old Milton Propper, but it is clear to me that Tommy Rankin's frequent illegal searches of suspects' properties come straight out of the books of Crofts.  As I write in Masters, French's illegal searches occur so frequently (sometimes abetted by the medium of a "bent wire") that one comes to suspect that Inspector French is indulging burglarious tendencies.

Well, I hope I have made my case for Crofts' influence on Propper by now.  But just what, you may be asking, is One Murdered, Two Dead actually about, anyway?

the scene of the crime
The novel concerns the murder of wealthy heiress Madeleine Emery.  On the verge of giving birth to a child (she was having a home delivery), Mrs. Emery is stabbed to death in her bedroom.  One was murdered, but two are now dead, you see.

To be sure, this rather grisly crime does set the novel apart from Crofts' books, for it's very difficult to imagine the gentle Crofts coming up with such a scenario.

The death of the child along with its mother leads Rankin into a complex matter of inheritance and paternity, and four suspects soon emerge (in addition to the house burglar nabbed on the scene):

Madeleine Emery's wastrel husband (a "handsome devil" and former golf instructor); her wastrel cousin (mounting gambling debts--another common feature in Crofts); her slick society doctor (questionable ethics); and the married man (heavens! an artist) whom she was sexually pursuing with considerable avidity.

Nevins is tough on Propper's characterization, but by the standards of the "pure puzzle" detective novel, I would say the characterization is not badly done.  It kept me interested anyway!  Besides the clever plot, there is an unexpected sexual frankness for the day (another element distinguishing Propper from Crofts).  And I don't think the rich come out of this tale well.

Fans of Freeman Crofts and classical Golden Age mystery should enjoy One Murdered, Two Dead.  Maybe with luck we will be able to get it and some of Milton Propper's other mystery fiction reprinted.

Here's an additional review of a Milton Propper novel, by another blogger:

The Study Lamp (review of The Divorce Court Murder)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Old Dark Houses: The Phantom of Crestwood (1932) and Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

The old dark house mystery films of the 1920s and 1930s offer great pleasures to Golden Age mystery fans.  Even the bad ones (and there are plenty of 'em) can be a lot of fun, due to their very badness.

Who can resist the decaying, isolated old mansion, the dark and stormy night, the washed-out bridge, the flickering lights, the dead phone line, the clutching hands, the maniacal laughter, the terrified screams, the sliding panels, the secret passages, the hidden lair, the killer stalking darkened halls, the house guests bumped off one by one....

Two of the best known old dark house films are silents: The Bat (1926) and The Cat and the Canary (1927).  The Bat was based on the Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood hit 1920 Broadway play of the same title, which in turn was based on Rinehart's famous novel The Circular Staircase (1908).  It was remade as a talkie, The Bat Whispers, in 1930 and remade yet again in 1959, with Vincent Price.

The Cat and the Canary, based on the 1922 John Willard play of the same title, was remade as The Cat Creeps in 1930, as a Bob Hope comedy-thriller vehicle in 1939 and a final time in 1979 (probably due to the success of recent adaptations of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile).

a terrified Gloria Stuart, in her famous white evening gown
Another key old dark house film is, appropriately enough, James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932), based on the J. B. Priestley novel Benighted (1927).  This delightfully bizarre chiller has brilliant direction by Whale and a dream cast, including Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, and Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart.  It's one of my favorite films, of the horror/mystery genre or even just in general.

The old dark house form itself soon to be cliched and then parodied.  Parodies include, besides the aforementioned Bob Hope version of The Cat and the Canary, Hold That Ghost! (1941), with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and The Gorilla (1939), with Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, The Ritz Brothers (the latter a very down market comedy team version of Abbot and Costello) and, of course, some guy in a gorilla suit.  The Gorilla itself was based on a Ralph Spence parody stage play of the same title from 1925.

There were also English old dark house films, such as The Terror (1938), with Alaister Sim and based on the hit 1920s Edgar Wallace play of the same name (an American silent version of The Terror was filmed in 1928).

And such films continue to be made, of course, long after Hollywood's Golden Age.  Besides the 1959 remake of The Bat, Willam Castle's The House on Haunted Hill, also from 1959 (and remade in 1999), comes to mind.  Identity (2003)--to offer another example--is not an old dark house movie, but rather an old dark motel movie.

 Last week I watched another old dark house film I had only recently heard of, The Phantom of Crestwood (1932).  It's quite good, even without a gorilla.

Hard-nosed call girl Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) has decided that she wants out of the business, so at a house party at an old mansion on a California hacienda she lowers the boom on four rich former clients with a new commercial proposition.

She wants the men to turn over thousands of dollars to her for her retirement fund, or she'll make her relationships with them public (one of them happens to be running for the United States senate).

All too predictably, Jenny ends up dead that very night, stabbed with a dart at the base of her skull (rather gruesome, that).

Besides the four former clients Jenny Wren was putting the screws to, suspects include the elderly New England banker creepily obsessed with Wren, Wren's brassy personal maid, Wren's beautiful younger sister, the sister's handsome fiance and the fiance's doting spinster aunt.

Ricardo Cortez
In an unusual twist there is an amateur detective, but he's a gangster (Ricardo Cortez)!  He was on the scene to retrieve some blackmail letters from Jenny Wren.  He did so (non-violently), but couldn't make his escape because the house (you guessed it) has been cut off from the outside world by a  storm.  Now with his henchman holding the others at gunpoint, he's decided to solve the case before the police arrive, so that Wren's murder can't be pinned on him.

Though The Phantom of Crestwood uses old dark house devices--an old house cut off by a storm, secret passages and a stalking "ghost"--it actually offers more than chills.  There's real detection and a good murder puzzle.

Ricardo Cortez (the first Sam Spade; he starred in The Maltese Falcon the previous year) is a winning sleuth and Karen Morley is smart, tough and sexy (which doesn't prevent her from getting murdered, of course, but through flashbacks she appears in the film even after her death).  Thankfully, the film is pre-code, so it's made sufficiently clear that Morley is, yes, a prostitute (and she looks stunning in her backless gown).

The Phantom of a Crestwood is  a smart, effective and atmospheric thirties mystery thriller.  Recommended!

Karen Morley
 The much more recent Dark and Stormy Night (2009) is an affectionate parody of the old dark house genre by Larry Blamire, the man who brought you such classic parodies as The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007) and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (2009).

At Cavinder Manor, grimly isolated in the Cavinder Moors, a group of people has gathered to hear the reading of the late (very late) Sinas Canvinder's will, thirty years after his death.

Eerily, old Sinas promised to return from the grave this very night!

Concurrently, the psychopathic Cavinder Strangler has been quite active in the immediate area, viciously strangling people to death.

Oh, and coincidentally, the Cavinder Witch, killed 300 years ago, promised to return this very night as well.

It promises to a busy evening!  Too bad the bridge was washed out by the storm and the phone lines are down....

In a house....
Everyone can hear you scream!
The basic situation in Dark and Stormy Night echoes that of The Cat and the Canary, though numerous others films are referenced as well, such as The House on Haunted Hill and, indeed, The Phantom of Crestwood itself (we have the Phantom of Cavinder, you see).  The opening and closing scenes are highly reminiscent of The Old Dark House, and specific plot elements are drawn from that film too.

The male reporter (Eight O'Clock Faraday, played by Daniel Roebuck) and the cabbie (Happy Codburn, played by Dan Conroy) are a swell comedy team.  They really reminded me of the great Abbot and Costello (as I'm sure was intended).

Dan Conroy--playing the terrified cabbie who just wants his toidy-five cents!!!--is a hilarious pint-sized Lou Costello.  As the female reporter, Billy Tuesday, Jennifer Blaire has a definite Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday vibe.  Blaire's sparring banter with Roebuck is delightful.

Then there's Brian Howe, in the Vincent Price role of Sinas Cavinder's sniveling nephew, Burling Famish, Jr.  Howe is spot-on and a joy to watch, especially when he wails Pristy!!! (watch and see).  This guy is brilliant.

two intrepid reporters battling for a scoop and a frightened cabbie
who just wants his toidy-five cents!!!

I'd say these four steal the show, were it not for the fact that there are so many other great performances too, including:

Brian Howe as Vincent Price
Wait, I mean Burling Famish, Jr.
Jim Beaver as the Great White Hunter Jack Tugdon (what deadpan delivery!); Trish Geiger as the maid Jane (she's the only one who can ever figure out how to get the lights back on after they go out--which they do, quite frequently); Bruce French as the (mostly) unflappable butler, Jeens; the octogenarian James Karen as the avuncular Seyton Ethelquake (Craig T. Nelson's oily boss in Poltergeist, thirty years ago); Mark Redfield as the extremely snide lawyer Farper Twyly; Andrew Parks as Lord Partfine, the British twit to end all British twits; Fay Masterson as Sinas Cavinder's weepy ward Sabasha Fanmoore; and Alison Martin (surely a relation to Andrea Martin of SCTV?) as the wacky spiritualist Mrs. Cupcupboard (and don't forget Marvin Kaplan as her Borscht Berlt spirit guide, Gunny Gunny Luckcakes).

There's also a cameo by the late, great Betty Garrett--then 90 years old--as an old lady with an interesting pet.  Larry Blamire has a role too--and he's very funny.

I have to say I really enjoyed this movie.  You can tell Larry Blamire really knows and loves the old old dark house flicks.  If you do too, you should love Dark and Stormy Night (and The Phantom of Crestwood).  Both are available on good quality DVDs.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Possessed by the Past: The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman


Evelyn Berckman (1900-1978) is another one of those oddly forgotten "women's suspense" authors who emerged in the 1950s and whose talent flowered in the 1960s and 1970s.  One would think that Berckman's writing inspired the great modern British Crime Queen Ruth Rendell, but that's just conjecture on my part.  What's not conjecture on my part is that Berckman was a very good genre writer!  Even Jacques Barzun, who tended to be rather dismissive of so-called "women's suspense" novels, was a great fan of Berckman's work.

no past is dead...
even if the people are
One of Berckman's later novels, The Victorian Album (1973), is also one of her most interesting.  Admirers of Ruth Rendell's complex, multi-layered "Barbara Vine" psychological suspense masterpieces like A Dark Adapted Eye (1986) and Asta's Book (1993) should be highly intrigued indeed when they open The Victorian Album.

Like a lot of suspense novels from this era, The Victorian Album has a plot that centers on a woman buying a house.  Or in this case, two women, an aunt and a niece, leasing the first floor (that's second floor if you're American) of an old Victorian villa in Clapham.

The "spinster" aunt, Lorna Teasdale, is the narrator of the novel.  Christabel Warne is Lorna's charming niece.

Both women come from a genteel background; however, this being the early 1970s, both have salaried employment.  Lorna, who fell upon hard times earlier in life, is a seamstress and Christabel ("Chris") an interior decorator.  Lorna raised Chris after Chris' parents were killed in a car accident, scrimping and saving to give her niece a posh education.

a real Victorian album, of a happy family
see The Age of Uncertainty
The Victorian villa is owned by the rather reserved and unfriendly--"common" in the eyes of Miss Teasdale--Mrs. Rumbold, who lives with her daughter on the ground floor (that's first floor if you're an American).  Lorna won't be taking on another job for some weeks, so has time on her hands. 

After the spiteful Mrs. Rumbold lets slip that there once was a murder done in the house, naturally Lorna goes snooping in the moldering attics of the old building and finds...a Victorian photograph album.

Seeking to find out more about the people in the album Lorna does further snooping--I mean, searching--and finds decaying letters and a daily journal.  Slowly she puts together the pieces of a forgotten murder mystery.

Yet, unrealized by Lorna, past mayhem may be producing an "echo" in the present....

One can immediately see resemblances to Ruth Rendell's Asta's Book (also Shelly Smith's classic An Afternoon to Kill) double storylines, a powerfully evoked sense of place, psychological acuity, research into the past.

Berckman's recreation of a fascinating Victorian murder mystery is well done indeed, quite suspenseful in its own right:

I remembered the Victorian attitude toward lunacy, the casual way in which they let it live in the bosom of the family.  I remembered the wealthy respectable Mr. Kent getting child after child upon his hopelessly insane wife; I remembered Mary Lamb knifing her mother to death in the  kitchen, with no remembrance of it afterward....

But the reader should be gripped by what's going on in the present too!  The Victorian Album is an engrossing and suspenseful book, the product of a top-level crime genre writer working at the height of her powers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Just Think of Hoop Skirts: Banbury Bog (1938), by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1909-1976) was not by any means the only American local color mystery writer of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but she was perhaps the most popular of them in her day; and she remains in print even now, when the sort of New England cozy mystery that Taylor's Asey Mayo Cape Cod series typified thrives.  The long-running television series Murder She Wrote (1984-1996), for example, seems to owe more to Taylor than to Agatha Christie.

It looks like about half of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's twenty-two Asey Mayo mystery novels are currently in print in paperback or Kindle form, courtesy of Countryman Press.  Apparently out-of-print, however, is Banbury Bog, the thirteenth Asey Mayo mystery and a typical example of the later books in the series.

Over time Taylor tended to move away from formal investigative detective novels to more of a whodunit hugger-mugger style.  This is to say, there is a great deal of incident in the Asey Mayo mysteries.  A great deal!

After the first few chapters, most of Banbury Bog consists of Asey, amateur detective extraordinaire, dashing about from place to place, evading bumbling police and fiendish murderer alike, while trying to solve the dastardly crime--though just exactly how he's accomplishing this often is not quite clear.

When the solution comes, it is what Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor call huddled: a great flurry of information appears in the last chapter, along with a great deal of explanation, some of it rather implausible (if I entirely understood it).

this 1960s/1970s
Gothic paperback fails utterly to
capture the cozy crazy quilt quality
of Banbury Bog
Is Banbury Bog truly a fair play detective novel?  Not exactly (though I did quite like one clue).

In Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, Jeffrey Marks notes that Taylor wrote Banbury Bog in twenty days!  I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but this may explain looseness in plotting.

Yet I enjoyed the book.  Like other Asey Mayo mysteries, Banbury Bog is filled with local color and good humor, both things at which Taylor excelled as a writer. 

Banbury Bog concerns one Phineas Banbury, who with his wife Lu and daughter Jane is visiting his family's ancestral grounds of East Weesit, Cape Cod, Massachusetts when the tale begins.  The family is staying at the guest house of Tabitha Sparrow, one of the declining town's leading citizens.

Banbury is one of those Midwestern millionaires (pies and tarts) whom one so commonly finds in Golden Age American mystery fiction.  A generous sort, he decides to settle down in Weesit and economically revitalize the place.

Things go splendidly at first, but then someone poisons Banbury's pies with arsenic and most of the town gets sick.

Much of Weesit turns on Banbury and he is arrested by the police.  There's a bit of a commentary here on mobocracy, I think.  Here's Asey's friend Doc Cummings on the subject:

"What're they trying to do?  Now there's a man who's put a town on its feet.  He's done more for Weesit in two months than anyone ever did in twenty years....He hasn't done anything that wasn't all to the good.  He hasn't strutted around and asked for praise.  He's given all the credit to the people and the selectmen.  Now why in hell did somebody go and stick arsenic in his tarts?....[A]nd, furthermore, in spite of what he's done for 'em, and what a fine man they thought he was yesterday, do you know that every last person in that benighted town of Weesit believes that Banbury poisoned the tarts himself?"

A mob of townspeople has even thrown stones at the Banbury house, breaking windows.

As Jane Banbury worriedly comments to Asey, "Even when Dad had the strikes [at his bakeries], no one threw any stones.  Why, they even took time off the strike to bake dad a birthday cake!"

Worse yet, one of the selectmen is found  murdered and Banbury is blamed for that too!  And it looks like the police may arrest the Banbury women as well!

Obviously we have another job for Asey Mayo.

An extended scene on the confusion between Banbury and cranberry gets kind of tiresome, admittedly.  My tenth-grade English teacher three decades ago always used to say, puns are the lowest form of humor--my, though, aren't they hard to resist!

a Cape Cod delicacy called  
Huckleberry Slump (not a lab specimen!)
Still there are really funny bits, like when Asey is trapped by the murderer for hours in an old house cellar with Lu and Jane Banbury (Jane, by the way, unfortunately calls her parents Popsie and Momsie) and Lu advises Jane to think of hoop skirts to avoid getting nervous.

Okay, you have to read it in context.

Okay, it doesn't really make sense in context either.

But that's what makes it funny, you see.  Banbury Bog is like something Grandma Moses might have painted had she tippled a bit too much cordial.

I also found out about sea clam pie and huckleberry slump by reading this novel, and how else would that have happened?  We don't have such things in Tennessee.

There are two rather callous murders, of nice enough people in the town, but Taylor doesn't allow us to to dwell on such unpleasantness.  There is simply too much going on!  Banbury Bog is definitely one cozy little jog.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Death Panel: The Catalyst Club (1936), by George Dyer

"The single 'master mind' of crime detection, so popular in fiction up to now, is at last dead.  You will find writers still clinging to the picturesque lone-wolf fighter against the underworld, of the type devised by Poe, developed by Collins, Gaboriau, and Doyle, and carried to the present by scores of others, but the facts no longer justify his existence.  Outside of books, real life crime has become too complicated to be dealt with by an individual.

Crimes arise from so many motives, are perpetrated by so many types and occupations of people, and are surrounded by so many highly technical clues, that, when the fictitious detective understands the implications of every single scene of violence he comes upon, he is showing more learning than is humanly possible.

We have reached and passed a milestone in this field of endeavor, and of literature, and the writer with any respect for the verities is going to be forced to recognize that the bureau, or group of intelligent specialists, is the only fit antagonist for the criminals of the twentieth century.  Everybody but the writers has realized this for years.  What do you find meeting illegalities now?  Unassisted individuals?  No!  You have New Scotland Yard, and our own Federal Bureau of Investigation.

However, able as these organizations are, they must suffer by comparison with such a group of gifted amateurs as The Catalyst Club...."

formidable detection
George Bell Dyer (1903-1978) was a distinguished fellow as go Golden Age detective novelists (rather an interesting lot I find).

Dyer was the great-grandson of George Washington Dyer, grandson of U. S. Navy Commodore George Leland Dyer (1849-1914), once territorial governor of Guam, and son of U. S. Navy Commander and Ivy League footballer George Palmer Dyer (1876-1948), who was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, where his father was stationed.

The Catalyst Club is dedicated to George P. Dyer, "the third George Dyer, in gratitude for incalculable help with this book as with all the others."

George Bell Dyer, the fourth George Dyer, graduated from Philips Academy and Yale University.  In the late 1920s he briefly worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner before becoming a freelance writer, in which capacity he produced seven detective novels and crime thrillers between 1931 and 1940.  He married Charlotte Leavitt in 1930 and the couple moved two years later to New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.

George Palmer Dyer
father of the author
who gave his son
"incalculable help"
with his mysteries
During World War Two Dyer served as an intelligence officer on General George Patton's staff, while his wife was an officer in the Women's Army Corps (both of them also served in the Korean War).  After WW2 Dyer taught political science at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania and founded the Dyer Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (in the 1960s the New Left magazine Ramparts claimed the school trained CIA spies, which the Dyers denied).

Dyer also continued to write--though sadly only concerning politics and history, rather than the favorites of your Passing Tramp, crime and detection.

Dyer's mystery The Five Fragments (1932) was adapted into the film Fog over Frisco (1934), which co-starred Bette Davis.  Three of his seven crime novels concern the activities of The Catalyst Club, a San Francisco-based panel of distinguished experts in various fields that helps the California police solve baffling murders (reflecting the times, it's one of those men only clubs).  This group is introduced, appropriately enough, in The Catalyst Club (1936).  The Long Death (1937) and The People Ask Death (1940) followed.

the scene of the crime
I found The Catalyst Club a tremendously enjoyable detective novel.  Like the novels of Ellery Queen, S. S. Van Dine, and the so-called Humdrums, this tale focuses on an interesting puzzle problem, in this case the death of the beautiful but bad college co-ed daughter of a tough-as-nails millionaire businessman.  She was found on the lawn of her father's estate, quite brutally and bafflingly slain.

The material detail of the Club's investigation is fascinating, but Dyer does not stop there, introducing psychological factors as well.  The Club members themselves advance differing theories of the crime and separately investigate it.  Their various investigations and their banter among themselves makes engrossing and entertaining reading.

I must note that I missed the "how" solution until disgracefully late in the day!

We even get a map of the estate (who doesn't love maps) and photo plates of crime exhibits.  And, shades of Philo Vance, some footnotes!  For fans of Golden Age detection, The Catalyst Club is a cornucopia, filled to overflowing with good things.  I look forward to reading the other two novels in this series.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Hugh Rennert Detective Novels of Todd Downing (1902-1974)

First, I wanted to note a new review of my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961, by Geoff Bradley in the latest issue of CADS: Crime and Detective Stories (I'll be posting more about this issue of CADS).

Add this review to those by Jon L. Breen in Mystery Scene (link), J. Kingston Pierce at Kirkus Reviews (link), Patrick Ohl (link) (this has been reprinted at Sam Karnick's American Culture website; link), John Norris (link) and Martin Edwards (link).  Great to see these all.  It is also wonderful to see the praise for Masters from Allen J. Hubin on the book's page on (link).

Meanwhile, five of the six reprints of Todd Downing's fine Hugh Rennert detective novels from the 1930s will be available this month in paperback from Coachwhip.  These are: Vultures in the Sky (1935), Murder on the Tropic (1935), The Case of the Unconquered Sisters (1936), The Last Trumpet (1937) and Night over Mexico (1937)

The sixth title, The Cat Screams (1934), with an afterword by Professor James H. Cox of the University of Texas at Austin (author of The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico, see link), will follow in December, as will Clues and Corpses, my book on Todd Downing, Oklahoma's Choctaw Golden Age mystery writer (Bill Pronzini, who wrote about Downing over 25 years ago in his and Marcia Muller's 1001 Midnights, has kindly contributed the preface).

The six novel reprints have an introduction by me too.

And, now, here are the covers of the reprints!

                                           (See my review of Vultures in the Sky here)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves: The Sister of Cain (1943), by Mary Collins

I looked from one face to the other, searching desperately for some sign of guilt, the mark of Cain, anything that would end this frightful, bloody massacre that had taken place in less than a week....

Like Arthur Upfield's Venom House (1952), Mary Collins' The Sister of Cain (1943) is concerned with the odd dwellers in an old family mansion.   In Cain, these are the six Moreau sisters, who live in an Gothic Revival abode on Russian Hill in San Francisco (the house was based on the Monroe Medieval Mansion, which was torn down shortly after the novel was published).

Narrator Hilda Moreau is the bride of the lone Moreau son, David, who is far, far away, fighting in World War Two.  Hilda has come to stay at the Moreau mansion, but what she finds there makes her want to turn heel and head back to the Midwest.  Dominated by and hating their tyrannical eldest sister, Pauline, the Moreau sisters seem primed for murder.  Sure enough, Pauline is soon found stabbed to death in her room!  Nor is Pauline's violent death the last to take place in the Moreau mansion....

This copy of the Frank Hazell dust jacket is fragile, but still a beaut

Pauline turns out to have been quite a bad apple indeed (no one misses her except her scheming maid, Nanette), but, truth be told, Hilda finds the whole menagerie of "spinster" Moreau sisters a bunch of rather strange fruit.

There's twenty-year-old Rose, whom the other sisters, all older, insist on treating like a child (they all call her "Baby").  There's Marthe, who seems down-to-earth but turns out to be a dissembler.  There's Elise, the dipsomaniac.  There's Anne, a doctor whose initial friendliness soon gives way to hostility.  And there's sex-starved Sophie, more desperate than ever to land a husband now that she's turned forty.

All the sisters, it seems, had motives to murder Pauline--as did several other ladies!

Dedicated by Mary Collins to her fellow San Francisco native, the prominent feminist novelist Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948), The Sister of Cain is an interesting crime novel.  With the exception of a police detective (Irish) and lawyer friend of the family (not Irish), all the major characters--and suspects--are women.  Besides the woman doctor, there's a woman lawyer and a woman psychiatrist.  Additionally, Hilda before her marriage was a schoolteacher; and a wealthy matron complains bitterly that one of her maids plans to leave her to take up war work, specifically welding.  Servants these days, pshaw!

She had nothing to fear
Social detail in Cain frequently is fascinating. Hilda is pregnant by David (she isn't "showing" yet), yet she seems to smoke rather a lot.  When the police detective discovers that Hilda is pregnant he drops her from his list of suspects in Pauline's murder, presumably on the theory that a mother-to-be is incapable of harming anyone (hmm, smoking aside!).

In its day Cain was categorized as an HIBK (Had I But Known), "feminine anxiety" novel, but Hilda is too self-aware a narrator for true HIBK, I think.  She even expressly disavows such an idea--I certainly could not see myself behaving like the heroine of an HIBK mystery plodding around in the dangerous dark, she declares at one point (though in classic fashion she does manage while snooping to get herself clonked on the head a couple times anyway).

Hilda is an enjoyable narrator with, at times, rather an unusual way with words.  I was so starved for human companionship that I would have welcomed a cannibal woman clad in a G-string, she memorably declares early in the novel.  Like her sisters-in-law she doesn't hesitate to sling around swear words (bitch and hell are common expletives in Cain).

The mystery plot in The Sister of Cain is pretty interesting and there is a single good physical clue, one I didn't pick up on, shame on me!

Mary Collins published a total of six mystery novels in the 1940s, and on the strength of Cain I plan to look them up sometime.  I believe they all were reprinted in paperback by Bantam, so are relatively locatable, as old mysteries go.