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)


  1. Curt, congrats on reaching this milestone! Here's hoping for another year of this blog -- you always deliver such high-quality stuff!

  2. Another intriguing article and congratulations.

  3. Happy anniversary!! I really enjoy your blog!

    1. Interesting as always, Curt. I'm currently reading a Crofts and you've certainly made me more interested in both his work and Rhode's. So I must try Propper and Downing one of these days.

  4. First of all congrats on your first anniversary Curt - and thanks for the fascinating post of another author that sounds utterly fascinating and of whom I have not heard one jot before - cheers mate.


  5. As regards the "sexless detective" point I cannot think that that is particularly a Croftsian thing. What do we ever learn about the personal lives of almost any Golden Age Detective. After all those books and stories Poirot remains an ego and a set of mustaches, Gideon Fell is a large erudite mass supported by a couple of canes, Asey Mayo a lithe drawl. To quote from the Introduction to a course on GAD by Jon Jermey at the GAD website:
    "It is not about the detective as a character. The author uses the detective’s statements and actions to recount the solution of the case, not to describe a rounded personality with virtues and flaws. Talented writers can often do both, but some of the best detectives are colourless and virtually anonymous."
    No, the lack of a sex life, indeed almost any sort of personal life is commonplace in GAD fiction.
    But I do wish to congratulate you on your anniversary and thank you for all the reviews. Milton Propper is another author whose work I have never read but you make we want to try.

  6. Thanks, everyone. It's a challenge to make lengthy posts every week, but I will try to keep it going. I certainly like the subject!

    Ron, that's certainly true that eccentric amateur detectives from the GA are without sex lives (or even emotional lives). It used to be a "rule" that "love interest," if present at all, would be confined to secondary characters (sometimes, as in Sayers or Carr, including police detectives!).

    Rankin, like Crofts' French, is a police detective and a "normal" man. Indeed, French at least is married and implicitly had a sex life at least once upon a time (since he and his wife had children). But Rankin, we're told, is young and attractive, so it seems odd that he has no romantic life at all. This (1936) was a time, too, when some authors were starting to imbue detectives with spouses and sex lives (Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett). Even Ellery Queen gets a girlfriend, sort of!

    The name Rankin reminds me of Ian Rankin, who of course represents a much more modern tradition: that of the police detective whose personal life (and marked dysfunction) becomes more important to readers than his cases!

  7. I know Milton Propper, even if I only have got a novel, translated into Italian, by the publishing house Polillo, three years ago: "Death in the waiting room" (The Divorce Court Murder). If I remember correctly it should be the fifth in the series with Tommy Rankin.
    Propper, in the '40s, he could not adapt to the change in fashion in the detective genre: linked to the classic Mystery failed to comply with the action novel. And so, almost half of the '40s, wrote no more novels. He committed suicide in the 60s.

  8. Congratulations on your anniversary! I hope your next year brings more of what I have so enjoyed so far; I value your intelligent introduction to authors like Propper.

  9. Happy Anniversary, Curt! Here's to many more.

    Could the good looking Tommy Rankin be a closeted gay man as it was thought Propper was? I was sure in my reading I would find writing and passages like Rufus King's, but nothing has come up yet. I think Propper was too uptight about his sexuality to ever let it bleed into his books. This would explain Rankin's "sexlessness." According to Nevins (in a detailed Armchair Detective piece he wrote) Propper lived a tortured life that ended very badly. Pietro mentions this in his comment, but not the reason.

  10. I prefer not to say the reason because Propper killed himself. I intend to respect his will.
    But ... I'd rather embrace ideally Curtis giving my best wishes, all deserved. For his blog, one of the best blog dedicated to crime fiction I've seen around.

  11. John, Noah, Pietro, thanks very much. I enjoy doing it, though it's been tough trying to get a book wound up too at the same time! I enjoy your blog work as well.

    I know Nevins made a lot out of the Propper's sad death. I think for him it symbolized the demise of the classical detective novel. Of course other people, like John Street and Christopher Bush, kept on writing them well after the end of the Golden Age until they were elderly men, and they died happy (and naturally). Propper may have stopped writing detective novels because of mental health issues, rather than it being a case of a failure to get published causing him to have mental health issues.

    As for the homosexuality issue, Propper does have noticeable descriptions of attractive men in his books, but any "gay sensibility" doesn't seem as up front as it does in some of the books of Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin or Rufus King.

    As far as the "tragic homosexual" thesis (See Nevins' Cornell Woolrich book) goes, for all I know Propper may have been a happy person in the 1920s and 1930s. He seems to have derived great pleasure out of detective fiction! I wish Nevins had quoted from his sources, so we had a fuller picture for ourselves. I presume most of Nevins' information is derived from correspondence with his sister, Madelyn Hymerling, who died in 2003. I would have given much to interview her myself!

    My personal view is that Propper couldn't give Tommy Rankin the kind of personal life he would have liked to have written about, so he didn't give Tommy Rankin any personal life at all. We're left to imagine, if we want, just who Rankin might have taken back to that "bachelor apartment"!

    Interestingly, Todd Downing lived in Philadelphia over most of the 1940s. I think Propper moved back there around the end of WW2, after the death of his parents. I like to think they might have met! Downing did read Propper. They both stopped publishing fiction at about the same time, despite being comparatively young men, though there's no suggestion that Downing couldn't be published anymore. To be honest, he was a much better pure writer than Propper, though I think some of Propper has merit for the lover of puzzle-oriented classical detective fiction.

  12. Just read The Election Booth Murder, and consider it Propper's best. It's not as long and complicated as the 7 Proppers I've already read. Usually P presents 4 suspects and one must ignore them all. Normally detective work is enjoyable reading, but not when you know the first 4 suspects are innocent. Then after many pages, Rankin(P's detective) finds the true path.
    Next the final(and guilty) suspect always eludes the police, which sets up a violent ending. But P is always intelligent, so one must forgive his extremely complicated plots. And he does provide an overview at the end, where Rankin explains all. As an exhausted and bewildered reader, I need it.
    BTW, I got TEBM from the Philadelphia Library, and it turned out to be autographed by P, along with a dedication. Alas, some unthinking library clerk pasted a library sticker over P's signature. One can still see it, however, by holding the page up to a strong light.

    Dick Schaefer

    1. Hi, Dick, sorry I'm nearly four years late with a reply, would love to see a scan of that! The library should remove that sticker (carefully!).

  13. I'm currently reading the Ticker Tape Murder, the first Propper book I've read. I was drawn to it when I learned that the murder occurs on a train to Cape May as I live in the Cape May area. I've got about 100 pp to go and am enjoying the story although the "pattern" of introducing a suspect, exposing his motive then debunking it, gets a bit wearisome. I do like that throughout the story there are semi-frequent summations of what has transpired because the complex array of characters and plot would have me confused since I read mostly right before bed and it takes me a month to get through a book like this. As I said, I'm enjoying this story but I don't know if I'd pick up another Propper book knowing his pattern of writing would be pretty much the same in other entries.

    1. I enjoy his books too, but as you and Dick and Mr. Nevins have commented, he does tend to run to pattern, unfortunately. But I still find a lot of interest in the rigorous detection and the PA settings.