Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Life of Crime 1: Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960)

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960)
Happy 2013!  I hope everyone has a great year of crime and mystery fiction reading.  Which reminds me, I thought it was high time to say something about this gentleman to the right.

The awesomely prolific and long-lived Dartmoor regional novelist Eden Phillpotts (considered a literary disciple of Thomas Hardy) came late to sustained crime writing, with the publication of his mystery The Grey Room in 1921, when he was nearly sixty.

To be sure, Phillpotts had produced some crime fiction before 1921, but it was only in the 1920s that he began publishing it regularly.  From the 1920s until the early 1940s he was a fixture on the mystery scene, both in his native England and in the United States.

Here follows a breakdown of his crime genre work in this period:

1921-1927 (8 novels, 1 short story collection)

The Grey Room (1921)
The Red Redmaynes (1922)
Number 87 (1922) (as Harrington Hext)
The Thing at Their Heels (1923) (Hext)
Who Killed Diana? (1924) (Hext)
The Monster (1925) (Hext)
A Voice from the Dark (1925) 
Peacock House and Other Mysteries (1926) (short stories)
The Jury (1927)

1931-1944 (18 novels)

Found Drowned (1931)
Bred in the Bone (1932) (Vol. 1, The Book of Avis)
A Clue from the Stars (1932)
The Captain's Curio (1933)
Witch's Cauldron (1933) (Vol. 2, The Book of Avis)
A Shadow Passes (1933) (Vol. 3, The Book of Avis)
Mr. Digweed and Mr. Lumb (1934) 
The Wife of Elias (1935)
Physician, Heal Thyself (1935)(aka The Anniversary Murder)
A Close Call (1936)
Lycanthrope: The Mystery of Sir William Wolf (1937)
Portrait of a Scoundrel (1938)
Monkshood (1939)
Awake, Deborah! (1940)
A Deed without a Name (1941)
Ghostwater (1941)
Flower of the Gods (1942)
They Were Seven (1944)

Eden Phillpotts, much later in life
There also was a very late bloom on the plant, George and Georgina (1952), which appeared when Phillpotts was 90 (his last novel, not a mystery, was published in 1959, a year before he died, at the age of 98).

This is a substantial legacy, at least in terms of sheer quantity.  But what about quaility? 

Although today Eden Phillpotts' crime writing is mostly forgotten (he now is best known for having encouraged a certain young neighbor of his, a woman by the name of Agatha Christie, to stick it out with writing), in fact his genre work was much praised back in the Golden Age of detective fiction.

In 1927 S. S. Van Dine, then near the height of his own fame as a mystery writer, pronounced: "Eden Phillpotts has written some of the best detective stories in English." Author and New York Herald literary critic James Lauren Ford ranked Phillpotts as a detective novelist with Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins (and, less thrillingly it must be admitted, J. S. Fletcher).

Another reviewer declared that Phillpotts' crime fiction possessed, rare for the genre, "qualities of psychological understanding, of interpretation of character and motive, together with an admirable force, fineness and spirit in the narrative style."  Dare I suggest that this sounds like it transcends the genre?

James Lauren Ford (1854-1928)
The 1920s were very good years for Phillpotts as a writer.

In addition to his success publishing detective novels, both under his own name and that of "Harrington Hext," he made a great hit on the London stage with rustic comedies, particularly The Farmer's Wifeadapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.*

*(Phillpotts shares with genre writers Daphne du Maurier, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ethel Lina White, Jefferson Farjeon, Francis Beeding, Josephine Tey, Cornell Woolrich, Selwyn Jepson, Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson of having work translated into film by Hitch)

Yet Phillpotts' novels tend to be slow-moving and talky, with characters speaking in highly formal, stylized speech that fell out of fashion over time.  By the late-1930s, Phillpotts' mysteries were becoming lengthier and slower; and while he still had his admirers, the influential critic Anthony Boucher was openly contemptuous of the grand old man in the 1940s, writing of his novel Flower of the Gods, for example, "infinite talk and no action.  A doctor's prescription should be required for this powerful soporific."

In the 1970s, Julian Symons summarily dismissed Phillpotts in his influential genre survey, Bloody Murder, apparently on a reading of a few of the Dartmoor regionalist's 1920s mysteries.  On the other hand, the late Jacques Barzun and his colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor were great admirers of Phillpotts and his genre fiction.  Barzun selected Phillpotts' Found Drowned as one of his 100 Classics of Crime Fiction.

Agatha Christie remembered Phillpotts fondly
For her part, Agatha Christie never forgot the friendly encouragement Phillpotts had given her (a letter of his to the future Crime Queen wisely advises, "You have a great feeling for dialogue....You should stick to gay, natural dialogue.  Try to cut all moralizations out of your novels....").

Agatha Christie dedicated her classic 1932 Hercule Poirot detective novel, Peril at End House, to Phillpotts, and, when he died in 1960, Christie published a warm obituary for him in the Sunday Times, not mentioning his detective fiction, but highly praising his 1910 children's fantasy novel The Flint Heart, recently reprinted in a modern edition.

For my part, I have more to say about Eden Phillpotts' detective fiction.  See you soon.


  1. The only two books of his I have enjoyed were THE RED REDMAYNES and THE VOICE FROM THE DARK, even if the ending rationalizes all the ghost business. I have never been able to find a copy of THE GREY ROOM which I think has more genuine supernatural content. I have a copy of THE CLUE FROM THE STARS sitting around her somewhere and I should probably read it this year. It's one of his few impossible crime novels. I know you are a fan of THE CAPTAIN'S CURIO but I couldn't get into it two years ago. I returned it to the CPL unfinished.

  2. You can get The Grey Room from Project Gutenberg. I have just downloaded it and The Red Redmaynes and will give them a try.

    1. Thanks, Audra, but I'm not an eBook fan. I look for real books. There's a lot more fun in hunting for real books.

  3. I like The Grey Room, though it was criticized by Symons. This novel moves at light speed by EP's standards. Hope you enjoy Audra!

    Sorry you didn't like Curio, John, I thought it had a certain charm. I actually selected that one to a great extent because it a short one. I liked Voice in the Dark, it seemed to me rather like a good M. E. Braddon.

  4. Nice write up! I have just visited Project Gutenberg and picked up a couple of his books. Have never heard of him before this! Thanks.

  5. How great that you've "taken up the cause" of Eden Phillpotts! I would recommend not only his mysteries but his regional "Dartmoor novels".

  6. David,

    Thanks for the comment. I do like much of Phillotts' work personally and I think as well his historical import in the genre should be more acknowledged. I wonder whether his being such a prolific writer has hurt him in the long run. It's hard to know where to start for people, whether with his genre or "mainstream" novels!

    I should have mentioned, as you know, that his scenic description has great authority.

    Peggy, Audra,

    I hope you enjoy his books in eForm. Many of his works can be hard to find in traditional book form, unfortunately.

  7. That's why I love Project Gutenberg. I have discovered so many previously unknown (to me) authors that I would never have come across otherwise. Reading blogs like yours inspires me to seek these authors out.

  8. There are many of Eden Phillpotts' books at The Internet Archive, but not many of his crime genre.