Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Murders in Minnesota: The Chuckling Fingers (1941), by Mabel Seeley

Mabel Seeley
In 1941, when critic Howard Haycraft pronounced Mabel Seeley (1903-1991) the "White Hope" of Had-I-But-Known writers, Seeley had published four mystery novels in the last four years.  She would publish a fifth mystery title in 1943, but then only two more over the rest of her life, in 1950 and 1954 (she also published two mainstream novels, in 1947 and 1951).

So, ironically, Seeley's career as a crime writer had just about peaked in 1941, the year Haycraft made his pronouncement.

Yet if she wasn't the "savior" of HIBK, Seeley was a highly-praised mystery author for a time.

Seeley's first novel, The Listening House, was seemingly universally raved; a dozen years later, Anthony Boucher called the book "one of the best of all first mystery novels."  Her third novel, The Whispering Cup, he deemed "even more admirable" (indeed, Cup became Boucher's gold standard for Seeleys; when Eleven Came Back appeared in 1943 Boucher groused that the novel was slick but no Whispering Cup).

As a mystery author, Mabel Seeley in those years enjoyed not only uncommon critical, but also commercial, success.  At a time when mystery novels averaged about 2000 sales per title (before the paperback revolution sales of mysteries mostly were confined to rental libraries), sales of Seeley's The Chuckling Fingers had topped 20,000 by October 1941, surpassing the total for Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (see the Popular Library paperback cover illustration below too; I'm guessing this novel wasn't selling only to women in that incarnation).

This doesn't even consider the value surely accrued from serialization in glossy women's magazines, or "slicks" as Raymond Chandler derisively referred to them, a staple of such hugely successful HIBK writers as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart (truthfully, the term "romantic suspense" might be a better one, but HIBK is what stuck).

One of the peculiar strengths that Mabel Seeley brings to her novels is the sort of plain, Middle American settings that she uses.

Where Rinehart and Eberhart tended to set their books in the abodes of the upper crust, Seeley elects more humble locales for her murderous mayhem (even The Chuckling Fingers, which deals with a moneyed family, stints readers of the trappings of great wealth). Seeley's heroines also hold "actual jobs," as academic Catherine Ross Nickerson puts it ("nurses, librarians and stenographers"), in contrast with the upper class spinsters and helpless ingenues we often see in the books of Rinehart and Eberhart (the latter women's respective nurse protagonists, Hilda Adams and Sarah Keate, excepted).

In The Chuckling Fingers, the protagonist, Ann Gay, comes to visit the Lake Superior shore home of her cousin, Jacqueline Heaton, recently married to Bill Heaton, a much beloved timber king (in contrast with his grandfather, Rufus Heaton, Bill is a conscientious capitalist, careful to responsibly harvest lumber and scrupulous and generous in his dealings with everyone).

She Walked in Horror and Fear
(a--ahem!--striking cover)
Ann learns that someone has been playing malicious tricks on members of the household, which includes, besides Bill and Jacqueline, Bill's three cousins (Myra Heaton Sallishaw, Phillips Heaton and Octavia Heaton) and Toby Sallishaw, Jacqueline's young daughter from her first marriage, to the late Pat Sallishaw, son of Myra and her deceased husband, John.*

*(a family tree is provided, thank the Lord)

Could someone in the household be murderously insane?  Or is a devious villain afoot, trying to make it look like someone is mad?  These are the questions that Ann Gay asks herself as the pranks continue, and as, with deadly escalation, the dead bodies start to pile up, like cords of Minnesota wood.

But what the hey with that title, you may be asking, what does it mean?  Well that's a good question.  I give props to Seeley for coming up with a very odd'un.  But it's easily explained.  The Fingers are rock formations that resemble the digits of a hand and the "chuckling" is the noise made by the underground river below them.  It's never quite as creepy as Seeley tries to make it, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting setting.

I liked the mystery plot here much better than that in The Crying Sisters, which The Chuckling Fingers resembles in some ways (in addition to the similar titles). Where the opening situation in Sisters struck me as extremely implausible (a supposedly levelheaded woman decides to go off to a remote lake resort with a surly man she has known for a couple of days and pretend to be his wife, all because she tales a liking to his young son), Fingers' Ann Gay behaves much more sensibly.  Moreover, the narrative in Fingers is far less meandering.

this jacket gives readers the fingers
I wouldn't say that Fingers is a classic of the genre, but it is an enjoyable 1940s American mystery.  As a pure detective novel, it disappoints, however.

Near the end of the tale Ann and the man who obviously will become her future husband have no idea who the murderer is.  In order to find out, they have to resort to a baiting a trap for the killer.

I eventually guessed who the fiend was and the motive (for the most part).  However, I can't really say I deduced this, there not actually being the clues to allow one to do this (there are hints, but no more).

Still, Fingers is a good tale, with some clever elements.

I somewhat take issue with Catherine Ross Nickerson's presentation of Fingers as a feminist novel, however.  Nickerson pointedly writes that in Fingers Ann Gay tries to help her "sister, not a boyfriend or husband" (actually it's her female cousin, not her sister).

Here Nickerson is advancing the idea of independent sisterhood, and I think there is merit in this view (Ann indeed is very committed to Jacqueline). Yet Nickerson does not mention that throughout much of the novel Ann Gay is collaborating in mystery investigation with a man, who clearly functions as her romantic interest.

Near the end of the novel, when Ann Gay is setting up her trap for the killer, her male friend arrives to take over: "He'd taken command," declares Ann happily, "and I saw the wisdom of his generalship."  Hard to imagine those lines today!  And the novel ends in the classical manner for this sub-genre: with the man and the woman locked in a passionate embrace and readers confident that they'll soon be hearing the peeling of wedding bells.

There's also this sentiment expressed at one point by Ann Gay, which seems to show that she subscribes to some extent to the idea of separate spheres for the sexes:

"Queerly I felt embarrassed, as if I'd looked at something I shouldn't see; the love one man can have for another is something no woman should ever look at."

It's important to remember that HIBK novels were, after all, genre books cut to a pattern, no matter how good individual ones might be.  The idea that a protagonist, if young, attractive and female, might actually get killed--or, worse yet, be left single at the end of the novel--apparently was anathema to publishers, if not the authors themselves.  To me, the knowledge that everything will always work out for the heroine in the end somewhat qualifies the "breathless suspense" that these novels always were said to have.  It makes HIBK a kind of "cozy suspense," if you will.

However, the HIBK suspense novel would live on, into the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as "psychological suspense" and "Gothic suspense" (anyone familiar with genre books will immediately recall, I'm sure, all those paperback Gothics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the beautiful women wandering at midnight in their nightgowns around the grounds of crumbling estates).

Books by Celia Fremlin and Ursula Curtiss, for example, were harder-edged, but still placed a premium on domestic suspense (I would say the harder edges made them more suspenseful).  The early Ruth Rendell suspense novel Vanity Dies Hard (1965) is an exercise in HIBK devices (Rendell herself is now embarrassed by this book, but it's a fine, late example of the form). There's obviously something perennially appealing about HIBK, to men as well as women (whether the men admit or not).  It's simply a form of suspense, and who doesn't like suspense?

the Afton edition
Golden Age crime writer and critic Todd Downing, born in 1902, loved reading Rinehart and Eberhart in the 1930s (he reviewed mysteries from 1930 to 1937), then later on became a great devotee of Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar.

I prefer Hughes and Millar myself, but it's interesting to see a reader--and a male one at that (one who also read John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Dashiell Hammett)--graduating from this one group of female suspense writers to the other as the decades passed.  I'm sure he would have liked Mabel Seeley too!  Plenty of male critics did.

Note: Four of Mabel Seeley's seven mysteries, including The Chuckling Fingers, are available in beautiful hardcover editions from Minnesota's Afton Historical Society Press. You just don't see this kind of deluxe treatment much anymore!  These editions have especially fine dust jacket art--rather resembling WPA murals from the 1930s I think--by Paul S. Kramer.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mabel Seeley's Murders in Minnesota Part One: Some Thoughts on Howard Haycraft and HIBK

In her essay "Women Writers Before 1960" in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, Catherine Ross Nickerson castigates "influential male connoisseurs" for scorning the so-called "Had-I-But-Known" mystery fiction associated with American crime writer Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) and her followers, such as Mignon Eberhart and Leslie Ford.  The term HIBK was derived from the comic poem Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You (1940), by Ogden Nash (a onetime editor at the major American mystery publisher Doubleday, Doran, Nash read a great deal of mystery fiction).

a cornerstone genre history
In an HIBK novel, the first-person narrator (almost invariably a woman) looks back over a recent course of mysterious and murderous events, interpolating into the text foreboding reflections on what she might have done differently to have avoided the various calamities that befell her and the people around her, had she but known....

This style of writing can be an effective suspense-building devise, but it also lends itself to parody (see Ogden Nash). When Howard Haycraft published his influential genre study, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story in 1941, the year after Nash's poem was published in the New Yorker, Haycraft gave clear indications that he had been influenced by Nash's satirical jab at HIBK.

"Not only is it phony writing," Haycraft bluntly pronounced of HIBK, "its day of doom is clearly in sight."

Besides mentioning satirical jabs aimed at HIBK (including Nash's), Haycraft cited a 1941 survey of "several hundred habitual readers of the form," in which, he noted, the HIBK style of writing placed third on a list of "pet dislikes."  Placing first, he added, was "too much love and romance...one of the cardinal sins of the HIBK sorority."  Haycraft also noted that comments from the survey participants included condemnations of "such moth-eaten HIBK devices and trappings as

"nosy spinsters"
"women who gum up the plot"
"super-feminine stories"
"heroines who wander around attics alone"

Anticipating accusations of "misogyny among the voters," Haycraft pointed out that "almost as many women readers as men replied to the questionnaire" and that the most popular authors in the survey were women: that redoubtable British detection duo, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.

participants in a 1941 survey of mystery fiction readers
wanted "nosy spinsters" to get the ax
An irony here is that Dorothy L. Sayers' popularity increased in the 1930s after she introduced love and romance into her Lord Peter Wimsey detective saga, in the form of the brilliant mystery writer Harriet Vane (this love gambit also was followed by rising Crime Queens Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh). However, all three of these Crime Queens eschewed HIBK devices and provided genuine fair play puzzles in their books. All are associated with the "detective novel of manners" approach, which Haycraft heartily admired.

In the view of genre critics like Haycraft, the books of many HIBK writers devolved, if you will, from ratiocinative detective fiction into "mere" mystery.  The reader's interest in these HIBK books, which are descended from Gothic and Victorian sensation fiction, more typically centers on studying the emotional upheavals characters undergo as they confront murder, rather than on solving any formal mystery puzzle per se (there are exceptions to this, however, as some HIBK books do provide fair play puzzles).

It should be noted that Howard Haycraft, who highly valued the classic, puzzle-oriented detective novel, credited "English women detective story writers" like Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and Christie with being "in the vanguard of the most inventive and imaginative minds practicing the form."

Howard Haycraft

Modern academic writers like Catherine Ross Nickerson who dismiss Haycraft as a sexist should consider that clearly at least part of Haycraft's critique of HIBK mystery fiction reflects an aesthetic, rather than a gender, bias (I might also add that it seems a bit condescending on the part of academics to apply the label "influential male connoisseurs" to Haycraft and Symons, as if anyone without an advanced college degree cannot be deemed a "scholar" of the mystery genre; much to the contrary of this elitist view, Julian Symons, for example, was beyond question one of the great twentieth-century autodidacts--not only a formidable writer but a formidable mind).

It also should be noted that Haycraft praised individual HIBK writers.  Of Mary Roberts Rinehart herself, Haycraft lauded her ability to produce "a mood of sustained excitement and suspense that renders the reader virtually powerless to lay her books down" ("despite their logical shortcomings," he added).  Haycraft also singled out for praise, among others, Mignon Eberhart, Leslie Ford, Dorothy Cameron Disney, Anita Blackmon, Margaret Armstrong and Mabel Seeley.

Most of all Mabel Seeley.  To Seeley Haycraft devotes two pages of Murder for Pleasure, dubbing her the "White Hope" who promised to "pilot the American-feminine detective story out of the doldrums of its own formula-bound monotony."

So why this fuss about Mabel Seeley (it will also be recalled that Judge Lynch of the Saturday Review chose her novel The Crying Sisters as one of the seven best crime novels of 1939)?  Find out what I think about all this, if you want, in Part Two, coming tomorrow.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

I Know a Good Riddle! The Riddle of the Sands (1979)

Well, this was a pleasant surprise!  A few weeks ago I had never even heard of, let alone seen, the 1979 film adaptation of The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the important early espionage novel by Robert Erskine Childers.  It's a much more faithful film adaptation of a book than the 2008 film The Thirty-Nine Steps, and a better film all round, in my view.

Childers' novel is about two English gentleman, Carruthers and Davies, who discover nefarious doings by Germans while on a yachting holiday off the Frisian Islands in the North Sea.  Carruthers, who holds a position in the Foreign Office, has joined Davies at the latter man's behest, Davies suspecting that another yachtsman, a German named Dollman, tried to engineer a fatal accident for him. Can two English gentleman foil the machinations of the German Empire?  Do you have to ask twice, old man?

The 1979 film adaptation was directed by Tony Maylam, whose only other film I recognized was the early slasher "classic," The Burning (1981)--not exactly, one might be forgiven for thinking, a hopeful portent for The Riddle of the Sands.  On the other hand, the seasonal classic film A Christmas Story (1983) was directed by the guy who also gave us the pioneering slasher film Black Christmas (1974), so who is to say about these things, really?

The two leads in Sands are Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale.  Michael York was in an impressive run of successful films back in the 1970s, including (vintage mystery fans will recall) Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and he has kept quite busy acting for decades now, including in the farcical hit series of Austin Powers spy films, but Simon MacCorkindale a long time ago went off the map--in my case, anyway.

I immediately recalled him from another Agatha Christie film, Death on the Nile (1978), in the major role of the husband of the first murder victim.  He seemed like he might be going places on screen, but by the 1980s he was doing films (and not even in the lead) like The Sword and the Sorcerer (an early--and rather dire--modern fantasy film, which I recall seeing at the movie theater with high hopes back in 1981) and Jaws 3-D (urk! I also saw this at the theater--some taste I had, huh), not to mention the very short-lived television series--a one-time joke punchline--Manimal.

Apparently in the last decade MacCorkindale was best-known for appearing in a British television medical series, Casualty.  Sadly, he died just a couple years ago from cancer, at the untimely age of fifty-eight.

Simon MacCorkindale

In Sands, MacCorkindale is actually third-billed after not only York, but lovely Jenny Agutter, who provides the mild love interest in the film.  (She plays Dollman's daughter, Clara.)  I knew I had seen Agutter in something before, and it turned out to be the hit horror film An American Werewolf in London, yet another early eighties film I saw at the theater.  (She was the sexy and sympathetic English nurse.)

Slightly older people (particularly males) likely remember her for Logan's Run (1976), in which she co-starred with Michael York.  (In Riddle of the Sands Agutter is interested in MacCorkindale, not York, however.)  She has long line of credits over on imdb, many of the ones from the last thirty years in British television, including the popular new series Call the Midwife.

Jenny Agutter

Though third-billed, MacCorkindale actually seemed to me the main character.  I thought he was quite good as the rather wonky yachtsman, preoccupied with details of navigation and cartography (he's a lot like the author John Street in this regard), but still smitten with the winsome Clara.  York provides some droll fun and interest, however, as the immaculately dressed and hoity-toity Carruthers, initially shocked to the tips of his wingtips by the crude conditions aboard Davies' rather humble craft, the Dulcibella, but who later transforms into a man of action.

For much of the time in Sands, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that the film might have been better titled Two Men in a Boat.  But I loved the detail about sailing and all the scenes of the sea and the German coast (actually it is the Dutch coast that was filmed, I think).  This is one of the respects in which the film is very true to the novel.

two men in a boat (one quite posh)
The film is more leisurely than modern "action" flicks, to be sure, but I found it a nice change of pace, personally.  (The book itself is quite leisurely paced.)  And it benefits immeasurably from the fine cinematography by the late Christopher Challis (who died just last year) and a wonderfully evocative score by Howard Blake.

A modern version of this film probably would have Clara playing a major role in all the derring-do (a la 39 Steps 2008), but in this regard Sands does not shift too much with the tides of time. (To be sure, Agutter is given more to do than book Clara, but she does not become an action heroine.)  This film struck me as a rather remarkably faithful adaptation. It is well worth watching.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

False Steps? John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) in Print and on Film

the latest edition
Continuously in print now for nearly a century, John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal early example of the flight-and-pursuit story (i.e., hero chased by villains) and, no doubt, one of the more historically significant thrillers in the history of the crime fiction genre. Yet I think John Buchan, who was unquestionably a good writer, went on to write more substantial fare, even in the "shocker" line.

Many people probably have heard of the The Thirty-Nine Steps, even if they have not read the book, because it has been filmed four times, originally by Alfred Hitchcock, no less, and most recently for British television in 2008 (I say more about these film adaptations below).

In Steps, the intrepid Colonial Richard Hannay, quite bored in London, gets a visit from a neighbor, Franklin P. Scudder, who has quite a story to tell of an international conspiracy that is imperiling British security.

Frankly, I find the conspiracy plot in Steps nebulous, confusing and unconvincing (do I make myself clear?).  It has something to do with an impending visit to London by Constantine Karolides, the big pot in Greece, don't you know.  Karolides, it seems, is marked for assassination by certain nefarious types always up to no good in early English thrillers, anarchists and international financiers (though later in the book these folk are dropped in favor of, ach!, Germans).

Scudder is marked for death

Anyway, the conspirators and would-be assassins are after Scudder, who has found out too much about them for has own good, and he wants to hide out for safety in Hannay's flat (Scudder has discerned that Hannay is a real "white man," as the saying went back then, at least in this sort of book).

One day Hannay finds Scudder murdered in his flat.  Instead of sensibly going to the police (like Scudder should have in the first place), he decides to go underground in Scotland, with Scudder's little black book of encoded information about the conspiracy in his pocket.

This decision sets up the longest and best section of the book, where Hannay is running about Scotland, attempting to avoid both the police and the criminals who are trying to catch him.  Buchan provides some excellent scenic description of Scotland here, along with some unlikely escapes and spectacular coincidences for Hannay, who seems not so much clever as blessed with incredible luck.

you might be forgiven for mistaking
this man for Cary Grant
The last part of the book finds Hannay back in London, working with higher-ups in the government to try to catch the conspirators.  The leisurely conclusion strikes me as rather underwhelming.

Given my response to Steps, it doesn't surprise me that  both Charles Bennett (adapter of the 1935 Hitchcock version) and Lizzie Mickery (adapter of the 2008 version) decided to make changes (there's also the sticky matter of the controversial antisemitic comments that are made in the book).

It has been about fifteen years since I last saw the Hitchcock version, but, as I recollect it, it has precious little in common with the book, aside from the basic plot of  a man wrongfully accused of murder going on the run (a common Hitchcock motif).

The 2008 version is more loyal to book in terms of its the general plot structure, but in others ways is so different as to seem like a completely different story.

There are comparatively minor points, such as Scudder getting killed much more quickly and Hannay being immediately implicated in his murder (I think this is an improvement), but some changes are really major.

The most obvious of these story-altering changes is the introduction of a major female character, Victoria Sinclair (played by Lydia Leonard; Hannay, by the by, is played by Rupert Penry-Jones of Whitechapel and Sad Cypress fame for mystery fans--and he's just as positively posh as ever).

Victoria Sinclair is a woman's suffragist whom Hannay encounters when, in a case of mistaken identity, he is pressed by Sinclair and her brother into giving a speech at a political meeting in Scotland (a version of this episode also appears in the book and the 1935 film).

After his speech Hannay ends up on the run with Sinclair.  Rather like Robert Donat (Hannay) and Madeleine Carroll (Pamela) in the 1935 version, they bicker a great deal (like Donat and Carroll they even are shackled together, though only briefly).  However, in this case, we clearly have a case of attracted opposites--she's an outspoken suffragette, you see, and he's, well, um...a sexist Neanderthal (but posh!).

There's even a "will-they-or-won't-they" scene between our couple when they spend the night at a Scottish inn.  I say!

All this is far removed from the world of the book, which is rather remarkable for barely even having any women characters in it, let alone a romance for Hannay.

the one time that these two
stop bickering with each other--at least audibly

The scriptwriter Lizzie Mickery adds some welcome convolution to the plot, but she also gives us a twist--or two actually--that seemed to me to make a logical mess of what preceded the twists (of course to be fair, it's not like the book doesn't have major plot holes as well).

I can't go into detail (major spoilers!), but let's just say this is a case of where feminist revisionism in film adaptation is at odds not only with the film's own narrative logic but with the historical context and the source material.

For the second half of the film Hannay becomes almost a secondary player, which certainly is not in accord with what Buchan wrote.  Buchan's Steps very much subscribes to the theory, so popular in Golden Age crime fiction, that the "talented gentleman amateur" can do about anything.  Mickery's Steps sidelines the gentlemen amateur with what academic Melissa Schaub calls the "female gentleman."

This battle of the sexes motif rather reminded of the line "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," from the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  Or maybe Mickery had Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence a bit in mind! Any road, she certainly wasn't getting all this from the actual novel that John Buchan wrote.

he can do anything posher than you
Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay

So for me the 2008 film doesn't really work, despite the fact that I'm sympathetic with adapters who want to "spice up" the book with new elements.  There are some things I liked though.  The opening minutes struck me as splendidly Hitchcockian (in particular Eddie Marsan as Scudder seemed like he stepped right out of a Hitchcock film), the escape by train across England to Scotland is well done and the Scottish scenery is ravishingly beautiful.

Apropos of the last point, there are a couple of lovely scenes that reminded me of the book: the pursuit of Hannay by a plane and by police beating a field of heather in search of him (I imagine the plane scene was influenced as well by the famous crop duster scene in Hitchcock's North by Northwest).

Overall, however, I found the 2008 film rather a mixed bag.  Of course, I think this describes my feeling about the book too!  Among early classic spy thrillers I prefer both the 1903 book The Riddle of the Sands and its 1979 film adaptation, which I will be reviewing next week (as well as a couple novels by Mabel Seeley).

And here's a very nice review of The Thirty-Nine Steps over at Past Offences. A lot of good points about the novel's place in the mystery/crime genre.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Crooked Path: Injustice (2011)

Justice can be murder....
I very much enjoyed the five-part mystery series Injustice (2011), which stars James Purefoy, currently starring in The Following (that's probably not  a series I'll ever be watching).

Created and written by Anthony Horowitz, who wrote scripts for Agatha Christie's Poirot and Midsomer Murders, not to mention the entire (ongoing) run of the fascinating Foyle's War, Injustice, it did not surprise me to find, is another excellent Horowitz conception.

James Purefoy, terrific as usual, stars in the series as William Travers, a barrister who has moved from London to Suffolk and retired from accepting murder cases because of a traumatic event in his recent past.

Just when things seem to have settled down for Travers, a notorious former client of his, an animal rights activist, is murdered in Suffolk, where the man was working as a farm laborer.  Yes, this person was intimately involved in Travers' aforementioned past traumatic event.

Meanwhile Travers is reluctantly persuaded by an old college friend, Martin Newall (Nathaniel Parker), to defend Newall in his London murder trial.  Newall, who works in the oil business, is charged with strangling the attractive, young secretary with whom he was having a steamy affair.  But he says his computer was stolen from the hotel room where his mistress was slain (according to Newall, he was away at this time, getting postcoital curly fries).  Did the murder have something to do with corporate malfeasance by Big Oil?

Then there's Travers' wife (Dervla Kirwan), late of the publishing business, who is doing volunteer work with juvenile offenders (and also worrying a lot about Will's nerves).  This part of the series does tie-in with the main plotline eventually!

Detective Inspector Mark Wenborn, investigating the murder of the animal rights activist/farm laborer, has the narrative counterpart to the charming and decent but troubled Travers. A nasty-tempered, dishonest and ruthless brute of a policeman who will do anything to close a case "successfully," Wenborn is memorably portrayed by Charlie Creed-Miles, who was also in Endeavor.  This character only gets more hateful as the series progresses, which is pretty amazing, considering how repulsively he starts!

Viewers will immediately expect Wenborn to end up on a collision course with Travers, and this is just what happens.

James Purefoy and Charlie Creed-Miles

It's hard to say more about this series without "spoiling." The densly plotted and compelling  Injustice easily could have made a fine crime novel of the more twisting sort.  With all the flashbacks we are shown we are given versions of recent history in the lives of the characters, to be sure, but just how accurate are these flashbacks?  You'll definitely want to hang on to episode five to see it all untangled!  A good job all round.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Clues and Corpses Makes the Scene (the Jon L. Breen Review in Mystery Scene, that is)

There is a quite a nice review by Jon L. Breen in Mystery Scene of Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.

I must say I liked this part of the review:

"The book is an important addition to our knowledge, not just of an unfairly neglected writer but of the whole mystery scene in a misunderstood and often mischaracterized decade."

And this even more, perhaps:

"....Curtis Evans, who is becoming the foremost contemporary scholar of Golden Age detective fiction...."

But, please, read the whole thing for yourselves on their website, if you don't already subscribe to the magazine.

It always means a lot to have some public praise like this for a book one has worked on for a lengthy period (though actually the Downing book was the fastest one so far, taking "only" a year). 

In writing Clues and Corpses I came to believe more than ever that Todd Downing's reviews were a real gold mine of information about 1930s detective fiction and I wanted people to be able to see this for themselves.  I also really got to admire Downing's skill not only as a writer of detective fiction but as a reviewer of it.  I agree with Jon Breen on this point:

"Though a fairly gentle critic, [Downing] was a master of faint praise and could be very funny when he turned acerbic."

It's true, these Downing reviews can be quite amusing, as well as informative and insightful. As for damning with faint praise, just see the reviews of Carolyn Wells' "alternative" classics!

Also, thanks again to Bill Pronzini for providing the preface to the Clues and Corpses. Bill was the one who turned my attention to Todd Downing, in the pages of his and Marcia Muller's deeply informed and endlessly rewarding crime fiction guide, 1001 Midnights.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Comeback: Coachwhip Will Publish a New Edition of Kirke Mechem's A Frame for Murder (1936)

As readers of this blog probably know, I have been working with publisher Coachwhip on the project of republishing all nine of the detective novels of Todd Downing, as well as publishing my newest book, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (see here).

I can now say that Coachwhip will republish Kansan Kirke Field Mechem's A Frame for Murder.  This will be the first edition of this novel in seventy-seven years.

the original hardcover edition by Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club

I have just completed an introduction of over 5000 words for this new edition of the novel, which will be retitled The Strawstack Murder Case.  This was Mechem's own title for the book (Doubleday, Doran changed the title to A Frame for Murder, thinking, as one of Mechem's sons, the composer Kirke Lewis Mechem, has recalled to me, that "strawstacks wouldn't sell books").

For my original blog review of this novel, please see here.

I am very pleased to have helped get this worthy Golden Age detective novel, the sole mystery by a notable Kansas writer, back in print.  I will keep you posted on what the new edition will look like and when it will hit the press.

Also Golden Age detective novels by two women authors will be reprinted by Coachwhip this year as well.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Best of 1939: Judge Lynch Renders His Verdict on Crime Novels

For many years William C. Weber reviewed crime fiction for Saturday Review, under his clever handle "Judge Lynch."  Here is the Judge's selection of the Best Books of 1939 (the headline says six, but there are actually seven):

A Coffin for Dimitrios (in UK, The Mask of Dimitrios), Eric Ambler (Verdict: Masterpiece)

The Crying Sisters, Mabel Seeley (Verdict: Grand)

Strawstack, Dorothy Cameron Disney (reprinted as The Strawstack Murders) (Verdict: Brilliant)   I should note that Strawstack has been reviewed by a couple of my blogging confreres; see here and here.

Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh (Verdict: Unexcelled)

The Problem of the Green Capsule (in UK, The Black Spectacles), John Dickson Carr (Verdict: Super-baffler)

 The Footprints on the Ceiling, Clayton Rawson (Verdict: Immense!)

The Spider Strikes (in UK, Stop Press), Michael Innes (Verdict: Caviar--Best Grade)

I find this is an impressive list (I will be reviewing one of these books very soon, by the way).

No doubt people today might question some things about it, like the absence of anything technically "hard-boiled" (for example, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep was published in 1939).  I would say Eric Ambler's classic crime novel A Coffin for Dimitrios has affinities with the hard-boiled school, but, still, this best-of list does show that hard-boiled crime fiction before 1940 had not exactly swept all corners of mystery reading America, as some seem to think.

I'm sure people will notice that Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None did not make the cut, but it was not actually published in the United States until January 1940.  Also missing is Rex Stout's Some Buried Caesar, another one of my favorites.  Maybe we should pretend that these three novels rounded out the list, to make a full top ten!

Notably Absent: Caesar got buried

There are four men and three women on the list, somewhat challenging the currently ascendant notion in academia that male critics back then mostly were pronounced chauvinists.  Even more notably in this regard, two of the three women authors listed are associated with the HIBK (Had I But Known) school of so-called "feminine anxiety" mysteries, sometimes known as the Mary Roberts Rinehart school.

Male critics, we are often told today, invariably ridiculed these HIBK books.  To the contrary, however, both Mabel Seeley and Dorothy Cameron Disney got great reviews from male (and female) critics, and deservedly so.

Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes are on hand to represent British mystery.  Marsh's village mystery novel is considered one of the key British Crime Queen novel of manners texts, yet it is still an orthodox detective novel in form.  Innes' novel, on the other hand, is a surreal fantasia on mystery themes.

John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson represent the "impossible crime" or "miracle problem" tale at its best.

What do you think of this list?  Anything you would add?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

You Pays Your Money and You Takes Your Chances: The Running of Beasts (1976), by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

What beasts run wild within us?
Note: Today is distinguished crime writer Bill Pronzini's 70th birthday and I wish him a very happy one indeed.  The Passing Tramp

You name your town Bloodstone, says I, you have only yourselves to blame if your town ends up with a serial killer running amok in the lanes! And that's precisely what happens in The Running of Beasts, the first of four collaborative suspense novels by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg.

In the 1970s serial killers were not such common fictional malefactors as they have become in the last couple of decades, since the runaway success of The Silence of the Lambs (book and film). Today fictional serial killers bloom like blood red roses.

Bill Pronzini has recalled that when he and Barry Malzberg composed Beasts they were not even thinking of the book as a serial killer novel, but rather "as a different kind of suspense story with emphasis on character."

Kirkus Reviews thought otherwise, decreeing that "this see-how-they-run-from-a-carving-knife account of some mutilation killings in the Adirondacks" offered readers "nothing much to think about," although it was "galvanizing at the gut line."

While I found much more mental fare to chew on in Beasts than did the squeamish anonymous Kirkus reviewer (the novel actually is, as Bill Pronzini has stated, a suspenseful character study; see below), I agree that as a tale of suspense Beasts is fierce.  "Do not read alone at night," breathlessly warned the reviewer for the Detroit Free Press (a comment naturally picked up for blurbage purposes by publishers of paperback reprints of the novel, including Speaking Volumes, who reprinted Beasts in 2012).

When Beasts opens, three women have been viciously slain in Bloodstone, a dying resort town evocatively set in New York's Adirondacks.  Bloodstone's off-season population is all of 453 souls and the place is rather lonely and creepy.  One gets the impression that the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining would have been right at home in Bloodstone!

(see the splendid blog Obscure Vermont)

Apparently the savage slayings are the mad work of a serial murderer, rather unoriginally dubbed the Ripper by locals. Coming to learn just what the devil is going on in Bloodstone are Valerie Broome, a rising New York City journalist, and James Ferrara, a showboating psychiatrist.  Broome herself grew up in Bloodstone (high school class of '65) and is afflicted with bitter feelings about the place, which she found soul-crushingly narrow-minded and parochial.

The narrative primarily moves through the perceptions of Broome and four men: young local journalist Jack Cross (perhaps a little too obsessed with both his still smoking hot mother and his super nifty Superman comic book collection); washed-up actor Steven Hook (a recovering alcoholic, he now earns a precarious living betting on horses at Saratoga); brutish policeman Alex Keller (a sort of Archie Bunker with a sidearm, he lost his job in Chicago after performing quite ignobly on camera at the '68 Democratic Convention); and State Police Lieutenant Dan Smith (increasingly desperate to preserve his diminishing belief in a rational world order and to prevent his ulcerous stomach from perforating during the course of this current investigation).

Other characters include Cross' aforementioned mother, Florence, and his schoolteacher girlfriend, Paula Eaton; Henry Plummer, publisher of the local rag and both the employer of Cross and the lover of Cross' mother; and the racist, sexist and homophobic local bar owner Tony Manders (yup, one of Bloodstone's finest!).

The reader will quickly grasp that the four lead male characters all are undergoing serious mental stresses.  The glib psychiatrist contends that the Ripper has two personalities and that the one is unaware of what the other is doing.  Could this be true?  Could one of these four men, unknown even to himself, be the Ripper?

The Running of Beasts is quite a cleverly constructed suspense novel (I must note that I particularly liked the facsimile reproductions of typed pages from Jack Cross' manuscript account of the Ripper killings, which he optimistically plans to publish as a book and make the big time).

Indeed, to grasp it all, readers must make sure they read Beasts to the very last sentence--yes, it's one of those superbly twisty books!

I also think that there is to be found in Beasts a fascinating message, one which dovetails beautifully with the title (something the shortsighted Kirkus reviewer obviously missed; readers will have to read for themselves to see what I mean).

To be sure, mental dysfunction rages rampant in bloody little Bloodstone, but The Running of Beasts appeared, after all, in an era of political assassination and social turbulence, when chaos seemed to have become a permanent part of the modern cultural zeitgeist, so in contrast with the reassuringly rational and ordered world of the classical detective novel, to which this blog is devoted.  And in just a few short years after Beasts was published, just in the United States we saw the rise to grim infamy of the likes of David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Wayne Williams.  As a work of genre fiction, The Running of Beasts may have been ahead of its time, but, frighteningly, as a thematic statement about the human condition it may well have been abreast of it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Love Everlasting: Eternity Ring (1948), by Patricia Wentworth

The general view of the Miss Silver mysteries of Patricia Wentworth (1878-1961) is that they have a similar ambiance to those by Agatha Christie, with, however, more love and less mystery. This is certainly true in the case of Eternity Ring (1948), the fourth Patricia Wentworth detective novel I have read, and the poorest as a mystery (the others are The Chinese Shawl, Miss Silver Intervenes and Latter End).

Although Patricia Wentworth's memorably Miss Marple-like detective, Miss Maud Silver, first appeared in a Wentworth novel in 1928, most of the books in the Miss Silver series date from the 1940s and 1950s (before 1943, only four Miss Silver mysteries had been published; most of Wentworth's genre output up to that time is to be found in her over thirty Silver-free thrillers) .

This being the same time that Agatha Christie's Miss Marple began appearing much more frequently in novels (Miss Marple only actually appeared in one Christie novel and a short story collection before World War Two), it would seem to me that the 1940s and 1950s are the decades when the idea of the British village "cozy" really began gelling in the minds of readers.

It is this cozy atmosphere that I found most interesting about Eternity Ring.  The first three chapters, which deal with life in the village of Deeping, were really rather charming.

Chapter Three, which details a small tea party at the cottage of Alvina Grey, the spinster daughter of the former Rector, I found the best part of the book.  I would have loved for Miss Vinny to have played a bigger part in the tale (there's another great chapter with her later).

Although the story in Eternity Ring takes place after World War Two (events in the late war play a major role in the book), one might well be excused for thinking it occurs twenty years earlier.  I not infrequently found myself thinking of Downton Abbey!

Deeping is a village dominated by a few old landed families, and most servants know their place and like it (housekeeper Mrs. Barton still thinks darkly of the French and their "nasty revolutions").  The two commoners who get above themselves, farmer's niece Mary Stokes and chauffeur Albert Caddle, are heartily disapproved of by Miss Silver and the author.

Mary Stokes served with the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) and came back discontented with life on the farm.  A local lady of the gentry complains of Stokes:

"She isn't a village girl at all--she's something much smarter and more sophisticated.  She comes down to the farm once in a way when she's out of a job or wants a change....I think it's a relief when she goes off again."

Stokes, we learn, is a fast type who enjoys leading men on and laughing at them. Not altogether surprisingly, she comes to a very bad end indeed when her neck is broken by an unknown assailant.

Albert Caddle, who married a much older retired housemaid for her money and plays around with other women, is described by the author as "very well built and beyond all question a handsome young man."  However, when he is "bold" and "defiant" when being questioned by Inspector Lamb, the policeman, knowing he "has a thousand years of solid English law behind him," squelches the chauffeur fast, much to the approval of the author (Lamb, I noted, declined to address Caddle as "Mister").

Caddle's current girlfriend, shop girl Maisie Traill, doesn't come off very well either.  When she expresses indifference to the fact that she is going about with a married man, Inspector Lamb reflects: "Real bad upbringing she must have had.  Wanted smacking."

When Mary Stokes is found murdered, people reflect that it was probably a local male whom Stokes got "all worked up."  "A young man'll stand just so much and no more," pronounces the cook at the great house Abbottsleigh.  Or as Inspector Lamb puts it, "you never can tell what a man'll do if he's pushed too far."  Surprisingly, given such expressed sentiments, no one ever thinks to ask whether Mary Stokes might have been raped.  I suppose this was too blunt.

someone is deep sixing
 women in Deeping
I found these "bad" characters more interesting than Wentworth's gentry heroine, Cicely (Abbott) Hathaway.  She's a cousin of another of Wentworth's series policemen, the "slim and elegant" Detective-Sergeant Frank Abbott, and the estranged wife of Grant Hathaway, a gentry neighbor of the Abbotts. Another neighbor, modernist show tune composer Mark Harlow, is interested in Cicely, and a good chunk of the novel is devoted to Cicely's romantic travails.

The most interesting quality I found about Cicely was that everyone in the village kept referring to her as "a little brown thing," apparently because she has brown hair and a dun complexion.  I thought it funny that about everyone in the villager referred to her this way--did they get together and hold a meeting about it? No matter, though: Grant and Mark adore her anyway!

Disappointingly, about a third of the way through the novel, Wentworth reduces the list of suspects for Mary Stokes' murder (and that of another woman) to three men: Grant Hathaway (gentry farmer, husband of Cicley), Mark Harlow (show tune composer, hitting on Cicely) and Albert Caddle (uppish chauffeur, no doubt would happily hit on Cicely, but she's out of his league socially, not to mention he's married too, the bounder!).

I was certain I knew who the killer would be, and I was right.  Agatha Christie was never so predictable!

Still, I must admit to a certain fascination with the Miss Silver mysteries, with their strongly-conveyed cozy village settings that seem ever more remote as the years pass.  I will keep reading Wentworth novels. Perhaps the next one will have a better mystery!

Note: Miss Silver coughs twenty-seven times in Eternity Ring.  She should get that cough checked out, I think it's getting worse!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"The Great Army of Readers of the Detective Story Demand the Nondistracting Puppet and Abominate Psychology": Gertrude Atherton, Anna Katharine Green and Literary Respectabilty

A public spat took place nearly a century ago in the pages of the New York Times between novelists Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) and Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948).  Green, as we know, was a popular mystery writer, while Atherton was a well-regarded writer of "mainstream," or "straight," fiction.

The dispute between the two authors was over women's suffrage (Green was against it, Atherton for it), but it is of special interest to us here because Atherton in her letter took time out to lambast not merely Green, but the entire genre of detective fiction with which Green was so strongly associated.

Two years after the publication of her short story collection The Golden Slipper, which told of the investigations of her female detective Violet Strange, Anna Katharine Green had further things to say about the role of women in public affairs.

New York City suffrage parade, 1915
Violet Strange was not in attendance

In "Women Must Wait: An Appeal to the Men of This State to Vote Against the Woman Suffrage Amendment," a long letter published in the New York Times on October 30 1917, Green announced her firm opposition to conceding American women voting rights.

Green warned men that giving women the vote could one day result in "a Congress divided equally between men and women...with the vague possibility of a woman in the executive chair."  This as "millions of our men go to war."

(the implication here is that women officeholders would be incompetent to deal with martial matters)

"Do you like the prospect?  Are you willing to see that day?" Green asked men.  "If not, pause and think before you cast your vote for equal suffrage.

Even is she were to concede that women possessed a "right" to vote, Green added, she believed that a "true woman waives her rights in times of stress, whether that stress be domestic or public."

Anna Katharine Green objected
to the public antics of suffragists
Green complained that already too many women had invaded the male sphere, in her view de-feminizing themselves, if you will:

"The graces which one once adorned [Woman] are fading from our sight.  Her modesty is gone.  It is the young man who blushes now and not the girl, or so I hear from some of our City Court Judges."

Granting women the vote would only further destabilize gender relations, promoting serious discord between the sexes and marital disharmony.

Referencing the suffragists themselves, Green insisted that "nothing in the way of business or pleasure is denied the women of this state.  All occupations are open to them."

Women "can even for months insult our President and humiliate the nation as no body of men would have been allowed to do for a day," Green added witheringly.

Despite being a hugely successful popular author as well as the primary breadwinner in her own family, Anna Katharine Green clearly believed in the idea of separate spheres for men and women (this is associated with the concepts of true womanhood and the cult of domesticity).

Gertrude Atherton begged to differ
However, many women at this time disagreed with Green about the proper role of women in society (men too, I should note, for the New York suffrage measure passed).

One of these dissenting women was the  author Gertrude Atherton*, who penned her own letter to the New York Times in rebuttal to Green.

*(Atherton is best known to genre readers for her supernatural tale "The Bell in the Fog")

Atherton's letter is of special note here because Atherton took time to attack Green on literary grounds as well as political ones (in fact, she linked the two).

Noting that Green had, since the publication of The Leavenworth Case four decades earlier, established herself as one of the most prominent mystery writers in the world, Atherton praised Green for "her fecundity of invention" in devising "murder-detective stories" that were "complicated, skillful, thrilling."  Very few women writers, Atherton pronounced, had "Green's particular form of fictional ingenuity."  Indeed, declared Atherton, "Mrs. Rohlfs [Green's married title; her husband was noted furniture designer Charles Rohlfs] is as inventive as any male Yankee that ever lived."

Yet, Atherton added, getting to her main thrust, "therein lies the secret of her limitations."

With "plots bubbling out of her like steam out of a geyser," asserted Atherton, Green "has never been obliged to study human character.  The great army of readers of the detective story demand the nondistracting puppet and abominate psychology."

Green, concluded Atherton damningly, had spent the last forty of her seventy-one years not "in the main current of life" but rather "in a backwater."

a nondistracting puppet?
This is a splendid example of the kind of intellectual disdain that the mystery genre was (and still is) subjected to in some quarters.  It is the notion of "mere puzzles" that I write about in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  To the contrary of Atherton's assertion, I think it's clear that Green in her books did concern herself with human character (and I'm not even an admirer of the prosy literary stylings of The Leavenworth Case).

The Doctor, His Wife and the Clock, to cite a Green tale last reviewed here, looks at jealously and how it can destroy a marriage.  There is serious intent behind this novella, whatever one may think of its particular merits.

It would not surprise me to find that Atherton might actually have been generally unfamiliar with Green's writing.  In those forty years since the publication of The Leavenworth Case, had Atherton really read anything by Green (besides, perhaps, The Leavenworth Case--about every American reader in the nineteenth century seems to have read that!)?

Interestingly, a year previous to her newsprint altercation with Green, Gertrude Atherton published a novel, Mrs. Balfame, that some reviewers called a detective story or a mystery.  However, it sounds more like what today we would call a psychological crime novel

Even were Atherton right that Green only concerned in her fictional work herself with portraying nondistracting puppets (in order to mollify a readership that abominated psychology), would this necessarily disqualify Green, or any other such mystery writer, from having intelligent opinions on public issues (to be sure, I imagine most of us disagree with Green's particular views on women's suffrage)?  That seems to me quite an extravagant claim.  But it does show why classical mystery writers sometimes exhibited a sort of inferiority complex (hey! psychology!) about their work.

As another letter writer to the Times put it, Atherton had clearly attempted "to belittle Mrs. Rolhfs"--in part simply for being a mystery writer!  This was not the first time this sort of thing had happened, nor, sadly, would it be the last.  Far from it.

However, Green may have had the last laugh.  In 2010 Penguin Books, under its Classics imprint, republished Green's milestone mystery, The Leavenworth Case, in an attractive new edition, with an introduction by the esteemed writer Michael Sims. Will the once much acclaimed Atherton get the same treatment one day?

Perhaps I shall go and make the acquaintance of a certain Mrs. Balfame....

Note: In a twist of sorts, in later life Gertrude Atherton befriended San Francisco writer Mary Collins, whose mystery novel The Sister of Cain (1943) is dedicated to Atherton.  See my review.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Try This on for Size: The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915), Anna Katharine Green

"Girl detective" Violet Strange has enjoyed a revival of late.  Strange's creator, the prolific American mystery novelist Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), has been getting more attention too, not only for Violet Strange, but for her characters Amelia Butterworth, prototype of the "nosy spinster" sleuth once so popular in detective fiction, and Ebenezer Gryce, the detective in Green's landmark mystery novel The Leavenworth Case (1878) and numerous other tales.

Today a common view seems to be that Anna Katharine Green was long unfairly neglected and that the blame for this neglect rests with sexist male critics who unjustly denigrated her work.

Admittedly it does seem to have been the view during the Golden Age of detective fiction that Green had plotting ingenuity but also a narrative style hobbled by outmoded Victorian literary conventions that she never outgrew.  Golden Age critics often damned Green's writing as stilted and melodramatic.

I am not sure, however,  that one can so easily classify this attitude as sexist.  Critics like Howard Haycraft and T. S. Eliot (a great detective fiction fan), admittedly found fault with Green's writing style, but they also greatly admired Agatha Christie, for example.  If they simply were sexists, why did they praise Christie?

Anna Katharine Green
I think what led to Anna Katharine Green's comparative neglect was not sexism but rather a shift of aesthetic standards in the mystery fiction genre.

Today attitudes about Green are different, due not only to the rise of feminist literary scholarship, but to a renewed embrace of the Victorian sensation novel, which was a great influence on Green.

What some readers found prolix and hokey in the 1920s and 1930s, many readers today find rich and emotionally satisfying.

Modern readers also are much more accustomed to reading lengthy crime novels.

Agatha Christie, the greatest representative of Golden Age detective fiction, once expressed the view that 50,000 words was the ideal length for a detective novel.Yet many readers today prefer that crime novels be twice that length (or more).

Anna Katharine Green novels can more than oblige modern readers in this regard.  According to Green's obituary in the New York Times, The Leavenworth Case originally ran to 186,000 words.  Her publishers wanted her to cut the manuscript to 80,000. They and the author compromised at a word count of 142,000--nearly three times what Christie in the twentieth century considered the ideal detective novel length.

Moreover, while Christie found "love interest a terrible bore in detective stories," many readers today emphatically do not.  From what I've seen of her books, Anna Katharine Green gives lovers of love interest something to love.*

*(It's often claimed today that The Leavenworth Case influenced Agatha Christie.  I certainly think it did her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles; yet, on the other hand, Christie's narratives were vastly more streamlined and purely functional than Green's)

I tend to side more with Haycraft, Eliot and Christie on detective fiction aesthetics, I must admit.  I think The Leavenworth Case, for example, is undermined by what I consider the over-the-top emotional histrionics displayed by several of the characters.  Additionally, I do not like the extended flashback sections in some of the Green novels I have read.

I thought, however, that I would try a short story collection by Green, The Golden Slipper, her Violet Strange story cycle.  I found that the short story length promoted greater brevity in Green's writing style--a good thing to my mind!

Violet Strange, as many people probably already know, is Green's dimpled darling of a debutante detective (Green herself continually emphasizes those darling dimples), a young woman with a rich financier father who secretly has taken up investigative work (how she keeps this a secret for so long, considering that she cracks cases for some of the most prominent people in northeastern society, I don't quite see).

Why Violet Strange, a young woman of eminent social position, has taken up professional detection on the sly is one of the great mysteries of The Golden Slipper.  The answer to this question is not divulged to readers until the final story of the nine that are gathered in this collection.  The revelation is customarily spoiled by people who write about Violet Strange in modern short story collections, but I will keep mum about it here.

Now I will discuss each story in turn.

"The Golden Slipper"

"I find that women and only women are involved, and that these women are not only young but one and all of the highest society.  Is it a man's work to go to the bottom of a combination like this?  No.  Sex against sex, and, if possible, youth against youth.  Happily, I know such a person--a girl of gifts and extraordinarily well placed for the purpose.  Why she uses her talents in this direction--why, with means enough to play the part natural to her as a successful debutante, she consents to occupy herself with social and other mysteries, you must ask her, not me...."

Mr. Driscoll again raised his opera glass [studying Violet Strange in her opera box].

"But it's such a comedy face," he commented.  "It's hard to associate intellectuality with such quaintness of expression."

Here begins the chronicle of the detections of Violet Strange.  In this first account, Strange is tasked with learning which one of a particular crowd of privileged young debutantes is a kleptomaniac (that word is not used, but it is what is meant).

Strange does so, but through a ploy, not real detection.  It's an entertaining introduction to Violet Strange, but withal a trifle.  Strange goes on, however, to bigger things.

"The Second Bullet"

Anna Katharine Green (c.1880)
"I'm sorry," she protested, "but it's quite out of my province.  I'm too young to meddle with so serious a matter."

"Not when you can save a bereaved woman the only possible compensation left her by untoward fate?"

In this case Violet Strange tries to prove a supposed suicide is murder, so that the dead man's widow, left not only emotionally but financially bereft by the violent death of her husband*, can collect on his insurance policy.

*(horrifically, the couple's baby is found dead with his father, having been strangled, it is found, by the weight of his father's dead arm)

Out of what once used to be called girlish delicacy, Strange initially balks at taking such a tragic case of violent death, despite her (never named) employer's urging.  "The man shot himself," she temporizes.  "He was a speculator, and probably had good reason for his act."

Eventually, however, Strange yields and agrees to see the dead man's widow, Mrs. Hammond.  The latter lady cannot believe her eyes when she meets the mere slip of a girl assigned to her case:

"But you are so young and so--so--"

"So inexperienced you would say and so evidently a member of what New Yorkers call 'society.'  Do not let that trouble you.  My inexperience is not likely to last long and my social pleasures are more apt to add to my efficiency then to detract from it."

Mrs. Hammond's husband was found shot dead in the couple's bedroom.

His own gun, with one chamber discharged, was found with him.  But evidently another shot was fired in the room from some other source, because there also is a bullet hole in the bedroom mirror.  Yet a second bullet cannot be discovered.

Mrs. Hammond contends that her husband must have been shot from the bedroom window by another person and that the shot from her husband's gun went not into his own body but rather into the mirror; yet since this alleged second bullet cannot be found, her theory is rejected and a verdict of suicide is rendered.

Violet disproves the suicide theory by finding the second bullet.  The solution to this problem that Green supplies is as far as I know completely original.  It's quite ingenious.

"An Intangible Clue"

Here Violet Strange is called upon to solve the case of the savage murder of a decayed gentlewoman, living alone in her old family mansion.

The fastidious Miss Strange again protests to her employer against taking this sort of case:

"When, for reasons I have never thought myself called upon to explain, I consented to help you a little now and then with some matter where a woman's tact and knowledge of the social world might tell without offence to herself or others, I never thought it would be necessary for me to state that temptation must stop with such cases, or that I should not be asked to touch the sordid or the bloody.  But it seems I was mistaken, and that I must stoop to be explicit.  The woman who was killed on Tuesday might have interested me greatly as an embroiderer [the victim had taken on embroidery work as a means of making money], but as a victim, not at all.  What do you see in me, or miss in me, that you should drag me into an atmosphere of low-down crime?"

"Nothing, Miss Strange.  You are by nature, as well as by breeding, very far removed from everything of the kind.  But you will allow me to suggest that no crime is low-down which makes imperative demand upon the intellect and intuitive sense of its investigator.  Only the most delicate touch can feel and hold the thread I've just spoken of, and you have the most delicate touch I know."

"Do not attempt to flatter me.  I have no fancy for handling befouled spider webs."

Despite this contention, Strange's employer manages to involve her in the case, which she solves through the penetrating analysis of physical clues left on the scene of the crime.  "My opinion is a girl's opinion," she modestly tells her employer when reporting her discoveries, "but such as it is you have the right to have it."

Her employer is impressed: "Allow me, I pray, to kiss your hand.  It is a liberty I have never taken, but one which would greatly relieve my present stress of feeling." (note: today Violet Strange might have a sexual harassment case here! "What did you mean, sir, when you asked Miss Strange to relieve your 'present stress of feeling?'")

"The Grotto Spectre"

This case involves the death of a wicked, designing wife, who calculatedly married a young heir for his money and led him into a dissolute lifestyle of drinking and gambling (pronounces the disapproving author, "she besieged him with coaxing ways and bewitching graces"). The dead woman supposedly died naturally from a heart ailment, but her son comes to believe that she may have been murdered--and by his own father!

This is an entertaining story, but Violet Strange does very little detecting in it.  She does, however, engineer the means by which truth is revealed.  Also the dead woman's husband will reappear in two additional stories in a rather significant way.

"The Dreaming Lady"

This is one of those missing will cases, and a good one.  A splendid estate will go to a cruel, scheming stepson, unless Miss Strange can find the new will, now lost.  To further emphasize for her 1915 American audience the horror of the stepson inheriting, Green makes this nefarious gentleman half-Spanish (his name is Carlos Pelacios).

The heir in the new will is the dead man's nephew, who is expiring from consumption. His wife and young children will be cast out penniless unless the will is found.

Unfortunately, the safekeeping of the will was entrusted to the dying man's aunt and she hid the will somewhere in the mansion's great library during a fit of somnambulism (don't you hate it when that happens).

Violet Strange cleverly deduces the whereabouts of the will, although in all honesty I felt the location was one someone should have searched previously.

"The House of Clocks"

Taking place in a decaying mansion, this story goes in for full Gothic horror, as Strange tries to prevent the murder of a young woman by her stepmother.  I didn't really go in much for this one.  There's not much for Strange to do in the way of detection, and she seemed rather incidental to the events.

"The Doctor, His Wife and the Clock"

the clock ticks....
This long story (really a novella) about a very troubled marriage is one of Green's more celebrated tales.

It has an odd publishing history, having originally appeared as an Ebenezer Gryce tale back in 1895.  For her 1915 story collection, Green wrote out Gryce and wrote in Strange.

The story is really more like a modern day crime novel (or a Victorian sensation novel) than a classical tale of detection; and it's quite bleak in tone and outcome.  Again, Violet Strange seems more of a bystander to events.  However, her involvement with the case does have a great emotional impact on her.

I'm not as great a fan of this tale as some people.  I felt distanced from the characters by their ponderous, declamatory style of speaking.  Originally the story was supposed to take place in 1851, when her original detective, Ebenezer Gryce--probably born around 1820--was a relatively young man.  I can well believe it.  These characters certainly don't sound as if they lived in 1915 (you will have noticed as well from quotations above that Violet Strange doesn't really sound like a young woman born around 1895).

"Missing: Page Thirteen"

This one starts off well, with an investigation by Violet Strange into the disappearance of a scientific formula at house party, but Strange solves this mystery lamentably quickly and simply.  The rest of this long tale goes off into some stuff about a sealed room with an old secret.  I thought this an implausible mish-mash of elements.

"Violet's Own"

In this tale we learn that Violet is retiring from the detective business, as well as just why she took up the business in the first place.  There's really no "problem" here, but the tale does resolve Violet's own personal story, in a way that to my mind rather compromises the feminism of these tales (it's worth noting in this context that Anna Katharine Green was a great opponent of women's suffrage who believed in the separate spheres doctrine).

So, what is my verdict on The Golden Slipper?  I think the collection is certainly worth reading and that a few of the stories stand out for some genuinely good detection.  Others are overly Gothic/Sensation in style for my taste, but aficionados of this sort of fiction should enjoy them more than I did.  Moreover, there's no question that the stories have considerable interest from a historical standpoint, offering readers a notable example of the activities of an early fictional female detective. I would like to read more of Green's short stories.

The edition I read was published in 2009 by World Library Classics.  It's a good quality print-on-demand edition, with no egregious typos, formatting errors, etc. (no introduction, however).  The book is also available online from Project Gutenberg.