Sunday, June 30, 2013

Psyched: The Slayer and the Slain (1957), by Helen McCloy

a serious jacket design
for a serious crime novel
Helen McCloy's The Slayer and the Slain appeared in 1957, after a mid-1950s succession of worthy books: the thriller (a sort of Moonstone homage) Unfinished Crime and the Basil Willing detective tales The Long Body (1955) and Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956).

Between 1958 and 1966 nothing appeared besides the novel Before I Die (1963) and a story collection, The Singing Diamonds (1965).

Then in 1967 The Further Side of Fear appeared and between that year and 1980 Helen McCloy published ten crime novels.

Why that long, relatively unproductive gap after The Slayer and the Slain?  Perhaps Helen McCloy felt she achieved her masterpiece with Slayer.

The Slayer and the Slain deals with a lot of thematic preoccupations in McCloy's work (it's really a summation of them), but it's a challenging book to talk about without giving away too much of the plot.

Unacceptably, the ending of Slayer is given away on the Helen McCloy entry on the Gadetection wiki.  This entry appears to have been substantially edited down from the entry on, which gives away the entire plot of the book without even a spoiler warning--really inexcusable.

So be careful about looking for internet discussions of this book.  A more responsible review is found on the (an interesting blog), although even this review, I feel, gives away more of the plot than is ideal for virgin readers.

Victor Gollancz used this
"best butter" blurb for years on
McCloy dust wrappers
I'll just say that Slayer is about Henry Vaughan*, a psychology professor at a New England university who, shortly after getting the thrilling news that he has received a large inheritance from a deceased uncle, slips on icy steps outside his house and hits his head.

At least this is what people tell him must have happened after he is discovered lying on the ground, unconscious.

Recovered from his accident, Vaughan resolves to retire from teaching (though still a young man) and return to his home town of Clearwater, Virginia, to live a pastoral life raising horses and perhaps even to rekindle his romance with Celia Arabin, daughter of Eugene Arabin, local old money bigwig.

But things don't go at all like Vaughan planned. Strange events begin occurring in Clearwater....

Although a violent death does not take place until about 60% of the way through the book, throughout the entire novel the reader is held in the sinister grip of the narrative.

Someone coming to the book today, fifty-six years after it was published, may anticipate some of the developments, but even after McCloy herself makes a major revelation a good way before the end of the novel, interest only increases. This is the definition of "psychological suspense."

A book that must be read to the very last page....

*(the review at femmenoir, by the way, gives his surname as Deane; was it changed in the English edition I read, possible due to the resemblance to the name Carolus Deene, Leo Bruce's English detective?).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

You'd Better Hang Up! Who's Calling? (1942), by Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy
Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American mystery writer who came along at the tail end of the Golden Age, in 1938 publishing Dance of Death, the first of the tales of the adventures of her psychiatrist sleuth, Dr. Basil Willing.

In the nearly twenty years between 1938 and 1956, McCloy published sixteen mysteries, eleven of them Basil Willing detective novels and five of them suspense tales. From 1957 to 1980, her output slowed.  She published a dozen crime novels, only two of which featured Basil Willing.  The other ten were psychological suspense novels, in the manner of authors like Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin.

McCloy's almost complete abandonment of Basil Willing in the 1960s and 1970s seems to reflect the decline of the traditional detective novel in that period and is something much regretted by me.

There are also, I should add, two McCloy short story collections, including a relatively recent one by Crippen & Landru, The Pleasant Assassin.

Though largely forgotten today, McCloy, like so many worthy older crime writers, maintains a following among crime fiction connoisseurs.  She was an early prominent employer of psychiatry in detective fiction (many mystery writers of the period tended to ridicule it) and she has the literate style that today so many people tend to associate almost exclusively with the English Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  In an ideal world, McCloy would feature more prominently (or at all) in genre histories of detective fiction, because she was a notable practitioner within the genre.

For today I was going to review the Basil Willing novel The Deadly Truth, which I read over a decade ago and quite enjoyed, but I noticed that John Norris has already done so, so I will be writing about Who's Calling? (1942), which, unfortunately I didn't like as much.

no one in the novel, Dell readers
may have been disappointed to learn,
actually is sent a severed ear in a box
Evidently set in Maryland, in a small community of local gentry (including a United States senator), Who's Calling? rather resembles a Leslie Ford novel, although McCloy is not as devoted as Ford to lovingly chronicling the local ways.

McCloy even includes some black servant characters who talk in heavy "stage" dialect, which I tend to dislike, in part simply because reading significant snatches of such dialogue is just plain tedious (of course there's the whole racism question as well).

Did the readers of seventy and eighty years ago really enjoy this kind of heavy dialect, thinking it quaint and colorful?  In English mystery writing of this period we are similarly subjected to heavy stage Cockney among working class characters.  The writer back then with a really good ear for dialect writing seems to have been lamentably rare.

This minor matter aside, McCloy offers her usual solid and literate mystery in Who's Calling?  In a situation rather reminiscent of P. D. James' Cover Her Face, the little community of Willow Spring is thrown into an uproar when Archie Cranford (the surname probably was deliberately chosen to suggest the Elizabeth Gaskell novel), a promising young psychiatry student, becomes engaged to nightclub chanteuse (and scheming hussy) Frieda Frey and brings her home to visit mother, in this case Eve Cranford, a widow who supplements family revenues (and pays for Archie's education) by writing romance novels.

There's a bit of nice satire on the romance novel angle, although this is soon dropped, sadly.  The other key characters are Eve's cousin Mark Lindsay, the U. S. senator; Julia Lindsay, Mark's nouveaux riche wife; Ellis Blount, Mark's nice young niece, who loves Archie (naturally); Chalkley Winchester V, another cousin of Eve's; and Ernesto, Chalkley's tough manservant.

As portrayed by McCloy, Chalkley Winchester is an effeminate, sybaritic wastrel.  Spoiled by his mother as a boy, he is a character whom everyone today likely would read as a timeworn homosexual stereotype, though in fact the most McCloy ever does here is have other characters referring to him as an "old maid."  Chalkley is probably the most memorable character in the book, although rather over-broadly satirized, in my opinion (one of the funny thing McCloy does with Chalkley is have the press misspell his name as "Chalkley V. Winchester," misplacing the "V" as an initial rather than a numeral, which positively infuriates him).

Chalkley also serves as the novel's murder victim, getting dispatched with a box of poisoned miniature chocolate liqueur bottles (Chalkley is a glutton for expensive chocolate).

the deadly landline
Archie Cranford soon brings his hero, Basil Willing, on the scene to solve the murder (this is Basil's fourth case).

Like other Basil Willing cases, psychiatry is involved, for someone has been terrorizing Frieda Frey with weird and threatening phone calls.  McCloy definitely provides the reader with an involved murder case, though I can't say any of the twists really surprised me.

The most original aspect of the novel, which I can't discuss, seemed rather improbable to me, though it is somewhat reminiscent of a twist in a later Margaret Millar novel (it's not exactly the same, but there's enough similarity there that one must wonder whether Millar read this McCloy novel).

There are moments in Who's Calling? of sharp satirical social observation concerning the public's taste for salacious news of the rich and famous, which certainly has relevance today:

It had been a contested divorce tried in New York City, a classic case, a veritable collector's item that "had everything"--suit and countersuit, charges and countercharges, three libel suits arising out of the testimony, physical violence in the courtroom on two occasions, incriminating letters, financial difficulties, a "love nest," a prejudiced judge, a drunken husband, a photogenic wife, a correspondent who denied everything, three famous lawyers, six private detectives who seemed to have spent the last year in other people's bedrooms....

Unfortunately, this brouhaha is all over and done with when the novel starts!

These comments from Basil Willing are interesting in light of everything that goes on with the internet today:

"News--a polite word for gossip--is flashed from one end of the earth to the other without even the formality of wires and cables.  Today exposure really means something, for the worst is printed all over the world and the printed word has a hypnotically suggestive power...."

"There isn't a potato patch or a hog farm in the country that doesn't know who slapped whom at the Crane Club last night."

Just ask Paula Deen about this!

Who's Calling is the sixth Basil Willing novel I have read and probably my least favorite of the bunch, but despite that it's still an above-average mystery.  I think most readers would enjoy it, and they should by all means look up Helen McCloy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Humdrums Are Hard to Find: Tragedy at the Thirteenth Hole (1933), by Miles Burton

This is not a review, but, rather, an illustration of a phenomenon.  Old copies of mysteries by all three of the authors I write about in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery are highly sought by book collectors today, but none more so than those by John Street, written primarily under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton.

Many of the John Street novels are rarer then rubies today.  Case at hand: the Miles Burton golf mystery Tragedy at the Thirteenth Hole, published in England eighty years ago by the esteemed Collins Crime Club and not republished since.

I haven't seen a copy of this novel come up for sale in something like seven or eight years.  But here up for auction on eBay is a copy, ex-library (naturally; in the 1930s most copies of detective novels went to rental libraries and were borrowed and read until the literally fell apart) and a second impression, dedicated by Street to the mysterious H. R. T. WHO HAD THE IDEA.

Mr Burnside, a wealthy manufacturer, was playing a round of golf with his nephew on the links of Heavenbeach.  He played the approach to the thirteenth, then walked with his caddie towards the green.  He disappeared into the dip in which the hole lay.  A few moments later, he fell dead, struck on the temple with a golf ball. Well, accidents will happen, of course, even on the best regulated golf courses, but....Inspector Arnold had chosen Heavenbeach as a suitable spot for a quiet holiday and he was mildly puzzled by the apparently insignificant fact that three golf balls were found on the green.  The inspector invites his old friend, Desmond Merrion, to join him, and together they investigate the Tragedy at the Thirteenth Hole, which is certainly one of the most ingenious problems that the fertile imagination of Mr. Miles Burton has devised.

As the above summary illustrates, this is a golf mystery as well, which attracts its own particular community of collectors.  Right now there's one bid on the book, for about $154 U. S. dollars.  Will it go higher tomorrow, when the sale period expires?  We will see. This book is not one of my favorite Burtons, but I do wish copies of it, and all the John Street novels, were more readily available to Golden Age mystery fans.  This one is so rare, even I never had a copy of it (for Masters I read a copy on loan).  Don't worry, though, I'm not bidding on this one!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It Hits the Target: Bullitt (1968)

Steve McQueen
Battling Crime and Being Cool
Peter Yates' Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, is one of the seminal modern crime films, renowned for its influential car chase sequence.  Less well-known (except perhaps to mystery fans) is that it was the winner of the Edgar Award for the best film of 1968, beating out Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, as well as The Boston Strangler.

Co-scriptwriter Alan Trustman also authored the screenplay for Steve McQueen's and Faye Dunaway's 1968 caper film The Thomas Crown Affair (more on this to come). The script was an adaptation of Robert L. Fish's crime novel Mute Witness (1963), written under the punning pseudonym Robert L. Pike.

Robert Fish won an Edgar for best first novel for The Fugitive (1962).  I have to admit, however, that I have read neither of these novels.

Though Bullitt feels to me very modern in reference to that which came before it, often you read people on the internet today commenting that they find the film boring (though of course the film has very committed supporters as well).  Not me!  I'm sure I could watch Bullitt once a year for three decades and still be riveted by it the thirtieth time.

The great car chase still holds interest today (the absence of cgi is genuinely refreshing, I find), though I regret never having seen it on a theater screen (I was two when this film opened--I never actually saw a Steve McQueen film at the theater in my life).  But besides the car chase I love the San Francisco setting, the period style, the fine actors and, yes, even the sometimes criticized plot.

The period that Bullitt represents, the late 60s, is often ridiculed as the age of plaid and polyester and the fell word groovy, but everybody and everything looks so cool and stylish in Bullitt (it sounds cool and stylish as well, due the jazzy score by six-time Oscar nominee Lalo Schifrin).  Yet it's not overly-stylized as arguably is The Thomas Crown Affair.  There's a serious air of documentary-like realism to the acting and filming of Bullitt that I found very appealing.

Bullitt in a run-down hotel--no doubt thinking that
those window treatments could be vastly improved

This sort of film is tailor-made for Steve McQueen and he is utterly masterful as Frank Bullitt, a tough, honest and dazzlingly efficient cop (and so very stylish dresser).  As his posh girlfriend Cathy, Jacqueline Bisset is stunningly beautiful--she gives new meaning to the word "leggy"--though she doesn't have too much to do in the film besides enjoy intimate moments with Bullitt.

naturally Cathy color coordinates with her car

Nevertheless, Bisset does get to drive Steve McQueen about a bit in her color-coordinated canary yellow Porsche and later to complain that his job is making him callous.  "What will happen to us in time," she wonders, giving old Steve the chance to reel off this rejoinder: "Time starts now."  I'm still trying to figure that one out, but it seemed to work for Bisset, so I'm cool with it.

Besides Bisset, women figure in the film professionally as nurses and stewardesses--nary a policewoman is seen, even one who does nothing more than, say, carry cups of coffee to the men (times, happily, have changed).

"Time starts now."
Love means never having to say you're sorry
that you let me see that awful dead body
at that dreadful old crime scene.
The sterling supporting cast is comprised most notably of Don Gordon (Bullit's partner), Simon Oakland and Norman Fell (Bullett's superiors), Robert Duvall (a taxi driver), Georg Stanford Brown (a conscientious doctor) and last but certainly not least, Robert Vaughn, who plays Walter Chalmers, a supremely oily, arrogant and unscrupulous politician.

I think this was the role that typecast Vaughn as this sort of character for years to come (he is indeed very good at it).Vaughn's almost immediately antagonistic relationship with McQueen is really well done.

The intense duel that ensues between these two men who absolutely loath each other is central to the film and a true pleasure to watch.

Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) is up to no good
Norman Fell--Mr. Roper to us 70s kids--looks on, gloweringly

I'll leave off a discussion of the engrossing mystery plot for those of you who may not have seen the film yet.  The enigmatic ending leaves the audience anticipating a sequel that never came, sadly.  I suspect that the idiosyncratic McQueen turned down the chance to make a sequel (he seems to have turned down more great scripts than any actor in film history). Still, at least we have one Bullitt.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Humdrum Rides Again: Southern Electric Murder (1938), by Francis John Whaley

"And what a case!  It's difficult to follow it all, even when it's explained."
--Southern Electric Murder, F. J. Whaley

As the author of, you may have heard by now, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I'm a man who knows humdrum like the back of my hand (by the way, those who haven't seen it yet, please check out the review of and interview about Masters over at the Past Offences blog).  And Francis John Whaley's Southern Electric Murder is definitely Humdrum!

Critic and crime writer Julian Symons meant this word more as a term of disparagement, while I  to the contrary believe it should be worn as a badge of honor.  In my view there is nothing wrong with writing a detective novel that focuses rigorously on the puzzle plot, if one does it well.  Indeed, such an emphasis seems rather charmingly quaint today, I think.

Whaley's Southern Electric Murder is more like a Freeman Wills Crofts novel than about any other book not penned by Crofts that I have read.  It concerns business malfeasance, trains and timetables, all in the classic Crofts manner.

The particular industry involved is automobiles, which also gives the novel similarity to books by Cecil John Charles Street (a great motoring enthusiast), particularly his John Rhode novels The Motor Rally Mystery (1933) and Mystery at Olympia (1935).

Victoria Station--where a journey started

The plot of Southern is absolutely dense with railway movements and times, all involving the railway line running from Victoria Station, London to Brighton, Sussex.  Particularly important are stops at Hove and Haywards Heath.  About halfway through the book, these stations will start to feel like one's Hove away from Hove, so to speak! In the second half of the book, the setting shifts to the Hog's Back, a ridge near Guildford, Surrey, which also is the setting of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery, 1933. 

When a dead body is discovered in a compartment of a train pulling into Worthing station (west of Brighton), things soon start to pop.  The dead man, who has been shot, is Christopher Strange, one of the directors of the Jupiter Automobile Company, the most important rival to Hartman's Automobile Company.

The latter concern is run by Sir Julius Hartman, one of Britain's most prominent Jewish businessmen.  Sir Julius is known to have it in for Jupiter's because one of its directors, Colonel Evan Stonor, is a fascist sympathizer.  Hartman soon becomes a suspect in Strange's murder, as do Stonor and the third Jupiter director, the wily Frank Pendrick, who has been paying his attentions of late to Strange's lovely wife, Norah.  And don't overlook Strange's oily confidential clerk, Pratt.

But there are so many questions.  Why was Christopher Strange wearing a false beard and a cheap suit, for example?  Who was the man with the eye patch who got off at Hove?  And why did Strange make that mysterious stop at Haywards Heath?

Hove Station--where the man with the eye patch left the train
see Hove Daily Photo blog photo copyright Liz Marley 2009
See Marley's Knitting on the Green blog

Investigating the case for Scotland Yard are Inspector John Bean (I suppose in a film he could be played by Sean Bean) and Sergeant Harold Baker.  Sergeant Baker is one of those well-bred, prep school, Cambridge and Hendon Police College boys and, oh my, does Inspector Bean just hate him!  Bean is like Inspector French turned inside-out as far as temperament goes, though he shares French's passion for police routine.

Here I was also rather reminded of John Street's Superintendent Hanslet and Sergeant Jimmy Waghorn, introduced in his John Rhode series a few years earlier, though Hanslet is a much more appealing character and Street is rather less biased in favor of his posh police tec.  But the hostile Bean-Baker relationship is amusingly handled by Whaley and has definite interest.  The second half of the book takes place six months later and is largely devoted to Baker, who has been promoted.

There is also a Bulldog Drummond sort of character, an idle, independently wealthy chap named George Curtis, who is a great pal of Baker's.  At one crucial point in the novel, when everyone in the police force is lamenting that, hang it, they can't use American third degree methods on a suspected blackmailer to extract some badly needed information, Curtis comes in quite handy (for the squeamish: no beatings actually take place, though psychological abuse does).

I could have done without this Curtis character entirely.  It's interesting that Whaley is so condemnatory of fascism and racial prejudice but seems to miss the rubber hose.  Oh, well, one can't expect absolute adherence to modern values in a Golden Age detective novel!

Worthing Station--where a journey ended

My biggest complaint with the novel is that there is no map and no actual tabulated timetable.  Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street--both engineers--would never have left out these sorts of visual aids-- especially helpful, I think, if you are a poor American reader (admittedly, Whaley's novel was never reprinted in the United States).  Still, I enjoyed Southern Electric Murder a great deal.  If you are partial to plot-dense, geometrical Golden Age mysteries, this one is for you.

All aboard! Brighton Main Line

Note: for biographical information on Francis John Whaley, see my immediately previous post.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Life of Crime 4: Francis John Whaley (1897-1977)

As part of my continuing commitment to classic English mystery, I give you Francis John Whaley!

As "F. J. Whaley," Francis John Whaley published nine detective novels between 1936 and 1941:

Reduction of Staff (1936) (a brilliant tile for a public school tale)
Trouble in College (1936) (set at Cambridge and available in a new edition on amazon and
Challenge to Murder (1937)
Southern Electric Murder (1938)
This Path Is Dangerous (1938) (I like this title too)
Swift Solution (1939)
The Mystery of Number Five (1940)
Death at Datchets (1941)
Enter a Spy (1941)

I only have five of these titles.  To my frustration I've never been able to locate Challenge to Murder, This Path Is Dangerous and Death at Datchets (Enter a Spy sounds like an espionage thriller, like The Mystery of Number Five, and is of less personal interest to me).  However, I'll look on the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.  I'll be reviewing Southern Electric Murder as Friday's Forgotten Book.

See the Hove Daily Photo blog photo copyright Liz Marley 2009
See Liz Marley's Knitting on the Green blog

So who was Francis John Whaley, detective novelist?  His birth and death years are given as 1897 and 1977.  My guess is that he was the same Francis John Whaley who was a son of Oswald Stanley Whaley, an Anglican minister born in 1856 in Kilburn, London.

Educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, Oswald Whaley served at Christ Church and Trinity Church in Hampstead, London before becoming Vicar of St. George's Church, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, where he served until 1936 (this church is now an arts center).

St. George's, Great Yarmouth

This Francis John Whaley had an elder brother, also named Oswald Stanley Whaley (1890-1915).  He was a great rugby player (a tradition in this family; see below) and, I believe, a Christ's College, Cambridge graduate like his father.  After graduation he was briefly a master at Lindley School at Higham-on-the-Hill, a village in Leicestershire, before enlisting in the army when England entered the Great War.  A 2nd Lieutenant, he was killed at Gallipoli in 1915.

This Francis John Whaley also served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Great War and in 1917 was cited "for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty."  Unlike his brother, he survived the war.  I assume at some point he attended Cambridge and played rugby.

The Whaley brothers' maternal uncle James Bevan (1856-1938) was an Anglican minister who, yes, attended Cambridge (St. John's this time) and played rugby. Bevan played at Cambridge and was the first Welsh international captain (which may mean more to some of you out there than it does to me--it gets him a Wikipedia entry, so it must be somewhat important!).

From what I have read of F. J. Whaley's books, they seem to frequently reflect the mindset of an English gentleman of the 1930s who attended a public school and Cambridge.

In Southern Electric Murder our key investigator is a well-educated and well-bred gentleman police sergeant assigned to a detective inspector with a considerable amount of class chips on his shoulder.  The two men have an interesting relationship, and the book is a splendidly detailed mystery, full of trains and times.  It's about the most Croftsian book I have read by an author other than Freeman Wills Crofts.

And, better yet, it has a very interestingly presented Jewish character and goes out of its way to condemn antisemitism.  Granted, the war with Germany was close at hand, but it's still a rather rare thing to see an author in the genre of this time and place addressing modern political matters so forthrightly.

So, stay with me, there will be more on this book tomorrow (and no rants--for now).

Note: there have been three other Life of Crime entries on this blog.  I will post links later (unfortunately the search box on the blog seems not to be working--at least not for me!)--TPT.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Classics of Negativity: A Contemporary Review of The Tragedy of Brinkwater (1887), by Martha Livingston Moodey

It's going back to 1887, but the negativity in this review still reverberates!  Mystery writers out there who read this blog, how would you respond to this kind of notice?  Not that you would get such, of course!

If “The Tragedy of Brinkwater” is a novel, then it is time for the great writers of fiction to discover some other name for their class of works. This story aims at sensationalism, but utterly fails. It prolongs the agony, and finally lugs in the denouement in a most inartistic and thoroughly unnatural fashion. In interest it is hardly up to the requirements of a “penny dreadful” or “dime novel,” and why it was ever written or, having been written, why it was ever published, is a mystery. It tries to win a place on the shelves of the Sunday-school library by inserting sops to Cerberus in the form of little crumbs of goody-goody, but the repulsive nature of what we suppose must be looked upon as its plot should forever exclude it therefrom, while that attempt at mawkish fiction effectually shuts the door on its being palatable to the tastes of those in whose eyes blood and thunder and iniquity form the sole ingredient of a tale in modern times.

The Churchman, 4 June 1887
The author of The Tragedy of Brinkwater  was Martha Livingston (Howland) Moodey.  The daughter of Dr. John W. Howland, she married Dr. John W. Moodey (1816-1867).  The couple lived in Greensburg, Indiana and had several children.  Dr. Moodey was a leading local citizen and prominent Republican.  After his death, Martha Moodey moved with a son to New York City.  
The History of Decatur County, Indiana reports that Martha Moodey was "an authoress of note, an entertaining conversationalist and a dignified and beautiful woman."  So presumably she resisted any urge that might have come to her to throw The Tragedy of Brinkwater at the Churchman reviewer's head.
The New York Times explains that in Brinkwater Joseph Farrell, "who has come between his stepmother, Mrs. Agnes Farrell, and Ernest, her son," is found "murdered in bed, chloroformed and jugular vein severed."  
Although the reviewer in The New York Times, unlike the Churchman reviewer, at least deigns to tell readers something of the novel's plot, this person did not express much enthusiasm for the tale either, to put it mildly:
Nothing clears up the story like "a deathbed confession."  If you want to find out who was the murderer, and the motives for the crime, you can turn over to that especial chapter. 
And, if you can believe it, the reviewer proceeds to announce who the murderer was!  Nothing says contempt for a mystery writer more than that.
Martha Moodey wrote two other novels besides Brinkwater, Alan Thorne (1889) and The Little Millionaire (1891).  Neither sounds like a mystery or sensation novel.  Small wonder!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Shuttered Deaths: Night Watch (1973), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey

Based on a 1972 play by Lucille Fletcher (known to suspense fans as the woman who wrote the much-adapted radio plays Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitch-Hiker), Night Watch is an admirably nasty 1973 English film shocker starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey.

Taylor plays Ellen Wheeler, a wealthy matron living in London with her second husband, John (Laurence Harvey).  Life is rather dull for Mrs. Wheeler, seemingly consisting mainly of buying flowers, doing jigsaw puzzles, smoking cigarettes and making insomniac late-night wanderings over her stylish house, gazing moodily through the great windows at that creepy unoccupied mansion next door with the menacing, constantly banging shutter.

Ellen wants to go away to the Mediterranean with John, but he's more interested in his vague job in finance and his after dinner drinks.  Then there's her visiting old friend, Sarah (Billie Whitelaw), who is between jobs and onto a new (married) boyfriend.  Oh and that odd garden-loving neighbor, Mr. Appleby (Robert Lang), whose father used to own Ellen's house, but is now reduced to a basement flat.

Just what horror goes on in that house next door?
Robert Lang and Elizabeth Taylor

Ellen still has nightmares about the death of her first husband, Carl, who was speeding down a country road at eighty miles an hour with some tart all over him, when he went off the road, killing himself and said tart.  Ellen had to go to the hospital to identify her husband, something she relives in her nightmares.  These nightmare sequences are some of the scariest parts of the film, being shot with jarring imagery that reminded me very much of a modern horror flick (see the last image in this piece, below).

Nightmares become real when late one night Ellen sees a dead body, bleeding copiously from a slashed neck and propped up in a wing chair, through the banging shutter of the house next door.  At least that's what she tells people, but of course no one believes her--not John, not Sarah, nor the skeptical Inspector Walker (Bill Dean), who is called in to investigate.

What's going on here? Was there really a body? Is someone trying to drive Ellen mad?

a vision of terror

Okay, if you haven't seen this film before, you're probably thinking this all sound pretty cliched.  But Lucille Fletcher by this time was a very old hand at this sort of thing and she definitely has some new tricks up her sleeve.

For suspense fans Night Watch is a tremendously enjoyable film, the sort where the reviewer wants to discuss the ending, but is honor-bound from doing so (be careful when you read internet reviews though).

Part of the fun as well is going back forty years to the early seventies.  There's Liz's flowing caftans, big jewelry and bigger hairdos, Laurence's turtlenecks and paisley ties, the men's ginormous sideburns (they start out huge with Laurence Harvey and only get bigger), and even, I swear to God, an ascot!

There's even a faux Tiffany light shade hanging over the dining nook (you can see it on the far left in the second image, where Liz is screaming her head off) that took me right back to the house I grew up in the 1970s (I wonder if that shade is still there).

Could Ellen be going mad?
Laurence Harvey, Elizabeth Taylor and Billie Whitelaw

How did I miss this film back in the 1970s?  I was just seven when it came out, too young for this sort of thing at the theater, but I'm surprised I never saw it on seventies television.  I loved these kinds of films back then (about my scariest film memory ever is watching "Bobby" back in 1977).

Elizabeth Taylor is great in this role, though I understand that it was the only Gothic she ever did.  Laurence Harvey, who was terminally ill at the time (he died only a few months after the film opened), is quite good too, though it's Liz's show.

The first thing I ever saw Laurence Harvey in was a late seventies rerun of "The Caterpillar," a famous Night Gallery horror story (Harvey did this the year before Night Watch).  He also played the sardonic title character in the blackly humorous "Arthur," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  He starred as well in The Running Man, based on the Shelley Smith suspense novel, and, of course, the great espionage suspense film The Manchurian Candidate.  He's very good in these sorts of roles, where you're never quite sure whether he's redeemable or just flat-out wicked.

Is Laurence Harvey up to something again?

Billie Whitelaw became famous to American audiences a few years later as the sinister Mrs. Baylock in The Omen.  The year before Night Watch she co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy.  More recently, she had a memorable role in Hot Fuzz, a brilliant little send-up of police action films.

The late Robert Lang, who plays Mr. Appleby, also was a noted English character actor.  Bill Dean as the scoffing British police inspector does a good job too.

The DVD has a good print of the film, in which throughout, by the way, there is an adroit use of classical music (also the obligatory late sixties/early seventies spinnet).  All in all, this is a superior domestic suspense film, better than I expected it to be, and warmly recommended to those looking for a good seventies scare.

a frightening (though stylish) nightmare

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Edmund Pearson's Deadly Pleasures

After publishing his Studies in Murder in 1924 (which included his 120-page chapter "The Borden Case"), Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937) during the mere thirteen years of life that remained to him went on to write additional murder studies, all of which should be of interest to connoisseurs of the cerebral true crime genre, a literary cousin, surely, to Golden Age detective fiction.

I distinguish "cerebral true crime fiction" from exploitative real life serial killer books and such, in that the appeal of those books seems to be a kind of hog wallow in horror, while what attracts people to Pearson's cases is the allure of the puzzle {though, to be sure, the frisson provided by that hatchet or axe in the Borden case can't be denied).

Pearson's additional murder studies are: Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders (1926), Five Murders, with a Final Note on the Lizzie Borden Case (1928), Instigation of the Devil (1930), More Studies in Murder (1936) and The Trial of Lizzie Borden (1937).  Studies in Murder was reprinted in 1999 by the Ohio State University Press and varied collections of Pearson's previously published murder essays were issued in 1938 (Modern Library), 1966 (Avon) and 1967 (Signet).

The Borden house at the time of the murders
Lizzie Borden said she was in the barn loft on the left
when her father was murdered.
According to Edmund Pearson the barn
"on a sultry August day was about as uninviting a place
as the steam-room of a Turkish bath."

Although Pearson isn't so well-remembered these days (outside of the specialized world of Lizzie Borden studies), a few years ago he briefly attracted the attention of Jill Lepore, a Yale Ph.D. in American Studies who is a Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer for the New Yorker (Pearson, incidentally, graduated from Harvard in 1902, got a B.L.S. from the New York State Library School, was Editor of Publications at the New York Public Library and published numerous books, as well as articles in, yes, the New Yorker, as well as other journals).

Professor Lepore does not seem to have been too impressed with Pearson's work.  In her New Yorker article, "Foul Play," she writes:

Edmund Lester Pearson, a librarian and sometime hoax-artist who spent most of his career at the New York Public Library, wrote true-crime stories for The New Yorker from 1933 to 1937. He wasn’t the first person to write about murder in the magazine and he wasn’t the best, not by a long stretch....But give E. L. Pearson this: he was the least compassionate.

This quotation catches the tenor of the piece, which is filled with swipes at Pearson.  When Lepore writes that Pearson is "best known for his lifelong obsession with Lizzie Borden" she can't forbear adding "He thought she was guilty.  He thought most people were guilty."

Professor Lepore concludes that "Pearson didn’t have much sympathy, really, for anyone. That’s because his sympathies lay somewhere else altogether: in the discrediting of sympathy. He wanted to see murderers prosecuted and killed, and believed that the spooky and the sensational—and even the sorrowful—dimmed the prospects for conviction."

When reading Pearson's account of the Lizzie Borden case in Studies in Murder, I certainly was struck by the author's obvious belief that Borden was guilty of the axe murders of her father and her stepmother and his palpable disgust for a popular press that he believed had recklessly exonerated Borden long before the trial ever started.

sitting room in the Borden house
where Andrew Borden was killed
tourists evidently get photos taken on the sofa today

Pearson writes that when, in an admittedly gruesome display, the skull of Andrew Borden "was produced in court, for purposes of illustration of the nature of the wounds" (someone had hit him ten times in the head with an axe as he rested on a horsehair sofa in the Borden house sitting room; see above), the "mawkish and sentimental newspapers--and this included three-quarters of them at this stage--made great play with this fact, and dwelt upon how it affected the poor prisoner."

Pearson expands on this point, displaying definite sympathy--for the murder victims:

The newspapers were few which did not act as if the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Borden ought to have been forgotten long ago; that the officers of the law were little better than brutes to have prosecuted anybody; and that the sole concern of mankind was to rescue, from her grievous position, the "unfortunate girl," and send her home amid a shower of roses.

Pearson quotes from the "usually sober" New York Times editorial about the case composed after Borden was found not guilty, and it does make surprising reading in its heedless embrace of Lizzie:

"The verdict, according to that paper, was 'a certain relief to every right-minded man and woman.'  The Times spoke of 'this most unfortunate and cruelly persecuted woman....There was never any serious reason to suppose that she was guilty'."

Anyone reading Pearson certainly would think otherwise, that there was in fact great reason to suspect that Lizzie Borden was guilty of the murders.

just like a detective novel house plan
the first floor of the Borden house
with the sitting room and couch
where Andrew's body was found
Cases such as this one have always attracted alternative theorists and certainly the Borden case has not lacked other candidates for the role of criminal culprit.  But Lizzie's visiting uncle had an alibi (not to mention no motive).  Lizzie's sister Emma had an alibi.  Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid, was on the scene when the murders occurred, napping in her room, but she had no credible motive (it has been suggested she snapped because she was told, fatally, to "do windows").

Those were the surviving people within the household.  Another theory was that the killer was a homicidal maniac stranger--perhaps a passing tramp! Yet how could a stranger get in a house on a populated street, kill one person with an axe, then another with the axe an hour or more later, with two other people, Bridget and Lizzie, on the scene, then exit the house, without ever being observed?

This is a problem for John Dickson Carr!  The hollow man, indeed.

Add to this all the problems with Lizzie's story (see the book) and the fact that she had a motive (hatred of her stepmother as well as her stingy father, who kept her financially dependent) and she certainly seems the most likely candidate.  I found myself agreeing with Pearson that both the newspapers and the Massachusetts judges who heard the case seemed quite partial to Lizzie Borden, perhaps, as he suggests, from a "mental infirmity or bias resulting from an unwillingness to believe that a woman could murder her father."

And with an axe no less!  Pearson notes that "to suggest that a woman of good family, of blameless life and hitherto unimpeachable character [Lizzie taught Sunday School and was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union--The Passing Tramp] could possibly commit two such murders, is to suggest something so rare as to be almost unknown to criminology."

Even today, in this jaded age, people were shocked by the animal savagery of the Jody Arias killing of Travis Alexander.  Just imagine how incredulous people must have been 120 years ago to hear that these axe murders in a prominent home in Falls River, Massachusetts might have been done by a proper, church-going Victorian maiden!

moving on up
the house Lizzie Borden moved into after her acquittal

Pearson's commentary throughout Studies in Murder is filled with interesting and felicitously-written insights (whether or not one always agrees with him) and it is disappointing to see that a noted academic like Jill Lepore can be so stinting of recognition for any of his virtues as a writer and scholar of murder (and him a Harvard man too!).

Some excerpts from Pearson:

It is almost invariably noticed that a charge of murder, or of any serious crime, acts automatically to rob a person of all right to polite address; the public promptly makes free with the first name, especially if it is a woman. [just ask Lizzie, Casey and Jody-The Passing Tramp]

[After noting that a false story had early emerged that Lizzie Borden had quarreled with her father "about a man, a lover"] This seemed at last to bring into the case the "love interest," for which many newspaper reporters had almost pined away and died.

[On crank letters] From all parts of the United States they [letters] came; written on all possible colors and shapes of paper, in every type of hand-writing, and every degree of sanity.

Is Edmund Pearson's writing unpardonably elitist and aloof from human emotion, as Jill Lepore intimates?  This, I should note, is often a charge made against the Golden Age of detective fiction, that the novels written in this era are, deplorably, "mere puzzles," lacking spiritual depth and psychological complexity.

To be sure, Pearson's frequently expressed  disdain for the mass media reflects, I think, skepticism of the mental sophistication of "the masses."  It would be interesting to compare Person in this respect with Professor Lepore's book on the Tea Party movement.  It also would be interesting to read the New Yorker pieces authored by Pearson that led Lepore to render such a negative judgment on him.  However, those New Yorker pieces are behind a New Yorker pay wall (certainly no one would confuse the New Yorker with the penny press!).

However, I think it's unfair to claim that Edmund Pearson didn't have sympathy or compassion for anyone.  In the Borden case and the Mate Bram case (the latter to be explored this weekend), Pearson lamented a total of five men and women butchered with axes wielded by malign hands.  He thought that in heavily publicized trials the mass media of his day tended to make celebrities of accused (in his view almost certain) murderers.  Is this really such a desperately eccentric notion?

Renee Zellweger in Chicago (2002)

Friday, June 14, 2013

For Murder Will Tweet (yes, I'm now doing mystery items on Twitter)

Well, I finally broke down and started a Twitter page:

I posted some short thoughts on P. D. James' declaration, in her book Talking about Detective Fiction, that Raymond Chandler "despised the English school of crime writing."

Perhaps an over-broad assertion!  See for yourselves, by all means.

I will try to keep the twitter page going with with short thoughts and links that are really more appropriate for that sort of forum.  I hope my blog readers will check in there too.  See you there!


Axing Questions: Studies in Murder (1924), by Edmund Lester Pearson Part One

Lizzie Borden (1860-1927)
On this day in June 120 years ago, the people of the United States were in thrall to the murder sensation of 1892-93 (and one of the great such sensations of all time), the Lizzie Borden murder case.
The trial of Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) for the horrific ax slayings of her wealthy father, Andrew, and her stepmother, Abby, at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts had commenced on June 5, 1893 and culminated a couple weeks later on June 20 with a finding by the jury of not guilty.

To the jubilation of her supporters, Lizzie was free.  She would live in Fall River for the rest of her life (though not at the house of the murders, which, I understand, is now, rather creepily, a bed and breakfast).  No one else was ever tried for the crimes.

Popular opinion has tended to register another verdict from that of Lizzie's jury, however, as embodied in the famous rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her Mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her Father forty-one!

Actually, Andrew got ten whacks and Jennie nineteen, but that amount was more than sufficient to do the jobs.

By the way, the mystery writer Carolyn Wells recalled that when she once was discussing limericks with Theodore Roosevelt (only clean ones I'm sure!),  Roosevelt recalled the Lizzie Borden rhyme as the most memorable piece of "doggerel verse" that he had ever heard.

The man from whom I learned that piece of information, Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937), was the great American chronicler of true crime during the Golden Age of detective fiction (roughly 1920-1940).  He made the Lizzie Borden murder case the centerpiece of his pioneering 1924 true crime book, Studies in Murder.

Just as people around the globe during the 1920s and 1930s found detective fiction fascinating, they thought true crime terrible interesting as well; and Pearson made quite a splash with this book.

A man of his time, Pearson was a witty and entertaining writer who tended to view his true crime cases more as deductive puzzles than psychological studies.  Yet he also had a strong belief in the moral imperative of meting justice to murderers, which lends a serious tone to his essays as well.

Mary Roberts Rinehart'scrime novel
was inspired by a true crime case,
the Mate Bram murders
In his study of the Borden case, it's clear that, though he does not come right out and say so, Pearson thinks Lizzie, who was still quite alive when the book was published, had to be guilty, and he is scathing to the press and other institutions that he believes recklessly proclaimed Lizzie's innocence right from the start, in the process heedlessly defaming the police and the prosecutorial authorities who brought her to book.

I will have more on this later in Part 2, where I discuss Pearson's handling of the Borden case.  This case is, I think, the most interesting one that Pearson covers in his Studies in Murder, although I will talk about another one Pearson deals with as well, the Mate Bram murders.  This was another 1890s American ax slayings case, one that took place on the high sea and inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart's 1914 mystery, The After House.

See what Pearson thought of these cases, both classics of American murder.  And if you have any thoughts about it all, please comment!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Teddy, Todd and Sam

In my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing, I write about Todd Downing's Choctaw Indian background, which was very important him, and about the role of his father, Sam, in local Choctaw affairs in the small city of Atoka, Oklahoma, where the Downing family lived for many decades.

Todd Downing
Golden Age Choctaw mystery writer
In a 1926 essay, "A Choctaw's Autobiography," Todd Downing (1902-1974) refers to Sam Downing as someone who "has always been a power among the Choctaws."

Downing also mentions how his father served in the Spanish-American War with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, as an interpreter for the Indian Territory Cavalry. 

I recently came across some material that certainly supports Todd Downing claims about his father being a "power" among the Choctaws.

In 1906 Sam Downing traveled to Washington, D. C., for a meeting with Roosevelt, who now, of course, was serving as President of the United States.

The elder Downing hoped to persuade his former Rough Rider commander to disapprove an "act of the Choctaw legislature that authorized the employment by the principal chief of the Choctaw nation [Greenwood "Green" McCurtain] of the firm of Mansfield, McMurray & Cornish" [it seems it was felt the monetary compensation allowed the firm was too great]. 

Theodore Roosevelt
whether or not he said "Bully!" he did
what Sam Downing requested

Accompanied by two prominent territorial politicians, Downing met with Roosevelt.

This is the how the meeting is retrospectively portrayed in The Daily Ardmoreite (June 27, 1910, 5):

"What can I do for you fellows, Sam?" the president asked of his former comrade.

"Mr. President, we want that McMurray contract disappoved," replied Downing.

"Put your request in writing," said the president, and turning to Secretary Loeb he instructed him to tell the secretary of the interior that the contract would not be approved.

Downing, who was also a member of the Republican territorial executive committee, "got the presidential ear," declares The Daily Ardmoreite on January 28, 1907 in the article "Republicans Want Indian Vote," "and told the president in so many words that that with a little encouragement the Indians of the Indian Territory, although now for the most part Democrats, could be converted to the Republican fold if the administration went about the thing in the right manner."

"Mr. Downing," the article concluded, recalling language Todd Downing used two decades later, "is said to be a power among Indians."

If only Theodore Roosevelt had lived to read Todd Downing detective fiction in the 1930s!

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Green Bicycle Case (1930), by H. R. Wakefield

No, The Green Bicycle Case is not a work of fiction, as much as it may sound it, but rather a true crime study.  The author of this book, Herbert Russell Wakefield (1888-1964), was, certainly in my view, one of the great English writers of twentieth-century supernatural fiction.  Wakefield also wrote three detective novels, Hearken to the Evidence (1933), Belt of Suspicion (1936) and Hostess of Death (1938), and some criminous short fiction.

I've been wanting to read The Green Bicycle Case for some time but only recently found a reasonably priced copy of it.  It's quite a short book, only about 150 pages, and over two-thirds of that devoted to the actual trial.  Wakefield's introduction is of forty pages, plus there's an excellent endpaper map that reminds me the sort of thing one might see in a Freeman Wills Crofts detective novel, like The Hog's Back Mystery (1933), where times and movements are so important.

Times and movements certainly were important in the Green Bicycle Case, which concerned the murder of Annie Bella Wright, a twenty-two year old rubber factory worker, while she was bicycling on the roads a few miles outside of Leicester, on the early evening of July 5, 1919.

Wright was seen by family members with a unknown man on a green bicycle. Not long afterward she was found lying on a road, dead from a shot to the head (surprisingly to me, police did not discover she had been shot in the head for some twenty-four hours).

the scene of the crime

Suspicion naturally fastened on the mysterious man with the green bicycle, but he eluded discovery for months.  Only when the green bicycle was discovered in a canal (not by police) on February 23, 1920, were the police able to trace the mystery man, Ronald Light, who was arrested less than two weeks later.

Light denied everything--that he had been the man with Wright, that he owned a green bicycle, etc.--but at trial he conceded just about everything that he had previously denied (he even admitted that an army pistol holster dredged from the same canal where the bicycle was found was, like that bicycle, his as well), except that he had killed Wright. He now said he disposed of the bicycle and holster because he was afraid he might be (unjustly) suspected of Wright's murder.  How true!

Ronald Light
[A]nyone dealing with such a case
as the Green Bicycle Mystery must...
leave some things unsaid.
After a three-day trial in June, Light was acquitted.  The jury, which apparently initially divided 9-3 in favor of "not guilty," deliberated for a little over three hours (such speedy trials in those days!).

No one else was ever tried for Wright's murder.

At the outset of his introduction, Wakefield writes that it is not for him "to discuss the rights and wrongs of [the jury] verdict" and that, indeed, he "must accept it absolutely and without a trace of reservation as the profound conviction of the twelve persons who had an infinitely better opportunity than anyone else of deciding the case on its merits....anyone dealing with such a case as the Green Bicycle Mystery must for ever err on the side of over-caution and leave some things unsaid."

I must say that I found this frustrating.  All one has to do is mosey on over the Wikipedia to see that apparently Light had something of a history of highly questionable sexual behavior with women.  Wright had not been sexually assaulted, but could Light have frightened her and then in a panic shot her as she fled from him?  I certainly didn't think it was illuminating for the author to so rule this material out of bounds.  All Wakefield does is admit that Light's behavior in not coming forward as a witness was "craven."

Wakefield makes a good case for ruling out accidental death at the hands of another party, something the defense urged as a possibility, but he is unable to suggest any alternative candidates for the role of murderer in this true crime drama. Again, I found this frustrating.  We are left with two views: either Light was the murderer or the culprit was some unknown, who had no discernible motive.  Altogether not very satisfactory.

Wakefield avows that the Green Bicycle Case "has claims to be considered one of the outstanding and absorbing murder puzzles of all time."  Maybe so, but, sadly, I would say this book does not do the puzzle justice.  A more recent book by C. Wendy East, The Green Bicycle Murder (1993) sounds like a better job of work.  I still love Wakefield's supernatural fiction, however!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Murder Miscellany (Willoughby Sharp, William Sutherland, Leslie Ford)

My recent blog pieces on Willoughby Sharp and his 1933 detective novel Murder in Bermuda inspired this article ("Golden Age Bermuda Murder Mystery Novel") in the online Bermuda News.  I was pleased to see there is some local interest.

My learned friends Doug Greene and Alexander Inglis provided some information about mystery writer William Sutherland, whose crime novel Death Rides the Air Line was recently reviewed here.

Sutherland wrote three murder mysteries, all published in the U.K. by Arrowsmith: Murder Behind the Head-lines (1933), Death Rides the Air Line (1934) and The Proverbial Murder Case (1935).  The first of these takes place in England, but the second is set in the United States, suggesting that Sutherland was a transatlantic writer, possible born in the United States but living during the mid-1930s in England.

Doug explains that "William Sutherland" was a pseudonym and that the author's real name was John Murray Cooper. A William Sutherland was a seventeenth-century English politician and Doug once had thought that this fact suggested the pseudonym might belong to John Dickson Carr, a transatlantic mystery writer who was steeped in seventeenth-century English history (Doug, as we all should know, wrote Carr's biography, which was nominated for numerous awards).

Doug says Cooper was born in 1908, making him two years younger than Carr and surely one of the very latest-born of Golden Age mystery writers.

In my recent Leslie Ford piece ("Mind Your Murders"), I neglected to mention that academic Catherine Ross Nickerson (see also my Mabel Seeley pieces, here and here), devotes two largely laudatory paragraphs to Ford in The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction (a book that somehow manages to neglect even to mention Ellery Queen).

I was surprised that Professor Nickerson does not specifically mention the controversy over Ford's depictions of African-Americans in her books, but Nickerson does refer to the "thick haze of nostalgia" in the Ford novels.  There certainly is that!

Well, that's all for now.  Expect to see something a bit different for Friday's Forgotten Book!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Mind Your Murders: Leslie Ford's Murder in Maryland (1932) and The Clue of the Judas Tree (1933)

Zenith Jones Brown (1898-1983) is an interesting crime genre writer, in that she established two successful mystery writing pseudonyms, Leslie Ford and David Frome.

The thirty-one Leslie Ford novels (1931-1962), set in the United States, are more in the Mary Roberts Rinehart/Mignon Eberhart tradition, more mysteries than strict detection, with emphasis on the emotional entanglements of the characters as they confront murder.

The fifteen David Frome novels (1929-1950) are set in Britain and are more in the form, at least, of the classical British detective novel, with a male amateur detective, the meek and mild-mannered Mr. Pinkerton (more on him to come).

Here I deal with a couple very early Leslie Fords, Murder in Maryland (1932) and The Clue of the Judas Tree (1933), both of which preceded Ford's long-running series of novels about Grace Latham and John Primrose, for which she is best known today.
A native of California (though with Maryland ancestry) and a University of Washington graduate, Zenith Jones married Rhodes Scholar Ford K. Brown and after a year spent traveling Europe the couple settled in Maryland in 1925.  Brown taught for many years at St. John's College in Annapolis. 

Most of the Leslie Ford novels, including the two under review here, are set in Maryland, and Leslie Ford should be seen as an important Golden Age local color mystery writer.

Ford doesn't write of Maryland with the depth that Todd Downing writes of Mexico in his 1930s detective novels, but at its best her work does have considerable wit and charm.

Unquestionably, in my view, the Maryland settings are a great part of the appeal of her books (although Ford's portrayal of black characters has been problematic for some readers, including this one, in modern times; see below).

Both novels have a series detective, Lieutenant Joseph Kelley, of the Baltimore police.  He is portrayed by Ford as an earthy character with a certain rough charisma.  He is especially ably presented in Murder  in Maryland.

Both novels also have women narrators, in the classic Rinehart tradition,  In Murder in Maryland it's middle-aged Dr. Ruth Fisher (yes, a woman doctor in 1932, hurray for Ford for giving us this character eighty-one years ago), while in The Clue of the Judas Tree it's just shy of thirty journalist Louise Cather.

Louise Fisher is quite Rinehart-ish: middle-aged and rather sharp-tongued, but good-natured at heart. Like any good Rinehart heroine, she also has a propensity to wander around cellars late at night and conceal evidence from the police.  I liked Dr. Fisher a lot and her relationship with the cop Kelly is very well done.

I don't know why Ford dropped Dr. Fisher.  I liked Louise Cather the journalist rather less, though the latter woman, like the novel's obligatory beautiful ingenue, gets a love interest and this part of the book is not badly done.

It's a nice place to visit
but I wouldn't want to be murdered there

Anyway, I'd better stick to Murder in Maryland for now, or I'll get things hopelessly entangled.  Maryland presents us with that classic situation: the rich old bat, hated by all her relatives (justifiably in this case), who gets murdered in her old mansion in a small town.

When the aforementioned rich old bat, Nettie Wyndham, is poisoned (and her little dog too), there is no shortage of suspects, including:

1. her nephews Richard, Eliot and Chase Wyndham and her (beautiful) niece Gail
2. nouveau riche neighbor Alice Penniman, who covets old Nettie's elegant Georgian house and antiques
3. Alice's businessman husband, Samuel, who will do anything to indulge his wife (he made his pile in asbestos!)
4. Alice's and Samuel's son, Nat, who loves the put-upon Gail and also worries about what the strain of covetousness is doing to his mother's weak heart
5. Judge Garth, an old friend of the the Wyndham's, who knows the great depth of Nettie's nastiness
6. Daphne Lane, platinum blonde hairdresser, who seems to be on the make somehow

Oh, Nettie's old African-American butler, John (as with all Leslie Ford's black characters--servants all--we get no hint of a last name) is named as a suspect as one point, but Dr. Fisher promptly pooh-poohs this notion, on classical Golden Age detective fiction grounds:

It didn't seem quite fair to me.  It was too much like a mystery story in which you come to the last chapter and find that the third footman poisoned the Duke's Bovril because he didn't like the color of his braces.

When it comes to murder in the classical detective novel, most often servants are, to borrow the title of a John Dickson Carr novel, below suspicion.

There's a lot of plot aboil in this black cauldron of a novel: there's poisoning, theft, a missing will and poison pen letters, sprinkled with some nicely-attuned social observation about life and manners in a small southern town dominated by one nasty old relic of the ancient (by American standards, anyway) aristocracy:

What Estaphine [Dr. Fisher's cook] meant was that Miss Nettie didn't approve of women's practicing medicine, and that she'd never been a a patient of mine.  The odd part of it is that Estaphine, like nearly everybody else in town, knew Miss Nettie's opinions on every possible subject, from the complaints about the spinach at Miss Sally's boarding house to the length--or lack of it--of the new first grade teacher's hair.  And they're all unpleasant opinions....

I also enjoyed, as mentioned before, Dr. Fisher's tart relationship with Lt. Kelly:

I should have liked to have put these question to Lieutenant Kelly, but he sat beside me with an air so cocksure that I held my peace.  At least I did until he turned to me with the remark, "Would you say, Doctor, that Mrs. Penniman is a little batty?"

I have of course often said that Alice Penniman is as crazy as a loon, and meant it.  But that was either to Alice, her husband, or her social secretary [the beautiful Gail Wyndham].  Certainly not to a detective.

"Don't be absurd," I said.

There is so much mystification in Murder in Maryland that at the end (a full-scale trial sequence) Ford can't quite explain everyone's actions in an entirely plausible way, but on the whole the puzzle plot element is a good job.  Ford's choice of murder culprit seemed to me to have a thematic appropriateness to it.

not much of a clue, really
The Clue of the Judas Tree, which followed Murder in Maryland just a year later, signals a creative slump.  Another setting in a mansion, but this one, a Tudor structure brought over from England, is a product of new money (how vulgar!).

The whole thing is not as feelingly done (the author finds the ways of the old white southern aristocracy more fascinating), the characters seem more synthetic and the plot is, frankly, a mess.  Ford manages a last-minute switcheroo in culpritude, but at the cost of credibility.

I couldn't exactly understand the killer's motivation for two or maybe three of the four murders, which is never a good sign in a murder mystery!

Explanations of criminal motivations were quite labored.  And the title of the novel is really a throwaway, because the Judas tree is simply not that big a deal.

As mentioned above, Ford's patronizing depictions of African-American servants in her books is a thorny issue today (many people are used to the patronizing depictions of white servants in British detective novels, but the added racial element understandably makes the Ford books double trouble today).

Rue Morgue Press has rejected pleas by Ford fans to reprint her novels:

There are those like Leslie Ford, whose ubiquitous and unconscious racism automatically eliminates her from our consideration [for republishing], customer requests notwithstanding.--Tom Schantz and the late Enid Schantz of Rue Morgue Press

This view of Leslie Ford has been strenuously challenged by a couple bloggers.  See Leslie Ford's Fall From Grace and Leslie Ford: The Material Girl's Guide to Murder.

For my part, I'm not going to excuse Ford by saying simply, oh, she was a product of her time and everyone was like that.  It's just not true that everyone was like that in the 1930s (even all whites!).

Look at the uproar in 1939 over the refusal by the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall.  First Lady Elanor Roosevelt resigned her D. A. R. membership over this shameful exclusion.

What would Leslie Ford's fine Maryland ladies--no doubt all D. A. R. members, by hook or by crook--have done?  It would be nice if Ford had ever really bestirred herself to take a deeper look at the life of African-Americans in Maryland, but in the books I've read it's been strictly the "great lady" view from the top.

Still, despite the undeniable racial condescension that pops up in the novel at times, I have to admit that I found Murder in Maryland a good crime novel.  Over the years Leslie Ford novels have been praised by discerning and socially conscious critics of the genre, including Marcia MullerEllen Nehr and Jeffrey Marks.  There is merit in Leslie Ford's work, I believe, and it should be reprinted.