Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Death and A Life: Elmore Leonard and Gertrude Robins

Readers of this blog will know by now that crime writer Elmore Leonard died yesterday at the age of 87.

The last several months I have been corresponding about the Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing (of Clues and Corpses "fame") with Professor Charles Rzepka of Boston University, whose newest book, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard is now available on Kindle (the hard cover edition will be out in a few weeks).  Professor Rzepka's eulogy to Elmore Leonard can be found here.

Of course we know this blog tilts heavily toward classic mystery fiction of the period from 1920 to 1960, but the Passing Tramp is an inclusive fellow and I will be reviewing Being Cool, I hope, next month, as well as interviewing Professor Rzepka about his work on the crime and mystery genre. He is also the author of the survey Detective Fiction (2005).

Now in a shift to a much different sort of crime writer: herewith some more background on the author known as Mrs. Baillie Reynolds.  I'm finding her rather a fascinating person.

Her full name is Gertrude Minnie Robins and she was born in 1860 and died in 1939.  This makes her one of the older crime writers active during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, alongside Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Fergus Hume (1859-1932), J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935) and Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960).  She outlived all the men, with the exception of the seemingly imperishable Eden Phillpotts.

George Henry Robins
Gertrude Robins' grandfather was George Henry Robins (1778-1847), the celebrated English auctioneer, mentioned in writing by Lord Byron, Dickens and Thackeray.

Robins' most famous actuation took place in 1842, when he sold off the contents of Horace Walpole's famous Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill.  When he died in 1847 he left a will of some fifty pages, leaving personal property that would be valued today at over ten million U. S. dollars.

George Robins hoped that one of his sons would follow his trade, but none did (they were all now "gentlemen"). There were two clergyman, including the Chaplain to Queen Victoria at Windsor, and two lawyers, including Gertrude's father, Julian Robins.

Gertrude Robins was educated at South Hampstead High School, which had been founded 1876. More recent distinguished alumni of this school include Angela Lansbury and Helena Bonham Carter.

Robins published her first novel in 1886, when she was 26,under the name G. M. Robins.

South Hampstead High School
Entitled Keep My Secret, the book was a three-decker Victorian sensation novel detailing blackmail and murder plots against the heroine by her wicked uncle; and it was reviewed in the Pall Mall Gazette by no less than Oscar Wilde, in characteristic fashion:

The novel at the end gets too melodramatic in character and the plot becomes a chaos of incoherent incidents, but the writing is clever and bright.  It is just the book, in fact, for a summer holiday, as it is never dull and it makes no demands at all upon the intellect.

Another reviewer (this time anonymous) pronounced that "Keep My rather a good book....there are sliding panels, abductions, and all the rest of it, in quite Radcliffian profusion."

Oscar Wilde thought Keep My Secret
excellent summer holiday reading fare
because the book was "never dull" and it
made "no demands at all upon the intellect."
Crime novels get no respect!
Over the next decade, Robins published six multi-volume novels (seventeen volumes in all!). In 1890 she married stockbroker Louis Baillie Reynolds and had three sons: Eustace (1893-1948), Paul Kenneth (1896-1973) and Donald Hugh (1900-1991).* However, Robins kept writing under her original name at least until 1895.

A 1904 novel by Robins was published under the name Mrs. Baillie Reynolds; between that year and her death in 1939, she published under the Mrs. Baillie Reynolds name over thirty novels and short story collections.

Many of these novels, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, incorporated criminous and sometimes supernatural elements.

You'll be seeing more here in months to come about Gertrude Minnie Robins aka Mrs. Baillie Reynolds, a Victorian sensation novelist who lived to become, during the Golden Age of detective fiction, a mainstay of American publisher Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club.

*(Gertrude Robins' son Donald was a civil engineer and her son Paul was a classical scholar and archaeologist who during World War 2 was involved with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program--the so-called "Monuments Men"--which set out to retrieve cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis)


  1. Because I collected books in Doubleday's Crime Club series for a long time, I have accumulated a large number of mysteries by Mrs. Baillie Reynolds, but alas, I have not read any of them. Nor have I (I confess) been tempted to.

    I don't know if you'll be able to change my mind as you continue to write about her, Curt, but thanks to this opening prologue, I'm certainly looking forward to what you have to say.

  2. Hello there
    I have a painting with a note on the back 'to mrs Baille Reynold thanking her for her many kindnesses, Christmas 1936 from c morris (also the artist) I would love to find out more about this, who is c morris? Do you have any information about Mrs Reynolds family after her grandchildren, perhaps they could shed some light? thanks