Friday, November 29, 2013

Murder Most Haughty: Death Is Late to Lunch (1941), by Theodora DuBois

In my earlier blog post today on Theodora DuBois I noted that, despite having a bright young couple as her detectives (a popular mystery fiction variant), she is mostly forgotten today and has been out-of-print for the last forty years.

Admittedly, Death Is Late to Lunch was not considered her most accomplished mystery, but from it I can sense what may be the key factor that would limit her popularity today: the excessive snobbery of Anne McNeill, the female half of her sleuthing duo.  A book like this today, even were it written, would never be published without some severe editing.

Of course Golden Age British detective fiction often is accused of snobbery (see Colin Watson's book Snobbery with Violence, for example), and, one must admit, it's not entirely without justification. But people often forget that during the Golden Age there were many "English-style" American mysteries as well, set at posh houses among the upper crust; and the authors' attitudes towards these characters often was a far cry from the cynical and iconoclastic Raymond Chandler's.

DuBois' Anne McNeill is so hoity-toity that she makes England's Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh look like a band of Jacobins by comparison.  And since she narrates the book you have to put up with her all the time.  Her more likable medical researcher husband pops in and out of the novel (primarily to discover the murder means and finally collar the killer through some technical gizmo), but Anne we always have with us.

Certainly a colorful dust jacket
(note the little death's head stamens)
Death Is Late to Lunch takes place at a posh "convalescent inn" (the setting reminded me of P. D. James' The Private Patient), where Anne has gone to stay with her college-age brother "Bud," a former tuberculosis patient who came down with measles. Anne's toddler son Michael has been left at home, under the care of a nurse (naturally Anne has plenty of servants).

Anne assures us right off the bat that the people at the convalescent inn "were well bred, at least most of them." Soon she has gotten more specific, dividing the guests into the categories of "nice" and "not nice."

The four maids, incidentally, never get named by Anne (not even a "Gladys" or an "Ethel"), leaving one with the impression she doesn't know their names.  When two are singled out by Anne for special mention, she complains that the one is stupid and that the other is insolent--help these days, really!

After the doctor's male secretary suspiciously slides to his death off the mansard roof of the old house, Anne isn't too concerned, because she puts him in the not nice category (not coincidentally for Anne, I suspect, he's of South American origin and he reads D. H. Lawrence); and nice people would be inconvenienced were his death ruled murder rather than accident.

Among the adult guests of the inn, three are nice and two are not nice (we know the latter are not nice because they are unattractive, have poor fashion sense and exhibit emotions in public).  Our Anne is certain that if the secretary was indeed murdered it was one of the not nice people who did the deed.

When one of the remaining not nice people dies suspiciously from sunburn, Anne's husband Jeffrey starts snooping into things (the local cops being utterly incompetent), even though Anne herself is still not all that interested (what's one less not nice person in the world). Jeffrey discovers an interesting medical murder method, but is then called away again, leaving Anne to hold the fort.

Anne has as much contempt for the police as she does for the servants.  Says she of one cop, "....his uniform was a little too small for him. He looked bunchy and the buttons were too tight.  His face was bunchy too, but not the amiable puffy kind of Irish face; antagonistic, suspicious."  Take it from me, by Anne' standards "amiable puffy kind of Irish face" is as close as she gets to a compliment when she's dealing with what she would deem an "ethnic" person.

At one point Anne and Bud find and hide a murder weapon from the police and when, after eavesdropping on her telephone conversation, the police discover it, she berates them for "wiretapping."  I was waiting for them to clap her in irons at this point, but no such luck.

Here's how Anne's mind works as she describes the nice mother of the nice female love interest in the book:

There was attractive elegance about her.  One knew that her clothes must have come from the best Madison and Fifth Avenue Places.  Her gray hair was always immaculately set and waved.....She was the president of the local garden club and had done so much for the community, planting roses on the banks along the roadside, stimulating the school-children to plant flower borders and to wage war against ragweed.

As she talked I thought "No garden club president could ever murder anyone."  Besides which she would never bring herself to wear so uncouth a garment as the Tyrolean cape, even to go on a roof at two o'clock in the morning.  She would wear her own spring evening cloak.  She belonged to a generation and a caste [the author's own naturally--TPT] that did not lightly throw around one's shoulders borrowed "wraps."

the jacket back to
Death Is Late to Lunch
This sort of thing likely quickly pales on most modern readers as a matter of tone and sentiment, but, even worse, from the technical standpoint in a mystery, is that the author so determinedly exonerates all the "nice people" from the get-go.  If this were Agatha Christie, one of those "nice people" would likely be the killer! "Trust no one," that was Dame Agatha's motto.

We are left with hardly any suspects, although given her self-imposed constraints the author does manage something of a twist solution. Unfortunately, it is not a fair play one, and the book quickly comes to a halt, as if the author were simply tired of the whole affair.

Indicative of this exhaustion is the lazy title, which kept up the "Death" series DuBois had launched several years earlier, but barely even makes sense for this book. With more accuracy it could have been called "Death Pushes a Guy Off the Roof" or "Death Gives Some Screwy Dame Sunburn." Tellingly, this was DuBois' last "Death" title.

Despite noting in a 1945 book review that "Anne's snobbery...grows less endurable book by book," the great American mystery critic Anthony Boucher liked some of DuBois' earlier mysteries, referring to her 1940 novel Death Comes to Tea as a "small masterpiece."  DuBois does have some virtues, namely a smooth narrative and a good murder means, so I might give her another try someday, even though I'm afraid that

Anne McNeill
Needs to get real.

Next up: some info on the owners of my copy of Death Is Late to Lunch, along with what they left inside the book.

Giving Thanks for the Blog's Two-Year Anniversary

I'm a week late to my blog's own second-year anniversary, but better late than never for commemorating, I suppose.

Here is my first post at The Passing Tramp, which deals with the convention of the passing tramp in mystery fiction and the Golden Age British mystery/thriller writer Jefferson Farjeon, one of my old favorites.

That last week of November 2011 I also posted more on Jefferson Farjeon and I did my Edmund Crispin series, a lengthy consideration of his life and work and a review of David Whittle's excellent (but very pricey) biography of the author (David is one of the authors who has contributed to the Douglas G. Greene festschrift, I might add):

Crispin Part One
Crispin Part Two
Crispin Part Three
Crispin Part Four

In the last two years I have had nearly 200, 000 views at this blog, considerably more last year than the year before, so some of you might enjoy looking back over the old stuff. There's a lot accumulated here over two years and I tend to skimp on labels/tags, so newcomers may miss a lot of it.

It's been fun, though I haven't always posted as much as I would like.  It's nice to know one is reaching a larger audience directly through the blog, especially when one's books tend to be a bit on the pricey side for many people.  Of course, the Doug Greene festschrift, with twenty-five essays by a distinguished group of contributors on detective fiction covering the period from 1901 to 2011, will be available next year and I will keep you posted on it (also it will be cheaper than Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery).  There also will be some other books projects, in all likelihood, that make it into print in 2013, along with yet more book reviews and other pieces on The Passing Tramp.

Death Is Late To Lunch (1941), Theodora DuBois

Theodora DuBois (1890-1986) was a longtime prolific professional writer who, among other things, wrote detective and suspense tales.  Between 1936 and 1954 she published twenty detective novels about her series detectives, the couple Jeffrey and Anne McNeill.

She was born Theodora Benton Eliot McCormick in Brooklyn to Eliot McCormick (1849-1891) and Laura Case Brenton McCormick (1869-1923), a seventh-generation descendant of Roger Williams. You will notice that her father was twenty years older than her mother and died just a year after Theodora's birth, when he was about 42 (it is claimed Theodora was christened at her father's funeral).

Theodora's widowed mother married Charles MacDonald, a lawyer and Wall Street broker. The family moved from Booklyn to Yonkers and bought the Hudson River mansion Seven Pines, previously owned by a nephew of William Tecumseh Sherman, who named it for seven huge pines on the estate, which reminded him of the Civil War battle, so the story goes.  A 1945 newspaper story stated that one of the pines was 106 feet tall and more than 150 years old.

The French Chateau style house was originally built in 1845, was three stories high with a cellar and sub-cellar and had twenty-eight rooms, including a tower room, and a dozen fireplaces. It has since been demolished, but a neighboring house, Glenview (now the Hudson River Museum), survives to give an idea what it may have looked like.


Although brought up in circumstances of wealth, DuBois, according to this account of her life, "hated her stepfather all her life" and felt "socially isolated" in Yonkers (well, who doesn't, darn it all).  She planned to enroll at Vassar, despite opposition from her mother and stepfather. However, after being accepted there, she came down with tuberculosis and never did go.

In 1918 she married Delafield DuBois, a Harvard graduate and electrical engineer and researcher. She published her first short story in 1920 and from then on wrote professionally for many decades.  She wrote most of her detective novels in the period when her husband had taken a position as a researcher with Yale Medical School and the couple and their children lived in New Haven, Connecticut.

The influence from her own life on her mysteries is clear, for her sleuthing couple consists of Anne McNeill and her husband Dr. Jeffrey McNeill, a researcher at a Connecticut medical school.  DuBois was one of the early creators of a sleuthing couple in the wake of Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles (of Thin Man fame), but where some sleuthing couples have thrived in reprints in the last several decades (the Roos' Jeff and Haila Troy and the Lockridge's Pam and Jerry North come to mind), DuBois' McNeills have not.  I have my theories as to why, which I will explore tomorrow (or later today!), when I post my review of Death Is Late To Lunch (1941).

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tales of the Impossible: Banner Deadlines (2004)

back of the book
showing a photo of the author
The impossible crime stories of Joseph Commings have attained cult status over the years, so naturally I got a copy of this Crippen & Landru Commings collection, Banner Deadlines, when it appeared; but I am ashamed to admit I just got around to reading it.

My great impossible crime phase was back in the 1990s, when I devoured every John Dickson Carr I could get my hands on.  But I still enjoy reading about them today, and it's certainly true that this Commings collection is chock full of the impossible!

I must say I liked this collection somewhat less than Crippen & Landru's two collections of Dr. Sam Hawthorne impossible crime tales by the late Edward D. Hoch (a third one is due next year, by the way), an author as inventive as Commings in creating impossible situations and his superior in terms of the portrayal of character and place (Dr. Sam is a archetypal small town Yankee and the stories start in the 1920s and conclude--with Hoch's death--in the 1940s, so we get a wonderful evocation of place and time).

Commings' series sleuth, Senator Brooks U. Banner, doesn't have much of a developed personality in the earlier tales, and when he starts to develop more of one, he becomes very similar indeed in John Dickson Carr's Sir Henry Merrivale.  I like Sir Henry very much, so didn't mind his American cousin; however, Commings never creates any other memorable characters, nor, with a few exceptions, is the atmosphere of the stories that compelling, barring their impossible situations.

Nevertheless, there's some really clever stuff in here.  The earliest stories in the collections date from 1947 to 1949.  These are "Murder Under Glass" (murder in a sealed glass room), "Fingerprint Ghost" (man killed during a seance where everyone else is straitjacketed and the fingerprints on the murder weapon do not match those of anyone in the room), "The Spectre on the Lake" (two men shot at close range while in a canoe), "The Black Friar Murders" (two people killed, one impossibly, in a crumbling old monastery; there's also one of those cryptic dying messages), "Ghost in the Gallery" (murdered man reappears to commit murder) and "Death by Black Magic" (impossible murder of  magician during an exhibition of his act, with an older impossible crime as well).

These tales all have appealing elements.  My favorite is "The Black Friar Murders," which has the most developed plot and characters and a splendidly creepy, isolated setting.  For their impossible situations, a couple relied a little too much on pure magic tricks to me, but most of them, like "Murder Under Glass," have very clever, not too technical, explanations that are models of fair play.

Don't linger after dark....

The next group was published between 1960 and 1963.  I was less impressed with this bunch on the whole, though one, "The X Street Murders," which I had read before and loved, surely is one of the great impossible crime stories.  In this tale, which also has some Cold War atmosphere and is one of the few stories to make some real use out of Brooks Banner being, you know, a U. S. senator, an embassy official somehow is shot when his secretary enters his office with a sealed package.  The murder weapon?  The gun in the sealed package.  Figure that one out!  There's good suspense and a second murder and a brilliant yet straightforward explanation.

"Murderer's Progress" and "Castanets, Canaries, and Murder" didn't do much for me. Commings' portrayal of women has been criticized by some for being sexist.  This is something that could be said of a lot of work published in crime fiction mags in the 1940s through 1960s, surely, but I must admit I found the "Puerto Rican spitfire" character in "Castanets" rather overdone.

"Hangman's House" (impossible hanging in an isolated mansion outside Natchez, Misssissippi) has good atmosphere, but something of a letdown solution.  "The Giant's Sword," about a man murdered with a sword that seemingly could only have been wielded by a giant, also had, for me, kind of a "meh" gimmick.

The final group consists of stories written before Commings' 1971 stroke but published afterward.  One was published in 1979, one in 1984 and the last appeared for the first time in print in Banner Deadlines.

The first of these, "Stairway to Nowhere," is about a woman who impossibly vanishes--twice! Co-written with Edward D. Hoch in the 1950s, it's superbly readable and nicely worked-out.

What lurks inside the mausoleum?

The next one, "The Vampire in the Iron Mask" (originally published as "The Grand Guignol Caper") is to my mind the best story in the collection (at about 13,000 words it's also the longest).  To be sure, the debt to John Dickson Carr (one novel in particular) is tremendous, but it feels like a creative complement to Carr, rather than a rote imitation.  I wasn't surprised to learn in Robert Adey's introduction that Carr was an author who Commings "greatly revered and with whom he got on famously."

Atmospherically set in France a decade or so after WW2 at a school located next to a cemetery, "The Vampire in the Iron Mask" details the horrifying murders of schoolchildren by a "vampire"--the restless spirit of a French aristocrat who lost his head during the Revolution and was entombed with, in lieu of it, an iron mask.

There's a love (or lust) triangle as well, along with a very boisterous Brooks Banner at his most Merrivale-ish. The combination of horror, humor, history, an entrancing woman and men prone to highly stand upon their honor is very Carrian indeed.

This is the one story in the collection that one can really imagine as a full-fledged novel. Commings also provides inventive explanations for the murders that arise organically out the personalities of the characters (sometimes in these tales it feels like motive was tacked on as an afterthought).

Have you seen this man?
Wanted for murder....
Finally, there is "The Whispering Gallery," about a shooting seemingly committed by an upside-down, levitating man (one suspect is a magician).

This has another good solution and the humorous bits about Banner's magic act reminded me a lot of the Carr novel The Gilded Man.

My complaint about this collection, which has at least three impossible crime classics ("The Black Friar Murders," "The X Street Murders" and "The Vampire in the Iron Mask") is that it leaves out seventeen Banner tales.

I can't help but wonder about, for example, "The Scarecrow Murders" (1948), "The Glass Gravestone" (1966) and "The Fire Dragon Caper" (1984).  They certainly sound interesting!

Additionally (and frustratingly), in the introduction Robert Adey praises "Serenade to a Killer" (1957), which also doesn't actually appear in this collection. Would it be impossible to give us a second volume?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Banner Deadlines (2004), by Joseph Commings

Senator Banner shines a light
on a problem
Since 1994 the publisher Crippen & Landru has published over 100 collections of mystery short stories.  One special treat among C&L's large output for impossible crime fans is the collection of Joseph Commings (1913-1992) short stories, Banner Deadlines, about the cases of amateur sleuth Senator Brooks U. Banner.  Fourteen stories appear in the collection (thirteen were published between 1947 and 1984, with a fourteenth appearing for the first time in this collection). 

With Hake Talbot and Clayton Rawson, Joseph Commings was one of the most notable followers of the Maestro of the Impossible himself, John Dickson Carr, though Commings' great metier, like that of  Edward D. Hoch (with whom he co-authored one tale in this collection) was the short story.

Commings began writing his stories while serving in the USAF during WW2.  There were 33 of them in all, the first group appearing between 1947 and 1950 in 10-Story Detective, Ten Detective Aces and Hollywood Detective, the next between 1957 and 1968 in Mystery Digest, The Saint Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and the last, with one exception, between 1979 and 1984 in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.  Commings suffered a severe stroke in 1971, when he was only 58, and never actually authored any new stories after that (the ones published after that year were older stories he had already written but not gotten published, though some of them are quite good).

Oddly, none of these stories, much admired by connoisseurs, ever appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  In his introduction to Banner Deadlines, Robert Adey quotes Commings as saying of his failure to get his stories placed in EQMM, "the editor took a dislike to me."  Hm!  Most mysterious.....

Up until I got this book I had only read Commings' Senator Banner tale "The X Street Murders," which had been anthologized some time ago.  I remembered I liked it and hoped to read more by the author.  So what is the all-Banner collection like?  Put simply, if you like impossible crimes this one's for you!  I should have the full, detailed review up soon.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Who Is This Lady?

Any guessers as to this mystery author's identity?  I had never seen this particular photo of her before.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Underwhelming: Murder Underground (1935), by M. Doriel Hay

Under the name M. Doriel Hay, Mavis Doriel Hay (1894-1979) published three detective novels in the 1930s, which are being reprinted this year and the next.  Out first is her last one, The Santa Klaus Murder (1936)--tis the season!

Coincidentally, I already have her first two, Murder Underground (1935) and Death on the Cherwell (1935), scheduled to be reprinted next year.  As a connoisseur of old detective novels who has been involved in bringing some back into print, I wish I could be more positive about the one I read, Murder Underground, but, the truth is, I started it several years ago and found it so unengaging I didn't finish it (I didn't even skip to the end to see who did it).  I went back and read it in its entirety over the weekend and found I didn't like it any better.

the original edition
the grim jacket is at odds with
the tone of the book
Here's how the new publisher (British Library Crime Classics/University of Chicago Press Books) describes Murder Underground:

If you were suddenly found to be murdered, would your friends have theories about who had done the deed?  Well, when the wealthy and unpleasant Miss Pongleton meets her end on the stairs of Belsize Park underground station in Murder Underground, her housemates--though not particularly grieved--have plenty of guesses at the identity of the killer. While they're airing theories, events arise that unexpectedly enable several of them, including Tuppy the terrier, to put them to the test.

This novel from the golden age of British crime fiction is sure to puzzle and charm fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey.

This blurb gives a few hints of what I didn't like about this book.  Most notably, the murder of Miss Pongleton--she is strangled with a dog leash--is treated in that flippant "Murder? What fun!" style that used to set Raymond Chandler's teeth on edge.  Now, okay, you can say Chandler was an old sourpuss, if you want, but, actually, I did find the attitude in this book a bit unseemly, considering the sort of murder with which it deals.

The murder victim, along with her surely quite brutal murder and the surely quite unpleasant finding of her body, are described at second hand--decidedly anti-climactic--but Miss Pongleton doesn't even sound like she was all that objectionable. Artistically, it seems to me, if you are going to kill off an old lady via strangulation with a dog's leash and then adopt an "amusing" attitude about it, you should at least make the old lady really horrible.

Hay does have some ability at light characterization, which is fortunate, since this book is almost entirely conversation, with very little descriptive or contemplative passages.  The main interest of the book is in its portrayal of boarding house life.  There are a couple landladies, rather good, and a whole parcel of "bright young things," rather tiresome.

Hay seems more interested in having people talk about the murder investigation than in actually depicting the murder investigation.  For most of the book the police are referred to, but never seen.  It felt like this was Hay's way of getting around not knowing how to portray a police investigation, which struck me as unsatisfactory.  We don't even really get much in the way of amateur detection. There's a lot of blather about Miss Pongleton's poor artistic nephew, Basil, being suspected for the crime (he was her heir and had only a small allowance from his people so was hard-up), as well as hoo-hah about Miss Pongleton's missing pearl necklace; but for me it was tedium.

the bright and cheery cover
of the new edition
This is the kind of English mystery where a character you are meant to sympathize with says, when told Miss Pongleton might have been contemplating marrying a businessman named Slocomb (the bright young things call him "Slowgo"--they also call the landlady Miss Waddilove, "Waddletoes"), "Do you mean he thought she might marry him? I suppose it's possible.  One hears of such things.  He's not a gentleman, but old ladies do sometimes run off the rails."

Then there's Hay's portrayal of Mamie Hadden. a woman Basil "picked up" to attend a motion picture with him (really).  We get a lot in her scene about her excessive makeup, questionable accent, painted fingernails and "artificial silk" clothes.  Hay seems more outraged about the existence of people like Mamie Hadden wearing artificial silk than she does about, well, murder.

As one genteel character says of the murder, "Really dreadful!  There's never been anything of the kind in the family before; it's so--so--demeaning!"

Of course the one servant in the book is always sniffling and snuffling and speaking in such heavy Cockney it's slow going (for an American, anyway) deciphering what's she's saying.

The murder in itself has no academic interest, despite the presence of two diagrams and a family tree (all unnecessary).

Will Murder Underground "puzzle and charm fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey" (why not, incidentally, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham while we're at it)? Maybe it will some, but it didn't me.  Maybe Hay got better in her second and third books.

The second one, Death on the Cherwell, takes place, I believe, at a fictional women's college at Oxford, so I can see the appeal to Sayers' fans, at least in theory (and there's another map!).  I believe Hay herself was at Oxford, like Sayers.  But Murder Underground is not close to the level of Sayers or Christie, let alone, say, Freeman Wills Crofts.  It seems to me a book by an intelligent person who wanted to write a detective novel, but didn't really have the particular skill set required to do it well (and, by the way, it wasn't the Golden Age of crime fiction, but of detective fiction--a noteworthy difference!).

Friday, November 15, 2013

Love and Death: No Love Lost (1954), Margery Allingham

The two long crime novellas collected in Margery Allingham's No Love Lost, "The Patient at Peacock's Hall" and "Safer Than Love," were written by Allingham in the early 1950s for glossy American magazines, respectively The Saturday Evening Post and Woman's Journal.

Coupled with two earlier 1940s novellas, "Wanted: Someone Innocent" and "Last Act" they constitute Allingham's body of frankly commercial postwar writing for what Raymond Chandler derisively termed the "slicks": glossy magazines catering to a large female audience.  They offered the taxation-pressed crime writer a lucrative source of income, though Chandler for one turned up his nose at them, believing that one had to compromise one's artistic integrity writing for them by providing conventional happy endings, most importantly a nice young man and a nice young woman happily coupled (Chandler was not big on "love interest" in general).

For her part, Margery Allingham, according to Julia Jones' biography of the mystery writer, referred to them as her "little bastards," believing they did not merit canonical status with her artistically "pure" Albert Campion novels.  Certainly, "The Patient at Peacock's Hall" and "Safer Then Love" provide readers with conventional happy endings, but they are worthwhile tales with interest today, in part because they constitute Allingham's most notable contribution to the a subgenre that was making great strides in the 1950s: feminine domestic suspense.

Two of Allingham's three 1950s Campion novels are suspense novels, or crime thrillers, the celebrated The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) and the arguably superior Hide My Eyes (1958), but they are not true examples of feminine domestic suspense.  

"Patient" and "Love" are the true articles, however. Both center on a female protagonist (and narrator) in a provincial English town who is pining over an abruptly and painfully severed romantic relationship and seeks to submerge her love problems by accepting a new position (career/marriage) in life.

In "The Patient at Peacock Hall" the protagonist is Ann Fowler, a doctor recently arrived in the town of Mapleford to work in the practice of elderly medico Percy Ludlow.  

Allingham wrote "Patient" around the time of the 1950 and 1951 British national elections, when the Tories were trying to oust Labour from power (they finally succeeded in 1951); and she takes times to condemn in no uncertain terms the National Health Service instituted by Labour:

The waiting-room was packed and I cursed socialized medicine.  To my mind its weakness was elementary, and I felt someone might have foreseen it.  Since everyone was forced to pay a whacking great monthly premium for medical insurance, nearly everybody, not unexpectedly, thought they might as well get something out of it; and, as far as Mapleford was concerned, the three who stood between nearly everybody and the said something-out-of-it were Percy and his two assistants, who had not been exactly idle before....As Percy said, it was almost a relief to find someone who just had a pain.

These reflections of course have special interest right now in the United States, as the Affordable Care Act is much in the news of late.

In "Patient" (as in "Love") Allingham satirizes the prying, gossipy ways of small English localties, and anyone who enjoys Agatha Christie's village mysteries will enjoy Allingham's take on this setting. Part of the problem our heroines face in both "Patients" and "Love"--besides their romantic troubles--is that they don't really "belong" in the provinces, being more sophisticated London types by nature.

Much of "Patient" is devoted to setting up Dr. Fowler's entanglement in a dastardly crime. Step-by-step she gets herself further implicated, with a sinister puppet-master pulling the strings.  Part Two of the novella concerns how she gets herself out of this mess.  I'm being deliberately vague here, so as not to spoil things for new readers.  "Patient" is an enjoyable tale of suspense and I want people to have all the pleasure of reading it fresh, if they choose to read it.

Unlike "Patient," "Safer Than Love" is a genuine detective story.  It is about Elizabeth Lane, who makes a "safe" marriage to a preparatory school headmaster in Tinworth, another nosy provincial town. Bad choice, Liz! We never meet her husband, Victor, when he is alive, but everything about him makes clear we would not have wanted to know him.

When Victor is found murdered it is clearly "no great loss"; but, unfortunately for his widow, she and her ex-boyfriend (the man she really loved, even though she married "safe" Victor), become the obvious suspects.

"Love," is longer than "Patient," arguably a short novel rather than a long novella, and I found the portrayals of provincial and school life richer (some of the police actions seemed implausible contrivances, however). There are some colorful "types," including a marvelous char, a Mrs. Veal, and the writing is witty, sharp ("They were sound people, thoroughly country and thoroughly crude"--ouch!) and, occasionally, poignant: 

"I did love you once."  The line from Hamlet came back unbidden, the most cruel thing man has ever said to woman, my English mistress had once remarked in a moment of uncharacteristic self-revelation. A whole classful of girls had gaped at her, but she had been right.  I knew it now.

But, don't worry, ultimately love conquers all, including suspicion of involvement in an unnatural death. If, unlike Raymond Chandler, you can accept (or, better yet, even embrace) this particular fictional certitude, you should enjoy both these works, as I did.  No Love Lost is available on the used market, of course (like most of Allingham's work, it was frequently reprinted), and is currently available as an eBook as well.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Meet "Lippincott's Popular Detective Novelists" (1929)

Not a review of a Carolyn Wells mystery this time, but a review of the dust jacket to a Carolyn Wells book.  On the back of the jacket of Wells' The Tapestry Room Murder (1929), the American publisher, Lippincott, listed its "popular detective novelists."  They are:

Anthony Wynne (1882-1963), "a prominent London physician...deeply interested in the psychological aspect of crime."

Carolyn Wells (1862-1942), "one of the most versatile American writers of the day."

Patricia Wentworth (1878-1961), "one of the most versatile of the newer writers."

Herbert Adams (1874-1958), "fond of golf and many of his stories are laid within easy distance of a golf course."

Not really a young crowd (the youngest was 47), I would say, and very British, with Carolyn Wells being the only American (and she was more British than the British by this time).

So how many of them have you read? Only Patrica Wentworth enjoyed much life after death, on account of her elderly lady detective, Miss Silver.

I have reviewed Wells, of course, but also Wynne and Wentworth.  I have never seen those particular pictures of those three authors, except on Lippincott dust jackets from this period, so I thought they might be of some interest.

Herbert Hoover: crime fiction fiend
Incidentally, The Tapestry Room Murder came out in early January 1929 and is dedicated by Wells


Woodrow Wilson famously liked detective fiction, and so did Franklin Roosevelt, but you hear a lot less about Herbert Hoover in this regard.  Maybe after the Great Depression struck, he was not considered such a good celebrity endorsement!

However, presidential admiration for Carolyn Wells seems to have been bipartisan in the 1930s.

Franklin Roosevelt took one of her books on vacation with him (along with a J. S. Fletcher).  But guess who FDR supposedly was reading when he died?  John Dickson Carr, that's who (more on this later).

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fascinatin' Fibsy: The Mark of Cain (1917), by Carolyn Wells

It may not surprise some of you to learn that I've been writing a long Carolyn Wells essay for a collection--so, here you go, one more Wells piece.  Bear with me, the next piece will be on a new writer!

But, any road, I've been enjoying these early Wells books more than I expected, given my experiences with some of her later books, which were definitely what Bill Pronzini has termed "alternative" classics.

The Mark of Cain would, however, be no more than an average detective novel from the Edwardian era (let's say roughly the first two decades of the twentieth century), were it not for the debut of a new Wells character, Terence "Fibsy" McGuire.  It's Fibsy who raises this book out of the ruck.

In The Mark of Cain, someone has stabbed wealthy amateur naturalist Rowland Trowbridge and left him dead in the woods.  

Who could it have been?!  At first suspicion centers on the Camorra (one of several indicators in this novel that Wells had been reading American pulp crime fiction)--but we know better than that, don't we?

Avice, Trowbridge's beautiful twenty-year-old niece and ward (is there any other kind in these books?), certainly wants to find the killer, but Eleanor Black, her uncle's fiancee and housekeeper seems oddly uninterested in doing so.  

Avice turns for help to her uncle's best friend, the highly respected Judge Leslie Hoyt--especially after suspicion starts to focus on Kane Landon, Eleanor's cousin of sorts (he's a nephew of Trowbridge's deceased wife). Kane is a young man who went out West, and everyone knows what violent habits those Westerners have!  Why, they'd shoot a man soon as shake hands with him!

Avice, it seems, is in love with temperamental Kane Landon, who appears to return her affections.  But then everyone seems to be in love with Avice.  There's Judge Hoit himself, not to mention one Pinckney, ace crime reporter.

a dramatic moment in The Mark of Cain
Judge Hoit demands Fibsy's ousting; Fleming Stone looks on
(frontispiece by Gayle Hoskins)
Well, office boy Fibsy McGuire, anyway, is not in love with Avice. He's got his nose stuck in the pages of crime magazines.  

Fibsy has the "detective instinct," you see, and he's determined to find out who killed his boss, even if it pits him against some of the most prominent people in the state (like Judge Hoit).

Fortunately, Fleming Stone believes him, and Fibsy will serve as Stone's assistant for Wells' next seven Fleming Stone mysteries.

This is an enjoyable novel. Wells finally got out of the country house and diversified her patrician set with working class and immigrant characters. Fibsy is Irish-American and speaks heavily rendered "street slang," but Wells, who could be a terribly snobbish writer, makes clear she is on his side and that he's smart as a whip. 

I definitely found myself rooting for the lad.  I was less concerned with Avice's love life, I admit, although Avice thankfully is not Wells' usual haughty "tragedy queen" (drama queen, more like) or exasperatingly "saucy" coquette (unfortunately Wells succumbed to her addiction to such tiresome characters in later books)

The title reflects the last words of Rowland Trowbridge, and is actually one of those dying message clues that became so famously with Ellery Queen.  It's interpreted three different ways over the course of the novel.  There's no locked room problem, but, given how Wells typically solves her locked room problems, it's just as well there isn't.

Recommended if you like getting out of the country house every once in a while.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lost Ladies: Ladies in Retirement (1941)

An adaptation of a 1940 play, the 1941 film Ladies in Retirement is a grand old Victorian period crime thriller.  Victorian crime is all the rage eight now, so people should like this one.

Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino) gets some bad news 

Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino, much younger than the role calls for, but performing splendidly) is housekeeper-companion for Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom, who originated the part), a stage performer who made good on the favors of gentlemen friends and was able to retire to a charming (though lonely) house on the moors.

The two ladies get along, but Miss Creed gets troubling news when she learns that her eccentric sisters (Edith Barrett and Elsa Lanchester) are being thrown out of their London lodgings and will be institutionalized unless she takes charge of them.  Miss Creed, who will do anything for her sisters, prevails upon Miss Fiske to let her sisters come for a visit.  Miss Fisk acquiesces, and the sisters come--to stay.  After six weeks, Miss Fiske wants them out of her house.  What is Miss Creed to do?

Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters....
Elsa Lanchester, Ida Lupino, Edith Barrett

Also in the cast in Louis Hayward, as Albert Feather, Miss Creed's supposed nephew (he's a family connection of some sort, but they are not really related).  A charming rascal, he's not above a little embezzlement and larceny--and quite a lot of snooping.

Then there's also the not overly-bright maid, Lucy (Evelyn Keyes).  That rounds out the cast, barring a couple of nuns, who pop in every so often, and Bates, the dogcart driver.

I haven't even described the film up to the end of what would have been Act One in the play, but let me say I liked it a lot and don't want to spoil it for people.  It starts off rather like a comedy of manners, but soon turns grim.  Eventually a cat-and-mouse game develops between Ellen and Albert--but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Cat and Mouse (but which is which?)
Louis Hayward and Ida Lupino

I've always liked Ida Lupino, who had these darker depths that just made her perfect for crime films, especially film noir (I understand, incidentally, that she was the first woman to direct a film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, 1953).  She also starred with Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. She's excellent in Ladies in Retirement, bringing a lot of her characteristic intensity to the role.

Louis Hayward was rather a revelation.  I recalled that he played Philip Lombard in the first (and by far best) film adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but he didn't really stand out in that role for me, compared with some of the other actors in the film.

Here he really good as the scapegrace Albert, with his oily mannerisms and cocky grin.  I see he also was the first actor to play the Saint on film, something I would like to see.  Incidentally, Hayward and Lupino were married at the time they made this film together.

The two batty sisters of Edith Barrett and Elsa Lanchester are great too.  Lanchester is always grand to see, but I continue to be bowled over by Edith Barrett, who also played the terrified housekeeper-companion (what is it about housekeeper-companions?) in Strangers in the Night, which I reviewed here last month.  Whenever she's on the screen I find myself riveted to her performances.

I also liked Isobel Elsom as Miss Fiske.  In a lot of films of this sort, the mistress is portrayed as a harridan, but not here.  She has her imperfections, but he is basically a rather kind lady, with a certain charm.

Conscience is a troublesome thing....

The film received Oscar nominations for its art direction and score, both of which indeed are excellent. And there are some strikingly-filmed visuals that definitely enhance the suspense.

A definite winner if you like Victorian crime melodrama.