Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Final Count: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1....

The list so far:

#20 The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade
#19 The Hanging Woman (1931), John Rhode
#18 Death of a Star (1932), Margaret Cole 
#17 Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil
#16 Whispering Tongues (1934), by Laurence Kirk
#15 The Tin Tree (1930), by James Quince
#14 The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
#13 To Love and Be Wise (1950), by Josephine Tey
#12 Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth
#11 Tell Death to Wait (1939), by Anita Boutell
#10 The Farm at Paranao (1935), by Laurence Kirk
#9 Dancing Death (1931), by Christopher Bush
#8 Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell
#7 The Slype (1927), by Russell Thorndike
#6 The False Inspector Dew (1982), by Peter Lovesey

And now the Final Five:

#5 Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970), by Margaret Millar (reviewed 14 March)

Do people get tired of my praising Margaret Millar so much? For me, she's about the perfect crime writer, combining the deftness of clueing of Christie with the compulsive suspense of Highsmith (actually, I have always found Millar more of a pure page-tuner than Highsmith, and her books more genuinely relevant to the real world--at least the world I know). Millar's Monsters came after a six-year gap in her crime writing, during which time the fame of her hard-boiled writer husband, Ross Macdonald, eclipsed her own; but Millar's tremendous talent remained gloriously undiminished.

Monsters, about a hearing to have a wife's vanished California rancher husband declared legally dead, has all Millar's writing virtues: a clever fairly-clued mystery plot, incisive observation and characterization--here much of it having to do with Mexican immigrant labor--and the classic Millar twist-in-the-tail.  A superb book from a Canadian-American Crime Queen.

#4 The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946), by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (reviewed 24 August)

This year I meant to review Holding's The Blank Wall, widely, and probably justly, considered her masterpiece (I haven't read all of Holding's novels but it is hard to imagine anyone doing better than The Blank Wall); but Mrs. Duff is most impressive in its own right.  Raymond Chandler found this novel fascinating and tried to adapt it to film.  It's not hard to see why Chandler was drawn to Mrs. Duff: the novel must be one of the finest portraits of a mean, miserable, self-destructive drunk ever put to paper.

Chandler, to be sure, himself was a confirmed alcoholic and frequently a real sourpuss; yet he had his moments of genuine charm and of course was one of the major talents in the business--not only one of the crime genre's finest writers, but, I'm convinced, one of the great letter-writers of the twentieth century.

In contrast, Holding's Jacob Duff is unrelievedly loathsome, one of the most repellent fictional characters I have encountered: a selfish, indolent, petty and spiteful drunk, who eventually finds his whisky-sodden thoughts moving in the direction of murder, as he gradually determines that the root cause of his myriad dissatisfactions with life is his "common"--his word-- wife, "Reggie," a former photographer's model. What will he do about it?

This is the sort of book that critics with a myopic view of crime fiction say "transcends" crime fiction--but don't hold that against it! It's a great study of a drunk, but it's also a supremely suspenseful story.

#3 Black Alibi (1942), by Cornell Woolrich (reviewed 5 May)

I have a tremendous fondness for Cornell Woolrich, although I acknowledge that he wrote too much and produced some inferior work. Black Alibi, however, is one of the very good ones, though it doesn't get mentioned as much as some others, like I Married a Dead Man and The Bride Wore Black.  For me the novel is a triumph, not so much of characterization (painted efficiently but lightly), but of atmosphere and suspense. A tale of a series of killings in a South American city, supposedly by a jaguar run amok (but is it?), the novel essentially is a group of virtuoso set pieces of nail-biting suspense. As such, it's one of the best in the history of the genre.

No one ever conveyed the lonely menace of the night, whether in North or South America, better than Cornell Woolrich.

#2 The Accomplice (1947), by Matthew Head (reviewed 5 January)

Crime fiction from the 1930s and 1940s so often is written of dismissively by retrospective critics, who build up today's "psychologically complex" crime fiction at the expense of the "mere puzzles" of the past.  But Matthew Head's The Accomplice strikingly presaged the highly-acclaimed psychological crime fiction of Patricia HighsmithRuth Rendell, among others. Read Rendell's The Bridesmaid and then Head's The Accomplice and tell me what you think!

A tale of morbid--extremely morbid--psychology and sexual depravity, The Accomplice should be required reading for those who think our grandparents didn't know, or at least never wrote about, really unsavory aspects of life.  What happens when Hank Bewley, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, meets pretty Corrie Waters and her breathtakingly beautiful boyfriend, Lex Abbott?  If you're like me, you will simply have to keep reading to find out. There's an ending you won't forget.

And, finally....

#1 And Be a Villain (1948), by Rex Stout (reviewed 1 June)

After all the darkness of #'s 2-4 on this list it's pleasant to find secure shelter in the cozy confines of Nero Wolfe's wondrous brownstone principality!  If one is looking for mystery fiction that provides sheer delight, plus some pleasing mental stimulation, one can't top Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries at their best--and Stout's And Be a Villain surely is one of his best Nero Wolfe mysteries.

What makes a great Nero Wolfe mystery?  I would suggest a good mystery problem, but, most importantly, a great Nero Wolfe "situation."  Here in And Be a Villain we happily have both.  Wolfe is pitted not just against a clever killer, but the menace of Forties commercially sponsored radio and the purveyors of such junk food and drink as "Sweeties" and "Hi-Spot."  As a disgusted Wolfe memorably puts it: "Those things she calls Sweeties!  Pfui!"

And Be a Villain is a crime novel I could enjoy reading every year and I am pleased to choose it is as the Best Book Blogged by me in 2014.

Didn't I tell you there would be more Americans on the list?

Happy New Year!  I wish you all great mystery reading in 2015.

Monday, December 29, 2014

I Can't Stop the Countdown: #10-#6

The list so far:

20. The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade
19. The Hanging Woman (1931), by John Rhode
18. Death of a Star (1932), by Margaret Cole
17. Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil
16. Whispering Tongues (1934), by Laurence Kirk
15. The Tin Tree (1930), by James Quince
14. The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
13. To Love and Be Wise (1950), by Josephine Tey
12. Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth
11. Tell Death to Wait (1939), by Anita Boutell

And now to start the top ten:

#10 The Farm at Paranao (1935), by Laurence Kirk (reviewed 22 November)

Our first author to appear twice on the list is a forgotten scribe, Laurence Kirk (in reality Eric Andrew Simson), an accomplished mainstream novelist who dabbled at least twice in crime fiction. Where his novel Whispering Tongues is closer to a detective novel, The Farm at Paranao is more of the thriller vintage--quite an accomplished one. Opening as an English novel of manners, the tale develops into "Tropical Gothic," if you will, and has some superbly tense closing chapters (the novel should make a great film).

What does our English rose heroine find when she finally reaches her brooding husband's farm at Paranao, Brazil?  You will have to read on until you know; and, once you know, you will have to read on until you find out just what she does about it.

#9 Dancing Death (1931), by Christopher Bush (reviewed 25 December)

A classic Christmas season country house party mystery, with multiple murders in a snowbound mansion.  For this novel Bush worked out an extremely intricate, cleverly clued plot that should keep most readers on their toes. Purely on the detection level, this is the best English mystery I have read this year, with a complex yet cogently elucidated puzzle.  Writing and characterization are above the average and Ludovic Travers, Bush's detective though sixty-three crime novels published over forty-two years, makes an appealing guide as he leads us through an intricate maze of murder puzzles.

#8 Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell (reviewed 20 June)

Also intricately plotted is Gladys Mitchell's Brazen Tongue, about a rash of deaths in the town of Willington during England's "Phoney War" (the period of time in 1939-40 after the outbreak of the Second World War up to the German invasion of France and the low countries). Mitchell offers an interesting look at a provincial English town during the early stages of the war and a complex plot with creative clueing and relentless investigation by one of the most unique sleuths in the history of English detective fiction, the cackling, saurian psychiatrist Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley.

Mitchell's narratives from this period can be especially challenging for readers, with their frequently non-linear structures, but readers who are willing to give the book the attention it demands should enjoy themselves, if they are fans of classic English mystery--and if they aren't why would they be reading it?

#7 The Slype (1927), by Russell Thorndike (reviewed 3 March)

There's a certain Dickensian richness to Gladys Mitchell's Brazen Tongue that is even more pronounced in Russell Thorndike's The Slype, a marvelously atmospheric crime novel set in the cathedral town of "Dullchester," based on Rochester, Kent, where the author was born. The novel has an enjoyably whimsical plot about a series of mysterious disappearances in the city (in addition to eight people seemingly vanished off the face of the earth are a sty of pigs, a panel of stained glass and a set of wind-up mechanical soldiers), but what is most memorable of all about the book is the evocative atmosphere and colorful characters.

You won't soon forget, among others, Dean Jerome, Boyce's Boy and the Paper Wizard. Happily, this delightful novel has a sequel, which I plan to read in the coming year.  Yet more happily, The Slype has been recently reprinted, in a most attractive edition.

#6 The False Inspector Dew (1982), by Peter Lovesey (reviewed 9 September)

One of the very finest modern crime writers writing true detection today is Peter Lovesey, whose crime writing career now spans 44 years. His much-praised novel The False Inspector Dew is a superb homage to the classic English crime novel.  Both a witty suspense tale in the vein of Francis Iles (a man and his girlfriend plot the murder of the man's wife aboard an ocean liner) and a genuine fair play detective novel, Dew undoubtedly is one of the high points in British crime fiction of the modern era and will, I expect, delight readers for many years to come.  It certainly has delighted me every time I have read it!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Countdown Continues....

The countdown so far:

#20 The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade
#19 The Hanging Woman (1931), by John Rhode
#18 Death of a Star (1932), by Margaret Cole
#17 Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil
#16 Whispering Tongues (1934), by Laurence Kirk

And next we have:

#15 The Tin Tree (1930), by James Quince (reviewed 19 December)

the rather psychedelic dust jacket to the
English first edition (so far the only edition)
of The Tin Tree
English clergyman James Reginald Spittal wrote three crime novels as "James Quince"; The Tin Tree was the first.

Set primarily in 1917-18 with flashbacks to 1914 and a sort of epilogue in 1929, The Tin Tree is both a Great War novel and an English village mystery and is interesting on both levels.

Showing its age, there are some thrillerish elements (a designing Spaniard), but there is also an interesting little murder problem with several twists (including two near the end of the novel) and some well-conveyed characters. Spittal seems to have been a natural fiction writer and one regrets he did not write more of it.

#14 The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis (reviewed 12 August)

The list's first mystery by an American author, Dorothy Salisbury Davis' The Clay Hand is a fine example of the American regional mystery novel, a stark depiction of life in the declining Appalachian coal country of the mid-twentieth-century United States.

Davis constructs an intricate, engrossing mystery with one teasing detail right out of a John Dickson Carr novel (a visitation by a woman with green wings), but it is the grim coal country and the characters who reside there that likely will stay with the reader most after finishing the novel.

#13 To Love and Be Wise (1950), by Josephine Tey (reviewed 4 July)

When Inspector Grant met the astonishingly attractive Leslie Searle one evening at a literary sherry party, he could not help wondering whether "the young man was less beautiful in the daylight."  A few weeks later, at the village of Salcott St. Mary, Grant is called in to investigate Searle's disappearance.  Is this a case of accident or murder or....? Although not traditionally classed among the upper bracket of Tey's crime novels, To Love and be Wise has her characteristic virtues (good writing and psychological observation) and flaws (the occasional thumpingly snobbish sentiment). There is an interesting plot as well, with some genuine detection and a classic twist.

the Pan paperback cover art to
both Wentworth's novel and Tey's
To Love and Be Wise are by "Peff"
#12 Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949), by Patricia Wentworth (reviewed 13 June)

One of the most perfect examples of the English village mystery as romantically envisioned by W. H. Auden--where the village, the Great Good Place, is defiled by murder, necessitating the coming of the detective to expel the evildoer and restore order--is Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver Comes to Stay.

I have been less than overwhelmed by some of Wentworth's novels in the past--see, for example, my review of Eternity Ring--but this one for me succeeded on all levels, with interesting social observation, a strong sense of place (however much such a place actually existed in English fact) and a corker of a plot, fully worthy of Miss Silver's white magic.

#11 Tell Death to Wait (1939), by Anita Boutell

Appearing the same year as Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Anita Boutell's Tell Death to Wait is, to be sure, not on that same exalted level, but it is, like Christie's crime fiction classic, a beautiful performance, built on a clever contrivance. Tell Death to Wait concerns the late night and early morning hours that follow the fatal fall of an egocentric woman novelist and book critic at a house party at an isolated Cotswolds country cottage, as one of the guests, convinced that this is a case of murder, desperately argues it out with the others, who insist that the death must have been an accident.  There is superb psychological tension and a genuinely tricky plot with a smash twist.

Is Tell Death to Wait a better pure novel than the previous entries in this post?  Probably not, but it is a unique performance, at least in my reading experience--and one of the most sheerly entertaining books I read this year. Incidentally, though the novel is set in England, its author was American.  You will be seeing some more US authors in the top ten, I promise you!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Countdown Begins: The Passing Tramp's 2014 Best Books Blogged

Well, here we are again, another year gone by and it's time for the third annual Best Books Blogged at The Passing Tramp, where I pick my twenty favorites of the novels I reviewed here in the fading year.  By my count in 2014 I reviewed 73 crime novels, short story collections and books on crime fiction and true crime (in 2012 I reviewed 72 and in 2012 77, so I am pretty consistent, I would say, averaging 74 books a year for the last three years).

Where's Sophie?
her name may be in small letters
on the American edition, but
The Monogram Murders is
much more Hannah than Christie
The biggest disappointment among the novels undoubtedly was Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders, a well-meant but misbegotten Hercule Poirot continuation. Hannah is a great fan of Christie and I admire her outspoken advocacy of the important place of plot in crime fiction (the idea!), but, unfortunately, while it's clear from The Monogram Murders that Hannah loves plotting complexity, she seems, sadly, rather less enamored with clarity and, to use one of the late, great P. D. James' favorite words, credibility.

I'm by no means unalterably opposed to the idea of Christie pastiches, but I would like that they share some of the luster of our Queen of Crime's incomparable crown jewels.

There were other disappointing books that I blogged this year, particularly Lucy Worsley's brightly-written but sadly superficial take on, in part, Golden Age crime fiction, A Very British Murder (see my four-part unenthusiastic response) and the myopic The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, but let's not dwell on these matters any further this year!

I should also note that there were reviewed here as well this year some wonderful short story collections, like Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now, Cornell Woolrich's Speak to Me of Death, Charlotte Armstrong's Night Call, the Sarah Weinman edited Twisted Daughters, Troubled Wives and the splendid Golden Age group effort Six against the Yard.

But now on to the novels!

#20 The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade (reviewed 7 November)

An impeccable crossing of the country house mystery with the early police procedural, narrated with Henry Wade's customary sober intelligence.

Who hanged the syphilitic Captain Herbert Sterron at Ferris Court? Scotland Yard's Inspector Lott, in his second and final appearance, races with county Superintendent Dawle to discover the truth. The reader should enjoy following their competition.

#19 The Hanging Woman (1931), by John Rhode (reviewed 9 May)

John Rhode preceded Henry Wade by a year with the classic plot of murder-disguised-as-hanging-suicide, again at a country house (this one complete with a rumored ghost). Appearing in Rhode's greatest decade, the 1930s, The Hanging Woman offers a rich mystery feast, brimming with material clues and meaty detection.  Additionally there is Rhode's dry humor, an interesting undercurrent of feminism and, of course, that formidable amateur detective, Dr. Lancelot Priestley.

#18 Death of a Star (1932), by GDH and Margaret Cole (reviewed 8 September)

Completing this trio of fine early-thirties English detective novels is Death of a Star, one of the many detective novels by the academic socialists Douglas and Margaret Cole (this one was written mostly by Margaret).

It has often been stated that the Coles never took real world matters seriously in their crime fiction, but Death of a Star, which opens with the grisly discovery of actress Rita Morning's decapitated head in a fishbag left in the back seat of a taxicab, undercuts that claim.

The novel is one of the more notable examples of social realism in Thirties British crime fiction, taking a bleak look at the difficulties of those barely holding on to the perilous lower rungs of the economic ladder and portraying the police in a rather unattractive light. Additionally we have the winning presence of Margaret Cole's favorite recurring character, the genial toff Everard Blatchington.

For more on Henry Wade and the Coles see my forthcoming The Spectrum of English Murder and for more on John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) see my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.

#17 Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil (reviewed 5 December)

Written with this English judge's customary brio, this delightful novel details the trial of a man accused of driving past a traffic halt without stopping and injuring a motorcyclist (since recovered).

The case against the man is based on the testimony of numerous supposed eyewitnesses, but we soon learn that perception is not necessarily reality. A fine story, full of humor (the testimony of the Blimpish Colonel Brain is a highlight), irony and insight, topped with one of Cecil's classic twists in the tail.

#16 Whispering Tongues (1934), by Laurence Kirk (30 November)

A good example of the witty English Thirties crime novel, with a classic setting in a Cranford-like English village still socially influenced by genteelly ossified, unmarried women (although their grip is loosening). Who poisoned Millicent Forster-Daintree, if not her recently acquitted husband?  It's an interesting problem in a tale filled with clever writing and compelling characters.

That's all for now.  Check in soon for #15-#11!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Fancy-Death Ball: Dancing Death (1931), by Christopher Bush

Ah, those English Christmas season country house parties: so delightful and so deadly!

At the house party at Little Levington Hall in Christopher Bush's Dancing Death there is theft, along with three most unnatural deaths. Fortunately Ludovic Travers, a director of the publicity firm Durangos, Ltd. and an accomplished amateur detective, is on hand to investigate!

Dancing Death is something of a Golden Age tour de force.  In what is effectively a prologue (so popular in crime novels these days), "Ludo" Travers is prevailed upon to write a manuscript about the recent mystery at Little Levington Hall; seven pages of vignettes follow, presaging the dire events at Little Levington Hall.

If you ever get to read a copy of Dancing Death--and I suspect you might, even though it now seems a hard book to find on the net, since, I have noticed, books I write about sometimes end up being republished by the British Library (more on this in a future blog post)--and you seriously want to try your hand at solving the mystery, read carefully!

Little Levington Hall is owned by Martin Braishe, inventor of a gas in which the War Office has taken a great interest, on account of its "amazingly lethal properties."  Braishe, who enjoys social life, is throwing a seasonal fancy-dress ball that will become, tragically, more of a fancy-death ball.

After the ball nine guests remain at Little Levington Hall (plus a goodly number of servants, some of whom play major roles in the story):

1. George Paradine, a medico in high places
2. George's formidable wife, Celia
3/4. The mercurial stage actress Mirabel Quest and her lofty sister Brenda Fewne, vicar's daughters ("Brenda seemed to have left the vicarial nest by crossing the lawn to the duke's castle; Mirabel, to have eloped from a back window with the frowsty leader of a pierrot troupe")
5. Brenda Fewne's husband, Denis, a novelist
6. Ludovic Travers, amiable, horn-rimmed gent and keen solver of mysteries
7. John Franklin, a friend of Ludo's and a detective with Durangos
8. Tommy Wildernesse, young man-about-town
9. Wyndham Challis, a stage producer dismissed as a "cheap little vulgarian" by Brenda

On the morning after the ball, many an unsettling thing is discovered: two guests are dead, some of the guests have been burgled and a cylinder of Braishe's incredibly lethal gas has gone missing.  Oh yes, and Little Levington Hall is snowbound and the phone lines are cut!  John Franklin goes to try to reach the police on foot, while Travers holds the fort and indulges his penchant for amateur detection.

There's something of a plateau in the middle section of the novel, where I couldn't help thinking how John Dickson Carr would have generated more excitement from this classic material and that Ngaio Marsh would have done more with the characters (see her stab at a wintry country house murder, Death and the Dancing Footman, 1942).

However, there is a third death, and when the police finally arrive and Travers is able to do some longer-distance detection things move quickly to what is rather a smash climax. I was truly impressed when it became clear to me how dexterously Bush had constructed a bamboozling, cannily-clued plot.

Did I mention there's a floor plan (relevant), a ground plan (showing the fatal pagoda where one of the deaths takes place) and an illustration of the last scrawled words of one of the murder victims? Be still my mystery lover's heart!

You just may be seeing Dancing Death again in my Best Books Blogged in 2014, set to commence on the 26th.  Expect to see more about Christopher Bush--who was born on Christmas day 129 years ago, by the way--next month as well.

Previous Christmas Numbers at the Passing Tramp:

2011: Mystery in White, by Jefferson Farjeon (since gone on to greater things)
2012: Murder for Christmas, by Edith Howie
2013: Do Not Murder before Christmas, by Jack Iams

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Love Will Have Its Way: Mignon Eberhart on Romance in Mystery Fiction (1944)

Mignon Eberhart, "American's Agatha Christie," was one of the major figures involved in the middle twentieth century in shifting the focus in crime fiction from strict detection to atmospherics and emotions. In a 1944 interview she defended herself against charges from members of the orthodox school of mystery puzzling, who deemed love interest in crime fiction an unpardonable distraction from detection:

Mrs. Eberhart disagrees with those critics who say romance has no place in mystery.  "A mystery is about people.  Your characters are like a still pool until the murder happens. The murder is a stone hurled into the pool, disturbing its smooth surface and revealing its depths.  Out of ten or twelve characters thus disturbed, isn't it reasonable to suppose that some two of them will have a romantic attraction for each other?  The exclusion of romance in a mystery seems to me more artificial than letting it takes\ its course."

Romance or "love interest" was a much debated element in mystery fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. While traditionalists proscribed it as anything more than a minor feature of a mystery, confined to bland secondary characters, in the 1930s it became something that was seen more and more in mysteries. The British Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh all had their detectives fall in love and marry over the course of their series and in Mignon Eberhart's books the murders that take place are most significant as obstacles to the happy resolution of the heroine's love life.

How much love interests you in a mystery?

Monday, December 22, 2014

To Speak or Not to Speak: Tell Death to Wait (1939), by Anita Boutell

Death waits for no one....
(the American edition of
Tell Death to Wait)
Anita Boutell authored four mystery novels that were published in a creative burst between 1938 and 1942: Death Brings a Storke, Tell Death to Wait, Death Has a Past and Cradled in Fear.

While Boutell's first novel took the form of a classic village mystery with an amateur detective, a Dr. Storke (hence the punning the title), her second, Tell Death to Wait, one of two novels she produced in 1939, broke with Golden Age tradition, being much more a psychological suspense story.  Significantly, the book was subtitled not a detective story but, rather, A Story about a Murder.

Putnam, Boutell's American publisher, was eager to herald that their new author had broken away from the province of mere puzzles:

With this book Mrs. Boutell should take a front seat in that select group of mystery authors who, like Dorothy Sayers, can contrive a good plot and who at the same time provide a fine literary style and living characters.

I would argue that Tell Death to Wait is more innovative than any mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers (whether it is better or not is another question). In some ways it is reminiscent of--and an improvement upon--Milward Kennedy's innovative 1937 crime novel, I'll be Judge, I'll be Jury (there's even an epigraph from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). I was also reminded of Anthony Berkeley's brilliant Jumping Jenny (1933).

Boutell's novel takes place over one cold November night and early morning at a house party at Wraith's Point, the Cotswolds country cottage of Leo (Leonora) Thane and her much older husband, Godfrey Wellen (known as "G. W.").  The guests are a married couple,  Richard ("Rickey") Garnett, a fashionable Harley Street doctor, and his wife, Lady Una, daughter of the Earl of Danby, and four singles: Penelope ("Penny") Waring, Ross Fenton, Peter Druce and Nan Orr.

The monstrously egocentric Leo has cuckolded G. W. multiple times since their marriage, including with two of their guests this fateful night, Ross, an unwillingly discarded lover, and Rickey, the current one who is trying to break from her, much against her desire. Additionally Leo, a highly successful novelist and literary critic, is writing a novel laying bare myriad fictionalized details from the life of Penny, including her one-night stand with Peter, which Penny believes will ruin her engagement to another man (his straitlaced mama will be mortified, don't you know). Related in this brief fashion it all sounds like a soap opera, yet Boutell carries it off well.

Everyone at the house party seemingly has reason to want Leo dead, even, perhaps, her younger, starstruck former friend Nan, who has been taken up again by Leo because she has had a successful book of poetry published. And, indeed, Leo is found dead, exactly one-fifth of the way through the novel.  The rest of the story is devoted to a psychological struggle between six of the guests, who insist that Leo's death was an accident, and one guest who knows that it must have been murder--and wants to report it to the police as such.

Like Boutell's second book from 1939, Death Has a Past, Tell Death to Wait is a clever contrivance. Barely longer than a novella (I think about 45,000 words) and compulsively narrated by four different characters, it is unquestionably a page-turner that most any mystery fan would feel compelled to finish, I imagine, in one evening.  The ending should deliver a punch to most readers and, for those who like murder puzzles, there is even a legitimate problem for readers so inclined to work through to solution.  If the characters never emerge as creations as memorable as those of Sayers, they do indeed "live." To me Leo, an impressive portrait in selfishness, was the most alive--even after her death.

Anita Boutell
Anita Boutell's third novel, Death Has a Past, has been reviewed on several blogs, and today is her most available book. Her other titles, though published and praised in both the US and the UK, are rarer.

After an interval of three years--during which time both the UK and US were ensnared in worldwide war and Boutell, an American by birth, returned with her husband from England, where she had been living for some time, to the United States--her final novel, Cradled in Fear, appeared.  Set in the US and lengthier than her 1939 books, it was marketed as more of a mainstream novel, akin to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938). This was her last novel, as far as we know.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some more on "James Quince" (James Reginald Spittal)

The mystery writer James Quince, as explained in the previous post, was in actually the clergyman James Reginald Spittal (1876-1951).  Both his father and his maternal grandfather were ministers as well. Reverend John Spittal, James's father, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1833.  John's father was Sir James Spittal (1769-1842), a wealthy silk merchant and radical Whig politician who served as Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1833 to 1837.  Sir James supported democratic municipal reform in Edinburgh, provoking the ire of conservative political opponents, who taunted him for his origins in trade, as can be seen in the broadside ballad The Downfall of Spittal:

Of ECONOMY now he may drivel and drawl,
But the thousand a-year we must always recall--
So under his counter he'd much better crawl,
In case he be tossed in a blanket or shawl--

Which nobody can deny, deny,
Which nobody can deny.

John Spittal received a BA and MA at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and was a member of the Speculative Society of Edinburgh, a prestigious private debating society.  Beginning in 1859 he served as a clergyman at a goodly number of locales, including a working class section of Leicester, where he was active in educational and social work, South Banbury, Oxfordshire, where his son James Reginald was born, the mill town of Heywood, Lancashire, and, finally, Ryde, Isle of Wight, where he died in 1897.

One of the interesting characters in James Quince's The Tin Tree (1930) is the village schoolmaster, a Scot, who makes sure the "clever" children in the village are "grounded," a character explains, "in the classics and philosophy and that kind of thing, and the history of thought from Plato to Kant," so that they have learned really to think before they study for higher examinations.  There's also a very interesting case of social mobility in the novel, but enough of that.  Let's hope The Tin Tree is reprinted so people can see for themselves.

Note: Check out the links above to see likenesses of James Quince's father and grandfather. (there is a discrepancy on Sir James's birth year, but I think 1769 is correct, which means that he would have been, had he lived that long, 107 when James Quince was born!)

No Man's Land: The Tin Tree (1930), by James Quince

The Tin Tree--see here for an explanation of the term--is an excellent 1930 mystery novel by James Reginald Spittal (1876-1951), who was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire and was once vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Lambeth, London. Spittal's father, John, who came from Scotland, was also a minister, and his English mother, Mary Bentley Jackson, was the daughter and sister of prominent ministers.

Evidently Spittal married in 1900 and I suspect he also witnessed martial events in France during the First World War.  The Tin Tree--Spittal's first novel, written presumably when he was in his fifties and published, like his other novels, under the pseudonym "James Quince"--has material enough about the Great War in it that one almost could classify the book as a war novel.

The 1930 Hodder & Stoughton edition of
The Tin Tree, with jacket art by Kastain,
the only edition of the novel to date
(and, yes, this toad does figure into things,
though only near the end of the story)
The Tin Tree primarily takes place in 1917-18, with an epilogue in 1929 and considerable flashback to pivotal events in 1914. (not murder at Sarajevo, but murder at the village of Pecheford Monochorum, in the English West Country)

The protagonist is Roger "Secco" Burdockshed, a lieutenant in a British artillery company serving in France ("Secco" is derived from seccotine, because Burdockshed sticks like adhesive to a problem). One day he learns that a comrade of his, Gunner Arthur Rachelson, is not the man he thought he was; and, while convalescing from a serious wound in a hospital back in England, he resolves to get to the bottom of a notorious 1914 murder case in which Rachelson had prominently figured.

Also implicated in the affair are Secco's beloved childhood friend, Lady Margaret (Peggy) Clase, and a pretty nurse with the unlikely name of Embrance Twoze, two spirited female characters limned well by this male author.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, in case you get the chance to read this novel (it's a rare book and ought to be reprinted), but I quite enjoyed it.  The war detail is interesting, giving the book an added depth, but presently we are immersed in the land of classic English village mystery, complete with country house and gentry.

There is imposture, insanity, a really gruesome murder (all this is related early on), a designing Spaniard and copious love interest, suggesting a Victorian sensation novel, yet the story is told, on the whole, with an easy charm and emotional restraint in comparison with old Victorian potboilers. There is most definitely a problem to be solved, though with all the goings-on the page-turning reader may not think to perform due diligence. Especially appealing is the double twist ending that the author contrives.

On the whole I preferred James Quince's third and final crime novel, Cassual Slaughters (1935), another village mystery, reviewed here by Martin Edwards this very same day; but that is one of my very favorite 1930s English mysteries, with fewer "thriller" elements than The Tin Tree. However, The Tin Tree too is heartily recommended to readers.  As for publishers--take note, as they say.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Anthony Boucher's Dozen Best Mystery Novels of 1950

How did the influential American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher see the state of things in the world of mystery as the twentieth century hit its halfway mark?  Well, let's look at his choices for the best mystery novels of the year:

note at bottom Christie tribute blurbs
from  Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr
A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie (among her best)

Blues for the Prince, by Bart Spicer (rich and moving picture of the world of jazz music, in semi-tough manner)

Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey (high straight-novel characterization combined with solid detection)

Frightened Amazon, by Aaron Marc Stein (vivid study of unusual folkways)

Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong (psychologically valid and purely terrifying)

The Bride of Newgate, by John Dickson Carr (the familiar--and incomparable--Carr virtues in the new form of a historical romance)

The Case of the Negligent Nymph, by Erle Stanley Gardner (there were only three Gardners this year; this is the best)

before Macdonald was merely "Ross"
The Drowning Pool, by John Ross Macdonald (hard-boiled detective story vivified by compassion and literary skill)

The Motive, by Evelyn Piper (best of the "best," as novel, as puzzle, as pioneer in a new type of mystery story)

The Rim of Terror, by Hildegarde Teilhet (best of the year's spy-pursuit thrillers)

The Wind Blows Death, by Cyril Hare (When the Wind Blows) (wittily literate British import)

Through a Glass Darkly, by Helen McCloy (impeccable plotting, eerie writing)

An interesting list.  The first thing that strikes me is that seven of the novel are in print, or have been in print within the last quarter century.

Probably almost completely forgotten is the Aaron Marc Stein book. The relatively forgotten ones are the novels by Evelyn Piper, Hildegarde Teilhet and Helen McCloy, though these writers are not forgotten by collectors.  Piper does have one book in print that I know of, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957), likely on the strength of the well-received film adaptation from the 1960s, which starred Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley.  In the 1950s and 1960s, Piper definitely was considered a notable American psychological suspense writer.

Six of the writers are women, six men (did Boucher do that deliberately?), but only three, I believe, are English.  Classical detection at its purest is represented by Christie and Hare and, I imagine, the Gardner, which I have not read.

not on the list
Carr somewhat adulterated his detective novel, in the eyes of the puzzle purist, with period atmosphere, laid on with zest, and McCloy hers with psychology and eerie suspense. (for others this was a good trade-off!) Psychology also is prominent in the Tey and, clearly, the Piper, though I have not read the latter. The Armstrong is a psychological suspense classic.

The Stein, which I also have not read, probably is purer detection, but it sounds like the main reason Boucher liked it was local color (Boucher was a great fan of local color). Then with Teilhet we have spies and with Macdonald and Spicer hard-boiled.  Hard-boiled arguably is underrepresented--or an American list, anyway--but no way was Boucher picking a Spillane! That was not. going. to. happen. in a Boucher column in 1950.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Crying All the Way to the Morgue: Two Little Rich Girls (1971), by Mignon Eberhart

The English edition of Two Little Rich Girls
Eberhart was a Collins Crime Club staple
for over half a century
(the only thing I don't understand is how
Budweiser and Colt 45 beer cans ever got
into Diana and Doug Ward's refrigerator
--at least according to this jacket)
Suddenly Diana let go of that big, now-lifeless body and leaned back on her heels.  "Why did I ever go out with him!"

"But they have found the gun."
"Sandy!  Where--!"
"You're not going to like it.  It was in the refrigerator....way back behind some celery and carrots and stuff...."

--Two Little Rich Girls (1971)

For this month's crime fiction of the year challenge--the year 1971--I turn to one of the twentieth century's old reliables of crime fiction, Mignon Eberhart. I have reviewed a couple of Eberharts here before, Man Missing and Unidentified Woman, so this title will make a trio. Obviously I like this writer or I wouldn't keep reading her, especially with the breathless romance she was prone to employ in her books.

Despite my occasional qualms with obtrusive romance in her mysteries I think Eberhart was one of the most able mystery suspensers in the history of genre and also quite important in that she played a major role in bringing emotions back into the detective novel at a time when theorists of detective fiction were arguing that emotions had no place in what they deemed, in contrast with the "thriller" and the Victorian sensation novel, a strictly ratiocinative and austere art form. Think not feel was the motto.

By the time Two Little Rich Girls appeared in 1971. Mignon Eberhart had been producing mystery novels for over forty years.  She had already published 45 of them, and a dozen more would follow Two Little Rich Girls.

In the 1970s newspaper reviews of her books increasingly would refer to Eberhart's books, which always seemed to focus on the rich and privileged, as out-of-date and hackneyed. Some of this represented the tenor of the times, which were rather hostile to things deemed "traditional" in mystery, but it's only to be expected that a writer in her seventies who had been churning out a book of year for decades might lose some of her plotting oomph. Happily Two Little Rich Girls maintained the Eberhart brand standard and is in fact one of the better novels by her that I have read.

Two Little Rich Girls tells the story of the lovely Van Seidem sisters, Emmy and Diana, New York heiresses to a great family fortune, continuously referred to in the book as the "Van Seidem millions." On a visit to her older sister Emmy first finds a strange man in the house, recently shot rather unpleasantly dead.

But wait!  It's not a strange man, it's Gil Sangford, dilettante architect and man-about-town (there were still men-about-town in these years in Eberhart's world).  A handsome bachelor, Sangford had a habit of squiring at society functions various attractive rich women, including of late Diana, whose writer husband, Doug Ward, has been busy getting his first play produced on Broadway.

Diana insists that she didn't shoot Gil and has no idea who did, but after her initial hysteria she becomes rather jaded about the whole thing.  Diana had always been more of a Type A personality compared to her demure sister, and rather headstrong and self-centered at that (see quotation at top of blog).

Rounding out the list of major characters are Sandy Putnam, a young Van Seidem estate lawyer who has more than a passing interest in Emmy; Corrine Harris, the lead actress in Doug's play, who was engaged to Gil; Emmy's and Diana's charming, sponging stepfather, Justin; their imperious Aunt Medora; a bit player in Doug's play, a young actor named Thomas, who first appears sporting long hair and love beads, to help remind us that it's 1971 and not 1941; and Agnes, Emmy's outspoken housekeeper, a Van Seidem "family treasure" (though a peppery one).

Agnes brings to mind the other major indication that it's 1971 in Two Little Rich Girls: the servant problems rich people have. Diana complains about how hard it is to get help and even in the case of Emmy, it's pretty much a matter of anonymous cleaning ladies and old Agnes, who vexingly is always off visiting her niece.

Eberhart paints her usual evocative picture of place, in this case chic New York locales for the most part, though Emmy in the middle of the novel does take a trip to the Riviera, the whole murder thing having proven rather stressful on the nerves (naturally there's another murder while she's on the Riviera).

I found it a relief that for once the heroine was not suspected of the murder--though Emmy's sister, Diana, definitely is a prime suspect, what with the fatal gun, which shows up in her refrigerator among the carrots and celery (see illustration above), being hers and having her fingerprints on it as well.

I also liked how Eberhart allows quite a bit of humor into this story. Justin and Aunt Medora are quite funny with their eccentric ways, as is even, at times, Diana.  Additionally, I thought Two Little Rich Girls was, unlike, some of the Eberharts  I have read, fairly and even creatively clued. Eberhart, the old virtuoso, may have been at this game for many, many years in 1971, but she still pulled off a good performance here, not unlike Agatha Christie with her Miss Marple mystery Nemesis, published the same year.  I guess they didn't call Eberhart "American's Agatha Christie" for nothing!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Crime Raves: U. S. Mystery Bestsellers, 1937-1939

Who done it? Atlanta burns in the
film version of Gone with the Wind
In the U. S. the fiction market in 1937 was dominated by, not altogether surprisingly, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which had been published on June 30 of the previous year.  It stayed at number one until July 1937.

Also big that year were Walter D. Edmonds' Drums along the MohawkSomerset Maugham's TheatreJohn Steinbeck's Of Mice and MenJames Hilton's We Are Not AloneVaughan Wilkins' And So--Victoria and A. J. Cronin's The Citadel. Popping up briefly were Virginia Woolf's The Years and Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

In crime fiction, the following books made it to the bestsellers lists in 1937:

#8 The Dumb Gods Speak, E. Phllips Oppenheim
#9 The D. A. Calls It Murder, Erle Stanley Gardner

#6 Cards on the Table, Agatha Christie
#9 Black Land, White Land, by H. C. Bailey

#6 Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

#4 Crimefile No. 2, File on Rufus Ray, Helen Reilly

#4 Ask Miss Mott, E. Phillips Oppenheim
#5 The Pattern, by Mignon Eberhart

#7 Serenade, by James M. Cain

1938 saw Sinclair Lewis briefly hit the top of the list with The Prodigal Parents, followed by Marjorie K. Rawlings with The Yearling.  By the end of the year Gone with the Wind was on top again, spurred on by film hype, no doubt.

Also big were The Mortal Storm by Phyllis Bottome, The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, The Proud Heart by Pearl S. Buck, Hope of Heaven by John O'Hara, My Son, My Son! by Howard Spring and All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field.  A brief appearance was made by Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

The mystery/thriller bestsellers of 1938 were:

#15 Serenade, James M. Cain

#11 Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie

#8 The Case of the Substitute Face, Erle Stanley Gardner
#11 Fast Company, Marco Page
#14 Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees, E. Phillips Oppenheim

#11 The Cairo Garter Murders, by Van Wyck Mason

#7 Hasty Wedding, by Mignon Eberhart

#6 The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart

#3 The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart
#11 Mr. Zero, by Patricia Wentworth

#9 The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe, Erle Stanley Gardner
#13 Too Many Cooks, by Rex Stout
#14 Appointment with Death, by Agatha Christie

#1 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

#3 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#10 The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine
#15 The Glass Slipper, by Mignon Eberhart

#2 Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
#10 The D. A. Holds a Candle, by Erle Stanley Gardner

In 1939 Pearl S. Buck's The Patriot briefly took the #1 spot, before being swamped by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the biggest fiction hit in the U. S. since Gone with the Wind.

Other notable successes that year were The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe, Next to Valour by John Jennings, The Brandons by Angela Thirkell, Captain Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester, Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, Christ in Concrete by Pietro di Donato and The Nazarene by Sholem Asch.  Also popping up were William Fauklner's The Wild Palms, Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, and Nevil Shute's Ordeal.

In the world of crime and mystery in 1939 bestsellerdom we see:

#3 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

#2 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#15 Murder for Christmas, Agatha Christie (for some reason this was released in the US six weeks after Christmas)

#5 Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
#9 The Case of the Perjured Parrot, Erle Stanley Gardner

#11 Sir Adam Disappeared, E. Phillips Oppenheim

#7 The Footprints on the Ceiling, Clayton Rawson
#8 Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh
#10 Canceled in Red, Hugh Pentecost
#11 The Singapore Exile Murders, Van Wyck Mason
#12 The Problem of the Green Capsule, John Dickson Carr
#13 The Happy Highwayman, Leslie Charteris

#10 All Concerned Notified, Helen Reilly

#6 The Case of the Rolling Bones, Erle Stanly Gardner
#7 Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household
#9 The Chiffon Scarf, Mignon Eberhart
#12 Red Gardenias, Jonathan Latimer

Daphne du Maurier
Of 375 spaces listed for this three-year period, mysteries occupied 45, or 12%. Only four mysteries racked the top five: Oppenheim's Ask Miss Mott, Eberhart's The Pattern, Rinehart's The Wall and du Maurier's Rebecca.

Only the latter two novels, plus James M. Cain's Serenade, were on the bestseller lists for more than a month, The Wall and Serenade for two, Rebecca for six.

As I've mentioned before, a lot of readers in those days simply did not buy hardcover mysteries ($2 a pop!), but rather rented them for a few cents a day from lending libraries. So when a mystery made the bestseller lists, it was a particular special accomplishment.

Rebecca is the most anomalous book of the mystery bestsellers, one that, as they say, "transcended the genre."  Yet what was Rebecca but a brilliant updating of those once tremendously popular Gothic novels?

22 mystery writers are represented, below ranked in terms of number of times they appear on the lists:

Daphne du Maurier 6 (one book)
Erle Stanley Gardner 6 (six books)
Agatha Christie 4 (4 book)
Mignon Eberhart 4 (4 books)
E. Phillips Oppenheim 4 (4 books)
James M. Cain 2 (1 book)
Van Wyck Mason 2 (2 books)
Helen Reilly 2 (2 books)
Mary Roberts Rinehart 2 (1 book)
H. C. Bailey 1
John Dickson Carr 1
Leslie Charteris 1
Geoffrey Household 1
Jonathan Latimer 1
Ngaio Marsh 1
Marco Page 1
Hugh Pentecost 1
Clayton Rawson 1
Dorothy L. Sayers 1
Rex Stout 1
S. S. Van Dine 1
Patricia Wentworth 1

Fourteen men and eight women, Thirteen American and nine British (including NZ).  Five of the women are British, but only four of the men.  We see the development of the idea of the Crime Queens, with Christie, Sayers and Marsh, though there is no Allingham and Christie was yet to attain #1 bestsellerdom.

Prince of Storytellers
E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946)
Du Maurier, Rinehart and Eberhart represent more of the the Gothic mystery tradition and there is some stuff more in the nature of hard-boiled (Latimer, Cain, Pentecost, Page) the modern thriller (Household) and the police procedural (Reilly, including one of the popular Crimefiles dossiers), but many are classic detection and thrillers, including, most surprisingly to me, a miracle problem mystery by Clayton Rawson, a disciple of John Dickson Carr, who also shows up once (June 1939 seems to have been a great month for crime fiction).

Fittingly, we even have a final appearance by S. S. Van Dine, the great American mystery bestseller from the 1920s--albeit with a rather bad book! I imagine the popularity of Gracie Allen and the release of the film of the same title helped.

So, who in the late 1930s were the most popular American mystery writers, the prolific producers regularly hitting the bestseller lists? We have Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Mignon Eberhart (often dubbed "American's Agatha Christie") and E. Phillips Oppenheim, a English thriller writer who had been churning 'em out since the Victorian era.  Not for nothing, evidently, was he dubbed the Prince of Storytellers!  "Oppy" had a long reign.

Source: Baker & Taylor Company

Fiction Bestsellers of 1939

Between August 21 and September 18, 1939 the U. S. fiction bestsellers were, according to the book wholesalers Baker & Taylor (mysteries/thrillers highlighted):

Mignon Eberhart was one of the few
mystery writers to routinely make
American bestseller lists in the 1930s
1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
2. Children of God, by Valerie Fisher
3. Christ in Concrete, by Pietro di Donato
4. Watch for the Dawn. by Stuart Cloete
5. White Magic, by Faith Baldwin
6. The Case of the Rolling Bones, Erle Stanley Gardner
7. Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household
8. Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden
9. The Chiffon Scarf, by Mignon Eberhart
10. Charley Manning, by Elizabeth Corbett
11. She Knew Three Brothers, by Magaret Widdemer
12. Red Gardenias, by Jonathan Latimer
13. The Brandons, by Angela Thirkell
14. The Ownley Inn, by Joseph C. and Freeman Lincoln
15. Ararat, by Elgin Groseclose
source: Baker & Taylor

Among the non-genre books I have to admit I have read only #1, The Grapes of Wrath, though I've seen the wonderful film version of Black Narcissus (which is rather a psychological thriller). Quite a few I had never heard of previously. I have always meant to read something by Angela Thirkell after finding that Todd Downing was a great fan of her novels.

As for the mysteries and thrillers, I was not surprised to see Erle Gardner or Mignon Eberhart, two of the most successful American mystery writers of the 1930s, without a doubt (Gardner of course remains one of the most successful of all time). 

Concerning Jonathan Latimer's Red Gardenias, three of his novels had recently been filmed, and he could be seen as something of a then-successor to the hard-boiled crown of the abdicated Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler's first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, was published earlier that year, but hadn't made quite the splash Chandler had wanted. Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male made the lone English genre stand on the list.

A more in-depth of analysis of American crime fiction bestsellers, 1937-1939, is coming here soon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mignon Eberhart in Valentine, Nebraska, c. 1928-1930

Mignon Eberhart
Mignonette Good Eberhart, known to the world as the mystery writer Mignon Eberhart, was born in Nebraska on July 6, 1899 and died in Connecticut on October 8, 1996, age 97, making her surely one of the last Golden Age mystery writers to expire. In 1923, she married Alanson Clyde Eberhart, a civil engineer, and the couple moved to Chicago, where they lived for two years.  The Eberharts then returned to Nebraska, eventually buying a house in Valentine, a town of under 2000 souls located near the South Dakota border, in the Nebraska sandhills region.

Eberhart published her first mystery story, a novelette titled "The Dark Corridor" in Flynn's Detective Weekly in 1925, but her first mystery novel, The Patient in Room 18, only appeared four years later, in 1929.  Room 18 and her next two mystery novels all were written in Valentine.

In the Spring of 1930, Eva Mahoney, an Omaha newspaper journalist best known for an interview with Willa Cather that she had conducted nearly a decade earlier, interviewed Eberhart at "her pleasant little home in Valentine" and found that the young mystery writer had chosen a Nebraska sandhills "hunting lodge for the setting" of her next novel (to be titled The Mystery at Hunting's End).  Explained Eberhart:

That gives me a legitimate right to get my characters off into an isolated region where just anything may happen. (shades of P. D. James!)

The author expounded on the atmospheric advantages of her new mystery setting:

The lodge owner collects antique pewter lanterns as a hobby.  He uses them for illuminating the lodge.  Naturally they don't give much light so I can employ darkened corners and shadows to heighten the horror.

plans of the lodge in
The Mystery at Hunting's End 
Yet Eberhart worried whether the interior design she envisioned for the lodge would allow the characters to do all the things they needed to do in a murder mystery:

I'm having difficulty with that hunting lodge in my new book....It must have a mezzanine or balcony floor.  I don't know how I'm going to have it architecturally correct and still be able to obstruct the view from that balcony.  My husband has promised to come to my aid with a set of blueprints.

Those blueprints apparently helped, because Eberhart's novel appeared later that year.  It's one of my favorite Eberharts, incidentally.

Eberhart claimed that it took her "three months to complete a mystery novel."  During this period every day she would be at her desk promptly at 7:00 a.m. and type until noon or thereabouts.  Before she started the actual writing of a novel she would assemble the characters, block out the plot and make a general synopsis.

Eberhart's first novel was a tremendous success generally, but it went over especially big in Valentine and its environs, Eva Mahoney reported:

Word went round that a citizen of Cherry County had written a thriller. Only one copy had reached the cattle country as yet.  That was owned by the author.  One of the cattle kings asked to borrow it. After he had finished reading it, his 20 cowboys asked the same privilege.  They solved the question of reading priority by shaking dice.

main street in Valentine
the Yeast hardware store was, I believe, located in the stone front building to the right

There's more of interest in this interview, but I will save the rest for later.  What I want to mention here in closing is that I found this fascinating newspaper article in an old clipping tipped into a copy of The Mystery of Hunting's End by a former owner, Helen Bachelor Yeast (1894-1972), wife of Harold Proctor Yeast (1890-1977), owner of a hardware business on Valentine's main street. (the picture of Eberhart shown above comes from this newspaper article)

Helen Yeast also added the following note:

Mrs. Eberhart had used a hunting lodge on lakes south of Valentine, Nebraska, as her locale.  Her publishers asked her to change it, so she substituted Michigan dunes.  See page 13. Mrs. Eberhart lived in Valentine for several years, in an old square house a few doors north of the old Haley house. 

More detail to come.  Mrs. Yeast obviously found quite interesting this article about her one-time Nebraska neighbor turned world famous mystery writer.  I agree with her.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I Saw it with My Own Two Eyes: Independent Witness (1963), by Henry Cecil

Henry Cecil Leon (1902-1976) was an English judge who in 1951 started, under the name Henry Cecil, a series of two dozen novels, very often humorous, dealing with foibles of English law.

How many of these legitimately can be called mysteries or crime novels, I don't know, though I suppose the case be made for calling them all crime novels, because some form of crime invariably seems to crop up in them, I believe.  The first book I read by Cecil, A Woman Named Anne (1967), seems to me indisputably a mystery, and a very good one, although the puzzle presented is not one of murder, but rather whether the male party to a divorce action was having it off with the dazzling Anne of the title.

Independent Witness, the Cecil novel under review here today, is more a suspense novel.  The story opens with a car driver who, after properly stopping at a "halt" to a crossroads in the town of Needham, by the pub the Blue Goose, begins crossing, only to collide with a speeding motorcyclist coming round a sharp bend.

Although the motorcyclist has been injured--we later learn he makes a full recovery, though has no memory of the accident--the driver leaves the scene of the accident, much to the anger of the eight or so eyewitnesses who have gathered there. A few days later, Michael Barnes, an MP, turns himself in as the culpable driver, and, after appearing before the Magistrates' Court, is committed to trial (Michael explains, by the way, that he was in a hurry to get to his wife, who was having a difficult pregnancy and, he believed at the time he was driving, might be going imminently into labor; but he insists nevertheless that he did stop at the halt.)

Michael gets a brilliant attorney named Olliphant to mount his defense.  The two men have the following exchange about the subject of so-called independent witnesses:

"But why should the jury believe me and not the witnesses against me?  They're all independent.  They've nothing against me...."

"Nothing against you?" said Olliphant. "Haven't they?  First of all, you came off best.  You weren't hurt.  The motorcyclist was.  When an accident happens, it's human nature to take the part of the under-dog if you haven't seen what happened."

"But they'll say they did."

"Of course they'll say they did, but the chances are they didn't....None of them is going to tell deliberate lies, but they won't think they are lies....within seconds after your departure I bet most or all of those witnesses, talking about it together before the police arrived, created a picture for themselves of you dashing across the 'halt' line.  By the time the police arrived, you'd charged across the line without even slowing down."

A Blue Goose native to Scotland not England

Olliphant's task is to expose the independent witnesses as captives to their own preconceptions.  What follows is a tremendously interesting and entertaining courtroom fight, where we learn a good deal about the personal backgrounds--some humorous, some sad, many very odd indeed--of these men and women.

The funniest of the witnesses is a recurring character in Cecil's books, one Colonel Brain, who has a great enthusiasm for testifying in court.  Barzun and Taylor grumpily pronounced Colonel Brain "egregious" and in fact he is; but quite delightfully egregious, in my view, if you will permit paradox. In this novel the good colonel gives one of his classic performances:

"Colonel Brain, in what vicinity were you at about 12.30 p.m. on the 12th December last?"

"Vicinity?" queried the colonel.  "How big is that?"

"Were you anywhere near the Blue Goose?"

"Definitely," said the colonel.  "The bitter's excellent."

"Colonel Brain," said the chairman, "we are today concerned with an accident, not with the quality of the beer you drink."

"Really sir!" said the colonel, "I have sworn to tell the whole truth."

When I read Henry Cecil's fiction, I invariably find it delightful and instructive about some fascinating point of English law.  I think Cecil was one of the finest writers of twentieth-century English crime fiction, if we can call what he wrote all such.  Happily, I believe all his novels are currently available from the House of Stratus.