Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Proper Croftster: A. Fielding and The Eames-Erskine Case (1924)

The door opened noiselessly, and four men came in.  They were in plain clothes, and one carried a large box.

"Evening," said the first.  "I am Chief Inspector Pointer from New Scotland Yard.  These are detectives Watts, Miller and Lester.  What's wrong?"

--opening lines of The Eames-Erskine Case (1924)

Sometimes The Eames-Erskine Case, published ninety years ago, is listed as A. Fielding's second crime novel, but I believe it was her first.  Certainly it was Fielding's first Chief Inspector Pointer mystery.

I learned more about the cleverly named Pointer here than elsewhere in the Pointer canon. I suspect Fielding lost interest in fleshing him out as a character, which is too bad.

In The Eames-Erskine Case, we learn that Pointer lives "in Bayswater.  He liked its open squares and clearer air. He shared three rooms there with a friend, James O'Connor, now a bookbinder, but during the War a very successful member of the Secret Service."

Pointer likes to talk over his cases with his friend and flatmate James, just like Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French does with his wife Emily (Inspector French's Greatest Case, 1924) and G. D. H. Cole's Superintendent Wilson does with his wife (The Brooklyn Murders, 1923).

I discussed both the Crofts and Cole novels in the draft version of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, though the chapter on Cole (and his wife Margaret) was cut by my publisher to shorten the manuscript. Along with The Eamses-Erskine Case, the Crofts and Coles novels constitute an important, and mostly ignored, strain with English Golden Age mystery: detective novels with a non-aristocratic policeman as lead sleuth.

Such novels were actually common during the Golden Age, though today we usually are led to believe quite the opposite (I recall one academic writer stating that Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn, who debuted in 1934, was the first English Golden Age police detective protagonist, which is not even close).

Before 1924, Crofts had published The Cask (1920), The Ponson Case (1921), The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) and The Groote Park Murder (1923).  None of these novels actually have Inspector French, but they all have police sleuths solving crimes.

These novels were tremendously popular in England and influenced the socialist academic G. D. H. Cole to try his hand at a mystery, the aforementioned Brooklyn Murders.  Thus was launched another detective series, one in which Cole shared authorship credit with his wife, Margaret Cole (though I discovered that the novels were in fact authored variously by one spouse or the other).

a fine 1920s English detective novel
Now I see that The Eames-Erskine case belongs with these novels by Crofts and Cole.  Like The Brooklyn Murders, Eames-Erskine is essentially a Crofts pastiche, and, I think, a much better one than The Brooklyn Murders.

Eames-Erskine starts out with Pointer investigating a suspicious suicide at a London hotel by one Reginald Eames (Cole would use a hotel setting in his next Wilson detective novel, The Death of a Millionaire, 1925).

Although Fielding doesn't depend on a Crofts specialty--detailed alibis, often involving train timetables--there is much painstaking investigation by her policemen, in the Crofts manner.

The author has constructed in this novel a complex and cleverly plotted problem, with many red herrings and surprising twists and turns. There's even some subsidiary love interest, quite acceptably done, as well as a couple trips to France (Paris and the Riviera). Crofts mysteries often saw sleuths traveling to Continental Europe, especially in the 1920s.

I did not forsee the solution, which seemed to me to hold together, even though once again the reader is not allowed to see all of Pointer's clues, a blemish on an otherwise excellent detective novel.

All in all, The Eames-Erskine Case is a fine example of what Fielding could do when she wrote with more care, and it's a first-rate example of a 1920s English mystery.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pearls Are a Nuisance: The Case of the Two Pearl Necklaces (1936)

A. Fielding's The Case of the Two Pearl Necklaces (1936) has the kind of posh "Downton Abbey" milieu people immediately associate today with classic English mystery of the Golden Age.  Without further ado let's introduce our characters.

First up (he's introduced in the first words), we have Arthur Walsh.  "He was twenty-eight years old, fairly tall," Fielding tells us, "and had a face that began well in a good forehead, but ended in a weak chin." (chins so often are an index to male character in twentieth-century genre literature)

When the novel opens Arthur is visiting his rich father, Colonel Walsh, at the family mansion, Friar's Halt, to deliver what he fears will be quite unwelcome news to his father; for Colonel Walsh is an upright, intimidating man.  "He had a long thin face with a tightly compressed mouth and steadfast grey eyes," Fielding pronounces of the Colonel. "Taken together, eyes and mouth gave him a curiously daunting air."

Since to the Colonel dishonesty is the greatest mortal sin, he sent his eldest son Gerald packing after he found Gerald had told him a fib. Coincidentally, on the very day of Arthur's visit to Friar's Halt the Colonel has learned that Gerald Walsh is no more:

"Poor old Gerald!  Where was it?"

"In Smyrna.  Circus performance.  The roof crashed in, and Gerald was among the dead."

I must say, this is the first mystery I have read where a character gets called to his reward at a circus performance in Smyrna, so props to Fielding for originality on this point.

Anyway, as mentioned above, Arthur has news too.

He's getting married.

To Violet Finch.

Now there's trouble.

"And her people are?'

"Nothing much," Arthur gave a little deprecatory smile.  "Her father was a barrister.  He's dead.  Her mother--" Arthur hesitated.

"She's not
the Mrs. Finch surely?"

Whoops, 'fraid so, dear old pater! Violet's mother indeed is the Mrs. Finch who started all those notorious, once hugely successful, nightclubs (no more than gambling hells, some people say).

Now they are on their way out, and Mrs. Finch, it seems, is on the rocks. Fortunately, she has an asset in her lovely daughter, Violet, who is quite untouched by London night life, Arthur assures the colonel: "She's not in the least a cabaret girl, sir.  You needn't be afraid of that."

The Colonel grudgingly assents to the marriage, because, he tells himself, at least Arthur, profiting from Gerald's example, has been honest about it.  He had of course hoped that Arthur might marry the Colonel's niece and ward, the sweet young Kitty Walsh, while the Colonel's imperious sister, Lady Monkhouse, gave her nod to stately Ann Lovelace, the favorite niece of the Duchess of Axminster.

As a partner for Arthur, Kitty herself actually prefers common Violet Finch to cunning Ann Lovelace, she tells the Colonel:

"Ann's selfish.  She has a horrid temper.  You remember we were at Bedlington together....Oh, yes, she was Head Girl in her last year.  But none the less there were plenty of others who felt just as I did. Ann always intended to be Head Girl, and so, of course, she pulled it off."

Clearly Kitty still hasn't gotten over the whole Bedlington "Head Girl" affair!

double the criminal fun
Soon Ann is involved in a fracas with Violet, accusing Arthur's fiancee of pawning the fabulous "Queen Charlotte pearls" (two pearl necklaces, a short strand and a long one) that Arthur has bestowed upon her and substituting fakes for them (by the by, Violet has willed the pearls to her mother).

Arthur stands by Violet, however, and the marriage tales place. Yet not long after the marriage tragedy strikes. Violet is found dead, horribly struck down by a "modernist figure" with "four metal corners" like "so many steel axes." And the longer strand of pearls, which Violet always wore, is gone!

Looks like another high society murder case for the redoubtable Chief Inspector Pointer!

I see I didn't mention that Violet was found dead at the flat of Ronald Mills, her mother's too-smooth business partner (to people's surprise, it turns out that "Mills is a Cambridge man, with some quite decent family connections").

Or that Mills' flat is located above the garage owned by Mr. Grey, Mrs. Finch's mysterious second husband (Mrs. Finch hasn't even bothered to take her new husband's name).

Or, oh yes, that the Walsh family is Catholic and that Arthur has a religious fanatic cousin, Ambrose Walsh, a priest adamantly opposed to Arthur marrying a non-Catholic, who just happened to be across the street when Violet was brutally murdered, "teaching a little blind boy his religious lessons."

I have to admire the way A. Fielding unabashedly throws in all these admittedly cliched elements to come up with an enjoyable, quick classical-style mystery read (the whole book is not much over 60,000 words, I judge).

To be sure, there are some typos and sloppy syntax.  Dorothy L. Sayers once spent almost an entire review of Fielding's novel The Paper Chase (1935) decrying a single sentence that she found utterly indecipherable.

My favorite odd linguistic construction in Necklaces is: "'Detained! You mean arrested! Hung?' Arthur cried with leaping eyeballs."  I'd really like to see an actor depicting that passage on film.  I suppose there would be a resort to CGI.

"leaping eyeballs"

I didn't deduce the culprit, but, unfortunately, Fielding doesn't provide the reader with all the clues that she gave to Pointer. Nor were the actions of one character entirely explicable to me.  This seemed a case where the author was so anxious to surprise the reader that she didn't quite play fair.  But, for all that, I enjoyed (in rather a camp sense) the story, which has so many features I love in an English mystery.

In his notice on Necklaces in the Saturday Review, Judge Lynch deemed it "notable mainly for its amazing picture of how nasty the British upper clawsses can be."  He's not far off there--Fielding gives us one rum lot of characters.

Next up: an earlier, rather more Croftsian, Fielding mystery; and quite a good one, I think.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"A. Fielding"--Queen of Crime?

The Golden Age crime writer "A. Fielding," who produced 25 English mysteries between 1924 and 1944 (23 of them with her series detective Chief Inspector Pointer), surely has one of the most prosaic, yet most puzzling, pseudonyms in detective fiction.

If you look around the internet, you will some people claiming A. Fielding" was one Archibald E. Fielding (sometimes A. Fielding was listed as "A. E. Fielding" as well) and some claiming "A. Fielding" was a Dorothy Feilding (no, that's no a typo on my part).

Lady Dorothie Feilding
(not A. Fiedling)
It has been asserted that this particular Dorothy Feilding was Lady Dorothie Feilding (1889-1935), an aristocrat and heroic nurse and ambulance driver during World War One.

This idea seems to have been pretty effectively disposed of by the simple fact that Lady Dorothie died from heart failure years before "A. Fielding" stopped being published (and also by the fact that during her busy life Lady Dorothie apparently exhibited no interest whatsoever in mystery fiction).

John Herrington has done work on this subject and the results of his research were posted over at the redoubtable Mystery*File  and in volume 55 of the excellent CADS Crime and Detective Stories).

Herrington quotes an entry in the 1942 edition of Twentieth Century Authors about "A. Fielding" that states "the author behind the initials is really a middle-aged English woman by the name of Dorothy Feilding whose peacetime address is Sheffield Terrace, Kensington, London, and who enjoys gardening."

Herrington has determined that there really was such a person and was able to track some of her movements between 1925 and 1946.  Through her agent's archive he finds her writing a letter in 1925 from the Hotel Kusseth in Bolzano, Italy.  In 1927 she is writing from the the Hotel Victoria Nord in Brussels.

Shallowford House

For much of the 1930s she indeed is living at Sheffield Terrace, listed as both Dorothy Feilding and Mrs. A. Feilding. In 1945 and 1946 she is staying at Shallowford House in Staffordshire, but that is the last we hear of her, according to Herrington.

I have collected all the Feilding books over the years and have read a number of them. She seems to me a frustrating author, because her books often do have a lot of the substance and milieu that appeal to the lover on English Golden Age mystery, yet there can be a sloppiness to some of them that is frustrating.

She was one of the early English mystery writers out of the gate in the Golden Age, publishing two mysteries, The Eames-Erskine Case and Deep Currents in 1924, the same year Agatha Christie published The Man in the Brown Suit and Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French's Greatest Case and a year after the appearance of Dorothy L. Sayers' debut Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Whose Body?, and G. D. H. Cole's first Superintendent Wilson mystery, The Brooklyn Murders.

Throughout her entire print run she was published in England by the prestigious Collins Crime Club, while in the United States in the 1920s she was published by Alfred A. Knopf which published, oh, Dashiell Hammett and J. S. Fletcher (however, in the 1930s she moved to H. C. Kinsey, a big comedown).

Deep Currents, set in Asia Minor, is more an adventure story, but The Eames-Erskine Case, in which Chief Inspector Pointer debuted, is a pure detective novel clearly heavily influenced by the detective novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, who I believe was the most prominent "new" English mystery writer in the Golden Age before the publication of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926 (my friend John Curran would probably disagree with me on this one!).

Eames-Erskine is a police procedural novel (at least as this was understood in the 1920s), with emphasis on detailed investigation in the Crofts manner.  In the 1920s A. Fielding followed this novel with additional Croftsian Chief Inspector Pointer tales, like The Charteris Mystery (1925) and The Footsteps That Stopped (1926).

A. Fielding's early detective novels bear resemblance
to those of Freeman Wills Crofts

Assuming, as likely was intended by the author who created the pseudonym, that "A. Fielding" was a man, the then much-lauded and bestselling detective novelist S. S. Van Dine praised Fielding in his 1927 introduction to The Great Detective Stories as one of the finest exponents of the Crofts style of mystery writing.

However, the Fielding writing style soon changed, arguably reflecting the increasing eclipse of the "Humdrum" writers of the Crofts school by the livelier style of the Crime Queens Christie and Sayers (later to be accompanied by Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh).

A. Fielding's later detective novels
resemble those of Agatha Christie
(notice the two pearl necklaces; see below)
While A. Fielding's characters remain stock, the narrative focus shifts more to them and their emotions and they become livelier stock, while the milieu of the novels is that of the upper class types and environs so associated today with the English "manners" detective novel.

Fielding also is a great exponent of the twist surprise ending associated so much with Christie. Unfortunately, Fielding sometimes attains these surprise endings at the expense of plausibility and even, as it was sometimes argued by contemporary reviewers, fair play.

Raymond Chandler damningly dismissed Christie for obtaining her surprise endings by relying on violent reversals of character. However fair this charge may or may not be with respect to Christie, I think there's some truth of it with regard to A. Fielding.

I am going to be reviewing a couple Fielding mysteries, one of her Crofts style books and one of Christie style ones, but in the meantime please indulge me while I trot out my own (tongue-in-cheek) theory as to just who "A. Fielding" really was.

Sheffield Terrace is Kensington was developed in 1849.  It is really quite a posh place, and it has an association with other successful English mystery writers.  G. K. Chesterton was born at 32 Sheffield Terrace in 1874. And then there is the case of Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime herself....

According to Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists (2000), in 1934 Agatha Christie acquired the house at 48 Sheffield Terrace, Kensington (actually it was 58) and she resided there until 1941.  It was "the only one of her homes in which she allocated a specific office for herself, a room no one was allowed to enter while she was writing.  To its severe furnishings she added a Steinway grand piano at which she could indulge her love of music in privacy."

58 Sheffield Terrace, where Agatha Christie once lived

I say!  What if Christie in her writer's sanctum was dashing off "A. Fielding" mysteries, hiding behind a new personality, Dorothy Feilding (aka Mrs. A.--could the "A." stand for Archie?) that she had created back in 1924, when she was the author of a mere handful of novels?

By Christie's own later standards, she was not very prolific in the 1920s, producing only nine detective novels (ahem! under her own name!) in that decade.  A. Fielding, for her part, published nine as well in the 1920s.  Maybe Christie started a new pseudonym to write "Croftsian" detective novels.

We know "Dorothy Feilding" stayed in Bolzano, Italy in the 1920s--and so did Agatha Christie! Part of Christie's 1927 novel The Big Four, which was based on stories she serialized in 1924,  is set there.  For that matter, part of A. Fielding's The Charteris Mystery, published in 1925, is set in Bolzano.

And in 1942 Christie, like Dorothy Feilding according to her author profile, was a middle-aged lady who liked gardening (well, at least she liked gardens).

Okay, okay, I know what you're saying, lots of well-off English ladies must have stayed in hotels in Bolzano, Italy in the 1920s.  And it seems John Herrington has found that Dorothy Fielding actually lived at 2 Sheffield Terrace, not 58.  Drat.

2 Sheffield Terrace, I believe, home for a time of Dorothy,
or Mrs. A., Feilding

Yet while the above is not meant seriously to argue A. Fielding was in fact Agatha Christie, it at least does suggest to me that Dorothy Feilding was someone of Christie's social class and milieu, and it helps explain some of the feeling of Christie deja vu I get when reading Fielding mysteries from the 1930s.

I love to think of Agatha Christie in 1936 there at 58 Sheffield Terrace, Kensington scribbling away at The ABC Murders and Murder in Mesopotamia, while Dorothy Feilding is down the street at 2 Sheffield Terrace working on The Case of the Two Pearl Necklaces and Mystery at the Rectory. I hope we find out more about this mysterious Mrs. Fielding, who was, if not a Crime Queen, at least a criminal lady-in-waiting.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Red Death: Murder at Maneuvers (1938), by Royce Howes

Royce Bucknam Howes (1901-1973) wrote eight detective novels, but he was better-known in his day for his journalism.  Born in Minneapolis, he briefly attended the University of Minnesota before serving in a National Guard regiment in World War One.  He joined the Detroit Free Press in 1927, rising to become the newspaper's editorial director. During World War Two he headed the Army News Service, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Milo Radulovich
In 1953 the United States Air Force brought dismissal proceedings against Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Milo J. Radulovich, claiming that his father and sister had Communist sympathies.  Howes and the Free Press took up the cause of Radulovich, who was a native of Detroit, prompting the Deputy Inspector General of the Air Force to pay a visit to the Free Press bosses, where, according to Howes, he informed them that "the newspaper would be well advised to stop championing the Reservist's cause."  At a hearing Lieutenant Radulovich was stripped of his commission.

Despite pressure from the Air Force, however, Radulovich's case was taken up by no less than CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, who aired the story on his popular See It Now program.  A month after the program aired, Radulovich was reinstated.

Over half a century later the Radulovich affair (and Murrow's part in it) was dramatized in the Oscar-nominated film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005).

In 1955 Howes won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for his editorial "The Cause of a Strike," which analyzed the responsibility of both labor and management for an unauthorized strike that sidelined 45,000 Chrysler workers.

So you can see that mystery writing was rather a lesser matter for Howes.  Yet mystery writing is what we do here at the blog of The Passing Tramp, so herewith is a consideration of Royce Howe's fifth detective novel, Murder at Maneuvers, which offers some interesting sidelights on the Radulovich affair that was to come fifteen years later.

Though the novel is under 80,000 words, it took me a good while to finish Maneuvers, not because it is a bad detective novel but because it is not all that an engrossingly-told one.  It is rich neither in material clues, rounded characters nor colorful settings.  However, when I finished the book I had to admit it was competently put together.

The book details the fallout from the fatal shooting of a Soviet military officer, General Damoff, observing summer maneuvers at an arming training camp, Camp Waller.  Howes' series detective, police captain Ben Lucias (Maneuvers is the third Captain Ben Lucias mystery), is at Camp Waller as the guest of the commander, Colonel Deyo Opper, an old friend of his from their days serving with U. S. forces in the Philippines.

Opper functions fitfully as a Watson figure and is fairly entertaining.  There are five additional army officer characters, who are not all that distinguishable, aside from Lucias' martinet antagonist, Major Hovek.  Also playing important roles in the novel are two men and two women who are partners in a local speak-easy, where the officers go to drink hard liquor in this "local option" county.

Two of the speakeasy proprietors, Leo Brusiloff and his sister Marie, turn out to be Communists. Howes' attitude to Communism, as reflected by his characters in the novel, is interesting.  He views American Communists as harmless cranks and many Soviet Communists as admirable people. Lucias and "good" characters in the novel repeatedly dismiss the Communist threat to the United States, while "bad" characters foolishly fulminate against the Red Menace, sounding like Joe McCarthy prototypes.

Here's Lucias on Leo Brusiloff:

Brusiloff is what you'd all a Red.  Probably harmless enough and doesn't do anything but sit around talking about world revolutions and the bosses.  He's the kind that gives professional patriots a fat living and preachers something to talk about when they run out of ideas.

After reading these words it's pretty easy to see Howes taking on McCarthy in the 1950s.

And here's Lucias on the deceased General Damoff:

He told himself again that he would like to get the fellow who killed Damoff....The general had seemed to be a fine man, and he certainly had been a remarkably good physical specimen.  To Lucias it seemed particularly grievous that a big, staunchly molded man such as Damoff should come to his end by a bullet in the back.

Although this is not a richly clued mystery, there are clever dodges involving guns and motivations and I especially enjoyed the final chapter, where Lucias explains all in a classic English drawing room denouement (though it takes place in Camp Waller visitors' bureau). In the end, I would say I enjoyed Murder at Maneuvers enough to seek out more of the genre work by this interesting author.

Paperback Novelties: Dread Journey, by Dorothy B. Hughes

Here's an unusual paperback from 1947, Pocket Books' edition of Dorothy B. Hughes psychological thriller Dread Journey (1945).  I'll be reviewing this train mystery later this week (a book review of another mystery will be uploaded later today).

How often do we see African-Americans on crime fiction paperbacks in the 1940s and 1950s.  Experts, help me out here!

In this case I think the most striking individual is the African-American railway porter.  His glance at the couple directs attention to them (and particularly the woman's fearful reaction to what she sees in the passenger compartment), but he holds attention in his own right.

a Pullman porter
The depiction of the porter on this paperback seems quite a ways off from what we were getting with portrayals of African-Americans in such forties films as the Charlie Chan mysteries, for example. Superb artwork, I think, one of the classiest paperback covers from the era that I have seen (does it remind anyone else a bit of Mexican mural art?).

On African-American porters see this interesting article by article by Lawrence Tye, author of the book Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class (2004).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Paperback Novelties: Criminal Menace

I often check out Killer Covers, out of my fascination with pop culture as represented by old crime fiction paperbacks. At the risk of intruding on this blog's territory a bit, here are four 40s/50s cover variations on the theme of menace.

Kill and Tell, by Howard Rigsby (1951; Pocket Book edition 1953)

Dramatic cover of an attractive woman menaced in telephone booth.  The color red calculatedly highlights the woman's lips and breasts.

All we see of the man is a hand, but that's enough, along with the terror in the woman's eyes, to convey menace.

The Scarlet Slippers, by James M. Fox (1952; Dell edition 1953)

Here we have a live woman (bosom) and, presumably, a dead one (legs).  Again the color red, along with turquoise blue, is present to highlight features of female anatomy (and the scarlet slippers themselves are a fetish object).

Off to the side we have another menacing male, this time depicted in full. But here we sense from the man a calm and cool menace, as suggested by that cigarette, which he smokes with such an air of laconic arrogance.

Is he a detective? Blackmailer? Murderer?

Dead as a Dummy, by Geoffrey Homes (aka The Hill of the Terrified Monk) (1943; Bantam edition 1949)

Note first the change to a pithier, alliterative title.  Here the object of menace is a man, except....get a load of what he's holding.

That's no dame, that's a dummy!  And what a dummy!

Note: Geoffrey Homes was the pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring (1902-1977), best known for the novel Build My Gallows High (1946), adapted by Mainwaring into the classic noir film Out of the Past (1947).

The Judas Cat, by Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1949, Bantam edition 1951; recently reviewed by John Norris)

Here the woman (in red) is being shielded by a man. There's not immediate menace, but it may be out there, reflected in the glare of the man's flashlight.

The man and woman are investigating as a team. The man is gentler looking then many of his fellows on crime paperbacks, with a flashlight in his hand rather than a (ahem!) rod. It's significant, I think, that this is the only book of the four that was written by a woman.  I think the artist was trying to appeal to more of a female readership with this cover.

Note too this is the only book of the four that bothers to carry a critical blurb on the cover (this approach is carried on in the back, where, under the headline NEWCOMER RATED TOPS, we find critical blurbs from our old friends --see previous blog pieces--Judge Lynch of the Saturday Review, Anthony Boucher and Craig Rice).

I wonder which cover most appeals to you?

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Such stories have a tendency to create a bad impression of the Chinese people" Yee Gow Suen on A. E. Apple's Mr. Chang Crime Tales

In 1931, Yee Gow Suen of Dermott, Arkansas wrote a letter to Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine, one of the premier publishers of pulp crime fiction between the wars, complaining about the Mr. Chang stories of Detective Story Magazine mainstay writer A. E. Apple.  The letter was published in the January 2, 1932 issue:

jacket to one of the two
collections of Mr. Chang tales
published by Chelsea House
Street & Smith's publishing imprint
Dear Editor: There is not any doubt in my mind that Mr. Apple is a great writer.  But his imagination is too broad with the facts.  The things he describes in his hop-joint [a place where people gather to smoke opium-TPT] story are not true, because no such things exist in this country.  

Why does Mr. Apple always place a Chinese in a villain role, with a desire to trap an American girl? Such stories have a tendency to create a bad impression of the Chinese people.  His Rafferty stories are clean and great.

Your other authors are grand.  Tell them to keep up the good work.  Hope you will forward a copy of this letter to Mr. Apple, and also print it in the chat.  I am

"A Chinese Who Knows"

The editor did indeed forward Apple a copy of the letter, and Apple's reply was printed in the same issue.

Apple assured Suen that he knew many Chinese people and believed "them to be the most honest of races." He noted that he had introduced the character of Doctor Ling, a Chinese detective employed by "honest Chinese merchants" to pursue and "eliminate Mr. Chang as a blot on their race."

The villainous Mr. Chang, Apple asserted, merely "happened to be Chinese; no matter what other race he might have been, there would have been objections from that race."

Apple claimed "Mr. Chang just
happened to be Chinese...."
According to the publisher the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, which reprints a great deal of older crime fiction, Elmer Albert Apple (the initials of the first two names were transposed in his pseudonym) was born in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Toronto, Canada, where he married and had one child.  The family later moved to the district of Muskoka, Canada, where Apple did his writing "in a shed in the back of the house which he called the jail."

Apple ended the Mr. Chang series in 1931.  In his letter to Suen, Apple mentions having suffered from a "long illness."  In fact, he stopped writing entirely about this time, though he lived into the 1950s.

There is more on Apple and his fiction here, on the Battered Silicon Box website, which has reprinted his pulp fiction.

Suen thought Apple's "imagination
was too broad with the facts,"
resulting in stories that unjustly
portrayed Chinese people
The Mr. Chang series gets no less than four full pages of coverage in Bill Pronzini's classic survey of bad crime fiction, Gun in Cheek (1982).

Pronzini writes that the Mr. Chang stories overflow with "hilarious logic....insane coincidences, incredible situations, a crazy quilt of plot devices, Abbott and Costello characters, and a cathode-ray device 'resembling a three-circuit nonregenerative radio' that is capable of killing people at thirty feet, can be strapped on the back and used portably as long as the wearer carries a very long electrical cord with him, and is known among other appellations as the Crime Ray, the Death Ray and the Murder Machine."*

*(Gun in Cheek is not in print currently, but you can and should find a second hand copy)

The Mr. Chang stories are also discussed by Robert Sampson in Volume Three of his fascinating Yesterday's Faces (1987) series of volumes on crime fiction of the past.

Apple's Rafferty series, which Yee Gow Suen in contrast with the Chang tales enthusiastically praised as "clean and great," is about a character whom the Battered Silicon Dispatch Box designates as the "Raffles of Canada."

Today Demott, Arkansas, is a town of about 2800 people, about a four hours drive from Memphis, Tennessee.  It has been noted for having, back between the wars, a small but significant population of Jewish businesspeople.

It would be interesting to find out more about Yee Gow Suen, a Chinese-American who loved American pulp crime fiction but clearly not its racist aspect.  According to arkansasgravestones, he was born in 1903 and died in Dermott, where he and his wife owned a store, in 1991.  The Arkansas Delta: Land of Paradox (1996) mentions Dermott as one of the delta towns still having a Chinese grocery in the 1990s.  For more on this subject, see this interesting article, "Mississippi Bok Choy: Telling the Stories of Chinese American Groceries in the South."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mysteries Unlocked (2014): Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene

Mysteries Unlocked now has an Amazon page.

As you know if you regularly read this blog, this book, scheduled for publication in July, is a collection of essays in honor of the seventieth birthday of Professor Douglas G. Greene, biographer of the great Golden Age detective novelist John Dickson Carr, head of Crippen & Landru Publishers and one of the most accomplished and admired figures in mystery genre criticism over the last thirty-five years.

Incidentally, there will be an electronic version.

Here is a list of the additional contributors (with links to blogs, etc.), in alphabetical order:

Sergio Angelini
Mike Ashley
Mauro Boncompagni
Jon L. Breen
John Curran
Michael Dirda
Martin Edwards
Roger Ellis
Joseph Goodrich
Julia Jones
Marvin Lachman
Peter Lovesey
Jeffrey Marks
Tom Nolan
Patrick Ohl
Boonchai Panjarattanakorn
B. A. Pike
William Ruehlmann
Jack Seabrook
Steven Steinbock
Helen Szamuely
Henrique Valle
David Whittle

A lot of fellas here, I know, but we do have essays that cover Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers (2), Margery Allingham (2), P. D. James, Jill Paton Walsh, Craig Rice (yes, Craig's a she) and Carolyn Wells.  Not to mention essays on Thomas Hanshew, Max Rittenberg, J. S. Fletcher, John Dickson Carr (2, plus he gets mentioned a lot elsewhere, believe me), Anthony Berkeley Cox, Edmund Crispin, Patrick Quentin (a conglomerate name that for a time included two women writers), Hake Talbot, T. S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Raymond Chandler, Fredric Brown, Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Rene Reouven, the Detection Club and Doug Greene himself of course.*

*(additionally Jon L. Breen writes about a raft of ten forgotten mystery short story writers)

Also, I am pleased to note that, with ten U. S. contributors, we are not exclusively a U. S. crew by any means.  Admiration for Doug's work and the mystery fiction he has written about and published extends across the globe.

I will be posting the full table of contents soon.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Wedding From Hell: Unidentified Woman (1943), Mignon Eberhart

Poor Victoria Steane!  Her wedding was all set to go, when, just two days before she was to make her walk down the aisle all dressed in white, there were two murders on the grounds of her gorgeous family country estate, regally situated amidst Florida pine trees and palmettos. And it turns out Victoria is the lead suspect in the crimes!

Nifty jacket of the American first edition showing Victoria Steane on
the spine and a shocking scene that tales place  near the end of the novel

Along with mystery, romance constitutes the lifeblood of Mignon Eberhart novels; and weddings, either impending or recently concluded, are common features of her books. Sometimes the heroine has just married and is having doubts, while sometimes, as in Unidentified Woman, she is about to get married and having doubts.  Murder puts her through her paces, but somehow by the end of the novel not only is she out of legal jeopardy but her romantic situation is settled--happily ever after.

1940s Dell mapback laying out
the scene of the crimes
In Unidentified Woman, protagonist Victoria Steane, lovely lumber mills heiress, has recently evaded prosecution for murder in the drowning death of Henry Frame, her late father Victor's "trusted employee and closest friend," who happened to be massively embezzling from the estate.  It is now generally believed that Frame's death was either accident or suicide.

Seemingly exonerated after this ordeal, Vicky is on the verge of marrying Michael Bayne, an office manager in the Steane Mills--though she's having doubts--when death again strikes on the Steane estate.

Twice in one night, actually!  The titular "unidentified woman" is found drowned in the river like Frame was and someone very close to Vicky is found strangled in the estate's pump house.

John Campbell, the former State's Attorney who had threatened Vicky with prosecution, now is in the army (war seems imminent) and, it appears, in love with Vicky.  But there is a new State's Attorney who is out to charge her not just with one murder, but three!  How does Vicky get out of this mess?  Not without having to deal with yet more violent death on the Steane estate, that's for sure.

Anthony Boucher picked Unidentified Woman as one of his twenty favorite mystery novels form 1943 and I must say it's a good example of an Eberhart mystery.  There's a nicely-conveyed setting in Florida--a first, I believe, for Eberhart at this time--a complex plot and not too much love stuff for this male reader (the author in some of her books has a tendency to make them almost more romance novels than mysteries).  Additionally, there's an amusing character in Vicky's teen aged second cousin, Agnew Isham, who does a bit of sleuthing (I also liked Agnew's widowed mother Bessie and her erratic attire).

Often in her books Eberhart falls back on the romance formula of a beautiful young woman who is strangely bereft of friends and family (except maybe an aunt somewhere). Here there's lots of family, as well as a housekeeper, a butler, a cook, a maid and a gardener, all on a fine country estate. We could almost be reading an English Golden Age mystery.

My only real complaint is that I don't feel the book is really fair play. We can't really "solve" the mystery until there's an information dump near the end, or so it seems to me. Nevertheless, Unidentified Woman is a satisfying tale of murder, mystification and emotional tension--one that would film well too.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

There is a Return: Anita Blackmon's Adelaide Adams Mysteries Are Back

Adelaide Adams, one of the best "nosy spinster" mystery protagonists from the 1930s is back in print after seventy-five years.  Arkansas author Anita Blackmon's two Adelaide Adams detective novels, Murder a la Richelieu (1937) and There Is No Return (1938), have been reprinted by Coachwhip and are available through Amazon (by the way, if you are searching for Anita Blackmon by name on Amazon, note that she is NOT the author of the erotic novels by a modern author of the same name that are being offered on that website).

These are very enjoyable books by a very interesting woman (see my previous blog piece here).  If you enjoy Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart and Leslie Ford, you should enjoy Anita Blackmon. In both books there is also a five-page introduction by me, which I adapted from my blog article.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Murder Weapon Wouldn't Stay Put: Episode of the Wandering Knife (1950), Mary Roberts Rinehart

Mary Roberts Rinehart's Episode of the Wandering Knife collects two novellas,  the title tale and "The Secret," as well as a long short story, "The Man Who Hid His Breakfast."

"Episode of the Wandering Knife" and "The Man Who Hid His Breakfast" are, I think really first-rate Rinehart tales.  "The Secret" is much weaker, in that "the secret" in the tale is a trite plot device.

Yet even it was a pleasant surprise, in that it was a Nurse Hilda Adams story.  Nurse Hilda Adams was a character introduced by Rinehart all the way back in 1914, in the novella "The Buckled Bag."  I had thought until now that Nurse Adams only ever appeared in two 1914 novellas and two novels, published a decade apart in 1932 and 1942, but I found she also appeared in this additional, final novella, evidently written in the mid-/late-1940s.

The title story offers a gripping and at times grimly amusing situation of multiple murders and a killing knife that wouldn't stay put.  All the Rinehart staples are present: the wealthy family, the old mansion, the secret buried in the past.

Rinehart is associated with wealthy "nosy spinster" narrators because of her most famous novel, The Circular Staircase (1908) (I know she also used this type in The Case of Jennie Brice, 1913, and, as I recollect, The Door, 1930), yet in the novel The Wall, as in "Knife," the narrator, Judy Shephard, is a comparatively young, unmarried woman who finds romance in between murders.

Even though only five years separate The Wall (1938) and "Knife" (serialized in 1943) you get a definite feeling that times have quite changed in the good old U. S. of A.  In "Knife" the heroine's mysterious love interest, Tony King, makes repeated disparaging comments about the wealth of her family, and she herself is embarrassed and defensive about it (especially that barracks of a family mansion).

The feeling we get is that with the war on more sacrifice is expected of the wealthy (and that it will be willingly given).  Judy Shephard also gets to demonstrate some athletic prowess and more outspoken language, including the epithets "hell" and "damn," and she is looking for serious war work (i. e., a job), all of which makes her more of a discernible modern type.

Additionally we learn that the Shephards are comparatively new money.  They come off rather better than the old money family in the tale.

The plot itself is a good one, intricate but clear, and the writing is lively, with the relationship between the narrator and her willful mother especially well-conveyed (and frequently humorous) and the romance between Judy and Tony subtly and charmingly done. At about 40,000 words, "Knife" could have been expanded into a full scale novel, but I like it as is.

the most recent paperback edition is
more garish and more lurid
but less accurate
At about 10,000 words, "The Man Who Hid His Breakfast" is considerably shorter than "Knife," but it's just right for its length as well.

It's an unusual tale, in my experience, in Rinehart's output, in that not only does it have no first person narration, but it has a male protagonist, a police inspector on his last case, (his retirement being imminent), and that there's an emphasis, quite uncommon in the Rinehart canon, on material clues.

The central character, Tom Brent, is a wonderfully-portrayed character, decent and fatherly, despite his tired feet and conflicts with his obnoxious political hack superior and with his wife over plans for retired life (he wants to start a dog kennels, she a chicken farm). Rinehart effectively captures the different focus of this tale in her narration:

He went slowly down the stairs, aware that Joe's eyes were following him with something like pity. For this was his last case before he retired, and it looked like a stinker. A man ought to be able to get out quietly, to end his long service with dignity. But this murder was front-page stuff. The big substantial house, the social standing of the family insured that it would be plastered all over the front pages of the newspapers. Already reporters were crowding the pavement outside.  Soon he would have to call them in and tell them something.  He didn't know what.

For the Rinehart traditionalists, however, rest certain there's young love present too.  Yet it's Inspector Brent's show.  Had the very wealthy Rinehart needed to write a novel of year like many "lesser," improvident and impecunious crime authors, she most definitely could have built a series around this guy.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, police proceduralist: Had we but known!

Death Wears a Mask: The Accomplice (1947), by Matthew Head

Art teacher and critic John Canaday (1907-1985) as "Matthew Head" wrote seven crime novels between 1943 and 1955.  The best known of these books are the four "Mary Finney" mysteries, particularity the three that are set in Africa.  Two of these were reprinted within the last decade in typically attractive editions by Felony & Mayhem. To my mind, however, the most striking crime novel by "Matthew Head" is a non-series take, The Accomplice (1947).

Set in Paris and Kansas City (the "Paris of the Plains") in the 1930s, The Accomplice reminds me a great deal of one of those between-the-wars American expatriate novels, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1934) and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), although the subject matter in Head's tale is a great deal more lurid.  From more recent times I was rather reminded of Ruth Rendell's The Bridesmaid, 1989.

The novel starts with a love triangle of sorts, which we eventually find is actually a rectangle, and a very strange one at that. Hank Bewley, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, becomes enamored with pretty Corrie Walters of Kansas City, but Corrie is besotted with Lex Abbott, also of Kansas City and a quite rich and quite visually arresting young man.  Here's a descriptive passage to give you some idea of the striking writing in the novel, which is told in Hank's voice:

a beautiful design
Whenever Lex and I walked down the street together there was always a ripple of faces turning in our direction, and that never happens when I walk down the street alone.  I've seen people stop dead in their tracks when Lex came along toward them, and then turn around and follow him as if they had lost all control over their direction of movement.  Strangers were always edging up to him at bars or sending him notes in restaurants, yet as long as I knew him I never knew anybody to react to that face with an immediate smile or that happy feeling of expectancy you get sometimes from a new face that you want to know.  It was a sullen and stony face, but as a piece of pure design it was a joy to look at, in shape and in color.  "Joy" isn't the right word, because the face didn't promise anything good.  The word popped up there because I was trying to avoid the word "beautiful," but I might as well go on and say that as a piece of pure design, Lex's face was beautiful.

Initially Hank reminded me of a Nick Carraway outside observer type (see Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby,1925), but he becomes very personally involved indeed in an emotional imbroglio that grows increasingly bizarre when Mimi de Couer, a sort of female roue, appears on the scene.  She is quite an old friend of Lex's, it seems.

a not entirely accurate
but remarkably arresting
and sexually suggestive cover
Later the scene shifts to Kansas city and Mimi's odd interior decorating establishment there. Events finally culminate in murder, of an especially horrific and unforgettable nature. Although The Accomplice is primarily a character novel, there is a neat little murder problem to be unknotted. After that there is a haunting coda in Paris.

This is a first class crime novel, notably sexually suggestive for its period, that unaccountably has been out-of-print for nearly fifty years, a situation that I hope can be rectified.*

*(Be warned the Dell paperback editions from the 1940s have poor, brittle paper.  Also watch out for a blog review of this novel that reveals too much, imo).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Have You Seen This Gorilla? The Body Missed the Boat (1947), by Jack Iams

I earlier reviewed Jack Iams' Christmas mystery, Do Not Murder Before Christmas (1949) and I enjoyed it enough to go back and look at another Iams book, his first criminous tale in fact, The Body Missed the Boat (1947).

the va-va-voom!
Dell paperback edition
Set in Brazzaville in French Equatorial Africa, Boat draws on Jack Iams' experiences during WW2 working for the Office of War Information.  Iams reported enjoying his time in Africa, concluding wryly that he likely was "the type that goes to pieces gracefully in the tropics."

One imagines as well that the success of fellow American Matthew Head's (art critic John Canaday) first African mystery, The Devil in the Bush (1945), may have had some influence of Iams' choice of setting.

While Iams' Christmas is an enjoyable tale, I preferred Boat, in part for the comparative originality of the colonial African setting.

To be sure, both are smoothly written novels--Iams was a skilled popular writer--with some appealing humor; yet Boat also boasts a plot that kept me on my toes. I did not foresee the solution.

Boat could have been alternately titled The Gorilla Box Murder, for it details the fallout when the American consul in Brazzaville is found dead from poison in a box that was supposed to contain a gorilla, Mama Bu-Bu, consigned for shipment to the United States.

The narrator is the good-hearted young vice-consul, Freddy Benson. Besides Freddy, there is a winning cast of characters, including the sinuous French consulate secretary, Yvette Armenois; the cool and clever Hilary Judd, a British woman working for Radio Brazzaville with whom Freddy is quite smitten; Philippa Darrow, "professional animal huntress"; Larry Brune, Radio Brazzaville correspondent; and the commissaire de police, Anatole Mauclerc (the Inspector Maigret of Africa). Iams writes male and female characters equally well, I think.

Boat has fine humor (the murdered man incidentally was an objectionable individual whom everyone justifiably loathed), often directed at the diplomatic service (there's also an amusing portrait of a fish-out-of-water FBI man), and an ingratiating narrative.  Like Iams' previous novel, I found it a book that could be finished in an evening with much enjoyment.  The plot is clever and the local color first rate.  Recommended.