Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Life of Crime: Kenneth Taylor Perkins (1890-1951)

Kenneth Taylor Perkins was born in 1890 in Kodaikanal, India, the son of American missionaries James Coffin and Charlotte Perkins, and died in Los Angeles in 1951. After the death of his mother in 1897 and his father's remarriage in 1904 (and around the time of a certain earthquake), he was sent to San Francisco to live with his wealthy, shipping merchant grandfather, one of the original Argonauts in the California Gold Rush.

Kodaikanal, India, where Kenneth Perkins was born to American missionary parents

Like his father, Kenneth Perkins graduated from the University of California (Berkeley) with a masters degree in English (his father later received a degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and served as an Indian missionary for 29 years).

As a student at UC-Berkeley, Perkins was a member of the English Club, which performed two of his plays, "Blind Alleys" and "Baghdad" (in the latter play events are seen successively through the eyes of first a spiteful woman and then her amiable husband).

Between his graduation in 1914 and the American entry into the First World War in 1917, Perkins was employed at Pomona College as an assistant instructor in English and drama to Reginald Pole, an Englishman who had been a close friend of poet Rupert Brooke and was an admired stage actor, director and playwright (Pole's son Rupert--named after Brooke, I presume--married the writer Anais Nin).

Charlotte Perkins
the author's mother
During the war  Perkins was a second lieutenant in the United States field artillery. Afterward, spurred on by Frederick Schiller Faust, a friend of his from UC-Berkeley who wrote Westerns under the celebrated name Max Brand, Perkins began publishing stories and novels.

Some of these works were mysteries and some--those written under the pseudonym J. O. Quinliven--were horror; but most were westerns.  Perkins' novel Ride Him, Cowboy (1923) was filmed twice, the second time (1932) with John Wayne in the lead role.

Wayne is not the only star with whom Kenneth Perkins' name is linked. The author made a stab at stage glory and had three plays performed on Broadway: Creoles (1927), Dance with Your Gods (1934) and Louisiana Lady (1947; a musical version of Creoles).

All three plays are set in Louisiana.  Creoles, a comedy, was the most successful, but Dance with Your Gods, a voodoo thriller, is best known today, because it was instrumental in the rise to fame of Lena Horne, who played the key role of the "quadroon girl."

Unfortunately, the play itself was panned by New York critics.  According to James Gavin's book Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (2009), New York Herald Tribune critic Arthur Ruhl took time in his review to denounce "gay audience members who went to see the 'animated pornography' of the shirtless, muscular black actors."

I don't know, sounds like it might be ripe for a modern revival! Anyway....

Kenneth Perkins around 1930
Kenneth Perkins published two mystery novels, Voodoo'd, upon which Dance with Your Gods clearly draws, and The Mark of the Moccasin, set in a creepy mansion on the Texas coast.

From what I have made out, The Mark of the Moccasin was serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1927 and first published as a novel in England in 1929.

Under the title The Moccasin Murders the novel saw publication in the U. S. in 1931, after the success of Voodoo'd, which was serialized in Argosy in 1930 and then published as a novel in 1931 in the United States and England, in the latter country under the splendidly Gothic title The Horror of the Juvenal Manse.

So, in summation, here is Kenneth Perkins' contribution to the crime novel literature:

The Mark of the Moccasin (serialized 1927; published UK 1929; published US 1931, as The Moccasin Murders)

Voodoo'd (serialized 1930; published US 1931; published UK 1931, as The Horror of the Juvenal Manse)

I've read about forty percent of Voodoo'd so far and, considering its subject matter, which includes not only voodoo but gland transplants, it's a surprisingly restrained and dignified book.  Will Perkins manage to keep it up until the end or will the novel collapse into a rubble of nonsense?

For what it's worth, William C. Weber--as "Judge Lynch," the longtime crime fiction critic for the Saturday Review--favorably compared the "voodoo passages" in Perkins' Louisiana mystery thriller with those in The Magic Island (1929), William B. Seabrook's bestselling book on Haiti that is credited with popularizing the concept of the zombie.

As far as I know, Voodoo'd was the second American crime novel after the publication of The Magic Island employing voodoo as a central motif, the first being John Esteven's Voodoo (1930).  Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor were dismissive of Esteven's novel in A Catalogue of Crime. We'll see what I think of Perkins' Voodoo'd.

For more on Kenneth Perkins and his family see Life and Light for Woman 24 (August 1894): 385-386 and Back Numbers Can Be Easily Procured 14 (January 2005): 11.

Also check out this review by John Norris of a later mystery dealing with some similar subject matter, Hulbert Footner's The Obeah Murders (1937).

Perkins family bungalow in Arupukottai, India, c. 1894


  1. Added a little more detailing Perkins' connection to Reginald Pole. He met some interesting people!

  2. CLUES OF THE CARIBBEES (1929) by T. S. Stribling, the debut of Professor Poggioli, pre-dates those novels you mentioned. But are you discounting it because it's a collection of novellas? Oh well... In any case, it features genuine voodoo and is even set in Haiti.

    Like Jacques and Wendell I disliked VOODOO by John Esteven. Intensely disliked it, as a matter of fact. I read the Perkins book a long time ago and I can't find any notes on it but I remember the business with the gland transplants reminded me of the kind of thing you'd find in Weird Tales during the late 1920s. I sold the book right after reading it so I can't even check up on anything now.

    Nice and lurid DJ on THE MOCASSIN MURDERS. Never heard of it or seen a copy of it in or out of jacket, but I'd sure like to read it based on the illustration alone. Right up my alley!

    1. John, that's a great point about Caribbees, though I was just thinking about novels when I wrote that. The book came out at the end of 1929 and Magic Island came at the beginning of 1929. Is that cause and effect again, or were these early Stribling stories previously published? I was in communication with his biographer last year (it turns out Stribling was great pals with J. S. Fletcher and his wife, oddly enough). Also have the Crippen & Landru volume somewhere!

      This Perkins books has an odd structure. It starts off with glands, then kind of shifts into voodoo. Will it all tie together? But it is better written than I was expecting.

    2. Oh, by the way,see you reviewed Footner's Obeah Murders, adding a link.

    3. Oh, and one other thing, about the Esteven book. Interesting you didn't like it either. Most of his books are available now on Kindle and I was wondering about reading him. A lot of his stuff involves the (pseudo?) supernatural stuff I know you like. I'm sure you know he was Samuel Shellabarger, a highly educated academic and historical novelist who wrote Prince of Foxes and Captain from Castile, both adapted into Tyrone Power films in the 1940s.

    4. All of the novellas in COTC were first published in Adventure between Oct. 1925 and Feb. 1926.

      Thanks for the link to the Footner book. TomCat reviewed Theodore Roscoe's voodoo/zombie book MURDER ON THE WAY! (aka A GRAVE MUST BE DEEP). Lots of voodoo in that one. And genuine (i.e. non-Romero-ized) zombies.

      I've only read two of the "Esteven" books and I liked THE DOOR OF DEATH better. It was at least creepy (all those torture artifacts!) and had a smidgen of a detective plot. The only thing I really remember about VOODOO was that it was a chore to read. I thought much of it boring.

    5. So the Caribbees stories preceded The Magic Island, interesting. Stribling wrote Fletcher a letter in 1922 saying he had seen Fletcher's books in Puerto Rico and Venezuela, so he obviously was in the Caribbean picking up local color.

    6. Looks like zombies are quite sexy in academia these days:

  3. Gay people attend Broadway theatre productions? Sounds like Nancy Drew had a rival!

    1. I'd love to read that whole Arthur Ruhl review, sounds a scream.