Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Practice to Deceive: Black Widow (1952), by Patrick Quentin

the 1991 IPL edition
with cover art by Nicky Zann
Poor Peter Duluth!  Over the course of the series of Patrick Quentin mysteries in which he appears his creators (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler) landed him into some real messes, but arguably the worst of them all is the one that takes place in Black Widow (1952), the last book in which Duluth plays the starring role.

The novel was filmed under the same title two years later, in an adaptation starring Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, Ginger RogersGeorge Raft and Peggy Ann Garner (a review of this film is coming soon).

Peter Duluth and his wife, Iris, would appear two years later in the Patrick Quentin novel My Son, the Murderer (written solo by Wheeler, after Webb had retired from the partnership), but in that novel it is his brother, Jake, who has the lead role, not Peter himself.

And that was the end of the Duluth trail, if not of the Patrick Quentin novels, which continued to appear until 1965.

The innovation of the Peter Duluth series, which was launched in 1936, was wedding the formal deductive mystery to the personal anxiety, or suspense, tale, associated with such writers as Mignon Eberhart in the 1930s, Dorothy B. Hughes in the 1940s (though some of Hughes' stuff is more genuine noir) and Ursula Curtiss in the 1950s. There is resemblance to Cornell Woolrich as well, though the series is not dark enough to qualify quite as true noir, in my opinion.

This arrangement must have suited the two authors, as Webb was the plotter and had excelled at plotting in his earlier "Q. Patrick" books, some of which were written with others before he teamed up with Wheeler, while Wheeler was the actual writer.

the 1952 first edition
complete with a rental library sticker
My impression, however, is that over the course of the series the anxiety elements gradually muscled out the formal deductive element, so that by the time we get to Black Widow, the novel resembles the fiction of psychological suspense--or domestic suspense, as Sarah Weinman terms it--that was produced by a number of American women authors of the period. Patrick Quentin arguably was the leading male purveyor of this sort of "suspense" in the 1950s. Women writers of the period are often said to have had a keener perception of domestic detail than men, but Patrick Quentin was a major exception to this generalization (both Webb and Wheeler likely were gay, incidentally, and apparently lived and traveled together as a couple for years--see Mauro Boncompagni's essay in Mysteries Unlocked).

In Black Widow the narrator of the novel, Peter Duluth, a celebrated play producer, is having to stag it in New York, his wife Iris, a celebrated actress on both stage and screen, having left New York to spend some time with her sick mother. When the novel opens he is attending a party in the luxury apartment above his own that is occupied by Lottie Marin, celebrated stage actress and absolute drama queen, and her amiable kept hunk of a husband, Brian (domesticated, not celebrated).

The marital relationship between Lottie and Brian inverts fifties heterosexual norms:

She had discovered him when she did her only picture in Hollywood five years before.  He was a Montana boy who had been in the Coast Guard during the war. He had all the standard male requirements except any visible ambition....But Lottie really preferred to keep him at home as a private asset and he never objected.  He seemed perfectly happy answering her fan mail, cooking for her, running errands, and reminding her how wonderful she was.

At the party Peter meets Nanny Ordway, an earnest young Greenwich Village would-be writer, and he takes a personal (non-sexual) interest in her.  Over the several weeks that Iris is out-of-town, he takes her out occasionally and is even persuaded by her to let her have a key to his apartment, so that she may have a better place to write in the mornings and afternoons, when he's not around (okay, I found this a little hard to swallow too).

Unhappily, when Iris gets back, the pair finds that Nanny has not left the apartment that day. Rather, she is hanging from the ceiling light in their bedroom, a seeming suicide.

the fifties Dell edition
Here commences the anxiety on Peter's part, as he finds that not all was as he thought it was and that everyone around him--eventually including even Iris--is convinced he was sleeping with Nanny. For his part the police force's Lieutenant Trant--he of the pre-WW2 Q. Patrick books Death and Dear Clara, Death and the Maiden and The File on Claudia Cragge--makes sufficiently clear he thinks Peter is a complete louse, who two-timed his wife and trifled with an ingenuous, star-struck young woman.

But it could get worse yet.  What if it turns out Nanny Ordway was murdered? Peter decides he has to investigate Nanny's enigmatic past to save his own neck.

This is a slickly told tale that demands reading at one sitting, and it's not surprising at all to find that it was filmed not long after its publication. There's the customary twist PQ twist ending, though with the small circle of suspects provided, PQ has set himself a challenging task in misdirecting readers. In retrospect one can see there were some clever clues to the solution provided in the text, but one is apt to be so carried away on the tide of anxiety that one may miss these!

As Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler were major contributors to mid-century American crime fiction, though their books all are out-of-print in the Anglo-American world today, a regrettable situation that one hopes will be corrected in the not-too-distant future.

Patrick Quentin's Peter Duluth Mystery Novels
A Puzzle for Fools 1936

Puzzle for Players 1938
Puzzle for Puppets 1944
Puzzle for Wantons 1945
Puzzle for Fiends 1946
Puzzle for Pilgrims 1947
Run to Death 1948
Black Widow 1952
My Son, the Murderer 1954 (sporadic appearances by Peter and Iris Duluth)


  1. Black Widow is, alongside Death and the Maiden, the best of the Patrick Quentin novels I have read under any of their names. Pure, unadulterated suspense in combination with a genuine mystery plot and pitting two of their series detectives against each other (crossover!). Brilliant.

    It's just a pity that none of their other books I have read were able to reach the heights of those two gems.

    1. I still have yet to read all the Duluth mysteries, something I need to rectify. I'm watching the film version of Black Widow tomorrow, will be interesting to compare with the book. It should definitely have filmed well.

  2. I really like this one and remain a big fan of all the Webb and Wheeler (solo and together) books and pseudonyms (even though Bill Pronzini is uncommonly uncharitable in his assessment of the Jonathan Stagge series in 1001 MIDNIGHTS). On screen the novel basis is given under the alternate title, "Fatal Woman" - I always assumed one was a UK title and the other US - do we know which is which Curt?

    1. I talked that over with Bill and as I recollect we felt there was rather a snobbish tone to the Stagge books. Don't believe he liked Dawn either! I disliked their first one, The Dog Do Bark, but liked The Scarlet Circle, which I reviewed here.

      Fatal Woman in the UK title. I thought the basis given for the film was the Cosmopolitan serialization?

    2. At least some of them, I should say.

  3. I've dug out my DVD of Black Widow -- I remember being impressed by Ginger Rogers creating a character that it was a pleasure to despise. So I'll be screening mine about the same time and I'll definitely be looking forward to your review! I'm also a fan of Webb and Wheeler (in all their permutations) and I would love to see them come back into print.

    1. Some people criticize Ginger Rogers for being so-over-the-top, but that it totally as the character was written in the book.

  4. I love that Dell paperback cover. With all this praise I will have to read this book and maybe watch the movie too. I look forward to your movie review.

  5. I've read quite a few Quentin books in my time, and they tend to blend, but I think perhaps not this one, which does sound good. Really looking forward to the film review - what a cast!

    1. Moira, the film certainly excels is set and costume design1 The restoration is impressive.