Sunday, November 30, 2014

It Takes a Village: Whispering Tongues (1934), by Laurence Kirk

"An absorbingly interesting story, excellently written, natural, convincing....If every thriller were as worth while [as Whispering Tongues] one could understand the national appetite for battening exclusively on the species."

                  --London Morning Post on Laurence Kirk's Whispering Tongues (1934)

Laurence Kirk's Whispering Tongues, the novel that immediately preceded his fine book The Farm at Paranao, previously reviewed here, is a classic English village murder mystery from the 1930s, though it is not a detective novel.  In fact at the time the book was published there was some disagreement about whether it was even any sort of mystery genre novel at all.

In the United States, Whispering Tongues was published by Doubleday, Doran, though not under its Crime Club imprint; and the publisher expressly compared the book to Francis Iles' influential psychological crime novel Before the Fact (1931). Yet Saturday Review placed Tongues in its detective fiction column, rejecting the comparison to Fact and declaring that Tongues was "interesting for mystery, not psychology" (the verdict rendered on the novel, however designated, was "very good").

The New York Times Book Review similarly included its notice on the book in its mystery stories column, yet mystery reviewer Isaac Anderson noted that Tongues "differs from the ordinary crime the placing of the emphasis not upon the murder with which the story deals but upon the manner in which a hitherto peaceful English village reacts to that murder and the events following it."

On the other hand, Kirkus Reviews speculated that Tongues "might almost be sold as a mystery--but the interest lies not in the...deaths but in the revelation of the inner secrets of the people who live in the village where the deaths take place.  A strange study in female psychology, where the women outnumber the men, and where ingrown, morbid emotions play havoc with lives outwardly placid."

In other words, we are dealing here with a "crime novel" (huzzah!)--a very good one.

Tongues opens in 1931 at the trial of Harry Forster-Daintree, who was arrested the previous year for the arsenic murder of his wife, Millicent. The couple had married in the chaotic year of 1919, over the objections of Millicent's exceedingly snobbish family, the Forsters, indisputably the great personages of the village of Brackenbury:

That Forster family was everywhere, with its awful tradition of always being important....They had a faculty for breeding old maids, old maids who were somebody, so much somebody that no one was ever good enough to marry them.

The current head of the female-dominated Forster family, Miss Emmeline, barely condescends to "know" the local nobility, the Earl and Countess of Wexe, on the grounds that, in her view, the members of this ancient family "never failed to marry beneath them" (the current Countess of Wexe, we find, formerly graced the stage).

Harry Forster-Daintree--formerly merely Harry Daintree, he was required to add the Forster name when he married Millicent--is acquitted early in the novel, leaving Brackenbury under a pall of mutual suspicion.  If her husband really didn't do it, then precisely just who did poison Millicent Forster-Daintree?

Concurrently a charming love story develops between the local doctor's daughter (and distant Forster relation), Sarah Felsted, and the Earl of Wexe's son, Hugh, who due to his family's depleted fortunes is now employed as a salesman in a city department store. Eventually there is another arsenic death and from there the novel, which for the most part had up to this point been gently satirical, gathers steam as it heads to a dramatic climax, wherein a murderer's malign machinations are shockingly revealed.

Laurence Kirk
Eric Andrew Simson (1895-1956)
Whispering Tongues confirms my impression that Laurence Kirk, the pseudonym of Eric Andrew Simson (1895-1956) is a most unjustly forgotten name from Thirties fiction.

Kirk writes particularly well of women characters of varied ages and backgrounds (incidentally, Sarah Felsted's favorite novelist, as in the case of Fanny Verney, the heroine in The Farm at Paranao, is Jane Austen), he creates vivid impressions of places and his satirical wit is impeccable.*

*(Here he is on the analysis of the comestibles at Mrs. Slaney's tea, where the second of the novel's arsenic deaths takes place: "Mrs. Slaney's cakes had revealed traces of nothing more deadly than the cheapest brand of margarine.")

Additionally, Kirk's social observation is acute.  He makes plain that England's Victorian/Edwardian class structure has cracked and that the Forsters are hopeless anachronisms (as much so "as the Star Chamber," a character observes), however high Miss Emmeline may hold her proud head.

Deference to rank is collapsing--"Servants always were so cheerful when things went wrong," one character frets--and to try to survive and perhaps prosper village "betters" must strive to keep up with the shifting, tumbling times. References to economic depression and unemployment and the rise of totalitarianism are made in the novel, indicating awareness of a world that is perilously dislocated:

Look at the world!  There's food and plenty for all, but they can't find a way of distributing it. Starvation in plenty.  There's misery for you.  And futility....and madness....And these debts and disarmaments!  They'll never manage anything, because the suspicion is still there. They're just heading for another war...more mud, more blood, more agony....

As I write these words this weekend we are still awash in merited tributes to the late P. D. James, who was, to be sure, one of the most important English mystery writers in the history of the genre. But when they tell you in these tributes that before writers like James and Ruth Rendell English mystery writing had nothing to offer but "mere puzzles"--well, don't believe them!

Incidentally, next week I will have a lengthier consideration of the writing carer of PD James and its complex relationship to the Golden Age detective novel.  Additionally I should note that today is the 108th birthday of the late John Dickson Carr (only fourteen years older than James), one of the Golden Age greats.  At his fine blog Sergio Angelini has compiled a master-list of people's favorite Carr detective novels, including mine. Interesting stuff.

Coming also will be a bit more on Laurence Kirk himself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

P. D. James (1920-2014)

I was very sad to learn, getting in late from Thanksgiving festivities, of the death of P. D. James.  I have enjoyed reading her crime fiction since becoming acquainted with it in the 1990s, and some of her earlier titles, like A Mind to Murder (1963) and Shroud for a Nightingale (1971), are among my favorite modern detective novels, beautifully plotted and movingly narrated, confirming that the detective novel can fruitfully blend the probing of puzzling incident with the scrying of perplexing character.

In Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery and the introduction to Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, I query much in James' views of detective fiction, particularly her relative dismissal of "ingenuity" in favor of "credibility," a view that would have been anathema to many Golden Age mystery fans; yet there is no question that the modern Crime Queen was one of the most important figures in the history of British crime fiction and a remarkable person in her own right, someone who not only in her life overcame considerable personal adversity, but positively triumphed over it, becoming in the process an inspiration to us all as she advanced indomitably into her nineties. Her presence in this world will be much missed.

Previous P. D. James articles at The Passing Tramp:

A 2012 Salute to P. D. James
P. D. James: Cozy Writer?
Follies: A Review of The Black Tower (1975)
A Review of The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971)
P. D. James' 2002 BBC Desert Island Disc Discussion

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Vanishing History: Wilders Walk Away (1948), by Herbert Brean

Other people die of mumps,
Or general decay,
Of fever, chills or others ills
But Wilders walk away.

Herbert Brean's first crime novel, Wilders Walk Away (1948), was tremendously praised by the mystery fiction critic Anthony Boucher, and it's not hard to see why: it reads like a fusion of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, probably Boucher's two favorite mystery authors.

Wilders must have seemed to Boucher like a blessed return to the great days of the Golden Age. Probably in no small part due to the hugely influential Boucher's praise, Wilders almost walked away with an Edgar, for the best first mystery novel of 1948.*

*(it lost to Mildred Davis' The Room Upstairs)

Though it falls short of the great masterpieces of classic miracle crime fiction, Wilders is a good mystery tale, blending the small town New England atmosphere of Ellery Queen's Wrightsville novels with the antiquarianism and miracle problems with which John Dickson Carr is so strongly associated (scattered throughout Wilders there are even footnotes, reminiscent of earlier Carr novels like The Crooked Hinge and The Reader Is Warned).

The story opens with freelance journalist Reynold Frame arriving in Wilders Lane, Vermont, one of those perfectly-preserved New England towns where most of the structures date back to the eighteenth century. He's planning a photo story on the town for a big national magazine (one assumes something like Life, for which Brean himself did many articles).  Once there, however, Reynold soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery--or, to be precise, a whole host of mysteries!

It seems the town's most prominent family--the Wilders, naturally--has a history of highly mysterious vanishings.  So prominent has this history been that a Lizzie Borden-like jingle to describe the phenomenon has arisen (see above).  One Wilder even was among the ten people who vanished in 1872 from the infamous real life ship the Mary Celeste--which is really going something extra!

Will Constance be next to walk away?
Reynold Frame just happens to be a paying guest at the home of Constance Wilder, whose father vanished from the town a year earlier. On the very day Reynold arrives, Constance's sister vanishes as well. Other vanishings follow, and eventually dead bodies start appearing. Reynold keeps quite busy working on the story he came there for in the first place, as well as solving mysteries past and present and perhaps even winning the heart of the rather imperious Constance (she won't call him by his first name until over the half the book is over).

The appeal of this novel to any fan of John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen is obvious, though ultimately it doesn't quite live up to the best works of the masters, in my view.

Basic plotting imperatives early on suggest to readers the identity of the fiendish culprit of the present crimes, even before they have the chance the deduce the solution from the clues that are (quite fairly) provided. Reynold Frame solves three miracle problems from the past--all Wilder vanishings--but the solutions are not up to complexity of the Carr brand (indeed, one of them seemingly invokes not Carr but rather Carolyn Wells).

The solution of the modern-day crimes stretches plausibility in the manner of Golden Age Baroque style, but if you're a fan of this kind of mystery I doubt you will complain much. Unlike PD James, say, you will admire the ingenuity of a mystery more than the strict credibility of its explanation.

For me the best elements of Wilders Walk Away are the New England local color and the enticing way in which Brean weaves the Wilder legend into the story.  It really does feel like some bizarre regional folklore (in the book Brean indicates that he was quite familiar with Charles Fort, the great expert in what has been termed "anomalous phenomena").

Brean is more interested in regional antiquarianism than the supernatural per se (his footnotes deal with such things as New England antiques and recipes), so at times one is more reminded of a non-zany Phoebe Atwood Taylor than John Dickson Carr; but fortunately I like Taylor too!  I will read more by Herbert Brean (1907-1973), who published three additional Reynold Frame mysteries in the 1950s, as well as, after he halted the Reynold Frame series, three non-series crime novels, the last of which appeared in 1966.

By the way, although Reynold Frame solves some half-dozen or more mysteries during the course of the events in Wilders Walk Away, regrettably he leaves unsolved the Mary Celeste affair.  Darn.

I wish American readers a Happy Thanksgiving and I assure everyone that I will be back with a new blog review for Friday, no matter how lethargic I may feel by then!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Rio? The Farm at Paranao (The Farm at Santa Fe) (1935), by Laurence Kirk Full Review

Up to that afternoon one would have felt quite certain in predicting the course of Fanny's future life. It would be a dull, safe, respectable life, without any high lights; if there were any love in it, it would be a sedate, placid kind of love; if there were any money in it, it would be a small regular income; if there were anything worth remembering in it, it would be only the sweetness of her own disposition. 

Chillingham always had the same effect on the young ladies who were brought up there and went on living there.  After a brief and ineffectual struggle they slowly became all the things which in the first vigor of youth they had resolved they would never be.  Their ideas were ten years behind the times, their clothes one year behind fashion, their hats were perched on the tops of their heads, and they couldn't think what had come over the younger generation.

That was the kind of life for which Fanny seemed inexorably destined, but about four o'clock on that Wednesday afternoon fate quietly stepped in and switched over the points away from the slow suburban line on to a track of its own....

Chillingham is one of those classic provincial English towns that between-the-wars English mystery writers loved to portray, often with varying degrees of satire (for classic examples see Agatha Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage, 1930, and Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders, 1932).

In The Farm at Paranao (1935), Laurence Kirk's portrayal of his aptly-named Chillingham is quite definitely satirical. The reader soon is in full sympathy with  the desire of young Fanny Verney to escape from Chillingham, her widowed mother--invariably called "Mrs. Verney" by the author; we never learn her name--and their "old-maidish little house."  Fanny's favorite writer, by the way, is Jane Austen.

Fanny is offered such a chance by Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson (we know their first names: Wilkie and Rosie), a plain-spoken retired North Country boots manufacturer and his wife, who have taken a shine to her and want her to see something of life.  They offer to chaperon her on a South American cruise and pay her costs. Mrs. Verney graciously assents, once she learns there for Fanny there will be a couple of marriageable males--i.e., gentry stock--on board the ship.  This doesn't mean that Mrs. Verney has any actual regard for the Wilkinsons, who pronounce a's as u's (as in "Funny," not "Fanny") and once went "to a Fancy Dress Ball as Tweedledum and Tweedledee and won first prize on their own merits without any stuffing."

"It wasn't everyone in Chillingham who wanted to know the Wilkinsons," notes the author:

indeed nobody wanted to know them, but they gave such good and lavish parties that it was very hard to resist.  Retired manufacturers started at a disadvantage in Chillingham; to be accepted there it was advisable to be scholastic, military or professional. The late Mrs. Verney for instance had been a teacher of Higher Mathematics, and Mrs. Verney never forgot the 'Higher' when she spoke of his occupation; she didn't want him to be mistaken for one of those inferior persons who taught multiplication and addition.

Incidentally, I always think of books like this when we invariably read in mystery genre histories--see PD James and Lucy Worsley for recent popular examples--that English Golden Age crime writing venerated, and wanted to preserve, purportedly idyllic Edwardian village life.  So often that claim turns out to be off the mark, as in this case. The author of The Farm at Paranao obviously is much more sympathetic to the nouveau riche--and genuinely kindly--Wilkinsons, who made their money in manufacturing, than he is to the chilly representatives of Chillingham society.

Once Fanny and the Wilkinsons make it to spectacular Rio, Fanny encounters a handsome tango-dancing stranger, Keith Buchanan--yes, not of Portuguese, but Scottish derivation, like the author--who turns out to be the manager of a farm outside Santa Fe, Paranao (Parana). Fanny falls in love and not long afterward has lost her virginity on the beach to Keith (the Wilkinsons admittedly may have slipped up slightly here in their roles as chaperons). Naturally, the lovers now decide to get married, though Fanny says she must return home first to do battle with her frostily genteel mother.

When the victorious Fanny returns to South America to marry Keith she has moments of foreboding about what she may be letting herself in for in Brazil, but she brushes these aside, being so happy to think about what she got herself out of back at Chillingham. It turns out, however, that there was something, after all, to Fanny's moments of foreboding!

Fanny is utterly enchanted by Rio
but will the enchantment break at Santa Fe?

The reviewer is brought up short at this point, unfortunately, because there is practically nothing left to discuss about the book without "spoiling" it.  Let me just say the the story takes a couple of very interesting twists, neither of which I foresaw, even though all is foreshadowed. One of the twists is intensely suspenseful. Again, I will quote from a contemporary review:

"It is a fine yarn, well told, and the publisher's advice not to read the last few chapters in bed is not merely a good may need a sedative."

The Farm at Paranao is an impressive suspense novel, with not only a fiercely effective climax but clever writing and some excellent characterization (including Fanny herself, who, though not romantically idealized by the author, is one of the most genuinely impressive women protagonists in suspense fiction that I have encountered). On the strength of this novel alone I would say that Laurence Kirk is a between-the-wars popular writer who has been most undeservedly unforgotten.

Better yet, the previous year he produced another fine genre novel, Whispering Tongues, a village mystery most originally and winningly told.  I will be reviewing that one next week, with some more about the author.

Friday, November 21, 2014

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Rio? The Farm at Paranao (The Farm at Santa Fe) (1935), by Laurence Kirk

Tomorrow should come the full review of Laurence Kirk's suspense novel The Farm at Paranao (The Farm at Santa Fe in UK) (1935), one of the novels I have most enjoyed this year.  I'll have more on Laurence Kirk and his work as well.

For the time being, let me just note that The Farm at Paranao is one of those genus suspensicus marry-in-haste-repent-at-what-little-is-left-of-your-leisure books, about a young Englishwoman, Fanny Verney, escaping life in a stultifying provincial town when she marries a handsome but moody Brazilian farmer (of Scottish derivation). But with this marriage just what has she let herself in for, exactly?

This is a marvelously well-written book that for much of its length is brightly amusing in a satirical style reminiscent of the Crime Queens and the Detection Deans (Innes, Blake, Crispin).  But what happens when Fanny reaches the farm at Paranao?  I'll leave you with the words of a reviewer:

It is a fine yarn, well told, and the publisher's advice not to read the last few chapters in bed is not merely a good may need a sedative.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Medora Field's Who Killed Aunt Maggie (1939) and Blood on Her Shoe (1942) Are Back in Print

Anyone following this blog regularly knows I have written a good bit about American women mystery suspense writers of the 1930s, often termed "Rinehart school," after the mysteries of the hugely popular author Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Medora Field, an Atlanta, Georgia journalist and good friend of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, was considered one of the better Rinehart school suspense authors of that era, though she only published two mysteries, at the tail-end of the Golden Age, Who Killed Aunt Maggie? and Blood on Her Shoe.

These novels were well-reviewed and very successful in their day, though there were detractors of the Rinehart school, who dismissed it as the HIBK (Had-I-But-Known ) school.  Personally I've increasingly come to see the merits of this style of mystery writing over the a last few years.  I enjoyed both of Field's two mysteries and I wrote a 5000-word introduction about the novels and the author for the new editions published by Coachwhip (they also have reprinted Anita Blackmon).  I think these are quite attractive book designs. The books should be available in about a week.  Both essentially are American versions of the classic country house party mystery, with quite a bit of "domestic suspense."

Friday, November 14, 2014

Now Before You: The Dagger (1928), by Anthony Wynne

She raised her eyes.
"That is how men love me....Suddenly--like a gale."

Having been thinking a good bit about "pulp fiction" this week, I was struck by how in its more circumspect British way Anthony Wynne's detective novel The Dagger (1928) resembles what people usually think of as "pulp."

In the novel there's a striking character at the center of events, a disturbed Apache dancer named Muriel Deans, "in whose own breast," the dust jacket blurb of the American edition dramatically tells us, "lay a dagger more deadly than any weapon of steel...."

I love the stylized jacket of the American edition of The Dagger, which depicts a sinister and sexy Deans with this deadly weapon in her hand; but I couldn't help thinking how well this design could have been updated to the mean streets realism of post-war paperback "pulp" art, when classic sleaze cover illustrations enjoyed their heyday--though perhaps the title would have been changed to something like The Derringer.

Anthony Wynne (Robert McNair Wilson)
Anthony Wynne in fact was published in the pulps in the 1920s (both short stories and serialized novels), along with other British mystery writers not normally seen as "pulp" fare today, such as Agatha Christie and J. S. Fletcher--though by the 1930s Christie had moved on to more lucrative slicks. However in the United States Wynne was never warmly embraced by paperback publishers. (I'm only aware of one American paperback edition of a Wynne novel, from 1942, and it was not a major edition.)

Indeed, while all of Wynne's first two dozen books of crime fiction--23 novels and a short story collection, Sinners Go Secretly--were published in the United States between 1925 and 1939 by Lippincott, who also published the redoubtable traditionalist mystery writers Patricia Wentworth and Carolyn Wells, I believe only one of Wynne's last four novels, which appeared between 1940 and 1950, was taken up by an American publisher, and this publisher a relatively minor one.

So Wynne was abandoned in the United States just at the time paperback fiction was ascending. (In the mid-1930s, Wynne's political views began to intrude into his novels, slowing down the narratives--see my review of his Death of a Banker--and this missionary zeal on the author's part may have reduced his popularity in the United States.)

Although Wynne was never really able to participate in the paperback revolution, many of his mysteries, with their considerable melodramatic content, would have been well-suited to lurid paperback cover art of the 1940s and 1950s.  Certainly this is true of The Dagger, which tells of the plague of murders that afflicts the Dangerfields, a family of ancient Northumbrian gentry stock, when Muriel Deans, scion John Dangerfield's first wife--believed for a year to have been been drowned off the coast of southern England--resurfaces, most unpleasantly alive. John's father, Sir Magnus, promptly disappears, and the disfigured body of an elderly man, both his hands severed, is found in the neighborhood--but is it or is it not Sir Magnus?

Soon additional mutilated corpses are cropping up, with alarming frequency.  Could Muriel Deans be the culprit?  But her interest seems to be blackmail, not murder. (John Dangerfield inadvertently committed bigamy by marrying again.) Muriel, however, has quite a seamy past, what with her vocation as an Apache dancer and her association with some rather violent and unsavory characters....

Apache dancers
--for more see the fascinating blog article
"Shocking Violence...Or Fantastic Dance? The Apache!"

Admittedly, Anthony Wynne's prose is rather stodgy, but The Dagger reads like a Victorian sensation novel updated to the Jazz Age. (I think it could film wonderfully.) Moreover Wynne and his sleuth, Dr. Hailey, are clearly interested not just in the puzzle (which, though lacking one of Wynne's customary locked room problems, is interesting), but in psychology as well. Of the main characters in The Dagger only Muriel Deans really draws the breath of real life, but she has a vivid enough presence to brighten the cardboard figures around her.

One censorious contemporary English reviewer of the novel primly avowed "we like our detective fiction to be of rather less gory a type than is here presented in a narrative of not one but a number of violent crimes:"; but I would say that The Dagger left its mark on me.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pulp Poseurs: Paula Rabinowitz's American Pulp (2014) and the American Paperback Revolution

Just what is "pulp"?  One seems more likely these days to get a strictly accurate definition, historically speaking, down in the streets of crime fiction fandom than up in the air with the denizens of academe's ivory tower.

In Paula Rabinowitz's American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) the professor of English, in her search for broader theoretical meaning, declines to limit herself to the traditional definition of "pulp."

Crime fiction authority Jon L. Breen has written that "'Pulp fiction' refers to material written for pulp-paper magazines that flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s and died out in the 1950s."  Breen allows, I should add, that some commentators have extended the term pulp fiction "to include material written for the digest-sized fiction magazines and paperback-original publishers that took the place of pulps in the marketplace--or as much of the marketplace as the rise of televison left them."

However, in her new book on the paperback revolution in mid-twentieth-century America, Paula Rabinowitz goes considerably beyond this definition, equating pulp generally with mass-market paperbacks produced between 1939 and the mid-1960s.

"What is pulp," Rabinowitz asks, then continues:

Steamy fiction?  Sleazy magazines? Cheap paper? Or might it be technology, a vehicle that once brought desire--for sex, for violence--into the open in cheap, accessible form? Or, and this is the question that motivates this book, might it be part of a larger process by which modernism itself, as high literature and art but also as a mass consumer practice, spread across America?  

This is a story of paper, or rather of paperback books, produced in massive numbers between the late 1930s and early 1960s.  These throwaway items hold within their covers a rich history of literary tastes; they point to, even reflect, a democratizing literacy and the new forms of identity and community that emerged in mid-twentieth-century America....The mechanisms of pulping a work entailed a process of redistribution or, more precisely, remediation: writing often created for an educated and elite audience took on new lives by being repackaged as cheap paperbacks....In this way, Tess Durbeyfield, Daisy Miller, Connie Chatterley, and Holden Caulfield, not to mention Mike Hammer and Sam Spade, were among the thousands who made it onto Main Street.

The paperback revolution (or the pulp era, as she sees it) ended, according to Rabinowitz, with the coming of

 "higher-priced trade paperbacks used in college courses....By then, paperbacks favored text over image on their covers [partly prompted, Rabinowitz explains, by "Censorship trials and government surveillance"--TPT]....The heyday of 'the great American paperback,' as collector Richard Lupoff calls it, lasted a mere generation."

Rabinowitz explains a bit more about her definition of "pulp" in a footnote:

Since Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction the word "Pulp" has become a triggering term that conveys the sleazy underside of American culture and life.  Obviously, I expand the term considerably from its more narrow reference to B-genre fiction....In the bibliography of writings about pulp, the usual definitions confine it to genre writing--crime, mystery, romance, sci-fi--first written for the dozens of pulp magazines....

The reason the "usual definitions" of "pulp" confine the word so is explained by Ed Hulse in his The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction (2007; expanded edition 2013): Pulp, as this term used is traditionally understood, specifically refers to genre magazines "published during the first half of the 20th century, printed on cheaply produced woodpulp paper." There were many such magazines (one of the most famous being, of course, Black Mask) in the 1920s and 1930s, spanning varied genres of fiction: crime, horror, sci-fi, romance, adventure, aviation, war, sport.

Rabinowitz uses "pulped" in a far broader, metaphorical sense to describe a process by which books, including "highbrow" works, were broadly disseminated to the American masses, as "pulp," or cheap paperback books. One might question why this process, once expanded so, should be limited to mass-market paperback fiction published from 1939 to the mid-Sixties.

One could argue that "pulping," as defined by Rabinowitz, has been going on since the since the invention of the mechanized printing press. Perhaps we can designate, under this definition, the Gutenberg Bible as the first "pulp"?  Or argue that the lending libraries so popular in 1920s and 1930s America were figuratively pulp mills, churning out for readers not only the adventures of Hercule Poirot but the adultery of Hester Prynne (see Murder at 3 Cents a Day on lending libraries).

And we could extend this pulp era forward as well, I suppose.  Though Rabinowitz sees this period as ending in the 1960s, I recall in the 1980s at strip mall bookstores buying "cheap" (say $3.50) copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and others in the 1980s, right along with identically-priced mysteries by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.  To be sure, this decade did see the rise of the trade, or quality, paperback; but what can today's cheap eBooks be called, under Rabinowitz's definition, but pulp--ePulp, if you will?

Okay, wise guy, define pulp for me!
And ya better make it snappy!
Thus, pulp, it would seem in this approach, is everything that is part of mass reading culture (assuming we limit pulp to books).

However, if everything is pulp, how helpful, really, is this word as an organizational definition? As Jon L. Breen puts it, "If Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, P. G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen are now pulp writers, the designation has lost all meaning."

Of course efforts to expand the word's definition have been ongoing, both in academia and popular culture, since Quentin's Tarantino's Oscar-winning crime film. Pulp has been increasingly linked with hard-boiled/noir post-WW2 paperback fiction, made infamous (and highly collectible) by the sexy/sleazy covers so ubiquitous at this time.

Geoffrey O'Brien described this period well in his 1981 book, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of Paperbacks. Therein he never defined these books, however, as "pulp." Nor was Richard Lupoff's 2001 opus, The Great American Paperback, called Great American Pulps.  Similarly, Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007), an anthology of genuine pulp fiction, states that pulps "were replaced by the widespread popularity of paperback books, virtually unknown as a mass market commodity before World War II."

But others have not let themselves be constrained by mere technical definitions.

For example, The Feminist Press' Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series, which has reprinted classic crime novels by Vera Caspary and Dorothy B. Hughes, carries a publisher's foreword which unambiguously equate pulp with both pulp magazines and with mass-market paperback fiction in general:

Pulp emerged as an alternative format for books in the 1930s, building on the popularity of pulp magazines, which flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s....Printed on wood-grain, or pulp, paper, and cheaply bound, the books were markedly different from hardbound, cloth editions.

(In American Pulp Rabinowitz, by the way, similarly emphasizes the cheapness of 1940s and 1950s paperbacks, but many of those paperbacks are much more durable than the real pulp, the old genre fiction magazines, which have paper so browned and brittle it's often hard for one to turn pages--heaven forbid!--without chipping off pieces. Additionally, some wartime hardcover fiction, published at a time when austerity measures were in force, is none too well made.)

A decade ago Jon L. Breen pointed out the incongruity in classifying Dorothy B. Hughes as a pulp writer and Vera Caspary, author of the crime novels Laura (1943) and Bedelia (1945), certainly is not someone I would have considered "pulp"; yet such they are now both declared to be--the term "pulp," like "noir" and "hard-boiled," having proven a talisman to tastemakers.  Frequently these words, which really do mean different things, are used interchangeably. (It's all fashionably dark--The Feminist Press on the back of their "pulp" edition of Caspary's Bedelia tells us that "Vera Caspary anticipates today's real-life female serial killers.")

Ed Hulse is having none of this in his Blood 'n' Thunder Guide, pronouncing that therein he will not be "lavishing attention on sub-genres often mistaken for pulp: splatterpunk, lesbian fiction, Fifties J.D. [juvenile delinquent] novels and the like....after a thorough reading of this book, you'll have a much better understanding of what pulp fiction is--and what it isn't."

It may seem to some that Hulse is quibbling, but treating "pulp" and "paperback" as interchangeable terms pushes Rabinowitz into awkward sentence constructions in American Pulp, as when she writes, at the beginning of Chapter 8, that "Pulps were essentially products of the Second World War."

Since pulps as traditionally understood came into being long before the Second World War this sentence naturally will strike the traditionalist as nonsensical.  Could Rabinowitz really not simply here have written the word "paperbacks," since they are what she is discussing?

Similarly, Rabinowitz writes at one point that the "post-Korean War" recession led to "the pulping of millions of unsold paperbacks," using "pulping" to mean, I believe, withdrawn from sale and destroyed/recycled; yet a few pages earlier she writes that the Mickey Spillane novel Kiss Me, Deadly was "pulped" by the paperback publisher NAL in 1953, by which I presume she means published in paperback and not, well, pulped--i.e., destroyed.  This confusion arises from the author's refusing to say that Spillane's book was "published in paperback."

But paperback is not sexy, nor is the perfectly good term the paperback revolution, which used to be applied, aptly enough, to this period.

There's no question there is a link between the true pulps, the genre fiction magazines, and the mass-market paperback fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. Crime fiction was a hugely important element of both forms of "pulp," as were, until a government backlash took force in the 1950s, the notorious--and beloved by collectors and academicians alike--sexy/sleazy cover illustrations of pulp fiction, highlighted in both Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America and Hulse's Blood 'n' Thunder Guide.

In case anyone ever doubted that sex sold prewar pulp magazine fiction, Hulse's book amply illustrates this matter. Though pulps relied on poor quality paper, a lot was put into highly-dramatic, indeed often eye-popping, color cover illustrations. (Hulse's book includes hundreds of examples, though regrettably only in black-and-white.)  Some pulps were more "family-friendly," to be sure, but Spicy pulps and the Weird pulps were especially prone to exploiting the allure of sex. Certainly dazzling distressed damsels in dishabille (along with hard-fisted, pistol-packing men of course) were found in abundance.

It was only natural that to sell books paperback publishers in the Forties and Fifties would deploy sexualized cover art, especially as visceral hard-boiled fiction stormed the market, so to speak, guns-ablazing. But sexy/sleazy covers alone do not convert paperbacks into "pulp."  And, in any event, Rabinowitz and others in academia today are going beyond making this connection, in their works "pulping" everything that was published in softcover up to the mid-1960s, from Jane Austen to Mickey Spillane. At times, however, Rabinowitz seems as well to fall back on the sleaze definition of pulp, as when she writes that with the rise of trade paperbacks "stressing quality and refined taste...sleaze was coming to an end." Perhaps the academic definition of pulp has not yet settled.

If we put aside the pulpy question of definitions, there are definitely things to praise about American Pulp.  For one thing, it is a gorgeously-produced book (the publisher is Princeton University Press), affordably priced, including a two dozen page section of color plates depicting mid-century paperbacks. Academic tomes don't come more nicely produced than this one!

In the text Rabinowitz does not offer a full formal history of the paperback revolution, but she does provide interesting glimpses of some of the skirmishers.  I especially enjoyed her chapter on the paperback Armed Services Editions and reading by members of American military during the Second World War.

It is quite interesting seeing in their own words what these readers actually perused:

In my opinion, the reading of the men with whom I serve can be summed up in one word, "escape." When you have breakfast with a man and at supper time he has been buried--your relative values change.  High cultural values seem silly to a jungle fighter....

I used to be quite discriminating in my choice of books....Now, I'll read anything I can get my hands on, including the "who-dunits."

One serviceman concluded that among his compatriots "the Most Popular Books are Mysteries, following it with a ratio of about 3:2 are Westerns, and a ratio of 3:1 to mysteries are adventure stories."

I also enjoyed Rabinowitz's chapter on efforts to censor paperbacks in the 1950s.  Not only their often risque covers but their widespread distribution across the United States (and, indeed, beyond American borders) made them exceptionally egregious to our designated moral guardians, fulminating politicians.

In American Pulp there is a comical quotation from Congresswoman Katharine St. George (R-NY), a cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, in which she condemns the very paperback edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles to which I once devoted a blog post.

Fraud on the public perpetrated by paperback publishers, the congresswoman declared

has been carried to absurd lengths in some cases, even in one case, in my recollection, of taking a Sherlock Holmes book--and surely nobody has less sex in him than Sherlock Holmes--and I think it was The Hound of the Baskervilles and how in the world they were able to develop a sexy cover on The Hound of the Baskervilles is beyond me.

As I recollect, a captive woman indeed is bound in Hound, though this outrage is described secondhand.  I'm reminded of the 1952 play (later famously filmed) The Seven Year Itch, wherein a paperback publisher wants to issue an edition of The Scarlet Letter, under the title I Was an Adulteress, with Hester Prynne depicted wearing "a real tight, low-cut dress," "with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth."  The only concern is somehow finding space on her dress "for a big red letter." (this is originally recounted, I believe, in Hardboiled America).

Rabinowitz also covers such hot topics in academic literary studies as "lesbian pulp" and juvenile delinquent novels and there is often something of interest to be found in these discussions, although sometimes the speculations seem opaque. (There's a lot about the symbolic significance of the slip in cover art on lesbian paperbacks; from a practical standpoint I'm reminded of prewar writing guidelines for the Spicy pulps: "Try and keep at least a shred of something on the girls"--on the covers one couldn't depict full nudity, of course, but it was important to have considerable exposure.)

Another culprit exposed
by Mike Hammer?
Regrettably Rabinowitz does not actually spend much time on crime fiction per se in American Pulp. (There is a chapter on Jorge Luis Borges and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine that has a great deal about Borges and very little about Ellery Queen.) Sometime I felt that Mickey Spillane was the (rogue) elephant in the room, demanding detailed attention that he never gets. When Rabinowitz writes that "From its inception, New American Library took pride not only in its discerning literary taste but also in its progressive attitude toward sexual and racial minorities"--in support of this point she quotes from a letter by editor Arabel Porter in which Porter condemns the 1930s mystery novel A Bullet in the Ballet for "chortling and sniggering about the male dancers who are fairies."--I had to remind myself that this was the same NAL that under its Signet imprint published Spillane, not exactly known for his advanced attitudes about alternative sexuality.

To be sure, some mid-century paperbacks aided, as Rabinowitz notes, in the development of "new sensibilities aware of racial, gendered, and queer expressions." (I discuss this matter myself in Clues and Corpses, my book on mystery writer and critic Todd Downing). Yet there also was a great deal in the paperback crime fiction of that era that was regressive and reactionary.

Of course if one wants to learn in detail about crime fiction's key role in the paperback revolution, there are plenty of books besides American Pulp, such as Hardboiled America.  And if one has a hankering to try some really pithy pulp, there is always The Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction, which, as its author says, will tell you what pulp is--and isn't.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Foul Play at Ferris Court: The Hanging Captain (1932), by Henry Wade

the 1932 British hardcover edition 
"This is a detective story for connoisseurs, for those who value clear thinking  and good writing above mere ingenuity and easy thrills."--Times Literary Supplement review of The Hanging Captain

Having recently updated my writing on Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole for my forthcoming book on these authors, The Spectrum of English Murder, I had occasion to reevaluate some of their work, including Henry Wade's The Hanging Captain. I still think this novel is inferior to its three most immediate predecessors, The Duke of York's Steps (1929), The Dying Alderman (1930) and No Friendly Drop (1931), but nevertheless it stands as a fine example of the more cerebral Golden Age English murder.

The Hanging Captain marks the return of Wade's sardonic Inspector Lott, who appears in two Wade novels, this and The Dying Alderman. Lott actually is rather more likable in this one, and there is even a tantalizing suggestion  in the novel that he may find love among among the winsome chorines of Birmingham (I wish Wade had given us a third Lott novel so we would know just how this particular plot strand was resolved).

The hanging captain of the title is Captain Herbert Sterron of Ferris Court, "the Tudor home of twelve generations of Sterrons."  Sterron resided at Ferris Court with his wife, the ironically-named (the reader will see) Griselda.  When the captain is found hanging from a curtain rod in his study, it is first thought that he committed suicide, but an officious houseguest, Sir James Hamsted, shows that Sterron was actually murdered.

the 1981 paperback reissue
The most obvious suspects in the murder of the hanging captain are Sir Carle Venning, baronet and High Sheriff of the country, who seems to have been rather personally close to Griselda Sterron, and Herbert Sterron's brother, Gerald, a merchant late of Shanghai. Also frequently on the scene at Ferris Court is Father Luke Speyd, a fervent Anglo-Catholic minister and counselor to Griselda.

With such prominent people involved in the affair it is not long before Scotland Yard, in the person of Inspector Lott, is called in by the Chief Constable of the county; and, as in the earlier Dying Alderman, Lott soon is in competition with a local policeman, this time Superintendent Dawle, in a race to catch a killer. Dawle is no dim copper, however, so Lott has his work cut out for him!

Once again Henry Wade, one of the major Golden Age English crime writers, presents his readers with a sound problem and credible characters (both suspects and investigators). The Hanging Captain is recommended to all connoisseurs of classic English crime. It's intelligent stuff--plus there's a house plan!

See also John Rhode's The Hanging Woman (1931).