Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's the Final Countdown! Best Books Blogged 2015

At least for this year.  With luck, The Passing Tramp and the world will still be around a year from now for yet another countdown of the best books blogged.  In the meantime, here's #'s 5-1. #'s 10-6 can be found here.

#5 The Night of the Fog (1930), by Anthony Gilbert (reviewed 27 July)

The best detective novel that I have read by the prolific second-string English mystery writer Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson) is this tale of murder at a moldering, candlelit manor house--enshrouded, on that fateful night, in fog.  A highly atmospheric setting, with more realistic (if glum) characters and a good mystery plot (with true detection), Fog is a real winner from the dark heart of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

#4 The Listening House (1938), by Mabel Seeley (reviewed 3 June)

More squalid realism--though urban and American in this case--is found in this intelligent and spirited updating of the old HIBK novel by Mabel Seeley, once considered one of the brightest rising stars on the horizon of mystery fiction.  Real-life events are referenced to great effect in the novel, which is set in a fictionalized St. Paul, Minnesota.  Seeley believed terror was more terrible, because more credible, if "aroused by incidents which are within the reader's possible experience."  Certainly this formulation triumphs in The Listening House, an atmospheric, eerie and well-plotted mystery with memorable characters and a compelling heroine acting as amateur sleuth.

#3 Banshee (1983), by Margaret Millar (reviewed 21 August)

Ingenious plotting coupled with insightful explorations of troubled human emotional states makes Margaret Millar one of the all-time greats in crime fiction.  Banshee is an excellent late novel by the Canadian-American author, the wife of Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald), combining a tricky plot with a moving look at modern childhood.  One hopes that Margaret Millar's inclusion in Sarah Weinman's new Library of America anthology of women suspense fiction writers will give this talented author more of the attention that she deserves.

#2 Black Money (1966), by Ross Macdonald (reviewed 18 October)

And here is Mr. Millar, with what is, I think, my favorite novel by him from the 1960s: his moving meditation on the Great Gatsby legend, something which clearly touched a deeply personal chord of memory within him.  Complexly plotted yet not nearly so reliant on the inter-generational family dysfunction plot that came to so preoccupy him (see my discussion of Macdonald's The Instant Enemy in the linked piece), Black Money represents Macdonald at the apex of his considerable abilities.

#1 The Last Talk with Lola Faye (2010), by Thomas H. Cook (reviewed 8 March)

Thomas H. Cook's novel belongs here, in the august company of the Millars, one of mystery writing's all-time "power couples."  Cook resembles the Millars in his ability to construct complex, compulsively page-turning plots that include insightful examination of the human condition in the manner of the mainstream novel.

Cook, an Alabama native, is especially fine when when he looks at the American South, as he does in Lola Faye. The sense of place in the novel, which dexterously weaves back and forth from the past to the present, is palpable, as in the best suspense novels of the late, great Ruth Rendell. Lola Faye is a superb novel from one of our finest modern crime writers, satisfying the desires of crime fiction readers for a story that is both deftly plotted and emotionally affecting, touching both the mind and the heart.

Well, there you have it.  I just noticed that this is my most temporally diverse "best" list ever, with three books from the Thirties, one from the Forties, one from the Fifties, two from the Sixties, one from the Eighties, one from the Nineties and one from the new century.  Just shows you the great riches of crime fiction over the last hundred years.  A Happy New Year to you all!  I hope to discuss many more books on the blog in 2016.

Waiting for the Countdown: Best Books Blogged in 2015

It's that time of year again, where we count down the best books blogs the past year at The Passing Tramp.  As Lindsey Buckingham sings, I've been waiting for the countdown. But then haven't we all?

Typically I count down the top twenty crime novels annually blogged here, but in past years I have reviewed over 100 such books annually on the blog, while this year, busy as I have been with other projects, I probably only achieved about half that.  Plus, 2015 is fast ebbing. So I'm doing just ten this year. So, let us begin with #'s 10-6.  I'm leaving out of consideration books I have written introductions for and discussed on the blog this year (quite a few), but they are of course recommended to vintage crime fiction fans.

#10 Meet Me at the Morgue (1953), by Ross Macdonald (reviewed 29 August)

In this, Ross Macdonald's centenary year, there has perhaps been a tendency to undervalue the author's Fifties crime writing in favor of his Sixties work. However, the author produced some excellent work in this earlier decade. Macdonald later disparaged the novel in a letter to Eudora Welty, but at the time of its publication he had seemed rather pleased with Meet Me at the Morgue, a dexterously-plotted tale that signaled an early, notable move by the author away from the Chandler-Hammett tough school of hard-boiled mystery toward a more humanistic vision.  The younger Macdonald was right to feel so.

#9 The Player on the Other Side (1963), by Ellery Queen (reviewed 10 November)

The sleuth Ellery Queen returned in novel form after a five year hiatus in The Player on the Other Side, in one of his most interesting performances.  Here the author devised a deliberately artificial tale about members of a wealthy New York family being bumped off one by one, with an ingenious variation on a favored gambit.  Here sleuth Ellery encounters, as he so fervently desires, a murderous opponent truly worthy of his mettle.

#8 The Grindle Nightmare (1935), by Q. Patrick (reviewed 28 November)

A notable Thirties fictional excursion into the dark criminal bypaths of horrific sadistic violence, The Grindle Nightmare, by Richard Wilson Webb (probably with some collaboration from his young living partner and future full time fictional collaborator, Hugh Callingham Wheeler), at times feels like a precursor to certain critically-lauded sicko suburbia novels by Patricia Highsmith.  But don't worry, fainthearted readers, the whole thing is properly intellectualized as a formal problem detective novel, in fine Golden Age tradition.

#7 Wisteria Cottage (1948), by Robert M. Coates (reviewed 11 January)

If Violence peaked out at us from behind a curtain in The Grindle Nightmare, in Robert M. Coates's Wisteria Cottage it rips away the curtain and pursues the reader with a bloody butcher's knife.  This dark novel about the descent into madness of a dangerously disturbed young man is a deeply unsettling novel, even in 2015, and it reminds us that mid-century "domestic suspense" was not entirely the demesne of women crime writers. Stir in as well some of Jim Thompson's hell's broth and you get Wisteria Cottage.

#6 A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998), by Ruth Rendell (reviewed 13 December)

The late and much missed modern mistress of psychological suspense, Ruth Rendell, produced one of her finest essays in the art of unease with A Sight for Sore Eyes. Ultimately less cold and clinically bleak than Wisteria Cottage, the novel nonetheless boasts a memorably creepy climax and is, like all the best Rendell, compulsively readable throughout its considerable length.

RIP Ruth Rendell.  Happily for Rendell's readers her fine work lives on after her, to be read and reread.

Numbers 5 to 1 are coming soon!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Really Late Christmas Number: Corpus Christmas (1989), by Margaret Maron

"Writers with something profound to say write poetry, writers with something serious to say write novels, but writers with nothing to say write genre fiction.  I shall become a mystery writer."

He handed her another wet pot.  "Don't look so sad.  I shall try to be a very good mystery writer."

Sigrid smiled.  "Tell me about your plot."

"Actually I don't have one yet," he confessed.  "That's the one drawback.  I don't want to write suspense or thrillers or, God forbid, one of those dreary down-these-mean-streets-a-man-must-go sort of social tracts.  No, I want to write classic whodunits, elegantly contrived puzzles....but that's almost impossible anymore....there are no good [murder] motives left."

These lines from Margaret Maron's first of two Christmas mysteries, Corpus Christmas, took me aback somewhat, given that I had always assumed, based on the evidence of Maron's much-praised Judge Deborah Knott series, that Maron long harbored loftier literary ambitions for her writing within the mystery genre.

To be sure, the lines quoted above were uttered in the sixth novel in Maron's lesser-known Lt. Sigrid Harald series. Maron's reputation as a mystery writer is largely based on her second series, the one about Deborah Knott, which she launched in 1992, three years after the publication of Corpus Christmas, and ended just this year, with the publication of Long upon the Land. Conversely, only two more Sigrid Harald mysteries followed Corpus Christmas (although Harald appears in a recent Knott mystery, Three-Day Town).

Concerning her decision to end the Deborah Knott series with its twentieth installment, Maron wryly explained to Mystery Scene Magazine:

Several years ago, two close friends and I made a pact. We had watched other authors keep writing about the same character over and over, hashing and rehashing the same material until they debased some of the reputation they had formed with their earlier books.  "If that happens to me," each of us told the others, "Promise that one of you will come and kill me."

Maron added that, after she had made her retirement announcement concerning Deborah Knott, she had received numerous comments from fans "bemoaning the fact that the series has ended" yet thanking her for the "years of pleasure" they had derived from the series. "Some feel as if Deborah and her kin are part of their own extended family," she observed, "and they feel as if there's been a death in the family."

I think this gets to what drives so much modern mystery, be it "cozy," as Maron's Knott series has been described, or gritty, as, say, Ian Rankin's Rebus series has been designated: not so much mystery plots, but the author's evocation of particular people and places.  Whatever we term these sorts of mysteries, they have in common that what draws people in both are the series detective as a character, the setting in which the detective acts and the colorful locals that the detective encounters.  If there's actually a good mystery plot as well, that's a bonus, but it's not a prerequisite.

Mystery readers never became attached to Lt. Sigrid Harald, a New York police detective, like they did to Deborah Knott and her North Carolina kin.  Indeed, easily the least popular novel in the Knott series, judging by reviews, is Three-Day Town (2011), the one book in the Knott series in which Harald appears. A lot of the Amazon reviewers of that novel seem to view Harald as an irksome interloper.  (I should add, however, that Three-Day Town won the Agatha for best mystery novel in 2011.)

Speaking of bling, Corpus Christmas was the only novel in the Harald series to get awards recognition, netting the author her first Agatha and Anthony nominations, yet despite this fact I can only give the novel a lukewarm review as a mostly unexceptionable Eighties American police procedural (of sorts), albeit one with a female lead sleuth.

Perhaps it's unfair to the author on my part jumping into a series midstream, but Sigrid Harald did not strike me as an especially interesting or appealing character. Perfectly okay, in short, but kind of meh.  This would not be a problem for me, were Corpus Christmas stronger as a puzzle.  Yet while the novel offers the form of a classic puzzle mystery (more on this below), it cheats readers of its substance.

On page 177 of a mystery of 182 pages, Harald's "subconscious threw up something she'd overlooked till then....The more she thought of it, the surer she became."  Harald then conducts a search of X's abode, finds the murder weapon and the problem is solved.

I'm afraid that I found this rather a unsatisfying approach, in that the mystery might just as easily have been solved on, say, page 82, shortly after the police have been called in to investigate the crime.  In retrospect the intervening 95 pages felt like the author (along with her detective) was simply spinning her wheels until the proper page count was reached.

Admittedly, the "form" of the novel is an attractive one, concerning murder at a Victorian house museum, the Breul House, during the Christmas season. Maron has some interesting back story concerning the original owners of the house, but I wish that more had been done with this. (Even as it is, this aspect of the story is much better than another present-day subplot, which feels like padding.) Additionally, the house museum is the repository of an art collection, which allows Maron to add another dimension of interest to the tale.

As far as the characters in the case are concerned, there was frustration to be found here as well. Harald's older boyfriend, Oscar Nauman, is a famous modern artist who may do a retrospective exhibition at the Breul House; and there's a bit of a love triangle introduced into the story, as Harald, who has only recently learned to use makeup apparently, encounters a dazzling former lover of Nauman's. All this seemed over-familiar to me, however. How often do we encounter in books the plainer (yet still interesting looking) woman who bests her beautiful rival at the game of love?  This story line (and its male correlative) no doubt has its appeal to readers, given that most of us are not beautiful, but it gets rather predictable.

I think the most interesting story line concerns Rick Evans, a young Louisiana-born photographer on assignment at the Breul House, and his relationship with the similarly youthful Pascal Grant, the beautiful but somewhat intellectually disabled handyman at the Breul House. (Throughout the novel Maron lays great stress on young Grant's angelic beauty.)  Yet it's given shorter shrift than it merits and is presented so circumspectly that I still wasn't certain by the end of the novel whether the two were lovers or simply, well, extremely close friends who really enjoy listening to jazz records in each other's company. (Similarly disappointingly, Harald has what I took to be a gay male housemate--the would-be mystery writer quoted at the top of this piece--who flits campily in and out of the story, but doesn't develop as anything other than a caricature.)

Was the author inhibited by the state of this sector of the genre back in 1989 (the novel was published by the Doubleday Crime Club)? Certainly the book won't come out and say, in reference to another person-to-person physical interaction in the story, blunt words like erection and ejaculate and semen, confining itself to cloying, Harlequin-like insipidities such as "the sweet liquids of youth" and "first hot rushes of manhood."

Although Corpus Christmas was published one year shy of the 1990s, already it seems dated in terms of technological references, which shows how far we have come in a quarter-century. However, there was this reference, more topical than ever this year:

"Yes, you might say Oscar Nauman's a painter.  Like Donald Trump's a carpenter or Pavarotti sings a little."  

Technology may come and go, but evidently narcissistic People coverboy tycoons are timeless.

Based on my reading of Margaret Maron, I suspect her second series sleuth definitely will outlast her first; yet maybe I should give Sigrid one more go. In the meantime, I'll be taking a look at Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott Christmas mystery novel.

Previous Christmas numbers:

26 December 2011 (Mystery in White, since reprinted by the British Library as we all know)

26 December 2012 (Murder for Christmas--not the one you may think)

Previous Margaret Maron mystery review:

26 February 2014 (Shooting at Loons, a Deborah Knott mystery)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Coming Attractions! More Ianthe Jerrold Mysteries: Let Him Lie (1940) and There May Be Danger (1948)

I would be remiss not to mention that the fabulously well-read Michael Dirda, in "Beyond the Bestsellers," his Washington Post review column from last week, included my new book The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) on his list of a dozen recommended books for the holidays, along with such diverse selections as The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories and The Poems of T. S. Eliot. (Of course readers of this blog will know that Eliot was a great fan of detective fiction.) This was so nice to see--especially as Spectrum was published by a small (though excellent) press and is not exactly what one could call a massively publicized tome!

Spectrum, about the Golden Age crime fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher (Henry Wade) and GDH and Margaret Cole, is a companion volume of sorts to my 2012 book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, about the austerely puzzle-oriented mystery writers Cecil John Charles Street (John Rhode, Miles Burton), Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart (J. J. Connington).  The six authors were all founding members of Britain's Detection Club, a social organization of many of the era's finest mystery writers. (Martin Edwards has written about the Detection Club during the Thirties in his recent popular history The Golden Age of Murder.)

Michael Dirda also mentioned my work with Dean Street Press, who has followed the British Library in reissuing quality editions of vintage English mysteries.  As readers of this blog will know, I have written introductions for DSP's reissues of detective novels by Ianthe Jerrold, another charter Detection Club member, E. R. Punshon, an early Detection Club member, and Annie Haynes and Harriet Rutland, two quite different, but both very interesting, Golden Age crime writers who book-ended the era.

With my introductions for DSP reissues of these authors' works, I've enjoyed expanding what is known about writers like Jerrold and Punshon (with the prolific Punshon I've written introductions to fifteen of his novels so far, totaling over 15, 000 words) and, in the case of Haynes and Rutland, recovering what essentially were forgotten lives.  I'm doing this all again with seven DSP reissues in January, two of them Ianthe Jerrold's forgotten mysteries written under the pseudonym "Geraldine Bridgman" (Let Him Lie and There Might Be Danger) and five of them detective novels by another almost entirely forgotten mystery writer (more on him coming soon).

In the two newly reissued Ianthe Jerrold novels, the author abandons her brilliant amateur detective, John Christmas, who appeared in her earlier books The Studio Crime and Dead Man's Quarry, in favor of intrepid women sleuths who are drawn into crime investigation out of their sense of empathy for the plights of others, especially children.

These two fine mystery novels, which reflect events from Ianthe Jerrold's own life in the 1940s (more on this later), look ahead to the modern crime novels of authors like Ann Cleeves, I would argue; and I'm very happy to see them back in print after, respectively, 75 and 67 years!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Worst. Parents. Ever. A Sight for Sore Eyes (1998), by Ruth Rendell

The awesomely prolific late crime writer Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), produced two dozen Inspector Wexford novels in the half century that spanned 1964-2013, but over her career she also published 28 non-Wexfords, mostly psychological thrillers, under her own name, as well as 14 crime novels under the pen name Barbara Vine.  Rendell's 66th and final crime novel, Dark Corners, was published posthumously late this year and has received pretty good reviews, not only from paid print reviewers, who have tended broadly to praise everything Rendell wrote, but from lay readers, who, truth be told, have been more apt to voice negative criticism of Rendell's work over the last fifteen years.

My own feeling is that Rendell's writing peaked in the 1990s, when she produced not only a series of interesting, socially engaged Wexford novels (Kissing the Gunner's Daughter, 1991, Simisola, 1994, Road Rage, 1997, Harm Done, 1999), but also some of her best Vines (Asta's Book, 1993, No Night Is Too Long, 1994, The Brimstone Wedding, 1995) and "psychological" Rendells (The Crocodile Bird, 1993, The Keys to the Street, 1996, A Sight for Sore Eyes, 1998).

Between 2000 and 2015 Rendell published an additional twenty crime novels, none of which, of the ones I have I have read, I would really rank with her best, barring perhaps The Blood Doctor, 2002). By the time of her last novel, Dark Corners, the terrain the author explored had become quite familiar, and her books were no longer the same compulsive reading for me anymore, though I made a point of never missing an extension of the author's long-running Wexford saga, where the series characters had become like old friends, the ones where you don't mind it when they ramble on a bit.

As with crime fiction generally, Rendell's novels became much longer in the 1980s and 1990s, compared with her books in the 1960s and 1970s.  From lean, classic thrillers like A Demon in My View (1975), A Judgment in Stone (1977) and The Lake of Darkness (1980), Rendell's novels by the 1990s had become sprawling monsters of 140,000 words or so.  But for me Rendell, in contrast with many other modern crime writers, often makes this length work: her best books are classic page turners, even when there are vast numbers of pages to turn.  So it is the case with A Sight for Sore Eyes, perhaps Rendell's last great psychological thriller.

Beginning with books like A Demon in My View and especially The Lake of Darkness, Rendell, like some malevolently crafty Black Widow spider, began crafting creepy crime thrillers wherein she patiently wove together various seemingly disconnected plot strands, gradually entangling her characters in her intricate web of doom.

While I admire the economy with which Rendell accomplished this in her earlier novels, I also appreciate the spaciousness of A Sight for Sore Eyes, which reminds me of some of her richly developed Barbara Vine novels.  In A Sight for Sore Eyes about 40% of the book passes before the two main characters even meet each other, but I didn't mind, because what happened before that fateful meeting was transfixing.

Like a Barbabra Vine novel, A Sight for Sore Eyes has a wide time frame, extending from 1965 to the late 1990s and introducing a large cast of characters who eventually collide with each other, often with most unhappy results for these characters.  At its heart however, Eyes is a book about the horrific consequences of rotten parenting.  The novel's male main character, Teddy Grex--for some reason Teddy Brex in the American edition of the novel--is nurtured, if that's the right word (actually it's really not), by the most horribly neglectful working class parents, while the novel's female main character, Francine Hill, is raised by a maniacally overprotective white collar professional class stepmother and an abysmally weak and inept father.

Rendell showers these parental figures with disdain and for good reason, considering how she portrays them. Her seeming distaste for the English white working (or not working, as the case may be) class, whom she portrays here as feckless, oafish and selfish, reminded me a lot of her portrayal of the same social "types" in Harm Done, the Wexford novel she published the following year. During Teddy Grex's gestation, we, the appalled readers, learn:

His mother had lived on croissants with butter, whipped-cram doughnuts, salami, streaky bacon, fried eggs, chocolate bars, sausages and chips with everything.  She had smoked about ten thousand eight hundred cigarettes and drunk many gallons of Guinness, cider, Babycham and sweet sherry. But [Teddy] was a beautiful child with smooth, peachy skin, dark-brown silky hair, the features of a baby angel in an Old Master, and perfect fingers and toes.

Unfortunately, angelic-looking Teddy Grex grows up a sociopath: a skilled craftsman with contempt for humans but adoration for beautiful objects. Meanwhile grave and lovely Francine Hill survives childhood trauma--the murder of her mother--and the overbearing and oblivious management of her stepmother, an incompetent child psychotherapist ("or as she put it, a paedopsychiatrician"), "whose qualifications were a teaching-training certificate and a diploma from a counseling crash course." Rendell, I must admit, is every bit as biting in her portrayal of Francine's awful stepmother, Julia Gregson, as she is with Teddy Grex's repulsive family.

To be sure, the author directs satire at ill-trained and something less-than-competent psychotherapists. Rendell appears dismissive of the use of doll therapy with children, writing, for example,"Julia had Francine playing with dolls. There was no escaping those dolls, Francine sometimes thought.") However, her criticism in this case seems more focused on one spectacularly obtuse and blundering woman. (Interestingly, Rendell's son is a psychiatric social worker, according to this Telegraph article.)

I don't want to say too much about the novel's plot turns after Teddy and Francine finally meet, but let me just add that there is a denouement that is one of the most disturbingly memorable things in the Rendell oeuvre. Is A Sight for Sore Eyes better than some of her early classic suspense novels? Whether it is or not, it's certainly an important part of an impressive line of crime fiction by Rendell, of which, sadly, we will never see, with her death this year, additional new examples.  Yet at least we can always console ourselves, if you will, with such unforgettably unsettling classics as A Sight for Sore Eyes.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Vultures Gather: The Grindle Nightmare (1935), by Q. Patrick

"When the buzzards roost in Grindle Oak, Death comes to the valley."--The Grindle Nightmare.

The Grindle Nightmare (1935) was the first Q. Patrick crime novel co-authored by Richard Wilson "Rickie" Webb after he met Hugh Callingham Wheeler, his living partner in Massachusetts for more than a dozen years and by far the most important of the four mystery writing collaborators he worked with over the years. Grindle had been preceded by Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), co-authored with Martha Mott Kelley; Murder at Cambridge (1933), authored by Webb alone; and S. S. Murder (1933), co-authored with Mary Louise White, who is also credited as the co-author of Grindle.  I can't help wondering whether Hugh Wheeler may have had some influence on Grindle, however.

The next year Webb published another Q. Patrick mystery, Death Goes to School, which evidently was authored by himself alone, but Death for Dear Clara (1937) and all the Q. Patricks that followed were written collaboratively by Webb and Wheeler.

The Grindle Nightmare was, it seems, one of the more successful Q. Patrick crime novels, which were later eclipsed by Webb and Wheeler's Patrick Quentin mysteries. Reprinted by Popular Library in 1949, it appeared a final time in paperback in the Sixties in a Ballantine edition; but since then it has been out-of-print for over a half century, like all the other books in the Q. Patrick line, sadly.

At the time it was originally published in 1935, Grindle was noted for its horrific criminal subject matter, which includes animal mutilation and child murder.  The novel is set in New England in the Grindle Valley, twenty miles from the city of Rhodes, home of Rhodes University Hospital.  There are a half-dozen or so main households in Grindle (see map), populated by a group of mostly unlikable middle and upper class professional types beset by myriad physical and emotional dysfunctions, some quite bluntly presented for their day.  It all struck me rather like something out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, say Deep Water (1957).

When The Grindle Nightmare was published
mystery was made about the identity of the
author, "an important eastern executive."
When the depraved crimes commence, the reader doesn't really have much of anyone to root for, which certainly casts a wide net of suspicion.  Even the narrator, Dr. Douglas Swanson, and his housemate, Dr. Antonio Costi, "one of the youngest and smartest professors of pathology in America," in whom readers may discern the Watson and Holmes figures of the story, seem rather clinical and even callous about the mayhem.

Today such a story would be told strictly for horror and shock value, at two or even three times the length (Grindle is a short novel of only about 60, 000 words), but in 1935, the events, while no end gruesome, are intellectualized as part of a problem to be solved.

The solution is very interesting, especially for its time, but of course I can't say more about that without spoiling.  Surely someday this novel will be reprinted, so I don't want to do that.  However, I do have more to say about Grindle in a forthcoming essay included in a collection to be published next year, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin/Jonathan Stagge Consortium and The Puzzles of Peter Duluth

One of the most important American crime writers, oddly out of print today in the primarily English-speaking world (though this will change when Crippen & Landru's collection of short crime fiction, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, is published), is Patrick Quentin, who also wrote as Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  I've reviewed several works by this consortium, if you will, and they generally are extremely good, in my opinion, but the the authorship question has remained somewhat murky over the years, so let me try to elucidate a bit.

It all started in 1931, when the native English Philadelphia pharmaceutical executive Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966), published a mystery novel, Cottage Sinister, in collaboration with Martha Mott Kelley (1906-1998), a recent Radcliffe graduate descended from the the Quaker abolitionist and feminist Lucretia Mott and niece of the progressive social reformer Florence Kelley, under the name "Q. Patrick" (the last name derived from "Pat" for Martha Kelley's nickname Patsy and "Rick" for Richard Webb's nickname Rickie and the "Q" in honor of what they pair considered the most "intriguing" letter in the alphabet).

The public face of Q. Patrick, 1931-35
Richard "Rickie" Webb
The next year the Rickie and Patsy also published Murder at the Women's City Club, but Kelley then left the Q. Patrick team.  Retaining the Q. Patrick name, Rickie Webb in 1933 published Murder at Cambridge, which he wrote solo, and S. S. Murder, on which he collaborated with Mary Louise White (1902-1984), a graduate of Bryn Mawr.  Webb would also work with White on The Grindle Nightmare, which was published in 1935.

At that point Mary Louise White left the team, marrying Edward C. Aswell, an assistant editor with Harper and Brothers (husband and wife alike would become prominent twentieth-century American editors).  So once again, Webb, who was more of a plot man, like Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen, was left in need of a collaborator.

Happily Webb found one in a young Englishman named Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987), who had come over to the US from England with Webb in 1933, settling with him in Philadelphia. (I'm not certain whether the two lived together in these years, but, if not, they certainly were near neighbors, residing in the Locust Street-Spruce Street area.)

Hugh Wheeler, c. 1940
Wheeler had taken a BA degree with honors in English at the University of London in 1932 and was anxious to embark on a literary career.  Although he and Webb had started out writing a "pretentious novel," as Wheeler put it, nothing seems to have come of this, and the pair by 1936 had settled into a lucrative commercial partnership in crime fiction collaboration.

Webb and Wheeler intermittently continued the Q. Patrick series, but they also created two new mystery writing pseudonyms: Jonathan Stagge, under which they produced the Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novels, and the pen name for which they became most famous, Patrick Quentin.

All told, during the period of their collaboration, 1936-1952, Webb and Wheeler published six Q. Patrick novels (Death Goes to School, 1936, usually attributed to Webb and Wheeler, probably was written by Webb alone), including two Crimefiles books; nine Jonathan Stagge novels and nine Patrick Quentin novels, for a grand total of 24 novels over sixteen years.  During most of this time, 1939-1952, the pair lived together in the Berskhsires in rural western Massachusetts, except for a period during the second World War when Hugh Wheeler served in U. S. Army Medical Corps.

Hugh Wheeler in his post-Webb
collaboration days
Webb's health declined toward the end of the collaboration and in 1952, he retired from the consortium he had created, moving to France and leaving the Patrick Quentin name to Wheeler, who would write seven more Patrick Quentin novels between 1954 and 1965 before turning his professional attention exclusively toward writing for the films and the stage, an endeavor in which he enjoyed distinguished success. Wheeler would go on to win three Tony awards for his books for A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd.

So that, relatively briefly, is the somewhat complicated story of Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin/Jonathan Stagge, which is primarily, though not entirely, the story of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler.  There is more about the two men in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, Crippen & Landru's forthcoming collection of the Patrick Quentin short fiction concerning the adventures of Patrick Quentin's lead series character, Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer and, of necessity, an occasional amateur sleuth (often in company with his actress wife, Iris) who appeared in nine novels between 1936 and 1954, eight written by Webb-Wheeler and one written by Wheeler.

I wrote the introduction to Puzzles and there is as well, I'm very pleased to add, a fascinating afterword by Hugh Wheeler's great-niece and "Puzzle for Proustians," an amusing postscript about Rickie Webb by Mauro Boncompagni.  There are some new photos of Webb and Wheeler included as well, including one of the pair together on vacation in Italy in the 1940s.  I think Doug Greene has done a great job putting this one together!  I hope this book will give mystery fans a taste of the deadly delights of Patrick Quentin's crime fiction and that its appearance may encourage the complete reissuing of the consortium's distinguished body of genre work.

Previous pieces on "the consortium":

On Q. Patrick: Death for Dear ClaraThe File on Claudia Cragge
On Jonathan Stagge: The Scarlet Circle
On Patrick Quentin: Black WidowMy Son, the Murderer

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Patrick Quentin Puzzles and E. R. Punshon Enigmas

I haven't been blogging too much this month because I have been busy with more book introductions (and an afterword in one case), specifically to Dean Street Press's new round of E. R. Punshon reprints and a collection of the short crime fiction by Patrick Quentin, issued by Crippen & Landru.

The Patrick Quentin collection, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, gathers all the short crime fiction about Patrick Quentin's lead series character. Peter Duluth, who appeared in nine Patrick Quentin novels published between 1936 and 1954.  About twenty years ago I bought my first Crippen & Landru book, an edition of John Dickson Carr's radio play Speak of the Devil, and it is a great honor to get to write an introduction to a Crippen & Landru volume today, especially concerning an crime writer I so admire.  I hope to have some more posted on Patrick Quentin tomorrow (have been under the weather).

Crippen & Landru, you probably know, is owned by Douglas G. Greene, biographer of John Dickson Carr, to whom Mysteries Unlocked, a collection of essays I edited, is dedicated.  More on this book soon!

I'm also very excited about the new series of Punshon reissues, the author's 11th through 15th Bobby Owen mysteries: Comes a Stranger (1938), Suspects-Nine (1939), Murder Abroad (1939), Four Strange Women (1940) and Ten Star Clues (1941).

Collectively these books constitute, in my opinion, the single best group of Punshon mysteries, published when the author was at the apex of his popularity in England.

Dean Street Press has introduced a snazzy new design for this group of reissues, which also represent some of the rarest books in the Punshon canon.  Up until now, even most Punshon collectors hadn't been able to read these books (especially the first four), because they simply weren't available on the used book market.  To be able to help bring back worthy, almost impossible-to-find editions like these is a great joy for me.

Comes a Stranger is a bibliophile mystery, with a body in the library (or maybe not); Suspects-Nine is about a murder in fashionable London circles; Murder Abroad, partially based on a real life murder case, details a murder investigation in France; Four Strange Women is a serial killer novel with more than a few hints of horror; and Ten Star Clues is a classic country manor and village case that, like Josephine Tey's celebrated Brat Farrar, draws on the Victorian cause célébré of the Tichborne claimant.  All together a most inspired and entertaining group of Golden Age detective novels.

The Punshons are available for pre-order in in the US and UK and I will let you know when The Puzzles of Peter Duluth is out.  Some good stuff all round!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Chess Problem: The Player on the Other Side (1963), by Ellery Queen

As Joseph Goodrich's recent collection of some of the correspondence between the "Ellery Queen" cousins, Fredric Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, makes clear, the two mystery writers found it something of a challenge updating tales of their Golden Age Great Detective, also named Ellery Queen, to the more modern era of the "realistic" crime novel, Ellery Queen having had his inception in the baroque era of writers like S. S. Van Dine, creator of Philo Vance, that g-droppin', high-falutin' man about town who in his spare time (that which he doesn't devote to his collections of exotica like tropical fish and Egyptian papyri) resplendently emerges from his New York brownstone, a slavishly devoted attendant "Watson" in tow, to solve diabolical yet vastly improbable crimes concerning nursery rhymes, family eliminations and cursed dragon pools.

By the mid-30s, as Van Dine began his descent into desuetude, Ellery Queen was loosening the tight puzzle boxes that were their own books.  They produced novels aimed at adaptation on the silver screen and serialization in the lucrative glossy women's magazines--the slicks--that put less emphasis on pure detection and more on human emotions; and then in 1942 came Calamity Town, the first of their Wrightsville novels, set in small, "All-American" northeastern town, which aimed at achieving greater realism in terms of milieu and character.

By the early 1950s EQ as I see it had definitely emerged into another stage, where they attempted to produce "serious" novels addressing metaphysical issues, within, however, the detective novel framework. In this period you get some detective novels with very odd symbolic elements, such as The Origin of Evil (1951), The King Is Dead (1952) and The Finishing Stroke (1958), this last novel, incidentally, having many of the elements, seemingly, of a swan song.

And, in fact, at this time Manfred Lee, who wrote the novels from Dannay's extensive outlines, dropped out of an active role in the partnership for a time, claiming, as I understand it, a case of "writer's block."  The correspondence between the cousins in the later 40s-early 50s collected by Joseph Goodrich indicates that Dannay and Lee had strong artistic disagreements about the composition of the books, Lee wanting to put greater emphasis on realism, Dannay desiring to maintain big concept puzzles, which Lee felt it was difficult to write about in a realistic fashion. You can see that split in much of their work in the 1940s and 1950s, and I can't help wondering whether Lee just got burned out with it all by the late Fifties.

In any event, there was no new Ellery Queen novel published until 1963, with the appearance of The Player on the Other Side, probably the most acclaimed EQ novel from the last eight years of the EQ saga (1963-1971).

What was not admitted at the time was that Manfred Lee did not write this acclaimed detective novel, although it was based, as others before it, on a long outline from Dannay.  The actual author was the highly-regarded sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, although according to the splendid website, Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, Sturgeon's manuscript was extensively revised by Lee, with additional revisions made by Dannay.

Player certainly reads to me like vintage Ellery Queen. The plot is an artificial Van Dineian conception, many of the characters are classic mystery types, not really developed, and the setting is nearly timeless and placeless (aside from the introduction of a black cop into the story)--yet there are some very interesting and thought-provoking ideas lying behind it all.  Beyond that, it's just a rattling good read.

The primary setting in the novel is York Square in New York City, a highly imaginary place where four cousins live in four corner "castles" separated from each other by a small park.  The cousins have been obliged to live in these domiciles if they want to inherit shares of the fortune of their eccentric uncle, Nathaniel York. In six months the period required by the will have expired, and the cousins finally will be able to "cash out," so to speak.

Oh, and I should mention that the arrangement is a tontine (naturally!), under which when a cousin expires, his/her share goes back into the kitty for the others to divvy.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that it's not long before one of the York cousins is dead, by most violent means. Will others follow?

Soon Ellery Queen, mystery writer and Boyish Genius (by this time Ellery is vaguely middle-aged, but I can't help but think of him as Jim Hutton, who played him on the wonderful, short-lived television series and was still quite boyish-looking at that time, forty years ago), is on the case, courtesy, as usual, of his crusty old father (whom I always think of as David Wayne, due to said television series), Inspector Queen, of the NYPD.

Concerning Ellery, there's an interesting introduction to him in this book, where we learn that he, like Manfred Lee, is suffering from writer's block.  In Ellery's case, it's because he hasn't been getting "good" cases from his Dad to fictionalize in his novels.  It seems that the age of the master villain, constructing perfect murder puzzles for his opponent, the sleuth, to try to solve, has passed, regrettably replaced by modern scientific police investigation (and modern police procedurals and hard-boiled crime novels). Explains Ellery: "I haven't been able to write any more because the player on the side doesn't exist any more....The times have outdated him--swept him away, and me with him."

Of course Ellery soon finds a worthy opponent--his player on the other side--in the York case, showing that he is not so outdated after all.  There are inscrutable symbolic messages, delivered on oddly-cut pieces of paper, a classic EQ device (that part I actually figured out before Ellery), as well as some splendidly Christie-esque misdirection. (One aspect of the solution, however, is rather, shall we say, tentative.) The whole thing is more thinly clued than the baroque Golden Age EQ (what isn't?), but there was one clue I loved, so obvious when Ellery explained it, but the significance of which was missed by me at the time.

Also, the chess theme is brilliantly employed, I think, though it's something lost on the covers of the modern "playing card" editions of the novel by Orion and Mysterious Press. Is chess now too "old school"?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

The lurid fright film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), starring film legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, proved such a hit that it launched the so-called "psycho-biddy" genre, where aging screen queens from Hollywood's Golden Age deglammed to play maniacal harridans and the like in increasingly campy horror flicks. Predictably, plans were soon laid for another Davis-Crawford shocker vehicle after the success of Baby Jane.  It was found in the classic southern Gothic movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)--although when it was shown in the theaters only one of these great acting divas was actually in the film.

Production problems plagued Charlotte (according to legend, Bette Davis's psychological warfare against Crawford drove her despised rival off the set, forcing the director to replace Crawford with Olivia de Havilland), delaying its release until late in 1964, and it was not as big a hit as Baby Jane; yet the film was received even more warmly when the Academy Awards nominations rolled round, netting seven Oscar nods to the five of Baby Jane: best supporting actress, cinematography, art decoration, costume design, film editing, original song and original score.

Additionally, Agnes Moorehead's supporting performance won a Golden Globe Award, while the film itself secured the Edgar Award from the MWA for best motion picture.  The song "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte," a lush ballad about a suspected decapitation murderess that was beautifully performed by Patti Page, rose to #8 on the American pop charts, though it lost the Oscar to "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins. (These things will happen.)

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte was based on a novella, What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?, written by Henry Farrell, the author of the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  I think Farrell wrote the novella as the scenario for the film that was to be made from it, and I believe it was never published until recently, when it appeared in this 2013 edition of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

There are a few differences between the novella and the script, most notably the expansion and deepening of the role of Velma, played in the film in classic scene-stealing fashion by Agnes Moorehead.  Basically, the novella is a solid enough example of a mid-century domestic suspense story, written by a man, while the film itself is lifted above the genre norm by superb production values and colorful acting.

Set on the River Road in Louisiana (film exteriors were shot at Houmas House plantation), Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte tells the story of batty Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis), believed way back in 1927 to have hacked to death in a summerhouse during a ball at the Hollis mansion her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), upon his having broken off their tempestuous affair. (John's murder was never officially solved, nor, um, was his head ever located.) This part of the story is memorably shown immediately after the film's prologue and opening credits.

Bruce Dern gets cut from the film

Since  the death of her nouveau riche protective father, a classic southern "Big Daddy" type played with typical gusto by Victor Buono (back from Baby Jane, for which he had received an Oscar nomination), Charlotte has lived alone in the decaying antebellum mansion her father bought many years ago, attended by her ornery "white trash" maid of all work, Velma (Agnes Morehead).

Unhappily for the eccentric and reclusive Charlotte, the Hollis mansion is scheduled to be demolished in order to make room for a highway and bridge.  Charlotte is determined to prevent this, so she calls upon her capable poor relation from her younger days, Cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havlland), now a successful career woman, to help her out of this mess.

Mutual dislike: Velma (Agnes Moorehead) and Cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland)

Also on hand is the Hollis family friend and doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), and, in a couple of scenes, Jewel Mayhew (Mary Astor), owner of the neighboring estate and the widow of Charlotte's long-dead lover, John.

In spite of Miriam's help, Charlotte's sanity seems only to deteriorate further, as Charlotte hears strange noises in the night (a harpsichord plays the haunting melody John wrote for her, for example) and has nightmarish visions of the decades-old murder.  Of course there will be more deaths at the Hollis mansion before the film is over, but whose will they be? Ladies and gentlemen, our nerves are in for a bumpy night!

Is that Joan Crawford returning to the set?
Bette Davis as "Sweet Charlotte"

I really enjoy Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.  Despite the, oh, decapitation murder (recalling the infamous ax murders of the Lizzie Borden case, local children with the casual cruelty of youth have changed the words of John's song from "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" to "Chop, Chop, Sweet Charlotte"), I don't find Charlotte quite so cruel a film as Baby Jane and I believe it's more of a genuine mystery film in its structure.

Agnes Moorehead's scene-stealing Velma is a right hoot in my opinion, while everyone else in the main parts gives compelling performances too, I think. As Cousin Miriam (the part originally slated for Joan Crawford), Olivia de Havilland is terrific, and Joseph Cotten's role as the silky-mannered doctor fits the native Virginian like a glove. In her final film performance as the widowed Jewel Mayhew, Mary Astor also delivers a compelling performance, making you wish she had more scenes.

Cousin Miriam and Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten)

Bette Davis's starring role as Charlotte is not as singular a part as her notorious Baby Jane (for which she received an Oscar nomination, being done out of the win, according to legend, by her co-star and rival Joan Crawford's vigorous campaigning against her), but she holds the screen like the great diva that she was. If she chops up the scenery (and does she), well, that is what Charlotte Hollis does...right?

Happy Halloween to all of the Passing Tramp readers out there.  Frightful dreams!

Save the last dance....

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Agatha Christie, Week #5

Links to our last group posting on Agatha Christie for now. Quite a company of bloggers this week!  Next week, as I understand it, we will be talking about Ellery Queen.  Links will, I believe, be posted at Noah Stewart's blog.

Brad Friedman: The Documents in the Case: Christie and Clues

Mark Green, The Detection Club's Fogginess

Kate Jackson, The Christie Verdict

Bev Hankins, Christie and the Art of Disguise

Noah Stewart, My Favorite Agatha Christie Paperback Covers

Moira Redmond, Clothes in Christie

Jeffrey Marks, The Case of the Flu

Helen Szamuely, Archaeologists in Christie's Stories

Curtis Evans, Murder as a Fine Art: Tom Adams and Agatha Christie

Murder as a Fine Art: Tom Adams and Agatha Christie

Illustrator Tom Adams seems to be everyone's favorite Agatha Christie paperback cover artist. Certainly he is mine--in part, I'll admit, because Christie Pocket paperbacks with Adams cover art introduced me to Christie back in 1974, when I was eight years old.

One summer when my family and I were living in Mexico City, I was with my mom at Sanborns Department Store when she purchased four Christie paperbacks off the rack, three with Adams art. I've been a Christie fan ever since.

But mostly Tom Adams is my favorite Christie cover artist because his cover art is so darn good. Concerning Christie cover art, Adams is best known for that which he did over many years for English paperback publisher Fontana (often intriguingly surrealistic), yet his beautiful American Pocket editions from the early Seventies are most familiar to me personally.

I have already shown Adams's cover art for Christie's Third Girl in my review of that book here (note also his Fontana Third Girl cover art); and below can be seen yet more Adams Christie paperback art, front and back covers included, since the wonderful paperbacks have wraparound illustrations. Enjoy!  Which are your favorites?

Also take note: A new edition of Tom Adams art, Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond, with commentary by John Curran, is now available.

On other vintage mystery genre cover art, see

Death and Rudolph Belarski
John Rhode and William Faulkner
More Arthur Hawkins Book Jackets