Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Gone Grandam: Poor Harriet (1957), by Elizabeth Fenwick

In 1950, after some months spent at the Yaddo artists' and writers' colony in upstate New York, Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996) published a well-received mainstream novel, Afterwards.  Six years separated this novel from what appears to be her next one, a mainstream work titled Days of Plenty. The next year Fenwick published a suspense novel, Poor Harriet.  It was quite well-reviewed, and seven more suspense novels would follow from Fenwick's hand over the next eleven years.

What happened in the intervening six fallow years between Afterwards and Days of Plenty? One thing I know from correspondence of Fenwick's good friend from YaddoFlannery O'Connor, is that Fenwick had married by 1952. Her husband was Clark Mills McBurney (1913-1986), a modernist poet (under the name Clark Mills) and 1930s friend and mentor of the playwright Tennessee Williams.  The two young literary aspirants both had been students at Washington University in 1935-37 and during that time had outfitted the basement of Mills' parents' house as a "writing factory," in Mills' words.

Cover Girl: Flannery O'Connor
thought Elizabeth Fenwick
lucky with her book jacket art
Whatever took Fenwick away from novel writing, she was emphatically back at it by the late 1950s and 1960s. In a 1960 letter to a friend, Flannery O'Connor stated that Fenwick wrote mystery novels to "make money," alternating them with novels written "to suit herself." Actually, it appears that after 1956 Fenwick never again wrote another "straight" novel, unless she was doing so under a pseudonym; so perhaps she found that psychological crime novels suited her too and it wasn't just about the money.

Certainly Poor Harriet, Fenwick's first essay in this subgenre, suited the critics.  For example, Margaret Millar, one of the finest twentieth-century crime novelists, declared, in a penetrating and pithy sentence, that the novel had "some of the most macabre mood writing since the Gothic tale looked under the bed and found Freud."

Male critics agreed with Millar. Anthony Boucher proclaimed Poor Harriet "the work of a highly skilled novelist" and James Sandoe deemed it "an astonishing evocation."

From Georgia Flannery O'Connor joined in the chorus as well.  Writing Fenwick from her country home outside Milledgeville on August 4, 1957, a few days before the novel was officially published, O'Connor wrote praisefully (and amusingly):

Well cheers for 
Poor Harriet!  I enjoyed her and also my mamma enjoyed her and I must say you are lucky on your [book] jackets....I have never read anybody else's mystery stories....My mother read Poor Harriet straight through and kept saying, "Well I just don't see how she figured all this out, I just couldn't do it."

often in 1950s crime fiction publicity
suspense was emphasized
 and detection downplayed
What greatly impressed many of the critics was the novel's sensitive depiction of mental aberration, but in fact Poor Harriet offers a ratiocinated murder problem as well; so detection fans need not be disappointed, I hope.

The novel follows the dire events that occur after Marianne Hinkley, a loyal office manager for a Connecticut contracting firm, embarks on an errand in New York City on behalf of Irma, the demanding, high maintenance wife of her boss, Tom Bryce.

Irma tasks Marianne with selling the diamond bracelet that Tom recently gave her (she's had financial reverses, she says). In New York Marianne encounters an odd, old woman named Harriet, setting in motion a succession of events that culminate in violent death.

I found Poor Harriet an excellent fifties "novel of suspense," with interesting characters and a teasing plot.  Flannery O'Connor's mamma got it right.

Note: I hope to review another Fenwick novel next week, one of her early detective novels; and when I do I expect to have her photo posted here.  In the meantime, here is a photo of her at Yaddo in 1948 (Fenwick is the blonde in white on the left).


  1. Interesting and intriguing and all new to me. Great cover!

  2. Flannery knows, Moira! I must say Fenwick was amazingly *connected* to famous writers.