Sunday, June 28, 2015

Murder Ends the Song (1941), by Alfred Meyers

Coachwhip has reprinted Alfred Meyers' Murder Ends the Song (1941), a detective novel I reviewed, very favorably, back in March 2013. Intriguingly similar in some ways to Ngaio Marsh's penultimate murder mystery, Photo-Finish (1980), published four decades after Murder Ends the Song, Meyers' sole known detective novel conveys the artistic world of opera while at the same time providing an intricate mystery puzzle about the murder of a coloratura soprano.

In Marsh's novel, the murder takes place at a mansion on a millionaire's private island in New Zealand, where the hateful operatic soprano and her extended entourage have been stranded!

In Meyers' novel, the murder takes place in Oregon at Lucifer's Pride, a hulking barn of a decrepit old mansion, built above the Columbia River Gorge, where a hateful opera soprano, Marina Grazie, and her extended entourage have been stranded!  Prior to their murders, both sopranos had been receiving threatening messages.

Had Marsh ever read Murder Ends the Song? Interestingly, PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin, published two years after Marsh's novel, rather resembles the plot lines of Photo-Finish and Murder Ends the Song, although the murder victim in the James novel is a hateful actress, rather than an opera singer.  She and her entourage are on an old mansion on a island, where they have been--you guessed it--stranded! Additionally, the hateful murdered actress had been receiving threatening messages before her death.  Maybe these trio of novels should be published as a three-volume omnibus: The Diva Murders.

As befits a novel published in the heyday of Ellery Queen and his followers, Murder Ends the Song is chock-full of graphically-presented material elements (puzzle pieces, if you will), including thee illustrations, a floor plan, a list of documents and, near the end of the tale, a tabulation of clues.  The novel should appeal to puzzle fans, as well as those who enjoy the sophisticated "manners mystery" style of the Crime Queens and Detection Deans. Additionally there is unexpected emotional resonance in the ending.  It's only too bad that Murder Ends the Song never had an encore.

Alfred Meyers
Alfred Meyers (1906-1963) grew up in La Grande Oregon, where his German Catholic family was harassed by the town's highly active Ku Klux Klan klavern.  In the 1920s Meyers attended Notre Dame University, where he received an MA in English and sang bass in the college's highly-respected Glee Club. After his bank cashier father's death in 1937, Meyers moved to San Francisco, where he sang in the chorus of the city's opera and found time to write a single mystery novel.

He later wrote one of the essays in the true crime anthology San Francisco Murders (1947) and served as the first treasurer of the northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.  He was friends with Anthony Boucher and Lenore Glen Offord, but, unlike them, he has faded into obscurity--a state of neglect that I hope the reprinting of his novel will rectify!

Incidentally, while researching Meyers' life I found out that, although his mother was Catholic, her original ancestry was Quaker, going back to Pennsylvania at the time of William Penn.  In fact, way back in 1720, slightly under 300 years ago, a sister of his six great grandfather, John Palmer, wed my eight great grandfather Richard Buffington.  But I assure that this ancient family connection has not biased me unduly in Meyers' favor.  I quite enjoyed Murder Ends the Song before I knew anything about this!

Previous Pieces on Murder Ends the Song at The Passing Tramp: Part One and Part Two.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Spectrum of English Murder (2015), by Curtis Evans; Plus, the Punshon Project

The Spectrum of English Murder, my study of the detective fiction of the Golden Age English mystery writers Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and GDH and Margaret Cole, originally published last month, now is available on Amazon. Aubrey-Fletcher, a baronet who published detective fiction under the pseudonym Henry Wade, and the Coles, a prominent socialist intellectual couple, illustrate the diversity of thought that can be found, contrary to much modern-day belief, in Golden Age British detective fiction.

Although Aubrey-Fletcher was a Tory and a member of the country's traditional landed elite, his detective fiction offers searching and sometimes searing criticism of myriad aspects of British society.  A pioneer of both the police procedural and the crime novel (though no mean puzzler when he chose to be), Aubrey-Fletcher was an important figure in the movement to transform the classical tale of detection.

As a sideline from their serious writing on politics and economics, the Coles produced a significant body of detective fiction, much of it mocking conservative British values. Although less formally innovative in their mystery writing than Aubrey-Fletcher, the husband and wife were exceptional within the genre at this time for their employment of leftist-tinged satire and farce.

Following the path laid in 2012 with my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, which studies the so-called "Humdrum" detective fiction--so styled because of its narrative focus on carefully structured puzzle plots--of Cecil John Charles Street (John Rhode/Miles Burton), Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart (JJ Connington), The Spectrum of English Murder analyzes the work of three additional important British Golden Age mystery writers. All six authors, incidentally, were original members of the Detection Club and some of their work gets notice in Martin Edwards' recently published book on the Detection Club between the two world wars, The Golden Age of Murder.

Additionally, I am near completion of my latest round of introductions to reprints of the Bobby Owen detective novels of another Golden Age English mystery writer and Detection Club member, E. R. Punshon.  These reprint editions are published by Dean Street Press, who earlier this year reprinted the two Golden Age John Christmas mysteries of original Detection Club member Ianthe Jerrold, for which I also wrote introductions.

When the Punshon project is completed, I likely will have written about him some 35,000 words, as each individual introduction in the series is about 1000 words and there are 35 Bobby Owen detective novels. This 35,000 words will be about the same length of my individual chapters on Crofts, Stewart, Aubrey-Fletcher and the Coles.  I am pleased that the Punshon project not only makes a notable and accomplished Golden Age mystery writer more accessible to classic mystery fans, but that it has allowed me a platform on which to discuss the fascinating mysteries of Golden Age murder fiction.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Kill a Better Mousetrap (2011), by Scott K. Ratner

Ah, then I take it you're not much of an Agatha Christie fan.

Not much of--?  I
love Agatha Christie!!  Love!!  She was amazing!!  The greatest mystery writer of the Golden Age.  Well, maybe second to John Dickson Carr, but it was close. Very close!


But The Mousetrap--

Oh yes, The Mousetrap!....All the superficial trimmings of a great Christie work, with none of the ingenuity....Cardboard characters, cliched situations, stilted humor, and a "surprise twist" that anyone could see coming a mile off--

Which is--?

Oh, I couldn't tell you that!

                                                                                     --Kill a Better Mousetrap (2011)

Agatha Christie's mystery thriller play The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952 and has been catching audiences ever since, making it the longest running play in history.  It is renowned for its much-hyped "twist" ending, which audiences are requested not to reveal.

And this is no idle request.  Back in 2010, Agatha Christie's grandson, Matthew Prichard, complained that, in Wikipedia's entry on the play, the twist was detailed in the summary of the play's plot. (It's still there, five year later, so exercise due discretion if you read the Wikipedia entry--don't say I didn't warn you!)

If you want my opinion of the twist--well, perhaps I'd better not say anything....

Rest assured that in his droll one-act 2011 play, Kill a Better Mousetrap, Scott K. Ratner does not reveal the ending of Christie's famous play, but he certainly lets the play in for an amusing critical drubbing, by means of the ravings to an analyst made by a seriously neurotic mystery fan, one Miles Edward Merbinoe.

Ratner's play is both an affectionate and deeply informed homage to the Queen of Crime's unique and enduring literary genius and a hilarious portrayal of an obsessive mystery lover's attempt to deal with his intense disappointment with one of her most famous works.

Filled with rich observations of Christie's writing, snappy one-liners and even its own share of twists, Kill a Better Mousetrap is a hugely enjoyable piece of work.  It has been performed over the last several years in California and I hope it sees performances elsewhere in the future.  If you get a chance to see it, however, just don't reveal the ending!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Eliot Elucidates: T. S. Eliot's Detective Fiction Rules

When discussing Golden Age detective fiction people often reference the "rules" for writing it set forth by mystery authors Ronald Knox and S. S. Van Dine; yet the set of detective fiction rules composed by T. S. Eliot, in the Twenties a great mystery fiction fan (not only did he like, as we are often told, Wilkie CollinsThe Moonstone, he enjoyed Golden Age puzzle-masters like R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, J. J. Connington, Agatha Christie and S. S. Van Dine himself), were not discussed in detail, as far as I am aware, until the publication of my essay, Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction. (The original version of this essay appeared in CADS in 2011, while a revised version was published in 2014 in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene; on the subject of Eliot's interest in detective fiction see also David E. Chinitz's T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide.)

Here are T. S. Eliot's five rules of "detective conduct," set down in 1927 (see The Criterion for the full version).

1. The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises....Disguises must be only occasional and incidental.

2. The character and motives of the criminal should be normal.  In the ideal detective story we should feel that we have a sporting chance to solve the mystery ourselves; if the criminal is highly abnormal an irrational element is introduced which offends us.

3. The story must not rely upon either occult phenomena, or, what comes to the same thing, upon mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists.

4. Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance....Writers who delight in treasures hid in strange places, cyphers and codes, runes and rituals, should not be encouraged.

5. The detective should be highly intelligent, but not superhuman.  We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.

What do you think of T. S. Eliot's rules?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Listen to Your Mother (s) 3: Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction (2010), by Lucy Sussex, Part 2

The first chapter of Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010) surveys "the beginnings of crime fiction" in the picaresque novel (Moll Flanders), true crime texts (the Newgate Calendar and newspaper reportage) and, last but definitely not least, the Gothic novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho).

In his survey Bloody MurderJulian Symons (1972) specifically excludes the Gothic novel from his consideration of the origins of the detective novel, arguing that "Gothic novelists wanted to arouse in their readers feelings of terror and delight at the horrific plight of the central character, and they used mysterious events to enhance these feelings. The solution of a puzzle was not for them the main interest of the book."

Fourteen years earlier, however, Alma Murch had argued, in her The Development of the Detective Novel, that in her Gothic novels Ann Radcliffe had written tales "in which her readers could expect the riddles to be finally explained, often in conversations between a clever, observant character and his less quick-witted friend." These are, she notes, "two features which link them unmistakably with the detective novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

Douglas G. Greene, the esteemed biographer of John Dickson Carr, similarly has noted that some Gothic novels, like The Mysteries of Udolpho, "conclude with natural explanations of the terrors, and these novels, when combined with other influences, eventually lead to the detective story."

Sussex comes down with Murch and Greene, declaring that the "Gothic is a Pangaea of genre literatures, containing within it the future continents of horror, science fiction...and crime writing....perhaps most crucial is what mystery is involved in the Gothic context: the depiction of a sensational motif or incident, with its explanation being delayed until much later in the narrative."

Connections between the Gothic novel and Victorian sensation novel and, even later, the Golden Age so-called "Had I But Known" mystery suspense narratives are especially clear.  Female authors associated with these mystery forms--Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart--received especially short shrift from Symons, their work getting either ignored or, frankly, denigrated when even acknowledged.

Yet in many ways their mystery writing has had a greater influence on modern crime fiction than the strictly fair play, clue puzzle detective fiction of the Golden Age. (Interestingly, crime writer and reviewer Todd Downing, a great admirer of female-authored mysteries, in 1936 expressly compared Mignon Eberhart's novels with those of "Mrs. Radcliffe," adding that Eberhart had performed some needed "pruning of the Gothic impedimenta"--see my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.)

In her second chapter, a most fascinating one, "Mrs Radcliffe as Conan Doyle?", Sussex looks at very early examples of women writers incorporating crime into their texts, as well as female investigators. Sussex argues that Radcliffe's Female Gothic "arguably comprises the major 'system' in the creation of the new crime fiction genre, contributing the mystery, rationalism and also the role of the protagonist....Emily in Udolpho is a woman of reason, elucidating the mysteries of the castle....Emily and other Radcliffe heroines walk the mean passages of their various Gothic castles very much by themselves....With the Radcliffe heroine can be seen a narrative model emerging, of women versus crime, women conquering and explicating crime--even if only briefly on the way to matrimony."

Sussex follows with other examples of female investigators in women-authored fiction, including Jane Austen's satiric Northanger Abbey, Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton ("although not generic crime, it includes a murder mystery in its plot structure," she notes) and several works by Frances Trollope. It is all very stimulating stuff for the student of the mystery genre and there is much more, as Sussex takes us from the criminous fiction of Catherine Crowe to that of Anna Katharine Green.  I shall look at all this in the concluding piece, part four.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Listen to Your Mother (s) 2: Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010), by Lucy Sussex, Part 1

Lucy Sussex's Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (2010) is one of the most important scholarly accounts of overlooked mystery fiction by women writers, an area of study that has attracted much interest from academia in the last twenty years. The traditional histories of detective fiction, while giving recognition to such women as the Americans Anna Katharine Green, and Mary Roberts Rinehart and the celebrated English Crime Queens, scanted nineteenth-century female crime writers, according to Sussex:

The popular view cites Poe in the 1840s, as the "first" detective writer, of classic short stories.  He was followed by Wilkie Collins with The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), a mystery and a detective novel respectively.  In the late 1880s appeared Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes tales--just at the time when detective fiction became identifiable as a popular and wide-spread publishing category....

This popular history of crime fiction's origins, with its 20-year intervals between the three canonical, founding fathers, is a progression that resembles three generations, a genealogy with no apparent maternal input....

Lucy Sussex

Sussex notes that more specialist studies often add other male names, such as William Godwin (Caleb Williams, 1794), Emile Gaboriau and Fergus Hume (The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, 1886, and scores of other, now largely forgotten, mysteries), along with Anna Katharine Green, routinely pronounced to have been the first woman to write a detective novel (The Leavenworth Case, 1878).

Sure enough, when one looks at Howard Haycraft's Murder for Pleasure (1941)--for three decades, until the publication of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder (1972), the primary popular mystery genre history--we find, after a discussion by Haycraft of Edgar Allan Poe in Chapter One, a profile of Gaboriau, Collins and Charles Dickens in Chapter Two ("Gaboriau, Collins, Dickens.  Each contributed something toward fictional detection. Jointly, they kept the form alive: saved the theme, perhaps, from premature extinction."), followed by a third chapter devoted to the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle and a certain Sherlock Holmes.

Fergus Hume makes a cameo appearance in Haycraft's Chapter Four, on account of, naturally, his massively successful The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, but Haycraft peremptorily dismisses the novel as a "shoddy pot-boiler....[s]carcely readable today" that "is mentioned here for its historical interest only."

Nary a woman is sighted in the pages of Murder for Pleasure until the formidable Baroness Orczy pops up on page 70, for her Man in the Corner tales.  Finally Anna Katharine Green crashes the scene on page 83, to be received with somewhat more welcome than Hume.  Haycraft allows that Green's The Leavenworth Case is "one of the true historical milestones of the genre" with a "remarkably cogent plot," despite what he considers "some incredibly bad writing."

For his part, Julian Symons in Bloody Murder introduces William Godwin into his Poe chapter, then moves on to discuss Dickens, Collins and Gaboriau.  He also includes a discussion of Charles Felix's The Notting Hill Mystery (1865; serialized 1862-1863), declaring that "there is no doubt" it was "the first detective novel."

This contention, incidentally, has been contested by those who make the case for Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Trail of the Serpent (1860/1)--see, for example, Anne-Marie Beller, who in her excellent Mary Elizabeth Braddon Companion (2012), edited by Elizabeth Foxwell, has condemned Symons for having "notoriously overlooked female contributions to the emerging mystery genre."

Symons also looks at the contributions to crime fiction of the great Victorian author Sherida Le Fanu, whom he calls "a romantic writer in the Gothic mode, working half a century after the Gothic novel had faded."

As I discussed in my previous post, Symons' omission of any discussion of women Victorian sensation novelists as such seems curious, when one considers that, from the evidence of his own book, he clearly had read Alma Murch's The Development of the Detective Novel (1958), wherein Murch devotes an entire chapter to the subject. In Bloody Murder Symons allows that Murch's book "contains a lot of detailed and valuable materiel about nineteenth-century crime fiction, not easily found elsewhere."

However, when Symons takes time to note that Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi "contains a chapter about fingerprints as a means of identification," but passes over Braddon and Wood, both of whom were praised by Murch for their contributions to developing detective fiction, one can only conclude some value judgments about basic literary worth were being made.

Yet Symons also finds space for a Major Arthur Griffiths, who wrote some "crime stories and historical romances" that "include detectives of sorts," but "are fifth-rate thrillers redeemed only by the writer's knowledge of criminal habits."  How can Major Griffiths merit mention, but neither Braddon nor Wood nor, for that matter, Elizabeth Gaskell, whose "The Squire's Story" Murch calls "a neat little tale of crime and detection, though presented as social commentary, thus escaping the stigma of 'sensationalism'"?

Julian Symons

Fergus Hume again receives notice, this time more positively, Symons allowing that his Hansom Cab is a "reasonably good imitation of Gaboriau, contributing some convincing scenes of low life." Anna Katharine Green comes off much more poorly, Symons being hard-pressed to explain the popularity of her Leavenworth Case, beyond suggesting that this "was perhaps partly due to her sex, partly because of the familiarity she showed with legal and criminal matters (her father was a lawyer), and partly--one is bound to think--because there were so few detective novels being written."

Ouch!  Well, in Mothers Lucy Sussex definitely has more to say about such assumptions, as I will be discussing in Part 3.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Listen to Your Mother(s) I: The Development of the Detective Novel (1958), by Alma Elizabeth Murch

On this blog I spend so much time looking at forgotten twentieth-century crime writers that I tend not to glance back as much as I should to the nineteenth-century, though I have made occasional forays there.  One of the most prominent scholarly detectives investigating nineteenth-century crime fiction is Lucy Sussex, whose book Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (Palgrave, 2010) studies the works and lives of a multitude of women writers from the nineteenth century.  Some of them are well-known, some not, but Sussex, following Catherine Ross Nickerson (see The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, 1998), argues that all of them were long insufficiently credited in genre histories for their accomplishments within the crime and mystery fiction genre.

I think there is no question that this contention is generally true of the once extremely influential genre histories of Howard Haycraft (Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of Detective Story, 1941) and Julian Symons (Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, 1972). Today, in 2015, it seems rather astonishing when one opens Haycraft and Symons and sees no mention made of Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Ellen Wood alongside Wilkie Collins and other male Victorian sensation writers who incorporated mystery elements into their fiction.  Of course Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone had been proclaimed by such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Sinclair Lewis as one of the great detective novels; and herein lies a problem in mystery fiction aesthetics.

Haycraft's book was subtitled "the life and times of the detective story" for reason. Haycraft was concerned with tracing the history of detective fiction, which he, quoting bibliophile John Carter, declares "must be mainly occupied with detection and must contain a proper detective."  Even The Moonstone, Haycraft asserted, "belongs midway between the romance of incident and the novel of character."  He distinguished between the mystery story and the detective story based on "whether...the solution is accomplished by incident (mystery story) or deduction (detective story)."

Howard Haycraft (1905-1991)

Haycraft was writing at the twilight of what we see today as the Golden Age of detective fiction, when the clue-puzzle is considered to have been the dominant form of mystery writing, so it is not surprising that in his book he emphasized what he deemed to be true detective fiction (in truth, the predominance of pure detective fiction had peaked before 1941 and even in the 1920s sales of thrillers exceeded those of detective fiction).

The omissions of Symons, whose Bloody Murder went through three editions between 1972 and 1992, are more striking, however, because he had read Alma Elizabeth Murch's The Development of the Detective Novel (1958), which looks not only at Dickens, Collins and Le Fanu, but includes a chapter entitled "Women Writers of Detective Fiction in the Nineteenth Century," in which works by Elizabeth Gaskell, Ellen Wood (then still generally known as Mrs. Henry Wood), Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Anna Katharine Green are discussed.

The book (later revised for republication in 1968) was based on Murch's M. A. thesis, "The Development of the Detective Story in France and England, 1850-1920," which she had submitted to the University of Bristol in 1956.

Alma Elizabeth Murch seems largely to have dropped out of the consciousness of mystery fans, which is a shame, as she laid out the markers for much of the modern discussion of nineteenth-century mystery fiction authored by women:

Most of the melodramatic novels written by women during the latter half of the nineteenth century were of little value in themselves or for our purpose, except that they maintained the popularity of a background against which certain types of detective theme could show to advantage.  In brief, they prepared the way for what may be called "the domestic detective story," in which the reader becomes acquainted with the normal daily life of the characters before the motif of a mysterious crime is introduced.

A few such novels did more than prepare the way.  They traveled some distance in that direction, and enlivened the domesticity or social intrigues of their plot with a sensational crime, leading to investigations along detective lines, if not so the creation of a detective.

Murch then discusses Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) and Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1861) in some detail, along with other novels by this pair of authors.

Of East Lynne she states

Within the extensive framework of this romance is a well-constructed murder mystery....More interest is focussed upon the drama of these developments than upon the process of detection which brings them about, yet that process is clearly and logically followed through to a successful conclusion, and an orderly array of evidence is placed before the court at the trial which forms the culmination of this detective theme.

Of Mary Braddon Murch concludes that "almost without exception" her "later novels deal with ingenious crimes and the circumstances that lead to the punishment of the criminal, and though she did not produce a detective-hero, she certainly made some contribution to the detective fiction of the 1870's and 1880's."

To Anna Katharine Green Murch devotes six pages, arguing that her works reflect a "far clearer conception of how a detective novel should be constructed," and she discusses The Leavenworth Case (1878) (claimed here, as it often was, to be the first detective novel written by a woman), That Affair Next Door (1897), Lost Man's Lane (1898) and the short story collection The Golden Slipper (1915), all works that have received considerable attention from modern scholars in the last couple of decades.

Murch notes that Green's novels in some respects resemble those of Wood and Braddon "in their introduction of such melodramatic features as guilty secrets behind a facade of wealth and luxury, unjust suspicions, dramatic revelations and noble reconciliations"; yet she concludes that Green "uses them merely to provide a background and create the mystery.  The paramount interest is clearly the theme of detection...."

Murch concludes that not even in The Moonstone "does the detective theme monopolize the reader's attention so completely as it does" in Green's novels and that in them "we can discern for the first time, in its entirety, the pattern that became characteristic of most English detective novels written during the following fifty years."

In their genre histories both Haycraft and Symons acknowledged the historical precedent of Green's detective fiction, though both men chastised the author for bathetic writing, a reflection of how the sensation fiction form generally had fallen into disfavor at this time, Collins and Sheridan Le Fanu excepted. (T. S. Eliot was another prominent twentieth-century critic who faulted Green's writing style.)

"Her style is unbelievably stilted and melodramatic by modern standards, her characterization forced and artificial," wrote Haycraft, while Symons chimed in too, damning The Leavenworth Case as a "drearily sentimental story" with "passages of pious moralizing which are pulled through only with the most dogged persistence."

Over the last several decades the reputation of Victorian sensation fiction in general and writers like Wood, Braddon and Green in particular has greatly risen in public and critical estimation (the rehabilitation of Collins and Le Fanu was already well underway during the Golden Age), and mystery genre studies have become less exclusively preoccupied with the purely ratiocinative form of mystery fiction epitomized by such writers as Poe and Christie, Queen and Carr.  So the time was ripe for a study like Lucy Sussex's, which looks not just at Wood, Braddon and Green but a host of women authors not touched upon by even the mysterious Ms. Murch. More soon on Sussex's excellent book.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Forging Links: Chain of Witnesses: The Cases of Miss Phipps (2015), by Phyllis Bentley

On all their faces, as they turned to her, she read that male expression of distaste which means "Women!"  Nevertheless, she persevered....

"Such little mysteries, at first sight inexplicable, are my stock in trade as a detective story writer," she went on blandly.  "Could I have the details of this one, please?"

                                                             --"Miss Phipps Goes to School"

"I read your detective stories aloud to my sister while she embroiders."

"Tapestry," put in Miss Hermione, raising her head from a very fine example of that kind of work.

"We enjoy them because they are exercises in pure ratiocination," continued the Master.

"No foolish thrills," said his sister, returning to her work.

                                                             --"A Telegram for Miss Phipps"

"You know that detective stories are the most moral of stories."

                                                            --"Miss Phipps Improvises"

Phyllis Bentley
During my research on crime writer Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964), I came across a contemporary review blurb for Street's John Rhode detective novel The Claverton Mystery (1933) from Phyllis Bentley (1894-1977), a critically-praised and bestselling English regional novelist.

"A solid workmanlike affair with well-arranged will complications and some exciting seances thrown in," Bentley declared of the Rhode novel.

"Solid" and "workmanlike" always seem a bit like faint praise to me, but, on the other hand, "well-arranged will complications" and "some exciting seances" should have proved headier enticements to Golden Age mystery readers.

All in all, the blurb suggests that Phyllis Bentley, like her accomplished mainstream novelist contemporaries Joanna Cannan (1896-1961) and Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956), was a fan of the "Humdrum" detective novelists (at least John Street's "John Rhode" novels, anyway).

Joanna Cannan herself wrote not only mainstream fiction, but also both crime novels and detective novels, beginning with the excellent No Walls of Jasper (1930), a gripping inverted murder novel that preceded the more celebrated ones by Francis Iles.  Kaye-Smith did not write any crime fiction to my knowledge, but Phyllis Bentley turned to the form in 1937, with the short story "Author in Search of a Character."

Bentley produced five more mystery short stories in the 1930s/40s, before Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen fame persuaded her to regularly contribute to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Between 1954 and 1974 EQMM published an additional eighteen stories by Bentley, making her total output of mystery tales stand at two dozen.  It it a significant body of genre work by an accomplished twentieth-century novelist.

Miss Phipps (looking more like
Maureen Stapleton than the author)
talks shop with DS Tarrant
Sixteen of the Phyllis Bentley stories have been collected in Crippen & Landru's latest mystery short story collection (edited by the eminent Marvin Lachman), Chain of Witnesses, a charming group of tales by an author who should be more read than she is today.

Had Bentley written a series of detective novels, she--like Miss Marian Phipps, the amateur detective in her short stories--probably would be more widely read today.

Bentley was born in 1894, in Halifax, West Riding, Yorkshire, three decades after the hugely prolific regional and crime novelist J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935) entered the world there (an interesting article on Bentley and her relationship with Yorkshire is found here, at the Halifax People website).

Interestingly, John Street also had a connection to Yorkshire, through his wealthy maternal grandfather, Charles Horsfall Bill, whose original family home was Storthes Hall, located near Huddersfield, about ten miles from Halifax.  A wealthy landed gentleman who owned multiple homes in England and Scotland, Bill probably never resided at Storthes Hall as an adult. Rather, he rented the mansion to a series of lessees, including a couple of textile mill owners, finally selling it, though an intermediary, to the West Riding County Council in 1898, for the price of 49,500 pounds. Storthes Hall became the nucleus of a West Riding asylum, which closed in 1991.

Storthes Hall today

Although Yorkshire was hugely important in Bentley's novels, this is not the case with her mystery short stories, all of which have as their sleuth a popular fiction writer named Marian Phipps.  We learn in the later stories, written expressly for ECMM, that Miss Phipps is a detective novelist.  It seems clear that Bentley modeled Miss Phipps considerably after herself.

Miss Phipps has her first recorded case in "Author in Search of a Character," which sees her solving a murder case for Detective-Sergeant Tarrant while on a train to Edinburgh.  In "The Crooked Figures," her third case (Miss Phipps' second case is omitted from the volume), Miss Phipps solves an inheritance problem for Tarrant, now a detective-inspector, smoothing the path for him to marry his American lady friend, Mary Fletcher Arneson.  While this tale does not take place in Yorkshire, it does draw on Yorkshire in a significant way.

By the fourth story, "The Significant Letter" (another murder, or attempted murder, case that is possibly the best of the early group), Tarrant is settled down with Mary in Southshire, in the "flourishing seaside resort of Brittlesea."  The Tarrants appear in many of the later Phipps stories as well, often with their toddler son, John, who makes his debut in "Miss Phipps Goes to School."

Phyllis Bentley
The Tarrants do not appear in the title story, a tour de force in which, as Marv Lachman puts it in his introduction, Miss Phipps proves that "one single change of plan...led to the murder of the local railroad stationmaster."

"Chain of Witnesses" and the other original Bentley mysteries that appeared in EQMM between 1954 and 1963 are probably the strongest tales, benefiting from a greater length than the earlier stories (10,000-12,000 words).

In these stories Miss Phipps solves puzzles at a boys' school, at the seaside, at a Shakespeare festival and at the hairdresser's, among other locales, always with a gentle, winsome charm.

These are cozy mystery tales, to be sure, but they represent the best of that tradition, offering readers well-written feats of ratiocination where virtue triumphs and order is restored, with the aid of a proper "lady novelist" who sounds quite a lot like the author. Chain of Witnesses is another finely-forged collection from Crippen & Landru.

Other Crippen & Landru reviews at The Passing Tramp:

Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense (2014), by Charlotte Armstrong
Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004), by Joseph Commings
The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas and Other Mysteries (2012), by Elizabeth Ferrars
More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006), by Edward D. Hoch

Friday, June 5, 2015

Coming Attractions

Just what kind of ghost do the McNeills hunt?
I had never seen this particular Theodora DuBois mystery book jacket before, but I think it is quite a nice design.  This DuBois novel immediately followed Death Comes to Tea(1940) and Death Is Late to Lunch (1941), which, you may notice, are depicted on either side of the library shelf to The McNeills Chase a Ghost (1941). Cute.

In the coming weeks I will be reviewing this novel, genre histories by Lucy Sussex and Martin Edwards, Crippen & Landru's latest collection of classic mystery short stories, a couple by Reginald Hill and a couple of books from the British Library/Poisoned Pen Press.

Whew! And that's just the writing for the blog.  See you soon.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Margery Allingham's Favorite Detective Novelists (1951)

At least these are the favorites Margery Allingham listed in correspondence with Fred Dannay, of Ellery Queen fame ("not in order of merit but just as I think of them"), as tweeted by Sarah Weinman:

John (Dickson Carr)
Erle Stanley Gardner
Nicholas Blake
Agatha Christie
Rex Stout
Mabel (MA struck out "Katherine," written first) Seeley
H. C. Bailey

And, she added to Dannay, "you and me of course!"

Interesting choices, in that the newest writer in the group, Mabel Seeley, had published her first mystery, The Listening House (discussed below), over a dozen years previously.  A pretty orthodox list on the whole!  After a seven-year hiatus from crime fiction, Seeley has just published her sixth mystery novel, The Beckoning Door, in 1950.

Not Your Maiden Aunt's HIBK: The Listening House (1938), by Mabel Seeley

Triangle reprint edition, jacket art by Zaccone
In his landmark genre survey, Bloody MurderJulian Symons wrote that Mary Roberts Rinehart's mystery fiction seemed designed specifically to be read by "maiden aunts"--obviously an intended put-down of the author's work yet one seemingly belied by the fact that Rinehart's crime novels was so widely read and praised by male book reviewers.

However, whatever one thinks about Rinehart (I like many of her books, myself), would Symons have written the same dismissive line about Mabel Seeley (1903-1991), especially her first impressive crime novel, The Listening House (1938)?  This emphatically is not your maiden aunt's HIBK.

Though it has appealing floor plans like something out of an S. S. Van Dine Philo Vance novel, Seeley's book, set in fictional Gilling City (St. Paul, Minnesota, where Seeley moved with her family in 1920 and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1926), has a much grittier edge to it than Van Dine extravaganzas like The Green Murder Case (1928), because Seeley draws on St. Paul's real-life past of endemic civic venality.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's
St. Paul boyhood home
"During the 1920s and 1930s," notes Catherine Coles, "St. Paul's Police Department was riddled with corruption." In particular, police Chief Tom Brown, in office from 1932-1934, writes Amy Goetzman in her interview with Tim Mahoney, author of Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang (2013), "not only had too many connections with the underworld but also was a full player in some of the most blatant crimes committed by the city's Prohibition-fueled gangland--including murder."

Although in her novel Seeley hid St. Paul behind the name of Gilling City, she draws heavily on its miasma of corruption in The Listening House. Seeley once argued that

Terror is more terrible, and more convincing, if it is aroused by incidents which are within the reader's possible experience.

For the horrible events that take place in The Listening House, Seeley didn't need a ruined castle, a mysterious monastery or a remote country mansion; she merely needed an old boarding house presided over by an elderly woman with lovely white hair.

basement floor of
the "listening house"
After getting fired from her job as a copy writer (on account of a male superior's error, for which she was blamed), our heroine, Gwynne Dacres, has to take a downscale apartment while looking for another job over the summer of 1937. For a surprisingly low rent, Dacres is able to get two nice rooms on the ground floor of old Mrs. Garr's house (illustration 2 gives a better idea of the structure of the house than the Zaccone jacket in illustration 1).

However, Dacres soon becomes irked with her landlady's intrusive and increasingly paranoid behavior. The lodgers themselves are a mixed lot of men and women, though Dacres develops a repartee relationship with handsome second-floor boarder Hodge Kistler, whom she first glimpsed while he was in his room doing chin-ups in his shorts.

This being a mystery, not romance, novel, however, it's not long before our heroine has stumbled across another male body, a deader this time, pushed over the concrete embankment behind Mrs. Garr's house. Could anyone in Mrs. Garr's household have been responsible?

In the classic manner of an HIBK heroine, Dacres starts snooping around, eventually putting her own life in peril.  Then there is another death, this one is the house itself and really quite horrific. (It is also, incidentally, a locked room problem, one of two such in the novel--neither is a patch on John Dickson Carr's stuff, but they are pleasing to see.)

Real-life events, slightly fictionalized, are referenced to great effect in The Listening House--it is indeed a very believable milieu that Seeley portrays. (I suspect Seeley draws on additional events from St. Paul's past, of which I am unaware.)  The love element is really well done, not too obtrusive, with an undercurrent of winning humor.  The mystery is well-managed and most readers, I suspect, will be kept in doubt until the end, even though Seeley gives readers a chance to deduce the solution for themselves.

first and second floors

Gwynne Dacres is a great character, a twenty-something divorcee and thus not your typical HIBK virginal ingenue or aged spinster. She makes mistakes, like any real life investigator might, but she is smart and determined and altogether a winning personality.

There also is a bracing sexual frankness to the book that no doubt impressed reviewers of the day and should impress readers even now, nearly eighty years after its publication. Anthony Boucher in particular was a great admirer of The Listening House, continuing to favorably reference the novel in reviews many years after it was published.

Disappointingly, when Afton Press reprinted four Seeley novels, it failed to include The Listening House, probably her best crime novel, and it since has become increasingly scarce.  I hope it will return to print in some form, because it is one of the best 'thirties American crime novels that I have read.

Note also this excellent laudatory review of the novel from six years ago by Kevin Killian, although you might want to peruse the review after you've read the book (there is quite a lot about the plot that I have refrained from mentioning).

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cottage to Let (1941)

Cottage to Let is an enjoyable British mystery thriller directed by Anthony Asquith, a prominent British film director best known for his adaptations of plays, including Pygmalion (1938), The Winslow Boy (1948), The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

Cottage to Let is very much a light crime thriller in the manner of Edgar Wallace, but it is very well done.  Set, of course, during the Second World War, in the environs of a country house, it concerns one of those gentleman genius amateur scientists you read about in British mystery fiction of the era, who in this case has invented a bombsight that is not only greatly valued by the British government, but fervently desired by a den of Nazi spies.  The Nazis are out at any cost to grab the plans, or the formula, or, hell, let's just call it, as Alfred Hitchcock did, the MacGuffin.

The scientist, John Barrington, is played by Leslie Banks, an actor with quite a respectable mystery/suspense genre pedigree, including the suspense classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932); Hitchock's original version of The Man who Knew too Much (1934)--the one with Peter LorreThe Murder Party (1935); Jamaica Inn (1939) (Hitchcock again); The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939); and Haunted Honeymoon (1940), the film adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon (1937) (though it's American Robert Montgomery who plays Lord Peter Wimsey).

All's fair in love and war?
John Mills, Carla Lehmann, Michael Wilding
Odd Duck
Alastair Sim chats up Jeanne De Casalis
while the maid looks on

Banks is good in this, although others in the cast have more colorful roles.  Who are the others?  Well there's John Barrington's scatty but very socially active wife, humorously played by Jeanne De Casalis; their lovely daughter, Helen, played by Carla Lehmann (though you might be forgiven for thinking it's Carole Lombard); Barrington's bespectacled young assistant, Alan Trently (Michael Wilding); and a trio of guests, originally all meant to stay at the Barringtons' cottage to let: the enigmatic Charles Dimble (Alastair Sim); a convalescent bomber pilot, Flt.-Lieut. Perry (John Mills); and a pugnacious adolescent Cockney evacuee named Ronald (George Cole).  Among this cast, there may be some individuals who are up to no good--but who???

As stated, this is an enjoyable film, with good acting, a clever script, some charming bits of humor, a little romance and a suitably thrilling ending.  Sim is fun as always of course, but it's really George Cole, the Cockney Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, who walks off with the film. (Cole, incidentally, just celebrated his ninetieth birthday this year.)  Also especially notable is John Mills, who lends the film some dramatic heft.  You might at times mistake Cottage to Let for an early Hitchcock movie like Young and Innocent (1937).  Evidently the film is public domain and can be viewed on youtube; there's also a good copy of it available on DVD.

As irrepressible as his hair: George Cole as "Ronald"