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

1 comment:

  1. I am most intrigued by your posting. I am adding the author and book to my "must read" list. Thanks!

    BTW, Crimes in the Library has been reactivated, and I look forward to your visits and comments.