Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not So Hard: Meet Me at the Morgue (1953), by Ross Macdonald

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1952, I was so badly crippled by gout that I was housebound in a wheelchair for months; wrote a whole book, a not very good book (Meet Me at the Morgue) with a not very good title, when all I could move was my fingers....

Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, 6 December 1971 (from Meanwhile There Are Letters)

The conventional wisdom long has been that Kenneth Millar's Ross Macdonald mysteries have a significant break in 1958/59, when Millar published novels The Doomsters and, especially, The Galton Case. Previous to that time the RM mysteries were more Raymond Chandler imitations, so this view goes, but at this point they become true Ross Macdonalds, concerned with exploring psychology and generational dysfunction, with Macdonald's series detective, Lew Archer, becoming less of a tough guy and more of a family therapist. While there's obviously a lot to this binary view, I think it can be overdrawn, as Millar had been making moves away from the Hammett-Chandler hard-boiled school for some time prior to the late 1950s.

When Kenneth Millar published the non-series novel Meet Me at the Morgue in 1953 he had already produced between 1949 and 1952 a string of four Lew Archer novels: The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin. According to Tom Nolan's biography of Millar, Meet Me at the Morgue was meant to be the a "Kenneth Millar" crime novel, the idea being to alternate it with the Ross Macdonalds.  There would be a new series character, one Howard Cross, and the series was not to be "hard-boiled."

This plan for a new series never materialized, however, nor was the novel credited to "Kenneth Millar," but rather to "John Ross Macdonald."  Yet Meet Me at the Morgue remains particularly interesting today as an early attempt to break out of the confines of the Fifties hard-boiled crime fiction aesthetic.

"As the tough style grew dumber and more brutal after Spillane, and as [New York Times mystery critic Anthony] Boucher continued to hail Macdonald as the successor of Hammett and Chandler, Millar tried to make his books less violent and more individualized, and (not so incidentally) to distance himself from Chandler," writes Tom Nolan in his fascinating biography (one of the best yet written about a mystery writer).

The game is afoot!
Meet Me at the Morgue has not a private eye as its sleuth, but rather an unremarkable California county probation officer named Howard ("Howie") Cross.  One of Cross's clients, Fred Miner--a World War Two veteran and chauffeur to a wealthy family, the Johnsons--is suspected of having kidnapped the young son of the family, Jamie Johnson.

Several years earlier, Miner was convicted of a drunk driving hit-and-run fatality, his victim never having been identified to this day, but the Johnsons kept him in their employ.  Is Miner, a war hero, now such a rotten apple that he would stoop to kidnapping?  Cross doesn't think so, and tries to get to the bottom of the whole affair.  If you think Miner's previous hit-and-run case may be implicated somehow, you may  be on to something!

I think it's a shame Macdonald himself so disparaged Meet Me at the Morgue to Edudora Welty, but Welty had been heaping boundless praise on his latest books, like The Underground Man (1971), as not mere mystery but "literature," so he may have been especially self-deprecatory about his earlier crime tales. The truth is, in my view, that Morgue is a superb fifties crime novel with a fast-paced narrative, economical but interesting character studies, enjoyable writing (Macdonald's love of simile is much in evidence) and  a well-manipulated plot that, in the manner of Agatha Christie, certainly kept me off kilter until very late in the book.  This bundle of gifts is nothing for which an author need apologize to his readers.

A tough mystery about a
kidnapping that led to

Pocket Books edition of
Meet Me at the Morgue
In his RM biography Tom Nolan provides interesting background detail on the writing of Meet Me at the Morgue, highlighting the challenges a putative "hard-boiled" writer faced in the world of fifties crime fiction publishing.  RM's publisher, Alfred Knopf, was enthusiastic about Morgue, telling Millar, "I like it immensely; I think it is one of your best."  Morgue was even sold for serialization to Cosmopolitan, quite a lucrative coup.

However, paperback publisher Pocket Books threw a wrench into the works when, in an assessment of the novel, it complained that Millar

is a very good writer and a fairly capable plotter, but for some reason all the books lack the kind of punch which should go with the sort of story he writes.  Maybe the author is just too nice a person, but his bad characters somehow or other aren't believably bad.  The sharp contrast between good and evil, so noticeable in Chandler's books and so important in this kind of story, is simply missing, at least for me. I wonder if some of your [Knopf's] experts couldn't somehow sharpen both the characters and the action.

too nice a person for all that
rough stuff: Ross Macdonald
I love Pocket's notion that RM might be too nice a person to write hard-boiled crime fiction.  (This is not a problem from which Chandler suffered!)  RM was not impressed with Pocket's advice. He wrote Knopf a five-page letter defending his writing and distinguishing it from Chandler's:

I think that perhaps a main difficulty arises from Pocket Books' assumption that this is a hardboiled novel, which it is not, and more specifically that this is an imitation of Chandler which fails for some reason to come off.  I must confess I was pleased with the characterization--the characters are more human than in anything I've done, closer to life--and more than pleased with the plot.  Plot is important to me....For [Chandler] any old plot will do....

His subject is the evilness of evil, his most characteristic achievement the short vivid scene of conflict between (conventional) evil and (what he takes to be) good....I can't accept Chandler's vision of good and evil.  It is conventional to the point of old-maidishness, anti-human to the point of frequent sadism (Chandler hates all women and most men, reserving only lovable oldsters, boys and Marlowe for his affection), and the mind behind it, for all its enviable imaginative force, is uncultivated and second-rate....My literary range greatly exceeds his, and my approach will not wear out so fast.

....I can write a sample of the ordinary hard-boiled mystery with my eyes closed.  But preferring as I do to keep my eyes open, I've spent several years developing it into a form of my own, which nobody can imitate.  When the tough school dies its inevitable death I expect to be going strong, twenty or thirty books from now....

If anyone has ever felt, as I do, that Chandler unjustly disparaged Millar's RM novels in a couple of his famously splenetic letters, Millar certainly paid Chandler back for it in full in this impassioned and eloquent epistle. ("His subject is the evilness of evil"--quite a clever putdown, I think, and I am a Chandler fan!)

The evilness of evilRaymond Chandler

Millar's whole letter, about 1200 words, is reprinted in Nolan's biography and is, I understand, included in the new Library of America omnibus of RM novels.  It's a valuable document in mystery genre history, a revelation of the early pushback the traditional hard-boiled was receiving from one of its putative practitioners, still included today as the third in the hard-boiled triumvirate: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

Incidentally, Millar also had a go-round with the publisher about the title of the novel. Millar's title was Message from Hell, which Knopf nixed, notes Nolan. (I can't blame them.)  Pocket wanted the trite The Convenient Corpse, which Millar rejected.  Nolan says that Millar "halfheartedly" suggested Meet Me at the Morgue, which Knopf thereupon accepted.  Characters in the novel do in fact meet each other at the morgue, and certainly the alliteration is so meticulously marked you won't forget the title anytime soon!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Pavane for a Dead Princess: Banshee (1983), by Margaret Millar

There was no prisoner.  No one had been arrested or even detained for very long though hundreds had been questioned, everyone who lived in the neighborhood or worked there or had reason to come deliver mail or newspapers, to read meters or service water softeners, to sell cosmetics or religion; migrant fruit pickers, registered sex offenders living in or passing through town, even a self-styled holy man who claimed to live only in the past and in the future.  After sampling the food and accommodations at the county jail he conceded he knew nothing of the future, remembered only a few fragments of the past and preferred to spend the present on the outside rather than the inside.  He went back to banging his tambourine and panhandling along the beach-front, and the death of the little princess remained a mystery.

Margaret Millar
The late crime writing couple Kenneth and Margaret Millar (1915-1983/1915-1994) both were born 100 years ago this year and accordingly they have been getting additional attention from the publishing industry of late.

The Library of America has published Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s (edited by Tom Nolan), elevating Ross Macdonald--the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar--to its ultimate crime fiction pantheon, along with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and David Goodis; while they have given Margaret Millar a single spot in their Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s (edited by Sarah Weinman).

See links to these volumes here and here. A Sixties Ross Macdonald collection from the LOA is forthcoming.

The Millars also feature prominently in the recently published Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection, co-edited by Tom Nolan, of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Kenneth Millar.  I will be reviewing this book soon.

As any reader of Tom Nolan's biography of Ross Macdonald or Meanwhile There Are Letters will know, the Millars' later years were marked by personal tragedy and physical debilities (the death of their troubled only child, Linda, Kenneth's Alzheimer's and Margaret's cancer and macular degeneration).

Kenneth Millar published his last Ross Macdonald detective novel, The Blue Hammer, in 1976, before Alzheimer's closed his world in on him; but Millar managed to produce five more crime novels between 1976 and 1986, three of which are, I think, up to the standards of her earlier work, some of the greatest crime fiction in the genre.

One of these better late novels is Margaret Millar's penultimate crime tale, Banshee, published the year of her husband's death.  This novel has been praised by my friend Jeffrey Marks, who has written about Millar in his book on mid-century American women crime writers, Atomic Rennaissance, and I second that praise.

The inspiration for Millar's book seems to have been  the composer Maurice Ravel's beautifully pensive Pavane pour une infant defunte, which is explicitly referenced by a character in the book, though he credits the work to Claude Debussy.

The first chapter of Banshee details a week in the life of Annamay Hyatt, the indulged eight-year-old daughter of the wealthy Kay and Howard Hyatt. Dubbed the princess by Millar, Annamay even has her own "castle" playhouse specially commissioned for her by an architect friend of the Kays, Benjamin York. Annamay is a "golden child" as the phrase goes, and the reader likes her too, as she is charmingly portrayed by Millar.

Sadly, Annamay vanishes one day; and the second chapter details the child's funeral, her bones having been discovered near the Hyatt estate, "a mile or so up the creek under a pile of forest litter covered by a tangle of poison oak.  The poison oak was red with autumn by this time and very pretty."

We have always lived in a castle....
I think most people concede that Millar's peak as a crime writer took place around 1950 to 1964, when she published nine mystery novels, many of which are among the mid-century's masterpieces of the genre.  Yet Banshee is on a level with this earlier work.  By turns funny and sad, warm and cold, Banshee depicts the baffling enigmas of human life in addition to the strange mystery of a beloved child's death.

The mystery puzzle element in Banshee is quite well done, with Christie-esque traps for the reader and a twisty solution that surprised me, even though the clues are there; but the tale also has notable psychological depth.  Though a short novel, around 60,000 words, there's as much insight into people as you get in some modern crime tomes that are twice or even thrice as long.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reprints and Recognitions

It's interesting times we are having in the world of vintage mystery blogging and publishing. When McFarland published my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery three years ago I was often told no one outside of compulsive crime fiction collectors wanted to read forgotten Golden Age mystery writers. Now in 2015 a lot more people are getting in on this game, which has led me to think about what might be termed some ethical questions concerning publishing and the vintage mystery blogging community.

Recently the British Library's success with their Crime Classics mystery reprint series seems to have inspired an imitator, in British independent publisher Pepik Books' Lost Crime Classics series.  The style of the books looks similar to me. Books in both series have quite attractive covers, drawn, it appears from vintage poster art.

Claire Theyers--owner, I believe, of Pepik Books--writes on the LCL website:

I was amazed how many excellent books are lost: their authors long forgotten about and their stories gathering dust in bookshops and charity stores.

American Queens of Crime is Pepik Books' first series of rediscovered crime novels. Only quality detective fiction that I have personally read and truly enjoyed makes it into the series.  

I hope to follow with many more.

Godspeed, Claire Thayers, but as far as I'm aware, it was I, your Passing Tramp, who on the internet first publicized Anita Blackmon and Margaret Armstrong, the pair of authors in Pepik Books' American Queens of Crime series, way back in 2012.

Not long after I started my blog I did a two-part series on forgotten "Had-I-But-Known" authors. Can you guess who the two authors in the series were?  I'll give you two guesses.

Got it?  I bet you did.

The first author, about whom I blogged on 11 January 2012 was Anita Blackmon, in a post titled

Had I But Known Authors #1: Anita Blackmon Crime Queen of Arkansas

About two weeks week later, on 28 January 2012, I wrote about Margaret Armstrong in a post titled

Had I But Known Authors #2: Margaret Armstrong: HIBK Patrician

I also highly praised Armstrong's Murder in Stained Glass.

So the two authors in British publisher Pepik Books' 2015 American Queens of Crime series are the two authors I highlighted in a 2012 series on my blog.  Mere coincidence?

aka Anita Blackmon
I also note that in fact Coachwhip reprinted the two Anita Blackmon mysteries a year ago, with an introduction commissioned from me. (Here are links to the first and second Blackmon books reprinted by Coachwhip.)

Coachwhip recognizes my work in rediscovering--I use this word advisedly--forgotten mystery authors and they remunerate me for commissioned introductions, so I am, I hope understandably, a bit biased in their favor.

Nor is Coachwhip the only publisher to do this.  Just this month I have been at work on introductions for mystery reprints by three different publishers. I would be pleased to work with other interested publishers as well.  I can assure them I know of a great many additional forgotten Golden Age mystery writers, many of whom are worthy of rediscovery and republication.

The Anita Blackmon reprints have not gotten the attention of those of say M. Doriel Hay, but I'm glad to say that they, like the Ianthe Jerrold books with Dean Street Press, another publisher with whom I have worked, have received good word on and

Here are some excepts from reader reviews of Blackmon's mysteries on those websites:

Oh isn't there?
[T]he grumpy but lovable personality of Miss [Adelaide] Adams keeps the reader hooked....  Readers who enjoy vintage mysteries are likely to be charmed by [Murder a la Richelieu]. The succinct introduction is very helpful in placing Anita Blackmon among the various styles of Golden Age writers.

[Murder a la Richelieu] has a strong plot with many wonderful characters. The pace never falters from one shocking death after another.

Nice characterization and an event-filled plot make [Murder a la Richelieu] an entertaining read.

If you like Agatha Christie, you will like [Murder a la Richelieu].

This is a very fun book [There Is No Return], with a feisty, quirky narrator (Miss Adelaide Adams), lots of suspicious characters, several star-crossed lovers for Miss Adams to advise, and plenty of supernatural terror in the air.  A real find for lovers of vintage mysteries!  The introduction in this edition, succinct and informative, adds to the reader's pleasure.

You'll be guessing right up to the end.  Adelaide Adams is a most delightful old young at heart spinster and accidental detective....  [T]he story [
There Is No Return] is terrific.

Anita Blackmon is a forgotten national treasure.  What a great sense of humor, with telling observations of character and lovely descriptive passages. She's a real peach of a read.

I'm so pleased for that kind of feedback for an author I helped get on the literary map again. I'm especially pleased that the Amazon reviewers liked the winning character of Adelaide Adams as much as I did.

However, to toot my own horn here (needs must when the Devil drives), I write about mystery fiction not just for pleasure, but also with some expectation of being recognized and perhaps even remunerated for my work, which includes critically praised books on the subject that have appeared every year since 2012. While my blog, which has been praised by such prominent critics as Michael Dirda and Sarah Weinman, is not, strictly speaking, for profit, I would like at least to be recognized for the work that appears on it.

Do other bloggers feel the same way about their blog work? Over the next week, in addition to some other more typical blog pieces (reviews and such) I'm going to go over some notable vintage mystery writer rediscoveries that have been made by myself and others in the blogging community and I'm going to evaluate how these rediscoveries have fared at the hands of publishers.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Pretty Poison Puzzle: An Old Lady Dies (1934), by Anthony Gilbert

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle, a test of your skill...."

Anthony Gilbert's An Old Lady Dies is the penultimate novel in the author's ten book Scott Egerton series (on #5, The Night of the Fog, see here).  When it was published it was subjected, as I see it, to a rare uncharitable review from Gilbert's Detection Club colleague Dorothy L. Sayers, then mystery reviewer for the Sunday Times.

Sayers chidingly noted that this was the third Anthony Gilbert novel published "within a year" (The previous two were 1933's Death in Fancy Dress and The Musical Comedy Crime; Gilbert between 1927 and 1934 published a dozen detective novels, an average of three every two years, while Sayers in the same period published eight, an average of one a year) and she pronounced this "rather good going."

Apparently feeling that prolific production threatened to sap her friend's talent and turn her into a hack, Sayers went on to lecture the younger writer on the perils of publishing three books in the space of a year. (Although to be fair to Gilbert, she had published two mysteries in 1933 and would again publish two in 1934, not exactly an unknown rate for mystery writers of the period--Agatha Christie herself often published two detective novels a year in the 1930s, including in 1934, the same year of this Sayers review, and one of the novels was Murder on the Orient Express.) Sayers wrote:

Higher Authority seemed
something less than pleased
The greatest genius is usually attended by a considerable fertility, but, as a rule, it is too much to expect a fresh masterpiece every four months. With the detective story the temptation to over-production is especially dangerous: first, because it is only too easy to shake up the old pieces of the kaleidoscope into what looks something like a new plot, and, secondly, because the public (and this means You!) is still too indulgent to hasty and mechanical writing where mysteries are concerned. This is not to say that "An Old Lady Dies" shows any noticeable falling-off from the author's usual standard; in fact, it is quite up to average, and is actually better put together than "The Musical Comedy Crime."  But I do not feel that there was any strong and compelling reason for writing it.

Ouch! Personally, Sayers' chastisement notwithstanding, I think the book's existence is easily justified by the fact that it is quite an enjoyable detective novel.

In her review Sayers actually allows that in An Old Lady Dies the "various characters are quite well distinguished" and "there are passages of pleasing dialogue" and an "exceedingly ingenious device" by which the the "culprit is forced into confession," but then fatally undercuts this praise by pronouncing that the novel "is not memorable."

not without detection
It's easier to understand Sayers' rather harsh criticism of what actually is, as I wrote above, quite a good detective novel, if we appreciate how at this time Sayers herself had become somewhat bored with the puzzle-oriented mystery and apparently expected everyone else to share her latest views on the matter. Sayers at this time was writing a novel, Gaudy Night, that some modern genre critics and fans consider a masterpiece, and I suppose one could say she complimented Gilbert by suggesting that she might do the same herself.  (Apparently one needs a year to compose a mystery masterpiece.) Yet we modern readers who are not so jaded as Sayers was with a surfeit of traditional detective novels are perhaps more likely to appreciate the classic craftsmanship that Anthony Gilbert put into An Old Lady Dies.

An Old Lady Dies involves the classic situation (which perhaps Sayers found dull by then) of the tyrannical old person with a string of impecunious relations who is conveniently done in most foully. After hateful old Mrs. Wolfe is fatally poisoned at the Manor in the village of Aston Merrry, suspects immediately can be found among her much younger husband, Simon Wolfe; her spinster daughter, Dorothy John; and her five charming grandchildren by her four other, now deceased, children.

and it was not a natural death....
After an inquest finds one of these individuals responsible for the murder--this is a fictional inquest where things really do pop--a private investigator is brought in with the hope of finding another culprit, and very late in the novel Scott Egerton is solicited to look over all the gathered facts.

In a classic case of mostly armchair detection, the brilliant and elegant Liberal MP alights on the culprit, who is forced out by, as even Sayers admitted, a most ingenious gambit.

While An Old Lady Dies is not nearly as atmospheric as The Night of the Fog (and not nearly as, um, long as Gaudy Night), I enjoyed it immensely, finding it smoothly readable and well-plotted.

Throughout the novel interesting characters pop up, like the shopkeeping couple who have finally attained their dream of retiring to a house near the sea, and Gilbert writes up her spinsters most effectively as usual.  There was also this striking passage, in which Gilbert discusses her MP sleuth's view of the parlous political scene in 1934:

The world, as Egerton saw it, was in a nasty mess, and the few people who cared about it were groping like ants in a vast Babylon surrounded by ruins that might collapse on their heads at any moment.  He had particular troubles, too, in his own constituency: unemployment was rife, and men who had suffered damage in the war. and recovered from it, were slipping back into their ancient disabilities; the spirit of dogged hope was breaking, and in its place came fear, dereliction, defiance; it might eventually break into open rebellion.  Egerton, who deplored all unscientific and unconstitutional methods, had to admit that he couldn't blame the participants if it did.

Sayers may not have found this memorable, but I did.  To be sure, it's rather obiter dicta as far as the story is concerned, but the story itself, as I have indicated, is far from shabby. This is another good'un from Gilbert as far as I'm concerned.

An Old Lady Dies now is available in a modern edition in the UK, though not in the US.

Note: For a discussion of how three Golden Age British detective novelists, GDH and Margaret Cole and Henry Wade, dealt with political and social issues in their crime fiction, see my newest book, The Spectrum of English Murder.