Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hasty Pudding, by Mignon Eberhart (as imagined by The Passing Tramp)

Readers of this blog may know that I have a certain fondness for the romantic crime fiction of "America's Agatha Christie" (as she was dubbed), Mignon Eberhart (1899-1996).  See "Wedding from Hell," my review of Eberhart's 1943 novel Unidentified Woman here.

Long-lived and hugely prolific, Mignon Eberhart has a tremendous number of crime novels to her credit, but, it's like with chocolates, don't you wish there were another? Something like this mysterious fragment that I reproduce here....

Hasty Pudding (1930s?)

Chapter One

As Creme added the molasses to the corn meal she suddenly realized that something was wrong.  Just how utterly, terribly wrong Creme did not realize until after that deviled casserole of murder and mayhem had been laid down before them at the dinner table of their lives in all its steaming horror. Before it was all over everyone had seconds.

Creme's slender fingers, from which she had reluctantly removed her engagement ring not long ago, reached for the milk to add to the corn meal and molasses mixture.  While Creme stirred she was reminded of that cruel hand of fate that had placed her here in the vast, old-fashioned kitchen of Brulee Hall, the stately mansion in the Louisiana bayou country that for generations had been the cherished ancestral home of Creme's people.

Creme's mother had died in childbirth, leaving to her bereaved husband, Brule, a bouncing baby Creme, as well as her valuable collection of rare cookbooks.  With only young Creme--admittedly shy but such a lovely and sweet-natured child--and his wizened Cajun housekeeper, Gumbo, to keep him company, Brule Brulee fell prey to the beautiful, exotic divorcee Tannis Anise while he was on a New Orleans business trip.

Brule had been seeking to improve the terms of the mortgage on Brulee Hall in consultation with the family attorney, crafty old New England Yankee Clement Chowder, when he came across the stunning Tannis, who had an appointment at Clem Chowder's law office to see about getting an increase in the alimony from one of her former husbands. Upon her marriage to Brule, which followed soon thereafter,Tannis fatefully brought with her to reside at Brulee Hall her own daughter, Star.

Star, ruminated Creme bitterly, how appropriate that name was!  For it was indeed a star-crossed day when the dainty feet of Star Anise crossed the hallowed threshold of Brulee Hall.  As Brule Brulee aged he fell increasingly under the sinister domination of the haughty Tannis, who always made sure that it was her own shining Star who got the best of everything, while Creme had to settle for the leavings.

It was Star who got the precious Brulee family recipe for hasty pudding.  It was Star who got all the copper saucepans.  It was Star who got Brulee Hall after Brule Brulee passed on and Tannis, felled by a poorly coddled egg, followed Brule into the Great Beyond three years later.  And it was Star--having at her disposal all the culinary arts of Paris, where she had been sent to cooking school--who ensnared Creme's own childhood sweetheart and fiancee, Boeuf Bourguignon.

Creme vividly remembered the heart-rending agony of that day when she received the wedding invitation. Sometimes in her bleakest hours she wondered, just a little bit, whether the cruelty in Star's words could possibly have been intentional.  But, no, surely not!

Dear Creme, the letter had read:

It sure looks like Brulee Hall to me
It seems, my dear, that I have just gone and snapped up your great big portion of Boeuf, right out from under your own silly little nose! What he ever saw in a pathetic drip like you I simply can't imagine! Anyway, be that as it may, you know I will simply die if you won't be my maid of honor at the wedding, so that I can rub the whole thing in your insipid face!  Please do say yes.  

Your loving stepsister, Star

What could Creme do?  For advice she turned, as always, to her old maternal aunt, jolly, fat Vicky Soise, for whom she served as companion after her father's death. (Tannis and Star had made it sufficiently clear that her presence was no longer desired at Brulee Hall.) Creme was told in no uncertain terms by the aged lady that even in these degenerate days family was family and nuptials were nuptials, even when you'd like to strangle the bride with your own bare hands.

Aunt Vicky herself could not attend, but of course she would pay Creme's way down to Bayou Brulee and back.  Why, Creme should consider the trip a vacation!

Dear, dear, dense Aunt Vicky!

End Chapter One

Wow, I don't know about you, but I can hardly wait to read Chapter Two.  Things look like they're coming to a rolling boil at Brulee Hall!  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers, March Edition Week Five (John Dickson Carr)

Greetings all.  I, the Passing Tramp, am hosting the Tuesday Night Club Bloggers at my modest digs tonight.  So without further preliminaries here are links to the final round of posts for the month of March, all concerning that amazing minister of miracles, John Dickson Carr:

Sticking to the Formula
At the Villa Rose (Xavier Lechard)

A Review of It Walks by Night 
Cross Examining Crime (Kate Jackson)

John Dickson Carr's Best Book?
Clothes in Books (Moira Redmond)

A Review Who Killed Matthew Corbin?
Tipping My Fedora (Sergio Angelini)

April brings us not only Fool's Day, but also a Tuesday Night Bloogers month-long look at the madcap crime novels of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, whom one might dub the April Fool of mystery writers.  Enjoy!

Crimes in the Country: Frozen River (2008) and Winter's Bone (2010)

Two excellent Oscar-nominated films starring female leads and directed by women, Frozen River (2008) and Winter's Bone (2010) use crime fiction as a means of exploring local culture and family dysfunction in two distinct rural regions of the United States: upstate New York and the Missouri Ozarks.

Frozen River, written and directed by Courtney Hunt (who received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay), tells the story of Ray Eddy (best actress Oscar nominee Melissa Leo), a struggling middle-aged mother of two boys living in a trailer home whose husband has just run off with their savings to go on a gambling spree.

After encountering Mohawk single mother Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), the increasingly desperate Ray, whose only source of income is her part-time job at the local Yankee Dollar store, gets drawn into the more lucrative but dangerous crime world of smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River that separates the United States from Canada on the local Mohawk reservation.

Centered on an authoritative performance by Melissa Leo, Frozen River makes compelling viewing. Will Ray get out of her mess, or will she be plunged into disaster?  Besides the crime drama, however, the film offers a fascinating look at a local culture--or cultures, I should say, the interplay between the Native Americans and whites being particularly fascinating. Both Ray and Lila are mothers having to deal with harsh economic circumstances and absconding, irresponsible men. Will these two women, who actually share much in common, come to a better understanding of each other? (Things certainly don't get off to a good start.)

Off to a Bad Start: Lila and Ray make their first trek across the frozen river

Winter's Bone shares a great deal in common with Frozen River.  Directed by Debra Granik, who received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay which she co-adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell (the film was also nominated for best picture), Winter's Bone details the struggles of Ree (not to be confused with Frozen River's Ray), a seventeen year-old tasked with taking care of both her younger brother and sister and her mentally ill mother after her father is arrested for meth distribution.

Since being released on bail he has disappeared and, because he put up as partial bond the family house and land, Ree faces imminent crisis--the breakup of her what remains of her family--unless she can track down her dad.  Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence, now of course one of Hollywood's most bankable and critically-esteemed stars.  She received her first best actress Oscar nomination for this role.

Eventually Ree finds herself running up against a local crime family, putting herself at great personal peril if she continues asking questions.  There's also her enigmatic uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes, Oscar nomination for best supporting actor); where does he stand in all this?

Graveyard Shift: Ree and Teardrop make a midnight visit to the cemetery

Even darker than Frozen River, Winter's Bone works splendidly as "country noir" but additionally as a fascinating study of regional American folkways (and crime waves). Jennifer Lawrence does an excellent job, though her luminous beauty is arguably a bit of a handicap here.  As Teardrop, the second most important character in the film, the scraggy and intense John Hawkes seems, like Melissa Leo with Ray in Frozen River, to have been born to play his role. Hawkes seem equally suited to both period Westerns and noir and really deserves some good roles. (Recently he played the lead in the hard-boiled film Too Late, currently in limited--very limited--release; I dearly want to see it.)

Both films are heartily recommended as excellent crime drama or, simply, drama.  This tramp gives them two thumbs up.

For an enlightening essay on Winter's Bone see, preferably after you have viewed the film, this essay by Michael Moon and Colin Talley, linked as well above:

Life in the Shatter Zone: Debra Granik's Winter's Bone

Friday, March 25, 2016

Back Again: The Bank Vault Mystery (1933) and Brokers' End (1935)

Soon to be out with Coachwhip as a twofer volume are the pair of reissued mysteries from Louis F. Booth, with an introduction written by me.  As I explained in an earlier post, both detective novels are written very much in the classic vein and should interest vintage mystery fans, especially those who like Freeman Crofts, J. J. Connington, John Street and the newly reissued Basil Thomson. Dorothy L. Sayers compared Booth to Crofts, but in my opinion Booth is a better pure writer, with something of a sardonic edge and more of a knack for realistic character portraiture.  I hope readers of this blog will give Booth's books a look.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Inscrutable? The Chinese Puzzle (1957), by Miles Burton

"There seems to be an unusual rate of mortality among the Chinese community, Mr. Lapworth?"

"There is," Lapworth replied as they reentered the mortuary.  "Two of them within little over a week."

Merrion wondered how [Inspector] Arnold or, for that matter, any other of the police concerned, would cope with the situation.  To them, the Chinese mentality must be completely bewildering. They might have been called to some remote planet, with a civilization different in every possible way from one to which they were accustomed.  This was no question of a battle of wits, in which skillful cross-questioning might elicit the truth. Only by entering into the minds of those involved would it be possible to discover what had actually happened.

                                                                       --Miles Burton, The Chinese Puzzle (1957)

As discussed here recently, blogger Noah Stewart a few days ago denounced John Street's 1957 "Miles Burton" novel The Chinese Puzzle for "disgraceful attitudes and comments" concerning Chinese people.  Yet critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor deemed The Chinese Puzzle a novel with which "one can spend a soothing and enjoyable evening" and more recently R. E. Faust, an astute reader of John Street and other so-called "Humdrum" mystery writers, asserted that the novel "does not descend into just displaying racial stereotypes," though he conceded that the portrayal of uneducated Chinese laborers [often called "coolies"] "may seem outdated to some modern readers."

More recently Crich70, a Goodreads reviewer, wrote that The Chinese Puzzle "was an interesting little murder mystery.  Though it wasn't what we now call PC as the Chinese characters are more stereotypical than what would be written today....Still the plot did hang together well."

John Street happened to be interested in business and labor issues, much more so, I believe, than the typical Golden Age mystery writer.  Though he came of a landed gentry and military background, he had a great interest in technology, which we see reflected in his detective novels, particularly those written under his punning "John Rhode" pseudonym.  Street was an artillery officer in the First World War (later serving in British intelligence) and before the war he was employed as the chief electrical engineer in a power company.

A hugely prolific author, Street had a highly disciplined writing schedule.  He would write in the morning, depart for the local pub at noon and return home a couple of hours later to write some more. Pubs are a common feature of Street's novels and the author amazed his Detection Club colleagues, like his great friend John Dickson Carr, with his ability to consume huge amounts of beer without showing any outward effect (aside from his steadily expanding girth; by the 1930s he had lost his slim wartime figure).

Street's house in Kent, where he and John Dickson Carr
worked on the novel Fatal Descent
An aspect of Street's personality as manifested in his novels that I found particularly interesting was the interest evinced in work. Street writes about businessmen, tradesmen, mechanics, farmers and farmer hands with authority. One of his detective novels, Death in the Hop Fields, followed George Orwell by looking at hops pickers in Kent, a county where Street lived for some years.

Reflecting his intelligence background, in the 1920s Street wrote extensively about European politics, showing a particular interest in affairs in France (he was conversant in French and translated several works from French to English) and Central Europe (for example, he wrote an admiring biography of Czechoslovakian statesman Tomas Masaryk).  He and his companion, Eileen Street, were great world travelers, though I don't know whether the couple ever visited China.  But the point is, Street, despite his reputation as a "Humdrum" mystery writer, was actually something of a cosmopolitan man, interested in a wide variety of subjects, and he had since he was a child wanted to know how things worked.

By the time Street got around to writing The Chinese Puzzle, he was 73 years old and near the end of his mystery writing career.  (His last detective novel appeared in 1961, and he died three years later.)  Does it reflect poorly on the man, or is it merely some acceptable light entertainment as Barzun, Taylor and Faust have contended?

First, I want to correct one impression people might have gotten from Noah's scathing review.  This is not a "Yellow Peril" novel, like the popular Fu Manchu crime thrillers by Sax Rohmer.  Noah makes reference, generally, to books of this ilk depicting beautiful white girls menaced by Asian "devils." Nothing of the sort happens in The Chinese Puzzle.  No white people are menaced, whether female or male, beautiful or, well, frumpy. (Though Street includes a briefly appearing character named "Mr. Nayland," I'm guessing an allusion to Rohmer's hero Nayland Smith.  In Puzzle Mr. Nayland, a crotchety farmer who owns the wood where the two dead Chinese men are found, visits the police demanding compensation for damage done to his fence by thrill-seeking sightseers.)

I want to emphasize this: the novel is about the investigation into the deaths of two Chinese men.  The authorities in the novel do not indifferently wash their hands of the affair and say this is of no concern to them because the dead men are Chinese "coolies"; they try to get to the bottom of the deaths and punish those who are guilty. "It's all very well for you and him to talk of [exculpatory reasons for the crimes]," declares stalwart series policeman Inspector Arnold near the end of the novel, before countering bluntly that "murder is murder."

The novel opens with the apparent attack, at half-Chinese "Spotty" Jim Whampoa's London boarding house, of one Chinese man on another, a carpenter named How Ming ("a good man at his trade").

The assailant claims through an interpreter ("a perfectly respectable Chinese tradesman from Limehouse") that he is one Ah Lock, from the seaside city of Cranport, but it comes to appear that he is not in fact Ah Lock after all. What has become of Ah Lock?

Although in his original appearance in a Miles Burton novel Inspector Arnold was conversant in German and was a relatively sophisticated indivudal, he soon, let us say, devolved and came to depend heavily on the amateur assistance of his clever friend Desmond Merrion (formerly of Admiralty Intelligence), who resides at The Hall at the quaint village of High Eldersham (actually quaint ain't the word for it--see Merrion's debut novel, The Secret of High Eldersham) and also has rooms in London, where he is faithfully attended by his loyal "man," Newport.

In The Chinese Puzzle Arnold again comes to Merrion for help, this time in a case concerning Chinese residents in England, inscrutable in his eyes:

"Didn't you tell me once that you knew something about the Chinese and their ways?" asks Arnold, to which Merrion replies: "....I hope you didn't assume from what I said that I was an expert.  I can't claim to be an Old China Hand, though I have spent a little time both in Hong Kong and Shanghai."

Despite this momentary outburst of modesty, Merrion soon is rather smugly discoursing to Arnold on Chinese ways, especially the ways of "uneducated Chinese."

Arnold is informed that they are superstitious and have little conception of time, and that their minds do not work, as those of Westerners ostensibly do, on "straight and logical lines." You get the point: a lot of patronizing sweeping generalities, from a man who "spent a little time both in Hong Kong and Shanghai."

Also expressed in the novel is the common refrain that "average" Europeans have trouble distinguishing one Chinese person from another.  Margery Allingham based a rather brilliant short story, "The Same to Us," on this notion.

I think this no question is a weakness to the novel. Aside from questions of the distastefulness, there is the simple fact that though the novel hinges on the death of two Chinese men (the real Ah Lock soon turns up dead in Cranport), most of the Chinese characters are so insufficiently characterized that the reader does not feel even a minimal emotional stake in their fates.

Characterization is something for which writers like Street have been faulted by some and here it definitely seems an issue. Had Street been able to get beyond these casual, generic anthropological assertions and make his characters not simply names but something approaching real individuals it would have made a stronger, and less potentially offensive, book. Unfortunately, the perspective he offers remains quite a limited one, very much that of an outsider peering into a world he only dimly perceives.  Merrion arguably is worse than the other white characters in the novel, because he presumes to think he knows better.

Here's an exchange in the novel that shows the limitations of Street's approach: With perhaps one exception (an upper class Chinese man; see below), he never really takes you into the minds of his Chinese characters, except on the most superficial, stereotypical level.  The owner of Cranport's Celestial Laundry, a Scot named Mackay, is asked about Ah Lock, who was one of his Chinese workers:

"You tell me that you have known Ah Lock for years," said Lapworth.  "What sort of man was he?"

"A very good laundry hand," Mackay replied.  "Most Chinese are good at laundry work, and that's why I always employ then.  Ah Lock was one of the best.  But he always was a queer chap in his way. The others were always chattering away like so many monkeys, but Ah Lock very rarely said a word. It wasn't that he kept aloof from the rest of them, but that he didn't seem to share their interests.  I don't know why it was."

"Did that make him unpopular, Mr. Mackay?" Arnold asked.

"I don't know that it did," Mackay replied.  "I never saw any signs of ill-feeling.  But you never can tell with these Chinese.  They don't display their feelings except among themselves.  I don't speak the language, though I've picked up a few words."

Here too is included the "chattering like monkeys" line that Noah criticized. Obviously this is a phrase that inevitably provokes consternation today, especially in such contexts, yet is it so hard to imagine that in 1957 it might have been uttered by a British person in such a context? (American football commentator Howard Cosell was widely criticized in 1983 for referring to a black wide receiver as a "little monkey.")

A lot of the regrettable and dated observations in the novel are based, arguably, on classism rather than racism. Again, Merrion makes a point of saying he is talking about uneducated Chinese.  Both Merrion and the police behave differently when they deal with educated or property-owning Chinese. The "coolie" characters are never addressed as "Mr.," yet a woman Chinese grocer is referred to as "Mrs. Din Gow" and Ling Tam, the head of an aid society for poor Chinese living in England, as "Mr. Ling Tam. The latter indivudal in fact is treated quite deferentially by the police.

It helps that Ling Tam speaks perfect English, has impeccable manners and is "remarkably well-dressed": "Apart from his features, which were unmistakably Oriental, he might have been an English professional man."  The rather insular Arnold, "somewhat relieved by his appearance," the author dryly observes, is soon enough inviting Ling Tam to lunch.

Though Merrion expresses distaste for Chinese music, the novel is by not necessarily dismissive of all things Chinese.  When he discourses on Chinese culinary customs to Arnold and a bemused provincial policeman, the subject of chopsticks inevitably arises:

"I have never been able to to understand how anyone can eat with chopsticks," Lapworth remarked.

"It takes some practice, at least for a European," Merrion replied.  "But after  a while, you find that it isn't really difficult.  An expert can pick up a single grain of rice with the greatest of ease."

And then there's the author on Chinese calligraphy:

He...produced a roll of parchment, which he handed to Arnold...."just look at the neatness and symmetry of the writing.  Each character is drawn with the most scrupulous accuracy.  A work of infinite patience, executed by an artist."

Even to Arnold, who hadn't the slightest idea which way up to hold the parchment, the beauty of the writing on it was apparent...."It's magnificent," he said, as he handed back the parchment.

Though reflecting weaknesses from what might be termed his own "white British ways" (namely a reflexive imperialist viewpoint), Street was, I think, genuinely trying to provide his readers an interesting book in The Chinese Puzzle, something that was off the beaten track of classic English mystery.  As a formal mystery it manages to hold interest as Merrion tries to solve a strange series of crimes, if one can get past Merrion's more dubious anthropological pronouncements and the plethora of pidgin English.

Although the book unquestionably now is quite dated, Street managed to update it to include more topical political references, which lend the novel some additional interest. However, Street wrote notably better books, even in the mid- to late-1950s. I hope to review some of them here this year, now that the British Library has reprinted a couple of Miles Burton novels from the 1930s.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Only the Best": Miles Burton Fifties Collins Crime Club Dust Jacket Art

It would be lovely if facsimile editions could be reissued for 1950s Collins Crime Club authors like Miles Burton and ECR Lorac, for, the truth is, their dust jacket art at that time was much nicer than that done for their better-known colleagues Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.  (Apparently Collins assumed Christie and Marsh didn't need good jacket art to sell.).  In an earlier post I included the William Randell dust jacket art for Miles Burton's The Chinese Puzzle (1957).  Following below is Randell jacket art for three additional Fifties Burton novels, Death Takes a Detour (1958), The Moth Watch Murder (1957) and Return from the Dead (1959), plus a fourth Burton jacket, for whom I don't know the artist, for Murder in Absence (1954).  Randell does great thing with angry faces, but the Absence jacket is one of my all time favorites; it looks like A Cezanne painting, I think.  The final illustration is of the entire jacket, which includes a promotional back panel for the Collins Crime Club:

There are good crime stories--and there are bad crime stories.  While the bad are always in plentiful supply, the good are like proverbial needles in the haystack.  The CRIME CLUB exists to help you find them; by making a preliminary selection, it sifts the good from the indifferent, and publishes only the best.

In the course of 25 years the CRIME CLUB has maintained a high standard and its imprint has become the hallmark of a good crime novel.  It publishes for the connoisseur.

With the exception of Detour, which I recall as pretty mediocre, these are some of the better Burton titles from the 1950s.  In truth, a number of the Burtons from the 1950s fall flat, but we must remember that John Street by the mid-1950s had published over 100 crime novels, so this is not entirely unexpected, despite the proclamation of the Collins ad.  But Street had a loyal following and, unlike so many British classic mystery writers from the Golden Age, he was still prolifically turning out traditional detection for its fans.

Unlocking The Chinese Puzzle (1957)

As discussed in my last blog post, a recent column by a blogger friend of mine, Noah Stewart, recently took English classic mystery writer John Street severely to task for "disgraceful attitudes and comments" about Chinese people in his late "Miles Burton" detective novel The Chinese Puzzle (1957).  On the other hand, eminent scholars and critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their mammoth encyclopedia A Catalogue of Crime praised the novel as one with which a reader "can spend a soothing and enjoyable evening."  Quite a difference of opinion!

Completing the circle of critical reactions to the book, I have to add that when I read Puzzle years ago, my take was more on middle ground. Street was an awesomely prolific author, probably the most prolific of writers of classical detection in the history of the genre; and his later novels tend to be tired works, marked by flagging inspiration.

Considered purely as a mystery, Puzzle actually is better than some of his later works, a point that led me to wonder, given the use of what admittedly seems rather dated Chinese material, whether Street in composing the novel drew on older, unpublished work.

On the other hand, some of his later novels, like Bones in the Brickfield (1958) and Return from the Dead (1959) are stronger, so this may not be the case.  In any event, even though I actually at some length addressed accusations of racism and ethnocentrism which have been made against Street in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (Street is hardly alone in having been the subject of these accusations; they have been made against most Golden Age mystery writer of note at one time or another), I barely considered The Chinese Puzzle in Masters.  I believe the only place I mentioned the novel is in a footnote when I noted that China was supposed to be one of the many areas of expertise of Desmond Merrion, the gentleman amateur sleuth in the Miles Burton series.

So I thought to myself, why not give a detailed look at The Chinese Puzzle on the blog?  Why not really give it an intensive going over, and see what shakes out as a result?  One thing I want to assure readers, the novel is a genuine detective novel, not a Sax Rohmer type thriller, even though some of the early Miles Burtons, like The Secret of High Elderhsam (1930) are essentially thrillers (for much more on the books of John Street and his life, see Masters).

So, whatever the impression given by the William Randell dust jacket pictured above (a graphically striking piece of work by one of the great Collins jacket artists, but likely in itself to raise eyebrows today), it is not a Rohmeresque extravaganza, but rather a typical Burton provincial English mystery, though with the exception of having a goodly number of Chinese characters.  And that latter aspect is, of course, the crux of the matter.

I also have a piece on Patricia Wentworth coming up which I think should interest readers, so stay tuned to this channel!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Puzzling Over Racism in Golden Age Mystery: The Case of John Street

Blogger Noah Stewart recently came across The Chinese Puzzle (1957), the late, admittedly not so good, "Miles Burton" detective novel by John Street.  (Noah calls him "Cecil Street," which is a common error derived from the fact that his full name was Cecil John Charles Street.  However Street, like Cecil Day Lewis did not want to be known as "Cecil"--it seems there's just something about that name!)  There are many much superior Street books available, which I discuss in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, but unfortunately they mostly are long out-of-print and extremely expensive and The Chinese Puzzle happens to be available--though not with the estate's permission--on the internet; so it's easy pickings, so to speak.

The British Library has reprinted two of John Street's Burton novels, Death in The Tunnel and The Secret of High Eldersham.  I gave the British Library contact information for Street's literary estate and they chose these two novels, which are ones I praise in my book Masters, though judging from Martin Edwards' introduction the fact that they were praised by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime was likely the key factor in the selection.  The two highly learned men were great admirers of John Street's crime fiction. 

And, lo and behold, here's what Barzun and Taylor had to say about The Chinese Puzzle:

This story of what amounts to Chinese gang activity in an English seaport certainly flies in the face of Father Knox's rule, but despite the pidgin English, rice, and occasional opium smoking, one can spend a soothing and enjoyable evening with it.  It is one of Burton's better efforts to make [amateur sleuth] Desmond Merrion effective as well as imaginative. The political background of the killings is credible and the villain reasonable enough.

Did Noah Stewart spend a soothing and enjoyable evening with The Chinese Puzzle?  One can safely say not.  The book for him proved quite nettlesome.  Noah condemns the "disgraceful attitudes and comments" in the book and places it on his Dread List of Mysteries to Avoid, a highly entertaining series of blog pieces I recommend to readers of this blog if they are not familiar with it.

The problem to my mind with Noah's take on Burton here is that Street, though a classic crime writer much prized by collectors, is just coming back into broader public view with the advent of the British Library reprints; and I would hate to see people now persuaded that this Street character was simply an awful old white racist.  Sure enough, here's a telling comment from blogger Brad Friedman on Noah's blog: "The late publication does surprise me, so I guess we're dealing with an out and out racist in Major Street."

I hope Brad corrects me if I'm wrong, but it appears that he is suggesting that if one published a book with stereotypes and generalizations about a group in the 1950s one is an "out and out racist," but if one did these things in the 1920s and 1930s one is not responsible for them.  This has the happy effect, we might think, of letting writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers off the hook for, for example, antisemitic passages in their work, though I don't know what we should make, then, of Christie's very unattractive portrait of a Jewish woman in The Hollow, published in 1946, immediately after the Second World War. Shouldn't Christie have known better by that time?  How could she be so unthinking?  Should we conclude that she was an "out and out" anti-Semite?

In Noah's reply to Brad's comment, he concedes: "What gets me is it wasn't ACTIVELY racist.  It's not like Street loathed Chinese people and wanted to make fun of them.  It was more pernicious than that...he was just too damn lazy to bother to do actual research."

I think this gets at the heart of the problem with The Chinese Puzzle, not only morally, to take Noah's approach, but also simply as a mystery.  Whether or not every patronizing or stereotyping sentiment about Chinese laborers uttered in the book by a character, including the rather dunderheaded Inspector Arnold (whom the superior Merrion often has to educate), can fairly be attributed to Street, the author never individualizes the Chinese characters enough to make the mystery matter to the reader, in my view.

Only one Chinese character ever emerges as an individualized character, an elite person who speaks perfect English as I recollect. "Humdrum" writers often are accused of having characters who are basically just names.  That's really true of The Chinese Puzzle, with the exceptions of series regulars Merrion and Arnold, along with one Chinese character--the only characters from the book I can remember!

And the milieu does seem dated, as Barzun and Taylor, who actually liked the book--they were great fans of Street's tales--implicitly indicated.  By 1957, some readers might reasonably have expected something besides opium, rice and pidgin English in a detective novel dealing with Chinese characters, though Barzun and Taylor, writing years later, seemed mostly to be mildly objecting not to any racism, but rather thriller elements proscribed by Ronald Knox in his rules for detective fiction.

Had Street published The Chinese Puzzle in 1927 rather than 1957 these elements would not have been deemed uncharacteristic in a crime novel.  Indeed, in my view the book is much less objectionable a work than many that were published in the Twenties and Thirties. Let's not forget Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu Series, which ran from 1913 right up to 1959, two years after the publication of Puzzle, not to mention a certain Dr. No, who popped up as late as 1958.

Could Puzzle in fact have been based on material Street composed earlier, in the twenties even? (he published his first crime novel in 1924), as blogger John Norris suggested in a comment on Noah's blog and I did on Facebook?  It would be one explanation of why this book, utterly uncharacteristic of Street's work--I can't even recall another book by him at the moment with Asian characters--suddenly popped up in 1957.

Whenever it was written Street (and Collins) has to take responsibility for its publication, but I do worry, from comments on Noah's blog, that Street, a writer just now starting to register with the broader class of vintage mystery readers again, may be dismissed as an "out and out racist" and left unread.  It's a bit different when Noah in his unsparing fashion slams the work of, for example, Ngaio Marsh, because most classic mystery fans are familiar enough with Marsh to have made their own estimate of the author.  People who like Marsh will go on liking her whatever Noah has to say about it. For most people, however, John Street is a blank slate, now graffiti'd as a racist.

For readers who want to learn more about Street, there's some detail in Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder and a huge amount of detail in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, which seeks to contextualize the detective fiction of Street as well as Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington.  Because they, along with myriad other Golden Age mystery writers who have been routinely accused of racism and various other offenses, in the book I considered the charges concerning each writer, particularly the most common one, anti-Semitism.

I argue in Masters that Street's early political writings, which he later abandoned for a mystery fiction career,  indicate that he believed the world was better off under the ostensibly benevolent influence, as he saw it, of the British Empire, a not altogether uncommon view among white English people in his day. At one point he patriotically asserts that British colonial African troops have much better standards of discipline and behavior than French colonial African troops, Street evidently not being one to believe that the French could better the British!

On the other hand I point out instances of flexible thinking on Street's part.  On the matter of anti-Semitism he was a vocal critic of the appallingly ignorant bigotry cruelly paraded in the Polna Ritual Murders Case and a defender of Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading, a prominent Anglo-Jewish politician whose involvement in the Marconi Scandal led to his vilification by Hillaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Rudyard Kipling, among many others.

I also make the case in Masters that Street frequently criticized aristocratic privilege and praised men who made their livings in business and mechanical trades.  Though Street himself came of a landed gentry background on his mother's side and career military on his father's, he was fascinated with mechanics and technology and had great respect for men who built themselves up through their native skill and application.

Street led something of daring personal life, living, after his estrangement from his wife, with another woman, the love of his life, whom he was only able to marry after his first wife's death. Even his great friend John Dickson Carr did not know that John and Eileen Street were not actually husband and wife at the time he lived in England and socialized with them.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Street occasionally expresses liberal attitudes about sex and divorce laws in his books.

All this does not exonerate Street for any literary crimes he committed in The Chinese Puzzle, but I hope it shows readers that there is more to the man.  I hope people will read the new BL Miles Burton volumes (I wish they had reprinted Murder MD and The Cat Jumps as well) and, if they enjoy them, check our my Masters for the full story on John Street, an interesting, if no doubt flawed, individual, and a talented mystery writer, even if he had his off books.  He wrote over 140 of them and Masters is a good place to find out which were the good ones.  Heck even confining the selection to the late-50s, Noah would have been much better off reading Bones in the Brickfield. Consider this a shout-out to the British Library.

More on The Chinese Puzzle coming soon.  For more blog detail on Street:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Engineering Murder: Louis F. Booth's The Bank Vault Mystery (1933) and Brokers' End (1935)

Louis F. Booth (1903-1996) was a New Jersey civil engineer who turned for a few brief years to writing detective fiction when during the Great Depression he was laid off by the construction company that employed him.

floor plan from Brokers' End
His two detective novels, The Bank Vault Mystery (1933) and Brokers' End (1935), were published in the United States, England and France to good notices, including one from Dorothy L. Sayers, who contrasted Booth with what she deemed the "Bedlam" school of then-modern American mystery, with its gangsters, graft and "Bowery-flowery language." 

Rather, Sayers compared Booth favorably with her Detection Club colleague Freeman Wills Crofts, an Anglo-Irish railway railway engineer and one of the preeminent Golden Age exponents of sober (what detractors termed "Humdrum") classical detection (see my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery).  A "well-constructed, agreeably written yarn about stolen bank notes and murder," pronounced Sayers of The Bank Vault Mystery, adding reassuringly for her readers that it "will appeal to English taste."

Certainly Booth's novels resemble mysteries by Crofts and his contemporary John Street, with sober and meticulous plots and considerable technical finesse.  The corporate settings in Bank Vault and Brokers' End also resemble certain novels by Crofts and Street, such as Mystery in the Channel, Crime at Guildford, Death on the Board and Robbery with Violence.

Autographed copy of The Bank Vault Mystery
Louis Booth signed this copy for a fan from a nearby New Jersey town.
Her skyscraper book plate was appropriate both for the novel and the author.
Note the review clipping on the left.

Brokers' End, about the murderous expunging of partners in a brokerage, actually seems like something of a precursor to Death on the Board, one of the better Street "John Rhode" novels. Booth even defies "Humdrum" stereotype by including some well-turned love interest in his novels, as well as a sardonic take on the business world in the years following the Great Crash (an event that has resonance today too).  Intriguingly, the novel is, absent the murders, based on a real life scandal in the financial world that was making headlines when Booth was writing it.

There's more about Booth and his mysteries in my introduction to the Coachwhip reissue of The Bank Vault Mystery and Brokers' End, which will soon be available. If you like Crofts and Street or J. J. Connington or John Bude, you might want to give Booth's American variants a try.  As Sayers noted, there are no tough guys in the books, just tough problems.

Both cases are investigated by civilian Maxwell Fenner, specialist in high-finance fraud, and hard-driving Inspector Bryce. Fenner is not a flamboyant, eccentric sleuth--his main Great Detective mannerism is twirling a gold pencil during moments of intense cogitation--but he does find solutions, and he takes more of a personal interest in the cases that you might at first expect.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Crime Fiction and the Closet

When you spend a lot of time reading and thinking about vintage crime fiction you start to notice certain misconceptions and omissions in books on the genre.  As readers of this blog (and my books) will know, I have written a great deal about how the almost exclusive focus of so many critics on just a few crime writers has created something of a false narrative of Golden Age mystery strictly as a contest between cozy British Crime Queens on the one hand and tough American hard-boiled writers on the other.

Another interesting phenomenon I have noticed is how comparatively understudied in books have been lgbtq writers of as well as lgbtq aspects to crime fiction in the Golden Age and even, to a lesser extent, up to the Stonewall Riots, an epochal event in lgbtq history.

Murder Will Out
The last couple of months I have been editing a collection of 23 essays by 17 contributors on both lgtbq writers of and lgtbq themes in crime fiction extending from the Victorian era to the eve of Stonewall.  It has been a fascinating project and I hope that the book will illuminate a neglected corner in the house of mystery.

Much of this period is seen as belonging to the era of the closet in crime fiction, when lgbtq characters depicted by lgbtq and non-lgtbq writers alike had to be carefully encoded or condemned.

Yet when one actually goes looking for this material in fiction from the era, one finds more of it (and more interestingly presented) than many may think.

The essays included in the new book deal with queer aspects to the the crime fiction of a diverse group of both lgtbq and non-lgtbq writers, including Crime Queens and hard-boiled boys, but also more obscure authors.

Writers whose work is discussed in the book include Fergus Hume, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, C. H. B. Kitchin, Richard Wilson Webb, Hugh Callingham Wheeler, Anthony Boucher, Todd Downing, Rufus King, Mignon Eberhart, Frank Walford, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Margaret Millar, Gore Vidal, Beverley Nichols, Nancy Spain, Patricia Highsmith, Joseph Hansen and George Baxt.

The contributors are J. C. Bernthal, Brittain Bright, John Curran. Rick Cypert, James Doig, Curtis Evans (aka The Passing Tramp), Wayne Gunn, Nick Jones, Josh Lanyon, Michael Moon, Tom Nolan, J. F. Norris, Moira Redmond, Charles J. Rzepka, Bruce Shaw, Noah Stewart and Lucy Sussex.  I plan to have a series of interviews coming up with this group of individuals (myself excepted!) all during this year, leading up to the publication of the book.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Orr Restored: Coachwhip's Reissues of Clifford Orr's The Dartmouth Murders (1929) and The Wailing Rock Murders (1932)

As promised in a couple of earlier posts, Coachwhip is reissuing two vintage mysteries by American songwriter, journalist and author Clifford Orr: The Dartmouth Murders (1929) and The Wailing Rock Murders (1932) as a twofer volume, which should be available on Amazon next week.

Clifford Orr also is, along with Rufus King (about whom I've blogged here a number of times), the subject of an essay I wrote for a forthcoming collection of 23 essays on detective fiction which I also edited. More about this soon!  I also will soon have some information on another American vintage mystery writer whose pair of detective novels will be reissued by Coachwhip, with an introduction by me.

Meanwhile, here's a preview of the front and back covers of the Coachwhip Clifford Orr volume. Click the pic to reads the blurbs.

Monday, March 7, 2016

More Bodies at Bar Harbor: The Yellow Room (1945), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

"There's somebody dead in the linen closet at Crestview," she said, her voice flat.  "I thought maybe you'd better come up."

In 1937 bestselling American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) bought a house, Fairview, in Bar Harbor, Maine, and summered there for the next decade.  The next year she set her next mystery novel, The Wall, in a fictionalized Bar Harbor; and in 1945 she returned to this setting in her penultimate mystery novel, The Yellow Room.

Rinehart, as regular readers of this blog will know, is famous as the head of the HIBK, or Had I But Known, school of mystery fiction, noted for its foreboding first person narration.  Most of Rinehart's mystery novels rely on first person narration, very rarely by a man (The Red Lamp), but usually by a middle-aged spinster (The Circular StaircaseThe Door) or eligible but unmarried young woman in her mid- to late-twenties (The WallThe Swimming Pool). 

The Yellow Room is uncommon in that in it Rinehart eschews first narration for the third person.  To my mind this narration does not play to Rienhart's strength as a mystery writer.  The reader identifies less with the main character and the events seem to lose urgency.

Not the narrator but the initial focal character of The Yellow Room is Carol Spencer, a young woman from a declining genteel family saddled with a neurotic widowed mother, a beautiful, selfish sister who married for money, a brother susceptible to liquor and ladies who has been fighting in the Pacific but has now returned home "to be decorated by the President himself," and the memory of a pilot fiance shot down over the Pacific and presumed dead.

With her faithful housekeeper Maggie (Irish Catholic, naturally), and two skittish temporary maids (help is so hard to find during the war), Carol has returned to Bayside, Maine to open the family's summer home, Crestview.  What they find in the linen closet at Crestview is unsettling indeed: the scorched corpse of a bludgeoned young woman.  Most mysteriously, it appears that just before her death the dead woman spent a night in the yellow room at Crestview.  What was she doing there? And who killed her?

Over many pages--Rinehart's novels were lucratively serialized in women's magazines before appearing in novel form--Rinehart builds up quite a complex mystery which implicates many of the people not only in Carol's own family but in Bayside as well.

Rinehart manages something of a twist ending, but it is also one of those endings that involves a little too much explanation of just why this person did that.  Also, as I mentioned before, I think Rinehart's decision not to employ Carol Spencer as the narrator was a mistake.  

Arguably the main character of the novel is not Carol, but her love interest and the amateur sleuth of the story, Major Jerry Dane, convalescing from a wound received in Italy. In his prewar life an FBI man from a prominent Washington, D. C. family (his father was a senator), Jerry intrudes upon the local investigation with abandon and eventually solves the case, though only after another mysterious death and a couple of (non-fatal) shootings (This Rinehart actually has a disappointingly low body count.) 

Rinehart's focus on Jerry does allow the author to depict detection more directly, but it gives Carol very little to do, since Rinehart will not allow her actually to join in the detection in a meaningful way.  (Clue-finding, like martial combat, is men's work, Rinehart seems to be saying).  

The love element also feels rather perfunctory, since we are denied the chance of really seeing Jerry though Carol's perspective (though I have to give Rinehart credit for not overloading the novel with love as Mignon Eberhart so often does in her crime/romance tales.)

Still the mystery plot in The Yellow Room is interesting (if arguably too convoluted) and the novel, along with Rinehart's 1943 novella Episode of the Wandering Knife, gives readers the author's most interesting look at life in the United States during the Second World War.

There are some interesting thoughts about the war's impact on servicemen and the women waiting at home for them. (Carol, we learn, wants to do war work, but is stymied by caring for her mother, a situation similar to that in Knife.) Though on the whole I rather preferred The Wall, The Yellow Room was certainly worth a stay.