Wednesday, July 27, 2016

All in the Family: Helen Reilly (1891-1962), Mary McMullen (1920-1986) and Ursula Curtiss (1923-1984)

Helen Reilly was 53 when her husband died in 1944, the year she published her nineteenth detective novel, The Opening Door.  Four years later, the third of her four daughters, Ursula, published her debut crime novel, Voice Out of Darkness (1948), under her married name Ursula Curtiss.  Another Curtiss crime novel, The Second Sickle, would appear in 1950 and yet another, The Noonday Devil, in 1951, by which time one of Ursula's older sisters, Mary, published her own debut crime novel, Strangle Hold, under the pseudonym Mary McMullen (Her married name was Wilson.) The debut novels by the young Reilly women both won awards, Darkness the $1000 Red Badge Prize and Strangle Hold the Edgar for best debut crime novel. 

Ursula Curtiss went on to publish a total of 22 crime novels, becoming one of the best known mid-century American authors in the mystery subgenre then known as "psychological suspense"; yet in the case of Mary McMullen 23 years elapsed before she published her second crime novel, The Doom Campaign, in 1974. 

In the dozen years between 1974 and her death in 1986, McMullen published 18 crime or suspense novels, almost catching her sister in terms of quantity. (Neither sister, both of whom passed away in their sixties, lived to catch her mother, who wrote nearly three dozen mysteries.)

Additionally one of Helen Reilly's talented trio of brothers, James (former press secretary to NYC mayor Fiorella LaGuardia), published a paperback original crime novel, Come Murder Me, in 1952, the year of his death.  So you could say this was a family that definitely had the crime fiction bug!   

Helen Reilly herself was rather a popular American crime novelist for some four decades.  Frequently her novels were Doubleday, Doran Crime Club Selections and they were reprinted in paperback from the 1940s into the 1970s, years after the author's death in 1962.  No doubt Reilly's personal example and her prestigious name smoothed the publishing path for her daughters, who were themselves quite talented, however.

In the US Curtiss was published by Doubleday, Doran by rival Dodd, Mead (with their Red Badge mystery line), while Mary McMullen's debut mystery was issued by Harper, who under editor Joan Kahn (1914-1994) was in the vanguard of the prestigious "suspense" movement in crime literature.

A testimonial from Ursula Curtiss to her mother (probably written around 1944, when Curtiss was 21 and still "Ursula Reilly") in the mid- to late-late Forties ran on the back flap of Helen Reilly dust jackets, like the one on The Silver Leopard (1946).

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in reading this, so here it is, in full:

Growing up under the fond if preoccupied eye of a detective-story writer is calculated to turn even the gentlest of daughters into a hardened character.  While other little girls were prattling of their dollies, my three sisters and I were arguing ferociously about the relative merits of strychnine, strangulation or scythe.  In addition, we were looked upon as curiosities all through school, for it was common knowledge that, while the other children's mothers were out decently playing bridge, ours was home plotting a crime. 

In general, the emotional atmosphere of the house is up and down like the stock market; high when the book is running smoothly, low when it has struck a snag.  Solely unaffected are the nine cats; they come and go just as though the motive hasn't been invalidated by an unexpected footnote concerning ballistics on page 793 of Hans Gross, the world-renowned author on firearms.

Reading, a sensitive subject in a writer's household, is Mother's chief diversion, and, ranging widely, returns to Trollope, Jane Austen, Maugham, plays by everybody, and very, very occasionally, when the spirit takes her and her nerves are equal to it, a detective story by SOMEBODY ELSE.


  1. I have most of Reilly's books and have read at least 10, I think. I've enjoyed them all. I've read a couple of Mary McMullen's and have enjoyed those as well. I've not yet read Ursula Curtiss, though I do have a couple of her books somewhere in the boxes still unpacked...

    1. Dean, I didn't much like her book The Doll's Trunk Murder, which I reviewed on the blog a few years ago, but I am finding her McKee books consistently good. I bet you'll like Curtiss. Her later work probably is not as good as her earlier, but in the 50s and 60s she produced a good number of fine mysteries, I think. She's still oddly overlooked, even after the recent revival of interest in "domestic suspense." Of course it doesn't help that her books remain oop for some reason. I hope to get a review of a Mary McMullen uploaded soon, then to talk about Curtiss a bit more.

  2. What killed the daughters both at such relatively young ages, I now wonder...

    1. Their mother made it to 70 which isn't so old either, really. Helen Reilly did have one long lived brother, John, the one once well-known for his appearances on "Information, Please." He passed away not long before his nieces, when he was nearly ninety.