Friday, January 13, 2017

Ladies of Fashion: Two Golden Age American Manners Mystery Writers, Eleanore Kelly Sellars and Emma Lou Fetta

Eleanore Kelly Sellars (1903-1972) published one detective novel, Murder a la Mode, which won the Red Bridge Mystery Prize in 1941.  Sellars' novel was contemporary with, and similar in style to, the murder mystery trilogy by syndicated fashion columnist and Fashion Group co-founder Emma Lou Fetta, which consisted of Murder in Style (1939), Murder on the Face of It (1940) and Dressed to Kill (1941).

Eleanore Kelly Sellars
Fetta's entertaining trilogy of murder centered on the characters of fashion designer Susan Yates and her boyfriend, New York assistant district attorney Lyle Curtis, while Sellars' focal character (and narrator) in Murder a la Mode, which details a series of fiendish murders impacting a Fifth Avenue department store, is Deborah "Debbie" Wood, like Sellars herself a retail executive and advertising copywriter.

The novels by these two women had similar settings and characters because the two authors had similar personal and professional backgrounds. Both came from small cities in the north central states (Fetta from Richmond, Indiana, which had a population of around 18,000 in 1900, and Sellars from Monessen, Pennsylvania, a factory town which had been founded in 1897 and in 1920 had almost the exact same population as Richmond had had in 1900.)

Emma Lou Fetta
Fetta graduated from the Quaker Earlham College in 1920 (her mother, Ellena Fulghum, was descended from a long line of American Friends, while her father was the son of a German immigrant) and was one of two children of Robert Henry Fetta, owner of the Fetta Water Softener Company.  Sellars, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1925, was the daughter of James Howard Kelly, a businessman of Scots-Irish extraction who seems to have had fingers in most of Monessen's economic pies. (Among other things he was President of the First National Bank.) Both women moved to New York and married, but kept their careers.  (Fetta kept her maiden name professionally as well.)

I think that clearly both writers were influenced in their mysteries by the socially observant and posh British "manners" detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. In 1938 Allingham herself had published a hugely successful and much lauded mystery, The Fashion in Shrouds, that was set in the London fashion industry milieu. 

Sellars suggested such a connection, I believe, when she stated that with Murder a la Mode she had aimed to "write a murder mystery in which all the people were intelligent and logical in their behavior and remained intelligent and logical throughout the book."  In her story, she declared, "everyone did what shrewd, well-bred and practical people would do if they were actually living through the experiences of murder.

opening the door to manners mystery
Margery Allingham
Both authors' books were well-received in the US. The Detroit Free Press, for example, wrote of Fetta's first essay in crime, Murder in Style: "If Clare Booth Luce had put her characters of "The Women" [the smash hit play adapted into a smash hit film] into a murder maze, she would have come up with something like this....This is an exceedingly smart and funny book, with a mystery above average"; while reviewer Maxine Garrison in the Pittsburgh Press raved that "Mrs. Sellars tells her story very deftly indeed, dramming it with suspense right up to the last page. Her first hand knowledge of her background is obvious....

Fans of the tony books of the British Crime Queens or the American author Elizabeth Daly (who also started writing mysteries at this time) should agree.


  1. Thanks for this Curt, helping me get this straight! I read the Fetta a while back, and I think I have the Sellars but haven't read it yet. I will no longer confuse them I hope...