Wednesday, June 21, 2017

One Million Views and One More Review, with Many I Hope to Follow: Bombay Mail (1934), by Lawrence Blochman

One million viewers! (or views anyway)
I suppose I should have mentioned that I passed one million views at this blog last week, something of a milestone I gather.  I started this blog on November 22, 2011 (which means, incredibly to me, that the blog will be six years old this November), with this short piece, on the convention of the passing tramp in crime fiction, with special reference to Jefferson Farjeon, whose thriller Mystery in White I reviewed a month later. You may, perhaps, have heard of that one since. 

Or, say, Anthony Wynne's Murder of a Lady.  Or Winifred Peck's The Warrielaw Jewel. Those last two I reviewed back in 2010 on Steve Lewis' excellent Mystery*File website, where I first stuck my toe, so to speak, in the vast ocean of internet book reviewing.  A lot has happened since.

Those of us who have labored these last five years and more to bring greater attention to forgotten Golden Age mystery writers and to rehabilitate the Golden Age mystery in general in the minds of naysayers and doubters have seen many exciting things happen over this time.  I'm pleased to have played a role in all this, and I hope to continue to remain on the critical stage, so to speak, for some time to come.  Thanks to those who made the million (plus) views; it means a lot to know some people enjoy what I write.  Along with, well, actual money, it's the most a working writer can desire.

Bombay Mail (1934)

For Max Miller
whose delightful flair
for the oblique tale may
prevent his reading
such blatantly direct
journalese as this
is without a trace
of nausea, but who
does agree that
books make swell ornaments; from
Lawrence G. Blochman
who used to be
an old waterfront coverer himself

--inscription in Max Miller's copy of Lawrence G. Blochman's debut detective novel, Bombay Mail (1934)

Lawrence Blochman (1900-1975) was an American crime writer who seems to me generally underappreciated (though not, to be sure, by blogger Mike Grost, who on the net has written extensively about his fiction).

I read Blochman's Bombay Mail (1934) back in April when I was constantly at my father's rehab center in Holly Springs, Mississippi (I wasn't impressed with the rehab center located there, to be honest, but at least Holly Springs is an interesting little town).  I found it a fine example of the American detective novel.  It is, in fact, a true detective novel, but one with the sort of narrative "go" then burgeoning in American crime fiction of the period, as writers shook off what the young Turks of the genre deemed the shackles of S. S. Van Dine and his insufferably smug fancypants sleuth, Philo Vance.

Abraham Blochman as a younger man
Lawrence Blochman was the grandson of immigrant Abraham Blochman, "banker, capitalist and public-spirited citizen of San Diego," according to a local history. 

The enterprising Abraham was born in Ingenheim, Alsace, France, in 1834 and settled with his family to Memphis, Tennessee in 1848, before, just a couple of years later, moving down the Mississippi to the prosperous river port of Helena, Arkansas, where he taught French (while he studied English) and clerked in a general store. (So many Mississippi Delta towns of that era had a few Jewish merchants, just as, in the twentieth century, some boasted Chinese grocers, at least one of whom, Yee Gow Suen, read between-the-wars crime fiction).

Rabbi Leopold Sarassin
painting by Marie Mathilde Sarassin
The enterprising young Abraham boldly migrated to California by way of Panama in 1851, not long after the commencement of the California gold rush. 

After successfully establishing a chain of stores Abraham founded, with his son Lucien, the Blochman Banking Company, one of the most prominent banks in the state. Abraham's wife and Lucien's mother was Marie Mathilde Sarassin, daughter of Rabbi Leopold Sarassin, director of the Society for Talmudic Studies in Paris.

Lucien Blochman, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, became one of San Diego's most important figures, not only economically but socially.  Among other things he was an avid yachtsman as the Commodore of the Corinthian Yacht Club; his flagship was named Haidee, after his wife Haidee Goldtree.  Lucien and Haidee had a son and a daughter, the son, Lawrence Goldtree Blochman, going on the make his name in journalism and crime fiction.

As a young boy, Lawrence had been enraptured by his grandfather's stories of his adventures in California's gold rush days.  Blocked due to his youth from serving in the navy in the Great War, Lawrence attended college at UC-Berkeley, where during the summers he worked as a police reporter for the San Diego Evening Tribune and a courthouse reporter for the San Diego Sun.

Blochman family gathering photo
Not sure which boy is Lawrence!

After his graduation in 1921, Lawrence, following the example of his intrepid grandfather, commenced several years of globetrotting.  In Asia he worked for the Japan Advertiser (Tokyo),  South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Far Eastern Review (Shanghai) and The Englishman (Calcutta), sidelining as a magician, or "slight-of-hand performer."  At the height of the Jazz Age he also resided four years in France, working as assistant night editor for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribuneread by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others, and an editorial writer for the Paris Times.

Lawrence Blochman
at the time of the
publication of Bombay Mail

In 1927, a year after his marriage to Frenchwoman Marguerite Maillard, Blochman began writing fiction for magazines; he published Bombay Mail, his first novel, in 1934.  For this novel, as well as several others, including, besides Bombay Mail, Bengal Fire (1937), Red Snow at Darjeeling (1938) and Wives to Burn (1940), Lawrence made excellent use of his experience in Calcutta as a staff photographer and features writer for The Englishman, in which capacity he traveled all over the sub-continent.

Among other things Lawrence for several weeks was a guest of Tukoji Rao Holkar III, Maharajah of Indore, before the ruler was embroiled in a 1925 crime involving his runaway second wife, Mumtaz Begum.  The Bawla Murder Case, as it was known, led to the Maharajah's abdication and inspired the making of Kulin Kanta (1926), "India's first crime mystery film."*

*(On the Bawla Murder Case, see Brian Stoddart's article at the Murder Is Everywhere blog on the murder and, on the Blochman family, see The Blochman Saga in San Diego, San Diego Historical Quarterly 23 (Winter 1977), San Diego History Center.)

Maharajahs, along with other fascinating features of between-the-wars Indian society and culture, feature in Lawrence Blochman's India mysteries, which seem to me much underestimated today (again, not by Mike Grost, who provides extensive discussion of them at his website).  Anyone who from the same era enjoys mainstream novelist Elspeth Huxley's fine Africa mysteries should enjoy Blochman's early India crime fiction, which, by the by, was published not only in the US but in the UK (in the latter country by premier British detective fiction publisher Collins).

"A break-neck narrative," exclaimed the Spectator of Bombay Mail in England, "a non-stop thriller."  In the US the novel was deemed "zippy" by the Saturday Review, "with much action, sufficient local color and and passable writing.

I agree that the book has great pace, though I think the SR underestimated the quality of Blochman's local color and writing, which to me are decidedly above average for the genre at the time.  Most happily as well, the book is a true detective novel, with an interesting murder plot at its heart.

Government House (Raj Bhavan)
Kolkata, West Bengal, India

"I'm going on the Bombay Mail," insisted the Governor, "I'm not sneaking away.  If anyone wants to kill me, he'll find that Britain can send out new governors faster than they can be done away with."

Well, someone in fact does for His Excellency Sir Anthony Daniels, Bart., CBE, KSI, KCIE, Governor of Bengal.  Whodunit?  Certainly there's no shortage of suspects, from the mighty maharajah to the mere (alleged) mistress; and they're all on board the train the departing governor took on his way out of India: the Bombay Mail.  It's up to the implacable Inspector Prike to ferret out a ruthless killer.

the journey begins
Howrah railway station, Calcutta, 1928

Golden Age train mysteries are always great fun, I think, and they always seem to be eminently filmable.  Of course the gold standard in this sub-genre has become Agatha Christie's classic crime tale Murder on the Orient Express, which in the US was actually published about a month after Bombay Mail; but I also would be remiss not to mention Todd Downing's splendid novel Vultures in the Sky, published the next year, in 1935. 

Downing was a great admirer of Christie's novel (see my book Clues and Corpses); were, I wonder, Christie and Blochman simultaneously on either side of the Atlantic inspired by the success of mainstream novelist Graham Greene's 1932 "entertainment," Stamboul Train (Orient Express in the US)?

Like Downing's Vultures, Blochman's Bombay Mail has thrillerish elements that are absent from Christie's classic, but these elements are very well done in both novels and both of them are genuine detective novels as well.  Both are very highly recommended.

Max Miller
Note: Max Miller, to whom Blochman inscribed a copy of Bombay Mail (see above), was a journalist at the San Diego Sun, where he was a colleague of the slightly younger  Blochman.  In 1932, Miller published a bestselling book based on his work experiences, I Cover the Waterfront. The bestseller inspired, under the same title, both a 1933 hit song (oddly enough) and a film, very loosely based upon the book. 

Blochman's Bombay Mail was itself filmed in 1934, under the same title (though Inspector Prike became Inspector Dyke), in a well-regarded Universal adaptation upon which Blochman collaborated. During his time at Universal, Blochman also provided the story for the mystery The Secret of the Chateau (1934) and uncredited script work on James Whale's classic horror flick Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In his inscription to Max Miller, Blochman seems to me unduly humble about the "blatantly direct journalese" in which Bombay Mail is written.  It's a ripping Golden Age yarn.


  1. First let me congratulate you on your milestone. Your blog is one of my favorites and it certainly played a decisive role in the current revival of Golden Age detective fiction (It also played a no less decisive role in my decision to retire from blogging, since I didn't see how I could compete with someone as well-read and articulate as you are) Keep on the good work, my friend!

    Now to the Blochman. I have yet to read one of his novels but I have read several short stories of his (a form everyone seems to have agreed suited him well, hence his Edgar in that category) and I agree that he was a better than just "passable" writer, with a real gift for bringing foreign locales to life. I find it interesting that he himself described his writing as "journalese" as Doug Greene used the same word to describe Futrelle's in an ongoing discussion on the FB GADetection board. Journalism was a strong influence on American crime writing, unlike the British school which was much more formal - and I'm inclined to think this may account for vintage American crime fiction often being comparatively fresher and more readable than its British counterpart. (Back to Futrelle he is much easier to read for a 2017 freshman reader than Freeman - and I say that as a fan of both) And what is Hammett's writing but an extremely refined and bare-bones form of "journalese"?

    1. Thanks, Xavier, you've been a good net friend throughout the years and very intellectually stimulating! I haven't been able to keep with as many blog posts of late, but I will try to keep it going.

      Chandler of course wrote that the English may not be the best writers, but they are incomparably the best dull writers. Such an amusing backhanded compliment that even I, a connoisseur of the Humdrum, can appreciate. But detection needn't be "dull," or perhaps deliberate is the better word. A lot of Americans contributed bright and snappy prose to their crime fiction and it's none the worse for that. Blochman writes the sort of book, at least in his early novels, that you want to read in one sitting. His stories move. Of course in Bombay Mail the train helps! Perhaps Blochman felt his work didn't live up to the scholarly Rabbi Sarassin, but it's no crime for fiction to entertain.