Sunday, August 27, 2017

Collision: Norman Dyer Ball, Shelagh Clutton-Brock, Alan Clutton-Brock, Josephine Bell and George Orwell

"I suppose you heard about Alan Clutton-Brock's wife?  A bad job, & he has two small kids, too."

"I used to see Alan Clutton-Brock in 1928--just recently his wife was killed in a motor smash."

                                                          --1936 letters from Eric A. Blair, aka George Orwell

On January 7, 1936, some sixty years before a rather more famous fatal car crash, Dr. Norman Dyer Ball (1895-1936), the husband of Dr. Doris Bell (Collier) Ball (future crime novelist Josephine Bell, 1897-1987), died in a hospital in Dartford, Kent from grievous injuries which he had sustained earlier in the day when the car in which he was riding collided with a lorry on Rochester Road, in the southeastern London borough of Bexleyheath.

The other occupant of the horribly mangled car was Shelagh Mabel Stoney (Archer) Clutton-Brock, wife of Alan Clutton-Brock (1904-1976), who in the 1930s was a Times art critic and author of popular art books. Shelagh, who was killed instantly in the collision, was also the daughter of the Anglo-Irish George Johnston Stoney Archer, a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Ethel Mary Beauchamp. 

The accident that claimed the lives of Norman Dyer Ball and Sheilah Clutton-Brock took place about seven miles down Rochester Road from the district of Blackheath, where the Clutton-Brocks lived with their two young children, Juliet (1933-2015), the late prominent archaeozoologist, and Francis, in a Georgian house overlooking the Thames, "among beautiful objects and chaos overlaid with dust and cobwebs."  (The Clutton-Brocks were "given to a Bohemian lifestyle," notes author Robert Cumming.) 

Stately! Chastleton House
After Shelagh's death, the Clutton-Brock children were sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe, where Francis died from polio.  I assumed these relations were Guy and Molly Clutton-Brock, the famous Rhodesian liberals and racial reformers (in the Thirties Guy was also a social worker in London's East End), but it appears that Alan had only two brothers and that neither of them was Guy.

Later in 1936 Alan married Barbara Mitchell (1912-2005), a young woman who "combined an enthusiasm for party-going and night-clubs with a dedication to radical politics." From 1954 until Alan's death in 1976 the couple resided together at Chastleton House, a "near-perfect example of early 17th-century architecture" which Alan inherited from a distant cousin.  (I always wanted to have such a distant cousin myself.)  In 1955 Alan was made Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge (a three-year term).  One could say that the mid-century smiled upon him!

For some time after their marriage in London in 1923, Norman Dyer Ball and his wife Doris (aka Josephine Bell) appear to have resided at Warwick Mansions at 37 Pond Street in Hampstead and additionally they are said to have practiced medicine in Greenwich, which is very close to Blackheath, where Alan and Shelagh Clutton-Brock had lived in the Thirties, until Shelagh's death.  However, Norman's will stated that he was a resident of Headley, Hampshire, a village near Guildford, Surrey, where Josephine Bell is stated to have moved with the couple's four children only after the death of her husband.

Whatever the case, it seems likely that Josephine Bell and Alan Clutton-Brock were, like their late spouses had been, acquainted at some point in London.  They shared at least a couple of additional points in common, namely their interest in mystery fiction and a certain connection to a much more noted writer, it must be admitted, than either of them: George Orwell

Readers of this blog will know of my interest in Josephine Bell's prolific crime writing, but Alan Clutton-Brock in 1941 contributed a notable mystery to the genre: Murder at Liberty Hall, which I will be blogging about in the next day or so.  It has actually been contended that George Orwell ghosted Murder at Liberty Hall, a claim that seems overdrawn to me, considering, for example, Orwell's professed disdain for the genre.  But it is true that Orwell knew Alan Clutton-Bock, who was an old Eton contemporary of his.

In letters, as quoted above, Orwell noted the tragedy that struck Alan when his wife was killed in the terrible auto collision (without mentioning Normal Ball's presence and demise), and the two men seem to have run into each other from time to time over the years.  In March 1941, according to D. J. Taylor's Orwell: The Life (2003), Orwell wrote the Air Ministry about obtaining a position with the Public Relations Department, a "popular berth for literary men in wartime" that was then being administered by no less than Alan Clutton-Brock. 

A contemporary coworker recalled that Alan, looking "resplendent in his blue squadron-leader's uniform," informally interviewed Orwell at his digs about the position; and he reproduced this amusing scrap of the supposed conversation:

ACB: I can't say anything about the work, of course, but I assure you it's tedious beyond belief.  And the dreadful people you meet!

GO: I wouldn't want a commission, you understand.  I'd be quite happy in the ranks.

ACB: And you have to do six weeks of foot training first--insufferable!  In fact, until it occurred to me to think of the whole thing as a kind of ballet I didn't think I'd survive it!

GO: But I like drills.  I know the Manual by heart.  I need the discipline.

I don't know whether or not this conversation--so reminiscent, on Alan's part, of the comment attributed to the great camp English actor Ernest Thesiger about his service in the Great War ("Oh, my dear!  The noise!  And the people!")--really took place, but, gosh, I sure hope it did!

Unfortunately, Orwell didn't get the job Air Ministry, but he kept busy writing reviews and essays. Some of Alan's Murder at Liberty Hall, which was published in the summer of 1941, may reflect in part the interaction between himself and Orwell that took place around the time of its writing, but see my future post on this.

Josephine Bell's connection to Orwell is more speculative, to be sure, but in 1934-35 Orwell himself lived in Warwick Mansions, in a room in a flat at the top of the building occupied by the owners of Booklovers' Corner, the bookshop on the ground floor where Orwell worked at this time (and which inspired his great, mordant essay "Bookshop Memories," which I quote in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.)

Were Josephine Bell and her husband neighbors of George Orwell, or had they left Warwick Mansions by this time?

George Orwell worked in the former bookshop on the ground floor.

Two decades later after the horrific collision that claimed the lives of their respective spouses, when Alan Clutton-Brock had become Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge, Josephine Bell published her final David Wintringham mystery (of a dozen, extending back to Murder in Hospital, 1937): The Seeing Eye (1958).  The book concerns the murder of a celebrated art critic.  Coincidence? 

In 1935, not long before Alan's and Josephine's personal tragedies, Kenneth Mackenzie Clark (1903-1983), a postwar Slade professor of fine art at Oxford, wrote, with a certain quantity of poison in his pen, to the American art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) that "[Clutton Brock] is a perfect ass in the flesh (also grubby and querulous) but rather good on paper."  We'll see soon how Josephine Bell felt about her fictional (?) art critic in The Seeing Eye!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Death Can Be Dynamite: Trio for Blunt Instruments (1964), by Rex Stout

Anthony Boucher, longtime dean of American crime fiction critics, opined that Rex Stout's best productions in mystery fiction after the Second World War were not the Nero Wolfe novels but rather the Nero Wolfe novellas.  I don't know that I agree with this, in fact I'm pretty certain I don't, but I have to admire Stout's mastery of this shorter length, which many people have considered ideal for the mystery form.(See the long detective tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman.)

Some of the Stout novellas are better than others, to be sure, but the quality level of these works is remarkably high, given the author's fecundity for more than three decades.  Of course he had ample incentive to produce these works, as the serializations were quite lucrative!

Trio for Blunt Instruments [TFBI], the last collection of Nero Wolfe novellas, appeared in 1964, in between the novels Gambit (1962) and The Mother Hunt (1963) and A Right to Die (1964) and The Doorbell Rang (1965), a time when he seemed to be responding the the times by introducing some more overt "youth" references and political content into his works.  (Heads up: a review of The Doorbell Rang is coming this month, I hope.)

The three novellas in TFBI are Kill Now-Pay Later, which was first published in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1961; Murder is Corny, original to the volume and the last novella Stout wrote; and Blood Will Tell, originally published, two years after Kill Now-Pay Later, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

I often hear people dismiss Stout as a plotter--"he's no Agatha Christie," etc.--but a serviceable plot with genuine ratiocination is something I always look for in a work billing itself as a true detective story; and Stout rarely disappoints me in this regard.  He certainly doesn't disappoint in TFBI.

First Instrument: Kill Now-Pay Later

"I must tell you.  To my father you are a great man, the greatest man in the world.  I must tell you."

There are few men who would not to like to be told they are the greatest in the world, and Wolfe isn't one of them....

The first novella in the collection, Kill Now-Pay Later, is very much in Stout's classic mid-century mode, with Wolfe pursuing a case involving some high-toned corporate shenanigans.  The first murderee in the novella is Dennis Ashby, vice-president of Mercer's Bobbins, in charge of sales and promotion. He was quite the whiz kid, and had elevated the company's fortunes in the ever-spinning world of bobbin manufacture, but he was disliked by rather a number of people as well.

Ashby dies from a fall from his tenth-story office, though he had been bashed on the head first, which I suppose adheres to the title of the collection, if only barely.

Next to go is Nero Wolfe's shoe shiner, Pete Vassos, who also shined shoes foe the execs at Mercer's Bobbins; he's dead from a fall from a cliff, a suspiciously similar death to that of Ashby. The easily (mis)led police conclude, however, that Pete killed Ashby (believing that his daughter, Elma Vassos, a secretary at the Bobbin concern, had been "seduced"--their word--by Dennis, who had quite the roving eye), then, with the cops closing in, killed himself.

Elma shows up to hire Wolfe to exonerate her father and find his killer (and incidentally Ashby's), touchingly offering all her father's savings from his shoeshine jobs for Wolfe.  Archie warns her, not to get up her hopes, confiding, "It's December, and his tax bracket is near the top": but Wolfe, whose heart is not entirely stone it seems, agrees to take the case--though he glares malevolently at Archie for bringing this doom upon him:

I had let her in, I admit that, but from his look you might have thought I had killed Ashby and Pete and had seduced her into the bargain.

Admittedly, Wolfe later avows that he took the case to spite his egregious series semi-nemesis, Inspector Cramer, but I think Wolfe is a bit softer than he allows.  An interesting aspect of this story is the way it highlights how a "small" man, a hardworking Greek immigrant who believes in the American Dream, is abused both by the corporate world and the police yet finds an avenger in the man he so admired.  Wolfe himself enjoyed talking about ancient Greece with Vassos, though Wolfe did most of the talking on the subject, as he is wont to do.

"Wolfe's line," explains Archie, "was that a man who had been born in Greece, even though he had left at the age of six, should be familiar with the ancient glories of his native land, and he had been hammering away at Pete for forty months."  Later on he wisecracks, "Pete and I would have known each other a lot better if it hadn't been for ancient Greece."

Wolfe finds the solution to the crimes through some solid deductions.  The mystery is fair play and satisfying.  In essence, Kill Now-Pay Later reads very much like a shortened Nero Wolfe novel (one of the better ones) with some nice characterizations (the Vassos father and daughter and the tipsily pithy widow of Dennis Ashby) and good byplay among the crew of regulars, including Fritz, Wolfe's superb and devoted chef, who at one point has to serve as a sort of reluctant hall monitor, if you will, shepherding suspects in Wolfe's brownstone while Archie has been away:

Mr. Wolfe...said to put them in the office and stay in the hall.  I told him I was making glace de viande, but he said one of them is a murderer.  I want to do my share, you know that, Archie, but I can't make good glace de viande if I have to be watching murderers.

A delightful tale.  Read now--You'll enjoy it both now and later.

Second Instrument: Murder Is Corny

"Mr. Cramer.  Knowing your considerable talents as I do, I am sometimes dumbfounded by your fatuity.  You were so bent on baiting Mr. Goodwin that you completely ignored the point I was at pains to make."  He pointed at the piles on his desk.  "Who picked that corn?  Pfui!"

"By God.  Talk about stubborn egos."  Cramer shook his head.  "That break you got....You know, any normal man, if he got a break like that, coming down just in the nick of time, what any normal man would do, he would go down on his knees and thank God.  Do you know what you'll do?  You'll thank

Murder Is Corny
is the second mystery story concerning corn I have reviewed here. (Make sure you check out the first, since reprinted by Coachwhip.)

This one's the story of the farmer's daughter who implicates Archie in a murder and how Archie gets extricated from Inspector Cramer's clutches--by Nero Wolfe, of course, to whom Archie, it musr be conceded, is even more useful than was Pete Vassos.  It's an enjoyable enough tale, though the suspects are forgettable and the farmer and his daughter much less interesting, I would say, than Pete and Elma from Kill Now-Pay Later. The daughter, Susan McLeod, now a New York model (!), is an amiable egoist played for laughs but, like Archie, I got a bit tired of her.

The stand-out part of this book for me concerns, yes, corn.  Farmer Duncan McLeod of Putnam County, New York supplies Wolfe with sixteen just-picked ears of corn every Tuesday from July 20 to October 5; and Wolfe is rather particular about this corn.  Wolfe's following "corny" exchange with Cramer is, I think, one of the best in the series (including novels and novellas):

"Do you eat sweet corn?"

"Yes.  You're stalling."

"No.  Who cooks it?"

"My wife.  I haven't got a Fritz."

"Does she cook it in water?"

"Sure.  Is yours cooked in beer?"

"No.  Millions of American women, and some men, commit that outrage every summer day.  They are turning a superb treat into mere provender.  Shucked and boiled in water, sweet corn is edible and nutritious; roasted in the husk in the hottest possible oven for forty minutes, shucked at the table, and buttered and salted, nothing else, it is ambrosia.  No chef's ingenuity and imagination has ever created a finer dish.  American women should themselves be boiled in water...."

All this superb harumphery leads up to some excellent deductions on Wolfe's part.  This one was televised in the Maury Chaykin-Timothy Hutton series.  The literally explosive climax of the tale is well-suited to television drama. (I'm not giving anything away here, as the image of dynamite mixed with ears of corn has been used on the covers of paperback editions of the book for a half-century now.)

Third Instrument: Blood Will Tell

"She deserved--No, I won't say that.  I believe it, but I won't say it."

"Pfui.  More people saying what they believe would be a great improvement.  Because I often do I am unfit for common intercourse."

In Blood Will Tell, Archie's receipt in the mail of a bloodstained tie leads to another murder case for him and his boss.  Anthony Boucher proclaimed this possibly the finest Nero Wolfe case since the excellent Prisoner's Base (Out Goes She in the UK), from a dozen years earlier. (At least I presume this is the book of which Boucher was thinking.)

Although the case is rather simply solved, what gives this story the resonance to which Anthony Boucher responded so strongly is the character of a man who is desperately, inarticulately in love and very grateful indeed to Archie Goodwin.  The last two lines pack an emotional punch unusual for the series, paying fine tribute to one of the finest characters in American mystery fiction.