Friday, September 29, 2017

The Murder Mansions of Mr. Scarlett: The Classic Golden Age Detective Novels of Roger Scarlett (Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page)

Murder among the Angells (1932)
a devilishly difficult problem composed
by a diabolically ingenious author 
Roger Scarlett, author of five classic puzzle mysteries published between 1930 and 1933 (The Beacon Hill Murders, The Back Bay Murders, Cat's Paw, Murder among the Angells and In the First Degree) that have been reissued by Coachwhip, was a front man behind whom stood two ingenious women: Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page.  During the Golden Age of mystery, it was not unknown for women to publish their work under pseudonyms of masculine, or more often ambiguous, nature--Anthony Gilbert, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac and EX Ferrars (the latter of whom went as Elizabeth Ferrars in the UK) immediately come to  mind--but "Roger Scarlett" offers an unusual instance where two women collaboratively wrote under a male pen name.

Dorothy Blair (1903-1975) was born in Bozeman, Montana, where her father, James Franklin Blair, a prominent local doctor, and his wife Elizabeth had settled the previous year, having departed from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where James Blair had practiced medicine at the State Farm Institution (today the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane).

For her part Evelyn Page (1902-1976) came of a prominent Philadelphia family.  Just four months older than Dorothy, Evelyn enrolled in college a year prior to her future partner (both in life and in crime--fictional crime that is).  Evelyn graduated from Bryn Mawr (Pennsylvania) in 1923, while Dorothy graduated from Vassar (Poughkeepsie, New York) in 1924. 

Evelyn was quite active in student affairs at Bryn Mawr, serving as class vice president and treasurer during her senior year and as an editor on both The Lantern, the college literary magazine, and The Sportswoman, a nascent periodical that was of the first to be devoted exclusively to women's athletics.  (The latter publication had been founded by Constance Applebee, a native Englishwoman who directed athletics at Bryn Mawr for nearly a quarter of a century and today is best known for having introduced field hockey to the United States.)

For several years in the 1920s Dorothy and Evelyn worked as editors at the prominent American publisher Houghton Mifflin, headquartered in Boston's Back Bay, which is where the two women met each other.  The pair left Houghton, Mifflin in 1929 to establish their own writing careers as detective novelist "Roger Scarlett," a name I speculate that they drew from Nathaniel Hawthorne's landmark novel The Scarlet Letter.  (One of the major characters in the novel, which is set in the seventeenth century Massachusetts Bay Colony, is Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne's coldhearted and vengeful husband.)

Dorothy and Evelyn set all five of their novels in Boston, where they resided together for part of the time they spent writing them.  They later moved to a remotely situated early 1800s stone farmhouse in Abington, Connecticut, where they dedicated their mornings to writing and the rest of their daylight hours to such strenuous physical tasks as preserving, cooking, washing, wood-chopping, gardening, painting and plastering.

Harrison Gray Otis house, mentioned in one of the Scarlett novels

Each Roger Scarlett detective novel is set in an old Boston mansion or townhouse, of which, typically, several plans are provided (and are essential to the plot.)  Indeed, in Murder among the Angells, no fewer than nine floor plans are provided!

The novels--all of which are fine formal examples, both in terms of setting and plotting, of the American S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen baroque puzzle school--were well-received in the United States, though they were never reprinted (until now) and today are extremely rare in their original editions.  Interestingly the Scarlett mysteries were embraced in Japan by the prominent 20th century detective novelists Yokomizo Seishi and Edogawa Ranpo, the latter going so far as to include Murder among the Angells in a top ten list and declaring of it "this is the style of writing that I like best, that's what I think as I read every line.

More recently blogger Ho-Ling Wong has cited Murder among the Angells, like S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928) and Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Y (1932) as an archetypal example of the yakata-mono, or mansion story:

With many maps throughout the story, rooms that have doors at the weirdest places and the way people have to move to get around from one place to another, this novel practically screams yakata-mono.  The strange architecture practically functions as a silent extra characters not unlike the House of Usher, and succeeds in providing a very entertaining location for the murders.  The movements of the suspects inside the mansion also play a big role within the story, with both murders being strongly connected with the way the mansion is built and the way the mansion has been divided into two wings.  The Angell mansion is a very impressive force within the novel. 

Endpaper floor plan in Cat's Paw

This is true, though to a somewhat lesser degree, of the other novels in the Roger Scarlett opus, all of the headlined by Inspector Norton Kane, who though a policeman has the attributes of the Great Detective (including, in four of the novels, an admiring Watson figure, the prim Boston attorney Mr. Underwood).  In the murder mansions of Mr. Scarlett, readers will find genteelly dysfunctional families, murders in locked rooms and all manner of mysterious manifestations and miracle problems.  These books are the real deal, folks, and they come highly recommended.  I wrote a 7500 word introduction for the series, which I am most pleased to see back in print in English after more than eight decades.

Coming soon: some more on the authors, who were two extremely interesting women, and the remarkable case of plagiarism to which Roger Scarlett was subjected by a dastardly Englishman!


  1. Love this post. Looking forward to the checking out the reissues themselves!

  2. I have had this author on my want list for quite some time now. Had no idea about the real identities behind the name. Glad to know I can finally read them.

    1. More about Dorothy and Evelyn coming to the blog soon. There's quite a bit in the introduction. Yes, I'm very pleased with this series, these are great literate brainteasers.