Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Blast from the Past I: The British Golden Age of Detection's Deposed Crime Kings

            The essay of some 7500 words that follows below was originally written by me in 2011 and published that same year in CADS 60 (Crime and Detective Stories).  It seemed to make a strong impression at the time (see, for example, Martin Edwards, "CADS and Curt Evans"), though perhaps it may strike some today as unnecessarily tendentious on the gender issue.  I regret this if so, for, as I hope any reader of my blog will appreciate, I am a great admirer of crime fiction by women authors, including the Golden Age Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. 
            Consider that six years ago I was trying to place a book, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, about the Golden Age crime writers Freeman Wills Crofts, Cecil John Charles Street (John Street/Miles Burton and Alfred Walter Stewart (JJ Connington), and repeatedly being told that there would be no interest, either popular or academic, about "forgotten" British Golden Age mystery writers who were not "Crime Queens."  
Oh, how things have changed in six years!
             Although I fear this essay has since been greatly overshadowed (perhaps irrevocably) by other books by other people, perhaps it will be of some interest to my blog readers who never saw it in CADS. (You might even notice a reference to a certain John Strachey and "The Golden Age of English Detection.") Happily, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery was published, back in 2012.  Now on to our deposed Crime Kings.

            In the introduction to a recent academic study of “largely forgotten” nineteenth-century women writers of crime fiction,[1] the prominent British crime novelist Val McDermid noted in passing: “And, of course, whenever the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction is mentioned, the names associated with it are female — Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh.”  Critic Sarah Weinman illustrated Val McDermid’s contention in the January 29, 2011 “Reputations” column of the Wall Street Journal, in an article about Golden Age detective novelist Margery Allingham, wherein Weinman declared: “Four ‘queens of crime’ dominated the Golden Age of the mystery novel, the years just before and after World War II: Agatha Christie ... Dorothy Sayers ... Ngaio Marsh ... and Margery Allingham.”
            Examples abound of this insistently gendered approach to mystery genre history, by which the numerous works produced by a vast multitude of men and women during the Golden Age of the British detective novel are distilled into the product of four celebrated “Crime Queens.” One academic authority, for example, asserts that the Golden Age of British detection is “commonly conceived” as having run from “the first novel of Agatha Christie (1920) to the last novel by Dorothy L. Sayers (1937),”[2] while another writes that the Golden Age “is generally thought of as a period during which detective fiction became feminized.”[3] A third authority, insisting that the “best-selling and most critically acclaimed British mystery authors of the 1920s and 1930s were disproportionately women”, compares British mystery writing to such other “feminine” occupations of the era as teaching and nursing.[4]  Given this emphasis by academics and literary critics, perhaps we should not be surprised that the widely-reviewed Talking about Detective Fiction,[5] the short 2009 detective fiction survey by modern-day British “Crime Queen” P. D. James, allots the lioness’s share of its discussion of the Golden Age in Britain to those same four Crime Queens: Christie — you know the drill by now, surely — Sayers, Allingham and Marsh.
            While Golden Age British detective fiction is seen today as a feminine demesne and treated accordingly in many critical works, American detective fiction from the period between World War One and World War Two, on the other hand, tends to be viewed as masculine, devoted mostly to action-oriented tales of the violent, booze- and bimbo-filled doings of tough private eyes, where resolutions to mysteries are reached more through the use of fists than of the little grey cells much boasted of by Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot.
            Just as the Crime Queens are seen as dominating Britain’s Golden Age, two hardboiled American detective novelists, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, are seen as mastering the same span of years in the United States. P.D. James deems the differences in between-the-wars American and British detective fiction to be “so profound” that she finds it “stretching a definition to describe both groups under the same category.”
            Yet are critics really right here? Can we so simply reduce the works of the Golden Age of detective fiction in Britain to the efforts of four genteel women and the mysteries of the same era in the United States to the tough tales penned by a pair of hardened men? In my view the answer is absolutely not. Far from being illuminating, such a treatment is actually obscuring.
            Although the misrepresentation of American Golden Age mystery needs to be taken on as well, in this article I deal with the way the gendering of Golden Age detective fiction has yielded an inaccurate picture of the Golden Age in Britain by effectively deposing many of the era’s “Crime Kings”.
            The term “Golden Age” in reference to the English detective novel to my knowledge was first coined in a 1939 Saturday Review of Literature article, “The Golden Age of English Detection”, by John Strachey. Though Strachey viewed this “Golden Age” as existing in the present, the term was adopted two years later by Howard Haycraft in his influential mystery genre survey, Murder for Pleasure (1941), to cover the years 1918 to 1930. Other bookending years have been suggested since, but most commonly the term Golden Age has been taken to apply to the years 1920 to 1939.
            Did the four Crime Queens in fact dominate the two decades of the 1920s and 1930s? Let us look at the chronology of their writing careers in this period, in comparison with other British mystery writers of the time.

Agatha Christie (1890–1976)
            Agatha Christie, who admittedly eventually became a remarkable publishing phenomenon, did indeed publish her first detective novel in 1920. To credit this novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, with exclusive birthing of the Golden Age goes too far however. Also first appearing in 1920 was another detective novel, The Cask (written by Freeman Wills Crofts; see below), that deserves as much or more credit as Christie’s tale does. Today it seems to be forgotten that as a crime writer Agatha Christie actually was quite an inconsistent producer in the 1920s. Christie undeniably had become a Queen of Crime by the 1930s, but in the 1920s she was more a pretender of uncertain lineage.                      
            Of the nine mystery novels Agatha Christie published between 1920 and 1929, only five involved her greatest creation, Hercule Poirot, while the rest were rather loosely plotted thrillers populated by the evil criminal masterminds and gangs more associated with such hugely popular (though critically derided) thriller writers of the time as Edgar Wallace (“It is impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace!” shrieked the publisher’s tag line), “Sapper” (Bulldog Drummond creator H. C. McNeile) and Sax Rohmer (creator of the diabolical “Oriental” crime fiend, Dr. Fu Manchu). Indeed, even one of the Poirot novels from the 1920s, The Big Four (1927) — stitched together as a novel (from earlier published stories) after the scandal of Christie’s apparent nervous breakdown and disappearance upon her husband’s revelation of his infidelity and his desire for a divorce — is a thriller, a farrago of Edgar Wallace, Sapper and Sax Rohmer devices that a shamefaced Christie herself later referred to as “that rotten book”.
            Agatha Christie achieved her greatest fame in the decade of the twenties not only for her 1926 disappearance, which became a brief newspaper sensation, but also for the Poirot detective novel she published the same year, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This justly admired murder tale boasted a notorious solution that was effusively praised as brilliant by some critics and simultaneously denounced as unfair by others (there is an obviously apocryphal story that Christie was threatened with expulsion from the Detection Club — an organization of the finest English detective novelists — and only saved by the intercession of, naturally, Dorothy L. Sayers; obviously apocryphal because the Detection Club was not formed until 1930). But even after the appearance of Roger Ackroyd, Christie was viewed as something of a one-hit wonder until a glittering succession of first-grade Poirot detective novels accumulated in the 1930s (such as Peril at End House, Lord Edgware Dies, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds and The ABC Murders).               
            Arguably even as late as the early thirties, more detective fiction fans might well have named another author besides Agatha Christie — Dorothy L. Sayers, say, or even that man Freeman Wills Crofts — as the best detective fiction novelist.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957)
            Dorothy L. Sayers followed Agatha Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts into print as a mystery novelist by three years, with the publication of Whose Body? (1923), a bubbly tale that introduced her insouciant, aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Four Lord Peter detective novels and a short story collection appeared in the 1920s, and as a fictional detective Wimsey immediately won attention, pro and con (Dashiell Hammett seems to have been an early initial detractor, writing rather sourly in his review of Sayers’s 1928 short story collection, Lord Peter Views the Body: “Readers whom Lord Peter Wimsey amuses will find the book to their taste; most of the stories are slightly enough plotted to leave him plenty of room for his flippancies”).[6] However, Sayers’s ascent to the top of the British crime fiction world really began with a series of incisive and influential critical essays on the mystery genre that the Oxford graduate penned in the late 1920s and early 1930s and with her launching in the Lord Peter tales of the celebrated (and occasionally derided) Harriet Vane saga.
            In Strong Poison (1930), the formerly flippant Lord Peter falls shatteringly in love with brilliant mystery author (and Sayers ego projection) Harriet Vane, on trial for her life for the murder of her lover. Peter saves Harriet by finding the true murderer, but he takes two more novels to successfully woo and win her (several Sayers detective novels without Harriet also appeared in this period, including the highly praised church and village tale, The Nine Tailors). The third novel in the Harriet Vane saga, Gaudy Night, which in addition to resolving the Peter and Harriet romance concerns the question of higher education for women, does not even involve a murder (though there is a mystery). Both Gaudy Night and Sayers’s last completed detective novel, Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), approached being mainstream novels and were big sellers on both sides of the Atlantic. Sayers became a much-discussed name in literary journals, where it was hotly debated whether the Crime Queen had achieved her goal of transforming the detective novel into literature and whether such a goal even was a desirable one. Sayers soon after retired from crime writing at the height of her critical and financial success as a mystery novelist, in order to devote herself to writing religious dramas, essays, and a translation of Dante. When she did so she was unquestionably a Queen of Crime who had voluntarily relinquished her bloodstained sceptre.

Margery Allingham (1904–1966)
            If Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were not fully established as Crime Queens until the 1930s, what of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh? Margery Allingham did not publish her first mystery novel until 1928; her aristocratic series detective, Albert Campion, appeared the next year, in The Crime at Black Dudley. Despite the appearance of Campion, thrillers predominated in Allingham’s output until the 1934 publication of Death of a Ghost, a sophisticated tale of murder in the art world. The main Campion mysteries that followed in the 1930s — Flowers for the Judge (1936), Dancers in Mourning (1937) and The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) — dealt with similarly sophisticated milieus (publishing, musical comedy, fashion design) and met with increasing praise as crime tales following down Sayers’s “novel of manners” path. Certainly by the end of the Golden Age Margery Allingham could be said to have ascended to her throne as a Crime Queen.

Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982)
            Among the four Golden Age Queens of Crime, Ngaio Marsh had the tardiest coronation. Marsh, a native New Zealander, did not publish her first crime tale, A Man Lay Dead, until 1934. A conventional country house tale, this inaugural mystery was deemed a poor thing by the author herself (“a man laid egg” she later called it). It was not until the 1938 to 1941 period, with the introduction of sophisticated settings and a Harriet Vane-like love interest (the brilliant artist Agatha Troy), that Marsh made a serious claim to the Crime Queen’s royal mantle (in earlier years some reviewers assumed she was a man). In Artists in Crime and Death in a White Tie, both from 1938, Marsh’s handsome, impeccably mannered, well-born detective, Roderick Alleyn, met, wooed and won “Troy”, as she was called; while in 1941 Marsh produced her most highly-regarded detective novel (even today), Surfeit of Lampreys, a sparkling comedy of manners about a charming family living in genteel poverty that has to confront murder in its midst.

            Thus by 1941 it certainly could be fairly said that four Crime Queens ruled over the world of fictional British murder (even though one had stepped down from her throne to seek other creative fields to conquer). Their grip on power was strengthened with the paperback publishing revolution that began during and accelerated following World War Two. In 1949–50, for example, paperback giant Penguin reprinted ten works each by Christie, Allingham and Marsh (who were all still actively writing mysteries), in editions of 100,000 copies a title — a million total for each author. All four of the Crime Queens have remained in print in paperback every decade since, while contrastingly most of their male Golden Age contemporaries languished after their deaths.
             Not surprisingly, then, the idea of four Crime Queens has cemented and solidified over the last sixty years. But to some extent this is chronologically ahistorical, as indicated above. Not until the very tail end of the Golden Age or even just after, in the period from about 1938–1941, can all four Crime Queens truly have been said to have risen to dominance over the world of British crime fiction. Even Christie and Sayers, who appeared earlier on the mystery scene, in 1920 and 1923 respectively, really only began to tower over most of their male contemporaries in the 1930s, say 1930 to 1935.
             So, strictly speaking, it is not accurate to suggest that the four Crime Queens dominated the entire Golden Age (normally understood, as stated above, as the years 1920 to 1939 or thereabouts). Perhaps this is why Sarah Weinman, in the Wall Street Journal article noted above, reimagines the Golden Age as “the years just before and after World War II.” While this declaration is imprecise, it suggests to me the years of 1938 to 1946 (interpreted narrowly) or perhaps those of 1935 to 1949 (interpreted broadly). But even under the more generous construction, we lose fifteen years of the span traditionally thought of as constituting the Golden Age. Sarah Weinman thus seems to have taken the logical final step in the apotheosis of the Crime Queens by reconstructing the Golden Age entirely around them. In this construction the Crime Queens by definition dominated the Golden Age, because the Golden Age is now defined as those years when the Crime Queens dominated British crime fiction.
            To say such a construction is a circular one is to state the obvious. However, this chronological sleight-of-hand is necessary if one wants to be able to accurately claim that the Crime Queens dominated the entire Golden Age of British detection, because the Golden Age, as traditionally defined (1920–1939), simply was not the murderous matriarchy envisioned by so many modern-day academics and critics (as well as the readers these academics and critics have influenced).
             Who were the men — the ousted men — of the Golden Age of the British detective novel? To be sure, some British male Golden Age detective novelists — E. C. Bentley (forerunner of the Golden Age with his Trent’s Last Case, 1913, and author of an additional detective novel, co-written with Warner Allen, Trent’s Own Case, within it); A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh creator and author of a single mystery tale); H. C. Bailey (best known as the creator of that sweets-loving protector and avenger of wronged innocents, Reggie Fortune); Ronald Knox (more known for his “Rules” for the writing of detective fiction than for his detective fiction);[7] Philip Macdonald (author of more sensationalistic detective fiction); Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles (often seen as the greatest British progenitor of the psychological crime novel); John Dickson Carr (the master of the “locked room” mystery, he was actually born in the United States but is associated with British mystery by reason of his long residence in England and also because of the English settings of most of his Golden Age tales); Michael Innes (strongly associated with the “donnish detection” school); Nicholas Blake (real life poet C. Day Lewis); and Cyril Hare (a British judge) — have not been quite so forgotten, although they have received nothing remotely like the attention the Crime Queens have. John Dickson Carr, for example, was quite popular and admired in his heyday and even today often is recognized as one of the greatest Golden Age mystery writers, yet he has languished out of print since the 1990s and has been largely ignored in academic works, outside of a fine biography by historian Douglas G. Greene.[8] And even though Michael Innes and Nicholas Blake wrote more in the “novel of manners” style of the Crime Queens, they too have unaccountably been much neglected in academic studies compared with the Crime Queens.
             Yet these men are comparatively fortunate (an additional male mystery writer, one who stands above mere genre history, is the great G.K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown detective short stories, many of which appeared during the Golden Age, are still well-known). Another group of British male detective novelists, notoriously dubbed the “Humdrums” in the 1970s by crime writer and critic Julian Symons[9] (this term was again used in regard to these writers by P.D. James in her 2009 survey), truly has been banished from histories of the British Golden Age detective novel, despite the fact that they all were important, popular figures in the mystery genre during the Golden Age. Although various authors have been attributed as belonging to this group, I look here at the six men I believe have been most strongly associated with it: Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, Cecil John Charles Street (John Rhode/Miles Burton), Alfred Walter Stewart (J.J. Connington), G. D. H. Cole and Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher (Henry Wade). Unlike Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, all six of these writers were active over all (Crofts, Freeman) or most (Street, Connington, Cole, Wade) of the Golden Age and in 1930 became charter members of the Detection Club, an association of the finest British detective novelists.
             “Humdrum” Golden Age detective novelists have been disparaged with that word because ostensibly they cared only about the puzzle in their mystery works and nothing whatsoever about character, setting or theme. In actuality, this assertion is untrue about all these authors, particularly so in the case of G.D.H. Cole and Henry Wade. However, it is true of Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, John Street and J.J. Connington that their greatest gifts as detective novelists were their technical skills, which placed them among the most popular British detective novelists of the Golden Age. Additionally, all these men had individual voices and made unique contributions to the mystery genre.

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879–1957)
             As mentioned above, appearing at the inception of the Golden Age (1920) with Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles was another crime novel, Freeman Wills Crofts’s massive murder opus The Cask, which at the time was considered the more notable achievement of the two tales, surprising as this fact may seem to many today.
            While during his career as a detective novelist, which extended nearly forty years (from 1920 to 1957), no one who I am aware of ever dubbed Crofts (or any other man) a “Crime King”, the Anglo-Irish railway engineer turned novelist was from the early 1920s on acknowledged as the king of the “unbreakable alibi” mystery, where the murderer has an alibi for the crime that seems airtight, but nevertheless is ultimately punctured by the intrepid detective. The Cask, the first of Crofts’s unbreakable alibi tales, was remarkable in its day for both the complexity of its mystery and the clarity with which that mystery is investigated and explicated. It was also remarkably popular, selling nearly 100,000 copies by 1932 (presumably all hardcover in those days). Additional tales like The Ponson Case (1921), Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930), Mystery in the Channel (1931) and The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) are, like The Cask, locational alibi stories of great ingenuity, although their mathematical flavour tends to be rather too dry for many in the modern-day mystery readership. However, Crofts was not a one-trick alibi pony as has often been suggested. Other clever devices flavour tales like The Groote Park Murder (1923), Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924), Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927), The Sea Mystery (1928), Death on the Way (1932) and Crime at Guildford(1935). Additionally, Crofts was a notable exponent of the inverted mystery (where we see the murderer committing the crime and the question becomes how — or whether — he will be caught) in such works as The 12:30 from Croydon and Mystery on Southampton Water (both 1934).
             In contrast with Agatha Christie, whose signature investigator during the Golden Age was the dapper Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, and her sisters in crime, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, who all introduced as investigators charming detectives of exquisite aristocratic backgrounds, Crofts’s investigators, of whom Inspector (later Superintendent) French became the most important, were all plain (very plain) bourgeois coppers and their detailed doings in works like The Loss of the “Jane Vosper” (1936) arguably have a greater air of everyday realism, even though Crofts himself had no background in policework. (Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn was, rather improbably, a policeman too, but he otherwise bore quite a strong likeness to Sayers’s and Allingham’s oh-so-posh gents. Moreover, to interview servants below stairs while he hobnobbed with the smarter sets above, Alleyn fortunately had on hand, like Wimsey with his Bunter and Campion with his Lugg, an underling, one Sergeant Fox. With rather annoying preciosity, Alleyn often calls this poor man “Br’er Fox” and “my Foxkin”.)
             P.D. James has speculated that a great part of the appeal of mystery novels by Sayers, Allingham and Marsh lies in their sophisticated, aristocratic trappings, which she is sure attracted people living out drab middle class lives in the 1920s and 1930s (“travelling home to mortgaged metroland,” as she puts it).[10] No doubt they often did. Yet some readers (like Raymond Chandler, who famously despised the Crime Queens’ gentleman detectives)[11] preferred Crofts’s penny plain policemen and the author’s resolutely no-nonsense concentration on the mystery problem (interestingly, Crofts was one of the few British detective novelists even modestly praised by Chandler).[12]           
            An additional notable element of Crofts’s mystery fiction is the clear influence of the author’s religious value system. A devout low-church Anglican — he once politely proselytized a patently unenthusiastic Dorothy L. Sayers on behalf of his latest cause, the evangelical Oxford Group organization — Crofts increasingly emphasized religious themes in his work after the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s led him to question the morality of capitalism. Many of his later novels and stories are explicitly moralistic. The stories from the collections Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) and Many a Slip (1955) are parables on the folly of greed and the pursuit of self-interest, while one specific novel, Antidote to Venom (1938), deliberately takes the form of a conversion narrative. With keen insight the Congregationslist minister Erik Routley nearly forty years ago designated Crofts “the greatest Puritan of them of all” in his interesting but often overlooked book on the mystery genre, The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story (1972).
            Crofts’s early detective novels did much to create the rage for detective fiction in the first half of the 1920s. The complexity of the plots made his books especially appealing to intellectuals, many of whom had previously looked down on the “mystery thriller” as a rather low form of reading entertainment. Margaret Cole, wife of the prominent Socialist academic G.D.H. Cole, later recalled that her husband was drawn to writing his first detective novel, The Brooklyn Murders (1923), by reading the tales of Freeman Wills Crofts (Margaret Cole soon herself joined in the fun).[13] “Before his invention, mine eyes dazzle,” declared one intellectual critic, an Oxford graduate in the classics no less, of Freeman Wills Crofts.[14] High culture priest T. S. Eliot, an avid detective fiction reader in the 1920s, similarly held Freeman Wills Crofts in high esteem, classing him along with his somewhat similarly named brother in crime, R. Austin Freeman, as the greatest living detective novelists. Eliot explicitly graded both men above Agatha Christie (he did not mention Sayers).[15]

R. Austin Freeman (1862–1943)

             Though he is referenced in some genre surveys for works published before the advent of the Golden Age, R. Austin Freeman is another major male mystery writer active during the entire Golden Age who is much underappreciated today. While Freeman’s first detective novel, The Red Thumb Mark, appeared in 1907, well before the beginning of the Golden Age, Freeman, a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle, continued writing mystery fiction until the year before his death in 1943. Between 1922 and 1938, Freeman published fifteen detective novels and three collections of detective short stories, all detailing exploits of his once famous detective (and the greatest rival of Sherlock Holmes), medical jurist Dr. John Thorndyke (two more Thorndyke novels appeared in 1940 and 1942, outside the proper span of the Golden Age).
            R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke tales brought science and forensic medicine into the detective fiction genre in a masterful way (compared to Thorndyke, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is far less credible on scientific matters). P.D. James has pronounced that Golden Age detective novelists “had very little knowledge and even less apparent interest in forensic medicine”[16] — a far too sweeping statement, evidently based mostly on James’s assessments of the Crime Queens, that does a grave injustice to Freeman, perhaps the single most important progenitor of the use of forensic medicine in detective fiction. Writing in the mid-1950s of her admiration for Freeman’s detective novels and stories, novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith, indeed an avid fan of the man’s work, praised his “extraordinary lucidity and directness” as well as “the width of his interests, among which ... medicine predominated.”[17]
            Though some of Freeman’s best works, such as The Eye of Osiris (1911) and the short-story collections John Thorndyke’s Cases (1909) and The Singing Bone (1912), appeared before the commencement of the Golden Age, Freeman produced many superb Golden Age works, including the three later short story collections Dr. Thorndyke’s Casebook (1923), The Puzzle Lock (1925) and The Magic Casket (1927) and such novels as The Cat’s Eye (1923), The Shadow of the Wolf (1925), The D’Arblay Mystery (1926), As a Thief in the Night (1928), Mr. Pottermack Oversight (1930), The Penrose Mystery (1936) and The Stoneware Monkey (1938). Freeman’s story collection The Singing Bone has been credited with creating the inverted mystery and the later novels Wolf and Oversight are fine examples of that form.                         
            In his day R. Austin Freeman was an influential figure within the genre, referenced with some frequency by younger authors (including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers), and producing two very notable disciples among the individuals who began writing mystery fiction in the 1920s: Cecil John Charles Street (who authored his genre work primarily under the names John Rhode and Miles Burton) and Alfred Walter Stewart (who wrote as J.J. Connington). Several of Street’s detective novels clearly were influenced by Freeman short stories and Connington explicitly pronounced Freeman the greatest living practitioner of the mystery form and the genre writer to whom he owed his greatest artistic debt.[18] Following in the footsteps of Freeman, Street and Connington both became popular and esteemed detective novelists during the Golden Age.

John Street (1884–1964)
            Under the punning pseudonym “John Rhode”, John Street began publishing mysteries in 1924. Forty years old at this time, Street had already lived an interesting life, with activities including employment as a stockholder and electrical engineer for an early English power company, service in World War One as a decorated army artillerist and a post-war stint as an intelligence officer in Ireland during the notorious Black and Tan War (he rose to the rank of Major and was often known afterwards as “Major Street”). In The Paddington Mystery (1925), Street introduced his most famous series detective, Dr. Lancelot Priestley, an acerbic, disputatious mathematics professor with a passion for solving problems and proving authority, be it in the form of rival professors or of the police, utterly, desperately wrong. With considerable technical ingenuity at his disposal, Street in his “John Rhode” guise won an admiring readership for mysteries with complex plots and ingenious murder methods. If Crofts was the Alibi King, Street was mystery’s Master of Murder Means. One impressed reviewer memorably dubbed Street “Public Brain Tester No. 1.”[19] Declared another: “Most serious detective-story connoisseurs would never miss reading any of his stories.”[20]
            Street’s mind for murder problems was so fecund that to help channel his creativity he introduced two other pseudonyms, the most important of which was the name “Miles Burton,” under which Street introduced Desmond Merrion, a somewhat flippant gentleman amateur detective more in the mold of Lord Peter Wimsey. This series, which started off with thrillers but soon settled down into classical detection, won considerable praise throughout the Golden Age as well. Under these two pseudonyms and another, minor, one, Cecil Waye, the awesomely prolific Street produced 143 crime novels (mostly tales of detection), over sixty of which appeared between 1924 and 1939.
            So many detective novels did Street author that it is challenging to list a comparatively small number of highlights, but certainly notable ones from the Golden Age are: The Ellerby Case (1927), a thrillerish tale which manages to credibly employ a purple hedgehog as an instrument of death; an early serial killer tale, The Murders in Praed Street (1928); The House on Tollard Ridge and The Davidson Case (both 1929); the witchcraft thriller The Secret of High Eldersham (1930); The Motor Rally Mystery, The Claverton Mystery and The Venner Crime (all from 1933); Poison for One and Shot at Dawn (both from 1934); The Corpse in the Car (1935) and Mystery at Olympia (both from 1935); a Crofts-like railway mystery, Death in the Tunnel (1936); another ingenious serial murderer tale, Death on the Board (1937); and two locked room mysteries, Invisible Weapons (1938) and Death Leaves No Card (1939). Significant Street titles appeared after the end of the Golden Age as well.
            In addition to the ingenuity of their plots, Street’s novels are striking for their informed depictions of the business world and their often admiring portrayals of scientifically and technically oriented individuals, whatever their social class. To some readers, Street’s tales offer a nice break from the sophisticated, arts-oriented milieus frequently found in works of the Crime Queens, particularly Sayers, Allingham and Marsh. Street himself came from a wealthy gentry background on his mother’s side of the family and enjoyed private means, yet he was fascinated with the capacity of applied science to improve human life and as a result sought useful employment as the electrical engineer of the power company in which he had invested. Throughout his life Street retained great respect for men willing to dirty their hands in beneficent physical endeavors.
J.J. Connington (1880–1947)
             Like John Street, Alfred Walter Stewart had a professional scientific background. A prominent chemistry professor originally from Scotland who taught for many years at Queen’s University, Belfast, Stewart began his career as a novelist with a notable apocalyptic science fiction thriller, Nordenholt’s Million (1923) — the first of the many books he would publish under the pseudonym “J.J. Connington.” Three years later, using the same pen name, Stewart launched what would become an eventual run of two dozen detective novels, nineteen of which appeared during the Golden Age. In seventeen of these tales Connington employed as his investigator Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, a strikingly dry and acerbic detective reflective of the author’s own mordant world view. Connington tales are well-constructed works and, while they revolve less consistently around alibi-busting (Crofts) or clever murder means (Street), they nevertheless often involve interesting points of science. By 1927, no less a critic than T. S. Eliot welcomed Connington to “the front rank of detective story writers.”[21] Indicative of the intellectual respectability of this author within the mystery field, a 1929 reviewer of Connington’s The Case with Nine Solutions declared that the author’s “particular strength lies in his respect for the reader’s intelligence....piece after piece [of the solution to the mystery] is added till the reader shuts the book with a mind satisfied and replete.”[22]
            Besides the much-praised The Case with Nine Solutions, other notable Connington Golden Age murder tales that might be mentioned are: Murder in the Maze (1927); The Sweepstake Murders (1931); The Castleford Conundrum (1932); The Ha-Ha Case (1934); In Whose Dim Shadow (1935) and A Minor Operation (1937). Additionally, Connington’s apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Nordenholt’s Million, offers a remarkably chilling read even today (arguably more so).

            The two remaining men most often classified as “humdrum” detective novelists, G.D.H. Cole and Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher (Henry Wade), are so classified without sufficient foundation in my view. G.D.H. Cole quickly evolved into more of a crime fiction satirist, while Henry Wade followed down Dorothy L. Sayers’s path by trying to transform the detective story into a novel of serious purpose, an effort for which he is grievously underacknowledged.

G. D. H. Cole (1889–1959)
             Though he was less technically sophisticated a detective novelist than Crofts, Freeman, Street or Connington, G.D.H. Cole became another prominent British mystery writer in the 1920s. Inspired by the first three detective novels of Crofts, Cole as mentioned above published his own such tale, The Brooklyn Murders, essentially a Crofts pastiche, in 1923. Cole was an Oxford professor and one of England’s most important and active Socialist intellectuals over four decades (1920s–1950s), and the writing of detective novels became a minor (if fairly lucrative) pastime for him as well as his wife, the Socialist writer Margaret Cole.
            G.D.H. Cole would write eighteen detective novels, all but two of which appeared in the traditionally defined Golden Age period (Margaret Cole herself separately wrote ten tales; yet even though the two actually composed their mystery novels separately, after The Brooklyn Murders both their names were signed to each mystery and the husband and wife today are still referred to as co-authors of all the books after the first). G.D.H. Cole’s primary contribution to the field of detective fiction (and that of his wife) was bringing to the detective novel a satirical touch, often influenced by a leftist world view. In books like The Death of a Millionaire (1925), The Blatchington Tangle (1926), Big Business Murder (1935) and Murder at the Munition Works (1940, which falls just outside the traditionally delineated Golden Age period), Cole launches squibs at the conservative political and business establishments, while in other books he pokes fun at country gentry (The Affair at Aliquid, 1933), batters the bourgeoisie (The Brothers Sackville, 1936), annoys academia (Disgrace to the College, 1937) and ridicules the Anglican Church (Double Blackmail, 1939).
            G.D.H. Cole’s most prominent series detective, the policeman Superintendent Wilson, has been compared, naturally enough, to Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French, though it is made clear in the Cole mysteries that Wilson shares his creator’s Socialist sympathies (indeed, Wilson briefly resigns from the police after he learns of unrebuked corruption in high places in The Death of a Millionaire). Reviewers of a rather different ideological stripe from Cole could be offended by the bluntly satirical tone the writer adopted in his genre tales. In her Sunday Times review of Cole’s The Affair at Aliquid, for example, Dorothy L. Sayers complained of the tale that “the mirth is coarse and commonplace, the satire clumsy and brutal.” Lectured Sayers: “One must both know and love these bishops, butlers, and noblemen if one’s caricature of their foibles is to be anything more than an ill-bred grin through a horse-collar.” Sayers pronounced that “only one man living” — P.G. Wodehouse — could produce satire of the aristocracy without giving “offence”.[23] Despite such criticism, however, Cole’s tales often met with high praise in diverse critical corners. One prominent (and left-wing) mystery reviewer, for example, deemed The Brothers Sackville “brilliant in many ways, full of amusing characters and neat situations.”[24]

Henry Wade (1887–1969)
             Most all the mystery novels of Crofts, Freeman, Street, Connington and Cole were published in the United States as well as Great Britain, indicating that despite any perceived Britishness (the methodical detection of the first four men and the satire of the latter) they were able to find an American audience between the wars. The one man so far undiscussed, Henry Wade, had a less successful record of American publication, confounding as he did expectations of what a Golden Age British mystery writer should be. Even today, Wade continues to confound those expectations, resulting in a greatly undeserved neglect of his work. While much praise is heaped on the Crime Queens Sayers, Allingham and Marsh for helping to transform the detective story into, as P. D. James has put it, novels of “social realism and serious purpose” and writers of academic monographs weightily analyze their books for their treatments of issues related to gender, class and race, Henry Wade, whose own genre novels came to have as much “social realism and serious purpose” as any of those by the Crime Queens, bafflingly remains ignored. It may well be the case that Wade’s novels became too real and too serious for modern readers, schooled to expect from Golden Age detective stories the lighter novel of manners style of the Crime Queens.
            To some extent, Henry Wade’s true name, Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, and his title, baronet, have probably hindered any attempt to rehabilitate his literary reputation. After all, so the thought might run, what could a baronet with a hyphenated handle have known about “social realism and serious purpose”? Yet in truth Wade was not some feckless, idle aristocrat, but a man who had served his country with distinction in World War One, suffering two wounds and receiving the French Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Order, afterward returning home and becoming extensively involved in county administration in Buckinghamshire. Unlike most Golden Age British mystery writers who, however impeccably of aristocratic lineage their fictional detectives may have been, themselves came of solidly bourgeois origins, Wade was truly of the gentry and knew county ways down to the ground. Very few of Wade’s contemporaries wrote with his authority on country gentry, local politics and the police.
             Like his own favorite detective novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers, Wade in his own writing career moved away from writing “mere puzzles” toward crime novels in the modern sense, i.e., novels using murder to illustrate, in a serious way, character, setting and theme. However, from his very first novel, The Verdict of You All (1926), the author showed considerable originality in conveying a decidedly unromantic view of life, one influenced by his experience of the madness of World War One and the conflict’s unsatisfactory outcome. In his writing Wade evinces a deeply pessimistic vision of the world, a vision that tends only to darken over the years (ironically, the modern crime writer Henry Wade most resembles is P.D. James, who apparently has never read him). Wade is especially notable for his ability to face without flinching failings in his own class that were leading irrevocably to a drastic diminishment of its power. While the Crime Queens, particularly Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, have with some justification been accused of a tendency to romanticize the landed gentry, Wade knew his own people too well to do that.
             Notable early books conveying Wade’s ironic, often pessimistic, view of life that are also good puzzles are The Missing Partners (1928), The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), The Dying Alderman (1930) and No Friendly Drop (1931). Over the course of the 1930s, Wade downplayed the puzzle in favor of treatments of character, setting and theme. Two of his best works from this decade in the “crime novel” vein are Mist on the Saltings (1933) and The High Sheriff (1937), both essentially tragedies. Also of the first order is Heir Presumptive (1935), an inverted tale in Wade’s most darkly ironic style that depicts an amoral man bumping off the relatives standing in the way of his attainment of a baronetcy, and Bury Him Darkly (1936), a pioneering “police procedural” (a tale portraying realistic police investigation of crime). Wade’s best police procedural (and one of his finest works), Lonely Magdalen (1940), stands just outside the traditionally delineated Golden Age period. Wade also wrote some fine short crime tales, including an interesting series about a common policeman that he gathered into the collection Here Comes the Copper (1938). His other story collection, Policeman’s Lot (1933), is more a mixed bag, but is still worth noting.
            People interested in the true, surpassingly rich and varied, history of the Golden Age (and not merely the stripped-down version constructed in many modern genre studies), as well as those who just like a good mystery, are advised to seek out some of Great Britain’s forgotten Kings of Crime. Copyrights have lapsed on many R. Austin Freeman titles and these are downloadable on the internet or available through admittedly rather obscure publishers. Additionally, works by Freeman Wills Crofts are being reprinted by James Prichard’s nascent concern, Langtail Press (interestingly, Prichard is a great-grandson of Agatha Christie).[25] Yet the many genre works by Street, Connington, Cole and Wade remain, quite unjustly, out of print. And none of these authors are yet available, as are the Crime Queens and the Hardboiled Boys, in what might be termed prestige editions, which are more likely to catch the eyes of potential readers, even in the internet age.
             While there is some evidence on the internet of a rekindled interest in the deposed Crime Kings on the part of small publishing concerns, academic publishers still seem loath to embrace scholarly studies of these authors, even though these authors have merit in themselves and also provide us with a much more informed understanding of mystery genre history. Thus we are faced with an unfortunate vicious circle, where unjustly neglected British Golden Age detective novelists (often, though certainly not always, male) must remain unjustly neglected in the future because they have been unjustly neglected in the past; and where we will continue to be told that four particular British women — the Crime Queens — dominated the entire Golden Age of British detective fiction.

1.   Lucy Sussex: Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), ix.
2.   Sally Munt: Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), page 7.
3    Lee Horsley: Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), page 38. Reviewed in CADS 49 (April, 2006)
4.   Erin A. Smith: Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000), page 39.
5.   P.D. James: Talking about Detective Fiction (Oxford: Bodlean Library, 2009; US: Knopf, 2009). Reviewed in CADS 57 (December, 2009).
6.   Saturday Review of Literature 6 (May 4, 1929).
7.   For more on Knox and his “Rules” see Liz Gilbey: “The Monsignor and His Ten Commandments” in CADS 54 (July, 2008).
8.   Douglas G. Greene: John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles (US: Otto Penzler Books, 1995).
9.   In Bloody Murder (Faber & Faber, 1972; US: as Mortal Consequences, Harper 1972).
10. Talking about Detective Fiction, page 118.
11. For example “Not long ago I made an effort to reread Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. God,what sycophantic drivel. A whole clutch of lady dons at an Oxford college all in a flutter to know about Lord Peter Wimsey and to know about the plot of Harriet Vane’s latest mystery story. How silly can you get?”; or, “I don’t deny the mystery writer the privilege of making his detective any sort of a person he wants him to be — a poet, philosopher, student of ceramics or Egyptology, or a master of all the sciences like Dr. Thorndyke. What I don’t seem to cotton to is the affectation of gentility which does not belong to the job and which is in effect a subconscious expression of snobbery, the kind of thing that reached its high-water mark in Dorothy Sayers.”. In letters to James Sandoe reproduced in Frank MacShane (ed.): Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981; UK: Jonathan Cape, 1981), pages 291 and 297.
12. Chandler describes Crofts as “the soundest builer of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy” in “The Simple Art of Murder” first published in The Atlantic Monthly (December, 1944).
13. G.D.H. and Margaret Cole: “Meet Superintendent Wilson” in Meet the Detective (Allen & Unwin, 1935; US: Telegraph Press, 1935), page 108.
14. Ivor Brown in the Observer, reprinted in Freeman Wills Crofts: Crime at Guildford (London: Collins, 1935).
15. The Criterion 8 (September 1928): page 175.
16. P.D. James: Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography (Faber & Faber, 1999), page 33.
17. Sheila Kaye-Smith: All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography (London: Cassell, 1956), page 186.
18. From a letter written by Stewart.
19. E.R. Punshon in the Manchester Guardian (from a review of Death on the Board), reprinted in John Rhode: Death in the Hopfields (London: Collins, 1937).
20. “Dr. Watson” in the Manchester Evening Chronicle (from a review of Death in the Tunnel), reprinted in Miles Burton: Death at Low Tide (London: Collins, 1938).
21. The Monthly Criterion, 6 (November 1927), page 568.
22. From an unattributed review in the Times Literary Supplement reprinted in Connington: The Eye in the Museum (London: Gollancz, 1929).
23. From the Sunday Times, 17 September 1933.
24. Ralph Partridge in the New Statesman and Nation, 9 January 1936, page 54.
25  Six titles by Crofts are currently available from Langtail Press; see www.langtailpress.com for details.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Preacher, Plagiarizer, Crime Writer and Confidence Trickster: The Kaleidoscopic Criminal Career of Maurice E. Balk (1900?-1981)

Bexhill-on-Sea, boyhood home of Maurice E. Balk
see Sussex Photo History
            Maurice E. Balk was, as the saying goes, a man of many parts, many of which were doubtlessly attractive on the surface yet resoundingly repulsive beneath it.  Among other surprising and often sordid things, Balk was a poet, preacher, plagiarist, crime writer and, above all, consummate confidence trickster.  A survey of the man’s kaleidoscopic criminal career as it unfolded in at least three countries and two continents reveals an ingenious and insinuating man of seemingly no conscience who in his damaging wake left a trail of cruelly deceived victims. 
            Born in London in 1900, Maurice E. Balk was the son of Leon and Minnie Balk, Russian Jews who around the turn of the nineteenth century migrated to England, where they became naturalized British citizens.  Leon Balk, who during the first decade-and-a-half of the twentieth century owned photography studios in the Sussex seaside resorts of Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea, was born around 1873 in the city of Tarage (now part of Lithuania) to David and Jehudith Balk.  After moving from Lithuania to England he initially settled in London, where Minnie gave birth to Maurice, the couple’s eldest child.  Probably by 1902 Leon and Minnie had relocated from London to Eastbourne, where their second son, Phillip, was born.  By 1911, Leon and Minnie, along with young Maurice and Phillip and newborn daughter Bessie, resided at 23 Sackville Road in Bexhill-on-Sea, where Leon until 1915 operated a photography studio at 69 Devonshire Road.  Leon was doing well enough at this time with his business to employ a single house servant.  Possibly he passed away during or shortly after the Great War.
            Whatever happened to Leon Balk, his wife Minnie, who died in London in 1923, saw her last years darkened by the activities of Maurice, who by 1917 had commenced upon a lengthy career in crime.  In September of that year Maurice, who formerly had been employed as a messenger with J. C. Meacher, a longtime Finsbury pharmacist, was arrested and arraigned before London’s Mansion House Police Court on the charge of obtaining, by means of forged orders purporting to come from his former employer, a quantity of pharmaceutical and photographic goods, as well as first-aid and medical cases, together valued at several hundred pounds, from several London business firms, including Kodak, Ltd, which he then sold to a pair of City businessmen, Henry Peter Koski, a fancy-goods dealer, and Richard Wilson, a chemist.  Both Koski and Wilson were charged with receiving stolen property, although the two men claimed that they had been bamboozled by Balk, who at an early age already had become something of an artful fraudster.  Koski declared that Balk had represented himself as an American who wanted to get surplus goods “off his hands,” while Wilson, who abjectly proclaimed himself “stupid” for being so duped by the youth, contended that Balk had convinced him that he was selling the goods on behalf of “a friend at Brighton.”
            Maurice Balk pled guilty in November but seems to have avoided--or to have served a minimal amount of--jail time, perhaps because of his “tender years.”  By the next year, 1918, Balk remarkably had ventured into the British film business, at the age of eighteen writing, directing and starring in a crime film, Cheated Vengeance.  Only three other cast members for the film are listed on the international movie database (imdb.com), Doris Vivian Earle, E. James Morrison and Connie Sweet, as well as one co-scripter, H. V. Emery.  Like Balk himself, none of these people have any additional film credits listed on imdb.  Nor does the film’s production company, Britamer, which would turn up six years later as the Chicago publisher of a collection of short stories authored by Balk.  One would like to know something more about this film and the people who were involved with it, particularly actress Doris Vivan Earle, whose surname Balke may have appropriated for his own use.
            Balk’s venture into filmmaking proved short-lived, for in 1920 he was on his way to the United States, and not to Hollywood.  On February 29--the fact that it was a leap year seems appropriate--Balk embarked from Southampton aboard the S. S. New York, destined for Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Balk gave his occupation as “student” and his “race or people” as Russian, though an official hand, presumably, wrote “Hebrew” in cursive script over the typed word Russian.  For “name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in the country whence alien came” Balk listed his mother, “Mrs. Balk,” and 230 Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury (today the site of Zamzam, a Somalian restaurant).           
            What it was that prompted Balk to leave London for Winston-Salem in 1920 is not clear, but contemporary newspaper accounts list a “Dr. Maurice Balk, a recent arrival from London, England,” as a guest at a “very jolly little party” given in late May of that year by Miss Dora Levy, daughter of Winston-Salem shoe store owner Louis Levy, at her home at 1504 East Third Street—an indication that in a mere three months Balk had become an accepted member of society (or Jewish society at least) in Winston-Salem.  (All the guests at Dora Levy’s dance appear to have had Jewish surnames.)  Along with Dora’s friend Miss Bess Horowitz, the ever helpful and ingratiating Balk assisted the hostess with serving refreshments.
            Later that year Maurice Balk left Winston-Salem for New York, where he established an acquaintance with the beloved American poet Edwin Markham (1852-1940), author of the once much-celebrated poem “The Man with the Hoe,” who lived with his third wife in a book-bedecked home on Staten Island.  On March 23, 1921, Balk wrote Markham a letter from Boston’s Gordon Bible College, a non-denominational evangelical Christian school that had been founded in 1889; evidently Balk was a student there (with Balk, one can never be sure of appearances, however).  In a floridly signed note that accompanied the missive Balk informed the esteemed man of letters that he had enclosed his own poetry for an forthright evaluation: “I am sending you the first lines I have written.  You said you would pull them to pieces for me.  Do so, and in so doing please remember that however ‘hard’ you may be in your criticism,----my love for you dear, Edwin Markham, will ever remain the same.” 
            Balk’s acquaintanceship and correspondence with Edwin Markham lasted a couple of years, during which time the young man was carrying on further dubious activity in Canada.  On March 18, 1922 Balk wrote the poet from the village of Tusket, in southwestern Nova Scotia, addressing him, as he did in all his letters, as “My dear Edwin Markham.”  A wheedling note is detectible underneath the fulsome flattery:

            Have you had the opportunity to look over the poems which I sent you last year?  I am really anxious to know what you think about them.
            There is no living writer, and very few among the dead, whose approbation I should be more glad to earn than yours.  I write this to say so.
            A book entitled “TO-DAY” is to be published in the course of a month or so, and I have taken the liberty of dedicating it to you.
            Hoping to hear from you in due course, with best wishes,

                        Believe me, to be,
                        My dear Edwin Markham,
                        Ever your faithful friend,
                                    M. E. Balk

            “M. E. Balk” is prominently underlined, while beneath this name is written first “Morris Balk” in lead and then “Maurice” in ink.  Balk need not have worried about Markham’s inattention, for on February 25 the poet had sent Balk two pages of criticism, though evidently this had not yet reached the youthful supplicant, whose supposed book of poetry, To-Day, seems never to have appeared in print.  Unhappily for Balk, he soon would find himself harried by a more immediately pressing matter.  A notice appeared in the November 4, 1922 issue of the church journal The Baptist giving warning to Canadian congregants to take care in dealings with a certain Maurice E. Balk:

            This Is To Inform any person concerned, particularly home mission churches, that one known as Maurice E. Balk, recently in Western Nova Scotia, has no recognized standing as a minister of the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces.  By order E. S. Mason, Cor. Secy., Home Mission Board, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

            Canada evidently having become too hot for him, Maurice Balk returned to New York and pleasant literary chats with Edwin Markham.  He also secured himself a bride, in Manhattan on April 8, 1923 wedding Teresa Trucano, the twenty-four year old daughter of an Italian immigrant who mined copper in Meaderville, Montana.  In June the newlywed couple spent a day with the Markhams, about which Balk was soon rapturously reminiscing in a letter written to Markham from 321 West 75th Street in New York City:

I shall never forget the day in June my wife and I spent with you at the Y Birch.  Had I the power of language to express my great love and reverence for you, I would not hesitate to do so in this letter.  But there are some feelings in a mans [sic] heart that can never be spoken or written.  Believe me, my dear Edwin Markham, when I say, that I hope (and my wife also) to have many more afternoons with you, and listen to your song, and leaving you feel, as I felt that last time, as one born again.

            In his letter Balk detailed his latest reading, specifically mentioning Herbert Paul’s 1902 biography of English poet and critic Matthew Arnold and Swiss moral philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel’s Journal Intime, which, one imagines not altogether incidentally, had been named by Markham in a 1909 symposium as one of the books that had most influenced him.  Balk declared that he was going to read Amiel’s Journal “for the third time,” as well as Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.  He closed by praying, “May the Grace of God, and the Love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you alway [sic].”  Markham wrote Balk a five page letter in reply, discussing his own literary views, but this is the last recorded letter exchanged between the two men.
            During this time Balk, now labeling hismelf the Assistant Director of Education for an organization called the English Language Bureau, made a practice of sending letters not only to Edwin Markham but to the New York Times and the Saturday Review, confidently if not always entirely coherently addressing an array of subjects, including divorce, the provenance of great men, the declining quality of American stage plays and Einstein’s theory of relativity, in an apparent effort to flex his intellect before a wider audience.  In his letter on great men, entitled “The Hero’s Birthplace,” Balk expressed bemusement for the public fascination with learning all about the humble birthplaces of great men—a telling sentiment from one who had carefully cloaked his own modest origins.  (Balk also made certain to drop the name of his poet friend into the letter: “….as Edwin Markham said to me….”) Notably ironic are his letter on stage drama, in which the career criminal, who in my view bore the hallmarks of a sociopath, complains that “[n]ow, it seems, psychology, pseudo-philosophy, the hideous, the horrible—and worse—must be the basis of nearly everything put on,” and, given his treatment of his wife (see below), his letter on divorce, in which he allowed that “[o]ne should honestly be sorry for [married] individuals who are unhappy” yet urged nevertheless that marriages should be kept intact, as marriage constituted “the very foundation both of personal morality and social stability.”
            In 1924 Maurice and Teresa Balk moved to Chicago, where Teresa gave birth to the couple’s son, Gerald Langston, on June 6, 1924.  That year Maurice also published with Britamer, a Chicago press that suspiciously shared its name with Maurice Balk’s 1918 film production company, what was apparently Britamer’s sole publication: Madona of the Inn, and Other Tales, a slim collection of six lachrymose short stories, including two about loyal pets, one of them whose faithfulness extends into the afterlife, answering the age old question of whether dogs go to Heaven.  Another tale is set, unrewardingly, in Nova Scotia, outside Tusket. 
            Balk dedicated the book “To Teresa Louisa,” including with the dedication a well-known verse from proverbs about the subject of wifely devotion, which begins: “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her….”  Unhappily, Teresa’s heart did not safely trust in Maurice.  Nine months after Gerald’s birth, Teresa, heartlessly deserted by her husband, returned with her son to Meaderville, Montana, where she obtained a divorce from Maurice in 1926.  She later married bond salesman Louis Martin Fabian, son of an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who had risen from miner to businessman and county commissioner. 
            Maurice seems to have left his wife and son in Chicago for Manitou Springs, Colorado (near the larger locality of Colorado Springs), where he started a newspaper, probably in 1925, under the posh cognomen M. E. Sackville Balke.  (Presumably the name “Sackville” was inspired by his family’s home address on Sackville Road in Bexhill.)  Characteristically, Balk’s latest business venture seemed to consist of the confidence trickster separating other people from their money in order to line his own pocket.  He served a term in the county jail for passing a bad check and in 1926 was sued for wages by his angry employees, who, according to an article in the Typographical Journal, “had been unpaid in most cases since the paper was started.” 
            The next year Balk, all his schemes having crumbled, was ingloriously deported from New York back to Great Britain, the United States having decided that it had had enough of the incorrigible offender.  A deportee aboard the R. M. S. Berengaria, Balk set foot in Southampton on September 7, 1927.  His occupation was listed as “preacher” and his proposed address in the United Kingdom his mother’s house on Seven Sisters Road (though in fact his mother had died four years earlier).
            Like a moth to a flame, however, Balk seemingly could not keep his mind off the beckoning lands across the pond, and less than a year later, on March 10, 1928, he set out on the Minnesdosa from Greenock, Scotland for Canada, giving as his last address in the United Kingdom his brother Philip’s domicile at 160 (or 166) Oxford Street, Glasgow and his occupation as “publisher.”  Balk’s ultimate destination was Toronto, where he had found employment (allegedly) with Robinson & Heath, a firm of customs brokers and forwarders. This time his stay was short; less than six months later, on August 3, 1928, he was deported from Canada on board the Melita.  His occupation was listed as “medical student” and his proposed address once again his brother’s home on Oxford Street in Glasgow. 
            Back in the UK--and with the US and Canada warded against him—Balk, now settled in London, turned first to his father’s field, photography, then went back, after another stint in prison, to publishing.  Along with two other “well-dressed” men, Balk, whose occupation was given as “photographer,” in court in 1929 pled guilty to several charges of obtaining, by means of bad checks, goods (including a camera and film projector) from West End salesmen; he was sentenced to a year at hard labor. One wonders whether Balk had been contemplating taking up film production again.
            Out of prison, Balk started a new venture, under a new name, Philip Earle.  In 1931 he established another book publishing press, named Philip Earle after his new identity, at 39 Jermyn Street in London.  Although short-lived, “Philip Earle” had rather more substance than Britamer, his 1924 effort, in that the press actually published something more than books written by--or plagiarized by--Balk.  Volumes issued by Philip Earle in 1931 include Margaret Hunter Ironside’s Young Diana, Elsa Lingstrom’s Jeddith Keep, two respectfully reviewed contemporary novels, Jane Austen’s epistolary tale Lady Susan (adapted to film in 2016 under the title Love & Friendship) and American journalist Ben Hecht’s controversial novel A Jew in Love—a book proverbially banned in Boston, not to mention Canada, yet which quickly sold 50,000 copies and made the bestseller lists in the US.
            And then there was Maurice Balk’s own effort, in a manner of speaking: a detective novel called Cat and Feather, which he published under the pseudonym Don Basil.  Maurice Balk had good reason for employing a pseudonym, for he had stolen Cat and Feather nearly word for word from an American mystery, Roger Scarlett’s The Back Bay Murders, which the previous year had appeared in the US.  The Beacon Hill Murders--the first detective novel by “Roger Scarlett,” the pen name of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page--had been published in the UK in 1930 by Heinemann, a major British publisher, but I do not believe The Back Bay Murders had a UK edition.  This of course would have made it easier for Balk to carry out his shameless theft of Blair’s and Page’s intellectual property, but Balk characteristically went a step too far in his roguery when he published Cat and Feather with Henry Holt, a reputable--if in this case rather too credulous--American firm.  In the US, Balk’s blatant plagiarism was soon discovered--the fraudster had only bothered, for the most part, to alter obvious Americanisms and explicit references to The Beacon Hill Murder (Balk in his novel changed what had been a reference in the Roger Scarlett book to the “Beacon Hill murders” to a reference to the “Bexhill murder mystery,” recalling his boyhood home, and the name of Scarlett’s series sleuth Inspector Kane to Inspector Storm, recalling a character, Doctor Storm, in his 1924 short story “Behind the Veil”)--and Henry Holt promptly withdrew the book from distribution.  The publishing firm of Philip Earle thereupon succumbed to this latest Balkian brouhaha, while the publisher himself received his comeuppance three years later, albeit for another crime.
            In 1934 Phillip Earle was committed, along with a purported aunt, Lucy Griffiths, to trial in London on the charge of conspiring to filch by false pretenses 3389 pounds (a tremendous amount of money today, something like 220,000 pounds, or 290,00 dollars) from an elderly widow, Mrs. Kate Christie Miller.  When the case came to trial in January 1934, Balk was found guilty and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, Sir Ernest Wild, the senior presiding judge at the Old Bailey, sternly lecturing the prisoner that “[a]nything more hypocritical and wicked than your frauds is impossible to imagine.” 
            It seems that Balk had rediscovered religion--at least as a means of obtaining monetary gain for himself--and that he had employed its consoling snares to grab Mrs. Miller’s money.  After his release from jail in 1937, Balk adopted yet another authorial guise, Maure Balque, under which name he wrote an inspirational book of religious verse, The Christ I Know, and a booklet on the 1937 coronation of King George VI, which were published, most conveniently, by “M. E. Balk.”  What happened to Balk during the Second World War at this point I can only wonder, but I am tempted to suspect that the gentleman did not cover himself in martial glory.
            Four years after the end of the conflict, when Balk applied for a discharge of his debts in 1949 bankruptcy proceedings, he was residing at 16 Colville Mansions in Bayswater, in a neighborhood that had become “largely a slum area,” with “large houses turned into one-room tenements and small flats.”  A vivid contemporary portrait of Colville Mansions is provided by the Liberal Democrat MP Shirley Williams, who in her memoirs has recalled for two-and-a-half years during the early 1950s sharing with two friends a “rickety flat” located

on the top floor of a Victorian terrace called Colville Mansions, just off the Portobello Road.  We had found it after a discouraging search through West London, in which we were offered flats without baths, flats with cockroaches in possession, and even flats with mirrors in the ceiling, a reminder that Bayswater had long been a favourite venue of the world’s oldest profession.  Colville Mansions was at least reasonably light and airy, but the trouble was the roof.  It leaked so badly we had to sleep with buckets around our beds, and eventually with a tarpaulin draped over the worst holes.  This, however, was but a foretaste of what was to come.  One evening, with a mild roar, the entire front cornice of the building collapsed into the street below.
            However poorly the many people victimized by Maurice Balk over the years may have thought of him after the wool had been pulled from their eyes, there is no question that Maurice Balk was a survivor.  He lived to see his eighth decade, passing away in 1981 (thus surviving his brother Philip by a decade).  Currently I know nothing about Maurice Balk’s later years, aside from the facts that he had the effrontery in 1958 to renew the copyright on Cat and Feather, that for a time he supposedly edited something called the Journal of Auxiliary Medicine and that he is said to have composed a Memorandum on Prison Reform—this last, at least, a subject to which Balk doubtlessly brought considerable authority.
Gerald Langston Fabian (1924-2012)
son of Maurice Earle Balk (1900-1981)
            Postscript: Readers of this article may wonder whatever became of Maurice Balk’s son, Gerald Langston Fabian, last glimpsed as a waif in Meaderville, Montana residing with his mother, Teresa, and his stepfather, Louis Martin Fabian, after Maurice had deserted his wife and son in Chicago.  Teresa and Louis Fabian moved with young Gerald to Los Angeles, California, where the extremely successful Louis was an investment banker and later president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce.  A graduate of the US Naval Academy and an officer in the Naval Reserve, Louis during the Second World War served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Pacific theater.  In this capacity he was awarded the Navy Cross, in recognition of “extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as the Senior Squadron Beachmaster, during action against enemy Japanese forces at Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, on 20 November 1943.”  The contrast between the lives of Louis M. Fabian and Maurice E. Balk is striking indeed.
            At the beginning of 1943, eighteen-year-old Gerald Fabian was a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley.  (Precociously, "Gerry," as he was known, had entered college when he was sixteen.)  On February 25 Gerry enlisted in the US Navy at San Francisco, where he then was living with his family in a penthouse apartment in the Russian Hill neighborhood.  According to his 2012 obituary in the Bay Area Reporter, Gerry like Louis served in the Pacific, including “once under his stepfather who commanded [his stepson’s] ship at Iwo Jima.” After the war Gerry returned to attend classes at UC Berkeley, where he majored in Romance Languages, but he was, according to a friend, the San Francisco writer Lew Ellingham, “expelled…because he was gay.”   
           Despite this setback, Gerry, who according to his obituary was a “person of culture, erudition, and talent” who had become acquainted while at Berkeley with Jack Spicer and other members of the San Francisco Renaissance, over the next half-century taught language classes at the University of San Francisco and elsewhere, worked as an actor in San Francisco stage productions, published poetry and was active in gay community groups in the City by the Bay.  In 2003, nine years before his death in 2012 at the age of 88, Gerry gave an interview to the Monferrini in America website about his Italian heritage (derived of course from his mother's side of the family), concerning which he was tremendously well-informed and justly proud.  “I think it’s important to find out as much as possible about one’s background and history,” he commented at the time.  Whether Gerry Fabian knew anything about the identity of his birth father is currently unknown to me, however. The son seems to have had some of the impressive mental capacities of his undeniably able birth father, yet happily the younger man developed these capacities in pursuit of altogether more admirable aims than those chosen by Maurice E. Balk.

             Note: Credit for making the connection between Maurice Earle Balk and Don Basil, the Roger Scarlett plagiarizer, goes to Jamie Sturgeon (see the comments section here).  Jamie also dug up key details on the Balk family, as did I and David Simkin, of the Sussex Photo History website.  For information on Gerald Fabian, I also drew on an interview with him conducted by author Kevin Killian on 19 September 1993.