Monday, December 31, 2018

"The Nile" Ain't Just a Mystery by Christie: Death Sails the Nile (1933) and the Life Journey of Frances Burks (1907-1970)

 Miss Singlefoot was dressed for dinner.  She made a point of it while traveling.  She never had a chance at home.  That was the nice thing about English boats.  People always dressed for dinner on them.  Come storms, come grounding, come murders, the entire passenger list was found in evening clothes by seven o’clock.
                                            --Death Sails the Nile, by Frances Burks McKinley

Earlier this year Coachwhip reprinted Death Sails the Nile by F. Burks Mckinley, the semi pseudonym of native Tennessee author Frances Burks. It was published four years before Agatha Christie's rather more famous Nile slay sojourn, but in my opinion it merits reading today, being a nifty mystery tale.  Additionally the author was an interesting person from a fascinating, if sometimes tragic, family background.  That part of the story will appear in a second post.  For now, here is some more about the book.--TPT

During her leisurely 1929 Mediterranean honeymoon with her new husband, Vanderbilt history professor Silas Bent McKinley, Vanderbilt graduate Frances Burks with Silas visited the Egyptian city of Luxor, where, in addition to seeing some of the greatest antiquities known to mankind, the couple encountered that “Lord of Reptiles” and veritable “King of Wizards,” Sheikh Moussa (or Musa, which is Arabic for Moses), who was then the most renowned of Egypt’s fabled snake charmers.  Four years later, when writing her detective novel Death Sails the Nile, Frances placed Moussa/Musa, his name changed to “Nusa,” in the first chapter of the novel.  There he is overheard by newspaperwoman Mona Case and her young shipboard pal Jimmie Bean, both of whom are passengers on the Nile River dahabeah (tour boat) Assuit, in the act of presenting an unknown person with a baneful gift of two deadly asps.

Is it a coincidence, then, when, on the very next day, another passenger on the boat, glamorous ash blonde Celia Lawton—“a magnet that attracted to its dynamic center every male eye within range, and every woman’s too, for that matter”—suddenly crumples and dies, while standing before an image of Anubis, dread Egyptian god of the afterlife, at the ancient Abu Simbel temple complex, the victim (like, legend tells us, Cleopatra before her)
of a fatal bite from an asp?  You surely already know the answer to this question, my dear blog readers!

Thus begins a reign of terror aboard Assuit that ultimately will claim three more lives before the ill-fated dahabeah reaches the protection afforded by modern civilization’s gendarmerie.  Besides Mona and Jimmie and the late Celia Lawton, the boat’s other Europeans and Americans (this being a Golden age mystery, the Arab crew is considered, to borrow John Dickson Carr’s apt phrase, “below suspicion”) are the rotund medico and captain, Dr. Bradshaw, and the remaining surviving passengers.

These are:

Professor Cross, an acerbic archaeologist

Jack Spencer, a devilishly charming man-of-the-world

Ella Singlefoot, Mona’s primly outspoken spinster aunt

Tom Amory, a hulking engineer said to have been, up until her ghastly untimely death, Celia’s fiancĂ©e

Colonel Worthington, late of the British Army, and his wife, Sophie, formerly a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies

and last but not--well, yes, actually--least, Celia’s plain Jane maid, Jane Davet. 
Who among them next will be dastardly done to death before intrepid Mona Case discovers both a motive and a murderer? 

Readers who peruse my forthcoming biographical post on Frances Burks may perceive some similarity between Mona Case and the author.  Not only is 25-year-old Mona Case the same age as Frances Burks when she was writing the novel, she bears a physical resemblance to her as well and seems in some ways a fantasy projection: a person who chose the life of an independent career woman, which the author herself forswore when she married Silas Bent McKinley.  After her divorce from Silas, Frances talked of becoming a journalist.  She tellingly describes Mona as follows:

Twenty-five years of active and strenuous American life had given Mona Case unusual poise and an air of assurance.  In four years after leaving college she had established a definite place for herself in the newspaper world….She was of medium height, slender, with a mass of short auburn curls topping a well-shaped head.  She combined in her person the qualities of physical strength and vivacious charm.  Her blue eyes, set far apart, gave an impression of candor, yet it was the square clean cut chin, which while preventing her from being beautiful, stamped her character as forceful. 

Possibly Mona’s aunt, Ella Singlefoot--arguably the most memorable character in Death Sails the Nile with her caustic observations on the other female passengers on board the Assuit (“Long years of spinsterhood in a small southern town had made her critical of women surrounded by male admirers.  She had seized upon each morsel of gossip concerning Celia Lawton…and had devoured it avidly.”)--was inspired by Frances’ only real life aunt, Ida Frances Burks, the wife of beloved small town doctor William Martin Breeding, whom Frances would have known when she resided in Livingston, Tennessee.  Certainly Jimmie Bean, afflicted on the cruise “with the boredom of one just out of college,” recalls Frances’ brother, James Willis Burks III, who seems to have been something of a gay blade in the Thirties, attracted to women rather like the former Follies dancer Sophie Worth. 

approaching Abu Simbel temple complex

As for the question of whether Agatha Christie might have been influenced by Frances Burks’ Nile murder mystery, who really knows?  The novel does not appear to have been published in England, but certainly its second murder—the stabbing of the blackmailing crewman Abdu, who is found clutching a fragment of a banknote in his hand—recalls the second murder in Death in the Nile, a novel which enjoys, if that is the right word, a similarly high body count.  Additionally, the first murder victim, the wealthy, beautiful and proud American Celia Lawton bears a certain resemblance to Christie’s murdered American heiress, Linnet Doyle. 

Although no Death on the Nile, to be sure, Death Sails the Nile in the estimation of contemporary critics was a fine detective novel, despite some technical blemishes characteristic of a novice in the field.  It was lauded in the New York press by crime writer Norman Klein in the New York Evening Post (“Contains many an attack of gooseflesh—suspense very well maintained”), Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review (“An exciting crime puzzle”), Will Cuppy in the New York Herald Tribune (“Has real excitement, not to mention an interesting background, shuddery until the final revelation”).  The American heartland chimed in with praise as well, the Minneapolis Star, for example, assuring readers, “You’ll find clues aplenty and a logical plot, but [as well] some queer turns that will surprise you….[The author] has indeed made an auspicious start.”[1]

With such reviews as these, Frances Burks seemingly had ample reason to launch Mona Case on a second amateur mystery investigation, yet soon after the publication of her book she seems effectively to have laid down her pen.  Although Frances had hopefully dedicated Death Sails the Nile to her husband Silas, her character Ella Singlefoot’s rueful reflection on men and marriage—“So much was demanded of their wives, yet the men themselves were frequently indiscreet”—hints at the draining emotional storms that lay ahead of the couple.  It is most regrettable that intense marital turmoil capsized Frances Burks’ nascent mystery writing career, but happily her sole detective novel, a worthy example of Golden Age art and artifice, now stands as a tribute, in its own modest way, to a woman of evident promise. 

not a miss--Cleopatra and the asp
by Michelangelo (c. 1535)
[1] Interestingly, the Star in the same number gave a negative review to The Bowstring Murders, a novel by acknowledged genre master John Dickson Carr: “Mix a peculiar household with a half-insane English peer, a murder without clues and a detective who can work only when he has paid tribute to Bacchus, and you have ‘The Bowstring Murders’….It’s all very mysterious, and just as much of a mystery is the problem of why publishers can’t decide that readers would like something plausible once in a while.”

Even genre masters have occasional misses!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Reprint of the Year 2: The Invisible Worm (1941), by Maragret Millar

My second choice for Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year is the formerly extremely rare book The Invisible Worm (1941), the debut detective novel by Margaret Millar.  This year Soho Crime's imprint Syndicate Books in its Collected Millar series reprinted every Margaret Millar book published (including Crippen & Landru's MM short story collection), an impressive feat indeed and one which the author, one of the great 20th century crime writers, richly merited, especially when much of the crime fiction of her husband, Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald), is being reprinted by the hard-boiled and noir fixated Library of America.  In that line Margaret so far has been confined to one volume "for the ladies," if you will, and even that would not have happened had it not been for the determined efforts of Sarah Weinman, one suspects.

The Syndicate MM books are in most ways appealing editions and they look amazing on a shelf, with their cleverly decorated spines (more on this in an upcoming post), though I have one major caveat here, in that the print in most of the books is really tiny.  I mean really tiny. 

I. Mean. Really. Tiny.  Not this bad, but unpleasantly so, at least for my eyes.

In the first volume, for example, Syndicate collected all three of Millar's Paul Prye mysteries and both of the Inspector Sands mysteries, and it's wonderful to have them all in one place (or at all, the first two tales in the volume, being very hard to find indeed, as they were never reprinted previously).  Yet if you have poor eyesight like I do you may find reading them rather a trial, one with a hanging judge no less. 

For this review I was fortunate to have an original edition of Worm (no dust jacket, sadly) and it was to this copy I turned, for the sake of mine eyes.  I got my copy about 15 years ago for the true bargain price of $25 (a knowing dealer would ask $100 or more today, I imagine), but I had been saving it for years as a treat, having read about everything else written by Millar.  She most assuredly is one of my favorite crime writers, as you will know if you are a regular reader of this blog.

Fortunately, Syndicate Books seems to be releasing all the Millar mysteries as eBooks as well, including Worm, which will be available in this form in January.  So though I'm picking this book as my second reprint of the year.  If I were you I would wait and get the eBook next month, next year.  Do your eyes a favor.

Now on to the review!

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Margaret Millar does not actually quote William Blake's short poem "The Sick Rose" until near the end of her detective novel The Invisible Worm, so unless you are a Blake enthusiast like me, who was motivated by reading "The Lamb" and "The Tiger" in high school English class to go out and read Songs of Innocence and Experience, you may not know know the reference when you start. However, Millar's genteel amateur detective, lanky psychiatrist Dr. Paul Prye, quotes Blake throughout the novel, so it is not so hard to make the connection, even for people with tenuous recollection of the great English poet.  Paul Prye is an amateur sleuth in what is essentially an English manners mystery, so of course he periodically spouts poetry.  Because it's what they do, don't you know.

The name "Paul Prye" itself is an allusion to a once hugely popular English literary work: John Poole's three-act farce Paul Pry (1825), about a meddlesome busybody consumed with idle curiosity "who conveniently leaves behind his umbrella everywhere he goes in order to have an excuse to return and eavesdrop.

Well, if that's not a description of a classic amateur detective, I don't know one.  And, indeed, it's reported that at the end of the play Paul Pry justifies his incessant snooping by retrieving "papers from a well that incriminate more serious troublemakers." (Quotes come from our friends at Wikipedia.)  Incidentally, Erle Stanley Gardner in his pre Perry Mason days had already created a pulp "Paul Pry" in his early crime stories.  The term Paul Pry had entered the vernacular, like "Benedict Arnold," if with rather less damning resonance.

Margaret Millar must have had a very clear idea of what she was doing with The Invisible Worm.  Her first crime novel is a straight-up detective novel, in the specific style of the manners mysteries associated with British Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  Divested of that certain twee feeling I frequently get from Ngaio Marsh's books, it wouldn't be all that hard to imagine Marsh having written this book, with one other significant difference that comes to mind (see below). 

"Hope I don't intrude"
Listen to Paul Pry
If Worm were set in England, rather than, as it is, in the United States, in a wealthy Chicago suburb, there wouldn't be any doubt that it is a manners mystery.  (Millar was Canadian by birth, after all.)  Like many of her American contemporaries, Millar would soon move away from formal detection, but here she's, well, knee deep in clues and queries. 

Essentially The Invisible Worm is a humorous country house mystery that satirizes the wealthy Hays family and its friends and dependents who are present when a dead body is discovered murdered on the main hallway of the mansion.  There is a complex plot involving foul play and other poor behavior, which ultimately is solved by our amateur sleuth, though only after four people have been slaughtered, which is arguably excessive literary bloodletting on Millar's part--though of course this is an American mystery, after all.  Hammett would have killed that many people by the end of the first chapter.

I thought The Invisible Worm a wonderful mystery.  If the plot is a bit...chunky, lacking the peerless silky smoothness of an Agatha Christie or, indeed, Millar's own later Fifties essays in "domestic suspense" (in plot I'd say Worm bears some resemblance to a Mary Robert Rinehart novel), the book more than makes up for it with its amusing, frequently pungent, writing and characterization.

Paul Pry points the finger
The novel revolves initially around the hyoscine poisoning of a man who is revealed to have been a nasty society blackmailer.  Certainly as the investigations, both official and unofficial, into his death take place, there are plenteous skeletons found in the closets of the family and friends of millionaire George Hays, at whose mansion in the town of Mertonville, outside Chicago, the murder takes place.

Perhaps this is meant to be Naperville, Illinois?  Millar grew up in Berlin (today Kitchener), Ontario, about a seven hours drive distant.  In any event, it's the characters, not the setting, which is important here.

There is almost an embarrassment of riches in investigators, there being a well drawn policeman, Inspector William Bailey, and underling, Sergeant Abbott; a nosy middle-aged spinster, in the form of the bachelor Bailey's housekeeping, churchgoing Presbyterian sister Amanda, herself a Pauline Prey surely; and, of course, our genial, poetry-quoting amateur, 'tec Dr. Paul Prye, who is staying at the Hays house to observe George Hays' wife, Barbara, said over the years to have "become a bit touched.

in the 19th century
Paul Pry memorabilia
like this Toby jug
enjoyed great popularity
with the English public

Additionally we have a 22-year-old daughter, headstrong Eve, and a neurotic son of nearly 20, Simon, as well as the following guests (the first more or less permanent):

Barbara's avid tennis-playing second cousin, Richard Vanstone; Eve's Adonis-like, curly black-haired and blue-eyed fiance, Christopher Wells; Peter Morgan, junior partner in George's firm (whatever it is) and Peter's pretty wife, Sally; and Titian-tressed beauty Angela Breton, a guest of Barbara's and one cool customer.

And there are the servants, of course. There is an English butler (but naturally), a cook, a rather peripheral housekeeper and a movies-mad maid, Mamie Hodge, who, aside from watching film stars, likes nothing better than eavesdropping on the conversation of her social betters, especially after there's been a murder or two (or three) in the house.

Millar's treatment of Mamie is condescending, admittedly, but it is a portrayal that is firmly in line with the comic servant tradition, of long pedigree in literature, stage plays and opera, and it's done rather amusingly here.  She's a character you want to see return in another book, which I would imagine is the best you can say about a character created by a series novelist. 

The same is true of Millar's superb Rinehartish nosy spinster, Amanda Bailey, who could very well have featured in her own series, had Millar decided to write HIBK crime novels, which was then as viable a form in the US as English manners mystery.  She's a great personality who can nose out crime with the best of them, if not necessarily solutions (and the name works too).

sign outside The Paul Pry
Rayleigh, Essex
As for unsubtly named Paul Prye, he very much resembles, to be sure, the genial genteel amateur tecs of the British Crime Queens and Detection Dons.  He seems an admixture compounded of Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Roderick Alleyn, Nigel Strangeways and the like.  Here's his initial description:

Dr. Prye was six feet, five inches tall.  Dressed in immaculate white flannels topped with a navy-blue blazer, he looked like a man of the world, and the rather quizzical smile in his blue eyes suggested that he was also a man amused by the world.

Yet he is a psychiatrist too, and he is very much a practicing one in this novel.  In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while the British Crime Queens were minding their manners, American crime writers, many of them women, were starting to plumb the dark depths of criminal minds. 

I can't help wondering whether Paul Prye might have been partly inspired by Dr. Basil Willing, another amateur sleuth created by another accomplished American crime writer, a close contemporary of Millar's: Helen McCloy.  (She's been reviewed here several times as well.)  The Crime Queens seemed less interested in clinical psychology than their American (and Canadian-American) sisters.  Too much sound English common sense for that, I suppose!

But Millar's style is really all her own, even here in her first novel, when she is in full comic mode, splendidly amusing, if rather out of keeping, it must be admitted, with William Blake and his deathly serious "The Sick Rose."  I'll have some more observations on Millar's writing here in a later post.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Carnival of Death, Part Two: The Life of Samuel Rogers, 1894-1985

Samuel Rogers (1894-1985)
academic and author of a
criminal trilogy of terror
Horatio Rogers (1836-1904)
grandfather of Samuel Rogers
Henry Gardner Rogers (1923-1958)
son of Samuel Rogers

Death's Carnival
dead  soldier on the field of Gettysburg

At first blush there would seem to have been little in the life of Samuel Rogers to account for the gushing wellspring of gore and ghoulishness which one finds in his criminal trilogy of terror.  The esteemed academician and author was born Samuel Greene Arnold Rogers on September 5, 1894 in Newport, Rhode Island, the eldest of four sons of Reverend Arthur Rogers, an Episcopal clergyman, and Cornelia Arnold (making him a close contemporary of Providence’s H. P. Lovecraft, 1890-1937, another, rather more famous Rhode Island horror novelist).

Samuel Rogers’ family lineage was one of prominence in Rhode Island, his paternal grandfather, Horatio Rogers, having served two terms as Attorney General and a dozen years as an Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and his maternal grandfather, the distinguished lawyer and historian Samuel Greene Arnold, for whom Rogers was named, having served as Lieutenant Governor, a U. S. Senator and President of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
  Arnold additionally was the author of the two-volume History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1859-60).

Himself a highly literate and learned lawyer, Horatio Rogers served three years in the Civil War and as a colonel commanded the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry at the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
  Of the bloody carnage he witnessed at the latter engagement, he wrote memorably that “Death seemed to be holding a carnival.”  After leaving the Army in 1864, he was nominated by the Republican Party of Rhode Island as its candidate for Attorney General; the returned war hero was elected to the office with 96% of the vote.

Unusually for a politician, Horatio Rogers also was a noted antiquarian and bibliophile, and he authored several books, including
Private Libraries of Providence (1878), which surveyed the book holdings of some of Rhode Island’s most prominent citizens (including his own 4000 volume library), and Mary Dyer of Rhode Island (1896), a tribute to the fervent Quaker and religious martyr who was hanged in Boston by the Puritans in 1660.

Of bibliophilia Horatio Rogers philosophized in the essay which opens the former work that “the extremes of society meet in appreciation of books.
  The lofty and the lowly alike are cheered by their presence, and solaced by their companionship.  The conqueror will not be separated from them, even in his victorious career; and the simple artisan and the petty tradesman, after their humble labors, turn to them as to the sunlight of their existence.  (He might well have been describing the remarkable social ubiquity of mystery fans in his grandson’s day, when seemingly everyone from statesmen and ministers to “tired businessmen” and clerks, housewives, typists and shopgirls devoured detective fiction and crime thrillers.)

Probably the most intriguing literary question today about Horatio Rogers, however, is whether he might have been the actual author of one of the most revered and eloquent of Civil War soldier missives: the celebrated “Dear Sarah” letter ostensibly written by Horatio Rogers’ friend Sullivan Ballou, who also served, until his death at the First Battle of Bull Run, in the 2
nd Rhode Island Infantry.

Although he was a Rhode Islander by birth, Samuel Rogers spent his formative years in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where his father in 1899 was appointed Rector of the imposingly bell-towered Holy Trinity Church.
  Rogers attended Delancey School in Philadelphia, Brown University and the University of Chicago, though his advanced education was interrupted for a time by his service in France during the First World War, first in the American Ambulance Field Service and later as a private in the U. S. Army, in which capacity he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal. 

All four of the Rogers brothers served in the Great War, prompting the printing of photographs of them in the
Chicago Tribune Pictorial Weekly, below the inspirational banner headline Patriots--Four Brothers Fighting For Uncle Sam. The brothers had proved themselves worthy not only of Uncle Sam but of their Grandfather Horatio.

Samuel Rogers, third patriot (and sibling) from the left
The church of Samuel Rogers' father in West Chester, PA
(regrettably the awesome bell tower is no more)
stained glass window, Holy Trinity Church
West Chester, PA
Fearful Symmetry: Science Hall, University of Wisconsin
Samuel Rogers' lugubrious inspiration for Don't Look Behind You!Photo by Chris Zimmerman
1923 Rackham illustration (Jack the Giant Killer)

After leaving military service Samuel Rogers in 1919 married Marion Richmond Gardner, daughter of Henry Brayton Gardner, an economist and Eastman Professor of Political Economy at Brown University.
 The couple had three children, all of whom were named for his and his wife’s illustrious forebears: Cornelia, born in 1920, and, a few years later in 1923, a pair of twins, Henry Gardner and Lucia.  Rogers joined the French Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1920, remaining there for nearly four decades, until his retirement in 1960. 

During his years at UW he published a scholarly monograph, Balzac and the Novel (1953) and was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, but outside of the groves of academe he was best known for his six mainstream novels, which he published between 1927 and 1942, and his three psychological suspense thrillers from the Forties. 

Rogers’ artist granddaughter Forest Ponder Rogers recalls that the wooded Tudor Revival Rogers house in Madison “was like a time machine.
  There was a bookcase in a dark upstairs hall, full of storybooks illustrated by Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Dulac and others.  I spent hour upon hour sitting on the floor exploring those shelves during Christmas visits….I rummage the universe for my ideas the way I used to search for treasures in that house.

Unquestionably the most critically successful and lucrative of Samuel Rogers’ mainstream novels was
Dusk at the Grove, a seemingly semi-autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel about a patrician Rhode Island pastor and his family which won the $10,000 Atlantic Prize for 1934.  Rogers’ novel, one out of over 13,000 manuscripts submitted for consideration that year, was the first by an American to win the prize. 

Yet after penning two additional novels of acute psychological portraiture,
Lucifer at Pine Lake (1937) and Flora Shawn (1942), Rogers became afflicted with writer’s block.  Like many another stalled mainstream novelist before and after him, Rogers turned to writing crime fiction, but the interest in aberrant psychology which characterizes these later books had already been signaled by his earlier mainstream fiction.

As has been noted in a recent edition of the University of Wisconsin’s alumni magazine,
On Wisconsin, Rogers drew inspiration for his first crime novel from the university’s Science Hall, a gloomily imposing Richardsonian Romanesque structure.  (In a 1973 oral interview, Rogers recalled that he had got to thinking “what a lugubrious place Science Hall was.”) 

UW Alumnus Tim Brady affirms that “Anyone who’s opened the heavy oak doors of the Romanesque Revival building, climbed the winding staircase—past the exposed brick walls bearing the ghostly signatures of students from long ago—to a tiny landing on the top floor where a pair of locked doors seem to lead nowhere, can appreciate [Rogers’] impulse.

In the dramatic climax of
Don’t Look Behind You!, Daphne Gray desperately attempts to evade a pitiless killer pursuing her through the darkness of the remote and lonely upper reaches of a fictionalized Science Hall.  One is reminded of the climax of the suspense film The Spiral Staircase (1946), which followed the novel two years later, although that takes place in a more typical old dark house.

Samuel Rogers’ later years were darkened by a family tragedy that seems indicative of the sort of psychological maladjustment which so clearly engaged the author in both his genre and non-genre novels.
  In 1944 Rogers had dedicated Don’t Look Behind You! to his 21-year-old son, Henry Gardner Rogers, a UW graduate who then was serving as an ensign in the U. S. Naval Reserve.  (John Frazer, the protagonist in You Leave Me Cold!, may have been modeled after Henry Rogers.)

After the war, during which he had risen to the rank of lieutenant, Henry attended Harvard University, where he also worked as a mathematics instructor.
  He later left Harvard, took up art professionally, married artist Lou Ponder and with her moved to a wooded house he had built by the Connecticut River in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.  (Among his paintings was, Van Gogh-like, an arresting self-portrait.)

In 1958, not long after the birth to him and his wife of a daughter, who was named Forest after the trees which surrounded them, the 35-year-old Henry, who had for some time suffered from severe bouts of depression, drowned himself in the nearby river.
  His body, which was not discovered for nearly two weeks, was identified by his father.

How all this contrasted with the passing of Samuel Rogers’ minister parent, Arthur, whose life had ended peacefully two decades earlier at the age of 73.
  Reverend Rogers was laid to rest at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, below a simple granite headstone upon which an etcher had elegantly inscribed these modest yet resolute words:

Son of Horatio &
Lucia Waterman Rogers
October 26, 1864
June 10, 1938
I have fought a good fight
I have finished my course
I have kept the faith

Having come to South Deerfield to assist in the desperate search for his missing son, Samuel Rogers, upon the dreadful discovery of the drowned body of his boy, received melancholy confirmation that in real life the problems of the human brain are far harder to unlock and decipher than any fiendishly sealed murder room from the Golden Age of mystery.

1. For the text of the “Dear Sarah” letter, which was made famous by 1990 by Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, see “Sullivan Ballou Letter” at  On the question of the missive’s authorship, see Robert Grandchamp, “O Sarah!  Did Sullivan Ballou’s Famed Letter Come from Another Pen?,” America’s Civil War Magazine (November 2017), at and “’No, Sarah!’ Did Someone Else Write the Sullivan Ballou Letter?,” John Banks’ Civil War Blog, 2 September 2017, at  On Horatio Rogers bibliophilia see bachmann, “For the Love of Books,” 13 February 2018, The Shelf: Preserving Harvard’s Library Collections, at 

2. Samuel Rogers’ paternal uncle, Lucian Waterman Rogers (named for his and Arthur’s mother, Lucia Waterman), also was an episcopal minister and he served for many years as the rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.  Lucian’s son and Samuel Roger’s cousin, Horatio Rogers, served with the artillery during the First World War.  His wartime diary was later published under the title World War I Through My Sights (1978).  Samuel Rogers’ brother Horatio Rodman Rogers, who during the Great War served as a private in the 344th Tank Battalion, received the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action,” described in the citation as follows:

Acting as a runner, Private Rogers, upon learning that there was a scarcity of tank drivers, begged permission to drive a tank.  Permission being granted, he drove his tank well in advance of the Infantry until the officer in command of his tank became wounded by enemy fire.  Private Rogers left the shelter of his tank and crawled to other tanks of his company, carrying messages from his wounded officer.  The duty was performed in the face of heavy artillery, machine-gun, and rifle fire, and was carried on until Private Rogers was severely wounded.  The coolness, devotion to duty, and fearlessness displayed inspired the men of his company to still greater endeavor.

See “Horatio R. Rogers,” The Hall of Valor Project, at

3. For Forest Ponder Rogers' recollection see Natalia Joruk, “Wild Abandon Between Here and Eternity: Interview with Forest Rogers,” 1 September 2016, Beautiful Bizarre, at 

4. On Science Hall see Tim Brady, “Scary Story,” On Wisconsin (Fall 2018): 13.

5. Samuel Rogers successively dedicated his remaining pair of novels, You’ll Be Sorry! and You Leave Me Cold! to his respective daughters, Cornelia and Lucia, and the husbands whom they had recently wed (“Keena and Carl” and “Lu and Hod”).  One wonders what the daughters made of these grisly studies in morbid psychology.  Perhaps Lucia, who at the University of Wisconsin majored in zoology and did a semester of graduate work in parasitology before her marriage to medical student Horace Kent Tenney III, son of a UW professor of pediatrics, was not shocked at all.  Her sister Cornelia married future noted plant physiologist Aldo Carl Leopold, son of UW professor and influential conservationist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, a “conservation classic” of which more than two million copies in 14 languages have been sold since its original publication in 1949.  The two young women both must have spent considerable time on campus at Science Hall.

6. A moving account of the marriage of Henry Gardner and Lou Ponder Rogers and his subsequent death, written by their daughter, who also is an artist, is found at

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Reprint of the Year--Carnival of Death, Part One: You'll Be Sorry! (1945) and You Leave Me Cold! (1946) by Samuel Rogers

Over the next few weeks, as this year winds down, some of us vintage crime fiction bloggers will be blogging about the Reprint of the Year in vintage crime fiction, there being so many more to choose from these days.  (Things
 have changed so much in the last decade!)  

It's been exciting to see the reprinting this year of such Golden Age luminaries as the Richard Webb-Hugh Wheeler consortium Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge, Richard Hull, ECR Lorac and Christopher Bush (the latter an ongoing project) and mid-century mystery maven Margaret Millar, yet for my first choice I have picked a Coachwhip "twofer" (two volumes published as one): a duo of Forties crime novels with decidedly eerie trappings by American Samuel Rogers, a Great War veteran of distinguished patrimony, award-winning mainstream novelist and a teacher of French literature at the University of Wisconsin.  (He was still there in 1958 when my parents, graduate students there, married.) 

Rogers completed his fiction writing career with three crime novels, the latter pair of which, You'll Be Sorry and You Leave Me Cold!, comprise the Coachwhip duo.  However, I discuss all three books below, in this excerpt from my introduction to the Coachwhip volume, whose cover illustration captures to Poe-ish sense of mystery and terror that these dark murder tales convey.


--"Of course," Professor Hatfield stated, "it's a bad thing to have the murders in a straight detective novel committed by a madman, because...[the murderer] might be almost anyone...."

--"Most of the time we move along complacently, and take our sanity for granted.  But haven't you sometimes felt, when you've been sick or tired or worried, that sanity was like a tightrope strung across a great gulf, that you have to walk over it and if the slightest little adjustment should go wrong you'll topple off and never stop falling...."

American crime writing of the 1940s saw a fundamental shift away from the brainteasing between-the-wars clue-puzzle detective novel (most associated today with the mysteries of the bestselling British Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie) toward other, more visceral crime fiction forms, namely hard-boiled, noir, espionage and psychological suspense, the latter of which concerned itself not so much with tangled railway timetables and ingeniously locked rooms as the puzzling conundrums presented by the human mind. 

While the hard-boiled and noir subgenres were dominated by men such as Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and James M. Cain, women authors quickly carried the field of psychological suspense, producing such outstanding Forties mysteries as Margaret Millar’s
The Iron Gates (1945), Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected (1946), Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man (1946), Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place (1947), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall (1947), Sara Elizabeth Mason’s The Whip (1948) (reprinted this year in a twofer by Coachwhip), Ursula Curtiss’ Voice Out of Darkness (1948) and Mildred B. Davis’ The Room Upstairs (1948), the majority of which are in print today. 

Yet one male author from the Forties who achieved great heights in psychological suspense was Samuel Rogers, a well-regarded mainstream novelist and professor of French literature at the University of Wisconsin.  Between 1944 and 1946 Rogers published a trio of psychological thrillers in which his series sleuth, Professor Paul Hatfield, solves some truly depraved slayings which take place in a fictional Midwestern state (clearly Wisconsin):
Don’t Look Behind You! (1944), You’ll Be Sorry! (1945) and You Leave Me Cold! (1946).  (To drive a sense of urgency home to his readers, Rogers punctuated each of the titles with an exclamation point.)  All three of these crime novels were favorably reviewed at the time of their publication and the first of them was adapted in 1962 as a teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (directed by John Brahm and starring Vera Miles and Jeffrey Hunter).

Aptly described by the novel’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, as a “tale of mounting fear and horror,” Don’t Look Behind You! introduces readers to Samuel Rogers’ series sleuth, Paul Hatfield, a chemistry professor and amateur birdwatcher at the fictionalized Midwestern college town of Woodside (clearly Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin).  On his first appearance, made at a cocktail party given by fellow chemistry professor Terry Macfarlane and Terry’s wife Jeanne, Dr. Hatfield is described as follows: “A thicket middle-aged man appeared in the doorway….he gave…the impression of moving with exceptional quietness.  His face might have been carved very sharply, very neatly, out of wood; his eyes moved perkily; his head was cocked like a bird’s.”

Decidedly quirky in his personality and behavior, Dr. Hatfield is a true crime enthusiast who discourses cheerily about such terrifying real life mass killers and/or sadists as Henri Landru (Bluebard), Jack the Ripper, Fritz Haarmann (the Butcher of Hanover), Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, George Joseph Smith (the brides-in-the-bath killer), Baron Gille de Rais and the Marquis de Sade and himself has rather an unorthodox marriage with his still sexually attractive wife, Wanda.  (It is made clear that the couple has no physical interest in each other, though Wanda definitely takes rather a voracious interest in the male animal more generally and the professor for his part is not averse to the presence of pretty coeds.)

All this marks the professor as a suspect in the first Samuel Rogers mystery, which concerns Ripperesque serial mutilation murders of young women around Woodside.  In the event, however, we find that Dr. Hatfield is not the novel’s frightful murderer but rather the insightful sleuth and a friend in need to Daphne Gray, a lovely nursing student imperiled by a maniac killer who deviously takes cover behind a gulling masque of normality. 

American book reviewers roundly praised Don’t Look Behind You! for its “atmosphere and mood and mounting horror” and its “carefully wrought” examination of “abnormal psychology.”  Most notably, Anthony Boucher, future dean of American crime fiction critics, in the San Francisco Chronicle pronounced of the novel: “Good talk about murder, some fine chilling moments and a uniquely brilliant psychological plot.”  Better yet, in my estimation, are Rogers’ two follow-up novels, You’ll Be Sorry! and You Leave Me Cold!, which succeed splendidly both as tales of creeping suspense and as trickily clued psychological puzzlers.  (To me the secret in Don’t Look Behind You! seems less well-hidden.)

You’ll Be Sorry!
is a tale of another menaced lovely young co-ed, Kate Archer.  Summer has arrived at Woodside and Kate has been invited by an old school friend, June Gladstone (four years younger than Kate and still something of an awkward adolescent), to spend her vacation with June and her (really rather disturbingly odd) family at her wealthy father’s rural retreat, Valley Farm.  Kate also has received a threatening missive, penned in red ink, which bluntly warns: DON’T GO TO MR. GLADSTONE’S.  YOU’LL BE SORRY IF YOU DO.

Undaunted, the intrepid Kate goes to Valley Farm, where she finds, as she is plunged into a terrifying mire of mystery and sadistic murder, that she is sorry indeed.  Fortunately a vacationing Professor Hatfield is at hand to expose a shockingly diabolical criminal scheme.  “[A] plot of Jacobean murk and terror,” enthused Anthony Boucher of the novel, “magnificently evil.”  He concluded of Samuel Rogers that the author was “developing a horror-suspense style of his own almost as chilling as [Cornell] Woolrich or [Elisabeth Sanxay] Holding.”  “Horror succeeds horror,” noted the more squeamish Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review.  “The more horrible [the murders] are…the better [Samuel Rogers] likes them.” 

Horror mounts yet higher in the final Samuel Rogers mystery, You Leave Me Cold!  Indeed, the reviewer in Kirkus deemed the story a horror novel first and a mystery second.  I would prefer to classify it as a horrifying mystery novel, one of which that darkly imaginative master of mystery and terror, Edgar Allan Poe, would have been proud.  In contrast with the first two Rogers mysteries, You Leave Me Cold! has a male protagonist rather than a female one, this person being handsome young John Frazer, late of the US Navy and the Pacific theater of war and, we find, the nephew of Professor Hatfield.  Now enrolled as a medical student at Woodside, where there is a severe housing shortage, John is anxiously seeking a place where he can stay.  (Inconveniently, the professor himself has closed his own house, Wanda Hatfield being away in California for the winter, and is baching it at the University Club.)

In terms of its repellent weirdness the domicile which young John finds to take him in--the sprawling old mansion of formerly esteemed university scientist Dr. Chardwicke--ultimately rivals such fearful haunts as Castle Dracula and the House of Usher.  Anthony Boucher deemed the motive for the singularly awful initial murder in You Leave Me Cold! “the most shocking…in the history of the crime novel,” a sentiment which was echoed by Isaac Anderson, who declared it “so macabre that few will be able to read of it without a shudder.”  Clearly the critic had been chilled.

One is sorry with You Leave Me Cold! to come to the end of Samuel Rogers’ magnificently macabre series of crime novels, but how, one wonders, could Rogers ever have outdone this final fearsome performance in his fictional carnival of death?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Philo in the Fifties: What Would Detection Have Been Like in the Mid-Century for America's Most Fancy-Pants Detective, S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance?

Many vintage mystery fans know the story of crime writer S. S. Van Dine, who for a brief time in the late Twenties to the early Thirties was the biggest thing going in American detective fiction with his mysteries about the brilliant sleuthing exploits of the ultimate fancy pants detective and g-droppin' swell, Philo Vance. 

Both Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case and The Canary Murder Case astonishingly reached #4 on the American bestsellers lists, in 1928 and 1929 respectively, and many of his books were made into films, one of which, The Kennel Murder Case (1933), is considered something of a classic of its kind.  It doesn't hurt, to be sure, that William Powell of "Thin Man" fame played Philo Vance in four films, making the character vastly more appealing than the author ever did.

However the popularity of Van Dine's baroque puzzle novels declined in the Thirties, beset as they were by both the visceral hard-boiled tales of Dashiell Hammett and his tough guy compatriots and the rather cleverer puzzles of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr.  The once highly lucrative film deals worsened and book sales dropped, meaning that Van Dine, who wrote only one mystery annually, could not keep up the lavish lifestyle to which he'd grown accustomed. 

Afflicted with the twin devils of writer's block and excessive alcohol consumption, Van Dine died prematurely at the age of 50 in 1939, the year 50-year-old Raymond Chandler published his first detective novel, the landmark hard-boiled PI tale The Big Sleep.  Van Dine's last detective novel, The Winter Murder Case, meant to have been a film vehicle for Norwegian skating and Hollywood film star Sonja Henie, was published posthumously in skeletal form and quickly forgotten.

Maybe she thought it was a whodunit?
We know all the really smart people
love detective fiction.
Detection's future doubtlessly lay in the hard hands Chandler and his followers, yet the classic detective story that Van Dine had come to symbolize hardly died with him.  Has anyone wondered what Van Dine might have written had he lived, like Chandler, into the next two decades?

We know Van Dine's mystery titles followed a formula, i.e., The "X" Murder Case, "X" being a word of six letters: Benson, Canary, Greene, Bishop, Scarab, Kennel, Dragon, Casino, Garden, Kidnap, Winter, though he broke this pattern once with The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which was a tie-in with a screwy mystery film starring George Burns' wife, dizzy comedienne Gracie Allen, as Philo's "helper." 

So let's just ignore the aberration of The Gracie Allen Murder Case, hey?

Here are my proposals for S. S. Van Dine's marvelous mid-century mysteries.  What are yours?  Remember, a six-letter word, otherwise you're cheating,  Van Dine's was a rigorous art, like the haiku or iambic pentameter.

The Atomic Murder Case
--Murder in a desperately swanky locked fallout shelter (Oh boy, a locked room problem!)

mystery goes underground
This could have been a keen foldout floor plan from a Fifties Van Dine mystery.

The Rothko Murder Case
--Murder of a mad multiforms painter at the Museum of Modern Art.  These artists!

Where's the body? A colorful case for Philo Vance!

The Monroe Murder Case
--Recalling The Gracie Allen Murder Case (and improving on it one hopes), a beauteous, buxom and breathy--if not overly bright--blonde helps Philo Vance solve a murder in Hollywood. (Disclaimer: Marilyn, like Gracie, just played "dumb.")

The Hefner Murder Case
A three-pipe problem? Hef reads it for the mystery stories!
--Philo Vance solves yet another murder, this one committed by someone who was deviously disguised as a bunny, at the pad of one swinging hepcat!

The Slinky Murder Case
--A serial murderer fells his victims with fad toys, including a slinky, hula hoop and, for the ladies, an easy-bake oven.

The Surfer Murder Case
--Out in California again, Philo Vance solves the murder of a beach boy who got wiped out, daddy-o!

The Beaver Murder Case
--Sure, wise and fatherly Ward, his house-proud, pearl-chokered wife June and their two jolly boys, Wally and the "Beaver," seemed liked the perfect family--but then that's what they said about the Greenes back in '28, before the Crash don't you know, and before you knew it practically the whole family had been wickedly extinguished!

Goodness gracious, what a cesspool!
Okay, actually they didn't say that about the Greenes, but humor me here.  Also, please indulge this rhyme, inspired by The Bishop Murder Case, which was all the rage among American mystery fans nearly nine decades ago:

Who killed cocky Eddie Haskell?

I, said the Beaver,
with my meat cleaver,
I killed cocky Eddie Haskell.

But Philo Vance has other ideas about whodunit, my dear Markham!

The Peyton Murder Case
Peyton Place, the New England town that Philo Vance visits for a relaxing country holiday, at first seems placid and neighborly, but soon Philo discovers copious closeted skeletons. 

There's lust, adultery, incest, abortion and more!  Why, it's a wonder the whole town wasn't massacred before Philo ever got there.  The film adaptation was awesome!

What fiend destroyed Johnny
and his swell sweater?
The Stalin Murder Case
--Murder in Moscow!  Okay, Andrew Garve did it too, but this is the gold star deluxe Van Dine treatment.  The field of suspects in this audacious Kremlin poisoning is nearly unlimited.  An all-star international investigation for Philo Vance.

The Argyle Murder Case
--What dastard put the deadly moths in Johnny's nifty new sweater?  Another case for Philo Vance, exotic moth fancier and amateur sleuth extraordinaire. (Those tropical fish from The Dragon Murder Case and Scotties from The Kennel Murder Case are so Thirties, don't you know.)

interrogating the chief suspect in The Beaver Murder Case
the deadly slinky
You just know John Rhode could have figured out how to kill someone with one of these.
Watching the waves for the killer?
Surely this is one mystery you wouldn't get board with!
A shifty bunch of suspects for sure!