Sunday, January 28, 2018

Deadly Detente: Murder Against the Grain (1967), by Emma Lathen

[Emma Lathen] is a sort of Jane Austen of the detective novel, crisp, detached, mocking, economical....

                                                                                                        --The London Times

Emma Lathen's crime novel When in Greece (1969)--written in a white heat of outraged inspiration over a mere six weeks by Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart) after the right-wing Generals' Coup was staged on April 21, 1967 in the country dubbed the cradle of democracy (Latsis was the daughter of Greek immigrants)--was shortlisted for an Edgar Award (losing to Dick Francis's Forfeit), making it the only Lathen novel to win notice from the Mystery Writers of America.  This was despite the acclaim Lathen received throughout the Sixties from American mystery critics (most notably, until his untimely death in 1968, Anthony Boucher of the New York Times).

From Britain's Crime Writers Association Lathen received more love, however, winning not only the CWA's Silver Dagger for her mystery Accounting for Murder (1964) but the highly coveted Golden Dagger for Murder against the Grain, a book Anthony Boucher had handsomely praised, in his last review of an Emma Lathen novel before his death, with words of which the busy blurbist all-too-often can but dream of descrying:

I keep saying 'urbane, witty, faultless, delightful'--what other adjectives is one to use for Lathen's precise blends of formal detection and acute social satire.

Russians up to no good
--or something else?
Murder against the Grain came out on the heels of Lathen's lauded Death Shall Overcome (1966), in which the author's penchant for social satire was raised to new heights.  There the subject was the struggle for civil rights on the New York Stock Exchange--though interestingly Latsis and Henissart in an interview once noted that the book was written in 1964 and was supposed to have been published in 1965, before Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round (1966), which would have made it even more topical.  (Just why it was held up is not clear--ostensibly it was "technical" reasons.) 

Social satire is evident as well in Murder against the Grain, where Lathen again tackles a broad topic: the state of US-USSR political and economic relations.  We can't call that one dated, can we? (Though Russia's position as a wheat producer has changed for the better, to be sure.)

After the annihilating specter of nuclear war menaced the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union underwent some small degree of diminution over the next few years, with both countries signing the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (concerning nuclear weapons testing), the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. 

With the commencement of the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1969, the term detente (relaxation) would come into vogue as a catchy way of encapsulating the American policy of easing relations with the USSR though diplomacy. This policy, damned as hopelessly naive by American conservatives, would terminate with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election to the presidency in 1980 of Ronald Reagan; and over the next dozen years the world would witness the stunning dissolution of the USSR and its captive Eastern Bloc in Europe, though not without a spot of detente engineered by President Reagan and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Spies Like Us
This Pocket edition of Grain made
Emma Lathen's latest crime opus
look more like Ian Fleming's
From Russia, with Love.
In Murder Against the Grain, Emma Lathen captures the Sixties pre-detente era with a story about a much-ballyhooed trade deal between the US and USSR that goes gone terribly wrong. 

For once eschewing her usual Trollopean narrative opening about Wall Street (Wall Street is....) in Grain, Lathen instead gives us a wry (or should I say rye) two-page prologue detailing global newspaper reports of a trade deal between the two countries, under the terms of which the US has agreed to sell 40 million bushels of wheat to the USSR, whose latest five-year plan has failed--as was so often the way with even the best-laid five-year plans--to meet expectations. 

It is hoped that the wheat deal will dissipate tensions between the two countries, but things soon go perilously wrong, as the deal is plagued with the weevils of theft and murder!

The mammoth Sloan Guaranty Trust of New York is left holding a very large and very empty bag when $985,000 (I was reminded of the dreadfully dated Dr. Evil's "one million dollars!" demand) involved in the wheat transaction is diverted, by means of forged bills of lading, to at least one coolly calculating criminal.  Then the driver who delivered the Sloan's ginormous check is found shot dead on the footsteps of the Russian embassy.  Was he a man who knew too much--and died on account of his knowledge?

Speaking of knowledge, Sloan has on hand its sage Senior Vice President, John Putnam Thatcher, who not only is extraordinarily adept at solving cases of fraud and theft in high places, but at digging up the dirt on low murder as well. This time around Thatcher is aided by both American and Russian investigators (the latter specially flown over from Moscow), but he is the one who finally cracks the clever crime, with the aid, albeit inadvertent, of his super-efficient Miss Lemonesque secretary, Miss Corsa.

On the whole I grade Murder Against the Grain higher than Death Shall Overcome.  There's a more concentrated focus on the crime plot and a more varied group of characters, including not just the usual male Wall Street bigwigs (of whom in this one regular Everett Gabler stands out for satirical mirth), but Soviet diplomats (including a fetching female interpreter), assorted secretaries and drivers and one tough cookie of a woman garage owner. 

No doubt when the big wheat deal went through
in Emma Lathen's Murder Against the Grain
many of the good people of the USSR
enjoyed more than a few dishes of kutia.
(for a Ukrainian version of the recipe
see Claudia's Cookbook--Ukrainian dissidents
play a role in Lathen's book, incidentally)
The criminal plot is interesting and the writing engaging.  American paperback publishers in the 1970s dubbed Emma Lathen America's Agatha Christie, but Lathen's ingenious tales of corporate malfeasance remind me more of Christie's contemporary Freeman Wills Crofts--though Lathen, it must be admitted, is a far better writer to Crofts (though, yet again, putative puzzle purists like S. S. Van Dine and Jacques Barzun would counter that literary skill is a snare and a delusion for detective novelists, distracting them from portraying the rigors of ratiocination).  However, in the 1970s it seems certain that America's Freeman Will Crofts did not have the same cachet as a slogan.

Soon I plan to look at just why Emma Lathen appealed so much to British mystery reviewers.  It turns out there was more that was "English" about Emma Lathen than her writing.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Bush Fire! The Flames of Vintage Detection Burn Bright in 2018

First, I am posting a link to a piece I wrote for The Rap Sheet on the essays in the Edgar-nominated essay collection Murder in the Closet (2017).  I believe this is the most detailed piece on the book, its contents and its intent, that you will find on the internet. 

Getting an Edgar nomination was happy though, I must admit, unexpected news.  Masters of the "Humdrum Mystery (2012) and Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014) had been passed over in 2013 and 2015 respectively and Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013) and The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and GDH and Margaret Cole (2015) had not even been considered because they were published by a micropress.  But unexpected news can signal most excellent tidings, sometimes.

Looking ahead to that which I, and perhaps you my blog readers, expected in 2018, I note that I continue to write introductions for Dean Street Press and Coachwhip Publications, plus I have an introduction to an upcoming Detective Club Crime Classic title to be published by the Collins Crime Club, which has really gotten behind vintage mystery reissues of late.

Ten more Christopher Bush mystery titles come out next month (and are available for order now), all of them with new introductions by me.  These titles are, respectively, The Case of

The 100% Alibis, The Dead Shepherd, The Chinese Gong, The Monday Murders, The Bonfire Body, The Missing Minutes, The Hanging Rope, The Tudor Queen, The Leaning Man and The Green Felt Hat.

I linked to some blog reviews of these titles, but also see the pages on Bush at the aptly-named blog of my old net friend Nick Fuller, The Grandest Game in the World.  (Be advised we don't always see eye-to-eye on every title.)

As with detective fiction in what we might term The Case of ER Punshon, I think titles 11-20 in the Bush canon represent arguably the peak of Bush's superb achievement as a mystery writer. 

There are some exceptionally ingenious books here, but you can see more of what I have to say about the books (and their author) in the introductions--though I might post a review here of one or two of my personal favorites in the series.

Finally, there is much more coming this year under the auspices Coachwhip and also, I am hoping, there will be some additional authors with Dean Street Press.  More on this in the coming weeks.  Please stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Edgar in the Closet

On Friday Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction, which I first blogged about here a year ago, was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers Association for Best Critical/Biographical work.  I both edited and contributed to this collection, which scrutinizes LGBTQ themes in and writers of crime fiction in the period before the Stonewall Riots, a pivotal moment in LGTBQ history.  (They are coming up on their 50th anniversary next year.) 

This is a subject area which some years ago I concluded, from my reading in the mystery genre from around 1920 to 1970, has been seriously understudied in works of mystery genre history.  Personally I was continually surprised by how many LGBTQ crime writers, seemingly unacknowledged as such, kept popping up from this period during my own studies (which had nothing to do, incidentally, with LGTBQ history), and by how LGBTQ themes kept appearing, if necessarily in more oblique fashion than today. "Murder, Obliquely," as Cornell Woolrich put it.

How had these themes not been acknowledged in the once quite popular and still critically well-regarded work of Patrick Quentin, for example (or the fact that the two men behind Patrick Quentin were for many years a couple)?  Weren't we ready today, I asked myself, for an unblinkered appraisal of this body of work?

In 2015 I sought out people from both the blogging and academic worlds to contribute to an essay collection, and was pleased with the enthusiastic responses.  The result was Murder in the Closet, which takes readers on quite a queer and colorful tour of crime fiction from Fergus Hume in the 1880s to the early George Baxt of the 1960s. 

I'm so glad that the MWA has recognized the worth of this study.  The other nominees are a prestigious group indeed, including biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Chester B. Himes by Tatiana de Rosnay and Lawrence P. Jackson and fascinating critical studies of the perennially popular Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes by Mattias Bostrom and Michael Sims. It really is an honor just to be nominated with this group, and I hope the nomination of Murder in the Closet may encourage some more people to rummage through the closets in the great house of vintage crime and mystery fiction.

Mistral Mystery: The White Cockatoo (1933), by Mignon Eberhart

It was clear, of course, that there was something evil going on in the old hotel: abductions, murders, shots in the night, all those things had to have some kind of hub, and the hub must be contained somewhere about that secretive place with its deserted corridors and rooms and its rattling shutters....It was as if something very dark and very strong were swirling about, and I knew of the threat of its presence but not where and how to avoid it.

To this day a sudden cold whipping in the wind will snatch my memory back in an instant to those mad days at A------, and I am once more walking cautiously along those cold dim corridors, ears alert to any sound behind me, eyes strained upon every shadow, or I am watching the flying shadows of the court from the eerie glass-walled passage outside my door, wondering if that flying shrub conceals a figure, or if this angle of the walls holds a too-substantial shadow--or peering across to the tiny lobby where I can see the cockatoo....

                                                         --The White Cockatoo (1933), Mignon Eberhart

what the cockatoo saw
The mystery novels of Mignon Eberhart (1899-1996) fall, in my view, into three distinct periods:

1929-1932, the period of the early (five in number) Nurse Sarah Keate mysteries

1933-1935, a short transitional period of a trio of non-series suspense novels with creepily atmospheric settings (hotel, mansion, apartment house)

1936-1988, the over half-century of Eberhart's polished, perfected and highly lucrative formula of mystery and romantic suspense, in which Gothic-style settings are downplayed in favor of the desperately anxious antics of ingenuous and frightened young women confronting murder in fashionable and moneyed milieus

So-called domestic suspense existed before the mid-twentieth century, when it was skillfully elaborated by crime writers Ursula Curtiss, Celia Fremlin, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong and others.  In the 19th century it was known variously as Gothic and "sensation" fiction and in the Golden Age of detective fiction it was, under the the patronizing cognomen HIBK (Had I But Known), hugely popular in the hands of such authors as bestselling novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart and the writer commonly seen as her closest and certainly most successful acolyte, Mignon Good Eberhart.

Eberhart's Nurse Sarah Keate mysteries, with which the author launched her spectacularly successful career as a mystery novelist in 1929, are reminiscent of Rinehart's Nurse Hilda Adams mysteries, but the chronology here remains cloudy, with no certain light yet discernible on the horizon.  As indicated above, the first group of Sarah Keate novels appeared from 1929 to 1932, while that latter year, 1932, was the year that Mary Roberts Rinehart revived Hilda Adams, in the novel Miss Pinkerton

So was the great Rinehart inspired by the success of Eberhart's Sarah Keate novels?  Not so fast!  Hilda Adams originally appeared in a pair of novellas, "The Buckled Bag" and "Locked Doors," in 1914, when Mignon Good was but a teenager living in Nebraska.  So was it Mignon Eberhart, then, who was inspired by Rinehart?  You've got me! (Mike Grost has thoughts too.)

In any event, Eberhart herself evidently had tired of Sarah Keate by 1932 and she resultantly dropped the confirmed snooper (along with her handsome police pal, Lance O'Leary) as a series character, though she would revive her (minus Lance) in two later novels, about one and two decades afterwards respectively. 

Over the next three years Eberhart published three suspense novels--The White Cockatoo (1933), The Dark Garden (1933) and The House on the Roof (1935)--without any series characters and with less of a formal connection to true detection. Even more than the Keate novels, this trio of books veers more toward pure suspense, though there still is clueing and explanation (quite a lot of it!) at the end.

All three novels have strong Gothic elements in the settings.  Dark Garden and House on the Roof both are set in Chicago, in, respectively, a creepy dark mansion and a creepy dark apartment house, while the events of The White Cockatoo takes place inside a weary old hotel in the town of A------ (Avignon?), southern France, during the wintry off-season, when around the aged walls and windows the mistral wind menacingly murmurs and moans.

Avignon, France

In America's Agatha Christie, Mignon Eberhart's illuminating biographer, Rick Cypert, explains that Mignon and her husband Alanson, an engineer, while in Europe over the winter season of 1931-32 stayed at a small hotel north of Nice in the Alps Maritimes, which thereupon became the setting for the author's sixth mystery novel.  As an 85 year-old Eberhart related decades later in 1984, in an interview published in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter:

We were staying at a little hotel-pension place.  It was a very poor season on the Riviera in that part of Nice, so they gave me, for nothing, a little extra room to write in.  It was cold and had no view, but a writer shouldn't have a view.

It was, then, this room without a view that produced The White Cockatoo.

Aside from the European setting in The White Cockatoo, what is unusual, indeed unique, in Eberhart's work is the fact that the narration is provided by a man, an American engineer (like Eberhart's husband), Jim Sundean, who has just finished a job in the USSR and is passing through Avignon on his way to meet a friend in Spain.  (If you think this makes Jim sound like some sort of Soviet operative, remember this is a few years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and that Mignon was a steadfast Republican, American style, and a staunch anti-Communist--no hero of hers was ever going to be a Commie symp!) 

The White Cockatoo has been dubbed, like another novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Red Lamp (1925), a rare example of "Male HIBK."  Peppery Sarah Keate pugnaciously narrated the first five Eberhart novels, but after The White Cockatoo Eberhart's use of first-person narration lapsed.  Considering the ninnies that some of her later ingenue characters can be at times, this may be just as well.

In fact The White Cockatoo is one of the few HIBK novels, as far as I know, that actually employs the notorious term "had I but known"--or, to be precise, "had we but known." 

I had, of course, no premonition that he was to become such an active and important figure in the really hideous affair which, had we but known it, had only begun.

Dorothy L. Sayers, having rather tired of the predominance in mystery fiction of the cerebral pure puzzle detective novel (or so she said), gave an enthusiastic newspaper review to The White Cockatoo, particularly praising the novel's spooky atmospherics. 

The White Cockatoo
certainly has all that, and then some.  Perhaps a touch too much, for my taste.  At over 100,000 words the novel is a little long for a suspense tale in my view, but then readers of this blog will know of my partiality for the glittering brevity, the admirable economy, of mid-century domestic suspense.

Yet Eberhart does a highly creditable job of portraying the old Avignon hotel, a formerly opulent family mansion run quite decidedly to seed, in the dead (quite literally!) season, as Sayers notes in her review:

Its action all takes place in a French country-town hotel, in the dead waste and middle of winter.  Its opening chapters, with their picture of the windy courtyard, chequered with bleak light and wavering shadows, the dim old-fashioned corridors, musty rooms filled with furniture of inappropriate splendour, the cramped little slow-moving lift, the melancholy lounge dotted with wicker chairs and desiccated palms, the whole barren dinginess of the abominable place, through which the few visitors and the skeleton staff flit like lone survivors from a catastrophe--these chapters. convey more real eeriness and discomfort than you could get from gallons of blood, dozens of sheeted spectres, or scores of conspiratorial gangs in Chinese opium dens.

Reading this description of the book over a decade ago, when I was laboriously printing out and cutting and pasting Sayers book reviews from the Sunday Times into alphabetized legal pads, I was sold on The White Cockatoo immediately. 

Influential mystery critic and "crime novel" proponent Julian Symons emphatically never took the feminine fright novels of the between-the-wars years seriously (nor did his opposite number, critically, puzzle purist Jacques Barzun), but in fact Eberhart's books constituted, as Sayers astutely observed, something of a blow struck for realism in the era of the deliriously over-the-top hair-raisers of Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Sax Rohmer and their many British and American imitators.  Indeed, Eberhart's books are, I would argue, more realistic than many of the Grand Guignol serial killer thrillers of today.

To be sure, I agree with Sayers that Cockatoo's "denouement is a trifle confused and tumultuous."  Eberhart tends to get a bit tangled up in explanation (she's not really "America's Agatha Christie," except in an economic sense), showing that she is still transitioning out of the very deliberate clues-and-confidences tradition of the ratiocinative detective novel.

Beginning in 1936 Eberhart would streamline her suspense novels, making them more resemble the sleek and sophisticated domestic suspense fiction of the fifties and sixties, though the romance element is more predominant--too much so, indeed, for this curmudgeon--in Eberhart's books.

But for the patient reader The White Cockatoo is a fine example of the between-the-wars feminine suspense novel, male narrator notwithstanding.  From the very moment on November 29, 1931 that Jim Sundean checks into the eerie Avignon hotel, the reader is awash in a superbly shuddery atmosphere of oppressive anxiety and angst.  Heck, if this were Cornell Woolrich, and everyone was left dead or spiritually destroyed at the end of the story, we could even call it noir.

There are only three other guests at this dead-alive establishment: a much-bewrapped Nebraska matron by the name of Mrs. Felicia Byng; a Russian-bearded clergyman called Pere Robart; and a beautiful, red-slippered slip of a young American, Sue Tally.  Additionally there is a servant trio composing a skeleton staff of porter, cook and maid and the owner couple, the Lovschiems, ingratiating Marcus and alluring Grethe.  And let us not forget the cockatoo Pucci, who, if not a literal lounge lizard, is a forward fellow who unabashedly makes free with the guests.  There are as well, after the murdering starts, assorted French policemen, all of them of various dim shades, and, altogether more importantly, an American detective by the name of Lorn.

Eberhart seems to have been conscious that, with his jeweled rings and oiled manners, Marcus Lovschiem, originally of Chicago, USA, might arouse suspicions of anti-Semitism.  On page 2 Jim speculates to himself concerning Lovschiem's possible national heritages:

I was at a loss to guess his nationality; there was a touch of the German about him and, faintly, of the Italian; his gestures were French, and there was something vaguely Hebraic about his full red mouth and his dark eyes, which were set just a hair's breadth too close together above the coarsely aquiline bridge of his nose.  It was therefore something of a shock when he met my eyes again, beamed broadly, rubbed his fat hands together and said: "I too am an American."

Pucci, take a bow
Something enticing from the great melting pot that in American mythology we claim to venerate, or a deceiving Janissary from the crafty forces of rootless cosmopolitanism? 

Personally I was interested to see just where the Lovscheims would end up in this intricate maze of murder and mystery.  There are surprises, though I can't of course say just what surprised me.

If you think that Jim may fall hard not for the bold and been-around-the-boulevard Grethe but for sweet and virginal Sue--true-blue and all-American too--you may well be right; it's not for the likes of myself to deny the inevitable and inerrant path of Cupid's arrows in between-the-wars classic mystery.  However, you may well be surprised by just how Pucci, something of a rootless cosmopolitan himself, triumphantly justifies his place as the novel's title character. 

Bravissimo, Pucci!
  I would have liked to see more of that memorable bird in future books.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Simply Troubling: The Mystery of the New Emma Lathen Editions

Emma Lathen, one of the most highly regarded writers of classic crime fiction over nearly four decades, from 1961 to 1997, was, as I have noted here before, a pseudonym for two women, Mary Jane Latsis, an agricultural economist, and Martha Henissart, a corporate attorney.  After Latsis's death in 1997, Henissart stopped writing mystery fiction, even though Emma Lathen's John Putnam Thatcher series was still quite popular. 

The popularity of the series probably peaked in the early 1980s, when in the US Lathen's Winter Olympics themed Going for the Gold received an initial print run of 17,000 copies with their American publisher, Simon & Schuster.  Lathen also reached many more readers in the US and UK in the form of paperbacks issued by Pocket and Penguin Books.  Ultimately mystery fans purchased hundred of thousands of copies of Lathen mysteries, in one form or another.

Henissart stated to the New York Times that at Latsis's death the pair had completed about 80% of another Thatcher novel, which employed the setting of the Persian Gulf War, and that she planned to finish it; but apparently she never did.  Nor did any other Thatcher novels appear (but see below).

Little seems to have been heard from Henissart in the mystery world after Latsis's death.  During much of her writing life as Emma Lathen Henissart had been preoccupied with preserving the anonymity of her name, fearing that her novels, with their pointed and satirical look at the foibles and felonies of the corporate world, might offend clients.  (Henissart worked many years for Raytheon, a major US defense contractor.) 

As far as I know Henissart and Lathen were first exposed as the women behind Emma Lathen in 1969 by Allen J. Hubin, successor for several years to the late Anthony Boucher as the crime fiction reviewer for the New York Times.  In a review of Lathen's When in Greece Hubin wrote

one of my correspondents, Jean Metz of Washington, D. C., has solved the mystery [of Emma Lathen's real identity] in the Catalogue of Copyright Entries....Emma Lathen is not one but two women, Mary J. Latis [sic] and Martha Henissart--with the first syllables of both names scrambled to make the pseudonym.

It was not for some years after this revelation by Hubin that Latsis and Henissart agreed to give interviews in their real names about the Emma Lathen books, as they did, for example, in a 1978 New York Times article,  "Business Bonanaza in Whodunit Fiction," which even included a photo of the two authors seated at a table, hashing things out over a typewriter.

In 2012 an enterprising woman with the Mount Holyoke Alumni Association (Henissart had graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1950) got in touch with Henissart and noted that the surviving half of Emma Lathen occupied her time with "travel, gardening, duplicate bridge and the duties of dog ownership."  Although Henissart "still enjoys reading mysteries," it was reported, she insisted to her interviewer that she had written "not a word" of a mystery since her writing partner's death.  She humorously added: "Occasionally I see something interesting and think it'd make a book, but then I come to my senses."

In my 2014 review of Lathen's crime novel Double, Double, Oil and Trouble, I lamented that the Lathen books were out-of-print, but they have since been reprinted.  Unfortunately, the new editions, produced by Simply Media (a creation of one Deaver Brown), have been criticized as being shoddily produced and riddled with typos, transpositions and misspellings.

Most concerning, however, is the claim of Simply Media/Deaver Brown that additional Emma Lathen mysteries were published by Martha Henissart since Mary Jane Latsis's death.  According to Simply Media there are, in addition to the 24 John Putnam Thatcher mysteries published between 1961 and 1997, 6 Elizabeth and John Putnam Thatcher mysteries (with distressingly literal titles), published between 1999 and 2016:

Political Murder, 1999
Dot Com Murder, 2001
Biking Murder 2005
Nonprofit Murder 2008
Union Murder 2010
Gig Murder, 2016

Do these sound like Emma Lathen books to you?  If Martha Henissart had written five novels before her 2012 interview with the representative from the Mount Holyoke Alumni Association, why did she say she had written "not a word" of mystery fiction since Latsis's death?  Why were these books not reviewed somewhere, when Lathen has thousands of fans?  Why were they not publicized on mystery blogs and in mystery magazines?  Most of all, who the heck published them?

Well, we know that there are two of these titles in print, the first two on the above list, Political Murder and Dot Com Murder.  They both have been published by, surprise, surprise (as Gomer says) Simply Media, with the text being attributed to  Emma Lathen, Martha Henissart, Simply Media and Deaver Brown.  Both books have been abominably reviewed on  See, for example, under the heading Emma Lathen Is Gone:

This is the worst piece of crap I have seen in a long time.  Whoever wrote this miserable book thinks that a few IT terms thrown around constitutes a book.  This is not a novel but a collection of some abbreviated terms that are supposed to make us think a story is here.  I am so sorry that this offering should make any appearance under the name of Lathen.  Don't even bother looking for any idea of what the Sloan [Guaranty Trust] used to be; it has been murdered and is now dead and buried.  RIP!

So what is going on here?  It's hard to believe that Martha Henissart could have had a hand in the composition of any such books as these, particularly in 1999 and 2001, just a few years after she produced, with Latsis, the still quite enjoyable A Shark out of Water (1997)  To the end the two women were very much collaborators, as explained in Latsis's 1997 obituary in the New York Times:

....they would first agree on the basic structure and major characters, then write and exchange alternating chapters.  Miss Latsis, composing in pen on yellow legal pads while sitting in a chair, always produced the first one, and Miss Henissart, using a manual typewriter, the last.

They would then get together for a final joint rewrite, ironing out inconsistencies and gradually synthesizing a distinctive composite style.

In yet another eBook, Whatever Happened to Emma Lathen? (this creepily reminding me of Whatever to Baby Jane?), Deaver Brown states that he met Martha Henissart in the spring of 2016, when she was 90.  (Actually at that time she would have been 86, having been born on June 4, 1929.)  Was Henissart at this time persuaded to let Deaver Brown do some sort of continuation of the Thatcher series?  It's a troubling question, given some of the news stories from the last decade about Mr. Brown and Simply Media.

According to the New Hampshire Business Review, for example, a federal judge, Steven McAuliffe, found in 2008 that Deaver Brown and his wife "swindled investors in their New Hampshire company out of some $1.6 million...."

The scheme proved to be highly effective, yet it was quite simple.  First, the Browns formed Simply Media, Inc.  Then, armed with apparently bogus profit and loss statements prepared by Deaver, a few sample products and a compelling yarn of historical success woven by Deaver, the couple approached well-to-do friends and acquaintances and offered them the 'opportunity' to to own a portion of the company....The Browns used that money to pay for all manner of personal expenses, including, for example, personal dry cleaning bills, individual memberships at an athletic club and payments on the mortgage loan on their home....Not surprisingly, the capital was soon spent, and the supply of gullible investors dried up.  Simply Media was put into bankruptcy.

"He'll shut down a company and start up another one," ominously stated David Schmerin, whose business won a judgment against a former Deaver Brown company, CD Tiles.  "There's no stopping this man."

Well, sure enough, Simply Media is back and it is publishing Emma Lathen.  Egad.  Emma Lathen devoted her much-praised crime fiction career to chronicling various forms of ingenious financial frauds (with some murder thrown in), making it ironic indeed that this particular concern is now publishing her books.

I'm fearfully reminded of the case of the late Marian Babson, who like Martha Henissart was born in the northeastern US in 1929.  (Babson seven months later, on December 15).  In 2015 Babson made the news in England, where she had long resided, when she discovered, even though she was suffering from dementia and wheelchair-bound, that her caregiver had looted over 27,000 pounds from her bank account.  Babson was an only child with no cousins living overseas and was cruelly taken advantage of in her infirm old age by a callously dishonest individual.  I would hate to think this sort of thing could have have happened to another distinguished, elderly mystery writer.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Guess Who's Coming to Murder? Death Shall Overcome (1966), by Emma Lathen

"WALL STREET RACISTS ON KILLING SPREE," screamed one headline.

"Ran into Glover this morning.  He tells me that Owen Abercrombie has gone crazy."
"How could he tell?" asked Thatcher with genuine interest.
"Says he's talking about a Wall Street Defense Council," said Robichaux.  "With rifles.  You remember they had to take his uncle Basil off the floor in a straitjacket in '29."
"I didn't," said Thatcher, considerably entertained.
"Bad blood," Robichaux said.

"Well I ask you," Robichaux replied reasonably.  "Would you want the Sloan mixed up with someone who wants to send Negroes back to Africa, abolish social security and drop the hydrogen bomb on Cuba?"

.... as he looked at Owen Abercrombie's ponderous, underslung jaw and glittering feral eyes, he was tempted  to think that he had receded though several major geological eras and was surrounded by Neanderthals.

"They're all against us.  They'll try to muzzle us, try to smear us.  Are we going to let them get away with it?
"You're the only ones left to defend America.  Are you going to let the pinkos take over?"

a broker exits

I'm always struck when I see people declare that a given eighty or fifty or even thirty year old detective novel is "dated," because it seems to me that the old adage, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," has something of the ring of truth to it--as does another, "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Looking around today, I don't feel that Emma Lathen's fifth detective novel, Death Shall Overcome, is so all-round dated, despite the old-fashioned terminology ("negro" for black) and the fact that women play no role in the business world except as wives and secretaries. Where race is concerned, we still seem to be grappling with a lot of similar issues today.  A novel wherein one of the main characters is an old racist New York businessman of questionable mental stability who gives encouraging winks and nods to racial hate groups?  Not so dated, I think!

1966 was another troubled year for the United States and much of the rest of the world but an undeniably great year for crime writer Emma Lathen (the economist Mary Jane Latsis and attorney Martha Henissart).  With a fecundity which we associate with great Golden Age mystery producers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, Lathen that year published two detective novels about her appealing amateur sleuth, banker John Putnam Thatcher (Senior Vice President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust): Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round and Death Shall Overcome.  The pair of detective novels received boffo reviews at the time in both the United States and United Kingdom, sold like hotcakes over the years in paperback and today remain highly regarded by fans of classic crime fiction (even if the recent Thatcher eBook editions are disappointingly shoddy).

to me Lathen's cover sleuth John Putnam Thatcher
here looks like a cross between Dick Cavett and
Tom Wolfe--the latter, incidentally, an author,
it seems to me, to whom she might be compared,
just as she had been by some admirers to Jane Austen
Emma Lathen, who published her first Thatcher detective novel in 1961, would go on to produce pairs of Thatcher mysteries in additional years--1968, 1969 and 1971--as well as Thatcher singletons every other year between 1967 and 1972, for  a total of 14 Thatcher novels in the dozen years that spanned 1961 and 1972--one of the most remarkable achievements by any mystery writer, I believe, in the Silver Age of detective fiction. 

Lathen later managed two more sequences of Thatcher novels, five between 1974 and 1982 (including Double, Double, Oil and Troublereviewed here) and a final five between 1988 and 1997, the year of Mary Jane Latsis's death.  Then there were seven mysteries the pair wrote as RB Dominic, one pseudonym--as in the case of Carr and his incredibly prolific detective novelist friend John Street--not being enough to contain the pair's creative energies; these appeared in two spurts, 3 from 1968 to 1971 and 4 from 1978 to 1983.

Going back 52 years to 1966, when the Passing Tramp was but a Pramming Toddler and a mystery reader yet to be, Lathen's two detective novels from that year illustrate her three great strengths: puzzle plotting, business detail and social satire. 

Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round
is stronger on the puzzle side of the ledger, but Death Shall Overcome should be of great interest to readers today for its wry social detail.  Moreover, the puzzle is no slouch, though, like Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, it tends to get overshadowed by the author's social interest.

As suggested by the title of Death Shall Overcome, which alludes to the social activist anthem "We Shall Overcome", in this novel Emma Lathen drew inspiration from the long struggle of black Americans for civil rights, which reached a climax, of sorts, in the Sixties.  On August 6, 1965, American president Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act; a week later the Watts riots erupted in a section of Los Angeles over allegations of police brutality.   In January of the next year local NAACP chapter president Vernon Dahmer was killed by a bomb in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and the Black Panther Party was founded in October, the same month Death Shall Overcome was published.  Martin Luther King, Jr. himself had only about a year-and-a-half left to live, before he was cut down by a white assassin at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

A lot of writers, especially those of the more traditional sort of crime fiction, might well have left this touchy topic untouched, given all the controversy and all too real trauma and pain surrounding it, yet during her career Emma Lathen never shied from taking on topical events, right up to her last novel, published in 1997, which dealt with collapse of Communism in the former states of the Eastern Bloc.

In Death Shall Overcome, Wall Street has ructions aplenty when the octogenarian Nat Schuyler, the puckishly subversive eminence of ultra-prestigious brokerage firm Schuyler & Schuyler, announces that the firm plans to take  on as a new partner (fatefully with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange) distinguished multi-millionaire banker Edward Parry, who just happens to be a "negro," to use the terminology of the novel. 

Utterly appalled by this development are hidebound white racists Owen Abercrombie ("Wall Street's most vocal ultraconservative") and Dean Caldwell, young senior analyst of Schuyler & Schuyler ("He's from Alabama"), despite the fact that Edward Parry is "a replica of a Wall Street financier with a dark skin" who "in a happier era," Lathen drolly observes, "might have been a Republican."  Parry seems a true paragon of virtue, something like Sidney Poitier in the 1967 Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?--though refreshingly to my taste the Lathen novel is vastly more acerbic than that well-meant but rather saccharine and didactic star-turning film.

At an elite social get-together, however, it is not Edward Parry who drops dead but rather another partner in S&S, Arthur Foote, who is shockingly done in by means of nicotine dropped into his Bloody Mary highball glass.  But was the true target actually Edward Parry?  This theory seems to get confirmation when someone takes an errant rifle shot at Parry, outside his home in a wealthy--and lily white--suburban neighborhood.  Of Parry's admittance into this august community comments Lathen sardonically, "they were perfectly prepared to embrace any one-home builder, provided only that he was a multimillionaire."

Actual detection gets sidelined for a long time as Lathen amusingly deals with the consequences of wealthy white resistance to Parry's elevation to the Stock Exchange. 

Black novelist Richard Simpson, who opportunistically  has formed the group CASH (Colored Association of Share Holders) indiscriminately threatens the elite of New York with a "March on Wall Street"--this an allusion to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, which had helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act. (I was also reminded of, from more recent years, Occupy Wall Street.)

I think there's no doubt the women who wrote as Emma Lathen were fairly liberal on many issues and in Death Shall Overcome they rebuke white racists roundly; yet it seems to me that they also treat Richard Simpson as something of a posturing phony, more concerned with gratifying his own ego than meaningfully expanding civil liberty.  Is he based on the distinguished black author James Baldwin?  Here's the character's introduction to the reader:

Mr. Simpson, noted for his simpleminded and successful novels about an expatriate in Paris and his beautiful relationship with a sylphlike busboy, had the resonant voice of an actor, and a firm grasp on the microphone thrust before him.

Be that as it may, this novel managed to unite in a chorus of praise both the conservative critic Jacques Barzun and the liberal critic Anthony Boucher, both of whom were lovers of mystery fiction, though they frequently were at odds not only politically but aesthetically.  Barzun, a putative puzzle purist, was so impressed with Lathen's treatment of "the civil rights movement, with its attendant sing-ins and sit-ins," that he forgave her "playing down of mystery and detection in favor of social comment and superb characterization"; while in a contemporary notice Boucher proclaimed Lathen's latest her best work yet and a "wonderfully rational and pointed novel."

Traditionalists never fear, though: there is a good puzzle here, with impeccable clueing, if only sporadic investigation.  If you're a fan of classic crime fiction, Emma Lathen should overcome your entertainment doldrums.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Nixed in Norway: Death in a Cold Climate (1980), by Robert Barnard

not the land of the midnight sun
As we enjoy, if that's the right word, our first snowfall of the season in my particular neck of the woods and I eat some Icelandic yogurt with cloudberries, I see that the inoffensive country of Norway has popped up in American political news.  And what did Norway do to deserve this unsought distinction?

It was divulged the other day that the United States president (for lack, unfortunately, of another word) recently opined to a group of American congresspeople that the US needed more immigrants from Norway and fewer (apparently none would be his preference) from "shithole"--his word!--countries like Haiti and those comprising the continent of Africa.

Back in the 19th century, when the president's paternal grandfather--a man who was, like many of my ancestors, of German origin and who apparently went originally by the name of Drumpf--came to the United States, the US did get a lot of immigrants from Norway. 

Norwegian immigration to the US peaked in 1882, according to the Seattle Times, when nearly 30,000 Norwegian settlers came to American shores. Conversely in 2016--the year, incidentally, that the current American president was elected--only 1114 Norwegians immigrated to the US, about 500 fewer than the number of Americans who left the US that year to settle in Norway.

Contrary to what crime fiction tells us
Scandinavia does not lead the world in
serial killers--reason for happiness!
World Atlas lists the clear leader in this
bloody arena as the United States,
followed by England, South Africa,
Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany
Australia, Russia and India.
"Oil-rich Norway," according to the Seattle Times article, "ranks fourth in the world for GDP per person....boasts a universal health-care system, low unemployment, and $1 trillion 'rainy day' fund fueled by its offshore oil and gas resources that helps pay for generous pensions and other welfare programs."

"Last year, Norway soared to the top spot of the World Happiness Report.  The US was 14th in the latest ranking, down from No. 13 in 2016, and over the years Americans steadily have been rating themselves less happy."

If any Americans (or anyone else in the world, for that matter), feeling a tad glum about the state of their country lately, want to escape to Norway, but can't afford the trip, there's always, as there ever is, escape fiction.  And for readers of this blog, I presume, escape fiction means a nice murder tale. 

Yet today, in regard to Scandinavia, murder means so-called Nordic Noir, like the stuff written by world bestseller Jo Nesbo, whose latest opus, The Thirst, is a jolly little number described in the New York Times, where it has been listed as one of the best crime novels of 2017, as being about "a serial killer who stalks his victims on Tinder, rips out their throats with dentures made of metal spikes and drinks their blood."

To which I say, to quote Lucy from Peanuts: blech!  If I wanted that sort of thing I'd just read Edgar Wallace, who offers criminal thrills without all the disgusting gore.

cold indeed yet much cozier than
Jo Nesbo's crime thriller
But if you want a nice, classic deductive mystery set in Norway, how about Death in a Cold Climate (1980)?  It's a nearly four-decade-old crime novel by one of the great figures of the Silver Age of detective fiction, the late, and by me much lamented, British crime writer Robert Barnard (1936-2013).

I assume the title is an allusion by Barnard--who, at the time the the novel was written, taught literature in Norway at the University of Tromso, which had opened a few years earlier in 1972--to Nancy Mitford's popular novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949). 

Happily the title was allowed to stand by Barnard's capricious American publishers, who in the early years of his mystery writing career apparently often deemed Barnard's titles too subtle for American taste.

Thus Posthumous Papers became Death of a Literary Widow, Unruly Son Death of a Mystery Writer, Mother's Boys Death of a Perfect Mother, Little Victims School for Murder.  But then "Death," after all, is in the title of Death in a Cold Climate.  There's no question with this title that what we have a murder mystery here!

Aside from any allusion to Mitford's novel, Barnard's title for the novel is well-chosen as the story is structured around the chilled climate of Tromso, a Norwegian city located north of the Arctic Circle.  Back when Barnard lived there the population of Tromso was around 45,000 but the city since has increased to about 75,000, around a fifth of whom are college students.  But even 45,000 people is an ample enough number to provide suspects for a murder, as novelist Arnaldur Indrioason, who has made a lucrative career out of a critically-acclaimed detective series set in Iceland (pop. currently about 332,000), could tell you.

Barnard's narrative begins a few days before Christmas, during the polar night (when the sun is below the horizon), and ends the next year near the summer, when the midnight sun emerges and some thaw has commenced.  (Average high's in Tromso in December and May are, respectively, 31 and 47 degrees Fahrenheit.)

polar night in Tromso
the Arctic Cathedral, mentioned several times in Barnard's novel, is seen at lower left
By Osopolar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Not surprisingly Barnard's novel tends to focus on Tromso's Anglo-American foreign-born community: people, like he was, connected to the college, or to the developing petroleum industry, made much of by the Seattle Times in its discussion of the sources of Norwegian contentment. Yet there are significant Norwegian-born characters too.

The murder victim in the novel is an English "boy" named Martin Forsyth--a young man in his twenties, fair-haired, "but with a rich, golden fairness that was not Norwegian."  Inspector Fagermo, the methodical but not hugely memorable Norwegian policeman investigating Martin's murder, makes a side trip to England to interview the boy's parents, but outside of that errand the story takes place entirely in Norway.

The novel devotes the first chapter to the last hours in the life of the shortly to be murdered English boy.  It is made clear that on the day of Martin's death he is on his way to some sort of assignation--but who is he meeting, and what does the meeting concern?  These are the questions that concern the Norwegian police after Martin's body in unearthed from the deep snow a few months later by a joyfully inquisitive dog being taken out on a walk by his master.  (Ruth Rendell has a scene like this in one her her later Wexford books, Not in the Flesh, when a truffle-hunting dog digs up not a truffle but an odoriferous human corpse.)

one of Tromso's attractive older wooden homes plays a role in Death in a Cold Climate

Climate seems to me one of Barnard's more sober novels, which may be a plus or minus depending on your temperament.  I missed some of the wicked humor that is abundant in Barnard's English village tales.  However, Barnard does get in some amusing shots (as well as some coarse physical insults) at a truly horrid Norwegian literature professor who enjoys belittling the students he teaches in order to build up his own sense of self-esteem.

As I have discussed before
--see my review of Barnard's first crime novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974)--Barnard seems really to have loathed academia and must have been very happy indeed when his success with mystery writing allowed him to leave the profession for good before he turned fifty.

Death in a Cold Climate may not be as amusing as Death of an Old Goat, but Norway comes off much better at Barnard's hands than Australia, the setting of Goat and the country where Barnard, a native Englishman, had taught before going to Tromso.  Outside of the food, Barnard doesn't seem to have taken a dislike to things Norwegian, as he seemingly did to all things Australian.  The result is a far more sober--and far less fun (at least if you're not a sensitive Australian)--novel than Death of an Old Goat.

As a mystery Death in a Cold Climate boasts one excellent piece of misdirection, the sort of thing that brings to my mind the adjective Christiesque.  Among his generation of British mystery writers, Robert Barnard may have been the most openly admiring of Agatha Christie (certainly more so than was Ruth Rendell), and it shows in occasional flashes of brilliant technique, of which Climate offers one of the earlier instances.  So try out the book, you should enjoy the trip.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Murder's Little Helper: Hours to Kill (1962), by Ursula Curtiss

"Kids are different today," I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down.
And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill.
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.

"Things are different today," I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for her husband's just a drag.
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak.
And she goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day.

"Doctor, please, some more of these."
Outside the door, she took four more.

                                        --from "Mother's Little Helper," by the Rolling Stones

it helps get her on her on way--to where?!
But she went on wondering, while she put potatoes in to bake, took frozen vegetables out of the refrigerator, swept up some cereal Hilary had poked under the radiator....

Hilary was, loosely speaking, another human being, a voice and a full set of complaints to keep her occupied.  "Would you like some apple-sauce--that goes down easily--and milk? and I'll bring my coffee in, shall I?"

She felt caught in a dangerous spiral from which only activity, any kind at all, could release her.

Margaret could never remember having spoken aloud to herself, in whatever extremity; when she had heard people do it on stage, it smacked of self-consciousness.  Now, hands still tight against her face, she said to the neat blue and white pantry, "Oh God, what shall I do?"

A year after the publication of American crime writer Ursula Curtiss's novel Hours to Kill (1962)--quoted in the four excerpts above about the novel's angst-ridden protagonist, Margaret Russell--Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique--a non-fiction book about the angst-ridden lives led by many American women--appeared in print.  Having been asked in 1957 to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion, Friedan had concluded from the responses she received that dissatisfaction with their lot in life as housewives was rife among them.  This shocking finding--perhaps not so shocking to Friedan--led her to begin researching her book, which became the bestselling non-fiction book in the US in 1964. 

Two year later NOW (the National Organization for Women) was founded, with Friedan as its first president.  The group's professed aim was bringing women "into the mainstream of American society now in fully equal partnership with men.

The same year that NOW was founded that noted feminist British rock group (sarcasm!), the Rolling Stones, rose to #8 on the American pop charts with Mother's Little Helper, a catchy, snarky little ditty about Sixties wives and mothers popping Valium pills to get themselves through their days. 

Critics of The Feminine Mystique saw the book
as a society shattering attack on domesticity and
those who practiced it, while defenders saw it as
a legitimate and overdue airing of criticism of
a cruelly self-effacing social system--yet
however you see it yourself there is no doubt
but that the book was hugely influential

Social conservatives denounced all this as an attack on the sacred sex roles of wifedom and motherhood.  As late as 2005 the magazine Human Events even included The Feminine Mystique, in an interesting melange of  books devoted to expanding state power and expanding personal liberty, with The Communist Manifesto,  Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao, Das Kapital, The Kinsey Report, John Dewey's Democracy and Education, Auguste Comte's The Course of Positive Philosophy, Freidrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and John Maynard Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, as one of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. 

Feminism and the Holocaust, Friedan and Hitler--it's all pretty comparable to the folks at Human Events, evidently (Hitler comes in at #2 and Friedan at #7, that dynamic ideological duo Marx and Engels claiming the top spot as world harmers of the last 200 years). Tellingly, perhaps, the only woman Human Events apparently managed to find to serve on the panel of "15 scholars and public policy leaders" who served as judges was the late Phyllis Schlafley, the feminist-battling late president of Eagle Forum, whose last political act before her death was enthusiastically endorsing Donald Trump for president.

Meanwhile The Feminine Mystique rolls triumphantly on, over a decade after Friedan's death. A few years ago Norton published a special 50th Anniversary Edition, complete with a cover blurb by the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, drawn from O, the Oprah Magazine.  We are a divided country still.

Putting all the controversy aside, since this is, after all, a mystery blog, I couldn't help being reminded of all the above by the subject matter and the cover of the English edition of Ursula Curtiss's marvelous little (I mean this literally, the book at 160 pages is less than 60,000 words, and none the worse for it) 1962 suspense novel, Hours to Kill.

The artful jacket, by Christopher McCartney Filgate, depicts a jaded looking, orange-hued woman holding between her fingertips a little greenish-blue pill (actually a blue and yellow capsule in the book).  Though not in fact a Valium, the sinister pill, which is prescribed to a woman, plays a major role in the nightmare of horror that unfolds over a few days in the life of imperiled house-sitter and child-minder Margaret Russell.

mornidine: making cooking fresh food
for her husband fun again
When the novel opens, single, New York working girl Margaret Russell (the informal book flap description names the book's principals by their first names, omitting surnames entirely) has flown to a town in New Mexico to mind the rented house of her recently married sister, Cornelia, who is leaving on holiday with her husband, Philip, in order to recover from a recent serious bout with flu. 

Once arrived in New Mexico, helpful Margaret, who once had been engaged to Philip herself (awkward!), is tasked for a few weeks with caring for the attractive adobe house that Cornelia and Philip rented from a certain Mrs. Hadley Foale, as well as for the rambunctious eight-year-old little girl, Hilary Reverton, who was dumped on the  couple by her carefree, Greenwich Village denizen parents, who are said to be trying out a marital reconciliation in Mexico City. 

Margaret knows those Village Bohemian types, of course, who are frequent ill-favored stock characters in mid-century crime fiction: "Margaret had never seen Hilary's parents, but she was suddenly and uncomfortably sure that they were legendary Village types: sneakered, turtleneck-sweatered, so casual...."

It isn't long before Margaret has been left alone with Hilary at the house that she starts imagining all sorts of things, and that a sense of mounting unease slips in unbidden, whispering to her a series of insinuating questions....Where exactly is Mrs. Hadley Foale, anyway?  Why do these strange visitors keep coming to the house asking about her? 

Although naughtily inquisitive Hilary has been told to leave Mrs. Foale's possessions alone, she has a knack for snooping and finding the most cryptically unsettling things....

And why does she not hear from Cornelia and Philip?  Why don't they ever call?

in Hours to Kill
little Hilary Reverton
ties Margaret Russell
all up in knots (figuratively)
I hate to say too much about the plot of this splendid suspense tale, for fear of spoiling it, so I will leave it at that.  But to me it is a fascinating exploration of "domestic suspense."  This does seem to be a novel where domesticity becomes a snare for one woman, where thick adobe walls (Curtiss excels at making this unusual setting as menacing as any Gothic castle or old dark house) shut out the world, entrapping a woman in the home with horror--and an eight-year-old hellion, who adds to Margaret's headaches when she comes down with something like flu herself.

Margaret only ever manages to leave the house a couple of times, once to take Hilary to the movie theater, where--in an act that doubtlessly would be considered child endangerment today--she leaves the girl unaccompanied to watch a film so that she can get an hour of two of comparative peace.

Margaret becomes increasingly dependent on her phone, fretfully waiting for call that don't come, leaving her prone to fearful imaginings.  She occupies her time with domestic tasks, which start to overwhelm her, despite having "all the modern household conveniences," like jars of  instant coffee (now there's something scary to modern readers!) and bags of frozen vegetables in the fridge. Although even somethign as simple as making instant coffee can be a trial when you're...unsettled:

It was the kind of morning on which catastrophe seems built-in, a smell of smoke hovers just around the corner, cups and glasses topple of themselves.  Margaret had begun it by opening a fresh jar of instant coffee and, in her distraction, forgetting what happened when vacuum seals were punctured at high altitude. A geyser of brown powder shot up and then settled down over her hair, her dress, her hands.  It was somehow, at just this point, the most natural thing in the world, and after the merest washing of her hands she wore the powder as grimy as a hair shirt while she waited for water to boil.

another of mother's little helpers
Betty Friedan has been accused in The Feminine Mystique of ignoring the plights of women who weren't middle class and white, and, interestingly, in Hours to Kill Margaret gets no help from her demure and circumspect Mexican-heritage occasional maid, Lena, and is frankly fearful of a Mexican-heritage handyman she can't understand who pounds insistently on her door a couple of times. (Margaret pretends not to be home.)

"These people are gentle as a rule--courteous to an extreme," a (white) doctor, come to treat Hillary, tells Margaret.  "I suppose now and then one of them gets a wine-drinking streak on...."  There does seem to some distance, doesn't there?

To be sure, one can push this Friedan scenario too far.  Readers can judge for themselves just how feminist the resolution to Hours to Kill is.  In all the Ursula Curtiss books I have read there remains that stock figure of so much mid-century domestic suspense fiction: the handsome (and ultimately eligible) male who helps get our heroine out of her jam and promises pleasant romantic diversion in the future.

I suspect that Betty Friedan, a critic in The Feminine Mystique of the lulling content of mid-century women's magazines, would have been pretty dubious about these sorts of fictional happy endings. Among women domestic suspense writers in the English-speaking world, I think Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin pushed a bit harder against comforting conventions.

Like Friedan, some of Curtiss's readers may well have found domestic life dull and dreary (and desperately unfulfilling), but I don't know that they all were willing to go as far along with Friedan in the search for prescriptions to ease that sense of personal malaise.

don't be deceived by appearances--danger lurks inside