Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Daughter of the House (1925); Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Carolyn Wells

Over the years Carolyn Wells's vintage mysteries, though quite popular in their day, have received criticism from people like Bill Pronzini (see his amusing, Edgar-nominated book Gun in Cheek), Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, blogger John Norris and even yours truly, The Passing Tramp.  Yet over the years I also have come considerably to alter my view of Wells's crime fiction. 

There is no question but that over her nearly 40-year career as a detective writer the prolific author penned some powerfully poor books (what Bill Pronzini dubs alternative classics), such as The Umbrella Murder and The Roll-Top Desk Mystery. (Yes, a person is killed with a roll-top desk in the latter book, though no one actually is struck down with a fatal umbrella in the former).  Yet the more I read Wells's books, the more I find titles by her which I like, such as the rather charming mystery Vicky Van (1918), praised by GK Chesterton, no chump he.

Part of the rap on Carolyn Wells has come from disappointed devotees of locked room mysteries, a most exacting breed.  The great American  expatriate crime writer John Dickson Carr himself was a fan of Wells as a youngster (and after the Second World War he, roaming the streets of New York and possessed by nostalgia, bought a complete set of her detective novels--all 82 of them), yet anyone looking for the sort of intricate miracle problems which Carr devised will be disappointed with Wells. 

Wells clearly loved locked rooms, but with disappointing frequency she relied on secret passages--a classic no-no in classic mystery--when elucidating the shocking secrets behind her locked room murders. 

Another problem with Wells for some readers is that her settings invariably are among the American leisured classes, the genteel plutocracy of the northeastern United States.  Although hard-boiled crime fiction was fast gaining popularity in the between-the-wars period,Wells was having nothing of any such leveling tendencies in her own writing. 

Wells consistently disavowed any interest in sordid realism and underworld crime, firmly declaring in a 1929 newspaper interview: "My murders always take place in the white collar class."  Indeed!  About a decade later, in her novel The Missing Link (1938), Wells writes of one her characters, wealthy detective fiction devotee Leif Murray:

His notion of a good [detective story] was a tale whose interest depended on originality of plot and cleverness of workmanship.  One that presented a real puzzle to the intellectual reader.

He wanted no underworld characters, no gangster's work, no torture chambers or oubliettes, but rather a nice, clean, white-collared murder, with plenty of problems for a ratiocinative mind.  

faux French shepherds
A clean, well-lighted place....A nice, clean, white-collared murder....

Golden Age British mystery gets a lot of knocks for the artificiality of both its settings and its puzzles, but to my mind the settings of Carolyn Wells's American detective novels conform much more to the stereotype of Golden Age British mysteries than many of the British mysteries do. 

It really does remind one, as Leroy Lad Panek has argued, of Jean-Antoine Watteau's painting The Shepherds, which depicts wealthy French aristocrats playing at being rustics.  It's all play, it's all fake; yet if we accept these conventions and don't demand reality or deep feeling we can enjoy it.

Not all Carolyn Wells mysteries are like this.  I'll go back to Vicky Van, once again, where I think Wells really has something to say about the problem of dependence facing women (okay wealthy white women) in early 20th century America, around the time of the sinking of Titanic. (If you found Rose's dilemma gripping, just see what faces Vicky Van.)  But in most of Wells's mysteries, especially those that came after Vicky Van, I think that the author, an essentially unassuming woman, was simply having a bit of fun (and profit).

By 1925, the year Wells published her nineteenth Fleming Stone mystery, The Daughter of the House, she had dispensed with the Great Detective's teenage assistant, Fibsy Maguire.  (I like to think that the indefatigable Fibsy left Stone to set up on his own somewhere, preferably in cahoots in California with the Continental Detective Agency).  This departure left the Great Detective singlehandedly to solve bizarre and baffling murders afflicting complacently wealthy families in the northeastern US, typically in lovely country colonial mansions scattered around New England.

As happens with a number of his pre-Fibsy cases, Stone shows up in Daughter only for the last 15% of the book, strictly to solve the myriad mysteries confounding those lesser beings around him.  But here this is okay, because instead of having amateurs tiresomely bumble about trying to find clues for 85% of the book, Wells builds up a character setting which is genuinely interesting.  For much of the novel we don't even know that any crime has been committed.  But the characters keep us engaged in the flow of the story.

In The Daughter of the House the titular house is Langdene, lovely domain of rich, self-indulgent glass collector David Lang and his crowd of dependents: hypochondriac wife Eleanor; bobbed deb daughter Mary; middle-aged bounder brother Alexander; and salaried assistant in, um, all things glassy, Dane Wyatt. 

Then there's Giulia Castro, an intoxicating, wandering widow who currently is renting a cottage on the Lang estate; Hester Brace, Mary's devoted old nurse, who comes back to Langdene to care for her mother; Mary's fickle fiancee, Forrester Carr (regrettably nicknamed Forry); and Forry's steadfast best bro, Billy Budd.  (Melville fans, take note!)

Before the book is over, three of these people will die, one definitely of murder (in, yes, a locked room), and two will unaccountably vanish, but for much of the novel one can discern only murky currents of intrigue.

Is Eleanor Lang really sick, or is she just imagining ailments?  Can jobless Alexander Lang get his rich brother to give him a settlement so that he can marry sexy Mrs. Castro?  Is Mrs. Castro really after Forry Carr?  Will Mary break it off with Forry?  Will Dane, infatuated with Mary, ever have his chance at amour?  There were enough questions here to keep me interested until the tides of hell finally broke loose--and on Mary's wedding day too!

The puzzle plot is good, if a bit outlandish.  But, hey, it's the Golden Age, surely we can accept some baroque detail in the structure of a pleasing puzzle plot. Here Wells came up with a pleasing one indeed.

The novelist Countess Harriet Henry de Steuch (1896-1974), who despite the tony handle lived in New York (where she went simply by Harriet Henry, though she was the widow of a Swedish nobleman, Nils de Steuch), praised The Daughter of the House in what I think is a judicious and persuasive review:

For those who do not care for their detective stories straight, who like the stimulation of crime and intrigue weakened by a bit of love and chatty by-play, this book by Carolyn Wells is a first-rate gets to know Mary Lang and her father, her fiance and her mother, Nurse Brace and the seductive, alluring Guilia Castro quite well before a hint of mystery develops.  The author gives us a leisurely picture of her characters and setting before any intricacies of plot are introduced.  One feels quite intimate with these people before one has to worry about the odd and dreadful things that begin to happen to them.

The basic ingenious and nicely handled....the true-blue devotee of detective fiction does not object to a lack of plausibility when he can have thorough enjoyment for two or three hours!

I have said before that Wells' mystery fiction was dated by the 1920s, but while I think it was in milieu and class attitudes, in style it is arguably more modern, with its bit of love and chatty by-play anticipating the manners mystery associated with the British Crime Queens.  Interestingly, though Wells typically is listed as a traditionalist advocate of the pure puzzle story, she parted company with the once-influential bestselling American mystery writer S. S. Van Dine on the matter of whether love belonged within the confines of the detective story.  (She said yes, he said no; I don't have to tell you that she won this argument.) 

Wells also referred explicitly, and sympathetically, to the manners idea in her book The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913):

The technique of the mystery story does not permit it to be a novel of manners, and yet the manners must not be neglected.  If a Detective Story is to be literature, what may be called its manners must be looked after quite as carefully as its plot, though by no means with such conspicuous result.

Where's the tennis court?  The naive New England of
Grandma Moses's The Old Checkered House (1943)
painted the year after Carolyn Wells's death and the
publication of Fleming Stone's last case
Is The Daughter of the House a manners mystery?  I think so, though it's more naively fashioned than the highly polished affairs pieced together by British Crime Queens Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, Heyer and Tey.  Carolyn Wells just may have been the Grandma Moses of the manners mystery--though her New England is an altogether posher place, with not only secret passages, like in Carolyn Keene's classic Nancy Drew tale The Hidden Staircase (1930), but  tennis courts and stately butlers.


  1. I've just bought an old copy of The Doomed Five by Carolyn Wells, I had never even heard of the author before, but it does have that Book Production War Economy Standard logo on it and I'm always drawn to such books - it might be awful though.

    1. I think I have that one around somewhere. Here's one reviewer's take:

      "Our old friend, Fleming Stone, solves the mystery of the deaths of a millionaire and three out of four of the legatees under his eccentric will. These legatees stand between the family and what they regard as their rights, and the sinister behaviour of Guy and his sister and aunt make us suspect each of them to some extent, as also the partner and the old family lawyer, who persecutes the daughter with his attentions.... [Edited for Spoiler.] The fashion in detective stories now seems to lie in the invention of new weapons, and the one used in this story is satisfyingly simple and mysterious."

  2. "Chatty by-play" is dead on target. Wells did have quite a bizarre imagination, however her execution is often sloppy and her determination to stick to her rigid narrative formula was often a trap she set for herself. I dislike the constant plot reiteration in the many "tabulation scenes." How many in this one? Is Fleming in the whole novel or does he appear well past the halfway mark as in many of the books?

    Cute subtitle. I guess one can't help borrowing from Kubrick when writing about Wells, right?

    1. I remember your remarking on her use of the term "confab"--she loved that word! I looked it up on a word use site and it seems that its use peaked between 1880 and 1920, so she was of the right generation for it. I just don't recall it so much in books.

      Did Scott Fitzgerald have Gatsby covene a confab with Nick and Daisy and Tom Buchanan? Did Edith Wharton have Ethan Frome confabbing with the locals? I can't recall.

      I think the use of that word was part of her chatty writing style. Certainly Wells didn't have the sophistication and polish of the Crime Queens (and sometimes her dialogue can be downright strange, especially later on in her life), but I have come to feel that some of her books are better than others and are ones I enjoy at least. There will always be disasters like Murder at the Casino and The Roll-Top Desk Mystery, but I liked The Daughter of the House. I'll admit some of her stuff has some of the pleasure of camp for me! Books like The Umbrella Murder definitely are alternative classics, but then I'm starting to think she was deliberately having fun with it. If you see The Umbrella Murder as deliberate satire it starts to make sense.

    2. Oh, FS appeared only in the last 15%, which normally is something I don't like, but I thought was fine here because the story actually is interesting enough without him. There's not much to "confab" about here because there isn't a murder or crime (known anyway) until late in the book. So you don't actually have all those tabulations.