Saturday, June 30, 2018

Going Stagge: The Jonathan Stagge Mysteries, Introduction

It probably won't surprise readers of this blog to learn that I have been busy with several projects concerning Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, "two brilliant young men who write as one" as the publicity material immodestly put it (It was probably written by Rickie Webb himself, he fancying himself to be something of a marketing whiz); and this has been taking me away from the blog for a bit.  But in the coming months I will be blogging about, well, more or less everything Rickie and Hugh wrote under their pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, so prepare yourselves for the onslaught! 

Happily many of their novels are being reprinted this summer by Mysterious Press/Open Road, and by next year most all of their work may be out in print in English, a first for these authors, who in fact were two of the most important figures in the mystery field over a period of  three decades. 

I'm certainly not the only person to blog about Jonathan Stagge.  You can find other pieces at Mystery*File, Pretty Sinister Books, Death Can Read and Tipping My Fedora, for example.  This devotion is especially remarkable in that Jonathan Stagge has been out of print since the 1950s.  Patrick Quentin, the best known of the Webb-Wheeler pseudonyms, was reprinted in English in the 1980s and 1990s and Q. Patrick's name was kept alive by The Grindle Nightmare (see John Norris' great review here and mine here; I also wrote about the book extensively in the Edgar-nominated Murder in the Closet, in a chapter about the relationship of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, which has only been recently recognized for what it was: a longtime companionship.)  However, Jonathan Stagge rather faded, in public memory, though count on the international corps of classic crime fiction bloggers to keep the flames of memory burning!

my battered copy of the
American hardcover edition
of Jonathan Stagge's first
 Dr. Hugh Westlake mystery,
which originally appeared
in a serial in 1935
Jonathan Stagge was the product of of an intensely fertile period of creation which took place after Hugh Wheeler, a recent graduate from University College London, moved to the US in 1933 to live and write with pharmaceutical executive and occasional mystery writer Richard Webb.  Hugh returned to the UK for his brother's wedding but came back to the US in 1934 and by 1935 the collaborative works began cascading from Hugh's typewriter. 

1935 saw not just The Grindle Nightmare, but a serial novel and two novellas, two of which, the novel The Dogs Do Bark and the novella The Frightened Landlady, concerned the adventures of Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake (notice the first name and those initials), who in his amateur murder investigations is often aided, however unwittingly, by his rambunctious 10-year-old daughter, Dawn (in the earlier books unsentimentally dubbed "Brat" by Dr. Westlake, which is an accurate enough description for some readers.)

The serial Dr. Westlake mysteries were published under the Q. Patrick pseudonym, though when The Dogs Do Bark (Murder Gone to Earth in the UK) was published, in expanded form, as the first Dr. Westlake hardcover novel in late 1936, it was attributed to the new Jonathan Stagge nom de plume.

Two other serial Westlake novels were published under the Q. Patrick pen name in early 1936, The Scarlet Circle and Murder or Mercy? The latter was published as the second Westlake hardcover novel at the end of 1937 (in the US under the title Murder by Prescription), but The Scarlet Circle was not published as a hardcover novel until 1943, when Rickie and Hugh were going off to war (Rickie to New Guinea, Hugh to, well, Fort Dix, New Jersey), making it the sixth Westlake hardcover novel, even though it was third Westlake adventure actually published.

Why this delay in publishing The Scarlet Circle in hardcover?  It can't be because the quality was deemed doubtful, because it's one of the best of the Stagge books. (See my review here.)  But I have a theory, and it's coming soon, along with a piece on the first three Stagge novels.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Death in the Heart of Dixie (and the Windy City too): The Forties Crime Novels of Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993)

Rosemount, Eutaw County, Alabama, southwest of Tuscaloosa
ancestral home of Sara Mason's Glover relations
Historic American Buildings Survey, W. N. Manning, 1934

Rosemount today

The piece below is drawn from my general introduction to Coachwhip's new two-volume edition of Sara Elizabeth Mason's four mysteries, originally published between 1943 and 1948. 

Three of them are steeped in the atmosphere of Alabama in the 1940s, which is of special interest to me, as Alabama, a fascinating if sometimes frustrating land, is a state where I lived for about 23 years. The last of the books is set in Chicago, where Mason attended graduate school.  (Her thesis was on, yes, Alabama.)

I also wrote individual introductions to each novel, and the mystery writer Dean James (aka Miranda James) kindly contributed a most interesting afterword to the first volume on his own experience as a white author from the Deep South.

Carl Carmer (1893-1967), a charismatic and imaginative young northerner who in the 1920s had been employed for a half-dozen years as an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, attained enviable fame in 1934 with the publication of Stars Fell on Alabama, his bestselling book about the state.

When during his six year sojourn in the Heart of Dixie Carmer took the occasion to visit Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County, the charming and gracious chatelaine who guided him around this aged yet still breathtaking relic of Old South domestic Greek Revival architecture was Amelia Walton Glover Legare (1869-1941), a granddaughter of the original builder and a first cousin, once removed, of Alabama educator, librarian and Forties crime writer Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993), the subject of this introduction.

Sara Elizabeth Mason published her entire corpus of mystery fiction—four novels to be exact—between 1943 and 1948, a period in American history when many white non-fiction writers, whether they hailed from the South or the North, tended to wax comfortably nostalgic over what they deemed the genteel living of the plantation aristocracy of the Old South, as can be seen in the fervid moonlight and magnolia mythography which perfumes the pages of such popular books about the South from the Thirties and Forties as Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama, J. Frazer Smith’s White Columns (1941), Clarence John Laughlin’s Ghosts Along the Mississippi (1948) and Medora Field’s White Columns in Georgia (1952). 

(For more questioning approaches to the subject see Clarence Cason’s 90 Degrees in the Shade, which was published in 1935, shortly after the author, an esteemed UA journalism professor fearful about what the local reception to his book might be, tragically committed suicide, and The Mind of the South, the classic 1941 study by Wilbur J. Cash, who similarly is believed to have killed himself in Mexico, not long after his book was published.)

While the last of Sara Mason’s mysteries, The Whip, takes place in Chicago, where the future crime writer in 1938 received a master’s degree in history (her thesis was “Sectionalism in Alabama, 1840-1860”), her first three mysteries all are firmly rooted in Alabama soil.  Yet all three books are mostly lacking in the Old South romance dreamily indulged in by the starry-eyed Carl Carmer and other of his contemporaries. 

In the debut Mason mystery, Murder Rents a Room,  the titular room belongs not to some bustling urban lodgment, but rather a remote and timeworn plantation house in rural Greene County, Alabama, where the descendants of the original owners are simply struggling to hold on to what they still have by taking in paying guests.  They have little time to spare in their harried present for apotheosizing the leisured past of their ancestors.

Williamson Allen Glover
Nine decades before the publication of her mysteries Sara Elizabeth Mason’s great grandfather Williamson Allen Glover (1804-1879) had erected in Greene County, on land given him by his father Allen Glover, Rosemount, one of the finest of the state’s antebellum mansions.  Rosemount’s design, which included a front portico with six ionic columns and a massive columned cupola adorning the top of the house, was devised by William Nichols, then the state architect of Alabama.

At this stately home, imposingly set on a star-shaped knoll in the heart of Alabama’s richest agricultural country (dubbed the “Black Belt” for the color of its fertile alluvial soil), there grew to adulthood a dozen of Glover’s children by his two successive wives, Amelia Tillman Walton (of nearby Strawberry Hill plantation) and Mary Sophia Haden.  (An additional four Glover children died in infancy; neither of Glover’s wives survived past her forties.)             

The most historically significant marriage made by one of the many Williamson Allen Glover offspring was that concluded in 1850 between Glover’s eldest daughter, Amelia Walton Glover, and wealthy Mississippi planter James Lusk Alcorn, a bitter opponent of secession who during the era of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War joined the Republican party and served successively as governor of Mississippi and one of the state’s U. S. senators (the other being Blanche K. Bruce, an African-American); yet it was younger Glover daughter Mary Willie Ann “Mollie” Glover’s Reconstruction-era marriage to Greene County farmer John Stanhope Brasfield which ultimately gifted vintage mystery fans with Sara Elizabeth Mason.  

Amelia Walton Glover
Born on September 2, 1911, Sara Elizabeth Mason was one of two children (the other being her elder brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason) of Mollie and John Stanhope Brasfield’s daughter Fenton Amelia Brasfield and her husband, Edwin Bolton Mason, a hardware merchant in the town of Demopolis in Marengo County, strategically located at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers about a dozen miles below Rosemount. 

In Demopolis had lived not only Sara’s great-great grandfather Allen Glover, sire of Williamson Allen Glover, master of Rosemount, but her great-aunt Sara Serena Glover Lyon of Bluff Hall and her great-aunt Anne Gaines Glover Lyon of Lyon Hall, as well as her great-aunt Laura Davenport Glover Prout, wife of banker Daniel Fowler Prout, through whom the twentieth-century Glovers were connected, in a manner of speaking, with Hudson Strode (1891-1976), a celebrated English professor at the University of Alabama for nearly a half-century, from 1916 until 1963 (although the second husband of Strode’s mother, Hope Hudson, was, like Sara Mason’s father, a Demopolis hardware merchant, Hope’s third husband, William Sylvester Prout, was the only son of Daniel Prout and Laura Glover and his father’s successor as bank president).

Both Glovers and Glover relations were interred in Demopolis in a white-stuccoed classical mausoleum, completed in 1845, which still stands in the town today, vainly warded by remnants of a Gothic Revival cast iron fence, upon a chalk bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River.

Glover Mausoleum, Demopolis, Alabama

Edwin Bolton Mason came of humbler social origins than the storied Glovers, being the son of Sumter County, Alabama farmer Edwin Francis Mason and his first wife, Jessie Bolton, who died when Edwin Bolton, the couple’s only child, was less than two years old.  Leaving his young son behind with his mother-in-law, Edwin Francis Mason left Alabama for Mer Rouge, Louisiana, where he became an overseer on Isaac Brown’s cotton plantation.  Shortly afterward he wed Brown’s daughter Jennie and with her had three daughters, one of whom was named Sara Elizabeth and presumably was the woman for whom Edwin Bolton Mason and his wife Fenton named their own daughter.

Not long after the First World War, Fenton and Edwin Mason with their two children left Demopolis and the world of the Old South behind them when they moved to the rapidly developing New South industrial city of Gadsden, perched in the highlands of northeastern Alabama, where Edwin managed another hardware store and the family resided in a one-story bungalow on 602 South 11th Street (see below).

Between 1900 and 1940 the population of Gadsden leapt by more than nine times, from roughly 4000 to 37,000 inhabitants, as a slew of businesses, such as the Dwight Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts (a maker of cotton textiles), the Jefferson Lumber Company, the Alabama Steel and Wire Company and the Gadsden Car Works of the Southern Railroad, established plants in the area. 

Gadsden high School, where Sara Mason tought history in the 1940s

During this same period the population of Demopolis grew much more slowly than that of Gadsden, increasing from around 2600 to 4100.  The contrast between bustling Gadsden and somnolent Demopolis may have inspired Sara Mason’s setting for her second crime novel, The House That Hate Built (1944).

Both of the Mason children attained distinction in life as adults.  Sara’s brother, Stanhope Brasfield Mason, graduated from West Point in 1928 and rose to the army rank of Major General in 1951, having served during the Second World War as chief of staff of the 1st Infantry Division (famously nicknamed “The Big Red One”) and the V Corps. 

Sara Mason at Agnes Scott
around 1930
Sara between 1929 and 1938 attended Agnes Scott, a woman’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and earned degrees from both the University of Alabama--she matriculated at UA just two years after Carl Carmer left the school under a cloud, the married yet dangerously sociable professor having developed what was deemed too intimate a relationship with a female student—and the University of Chicago before she was awarded an MS degree in library science from Peabody College in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University). 

When Sara was a student at the University Of Alabama, Sara’s distant relation-through-marriage Hudson Strode had not yet inaugurated his vaunted creative writing workshop, but then the late Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016), who attended UA some dozen years after Sara had graduated, would manage rather well without it.

Sara Mason at Gadsden High School
During the Second World War Sara returned to reside with her parents in Gadsden, where she taught American history to students at Gadsden High School; yet after the war, Sara like her brother traveled to chaotic postwar Europe, where she found employment as a teacher in Frankfurt, Germany with the American High School, which served the children of American government, military and civilian personnel. 

Returning to Alabama after a few years, she took positions at the University of Alabama at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, built a decade earlier on the site of the antebellum Rotunda, burned during the Civil War ; the Birmingham Public Library, where she was head of the catalog department and curator of the cartographical collection; and the Gadsden Public Library, where she was appointed Assistant Director. 

Her third crime novel, The Crimson Feather, the last of her mysteries with a southern scene, is set in Tuscaloosa among the local elite, including members of the University faculty.  Before her death in Homewood, near Birmingham, on August 15, 1993, she published A List of Nineteenth Century Maps of the State of Alabama (1973) and, reflecting her interest to the end of her life in her own family heritage, The Glovers of Marengo County, Alabama (1989).   

During Sara Mason’s short career as a crime writer, reviewers lauded the good writing and authentic mise-en-scene that graced her four mysteries, in the first three of which the author adhered to the tried-and-true romance and ratiocination formula of such hugely popular American authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhert and Leslie Ford. In the last of them, The Whip, Sara Mason veers more from traditional suspense to the manner and form of the psychological crime novel that such authors as Margaret Millar, Very Kelsey, Dorothy Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong were developing at this time.

Two of her novels, The Crimson Feather and The Whip, were reprinted in paperback, the former by Dell in 1947 (as part of their “mapback” series, beloved by modern collectors) and the latter by Bantam in 1950, but all four of them received good notices in the newspapers. 
Murder Rents a Room, which introduces rural county Sheriff Bill Davies, was deemed by Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review a promising first detective story, while William C. Weber in the Saturday Review declared that the tale had “plenty of zip” and influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle enjoyed the “pleasant romance about nice people in a timeless southern setting.”

Boucher found The House That Hate Built, set in the fictional mill town of Monroe, a “[m]inutely detailed small-town novel,” while Weber praised it as “[c]apably plotted, with some rather surprising situations” and “interesting characters.”

Weber was similarly praiseful of The Crimson Feather, wherein county Sheriff Bill Davis returns to investigate a murder, this time in nearby Tuscaloosa (though the town in the novel is not so named).  Weber lauded Feather’s “[a]bly concocted plot, enlivened by sharp pictures of southern small-town life and family squabbles,” and he additionally admired the novel’s “[u]nostentatious sleuth,” who performed a “believable job” of criminal investigation.  Anthony Boucher echoed Weber’s words in his review of Feather, noting the “shrewd inspection of Sheriff Bill Davies” and the tale’s compelling “family atmosphere.”

After a lapse of more than two years (when she was teaching school in Frankfurt, Germany) and a change of American publisher from Doubleday to Morrow, Sara returned to print in January 1948 with The Whip, structurally her most unusual crime novel in that it relies heavily, in the manner of noir cinema, on a flashback narrative and the analysis of disordered emotional states (the hero is a psychiatrist); reviewers found the author had not lost her touch in the interim. 

In the Saturday Review a pleased William Weber judged that the psychological crime novel, which he colorfully termed a “believable brain-prober,” presented a rare “case where [the] flashback method of narrative” did not “retard action.”  In the New York Times Book Review Isaac Anderson, obviously impressed with Mason’s new tack, declared that the “excellent novel” was “a moving narrative of unfeeling cruelty practiced upon a sensitive young girl by a selfish old woman and her relatives.” 

For fans of Sara Mason’s mysteries it is disappointing to see that her interesting and entertaining fiction writing career came to an end after so brief a span of time, with places like Birmingham or even Frankfurt, Germany left unexplored, but it is pleasing to know that she went out on a high note.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Alas, a Poor Yorke! Grave Matters (1973), by Margaret Yorke

When I started reading PD James and Ruth Rendell back in the 1990s British crime writer Margaret Yorke (1924-2012) was a name I sometimes used to see elevated with their own, into a sort of triumvirate.  Subsequently Yorke has much faded compared to Rendell and James, which may be a bit unfair.  Before the current book under review, I had only ever read one book by Yorke, No Medals for the Major (1974)--a minor classic of the suspense genre, I think, one which lays bare the cruelties that can lie beneath those lovely little English villages about which we vintage mystery fans love to read.  It's a brave, unflinching book about mass hysteria and groupthink that holds up a dark mirror to cozies like those by MC Beaton, where the worst that ever can be said about the villagers is that they can get rather silly at times (but they always have Hamish Macbeth to straighten out their minor foibles and follies).

No Medals for the Major was the first of York's true mystery suspense novels, and it appeared in the middle of the author's short-lived Patrick Grant detective series, about the detective exploits of a handsome amateur sleuth, Oxford don Patrick Grant.  The Grant series, consisting of five books, ran between 1970 and 1976, when Yorke abandoned it. 

When I was in Boston last month I bought at a used bookstore there a pb copy of the middle book in the series, Grave Matters, and unfortunately was far less impressed than I was with Major.  It's a short book of about 55,000 words or less and it took me about a month of off-and-on reading to finish it, so you can guess I wasn't  exactly entranced.

Yorke's Patrick Grant certainly comes right out of the classic mystery character closet of Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, being a good-looking, charming, well-educated and eligible bachelor who likes to solve mysteries.  There's a younger woman romantic interest in the book, although Patrick's closest relationship, appealingly done (and not incestuous!), is with his married sister.  The problem for me with this book is that Grant simply isn't that good of a detective.

There are two human deaths in the novel for most of its length (and that of a dog), but since they are written off as accidents (both of them are old ladies who fell--or were pushed--down steps, one in Athens, Greece, one in the British Museum in London) the police don't come into the book for a long time.  Grant's desultory amateur detection mainly consists of sneaking into a house in the chraming village of Meldsmead on two separate occasions and stealing a blackberry pie and a photo album.  Most of the novel is devoted to his wooing of an attractive relation of the first murder victim, a retired headmistress of a girls school.

A lot of it reads like a suspense novel, as it looks like the object of Grant's romantic interest may be having an affair with a man who is trying to murder his wife, both of them recently having moved to Meldsmead.  The detection portion comes back near the end, in rather a huddle, when we have another murder, then two more attempted ones, and a fire and a fatal car crash!  The motivation for this murderous mayhem seems highly implausible, so we get characters suggesting that the murderer must have been mad, which feels rather a cop-out in a detective novel.

Another thing which bothered me was the title.  Why "Grave Matters"?  Yes the matters are grave, as in any murder story, but one expects something of a pun, like a burial plot or a cemetery having something to do with things, and nothing doing here!  It's a bland title for a bland mystery.  "Serious Business" would have worked just as well.

Yet Patrick Grant, along with his sister and brother-in-law, are appealing enough characters and I plan to read another in the series, to see whether the mystery and detection are better done.  Yorke seems quickly to have grown restive with the detective novel format, devoting herself in her writing between 1977 and 2001 entirely to suspense fiction, or crime novels (28 of them), for which she is far better known today--perhaps for good reason!

Friday, June 1, 2018

Platinum-Plated Certainty: The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), by Christopher Bush

“I suppose you haven’t heard our local sensation?” I said.

“No,” she said, and, “I didn’t know there could be a sensation in Cleavesham.  What was it?  An air raid?”

“Only a murder,” I told her.

                                                     --The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944)

1st American edition, published in the
US in 1949, 5 years after the British
edition, 4 years after WW2 had ended
After having had his series detective, Ludovic “Ludo” Travers, become involved in a couple of investigations concerning highly nefarious activities in wartime London, The Case of the Magic Mirror (1943) and The Case of the Running Mouse (1944), Christopher Bush in The Case of the Platinum Blonde, which is to be reissued by Dean Street Press this month, sends Travers vainly for a break to the lovely and seemingly placid little village of Cleavesham, Sussex. 

There Ludo learns that there is something of the truth in Sherlock Holmes’s famous declaration (in the short story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”) that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” 

Travers has come to Cleavesham to rest and to visit his charming younger sister, Helen Thornley, who for the duration of the war has let Pulvery, her and her husband Tom’s Sussex country house (familiar to devoted Bush readers), and with her “old maid” Annie taken Ringlands, “what she calls a cottage,” while Tom is in military service in the Middle East. 

Soon Ludo encounters in Cleavesham a number of inhabitants who will play parts in the upcoming murder drama that afflicts the village, including Major Chevalle, the chief constable; his wife, Thora, young daughter, Flora, and Thora’s poor relation, Mary; village warden Bernard Temple; Lieut.-Commander Santon, wounded in the knee at Crete and now retired, and Tom Dewball, his manservant; Herbert Maddon, “quite a superior old man,” and his daily, Mrs. Beaney;  and odd duck “Augustus Porle,” a devout believer in harnessing the power of the Great Pyramid. 

No blond he:Christopher Bush (1885-1973)
at the time of the Second World War
Like any amateur sleuth worth his salt, Travers has not been long in Cleavsham when he runs across a dead body, in this case that of the seemingly inoffensive Mr. Maddon, who has been shot to death at his cottage, Five Oaks.  Evidence points overwhelmingly to the suspicious presence that day at Five Oaks cottage of a headily-scented, chain-smoking platinum blonde—and the identity of this blonde proves problematic indeed for Ludo Travers and Superintendent George Wharton, whom Scotland Yard has sent to investigate the case at the behest of Major Chevalle. 

This is but the intriguing opening to one of the most ingenious mysteries Christopher Bush ever penned, one that in the final pages will leave the reader facing the same moral dilemma as Ludovic Travers (who finds himself increasingly playing his own hand in the series, in the independent manner of an American private eye): now that I know the truth, just what do I do about it

WHO??? is
the mystery
Reviewing The Case of the Platinum Blonde in the Times Literary Supplement a reviewer commented on the “exasperating” tendency of amateur detectives in crime fiction to conceal “incriminating evidence from the police.” 

Yet the reviewer concluded that in this case Ludovic Travers so thoroughly justified his fancy for obstructive behavior “that in future amateur detectives will be able to continue the bad habit [of obstruction] without objection.  Readers who have asked ‘Why?’ impatiently at the beginning of this book will be twice shy.” 

Will modern readers react to the outcome of The Case of the Platinum Blonde as predicted in the TLS?  You will have to read the book for yourselves and see!

Note, this novel and nine others in Christoper Bush's Ludovic Travers mystery series, #'s 21-30 in the series, are being reissued this month by Dean Street Press.