Friday, July 27, 2018

Summer and Smoke: The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow and Other Stories (1962), by Patrick Quentin

Some time ago this column pleaded for a collection of the excellent short stories of crime and suspense written by the team of Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb--variously known as Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and, formerly, Jonathan Stagge.  These stories, consistent prizewinners in the [Ellery] Queen [short story] contest and favorites of anthologists, resemble those of Philip Macdonald or Charlotte Armstrong in being at once brilliant specimens of technical plotting and sensitive studies of human dilemmas (especially those of children--and some of the Wheeler-Webb children may chill you as much as those of Henry James or Richard Hughes).

Now the request is fulfilled by a generous collection: The Ordeal of Mrs Snow and Other Stories by Patrick Quentin.  The title novelette is an almost too professional and neat exercise in suspense, but the eleven short stories are superlative.  Many may be familiar to you from anthologies: still, they reread admirably, and seem even more impressive as a collected corpus.  And now that these stories  crime have at last been assembled, I have one further request: a comparison volume of the same team's equally skilled pure detective stories. (Note of complaint and correction: The publishers identify Patrick Quentin as "born Hugh Wheeler," and go on to a biography of Patrick Quentin, solo--which seems a marked injustice to the now retired Richard Webb, who created the pseudonym and was still an active collaborator when these stories were written.)

              --Anthony Boucher review of The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow

Patrick Quentin produces a cool chill and a calculated thrill.

              --Kirkus review of The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow

In the 1950s and 1960s Patrick Quentin, now inhabited solely by Hugh Wheeler (Richard Webb having left the partnership), was a much praised author of mystery and suspense fiction in the US and UK (as well as continental Europe), where he was lauded by such authorities as Anthony Boucher and Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox). Indeed, at this time Patrick Quentin was an accepted master of the sort of crime fiction which writer Sarah Weinman has vigorously publicized as "domestic suspense" (in its day usually more broadly characterized as "psychological suspense").

with commendation from Mr. Iles
The dozen stories published in The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow, originally appeared, with two exceptions, between 1942 and 1952 in periodicals, usually Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine [EQMM], which after the war became the most important forum for short crime fiction in the US.  The collection received a special award from the Mystery Writers of America, constituting the author's only Edgar win.

Presumably on account of Patrick Quentin being a man (or two men, once) he was excluded from consideration for  inclusion in Sara Weinman's 2013 noted short story anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (see my review here). Yet several of these tales would be right at home there. 

Besides being excellent suspense stories, many are self-revelatory works, drawing on details from the author's own lives, making them interesting on that level as well.  The volume contains probably some of the most personal writings by these authors.

Original to this volume and one of the last pieces of crime fiction which Hugh Wheeler wrote, the title story, The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow is, as Anthony Boucher noted, a neat little suspense job that's almost too neat.  Patrick Quentin didn't write for the slicks for nothing!  When I read it I thought, this is just like an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (the hour long ones) and, sure enough, it appeared in 1964 in Season 2 of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow is about one of those popular types of 20th century crime fiction, the wealthy widowed (or never married) aunt, in this case an "old lady" of sixty (just a decade older than the author), whose suspicion that gorgeous Bruce Mendham, the husband of her beloved niece, Lorna (played by Jessica Walter in the television version), is nothing but a gold digger is confirmed when she finds that he has been brazenly forging checks in her name. 

When she confronts Bruce with the evidence he locks her in her vault safe to die.  Conveniently for Bruce, he and Lorna are going away to the Long Island coast for the Labor Day weekend, so Bruce figures he's got it all taped.  But can resourceful "Aunt Addy" outwit the ruthless gigolo in the end?  This one includes some sailing detail (read it and see), drawing on Rickie and Hugh's experiences in the Caribbean.

The locked-in-the-vault plot actually occurs in another, earlier story in the collection, but Mrs. Snow is a slick little number even when wearing something slightly shop-soiled.  The next ten stories are:

A Boy's Will
Portrait of a Murderer
Little Boy Lost

Witness for the Prosecution
The Pigeon-Woman
All the Way to the Moon
Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?
Thou Lord Seest Me
Mrs. Appleby's Bear
Love Comes to Miss Lucy
This Will Kill You

The first four stories all crucially involve young children or adolescents with murder.  "Naughty youngsters all over," is how the Saturday Review put it, evincing, like Anthony Boucher, a certain touch of cynicism about the innate goodness of human nature.  Today one might be reminded of some of Patricia Highsmith's essays in this arena.  In A Boy's Will, American expat John Godolphin not long after the Second World War encounters in Italy one Sebastiano, a Palermo street urchin "who could not have been more than fourteen....watching him from unblinking dark eyes, soft as wallflower petals.  The sturdy, honey-brown body was scantily covered by a tattered G.I. T-shirt and a pair of faded blue shorts.  A hand was stretched out--dirty, broken-nailed, quivering with hope."

John Godolphin spent the morning studying
Byzantine mosaics in the churches of Palermo
before he encountered his secular "angel," Sebastiano
John Godolphin--who we are told, worships "Beauty"--thinks of the boy as an "angel....Not the insipid Nordic conception of an angel, but a warm-blooded Mediterranean angel who, long before Christianity, might have been a faun."  Uh-huh.  He gives Sebastiano some money and finds he has made a friend indeed!  Sebastiano, seemingly, will do about anything for his new benefactor with the hundred-lira bills.  Perhaps even...murder?  Just what has Godolphin gotten himself into?

Its appearance in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in June 1950 somewhat hamstrings this story about a predator--in this instance a highly predatory Italian youth.  Does John Godolphin worship "Beauty" in some lofty aesthetic way or is he simply attracted to beautiful Italian youths?  I thought his character too innocent to be believed, whatever 1950 readers of EQMM may have thought.

Although the story elides sexual implications, it is obviously drawing on Thomas Mann's famous novella Death in Venice (1912) and in a queer case of coincidence it actually preceded by a few months Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, a novella about a middle-aged American widow who while traveling in Italy becomes a client of a much younger male hustler.  The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, incidentally, was adapted in 1961 into a film directed by Jose Quintero, who the same year directed Hugh Wheeler's second stage play, Look, We've Come Through.  Hugh probably wrote similarly-titled The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow that same year.  Coincidence?

Need a light? Vivian Leigh as the title character in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

That's some big names to throw around, but unfortunately, I thought that A Boy's Will, which with cruel irony recalls the lines from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem--"A boy's will is the wind's will/And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts"--only skimmed surfaces for shock value.  Rickie and Hugh did make at least one trip to southern Italy, in 1947 (around the same time as Tennessee Williams).  Hugh also would write about Italy in a 1951 solo novel, The Crippled Muse, which he dedicated to Rickie and published in his own name.

Better than A Boy's Will, I thought, is Portrait of a Murderer, originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1942.  It's a strange, sardonic and dark story of an English schoolboy driven to the ultimate sin by his loathsomely unctuous and controlling father.  It's another story suffused with sexual undercurrents.  (There's sadism and--it seems strongly implied to me, at least--molestation of a child by a father.)  Both Rickie and Hugh were graduates of English public schools and they knew that world, so alien and strange to so many of us today (though this feels more like a Rickie story to me).

Afternoon of a Faun
Vaslav Nijinsky
Another "Rickie story," I feel sure, is Little Boy Lost, which appeared in EQMM in 1947.  It is set in 1915 at Oaklawn School for Girls in Littleton-on-Sea, near Bristol.  It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see this setting as Oakover School for Girls in Burnham-on-Sea, near Bristol, where Rickie grew up.  In 1915, he was fourteen, a little older than the protagonist of Little Boy Lost, Branson "Branny" Foster.  The fictional school is run by Branny's parents, just as the real school was run by Rickie's parents.  Rickie loved his mother very much, just as Branny does in the story, though Branny's case of mother love goes to rather  deadly lengths which I'm sure Rickie never really contemplated in his own life.  At least let's hope not....

Next is another child-centered tale, Witness for the Prosecution, which is narrated by an eleven-year-old girl who is the key witness in a murder case.  This is one which would have made a good inclusion in Sarah Weinman's book, in my view.  The Pigeon-Woman involves a waitress with a heart of gold, a developmentally challenged man, some pigeons and, oh yes, a maniac killer.  I wasn't quite persuaded by this one, which gets a little stickily sentimental, uncharacteristically for the author. 

All the Way to t
he Moon tells the story of a business executive who wants to get rid of his invalid wife so he can relocate to Mexico, a country symbolizing ultimate freedom to him.  It probably won't surprise you to hear that Hugh Wheeler regularly vacationed in Mexico.  This one has a nice little alibi trick, but will it hold?

I don't like that look in his eyes....
William Shatner in Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?
See William Shatner's Toupee
The last five stories are the best single block in my view.  First we have Mother, May I go out to Swim?, which in 1960 was memorably adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode starring William Shatner as something of a grown up version of Branny Foster, aka another coddled mama's boy and all-round Freudian head case.  What happens when he meets a sophisticated European woman he really likes and who seems really to like him, but doesn't get along with dear mother at all?

By the way, has anyone ever explored William Shatner's rather impressive pre-Star Trek contribution to suspense anthology television?  Ah, here's one!  Also see my take on a Shatner genre performance here.

Next is Thou Lord Seest Me, about mild Mr. Loomis (or as little girls know him, "Daddy Bloomers"), a middle-aged English clerk with a horrid wife of the nature that used to get dubbed "castrating."  All poor Daddy Bloomers wants is just to be left alone to spend more time with sweet little girls....This story, which originally appeared in EQMM in 1949, gets seriously creepy.  Even though things are never explicitly called out by their names, the message definitely gets across.

Perhaps a story about a middle-aged man chasing after young girls was more acceptable to the mid-century EQMM reading public than one about a middle-aged man chasing after young boys.  "Daddy Bloomers" is particularly obsessed with a photo of one of the secretaries in his company taken when she was a child, which he has purloined as a a sort of memento: "barelegged little Rosie Henderson at the age of eight, happily sucking a stick of candy rock on the sands of Burnham-on-Sea" (Rickie's home town again recollected).  I found this a far more unsettling story than the somewhat synthetic and slick A Boy's Will.

Next there's the other original story to the volume, Mrs. Appleby's Bear, a mordant tale about a tyrannical, elderly, wealthy invalid aunt and her two rather resentfully dependent middle-aged nieces.  Very much a case of malice domestic, and very much a good one, even if Hugh snitched the murder method which he and Rickie had used in their 1945 Jonathan Stagge novel Death and the Dear Girls.  It was worth the snitch, however.

The last-placed  story in the collection is This Will Kill You, a dark comedy of death about a husband, a retail druggist, who keeps trying, and failing, to kill his much-loathed wife.  I'm surprised Hitch's TV series never got around to doing this one.  Rickie's background as a pharmaceutical executive is drawn upon profitably.

I think it's the penultimate story, however, that is the brightest gem in the collection, the Hope Diamond of the volume let us say.  It is Love Comes to Miss Lucy, originally published in EQMM in 1947.  At the risk of overselling (something I was accused of doing in my last blog article), I have to say this is one of the best crime stories I have read.  (Now I've done it!)  Every detail fits into place perfectly.  It's another Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone-ish story, but the conviction here feels stronger, perhaps because of the fact that it's dealing with a heterosexual relationship rather than a homosexual one, allowing Hugh freer reign to explore sexuality and passion.

The story concerns a wealthy spinsterish middle-aged American tourist, Lucy Bram, who with two lady companions travels to Taxco, Mexico.  "They looked exactly what they were," we are told in the opening paragraph, "three middle-aged ladies from the most respectable suburbs of Philadelphia.

"the fantastic Churrigueresque altar of
gold-leaf flowers and cherubs gleamed richly back at her
Church of Santa Prisca, Taxco
The trio of ladies is taken around tourist sites by Mario, the appealing and ingratiating Mexican lad whom Miss Lucy, a "cultivated woman past fifty with a degree from Bryn Mawr," first encountered in the Church of Santa Prisca.  With the young man Miss Lucy now has become decidedly infatuated, being all-too conscious when around him "of a smell like warm brown sugar, which was his skin, and a smell of flowery oil which he used on his hair." 

This is both a clever story and a poignantly ironic one, giving rise not only to speculations about sexuality and the complexity of human connection, but the impact of American and European colonialism in the developing world.  It's also easy to discern, like in the work of Tennessee Williams, gay subtext. Around this time Hugh himself, like Tennessee Williams, had a relationship with a handsome young man from Mexico; so in this case he directly knew of what he wrote, and I think it shows.  Additionally, Miss Lucy's background recalls that of privileged women he would have known in Philadelphia. 

Love Comes to Miss Lucy was adapted for the American television series Danger in 1951, although it never appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  However, it was included in the Alfred Hitchcock print anthology Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV.  Was that just a tease for a book?  Perhaps not; some of the stories in The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow push the envelope by the standards of the 1950s, though Love Comes to Miss Lucy was previously aired on Danger. I'd be interested to see that adaptation.

In his assessment of the fiction of Patrick Quentin, whom he treated as one of the more notable crime writers of the period, English crime writer and critic Julian Symons contended that "The books don't dig quite deep enough to be called serious crime novels, but all are alert studies of people who commit crimes for plausible reasons.  On their own level these stories are credible, where a book like [Ellery Queen's] Ten Day's Wonder is not."  Whether one agrees with Symons' assessment entirely or not, I think some of the stories in The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow are "serious crime stories"--and notable ones at that.

Note: The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow will be reissued this August by Mysterious Press/Open Road, making it the first time it has seen print in a half-century.  As for the "equally skilled pure detective stories" by Patrick Quentin which Anthony Boucher mentions in his review, expect to be seeing those soon!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Murder by Numbers: Death's Old Sweet Song (1946), by Jonathan Stagge

What's the use of going over this again?...I know them.  I've gone around with them.  Whatever their problems or poses or frustrations, they are ordinary, rational people.  And I don't believe in those homicidal maniacs you read about who behave like normal citizens for twenty-three hours a day and then run amok with foaming fangs for a sixty-minute orgy of madness.  

                                                       --Death's Old Sweet Song (1946), Jonathan Stagge

Freaky serial murder fiction existed long before the 1990s and the likes of such utterly awful but strangely charismatic fava- and flesh-devouring gentlemen as Hannibal Lecter.  The bestselling mystery of all time, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (it sits as well at #6 among the bestselling novels of all time, right behind The Hobbit and the first of those Harry Potter stories), is a serial murder novel, as is another one of the Queen of Crime's perennial fan favorites, The ABC Murders.

And Then There Were None so teasingly is built around a a children's rhyme which is the US is known as Ten Little Indians and in the UK as, well, something else that need not be mentioned here!  Today, out of imperatives of cultural sensitivity, the rhyme is everywhere, I believe, called "Ten Little Soldier Boys."  Be that as it may, Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the clever lads behind Jonathan Stagge, turned to a less controversial source for their Stagge serial murder novel Death's Old Sweet Song: the English folk song Green Grow the Rushes-O.

I'm an American, as I assume everyone who reads this blog knows, and before I read this Stagge novel I only knew Green Grows the Rushes from the 1980s REM song--which, as it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with the English folk song.  The latter tune is one of those insidious cumulative songs, like The Twelve Days of Christmas, where you keep adding a verse each time.  In Death's Old Sweet Song the pertinent verses are these six:

Four for the GOSPEL MAKERS
Three, three, the RIVALS
Clothed all in green-O
One is One and All Alone
And Evermore Shall Be So

I  don't know about you, but those last lines seem pretty ominous, like Christie's death knell And then there were none.  And Death's Old Sweet Song is a pretty ominous book, with no less than six murders over the course of a few days--or perhaps seven, depending on your personal definition of murder.  (The Six Proud Walkers, by the name, is the title of a Golden Age Francis Beeding thriller.)

It's not remotely realistic, when you really think about it, but it's damned ingenious and the skill of the writing, in its setting and characterization, almost makes you believe in the plausibility of the mayhem.

Dr. Hugh Westlake makes his eighth appearance in this, the penultimate and possibly peak Jonathan Stagge novel, as does his daughter Dawn (seemingly stuck at the age of 12 now), Scottish terrier Hamish and the doc's best friend, Inspector Cobb.  Song was followed by The Three Fears, which, though it has Dr. Westlake, feels more like a Patrick Quentin novel than a Jonathan Stagge.  But then Rickie Webb had nothing to do with actually writing The Three FearsSong feels like it had some influence at least from Rickie, both in its puzzle plotting and its general gruesomeness.

The first victims are two young boys, twins, who are knocked on their heads and drowned at a picnic which Hugh and Dawn attended.  They are portrayed as awful brats, but, still, it's pretty darn nasty.  Then there is another murder and another murder and Dr. Westlake tumbles to the fact that the deaths are replicating verses in an odd and enigmatic English folksong song that was sung at the picnic: Green Grow the Rushes-O.

Sure you can see the influence of Christie's book here, but the Stagge tale is really good in its own right.  (And I wonder whether it influenced Ellery Queen's New England jingle-mystery Double, Double, 1950.)  As far as puzzlement goes, even after I started moving in the right direction (this is a typically twisty Webb-Wheeler production), I still missed key points, which are so very nicely clued.  I think it the kind of neatly crafted puzzle that should make the classic mystery fan figuratively hug him or herself with delight--at least it did me!

The setting, a small town in the Massachusetts Berkshires where Dr. Westlake happens to be vacationing with Dawn (Death follows this dude around New England like he was Jessica Fletcher), is extremely persuasive, no doubt because (a) Hugh was a very talented writer and (b) Rickie and Hugh lived in the Berkshires themselves, along with their black cook and chauffeur, Johnny Grubbs, whom Hugh had brought back with him from the army.  Johnny, whom Hugh became very close with indeed (after Rickie and Hugh broke it off, Hugh and Johnny lived together for 35 years, until Hugh's death in 1987), likely lent some  heft to the recurring character of Rebecca, Dr. Westlake's black cook and housekeeper, who enjoys her most significant appearance in the series here. 

There also are some echoes of Ricky's experience during the late war in the South Pacific in a veteran character, whose golden tan actually is the product of the anti-malaria drug atabrine.  As for his postwar traumatic stress...well, read the book for yourself and learn all about it.  In the US it soon will be reissued by Mysterious Press/Open Road.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Split Personality: Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin, aka Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler

Q. Patrick (Richard Webb)
Q. Patrick, author of The Grindle Nightmare, Death and the Maiden and other classic detective novels, was Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb's firstborn child, originally conceived with his Philadelphia friend Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelley-- though a few years later Rickie's partner Hugh Wheeler became Q. Patrick's stepfather, if you will. Rickie always seems to have identified with Q. Patrick and during the Second World War, when Rickie was stationed with the Army Signal Corps in New Guinea, he wrote Hugh, who was back in the US at Fort Dix, that they needed seriously to revive Q. Patrick when he returned home. (There had been no new Q. Patrick novel since 1941.)  Only one more Q. Patrick novel would appear, however, in 1951.  Hugh had a stronger interest (see below).

Rickie posed for a publicity photo taken of "Q. Patrick" at the inception of Q. Patrick's career in 1931, when Rickie was about 30 years old and still rather handsome, before the onset of various health problems prematurely aged him.

Hugh Wheeler
Two years later, Rickie while visiting London met Hugh, a dashing 21-year-old recent graduate, with honors, of University College.  Hugh moved back with Rickie to Philadelphia, where they wrote together for nearly two decades not only as Q. Patrick but the newly created Jonathan Stagge and Patrick Quentin, the latter pseudonym becoming by far their best known pen name.

If Rickie Webb was the public face of Q. Patrick, it seems that Hugh Wheeler was the public face of Patrick Quentin.  (I don't know who, if anyone, "faced" for Jonathan Stagge.)  Published with a 1938 Patrick Quentin short story, a lightweight murderless romance called "Tough or Tender," was a photo of Hugh Wheeler, aka Patrick Quentin, then the author of a single mystery novel, A Puzzle for Fools (1936). 

Readers who might be curious about the new author were informed that Patrick Quentin was "unmarried" (though he was definitely taken), of "equable disposition" and "fond of fishing."  This sparse though welcome detail, coupled with the photo, should have been enough to net Patrick Quentin a few fan letters, if not some proposals!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Out of Africa 2: Death on the First Tee (1957), by Herbert Adams

Recently in a newspaper interview a prominent American visitor to Britain commented concerning immigration, with his characteristic dully repetitive speech, "I think it's a very negative thing for Europe.  I think it's very negative."

Although he may not have been aware of it, this American visitor was but echoing sentiments about immigration that have been expressed from time immemorial.  The Anglo-Saxons, I daresay, weren't so crazy about all those Normans coming into their country in 1066--though we must admit the inconvenient truth that the Normans came armed and dangerous. 

Indeed, "foreigners" are perennially unpopular in classic British crime fiction, a "little English" sentiment which writers of the era sometimes pandered to and sometimes satirized (some of them, like Agatha Christie, did both).  "Foreign" targets of poisoned pens in the Golden Age of detective fiction included, like an inverted Disneyland attraction--it's a small-minded world, after all--Jews, Slavs, Italians, French, Spaniards, East Asians, Russians, even--gasp!--Americans.  Perhaps the good people of Luxembourg and Lichtenstein were left unscathed, I don't know for certain.

People of native African descent didn't make all that many appearances in between-the-wars British mystery (though, it must be admitted, the portrayals of them typically are abysmal when they do appear.)  One assumes this is because, in contrast with the United States, blacks were not much of a presence in the UK before the Second World War and its aftermath.  In 1914 there were only an estimated 10,000 black people residing in in England, most of them in London.  In much of England at this time, as PD James observed, you still could grow up never seeing anyone who looked much different from yourself.

By 1961, however, there were nearly 200,000 blacks living in the UK, just under .4% of the population.  This was presence enough for still active Golden Age generation British mystery writers to sit up in their chairs and take notice.  Probably the best known depiction of racial dynamics from this time by a Golden Ager in his/her Golden years is found in Agatha Christie's Hickory, Dickory Dock, of which there is a review article coming soon.  In an earlier blog piece I promised to look at Ngaio Marsh's take on race relations in Black as He's Painted (1974) (coming soon as well, really).  However, here I want to discuss another book, by a Golden Ager even older than Christie: Herbert Adams (1874-1958).

In 1957 Herbert Adams, about whom I just published a piece in that most excellent journal CADS, was nearing the end of his mystery writing  career. That year, at the age of 83, he would publish his penultimate detective novel, Death on the First Tee--the 27th of 28 investigations by his best-known series sleuth, Roger Bennion, son of a baronet, man-about-town, golf enthusiast and amateur sleuth.

Outside of Agatha Christie's onetime mentor Eden Phillpotts, who at the time was staggering on to his centenary, Herbert Adams must have been about the oldest British writer of detective fiction in the late 1950s.  To his credit, he was able to produce, at the age of 83, a vastly more coherent novel than Agatha Christie at the same age did with the last mystery she wrote, a right muddler of a murder tale called Postern of Fate (1973).

Like Christie in Swinging Sixties mystery Third Girl (1966), Herbert Adams evinces an interest in modern trends in England in the Fifties.  In Death on the First Tee he rather astonishingly--some would say ill-advisedly--decided to address head-on Britain's so-called "color bar" (social barriers excluding blacks from equal participation in society). Christie included--some would say ill-advisedly--black characters in Hickory, Dickory, Dock, set at a London student hostel, and John Street mentioned (blink and you'll miss it) the color bar in his final Miles Burton novel, Death Paints a Picture (1960); yet only in Adams' First Tee is race elevated to the major theme of the novel.  How does Adams handle the subject?

newlywed British couple 1948
Daily Mail
Well, first, let's discuss the plot.  It concerns the intention of do-gooder medical student Monica Darlington to marry Rega Obobo, only son of the paramount chief of the Bongo tribe in the fictional British African colony of Nerubia, located near Uganda and Kenya.  Monica's mother is the widowed Honorable Lady Darlington, herself the "daughter of a peer of ancient lineage, but slender means," who "judiciously married William Darlington, the proprietor of the Bulls-Eye Advertising Agency, who had been knighted for his war-time labours for the country."

In the fourth line of the novel austere and unpleasant Lady Darlington makes crystal clear her dim view of the idea of Monica marrying Mr. Obobo--or Bobo as Monica and his friends call him--when she declares vehemently: "For my beautiful white daughter to lie in the arms of a Negro to me is utterly repulsive.  Horrible.  Indecent. Your father would have felt the same."

As does Monica's insipid brother, Gerald, and her younger sister, Pat.  Gerald is particularly vehement on the subject, when he gets the dark tidings from his mother:

"Mother!  Have you seen him [Obobo]?  He is as black as they are made....We must put a stop to it before anyone hears about it."

"....He no doubt is a fine specimen of his kind
 [says Mother] but I never dreamed such a thing as this could happen."

"His kind!  The gorilla kind! 
[retorts Son] She must be mad....How can I ask a girl to marry me if it means she is to have a black brother-in-law?...There is Pat, too.  How can she hope for a decent husband when he knows he may be the uncle to a brood of blackamoors?  We must make her see sense.  What are we to do?...In the good old days I could call him out and shoot him."

Leaving aside the question of whether an Englishman born around 1930 would really say, in all seriousness, "blackamoors"--I can better believe this of the generation of Herbert Adams, who was 27 when Queen Victoria died, even though he was still writing when Little Richard scored a top ten hit in the UK with Good Golly Miss Molly--I urge you not to give up on this book yet, however tempted you may be to do so, for it is more nuanced than the above lines make it appear.

Little Richard and fan
Herbert Adams was a great golf player (in fact it was a stray golf ball that inspired his first detective novel--see my CADS piece), and shortly golf makes its way into the story, as the title might already have tipped the wink.  It seems that the local Golf Club is having a mixed foursome tournament and the management has been thrown into consternation by the revelation that Monica wants to play--with Obobo as her partner. This is simply too mixed for some in the Club!

Yet despite the protests of some members--"Are we to open our course to n-----s [spelled out in the book], and force our women to play with them?"--it is decided that, having gone this far, the Club in fairness must allow it.  Amateur sleuth Roger Bennion, a member of the Club, urges this pacific course of action.

Unfortunately at the first tee of the foursome Obobo falls down dead--he's been poisoned!  By a substance evidently administered via a cocktail he ingested at the Club shortly before the match.  Not long afterward another black member of the Club dies in similar fashion, by the same poison (more on this below).  Is some racist at the Golf Club trying to extinguish the black members?

I found, actually, quite a lot of interest in this book, despite the hydra-headed horror that was Monica Darlington's family.  The discussion in the novel about the race issue and the color bar among the various white characters offers an interesting window on conservative white thinking on these matters in Fifties Britain from one who probably knew what they were really thinking.  (Monica is the only white character in the novel who might be deemed a progressive liberal.)

I think it is fair to say that Herbert Adams (through his presumed surrogate Roger Bennion) thought racial intermarriage generally ill advised, but he doesn't treat Monica Darlington as a terrible woman for planning to marry a black man--quite the opposite in fact.  She is portrayed, rather, as a noble woman, yet one whose altruistic desires--she wants to return with Bobo to help the masses in Africa--has blinded her to the problems of "mixed marriages."  I'll let Roger speak for himself (and, probably, the author), in  a conversation with Monica, the novel's lone voice of progressive liberalism:

You and [Obobo] are alien not only in colour but in race and in your upbringing.  That is not merely prejudice.  We all believe in evolution, but there is no reason to believe that evolution, which is a slow process, has proceeded at the same pace all over the world.  While Europe and some parts of the East developed a high standard of civilization, Central Africa was still in a state of barbarism."

"You mean they were several stages nearer the ape?" [Monica] asked angrily.

"Put it that way if you like.  When we went to Nerubia, barely a hundred years ago, the conditions were absolutely primitive....

"It is to their credit that they have learned so much so quickly."

"Or to ours.  But they still have much to learn before an English girl should become one of them."

Elsewhere Roger pronounces that "There are exceptions...but white girls who marry black men generally have a hard time."

Notting Hill Couple, 1967
Photo by Charlie Phillips, V&A Collection
taken a decade after the publication of
Death on the First Tee
Adams presents his sleuth as an essentially conservative person who yet seems somewhat open- minded at times, admitting, for example, that black Africans have been cruelly exploited by English extractive industries.  (In the novel the officers of the Nerubia Development Corporation are presented as self-serving, racist individuals.)  As the quoted example above shows, Roger does not outright reject the notion of racial intermarriage, though he argues that it would be better advised at some hazy point conveniently set in the future. 

Desiring to preserve the Empire as much as can be done and to oppose the worldwide advance of Communism, Roger believes blacks should be granted by their colonial overlords the natural birthright of all humanity: full equality of opportunity.  Inevitably much of this novel would offend readers today, however, particularly the indulgent attitude exhibited toward many of the more racist characters.

Characters in the novel are concerned with England's place in the postwar world, when the country had a new young queen and seemed beset everywhere by challenges to its once great might.  Muses Superindent Yeo, Roger Bennion's  current police minion (this is the sort of archaic Fifties British mystery where police remain happy to have brilliant amateur sleuths who did a spot of intelligence work in the last "show," don't you know, solve their murder cases for them):

West Indian immigrants in London, 1956
We are constantly urging our best people to go to Australia and Canada and New Zealand because we are overcrowded.  Then we let these Jamaicans, Nerubians and others pour in here.  Some of them are decent enough, some a damned nuisance.  But they marry our girls.  What sort of mongrel breed shall we become?  I am not sure South Africa is not right.  Keep the races apart and teach them all to be proud of being what they are.

Roger confides that an elite black friend of his thinks the problem facing the world today is universal education, the bane of entrenched elites everywhere:

He holds that here [in Britain] we give free education and universal suffrage.  So the privileged classes rapidly disappear--which he, as one of them, thought regrettable....Can we educate the coloured peoples and still keep them in subjection in places where they outnumber us by hundreds to one?...Obobo...thought something of the sort was possible.  Others foresee the day when Britain shorn of all its dominions and colonies will be back where it started--a small island in the North Sea about as important as Iceland!

Adams is surprisingly up to date as well in the novel in his dalliance with sexual subjects.  Aside from the topic of racial intermarriage we learn that the deadly poison in the case is cantharides, aka Spanish Fly.  Derived from the Spanish Fly, an emerald-green bug that is a member of the noxious blister beetle family, cantharides is not only used in aphrodisiac concoctions but is also a highly toxic poison when ingested in unadulterated form. 

Another black character in the novel, we learn, has a collection of nude photos of young women, his great ambition being to collect one such from every country.  Although his landlady is outraged over the existence of his blue photo album, Roger and the police seem entirely unfazed by the matter.

Notting Hill riot
Death on the First Tee holds interest both for its political and social aspects as well as its teasing little mystery, which you should be able to solve for yourself after the second murder.  As a window on the mind of a conservative English crime writer born five years before the Anglo-Zulu War who lived to to see the end of the English empire in Africa, I found it especially fascinating. 

Yes, there is also a spot of golf, including a deduction--or more a psychological inference--based on the game made by Roger Bennion, but non-golfers shouldn't be overwhelmed.  You'll find less golf here than there is bridge in Christie's Cards on the Table.

A year after the publication of Death on the First Tee, which includes a race riot in its plot, there occurred the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, which raged five days and nights over the August bank holiday 60 years ago.  Thuggish "teddy boys" and others, inflamed by far right groups such as the Union Movement of Oswald Mosley (he never gave up, did he?) and the White Defence League, started an anti-black riot in Notting Hill--a once (and again to be) fashionable London district that was then rundown and jammed with overcrowded tenements populated by West Indians--ostensibly after an altercation between a white Swedish woman and her Jamaican husband.

Interestingly, Herbert Adams' paternal grandfather, Ralph Adams, was a brick maker and builder who owned a sprawling brick field in Notting Hill which so came to dominate its vicinity that the whole area became known as the Potteries.  Notorious for its dismal living conditions, the Potteries was denounced by no less a chiding voice of mid-Victorian social conscience than Charles Dickens, who lambasted the seething slum as "a plague spot, scarcely equaled for its insalubrity by any other [neighborhood] in London.

This criticism notwithstanding, Ralph Adams became an important figure in the development of Notting Hill as a fashionable nineteenth-century upper middle class residential district.  Still standing today, on Notting Hill's Pottery Lane, is a survivor of the Notting Hill race riots: a single beehive brick kiln once used by Ralph Adams' exploited workers at the Potteries.

See John Norris' review of Herbert Adams' first detective novel, The Secret of Bogey House (1924), here.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Prepped for Murder: Death Goes to School (1936), by Q. Patrick

"Murder at Craiglea!  Why, it's impossible!"

"When I think of this lovely English village, I can scarcely believe it myself."

  --Death Goes to School (1936), by Q. Patrick

Though Raymond Chandler thought fictional murder belonged, like the real stuff, in the mean streets, many mystery readers of his day wanted nothing more from their favorite reading fare than to escape into a nice English murder story set in a lovely little village, enjoying the very incongruity of foul play in fair places.  Seemingly even more incongruous was the idea of murders taking place among children in schools (although of course in the modern United States it's sadly become almost a casual affair); yet in the 1930s the setting was fairly common in English mysteries. 

Death Goes to School
(1936) is the last of the six Q. Patrick novels that is not credited jointly to authors Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, and thus it marks the end of the first phase of a pseudonymous author's life: the one in which the author adhered most scrupulously to the clues and cogitation formula of classic detective fiction.  Three of these novels--Murder at Cambridge, The Grindle Nightmare and Death Goes to School--were copyrighted to Rickie Webb alone, though the latter two titles likely had some input from Rickie's apt apprentice Hugh Wheeler, whom we know at the very least typed the manuscripts and would have been talking over the details with his guide and mentor.  The other three novels had women co-authors, two of them Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelly and one Mary Lou White.

Three of the six pre-Hugh Q. Patricks take place in Britain (while another is an ocean liner mystery), contrasting with most of the Rickie-Hugh Q. Patricks.  (I will call them QPs from here.)  Like other authors, Rickie wrote about what he knew, and though he was well-traveled what he knew best was England's green and pleasant--though in fiction at least quite murderous--land.  Additionally, one of the Rickie-Hugh QPs takes place in Bermuda, where he and Hugh annually vacationed in the Thirties.

Not long before he left America for France in 1952, Rickie complained to Hugh--who had decided, much to Rickie's dismay, to move on from their relationship both personally and professionally--that he had never really felt at home in America, a country where he had spent half his life and in 1943 had become a naturalized citizen, going into armed service for his adopted nation in the Pacific War.  Hugh seemed to better adapt, but then Hugh was a most flexible individual.

Death Goes to School has Rickie's fingerprints all over it.  The novel is dedicated to his parents, who when he was growing up in England had run a girls school at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, situated on the Bristol Channel not far from the city of Bristol, and is set at a boys school in, sure enough, Somerset, overlooking the Bristol Channel.  With 68 boarding pupils, the school seems larger than that of Rickie's parents and boys are concerned rather than girls, but the setting otherwise is very much on point.  Additionally, one of the major characters in the novel, a spirited young boy named Lucas who proves to have considerable skill as a code breaker, shares the surname of his mother's family.

In all the book seems, like Rickie's earlier college mystery Murder at Cambridge, an exercise in nostalgia--of a murderous kind, of course.  This nostalgic novel is lacking the bloody horrors of The Grindle Nightmare, the ghoulishness of which, with its descriptions of rather ghastly subjects (torture murder victims, including a child; animal mutilations; impotence; sexual depravity), was much commented upon by titillated reviewers of the day.  In School, the two victims of murder are pupils, but the details of their murders are scamped and no one really seems to miss the victims much.  Nor are they, as presented, seemingly people one would much miss.

As an aside, I might mention that Golden Age English mystery writers seem to have been much less sentimental about children than both earlier and later generations, with some notable exceptions like H. C. Bailey, who vies with Charles Dickens and Benjamin Farjeon when it comes to sentimental piety concerning youngsters.  (Bailey even invariably gives them plaintive lisps.)  In Margaret Cole's Scandal at School, for example, the murdered schoolgirl is portrayed by Cole, the mother of three children, as a blackmailing brat whose death is regretted by no one, including her father, who is treated seriously as a suspect in her murder.  But let's hear how cozy all these books are again!

Rickie's parents' school in Burnham-on-Sea
Murders at British primary schools became popular in detective fiction after the publication of Murder at School (1931) a 'prentice novel by James Hilton, who shortly became renowned as the author of Lost Horizon (1933) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934). 

Some other prominent British primary school mysteries, many of them from some of the biggest names in British detection, are, before Death Goes to School (1936), R. C. Woodthorpe's The Public School Murder (1932), Anthony Berkeley's Murder in the Basement (1932), Christopher Bush's The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934), Gladys Mitchell's Death at the Opera (1934), Nicholas Blake's A Question of Proof (1935), Margaret Cole's Scandal at School (1935) and, after Death Goes to School, Leo Bruce's Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) and Alan Clutton-Brock's Liberty Hall (1941).  An impressive group of murder stories!

Death Goes to School opens at the Parents-Boys cricket match which marks the half-term holiday at Craiglea Preparatory School.  (Rickie himself was captain of his cricket team at his public school.)  It seems a lovely June day, but storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, both literally and figuratively.  The next day the body of one of the wealthy American Jewish twins who had arrived at Craiglea that term is discovered unceremoniously stuffed in a laundry cupboard, the boy having been smothered to death in his bed in the night.  He is Eric Bernard-Moss--or Moses ma. (i.e., Moses Major) as he is known to his schoolfellows, contrasting with his brother Irving Bernard-Moss, naturally Moses mi. (Moses minor).

Evidence suggests that the murder must have been an "inside job."  So who, you may well wonder, was on the inside?  Well, there's the headmaster, Reverend Samuel Dodd, his wife and their "English rose" daughter Sophonisba (named for a Carthaginian princess who committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome--I had to look that one up); the handsome blond and blue-eyed English master, Harvey Nettleon, just down from Oxford, who reads Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and William Faulkner (Sanctuary); the hunky new school porter, Stephen McFee, who is blessed, we are promptly informed, with a most "splendid physique"; the Moss boys' new American orchid-lush stepmother, Myra Bernard-Moss; Cyril Heath, the pub-crawling mathematics master; Mademoiselle Santais, the sallow-cheeked French mistress; school matron Mrs. Blouser, who discovered the body; freckled, snub-nosed schoolboy St. John Lucas, son of the portly and pacific Bishop of Saltmarsh (a nod to Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders?); and schoolboy Derek Pemberly, overdeveloped physically and underdeveloped mentally and the son of peppery county constable Sir Wilfrid Pemberly, who tends to wax "hot as chutney over Indian reminiscences."

However, a bombshell soon is figuratively dropped at the school when it is learned that Moses ma. may have been a victim of a political murder.  It seems that the boys' Jewish father, a prominent judge in St. Paul, Minnesota, presided over a trial of Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans who killed "many people" in a "serious outcrop of Hitlerian anti-Jewish riots," the grand object of which was to "drive all Jews out of the country." 

In the aftermath of the riots, the judge sentenced one German-American man, Bruno Heller, to death in the electric chair, and his brother and sister vowed vengeance on the judge and his family.  Could the culprit in this new crime at Craiglea be a vengeful German-American terrorist?

This is an unusually up-to-date motive in a detective novel of this era, when countries still were clinging to a splintering hope that "peace for our time" could be established, despite mounting evidence to the contrary from the militant German nation, which had passed the grotesquely anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

While the view of the US expressed in the novel may seem histrionic, recall that in the 1930s lynchings of black men still occurred in the American South and that southern congressmen did everything in their power to block federal anti-lynching legislation.  Indeed, Germany contrasted its "humane" Nuremberg racial legislation with horrific American lynchings, which were graphically documented by beaming murderers in sickening photos. 

Additionally, there existed in the US in the Thirties the German American Bund, designed to promote Hitlerian ideology in America.  Across the country the Bund and its affiliates launched Nazi summer camps, like Camp Siegfried on Long Island, where streets audaciously were named after Hitler and Goebbels.

This might seem to take the book into thriller territory, but in fact it remains a full dress detective novel, with the focus on clues and investigation, although the narrative is fleet, the writing amusing and the characterization lively.  Especially successful are two "viewpoint" characters, young St. John Lucas and winsome Sophonisba.  Patrick manages a nice twist solution, in the manner of such virtuosi as Ellery QueenJohn Dickson Carr and Anthony Berkeley.  Some technical details are scamped, but overall this is an impressive example of a story that "conforms to the best tradition of the detective novel," as the book blurb on the American hardcover edition puts it.  There's a little flutter of Hugh, I think, in the description of some of the boys' love of birding (Hugh and his brother were great birders as lads), but overall this book reads Rickie and as such it is a tribute to his own skill, when he chose to exercise it, as a mystery writer.

See review at Pretty Sinister Books here.

It can't happen here?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Who Dun It? The Authorship of the Early Q. Patrick Novels

We enthusiasts of the Golden Age--or GADers as I will call them in honor of the original Golden Age Detection group at Yahoo which served, as the intellectual seedbed for much of the modern internet crime criticism that has done so much to catapult its current revival (more on this soon I hope)--have discussed many topics over the years, but one which has especially engaged a number of us is the question of the authorship of the of the books by Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  This is a subject Mauro Boncompagni and I both have tried to clarify over the last several years, and I'm feeling more confident about the matter these days.  (See essays in Mysteries Unlocked and Murder in the Closet; more as well is forthcoming.)

Here is how I see the breakdown of the earlier books:

Q. Patrick Books
Cottage Sinister, 1931 (Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelley)
"Q. Patrick" was created when two people living in Philadelphia, native English pharmaceutical executive Rickie Webb and recent Radcliffe graduate Patsy Kelley, combined the first syllables of their nicknames "Patsy" and "Rickie" to make Patrick. (Cute, huh?)  The "Q" was chosen, in their words, as the most "intriguing" letter of the alphabet, and you can draw your own conclusions from that.  The duo went detecting again in a second novel, called

Murder at the Women's City Club, 1932 (less straightforwardly but more alliteratively titled in the UK Death in the Dovecote) (RWW and MMK)
Patsy became engaged and married in England in 1933, leaving Rickie rather  in the lurch.  So Rickie wrote the next Q. Patrick by himself.  This book appeared in February, not long before Patsy's spring wedding, and was titled

Murder at the 'varsity, 1933 (Murder at Cambridge in the US). (RWW)
The English edition preceded the American one by about a month, but I think for today's readers the American title is the better one. 

Rickie, however, liked collaborative writing, plotting being his first love, and the actual writing second.  So he found a replacement for Patsy in another talented Philadelphia woman, Mary Lou White (later Mary Lou Aswell, and as such a very prominent American literary editor).  Together in October 1933 they published

S. S. Murder, 1933 (RWW and Mary Lou White)
On a visit to London in 1933, however, Rickie met a brilliant and handsome newly minted college graduate who was desperately keen to write fiction, become rich and successful and see America: Hugh Callingham Wheeler.  With Rickie's considerable help in the earlier years, Hugh would attain all of these objectives. 

Hugh went to live with Rickie in Philadelphia and the two would establish a personal and commercial partnership that would endure for nearly two decades.  Yet it's still not established quite which books they wrote together. (Like with Ellery Queen, Rickie tended to be more the plotter and Hugh more the actual writer).  Nothing appeared from Q. Patrick in 1934, but then a flood of works appeared in 1935-37, both in hardcover and serial forms.  There was so much stuff, indeed, that the pair created two new pseudonyms, Jonathan Stagge, and their best known one, Patrick Quentin.  Then there appeared the most famous Q. Patrick novel

The Grindle Nightmare (1935) (RWW)
Originally published serially in May as Darker Grows the Valley, this novel has long been attributed to Rickie and to Mary Lou White, but in fact is copyrighted solely to Webb, as Mauro Boncompagni has pointed out.  But it never really made sense to think that Mary Lou would have co-written this book with Rickie, when Rickie was living, and had begun writing, with his protege Hugh Wheeler.  The bigger question would be, was Hugh involved in writing this book?  I think Hugh may have influenced it thematically (at the least, they would have been discussing the book, and Hugh would have been typing it), but it very much seems to me like a Rickie book, as does the next Q. Patrick

Death Goes to School (1936) (RWW)
This was published in February, about six months after Grindle was published as a book, and is a public school mystery.  Again, it is copyrighted solely to Rickie, as Mauro has pointed out, and in fact is dedicated to his parents, who were the headmaster and mistress of a girls school.  There's even a character with the same surname as Rickie's mother's family.  I'll be reviewing this book here soon and pointing out a few "Hugh" elements in it, but it still seems a Rickie book to me.  The big changeover came with the next Q. Patrick novel, which also introduced a new series detective, Lieutenant Trant (the first six QP's were standalones)

Death for Dear Clara (1937) (RWW and HCW)
Here there is so much more emphasis on "Hugh" elements: American moneyed society setting, sophisticated detective, lovely and lethal women, emotions and pure writing.  The first six Q. Patrick books, while fluidly and intelligently written, are much more single minded in their emphasis on clues and investigation and sparer in their portrayal of emotions and characterization.  And, yes, this book is copyrighted to both authors, as are the first Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools, and the first Jonathan Stagge, The Dogs Do Bark, both of which were published in 1936.  My own theory is that the first works really written more by Hugh were the 1935-36 serialized Hugh Westlake adventures, later published as Stagge novels.  That may be why Hugh Cavendish Westlake shares Hugh Callingham Wheeler's first name and initials.  A little hint of things to come, perhaps?

Monday, July 9, 2018

"Some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales": Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936/43) and the Scarlet Circle Slayer

Jonathan Stagge--I say this in the most congratulatory sense--has a really nasty mind.  I recommend him to all who have a sound head and a strong heart.

                                                                --Torquemada (English crime fiction critic)

Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler's "Jonathan Stagge" novels, chronicling the investigations of Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake, a small town New England--or possibly Pennsylvania, but I'm pretty sure it's New England--doctor, have rather an unusual origin and chronology.

The hardcover novels, nine in number, appeared as follows (I give my preferred titles first for novels with different US and UK titles):

The Dogs Do Bark (1936, in UK Murder Gone to Earth)
Murder or Mercy? (1937, in US Murder by Prescription)
The Stars Spell Death (1939, in UK Murder in the Stars)
Turn of the Table (1940, in UK as Funeral for Five)
The Yellow Taxi (1942, in UK as Call a Hearse)
The Scarlet Circle (1943, in UK Light from a Lantern)
Death and the Dear Girls (1945, in US Death, My Darling Daughters)
Death's Old Sweet Song (1946)
The Three Fears (1949)

However, these are not the order in which the Hugh Westlake adventures originally appeared.  The original Westake investigations, attributed not to Jonathan Stagge but to Q. Patrick (Richard Webb's original pen name), appeared in serial form in Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, in this order:

The Dogs Do Bark (November 1935) (published as book in late 1936)

The Frightened Landlady (December 1935) (not otherwise published to this date)
The Scarlet Circle (January 1936) (published as book in 1943)
Murder or Mercy? (June 1936) (published as book in late 1937)

The Frightened Landlady, a novella that was Hugh Westlake's second case, has never appeared in book form, while The Scarlet Circle, Westlake's third serial adventure, was only the sixth Hugh Westlake mystery published as a book, seven years after it originally appeared in a magazine.  Why was The Scarlet Circle not published earlier, either in 1937, instead of Murder or Mercy?, or in 1938, when no Stagge book was published?

Could real life events have played a hand in the delayed publication of The Scarlet Circle?  I think so.  Let's go back in time, nearly 81 years to be precise, to a horrific double murder that took place in the borough of Queens, New York.  The following account I have put together from several newspaper sources, not all of them, I must admit, fully congruent with each other (more on that).  So here we go....

On Saturday October 2, 1937, Louis Weiss, a recent honors graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, returned to his home in Queens Village from seeing local favorite the Manhattan Jaspers lose 14-7 in a football contest with visiting Texas A&M at the New York Polo Grounds.

At home Louis ate dinner, put on some old clothes and told his mother (an only child, he lived with his parents and maternal grandparents) that he was going to the Mineola Roller Skating Rink, near the Mineola Fair Grounds in Nassau County, with girlfriend Frances Hajek.  Promising to get home early (he said he was tired from being at the game all day), Louis at 8:30 got into his second-hand coupe, of which he was extremely proud, and drove off, his pet Spitz dog, Teddy, eagerly yapping after him from the house.

A sturdy 6'1" 200 pound 20 year old who had been an esteemed star athlete at Brooklyn Tech and in his free time still loved to play basketball and baseball in vacant lots in Queens Village, Louis worked days at the offices of the American Steel and Wire Company in the Empire State Building and studied nightly at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, hoping to become an electrical engineer.  In the meantime he dutifully turned over his weekly paycheck to his mother.

Louis' girlfriend, vivacious and popular Frances Hajek, auburn-haired and about 5'5" and 115 pounds with a captivating smile, was considered "unusually attractive" by her set, but she was a dutiful young woman and like Louis an only child who lived with her parents.  There she worked the counter of the downstairs bakery of her father, Frank Hajek, an immigrant from Bohemia, who with only an 8th grade education had become a successful businessman, owning the $25,000 two-story building in Queens Village where his bakery was located (today Jamaica Discount Liquors).  Frances had recently graduated from Jamaica High School and was a member of the Queens Village Junior League.

Jamaica Discount Liquors (formerly the site of the Hajek house and bakery)

Louis and Frances left the Mineola Rink around 10:30, stopping off briefly at the Belmont Roller Skating Rink, not far from the Belmont Racetrack.  On their way home they stopped at a bar on Jericho Turnpike to have some beer.  Shortly after midnight they were seen by Thomas Owens, who was driving a newspaper delivery truck.  Owens met the couple in Nassau County, near the Mineola Rink, and gave them instruction on how to get back to Queens. He claimed that there was another man in the back seat of the car, dressed in a soldier's uniform.  Police concluded that this man was a stranger whom Weiss had offered a ride, either in the beer parlor or hitching along the road toward Queens.

Weiss House, Queens Village (middle with green shutters)

Some time around one in the morning Louis drove down a dark dirt road leading off from Springfield Boulevard and Central Parkway, Queens and parked in a local "lovers' lane" deep in Hollis Woods.  Shortly before three in the morning, judging by Louis' smashed wristwatch (that great cliche of Golden Age detective fiction), the lovers' lane became a nightmare alley.

Suddenly a man hopped on the right running board of Louis' coupe, pulled the unlocked door open, leaned in and shot the young man twice in the head, killing him.  Next he grabbed Frances, paralyzed with shock and fear, by her wine-colored zipper combination suit, fired two bullets into her temple, and then, as she breathed her last, repeatedly plunged an ice pick or stiletto into her upper torso.  When discovered by a hiker the next day, Louis still sat slumped over the wheel, as if ready to start driving the car again, while Frances lay sprawled, half-in and half-out of the machine.

1936 Ford Coupe

It was a horrific scene indeed.  The most grotesque detail of all (and pertinent for the purposes of this blog piece) I have saved for last: After shooting Louis and shooting and stabbing Frances, the killer took the young woman's' scarlet lipstick and drew circles on the dead couple's foreheads.  Not unnaturally, newspapers took alliteratively to dubbing the unknown murderer the "scarlet circle slayer."

Police believed that, given the savagery of the attack of Frances, the motive was not robbery, but a raging hatred of the young woman, presumably inspired by intense jeolously.  Police dismissed the idea that the killer of Louis and Frances might have been the "3-X Killer" (so called for the 3-X signed notes he had left at his crime scenes), who achieved national notoriety by shooting two men in lovers' lanes on two separate occasions in 1930.  The women 3-X had let go, suggesting a totally different modus operandi from the scarlet circle slayer.

crime scene photo of the dead couple (note scarlet circles)
See Getty Images for a more graphic photo here
(WARNING: very graphic)
Newspapers screamed bloody murder (FIEND KILLER CAUSES FEAR IN NEW YORK) and dozens police were assigned to investigate the ghastly case, but little headway was made.  A sweep was done of Hollis Woods, but nothing seemingly of significance was discovered besides Frances' red lipstick, which had been discarded by the right front wheel of the car.  The crude camp of, yes, a passing tramp had been discovered, but the tramp had already been arrested for vagrancy and placed in a jail cell when the murders occurred. A perfect alibi! 

Also with alibis were the sizable contingent of patients at nearby Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital. (This case really did have it all.)

With punitive justice all-too typical of its day, one suspects, a young black woman named Betty May McCall also was arrested on a vagrancy charge after admitting to police that she had invented a story of having witnessed the murders of Louis and Francis, and she was committed to the King's County Hospital in Brooklyn.  There were the usual crackpot confessions, like Betty May's fake witness claim, but the police investigation quickly petered out, to the intense dismay of the victims' families.

Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital

The next year in an interview with a print journalist, Frances' father stated that he had surrendered any belief that his beautiful daughter's vicious slayer ever would be found.  Coming out of his bakery kitchen in his white apron and cap to talk the reporter, Frank Hajek declared sadly, "In my mind I have no hope.  There were so many wrong ones.  We [my wife and I] talk about it every night and every morning, but it would be best not to talk at all because then we would sleep better."

last rites for Frances Hajek
the dead girl's parents had to be supported
down the church steps
Frank and his wife Anna rejected the idea that their daughter was participating in a petting party with Louis, arguing that she and Louis must have been forced at gunpoint to drive down that dirt road to their deaths.

Mina Hengst, Louis' maternal grandmother, told a similar sorrowful tale, avowing, "My daughter still cries every day and she cries every night.  She has to go out every day so that she will not think about it too much."

However, it was at this time that the police believed they finally had made a major break in the case, when there came to their attention a local "tough" in Queens Village, Walter Wiley, a nineteen year old newspaper delivery man and sometime movie theater usher who was known in his recreational time, if you will, to brandish both gun and knife.  Walter had boasted to his thug pals that he had robbed Good Humor ice cream trucks and preyed on petting parties in lovers' lanes. 

Walter vanished the day the bodies of Weiss and Hajek were discovered, not reappearing until  November 20 in Baltimore, where he enlisted in the army.  By April 1938 he had deserted. 

In July Walter was extradited to New York from Reno, Nevada, and police hoped to break him down and secure a confession in the Red-O killings, but nothing seems to have come of it.  In fact, the case remains unsolved to this day.  Walter was serving time in Sing Sing Prison in 1940, but on account of other crimes.  Three years after this he was living in Florida, where he married and died three decades later.

Brooklyn Tech

I have a lot of questions about this case, myself.  For one thing, who the heck was the soldier, or the man dressed in an army uniform, whom Thomas Owens saw in the coupe with Louis and Frances?  Why was he not suspected of the crime?  The police discounted robbery, in part because Louis' wallet and black signet ring and Frances' jewelry were not taken, but what happened to her handbag?  One account notes that Louis' wristwatch was not stolen, but if it was smashed, naturally it would not have been. But speaking of the smashed watch, the medical examiner early on supposedly set the time of death as between 11 and midnight.  If, as the other later account states, it took place around three in the morning, this seems at odds with what we early on were told about Louis and Frances being so scrupulous about returning home early to their parents' houses. 

Cooper Union
Frances always "came home early at night, it was said."  Well, if she was in the coupe with Louis until three in the morning, then something unusual was going on.  Friends and family were eager to discount the petting theory.  Herbert Beech, Louis' "close chum" who had attended the football game with him, insisted that Louis was so fussy about his car that he never of his own volition would have driven down a narrow wooded lane like the one in Hollis Woods. Nor did he "park and pet," according to Beech. 

Medical examiner Howard W. Neail speculated at one point that since Frances' lipstick was not smeared, the young couple must have been set upon before any petting could have commenced.  But how does that square with the account that says they were in the car for nearly two hours, from around one to three a.m.?

Jamaica High School

The scarlet circles themselves influenced police thinking that the crime was committed by someone with a warped adolescent brain (i.e., a teenager).  "Most of the detectives held that the symbols might be the work of some adolescent whose mind was influenced by cheap mystery tales," says one report.

"It could have been anything," helplessly pronounced the floundering Deputy Inspector Ryan.  "It could be a sadistic maniac, it could be some kid whose been reading mysteries about signs and symbols, it could be someone with a grudge against the girl, or against both the boy and the girl--but we have no direct evidence on anything."

It was even suggested that the killer might have disguised himself as a police patrolman and deviously directed Louis to Hollis Woods and his and Francis' doom.  According to one report Louis' wallet and driver's license lay in the dead boy's hand when he was discovered, as if he had been requested to show it to someone at the car window.

The grave of Frances Hajek
at St. John's Cemetery, Queens
But whatever the solution to this real life mystery, wouldn't it have been rather awkward for mystery writers Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler and their publisher to have published as a hardcover novel a few bare months after this terrible crime The Scarlet Circle, a story which originated in a pulp fiction magazine about a serial murderer who strangles female victims, then draws scarlet circles on their bodies with their lipsticks?  Especially when the police are bemoaning the impact on adolescent minds of "cheap mystery tales"?  Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time to let The Scarlet Circle lie until 1943, when Rickie and Hugh, about to go into the army, needed something that could quickly be published as a hardcover book and reached back to an old pulp fiction piece--one which may have partly inspired a depraved and never detected murderer.