Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Trant Intervenes: The Man with Two Wives (1955), by Patrick Quentin

2018 is a good year indeed for Police Lieutenant Timothy Trant, the New York Homicide Squad detective created in 1937 by Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler.  Mysterious Press has brought some of the Trant novels, successively published under the Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin pseudonyms of the two men, back into print (although not all of them, which is confusing to the reader wanting to follow Trant's cases in order) and Crippen & Landru is reprinting his 20 shorter adventures, all of them originally published under the Q. Patrick pseudonym, most familiarly in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, where they were lauded as models of fairly clued short detective fiction. 

Also included is a never collected novelette about Dr. Hugh Westlake, lead character in Webb and Wheeler's Jonathan Stagge novels.  More on this wonderful collection, to which I'm happy to say I wrote the introduction, soon!

I reviewed the first Trant detective novel, Death and Dear Clara (1937), and I plan to review the third, Death and the Maiden (1939) this week.  I also reviewed Trant's second adventure, the CrimeFile opus File on Claudia Cragge (1938).  (Query: should the latter book be counted as a novel; I think so.)

Although he appeared in 20 shorter works between 1946 and 1955,  Trant would not appear again in a detective novel until 1952, when Hugh Wheeler conceived the brilliant notion of pitting his and Webb's persistently perils-dodging Patrick Quentin series hero, Peter Duluth, against an unstoppable force, Lieutenant Trant, in Black Widow, where Trant implacably pursues Peter as his main murder suspect. 

This was the last Patrick Quentin which was to feature Peter Duluth as the lead character, but it was not the last book in which Trant featured as the lead police investigator.  In fact Black Widow, possibly the first Patrick Quentin to have been written entirely by Hugh (though I think it was probably the previous PQ novel, The Follower), set the template for most of the future PQ books, all of which were written after Hugh and "Rickie," as the latter man was known to friends and family, parted ways.

In My Son the Murderer (1954), Trant is pitted against Peter Duluth's brother, Jake, who tries to rescue his son Bill, Peter's nephew, from being ensnared in a murder investigation.  In the remaining six PQ books there are no more Duluths, Hugh evidently having decided that he couldn't keep on having Duluth family members suspected of murder.  But the pattern usually is the same: a male focal character, who sometimes serves as well as the narrator, is implicated in a murder affair, either through becoming a suspect himself or through trying to shield someone close to him who is suspected of murder.

Mid-century American murder: stylish, sexy and deadly--
and only 35 cents in paperback!

Hugh was able creatively to ring changes on this theme in successive novels throughout the decade of the Fifties, though only one Patrick Quentin was published after he shifted his career to writing plays and films, like, respectively, Big Fish, Little Fish (1961) and Five Minutes to Midnight (1962).  (Piece coming up on that latter title!)

Without the distraction of the Duluths, interesting and enjoyable as the adventures in murder had been, Hugh was left free to fully explore new sets of characters within his preferred milieu of wealthy New York society, specifically some rich, dysfunctional family beset by deadly tensions that erupt in murder.  The books are models of the mid-century mystery: sleek and fleet and filled with emotional tension and genuine detection.  One might say that in them Wheeler has replaced the traditional stately Anglo-American country house murder stage with the swanky Manhattan apartment.  (The novels The Man in the Net and Suspicious Circumstances offer more originality of setting.)

The anxiety formula is reminiscent of the mysteries of the American Queen of Anxiety herself, Mignon Eberhart, but Wheeler is a wittier as well as an appealingly astringent writer, more resembling the brilliant Margaret Millar.  Like Millar too his novels are genuine detective novels.  Cases in point are the Trant tales The Man with Two Wives (1955) and Shadow of Guilt (1959).

Following hard on the heels of My Son, the Murderer, The Man with Two Wives follows the deadly predicament of Bill Harding, the titular man with two wives. 

The first wife is Angelica, a wayward Bohemian who met and married Bill not long after the war when he was an ex-Marine finishing college on the GI Bill at a nowheresville university in Iowa and she the beautiful, restless daughter of a widowed English professor.  After publishing a successful novel, Heat of Noon,  he moved with Angelica to Europe, where Angelica gave birth to the couple's son, Rickie, and Bill tried--and repeatedly failed--to produce a second novel.  The marriage collapsed, with Angelica leaving Bill and Rickie for another man.

(In case you are wondering if there's any meaning in Hugh's giving the little boy in the novel the same name as his old writing partner and companion, you may well be on to something.  Of course "Rickie" was the name of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's boy too--well, "Little Ricky," to be precise.)

Having divorced Angelica, who didn't contest the suit, Bill now has married into the wealthy New York Callingham family, led by arrogant mogul and pompous patriarch C. J. , who reminded me of Earl Janoth in Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock.  (The surname you'll note is Hugh's own.)  Bill has discarded his ambitions as a writer, and now works for CJ.  His second wife, Betsy, the unloved elder daughter of CJ, has started her own successful charity, the Betsy Callingham Leukemia Fund, which is managed by Bill's old Marines buddy Paul Fowler, husband of lovely, bubble-headed and bauble-bestrewn Sandra, sardonically nicknamed the Prop by her husband Paul.  CJ, incidentally, much prefers his pampered second daughter, the willful and spoiled Daphne, to dutiful Betsy. Virtue is its own reward, so they say.

the skull beneath the skin
Passing through Greenwich Village, Bill encounters his first wife and through her he meets her new lover, Jamie Lumb, a would-be writer of ample good looks ("He looked about nineteen," observes Bill, and "he was one of the handsomest boys I had ever seen.")

Soon Jamie has inveigled his way into the entitled lives of the Callingham clan, especially man hungry Daphne, who reminisces after meeting him, he "looked beautiful and charming.  Honestly, you could have eaten him."  And soon Daphne is making the rounds with Jamie. When it turns out that Jamie has rather a nasty past in the offing there are most decided ructions within the family circle. 

After beautiful and charming Jamie is found shot dead in his apartment, however, all the clues seem damningly to point not to the Callinghams, but to Angelica, for whom Bill, most inconveniently for himself, may still be carrying something of a torch.  What is a man with two wives to do?

Enter Lieutenant Trant, the deceptively polite and charming man from the Homicide Bureau, whom Bill intriguingly compares to one of the monks painted by 17th century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran.  Soon Trant is rending--ever so gently--the webs of deception the people involved in the case have woven around the facts.  Hugh Wheeler does a great job of making the menace posed by this man scarily palpable to readers.  Trant is so much more impressive than the countless blowhard cops who huffed and puffed their way through the pages of vintage crime fiction, often to utterly no avail.  He adds considerably to the strength of the novel. (Compare to The Green-Eyed Monster, 1960, where Trant doesn't appear.)

This is a fine mid-century detective novel, the essence of a page turning thriller, but one which neglects neither clueing nor characterization.  It was praised as one of the best PQ novels by Julian Symons, and I won't argue with that, though personally I might give the nod, among the later Trant books, to Shadow of Guilt, which followed a few years later.  Review coming soon!

Incidentally, The Man with Two Wives was adapted in 1967 as the Japanese film Two Wives/Tsuma Futari, directed by Yasuzo Masamura.  If anyone reading this review has seen it I would love to hear about it!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Murderers Beeware, Inspector Knollis Is on the Case! The Singing Masons (1950), by Francis Vivian and the Reprinting of the Inspector Knollis Mysteries

Arthur Ernest Ashley (1906-1979), the son and grandson of Notthinghamshire photographers and picture framers, led an interesting and unusual working life.  His elder brother, noted freelance photographer Hallam Ashley (1900-1987), followed the family muse.  Ernest from a young age worked as a sign painter and decorator, however, until in 1932 he successfully established himself as a short fiction writer for newspapers and general magazines. Five years later, under the pseudonym "Francis Vivian," he published his first detective novel, Death at the Salutation.  After publishing these and five more mysteries, in 1941 he produced his first Inspector Gordon Knollis novel, The Death of Mr. Lomas, the first of ten series tales of murder and detection.

After the Second World War, Ernest went to work as an assistant editor and "color man" (writer of local color stories) for the Notts Free Press, but he managed to produce no less than nine Knollis novels between 1947 and 1956, which, though largely forgotten today, proved quite popular. (Indefatigable Barry Pike authored a short piece in CADS on the Francis Vivian detective fiction a few years ago.)

During the late 40s and early 50s, when the Francis Vivian books was published in hardcover by noted crime novel polisher Hodder & Stoughton, a colleague at the Notts Free Press later recalled (possibly with some exaggeration), that Francis Vivian was "neck in neck [in hardcover sales and library rentals] with Ngaio Marsh in second place after Agatha Christie."

Ernest Ashley, or Francis Vivian as I shall call him henceforward, was a dabbler in many fields, about which he gave talks on the popular lecture circuit.  Inevitably this esoterica would find its way into his detective novels, to the enjoyment of his fans.

Cover depicting Samuel Heatherington
"a retired carpenter and wheelwright
seventy-two years of age,
grey-haired, straight-backed, kindlyeyed
and a bee-master of the old schoo
(and a very large bee!)
Francis Vivian's former work colleague recalled of his crime fiction:

But what plots.  He couldn't write a straightforward tale of A killing B for complex motives and call it a day.  A and B would also be involved in archery, or black magic, or some subject which Ernest had researched to the nth degree, and you could be sure the denouement would depend on some fine point of archery or black magic.

One hobbyist passion of Francis Vivian's--one with the finest of crime fiction pedigrees--was beekeeping.  It provided the background of his sixth Knollis detective novel, The Singing Masons (1950).  The title is drawn from Shakespeare's Henry V, eighteen lines from which are quoted as an epigraph.  I quote this in part:

For so work the honey bees/Creatures that, by a rule in nature, teach/The act of order to a peopled kingdom....their emperor/Who, busied in his majesty, surveys/The singing masons building roofs of gold....

Francis Vivian's former work colleague recalled of The Singing Masons that Vivian

a natty beekeeper at work
added to an already complicated inventory of blackmail, lust, counter-lust, social climbing, and murder the fact that the protagonists happened to be bee-keepers, and before you knew it somebody's life was hanging by the thread of American Foul Brood, a dead bee which clearly was an Italian-Caucasian cross, and a misplaced WBC hive with a foundation frame susceptible to wax moth infestation.  Cyanide was not omitted. 

However, Ernest took great pride in the fact that the reader could always arrive at a correct solution simply from the given data.  His Inspector (Knollis of the Yard) never picked up an undisclosed clue which, it was later revealed, held the solution to the mystery all along."

When reading The Singing Masons several years ago I enjoyed the beekeeping material and thought it nicely intertwined with the mystery, which concerns the grisly death of a handsome, socially ambitious  philanderer in the rural English borough of Clevely.  Inspector Knollis of the Yard is called in to assist local man Inspector Wilson, who finds Knollis too cerebral and dispassionate about this nasty case, where human malice stings like, well, bees:

Italian honeybee at work
"It's a most interesting case, Wilson.  Fascinating, in fact!"

"You make it sound horrible," grumbled Wilson, "almost as if we're doing you a good turn!  Murders arranged to meet the convenience of investigators.  Hangings arranged at the shortest notice.  Quotations by return of post.  Apply Police Headquarters, Victoria Street, Clevely.  Bah!"

"In a job like ours we have to concentrate on the purely intellectual aspects of a case, Wilson.  If we paused too often to consider the emotional side we'd go mad.  Don't mistake my enthusiasm.  It's entirely intellectual.  Somewhere in this district is a person with brains to use them.  It's going to be a battle of wits--and it isn't going to be an easy case!"

Marlowe at work (Why so serious?)
It is indeed a hard case, involving Croftsian alibis and movements.  To help readers along a map is provided (and who doesn't love that in a vintage mystery).  One alibi hinges partly on the person having attended a showing of Robert Montgomery's film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake!  But all the clues don't come out of the Croftsian bag of tricks, and there's a clever solution indeed, as well as an unexpectedly hard-hitting conclusion.

The Singing Masons
is one of my favorite Francis Vivian mysteries.  Dare I say it's a honey?  I am glad to be able to announce that it and all the Inspector Knollis will soon be back in print, courtesy of Dean Street Press.  More on this soon!  I'll also have some additional detail on Masons.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

126 Years Later and We're Still Axing Questions about It: Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Horror

The theory of Lizzie's guilt...springs from some sadistic instinct, latent in almost everyone, which thrills to the thought of a respectable, churchgoing New England virgin bludgeoning her parents to death with an ax.

To me, however, it is grotesque that Lizzie should be held guilty simply because it has been fictionally fashionable to make villainesses out of virtuous spinsters....

 --Q. Patrick, The Case for Lizzie Or A Theoretical Reconstruction of the Borden Murders

Lizzie Borden
Will the black brocade curtain ever be parted
so that we learn the truth about what happened
at the Borden house on August 4, 1892?
There's something about the month of August--possibly the "August Heat" (to recall the title of a superb William Fryer Harvey horror tale--and murder. 

In the United Kingdom the first of Jack the Ripper's shocking and horrific serial slayings was committed in the early morning hours on August 31, 1888, while across the Atlantic four year later in the United States, on the morning of August 4, 1892 (126 years ago today), some unknown in Fall River, Massachusetts infamously took an ax and gave a decidedly unhealthy number of whacks to the elderly heads of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother of two proper Victorian ladies, Emma and her younger sister, Lizzie.

Is the Borden murder case America's most fabled real-life murder story?  Today people continue to spin theories about just whodunit (if not Lizzie)--despite the fact that there is rather a shortage of on-the-spot suspects.  Both Lizzie's sister, Emma, and a visiting maternal uncle (who seemingly had no motive for the crimes anyway) had alibis, which as far as I know no one has ever broken.

Andrew Borden House
the scene of the crimes
and now a bed & breakfast.
One can even sleep in the room where
Abby Borden was axed (no thanks).
(Photo by The Passing Tramp)
That leaves, apparently, Bridget, the proverbial Irish maid (whom the family lazily called Maggie, after their previous Irish maid) and Lizzie herself.  Or was it some passing stranger (surely not a tramp) who somehow got into the house undetected, slew Abby is the upstairs spare bedroom, where she was making the bed, then lurked around the house for over an hour, avoiding both Lizzie and Bridget until he/she slew Andrew, who to his misfortune had returned home and was innocently napping downstairs on the stiff horsehair couch in the sitting room. 

And then somehow made his/her escape from the house, blood spattered from the ax blows, yet again undetected, like GK Chesterton's invisible man.  Talk about an "impossible crime"!

Famed criminologist and Lizzie Borden obsessive Edmund Pearson was certain that Lizzie was guilty (she resented her stepmother and was unhappily tied to her father's purse strings), but she had an equally vociferous defender in a later true crime writer and Pearson nemesis, Edward Radin. The latter man argued that the manic ax-wielder was actually the maid Bridget, whom, he posited, freaked out after being told by Abby to "do windows" on a sultry August day. Evidently you just couldn't get good help anymore.

Alternatively, crime writer Ed McBain scandalously suggested that Lizzie and Bridget were lovers who had been caught in the act, so to speak, prompting Lizzie to resort to murder to hide her shame.  Judging by its just-released trailer, a new film about Lizzie, bearing that title, adopts the McBain lesbian lovers theory, while positing that Andrew was not merely a skinflint, but a something of a sex fiend as well. (See video below.) 

I've always found this theory a stretch.  Whatever Lizzie's sexual inclinations (and they may have been same-sex), I tend to doubt she was having it off with Maggie, erm, Bridget.  Class was really a long bridge to cross in those days!  There is no evidence, either, which I'm aware of, suggesting that the Irish lass was inclined in that direction.

For a few years in the 1960s Radin's "I don't do windows" theory held sway, with both that esteemed democratic American mystery critic dean, Anthony Boucher, and the brilliant cosmopolitan mystery enthusiast and confirmed elitist Jacques Barzun believing that Bridget was a better bet as murderess than Lizzie. 

A onetime mystery writer himself, Boucher, I imagine, disliked going with the obvious solution, while Barzun, I suspect, deemed someone of Irish country stock far more likely to fatally flip her lid than an elite New England WASP gentlewoman. But as Q. Patrick argues at the top of this page, I think it's just that very notion--that a proper Victorian miss might have committed a bloody double ax murder--that has fascinated people for so many years.

A very desirable residence
Maplecroft, the swanky house on the hill
which Lizzie and Emma purchased in 1893.
Lizzie lived here from 1893 to her death
in 1927. Emma moved out in 1905,
for reasons unknown. (Passing Tramp)
In 1942 Anthony Boucher was looking for contributors to The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories, a true crime anthology he was editing.  (You can learn all about this, as I did, in Jeffrey Marks' 2008 book Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography.)

Boucher, a true true-crime aficionado, produced an excellent anthology indeed.  Of special interest to me, naturally, are two essays from crime writers Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler, one submitted by "Q. Patrick" and the other by "Patrick Quentin." 

I have a strong suspicion that the Patrick Quentin essay, on accused murderess Florence Maybrick, was written by Hugh Wheeler, while the Q. Patrick essay, on Lizzie, was written by Richard Webb. What follows is in accord with that assumption.

Webb's essay, The Case for Lizzie Or A Theoretical Reconstruction of the Borden Murders, is, like his crime fiction, heavily plot-focused, while the Wheeler essay is more concerned with character and exhibits finer literary flourishes.  But Webb's essay is quite readable and, best of all, succeeds, in my estimation, in fashioning an original and plausible new culprit of the murders (though there is one major hitch, I think).

Anthony Boucher himself, then still a believer in Lizzie's guilt, was delighted with, if stubbornly unconvinced by, Webb's essay, wryly writing Rickie of the piece, "I am delighted with it and entranced by it and I don't believe a word of it.  I wish I'd thought of it and I can't poke a possible finger through its logic, but I still think Lizzie did it."

The Passing Tramp outside Maplecroft
You can see where in 1909 Lizzie had her house's name
inscribed on the steps, an action said to have been
deemed tacky by her snooty neighbors
Webb opened his essay by declaring that he had informed Edmund Pearson of his theory in correspondence shortly before Pearson died in 1937 and that the eminent anti-Lizzieist had replied that his, Rickie's, theory of the case was a "new and original one."  Webb added that Pearson "assured me that, so far as he knew, I had in no sense transgressed against facts, and he acknowledged the possibility and plausibility of my argument while tacitly admitting that it did not agree with his own."

Webb expressed "forlorn hope" that the late Pearson's "mantle may descend, if but rustlingly, upon me."  Yet this never happened; and, indeed, I have never seen Webb's theory acknowledged anywhere on the internet. 

Happily, however, Rickie Webb's enlightening essay, as well as Hugh Wheeler's fetching Florence Maybrick piece, are soon to be reprinted.  Lovers of Lizzieana (and Maybrickabrac) everywhere take note!  Maybe filmmakers should too.  There's sure to be another Lizzie movie in the works someday.  Whether or not she wielded that infamous killing ax, Lizzie Borden, as a result of the Fall River murders and the mystery surrounding them, belongs forever to the annals of the bloodstained ages.

journey's end
view from Maplecroft of cooling towers 
at Brayton Point Power Station
(Passing Tramp)