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).
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|
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!
What amazes me is that this wonderful book has been out of print for so long. The smoothness, wit, and economy of the writing, the way dialogue is used to reveal character, the brilliant plotting (as in all the Wheeler-written PQ books), and the subtle emotional charge it carries mark it out as a masterpiece of the crime fiction genre. Incidentally, Callingham was Hugh Wheeler's middle name, wasn't it? I wonder what he was getiing at there...ReplyDelete
Yes, indeed it was. I had thought I mentioned that! Shows what posting a piece in the early morning hours does for one, lol. I have now edited slightly In the next piece, where I review Shadow of Guilt, I plan to discuss Hugh and his attitude to the rich, as exemplified in his life and his books. I do think he was saying something there, but I want to address more in full. the books comment on his and Rickie's lives more than people have often appreciated, I think.Delete
I'm glad to hear from someone who liked this book so very much. Anthony Boucher always praised the PQ fiction, but PQ never won an Edgar until receiving a special award for the 1962 book of short stories. I think one of the novels should have won.
I agree completely with Christoper Greaves, and needless to say also with you, Curt. This is indeed one of the best stories by PQ (and thus a masterpiece in the genre). Wheeler was particularly good with dialogue.ReplyDelete
And no offense to the Peter Duluth or Westlake books, but stories about individuals who have their lives affected by murder, are at their most believable when they are one-offs. Bill Harding in this book is a person I can understand and relate to, even as I want to scream out to him "Don't underestimate this policeman!"
In Trant's first appearance, Death for Dear Clara, we follow the investigation more through his eyes, but in my view, Trant as a character works best in when he is seen as a somewhat undefinable threat through the eyes of another protagonist.
Incidentally, Trant's politeness combined with the habit of asking a seemingly innocuous final question just as the protagonist thinks he has him fooled, has always reminded me of another of my favourite Lieutenants, the far less elegantly dressed Columbo.
Yes, I agree with you about series vs. non-series books in that respect and I'm sure Hugh Wheeler did too. Yes, Clara feels more like a traditional mystery, with Maiden we are already turning away from the Golden Age pattern, though it's a longer and much slower moving book. But very much of interest too!Delete
That's a great point about Columbo. These later PQ's are very tense, sometimes almost too tense for me. The Man in the Net, for example, is really nerve-wracking to an uncomfortable degree.
Yes, HW is very good with dialogue, I'm not surprised t his play and screen writing success, though he had more mixed success there until he joined up with the great Stephen Sondheim.
You're right about how tense The Man in the Net is, but for me it's on a par with The Man with Two Wives as a brilliant piece of crime fiction - and ultimately the tension is satisfactorily resolved. It's interesting that in the former book, the protagonist is a man who has given up the world of business for the world of art, whereas in the latter book it's the other way round: Bill Harding has given up art for business. In both books, Wheeler shows himself to be in complete control of his material, I would say - which is a rare thing for a writer in any genre. By the way, you did mention that bit about 'Callingham' - I missed it in my hurry to read your post!Delete
No, you were right, it wasn't in there originally, I added it in editing. You are a keen reader, sir!Delete
I think HW was interested in the question of artistic vs. merely financial success, as he was someone who pursued both things and tried ultimately to reconcile them. He looked at this in his books, his later ones especially. He wanted to write seriously, but he also wanted to make money. That's why you see these outsider figures in these books trying to reconcile these things, often in connection with their relationships to socially prominent and wealthy families. People may feel that Wheeler was too obsessed with rich people in his books, but there's a lot of social criticism in them.
The Man in the Net may actually be my favorite later PQ book and I want to talk about it on the blog soon. The fact that its not set in New York but his other American stamping ground, the Berkshires of Massachusetts, is very interesting to me. I haven't seen the film, which apparently was not that good, but I think the book is great.
It's been some years since I read The Man in the Net, but it is truly chilling. (If you do a piece on it, I may take the opportunity to quote from a most favourable Norwegian review.)Delete
For now I will instead pick up on a point that occurred to me when you mentioned HW's work with Sondheim: I suppose there is an ironic twist, that even in his later career Hugh Wheeler would be best known for collaborations. I seem to remember a reference work calling Rickie Webb a natural collaborator, but does it to some extent apply also to Wheeler? Although he certainly wrote a couple of plays on his own, from at least 1970 onwards most of what he did was either collaborations, or at least in some way adaptations of other works.
Please do, I would love to see it.Delete
I was able to talk with Mr. Sondheim about Hugh and will have some more to say about that at some certain date. I think Hugh may not have always had the forcefulness he could have used in putting himself forward, but on the whole he seems to have managed better than most!
Great post, great follow-up discussion. Thank you, gents.ReplyDelete
I'm glad you enjoyed it. And I too thank the commenters. It's great to be able to flesh these matters out on the blog.Delete
This comment has been removed by the author.ReplyDelete
I just finished the novel yeaterday. It’s as fine as you say and I loved reading it. I’m not quite sure, though, that the solution is really watertight because PQ fails to explain how the murderer got hold on the murder weapon (or does he and I missed something?)ReplyDelete