Tuesday, October 30, 2018

My 12 Favorite Country House Horror Haunts in Film, from the Thirties to the Sixties, Part 1

The Golden Age detective story is said to have represented an attempt to impose humane reasoned order on an increasingly irrational and cruel world.  (As bad as things seem to some of us today, try imagining what it must have seemed like between the First and Second World Wars to people in the ostensibly "civilized nations," with the rise around the globe of totalitarian regimes in Germany, the USSR and Japan which committed mass murder with modern efficiency.)  Be that as it may, the Golden Age horror story fearsomely envisions the forces of irrationality freed of restraint and let loose, like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, upon the suffering world. 

Both fiction forms flourished between the wars, and today the two genres often, though not always, appeal to the same people.  Certainly they both appeal to me.  One of the things I wanted to do for Halloween in 2018, with this look at classic films, was to look not at country house mysteries, per se, but at country house horror, often adapted from literary sources.  So, here we go, in chronological order, my favorite vintage country house horror films, from the Thirties to the Sixties. Order may be restored by the end of many of these films, but there certainly is serious travail along the way.

Source: Benighted (1927), by J. B. Priestley

Won't you come in?
Boris Karloff as Morgan, the butler from hell

The film that gave its name to a whole subgenre of horror films, The Old Dark House is my favorite of the path breaking Universal horror films of the Thirties.  Directed by the brilliant and eccentric Englishman James Whale, the film may not rise to quite the heights of Whale's Frankenstein (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but it's just so much darn wicked fun. 

Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart)
gets a helping hand
Based on British novelist JB Priestley's novel of post-First World War disillusionment, Benighted, and co-scripted by R. C. Sherriff, Great War veteran and author of the tragic and often filmed war play Journey's End, The Old Dark House certainly makes some serious points, like the novel, and has plenteous scares, like Frankenstein.

Yet it's also a darkly funny film, mainly due to the presence of world treasure Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore, mother of Laurence Olivier's first wife, as those highly eccentric and beyond belief bizarre siblings, Horace and Rebecca Femm.

At their crumbling and drafty old stone house in the rocky Welsh countryside, the Femms are forced to play reluctant hosts, on a dark and stormy might (naturally), to stranded travelers Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his beautiful blonde wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their constantly quipping war veteran friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas).  Soon joining the company are a wealthy north country businessman with a chip on his shoulder, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his chorus girl chippy, seemingly, Miss Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). 

the knives are out at the Femms
Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas)
Four Oscar nominees (Gloria Stuart making the roster late in life for her role in Titanic), two of them Oscar winners.  Gorgeous blonde Gloria Stuart in her famous white dress is a sight to behold and a black and white cinematographer's dream, but it's cheeky brunette Lilian Bond, of the two pretty ladies, who touches the heart.  Raymond Massey is a bit stiff (surprise!) but has presence, while Laughton and Douglas are both terrific.

Was this the best assembled for a Thirties horror film, I would think so.  I haven't even mentioned the fearsome drunken, lustful, scarred mute butler Morgan, played so memorably by Boris Karloff.  And, aside from Morgan, there are manifold unmentioned and indeed unmentionable horrors in the old dark house as well, some of which by comparison make Morgan seem almost angelic.  It's like a carnival thrill ride--of terror.

An extraordinary film, in my view, with amazing cinematography and editing and set design.  Don't fault the film for the countless bad imitations over the years, including the 1963 alleged "remake" by horror showman William Castle. However, if you like humor and horror, try Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost (1944).

2. REBECCA (1940)
Source: Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine)
Anderson is scarier than Karloff.  Just ask the second Mrs. de Winter.

British novelist Daphne du Maurier's modern Gothic novel was a massive bestseller in the US and it's no surprise that it was quickly adapted into a prestige Hollywood film, by American producer-impresario extraordinaire David O. Selznick and recent English import Alfred Hitchcock no less (and co-scripted by another British emigre, mystery writer Philip Macdonald).  The film won best picture at the Academy Awards and received numerous other nominations, including Actor (Laurence Olivier), Actress (Joan Fontaine) and Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), though its only other Oscar win was for the splendid cinematography.  (How did Judith Anderson not win, ugh.)

A horror film, you say?  Yes it is.  When the second Mrs. de Winter (Fontaine), a painfully shy, young former lady's companion, arrives at Manderley, a massive Cornwall country mansion, as the new wife of handsome and brusquely charming aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Olivier), she finds that Maxim's ancestral pile is haunted (okay figuratively) by Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, and guarded by a pale gaunt Gorgon dressed in black, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessively and indeed rather scarily loyal to the memory of her former mistress--the bright, beautiful, well-born and now very dead (at least physically) Rebecca.

Dramatic Revelations: Mr. and Mrs. de Winter
(Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine)

In the second half of the film, after an impressive lengthy near soliloquy from Olivier, who was already an old hand at such things, the story takes an unexpected turn and we enter the world of the Golden Age detective novel, with investigations and inquests.  (That wonderful rogue George Sanders, playing Jack Favell, the cad to end all cads--and who better to do so--pops up too around this time.) 

But there are some memorably eerie moments up till then, mostly involving the seriously creepy Mrs. Danvers and magnificent Manderley itself, the superbly designed, seemingly impossibly sprawling de Winter mansion.  And the ending is unforgettable.  For once Alfred Hitchcock, under pressure from the interfering Selznick, was mostly loyal to his source material (though censors did force a significant change) and thank goodness.  This won't be the last we see on the list of Alfred Hitchcock, however.

Source: Uneasy Freehold (1941), by Dorothy Macardle

a spirited discussion
Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey
One of the great genuine ghost stories, based on another very popular novel by an Irish novelist, The Uninvited is a  superbly atmospheric spook film, long on charm as well as frights, that was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography; and it certainly deserved that nomination.  (Why, though, wasn't the score nominated?)  It's a beautifully and eerily filmed ghost tale, with an intriguing and mysterious story as well, one which involves genuine investigation and detection by our heroes, the posh and witty sibling duo Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey). 

In a scenario familiar in both classic detective and supernatural fiction, Rick and Pamela purchase a gorgeous, unoccupied--by humans anyway--cliffside home in Cornwall, for a positive steal of a price--or so they think!  They then befriend a pretty young woman in the nearby town (luminous Gail Russell), whose grandfather owned the house.

Russell's character becomes the love interest of Milland, who was then pushing forty, though she's not even out of her teens,  Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ruth Hussey is stuck with a kindly but dull local doctor who is played by Alan Napier, doomed forever to be known to the world as Alfred the butler from the Batman television series (hope he got residuals), who always manged to look about twenty years older than he actually was.  Here he's actually only forty, but, yup, he could pass for sixty.  Heck, he wasn't much older than Ray Milland,  Maybe they should have paired him with Gail Russell--just kidding!

Anyway, the brother and sister to their discomfort begin to learn, from their sweet, ingenuous neighbor and the kindly doctor, a great deal about the house's very strange--and rather frightening--history.  In addition to the actors above, all of whom give fine performances, there is a memorable Cornelia Otis Skinner in a decidedly Mrs. Danvers-ish role, who holds in her highly capable hands many of the keys to the mystery.

4. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
Source: mostly original, I believe, though one story in the film is based on an EF Benson horror story

ventriloquist and friend
Michael Redgrave and Hugo

A hugely influential anthology of tales with a shocking wraparound story (see all those Amicus horror anthologies from the early 1970s), this British film is best known for its disquieting final installment, about a nervous ventriloquist (a superb Michael Redgrave) and his increasingly obnoxious and assertive dummy.  It is creepy as hell (even if the scenario is cliched now), but the film's frame story is decidedly scary too. 

After having a terrible nightmare, an architect (Mervyn Johns) decides to spend the weekend working on renovations he is supervising at a country house.  Once he is sitting down with his client and the client's assembled guests and they share eerie stories (like the dummy story above), he begins to get the uncanny feeling that he is living out the exact events that take place in his nightmare....

This is one that really gets its cold clutching fingers around your throat....

Source: Some Must Watch (1933), by Ethel Lina White

some must watch

Probably the best film that people think was directed by Alfred Hitchcock but which wasn't directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  In fact it was directed by Robert Siodmak, no slouch himself when it comes to the horror/mystery/suspense genres.  He directed the odd noirish horror film Son of Dracula (1943, set back by the incongruous casting as Dracula of Lon Chaney, Jr.), Phantom Lady (1944), The Suspect (1944), Christmas Holiday (1944), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1946), Criss Cross (1949) and, a sort of noir coda, The File on Thelma Jordan (1952). An impressive roster indeed!

With my partiality toward proper British horror (you'll notice that all of the films which I have chosen have British settings so far), The Spiral Staircase may be my favorite Robert Siodmak nail-biter, though all of the films above that I have seen have superb shudder sequences.  Based on (and intelligently altering) British mystery writer Ethel Lina White's ahead-of-its-time crime novel, the adaptation was scripted by Mel Dinelli, who started off writing plays for the classic American radio series Suspense and later did fine film adaptations of Cornell Woolrich (The Window, 1949) and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (The Reckless Moment, 1949, aka The Blank Wall).

woman with flickering candle dares
the depths of the spiral staircase
an iconic mystery/horror image
(with Dorothy McGuire)
In The Spiral Staircase action is transferred to the United States, to a country house outside a village in Vermont, and moved back in time to the early 1900s, when silent films were coming into vogue but carriages still remained horseless.  It still has a very British feel, however. 

Though the setting is archaic, the film feels path-breaking, for it's essentially a stately precursor of the modern-day slasher film (aka Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc.)  It seems there's a mad serial killer (and very early in the film we at times see things from this person's point-of-view) running loose in and around the town, slaying women with physical disabilities. This is bad news for shy, pretty Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who works as a domestic servant/companion to the bedridden but still decidedly peppery Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), widow of an outsize big game hunter.  (Her bedroom is decorated with elephant tusks and a lion skin rug.) 

Sweet young Helen, you see, is mute, though her condition, we learn, is actually more psychological than physical.  (Dorothy McGuire, a natural for such roles, gives a very good performance.)

Also living at the house are: Mrs. Warren's callow and quippy blond playboy son (back from Paris), Stephen (Gordon Oliver); her stolid dark-haired professor stepson, Albert (George Brent); the professor's pretty live-in secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming, still with us, bless her); put-upon Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood); and Mr. and Mrs Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester), the domicile's cook and handyman.  And then there's the mild village constable (James Bell) and Dr. Parry, the kindly, handsome physician who seems to have his eye on Helen while he attends Mrs. Warren. 

With all these people around, Helen can't be in any danger, can she?  Think again!

some must cease
Ethel Barrymore received a supporting actress Oscar nomination for this film, and like McGuire she's very good, though all of the above players range from competent to terrific. 

Elsa Lanchester, though comparatively underused in the film, is such a treat, and George Brent, who usually seems quite forgettable in his films (at least when he's beside Bette Davis), is actually memorable here.

Good as well is the ever-reliable mild "nice guy" B-film leading man, Kent Smith, most known to people today as the object of twisted affection in Val Lewton's and Jacques Tourneur's superb shocker Cat People (1942).  He also has a good part in Joan Crawford's underrated noir The Damned Don't Cry, 1950, and his first film appearance was in the SS Van Dine mystery The Garden Murder Case in 1934.) 

Blink and you'll miss Hitchcock favorite Ellen Corby, who would secure a supporting actress Oscar nomination in 1949 and achieve fame in the 1970s as Grandma Walton in The Waltons television series, and the killer's unblinking eye is played by...well, ask me in the comments if you don't know!

Perhaps there is too much "love interest" for some in this short film, but the last 20 minutes or so is superbly scary and overall it's a very smart script in my view.  Making the heroine mute (she emphatically is not in the book) was a stroke of genius, I think.

6. DRAGONWYCK (1946)
Source Dragonwyck (1944), by Anya Seton

life at Dragonwyck offers many surprises--many of them unpleasant
(Vincent Price and Gene Tierney)

This film seems not as well known as it should be today, I'm not sure why.  It's a terrific period Gothic film, sumptuously set and shot and with a powerful performance by the leading man, Vincent Price.  There's mystery, murder, madness and ghosts--and did I mention Vincent Price?

For me, growing up as a kid in the 1970s who loved vintage horror films, of course I was well-familiar with Vincent Price.  But at that time he was a genial, campy elderly veteran of television.  Oh look, there's Vincent Price guest starring with Don Ho on that Brady Bunch two-parter (or was it a three-parter?) in Hawaii!  (Don't wipe out, Greg!)  Hey, there he is on The Donny and Marie Show!  I'm surprised Price wasn't in the Star Wars Christmas Special.  (Wait, was he?)  Well, at least he got to do that spooky rap on Michael Jackson's hit song and video Thriller, that is pretty damn cool.  I remember him talking about it on The Tonight Show when Joan Rivers was subbing for Johnny Carson.

Not being a great fan of all those William Castle and Roger Corman drive-in shockers which titillated kids in the Fifties and Sixties, for which Price became best known, I never really saw anything he was in that seemed actually scary to me until I saw those two Dr. Phibes films from the 1970s, which were full of the colorful mod style of The Avengers television series, episodes of which director Robert Fuest also directed.  (I forgive him for giving us The Devil's Rain and Ernest Borgnine as Satan.)  Vincent Price was larger than life, and these cheeky but stylishly gory films work, for me anyway.

You have to go earlier in Price's career for the fine "serious" film performances (well, there was that very late turn in the tad slumberous The Whales of August, with Bette Davis and Lilian Gish).  He's good in the classic mystery Laura (1944) and the melodrama Leave Her to Heaven (1945), but those are actress Gene Tierney's films, not his.  However, Dragonwyck, another Forties film which he did with Gene Tierney, sees Vince stealing scene after scene from his gorgeous gal co-star.

tyrannical yet tormented
When Dragonwyck starts, it is 1844.  Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney)--a simple young God-fearing Connecticut farm girl--  after persuasion of her puritanical father is taken to live with her fabulously wealthy distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, who resides in splendor with his wife, Johana (Vivienne Osborne), at their opulent New York Hudson River estate, Dragonwyck.  The Van Ryns want Miranda to look after the couple's young daughter, Katrine. 

At first Miranda is awed and thrilled with her new surroundings, but she starts to finds things at Dragonwyck decidedly...strange. Nicholas and Joahana's relationship doesn't seem quite...right.  And what is it about all the white oleander in the house? And just who is playing that haunting harpsichord tune in the dead of night?

Oh and there's some political stuff about the Van Ryn estate tenants and their dissatisfaction with their rents (Harry Morgan, later of M*A*S*H, pops up here) and there's that kindly young democratic doctor neighbor, Jeff Turner, played, woodenly, by Glenn Langan (Kent Smith where were you?).  Just how many kindly doctors were in these films, anyway?  But let's get back to Vincent Price.

As a leading man Price was banished to horror films, the point of no return being that string of popular sci-fi and mystery horror flicks he made in the late Fifties (The Fly/The Return of the Fly/The House on Haunted Hill/The Tingler/The Bat).  Hollywood just didn't know what to do with him as a "straight" leading man, seemingly, though Dragonwyck showed the way, had it but been heeded.  (Glenn Langan's dull Dr. Turner can't be taken seriously as a leading man.) 

Price makes a magnificent Byronic hero/anti-hero type, proud and regal, autocratic and aristocratic, defiant yet tormented. Price and his second wife were, incidentally, great friends indeed of Hugh Wheeler, who, as readers of this blog will certainly know, was one-half of the Patrick Quentin mystery writing team.  What a shame Price was never cast in a Patrick Quentin film!

Mary Grant Price, Hugh Wheeler and Vincent Price in Tijuana, Mexico in 1950
four years after Dragonwyck

Dragonwyck was the first film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who was soon to win back-to-back directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).  His last directing Oscar nomination was for the classic mystery film Sleuth (1972, with Laurence Olivier again and Michael Caine.

Well, that's all for now.  Come back to visit the rest of the haunts I've chosen for you--if you dare!!  Be warned, it's a dark and stormy night....

Sunday, October 21, 2018

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Felicity Worthington Shaw, aka Anne Morice (1916-1989), and Her Life in Crime Fiction

Between 1970 and 1990, Anne Morice published 25 detective novels (the last of them posthumously).  All but two of them were part of the Tessa Crichton series, Tessa Crichton being a professional actress and lighthearted though pertinacious amateur sleuth.  After 1973 all of the Anne Morice mysteries were published in both the UK and the US, and in the latter country a few titles were reprinted in pb in the Eighties by Bantam, as part of their "Murder Most British" series, which included such stalwarts from both past and then-present as Agatha Christie (at the time Bantam controlled the American copyrights to nine Christie titles), Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy Simpson, Catherine Aird and Elizabeth Daly

Not bad company I would say!  Morice earlier had joined additional distinguished company when she became a member of the Detection Club in 1976, the same year as Margaret Yorke and a year before Ruth Rendell, not to mention two years before Reginald Hill

Despite this onetime seeming popularity, however, Anne Morice's novels are out-of-print today and there are very few posts about her writing on the internet, with practically nothing on her life.  (Even her given birth year, 1918, is mistaken.)  This is surprising not merely because at one time in the recent past she was a fairly popular author, apparently, but because her family background was rather interesting indeed.

The author was born Felicity Anne Worthington Shaw in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, on February 18, 1916 (not in 1918, as book sites commonly state).  Her parents were Harry Edward Worthington (1867-1936), a "respected and loved" village doctor, and his rather younger wife Muriel Rose Morice (1881-1956).  Besides Felicity, the couple had three other daughters: Elizabeth (born 1907), Angela Muriel Darita (born 1912-1999) and Yvonne (born 1918).

All seemingly a pretty unexceptional provenance for an English mystery writer--yet in fact Felicity's complicated ancestry was like something out of a classic English mystery, with several cases of children born on the wrong side of the blanket to prominent sires and their humbly born paramours.

Her father Harry Worthington was the son of George Fitch Jennings Worthington, an apothecary and boardinghouse keeper, who in 1868 authored the earnest guide Bathing: Its Uses and Advantages, Shewing When and How to Bathe.  However, his wife Muriel Rose had a much more vivid story. 

Muriel Rose Morice was the natural daughter of Charles John Morice, a Harrow graduate and footballer who played in the 1872 Scotland/England match.  He later became a stockbroker, like his father Charles Walter Morice, his brothers and his nephew Percy John de Paravicini, son of Baron James Prior de Paravacini and Charles Morice's only surviving sister, Valentina Antoinette Sampayo Morice.  Baron de Paravicini and his family resided as Riverside House in Datchet, Berkshire.  (Actress Billie Whitelaw owned the house on the Sixties.)

Riverside House, Datchet, Berkshire, home of Anne Morice's great-aunt
Baroness Valentina Antoinette Sampayo Morice de Paravicini.  Whew!

Charles Morice's grandfather, John Morice, was a Scottish merchant who settled for a time in Lisbon, Portugal, where he married Charles' and Valentina's mother, Marie Valentine O'Neill.  I'm guessing that through marriage there was a good deal of Catholic blood in this family.

Footballer Charles Morice played the fields of romance as well.  Two years before the 1872 Scotland/England football match, he fathered with Clementina Frances Turvey, daughter of  coachman George Turvey, a son, Charles Ernest Turvey. It was not until three decades later, apparently, that the couple finally would marry (in Ireland), after Clementina had borne another son with Charles, in 1893, whom the couple named William Charles Morice.

In between these two births, another child was born to Charles Morice, the aforementioned Muriel Rose Morice, mother of Felicity.  Like her half-brothers, Muriel Rose was of natural birth, being the daughter of Rebecca Garnett Gould, a dressmaker who was the daughter of Yorkshire tailor Joseph Garnett and the widow of schoolmaster George Richard Cambermere Gould.  Rebecca passed away just four years after Muriel Rose's birth, leaving Muriel to be raised by her half-sister Katherine "Kitty" Gould Richardson, who recently had wed a commercial traveler. (Many years later, in 1914, two years after the death of her first husband, Kitty would make a prestigious second marriage, wedding Alfred Douglas-Hamilton, a connection of the Dukes of Hamilton.)

Frederick Lonsdale
National Portrait Gallery, London
Muriel Rose lived with her half-sister Kitty in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, where she met local doctor Harry Worthington when Harry was treating her for measles.  The couple wed in 1904, when she was 22 and he was 36.  (Not content with the actual substantial age difference, Muriel Rose later falsely told people, including her daughters, that she was 30 years younger than Harry.)  Together Harry and Muriel Rose had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1907, but Muriel Rose's later three daughters--Angela, Felicity and Yvonne--were fathered by another man, a fact later related by Angela in a tell-all book (more on this book below).

All through the 1910s Muriel Rose, the "pretty little wife" of Birchington's beloved village doctor, carried on with other men, the most steady lover of whom was the married London playwright Frederick Leonard Lonsdale (1881-1954), author of On Approval, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and other popular stage works, many of which were later adapted as films.  Supposedly Fredrick originally had attempted a seduction of Muriel Rose's beautiful elder half-sister, Kitty, only to have her advise him to "Go and amuse the little sister."  He promptly did so--and how!

With his increasing stage success in the Twenties, Frederick's interest in Muriel Rose evaporated, however.  He arranged for his secretary to send his cast off lover 100 pounds annually for each of his illegitimate daughters, provided the two never met again.  Angela Worthington vividly and somewhat bitterly recalled the result:

His offer was accepted.  From that moment forth my mother canceled out love from her life.  She taught us that men have no feelings whatever and that they never, never, never speak the truth about anything (unless they are good and unattractive like Harry, and that does not count).  The man she had loved had proved a bastard, and didn't give a damn about the Love Children.  He didn't either.  I have never had a kiss from a mother or father. 

As this suggests, the Worthington girls lived rather strange lives.  The three younger daughters had not much to do with their elder half-sister Elizabeth, who had been sent to a "rotten boarding school which she loathed."  They were permitted to leave their nursery only by permission of their Nanny, Angela recalled: "Mummy was not going to have small children 'rampaging around the house.'  Even then I knew this was because she 'entertained' in her pretty bedroom on the floor below.

Later in life their wayward mother explained to them that "Poor Harry's impotent, you know....He can't do it--Thank God!"  Inconveniently for Muriel Rose, daughter Angela explained, she "needed men physically," though "for a woman of her class, that was something to be deeply ashamed of.  And affairs could be very messy, especially in a small, tight community like Birchington."

Muriel Rose seems to have been a woman of golden flights and fancies, who couldn't be satisfied merely with her life with an impotent, unattractive (though happily well-off) husband whom she didn't love.  She wanted something more dazzling out of life.  At some point she had adopted a suggestive new name for herself, Lucy Glitters.  She told her girls that her father, Charles Morice, had christened her with this appellation on account of his having won a bet on a horse by that name on the day she was born. 

Jesus in the nursery
He is meek & he is mild
He became a little child
This all sounds highly romanticized (apparently the girls never knew their mother's name was really the prosaic Muriel Rose), but in fact there once indeed was a pedigree English racehorse named Lucy Glitters, who had been born four years before Muriel Rose.  Presumably the horse had been named for the character "Lucy Glitters" in R. S. Surtees' popular novel Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour (1853), wherein the title character weds Lucy Glitters, a former showgirl who is, in Surtees' memorable words, "tolerably virtuous."  Lucy Glitters does seem a better appellation for the well-admired wife of Dr. Worthington than Muriel Rose.

Yet all that glittered was not gold.  There were what Angela called her mother's "black rages" when her bright romantic fantasies were dashed.  Angela recalls a day when she

must have been making some tiresome noise in our nursery.  This more often than not exceedingly charming and amusing woman [Lucy Glitters] appeared at the door in her dressing gown, seized me violently and, pushing me ahead of her, hit me repeatedly on the head.  I fell down the stairs to the landing, finally hurting myself quite badly, on an oak chest on which she had carefully arranged her willow pattern china. 

Worse yet came when the girls' nanny was sacked. Nanny Bowler was a devout Chapel-going Wesleyan Methodist.  "God-fearing, goody-goody, wispy and delicate," recalled Angela, Nanny Bowler placed pictures in the nursery of Jesus Christi which depicted the Christian savior as a "droopy, rather colourless man, draped in a white sheet, clutching a lamb.  He had a sickly-sweet expression and a halo." 

Nanny adored Jesus and Dr. Worthington but held the doctor's wife in rather lower estimation.  Faithful to the doctor's dictates, Nanny took the girls swimming every summer.  (Dr. Worthington seems to have been influenced by his father's bathing pamphlet.) Although she thought salt water bathing "a lot of nonsense," Nanny, Angela in tow, would pack Felicity and Yvonne "into the pram along with buckets and spades, towels, bathing costumes, warm clothes to change into and Petit Beurre biscuits, and [with them] set out for Minnis Bay and the beach."

Nanny got the sack when Angela was around seven, after Nanny had a "blazing row" with Lucy Glitters below the staircase to the nursery over Lucy's "continuing infidelities."  It was not merely another day of "black rage," however, but

also a day of growing up, of being aware for the first time of other people's misery, and for the first time of feeling affection for Nanny, even gratitude, compassion, if you like.  I decided in a moment that I, too, would get out, but voluntarily, and as soon as I could.  I felt impotent fury toward my mother, and throughout my childhood, that never quite left me. 

It was at Quex Park, the "Big House" in Birchington-on-Sea, that Angela found out she was "illegitimate," when she overheard (and was meant to overhear, she thought) a conversation between the mistress of the house, Hannah Powell-Cotton, and her girls' nanny, in which the nanny exclaimed of Angela, "Well, of course she's difficult, isn't she, illegitimate and all that?  Mr. Lonsdale, her father, doesn't even work!  Poor Dr. Worthington is what we all say."

Major Powell-Cotton of Quex Park,
African explorer and big game hunter.
The Worthington girls pretended that
he was secret Service
Quex Park was owned by celebrated English explorer and hunter Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, creator of the Powell-Cotton Museum, located on the grounds of Quex Park.  Of the Major Angela recalled that he "had a beard and we hardly ever saw more of him than a glimpse, a detached smile: I would pretend to myself that he was Secret Service."  She remembered the Major's museum too, as well as an even more frightful exhibit, the Major's wife:

Major Powell-Cotton had an amazing museum full of wild animals he had shot and stuffed: elephants, lions, tigers, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes--nothing had been spared....The Major [also] had a huge, beautiful, patronizing wife called Hannah and I wished that he had shot and stuffed her too.

Ouch!  Considering that the Powell-Cotton daughters, Diana and Antoinette, contemporaries of Angela and Felicity,  were still alive at the time (1986), this was a pretty blunt comment.

Angela had a better opinion of neighbors Gladys Cooper, the noted stage (and later film) actress, and the influential actor-manger Gerald du Maurier, father of future bestselling author Daphne, who was a bit older than the Worthington daughters and proved a rather remote girl:

I remember Daphne du Maurier as a small girl as if she were in my garden now, with her wonderful blonde hair and straight, slim body.  She invariably dressed in an emerald green stockinet pullover and shorts but never played with the rest of us: always, when I recall her, she is lying face down in some long grass, reading, never talking, never joining in, always reading.  Her sisters, Angela an Jeanne, were fairly friendly to me.

du Maurier sisters (Daphne on left)
neighbors of the Worthington girls, three of whom, including
Felicity Worthington (future mystery write Anne Morice),
were actually daughters of playwright Frederick Lonsdale
In the 1920s, after  "poor Dr. Worthington" began exhibiting symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and he had been packed off by his wife to a "tiny cottage on the Powell-Cotton estate," attended by a nurse, "a huge woman in a pleated white bonnet," Lucy Glitters, now in straitened financial circumstances (by her standards), moved with her daughters to a maisonette above a cake shop in London at 16a Lower Belgrave Street.*

*(This was located very close to the address of the notorious 1974 Lord Lucan murder.)

According to Angela, Lucy Glitters' move to Belgravia was a daring gamble "to help her daughters achieve what she believed to be their rightful position in life":

"In private she would still yell and scream and lambast us for being lazy, irresponsible and ill-mannered, but [in public] she exercised great charm" and she gave the girls a "really inspiring sense of the enjoyment of day-to-day living, no matter what the problems were."  Angela could well imagine people saying of her mother, "you could almost say the mother was a lady."

Angela went into acting for a profession, and her mother's theatrical ambition for her is said to have been, though in her memoir Angela doesn't discuss the matter, the inspiration for Noel Coward's amusingly biting 1935 song "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington":

The profession is overcrowded
And the struggle's pretty tough
And admitting the fact
She's burning to act
That isn't quite enough
She has nice hands
Give the wretched girl her due
But don't you think her bust is too
Developed for her age?
I repeat, Mrs. Worthington
Sweet Mrs. Worthington
Don't put your daughter on the stage

The greatest contribution to acting made by this "wretched girl" Angela came when she married Robin Fox and became the mother of actors Edward (1937) and James (1939) and film producer Robert (1952).  I remember Edward Fox quite well from 1970s films, having as a child been taken by my father to see the classic crime thriller The Day of the Jackal (at the age of seven!) and, five tears later, the sprawling war epic A Bridge too Far.  (In the latter film Fox and Anthony Hopkins made the greatest impression on me out of the huge all-star cast; having recently re-watched the film, I well see why--Fox deserved his BAFTA award for this role, even if it was essentially for one bravura scene.) 

In the 1980s I recall James Fox in the pivotal role of the school superintendent and decent Englishman Richard Fielding in David Lean's adaptation of EM Forster's A Passage to India.  Christie fans should also recall Edward Fox, superbly droll, as the butler Gudgeon in the 2004 adaptation of the Hercule Poirot mystery The Hollow.  And Colin Dexter fans that James Fox is the father of Laurence Fox, aka Sergeant Hathaway in the Lewis mystery series.  Interestingly Laurence Fox attended Harrow like his noted footballer and stockbroker great-great-grandfather, Charles Morice.

I had no idea, when I first read an Anne Morice mystery back in the 1990s, that the late Anne Morice, aka Felicity Worthington Shaw, was an aunt of the Fox brothers.  Angela Worthington Fox details much of this is her first volume of memoirs, Slightly Foxed (though a good bit of the above is not in the book).

a Fox as the Jackal
Although Felicity, in contrast with her sister, eschewed the acting profession, she married a director, Anthony Shaw, and like her sister had three children.  After writing a couple of mainstream novels, she successfully turned to mystery writing in 1970, when she was 54 years old.  It's not surprising given her family history that her lead character was an actress.  More soon on Felicity and some of her crime fiction!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Poisoned Apple: A Taste of Power (1966), by W. J. Burley

"But are the police the best people to investigate a thing of this sort?...I was thinking of Dr. Pym...."
Sanders swore as the lighted match burned down to his fingers and he dropped it on to the carpet.
"Pym?  you mean Henry Pym?"
"You know him?"
Sanders laughed.  "Who doesn't?  His father was my tutor at Oxford.  But he wouldn't do it, the man's almost a recluse."
"He's been mixed up in one or two murder cases."
"So I've heard--he's a friend of some big noise at the Yard--but this is quite different!  The very idea is absurd!"

"Yes,"  Henry agreed.  "What fascinates me is the arrogance of these schoolteachers.  It's so ingrained they don't even know it's there."

--A Taste of Power (1966), by W. J. Burley

Silver Age crime writer W. J. Burley (1914-2002) has been dead for 16 years, the last of his 23 Superintendent Charles Wycliffe detective novels having been published three years earlier in the year 2000.  (The fittingly titled Wycliffe and the Last Lap was left unfinished at the author's death at the age of 88.)  A television series  based on the Wycliffe books was aired originally in the 1990s and the Wycliffes are still in print today; but how much read is Burley now, I wonder? 

Despite this laudatory 2006 piece on the late author from Martin Edwards, a fellow fan of his work, I don't get the impression that a great many people are reading Burley these days.  If this is so, I think it's a shame, as Burley should qualify, in my view, as one of the more notable British mystery writers from the last third of the 20th century.  Personally I like the body of Burley's work  better than that of the late PD James (sacrilege!), just as I prefer Burley's Wycliffe to James's Adam Dalgliesh. 

Although Burley became identified with Wycliffe, he first detective novel, A Taste of Power, saw the debut another detective, Dr. Henry Pym.  While Wycliffe, who debuted in the oddly-titled Three-Toed Pussy two years later, is an archetypal example of the introspective (if not depressive) police detective so popular today, Dr. Pym is a deliberate throwback to the brilliant amateur detective from the golden days of detective fiction yore and his investigations are exercises in classic fair play ratiocination.

In his second of three careers, Burley, a native of Cornwall (where the Wycliffe mysteries are set) became a schoolmaster, teaching biology for two decades at Newquay Grammar School.  (He retired in 1974, I presume because due to his success at crime writing.)  Not altogether surprisingly, then, Burley's first detective novel is a school mystery, and a very good one at that.

A Taste of Power belongs to that great body of British mysteries that portray primary/secondary schools as natural places for murders.  (I don't believe that college mysteries are nearly as depressing a body of work.)  Reading this novel I was reminded of books like Christopher Bush's acerbic Golden Age classic, The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934) (recently reissued by Dean Street Press), Leo Bruce's gloomy Death at St. Asprey's School (1967) and Robert Barnard's sardonic Little Victims (1983). 

Not coincidentally, these three latter authors all taught school as well at one time or another and all of them hated it (though Barnard was a college professor, and in his books he blasted colleges as well--along with many other things). Are women teachers turned crime writers as sour on primary/secondary education as a vocation?  Gladys Mitchell and Elizabeth Lemarchand were not. (See Lemarchand's contemporaneous girls school mystery, Death of an Old Girl.)

Had Burley turned on teaching by the mid-Sixties, when he was writing Power?  I don't know, but he takes pains in a prefatory note to explain to readers that "My teaching colleagues have been, generally, pleasant and patient people, but it is very difficult to write stories about pleasant and patient people."

And, to be sure, the teachers at the coeducational Huntley-May Grammar School fit the bill when it comes to coeducational unpleasantness.  Someone is sending poison pen letters to teachers and students alike, making all sorts of nasty allegations.  Sensing that the faculty has reached an emotional crisis of backbiting and stabbing yet chary of involving the police, Headmaster Tristram-Jones, a relatively new arrival to the school, seeks the help of amateur detective Dr. Henry Pym.  But of course!

Pym is that mythic fictional figure, the Great Detective, endowed with independent means and strange fancies, which the author, fully conscious of the tradition in which he is working, takes time to detail at some length:

Henry Lancaster Pym, M.A., D.Phil., D.Sc....was the sole survivor of an ancient and wealthy family, and despite the ravages of death duties, he was still extremely well off.  It was said that he could lay claim to a peerage had he been so minded and Henry would have been the last to deny such a rumour.  But the Pyms were of a scholarly bent.  Henry's father, now dead, had been a fellow of a minor Oxford college.  He had believed himself to be an authority on fifteenth-century England and had written a very bad book on the Wars of the Roses, which a critic had described as a "rather belated propaganda for the House of Lancaster."  It was this partisan foible of Pym Senior which gave Henry his baptismal name and cast a blight on his formative years.

Georgian slip-ware teapot (see antiques atlas)
Resultantly hating history, young Pym went to Oxford to read zoology, which he loved, all the while finding zoologists themselves "impossible." So at the age of 30, Pym, relying on his private means, retired to a village in Cornwall, taking up residence at a house he had built called "The Labyrinth." 

There in splendid and eccentric isolation he continued his zoological studies, establishing himself as an authority on chilopods and diplopods (centipedes and millipedes); and carrying on a wide range of secondary interests, including "gardening, English water colours, horseracing, seventeenth-century English slip-ware, Restoration drama, music and criminology."

There's more, but you get the idea.  In writing Power, Burley was going for a full-fledged eccentric genius amateur crime solver, and he succeeded with such in my estimation.  Pym also has a manservant, Perkin, and a pretty young secretary, Susan, who accompanies him on his sleuthing excursions.  Susan is required to wear dresses rather than slacks in Pym's presence, an edict she challenges but to which she ultimately complies.  She does get to call her boss by his first name though. Hey, it was the Sixties.

I didn't sense that there were carryings-on between employer and employee--how would Henry Pym have time for hanky-panky with all that attention lovingly devoted to slip-ware and watercolors?  The chauvinistic tang of this again recalls classic mystery, though the best character in the book is a middle-aged woman teacher in my estimation.

Tristram-Jones is able to get Pym to emerge from Cornwall to search for the poison pen writer (assisted by Susan), but it's not long after Pym arrives that a suspicious death takes place among the faculty, when one of the schoolmistresses is found dead at the bottom of a cliff.  Accident, suicide or...murder???  What do you think?

I found A Taste of Power a fine mystery, with some excellent examples of true detection, something that was becoming increasingly rare in mysteries of a a half-century ago.  (Authorities Barzun & Taylor agree.)  For those who like detection with some dramatic content, there is also an interesting, if somewhat depressing, view as well of middle-age and midlife crises, with the portrayal of proud and able though variously thwarted people suffering from mounting fear that the lives which they had wanted for themselves have eluded them, perhaps irrevocably.  It's a view I've encountered before in English school mysteries, written by English mystery writers who seem to have been rather relieved for their own parts to have left teaching behind them.

Dr. Pym would appear in one more detective novel (where his interest in slip-ware would prove useful) before W. J. Burley irrevocably abandoned him for in favor of his cop Wycliffe.  Without meaning to cast shade at the excellent Wycliffe series, I feel that this was a mistake artistically.  However, the times were not so very understanding and tolerant of odd and privileged amateur sleuths.   Wycliffe became a prototype of the modern fictional police detective, while Pym was cast aside and largely forgotten within a few years. (Marvel Comics fans will know that Pym shares his name with the superhero, a member of the Avengers, known variously in different guises as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket.  This Dr. Henry Pym debuted in comics in 1962.)

Unfortunately, A Taste of Power is out-of-print today, and pretty rare, as it was never published in the US. It is certainly worth seeking out, however, for fans of a classic detective fiction--particularly  that frequently dark and gloomy subgenre, the English school mystery.

English watercolor (courtesy Passing Tramp)

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Art of Detection: Murder of an M.P.! (In Search of a Villain) (1927), by Robert Gore-Browne

"Have you noticed," [Lucien Clay] asked us as he bent over his packing, "that while films are quite untrue to Life, Life is very often true to films?"
    I confessed that I had not.
    "At Lincot, for instance, you might have been living inside the brain of a Hollywood movie magnate.  [Sir Arthur] Baxter would have been his beau ideal of an Old English country gentleman.  In reality he was a very average die-hard back-bencher.  Only a communist would have taken him seriously, just as he took communists seriously.  He was a precise, rather fussy man, but not to the point of murder."
    "He was a J.P.," I remarked, "and did valuable service on various boards."
    "I dare say," said Clay. who seemed to like to monopolise the conversation, "he hadn't much to do."

    "But we did not fully understand the part [X and Y] had played in the tragedy."
    "So far from fully," interrupted Clay, "that we began by arresting Rothmann."

--Murder of an M.P.! (In Search of a Villain), by Robert Gore-Browne

Read it and keep the secret of its ending!
Eight years ago I included Robert Gore-Browne's Murder of an M.P.!: A Study of Detection on a list of my favorite Golden Age detective novels.  The novel was highly praised in their Catalogue of Crime by Golden Age detective fiction authorities Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, who quoted the second passage above ("so far from fully") as one of the "gems" of mystery literature.

With all the reprinting going on of late, I thought to myself, why not become an advocate here for this title?  Cause it's a damn good detective novel, as I see it.

Robert Gore-Browne's mystery, which was published in 1927 by Collins (as well as in the US, under the title In Search of a Villain and by Robert Gore-Brown, with no "e" on the end), introduces as amateur sleuth the arrogant and bibulous artist Lucien Clay, who appears not only here but in Death on Delivery, which was published in the US and UK two years later (in the US under the title By Way of Confession). The latter novel, unfortunately from my perspective, is more of a thriller.  Also appearing in both books is mild and phlegmatic Scotland Yard policeman Inspector Heppel, one of the more credible English coppers from the period.

The other key character in Murder of an M.P.! is Lucien Clay's "Watson" (or might I say his "Hastings"), a rather stolid London stockbroker by the name of Dale.  He and Clay first meet in the opening chapter of the novel on a nasty night in Soho at a thinly-populated Italian restaurant.  The conservative Dale at first dismisses Clay as a "dissolute Bohemian," but he soon realizes that the huge, red-bearded artist has a keen eye not only for painting subjects but for murder suspects. 

Clay, who boasts that the "Clays are the oldest family in Kent," is given to airy dismissals of tradesmen and middle class morality and he makes the occasional "humorous" remark about Jews that was then fashionable in the pages of other Golden Age mysteries, including those from novels by greats like Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley.  I find him an outsize, though perfectly believable, character from his time.  He makes a memorable, if not always likable, Great Detective figure.

At the restaurant Dale and Clay get into a discussion about the police and Clay proves exceedingly dismissive of the mental capacities boys in blue, including even his friend Inspector Heppel, who is also at the restaurant.  Heppel has tailed there a murder suspect, a pale unshaven Russian-born Jew named Max Rothmann, who had been arrested for inciting violence during the General Strike of 1926, which set many in the middle class against left-wing "radicals." Dale distastefully compares Rothmann in physical appearance to a suet pudding, "if a suet pudding can be imagined that needs a shave before dinner."

Clay insists that policeman, being of middle class origin, cannot understand murder cases that are out of the common rut.  The "perfect sleuth must be well bred," he airily pronounces (like himself).

Clay tells Heppel and Dale that Rothmann cannot possibly be guilty, from a psychological standpoint, of the crime of which he is accused: the dastardly murder, in the locked library of his country house, Lincot, of Sir Arthur Baxter, a conservative member of parliament known for his leadership of "the movement 'to turn out the Reds.'

Shortly before midnight on the night of the murder, the Lincot butler, Freeman, discovered Sir Arthur dead in his library.  He had been fatally stabbed in the back with a bayonet--a Russian bayonet from the Battle of Balaclava--that had been mounted on the wall.

from one field of death to another

Rothmann was known to have been admitted to see Sir Arthur Baxter in his library shortly before Sir Arthur's death (an odd circumstance in itself).  The radical leftist left by the French window to the terrace, leaving the doors to the library locked.  The terrace flower and gravel beds show that on the evening of the murder no one entered the house by means of the French window, and the other windows and doors to the house were locked in the evening.  So if it wasn't Rothmann who killed Sir Arthur, as Lucien Clay declares ("Trust a bobby to down on a Dago," he sneers), the killer seemingly had to have been someone who came from inside the house itself.  These individuals are, aside from the minor servants (who alibi each other):

*Sir Arthur's nephew, John ("I refused to believe that a young fellow of one's own class, outlook, and upbringing, could murder an old, unarmed man who was his near relation and who had shown him every kindness," declares Dale loyally.)
*His cousin and unpaid housekeeper, Sophie de Manca (Young Sophie Baxter married a purportedly wealthy Portuguese count, who died in the African colonies, pronounces Clay, of "gin aggravated by malaria" and left his widow only worthless shares in a gold mine, throwing her on her cousin's benevolence.)
*His lovely young typist and adopted daughter, Delia Eyre ("Typed his speeches about the Red Peril and the Hand of Moscow," explains Heppel.)
*His plump and platitudinous private secretary, Lewis Hope
*His butler, Freeman (He insists "on putting out a clean collar...every day," complains Clay.  "Face like a cod.")  But then butler never really do it--do they?

Then there's the mysterious American who was hanging around Lincot (you knew there would be one), who claims to to be a newspaperman, but is he really?

This has all the ingredients, masterfully blended, of classic English mystery from the High Golden Age: country houses, a floor plan. a knight, a butler, a body in a library, a pretty girl, scheming adventuresses, unwashed Russian Communists, quirky Americans, General Strike references, gratuitous potshots at any non-English nationality/ethnicity (tongue-in-cheek, I think), a brilliant and condescending amateur sleuth, his idiot friend (Dale really is like Christie's Hastings), a murder weapon taken from a trophy wall and an audacious but fairly clued murder.  And the writing is rather bright and witty for the period.  Maybe I'm asking for trouble with this pronouncement, but I can't imagine any fan of classic English crime not liking this one (if you can get past occasional indelicate comments from some characters).

So who was the author, Robert Gore-Browne?  More coming on him in the next post!