Sunday, November 18, 2018

Death Drives a Woodie: The Station Wagon Murder (1940), by Milton Propper

Early in the morning we'll be startin' out
Some honeys will be coming along
We're loading up our Woodie
With our boards inside
And headin' out singing our song

--"Surfin' Safari" (1962), The Beach Boys

We would ride the surf together
While our love would grow
In my Woodie I would take you everywhere I go

--"Surfer Girl" (1963), The Beach Boys

A zebra-striped hearse with a broken headlight came in off the highway.  It disgorged, from front and rear, four boys and two girls who all looked like siblings.  Their hair, bleached by sun and peroxide, was long on the boys and short on the girls so that it was almost uniform.  They wore blue sweatshirts over bathing suits.  Their faces were brown and closed.  

--The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), by Ross Macdonald

"The Havens" was really in the country, alone in a cool, refreshing darkness which magnified the stars.  The only sounds were the piercing chirp of the crickets and the distant purr of a motor.  The station wagon stood with Eva Temple's roadster and [Allen] Davis's maroon coupe in the drive of pressed dirt that pierced the tall hedge.  A (Ford) Standard, it was olive brown, with sides and back of varnished boards, and a metal roof.  The upper half was glass, now rolled down, except for a rear which was canvas, and had a small window.  Three rows of wooden benches, padded with leather, could comfortably seat nine passengers.

--The Station Wagon Murder (1940), by Milton Propper

lap of luxury

I. The Saga of the Woodie
By the time The Beach Boys sang both chirpily and yearningly about their "Woodies" in the early Sixties, the Woodie station wagon automobile to which they referred was but a kitschy relic, a symbol of faded luxury from bygone America.  In the heyday of the youthful and exuberant American rock group, California beach bums gathered their sun burnt bodies and their boards in and on top of roomy if dilapidated secondhand wood-paneled station wagons, with the result that these "Woodies" became synonymous with surfers and the sort of nomadic, free-spirited life which they represented. (In the case of Ross Macdonald's Sixties California youth novel, quoted above, the titular vehicle was, symbolically and characteristically of the sober-minded author, a zebra-striped hearse.)

Woodies, however, were a much different proposition back in 1940, when detective novelist Milton Propper, Philadelphia's bard of alibi busting, published The Station Wagon Murder.  Back then Woodies were the gilded and gleaming chariots of the rich and famous, like Hollywood power couple Clark Gable and Carole Lombardexplains Terry Conway in "Woodies: Americans Originals." 

How exclusive the cars once were is indicated by extant sales figures. 

Carole, Clark and Woodie
In 1932, the decade when the Woodie market was composed of wealthy businessmen and Hollywood film stars, the entire auto mobile industry built just 1418 stations wagons, notes Greg Beato in "End of the Road: Some Thoughts on the Death of the Station Wagon."

Only after the Second World War did the station wagon become ubiquitous and, finally, like all ubiquitous things, derided.  Station wagon sales increased in the decade between 1946 and 1956 from 29,000 to over 700,000, finally peaking nearly a decade late at nearly a million in 1965. This was around the time I was born.  I can well recall our family station wagon, a big ugly yellow(ish) thing that was built like a tank.

Once around 1972, I was playing around in the wagon with a friend, when we were pretending to be astronauts.  (I think we had just seen The Three Stooges in Orbit on television; I recall thinking that the Stooges' Martian nemeses were very scary looking.)  One of us--okay, me, I think--accidentally kicked the car into reverse and, as that monstrous yellow(ish) behemoth rolled down my family's long driveway to crash finally into a tree (it seemed like it took forever to get there), two terrified boys jumped out of the doors--for their lives, as they imagined.  I spent most of the rest of the day in hiding--for my life, as I imagined.

On the road--Destination, murder!
So I don't really miss the late lamented station wagon, at least no more than I do Wonder Bread, Oscar Meyer bologna, Velveeta Cheese and Campbell's Chicken 'n Stars Soup.  (So salty!)  However, the station wagons of my childhood were not things of carefully crafted beauty like the old luxuriously paneled Woodies from the Thirties and Forties. 

"Polished and lacquered," writes Terry Conway, "the wood added an element of style to the metal frames.  Some of the panels were hewn from rare birds-eye maple, resplendent with natural whorls and unique flowing patterns....long white ash slats [lined] the interior roofs."  Not surprisingly Woodies were most often found parked in affluent American communities and luxury hotels, country clubs and national parks, or moving majestically to and from railway stations, loaded to the rafters, so to speak, with swanky luggage (see Woodie Wagons).

II. A Dead Body in Bucks
Coming from an upper class Philadelphia family himself, in the neighborhood of Roxborough, Milton Propper knew the life of city's affluent well enough to write about in his mysteries.  But in The Station Wagon Murder he spread his wings a bit, setting the novel primarily among the affluent in Bucks County, one of the southeastern Pennsylvania counties that rings the City of Brotherly Love.

PA-1 Congressional District, showing the main scene of
of Tommy Rankin's murder investigation in The Station Wagon Murder
For the immediately earlier version of the district see
this blog piece of mine on Pittsburgh area crime writer KC Constantine

In the recent American election the US congressional districts in eastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and its hinterland, went entirely Democratic with one exception: District No. 1, comprised of Bucks County and a sliver of neighboring Montgomery County.  There GOP incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick managed to hold on (for now).  From the 1940s until 1977, the district was represented by Republicans.  For all but two years between 1977 and 1993, Democrat Peter Kostmayer represented the district, but it then went back to the GOP, remaining with them for all but four years (2007-2011, during which the anti-Bush wave was countered by an anti-Obama wave).

This well-off district represents the exact area where Milton Propper, castigated by mystery genre authority Francis Nevins for toadying to the rich in his books, set The Station Wagon Murder.  Certainly the setting of the novel among the old moneyed class and the really rather snooty is highly traditional, to be sure, but most classic mystery fans, I imagine, won't take issue with that, especially when Propper does such a masterful job of presenting us with a fine formal problem in detection.

III. The Station Wagon Murder
The main action of The Station Wagon Murder takes place around Doylestown, county seat of Bucks, which in 1940 had a population of just under 5000 people.  The novel opens outside Doylestown (named Boyleton in the novel, but let's not worry about that) at "The Haven," the lovely summer country manor of wealthy Oliver and Beatrice Hanna of "Taunton" in the exclusive Chestnut Hill section of northwest Philadelphia.  Staying with the Hannas over the summer are Beatrice's fiery younger sister, Eva Temple, and Beatrice's friend, Eleanor Munson, formerly Miss Fleming of Cincinnati, Ohio.  "She's a divorcee and darned attractive," pantingly pronounces young Allen Davis, handsome swain of Eva, himself obviously quite smitten with the exotic and mysterious siren that is Eleanor Munson, formerly Miss Fleming of Cincinnati, Ohio.

map in The Station Wagon Murder
Dr. Louis Connell is expected late in the evening at The Haven, to check on his patient Oliver Hanna, who suffers, we learn, from a very serious heart complaint.  (On account of his poor health Oliver has mostly retired from the family realty business.) 

Dr. Connell is to arrive by the Reading Railroad from Philadelphia at the Doylestown station and Allen Davis and the ex-Mrs. Munson, both of whom additionally have their own errands to run in town, are heading out in the Hanna's Ford station wagon to pick up the medico.  Allen parks the wagon at the station and he and Eleanor go their separate ways in town, promising to meet back there presently. 

Yet when Allen returns with Dr. Connell Eleanor is nowhere to be seen--alive!  The pair discovers the woman slumped over dead in the station wagon.  She's been stabbed to the heart, pronounces the doctor.

Milton Propper's 12th detective novel
"bristles with complications."  The unraveling
of the plot "is done with the good old
Inspector French type of concentration,
enlivened by plenty of incident.
New York Times Book Review
Fortunately, Peter Benton, Doylestown Chief of Police, knows what to do: call in his old friend Tommy Rankin of the Philadelphia Central Bureau, who happens to be vacationing sixty miles to the north, at Skytop in the Pocono Mountains. 

But naturally!

This situation, where a vacationing cop from another jurisdiction is brought in to solve a case for the floundering locals, petrified of the local "gentry," never seems convincing to me, but I guess if fictional police forces in the US and UK allow condescending gentleman amateurs like Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey to  run their investigations, why not call in Tommy Rankin, who at least is a moonlighting professional and much politer when stepping on local toes?

Once on the scene Rankin soon discovers that alluring Eleanor Munson was nothing less than one of those scheming adventuresses you read about in Golden Age (usually earlier than 1940) crime fiction.  I do miss those quaint days when bad women were portentously dubbed adventuresses.  It sounds evil, sure, but kind of classy too.  I suppose nowadays, however, we would condemn this as unseemly and unacceptable "adventuress shaming."  But certainly scheming Eleanor Munson had a lot to be ashamed about, had she been any better than she should have been!  Which, let me add, she most certainly wasn't.

plenty of room for a body
Suspects start to swarm around Rankin like flies.  Sickly Oliver Hanna, we learn, wasn't up to the job of sexually satisfying his sensual wife.  (That's something you don't find in fastidious Freeman Wills Crofts.)  Was sex-starved Beatrice having an affair with some man and did Eleanor Munson have knowledge of this affair, putting her knowledge to unscrupulous use? 

Eva Temple, of course, was jealous of the attentions Allen was paying Eleanor, though she unconvincingly denies this evident fact to Rankin.  "I'm sure he recognized her intrinsic tawdriness and lack of sincerity," pronounces Eva of Allen, loyally if stiltedly.  It's sure a good thing that men, in judging their sexual affairs, are always put off by intrinsic tawdriness and lack of sincerity!  One might conclude that, when it comes to judging relations between the sexes, this Miss Temple is more ingenuous than little Shirley.  (In the same interview with Rankin, Eva pronounces of Eleanor that "Anyone could see the woman was a parvenu and she didn't really belong [in Bucks County society].  Class will always tell and hers was acquired; she had no genuine refinement, depth or culture." Oh, Miss Temple!)

Straying Allen aside, however, it seems that Eleanor, scheming adventuress that she was, also had her acquisitive eye affixed on other local suckers, erm, I mean fine upstanding gentlemen, as well.  What about, for example, local wealthy bachelor Jerome Maxwell, and Clifford Dennis, that handsome actor over at the swanky Showhouse at the town of New Point?  They seem to have been rather friendly with Eleanor.

At one point Rankin travels to the Showhouse at New Point, which was especially interesting to me since Propper based this place on the Bucks County Playhouse, a summer theater housed in a nearly 230-year-old grist mill at New Hope, Pennsylvania.  The structure was saved from demolition in the 1930s and opened its doors to theatergoers in 1939, just a year before The Station Wagon Murder was published.  With talented owners and managers including playwright Moss Hart, the Playhouse immediately made a name for itself in the theatrical world, as Propper noted in his novel:

To the astonishment of [New Point's] inhabitants, the theater had brought it sudden prosperity and fame.  It was originally a flour mill, of crude plaster, with a cylindrical central tower resembling a silo.  A stream still raced over the falls beside it, but the power wheel lay rotted and motionless.  An unpainted porch, like a marquee, had been built to shelter the box office and entrance.  Another wooden section was added in rear, both an incongruous contrast to the ancient walls.  Outside, near smart limousines and station wagons, eager young folk chatted or bustled about.  They were mostly invading gentry--lovely, stylish, affected "debs," superior youths, and a sprinkling of blatant Bohemians in smocks, berets and outlandish costumes.  

Gotta love those blatant Bohemians in their smocks and berets!

Propper keeps Rankin at the Showhouse for a full chapter, interviewing various theater  (stereo)types, including the callow leading man, the diva leading lady, a shy stagehand named Milton (upon whom Eva Temple's seemingly ironclad alibi depends) and the very GAY! Showhouse props manager, one Leon Gorman. 

In describing flaming Leon, Propper himself drags out from the props closet many of the classic verbal signifiers to indicate to his readers, without directly saying so, that this man may be a homosexual (!):

He was a willowy, too ornate indivudal, combating middle age with gay clothes, and inclined to be supercilious.  But when Rankin explained the information he sought, he proved quite capable of serious cooperation.

OH! Such stereotypes!
Later on Leon, as he ponders Rankin's questions, tosses a "loose wrist" and poses "daintily."  It's disappointing to see Propper, who evidently was a gay man himself, conform to such easy, indeed lazy, gay stereotypes, but the truth is that Propper's fiction abounds in stereotypes, like much of the more classic, or austere if you will, Golden Age detective fiction.  The purists would tell you that this is just how puzzle-oriented detective fiction should be.  Too much characterization, so the purist thinking goes, distracts from the puzzle.

Stereotyping aside, at least Propper concedes that Leon proves "quite capable of serious cooperation" when it comes to the point.  That's something, anyway!

Thankfully lacking in Propper's portrayal of the poor poofy man is the sheer unappetizing venom one finds in Ngaio Marsh's nasty portrayals of gay men, like in Death in Ectasy, where Ngaio's posh but priggish series cop, nicknamed "Handsome Alleyn," sounds like he's tempted to indulge in a spot of impromptu gay-bashing.

Rankin also travels down to Aberdon, Maryland, aka real life Aberdeen, Maryland, near the city of Havre de Grace.  Aberdeen, which had a population of only about 1500 in 1940, lacked Doylestown's "air of prosperity," notes Propper critically, "yet its proximity to the famous race track at Havre de Grace made it, in season, a bustling haven for visitors."  Here Propper refers to the once famed Havre de Grace Racetrack, where many a great race was run by star horses between 1912 and 1950.  Here War Admiral took his first race in 1936 and Seabiscuit ran on his path to glory.

grandstand and clubhouse at defunct racetrack at Havre de Grace
now part of a National Guard armory

Unfortunately, when Tommy Rankin alights at the bus station it's out of racing season and Aberdeen seems merely timeworn and full of, well, hayseeds, at least as they are portrayed by Propper.  The local police chief says ain't right and left, along with "cain't," "allus," etc., and is "uncouth but not stupid," according to the author.  For all I could tell from this Tommy Rankin could have been in my old home state, Alabama.  We seemed quite a fur piece from mystery writer Leslie Ford's "aristocratic" Tidewater Maryland.  (See here.)

ornate clubhouse entrance at
Havre de Grace
But, again, I don't know that this is the way to judge Propper's mysteries.  Yes, the The Station Wagon Murder is populated not only with hicks, but sticks--pure cardboard characters who don't always persuade as people and whose travails we forget as soon as we close the pages of the novel.  Yet while we read these pages these same characters keep a very pretty puzzle going quite nicely, thank you. 

Like his writing idol, Freeman Wills Crofts, Milton Propper was very good at puzzle construction-- and in The Station Wagon Murder Propper did a particularly fine job.  The final resolution of the murder is, in terms of its logistical mechanics, a thing of sheer beauty. "On its face it sounds fantastic and resembles a miracle," concedes Rankin, tantalizing the classic mystery fan no doubt. "But it was as easy as that."

In truth, such murders only look easy in retrospect, after you know the secret.  But I don't have to tell that to you mystery addicts out there, do I?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Black Mass and Cozy Class: The Unexpected Convergence of Whitey Bulger (1929-2018) and Charlotte Macleod (1922-2005)

"I once received a lovely letter from a lady who told me how she had got this book, made herself a cup of tea and drawn the curtains because it was a dismal cold day.  Then she'd set a fire in the fireplace and sat down and read my book.  Isn't that a nice goal for a writer to think about?  It certainly keeps me at my typewriter."  

--Mystery author Charlotte MacLeod in "Murder, She Writes," Interview with Peter Gorner of the Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1988

His attack was lightning fast.  Whitey seized [Debbie Davis] by the throat with his hands and began to shake her like a rag doll.  Debbie, gasping for breath, was dying....Whitey was still not done with the ghastliness.  He handed Stevie a pair of pliers and and instructed him to yank the teeth from the lifeless Debbie Davis to hamper authorities from ever being able to identify her through dental records....Whitey and Stevie wrapped Debbie in plastic, then dragged her body upstairs and out into the late afternoon light.  They threw the bundle into the trunk of a car and drove off.  Later in the  evening they headed to what would become known as the Bulger burial ground--a stretch of marshland along the Neponset River, beneath a bridge connecting Boston's Dorchester neighborhood to the city of Quincy.

--Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss (2013)

Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005)
she of the white gloves and hats
and impeccable grammar
Over a two-decade period (1978 to 1998 to be precise) Canadian-American detective novelist Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005) published 32 crime novels representing no less than four mystery series, all of which to the delight of her fans were brought back into print in the US five years ago by Mysterious Press/Open Road.  Today MacLeod, an Edgar-nominated mystery writer, is considered one of the key progenitors of the modern cozy mystery.  Her books, those who wrote about her were fond of noting, "eschewed gore, graphic violence, sex and vulgar language" while indulging in "a little romance and a lot of laughs" (see the author's obituary in the LA Times). For her part MacLeod pronounced herself a "backwoods Michael Innes" and an author of manners novels with murders, in the style (admittedly folksier) of Dorothy L. Sayers.

How surprising it is, then, that in real life Charlotte MacLeod had a close family connection to the notorious Boston mobster James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger (1929-2018), leader in the Seventies and Eighties of the Winter Hill Gang, a confederation of Boston area organized crime figures of mostly Irish and Italian descent. 

Whitey Bulger's funeral was held in South Boston just three days ago.  The 89-year-old Bulger, a one-time mob informant serving consecutive life sentences for the murders of 11 people he committed while informing to the FBI (and that was only part of his suspected death toll), was savagely beaten to death in prison two weeks ago.  His features after the attack were said to have been so battered as to be unrecognizable.  It was a violent end to a violent life.

Just how far removed Whitey Bulger's real life crimes (not to mention his horrible demise) were from those found in the comfy pages of cozy mysteries this line about Whitey from his New York Times obituary indicates:

[H]e shot men between the eyes, stabbed rivals in the heart with ice picks, strangled women who might betray him and buried victims in secret graveyards after yanking their teeth to thwart identification.

Felon in fedora: Whitey Bulger at
the start of his life in crime in 1953
While there are, to be sure, bizarre and nasty murders in Charlotte MacLeod's books (in Wrack and Rune, for example, a man is killed by having his face shoved in a bucket of quicklime, something you could imagine happening in a Martin Scorsese film), it's all done decidedly tongue in cheek by the Cozy Crime Queen.  In Whitey Bulger's world, on the other hand, tongues were more likely to have been found outside of cheeks, having been bloodily ripped from bodies. Yet Whitey Bulger's highly respected brother William simultaneously rose, during the commission of Whitey's ghoulish carnival of crimes, to become president of the Massachusetts state Senate (1976-1994) and the University of Massachusetts (1995-2003).

William Bulger resigned from the latter position only under pressure from then Governor Mitt Romney and others, after the media spotlight focused on his relationship, about which he was not altogether forthcoming, with his brother Whitey, who was then a fugitive from federal justice. So perhaps the Charlotte MacLeod-Whitey Bulger connection is not so incongruous after all! 

First some family background on Charlotte MacLeod, as it's essential to this story.

Baptist church at
St. Stephen, New Brunswick
where Charlotte McLeod's father
Edward Phillips MacLeod, grew up
Although she grew up in the United States on the South Side of Boston, Charlotte Matilda MacLeod was born on November 12, 1922 in another, rather gentler country: Canada.  Specifically she was born in a flat above a grocery store in the quiet little village of Bath, in the western section of the maritime province of New Brunswick, not far from the Canadian border with US state of Maine. Charlotte's parents--Baptists Edward Phillips MacLeod (1893-1972), a plumber and son of lumber surveyor Alexander MacLeod, and Mabel Maude Heyward (1897-?), daughter of farmer and mail carrier Clarence Edgar Heyward--had wed two years earlier; and Charlotte had a slightly older brother, Walter Ernest.  The young family moved to Massachusetts in 1923, when Charlotte and Walter were toddlers, settling in Weymouth, a city on the South Shore of Boston. There Edward continued lucratively to ply the plumbing trade and two more children, daughters Helen and Alexandria, were born to him and Mabel.

Also moving to the Boston vicinity at about the same time was Edward's sister Marion Cecilia Mackay (1889-1982), wife of John Mackay, a former Halifax, Nova Scotia accountant who in Boston worked as a librarian/archivist for the Boston Herald newspaper.  Marion Mackay likely was the 91-year-old aunt to whom Charlotte MacLeod affectionately dedicated A Pint of Murder (1980), which is set in New Brunswick and is the first of her Alisa Craig mystery novels.

Brotherhood Bible Class, St. Stephen Baptist Church, 1916
Possibly Charlotte MacLeod's father Edward, then 19, was a member 

Among the children of John and Marion Mackay was daughter Ailsa, ten years her cousin Charlotte's senior and a business school graduate and stenographer.  I wonder whether Ailsa Mackay had any connection to the creation of Charlotte's mystery pseudonym Alisa Craig, said to have been drawn from "Ailsa Craig," a spectacular island--actually the plug of an extinct volcano--off the coast of Scotland.  Certainly the MacLeods were a very Scottish family, like so many others in New Brunswick.

the house on Gilmore Street
In the 1930s the MacLeod family moved a 966-square-foot white clapboarded house, originally built in 1918, on a large lot on Gilmore Street in Weymouth.  You can see pictures of the house and its interior here, when it was sold in 2012 for $135,000.*

*(It has since been sold and nicely refurbished and is now estimated to be worth around $330,000; see pics here.) 

There is a kitchen, 9x12, dining room, 9x10, living room, 11x11, master bedroom, 12x13, second bedroom, 7x11 and bonus room, 5x7, plus a single bathroom, a nice enclosed front porch, a basement laundry, a detached single car garage and a storage shed. 

In the 1930s Charlotte and her slightly younger sister, Helen, presumably would have shared the larger upstairs bedroom, while Walter would have occupied the smaller upstairs "bonus room."  Baby sister Alexandria didn't come along until 1937, when Charlotte was fifteen and soon to leave the family nest for college.

the house in Jamaica Plain

The Mackays lived about a dozen miles away from their MacLeod kinfolk, in a pretty white Italianate house built in 1860 in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in west Boston.  Besides Ailsa, the children in the Mackay family included Donald Alexander Mackay (1914-2005), a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and an accomplished artist and illustrator in the second half of the 20th century.  Also living with the Mackay family in 1940 was Charlotte's widowed grandmother, Matilda Lenora (Hughes) MacLeod, daughter of Canadian Baptists Edward Phillips Hughes, a native Welsh house carpenter and Charlotte Cecilia Yerxa, daughter of a native Dutch farmer.  So Charlotte's family was an admixture of Scottish-English-Welsh-Dutch nationalities, but seemingly in religious persuasion 100% Baptist.

You might be surprised to find there were so many Baptists in Canada (whether of Scottish, English, Welsh or Dutch extraction), yet that remarkable mystery plagiarizer and all-round scoundrel Maurice Balk, a true sociopath about whom I blogged here last year, masqueraded for a time in the 1920s as a Baptist minister in Nova Scotia, another of the maritime provinces.  For all I know he might have ministered to credulous MacLeods and Mackays, Heywards and Hughes, and even the odd Yerxa.

During the Second World War, when her brother Walter and her male Mackay cousins fought the original Axis of Evil overseas (Walter was a POW in the Philippines), Charlotte MacLeod attended the Art Institute of Boston (now merged into Lesley University).  After the war she worked, like her Cousin Donald, as a commercial artist, in her case in the employment of the catchily-named Stop and Shop supermarket chain.  However, in 1952, about the time Whitey Bulger was first arrested in Beantown, Charlotte accepted a copy writing position with a Boston advertising firm. Three decades later she retired at the age of sixty, at which time she had risen to a position as vice-president. Thenceforward, she found plenty of things to occupy her time.

Like PD James, another accomplished career woman turned mystery author, Charlotte MacLeod saw her success in crime writing come later in life, but she did very well for herself in the field from then onward.  James' great breakthrough came with her transatlantic bestseller Innocent Blood (1980), published when she was sixty years old, after eighteen years of periodic crime writing on her part.  Only two years younger than James, MacLeod concurrently enjoyed mystery writing success which was less spectacular but very steady.

Just over four decades ago, in October 1978, the 55-year-old MacLeod published Rest You Merry, the first of her Peter and Helen Shandy series of mysteries, headlined by a professor of horticulture and his librarian wife at the fictional Balaclava Agricultural College in Massachusetts.  The next year came The Family Vault, the first of her "Boston Brahmin" milieu mysteries with genteel Sarah Kelling and her art expert beau Max Bittersohn, while 1980 saw her initial "Alisa Craig" Canadian Mountie Madoc Rhys mystery, A Pint of Murder, set as mentioned in New Brunswick, and 1981 the first of her Grub-and-Stakers mystery series (the less said about this last cray-cray series the better, in my opinion). 

Amazingly, MacLeod kept all four of these series going, like a juggler twirling a multitude of plates, until 1996, 1998, 1992 and 1994 respectively.  Only the onset of Alzheimer's Disease put an end to an impressively prolific, popular and critically praised crime writing career.  MacLeod died in 2005 in a nursing home in Lewiston, Maine, a state which she had made her home for the previous two decades.  Until her health failed, she dwelt at a 200-year-old house, a quaint former inn, in the small town of Lisbon Falls.

in honor of Charlotte MacLeod
a plate of yummy Joe Froggers
most certainly made with molasses
See New England Magazine
for the lore and the (very good!) recipe
Charlotte's brother Walter died three years after Charlotte in 2008, while still living in Weymouth, where he had been employed by the city as a heating engineer.  Their baby sister, Alexandria, died five years after Walter in 2013.  During her sister's years as a mystery writer, Alexandria had loyally served as Charlotte's business manager and typist.  After Charlotte's death, Alexandria described her as a true lady who wore white gloves and large hats and had impeccable grammar.

Of the mysteries which Charlotte wrote, Alexandria pronounced that her sister had written them "specifically for people who did not want blood and guts, at least not a whole lot of it anyway.  Everybody drank tea and ate molasses cookies.  It was that kind of thing."

Presumably it was not over tea and molasses cookies--it was not that kind of thing--that Lindsey Chester Cyr, Charlotte's niece by her other sister, Helen, who died in 1995, made her fateful meeting with Whitey Bulger in 1966, at a Boston cafe where the attractive 20-year-old woman, a part time legal secretary and occasional model, worked as a waitress.

For Lindsey it was love at first sight with the 37-year-old ladykiller.  "He was gorgeous," she recalled.  "There wasn't anything not to be attracted to.  He was blond, blue-eyed, very well-built and handsome." Yet the multiple murderer was also, in Lindsey's eyes, "a perfect gentleman who made her feel safe."  Hey, what's not to like!

again with the hats
MacLeod niece Lindsey Cyr
onetime lover of Whitey Bulger and
the mother of his son Douglas
Lindsey and Whitey quickly launched a romantic relationship, which inadvertently produced a son, Douglas, the next year.  However, Douglas died tragically young from Reye's Syndrome in 1973 (Whitey attended the funeral of the boy, in the upbringing of whom he had been involved).  Lindsey, who was involved with Whitey for about 15 years, first spoke out about their relationship in 2010, a year before the fugitive was arrested and imprisoned for what turned out to be the last seven years of his life.  A film about Bulger, Black Mass, was released in 2015, with Johnny Depp playing Whitey and Dakota Johnson playing Lindsey. In the last decade Lindsey Cyr has continued to talk about her relationship with Whitey, as she did when she pronounced that Black Mass was an "awful" film and loyally declared of Bulger that she will always love him

As far as I know, however, no one had ever connected all this real world drama with the comfortable, tidy life of the great Queen of Cozies, Charlotte MacLeod.  Sometimes very different worlds do indeed collide and truth really is stranger than--or at least every bit as strange as--fiction.

Stay tuned for more on Charlotte MacLeod's mysteries this week, if not the late Whitey Bulger.  Though we occasionally do vintage hard-boiled stuff here, and even sometimes enjoy it, molasses cookies and chatty confidences are more our thing at the home of the Passing Tramp than straight rum and revolting gangster rub-outs.

see Boston Magazine

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Voter Suppression! The Election Booth Murder (1935), by Milton M. Propper

voting can be murder
In 1926 wealthy Republican building contractor and machine politician William Scott Vare, dubbed the "boss of Philadelphia," was elected to the United States Senate, in a contest mired in a murk of accusations of voter fraud and civic corruption.  The losing Democrat charged that there had been "massive corruption" in the contest, with Vare and his supporters having "padded registration lists, misused campaign expenditures, counted votes from persons who were dead or never existed and engaged in intimidation and discouragement of prospective voters."  In one particularly outrageous example of political sneakiness, Philadelphia Sheriff Thomas "Big Tom" Cunningham somehow managed to make a $50,000 donation to the Vare campaign on his annual salary of $8000.

The state's governor, progressive and patrician Republican Gifford Pinchot, who that year had lost to Vare in the GOP senate primary, refused to certify Vare as the winner, leading to a three-year Senate investigation of the contest.  Having barely survived a stroke in 1928, the partially paralyzed Vare was summoned to the Senate the next year and informed that he would not be seated. 

"The fraud pervading the actual count by the division election officers is appalling," the investigating Senate committee concluded.  "The average Philadelphia voter had a one-in-eight chance of having his ballot recorded accurately on Election Day."

Allies: Sheriff "Big Tom" Cunningham with
Boss Vare (right); a railway porter looks on
An enraged Vare the next year supported the Democratic gubernatorial candidate against Governor Pinchot, who was running for reelection, but to no avail.  Three years later, on Election Day, November 7, 1933, Philadelphia Democrats, who had been utterly eclipsed from power in the city for more than eight decades, won the municipal election, following several years of the Depression and the promise of the New Deal of newly-installed US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Vare himself was ousted as head of the Republican Central Campaign Committee of Philadelphia in June 1934, just a couple of months before his death at age 67 on August 7, a day before the 29th birthday of politically engaged mystery writer Milton M. Propper, an devotee of FDR and the New Deal.

These recent events inspired the writing of Propper's seventh detective novel, The Election Booth Murder (1935), about the shooting murder of a reform political candidate on Election Day in Philadelphia.  (This being a Milton Propper novel a plan of the murder scene is included.) 

UPenn student Milton Propper
when he was around 19 years old, a few
years before he published his first novel
The novel's murder victim, Sidney Reade, is running for city District Attorney not as a Democrat but as a member of the "Popular Party," while his opponent, corrupt Sheriff Leon Connell, is of the "Regulars" (not the Republicans); yet despite this obfuscation I imagine the implications were sufficiently clear to mystery readers of 83 years ago--at least if they lived in Pennsylvania!

Certainly when Propper writes that "To Philadelphians, for the last quarter of the century, there was only one boss--Harvey Warren, erstwhile national senator, party leader of the Regulars, and the unchallenged czar of politics in eastern Pennsylvania," state mystery fans reading the book would easily have recognized the allusion to Willam S. Vare.

As I discussed in my previous blog piece, Francis Nevins in a 41-year old article in The Armchair Detective castigated Milton Propper as a snobbish, police-worshiping authoritarian, while Propper's sister insisted to the contrary that her brother was a political idealist full of in admiration, as were so many young people at the time, for the sweeping New Deal reforms proffered by the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  I think Propper's sister had a better grasp in the facts than Nevins, who never knew the man and was writing about him at second-hand fifteen years after his death in 1962.

Milton Propper in later life
(after he lost weight evidently)
In fact correspondence Propper wrote to Time Magazine in the Thirties shows him praising FDR and condemning Philadelphia's corrupt machine politics.  A dislike of political corruption pervades The Election Booth Murder.  Certainly Propper doesn't have the visceral quality of Dashiell Hammett (his formal, deliberate prose is far more redolent of Freeman Wills Crofts), but in its modest way The Election Booth Murder paints a strong picture of urban malfeasance. 

Today of course we would be more likely to see Republicans criticizing urban Democratic "machines," but in the Philadelphia of Propper's day it was the Republicans who were running the show and long had been, though their machine was facing what would prove, seemingly, permanent breakdown.  (The GOP elected its last mayor in Philadelphia in 1947.)

In 1935, the year of Propper's publication of The Election Booth Murder, the GOP faced a strong challenge in the mayoral race this year, the Democratic nominee being popular John B. "Handsome Jack" Kelly, Sr., brother of playwright George Kelly, father of future actress and princess Grace Kelly and himself a wealthy contractor (though one, unlike Vare, of Irish Catholic descent).

Handsome Jack Kelly, father of grace
A Great War veteran and Olympic rowing champion, Kelly lost the election by some 45,000 votes, vastly less than the usual losing margin for Democrats of 300,000.  (Four years earlier the Democratic mayoral candidate in Philadelphia had received only 10% of the total vote.)

The Kellys, incidentally, resided in a handsome colonial house built by Handsome Jack in 1929, the same year his daughter Grace was born, located about a mile from the colonial house where the Proppers lived in Roxborough.  It was recently purchased by Princess Grace's son, Prince Albert II, with the plan of turning it into a house museum. (The Propper home is now a children's daycare center.)

To me this historical background detail adds a lot of resonance to Milton Propper's mystery.  Like his model Crofts, Propper may not have been strong on characters, but he was always pleasingly precise with his Philadelphia settings. 

When Detective Tommy Rankin of the Philadelphia police force is sent to help monitor voting at the 52nd Ward station in South Philly (trouble is expected from gangs of toughs at the polls), this is how Propper describes the scene:

Like many houses in that vicinity, [the voting station] was untenanted and dilapidated, in temporary use only, for the elections.  On the corner, it fronted Mifflin Street, with a weathered porch of sagging boards, unpainted for years.  It was two stories high, of faded red brick; the windows were dirty and many panes were missing.  A thin line of patiently good-natured people trickled into its murky interior.  Outside, the walls and convenient posts held their usual placards, pictures of respective candidates, instructions for balloting, and assessors' lists.  Little groups gathered on the pavement: neighbors passing the time of day; loungers inevitable attracted to the polls; and politicians, embryo or otherwise, pressing their special interests on bewildered voters.  

Shortly the Popular DA candidate is shot through a window as he votes, however, and all hell breaks loose!  Is Detective Rankin up to solving this seeming political hit job?

South Philly rowhouses

Is this as good a mystery as Propper's One Murdered, Two Dead, which I reviewed here four years ago?  I think not, as I was able to put my finger on the culprit as soon as s/he appeared, on what you might call general mystery principles.

scene of the crime
the similarity to the rowhouses pictured above is evident
However,  I still found The Election Booth Murder an enjoyable example of the formal investigative detective novel, written along severely Croftsian lines. 

To be sure, Robert Van Gelder complained in the New York Times that in the novel Milton Propper had placed too much emphasis on "reportorial exactness," but then this is a proto-police procedural sort of detective novel; and you will either like that or you won't.

For me The Election Booth Murder made for a pleasant brief diversion and provided an interesting faded snapshot of a place in time.  Sure, I could have done without the heavy dialect speech which Propper, following Crofts, felt compelled to convey; but then I feel the same way about Dorothy L. Sayers' scrupulously but rather tediously rendered Scottish accents in The Five Red Herrings. To which I can but say och!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sex and Politics in the Golden Age Detective Novel: A Propper View

My only comment is that you omitted a reference to my opinion that Milton was not hopelessly conservative.  My immediate family, like the rest of our neighborhood and friends, were rock-ribbed Republicans, and Milton scandalized all by becoming an ardent Roosevelt supporter.  He had a very great influence on me in those early, happier days, and my thinking by the time I went to college was slightly to the left of his.

--letter to The Armchair Detective (October 1977)

I. Death of a Mystery Writer

On March 4, 1962, the dead body of a 55 year old man was discovered slumped in his automobile outside his residence at 1841 Tioga Street in the Nicetown-Tioga section of northern Philadelphia.  An autopsy revealed that the man had died from an overdose of sleeping pills.  This was the sort of death scenario that has been known to appear in the stories of mystery writers (though of course in those cases the man actually would have been murdered); and, in fact, as brief national newspaper obituaries of the dead man at the time noted, the deceased, Milton Morris Propper (1906-1962), had indeed been, in the years from 1929 to 1943, a mystery writer. 

In the 1950s Milton Propper had ended up living in a one-room apartment in Nicetown, a lower-income, formerly Irish and German neighborhood which was then undergoing an influx of African-American and Puerto Rican immigration. After the Second World War, Propper, perhaps exhibiting mental dissociation that would worsen over the rest of his life, had imprudently left his job with the Federal Social Security Administration, futilely determined to revive his failing mystery writing career; and later he found that he was unable to get his government post back after he was arrested for committing a "homosexual offense."  The Fifties was not a good time for a government bureaucrat to have known "queer" tendencies.

No Hope?
the site of Milton Propper's last residence in Nicetown-Tioga
is now an empty lot located across from Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church

Milton Propper's parents had been well-off Philadelphians, the children of immigrant Jews from the former Austro-Hungarian empire who achieved great success in the City of Brotherly Love.  His father, Sigmund Jacob Propper, had been a partner, along with  his uncles Moritz and Samuel, in Propper Brothers Furniture Store, overlooking the Schuylkill River in Manayunk, a beloved local institution that closed a few years ago but lives on today as Propper View Apartments.  In 1944 Milton's parents passed away within a few months of each other, however, leaving him a small inheritance which was soon mostly spent; and as his personal problems accumulated he became alienated from his married sister in New Jersey, with whom he had once been very close.

Today the apartment building where Milton Propper last lived is gone.  In its place there is simply a grassy empty lot, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, which seems symbolically if sadly fitting.  Just across the street ironically stands the Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church (known at the time of Milton Propper's lonely, hopeless death in his car as Our Lady of the Holy Souls), a grey Romanesque structure that had been erected four decades earlier, in 1922.  (See Philadelphia Church Project.)

How different from the site of Milton Propper's end was the charming grey fieldstone colonial-style house where between 1906 and much of the 1930s he had grown up and lived with his father, mother and sister, Madelyn (there was also a slightly older brother, Walter), which was located at 546 Walnut Lane in the Roxborough neighborhood of northwestern Philadelphia, just a mile away from Propper Brothers.  Milton's uncle Julius, a prominent doctor and the father of a future municipal judge, lived a few doors down with his wife and two sons, Milton's cousins Leonard (the future judge) and Mortimer.

Milton Propper was educated at Nazareth Hall, a boarding school originally founded by Moravians in the 18th century, and the University of Pennsylvania.  A precocious young lad, Milton wrote book and theater reviews for the Philadelphia Public Ledger while still a student at Penn, from where he graduated at the age of 19 in 1926.  He went on to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, serving as an Associate Editor of the Law Review and receiving his law degree in 1929, the same year mystery writer John Dickson Carr, a fellow Pennsylvanian who was about three months younger than Propper, graduate from Haverford College, located about eight miles to the northwest of Penn. 

Milton qualified for the bar the same year, but he never actually practiced law, having that same year published his first detective novel, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young, to wide acclaim.  He preceded his contemporary Carr into print with a mystery by a year.

With a sale of film rights in the offing (though the film never actually materialized), Milton Propper seemed convinced that great success as an author of detective fiction lay ahead of him.  This was, it must be recalled 1929, a year when S. S. Van Dine had successively placed three mysteries on the American bestseller lists, his new one, The Bishop Murder Case, being the most talked about of them all.  (All were made into films as well.) 

In the event Milton Propper did publish fourteen detective novels between 1929 and 1943, an average of one a year, but that was not nearly enough for him to make a lucrative career as a mystery writer.  At this time, before the launching of the paperback revolution, American mystery writers did well to sell 3000 hardcover copies of any given title, mostly to rental libraries.  For about a decade Milton derived his main income not from writing but from working for the federal government in Atlanta.  When he returned to Philadelphia after the death of his parents, the initial brightly glowing promise of his mystery writing career had guttered.

the Propper family home Roxborough

II. The World of Milton Propper

Much of the above detail is drawn from "The World of Milton Propper," a 41-year-old article which Francis Nevins published in the July 1977 edition of The Armchair Detective, which in turn drew on communications between Nevins and the late author's sister.  The article has always been an odd piece to my mind, in the way it goes from less than half praising Milton Propper to more than half damning him, both as a writer and a person.

The article is composed of a little biography and a lot of plot analysis of Milton Propper's mysteries (the latter always Nevins' strength as a genre scholar), plus copious highly moralistic obiter dicta on the proper (if you will) views that one should hold of politics and society.  Of Milton Propper as a detective novelist Nevins derided him for dull writing and characters crafted of "something less than one dimension," while seemingly paradoxically allowing that "the man knew his craft well" and that his books "hold something of the intellectual excitement of the early Ellery Queen novels.

Nevins observed that in his detective novels Milton Propper

Propper's well-received first detective novel
published the same year as Ellery Queen's
The Roman Hat Mystery and S. S. Van Dine's
The Bishop Murder Case and a year before
John Dickson Carr's It Walks by Night
likes to begin with the discovery of a body under bizarre circumstances, to scatter suspicion among several characters each of whom has a great deal to hide, to juggle clues and counterplots with dazzling dexterity.  As a special attraction, Propper arranges his stories so that as often as possible he can introduce either some form of mass transportation, or some complex problem of succession to a large estate, and occasionally both in the same book.  His delight in these subjects somehow penetrates even through his flat and stately style.

Milton Propper, in other words, was a Golden Age "Humdrum" detective novelist, this term being coined by noted Silver Age mystery writer and critic Julian Symons to describe detection-focused Golden Age mystery writers who, in his view, fatally neglected the literary graces. 

I discuss three of the most successful British Humdrums, John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington, in my 2012 book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  But there were numerous other Humdrums, many of them now forgotten by time.  While Milton Propper is not exactly forgotten, due primarily to Nevins' article, he nevertheless still remains rather obscure.

By his own admission Milton Propper was a great admirer of Twenties British detective fiction, and he  himself specifically referenced, in this regard, Freeman Wills Crofts.  As I have discussed in an earlier blog piece, Milton Propper's detective fiction is obviously modeled heavily on Crofts, though I would say, based on my readings, that Crofts was the cleverer plotter of the two men.  As in most cases, I suspect, the original is best. 

Still, for fans of the workmanlike Golden Age detective novel, which puts a premium on the methodical investigation of the problem, Milton Propper still holds appeal--though Nevins' Ellery Queen comparison is ill-advised, I think, Propper lacking Fredric Dannay's higher flights of detection fancy.  Even John Street is more imaginative than Milton Propper, with superbly baroque and bizarre--but to be sure scientifically accurate!--murder methods.

I and others have written about Milton Propper's mysteries on the net, but my effort to get him reprinted has not been successful, my attempts to reach out to his family having been, to my great regret, uniformly rebuffed. 

Did Milton Propper's relations feel burned by the Nevins article?  If they did, I don't think it was so much because of Nevins' handling of his subject's sexual life (although this is bad enough, it seems to me, as Nevins frames the life of Milton Propper--"a poor, drab, haunted soul" to quote Nevins--as that of the stereotypical tragic homosexual with a mother fixation, just as he does, at much greater length, with Cornell Woolrich in his Edgar-winning biography of the master of noir).  Rather, I imagine, it would have been because of the way Nevins handles Milton Propper's politics.

Rather in the manner of someone using a sledgehammer to smash a mosquito, Nevins in his article repeatedly stomps on Milton Propper for what he perceives as the author's retrograde social and political views, based on his own reading of his books.  A few scathing excerpts from the Nevins article:

He...flaunts like a medal of honor his belief that the rich and powerful can do no wrong, casually justifies all sorts of criminal conduct when perpetrated by the police....

Whenever a suspicion against someone crystallizes in [the mind of Propper's sleuth, police detective Tommy Rankin], he himself or a subordinate proceeds to burglarize the person's house for confirmatory evidence....Even when Rankin has no specific suspicions he still indulges in illegal searches....I leave it to historians to determine how many of the Watergate gang read these novels in their formative years.

This was the man who celebrated the perquisites of being born with money and justified the illegal acts of anyone with a badge on his chest.

After referring to what he terms the author's "contempt for everyone who lacks money or power saturating every page" of his mystery The Election Booth Murder, Nevins allowed that Milton's sister Madelyn asserted "that Propper's social views were much more enlightened than his novels suggest--which shows once again how damnably difficult it was for an author to express any but the most reactionary sentiments in the classic detective novel."  But then Nevins repeatedly damns Milton Propper anyway for allegedly holding reactionary views.

At the opening of his article Nevins thanked Madelyn for her "generous cooperation" which made it possible to attempt a sketch of the author's life.  But the sister Nevins thanked wrote a letter-- printed (at least partially) in the next issue of The Armchair Detective, with no response from Nevins--complaining that Nevins had gotten Milton's politics all wrong.  I quoted this missive above, but will quote it again:

the article in question
My only comment is that you omitted a reference to my opinion that Milton was not hopelessly conservative.  My immediate family, like the rest of out neighborhood and friends, were rock-ribbed Republicans, and Milton scandalized all by becoming an ardent Roosevelt supporter.  He had a very great influence on me in those early, happier days, and my thinking by the time I went to college was slightly to the left of his.

What Nevins seemed not to have appreciated is how the things which bothered him so much about Milton Propper's writing all characterize the writing of Freeman Wills Crofts, especially in the 1920s, with the notable exception of Freeman Crofts' occasional outbursts of antisemitism. 

In Masters I wrote at length, rather less thunderously than Nevins I hope, of Crofts detectives' improper behavior--their illegal searches, their outright  lies to suspects (or "bluffs" as Crofts calls them) and abuse of witnesses--of Crofts' patronizing treatment of the working class and his terrible penchant for heavily rendered dialect speech.  In all these perceived failings, to the extent that he exhibits them, I think Milton Propper was merely imitating Freeman Crofts (though of course neither Crofts nor Propper was alone, for that matter, in this regard.) 

Certainly we can fault Milton Propper for too slavish devotion to his literary master, yes, but to attribute all these retrograde views (some perhaps not so retrograde as we like to think) to Milton himself seems unfair to me--especially given Madelyn's claim about her author brother's politics, which seems to have been true.  I will explore all this more in my upcoming review of Milton Propper's seventh detective novel, The Election Booth Murder (1935).