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?


  1. Thanks Curt for drawing attention to Propper for the puzzle-mystery reader. Which of Propper's puzzle-mysteries would you rank as his best, and therefore worth tracking down?

    1. I tend to like some of the later ones, like this, better, as I think Propper loosened up his approach with them. I hope to have more on the books soon. I also reviewed One Murdered, Two Dead a few years ago, rather favorably, don't forget