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).

4 comments:

  1. "detectives' improper behavior--their illegal searches, their outright lies to suspects … and abuse of witnesses"
    Mightn't this be just realistic portrayal of the way the police worked in 1930s Philadelphia? Given your description in the next post of Sheriff "Big Tom" Cunningham's political connexions his force probably didn't have to pay much attention to the letter of the law as long as they got the right man - "right" being loosely defined. When Hammett depicted police officers behaving like that he was praised for his realism.

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    1. I think you are right about that. Whether the author approved of such things is another matter, certainly. It doesn’t necessarily follow.

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  2. Very interesting piece, as is your review of The Election Booth Murder. Thank you!

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    1. You are very welcome indeed, Christophe. I am glad you enjoyed it.

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