Over the next few weeks, as this year winds down, some of us vintage crime fiction bloggers will be blogging about the Reprint of the Year in vintage crime fiction, there being so many more to choose from these days. (Things have changed so much in the last decade!)
It's been exciting to see the reprinting this year of such Golden Age luminaries as the Richard Webb-Hugh Wheeler consortium Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge, Richard Hull, ECR Lorac and Christopher Bush (the latter an ongoing project) and mid-century mystery maven Margaret Millar, yet for my first choice I have picked a Coachwhip "twofer" (two volumes published as one): a duo of Forties crime novels with decidedly eerie trappings by American Samuel Rogers, a Great War veteran of distinguished patrimony, award-winning mainstream novelist and a teacher of French literature at the University of Wisconsin. (He was still there in 1958 when my parents, graduate students there, married.)
Rogers completed his fiction writing career with three crime novels, the latter pair of which, You'll Be Sorry and You Leave Me Cold!, comprise the Coachwhip duo. However, I discuss all three books below, in this excerpt from my introduction to the Coachwhip volume, whose cover illustration captures to Poe-ish sense of mystery and terror that these dark murder tales convey.
CARNIVAL OF DEATH PART ONE
--"Of course," Professor Hatfield stated, "it's a bad thing to have the murders in a straight detective novel committed by a madman, because...[the murderer] might be almost anyone...."
--"Most of the time we move along complacently, and take our sanity for granted. But haven't you sometimes felt, when you've been sick or tired or worried, that sanity was like a tightrope strung across a great gulf, that you have to walk over it and if the slightest little adjustment should go wrong you'll topple off and never stop falling...."
American crime writing of the 1940s saw a fundamental shift away from the brainteasing between-the-wars clue-puzzle detective novel (most associated today with the mysteries of the bestselling British Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie) toward other, more visceral crime fiction forms, namely hard-boiled, noir, espionage and psychological suspense, the latter of which concerned itself not so much with tangled railway timetables and ingeniously locked rooms as the puzzling conundrums presented by the human mind.
While the hard-boiled and noir subgenres were dominated by men such as Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and James M. Cain, women authors quickly carried the field of psychological suspense, producing such outstanding Forties mysteries as Margaret Millar’s The Iron Gates (1945), Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected (1946), Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man (1946), Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place (1947), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall (1947), Sara Elizabeth Mason’s The Whip (1948) (reprinted this year in a twofer by Coachwhip), Ursula Curtiss’ Voice Out of Darkness (1948) and Mildred B. Davis’ The Room Upstairs (1948), the majority of which are in print today.
Yet one male author from the Forties who achieved great heights in psychological suspense was Samuel Rogers, a well-regarded mainstream novelist and professor of French literature at the University of Wisconsin. Between 1944 and 1946 Rogers published a trio of psychological thrillers in which his series sleuth, Professor Paul Hatfield, solves some truly depraved slayings which take place in a fictional Midwestern state (clearly Wisconsin): Don’t Look Behind You! (1944), You’ll Be Sorry! (1945) and You Leave Me Cold! (1946). (To drive a sense of urgency home to his readers, Rogers punctuated each of the titles with an exclamation point.) All three of these crime novels were favorably reviewed at the time of their publication and the first of them was adapted in 1962 as a teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (directed by John Brahm and starring Vera Miles and Jeffrey Hunter).
Aptly described by the novel’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, as a “tale of mounting fear and horror,” Don’t Look Behind You! introduces readers to Samuel Rogers’ series sleuth, Paul Hatfield, a chemistry professor and amateur birdwatcher at the fictionalized Midwestern college town of Woodside (clearly Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin). On his first appearance, made at a cocktail party given by fellow chemistry professor Terry Macfarlane and Terry’s wife Jeanne, Dr. Hatfield is described as follows: “A thicket middle-aged man appeared in the doorway….he gave…the impression of moving with exceptional quietness. His face might have been carved very sharply, very neatly, out of wood; his eyes moved perkily; his head was cocked like a bird’s.”
Decidedly quirky in his personality and behavior, Dr. Hatfield is a true crime enthusiast who discourses cheerily about such terrifying real life mass killers and/or sadists as Henri Landru (Bluebard), Jack the Ripper, Fritz Haarmann (the Butcher of Hanover), Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, George Joseph Smith (the brides-in-the-bath killer), Baron Gille de Rais and the Marquis de Sade and himself has rather an unorthodox marriage with his still sexually attractive wife, Wanda. (It is made clear that the couple has no physical interest in each other, though Wanda definitely takes rather a voracious interest in the male animal more generally and the professor for his part is not averse to the presence of pretty coeds.)
All this marks the professor as a suspect in the first Samuel Rogers mystery, which concerns Ripperesque serial mutilation murders of young women around Woodside. In the event, however, we find that Dr. Hatfield is not the novel’s frightful murderer but rather the insightful sleuth and a friend in need to Daphne Gray, a lovely nursing student imperiled by a maniac killer who deviously takes cover behind a gulling masque of normality.
American book reviewers roundly praised Don’t Look Behind You! for its “atmosphere and mood and mounting horror” and its “carefully wrought” examination of “abnormal psychology.” Most notably, Anthony Boucher, future dean of American crime fiction critics, in the San Francisco Chronicle pronounced of the novel: “Good talk about murder, some fine chilling moments and a uniquely brilliant psychological plot.” Better yet, in my estimation, are Rogers’ two follow-up novels, You’ll Be Sorry! and You Leave Me Cold!, which succeed splendidly both as tales of creeping suspense and as trickily clued psychological puzzlers. (To me the secret in Don’t Look Behind You! seems less well-hidden.)
You’ll Be Sorry! is a tale of another menaced lovely young co-ed, Kate Archer. Summer has arrived at Woodside and Kate has been invited by an old school friend, June Gladstone (four years younger than Kate and still something of an awkward adolescent), to spend her vacation with June and her (really rather disturbingly odd) family at her wealthy father’s rural retreat, Valley Farm. Kate also has received a threatening missive, penned in red ink, which bluntly warns: DON’T GO TO MR. GLADSTONE’S. YOU’LL BE SORRY IF YOU DO.
Undaunted, the intrepid Kate goes to Valley Farm, where she finds, as she is plunged into a terrifying mire of mystery and sadistic murder, that she is sorry indeed. Fortunately a vacationing Professor Hatfield is at hand to expose a shockingly diabolical criminal scheme. “[A] plot of Jacobean murk and terror,” enthused Anthony Boucher of the novel, “magnificently evil.” He concluded of Samuel Rogers that the author was “developing a horror-suspense style of his own almost as chilling as [Cornell] Woolrich or [Elisabeth Sanxay] Holding.” “Horror succeeds horror,” noted the more squeamish Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review. “The more horrible [the murders] are…the better [Samuel Rogers] likes them.”
Horror mounts yet higher in the final Samuel Rogers mystery, You Leave Me Cold! Indeed, the reviewer in Kirkus deemed the story a horror novel first and a mystery second. I would prefer to classify it as a horrifying mystery novel, one of which that darkly imaginative master of mystery and terror, Edgar Allan Poe, would have been proud. In contrast with the first two Rogers mysteries, You Leave Me Cold! has a male protagonist rather than a female one, this person being handsome young John Frazer, late of the US Navy and the Pacific theater of war and, we find, the nephew of Professor Hatfield. Now enrolled as a medical student at Woodside, where there is a severe housing shortage, John is anxiously seeking a place where he can stay. (Inconveniently, the professor himself has closed his own house, Wanda Hatfield being away in California for the winter, and is baching it at the University Club.)
In terms of its repellent weirdness the domicile which young John finds to take him in--the sprawling old mansion of formerly esteemed university scientist Dr. Chardwicke--ultimately rivals such fearful haunts as Castle Dracula and the House of Usher. Anthony Boucher deemed the motive for the singularly awful initial murder in You Leave Me Cold! “the most shocking…in the history of the crime novel,” a sentiment which was echoed by Isaac Anderson, who declared it “so macabre that few will be able to read of it without a shudder.” Clearly the critic had been chilled.
One is sorry with You Leave Me Cold! to come to the end of Samuel Rogers’ magnificently macabre series of crime novels, but how, one wonders, could Rogers ever have outdone this final fearsome performance in his fictional carnival of death?