Friday, October 4, 2019

Hugh and Florrie: Hugh Wheeler's True Crime Essays on Florence Maybrick

Note: The Passing Tramp previously looked, about fourteen months ago, at Rickie Webb's 1943 essay about accused murderess Lizzie Borden, in which he suggested a new culprit behind the brutal ax slaughters of Andrew Borden and his second wife in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.  Here we look at Rickie Webb's companion and fellow crime writer Hugh Wheeler's essays on another notorious Victorian era accused murderess, Lizzie Borden's sister American Florence Maybrick.

At the bright dawn of life:
Florence Chandler Maybrick
1862-1941
In his true crime essays “The Last of Mrs. Maybrick” (1943) and its postscript, “The Ordeal of Florence Maybrick” (1962), published respectively in The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories (1943) and The Quality of Murder (1962), true crime anthologies edited by Anthony Boucher, Hugh Wheeler analyzed one of the most notorious of British murder cases, the 1889 trial of Florence Maybrick (1862-1941) for the murder of her husband James. 

Wealthy Liverpool cotton broker James Maybrick had wed the much younger Florence, a beautiful blonde American belle originally from Mobile, Alabama, eight years previously, after a whirlwind shipboard romance, but the marriage soon proved a dreadful misalliance.  The coarse and caddish James kept mistresses (one of whom bore him five children), and Florence with considerable provocation entered into her own extramarital liaisons (though just how she far did so remains in question).  Relations between the man and wife continued to deteriorate from there.


When James mysteriously died in 1889, Florence, who recently had fatefully purchased arsenical flypapers for the benefit of her complexion (or so she said), was arrested and charged with murder.  After being convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang amid much public outcry--incredibly, in the face of the verdict and sentence, it had not been credibly established just how James had died--Florence saw her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the theory that she had tried to murder her husband with arsenic but might not actually have succeeded in doing so.  This seemed to be an admission that the murder case against her had not been proven, yet she was not freed from prison. 

To the contrary, she spent fourteen years in harsh incarceration, returning after her release from prison to the United States, where she ultimately settled, in an increasingly abject state, in the foothills of northwestern Connecticut.  (Her two children with James she never saw again.)  In 1941, just a couple of years before Hugh Wheeler’s first essay about her was published, Florence Maybrick, now a wizened old woman of seventy-nine years living under an assumed surname, died anonymously at her residence, a tiny three-room, twenty by ten foot dwelling with a six foot porch located not far from South Kent School, a private boarding school for boys, where she had resided, with only her cats for company, for the last two decades. 

To the boys of the school, who delivered firewood and other necessaries to her door, she had been known simply as “The Cat Woman” and “Lady Florence,” but with her death truth came out, grabbing the attention of even a populace which was preoccupied with the deadly world warfare going on all around it.  “Mrs. Maybrick Dies a Recluse,” announced the New York Times of the notorious accused Victorian era poisoner a week before All Hallow’s Eve in 1941, beside disquieting front page tidings about the German advance on Moscow.  “Scrapbook in Cottage Reveals Identity.


Justice Fitzhames Stephen
who might have served as a model
for Agatha Christie's Justice Wargrave
in And Then There Were None
Certainly to Hugh Wheeler the case of Florence Maybrick held morbid fascination.  To Hugh, who with his partner Rickie Webb shared a life that then was generally deemed unforgivably unorthodox, Florence’s cruel ordeal seemed a textbook case of the ill treatment censorious society affords an individual whom it deems—and damns--as too daringly different to live.  “Mrs. Maybrick faced trial as an American hussy who had mistreated and deceived a perfectly good English husband, a man, as far as the jury knew, without a blemish on his character,” Hugh writes witheringly, adding:

Mrs. Maybrick was not merely facing trial, she was facing Mr. Justice Stephen on the bench….his dislike for her swelled within him until it reached almost psychopathic proportions.  This manifested itself finally, in his summing up, as a two-day harangue of impassioned malignity and misogyny.  In one of the most biased speeches ever to come from the English bench, he referred to poor Mrs. Maybrick as ‘that horrible woman’ and branded her as the epitome of all that was vile….the English bench has never been noted for its chivalry or its leniency toward women accused of murder, particularly where there is also the whiff of adultery. 

Yup, it's this asshole again!

Five years after its publication, Hugh Wheeler’s Pocket Book essay caught the skeptical if not scornful eye of ornery crime writer Raymond Chandler, a man who himself has been accused of misogyny (not to mention homophobia).  In correspondence with James Sandoe, the hard-boiled crime writer, who in his fiction never met a femme fatale he did not loathe, emphatically declared, with seemingly willful blindness, that he could not detect, as had Hugh, any “malignity and misogyny” in Mr. Justice Stephen’s much criticized summing-up to the jury.  (It is perhaps worth noting in this context that, five years after the trial’s conclusion, Justice Stephen breathed his last breaths in an insane asylum.)  Chandler ruminated that someday he might publish his own analysis of the case, puckishly observing that his mother’s name was Florence Chandler, the very same one Florence Maybrick had eventually adopted after returning to America.  He never did get around to it, however.

Shortly after Raymond Chandler made his derisive comments about Hugh’s essay, Hugh and Rickie for yet another Anthony Boucher anthology, Four and Twenty Bloodhounds (1950), provided a biographical sketch concerning their series sleuth Lieutenant Timothy Trant (see Crippen & Landru’s The Cases of Timothy Trant, 2016), in which they divulged that Trant attended not only Princeton University but South Kent School.  Why South Kent School?  Presumably it was because of the connection of the school to Florence Maybrick. 

Hugh and Rickie, who in the years immediately before American entry into the Second World War resided for much of the year together in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, had friends among the Connecticut educational community, including the headmaster of the Old Farm School for Boys in Avon, about a forty miles’ drive from South Kent.  It was on a motor visit to some of their Connecticut friends, Hugh surprisingly divulges in “The Ordeal of Florence Maybrick,” that he came across no other than The Cat Lady herself, clad like a hobo while collecting newspapers on the South Kent School campus, two of her few remaining teeth tied together with string.  Hugh chivalrously offered the feeble old woman a ride, which she wordlessly declined before wandering away.

At the dusky eve of death:
Lady Florence with newspaper on
the grounds of South Kent School
Was Hugh’s account of his meeting with a notorious accused murderess from the distant Victorian past merely a crime writer’s literary invention?  Perhaps, perhaps not. 
In either case, seventeen years after he penned his final essay about Florence Maybrick, Hugh’s sympathetic imagination must have been piqued by the melancholy character of Lucy Barker in Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd (1979), for which Hugh wrote the Tony Award winning book. 

Driven insane by the dreadful misfortunes inflicted upon her by the sadistic Judge Turpin, Lucy, the once beautiful blonde wife of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, wanders the streets of London dressed in rags, a haunting shell of her former self, terribly in need of a beneficent protector.  She is, indeed, rather poignantly like the real-life Florence Maybrick, whom, Hugh admitted, “intrigues me far more than any fictional lady in distress that I have created myself.” 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Fake News: The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941), by Leslie Ford

It was fantastic from the beginning, or would have been anywhere except in Washington, or at any time here before now, when things we've always thought fantastic seem to have become normal and have a kind of horrible validity.
-- narrator Grace Latham, wealthy and attractive widow, in Leslie Ford's The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941)

Doesn't sounds like DC has changed that much in the intervening eight decades, does it?

It may be a "mystery romance"
but don't let that scare you, boys!
It ain't as mushy as Mignon Eberhart.
I admit to having read not nearly as many Leslie Ford mysteries as I have those by Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart, crime writers with whom Ford is often compared, somewhat inaptly I think.  Ford, it seems to me, at least in her series crime fiction more approximates the "manners mystery" of the British Crime Queens (especially  Ngaio Marsh), at least in terms of narrative style.  Her Grace Latham mysteries--called Colonel Primrose mysteries by Ford's publisher, though everyone reads the books, I would imagine, for nosy narrator  Grace Latham rather than her kinda-sorta long-term boyfriend John Primrose--have a tartness and keen social observation that I don't find as much in the Eber-Rinehart books, and the love stories in them don't seem nearly as soppy as those in my dear mushy Mignon's.

Further, some of the Grace Latham mysteries have genuine political content, something most mysteries of the time avoided.  Grace is a wealthy and independent Washington, D. C. widow, and she knows a lot of movers and shakers in that strange world (though she gets around a great deal too, like Jessica Fletcher finding murder wherever she goes, in such locales as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Honolulu and Yellowstone).

This aspect of her books really came to the fore in the years of the Second World War, when the deadly global conflict crashed in on and impacted every American's life.  We see this, certainly, in the eighth Colonel Primrose mystery (the seventh with Grace Latham), The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941), where the the title is a giveaway--a dead giveaway--to the political content of the story.

At the center of the mystery that develops is the question of the authorship of  a right-wing, "America First" political newsletter, "Truth Not Fiction," which the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt dubiously views as a seditious rag designed to sow discontent about American international commitments during a time of perilous world crisis.  Let Grace Latham explain:

It was a newsletter that arrived three days a week and had done so since the fifteenth of September, regular as the morning milk.  I'd thought it was an election stunt until November 5th, but it kept on coming. It was sponsored privately, it said, by Thinking Americans.  Who they were exactly it didn't reveal, but they thought along pretty consistent lines.  The general tenor of it was that the country had gone to the dogs--doom was just around the corner.  The disquieting things about it, however, seemed to be the so-called straight-from-the-horse's-mouth items about international friction in the Defense Program that gave you the feeling that democracy--as we know it--had about as much chance as frost in August.  It harped constantly on the necessity for the mailed fist in the Orient and insisted that the United States walk in and take over Mexico.

Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC

Grace is at loose ends in the city for the moment, having rented her DC house preparatory to spending Christmas in New York and vacationing in Guatemala "for a couple of months afterwards."  Ah, the life! 

She attends a dinner party given by a new middle-aged widow in town, Mrs. Addison Sherwood (late from South America), at her swanky digs at the massive Randolph-Lee Hotel, where Grace for the moment also is staying.  One finds the Randolph-Lee, Grace tells us, "sticking up over Rock Creek between  the Shoreham and the Wardman-Park--a trinity the Aztecs would have been proud to build...."  I believe the Randolph-Lee is fiction, but the other two named edifices most certainly are not.  Both are still standing today, looking just as massive as they must have when this novel was published 78 years ago.

Wardman-Park Hotel, Washington, DC

Mrs. Sherwood's other guests at the dinner party, besides Grace, are:

Sniping DC newspaper columnists Pete Hamilton, Sylvia Peele, Larry Villiers and Corliss Marshall

Suave Latin American diplomat Senor Estevan Delvalle

Bliss Thatcher, dollar-a-year-man for the Defense Department (the term refers to a wealthy businessman who works for the federal government for only a nominal salary)

Sam and Effie Wharton, a recently defeated isolationist US representative from an unnamed Midwestern state, and his politically ambitious wife, who doesn't want to go back to the Great Plains and ignominiously play bridge for the rest of her days 

Kurt Hofmann, distinguished German anti-totalitarian (he even has--ever so Teutonically, if you will--a saber scar across his cheek) and a recent escapee from a Nazi prison camp

Lady Alicia Wrenn, a tweedy, horsey English aristocrat over in the US to make the case for American entry into the war, who in the cards sees death in her future

Oh, and there's also Mrs. Sherwood's beautiful daughter, Barbara, who shows up unexpectedly, much to her mother's distress.  What's up with that?

Whew!  This is a lot of characters, but Ford for the most part manages to keep them pretty distinct and they certainly manage to introduce plenty of mystery.  There are three murders--the first of which takes place, most messily, at Mrs. Sherwood's dinner party--yet even without all the genteel bloodletting, Leslie keeps the kettle on and boiling with interest, what with all the mysterious secrets people are hiding (or seem to be hiding).

This is the sort of writing that sourpuss genius Raymond Chandler damned as superficial and "slick," and slick it is I suppose, but it certainly kept me turning pages, anyway.  It's a face-paced, smoothly written tale that at about 75,000 words doesn't overstay its welcome.  Grace Latham's slightly sardonic narration helps considerably. 

Granted, Grace let's slip her usual patronizing mentions of black servants.  (Only one such appears, very briefly, in the book, though Grace takes time to let us know, the fellow--Colonel Primrose's butler--can neither read nor write; it's related like it's some cute and colorful quirk rather than a shameful blot on the white ruling class of the era.)  Moreover, the third sentence of the novel is a doozy of an instance of racial insensitivity: "But it sticks like grim death to a dead n----r" (no dash in the original text, of course).

Um what the hell?  To be sure, this saying is recorded in 1917 in the Journal of American Folklore, but I couldn't find another use of it in the two decades before Ford published Fifth Columnist.  It was used way back in the southern apologist novel Aunt Phyllis's Cabin (1852), a rebuttal to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, but that's not exactly a model we want to follow, now, is it? 

All I can think of is that Leslie Ford (Zenith Jones Brown) thought that these old racist phrases, which she no doubt heard while living in Maryland in the Thirties (her distinguished scholar husband, Ford Keeler Brown, taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland from 1925 to 1960), were fascinating examples of local color, but inevitably this sort of thing grates with a lot of people today. 

Gerald B. Winrod takes on FDR
That aside, I found Fifth Columnist a charming tale of murder, with the romance element  present yet by no means overplayed.  I was expecting the beautiful ingenue character to have a much bigger role, but Ford surprised me by keeping our attention focused on the older and vastly more interesting characters.  Additionally the wartime political material lent some real topical piquancy to the tale.

The seditious newsletter in Fifth Columnist reminded me of the antisemitic, prohibitionist Christian evangelist Gerald Burton Winrod (1900-1957), a contemporary of Leslie Ford whom the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains terms "the foremost far right activist in the Great Plains during the 1930s."  To continue quoting:

In 1925 [Winrod] founded the Defenders of the Christian Faith, and operating from his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, he campaigned on the stump, over the radio, and in his Defender magazine against Darwinism, liberal theology, and what he called a national moral sag. 

By the Thirties Winrod was denouncing the New Deal as part of a global Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christianity and applauding Hitler's efforts to combat godless international Bolshevism.  He became known as the "Jayhawk Hitler."  His Defender magazine had 100,000 subscribers by the time he ran for the US senate from Kansas in 1938.  He came in third in the GOP primary, receiving about 21% of the vote.  Stymied in his attempt to make American great again, Winrod during World War Two ultimately ended up being tried for sedition, unsuccessfully, by the federal government.

It's likely Reverend Winrod who inspired the character of Reverend Von Roth in Kansas historian Kirke Mechem's 1936 mystery The Strawstack Murder Case, reprinted six years ago by Coachwhip.  Of course there are more recent, nonfictional examples of people who sound a lot like him.

Gerald Burton Winrod on the stump
in Kansas in 1938
But, hey, when reading Leslie Ford's mystery feel free to overlook the political stuff, if you want, and concentrate on little gems of writing like these:

She took my arm.  "You know, darling, it's really wonderful.  It couldn't happen anywhere in the world but in Washington.  Just think: four columnists, and a lady--that's you, dear--and a great industrialist in a key position, a famous anti-Totalitarian author, a defeated House leader with an ambitious, disgruntled wife, a big shot in the Good Neighbor racket, and an English peeress trying to skim off a little top-milk while the skimming's good, all together in the same place.  And what for?"

"Well," I said, "our hostess might have the quaint idea that we're all nice people."

Have no fear, dear readers: That was not the reason!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Two Locked Rooms for the Price of One: Sudden Death (1932), by Freeman Wills Crofts

Anne felt rather sick.  What could all this mean but one thing?...The garden became a place of evil, the trees sinister monsters crouching to destroy.  There was a foreboding in the stealthy rustle of the breeze through the leaves, and even from the very sunlight the warmth had gone, leaving it hard and pitiless. 

Anne shivered again.  Was this how murder began?

--Sudden Death (1932), by Freeman Wills Crofts

Death comes in threes
The grim reaper pays a visit to Frayle
no less than three times in Sudden Death.
Will he meet his match in Inspector French?
(pictured: American first edition,
a Harper Sealed Mystery)
Although Freeman Wills Crofts, like his detection club contemporaries John Street and JJ Connington, (see my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery), was considered one of the supreme Golden Age technicians of murder, he, like Street and Connington, did not actually produce many locked room mysteries, leaving them to locked room whiz kid John Dickson Carr.  Crofts' particular forte was not unlocking sealed rooms but the breaking murderers' airtight alibis.  However, Crofts with Sudden Death (1932)--his twelfth crime novel and the third one completed after he retired to the village of Blackheath, near Guildford, Surrey--finally gave mystery fans not one locked room murder but two, both of them most heinously committed near Surrey at the country house Frayle, two miles outside the town of Ashbridge in Kent.*

*(The dust jacket says this is really Tunbridge Wells, about an hour's drive from Blackheath.)

Happily Sudden Death constitutes a highly engaging read for the classic mystery devotee not only of locked rooms murders but of genteel country house killings-or, really, Golden age British mystery in general.

This period art deco illustration on the
2000 reprint edition by House of Stratus
is drawn from the book.  In a scene that takes
place when Anne Day first arrives at Frayle,
Anne could scarcely refrain from a cry of
delight as she saw what was to be her room....
the glory...was its window, a large square bow with
with an enclosed window seat.  Anne hurried 
across the room and gazed out.
  Of course Anne's 
joy sadly soon turns to ghastly horror
as the dreadful murders pile up at Frayle.
At the opening of Sudden Death Anne Day, who is the point-of-view (POV) character for the first third of the novel, comes to Frayle to take the position of housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. Severus and Sybil Grinsmead and their two young children.  Crofts could be a clunker with men's names--Pierce Whymper and Runciman Jellico as male romantic leads obviously come to mind--but I rather like the name of Severus Grinsmead.  Unfortunately trouble lies ahead for the couple.

Anne is most happy to have secured this position, because until Mr. Grinsmead hired her she had been rather up against it.  The genteel Anne, we learn, is "an only child and orphan," her mother having died eleven years earlier, when Anne was twelve, and her father, Gloucester vicar Reverend Latimer Day, in the last year, leaving her "homeless and with an income of barely thirty pounds a year"--or about L2000/$2500 today.  (There was also seventy pounds capital accrued from the auction of her father's property.) 

The good Reverend Latimer Day, it seems, was a "brilliant thinker," but unfortunately a "recluse" who was "out of touch with the world."  Way to go, Reverend Lackadaisical! 

At least Reverend Day didn't lose the family fortune by compulsively gambling it away, like so many of Crofts' foolish parental figures.  Interestingly Crofts' father, also named Freeman Wills Crofts, was a Staff Assistant-Surgeon in the British Army.  He died in Corozel, British Honduras from yellow fever at the age of twenty-five over seven months before his son, the future detective novelist, was even born, leaving his spouse, Cecila Frances Crofts, his bride of less than year, a worldly estate of all of thirty-two pounds (about L3000 or L3700).  Did Crofts have a fixation with improvident fathers who died leaving little means to their offspring?  It sure shows up often enough in his fiction.

I believe that nowhere in the book does Crofts actually say Anne Day is twenty-three years old, and in fact the above data concerning Ann's age is needlessly elliptically provided by the author, but I think I got it right.  I had actually initially assumed that Anne was probably well into her thirties, because she comes off more like an incipient "old maid" type than a young, marriageable mystery heroine/love interest type.  Here's Crofts, going out of his way seemingly, to deglam poor Anne:

No one could have called Anne beautiful.  She was small with a rather squat figure, an undoubted snub nose and a mouth of generous proportions.  But truth and honesty shone in her gray eyes and her firm chin showed courage and determination.

Anne experienced another thrill of delight as she saw the garden....
Claverton Country House Hotel, Royal Tunbridge Wells

In his novels the religiously devout Crofts repeatedly introduces as heroines (of a sort) these same virtuous, unbeautiful women, whom we are supposed to admire more for their inherent goodness and upright character than for their looks (or their brains frankly).  And why not?  Why shouldn't women with squat figures and mouths of generous proportions have their day in mysteries too?  Though in Sudden Death Anne never does function remotely as a love interest--or does she?  I'll have more on that below in a postscript.

Anne Day discovers the first dead body,
dreadfully gassed behind a locked door.
Anne looks rather more sultry here than
I was expecting, given the author's
rather blunt description of her.
(British edition by Collins)
Crofts' introduction of this sort of innocent focal point character became a narrative device he would employ again and again in his later novels, and I have mixed feelings about it.  I assume Crofts did it to engage us more emotionally in the story, but as I explain in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, emotions are not really what I want from Crofts, mystery's consummate technical detail man.  I think Crofts is better at the construction of alibis than he is at the exhibition of emotions, on this point though some may differ.

Additionally, introduction of an obviously innocent focal point character necessarily removes a nice juicy suspect from the roster.  Here Anne Day could potentially have made a terrific suspect (I'll say more about this below), but that gambit is thrown away right from the start of the novel and what we gain from it is a not especially interesting POV character for the first third of the book. 

Things pick up considerably, however, when the indefatigably snoopy Inspector French shows up on the scene.  But before that happens, let's get back to Anne Day, she of the generously proportioned mouth.  Also encountered at Frayle by Anne, in addition to the family, are the servants, consisting of:

  • The maid, inevitably named Gladys.  Gladys is initially described as "slightly unpleasant looking" (How generously proportioned is her mouth, I have to wonder?) and we know she's a maid because she says "naice" instead of nice.  Though initially surly, Gladys thaws under Anne Day's kindly light.
  • The cook, Mrs. Meakin, from whom radiates "kindliness, sympathy, decency in the best sense and a quiet strength."  Well, scratch her from the list of suspects!  Darn.
  • The gardener-chauffeur, Hersey.  We know Hersey is a servant because he drops his aitches.  Though Crofts liked to do heavily rendered Irish and Scottish dialect in his books (he was Anglo-Irish by nativity), all his country working class characters seem to talk in a sort of London Cockney.  Later there's a scene where Hersey gets "surly" and "truculent" (words Crofts always reserved for uppish servants) when Inspector French is questioning him.  So in what he mentally terms a "bluff" (i.e., a lie), French threatens to arrest Hersey right then and there as an accessory after the fact.  French is always threatening to do this to members of the working class, on the belief that they are too ignorant to stand up for their rights and will be easily cowed by the police.  He always seems to be right too, which I guess is why he keeps doing it.  For such a nice guy, French is not exactly a wallflower when it comes to aggressive policing. If it's not third degree, it's certainly second.

Then there's Mr. Grinsmead's mother, whose name, we find late in the novel, is Matilda.  Up till then, she's referred to as "old Mrs. Grinsmead" and "the old lady."  And she's shy of sixty by the way, apparently 58 or 59.  Crofts typically does this with women of a certain age (over fifty?), though not as I recollect with men.  Matilda's's a tough bird, if not what I would call an old hen, being fifty-ahem! myself.  But I'm a man so it's totally different, right?  Crofts, incidentally, was 53 when this novel was published.  (Okay, that's my age too, I admit it.)  Anyway, Matilda Grinsmead is always coming to visit at Frayle and is considered rather domineering.  Might she be up to something?

And let's not forget Edith Cheame, governess to the children, a somewhat cynical character who thinks Anne is is a touch on the naive side when it comes to life, having been a stay-at-home Gloucester vicar's daughter and all.  In a rom-com, Edith would be played by Joan Cusack or the late Carrie Fisher and get all of the best one-liners.  "Her best friend would not have called Edith Cheame a handsome women," Crofts tells us, without detailing the size of her mouth however. 

The two young children, Edith's charges, I think are glimpsed once in the novel and then are only rarely referenced again.  In GA mystery children were typically neither seen nor heard, probably because in real life young children having to face the fact of murder in their home is heartrending and in the Golden Age fictional murder, at least in the theory of many individuals (like Crofts), was supposed to be a fun mental exercise.

the fatal tap
Anne Day initially is thrilled with her job at lovely Frayle, which has ended her eleven months' nightmare of living life as an unemployed person with insufficient income.  (In his Thirties books Crofts is quite conscious of the dreadful global economic downturn, often referencing the horror of unemployment, though usually only in relation to genteel middle-class people like himself.)  But then Anne finds that Sybil Grinsmead loathes her husband, whom she believes is having an affair with a local grass widow, Irene Holt-Lancing, who likes to play when her sea captain hubby is away.  Indeed Sybil fears Severus is plotting to kill her! 

Anne, whom Sybil at first views with suspicion, eventually becomes Sybil's close confidant, spending hours at night with Sybil in her bedroom having long talks.  (See more on this below.)

One ghastly morning Sybil tragically is found dead in her locked bedroom, her room filled with poisonous gas from the fire.  There doesn't seem any way that it can be murder.  Thus a coroner's jury finds that Sybil committed suicide while of unbalanced mind.  (There's lots of talk in court of Sybil having been afflicted with a "persecution complex," though no psychiatrist is called to give evidence about it--what do those headshrinkers really know!) 

However, the coroner, an old friend of Sybil's, eventually ferrets out that there was likely some sort of aromatic hanky-panky between Grinsmead and Mrs. Holt-Lancing and he thereupon persuades the Chief Constable to get Scotland Yard, in the form of intrepid series sleuth Inspector French, brought down to Kent.  This I was a little dubious about, because I didn't see how the evidence of an affair  (which was hardly airtight anyway) could overturn a verdict based on the supposed utter physical impossibility of murder being committed.

But, be that as it may, once French is on the scene, he soon tumbles to how murder was indeed done, party based on studying a sketch of the gas fire (provided in the book).  That's one locked room down!  But who done it?  The somewhat censorious French is sure it's Severus Grinsmead, perhaps with his paramour as an accomplice....But then there's a second "suicide" in a locked room....

the second locked room
Vintage mystery fans should find Sudden Death a hugely enjoyable read.  French does investigate alibis, but there's not overmuch of that here for Crofts, for those who don't like a lot of detailed alibi busting.  For the most part you have a chance to crack the case yourself, though the technicalities of gas fires are more remote today than they were at the time.  Poor French seems to work pretty much alone, with no scientific assistance from the police force that employs him, so you really have to hand it to him.  He doesn't even get to call on Dr. Priestley, that disputations scientist who solves Scotland Yard's cases for them in John Rhode's mysteries!

There are lots of delicious Croftisms in Sudden Death, the sort of things that used to irritate me but now I just enjoy, their being so characteristic of the author.  (On the whole they are more benign than Ngaio Marsh's Marshisms, I think.) 

One of the reasons it's accepted that Sybil Grinsmead committed suicide, for example, is that she came from an "artistic" family.  But naturally!  "Her brother was a well-known R.A. and one of her sisters was both a novelist and a musician," we learn.  Clearly the woman was doomed to fatal pathological neurosis! 

I'm reminded of another Crofts' novel where a woman shamefacedly admits to French that her brother has "artistic tendencies."  Criminy, get the net!  Certainly Crofts' books are an antidote to all those artsy-fartsy English manners mysteries, where literary quotation are being conspicuously dropped on every other page.  Crofts must have looked dubiously on that sort of thing.  The main literary references I recall from him are to Sherlock Holmes and Pilgrim's Progress.

On the other hand, if you want to know something practical like how to off someone with a gas fire while never appearing to have entered the room, Crofts is your man.  For such a nice, unassuming, mild man, Crofts sure gave a lot of time and thought to the best ways to murder people.  And we vintage mystery readers are the winners for it.

As a Harper Sealed Mystery, Sudden Death included a promise
that Harpers would refund the book buyer's money if s/he
returned the book the bookstore with the seal unbroken. 
The seal above was broken!
Postscript
Knowing that an Inspector French detective series is in the works I have to confess I reread Sudden Death thinking of how it might film for television.  I like the novel, but I believe there are ways to ginger it up for television without betraying the spirit of Crofts, and also to enhance to question of culpritude, if you will (i.e., whodunit).

I have already mentioned that Anne Day could be made into a suspect quite easily.  There's even a queer sexual subtext between her and Sybil Grinsmead.  In Masters of the Humdrum Mystery I jokingly commented that this passage between Anne and Sybil from the novel is the most erotic one in all the (admittedly not very erotic) writing of Crofts:

When after a heavy sleep Sybil woke, Anne was still beside her....

"Dear Sybil!  You may count on me to the utmost!"

"I feel I may, and things won't be so bad now when I feel I have you by my side.  The worst thing after actual fear, was the terrible feeling of loneliness.  I had no one to speak to, no one with whom I could relax.  Now that will be ended.  Oh, Anne, no matter how this finishes up, I'm thankful you came here!"  And sitting up in bed, Sybil threw her arms round Anne's next and kissed her hungrily.


Now, really, maybe Crofts was genuinely up to something here and he wasn't as naive about this sort of thing as I had assumed.  Elsewhere, when French presses Severus Grinsmead about whether he is having an affair with Irene Holt-Lancing, Severus defends himself by accusing his wife, in so many words, of sexual frigidity:

My friendship with Mrs. Holt-Lancing was the direct and inevitable result of my wife's coldness.  I say quite definitely that it was not the other way round.  It was because I couldn't get any sympathy from my wife that I turned elsewhere.

Add her "artistic" background and I don't believe that a reading of Sybil as a lesbian is so farfetched.  (It's certainly less so than some of the readings that have been made with Christie.) And Anne for her part evinces no interest in men throughout the whole novel.  So that's certainly one layer of mystery that could be added more explicitly to a film adaptation.  I can think of some others too.

Crofts himself thought enough of Sudden Death that he turned it into a play, writing for advice his friend Dorothy L. Sayers, who had staged Busman's Honeymoon as a play in December 1936 (later reversing Crofts' process by adapting it as a novel).  Crofts' play was performed under the title Inspector French twice in 1937, first in July by the Otherwise Club near Guildford at the Barn Theatre (where, regrettably, a bat flitting around the barn distracted the audience's attention from the play); and second in October, by the Guildford Repertory Company. Crofts revised the play in 1949, changing the title to During the Night, but it was denied a license by England's Censor, the Lord Chamberlain.  (See Marvin Lachman, The Villainous Stage, 2014). 

Perhaps the Lord Chamberlain brought the hammer down on what he imagined was wicked lesbian subtext, but whether it's really there or not, Sudden Death is a mystery you should enjoy, in print or on film.  It's a fun puzzle on which to test your mystery mettle.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Modern Art: Ruth Fenisong's Early Gridley Nelson Detective Novels (1942-43)

The first four Gridley Nelson detective novels--part of a new wave of modern American detective novels that attempted more accurately to reflect the world as it was, while not sacrificing mystery and its detection--were published, in a flood of productivity on the part of the author, Ruth Fenisong (1904-78), in 1942 and 1943.  It's impressive how the neophyte author hit the ground running with a fully developed world of her own in these books, which she began not long after the House Un-American Activities Committee put her and thousands of other people out of work in 1939 when it effectively shut down the Work Progess Adminstration's Federal Theater Project. As I discussed in my last post, Fenisong had worked with the FTP in children's puppet theater.

What would Forties dust jacket designers
have done without Ruth Fenisong's surrealist
contemporary Salvador Dali (1904-89)?
In the first of her novels, Murder Needs a Name (1942), "Grid" Nelson is introduced as a privileged yet sensitive gent who "joined the police force to annoy an ambitious father and a snob of a brother.  He had a real interest in the motivations of people and no creative talents that might express this interest through the medium of the arts."

So Grid became a cop, essentially to advance his interest in the empathetic study of, and personal contact with, the mass of the people.  His father, having headed a political machine in some unnamed town, was able to send Grid to an elite university, Princeton.  However, young, idealistic Grid, having inherited a "small income" from his late mother, was able to eschew following in his father's ethically compromised footsteps. 

After a few years spent in finding his career footing, in fields ranging "from garage mechanic to little theater," Grid became a rookie cop, rising four years later, when Murder Needs a Name was published, to the rank of Detective Sergeant, a position he holds throughout the first four novels.  Physically, Grid is a handsome specimen, just under six feet tall, with olive skin, a pointed face, a head of prematurely, but ever so distinguished, white hair and "width in the all the right places--width to his brow, to the space between his sad, deep-dug brown eyes, and to his strong shoulders."  He's just like Roderick Alleyn (if you cut the preciosity and tweeness-level by about 90%), except that he's conceivably real as a cop.

Grid's boss and patron is Inspector Waldo Furniss, chief of the Homicide Division, "a tall, active old man with soft silver hair, bright blue eyes, and a great profile," who is "very much in demand as an after-dinner speaker and as master of ceremonies on benefit radio programs."  There are other cops detailed in the novels too, like the amusingly named Detective Cricket, my favorite however being Joseph Sugsden, aka "Sugs", a clerical man in the force with the heart (if not the brains) of a hero, who dreams of being on the beat, bravely collaring crooks.  (I'm rather reminded of actor Ron Carey's forever striving, never achieving Police Sergeant Carl Levitt on the old television series Barney Miller.)

Another Ruth Fenisong contemporary,
Pegeen Fitzgerald (1904-89) with
her husband Ed for years co-hosted
Breakfast with the Fitzgeralds and
other "at-home" radio programs,
popular in the Forties and Fifties
And then there's Sammy: a "tall Negress" with a "magnificent head," "skin the warm color of apricots" and an expression on her "carved African features...of dignity and strength.

If you've read enough crime fiction from the period, you'll know how unusual it is to find a black character so positively described.  The treatment of black characters in American entertainment media was starting finally to change in the Forties, but there were still a great many exaggerated comic relief black servant characters, rolling eyeballs dramtically as they get easily frightened by "hants" and the like and speaking in heavily caricatured, allegedly amusing "negro" dialect.  Sammy is a real advance in this regard, as Anthony Boucher noted at the time.  (He deemed Sammy an "incomparable Negress.")

Sammy first shows up in Murder Needs a Name as a maid working for radio personality Catherine Verney, who hosts one of those sponsor-laden domestic radio shows for housewives from the time that reminded me a lot of the one in Rex Stout's terrific Nero Wolfe mystery And be a Villain (1948) and another in Jonathan Stagge's excellent The Three Fears (1949), both previously reviewed here. 

Unfortunately, Murder Needs a Name is simply not nearly as good as those books, though admittedly these examples set a high standard indeed.  The plot struck me as rather muddled in the telling and some of the writing gets a bit ripe.  In these early years Fenisong's sentences could  get distractingly exuberant, though she soon toned this down.

when spring comes...
Williamsburg Houses (see Ephemeral New York)
However, there's a big improvement, as I see it, in Murder Needs a Face, from later that year.  There's a great deal of interest going on, yet Fenisong manages nonetheless to hold the plot together more coherently.  This one concerns a murder at a housing project, "Greenhedge."  Now how often do you see this as a setting in Golden Age mystery?  (Published in 1942, Face qualifies as such I think, though that's a debate for another time.)

In the U.S. the Housing Act of 1937 authorized the federal government to provide subsidies for low-income housing.  In New York City this led to a burst of housing projects that are still standing today (some of them historic landmarks), including the Williamsburg Houses, a group of twenty Modernist buildings in Brooklyn (with a total of 1622 apartments), designed in part by famed Swiss architect William Lescaze, that opened in 1938.  It was highly praised at the time, with President and Mrs. Roosevelt even paying it a visit and Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia pouring the first concrete at the groundbreaking.  Prominent modern artists painted murals for the project's common rooms, which by the 1980s were covered over by layers of paint, but happily they were recovered and restored and are now on exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. (For more, see The Living New Deal.)

In her novel Fenisong definitely paints a positive portrait of Greenhedge (murder aside), writing through Franca's eyes:

one of several wall murals
once in the recreation areas
of the Williamsburg Houses
this one is by Paul Kelpe (1902-1985)
another close contemporary of Ruth Fenisong
They walked though Greenhedge, a city of modern units, each with a separate entrance.  Thousands of windows have on precious bits of landscaped courts and gardens.  Benches sat smugly on neat paves strip of ground fronting well-cared-for lawns....Spring would see many baby carriages placed along the paved walks, where mamas sat sewing and gossiping with their neighbors.  And children who had outgrown their carriages would come up out of the game rooms in the basements of Greenhedge where real play space had been provided for them the winter long.  And they would skate and shoot marbles or just skip rope, or just shout, turning their cold little faces to the warming sun.

Housing experts had labored to give to each tenet the space thought necessary for comfort and decency.  And the funds of the tenants had been investigated so that those who earned more than the embers of the low-income group for which the project had been designed might not gain entrance.  Franca never saw Greenhedge without drawing a breath of gratitude and reciting a silent prayer that she might meet expenses each month and do nothing to incur the displeasure of the management.  It was a dwelling place to be proud of, and she wanted no more than to remain there.


Fenisong here definitely voices the social idealism of bright-eyed and hopeful progressives of her era, but don't worry, pure puzzle fanciers, there's not too much of this.

Greenhedge, we find, is the "darling" of philanthropist G. V. Kuvicek, an eccentric millionaire philanthropist and native Oklahoma oil man.  The murder is not actually of him--the traditional rich male victim--but of an unknown man, found dead outside one of the Greenhedge buildings.  There are numerous people in the project who seem implicated in the death in some way, however, including:

another Paul Kelpe mural at Williamsburg Houses
retired Italian puppeteer Peppino Settani and his lovely blonde eighteen-year-old daughter, Franca, a puppeteer herself (she gets her blondness from her late northern Italian mother)

the Murtrees, coarse, brazen Julia and careworn husband Henry, aka "Hen" (as in henpecked?)

diminutive, bulldog torch singer Mady Cooper and her blind father

and several other, definitely suspicions, characters.

Oh, and there's also the project manager, Paul Curtis and his secretary Arlene Decker.  He seems smitten with Franca and she seems smitten with Grid.

The setting of the novel is strong and unusual, and the puppeteering stuff obviously is something Fenisong knew well.  The police are convincingly done, though Franca, who seems like she will be the protagonist of the tale at first, is disappointingly allowed to fade into the background for most of the story, only to reemerge at the end.  However, Sammy reappears early on in the story, to be hired by Grid as the cook and housekeeper as his bachelor gentleman policeman pad.  (she will remain with him for the rest of the series.)  This happily gives Sammy a chance to butt into Grid's case and help him solve it.  "Bless Sammy," thinks Grid:

He wondered what Sammy's life would have been had her background permitted a formal education to supplement native intelligence.  Probably just plain unhappy....in a world that kept dreaming up bigger and better prejudices with every passing moment.

Williamsburg Houses
came equipped with ground floor store fronts
In Murder Needs a Face some of the action
takes place at the Greenhedge drugstore
here "Sugs" eats breakfast (ham, eggs, toast and coffee),
hungrily exclaiming: "Ah, here's chow!"
see Ephemeral New York
It's asides like that which make Fenisong's mysteries something commendably different for the period.  Saturday Review praised the book's "shrewd portrait of life among the lowly--sharp-tongued, colorful and occasionally shifty," while Anthony Boucher enthused: "Novel background and admirable writing recommend this to every type of [mystery] fan."

After Murder Needs a Face, there came the whimsically titled The Butler Died in Brooklyn (1943), perhaps Fenisong's most Crime Queenish novel, in that it deals with one of those wealthy families imperiously presided over by a domineering, elderly, eccentric relation. 

The family has relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn (Oh, the humanity!) and, yes, it's their butler, newly laid-off, who gets done in there.  Personally I found it a bit disappointing after the more original Murder Needs a Face, though Saturday Review praised the "brisk and breezy characters" and the New York Times the "good puzzlement plus entertainment."  Me, I think butlers are always better when they're dying in Britain.

Better, I think, is Murder Runs a Fever, from later that year.  It's a full-scale wartime mystery, dealing with the FBI and suspected Nazi spies; yet there is also a legitimate murder problem to be dealt with too.  Shockingly a man, popular radio war commentator Captain Orrin L. Shay, is found strangled in the apartment of Louise Cotter, an old childhood friend of Grid Nelson, with whom he has long been more than half smitten.

view of Brooklyn Bridge on cover
Louise married not Grid, of course, who is ostensibly a confirmed bachelor in the traditional fashion of Great Detectives (even ones on the force), but rather Charles Cotter, a jeweler who has joined the Army and is stationed at a base in Texas.  Charles has just come home on leave when Captain Shay is found slain in his apartment, making him a suspect in the crime (for Shay seemed to show quite a bit of interest in Louise)--even though Charles seems to have come down with a rather serious illness (the "fever" of the title). 

Also present at the scene of the crime and viewed suspiciously by the police, especially Waldo Furniss, were Louise and Sammy herself (!), the latter having been on hand to cook a dinner for Louise and the returning Charles. 

Oh, and let's not forget, there was on the scene as well Louise's young, blondly beautiful cousin, Kyrie Martens, who happened to have come on a visit to New York from Washington, D. C.  Under the alias "Madge Carter" Kyrie is an FBI agent (Do such female characters appear much in wartime American crime fiction?), and a goodly section of the novel is devoted to her activities, which eventually merge with Grid's (as do his and Kyrie's personal fates).  And Sammy provides a key clue.

Saturday Review called Murder Runs a Fever a "lively yarn of murder intrigue with [a] personable sleuth, much action and [a] pleasing dash of romance" while the New York Times opined that it was a "cleverly constructed tale of Nazi espionage."  Anthony Boucher chimed in as well, lauding the "skillful story-telling," though he also conceded the presence of "a couple of pretty fearful coincidences."

All these early books have the precious quality of sheer readabilty, not always present in mystery fiction (or mainstream fiction for that matter).  I'll be reviewing some more Fenisong mysteries next week.  She kept getting better!  And I'm not trying to sell you a bridge.

1930s view of Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Life of Crime: Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)

American author Ruth Fenisong published twenty of her twenty-two crime novels between 1942 and 1962, putting her at the temporal heart of mid-century American murder fiction, yet like many of the prominent women crime writers from that period, she fell out of publishing fashion after her death.  Most underservingly so, for in her day she was a justly praised crime writer, with the dean of American crime fiction critics, Anthony Boucher, leading Ruth's estimable cohort of admirers.

Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)
Although Ruth Fenisong published nine non-series crime novels (five in the 1940s and two in the 1950s), all of which are well worth reading, she was best known for her thirteen-novel Gridley Nelson police detective series, about an empathetic Princeton-educated, private- income-blessed, prematurely white-haired New York City cop.  Four Grid Nelson novels appeared in 1942 and 1943, followed by a seven year hiatus.  Then in the dozen years from 1950 to 1962 there came nine more Grid Nelson detective novels, including the much praised Deadlock, selected by Anthony Boucher as one of the ten best crime novels of 1952, and ending with Dead Weight, about malfeasance and sudden suspicious death at a swanky weight reducing spa patronized by wealthy city matrons. 

Boucher stated that the empathetic Gridley Nelson was one of his favorite Fifties police detectives, no doubt finding him a relief from the bellicose, tough guy, third degreeing cops one sees so much of in American crime fiction of the period.  Indeed, Boucher favorably compared Fenisong to the English Crime Queens, especially Ngaio Marsh, but he also noted--and I agree with this--that Fenisong explored grittier milieus than the Crime Queens, giving her writing similarity as well to police procedural authors like Ed McBain and Hilary Waugh

I love this cover
(the original title is Widows' Plight), as it's
so redolent of the American mid-century
As a great admirer of mid-century mysteries by women writers, I enjoy Fenisong's work immensely; and I'm pleased to say that Stark House is reprinting a Ruth Fenisong "twofer" volume, composed of her novels Deadlock and Dead Weight, marking the first time Fenisong crime fiction has been in print in English in nearly fifty years.  I will have some blog pieces on Ruth's novels coming soon (I wrote the introduction to the Stark House volume), but in the meantime I wanted to look at little at her life, both inside and outside of crime (fiction).

Ruth Fenisong was born in 1904 in New York City, under the name Ruth Feinsong.  Although the author's deliberate transposition, later in life, of two letters in her surname obscured the telltale linguistic traces of her actual ethnic identity, Ruth's parents in fact were immigrant Jews.

These were Maurice Feinsong, a tailor and clothes designer originally from Russian-occupied Poland, and his wife Janie (or Jennie) Bobbe, who came from a family of Hebraic Dutch extraction, though by the time she was born her family had moved to the Whitechapel district of  London, where her father worked in the garment trade.  Janie left London for New York City, joining a couple of her brothers, not long after Jack the Ripper had terrorized the East End.  One of her brothers, Louis, became the advertising manager for the New York department store Koch & Co.  She and Maurice Feinsong wed in 1895.

Whitechapel garment workers c. 1910

Ruth's elder sister married a film projectionist and had one son, but Ruth herself never married, though from the 1930s onward she did have a life partner, native Irish schoolteacher Kathleen Gallagher, the daughter of a lace importer.  Like a contemporary mystery-writing same-sex couple much written about here, Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, Ruth and Kay, as Kathleen was familiarly known, traveled to Europe, Bermuda and the Caribbean together, Ruth employing those settings in some of her books.  For most of the time, however, the pair resided, like Irving Mendell and his wife (see below), in Greenwich Village, including at an apartment in a five-story turn-of-the-century row house at 227 Sullivan Street.  Now quite pricey, it was until recently located above a Chinese eatery, since moved I believe, called Dumpling Kingdom. (Yum!)

Koch & Co. c. 1900
Ruth's maternal uncle Louis Bobbe
was advertising manager of the store
when she was growing up
It's unclear where Ruth went to school or what sort of employment she had in her twenties, but when during the Depression the American national government's Works Progress Administration launched the Federal Theater Project, Ruth was one of some 350 people in the project who worked with marionettes in children's puppet theater.  Ruth wrote a number of puppet plays at this time, including Katcha and the Devil, The Mighty Mikko and A Valiant Little Tailor, all adaptations of European folk tales (the latter one her father should have especially enjoyed); The Totem, concocted from Iroquois tribal legend; Babar the Elephant, based on the beloved (and then contemporary) children's books by French writer Jean de Brunhoff; and classic English tales by literary giants Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, Oliver Twist and The Speckled Band.

The FTP was de-funded and shut down by Congress in 1939 after being attacked by the red-baiting, racist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group whose pernicious activities began long before the Cold War era of Joe McCarthy.  Irving Mendell, another Jewish New Yorker who later as the anagrammatic "Amen Dell" wrote a single mystery novel (that we know off), Johnny on the Spot (since reprinted by Coachwhip and highly recommended here), and was head of the FTP's Living Newspaper unit, was, sure enough, a Communist, but whether Ruth Fenisong's views were so doctrinaire is unclear.  In short, I tend to doubt Ruth was an actual " card-carrying Red."

227 Sullivan Street
where Ruth and Kay Gallagher resided
in the 1940s, when Ruth began writing
detective fiction (center building)
Certainly some of Ruth's plays suggest a left-liberal slant, however, like The Children of Salem, about two Puritan children who nearly provoke the killing of a purported witch (the play was billed as a "strong indictment of superstition"), and The Boiled Eggs, which has been recently reprinted. 

The latter play is a mordant satire in which a ruthlessly scheming restaurant owner (Landlord) and his equally atrocious Wife. attempting to fleece a simple Farmer of $2000 for a meal of a dozen boiled (and very rotten) eggs, have the tables deftly turned on them by a wily Lawyer and a goodhearted Waiter.  By the end of the play the waiter has joined a union and is picketing  the Landlord's restaurant, which in a literal burst of poetic justice is destroyed when the remaining rotten eggs explode. 

No "Dumpling Kingdom" this place!  Ruth portrays predatory capitalism battening off consumers like a bloodsucking parasite consuming the substance of its host.  Goodness, what would Sean Hannity say?!

puppet theater performance of Snow White (Ralph Chessee)
see Filmic Light
In the Ruth Fenisong crime novels I have read I have never detected such a blatant political subtext as one finds in The Boiled Eggs, yet to their advantage the series novels very much do evince, in the character of Gridley Nelson, a marked empathy for people of all social, racial and income groups and a strong concern with fairly providing justice to both the guilty and the innocent.  I have no doubt this was a key aspect of her books which attracted Anthony Boucher.

Ruth began writing detective novels (suggested by that puppet play The Speckled Band) not long after the FTP was shut down, publishing her first pair, both of them Gridley Nelson novels, in 1942, followed by two more Gridley Nelson novels in 1947. 

children watching marionette theater in New York
After that there were seven fallow years for Grid, with the non-series novels Jenny Kissed Me, The Lost Caesar, Desperate Cure, Snare for Sinners and Ill Wind, taking the place of the Nelson series mysteries.  In 1950, however, Grid Nelson returned in the theater mystery (anticipating Ngaio Marsh's Opening Night), Grim Rehearsal. Grid dominated Ruth's Fifties output, finally making his last bow in 1962 with Dead Weight, which was followed by only two more Fenisong mysteries, Villainous Company and The Drop of a Hat, and then a long silence for eight years until Ruth's death in 1978 at the age of 74.  Kay passed away but a few years later.

The Seventies, era of "Women's Lib," Roe v. Wade and the E.R.A., was a hard time for mid-century American crime writers of "domestic suspense" who came from the "Greatest Generation."  There were a few who kept going in this period, like Margaret Millar, though even she vanished for half the decade, after the publication in 1970 of Beyond This Point Are Monsters (see here). 

Interiors
Sullivan Street bedroom
I'd say maybe people no longer wanted to read about imperiled women in the home, but what about the runaway success in 1975 and the years that followed of Mary Higgins Clark's Where are the Children?  I was around back then and if mothers weren't reading Helter Skelter or Jaws or The Amityville Horror they were reading something in paperback by Mary Higgins Clark.

But in any event, as people have come to appreciate again just how good mid-century mysteries by these forgotten American women writers are, they have been enjoying a splendid resurgence.  I hope that with her republication by Stark House, Ruth Fenisong "joins the ladies" in reconnecting with a diverse and appreciative mystery reading audience.

The Crime Novels of Ruth Fenisong (aka Ruth Feinsong)

Gridley Nelson Series
Murder Needs a Name (1942)
Murder Needs a Face (1942)
The Butler Died in Brooklyn (1943)
Murder Runs a Fever (1943)
Grim Rehearsal (1950)
Dead Yesterday (1951)
Deadlock (1952)
The Wench Is Dead (1953)
Miscast for Murder (1954)
Bite the Hand (1956)
Death of the Party (1958)
But Not Forgotten (1960)
Dead Weight (1962)

Non-Series
Jenny Kissed Me (1944)
The Lost Caesar (1945)
Desperate Cure (1946)
Snare for Sinners (1949)
Ill Wind (1950)
Widows Plight (1955)
The Schemers (1957)
Villainous Company (1967)
The Drop of a Hat (1970)