Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Murder Gone Meta 2 The Week-End Mystery (1926) by Robert A. Simon

Note: The Week-End Mystery has recently been reprinted by Coachwhip, with an introduction by yours truly, from which the piece below is drawn. For a preliminary post on this book, see here.

By 1926, when the 29-year-old American author and critic Robert A. Simon published his single detective novel, a charmingly whimsical murder story entitled The Week-End Mystery, the conventions of British and American detective fiction, then in its so-called Golden Age (conventionally dated as around 1920 to 1940), already were well-established, if not highly formalized.

Long before Anglo-American hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (originally published in 1944 and revised for book publication in 1950) derided what he termed the “Cheesecake Manor” school of class-bound, hoity-toity mystery writing, the weekend country house party attended either by landed gentry (in the UK) or the merely wealthy (in the US) had become the classic, indeed clichéd, setting for fictional murder; and it is precisely this setting which Robert A. Simon employed and wryly lampooned in his clever detective novel.

Seemingly not quite getting the author’s joke, the reviewer of the The Week-End Mystery in the New York Times lamented the novel’s “hackneyed situations and conventional characters,” while simultaneously allowing that these demerits did not much matter when “the story is so well told.”  “Mr. Simon has an ingratiating ability to take the reader into his confidence, to put him completely at his ease,” pronounced the reviewer of the author’s smooth narrative style, before concluding that “‘The Week-End Mystery’ must be classed among the superior detective stories.”  The novel was also published the same year in the UK by Collins, who the same year put out a certain little number by Agatha Christie of which you may have heard: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Robert A. Simon
author of The Week-End Mystery (1926)
The author of The Week-End Mystery, Robert Alfred Simon, was a member of the irrepressible American Jazz Age generation that during the Roaring Twenties took to detective fiction like it did to sitting on flagpoles--with, to be sure, less transitory results.  Robert was born in Manhattan, New York on February 18, 1897 (less than five months after Jazz Age bard F. Scott Fitzgerald), to Alfred Leopold Simon, a wealthy feather and silk manufacturer and milliner, and his wife Hedwig Meier, both of whom were of German Jewish heritage.

In his early years he resided in Midtown at a four-story brownstone  townhouse at 116 East 55th Street with his parents and younger sister, Helen, as well as an uncle and aunt, Leo and Anna (Meier) Simon, and their eldest son, Richard Leo Simon, a live-in maid and a German nanny. (German was Robert’s first language.)[1]

Two years younger than Robert, Richard would grow up to co-found the publishing firm of Simon and Schuster and father four children, including the famed singer-songwriter Carly Simon.  Other cousins of Robert’s included Richard’s three brothers: George Thomas Simon, a jazz writer and early drummer in Glenn Miller’s orchestra; Henry William Simon, an opera critic and professor of English at Teacher’s College, Columbia University; and Alfred Edward Simon, a rehearsal pianist for George Gershwin and radio programmer of light opera and show music.  In his own life and work Robert Alfred Simon evinced similar literary and musical interests to those of his multi-talented cousins. 

Max Schuster and Richard Simon with their first book
(a book of crossword puzzles)
Both Robert and Richard Simon attended Columbia University, where Robert received the degree of Bachelor of Literature in Journalism in 1921, after an interlude of a year’s service during America’s participation in the Great War as a Sergeant in Columbia University’s School of Military Cinematography. 

During his college years Robert was a student in the renowned creative writing class of Dorothy Scarborough, who later became the author of the searing regional novel The Wind (1925) and the future teacher of acclaimed southern novelist Carson McCullers.

After graduation Robert for a couple of years published articles on jazz and classical music in New York newspapers.  Then in 1923 the prestigious firm of Boni and Liveright (among their authors in the Twenties were novelists Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, poets T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings and Hart Crane and playwright Eugene O’Neill) published Robert’s first novel, Our Little Girl, an amusing satirical tale about “a young girl who was brought up to imagine herself a great singer and who came to believe it.”  At a party a year earlier Robert had wryly bet Boni and Liveright’s owner, Horace Liveright, a single dollar that he could write a novel which Liveright’s firm would accept.  Having won the bet, Robert dedicated Our Little Girl to his cousin Richard, who was then Boni and Liveright’s sales manager. 

Richard Simon's "little girl" Carly
Over the next few years Robert continued to produce interesting literary work.  In 1925 the newly launched New Yorker hired the young author as its first music critic (a position he would hold for the next 23 years) and Simon and Schuster, which Richard had co-founded the previous year, published his translation of Fraulein Else, Arthur Schnitzler’s highly regarded tragic novella.

The next year Robert produced his second and final novel, The Week-End Mystery. This book was published not by Simon and Schuster, but rather by G. Howard Watt, publishers of Clinton Stagg, whose tales of the amazing sleuthing exploits of visually impaired detective Thornley Colton, the so-called “blind problemist,” were gently lampooned by Agatha Christie in her 1929 Tommy and Tuppence Beresford short story collection Partners in Crime.  (The Thornley Colton cases have been reprinted by Coachwhip.) 

Although The Week-End Mystery was the only detective novel Robert ever published, in 1927 he versatilely produced Bronx Ballads, a humorous collection of Jewish songs with illustrations by American humorist, cartoonist and radio personality Harry Hershfield, and served as general editor of Simon and Schuster’s The Pamphlet Poets series,  designed “to promote poetry to the masses through paperback offerings sold for twenty-five cents.”[2]  Volumes in this laudable Simon and Schuster series included Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Witter Bytnner, Four National Negro Poets (including Langston Hughes) and The New York Wits, the latter of which Robert personally edited. 

Despite evident promise as a writer of both mainstream and mystery novels, Robert soon focused his creative writing energies exclusively in the field of music.  In 1927 he produced a widely praised translation of Charles Gounod’s Faust for Vladimir Rosing’s American Opera Company; librettos for modern operas by Robert Russell Bennett, Albert Stoessel and Vittorio Giannini followed in the Thirties.

In 1928 he wed like-minded concert pianist and music teacher Madeleine Marshall, who the year before had co-authored a book of gaming scenarios, published by Simon and Schuster, for Guggenheim, a Twenties games craze similar to today’s Scattergories.  Madeleine was one of two talented daughters of Benjamin Marshall, a prosperous Syracuse, New York hide, fur and leather manufacturer and a niece of Jewish community leader Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Committee and one of the most prominent constitutional attorneys in the United States (as a legal eminence he was considered an equal of the “other Louis,” Louis Brandeis). Together Madeleine and Robert would have two children.[3] 

Robert A. Simon died in 1981 at the age of 84, having lived a most interesting and rewarding life, though regrettably his sole detective novel—a comparative trifle, if rather a charming one--had been long forgotten at his death by the vintage mystery reading public.  Happily modern-day murder fanciers at leisure can now take the opportunity to relax for a few happy hours with The Week-End Mystery.

Another loathed American tycoon bites the dust
at weekend house party at his stately country mansion
Robert A. Simon’s The Week-End Mystery lies firmly within the tradition of the “Murder?  What fun!” school of detective fiction associated with A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922) and several Twenties works by Agatha Christie, including The Secret Adversary (1922) and The Secret of Chimneys (1925), all tales written with a light hand and the tongue in cheek.  (Notorious sourpuss Raymond Chandler did not appreciate A. A. Milne’s joke and spent a good chunk of his “Simple Art of Murder” essay dismantling The Red House Mystery for its lack of realism, in one of the great examples of utterly-beside-the-point literary criticism.) 

Yet Simon’s novel is even more “meta” than Milne’s and Christie’s books, in that it openly revels in mystery genre self-reference from nearly its first page.

The story opens in the “little office on 94th Street near Broadway” of Dr. Hugh Farrigan, orthopedic specialist.  28-year-old Jimmy Wrome, assistant to the head of the refined sugar department in the Universal Sugar Refining Company, has come to Dr. Farrigan’s office seeking a cure for his aches and pains.  The doctor quickly diagnoses Jimmy’s malady as a broken heart and prescribes—but naturally—a steady diet of detective fiction, which Jimmy is to borrow from Curtin’s, the drugstore around the corner.[4]  Farrigan’s playful prescription reads:

Detective Stories.
Read one daily until relieved.  Dose may be increased if desired.
Hugh Farrigan, M. D.

Dr. Farrigan starts Jimmy off with a mystery novel he happens to have on hand at the office: The Shower Bath Enigma, one of the many popular tales about series sleuth Bernard Gatlin, “the Man of a Million Masks.”  Responding well to his course of treatment, Jimmy next reads The Porterhouse Murder, another Bernard Gatlin exploit, and after that there is no return.  From the Bernard Gatlin series Jimmy soon has devoured What Happened in Rochester, The Pumblewaite Legacy (“not so good, that one”), Eighteen Minutes Past Five, The Face in the Dark, The Rosenbaum Case, The Cryptic Bride, The O’Reilly Affair and the latest Gatlin opus, The Statue of Liberty Tangle, concerning the vexed question of just who “knifed the senator at midnight in the Statue of Liberty torch.”

Jimmy also reads tales about Great Detectives Hamilton Boone, Lord Hembury and Wilhelmine O’Connor, but the Man of the Million Masks remains his mainstay.  Soon he seemingly has gotten over his late love affair, but Dr. Farrigan starts to wonder whether the young man, who is now making Holmesian deductions about everyone he encounters, may be coming down with a severe attack of “detectivitis.”

Jimmy feeds his raging fever for detection when Dr. Farrigan invites him to a weekend house party being held by his most prominent patient, wealthy bachelor banker Leed Payne, “the Mystery Man of Wall Street,” at his country estate, Olean, in Bellechester.  (Westchester?)  Also among the weekend guests at Olean are

New York assemblyman Francis Gulvin and his theater enthusiast wife

jive-spouting jazz saxophonist Eddie Endle, who plays nightly at the nearby Shuffle Inn

beautiful Claire Trevor, who just happens to be the woman who violently wrung Jimmy’s withers

and Claire’s mystifying new love interest, bland bond dealer Blake Hesbe. 

All these people, along with Olean’s mysterious butler, Stelke (naturally there is a butler), become suspects when Leed Payne is discovered dead in his locked bedroom, having been mortally wounded from a single gunshot, seemingly self-inflicted.

Jimmy has other ideas about Payne’s sudden death, however, and he promptly communicates them at length to a local reporter.  Soon the case is being reluctantly investigated by Edgar Brinze, Captain of the Bellechester Police Reserve Force. Yet Jimmy has no confidence in the sleuthing capacities of Brinze, the son of a local cement manufacturer who had shown such “an alarming inaptitude for the niceties of the cement business” that he was foisted by his wealthy and politically influential father onto the police department, where he has proven every bit as inapt. 

Jimmy concludes that he will have to conduct his own investigation of the mystery, especially after Claire, whom it seems he has not quite gotten over after all, becomes Brinze’s lead suspect!  Can lessons from The Shower Bath Enigma, The Porterhouse Murder and The Rosenbaum Case help Jimmy mimic the crime-busting methods of the Man of a Million Masks and beat Bellechester’s bullying and boorish Captain Brinze to the solution of the Leed Payne murder case?

Thus begins the competition  for clues in one of the most meta mystery novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction.  The reader will not fully appreciate just how much so until she has reached the last line of the last page. 

[1] The Simon’s townhouse was later purchased by Robert B. Roosevelt, Jr., a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt.  It was torn down and replaced with an elegant neo-Georgian mansion at the behest of its new owner, millionaire William Ziegler, Jr., in 1927.  Today the house is the site of the SUNY Global Center. 
[2] Quoting Randy Mackin, George Scarborough, Appalachian Poet: A Biographical and Literary Study with Unpublished Writings (McFarland, 2011), 6.  Dubbed the “Jewish Will Rogers” on account of his wryly humorous wit, Hershfield is best known today for his Abie the Agent, which featured the first Jewish protagonist in an American comic strip.  He also created the comic strips Desperate Desmond and Dauntless Durham of the U. S. A., in which he amusingly parodied cliffhanging crime melodrama.  Simon and Schuster did not launch its celebrated “Inner Sanctum” mystery imprint, edited by Lee Wright, until 1936.  It would include such lauded mystery writers as Patrick Quentin, Anthony Boucher, Cornell Woolrich and Craig Rice. 
[3] On Madeleine Marshall Simon (1899-1993), see Sheri Cook-Cunningham, “The Many Facets of Madeleine Marshall,” International Journal of Research in Choral Singing 4 (2): 52-76.  Madeleine, who performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini, would later teach English diction at the Juilliard School for over a half-century (1935-86) and author the standard school text The Singer’s Manual of English Diction.  She was coach and accompanist for many artists, including Lily Pons, Helen Traubel, Leontyne Pryce, Lawrence Tibbett and Lauritz Melchior.
[4] Jimmy Wrome is of the same age as the author when he was writing The Week-End Mystery.

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