Tuesday, January 1, 2019

"The Nile" Ain't Just a Novel By Christie, Part 2: Death Sails the Nile and the Life Journey of Frances Burks

Because everything she wrote gets remembered—and her writing typically is rather memorable to mystery fans—Agatha Christie often is assumed invariably to have been a crime fiction originator.  Often she was, but sometimes she was not.  We find an instance of the latter case—where she was not--with her classic detective novel Death on the Nile (1937), wherein her great Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, confronts a murderous ménage of devious European and American sophisticates on a tour boat in Egypt.  The novel was not in fact, as is generally believed, the first Nile River cruise mystery.  In novel form, anyway, that distinction would appear to belong to Death Sails the Nile, a detective novel published four years earlier by American author F. Burks McKinley.[1] 

Death Sails the Nile
was well-received by critics, with the Saturday Review, for example, pronouncing the novel “good” and explicating: “Authentic Egyptian background succeeds in producing unique atmosphere of terror.  Plenty of clues and strange occurrences.”  Yet until its reissuance this year by Coachwhip, the novel had been out-of-print for 85 years, with the author evidently having abandoned for good and all her stated intention of launching a mystery-writing career.

Frances Burks was publicized as
a "new star in mystery fiction"
but her writing light burned but briefly
Her—yes, the person hidden behind the androgynous name of F. Burks McKinley was American Mary Frances Burks McKinley, who at the time of the publication of her sole mystery novel was but 26 years old, a recent college graduate and near newlywed.  She was a year younger than another elite college graduate and traveler of Europe, John Dickson Carr, who had published his first mystery novel a few years earlier. 

The only daughter of James Willis Burks and Linnie Mai Atkins, the author was born Mary Frances Burks on November 24, 1907 at the farm of her maternal grandfather Asa Allen Atkins (formerly part of her great grandfather James Atkins’ 800-acre tobacco plantation), near the small town of Newbern in Dyer County, a “severely conservative” (to quote a recent presidential candidate) corner of northwestern Tennessee. 

Nine miles away at the county seat, Dyersburg, a Confederate memorial had been erected on the grounds of the courthouse in 1905, two years before Frances’ birth, on the 43rd anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh.  A dozen years later the stone rebel soldier that stood impassively at the top of the memorial looked on, along with thousands of vocal flesh and bone citizens of Dyer County, as Lation Scott, a black man accused of raping a white woman, was brutally tortured with red hot pokers for several hours before finally being incinerated at an impromptu stake.  “It was the biggest thing since Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town,” one eyewitness later recalled with gusto.[2] 

Perhaps some of the onlookers and/or participants at Lation Scott’s ghastly lynching just over a century ago were among those who had been “saved” at massive religious revivals conducted in the county in 1904 and 1907.  In any event, Mary Frances Burks in her own life left the strangely mingled savagery and sanctimony of the Jim Crow era South far behind her, eventually attaining heights known only, in both her day and in ours, to a fortunate few and living the sort of life at which the locals of Dyer County might have looked askance.

James Willis Burks II,
his wife Linne Mai Atkins
and their two children
James Willis Burks III
and Mary Frances Burks
around the time their
solider father was serving in the
Pancho Villa Expedition (1916)
Frances’s father, James Willis Burks II, came from another rural Tennessee County, Overton, located in north central Tennessee.  Educated at Livingston Academy in Livingston, county seat of Overton, and at Draughon’s Business College in Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, Burks became a druggist and served in the National Guard.  Over two decades he saw action in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Pancho Villa Expedition and World War One, rising to the rank of Major and receiving the Congressional Medal.  During this time he also ran drugstores in Livingston and Nashville, Little Rock, Arkansas and Toledo, Ohio, where his and Linnie Mai’s only other child, James Willis Burks III, was born in 1911. 

Frances and her brother spent their adolescent years mostly in Livingston, where their father and grandfather, Robert Lee Burks (a Civil War veteran, eulogist of the “lost cause,” ardent prohibitionist and devoted member of the Christian Church), owned the Burks Drug Company on the courthouse square, and in Nashville, where the Burks family moved in 1920, when Frances was twelve years old. 

Mary Frances Burks at Vanderbilt
(lower right, by the faculty sponsor)
She was chosen as the outstanding
student in Arts and Sciences at
Vanderbilt ninety years ago in 1929
After graduating in 1925 from Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School, where she played on the girls’ basketball team, Frances matriculated at Vanderbilt University, where she joined Tri Delta sorority and majored in Classics.  A 1927 photo of Vanderbilt’s Classical Club, organized to promote the study of Latin and Greek, shows a nineteen-year-old Frances looking forthrightly at the camera, attractive and boyish-looking in a dark dress with checkered belt and collar and a fawn coat and her arm about the shoulder of another young woman. 

On the same day she received her BA degree, June 12, 1929, she wed the socially prominent Silas Bent McKinley, a 35-year-old graduate of Harvard University and assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt and a nephew of noted journalist and author Silas Bent.  (Among McKinley’s distinguished ancestors were Kentucky senator and US Attorney General John J. Crittenden and Alabama senator and US Supreme Court Justice John McKinley.)  Frances had proven a promising student at Vanderbilt, having been awarded the Founder’s Medal as the top graduating student in the College of Arts and Sciences and served as an assistant to Professor Clyde Pharr, the noted head of the Classics Department, in Pharr’s landmark translation of the Codex Theodosianus (Theodosian Code).[3] 

However, after receiving an MA degree at Vanderbilt in October 1930--her thesis was on Cicero’s essay Cato Maior de Senectute (On Old Age)--Frances left Vanderbilt and moved with her husband, who had accepted a position at Washington University, to live in an opulent $75,000 mansion (about $1,135,000 today) in the wealthy enclave of Brentmoor Park, Clayton, a suburb of Saint Louis.

Mary Frances Burks upper right
While living in the lap of luxury in Brentmoor Park, where the newlywed couple enjoyed the services of a chauffeur and cook, Frances in November 1933 published what turned out to be her only mystery, Death Sails the Nile, for the writing of which she drew upon her experiences in Egypt during the three-and-a-half-month Mediterranean honeymoon idyll she had enjoyed with her husband. 

Frances dedicated the novel, which was handsomely produced by an interesting Boston publisher, The Stratford Company, to Silas (though she is referred to as “Miss McKinley” on the back cover) and had the endpapers illustrated with an Egyptian motif by a talented friend, Marie Agnes Benoist (1907-1968), whose acquaintance she had recently made.[4]

Agnes Benoist, an independently wealthy dilettante artist and sculptor, was one of the many grandchildren of one of 19th century Saint Louis’s wealthiest and most important citizens, banker and financier Louis Auguste Benoist.  Not only did Agnes design the endpapers for Frances’s book, she also executed the murals in two of the bathrooms at Frances’s house at Brentmoor Park.  Downstairs bright blue and red ships sailed upon a deep blue sea while upstairs planets majestically glittered. 

you can't go home again
Confederate memorial statue
at Dyersburg, TN
Just as Frances’ relationship with Agnes was taking sail, however, her marriage with Silas was foundering.  The couple's holiday cruise to the West Indies in December 1934, during which Frances had planned to work on another mystery, was beset with acrimony as Silas demanded a divorce from his wife. Informing Frances upon their return to St. Louis that he could no longer live happily in the same house with her, Silas "packed his bags and went home to mother" (as the saying goes) a few days after Christmas, declaring that he would never return to Brentmoor Park to reside with his lawfully wedded wife. 

In January 1935, Frances sued Silas for divorce, alleging “general indignities” and asking for alimony and a return of her maiden name. 
Frances’s suit, which made national headlines in an era when divorce could still be considered shocking news (“Woman Writer of Mystery Tales Sues for Divorce”), was quickly granted; and in March, while her now ex-husband Silas wed another woman, Frances traveled to the island of Bermuda for a lengthy stay with her friend Agnes.  That same year, she took up residence in her and Silas’ apartment overlooking Central Park (now the site of the Park Lane Hotel), informing inquiring newspapers that she planned to study journalism.  

In 1940 she was still residing off Central Park, along with Agnes, although she seems to have abandoned journalism as a profession.  In 1943 she again enrolled, at the age of 35, at Vanderbilt University, registering for four classes, but she withdrew after only a couple of months.  In the end Frances’ life--which ended on September 5, 1970 at a house far from Tennessee in the historic Spanish-American city of Antigua, Guatemala which Agnes, who had died two years earlier, used to visit--seems to have consisted of a series of false, if promising, starts, with much potential sadly left unrealized.


James Willis Burks III
brother of Mary Frances Burks
and father of James Willis Burks IV
In 1937, two years after her divorce from Silas McKinley, Frances hosted, at her Central Park abode, a wedding reception for her 26-year-old brother James Willis Burks III, a Vanderbilt graduate and student at Washington University School of Medicine (he had earlier dropped out of Virginia Military Institute, rejecting his father’s martial way of life), and alluring chanteuse Alice Weaver, daughter of a locomotive engineer from Carbondale, Illinois and a former vocal teacher at the Fanchon and Marco School of the Theater in Hollywood, California.  The songstress likely had caught Burks’ eye at the Hotel Kingsway tavern in St. Louis, where, it was chattily confided in the St. Louis Star and Times, the “lovely and gracious doll” had performed an engagement with her “he-man pianist,” Herme Zinzer.

In 1945, after a stint in the army during the Second World War, the younger Burks received an MSc degree in dermatology and syphilology from the University of Minnesota Graduate School of Medicine.  Although his "lovely and gracious doll" of a wife sued him for divorce two years later, after a decade of marriage and the birth of a daughter, Mary Frances, who was named after his sister, his professional life flourished, as he became professor of clinical medicine in dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.  He later married a second time, to Alma Rita Limberg, a New Orleans native 16 years younger than he, and with her fathered a boy and a girl. 

In 1961, a year after the birth of his son and namesake James Willis Burks IV, Dr. Burks delivered a paper at the annual Academy of Dermatology and Syphilology Symposium in Therapy held at Chicago, Illinois.  He opened his speech by wryly recalling a “pessimistic, dyspeptic colleague-in-training” from the Forties who had been dismayed by all the advances being made in medicine, which the colleague believed would destroy the medical practice by making disease obsolete:

He pointed out that half of our practice had already disappeared.  Hopes for survival dimmed through the years every time I heard from him….the only things remaining for us to treat would be acne and ringworm.  Since griseofulvin [a medication used to treat ringworm] has appeared, I have not had the heart to speak to him.  I sincerely hope he is spared the knowledge of the monumental breakthrough in therapeutics I will reveal in the latter part of this presentation.

Dr. Burks died in 1978, not long before his handsome, tousle-haired son Jamie enrolled at Tulane University.  After his graduation from Tulane in 1982, Jamie for a time attended graduate school at UCLA.  He later worked as a model in Europe.  He was living in Los Angeles again when he was hospitalized for complications from AIDS, from which he died, at the age of 34, on November 7, 1994, seventeen days before what would have been his Aunt Frances’ 87th birthday. 

Jamie was interred in the Burks family tomb at Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, where his father and Frances had already been laid to rest.  Mourners were urged to make memorial contributions to the fight against AIDS, a scourge which Dr. Burks’ dyspeptic colleague in dermatology and syphilology should have found highly gratifying, as the treatment of it presented dilemmas indeed for the medical specialist.

New Orleans artist Jan Gilbert, a friend of Jamie's, dedicated her Light in the Head" exhibition in the Crescent City to him.  You can see pictures of the exhibition (and Jamie) here.  And here is Jamie's name on the AIDS Memorial Walk in West Hollywood.

A college photo of a nineteen-year-old Jamie Burks can be found on a page Instagram’s The Aids Memorial website, where Jamie is one among thousands of posted casualties of the dread disease.  At the site Jamie’s tragically foreshortened life of passion and promise is given moving remembrance by his friend Jonathan Taylor:

Jamie and I met in New York, 1981.  Kappa Sigma photo shows him in college—a snapshot I kept from his belongings (he would be very embarrassed by this image).  Jamie, pictured right, the funniest, silliest crazy boy and man.  The sweetest face.  The best laugh—gasping for air, nearly silent in disbelief, tears streaming down our faces with laughter.  How I remember him.  A great friend I miss terribly.  Jamie had a horrible, painful, ugly passing, in contrast to his brief, wonderful life, 1960-1994.

Certainly the Burks family, from Frances and her brother James to her nephew Jamie, seem to have lived lives that were relatively freed from the traditional constraints of the rural South, with all the pinnacles and pitfalls which such untethered lives can entail.  In Frances’ case she left mystery fans, amid an unfortunate litter of false starts and dead ends, a worthy detective novel to enjoy, now reissued 85 years after its original publication. 

Postscript: Like Frances Burks I graduated from Vanderbilt, almost 30 years ago; and of course I edited the Edgar-nominated anthology of essays on LGBTQ mystery writers and themes, Murder in the Closet.  I was fascinated by Frances Burks' personal history and that of her family.  Normally I don't write about younger relations of mystery writers, but I was very moved by the story of Frances Burks' nephew, Jamie, who was much beloved by those who knew him. 

World AIDS Day was a month ago, on December 1, and I regret not getting this piece posted then.  I'm making a New Year's Resolution to support AIDS charity this year, however, and I hope some of my blog readers will consider doing the same. (See here for a list of well-regarded AIDS charities.)

Despite what you find in so much Golden Age detective fiction, untimely death is not a game but rather a grim and wicked thing, the real thing I mean, laying waste to promising lives and destroying so much human potential.  Harm and hurt is a hydra-headed monster in this world, but we can but try to do what we can, when we can, to hinder it, in whatever form of disease or disaster it may take.  I'm going to make it a point to do more of my bit this year.--TPT

[1] However, Agatha Christie may get the last laugh yet again, for the same year, 1933, in which Death Sails the Nile appeared saw the publication by Christie of a Parker Pyne mystery short story entitled—you guessed it—“Death on the Nile.”  Of course the Western world at this time was especially fascinated with ancient Egypt as a result of the discovery, eleven years earlier, of Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s marvelous lost tomb.  Christie herself had opportunistically published an Hercule Poirot mystery short story, “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,” in September 1923, less than a year after the opening of tomb of “King Tut,” as he had been colloquially dubbed.
[2] In modern value James Atkins’ real and personal estate was worth over a million dollars in 1860, though the wealth he amassed was widely distributed at his death among no less than fourteen children.  On the Lation Scott lynching see Margaret Vandiver’s Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South (Rutgers University Press, 2006) and the key contemporary account, “The Burning at Dyersburg: An NAACP Investigation, The Crisis 16 (February 1918):178-183.
[3] See Linda Jones Hall, “Clyde Pharr, the Women of Vanderbilt, and the Wyoming Judge: The Story behind the Translation of the Theodosian Code in Mid-Century America,” Roman Legal Tradition 8 (2012), 24-25.  Hall reports that at the time Frances Burks attended Vanderbilt women “dominated graduate studies in the Department of Classics” (p. 13).
[4] Perhaps the best known book published by The Stratford Press is civil rights activist and author WEB DuBois’ The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (1924).  It was published as part of the Knights of Columbus Racial Contribution Series, which also included George Cohen’s The Jews in the Making of America (1924), also published by The Stratford Company.  This was a daring project in the decade that saw the mass revival in America of the Ku Klux Klan and a successful effort to curtail the immigration of ethnicities and races deemed undesirable by many White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  The Stratford Company also published Silas Bent McKinley’s first book, Democracy and Military Power (1934), which included a forward by famed progressive historian Charles Beard.

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