Thursday, February 28, 2019

What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part 2

Agatha Christie, creator of eccentric Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, famously devised a fictional alter ego for herself in Poirot's mystery writing friend Ariadne Oliver, creator of eccentric Finnish detective Sven Hjerson.  Christie admitted that Mrs. Oliver, who appears in seven Agatha Christie novels published between 1936 and 1972, "does have a strong dash of myself.

It's meta, people!  Although it's highly doubtful to me that Christie would have appreciated what Sarah Phelps currently is grimly doing to her work, I think she would have appreciated the Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat Sherlock series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  Gatiss and Moffat chose puckishly and creatively to play with the Holmes canon rather than highhandedly and brutally annihilate it.

In the Christie novels Mrs. Oliver often expresses irritation with her quirky vegetarian detective, ruefully admitting that she knows nothing  about Finland.  Yet would she have been comfortable with a Sarah Phelps adaptation which almost entirely rewrites Sven? 

Happily, we can deduce the answer based on comments Mrs. Oliver herself makes in Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), when she is working with a rather precious playwright, Robin Upward, on his effort to adapt a Sven Hjerson novel for the stage. 

television's Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker)
It does not seem promising:

At Laburnums, collaboration was in process.  Robin Upward was saying earnestly:

"You do see, don't you, what a wonderful line that is?  And if we really get a feeling of sex antagonism between the chap and the girl it'll pep up the whole thing enormously!"

Mrs. Oliver ran her hands through her windswept grey hair, causing it took as though swept not by wind but by a tornado.

"You do see what I mean, don't you, Ariadne darling?"

"Oh, I see what you mean," said Mrs. Oliver gloomily.

"But the main thing is for you to feel really happy about it."

Nobody but a really determined self-deceiver could have thought that Mrs. Oliver looked happy.

Robin continued blithely:

"What I feel is, there's that wonderful young man, parachuted down--"

Mrs. Oliver interrupted:

"He's sixty."

"Oh no!"

"He is."

"I don't see him like that.  Thirty-five--not a day older."

"I've been writing books about him for thirty years, and he was at least thirty-five in the first one."

"But, darling, if he's sixty, you can't have the tension between him and the girl--what's her name?  Ingrid.  I mean, it would make him just a nasty old man!"

"It certainly would."

"So you see, he must be thirty-five," said Robin triumphantly.

"Then he can't be Sven Hjerson.  Just make him a Norwegian young man who's in the Resistance Movement."  

"But darling Ariadne, the whole point of the play is Sven Hjerson.  You've got an enormous public who simply adore Sven Hjerson, and who'll flock to see Sven Hjerson.  He's box office, darling!"

"But people who read my books know what he's like.  You can't invent an entirely new young man in the Norwegian Resistance Movement and and just call him Sven Hjerson."

"Ariadne darling, I did explain all that.  It's not a book, darling, it's a play.  And we've got to have glamour!  And if we get this tension, this antagonism between Sven Hjerson and this--what's her name--Karen--you know, all against each other and then frightfully attracted--"

"Sven Hjerson never cared for women," said Mrs. Oliver coldly.

"But you can't have him a
pansy, darling.  Not for this sort of play.  I mean it's not green bay trees or anything like that.  It's thrills and murders and clean open-air fun."

The mention of open air had its effect.

"I think I'm going out," said Mrs. Oliver abruptly.  I need air.  I need air badly."

"Shall I come with you?" asked Robin tenderly.

"No, I'd rather be alone."

"Just as you like, darling.  Perhaps you're right.  I'd better go and whip up an eggnog for Madre.  The poor sweet is feeling just a teeny weeny bit left out of things.  She does like attention, you know.  And you'll think about that scene in the cellar, won't you?  The whole thing is coming really wonderfully well.  It's going to be a most tremendous success.  I know it is!"

Mrs. Oliver sighed.

"But the main thing," continued Robin, "is for you to feel happy about it!"

Well.  This scene seems to me to capture a lot about the frustrations of adaptation, from the novelist's perspective, and it has great applicability to the situation with Christie, Poirot and Phelps today. 

Robin Upward blithely changes the sixty-year-old, woman-indifferent Finn, Sven Hjerson, into a lusty thirty-five year old (and not a day older) member of the Norwegian Resistance, enmeshed in a love-hate affair with a sexy young woman--Ingrid, or Karen (Robin can't quite recall her name, it seems).  Apparently all these changes are needed for the public, who, Robin fervently believes, wants glamour and a ravishing female love interest for the hero.  Just replace dashing boy-girl sexual byplay with existential gloom and psychic despair and we have the Phelps Poirot.

When Mrs. Oliver asks why Robin doesn't just create a new hero, since what he's describing is not her character and never could be, Robin tells her they need Sven Hjerson--his name anyway--because "He's box office darling!"  Yes, there's the rub, indeed.  It's as if Christie were looking into a crystal ball.

All the while Robin implausibly insists that what's really important to him is that Mrs. Oliver be happy with all the changes that she's so obviously unhappy with.  Fortunately Mrs. Oliver was alive to speak out in defense of her character.  As irritating as she might find him, he was her child, not Robin Upward's. 

Sadly here in 2019 Agatha Christie is long gone, as is her daughter, and it seems that there is no longer anyone connected with the Agatha Christie Industry who will speak out on behalf Christie's artistic vision, as it actually appears on the printed page.  (Instead they go looking for the "secret, sinister" Christie, who really, it seems, wanted to write Belgian noir.)

Who killed Agatha Christie?  Even
Japp and Hastings might know the answer to this one.
Recently, David Suchet, who played what now seems likely to remain the definitive Hercule Poirot on British television for a quarter century, delicately observed, when asked his opinion of the new Phelps-scripted adaptation of the classic Poirot mystery The ABC Murders, that
"the parameters were different when he took on the role in 1989." 

Then he added:

My brief from Agatha Christie's daughter was 'we want it played as she wrote it,' which actually fitted with my philosophy of acting, to serve my creator.

Were such modesty more common, in life and in art!  Even if, it must be admitted, some of the later Suchet Poirots went off the rails rather a bit themselves.  But it was a good run, while it lasted, better than what many writers have received from the frequently ungentle hands of adapters. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

There's More Red Herrings in the Sea: Five Golden Age Adaptation Options Besides Agatha (and Fifteen More to Follow up on)

Say you've read all the mysteries of Agatha Christie, even the relatively undistinguished ones like Destination Unknown and Third Girl, and the outright disasters like Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate.  In fact say you've actually read them all, the good and great ones anyway, two or three times or more.  And you've read all those Sophie Hannah continuations.  And you've seen all the Christie films and series.  Don't you occasionally hanker for something more in the mystery line besides your beloved Agatha Christie? 

Here are some suggestions for producers of mystery films and series, all of them prolific accomplished authors from the Golden Age, who created popular series sleuths and, best of all, are actually in print today (in all or in part):

1. Margery Allingham (1904-1966)

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham is one of the few mystery writers I know of who truly deserves the description "Dickensian."  Her well-mysteries are filled with colorful and quirky characters and situations.  If they are too posh for modern day filmmakers, with aristocratic amateur sleuth Albert Campion, there's always his gross, earthy sidekick, Lugg.  And some of Allingham's books, like the much-lauded The Tiger in the Smoke and the even better, in my view, Hide My Eyes, have genuinely psychotic villains, which should appeal to the Phelpses of the film and television world. 

Sarah Phelps wouldn't even need to invent grotesques for The Tiger in the Smoke, as she does with Agatha Christie.  Granted, eight Campion novels were filmed three decades ago for the two-season Campion television series, starring the superb Peter Davison, but it's time, I would say, for an update.

More in this vein: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Nicholas Blake, Michael Innes, Georgette Heyer (no posh sleuths but a lot of posh suspects)

2. Henry Wade (1887-1969)

Henry Wade in WW1
One of the forgotten masters of Golden Age mystery and a subject of my book The Spectrum of English Murder, Henry Wade has been brought back into print in the last few years.  If, like Sarah Phelps, you want to adapt searing mysteries dealing with the baneful impact of the First World War, Wade is your man!  Himself a privileged baronet and wealthy country landowner, Wade casts a commendably wide social net in his book, though there are, to be sure, a large number of manor houses for the Downton Abbey crowd.  But above all his books (like The Dying Alderman, for example) offer psychologically and socially realistic studies of life in England from the Twenties through the Fifites, which ostensibly is what interests Phelps.  Although there is sardonic humor in them, they often take a pessimistic, sometimes grim, view of the state of man and the world, which is also, most conveniently, the fashionable modern take. 

Of all Golden Age writers, Wade is one I find closet in spirit to PD James, far closer than Dorothy L. Sayers actually.  Only some of his books have series sleuth Inspector Poole, but Poole could be written into the standalones.

More in this vein: E. R. Punshon

3. Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957)

Freeman Wills Crofts
The Golden Age master of the unbreakable alibi, Freeman Wills Crofts produced one of the archetypal British police detectives, the ever-dutifully striving Inspector Joseph French. 

Admittedly modern day filmmakers would find French a rather dull dog: He's so upright and virtuous and happily married to his equally upright and virtuous wife Emily.  However, Em could be tragically and horribly killed off and "Soapy Joe," as French is known, could spiral into an abysmal alcoholic depression. 

Crofts was a fine plotter, so adapters could let the plots take care of themselves, one hopes, while they flesh out Crofts' rather cardboard characters.  The fervently religious author would not have liked explicit sex and language in adaptations of his books, but what do modern-day filmmakers care! 

One way in which Crofts was very modern was in his criticism of big business corruption, which fills his Thirties mysteries, like Mystery in the Channel.  Modern filmmakers should find that aspect of his detective novels a most congenial one.

More in this vein: R. Austin Freeman, John Rhode/Miles Burton (John Street), J. J. Connington, Christopher Bush, John Bude

4. Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Gladys Mitchell
The "Great Gladys" was unique in Golden Age mystery, with her screeching, reptilian psychiatrist detective Mrs. Bradley.  Her books are filled with bizarre, often grotesque, situations and aberrant behavior.  The plots don't always make total sense, at least not readily, but there is great zest in the telling, especially in the Thirties and Forties.  About twenty years ago, British television tried to do a Mrs. Bradley series, casting as the formidable Dame the the beautiful and posh Diana Rigg.  With all due respect to the Great Diana, it didn't work, and it's time to try again.

More in this vein: John Dickson Carr (a much more disciplined plotter than Mitchell, but with a similar taste for the bizarre and for odd detectives with outsize personalities)

5. Moray Dalton (1882-1963)

Only now coming back into print, Moray Dalton (really Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir) resembles the Crime Queens in many ways, having a decided knack for narrative and characterization.

ordeal by arsenic
a superb crime novel about a
dysfunctional genteel family
Yet for me she is a bit less "posh" (there's that word again) of a writer than Sayers, Allingham and Marsh and explores sexual and class dynamics in Thirties and Forties Britain in more original ways.  See, for example, Death in the Cup and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, which have some truly striking and refreshing situations. 

I think that Dalton, who seems to have lived life as something of a privileged outsider, may have been more of a forerunner of the modern crime novel than these other, more famous women, estimable as they are.  Her primary sleuth, Hugh Collier, is an appealing young police detective, but modern filmmakers I'm sure could find some grim and terrible qualities to impose on him.  so get cracking, you people!  Five titles by her are coming out in just a few days.

More in this vein: Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), ECR Lorac/Carol Carnac (Edith Caroline Rivett), H. C. Bailey

Well, there you have it.  Would the Powers-That-Be but listen!  In the meantime, you can eagerly await Agatha Christie's gruesome satanic Sixties sex orgies, coming soon in Sarah Phelps' adaptation of The Pale Horse, a Christie novel already filmed back in 1997 (with Andy Serkis as a cop! Oh, cool!) and 2010 (with Miss Marple as the detective! Oh, *!#!^!).

Sunday, February 24, 2019

What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part One

At a screening of The ABC Murders in December of last year, scripter Sarah Phelps dismissed as "manufactured outrage" all the complaints from Agatha Christie traditionalists about the massive alterations of Christie's works in Phelps' recent adaptations.  Conceding that in her books the Queen of Crime "might not have written any sex or swearing or drug-taking and whatever," Phelps nevertheless declared, "I'm sure she would have if she could."

Evidently Phelps in making this declaration is relying on her self-professed knowledge of the "secret, sinister" Agatha whom she has divined (see my last post), the one who would have enjoyed using the, erm, more forthright four-letter words and who, "if she could," would have included in her books such Phelps scripted scenes as these from The ABC Murders, described in a revolted article in The Atlantic:

Phelps has taken the grande dame of drawing room detective fiction and made her stories so grotesque, so deranged, that they're almost comical.  The low point for me in The ABC Murders...was the focus on a yellow, pus-filled boil on the back of a man's neck--so yellow it seemed almost to vibrate on camera--as another man grimly spears open the yolk of his fried egg.  In another scene, the actor Shirley Henderson's character, lipstick smeared all over her face, berates the daughter she rents out to men for a shilling, screeching, "I wish I'd used a knitting needle on you."

....Phelps has dreamed [additional scenes] featuring the use of high heels and silk stockings in sexualized torture rituals....It might seem unimaginable in Christie's genteel but biting stories to insert, say, a visual of an overflowing receptacle of urine.  Not for Phelps, though, who's now used this motif twice, in The ABC Murders as well in the grimly vicious Ordeal by Innocence.

These are the adaptations which have prompted Christie great-grandson James Prichard not to high dudgeon but to a meek thanks to Phelps for having helped him learn "a lot about my great-grandmother's work...."  He adds: "I now read it differently."  Oh, my dear James, I'm afraid you've been led up a (rather dark) garden.

Instead of looking for subtextual clues to this putative "secret, sinister" Agatha--the Agatha whom Phelps feels sure wanted really to write about stiletto-heeled sadists, pus-filled boils and overflowing urine--why not look at the words Christie actually wrote right up front in her books, words which seem to make clear how she felt about such matters?

Here is, I think, the voice of Christie, expressed through Miss Marple, on modern novels in her detective novel A Caribbean Mystery (1964):

modern filmmakers should find
this Christie cover most congenial
She thought, on the whole, that [her nephew Raymond West] was fond of her--he always had been--in a slightly exasperated and contemptuous way!  Always trying to bring her up to date.  Sending her books to read.  Modern novels.  So difficult--all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, even enjoying them.  "Sex" as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple's young days, but there had been plenty of it--not talked about so much--but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.  Though usually labeled Sin, she couldn't help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays--a kind of Duty.

Her glance strayed for a moment to the book lying on her lap open at page twenty-three which was as far as she had got (and indeed as far as she felt like getting!):

"Do you mean that you've had no sexual experience at ALL?" demanded the young man incredulously.  "At nineteen?  But you must.  It's vital."

The girl hung her head unhappily, her straight, greasy hair fell forward over her face.

"I know," she muttered.  "I know."

He looked at her, the stained jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toe nails, the smell of rancid fat....He wondered why he found her so maddeningly attractive.

Miss Marple wondered too.  And really!  To have sex experience urged on you exactly as if it was an iron tonic.  Poor young things....

"My dear Aunt Jane, why must you bury your head in the sand like a very delightful ostrich.  All bound up in this idyllic rural life of yours.  REAL LIFE--that's what matters."

Thus Raymond.  And his Aunt Jane had looked properly abashed and said "Yes," she was afraid she was rather old-fashioned.

Though really rural life was far from idyllic.  People like Raymond were so ignorant.  In the course of her duties in a country parish, Jane Marple had acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life.  She had no urge to talk about them, far less to write about them--but she knew them.  Plenty of sex, natural and unnatural.  Rape, incest, perversion of all kinds.  (Some kinds, indeed, that even the clever young men from Oxford who wrote about books didn't seem to have heard about.)

Scene from A Taste of Honey (1961)
kitchen sink realism was not really Christie's thing

It's hard for me not to see this passage as a defense by Christie of the so-called "cozy" style of crime writing against all the postwar up-and-comers who had gained ground since the Second World War.  People like the hard-boiled writers and the noirists, such as Patrica Highsmith and Jim Thompson, who did focus on the seamy side of life (and death).  Christie appears to be saying, look, I know all that nastiness too, but I choose not to write about it, at least not explicitly.  And she utterly rejected Phelps's squalid nihilism.

Although Christie then was a worldwide bestseller, before people like myself (and I assume Ms. Phelps) were born, there nevertheless were plenty of smart critics condemning Christie for being old-fashioned and out-of-touch with the unpleasant realities that everyone allegedly wanted to read about in the Atomic Age.  Of course the truth is that a lot of people didn't want to read about those things, which I why they read Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth, and Ngaio Marsh, and Michael Innes, and John Dickson Carr, and Rex Stout, and Ellery Queen.  It doesn't mean, by the way, that these works were all anodyne and insubstantial, but it does mean that in them one won't be reading about the sort of repulsive sordidness which so obviously intrigues Sarah Phelps and many television reviewers.

there were plenty of people in
the 1950s and 1960s including
more explicit sex and violence in
their crime fiction--Agatha Christie
simply did not want to be one
of these people
Sure, Christie got tired of Hercule Poirot, with all his arguably forced Belgian whimsy and his artificial mannerisms and--don't discount this--his devilishly difficult to write clue puzzles.  For relief from Poirot, Christie turned to the standalone mysteries, Tommy and Tuppence (still rather jolly, if superannuated) and, most of all, Miss Marple, the country-est and coziest of her sleuths.  Miss Marple, who started off representing her mother's and grandmother's generations, more and more came to represent the author herself. 

Some of Christie's standalone mysteries, like Ordeal by Innocence and Endless Night, represent Phelps's "secret, sinister" Christie, in that they presage modern-day psychological suspense and the dysfunctional family gloom of the modern crime novel (puzzle purist Jacques Barzun hated Ordeal by Innocence).  This, by the by, makes it all the more troubling that Phelps, ostensibly mindful of the "secret, sinister" Christie, chose so to alter Ordeal by Innocence

Even some of the cozier Marples, to be sure, have some dark threads in the cozy quilt.  For example, I've always found the posthumously published Sleeping Murder, which I believe would have been titled Cover Her Face had PD James not preempted Christie with her debut 1962 mystery, highly sinister.  Since Phelps likes portraying sexually perverse behavior so much, this one should have been a natural for her.

But it's not just the explicit sexuality and four-letter words in Phelps' adaptations which would have bothered Christie, it's most of all the relentless and determined ugliness and the seemingly irredeemably pessimistic view of human nature.  Look at that above quotation from A Caribbean Mystery again. 

What bothered Christie about the modern novels which she lampoons wasn't so much the sex per se, but the utter gloomy squalidness of it all.  Look how she complains about that poor young woman's greasy straight hair and rancid fat and dirty toe nails.  If she's going to get it on, Christie must have been thinking, why can't she at least bathe first and brush her hair?  But, most of all, having sex, if you're going to do it, is something to be enjoyed (and it helps if neither partner smells).  People didn't seem to enjoy sex, or anything else, in modern novels.  Just like they don't in Phelps' film adaptations of Christie's novels, where everyone seems determined to be utterly miserable. 

I may be beating a dead (pale) horse at this point, but to say that these latest Christie adaptations represent the sort of thing Christie really wanted to write strikes me as self-deluding at best and damnably disingenuous at worst.  Were the Queen of Crime resurrected and given a choice strictly between writing Phelps' sort of nasty, nihilistic noir or modern-day cozy cat crimes, I think the meows most definitely would have it.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Warning to the Presumptuous: P. D. James' Rules for Adapting Crime Novels

Sarah Phelps, who recently penned the scripts for adaptations (some of them rather loose indeed) of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence and The ABC Murders (The Pale Horse is next in her sights), was quoted earlier this month as saying, in effect, that her controversial adaptations (did I mention that some of them are rather loose indeed) are what the Queen of Crime herself would have written, had she been freed by her more restrictive times to do so:

Agatha Christie plants these little clues in her books and I pick them up and run with them.  I'm honoring the secret, subversive Agatha.  There's something dangerous about her--and there's a lot of academic work to be done on the tension between the book she knew the public wanted to read and the one she wanted to write.  I always think I'm doing the version of the book she wanted to write.  

So, then, Phelps' "secret, subversive Agatha" wanted

(1) her brilliant twist short story (later adapted by Christie herself as a play) Witness for the Prosecution to be a polemical antiwar tragedy in which the innocent commit suicide or are judicially murdered while the guilty go free to romp on the Riviera

(2) a different murderer in Ordeal by Innocence than the one she herself, who considered the novel one of her favorites, actually made the murderer

(3) her sleuth Hercule Poirot in The ABC Murders really to have been a hag-ridden former priest who, in a presentist jab at Brexit and the admittedly execrable Donald Trump, is constantly subjected to harshly bigoted anti-Belgian discrimination by a revoltingly nativist and fascistic English populace

(4) a scene in And Then There Were None where rakish Philip Lombard parades around in the house on sinister "Soldier Island" wearing merely a skimpy towel, barely covering his manly bits, preliminary to having it off with Vera Claythorne

To quote television's Captain Hastings, Poirot's "Watson" whom Phelps has expunged from the Christie universe, "I say!"

Careful where you cut!
PD James
The true shocker about Agatha Christie, however, is that there is no "secret, subversive" Agatha who would have wanted any of this updating (even #4, Aidan Turner's splendid visualization of it notwithstanding); and I suspect that everyone, including Phelps and the Christie estate she has overawed, knows this.  I think any forthright Christie scholar--not to mention the fans--would agree. 

And it's not that the "one true Christie" is all cozy and comfy either, as her detractors have often contended; she's not.  It's just that she would not have wanted her works to have been essentially reinvented by a puckish and presumptuous upstart scripter moonlighting in the mystery genre, one who deigns to pronounce that she knows what Christie, poor woman, really wanted to write. 

Adding explicit sexuality and four letter words to Christie is one thing, though I'm sure the Queen of Crime would have disliked that too; but much of Phelps' alterations constitute rewriting Christie altogether.  What some impressed television critics are praising about the adaptations are not Christie's actual work but rather Phelps' brazen inventions.

It's notable in this context that Edgar-nominated Christie biographer Laura Thompson has been a reliable voice the last few years pointing out the myriad flaws and falsities in Phelps' approach. 

the culprit in question
Sarah Phelps
Here's Laura Thompson on Phelps' adaptation of Ordeal by Innocence, where Phelps decided, as mentioned above, that choosing a new murderer was what the "secret, sinister" Christie would have wanted her to do (something which happily accorded with Phelps' own inclination):

Changing the identity of the murderer, however good for publicity, is a bit much. 

Agatha was shrewder than she is often given credit for and there's a lot of sophistication and subtlety in the original solution.  She took this book particularly seriously because the subject matter meant a great deal to her.

And here's Thompson on  Phelps' adaptation of The ABC Murders, which Thompson seems a "stunning" and "incredibly atmospheric" novel:

Why does anyone feel the need to do more to it?  Some of the changes sound awful.  It's like everyone who is a Brexiteer has to be shown the error of their ways.

We can debate whether Phelps' scripts have made good films, but what they clearly are not is faithful to Christie in spirit and often in fact (with the partial exception of Phelps' And Then There Were None, which on the whole was a successful venture in my estimation).

Does anyone, including Christie's own grandson and great-grandson (seemingly overawed participants in all this), really believe that Christie would have enjoyed seeing her works mucked around like this?  What authors, who have pride in their work and aren't willing just to grab the lolly and run, would? 

Two decades ago the late modern-day Crime Queen PD James dealt with a situation somewhat like this during production of the third season of the An Unsuitable Job for a Woman television series, based, so the series makers would have had viewers believe, on the work and characters created by James.

unsuitable adaptations for an author
When reading the script for the third season, James, who had already been displeased with changes in the second season, was appalled to discover that in order to accommodate the pregnancy of actress Helen Baxendale, who played series private eye Cordelia Gray,  the series makers planned to have the character she played get pregnant as well--out-of-wedlock.  This didn't suit PD James, who felt Cordelia was being portrayed as being too casual in her sexual relationships. 

Cordelia was to "have an affair with an old lover who would disappear to the United States leaving her, the brave little woman, to cope alone," recalled James witheringly.  "Cordelia with an illegitimate child is no longer my character."

"They've deprived me of her entirely," James later protested in an interview.  "They've made her an unmarried mum!  That's absolutely intolerable.  It's as if they decided they would marry [my series police sleuth Adam] Dalgliesh to a pop star.

(If James was horrified at the very thought of her precious AD wedding a "pop star," imagine what Christie would be thinking of these recent adaptations, in which Hercule Poirot's entire character has been altered.  To be sure, Christie grew exasperated over the years with her demanding creation, but it doesn't mean she would have wanted someone else to reinvent him according to their own lights decades later.  Well, at least he's still French!  Er, Belgian.)

James suggested alterations to the script, which were rejected.  The production company "neither value nor want any input from me," she thereupon complained.  She demanded the removal of both her name from the credits and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman from the title.  Unlike Christie, James was still around to defend herself and her painstaking creations from heedless literary vandals, as she deemed them.

James with actor Roy Marsden, who played James' sleuth Adam Dalgeish on television
the two famously differed in their approaches to the character

Still vexed by the Cordelia pregnancy affair, James later created a lists of dos and don'ts for producers and directors adapting crime novels to the small screen, based on discussions with some of her sister and brother mystery authors who had had similarly frustrating experienced with television adapters.  These rules follow:

1. Don't attempt to televise a novel unless you are really interested in the work.  Too often it seems that you are only interested  in acquiring the title and the name of the author, and are then happy to proceed with something which bears very little resemblance to the original work.  

2. ....Consider whether the actors could actually communicate in words rather than have everything shown in pictures.

3. Don't fundamentally alter the chief character.  With Dalgliesh the first director decided, as he told me, to bring him downmarket. [Making him the son of a Norfolk vicar] had been my choice and I don't see why television should decide that this was altogether too middle-class for their purposes.  

4. Where there is original dialogue, why not use it as far as possible?...[Script]writers who are both good and successful...seldom alter the original dialogue....I suspect that adaptors who are less successful can't resist the temptation to have their own words on the screen.

5. As it may be necessary to cut out incidents and characters, what is the point of adding additional ones?

6. Must we always have a car chase?  Men like them (though I can't think why); most women find them boring in the extreme.  And if you must have a car chase, must it go on for so long?  It need last only as it long as it takes up to go and make the tea.

I think Sarah Phelps has violated everyone of these rules except #6. Perhaps she likes tea.

PD James has been dead for a little over four years now.  How long will it take before someone like Sarah Phelps, adapting a James novel for a revisionist Adam Dalgleish series, discovers that there was a "secret, subversive" PD James who really meant to be writing other works than those which she actually wrote?  Because in truth the author we actually had with us, in the flesh rather than in the presumptuous scripter's self-serving imagination, just wasn't subversive enough for the scripter's liking?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Serpentine! The Capital Murder (1932), by James Z. Alner

Take it from Alfred A. Knopf or leave it; but he has published a book by an author whose name he doesn’t even know.  It is a detective story, called “The Capital Murder,” and the name given is James Z. Alner, freely acknowledged to be just a nom de plume.
            The only address accompanying the manuscript was New York General Delivery.  And checks are cleared by this “Mr. Alner” through the Chase National Bank.  The contract was signed by mail and all communication has been through the good offices of the U. S. Postmasters General and his able staff.
            The leading character in the story is an epidemiologist, which gives rise to the theory that the author is a scientist.  However, he might be a stone mason or an actor at leisure or even the long-absent Judge Crater, for all Mr. Knopf knows.  It is very mysterious and puzzling and has aroused the interest of the Knopf office no end.  However, it is very likely that when a statement of royalties falls due, Mr. Knopf will have little trouble in reaching the anonymous writer.  That always brings them around, as fish food brings the goldfish and delphinium catches the worms.[1]

     --Contemporary Article on The Capital Murder (1932), by James Z. Alner
Death devours Beatrice Sigurda
--the striking dust jacket design of
Dr. James Alner Tobey's The Capital Murder
Remaining unknown for 85 years was the true identity of the author of The Capital Murder, published in 1932 by the pseudonymous James Z. Alner.  Mystery fiction expert Allen J. Hubin suggested that James Zalner, a Lithuanian immigrant who resided for decades in Binghamton, New York, might have been the man behind The Capital Murder, but here I can confidently assert that Dr. James Alner Tobey was the gentleman in question.
            James Alner Tobey was born on July 15, 1894 in Quincy, Massachusetts to Rufus Tolman Tobey, a jeweler and amateur horticulturist descended from generations of Maine farmers (including James Shapleigh, a first lieutenant in the Maine militia for whom James Tobey had been named and who served as the basis for his 1915 admission into the Sons of the American Revolution), and Mary Ann Sherry, daughter of English immigrant William Alner Sherry, a fresco painter and partner in the prominent Boston interior design firm Wallburg & Sherry.  An energetic and industrious scholar, James Tobey was extensively educated at the Roxbury Latin School, the oldest school in continuous existence in North America; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as both the vice president of the chess club and a lieutenant in the Cadet Corps; George Washington University Law School; and American University.  During much of the First World War, he was employed with the Board of Health in West Orange, New Jersey.
            In 1918 Tobey, while on leave in Manhattan from mosquito eradication work in Charleston, South Carolina, wed Lena May, daughter of a farmer from Catskill, New York.  The couple, who would have two children together, resided in Washington, DC, before settling in the well-healed community of Rye, in Westchester County, New York, boyhood home of Founding Father John Jay.  After the Second World War, Dr. Tobey and his wife moved for a time to affluent Newtown, Connecticut, made tragically infamous in 2012 by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; there in 1955 the ever-prolific Dr. Tobey published yet another book, The 250th Anniversary of Newtown, Connecticut, 1705-1955.  They would later return to Rye, where Dr. Tobey passed away at the age of 86 on November 23, 1980.
            Though still a young man in the 1920s, Tobey by that decade had established himself as a prominent public health official in the northeastern United States, serving with numerous public and private health organizations and publishing myriad books and articles on the subject of wellness and disease eradication.  Among his serious works are Riders of the Plagues: The Story of the Conquest of Disease (1930); the pioneering Cancer: What Everyone Should Know About It (1932), which includes a forward by H. L. Mencken, to whose magazine The American Mercury Tobey was a frequent contributor; and Public Health Law (1947), deemed by scholar Edward P. Richards the “last great public health law treatise.”[2]  His many health and medical articles spanned such topics as “Common Colds,” “Cancer Quacks,” “Facts about Milk,” “Heart Disease,” “White Bread Versus Brown,” “The Control of Human Sterility,” ”The Modern Concept of Leprosy,” “The Truth about Acidosis” and “The Army and Venereal Disease.”  Another piece provocatively asserted, “We Could Eat Acorns and Weeds.”  Clearly in many respects Dr. Tobey was a man ahead of his time.  
            Like other advanced Progressive thinkers of his day, Dr. Tobey in the 1920s and 1930s advocated, to quote from one of his monthly columns in the newsletter of the American Public Health Association, “the centralization of federal health work” into one vast Department of Health.  This vision finally would be realized in 1953, when the United States Congress and the administration of the newly-elected President Dwight Eisenhower created a cabinet level Department of Health, Education and Welfare, since 1979 the Department of Health and Human Services. 
            Around the time of the writing of The Capital Murder, Tobey forcefully challenged Ray Lyman Wilbur--secretary of the interior under Republican president Herbert Hoover and later a prominent exponent of “rugged individualism” and critic of Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal--when Wilber sanguinely pronounced, amidst the agonizing throes of the Great Depression, that the health of the country’s children would likely benefit from economic crisis, by inducing lax parents to tighten their belts and prioritize their children’s care.  “Anxiety, fear, discouragement and other effects of economic strain can and do lead to mental troubles, which may adversely influence the health and well-being of individuals,” countered Dr. Tobey, reasonably enough.[3]
            No doubt when the eminent Dr. Tobey in 1932 submitted the manuscript for The Capital Murder to the prestigious publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf, he believed he had a public reputation to protect and thus circumspectly sought to conceal his sole contribution to classic crime fiction in a cloak of protective anonymity.  (Tobey dedicated the book to his father, hiding his father’s name as well, behind the initials “R. T. T.”)  To be sure, Knopf’s stable of mystery writers at the time included the estimable hard-boiled icons Dashiell Hammett and Raoul Whitfield and the popular English writer J. S. Fletcher, viewed by many Americans at the time (however improbable this may seem to us today) as the most distinguished mystery writer from the British Isles since Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes; yet Knopf’s stable also harbored admittedly far lesser detective fiction lights, which likely emboldened Dr. Tobey to make his lone mystery writing venture.  Certainly Dr. Tobey would have been far from alone among highly educated and professionally accomplished persons at the time in having both the yen for reading detective fiction and the desire and the will to try his own hand at it; for this was the era when the detective story was considered “the normal recreation of noble minds,” in the words, we are told, of English barrister and author Philip Guedalla.


W. Taylor Birch House at 3099 Q Street, Washington, D.C.
James Tobey’s sole published detective story, The Capital Murder, is set in--it should not surprise readers of this introduction to learn--Washington, DC, capital of the United States of America, where James Tobey resided in the 1920s, when he attended George Washington University Law School and American University and later served as administrative secretary of the National Health Council, a nonprofit association of health organizations founded in 1922.  The novel concerns the strange demise of a beautiful, enigmatic blonde, Beatrice Sigurda, late of the Argentine.  With two tiny puncture marks in her neck and a “look of inexplicable horror” on her face, she is found quite eerily dead while seated fully clothed on the “rich red divan” in the “luxurious sitting room” of her house on Q Street, located just a few blocks from the Serpentine Club in N Street,  where regularly gather five distinguished men—Commissioner Henry Selden, of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia; Lieutenant Runy O’Mara, of the United States Navy; Doctor Basil Ragland, an eminent psychiatrist; Lance Starr-Smith, a famous architect; and Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist with the federal health service—to discuss murder and other fine arts.  Also in the company of the accomplished men, is “Jim,” an utter nonentity conveniently on hand to chronicle the tale as Trevor Stoke’s “Watson.” 
            Although all of these men play a role in the investigation and elucidation of the case, the star detective, as it were, is Trevor Stoke, of whom Jim worshipfully writes:

No serious outbreak of disease could occur anywhere in the country without Stoke, who would appear calmly on the scene sooner or later.  If the epidemic involved interstate affairs, the Government sent him in; if it was purely a local matter, the state health authorities invariably invited his services.  Typhoid, cholera, typhus, septic sore throat, and other maladies yielded to his uncanny ability to run down the true causes of outbreaks….He developed into the greatest of sanitary detectives.
            Stoke was no sallow scientist, but a virile individual.  His war record had brought him a medal or two for bravery under fire when he was supposed to be behind the lines in his laboratory, and his civilian career had shown him to be resourceful and courageous.  Although well built, he was of medium size and rather ordinary in appearance, neither handsome nor homely, but simply an alert, normal person who enjoyed life and worked hard for an indifferent salary.

            It likely will have occurred to readers that this is something of a fulsomely flattering self-portrait rendered by Dr. Tobey, but then if Dorothy L. Sayers could place herself into her Lord Peter Wimsey detective saga as the clever and alluring mystery novelist Harriet Vane, why should Dr. Tobey not have been able to play detective as Trevor Stoke?  And, truth be told, the fiendish murder of Beatrice Sigurda proves a most appropriate case for an epidemiologist sleuth.  As some readers of vintage mystery no doubt will discern, The Capital Murder slightly anticipates a celebrated slaying in a debut detective novel by a vastly better-known mystery writer who also debuted in the 1930s.
            In his only known detective novel Dr. Tobey evinces familiarity with detective fiction of the classic era, referencing not only the great Sherlock Holmes, of course, but Dupin, Lecoq, Max Carrados, Reggie Fortune, Peter Wimsey, Anthony Gethryn and Philo Vance.  Trevor Stoke’s self-effacing chronicler, Jim, is, to be sure, every bit as forgettable as Philo Vance’s wallflower amanuensis, Van; and it is amusing indeed when, at the climax of the novel, the cornered culprit snarls to Trevor Stoke, “Yes, I killed…Beatrice Sigurda…and now I’m going to kill you, you and that nincompoop toady of yours!”  Seldom has even a lowly Watson been afforded so little respect.
            Not amusing at all, though it is regrettably revealing of the times, is the noxious casual racial and ethnic prejudice expressed by several characters in the novel, including Jim himself (see my next post).  Yet readers who at the time enjoyed Dr. Tobey’s essay in fictional foul play, of which the “method used by the murderer of Beatrice Sigurda” was praised as “ingenious” by the New York Times Book Review, must have regretted that Jim never actually chronicled Trevor Stoke’s second case, concerning the matter of the US congressman’s corpse “found crammed in a locker of a leading golf club in the District of Columbia.”  Intrepid Trevor Stoke canceled his impending errand to battle a plague of hookworms in the Virgin Islands in order to solve this baffling case, which concerns yet another dastardly crime masterminded by a member of the most diabolically lethal species of them all: man!

Note: The Capital Murder was reprinted last year by Coachwhip.

[1] The Jimmy Hoffa of the Thirties, Judge Joseph Force Crater was a New York State Supreme Court Justice with suspected Tammany Hall connections who vanished on August 6, 1930.  He was declared legally dead nearly a decade later, on June 6, 1939.
[2] See “Historic Public Health Law Books” at
[3] “Child Health in the Depression,” New York Times, 1 December 1932.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Film Review: Crooked House (2017)

As Christie fans vigorously debate the merits of Sarah Phelps' scripted 2018 adaptations of the Queen of Crime's novels The ABC Murders (1936) and Ordeal by Innocence (1958), I'd like to remind people who may have missed it that there was another Christie film--one much more calculated, it seems to me, to please traditionalists/textualists--which appeared recently, in 2017: Crooked House, an adaptation of the 1949 novel that was co-scripted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downtown Abbey fame.

Most people who read this blog probably know the plot of Crooked House, which Christie once named as one of her favorites among her mysteries, along with another non-series novel, Ordeal by Innocence.  (Both of these novels have no appearance by Christie's sleuth Hercule Poirot, and this was a time when the author was rather down on Poirot.)  It certainly plays to Julian Fellowes' interests, being set at a huge country house among a wealthy family of eccentrics who are partly descended from country gentry.  In marked contrast with recent Phelps-scripted films, Crooked House stays mostly faithful to the book.

Wealthy 86-year-old Anglo-Greek business magnate Aristide Leonides (inspired by Aristotle Onassis?) dies from an insulin injection fatally laced with eserine (used in eye drops).  His lovely and level-headed granddaughter Sophia Leonides hires PI Charles Hayward, son of a late Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, to investigate Aristides' death.  Sophia and Charles recently had a romantic relationship in Cairo, when Charles served with the Foreign Office, but it was soon broken off.  (We see much of this in flashbacks.)  However, the decidedly handsome pair still seem to carry torches for each other.

The denizens of the house are, besides Sophia:

And they all died together
in a little crooked house.
Brenda, Aristide's young American second wife, a farmer Las Vegas dancer who is pretty in pink

Aristides' sister-in-law (from his first, aristocratic marriage), Lady Edith de Haviland

Aristides' sons Philip, an unsuccessful writer, and Roger, who incompetently runs one of the family businesses

Philip's vain and posturing stage actress wife Magda and Roger's botanist wife Clemency

Philip's children, teenage Eustace and preteen Josephine, both of them rather, urm, precocious

Laurence Brown, tutor to Eustace, and Janet Rowe, Josephine's nanny.  Also let's not forget Chief Inspector Taverner from Scotland Yard.

Charles interviews the various eccentric family members and finds among them suspects galore, without seemingly making much progress in actually pinning the crime on one particular person. 

Much of the family itself prefers to believe that Aristide's killer was Brenda, who administered the insulin to her elderly husband on the fatal night.  Brenda, it seems, may have been having it off with Eustace's handsome young tutor, Laurence Brown--who is, by the by, something of a Red, and therefore naturally suspicious.

But other members of this weird family had motives too, which mostly center on daddy's money.  Aristide's snoopy granddaughter Josephine, who fancies herself a detection expert and eavesdrops on everyone in the house, making notes in a book, might help Charles, but she remains irksomely cryptic, preferring that he play Watson to her Holmes. 

Does she really know something, like a precursor of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce, or is she simply a childish poseur?

Crooked House derives its title from the nursery rhyme "There Was a Crooked Man" (we all know how Christie adored nursery rhyme titles), which goes as follows:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile;

He bought a cooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Aristide was physically crooked but also very much a ruthless businessman so possibly was "crooked" in that sense too.  And he did indeed live in a crooked house, though it is far from little, being a monstrous fungoid growth of a English country cottage as only an emigre could imagine. 

The filmmakers used Minley Manor, a massive asymmetrical French Gothic mansion built by a Victorian banker in 1860, as their "Crooked House"; and while it's not exactly what Christie describes in the novel, it certainly makes an impressive setting, both in the exterior house and grounds and its often atmospherically ill-lit interiors. It's a good thing too, since most of the film takes place at the house.

But even odder than the house are most of its its inhabitants.  Stealing the show here are Gillian Anderson, who plays Magda Leonides, the narcissistic stage actress, along with the wonderful Glenn Close, who plays Lady Edith (though Close comes off, despite her bluff tweedy ways, as comparatively normal compared to the rest of the family) and 12-year-old Honor Kneafsey as nosy little Josephine, in a role that could have been written for Saoirse Ronan around the time she did the film Atonement.  Among the men, though it was nice to see Julian Sands (still looking good y'all!) as Magda's husband, I thought the honors were won by 18-year-old Preston Nyman as the snide polio-stricken Eustace. He puts some bite into that role.

I also liked Stefanie Martini as Sophia, though I thought Max Irons (son of Jeremy) was unfortunately rather on the bland side as Charles, a part which I believe was originally meant to go to Matthew Goode (who ended up in Ordeal by Innocence.)  Goode would have been better!  (Gooder?)  Oh, and the great veteran Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner was a wonderful bit of casting, though he was a bit past retirement age, I suspect.  But he was terrific nevertheless, and could have passed for ten years younger.

a couple that frequently finds itself at odds: Charles and Sophia
(Max Irons and Stefanie Martini)

The film relies heavily on interviews at the house (though there's a wonderfully bitchy dining table scene that would have done Gosford Park proud), and that may be a boor to some, but I think the colorful (if not campy) character portrayals help carry things off with panache.  The climax of the film adds excitement and even real emotional resonance, though perhaps it is somewhat incongruent with the often archly amusing tone of the film earlier. 

Crooked House offers a classic and quite artificial murder set-up: the strange family improbably all cooped up in this grand yet stultifying living arrangement, seemingly just waiting to get bumped off.  It's reminiscent of such splendid genre chestnuts as Ellery Queen's The Player on the Other Side (1963) and S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928). 

So the shift in tone may be more due to Christie herself than the filmmakers.  It's hard to make realistic, in-depth characters out of all of these chess pieces, delightfully quirky as they may be.  Still for a lot of us the mystery is the thing, and the book's solution, one of Christie's cleverest, is happily preserved in the film and well staged indeed.

Crooked House seems a nostalgic throwback to the "old days" of the Seventies film versions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, with stars taking delicious turns in sumptuous, yet oh-so murderous, surroundings.  Devoted fans of the Queen of Crime needn't worry here about Christie getting all Phelpsed up by the filmmakers.

Who is in her sights? 
Lady Edith (Glenn Close) takes aim.

a perfect--perfectly awful--couple
Magda and Philip (Gillian Anderson and Julian Sands)

little Josephine Leonides (Honor Kneafsey)
just wants to dance--and detect

a study in pink
Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp) interrogates
the grieving young widow (Christina Hendricks)

Monday, February 4, 2019

Reissued: The Mysteries of Moray Dalton (Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir, 1881-1963)

In March Dean Street Press reissues one of my favorite "forgotten" mystery writers, or, perhaps I should simply say, one of my favorite crime writers, with no qualification: Moray Dalton, pen name of Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir.  Dalton--this was her family surname--published the last of 29 crime novels in 1951, when she was nearly 70, and then seems to have been promptly forgotten (except by the canniest collectors), which is a great injustice to a crime writer of considerable quality.  Indeed to me she is one of the period's major British crime writers, literate and compulsively readable.  I find her one of those crime writers I invariably finish in two nights, maximum, of reading.  (How many times have you let a book drag on for days and days, never actually to finish it?)

Dalton published her first crime novel, The Kingsclere Mystery, in 1924, when she was 42, the same age as PD James when James published Cover Her Face (1962).  However, Dalton had published a well-received contemporary straight novel, Olive in Italy, fully 15 years earlier, in 1909 and a romantic adventure saga set in Renaissance Italy, The Sword of Love, in 1920.  Her mystery novels are rich in the gifts of the natural writer, combining strong characterizations and evocative settings and fleet narratives.  Some years before Dorothy L. Sayers boosted the idea of the novel of manners mystery Dalton already was writing crime novels of no little literary quality. Yet she did it with little of the fanfare received by Sayers and her sister Crime Queens Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, or even ECR Lorac and Anthony Gilbert.  I find it an odd and unfortunate oversight.

Dalton really hit her stride as a mystery writer with One by One they Disappeared (1929) and The Body in the Road (1930), which were, respectively, the debut mysteries of her major sleuth, Hugh Collier, a young and intelligent though woman-shy Scotland Yard inspector, and her minor sleuth, Hermann Gilde, a percipient and most persistent private enquiry agent who may remind readers of Agatha Christie's mysterious Mr. Goby, who first appeared around the same time.  Pleasingly, these two sleuths--Collier and Glide--inhabit the same fictional world and both appear in Dalton's excellent Christmas mystery, The Night of Fear, 1931.

By the 1930s, when Dalton was, like ECR Lorac, published by Sampson, Low, the author in my view was writing some of the best British mysteries in the business.  Yet while ECR Lorac (aka Carol Rivett) and Anthony Gilbert (aka Lucy Beatrice Malleson), accomplished "second-tier" crime writers of note, both moved to the Collins Crime Club and greater fame (including Detection Club membership) in the Thirties, Moray Dalton (aka Katherine Mary Dalton; I think Moray was a masculinizing of Mary) stayed with Sampson, Low, which seems to have hampered her career. 

To me Dalton's decades-long absence from the acknowledged crime fiction corpus is a great omission, for I would place her in the company of Lorac and Gilbert, if not higher.  However, unlike the other noted British Queens of Crime I have mentioned here, Dalton seems to have had sufficient independent means to maintain herself in comfort and so perhaps she did not so much feel the need to "push" her writing career.  A privileged English gentlewoman, she may have written to a great extent to please herself.

Katherine Mary Dalton was the only child of Canadian Joseph Dixon Dalton and Englishwoman Laura Back Dalton.  In her early years Laura Back Dalton resided at Valley House, a simply lovely Regency villa built around 1825 in Stratford St. Mary, Suffolk, in the heart of so-called "Constable Country" (so named for the fact that the great landscape artist John Constable painted many of his works in and around Stratford). 

I have a coffee table book called The Perfect English Country House and Valley House would fit right in as a smaller example; it's gorgeous (as is Stratford St. Mary itself).  Over a century after the domicile was erected, when Katherine Mary Dalton was writing perfect (or pretty close) English mysteries, the rascally butler at Valley House made off with the family silver and for good measure set fire to the house to cover his criminal tracks, but happily the elegant house survived.  The first two pictures immediately below date from 1909, before the fire and subsequent restoration.

bellow stairs at Valley House

Laura's father Alfred Back was a wealthy miller who with his brother Octavius, a corn merchant, operated a steam-powered six-story mill right across the River Stour from Valley House.  (In 1820, Constable, himself the son of a miller, executed a painting of fishers on the Stour which partly included the earlier, more modest incarnation of the Back family mill; it was later repainted by Constable under the title The Young Waltonians.)

The Young Waltonians (John Constable)
painted in the Back's backyard, if you will

Alfred Back died in 1860 and his widow moved with her daughters to Brondesbury Villas in Maida Vale, London, where in 1879 26-year-old Laura would wed a most eligible bachelor some fifteen years her senior: Joseph Dixon Dalton, an emigre from Canada. Joseph Dalton was the son of Wesleyan Methodists from northern England who had migrated to Canada in the 1830s, settling at London, Ontario.  Joseph's father, Henry, started a soap and candle factory there which after his death two decades later was continued, under the appellation Dalton Brothers, by Joseph and his siblings Joshua and Thomas.  Joseph's sister Hannah wed John Carling, a politician who came from a prominent family of Canadian brewers and was later knighted for his many public services.

Sir John Carling, husband of Hannah Dalton,
  withone of his daughters,
who would have been a first cousin
of Katherine Mary Dalton
Joseph Dalton seems, however, to have had quite an independent and adventurous streak, for he left the security of the family business to seek his fortune in a western gold rush, possibly the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia, which was in full swing by 1865; and he struck it rich, as the saying goes.  He left Canada for London in the 1870s, a wealthy single man.

After Joseph's marriage to Laura the couple for a few years lived at Kenmore Lodge in Hammersmith, where Katherine was born, but by 1891 they had moved to Southampton, where they resided at 9 Orchard Place at "Lottery Hall."  This imposing Regency mansion was built as his private residence by 20-year-old Southampton baker John Osbaldiston after he won a L20,000 lottery in 1807 (about 1.5 million pounds, or 2 million dollars today). 

Hence the name "Lottery Hall." Today Osbaldiston is almost a legendary figure in Southampton, having managed to lose his once-in-a-lifetime fortune, passing away three decades later after having bought his golden ticket, with less than L100 pounds to his name.

prospector panning for gold during the 1860s
Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia
see King One Eye
Later such luminaries as the Earl of Craven, Earl Belmore, the 1st Earl Nelson (brother of the Admiral), Lord Bridport, American consul Joseph Rodney Croskey and the literary critic George Saintsbury lived at Lottery Hall. 

After the Daltons left the Hall around the turn of the century, it became a lodging house known as the the International Stewards' Club.  At the time of their deaths the Club was the stated residence of a couple of the many, many crewmen who later were to expire in the Titanic tragedy in 1912: Baptiste Antonio Alaria, 22, assistant waiter, and L. Zarrachi, 26, wine butler.  When Lottery Hall, a fascinating piece of history, was demolished for new construction in 1938, it most recently had served as the premises of the "Cosmopolitan Club."

Lottery Hall had a dining room, drawing room, morning room and "gentleman's room" on what we Americans call the first floor, four "best bedrooms," a drawing room and water closets on the second floor and three servants' rooms on the third floor.  There were two bays on the east elevation, as well as a walled garden, greenhouse, double coach house and stables. 

Here in the 1890s young Katherine Mary Dalton lived with her parents and a French governess.  By 1911, the family had moved to Perth Villa in the village of Merriott, Somerset, but during the Great War they lived on the southern coast again, in Littlehampton, in a much reduced semi-detached, suggesting the Dalton gold reserves by this time had rather diminished.  Joseph Dalton, then in his early 80s, died here in 1919, possibly a victim of the flu pandemic.

Orchard Place today

Katherine Mary Dalton, who continued to live with parents throughout the 1910s, published a spate of martial and memorial poems during the Great War, including "Edith Cavell," "Rupert Brooke," "Mort Homme" and "To Italy."  Like her two early mainstream novels, "To Italy," which was written after the deadly debacle at the Battle of Caporetto, evinces the author's passion for il bel paese.  Italy and Italians would figure prominently in her crime novels as well, though for the most part they are set in England, particularly in London and the southern England that was the author's native ground. One might say that Dalton the greatest Italy fancier in England this side of her esteemed contemporary E. M. Forster.

Barkerville, B.C., a boom town in the Cariboo Gold Rush

For the first four decades of her life, Dalton seems to have led rather an isolated existence, living with her parents, presumably privately educated, but there were hidden passions at play in her life, something which the author splendidly catches in her crime fiction.  After the war and her father's death, she seems to have become more independent.  1920 saw Dalton publishing The Sword of Love and closely corresponding with Leonard Huxley, son of Thomas and father of Aldous, who was her editor at The Cornhill Magazine, where she published short stories.  Huxley obligingly "plied my scalpel upon" (in his words) The Sword of Love.

nugget from the Cariboo Gold Rush
In 1921, Dalton, now nearly forty years old, wed Louis Jean Renoir at nearby Brighton.  The next year she bore her only child, a son who carried both the surnames Dalton and Renoir.  Louis Renoir seems to have vanished from Katherine's life after this, though the couple remained united in name. 

Dalton apparently resided from thenceforward with her mother Laura in nearby Worthing, until Laura's death in 1945.  Dalton herself passed away in 1963 at the age of 81, leaving an estate valued at nearly a million American dollars in modern worth--not her father's golden riches, to be sure, but not at all shabby.

I hope this introduction opens a little bit of window on the  life and writing of  a most unjustly neglected author whose own life until now had long been an enigma, even to the few collectors who knew about her fine work.  You can read more about her crime fiction in pieces I wrote for the first five Dean Street Press reprints, which are One by One They Disappeared, The Body in the Road, The Night of Fear, Death in the Cup and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall.  (I recommend the latter three especially.)  Reprinting Moray Dalton has been one of my most cherished literary goals for years, and I do hope all you classic mystery fans out there agree with me that this was a worthy endeavor.