Monday, May 27, 2019

Ice Storm: Melora (1959), by Mignon Eberhart

Mid-20th-century American Crime Queen Mignon Eberhart published Melora, her 35th crime novel, in 1959, thirty years after her first published crime novel, The Patient in Room 18Mary Roberts Rinehart, Eberhart's predecessor and greatest rival in the field of emotive romantic mystery, had died the previous year at the age of 82, having not published a full-length mystery novel since 1952.  Eberhart, who turned 60 in 1959, would go on to published another 24 crime novels, however, concluding with Three Days for Emeralds, which was published three decades after Melora in 1988, when Eberhart was nearly 90 years old.  With 59 mystery novels published over nearly 60 years, Mignon Eberhart enjoyed a successful and highly lucrative crime writing career of remarkable longevity.

With her novel Melora, Eberhart had merely reached mid-stream, as it were, in her long life's journey as a professional author.  But she had been around long enough to see herself being overtaken after World War Two by new freshets of subgenres, like hard-boiled/noir and psychological suspense.  The latter subgenre, practiced by such authors as Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss, often is termed "domestic suspense," as its protagonists typically are young(ish) wives and its purview the home, but in fact Mignon Eberhart, like Mary Roberts Rinehart, had been practicing their own form of "domestic suspense" back in the Thirties.

Back then its detractors derisively termed "domestic suspense" HIBK (Had I But Known) mystery, on account of its foreboding, first person domestic narrative style, which supposedly ran something like this:

Had I but known that my failure to refill the sugar bowl that fateful Tuesday afternoon would unleash a fatal chain of malevolent, bloodthirsty horror that would cost the lives of five innocent people and nearly kill my cat, I would personally have smashed my piggy bank right then and there and run as fast as my feet could take me to the corner store, without giving it even a second thought, even though that new lipstick shade turned out to be all wrong for me and my hair was simply a fright....

Anthony Boucher, the dean of mid-century crime fiction critics, disdained HIBK, though he loved postwar "domestic suspense."  Why the difference in attitudes?  I think in addition to domestic suspense being more obviously "psychological" than old-fashioned HIBK, a lot of this had to do with character and milieu. 

Although both Rinehart and Eberhart in a small number of their mysteries had series characters who were independent, middle-aged, professional nurses (invariably called "peppery"), their protagonists customarily were panic-stricken women in wealthy circumstances.  In postwar domestic suspense, though the protagonists are often wives (and panic-stricken ones at that), they usually are, I think, less privileged then the EberRinehart women and they may at some point have had acquaintance with the world of work outside the home.  That gives them more of a semblance of real life, I think, for many readers today; though of course it must be recalled that back in 1950 only 34% of women worked outside the home.

Also, Eberhart's protagonists, the vast majority of them, have not aged well, largely being seen today as dismayingly passive--wet noodles in female form. 

Almost invariably in an Eberhart novel lacking her series character Nurse Sarah Keate, the protagonist will be a young woman who has recently married (or is about to marry) and is indecisive and unsure of herself.  Her parents are usually dead or far away, though there might be some kindly matronly relative in the background, usually a financially independent spinster aunt.  Invariably there will be some sort of female rival for our heroine to compete against, a somewhat older though very attractive and sophisticated women and an absolute bitch on wheels who seems to live to trample our heroine in the dirt.

The heroine knows very little about her new privileged life, being the classic literary ingenue, and she feels lost in her wealthy surroundings.  (Her new husband is usually a rich urban businessman or attorney.)  Then murder strikes and our heroine usually manages to get herself suspected by picking up the murder weapon or losing an earring at the scene of the crime or the like.

In EberRinehart crime novels, emoting tends to take the place of actual detecting.  There often is mystery, indeed plenty of it, but the heroines are more interested in analyzing their feelings of dread and impending doom than those nasty bloodstains on the Oriental rug.  Despite the lack of rigorous and systematic criminal investigation, these novels are often very lengthy as well, as Eberhart and Rinehart made a lot of money from serializing their novels in glossy women's magazines, giving them every incentive to drag out the stories.  Classic mid-century domestic suspense was, to the contrary, much more concise.  Many of the classics from the postwar period run from only about forty to sixty thousand words.  At that length, the authors had to pare some of the emotional excrescences of HIBK that had so irritated critics like Anthony Boucher.

In Eberhart's Melora, however, I actually can see the influence of the post war domestic suspense school and even hard-boiled/noir, despite the fact that the book at around 100, 000 words is quite long for the period. This may be why Anthony Boucher, no great Eberhart fan, gave the novel a good review, though with qualifications. 

"Length seems excessive and motives are hard to credit," Boucher carped, but he added that "plausibly nasty female interrelations, clever variations on the First Wife theme and one or two whopping surprises make this the best Eberhart in five years or more."

Eberhart had actually slowed down her rate of production in the Fifties.  After the war she had published eight novels between 1946 and 1953 but only three between 1954 and 1959.  Probably the previous "best" novel Boucher was referring was The Unknown Quantity (1953), which I hope to review here soon.  I any event, I would say that Boucher's assessment of Melora is a judicious one.

Nearly the first 40% of Melora (about 40,000 words, or the length of some mid-century crime novels)  reads like classic mid-century suspense.  In this fear-fraught space the novel's timid protagonist, Anne, bride of merely a few months to wealthy Manhattan attorney Brent Wystan, is most effectively plunged into a maelstrom of terror by the author, an old hand at this sort of thing who could still teach her "daughters" a thing or two about fashioning fear from marriage.

We learn very little of young Anne's pre-marital background.  We never even learn her maiden name.  We do find out, however, that she is the daughter of parents from a small Midwestern university town, who since her marriage have moved halfway around the world. 

Anne seemingly came to New York to get a job of some sort, but she ended up, as is the wont of Eberhart heroines, almost immediately wedding Brent, who had been divorced by his previous wife, the eponymous Melora.  (We never learn her maiden name either.)  Life, we gather, had little meaning for Anne before her marriage, but now she finds herself in the fight of her life for a chance at happiness.

Anne has never met Melora, but a constant irksome presence in her life is the beautiful and sophisticated Cassie Wystan, widow of Brent's late brother, who was killed in the war (WW2, not Korea), leaving Cassie with their twin children Tod and Daphne (now fifteen), whom everyone insists on calling "Daff."  No fool she, Cassie after her husband's demise ensconced herself with her children in Brent's opulent New York townhouse, running his household for him, and she successively resented both Wife #1, Melora, and Wife #2, Anne, though she disguises her venom with honeyed sweetness.  I must say, in Mignon Eberhart's extensive gallery of nasty, hateful, ever-scheming bitches, Cassie stands out as something extra.

Anne seemingly has made no friends in New York (Eberhart heroines are always so isolated), but she has one ally, seemingly, in Brent's matronly Aunt Lucy, though Lucy maintains her own abode, complete with Mignon's own favorite breed of dog, poodles.  Also connected to the Brent Wystan household, though they don't live in, are longtime butler Cadwallader, familiar enough with the family to be known to them as "Caddy," and the new maid Daisy, who is, as new maids so often seem to be in books, somewhat flighty.

Then there's family friend Gary Molloy, a middle-aged lawyer and still something of a ladies man (he flatters himself), who drops in on the Wystans from time to time. And of course there's Melora, whose presence still hangs over the house like the baneful first Mrs. de Winter.

Anne is left alone in the house in the novel's opening pages, with Brent departing for a flight to France (where he has legal business concerning an inheritance case), Cassie visiting friends in Litchfield, Connecticut and Tod and Daff going back to school after their winter holiday. Then Anne's serenity is shattered when finds a note left for her in her little study, reading I am going to kill you.

Well, that's scary, though possibly just a childish prank, right? After all, Daff is at the awkward age and she was angry about having to go back to school.  But then another identically-worded message appears, and a sudden paralyzing snowfall enshrouds the house, trapping Anne inside with her fears--and possibly a lurking killer!

This part of the book is really well done and reminded me quite a bit of Ursula Curtiss' Hours to Kill (1962), reviewed here.  But where Curtiss' book stops after a time, Eberhart's goes on, and on.  After 100 pages or so it settles down into the usual Eberhart formula of multiple murders and seemingly endless speculations by the characters about just what is going on around them.  It's a little long-winded and circuitous, as Eberhart so often is, but the characters are done well (it was nice to see some teenagers in an Eberhart and Cadwallader the butler, who imagines himself a Great Detective, is a treat) and the plot--there's a lot of it--is engaging and unexpectedly devious.  Nor does the romance ever get really soppy, as it often can, for me, with Eberhart.

Then at the climax of the novel, things become rather, well, noir, as if Eberhart had ripped a gritty page out of Raymond Chandler or David Goodis.  I can't recall an Eberhart getting quite this nasty.  With a more assertive heroine and some tightening of the narrative, this might have ranked as one of my favorite mid-century mysteries.  As it is I quite enjoyed it. 

Unfortunately, after Melora, Eberhart took another, in my view less interesting, path with her next two mystery novels: rather bland historical romance.  Actually the later mystery which reminds me most of Melora (though key plot details differ) is not anything by Eberhart but rather the film Midnight Lace, starring the late Doris Day as the imperiled wife.  It came out a year after the publication of Melora and will be reviewed here shortly.  One might also speculate than the title Melora was chosen to recall Vera Casparay's Laura--that echo couldn't have been quite accidental, could it?

A Mystery Writer Makes War: Q. Patrick on Mass Murder, Hitler and Buying War Bonds

HOW TO STOP HITLER
By Q. Patrick
Author of "S. S. Murder," "Death for Dear Clara," and many other mystery novels


I have killed about 47 men!  I have murdered about 39 women!  I have foully done away with about 7 children!  And I did it all ruthlessly and in cold blood.  But I did it with my pen; that is my only excuse.

Hitler has murdered many thousands, nay millions of men, women and children.  And he didn't do it with his pen either.  He did it actually, ruthlessly and in the cold blood of fanatical hatred.

Stop him?  How can we here at home stop him?

There is one way.  For some of is, there is only one way.  Buy War Bonds.  And, yes, then buy more War Bonds.  buy until every available nickel is being used to build up the instruments of war to destroy this beast.

Incidentally, my profits from this book are going into--you guessed it--WAR BONDS.  Thank you.

Q. Patrick was, especially in his earlier writing, a rather bloodthirsty mystery writer.  Not for him one mere austere murder.  But his killings indeed were nothing compared to the real ones of the Second World War.

Q Patrick's patriotic appeal to Americans to buy War Bonds was published in 1943 on the back of the Popular Library edition of Q. Patrick's S. S. Murder.  Richard Webb, 41, and Hugh Wheeler, 30, the two native British authors behind Q. Patrick, became American citizens in January and April 1943, respectively, and were called to service in defense of their new country. 

Hugh, who suffered from diplopia ("double vision"), was stationed with the Army Medical Corps at Fort Dix, New Jersey, while Rickie went the extra mile--actually he went thousands of extra miles.  He joined the Red Cross and was stationed with American troops at Hollandia, New Guinea, where he contracted Japanese Encephalitis.  Rickie longed to return to the home fires, but sadly he would find, like many others of the returned, that those fires provided only dim comfort from the malaise and maladies of the postwar years.  Things would never be the same for him again after Hitler finally was stopped, and for that he blamed the war.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Murder, Mayhem and Molly Maguires: The Bartholomews on the Case in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania

Mr. [Lin] Bartholomew is in some respects a most remarkable man.  He is brilliant, witty and eloquent, possessing in a high degree magnetic power of voice and manner; is a good judge of human nature, and understands the motives and hidden springs by which human conduct is governed. As a consequence he selects a jury well, exercises judgment in his offer of testimony, and cross-examines witnesses with prudence.  His strong position is before the jury. 

[Lin Bartholomew was] a rising young lawyer with a tongue as sharp as a razor.

--contemporary accounts of  Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew (1834-1880), prominent criminal attorney of Pottsville, Pennsylvania and father of Frances Ritter Bartholomew of Phialdelphia (1873-1939), a close friend of crime writer Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb (1901-1966)

"Character!  Character!  What can I say of this despicable wretch, this curse let loose from hell, a confessed murderer, a participant in the most fearful of crimes."

--Lin Bartholomew dramatically impeaching a witness who turned state's evidence against his miner client in one of the Molly Maguires trials conducted in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in the 1870s

Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew
father of Frances Ritter Bartholomew
one of the Philadelphia friends of
Richard Wilson Webb
One of the most infamous episodes of the often murderously violent Victorian-era labor-capital struggle in the United States took place in the 1860s and 1870s in the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where miners found themselves pitted, if you will, against mine owners, as embodied, respectively, by the sinister secret organization known as the "Molly Maguires" and its twin nemeses, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, both of which were headed in the 1870s by attorney Franklin B. Gowen, who in my view more than matched the putative Molly Maguires for covert nefariousness.

Determined to break the power of his labor opposition, Gowen in 1873 approached the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and obtained the services of one of their operatives, James McParland

The wily Pinkerton Op was tasked with infiltrating the Molly Maguires, an organization so nebulous that it was claimed by many not even actually to exist in the United States.  (It was also said that the the members of the MM had sneakily hidden behind a supported peaceable front group, the Irish fraternal organization known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.) 

For a period of over two years, James McParland industriously collected evidence of supposed Molly Maguire involvement in more than fifty murders in Schuylkill County that had occurred over the last dozen years. (Good gad!  You would think the United States was a violent country or something.)

Franklin B. Gowen
After Franklin Gowen broke a strike among Schuylkill County miners in 1876, he lodged murder charges against supposed Molly Maguires, with the result that twenty men were executed, hanged on a gallows in Pottsville, the seat of Schuylkill county.  Ten men were hanged on a single day, known ever after to the Irish Catholic mining community as "Black Thursday." 

In an outrageous conflict of interest, the sort of thing that makes one despair for American democracy as anything but a hollow sham, railroad president Franklin Gowen acted as the state's special prosecutor in the trials, with his hired man, Pinkerton spy James McParland, serving as his chief witness. Certainly Gowen showed no lack of zealous ruthlessness in destroying his enemies.

One authority commented acerbically that the whole thing was essentially a private prosecution, with the State of Pennsylvania providing only the courtroom and the inevitable gallows.  Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries, as they presumably would be more sympathetic to the miner defendants, themselves all Irish Catholics.  Whether or not the defendants were really guilty of murders, these trials were most iniquitously conducted. 

The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories in American History states it well:

a menacing "coffin notice" suppsoedly left by members
of the Molly Maguires to intimidate their enemies
in the management of the mines


The convicted men were members of an alleged secret society called the "Molly Maguires," said to have been imported from the Irish countryside, where a society of the same name was active in the 1840s....Their trials, conducted in the midst of enormously hostile national publicity, were a travesty of justice.  The defendants were arrested by the private police force of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, whose ambitious president, Franklin B. Gowen, had financed the Pinkerton operation.  They were convicted on the evidence of an undercover detective who was accused (somewhat half-heartedly) by the defense of being an agent provocateur, supplemented by the confessions of a series of informers who had turned state's evidence to save their necks.  Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries as a matter of course.  Most of the prosecuting attorneys worked for railroad and mining companies.  Remarkably Franklin B. Gowen himself appeared as the star prosecutor at several trials, with his courtroom speeches rushed into popular print as popular pamphlets....

....Even by nineteenth-century standards the arrests, trials and executions were flagrant in their abuse judicial procedure and their flaunting of corporate power.  Yet only a handful of dissenting voices were heard....

illustration of miners from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear

A decade later, Franklin Gowen was found dead from a shot to the head inside a locked hotel room in Washington, DC.  Some said he committed suicide (supposedly there was a history of insanity in his family), while others boasted that the Molly Maguires must have gotten to him at last.  It would have made a great scenario for a John Dickson Carr detective novel, but Carr, himself a native Pennsylvanian, sadly never spun such a tale. 

The most famous mystery that did come out of the labor-capital conflict in Schuylkill was Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1915), which draws heavily, forty years after the event, on what were not remarkably impartial accounts of the episode provided by Pinkeron Detective Agency founder Allan Pinkerton and his son, the latter of whom met Doyle during a Trans-Atlantic cruise after the turn of the century. 

Pinkerton Op McParland
who detected in the coal country
a massive criminal conspiracy among
native Irish miners--or so he testified
Doyle might have heard a different story from Lindsay Coates Batholomew, a Civil War veteran, former state legislator and prominent Schuylkill County attorney, who was a key member of the team of defense attorneys at the Molly Maguires trials. 

At the trials "Lin," as he was known, went toe-to-toe with Franklin Gowen, a florid and fearsomely fluent speaker who published his courtroom orations as commercial pamphlets which he sold to his adoring public, to whom in their eyes he was a staunch upholder of public order and the divinely ordained prerogatives of capital.  Gowen, incidentally, had hired substitutes during the Civil War to avoid military service, in contrast with Lin, who after having resigned his post as private secretary to the controversial Secretary of War Simon Cameron, another native Pennsylvanian, had joined the northern army, fighting at the Battle of Antietam.

At one point Lin, who was said to have a tongue as sharp as a razor, damned a witness against his client as a "curse let loose from hell," a character indictment I'm going to have to try out myself sometime! 

                                                                  *******

Lin was not always on the side of the defense, however.  A few years earlier, in 1872, he had assisted the county attorney in trying a teenager named Joe Brown for a terrible double murder. 

On the morning of Sunday, February 25, 1872, 17-year-old Joe Brown, who lived with his 82-year-old father Daniel, attended Summer Hill Lutheran Church in Washington Township, Schuylkill County.  He had big plans after the service.

Washington Township was an unremarkable community of placid farmers of mostly German heritage, most of whom had come to the New World from the Old in the eighteenth century.  It seemed itself a world away from the strife-ridden coal mining districts, populated as they were with poor, exploited and angry Irish immigrants.  My own maternal German heritage great-grandparents lived about thirty miles west of Washington Township at the time of the murders.

Later in the afternoon, as twilight descended on the township, Joe Brown walked over to the nearby Kremer farm to call on his neighbors.  Before entering the house he stopped to pick up a piece of lumber from the Kremers' woodpile.

Summer Hill Church,
where the murderer worshiped
on the morning of the double murders
62-year-old Daniel Kremer, dubbed in the neighborhood "rich old Kremer, had recently sold some property and was said to have a quantity of gold and silver stashed in the house, as well as several hundred dollars in cash concealed in an "old-fashioned clock."

When Joe Brown entered the farmhouse, Daniel was reclining on a chest in the parlor and his wife, Annetta, a relative of Brown's, was sitting in a chair.  Candles had not yet been lit.  Joe Brown persuaded Daniel to accompany him to the family mill, located only 400 yards away, but they never made it to Brown's Mill.  In the lane halfway to their purported destination, Brown suddenly struck Daniel several times on the head with the piece of wood, leaving the older man prone and unconscious on the ground.

Brown then returned to the farmhouse, where 52-year-old Annetta had begun lighting candles.  He promptly set upon the woman with the makeshift club, beating her on the head and causing her to drop the candle as she fell to the floor.  After pausing to retrieve and relight the candle, Brown rained down yet more blows on Annetta's head.  Then he grabbed an ax and smashed the desk drawer where he believed the gold was kept, absconding with a small bag of it worth about $100 in total.  (He missed about $500, for a total of about $15,000 in modern value.)  Daniel's 93-year-old mother, Magdalena, was upstairs all the while, but she heard nothing.

Heading back down the lane, Brown paused with his club to finish off Daniel, who had not expired.  When he was through Daniel was doubtlessly dead.  Brown then caught the train to Pottsville at Moyer's Station, where he started selling off the gold.  After one of the Kremers' sons found his parents the next day--Annetta was still alive and implicated Brown with her dying words--the authorities were quickly able to round up Brown, who first denied knowledge of the crime, then tried unavailingly to pin it on some of his friends. He later confessed to the murders at the magistrate's office and to another prisoner in jail.

Brown's Mill, near the scene of the murders
Brown was convicted of murder but on appeal the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Annetta Kremer's dying declaration and ordered a new trial, which commenced in 1873.  Lin Bartholomew dominated the prosecution's closing address, at the completion of which the spectators at Lyceum Hall, where the trial was being held, burst into uproarious applause.  The defense thereupon called for a new trial, arguing that the commotion would influence the jury against their client, but the judge demurred.  He declared that the crowd had merely signaled their aesthetic admiration of Lin's oratory (which undeniably had been of "unusual power"), not that they necessarily agreed with the lawyer's conclusion. 

Despite the judge's decision, it appears that Brown at least received a fairer trial than the supposed Molly Maguires would shortly thereafter.

Joe Brown was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, which sentence was carried out on a snowy day on March 21, 1875, three years after the original murders, before a crowd of 4000 people.  (Who says justice was always swift back then?)  In the days leading to his execution, Brown had confessed again, this time to a newspaper man, with the prison warden as a witness.  He had reflected stoically that his impending death was but God's will. 

Certainly it reflected the will of man.  The Pennsylvania governor himself had earlier pronounced: "After waiting 28 years, the outraged majesty of the law was to be avenged and Schuylkill County to be the scene of a second judicial hanging....the wholesome influence of at least one execution was felt to be needed in this county of ours."

10,450 copies of the execution edition of the local newspaper, illustrated with grim wood cuts, sold the next day.  There had not been a public execution in Schuylkill since 1847, so there was considerable novelty value in a hanging--something which would soon be lost with the mass executions of purported Molly Maguires.  

"Jesus have mercy on me.  I am a poor sinner.  My soul I recommend to Jesus.  Jesus, dear Jesus.  Jesus, Lamb of God," intoned Joe Brown in German before he dropped.

                                                                  *******

Lin Bartholomew would have recalled the previous execution in Schuylkill.  He was 13 years old at the time and his father, Benjamin, has been co-counsel for the defense. 

James Riggs was a black man who had run afoul of a dangerously violent German named Gunder, who himself had earlier served nine years for murder.  (He had been pardoned by the Governor.)  Over a period of time Gunder had made threats against Riggs' life and Riggs, who had unavailingly sought legal redress, upon encountering his enemy shot and killed Gunder.  At his murder trial Riggs plead self-defense, but his attorneys were unable to save him.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death, the judge telling him:

"Your unfortunate situation excited our deepest sympathy and fills us with unutterable anguish, but you were fatally bent on mischief."

Was that sympathy really very deep after all?  I can't help but feeling that in this case Riggs's skin color may have counted decisively against him.  Justice talked, but it was not remotely merciful.

Riggs briefly escaped from prison but was caught and returned to his cell.  He later tried to starve himself and when that failed he drank a mixture of whiskey and blue ink.  After being administered a dose of sulphurate zinc, he vomited the whiskey and ink mixture and lived to see his execution day.  He left a widow and young child.

Pottsville gallows
Frances Ritter Bartholomew, Benjamin's granddaughter and Lin's daughter, barely knew her celebrated father, as she was just six when his promising career was cut short in 1880 by a sudden heart attack at the age of 45.  Frances was an only child, her slightly older sister Helen having died at the age of three months in 1872, before Frances was born.  In 1888 her mother Mary Pomeroy Allen after nearly a decade's widowhood wed again, to a doctor, John Beale Howard Gittings (1837-1905).

Interestingly enough given the fate of the Molly Maguires, Dr. Gittings was a practicing Roman Catholic.  Yet Mary died just a year later at the age of 40, leaving 15-year-old Frances in the care of her new stepfather.  Fortunately he seems to have been a good man. 

Hospital of the Good Shepherd
Dr. Gittings taught medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and was a visiting physician at the Hospital of the Good Shepherd, which had been founded by the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in the wealthy Philadelphia Main Line to care for children, young lambs of God, whose parents could not afford to pay for medical services.  The hospital evinced the kind of charity in which the American legal system often was grievously lacking.

Frances remained single all her life, and she usually seems to have lived alone as an adult, although she, a woman of social consciousness like her forebears, did much good work that kept her most usefully occupied.  She did for a time become friends with crime writers Rickie Webb  and Martha Mott Kelley, however, and in the guise of a fictional character she would figure very prominently in their second detective novel, Murder at the Women's City Club.   More on it soon!                    

Saturday, May 18, 2019

From Cottage to Club: Q. Patrick's Initial Deadly Duo, Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), Part One

Cottage Sinister is a good try.  It opens well with the death of two ladies' maids on a visit to their mother's country cottage.  Ladies' maids are so rarely murdered, especially at tea.  It has a neat, though unconvincing, explanation.  But it gets rather bothered about love--mother and other--and it appears to treat seriously the notion that a girl about to make a good marriage might poison off her family one by one in order not to hamper her husband's career.  It seems, somehow, such an extreme method; is moving to London so useless?

--an English review of Cottage Sinister, by Q. Patrick

Contrary to this post-WW2 Swedish English-language edition,
Did the "Q." in Q. Patrick really stand for Quentin?
. Patrick also was Patrick Quentin

Sometimes you read about debut mystery writers producing a fine first mystery, taking flight on the wings of some brilliant central idea, unfortunately following it with the product of a "sophomore slump."  In the case of Q. Patrick, however, the slump came first, with the first mystery, Cottage Sinister (1931), being rather a curate's egg, happily followed by an excellent second tale, Murder at the Women's City Club (1932) (Death in the Dovecote in the UK). 

The marked improvement can't be attributed to a change in authors, because these initial Q. Patrick novels both were written collaboratively by the same people, Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Martha "Patsy" Mott Kelley.  I chalk it down simply to experience.  The more you write, if you have any hope as a writer at all, the better you get at it.

Of course readers of this blog should know all about Rickie Webb at this point.  Born in England, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1924, spent some time during the Roaring Twenties in Berlin, Paris and South Africa and then finally ended up ensconced in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, where he would take an executive position with the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline and French (makers of Benzedrine inhalers) and reside from the late Twenties throughout the Thirties.

When Martha Mott Kelley, a recent graduate of Radcliffe who had already published short stories and book reviews and was a niece of prominent progressive social reformer Florence Kelley, joined forces with Rickie in 1930 to write detective fiction, they coined their pseudonym by shortening their nicknames "Pat" and "Rick" and adding in front the letter "Q," which they pronounced the most interesting letter of the alphabet.  Really?  "Q" rather than the mysterious "X" or the elusive "Z"?  Well, I have my own theory as to why Rickie, anyway, thought "Q" was so interesting.

Their first mystery, Cottage Sinister, has all the trappings of a classic English village mystery, but something about it just doesn't work like it should, in my view. That notorious mystery-hating scold Edmund Wilson once accused Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealand native who wrote mysteries mostly set in England, of populating one of her novels with a bunch of "tricked-up" English country people; yet while Marsh's country people may or may not be fully accurate representations of the England of her day, her books to me nevertheless at least feel truer to real life than those in Cottage Sinister.

I don't know whether Patsy Kelley, who came from a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family (famed abolitionist, feminist and pacifist Lucretia Mott was a relative), ever had visited England, but Rickie, who was the son of a headmaster, spent the first 23 years of his life there, and Cottage Sinister is even set in the part of England whence he came. 

I think the problem may have been that for whatever reason the pair decided to make their England the deliberately artificial England of books, the England about which they thought the readers, whether in the US or the UK, wanted to read.  JJ Connington did the same thing with his first British mystery, which similarly felt false to me.  So maybe they succeeded in what they were trying to do, but I think trying to do it in the first place was an error of judgment.  It's just too twee really to be.

In Cottage Sinister, explicitly set in 1930, we have murder in the quaint village of Crosby-Stourton, located in a valley in Somerset, Rickie's native county.  But Crosby-Stourton is rather less wide awake than Rickie's Burnham-on-the-Sea:

As it lay somewhat off the main road that runs between Bridgewater and Bristol, it had not yet been discovered by the American tourist or the marauding automobile, and its rustic charm was still unspoilt by the flamboyant road-signs and advertisements which are assiduously defaming the English countryside in their attempt to inflict unwanted goods on an unwanted public.


Harrumph!  In this stodgy, slumberous village, we have, naturally, a local country landlord of ancient family, Sir Howard Crosby, the eleventh baronet, "a good landlord if somewhat severe and unbending."  His son Christopher, however, "the young squire and future baronet," is studying medicine in London, with the aim of practicing as a doctor.  He's such an odd duck, indeed, that, saith the bemused villagers, "he do talk to us poor folk as though he were nobbut a plain village lad and not one of the gentry at all."  Imagine!  Must be one of they Bovrilvikings you hear tell about in that there heathen Russia, I reckon.

And that's another thing I didn't really like about Cottage Sinister: the abundance of dialect speech, whether it that sort of Mummerset above or some excruciatingly heavy cockney speech that the authors manage to drag in.  As I see it the emphasis on "colorful" dialect speech in Golden Age mystery only serves to make unreadable lengthy passages of text spoken by cheeky London cockneys, lofty Scottish lairds, Cape Cod fisherman and black Americans, the latter whether they reside in northern cities or in southern plantation country.  Good writing, in my opinion, doesn't need such crutches.  Step lightly, I say!

Golden Age mystery writers spent a lot of time on this sort of thing, time which would have been better spent plotting better mysteries.  Even the most famous names in the genre, like Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell, prided themselves on rendering unto their poor readers ostensibly authentic (and nearly unreadable) local dialect.  Although he was not nearly so good a detective novelist as those others, Milward Kennedy, I will say to his credit, hated it.  He was right.

Worse yet, there are malapropisms.  One of Lucy's less educated sisters says "internals" when she means "interns," for example.  The worst offender in this respect is the comic village constable, but naturally, who I was hoping would be one of the murder victims before the tale was over.  This is how he converses:

"I was hambulating 'ome past Lady's Bower on Sunday evening at about six o'clock--while they must 'ave been 'aving tea inside--and the hindivdual was as it were 'anging on the garden gate."

"Did you speak to him?"

"No sir.  But I fixtured 'im with my eye.  Might 'ave been about fifty, say.  'E was a bit dressy, you know, like a gentleman, but you never can tell because sometimes these rapscalliwag poachers....


nothing like this scene
happens in the novel
as I recall
You get the idea.  For me passages like this are as funny as a root canal.  They wouldn't work with me, in any case, because I just want to get on with the clue finding. And I wonder whether anyone really would say "fixtured 'im" rather than simply "fixed 'im"?  But then I suppose we would miss all that hilarity if they got it right.  It's like spell check gone awry.

Anyway, back to nobbut Crosby-Stourton!  There is also a Lady Cynthia Crosby, who has given her loyal old nurse, Mrs. Lubbock (who long had to care for Lady Crosby's crotchety, wealthy invalid mother), a generous pension and the use of Lady's Bower, the loveliest, quaintest cottage in the village.  Additionally Lady Crosby has made a protege of Mrs. Lubbock's youngest daughter, Lucy, giving her "the best of educations, and finally equipping her for the profession of nursing, her chosen field." 

Of course this proficiency makes Lucy suspect number one when the poisonings at Lady's bower commence.  There are also poison pen letters, did I mention?  Verily, this is the English village mystery that has everything, barring some silver--Miss Silver I mean.

Lucy is now a lovely and highly competent nurse in the Village Hospital, where naturally she is resented by all the locals, who of course feel that Lucy has been "educated above her station" (that phrase gets used numerous times), upsetting the social system of this reeking feudal section of England, where a small segment of the population is entitled to own and the much larger segment required to serve.  Just how we like it in our Golden Age English mystery!

I knew a girl in middle school who liked reading mysteries, but she always felt cheated unless there were two murders, preferably three (or more).  Well, she would have loved Cottage Sinister, where there are four deaths.  All poisonings too, as indicated above.  Rickie, a pharmaceutical executive as I mentioned, did know how to ingeniously poison people, to be sure.

And for that matter the basic mystery plot is rather nice, although the motive which the investigating man from Scotland Yard, Archibald Inge (known as the Archdeacon because of his resemblance to a higher churchman), attributes to his #1 suspect, the beleaguered Lucy Lubbock, is beyond absurd, literally nonsensical.  He, "no socialist but a devout believer in the divine right of the landed gentry," deserved to fall flat on his face in the end, nobbut else can I say. 

I will give Rickie and Patsy props for recalling, with the name Archibald Inge, England's famed churchman Dean Inge (1860-1954), who was criticized for being a medievalist in his social philosophy.  Also, it's possible that Rickie in Cottage Sinister had the bizarre--and still unsolved-- 1928 Croydon Poisonings in mind.

In short, Cottage Sinister seems to me a case of a novel of promise, had the authors gotten the trimmings right.  As it stands, it's only "good in spots."  Happily, there followed Murder at the Women's City Club, which is set not in Merrie Olde England but in America's City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia (though the it goes under another a name in the book).  Both authors knew this setting well, Patsy Kelley having grown up there and Rickie having lived there for the last five years, and it shows.  In future most of Rickie Webb's novels would be set in the US, and they are none the worse for it.

But then on Amazon the new Open Road edition of Cottage Sinister has two reviews, both of them for five stars, so Rickie and Patsy may have been on to something.  What do critics know, anyway, right?  Cheeky buggers they be!

Coming soon, Murder at the Women's City Club.  It's been favorably reviewed by some percipient bloggers, to whom I will provide links, but I think I have some new things to say about it.