Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Many Faces of Mr. Morland: The Story of Nigel Morland (1905-1986), aka Nigel van Biene, aka Carl van Biene and Quite a Few Other People Besides

detail from Synagogue of El Transito, Toledo, Spain
founded in the 14th century by Samuel ha-Levi
an ancestor of crime writer Nigel Morland

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!
--The Priestley Blessing (Birkat Kohahim)
(see My Jewish Learning)

The sudden death of crime thriller writer Edgar Wallace from diabetic coma at the age of 56 on February 10, 1932 in Hollywood, where he was working on the script of RKO's "gorilla picture," King Kong, was an epochal event within the world of British crime fiction, comparable in its own admittedly more restricted way to the death of Queen Victoria three decades earlier.  At least in the late Queen's case the line of succession to the throne was clear and secure.  In the case of "shocker king" Edgar Wallace, however, Death sent numerous pretenders scrambling to grab the master's highly lucrative crown, with all the glories it entailed. Call it vintage crime fiction's Game of Bones.

What followed wasn't the War of the Roses but the War of the Rozzers, if you will, as authors attempted to show that they had what it took to become the new King of Shockers, producing book after book about tough, square-jawed Scotland Yard police detectives, sinister criminal masterminds with queer handles and queerer underlings, wild-eyed Bolsheviks, wicked "Chinamen" (and other foreigners and minority group members) and imperiled lovelies whose virtue was as unquestioned as their marked knack for getting kidnapped, bound and gagged and flung to their watery dooms into rapidly flooding cellars.

Nigel Morland in 1975, forty years after
publication of The Moon Murders
the first of 22 Mrs. Pym mysteries
which Morland would publish
One of the most important pretenders to the Wallace throne was Nigel Morland (1905-1986), who though only 26 years old when Edgar Wallace died had been, supposedly, the Great Man's secretary at one time.  Three years after Wallace's demise, Nigel published The Moon Murders (1935), the first of his Mrs. Palmyra Pym thrillers, which he dedicated, but naturally, to the late Edgar Wallace.  The Mrs. Pym series would run well past the end of the Golden Age until 1961, spawning 22 novels and a number of short stories as well. 

Mrs. Pym, Nigel's most famous series character, was nothing if nor outsize: a snarling, scowling, brawling (one is tempted to say ballbusting) lady detective--specifically Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police--who has been dubbed "Mike Hammer in a dress," a description which also had occurred to me. 

Yes, this sounds like a weird and fantastic--indeed unbelievable--character, but Mrs. Pym was popular in her day, at least in the UK.  Not that many of her adventures were published in the US (a reason the books are rare ones today), where Anthony Boucher dismissed Nigel Morland as a "third-rate Edgar Wallace" and another reviewer, aggrieved at having to review yet another Mrs. Pym story, complained:

We have never been given any rational explanation of how Mrs. Pym came to occupy the position she does in Scotland Yard, but there she is and there she will stay so long as Mr. Morland continues to write stories about her....One might gather from this that we do not like Mrs. Pym, and the conclusion would be quite correct.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Nigel Morland's fiction was not published in the US after the onset of World War Two, but in the UK the battered old bird maintained a following of Pym enthusiasts. Today my keen fellow blogger John Norris is a fan.

Like his contemporaries Sydney Horler and Leonard Gribble, Nigel was an extremely prolific author, publishing crime fiction and other works under a myriad of pseudonyms.  There was Norman Forrest (two books), John Donavan (six books), Roger Garnett (eight books) and Neal Shepherd (four books), not to mention a couple of singletons, Vincent McCall and Mary Dane.  Then there were the crime books signed "Nigel Morland" that did not have Mrs. Pym in them--at least 13 of those.

Even the last of the Mrs. Pym mysteries
The Dear Dead Girls (1961) kept
 the Edgar Wallace tradition alive with
Wallace's symbol, the crimson circle
We are up to 57 books and I haven't exhausted his output yet.  There was also true crime as well as books on criminology and scientific detection, but the crime fiction writing seems to have dried up in the Sixties, Nigel later confessing, according to 100 Great Detectives (1991), that detective stories "bored him to tears."  He sure waited to tell people!

During the decade, Nigel's ennui notwithstanding, he for three years in the mid-Sixties edited the Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, which is certainly full of detective stories.  He also frequently publicly stated that he was writing a biography of Edgar Wallace, although this sadly never actually appeared.

Nigel Morland died at the age of 80 in 1986, having lived long enough to have been briefly "in touch with" our own Martin Edwards (and this before email and text messaging). He was, to be sure, one of the last true Golden Age crime writers.

I haven't been bowled over with the Morland mysteries myself, having had the misfortune to start of with the early Mrs. Pym opus, The Street of the Leopard (1936). This dazzling doozy of a crimextravaganza pits sinister Japanese and menacing Africans against each other in the city of London, with the kind of results you might expect from a Thirties British thriller.  However, given John Norris' praise of The Moon Murders (1935), which I had overlooked, I will have to try again. 

the crimson circle (could it be a moon?)
appeared on this early title too
Nigel Morland wrote so many different series (mostly short-lived) that one would think there is bound to be something somewhere to appeal to everyone.  There are even some which more approximate my idea of classic detection.  I hope to be reviewing some of these on the blog soon.

One thing is beyond doubt, however: Nigel had a vastly interesting life experience and family background, which in theory should have made for interesting books.  His real name was Carl van Biene, which ought to be something of a tip-off that there was something "un-English," as they used to say (and I suppose still do), about our dear Mr. Morland.  Indeed, how much more interesting than merely English he was!

Carl van Biene was born in London in 1905, not long after the death of Queen Victoria.  (He would grow up in a postwar era that the Queen would not have recognized.)  His parents were Benoit van Biene, a musician, and the rather unexotically named Gertrude Brown, apparently the daughter of a civil servant. 

18 year-old Gertrude married 24 year-old Benoit, or Benjamin as he came to be known, in early 1905; Carl was born a few months later.  In 1911 he was residing with his mother at an attractive villa at 42 Church Lane, Tooting, South London; whether Benjamin was away temporarily or for good in unclear.  (Gertrude still listed herself as married.)

Nigel Morland's paternal grandfather
famed cellist and noted Lothario
Auguste van Biene (1849-1913)
Benjamin's parents were Jews named Ezechiel Van Biene, known as Auguste, and Rachel Cohen de Solla. The son of a Dutch actor, Auguste van Biene (1849-1913) came to London as a teen and survived as a street musician before finding success as a concert cellist.  His composition "The Broken Melody" became a "pop" standard of Victorian/Edwardian England, with Auguste himself performing it over 6000 times.  If it ain't broke don't fix it!  See the YouTube clip at the bottom.

In London in 1871 Auguste married Rachel Cohen de Solla (1851-1922), who came of a distinguished Jewish family of Dutch (and before that Iberian and Babylonian) extraction   Her father, Jacob Mozes Cohen de Solla (1808-1883), was a well-respected immigrant clock maker who married Sarah Israel de Vieyra (1813-1873) and with her had ten children, seven sons and three daughters.

Son Benjamin followed his father's career path as a clock maker and David became a solidly bourgeois glass importer, but the other sons--Maurice, Henri, Isidore, Abraham and Raphael--all were concert singers and composers of note in their day (The youngest son, Raphael, was a celebrated "boy tenor" who died on tour before thirty and is buried in Philadelphia.)

popular sheet music featuring on cover
Auguste van Biene and lady friend
--not the broken melody but it'll do
So it's no wonder sister Rachel married a musician and composer (and quite a distinguished one too), though the marriage, which produced five children--Joseph (a schoolmaster), Eva, Emanuel, Benoit (Benjamin), Jacob--had its rough passages and finally hit the rocks.  Writes Michael Kilgarrif in his entry on Auguste van Biene in Sing One of the Old Songs: A Guide to Popular Song 1860-1920:

Discovered by Michael da Costa playing cello in the street and given job playing in Covent Garden opera orchestra.  Became musical director at the Gaiety.  Went on Halls with dramatic musical sketches, one of which, The Broken Melody, ended with him dying over his cello as the curtain fell.  On Thursday, 23 January 1913, at the Brighton Hippodrome, with exquisite timing, he actually did die as the curtain fell. 

His great-grandson, the actor Roland MacLeod, to whom I am indebted for this information, also tells me that Auguste "spread his image about a bit" and that a letter from Bransby Williams said: "Whenever I was on the bill with Van Biene he always seemed to have a different Mrs. Van Biene with him."

He's going to break that melody!
see "Victorian Melodrama"
at Fluff on the Needle
Rachel divorced the philandering Auguste, who around 1893 married Clare Lena Burnie (1876-1955), who was 27 years younger than he and had been born in Hong Kong, the daughter of solicitor Alfred Burnie.  (I'm not clear who her mother was.)  With Lena he fathered six more children: Eileen, Karl, Olga, Violet, Marjorie and Derek, the latter of whom, three years younger than his half-nephew Carl van Biene, ended up dying in California in the 1990s.

After Auguste's death in 1913 (though I'm not sure he was living with Lena when he died), Lena moved with part of her brood to the United States, settling at an apartment at 112 Haven Avenue in Manhattan; she died at Freehold, New Jersey at the age of nearly ninety.

Getting back to Auguste's first wife, Rachel de Solla, and his Jewish family, we find that through the de Sollas, the young man who became "Nigel Morland" was descended from the prominent Levi Maduro family of the Dutch colony of Curacao, part of the Lesser Antilles island chain in the Caribbean Sea. 

Pedro the Cruel strikes a pose
in between cruelties
Jacob's paternal grandfather Solomon Aaron Cohen de Solla married Rachel Levi Maduro of Curacao, who came from a wealthy shipping family.  Through the Levi Maduros, Morland descended from Samuel ha-Levi (c.1320-1360), treasurer to Pedro I, "the Cruel," of Castile, who ultimately had Samuel tortured to death to discover where his treasure was.  (Tip: Never work for a monarch whose handle is "the Cruel.") 

Samuel ha-Levi was responsible for the construction of the beautiful El Transito Synagogue in Toledo, which survives today.  Another relative from those days was burned at the stake for secretly practicing Judaism.  I'd say those days were positively, well, feudal, but then things got even worse in the 20th century.

Another of Nigel's lines traces back to the Ibn Yahya family of Portugal, the progenitors of which migrated from Babylonia to the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century. 

Nigel's family lineage is impressive indeed, making him, along with his contemporary thriller writer Jefferson Farjeon, one of the most certifiably "Jewish" of British GA crime writers--not the most ethnically and racially diverse group of people in history, to be sure, though, hey, there was Leslie Charteris, who had a Chinese father.

Nigel's grandmother  Rachel had come from one of those ancient, "pure-blooded" Jewish lines that crime writer Anthony Berkeley's impudent sleuth Roger Sheringham had praised in The Silk Stocking Murders (1928), though his own blood was "hybrid," to use Roger's terminology.  Nigel also was unique among British GA crime writers in having had relatives who were murdered in Nazi extermination camps like Auschwitz, the Nazis not valuing as Roger did pure Jewish blood.

detail from Mikve Israel-Emanuel
Willemstad, Curacao
the Americas' oldest synagogue
see  Curacao for 91 Days
Nigel later claimed that his nanny took him at the tender age of two on a visit (professional?) to see Dr. Crippen, who bounced the tiny tot on his knee.  (I hope they stayed out of the cellar.)  Perhaps inspired thereby, Nigel published first work of crime fiction, a work called The Sibilant Whisper, in 1923, when he was only 18. 

By this time young Nigel like so many of his ancestors had gone abroad.  He was living in China, in the great city of Shanghai (he had left school at 14), where he worked as a journalist for the Shanghai Mercury.  In 1924 he published Miscellanea, a book of verse, and Ragged Tales, a short story collection, as well as "The Thousandth Man," a single story in a volume of short fiction by the members of the Shanghai Short Story Club.  Verily, he was prolific from the beginning, even with these modest efforts.

After leaving China, Nigel under pseudonyms (for which he had a great penchant) wrote for American pulp magazines, producing, he later estimated, thirty to fifty thousand words a week.  (Whatever you think of the quality of Morland's crime writing, there's certainly a lot of it.)  He also ghosted show business memoirs for industry names and wrote for Movie Day and the Hearst newspaper chain. 

For a time, as mentioned, Nigel supposedly served as Edgar Wallace's secretary--a most important position, to be sure, as Wallace's secretaries were tasked with typing the Great Man's novels, which the he reeled off at racing speed into a Dictaphone.  This employment, if Nigel in fact held it, changed the course of Morland's life, by focusing it on the writing of crime fiction.  After Wallace died the path to the shocker succession lay wide open, though not uncontested, and Morland rushed into the breach, Mrs. Pym barreling along at his side.

James Shoolbred & Co. display at
the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876

In the early 1930s Nigel, as he was now known, collaborated with Peggy Mabel Barwell, a young woman from a wealthy family four years younger than he, on several volumes of books for children, including The Goofus Man and Mary! The Story of the Magdalene (an interesting project for someone of ancient Jewish lineage); both books were illustrated by Peggy as well. 

Nigel and Peggy wed in 1932, although their marriage seems barely to have survived the Second World War.  Peggy wed another man in 1951. Nigel married three more times, fathering a son by one of these good ladies.  His second wife, Pamela Hunnex, whom he married in 1947, was 20 years younger than he, so he seems to have followed in his paternal grandfather's (and possibly his father's) footsteps in being attracted to younger women.  Which perhaps explains some of his later books.

Before the couple broke up after the war, Peggy worked with Nigel on the screenplay for Mrs. Pym of Scotland Yard, a film version of Nigel Morland's novel The Clue in the Mirror (1938), and the same year she also wrote a play with Miles Malleson, a well-known actor and cousin as I recollect of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Nigel's crime writing contemporary "Anthony Gilbert." 

In the years before they married, Peggy resided at The Red Cottage, Waltham St. Lawrence, Berkshire, while Nigel stayed eight miles away at The Green Cottage, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire.  This sounds like a most convenient and charming arrangement!

Peggy was one of three daughters of Augustus Leycester Barwell (of "The Tower," Ascot), an executive with James Shoolbred & Co., a prominent London furniture store.  Peggy grew up as a young girl at The Tower with six live-in house servants: a children's nurse, under nurse, house maid, cook, parlour maid and kitchen maid.  It was quite a prosperous household.

Years earlier, on the eve of the Great War, Peggy's handsome older brother, Frederick Leycester Barwell, a golden boy graduate of Malvern College, at the age of nineteen was set to enter Pembroke College, Cambridge University when the shooting at Sarajevo took place, with its fatal results for millions, including Frederick, who promptly volunteered for martial service.

Frederick served first with the Queen's Westminster Rifles, seeing much action in the event. He was finally invalided out in September 1916 with a wound in the knee. There were other things wrong with the young man as well, it seems:

In addition he is suffering from exhaustion neurosis brought on by 15 months continuous & arduous active service.  At Gommecourt on July 21st his battalion was wiped out, only 150 men remaining after an attack on the German trenches.  He has been suffering from diarrhea, palpitations, headaches, exhaustion, dyspepsia, & insomnia & is subject at times to attacks of nervousness.

Can't imagine what he had to be nervous about!

trees twisted like corpses and a chateau reduced to rubble
a scene of he carnage at Gommecourt

In 1917 the resilient Frederick joined the Royal Air Force, but he was shot down and killed, not long after he completed his training, during an aerial reconnaissance on April 29th.  It has long been stated that he was fatally dispatched by German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, but this has been disputed.  I suppose it makes a more glorious death to have been sacrificed to the  cult of the Red Baron.

Not long after the Great War, in which he was too young to have served, Nigel Morland seems to have moved away from the lives of his Jewish forbears, changing his name from what must have been deemed the "foreign sounding" Carl van Biene, first to Nigel van Biene (did Carl sound too German?) and then to the impeccably English sounding Nigel Morland.  Certainly it was not a great time to be known as a Jew in much of the world.  How much easier to slip into the very pleasant, "English" world of the Leycester Barwells.

Public School Hero
Frederick Leycester Barwell
an RAF pilot shot down in
the Great War
When Nigel came to Shanghai in 1923, the magnificent classical revival Ohel Rachel Synagogue had only recently been completed.  Construction had started at the instigation of the fabulously wealthy Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon, baronet of Bombay, in honor of his late wife, but he had passed away before it was completed in all it glory.  During the Second World War, when the forces of Imperial Japan occupied Shanghai, the city's thousands of Jews were herded into the Shanghai Ghetto and the grand house of worship was converted into a stables.  In the aftermath of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the synagogue was closed; and by 1956 almost all of the city's Jews had left the city, never to return.  During the Cultural Revolution, the magnificent building was used as a warehouse.  In the last two decades, however some restoration efforts happily have been made to the structure, and today it makes a most imposing sight indeed.

Then American First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the house of worship in the 1990s, when relations between China and the US were thawing. (Remember those days?)  Judaism outlived Communism, as it has so many other of its nemeses.

I don't know how interested Nigel was in his own Jewish heritage, but even if, as he claimed, he didn't take his crime fiction seriously, he does seem so to have taken his criminology researches.  In 1939 he rather grandly listed his occupations as "scientific criminological expert," as well as "author and journalist."  I'm guessing he probably would have been pleased to have become a member of the UK's Detection Club, but such was not to be.  Scroll past the photos below for the rest of the story.

Below: four images of Ohel Rachel Synagogue, for which see PhilipGoldbergPhotography. Please take a look at this terrific photography website!

front view (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)

street view (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)

street view (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)
interior (PhilipGoldbergPhotography)

In 1953 Anthony Gilbert, cousin as mentioned above of actor Miles Malleson, who fourteen years earlier had co-written a play with Nigel Morland's ex-wife Peggy--met Nigel, who up till then had been, she asserted, "nothing but a name to me."  Despite this lack of familiarity, Gilbert deemed the handsome Nigel, who was said to have quite a charming raconteur, a plausible candidate for admission to the Detection Club, which after a sad wartime and postwar depletion, stood desperately in need of new, relatively youthful and energetic members.  Nigel, observed the appraising Gilbert, was "young--I should say forty--and very active." Actually Morland was 48, which is a testament either to his youthful looks or to 54-year old Gilbert's deceived eyes.

"nothing but a name to me"
Anthony Gilbert (1899-1973)
met Nigel Morland for the first time in 1953
Gilbert divulged to Club president Dorothy L. Sayers that in her chat with Nigel the younger author had displayed "great interest in the Detection Club" and she speculated that he "would probably jump at the chance of becoming a member."  Sayers, however, seemed unimpressed: "Afraid I know nothing of Nigel Morland."  Moreover, Milward Kennedy, another active Detection Club member and onetime successor to Dorothy L. Sayers as Sunday Times crime fiction reviewer, back in the Thirties had dismissed Nigel's The Clue in the Mirror as "not a detective story but a tale of mystery...the kind of thing which Edgar Wallace did infinitely better."  Harrumph!

Nigel Morland never became a member of the Detection Club, though I don't know whether or on what basis the Detection Club failed to act on him or simply turned him down.  Julian Symons had become a member of the Club two years earlier, causing, Christianna Brand later sardonically recalled, some of the members to have to swallow their habitual antisemitic remarks.  But even had Nigel's being partially Jewish been something that would have been a problem with some of the Club members, it's not clear that anyone knew in the first place that he had any Jewish ancestry.

Nigel Morland in early middle age
around the time he first met Anthony Gilbert
Perhaps the members simply felt, as Milward Kennedy had said, that Nigel's books, the most recent of which were The Moon Was Made for Murder and Sing a Song of Cyanide, simply didn't sufficiently excel--however alliterative the titles may have been--at the fine art of detection--something which the Club ostensibly demanded of its members.  But times were changing and as an alternative to the Detection Club there was always the vastly less persnickety and judgmental Crime Writers Association, which Nigel Morland that very same year himself would play a major role, along with the even more prolific and popular crime writer John Creasey, in founding.

With the more populist and democratic Crime Writers Association lay the future of British crime writing (though Detection Club members Agatha ChristieMargery Allingham and ECR Lorac turned down membership invitations*); and Nigel Morland--the public face of Carl van Biene, grandson of Auguste van Biene--seems emphatically to have been both a survivor and a man of the people.  Often to be the former, it seems, you need to be the latter.

*(Margery Allingham, whose own commitment to "fair play"detection in crime fiction had loosened, later joined the CWA, however.)

Auguste van Biene's "The Broken Melody"
and Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei"
recorded by Auguste van Biene
not long before his death in 1913
when his grandson Carl van Biene
aka Nigel Morland was eight years old


  1. Priestly Blessing!

    Not involving oracular mathematicians.

    1. A Priestley from our dear doctor would be tetchier I'm sure. And from Edgar Wallace it would be, "Go forth and and multiply your profits from myriad books."

  2. A fascinating life, even if I don't plan to read his books anytime soon! Somehow, one associates 19th and 20th-century Jewish artists with liberal ideas. And yet Morland seems, from your comments on this and other blogs, right-wing. Racist and violent, with a sleuth like Mickey Spillane in drag!

    1. Well, I feel now after the flip comment I made about NM on Brad's blog, I need to read some more by him. After all, John Norris likes him, I found from that review he did seven years ago, and John is a good judge. I find Mrs. Pym tiresome myself, but I'm going to take a look at some of his Pymless books too. I'm going to review one of the Pym books, at least, to explain why they don't do it for me. I definitely got more interested in the author himself.

      I don't know what his social views were, except for guessing from what he wrote. But the Wallace type thriller did lean toward the Right and at its most extreme exhibited, in my view, authoritarian tendencies. I'm sure some people who write this stuff were just going along with the flow, viewing just as so much silliness that might make them some money, but others, like Sydney Horler, seem to have genuinely held a lot of awful views.

    2. The obvious exception is Leslie Charteris, who seems to have been left-leaning / liberal / libertarian. In the early, most thrillerish stories, big business and warmongers are bad. By the late '30s, the British Establishment are in bed with the Nazis, and murder Socialists. In the '50s and '60s stories, Simon makes a point of shaking hands with a black guy who's been treated with contempt by an American racist on a plane.

      More congenial than "the excitable Mr Horler"!

    3. Yes, definitely, I like "the charming Mr. Charteris." I think I just coined that one. Of course I started this blog writing about "the gentle Jefferson Farjeon," including his Mystery in White, which became such a surprise hit for BL. I think Farjeon had a better tone than most.

    4. I think Wallace actually wrote less authoritarian stuff than many of his followers, despite the criticism he got from George Orwell, who I'm not sure was really all that familiar with his writing.

  3. Thanks for another great bio sketch!
    Your piece once again illustrates that World War I was a sad waste of lives. Also, as Nick Fuller notes, it illustrates how being a member of a group which is being discriminated against does not preclude one from discriminating against others.

    1. Glad you enjoyed, Christophe. These pieces take a long time and some may prefer shorter ones, but I can't seem to help myself. I write so many intros and articles these days, I tend to think in 2000-3000 word blocks.

      As it is I have more to add, especially about the Morland-Wallace relationship, where there seems to have been grey areas in the telling.