|Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)|
Boucher stated that the empathetic Gridley Nelson was one of his favorite Fifties police detectives, no doubt finding him a relief from the bellicose, tough guy, third degreeing cops one sees so much of in American crime fiction of the period. Indeed, Boucher favorably compared Fenisong to the English Crime Queens, especially Ngaio Marsh, but he also noted--and I agree with this--that Fenisong explored grittier milieus than the Crime Queens, giving her writing similarity as well to police procedural authors like Ed McBain and Hilary Waugh.
|I love this cover |
(the original title is Widows' Plight), as it's
so redolent of the American mid-century
Ruth Fenisong was born in 1904 in New York City, under the name Ruth Feinsong. Although the author's deliberate transposition, later in life, of two letters in her surname obscured the telltale linguistic traces of her actual ethnic identity, Ruth's parents in fact were immigrant Jews.
These were Maurice Feinsong, a tailor and clothes designer originally from Russian-occupied Poland, and his wife Janie (or Jennie) Bobbe, who came from a family of Hebraic Dutch extraction, though by the time she was born her family had moved to the Whitechapel district of London, where her father worked in the garment trade. Janie left London for New York City, joining a couple of her brothers, not long after Jack the Ripper had terrorized the East End. One of her brothers, Louis, became the advertising manager for the New York department store Koch & Co. She and Maurice Feinsong wed in 1895.
|Whitechapel garment workers c. 1910|
Ruth's elder sister married a film projectionist and had one son, but Ruth herself never married, though from the 1930s onward she did have a life partner, native Irish schoolteacher Kathleen Gallagher, the daughter of a lace importer. Like a contemporary mystery-writing same-sex couple much written about here, Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, Ruth and Kay, as Kathleen was familiarly known, traveled to Europe, Bermuda and the Caribbean together, Ruth employing those settings in some of her books. For most of the time, however, the pair resided, like Irving Mendell and his wife (see below), in Greenwich Village, including at an apartment in a five-story turn-of-the-century row house at 227 Sullivan Street. Now quite pricey, it was until recently located above a Chinese eatery, since moved I believe, called Dumpling Kingdom. (Yum!)
|Koch & Co. c. 1900|
Ruth's maternal uncle Louis Bobbe
was advertising manager of the store
when she was growing up
The FTP was de-funded and shut down by Congress in 1939 after being attacked by the red-baiting, racist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group whose pernicious activities began long before the Cold War era of Joe McCarthy. Irving Mendell, another Jewish New Yorker who later as the anagrammatic "Amen Dell" wrote a single mystery novel (that we know off), Johnny on the Spot (since reprinted by Coachwhip and highly recommended here), and was head of the FTP's Living Newspaper unit, was, sure enough, a Communist, but whether Ruth Fenisong's views were so doctrinaire is unclear. In short, I tend to doubt Ruth was an actual " card-carrying Red."
|227 Sullivan Street |
where Ruth and Kay Gallagher resided
in the 1940s, when Ruth began writing
detective fiction (center building)
The latter play is a mordant satire in which a ruthlessly scheming restaurant owner (Landlord) and his equally atrocious Wife. attempting to fleece a simple Farmer of $2000 for a meal of a dozen boiled (and very rotten) eggs, have the tables deftly turned on them by a wily Lawyer and a goodhearted Waiter. By the end of the play the waiter has joined a union and is picketing the Landlord's restaurant, which in a literal burst of poetic justice is destroyed when the remaining rotten eggs explode.
No "Dumpling Kingdom" this place! Ruth portrays predatory capitalism battening off consumers like a bloodsucking parasite consuming the substance of its host. Goodness, what would Sean Hannity say?!
|puppet theater performance of Snow White (Ralph Chessee)|
see Filmic Light
Ruth began writing detective novels (suggested by that puppet play The Speckled Band) not long after the FTP was shut down, publishing her first pair, both of them Gridley Nelson novels, in 1942, followed by two more Gridley Nelson novels in 1947.
|children watching marionette theater in New York|
The Seventies, era of "Women's Lib," Roe v. Wade and the E.R.A., was a hard time for mid-century American crime writers of "domestic suspense" who came from the "Greatest Generation." There were a few who kept going in this period, like Margaret Millar, though even she vanished for half the decade, after the publication in 1970 of Beyond This Point Are Monsters (see here).
Sullivan Street bedroom
But in any event, as people have come to appreciate again just how good mid-century mysteries by these forgotten American women writers are, they have been enjoying a splendid resurgence. I hope that with her republication by Stark House, Ruth Fenisong "joins the ladies" in reconnecting with a diverse and appreciative mystery reading audience.
The Crime Novels of Ruth Fenisong (aka Ruth Feinsong)
Gridley Nelson Series
Murder Needs a Name (1942)
Murder Needs a Face (1942)
The Butler Died in Brooklyn (1943)
Murder Runs a Fever (1943)
Grim Rehearsal (1950)
Dead Yesterday (1951)
The Wench Is Dead (1953)
Miscast for Murder (1954)
Bite the Hand (1956)
Death of the Party (1958)
But Not Forgotten (1960)
Dead Weight (1962)
Jenny Kissed Me (1944)
The Lost Caesar (1945)
Desperate Cure (1946)
Snare for Sinners (1949)
Ill Wind (1950)
Widows Plight (1955)
The Schemers (1957)
Villainous Company (1967)
The Drop of a Hat (1970)