Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Life of Crime: Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)

American author Ruth Fenisong published twenty of her twenty-two crime novels between 1942 and 1962, putting her at the temporal heart of mid-century American murder fiction, yet like many of the prominent women crime writers from that period, she fell out of publishing fashion after her death.  Most underservingly so, for in her day she was a justly praised crime writer, with the dean of American crime fiction critics, Anthony Boucher, leading Ruth's estimable cohort of admirers.

Ruth Fenisong (1904-1978)
Although Ruth Fenisong published nine non-series crime novels (five in the 1940s and two in the 1950s), all of which are well worth reading, she was best known for her thirteen-novel Gridley Nelson police detective series, about an empathetic Princeton-educated, private- income-blessed, prematurely white-haired New York City cop.  Four Grid Nelson novels appeared in 1942 and 1943, followed by a seven year hiatus.  Then in the dozen years from 1950 to 1962 there came nine more Grid Nelson detective novels, including the much praised Deadlock, selected by Anthony Boucher as one of the ten best crime novels of 1952, and ending with Dead Weight, about malfeasance and sudden suspicious death at a swanky weight reducing spa patronized by wealthy city matrons. 

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
As a great admirer of mid-century mysteries by women writers, I enjoy Fenisong's work immensely; and I'm pleased to say that Stark House is reprinting a Ruth Fenisong "twofer" volume, composed of her novels Deadlock and Dead Weight, marking the first time Fenisong crime fiction has been in print in English in nearly fifty years.  I will have some blog pieces on Ruth's novels coming soon (I wrote the introduction to the Stark House volume), but in the meantime I wanted to look at little at her life, both inside and outside of crime (fiction).

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
It's unclear where Ruth went to school or what sort of employment she had in her twenties, but when during the Depression the American national government's Works Progress Administration launched the Federal Theater Project, Ruth was one of some 350 people in the project who worked with marionettes in children's puppet theater.  Ruth wrote a number of puppet plays at this time, including Katcha and the Devil, The Mighty Mikko and A Valiant Little Tailor, all adaptations of European folk tales (the latter one her father should have especially enjoyed); The Totem, concocted from Iroquois tribal legend; Babar the Elephant, based on the beloved (and then contemporary) children's books by French writer Jean de Brunhoff; and classic English tales by literary giants Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, Oliver Twist and The Speckled Band.

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)
Certainly some of Ruth's plays suggest a left-liberal slant, however, like The Children of Salem, about two Puritan children who nearly provoke the killing of a purported witch (the play was billed as a "strong indictment of superstition"), and The Boiled Eggs, which has been recently reprinted. 

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
In the Ruth Fenisong crime novels I have read I have never detected such a blatant political subtext as one finds in The Boiled Eggs, yet to their advantage the series novels very much do evince, in the character of Gridley Nelson, a marked empathy for people of all social, racial and income groups and a strong concern with fairly providing justice to both the guilty and the innocent.  I have no doubt this was a key aspect of her books which attracted Anthony Boucher.

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
After that there were seven fallow years for Grid, with the non-series novels Jenny Kissed Me, The Lost Caesar, Desperate Cure, Snare for Sinners and Ill Wind, taking the place of the Nelson series mysteries.  In 1950, however, Grid Nelson returned in the theater mystery (anticipating Ngaio Marsh's Opening Night), Grim Rehearsal. Grid dominated Ruth's Fifties output, finally making his last bow in 1962 with Dead Weight, which was followed by only two more Fenisong mysteries, Villainous Company and The Drop of a Hat, and then a long silence for eight years until Ruth's death in 1978 at the age of 74.  Kay passed away but a few years later.

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
I'd say maybe people no longer wanted to read about imperiled women in the home, but what about the runaway success in 1975 and the years that followed of Mary Higgins Clark's Where are the Children?  I was around back then and if mothers weren't reading Helter Skelter or Jaws or The Amityville Horror they were reading something in paperback by Mary Higgins Clark.

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)
Deadlock (1952)
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)


  1. I look forward to your reviews of works by this new-to-me author.

  2. Excellent post on a fascinating author that I have just come across for the first time. Thank you.