|What would Forties dust jacket designers|
have done without Ruth Fenisong's surrealist
contemporary Salvador Dali (1904-89)?
So Grid became a cop, essentially to advance his interest in the empathetic study of, and personal contact with, the mass of the people. His father, having headed a political machine in some unnamed town, was able to send Grid to an elite university, Princeton. However, young, idealistic Grid, having inherited a "small income" from his late mother, was able to eschew following in his father's ethically compromised footsteps.
After a few years spent in finding his career footing, in fields ranging "from garage mechanic to little theater," Grid became a rookie cop, rising four years later, when Murder Needs a Name was published, to the rank of Detective Sergeant, a position he holds throughout the first four novels. Physically, Grid is a handsome specimen, just under six feet tall, with olive skin, a pointed face, a head of prematurely, but ever so distinguished, white hair and "width in the all the right places--width to his brow, to the space between his sad, deep-dug brown eyes, and to his strong shoulders." He's just like Roderick Alleyn (if you cut the preciosity and tweeness-level by about 90%), except that he's conceivably real as a cop.
Grid's boss and patron is Inspector Waldo Furniss, chief of the Homicide Division, "a tall, active old man with soft silver hair, bright blue eyes, and a great profile," who is "very much in demand as an after-dinner speaker and as master of ceremonies on benefit radio programs." There are other cops detailed in the novels too, like the amusingly named Detective Cricket, my favorite however being Joseph Sugsden, aka "Sugs", a clerical man in the force with the heart (if not the brains) of a hero, who dreams of being on the beat, bravely collaring crooks. (I'm rather reminded of actor Ron Carey's forever striving, never achieving Police Sergeant Carl Levitt on the old television series Barney Miller.)
|Another Ruth Fenisong contemporary, |
Pegeen Fitzgerald (1904-89) with
her husband Ed for years co-hosted
Breakfast with the Fitzgeralds and
other "at-home" radio programs,
popular in the Forties and Fifties
If you've read enough crime fiction from the period, you'll know how unusual it is to find a black character so positively described. The treatment of black characters in American entertainment media was starting finally to change in the Forties, but there were still a great many exaggerated comic relief black servant characters, rolling eyeballs dramtically as they get easily frightened by "hants" and the like and speaking in heavily caricatured, allegedly amusing "negro" dialect. Sammy is a real advance in this regard, as Anthony Boucher noted at the time. (He deemed Sammy an "incomparable Negress.")
Sammy first shows up in Murder Needs a Name as a maid working for radio personality Catherine Verney, who hosts one of those sponsor-laden domestic radio shows for housewives from the time that reminded me a lot of the one in Rex Stout's terrific Nero Wolfe mystery And be a Villain (1948) and another in Jonathan Stagge's excellent The Three Fears (1949), both previously reviewed here.
Unfortunately, Murder Needs a Name is simply not nearly as good as those books, though admittedly these examples set a high standard indeed. The plot struck me as rather muddled in the telling and some of the writing gets a bit ripe. In these early years Fenisong's sentences could get distractingly exuberant, though she soon toned this down.
|when spring comes...|
Williamsburg Houses (see Ephemeral New York)
In the U.S. the Housing Act of 1937 authorized the federal government to provide subsidies for low-income housing. In New York City this led to a burst of housing projects that are still standing today (some of them historic landmarks), including the Williamsburg Houses, a group of twenty Modernist buildings in Brooklyn (with a total of 1622 apartments), designed in part by famed Swiss architect William Lescaze, that opened in 1938. It was highly praised at the time, with President and Mrs. Roosevelt even paying it a visit and Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia pouring the first concrete at the groundbreaking. Prominent modern artists painted murals for the project's common rooms, which by the 1980s were covered over by layers of paint, but happily they were recovered and restored and are now on exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. (For more, see The Living New Deal.)
In her novel Fenisong definitely paints a positive portrait of Greenhedge (murder aside), writing through Franca's eyes:
|one of several wall murals |
once in the recreation areas
of the Williamsburg Houses
this one is by Paul Kelpe (1902-1985)
another close contemporary of Ruth Fenisong
Housing experts had labored to give to each tenet the space thought necessary for comfort and decency. And the funds of the tenants had been investigated so that those who earned more than the embers of the low-income group for which the project had been designed might not gain entrance. Franca never saw Greenhedge without drawing a breath of gratitude and reciting a silent prayer that she might meet expenses each month and do nothing to incur the displeasure of the management. It was a dwelling place to be proud of, and she wanted no more than to remain there.
Fenisong here definitely voices the social idealism of bright-eyed and hopeful progressives of her era, but don't worry, pure puzzle fanciers, there's not too much of this.
Greenhedge, we find, is the "darling" of philanthropist G. V. Kuvicek, an eccentric millionaire philanthropist and native Oklahoma oil man. The murder is not actually of him--the traditional rich male victim--but of an unknown man, found dead outside one of the Greenhedge buildings. There are numerous people in the project who seem implicated in the death in some way, however, including:
|another Paul Kelpe mural at Williamsburg Houses|
the Murtrees, coarse, brazen Julia and careworn husband Henry, aka "Hen" (as in henpecked?)
diminutive, bulldog torch singer Mady Cooper and her blind father
and several other, definitely suspicions, characters.
Oh, and there's also the project manager, Paul Curtis and his secretary Arlene Decker. He seems smitten with Franca and she seems smitten with Grid.
The setting of the novel is strong and unusual, and the puppeteering stuff obviously is something Fenisong knew well. The police are convincingly done, though Franca, who seems like she will be the protagonist of the tale at first, is disappointingly allowed to fade into the background for most of the story, only to reemerge at the end. However, Sammy reappears early on in the story, to be hired by Grid as the cook and housekeeper as his bachelor gentleman policeman pad. (she will remain with him for the rest of the series.) This happily gives Sammy a chance to butt into Grid's case and help him solve it. "Bless Sammy," thinks Grid:
He wondered what Sammy's life would have been had her background permitted a formal education to supplement native intelligence. Probably just plain unhappy....in a world that kept dreaming up bigger and better prejudices with every passing moment.
|Williamsburg Houses |
came equipped with ground floor store fronts
In Murder Needs a Face some of the action
takes place at the Greenhedge drugstore
here "Sugs" eats breakfast (ham, eggs, toast and coffee),
hungrily exclaiming: "Ah, here's chow!"
see Ephemeral New York
After Murder Needs a Face, there came the whimsically titled The Butler Died in Brooklyn (1943), perhaps Fenisong's most Crime Queenish novel, in that it deals with one of those wealthy families imperiously presided over by a domineering, elderly, eccentric relation.
The family has relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn (Oh, the humanity!) and, yes, it's their butler, newly laid-off, who gets done in there. Personally I found it a bit disappointing after the more original Murder Needs a Face, though Saturday Review praised the "brisk and breezy characters" and the New York Times the "good puzzlement plus entertainment." Me, I think butlers are always better when they're dying in Britain.
Better, I think, is Murder Runs a Fever, from later that year. It's a full-scale wartime mystery, dealing with the FBI and suspected Nazi spies; yet there is also a legitimate murder problem to be dealt with too. Shockingly a man, popular radio war commentator Captain Orrin L. Shay, is found strangled in the apartment of Louise Cotter, an old childhood friend of Grid Nelson, with whom he has long been more than half smitten.
|view of Brooklyn Bridge on cover|
Also present at the scene of the crime and viewed suspiciously by the police, especially Waldo Furniss, were Louise and Sammy herself (!), the latter having been on hand to cook a dinner for Louise and the returning Charles.
Oh, and let's not forget, there was on the scene as well Louise's young, blondly beautiful cousin, Kyrie Martens, who happened to have come on a visit to New York from Washington, D. C. Under the alias "Madge Carter" Kyrie is an FBI agent (Do such female characters appear much in wartime American crime fiction?), and a goodly section of the novel is devoted to her activities, which eventually merge with Grid's (as do his and Kyrie's personal fates). And Sammy provides a key clue.
Saturday Review called Murder Runs a Fever a "lively yarn of murder intrigue with [a] personable sleuth, much action and [a] pleasing dash of romance" while the New York Times opined that it was a "cleverly constructed tale of Nazi espionage." Anthony Boucher chimed in as well, lauding the "skillful story-telling," though he also conceded the presence of "a couple of pretty fearful coincidences."
All these early books have the precious quality of sheer readabilty, not always present in mystery fiction (or mainstream fiction for that matter). I'll be reviewing some more Fenisong mysteries next week. She kept getting better! And I'm not trying to sell you a bridge.
|1930s view of Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan|