Sunday, September 15, 2019

Modern Art: Ruth Fenisong's Early Gridley Nelson Detective Novels (1942-43)

The first four Gridley Nelson detective novels--part of a new wave of modern American detective novels that attempted more accurately to reflect the world as it was, while not sacrificing mystery and its detection--were published, in a flood of productivity on the part of the author, Ruth Fenisong (1904-78), in 1942 and 1943.  It's impressive how the neophyte author hit the ground running with a fully developed world of her own in these books, which she began not long after the House Un-American Activities Committee put her and thousands of other people out of work in 1939 when it effectively shut down the Work Progess Adminstration's Federal Theater Project. As I discussed in my last post, Fenisong had worked with the FTP in children's puppet theater.

What would Forties dust jacket designers
have done without Ruth Fenisong's surrealist
contemporary Salvador Dali (1904-89)?
In the first of her novels, Murder Needs a Name (1942), "Grid" Nelson is introduced as a privileged yet sensitive gent who "joined the police force to annoy an ambitious father and a snob of a brother.  He had a real interest in the motivations of people and no creative talents that might express this interest through the medium of the arts."

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
And then there's Sammy: a "tall Negress" with a "magnificent head," "skin the warm color of apricots" and an expression on her "carved African features...of dignity and strength.

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)
However, there's a big improvement, as I see it, in Murder Needs a Face, from later that year.  There's a great deal of interest going on, yet Fenisong manages nonetheless to hold the plot together more coherently.  This one concerns a murder at a housing project, "Greenhedge."  Now how often do you see this as a setting in Golden Age mystery?  (Published in 1942, Face qualifies as such I think, though that's a debate for another time.)

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
They walked though Greenhedge, a city of modern units, each with a separate entrance.  Thousands of windows have on precious bits of landscaped courts and gardens.  Benches sat smugly on neat paves strip of ground fronting well-cared-for lawns....Spring would see many baby carriages placed along the paved walks, where mamas sat sewing and gossiping with their neighbors.  And children who had outgrown their carriages would come up out of the game rooms in the basements of Greenhedge where real play space had been provided for them the winter long.  And they would skate and shoot marbles or just skip rope, or just shout, turning their cold little faces to the warming sun.

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
retired Italian puppeteer Peppino Settani and his lovely blonde eighteen-year-old daughter, Franca, a puppeteer herself (she gets her blondness from her late northern Italian mother)

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 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
It's asides like that which make Fenisong's mysteries something commendably different for the period.  Saturday Review praised the book's "shrewd portrait of life among the lowly--sharp-tongued, colorful and occasionally shifty," while Anthony Boucher enthused: "Novel background and admirable writing recommend this to every type of [mystery] fan."

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
Louise married not Grid, of course, who is ostensibly a confirmed bachelor in the traditional fashion of Great Detectives (even ones on the force), but rather Charles Cotter, a jeweler who has joined the Army and is stationed at a base in Texas.  Charles has just come home on leave when Captain Shay is found slain in his apartment, making him a suspect in the crime (for Shay seemed to show quite a bit of interest in Louise)--even though Charles seems to have come down with a rather serious illness (the "fever" of the title). 

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

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