Thursday, October 31, 2019

Hallow Read: Murder Is Easy (1939), by Agatha Christie

A few day ago I wrote a piece about Moray Dalton's excellent, soon to be reprinted crime novel The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), in which I commented that the novel is a village mystery filled with figurative witches.  However, the admittedly much better remembered Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, published a couple of mysteries with characters professing to be actual village witches: The Pale Horse (1961), arguably the best later Christie, and Murder Is Easy (1939), published eighty years ago, during the Christie's considerable heyday as a mystery writer.

In the United States Murder Is Easy was originally published under the title Easy to Kill, perhaps because in 1935 American mystery writer Armstrong Livingston had used the title Murder Is Easy for a novel.  (The next year, contrarian Richard Hull asserted Murder Isn't Easy.)

Although maybe not, because the title Easy to Kill had already been used too, eight years earlier, by American mystery writer Hulbert Footner, for one of his Madame Rosika Storey mysteries.  So both titles, really, had been previously "taken."

Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth
NPG, London
Anyway, Christie's novel, under whichever name you care to call it, has special distinction for me, because it was among the first Christies I ever read. 

Forty-five years ago, in the summer of '74, my family and I were living in Mexico City, where my father taught at the National University.  One day at Sanborns department store I, just a wee young lad back then, was along when my mother bought, at fourteen pesos apiece, four paperback Pocket Christies.  These were The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, After the Funeral (titled Funerals are Fatal) and, yes, Murder Is Easy (still titled Easy to Kill). My Mom had good taste in Christies!

I read all four of these Christie novels myself that summer, up in our apartment while curled up on an upholstered brown, yellow and orange love seat in a corner by a big window overlooking the street.  The only one of them I still have, complete with the fourteen peso stamp inside, is Murder Is Easy.  This edition had been published in March of 1974.

I was all of eight years old at this time and these books--along with my Mom's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines (in the latter I remember a story called, I think, "The Machete Murderer," about a maniac who chopped up women with a machete, that scared the hell out of me)--constituted my first "adult" reading.  You can see how I was fated to be a mystery reader!

my pb copy, which makes me think
Diana Rigg and Rod Taylor
What do you think?
I have to admit each of these ingenious Christies bamboozled me utterly.  When I read these books again years later, I had forgotten many details of the plots, yet in each I recalled the identity of the killer, which had come as a tremendous shock to me each time.  (The first Christie in which I ever correctly deduced "whodunit" was Towards Zero, which I read at the age of seventeen.)

I read Murder Is Easy again in 2007 and again just a few days ago for this blog post, and I remain impressed with the skillful plot construction.  Most mystery writers have, let us say, X, the obvious suspect, and Y, the real culprit.  However, Christie holds in her hand Z, the "real" real culprit, if you will, while she tries to force Y on you.  In Murder Is Easy, you can see how cleverly she tries to lull you into suspecting Y and thinking how clever you are the the whole time, when you're really just being deviously led up the a deadly garden path.

Murder Is Easy also benefits from a marvelously memorable and sinister opening.  The novel's hero, Luke Fitzwilliam, a relatively young retired colonial policeman (happily he already has "a pension, with some small private means of his own"), is traveling by train to London on his return to England when he encounters Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly spinster (or an "old pussy" as they say in the book, a term which I found tremendously funny even as an innocent eight year old). 

Ditheringly Miss Pinkerton tells Luke that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report that a certain someone in her village, Wychwood-under-Ashe, is systematically knocking off the inhabitants, already having killed several people, with another slated for imminent extermination.  She doesn't give this fiendish person's name.

This is great stuff for a mystery fan, with perfect conversational cadence:

Luke's eyebrows rose.
The old lady nodded vigorously.
"Yes, murder.  You're surprised, I can see.  I was myself at first...I really couldn't believe it.  I thought I must be imagining things."
"Are you quite sure you weren't?" Luke asked gently.
"Oh, no."  She shook her head positively.  "I might have been the first time, but not the second, or the third, or the fourth.  After that one

Helen Hayes as Miss Pinkerton and Bill Bixby as Luke Fullerton
in the 1982 American film version of Murder Is Easy

Luke thinks the ironically named Miss Pinkerton is highly imaginative, if not gaga, but then finds the next day that she has been killed, run over by a Rolls Royce which didn't stop.  I say! 

And then he learns that the person in the village whom Miss Pinkerton predicted would be killed next has suddenly died too!  Well, what else is there for Luke to do but travel to Miss Pinkerton's lovely but somewhat sinister village (as the name suggests there is a history of witchcraft there) and investigate the strange matter for himself, under the guise of an author who is researching a book on folklore?

Once at Wychwood, Luke meets--and within three days falls in love with (ah, books!)--bewitching (heh), raven-haired Bridget Conway, whom, Christie unsubtly informs us, looks like she could be a "girl on a broomstick flying up to the moon...."  Unfortunately, Bridget is already engaged to marry the local boy made good, portly, pompous and proud Lord Easterfield, a publishing tycoon who seems modeled after real life contemporary figures like Viscount Rothermere.  Bridget, who comes of local decayed gentry though she doesn't go on about it, has been serving as as Easterfield's admiring secretary.

first Viscount Rothermere
Bridget is a great character, rather cynical (some would say just realistic) and, like a lot of women in Christie's works, decidedly smarter than than the hero.  Luke in fact struck me as a real dunderhead, and it's probably a good thing for the colonies that he retired from the police at such a young age.  He's so naive he probably still believes in the stork.

Luke wanders around questioning a number a rather cardboard villagers under his flimsy guise as a folklorist.  Unfortunately unconvincing is the local witch coven leader, an effeminate antiques dealer with fluttering hands named Mr. Ellsworthy.  Christie seems to want to portray him and his acolytes comically, as in the following passage, where a decidedly rational Bridget is speaking:

"Three extraordinary people have arrived at the Bells and Motley.  Item one, a man with shorts, spectacles and a lovely plum-colored silk shirt!  Item two, a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals.  Item three, a fat man in a lavender suit and co-respondent shoes.  I suspect them of being friends of our Mr. Ellsworthy!  Says the gossip writer: 'Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches' Meadow tonight.'"

the satanism in Murder is Easy is kind of goofy
(like Aleister Crowley here, pictured in regalia)
I think Christie's urge heavily to satirize "queer" people gets the better of her here.  If the witch cult is so silly, why should we fear it or suspect it of any truly dangerous underhanded doings?  Her contemporaries John Street, John Dickson Carr and Gladys Mitchell, who actually seriously studied witchcraft scholarship (or what was deemed scholarship at the time), wrote about this sort of thing more convincingly.

There's some additional infelicitous writing here, in my view.  Murder Is Easy was written during the height of what we might term Christie's pregnant ellipses phase, when she relied heavily on suspensive dots (...) to convey suspense or rumination, as here:

"What's true?"
"The look on a person's face..."

In my '74 Pocket edition, the editor (I assume) eliminated the ellipses entirely, and I can't say I miss them.  Indeed the editor went further and eliminated actual passages from the original edition, like this one, about Luke's first encounter with Bridget:

He had had an unacknowledged picture at the back of his mind during his voyage home to England--a picture of an English girl flushed and sunburned--stroking a horse's neck, stooping to weed a herbaceous border, sitting holding out her hands to the blaze of a wood fire.  It had been a warm gracious vision...

Now--he didn't know if he liked Bridget Conway or not--but he knew that that secret picture  wavered and broke up--became meaningless and foolish...

Unless you've ever been enchanted by the vision of a woman stooping to weed a herbaceous border (and even know what a herbaceous border is), this passage may have limited impact, so perhaps the editor was right in deleting it.  There also is such a lot of punctuation in that passage!

just in case you were wondering...
all it needs is the hand of a flushed and sunburned Englishwoman....

Christie's romantic writing in general can get rather novelettish in this novel:

She said in a small childlike voice: 
"Luke, I'm frightened...."
He said, "It's all over, darling.  It's all over...."
She murmured:
"Be kind to me please--please.  I've been hurt so much."
He said: "We've hurt each other.  We won't do that anymore."  

Another minus is when Christie slips into those "there was/were" passages when describing a place or room:

There were shops, small Georgian houses...there were picturesque cottages....There was an inn....There was a village green.....

There were some Dresden china shepherds and shepherdesses....There were framed water-colours....There were some photographs....and some good furniture....

The ellipses are all mine here....

Utilitarian writing, to be sure, but hardly entrancing.  Of course at the opposite end is someone like PD James who was known to devote pages and pages to room description, which could get rather tiring, unless you are really into interior decoration.

Generally Christie's characterization of women is much more engaging that it is of men.  Lord Easterfield you remember, but Luke is a conventional dull hero type and Ellsworthy is a lazy caricature.  (Mr. Pye in The Moving Finger is better done if you go in for queer stereotypes.)  The other male characters are utterly forgettable, aside from the retired Anglo-Indian major, who, however, is like every other retired Anglo-Indian major you find in Christie. (And they are plenteous in the Christie canon!)

a magical mystery
Even with the plotting there are a couple of false steps.  Bridget has an aunt named Mrs. Anstruther who seems to serve no discernible purpose in the novel that I could see (Was she there to chaperone Bridget?); while the late doctor's widow, Mrs. Humpleby, functions improbably as a late stage deus ex machina to prod Luke into finally doing something sensible.

What Christie really excels at are, at one end, her smart and bold modern women and, at the other, her splendid "old pussies."  (There's also an actual pussy, Wonky-Pooh, Miss Pinkerton's memorably named Persian cat.)  I love whenever Christie is writing about them.  And when the novel builds up to its climax in the final fifth of the novel, it gets superbly eerie again, with one of the author's finest finishes.

And for that I will forgive the lovey-dovey stuff (with yet more ellipses) at the end. In some ways Christie's village mystery novel is like an Edgar Wallace thriller, but the plotting is better than what you usually find in Wallace.

I would have loved for there to have been one final twist of the knife in Murder Is Easy, but convention at the time would not have had it (although John Dickson Carr might have done it).  After all, you can't expect to get a timeless mystery masterpiece like The Burning Court or And Then There Were None every year!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Literary Munchausen: The Amazing (and Sometimes Appalling) Adventures of Henry von Rhau, Part One

American author Henry von Rhau (1896-1960) wrote whimsical satires and tales of romantic adventure, including a couple of books that can be categorized as crime or thriller fiction, yet nothing in his fiction, arguably, was stranger than the events in his life and the lives of his wives.  Divorce, extra-marital affairs, bigamy, illegitimacy, impersonation, pornography, miscegenation, homosexuality, spousal abuse, a perfectly sane spouse shut up against her will in a madhouse--it would have taken a triple-decker Victorian sensation novel to contain it all!  And now allow me my tale to unfold....

Henry von Rhau was born Henry Louis Gustav Adolph Rau at Staten Island, New York on January 19, 1896 to Gustav Adolph and Clara Rau, immigrants originally from Germany and England respectively.  Born in Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Wurttemberg in 1850, Gustav Rau after migrating to the United States as a young man became a wealthy wood pulp importer and manufacturer with offices at 41 Park Row, Manhattan (formerly the location of the New York Times).  He passed away in New York in 1911, leaving behind his wife Clara and two sons and a daughter.  In descending order of age these three children were Herbert, Hilda and Henry.

Henry von Rhau
(probably taken in the late 1940s,
when he was around fifty)
At this point, when writing about the life of Henry Rau (as he was then), we lose the steady ground of verifiable fact and must move forward on the words of Henry himself, admittedly a shaky foundation for truth.

Keeping this in mind, however, I will note that according to Henry's 1960 obituary, young Henry "received his early education in private schools in the U. S. and Europe," afterward briefly attending the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.  Upon leaving West Point, he served with the U. S. Cavalry on the Mexican border during American operations against the paramilitary forces of revolutionary leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

Afterward Henry attended classes for a year at Columbia University, before enlisting as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Infantry.  He did not serve overseas, however, rather spending the period between June 25, 1917 to August 20, 1919 at the Training Camp at Plattsburg, New York.  By the end of his term of service, he had been promoted to the rank of Captain, and, according to his obituary, he had become an "aide to the Chief of Intelligence, having pioneered in prisoner interrogation" (a plausible claim given his German heritage).

After the war, his obituary states, Henry Rau was "engaged in the oil business in Venezuela and traveled widely."  However, by 1920, anyway, he was back in New York, where he resided in the upper West Side of Manhattan with his sister Hilda, a former student at Barnard College and a future "pioneer tanning stylist" and their housekeeper.  While Hilda became a Jazz Age career woman in the shoe business, Henry, with his good looks, aristocratic continental bearing, proficiency at equestrianism (he was a noted competitor at horse shows) and marked disdain for everyday employment, became a habitue of New York's cafe society.

Henry von Rhau's sister, Hilda Rau
(taken around 1930, when she was
in her early thirties)
The Detroit Free Press stated of Hilda:
"Where once she was hailed as a radical,
devoid of commercial knowledge, she is now
acclaimed as a leader in the shoe world
In 1922 Henry gave a supper party at Broadway's fashionable Club du Montmartre, which made the pages of the New York Times when a dust-up took place there involving a trio of his society friends--future mystery writer Willoughby Sharp, John Magee "Jack" Boissevain and Louis Bertschmann.  Strolling over at three a. m. to the Montmartre from a dance at the Hotel Vanderbilt (Jack's father was president of the company that owned the hotel), Sharp and his two chums were curtly informed by the doorman that Rau's party had ended, although in fact it was still ongoing.  Thereupon the doorman attempted to shut the door in the lads' faces. 

When the trio of fun seekers rowdily barreled their way into the building anyway (resourceful Jack had gained them entry by inserting his walking stick between the door and its frame), the doorman and the two elevator operators promptly assaulted them, resulting in the police being called to the scene.

The sympathies of the newsman who reported the affray in the New York Times lay decidedly with the three gay society blades, two of whom were present again four years later, in February 1927, when, at St. James' Episcopal Church in Manhattan, their old pal Henry Rau, who was now thirty years old and more formidably known as Henry von Rhau, wed Aline Blanche Stumer, the attractive twenty-three year old daughter of the late Louis Michael Stumer, one of Chicago's leading businessmen. 

A highly successful retail merchant, Louis Stumer had co-founded the trio of popular fiction magazines known as The Red Book, The Blue Book and The Green Book. Thus Henry's father, Gustav Rau, it will be recalled, had imported wood pulp, while Aline's father had co-founded pulp fiction magazines.  Appropriately Henry would soon be writing, if not pulp fiction, then something resembling it in spirit.  Indeed, it might be argued that the life of Henry von Rhau, as we must now call him, began to resemble fiction, the "von" in his name evidently being spurious, as was Henry's claim that he was the heir to a German baronetcy, which he had quixotically, if patriotically, eschewed, all out of his love for America.

Eighteen-year-old Aline Stumer's 1922
passport photo,taken after the last one was stolen,
along with her jewels at the Gare de Lyon
A passport application submitted at the American embassy in Paris by Aline Blanche Stumer five years earlier, in 1922, when she was eighteen, includes a striking photograph of her, in which she appears as a frizzy-haired brunette with big intense eyes, a Cupid's bow mouth and a rather woebegone expression.  One almost hears the words "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" to issuing from the pretty lips of this particular Blanche. 

In an affidavit dated September 1, the young woman, who was then staying in Paris with her mother and sister at the Hotel Ritz, explained that she needed a new passport because a thief had absconded with her previous one. 

Aline Stumer sounds for all the world like she just stepped out of out of Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928):

On August 29, 1922, I was getting out of the Gare de Lyon, at Paris, France.  I had my passport in my jewel case which I was carrying myself, but which I laid for a short moment on top of my hand luggage, and which was stolen during that very short time when I was not actually holding it.  I immediately notified the French police but all their efforts failed to trace either my missing jewels or my passport.

Three years later in Manhattan, Aline's wealthy forty-two-year-old widowed mother, Blanche Regina (Griesheimer) Stumer, in 1925, married twenty-seven-year-old Phillip Harris Giddens, a promising etcher from the state of Georgia. Two years after that blessed event, Aline left her mother's and stepfather's household to link her future with that of Henry von Rhau. 

Willoughby Sharp (1900-1955)
stockbroker and mystery writer
At the Stumer-von Rhau weddings both Willoughby Sharp and Jack Boissevain--old pals, as we know, of Henry's--served as ushers, as did Maurice McKim Minton, son of the late managing editor of the New York Herald; Richard Boyd Ayer, a young stockbroker and relation of patent medicine tycoon James Cook Ayer; and noted gay playwright John Colton, at the time the recent author of the popular Far East dramas Rain (based on a Somerset Maugham short story) and The Shanghai Gesture

Colton probably made the acquaintance of von Rhau while both men served with the U. S. cavalry during the American incursion into Mexico in pursuit of revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. 

Henry's best man was Thornton Wallace "Wally" Orr, a son of an official in the New York office of the American Gypsum Company who later married one of the richest heiresses in Canada, while Henry's sister Hilda served as Aline's maid of honor, Aline having no other attendants besides a matron of honor, her recently wed sister Lois Margaret (Stumer) Sidenberg, wife of stockbroker and former Yale football player George Monroe Sidenberg.  Aline's section of the wedding party seems to have been oddly truncated.

A few months before his marriage to Aline, Henry briefly took up acting on stage. perhaps for this auspicious event first adopting his new, weightier surname, von Rhau.  His first acting gig was in the minor role of Mr. Dudley Gregory in his friend John Colton's hit play The Shanghai Gesture, which ran for 206 performances between February and September 1926.  In the script von Rhau's character is described as an American, "youngish and alert." 

Jack Boissevain (1901-?)
much married man-about-town
The next year Henry got to play a German, Sergeant Franz, in Denison Clift's A Woman Disputed, a melodrama, based on a celebrated Guy de Maupassant short story, about a French prostitute who gives her all for the cause during the First World War.  Starring Ann Harding in the title role and described as a surefire melodrama in the New York Times, the play surprisingly ran for only twenty-seven performances in September and October 1927.  Fortunately, von Rhau did not need to rely on acting for his livelihood.

After he and Aline spent a month-long honeymoon in Bermuda, a favorite playground getaway of Eastern seaboard urban elites, the newlywed couple resided at a recently constructed luxury apartment building located at 717 Madison Avenue, just off Central Park. 

A talented athlete, Aline played in Women's golf tournaments while Henry, supported by his rich wife, continued riding in society equestrian competitions.  A son, Anthony, was born to the couple on July 17, 1928. 

That same year marked a major new life course for Henry when he began writing his first work of fiction: a quirky satire of Radclyffe Hall's controversial landmark lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (which had been banned in England), entitled The Hell of Loneliness.  Two illustrations by Henry's gay best bro John Colton were included. 

A short work of only forty pages of text (and about 7000 words), Hell was published in 1929 by the obscure Inwood Press, though it was soon picked up by the newly-launched, self-named firm of publisher Claude Kendall, which specialized in risque or spicy fiction.  In "The Week of a New Yorker" column in the Brooklyn Daily News, Hell was described as a "short, zippy" tome that was "funny enough to rate a whole flock of rereadings."  Claude Kendall, who like Colton was gay, deemed Hell "impudent and delightfully scampish."

Henry von Rhau takes a leap
(see second photo)
Although as stated The Well of Loneliness is a landmark of lesbian literature, the novel is also remarkable for what lesbian author Mary Renault termed its "earnest humorlessness," making it a natural send-up for satire.  Well is about the travails of a female "invert" (i.e., masculine woman) named Stephen, but in Henry von Rhau's hands this character becomes a randy male named Otto Kugelmann, who from an early age evinces a lustful urge to bite women on their fleshy calves.  I don't know that this would be funny in any case, but in light of later accusations made against Henry it strikes me as unsettling.

Anyway, later in life Otto loses his wife Connie to her Amazonian Russian friend Ivanova-Feodronova, who shares the same tailor with Otto.  Mannish lesbians soon begin displacing men generally in society.  At a bar Otto commiserates with some of his similarly displaced friends:

married men mostly, but where were their wives now?  God pity the men who must live alone!  There was Coogan, the genius, the author, the playwright, for years sought after by great actress stars.  There was Kendall, for long called the happy boy lover dissembling his years by the ardor he felt; and Boissevain, the thrice married young boulevardier.  They were men who had known life, and lived it and loved it.  Now they were outcasts, and their horrible secret showed in their eyes.

Coogan of course is John Colton, while Kendall the "happy boy lover" is Claude Kendall.  Thrice married Boissevain is Jack Boissevain, who at the time of the publication of Hell was on the verge of divorcing Estelle Carroll (who claimed in the society pages that she was descended from the Carrolls of Carrollton but in fact was descended, ignominiously, from the Carrolls of Brooklyn Heights) and wedding one Princess Suzanne Soroukhanoff, the divorced second wife of the handsome, relentlessly self-promoting, pseudo archaeologist "tomb raider" "Count" Byron Kuhn de Porok

This latest marriage went bust after a few years, and in 1933 Jack would make the news for shooting himself in the chest at a Parisian cafe during a conference with his lawyer.  Was it about alimony payments?  Jack would survive to marry yet again, however.  And again.

ready for his closeup
Count Byron Kuhn de Porok (1896-1954)
in Byronic profile
Claude Kendall would be murdered in 1937 by a young slim man he picked up and brought back to his apartment on Thanksgiving morning.  (I'll have more on this in an upcoming CrimeReads article.)  Henry's characterization of Kendall as a "happy boy lover" is cheekily ambiguous--was Kendall a "happy-boy lover" or a "happy boy-lover"?  To those of us in the know, the answer is clear.  By "boy lover," by the way, Henry meant, I suspect, not literal "boys" but younger men.  Kendall at this time was nearing forty years old and older than most of his cronies by a decade.

Later in the tale, Otto and his pals find more and more bars closed to their kind.  The speakeasies have become speakeasiettes and Tony's is now Antoinette's, so they are forced to settle on a bar frequented by "ginny collegians" who "behaved very queerly."  This inspires Coogan to declare defiantly, "We will carry on and on....And when we grow old there will be these young boys...."  To which Otto counters sharply, "Never mind these young boys....They play by themselves."

John Colton's name was included
prominently on the cover of Hell, even
though he provided only two illustrations,
including the one of the cover, presumably
a caricature of Radclyffe Hall herself
What are we to make of this?  Henry's text in Hell has been condemned by modern-day scholars as "homophobic and misogynistic," but I don't know.  What are we to make of the fact that Henry's crowd included two prominent homosexuals--Colton and Kendall--whom the text makes clear were known to be such to Henry and his other, presumably heterosexual friends, like Willoughby Sharp and Jack Boissevain?  That their boys' club may have been sexist, even misogynistic, I'll grant, but it seems to have been far from homophobic, at least as far as male homosexuals were concerned.  Indeed, it might even be designated "bi-curious."

Born around 1900, Otto Kugelmann, the compulsive biter of women's calves, may well have been somewhat autobiographical too, just as Stephen in The Well of Loneliness is believed to have been biographical of Radclyffe Hall. 

Note Otto's heavy German name, for example.  Also, the "country seat" of the Kugelmanns is "the most hideous house in existence," a "smelly, drab, damp horror" located in urban New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City.  ("Not very far from Weehawken, between it in fact, and Hoboken," as Henry put it, in a droll send-up of Hall's formal, precise writing style.)  One is reminded of Henry's father, Gustav Adolph Rau, and his Staten Island paper mill.

One day...[Otto] came upon the Kugelmann maid of all work--Fanny Rumpelbauch.  She was bending over as Otto entered the room.  He saw a generous ankle and a fat calf encased in an ample red yarn stocking.  It was his first consciousness of SEX; it overwhelmed him.  He was gloriously unrestrained and, lunging at Rumpel, bit her in the calf.  She slapped at him vigorously but Otto's teeth held firm....It took the combined efforts of the Kugelmann family to pry him loose.  Such was Otto's LUST.  The Baron cauterized Rumpelbach's leg with a hot coal and thereafter took the precaution of locking Otto up in the coal bin while Rumpelbach tidied up the nursery. (Text by Henry von Rhau, illustration by John Colton)

Claude Kendall declined to publish Henry's next impudent book, Tale of the Nineties, although this "lighthearted story of a bawdy house and three girls who worked there--Trixie, Jasmyne and Ophelia," should have appealed to Kendall's taste for naughtiness.  Likely Henry's Tale was a bit too bawdy.  My copy of the book has a randy inscription, ambiguously made to P. K. from J. C. (John Colton?), which gives an idea of what people--men, one assumes--were expected to get out of the book:

the three lovely Hoars
who live at the Old Hoar House
Trixie, Jasmyne and Ophelia
To P. K.
To whom "tale" is spelled "tail"
And assail is a sale of ass!!!!
May this bawdy confection
Induce an erection
That'd make a she-whale
Become pale!
J. C.

The Tale is basically an excuse for a series of bawdy puns, as the chapter titles and illustration captions indicate:

I. The Old Hoar House
II. Leopold's Wang (Wang is Leopold's Chinese servant)
III. Jasmyne's Box

"Oh, I like to come," his worship wheezed, "as often as I can."
 "Trixie," she said, her voice was cold, "let go of the bishop's nuts!"
"Sir, don't make free with my sister's box," Ophelia added warmly.

You get the idea!  1050 numbered copies of the book were privately printed in Normandy Vellum paper imported from France by the Heron Press in association with John Edward Mullins, a grandson of the founder of New York's John Mullin & Son Furniture Company who had removed himself to Antibes, on France's Cote d'Azur, to live the good life.  Apparently Mullins, to all appearances a Riviera idler, helped underwrite the cost of the book, the publisher being a one-man operation who, not having an office, conducted business in his car--a forerunner, indeed, of today's internet micro presses!

Included were woodcut illustrations by noted commercial artist Frank Wagner Peers.  The short-loved Heron Press specialized in high quality editions of literary fiction, including such outre items as Erskine Caldwell's earthy The Bastard and Hanns Heinz Ewers' horrific short collection of contes cruels, Blood.

Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943)
author of The Well of Loneliness
During this time Aline continued to play a lot of golf (in 1932 she made it to the finals of the Bermuda women's gold championship), while her husband continued both riding and writing.  Von Rhau's third book, To the Victor (1931), was his first actual novel and his first work published originally by mass market publishers, Longmans in the United States and George C. Harrap in the United Kingdom.  Set in the second decade of the twentieth century, To the Victor was described in The Leatherneck, the United States Marine Corps magazine, as a "well-plotted, romantic adventure that keeps you guessing as to how the young Prussian officer is going to extricate himself from his web of difficulties," while the Brooklyn Times Union found it "a romance with everything in it to make it gripping and absorbing."

With his first full scale novel, essentially a Ruritarian/Graustarkian thriller of the type associated with popular novels by Anthony Hope and George Barr McCutcheon, Henry, now going by the appellation of Major Henry von Rhau (not sure where the Major came from), played up the supposed authenticity of his aristocratic Continental European background, presumably in order to enhance his credibility as an author of such a tale. 

Reviewers swallowed whole this glittering German bait.  "Major von Rhau knows his Germany and his German army man," wrote an ingenuous Brooklyn Times Union reviewer.  "A native of the United States and a soldier in the war in the American army, he studied in a German university when an uncle of his was chief of von Hindenberg's staff years ago.

Ironically, there was a German hippologist named Gustav Rau who became known as "Hitler's horse breeder" during the Thirties and Forties.  However, Henry, quite understandably, did not claim this Rau as a relation.

Another newspaper reviewer commented of Henry and his new novel:

Of late we have been bearish about romantic fiction until along came Henry von Rhau...who literally steps out of a German background.  Accustomed to a continental youth with the foaming stein, the single eyeglass, the calling card with crossed sabers, he dropped all that to enlist in the U. S. Army.  From thence, he fetched up in the U. S. diplomatic service.  And now, despite the fact that, like many a musical comedy hero, should he set foot on his native heath he might lay claim to a baronetcy, he prefers the seclusion of a Connecticut farm, where  revolting against city smells, taxi horns, and the machine age, he loses himself in creating just such high romances as "To the Victor."

Truly, this was laying the liverwurst on thick!  Notwithstanding such fulsome puffery, which painted the author as a charmingly anachronistic Prussian gentleman lost in the vulgar modern era, Henry in truth was soon to lose himself in modern marital friction with his wife Aline, culminating in a hugely embarrassing divorce suit that she filed against him in April 1933, after just six years of marriage. 

Henry, who had seemed to be making some headway in his writing career with To the Victor, would over the rest of his life publish in hardcover, so far as I know, just one more novel, and that one not for another sixteen years (although there was a serialized tale, The Green Hussar, which was very much in the vein of To the Victor.  Before that there was the ordeal of a melodramatic divorce scandal to be undergone.  In this bitter legal contest between Henry and Aline, who would emerge as the victor?  See how the brouhaha sorted itself out in Part Two.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Upcoming Projects: Webb, Wheeler, Fenisong, Dalton, Bush and ????

Recently I reached my fifty thousandth word in a joint critical biography of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, which I'm thinking of as the halfway point in the project.  I hope this book will interest both mystery fans and, if I don't sound too weighty and pompous, people interested in Anglo-American cultural history.  I'm also trying to get another book (or two) done, specifically for next year, a great anniversary in vintage crime fiction, and I hope to have more on that soon.

In January Stark House publishes the Ruth Fenisong twofer of Dead Weight and Deadlock, for which I wrote an introduction.  For their cover they went with the old pulp fiction art from the Fifties, which I'm not too crazy about (nor is this blogger), but I hope people will give it a go.  I like the crime writing of Ruth Fenisong a lot.  Whether there will further reprints of her work unfortunately is questionable, as her relations for some reason have decided to rebuff any attempts at communication.  It's a pity when such things happen to an author.  As it stands, however, this will mark the first time Ruth Fenisong has been in print in nearly half a century, a surprising fact concerning a once popular mid-century crime writer.  In a sensible world such lapses simply would not be.

With Dean Street Press I will be working next year on reissues of additional titles by Moray Dalton and Christopher Bush, as well as by another vintage British woman crime writer, who has been out-of-print for eight years but was favorably reviewed in her day, by Dorothy L. Sayers and others.  We are nearing the end of the Bushes but just beginning our Dalton journey, which I hope you find as exciting as I do.

There will be more with Coachwhip--certainly the little engine (or adder?) that could--and I hope with Crippen & Landru to get another collection of short fiction by Webb and Wheeler out next year.  My plan is for there to be three additional volumes in total, for which my proposed titles are: Hunt in the Dark and and Other Fatal Pursuits, with a novella, three novelettes and three short stories; Death Freight and Other Murderous Excursions, with four novelettes; and Exit before Midnight: A Final Murder Collection, with four novelettes and three essays. 

This would leave a few odds and ends of short fiction by Webb and Wheeler unpublished, but the vast majority of their very substantial legacy of short fiction would be in print again.  Coupled with Mysterious Press' reprinting of most (though not all) of Webb and Wheeler's crime novels, it will mark a grand restoration of one of the major names in American crime fiction.

In a burst of enthusiasm for the Webb-Wheeler project, I already wrote over the summer three introductions for the projected volumes, of 3500 words, 2400 words and 3200 words.  This is the most far in advance I have written something, but I wanted to strike while I'm working on the Webb-Wheeler bio too.  I hope 2020 will be a year of Webb and Wheeler.

And last but not least, there's a true crime piece involving mystery writers and publishers (the best kind!) that is coming up with CrimeReads.  I let myself go to 6000 words with this one, and they are publishing it at that length, they tell me, so I hope you are prepared for a good long crime read!  This will post on November 14, not long before Thanksgiving Day, the eighty-second anniversary of the murder I discuss.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Wicked Witches Teem in Teene: The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), by Moray Dalton

There are no literal witches in Moray Dalton's The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), but the novel teems with figurative ones.  In the village of Teene, where most of the events of the novel take place, we find

Alan Copeland's awful older wife, Mabel, who years ago ensnared in holy wedded matrimony Alan, once a promising young artist, and now most decidedly leads him a dog's life, having both a cruel tongue and control over the purse strings

Mabel's sponging best friend, Emily Gort, a pink-nosed, icily genteel and censorious spinster of the parish who dotes equally upon the austerely scholarly vicar and her great ginger tomcat, Bobo

Mrs. Simmons, the enormous, venomous owner of the crossroads shop and garage, respectively presided over by her "flapper" daughter Irene and her taciturn nephew, Ern

Gertrude Platt, the local schoolteacher, who despises her charges almost as much as she adores her unorthodox art and books, including Theophile Gautier's gender-bending novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) and contemporary works by Andre Gide.  

To be fair, the Vicar, Reverend Henry Perry, isn't any better than this monstrous regiment of women, resembling as he does the coldly pedantic Reverend Casaubon in Middlemarch.  Anyone, you would think, would murder to get out of this village.  And murder someone does!  But why???

Mild, fragile Lydia Hale, who works in the dreadful bargain basement of a London department store, becomes the unwitting catalyst to murder when she visits her uncle, the vicar.  She and Alan fall in love, even rather unexpectedly doing the deed, Thomas Hardy fashion, at one of those scenic stone circle formations one finds in Britain.  Primitive!

This is the sort of thing I love about Moray Dalton.  In how many mystery novels of the period does the author allow her heroine not only to have out of wedlock sex but to get pregnant, all without recriminations against her character?  (The only people who criticize her are not people we like.)  Of course the author, Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir, herself does not seem to have led the usual sort of life for a woman from that day.

Unfortunately Lydia's fling with Alan ultimately lands him in the soup when his wife dies and her body is later exhumed, revealing she is more full of arsenic than a Victorian flypaper!  After Alan is arrested, can his mild, mother dominated lawyer, John Reid--a character who seems like he stepped out of Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair--and the private detective George Hayter, a former Canadian mountie, save him from the hangman?

The Case of Alan Copeland was Moray Dalton's seventeenth detective novel and the first one published after the Hugh Collier series mystery The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936), reissued earlier this year.  (Why Harriet Hall's case and not Alan Copeland's is strange, I'll leave you to decide.)  A dozen more Dalton novels would follow over the next thirteen years.  Dalton definitely had her style down now by now and her seasoned readers will be able to pick up on certain common features in her books: the poisonous older wife, the sympathetic young woman, the suffocating village, the unorthodox sexuality, the purposefully drab private investigator, the trial.  But Dalton's characters and settings are so vividly presented it all seems fresh.  Alan Copeland would make a fine British television mystery film, with all the darkness already in the text, making it unnecessary for any screenwriter to invent it.

Some bloggers--well, one anyway--didn't find Harriet Hall sufficient as a novel of detection, so what about Alan Copeland?  Well, once again the focus is on the characters impacted by a mystery, but there is detection, particularly in the investigation of the origin of some poison pen letters, which is highly pertinent to the solution.  When you find the identity of the murderer, I think you will see indications were laid throughout the book, but you will have to judge this case for yourself, of course.

just your "typical" British
private detective
I think we get some clue here of what the author was trying to do when Miss Platt tells George Hayter, "You're not true to type...."In novels private detectives are always either foreigners or a mass of affectations.  You're more like an ordinary policeman in mufti."

So you won't be getting Hercule Poirot or Albert Campion here, but you'll still feel like you're in the same literary world as that inhabited by Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham and other Crime Queens.  Dalton was a mystery writer who could both plot an interesting story and compose an intriguing sentence.

For my part, I'll say it again: I love Moray Dalton's mysteries and find them superbly readable. 

Whenever I start one one evening, I always have to finish it by the next.  If I ever do favorite crime writer list, she most definitely will be there. 

I'm happy to announce that The Case of Alan Copeland will be reprinted by Dean Street Press next year, along with four additional titles.  There will be another set of introductions by me.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Philo Fidelis: Death Stops the Manuscript (1936), by Richard M. Baker

recent post of mine was about accused Victorian-era poisoner Florence Maybrick, who ended her days in a tiny cottage near South Kent School, a prestigious preparatory school for boys located in northwestern Connecticut in the village of South Kent.  Crime writer Hugh Wheeler, one half of Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, claimed briefly to have encountered Florence while en route to see some friends in South Kent, not knowing who she really was.

Could these friends have been Richard Merriam Baker and his wife Leota?  At the time of Hugh's road trip, Richard Baker was a teacher of French and Drama at South Kent School.  He was also the author, in the late 1930s, of three detective novels about amateur detective Franklin Russell, who just happens to be a schoolmaster who teaches French "in a well-known college preparatory school for boys."

Baker was a great fan of the detective novels of famed American mystery writer S. S. Van Dine and earlier in the decade he had made a habit of sending the Great Man the complete solutions to his Philo Vance mysteries while they were still in the early stages of serialization. Wise guy, eh?!

I feel confident that Baker would have been a blogger had he been around today--or at least a highly opinionated blog commenter!

The first of Richard Baker's detective novels, Death Stops the Manuscript, was published by S. S. Van Dine's publisher, Scribner's, in 1936, the year which also saw the publication of S. S. Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case, the tenth of the twelve detective novels in the Philo Vance series.  You'll notice, in the illustration to the upper left, that Van Dine wrote an introduction to Baker's novel, which is mentioned under the author's name.  Now I want to digress for a few moments from a discussion of Baker's novel to consider the position of S. S. Van Dine in mystery fiction at this time.

The popular critical view, which was perpetuated by Julian Symons in his mystery genre survey Bloody Murder (1972) and John Loughery in his Edgar Award winning 1992 Van Dine biography, Alias Van Dine, is that the later Philo Vance novels are all terrible and unappealing.  However, this is vastly overstated, as Van Dine's detective novels in the Thirties, years after the author's Twenties heyday, continued to sell well by mystery novel standards and critical reviews of them remained largely respectful.  However, things weren't what they once had been, to be sure.

Two of the Twenties Van Dine mysteries--The Greene and Bishop Murder Cases--reached number four on the American fiction bestseller lists--an almost unheard of achievement for a crime novel in those days--and they, along with the slightly earlier Benson and Canary Murder Cases, received long, rapturous reviews in major newspapers, where the books were treated as rare mental feasts for the brainiest of people.  Decades later, a bemused Anthony Boucher caustically characterized this Twenties Van Dine mystery craze--this "belief that S. S. Van Dine wrote great detective stories" as he put it--as one of the "peculiar madnesses that beset Americans during the Nineteen Twenties.

Philo Vance, as famously envisioned on film
by actor William Powell
For some reason, Boucher observed, it had briefly become part of the American Credo "that the cases of Philo Vance existed on a somehow higher cultural level than any other murder mystery," when in reality the books were nothing but tediously lengthy "anti-novels": "100,000 words of nothing but investigation of a puzzle, adorned by the pretentious erudition of Philo Vance...which is apt to be wrong on anything from the meaning of 'corpus delecti' to the odds of filling a straight flush."

Nor, in Boucher's view, were the problems which Van Dine set for his readers truly of interest in themselves, like they were in certain "Humdrum" detective novels, such as those by Freeman Wills Crofts, for example. 

Thus to Boucher, Van Dine thus was "something of a fraud"; and his deluded Twenties fans had simply been "overwhelmed by sheer weight of pretense" into believing that with his books they were reading not just mere puzzles but detective novels "of stature."

This may have been received critical opinion in 1960--although it should be noted that the reason Boucher was talking about Van Dine at all was that Scribner's had just republished The Canary Murder Case, suggesting that the publisher thought there was still some sort of audience for the man.  However, in 1936, there was still cachet clinging to the names of S. S. Van Dine and Philo Vance.  As mentioned above, a new Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case, was published that year, a new Philo Vance film, an adaptation of The Garden Murder Case, had opened at theaters, and Scribner's had additionally published a massive omnibus volume of three earlier Philo Vance murder cases.  Most mystery writers, back then or today, would have been happy to have been this "unpopular"! 

However much Van Dine's popularity had declined since the Twenties, he was still doing rather well by the standards of the mystery writing profession, which was not one that made a lot of people rich.  (Just recall how Raymond Chandler would complain about his economic woes in the next decade.)  After Van Dine died not long before Tax Day on April 11, 1939, his tangled estate was not settled for nearly two years, but it was publicly revealed, two days before Christmas 1940, that he had left a gross estate of nearly three quarters of a million dollars in modern value.  Indeed, Fox had contracted before his death to pay Van Dine the modern day of equivalent of about $450, 000 for his final book, The Winter Murder Case, which was to be made into a film vehicle for renown ice skater Sonja Henie

The problem for Van Dine was not that he was all washed up, but that he was still trying to live a millionaire's lifestyle, on something less than a millionaire's income.  Most mystery writers only wished they had such problems!  His debts at his death amounted to around a half million dollars (including $300, 000 owed his first wife, who divorced him for desertion in 1930), leaving him with about $250, 000 in actual assets (in modern value).

Puttin' on the ritz
S. S. Van Dine and friend
So in 1936, when Richard M. Baker published Death Stops the Manuscript, a novice fiction detective writer still had reason to hope there was life yet in the old Van Dine writing model, which placed emphasis on a highfalutin' gentleman amateur detective investigating a fairly clued murder problem.  

Baker's first novel included a 1000 word introduction by S. S. Van Dine himself, wherein the Old Master (Anthony Boucher notwithstanding) praised the novel, essentially, for adhering to Van Dine's own Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, propounded by him eight years earlier in 1928, back when Van Dine and his pure puzzle aesthetic seemingly held unchallenged sway within the world of mystery fiction.

Van Dine's rules were very much designed to elevate puzzle-solving as the be-all and end-all of the mystery novel.  Some rules seem reasonable enough--there must be a detective who detects, all clues must be plainly stated and described, the solution must be arrived at through logical deduction--but some are decidedly anti-novel, like the prohibition on any love interest whatsoever and what Van Dine witheringly termed "literary dallying" and "atmospheric preoccupations."  Van Dine stated right up front, in an interview in 1933, when his Kennel Murder Case was published, that "Detective novels...have nothing at all to do with literature."

The problem for the dogmatic Van Dineans, however, was that by the Thirties this assertion was being strenuously challenged on both sides of Atlantic, by Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anthony Berkeley, and Margery Allingham, and Georges Simenon, to name a few people, all of whom placed greater emphasis on character and atmosphere.  Even a traditionalist like John Dickson Carr was implicitly challenging Van Dine, because Carr devoted a great deal of time in his novels to stoking atmosphere.  Heck, even Van Dine himself spent time in his books stoking atmosphere: the Gothic mansion of the Greenes in The Greene Murder Case, the bizarre nursery rhyme murders in The Bishop Murder Case, all the heavy-breathing stuff about curses and "dragons" in The Dragon Murder Case.  Arguably all that is of more interest to people today than the details of the puzzles themselves, which are workmanlike but rarely exceptionally ingenious.

But there's no question that Richard M. Baker at least was a confirmed Van Dinean.  Indeed, he arguably was more Van Dineish than Vine Dine, at least when it came to conforming to those twenty rules of his.  How gratifying this must have been to Van Dine, especially at a time when his influence was waning.  So it's not surprising that Van Dine showered Baker with praise in his introduction, even pronouncing that Baker's murder problem "completely fooled" him, even though it was entirely fairly presented.  "The book was simply too hard a nut for me to crack," Van Dine conceded, "but it stimulated my resolution to work harder when attacking his next problem."  Sure enough, there would be another one from Baker's hand the next year, and another one after that.


When Death Stops the Manuscript opens, series detective Franklin Russell is invited by Detective-Sergeant Patrick McCoun, of the Newtown police force (probably Newton, near Boston, Massachusetts), to sit in on his investigation of the supposed suicide of a retired professor, George Edward Carson, who has been found shot dead in the study of his Victorian mansion.  "The famous professor of Romance languages, known for his masterly translation of the works of Victor Hugo!" gasps Russell.  Yup, it's that one.  What an amazin' coincidence, as Philo Vance would have drawled--except he'd use a more highfalutin word than coincidence, I'm sure.

Franklin Russell is described as

Richard Merriam Baker (1896-1952) in 1936
He turned forty the year his first
detective novel was published
a man of medium height, rather stout in build, with a slightly Oriental cast to his features....He had a high forehead, and his black hair, which receded from a widow's peak, was going gray about the temples.  He wore a small toothbrush mustache--an item that made many of his students consider him much older than he really was.  His eyes were magnified by the unusually thick lenses of his silver-framed spectacles to an unnatural size, so that they were like two black disks under his very pronounced bony ridges and thick eyebrows.  His mouth was mobile and drooped at the corners.  He might have been about forty.

I have often suspected that fictional detectives are wish fulfillment figures for their creators and I think that is definitely the case here.  That's a good description of the author himself!

Sergeant Patrick McCoun is Irish--ya think?--although the only way the author tries to show us this is by having him drop his "g's," which I didn't get, and calling Russell "young feller," which I didn't get either, because we learn that he and Russell were old classmates at the "Latin school." (Is this The Boston Latin School?) 

Sergeant McCoun doesn't strike one as the brightest bulb in the candelabra, so his education must not have stuck much.  For his part, Russell is very much in the brilliant amateur detective mode, except he's not obnoxious like Vance.  But we readers are hard to satisfy, for while we may complain about Vance's obnoxiousness (Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance), we tend to find detectives without his over-the-top traits, like Franklin Russell, a bit colorless and dull.  One reviewer asseverated that Franklin Russell needs some hustle in the bustle.  True enough!

Baker's book has to stand or fall, in other words, on the strength of its puzzle, the characters being the flattest cardboard.  So who killed Professor Carson?  There are a fair number of suspects in the distinguished widower's death, like his stepdaughter and stepson, his doctor, his dead wife's sister, his housekeeper and his stepdaughter's playwright suitor.  There are richly detailed two house plans, something Van Dine mysteries usually included.  (I love these!)  There are no intricate alibis or murder gadgets like Crofts and John Street give us, only lots and lots of questioning of suspects.  There are only a few brief changes of scene from the mansion, the most interesting one to interview the stepson's gold digging girlfriend.

This will strike some people as dull in the extreme, but if you take it in the spirit in which it is offered you may enjoy it fairly well, like I did.  The problem is clued, though important bits of it turn on "psychology" in the Vane Dinean manner.  It's not remotely a thrilling or exciting detective novel, but it does give readers sober investigation of a problem.  To be sure, I missed a Van Dine's baroque narrative flair and weirdness, though not so much Van Dine's gratuitous, showoff footnotes. There are brief mentions of La Chanson du Roland, for example, where Van Dine in the Twenties, eager to let us know how smart he is, would have given us a page long footnote about illuminated manuscripts during the reign of Charlemagne or the like.  Like I said Baker is more of a purist than Van Dine.

Perhaps some of Van Dine's splendid weirdness will be in greater supply in the second Richard M. Baker mystery, Death Stops the Rehearsal (1937), which takes us into the theatrical world.  I hope to let you know soon.  I'll have more on the author too.

From the Kick in the Pance Files, Part One

Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance
--Ogden Nash

the future of the Philo Vance franchise was looking grim
William Powell and Louise Brooks in a still for
The Canary Murder Case (1929)
By 1938 it was S. S. Van Dine's mystery writing career which needed a kick...somewhere, as he could no longer afford to maintain his swanky lifestyle on the declining revenues from his mystery serializations, book sales and film rights.  His Kidnap Murder Case (1936) had been a commercial and critical disappointment (critically no film offers came for it), and what was to be his Powwow Murder Case, which sounds like an attempt at recalling his early baroque style, was abandoned by him in 1937 after only a few pages. 

Instead, what Philo Vance fans got (there were still some left) was The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), written with a movie tie-in in mind, which was to star husband and wife comedy team Gracie Allen and George Burns, with Philo very much the third wheel on the old mystery machine.

This is the one Philo Vance book I have never been able to finish, in part I'm sure because of the incongruity of pairing Philo Vance with zany Gracie Allen, whose persona, in my view, just doesn't belong anywhere near a Philo Vance novel.  Some critics at the time seemed to think so as well.  In the Miami News, for example, the reviewer acidly observed that The Gracie Allen Murder Case "seems to have been written with the movies in mind.  It will probably be much better on screen that it appears in print." 

But then there's also writing like this, which doesn't belong, it seems to me, anywhere near any novel:

"No--oh, no, Van; it wasn't my case at all, don't y' know," Vance drawled, as we sat before his grate fire one wintry evening, long after the events.  "Really, y' know, I deserve none of the credit.  I would have been utterly baffled and helpless had it not been for the charming Gracie Allen who always popped up at just the crucial moment to save me from disaster....If ever you should embalm the case in print, please place the credit where it rightfully belongs....My word, what an astonishing girl!  The goddesses of Zeus' Olympian menage never harassed old Priam and Agamemnon with the eclat exhibited by Gracie Allen in harassing the recidivists of that highly scented affair.  Amazin'!

Amazin' isn't the word for it, my good man.  No, no, a thousand time no.  And this is just the second page of the story.  Even the flat, posthumously published Winter Murder Case (1939), intended as the basis for a Sonja Henie film was better than this.  Sonja Henie was to pay a character, not herself, which was probably just as well.

I'll be taking another, longer look at a Philo Vance novel I actually like, very soon.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Hugh and Florrie: Hugh Wheeler's True Crime Essays on Florence Maybrick

Note: The Passing Tramp previously looked, about fourteen months ago, at Rickie Webb's 1943 essay about accused murderess Lizzie Borden, in which he suggested a new culprit behind the brutal ax slaughters of Andrew Borden and his second wife in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.  Here we look at Rickie Webb's companion and fellow crime writer Hugh Wheeler's essays on another notorious Victorian era accused murderess, Lizzie Borden's sister American Florence Maybrick.

At the bright dawn of life:
Florence Chandler Maybrick
In his true crime essays “The Last of Mrs. Maybrick” (1943) and its postscript, “The Ordeal of Florence Maybrick” (1962), published respectively in The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories (1943) and The Quality of Murder (1962), true crime anthologies edited by Anthony Boucher, Hugh Wheeler analyzed one of the most notorious of British murder cases, the 1889 trial of Florence Maybrick (1862-1941) for the murder of her husband James. 

Wealthy Liverpool cotton broker James Maybrick had wed the much younger Florence, a beautiful blonde American belle originally from Mobile, Alabama, eight years previously, after a whirlwind shipboard romance, but the marriage soon proved a dreadful misalliance.  The coarse and caddish James kept mistresses (one of whom bore him five children), and Florence with considerable provocation entered into her own extramarital liaisons (though just how she far did so remains in question).  Relations between the man and wife continued to deteriorate from there.

When James mysteriously died in 1889, Florence, who recently had fatefully purchased arsenical flypapers for the benefit of her complexion (or so she said), was arrested and charged with murder.  After being convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang amid much public outcry--incredibly, in the face of the verdict and sentence, it had not been credibly established just how James had died--Florence saw her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the theory that she had tried to murder her husband with arsenic but might not actually have succeeded in doing so.  This seemed to be an admission that the murder case against her had not been proven, yet she was not freed from prison. 

To the contrary, she spent fourteen years in harsh incarceration, returning after her release from prison to the United States, where she ultimately settled, in an increasingly abject state, in the foothills of northwestern Connecticut.  (Her two children with James she never saw again.)  In 1941, just a couple of years before Hugh Wheeler’s first essay about her was published, Florence Maybrick, now a wizened old woman of seventy-nine years living under an assumed surname, died anonymously at her residence, a tiny three-room, twenty by ten foot dwelling with a six foot porch located not far from South Kent School, a private boarding school for boys, where she had resided, with only her cats for company, for the last two decades. 

To the boys of the school, who delivered firewood and other necessaries to her door, she had been known simply as “The Cat Woman” and “Lady Florence,” but with her death truth came out, grabbing the attention of even a populace which was preoccupied with the deadly world warfare going on all around it.  “Mrs. Maybrick Dies a Recluse,” announced the New York Times of the notorious accused Victorian era poisoner a week before All Hallow’s Eve in 1941, beside disquieting front page tidings about the German advance on Moscow.  “Scrapbook in Cottage Reveals Identity.

Justice Fitzhames Stephen
who might have served as a model
for Agatha Christie's Justice Wargrave
in And Then There Were None
Certainly to Hugh Wheeler the case of Florence Maybrick held morbid fascination.  To Hugh, who with his partner Rickie Webb shared a life that then was generally deemed unforgivably unorthodox, Florence’s cruel ordeal seemed a textbook case of the ill treatment censorious society affords an individual whom it deems—and damns--as too daringly different to live.  “Mrs. Maybrick faced trial as an American hussy who had mistreated and deceived a perfectly good English husband, a man, as far as the jury knew, without a blemish on his character,” Hugh writes witheringly, adding:

Mrs. Maybrick was not merely facing trial, she was facing Mr. Justice Stephen on the bench….his dislike for her swelled within him until it reached almost psychopathic proportions.  This manifested itself finally, in his summing up, as a two-day harangue of impassioned malignity and misogyny.  In one of the most biased speeches ever to come from the English bench, he referred to poor Mrs. Maybrick as ‘that horrible woman’ and branded her as the epitome of all that was vile….the English bench has never been noted for its chivalry or its leniency toward women accused of murder, particularly where there is also the whiff of adultery. 

Yup, it's this asshole again!

Five years after its publication, Hugh Wheeler’s Pocket Book essay caught the skeptical if not scornful eye of ornery crime writer Raymond Chandler, a man who himself has been accused of misogyny (not to mention homophobia).  In correspondence with James Sandoe, the hard-boiled crime writer, who in his fiction never met a femme fatale he did not loathe, emphatically declared, with seemingly willful blindness, that he could not detect, as had Hugh, any “malignity and misogyny” in Mr. Justice Stephen’s much criticized summing-up to the jury.  (It is perhaps worth noting in this context that, five years after the trial’s conclusion, Justice Stephen breathed his last breaths in an insane asylum.)  Chandler ruminated that someday he might publish his own analysis of the case, puckishly observing that his mother’s name was Florence Chandler, the very same one Florence Maybrick had eventually adopted after returning to America.  He never did get around to it, however.

Shortly after Raymond Chandler made his derisive comments about Hugh’s essay, Hugh and Rickie for yet another Anthony Boucher anthology, Four and Twenty Bloodhounds (1950), provided a biographical sketch concerning their series sleuth Lieutenant Timothy Trant (see Crippen & Landru’s The Cases of Timothy Trant, 2016), in which they divulged that Trant attended not only Princeton University but South Kent School.  Why South Kent School?  Presumably it was because of the connection of the school to Florence Maybrick. 

Hugh and Rickie, who in the years immediately before American entry into the Second World War resided for much of the year together in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, had friends among the Connecticut educational community, including the headmaster of the Old Farm School for Boys in Avon, about a forty miles’ drive from South Kent.  It was on a motor visit to some of their Connecticut friends, Hugh surprisingly divulges in “The Ordeal of Florence Maybrick,” that he came across no other than The Cat Lady herself, clad like a hobo while collecting newspapers on the South Kent School campus, two of her few remaining teeth tied together with string.  Hugh chivalrously offered the feeble old woman a ride, which she wordlessly declined before wandering away.

At the dusky eve of death:
Lady Florence with newspaper on
the grounds of South Kent School
Was Hugh’s account of his meeting with a notorious accused murderess from the distant Victorian past merely a crime writer’s literary invention?  Perhaps, perhaps not. 
In either case, seventeen years after he penned his final essay about Florence Maybrick, Hugh’s sympathetic imagination must have been piqued by the melancholy character of Lucy Barker in Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd (1979), for which Hugh wrote the Tony Award winning book. 

Driven insane by the dreadful misfortunes inflicted upon her by the sadistic Judge Turpin, Lucy, the once beautiful blonde wife of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, wanders the streets of London dressed in rags, a haunting shell of her former self, terribly in need of a beneficent protector.  She is, indeed, rather poignantly like the real-life Florence Maybrick, whom, Hugh admitted, “intrigues me far more than any fictional lady in distress that I have created myself.”