Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Fake News: The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941), by Leslie Ford

It was fantastic from the beginning, or would have been anywhere except in Washington, or at any time here before now, when things we've always thought fantastic seem to have become normal and have a kind of horrible validity.
-- narrator Grace Latham, wealthy and attractive widow, in Leslie Ford's The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941)

Doesn't sounds like DC has changed that much in the intervening eight decades, does it?

It may be a "mystery romance"
but don't let that scare you, boys!
It ain't as mushy as Mignon Eberhart.
I admit to having read not nearly as many Leslie Ford mysteries as I have those by Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart, crime writers with whom Ford is often compared, somewhat inaptly I think.  Ford, it seems to me, at least in her series crime fiction more approximates the "manners mystery" of the British Crime Queens (especially  Ngaio Marsh), at least in terms of narrative style.  Her Grace Latham mysteries--called Colonel Primrose mysteries by Ford's publisher, though everyone reads the books, I would imagine, for nosy narrator  Grace Latham rather than her kinda-sorta long-term boyfriend John Primrose--have a tartness and keen social observation that I don't find as much in the Eber-Rinehart books, and the love stories in them don't seem nearly as soppy as those in my dear mushy Mignon's.

Further, some of the Grace Latham mysteries have genuine political content, something most mysteries of the time avoided.  Grace is a wealthy and independent Washington, D. C. widow, and she knows a lot of movers and shakers in that strange world (though she gets around a great deal too, like Jessica Fletcher finding murder wherever she goes, in such locales as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Honolulu and Yellowstone).

This aspect of her books really came to the fore in the years of the Second World War, when the deadly global conflict crashed in on and impacted every American's life.  We see this, certainly, in the eighth Colonel Primrose mystery (the seventh with Grace Latham), The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941), where the the title is a giveaway--a dead giveaway--to the political content of the story.

At the center of the mystery that develops is the question of the authorship of  a right-wing, "America First" political newsletter, "Truth Not Fiction," which the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt dubiously views as a seditious rag designed to sow discontent about American international commitments during a time of perilous world crisis.  Let Grace Latham explain:

It was a newsletter that arrived three days a week and had done so since the fifteenth of September, regular as the morning milk.  I'd thought it was an election stunt until November 5th, but it kept on coming. It was sponsored privately, it said, by Thinking Americans.  Who they were exactly it didn't reveal, but they thought along pretty consistent lines.  The general tenor of it was that the country had gone to the dogs--doom was just around the corner.  The disquieting things about it, however, seemed to be the so-called straight-from-the-horse's-mouth items about international friction in the Defense Program that gave you the feeling that democracy--as we know it--had about as much chance as frost in August.  It harped constantly on the necessity for the mailed fist in the Orient and insisted that the United States walk in and take over Mexico.

Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC

Grace is at loose ends in the city for the moment, having rented her DC house preparatory to spending Christmas in New York and vacationing in Guatemala "for a couple of months afterwards."  Ah, the life! 

She attends a dinner party given by a new middle-aged widow in town, Mrs. Addison Sherwood (late from South America), at her swanky digs at the massive Randolph-Lee Hotel, where Grace for the moment also is staying.  One finds the Randolph-Lee, Grace tells us, "sticking up over Rock Creek between  the Shoreham and the Wardman-Park--a trinity the Aztecs would have been proud to build...."  I believe the Randolph-Lee is fiction, but the other two named edifices most certainly are not.  Both are still standing today, looking just as massive as they must have when this novel was published 78 years ago.

Wardman-Park Hotel, Washington, DC

Mrs. Sherwood's other guests at the dinner party, besides Grace, are:

Sniping DC newspaper columnists Pete Hamilton, Sylvia Peele, Larry Villiers and Corliss Marshall

Suave Latin American diplomat Senor Estevan Delvalle

Bliss Thatcher, dollar-a-year-man for the Defense Department (the term refers to a wealthy businessman who works for the federal government for only a nominal salary)

Sam and Effie Wharton, a recently defeated isolationist US representative from an unnamed Midwestern state, and his politically ambitious wife, who doesn't want to go back to the Great Plains and ignominiously play bridge for the rest of her days 

Kurt Hofmann, distinguished German anti-totalitarian (he even has--ever so Teutonically, if you will--a saber scar across his cheek) and a recent escapee from a Nazi prison camp

Lady Alicia Wrenn, a tweedy, horsey English aristocrat over in the US to make the case for American entry into the war, who in the cards sees death in her future

Oh, and there's also Mrs. Sherwood's beautiful daughter, Barbara, who shows up unexpectedly, much to her mother's distress.  What's up with that?

Whew!  This is a lot of characters, but Ford for the most part manages to keep them pretty distinct and they certainly manage to introduce plenty of mystery.  There are three murders--the first of which takes place, most messily, at Mrs. Sherwood's dinner party--yet even without all the genteel bloodletting, Leslie keeps the kettle on and boiling with interest, what with all the mysterious secrets people are hiding (or seem to be hiding).

This is the sort of writing that sourpuss genius Raymond Chandler damned as superficial and "slick," and slick it is I suppose, but it certainly kept me turning pages, anyway.  It's a face-paced, smoothly written tale that at about 75,000 words doesn't overstay its welcome.  Grace Latham's slightly sardonic narration helps considerably. 

Granted, Grace let's slip her usual patronizing mentions of black servants.  (Only one such appears, very briefly, in the book, though Grace takes time to let us know, the fellow--Colonel Primrose's butler--can neither read nor write; it's related like it's some cute and colorful quirk rather than a shameful blot on the white ruling class of the era.)  Moreover, the third sentence of the novel is a doozy of an instance of racial insensitivity: "But it sticks like grim death to a dead n----r" (no dash in the original text, of course).

Um what the hell?  To be sure, this saying is recorded in 1917 in the Journal of American Folklore, but I couldn't find another use of it in the two decades before Ford published Fifth Columnist.  It was used way back in the southern apologist novel Aunt Phyllis's Cabin (1852), a rebuttal to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, but that's not exactly a model we want to follow, now, is it? 

All I can think of is that Leslie Ford (Zenith Jones Brown) thought that these old racist phrases, which she no doubt heard while living in Maryland in the Thirties (her distinguished scholar husband, Ford Keeler Brown, taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland from 1925 to 1960), were fascinating examples of local color, but inevitably this sort of thing grates with a lot of people today. 

Gerald B. Winrod takes on FDR
That aside, I found Fifth Columnist a charming tale of murder, with the romance element  present yet by no means overplayed.  I was expecting the beautiful ingenue character to have a much bigger role, but Ford surprised me by keeping our attention focused on the older and vastly more interesting characters.  Additionally the wartime political material lent some real topical piquancy to the tale.

The seditious newsletter in Fifth Columnist reminded me of the antisemitic, prohibitionist Christian evangelist Gerald Burton Winrod (1900-1957), a contemporary of Leslie Ford whom the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains terms "the foremost far right activist in the Great Plains during the 1930s."  To continue quoting:

In 1925 [Winrod] founded the Defenders of the Christian Faith, and operating from his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, he campaigned on the stump, over the radio, and in his Defender magazine against Darwinism, liberal theology, and what he called a national moral sag. 

By the Thirties Winrod was denouncing the New Deal as part of a global Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christianity and applauding Hitler's efforts to combat godless international Bolshevism.  He became known as the "Jayhawk Hitler."  His Defender magazine had 100,000 subscribers by the time he ran for the US senate from Kansas in 1938.  He came in third in the GOP primary, receiving about 21% of the vote.  Stymied in his attempt to make American great again, Winrod during World War Two ultimately ended up being tried for sedition, unsuccessfully, by the federal government.

It's likely Reverend Winrod who inspired the character of Reverend Von Roth in Kansas historian Kirke Mechem's 1936 mystery The Strawstack Murder Case, reprinted six years ago by Coachwhip.  Of course there are more recent, nonfictional examples of people who sound a lot like him.

Gerald Burton Winrod on the stump
in Kansas in 1938
But, hey, when reading Leslie Ford's mystery feel free to overlook the political stuff, if you want, and concentrate on little gems of writing like these:

She took my arm.  "You know, darling, it's really wonderful.  It couldn't happen anywhere in the world but in Washington.  Just think: four columnists, and a lady--that's you, dear--and a great industrialist in a key position, a famous anti-Totalitarian author, a defeated House leader with an ambitious, disgruntled wife, a big shot in the Good Neighbor racket, and an English peeress trying to skim off a little top-milk while the skimming's good, all together in the same place.  And what for?"

"Well," I said, "our hostess might have the quaint idea that we're all nice people."

Have no fear, dear readers: That was not the reason!


  1. Thank all for your review. This story sounds like something I am likely to enjoy reading.

  2. I’ve read four Leslie Ford mysteries and never once encountered her so-called prejudice against servants and Black American characters. Not once. This use of the N word, especially in that ugly phrase, is jarring to me. In fact her treatment of female Black characters is done with empathy from what I recall. Grace has a maid or cook called Lilac in THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1947) who appears mostly as a comic role but never appears stupid. Quite the opposite -- she is the voice of reason and common sense despite her poor grammar. In fact she was a favorite character of mine. I called her a “breath of fresh air” in my blog post. Maybe in the six years after she wrote ...FIFTH COLUMNIST she saw the light!

    1. Lilac, or as Grace says "my Lilac," doesn't appear in Fifth Columnist. I'd be interested to see how Leslie Ford handled the civil rights era. Even during the Second World War, depictions of blacks, and the black maid character specifically, were changing.

      I notice Fifth Columnist hadn't been reprinted yer. I bet when it is that sentence gets deleted!