Saturday, November 30, 2019

John Dickson Carr at the Heights

John Dickson Carr
presumably taken in 1927,
after Carr had left Haverford College
and was about to travel to Europe

There seems to be a tradition that fiction writers be poor students in mathematics and science, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr certainly seems to have lived up to that fine tradition.  At Haverford College, located near Bryn Mawr about three miles west of Philadelphia,where future crime writers Richard Webb and Milton Propper then lived, Carr attended classes for two years, from 1925 to 1927. However, we learn from Doug Greene in his biography of "Jack" Carr (as he was known in his college years) that in Carr's sophomore year at Haverford his combined grade was 52.6, when an average grade of 65 was required to move on to the next level.  His total score in algebra was a 2 (out of a possible 100), which his economics score was 16--admittedly eight times better than his algebra grade!  (How's that for math?)

Doug reports that, all this notwithstanding,  Haverford nevertheless was willing to allow the precocious Carr, who had already already distinguished himself for his writing if not his ciphering, to return to school for the junior term-- but only if he passed the entrance examination for plane geometry. 

"For almost the first time," Doug writes, Carr "studied for a mathematics test."  Carr made an "astonishing grade" by his standard--a 35--but that was nowhere near good enough; so out went he.  At the age of twenty, Carr found he would have to prove himself as a writer or be condemned by his father to pursue a career in law.  Horrors!  (He did get to take a trip to Europe though.)

Brooklyn Heights houses
Carr's house was demolished but these
brownstones suggest the ambience
In 1930, three years after leaving Haverford, College, Carr published his first detective novel, It Walks by Night, with American publisher Harpers, whose mystery writers stable also included Freeman Wills Crofts, then one of the most prominent mystery writers in the world. Carr's debut novel proved successful enough to launch his own career as a mystery writer.  At the age of twenty-three Carr left his parents and moved to Brooklyn Heights, New York, where with Edward Delafield, an employee at Harpers, he rented a third floor apartment with a bedroom, kitchen and an octagonal front room facing New York Harbor. 

Henry Tomlinson, another Harper's employee, sometimes shared the apartment with Carr and Delafield as well.  Both Tomlinson and Delafield recalled Carr furiously crafting crime fiction there, according to an article about Carr's life at this time:

[Carr] was apt to come sprinting out of the shower, crying, "I've got it!"  He would pick up a newspaper and, seeking out the crime notes, as was his habit, seize cheerfully on a brief, routine suicide.  "He would twist it and turn it around," says Delafield, "and before long it would emerge as a full-fledged book plot.  And the next thing we knew, he'd have it written and published."  Tomlinson once asked Carr if he had undue trouble with plots.  Fixing him with a Holmesian glare, Carr replied, "I've had exactly hundred and twenty complete plots outlined, for emergencies, since I was eleven years old." 

Appropriately enough Carr and his friends played the fashionable game of Murder at the Brooklyn Heights apartment, and, less happily, Carr in these days also commenced his many years of heavy drinking.  After he completed the typescript for a book, Doug Greene writes, Carr "would often get drunk on the bathtub gin that he, Delafield and Reynolds produced."

Another of Carr's friends was Jack Reynolds, who met Carr, Doug notes, "at a party given by Harpers to celebrate the release of Carr's second novel, The Lost Gallows."  Reynolds worked for the Munson Steamship Company (his father was the company secretary), and he arranged a trip to Cuba for Carr in May 1931.  As what Carr termed a prank, Reynolds had his friend sent on the Norwegian steamship Gunny as a supercargo: i.e., a representative of the ship's owner, responsible for overseeing the ship's cargo and its sale.  Built in 1920, SS Gunny was later torpedoed in the West Indies by the Germans in 1942.

SS Gunny
Carr, who was listed as being 5'6" with brown hair, fair complexion and gray eyes, surrendered his 1930 passport in exchange for a seaman's certificate.  The photo attached to his certification is pictured above, I think for the first time.  Presumably this photo was taken in 1927, when Carr was but twenty years old.  Of the 1927 photo Doug has written:

Unlike most passport photos, John's shows him at his best.  The unprepossessing boy had matured into a good-looking man, with large, almost dreamy eyes and the hint of a smile.

It was on board another ship in 1930 that Carr would meet and fall for his future wife, Englishwoman Clarice Cleaves.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Mid-Century Mid-Life Crisis: John Dickson Carr's Crime Fiction in the Second Half of the 1900s

For whatever reasons, the Fifties and Sixties saw a decline in the work of many surviving Golden Age detective fiction authors, and John Dickson Carr, one of the most important figures in Golden Age mystery, was no exception.  The overall decline in his works from the Thirties and Forties was steep, although, to be sure, he managed to reinvigorate himself for a time by writing historical mysteries that were set in what the incurably romantic author deemed more colorful eras. 

Anyone who has read Douglas Greene's landmark biography of John Dickson Carr knows that the author's weariness with the postwar world impacted his writing.  With his historical mysteries he successfully took refuge from his soul-draining ennui for a time, but writing about the present became increasingly difficult for him.  In truth there was a decline in all of his writing, whatever the setting, over time, a decline which the debilitating stroke he suffered in 1963 greatly exacerbated.

In an essay by me published in a volume of essays on crime fiction dedicated to Doug Greene, Mysteries Unlocked, I wrote the following of Carr's attitude to the postwar world:

"The period after World War Two," observes Douglas G. Greene in John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, "was a time of increasing dissatisfaction, disillusionment and restlessness for John Dickson Carr."  The great Golden Age emigre American mystery writer's romantic view of the world seemed to have cindered to ashes amidst the blaze of atrocities committed during the Second World War and the postwar imposition of a drab gray regimen of regulations and restrictions by Britain's Labour government.  "The kind of world [Carr] admired seemed irrelevant," notes Greene.  ""It was difficult for him to pretend that it had anything to do with modern life."  In his postwar mysteries Carr would increasingly seek refuge in an idealized fictional past.  Period novels like The Bride of Newgate (1950) and The Devil in Velvet (1952) took the author and his readers back to what a colleague of his characterized as colorful eras of "sword play and sudden personal dramas, with costumes and carriages, and beaux and belles."

For John Dickson Carr (1906-1977)
recovering the mirth of his lost youth
proved to be rather more
than a three-pipe problem
However, Carr's advancing case of writer's bloc probably cannot be attributed solely to his undeniable disillusionment with the modern world. In his Carr biography, Doug writes that the author's charming English widow, Clarice (who was then alive and corresponded regularly with Doug) certainly thought as much:

She believes that her husband's unhappiness was based on more than his dislike of the postwar world.  She thinks that he was somehow running away from himself, but can make no suggestion about what he found wrong with being John Dickson Carr except, possibly, his physical size. 

Carr was physically separated from Clarice and his daughters over much of this time.  As Doug puts it in his biography:

No matter where he took up residence during the 1950s...he could not be happy and he would soon pull up stakes to try somewhere else.  Sometimes he would simply tell Clarice and the children that it was time to move, and he would go to London or Tangier and expect her to sell the house and pack up the belongings....

Carr...had at least eight different homes between 1951 and 1954.  Clarice was often but not always with him during these peregrinations.  Bonnie and Mary needed regular schooling, so after Clarice's father died in 1952 and she inherited property in Kingswood, she often resided there while John was elsewhere.  As was the case in the middle 1940s, however, they did not consider themselves separated, and when they were on the same continent, stayed with each other over long weekends.


Mid-century college students at play
In the 1950s John Dickson Carr was nostalgic not only
about the Jacobean era but his own lived past
in the Twenties and Thirties--one of
clubs and drinks and tipsy frolics
In was in the middle 1940s, during the war, when Carr, separated from his wife and family and working in radio, cohabited with another woman in London, with whom he was intimately involved.  Previous to this, Doug writes, Carr had had several brief affairs, or what Doug terms "encounters.

Although Doug notes that Carr "doted on Clarice" and the couple remained affectionately married until Carr's death in 1977, is it possible that Carr had additional "encounters" after the war, or that part of him wanted to have them? 

A recurring feature of his books in the Fifties and the Sixties is the attraction of middle-aged men to much younger women.  Did Carr experience a classic "midlife crisis" after the war, when he had reached his forties?  (He was born in 1906.) 

The Daily Telegraph--and what doesn't the Daily Telegraph know?--tells us that the male mid-life crisis on average starts at age forty-three and lasts from three to ten years.  Carr turned forty-three in late 1949, so if he conformed to this supposed average, he could have been in crisis throughout the entire decade of the 1950s and possibly into the 1960s, not long before his stroke.  Today lists these "signs" of a mid-life crisis:

1. He says life is a bore
2. He is thinking about (or already is) having an affair
3. He is suddenly making impetuous decisions about money and/or his career
4. He makes a dramatic change in his personal style or appearance
5. He has little interest in spending time (or having sex) with you
6. He is drinking too much or abusing other substances
7. He is displaying the classic signs of depression--sleeping more, loss of appetite, malaise
8. He is overly nostalgic and constantly reminiscing about his youth

I don't know about you, but it seems to me self-evident that Carr displayed a lot of these symptoms.

While visiting New York in 1945, Carr, accompanied by his bibliophile friend Frederic Dannay (one half of Ellery Queen), toured New York's antiquarian bookshops, in search of works by an author who was one of his adolescent favorites: the recently deceased mystery writer Carolyn Wells, about whom readers may recall I have blogged quite a bit here.  Carr zealously purchased a complete set of Wells' eighty-two detective novels, but when he returned to England later that year, he found that customs officials would not allow him to bring the books--American imports--into the country.  Only after some six months of wrangling did the British government finally relent.  Recalling the incident in a letter to Dannay, Carr thundered: "The regulations in this country grow more and more damnable.  One more war for liberty and we shall all be slaves."

If purchasing eighty-two Carolyn Wells mystery novels is not an "overly nostalgic" and an "impetuous decision about money," I don't know what is.  Not to mention buying them without checking with British customs first.

At some point later in his life, either in the 1950s or mid-sixties, Carr nostalgically (that word again!) reminisced to the much younger Edmund Crispin (born in 1921, he was fifteen years younger than Carr) about the fun of the many bibulous antics they enjoyed together in the late 1940s.  Check off more bullet points on that Today list!

clarinettist at the Mandrake Club, Soho
"London's only Bohemian rendezvous,"
where Carr, Crispin and Anthony Berkeley
divulged "sexual preferences"
(photo by Harold Chapman)
Those were the days, weren't they?

When, e.g., I fell drunkenly asleep on Christianna Brand's ample bosom in a taxi, and she had the greatest difficulty in shifting me; when you and Tony Berkeley and I indulged in maudlin confessions of our sexual preferences one late afternoon in the Mandrake Club; when I tried, after four bottles of champagne and two of brandy apiece, to fight a duel with you in your Hampstead flat with (unbuttoned) foils; when your splendid little Holmes parody was mounted with the utmost grandeur, and a stunning cast, at the Detection Club; when I had to prevent you, at the IMA, from attacking single-handed six RAF men whom you conceived (I don't know whether correctly) to have said something derogatory about you; and many, many other things, in other places, on other occasions.


Lucky Christianna Brand!  I'm sure there's no fun like having a drunk in a taxi fall asleep on your "ample bosom" and not want to dislodge himself.  When you recall that both Carr and Crispin were alcoholics whose lives were blighted by that disease, some of this "fun" pales, I think.  Carr's disgruntlement with his present and nostalgia for his younger, better days reminds me of this recent SNL skit with fifty-one-year-old comedic actor Will Farrell.

Whatever the causes, that Carr's writing began changing, generally to its detriment, around mid-century is clear.  Although he produced several really fine books and at least one genre masterpiece in the Fifties, these were all historical mysteries.  The non-historical mysteries are inferior to their predecessors, sometimes markedly so.  And the historicals from the late Fifties and early Sixties are generally inferior to the ones from the early to mid-Fifties.  After Carr's stroke in 1963, the decline in the quality of his work became steep indeed.  Characters in these books desperately try to recapture their youth with affairs and juvenile hi-jinx (playing baseball and singing college songs and goosing women), but reading about all this is merely tedious, if not sad, to the Carr fan simply in search of a good mystery.

Below I rank the Carrs from this period, which extended from 1950 to 1972, about half of Carr's career as a mystery novelist.  It's definitely the inferior half.  It's hard to recover the vim of lost youth.

John Dickson Carr Novels, 1950-1972

1. The Bride of Newgate (1950) ****
Carr immediately reinvigorated his writing with this grand swashbuckling historical mystery.  (His previous two novels, Below Suspicion and A Graveyard to Let, both published in 1949, had his old series sleuth standbys, respectively Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.)  A nice little miracle problem (vanishing room) and considerable narrative elan.

2. The Devil in Velvet (1951) *****
The first of Carr's time slip novels (where a modern-day character somehow enters the past), this is an even stronger historical mystery than the zestful Bride, in my view. It's set in Carr's favorite time and place, Jacobean England, and is a character-driven mystery novel with a sinister edge, courtesy of Lucifer himself. 

Like his characters, Carr himself doubtlessly fantasized about going back to the seventeenth century and swashing away; and he really put his heart into this superb mystery fantasy, something of a companion piece to his non-fictional true crime study, The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey.  It's a tour de force, and, in my estimation, his last true masterpiece in the crime fiction genre.

3. The 9 Wrong Answers (1952) **1/2
Some people really like this one, indeed they rank it as a genre masterpiece, but I don't share that enthusiasm.  It takes us back to the present day, but I find it to be a sort of stunt story, reflective of Carr's (excellent) radio plays.  Indeed, it was as I recollect based on a terrific radio suspense play, "Will You Make a Bet with Death?".  As a novel, it seemed contrived and unconvincing to me, with an uninteresting set of characters with whom we have to spend a lot of time.  The twist packs a punch, however--if you find it fair.  Critic Anthony Boucher didn't!  Doug Greene also questioned the veracity of one of those famous footnotes.

4. Captain Cut-Throat (1955) ****
Another fine historical.  Terrific tension and some memorable action scenes put it up to the level of the previous two.  It's Carr's take on a popular mystery form in the Cold War Fifties, the espionage novel, though characteristically he takes us back to an earlier time: the Napoleonic era.  It would make a wonderful film.

5. Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956) *1/2
Carr returned to the present with regrettable results.  He brings back the odious Patrick Butler, one of those modern-day Carr characters who postures intolerably as if he's stepped out of the seventeenth century, and throws in some of his most exasperating women, all of whom parade around in a miracle problem plot adulterated with extraneous matter. 

Patrick Butler was more bearable in his first book, Below Suspicion (1949), when he shared the stage with Dr. Fell.  Here Carr seems more interested in some sort of "battles of the sexes" social comedy, which would best have been left to the Crime Queens and their followers.

6. Fire, Burn! (1957) ****
A solid historical mystery, time slip again, with probably the best formal detection of any of his historicals.

7. The Dead Man's Knock (1958) ***1/2
Carr takes us to an American college campus and introduces us to the most dysfunctional group of professors this side of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Brings back Dr. Fell after a near decade's absence (!); Sir Henry Merrivale came to America, why not Dr. Fell?  Better than Patrick Butler for the Defence, thankfully, with a modest but neat and tidy locked room problem amid the emotional theatrics.  It's actually more restrained than the books which followed.  I call this one underrated.

8. Scandal at High Chimneys (1958)**1/2
Subtitled a "Victorian melodrama," and whoo-boy is it.  Somehow Carr isn't as convincing with the Victorian period as he is the Jacobean and Georgian.  I suspect he just wasn't in sync with the prevailing spirit of the age (i.e., surface decorum and pious public moralism).  But the period window dressing in this one is still nice.

9. In Spite of Thunder (1960)**1/2
Like in the previous book, the author strives too hard to excite by making everything under the sun mysterious.  Also too many characters behave like they stepped out from earlier centuries.  However, the basic puzzle, to the extent we are allowed to focus on it, is quite intriguing (though in the end I thought it fizzled somewhat).  Somewhat reminiscent, if much weaker than, Carr's Forties masterpiece He Who Whispers.  Dr. Fell appears again, but only sporadically, in this, his last appearance for five years.

"We are all demoniacs."  Indeed!
10. The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961)***1/2
Again, there are too many attempts at creating High Tension! However, the puzzle is a good miracle problem one, probably the last of his major, really well-executed ones.  Murder in a bathing hut, with no footprints left on the beach....Also a decent police detective adversary to out hero. memorably named Twigg.  It almost passes as a "modern" mystery, taking place in 1907, just after Carr was born.

11. The Demoniacs (1962) ***1/2
An underrated historical.  There's yet another bickering male-female couple, but somehow they are easier to take in earlier centuries.  I wrote Doug Greene over twenty years ago that while I loved his biography of Carr I thought that in it he gave this novel short shrift.

12. Most Secret (1964) unread
Published after Carr's stroke, but a substantial revision of a novel published thirty years earlier.

13. The House at Satan's Elbow (1965) *1/2
Read nearly thirty years ago by me, a few years before Doug's Carr bio was published.  So I didn't know why it was so disappointing to me.  Now I know that Carr had had a stroke, and nothing he wrote after that, with the exception of Most Secret, was good at all.  The narrative is plodding, characters pose and orate endlessly and attempted murder is not really very exciting, is it?  Lots of classic elements however: an English country house, a diabolical ghost and a locked room, um, near murder.  And Dr. Fell returns (again), though it's not that much of a return.  Still, it's better than what followed.

14. Panic in Box C (1966) *
Horrendously chauvinistic treatment of women, characters act like immature idiots, and, Archons of Athens!, all those dreadful nicknames.  There's an "impossible" murder, but interest in it fades with all the tedious padding and poor writing.  It's the books that's impossible--to read.

15. Dark of the Moon (1967) 1/2
Everything that marred Panic but more so.  So tedious and discursive I couldn't care what happened to anyone.  As far as I'm concerned this is Carr's Postern of Fate, or, to be more generous, since there is an actual locked room problem, his Elephants Can Remember (unless The Hungry Goblin deserves the distinction).  Dr. Fell's final farewell--Harrumph!  I always liked Sir Henry Merrivale better as a sleuth (at least he's often fun), but the elephantine, scholarly, beer-swilling doctor deserved a better exit.  At least Merrivale's last appearance was in an excellent Fifties novelette, as bad as The Cavalier's Cup may have been. (To be fair, though, not everyone agrees.)

16. Papa La-Bas (1968) *
With this one Carr returned to historicals, maybe realizing he simply couldn't recapture his narrative elan in the present day.  Sadly, this shows he couldn't do it in the past either.  Carr was, in short, played out at the age of 62.  It's New Orleans with the inevitable voodoo (I used to have hardcover copy I bought in Baton Rouge), but somehow Carr, the past master of atmosphere, manages to make it all utterly boring.  Not to mention his ideas about the antebellum American South are pretty dreadful (and the postwar South too for that matter).

17. The Ghosts' High Noon (1969) **
Better than its immediate predecessors but still weak broth.  If you must read one from this period, this would be it, however, unless you have a really high tolerance for claptrap.

18. Deadly Hall (1971) *
Should have been called Deadly Dull Hall.  To be sure it's more restrained that Panic and Moon, but it's just bo-ring!

19. The Hungry Goblin (1972) unread
Nothing I have read about this book makes me want to read it, except the idea of Wilkie Collins as a detective.  Doug Greene thought it was too poor to reprint, but can it really be worse than Dark of the Moon?  Doug says yes!  Here is a contrary view.

Novels as Carter Dickson, 1950-1953

This one gives me a headache too!
1. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) *
One of Carr's most synthetic attempts at an English village mystery.  People behave like maniacs, led by Sir Henry Merrivale, whose comically eccentric behavior from past novels here tips over from amusingly bizarre to appallingly antisocial.  The villagers are almost as bad.  For a conservative writer, Carr by this time seems remarkably hostile to organized religion.  His over-the-top hatred for Russian novelists is striking as well.  There's a miracle problem, but it didn't impress me.  More invective than entertainment. Certainly not a great mystery!

Merrivale went on to have two more adventures in novel form, but I've never read them because Doug's comments in his bio are not encouraging.  These are:

"You fool!  How could you like this novel?!"
2. Behind the Crimson Blind (1952) unread

3. The Cavalier's Cup (1953) unread

4. Fear Is the Same (1956) ***
Another time slip period mystery. To me this was the least interesting of the bunch but it's not bad.

So to sum up, of the 23 mystery novels Carr published between 1950 and 1972, I would rank my favorites as follows (obviously discounting the unread ones):

Great
1. The Devil in Velvet (1951)

Very Good
2. Captain Cut-Throat (1955)
3. The Bride of Newgate (1950)
4. Fire, Burn! (1957)

Good
5. The Dead Man's Knock (1958)
6. The Witch of the Low-Tide (1961)
7. The Demoniacs (1962)
8. Fear is the Same (1956)

And the worst:
1. Dark of the Moon (1967)
2. Panic in Box C (1966)
3. Papa La-Bas (1968)
4. Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)

Behind the Crimson Blind or The Cavalier's Cup surely are contenders, however!  Not to mention The Hungry Goblin, which still awaits.  Brrrgh!!!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Wicked Belgraveians: The Belgrave Manor Crime (1935), by Moray Dalton

My copy of Moray Dalton's The Belgrave Manor Crime--it's the fifth Inspector Hugh Collier novel, first published in 1935 and will be reprinted next year by Dean Street Press--has a stamp from Blackdown High School, located on Park Road in Leamington Spa, a lovely small city in Warwickshire, which isn't, I imagine, too dissimilar from the author's favored settings in southern England.  Belgrave Manor, the sinister locus of the novel, is located near Lewes in East Sussex, the area where Dalton spent most of her life.

Belgrave opens with a new character in the Dalton crime novel corpus  (at least I hadn't encountered him before): psychic investigator Cosmo Thor.  (You know he has to be a psychic investigator with a name like Cosmo Thor.)  He's not actually a new character, however.  Cosmo Thor originally appeared in a series of six short stories published between July and December 1927 in Premier Magazine, under the title "The Strange Cases of Cosmo Thor," wherein Thor features as "a detective with remarkable empathy and insight," according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

In Belgrave, Thor is described by the author as "an authority on what had hitherto been a kind of No Man's Land between that covered by the C.I.D. and the alienist."  When the story opens he encounters, while returning to London by train from a case in the Midlands, a young palmist he knows, a certain Madame Luna, who has been released from jail after three weeks for practicing her mystical art.  (A police "trap," she explains, led her into saying more than she should have.) 

The palmist tells Thor that she is on her way to get back to her little girl, Allie, who was left in the care of her landlady while she was incarcerated.  After parting ways with Madame Luna and arriving in London, Thor resolves to take a restful weekend in the country.  On returning home, he learns from his not overly bright landlady that Madame Luna had desperately wanted to see him over the weekend, but was turned away.  Concerned, Thor consults his policeman friend, Hugh Collier, and learns from him that Madame Luna may be the woman who was found dead from a fall from a cliff in Devon.  But what in the world was Madame Luna doing in Devon, if the dead woman indeed was she? 

Thor's investigation leads him to Belgrave Manor, a Sussex country house of ill-favored reputation to the inhabitants of the nearby village of Mitre Gap.  After long abandonment, Thor learns from local father-and-son house agents John and Dennis Garland, Belgrave Manor was purchased by wealthy London philanthropist Mrs. Maulfrey.  To Belgrave Manor Mrs. Maulfrey, who soon took custody of Madame Luna's daughter Allie while her mother was incarcerated, sent the young girl, in care of a pretty young governess, a Miss Celia Kent.  (Does that name remind you of anyone?)


After a tense visit to Belgrave Manor, Thor is sidelined from the case (perhaps permanently), but fortunately the intrepid Hugh Collier is on hand to pick up the threads in what turns out to be a remarkably sinister case, one in which Hugh himself will be put in grave peril of his life.  If you don't like Hugh Collier by now, you certainly should after reading this story.  He's a good bloke.

Admittedly, The Belgrave Manor Crime is more of a thriller than a detective novel, although there is detection (as well as a nasty series of murders).  However, I found it a terrifically enjoyable one, richer than most of the plethora of Edgar Wallace and sub-Wallace thrillers that were published in this period.  I was rather reminded of Margery Allingham's "Maxwell March" mysteries.  The story actually gets rather dark (especially for the period), and, as with other Daltons, it was easy for me to imagine its being filmed by modern film makers who like "darkness" in their mysteries.  It's an impressive tale of outre mystery and lurid crime, with a cast of compelling characters, both good and bad. 

And, be warned my dear readers, when those bad characters are bad, they are horrid!

One additional warning: You really should read The Belfry Murder (1933), which will also be reprinted next year by Dean Street Press, before perusing The Belgrave Manor Crime, because there is some important continuity between the two novels.  A review of The Belfry Murder is coming soon!

Monday, November 18, 2019

Murd'rous Queer Witchery It Be! The Condamine Case (1947), by Moray Dalton

'Tes a queer place seemingly....Full of ghostesses, what with beasts coming down from the church roof and her that walks up to Great Baring and her hair blowing like smoke in the gale. T'esn't a place to be out alone at night."  Constable Puddock slowed down and sounded his horn as they came out into the road, and added rather hastily, "'Tes only old tales and ignorance."

"The Condamines have a name for being queer...."
--The Condamine Case (1947), by Moray Dalton

In Moray Dalton's Inspector Hugh Collier saga there came, after The Art School Murders in 1943, The Longbridge Murders in 1945.  Then two years after that there came The Condamine Case, followed the next year by The Case of the Dark Stranger in 1948. 

I'm hoping all of these titles, which I personally enjoyed immensely, will be reprinted next year, but in the early batch there will be the non-series The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), reviewed here, The Art School Murders, reviewed here, and The Condamine Case, reviewed in this post, as well as two earlier Dalton Hugh Collier titles, to be reviewed, I hope, later this month.

In my review of The Case of Alan Copeland, I wrote about how darkly portrayed the English village was, with a monstrous regiment of women who might almost be seen as "witches" of a sort, while in my review of The Art School Murders, I noted how the author mentioned American films and and Hollywood stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Robert Taylor.  Well, in The Condamine Case we have actual witches, plus an English film crew making a movie involving witchcraft, at a remote English village, Little Baring in Somerset, apparently located somewhere in the vicinity of the actual village of Wookey, a name I had not, until reading this book, encountered outside of a Star Wars film.  What fan of classic English mystery would want to miss this?

In London rising whiz kid director Stephen Latimer (he's been compared to no less than and Orson Wells and Rene Clair, the latter of whom had recently directed the films I Married a Witch and And Then There Were None) learns of a gentry family in Somerset by the name of Condamine who has a history of witchcraft and haunting.  He decides this would make an excellent subject for his next film, so over he goes to the Condamine ancestral manor with his self-effacing assistant, Welshman Evan Hughes, the focal character of the novel, to scout out the location. 

Leigh Court, Somerset

In Somerset Stephen and Evan stay at the Ionic columned mansion of the Condamines: middle-aged husband George, who is desperately anxious that the film be made, and his beautiful, jaded younger wife of two years, Ida, who acts indifferent to the whole thing.  Also integral members of the household are George's beloved old spaniel Punch and his ill-used young poor relation Lucy Arden, who serves as Ida's beleaguered dogsbody.

Matthew Hopkins
(c. 1620-1647)
infamous hunter of witches
and mass murderer
According to legend, a seventeenth-century ancestor of George's kept a beautiful but humbly-born mistress in the village when he married an heiress from London, and the jealous and vindictive new wife saw to it that the mistress and her mother were accused of witchcraft and drowned (via the barbaric witch-revealing practice known as "dunking").  Unfortunately for the wife, the dead mistress returned from the dead as a ghost and haunted the wife unto her death.  All this supernatural legend stuff is really well done by the author, reminding me of those masters of spooky shudders John Dickson Carr and Marjorie Bowen (high praise indeed). 

Stephen Latimer wants to spice things up yet more, however, by adding to the script the presence of notorious English witch-finder, aka demented mass murderer, Matthew Hopkins, although Evan Hughes informs him that Hopkins never actually came near these parts.  What English witchcraft film wouldn't have Matthew Hopkins, right?

Dalton knew southern England, her native ground, extremely well and there is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the natural and man made environment, which is based on real places in Somerset, like Glastonbury Tor and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Croscombe

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Croscombe
Standing before the Anglican Church at Little Baring while scouting locations for the film, which is located "on high ground, with a field, probably the glebe, between it and the nearest cottages, where the grass grew long and rank among the sparse headstones," Evan is impressed by bell tower's height as well as

the extraordinary and menacing effect produced by the multitude of carved stone gargoyles thrusting forward from the roof like the garrison of a fortress preparing to repel all comers....horrid heads, grimacing, open-mouthed: giant lizards, pig snouts, figures from a nightmare, with scaly shoulders and outstretched sinewy necks and sharp talons gripping the eaves.


The eccentric bachelor rector of this memorable church, Sebastian Mallory, is another important figure in the novel's present day plot, as are, by the by, George Condamine's bluntly garrulous widowed sister-in-law, Julia Condamine, and her indolent young adult son, Oswald ("Ozzie"), both of whom, since George married Ida, have been banished from the manor to a cottage (a picturesque one, to be sure).

Church of St. Mary the Virgin
Stephen and Evan leave Little Baring to return to London, but return with their actors and film crew a few months later, only to learn that Death has unexpectedly come to Little Baring.  Soon there arrives upon the scene as well "a man of about fifty, with a slim, active-looking figure, hands tanned by the sun but noticeably well-kept, a lean brown face with shrewd grey eyes and a humorous mouth."  Readers of the series will know who this is.

It's Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard, of course, in the crime detection game for nearly two decades now.  With him is his phlegmatic assistant of many years, Sergeant Duffield.  Together they face a case that eventually will concern not one murder, but two. Whodunit?  Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring?  Or someone farther afield, perhaps?  Is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?  Test you mettle against Inspector Collier!

Dalton mentions, in a not incidental way, a Condamine ancestor who came from Suffolk, recalling the author's own mother, who was born at Valley House at the village of Stratford St. Mary, and there's also a cute aside about contemporary American crime fiction of the Forties, which seems to be the lamentable Ozzie Condamine's favorite reading:

The sofa springs creaked under his weight as he settled himself more comfortably to follow the hair-raising escapes of a private dick who, on a diet of hamburgers and alcohol, made love to every woman he met while he bluffed his way though the jungle of American Big Business.

A pretty keen assessment there!  It's always fun to read the observations of classic British crime writers on the heady new stuff that getting distilled in the U. S. of A.

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

This is another fine Moray Dalton detective novel, with true detection as well as interesting characters and compelling atmosphere.  The film crew involvement adds a new wrinkle (I was reminded of John and Emery Bonett's 1951 detective novel A Banner for Pegasus) and the supernatural legend aspect is superb.  Parts of the book felt ahead of its time, like something out of a Sixties Ruth Rendell novel.  Highly recommended--but watch out for raven-tressed women that walk by night!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Willoughby Sharp, Claude Kendall and Murder

Madison Hotel
where Claude Kendall was murdered
Six years ago Coachwhip reprinted two vintage mysteries by stockbroker turned mystery writer Willoughby Sharp, Murder in Bermuda (1933), and Murder of the Honest Broker (1944), for which I wrote introductions.  Sharp's two detective novels were published in the United States by onetime Golden Boy publisher Claude Kendall, who for a few years in the Thirties made a great hit with such salacious and controversial books as Tiffany Thayer's Thirteen Men (1930) and its inevitable follow-up, Thirteen Women (1931), the latter of which John Norris reviewed. Such books made Kendall rich for a time, but soon his success faded and his eponymous publishing company failed in 1936.  Researching further into Claude Kendall's life, I found that he was murdered under mysterious circumstances the next year.

Recently Kendall's unsolved murder received two short paragraphs in an excellent book, Indecent Advances: a Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice before Stonewall, by James NYU scholar James Polchin.  (I hope to post a review here soon.)  Given this renewed attention to Claude Kendall, I thought the occasion called for a new article about him and Sharp (who briefly became his publishing partner as well), which I wrote a few months ago and contributed to CrimeReads.  They have just published it under the title "The Playboy and the Publisher: A Murder Story."  Go here to read.  I hope you find it interesting.

Incidentally, you may recall that Claude Kendall's name popped up in the Henry von Rhau saga which I have recently been chronicling here.  I will have the last part of that story posted this week.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Bumped off in the Blackout: The Art School Murders (1943), by Moray Dalton

A blackout during war, or in preparation for an expected war, is the practice of collectively minimizing outdoor light....to prevent crews of enemy aircraft from being able to identify their targets by sight....
--"Blackout," Wikipedia

The association between the blackout and the threat of sexual violence altered the way in which women used blacked out and poorly lit spaces....The effect of the perception of security and the associated moral response is seen in the heavy sentences handed down to offenders who were believed to have exploited the blackout for criminal gain.  That was also seen in the exploitation of the blackout for sexual purposes.  While the evidence for increased sexual violence as a result of the blackout is mostly anecdotal, there was a clear perception of it increasing....
--The Blackout in Britain and Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Marc Wiggam

London's ghastly series of blackout murders, as they came to be called, began--and fortunately ended--in the drear, chill week of Feb. 9, 1942.  The killings, four of them, launched the most dreadful reign of terror, as well as the greatest manhunt, since the Jack the Ripper days more than half a century before.
--"Blackout Killings of London Women Terrorized City," Peter Levins, Knoxville Journal, August 2, 1942

"I'm worried....This damned blackout.  I'm afraid of what may happen in the dark."

--Inspector Hugh Collier in The Art School Murders (1943), by Moray Dalton

If the malevolent malefactor who savagely slew five women in London in 1888--forever known to his public, if you will, as "Jack the Ripper"--has ever conversed in Hell with Gordon Frederick Cummins, executed for the monstrous murders of four women that took place in wartime London in February 1942, perhaps they have discussed the capriciousness of fame (or more accurately notoriety), which made the one depraved maniac eternally famous while allowing the other quickly to become largely forgotten.

Part of the reason for this disparity in renown is the fact that the Ripper was never caught.  Indeed his (?) identity remains unknown, fueling endless speculation and theories in books, articles and internet postings. 

Conversely, Gordon Cummins was quickly apprehended by police and executed for his terrible killings.  The jury deliberated for only thirty-five minutes before finding him guilty as charged, and he was hanged on June 25, only two months after his trial. 

Of course the fact that Britain was fighting a war for survival around the world that deadly week when Gordon Cummins violently prowled in London naturally had something to do with it too.  What were the deaths of four obscure London women--horrific as those deaths had been--compared to the manifold calamities--the mayhem and mass slaughter--going on around the world?

better safe than sorry
two women (one in uniform) putting up a blackout curtain
to shut out the dangers that lurked outdoors
Nevertheless, the killings made a stir.  There was much talk about how the blackout had made Londoners, particularly women, less safe by making it easier for villains to commit heinous crimes under cover of the night.  Ill deeds done in darkness, don't you know. 

Gordon Cummins was only caught because he left his registered gas mask behind after fleeing from the scene of an interrupted attack he had made on a woman.  As a newspaper put it, Cummins' target "might have been killed but for the sudden appearance of a small boy with a flashlight."

Whatever its deleterious impact on society, the blackout certainly should have been a boon to mystery writers.  And, sure enough, in 1940 there came, for example, The Black Out Murders, from the hand of the ever-opportunistic crime writer Leonard Gribble, who after the war also would give readers Atomic Murder (1947). 

Then there was J. Russell Warren's Gas-Mask Murder from 1939, which when it was published in the United States the next year was re-titled, yes, Murder in the Blackout.  (Expect to see Warren back in print next year.)  The blackout also appeared in Gladys Mitchell's Brazen Tongue, likewise published in 1940.

dreamy murderer Gordon Cummins,
who mutilated his murder victims
with a jagged can opener
Classic genteel detection, either in print or on film, could never encompass the bloody horror of the "Blackout Ripper," who it was reported, had sexually mutilated some of his victims with a can opener, but in 1943, there appeared a dullish "Poverty Row" (i.e., cheapie) American film, scripted by Curt Siodmak, called London Blackout Murders,  which specifically references Jack the Ripper, as well as a fine novel by mystery author Moray Dalton, the title of which--The Art School Murders--gave no hint of its wartime setting, though in fact it was, I believe, the author's only mystery actually published during the war.

Although erroneously listed as a non-series mystery, The Art School Murders is in fact an Inspector Hugh Collier story--by my reckoning the tenth of fifteen Collier tales.

The Art School Murders, which will be one of the Moray Daltons reprinted next year by Dean Street Press, is an excellent tale,  representative of the author's more stripped down postwar, proto police procedural style.  Certainly it's reminiscent of works by the four major Crime Queens (Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham), with its overall genteel setting and its keen-eyed social observation; yet it has a bit of a harder edge, I think, than much of their work, lacking in the little snobberies and petty condescension often associated with the Crime Queens (particularly to my mind Ngaio Marsh, as readers of this blog will know).

Yet Dalton's Hugh Collier, while a more believable cop than Marsh's oh-so-impossibly-exquisite Roderick Alleyn, is cut as well from genteel (though not aristocratic) cloth, being one of those attractive, kindly, charming and gentlemanly police detectives whom we associate with the British Crime Queens.  (He especially reminds me of ECR Lorac's Inspector Macdonald.)  One of the lines in the book which I loved explains of Collier that "Crude manners always put him on his mettle." So typical of a Golden Age fictional sleuth, as imagined by the Crime Queens!

And so different from today's depressing viral American cop videos, where every other word that seemingly gets uttered by one of our men in blue begins with an "F" and ends with a "K" or "G"!

It is a pleasure to accompany Hugh Collier as he politely but persistently pursues and finally brings to justice a particularly nasty killer, who over the course of the story murders three women in the London suburbs, two of them for an exceedingly callous reason.

Dalton gets right down to business, producing her first dead body on page four.  Scotland Yard, as embodied by Hugh Collier, enters ten pages later.  The main setting of the novel is an art school founded by a highly regarded though hugely egocentric native Italian portrait painter, Aldo Morosini.  The initial murder victim is Althea Greville, a luscious though somewhat long in the tooth blonde (she's over forty), who until her stabbing death served as a life model at the school.  Two more murder victims follow (one of them a female student at the school, who is stabbed to death at a cinema). Finally, however, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle and identifies the culprit.

I use the term puzzle piece advisedly because four-fifths of the way through the novel the author herself writes this of Collier's thought process:

As he pondered his notes on the case he had a worrying feeling that he had missed something, that he had picked up the false clues and left the one that really mattered trailing.  Was there anything to be gained by turning back?  In all these statements taken from the students at the school, the staff of the cinema, was there one revealing sentence, one operative word that had been passed over, unnoticed at the time?

Yes, dear reader, there was!  Can you find it before Collier?

Collier pursues a fairly limited number of suspects, in contrast with those Golden Age country house mysteries where absurdly there are about a dozen guests (or more) staying for the weekend (though there's only one bathroom--see the detective's "rough sketch"), all of whom had some motivation to have bludgeoned the baronet at midnight in his study.  However, Dalton still manages to put quite a bit of suspense into the telling.

I also liked how Dalton was able to present her lower, middle and upper class characters alike as real human beings, something I recently discerned that Agatha Christie had failed to do in Murder in Easy (1939), where her lower class characters seem strictly stock. 

The mother of the young murdered boy in Christie's novel barely misses him because she has so many other children, don't you know.  Indeed, Christie explains that the woman derives "melancholy enjoyment" from detailing the deaths of her offspring.  It's an attitude that fosters on the part of readers a state of emotional detachment, placing the focus of the story exclusively on the puzzle rather than on any sort of sympathetic emotional connection with the characters.

In The Art School Murders, however, it's the frostily genteel aunt who hardly misses her murdered niece, in contrast with the old family servant, Emma, who feels the young woman's absence keenly.  We, the readers, are invited by the author to empathize.

woman (theater usherette?)
checking the wartime blackout
Aside from the blackout bits in Dalton's novel, there are some other nice details for readers of vintage mystery who enjoy social history as well as murder puzzles, primarily concerning the influence of American culture on wartime Britain, a subject which drew the dismayed interest of George Orwell, among other prominent English commentators of the day.

The murdered art student is a great fan of American films, particularly comparative "oldies" starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  "She's got what they call a pash on that Fred Astaire," explains the maid Emma.  "I heard her humming one of the tunes.  She's got a record of it.  'The Way You Look Tonight.'

The young woman's murder discordantly occurs at a showing of the classic 1936 Fred and Ginger film Swing Time.  Meanwhile Collier's assistant, burly Sergeant Duffield, "goes regularly to the pictures with his wife on his evenings off duty" and is "gradually acquiring a transatlantic vocabulary."  Collier, we learn to our amusement, looks "forward hopefully to the time when his sergeant would refer to his colleagues as bulls."

In 1930 and 1931 three of Moray Dalton's crime novels had been published in the United States, yet over the next two decades, the remainder of her writing career, none were.  Dalton stopped writing, as far as we know, in 1951, and she was soon forgotten, though the discerning Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor praised her highly in their Catalogue of Crime

Was Dalton disappointed with the relative lack of success of her books?  I don't know, but she certainly had every right to be, for in my estimation she produced (I'll say it again) some of the finest British crime fiction of mid century.  Sometimes writers never receive their dues in their lifetimes (just think of the fantastically egregious cases of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson), but occasionally time redresses the balance.  I hope that such happens in the strange case of the proverbially "unjustly neglected" Moray Dalton.

In Dreams: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936)

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Poetry Corner in the Murder Room: Agatha Christie, Moray Dalton, Frances Cornford, tomcats and Rupert Brooke

Frances Cornford (1886-1960) was an English poet and contemporary countrywoman of crime writers Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and Moray Dalton (1881-1963).  Cornford's most famous poem, during her own life and afterward, was To a Lady Seen from a Train:

gloveless tea: Frances Cornford
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk though the fields in gloves,

When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk though the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

Oddly in two books I just read successively, Agatha Christie's Murder Is Easy (1939) and Moray Dalton's The Case of Alan Copeland  (1937) (to be reprinted next year), both authors reference "To a Lady Seen from a Train." 

Or maybe not so oddly, perhaps, as Christie and Dalton (the latter actually Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir) had rather similar backgrounds in many ways, both having been born of wealthy "mixed" marriages (both had English mothers and well-off gentleman fathers from "across the pond," Christie's father being American and Dalton's Canadian) and both having been privately educated.  Why shouldn't they have liked some of the same poetry?

Perhaps Christie read The Case of Alan Copeland before writing Murder is Easy, but the coincidence may simply have been that: a coincidence.  A character in Murder Is Easy recalls the poem at a critical moment late in the story (you who have read it will know what I mean), while in Alan Copeland it is the author herself who references it, on page seven:

The way from the farm to [Miss Gort's] house was open to the wind, a little used path through untilled fields that had lain fallow since the end of of the agricultural boom that had followed the Great War.  Miss Gort's four-roomed brick villa with its grey slate roof wore an air of bleak gentility that might have reminded a passerby, knowing Frances Cornford's poem, of the lady who walked though the fields in gloves.  Emily kept her little garden neat, but there was nothing in it but a few hardy shrubs in front.  At the back she grew potatoes and cabbages and catmint to please Bobo, the great ginger tomcat who came down the path to meet her, purring and arching his back as the gate clicked behind her.  The house struck cold as she entered it, but it was hardly worth while to light the sitting-room fire so late in the day.  It was very clean and very bare.  The floors in all the rooms were covered with linoleum.  There was a pervading smell of furniture polish and moth balls.


Interestingly just as in Dalton's novel we have the ginger-haired Bobo, in Christie's we have the memorable orange-haired Persian Wonky-Pooh.  Both of these handsome lads are scene stealers.

Moray Dalton also wrote a lot of poetry during the Great War, including a poem dedicated to the memory of their beautiful contemporary Rupert Brooke, taken, like so many others in that foolish war, long before his rightful time.  (He died of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite aboard a British battleship moored off the Greek island of Skyros, shortly before the commencement of the Gallipoli campaign.)  So too had Frances Cornford commemorated Rupert Brooke in verse.

too close to the sun
 Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Rupert Brooke
In Memoriam
by Moray Dalton


I never knew you save as all men know
Twitter of mating birds, flutter of wings
In April coverts, and the streams that flow--
One of the happy voices of our Springs.

A voice forever stilled, a memory,
Since you went eastward with the fighting ships,
A hero of the great new Odyssey,
And God has laid His finger on your lips.


On Rupert Brooke
by Frances Cornford


A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.


I give the laurel to Frances for those four elegant lines, especially "the long littleness of life."  But it's interesting just to see the links these women writers of that war generation shared with each other.  Of course it wasn't by any means solely English women who adored Rupert Brooke, the so-called "handsomest young man in England"!  But that's another subject for another time and place.

A is for for Adenoids: The Adenoidal Agatha Christie

"The adenoid...is a mass of lymphatic tissue located behind the nasal cavity...where the nose blends into the throat.....An enlarged adenoid....can obstruct air flow enough so that breathing through the nose can require an uncomfortable amount of work, and inhalation instead occurs through the open mouth.  The enlarged adenoid would also obstruct the nasal airway enough to affect the voice....Enlargement of the adenoid, especially in children, causes an atypical appearance of the face...."
                                                                                             --"Adenoid," Wikipedia

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I started reading Agatha Christie at the age of eight, going straight to her from L. Frank Baum, so the Queen of Crime was my literary entree into the adult world.  I learned new words and phrases from her, like, as mentioned last time, "old pussies" (in reference to elderly spinsters), as well as "dark horse," "Old sins have long shadows," "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small," and, most unacceptable today, "There's a n----r in the woodpile."  I also learned from her that most maids back then were named "Gladys" and that they, like girl village shop assistants, almost invariably suffered from adenoids.  Just what were adenoids, anyway?  I had no idea.  I just hoped I didn't have them!

Gladys Martin (Annette Badland)
in a Pocket Full of Rye
The classic adenoidal maid in Christie probably is poor Gladys Martin, found murdered with a clothes peg clipped to her nose in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953):

"Gladys Martin is the parlourmaid or waitress, as they like to call themselves nowadays.  She does the downstairs rooms, lays the table, clears away and helps Crump wait at table.  Quite a decent sort of girl, but very nearly half-witted.  The adenoidal type."
[Inspector] Neele nodded.

"I never even saw [Gladys]," said Pat.  "Was she a pretty girl?"

"Oh no," said Miss Marple, not at all. Adenoids, and a good many spots.  She was rather pathetically stupid too...."


Recently when I was rereading Christie's Murder Is Easy (1939), in came an adenoidal maid, near the end of the story: One Emily (not Gladys!), house servant to the genteel spinster Miss Honoria Waynfleete, who in some ways is rather a Miss Marpleish sort of character.  Poor Emily is described as "a small, clumsy-looking girl with pronounced adenoids."  Unlike Gladys, who is a rather tragic character meant to be seen with sympathy by the reader (though the blunt descriptions of her failings many will find cruelly repellent today), Emily seems to be played by the author strictly for laughs:

"If you blease, biss, did you bean the frilled billow cases?"

Christie seems directly to relate lack of intelligence with adenoids, when it fact it seems simply a physical malady that could strike anyone.  She recalls in her Autobiography having two regular playmates, Dorothy and Dulcie, "stolid children with adenoids whom I found dull."  Adenoids strike again!

Apparently, though, adenoids can sometimes deceive.  There's maid Beatrice King in the short story "The Lernean Hydra" in The Labors of Hercules  (1947), who appears to Hercule Poirot as

a short, rather sly-looking girl with adenoids.  She presented an appearance of stolid stupidity but her eyes were more intelligent than her manner would have led one to expect.  

Maybe Beatrice King is a dark horse, adenoids notwithstanding.  M. Poirot had better keep his eye on this one!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Literary Munchausen: The Amazing (and Sometimes Appalling) Adventures of Henry von Rhau, Part 2

For part one of Henry's saga see here.

The headline was horrific.  "Wife, Beaten for 6 Years, Can't Take It Anymore," blared the title to the story about Aline (Stumer) von Rhau's divorce suit against her husband, author Henry von Rhau, in the New York Daily News on April 27, 1933. 

Before a Bridgeport, Connecticut courtroom packed with "society folk," the Daily News reported, "the wealthy and socially prominent Aline Stumer von Rhau" testified before Superior Court judge Arthur F. Ells that the "six years of her married life were marked by one long series of beatings, featured by an occasion when her husband devoted an hour and a half to punching and kicking her."  The "stunning brunette" and "attractive brunette society woman" pleaded for a divorce from her "tall, dashing husband, Major Henry von Rhau, United States Army, retired, now a novelist and actor," on the grounds of intolerable cruelty.

Once the story got into the nasty nuts and bolts of the case, things did not seem to get any better for Henry's cause.  Testifying in support of Aline were friends Mary Messmore, daughter of famed New York society art dealer Carman H. Messmore, and Katherine Fiske, daughter of the late Haley Fiske, president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.  Miss Messmore told of being on a visit to the couple's summer estate at Fairfield, Connecticut when she saw the Major stride into the house, elegantly clad in his riding habit, and kick Aline. 

it was testified that Henry had beaten Aline
over a game of backgammon
(pictured: Gracie Allen and George Burns)
Henry was just as unpleasant to Aline when in the City, according to the testimony of Miss Fiske, which was was briefly quoted in the Daily News.  "I was sitting with Mrs. von Rhau in her apartment at 955 Park Avenue one afternoon playing backgammon when Major von Rhau came in," she related.  "'Haven't you two got anything to do but play backgammon all the time?' he demanded."  Thereupon, she claimed, von Rhau punched Aline in the jaw and ordered her, Miss Fiske, out of the apartment.

Another newspaper account, in the Scranton Times Tribune, rather less formally quotes Miss Fiske's testimony on this point as follows: "He cried: 'You lousy so-and-so, haven't you two got anything to do but play backgammon all afternoon?  And he punched her on the jaw and said to get out of there."

Details of the worst episode in the von Rhau's married life together came directly from Aline herself.  She contended that Henry had conspired with one of his friends, Thomas McHugh, to frame her for infidelity, giving von Rhau an excuse for administering to her the worst beating that she ever received from his hands.  According to Aline, on the night in question she had been on her way to have dinner with her GBF Claude Kendall, publisher of the first book written by her husband (and the two novels of Kendall's and von Rhau's friend Willoughby Sharp), when she received a phone call from McHugh inviting them to have cocktails at his apartment before dinner.

fighting continued after cocktails
(pictured Clark Gable and Constance Bennett)
At McHugh's place it was not long before Claude Kendall, who by the time likely was suffering from increasing alcohol addiction, had passed out from imbibing too many cocktails, leaving Aline alone with McHugh, who, she said, suddenly got up and left the room.  No sooner had he left than von Rhau entered the room and locked the door, announcing fiercely to Aline, "Now, I am going to kill you."  Stripping to his waist, he proceeded, in Aline's words, "to beat me with his fists and [knock] me around the room for an hour and a half, ripping my clothes."  When McHugh finally returned to the room, leaving the door open behind him, Aline fled for her life, out of the building and into a taxi.  She spent the next month recovering in bed.

To top off this tale of wanton masculine viciousness, Aline added that during their marriage she had essentially "kept" her spouse, supplying Henry with four saddle horses, a valet and a car, paying all the household expenses and advancing him money so he could continue writing.  "He could never find a publisher," one newspaper noted, "so finally she organized her own firm and put one of his novels on the market, but she lost money on it."  (Was this Inwood Press, which originally published Henry's satire The Hell of Loneliness?  Did Aline get a friend, American expat John Mullins, to help finance von Rhau's Tale of the Nineties?)

Additionally (and rather humiliatingly), Aline had even born the cost of her three-week honeymoon trip to Bermuda with Henry, even to the extent of picking up the tab for the travel fare of the freeloading Thornton Wallace "Wally" Orr, "Manhattan clubman and crony of the Major's, who made the voyage with them."  According to Aline, her new husband actually had spent most of the honeymoon not in her company, but that of Wally Orr, who, it will be recalled, had been best man at their wedding.

Aline found three a crowd on her honeymoon in Bermuda,
when Henry's best man tagged along
Of course the defense did not allow Aline's parade of horribles to go unchallenged.  Henry's attorney demanded of Aline to know why she had married von Rhau when she knew that he was a man of "nervous and irritable" temper, to which Aline invoked the power of a woman's true love, replying, "I thought if I married him and gave him a good home, which he had never had, it would cure him.

Additionally, several former army associated and friends of von Rhau's took the stand in his defense, making the case very much of a "boys versus girls" affair.  (The newspapers did not quote the men, however, so I do not know whether such pals of Henry's as Willoughby Sharp, Jack Boissevain and famed playwright and Henry's GBF John Colton took the stand.)

For his part, Henry emphatically denied that he had ever beaten Aline.  One newspaper reported that the former bit part actor "presented a picture of abject humility on the stand."  He called himself "the world's worst husband," explaining that he was "temperamental because I'm a literary man, selfish and thoughtless."  Yet he insisted that although "my shortcomings as a husband were of the gravest kind,,,,I love her, and I never beat her."

Henry admitted to only one physical misdeed with Aline, which took place, he said, at a dinner party they had given, where Aline had twice abandoned their guests to go for a car ride with the same male guest.  "On the second occurrence I slapped her.  I'm sorry I did."  On another occasion Henry admitted to using force with Aline, but in that instance it was done "to keep her from jumping out a window."  Von Rhau insisted that he wished to reconcile with Aline, in part for the sake of their four-year-old son, Anthony, but also because he still loved her.  Aline remained "the loveliest girl I have met," he declared on the stand, bringing tear's to his wife's eyes.

Impressed with von Rhau's testimony that "his one idea in life was to become reconciled with his wife," Judge Ells "summoned the couple to his chambers, excluding even lawyers, and sought to bring them together."  This attempt was unsuccessful, however, with Aline emerging after thirty minutes with Henry in the judge's chambers still resolved upon obtaining a divorce.  Such was granted a week later, Judge Ells having determined that "intolerable cruelty was proved by a fair preponderance of the evidence."  Yet Judge Ells, in a pregnantly suggestive comment, also made a point of commending von Rhau's "chivalry during the trial."  Had "dirt" about Aline been left out of the courtroom?

Perhaps Judge Ells heart was gladdened when, just a few weeks after he granted the divorce, Aline and Henry remarried.  The next year Aline gave birth to the couple's second child, a daughter named Cynthia, on November 28.  A month later the von Rhau hosted a Christmas Eve "cocktail party for intimate friends."  Over the next two years, newspaper society pages were full of accounts of the whirl of activities engaged in  by the seemingly happily reunited Mr. and Mrs. van Rhau.  In February 1935, the couple departed on an eighteen day cruise to South America.  The next year the von Rhaus left New York for Los Angeles, perhaps with the goal of introducing Henry to Hollywood.  Their doings were frequently detailed in newspaper society pages.

Soubrette, by Alexander Mann
In LA the couple was frequently accompanied by Henry's playwright pal John Colton, in keeping with Henry's habit of having a stag male friend tag along with him and Aline. 

In June Henry and Aline attended a buffet supper dance in costume.  Henry was decked out as a Prussian military officer--seemingly his favorite performative role--while Aline, recalling  Henry's bawdy book Tale of the Nineties, came dressed as an 1890s burlesque soubrette.  (One imagines the couple enjoyed a lively fantasy life.)  John Colton was present as well, though sadly no information was provided about the costume he wore.

Aline and Henry made news as well when they appeared separately.  In August Aline attended a "Bavarian party" (questionable taste, perhaps, in 1936), where famed soprano Rosa Ponselle "sang Strauss waltzes divinely," and attended a performance of John Colton's new stage comedy, She Tripped up the Queen.  In September Henry along with John Colton attended a dinner party given by screenwriter and composer Sam Hoffenstein and his wife Edith in honor of Chester Alan Arthur III (aka Gavin Arthur), grandson of the American president of the same name and a future pioneering gay rights activist.  Other guests included author Anita Loos and her husband, director John Emerson; actor Fredric March and his wife, actress Florence Eldridge; and pianist Alex Steinert, who during the "wee small hours" played the entire score of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, along with his own arrangements of pieces by the Russian composers Rimsky-Korsakoff and Borodin.

dude ranching in the Thirties
(not Henry and Aline)
It was for relaxation from this hectic social whirl that Aline and Henry, with John Colton in tow, went to a California dude ranch, the Rancho Verde, in October, a chatty LA Times society column informed its readers:

While "Hank" was busily learning to become a cowpuncher by chasing...steers around and around, John relaxed on the front porch of his cottage with his feet in the sun and head in the shade and a flit gun in his hand.  Oh, for a camera! 

Aline got aboard a horse for the first time in ten years and isn't sitting down with any comfort yet.  And it all comes under the head of fun--which as a matter of fact it really is.


But the fun was over by December, when, five days after Christmas, Aline again filed for a divorce from Henry, accusing her husband for a second time of intolerable cruelty and asking for custody of their two children, eight-year-old Anthony and two-year-old Cynthia. 

This time no details of the divorce suit were published in the newspapers, but Aline's suit had been granted seven weeks later, in February 1937, when French Riviera habitue John Edward Mullins, who it will be recalled had underwritten (At Aline's behest?) Henry's book Tale of the Nineties, was divorced at Grasse by his wife, Silvia Marietta Jose, on grounds of desertion.  Immediately after the divorce, Mullins announced his engagement to Aline Stumer, formerly von Rhau.  Mullins planned to depart from Marseilles aboard the steamship Excalibur, his destination being Beverly Hills and Aline.  In the event, however, Mullins wed not Aline, but one Gladys Celene Carroll, on April 26 in Manhattan.  Two months later he died aboard the Italian ocean liner Rex, the diagnosed cause being "delirium tremens, with hepato-cardiac insufficiency" (meaning, I assume, that chronic long-term alcohol abuse on Mullins' part had led to fatal heart failure).

Riviera expats
Sadly, the perils of Aline would continue over the next dozen years, much to the enjoyment of the newspapers, which liked nothing better--with the exception of murders of course--than lurid tales of erratic heiresses.  In 1938, while residing in LA at 7959 Hollywood Boulevard, Aline was arrested with her twenty-two-year-old brother Louis on suspicion of drunk driving and embarrassingly booked at the county jail, where she gave her name as Mrs. Aline von Rhau--von Rhau, to be sure, having more aristocratic cachet than Stumer. 

Meanwhile multiple-handled Aline's mother Blanche Regina (Griesheimer) Stumer Giddens did her part to keep the Stumer clan in unfavorable headlines.  In 1938, having divorced her second husband, Blanche at age fifty-five married forty-six-year-old Count Eugenio Casagrande, an Italian Great War hero, celebrated aviator and naturalized American citizen who not long after Pearl Harbor was detained as a dangerous enemy alien by FBI agents at an internment camp at Ellis Island.

Casagrande, "a darling of the Park Avenue circles" who before his arrest had been general secretary of the Unione Italiana di America, a federation of three hundred Italian and Italian-American societies, was characterized  by the ever-informative New York Daily News as "an original Fascist." Blanche--or, as she was now known, Countess Casagrande--divorced the Count the next year.  The Stumer women seem to have relinquished their own Jewish heritage, incidentally.  Blanche, for example, altered her hefty surname Grieseheimer to Gresham, as did her daughters, and all three women seem to have had Christian weddings.  Doubtless those Park Avenue circles that were so admiring of Eugenio Casagrande would not have had it any other way.

Eugenio Casagrande
Although apparently politically anodyne, at least, Aline's matrimonial record in the Forties proved every bit as disastrous as her mother's, if not more so.  Successively she wed and divorced three different men in under a decade, beginning in 1940 with Ernest Irving Rodehau, a salesman and son of German immigrants, continuing with Walter C. French in 1943 and concluding, most enticingly ingloriously, with Turkish native Orhan Lambiro in 1949. 

From the last listed of the spouses, Aline sought a divorce after merely twelve days of marriage, bringing to mind the appellation "Aline of a Dozen Days."

Although with her third and fourth marriages and divorces (after the two with Henry), Aline seems to have avoided adverse notice from the press, the third sequence simply had too many outre elements, by postwar American standards, to let pass unmentioned in the newspapers.  At the time he wed forty-five-year-old Aline, Orhan Lambiro was but twenty-three, working as a lifeguard and "beach boy" at Miami Beach.  Initially newspapers reported that Lambiro was the son of Turkish diplomat, but the modest young lifeguard--described, predictably, as "dark" and "husky" by the newspapers--corrected the record.

Speaking to reporters Lambiro explained that he was not the son of the Turkish delegate to the United Nations, his father being merely an employee of the Turkish delegation.  Aline, he claimed, had been responsible for the propagation of that falsehood: "She didn't want her fourth husband--me--doing common work, so I suppose she didn't want my father to be a working man either."  Lambiro added that he had been an American Army staff sergeant during the Second World War, serving overseas in Europe.

Aline had her own complaints, however, as she had years ago concerning Henry.  Lambiro, she asserted, had pressured her to finance a Miami Beach bookie joint and additionally had, like Henry, beaten her.  (Lambiro did have gambling offenses in an arrest record.)  She demanded one hundred dollars in weekly alimony from Lambiro, who attested that as a lifeguard he made but fourteen dollars a week (about one hundred and fifty dollars today). 

Lambiro countered with his own tale of woe, insisting that Aline had humiliated him by frequenting bars with another man.  He also claimed she told him that she had married him "solely for spite."  He asked that the divorce petition be dismissed at Aline's cost.  Certainly Aline's case was not helped when her attorney called off the alimony hearing upon learning that Aline had an income of seven hundred dollars a week--today about $7500 a week, or $360,000 a year.  $360,000 may have seemed like penury to Aline, but it would not have seemed so to most people, and certainly not to Orhan Lambiro.

However it was all finally worked out, the unblissfully wedded couple successfully divorced the next year.  Aline would marry one or two more times before she passed away at the age of seventy in 1975.  But what of Henry van Rhau?  He married again too.  How did that marriage turn out?  More soon, in the last part of the saga of "Baron" Henry and his wives.