Sunday, August 2, 2020

Circling Back: Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936 and 1943)

Jonathan Stagge's Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novel The Scarlet Circle (1943), in which the good doctor and his daughter Dawn encounter a rash of highly queer serial killings during their annual late summer fishing vacation at the decaying seaside New England village of Cape Talisman, has long been one of my favorite Stagge mysteries--indeed, one of my favorite mysteries period.  I reviewed it, very favorably, on my blog eight years ago.  But I only more recently came to realize that The Scarlet Circle originally was published in January 1936 in the pulp Detective Story Magazine and in the last quarter of 1942 heavily revised for publication by "Jonathan Stagge" co-author Hugh Wheeler, who added some 30,000 words and restructured much of the story.

ocean front of the Sakonnet Inn, Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island
also known as the Lyman Hotel (see Little Compton Historical Society)

All we know from the story is that The Scarlet Circle takes place along coastal New England, likely Connecticut, Rhode Island or southern Massachusetts, with my choice leaning toward Rhode Island, possibly the area of Little Compton, in the far southeastern part of the state.  At the far southern end of Little Compton, jutting out into the sea, is Sakonnet Point, where earlier in the previous century there used to be a thriving fishing village of a couple hundred souls, which catered to the summer tourist trade.  This would have made as excellent place as any, I think, for the site of the the fictional Cape Talisman in The Scarlet Circle, just as the real life Sakonnet Inn could have stood in for the fictional Talisman Inn.

1930s view of Sakonnet Point--for the writing on the back of the postcard see the picture below

The community of Sakonnet Point was wiped out by the catastrophic New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, which killed around 600 New Englanders, mostly in beleaguered Rhode Island, and in Connecticut imperiled Kathrine Hepburn, who at that time happened to be staying at the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  The '38 hurricane is referenced more than a few times in the 1943 edition of The Scarlet Circle.

North View on Lloyd's Beach at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton RI by Jeff Hayden
superimposed on the modern photo is an image of what the spot looked like
before the Great Hurricane of 1938, probably in the 1910s or  1920s
(purchases of this image help to support the Little Compton Historical Society)

Today Sakonnet Point offers visitors "long sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and is a haven for birds"--so appropriate for Hugh Wheeler, who in England had been, with his elder brother, an avid birdwatcher.  As the Our Natural Heritage website puts it:

Looking out from the easternmost tip of [Lloyd's] Beach [at Sakonnet Point], all you can see is the vast Atlantic Ocean in front of you, as you gaze out toward Portugal.  In the summer the beach and the surrounding scenery are pure heaven, and in the other seasons it is wild and wavy and exhilarating....I'll never forget how the wind howled so fiercely it almost sounded like sirens were calling from the the beach.


Anyone who has read the '43 version of The Scarlet Circle will know how the book memorably captures the images described above.

Cape Talisman, as envisioned by Hugh Wheeler and his partner Richard Webb, also seems to draw from the famous "drowned city" of Dunwich, in Suffolk, England, which for centuries now has been crumbling into the North Sea.  Very little is left today of what once had been (by medieval English standards) a large city.  Dunwich's All Saints' Church, which survived at the edge of a cliff into the twentieth century, became a much photographed iconic image in England.

"The tower went [over the cliff] on 12 November 1919," notes Simon Knott at the Suffolk Churches website,

leaving just a single buttress, which was rescued and reset in the graveyard of the new church at St. James.  Hauntingly, it carries graffiti from sightseers who visited it during its lonely sojourn on the clifftop....Throughout the twentieth century, people have come to Dunwich to see the last relics of All Saints.  Until the 1950s it was still easy to find identifiable lumps of masonry on the beach.  When I first came here in 1985, the bones of those buried in All Saints' graveyard protruded gruesomely from the cliff, and a single gravestone, to John Brinkley Easey, stood in an inconceivably bleak loneliness at the clifftop.  But this now has gone, removed to the safety of the churchyard at St James, and one would not think that there ever was anything like a town hear now.

like a sentinel, the solitary tower of All Saints Church once overlooked the cliff at Dunwich

I think that in The Scarlet Circle Hugh Wheeler and Rickie Webb, native Englishmen both, boldly placed All Saints and its churchyard with its exposed graves on the crumbling cliff in fictional Cape Talisman, New England, where they are to play an important role in the plot.

Here's how the 1936 pulp version of The Scarlet Circle describes Cape Talisman (Both versions are, like all the Dr. Westlake tales, narrated by the crime solving doctor):

grave of John Brinkley Easey (1738-1811)
in Dunwich, England
the last grave that was left lying in All Saints cemetery
September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, is the shore of Cape Talisman.  It is one of those spots against which the elements seem to have  a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves are encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which once was a flourishing community, is now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there is a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing is really safe.  The Talisman Hotel, so strong, so modern when I first visited it ten years ago, now has its foundations on sand and the beach for a front garden.  Soon it will have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church was recently abandoned when the spring tides approached the churchyard and threatened the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart fisher folk.  

And here's 1943:

September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, was the shore line of Cape Talisman,  It was one of those spots against which the elements seem to have a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves were encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which was once a flourishing community, was now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there was a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing was really safe.  The Talisman Inn, so secure, so prim when I first stayed there fifteen years ago, now had the beach for a front garden.  Soon it would have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church had been abandoned a couple of years ago when the hurricane had induced the Atlantic Ocean to surge into the churchyard and threaten the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart forebears.  

How convenient was the hurricane for Hugh's revision of The Scarlet Circle.  So much more sudden and dramatic than the "spring tides."

The changes in the above passages were light, outside of the addition of the mention of the '38 hurricane.  In much of the novel, however, the changes are considerable indeed.

Little Compton, Rhode Island
exposed Sakonnet Point is at the southernmost end
it was greatly unchanged a century later
Most significantly, Hugh Wheeler tremendously expanded the role of Dr. Westlake's willful daughter, Dawn, who is at her most willful here.  She is involved in a subplot with another determined child, five-year-old Bobby Fanshawe, the son of an artistic couple staying at the Talisman Inn, which becomes much more important in the '43 version.

Reviewing the novel in 1943, Anthony Boucher complained that Dawn "hasn't grown a month nearer puberty in six years"; but of course Boucher didn't appreciate that The Scarlet Circle was actually Dawn's second published adventure, rather than her sixth. 

Indeed, the pulp version of the tale even gives Dawn's age as nine, which is a year younger than she starts off in the the first Stagge mystery, The Dogs Do Bark, so she's literally regressing.  To be sure, Dawn behaves more immaturely here than she does in The Yellow Taxi (1942), where her age has advanced to twelve, but she her absolute determination is also tremendously amusing, in my view, if you don't find humor in an otherwise creepy serial killer story too discordant. Somehow it all seems to seems to work for me; and Dawn here is really integral to the plot, more so than she is in some of the other stories.

Clearly Hugh is more interested than Rickie was in the Dawn subplot.  Compare the passages in the respective version where Bobby is introduced into the story:

Bobby Fanshawe was a small, solemn infant of five who looked as though life were altogether too confusing for him--as probably it was if he modeled it upon his father and mother.  After breakfast I took him and Dawn out onto the beach.  (1936)

landward side of the Sakonnet Inn,
showing the observation tower, which later became a guest suite

Within a few moments [Dawn] walked in, leading little Bobby Fanshawe by the hand.  

It was a most unfortunate moment, because I had gotten out of bed and was struggling with my pajama top which had become twisted around me during the night.  Bobby Fanshawe was very small for five years.  He had very black hair, cut in a flat oriental bang, and very black sooty eyes which stared with archiepiscopal solemnity.  

He just stood there with his hand tightly clasped in Dawn's and gave me one of those long Bobby stares.

Suddenly, in a voice deep and husky as a truck driver's, he said: "Who's that man?"

"It's my Daddy," said Dawn  "You know that perfectly. You've seen him every day for two weeks."  

Bobby's expression showed no fractional alteration. 

"I don't like him," he said.  "He looks silly.  He's a silly man." (1943)

Postcard written from Sakonnet Point
written on September 3, 1936,
almost two years to the date before
 the Great New England Hurricane,
to Ethel Hale Freeman (1882-1960), Smith
College graduate, academic, composer and artist.
The island of Bermuda--another favorite vacation
destination of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, about
which they wrote about in the detective novel
Return to the Scene (1941)--is mentioned
Rickie in the '36 version is more interested in discussions among investigators, which are toned down in the '43 version, about the presumed sexual deviancy of an evidently grotesquely depraved serial killer:

"Of course, you've always got Jack the Ripper to back you up," he admitted.  "But his were sex crimes, Gilchrist.  And the autopsy showed that there was nothing of that sort in this case."

Gilchrist smiled grimly.  "We don't want to get into the complications of sex perversions, Sweney.  But if you ever read Kraft-Ebbing [sic] you'll find some pretty little chapters on fetishism, sadism and even necrophilia."  

The serial killer, you see, strangles women and then draws circles with red lipstick around single prominent moles on their dead bodies.  It certainly appears to be prime material for pioneering sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing, with whose landmark work, Psychopathia Sexualis, Rickie Webb clearly was familiar (see his book The Grindle Nightmare, 1935), but Hugh doesn't speculate about this so explicitly. 

Nor does the '43 version point out that Dawn herself has a large mole, which might tempt the killer!  In the later version Dr. Westlake attempts to pack Dawn off to his Aunt Mabel out of concern for her safety, but we don't into the matter of Dawn's moles, which is good because in the pulp version it's kind of icky.

Overall, Hugh enriches the writing.  I'll give just one more example here, comparing the passages where Dr. Westlake goes for a walk on the beach with Mr. Usher (!), an oleaginous undertaker staying at the Talisman Inn:

Uriah Heep (1939 Royal Doulton figurine)
....he seemed utterly out of place against the sunlit background of the beach with its turquoise waves and its long, silver stretches of sand.  He wore a dark inappropriate suit which heightened the waxy pallor of his skin and the redness of his hair.  Everything about his face was mean and foxy except his full-lipped sensual mouth.  His hands he kept running nervously in front of him in a pose which was strangely reminiscent of Uriah Heep.  I noticed that the joints of his fingers were sprinkled with warts.  

Doctor Westlake, I--er--wonder if you would care to go for a stroll.  There's a little matter-" (1936)

There was a horrid smile on his full red mouth--a smile, too, in the ginger-brown eyes.  He wore no hat, and his red hair gleamed in the sunlight above the waxy pallor of his cheeks.  Under his arm was a black leather book, probably the Bible, and his hands, with their spray of warts, were kneading each other in a Uriah Heep fashion.  He glanced rather furtively at Buck and then more steadily at me. 

"Ah good morning, Dr. Westlake.  A shocking tragedy--but a beautiful morning.  The Lord's compensation."  He hesitated.  "I was wondering if you would care to take a little stroll with me."  

There was nothing I would care to take less.  I was about to say so when he added: 

"There is something--ah--quite important.  I would be grateful to have your advice."  (1943)

"Touch the screen!"
capture of Phil Collins mugging it as a smarmy,
wealthy televangelist in the satirical 1991
Genesis video of the song "Jesus He Knows Me"
That added pious, empty platitude about "The Lord's compensation" (as if nice weather can compensate for a woman's tragic murder) shows the hand of true natural writer.  How many times over the decades have we seen those horrid smiles on the faces of sickeningly fulsome, donations-beseeching celebrity television ministers?

Whether or not it's my favorite Stagge, The Scarlet Circle--the '43 version--is certainly in my top three or four of them. 

I'm glad the time was taken to get right its peculiarly captivating blend of terror and whimsy, so characteristic of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Completing the Circle: The Evolution of Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle from Pulp Magazine to Hardcover Novel

Jonathan Stagge's mystery The Scarlet Circle originally appeared in the January 1936 edition of Detective Story Magazine as a short novel of some 50,000 words.  It was the third adventure of country doctor and amateur sleuth Dr. Hugh Westlake to appear in DSM, following fast on the heels of The Dogs Do Bark, another novel, and The Frightened Landlady, a novella of under 30,000 words.  Next came Murder or Mercy?, published in DSM in June 1936.  Then there was a three year lull in Dr. Westlake mysteries, until 1939, when The Stars Spell Death appeared in serial form in Argosy.

The first Dr. Westlake murder case, The Dogs Do Bark, also became the first published in book form, in late 1936 (the title changed to Murder Gone to Earth in the United Kingdom).  The next Hugh Westlake tale to be published in book form was not The Frightened Landlady or The Scarlet Circle, however, but rather Murder or Mercy?, in late 1937 (the title changed to Murder by Prescription in the US).  Why were both The Frightened Landlady and The Scarlet Circle, Hugh Westlake's second and third adventures respectively, skipped over in favor of Murder or Mercy? 

The Frightened Landlady
would have needed to have been at least doubled in length to be published as novel and, quite frankly, I'm not sure there is enough story for that, with its talking place entirely at an atmospherically shabby boarding house in Grovestown, twenty miles from from Dr. Westlake's home in Kenmore.  (TFL is being published this year, however, in a Crippen & Landru collection.)

front cover of my copy of the January 1936 issue of DSM with
The Scarlet Circle as lead story
note the prominent scarlet circle on the first murder victim's cheek
and also that someone outlined a circle in pencil
above her right eye on the red paper lantern--who done it?
As for The Scarlet Circle, which in serial form was nearly twice as long as TFL, we have a different explanation, I suspect. As I've discussed before, the real life scarlet or red circle slayings, which occurred on Long Island in October 1937, when a teenage boy and his girlfriend were shot and killed in a parked car and red circles bizarrely painted in lipstick on their foreheads, may have dissuaded Jonathan Stagge from publishing this story in novel form for several years  The 1937 murders creepily have all the markings of  a copycat crime and, in any event, for anyone after the murders to have published a novel called The Scarlet Circle, about a serial killer who painted red circles on his victims in lipstick, might have struck some as egregiously opportunistic and in very poor taste indeed.

Rather than publish The Scarlet Circle in book form as the next Jonathan Stagge after Murder or Mercy?, Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the men behind Jonathan Stagge (and Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin), as mentioned wrote an original Stagge story, The Stars Spell Death, serialized in Argosy and published as a novel in 1939.  It is, in my opinion, the poorest of all the Stagge, a rather noveletttish spy story which fizzles out in sheer silliness after a good beginning.  Still, even after that The Scarlet Circle remained set aside for several years, with the new Stagge novels appearing in print being Turn of the Table (1940) and The Yellow Taxi (1942).  But by then the Unites States had entered World War Two (with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941), and Rickie and Hugh, who had finally become American citizens, were both slated to enlist in the US Army.

The two men's incredible productivity as authors lasted throughout the mid to late 1930s and into the 1940s, but with the war it was beginning, finally, to wind down in 1942.  Let me illustrate:

1935
The Grindle Nightmare, Q. Patrick (novel) (August)

Killed by Time (short story) (Detective Story Magazine, October) (to be reprinted in Hunt in the Dark and Other Deadly Pursuits)
The Frightened Landlady (novella) (DSM, December) (to be reprinted in HITD)


1936 

The Scarlet Circle (novel) (DSM, January)
The Hated Woman (novelette) (DSM, February) (to be reprinted in HITD)
Death Goes to School, Q. Patrick (novel) (February)

A Puzzle for Fools, Patrick Quentin (novel) (October)
The Dogs Do Bark, Jonathan Stagge (novel) (December) (serialized November 1935)
The Jack of Diamonds (novelette) (American Magazine, November)

1937 
Danger Next Door (novel) (DSM, May)
Exit before Midnight (novelette) (American Magazine, October)
Death for Dear Clara, Q. Patrick  (novel) (October)
File on Fenton and Farr, Q. Patrick (crimefile) (November)
Murder or Mercy?, Jonathan Stagge (novel) (December) (serialized June 1936)

1938
File on Claudia Cragge, Q. Patrick (crimefile) (October)
Puzzle for Puppets, Patrick Quentin (December)

1939
Death and the Maiden, Q. Patrick (February)
The Stars Spell Death, Jonathan Stagge (November)

1940
Another Man's Poison (novelette) (American Magazine, January)
Turn of the Table, Jonathan Stagge  (November)

1941
Death Rides the Ski-Tow (novelette) (April) (published in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth)
Murder with Flowers (novelette) (December) (published in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth)
Return to the Scene, Q. Patrick (September)

1942
Portrait of a Murderer (short story) (Harper's, April)
The Yellow Taxi, Jonathan Stagge (May)
Hunt in the Dark (novelette) (Short Stories, October) (to be reprinted in HITD)


So in the eight year period from 1935 to 1942, Rickie and Hugh produced:

12 book form novels (5 Q. Patricks, 5 Stagges and 2 Patrick Quentins)
2 Q. Patrick Crimefiles, which might be termed documented novels
2 serial novels not at that time published in book form (The Scarlet Circle and Danger Next Door)
1 novella
7 novelettes
2 short stories

February 1938 True Detective article
on the October 1937 Red Circle Slayings
By the summer of '42, however, Rickie and Hugh, looking ahead to enlisting in the army in the fall, were trying to get another novel ready for fall publication, not knowing what precisely the wicked, warring world held in store for them.  Noting the two authors' predicament, one newspaper columnist expressed the hope that "the Stagge books will continue whatever else their authors are doing for Uncle Sam.  A good book can do as much for the country's morale as all the public relation work."  That pleasant thought notwithstanding, Rickie entered the US Army in September without him and Hugh having finished revising their new book project: an expansion of The Scarlet Circle.

Yes, after more than six years Rickie and Hugh, eager to get another book out, in 1942 reached back to an old pulp publication from 1936.  In the event, it was left to Hugh to complete the expansion before he entered the army in December, three months after Rickie (though they did complete a Peter and Iris Duluth mystery novelette, "Hunt in the Dark," which was published in October).  Over the three months between their respective enlistments, Hugh, Rickie's onetime protege, added some 30,000 words to The Scarlet Circle, heavily revising the text and making of it a much improved book--in my view one of the best of the Stagges.

The Scarlet Circle finally appeared in book form in May 1943, along with, later that year, a Q. Patrick spy novelette entitled "The Gypsy Warned Him."  These would be the only products of the Stagge-Patrick-Quentin consortium that year.  The next year Hugh, stationed in a cushy post at Fort Dix, New Jersey, would revise, with some limited epistolary input from Rickie, who was on his way out to the Southwest Pacific, the novelette "Murder with Flowers" into a full Patrick Quentin novel: Puzzle for Puppets, which marked the return in book form, after six years, of series characters Peter and Iris Duluth. 

This would be the Rickie and Hugh's only crime fiction publication in 1944.  As I said, the boys' output was slowing down over these war years, but, significantly for the future, Hugh, forced to go it mostly alone, was finding he was quite cable of going it mostly--or even entirely--alone.  When Rickie returned to the US in the summer of '45, he would find that his relationship with Hugh had changed in more ways than one.  Consider Rickie and Hugh's partnership yet another war casualty.

Coming soon: I take a closer look at the two Scarlet Circles, the original pulp text and the later published novel.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Oh, That This Too Too Solid Flesh Would Melt: The Dogs Do Bark (1936), by Jonathan Stagge

And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the portion of Jezreel, and there shall be none to bury her.--2 Kings 09:10

Richard Webb's and Hugh Wheeler's debut "Jonathan Stagge" detective novel, The Dogs Do Bark, the first adventure pf physician and amateur sleuth Dr. Hugh Westlake, was published in the US and UK (in the latter country under the title Murder Gone to Earth) in late 1936; yet the story originally appeared a year earlier in November 1935 in Detective Story Magazine, where it was the first of four serializations over an eight month period of Jonathan Stagge mysteries in DSM, all of which were credited to "Q. Patrick," Richard Webb's original pseudonym.  "Jonathan Stagge" would not come into existence until Dogs was published in book form in 1936.

In December 1935 came the novella Q. Patrick "The Frightened Landlady," soon followed in January 1936 by the novel The Scarlet Circle and rather later, in June 1936, by Murder or Mercy?  The Scarlet Circle was belatedly published as a novel in 1943 (the lag being caused, in my belief, by the real life Scarlet Circle slaying) and Murder or Mercy? in 1937.  "The Frightened Landlady" was never published in book form, but it will be later this year, in the Q. Patrick short fiction collection Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits.  It will be the tenth, and presumably final, Hugh Westlake murder case to see book form.

The accepted chronology of the Hugh Westlake cases is as follows (with the original pulp title given as the main title, alternative titles following--Stagge's British publisher, Michael Joseph, had a perverse mania for changing these titles):

The Dogs Do Bark/Murder Gone to Earth (1936)
Murder or Mercy?/Murder by Prescription (1937)
The Stars Spell Death/Murder in the Stars (1939)
Turn of the Table/Funeral for Five (1940)
The Yellow Taxi/Call a Hearse (1942)
The Scarlet Circle/Light from a Lantern (1943)
Death, My Darling Daughters/Death and the Dear Girls (1945) (actually, the British finally got it right this time in my view, with the latter title)
Death's Old Sweet Song (1946)
The Three Fears (1949)

But the order of the first six books actually is quite different, if one goes by the original pulp publications. (Plus there's an additional case.)

The Dogs Do Bark (1935)
The Frightened Landlady (1935)
The Scarlet Circle (1936)
Murder or Mercy? (1936)
The Stars Spell Death (1939)
Turn of the Table (1940)
The Yellow Taxi (1942)
Death and the Dear Girls (1945) 
Death's Old Sweet Song (1946)
The Three Fears (1949)

Hugh Wheeler substantially revised The Scarlet Circle when he was at Fort Dix during World War Two and needing to get a book out. (During the war years 1942-44, Rickie and Hugh only published three novels, only one of them an entirely original work.)  Among other things, Hugh removed references to earlier cases in the original manuscript of The Scarlet Circle, because The Scarlet Circle was now officially the sixth Hugh Westlake case rather than the third.  Hugh's revision of the pulp source is definitely an improvement, but it makes for a certain amount of confusion.

Fox hunters find more than a fox
has gone to earth in Jonathan Stagge's
first tale, originally attributed to Q. Patrick
On the other hand, Hugh spent only a week on revisions to The Dogs Do Bark (even though the novel was published a year after its pulp appearance), meaning that the pulp version and the novel are very similar.  All four of Hugh Westlake's initial cases strongly reflect their pulpish origins, being full of weird and outre, even horrific, elements, all of them indicative of the grisly hand of Rickie Webb.  At the same time, there's this cozy, often comedic, relationship between the middle-aged country doctor and amateur sleuth, Hugh Westlake, and his willful young daughter, Dawn (whose age varies over the series--sometimes in the early ones she's ten, sometimes eight). 

Somehow the authors make this cozy and creepy combo mesh, thus making a hugely enjoyable mystery series out of the Hugh Westlake novels.

The Dogs Do Bark set the template for the rest of the Hugh Westlake series in this regard.  Certainly the novel has its share of horror, mainly centering on the murderer's grotesque disposal of the first victim.  The body of the first victim--a portion of it anyway--is discovered crushed down in a fox's den, where the fox, pursued by hounds and human riders during a hunt, had "gone to earth."  Only the legs and trunk of the dead woman are found in the den, however.  The arms were deposited in the kennel of the pack of hounds, which, voraciously hungry on the night before the hunt, promptly chowed down on them.  As for the head--well, it won't turn up for quite a while in the story, but it makes a memorable appearance.

All this grisly stuff is poured into a detective novel written in the classic English village mystery vein.  ("Cozy" English mysteries themselves often could be quite horridly cavalier in the matter of the disposal of inconvenient human bodies--just think of the books of ghoulishly jolly Gladys Mitchell.)  Indeed, some American reviewers deemed Dogs more an English mystery than an American one.  One reviewer even suggested that the author was an Englishman who simply transplanted an English mystery to American shores.  This notion was fostered by the fact that the novel is about foxhunting, an activity one tends to associate in the US with the Mother Country.

In fact, however, foxes were ritually pursued on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, where wealthy country elites aped their British forebears across the pond.  On the jacket flap the American publishers of Dogs gave the book's setting as the state of Pennsylvania, but the text of the book itself never mentions a state; and later books in the series make clear that the books take place in New England.  Certainly, Dogs could have taken place in Pennsylvania, where foxhunting was long practiced in the southeastern part of the state and Rickie and Hugh themselves for most of the Thirties maintained a residence together in Philadelphia.  On the other hand, they often summered in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, finally moving there in 1939, and they were familiar with Connecticut as well. 

My theory is The Dogs Do Bark takes place in the state of Connecticut, though the series appears later to have slightly migrated to Massachusetts.  There was a prominent Hunt Club, the Norfolk County Hunt Club, at Medfield in southeastern Massachusetts, as well as the Millbrook Hunt in Dutchess County, New York, in the southern part of that state, but I plump for the Nutmeg State.  Ritualized foxhunting had a tradition dating back to the nineteenth century in Pennsylvania, but in Connecticut it began in the 1920s, when wealthy inhabitants of Fairfield County, located in extreme southwestern Connecticut, began forming hunt clubs. 


Some of what one may make of The Dogs Do Bark may depend on what one thinks of foxhunting.  Bill Pronzini, who was repelled by the foxhunting in Dogs (not to mention the fox hunters themselves), gave the novel a resoundingly negative review in his 1986 book 1001 Midnights.  I agreed with him the first time I read the novel, but now I think it offers readers an enjoyable slice of American social history. 

There's an episode in Dogs which Bill found risible, where the fox hunters stage an elaborate funeral for a horse, Sir Basil, who was deliberately gassed in his stables.  Bill witheringly comments that the hunters are

far more upset at the carbon monoxide poisoning of Sir Basil...than they are at the mutilation murder of the young woman.  In fact, the Hunt Club holds an elaborate funeral for the horse, in which all of them dress royally in their riding habits and stand around solemnly while Sir Basil is buried in the owners' front lawn.

Foxhunting appealed to a certain segment
of American society even before
the advent of Downton Abbey
Ludicrous?  Perhaps not.  I haven't found a real life case of such an equine funeral, but I wouldn't be surprised if one had taken place.  Certainly wealthy and privileged fox hunters took seriously such formal ceremonies as symbolic spectacle and occasions, consciously or not, to "lord it over" others. 

When in 1929 socially prominent Margaret W. Bulkeley, divorced wife of Houghton Bulkeley, son of the late former Connecticut governor and senator Morgan Gardner Bulkeley, married similarly divorced Donald G. Perkins, master of the hounds of the Fairfield County Hunt Club, on the grounds of Margaret's newly constructed country mansion, Peacehigh, there were in attendance fifty Hunt Club members, all of them splendidly attired in full hunting regalia. 

The men wore scarlet coats, trimmed with collars in the Club colors of blue and gold, and yellow breeches, while the bride wore black: black silk hat, black coat trimmed with blue and gold and black breeches.  During the ceremony impatient steeds and hounds were kept quartered nearby, for a foxhunt was to commence immediately upon the Congregationalist minister's pronouncement that the happy pair were now man and wife.  Away the newly united spouses rode, the bride atop her favorite chestnut gelding, "Cuba." the groom astride a handsome bay named "Clinker." 

This was deemed front page news in Hartford, Connecticut, only six years before Rickie and Hugh wrote The Dogs Do Bark.  Honestly, Margaret Bulkeley might well have been the inspiration for the book's Clara Faulkner, for all I know.  (See below.)

Is this kind of nauseating?  Sure!  But to me it's  rather fascinating too.  And this facet of elite American life is well captured indeed in The Dogs Do Bark.  But how is the mystery, you may ask?  That's a good question.


Well, it's a nice fair play mystery that you can solve for yourself, and the story races along at an enjoyable clip with lots of variety and incident.  However, there is one definite weakness, which Bill Pronzini pointed out years ago, and he wasn't the only one to do so.  (See this review at Mystery*File by William F. Deeck, though it has major spoilers.)  The plot hinges, complains Bill, "on a false assumption that everyone, including Westlake and a county cop, Inspector Cobb, makes without once considering a glaringly obvious alternative possibility."  And, indeed, Bill is right.  Even John Norris, who gave the book a great review on his blog, had to admit, in a comment on Deeck's review, that this aspect of the mystery was "stretching credibility very thin."

It is indeed and it makes Inspector Cobb and Westlake look rather like dunderheads, I must admit, but on the whole I am in agreement with John that this is a tremendously enjoyable mystery, if you can get past that one matter and can abide the characters, which include a wealthy, gossipy hypochondriac named Mrs. Howell (Lulu, not Lovey, is her first name; an imperious rich woman, Clara Faulkner, who is on her second, much younger, husband and thinks is the proper thing to do to strike a grieving tenant farmer with her riding crop at Sir Basil's funeral, leaving purple welts on his face; and a puritanically religious farmer, Elias Grimshawe, who compares his wayward daughter, Anne, who may be the owner of the dismembered corpse if you will, to that notorious Biblical wanton Jezebel, even quoting the bible verse at the top of this piece in reference to her.  Thanks, pop!

Jezebel meets her awful fate
For grisliness, Golden age detective fiction has nothing on the Old Testament!

That's quite a nasty group of characters.  You may not like them, but you will remember them.  What a relief is Hugh Westlake's little daughter Dawn, with her utter obliviousness to the murders and mayhem going on all around her.  All she wants is some rabbits as pets.  Does she get them?  You'll have to read The Dogs Do Bark to find out!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Archie Goodwin and That Bottle of Dom Perignon: Some Thoughts on Masculinity in Mid-Century Mystery

WARNING: In the following post there are SPOILERS to the Rex Stout detective novel Too Many Clients (1960).  Not to the identity of the murderer but to other aspects of the mystery concerning two of the characters.  Read ahead at your own peril.

Rex Stout's Too Many Clients, reviewed by me in my last post, concerns the murder, in his secret "love nest," of satyric plastics company executive Thomas G. Yeager.  Archie gets pulled into the case by a man claiming to be Yeager, who tells Archie that he thinks he is being followed to a certain location (said love nest) and asks Archie to trail him to that location to determine whether this is indeed true.  It turns out that this man is impersonating Thomas Yeager, the real Thomas Yeager having been murdered, though only after the impersonation was carried by out by this man.

Over the course of the case we learn that said impersonator is really Austin Hough, an assistant professor of English literature at New York University (Those professors!), and that his wife, Dinah ("Di"), was one of Thomas Yeager's many lady friends.  Archie had been dubious about Hough from the start, as Hough had come to visit Nero Wolfe's brownstone wearing a $39.95 suit that "didn't fit and needed pressing" and a $3.00 shirt "on its second or third day."  But it's more than that too: "There was nothing wrong with his long bony face and broad forehead, but he simply didn't have the air of a man who might make a sizable contribution to Nero Wolfe's bank balance."  Sad Sack Hough does not have the confidence of the rich and entitled.

And that's indeed true, since Hough is actually a downtrodden college assistant professor (not even a full one), wearing gray socks with little red dots, the tops of which fall down "nearly to his shoes."  Later on, Archie encounters Dinah Hough at the Yeager love nest, where she had come to retrieve an umbrella; and though she claims her visit to the love nest had been purely innocent, Archie can tell that she's a hot to trot filly, as it were.  Later, when Archie meets up with Austin Hough again, at Nero Wolfe's office (Hough plaintively demanding all the while, "Where's my wife?"--he never seems to refer to her any other way), Archie tells us:

I seldom feel sorry for people Wolfe has got in a corner....but I had to move my eyes away from Austin Hough.  His long bony face was distorted he looked more like a gargoyle than a man. 

Hough admits that he perpetrated the imposture with Archie because he wanted the real Thomas Yeager to know that someone knew about his affair with his wife, so that his wife would know too.  "I couldn't tell her," he explains, "but I wanted her to know I knew."  A self-flagellating Hough reflects:

Of course my wife shouldn't have married me....I was a fool to think that I might still save our marriage, but I did.  She wanted things that I couldn't supply, and she wanted to do things that I am not inclined to and not equipped for.  She couldn't do them with me, so she did them without me. ...About a year ago she suddenly had a watch that must have cost a thousand dollars or more.  Then other things--jewelry, clothes, a fur coat....occasionally she came home after dawn....I descended to snooping....

Archie wonders what this pathetic cuckolded man will do when he sees his wife again, knowing that his fears were true and that she definitely was having it off with Thomas G. Yeager.  (Archie tells him he knows Di lied when she told that she had only been there once and had not stayed long.)  "[W]hat was he going to say?" Archie thinks: "Was he going to explain that he was responsible for her finding a reception committee when she went to get her umbrella?  Was he going to admit--I turned that switch off.  He had married her, I hadn't."

Some college professors are manlier than others.

Later, when Archie sees the Houghs at their apartment, he finds a now assertive Hough, who vulgarly says things like "Balls," rather than moonily quote prose and poetry.  Archie finds Hough has beaten his wife up, very badly.  "I have seen better-looking corpses," he pronounces after getting a looks at Di.  "I was afraid of what would happen if I told her [that I knew about her]" Hough explains.  "Now it has happened."

The couple answers Archie's questions and Hough tells Archie that he can go now.  "She's your wife, not mine," Archie reiterates (out loud this time), "but has a doctor seen her?"  "No," responds Hough.  "I was filling the ice bags when you rang the bell."  Archie makes his eyes go to the stricken woman (just like he had to make his eyes go to the pathetic, gargoyle like Hough on his early visit) and he asks her if she wants to see a doctor, to which she simply says, "No."

"Send her a bottle of champagne," Hough says snidely as Archie leaves.  Di had been drinking champagne and flirting with Archie when he met her at the love nest.

Archie does order champagne--not for Di, however, but for Hough.  He specifically asks for a bottle of Dom Perignon, which was the champagne that Yeager had stocked at the love nest.  He signs the card to Hough, "with the compliments of Archie Goodwin."  He adds to the reader: "I have often wondered whether he dumped it in the garbage, or drank it himself, or shared it with her."

Exit the Houghs, but they leave questions in their wake, like what Archie was doing when he sent Hough that bottle of Dom Perignon?  For some people the episode is a clear cut matter of Archie congratulating a fellow male for asserting his masculinity against an errant wife who had undercut it.  You beat your naughty wife until she looked worse than a corpse, here's to you!  

At the Thrilling Detective website Marcia Kiser writes that "Archie is always the White Knight [in relation to women]....which makes Archie's actions in Too Many Clients (1960) surprising when, after he learns Arthur Hough has beaten his wife, Archie sends Mr. Hough a bottle of Dom Perignon, with his compliments and paid for by him personally--tacit approval of the beating."  And at the LibraryThing message board, a disgusted commenter, AdonisGuilfoyle, writes: "Archie's celebration of the cuckolded husband's cowardly attack on his wife--yeah, your a real man now, Professor!--went too far for me."

This simply can't be right, in my estimation.  Such behavior seems utterly at odds with the Archie we know and love from Stout's series of tales.  (Archie must be one of the most beloved characters in series detective fiction.)  Not only that, but Stout goes out of his way to describe how badly beaten up Di is and how Archie is appalled to have even to look at her bruised face.  In the television series, a clearly angry Archie bellows at Hough, when he answers for Di, "I was talking to her!"  However, this is an invention, the episode remaining more ambiguous in the book, especially for modern readers.  The past, as someone like Austin Hough might remind us, is a foreign country.

A real man?  James Cagney and Mae Clark in The Public Enemy (1931)

Certainly vintage mystery is full of retrograde and reprehensible attitudes about women, representative of their times.  So is older fiction in general, and cinema as well.  In the Thirties there was a lot of talk, including from women themselves, about women wanting "cavemen" for husbands, assertive he-men who will take charge and take no prisoners.  Actor James Cagney made a big splash when he shoved a grapefruit into a woman's face on the big screen, Clark Gable when he, playing a wicked chauffeur, viciously decked Barbara Stanwyck's night nurse.  Why, these were men with red blood in their veins!  Or so the thinking ran.

After World War Two, when many women under patriotic impetus had ventured out into the workplace and ran households all by themselves, men, home from the war, wanted to reassert themselves; and emblematic of this is the hugely popular detective fiction of Mickey Spillane, whose series sleuth Mike Hammer knew how to put women back in their places.  He even shoots one in the stomach.  In Spillane, not only is feminism stillborn, it seems, but chivalry is dead.

Archie Goodwin, however, is nothing if not chivalrous.  I will say again, it's inconceivable to me that he cold have been back slapping Hough for so viciously beating a woman.   To be sure, a point is made that Hough is a milquetoast in the beginning of the novel, perhaps even impotent.  (She wanted to do things he is not equipped to do.)  He's not much of a man, by Fifties mid-century standards, or even, one might argue, today's.

Hough goes from one extreme to the other, from cuckold to beating his wife to a pulp, in order to assert his masculinity.  That's not real manhood either, however.  One state signifies the loss of control over one's wife, the other the loss of control over one's self.  A real man maintains control over himself.  At least in the world of Nero Wolfe.

Archie is no knuckle-dragging neanderthal, a brute man like Spillane's Mike Hammer.  Rather he's a charming roguish trickster, or a joker as the perpetually fuming Inspector Cramer calls him.  How would Archie respond, in an era where it was still widely believed that a husband had the right to chastise his wife for her misbehavior ("She's your wife, not mine," Archie says), when a husband snidely tells Archie to send his wife champagne to make her feel better.  Why, sarcastically of course, by ironically sending to the husband the same champagne his wife drank with another man, who gave her the kind of relationship she wanted.  Here you are, big man, you beat up a woman, congratulations!  Now what? 

What would Hough do with that champagne, Archie wondered: Dump it, drink it, or share it with his wife (possible reconciliation?).  Archie, and we the readers, never find out.

Subtlety can be frustrating but it can be mentally stimulating too.  I put my bean to work on this problem and this is the answer I came up with.  I hope I'm right!  Readers, what say you?

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bower of Carnality: Too Many Clients (1960), by Rex Stout

Archie (Timothy Hutton)
interviews a client (the ubiquitous Kari Matchett)
in the  2002 film adaptation of
Rex Stout's Too Many Clients

Director Billy Wilder's titillating best picture Oscar winning film The Apartment, about an insurance clerk who climbs the corporate ladder by lending his domicile to his superiors for use as a cite to carry on extramarital sexual liaisons opened in American theaters on June 30, 1960. Author Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novel Too Many Clients, about the murder of a randy plastics executive at his "bower of carnality" (as its colorfully termed in the novel), was published just under four months later, on October 28.  Stout's novel was already in the hands of his publishers by the time The Apartment opened, for Stout had written it in just thirty-five days, between May 6 and June 22; but one has to wonder if publicity about the upcoming film influenced the writing of Too Many Clients.  Or perhaps it was simply coincidence.  In any case, both the film and novel offer an interesting wry look at mores, sexual and otherwise, in the urban white collar world in the American mid-century.

Speculation about The Apartment doesn't come up in John McAleer's biography of Rex Stout, which, despite the bio's massive length, provides only limited literary analysis of individual Nero Wolfe detective novels.  After noting the time it took Stout to write it--I think McAleer diligently does this for almost all of the Wolfe books (Stout kept good records)--McAleer adds: "Archie here is at his funniest and most visible.  Maria Perez is the liveliest foreign girl to appear in the series since Anna Fiore in Fer-de-Lance, and the late Thomas Yeager...is a superb portrait of the businessman type that Rex despised."  And that's it.  There's not a lot to hang a hat on here, really, so in the lines below I shall provide my own take on this excellent detective novel.

Author and critic Julian Symons, as I noted in the last blog post, maintained that the Nero Wolfe books drastically declined after 1950, but a decade after that with Too Many Clients, I couldn't see evidence of that decline.  To the contrary, this is a strong Wolfe indeed.  It begins originally, with Archie getting requested to perform an investigative service for a man pronouncing himself to be Thomas Yeager, senior vice president of Consolidated Plastic Products.  It seems that Yeager thinks he is being followed to a certain location and he wants Archie to trail him to that location to discern whether this is true.  Archie soon discovers, however, that Yeager has been murdered and that the man identifying himself as Yeager was not in fact he.

The real Yeager's dead body is found covered over with a tarpaulin at an excavation cite in a slum district, across from the very building which the false Yeager had identified as his destination.  Upon further investigation Archie finds that the building conceals a love nest, or sex pad as it might have been called a few years later: Thomas Yeager's aforementioned bower of carnality.  He also finds that Yeager actually was murdered there, his body being later removed outside of the building.

The bower is maintained by resident caretakers Cesar and Felita Perez, who knew about their employers' goings-on (they had to clean up after him), but they insist that their beautiful sheltered though rather inquisitive daughter, Maria, knew nothing about it. 

In fact it was Cesar who moved Yeager's body out into the street, but he and Felita insist to Archie they did not kill him; and they want to hire the gumshoe to help them out of this jam. (Out of respect for the body, Cesar put the tarpaulin over Yeager's body, leaving fingerprints, which the police surely will trace to him if they ever find out about Yeager's bower.)  While he's in the bower with the Perezes in comes one of Yeager's lady friends (she has her own key), a stage actress named Meg Duncan.  She wants to retrieve a cigarette case which she thinks she left there and she ends up hiring Archie to find it for her and return it.  (You will be getting now, oif you haven't read it, why this book has its title.)

Ace detective Saul Panzer not being available, Archie installs Fred Durkin there to watch for future visitors and he tries to convince Wolfe, quarterly taxes being due, that they might have a lucrative case here.  Eventually they do, when Fred catches another lady in the bower, Julia McGee, who claims that she is Yeager's secretary and that the only thing she ever did there was a little dictation.  She brings in the president of CPP, pompous Benedict Aiken, who ends up hiring Wolfe, with the connivance of the board of directors, to keep the existence of the bower from becoming known.  (Scandal, don't you know.)  Another would-be client, Thomas Yeager's overbearing widow, comes into the picture as well, demanding that Wolfe find out who killed her husband, since CPP doesn't really care about that matter per se.  There's also yet another one of Yeager's lady friends who comes into the picture, but I've probably said enough (or more than enough) about the plot already.  Some people say plotting was not a strong suit of Stout's, to which I say, like certain characters in this books, "balls."

In this novel we learn more here about Wolfe's and Archie's (and implicitly Stout's) attitudes about sex, in a book that I actually found more serious than a lot of the works in the Stout canon.  (There's even a case of spousal abuse, about which I would like to say more, but it's too spoilerish; let me just say that the meaning of Archie's response raises some interesting questions.)  Stout again gets in some good licks at mid-century corporate culture, a subject in mystery which I find perennially fascinating (Stout's contemporary author Patrick Quentin was good on this subject too, but he wasn't nearly so prolific as Stout.)  I love when Wolfe contemptuously asks the sputtering Aiken, "How the deuce did you get to head a large and successful corporation?"

Puerto Rican Maria in the film version of West Side Story, played by actress Natalie Wood,
who was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko

Of course in his focus on upper class white America (people with the money to pay Wolfe's fat fees), Stout has been accused of, like film director Woody Allen, portraying a New York denuded of black and Hispanic people; and one senses that in Too May Clients Stout wanted to rectify that oversight a bit by introducing into the story the poor Puerto Rican couple, Cesar and Felita Perez, caretakers of the rich man's bower, and their daughter Maria.  Apropos of The Apartment, I might note that the next year's best picture, West Side Story, concerned poor Puerto Ricans and a beautiful girl named Maria.  I find it strange that in his Stout biography Professor McAleer refers to Maria Perez as a "foreign girl."  I presume she was born in the continental United States, but in any event her parents as Puerto Ricans would have been U. S. citizens.  Puerto Ricans had been so under American law for decades.  "My name is Cesar Perez," Cesar announces.  "I am a citizen of the United States of America."  Maria was not a "foreign girl."  But then a lot of people miss this point even today.

As for the mystery, it's nicely carried out by Stout, though Wolfe has some of the investigation done by Saul Panzer, invisibly to Archie and thus invisibly as well to the reader.  (However, one key point I would argue, is still surmisable by the reader.)  All in all the book is a delight for the mind.  In his introduction to the 1994 Bantam edition Malcolm, aka Steve, Forbes, Junior praises Stout for writing a mystery about a "high-powered, sex-crazed business executive" with such "nonprurient, critical detachment"; and, indeed, Archie's one single mention of a woman's nipples is as direct as the book gets when it comes to copulation and sexual allure.

Moreover, Stout as usual delights with his style and as his faultless sense of social observation. "Another point against him was that he had no hat," observes Archie.  "Ninety-eight per cent of men who can pay big fees wear hats."  Steve Forbes points out in the introduction that the next year John F. Kennedy would go hatless at his inauguration and soon hats for men would become "old hat."  Somehow the Nero Wolfe books were never quite the same.  Mid-century style helped give them their pulsating life.

Critics embraced Too Many ClientsAnthony Boucher, who on the whole preferred the Nero Wolfe novellas to the novels, found it "markedly ingenious.Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review of Literature pronounced Stout's novel "easily among his best.James Sandoe declared it "one of Mr. Stout's brighter books" and an "[e]xcellent diversion."  Just over eighteen years ago now (Where does the time ago?), a fetching adaptation of the novel aired as part of the excellent Nero Wolfe series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin.  It may not be the best film of the series, Clients being perhaps a little cerebral for television, but it's worth it all just to see the visualization of the Thomas Yeager's bower of carnality.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The biggest compliment Julian Symoms can pay to any book is to dislike it"--Mary Stewart Critiques a Critic

When British author Mary Stewart died six years ago at the venerable age of ninety-seven, she was hailed as a pioneer of the "romantic suspense" subgenre in mystery.  American authors Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart and Leslie Ford, to cite three examples, had been at this sort of thing for years, but Stewart, a graduate with first-class honors in English from Durham University, gave it a lustrous new gloss of sophistication.  "Stewart's classic education served her splendidly,observes the Guardian in a 2014 obituary of the late author.  "Informed by lightly worn research, her books were intelligent and full of literary allusion.  It might be said that in subject matter and treatment she was a natural successor to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte."

Mary Stewart (1916-2014)
Pretty impressive, eh?  Nor was the Guardian alone in its praise for Stewart.  Despite this, Mary Stewart goes unmentioned, in crime writer and critic Julian Symons' once highly influential survey of mystery and crime fiction, Bloody Murder (originally published in 1972), wherein romantic suspense is not particularly placed on a pinnacle, let us say. 

Symons, however, does not go unmentioned in a letter which Mary Stewart penned, five years after the publication of Bloody Murder, on November 28, 1977.  Stewart's letter was written in reply to one from John McAleer, a Boston College English professor and biographer of the late American mystery writer Rex Stout.

An evidently plaintive McAleer had written to Stewart concerning a Symons' review of McAleer's biography of Stout, which had been published in the New York Times Book Review on November 13.  Symons' assessment of the book was, to out it charitably, mixed; and it also managed to get in some rather dismissive asides against McAleer's highly esteemed subject, who had passed away at the age of eighty-eight two years earlier.

"No livelier man (than Stout) been the subject of a duller book," pronounced Symons bluntly.  "The art of biography rests in selection, and what you omit may be as significant as what you include.  This biography gives the impression of omitting nothing....The biographer's own comments are always jejune or banal."

As for Stout, Symons faulted the Nero Wolfe creator for being unwilling to put his soul into his detective novels.  "At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth," lectured Symons,

Julian Symons (1912-1994)
it must be said that [McAleer]absurdly inflates the [Nero Wolfe] stories' merit.  On the evidence of the Wolfe saga, Stout was simply not in the same stylistic league with Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald.  His prose is energetic and efficient, nothing more.  His plots lack the metronomic precision of Ellery Queen's....The truth is that Stout wrote too much too easily, and that like all crime writers dependent on repeated introduction of the same characters--including Doyle and Simenon--his work was subject to the law of diminishing returns.  The early Wolfe books, those produced up to 1950, are infinitely better than those that followed, with "The Doorbell Rang" and "Death of a Doxy" offering exceptions to this rule....[Stout's] achievement was to create a Superman detective who will be remembered as long as people read crime stories; his limitation was that this figure operates in the context of books that are consistently entertaining, but for the most part just as consistently forgettable.

I have devoted a lot of my life now to writing about the people who wrote mystery and crime fiction, but I am a historian by training and have always tried to be a historian first and a "literary critic," if I indeed am one, second.  Taste is such a subjective matter that I often have shied in the past from making grand pronouncements beginning with words like "It must be said" and "The truth is."  I have found over the decades that the more I have read of mystery and crime fiction, the more catholic and generous my tastes have become.  The restrictive dogmatism of the Julian Symonses and the Jacques Barzuns I have increasingly abandoned, though it's interesting to write about it, as I am doing here now.

Certainly Julian Symons brought his own personal biases to bear on his assessment of Rex Stout.  (As for the McAleer biography, I will allow, as someone who has written biography myself, that I wish McAleer, an astoundingly proficient pack rat, had been more selective of the detail in his book--however he won an Edgar and I haven't, so there is that.) 

As someone who himself never in his crime fiction created a memorable series character (and I say this as someone who enjoys Symons' crime fiction), Symons believed that the commitment to an outsize Great Detective as series sleuth, whether it be Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Albert Campion or Gideon Fell, throttled originality in mystery fiction and kept it from developing into something more akin to mainstream literature.  Thus in his view Rex Stout had surrendered his considerable talent as a serious writer to a fundamentally superficial endeavor, even if yielded a character, Nero Wolfe, who would be "remembered as long as people read crime stories."  Paradoxically, Wolfe was an unforgettable character who appeared in mostly forgettable stories (at least after 1950).

The truth is (as Symons would say), though I can only speak for myself, I don't find the Wolfe stories generally forgettable, even if they do lack, like most everything under the sun, the "metronomic precision of Ellery Queen" (for some that might be a good thing).  Again generally speaking, I don't find the stories forgettable before 1950 or after 1950, to use Symons' somewhat arbitrary cutoff point.  (It won't surprise Wolfe fans to learn that Symons really liked Stout's Arnold Zeck saga.) 

Indeed, although my favorite Wolfe novel was published before 1940, I find the fecundity of and overall quality of Stout's production in the two decades between 1946 and 1966 astonishing and I personally favor this latter period of his writing as a whole.  I don't believe, as Symons declares in Bloody Murder, that after 1950 Stout stopped caring about his characters.  The carefully planned culmination of the Wolfe saga in A Family Affair (1975), for example, would suggest otherwise.

Before he died, Rex Stout saw
that Nero Wolfe had entered the
pantheon of Fiction's Great Detectives
Are the Wolfe tales, taken as whole, as memorable as those of, say, Sherlock Holmes?  I think not, yet what a high bar that is setting.  In that sort of race, it's okay to place second (or third or fourth, or fifth, etc. as the case may be).  Creating a character, or series of characters, and a world to go with them which people want to immerse themselves in year after year after year, even long after the author's death, is a singular achievement, one which rates higher than Symons' chary assessment of Stout in his review essay seems to credit.

What's the more memorable book from 1957: Stout's If Death Ever Slept or Symons' deliberately drab and dreary The Colour of Murder, which won the Gold Dagger from the British CWA for that year?  (Crime writers' awards groups love all things drab and dreary.)

I know what my pick would be, but that's subjective.  All I can say--and it must be said--is that I'm pretty confident more people would choose Stout's novel, even with the recent advocacy of the latter work by the British Library's vintage crime fiction reprint series and its distinguished editor, a great admirer of Symons.

But enough with my opinions!  What interests me here is the opinion of Mary Stewart.  She took two weeks to get back to Prefessor McAleer with a letter, but when she did, gracious, did she rain down hellfire and brimstone on the head of Julian Symons.  If McAleer ever read Stewart's letter aloud, Symons ears surely would have burned.

Stewart urged McAleer to "try to forget" that "silly Julian Symons' article."  He knew, and the public knew, Stewart assured him, that he had written a good book.  Yet she spent more time defending Stout's reputation and assailing that of Symons:

You also know that Rex Stout is an incomparably better writer than the pathetic and jealous Symons (or any of the grubby merchants he admires), and that this [jealousy] is the motivation of the review....It is typical of the man that he singles out Rex Stout's "sexy" novels as "among the best."  I only read one of them, How Like a God, and it was not in the same street as The Doorbell Rang and A Family Affair, or indeed any of the lucidly-written, mature works.  It is also nonsense to say that his style was not comparable to, say, Ross Macdonald.  To my eye and ear, RM's style is derivative, strained and totally predictable.  I can feel him trying.  Rex Stout's style was--is--flawless.  

....do, please, ignore the man's opinions, even if you can't quite ignore his spite.  I have met him; he is a boor, and a second-rate writer, and has no sense of style--I mean, he would not know good English if he saw it.  The biggest compliment Julian Symons can pay to any book is to dislike it. 

....Believe me, everyone I know rates the wretched little man as I do.  Forget him.  You did a good job.  Have a happy Christmas.

a good murder never goes out of fashion
Well!  That is an uncategorical take-down.  Was it fair to Symons?  Personally I doubt that Symons was really motivated by jealous spite of Stout.  If so, why would he have praised Ross Macdonald, who was also, being an American bestseller, a much more successful writer than Symons?  No, I think Symons meant what he wrote, whether one agrees with him or not.  Obviously I don't, though I value his work more than Mary Stewart did.  Was Symons a boor?  Well, I know that Mary Stewart was not the first British crime writer of her generation to resent Symons' forcefully aired opinions, and nor was she the last. Symons in my view definitely had an "I have spoken" air about him that doubtlessly rankled.  Stung by his reviews of her later Campion novels, as I recollect, an outraged Margery Allingham wanted to have bounced from the CWA.

Symons had something of an aversion to the works of genteel lady mystery writers, whether British or American (excepting Agatha Christie, whose puzzle crafting ability he admired), while Stewart expressed disdain for the "grubby merchants" (one suspects the hard-boiled boys) whom Symons admired.  If one can but take a broader view and free oneself of one's partialities, one might say that there is merit to go around.  Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and Stout all were fine stylists--and as for Symons and Stewart, well, in coming days I will have something more to say about them.

Note: The Julian Symons review and the Mary Stewart letter both can be found here, though I arrived at them independently several years ago.  Other people came to Stout's defense against Symons's critique, and several letters were published in the New York Times.  I quote from them here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"I decided just to write stories": Rex Stout on his Mystery Fiction

In 1935 thirty-two year old literary critic John Rensselaer Chamberlain published, in the Books of the Times column in the New York Times Book Review, a review of Rex Stout's newly published Nero Wolfe detective novel, The League of Frightened Men, Stout's second in what would prove a long, hugely popular and critically acclaimed series of murder mysteries.  John Chamberlain's review of Stout's novel encapsulates much of what mystery writers hate about literary critics, praising the book in a condescending backhanded way, seemingly in order to let people know that while he, John Rensselaer Chamberlain, may read and enjoy mysteries on occasion, he always--like the man who guiltily (though after much anticipation) visits the occasional house of ill repute--returns home at the end of his fun to the wife and mother of his children (this noble lady being Serious Literature in this possibly strained analogy). 

John Chamberlain also thoughtlessly revealed the identity of the murderer in his review of Stout's novel--because, one supposes, Chamberlain believed that only insignificant minds could actually care about the whodunit aspect of a mystery.  I have always felt there should be a special place in hell for book reviewers who deliberately spoil mystery solutions in their reviews, and I make no exception for John Rensselaer Chamberlain.  See ya in hell, John!

Like the man who read Playboy for the articles
American critic John Chamberlain (1902-95)
read mysteries for the Norman apses
Of Rex Stout's second Nero Wolfe detective novel, The League of Frightened Men, John Chamberlain pronounced in his NYTBR article:

[It] is a mystery story that has imaginative qualities beyond the ordinary....The writing...is good-humored, breezy, colloquial.  The characterization is sharp, and reminds me constantly of the fact that Rex Stout was a legitimate novelist before he took up the trade of mystery monger.

And. there you go!  Into Rex the critic slipped the sharp knife.  Although Stout had written a detective novel beyond the ordinary, in the very act of writing detective novels at all he had cravenly abandoned the ranks of "legitimate novelists." 

It is this sort of condescension that became a bugbear to altogether too many mystery authors, inducing them, in the hope of being taking seriously as writers, to seek to become "crime novelists"--people who "transcend the genre" by emphasizing in their mysteries everything but the actual mystery.

The year before, in reviewing Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, John Chamberlain had adopted a similar line:

....Hating the usual run of mystery stories, we were decoyed into reading [Dashiell Hammett's] "The Thin Man" by virtue of a nonchalant Greek detective's knowledge of speakeasy mores.  Somehow the mystery went down easy with a round of old-fashioneds.  Could it be that we were weakening? We swore it could not be true.  But maybe we were weakening. For, dipping into Dorothy Sayers' "The Nine Tailors," we were beguiled by her manner of mingling an essay on the ringing of church bells...with a novel about theft and murder.  And when Lord Peter Wimsey turned from change-ringing to deduction, we somehow stayed for the show.  

The show (and we admit it through clenched teeth) is not at all bad.  It is not, thank Heaven! pure mystery; that would be too much.  Miss Sayers makes the sleuthing go down easy by mixing it up with an antiquarian's interest in fourteenth century Norman apses, in the character of the abbots of Catholic England, in the art of change-ringing, in the history of the casting of bells.  

[...]

Reading Dorothy Sayers, who is an intelligent woman as well as a writer of mystery stories, we wonder how much of our prejudice against the heirs of Sherlock Holmes is justified....More mysterious than her mystery is the way in which she makes the abstruse art of bell-ringing a living, integral part of her story.  Sooner or later she will be making chess, the Einstein theory, the art of concocting Welsh rabbits, heraldry or cricket germane to a mysterious death.  She ought to be hired by the schools to mix textbook matter with gumshoe work; then every student would pass.  

Perhaps Sayers might even have become a "legitimate novelist," had she tried.  Well, John Chamberlain had yet to read Gaudy Night.  (Reviewing that novel that same year in the Books of the Times column was left to Robert Van Gelder, who proclaimed Gaudy Night--whether with exaggeration or not I will leave for you to decide--"the Louvre Museum, the Coliseum, the Mickey Mouse of detective stories.  In it the mystery writing technique is lifted from the plane of checkers to the plane of chess, and the chess figures come alive.  Ideas rather than mechanics move the plot....")

John Chamberlain liked mysteries, when there was something else besides the actual mystery on which to focus his mind.  You don't read a detective novel to find out whodunit, really: you read it to learn all about bell ringing and Norman apses!  Increasingly this became the prevalent view in mystery criticism in the Thirties, marking the beginning of the decadent period in detective fiction, when the pure and austere detection of, say, Freeman Wills Crofts was beginning to seem simply passe, even banal, to many reviewers.  And much of the public seemed to follow along.

To Rex Stout's credit, however, he never fell into this trap.  He found a way to make his mysteries interesting to readers without resorting to mining details from pamphlets on church bells.  For the next four decades Stout penned his tales of Great Detective Nero Wolfe and his snappy assistant Archie Goodwin, never failing to, alas and for shame! entertain.  Of course it's no doubt true that many of Stout's readers peruse his books more to enjoy the patter between Wolfe and Archie and to soak up the atmosphere of Wolfe's brownstone than to solve the given murder mystery at hand, but Stout at least never neglected the mystery element in his books.  If you truly love mystery for mystery's sake (unlike, say, Mr. Chamberlain), Stout always provided you with one.

Dorothy L. Sayers may never have been aware of John Chamberlain's praise for her, across the pond, as an "intelligent woman as well as a writer of mystery stories," but Stout for his part read Chamberlain's review and immediately was provoked to pen a characteristically self-effacing yet still wryly pointed response. 

Why did Rex Stout cede the laurel of the "legitimate novelist"?  The answer lies below, in Stout's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (a defense of one's life), which was published in the Times a week after the appearance of John Chamberlain's review of The League of Frightened Men.  Appropriately for the creator of noted gourmand Nero Wolfe (Archie has a healthy appetite too for that matter, though throughout the series of mysteries he retains his boyish figure, much to the delight of the ladies), the answer to this literary riddle seemed to revolve around eating.  Stout wrote:

Once I lived in humble hovels
And wrote a few legitimate novels.
Now, tiring of the pangs of hunger,
I ply the trade of mystery monger.

Murder, mayhem, gun and knife!
Violent death, my staff of life!

I wrote, though eating not bewhiles,
Of fate profound and secret trials.
Now--calmed the empty belly's fury.
I write of guilt and trial by jury.

Suspense, excitement, thrills, suspicion,
Sources of excellent nutrition!

I took men's souls on bitter cruises,
Explored the heart and necked the Muses.
But now to me I say: poor critter,
Be fed, and let who will be bitter.

Clues, deductions, right and wrong,
O Mystery! Of thee I mong!

Of course Stout's "legitimate novels" have been out of print for decades, I believe, while his mysteries have gone through printing after printing.  It seems that there's nothing like a little murder puzzle to enliven our everyday lives.

the author at home, necking the mystery muse
 if a lesser lady, perhaps, she is still most winsome to my mind
 (see WNYC.com)

Over three decades later, at a 1966 Books and Authors luncheon, Rex Stout, now an octogenarian and President of the Authors' League of America, commented knowingly to his audience of authors, "we all know what book reviewers are."  Perhaps John Chamberlain was one of the reviewers he had in mind.  Even in his eighties, Rex Stout had a good memory.

Stout explained that thirty-seven years ago he had decided to have a go at writing mainstream novels and had spent five years hard at it, before realizing "that if I went on trying to make serious comments about human character and human problems I would never turn out to be a Dostoevsky or a Balzac, so to hell with it, I quit."  At that point he resolved "just to write stories and to try to make them as good stories as I could."  Thus were Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin born.

Stout complained that today, in 1966, his latest Nero Wolfe novel, The Doorbell Rang, was being lauded by critics and commentators alike not for being a particularly good story, but for cocking a snook at the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.  However, when he wrote the novel, Stout modestly protested, "all I had in mind, as I always have, was to try to make it as good a story as I could."  He was not trying, he declared, to make some grand political statement about the state of American society in the Sixties.  He lamented that to keep getting such acclaim for future novels he supposed he would have to find a series of new satirical targets, such as "the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Boy Scouts, the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and the Women's Christian Temperance Union.

"Maybe that's what I ought to do," he ruminated whimsically.  "Instead of trying to write good stories, maybe I ought to be a professional crusader."  After all, that way Stout might, after three decades, finally "transcend the genre."  Fortunately for fans of mystery in mysteries, Stout would publish five more novels over the decade of life which remained to him, and they continued to be good stories--though Stout I suppose disappointed those who wanted Nero and Archie take on the Boy Scouts!