Sunday, May 24, 2020

Memorial: Howard Tokley and Hugh Wheeler--A World War Two Hero and His Fan Letters to "Jonathan Stagge"

This Memorial Day in the United States lets us remember our American military veterans.  Especially, here at The Passing Tramp, our military veterans who were also mystery writers.  Like, for example, Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the men behind Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, who during World War Two both served in the U. S. Army.

It was not until late 1944, after his army enlistment had expired, that Rickie actually went overseas, with the Red Cross to Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, as it was then known, which had recently been recaptured from the Japanese.  (Today Hollandia is the city of Jayapura, Indonesia.)  Rickie came home from Hollandia suffering from encephalitis and a pronounced drinking problem.  Hugh, on the other hand, stayed stateside the whole time and, truth be told, had rather a lovely war.  Looking over Hugh's life, one is tempted to say that he must have been kissed by the gods at birth.

During the time of his and Rickie's active service, 1943-45, Hugh managed to expand, with varying input from Rickie, two previously serialized works into the novels The Scarlet Circle (Jonathan Stagge, 1943) and Puzzle for Puppets (Patrick Quentin, 1944), and to complete a pair of original novels, Death and the Dear Girls (Stagge, 1945) and Puzzle for Wantons (Quentin, 1945).  There were also a handful of original shorter works (more on these in an upcoming blog post), which were attributed to the third man in the Webb-Wheeler writing factory: Q. Patrick, who had not published a new novel since 1941 and would not do so until 1951.

Hugh also handled the business correspondence for Messrs. Patrick, Quentin and Stagge, Rickie having his hands full as it was in the sweltering, unforgiving, mosquito and malaria ridden jungles of New Guinea.  During this time both Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge received fan letters from detective fiction fiends across the country who had no idea that the two authors were actually the same person (or persons).  The most interesting of these letters, two in number, were written in 1944 by a twenty-two-year-old Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Air Forces: Charles Howard Tokley, formerly of the great western states of Montana and Washington.

seasoned by war
Charles Howard Tokley in 1949
when he was 27 years old.  This was
five years after he, then serving as part
of a B-25 bomber crew, wrote
 Hugh Wheeler a couple of fan
letters praising Hugh's crime fiction.
Truly Howard Tokley, the only child of Charles Tokley, a clerk employed with the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (COMStP&P), and his wife Mary Elizabeth Weatherstone, might have been deemed one of fortune's favorites.  In 1929, when he was but a seven year old lad running down the street to his house on his way back from the post office, he had miraculously survived getting hit by a speeding car and thrown fifty feet through the air.  One of his legs had been broken in two places, his collar bone had been fractured and he had been severely bruised all over his body, yet he had recovered to develop a precocious love of words, two years later at the age of nine easily winning a vocabulary contest (by almost one hundred words) in the Milwaukee Magazine, the official organ of the CMStP&P.  It would be some time yet, however, before mysteries would lure him as a reader.

Howard Tokley's father Charles was an assistant time reviser with the CMStP&P, a position which surely must have been beloved by famed Golden Age British detective novelist Freeman Wills Crofts, king of the railway timetable mystery.  The tasks of the time revisor were as follows: "Check time slips, revise time slips, handle time claims, prepare reports, maintain records associating with timekeeping and revising."  Charles Tokley, predictably nicknamed "Toke," was said to be "a regular 'gee whiz' at figures.

Pictured immediately below is the CMStP&P depot in Deer Lodge, Montana, where Toke ticked his train figures for many years.  Today the depot is a church, as the rail line has been long shut down.  (Note the cross in the second picture.)  Howard Tokely was born in Deer Lodge and suffered his terrible accident there.

Deer Lodge depot today

Nearly a decade later after Howard's near fatal accident, in 1939-40, when Howard resided with his parents at Tacoma, Washington, he was a senior at that city's iconic Stadium High School, an awesome turn-of-the-century structure built in the style of a great French chateau that was the locale of many of the scenes in the high school comedy film 10 Things I Hate about You (1999). 

Wow!  Sure beats where I went to high school. (See below.)

"Howard" Tokley a decade earlier
at the age of 17, during his senior year
at Stadium High School at Tacoma, Washington.
Among  his declared  interests were 
watching films and reading detective fiction.
At Stadium High School Howard wrote for the newspaper and and belonged to the journalist group Fourth Estate, the Movie Club and the Thespians, the latter of which was the honor society for high school theater students.  By this time he had also become a devout fan of detective fiction, including the work of Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  (Hence this blog piece.)

At six feet tall with brown eyes and dirty blond hair, Howard was an appealing if perhaps a bit doughy melange of English, Scottish, Irish, Dutch and German heritage.  From his native English paternal grandfather Philip Tokley, a son of an agricultural laborer from the Tolkienish-sounding Essex village of Rivenhall who had served in the British Royal Artillery for nearly two decades, receiving a medal for bravery in one of the Afghan Wars, Howard had inherited something of a martial pedigree,although his high school interest in acting and writing hardly suggested such. (A maternal great-grandfather, Adam Weatherstone, like Philip Tokley an English immigrant, was a skilled millwright who crossed the Oregon Trail to Walla Walla, Washington in the 1850s.  Adam's father-in-law, pioneer Richard Rutter Howard, had built one of the first flour mills in Oregon Territory.)

Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington
looking like something out of  a
John Dickson Carr novel
Yet in just a few years this arguably nerdish young film and fiction enthusiast turned into a strapping B-25 navigator-bombardier and war hero who might well have served as Hugh Wheeler's model for the returned soldiers--youthful, handsome, heroic, blond--who appear in his and Rickie's postwar crime writing.

On August 11, 1944, Lieutenant Tokley, who had been visiting sunny southern California while he was on leave from Columbia Army Air Base in South Carolina, sat down and wrote "Dear Mr. Stagge" a letter in beautifully formed cursive script (Does anyone do cursive handwriting this nicely anymore?), giving as his return address a location in Butte, Montana.  "I never know how long I'll be at one Army field or another," he explained. 

He then entreated the author to aid him in corralling a stray Stagge for his mystery library:

the novel in question
I have been a collector of mysteries for the past five years now, and when I find an author I like especially well, I try to get all of his works.  You have long been one of my favorites.   

Just last week in a small bookstore in Hollywood, I was able to locate "Murder by Prescription."  But I still lack "The Dogs Do Bark" to complete my collection.  [At this time there were six Jonathan Stagge detective novels-TPT.]  I was wondering if you by any chance know where I can get a copy of the book.  I would appreciate any information you can give me about it.  

I am looking forward to more adventures of Dawn and Hamish--and of course Dr. Westlake.  

Something in this letter, perhaps Howard's confiding tone and the easy familiarity he expressed with the author's series characters (Dr. Westlake, his rambunctious young daughter Dawn and her dignified Scottish terrier Hamish), or possibly his soldierly identity itself, must have appealed to the recipient, thirty-two year old Hugh Wheeler, who was whiling away the war at Fort Dix. 

That Hugh wrote the lieutenant a friendly and detailed reply, complete with an inscribed copy of The Dogs Do Bark and the staggering revelation that Jonathan Stagge was also "Patrick Quentin" and "Q. Patrick," is evident from Howard's flattered and appreciative second missive to "Dear Mr. Stagge," composed by him at Columbia Army Air Base a month later, on September 11, after he had returned to duty.  The disarmed young man wrote with self-deprecating charm of his own attempts at crafting fiction and of his life in the military:

finally found by Tokley in a small
Hollywood bookstore
I can't begin to thank you for your letter and the book.  To me it is really an honor.  

It was a pleasant surprise to find that three of the authors I enjoy are actually only one.  I had surmised that Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin were one and the same but that Jonathan Stagge was, too, was another matter.  You have truly achieved something by being able to develop two distinctly different styles of writing, keeping both at such high standards.  

In a small way I know how it is as I, like millions of others, have dreams of someday becoming a popular, well-known author like yourself.  I strive to develop my own style but I often find myself , after reading a book, patterning my work after my current favorite.  

I suppose experience is the best teacher.  I remember my first big attempt at writing.  It was when I was in the first year of High School.  The work was stuck away and a few years later I came across it.  It was masterpiece--I never had so many laughs.  The manuscript was quickly burned before anyone else happened to find it.

the memorable Popular Library
pb edition of Stagge's fourth
mystery novel, Turn of the Table
Two more were born since then but I suppose if I was to read them now, they too would be different in my eyes, than before.

As for my Army life, at the moment, I am in a B-25 replacement unit.  So far our crew consists of a pilot from Chicago, a radio gunner from Boston, and myself (navigator-bombardier).  Later we will get our co-pilot, engineer and tail-gunner.  It looks like we are going to have a bit from each corner of the U. S.  

I have really rattled on here but to me, you seem like a newly acquired friend.  I sincerely hope so.

Thank you again for everything.  Maybe someday I will have the good fortune to do you as great a favor as you have done me.

By war's end Howard, again happily unscathed by lasting physical injury, had completed twenty-three bombing and strafing attacks on Japanese installations in the Philippines and  Southwest Pacific, incidentally putting him in the same neck of the jungle, so to speak, as Rickie Webb.  He was awarded the Air Medal for meritorious achievement in sustained aerial missions.

sauced at college
Tokley in 1951, after four years
of fun fraternity life at USC
After returning home to the United States, Howard moved with his parents to Los Angeles, his father having retired from service with the railroad company. There at the age of twenty-five the veteran--a likely beneficiary of the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the G. I. Bill--enrolled at the University of Southern California.

A year after joining the Omega Deuteron chapter of Phi Sigma Kappa at USC, Howard was elected the fraternity's secretary.  This was a job which he clearly took to heart, just like he did fraternity life.  Over the next several years he contributed heavily to The Signet, the official fraternity magazine, reporting on a swirl of social affairs.

In January 1951, for example, Howard discussed the opening of the local chapter's new house, an event attended by what he colorfully termed "that scrumptious whistle-bait, Miss Betty White," who at this time with radio disc jockey Al Jarvis co-hosted the pioneering live television talk show Hollywood on Television.  Yes, Howard was referring to the Betty White, who was but four months older than he and today in 2020 is nearing her centenary.

"that scrumptious whistle-bait" Betty White
with actor Eddie Albert, Al Jarvis' successor at Hollywood on Television)

Throughout the year, the World War Two veteran, himself now pushing thirty, chattily and cheerily confided about additional boyish frat fun at Phi Sig, such as:

1. The stiff competition that raged among pledges tasked with making "decorative paddles to be hung in the dining room."

French "Apache"
2. The throwing at the house of an Apache party, where everyone dressed in "the true French style" (i.e., as Parisian street hooligans, nicknamed Apaches) and raucously slid down the back staircase banister into the cellar, which had been converted into a banquet hall.

3. The Spring Break where "Bill Rowley squeezed 25 guys into a five-room beach house."

4. The delightful eighty degree weather that winter, which induced the Phi Sig boys to shed their clothes to catch rays and indulge in rowdy bouts of aqueous horseplay.

"The overhang in the patio has been turned into a sundeck," Howard divulged, "and Don Goodrich, Stan Julius and Jim Bowen make daily use of it, showing off their muscles and just plain soaking up the sun.  This early warm weather has brought numerous water fights too.  Herb Boelter learned a few lessons on how to duck a pail of water....Well, it is one way to cool off!

For some the shirtless volleyball scene from the film Top Gun might come to mind.  Howard seems to have found masculine camaraderie wherever he went, whether in the military or the fraternity.

Howard Tokley's boyhood bungalow in Butte, Montana

inside the Tokley house--plenty of room for bookshelves!

Whether or not Howard still found time, amid all these boisterous masculine hijinks, to peruse Jonathan Stagge and other detective fiction favorites (the last Stagge novel, The Three Fears, was published in 1949), he did put his gray matter to work on behalf of Phi Sig in college bridge tournaments.  A well-liked fellow, he often served as an usher at the weddings of his fraternity brothers--though he himself appears never to have wed. 

Later in the Fifties, the thirtysomething college graduate moved with his parents to the city of Downey in southeastern Los Angeles county, where he was employed as the art director at Colortone Decal Company.  He listed his party affiliation as Democratic, although as a student he had declined to state one, suggesting in this era of Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare that he had unorthodox inclinations.  After his father's death in 1960, he moved to Seattle, where he passed away in 2000 at the age of 77. 

Howard Tokley's home in Seattle

Whatever happened to the letter Hugh wrote Howard is currently unknown.  The name of Charles H. Tokley does appear, however on a list of the fans and friends of Patrick Quentin that was compiled by Rickie and Hugh, so perhaps an acquaintance between the two men was kept up in some form--though during these years Hugh himself had a great deal going on in his life, matters that were rather more weighty and parlous than bridge competitions and Apache parties.  Hugh, however, came through, as always, just as Howard had from war in the Pacific.  Rickie not so much--but more on that later!

B-25 completing a bombing run in New Guinea

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Poetry Corner in the Murder Room 2 Moray Dalton and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt

dapper on deck
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
One of the wealthiest men in the world when he lost his life during the First World War, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was the second son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II whose family had made a fortune in the United States' railway boom....Horses, rather than business, however, were Alfred's passion....

An Anglophile with family connections in England...Vanderbilt spent as much time in Britain as in the United States.  His passion was carriage racing and he was often to be seen racing his carriages at great speed up from the South Coast to London, recreating the great days of private coach travel....  

Vanderbilt was married in Reigate in 1912 at a private ceremony with just four witnesses.  Both he and his bride, another wealthy American, Margaret Emerson McKim, had been previously married, his first wife having divorced him for adultery with the wife of the Cuban ambassador to London who subsequently committed suicide.  McKim divorced her husband on grounds of cruelty and Vanderbilt faced a lawsuit from her husband on the grounds of alienation of his wife's affections.....

On 1 May 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt left New York on the Lusitania for a meeting of the International Horse Breeders Association.  He was also to have offered a fleet of wagons to the British Red Cross....

On the seventh day of the voyage the Lusitania was sunk by a [German] torpedo....

Vanderbilt's body was never recovered.

38 years old when he died [actually 37-TPT], he left a son by his first wife and two infants by his second wife.  In the immediate aftermath of the sinking lurid stories were printed in the papers recounting acts of bravery which seem to have been invented by journalists.  Nevertheless eyewitness testimony seems to suggest that Vanderbilt did assist child passengers onto lifeboats and that he probably did give up his life vest [to a woman passenger] even though he could not swim.

--"Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt,"

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Arriving at Brighton, Driving his Coach "Venture" (1909),
painting by James Lynwood Palmer
This coach can still be seen at the carriage house at The Breakers,
the elegant Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, Rhode  Island.

It was rightly said of Alfred Vanderbilt that "his love of horses was a ruling passion."

....Vanderbilt's first coach was the Venture, which started off at London and called regularly at the Metropole hotel, Brighton.  Later on Vanderbilt added the Old Times and these two coaches with their beautiful horses became one of the sights of Brighton.

There was huge excitement when the first Vanderbilt coach came to Brighton....

When the Venture reached Preston Park, Vanderbilt found the road lined with enthusiastic Sussex and Brighton folk eager to see the young sportsman.  They cheered when the glimpsed the coach and "spanking greys," children threw flowers and pretty girls smiled and blew kisses.  This continued all the way to the Metropole and Vanderbilt never forgot the enthusiastic reception....

Vanderbilt's handsome appearance and well-cut coaching attire appealed to the ladies.  One young female passenger in the coach even had the temerity to gently extract his handkerchief from his back pocket while he was engaged in guiding his horses and kept it as a souvenir.  This was no ordinary cotton square but a fine silk handkerchief decorated with images of horses.  Vanderbilt was aware of what was happening but allowed it just the same....

Vanderbilt ran his coaches for a six-week period from May to June, working from Tuesday to Friday....the journey lasted all of seven hours; you left London at ll a.m. and reached Brighton at 6 p.m.  all being well....for aficionados a trip on a Vanderbilt coach was worth every penny as well as being a valid reminder of old coaching days....

The outbreak of the Great War brought the glory days of coaching to an abrupt end.  It must have been a heart-breaking time for Vanderbilt because the Army commandeered the horses from the Venture and Old Times....

"Alfred Vanderbilt and His Horses," Hove in the Past

Alfred Vanderbilt's coach and horses
During the 1910s future mystery author Moray Dalton, who was five years younger than Alfred Vanderbilt, lived with her parents nineteen miles west of Brighton, haunt of Vanderbilt's coaches, at Littlehampton, another seaside resort town.  The war that put at end to Vanderbilt's coach runs and ultimately claimed his life (along with over one thousand additional passengers on the Lusitania) inspired Dalton, like many other literary literary inclined women who spent the war at home, to compose memorial poetry for the fallen, of which there were ever so many.

One of Dalton's poems, composed in honor of Rupert Brooke, I have discussed here.

Dalton also wrote a poem in honor of Alfred Vanderbilt, which less than ten days after his death was published in the Westminster Gazette and reprinted across the Atlantic Ocean in the New York Herald.  On May 17 it was also reprinted in prime horse country, in the Lancaster, Kentucky Central Record, with a little prefatory detail on Vanderbilt's relationship with England:

There is not a horse society nor a summer show of note in England but will feel the death of Alfred G. Vanderbilt.  In a quiet way he gave twenty pounds here and a hundred-pound-note there, a cup or a gold vase to the Royal, the International or the Richmond show, and in an unostentatious manner drove his own horses ans teams in the leading events in a way that made the stolid insular Britisher take the millionaire American to his heart as a good sportsman.  

Dalton's poem followed:

(May 7, 1915)

Never again to drive through Sussex lanes
On a May morning, never more to feel
Your strength as the fresh team pulls on the reins
And know yourself their master.  Did you steel
Your heart against the loss of all those things
That you had loved in happy years bygone,
Clear air and sunlight and recurring springs?
No, you thought of the helpless ones alone
The little children drowning in the sea.
"Sell all thou hast and give it to the poor."
The rich man in far off Galilee
Went away sorrowful, but God asked more
Of you than gold and lands, and you--oh, brave!
Ungrudgingly, when life was sweet, you gave.

Moray Dalton

RMS  Lusitania sank just eighteen minutes after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat.  With so little time left, the resulting scramble of passengers for safety has been dubbed a case of "survival of the fittest."  Hence the accolades, like Dalton's, that were posthumously showered on Alfred Vanderbilt for his reputedly selfless behavior, sacrificing himself so that the weaker and less fortunate might live.

A passenger ship torpedoed during the Great War with much loss of life plays a prominent part in Dalton's debut Hugh Collier detective novel, One by One They Disappeared, published fourteen year's after Alfred Vanderbilt's watery demise.

Did you steel your heart against the loss of all those things?
Alfred Vanderbilt at the reins

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Persistence of Murder: The Case of the Dark Stranger (1948), by Moray Dalton

As I understand it Dean Street Press will be reissuing five more Moray Dalton mysteries this winter. (A Dalton for Christmas!)  I intend to keep reviewing the Moray Dalton books throughout the year, focusing for now on the author's Hugh Collier series.  In the postwar years, after the publication of The Art School Murders in 1943, there appeared five additional Hugh Collier mysteries: The Longbridge Murders (1945), The Condamine Case (1947), The Case of the Dark Stranger (1948), Inquest on Miriam (1949) and, Collier's swansong and Dalton's penultimate detective novel, Death of a Spinster (1951).  There were also three non-series mysteries: The Murder of Eve (1945), Death at the Villa (1946) and The House of Fear (1951).

The Condamine Case has already been reprinted and reviewed by me here.  Today I thought I would take a look at a Dalton which I must have read nearly two decades ago, one which I have, most unusually, in the jacket: The Case of the Dark Stranger.  It's one of the books that won me over to Moray Dalton in the first place.

And quite a jacket it is too!  From what I have been able to see of the Dalton dust jackets, the author's publisher, Sampson Low, tended to produce high quality work in this department.  But truthfully these books are so rare in their jackets--and rare without them for that matter--that it's hard to say definitively. 

Certainly Stranger has a fine one, however--a product of the surrealism movement in art that so influenced book and film design in the Forties, as when notorious Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali created the famous dream sequence for British director Alfred Hitchcock's film thriller Spellbound (1945).  

On the Dalton jacket, the exaggerated satyr head, the crucifix/rosary, the violin and the knife all are well chosen items from the book, as is the central haunting image of the boy and girl bicycling across the beach as the ocean tide flows.  It's a memorable jacket, seemingly deliberately recalling Salvador Dali's influential 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory; but then Stranger is also a memorable book, concerning the persistence of murder.  As Agatha Christie used to say in her books (and Dalton says in thus one), old sins have long shadows....

The Persistence of Memory (1931)
Salvador Dali
Moray Dalton was one of the British mystery writers who in the post-WW2 years was moving decidedly in the direction of what Julian Symons called the crime novel, i.e., writing mysteries with the same dramatic values as mainstream fiction.  When I read The Case of the Dark Stranger I am reminded not only of postwar Margery Allingham and Henry Wade but Ruth Rendell, or even Rendell's brilliant alter ego, Barbara Vine.

Although it's more stripped down and economical than most Barbara Vines (about 80,000 words by my count), Stranger like many Vine novels has twin mysteries, one of them in the present, the other buried, but decidedly not resting, two decades in the past.  There's also the pregnant prologue so beloved by modern mystery writers, and a fitting epilogue as well.  

Another interesting thing about the novel, which remarkably goes unremarked in the plot summary on the flap, is that the "present day" in the novel is set in 1912, when Dalton herself, who was born in 1882, was thirty years old.  (Thus the two decades old part takes place in 1892, when Dalton was ten, roughly the age of one of the main characters it impacted.) 

When Dalton's series sleuth Hugh Collier appears in the novel, in tandem with his superior Detective Inspector Cardew, he is ranked merely as a detective sergeant at Scotland Yard.  The first published novel in the Hugh Collier series, One by One They Disappeared, appeared twenty years earlier, in 1929, and takes place sometime earlier in the 1920s, by which time Hugh Collier is a detective inspector.  (Cardew appears in the later series as well, as a Chief Superintendent.)  

Thus Collier must have been very young indeed in 1912.  Dalton says that he was promoted to DS at a very young age and that he seems "a mere boy in comparison" to Cardew, so I'm guessing he was born around 1890?  That makes him a bit older in the later series than I would have thought, but there it is.  Having a younger Collier appear in a mystery is a fun idea.  It reminded my of the Endeavor television series riff on Morse, or Ruth Rendell's back dated Inspector Wexford detective novel, The Monster in the Box (2009).

The present day story line in Stranger concerns the disappearance and presumed deaths of charming young siblings Ronnie and Diana Cordelyon (he is thirteen, she sixteen) at the Cornish sea resort of Port Igal.  It is believed that they met their twin demises while bicycling along the rocky beach and getting trapped by the remorseless, encroaching tide.

Fatherless and burdened with a neurotically self-centered mother, the pair was left to run rather wild in the town, although one person who kept a keen eye on them (particularly the lovely Diana, with whom he is infatuated) is Sir David Blair, a middle-aged baronet lately returned from Malaysia.  You might be a bit reminded of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, published in...1912.  Like T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Venice not  a murder mystery, rather a foreboding tale of fixation, although the central relationship is somewhat similar to what you find in Stranger.

Off the face of the Earth?
Fistral Bay Cornwall beach and Rocky Coastline
photo by Paul Spiers
Sir David believes that the story of the supposed tragic fatal mishap of Ronnie and Diana simply does not add up; and after visits with the young people's reclusive uncle, Francis Cordelyon, at Pear Tree Cottage, Francis' elegant dollhouse like home in Richmond, London, David becomes convinced that the young people's fate, whatever it really was, is somehow tied in with a mysterious affair of two decades ago that occurred at Solis Court, the splendidly isolated Dorset country home of the Cordelyons.

That strange affair forever banefully impacted the lives of an eight-year-old Francis Cordelyon, his lovely sixteen-year-old sister, Dora, their naive young governess Miss Gilchrist (aka "Gillie"), Francis and Dora's aloof widowed father and a certain handsome and ingratiating Italian sculptor named Luigi Sartoni, who was hired by the Cordelyon pater to decorate Solis Court with marble statuary.  Sir David believes that solving the mystery at Port Igal requires solving the earlier mystery of Solis Court, and rapidly gathering direful events seem to prove him very right indeed.

Soon there is another death that takes place at Port Igal, this one indisputably murder.  The local police, stymied as usual, call in the Yard, in the form of the aforementioned Cardew and Collier.  Eventually the plot threads are untangled, in a moving tale of what Dalton calls another case of  "man's inhumanity to man."  (Readers who know something about Dalton's own life might be tempted to speculate as to how much of this novel was influenced by personal events of her own.  I suspect that some of it was.)

With The Case of the Dark Stranger, we have moved a long way away from the whimsical artificialities of Golden Age detective fiction and thrillers (including Dalton's own first essay in the series sleuth field, One by One They Disappeared).  Stranger is uncommonly well-characterized (down to all the minor characters), convincingly placed and exceptionally engrossing--and it comes highly recommended by this blogger, with or without the dust jacket!  I hope we will see it back in print later this year.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Wives, Mothers and Other Suspicious Characters: The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953) contains two novellas and three short stories, as follows:

  • The Frightened Wife Saturday Evening Post 1953 nv
  • If Only It Were Yesterday Ladies Home Journal 1950 ss
  • The Scandal Saturday Evening Post July 1950 ss
  • Murder and the South Wind Good Housekeeping June 1945 ss
  • The Burned Chair 1953 nv

This was bestselling author Mary Roberts Rinehart's final published book of fiction, even though she lived on for five more years, until her death from a heart attack at age of 82.  (At least one additional criminous short story by her was published as late as 1955, however.)

Woman 1952
(Marilyn Monroe)
A half-century earlier, Rinehart had contributed a landmark of mystery fiction with the publication of her first novel, The Circular Staircase (1908).  It was published at a time when the Gibson Girl was the idealization of female beauty and "horseless carriages" were just starting to become a thing.  So it's perhaps not surprising that by the Fifties, a decade of atomic bombs and blonde bombshells bedecked in bullet bras, Rinehart was looking to mystery fans a bit, well, staid.

Rinehart had earned a fortune with lucrative serializations of her fiction, criminous and otherwise, in glossy, high-toned popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, but in the postwar era she found the new regime at the Post increasingly unwilling to take her work, much to her umbrage.

In 1945, for example, SEP serialized her mystery novel The Yellow Room, but five years later they refused serialization of her excellent novella "Episode of the Wandering Knife," just as seven years later they also refused serialization of  her final published mystery novel, The Swimming Pool, which an outraged Rinehart--who as late in life authors so often do believed herself very much still at the top of the writing game--pronounced "perhaps the best mystery novel I ever wrote."

Woman 1912
As you can see at the top of this piece, SEP accepted both "The Frightened Wife" and "The Scandal," but Rinehart had to place "If Only It Were Yesterday" and "Murder and the South Wind" in lesser publications, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.  "The Burned Chair," for its part, appeared for the first time in The Frightened Wife collection, having never seen serial publication.  I think it and Murder and the South Wind are the standouts in this collection, much more so than The Frightened Wife.

"The Frightened Wife"

"Why does any girl marry any man?  Maybe it was the uniform."

"Never know what a woman will do, do you?" he observed.  "Looks like a nice girl, too.....she can probably plead self-defense.  Get off with a dozen years or so."

Reading the title story certainly gives one material with which to speculate concerning Rinehart's declining prestige with the SEP.  It opens in the offices of tax attorney Wade Forsythe II, "ex-lieutenant of Marines in the late if not the last war and now member of the bar.

Wade hates doing taxes, which makes his career choice odd, but this allowed Rinehart, a wealthy Republican, to shoot off some steam about predatory taxation.  Anyway, into Wade's office, in classic hard-boiled fashion, comes a disheveled dame in trouble.  And has she got a tale of woe!

Her name is Anne Collier, and she's twenty-seven and frightened of her husband, Wilfred Collier, ex-marine and awful bully.  Wade is favorably disposed to her from the start, because he can tell that "[s]habby or not, she was a lady."  However, when he discovers that she's the sister of his old Yale college chum, Bill Blake, and recalls that he shared a single dance with her at the prom, well!

Anne sure knows how to pluck the old heartstrings:

"[Y]ou were going to law school.  You'd played football, of course, and I almost died with excitement when you asked me to dance.  I always thought Bill asked you to....[Bill] was killed in the war.  If only I had him--"  
Unexpectedly she dropped her head on the desk, her shoulders shaking with repressed sobs.

You get the picture.  If this really were  a hard-boiled story, chances are Anne would be a conniving femme fatale, taking in that poor sap Bill with some crocodile tears and an artfully concocted story that is more than slightly cock-and-bull.  But, no, Anne is as she appears: a frightened, helpless wet noodle, a limp dishrag of a "girl."  The question in the story will be not be what Anne can do to help herself, but whether Wade, former football player and marine, can manfully rescue her from whatever dire situation she finds herself in and put an end once and for all to her travails.

As to why she wed such a foul brute as Wilfred Collier, Anne can't really say:

"Why does any girl marry any man?  Maybe it was the uniform.  I don't know.  Bill brought him to see me before they went overseas.  I was working as a secretary then and I suppose I was lonely.  He wrote me all through the war, and--well, that's all.  We were married as soon as he came back."|

After the war, Anne "wanted [Wilfred] to be a get work and settle down."  He finally got a position selling secondhand cars, but he's also become a nasty drunk.  The two have a son together, but Anne, fearful of what her husband might do to the boy, sent him to live with her plucky maiden aunt in Connecticut (a sop, one presumes, to Rinehart's "maiden aunt" readers).

Meanwhile, Anne under a false name since the war's end has been secretly writing a hugely popular radio serial, Monica's Marriage, which has proven highly lucrative to her.  She wants to give it up but she has lots of money her agent as stashed away in a secret account.  Now she has come to Wade to get him to write her a will. 

In case Wilfred kills her, you see, she wants her boy, not her brute of a husband, to get her money.

Already in the first ten pages of this one hundred page novella, Rinehart had done a lot to set me off.  At this point I was like, Anne, girlfriend, you're rich, go get that damn money you earned, go to Connecticut, get your boy, fly to Reno, divorce Wilfred's worthless ass, and live your life! 

Then there's all the old school tie stuff....

Rinehart's own background was not old money (her father, a son of widowed dressmaker, owned, but later lost, a sewing machine sale agency), but she sure liked to write about it.  Probably this was a subject that was paling in interest with many readers after World War Two, but it sure never lost its fascination for Rinehart.  I think she was obsessed with wealthy genteel families who  had lost, or were losing, money and social postion.

So while in The Frightened Wife Rinehart incorporates some modern elements, it remains a highly traditional story with a manful, take charge hero and a helpless, wilting heroine, both of them, but naturally, from Social Register families (or at least Anne's was until the Crash, don't you know).  Hero Wade lives in New York in the old family home with a conveniently unmarried older sister to take care of him, and Rinehart drops casual mentions of butlers and "neat" maids and "the thousand and one people an eligible single man in New York always knew."  I can't help assuming that the word "eligible" in this context means old moneyed.

Anyway, there's more to the tale besides the Wade-Wilfred-Anne triangle, to be sure.  There are, after all, one hundred pages to fill.  So we have the suspicious agent, for example, as well as the suspicious tenants and and superintendent at Anne and Wilfred's apartment house.  Wade resorts to fisticuffs with Wilfred (getting the better of him, cause he's Wade Forsythe II good II be true) and someone tries to kill Anne, with that wheezy old dodge of rigging a thread on the stair banisters for Anne to trip over and break her neck.  Then, when that fails, Wilfred is found fatally shot in their apartment and Anne seriously wounded.  The cops think Anne shot Wilfred then herself and now are threatening her with the electric chair (!).  But, don't worry, Wade's got it tapped.  So should the reader as well.  I never had much doubt about what was really going on in this one.

Where I derived most of my interest was from the questions of whether Wade was going to stop treating Anne like a child and whether Anne would stop acting like one.  But nope, Wade won't tell her someone, presumably her husband, tried to murder her on the stairway, allowing her to think her fall was accidental:

What could he do....Tell her her husband was trying to kill her?  That he had tried it tonight, and would certainly try it again?  He was strongly tempted [to tell her], but she had already been badly shocked....  

Motto of the story: Ladies are better left stumbling in the dark!  The poor dears are delicate.  Those hardened low class tramps, now, you can tell them anything.  Wantons can take it.

Fortunately, I liked the all of the other tales in the collection much better than the title tale, especially the last two.

If Only It Were Yesterday

"It had been an impulse, dark and deadly, like the crash.  Only this was different.  This was death."

This is a good inverted murder story, about Amy, a woman jealous of Jessie, her younger, better-looking half sister.  In a moment of mad impulse, Amy decides to get rid of Jessie by shutting the windows of her bedroom and turning on the gas taps, leaving her to die while she is away at a dinner party at her brother's house.  (Jessie is temporarily bedridden, recuperating from the time when Amy, in another of her mad moments, "accidentally" crashed their car.)

When Amy returns, already regretting her rash action, she finds her would-be victim is not actually dead and that the police are mightily suspicious.  There's a nice twist next, although I saw it coming.

The story also constitutes another expression of a theme which obsessed Rinehart: the sad fate of the unmarried genteel daughter who sacrificed marriage to care for a family member.  Often it's a daughter caring for a mother, but here it's a half-sister who had to become a substitute mother for her sibling.  There's a feminist message of a sort here, I suppose: Women should get the chance to live their own lives, not stay chained forever to a parent or other family member.  Although here "live their own lives" invariably means marrying and starting their own families.  The idea of of a genteel woman having her own career (like Mary Roberts Rinehart) generally seems to be anathema.  (Frightened Wife is an exception, although Anne doesn't really seem to enjoy her work.)

Ultimately, then, the tale feels anachronistic for 1950.  There's also the usual retinue of butler and maids, in a decade when even Agatha Christie was omitting butlers from most of her books and her maids had become, well, simply hopeless.  Just recall what it's like trying to get good servants in Christie's classic A Murder Is Announced, published the same year as Yesterday.  Of course Christie was fourteen years younger than Rinehart, and that age difference shows.

"The Scandal"

"....she was quite a pretty girl, but then he had heard that love children often were."

Here's another story where Rinehart is trying to be "up to date."  Unfortunately for mystery fans, it's only peripherally a crime tale and more an emotional melodrama, reminiscent of Peyton Place and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, about another rich old biddy who two decades ago did her best to ruin her daughter's life. 

In this case it's Caroline Coleman and her daughter Jennie, who fell for the handsome family chauffeur, Chris Burton, and was going to run off with him to get married.  Instead Chris died in a  mysterious garage fire and Jennie left town to give birth to an illegitimate daughter, Edith, after which in deference to Caroline the mother and daughter were ostracized by the groveling townspeople. 

How does young lawyer Steve Wallace, who has fallen for Edith, achieve some measure of justice in this shameful affair?  That is the main question.  (Like Wade in Frightened Wife, by the way, he's another highly eligible bachelor who lives with an older unmarried sister.)

Rinehart attempts to take a 'bold" social stance: illegitimate children should not be ostracized.  At least if her parents were going actually to marry, after all (had one of them not been bumped off), and the chauffeur father had been listed on the Social Register before the Crash (that again).  If this were a Moray Dalton mystery, for example, the chauffeur might have been allowed to be of humble station, but Rinehart, presumably thinking of her own history, won't have that.

"Murder and the South Wind"

"But this is only incidentally a tarpon story.  Actually it is about  a murder."

"Anyway, I guess divorce isn't a cause for murder anymore.  Time was when--"  He let that go.

"Does that girl live with that old woman all the time?" he asked.
"She's her mother.  What else can she do?"

Useppa Island, Florida
unnamed setting of "Murder and the South Wind"
This one takes place at a wealthy Florida tarpon fishing resort, which Rinehart based on eighty- acre Useppa Island, near the city of Fort Myers.  Since 1912 the tiny island had been a vacation destination of such varied notables and celebrities as Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, western write Zane Grey, boxer Gene Tunney, actresses Hedy Lamar, Gloria Swanson and Shirley Temple, and assorted Vanderbilts, Rothschilds and Rockefellers.  Rinehart was introduced to the island by Hoover, whom local gossip suggested might be romantically interested in the bestselling author.*

*(Like Hoover's presidency, Rinehart's husband had passed away in 1932.)

Sadly, this titillating notion has been scotched by a Rinehart grandson, who has declared: It's hard for me to imagine my grandmother and Hoover generating much steam, particularly Hoover.  Hoover was a friend of mystery writer Carolyn Wells as well, incidentally, so I guess you could say he was a magnet for mystery writing Republican matrons.

tarpon fishing off Useppa Island
Certainly there is steam in the story, or at least heat generated by romantic friction, this being the friction generated among Fanny Raeburn, Pat Wilson and Captain Hugh Gardiner.  Fanny has divorced Hugh and Pat is planning on marrying him, but has Fanny really gotten over the dashing captain?  It becomes a very pertinent question when Hugh is shot dead while tarpon fishing.  The immediate suspect is the only other person on the boat: his guide, Bill Smith, with whom he had quarreled.  However, it's also possible that Hugh was felled by a bullet fired from a plane on a practice flight from nearby Buckingham Army Airfield.  (The story being set during World War Two.)  Or could someone simply have potted Hugh from the beach?

Other characters in the story are the bright narrator, Peggy, and her husband, Tom; Peggy's mother, Mrs. Hull; Fanny's brother Roy, "an authority on shells of all sorts" (this is a genteel mystery so naturally he is); Peter Randolph, an "old friend" of Tom's whom Peggy has never seen or heard of before; Mrs. Wilson, Pat's querulous, invalid mother; and Mary Pearl, Lulie, and Lindy, black servants who cater to the wealthy white season visitors and gossip about them behind their backs.

This is suspenseful, well-told mystery story with excellent local color.  I really felt I was on that island.  The story also feels a bit more up-to-date, like, say, a Mignon Eberhart piece.  (Except the heroine isn't a nudnik.)  Rinehart manages to pack in a lot of event into twenty-five pages.  Bravo.

Useppa Inn where MaryRoberts  Rinehart stayed with her family on her first visit.
They later annually rented a guest cottage.  

"The Burned Chair"

They all rang bells, the Jewetts.  They had been raised that way.  They rang and someone came running.

It seems to me that Rinehart could have expanded this fine novella into a full novel, but such was not to be.  It's another one set in a fictionalized Bar Harbor, Maine where Rinehart had owned a vacation "cottage" and almost been murdered by her Filipino cook.  As the third person narration puts it: "The millionaire colony was slowly dying, of two wars and high taxes.  But its houses remained, huge and burdensome to those who still came to spend the summer in them."

The main character is Jessica Jewett, wife of war veteran Tommy Jewett.  They live in one of the big, antiquated houses, along with Julia, Tommy's haughty elder sister, of late divorced from bank vice president Don Cameron; Henry, his elder brother; and Marian, Henry's beguiling but flippant wife, formerly a "dancer in a nightclub."  (Oh dear!)  In the house next door there resides the Jewett patriarch, Horace, with his live-in nurse, Miss Scott. 

1910 mansion at Bar Harbor

When the story opens, Jessica, responding in the morning to the importuning of the nurse next door, finds old, sickly Horace dead in his big chair in his sitting room, his wheelchair upset, the windows open and the lights off.  Jessica thinks the situation is strange, but the family and the police consider it a natural death from heart failure.  But then why did someone set fire to Horace's chair late at night?  And isn't it queer that Horace's nurse soon manages to fall into the ocean and drown?  Jessica, the daughter of a noted criminologist, is soon investigating matters herself....

I really liked this one.  It's a nice, meaty mystery with both physical and psychological clues.  Jessica Jewett is one of Rinehart's better heroines, at least in my view.  She's more capable than a lot of Eber-Rinehart heroines, having served as a nurse's aide during World War Two and having a sleuth father.  Also, the servant problem being what it is (it's acknowledged in this story), she's not afraid to cook and wash up, even at the risk of getting "dishpan hands."  Mike Grost argues that the story probably was actually composed in the late Forties, with the Korean War references added when it was finally published as part of the Frightened Wife collection in 1953.

A product of the author's twilight, "The Burned Chair" makes a fine farewell from Rinehart to the formal mystery in the novel/novella form.  For the book as a whole Rinehart was awarded a special Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America.  It was the only occasion on which she received this award.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Hospitals Will Kill You: A Stitch in Time (1968), by Emma Lathen

"I always tell young men just starting their medical careers that they have to realize every hospital is going to have a certain number of terminal patients.  We'd like to save them all, we do our best, but in the end it's in Other Hands.  In the first shock of loss, you have to make allowances for the survivors.  We have all of us faced hysterical accusations and other unpleasantness, from time to time.  But I tell my boys that the thing to do is is to be patient, and remember that time is the only healer."

--the pious words of pompous Dr. Philip Wittke, head of Southport Memorial Hospital in Emma Lathen's A Stitch in Time (1968)

stitches get fatally dropped in a
hospital that is a cesspool of corruption
in Emma Lathen's seventh mystery
It may churlish to review, and highly praise, a detective novel in which the medical profession is sent up in full, ironical Emma Lathen style.  After all, doctors around the country are heroically battling this virus gripping the country.  They deserve our praise, along with other medical workers.  On the other hand, I began reading Emma Lathen's seventh detective novel A Stitch in Time as my mother lay dying in home hospice from stage I breast cancer that metastasized first to her liver and then to her stomach before it killed her; and reading the book felt somewhat cathartic, as I was very unhappy with her initial treatment from West Cancer Clinic in Germantown, TN, who I feel allowed a manageable situation to get out utterly, fatally of hand.  (I also had lots of issues with my father's sojourn at another area hospital three years ago.) 

Some doctors act like they think they are gods when what they are, if they are anything, are tin gods, with feet of clay for bad measure.  So it is what it is.  On with the review!

I think it was English novelist CP Snow (who also wrote a mystery or two) who called Emma Lathen "a sort of Jane Austen of the detective novel, detached, mocking, economical."  If so, Snow really got it, well, right on the money, to quote an Emma Lathen book title.  It's that ironic tone that really makes Lathen the inheritors of the "manners mystery" mantle from the English Golden Age Crime Queens. 

In every book the two women who comprised Emma Lathen wrote there is superb satire of the business world (and the political world in their lesser known R. B. Dominic mysteries), plus of course a nice murderpoo or two, with genuine detection.  A Stitch in Time, which is about the the field of medicine, is certainly no exception to this rule.  And make no mistake, medicine is a business, whatever the Hypocritical Oath may tell you.  What?  Oh yeah.  Hippocratic. Sorry.

one of Emma Lathen's many
paperback editions
A Stitch in Time initially involves a legal tangle that would have delighted Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope.  Here goes!  Pemberton Freebody, an elderly wealthy and childless widower afflicted with terminal cancer, puts his affairs in order, names Sloan Guaranty Trust, the third largest bank in the world, executor of his estate, gets into his Cadillac, and drives "safely and slowly out the Long Island Expressway to a small wooded area he remembered from his distant youth," whereupon he promptly fixes a note to the dashboard, proceeds into the trees and shoots himself in the chest.

In the hands of many modern crime writers this sequnce would be detailed tragically, with much pathos.  With Emma Lathen, however, the tone remains ironic throughout the book.  Make no mistake, however, there is a sense of Swiftian outrage behind the satire.  The Lathen gels ain't just playing around here.  

Anyway, old Pemberton Freebody is rescued, so to speak, by a passing truck driver who hears the shot.  He is taken to Southport Memorial Hospital at nearby Southport, but he dies after surgery four days later, leaving the bulk of his estate, including a $100,000 life insurance policy, to the Institute for Cancer Research at Hanover University.  Atlantic Mutual, the insurance company behind the policy, refuses to pay over the money, however, invoking the policy's suicide invalidation clause.  But then an autopsy on the body of  P. F. reveals that the chief surgeon at Southport, Dr. Wendell Martin, left seven hemostatic clips in the old man's body!  So did he die of suicide or from a bungled operation?  It's time for a lawsuit to settle the matter.

The key figure in all of this is the aforementioned Dr. Wendell Martin, termed an "arrogant cocksure bastard" by the lead lawyer for the University.  And boy is he!  Lathen does a remarkable job of conveying this remarkably unlikable doctor, who reminds me so much of a certain complete SOB hospital administrator I encountered three years ago (a native of a certain Eastern European country who thought he needed to tell me that that country was located in Europe and spoke loudly, where I could hear him in the hall, about how they needed to get my father cleared out of his room on Friday or they'd be "stuck with him all weekend"). 

It's with pleasure when we find the almost pathologically hubristic Dr. Martin bumped off on page fifty.  Seldom have I seen a more irritating and deserving victim in a murder mystery.  

The University's attorneys are disappointed when Dr. Martin is murdered, because the trial "jury hated Martin so much that...every minute he was on the stand was so much money in the bank for us."  But at least John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, and Emma Lathen's series sleuth, now has a juicy mystery to solve, involving not only murder but nefarious business shenanigans, Lathen's specialty.  And it turns out there is really something truly rotten in Southport!

There's also Sloan's usual Greek Chorus of supporting characters, who I always enjoy though I have trouble remembering most of them by name, aside from Thatcher's super competent, Miss Lemon-ish secretary, Miss Corsa.  Thatcher delegates much of the investigation, enjoyably, to his ingenuous young subordinate Kenneth Nicolls.  The doctors and nurses at the hospital are also well-conveyed (the nurses more sympathetically on the whole), as well as a young working class patient and her husband who may have been witnesses to something important during one of her many stays there.  the mystery is genuinely "fair play," i.e., fairly clued, as they used to say between the wars, during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

And the writing is, as ever, a delight. Perhaps A Stitch in Time is not as memorable a social comedy as its immediate predecessors, Death Shall Overcome (1966), about the civil rights movement, and Murder against the Grain (1967), about US-USSR detente, but it's very well-written indeed.  (Detection purist Jacques Barzun says Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round, 1966, about the auto industry, is Lathen's masterpiece--more on this soon.) 

Everywhere there are sweet little bits, like Lathen description of a local drugstore, or the revelation that Thatcher has been shanghaied, if you will, into buying a Japanese puzzle box every year for the birthday of his grandson Geoffrey, the boy's mother (Thatcher's daughter) having gotten the erroneous impression that this would-be one-off signified an intense mutual interest the two shared.  In truth neither of them are that interested in the damn puzzle boxes, but "The speed with which a legend can become deeply entrenched is too often underestimated....the only salvation lay in Jeff's inevitable transformation from small, polite boy to boorish, self-centered adolescent."  Then Jeff will just bluntly tell Mom he doesn't want any more of those damn puzzles boxes.

I have a copy, originally from the town of Islip, Long Island (see map above), of the original American hardcover edition of A Stitch in Time, which carries a dedication from "Emma Lathen" to "Cornelius Fergueson IV and Frederic L. Atwood, Trustees of Southport Memorial Hospital, without whose devoted services the conditions described in this book could not exist."

In point of fact Fergueson and Atwood were trustees not of the fictional Southport Memorial Hospital, but rather of South Side Hospital in Bay Shore, a hamlet in Islip.  So evidently Southport is based on South Side and Bay Shore.  (The extensive description of Southport in the novel makes clear it's Bay Shore.)

Frederic L. Atwood (1930-3012)
co-dedicatee of Emma Lathen above
His official Princeton Alumni obituary
dubbed him a "yachtsman and jurist."
He served as a US magistrate judge
for the Eastern District of New York
between 1961 and 1995 and as a
member of the Board of Trustees for
South Side Hospital.  He was also a
a senior warden and vestryman of
St. Mark's Episcopal Church in
Islip, New York.

But what are we to make of the dedication?  Is it sincere or sarcastic?  I'm baffled.  Without whose devoted services the conditions described in this book could not exist?  The hospital described in A Stitch in Time turns out to be an utter cesspool (a word used in the book) of corruption and its trustees, if well-meaning, are completely clueless about what is going on around them.

Of the Board of Trustees of Southport Memorial Hospital, we learn:

Ordinarily they...worried about the selection of architects for new wings, the ever-present threat of unionization of non-skilled workers, and fund-raising, fund-raising, fund-raising.  Service on the Board was a symbol of achievement, a sign of esteem from the burghers of Suffolk County and an acknowledged form of civic participation.  It had nothing to do with knowing about hospitals.  The doctors ran the hospital....

And do those doctors run it!  Right into the ground.  I'd certainly love to know just what experience motivated Emma Lathen to write this book. 

Maybe it was something like mine.  Whatever it was, at least Emma Lathen got a great book out of it.  All I got is this review.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Leslie Wotton, Motorcycle Cop

Perhaps boredom inspired Leslie Wotton, a motorcycle cop in the Boston police force, to compose a droll list in 1928 of "the reasons why a driver sticks out his left arm."  (The Boston police's "Speed Squad" of motorcyclists had only been formed sixteen years earlier, in 1912.)  He was probably surprised when his tabulation was picked up nationally by newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, which ran the story as follows:


Leslie Wotton in uniform, with cycle
(courtesy Ron Bouvier)
Long and close observation, according to Leslie B. Wotton of the Boston traffic police, who keeps things moving smoothly in the congested environs of Governor's Square [today Kenmore Square--The Passing Tramp], has convinced him that when motorist see an arm protruding from a car ahead they should understand instantly that the drivers is:

1. Dusting ashes from his cigaret.
2. Going to make a left turn.
3. Telling the youngster to keep quiet; it's too hot to eat more ice cream, and there isn't any place to park around here, anyway.
4. Going to turn to the right.
5. Feeling for rain.
6. Going to back.
7. Pointing to something.
8. Saluting a friend in another car.
9. Assuring his wife for the fifth time that the kitchen door is locked.
10. Going to stop.
11. Wondering if it's getting any hotter.
12. Resting his arm.

The humorous patrolman Wotton did have his more exciting moments on the force, however, when he was stationed in Hyde Park District.  There was that time in 1923 when he and Officer Fallon arrested George Cowan of 866 Main Street, Charlestown for the theft of four hens from the premises of Robert Finn at 93 Washington Street. 

Okay, well, maybe not that one so much.

However, there was also the time in 1924 when Wotton helped avert a catastrophic fire at the Masonic Temple on Fairmount Avenue (today Riverside Theater).  In the early morning hours of March 13th, his brother in blue Sergeant Edward J. Murphy was walking along Fairmount when he discovered the fire and telephoned the police station, reaching Patrolman Wotton, whom he dispatched to the engine house on Winthrop Street.  The sergeant and patrolman then devoted their time to awakening the residents in the vicinity, alerting them to their peril. 

Deliberately indulging in a pun, one assumes, the Boston Globe confided to its readers that Murphy and Wotton "were showered with their many friends, and Captain Grant personally commended the officers...."

Riverside Theater (formerly Masonic Temple)

engine house on Winthrop Street

It was also in 1924 when Wotton had to deal with the affair of the runaway boy.  On September 10, a lad aged ten who gave his name as Edwin Boudreau and his residence as the city of Worcester, was turned over to the police police by a Hyde Park woman, who had discovered him crying on her piazza and given him supper.  Young Edwin snifflingly told the men at the station that he had been sleeping in porch hammocks for the past week, having run away from the home of Mrs. Clark at 152 Quincy Street, Roxbury, where he had been placed with seven other boys.  The boy was entertained by the kindhearted police offers, who made up a collection on his behalf.  Then Patrolman Wotton carried him back home on his motorcycle, allowing the thrilled youngster to ride in his side car.

Patrolman Wotton standing before Trinity Church
at Copley Square, Boston
(courtesy Ron Bouvier)
This touching 1924 affair launched what proved Edwin Boudreau's relationship of at least sixteen years duration with New England law enforcement authorities.  By 1930, Edwin, along with his younger brother Conrad, was residing at Lyman School for Boys, a reform school near Worcester.  Two years after that Edwin, then eighteen, had been paroled for three weeks from the Massachusetts Industrial School for Boys at Shirley (formerly a Shaker village), when he was arrested for larceny. 

It was proving hard for legal and moral authorities, it seems, to instill habits of industry--or more accurately legality--in Edwin.

What of Edwin's parents, you may be asking.  Well, Edwin was one of at least nine children (seven sons and two daughters) of respectable Canadian Catholic immigrants, John and Emma Boudreau.  John was a watchmaker, which may help explain Edwin's particular criminal interests.

Edwin stood accused in March 1932 of having entered Swanson's Bakery in Fitchburg, Masachusetts and purloined three dollars from the office of splendidly named baker Knute Cedarholm.  It was contended that Edwin displayed the stolen bills to another boy, querying him as to the cost of a fare to Boston.  When Patrolman Fitzgerald, who had been given a description of the boy, arrested Edwin, the bills were not to be found upon his person, but it was later discovered that they had been picked up off the street by a girl, Edwin--no fool he--evidently having dropped them there when he saw a policeman approaching.

photo taken from the derelict
Lyman School for Boys
(Brendan OConnor)
See this evocative collection of photos
at the Lyman School for Boys
Facebook Page
In court Edwin proved defiant, insisting that "the stories told by the [prosecution] witnesses are not true."  The judge did not agree and he told Edwin so: "In the absence of any explanation I will have to find you guilty."  Judge Gallagher found Edwin guilty of one count of larceny and ordered that the young man promptly be returned to the Industrial School from which he had so recently been paroled.

Edwin was soon out again and on something of a spree--a crime spree.  In July 1933 he was arrested while hitchhiking in Hampton, New Hampshire, with two bags of allegedly stolen jewelry worth $1200 (about $22,500 today) in his possession.  Claiming to be seventeen (though he was actually nineteen), Edwin was arraigned in Portsmouth on three charges of breaking and entering.  Inspector B. H. Flaherty of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, who was investigating Edwin's extra curricular activities, claimed that Edwin had stolen watches and jewelry from:

  • Theodore A Couch, optician, of 48 Sayles Street, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
  • William H. Savage, commercial traveler, and his wife Inez, of Wilder Road, Leominster, Massachusetts, from whom $3000 worth of property was stolen
  • Whalom Park, Massachusetts, an amusement park where over $2500 worth of jewelry was stolen
  • Stanley Sawyer Smith, mail carrier, of Athol, Massachusetts
  • two houses in Worcester
  • a house in Pawtucket
  • two houses in Portsmouth
Leslie Wotton (1892-1971)
(courtesy Ron Bouvier)
Edwin was convicted and sentenced to a term in the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord, from which institution he was released on July 15, 1936.  The day after his release, he was again arrested, this time charged with thefts of jewelry from two homes in Worcester.  The newspaper reporting these details noted that Edwin had "a long police record...starting his career of crime when he was a young boy."

In Fitchburg Edwin plead guilty to five counts of breaking and entering and larceny, and was sentenced by Judge Walter Perley Hall to five years in prison.  He had been released by 1940, when he registered for military service at Worcester.  He then was employed by the Wiley Bickford Sweet Shoe Company and resided at 6 Chrome Street. 

At under 5'5" and weighing 140 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes, Edwin must have made quite the cat burglar.  (He was too big for a jockey.)  Over five decades later, he died in Florida at the age of 81.

Patrolman Wotton could not have known that he was taking a criminal prodigy for a ride in his side car back when he crossed young Edwin's path in 1924, but in service as a Boston policeman he did encounter some active adult criminals (besides the chicken thief), if in a minor key.

Boston police with seized casks of liquor during the era of Prohibition (1920-33)

Armed with search warrants Patrolman Wotton, along with two other policeman, in January 1925 raided the fruit store of Pietro Zampella, where they discovered and confiscated two gallons of alcohol in seven bottles.  With four other policeman, Wotton the same day participated in a raid on the home of Patsy DelGrosso, where two-and-a-half gallons of liquor were discovered and confiscated.

Ethel Mae Sanborn Wotton
(courtesy Ron Bouvier)
Not exactly Al Capone "Untouchables" stuff, you may say, and that's true.  However, I think these incidents influenced a central plot thread in Murder by Jury (1932), a detective novel by author Ruth Burr Sanborn, (1894-1942), who was a cousin of Ethel Mae Sanborn, the wife of Leslie Wotton.  Ethel Mae and Leslie had met at Logan's supermarket in Hyde Park, where Leslie was working in the meat department and Ethel Mae in bookkeeping.

Ethel's cousin Ruth published two detective novels, both of which are being reprinted by Coachwhip, but between the two world wars Ruth was one of the most prominent writers of lucrative romance fiction for so-called "slick" magazine like The Saturday Evening Post.  (She might have written a story about her cousin Ethel and Leslie: "The Butcher and the Bookkeeper.")

Ruth knew "slick" romance writing down to the ground, but when it came to writing her murder mysteries, especially her first, I think she took good advantage of a little inside knowledge from her cop in-law, Leslie Wotton.

Copley Square and Trinity Church today