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


  1. Fascinating article, Curt (as usual, I should say), maybe with a moral inside if one looks carefully...

    1. Yes, I think there definitely are lines between which to read!

    2. By the way, good to hear from you again, Mauro. Hope all is well!

    3. Luckily I'm still alive, Curt, thanks. And I hope to stay like this at least until I read your new book. Thanks for sharing with us the fruit of your research.

  2. Another very nice piece. Is the book project still on track?

    1. Oh, yes, this is something of an excerpt. I was able to go into some more detail with additional pics here. I have finished the lives and expect to finish the critical study of the writing this summer. Also, another volume of their short stories is on track for the winter of 2020-21.

    2. Great to hear not only that the book project is proceeding nicely, and but also that a new volume of short stories is in the works.

    3. Yes, I'm planning a piece on all the short stories. There will be two more volumes after the next one, collecting, in all three volumes, sixteen works of short fiction and five essays. The bio is past 50,000 words now; my aim is 80-100,000. This will be a shorter books than Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, which by my recollection was about 150,000 words. Thanks for your interest, Christophe, it's always good to hear from you.

  3. Will be very interested to see the book(s)! Hugh did, indeed, seem to lead a charmed life.
    Although we by now have come to regard Patrick Quentin as the main and most successful of the pseudonyms, I am struck by how relatively few Patrick Quentin books there were in the main phase of the Wheeler-Webb cooperation (and how many Jonathan Stagges!). I am speculating here, and it could be that your research has showed something different, but could it be that plotting the Stagges came easier to Rickie Webb with his pharmaceutical background?
    It seems to be only when Webb went off to New Guinea that Patrick Quentin started taking over (as it would, of course, do more and more in the years that followed).

    1. Yes, I agree with that, Rickie himself mentioned the Stagges as drawing more on medical detail. Hugh later handed off Stagge and QP to Rickie, saying all he wanted to keep going was Patrick Quentin. I think Rickie hoped to publish another Stagge in his own (the famous Oh! To Die in England) but it never came to fruition. I assume the later QP's were Rickie's though.

  4. Portions of the overly intimate letter you quote smack of loneliness. Reminded me of the kind of thing that teenage Robert Barlow wrote in his letters to H. P. Lovecraft.

  5. On a related subject, I've just been rereading 'Puzzle for Pilgrims', the strangest and most intense of the mature Webb/Wheeler books. I was wondering if you will have much to say about this one?

    1. Oh, yes, that's a pivotal book for them, very reflective of what's going on in their own lives. You might say Hugh was Iris. ;)

  6. In the emotional tangle, Hugh would correspond to Iris, but I also see aspects of Hugh in the portrayal of boyish, British Martin Haven, "Young, golden and sublimely sure of getting what he wanted" (which above all is to be a writer), contrasted with the war-worn, older, Peter who at least in this respect would be Rickie. It would be interesting to speculate just how the writing cooperation worked in practice on this one ...

    1. Great points. I definitely see Rickie identifying with Peter, whom he created as a character. The San Francisco portion of Puzzle for Puppets also would have drawn on his own recollection of San Francisco in 1944, including, no doubt, the famous bathhouse bit.

    2. I liked the book more on reading it again (for the third time): the opening line is superb, the portrayal of Jake brilliant, the plot neater and more satisfying than I remembered it, and though the story rambles around a little [like the other Mexican-set books: Run to Death & The Follower] it all makes sense. But Martin & Marietta have a kind of symbolic, otherworldly strangeness about them - they never quite seem to be made of flesh and blood, but perhaps that's the point.

    3. Rickie and Hugh wintered in Mexico for several months in 1946-47, giving them the material for the Mexican books. Always thought it was interesting that Under the Volcano came out at that time too. I think the later Patrick Quentin books are well plotted. They are sparer than the first three, but clever too and more emotionally involving.