Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Wrath of Ruths: Ruth Burr Sanborn (1894-1942) and Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)--Part I Ruth Burr Sanborn

Earlier this year, Stark House reissued a mystery twofer by Ruth Fenisong, for which I wrote the introduction.  Now Coachwhip has reissued a mystery twofer by Ruth Burr Sanborn and later this year Stark House will have another mystery twofer out, this one by Ruth Sawtell Wallis.  What is it with all these Ruths?  It's hard to imagine the Biblical Ruth as a crime writer--although, God knows, there is a lot of murder and other assorted wicked mayhem in the Bible.  Leaving that mystery unsolved, let's take a look at the writing and lives of some of our modern day Ruths, beginning with Ruth Burr Sanborn.

I have actually already written about Lesley Wotton, a Boston motorcycle cop who married a cousin of Ruth Burr Sanborn and may have been a source of information about the Italian bootleggers whom she portrayed in the first of her two mystery novels, Murder by Jury.  What about Ruth herself?

For native New Englander and Radcliffe graduate Ruth Burr Sanborn, crime fiction was only a minor sideline in a busy and highly lucrative mainstream writing career in the "slicks," as Raymond Chandler derisively termed the glossy illustrated periodicals that were then so popular in the United States.  Chandler damned "all slick fiction" as "artificial, untrue and emotionally dishonest" because it was written to the formula of love conquering all--at least for nice middle and upper class heterosexual white people (not that Chandler himself was interested in writing illuminatingly about American minorities, racial or otherwise).  Yet within its admittedly restricted ambit, slick fiction could be entertaining in the hands of capable professionals, like Ruth Burr Sanborn. 

In the two decades between 1923 and 1942 Ruth Sanborn is said to have published over one hundred short stories, in such popular periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, McCall's, Maclean's, Cosmopolitan, The American Magazine, Liberty, Woman's Home Companion and Ladies' Home Journal.  "Professional Pride," a story by her from LHJ, achieved the distinction of being chosen, along with polished tales by Dorothy Parker, Sherwood Anderson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Louis Bromfield, Kathleen Norris and Wilbur Daniel Steele, as an O. Henry Prize Story of 1929.  (It lost to Dorothy Parker's "Big Blonde," a classroom staple, at least in my day.)  Another Sanborn short story, "Peach Crop," which appeared The American Magazine in 1935, carried an evocative color illustration by Norman Rockwell, the original painting for which later was purchased by fimmaker George Lucas, who has declared it his favorite piece among Rockwell's work.  (See illustration below.)

"Peach Crop," by Norman Rockwell

"Peach Crop," one of Ruth Sanborn's trademark tales of ardent young love's strenuously won triumph,  is about the pure love that blooms between a handsome, earnest young man laboring in a peach orchard to earn tuition for his final year at medical school and an impoverished but beautiful and plucky sharecropper's daughter.  Another story Sanborn which published, "The Trail of the Chitigau," ends in love but has some amusing satire along the way.  In it is a wonderful character, Miss Laura Pennell, an inveterate fiction magazine reader who resembles Ruth's mystery series spinster sleuth, Angeline Tredennick.  Miss Laura, we learn, "was not above reading an occasional detective story, if the victims ere killed in some quite nice way...."  Ruth, it seems, knew her readers and was enjoying poking a little fun at them here.

Happily Ruth Sanborn's two mysteries, particularly her first, Murder by Jury, evince something of this same wry tone.  Ruth commented in 1932, when asked why she had written a detective novel:

It really is rare fun, I find, to write mystery stories.  There is so much excitement in the planning--for of course you plan the murder, and then you stand the murder on its head and plan the mystery, with a slow leakage of clues.  It gives one such a grand feeling of omnipotence. 

So few of us ever really have the opportunity to commit murder in person.  And it never is really well looked on.  But think of the vicarious satisfaction of killing off on paper the man who poisoned your cat or the dentist who pulled your tooth!

I found Murder by Jury a fun and rewarding mystery, with its well-planned murder, eminently deserving murderee, amusing spinster sleuth, and, last but not least, its striking originality.  (Oh, yes, there's love too, but it doesn't get too treacly.)  

There indeed is an original "situation," or at least it was, I think, original at the time.  "It may seem almost unbelievable when you are informed that this new story is a novelty in detective tales," one reviewer commented, before going on to assert that it was true of this "clever and worthwhile" book.  What's the novelty, you ask?  Well, the murder is committed in he "sealed" jury room, a juror being killed, presumably, by one of the jurors.  

Murder by Jury opens with the twelve men and women, good and true (or actually not in come cases), who have assembled in the jury room of the courthouse in the town of Sheffield to determine the verdict in the trial of Karen Garetti, who stands accused of the murder of her lover, blackguardly bootlegger Sebastian Como.  With one exception, the dozen jurors are dominated by the tellingly named Mrs. DeQuincey Vanguard, a massive wealthy matron whose imperious presence has permeated all of Sheffield society, Mrs. Vanguard being "President of the Civics Club, the Women's Auxiliary, the Town Betterment Society, the Association for the Enforcement of Prohibition, the Association for the Suppression of Vice, and the Crematorians."  

I was reminded a little of
And Then There Were None
The other men and women of the jury were helpfully listed on the back of the dust jacket to the original edition (see illustration).  When one of the jurors suddenly drops to the floor in a fit and subsequently expires, they, along with a handsome young doctor in attendance at the trial who was called in to minister to the ailing juror, all become suspects in the unnatural death.  (Mysteriously administered strychnine is indicated.)  

Eventually one not only is the murder of the juror solved, but also the murder that the jurors had assembled to decide, so you get two murder mysteries solved for the price of one--that's good value for your money! 

The person who ultimately gets to the bottom of it all is not uncouth and unfeeling District Attorney Pitt, a born third degree-er if ever there were one, but empathetic spinster Angeline Tredennick, a keeper of a boarding house with a keen nose for other people's business. 

Angeline appears in Sanborn's second and final mystery, Murder on the Aphrodite (though disappointingly she does not figure as the novel's sleuth).  This one is about the murder of a wealthy, jewel-mad widow, Christine Van Wycke, aboard her fabulous houseboat, "Aphrodite," which is stranded on an island off the coast of Maine.  (Before her death she hired Angeline, who is bored with boarding house life, as her housekeeper.)

At the time of her unnatural demise Mrs. Van Wycke was holding a houseboat party, if you will, so there are plenty of suspects when she is shot and slain in the dark on the boat, during a bizarre demonstration by an eccentric psychiatrist of the unreliability of people's perceptions.  (I was reminded of John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule--fans of that novel will know what I'm talking about.)  To add to the outrage, the avaricious widow's bag of precious jewels is also cut from her wrist and stolen!

Never fear though, on the case is stalwart and hunky insurance investigator Bill Galleon, who you can be sure will not only get his murderer but his girl as well.  There's more love interest in this one, which you can take or leave as you choose.  Some reviewers, like romance shy Todd Downing, a "confirmed bachelor," wanted to leave it, but in the main Aphrodite got strong reviews.  The New York Times Book Review deemed it an "uncommonly good mystery tale," while the LA Times declared it was "clever, snappy and surprising at the end."

Before her tragic death from liver cancer, just two weeks shy of her forty-eight birthday in 1942, Sanborn published only one additional novel, a mainstream story entitled These Are My People, set in North Carolina, where she had moved with her parents.  Her short stories kept appearing in the slicks up to, and even after, her death, as she remained industrious until she breathed her last.  Her detective novels have been out of print for eighty-five years now, but are not back in print in a one -volume twofer which includes "The Trail of the Chitigau."  Give it a try, it's enjoyable volume.


  1. Sorry to hear they're not back in print...

    1. From the blog post, first para:

      "Now Coachwhip has reissued a mystery twofer by Ruth Burr Sanborn...."

      There's even a link up there to the Amazon page. I'm nothing if not helpful! ;)

    2. That last picture is of the new edition.