Saturday, July 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. This is all very interesting. Thank you so much for presenting all this information, Curtis.

    I hope you will be able to publish a full bibliography of Wheeler/Webb et al, including all types of publication, at some point in time.

    1. You're welcome. As for the book, I'm expecting next year. I'm pushing up to 80,000 words now. I hope to finish it in August. Originally I thought I might make it under 100,000 words, but now it's clear it's going to go over that.