Monday, July 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Great post - thanks for that. I have become a Wheeler/Webb fan after reading The Scarlet Circle, Death's Old Sweet Song and the Q. Patrick story, Exit Before Midnight. Your blog continues to be a good source of information on the "Patrick Quentin" and associated pseudonyms.

    Which of the Stagge stories are your favourites?

    1. Thank you and thanks for commenting. I'm glad you are enjoying their writing. I like Death's Old Sweet Song and The Scarlet Circle a lot and have reviewed both on the blog. Also Death and the Dear Girls (Death, My Darling Daughters), Murder or Mercy? (Murder by Prescription) and Turn of the Table. Three Fears, which I have reviewed here too, is good, but more like a Patrick Quentin than a Stagge, I think.

    2. I think in the US Mysterious Press has reprinted only the last three in the series, will have to check on that. Affordable editions of the earlier books are practically impossible to find now.

  2. "British publishers had a perverse mania for changing these titles"


    1. I actually corrected that to read Michael Joseph. It was all Michael Joseph's doing! Stagge had that same English publisher all through their run. They published Gladys Mitchell too. Someone there had a taste for the ghoulish.

    2. Generally, I think American publishers were just as perverse at changing titles - just look at Christie and Carr, for instance. As for whether the new titles were worse or better, well, that's a matter of opinion. Sometimes I like the original better, sometimes the new one appeals more.

      As I'm most used to seeing the Swedish titles for these novels, they appeal a bit more to me. In most cases, those titles are direct translations of the US ones, though the Swedish title for "The Scarlet Circle" literally means "The Paper Lantern", and the Swedish title for "Death, My Darling Daughters" is "The Silver Flute"...

    3. Oh, yes, American publishers made lots of bad title changes to British mysteries (and a few good ones occasionally). But the British got their revenge on Jonathan Stagge! I wonder if The Scarlet Circle got changed in other countries because of its resemblance to Edgar Wallace's The Crimson Circle, one of his best known novels?

  3. That's great news about 'Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits'. I'm reading my way through the Lieutenant Trant collection at present, and so far the stories have been uniformly excellent.

    1. Yes, they repeat a few gimmicks, but it's a really strong collection, I think. Q. Patrick was one of the mainstays of EQMM isn the late 40s and early 50s. HITD will have one Westlake, one Duluth and one Trant work, presumably the last, plus fiver others.