Sunday, August 2, 2020

Circling Back: Jonathan Stagge's The Scarlet Circle (1936 and 1943)

Jonathan Stagge's Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novel The Scarlet Circle (1943), in which the good doctor and his daughter Dawn encounter a rash of highly queer serial killings during their annual late summer fishing vacation at the decaying seaside New England village of Cape Talisman, has long been one of my favorite Stagge mysteries--indeed, one of my favorite mysteries period.  I reviewed it, very favorably, on my blog eight years ago.  But I only more recently came to realize that The Scarlet Circle originally was published in January 1936 in the pulp Detective Story Magazine and in the last quarter of 1942 heavily revised for publication by "Jonathan Stagge" co-author Hugh Wheeler, who added some 30,000 words and restructured much of the story.

ocean front of the Sakonnet Inn, Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island
also known as the Lyman Hotel (see Little Compton Historical Society)

All we know from the story is that The Scarlet Circle takes place along coastal New England, likely Connecticut, Rhode Island or southern Massachusetts, with my choice leaning toward Rhode Island, possibly the area of Little Compton, in the far southeastern part of the state.  At the far southern end of Little Compton, jutting out into the sea, is Sakonnet Point, where earlier in the previous century there used to be a thriving fishing village of a couple hundred souls, which catered to the summer tourist trade.  This would have made as excellent place as any, I think, for the site of the the fictional Cape Talisman in The Scarlet Circle, just as the real life Sakonnet Inn could have stood in for the fictional Talisman Inn.

1930s view of Sakonnet Point--for the writing on the back of the postcard see the picture below

The community of Sakonnet Point was wiped out by the catastrophic New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, which killed around 600 New Englanders, mostly in beleaguered Rhode Island, and in Connecticut imperiled Kathrine Hepburn, who at that time happened to be staying at the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  The '38 hurricane is referenced more than a few times in the 1943 edition of The Scarlet Circle.

North View on Lloyd's Beach at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton RI by Jeff Hayden
superimposed on the modern photo is an image of what the spot looked like
before the Great Hurricane of 1938, probably in the 1910s or  1920s
(purchases of this image help to support the Little Compton Historical Society)

Today Sakonnet Point offers visitors "long sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and is a haven for birds"--so appropriate for Hugh Wheeler, who in England had been, with his elder brother, an avid birdwatcher.  As the Our Natural Heritage website puts it:

Looking out from the easternmost tip of [Lloyd's] Beach [at Sakonnet Point], all you can see is the vast Atlantic Ocean in front of you, as you gaze out toward Portugal.  In the summer the beach and the surrounding scenery are pure heaven, and in the other seasons it is wild and wavy and exhilarating....I'll never forget how the wind howled so fiercely it almost sounded like sirens were calling from the the beach.

Anyone who has read the '43 version of The Scarlet Circle will know how the book memorably captures the images described above.

Cape Talisman, as envisioned by Hugh Wheeler and his partner Richard Webb, also seems to draw from the famous "drowned city" of Dunwich, in Suffolk, England, which for centuries now has been crumbling into the North Sea.  Very little is left today of what once had been (by medieval English standards) a large city.  Dunwich's All Saints' Church, which survived at the edge of a cliff into the twentieth century, became a much photographed iconic image in England.

"The tower went [over the cliff] on 12 November 1919," notes Simon Knott at the Suffolk Churches website,

leaving just a single buttress, which was rescued and reset in the graveyard of the new church at St. James.  Hauntingly, it carries graffiti from sightseers who visited it during its lonely sojourn on the clifftop....Throughout the twentieth century, people have come to Dunwich to see the last relics of All Saints.  Until the 1950s it was still easy to find identifiable lumps of masonry on the beach.  When I first came here in 1985, the bones of those buried in All Saints' graveyard protruded gruesomely from the cliff, and a single gravestone, to John Brinkley Easey, stood in an inconceivably bleak loneliness at the clifftop.  But this now has gone, removed to the safety of the churchyard at St James, and one would not think that there ever was anything like a town hear now.

like a sentinel, the solitary tower of All Saints Church once overlooked the cliff at Dunwich

I think that in The Scarlet Circle Hugh Wheeler and Rickie Webb, native Englishmen both, boldly placed All Saints and its churchyard with its exposed graves on the crumbling cliff in fictional Cape Talisman, New England, where they are to play an important role in the plot.

Here's how the 1936 pulp version of The Scarlet Circle describes Cape Talisman (Both versions are, like all the Dr. Westlake tales, narrated by the crime solving doctor):

grave of John Brinkley Easey (1738-1811)
in Dunwich, England
the last grave that was left lying in All Saints cemetery
September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, is the shore of Cape Talisman.  It is one of those spots against which the elements seem to have  a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves are encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which once was a flourishing community, is now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there is a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing is really safe.  The Talisman Hotel, so strong, so modern when I first visited it ten years ago, now has its foundations on sand and the beach for a front garden.  Soon it will have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church was recently abandoned when the spring tides approached the churchyard and threatened the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart fisher folk.  

And here's 1943:

September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast.  Wild and unaccountable, too, was the shore line of Cape Talisman,  It was one of those spots against which the elements seem to have a perpetual grudge.  Inch by inch the waves were encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which was once a flourishing community, was now almost deserted.  

Even to the south, where there was a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing was really safe.  The Talisman Inn, so secure, so prim when I first stayed there fifteen years ago, now had the beach for a front garden.  Soon it would have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church had been abandoned a couple of years ago when the hurricane had induced the Atlantic Ocean to surge into the churchyard and threaten the last resting place of Cape Talisman's stalwart forebears.  

How convenient was the hurricane for Hugh's revision of The Scarlet Circle.  So much more sudden and dramatic than the "spring tides."

The changes in the above passages were light, outside of the addition of the mention of the '38 hurricane.  In much of the novel, however, the changes are considerable indeed.

Little Compton, Rhode Island
exposed Sakonnet Point is at the southernmost end
it was greatly unchanged a century later
Most significantly, Hugh Wheeler tremendously expanded the role of Dr. Westlake's willful daughter, Dawn, who is at her most willful here.  She is involved in a subplot with another determined child, five-year-old Bobby Fanshawe, the son of an artistic couple staying at the Talisman Inn, which becomes much more important in the '43 version.

Reviewing the novel in 1943, Anthony Boucher complained that Dawn "hasn't grown a month nearer puberty in six years"; but of course Boucher didn't appreciate that The Scarlet Circle was actually Dawn's second published adventure, rather than her sixth. 

Indeed, the pulp version of the tale even gives Dawn's age as nine, which is a year younger than she starts off in the the first Stagge mystery, The Dogs Do Bark, so she's literally regressing.  To be sure, Dawn behaves more immaturely here than she does in The Yellow Taxi (1942), where her age has advanced to twelve, but she her absolute determination is also tremendously amusing, in my view, if you don't find humor in an otherwise creepy serial killer story too discordant. Somehow it all seems to seems to work for me; and Dawn here is really integral to the plot, more so than she is in some of the other stories.

Clearly Hugh is more interested than Rickie was in the Dawn subplot.  Compare the passages in the respective version where Bobby is introduced into the story:

Bobby Fanshawe was a small, solemn infant of five who looked as though life were altogether too confusing for him--as probably it was if he modeled it upon his father and mother.  After breakfast I took him and Dawn out onto the beach.  (1936)

landward side of the Sakonnet Inn,
showing the observation tower, which later became a guest suite

Within a few moments [Dawn] walked in, leading little Bobby Fanshawe by the hand.  

It was a most unfortunate moment, because I had gotten out of bed and was struggling with my pajama top which had become twisted around me during the night.  Bobby Fanshawe was very small for five years.  He had very black hair, cut in a flat oriental bang, and very black sooty eyes which stared with archiepiscopal solemnity.  

He just stood there with his hand tightly clasped in Dawn's and gave me one of those long Bobby stares.

Suddenly, in a voice deep and husky as a truck driver's, he said: "Who's that man?"

"It's my Daddy," said Dawn  "You know that perfectly. You've seen him every day for two weeks."  

Bobby's expression showed no fractional alteration. 

"I don't like him," he said.  "He looks silly.  He's a silly man." (1943)

Postcard written from Sakonnet Point
written on September 3, 1936,
almost two years to the date before
 the Great New England Hurricane,
to Ethel Hale Freeman (1882-1960), Smith
College graduate, academic, composer and artist.
The island of Bermuda--another favorite vacation
destination of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, about
which they wrote about in the detective novel
Return to the Scene (1941)--is mentioned
Rickie in the '36 version is more interested in discussions among investigators, which are toned down in the '43 version, about the presumed sexual deviancy of an evidently grotesquely depraved serial killer:

"Of course, you've always got Jack the Ripper to back you up," he admitted.  "But his were sex crimes, Gilchrist.  And the autopsy showed that there was nothing of that sort in this case."

Gilchrist smiled grimly.  "We don't want to get into the complications of sex perversions, Sweney.  But if you ever read Kraft-Ebbing [sic] you'll find some pretty little chapters on fetishism, sadism and even necrophilia."  

The serial killer, you see, strangles women and then draws circles with red lipstick around single prominent moles on their dead bodies.  It certainly appears to be prime material for pioneering sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing, with whose landmark work, Psychopathia Sexualis, Rickie Webb clearly was familiar (see his book The Grindle Nightmare, 1935), but Hugh doesn't speculate about this so explicitly. 

Nor does the '43 version point out that Dawn herself has a large mole, which might tempt the killer!  In the later version Dr. Westlake attempts to pack Dawn off to his Aunt Mabel out of concern for her safety, but we don't into the matter of Dawn's moles, which is good because in the pulp version it's kind of icky.

Overall, Hugh enriches the writing.  I'll give just one more example here, comparing the passages where Dr. Westlake goes for a walk on the beach with Mr. Usher (!), an oleaginous undertaker staying at the Talisman Inn:

Uriah Heep (1939 Royal Doulton figurine)
....he seemed utterly out of place against the sunlit background of the beach with its turquoise waves and its long, silver stretches of sand.  He wore a dark inappropriate suit which heightened the waxy pallor of his skin and the redness of his hair.  Everything about his face was mean and foxy except his full-lipped sensual mouth.  His hands he kept running nervously in front of him in a pose which was strangely reminiscent of Uriah Heep.  I noticed that the joints of his fingers were sprinkled with warts.  

Doctor Westlake, I--er--wonder if you would care to go for a stroll.  There's a little matter-" (1936)

There was a horrid smile on his full red mouth--a smile, too, in the ginger-brown eyes.  He wore no hat, and his red hair gleamed in the sunlight above the waxy pallor of his cheeks.  Under his arm was a black leather book, probably the Bible, and his hands, with their spray of warts, were kneading each other in a Uriah Heep fashion.  He glanced rather furtively at Buck and then more steadily at me. 

"Ah good morning, Dr. Westlake.  A shocking tragedy--but a beautiful morning.  The Lord's compensation."  He hesitated.  "I was wondering if you would care to take a little stroll with me."  

There was nothing I would care to take less.  I was about to say so when he added: 

"There is something--ah--quite important.  I would be grateful to have your advice."  (1943)

"Touch the screen!"
capture of Phil Collins mugging it as a smarmy,
wealthy televangelist in the satirical 1991
Genesis video of the song "Jesus He Knows Me"
That added pious, empty platitude about "The Lord's compensation" (as if nice weather can compensate for a woman's tragic murder) shows the hand of true natural writer.  How many times over the decades have we seen those horrid smiles on the faces of sickeningly fulsome, donations-beseeching celebrity television ministers?

Whether or not it's my favorite Stagge, The Scarlet Circle--the '43 version--is certainly in my top three or four of them. 

I'm glad the time was taken to get right its peculiarly captivating blend of terror and whimsy, so characteristic of the Golden Age of detective fiction.


  1. Great piece, this book is also among my favourites. (I think this story would have the potential to make an excellent film, with its very evocative setting). That inn you have found photos of looks just right to me!

    It is really interesting to see the development from the pulp version to the novel. (Though I am getting ever more confused about the differences between the English version I have, and the Norwegian translation – I will try to go back and check whether the parts you quote, are in either or both of them).

    The Yellow Taxi was probably as close to puberty Dawn would ever get. She is stated to be twelve and the book it is set right before Christmas, and as we know from Murder or Mercy that her birthday is early in the year, she should in fact be close to thirteen. She may even be crushing in an innocent way on her scoutmaster …(?)

    She seems clearly younger in The Scarlet Circle, nine seems about right though I think she is stated to be eleven.

    1. Oh, on Dawn's age, the pulp version gives it as nine! Which admittedly kind of fits with her behavior in the book, lol. Does the book say 11, I was trying to find that. Yes, I like in Taxi how Dawn is infatuated with the fish that resembles her scoutmaster. ;)

  2. I've written more about it in the book (though this piece will seem long enough to some, I'm sure, lol), but generally in the 43 version the writing is improved, episodes rearranged, morbid psychology downplayed and Dawn's role greatly enhanced. In the pulp version there's not too much done with Dawn and Booby, where in the 43 novel it's a highlight. I get the impression Hugh was more interested in child psychology, Rickie in deviant criminal psychology.

    Does your translation have the climax in the church itself with Dawn and Bobby? That's only in the 43 version. Trying not to say too much because of spoilers. That dovetails so nicely. Of course Hugh had the advantage of the '38 hurricane being such a recent event.

    Don't you love that inn, with its great wraparound porch? I'd love to think that Rickie and Hugh stayed here, but the inn seems to have gone downhill after Thomas Lyman died in 1922. I think it may have been razed by the end of the decade. It's odd but people aren't clear about this. The whole place was wiped out in the '38 hurricane. Of course Rickie and Hugh may have had another place, or no particular place, in mind. As the written postcard indicates, people were still sating at cottages at Sakonnet during the Depression, so maybe they paid a visit. Who knows! Certainly the isolated location and declining tourist trade is suggestive of Cape Talisman.

  3. I liked Dawn a lot in this book. Her determination and "logic" were charming, and how her father worried about her was touching. Bobby was carton-board in comparison, but that need not be surprising given his very young age.

  4. I have gone back and checked the initial chapters of my English copy and the Norwegian translation, and my English copy corresponds to the sections you have marked 1943. For instance the first section you quote, is indeed in the past (Wild and unaccountable, too, was the shore line … It was one of those spots …). Fifteen years have passed since he was there first, not ten, and the hurricane is mentioned.

    My English version is the 'Complete and Unabridged' Popular Library edition with a big red circle on a green and yellow cover. Since it clearly has the passages you quote as being from the 1943 text, it is not the pulp version, which I suspected for a while when I noticed there were whole paragraphs in my Norwegian version which were not there in English.
    But this is still clearly the case, and only makes it more confusing. Some of the changes again seem like typical (further?) embellishments. It starts out with maybe an added sentence here, a slight change of wording there. But there are complete paragraphs which are added/different.

    Here is a quote from very early on in the English version, when Dr Westlake is describing the inn as they come back from the fishing trip:
    ‘The Talisman Inn was hardly the warm, cheerful hearth to which fishermen are supposed to repair. But Dawn and I were happy there. We had long ago developed the habit of being contented with each other’s company.
    The pall of mist that lay over the dunes seemed to be thicker as we rounded the promontory …’

    Now to the Norwegian version, which is far longer and which I back-translate into English:
    ‘The Talisman Inn was hardly the warm, cheerful hearth to which fishermen are supposed to repair. And Cape Talisman was hardly the place a widower would be expected to travel with his soon-to-be eleven-year-old child.
    But this small corner of the coast held an inexplicable attraction for me. The grey sand dunes, the inexorable breaking of the heavy seas, the precariously perched inn, the deserted church – in my eyes everything was just as it had been fifteen years ago, when I spent my honeymoon here. Since then, Paula and I had returned every summer to spend two wonderful weeks of holiday, shamelessly stolen from a busy young doctor’s time. Later, after my wife died and Dawn and I were alone, Cape Talisman would remain for me a symbol of happier times. Maybe you could see something morbid in my annual pilgrimage here, but I did not see it like that – unless it is morbid for a man around forty to spend a short time every year reminiscing about his youthful love.
    The pall of mist that lay over the dunes seemed to be thicker as we rounded the promontory …’

    Does your copy have this section? Surely there must be an English corresponding version also which has Dawn’s age and how Westlake had spent his honeymoon there?

    There are several similar examples as the text goes on. For instance, the start of Chapter 7 in my English version has only three short paragraphs before “Barnes scratched his ear with a bony finger”, taking up only about a quarter of a page. The Norwegian version has almost an entire added page!
    I wonder whether Hugh could have expanded the text in ‘instalments’?
    Alternatively, since the Norwegian version is titled Lys fra en papirlykt, which corresponds to the UK title Light from a Lantern, could the UK version be different yet again from the US version?
    Or maybe most likely – the alleged Complete and Unabridged version is neither.

  5. From your quotes the American pb edition matches the American first edition. The Norwegian seemingly has added a lot. You don't suppose you had a translator who embellished do you? I recall one of Simenon's English translators, I forget his name, was accused of rewriting the text to suit himself.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I suppose it is possible that the translator may have embellished, but if so I think he has done so very well (to me the added material has the feel of something Hugh Wheeler could have written).
    The translator of this book was Jacob Brinchmann, who wrote some mysteries himself. Maybe he got very much in the groove when translating this one ...
    (At least now you know why I felt sure the book mentioned Dawn's age, and I understand equally well that you did not find it!)
    I will be putting the question to the GAD forum to see if anybody has some other translations that I can check against, or a copy of the UK version Light from a Lantern.

    1. I've never in all my years seen a prewar English edition of a Jonathan Stagge novel. That one section you quote is interesting, it's like someone felt a need for a better explanation of why Westlake was dragging his daughter with himself to this decrepit inn!

  8. You are right, it seems someone felt a better motivation for Westlake was needed!
    There are certainly situations where it may be tempting for a translator to make changes, but they will (unless we are dealing with an incompetent translator who is “skipping the difficult parts”; clearly not the case here) often relate to what is termed cultural untranslatability. It may be as simple as a joke that does not work in another language, or concepts which are difficult to convey in translation (such as if an original contains long descriptions of e.g. cricket or baseball). I don’t really see this type of change coming into play in our case, yet there are many differences between the versions, far more than I can enumerate here.

    Here is an example of a very obvious and puzzling difference: Chapter 16 ends, both in English and Norwegian, with Westlake leaving a character at night “to his lonely and very baffling vigil”. Chapter 17 in my English version starts with Westlake being woken up next morning, by Dawn banging on the door and shouting. But the Norwegian Chapter 17 starts with Westlake walking back to the inn at night, recapitulating the case in his mind. There are two entire pages (!) of this before we finally get to the part where Dawn wakes him up.
    These paragraphs are, if anything, something that would make sense to include in a serialized version (a version of Previously, on The Scarlet Circle, enabling new readers to catch up), but which could be a candidate for removing if the text needed shortening.

    Where on earth would be the pay-off for a translator to add this much text? I suppose it is conceivable that he was paid per page or other unit and found a way to increase the page count … (or the Norwegian translation was serialized at this end; but I have no information indicating that this was the case) but I still feel the changes we see between the versions, are of a type it would be more likely for Hugh to make. But unless we find evidence of this, we are so far looking rather at an intrepid translator. I will keep investigating though!

    1. Thanks for your sleuthing. The hypothesis that the additions may be related to serialization is quite interesting. Would it not imply that a majority, if not all, of the additions would be towards the end or beginning of chapters?

    2. Fascinating. I'm still trying to track down earlier serialized version of Murder or Mercy? and Danger Next Door.

  9. Finally, I have the solution to our little additional mystery: the additional texts can all be found in the UK version (Light from a Lantern), which I have fortunately been able to acquire, and the Norwegian version is a faithful translation of this version. The more elaborate version of why Westlake likes to vacation at Cape Talisman, is for instance present, as are the extra paragraphs before Barnes scratches his ear in Chapter 7, and the two whole additional pages at the start of Chapter 17. (There are many other differences, large or small).

    I have also compared with a Swedish translation, which contains the exact same additions, while the French translation does not. The French version is titled Le circle écarlate, and the title of the original is given as The Scarlet Circle. The Swedish and Norwegian versions have titles on the same pattern as Light from a Lantern (Papperslyktan/Lys fra en papirlykt),and both of them give this as the name of the original.
    So, at least these two translations were based on the UK edition, while the French translation was based on the US edition.

    Maybe I am biased from having read the longer version first, when I was young, but it feels richer and (even) more satisfying to me; this is indeed the text that made such an impression that I count it as one of my favourite mystery novels - by comparison The Scarlet Circle feels is a tiny bit abridged.

    It is interesting that the UK version is clearly different, not just in its title, but also content. It makes me wonder whether some of the other versions that were published with different titles in the UK, also could have had some differences in the text.

    The part we have been quoting, for instance, crops up in yet another slightly different version now, containing some elements of 1936 and some of the 1943 US version:
    “September is a wild, unaccountable month on that particular part of the New England coast. Wild and unaccountable, too, is the shore line of Cape Talisman. It is one of those spots against which the elements seem to have a perpetual grudge. Inch by inch the waves are encroaching upon the crumbling dunes, and the older section of the town, which was once a flourishing community, is now almost deserted.
    Even to the south, where there was a scattered bulwark of protective rocks, nothing was really safe. The Talisman Inn, so secure, so prim when I first stayed there fifteen years ago, now had the beach for a front garden. Soon it would have to be moved back or abandoned, just as the old church had been abandoned a couple of years ago when the hurricane had induced the Atlantic Ocean to surge into the churchyard and threaten the last resting-place of Cape Talisman’s stalwart fisher folk.”

    And here is the additional section a couple of paragraphs further down, in the true voice of Hugh Wheeler:

    “And so the Talisman Inn, to which we were making our way, was hardly the warm, cheerful hearth to which fishermen are conventionally supposed to repair. And Cape Talisman itself was hard√ły the place for a widowed father to take his eleven-year-old child.

    But to me that little corner of the coast had an incalculable magic. Its grey dunes, its relentlessly beating breakers, its tumbling inn and its desolate church were all to me as they had been fifteen years ago when I had brought my wife there on our honeymoon. Every summer after that Paula and I had returned for a blissful two weeks shamelessly snatched from a young doctor’s struggle to build up a practice. Later, when my wife died and Dawn and I were alone, Cape Talisman became a symbol of happier times. My annual pilgrimage there may have seemed morbid. I don’t think that it was – unless it is morbid at almost forty to spend a brief part of each year in leaning and loving over one’s vanished twenties.”

    Let me know if you are interested in getting further examples of the changes that have been made!

    1. Very interesting! This shifts the mystery from the Scandinavian translations to the UK edition. I presume it is fair to expect that those "additions" compared to the US edition were made by the author(s) themselves. As you note, this also raises the question whether other books also have notatble differences between US and U.K. Editions!

    2. The prewar and wartime English editions are so rare, I have no idea. Glad there is a better explanation of why Dr. Westlake dragged Dawn to that place! Interesting to see these different versions.