Friday, April 30, 2021

The Reality of Surbiton and Bognor Regis: Look Alive (1949), by Miles Burton

I doubt that [Dashiell] Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had firsthand information about.  He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things.  The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis.  If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air chateau....Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley....He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.  they were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there.  Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

--Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1944/50)

The name Surbiton conjures up visions of a neat London suburb with nice cars and smart lawns, the epitome of suburbia, that 1930s creation still existing in a time warp today, but there is much more than to Surbition.  The name Surbiton does not derive, as many people think, from suburb but from "south bereton."  The estate of Kingston had two beretons or granges where grain was collected and stored.  This north and south beretons became Norbiton and Surbiton....

The great change came upon Surbiton with the coming of the railway in 1838....Surbiton thrived as a commuter town [to London] with a great expanse of housing being built in the 1920s and 1930s....

--Tim Everson, Surbiton through Time (2017)

Hard-boiled novelist and perpetually grumpy guy Raymond Chandler had no truck for England's Detection Club, which he apparently deemed a collection of narrowminded suburban bourgeois authors putting on airs and devoting themselves to mythologizing murder in aristocratic milieus about which they knew no more from their own personal experience than any of the rest of us.  Of course as John Dickson Carr, one of the rare American members of the Detection Club, pointed out, there actually were members of the Detection Club who came from aristocratic and genteel backgrounds.  One of those was Carr's best friend in the Detection Club in those days, Major Cecil John Charles Street, whose maternal grandfather, while not titled, was nevertheless a very wealthy landed, leisured gentleman.  Although Street was a career army man and a trained engineer, rest certain that he knew the Jane Austen types too.

Chandler published his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," which included the dismissal quoted above of English detective novelists who knew only of the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis, as the title piece in his 1950 collection of short works, after its having made its original appearance in The Atlantic Montly in 1944.  Upon its publication in 1950, John Dickson Carr promptly attacked the essay, along with the rest of Chandler's work, in a scathing New York Times review, infuriating Chandler, who denounced Carr and his friend Anthony Boucher, The Times' crime fiction reviewer, as "pip-squeaks" who had conspired against him.  (Admittedly, Boucher's handing off the job to Carr was rather like asking Rachel Maddow to review the latest thoughtful opus from Sean Hannity.)  "There is nothing wrong with Surbiton or Bognor Regis, unless Mr. Chandler's soul holds much snobbery," chided Carr, in one of his milder statements.

House on Claremont Road in Surbiton
Claremont Gardens was originally surrounded
by a private fence and was for the
private use of residents only....In 1935
Surbiton Council bought the garden as a 
public amenity.
--Tim Everson
This house rather reminded me of
The Brake from Look Alive

It appears as well that John Street got in a sly little dig at Chandler, in his 1949 novel "Miles Burton" detective novel Look Alive. (Good title, that.)  Coincidentally this was the last Miles Burton novel to be published in the United States, although Street's John Rhode novels would keep appearing in the country until 1961, after which Street, whose health was declining, retired from writing.  (He died three years later.)  This point hadn't occurred to me nine years ago, when I published my book on Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but it seems obvious to me now. 

For the novel is set explicitly set in Surbiton!  Indeed, it says so right there in the first line: 

"The car, a rakish-looking two-seater of uncertain age, drew up outside the house in Surbiton."

Given that John Street very rarely named his settings after real places (besides obvious ones, like, well,  London), I think Street was having his little joke here.  I can just imagine Street and his drinking buddy Carr snarking about that bloody wanker Chandler in 1947 (Carr left England for the United states in early 1948.)  The joke goes further when you see how everyday the central characters really are in the novel.  This really is, one imagines, the conversational accent of Surbiton in all its glorious banality.  

Like in other Street books there is some complicated family history involved, but what it boils down to is that there is this "girl" in her early twenties, Annabel, and her parents, Irene and Henry Dorset. who live placidly if rather dully in Surbiton, Henry Dorset going two or three times a week to the City, where he vaguely serves as a "director of a firm of merchants."  He's also an amateur yachtsman.  

Then there is Claire Lavant, an octogenarian retired stage actress who was the second wife of Irene Dorset's late uncle, who resides at The Brake, a walled country house on the outskirts of Surbiton in Fernbrake Forest.  Claire inherited half of the Lavant family money from her dead husband, and at her death this money will go to Irene Dorset (or, if Irene is dead, to Annabel), her step-grandson, Roy Rayner, having died a couple of years previously in a criminal smuggling operation.  (Roy was one of those distressed WWII vets having a hard time readjusting to civilian life, who were popular in fiction at the time.)  But Claire Lavant is estranged from the Dorsets--in fact Henry Dorset despises her, going on and on about how she is depriving them of the family fortune.  He's rally rather obsessed with it all.  

hardcover American edition
the last of Miles Burton in the US

Annabel, who seems to have even less in her life to do than her father, is kinda-sorta involved with David Wiston, a young doctor.  People think she will marry him at some point, but she can't help feeling that he is just kind of, well, wet.  ("It seemed to Annabel that David was proving a broken reed," is one of my favorite deadpan lines in the novel.  How true, though Annabel herself is no picnic.)  

When the story opens Annabel and David are taking a country drive, which carries them out to Fernbrake Forest and The Brake.  Coincidentally?  Annabel wonders if David has done this by design, but she is persuaded to drop by The Brake to call on her great-aunt, or more properly step great-aunt. 

Perhaps she will get a friendly reception?  Well, not exactly....

Upon entering the grounds of The Brake, Annabel and David are shocked to discover the old lady dead in her hammock in the garden, vainly bedecked in baubles and bangles!  Then when they return with David's father, a more experienced doctor, they find the "dead" old lady alive and talking to the press about her stage career!  

Was David that dim that he couldn't accurately diagnose a dead woman, or is something more sinister going on?  Soon that snoopy-nosed gentleman Desmond Merrion, who had been butting into people's business for nearly two decades at that point, is on the scene, by invitation of his old friend from naval intelligence, Henry Dorset.  After he finds something rather nasty--not in the woodshed but in the boathouse--he gets his old police acquittance, Inspector Arnold, in on the game too.  

Bushy Park near Surbiton
This picture reminded me rather of Fernbrake Forest
as described in Look Alive

It's a most complicated affair,to be sure, involving as well Claire Lavant's old friend and neighbor Sir Julius Blackrock, a retired theatrical agent who resides at a neighboring walled house, The Retreat.  (So, yes, a knight makes his way into the story.)  Then there are the various servitors at the houses, including an individual whom the jacket of the American edition describes as "the sullenly handsome young gatekeeper," who definitely carries an earthy whiff of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

(I'm convinced at this point that Street must have read that novel.)

In the London Observer reviewer Maurice Richardson gave Look Alive a strong appraisal, writing: "Nothing, in this department, is more gratifying than to find one of our sturdiest old-stagers improving on his form....Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion smoke out a nest of variegated fiends in Mr. Burton's best for several books."  Was Look Alive indeed Burton's best in several books?  Well, let's see.  Here are the previous ten Miles Burtons:

Death Takes the Living (1949)

Devil's Reckoning (1948)

Death in Shallow Water (1948)

A Will in the Way (1947)

Heir to Lucifer (1947)

Situation Vacant (1946)

The Cat Jumps (1946)

Early Morning Murder (1945)

Not a Leg to Stand on (1945)

The Three Corpse Trick (1944)

My favorites in this group are The Three Corpse Trick, Not a Leg to Stand On, The Cat Jumps, Situation Vacant and Heir to Lucifer, so, yes, that would make Look Alive Burton's best in about five books.  (I have a certain fondness as well for Death Takes the Living, but the mystery itself is certainly no great puzzler.  Death in Shallow Water and Early Morning Murder, on the other hand, are dire.)

Should Annabel go with David or the
"sullenly handsome young gatekeeper"? You decide!
(Richard Madden as gamekeeper Oliver Mellors in
the 2015 version of Lady Chatterley's Lover)

In Look Alive Street dexterously juggles several different plot orbs and ingeniously spins a most satisfying mystery.  You may feel you know some of what is going on, to be sure, but it's hard to fit everything together, at least it was for me.  It seems like Street's most algebraic plot since The Three Corpse Trick

There's even a locked room problem, or rather a locked boathouse problem, a rarity in Street's oeuvre, and some nice little alibi bits thrown in too. 

It's really rather impressive, in its formal British way, Raymond Chandler be damned.  However, a map of The Brake and The Retreat really is desperately needed, as well as a family tree.  Superior people sneer at those things, which smack of "mere puzzles," but if you are going to write this sort of mystery, I say go the extra mile, my good man!

The fact that this perfectly good English mystery of the classic puzzler variety was the last Miles Burton published in the States (much to the misery of modern collectors, who have to hunt down rare Collins Crime Club editions of the Fifties Burtons), suggests to me the waning of the popularity of the pure puzzle type of mystery, at least among reviewers and publishers.  

The review of the novel in the New York Times, cleverly titled "The Wealth of Levant," is suggestive in this regard.  "This is a book for zealous puzzle fans who don't really want their pure guessing game cluttered with such irrelevancies as a lively story or sympathetic characters," drolly pronounced reviewer Hillis Mills (a man, in case you were wondering).  Mills complained that  Desmond Merrion "is so unattractively cocksure that the reader could almost wish the villain would outwit him" and Annabel he dismissed as a "confused busybody of a girl," but he concluded that the book offered a "fine, intricate puzzle."  

That seems to have been good enough for Hillis Mills, and it's certainly good enough for me, even if it wasn't good enough for Miles Burton's American publisher, the Doubelday, Doran Crime Club.  In my next blog post I think I will post some additional American reviews of the novel to give you the climate of the day in regard to classic mystery.  

Also, judging from the photos below, Surbiton looks like it would have been cool place in the Thirties, conversational accent notwithstanding.  Of course, Raymond Chandler lived in La Jolla, California, which he didn't like either.  That man was hard to please.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Mote in Goldeneye

Has anyone ever dealt with Goldeneye Books, I wonder?  The owner seems oddly temperamental.  I had ordered a book, paid for it online on April 1,but he was to send a supplementary shipping charge.  He did that on April 2 but I had forgotten the order missed his email (my fault but I always have my hands so full these days).  Now I just got an email from him saying he's canceling the money request and returning the payment and won't sell the book to me, even though he kind of already had sold it to me.  I had already paid him for the book and as long as he wasn't shipping it was pure profit for him.  I don't see why there couldn't have been an accommodation.  

The irony is this was an author we are reprinting, so that will be one less book for the series.  Too bad the matter couldn't be worked out.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Pineapple Never Pings Twice: The Dain Curse (1929), by Dashiell Hammett

"Nobody's mysteries ought to be as tiresome as you're making this one."

--author Owen Fitzstephan to the Continental Op in The Dain Curse

"When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

--Raymond Chandler

When really in doubt, make it a pineapple!

--The Passing Tramp

She's gonna wash those men 
right out of her hair!
This 1968 Dell pb edition
suits the wild and woolly story
which Hammett concocted

I originally reviewed Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, quite negatively, over at the website Mystery*File back in 2011 (SPOILERS in the linked review).  Now, a decade a later (how time flies), I decided to take another look at Hammett's second novel, considered to be his weakest.  I found I disliked it just as much as I did the first time, if not more so. The odd part is, Hammett's debut novel Red Harvest, which he published just a few months earlier in the year 1929, is one of my favorite works in the genre.  How could one author write one book that is so good and the other so bad in the same year?  Now that is an unsolved mystery!  Time constraint, perhaps?

Where Red Harvest is tight, fleet and bracingly visceral, has genuine detection which is worthy of the name and, while incredibly violent, is as real and true a piece of twisted Americana as you likely ever will encounter in crime lit., The Dain Curse is...a farrago of utter nonsense, even by the rather generous standards of the Golden Age of detective fiction. 

A contemporary rave of Red Harvest penned by children's author Walter R. Brooks (author of the Freddie the Pig books) highlights the qualities lacking in The Dain Curse:

Those who begin to weary of the similarity of modern detective novels, with their clumsily involved plots and their artificial situations and conversations, will find their interest revived by this realistic, straightforward story, for it is concerned solely with fast and furious action and it introduces a detective who achieves his purposes without recourse to higher mathematics [Take that, Philo!--TPT], necromancy, or fanciful reasoning.  It reads like the latest news from Chicago.*

*(Personally, I was reminded of Omaha, Nebraska, but, honestly, when it comes to American carnage, you take your pick. The choice of locales in my great country is legion.)

The Dain Curse, on the other hand, is a tedious muddle. in my view.  The plot, concerning a seeming "death curse" that hangs over the book's "heroine," young Gabrielle Leggett, that results in almost as many deaths as there are in Red Harvest, is ludicrous from start to finish (only getting more so as the pages go by) and handed out in great, unsatisfying lumps of exposition at the end of each of the three linked sections.  To quote a character in the book, the whole thing is just plain goofy.

Gabrielle herself is of little interest as an actual character as opposed to a plot device, despite her novel (at the time) drug addiction and physical unattractiveness.  There are no other interesting individuals among the plentitude of undeveloped characters, aside from the sleuth/narrator himself, the Continental Op--unless you count his windbag decadent novelist friend Owen Fitzstephan.  (I don't.)  Even the Op himself isn't nearly as pithy as he is in Red Harvest, or, indeed, the Op stories generally, saddled as he is with endless expository text and a ridiculous plot.  

In panning the six-hour 1978 miniseries version of The Dain Curse (with an obviously miscast James Coburn as the 5'6", overweight and fortyish Op--where was Bob Hoskins?), Washington Post television critic Tom Shales complained that the "big, fat [film] opus" contrasted with the "clean, lean novel"; yet although the novel is only, I understand, 65,000 words, I find it reads much longer than that.

my image of the Op: Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

As I wrote in my original review of the novel, there are, to be sure, some good spots in The Dain Curse, as with the curate's egg, such as the opening, about a diamond burglary at the Leggett home, which treacherously promises readers a coherent detective novel. 

I actually rather liked the relatively brief thrilleresque cult section and would have enjoyed seeing a whole novel fashioned out of this part.  (I was eerily reminded of modern grindhouse films.)  As I also wrote in my original review, I especially enjoyed this sardonic observation by the Op, which is so characteristic of him (and the author): "They brought their cult to California because everybody does, and they picked San Francisco because it held less competition than Los Angeles."  But by the third section I found myself passing quickly over the text; I was bored.  Even the grenade explosion didn't make me jump.  In my view when a detective story writer has to spend that much time explaining whodunit and why, he or she is in deep trouble.  This applies to modern day mystery writers as well.

Although some contemporary reviewers liked The Dain Curse better than Red Harvest, my impression is that the second book largely coasted off the success of the first one and the great press that Hammett was getting as the Pinkerton detective turned detective writer.  Even reviewers who deemed The Dain Curse desperately exciting, like Red Harvest, conceded that the plot in Hammett's new murder opus was preposterous. 

Despite Walter Brooks' shot in his review above at S. S. Van Dine's bestselling baroque 1929 detective novel The Bishop Murder Case, one could hardly call it less "realistic" than The Dain Curse; and given that as a book reviewer Hammett liked to lecture everyone, including Van Dine, about realism in crime fiction, I have to ask, "Holy Toledo, Dash, what gives with The Dain Curse?!"  Practice what you preach, my good man.  Maybe the whole thing is meant as a send-up of lurid pulp fiction?

About the title of this review, yes, there is a pineapple in the book, but it sure ain't no fruit--it's the aforementioned grenade, a byproduct of the Great War.  My fruit of choice for this book, however, would be a big bunch of raspberries, if you catch my drift.  Though surprisingly the grenade slight of hand is probably the cleverest thing in the book.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Reader Recommendeth: In Praise of John Rhode's The Fourth Bomb (1942)

The Fourth Bomb

Best book 

ever read

if you 

like this


This praise, arranged rather like a Japanese haiku or modern English poem, was written in pencil at some point on the front endpaper of my copy of the American edition of John Rhode's detective novel The Fourth Bomb, reviewed in my last post. 

Stamped on the endpaper is 

BOOK  No. 37552



Jamaica is a neighborhood of the borough of Queens on Long Island.  I don't know what the Jones Circulating Library was.  (Perhaps someone could enlighten me.)  

On the book's back endpaper in pen is written 1/7/42--perhaps the date the book, which was published in January 1942, was received at the library?  Evidently, this eager, mystery fancying patron was so enraptured by The Fourth Bomb that he (she?) couldn't forbear writing his opinion of the book on the endpaper.  I interpret it as a statement that the mystery is the "best book ever" followed by an injunction to "read if you like this kind'--i.e. mysteries, or traditional English mysteries.  Or did he mean it was the "best book [I] ever read--if you like this kind"?

Either way, the infamous naysaying of Raymond Chandler and Edmund Wilson aside, there have long been many Americans, male and female, of the Anglophile persuasion who felt just as this reader did.  More on this soon.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bombs Away, Murder Fanciers! The Fourth Bomb (1942), by John Rhode

Despite unsettled conditions about him, John Rhode, recognized as one of England's ablest detective story writers, continues to produce adventures concerning his amazing criminologist.

--Dodd, Mead blurb to John Rhode's The Fourth Bomb (1942)

"It would be enormous fun," she exclaimed.  "I'm sure Sir Oswald and Lady Hunton would enjoy the old dear immensely.  Send him along, do."  

I shouldn't have described the professor as enormous fun," Jimmy replied.

--Inspector, now Lieutenant, Jimmy Waghorn and his wife Diana discuss the impending visit of the formidable Dr. Priestley, John Rhode's sleuth extraordinaire in The Fourth Bomb.


Just over a couple of weeks ago an echo of an eighty-year-old military conflict was heard when a British explosives disposal team detonated, in a "controlled explosion," a 2200 pound World War Two era German bomb in Exeter, UK.  During the long ago hostilities the city was heavily damaged by enemy planes, which conducted 19 raids there, dropping 7000 such devices, particularly in May 1942 during the so-called Baedeker Blitz, which killed 156 people in Exeter. (It was said that Hitler selected bombing sites out of a Baedecker travel guide.)  A video in the link above shows the recent explosion, giving one a sense of the kind of thing which so many people experienced throughout the world during those years of violent conflict and wanton slaughter.  

Another, nonstressful way to experience the war (after the Exeter detonation nearby buildings were damaged and people were not able to return to their homes for several days), is through novels published at the time, like mystery writer John Street's mystery The Fourth Bomb, published in early January 1942 and set in UK over about ten days in the month of December, presumably of the year 1940, during the midst of the original German Blitz.

Between 1941 and 1944, the highly prolific Major John Street, who after a short term of service in the war resided outside of London with his companion Eileen Waller in an isolated English village, published no fewer than fifteen detective novels, nearly four every year, eight of these under his pen name John Rhode and seven under his pen name Miles Burton.  These are:


  • Death at the Helm 1941
  • They Watched by Night 1941
  • The Fourth Bomb 1942
  • Night Exercise (non-series) 1942
  • Dead on the Track 1943
  • Men Die at Cyprus Lodge 1943
  • Death Invades the Meeting 1944
  • Vegetable Duck 1944
  • Up the Garden Path 1941
  • Death of Two Brothers 1941
  • This Undesirable Residence 1942
  • Dead Stop 1943
  • Murder M.D. 1943
  • Four-Ply Yarn 1944
  • The Three-Corpse Trick 1944
The amazing thing is that not one of these is a "bad" book, in my opinion, though of course some are better than others.  Three of them--Murder M. D., The Three-Corpse Trick and the oddly named Vegetable Duck, are among the best of his crime novels, in my view, with several others not far behind these top titles. Taken together, Street's dozen mystery novels with war settings arguably are the most significant group of World War Two crime novels by a classical British mystery writer.  (All but three of them are authentically set in villages during the war; these ones with war settings are marked in bold.)  

Agatha Christie, for example, though also a highly prolific writer (though not as much as Rhode), published "only" six mystery novels during the same period (she also wrote Curtain, apparently), and how many of them are even set during the war, let alone in an interesting way, aside from the 1941 Tommy and Tuppence espionage thriller N or M?  There's The Moving Finger (1943)--and what else?  Christie, it seems, largely sidestepped the war in her wartime fiction.  

Canadian paperback edition of
The Fourth Bomb
John Rhode novels never really
caught on in pb in the US, although
they were more often seen in
Canada and the UK.
Just this pb edition will set you back 
around $70 US dollars today.
I don't believe that I even mentioned The Fourth Bomb in my 2012 book on Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and JJ Connington, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  At the time I recall being disappointed with it, in that Rhode's elderly scientist amateur sleuth, Dr. Priestley, only appears in the last 47 pages of a 260 page novel, essentially to wrap things up.  Superintendent Hanslet doesn't appear in the book at all, leaving the investigative legwork for most of the novel to be carried out by Inspector, or  for the duration of the war Lieutenant, Jimmy Waghorn, now in Army Intelligence, and a not overly perspicacious local policeman, Sergeant Swatland. 

There is no ingenious murder gadgetry in this one, in contrast with many other Rhodes, and Dr. P.--after being briefed on the case by Jimmy at his home at Westbourne Terrace in London (which he refuses to evacuate as long as he has his loyal cook by him; his secretary and supposed son-in-law, Harold Merefield, being in service)--solves the case in short order, having decided, rather extraordinarily at this stage, to venture out to the country scene of the crimes and investigate the case himself.  

Once Dr. P., who already had the essence of the solution in mind when he leaves London, ambles around for a bit for but a single chapter he has seen all he needs to see.  In the penultimate chapter, he gives the classic "drawing room lecture"--though in this case it's delivered in the library)--before the assembled Sergeant Swatland, local attorney Montague Corsham and local squire Oswald Hunton. 

Incidentally, could Street's character names get any more English?

Then there's one last chapter, which is, rather interestingly and originally for Street, told from the culprit's perspective.  It's easy to see how this could have been recast as a Miles Burton novel, with the case solved instead by that series' insouciant gentleman amateur detective, Desmond Merrion, and his dim attendant policeman, Inspector Arnold; but Street already had a 1942 Burton title and needed one for Dr. Priestley for that year.

However, on rereading The Fourth Bomb, I am happy with it as it is.  Arguably it's a bit leisurely, even by Street's standards, but I enjoy soaking up the rural English wartime atmosphere.  The mystery itself is a reminder of how ingenious Street was at plot construction.  From just a couple of little points, Dr. P. is able logically to unravel a case which had flummoxed Jimmy and Sgt. Swatland for over 200 pages.  It's a cleverly designed solution, though I did have one query about the culprit's plot which wasn't addressed.

jacketed British first edition by Collins 
The American first edition will set you back
$250 for a strictly okay copy without a dust jacket.
A Collins first with jacket
might cost you your home!
The plot in short concerns the death of Samuel Gazeley, a London diamond merchant who resides near the village of Yardley Green, scene of enemy bombing action in the first chapter of the novel.  Gazeley is found dead in a ditch by the crater made by the fourth of the Nazi bombs, presumably a casualty of the attack.  (As an aside I will mention that my biggest complaint about this novel, where movements, like in a Freeman Wills Crofts mystery, are centrally important, is that there is no endpaper map.  Street mentions Bolthurst, the county town, and the villages of Fetterworth, where I think Mr. Gazeley lived, and Stayneden, these locales being respectively twelve, two and three-and-a-half miles from Yardley Green; but it would have been nice to see a map to visualize it all.)

The affair opens at Street's favorite locale, a pub, this one the Fox and Grapes, when the bombing occurs. The dead body is found after the bombing at the end of Chapter One and identified as Gazeley in Chapter Two.  Initially events are seen mostly from the perspective of attorney Montague Corsham, who had drawn up a will for Gazeley and now is seeing to his affairs. 

We learn that Gazeley, though notoriously woman-shy, recently had become engaged to marry Susan Mellor, sister of prominent local farmer Mr. Petersfield and a bold widow who seems to have put fear and loathing into the hearts of most of the local men--so why Gazeley of all people wanted to marry her is a mystery to them.  Forward Mrs. Mellor is disparaged throughout the novel for such sins as wearing trousers, putting on too much makeup, not knowing how to behave properly in a pub (!), calling men she hardly knows by their first names and, last but not least, for being a gold digger.   

Interestingly Mrs. Mellor shares most of a surname with gamekeeper Oliver Mellors, the studly title character in D. H. Lawrence's notorious 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was not published in the UK in an unexpurgated version until 1960--Lawrence's ultimate embodiment of masculinity.

Street was no prude, even if he had his sexist moments (perhaps prompted by his unhappy first marriage), and it wouldn't surprise me if he read Lawrence's novel.  The Fourth Bomb itself has one slightly randy passage, which I should have quoted in Masters. (I had underlined it but must have forgotten about it.)  Speaking of Susan Mellors to Sergeant Swatland, Ambrose Burnage, landlord of the Fox and Grapes, starts the following exchange:

That woman's a perfect nuisance.  She's always coming into my bar of an evening, dressed in those trousers she wears and carrying on as if the place belonged to her.  She'll talk at the top of her voice to anyone who will listen to her, and make a proper commotion one way and another.  I tell you, the chaps don't like it.

Upsets them, I daresay," the Sergeant remarked.  "Women never seem to know how to behave in a pub."  

"You're right there, it does upset them," said Burnage.  "Do you know what James Weller, Mr. Petersfield's foreman, said to me the other day?  Women may be all right in bed, but they are a blessed nuisance in the local."

Sure it's sexist, but I have no doubt that it conveys genuine attitudes in the day, as women became for a time, during the war, more independent and assertive--more "masculine," if you will.

Someone unwelcome has arrived in the pub?
Maybe Mrs. Mellor?
Aside from Jimmy's bride of a couple of years, Diana, who is staying as a guest at the local squire's country house (it seems she's a "distant cousin" of his), Mrs. Mellor essentially is the only woman in the novel, which is male-centered even by John Street's standards.  Unlike ball busting Mrs. Mellor, Diana is a sympathetic character, but Street, after introducing her in 1939 in Death Pays a Dividend, never did with her character what he might have. 

Diana appeared or was referenced successively in Dividend, Death on Sunday (1939) and Death on the Boat Train (1940), but, after The Fourth Bomb, as I recollect, her only appearance is in The Paper Bag (1948).  By contrast, indefatigable Jimmy Waghorn would appear right up through the last John Rhode novel, The Vanishing Diary, in 1961.

When Jimmy first meets her in Dividend, Diana is a cook in the household of a wealthy London stockbroker.  Like the real life author Monica Dickens, who recounted her work experiences in her first book One Pair of Hands (1939), which was published the same year as Death Pays a Dividend, Diana Morpeth (the surname comes from a town in Northumberland) is a young woman of "good birth" who decides to go into domestic service. In The Fourth Bomb, she talks over the case with Jimmy a few times and then, after he has to return to the army, she chauffeurs Dr. Priestley around the county for the day.  It's pleasant to have her around, but even more would have been pleasant, to be sure.

Author Monica Dickens (1915-1992)
might have been the model
for John Rhode's Diana Morpeth
Anyway, back to the plot of the novel, things gets more complicated when Jeremiah Winthorpe, Gazeley's partner in the London diamond firm, shows up and announces that Gazeley had returned to Yardley Green with a belt of eight diamonds strapped to his person, and said belt is nowhere to be found!  Did someone loot the diamonds from Gazeley's body?  Things get yet more complicated from there, in this enjoyable tale with many twists.  

The wartime village atmosphere is quite well conveyed, as per usual with the author, and while none of the many characters are particularly "deep" they are credible as such.  Street even takes time to give the aging Dr. Priestley a little extra dimension, which I hadn't appreciated before.  

In this passage the increasingly sedentary Dr. P. half regrets agreeing to take the train out to Oswalds Hunton's place in Fetterworth, near Yardley Green, despite his love of a good mystery, which we have long known about, and, more surprisingly, his desire for companionship:

At his age, he reflected, there was a vast difference between anticipation and execution....many objections obtruded themselves.  The fatigue involved, changing one's regular habits, the awkwardness of living on terms of familiarity with total strangers.  On the other hand, the project had its compensations.  Here was a problem well worthy of definite solution.  And, he might as well admit it if only to himself, there were times nowadays when he felt desperately lonely.

That last sentence was unexpected.  Did it reflect the attitude of the author, who was once John Dickson Carr's best bud and a very active and convivial participant in the Detection Club, but would attend its London meetings less and less frequently as the years passed after the war?  (During the war club meetings were suspended.)

The reader:
American newswoman Lucy Curtis Templeton
(1878-1971) numbered among the fans of 
John Street in both his John Rhode and
Miles Burton manifestations
English mystery writer and postwar Detection Club member Christianna Brand once called the mysteries of John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts "men's books," because they were concerned with "dry" technical matters such as railroad timetables and tidal movements.  However, one of the most favorable reviews which The Fourth Bomb received was from an American woman in her sixties, Lucy Curtis Templeton (1878-1971), who edited the book review page in a newspaper in the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, the Knoxville News Sentinel.  

Six years old than John Street, Lucy Curtis was described as "a lady in a man's world," having graduated from Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Philadelphia and the University of Tennessee in 1901 and gone to work for the newspaper as a proofreader in 1904. 

She later became the paper's telegraph editor, meaning the person who handles the copy that comes into the office by wire.  It is said that she was the only woman in the southern United States employed in such a capacity at the time.  In 1912 she was alone at the office in the early hours of an April night when word of the sinking of the Titanic came in over the wire; she immediately scrambled to get out an EXTRA edition.  

When still a young woman, Lucy Curtis married an attorney named Templeton, but he died after only three years of marriage and she went back to work for the newspaper, reviewing books, among other things, until her retirement at the age of 83 in 1961.  One of the books she reviewed two decades before her retirement, under the book review page's "It's a Crime" column, was one of John Rhode's "men's books," The Fourth Bomb.  She loved it, pronouncing:  "Mystery of the week, so far as this column is concerned, is The Fourth Bomb, by John Rhode, published by Dodd, Mead and Company."  Then followed a discussion of the plot, ending in the conclusion: "One of the best."  Seems this was a woman who could abide a man's book.

I'll bet Miss Lucy even would have known how to act in a pub!

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Canal with Corpse: A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair (1962), by Michael Innes

"It's the craft that is long in this life, surely, and not how a boy's fancy is moved for a girl."

Returned servant Seth Crabtree in A Connoisseur's Case, aka The Crabtree Affair (1962) by Michael Innes

"Commissioners of Police simply do not come upon corpses during rural walks.  It was another of the things that just aren't done."

London's Commissioner of Metropolitan Police Sir John Appleby thoughts in A Connoisseur's Case, aka The Crabtree Affair (1962) by Michael Innes

Ah, but a corpse actually is just what one should expect to come upon during a country ramble, at least in a traditional British mystery, as Michael Innes well knew.  Down these country lanes a charming genteel couple must go....

What feels cozy to you, I once asked, on what remains today my most visited blog post.  (I must owe it all to Jim Parsons!)  To me, it's definitely reading about British mystery writer Michael Innes' characters John Appleby and his aristocratic wife Judith solving genteel murders in the country.

As a crime writer Michael Innes was like a box of (poisoned) chocolates, in that with his books you never knew what you were going to get.  Sure, there were likely to be aristocrats and country houses, Oxford dons and ivory towers, old masters and art museums--and lots and lots of literary quotations.  But would any given Innes "mystery" be a "thriller," a true detective novel, or some sort of hard to classify mystery extravaganza?  You never knew, at least in Innes' creative heyday, from the mid-Thirties into the mid-Fifties.  

Later on, from the Sixties to the mid-Eighties, say, you could be fairly certain you would be getting an amiable amble with the Applebys though country lanes and mansions.  To be sure, there would a nice dead body to be discovered and some detection and witticisms to go along with all that, but the quality of the detection from book to book would vary.  Innes published sixteen John Appleby detective novels in the quarter century between 1961 and 1986, and I think I have just described the majority of them.  

Peper Harow House (Wikipedia), built in 1765 by Sir William Chambers, who
mentioned as the architect of fictional Scroop House in A Connoisseur's Case
--both houses have "four sparsely placed urns" atop a parapet

Perhaps the best of these later novels, A Connoisseur's Case aka The Crabtree Affair, came at the early part of this period, in 1962.  By this time, the light from the Golden Age may have been fading, but the sun had not sunk below the horizon yet.  I first read ACC a little over twenty-five years ago, in 1995 (I know because I wrote the date 11/18/95 in the book, a then recent HarperPerennial paperback edition); and on rereading it recently I found that it has held up really well.

In a lot of my writing about British crime fiction, I have sought to revise the influential Julian Symons-Colin Watson-WH Auden thesis that these books almost invariably were reactionary country house affairs, filled to the rafters with stuffy blue-blooded aristos; adventuresses with pasts and ingenues without them; brusque big game hunters and silly-ass men-about-town; crass millionaire businessmen of regrettably bourgeois origins; stiflingly correct butlers, opinionated cooks and trim, all-too-frequently dim, maids; and bludgeoned bodies bloodily strewn throughout libraries, studies and billiard rooms.  It's all a Cluedo board come to (very limited) life, said critics.  Yet there were certain Golden Age crime writers who really did tend to conform to this stereotype, at least in terms of setting, and one of these was the father of the donnish detection school, Michael Innes.

Innes himself was a don, not to mention a "serious," or mainstream, novelist.  His actual name was John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, "Michael Innes" being the appellation he reserved for his mystery writing sideline.  But what a sideline mysteries became for him!  There are 32 John Appleby novels, not to mention 13 non-series mysteries and four John Appleby short story collections.  Granted he also found time to write a score of mainstream novels and a half-dozen short story collections, as well as nine critical works.  The man was an all-round writing machine, to be sure, but he has mostly distinguished himself in the public mind (of classic mystery readers) as a genteel crime writer.

A Connoisseur's Case truly is a case for connoisseurs of what is known as classic English crime.  There's a Georgian country mansion, Scroop House (though Appleby, noting it was finished in 1786, scoffs "Late....Practically Victorian."); a disused early-nineteenth-century canal where a dead body pops up (or floats up, really); a public house quaintly named the Jolly Leggers (after the men who used their sturdy backs and strong legs to get boats through canal tunnels); and not one but two butlers: Tarheel and Hollywood, both of them drolly yet individually characterized.  The only thing missing is a map, which would have been rather charming to see, given how you get to know the locations so well.

Coates Portal of the Sapperton Canal Tunnel, Thames and Severn Canal (Wikipedia)
the canal, finally abandoned in 1933, resembles the canal tunnel entrance described 
in ACC as "an orifice handsomely framed in a wall of heavily rusticated stone, and even 
more handsomely embellished with caryatids, herms, cornucopias and a balustrade

The Applebys are staying at the country house of one of Judith's eccentric Raven relations, her uncle Colonel Julius Raven of Pryde Park, an amateur (of course) piscatorial authority.  During their perambulation along the canal they find a public house, unfortunately run by a revoltingly bourgeois innkeeper, David Channing-Kennedy.  "Not the old sort of innkeeper," carps Appleby. "R.A.F. type, with a handle-bar mustache specially grown to tell you so.  Put in by the brewing company, I suppose, and not very pleased that he hasn't been given a superior little riverside hotel on the lower Thames."

There they encounter an old man, Seth Crabtree, a former servant at Scroop House recently returned after some fifteen years in the United States  (Spokane, Washington of all places). It's only a few hours later that Sir John and Lady Appleby discover Crabtree dead in the the disused canal tunnel.  Seems someone wasn't happy Crabtree had returned to the neighborhood!

interior Sapperton Canal Tunnel--no bodies here!

Actually lots of someones were not happy with Seth Crabtree.  With a master's hand Innes distributes suspicion evenly around the area, including the "new" Scroop House owners, Bertram Coulson and his wife.  Coulson was a distant Australian sheep packing relation of the previous late owner, Sara Coulson (who died two decades previously), the daughter of Viceroy Crispin, known as the Grand Collector for her famed house parties populated by politically and culturally distinguished guests.  In the suspect line there's also Bertram Coulson's previous tenants, Alfred Binns (something in trade, don't you know) and his two bickersome young adult children, Daphne and Peter, as well as a local doctor, Brian West, who was around the scene of the crime. 

Even Colonel Raven, who huffily recalls that Crabtree was long ago  "packed off to the colonies" for vague scoundrelly doings, is behaving suspiciously.  But then you never can tell with those Ravens, a dotty lot for sure.

speaking of handlebar mustaches
RAF pilot Roger Morewood (1916-2014)
He retired as a Wing Commander in 1957
and with his wife started a boarding kennel
See The Top 34 Pilot Moustaches

There's quite a packed little mystery plot in ACC, one that is impeccably crafted, which should satisfy the mystery connoisseur; and for those who more attracted to cozy, or traditional British genteel country atmosphere, it's here in spades as well.  At the end of the novel Appleby even gathers all the suspects together in the Scroop House library to hear his elucidatory lecture.  

Judith Appleby can be a bit of a pill to my taste, always declaring people "unspeakable" and "dreadful" when she deems their class status unfixed.  Judith likes to be able to place people as genteel or menial class as the case may be.  Sir John ribs her about this, but one gets the impression that the stable and ordered country society of Georgian Britain was an attractive vision for the author himself, as it must be for legions of Jane Austen fans, one supposes.  He certainly kept writing his modern versions of it!

To be sure, I wouldn't want every British detective novel to be like Michael Innes. However, I'm very glad that there still are Michael Innes detective novels left for me to read, as well as others of his to read again.  They make ever so pleasurable British country weekends, if only in my mind.  "It's the craft that is long in this life...."

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Town Mouse, Country Mouse: Richard Nunley on Amanda Cross' The James Joyce Murder (1967)

The country was more beautiful than ever in the evening light.  The farms seemed set out on the hills, neatly plowed fields contrasting in shades of green with their adjoining meadows.  Kate felt certain that the good life might somehow be possible here, yet knew this to be only  a dream.  

---The James Joyce Murder (1967), by Amanda Cross

The Berkshire Eagle, located in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is the newspaper of record for Berkshire County, the state's westernmost county.  The newspaper is actually mentioned in Amanda Cross' detective novel The James Joyce Murder, which I reviewed in my last post.  Amanda Cross, aka English professor Carolyn Heilbrun (1926-2003), annually summered with her family at their home in the village of Alford, Massachusetts, giving rise to the Berkshires setting of her second mystery.  

Once Amanda Cross, whose feminism struck a nerve in the Eighties, was one of the more popular authors of classic style detective novels, particularly after the publication of her sixth mystery, Death in a Tenured Position (1981).  As far as I could tell, The James Joyce Murder went through at least nine editions between 1967 and 1993.  After the original hardcover edition, published by Macmillan's "Cock Robin" imprint in the United States and Gollancz in the United Kingdom, there a came 1970 Amanda Cross hardcover omnibus edition, Triple Cross, and another hardcover edition from Dutton in 1982, in honor of the centennial of James Joyce's birth.  Then there followed a deluge of paperback editions: Ballantine 82, Ballantine 85, Fawcett 87, Little, Brown 89, Ballantine 90 and, in the UK, Virago 93 (Virago being a feminist press which reprinted a good number of female penned mysteries in the Eighties and Nineties).  If you ever shopped at a used bookstore in the Nineties, Amanda Cross novels easy to find!  The James Joyce Murder is still in print in the US and UK today.  I'm not sure what edition the American one is, but in the UK it recently was brought out in spiffy new paper and electronic versions by Pan Macmillan.

It was in 1988 that the late Richard Nunley (1931-2016), longtime professor of English at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield (pop. 42,000 today) and Berkshire Eagle columnist (Our Berkshires), sat down and read The James Joyce Murder (Fawcett 87 edition?).  I quote extensively from Nunley's Berkshire Eagle review article, "The Grad-School Attitude," because I found Nunley's view of the novel as a social document interesting:

Berkshire Community College

Last week a friend put in my hands an Amanda Cross mystery story, "The James Joyce Murder."  I sat down and read it in two goes, though I would have read it in one if I hadn't absolutely to do something else.  It's an adroit and clever story.  Its setting is the Berkshires.  The county town the story unfolds in sounds like Alford, "unique in that it has no commercial establishments whatever," but the author pointedly places it north of Pittsfield.  Of course, it is all made up.  But the storytelling is captivating enough to set you believing the town, called "Araby," must be somewhere between Clarksburg and Mount Washington, and a secondary mystery develops for local readers to guess which one it is.

Nunley was right: "Araby" is Alford, where Heilbrun's summer home was located; but the author, who then was protective of her anonymity (she was worried that being known as a mystery writer would prevent her from receiving tenure at stuffy Columbia University), threw people like Nunley off the scent by locating Araby near Pittsfield.  Back to Nunley:

It's not a new book.  Macmillan published it in 1967....In 1988 the prices of restaurant meals and Berkshire real estate in it read laughably low, and the hero drives a VW bug and they all go to a drive-in movie, but otherwise there's not much that is dated after 20 years.  Adding to the fun is the author's saucy irreverence about the Berkshires and us locals.  The necessary victim is an odious farmer's wife whom I felt an incipient pang of sympathy for, being a local.  But somebody's got to go if you're going to have a mystery.  The main characters are New Yorkers up for the summer who think rude thoughts about us.  "A newspaper in the country!  [Reed's] astonishment turned to bemusement as he noticed it was yesterday's Berkshire Eagle."  "It transpired that Pittsfield, bless its up-to-date little heart, had a community college and a bookstore."  "Country people are incurably curious.  It's only urbanites who can ignore their neighbors."  "Taxes are high in Araby, since only houses can be assessed to raise the money for homes and schools.  The summer people are taxed, in fact though not in principle. at twice the rate of the year-round people, which, since the summer people are all clearly rich as Croesus, strikes the board of assessors as only equitable."  The city slickers get exasperated at the local telephone service and break down on the Taconic and talk of Tanglewood (but never go).  

Amanda Cross is all light heart and amusement.  One reason you keep reading is to see what smart crack she'll make about the Berkshires next.  But the book's characters left me thinking about a quite different concern, one suggested by the book but in fact far removed from its gay intentions.  Its main character, Kate Fansler, is a university English professor, and a lot of others are either literature professors or graduate students who will become English professors. Cross' characters, I emphasize, are not meant to be taken seriously, but in them she comes close to distilling something real I think not so amusing--what I call the "grad-school attitude."  

This is an attitude so marked by self-conscious and brittle flipness, a knowingness that, while it is at pains to display its erudition, is equally at pains to signal it is too sophisticated to take any of it in earnest.  The attitude assumes big cities--New York, London, Paris--are the only places for a normal person to live; anywhere else is exile.  It makes a bid deal of drinking, and smugly reads sex, normal or queer, into everything.  It spends a lot of time on gossip, either about colleagues or celebrities or the literary figures grad students study.  It involves both a lot of self-promotion and a lot of bellyaching about how society doesn't appreciate and properly reward intellectuals of the superior sort they are.  It takes affluence for granted.  In literature, it overvalues the "creative" process and originality of technique at the expense of wise content and realistic soundness of values....this "grad-school attitude"....may say far louder than any pious words to the contrary that English is irrelevant or worse, is for the ineffectual nerd and the study of language and literature is an incomprehensible frill....

Butler Library, Columbia University

Dick Nunley was a graduate of Dartmouth College and Kings College Cambridge, though I don't know whether he was an Anglophile like Heilbrun.  Certainly the two teachers, both of whom were highly regarded as teachers, held varying views of rural and urban life.  According to Nunley's 2016 obituary he was an "exacting teacher with high expectations for all," whom many of his former students, including Judy Waters, credited "with changing the course of their lives."  The same was said of  Carolyn Heilbrun after she died in 2003.  Surely no greater praise can be afforded a committed educator.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Antic Hay: The James Joyce Murder (1967), by Amanda Cross

As you may have noticed lately, I have been reviewing, in honor of the forthcoming reissue of the mysteries of Anne Morice, who debuted as a detective novelist in 1970, certain "traditional" detective novels published that same year, fifty plus years ago.  So far I have reviewed three, which I rate on the five-star scale as follows:

Patricia Moyes, Who Saw Her Die? ****

Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised **1/2

Catherine Aird, A Late Phoenix **

I had wanted to cross the pond back to the States and review Amanda Cross' Poetic Justice, but awkwardly I have not been able to locate my copy.  However, the search started me thinking about the author Amanda Cross, aka Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (1926-2003), whose 94th birthday passed a couple of weeks ago.  Heilbrun was a prominent American scholar of modern British literature and feminist studies at Columbia University, where she was the first woman to receive tenure and hold an endowed chair. (Jacques Barzun, a keen mystery fan, was a mentor and colleague.) 

Like the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Heilbrun became an important pioneering figure in the United States, marrying and starting a family (she married in 1945 when she was a freshman at Wellesley College) and taking on a noted intellectual career--refusing, as it were, to settle.  But it wasn't easy.  When she chose to retire in 1992 she very vocally condemned ongoing discrimination against women professors at Columbia University and throughout academia. 

Not surprisingly this subject served as a common theme in Heilbrun's Amanda Cross detective novels, fourteen of which were published between 1964 and 2002, in roughly three bursts: 1964-1976, 1981-1990 and 1995-2002. (There was also a short story collection.)  However, in the early pair from the Sixties, the Edgar-nominated In the Last Analysis (1964) and its delightful follow-up The James Joyce Murder (1967), she he takes a lighter approach. 

The latter novel is primarily a rural comedy of manners mystery, very much in the style of the author's literary idol in the field of detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers.  Heilbrun once said that she started writing detective fiction because she didn't like the books in the field that were then being written and she later affirmed in 1990 that she still didn't like what was being written.  This seems rather lazily broad sweeping--apparently she couldn't bring herself to like PD James or Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine or Sara Caudwell or Peter Lovesey, to name a few highly literate mystery writers of the Silver Age--but it does highlight her intense love of between-the-wars detective fiction, at least as composed by Sayers and a few other Crime Queens.  (I don't know whether or not Heilbrun liked Michael Innes, a writer who shared, even more more than Sayers, her love of unceasingly dropping literary quotations and is justly seen as the highest exemplar, for better or worse, of the "donnish" detective novel.) 

Aside from the fact that I honestly would have thought that Heilbrun would have liked James and Rendell's fiction, she shared with them, it seems, a warm regard for her father and a more ambivalent attitude toward her mother.  Her father, public accountant and business consultant Archibald Gold, was a wealthy, self-made man, a Jewish immigrant originally from Vilnius, Lithuania.  Her mother, Estelle Roemer, on the other hand, in Heilbrun's words "never had the courage to do anything herself in life.

What a bleak assessment!  Although Gold lost his money in the Depression, he made it back again and Carolyn grew up in very comfortable surroundings, with live-in maids and the best of liberal arts educations.  In 1942 the family (Carolyn was an only child) was living in an apartment at 275 West Central Park in a nineteen-story neo-renaissance building constructed in 1930 which is still around today, remaining expensive and exclusive.  

the Heilbrun apartment building overlooking Central Park

Carolyn Gold as she then was made a wartime marriage when still a teenager to Robert Heilbrun, but she completed her education and established her own career in English lit, while he became an economist at Fordham University.  The successful couple had a New York apartment and, like Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, a summer home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, which appears to have sold a few years ago for half a million dollars.  Later on in her life, Heilbrun bought another place as well, with three bedrooms and a jacuzzi, strictly for herself--Yes, Virginia Woolf, no mere "room of one's own" for her!

Yet despite the fact that she belonged not only to the intellectual but to the economic elite (more so than Sayers, in the latter regard, who as I recall was a mere vicar's daughter), Heilbrun was made to feel decidedly like an outsider in those days, both on account of her Judaism and her femininity.  One might say to be a Jewish woman in an academic environment in the Fifties was inherently to be an outsider, regardless of how one was made to "feel."  It simply was.

Heilbrun's politics I gather were to the Left (some of her last novels received one-star reviews on Amazon denouncing the authors left-wing political sermonizing), although in The James Joyce Murder she takes time to have her lead character condemn the taxation which local communities in the Berkshires imposed on the visiting summer people.  Shirley Jackson could tell you a thing or two about local bias against visitors!

Despite Heilbrun's liberalism, however, her popular literary belle ideal, the detective fiction of the more literary Crime Queens, was decidedly conservative and has been oft-criticized for snobbery, racism and anti-Semitism.  Considerable effort has been made, on the other hand, to establish the conservative Sayers as a feminist; and it must be admitted that Sayers's detective novel Gaudy Night is greatly admired by many women detective fiction readers, including feminists, academics and feminist academics, many of whom also have singled out Heilbrun's academic feminist detective novel Death in a Tenured Position (1980), as her best book.  How much Heilbrun was repulsed by certain attitudes in British between-the-wars detective fiction, I don't know, but from a reading of The James Joyce Murder once would conclude very little, if at all.  It's a love letter to Dorothy L.

Alford house located on the same road where the former Heilbrun summer home 
is located--don't think this is the house however

Essentially, as mentioned above, a bucolic manners mystery, The James Joyce Murder is set in the Berkshires, drawing on the author's experience summering there in the the village of Alford, which three years ago elected its first woman to the Select Board, something of which I'm sure Heilbrun would have taken note.  Heilbrun calls the town at which her series protagonist, English professor Kate Fansler, is staying "Araby," for reasons which I will explain below, but it's really Alford.  Heilbrun further disguises the location by saying it's near the city of Pittsfield, but Alford is really located some twenty miles to the south, about five miles from the town of Great Barrington and a dozen miles from the village of Monterey, near where Hugh Wheeler of Patrick Quentin fame (not to mention simply Hugh Wheeler fame) still resided when this novel was published.  

To give the background: Kate Fansler is staying at the Berkshires country house of the recently deceased Sam Lingerwell, long ago publisher of authors James Joyce and DH Lawrence and other controversial novelists of the 1910s and 20s, to catalogue, at the request of his daughter, an old schoolmate of Kate's, Lingerwell's long ago correspondence with James Joyce.  I don't believe there actually was a Sam Lingerwell, but there was a Samuel Rotha much more fascinating figure, who served two months in prison in 1930 for the dread crime of selling copies of Joyce's Ulysses in Philadelphia. 

There's a lot crying today in the US about big tech censorship, so it's always interesting to reflect that when Ulysses was originally published, nearly a century ago in 1922, it didn't actually appear legally in the US until a dozen years later, after it was ruled not actually to be "obscene."  Until then American legal authorities kept busy incinerating every copy they could get their censorious little mitts on and jailing publishers like Samuel Roth.  Now, there's censorship for you, kids!  It's interesting that Heilbrun changed Roth to "Lingerwell" (and cleaned up his personal history), but that's in keeping with her seeming tendency, at that point in time anyway, to put a highly WASPish gloss on her books.  Just like the originals!

British actor Trevor Howard
whom we are told
Reed Amhearst resembles

Anyway,  the plot thickens from here.  Kate has brought with her a graduate student assistant ,Emmet Crawford, to help her with the cataloguing.  (Actually he seems to do everything--just like real life!) Then there is her nephew Leo, a difficult boy who has been dropped on her by one of her three wealthy brothers, along with a tutor named William Lenehan, another student working on a PhD, and a great big car.  (Kate herself is independently wealthy in the grand tradition, though she charmingly or irksomely, depending on your own vantage point, professes not to understand anything about how stocks and dividends and the like work.)  When the novel opens Kate is explaining all this to her boyfriend Reed Amhearst (Now there's a WASP name for you!), an attorney in the New York district attorney's office who has come for a visit in his Volkswagen "Bug," having just returned from a trip to England. 

Like Kate he's not actually English (though the author likens his appearance to that of "an attenuated Trevor Howard"), but like most of the postgraduate educated people in this novel talks as if he is, or rather, perhaps, like a conventional fictional conception of how certain English people talk.

Later on a couple of women English lit professors--one of them elderly, the recently retired self-described spinster Grace Knole, and the other one young, the self-described virgin Eveline "Lina" Chisana--show up.  There's also another summering English professor residing nearby, an objectionable Lothario named Mr. Mulligan who publishes streams of volumes of trite literary criticism to attain a full professorship.  "Who publishes your books....The University of Southern Montana Press?" So derisively asks Kate, a proponent of teaching over publishing.  Poor southern Montana!

I was nearly killed in one of these
things nearly forty years ago!  
However, it was powder blue.

You might at first think that Mr. Mulligan will be the murderee, but, no, making one brief, inglorious appearance in the book is the actual murder victim, local farmer's wife Mary Bradford, a Mayflower descendant (hence the surname I suppose) and compulsively snoopy individual with a host of unpleasant observations and opinions. Before the murder we also get briefly to see her much nicer husband.  (He was originally from Scarsdale, the son of a lawyer.)  It's not long though before Mary Bradford expires, ostensibly the victim of an accidental shooting.  

Critics of the Amanda Cross mysteries have carped that in her later books the author didn't bother to "clue" properly, or sometimes didn't even include a murder in her story at all; but in this outing I thought the mystery problem was actually pretty good. 

That point notwithstanding, likely for most people this mystery will stand or fall on its style and simply whether you go for it or nor.  The cast of characters, as indicated above, is primarily composed of academics, and, goodness, do they sound like it, making literary allusions with abandon. 

More problematic for some people, perhaps, they also talk like characters from certain Thirties British detective novels, something I tend to doubt a bunch of Sixties Americans would have done.  Either you will accept this as an amiable pastiche of Thirties British mystery, or you won't.  For my part, I got into the scheme of things and let go of any demand for naturalism in this natural setting.  Once I did that, I rather enjoyed the proceedings.

Amanda Cross was singularly
unfortunate throughout her career
in having ugly book covers
--this is easily the best one 
in my opinion

Let me quote some of the talk for you to give you a flavor of the book:

"I return from only six months in England to find you transformed, transported and transfigured." (This from Reed, who isn't even an English professor)

"I have become very disillusioned about the rural character.  I suspect that Wordsworth, when he took to the country, never spoke to anyone but Dorothy and Coleridge, and perhaps an occasional leech gatherer.  Tell me about England." (This from Kate; funny how Wordsworth is mentioned again, right after I read Rendell''s A Guilty Thing Surprised)

"My shoes are covered with cow dung, and my spirit is oppressed." (Reed again)

"Sit you down." (Kate--here she's more, what, Jane Austen?)

Here Kate and Reed seem clearly modeled after Sayers' Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey.  They even marry over the course of several books.  Although one often reads that Kate is the series amateur sleuth, however, in The James Joyce Murder it is very much Reed who solves the murder and precipitates the events which culminate in its solution, so this time at least you could say he is the Lord Peter figure and Kate Harriet, instead of the other way around; although Reed comparatively recedes in a lot of the later books.  You can't blame Kate for not trying, however: unfortunately she gets sabotaged and sidelined while driving in Reed's Volkswagen down to New York City to investigate a certain trail.  

I liked the bits with the Volkswagen, by the way, it's one of the few elements that is really of the Sixties.  Additionally drive-in theater figures in the climax.  (Supposedly they are making a comeback in our plague year plus.)  I don't believe Kate had ever been to a drive-in; snobbishly, she is grateful that the film they see doesn't have Elvis Presley ("Reed, I will not see Elvis Presley"), though regrettably it does have Disney adolescent star Hayley Mills. Heilbrun doesn't go in for extensive descriptions but there is some interesting detail as well about hay-baling and dairying, which obviously was derived from the author's personal observation.

Kate Fansler was not an Elvis fan!
Elvis' film Double Trouble was released 
in 1967, same year The Jame Joyce
Murder was published and a became
 the 58th highest grossing film of the year

The rural people--rustics they might have been called in a genuine between-the-wars British mystery--speak more naturally, as does Kate's nephew Leo, who actually is one of the more delightful parts of the book.  He's quite a believable kid, as he repeats for the adults all the dubious wisdom imparted daily by his day camp leader, a Mr. Artifoni. I think Leo appeared in later books in the series as well.  

Unfortunately it is through Leo that the subject of homosexuality comes up, as we learn Kate was worried her that her "effeminate" graduate assistant Emmet and/or Mr. Artifoni himself might have been gay and thus potential sexual predators against her eight-year-old charge.  The way this comes up is like it's all part of the joke, but that hardly makes things better.  (In fact treating pedophilia as a subject for mirth makes it worse.) 

Certainly the language is decidedly un-PC, or let's just be blunt and say offensive.  Here's an exchange between Willian and Emmet, not one of the book's high points, certainly:

Why, then, do you affect these effete mannerisms, positively inviting everyone within earshot or reach of gossip to consider you limp of wrist?

How do you know I'm not limp of wrist, as you so coarsely put it--if you'll forgive my saying so?

For one thing, you visibly restrain a shudder every time you look at Leo."


"I've got nothing against fags, as it happens, though they do seem to have been swarming over the landscape recently, but you've been carrying on a passionate love affair for three years with a married woman.  Why do you insist on suggesting that you couldn't be aroused to passion by anything more feminine than a choirboy?"

Later on we get this exchange, when Emmet suggests to Kate that Mr. Artifoni might have killed Mary Bradford:

"Then there's Artifoni, into whose affairs I would dearly love to look.  Oh, stop worrying about Leo, Kate, I'm sure he's righteous as all get-out with small boys, but how much was the woman affecting his camp?  Also I don't want to cast aspersions in these matters, if they are aspersions, but Americans might do well to wake up to the fact that homosexual men who deeply resent women are not absolutely always those who go about prancing like little fawns.  My suspicions, were I inclined to have any, would certainly be directed at men who spend their whole working time directing boys' activities, their whole playtime at games for boys, their whole spectator time watching male sports, and if they marry, always have five crew-cut sons.  I bet they drown the girls at birth.  Mary Bradford may not have figured all this out, but who knows what her suspicions were.  That woman had a nose for scandal, you have to give that to her."

"Emmet, are you suggesting that I have not only exposed my nephew to murder, but have placed him in a camp filled with queers?"

my reaction to these passages
(actor Paul Lynde)

Perhaps there's a point here about not all "woman-hating" gays (or fags or queers, to use the terminology of these highly-educated academics) being screaming queens, with some of them being highly homosocial, "masculine" men, but, still, ugh, just ugh.  It was a common view back then that gay men had extreme aversion to women (which is why they were gay), but I'd have expected something a bit more sophisticated from this author, who, to her credit, learned some nuance over time, I believe.  

These passages aside, I actually found The James Joyce Murder a charming and amusing book, with a quite acceptable little mystery at its heart. And, yes, it's extremely literate and Joycean.  As you may have noticed a number of the characters are named after characters in Ulysses.  There is a lot of discussion of the works of Joyce and, in fact, the chapters of the novel all are cleverly named after stories in Joyce's classic collection Dubliners. Hence the village in the novel, based on Alford, is called Araby.  How else the great Irish author fits into the murderous scheme of things I leave you to find for yourself, if you haven't read the novel already.  Me, I read Dubliners in college, but The James Joyce Murder made me want to read Dubliners again, even if there are, as I recollect, no actual murders in it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Calamity: The Possible Genesis of Patrick Quentin's Puzzle for Fiends (1946)

Patrick Quentin's Puzzle for Fiends
, the fifth of the author's critically acclaimed Peter Duluth mysteries, is the last in what might be termed PQ's West trilogy, which consists of Puzzle for Puppets (San Francisco, 1944), Puzzle for Wantons (Reno, NV, 1945) and Fiends (Long Beach, CA?, 1946).  It was followed by the PQ Mexico trilogy of Puzzle for Pilgrims (1947), Run to Death (1948) and The Follower (1950) (the last of these non-series).  Not until 1952 with the novel Black Widow would the series get back to New York, site of the first two Patrick Quentins, A Puzzle for Fools (1936) and Puzzle for Players (1938).  

PQ authors Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler resided together in Reno, Nevada in the fall of 1943 after getting out of the army (Hugh on a medical exemption; I'm not sure what ground Rickie had).  There they awaited the granting of Rickie's divorce from author Frances Winwar, Rickie's bride of six months. For about a year after that, throughout most of 1944, they lived in San Francisco, where they gathered the experience which informed Puzzle for Puppets, published later that year.  Rickie then joined the Red Cross, serving with that organization in Hollandia, New Guinea for about six months in 1945, after American forces drove out the Japanese.  Rickie corresponded with Hugh during this time about the Jonathan Stagge novel Death and the Dear Girls, published late in 1945, but not about Puzzle for Wantons (published a few months before the Stagge), which drew on Rickie and Hugh's Reno experience and likely was completed before Rickie left the country.  

Rickie returned to the United States in the summer of '45 and moved into the farmhouse in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts which he and Hugh had purchased at the end of 1944.  There the authors worked on the Stagge novel Death's Old Sweet Song and the PQ novel Puzzle for Fiends.  How much Rickie actually contributed to these books is an open question, but the basic plot of Song, with its serial  killings based on the lyrics of an English folk tune, seems the sort of thing Rickie would have contributed, and the harsher noirish sensibility of Fiends recalls to my mind some of Rickie's Thirties work in the pulps.  It also seems to draw on recent experiences of Rickie's in a number of ways.

Fiends is unique in the PQ corpus in making use of the amnesia plot, then a popular (and not yet threadbare) device in film and fiction, like Cornell Woolrich's novel The Black Curtain (1941) and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). It's also unusual in having a prologue and an epilogue.  In the prologue Peter--having taken leave at the Burbank airport from Iris, who is off on a USO tour--is heading down the highway to visit his navy buddies in San Diego for a last fling when he picks up a young male hitchhiker.  The next thing he knows he has awakened in a house full of strange women, unable to remember his name or who he is.  Nefarious doings are afoot, but I will leave you to read about them for yourselves.

What I wanted to mention here is that the hitchhiker episode which bookends the tale may have been inspired by a real life murder case which took place in Nevada in 1940, the so-called "one-cent hitchhiker slaying."  I have written about this case in depth in a new article at Crimereads, to which you can follow the link here.  Be warned I discuss both the prologue and epilogue of Puzzle for Fiends, if you haven't read it; however I don't discuss the body of the mystery that comes in between these sections.  The article primarily is about the mysterious male hitchhiker, a major cultural phenomenon of the Depression era and war years, and a nasty murder committed by one of them in 1940.  Check it out if you so choose.