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.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Brush up Your Wordsworth: A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970), by Ruth Rendell

The girls today in society
Go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
Aeschylus and Euripides

--"Brush up Your Shakespeare" by Cole Porter

Inspector Wexford
(looking like Oliver Hardy)
and Mike Burden survey
the full-bodied corpse of
Elizabeth Nightingale
Who done it?!
Once she had attained her own great success as a crime writer Ruth Rendell was known to make the odd catty comment or two--or three or four or five or six--about Agatha Christie, the once and future Queen of Crime.  It's easy to surmise why Rendell could be uncharitable toward her predecessor when one looks at paperback Rendell reprints like the one pictured on the left, from American publisher Ballantine, dated June 1975, when Christie herself was still alive.  

Ruth Rendell, Ballantine declared, was "the new first lady of mystery in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie."  It's no wonder that AC was still, to the vexation of Rendell, the gold standard for rising English mystery writers in those days, at least in publishers' eyes.  The next month the New York Times would publish news of the "death" of Christie's famed sleuth Hercule Poirot on its front page

There it is with what might be termed rather less frivolous news  items:

Malaysian Terrorists Free Most Hostages in Embassy

A Portuguese Town Wars on Communism

Opening of Mail is Traced to F.B.I.

Investigators in Hoffa Case Trying to Find Foster Son

Alger Hiss is Readmitted to Massachusetts Bar

Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective

opening of Hercule Poirot's
August 6, 1975 obituary
in the New York Times
The final Poirot case, Curtain, was published in October, becoming an immediate bestseller. In the New York Times the novel was reviewed by crime writer Julian Symons with his usual unstable mixture of admiration and condescension.  Know-all Symons pronounced that Christie's genteel mysteries, like those of her sisters in crime Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers* said "something about manners but nothing about life," yet on the lower level of a literary trickster Christie herself was "the champion deceiver of our time.

Publishers naturally blurbed that last part!

*(Symons, though once a co-member of the Detection Club with Sayers, in a figurative thumb in the eye in his NYT review omitted Sayers' cherished middle initial "L.")

Ruth Rendell like Julian Symons increasingly wanted her own fiction to say something about life (by which, one gathers, Symons meant its brutally visceral "mean street" realities) and she became mortally tired of all the Christie comparisons to which she and her gal pal PD James were subjected, accepting as she did the standard view that Christie was "merely" a maker of clever puzzles with nothing to say about life.  In 1977 she would publish her much praised crime novel A Judgment in Stone, in which, as I recollect, a lower class woman goes on a savage killing spree because she's embarrassed about her illiteracy.  There's dreary reality for you!

By the 1980s Rendell's interest in her fiction would decisively shift from her own traditional Inspector Wexford detective stories--mere puzzles, don't you know--to sprawling "crime novels" published under her own name and that of Barbara Vine.  However, for roughly twenty years, from 1964 to 1983, those Inspector Wexford mysteries at some sixty to eighty thousand economical words a book for the most part were jewels in the crown of what might be deemed the Silver Age of detective fiction.  They retain great appeal precisely as, yes, puzzles.  

Unfortunately, there is at least one stinker in the batch, I have found: A Guilty Thing Surprised, the fifth Inspector Wexford mystery, published by Rendell in 1970.  Rendell had made a brilliant debut six years earlier with From Doon with Death and in A Guilty Thing Surprised one senses that Rendell was trying to repeat that success; but she misses the mark widely in my view.  

On the surface Surprise offers much to please fans of the classic mystery, with its classic country house setting and literary quotations, the latter lobbed with the studied determination and appalling frequency of the great Dorothy L. herself.  (There's an epigraph from Romantic poet William Wordsworth--pay attention!

When the beautiful mistress of Myfleet Manor, Elizabeth Nightingale, is found bloodily bludgeoned to death on the grounds of the estate, the suspects include her husband, Quentin, naturally, but also her embittered scholarly brother Denys Villiers, an English schoolmaster and literary critic, and her wifely, awkwardly bourgeois sister-in-law, Georgina, as well as a couple of servants, the handsome young assistant gardener, Sean Lovell, and the buxom and sexually carefree Dutch au pair, Katje Doorn.  While Sean, with his dream, encouraged by Elizabeth, of becoming a pop singing sensation. and Katje, with her free and easy notions of sex, are modern figures, the rest of the servants are improbable throwbacks to between-the-wars British mystery, with their grousing about Sean and Katje (or "Catcher" as they call her) not knowing their proper stations in life.  Were there really still house servants like this in 1970? 

Here's the cook, Mrs. Cantrip (love the name) responding to Sean's expressed desire to get out of the "old groove" and become a pop singer:

"You're groove's gardening and don't you forget it."

cooks invariable seem to be social reactionaries
in English detective fiction
(Mrs. Patmore in Downton Abbey)

Then there's head gardener Will Palmer, who to Inspector Wexford expresses his rustic philosophy of life and class relations thusly:

"I hope I know my place, sir."

"I always have said that the gentry have their funny ways as the likes of us don't understand."

"I hope I'm gone before any of this equality gets any worse than what it is."

Let's all have a round of "Ar's" to that!

It's rather like watching an episode of Downtown Abbey, except even there as I recollect you had a chauffeur who was a Communist, or something like.  I know it must have been lovely for upper class people in 1970 to believe that their servants actually were like this, but were they, really?  Were there even servants?  

Of course it's up to our old friend Reg Wexford and his assistant Mike Burden to nab the culprit of this violent country house crime.  Sergeant Burden seems unbelievably priggish in the early Rendell books, in this one at one point admonishing his young son not to say "Blimey!" because, I kid you not, "It means God blind me, and you know I don't like to hear you swear."  Again, did anyone in England utter sentiments like this?  You tell me, I'm not English. Certainly no one said blimey in the good old U. S. of A., but that's because they were saying a lot worse things, goddammit.  

I get the feeling Ruth Rendell created the "conservative" Mike Burden and gave him all these ridiculous sentiments in order to make herself, a self-proclaimed socialist who yet was a striving multi-millionaire who spent book after book in her later years denouncing poor grammar, political correctness and the uncouthness of the lower class, feel less conservative herself.  Methinks Ruth did protest too much.  On the other hand, Mike Burden as originally conceived by Rendell might well have fit in today with MAGA or whatever the British equivalent is, so maybe Ruth was on to something after all.  Wexford for his part is much more "hip" and "with it," despite being rather older than Burden, but nevertheless he feels great consternation when a man who is something more than a casual acquaintance of his calls him by his first name.  Quelle horreur!

William Wordsworth, about whom 
Wexford learns some things
Setting all this aside, where Rendell's novel falls apart for me as a novel of detection is that there isn't actually much detection.  Rather we get several info dump gossip sessions between Wexford and a tiresome campy individual named Lionel Marriott.  Then Wexford reads a book on William Wordsworth and voila! he has solved the mystery.  It's really that simple.  Then we get a long confession (over ten pages), where these deep sentiments are tapped which seem out of sorts with the actual characters as previously portrayed.  You get the feeling that in these last pages Rendell was trying to impose a crime novel on the detective novel superstructure and it just doesn't hold up.  The characters were never developed to the point where they would support such heavy emotions. Try as Rendell might, they remain puppets.  A Guilty Thing Surprised tries to be something it fundamentally isn't.

So this one for me was a fair stinker, but to be just to Rendell, of all the early Wexfords I have read it was the only stinker.  Rendell remains in my view a major exponent of the classic English mystery, even if it's something that for many years of her life she no longer wanted to be.  A guilty thing surprised, indeed!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Puzzle for Fugitives: Run to Death (1948), by Patrick Quentin

After the emotional fireworks of the sixth Patrick Quentin Peter Duluth novel, Puzzle for Pilgrims (1947), in which Peter and his estranged wife Iris badly stood in need of a marriage counsellor but were instead confronted by yet another murder (this time in Mexico, where authors Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler had recently wintered), things calmed down a bit emotionally in the next Peter Duluth mystery, Run to Death (1948)--though there is still excitement aplenty.  In the novel Peter confronts yet another murder in Mexico and stands is grave peril of his life, yet at least things are on the mend with Iris! 

Iris only appears at the very end of the novel, however, after Peter has finally made it safely back from Mexico to New York, which had not been the locus of a PQ mystery novel since Puzzle for Players, way back before the war.  So much might have turned out differently for Rickie and Hugh but for the war, both in their lives and in the PQ novels, more of which, but for the war, would presumably have taken place in New York (like the two Thirties novels and three early Forties novelettes).

Here is a breakdown of the novel settings:

A Puzzle for Fools--New York area sanitarium

Puzzle for Players--New York playhouse

Puzzle for Puppets--San Francisco (all over the city)

Puzzle for Wantons (originally titled Puzzle for Frauds)--Reno, Nevada and outskirts

Puzzle for Fiends--Lona Beach (Long Beach?), southern California

Puzzle for Pilgrims--Mexico City, Taxco, Veracruz

Run to Death (originally titled Puzzle for Fugitives)--Yucatan, Mexico City, New Orleans

The Follower (non-series)--New York, Mexico City, Acapulco

Black Widow--New York

Rickie and Hugh's productive 1946-47 winter in Mexico produced not only a trilogy of Patrick Quentin mysteries but the Q. Patrick short story "Love Comes to Miss Lucy," one of the author's most esteemed and  anthologized short works.  Mexico meant a lot to Hugh Wheeler in particular, for reasons I explain in my biography, and this comes out in his writing--for the books in this period were written primarily, if not entirely, by him.  (Black Widow and the Jonathan Stagge mystery The Three Fears, even with its clunky and artificial "three fears" plot device, were written entirely by Hugh and I think The Follower almost certainly was as well.)

In Run to Death Peter has returned to Mexico City to write a play, while Iris has gone off to Hollywood to make a film, their reunion after the events in Puzzle for Pilgrims having proved too painfully tender and awkward to continue unabated.  However, when Peter finishes his play, which is to star Iris naturally, the two of them reconnect in a big way.  When events in the book commence, Peter is to return in ten days to New York to reunite with Iris, who has finished her film, but first he stops off in Yucatan to see some Mayan ruins.  He should have known, given his track record, that there he would encounter not only Mayan ruins but murder!

Interestingly, when the novel was presented to Patrick Quentin's publisher, Simon and Schuster (under its Inner Sanctum Mystery imprint) with the title Puzzle for Fugitives, imprint editor Lee Wright suggested that "Puzzle" be dropped from the title, as it carried a connotation of a traditional, puzzle-oriented detective novel, which was just not the thing publishers wanted in the late Forties, when they were pushing noir, hard-boiled mystery, espionage escapades, and tales of "suspense"--anything but traditional detection!  Thus was the title altered to Run to Death, which certainly was in keeping with the hectic postwar years and the prevalent desire, on the part of publishers if not always readers, for excitement in mysteries rather than methodical elucidation. 

Lee Wright also complained that Rickie and Hugh in their new book had essentially ditched Iris Duluth yet again, for the second time in three years.  "Sometime you must tell me why you dislike her so much," Wright pettishly wrote the authors.  My view is that it wasn't so much that Hugh hated Iris, but that Peter and Iris happily together no longer reflected either his and Rickie's reality as a couple or the types of semi-noirish books which Hugh, who now held the writing reins completely in his hands, wanted to do.  Team Iris would have to content themselves with her glorious apotheosis in Puzzle for Wantons (1945), a PQ manners mystery where she steals the sleuth show like some dynamic and delightful diva of detection.  Run to Death has its own charms, however.

sacred cenote
Chichen Itza, Yucatan
where Deborah Brand meets her end

In Run to Death Peter during his visit to Yucatan encounters a lovely young blonde, Deborah Brand, who persuades him to drive her out in his rented car to the ruins at Chichen Itza, telling him she missed her tour bus.  On the drive Rickie begins to suspect that the blonde is not being entirely truthful with him and in fact for some reason fears for her life.  When at the ruined Mayan city she fatally falls, ostensibly accidentally, into the sacred cenote--a limestone sinkhole where sacrificial human victims for hundreds of years were thrown--Peter finds himself deliberating the classic murder mystery question, did she fall or was she pushed? 

Local authorities decide that Deborah's death was an accident, however, and Peter returns to Mexico, where he finds himself pursued by both a deadly Mexican gunsel whom he dubs Junior--"a pretty little Mexican boy with unknown rancor and a gun"--and a blatantly Russian ex-ballerina with some mysterious agenda of her own, Vera Garcia.  (She married a rich old Mexican.)  Not to mention that he keeps on running into people, ostensibly coincidentally, from the Yucatan tour party.  What do they all want with Peter?  What the heck is going on? 

circular pyramid at Cuicuilco
then an isolated site near Mexico City,
where Peter Duluth has a deadly encounter

While Run to Death retreats from the murky emotional depths of Puzzle for Pilgrims, it remains an immensely entertaining, fast-paced, action-packed Hitchcockian read (MacGuffin included), with one of those breathless triple twist endings at which the authors in their various guises excelled.  I've read it twice now and enjoyed it immensely both times.  Plus there is an appealing little coda between Peter and Iris at table at their New York apartment which almost feels like a farewell to their readers.  

The next PQ novel, The Follower, would not, well, follow for more than two years and when it appeared it turned out to be a non-series work.  Peter and Iris would, however, make a triumphant (if angst-ridden) return in 1952 in Black Window, probably the most successful and critically praised Patrick Quentin novel.  The novel was filmed in glorious, if arguably grandiose, cinemascope in 1954, where Peter and Iris "Denver" were inhabited by actors Van Johnson and Gene Tierney--not a bad representation!  Run to Death should have been filmed as well (as should The Follower have been), but the Mexican locations which are such an important part of the novel probably stymied such ambitions.  Hugh Wheeler would not receive his due in films until he started writing for them directly.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Looking Back at 20 and Looking Ahead to 21

As The Passing Tramp approaches its tenth anniversary as a blog, I thought I'd both look back at 2020 and look ahead to this new year, 2021.  So here goes!  With all the single sentence paragraphs below this will look like a Catherine Aird mystery.

Last year I wrote another four columns for Crimereads and this year I will be doing a monthly column for them. 

For my old friend Coachwhip, I only did just one book project last year, a twofer of Ruth Burr Sanborn's Murder by Jury and Murder on the Aphrodite, but I expect to do some more with them this year. 

With Moonstone I worked on their reissue of Alan Clutton-Brock's Murder at Liberty Hall and I will be doing more with them this year, including another long out-of-print British woman author from the Thirties.  

With Dean Street Press I worked on the continuing reissues of Christopher Bush and Moray Dalton and I will again be doing that this year, along with a debut set of Anne Morice reissues, about which I wrote last month

With Stark House I worked on twofer reissues of books by Americans Ruth Fenisong (Deadlock/Dead Weight) and Ruth Sawtell Wallis (Too Many Bones/Blood from a Stone) and I have another one with them coming out this year on Dolores Hitchens, about whom I have some interesting new biographical information, which I relate to her writing.

Finally, over a year ago I wrote an introduction to (and made the initial selection of stories for) a new collection of Q. Patrick short fiction by Crippen & Landru, Hunt in the Dark and other Fatal Pursuits, but this book did not make it out in 2020 as expected.  All I know now is that it will be out sometime in 2021, sooner I hope rather than later.

Speaking of which, I have completed nearly 120,000 words of my joint Hugh Wheeler-Richard Webb bio and I think 30,000 words will complete it.  So I'm expecting to be done with it by March.  I have been working on it for two and a half years now, after having gestated it for several years; but with luck maybe it will be in print by 2022, along with some additional HughRick material.  This has been my biggest book project since Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012) and my original award-winning book The Conquest of Labor (2001, based on my history PhD).  There's no murder in that one, though it would have made a great setting for it. 

Perhaps I have a major book in me every decade or so.