Friday, May 14, 2021


I just noticed in my previous post that the article I published was a modified version of my original Hunt in the Dark introduction, but it does include the original references to The Red Balloon and The Predestined, which were supposed to be included in the original collection. So that will have suffice. I can't help feeling sorry for Rickie Webb, getting it in the neck again with the exclusion of his two Fifties stories, probably the last fiction he ever wrote. Maybe I can resurrect them with another publisher, as well as the rest of the uncollected novelettes.

 I will be talking about Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler both at the Bodies from the Library conference tomorrow, so I hope to "see" some of my blog readers there! The story of the two men's creative and personal life together is a very interesting one indeed, I think, and his occupied much of my writing time for three years now.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Murder No Frolic: The Pulp Fiction of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler

It's not Stephen King but
"The Red Balloon" appeared in
Weird Tales and it is one of the
weirdest tales in the Q. Patrick canon.
It's one of two stories that was cut
from Hunt in the Dark 
Hunt in the Dark and Other Deadly Pursuits, which was just published by Crippen & Landru, will be the last book I do with that entity. Here at my blog, which is entering its tenth year and where I have the last word, I thought I would publish my Hunt introduction in its original form, before I was told to cut and rework it by the new publisher of C&L, who wanted to shorten the length of the book. 

I was rather displeased and for this and additional reasons, which I won't go into here, I decided to end my affiliation with the publisher today.  So here please enjoy my last Crippen & Landru introduction, slightly modified, but including reference to the two deleted stories.--TPT

Under the pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, mid-century mystery authors Richard “Rickie” Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, native Englishmen who became naturalized American citizens, wrote and published, both together and separately, nearly forty detective novels and over fifty works of short crime fiction.  Since 2015 American publisher Crippen & Landru and I have been devoting effort to recovering Rickie Webb’s and Hugh Wheeler’s rich legacy of short crime fiction, which for the most part was published under the Q. Patrick pen name.  Crippen & Landru’s newest book, Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits, collects six of Q. Patrick’s works in shorter forms: two novellas, two novelettes and two short stories.  Included are the presumably final recovered tales of the criminous adventures of Rickie Webb’s and Hugh Wheeler’s series characters Peter and Iris Duluth (“Hunt in the Dark”) and Dr. Hugh Westlake (“The Frightened Landlady”), as well as four other tales of deathly doings: the ingenious shorts “Killed by Time” and “The Woman Who Waited” and the noirish novelettes “The Hated Woman” and “This Way Out.”  In these tales readers will find dark fantasies of murder, full of flawed men and fatal women, as they walk the wilder, pulpier side of Rickie Webb’s and Hugh Wheeler’s rich legacy of short crime fiction.  Additionally, there are two final murder stories by Rickie Webb which, though they are not included in Hunt in the Dark, offer a queer but compelling coda to a talented man’s own complicated journey. 


            Initially in the 1930s Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler lucratively tapped diverse markets for their short fiction in Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, one of America’s premier purveyors of “pulp” crime fiction (so named for its cheap pages made from wood pulp), which aimed primarily at a male audience, and in The American Magazine, a so-called “slick” (so named on account of its more expensive, glossy paper) with a readership composed to a great extent of middle-class women.  Among the pulp detective fiction Rickie and Hugh published at this time were three serial novels and a novella, all of which appeared under the pseudonym Q. Patrick in Detective Story Magazine, about Dr. Hugh Cavendish Westlake, a widowed New England country doctor with an irrepressibly rambunctious young daughter, Dawn, who manages, albeit usually inadvertently, to help her bemused father solve, with the considerable help of series policeman Inspector Cobb, the myriad fiendish murders which cross his path.  That Hugh Cavendish Westlake shares the same initials—H. C. W.—with Hugh Callingham Wheeler surely is no accident.

            The serial Dr. Westlake novels--The Dogs Do Bark, The Scarlet Circle and Murder or Mercy?—all were later published in hardback editions by “Jonathan Stagge,” albeit in the case of The Scarlet Circle only after a lag of seven years, due perhaps to the possibility that the novella in 1937 may have helped inspire two horrific real-life copycat murders in Queens, New York.  However, the second Hugh Westlake adventure, the novella “The Frightened Landlady,” which was originally published in Detective Story Magazine in December 1935, a month after The Dogs Do Bark, was never expanded as a novel.  It now appears in print in English for the first time in eighty-five years—an exciting event for admirers of Jonathan Stagge’s ingenious murder cases.

            Dr. Westlake’s daughter Dawn does not put in an appearance in this exceptionally grim story, happily for her being “away at the shore with friends.”  However, the doctor’s investigative partner Inspector Cobb, Chief of Police of Grovestown (where the doctor, who normally resides twenty miles away in Kenmore, is substituting for his vacationing colleague Dr. Hammond), provides some timely assistance.  Young Dawn, who is present in spirit if you will, manages to do her part as well to help her father and Inspector Cobb crack the weird and gruesome case, which turns extremely nasty.  “The affair ended with a brutal murder and the unearthing of another crime so fantastic in its twisted abnormality that I cannot help wondering whether I am violating the ethics of my profession in setting it down,” Dr. Westlake forebodingly announces in the first lines of the novella.  What stouthearted mystery fan could resist?

            In an opening reminiscent of the strange consultations once held by a certain eminent detective at 221b Baker Street, Dr. Westlake is visited by Mrs. Eva Bellman, a highly respectable sixtyish Grovestown landlady who believes she must be suffering from some malady of the eyes (like Hugh Wheeler in real life), on account of the seemingly impossible transformations which she imagines have been taking place around her in her building.  Gladioluses in a vase have turned into zinnias and back again, for example, while a pet canary has gone from life to death (stabbed with a paper knife and pinned to a pillow) to life again.  Dr. Westlake assures the frightened landlady that there is nothing physically wrong with her, yet he is highly intrigued all the same by her problem.  “Possibly my recent connection with the unpleasant series of murders near my home in Kenmore had given me a taste for the bizarre,” he speculates, recalling the ghastly case earlier detailed in Detective Story Magazine in The Dogs Do Bark. 

            It is not long before Dr. Westlake calls upon Mrs. Bellman at her building, where he finds that things are even queerer than he had imagined.  “The Frightened Landlady” is a fine baroque mystery tale with some classic twists and a twisted crime.  To be sure, it shares affinities with another Webb and Wheeler work, “Danger Next Door,” a novella published in Detective Story Magazine in May 1937 which fourteen years later was expanded under the same name as a novel (now long out-of-print); yet Hugh Westlake fans will by no means want to miss “The Frightened Landlady.”  It makes an exciting addition to the distinguished Hugh Westlake crime canon.

            “Killed by Time” and “The Hated Woman” like “The Frightened Landlady” are among the earliest pulp crime pieces published by Rickie and Hugh.  They appeared in Detective Story Magazine in, respectively, October 1935 and February 1936.  The former is a pure problem detective story, though a rather memorably gruesome one, along the lines of something mystery genre master John Dickson Carr might have devised.  In it Inspector Groves (of Grovestown perhaps?) is summoned on the scene to investigate the murder, at the home of esteemed brain surgeon Doctor Cobden (shades of Inspector Cobb), of Cobden’s son-in-law, Julius van Holdt, a woman-chasing wastrel.  The dead man was discovered gruesomely slain on the couch in Doctor Cobden’s office, his face “no long calm or handsome”: “One eye was closed as if in sleep, but the other—or rather, the place where the other had been—was a hideous red gash, a gaping void.  It was as though someone had stabbed persistently and accurately at the eye with a sharp, thin weapon.”  “[P]ossibly an ice-pick,” speculates the phlegmatic medical examiner.  Steel yourselves, readers!

            The novelette “The Hated Woman” presents one of the most unsympathetic daughters of Eve in the Webb-Wheeler canon in the person of Lila Trent, the eponymous hated woman of the title.  Lila, it soon becomes manifest, is very hated indeed, and deservedly so, being a selfish, spiteful individual concerned only with preserving her own diminishing physical charms (past forty, Lila’s looks are being “killed by time”), so that she can continue successfully to pursue handsome young men, her longtime marriage notwithstanding.  When she is discovered dead in the kitchen of her apartment at the Vandolan Hotel, her head bloodily battered by blows from a wood hatchet, there is no shortage of suspects in her murder, including her long-suffering husband, Paul Trent, a chemistry researcher at the local university; Larry Graves, a strapping yet weak-willed blond whom the smitten Lila had loaned five thousand dollars, with sexual conditions attached, to start an auto garage; Larry’s girlfriend Claire French, the coolly attractive and determined owner of her own beauty parlor; and Sam Nolan, the Vandolan Hotel’s strapping brunet electrician, patently on the make.  (“If you ever need me, Mrs. Trenton, it’s easy to get me,” he pointedly advises Lila.)  The police are stymied by the multiplicity of suspects (truly Lila and Paul’s apartment was something like Grand Central Station on the night of the murder), leaving Paul Trent’s likeable colleague in the chemistry department at the university, Professor Gilbert Comroy, to bring the crime home to its perpetrator. 

            Like “The Frightened Landlady” and “Killed by Time,” “The Hated Woman” has the fingerprints of Rickie Webb all over it, in its depictions of nasty people and grisly murders and its transgressive gay subtext, among the most prominent in the writing of Webb and Wheeler.  In Lila’s relationships with Larry Graves and Sam Nolan, it is easy to discern what Marc Fisher, in his essay “The Life of a Trophy Boy”--a meditation on the life and death of Andrew Cunanan, a “high-class gay prostitute” and serial murderer who infamously slew fashion designer Gianni Versace in 1997--termed the “gay paradigm” of an older gay sugar daddy, his looks fading, avidly pursuing hustling young hunks.  “You’re nothing but a gigolo—a gigolo,” a disgusted (and somewhat priggish) Claire castigates Larry at one point, while studly Sam Nolan, clad in his overalls, provocatively comments to Lila, “Geez…I wish I was a girl.  Maybe then you could use me around this place, Mrs. Trenton.  I’m pretty good at housework, too.  Used to be a houseboy when I was a kid.”  A positive portrayal in the novelette of a same-sex relationship can be seen with middle-aged academic colleagues and best friends Paul Trent and Gilbert Conroy, who resemble pals of Rickie’s from the University of Pennsylvania and other colleges.  Seven years after the publication of “The Hated Woman,” Rickie Webb ironically made a disastrous six-month marriage with a noted woman popular author, Frances Winwar, starkly contrasting with the years of contentment he enjoyed with his writing partner Hugh Wheeler, who also was his companion of many years. 

            A much more positive depiction of a heterosexual couple is found in “Hunt in the Dark” (published in 1942 in Short Stories), which--like “Death Rides the Ski-Tow” and “Murder with Flowers,” both of which appeared in The American Magazine the previous year (and have since been collected in Crippen & Landru’s 2016 volume The Puzzles of Peter Duluth)--is another thrilling wartime adventure of theater producer Peter Duluth and his charming and glamorous actress wife Iris, lead characters in Rickie and Hugh’s Patrick Quentin “Puzzle” series of novels.  (Even here, however, some gay subtext is slipped in when Peter tells us that on a sleuthing visit to a Manhattan book and record shop, he pauses occasionally to pretend to glance at something, like “an old copy of Leaves of Grass” and “a Strength and Health magazine from 1936.”)

            This time Peter and Iris run afoul of a deadly terrorist plot against the United States, recalling the “Black Tom” explosion of 1916, an act of German sabotage at a major munitions center at Black Tom, an artificial island adjacent to Liberty Island in New York Harbor.  (Peter specifically mentions the Black Tom attack.)  On the side of Peter and the irrepressible Iris in their desperate against-the-odds attempt to foil the Nazis’ deadly machinations (Iris has “always been the Lady Macbeth of our team, taking danger and disaster in her stride,” observes Peter), are the couple’s indomitable black cook Aloma and her hulk of a husband, Rudolph, the latter, we are cheekily told, mysteriously returned “after a long absence upstate.”  The ultimate moral of “Hunt in the Dark” seems to be, “Good help is hard to find,” so hang onto it when you find it.  Within a few years, Rickie and Hugh at their home at Twin Hills Farm in Monterey, Massachusetts would hire a handsome black cook, Johnny Grubbs, a move which ironically would help lead to the irrevocable sundering of Rickie and Hugh’s companionship, something which had not happened when Rickie had been briefly married to Frances Winwar.

            We return to the formal problem detective short story with “The Woman Who Waited,” a fine brief tale of detection which would have melded perfectly with the lauded Lieutenant Trant short stories that Rickie and Hugh published over the decade from 1945 to 1955 (and which have since been collected in Crippen & Landru’s 2019 volume The Cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant).   In “The Woman Who Waited,” which first appeared in The Shadow in January 1945, Trant stand-in Inspector Macrae is tasked with determining the identity of the mysterious woman in black who shot and killed Ellery Trimble with his own gun in his parked car outside his Twin-Town Department Store, “the one big league emporium in the dual community of Stuart-Cartersville.”  Left bizarrely sprawled across the dead man’s corpse are a dozen “pairs of silk—real silk—stockings,” resembling nothing so much as “grotesque, elongated caterpillars.”  Macrae manages to pin the guilt for a truly audacious act of murder on the correct culprit, doubtlessly one whom Lieutenant Trant, with his well-known penchant for murderesses, would have relished encountering. 

            Like “Hunt in the Dark” and “The Woman Who Waited,” “This Way Out,” published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947, has sophisticated touches reflective of the fine hand of Hugh Wheeler, a still youngish man of thirty-five when the novelette was published.  Hugh’s writing talent had burgeoned over the years while that of Rickie, who suffered from various debilitating physical and mental maladies after his return from wartime service with the Red Cross in Hollandia, New Guinea, had declined.  (Hugh, who suffered from diplopia, or double vision, for a time served stateside in the Medical Corps at Fort Dix, New Jersey.)  In Hugh’s hands “This Way Out” rises from the pulpish danses macabres of the “The Frightened Landlady” and “The Hated Woman” to the operatic heights of the tragically doomed romances of Forties film noir. 

            As in many of the postwar film noirs, the protagonist of “This Way Out” is a disillusioned World War Two veteran returned home, like Rickie Webb, from overseas service.  In this case it is Steve Glenn, who when he beats up playboy Tony Dort at the beginning of the story has been officially honorably discharged from the Army for but a few hours and symbolically is still wearing the uniform he had donned to fight the Japanese.  Getting even with Tony was something Steve had been living for over “eighteen long, bitter months” of combat in the Pacific, at New Guinea and Leyte, since Steve’s beautiful blonde ex-wife, Celia, had commenced a wild fling with Tony and persuaded Steve to divorce her.  The embittered vet exits Tony’s apartment, having left the playboy knocked out and flat on his back, and he heads for liquid consolation to a bar.  Later, however, with the assault and the drinks having failed to make him feel any better about the situation, Steve decides to check up on Tony at the apartment, where he discovers to his mortification that in the interim someone has shot Tony--dead. 

            Finding Celia’s small white-gold, emerald-encrusted compact, a gift from him during their marriage, at the scene of the crime, Tony jumps to the conclusion that Celia must be Tony’s killer, and he sets out at all costs to protect her from the consequences of the crime he thinks she committed.  However, Steve soon learns there are other promising candidates besides Celia for the role of the odious Tony’s murderer, including Celia’s virginal younger sister Dennie, who during the war has blossomed into a lovely blonde simulacrum of her sibling; Virginia Dort, Tony’s cynical estranged wife; 4-F Roy Chappell, who fashions metal into jewelry and trinkets of exquisite beauty, like Celia’s compact; Goody Taylor, aging man-about-town (“Goody Taylor?  I thought he’d been embalmed years ago.”); and a “cool, metallic blonde” named Janice, the latest of Tony Dort’s flings. 
            Things get so very complicated, Steve reflects morosely during the course of this twisting tale: “[T]he perversity of life got under his skin.  Celia loved Tony; Steve loved Celia; Dennie loved Steve.  He felt a sudden, savage hunger for the old world of mud and death in the Pacific.  At least you knew where you were in a foxhole.  Nobody loved anybody there.”  Like Roy Chappell’s intricately bejeweled creations, “This Way Out” is exquisitely fashioned, a moving tale of fatal misunderstanding that, though it likely was mostly composed by Hugh Wheeler, seems to have been informed by some of Rickie Webb’s recent disillusioning experiences, as the two men’s own relationship, like the fictional one of the seemingly imperishably insouciant Peter and Iris Duluth, became more “complicated” during the postwar years. 

            Rickie and Hugh had permanently parted ways by 1952, with Rickie leaving the house they had shared at Twin Hills Farm for France, never to return again except for occasional visits, when his failing health permitted.  He passed away fourteen years later, at the age of sixty-five.  Hugh, who remained with Johnny Grubbs at Twin Hills Farm for the rest of his life, survived Rickie by twenty-one years, during which time he worked with entertainment world giants Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, among many others, and attained prominence as a writer for stage and screen, producing the scripts for the films Something for Everyone (1970), Cabaret (1972) and Nijinsky (1980), authoring the acclaimed 1961 plays  Big Fish, Little Fish and Look: We’ve Come Through and winning three Tony Awards for his books for the musicals A Little Night Music (1973), Candide (1974) and Sweeney Todd (1979).

            Until Rickie’s death Hugh continued to write crime fiction under the pseudonym Patrick Quentin, without any contribution from Rickie.  Nevertheless, in the 1950s Rickie himself, using the Q. Patrick pseudonym, made a few sporadic stabs at crime writing, including two strange short stories, “The Predestined” and “The Red Balloon,” appropriately published in 1954 and 1953 in Weird Tales, and likely the paperback original The Girl on the Gallows, a study of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case that was published in 1954 (since reprinted as an eBook by Mysterious Press/Open Road).  At the end of his writing career Rickie had returned to his grim beginnings in the pulps, even as Hugh inhabited the more rarefied and lucrative world of the “slicks” and the sophisticated Patrick Quentin novels.  Rickie’s two weird crime tales, although not included in Hunt in the Dark, constitute a strange but ultimately sadly fitting legacy to his and Hugh’s noirish crime fiction. 

            “The Predestined,” an inverted crime story which first appeared in Britannia and Eve in August 1953, is a malevolent tale reflective of Rickie Webb’s preoccupation in his crime fiction with cruelty and sadism as well as aging and its concomitant physical decay.  It shares affinity with a 1937 short story, “Frightened Killer” that Rickie and Hugh published in 1937 in Detective Story Magazine, under their seldom used pen name, “Dick Callingham,” as well as two Q. Patrick school crime tales later collected in 1962 in the Edgar-winning volume The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow (since reprinted by Mysterious Press/Open Road), “Little Boy Lost” and “Portrait of a Murderer.”  All three of these earlier stories likely were written by Rickie.

            “The Predestined” episodically traces the life in England, from indulged childhood to youthful years at public school and Cambridge University to dissolute adulthood, of a selfish, greedy brute named Jasper Dogerty, who recurrently suffers from painful constricting sensations at his throat that leave ephemeral purple welts.  Over the course of the story Jasper transitions from a public school and Cambridge athlete with a “perfect physique and regular features” to a balding thirty-four-year-old with an incipient double chin who works for a perfume company and sponges off gullible older women like Sophie Cain, a wealthy widow whom out of financial calculation he marries.  Unfortunately, Sophie, though she gratifyingly makes Jasper the heir to her sizable estate, comes encumbered with the intensely religious and to Jasper extremely objectionable Miss Grace Goodman, a censorious busybody companion who keeps zealous watch over both her mistress and the household accounts.  Jasper comes to feel that something will have to be done about this situation….  The end result may not surprise you, but the uncompromising bleakness of the story, which includes certain biographical elements from Rickie’s own life, leaves its mark, if you will.

            The weirdly compelling “The Red Balloon” saw the penultimate appearance in short fiction form of peripatetic series sleuth Lieutenant Timothy Trant, who began as a series character in a couple of 1930s Q. Patrick novels and a Crimefile, appeared between 1940 and 1955 in nearly two dozen Q. Patrick crime tales and in the 1950s and 1960s was occasionally employed by Hugh as a murder investigator in his solo Patrick Quentin novels.  Although the title of the tale recalls the Oscar-winning French children’s film, Le Ballon Rouge (1956), it could not be more different from that whimsical French fantasy, being an account of the investigation into the horrific unnatural deaths of two young girls, Minnie and Evie Greiser, found gruesomely slain behind some bushes outside the Braeside School for Girls, where they had been participating in a rehearsal for a nativity play for the school’s forthcoming Christmas festival.  The bodies of the dead girls were “shriveled and shrunken like two little old monkeys, or like corpses deep-buried centuries ago.”  In classic fashion, falling snow covered any possible traces left by the murderer.  The only clue to the crimes (if clue it indeed is) is a vanished red balloon that witnesses reported seeing floating near where the girls’ bodies were discovered. 

            The narrator of the story, a newspaper reporter who is himself the father of a Braeside student, is sent to cover the case, putting him, in an additional coincidence, in contact with the head of the murder investigation, Lieutenant Timothy Trant, an old Princeton classmate whose name is “synonymous with homicide.”  The great Trant, however, reports that for once even he is stymied.  “It’s all very well for you,” he gloomily tells the reporter, summoning the sinister shades of pulp fiction: “You journalists can spin out yarns on vampires, murderous balloons, flying saucers, little men, unknown poisons, impossible maladies—anything your readers will swallow.”  He, however, has to deal in rational facts. 

            These, such as they are, come to Trant courtesy of an eccentric, Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor Edgar Saltus, who, in yet another coincidence (they evidently come in threes), happens to be the uncle of the narrator.  Invoking the name of Charles Fort, the famed researcher into anomalous phenomena, Saltus points out to Trant that over recorded history around the world there has been a cyclical series of sudden, localized, unexplained mass deaths among children, their strange demises all resembling that of the Greiser girls.  Saltus has an explanation for the whole ghastly parade of death, but it seems utterly fantastic.  Only the dramatic finale reveals the truth, as Professor Saltus alludes to King Claudius’ memorable lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions!”
            In the Forties and Fifties sorrows certainly came in battalions for Rickie Webb, as he lost his health, his looks, his writing career and his longtime companion Hugh Wheeler, the love of his life.  Many of Rickie and Hugh’s stories in Hunt in the Dark and Other Fatal Pursuits capture some of the darkness Rickie often felt in his own heart, never more bleakly than in “This Way Out,” when the narrator observes, “During the evening there had been moments of wild racing hope. Moments when he thought he was on top and could thumb his nose at doom.  They hadn’t been real of course….He’d been licked from the start.”  Much of Golden Age detective fiction, in which death so often is nothing more (or less) than an amusing diversion, recalls lines from another great Shakespeare play, King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport.”  In some of the finest examples of the crime fiction of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler, however, murder is no frolic.