Friday, June 18, 2021

The Detective Waxed His 'Stache: Some Sidelights on the Fascinating Family of Phoebe Atwood Taylor

My title, you may have guessed, is indebted to the title of a Peter Lovesey novel.  Do you know which one?

As I have written about here in the past, regional New England crime writer Phoebe Atwood Taylor [aka PAT] was the deepest-dyed of Yankees, her ancestry on her mother's paternal side (the Atwoods) and paternal side (the Freemans) respectively going back ten and eleven generations in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  (Her father's side of the family, the Taylors, was composed of comparative upstarts, going back merely eight generations in Cape Cod.) 

Indeed, Freeman married a granddaughter of Mayflower passenger William Brewster, making PAT a Mayflower descendant, like, I as surprised to learn, some 35 million other people around the world.  That's actually a lot of people, considering they are all descended from a pool of only 22 passengers Mayflower, which anchored off the tip of Cape Cod over 400 hundred years ago on November 11, 1620.  

1932 map of Cape Cod--the town of Wellfleet is the pink section in the middle of the tip,
Orleans the yellow section below it

For generations the Atwoods stayed put in the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, which is mentioned over and over in PAT's books.  Wellfleet's population in 1930, a year before PAT published her first Cape Cod detective novel, was only 826, the town having declined steadily with the demise of the whaling industry from its recorded high of 2411 in 1850. 

However, things picked up again after World War Two and by 2010, Wellfleet had made it up to a new high of 2750.  In her books PAT captures this Depression era sense of decline, as well as the area's growing dependence on the nascent tourist industry from Boston and others parts, as Americans became increasingly interested in the country's "quaint" colonial past.  

Thomas Atwood house on Bound Brook Island on the west side of Wellfleet, centerpiece
of the Atwood-Higgins historic district. (Historical American Buildings Survey, 1930s)
Originally erected as a half-house by Thomas Higgins in 1730, the expanded cottage was
purchased in 1805 by Thomas Atwood, a fourth cousin once removed of PAT's grandfather
Ebenezer Atwood.  After many years of no vacancy, the house was purchased in 1919 by 
George Higgins, a relation of the original owner, who restored it and added a number
of outbuildings to give it the feel of a living farmstead.  After Bound Brook Island Road
was improved, connecting the island to the mainland, the site became more accessible.
 (To me this recalls the house in PAT's 1935 novel The Crimson Patch.) 
Altogether, the district represents the original story-and-a-half Cape Cod cottage
architecture as well as 20th century restoration efforts. (See National Park Service.)
All too prosaically, however, PAT's maternal grandfather, Ebenezer Tilton Atwood (1835-1900), had moved with his wife, Clara Maria Freeman (1842-1911) and two daughters, Josephine and Alice Tilton (a son, Freeman Dana, had died as a child), to the Eagle Hill neighborhood of East Boston by 1900, the year of his death, where he was employed as a salesman of plumbing supplies.  (No wonder there's a plumber character in PAT's detective novel Octagon House!)  That year the Atwood family also took in a boarder, a young bookkeeper from Wellfleet.  

PAT's second cousin
Richard Rich Freeman III, who died
in the sinking of Lusitania in 1915. 
This was the passport photo
which he took for the fatal trip.

Clara's marriage to Ebenezer must have been a love match, one gathers, for Clara was one of thirteen children of Captain Richard Rich Freeman (yes, "Richie Rich"), who "from his early years followed the sea" to great success, becoming President of the Boston and Provincetown Steamship Company, President of the Wellfleet Savings Bank and and a Director of the Wellfleet Marine Insurance Company.  His youngest son, Clara's youngest brother, Richard Rich II, was a prominent Boston shipping broker and said to be one of the best golfers in the state.  His only son, Clara's nephew and PAT's second cousin from this line, was Richard Rich III, a Harvard educated mining engineer.  He stood 5'11" with spectacles, a chiseled face, cleft chin, blue-gray eyes, crinkly auburn hair and a long straight nose, in contrast to PAT's pug one, which she inherited from her father. 

In 1915, when PAT was six, he embarked on an ocean liner to Russia, having taken a mining job there.  Unfortunately the ocean liner he embarked upon was RMS Lusitania.  The moving story of the 28-year-old's death is told here and here.  His body was never recovered.  

As with so many Cape Codders, the livelihoods of many of PAT's relatives were derived from the ocean waters, which sustained life as well as claimed them.  As a young man Clara's husband Ebenezer had been a sailor on the whaler Hector, so perhaps it was there that he learned about plugging leaks, as it were.  He himself a son of Simeon Atwood (1792-1863), owner of a stove and hardware store in Wellfleet, which much more recently was the cite of The Juice restaurant.  

former Wellfleet store owned by PAT's maternal great-grandfather, Simeon Atwood

After Ebenezer's death, his and Clara's daughter Josephine married Dr. John Danforth Taylor, a 1900 graduate from Harvard medical school, and they moved a three minutes walk away from the rather boxy and dull Atwood family home at 126 Princeton Street to an attractive frame Italianate house with bay windows and a mansard roof at 31 Princeton Street.  Josephine's elder sister Alice remained at home with her mother Clara, until Clara's death in 1911.  Alice herself stayed at this home for two decades after the death of her mother, living there alone with a series of maids, until PAT herself moved in.  

former Taylor residence in east Boston (red painted house)
--no black lives matter signs back in those days!

PAT had graduated from Barnard College in 1930 at the age of 21 and probably soon thereafter moved in with with her Aunt Alice, with whom she would stay with until the elder woman's death in 1942.  PAT obviously must have had great affection for her, naming her most famous pseudonym, Alice Tilton, after her aunt.  (Her other, minor, pseudonym, Freeman Dana, under which she produced a single mystery, was drawn from her uncle of that name, who had died as a child long before PAT was born.) 

Still it seems unusual for a young college graduate to want almost immediately on graduation to move in with her spinster aunt and remain with her for a dozen years, unless she literally has to as a sort of paid companion (a situation that certainly arises in classic mysteries).  Clearly PAT had more in mind for her life than that. 

Next to her Barnard College yearbook photo is the quotation, drawn from a translation of German poet Heinrich Heine, "I crave an ampler, worthier sphere."  From her own interview comments, PAT had been bored at college, yet she obviously had intense ambition to be something out of the ordinary.  She was known to her classmates as "a bland, imperturbable young woman with a Boston accent, an inquisitive pug nose, and a mind like a two-edged sword."  In fiction writing she found a creative outlet for her brilliant, effervescent mind.  

PAT at Barnard age 20 or 21

Jeffrey Marks has written that PAT returned to Cape Cod, to "Weston, Massachusetts" to care for her "invalid aunt," this being Alice Tilton Atwood, so perhaps her aunt stood in special need of a companion, and this made a convenient arrangement for PAT, the younger woman getting lodging from her aunt where she could write.  (Incidentally, there is a Weston, Massachusetts, but as the name suggests it's west of Boston, not in Cape Cod, so perhaps Marks meant Wellfleet; yet Ebenezer and Clara Atwood had left Wellfleet decades before and as far as I can tell PAT never resided at Cape Cod, contrary to what Marks writes, unless one counts her summering with her parents at Nauset Beach near Orleans, her father's native town.)

In a newspaper piece PAT joked that she was a comprehensive failure in a short succession of jobs after graduating from Barnard, so that helps explain why she did not live on her own when she started writing her first novel in 1930.  But could she not have moved in with her own parents?  She certainly would not have been the first, or last, college graduate to do that.  What was going on down the street in the Taylor household at this time?

Quite a lot of upheaval, actually!  In March 1929, when PAT was still attending Barnard, her mother Josephine died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage during a Unitarian Church supper in Boston, when she was only 52.  (Josephine was a committed member of both the Unitarian Church and the Daughters of the American Revolution.)  Dr. Taylor, PAT's highly opinionated, rationalistic father, who regularly aired his secularist, progressive opinions in letters and journal articles, was left a widower at age 53.  

PAT's father, whom I think she favored,
as we say in the South

Less than a year later, however, Dr. Taylor remarried, to a woman nearly two decades younger than he memorably named Hazel Aurelia Schmeltz, who hailed from Detroit, Michigan.  I have no idea how this marriage came about, but could PAT have taken a dim view of suddenly acquiring a strange new stepmother, only fourteen years older than she, so soon after he mother's sudden death?  Hazel herself was a former dental assistant and a  divorcee, having divorced her first husband in Michigan less than three years earlier, after a marriage of less than a year's duration.  Interestingly, Hazel's own father Henry P. Schmeltz, a Detroit police lieutenant, had himself divorced, back in 1909, the year of PAT's birth.  

It was a divorce that was messy enough--and quirky enough--to make Detroit newspaper headlines:

Wax on Schmeltz Mustache Helps to Chill Wife's Love; Gun Play Freezes It

Is that your nightstick or are you just 
happy to see me? According to his wife
Patrolman Schmeltz was a player.

Wax applied to the moustache of Patrolman Henry P. Schmeltz was among the primary causes of a decree of divorce granted to his wife, Anna, by Judge Hosmer yesterday.  The decree was granted on Mrs. Schmeltz's cross-bill.

Schmeltz began the suit, declaring that his wife was inordinately jealous and had accused him of personal adornment to make himself more agreeable to other members of the fair sex.

Mrs. Schmeltz in her cross-bill alleged she had reason enough to be jealous, and that her husband spent not only time and money on other women, but that, when she objected, he had threatened to shoot her and once shot through the leg of the table.  Judge Hosmer decided that she was entitled to a decree on the ground of extreme cruelty.

This could have come out of one of PAT's novels, except for its being in Detroit, Michigan.  Could this be one reason cops always seem like a dimwits in her books, or did Hazel not volunteer this information about her family to her new stepdaughter? 

In any event, Dr. Taylor and his new bride soon were taking cruises together, to Europe and to Hawaii, and one can see how PAT might have felt out of his place in this situation.  After World War Two, Dr. Taylor moved with Hazel across the country to San Diego, California, where she died in 1961 and he died three years later at the age of 87.  They are buried next to each other in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Dr. Taylor having served as a major in the Medical Corps Reserve in both World Wars.  A cenotaph was erected for the doctor at the Taylor family plot in Orleans at Cape Cod.

Tudor-style home in Newton, MA purchased by PAT, probably not long before she began 
writing her first Alice Tilton mystery set in fictional Dalton, MA.  The pen name was derived from
 the maternal aunt with whom she lived, Alice Tilton Atwood.

Josephine Taylor has a cenotaph in her name in Orleans as well, though she was buried with her family at Wellfleet, as was PAT after she died at the age of 66 in 1976.  Was there acrimony within the Taylor family?  Dr. Taylor and Josephine are only together in the sense that their cenotaphs, presumably erected by PAT, are side by side.  Their actual remains lie on different coasts, separated by a continent.  

tombstone for sisters Josephine and 
Alice Tilton Atwood, PAT's mother and
aunt, at Oak Dale cemetery at Wellfleet
As for PAT and her "invalid Aunt," the duo sometime in the 1930s moved together, presumably on the strength of PAT's royalties, from East Boston to the neighborhood of the Highlands in the town of Newton, Massachusetts, a few miles west of Boston (and not far from Weston), where they resided at an attractive Tudor-style house of about 2100 squared feet and built in 1926.  (Today the house, which had been heavily modernized on the interior, is valued at nearly a million dollars.)

In 1940 PAT was listed as the head of the household, which included as boarders a married couple, a childless middle-aged salesman and his wife.  Jeffrey Marks writes that the town of Dalton in the Alice Tilton mysteries ("Dalton" was another family name) was based on Newton, where, he notes, "Taylor spent a great deal of time."  

PAT actually lived in Newton for years (possibly as long as two decades), so she must have spent a great deal time of there, yes.  I'm guessing she moved to Newton not long before she commenced the Alice Tilton series, set in "Dalton," in 1937.

Coming soon: More on PAT's background and the origin of "Asey Mayo."

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Clue of the Ambergris: Octagon House (1937), Phoebe Atwood Taylor

"Marina used to brag that she lived in an eight-sided house, with an eight-sided barn....It never mattered then if some other child said that her father made more money than our father.  Marina would just curl her lip and say that they didn't live in an eight-sided house....There was something final about that."

Octagon House (1937), by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Rodney J. Baxter house (1850), Barnstable, Cape Cod, MA
Photo by Magicpiano

If one judges the appeal of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Cape Cod mysteries from the Thirties and Forties, when all but one of them were published, by their local color and general air of folksy Americana, Octagon House must surely be deemed one of the author's most successful books.  The novel is chock-a-block with the stuff.  

First, we have the titular octagon house itself, part of the octagon building craze in the late antebellum era inspired by American reformer Orson Squire Fowler's 1848 book, A Home for All; or, The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building.  The largest number of the octagon houses listed in the National Register are located in New York and New England, including one in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable, which in 1940 had a population of a little over 8000 people.  This domicile, the Captain Rodney J. Baxter home, which comes complete with an octagonal "carriage barn" on the grounds, might very well have served as the inspiration for the fictional octagon house in Taylor's novel.  

octagonal carriage barn on grounds of Rodney J. Baxter house
Photo by Magicpiano

Then there is the newly unveiled post office mural, which inflames the citizens of the fictional town of Quanomet, where the novel is set, with its myriad insulting caricatures of actual citizens.  This reflects real life art created in the era of the New Deal, when the U. S. Department of the Treasury commissioned thousands of such pieces throughout the United States.  Most of the art I have seen from them is strikingly beautiful and surely noncontroversial, but what good would that be to Phoebe Atwood Taylor's [henceforth PAT] impish criminal imagination?  (To be sure, a lot of federally funded art projects in those days, as in these, got condemned as leftist propaganda.)  

Below are post office murals in from East Wareham, Massachusetts and Southington, Connecticut.  The second one looks pretty anodyne, with its Norman Rockwell-ish portrayal of a farm, a mill and a church, but maybe the portrayal of freedom of the press--I assume that's what it is--in the first one bothered some people.  It probably would today!  (Note also the gratuitously shirtless male hunk.)

Finally, we have the one hundred pound lump of ambergris which washed up on shore and is estimated to be worth about $50,000--or, in modern value, close to a million dollars.  As someone wrote in the front endpapers of my copy of Octagon House, ambergris is a gray fragrant substance, found on the seashore, from a spermacete [sic] whale, used as a perfume base, very rare and valuable, worth $35 an ounce

This would be about $450 a pound, so you can tell this was a long time ago as the stuff is worth even more today!  Today news stories occasionally pop up about about million dollar finds of ambergris--waste byproduct from the sperm whale's intestinal tract--made by lucky people at seaside locales around the world.  

ambergris (aka whale poop) on the beach

What a trove of colorful circumstance there is, then, in this novel.  Let's dig into the characters.  First, there's Pam Frye, pretty, twenty-three-year-old chatelaine of the "old eight-sided Sparrow place," aka the much decayed Octagon House.  She and  her father, Aaron Frye, have to take in paying guests, the most recent of whom are Timothy Carr, a prep school teacher from Boston, and his grandmother, owner of a cat named after anarchist political activist Emma Goldman.  (The cat is a "red Persian" that hates cops, you see.)  

Speaking of which, I note this comment from Tim Carr, as an indicator of social views of the police in those days: "This is my first actual contact with the police, you know, and it amazes me to find that they think the way they do in movies and books.  I suppose it's like stupidity in housemaids.  If they had brains they wouldn't be housemaids.  Or police."  

You often find, in Golden Age mysteries, people of "good" social standing taking a rather condescending, even contemptuous, attitude to the police, and this would certainly be an example of it!  (And poor housemaids never catch a break, do they?)  To be fair, cops in Taylor's books often remind me of the Keystone variety, so Tim Carr may not be too off here, in his own fictive world.  

Moving on, we also have Pam's wicked sister, the glamorous model known as Marina Lorne (formerly Mary Hosannah Frye).  She's married to Jack Lorne, the painter of the infamous Quanomet mural, and they live near Octagon House.  Marina also pals around with local playboy and all round bad egg (like Marina herself) Roddy Strutt. 

Then there's nosy village gossip Nettie Hobbs, the "pickle lime lady," who runs the Women's Exchange and has set her cap at widower Aaron Frye.  Oh that's right, pickled limes, that was another New England thing (they are mentioned in Little Women), although I think by 1937 they were not the rage they once had been.  

We also have Pam's friend Peggy Boone, a commercial artist, and then there's volatile selectman and plumber Earl Jennings, who keeps popping up in conversations.  Oh, and the local Republican congressman, a slick pol by the name of Elliott, who was responsible for getting that post office mural the town despises and is now trying to figure out how to get rid of it.

It's wicked Marina who gets murdered, with Pam's own knife, after she and Pam carry that aforementioned one hundred pound lump of ambergris from the beach back to the garage at Octagon House, bickering all the way over the matter of its ownership.  Pam is the number one suspect of the police, so she takes flight; and then it's up to folksy series detective Asey Mayo to save the day.  Which he does, of course.

map on back of first pb
American edition, showing
the house and the carriage barn

Octagon House was actually the first PAT novel I ever read and I have to admit I got exasperated with it after an unknown dubbed by everyone, fairly enough I suppose, the Biffer, successively bashes on the head Asey, Tim Carr, two cops and Aaron Frye, and not one person among them has even a mild concussion afterward.  This beats hard-boiled mysteries!  That same year, 1937, PAT would debut her blatantly slapstick Alice Tilton series, where these "biffings" are routine. It starts to feel like a Punch and Judy show.

Yet while all the biffings and bashings in these books get a little old for me, I find on rereading the book, now that I have become more acclimated to PAT's oddball mysteries, that there was a lot I liked in Octagon House.  For PAT the mystery is pretty straightforward.  I mean, there's complication of incident, but overall the plot isn't too convoluted.  

Further, there are one or two quite good clues and overall I would say this is probably the best of PAT's Asey Mayos which I have read so far.  

Of course it doesn't hurt that I love octagon houses and can well recall touring Alabama's lone surviving contribution to the craze three decades ago, in the small "wiregrass" town of Clayton.  It inspired a mystery too!  But that's another story, I reckon.  

first (only?) English edition with
superb jacket art by Alex Jardine

Humorous Bit: After Congressman Elliott and Asey call on local millionaire Carveth Strutt, Rodney's craven uncle, they are left cooling their heels at the mansion, surrounded by plates of hors-d'oeuvres.  Asey sardonically observes:

I never see 'em...that I don't think of the time that I took Jennie an' Syl [his cousin and his cousin's wife] to a birthday party of Bill Porter's.  Jennie, she had a fine time, but I knew somethin' was worryin' her, an' when she got home, I asked her what it was.  'Twas about the hors d-oeuvres.  She kept worryin' if the hired help had to make those things every day, just on the chance of comp'ny droppin' in, or if they was somethin' special. She knocked the Ladies' Aid cold, at the next meetin', with her versions."

Racist Bit: At the Strutt mansion there are two "slightly repulsive" native Filipino servants, one with a squint and the other with a cauliflower ear, who patrol the grounds and warn off Asey, who responds by humming the "old Filipino song of insurrection days," written after President William H. Taft referred to to Filipinos as our "brothers": "Oh, he may be a brother of William H. Taft, but he ain't no brother of mine."  

Later we learn that Asey was a veteran of the bloody Philippine-American War and the Moro Rebellion, which successively lasted from 1899 to 1913, not to mention the Boxer Rebellion in China.  So I suppose we shouldn't be surprised at his chauvinistic views.

Octagon House, Clayton, AL

plan to ground floor

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Sheila, Take a (Partial) Bow: Sheila Radley's Death and the Maiden (1978) and The Chief Inspector's Daughter (1981)

The 1970s were a transition period in classic crime fiction, with the Golden Age generation of mystery writers dying off by the year seemingly, yet with no new constellation of replacements firmly affixed in the sky, no new pantheon unshakably established on the bloodstained heights of the criminal Mount Olympus.  By the end of the 1980s all the Golden Agers had breathed their last, as far as I'm aware, and a consensus had arisen that there were two new British "Crime Queens," roughly comparable to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, these being Ruth Rendell and PD James; and that there were other notable figures, mere men these, like Peter Lovesey, Robert Barnard and Reginald Hill.  Then there were additional individuals who arose for a time, getting acclaim as new PD Jameses and Ruth Rendells, if they were women, but then somewhat faded over the long haul.  

One of these women crime writers was Sheila Radley, who for a few years looked like a real up and comer, heralded not only by newspaper reviewers but by persnickety traditionalist Jacques Barzun.  Radley published nine Inspector Douglas Quantrill detective novels between 1978 and 1994, six of them in the Eighties, when her reputation stood highest.  Her last Inspector Quantrill mystery was not even published in the U. S. however, despite the fact that almost all of her earlier novels not only had been published there but reprinted in paperback as well.  

Four of Radley's novels are currently in print with Felony & Mayhem, yet I had to look long and hard to find much at all about about the author on the internet, including the not incidental fact that she passed away in 2017, at the age of of 88.  Even Felony & Mayhem's webpage on Radley does not have this highly pertinent information!  Nor did I find any obituary on the author, who seems to have been rather publicity shy.

From literary agency Curtis, Brown, however, we find that Radley's real name was Sheila Mary Robinson and that she also wrote a trio of romantic novels (before she commenced writing mysteries) under the name Hester Rowan.  Born in 1928, she served in the Women's Royal Air Force from 1951 to to 1960 before "settling down" in a Norfolk village as a storeowner and assistant postmistress.  The Pan Macmillan South Africa webpage on Radley provides some additional detail:

Sheila Radley is the pseudonym of Sheila Robinson, who was born and brought up in rural Northamptonshire, one of the fortunate means-tested generation whose further education was free.  She went from her village school via high school to London University, where she read history.  She served for nine years as an education officer in the Women's Royal Air Force, then worked variously as a teacher, a clerk in a shoe factory, a civil servant and in advertising.  In the 1960s she opted out of conventional work and joined her partner in running a Norfolk village store and post office, where she began writing fiction in her spare time.

I found that the the Northamptonshire village where Radley was born and grew up in the Thirties and Forties was Cogenhoe (population about 1500 today), where her father, Wallace Robinson, was a postman.  Through her father and her mother, Mabel, who died when Radley was twenty, Radley was descended from generations of agricultural laborers and, on the female side, lace makers, including her maternal great-grandmother, the memorably named Comfort Dawkes Labrum (?) (1834-1911).  (For more on the interesting subject of Northamptonshire lace making, see here.)  Radley apparently never married (I'm guessing her Sixties partner was a woman), but her only sibling, an elder sister, did, after the war, in 1946.  You can certainly see how Radley's personal background comes out in her writing.  

From Felony & Mayhem we learn that Radley in her words thought "the really interesting thing" in mysteries was "not whodunit, but why," which is fine, but it certainly is not the ethos of Jacques Barzun, who put detection of the culprit above all else in a mystery.  Yet Barzun highly praised several of Radley's detective novels, particularly her first, about which he wrote:

Here is a new voice, unmistakable, and if she keeps up the good work, she can quickly take her place among the great women masters of the genre [Query: Why not just "the masters"?--TPT].  She rivals P. D. James for combined strength and delicacy of touch, and she is as adept as Sayers or Marsh in constructing and conducting a plot.  Humor of the best English kind, that is, arising from social perception, is present throughout, and altogether the books is a delight.  [The motive is peculiar but] it is by no means outré or incredible--and the romance is very fine.

Wow!  Most authors would kill, so to speak, for that king of praise.  JB also liked her second and fourth detective novels, although he criticized her third for having unpardonably diffused interest between detection and character study--"this is hardly a detective story," he complains--and he hated her sixth.  All in all, however, a pretty good track record with JB for a modern mystery writer.  

I bought Radley's first two detective novels back in the 1990s in pb at a used bookstore, but only recently got around to reading them--a lag of over two decades!  I think that, applying Barzun's own standard of detection above all else, he was a bit generous to Radley.  Applying my own more hybrid standard, however, I think her first novel is quite good, and the second not so much.

Death and the Maiden is one of several mysteries, the first of which I believe is Q. Patrick's Death and the Maiden (1939), which use that title, made famous by the 1824 Franz Schubert string quartet of the same title, which in turn drew on Schubert's own 1817 lied of the same title, which had been inspired by Matthias Claudius' poem of the same title.  The image of death coming for the beautiful young maiden is a very powerful one.  Gladys Mitchell also used the title for a 1947 detective novel.  

humpbacked bridge at Cogenhoe

In Radley's take on the theme, Mary Gedge, a promising young middle class village girl, Cambridge bound, is discovered dead below a humpbacked bridge, drowned in a stream, Ophelia-like, with wildflowers strewn around her.  Suspects are found among her family and friends, as well as the teachers at her school.  Investigating the case are Chief Inspector Douglas Quantrill and his new smart, young, cocky and conceited sergeant--he's been college educated, don't you know--Martin Tait.  (By the by, have you ever noticed how often the name "Martin" occurs in English mysteries--so much more so than in American ones.)

Perhaps what struck me most of all about Radley's Death and the Maiden is how old-fashioned it seems here in 2021, over four decades after its publication, despite the fact that it's technically a "modern" mystery.  Yet, after all temporally 1978 was much closer to 1958 than it is today, and it rather shows, despite being published in the "Swinging Seventies."  It's a reminder that despite the much heralded changes that were impacting modern society, things moved much more slowly in many parts of the world.

Women in the police force are almost a non-factor, being "policewomen" who are called in to do particularly "feminine" tasks, like breaking bad news of loved ones' deaths to relatives and figuring out what to do with squalling children.  Wives are mostly strictly homemakers, career women are mostly single.  Everyone is white and, seemingly, straight.  

Douglas Quantrill and his handsome, college educated sergeant replicate police pairings that were novel in the 1930s, when John Rhode and Freeman Crofts started them, but already routine by the 1950s.  Which isn't to say that Radley doesn't limn the pair nicely.  Both men are immediately memorable--Quantrill with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his lack of education, Martin very much the ambitious young upstart.  Admittedly, one of the memorable qualities about Quantrill, whose boredom and unhappiness with his home life--particularly his wife, whom he married young--has itself become a cliché today: the glum police inspector dissatisfied with his personal life.  But it was a lot fresher back in 1978, when there weren't necessarily Dalglieshes by the dozen.

yes, he did

Early in the novel there's an amusing scene with Sergeant Tait and bucolic Constable Godbold, who started his professional life as a village bobby riding a bicycle, but now complains that he covers the district in a police van and consequently knows the local people far less well.  When Tait hears this his response is one of utter bemusement:

He turned in his seat and looked at Godbold with interest, as though the constable were the sole survivor of a dead civilization.  "Did you really ride round on a bicycle?" he asked.  

I liked Godbold.  I was half hoping he would come upon a crime scene demanding, "Now then, what's all this?"  But, alas, no.  

Death and the Maiden is set in the Breckland country of Suffolk (not far from Christopher Bush Norfolk country), around the communities of Ashthorpe and Breckham Market.  The various locales, especially the buildings, are minutely described, providing a real sense of rural place which reminded my of the later novels of John Rhode/Miles Burton.  While the point-of-view remains firmly that of the investigating men, Quantrill and Tait, there is one superbly rendered woman character in the form of middle-aged school administrator Jean Bloomfield. I couldn't help suspecting there were some strong autobiographical elements in this character from Radley herself, who was fifty years old when her first detective novel was published. (Read the book for yourself, if you haven't, and see what you think.)  

For Father's Day: Women with Daddy Issues!

Radley gives this character real nuance, though she is much more heavy-handed with the lamentable, lower-class Pulfers, mother and daughter, who in the novel Gone with the Wind would have been called "po' white trash."  It seems the lushly sluttish  Pulfer daughter, Julie, inveigled Derek Gedge, Mary's brother, into marriage by claiming (falsely) that he was the father of her child.  In the chapter in which she appears we are damningly told that trampy Julie is clearly not wearing a bra--oh, mercy, get me my fainting couch--and she thumbs through no less than three trashy magazines like True Confessions.  

Because of the Pulfers, Derek has been forced to give up his own shot at Cambridge and work at a chicken processing plant, which Radley describes a mite too graphically for my taste.  (In short, blech!)  Actually, I could never understand why Derek, a grocer's son, had to work in a chicken processing plant in the first place, even if he was dumb enough to give up attending Cambridge; but I have to guess that Radley was vegan.

Where I'm surprised Barzun valued this novel so highly is that it's the very strength of the detective story as a novel that somewhat mars it as a puzzle.  There are some good physical clues, but it's the psychological clues that made me virtually certain who the murderer was pretty early in the story.  This is the kind of thing detection purists of the Golden Age like S. S. Van Dine used to warn about in their rules for the form.  The moving ending is so psychologically apposite that no other finish would have worked artistically, which is great in a novel, but not necessarily so in a Golden Age style mystery, where death is a contest of wits between the reader and the author, or so the theory goes.

This aside, however, I liked Death and the Maiden much better than The Chief Inspector's Daughter, which appeared after a lag of three years.  Here's there's a more ostensibly sophisticated milieu, the story being about the murder of a woman romance novelist.  (Quantrill's younger daughter Allison is the murder victim's secretary and finds her body.)  But all the stuff about "women's lib" seemed dated in a bad way and the big surprise, which wasn't as original in 1981 as the author seemed to think (and certainly isn't today), I could see coming a mile off.  In fact, 60% of the way through the book I turned to the end to see if I was right and I was.  Here I didn't find that the characters offered adequate compensation for the predictable plot, the literary stuff falling surprisingly flat, aside from the depiction of a washed-up, middle-aged "Angry Young Man" playwright who lives with his mother, which I found quite interesting.

How conservative was Radley, anyway, I wonder?  In the book there is a "hippie-type" character who smokes pot and everyone in the police refers to him highly condemnatorily as a "druggie," which seemed a bit hysterical to me--and in 1981 I was living in Alabama, where we had more pot smokers than hippies, actually.  Heck, in the 1978 film Foul Play, the hip police detective played by Chevy Chase smoked pot.  Of course this was in San Francisco.

Also the way Quantrill and Tait treat the gay antiques dealer (go figure) is really repulsive, like something out of Ngaio Marsh, c. 1936.  Actually on this one Tait, who generally seems meant to be the less sympathetic character of the two, is slightly more sympathetic than Quantrill, who thinks with "distaste," as he observes the antique dealer talking with his obvious boyfriend, that "he knew a couple of queers when he saw them."  Oh, you're ever so keen, aren't you, Dougie, my dear boy!

Of course one could argue that Radley--who I have a notion may have been a lesbian herself, though the same has been suggested of Ngaio Marsh, who never once in her long writing life, in my recollection, portrayed a queer person remotely positively--was simply showing up rural English police for what they were.  Still, many of her contemporaries managed more nuanced treatments than this.  And it's a problem when it's the identifying sleuth who thinks this way, or at least I find it so.  Maybe Quantrill improves over the series.  I hate to imagine what his reaction might have been after he perceptively "spotted" the sexuality of antiques dealer Ian Towning! (See YouTube clip below.)

Anyway, I'm encouraged enough to stick with the series.  I'm intrigued by the third one, A Talent for Destruction (1982), which sounds like a (much shorter) Barbara Vine novel and greatly disappointed Jacques Barzun.  I've come to think that's not necessarily a bad thing!