Wednesday, February 23, 2022

O Rose, thou art sick: Patricia Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness (1960)

One of the weird Patricia Highsmith stories you will read about her  (besides the snail smuggling one or the one about how she drove sixty miles to purchase cheaper spaghetti) is how, when she briefly worked in the toy department at Bloomingdale's in the late 1940s, she became by her account instantly infatuated with a beautiful blonde woman customer who stopped there to buy a doll for her daughter.  Highsmith looked up the woman's address and finding that it belonged to an affluent suburban New Jersey neighborhood went out there, where she stared at the woman's house, waiting for...what, exactly? This incident has led people to dub Highsmith a creepy spy and stalker, since she was, after all, stalking and spying upon the unsuspecting woman.  

This queer encounter served as the immediate wellspring to Highsmith's celebrated lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (Carol), which the author published originally under a pseudonym in 1952, as anyone who has read the novel or seen the 2014 film based upon it would instantly recognize.  Carol itself is not a crime novel but a love story, yet instances of spying and stalking crop up repeatedly in Highsmith's crime novels.  These spiers and stalkers are men, with whom Patricia Highsmith routinely identified in her fiction and her life, even though she was intensely attracted to, and had numerous transient relationships with, women.  

a rose for Annabelle
the worm of reality eats away at
an "innocent" obsession

Men like David Kelsey in The Sweet Sickness, for instance, who cannot let go of his former girlfriend, Annabelle, who married another man while he, unbeknownst to her, had taken another job to make more money in order to marry her.  

David simply refuses to accept the notion that a little thing like Annabelle's marriage should stand in their way.  He writes her letters, even calls her, pestering her to divorce her husband, Gerald, and marry him.  Even after he learns that Annabelle has given birth to Gerald's son, that still doesn't stop him.  

David is a research chemist for a fabrics company in "Froudsburg," New York.  Presumably the name is drawn from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, located in the Pocono Mountains about sixty miles north of New Hope, Pennsylvania, where Highsmith lived at the time with author Marijane Meaker.

At Froudsburg David resides at a boarding house during the weekdays, but he spends his weekends at a house in another locale which he purchased  under the name William Neumeister, aka "New Master" in a bit of Nietzschean symbolism.  As Bill Neumeister, David lives out a dream fantasy at the house with Annabelle as his wife, but he is determined to make this fantasy a reality.  It is this determination which drives the novel toward its tragical destination.

If you read about Highsmith's life it's easy enough to see how much the character David is based on herself.  Although Highsmith had numerous relationships with women, she was never able amicably to maintain one for more than a few years.  She loved fantasizing about romantic relationships with women, but reality never seemed to live up to those fantasies, at least not for long.  It's fascinating to see Highsmith with David Kelsey constructing this perverse, mentally disturbed character out of herself.

Aside from the fantasizing, the spying, the stalking, there's this sort of snobbery and elitism on David's part which appears to have been part of Highsmith's character as well, however misplaced.  One of Highsmith's contemporaries, Patricia Schartle (her American agent at the time, who fired Highsmith as a client after two decades, when she was also the American agent of bestselling suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark), recalled to Highsmith's first published biographer, Andrew Wilson, the "loneliness" in Highsmith, "a sadness in one so young."  She was:

Gauche to an extreme....she felt a deep distrust of everything.  She was totally secretive about her past....She tried to assume a superior European view...which was rather pathetic.  Highsmith had absolutely no grace--poor woman, she thought having an expresso machine made her sophisticated.

Make of this what you will (Schartle had a bad falling out with Highsmith), but the expresso machine comment in particular struck me because, sure enough, sophisticated David Kelsey has an expresso machine!  There's also a certain priggishness to David which people discerned as well in Highsmith, a quality seemingly incongruent with Highsmith's own promiscuity and sense that artists like herself were above conventional morality--except that we know there's a pronounced human tendency to live by a double standard, the one which one applies to oneself and the one which one applies to others.

Highsmith clearly understands that there is something deeply wrong with David, just as she worried about her own sanity and self-destructive behavior at times.  However, she seems clearly to sympathize with him and she gets readers to sympathize with him too (at least she did this reader).  

Highsmith paints a picture of a highly talented man, well-liked by the other boarding house residents, while his nemeses in the novel tend to be unappealing figures.  Of course Highsmith stacks the deck because for the most part we only ever see these people through David's eyes.  Over and over David describes Annabelle's husband Gerald as physically unappealing, for example, denigrating even his very masculinity ("That eunuch!  For him to have married Annabelle was a piece of grotesquery--like a hunchback in a fairy tale capturing a princess.")  As presented it indeed is hard to see what Annabelle ever saw in Gerald.  All Annabelle can ever say is she is married to him now and she has had his baby and that's that.  

It's actually rather hard to see, for that matter, quite the appeal of Annabelle, except that she's pretty.  David thinks and talks about her classical piano playing before her marriage and this book she wanted to write on composers, but Annabelle seems to have no interest in any of this anymore, ever since she married, speaking only of her domestic duties of child care and housekeeping.  Highsmith had contempt for women who allowed themselves, as she saw it, to be extinguished by marriage and childbearing, and that attitude is reflected in David's view that Annabelle is no longer living up to her potential and needs him to rescue her and make her whole.  In her baby he takes no interest whatever, failing even to remember whether the creature is a boy or girl.

Annabelle really comes off as a wet noodle, failing to break things off decisively with David.  She reminds me of those conflicted married women with whom Highsmith had affairs.  It's indicative of the gravity of David's delusion that he has elevated this rather dull and conventional vessel to the status of a rarefied fairy princess.  Highsmith might well be commenting on her own tendency to romanticize women in her fantasies.

Then there are David's "friends," Wes Carmichael and Effie Brennan.  Wes is a co-worker in a bad marriage with a compulsive housecleaning shrew named Laura (we never actually meet her, so have to rely on Wes and David for impressions of her), while Effie is a secretary who pathetically chases after David, who patently has no interest in her whatsoever.  

I actually found Effie the least appealing character of the many unappealing characters in this book.  Certainly David's view of Effie does her no favors, yet though her own actions she herself comes off as a spy and stalker, pursuing David, whom after but a short time she announces she's "in love" with, in that horrific passive-aggressive, masochistic fashion of so many women in mid-century novels.  Through her ill-advised invasiveness of David's space she triggers many of the novel's disasters.  If Effie is the only alternative woman this novel presents us, no wonder, we are tempted to think, that David pursues Annabelle, as wet as she is.

Contrast Annabelle and Effie with the elderly, nonsexual Mrs. Beecham, one of the residents at the boarding house, who functions as a sort of surrogate mother to the orphaned David.  In actuality she is sixty years older than David, so she is more a grandmother, recalling Highsmith's own maternal grandmother, Willie Mae Coates, who died, several years before Highsmith started writing This Sweet Sickness, at the age of eighty-eight, the same age as Mrs. Beecham in the novel.

After Highsmith's parents broke up (Highsmith later claimed she fantasized about murdering her stepfather, from whom she derived her surname), she lived for a time with her grandmother, who, it just so happens, ran a boarding house in Fort Worth.  Her relationship with her grandmother was much better than the one she experienced with her own mother, which can fairly be described as dysfunctional and ultimately disastrous.

Coincidences?  I think not.  In any event, David's relationship with kindly Mrs. Beecham is a lonely beacon of genuine human affection in this sad novel.  As an aside I might add that the boarding house setting, while unsentimentally presented, is cozy enough that it could have appeared in a classic detective novel.

love is like vertigo

As I type these words I find myself thinking, what is this piece even doing on this blog?  Because it feels like what I am describing is a straight novel.  There is crime in this book, serious crime, but it's accidental and almost incidental, in a way, to a sophisticated study in morbid psychology.  It's like Conrad Aiken's incisive 1934 short story about schizophrenia, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," except there's a body count.  

Highsmith followed Sickness a couple of years later with another, rather similar novel, The Cry of the Owl, and then she began drifting more and more way from straight crime fiction into the direction of mainstream lit, giving fits to her publishers, who had trouble placing her into one of their tidy, little boxes.  

Personally, I would say that the heart of Highsmith's true contribution to crime fiction comes from the Fifties, in such books as Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley (her two most famous novels), The Blunderer, Deep Water and even the generally poorly regarded A Game for the Living.  I noticed that influential crime fiction reviewer Anthony Boucher often seemed pretty apathetic to Highsmith's work, frequently complaining about its length. Here he is on Sickness, after admitting that it was "an impressive psychological study":

The book has the compulsion of truth; and probably only a professional reviewer in a heavy season would protest that she might have got the same results in something under 100,000 words.

By my estimate Sickness is only about 83,000 words (anyone have a better idea?), but obviously it felt like 100,000 to Boucher.  He has a point too.  Until its' last fifty or so pages, the 250-page book is a slow burn.  Is it even a "thriller"?  Arguably the "digressions" which make it a great character study undermine it as a crime thriller, but I wouldn't want to lose them.

It's Highsmith's willingness to go to the darker recesses of the heart and mind and not ever let much light in that makes her such an interesting writer and quite an exceptional figure for the genre in her day, especially among women.  There's been much talk lately about mid-century domestic suspense (some of the talk from me), but Highsmith stands apart from her sisters, both in not being very domestic and in being less confined by conventions of the day.  Even a contemporary lesbian crime writer like Ruth Fenisong doesn't bear much resemblance to Highsmith, whose writing was as unique as the author herself.

O Rose, thou art sick: This Sweet Sickness (1960), by Patricia Highsmith--Part One, The Attraction of Murder

Patricia Highsmithiana just rolls on and on, nearly thirty years after the author's death.  2021 was the centenary of the native Texan's birth and the year saw the publication of both another biography of her (the third) and, just mere months ago, a massive tome collecting many of the thoughts that she recorded in her diaries and notebooks.  Very few vintage twentieth-century crime writers--Christie, Sayers, Simenon, Chandler, Hammett among them--get the attention which Highsmith does.  

Does she deserve it?  You bet your blunt instrument!  She's one of the genre greats, even if a lot of people who read her, like some of the Simenon folks, turn up their noses at the thought of reading mysteries or even "crime fiction" in general.  Highsmith "transcended the genre," don't you know.  Well, actually she really did, but many of her works, long and short, still can legitimately be read as crime fiction.

I thought about posting a review of Highsmith's novel This Sweet Sickness for Valentine's Day, but then decided that's just too cruelly ironic, even for a crime fiction blog.  Highsmith's novel is a testament to how love--obsessive love--destroys.  

One thing the bios and, more recently, the author's diaries/notebooks have made clear is how much Highsmith as an author drew on her life--both real and fantasy--in her writing.  Like Cornell Woolrich, about whom I wrote over at Crimereads a few weeks ago--she wrote what she knew; and what she knew was, all too frequently, positively gloomy.  

I hate to agree with the proposition that you have to be a miserable person to write such work, but, it sure doesn't hurt.  Well, it hurts the author and the people around him/her, but it doesn't hurt their work, unless their personal misery finally undermines their ability to work, or even to go on living.  Work, according to one of Highsmith's friends (and she did have them), was her salvation; otherwise, this person avowed, the author would have ended up in a psycho ward or inebriates' home.  

Many fans of classic crime fiction, particularly of the cozier sort, can't stand Highsmith.  They find her so unpleasant.  They like reading about murders, just not the unpleasant ones.  I know the feeling, to be sure.  I have difficulty with Jim Thompson, for example.  I have no desire ever to read The Killer Inside Me again.  I'm kind of sorry I read it the first time.

Nevertheless, I have become rather catholic in my taste in murder.  I enjoy both Patricia Wentworth and Patricia Highsmith and I think both of them were great at what they did.

And let's be honest.  You don't have to be a Patricia Highsmith to have dark thoughts.  Okay, Highsmith's thoughts doubtlessly were darker than most, but she removed any doubt about the matter by setting them down.  If she were still around today, alive and tweeting, she doubtlessly would have been "canceled."

This is the woman who wrote in 1971, for example, when she was fifty years old:

One situation--maybe one alone--could drive me to murder: family life; togetherness. I'd strike a blow in anger, and kill, probably, a child aged two to eight.  Those over eight would take two blows to kill. 

Brrr!  Good thing she never had children.  But then I'm reminded of how John Street (aka John Rhode and Miles Burton) spent time in his backyard stabbing potatoes with razors in order to see whether Constance Kent could really have murdered her half-brother the way she said she did.  Indeed, Street spent a great deal of time thinking of creative ways to kill people.  Did he ever think about his insane first wife, who made his life a living hell for a time, when he was doing his murders?  

What motivated Gladys Mitchell, for that matter, to write a jolly mystery about a disjointed body in a butcher shop?  Why did she find that amusing?  What about the one she did with the head in the pot, which draws on the career of the Butcher of Hanover?  What is the deal with her and body parts?

Even mild-mannered Freeman Wills Crofts, the sweetest of men who would have given you the shirt off his back had you needed it, spent an inordinate amount of time ingeniously bumping people off in his fiction--though as a evangelically-minded Christian, he always piously made sure that we knew that those murders didn't pay in the end.  (Murderers make mistakes, don't you know--at least we sure hope so!)  

My point is that maybe classic mystery isn't as far removed from the world of noirists like Highsmith and Woolrich as we tend to think.  Keep that in mind in the next post when I look at the tormented Miss Highsmith and her Sweet Sickness.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Happy Valentine's Day!

Crime Writer Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996)

Crime Writer Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987)

If this were like high school and we were voting for best looking girl and boy among vintage crime writers, these would be my choices.  Dreamy! 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Mid-Century Gothic: The Silent Cousin (1962) by Elizabeth Fenwick

Elizabeth Fenwick has written four thrillers since her first, Poor Harriet, marked her as one of the most promising newcomers of 1958.  Her careful technique and her ability to arouse a sense of pity--rare enough among the run of thriller writers--are evident in all of them.  This, her latest, is well up to standard.  It is a family drama set in the American countryside.  Miss Fenwick takes her reader along quietly, with just hints and shadows of impending doom, and the macabre and unexpected climax hits all the harder for that.

--G.H., Sydney Morning Herald

The Silent Cousin, by Elizabeth Fenwick is a leisurely atmospheric tale of personalities, from the murderously warped to the seriously frustrated.  The scene, surprisingly, is the Hudson River Valley.  It seems like English countryside and the "goblin mansion" could have housed Charlotte Bronte.  Miss Fenwick is skillful in motivation as well as characterization and binds a fine spell.

--Vivian Mort, Chicago Tribune

Suspense gradually creeps in as Elizabeth Fenwick skillfully begins what at first appears to be an interesting and well-written [straight novel] about remnants of a family and their vast decaying estates.  While family relationships are somewhat complicated, what begins as simple interest gradually progresses to apprehension and then to breathless suspense which demands quite a bit of willpower not to skip ahead to end the anxiety.

--E.A.O., Sacramento Bee

the mansion at Yaddo, the famous artists' retreat,
surely the inspiration for the setting of The Silent Cousin

Elizabeth Fenwick
's The Silent Cousin was published during the mid-twentieth century (1962 in the U. K., 1966 in the U. S.), but it takes place on a grand Hudson Valley, New York estate constructed during the American Gilded Age--a grand setting for a tale which harks back to the Gothic tradition in mystery literature.  

There are at least four houses on the estate: the massive Long Acre, where no one actually lives; the Hall, where reside the remnants of the Onderdonk family; the farmhouse, home of the Onderdonk estate manager MacDonald and his family; and, lastly, a cottage which serves as the dwelling of an Onderdonk demi-relation, Professor Paul Potter, when he visits the estate in the summer, on vacation from his university post in Indiana. 

I greatly enjoyed this novel, but I will admit it needed a family tree, so here 'tis (I made it out in my copy at the heading of Chapter Five; starred characters are still alive--for the moment--when the novel opens):

Grandfather Onderdonk, who built Long Acre in the 1890s and with his wife Millicent I, had three children:

Millicent 2, the second wife of Paul Potter's father and the stepmother to

*Paul "Polly" Potter (36), who married *Vinnie, from whom he is estranged when the novel begins, and produced a daughter

*Cressa (8), who comes to visit him at the Estate

*Humphrey Onderdonk who married *Cora and had two daughters, both of whom are unmarried

*Millicent 3, aka Millie (40)

*Louisa (38)

John who moved to Chicago and by *one of his several successive wives fathered a *daughter who married a man named Watson and with him produced 

*John Onderdonk Watson (22), who comes to visit the Estate

Estate manager *MacDonald who took a wife and with her produced 

*Jenny, who married *Pete

When the novel opens Paul is staying at the cottage expecting the imminent arrival of his daughter Cressa for a visit.  He learns of the sudden demise of Mrs. MacDonald, a death which was unexpected, though the woman had been ailing.  

Soon another character is found dead in the fishpond (there's a classic death for you) and we are off to the murder races! 

I don't know that I would call The Silent Cousin leisurely, as it, like Fenwick's other crime novels, is quite short (about 60,000 words); but it builds subtly to a tremendous climax, giving us a chance to immerse ourselves in the characters, as seen through the eyes of the contemplative not-quite-relation Paul.  

Julian Onderdonk
(portrait by William Merritt Chase)

The central dramatic situation is that the family money is tied up in in a trust which keeps the estate going, but also keeps the remaining Onderdonks effectively wards of that estate.  It's rather like the situation in S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, but the climax may remind you more of Edgar Allan Poe (a specific short story which shall go unmentioned here).

It seems obvious to me that Fenwick based the Onderdonk estate on Yaddo, the artists' retreat outside Saratoga Springs, New York, where Fenwick spent the summer of 1948 working on her second mainstream novel.  (This is where she met, and became lifelong friends with, writer Flannery O'Connor, who herself could do some mean Gothic.)  

The great mansion at Yaddo was built by Spencer and Katrina Trask, an ill-starred couple who lost all four of their children at young ages so bequeathed their home to creative artists.

The name Onderdonk, I would hazard to guess, Fenwick derived from the Onderdonks of Texas, another distinguished artistic family.  Julian Onderdonk, known as the father of Texas painting, was a prominent impressionist painter who died in 1922 in San Antonio, where Elizabeth Fenwick would graduate from Jefferson High School a dozen years later.  Of course Onderdonk is a grand old Dutch name and there were Onderdonks in New York, the setting of The Silent Cousin, but I feel sure that when Fenwick wrote the novel she thought back to that Texas branch of the family.

poetry enthusiast Betty Phillips,
aka Elizabeth Fenwick, 
as a high school senior

At Jefferson Hugh School, by the way, Elizabeth Fenwick, then known as Betty Phillips, revealed an early literary bent, winning the state poetry contest two years in a row.  In high school she belonged to the Scribblers, the Poetry Club and the Quill and Scroll, the high school honors society for student journalists.  Smart girl, Betty!  

This intelligence and sensitivity comes out in her novels, like The Silent Cousin, a fascinating tale of repression which in its final pages reaches a shattering crescendo of doom.  I've mentioned Van Dine and Poe and I should also mention Shirley Jackson, whose great Gothic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle appeared the same year as The Silent Cousin was published in England.  Certainly a criminal coincidence, that!  Fenwick's Long Acre also could be said to bear some resemblance to Jackson's Hill House, from another of her novels.

There's also a clever reference to a certain Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel, but I'll leave you to see this for yourselves when The Silent Cousin is reprinted.

Why Harper passed on The Silent Cousin is beyond me, unless it was too slow burning for editor Joan Kahn, who was known to be quite cutting in her judgments.  (She also gave fits to Patricia Highsmith, who eventually left Harper in a huff.)  

Cousin finally appeared four years later in the U. S. with Atheneum, who also published Eric Ambler and P. M. Hubbard, another great exponent of unease whom Fenwick bears some resemblance to as well.  Personally I think Joan Kahn's pass on The Silent Cousin reflects much worse on her than Fenwick.  

And I will say that out loud!

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Miss Fenwick Returns: Elizabeth Fenwick's Crime Novels Are Coming Back in Print after Nearly Half a Century

Over her life Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996), whose real name was the somewhat more prosaic Elizabeth Jane Phillips, published fourteen detective and crime novels and three mainstream novels, which I will list farther down the page.  (There are usually some errors on the publication years.)  

After publishing a trio of wartime detective novels as E. P. (presumably Elizabeth Phillips) Fenwick and a trio of postwar mainstream novels as Elizabeth Fenwick, the author published in 1957 Poor Harriet, her first novel of "domestic suspense" (her own term for it, interestingly enough, was "domestic unease").  Ten more suspense novels followed, the last of these being The Last of Lysandra in 1973.  Here is the list:

Detective Novels

The Inconvenient Corpse 1943 (as EP Fenwick)

Murder in Haste 1944 (as EP Fenwick)

Two Names for Death 1945 (as EP Fenwick)

Mainstream Novels

The Long Wing 1947

Afterwards 1950

Days of Plenty 1956

Crime/Suspense Novels

Poor Harriet 1957

A Long Way Down 1959

A Night Run 1961

A Friend of Mary Rose 1961

The Silent Cousin 1962

The Make-Believe Man 1963

The Passenger 1967

Disturbance on Berry Hill 1968

Goodbye, Aunt Elva 1968

Impeccable People 1971

The Last of Lysandra 1973

I first starting writing about Elizabeth Fenwick back in April 2015, when I reviewed her debut suspense novel Poor Harriet (1957), surely one of the best-received "debuts" in American crime fiction.  I say debut because most people had forgotten about E. P. Fenwick, longtime Fenwick fan Anthony Boucher excepted.  Indeed, Boucher had compared the early Fenwick detective novels, when he reviewed them at the San Francisco Chronicle, to the work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.  

Now posted with the New York Times, Boucher called Poor Harriet "the work of a highly skilled novelist."  And indeed it was.  

Fenwick's first mainstream novel, the semi-autobiographical The Long Wing, had received a great deal of praise from critics and led to her being invited in 1948 to spend a summer at the Yaddo artists' retreat in upstate New York to work on her second novel.  

This was the same summer Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes and Flannery O'Connor were there.  O'Connor, who became one of the great 20th century southern regional writers, was at Yaddo the longest of these individuals, I believe, and encountered all of them, with varying reactions.  While O'Connor and Highsmith decidedly did not get along (Highsmith was quite contemptuously explicit about this), O'Connor and Fenwick became good friends up through O'Connor's early death in 1964.  After being diagnosed with lupus, O'Connor retired to live on a farm in Georgia, but the two women regularly corresponded.  O'Connor always referred warmly to her friend as "Miss Fenwick."

Fenwick had a knack for getting into the company of great writers.  When she lived in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1930s, where she was working as a secretary, she became a member of a Washington University poetry circle which included among its members the future famed playwright Tennessee Williams and her own future husband, modernist poet Clark Mills McBurney.  Unfortunately Williams didn't remember Fenwick later in life, mentioning merely that the group had some pretty female members, all of them from good families, who provided excellent comestibles and decorations.  Yes, the snobbery and sexism comes through loud and clear.

Williams aside, the admittedly quite attractive Fenwick, now in her forties, quickly established herself after 1957 as one of the mid-century's most noted domestic suspense novelists, along with such greats as Margaret Millar, Celia Fremlin, Shelley Smith, Charlotte Armstrong, Ursula Curtiss, Jean Potts and Dolores Hitchens.  Her strength as a pure novelist proved both a positive and a negative for her as a crime writer, however, in terms of popularity, I believe, with some her books being too subtle, perhaps, for the American market.  

Her third crime novel, A Night Run, was never published in the U. S., while her fifth, The Silent Cousin, did not appear in her native country until 1966.  Her last two crime novels were not published in the U. S. either.  All of them appeared in the U. K., however, under the auspices of Gollancz, which had a great appetite for the work of American suspense writers.

Despite these misses, Fenwick probably achieved her height of popularity in the U. S. with the early Sixties publications of A Friend of Mary Rose and The Make-Believe Man, both of which, I'm happy to say, are being reprinted this year by Stark House, with a long introduction on Fenwick's life by me.  (There will also be a piece on Crimereads.)

It was at this point that Anthony Boucher referred to Fenwick as a generally recognized equal of Shelley Smith and Celia Fremlin.  (In 1966, however, when she had not published a novel in the U. S. for four years, he pronounced that she was underappreciated.)

Mary Rose is about an 83-year-old man named Mr. John Nicholas who through a strange twist of fate finds himself becoming the protector of an eleven-year-old "tomboy" menaced by a violent man with the most malign of designs upon her.  It's true there have been other blind sleuths in fiction, like Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados, but as far as I'm aware they have all been some variation of great detectives.  Mr. Nicholas, in contrast, is just a regular man, who suffers the indignities of the aged and infirm like everyone else of his sort.  Realism is a hallmark of this and other Fenwick novels, as is a sympathetic understanding of the problems everyday human beings.

The Make-Believe Man concerns a recently-widowed woman, Norma Hovic, who has returned with her eleven-year-old son to Detroit to live at her old home with her mother.  When her mother leaves to stay with Norma's "expecting" sister and her family in another town, Norma is pleased to have the house to herself and her son for a while.  But then her mother's former roomer, a nice young man named Cliff whom Norma displaced when she returned home, shows up at the door....

This is a sort of psychological home invasion story with many twists and turns and another appealing everyday protagonist and like Mary Rose it was highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Both novels have as well, I should add, very well-conveyed children, both of them eleven years old, around the same age as the author's own daughter, Deborah, who herself was about eleven when Mary Rose was published.

Fenwick was very close to her daughter from her second marriage, all the more so because both of her marriages can fairly be termed disasters and Deborah was all she had out of them.  Fenwick was apparently married to Clark Mills McBurney for five years, between 1941-46.  He went away to serve in the Second World War and just stopped communicating with her after a time, forcing her to get the marriage annulled.  As far as I know, she never saw him again.  Classy, Clark!

Elizabeth Fenwick around the 
time of the annulment of
her first marriage in 1946

Fenwick stayed married to her second husband, small publisher David Jacques Way, for sixteen years, from 1950 to 1966, when he left her for a 23-year-old graphic designer in his company, just few years older than his own daughter.

What makes this even more deplorable is that over the duration of the marriage he had been a rageful and violent husband, whom Elizabeth herself had wanted to leave with her daughter but couldn't, she felt, because she did not make a enough money from her writing to support them.  She only earned about $20,000 a year from her books (in modern value) and her husband, she feared, would not have been a reliable provider of alimony and child support if they parted.

Certainly Fenwick's is a striking testament to the financial insecurity of writers, even critically-esteemed ones, which perhaps may surprise some people.  

I write about all this in greater detail in my introduction.  I found Elizabeth Fenwick's life really fascinating because even though she was a much-praised writer she herself faced a lot of problems which domestic suspense authors wrote about in their books, in terms of her relationships with men. 

Fenwick's life also illustrates how callous and dismissive even the ostensibly "enlightened" intellectual males of the era could be, in regard to women.  Even Tennessee Williams, who had no interest in women sexually, comes off as rather an ass.  I was somewhat reminded of the domestic situation of Shirley Jackson, a writer Fenwick somewhat resembled, especially in her 1962 novel The Silent Cousin, inexplicably turned down by her American publisher, about which I will be blogging next, I think.  See you again soon.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Kings and Queens and Guillotines (or Automatics, as the Case May Be): The King Is Dead (1952), by Ellery Queen

Long ago in days I'm told

Were ruled by lords of greed


Kings and queens and guillotines

Taking lives denied...

--"Kings and Queens," Aerosmith

That's the trouble with democracy, Queen.  You're one of the intellectual, liberal, democratic world, aren't you?  You never get anywhere....All you do is jabber, jabber, jabber, while history shoots past you into the future.  


I think, Mr. Bendigo, you tend to underestimate the intellectual, liberal democrat when aroused....

--philosophical exchange from The King Is Dead, by Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen is one of the great names of Golden Age detection whose oeuvre I still have not entirely read.  One of these days I'll finish Christie's Passenger to Frankfurt and track down an edition of Carr's The Hungry Goblin, but in the the meantime there are some decent, even excellent perhaps, Queens left for me to read.  

The 1994 HarperPerennial edition
(I wanted to scan my own but my
scanner is not working--sorry for 
poor quality!)

Ellery Queen's The King Is Dead was published in 1952, making it by my count the twenty-first of thirty-four novels by them (including the four from the Sixties which were plotted by Frederic Dannay and ghost written by Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson).  

It's technically considered the last of EQ's lauded Wrightsville series (set in the New England town of Wrightsville, the authors' homage to small town America), although Wrightsville only pops up in a late chapter, when Ellery does a series of interviews there, which are written up in notebook form.  

Additionally, the first chapter takes place at the New York apartment of Ellery and his father.  As for the rest of the book, one contemporary reviewer from Manhattan--Kansas, that is--colorfully described it as 

a dipsy doodle into the incredible sphere once occupied by E. Phillips Oppenheim and the inscrutable Dr. Fu Manchu.  

I wish someone had blurbed that line on an edition of the book!

After the first chapter, which might have been entitled Assault on a Brownstone, Ellery and his father, Inspector Queen, are spirited off to the mysterious Caribbean island fastness, virtually its own country, of munitions magnate King Bendigo.  Armed men, led by King's brother Abel--yes, we're in for a lot of Queenian Biblical allegory here--came into their apartment, but it's not quite a kidnapping, as they agree to accompany these men to Bendigo's island only at the behest of, apparently, President Truman himself, who expressly enjoins the inspector to snoop around while he's down there.  King Bendigo, you see, has become a virtual power unto himself, intervening into the course of history on multiple occasions; and clearly the U. S. would like to put a stop to him for good and all.  

The reason the Queens are wanted is to investigate the series of letters which have been sent to Abel, threatening his impending murder.  The investigation, which is leisurely to say the least, points to Abel's other brother, the weakling, alcoholic liberal Judah, as the culprit; and all sorts of precautions are taken to prevent him from attempting to kill Judah at the appointed time which the last letter generously gives.  Abel is in a locked room with his trophy wife Karla, while Judah is in his own room under observation.  Yet when Judah points an empty gun and fires it at the appointed hour, King in the locked room somehow is shot at that very moment.  And a gun can't be found in the locked room!

This locked room problem doesn't occur until about 60% of the way into a 90,000 word book, which tries the patience of some readers, who aren't necessarily that interested in the depiction of the wicked munition merchant's ménage and mise-en-scene.  This is one of Queen's "high concept" books, like And on the Eighth Day, where the authors want to get across some of their ideas about politics in 1952. 

Personally, events of the last decade have made this aspect of the novel more interesting to me than it would have been in, say, 2012.  Over these years we have seen the Western liberal order badly shaken. A massive European war potentially looms due to the machinations of a murderous Russian tyrant and around the world authoritarian nationalists are coming to power as people lose faith in traditional liberalism.  

You listen to the prattle of the Republican party these days and you'd think we were literally back in 1952, with war with China imminent and a Communist (or critical race theorist) hiding under every bush.  Or even worse than '52, really, since Joe McCarthy was never actually elected president or even was a serious threat in that regard.  Many of today's so-called Republicans, the Marjories and the Madisons and the like, like the John Birchers of the past (their spiritual ancestors) would have deemed Dwight Eisenhower a dangerous Communist dupe.  

Suddenly The King Is Dead seems to have taken on a lot of relevance, at least in my eyes.

these guys, ugh--McCarthy with odious assistant Roy Cohn, who lived until 1986,
long enough to influence a recent American president

Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee were themselves, I have no doubt, consensus Fifties liberal Democrats, meaning that, while they rejected Communism, they were committed to the social agenda of the Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey types and vigorously opposed Fifties McCarthyism and Red-baiting.  The philosophical climax of The King Is Dead comes, appropriately, right before the locked room shooting, when Ellery, the author's mouthpiece, gets into a debate with the odious Abel.  I have quoted a bit of that above.

When Ellery goes back to Wrightsville to investigate he finds out more about the character of King Bendigo.  Who does this guy sound like:

His main trouble, as I as able to piece it together, seems to have been that he always bit off more than he could chew.  He constantly made grandiose plans, overextended himself, and fell flat on his face.  What he did have, as evidenced by the record, was the ability to charm hardboiled New England monied people into loosening up....

I mean, wow, there we have the once and hopefully not future president in all his puffed up, meretricious glory.

Still a lot of reviewers seem indifferent, or even antagonistic, to this aspect of the book, then and now.  Not so much because they oppose the authors' political views necessarily (arms dealers have never to my knowledge been positively portrayed in a mystery), but because they read mysteries for murder plots not preachments.  One contemporary reviewer dismissed King Is Dead as a virtue-signaling "tract," another as simply "pretentious."  Still, hugely influential New York Times reviewer Anthony Boucher, another Fifties liberal, must have liked the book a lot, for my HarperPerennial edition from 1994 cover-quotes from his review in the New York Times: "Queen presents one of his noblest puzzles [with The King Is Dead]."

Putting politics aside, I think there is a fine puzzle here.  It's a neat locked room situation, fairly clued.  I've seen the Wrightsville chapter referred to as an "information dump," but I enjoyed the depictions of the interviewees and the whole thing is larded with some clever clues indeed, all of which passed over my head!  With the limited number of significant characters in the book, not to mention the allegorical indications, it's not hard to have notions when it comes to culpritude, but you may not grasp the entire pattern.  In any event, the how and the why are cleverly clued.  

Today people compare the island setting of the megalomaniac munitions magnate to something out of Ian Fleming.  Yet the first James Bond novel was published in England a year after The King Is Dead appeared, so it may be that Queen was more original here than people think.   Did EQ influence Agatha Christie's 1954 thriller Destination Unknown?  That's a mystery for another day!

So I enjoyed The King Is Dead, all in all.  Would I want to read it a second time?  Probably not.  The book I think takes too long to get to the locked room mystery, even though I don't agree with the charge that the novel is a padded short story.  Maybe a padded 60,000 word novel!  Still, I'm glad I read it.  The problem the Queenish boys is a good one and the political passages are timely, distressingly timely.  The past does repeat itself, or perhaps the past is never actually past.  It lies there and festers.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Say It Ain't So, El! The Final Four Episodes of Ellery Queen; Plus, My Top Ten EQ Episodes!

I watched all these Ellery Queen series episodes with my 91-year-old father (who started humming the theme song for a while afterwards).  It's appropriate because when this series premiered over 46 years ago in 1975, I watched it with my parents, at least until we moved to Mexico in 1976 and I kind of lost track of it (like a lot of other people did apparently).  

It's a great show to watch with a father because its central relationship is between a father and son: Inspector Queen and his precocious son, Ellery. (Can a 42-year-old man be precocious?)  Their relationship is brought out really nicely in a couple of the final four episodes.  

Ellery realizing his series has been canceled? 
No, it's Jim Hutton in The Twilight Zone

First, kudos once again to David Wayne and Jim Hutton, who excelled in these roles.  I have already talked a bit about David Wayne, but Jim Hutton had an interesting, and perhaps insufficiently realized, acting career too.  He was about three years younger than my Dad and was in the army in Berlin for a couple of years about the same time my Dad was.  Maybe they met!  

As an actor one of his early roles was in the esteemed Twilight Zone episode "And When the Sky Was Opened," which is one of the comparatively few Jim Hutton (as opposed to Tim Hutton) performances I have actually seen.  His mounting hysteria in that episode is quite impressive.  He must have been 24 years old at the time, and he looks a lot like his son Timothy Hutton.

JH actually starred or co-starred in quite a few films in the Sixties, including Walk Don't Run with Cary Grant and The Green Berets with John Wayne, but he ended up doing mostly television in the Seventies.  Not a single one of his films have I seen, however!  He strikes me as a charming "leading man type" who should have had a bigger film career, but I don't believe it was really the era of the wholesome hero type anymore.  

As for television, aside from EQ I remember seeing JH as the husband in the 1973 horror film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which made quite an impression on me in the day, and as the older man romantically interested in perpetual problem child McKenzie Phillips on the Norman Lear sitcom One Day at a Time (an even more problematic story line considering the actress' later molestation charges against her father).  

JH died from liver cancer at the age of 45, just a month after being diagnosed with the disease (which, in metastasized form, killed my mother as well), and just a little over a year before the premier of the film which launched his then nineteen-year-old son Timothy to stardom, Ordinary People.  How sad JH didn't get to see his son in that film, for which the young man won an Oscar.  (You can see him thanking his late father at the Oscars in the clip below.)  I have a feeling there might have been some joint film appearances in store for the father and son at some point!

How sad too that the EQ series was canceled after just one year.  It really deserved at least two years, like Tim Hutton's own Nero Wolfe series, in which he performed most ably as Nero's assistant Archie Goodwin. I get the impression that Jim Hutton quite enjoyed playing Ellery and he was really coming into his own in the role, as less of an absent-minded writer type and more of a serious sleuth.  But at least we have one year of the series, which, if far from perfect, deserves the praise it gets from fans.

On the Radio: Ken Barry in Tyrant

Episode 19, The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley, is a solid episode in my eyes, even though a key clue drops with rather a thud.  Still, there are some nice murder bits, as it were.

It's also an entertaining milieu, involving a radio station and a famous crooner, played by famous crooner Rudy Vallee, an improbable sex symbol with young ladies back in the Twenties.  Guess you had to be there!

Vallee plays the murderee and spends the first few minutes of the episode being nasty to everyone; he's in fine form, too.  

"Act terrified, Mr. Vallee!"

My only knowledge of Vallee when I was kid came from the series Batman (much beloved by me in syndication, when I was six or so), where he played wicked Lord Marmaduke Ffogg in several episodes from Season 3, when they introduced Batgirl, played by the late Yvonne Craig, who recalled that Vallee was something of a right bastard to everyone on the set.  So his character on EQ may not have been much of a stretch!

Also praiseworthy is light comedy actor Ken Barry (F Troop, Mama's Family), who was more than capable of more dramatic turns, as he gives here.  And the last appearance of John Hillerman as Simon Brimmer is certainly noteworthy.  Make sure you stick around for his deadpan account about his childhood teddy bear, a perfect sendoff to this brilliant character.

The dying clue concept, which as Scott Ratner has pointed out is inherently absurd, is enjoyably played around with here too.

Ellery gets angry in Caesar

However, Episode 20, The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep, surpasses 19; indeed it's one of the best in the series.  It's a genuine locked room mystery and a cunningly devised one indeed.  Additionally there's a good story arc, one of the best of the series as well, involving a cynical politician wanting to go after gangsters for publicity and not caring if he unfairly defames cops like Inspector Queen along the way.  

Mobster Ralph Caesar is going to testify before the pol's committee and, after a hit man attempts his life, narrowly missing killing him, he goes in hiding at a hotel, guarded by two of New York's finest, including Sergeant Velie, where of course he dies anyway.  Poisoned!  It's a very neat trick.  

There are some notable performers in this one, including Borscht Belt comedian and actor Jan Murray as the titular Caesar; Stuart Whitman--yet another familiar television presence, who was also a Best Actor Oscar nominee once upon a time (I had no idea)--as the pol; handsome Edward Albert, son of Eddie Albert and the blind guy who canoodled with Goldie Hawn in Butterflies are Free, as the pol's conscientious assistant; Michael Gazzo, another Oscar nominee, who specialized in gangsters, as, well, a gangster; weirdo cult actor Timothy Carey as the scary hitman (he looks like Christopher Lee); and Emmy nominated actress Bibi Besch in a comparative bit part as a voluble neighbor of Ceasar's.  (It's impressive how she manages to make her small part memorable.) 

Also Tom Reese as Sergeant Velie finally gets to do a bit more than stand around looking imposing and call Ellery "Maestro."  And David Wayne actually gets to solve the case! (Well, Ellery lets him do it.)  This would have made a great season finale (and series finale, as things turned out), but the actual series finale was pretty good too.

Timothy Carey going totally Christopher Lee as the hitman in Caesar

Episode 21, The Hardhearted Huckster, was the weakest in the bunch by far I thought.  It concerns a murder in the advertising industry, so we're in Madmen territory, which should have been interesting, but it really isn't, much.  You know the murder is going to have something to do with that lunch the murderee was eating in his office and I didn't think it was particularly clever.  

Forties film star Eddie Bracken does give his role some gusto, however, as does the wonderful Carolyn Jones, an Oscar-nominated actress known today for having played Morticia on the television Addams Family series.  I always thought she deserved bigger stardom.  She died too young at 53.  

Speaking of untimely deaths, this episode also has Bob Crane of Hogan's Heroes fame ("Hogan!!"), who was himself infamously murdered at age 49 in 1978.  (It turned out he had quite a tawdry sex life.)  I was in Washington, D. C. with my parents when the news broke; and, being a fan of Hogan's Heroes in syndication as well as of murder mysteries, I was quite interested.  His murder remains officially unsolved today, although I think we know who did it.  This EQ appearance was one of his last on television.

Ellery and his Dad get some shocking news
in The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger

Finally, EQ bid us adieu with episode 22, The Case of the Disappearing Dagger.  I thought this episode was rather clever.  It's about an elderly detective who gets bumped off after he announces that he has solved an unsolved locked room murder from five years ago.  Had he gotten too close to the truth?  

The "locked room" here is a small plane, the murder, that of a wartime munitions manufacturer, having taken place during the flight, while the innocent passengers were drugged.*  

*(There are actually parallels here with a famous real murder, incidentally.)  

So all the suspects are people who were on the flight.  A good group they are too, including Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn's ex who had long specialized in silky villains; Gary Burghoff, sweet little "Radar" from the lauded TV series MASH, who plays a real stinker here; elegant Dana Wynter, who plays the last of the series ungrieving widows; and Ronny Cox as the pilot, early in his career here, a great actor who would play opposite Timothy Hutton in the film Taps incidentally, though unfortunately here his character, meant to be sympathetic, is incredibly irritating.  

A frail-looking Walter Pidgeon--he retired from acting the next year, his last role being in Mae West's embarrassing sex face Sextette--plays the detective, who was a mentor, we learn, of Inspector Queen's.  There's also a droll cameo as a thief turned magician (and perhaps still a thief) from Tom Brown, whose career in film went back to 1924!  I really have to credit the casting of these episodes.

Father and son share a triumphant moment in
The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep
Who was Ellery's mother, by the way,
The Fifty Foot Woman?

I thought the plot was engaging, if not quite as ingenious as the one in Caesar's Last Sleep.  From this episode there's no reason to think there would not have been more clever ones to come, but, alas, it was not to be.  

So what are my favorite episodes from the series?  You don't have to deduce it, for I shall list them below!

My Favorite Ellerys

1. The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep

2. The Adventure of the Wary Witness (Frank Flanigan)

3. The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario

4. The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party

5. The Adventure of Veronica's Veils (Simon Brimmer)

6. The Adventure of the Chinese Dog

7. The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse (Simon Brimmer)

8. The Adventure of Miss Aggie's Farewell Performance (Simon Brimmer)

9. The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger

10. The Adventure of the Tyrant of Tin Pan Alley (Simon Brimmer)

What are yours?