Tuesday, May 3, 2022

A Life of Crime: Alice in Murderland, Alice Campbell, 1887-1955 (Alice Campbell's Mysteries Reissued by Dean Street Press)

Articles about crime writer Alice Campbell in her hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution, invariably mentioned, from the time she was a precocious young novice writer at the turn of the nineteenth century to her middle age in 1930, when she returned to visit the city after an absence of fifteen years, her beautiful blonde hair.  After a point I was reminded of inquisitive little Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--though of course all of the grown-up Alice Campbell's adventures--the fictional ones, anyway--were in another imaginary place which one might dub Murderland. There in felonious fields Alice and other crime writers cavorted with blunt instruments, belladonna and other deadly playthings and the blood on the bokhara didn't really stain.

Alice Campbell, c. 1925?
portrait by society painter Lillian Fisk

Between 1928 and 1950 Alice Campbell published nineteen crime novels: inverted mysteries, thrillers, and actual detective stories. 

Although her name fast faded after her death in 1955--indeed, she had become so obscure that I had to determine myself that her death year was 1955, other accounts giving 1976 for some reason or the classic "?"--she was in fact quite popular in her day and did particularly well from her many American newspaper serializations.  The serialization of her debut novel alone, Juggernaut, netted her $60,000 in modern value.

In the US Alice went through several different publishers, beginning with Farrar & Rinehart and ending with Random House, but in the UK, she ended up, after a short stint with Hodder & Stoughton, with the Collins Crime Club, purveyors, of course, of another, identically initialed author: Agatha Christie.  You might call Alice Campbell the other AC.

In both countries Alice scored a big hit with her debut novel, Juggernaut, which in England was filmed in 1936 under that title, with Boris Karloff as the villainous male lead, and filmed again in 1949, under the title The Temptress (the eponymous temptress being the villainous female lead).  This is more of an inverted crime novel, with the heroine, a plucky nurse, attempting to stymie the murderous machinations of a seemingly unstoppable French Riviera society doctor. 

Alice's next novel, Water Weed, set in England, to me is more interesting, as it gets in what seems to me some exceptionally dark psychosexual material for the time.  It was back to France, however, with Spiderweb, published in the US as Murder in Paris.  

Spiderweb introduced lawyer Geoffrey Macadam and his imperiled love interest Catherine West, and you won't be surprised to learn that matrimony awaits them.  Now married, they appear again a dozen years later, as supporting characters, in No Light Came On (1942), the last of Alice's crime novels set in France.  Tragically, World War Two changed Alice Campbell's prewar France forever; and she just quit writing about the country.

back cover of the American edition
of The Click of the Gate

Alice's fourth mystery, The Click of the Gate (1932), which is also set in France, introduced her intrepid newspaper journalist Tommy Rostetter. I suspect the surname was derived from actress/playwright Alice Rostetter of the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, given the prominence of Alice's husband in the theatrical world (see below).

Aside from The Click of the Gate, Tommy appears in three additional novels, making him to my mind Alice Campbell's most significant recurring character.  These other novels are the surprisingly kinky Desire to Kill (1934) and Flying Blind (1938) and The Bloodstained Toy (1948), all of them recommended.  

Aside from the nonseries The Murder of Caroline Bundy (1933), set in England, Alice's other early mystery was the nonseries Keep Away from Water!, her penultimate tale set in France.  It was her American publishers, naturally, who added that emphatic "!"  

With the excellent Death Framed in Silver (1937), which introduced some additional series characters, intrepid Inspector Headcorn and medical student Colin Ladbroke, Alice shifted over for good to England, No Light Came On excepted.  Inspector Headcorn pops up a fair bit in her books, in They Hunted a Fox (1940), a country house party detective novel (Colin Ladbroke is in this one too, with his new wife, Alison Young, who appeared previously in A Door Closed Softly, 1939); No Murder of Mine (1941), The Cockroach Sings (1946) (I love that title, but the Americans changed it to the somewhat corny With Bated Breath); and The Bloodstained Toy (1948), a mashup with Tommy Rostetter.  It might have been called House of Rostetter, had she thrown in Colin Ladbroke too while she was at it.

There were also her standalone wartime mysteries, Ringed with Fire (1943) and Travelling Butcher (1944), and her last two final standalones, Child's Play (1947) and The Corpse Had Red Hair (1950).

Whew!  Now that that precis is concluded, let's get back to Alice's life of crime.  (By the way, please don't think I've stolen that title from Martin Edwards' new book, I've been using it on this blog for columns over the last decade.)  

Alice elder brother Walter, a JP
drowned at sea in 1906

Alice, the baby of her family, was descended from two very prominent Atlanta businessmen, James Ormond III and Sidney Root.  Her two maternal Root uncles were very prominent architects in Chicago and Kansas City, John Wellborn and Walter Clark Root.  Her elder brothers Sidney and Walter Ormond were prominent in Atlanta, Sidney as a Constitution drama critic and political reporter and personal secretary to a mayor and Walter as an attorney and young justice of the peace.  Both men died untimely deaths, Walter particularly tragically when at age thirty he fell overboard (or was he pushed) from a ship off Cape Hatteras while en route from Savannah to New York; his body was never identified.

Alice's parents, James Ormond IV and Florence Root, divorced sometime in the 1890s when Alice was a child and James seems to have become a nonperson to the rest of his family.  What he an alcoholic, adulterer, abuser?  I think it must have been something bad.  A proper society woman like Florence was loathe to bring a divorce suit in those days unless things had gotten really bad.  

With her elder daughter Mary having wed in 1900 (she was given away by Florence's surviving brother, not her father), Florence devoted herself to the care of her precocious, pretty blonde younger daughter, Alice, then thirteen years old.  Within five years Alice had graduated from Girls' High School in Atlanta, published poetry in a national anthology, written a two-volume novel (unpublished) and become active in Atlanta's Unitarian church.  The next year, 1906, the year her brother Walter drowned, Alice decided she wanted to go to New York to pursue Life and Art, so off she went, with her mother as chaperone of course.  No good southern girl could run off to the Big City unchaperoned. 

There Alice published a short story in Ladies' Home Journal, became friends with writer Jacques Futrelle (she wrote his obituary in the Constitution when he died in the Titanic disaster in 1912), and took of the cause of women's suffrage in a big way, even returning to Atlanta in 1912 to lecture to the natives about it.  That same year she became engaged, but after breaking things off with the man she moved to Paris early in 1913, again with her mother.  Maybe this was where Art dwelt!  

Jamie Campbell, 1915
two years after his marriage to Alice

Well, Love was there, anyway.  After three months of springtime in Paris, Alice marred a native of Virginia, James Lawrence Campbell, Jr., a young play broker of good looks and good family.  Florence at this point decided it was safe to leave Alice and returned to Atlanta, where she died in 1918.  Her ex-husband had died there in 1911, not that anyone in the family seemed to miss him, followed by son Sidney in 1916.  Son Walter had died in 1906.  After all these demises, only Alice and her sister Mary Florence, who remained in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, were left among the Ormond brood.  (Alice's brothers never married and left no issue.)

In 1914, Alice gave birth in Paris to a son, James Lawrence Campbell, Jr., but she and Jamie, as her husband was familiarly known, decided with the onset of the Great War to move to England, which Alice would make her home until her death forty-one years later.  Two more children, Ormond (a daughter) and Robert were soon born to the couple in England, but Jamie spent much of his time abroad, in New York, Paris and other cities promoting plays, while Alice raised the children. 

Karloff up to no good again
in Juggernaut

It was not until the end of the decade that both wife and husband, both of them around forty years old, achieved success as novelists.  Alice, as we have seen, published Juggernaut to great success in 1928, while the previous year Jamie published a novel which, buoyed by notoriety, reached the bestseller lists in the US, Face Value, about a charming young half-Russian orphan named Serge English who grew up in a bawdy house in Paris.

Both Alice and Jamie were interested in sex in their fiction and in that sense were modernists, although Alice confessed in 1930 that she leaned toward the Tories politically.  In 1935 Alice authored a play performed in London's West End, Two Share a Dwelling, which was a psychosexual drama about a beautiful blonde young woman with a "split personality," the one a shy, proper miss, and the other, in the shocked words of one reviewer, a "brazen harlot." 

Grete Mosheim
This lead role was played by half-Jewish German refugee actress Grete Mosheim, in her British stage debut, and she received a standing ovation on opening night; but rather priggish London critics condemned the play overall as rather distasteful and morbid and it closed after twenty-six performances.  So Alice went back to crime fiction, where people didn't mind quite so much about those qualities.  In truth, though, my sense is she toned her later books down somewhat.  

It seems that Alice and Jamie basically separated in the Thirties.  He went to Hollywood in the late Twenties, the same time as Cornell Woolrich did incidentally, to write scripts, and he was also living in the US in California during World War Two, while Alice resided at a cottage in Dorset.  

Alice, a great friend of mystery writer Anthony Gilbert, was inducted into the Detection Club in 1946, when it began meeting again after the war, but despite this personal high point in her career, she only published three more crime novels.  She died suddenly at her Dorset cottage in 1955, two dats before her sixty-eighth birthday and just over a year after Jamie, having checked into a hotel at Cannes, committed suicide by taking poison in his room on December 1, 1954.  This, despite his having scored a hit play in London and Brighton, The Praying Mantis, which starred a vampish, very young Joan Collins in the eponymous symbolic role. (Recall what the praying mantis does to its mate.) 

see Joan Collins Archive

 Alice's sons had moved to the United States, where Lawrenc, a painter, taught art, but her daughter Ormond, now going by her father's pet name for her, Chita, lived in London, where she was married to the wealthy antique dealer and interior decorator Ernest Thornton-Smith.  Although the copyrights were kept up, Alice's books fell out of print and remained so for over seventy years.

As of June 6, however, ten titles will be reissued by Dean Street Press, followed by the remaining nine later this year.  You will be able to read much more about Alice and Jamie and their doings later this month, in an article by me at Crimereads.  There will be some excellent family photos included with the article.  

With the reissuing of Alice Campbell and Mary Fitt by Dean Street and Moonstone respectively, two more members of the Detection Club during its classic era are now back in print!  I'm especially excited about Alice Campbell in the sense that I first blogged about her, over at Mysteryfile, eleven years ago, and at my blog a decade ago.  And, unlike the case with Jefferson Farjeon, I was able to be involved with the reissues.

Works by Alice Campbell


Juggernaut 1928

Water Weed 1929

Spiderweb aka Murder in Paris 1930 

The Click of the Gate 1932

The Murder of Caroline Bundy 1933

Desire to Kill 1934

Keep Away from Water! 1935

Death Framed in Silver 1937

Flying Blind 1938

A Door Closed Softly 1939

They Hunted a Fox 1940

No Murder of Mine 1941

No Light Came On 1942

Ringed with Fire 1943

Travelling Butcher 1944

The Cockroach Sings aka With Bated Breath 1946

Child's Play 1947

The Bloodstained Toy 1948

The Corpse Had Red Hair 1950


Two Share a Dwelling 1935

Short Story

Signals 1938 (included in Bodies from the Library 4, edited by Tony Medawar)


  1. "... her beautiful blonde hair. After a point I was reminded of inquisitive little Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

    Carroll never mentions Alice's hair colour, and Alice Liddell, the original, had dark hair. I think Alice's blondness was an invention of film-makers.
    Carroll must rival Shakespeare and A.E. Housman as a supplier of titles for crime novelists.

  2. Good Lord, it's the glorious John Tenniel illustrations, surely. Alice and her blonde hair is like Holmes and his deerstalker.



    Check out the interesting book by Joanna Pitman, On Blondes.

    1. It's got detail on how Carroll viewed his Alice and the whole blondeing.

    2. I'll look for the book, though I'll probably be on my third incarnation when I get there...
      A quick check shows that Tenniel's original illustrations were b&w, so we can't tell hair colour, but she was blondified when they were coloured by someone else for The Nursery Alice. The interesting thing is that Carroll fussed about anything he could, but he didn't mind a blonde Alice there. Perhaps because both he and the Liddell family wanted to put a distance between the fictional and real Alices.

    3. I think the black and white illustrations give us a hint of Alice's hair color. Unless she was an albino, perhaps.


  3. Thanks for the heads up for this and the Fitt novels. I've always preferred older mysteries (I think it's the style of writing) and will be glad to add these to my collection. Helpfully my wife also prefers the style of older crime fiction (although these days some of what's 'old' was published in out lifetime) so we get good value for money. Oh for a library of our own. Digital has solved some of the storage problem, but I still prefer print. I got into digital because of monthly visits ti the US. After a few flights with the same airline I'd seen all the films I'd wanted to, but enough books as carry on was a problem. I bought the Sony PRS 500 (IIRC) from Fry's in LA and have never been without an e-reader since. Great piece, as always!

    1. My purpose in life seems to be to get vintage mysteries reissued. I prefer print too, but oh! the storage.

  4. Curtis - thanks for your tireless efforts to reprint lost authors from the Golden Age. I have ordered Heron's Mere as a first try with Mary Fitt. Which Alice Campbell reprint do you recommend I try to get a good impression of her work please?

    1. Among this first group maybe Desire to Kill, which I enjoyed a lot. I liked Water Weed a lot too, but it's longer and more novelistic. Flying Blind or

    2. ...They Hunted a Fox, but I think the latter is in the next group.