Monday, November 7, 2022

Annus Murderbilis: Doris Miles Disney's Dark Road (1946) and Who Rides a Tiger (1946)

Debates about when the Golden Age of detective fiction ended will go on, but obviously the decade of the 1940s accelerated the flux of traditional detection.  Espionage novels predictably became the vogue with the explosion of the Second World War, while hard-boiled mystery continued to increase in popularity, much to the chagrin of George Orwell.  The wartime paper shortage constituted a death knell for the leisurely ratiocinative prewar detective novel, for the most part, as novels of 60-80,000 words (or even fewer) became the norm.  The page numbers of most books in the Collins Crime Club shrank by 20% and the lost wordage went unrecovered with peace.  Readers became used to a more rapid pace in crime fiction, with less thinking and more acting.

Admittedly, bestseller Mary Roberts Rinehart, with her leisurely, mammoth mystery novels, soldiered wordily on, but more and more the American grand old mistress of mystery seemed an honored anachronism in an impending age of atom bombs, TV dinners, instant cake mix and space rockets.  Rinehart, a young matron when Queen Victoria passed away, had published her first mystery novel the year Henry Ford introduced the Model T and it had been filmed when movies remained silent.    

The term "psychological suspense"--generally called domestic suspense today, due to the missionary work of Sarah Weinman--had not quite come into vogue in mystery, but its practitioners were gathering in the dawn, murder weapons glinting in their hands.  Two of the biggest coming names in the U.S. were Margaret Millar of Canada and California (even Julian Symons, often chary of women writers imo, acknowledged her) and Charlotte Armstrong of Michigan and California.  Another fatal femme, vastly less heralded today (surely to some extent on account of the fact that her books unaccountably remain out-of-print), was Doris Miles Disney, a deep-dyed New England Yankee.  

Each women, each of whom was young enough to be a Rinehart daughter (or granddaughter in Millar's case), followed a similar pattern of publishing relatively traditional detective novels in the early Forties, followed by a shift to psychological suspense by the mid-Forties.  Let's take a quick look at chronology:


The Invisible Worm 1941 

The Weak-Eyed Bat 1942

The Devil Loves Me 1942

Wall of Eyes 1943

The Iron Gates 1945


Lay On, Mac Duff! 1942

The Case of the Weird Sisters 1943

The Innocent Flower 1945

The Unsuspected 1946


A Compound for Death 1943

Murder on a Tangent 1945

Dark Road 1946

Who Rides a Tiger 1946

I think The Iron Gates and The Unsuspected are pretty well-acknowledged classics of crime fiction, but so too should be Disney's Who Rides a Tiger, beyond cavil I think, and Dark Road as well.  For Doris Miles Disney 1946 was, one might say, annus murderbilis.  At the beginning of the year came Dark Road, at the end of it Who Rides a Tiger.  In my view Disney's accomplishment is the sort of artistic feat that recalls what Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine regularly used to be able to pull off in the 1980s and 1990s.  Someone gets this woman back in print!  If, having read all the books she had then written, I had been asked back in 1946 who was the greatest talent of these three (Millar, Armstrong and Disney), I would have said it was Doris Miles Disney (though later on the balance shifted I would say).

Now that I have gone and unwisely raised expectations, let me expound.

DARK ROAD is a classic inverted crime novel in the manner of Freeman Wills Crofts, yet with much more credibility in the depiction of human emotions.  To my mind the inverted crime novel needs a strong emotional core as well as a ratiocinative one, in order to foster the building up of suspense.  The inverted mystery  is a cat-and-mouse game between investigator and investigated and if we don't care at all about the characters a lot of the potential dramatic impact is lost.  

Crofts, a modern Puritan at heart, could only really portray one emotion--one sinful emotion--successfully: avarice.  Lust for gold he could envision, not lust for sex.  

And his moralism made his inverteds predictable: Crime does not, must not, pay!  Of course all too often it does pay, and pay very well, as Crofts doubtlessly knew, and the wicked flourish like the green bay tree.  But for Crofts depicting life as it really often unpleasantly was would have been altogether too demoralizing and bad for impressionable youth.  

With Doris Miles Disney (DMD), you never know what might happen, however.  She's not afraid to go there.

In Dark Road Disney introduces, as reviewers at the time noted, quite a flawed set of characters, beginning with her Madame Bovaryish, suburban housewife Hazel Clement, a blonde beauty of regrettably low social origins who in the Thirties snagged a modestly well-off businessman husband, much older than she and physically unappealing to her (he's pink, hairless and flabby), with a decided tendency to tip the  bottle, yet a good provider nonetheless.  

Hazel has been getting along with steady if boozy Ralph, taking pride in their house and their lakeside cottage and fending off his occasional need for nookie, until she meets her old flame Eugene.  The latter man slept with her but never married her on account of her coming from the wrong side of the tracks, but now some fifteen years later he is bored with his proper, right-side-of-the-tracks wife and ready to start something up with Hazel again.  

Hazel falls, and she passionately decides that if she can just get rid of Ralph, Eugene will divorce his wife and they can start over again, as they were meant to do.  Now it's just a matter of how to get rid of Ralph....  

Once Hazel decides on an extermination plan she carries it out with ruthless efficiency, baffling the local police but not, it increasingly seems, insurance investigator Jeff DiMarco, who is investigating the insurance claim on the late Ralph from his ex-business partner.  There's also Ralph's vengeful sister in the mix, who hates Hazel like poison.  As DiMarco closes in, what will the resourceful Hazel do next?

I found Dark Road a tremendously suspenseful crime novel, with some shades of James M.  Cain's classic 1943 crime novel Double Indemnity.  DiMarco, for example, is rather attracted to the alluring Hazel.  The reader, further, is given some grounds to sympathize with her, although the nasty way she chooses to deal with Ralph should be alienating.  However, I found Ralph's sister genuinely awful, as I think we are meant to.  In a more conventionally pious crime novel, the avenging female would be more angel than harpy.  This moral ambiguity is just one of the ways Dark Road is ahead of its time, another being its credible depiction of sexual desire.  It's a real, living, heavy breathing thing in Disney, not a theoretical construct as it is in Crofts (which is fine for a classic puzzle but not so much for an inverted mystery).

Dark Road is a strong novel all through but what really turns it up to the top notch is its denouement, about which I shall say nothing, dear readers!  See for yourselves--at least if the novel gets reprinted!  It was previously reprinted a few times in paperback, but the copies have been vanishing off the market.  DMD is a highly collectible author. 

Even better than Dark Road is Who Rides a Tiger, which deliciously anticipates the brilliant nineties mysteries of Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) in the way it weaves back and forth between the present day (World War Two when DMD was writing it) and the past (mostly the last two decades of the nineteenth century).  I was amused to see one contemporary review complain that the time hopping, as it were, made the novel too confusing!  Verily, some readers just weren't ready for this sort of thing back then.  Not Anthony Boucher, however, who called it a "warm, full-bodied, well-written reconstruction of the past."  A great DMD fan from her second crime novel, he called Dark Road "a well-written and well-plotted novel of murder, ironic and moving."

Tiger opens with the thoughts of a dying bedridden woman, octogenarian Harriet Lowden, a wealthy, curdled old lady who hates her own relations (like poison!) and has resolved to leave all her money away from them.  Her great-niece Susan Lowden, who happened to spend Harriet's final day with her, resolves to find out more about Harriet and her life after she discovers the old woman's diaries.  She is fascinated with the enigma of how Harriet turned out like she did--and she'd like to find some way of proving that the old woman was of unsound mind too.  She and her father could use some of Aunt Harriet's money!  

So off the diaries take us on the story of Harriet's life--and a gripping tale it is too, full of passion, both bound and boundless.  Those of you who read Barbara Vine might immediately think of Asta's Book, published almost a half-century after Tiger in the way DMD's tale sets a modern-day framing story around a narrative from the past, made available by a diary record.   Both these books are exemplary crime novels, but DMD's central enigmatic figure, Harriet, may be the most memorable character in either tome.  I won't soon forget poor Harriet.  Neither did Disney, who declared later in life that Tiger was her favorite among her many books.  For once a prolific mystery writer made a good estimate of her own work.

Going against some of what I said above, Tiger is a long book for the period by my count, some 100,000 words, though I think it's still quite a bit shorter than Asta's Book.  But it benefits from that depth and spaciousness.  Dark Road is about 80,000 words and somewhat longer than the average for the period too.  Disney went on to write over forty more books in thirty years and as reliable a producer as she was, these two early novels, especially Tiger, suggest to me that her work might have been even stronger had she perhaps cut back a bit on the book production.  Yet she was the primary--and all too soon only--breadwinner in her family with a young daughter to raise, which I suspect was a spur to production.  It would be lovely to sit back and write leisurely as out wimsey takes us, but in the real world all too often privation is the primary spur--and it doesn't relent!

NOTE: There are copies of Tiger available on the used market, but at all costs I implore you to avoid even glimpsing the Eighties/Nineties Zebra edition of the book.  Zebra had a set design for the Disney reissues which was remarkable stupid, is all I can say.  It's especially bad with Tiger, but also for another title by her, The Magic Grandfather, as blogger John Norris has noted.  The Reade is Warned!  I'm trying to get DMD reprinted now.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Day of the Conflagration: No Next of Kin (1959), by Doris Miles Disney

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived late at Hartford, Connecticut on July 5, 1944--a portent of ill luck to the performers, like uttering the name of The Scottish Play during a theatrical performance.  As a result the early show for the day was canceled, but the evening gala went on, without mishap; and the next afternoon perhaps seven thousand people, by far the largest portion of which were women and children (one of whom was perennial Seventies game show panelist Charles Nelson Reilly), gaily trooped into the Big Top to see, among other delights, exotic animals, cavorting clowns and the dazzling leaps and dives of the Flying Wallendas.  It was a sweltering hot day with not a hope of rain, though had there been rain the great tent had been waterproofed with a coating of paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline--customary practice at the time time.

The 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed at least 167, inspired Doris Miles Disney's
crime novel No Next of Kin (1959)

Shortly after the lions did their tricks and the Wallendas took the stage, a fire broke out, possibly as a result of a spent cigarette carelessly thrown outside the tent by the men's toilets.  Coated with paraffin, the Big Top was a pyromaniac's dream.  It quickly went up into flames, as the crowd seated on the bleachers inside was overtaken by rising panic.  Some of the exits were blocked by animal cages and the chutes through which the big cats had exited to safety. 

With scorching flames reaching one hundred feet into the air, the Big Top collapsed within ten minutes on the people still trapped below.  Nearly 170 men, women and children (possibly more) were killed variously by flames, smoke, desperate leaps from the stands and the trampling bodies of other panicked, fleeing people.

One body that was never identified, that of well-preserved little white blonde girl, caught the public imagination.  She became known as "Little Miss 1565," after her identification number at the morgue.  To this day this child has never been conclusively identified.  

Crime writer Doris Miles Disney (1907-1976) was a native of Connecticut and lived there the majority of her life, only departing permanently from the state in the last decade of her life.  In 1958, when she looking for an idea for the twenty-fifth of her nearly fifty crime novels, she "lit" upon the Hartford Circus Fire.  This novel she titled No Next of Kin.

The prologue of the novel, titled September 1954, is gripping.  We learn that a twenty-three-year-old woman named Andrea Langdon has just collected her five-year-old illegitimate son, Greg, from his carers since his birth, a couple named Effie and Walt Horbal, who live on an isolated farm in rural Connecticut.  To her wealthy widowed businessman father she plans to introduce Greg as a boy she has decided to adopt as a result of her orphanage charity work.  

At a town which the mother and son pass through on their drive, they come upon the Annual Fair and they decide to see the sights there for a short while.  A fire breaks out while they are there and tragically Greg is among the casualties.  

This is an effective vignette, to a great extent because the author doesn't blanch at killing off a sweet-natured little boy, who clings the whole duration of the last minutes of his life to the spotted toy dog his mother gave him.  A likeness of the dog graces the front of the hardcover edition (see above right).  Greg becomes known in the press as "Little Sir 915," since Andrea in self-preservation does not identify the dead boy as her son.  

Chapter One takes place four years later when Andrea, now twenty-seven, is living at her wealthy father's country home, helping to manage his political campaign for Congress.  When she appears on television with her father, she becomes the subject of a blackmail plot by the scoundrel father of her child, who is working in collusion with Walt Horbal.  She'd better pay up, see, or they will reveal she had an out-of-wedlock child!

Andrea had thought the Horbals had moved out to Nevada and apparently she didn't think at all of the father of her child, Seymour Boyd, a rotter from a good (i.e., wealthy) family who impregnated her when she was an impressionable eighteen year old schoolgirl and then walked out on her, not realizing her dear pa was so loaded with dough.  

What does Andrea do now?  Will she try to pay them off?  Will the rogues fall out?  Will that charming reporter, Fergus MacDonald, whom Andrea recently met at a political do, come to her rescue?  The answer to these and other questions you probably know already.

No Next of Kin is a short book of about sixty thousand words, but I increasingly lost interest in it as I went along.  I wouldn't say a single thing that happened between its covers surprised me, aside from what a dreadful wet noodle Andrea turns out to be--and maybe this shouldn't have surprised me.  

Famed "sad tramp" clown
Emmett Kelly after the fire

After all, look at what a collection of limp dishrags Mignon Eberhart heroines usually turn out to be! But the prologue raised my expectations that Andrea might turn out differently from what you get in Eberland.  Alas, no: Andrea evidently would have gone on paying blackmail forever had her problem not taken care of itself and Fergus stepped in for good measure.  

Andrea actually pliantly turns over $50,000 to the shit Seymour Boyd--about $468,000 in modern worth.  That's how much money Andrea has to play around with.  I really found myself not caring at all about the fate of this privileged and self-centered person.  

I've seen this one referred to as DMD's best book and it was her only selection, I believe, in the Dell Great Mystery Library, but I have read better by her.  It may be the historical connection to the Hartford Circus Fire that it intrigued people (this book was mentioned in DMD's obituaries), but the real life fire was vastly more interesting and tragic.