Thursday, September 14, 2023

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime Detective? Cornell Woolrich's Great Depression and the Pulps

Note from The Passing Tramp: I wrote this ages ago for a new Cornell Woolrich short story collection by high end publisher Centipede, and have decided to place it on my blog for now.  Maybe someday it will appear in a book.  Meanwhile, enjoy!  It's 5500 words, so pull up your chair and settle in.

            The Great Depression, which commenced in the United States with the calamitous stock market crash in the autumn of 1929, spread rapidly over the wasting country like a plague of locusts, devouring both American livelihoods and lives.  Yet adversity--sometimes with a little help from friendly Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, or Works Product Administration--also fostered creative art.  Adversity even gave us the crime fiction of Cornell Woolrich. 

            In 1929 Cornell Woolrich was still a Jazz Age wonder boy in his twenties living it up—to the extent that he ever truly lived anything up—in sunny southern California, where he had been lured by Hollywood to write screenplays on the strength of the success of his popular novels Cover Charge and Children of the Ritz and his slick magazine boy-girl romances.  In his own personal romance, this press-dubbed “California boy” eloped on December 6, 1930 with Gloria “Bill” Blackton, the younger daughter of a pioneering Hollywood filmmaker, but the marriage collapsed like a house of stock certificates, barely making it past Christmas.  “Bill” soon took up with another, evidently more virile, man: a colorful carnival hypnotist who used her as a shill for his stage act.  Woolrich for his part returned to New York City, where his mother, Claire Tarler Woolrich, who had been long estranged from Cornell’s half-Mexican father Genaro Woolrich, resided at the old Tarler home with her widowed sister Lillian.             

            Evidently not suffering overmuch from the first wave of the Depression (though the six Tarler siblings would soon sell their late father’s house, dispossessing Claire and Lillian), Woolrich and his mother in 1931 set out on a several months long recuperative tour of Europe, returning to New York in November.  Upon their return Woolrich tried independently to live apart from Claire on his own money, just as he had when, at the age of twenty-three, he had moved out to California in 1927.  Back the young man had won a prize of $10,000 (about $150,000 today) and a film contract for his second novel, Children of the Ritz, but now, according to his recollection in Silent as the Grave’s first selection, “Even God Felt the Depression,” a chapter from his fragmentary memoir Blues of a Lifetime, the prize money was running out on him, like grains of sand shifting to the bottom of an hourglass. 

            The market for those winsome romances which Woolrich had once spun in magazines like College Humor and Live Girl Stories had gone decidedly stale, like a year-old box of chocolates, and in all of 1932 he scored only two sales, both of them to Illustrated Love, for “Orchids and Overalls” and “Women Are Funny.”  “No one cared who got the girl in the story anymore,” Woolrich ruefully reflects in “Depression.”  “They knew he couldn’t keep her very long, nowadays.”  By February 1933 the once-celebrated author had only sixty-one dollars left to his name. 

            When his attempt, drawing on his recent European tour, to publish, with an aim to selling the film rights to Hollywood, a frothy novel called I Love You, Paris ignominiously failed, Woolrich decisively dropped the manuscript in an ashcan.  During the crisis then sweeping across America, he noted in “Even God Felt the Depression,” women, whom he deemed “less fit for a nomadic life,” had been moving “back under their parents’ roofs, if they were lucky enough to have parents who still had roofs.”  Fortunately for Woolrich, he had, like those lucky women, one parent to fall back upon in his moment of desperate economic and emotional need.  He took the womanish part, as it were, and joined his mother when she moved into a suite at the Hotel Marseilles. There he would remain with Claire until her death twenty-four years later in 1957. 

            Meanwhile, in 1932 the woman to whom Woolrich had remained married, Bill, had boldly traversed the continent from Los Angeles to New York City in order to pursue a career on the stage, having awakened from her passionate but ill-advised fling with the carnival hypnotist.  In July 1933 Bill, like a vengeful bride in black, to great newspaper fanfare sued Cornell in a New York court to annul her marriage on grounds of nonconsummation, subjecting her unsatisfactory husband to a summer of national humiliation as a pallid aesthete who had “loved his wife too well to kiss her.”  Not altogether helpfully divulging, during an ostensibly confidential chat with newspaper reporters, that Cornell was so distraught over the whole wretched affair she feared he might leap to his death from one of the hotel windows, Claire for her part vowed to nurse her sensitive boy through this, the latest of the Tarler family crises. 

            Meanwhile the urge to write—and the need actually to make some money as the Depression dragged on and on—still burned within the author, who had reached his thirtieth year.  While love may have soured in fiction during the early Thirties, crime seemed more relevant than ever, with the fearsome likes of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker and the Lindbergh Baby kidnapper (revealed as Bruno Hauptman in 1935) running murderously amok.  Perhaps with thoughts of death still uppermost in his mind, Cornell in May 1934 typed out his first crime story for the pulps, “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair.”  The story appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly three months later and netted its author the sum of $105 (about $2100 today).  It proved a popular piece, and Cornell took to crime like he was Public Enemy Number One.  “Chair” would be the first of some two hundred pieces of short fiction which he would publish in the crime pulps, making Woolrich one of the most prolific pulp crime writers of the period, not to mention one of the very best. 

            Throughout the Thirties and into the Forties, when his career as a crime novelist began to overtake his shorter work in the crime pulps, Woolrich published frequently not only in Detective Fiction Weekly (fifty-one works, not counting the serialization of his novel Phantom Lady), but Dime Detective (thirty-one), Argosy (twenty-three), and, last but not least, Black Mask (twenty-two), fabled home of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and other hard-boiled writers.  The pulps offered the now publicity-averse author a mouse hole in which to hide while he furiously typed a succession of tales of detection, thrills and--most notably of all--anxiety.  Doubtless there were tougher pulp writers than Cornell Woolrich, but not one of them was as anxious as he and the harried characters that he created.  The pale, auburn-haired, anemic-looking man holed-up, like a bantamweight Dillinger, in his room at the Hotel Marseilles seemingly was harried by a thousand fears; and he gave those fears free reign to roam amid the looming shadows of his unforgettable crime fiction. 



            “Dime a Dance,” the first of the sixteen entirely fictional pieces included in Silent as the Grave, originally appeared in Black Mask in February 1938 and was published in book form as the title and lead story in the Woolrich short fiction collection The Dancing Detective in1946.  One of the author’s finest and eeriest crime novelettes, “Dime a Dance” has been reprinted numerous times; and it was grippingly adapted for both productions both on radio (a 1944 Suspense episode starring Lucille Ball) and television (a 1995 episode of the series Fallen Angels, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Jennifer Grey).  

            The narrator-protagonist and “dancing detective” of the story is Ginger Allen (so named on account of her red hair, of course): a hard-bitten, pugnacious taxi dancer in the city who daringly goes on the trail of a mad serial killer when her best friend, another taxi dancer, is murdered.  The pathos inherent in the scuzzy, soul-enervating milieu of Depression-era dance halls clearly inspired Woolrich’s melancholy muse, resulting in his classic novel Deadline at Dawn (1944) as well as the novelette “Taxi Dance Murder,” published in the obscure pulp magazine Ten Detective Aces in 1937, and this terrific Black Mask novelette from the following year.  “Dime a Dance” also draws on Woolrich’s own youth, when, according to the first chapter of Blues of a Lifetime, his cosmopolitan Grandfather Tarler took him in 1912, when he was just eight years old, to see Giacomo Puccini’s great tragic opera Madame Butterfly (then itself just eight years old) at Mexico City’s Palace of the Fine Arts.  It seems that our dance hall killer in “Dime a Dance” is obsessed with a popular standard tune, inspired by the opera, called “Poor Butterfly.”  Today’s readers may also be reminded of the morbid award-winning video to Tom Petty’s hit song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993), with Kim Basinger playing the title role.

            There is one caveat to the story, however: one has to wonder whether Woolrich’s account of seeing the opera in Mexico City is imaginary, for the Palace of Fine Arts, started in 1904, was barely even a shell in 1912, when Woolrich was eight years old.  Authorities suspended construction the next year and it was not resumed for two decades.  The magnificent building was finally completed and the inaugural performance held in 1934, the same year Woolrich published his first crime fiction.  Perhaps Woolrich and his father really saw the opera at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, built in 1883 and demolished in 1967, a year before Woolrich’s death.

            “Two Fellows in a Furnished Room,” originally published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1941 under the title “He Looked Like Murder,” is another of Woolrich’s classic crime novelettes, although surprisingly it was little anthologized, aside from its appearance in 1946 as the second tale in the Woolrich collection The Dancing Detective.  However, the novelette was adapted to film in 1947 as The Guilty, starring Don Castle, one of the better flicks based on a Woolrich crime tale; and more recently, in 2019, Otto Penzler included it in his Big Book of Reel Murders.  “Fellows” is a prime example of what Woolrich biographer Francis Nevins has classified as one of the author’s “oscillation” thrillers: a story in which one character fretfully fluctuates between belief and disbelief as to another’s guilt of a crime (usually murder).  Here the doubter and the doubted are roommates and besties Stewart “Red” Carr--another redhead like Ginger Allen, Lucille Ball and the author himself--and John Dixon.  Put the names together, incidentally, and you get John Dixon Carr.  Surely the resemblance to the name of the great locked room detective novelist John Dickson Carr, an American contemporary of Woolrich’s, is not coincidental. 

            Over the course of the story narrator Red agonizes over whether John Dixon guilty of the horribly brutal murder of his pretty young girlfriend Estelle Mitchell (who shares the name of Woolrich’s own aunt, Estelle Tarler Garcia)?  The author skillfully manipulates his tale to make Red’s convictions--and the reader’s--oscillate wildly over the matter of John’s guilt.  The anxiety that is resultantly induced is terrific, while the Depression-era milieu of the modest rooming house and the neighborhood bar is memorably conveyed and there is admirable detection concerning fingernails on the part of our amateur sleuth, Red.  (This is something for which Woolrich tends to get little credit, but it would surely have pleased none other than John Dickson Carr, who himself was no slouch either at tension and atmospherics). 

            Indeed, Red Carr and Ginger Allen would have made a good sleuthing couple.  Both “Dime” and “Fellows” are moving tales of same-sex friendship, although when “Dime” opens, Ginger’s best friend, Julie Bennett, is already dead.  (We learn she was off men, however.)  The ultimate fate of Red’s and John’s friendship is one of the points of interest of “Fellows” and it is handled with characteristic poignancy by the lonely author.  In the film version of the novelette, male friendship contrastingly is much downplayed in favor of more traditional boy-girl love interest, with an added twist in culpritude.

            The memorably titled “You’ll Never See Me Again” is the third and last of Woolrich’s major “annihilation” tales (as Francis Nevins terms them) published by Centipede, in which the male protagonist’s wife/girlfriend seemingly vanishes without a trace.  (The other two are “I Won’t Take a Minute” and “All At Once, No Alice.”)  All thee of the trio draw upon the teasing urban legend known as the Paris Exposition story, about a young Englishwoman whose mother disappears from a Parisian hotel during the 1900 Exposition Universelle, with all the hotel staff claiming never even for a second to have glimpsed her parent.  Other notable fictional tales inspired by the Paris Exposition story are Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel The End of Her Honeymoon (1913), John Dickson Carr’s radio play Cabin B-13 and Evelyn Piper’s novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957), not to mention the 2005 film Flightplan, starring Jodie Foster. 

            “You’ll Never See Me Again” originally appeared in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1939 and, like Woolrich’s crime classic “Marihuana,” it was published singly a dozen years later in Dell’s dime novelette series.  It also was adapted for radio’s Suspense series in 1944 and as British and American telefilms in 1959 and 1973 respectively.  Arguably it is the best of Woolrich’s three great annihilation novelettes.  Certainly it is the most plausibly explained!

            “Murder at the Automat,” another of Woolrich’s finest novelettes, was originally published in Dime Detective in 1937 and has been reprinted multiple times, including in Francis Nevins’ seminal 1971 Woolrich collection Nightwebs and the excellent 1982 anthology Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries.  (“Automat” is often classified as an “impossible crime” story.)  A tale of the police investigation into the death of a man who expires after consuming a poisoned bologna sandwich at an “automat”--a type of fast food restaurant serving simple foods and beverages via vending machines that became very popular in New York in the Twenties and Thirties and was evocatively depicted in Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat--Murder at the Automat scores decisively both as a searing picture of Depression-era life in New York and as an intriguing murder mystery problem.  There is as well some of Woolrich’s (and the genre’s, and real life’s) police brutality on the part of a blustering, vicious police precinct captain, who is determined to pin the crime—through force if necessary--on an innocent man.  Happily heroic Officer Nelson isn’t “the kind of a dick that would have rather had a wrong guy than no guy at all, like some of them.”  For “Murder at the Automat” Woolrich earned $140, or about $2640 today—an upgrade from the $105/$2120 which Woolrich made for “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” three years earlier.

            “Bequest,” originally published in Detective Tales in 1942 under the title “Implacable Bequest,” and “Collared,” originally published in Black Mask in 1939, are more minor, although interesting, works.  “Bequest” was reprinted in the Woolrich collection Nightmare in 1956, while “Collared” was reprinted in 1950, coincidentally, in both the hardcover edition of Somebody on the Phone and the paperback Six Nights of Mystery (under the title “One Night in Chicago”).  “Bequest” is a grim little number which opens with a husband and wife on the run, in an automobile somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast, from the consequences of a crime which the husband committed back in Pennsylvania. The scrupulous wife parts permanently from her husband, leaving him to face the wicked devices of a couple of exceptionally nasty hoodlums similarly fleeing from ill deeds done.  A couple of ironic twists of fate follow.  In “Collared” a gangster’s moll tells of the creative revenge she connives upon her physically abusive boyfriend—but does the dish she serves to him instead choke her?  “Collared” is a good story, constructed around its clever punning title, though it is a bit robbed of dramatic force, perhaps, by the moll’s relentlessly flippant patter in “gangsterese.” 

            “Fountain Pen,” originally published under the title “Dipped in Blood” in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1945, is a clever exercise in deadly irony about a booby-trapped fountain pen that is reminiscent of the earlier Woolrich story “Cigarette,” published nine years earlier, although to my mind it is better written in Woolrich’s more mature style (i.e., less gangsterese).  “I.O.U.,” originally published under the title “I.O.U.—One Life” in Double Detective, was reprinted in 1956 in Nightmare and in 1965 in The Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, under the title “Debt of Honor.”  It tells of a gangster who saves the life of a cop’s daughter—and what he expects to extract from the cop in return.  Does he collect?

            The title story, “Silent as the Grave,” was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in 1945 and the next year was adapted as an episode of radio’s Molle Mystery Theatre and reprinted, in abridged form, in The Dancing Detective.  Moreover a 1954 French film, Jean Delannoy’s Obsession, was adapted from “Silent as the Grave,” along with Woolrich’s story “If the Dead Could Talk” (see below).  This “oscillation” tale is one of Woolrich’s cruelest exercises in wringing mental anguish out of one of his tortured characters.  It recalls “Bequest” and “The Red Tide” (see below) in evaluating what it means to love another person.  Do you really surrender yourself entirely and forgive anything if you are with your beloved “all the way”—or are there some transgressions which go too far for even love to follow?

            In “Grave,” which is back set during the early years of the Depression, Frances Mitchell, a classic naïve, young, almost masochistically self-effacing Woolrich heroine (“She wanted everything to belong to him, even her first name”), learns from her newlywed spouse Kenneth that he once murdered another man: “[He] had it coming, he deserved it.  He’d done me an injury.  And I never forgive an injury.”  Moonily telling herself that this revelation is something from “that other plane, the man’s world,” and that it “had nothing to do with her” and could never “affect their love,” Frances vows to Kenneth: “You’ll never hear me speak of it again….It’ll never pass my lips.  I’ll be as silent as the grave, dear heart.  As silent as the grave, forever.”  This lover’s resolution is put to a test years later when Kenneth loses his job during the Depression due to the caprice, as he tells Frances, of a malicious boss; and the boss turns up dead in a street, murdered.  Another man is arrested for the crime, tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the chair, even though, Frances fearfully suspects, her husband may have been the actual culprit.  Does her secret knowledge of her husband’s prior vengeful murder matter now?  Should she still remain, as she romantically promised, silent as the grave, forever?

            “I’ll Take You home, Kathleen,” presents an interesting illustration of Cornell Woolrich’s revision and recycling process with his work.  In his biography of the author, Francis Nevins often righteously flails Woolrich for dishonesty in frequently presenting, during his later years, revised republished material as “new,” yet the truth is that Woolrich in this thrifty practice was hardly unique among prolific crime writers.  Off the top of my head, British crime writers Andrew Garve, Richard Hull and Leonard Gribble, for example, each essentially published the same novel twice under different titles.  The harrowing novelette “One Last Night” originally was published in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1940 and, doubtlessly entirely forgotten by the vast majority of Woolrich’s readership by this time, reappeared sixteen years later in Nightmare, in slightly revised form and evocatively retitled “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”—this title recalling the title of the popular 1875 song by Thomas Paine Westendorf, recorded by such artists as Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin, Slim Whitman and Elvis Presley. 

            One of the author’s rare stories with a southern setting (though Woolrich himself, due to his half-Mexican father’s engineering jobs in Texas, must have had some familiarity with the region), “Kathleen” tells of socially ostracized “jailbird” Denny Burke, who after his release from prison returns to his home town to get one last glimpse of his beautiful former girl, Kathleen Leary, now affianced to Larry Kirby, the snooty, privileged son of the town banker.  When a fall hobbles Larry at a dance, Denny offers to take Kathleen home in his stead and, to the consternation of her friends, she assents to Denny’s desire.  When Kathleen disappears during their walk home and her violently slain body is discovered in the woods, Denny is immediately suspected of her murder and--this being the South--threatened with lynching.  Can his only friend, parole officer Bill Bailey, get to the bottom of the affair and save him from the untender mercies of a lynch mob?  A sassy southern number by the name of Mary Lou Davis also has a key role to play. Extending the musical resonance, by the by, “Bill Bailey” recalls the 1902 Dixieland standard tune “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey”—surely no coincidence on the part of Woolrich, who frequently draws upon popular music in his writing. 

            “Kathleen” is a fine “wrong man” noirish tale with several points of interest, particularly its depiction of male friendship, which Woolrich sharpened in the revised version of the novelette.  When queried by the scoffing town sheriff as to just what he expects Bill Bailey to accomplish for him when the evidence is piled so high against his favor, Denny in the original version chirpingly replies: “You don’t know Bill Bailey!”  In the later version, however, Denny soberly explains: “Nothing.  I don’t care if he does nothing.  It’s just that you got to have a friend.  Just one friend, at a time like this.  That you know is around, somewhere around.  Or else there’s nothing to go on for, anymore.”  Those familiar with Woolrich’s life will know how closely this plaintive credo hit home with the author in his later, lonely years.  In the revised version Woolrich also gives the final paragraph of the novelette a darker impact, especially with its last line.  

            Additionally, “Kathleen” is distinguished by its sympathetic portrayal of the novelette’s minor black characters.  It even manages to remind readers which race was overwhelmingly the most common target of savage southern lynch mobs, which were still active in the Thirties.  When the temper of the crowd at the dance turns ugly after it learns of Kathleen’s disappearance, Sam and Leah, the black ticket taker and hat checker, quietly draw together and converse about the deadly predilections of white people:


            “Ain’t going to be so good for somebody, the way it looks tonight,” Sam told Leah.

            “If they do, it will be the first white one they’ve had around here since my grampas’s time.  He told me about seeing one once.”


            “You Take Ballistics,” originally published in Double Detective in 1938, is a clever little detective tale pitting police up against an ingenious murderer who thinks he has committed the perfect crime.  Over the years Woolrich wrote quite a few of these sorts of stories, which are more in the vein of detection vein than noir.  Francis Nevins deems them greatly inferior to Woolrich’s noir fiction, but to my mind they have considerable entertainment value.  However, “Ballistics” offers, as Nevins approvingly notes, some particularly repellent police third degree, which certainly shifted the sympathies of this reader, like those of Nevins, over to the side of the murderer.  The thuggish, abusive precinct police captain, Leffinger, gives booming voice to a standard police plaint, once often heard today as well, that it is not the cop but the criminal whom the law unjustly favors: “If we whack a confession out of him, all he’ll have to whisper is ‘police brutality,’ and the jury will throw it out.  They always do, the soft-hearted slobs.  The way the system is run in this state, the police have two strikes against them.  All the breaks are the criminal’s.”  Ballistics was collected in the Woolrich anthology Dead Man’s Blues in 1947 and, with the odious police brutality evidently much toned down, adapted for radio the same year (Suspense) and television a decade later (Heinz Studio 57). 

            “The Red Tide” originally appeared in Street & Smith’s Detective Story in 1940, four months after “One Last Night” was published there.  Like “One Last Night,” “The Red Tide” later popped up again, revised and retitled, this time in the debut Woolrich short fiction collection I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1943).  Titled “Last Night,” it was substantially expanded and given a much different outcome.  Francis Nevins, who published “The Red Tide” in Nightwebs, greatly prefers the original version of the story, which I personally find savors a bit too pungently of the penny dreadful at the climax.  However, both versions are superb oscillation thrillers, in which Jacqueline Blaine comes to fear that her moody and tight-lipped husband Gil has, Macbeth-like, robbed and murdered a wealthy guest at their house.  “Last Night” also appeared as a 1943 episode of Suspense, possibly scripted by Woolrich himself, which was broadcast a few months after the novelette was published in I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes.  An interesting minor character in both print versions is the Blaines’ black maid Leona. 

            “If the Dead Could Talk,” a bleak 1943 novelette that was Woolrich’s penultimate publication in Black Mask, moodily tells the tragic tale of a love triangle among circus trapeze artists that culminates in death.  “That’s the way life goes; death beckons someone out of line, but the line keeps closing up,” reflects the narrator of the story.  The original angle to this tale of the triangle is that it is narrated by none other than the dead man himself.  “If the Dead Could Talk” has been reprinted several times, including in the Woolrich collection Dead Man’s Blues. Additionally it was adapted for a 1949 Suspense episode starring Dana Andrews of Laura fame and, as mentioned above, served, along with “Silent as the Grave,” as the partial basis for the 1954 French film Obsession

            “They thought it was the Depression the first time it happened,” is the opening line—perhaps Woolrich’s finest--of The Room with Something Wrong, a long novelette which originally appeared in Detection Fiction Weekly in 1938 under the title Mystery in Room 913.  The novelette secured Woolrich one of his comparatively few covers, with a striking illustration of a pajama-clad man falling to his death from the window of his hotel room; and, indeed, it is arguably his greatest effort in the pure mystery vein.  It has been reprinted numerous times, perhaps most notably in Douglas G. Greene’s and Robert C. S. Adey’s landmark 1987 anthology Death Locked In.  For the story Woolrich earned $575, or about $11,400—an impressive sum!

            “Room” tells of a series of seeming suicide dives taken during the 1930s from unlucky room 913 at the Hotel Anselm (just a few doors down, presumably, from room 923, which serves as the setting for Woolrich’s 1958 mainstream episodic novel Hotel Room).  In the Forties Woolrich observed that he had lived out most of his life in hotel rooms and he richly evokes this setting in his novelette.  “[F]ew writers could equal Woolrich in capturing the despair of the Depression and its seedy hotels and often shabby characters,” Douglas G. Greene noted in Death Locked In.  The memorably rendered lead character and sleuth of the story is hotel detective Striker, who “didn’t look much like a hotel dick, which was why he was good for the job.”  “Strike” might well have been the spiritual father of crime writer and frequent Woolrich anthologist Bill Pronzini’s pulp-collecting Nameless detective—or so it, um, strikes me:


He’d had his salary cut in ’31, and then again in ’32, but then so had everyone else on the staff….He was a tall, lean, casual-moving guy….lacked the usual paunch in spite of his sedentary life….had a little radio in his top-floor cubbyhole and a stack of vintage “fantastics,” pulp magazines dealing with super-science and the supernatural, and that seemed to be all he asked of life.


            When in 1933 a guest goes out of the window of 913 for the first time, the police, personified by unimaginative Officer Eddie Courlander, write it off as suicide: “It’s the depresh.  They’re poppin’ off like popcorn all over the country this week.  I ain’t been able to cash my paycheck since Monday.”  So written off, as well, are the fatal falls—jumps?—from room 913 which take place in 1934 and 1935.  Striker thinks differently, however, and, his warnings having gone unheeded by others, he takes increasingly desperate measures to get to the truth behind the series of deaths in 913, which to himself he terms “that hell box, that four-walled coffin, that murder crate….”  Will Strike finally “get” the room, or will the room get him? 

            Arguably Woolrich’s finest detective story—and it is a true detective story—“Room” is also one of the author’s best works, period.  Woolrich’s take on the classic “killer room” plot—other notable examples of which include Wilkie Collins’ “A Terribly Strange Bed” (1852), Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892) (which is explicitly referenced in “Room”), Eden Phillpotts’ The Grey Room (1921) and John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (1935)—is clever and legitimately clued, while the hotel milieu is persuasively portrayed and there is some fine wry gallows humor in the tale, a talent which the author too seldom indulged.  At one point readers might worry that Woolrich is going to crib a solution from Agatha Christie, but, never fear, dear readers, the author stoops to no such thing.  There is also a distinctively Cornellian dose of bracing irony administered at the end of the tale.  Nevins deems the novelette “one of the indispensable Woolrich classics,” a judgment with which I fully agree, though his characterization of the heroic Striker as “psychotic” and “warped” seems to me a product of Nevins’ unalterably noiry-eyed gaze.  Not everyone in Woolrich’s fictional universe is nuts!  “Room” seems to me a missed opportunity (so far) for filmmakers.

            The characterizations in “Room” are well worth noting too.  Particularly notable, to my mind, aside from Striker himself, is Woolrich’s handling of the Chinese lawyer Young and his Chinese songstress wife, who in an era and format rife with prejudice against Chinese-Americans, are portrayed respectfully, without resort to pidgin English and other egregious stereotypes of that time, despite their being suspects in the case.  Striker himself forthrightly reflects : “It’s because they’re Chinese that I was so ready to suspect them.  They always seem sinister to the Occidental mind.”  With all the aspersions cast against Woolrich’s personal character over the years—his own biographer portrays him as nothing less than a weak, neurotic, mendacious and malicious “self-hating homosexual”--not enough has been said, in my view, about his relatively Cosmopolitan attitude toward other races than his own, despite his working in a genre admittedly filled to the rafters with negative racial tropes. 

            “Wake up with Death,” which was originally published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1937, is one of the comparatively small number of Woolrich crime tales that has never been reprinted until now.  It features a plot device that Woolrich would use in such better known stories as “C-Jag” and “Nightmare,” of a man who wakes up from a binge believing he has killed someone.  This time around the murder evidence is right in front of the man’s, Don Stewart’s, eyes: there is a dead woman in the hotel room with him!  Nevins deems “Wake up with Death” a “fascinating tale, a sort of rough sketch for [the author’s] 1942 classic ‘Rear Window’.”  (A man in a room overlooking his own claims to have seen Stewart murdering the woman.)  However, to my mind the narrative tension is drained, as in “Collared,” by excessive flippancy in the telling. 

            Finally there is the aptly-titled “Crazy House,” which was originally published in Dime Detective in 1941 and later reprinted in 1985 in Blind Date with Death, one of Carroll & Graf’s Eighties Woolrich collections.  Set in San Francisco, where the author’s father Genaro had gone to business college back in the 1890s, “Crazy House,” as Francis Nevins has put it, packs “into less than twenty book pages enough story for a hundred.”  The story, in which by happenstance itinerant Bill Ingham pays a call one night upon wealthy Diana Miller at her family mansion and all hell breaks loose, has more resemblance to a mystery by the once hugely popular English shocker writer Edgar Wallace than to doomful American noir, but it certainly makes for a thrilling read while it lasts.  Cornell Woolrich may have been a poor haunted soul for much of his life, but the showman in him never forgot how to entertain his audience—and he continues to do so today.  Certainly that particular issue of Dime Detective was worth its cover price, even during the Depression.  Which, incidentally, was still a dime, though Black Mask had been marked up to fifteen cents.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Auctions! Some new listings at eBay

Here's a link to my latest book auctions at eBay.  Check it out.  I'm planning more listings next week.  I will try to get back to normal postings at my blog, but there has been a death in the familyand I have been very down about it.  I'm sure my readers will understand.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023


 Some auctions by me in which you might be interested.  Check out the listings, vintage mystery fans.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Back to Eden: Will the Crime Fiction of Eden Phillpotts Ever Really Be Revived?

When he was forty-six years old
Eden Phillpotts advised his 
nineteen-year-old Torquay neighbor
Agatha Miller to stick with the writing
thing and she would achieve success. 
And so she did--as Agatha Christie.

During the Golden Age of detective fiction, Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was deemed one of the major contributors to the mystery genre, yet today he seems barely remembered at all.  Had Dover not reprinted his novel The Red Redmaynes (1922) four decades ago and Martin Edwards more recently mentioned the book in his own work, it seems likely almost no one would today would know anything of him the author.  

I blogged about Phillpotts' crime writing and his unexpectedly controversial life back in 2013 and 2014 respectively, but those pieces, posted here at The Passing Tramp, seem to have made little dent in public consciousness.  Yet if you go back and look at the period, Phillpotts, an incredibly prolific "serious" writer who produced works in a multiplicity of genres, was considered rather a significant figure in detective fiction.

Phillpotts, who was born not long after the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War and died at the venerable age of 98 around the time the Beatles were playing in Hamburg, in the seven decades between 1888 and 1958 is said to have published some 250 books, nearly 120 of which were, by my count, novels.  

Although he was best known for his mainstream novels, particularly those which constituted his acclaimed Dartmoor Cycle" of tales, about one-third of his novels by my estimation were crime, mystery and adventure fiction. 

Yet Phillpotts did not become a regular producer of crime fiction unto 1921, when, a few months after his former near neighbor, Agatha Christie, published The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), he published the quasi-supernatural "room that kills" mystery The Grey Room, a book which critics of the day immediately hailed as a classic of the genre.  

Kerswell House, Broadclyst, Devon
the Victorian Gothic house where
Eden Phillpotts resided between 1929 and 1960

"At last we have come upon a horror story which horrifies, a mystery story which mystifies," cheered journalist Heywood Broun in his Books column in the New York Herald Tribune

 "Eden Phillpotts has given us a tale that will chill the very marrow in the reader's bones," pronounced the LA Times. "[A] worthy addition to the few splendid mystery stories of the last ten years," concurred the Oakland Tribune

I think the Twenties Phillpotts mysteries went over even bigger in the U. S.--where they were raving as well over the mysteries of Phillpotts' Yorkshire mainstream writer contemporary JS Fletcher--than in the UK, but across the pond The Guardian declared approvingly of The Grey Room that Phillpotts "essays the mystery story, and brings it off with considerable success and the right amount of thrill.

On this Seventies Pocket edition  
of Peril at End House,
which Agatha Christie dedicated to
her brief mentor Eden Phillpotts,
the house which artist Tom Adams 
drew rather resembles Phillpotts' own 
Devon home, Kerswell House.  The 
novel is set at a fictionalized Torquay,
where Christie and Phillpotts had been
near neighbors in the 1890s and the
early decades of the twentieth century.

Between 1921 and 1927, Phillpotts published a total of nine highly praised detective novels, four of them under an alliterative pseudonym Harrington Hext.  He then halted for four years, a period during which his first wife died from cancer and he remarried and relocated to another home in Devon, his place of residence for seventy years.  He published another mystery novel in 1931, the same year in which Agatha Christie published Peril at End House, a book which saw the return of Hercule Poirot to print after a hiatus of three years.  

Christie admiringly dedicated Peril to Phillpotts, who as a close neighbor of hers in the Devon seaside resort town of Torquay had encouraged her to continue with her writing way back in 1909.  

Between 1931 and 1944 Phillpotts would publish a total of 18 mystery novels, followed by a final one, George and Georgina, in 1952, when he was ninety years old.  His crime writing would continue to receive predominantly strong notices from reviewers, although by this time some American critics, the most notable of them being Anthony Boucher, began criticizing his writing as old-fashioned, even ponderous and dull.  

However, even in this period he produced some fine works, in my estimation.  I'll be discussing some of his work this week.  There is also a 11,500 word piece by me coming over at Crimereads on the author's crime writing and life.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Bringing Coles to New Readers: Shedunnit and Me and Douglas and Margaret Cole

I was pleased to participate in a Shedunnit podcast this month on the spousal mystery writing team of GDH (Douglas) and Margaret Cole, who were active in the English mystery world from 1923 into the mid-1940s, publishing twenty-eight detective novels and four books of short fiction, plus some odds and ends here and there, a few additional, uncollected short stories and a novella.  

During the Golden Age of detective fiction the Coles--prominent left-wing intellectuals who wrote crime fiction for kicks and a modest competence--were well-known in the mystery field, with most of their books published in the US as well as the UK.  

Although the authors when murderously moonlighting were dismissed as "unserious" about life by that ever-reliable Silver Age mystery writer, critic and occasional obtuse chowderhead Julian Symons, the Coles' mystery fiction did in fact include leftist political and social commentary that was uncommon in detective fiction at the time time.

One of their books (the highly satirical The Affair at Aliquid) even earned them a testy scolding in print in the Sunday Times from Dorothy L. Sayers for over harshly mocking Britain's clergy and aristocracy.  She Who Must Be Obeyed was Decidedly Not Amused.

Although the Coles signed both their names to most of their detective fiction, in fact the books were written primarily by one or the other, Margaret writing ten of them and Douglas writing eighteen.  (However, the non-writing spouse for any given volume would read over the completed manuscript and make suggestions.)  

The spouses similarly divided authorship of their sizeable body of short crime fiction, which includes, to my knowledge, nearly forty short stories and a novella. Their two most notable series characters are Superintendent Henry Wilson, a Scotland Yard detective in the mold of Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French (though he actually preceded French into fiction by a year) and Everard Blatchington, an insouciant amateur sleuth, like Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  

Douglas Cole wrote the first Cole mystery, The Brooklyn Murders (1923), on a dare from his wife while convalescing from illness.  It shows hugely the influence of Freeman Crofts, with a policeman sleuth and ample alibi busting.  

Next, also from Douglas' hand, came the altogether more original The Death of a Millionaire (1925), a murder mystery that is also a biting satire of English Jazz Age political corruption, complete with a unrequited same-sex love story.  (Cole himself was bisexually--arguably more homosexually--inclined, though he fathered three children with Margaret before he lost interest in sex altogether.)  The next year came the very amusing country house mystery The Blatchington Tangle, which decidedly resembles Agatha Christie's The Secret of Chimneys, published the previous year.

After that Margaret got in the game, with the non-series The Murder at Crome House (1927), which Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime proclaimed "the Coles' masterpiece...terse, witty, and to the point."  Four of her ten novel-length mysteries would feature Everard Blatchington, introduced in Douglas' Blatchington Tangle.  Her best mysteries, in my view, aside from Crome House, are Burglars in Bucks (1930), a witty epistolary crime novel like Dorothy L. Sayers' The Documents in the Case from the same year, Death of a Star (1932), a proto police procedural, Death in the Quarry (1934), Scandal at School (1935) and Counterpoint Murder (1940).  All but Crome and Counterpoint feature Everard Blatchington.  Counterpoint is arguable Superintendent Wilson's greatest case.

Margaret also wrote the five short works that comprise the interesting book Mrs. Warrender's Profession (1938), which chronicles the cases of a Miss Marple/Miss Silver like elderly gentlewoman sleuth.  Mrs.  Warrender appears in a single Margaret Cole novel, her last, Knife in the Dark (1941).  

Douglas' best novels, in my view, are the aforementioned Death of a Millionaire and Blatchington Tangle, as well as The Man from the River (1928), Corpse in Canonicals (1930), which introduces Supt. Wilson's friends Hubert and Emily Welsh, The Brothers Sackville (1936), Disgrace to the College (1937), another Everard Blatchington mystery, and Double Blackmail (1939).  

Of the roughly forty Coles short crime stories, I think the Coles split those about evenly, with Margaret authoring the classic satire "A Lesson in Crime" and the very darkly shaded "Glass" and probably the excellent late novella Death of a Bride (1945).  

Douglas wrote some classics like "Supt. Wilson's Holiday," the ultimate "footprints" mystery and the racism-skewering "The Oxford Mystery," as well as "In a Telephone Cabinet" and "Birthday Gifts," a neat pair of gadgety mysteries reminiscent of John Rhode.

All in all, an ample and impressive crime fiction legacy that merits dignified repriting.

For more on the Coles's mystery writing see my book The Spectrum of English Murder, available for purchase here.  It's loaded with spoiler warnings, no fear!

Sunday, June 25, 2023

From Stage to Page: Milton Herbert Gropper's and Edna Sherry's Inspector Kennedy/Homicide and Is No One Innocent? (with a tease on Edna Sherry's Sudden Fear)

The Bijou Theater, where Inspector Kennedy played, 
adjacent to the Morosco, where the Bat started it all

In December 1929, Inspector Kennedy, a mystery play co-scripted by Milton Herbert Gropper and Edna Sherry, premiered at New York's Bijou Theatre.  The decade of the Twenties had commenced with a roar on  Broadway with the staging of the hugely popular mystery thriller The Bat, adapted by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart from Rinehart's 1908 landmark mystery novel The Circular Staircase.  Although no Mousetrap (though it shares many points of similarity with Agatha Christie's mighty hit), The Bat was hugely influential in American theater, launching the so-called "old dark house" sub-genre of neo-Gothic mystery in stage and film.  

The Bat, which ran for two years and 867 performances, inspired many a playwright to take a stab at a crime thriller, particularly of the old dark house type like The Bat, loaded with clutching hands, sliding panels, masked murdering fiends and terrified, wilting, imperiled heroines.  Just from 1922 there came The Cat and the Canary (the best known of these plays after The Bat), Whispering Wires, The Monster and The Last Warning, none of which, it must be allowed, enjoyed the success of The Bat, though they performed decently to quite well, Cat and Canary leading the way (101 to 349 performances).  

Soon the old dark house thriller and its cinematic incarnations (all of these plays were adapted as films in the Twenties and Thirties) became utterly clichéd in the eyes of the critics (and audiences too, at least in New York), who resultantly became jaded rather than thrilled with the shocks they had to offer.  Later plays like The Gorilla (1925) and Sh! The Octopus (1928) bombed on Broadway, The Gorilla managing to stay open for just 15 performances and Sh! The Octopus for 47.  

There were as well numerous mysteries staged in the 1920s that dispensed with the gothic trappings of The Bat and its fearsome progeny in presenting less spooky murders, more akin to those found in classic detective novels of the 1920s.  (In England thriller writer Edgar Wallace made a cottage industry out of both types of crime plays, with The Terror, 1927, being his most notable contribution to the old dark house mystery.)  Milton Gropper's and Enda Sherry's Inspector Kennedy is one of these.  Though it takes place entirely within the walls of a wealthy New Yorker's brownstone house and the lights do go out a couple of times, its thrills are not really of the Gothic order, but rather the modern Twenties murder mystery (including a couple of locked room situations).

In 1929, when Inspector Kennedy premiered on Broadway at the Bijou Theater, Edna Sherry was a comparative neophyte in the world of stage.  Six years earlier in 1923 when she sold the stage rights to her play Guilty? to theater impresario Albert Herman Woods (formerly Aladore Herman), she was nearly forty years old and the married mother of two children.  Woods tried the play out in Baltimore on March 5 in a production starring lovely silent film actress Hazel Dawn and dashing English actor Henry Daniell, the latter of whom went on to a distinguished film career of over thirty years' duration, which for mystery fans included a definitive turn as Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce film The Woman in Green (1945).  

A review of Guilty? in the Baltimore Sun deemed the play's dialogue "stilted and unconvincing" but pronounced the plot "remarkably good" and and concluded that the play held promise if considerable revisions were made.  (The critic also panned Hazel Dawn, but singled out Daniell for praise for acting his part of the "neurotic artist" with "grace and finesse" despite "being killed three times during the performance.")  

"rough sketch" of the first floor of
wealthy dead man 
Dwight Mortover's brownstone

Sadly for Sherry, however, the production's electrician turned the play into an unintended farce by repeatedly turning on the lights while the hands were still on stage shifting scenes, inducing in the audience "roars of laughter" as startled men rushed "for elusive exits."  The play died a quick death in Baltimore and has never been heard from again.  

When Sherry and Milton Gropper together wrote Inspector Kennedy six years later, Sherry drew on elements of the plot of Guilty? for her new play.  The contribution of Gropper--a handsome playwright and screenwriter of Rumanian Jewish origin who, though a decade younger than Sherry, had already had a half-dozen plays performed on Broadway, including the provocatively titled hit Ladies of the Evening, adapted in 1930 by Frank Capra as the hit film Ladies of Leisure, starring a youthful Barbara Stanwyck--seems to have been with the dialogue.  

The same year Gropper and Sherry had collaborated on a Hollywood courtroom mystery film (another popular stage mystery subgenre in the Twenties), Through Different Eyes, which innovatively was told in a series of flashbacks from three different perspectives, recalling the classic Japanese film Rashomon (1951).  The New York Times deemed the film an "ingeniously conceived murder trial story."

William Hodge and Margaret Mullen
in Inspector Kennedy/Homicide

Unfortunately, Inspector Kennedy fared less well with New York critics and died a fairly quick death there, running for only forty-three performances over December 1929 and January 1930, despite starring, in the title role, popular actor William Hodge, who also directed the play.  However, later that year Hodge took the play, retitled Homicide, on the road, performing in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Wilmington, Boston and Windsor, Ontario, among other locales, to much greater praise and success.  

The same year Gropper and Sherry published a novelized version of Inspector Kennedy/Homicide, retitled Is No One Innocent?  

The novel adapted the plot of the play, concerning the murder of a despised rich man by the name of Mordaunt in a locked room (the living room in this case), actually changing the identity of the murderer.  "Rough sketches" of the first and second floors of the house are provided, along with a raft of suspects, all of whom, with one exception (and he ends up as the second murder victim) confess to the crime!  

Let's see, there's the pretty secretary, the business partner and his son, the glamorous movie star, the professor and Mary Ann...Wait a minute, let me start over!  

The pretty secretary, the business partner and his son, the lawyer nephew, the housekeeper, a drug-addicted girl, and the visiting telephone repairman....There's also a Chinese butler named Wong, but he gets dispatched before he ever gets to utter more than a few lines.  He never had a real chance to confess to the crime had he been so inclined!  He's killed in the locked living room too, under similar circumstances to the first murder, right under Inspector Kennedy's eyes, though in the dark.  

Goo Chong on stage

Aside from William Hodge, the play's cast included in the role of the secretary one Margaret Mullen (Margaret Mullen Root), a tall, pretty brunette then only nineteen years old, who later became a fixture at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which Philadelphia mystery writer Milton Propper fictionalized in his detective novel The Station Wagon Murder (1940), reviewed by me here.  There's a nice interview with the actress, who died in 2003, here,  

The chinese butler Wong was play by Goo Chong, or Peter Chong, a pioneering American Asian stage and film actor, though his film roles mostly went uncredited.  (He was credited, however, as Ingrid Bergman's cook in The Inn of Sixth Happiness and Fred Astaire's valet in Easter Parade.)

Peter Chong as Fred Astaire's 
manservant in Easter Parade

Gropper's and Sherry's collaborative work ended after this and Edna Sherry faded from the world of the New York stage, never having made, truth be told, a lasting impression.  Her early stage writing did serve her well, however, when, eighteen years later at the age of sixty-three, she published her second novel and most famous work, the suspense thriller Sudden Fear (1948).  This classic, filmed in 1952 as a highly-regarded Joan Crawford vehicle, will soon be back in print, courtesy of Stark House.  More on this soon!

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Children's Hour--Lady Bountiful in a Red Roadster: The Hidden Staircase (1930) and The Secret of Red Gate Farm (1931), by "Carolyn Keene"

My sister's bedroom in our ranch house in Northport, Alabama back in the 1970s was decorated in colors of pale yellow and blue.  In the corner, by the only window in the room, which looked down the sloping lawn, was a metal bookcase, painted yellow, where she kept her books.  Being extremely bookish from a young age, I naturally took peeks at them now and again.  She had some books my Grandmother Ada from California had bought her, like The Borrowers, Mr. Mysterious and Company,  the first two of Frank Baum's Oz novels and a number of Nancy Drew mysteries, the yellowbacks with the pictures directly on the front covers (no dust jackets).  I can still remember the ones she had from looking up the covers on the internet: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Secret at Red Gate Farm, The Clue in the Diary, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Secret in the Old Attic, The Clue in the Old Album.  (I don't recognize any others.)  

I don't know that my sister was too devoted to Nancy Drew; she wasn't a big reader in general.  I remember being intrigued by that Hidden Staircase cover with Nancy, looking rather school librarian-ish in her sensible blue blouse, skirt and shoes, intrepidly traversing that old stone staircase, that beaming flashlight in her hand.  I never read any of them, however, at least that I can recall.  

By 1974 I had started reading Agatha Christie mysteries, starting with four Pocket paperbacks that my Mom bought when we lived in Mexico City  (Easy to Kill as it was called, Ten Little Indians, as it was called, Funerals Are Fatal as it was called, and The ABC Murders).  Before Agatha my favorite book compulsion was L. Frank Baum's Oz series of fantasy children's books.  (I was the only kid in my set who knew there was more than one.)  Nancy had to wait.  As for the Hardy Boys, I had one my Mom got me, when I was in the fourth grade I think, called The Scarlet Claw.  I don't believe I ever even cracked the covers.  Oddly enough I did read a Bobbsey Twins book that had mysterious elements, but I forget the title.

When the 1990s rolled around and I was in graduate school studying history (and a great mystery reader), I bought some of the facsimile eds. of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries reissued by the publisher Applewood.  The fact that these were replicas of the actual stories from the 1920s and 1930s interested me.  Beginning in 1959, the year my sister was born, the older Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys were heavily edited and updated, in some cases essentially rewritten.  I had no interest in any of that.  A love of history and "Golden Age," between-the-wars mystery, I wanted to read those books, if I ever got around to reading them, as they originally appeared, within the true context of their times.

Finally I've gotten around to reading a couple of Nancy Drews: The Hidden Staircase (Yes!) and The Secret of Red Gate Farm, the second and sixth books in the series, originally published in 1930 and 1931 respectively, in the heart of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  

Many of you will be very familiar indeed with the plots of these beloved children's mystery novels.  Hidden Staircase may be the single most famous Nancy Drew title.  It opens when privileged, blonde, sixteen-year-old teenage do-gooder Nancy, all alone at the Drew home in River Heights (her father, big shot attorney Carson Drew, has been called out of town on a case, and the housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, has her day off), gets a visit from a repulsive, rude stranger from nearby Cliffwood, Nathan Gombet, who to Nancy accuses her father of having cheated him in a land deal.  Nathan, you see, is a miser and frankly rather off his rocker.  

After Nancy gets rid of this objectionable person, the book rather hangs fire for a bit.  The teen gets a visit from Allie Horner, one of the many people, it seems, who has benefitted from Nancy's crusading goodness.  Allie and her sister Grace had lived on a farm, where they "were undernourished and beset with financial worries," but, all due to the efforts of Nancy, "the girls had come into an inheritance and their troubles had vanished."  (All this is detailed in the debut mystery in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock.)  They discuss Nathan Gombet a bit and Allie confirms he is bad news.  Then Carson Drew gets home and they discuss Nathan some more. 

A few days late Nancy visits the cottage of Abigail Rowen, another beneficiary of Nancy's decsive intervention in the Old Clock case: "Nancy had found in her deplorable condition.  There was little food, or money with which to buy it, and Abigail had firmly refused medical attention because she could not pay for it.  It was through Nancy's instigation that she had received her inheritance from the Crowley estate...."

Ronen Mansion, Stone City, Iowa
Abigail introduces Nancy to her friend Rosemary Turnbull, "an elderly maiden lady" (she's actually no more than forty-five by my calculation) who resides in Cliffwood with her twin sister Floretta at an old stone mansion, naturally called The Mansion.  It seems that, like all the other maiden ladies mentioned above, the Turnbull sisters have a problem for Nancy Drew to solve: their house is infested with poltergeists!  

Noises all over the house, shadows on the walls and objects disappearing, even when all the doors and windows are locked.  Yes, technically this is a locked room mystery, though you will have about as much trouble answering that riddle as you would in a Carolyn Wells detective novel.

Finally, after forty pages and five chapters, Nancy gets to The Mansion, where she finds Floretta all aflutter!  She wants to move out of the house immediately!  Hey--could this be someone's clever plot to drive the Turnbull sisters out of their ancestral home, built before the Civil War?  I'll bet you a bag of Scooby snacks it could!

Nancy quickly decides that the Turnbulls are worthy objects of her benevolence and gets to work trying to find the true guise of the poltergeist.  Gazing at the family portraits that adorn The Mansion, she realizes "that once the Turnbulls had been the leading family in Cliffwood."  Although Rosemary and Floretta, the last of the local Turnbull line, are decayed gentlewomen with "an income only sufficient for their needs," they are, Nancy appreciates, "welcome in the best of society."  (Okay, this is apparently Iowa, so let's not get too carried away with pretensions.)  

As Nancy tells her father, "They come from an excellent family.  I believe The Mansion has belonged to the Turnbulls ever since it was built....It would be a tragedy if they had to sell the place now...I want so badly to help them."

Carson Drew has to go on a business trip to Chicago, but he hands daughter Nancy a revolver and tells her you go, girl, basically.  Which she does.  The gun doesn't play any real role in the novel, however, it's mostly just Nancy snooping around at the Turnbull place and later at another stone house that looks a lot like theirs.  It turns out that the pair of houses were built by two Turnbull brothers who were once close but then became enemies during the Civil War....And that wicked Nathan Gombet lives in the other house....And that he has been pressuring Rosemary and Floretta to sell their house to him cheap....

Solved the mystery yet?  Could a hidden staircase be involved somehow?  One thing you can say, at least this story has truth in advertising.  

Truth is, Nancy is no great detective here, just very determined.  But it's an enjoyable story nevertheless.  If there's one thing kids love, it's mysterious, secret passages in old houses and you sure get them in this novel.

A few books later Nancy is at it again, trying to discover The Secret of Red Gate Farm.  This time she has two pals, cousins George and Bess, whom she meant in the previous books when she was deciphering The Secret of Shadow Ranch.  George is a tomboy type and Bess is girly type of girl, with Nancy naturally being the golden (literally) mean.  (Wait for the modern adaptation where George is a lesbian of color.)  I think these two were added to the series because Nancy seemed a little lonely in Hidden Staircase.  (In that book her only friend, as opposed to charity case, who appears is Helen Corning, whom Nancy deems too gossipy to bring into the case.)  Never fear, though, George and Bess take orders from Nancy, who is very much the "Head Girl" type.  

Red Gate Farm opens with Nancy and Bess and George finishing a shopping trip in a nearby city.  They find a "quaint Oriental shop" on their way to the train station and stop in the place.  There they encounter an unpleasant Eurasian shopgirl, Yvonne Wong, and request to purchase from her a certain "Oriental scent" which pervades the shop; but the shopgirl does not want to sell it to them.  Finally, after being repeatedly badgered by the girls, she offers it to them for three dollars (about $53 today), and the girls chip in to buy it.  Of course this perfume will figure significantly into the story....

The girls head for the train station, grousing all the while complaining about the Eurasian shopkeeper.  "Snippy," pronounces George.  "I didn't like her looks.  She was too flashy or something."  On the train, however, they encounter an altogether nicer girl, Millie Burd, who will become the latest object of Nancy's benevolence.  They learn that Millie is seeking a job in the city because she and her grandmother, who live at Red Gate Farm, have to pay off the farm's mortgage and don't have the money.  Nancy accompanies Millie to her job interview and becomes suspicious that her would-be employer is a nogoodnik.  (He has "harsh features," saucy manners and wears a "bold" suit and "gaudy" necktie.)  Millie, who is rather a noodge really, doesn't get the job, and Nancy decides that she, along with Bess and George, will spend part of their summer vacation at Red Gate Farm as boarders to help out the Burds financially.  

not quite the nature cult the author had in mind
So off they all go to Red Gate Farm, where they are soon plunged in another mystery!  It seems that Grandma Burd has let part of her land (including a cave) to a weird nature cult of some sort, the Black Snake Colony, who dress up in white robes that make them resemble Ku Klux Klan members and dance about in the moonlight.  Well, of course Nancy has to get to the bottom of this!  And she does, but not until she and her chums face grave peril.  

Red Gate Farm is an enjoyable story, more eventful, than Hidden Staircase, but the whole edifice is built upon a succession of coincidences:  Nancy and her chums just happen to go into the Oriental shop and buy the bottle of perfume, which they they just happen, when a certain nogoodnik is present, to break on the train, where they just happen to encounter Millie Burd, who just happens to apply for a job at a place connected with the Black Snake Colony, which just happens to rent some land at Red Gate Farm, where Nancy and her chums just happen to board out for the summer.  Wow!  The gods surely know Nancy loves solving mysteries and are doing everything they can to help her along.  Fortune's child, that girl!

From the perspective of a Golden Age mystery fan, it's interesting to see a spurious religious cult popping up in Red Gate Farm, for these insidious organizations often are up to no good in adult mysteries of that time.  And of course there's the crooked Eurasian, with no "good" minority character to balance her.  In Hidden Staircase wicked Nathan Gombet--whom some have argued is Jewish, although I don't believe Gombet is a specifically Jewish surname--has a wicked black housekeeper accomplice, who is only ever described as "the colored woman" and has a hosts of negative descriptions: "fat," "slovenly," "surly-looking," "positively vicious," "looks as though she were an ogre."  

All the characters whom Nancy helps was well-born (by American standards), "nice" WASPish women, down on their luck.  The only minorities depicted in the book are villainous.  The other villains are obvious gangster types and are all marked by cruel faces and colorful dress.  One woman in Red Gate Farm declares that you can't tell who the criminals are these days, but I would say that so far in the Nancy Drew tales that is precisely wrong.  Villainy is openly revealed to Nancy, at least, in countenance and costume.  

Thankfully Nancy is more than capable of combating it.  Does Nancy ever actually attend high school, I had to wonder, when reading these books.  She seems to have ever so much free time.  My thought after reading these novels was Nancy is a Lady Bountiful type and sure enough when I searched those terms I came up with "American Sweethearts" Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture, an academic monograph by Ilana Nash.  She notes that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams--who for over half a century ran the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which published the Nancy Drew books, and wrote the original outlines for most of the Nancy Drew novels (many of which actually were then written by Mildred Wirt Benson)--very much believed in the Lady Bountiful ideal.  

A Wellesley College graduate and high society matron, Harriet Adams, according to Nash, adhered to a "model of female citizenship predicated on noblesse oblige, in which women influence the public sphere by uplifting the less fortunate and performing acts of philanthropy.  Adams frequently told interviewers that she used the Wellesley College motto to inform the character of Nancy Drew: "Non ministrari, sed ministrare ('Not to be ministered unto, but to minister')."  

Nash describes all this as a "vision of the ideal woman as a sort of Lady Bountiful," informed with "the ideas of first wave feminists of the turn of the century, whose vision of proper womanhood remained conservatively focused on the white privileged classes...."

I really sensed this myself reading these two Nancy Drew books and it put me off Nancy a bit, even though I enjoyed the books.  Nancy just seems so perfect and remote, almost like a Greek goddess or Amazonian princess.  She doesn't even seem ever to attend school and of course does not hold a professional job, instead devoting herself, in the classic manner, to amateur sleuthing, in order to charitably help those less fortunate than herself, these being, so far, entirely white women of good stock who through ill fortune and a certain lack of pluck have fallen on hard times.

Famously the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1959 began revising the earlier Nancy Drew titles, a task not completed until 1975, when all the novels published between 1930 and 1956 were revised.  Certainly a character like the "colored woman" from Hidden Staircase could never have survived to the present day.  That she even made it up to 1959 is striking.  Harriet Adams herself carried out the revisions of that novel.  

I'll keep looking at the Nancy Drew books, however (along with those from the rival Judy Bolton series).  These books will always take me back to my youth and my sister's little Nancy Drew collection.  Later on she began reading Seventeen, Madeisemiselle and Cosmopolitan and Seventies potboilers like Harold Robbins' The Betsy and John Jakes' The Bastard.  (I looked at those too.)  Nancy Drew and her more innocent mysteries of life had been left far behind, with George and Bess and her shiny red roadster.