Sunday, February 26, 2023

Cozy Sundays: Something Felse? A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (1965), by Ellis Peters

I am going to get ambitious here and try to start some weekly blog series: 

Classic Fridays

Cozy Sundays 

Manic Mondays (noir and hard-boiled and thrillers)

We shall see how it goes!

I have been looking at modern cozies lately and the history of cozy mystery writing and will have more to say about them generally, but I thought I would inaugurate Cozy Sundays with a look at someone I think is, along with Patricia Wentworth, one of the Grandmothers of the cozy (or cosy as they spell it in England): Edith Pargeter or Ellis Peters (1913 to 1995).  

Edith Pargeter, aka Ellis Peters, later in life

Prolific British author Edith Pargeter wrote a variety of fiction and non-fiction but she is most associated today with the mysteries written mostly under her pen name Ellis Peters, particularly her 21 volume Cadfael Chronicle (20 novels and a single book of short fiction), about the adventures of a crime-solving herbalist monk in 12th-century England and Wales.  This series commenced in 1977 and ended in 1994, a year before the author's death at 82, and was a huge success with readers, developing a "cult-like following," as they say.

Myself, I must confess that I, like professional poo-slinger Julian Symons, have never actually finished a book in the series.  

Yet what I have read of and know about it strikes me as vintage "period cozy," as it were.  Certainly Julian Symons, an anti-cozy critic, pronounced Peters' Cadfael series as "humdrum" and "ploddingly dull."  (He didn't bother to look at her other books.)

Certainly I wouldn't go so far as Symons, but I just do not get into the medieval period generally.  I should probably try the Cadfael books again though.  The fact that Symons is so dismissive of them makes me want to do so!

However, back in the 1990s I completed some of the books in Peters' other cozy mystery series, the George and Dominic Felse series, which was then being reprinted piecemeal by Mysterious Press.  Unluckily there are 13 books in this series, which the author soon abandoned after starting the Brother Cadfael series.  I read three back in the 90s: Death and the Joyful Woman (1961), The Knocker on Death's Door (1970) and the punning Rainbow's End (`1978), which I enjoyed reasonably well (especially Knocker).  

With much boosting from Anthony Boucher, Woman actually beat out Ross Macdonald's brilliant The Zebra-Striped Hearse to win the 1963 Edgar for best mystery novel of 1962 (the year when it was published in the US).  However in my view this one is somewhat overrated, as well as something of a rewrite of the first Felse mystery from a  decade earlier, Fallen into the Pit.

the younger Pargeter/Peters
The bulk of the Felse series, 11 books, appeared between 1961 and 1973 and they constituted the author's major contribution to mystery until the Cadfael books came along. I suppose the coziness level of Peter's writing could be said to vary, as I didn't find Knocker that cozy.  Indeed, it reminded me more of a Ruth Rendell.  

On the other hand, I deemed the Felse mystery which I read recently, A Nice Derangment of Epitaphs, decidedly cozy.  Everything in it is just so fundamentally nice and no one could possibly really break their heart over the murder.

The series is, cozily, about the nice Felse family, this consisting of George Felse, a "Midshire" (i.e.,Shropshire) police inspector, his wife Bunty and their precocious son Dominic, who takes the lead role, I would say, in six of these books.  (Bunty gets one to herself too.)  

In Epitpahs, Dom shares the family lead with his Dad, the family being on vacation in Cornwall, but both are peripheral compared with another, local family.  The Felses, you see, get tangled up in the affairs of the Rossalls, Tim and Philippa, or "Phil," their young son Paddy and family friend "Uncle" Simon Towne, who is "just about the most celebrated freelance journalist and broadcaster in the world."  

There's also an awful old ogress named Aunt Rachel, who is Tim's aunt and the owner of the great country house Treverra Place (more on this awful bitch below), along with her charmingly forbearing career gal lady secretary, Tamsin Holt.  

A tomb in an old church, archaeology, a couple of poems and family history from several centuries ago concerning the vanished "poet-squire" Jan Traverra all play a role in the tale, but I felt a little bored and at times frustrated with the whole thing.  The mystery is competently done, but a it's comparatively minor thing, fobbed off for the most part on subsidiary, or even non-existing, characters.  What Peters is really interested in is the Rossall family melodrama, which to me is really rather small beer when all is said and done.

Years ago I read a non-series Peters mystery, Never Pick up Hitchhikers! (1976),  that Jacques Barzun selected, with uncharacteristic generosity, as one of his 100 classics of detective fiction.  I thought it wasn't bad, but what most struck me about it was how out of touch Peters' young protagonists were with their own generation and age.  They were so nice (that word yet again), more like Mormon missionaries really, and they seemed to hate everything modern, like rock music and discos, as I recall, and certainly just said no to drugs and whatnot. 

I thought this novel made Agatha Christie's Third Girl, from a decade earlier, look positively swinging by comparison.  No wonder Peters took refuge in the medieval age--albeit in a period beset by anarchy, just like the Sixties and Seventies.  I was honestly surprised to learn that Peters had been a lefist in her youth. Certainly by her sixties she seems to have changed.

Or earlier, judging by Epitaphs.  I felt so sorry for poor Paddy, a sweet kid who seemed absurdly overprotected by his mother for a fifteen year old.  (I think that was his age.)  The rest of his family, his "uncle" aside (who is deemed an irresponsible figure by the rest), treat him like some sort of juvenile delinquent, just a step away from looting and pillaging. It's like Peters was trying to take on the generation gap or something, but the conflict between the generations here is comically quaint, to say the least, in the age of Charles Manson and Patty Hearst.

The worst of the wretched lot is horrid, imperious Great Aunt Rachel, mistress of Treverra Place, who takes it on herself to tell the poor boy that he was adopted and is unappreciative of all his parents did for him.  I thought Rachel was a monstrous old woman, who would have been treated as such in a PD James or Ruth Rendell novel.  Peters, however, lets her off with that slight, indulgent rap on the knuckles that some adoring British mystery writers reserve for the gentry, confident as they seem to be that if you live off centuries-old inherited income and reside in a big old house in the country you can't really be bad at heart.  

Me, I was so irked by all this I was driven to make some marginal commentary in the book, a paperback.  Language warning!  It's a non-cozy arrangement of invective, you might say:

The elders in this novel are a bunch of asses.

Oh, screw you, you old bag!

What a bitch!

What a bitch.

Screw you, you horrid old bitch.


Maybe it's a testament to the author's ability that she got a rise out of me to this extent, but I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had Aunt Rachel been the murderee.  This is my least favorite Felse so far.  It's something Felse, all right, but not in a good way.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye: Wall of Eyes (1943), by Margaret Millar

The Millars--Kenneth, aka Ross Macdonald, and his wife Margaret--were one of mystery fiction's great power writing couples, though they didn't write their mysteries together.  Between 1944 and 1976 Ross Macdonald published two dozen crime novels, only stopping when the early onset of Alzheimer's Disease made it impossible for him to keep writing, while between 1941 and 1986--an impressive 45 year span--his wife Margaret Millar published 21 crime novels and four mainstream novels, surpassing her husband's total by a single volume.

Margaret Millar started first and achieved the earliest fame when her psychological crime novel The Iron Gates (1945) was optioned as a Hollywood film vehicle starring Bette Davis.  (Unfortunately the project fell through.)  Ross Macdonald's career would belatedly take off in a big way a quarter century later in 1969 when laudations from the New York Times catapulted his books to bestselling status.  However, both authors had their partisans and they do so today.

I think both husband and wife were great crime writers, but it's probably safe to say that Millar wrote in a subgenre--so-called "domestic suspense"--which I find generally more congenial.  Long undervalued, domestic suspense has been quite coming back into its own of late, ever since Gone Girl hit so big around a  decade ago.  

Unquestionably Millar was one of the masters--or mistresses--of domestic suspense, just as Macdonald was one of the leading figures in the hard-boiled field.  However, Macdonald has benefitted from having a diligent biographer, Tom Nolan, who published a fine biography of the author in 1999 and sixteen years later co-edited, along with biographer Suzanne Marrs, a collection, entitled Meanwhile There Are Letters, of Macdonald's Seventies correspondence with the great southern American writer Eudora Welty, who was, it seems undeniable, rather smitten with him on a personal level--and he with her.  (Marrs is a biographer of Welty.)

It has been suggested that Ross and Eudora could have been a great romantic couple, had not Margaret Millar stood villainously in the way.  Certainly Meanwhile There Are Letters lends itself to this interpretation.  

While the RM biography portrayed the Millars' marriage as a rather rocky one, it nevertheless allowed in more positive portrayals as well from the numerous acquaintances of the couple whom Nolan interviewed.  Millar I find comes off far more negatively in Letters, where Welty's voice comes to the fore.  Welty, one might say, was not a fan of Millar--certainly on a personal level, but apparently on the reading level as well.  She heaped praise upon praise upon Macdonald's books but if she had a positive thing to say about Millar's I don't recall it.  Which is strange, considering that Welty was a great fan of mystery fiction, including the sort of psychological crime fiction at which Millar excelled.  But then it's clear that Welty simply didn't like Millar on a personal level, and doubtlessly that affected her view of everything Millar did.

Welty--who only actually met Macdonald a few times in person--was highly critical of Millar's treatment of her husband when he became afflicted with Alzheimer's; and there's no question that Millar lost her temper with Macdonald and on occasion berated him.  Welty was quite condemnatory of this, but then she never had to walk in those particular caregiver's shoes.  Taking care of someone with a disease like Alzheimer's is not easy, and we must remember that Millar herself was in her sixties and suffering from failing eyesight.  For all the undeniable appeal of the letters, Eudora Welty played only  a walk-on part in the drama of Ross Macdonald's daily life.

Still, there's no question, I think, that Millar, a native Canadian, was a rather unsentimental person with a mordant view of life and that didn't wear well with Welty, a florid, indeed occasionally gushy, southerner.  Doubtlessly Welty was more obviously loving and lovable.  An anecdote told by Welty that is included in Letters (which appears in Marr's biography of Welty but not Nolan's biography of Macdonald) highlights the differences between the two women. 

Upon learning of Macdonald's death in a care home in 1983, Welty wrote a good friend--retired editor Mary Lou Aswell, who decades earlier had co-written a Q. Patrick detective novel, SS Murder, with Richard Wilson Webb--the following embittered words: 

I'm glad it is over for him, and what I've come to feel is that he is FREE.  In particular of Margaret Millar, whose screaming abuse of him (it was in public) never did cease, when all he could do was stand there and take it.  After he was dead, when she was talking to her agent...she [the agent] asked if Ken had yet been cremated, [and] she [Millar] said, "Well, I really don't know-he may have been.  At some  point a charter plane scatters the ashes over the Santa Barbara channel, it's a service--I have nothing to do with it, and I'm working."  She was home working the night Ken died, and I don't know whether or not anybody was with him.

You very much get the sense of the southern lady here, especially in the words, "it was in public."  Whatever else Millar was, she was no southern lady.  She was blunt and often caustic--in real life and in her writing too.

In fact Millar's lack of sentimentalism over cremations appeared in print four decades earlier in her fourth detective novel Wall of Eyes, which some might deem her breakthrough book rather than The Iron Gates.  The novel is about a murder in the household of a genteel but neurotic Toronto family, the Heaths. When the novel opens the household consists of 

Its head Kelsey Heath, a beautiful but imperious blind woman who inherited control of the family money from her equally imperious late mother, Isobel

Kelsey's sister Alice, dutiful and rather embittered about it

Their jovial, irresponsible playboy brother Johnny

Their dotty widowed father, Mr. Heath, whose spirit was long ago crushed by the late Isobel

Kelsey's pianist fiance Philip, a determined hanger-on

And of course the servants: the maids, loyal Letty and insolent Ida; snooty butler Maurice; and a cook too, though I don't believe we ever see her.  

In terms of this setting Wall of Eyes could be an British manners mystery, though in fact it's much harder hitting.  Just compare the nightclub milieu with Ngaio Marsh's in Swing, Brother, Swing/A Wreath for Rivera, for example (reviewed by me here).  Marsh merely daintily skims surfaces, while Millar deigns to her fingers dirty.

The scene in the book which I'm talking about takes place in the novel between series sleuth Inspector Sands, who appears in three Millar detective novels, and Mr. Heath.  Margaret Millar later boasted to a Canadian newspaper interviewer that the great English poet W. H. Auden, who taught a class in which Ross Macdonald was enrolled in 1941 when he was a graduate student in English at the University of Michigan, told her that it was "one of his favorite scenes in any novel."  (Auden himself was a great mystery reader.)  

WH Auden
Ross Macdonald was a favored student
of his at the university of Michigan

Tom Nolan, who interviewed Millar for his Macdonald biography, quotes her on this story too:

"He [Auden] read one of my books and he thought it was terrific....He laughed himself sick about this certain scene I'd written....I was of course flattered."

Nolan, however, got the story wrong in his bio, declaring that in the novel "a character uses his trouser cuff as an impromptu ashtray."  Who is going to laugh himself sick over this?

I'll quote from the book so we get it right.  It's much funnier than that which is in Nolan's account, and also quite boldly irreverent.  

They both looked solemnly around the room but there was no ashtray.

I usually use my pants cuffs in moments like this," Sands said.  "But I haven't any cuffs."  

"I haven't either," Mr. Heath said.  He looked pleased and self-conscious like a schoolboy conspiring with his hero.  "There's that vase over there."

A Greek black-figured vase stood on the mantel, alone and important.  Sands lifted it off the mantel and passed it to Mr. Heath.  They both flicked their ashes into it, then Sands placed the vase on the floor between their chairs. 

"Isobel," Mr. Heath said.


"I said, that's Isobel."

"Oh.  Where?"

"In the vase."

"Is it?"

"Yes, that's Isobel."

Sands looked inside the vase and there, sure enough, was Isobel, pulverized beyond recognition.  He replaced the vase carefully on the mantel and brushed his hands on his trousers.

"Well," he said.  "If it'd been me I wouldn't have minded."

"Ashes to ashes."


So you will see that quite clearly what Auden laughed himself sick over was the two men dumping their cigarette ashes over those of Mr. Heath's dead wife Isobel.  

I thought it was a very funny scene as well when I read it, albeit in the Charles Addams sense, for sure.  So I think we can see now why Millar was unsentimental about her own husband's ashes!  

In fact Millar remained consistent unto herself until the endings of Ross' life and her own, but I can see how it would seem absolutely horrid to the more proper Welty.  I have my Mom's ashes and I sometimes look at the mantel and see the brass vase there which the mortuary provided and think, what is the point of it, they are just ashes.  But I, more sentimental than Margaret Millar, likely will scatter them over some ground in her home town someday.  I'd like to think it really means something.

Wall of Eyes is punctuated with mordant humor, but in contrast with its three predecessors, it's a very dark book, especially for its day, when women's suspense novels still tended to end in marriage (or its looming prospect) for their much put-upon good girl heroines.  In truth, Wall of Eyes' "heroine" Alice is not all that likable, perhaps like the author herself.  It's a daring gambit for a women's suspense author of the Forties.

Millar deliberately makes Alice--and indeed all of the Heaths, dotty Mr. Heath excepted--very much limited--nearsighted, if you will--by their own sheltered, upper class environment.  Later in the novel Millar brings in underworld figures from the Toronto nightclub world and the connections and contrasts between these figures and the upper class Heaths is quite intriguing.  Millar's is very much an author who presents characters "warts and all," be they upper or lower case, as it were.  This serves to make them realer, in my eyes.  

No one in this novel is idealized for the ease and comfort of the sensitive reader.  This is definitely not a cozy book.  Indeed there are quite a few references to sexuality, including the word "gonorrhea," spelled right out.  I wasn't surprise to find that Doubleday, Doran, the conventional publisher of her first three mysteries, balked at the sordidness and squalor in Eyes and refused to publish the book.  This sent its determined author instead to Random House, where she was vindicated when she got a much better contract.  

Parts of Eyes could even be deemed hard-boiled.  At this time in their lives both Millar and Macdonald were Raymond Chandler admirers and it shows in this book, as it would in many of Macdonald's.  Millar in fact evinced much of the same sardonic impatience with the world which characterized Chandler's world view.

Toronto Forties nightclub

For me Wall of Eyes has everything: interesting characters, sharp writing and a clever plot, with the patented Millar solar plexus twist.  (Was this the first time she achieved this in a novel?)  Indeed, I think it's one of the more important Forties crime novels and, indeed, I prefer it to The Iron Gates which seems to me more a novel about a woman's mental breakdown than a crime novel.  

Both of these novels benefit from the presence of Millar's short-lived series sleuth Inspector Sands.  Fictional sleuths tend to be projections of that creators, I find, meaning that if you have an interesting creator, you get an interesting sleuth.  Sands is a fascinating example of the Great Detective, who stands emotionally apart from events, always watching, always observing, living seemingly vicariously.  At the end of the novel he just wants "to get home, back to his familiar loneliness and anonymity, submerge like a submarine for a time."  Sands cuts a modern figure, as does this superb, ahead-of-its-time detective novel.