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!