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.  


  1. I've only read a couple of Phillpotts's novels: Bred in the Bone and The Red Redmaynes. Old-fashioned and slow, no doubt; rather dour, like Thomas Hardy turned to crime; but intriguing. Characterisation certainly above average. I look forward to your 11,500-word piece in Crimereads!

  2. I liked some of his Harrington Hext novels. I've written about one of those on my blog -- The Thing at Their Heels. Prescient for some early detective novel rule-breaking, but often turgid and polemical. Overall he seemed to recycle some of his themes and conventions. For instance, both The Red Redmaynes and The Thing at Their Heels both feature the family decimation plot motif and a concentration on the killer's unusual motives.

  3. When's your Crimereads piece coming out, or your discussion here?