Friday, December 22, 2023

Another Poisoned Chocolates Case: Expected Death (1938), by Mary Fitt

Expected Death was the second Superintendent Mallett mystery by Mary Fitt and the one which introduced her series co-sleuth with Mallett, Dr. Dudley "Dodo" Fitzbrown,  In these early Mallett and Fitzbrown mysteries, Fitt does more with the characterization of her two sleuths, particularly Fitzbrown.  Mallett is a kindly county policeman, more on the uptake than he looks, with a bit of a Scottish burr.  The setting, with its two frequently mentioned cities, Broxeter and Chode, resembles the West Midlands area whence the author's herself originally came.  (She was born in Yardley in Worcestershire, near Birmingham.)  

Dr. Fitzbrown is the son of a lately deceased doctor and he has taken over his father's practice.  His earlier life comes up in a couple of later short stories, which were published in The Man Who Shot Birds in 1954.  Here he is earnest, hard-working and even rather Socialistic.  Despite this, he is friends with the young insouciant butterfly wards of Miss Elizabeth Vidor, another one of Fitts' splendid aristocratic old ladies who lives in a great country house and lords it (ladies it?) over her relations.  

These young people are Elizabeth's nephew and niece, Geoffrey and Daffodil, and Orchid, the illegitimate daughter of a great friend of Elizabeth's and a Spanish grandee whom Elizabeth has adopted and made her principal heir.  Geoffrey and Daffodil are the offspring (legitimate) of Elizabeth's brother and a Paris chorine, whom Elizabeth magnanimously welcomed back into the family after their parent's death.  They stand to inherit from Elizabeth too, though not as much as much Orchid.  Elizabeth is "one of the richest women in this country," as her bibulous lawyer, Roger Humphrey, tells her.  Roger was greatly smitten with Elizabeth when they were younger but she repeatedly turned down his proposals of his marriage, and now, disappointed in love, he lives with his devoted unmarried sister, Rose.  

the French edition

When the story opens Orchid's eighteenth birthday--where she will be presented with the Vidor family's fabulous heirloom diamond necklace--is looming. Present as a houseguest is Jim Gale, a handsome, charming gent who seems very interested indeed in Orchid.  Then there is Elizabeth's bespectacled secretary, Miss Cleet, and a chauffeur named Wilmott and a butler named Bowles and the odd maid or two.  Elizabeth, who for some reason Orchid has nicknamed Timmy, has come up with this scheme to test Orchid's devotion by sending herself (with Miss Cleet's connivance) a box of chocolate creams that appear to have been tampered with--how will Orchid respond dutifully and protectfully, as a loving ward should?  

Well, Orchid is proactive about the matter and passes the test in her guardian's eyes, but then, you guessed it, Elizabeth winds up dead the day after the party, fatally poisoned from chocolate creams! Who dun it?

Dodo himself becomes a suspect, and Mallett calls in Scotland Yard, because he is too close to the people in the case.  It's a pleasure to see this obnoxious Scotland Yard investigator, Inspector Veall, get his comeuppance from Mallett and the amateur squad.  The waspish police doctor, Jones, is really obnoxious in this one as well, really needling Dr. Fitzbrown.  He appears periodically throughout the series, though his role is diminished in later books. Here Dr. Fitzbrown is really put through his paces, and you sympathize with his character, and with Mallett too.  Dodo is a suspect because of course he had access to the poison, aconitine, and he proposed marriage to Orchid, even though he has been running about with Daffodil.  

Orchid, a very willful and forceful type like her guardian Elizabeth, gets no fewer than three marriage proposals in this book.  Does she actually accept one?  She's the focal character and a strong one whose fate should engage readers.  Indeed, the whole book is engaging and is another one you should read quickly, when you read it, because of the compelling story.  (It's also another short book, probably about 65,000 words.)  

I quite enjoyed it myself.  Like Mary Fitt's other earlier Malletts, Expected Death is more thickly plotted, so should appeal more to puzzle purists than some of her Forties books.  It's very much in the style of the Crime Queens Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  (People even get accused of being vulgar, which is worse, than, possibly, than being a murderer.)  

If there's a weakness in the novel, it's that Fitt is is so true to her character's characters, as it were, that you may see the solution coming a bit of the way ahead.  Puzzle purists used to say that was the danger in putting heavy emphasis on character in a detective novel.  If death truly is just a game, so the theory goes, the author has to be careful not to tip her hand too soon.  On the other hand, Expected Death is a most enjoyable mystery, highly recommended.

Some contemporary critics:

"A lively story which secures its effects with an admirable economy, it shows Mary Fitt at her best."--Sunday Times

"Uncommonly perceptive"--Sunday Post

"Delicacy and subtlety and with streaks of humour."--Daily Telegraph

"To be recommended to those who like intelligence and style in their crime stories."--Liverpool Daily News

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Gossip Girls: Death Starts a Rumor (1940), by Mary Fitt (A Christmas Mystery)

Death Starts a Rumour, published by Ivor Nicholson in 1940, was Mary Fitt's ninth mystery and her fifth in a row with series sleuth Superintendent Mallett.  (Fitts' first four mysteries were non-series.)  There would eventually be eighteen novels in this series, published between 1936 and 1959, plus a collection of short stories, The Man Who Shot Birds, which had Mallett in it.  Mallett's friend Dr. Dudley "Dodo" Fitzbrown (usually just called Dr. Fitzbrown in the later books) I believe debuted in the second novel in the Mallett series, Expected Death, and appeared in most of the rest of the books after that, often contributing more to solving the cases than Mallett, being more imaginative.  

But the truth is, beginning in the 1940s, with such books as Death and Mary Dazill (1941), Requiem for Robert (1942) and Clues to Christabel (1944), Fitt began to focus more on mysteries of character rather than material clues, so that many of her books can be seen as transitional to the modern crime novel.  Both Mallett and Fitzbrown often functioned as much or more as observers as they did sleuths.  

Fitt's publisher advanced Mary Fitt as an
exponent of "cultured crime" who played 
cat and mouse with her readers

With Fitt's very first crime novel, Three Sister Flew Home (1936), critics picked up on her as something different in the crime game and praised her books resoundingly as high-end mystery fare for connoisseurs.  "Excellent characterization" and "Distinguished writing" were characteristic observations of her work.  "A really high-class murder," declared one critic of Murder of a Mouse, while yet another pronounced of Expected Death:"To be recommended to those who like intelligence and style in their crime stories."  Well, who doesn't like intelligence and style in their mystery reading?  Or at least want others to think so?  

Essentially Mary Fitt was being praised in England as a superior writer of clever and insightful manners mysteries, like Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (Dorothy L. Sayers had retired from crime writing by this time.)  Yet Fitt never caught on like those ladies did, either in the United States, where fewer than a dozen of her thirty mystery books were published, or with the even larger market of posterity, being largely forgotten after her death.  

In an entry on Fitt in one of those mystery encyclopedias, crime writer and critic HRF Keating expressed the view that her sleuth Mallett was too featureless for long-term popularity, and certainly there is something to that.  Poirot and Henry Merrivale and other Great Detectives had their entertaining eccentricities, while the posh gentleman aristocrat sleuths had IT, one might say.  

One British woman writer dismissed Roderick Alleyn and Albert Campion and their ilk as the "glamour boy" detectives, but there's no getting away from the fact that they and their love lives made popular reading for many, especially for the burgeoning female mystery readership.  For every sourpuss Raymond Chandler type who loathed them, there probably were five others (three women and two men, or four women and one man) who adored them.

What interior life Mallett ever had I have no idea and I have read a lot of books in the series.  I don't even recall whether he's married.  He's like Agatha Christie's Inspector Battle, except with even less personality.  Dr. Fitzbrown's emotional life does get explored in the early books (and he gets married in Death Starts a Rumour), but then Fitt dropped this as well.  She was more interested in her suspects' emotional lives than in her sleuths.  Which was how it used to be before the glamor boys came along.

Now that Mary Fitt is finally being reprinted in toto for the first time, after six decades of neglect (except for a stray Dover reprint in English), it's time for a reassessment.  On rereading Rumour after two decades I found it quite an enjoyable mystery.  For one thing, it's only 60,000 words or perhaps under, which to my mind is an excellent length for a mystery novel.  I read it over two nights.

Fitt, a classical scholar, loved to use country houses as a stages for her mysteries and in Rumour she gives us not one but two country house parties, at both of which a murder occurs.  It's a very symmetrical construction, as the classical Greeks would have loved.  

The first one commences two days before Christmas but is short-circuited by the sudden death of the homeowner, Evelyn La Planter. Her lazy doctor (not Dr. Fitzbrown) puts down syncope as the cause of death and that is that, but her primary heir, her nephew Michael Le Planter, examines her bedroom after her death and finds clues which point to murder.  However, that would mean the murderer would be one of his friends from the house party and he has been heartbroken in love and is just anxious to go off on an archaeological expedition in Mesopotamia and forget all about it (maybe he's been reading Christie), which is what he does.  

However, over two years later Michael starts getting a barrage of anonymous letters accusing him of having murdered his imperious aunt.  He decides to return and reopen the house and face the rumors head-on.  What better way to do so than by holding another house party where he tries to solve the matter of his aunt's murder (as he and so many others, though not the police, deem it)?  

Of course someone dies at this house party too and this time it's indisputably murder.  

This book reminded me a little of Agatha Christie's Sparkling Cyanide, which appeared five years after Rumour, though Christie's book was partially based on an earlier Christie short story, Yellow Iris, published in 1937, three years before Rumour.  So you can't accuse Christie of snitching any ideas in this case.

Anyway, Fitzbrown is present at the second house party (Michael is aware that he suspected murder the first go-round) and Mallett soon shows up too and actually solves things pretty quickly.  Fitzbrown it turns out is falling in love with one of the party guests--and very quickly too I might add.

Although Rumour is heavily focussed on the characters' emotional lives--much of it deals with who is love with whom and who is going to marry whom or leave whom--there also is some concern with physical clues and the big giveaway in culpritude is definitely the sort of bookish thing you find in Golden Age detective novels. So this one has something in it to please everyone, I think.  

Fitt throws a bunch of characters at us in the beginning and it can be a little confusing at times, but it settles down soon enough.  I hope Moonstone will include a list of characters when this is reprinted. Here's mine:

Evelyn Le Planter, imperious rich aunt and first victim

Michael Le Planter, disgruntled nephew, who loves 

Claudia, biologist (!), who loves 

Alexander Hart, talented former music student who wants to be an Arctic explorer (those were the days) and loves Claudia though he doesn't think she is good for him

Thelma Hyde, who was involved with Michael when he and Alexander and Claudia were students in Vienna and is now interested in Alexander.  She is the ward of 

musicians Victoria and Hubert Hyde, who want to marry Thelma off to 

Professor Edward Warner, an older man and former music teacher in Vienna who is friends with Evelyn Le Planter

Erica Le Planter, niece of Evelyn, a musician who is smitten with Alexander

Paul, a musician who is smitten, seemingly, with both Erica and Michael

Hope that helps!  There are also some servants and a nurse and some charladies who don't feature a great deal but are well handled by the author when they do.  There's a nice little subsidiary mystery about the source of the gossip and a neat ironic ending (Greeks loved irony!) that is not at all the norm in Golden Age mystery.  So, all in all, I have to give this one high marks.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

A Really Big Shoe: Foot in the Grave (1972), by Elizabeth Ferrars

In the great English tradition....
1981 Anglophiliac
US reprint ed. by Bantam
Foot in the Grave may have been the first Elizabeth Ferrars' mystery I ever read.  Certainly it was one of the first, about thirty years ago it must have been.  I remember telling my Mom that I quite enjoyed it and she should too.  This was back when I was looking for other mystery authors besides Carr, Christie and the other British Golden Age Crime Queens.

Foot was originally published in 1972, twenty-two years after Ferrars' Milk of Human Kindness, reviewed here recently.  Both are highly domestic murder mysteries, with events mostly confined to a single middle-class house.  It's not a country house party mystery, to be sure, but the book does have a confined location with a closed circle of suspects, so it really feels like a modest updating of the classic Golden Age mystery.  

The setting is Helsington, an English provincial city that Ferrars used as the locale for several novels in the Seventies.  The protagonist, Christine Findon, is a housewife with no children and a husband, Henry, who is Senior English Master at a local progressive school "where they worry much more about building the children's character than about teaching them anything."  

Six years ago Henry inherited enough money from his father to buy himself and Christine a Georgian house, which as any reader of GA mystery should know, is just the kind of ordered, symmetrical dwelling in which a rational person should want to dwell.  (Golden Agers hated Victorian houses, the abodes of maniacs and victimized women.)

However, when the novel opens, chaos has descended upon the Findon home, and things only get worse as the story progresses, until Superintendent Ditteridge, a series detective Ferrars briefly employed in the Seventies in the Helsington books, solves the various dastardly crimes in the penultimate chapter.  Surprisingly in the Servantless Seventies (and much to her own bemusement), Christine has a housekeeper, an au pair and a daily, respectively:

Mrs. Heacham, the widowed former housekeeper to Henry's father, who has returned from Canada after the death of her husband and desertion by her adult son, Lew, to take up her family post again, although she is not really wanted

Marsha Lindale, a lovely young woman majoring in domestic science in the local college, who refused to accompany her mother and stepfather to South Africa, she, Marsha, being anti-apartheid

and Linda Deeping, a constable's wife who dyes her hair pink but is really traditional at heart

Marsha helps care for two young children, David and Frances, a nephew and niece of Henry, while their parents are out of the country for several months. This was still the time when parents would do that to their nine and six year olds apparently.  (Archie and Agatha Christie went around the world in the Twenties, leaving their young daughter with her grandmother.)

Georgian shoe
or perhaps one of Elton John's

Anyway, then Mrs. Heacham's estranged son Lew shows up, handsome but full of simmering resentment against the Findons for never really making him part of the family.  And there's Henry's charming brother, Simon, a former fiancee of Christine, who pops in too.  

And Christine's old friend Vivien, an academic type who is head of the footwear department of a costume museum in London.  (Think Lucy Worsley, except not at all perky.)  

Vivien, whose third husband, Barry Richmond, by the by, is curator of the London museum, is staying the weekend as Christine's guest to give a lecture on Georgian shoes to the Helsington Costume Society, run by  Christine's matronly friend Minna Maskell, wife of Tony Maskell, wealthy kitchen plastics manufacturer, and mother of Rodney, who is smitten with Marsha.  Got all that?

Whew!  This is a not a long book, and I really have to admire the way Ferrars is able in the short space both to navigate a complex plot and give her numerous characters some life so that you remember them and get engaged in their fates.  Certainly Ferrars has her own stock characters, like all prolific authors.  Vivien resembles Susan, the housewife protagonist's sister in Milk of Human Kindness, in that both are extreme egoists (both on their third husbands too, no less) who push the protagonist around for their own selfish ends.  Charming but erratic Simon reminded me of roguish Felix Freer who would become a later series sleuth of the author's, as well as Sholto Dapple, another character in Milk of Human Kindness (one of Susan's exes.)  These guys always want to play detective (which doesn't mean they can't be murderers too).  

Indeed the two novels as wholes resemble each other to some extent, both in general milieu but also in some specifics, like the fact that murders take place with hammers in storerooms.  (In Golden Age mysteries you want to stay out of the library, in Ferrars it's storerooms you really want to avoid.)  Also there are a pair of young people, brother and sister, in both books though in Foot they are very young children and in Milk very young adults.  

There are some splendid oddities in the book, like someone stealing the left shoes from Vivien's Georgian shoe collection, which she brought with her for her lecture, and some really nice plot twists.  I had forgotten a lot of this book (though not all) in the last thirty years and was able to read it again with much enjoyment.  

To let you know it's the Seventies, Ferrars references long hair and anti-apartheid sentiment, as well as sexual liberation and such things as swinging and foot fetishism (no one besides Vivien is really quite sure what the latter is exactly.)  But things really stay pretty cozy despite the odd murder and theft and ruminations about Mrs. Heacham's and Lew's bitterness against the Findons, which feels like it could have come from a  Ruth Rendell book.  

When you think how many people have read Elephants Can Remember, Agatha Christie's tired, threadbare-plotted and really rather out of it 1972 opus, compared with those who have perused Foot, it seems a shame.  The Ferrars book is much better, as most Christie fans (like me) would admit, I'm sure.

The only real weakness in the novel has to do with motivation, as Bev Hankins has pointed out on her blog.  I think Ferrars could have presented that better at the end, but on the other hand the explanation of the shoe business is really clever and the whole thing is just superbly readable.  In my opinion, Foot in the Grave is a modern classic in the Golden Age style, a splendid updating of the old form from one of the major authors of classic mystery.  Ferrars, you might say, put on a really big shoe (to reference Ed Sullivan) with this one.  

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Marriage Is Murder: The Little Victims Play (1938), by Anne Hocking

Mona Naomi Anne Hocking Dunlop Messer, or Anne Hocking as she is best known, was one of three daughters of native Cornish novelist and Methodist minister Joseph Hocking, a very popular author in his writing day (this being 1887 to 1936), though he has not gotten a great deal of attention from literary critics, on the whole.  Joseph and his brother Silas, along with their sister Salome, were purveyors of "pulp Methodism," as one critic who has studied them has called it: popular fiction with a decidedly evangelistic, sometimes anti-Catholic tone.  I don't know what he made of Anne's penchant for more secular crime fiction, but he did leave her his money when he died in 1937 at the age of 76.

Anne's sisters wrote some mystery fiction as well, under the names, respectively, of Elizabeth Nisot and Joan Shill, but Ann, the eldest of the trio, was by far the most prolific.  (There was a brother as well, Edward Cuthbert, who died in the Great War, tragically but a couple weeks shy of the Armistice.)  

Anne was born in late 1889 and died in March 1966, like her father at the age of 76, four years after having suffered a debilitating stroke while she was working on her thirtieth Inspector/Superintendent Henry Austin detective novel, Murder Cries Out.  (It was completed two years after her death by Evelyn Healy).  

Like Agatha Christie, Josephine Bell, Elizabeth Ferrars and other British women mystery writers of the era, Anne wrote "middlebrow" mainstream novels as well as mysteries, under her married name (at the time), Mona Messer, though she started out in 1930 and 1931 with a pair of what might be termed updated sensation novels, or crime thrillers with a Gothic overlay, concerning naive, young Englishwomen in peril in ancient aristocratic piles on the wicked continent.  (Actually there was an abortive first novel fifteen years earlier, written under her married name at that time, Mona Dunlop, but it made little impression.)  

As Mona Messer she then published eleven mainstream novels between 1932 and 1940, but during this time she was also publishing more thrillers, now under under the name Anne Hocking.  There were a dozen of these crime shockers published between 1933 and 1941.  (We are up to 25 novels between 1930 and 1941; but wait there's more, as they say in the infomercials.)  

The most significant of these thrillers, arguably, was a 1938 number called The Little Victims Play, for it introduced Chief-Inspector William Austen, who would become Hocking's series sleuth in 29 later detective novels, published between 1939 and 1968.  It's a convoluted evolution, but an interesting one.  

Anne around the time of the Second World War seems to have deliberately eschewed crime thrillers in favor of the manners mysteries associated, with rising critical approval, with Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, authors to whom she refers admiringly in her own crime fiction.  (Patricia Wentworth, it should be noted, had a similar evolution to Hocking, decisively committing to the Miss Silver mysteries around this time and relenting from writing more of her thrillers.)  

I don't know that I would call The Little Victims Play a thriller, however.  It's really an inverted detective novel of the sort that Julian Symons called the "Iles School" after Francis Iles, though Francis Iles did not originate it.  The book concerns an aunt and her niece who check into a seaside place, the Avon Hotel, in Cornwall, with fatal results for the aunt.  I'm not telling you anything you don't learn on page one, for it states there, in the first sentence: 

When Miss Selby signed the register at the Avon Hotel she was signing her death warrant....

Fatefully in Chapter One fifty-year-old Miss Selby meets dreamy Geoffrey Harden, an ex-army man about five years younger than she: 

He was...tall, rather over six foot, broad and spectacularly handsome in a florid, full-blooded way.  His eyes, black and liquid, were set under heavy black brows, his nose was almost Grecian and his very red, full lips curved seductively over gleaming probably somewhere about forty-five, he was beginning to put on weight, not aggressively, but sufficiently to blur his outlines a trifle, to produce the slightest effect of coarseness in his ruddy face.  

Men who are a little too handsome in English mysteries are usually bad news in some form or another.  Is Major Harden?  Well, read it and see (assuming it's reprinted, as right now copies are rare as hens' teeth).  I will divulge that the Major and Miss Selby get hitched, and the niece, Merryn Lynton, is not happy about that!  

After Miss Selby dies, in rather suspicious circumstances, Inspector Austen of Scotland Yard is consulted, strictly off the books, about his opinion of the affair.  He only appears in the last fifth of the book, mostly in one chapter, functioning mainly as the copus ex machina with handcuffs.  

Mona Messer, aka Anne Hocking
A picture from her later years,
where she looks rather classically severe.
She suffered a stroke while writing her thirtieth
William Austen novel in 1962 and died
four years later, leaving her last book
uncompleted at her death.

There's some interesting detail about poisoning in this book, for which the author credits doctors George Trustram Watson and Frederick Denison "Denis" Maurice Hocking, chief pathologist of Cornwall for half a century and doubtlessly a family relation.  She modestly dedicated the novel to her sisters Elizabeth Nisot and Joan Shill, "Because They Like This Kind Of Thing."

Did I like it?  Well, it's a quick read and has its points, but on the whole I prefer Anne Hocking's straight detective tales with Inspector Austen: they feel like they have more meat on their bones.  One thing there is that struck me, however....

Victims takes, to be sure, rather a pessimistic view of relations between the sexes, with the classic scenario of a plain middle-aged woman newly come into wealth being preyed upon by a designing male anxious to devour her lucre.  

Nevertheless the author stresses that Major Harden did in fact make Miss Selby deliriously happy, while she lived. "Gertrude had gone to her grave thanking God for a perfect husband," observes Hocking trenchantly.  "Not many women do that."

This set me to wondering about the author's own marital history.  Well, it seems that Anne Hocking married twice, the first time at age twenty, after a year at Royal Holloway, a London women's college, to Frederick William Dunlop, a 26 year old native Scottish chartering agent and shipbroker.  Dunlop died four years later, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, leaving his widow just seventy-six pounds, or about about ten thousand dollars today.  

Handsome Howard Messer,
one of the author's
brothers-in-law from her
second marriage to Henry Messer

The next year Anne published her first novel, to little acclaim or attention.  Three years after that, near the end of the war, Anne, now twenty-eight, wed forty-six-year-old Henry Richmond Messer, a stockbroker, a man old enough to be her father, as they say.  Messer came of a prominent family, his late father having been John Messer, a timber, brick and tile merchant and mayor of Reading.  When he died in 1900 Mayor Messer left an estate that would have been worth some 3.5 million today.

One of Henry's brothers was a prominent Caribbean lawyer, another a mining engineer in South Africa and two were prominent expat architects in Fort Worth, Texas.  All the men in the family seem to have loved traveling and boating.  A youthful picture of the younger of the architect brothers, Henry, shows rather a handsome man, like our Major Harden from Victims.

Joseph Hocking, Anne Hocking's father
I don't believe he ever learned 
to smile for a photo

Two clues suggest, sadly, that Anne's marriage to Henry Messer may have ended in personal estrangement.  Remember that Anne took up writing again, most prolifically, in 1930, a dozen years after the commencement of her second marriage.  In 1937, when her novelist father Joseph died at St. Ives, Cornwall, he left his entire estate, 5310 pounds, or over 458,000 dollars today, to Anne, referring to her in his will as a widow.  

It was so nice of dear papa to help his daughter out this way, but it turns out that Henry Messer actually died during the Second World War in 1943 at the age of seventy-two in Durban, South Africa.  He left his estate to Anne, who was living in England--all of 104 pounds, or about 6275 dollars.  Looks to me like Henry had separated from her, at least six years previously, probably rather more.

Perhaps Henry provided Anne some years of happiness before then, or maybe not.  In any event Anne relaunched her writing career, to the good fortune of her readers.  She actually entered her best writing phase after her father's death finally left her financially secure and independent, for the first time in her adult life.  Perhaps Virginia Woolf was right about a woman writer needing a room of her own....

There is, by the by, some discussion of God's will in Victims, which Anne would have written during the last year of her pious father's life.  Merryn and her doctor boyfriend debate whether she is too vengeful and vindictive toward Major Harden, usurping God's prerogative.  But don't let that worry you: on the whole The Little Victims Play is mostly just another nice Golden Age English murder story.  

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Meet Carolyn: My Interview with Rebecca Rego Barry about Her Forthcoming Book on Golden Age Mystery Writer Carolyn Wells

Rebecca Rego Barry is a writer and editor who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her articles and essays about books, history, and collectibles have appeared in Financial Times, Literary Hub, CrimeReads, Atlas Obscura, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian, The Public Domain Review, Fine Books Magazine, and elsewhere. 

Her first book, Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, was published in 2015.  

Nearly a decade later, in February 2024, she is publishing a book about popular Golden Age mystery writer (and many other things) Carolyn Wells, called The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells: Investigations into a Forgotten Mystery writer, about which I interviewed her a few months ago.—The Passing Tramp


PT: It is so nice to talk with you Rebecca.  So, just how did you get interested in Carolyn Wells?

Carolyn Wells

RRB: I have always loved "old books," and am something of a collector. 

In 2011, my husband bought me a first edition of Walden that had Carolyn Wells’ bookplate in it. I had no idea then who she was, but I began to see her name (as author) on books at the antiquarian book fairs I attend. It took years for me to figure out that they were one and the same! 

Carolyn was an author, also a librarian before that, and a book collector later in life.  Needless to say, I began to buy some of her books, and some of the books she had once owned.

When that new edition of Murder in the Bookshop came out -- the one for which you wrote the introduction -- everything really came together, and I became more interested in her as a person, and a writer who had been almost entirely forgotten

PT: I remember you published an article at Crimereads about her.

RRB: Yes, that was really the turning point. Once I wrote that, I thought, hmmm, this could be a bigger project.  I had just finished or was reading Mallory O'Meara's book called The Lady from the Black Lagoon that was all about revitalizing the legacy of a creative woman. (

The Lady from The Black Lagoon — Mallory O'Meara

Carolyn Wells
PT: I wrote an essay on her crime fiction in 2014, which was published in a tribute book to John Dickson Carr biographer Douglas G. Greene.  Carr, the great locked room mystery writer, was as you know a great fan of her work in his earlier years.

RRB: Yes, of course I've read your essay! Oh, but Carr...! He ended up stabbing her in the back.   He was a fan--until he wasn't.

PT: Well, that brings up an interesting point: Carolyn Wells’ literary reputation.  Ups and downs you might say.  But back in the Twenties and Thirties she was really tremendously popular in the United States at least.  All during the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Why do you think she was so popular?

RRB: I think the phrase you used once was "critically bulletproof," and I borrowed the "Bulletproof" part for one of my chapters. She was very popular, and not just because of the mysteries; she had a built a reputation as a witty poet, a puzzle master, and a Young Adult author, so her name was really everywhere.  

But to your question: she said many times she merely wanted to entertain and amuse (and make money). She wasn't in it to be a literary "genius," even though I think it is an arguable point.

PT: She wrote in so many genres, didn’t she?  What were the children’s book series, Marjorie and Patty?  A few years back I found a blog devoted to those books where the commenters, who I imagine all were women, were fondly discussing how much they loved Marjorie and Patty tales, probably into the 1950s and 1960s. 

RRB: Definitely. There were several series ... Patty, Marjorie, Betty, Dorrance, etc. Patty was the longest running and most successful. They were middle/upper-middle class manners stories, very sweet. Librarians liked them, and that helped. 

There weren't many girls' books at the time (1901-19).  When I looked at digital copies -- through the Internet Archive, etc. -- so many had sweet inscriptions to young girls from mothers, grandmothers, aunts. They were cherished books.

PT: Sort of forerunners of Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton, I suppose, except that Marjorie and Patty, et al, didn’t actually solve mysteries, I suppose.

RRB: Right. They were on adventures, on holidays, learned how to 'homemakers,' that kind of thing.

PT: And then there was the so-called “nonsense” literature Wells wrote.  Can you explain that genre to people.  Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll? 

RRB: Lear and Carroll were her absolute favorites.  Actually, I own one of the editions of Lear that was Carolyn's--what a treasure! The nonsense is hard to define, but it’s combinations of puns, witticisms, limericks, etc. 

She actually created five anthologies for Scribner, all various forms of light verse.  Nonsense is how she cracked into the literary world, pitching magazines like Puck and The Lark in the mid-1890s.

PT: She had a novel Ptomaine Street I recall, a satire of Sinclair Lewis’ celebrated novel Main Street, that I have meant to read for years.

RRB: She didn't seem to hold grudges, but she had no problem poking fun at authors -- Henry James was another target -- and she could be deliciously mean.  Parody, she loved!

PT: So, it seems like Wells had this really humorous outlook on life, but in real life she faced tragedy that she concealed behind a smile.  Can you tell us about that?

RRB: True. I mean, it's important to note that her upbringing was rather privileged. Big house, maids to help. But she also lost siblings to disease, and, in one case, where her sister died of scarlet fever, she too contracted it which caused her nearly complete hearing loss in one ear. That troubled her for the rest of her life.  

Also, she stayed in her parents' home in NJ until she married, late in life, which probably speaks to her traditionalist ideas. She married late, and sadly he died only eighteen months later, so that happiness was fleeting.

PT: That was to Hadwin Houghton? I always loved that name!  Like a character from an English mystery.

RRB: Yes. And everyone always thinks he worked in publishing -- but he didn't!

PT: He was a cousin of the publisher or something like that?

RRB: She says cousin in her memoir, but I think it was second or cousin x removed, because I tried to find more information on him and so little is available. I traced his parents and brother, but none were in publishing.  Unless you count a trade magazine called Varnish that he and his brother worked on.

PT: He worked for a paint company?

RRB: Yes, Valentine & Co. (merged and melded, now Valspar). Made a great living. How they met is something I discuss in the book because there are two origin stories. The one I prefer describes him as a puzzle lover, and she made puzzles. Supposedly he would mail in his answers and they started corresponding.  Another odd bit of her life: crossword puzzle maker!

PT: I thought she wrote some of her best books during the short time she was with him. I gather it was a very happy union.

RRB: Yes, I think so, he moved her to NYC, and she loved that. Loved living there, and stayed there until her death.

PT: Well, that brings us to the mysteries. Carolyn was writing nonsense lit, she was writing parodies and children's books, how did she get started on mysteries?

RRB: I think the short answer is: she loved reading them, especially Sherlock Holmes, and like all the other forms she tried, so just figured she could do it, and she did. Her first mystery story appears in 1905, and the first book form, The Clue, in 1909.  

She saw the market for mysteries, and worked to fill it. Same with Young adult. Same with film scripts. She was quite savvy that way. Side note: one of the things I love about CW is that she starts this entirely new career in her mid-forties.

PT: What was her first published mystery story?

RBB: The first I could trace is called "Christabel's Crystal" published in a Chicago newspaper on  October 15, 1905

PT: I see that ‘Christabel’s Crystal’ was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 1997.

RBB: Yes! I bought that 1997 mag recently to read the story for myself.  She wrote 81 mystery novels in total; 61 of which were her "Fleming Stone" detective novels. Although, then again, there's one Fleming Stone novella, “His Hand and Seal,” from 1911 published in Lippincott's and made into a film, but never published in book form. So, maybe more than 81/61. 

Carolyn was involved in 16 films, to varying degrees: mainly, writing the 'scenario' as they called it. Half of those were with Edison.  The film His Hand and Seal came out in 1915.  It was done by the Biograph Co.

PT: So these were filmed in the New York area? I just checked imdb and saw I think five mystery films, all from the 1910s, based on her work. Any of those survived?

RBB: Most were filmed in the New York area, as it was largely before the industry's big move to Hollywood. I devote a whole chapter to this part of Carolyn's life and my endeavors to track down one of the films she worked on.  Here's another neat film she worked on: Dearie  That was the last one.

PT: So her detective Fleming Stone was an early film detective too. Let's talk in some more detail on her mysteries, since this is a mystery blog! Some academic writers have written in the last decade or so about how Wells actually helped establish some of the tropes of the Golden Age mystery. Can you elaborate on that?

RBB: That is part of my argument, though not just with mysteries. She has helped to define so many genres, really putting in the world, only to be overlooked later on.  But yes, locked-room mysteries and country-house mysteries -- that was her bread and butter.  It's true characterization wasn't her strong point; she felt the puzzle was the best part of a mystery.

PT: Well, people really valued the puzzle at that time. I think my friend Bill Pronzini helped undermine her reputation with his book Gun in Cheek--ironically, the sort of humorous book she might have written--because he made fun of the lack of realism in her books, the reliance on secret passages--a no-no in many purists’ eyes.

RBB: I can see from contemporary media accounts that she was one of two women credited as a popular mystery author during the WWI era.  The other being Mary Roberts Rinehart.  I appreciate Pronzini's insight though, and at least he included her in the discussion!

PT: Yes, Mary Roberts Rinehart was hugely popular and later many critics--male critics--undermined her for writing what they dismissed as Had I But Known mystery, all full foreshadowing and grim forebodings.

RBB: Yeah, there was a lot of sexism even in the reviews of time, like this book was good, "even though it was written by a woman." Seriously!  Not sure Carr helped on that score, calling Carolyn and others "lost ladies."

PT: I look at my own evolution on Wells as people can see on the internet, where in 2009 at MysteryFile I'm taking the line like Bill that she was kind of this magnificently "silly" writer, but by 2014 I had read Vicky Van and I actually quite liked that one. 

And then over the next several years I found some more by her I liked, a couple of these The Furthest Fury and The Daughter of the House.  So then I do this blog piece in 2018, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Carolyn Wells."

RBB: She definitely wrote some good mysteries! Another blogger, John Norris, has written a good bit about her and he quite likes her Pennington Wise and Zizi series, though it's much shorter than the Fleming Stone one.  I too liked Vicky Van, also Murder in the Bookshop

It's funny though, I'll hear how one person (scholar, collector, vintage mystery buff) loved one of her novels, only to have another person say it's terrible. It's all subjective!

But for me the point of the biography was not necessarily to delve into which books are the best, but just to give credit where credit is due. Obviously, the readers of her time loved her, so that's important to look at.

PT: Yes, I think people need to remember she was really very popular. I was just reading, for an article I wrote on Eden Phillpotts, a contemporary author who also wrote mysteries, about how they were corresponding in the late 1930s and Phillpotts dedicated his mystery Monkshood to her. 

She made some very positive statements about his writing that were blurbed in the press, because her opinion mattered to people.

RBB: That's so interesting. She did say he was one of her favorites, and they were pen pals -- a packet of their correspondence went to auction after her death.  Chesterton was a fan of Wells, too.  As was Van Dine.  Vincent Starrett, however, hated her!

PT: I wish I had that correspondence! If you look to Twenties and Thirties America, three of the most popular prolific mystery writers were Wells, Phillpotts and JS Fletcher, the latter two Englishmen. 

They were all born around 1862 and later, certainly by the Forties, came to be seen as terribly old-fashioned, but when people get to read their books today, they often enjoy them.  

Starrett was not a fan of Wells though?

Vincent Starrett
RBB: Oh, did Starrett hate her work.  Starrett was a book collector, like Wells, and I think he was jealous of her wealth and that she could buy whatever rare books she wanted.  He also said nasty things about her books, like: "It would give me pleasure to annihilate Carolyn, if not for her Atlantic article, for her abominable detective novels probably the worst ever written.”

PT: Ouch! I'll have to get the citation for that Starrett review. He made his opinion clear!

I found one record that indicated Wells averaged about 13,000 copies sold per mystery, which actually put her in the higher echelon of mystery writers throughout the Twenties and Thirties. So something in her work struck chord with people. And that is just actual sales, not library rentals. Her reading public must have been much bigger.

RBB: I agree, and I found some archival documents -- royalties, etc. showing some of her books selling that many and more. Also, a public library survey from 1936 that put her among the most circulated.

PT: Very interesting, I am not surprised about her sales and circulation.  I think the thing is, though, that she wrote a lot and was quite varied in her book quality. I especially like the ones with Fleming Stone's Irish boy sidekick Fibsy MCGuire. They are the Batman and Robin of GA mystery.

Fibsy in action in
The Mark of Cain (1917)
RBB: Yes, reviewers liked Fibsy too.  Alas, Mary Roberts Rinehart always sold more!

PT: So you published an article about Wells in 2020 and then you wrote a book about her. What is it called and when is it out?

RBB: It's called The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells: Investigations into a Forgotten Mystery Author and it will be out Feb. 13, 2024.  Title based on one of CW's mysteries, The Vanishing of Betty Varian. 

PT: I've been meaning to read that one! Who is publishing your book?

RBB: PostHill Press:

PT: I congratulate you. I certainly found myself getting fascinated with Carolyn Wells over the years, though of course I look mostly at her mysteries. How notable a figure do you think she was in American writing, and do you think she will ever get her due?

RBB: Thanks! I hope this book will go some way toward bringing her "out of the shadows" (see this article from earlier this week: Poem of the Day: ‘How To Tell the Wild Animals’

I think she was notable in many ways -- a woman who really earned her place in the literary ecosystem, who not only crossed genre but helped build those genres into what they became.  She has an incredible legacy that deserves attention.

PT: I think the thing is, critics come and go, but readers remain. I was checking on Amazon, one of the Carolyn Wells Mystery Megapacks has almost 270 reviews of her copyright free mysteries, average 4 stars. A lot of favorable reviews.  

And HarperCollins has reprinted Murder in the Bookshop as you mentioned and I think Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press has done some of hers as well. It would be nice to see get some more quality reprints.

RBB: I have been trying to jumpstart a reprint or two. One of Carolyn's stories is in Otto's new anthology of bibliomysteries, so that's cool.  Otto actually blurbed my book! He said I changed his mind about Carolyn Wells.  It reads:

“The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells is a remarkably compelling narrative about this astonishingly prolific author who had great success in numerous genres. While I have never been a great fan of Ms. Wells’ mystery novels, the sprightly and perceptive prose of Rebecca Rego Barry’s worthwhile study has convinced me to give her another try.”

Little by little her name will get out there.

PT: Very nice! Well, I wish you and Carolyn both great success. I always enjoy getting the chance to talk about her work. One more thing I wanted to mention, Carolyn's first job was a librarian in her hometown of Rahway, New Jersey, correct? I wanted to make a shout-out to all the hard-working librarians out there.  

RBB: Yes, she was a librarian in Rahway for a decade, another interesting facet to her life!

PT: Bless the librarians in the censorious times.  Thanks, Rebecca, enjoyed it!

RBB: Me too! Thanks so much!