Friday, January 20, 2017

Family Update and an Introduction to Golden Age Mystery Writer Elizabeth Gill

My mother's biopsy was Wednesday and it's possible we may hear results today so I am praying for the best possible result.  I thank all the kind people who commented on my last post and in fact a comment from Kathy Whalen inspired me to post a "shop" post.  I know there are people out here with grave difficulties in life to be dealing with who enjoy this blog and I don't want to let anyone down despite my being so upset about my own family situation.

Elizabeth Gill
In fact I was expecting this month to do a lot of of discussion and interviews for the Murder in the Closet essay collection to which so many fine people have contributed.  I will have to see if I can mentally get that all put together.  But for now I thought I would talk about Elizabeth Gill (1902-1934), another forgotten woman mystery writer from the Golden Age of detective fiction who is being reprinted by Dean Street Press.

I wrote a general intro and sub-intros for Gill's three detective novels, The Crime Coast (1929), (1932) and What Dread Hand? and Crime De Luxe (1933), all of which tell of the sleuthing exploits of Benvenuto Brown, French Riviera artist and amateur sleuth.

You will notice that Gill died when she was only 32.  Had she lived longer I feel confident she would have emerged as one the more notable British women crime writers from the Thirties.

"The Hope of the World" (1915)
Gill was born Elizabeth Joyce Copping in Sevenokas, Kent 1901 prominent illustrator Harold Copping and second wife, Edith Louisa Mothersill.  Her father was best-known for his Biblical illustrations, especially "The Hope of the World," a depiction of a beatific Jesus Christ surrounded by a multi-racial group of children from different continents that became an iconic image in British Sunday Schools, and the pieces collected in what became known as The Copping Bible, a bestseller in Britain.

Young Miss Copping married for the first time, when she was only nineteen, Kenneth De Burgh Codrington, a brilliant young colonial Englishman then studying Indian archaeology at Oxford.

Codrington, a correspondent with T. S. Eliot on matters of religious philosophy, would become one of England's premier authorities on Indian antiquities.  However, his marriage with Elizabeth lasted less than six years.

Tower House
Her second husband, whom she married in 1927, was a talented English painter, Colin Unwin Gill, one of the notable names in English art to arise out of the Great War. 

(See below for two of his paintings, Heavy Artillery, 1919, and King Alfred's Longships Defeat the Danes, 1927.)

The new couple occupied a ground floor studio flat at the Tower House at Tite Street, Chelsea, an abode of artists and writers for decades.

(Indeed, in a coincidental pairing of artist ancestors and detective writer descendants the Gills occupied the very same flat the famed artist James Whistler, great-uncle of mystery writer Molly Thynne, had before them.)

Two years after the marriage, Elizabeth Gill, who also dabbled in watercolors (a great-grandfather was a prominent watercolorist) and dress design, published her first detective novel, Strange Holiday (The Crime Coast in the US, the title under which Dean Street Press is reprinting it.) Three years later came What Dread Hand?
the striking, and strikingly lurid,
dust jacket design to the American
edition of Gill's second detective novel
Both novels concern murder in England, though investigation takes the characters to southern France, a region with which Gill obviously was quite familiar, and the home of her amateur sleuth, the brilliant artist Benvenuto Brown.  Crime Coast deals with artists, while Dread Hand expands the canvas to include stage personalities.

The third Gill detective novel, Crime De Luxe, takes place on a luxury transatlantic ocean liner traveling from the UK to the US, where Brown is giving an exhibition of his works.  This clever and thoughtfully-written novel actually is one of my favorite shipboard mysteries.  The author traveled several times to the US with her husband and seems to have had a high opinion of the country.

Literate, witty, well-plotted and altogether charming, Elzabeth Gill's trio of detective novels were reprinted in the US, where they were very well-reviewed and her untimely death was reported nationally; yet after her death the books remained out-of-print for over eight decades.

Happily, that has now changed, with their reprinting by Dean Street Press.  I hope you give them a look and enjoy them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Passing Tramp Passes for a Time

My wonderful mother's stage one breast cancer from 2013 the doctor thinks has spread to her liver.  She has a biopsy today.  I am so down right now probably won't be posting much on the blog for a while.  Lots of concern with how this was handled.  She's 85, but she was in great shape, physically and mentally.  I know a lot of people my age have been having these sorts of issues with parents and I now personally know your grief.  Love to you all, and to your parents.  I hope I will find my way toward blogging here again in the future.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Ladies of Fashion: Two Golden Age American Manners Mystery Writers, Eleanore Kelly Sellars and Emma Lou Fetta

Eleanore Kelly Sellars (1903-1972) published one detective novel, Murder a la Mode, which won the Red Bridge Mystery Prize in 1941.  Sellars' novel was contemporary with, and similar in style to, the murder mystery trilogy by syndicated fashion columnist and Fashion Group co-founder Emma Lou Fetta, which consisted of Murder in Style (1939), Murder on the Face of It (1940) and Dressed to Kill (1941).

Eleanore Kelly Sellars
Fetta's entertaining trilogy of murder centered on the characters of fashion designer Susan Yates and her boyfriend, New York assistant district attorney Lyle Curtis, while Sellars' focal character (and narrator) in Murder a la Mode, which details a series of fiendish murders impacting a Fifth Avenue department store, is Deborah "Debbie" Wood, like Sellars herself a retail executive and advertising copywriter.

The novels by these two women had similar settings and characters because the two authors had similar personal and professional backgrounds. Both came from small cities in the north central states (Fetta from Richmond, Indiana, which had a population of around 18,000 in 1900, and Sellars from Monessen, Pennsylvania, a factory town which had been founded in 1897 and in 1920 had almost the exact same population as Richmond had had in 1900.)

Emma Lou Fetta
Fetta graduated from the Quaker Earlham College in 1920 (her mother, Ellena Fulghum, was descended from a long line of American Friends, while her father was the son of a German immigrant) and was one of two children of Robert Henry Fetta, owner of the Fetta Water Softener Company.  Sellars, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1925, was the daughter of James Howard Kelly, a businessman of Scots-Irish extraction who seems to have had fingers in most of Monessen's economic pies. (Among other things he was President of the First National Bank.) Both women moved to New York and married, but kept their careers.  (Fetta kept her maiden name professionally as well.)

I think that clearly both writers were influenced in their mysteries by the socially observant and posh British "manners" detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. In 1938 Allingham herself had published a hugely successful and much lauded mystery, The Fashion in Shrouds, that was set in the London fashion industry milieu. 

Sellars suggested such a connection, I believe, when she stated that with Murder a la Mode she had aimed to "write a murder mystery in which all the people were intelligent and logical in their behavior and remained intelligent and logical throughout the book."  In her story, she declared, "everyone did what shrewd, well-bred and practical people would do if they were actually living through the experiences of murder.

opening the door to manners mystery
Margery Allingham
Both authors' books were well-received in the US. The Detroit Free Press, for example, wrote of Fetta's first essay in crime, Murder in Style: "If Clare Booth Luce had put her characters of "The Women" [the smash hit play adapted into a smash hit film] into a murder maze, she would have come up with something like this....This is an exceedingly smart and funny book, with a mystery above average"; while reviewer Maxine Garrison in the Pittsburgh Press raved that "Mrs. Sellars tells her story very deftly indeed, dramming it with suspense right up to the last page. Her first hand knowledge of her background is obvious....

Fans of the tony books of the British Crime Queens or the American author Elizabeth Daly (who also started writing mysteries at this time) should agree.

Merchandising Murder: Murder a la Mode (1941), Eleanore Kelly Sellars

Winner of the $1000 Dodd, Mead Red Badge prize for the best mystery by an author not previously published under the Red Badge imprint, Eleanore Kelly Sellars' Murder a la Mode (1941) is an excellent detective novel of the "manners" school that is associated with such Golden Age Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. The novel details a series of slayings involving the officers and personnel of Dexter & Cole, a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store, and is narrated by executive assistant Deborah "Debby" Wood.

The first of these fiendish killings takes place at a business conference at a great neoclassical house above the Hudson River, making Murder a la Mode something of a classic form country house mystery, yet the novel is also very much a workplace milieu mystery in the manner of Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise (1933), Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) and Christianna Brand's Death in High Heels (1941).  Though there is a lot of interesting detail in the novel about an early Forties business environment that included women in important positions, the mystery plot itself is excellent and quite twisty.

Eleanore Kelly Sellars (1903-1972) was well-suited to write such a book, having herself been a Manhattan retail executive and copywriter. As Eleanore Kelly the author grew up in comfortable circumstances in Monessen, a steel making town located in southwestern Pennsylvania's Monongahela River Valley (see pictures below), the daughter of bank president James Howard Kelly, one of the most prominent men in the town. (Like many other towns in this region, Monessen since has lost its manufacturing base, with a resultant large population decline; then presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared in the town in 2016, promising to restore the region to its former industrial glory.)



Eleanore Kelly graduated from Wellesley College in 1925 and moved to Manhattan, where four years after that she wed Raymond Sellars, a General Motors auto loan officer. In the 1940s the couple moved to San Francisco, where Eleanore continued to write, publishing short stories in Collier's Weekly and Liberty

Though once very physically active, Eleanore suffered spinal trouble in the late 1940s and as far as I know only produced one additional work of fiction, a play (non-criminous) starring faded Thirties Hollywood film star Kay Francis.  Yet though her writing career likewise faded, Eleanore Kelly Sellars' one mystery novel deserved again to see the light of day.  Happily the novel has now been reprinted by Coachwhip and is available on Amazon.  For this reissue I wrote an introduction of 3000 words.  Give Murder a la Mode a try, I think you'll like it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Just Can't Keep a Bad Man Down: The Gazebo (film, 1959)

Two years after mystery writer Patricia Wentworth's crime novel The Gazebo (reviewed by me here) was published in the US in 1956, Alexander "Alec" Coppel's play The Gazebo, starring Walter Slezak and Jayne Meadows, opened on Broadway on December 12, 1958.  It ran for 266 performances, closing on June 27, 1959.  On the American tour which followed its closing on Broadway, the leads were Tom Ewell, of The Seven Year Itch fame, and Jan Sterling.

With Ian Carmichael (television's original Lord Peter Wimsey, I believe) and Moira Lister in the leads, the play premiered in London's West End on March 29, 1960, and ran for 479 performances. No Mousetrap, to be sure, but no "mouse" either!


Wentworth's The Gazebo and Coppel's The Gazebo seem to have almost nothing in common, beyond murder and, yes, the presence of a summerhouse, aka a gazebo--though I suppose it's possible the idea of centering a crime tale on a gazebo may have come to Coppel from Wentworth's novel. In any event, Coppel, a successful Hollywood scripter, playwright and novelist, enjoyed much success in his own right.

An Australian by birth, Coppel, born in 1907, moved to England in the late 1920s to study at Cambridge; but he dropped out before graduating, like Dorothy L. Sayers entering the advertising business, writing fiction on the side (or maybe fiction was what he wrote in the advertising business as well).

Coppel scored a stage hit with his third play, a light mystery play called I Killed the Count (1937). After 185 performances in the West End, the play was filmed in England two years later and it opened on Broadway in 1942, though in the US it proved something of a bomb--that's a bad thing in the US-managing only 29 performances before closing. (More on Count coming soon at the blog.)

During World War II Coppel moved back to Australia, where he enjoyed more stage success, but after the war he returned to England, where he wrote additional plays as well as novels and screenplays. (He had already novelized Count in 1939.)  Both the crime novels A Man About a Dog (1947) (in the US, Over the Line) and Mr. Denning Drives North (1950) were filmed in England, the former as Obsession (The Hidden Room in the US) and directed by Edward Dmytryk.  The latter film starred John Mills as the titular Mr. Denning.

Coppel's screenplays include No Highway (1951) (aka No Highway in the Sky), adapted from a Nevil Shute novel, and The Captain's Paradise (1953), starring Alec Guinness and Yvonne De Carlo (for which Coppel received his sole Oscar nomination).

Coppel also worked on the script for Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955), and wrote the original draft of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Around this time his fiction provided the basis for no less than six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including a three-part adaptation of I Killed the Count.


Thus The Gazebo, Coppel's return to the light mystery thriller form, was filmed at the height of the writer's success.  For the film--which was directed by George Stevens, director of the 1940 Bob Hope supernatural comedy thriller The Ghost BreakerMurder, He Says (1945), another mystery comedy, starring Fred MacMurray; and the Raymond Chandler scripted crime drama The Blue Dahlia (1946)--two of the most popular mid-century American film actors, Glenn Ford and the late Debbie Reynolds, were cast as the leads: nervous and agitated television crime show writer and director Elliott Nash and his irrepressibly cheerful singer and dancer wife, Nell. (Yes, this role was surely quite a stretch for Debbie Reynolds!)

Handyman Sam Thorpe (John McGiver)
contemplates the "gaze-bo"
Most of the film takes place at the Nash's suburban Connecticut home, where Nell is busily planning the installation of an English Victorian-era gazebo on the grounds while Elliott is busily plotting the murder of a nasty blackmailer who has in his possession incriminating photos of Nell ("art" nude photos done when she was eighteen).

Could Nell's precious gazebo prove providential for Elliott's desperate murder scheme?

I found The Gazebo an amusing and entertaining murder farce. Some contemporary reviewers pronounced that Glenn Ford was miscast in a comedy part, but I think he is quite good in the film's key role. Debbie Reynolds is reliably spunky (she really was unsinkable on film in the Fifties); and a cheerful song and dance number with the consummate entertainer appears early in the film (because, I presume, she's Debbie Reynolds, don't you know). Reynolds sings snatches of her ditty a couple of more times, but, most happily from my perspective, the film soon settles down into pure comedy--and murder.

Enjoyable as the leads are, however, I imagine Tom Ewell, Jayne Meadows and the underrated Jan Sterling would have been great as well. I can't recall Walter Slezak in a film at the moment, though I saw Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat some time ago and Slezak was supposed to be very good in it, though definitely not humorous.

don't worry, folks: I assure you there will be a murder

Carl Reiner
plays Harlow Edison, the Nash's nosy district attorney neighbor (uh-oh!), but for me the stand-out comedic supporting performers are the always wonderful John McGiver, the homespun building contractor who pronounces gazebo as "gaze-bo," and the always wonderful Doro Merande, as the Nash's very loud! housekeeper. Also notable is a young Martin Landau, whose part in the film, however, is not comedic. Indeed, the same year he played a similar role, very memorably, in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

Comedic bits early in the film remind me of the New York suburbanite comedies George Washington Slept Here (1942) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). For the rest, you'll probably be more reminded of Hitchcock's ambulatory corpse comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955)--or even, given the pivotal part played by Herman the Pigeon, The Birds (1963)! But The Gazebo is not for the birds.  Rather, it is a clever comedy for connoisseurs of the fine farce of murder--by all means, check it out.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Cough in Time Saves Nine: Count the Coughs and Win the Prize!

So, who do you think did it?

Readers of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries will know that the indomitable spinster sleuth uses a complex system of coughs to make subtle communications in the novels.  Like the canny meerkats, who have over 30 different calls they use to communicate with each other, Miss Silver has different sorts of coughs to signal her thoughts to interlocutors.

Some find the Miss Silver's coughs odd, irritating or even concerning, and in her own day the author through her publisher felt obliged to pass along a message about them to worried Wentworth readers (note the author's archaic use of the word "affection," characteristic of Miss Silver's own speech):


To those readers who have so kindly concerned themselves about Miss Silver's health: Her occasional slight cough is merely a means of self-expression.  It does not indicate any bronchial affection.  She enjoys excellent health.  P. W.

So do you know, or can you guess, how many times Miss Silver coughs in The Gazebo, recently reviewed by me here?  To whomever first gets the exact number, or who gets closest to it, in a  comment on this post or on my Facebook page by the end of January 10 I will be happy to send a copy of the new Hodder & Stoughton edition of The Benevent Treasure, the 26th Miss Silver mystery. 

I will pay domestic media rate postage in the US, but anything international you will have to cover yourself. Hint: in my copy of The Gazebo Miss Silver first appears on page 62, and is in the book continuously from page 108, after the murder, up to the penultimate page, 291. (The last page is  reserved for the lovers' embraces.)

Good luck, and watch that winter cough!


Suddenly in the Summerhouse: The Gazebo (1956), by Patricia Wentworth

"There is one of those old-fashioned summerhouse places which they used to call gazebos at the top of the garden."

No one is going to believe you are under forty yourself if you have a daughter who might be thirty-five.

By 1956, when Patricia Wentworth published her 29th Miss Silver mystery, The Gazebo, in the US (it was published two years later in the UK), the series tropes had long been established. To me the novel feels a bit tired, yet there remain plenty of elements that are sure to please the Wentworth fan.

The Gazebo tells the story of lovely but much put-upon Althea Graham, cruelly exploited by her needy and possessive "invalid" mother.

Five years earlier, Mrs. Graham by having one of her "heart attacks" sabotaged her daughter's intended marriage to dashing Nicholas Carey, with the result that Carey, a journalist, left England for various exotic foreign parts, leaving Althea behind with her ever more heartlessly demanding, vain and egocentric Ma.

(See the quotation at the top of this review, which amusingly depicts 48-year-old Mrs. Graham's typically selfish reasoning in wanting her harried 27-year-old daughter to spruce herself up a bit.)

Now Nicky Carey has come back (complete with a convenient inheritance), in order to inventory items left in the attic of a cousin who sold her house and moved to Devon. (Apparently this is a task which takes weeks.) Emotional fireworks ensue, along with, eventually, you guessed it, murder!

(Wentworth's fictional world is filled with cousins of varying degrees, incidentally, as was her real world.  Although born in India, where her father was a high-ranking British army officer, Wentworth was educated in London, where she resided at the Blackheath household of her widowed maternal grandmother, along with her mother, two younger brothers, five unmarried aunts and ten cousins from three different families.  It's no wonder cousins pop up so frequently in her novels: extended family connections were crucially important in Wentworth's own far-flung life.)

It is Mrs. Graham, of course, who gets bumped off--strangled, to be specific--in the gazebo on the grounds of the Graham house in Grove Hill, a community located on the outskirts of London; and it is Nicholas Carey, naturally, whom the police, as embodied by Wentworth's endlessly "elegant" series copper, Frank Abbott, suspect of the crime.  Two recurrent features of Wentworth novels, as any fan will know, are winning young lovers and the unmerited pursuit of these young lovers by police conducting a murder investigation.

In an Agatha Christie novel it might very well be the case that Althea or Nicky (or perhaps both of them) would turn out to be guilty parties, but in a Wentworth novel True Love is Innocent, Triumphant and Everlasting. The author makes clear that her lovers are guiltless of foul play; and much of the appeal of The Gazebo, as in other Wentworth tales, lies less in ratiocination per se than in the induced pleasurable anxiety of seeing the young lovers trying desperately to elude the tightening net of suspicion. (I'm rather reminded of the crime fiction of Mignon Eberhart.)

Of course the lovers in Wentworth's tales happily have in their pocket a dauntless guardian angel, or white witch, to rescue them in the form of Miss Silver, the genteel yet steely ex-governess turned spinster sleuth.

The suspense didn't come off quite as well for me this time, however, because there just wasn't any really plausible motive for either Nicky or Allie to "end" the admittedly tiresome Mrs. Graham, as Allie's dead father had left his noble daughter, not his nitwit wife, with the family purse strings. There was nothing, really, to stop Nicky and Allie from getting married and leaving Mrs. Graham with the house and a very patient companion. It takes Frank Abbott a lamentably long time to appreciate this truth, though of course Miss Silver sees it immediately. (Abbott suggests, in effect, that Nicky might have reverted to a sort of savagery after spending five years in those aforementioned exotic foreign parts).

Unlike Abbott, readers of the novel probably won't have a hard time spotting the real culprit, nor with spotting the motive for this person having gone lurking late at night in the gazebo. (They will be wondering, as they should, why the eighteenth-century Gordon Riots keep getting mentioned.)

historical depiction of the Gordon Riots (1780)

Still, there are  a lot of classic features in the novel that should appeal to fans of the Miss Silver series.  There are, for example, classic Wentworth characters like the Misses Pimm, three snoopy, unmarried sisters who absolutely live for nosing out other people's private affairs, not to mention Ella Harrison and Fred Worple, a pair of Wentworth's lamentably modern "outsiders."

Nothing wrong with a bit of flash?
Just ask Viv the Spiv
One of the Misses Pimm immediately recognizes Fred is a stranger, "because nobody in Grove Hill wore the kind of clothes he was wearing."  "They're quite new and quite dreadful," primly pronounces Allie of Fred's flashy habiliments.  At least a couple of Grove Hill people liken him, on account of his loud clothes and forward manner, to a spiv.

Sounding rather like his censorious beloved, Nicky for his part thinks at one point how much he dislikes the dubious Ella, with her "brassy hair and all that make-up."

To both Ella and Fred, notes an evidently disapproving author, "noise, glitter and plenty to drink were the essentials of enjoyment."  Not for nice Wentworth people nightclubs, jazz, cocktails and conspicuous consumption--that stuff's for the bad 'uns!

Then there are all the "middle class" people in Grove Hill who seem still to manage to avoid having jobs by living off their investment income, even as they endlessly complain about heightened taxation and the continual challenge of finding good "daily" help.

This sort of thing is the sort of thing about which over the years I have written many words, both in books and on the blog, arguing that it should not be taken, as it so often has been, as representing virtually the whole of Golden Age British mystery.  Indeed, The Gazebo was published fifteen or more more years after what is traditionally seen as the end of the Golden Age of classic detective fiction. It is, in fact, more "Golden" in style than much actual Golden Age mystery.

Unquestionably The Gazebo conforms to many of the stereotypes of Golden Age detective fiction. Although individual titles in the series will vary in quality, overall Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries are remarkable for the perfection of their "classic" milieu. For me it's this quality that makes fascinating even minor "Wentworks" (if you will), such as The Gazebo.

As mentioned above, The Gazebo was published in the US in 1956 and in the UK in 1958. In 1957 another British crime writer with his wife published a mystery short story titled "The Gazebo," which in 1958 he expanded into a successful play of the same title. 

This play in turn was adapted as a popular film in the US later that same year. A posting on the film The Gazebo (1959), which has nothing to do with Patricia Wentworth (or does it?), is coming up here later today.