Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Vultures Gather: The Grindle Nightmare (1935), by Q. Patrick

"When the buzzards roost in Grindle Oak, Death comes to the valley."--The Grindle Nightmare.

The Grindle Nightmare (1935) was the first Q. Patrick crime novel co-authored by Richard Wilson "Rickie" Webb after he met Hugh Callingham Wheeler, his living partner in Massachusetts for more than a dozen years and by far the most important of the four mystery writing collaborators he worked with over the years. Grindle had been preceded by Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), co-authored with Martha Mott Kelley; Murder at Cambridge (1933), authored by Webb alone; and S. S. Murder (1933), co-authored with Mary Louise White, who is also credited as the co-author of Grindle.  I can't help wondering whether Hugh Wheeler may have had some influence on Grindle, however.

The next year Webb published another Q. Patrick mystery, Death Goes to School, which evidently was authored by himself alone, but Death for Dear Clara (1937) and all the Q. Patricks that followed were written collaboratively by Webb and Wheeler.

The Grindle Nightmare was, it seems, one of the more successful Q. Patrick crime novels, which were later eclipsed by Webb and Wheeler's Patrick Quentin mysteries. Reprinted by Popular Library in 1949, it appeared a final time in paperback in the Sixties in a Ballantine edition; but since then it has been out-of-print for over a half century, like all the other books in the Q. Patrick line, sadly.

At the time it was originally published in 1935, Grindle was noted for its horrific criminal subject matter, which includes animal mutilation and child murder.  The novel is set in New England in the Grindle Valley, twenty miles from the city of Rhodes, home of Rhodes University Hospital.  There are a half-dozen or so main households in Grindle (see map), populated by a group of mostly unlikable middle and upper class professional types beset by myriad physical and emotional dysfunctions, some quite bluntly presented for their day.  It all struck me rather like something out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, say Deep Water (1957).

When The Grindle Nightmare was published
mystery was made about the identity of the
author, "an important eastern executive."
When the depraved crimes commence, the reader doesn't really have much of anyone to root for, which certainly casts a wide net of suspicion.  Even the narrator, Dr. Douglas Swanson, and his housemate, Dr. Antonio Costi, "one of the youngest and smartest professors of pathology in America," in whom readers may discern the Watson and Holmes figures of the story, seem rather clinical and even callous about the mayhem.

Today such a story would be told strictly for horror and shock value, at two or even three times the length (Grindle is a short novel of only about 60, 000 words), but in 1935, the events, while no end gruesome, are intellectualized as part of a problem to be solved.

The solution is very interesting, especially for its time, but of course I can't say more about that without spoiling.  Surely someday this novel will be reprinted, so I don't want to do that.  However, I do have more to say about Grindle in a forthcoming essay included in a collection to be published next year, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin/Jonathan Stagge Consortium and The Puzzles of Peter Duluth

One of the most important American crime writers, oddly out of print today in the primarily English-speaking world (though this will change when Crippen & Landru's collection of short crime fiction, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, is published), is Patrick Quentin, who also wrote as Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  I've reviewed several works by this consortium, if you will, and they generally are extremely good, in my opinion, but the the authorship question has remained somewhat murky over the years, so let me try to elucidate a bit.

It all started in 1931, when the native English Philadelphia pharmaceutical executive Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966), published a mystery novel, Cottage Sinister, in collaboration with Martha Mott Kelley (1906-1998), a recent Radcliffe graduate descended from the the Quaker abolitionist and feminist Lucretia Mott and niece of the progressive social reformer Florence Kelley, under the name "Q. Patrick" (the last name derived from "Pat" for Martha Kelley's nickname Patsy and "Rick" for Richard Webb's nickname Rickie and the "Q" in honor of what they pair considered the most "intriguing" letter in the alphabet).

The public face of Q. Patrick, 1931-35
Richard "Rickie" Webb
The next year the Rickie and Patsy also published Murder at the Women's City Club, but Kelley then left the Q. Patrick team.  Retaining the Q. Patrick name, Rickie Webb in 1933 published Murder at Cambridge, which he wrote solo, and S. S. Murder, on which he collaborated with Mary Louise White (1902-1984), a graduate of Bryn Mawr.  Webb would also work with White on The Grindle Nightmare, which was published in 1935.

At that point Mary Louise White left the team, marrying Edward C. Aswell, an assistant editor with Harper and Brothers (husband and wife alike would become prominent twentieth-century American editors).  So once again, Webb, who was more of a plot man, like Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen, was left in need of a collaborator.

Happily Webb found one in a young Englishman named Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987), who had come over to the US from England with Webb in 1933, settling with him in Philadelphia. (I'm not certain whether the two lived together in these years, but, if not, they certainly were near neighbors, residing in the Locust Street-Spruce Street area.)

Hugh Wheeler, c. 1940
Wheeler had taken a BA degree with honors in English at the University of London in 1932 and was anxious to embark on a literary career.  Although he and Webb had started out writing a "pretentious novel," as Wheeler put it, nothing seems to have come of this, and the pair by 1936 had settled into a lucrative commercial partnership in crime fiction collaboration.

Webb and Wheeler intermittently continued the Q. Patrick series, but they also created two new mystery writing pseudonyms: Jonathan Stagge, under which they produced the Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novels, and the pen name for which they became most famous, Patrick Quentin.

All told, during the period of their collaboration, 1936-1952, Webb and Wheeler published six Q. Patrick novels (Death Goes to School, 1936, usually attributed to Webb and Wheeler, probably was written by Webb alone), including two Crimefiles books; nine Jonathan Stagge novels and nine Patrick Quentin novels, for a grand total of 24 novels over sixteen years.  During most of this time, 1939-1952, the pair lived together in the Berskhsires in rural western Massachusetts, except for a period during the second World War when Hugh Wheeler served in U. S. Army Medical Corps.

Hugh Wheeler in his post-Webb
collaboration days
Webb's health declined toward the end of the collaboration and in 1952, he retired from the consortium he had created, moving to France and leaving the Patrick Quentin name to Wheeler, who would write seven more Patrick Quentin novels between 1954 and 1965 before turning his professional attention exclusively toward writing for the films and the stage, an endeavor in which he enjoyed distinguished success. Wheeler would go on to win three Tony awards for his books for A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd.

So that, relatively briefly, is the somewhat complicated story of Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin/Jonathan Stagge, which is primarily, though not entirely, the story of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler.  There is more about the two men in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, Crippen & Landru's forthcoming collection of the Patrick Quentin short fiction concerning the adventures of Patrick Quentin's lead series character, Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer and, of necessity, an occasional amateur sleuth (often in company with his actress wife, Iris) who appeared in nine novels between 1936 and 1954, eight written by Webb-Wheeler and one written by Wheeler.

I wrote the introduction to Puzzles and there is as well, I'm very pleased to add, a fascinating afterword by Hugh Wheeler's great-niece and "Puzzle for Proustians," an amusing postscript about Rickie Webb by Mauro Boncompagni.  There are some new photos of Webb and Wheeler included as well, including one of the pair together on vacation in Italy in the 1940s.  I think Doug Greene has done a great job putting this one together!  I hope this book will give mystery fans a taste of the deadly delights of Patrick Quentin's crime fiction and that its appearance may encourage the complete reissuing of the consortium's distinguished body of genre work.

Previous pieces on "the consortium":

On Q. Patrick: Death for Dear ClaraThe File on Claudia Cragge
On Jonathan Stagge: The Scarlet Circle
On Patrick Quentin: Black WidowMy Son, the Murderer

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Patrick Quentin Puzzles and E. R. Punshon Enigmas

I haven't been blogging too much this month because I have been busy with more book introductions (and an afterword in one case), specifically to Dean Street Press's new round of E. R. Punshon reprints and a collection of the short crime fiction by Patrick Quentin, issued by Crippen & Landru.

The Patrick Quentin collection, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, gathers all the short crime fiction about Patrick Quentin's lead series character. Peter Duluth, who appeared in nine Patrick Quentin novels published between 1936 and 1954.  About twenty years ago I bought my first Crippen & Landru book, an edition of John Dickson Carr's radio play Speak of the Devil, and it is a great honor to get to write an introduction to a Crippen & Landru volume today, especially concerning an crime writer I so admire.  I hope to have some more posted on Patrick Quentin tomorrow (have been under the weather).

Crippen & Landru, you probably know, is owned by Douglas G. Greene, biographer of John Dickson Carr, to whom Mysteries Unlocked, a collection of essays I edited, is dedicated.  More on this book soon!

I'm also very excited about the new series of Punshon reissues, the author's 11th through 15th Bobby Owen mysteries: Comes a Stranger (1938), Suspects-Nine (1939), Murder Abroad (1939), Four Strange Women (1940) and Ten Star Clues (1941).

Collectively these books constitute, in my opinion, the single best group of Punshon mysteries, published when the author was at the apex of his popularity in England.

Dean Street Press has introduced a snazzy new design for this group of reissues, which also represent some of the rarest books in the Punshon canon.  Up until now, even most Punshon collectors hadn't been able to read these books (especially the first four), because they simply weren't available on the used book market.  To be able to help bring back worthy, almost impossible-to-find editions like these is a great joy for me.

Comes a Stranger is a bibliophile mystery, with a body in the library (or maybe not); Suspects-Nine is about a murder in fashionable London circles; Murder Abroad, partially based on a real life murder case, details a murder investigation in France; Four Strange Women is a serial killer novel with more than a few hints of horror; and Ten Star Clues is a classic country manor and village case that, like Josephine Tey's celebrated Brat Farrar, draws on the Victorian cause célébré of the Tichborne claimant.  All together a most inspired and entertaining group of Golden Age detective novels.

The Punshons are available for pre-order in in the US and UK and I will let you know when The Puzzles of Peter Duluth is out.  Some good stuff all round!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Chess Problem: The Player on the Other Side (1963), by Ellery Queen

As Joseph Goodrich's recent collection of some of the correspondence between the "Ellery Queen" cousins, Fredric Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, makes clear, the two mystery writers found it something of a challenge updating tales of their Golden Age Great Detective, also named Ellery Queen, to the more modern era of the "realistic" crime novel, Ellery Queen having had his inception in the baroque era of writers like S. S. Van Dine, creator of Philo Vance, that g-droppin', high-falutin' man about town who in his spare time (that which he doesn't devote to his collections of exotica like tropical fish and Egyptian papyri) resplendently emerges from his New York brownstone, a slavishly devoted attendant "Watson" in tow, to solve diabolical yet vastly improbable crimes concerning nursery rhymes, family eliminations and cursed dragon pools.

By the mid-30s, as Van Dine began his descent into desuetude, Ellery Queen was loosening the tight puzzle boxes that were their own books.  They produced novels aimed at adaptation on the silver screen and serialization in the lucrative glossy women's magazines--the slicks--that put less emphasis on pure detection and more on human emotions; and then in 1942 came Calamity Town, the first of their Wrightsville novels, set in small, "All-American" northeastern town, which aimed at achieving greater realism in terms of milieu and character.

By the early 1950s EQ as I see it had definitely emerged into another stage, where they attempted to produce "serious" novels addressing metaphysical issues, within, however, the detective novel framework. In this period you get some detective novels with very odd symbolic elements, such as The Origin of Evil (1951), The King Is Dead (1952) and The Finishing Stroke (1958), this last novel, incidentally, having many of the elements, seemingly, of a swan song.

And, in fact, at this time Manfred Lee, who wrote the novels from Dannay's extensive outlines, dropped out of an active role in the partnership for a time, claiming, as I understand it, a case of "writer's block."  The correspondence between the cousins in the later 40s-early 50s collected by Joseph Goodrich indicates that Dannay and Lee had strong artistic disagreements about the composition of the books, Lee wanting to put greater emphasis on realism, Dannay desiring to maintain big concept puzzles, which Lee felt it was difficult to write about in a realistic fashion. You can see that split in much of their work in the 1940s and 1950s, and I can't help wondering whether Lee just got burned out with it all by the late Fifties.

In any event, there was no new Ellery Queen novel published until 1963, with the appearance of The Player on the Other Side, probably the most acclaimed EQ novel from the last eight years of the EQ saga (1963-1971).

What was not admitted at the time was that Manfred Lee did not write this acclaimed detective novel, although it was based, as others before it, on a long outline from Dannay.  The actual author was the highly-regarded sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, although according to the splendid website, Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, Sturgeon's manuscript was extensively revised by Lee, with additional revisions made by Dannay.

Player certainly reads to me like vintage Ellery Queen. The plot is an artificial Van Dineian conception, many of the characters are classic mystery types, not really developed, and the setting is nearly timeless and placeless (aside from the introduction of a black cop into the story)--yet there are some very interesting and thought-provoking ideas lying behind it all.  Beyond that, it's just a rattling good read.

The primary setting in the novel is York Square in New York City, a highly imaginary place where four cousins live in four corner "castles" separated from each other by a small park.  The cousins have been obliged to live in these domiciles if they want to inherit shares of the fortune of their eccentric uncle, Nathaniel York. In six months the period required by the will have expired, and the cousins finally will be able to "cash out," so to speak.

Oh, and I should mention that the arrangement is a tontine (naturally!), under which when a cousin expires, his/her share goes back into the kitty for the others to divvy.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that it's not long before one of the York cousins is dead, by most violent means. Will others follow?

Soon Ellery Queen, mystery writer and Boyish Genius (by this time Ellery is vaguely middle-aged, but I can't help but think of him as Jim Hutton, who played him on the wonderful, short-lived television series and was still quite boyish-looking at that time, forty years ago), is on the case, courtesy, as usual, of his crusty old father (whom I always think of as David Wayne, due to said television series), Inspector Queen, of the NYPD.

Concerning Ellery, there's an interesting introduction to him in this book, where we learn that he, like Manfred Lee, is suffering from writer's block.  In Ellery's case, it's because he hasn't been getting "good" cases from his Dad to fictionalize in his novels.  It seems that the age of the master villain, constructing perfect murder puzzles for his opponent, the sleuth, to try to solve, has passed, regrettably replaced by modern scientific police investigation (and modern police procedurals and hard-boiled crime novels). Explains Ellery: "I haven't been able to write any more because the player on the side doesn't exist any more....The times have outdated him--swept him away, and me with him."

Of course Ellery soon finds a worthy opponent--his player on the other side--in the York case, showing that he is not so outdated after all.  There are inscrutable symbolic messages, delivered on oddly-cut pieces of paper, a classic EQ device (that part I actually figured out before Ellery), as well as some splendidly Christie-esque misdirection. (One aspect of the solution, however, is rather, shall we say, tentative.) The whole thing is more thinly clued than the baroque Golden Age EQ (what isn't?), but there was one clue I loved, so obvious when Ellery explained it, but the significance of which was missed by me at the time.

Also, the chess theme is brilliantly employed, I think, though it's something lost on the covers of the modern "playing card" editions of the novel by Orion and Mysterious Press. Is chess now too "old school"?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

The lurid fright film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), starring film legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, proved such a hit that it launched the so-called "psycho-biddy" genre, where aging screen queens from Hollywood's Golden Age deglammed to play maniacal harridans and the like in increasingly campy horror flicks. Predictably, plans were soon laid for another Davis-Crawford shocker vehicle after the success of Baby Jane.  It was found in the classic southern Gothic movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)--although when it was shown in the theaters only one of these great acting divas was actually in the film.

Production problems plagued Charlotte (according to legend, Bette Davis's psychological warfare against Crawford drove her despised rival off the set, forcing the director to replace Crawford with Olivia de Havilland), delaying its release until late in 1964, and it was not as big a hit as Baby Jane; yet the film was received even more warmly when the Academy Awards nominations rolled round, netting seven Oscar nods to the five of Baby Jane: best supporting actress, cinematography, art decoration, costume design, film editing, original song and original score.

Additionally, Agnes Moorehead's supporting performance won a Golden Globe Award, while the film itself secured the Edgar Award from the MWA for best motion picture.  The song "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte," a lush ballad about a suspected decapitation murderess that was beautifully performed by Patti Page, rose to #8 on the American pop charts, though it lost the Oscar to "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins. (These things will happen.)

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte was based on a novella, What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?, written by Henry Farrell, the author of the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  I think Farrell wrote the novella as the scenario for the film that was to be made from it, and I believe it was never published until recently, when it appeared in this 2013 edition of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

There are a few differences between the novella and the script, most notably the expansion and deepening of the role of Velma, played in the film in classic scene-stealing fashion by Agnes Moorehead.  Basically, the novella is a solid enough example of a mid-century domestic suspense story, written by a man, while the film itself is lifted above the genre norm by superb production values and colorful acting.

Set on the River Road in Louisiana (film exteriors were shot at Houmas House plantation), Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte tells the story of batty Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis), believed way back in 1927 to have hacked to death in a summerhouse during a ball at the Hollis mansion her married lover, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), upon his having broken off their tempestuous affair. (John's murder was never officially solved, nor, um, was his head ever located.) This part of the story is memorably shown immediately after the film's prologue and opening credits.

Bruce Dern gets cut from the film

Since  the death of her nouveau riche protective father, a classic southern "Big Daddy" type played with typical gusto by Victor Buono (back from Baby Jane, for which he had received an Oscar nomination), Charlotte has lived alone in the decaying antebellum mansion her father bought many years ago, attended by her ornery "white trash" maid of all work, Velma (Agnes Morehead).

Unhappily for the eccentric and reclusive Charlotte, the Hollis mansion is scheduled to be demolished in order to make room for a highway and bridge.  Charlotte is determined to prevent this, so she calls upon her capable poor relation from her younger days, Cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havlland), now a successful career woman, to help her out of this mess.

Mutual dislike: Velma (Agnes Moorehead) and Cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland)

Also on hand is the Hollis family friend and doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), and, in a couple of scenes, Jewel Mayhew (Mary Astor), owner of the neighboring estate and the widow of Charlotte's long-dead lover, John.

In spite of Miriam's help, Charlotte's sanity seems only to deteriorate further, as Charlotte hears strange noises in the night (a harpsichord plays the haunting melody John wrote for her, for example) and has nightmarish visions of the decades-old murder.  Of course there will be more deaths at the Hollis mansion before the film is over, but whose will they be? Ladies and gentlemen, our nerves are in for a bumpy night!

Is that Joan Crawford returning to the set?
Bette Davis as "Sweet Charlotte"

I really enjoy Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.  Despite the, oh, decapitation murder (recalling the infamous ax murders of the Lizzie Borden case, local children with the casual cruelty of youth have changed the words of John's song from "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" to "Chop, Chop, Sweet Charlotte"), I don't find Charlotte quite so cruel a film as Baby Jane and I believe it's more of a genuine mystery film in its structure.

Agnes Moorehead's scene-stealing Velma is a right hoot in my opinion, while everyone else in the main parts gives compelling performances too, I think. As Cousin Miriam (the part originally slated for Joan Crawford), Olivia de Havilland is terrific, and Joseph Cotten's role as the silky-mannered doctor fits the native Virginian like a glove. In her final film performance as the widowed Jewel Mayhew, Mary Astor also delivers a compelling performance, making you wish she had more scenes.

Cousin Miriam and Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten)

Bette Davis's starring role as Charlotte is not as singular a part as her notorious Baby Jane (for which she received an Oscar nomination, being done out of the win, according to legend, by her co-star and rival Joan Crawford's vigorous campaigning against her), but she holds the screen like the great diva that she was. If she chops up the scenery (and does she), well, that is what Charlotte Hollis does...right?

Happy Halloween to all of the Passing Tramp readers out there.  Frightful dreams!

Save the last dance....

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Agatha Christie, Week #5

Links to our last group posting on Agatha Christie for now. Quite a company of bloggers this week!  Next week, as I understand it, we will be talking about Ellery Queen.  Links will, I believe, be posted at Noah Stewart's blog.

Brad Friedman: The Documents in the Case: Christie and Clues

Mark Green, The Detection Club's Fogginess

Kate Jackson, The Christie Verdict

Bev Hankins, Christie and the Art of Disguise

Noah Stewart, My Favorite Agatha Christie Paperback Covers

Moira Redmond, Clothes in Christie

Jeffrey Marks, The Case of the Flu

Helen Szamuely, Archaeologists in Christie's Stories

Curtis Evans, Murder as a Fine Art: Tom Adams and Agatha Christie

Murder as a Fine Art: Tom Adams and Agatha Christie

Illustrator Tom Adams seems to be everyone's favorite Agatha Christie paperback cover artist. Certainly he is mine--in part, I'll admit, because Christie Pocket paperbacks with Adams cover art introduced me to Christie back in 1974, when I was eight years old.

One summer when my family and I were living in Mexico City, I was with my mom at Sanborns Department Store when she purchased four Christie paperbacks off the rack, three with Adams art. I've been a Christie fan ever since.

But mostly Tom Adams is my favorite Christie cover artist because his cover art is so darn good. Concerning Christie cover art, Adams is best known for that which he did over many years for English paperback publisher Fontana (often intriguingly surrealistic), yet his beautiful American Pocket editions from the early Seventies are most familiar to me personally.

I have already shown Adams's cover art for Christie's Third Girl in my review of that book here (note also his Fontana Third Girl cover art); and below can be seen yet more Adams Christie paperback art, front and back covers included, since the wonderful paperbacks have wraparound illustrations. Enjoy!  Which are your favorites?

Also take note: A new edition of Tom Adams art, Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond, with commentary by John Curran, is now available.

On other vintage mystery genre cover art, see

Death and Rudolph Belarski
John Rhode and William Faulkner
More Arthur Hawkins Book Jackets