Monday, July 27, 2015

Befogged: The Night of the Fog (1930), by Anthony Gilbert

The letters began coming during the bitter winter of 1929, when the country was fettered in the grip of a black frost, when houses were flooded and countless people homeless, and when the poor suffered untold misery and died in destitution.

Now there's a cozy opening for you, eh?

Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson, 1899-1973) is one of those detective fiction writers I have always found interesting, though until now I had not read what I would call a really "great" book by her.  She had the literary instincts of a mainstream writer and in addition to detective fiction she indeed wrote mainstream fiction, as well as some crime novels.  In 1936 she abandoned her early series sleuth, the elegant Liberal MP Scott Egerton, and replaced him with with Arthur Crook, the roguish Cockney defense attorney for whom she became best known.

Crook appeared in over fifty mysteries between 1936 and 1973, easily eclipsing the ten Egerton detective novels that appeared between 1927 and 1935.  Yet it was on the strength of the Egerton books that Gilbert was admitted to the Detection Club in 1933, and, in truth, from my reading the half-score of Egertons seem generally to offer readers more in the way of detection than the Crooks, which to me often seem to veer more into (though not completely) suspense territory.

In the fifth Scott Egerton mystery, The Night of the Fog (1930), I have found a Gilbert detective novel that has succeeded, in my estimation, on all counts.  It's an evocatively written tale with a memorable setting and some well-observed characters, and it also has meticulous detection and a very clever plot.  If I ever do a new list of recommended mysteries this is one that most definitely will go on it.

The novel is set mostly in rural England, primarily at the village of Queen's Wrotham and the moldering, candlelit manor house of Jasper Hilton, the tightfisted, morose and spiteful owner of much of the farmland round about, who is suspected of having murdered his wealthy wife a dozen years previously, though he doesn't spend any of her fortune.

Despised by his tenants, he begins receiving a series of anonymous letters threatening his life. Not having confidence in his estate manager nephew, Rolfe Hinton, who has never recovered from his experiences in the Great War, Jasper Hinton finds the money to hire a London detective, Thornton Peile, to get to the bottom of the matter of the poison pen letters.

Soon Peile finds himself embroiled in the roiling emotions of the Hinton household. Not only do Jasper and Rolfe Hinton despise each other, Rolfe is intensely suspicious of the relationship his lovely wife Leslie has with the local doctor, Gilbert Cheyne. Peile solves the mystery of the poison pen letters to his satisfaction and departs, but this doesn't save Jasper Hinton's life.

After Jasper is found stabbed to death in his own fog-enshrouded home, evidence points to both Rolfe Hinton and Gilbert Cheyne as the culprit; and there are a number of additional suspicious characters in play too, including servants, villagers and an impassioned leftist dogood "foreigner" named Mary Carstairs, who was trying to stir up the locals against the manifold iniquities committed by Jasper Hinton.

In the novel Peile, alternating with an ambitious local policeman named Cavendish, functions as the lead investigator for much of the story--though Gilbert's sleuth Scott Egerton ultimately plays a crucial, if admittedly rather distant, role, in a way that reminded me of Hercule Poirot in some of Agatha Christie's later mysteries, like The Clocks.

I think Gilbert may already have been finding the series amateur sleuth something of a fifth wheel in her narratives, although, interestingly, Scott Egerton actually preceded the sleuths of Dorothy L. SayersNgaio Marsh and Margery Allingham in falling in love with a suspect in a case (his first, Tragedy at Freyne, 1927), marrying her and siring offspring; so one can make the case, I think, that Egerton, though forgotten, has historical significance within the genre.

Yet Gilbert seems to have been more interested in portraying her suspects' inner emotional turmoil than in detailing the personal lives of her series sleuths--perhaps this is one reason she never had the staying power of the Crime Queens after her death in 1973. (Arthur Crook has less of a developed personal life than Scott Egerton as I recollect.) Back during the Golden Age probably few people read Gilbert primarily to get the latest news on Scott Egerton, his wife Rosemary and their bouncing baby boy.

tread carefully
Be that as it may, Gilbert's concern with the cruelly blighted lives of the downtrodden--something to which I referred in an earlier blog piece where I proposed that Gilbert completed Annie Haynes' unfinished mystery The Crystal Beads Murder (published in 1930, the same year as The Night of the Fog)--is a quality that should appeal today to the devoted student of Golden Age detective fiction.

I have long argued that Julian Symons oversimplified the history of the Golden Age in arguing that social justice was a concern that essentially went unvoiced in fiction of that era by traditional English mystery writers. Gilbert in fact stands out among the many English mystery writers of that time for the empathy she expressed for the plight of society's unfortunates.

A supporter, like her Detection Club colleague E. R. Punshon, of the British Liberal party, Gilbert put no small degree of her political and social preoccupations into her writing; and for me this gives her book added interest.

When Julian Symons wrote in Bloody Murder that "the social values taken for granted by Sayers, Christie, Rinehart" were reflected in the work of other writers he need not discuss, like Anthony Gilbert, Georgette Heyer, Mignon Eberhart, Elizabeth Daly and Helen Reilly  (it's suggestive of the critic's gender-based assumptions, in my view, that all these examples of "conservative" Golden Age authors are women writers), he surely was right about some of the authors, but not Anthony Gilbert.  I can't think of two British writers working within the classical tradition in the 1930s who were more different in tone than, say, Anthony Gilbert and Georgette Heyer.

But even if you aren't drawn in by the bleak social detail in The Night of the Fog, you should enjoy the clever plot and gripping narrative.  It is a most engrossing tale, on multiple levels. Unfortunately, it seems to be available in a modern edition neither in the US or UK, though a number of Anthony Gilbert's novels have been reprinted in the UK by Orion Books' The Murder Room imprint.  Perhaps its turn will come.

Note: photos are of the enigmatic Calcott Hall (Red Dress Manor). See Derelict Places.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Inspector Stoddart Mysteries of Annie Haynes: The Man with the Dark Beard (1928), The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929), Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929), The Crystal Beads Murder (1930)

The reissues of the Inspector Stoddart detective novels by Golden Age detective novelist Annie Haynes will be out through Dean Street Press in the fall, in paper and electronic versions, and below you can see what the covers will look like. These tales will be followed by Haynes' three Inspector Furnival novels and her five non-series mysteries.

Also coming are three detective novels by yet another Golden Age British woman mystery writer, one who has been out-of-print for seventy-five years.  More to come on those books, but, in the meantime....

The Man with the Dark  Beard

Who did in the eminent Dr. Bastow in his own consulting room? Was it the man with the dark beard--or is he a red herring? Inspector Stoddart is on the case--his first recorded one.

The Crime at Tattenham Corner

Who left financier and racehorse owner Sir John Burslem dead in a ditch in Hughlin's Wood near Tattenham Corner?  Did his killing have something to do with the running of the Derby Stakes at the famed Epsom Downs Racecourse? Inspector Stoddart is on the case again, this time with a little romance in store--strictly in the line of duty, of course....

Who Killed Charmian Karslake? 

It's the question on everyone's lips when a popular American stage actress is found murdered in her bedroom at the country house where she had been invited for the weekend. There's a mansion full of suspects, but Inspector Stoddart always gets his man--or woman.
The Crystal Beads Murder

Who slew that lecherous swine Saunderson in the summer-house?  What could the cryptic clue of the three white crystal beads mean?  Inspector Stoddart answers all questions in his last recorded case, which may have been completed by crime writer Anthony Gilbert, Annie Haynes having passed away before she finished the manuscript.  It's a fine finish to an entertaining mystery series.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Who Completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder? Fourth Suspect: Anthony Gilbert (aka Lucy Beatrice Malleson)

Lucy Beatrice Malleson published her first mystery novel, The Man Who Was London, in 1925, under the singular pen name J. Kilmeny Keith.  This was followed in 1927 with another Keith novel, The Sword of Harlequin, described as "less a detective novel than a psychological study." That same year Malleson also created the pseudonym for which she is best known: Anthony Gilbert.

Anthony Gilbert perhaps.
Tragedy at Freyne, the first Gilbert novel, introduced amateur sleuth Scott Egerton, who would serve as Gilbert's series detective in ten novels, published between 1927 and 1935. (After dropping Egerton as a series character Malleson created the lawyer sleuth Anthony Crook, for whom she is best known.) In 1928 the second Anthony Gilbert novel, The Murder of Mrs. Davenport, appeared, followed by three more detective novels over the next two years: Death at Four Corners (1929), The Mystery of the Open Window (1929) and The Night of the Fog (1930).

So "Anthony Gilbert" was quite busy with her own books in 1929, when Annie Haynes died, leaving an unfinished mystery manuscript; but perhaps the fact that Gilbert published "only" one detective novel in 1930 is a pointer in favor of the theory that Gilbert took some time out to complete The Crystal Beads Murder.  Also in favor of Gilbert as the "culprit" is that, compared with Agatha Christie and A Fielding at this time, she was a relatively less established name in mystery.

We know also that Gilbert was unmarried and greatly involved in women's club life, a milieu that would have been familiar to Annie Haynes and her companion, the prominent feminist and philanthropist Ada Heather-Bigg.  Furthermore, the writing style of the later portion of The Crystal Beads Murder strikes me as similar to Gilbert's in her own books. In both there is a greater reliance on descriptive writing and a more prominent authorial voice.

Additionally, the phrase "flotsam and jetsam," used to refer to a bedraggled piece of humanity, pops up in the later portion of The Crystal Beads Murder; and this is a term and image that appears recurrently in Gilbert's own work.  Compare the use of the term in The Crystal Beads Murder with its use in Gilbert's The Long Shadow (1932), for example, and you should see what I mean:

She was a kind-hearted woman and the slowly moving figure [note: a passing tramp!] appealed so eloquently as a bit of human flotsam and jetsam, drifting through the murk of an autumn morning, that she impulsively threw the window open and called to him as he passed.

                                   --The Crystal Beads Murder

Nobody knew who the old woman was; nobody ever asked.  Nobody cared.  She was part of the flotsam and jetsam flung up by life to end its days in Sullivan's Dwellings.

                                    --The Long Shadow

In both cases it is not merely the use of the phrase, but the sentiment behind it, the empathy for the downtrodden, that is notably similar.  This strong concern with the plight of society's unwanted is highly characteristic of Anthony Gilbert's work (including her revealing memoir, Three-a-Penny) and, I think it's fair to say, rather less characteristic of Golden Age mystery in general.

Conclusion: All right, guv, it's a fair cop!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Who Completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder? Third Suspect: A. Fielding

Lady Dorothy Feilding (not A. Fielding)
Until research breakthroughs this year, the life of Annie Haynes was one of the most mysterious of Golden Age detective fiction writers.  Certainly rivaling Haynes in terms of personal mystery, however, was the enigmatic A. Fielding, author of 23 detective novels between 1924 and 1944.

A. Fielding was probably one Dorothy Feilding, though not the Lady Dorothie Feilding (1889-1935) some have asserted she was. However, this Dorothy Feidling remains a most elusive presence.

Noting that one thing we know about her is that she once lived down the street from Agatha Christie, I humorously suggested in a prior blog piece that Dorothy Feilding may have been Agatha Christie under an assumed name!

By 1929, when Annie Haynes died and a woman mystery writer friend stepped forward to complete her last, unfinished mystery, The Crystal Beads Murder, A. Fielding had published six detective novels and a thriller.  Over 1929-30 she would publish no less than four additional detective novels. (Fielding was a prolific mystery writer up to 1938, often publishing two novels yearly.)  Assuming Fielding would have had time to complete Haynes' mystery, is there any affirmative evidence to suggest that she did so?

Stylistically, there are similarities in the work of Christie, Fielding and Haynes alike, namely a brisk narrative style, heavily dependent on dialogue, and a partiality for genteel settings. But we know so little about Dorothy Feilding we can't say, really, whether or not she might have been a friend of Annie Haynes.  Also the section of The Crystal Beads Murders that represents the work of the substitute author actually is more reliant on descriptive writing than either Christie, Fielding or Haynes.

Conclusion: Unlikely.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Who Completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder? Second Suspect: Margaret Cole

Margaret Cole is credited with writing 27 detective novels with her husband, the prominent socialist academic GDH Cole, between 1925 and 1942.  In reality, as I explain in my book The Spectrum of English Murder, she probably wrote ten of the co-credited novels mostly herself, and GDH (Douglas) probably wrote seventeen of them mostly himself. (Another detective novel is officially credited to Douglas Cole alone.) Margaret Cole also is responsible for a collection of short mystery fiction.

Here are the books I credit to Margaret Cole in Spectrum:
The Murder at Crome House (1927)
Poison in the Garden Suburb (1929)
Burglars in Bucks (1930)
Dead Man's Watch (1931)
Death of a Star (1932)
Death in the Quarry (1934)
Scandal at School (1935)
Mrs. Warrender's Profession (1938) (short fiction)
Greek Tragedy (1939)
Counterpoint Murder (1940)
Knife in the Dark (1941)

So if Margaret Cole came to the rescue when the late Annie Haynes' unfinished manuscript for The Crystal Beads Murder needed completing in 1929-30, this came at a time when she was launched on her second and third detective novels, in addition to all her activities as, like her husband, a prominent English socialist intellectual. I just can't see this, nor is there anything in the writing that to me reads like Margaret Cole's fiction.

Conclusion: Highly unlikely.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Who Completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder? First Suspect: Agatha Christie

Could Agatha Christie have been the mystery writer who completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder, left unfinished when Haynes died at the age of 63 in 1929?

Christie hit a rough spot creatively in the aftermath of her apparent nervous breakdown and disappearance in late 1926.  In 1927 and 1928 she published what she considered two of her worst books, The Big Four and The Mystery of the Blue Train. (Most people seem to concur with her about The Big Four, at least.)

By 1929, however, she was coming out of this bad patch.  She published The Seven Dials Mystery, which I personally think holds up well today, and had written some Tommy and Tuppence and Miss Marple short stories, rather delightfully jolly and keen affairs respectively. Would she have found time to complete Annie Haynes' unfinished mystery?  And, if so, would she have had any inclination to do so?

Annie Haynes's publisher, The Bodley Head, published Christie's first five novels, between 1920 and 1925.  Yet Christie left The Bodley Head in 1926, after considerable acrimony, jumping ship with The Murder of Roger of Ackroyd to Collins and sticking it out with them for the next half-century.  I have a hard time believing that Christie in 1929-30 would have wanted to have had anything to do with The Bodley Head.

Also, had Christie completed The Crystal Beads Murder, it's hard for me to believe that we wouldn't know this by now, with all the people who have intensively researched her life and works, like John Curran.

Conclusion: On the whole Christie seems unlikely.

The Crystal Beads Murder (1930), by Annie Haynes and ???

Clue in the crystal....Can Inspector Stoddart read the signs?
Annie Haynes had not completed the manuscript of The Crystal Beads Murder before she passed away in 1929 from heart failure, at the age of 63. (She had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for fifteen years.)  A sister mystery writer offered to complete her friend's manuscript, a proposal to which Haynes' publisher, The Bodley Head, eager to have one last Annie Haynes detective novel to place before the voracious mystery reading public in 1930, assented.

I have an idea who this woman mystery writer may have been and I will throw out some clues in the coming days.  It's a matter I discuss in my introduction to the forthcoming reprint of The Crystal Beads Murder, by Dean Street Press. Care to make any guesses?

The Crystal Beads Murder concerns the slaying of a libidinous swine in a summer-house on the grounds Holford Hall, the Midlands country estate of Lord and Lady Medchester.  Suspects in the slaying naturally are numerous, presenting another challenging case for Inspector William Stoddart, who previously solved murders in The Man with the Dark Beard, The Crime at Tattenham Corner and Who Killed Charmian Karslake?  In the current case he does have one clue: a broken section of a crystal bead necklace that his assistant, Alfred Harbord, found in the dead man's overcoat pocket. Where will the clue of the crystals beads take the investigation?

The Crystal Beads Murder is written in Annie Haynes' best vein, with intriguing plots complications and interesting characters alike capturing the reader's fancy. It will be out in the fall, along with the other Stoddart mysteries; and Annie Haynes' eight other detective novels will soon follow.