Thursday, April 24, 2014

Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985), Modernist

As mentioned in my last blog piece, crime writer Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) graduated from Princeton in 1927 and published his first novels, Spirals and Her Body Speaks, penned under his own name, in 1930 and 1931; and his first George Bagby novel, Bachelors' Wife, in 1932.  All this by his mid-twenties!

Spirals and Her Body Speaks are modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels, Stein's great grab at the brass ring of great literature, while Bachelors' Wife, described as "the story of Tommy, a modern girl about town, who thought she was hard-boiled until she tried to forget the man she loved," appears much more a mainstream effort.

the Grosset & Dunlap reprint edition of Bachelors' Wife, by "George A. Bagby"

All these of these books, as well as Stein's first three detective novels, which appeared between 1935 and 1937, were published by Covici-Friede, a New York City firm that had published Radclyffe Hall's controversial, landmark lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928.  The firm also published John Steinbeck and a small amount of mystery fiction, including the the early Anthony Abbot detective novels and Rudolph Fisher's pioneering African-American mystery, The Conjure Man Dies (1932).

Aaron Marc Stein as a Princeton student
Stein wrote hopefully about his literary prospects to Hugh L. Bell, Secretary of the Princeton Alumni Association:

I am now engaged in writing the second book [Her Body Speaks] in such time as I have to spare from the activities by which I earn my bread and an occasional bit of butter.  My hungry mouth is fed by the proceeds derived from the writing of an odd form of art criticism for the New York Evening Post.  I have been acting as editor and critic of the antique section of that daily for two years....I have been also writing occasional articles for magazines.

A bit of a dust-up followed the publication of Spirals, when it was attacked in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly [PAW], by a pseudonymous reviewer, "Jenkins Gruffanuff" (see the works of William Makepeace Thackeray), who condemned the novel as obscene.

At least two Princeton alumni came to Stein's defense, writing letters of protest to PAW.  Robert Rau demanded a retraction of the review, declaring that the failure to make one would "stand as an insult to every Princeton gentleman."  David McKelvy White expounded on the iniquity of Mr. Gruffanuff at even greater length.  The reviewer had launched a "diatribe" against Spirals, declaring the novel "lewd, lascivious, filthy and obscene," complained White, yet he, White, found himself

quite unable to guess what it was that caused the outburst...Jenkins gives us no hint, content with quoting, at considerable length, the Federal Statutes relating to "lewd literature."...I can only wonder what curious obsession in Jenkins' mind is thus hinted at....

According to his New York Times obituary, Robert Rau (1907-1994; Princeton '28) was "an import-export executive and a civic leader in Manhattan."  He also served on the board of directors of the United Jewish Appeal, a philanthropic organization.

David McKelvy White (1901-1945; Princeton '25), the son of a prominent Ohio Democratic politician, earned a graduate degree at Columbia University and taught English Literature at Brooklyn College between 1928 and 1937.

He was a member of the Communist Party and in 1937 went to Spain to fight for the Republican cause in the civil war there.  He apparently committed suicide in 1945, for reasons that, according to historian Matthew Young, "remain obscure, although explanations tend to find their source in his imminent expulsion from the CP.  David's openly gay lifestyle (having lived with a long-time partner during the 1920s and 1930s), combined with his close associations with recently denounced CP leader Earl Browder, made him a target."

I think this matter sheds some interesting light on Stein at this time. Stein was the son of a Dr. and Mrs. Max Stein who in 1930 lived at 799 Madison Avenue (now home to the fine French linen store Frette).

His older sister, Miriam Anne Stein (herself later an author of three mystery novels), graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1925.

Aaron Marc Stein (or "Rod" as he was known to friends) obviously came from a prominent Manhattan Jewish family and was ambitiously seeking to make his way into higher literary circles. The New York Evening Post once noted that when Stein first appeared to work at the paper he "was carrying a copy of Aristophanes' 'The Frogs' under his arm....his copy was in the original Greek."

What was it about Spirals that so vexed Jenkins Gruffanuff? I haven't yet read Spirals (I have ordered a copy; it is rather a rare book), but it is described in a review in The Sentinel, a Chicago Jewish newspaper, as a "narrative in brief, swift strokes" in the mind of  a student, Anthony Todd, of "outstanding incidents of four years in college life at Princeton" (The Sentinel, 25 April 1930, 47).

An interesting tidbit about the novel comes in a New York Evening Post article, "Womanless Book By Stein Published."  In the body of the article it is noted, tongue-in-cheek, that "Mr. Stein has been asked to write several magazine article to explain the absence of the fair sex from his novel. As soon as he evolves an interesting theory, he expects to respond to the requests for an explanation."

Did Jenkins Gruffanuff detect homosexuality in Spirals, a "womanless" college novel?  I do not know, but I am finding some suggestive elements in Stein's crime fiction.  Perhaps Stein was--like, in all likelihood in my view, Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler), Milton M. Propper, Rufus King and Todd Downing (all reviewed on this blog)--one of the notable 1930s gay American detective novelists, not acknowledged as such at the time.

In any event, Stein's second novel, Her Body Speaks, supplied the women Spirals lacked.  Another stream-of-consciousness novel, with a strong psychological element, Her Body Speaks tells the story of "Edith Kent, a sex-starved unmarried woman of thirty-three" who witnesses a murder.  The review of the novel in PAW (not by Jenkins Gruffanuff but by Franklin Gary '27) concluded that

Mr. Stein is more interested in psychology and technique than in telling a story or in creating characters.  His technique often suggests the techniques of well known  modern novelists, Joyce, Faulkner, Mrs. Woolf, even O'Neill.  But none of these writers is interested primarily in technique for its own sake....

What was a fiction writer more interested in technique than characters to do in the 1930s? Why, become a detective novelist, of course!  Next post, I will be writing in detail about (finally!) Aaron Marc Stein's George Bagby mystery fiction.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Corpse Wore a Wig (1940), by George Bagby

The American author Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) published over 100 crime novels between 1935 and 1984, making him one of the more prolific mystery genre writers, yet he seems not to get much mention since his death.

Close to half Stein's crime novels, written under the name "George Bagby," detail the investigations of Inspector Schmidt, who debuted in 1935 and made his final appearance in 1983. The Inspector Schmidt series offers an interesting combination of police procedural and "Great Detective" traditions, at least from what I have seen of the earlier novels.

The seventh George Bagby crime novel, The Corpse Wore a Wig, was published in 1940.  The particular copy I read (see illustrations) was inscribed by Stein to John Ball (1911-1988), author of In the Heat of the Night (1965).

Stein graduated from Princeton in 1927, got a job as the "antiques and decorations" editor for the New York Evening Post and a few years later published two modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels, Spirals (1930) and Her Body Speaks (1931), as well as the first George Bagby title, Bachelor's Wife (1932). He then shifted to crime writing with his first George Bagby mystery, Murder at the Piano (1935).  I haven't read that book, but I am reading, and enjoying, Wig.  I will have to full review up this weekend.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Country Houses


One of the things I enjoy about Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels, which now cover a half-century of English history, from 1964 to 2013, is the depiction of social change.

In Rendell's Simisola (1994), the novel's ambitious grocery store chain millionaire couple, Wael and Anouk Khoori, bought a Kingsmarkham country estate, Mynford Old Hall, which they promptly demolished and replaced with another structure, because the older house had the misfortune of being a nineteenth-century Victorian mansion. Wrong style--as any reader of Golden age detective fiction will know!

Mynford New Hall is what Rendell calls a "mock-Georgian" mansion, done in the best Jane Austen taste. But it's just not the true article, outside or inside.

During the course of their murder investigation in Simisola, Wexford and Mike Burden call on the house and interview the Khoori's two Filipina servants, Juana and Rosenda:

There seemed no need to penetrate farther into the house.  The hall was a vast chamber, pillared, arched, alcoved, the walls paneled and with recessed columns, very much the kind of room guests must have been welcomed into at a Pemberley or a Northanger Abbey.  Only this was new, all new, barely furnished.  And even in the early nineteenth century, even in winter, no great house would have been as cold inside as this one.

It is interesting to see how the classical country house still serves as such a potent symbol in the English mystery novel, so many years after the end of the Golden Age of detective fiction, a literary period with which the country house has been so strongly associated.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Murdermarch? Simisola (1994), by Ruth Rendell

The American hardcover edition of Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford detective novel Simisola (1994) carries a blurb from Publishers Weekly that describes the novel as "at times like a contemporary Middlemarch with a murder mystery at the heart of it."

There is no doubt that with Simisola Ruth Rendell was aiming, like P. D. James in her Inspector Dalgleish novel, Original Sin, which appeared the same year,  at what she would see as a higher thing than a "mere puzzle" about a murder and its solution, a novel of realism about social ills afflicting modern England.

I would say Simisola is a considerable success. Beyond doubt, it is a great improvement on a previous Wexford "social problem" novel, An Unkindness of Ravens (1985).  If Ravens is much inferior to P. D. James' contemporaneous A Taste for Death (1986), I would say that Simisola is superior to James' Original Sin.

It is difficult to fully evaluate Simisola as a social problem novel because of a practical problem inherent in all mystery reviews, that of the imperative of avoiding "spoilers."  So I will try to be as circumspect as I can in my discussion (warning to anyone who picks up the American edition: it reveals too much on the jacket about the plot, in my opinion).

It is true that Simisola is Rendell's premier racism novel, yet I would argue that class issues--particularly the exploitation of the poor by the rich--ultimately are the strongest concern here (race and class do intersect, of course, and gender issues also are addressed, although more cursorily).

Since the 1990s Rendell, though herself politically to the left, has in her Wexford novels continually decried what her surrogate Wexford deems "political correctness," to the extent of creating a character evidently deemed by many the most irritating person in the Wexford canon, the excruciatingly and arguably impossibly politically correct Hannah Goldsmith.

Although Rendell continually raps racism and misogyny in her books, she has also made clear that she does not believe "political correctness" should exempt from criticism misdeeds by women and members of minority groups.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this attitude can be found in the interesting but ill-fitting Not in the Flesh (2007) sub-plot about female circumcision, a subject about which Rendell has spoken out publicly with passion and conviction.

We see this attitude as well in Simisola, in Rendell's portrayal of the ambitious and wealthy couple Wael and Anouk Khoori.

To be sure, in Simisola Rendell includes some wealthy characters who are more sympathetic than the Khooris (and also some who are even less sympathetic than the Khooris). Yet it is clear that the frequent lack of sympathy for the poor is something Rendell is greatly concerned with indicting.*

*(not only the wealthy are indicted: Wexford's subordinate, Mike Burden, is on hand, as always, to represent middle-class obtuseness and complacency, while indifferent government bureaucrats also are pummeled).

The events of the novel take place against a backdrop of economic recession and much of the action revolves around events at the local Employment Service Jobcenter (ESJC), which also houses the Benefit Office. Bringing this matter even more to home for Wexford, both his all-too-frequently hapless daughter Sylvia and her husband have lost their jobs and are spending a great deal of time with Wexford and his wife, Dora.

Given the economic state of affairs in the United States for the last five years, this subject in a twenty-year-old British novel seemed rather timely.  I found both the race and class issues were deftly integrated with the mystery plot by Rendell.

So what is the plot?  Inspector Wexford learns that Melanie Akande, daughter of his physician, Raymond Akande, a Nigerian immigrant, has vanished and he launches a police investigation into the matter. Melanie Akande disappeared after a visit to the ESJC, a fact that becomes sinister after the woman with whom she had her appointment is found dead, strangled in her bed.

The investigation of Reg Wexford and Mike Burden into the presumably related murder and disappearance is long and involved, allowing Rendell to introduce a large cast of memorable characters, including the fulsome local politician Anouk Khoori, wife of a multi-millionaire grocery store chain owner; Raymond Akande's stately spouse Laurette; Carolyn Snow, a highly vindictive wife of an adulterer; Cookie Dix, the much younger wife of a wealthy architect; Ingrid Pamber, with her amazing blue eyes; flat-bound witness Mr. Hammond, ninety-three years old but still mentally sharp; the blind but ever-mirthful Mrs. Prior; and Nigerian-born crossing guard Oni Johnson and her ESCJ habitue son Raffy (played by Idris Elba in the 1996 film version of Simisola--his sixth acting credit on imdb).

Rendell offers a clever alibi gambit and a particularly Christie-esque clue in the text; yet as the tale reaches its terminus the logic of the themes severely circumscribes the field of suspects, which leads me to disagree with the stated view of some contemporary reviewers that the solution is an astonishing surprise.

Thus I would not rate Simisola Rendell's greatest success among the Wexford novels as a puzzle.  It clearly is, however, a notable example of the modern crime novel that uses the mystery to explore social issues.  The whole thing is compellingly done by an author working at the height of her writing powers, making Simisola a book that I can enthusiastically recommend to mystery fans, even those of the more traditionalist sort. Incidentally, in a brilliant touch the novel's strikingly simple title is invoked but once, in the final line.

See also, at the Passing Tramp:

Going Wrong (1990) by Ruth Rendell
Asta's Book (1993), by Barbara Vine
Not in the Flesh (2007), by Ruth Rendell (Wexford)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Invitation....

People who read this blog and use Facebook might be interested in "Golden Age Detection" a Facebook group started by Jeffrey Marks for fans of traditional mystery (discussions also are known spill over into other areas of crime fiction).  It is a closed group, but if you "friend request" me on the Facebook page I started I can place you in the group. We would love to have you join.

Later this week, by the way, I will be posting reviews of Ruth Rendell's Simisola and Crippen & Landru's latest Edward D. Hoch Dr. Sam Hawthorne short story collection, Nothing Is Impossible. And there should also be the last part of of my consideration of Lucy Worsley's take on Golden Age detective fiction.

I am also expecting to get a series of interviews about crime fiction with some interesting people rolling soon!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Worsleying around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Three: The Lower Orders and Our Social Betters

It has taken me a while to get around to this, but here is Part Three of my look at Lucy Worsley's genre survey A Very British Murder.  See here for Part One and Part Two.

After a short chapter of about 2000 words on the Detection Club (this is acceptable, though you will learn much more about the Detection Club from Doug Greene's observations on it in his biography of John Dickson Carr, my CADS booklet Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play and Peter Lovesey's essay on the Detection Club, forthcoming in Mysteries Unlocked), Worsley in Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," adopts the old Julian Symons-Colin Watson take on Golden Age English detective novels, castigating the books for their "attitude that servants are not really human" (the chapter title is the same as the title of Colin Watson's book on the subject).

Worsley cites as evidence for this assertion Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and his manservant Magersfontein Lugg.  Do Allingham readers agree that the memorably-portrayed Lugg comes off as "not really human"?  And what about Dorothy L. Sayers' Bunter?  He may not be human, but, if so, it's because he's super-human, not subhuman!

Not really human? Lugg and Campion

Worsley also cites a character in Sayers' The Nine Tailors who says of a chauffeur, "I believe him to be a perfectly truthful man, as such people go."  Worsley doesn't mention that immediately after this comment the person Mrs. Gates is talking to mentally refers to her as "this old cat." Worsley may have missed this, but Mrs. Gates and her retrograde social attitudes (and, yes, they were retrograde attitudes, even among Sayers' readership, in the 1930s) are being satirically portrayed by Sayers.  This is not evidence for Worsley's claim, but rather evidence against it.*

*(Here is a character's description of Mrs. Gates from earlier in the novel: "But I'll tell you who would have noticed anything, and that's Mrs. Gates--our housekeeper, you know....She's a perfect ghoul...She's quite nice, really, but she ought to live in a Victorian novel....")

Of course Worsley, like Symons and Watson before her, is right that there are plenty of objectionable classist attitudes about servants legitimately attributable to authors of Golden Age mysteries, but the argument can be overdrawn.  In fairness to the Golden Age mystery, there was more nuance on this matter than often is admitted.

Worsley goes on to pronounce that "in the Golden Age, too, the detective was usually of a specific social class, much more elevated than it had been in the days of Inspectors Field and Whicher, when detection was considered dirty work....Agatha Christie cleverly allowed Hercule Poirot to sidestep the issue of class by making him Belgian and therefore, notoriously, hard to categorize.  But a great many of his colleagues sprung from the ranks of the aristocracy."

Predictably, Worsley then goes on to offer as evidence of the "great many" Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Roderick Alleyn.  Once again only resort to the Crime Queens is made. But what about the resolutely bourgeois Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), Superintendent Wilson (GDH and Margaret Cole) and Inspector Macdonald (ECR Lorac)?  These are three examples, just the number Worsley offers, but additional ones could be offered (and have been on this blog).  It's simply not true that the readership of Golden Age mysteries could not abide a smart middle class policeman as a series sleuth.

a middle class copper

Part Four will consider Worsley's explanation for the "fall" of the Golden Age detective novel.

Nosing It out in Northumberland: Vera, Season One (2011)

Recently I reviewed at this blog Ann Cleeves' new Vera Stanhope detective novel, Harbour Street (2014).  I liked the characters of DCI Stanhope and her subordinate DS Joe Ashworth and the evocatively portrayed north England setting, so decided to give season one of the popular television series, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera and David Leon as Joe, a try, despite some qualms I have about Cleeves' plotting in Harbour Street. I am happy to say I liked the series and will be getting season two, though again I have some qualms about the plotting.

In my view the strongest of the four episodes in season one was the fourth episode, Little Lazarus, the only one not based on a Cleeves novel. This was an extremely good television crime film. The other three all had good points as well, but were not on par with the superlative Little Lazarus. I'll talk about each one in order.

"Hidden Depths"

Vera cogitates

Vera and her team investigate two seemingly related murders, that of a teenage boy and a young woman schoolteacher.  In both cases the corpse, garroted, was found in water, strewn with flowers. Vera focuses her sights on a group of four male ornithologists.

This was a very solid opening for the series.  As in all the episodes of season one, the score and the photography are superb. The wide open, bleakly beautiful spaces immediately reminded me of Wallander.

Also striking was the centrality to the plot of mental aberration and sexual psychosis.  It is no surprise to me that Ann Cleeves is a great fan of Nordic crime fiction in general. The influence is quite evident in all three season one episodes based on her novels.

Arguably the suspects were not as well fleshed out as the could have been, but there are a lot of interesting plot wrinkles and the final revelation of the identity of the killer allows an important thematic point to be made, one that relates to the personality of the title character. Additionally, I thought there were some memorable insights into the state of families in modern England (I also noticed this in the novel Harbour Street).

"Telling Tales"

Joe questions

In this episode Vera discovers that a recently deceased woman may have been wrongly convicted for the murder of an adolescent girl.  There soon follows another murder, which Vera believes is related to this earlier case.

I found this episode the least satisfying of the season.  Again psychosis and sexual misdeeds are brought to the fore, and I found it hard to square behavior with character, as it is presented to us. Additionally, I was left in confusion about aspects of an assault made late in the story, and Vera reaches the solution by pure (and unlikely) happenstance. Blah!

"The Crow Trap"

one of the many sad souls Vera encounters in the course of her investigations

A woman who co-owns land desired by a quarrying company is murdered.  It turns out that this woman was a suspect in a previous case, concerning the disappearance of a child. Another murder follows.

Yet again psychosis plays a great role and the whole thing seems rather far-fetched in the final analysis, but I did admire the plot construction and found the whole thing quite engrossing.

In all three of these episodes Vera's personality is nicely developed, along with her relationship with Joe. One is inevitably reminded, I think, of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Like Morse, Vera is a loner who doesn't take good care of herself and can be difficult to work with, though she can have great empathy for the sorry souls she runs across in her cases.  Like Lewis, the young family man Joe is more placid and helps anchor his boss to the social world.  They make a nice team.  Both Blethyn, a twice Oscar-nominated actress, and Leon perform extremely well in these roles.

Other members of the team are non-entities, with the exception of Holly Lawson and Kenny Lockhart, and even they are not given too much of interest to work with.  Paul Ritter's pathologist Billy Cartwright, on the other hand, offers some memorably mordant moments.

Finally we come to the season one finale:

"Little Lazarus" (story by Paul Rutman)

Vera is judged

In this one, a young boy survives a brutal attack in which his mother is killed.  Investigating into the mother's past, Vera finds a maze of mystery, some of which seems to implicate people in high places.

I found this a tremendously engrossing episode, with good characterization and an interesting, intricate plot that thankfully for once did not depend on anyone being absolutely stark ravers.  The ending I found quite poignant, because we have been made to care for the people involved, including two interesting modern couples.

Vera's relationship with the boy is nicely developed and we are left with a cliffhanger about Vera's health--as if we didn't have reason enough already to come back for season two!