Thursday, October 16, 2014

Golden Anthologies 2: A Classic English Crime (1990), edited by Tim Heald

A few weeks ago, in comments to my review of Sophie Hannah's Hercule Poirot "continuation," The Monogram Murders, it was suggested that a clever Christie-related publishing scheme would be to commission someone to write Sven Hjerson detective novels, Sven Hjerson being the vegetarian Finnish detective of Agatha Christie's beloved mystery writer character, Ariadne Oliver, whom Christie based largely on herself. The peculiar Finn Sven Hjerson of course is a surrogate for the peculiar Belgian Hercule Poirot (leave it to Agatha to have gone and invented Nordic Noir mystery--okay, just kidding on that one!).

When this (excellent) idea was bruited, I mentioned that someone had already written a Sven Hjerson short story.  That someone is the late British mystery writer HRF Keating, and that story is "Jack Fell Down."  The story is found in A Classic English Crime (1990), the Crime Writers' Association's centenary tribute to Agatha Christie.  It is a superlative mystery story, as are a number of the others gathered in this collection.  Here is a list of all the stories and their authors:

a centenary tribute to
the Queen of Crime
Means to Murder, by Margaret Yorke
Smoke Gets In..., by David Williams
Holocaust in Mayhem Parva, by Julian Symons
All's Fair in Love, by Susan Moody
The Lady in the Trunk, by Peter Lovesey
Jack Fell Down, by HRF Keating
Experts for the Prosecution, by Tim Heald
A Fete Worse Than Death, by Paula Gosling
Wednesday Matinee, by Celia Dale
Spasmo, by Liza Cody
A Little Learning, by Simon Brett
Good Time Had By All, by Robert Barnard
Cause and Effect, by Catherine Aird

"The legacy of Agatha Christie hangs heavy on Britain's crime writers," writes Tim Heald in his introduction to A Classic English Crime. He continues:

Not everyone accepted the challenge [to write for the anthology a mystery set in the between-the-wars period, in the style of Christie].  One or two of our brightest and best flinched [am I the only one thinking PD James and Ruth Rendell here? I also think Michael Gilbert is sorely missed! TPT], but the baker's dozen who did accept are, I believe, a fine representative of the best of contemporary crime writing--a genre in which we still lead the world....

[Christie], whatever her faults, had inimitable gifts and talents....Modern crime writing has advanced in a number of ways, and its protagonists would argue that it has attained a sophistication undreamt of in the so-called golden age.  At the same time is is no denigration of this collection or of the modern generation to say that in this her centenary year Dame Agatha Christie remains a law unto herself and an incredibly difficult act to follow....

No less than seven of the anthology authors--Yorke, Symons, Lovesey, Keating. Brett, Barnard and Aird--are authors I listed in my previous post when I wrote of distinguished first generation post-GA mystery writers.

Also roughly of that generation are David Williams (1926-2003), whose first "Mark Treasure" mystery, Unholy Writ, appeared in 1976; Celia Dale (1912-2011), whose first novel (not a crime novel, I believe) was published back in 1943; the American-born Paula Gosling (1939), who published her first crime novel in 1974; and Tim Heald (1944), whose first Simon Bognor mystery, Unbecoming Habits, appeared in 1973.

Slightly later, in terms of years of first genre publications, are Liza Cody (1944), whose first Anna Lee Mystery, Dupe, appeared in 1980, and Susan Moody, (1940), whose first Penny Wanawake mystery, Penny Black, did not appear until 1984.

Margaret Yorke's and Liza Cody's stories are good tales, yet they really are psychological suspense stories that bear little resemblance to classic Christie detective fiction, except in milieu. Cody's story, "Spasmo," about an absolutely horrid little boy, does not even have a crime, though it does have a grave moral trespass.

a suspicious character
Julian Symons' and Tim Heald's tales are overly twee jobs in my view, really rather mocking parodies of the Golden Age rather than loving pastiches.

In Symons' tale the main characters come from the board game Clue/Cluedo, aside from a rather unlikable old busybody named "Miss Harple." Symons once said that humor was not his strong point in his mystery writing (much of which is very good), and I tend to agree with him.

Simon Brett's "A Little Learning" is not even a story, really, but, rather, a lampoon of American academics' learned treatises on English mystery (in this case a "doctoral thesis by an American postgraduate student named Osbert Mint").

I suppose American academics led the way with this sort of thing (portentously impenetrable, jargon-laden acadamese), but their British cousins surely have caught up with them by now!

That leaves us eight genuine detective stories in the anthology that are successful at imitating Golden Age style as well as milieu. First, in order of appearance, is David Williams' "Smoke Gets In," which gives us the full Monty of classic English mystery: the village, the country house, the crime (an outbreak of arson that ultimately leads to death) and a couple of bright young things indulging in a jolly spot of amateur detection.

Could this be the man?
Susan Moody's "All's Fair in Love," is a simply delightful story, told in epistolary form by a young woman working for an insurance agency, investigating a case of suspected fraud at the Grand Hotel at Chorlington Spa.

She reports that a hateful old woman at the hotel has been murdered, and that the murder is being investigated by "an unpleasant little man, rather too emphatic as to spats and moustaches...."

Peter Lovesey's "The Lady in the Trunk," about a murder at a train station, is a first-class tale of detection, based on alibis and a splendidly simple but devious trick. There is also excellent humor in the depiction of the relationship between an unbearably pompous, know-all police inspector and his much put-upon sergeant.  A classic detective tale in its own right is this one, with soem dashes of Freeman Wills Crofts as well as Christie.

Equally good at detection, and pitch perfect as Christie pastiche, is HRF Keating's "Jack Fell Down," about a famous Finnish detective, Sven Hjerson ("an excessively tall gangling gentleman" who frets about getting fresh vegetables), solving a murder that takes place on a funicular on the isle of Capri. The characters are perfect Christie types--I especially liked the sporty Englishwoman Arabella Buckly, who plants herself on Hjerson and functions as his Watson--and the title is, of course, classically derived from a nursery rhyme, "Jack and Jill."


Paula Gosling's "A Fete Worse Than Death," about a fatal poisoning at a cake baking contest at a village fete, feels a bit more contemporary (one could imagine the story taking place post-WW2 as well), but the village atmosphere is good nevertheless and the cluing excellent.

Celia Dale's "Wednesday Matinee," about death striking a London playhouse, feels, I must admit, more like Margery Allingham than Agatha Christie, but it's a splendid story, with memorable atmosphere and characters and a revelation handled with all the skill of the virtuoso storyteller.

Who done it?  The house servants are on the case....
Robert Barnard's "Good Time Had by All" is an inspired tale about a murder at a country house that is set in the servants' hall. We get solely the speculations of the butler, cook, maids, footmen, etc., many of whom turn out to be rather excellent crime solvers (the first housemaid, Ethel, who reads detective fiction and once was employed in a doctor's household, is especially perspicacious).

Of course their "betters"--"five coppers from Addersfield, and a French gentleman with moustaches you could uncork a bottle with who's staying with the Chief Constable"--are on the case as well, but you only hear about their doings second-hand, as it were. Reading this tale again after many years, I was powerfully reminded of the television series Downton Abbey (there's even an under-footman named Thomas).

Finally, Catherine Aird's "Cause and Effects" is typically good Catherine Aird, detailing an ingenious village poisoning murder in the author's amiably chatty fashion.

I think that overall even Agatha Christie herself would have been quite pleased with this collection. Eight of the stories are first-rate examples of "classic English crime," with five--the Moody, the Lovesey, the Keating, the Dale and the Barnard--in my view standing with the best of English classic crime fiction, whatever the era.  A good time had by all, indeed!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

After Laughter Comes Tears: Situation Tragedy (1981), by Simon Brett

Simon Brett
Simon Brett recently restarted his Charles Paris mystery series, after over fifteen years of dormancy. That's quite a lapse of time!  The series already had been slowing down over the course of the 1990s. Between 1975 and 1989 there were thirteen Paris mysteries, but during the 1990s just four.

Finally in 2000 Brett shifted over to the village cozy "Fethering" series (fifteen in fourteen years!).  But in the last two years there have been published two new Charles Paris mysteries, so I thought I would take take a peep at Paris again, first looking at one of the older novels, Situation Tragedy (1981).

I see Simon Brett as bringing up the rear guard of the first generation of post-Golden Age British crime writers (those born roughly from 1910 to 1945, who first started publishing mystery fiction in the period that extended from the waning days of World War 2 up to the mid-1970s).

This group includes Julian Symons (1912-1994), Michael Gilbert (1912-2006), Edmund Crispin (1921-1978), HRF Keating (1927-2011), Colin Watson (1920-1983), Patricia Moyes (1923-2000), PD James (1920), Ruth Rendell (1930), Catherine Aird (1930), Joyce Porter (1924-1990), Margaret Yorke (1924-2012), Peter Lovesey (1936), Reginald Hill (1936-2012), Robert Barnard (1936-2013) and Simon Brett (1945). Brett is the "baby" of this group, the sole writer under 70, the only one who would have no personal memory of the Second World War.

All these authors grew up when Agatha Christie was very much alive, striding over the world of British mystery like a cozy Colossus (first edition Christie mystery novels were published from 1920 to 1976). Some of these authors, like Julian Symons, very consciously tried to lay out a new course for British mystery, while others, like Patricia Moyes, largely worked within the tradition; still others occupied more of a middle ground.

What Simon Brett helped bring to the genre with the Paris series that was more original was his emphasis on humor and satire.  Though this in itself was not new--there was plenty of humor and satire in Golden Age British mystery and what followed--Brett's Paris novels seem to me to place more emphasis on these qualities relative to actual clueing and detection.  I think readers of Brett's Paris mysteries probably are more interested in what satirical wrinkle he will come up with next, rather than the mystery puzzles per se.

For the Charles Paris mysteries Brett was able to draw effectively on his career in British radio and television, as his protagonist is a small-time actor, as preoccupied with drinking and bedding as he is with detecting.

In Situation Tragedy, the "bit" is that Paris has gotten a part on a British sitcom spin-off series, "The Strutters." Soon people involved with the show are dropping like ninepins, murdered in various memorable ways. It's rather like something out of Seventies Vincent Price horror film.

This allows Brett ample scope for satire aimed at the people in the television business, from the producer (hopeful notes from him are interspersed throughout the text, looking increasingly oblivious as the body count rises), to scriptwriters (there is an almost-too-twee-to-be-believed married scripter couple that Charles rightly finds maddening), to the production crew (i.e., what Brett calls "the men in lumberjack checked shirts whose only function seemed to be to wear lumberjack checked shirts"--labor unions are a great object of satire in this novel).

As far as social detail goes, there is quite a bit of interest in this novel. It shows its age a bit when Brett refers to a character visiting a "home for spastics"; and there is a quite positively portrayed, though stereotypically flamboyant, gay character ("his every movement had the desired effect of advertising his proud overt gayness"). "Like many others in television," Brett observes of another character, "he had been recently divorced"; and when I read this, I wondered how many today would ever have been married in the first place.

Charles' detection is fitful, but there is an interesting plot at the heart of the book that eventually implicates a long-forgotten detective novel series from the 1930s.  Reference is made to Freeman Wills Crofts and E. R. Punshon--how often do you ever see that in a modern British mystery?

The resolution, implausible but inevitable, has, as the title indicates, the elements of tragedy; yet Brett does not play this note as hard as he might have. With the last page the the mask of comedy again looks back at us.

Incidentally, Brett's portrayal of avid detective fiction collectors is not a pretty one.  But then it is hard to sympathize with the sort of collector who doesn't have any interest in actually reading the stuff!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Women Sleuths in the Golden Era and the Modern Era: Marcia Muller's The Broken Men and Some Antecedents

As I planned this weekend blog piece on Women Sleuths I coincidentally came across Lucy Worsley's recent Ten Best Fictional Detectives list for Publishers Weekly. Worsley's list runs from 1817 to 1938, I suspect because Worsley's book, A Very British Murder, has only cursory coverage of the period after 1940.

She's back--with a top ten list
Lucy Worsley

Yet although she confines her coverage to this earlier period, a time less known than today for its female sleuths, Worsley makes five of her ten best fictional detectives women. The interesting thing here is that not all the women listed are really detectives, or sleuths, at least in any conventional sense, in contrast with her men (Charles Dickens' Inspector Bucket, Wilkie Collins' Sergeant Cuff, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe).

Here are Worsley "best" women detectives:

Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey (1817)
Susan Hopley from The Adventures of Susan Hopley (1841)

Mrs. Paschal from Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864)
Harriet Vane from four Dorothy L. Sayers novels (1930s)
Ida Arnold from Brighton Rock (1938)

Bad news for Dorothy--
she's not on the list!
So we get Susan Hopley, but not C. Auguste Dupin, Harriet Vane, but not Peter Wimsey. And two women from books that are not considered works of detective fiction.

As I was reading this rather idiosyncratic list I kept expecting, while Worsley was being so free-ranging, to see Alice in Wonderland appear next, or maybe Dorothy Gale from the Oz books (although, concerning Dorothy, Kansas' Witchfinder General, apparently Worsley meant to confine the list to best "British" detectives, Chandler's Marlowe evidently being counted as an honorary Brit, on account of the English connections of his creator).

If I were doing a sleuths list that included women from the Golden Age and trying to list what I see as genuine examples of detectives from the period, I imagine that I would include, from England, Christie's Miss Marple, Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley (Sayers wrote Mitchell in the 1930s that her Mrs. Bradley was the greatest woman sleuth).

Some people might argue for those nosy American nurses, Mary Roberts Rinehart's Hilda Adams or Mignon Eberhart's Sarah Keate, but I think they are somewhat problematical (especially the latter). Hulbert Footner's Madame Storey, a true detective whose stories have been reissued in a lovely multi-volume set by Coachwhip, comes to mind as well.

Of course all three of the Golden Age women from Women Sleuths, the book I reviewed in my previous post, perform real detection, in detective stories.  But Margaret Cole's Mrs. Warrender appeared only in a mixed bag of one novel and a short fiction collection while Eberhart's Susan Dare appeared in only one book of short stories (some additional, uncollected Susan Dare stories also were included in a Crippen & Landru Eberhart collection) and Cornell Woolrich's librarian sleuth, Prudence Roberts, appeared in just a single novella.

                                                                 ***********

A female sleuth that turns up on lists of modern great detectives is Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, the investigator in the author's 1985 novella, The Broken Men, the last work included in Women Sleuths.  

cover art to Crippen & Landru's
The McCone Files illustrating
a scene from The Broken Men
This excellent story, later included in Crippen & Landru's much praised first collection (still in print) of Marcia Muller short fiction, The McCone Files, has McCone, a PI, getting hired as security for two celebrity clown performers who have returned to their old northern California stomping grounds after fifteen years to do a turn at an outdoor concert pavilion at the Diablo Valley Clown Festival. 

Before the performance goes on, however, one of the clowns McCone is protecting, Gary Fitzgerald, vanishes. An unidentified dead man turns up at the pavilion the next day, amid the last night's discarded trash, wearing Gary's clown clothes; and he's been murdered. Who done it?  And why?  This is a fine modern detective story, with a classical plot (very good on people's physical movements) and an appealing vein of human sympathy running through it.  

One of the nice things from my perspective about Women Sleuths is that all four tales, from the three from the Golden Era to the one from the Modern Era, offer readers genuine detection (i.e., sleuths making deductions based on clues).

It's also interesting to compare the treatment of the women sleuths in the two eras. Below are quotations from each tale that are indicative of the way these sleuths interact with their environments.


She had never in her life felt so utterly helpless, and the thought of Idabelle Lasher's faith in her hurt. After all, she ought to have realized her own limits: the problem that Mrs. Lasher had set her was one that would have baffled--indeed, had baffled--experts.  Who was she, Susan Dare, to attempt its solution? (The Calico Dog, 1934)

Mrs. Warrender, as nearly annoyed as she could be at being treated as if she were on the verge of the grave or a home for the feeble-minded, argued the point with an obstinacy of which she had not known herself capable....
(The Toys of Death, 1938)

But Prudence didn't intend urging or begging them [the police] to look into it as a personal favor to her....she made up her mind to pursue the investigation, single-handed and without their help if necessary, until she had settled it one way or the other. (The Book That Squealed, 1939)

I checked in with Don to find out when I should be at the studios, then went home to change clothing....Chambray pants and an abbreviated tank top, with a suede jacket to put on in case of a late evening chill, were all I would need.  That, and my .38 special, tucked in the outer compartment of my leather shoulderbag. (The Broken Men, 1985)

Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, you'll notice, speaks for herself, in a first-person narrative. She's also a professional detective, of course.  She also packs heat.  She does deal with sexism from a client in The Broken Men, but she quickly overcomes it.  How does she compare with the earlier women sleuths in the collection?

In a Publishers Weekly review of Women Sleuths, the reviewer complains that "the three stories from the '30s feature sheltered, prudish women; even Eberhart's private eye [sic] Susan Dare, who feigns independence, is saved by her boyfriend."


In fact, Susan Dare, a mystery writer, is not a private detective, but rather an amateur sleuth like Mrs. Warrender, an elderly widow, and Prudence Roberts, a spinsterish librarian.  I didn't detect that either Susan Dare or Mrs. Warrender was "prudish" and, as far as Prudence Roberts goes, her prudery was a quite deliberate choice by the author (like the symbolic name). Over the course of the tale, Roberts does incredible things she never would have imagined herself doing; and her character has quite changed by the end of the story.

Indeed, I was struck by a pretty strong feminist undertone in The Toys of Death and The Book That Squealed.  Male authority, in the form of the police, is pretty darn dim in these tales, and Mrs. Warrender and Prudence Roberts have to go their own way to get justice. 

The only real help Mrs. Warrender gets is from a plucky younger woman (a librarian, incidentally); the young woman's male friend is too neurotic and self-absorbed to be of help.  Prudence Roberts is not only let down by men in high places; even a male cabbie fails her. I would say Roberts performs heroically throughout the story, which gets quite grim by the end, as the librarian finds herself dealing with ruthless criminals.

It is true that men ultimately prove useful in the Woolrich and Eberhart tales on account of their physical prowess. But when it comes to brains in all these stories, women have the market cornered!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Golden Anthologies I: Women Sleuths (1985), edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Bill Pronzini

Still in print today, Women Sleuths (1985), edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg, is part of an Academy Chicago series of mystery anthologies (yes, people, including men, were interested in the subject of women sleuths even three decades ago).

It gathers a trio of short works (two novellas and a novelette) from the 1930s and a then-recent novella, The Broken Men by Marcia Muller, a noted modern PI writer and, incidentally, one-half of one of mystery's most notable author couples (the other half being Bill Pronzini).

The 1930s works are The Toys of Death, by GDH and Margaret Cole (though really just Margaret Cole in this case), The Calico Dog by Mignon Eberhart and The Book That Squealed by Cornell Woolrich.  I have blogged about all three of these writers, most recently the Coles, about whom I have a book coming out soon.

Margaret Cole's The Toys of Death is one of four novellas that she wrote about her elderly amateur detective, Mrs. Warrender, who also appears in a Margaret Cole short story, "The Mother of the Detective" (1933) and a Margaret Cole novel, Knife in the Dark (1941).  The four novellas and the short story comprise the 1938 short fiction collection Mrs. Warrender's ProfessionThe Toys of Death is the stand-out among the novellas in Profession.

Mrs. Warrender probably is one of the first, if not the first, Miss Marple simulacrums to appear in English mystery fiction (sometimes people claim that Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver preceded Miss Marple into print, but, although Miss Silver did do so in book form--her Grey Mask appeared in 1928, while The Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930--in fact Miss Marple first appeared in a story in The Royal Magazine in December 1927, thus preceding Miss Silver into print). Margaret Cole's "The Mother of the Detective" was first published in book form in 1933, in the Coles crime story collection A Lesson in Crime, though I assume it appeared in magazine form first, some time in the early 1930s.


I believe Mrs. Warrender's greatest moments as a sleuth are found in The Toys of Death, where she solves the murder of a "Great Novelist," the marvelously-named Crampton Pleydell, who is found dead of cyanide poising on his estate at the southwestern English coastal town where he holds court in season.

The means of murder turns out to be quite interesting and there is an unexpected resonance to the tale, as Mrs. Warrender soon discerns that Pleydell was an exploitative emotional vampire, feeding off ingenuous and vulnerable young admirers (female and male), draining them of their spirit and then casting them aside.


Mignon Eberhart's The Calico Dog is one of her Susan Dare stories, which she collected in The Cases of Susan Dare (1934) (alone among the works in this anthology, it's actually a novelette rather than a novella).

The tale is Eberhart's variation on the famous Tichborne Claimant case, with two young men having descended upon a wealthy (over 500 million in today's dollars!) widowed Chicago matron, Mrs. Idabelle Lasher, both claiming to be her son, who was abducted as a youngster.

Because she writes murder mysteries Susan Dare evidently is considered by all and sundry an expert on all things mysterious, so Mrs. Lasher asks Dare to sort matters out, which she does--though not before there is theft, attempted murder and accomplished murder. This is a well-knit tale in which Dare performs cannily throughout, though she brings in a guy friend to handle the rough stuff.


With The Book That Squealed (1939) we get to the wonderful Cornell Woolrich, the only male author in the anthology.  His novella concerns the adventures of Prudence Roberts, a prim librarian who discovers grave criminal wrongdoing when a book, Manuela Gets Her Man (by Orchid Ollivant), is returned two days late.

Roberts' detective work is impressive, though the last part of the story turns into pure crime thriller. Naturally Woolrich handles the thriller part well also, including the shift in tone from what had been rather humorous to grim.  Like Cole and Eberhart, he also finds some room for romance (charmingly done, though it relies on the saying about "girls who wear glasses").

I'll be back later today with a discussion of the last work in the anthology, Marcia Muller's The Broken Men, as well as a comparison of Muller's modern treatment of the woman sleuth with that of Cole, Eberhart and Woolrich a half-century earlier in the Thirties.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ritzing It Up with Murder: The Detective Story Club (1928-29)

Here comes the judge!
Carolyn Wells
The Detective Story Club was formed in New York in August 1928, for the purpose of selecting and distributing detective fiction to readers.  The Club, which met at 11 East 44th Street, had a selection committee (Board of Selection) composed of mystery author Carolyn Wells; true crime writer Edmund Lester PearsonFrancis Lewis Wellman, a former Assistant District Attorney of New York and author of The Art of Cross-Examination; Robert Hobart Davis, a journalist and longtime editor of Munsey's Magazine; and William J. Flynn, former director of the Bureau of Investigation and editor of Flynn's Weekly Detective Fiction (Detective Fiction Weekly).

The Detective Fiction Club ran along similar principles to the Book-of-the-Month Club, which had been started a couple years earlier, in in 1926.  Every month the Club's selection committee's chosen mystery was mailed to subscribers, at retail price.  The Club also issued a monthly publication called "Secret Orders," wherein were found the individual vote tallies of the committee members and committee critiques; a list of recommended books; and an original general interest article written by a prominent lawyer, psychologist, criminologist, etc.

Robert Innes Center, a member of old New York society descended from the Livingstons who lived in a Manhattan row house, was elected President of the Club.  On November 1, 1928 he gave a dinner in the small ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the Club's Board of Selection (numbering only four members, since the death in October of Flynn).

Among the additional guests were various luminaries from the New York publishing world. Each guest received a copy of The Cobra Candlestick(1928), by Elsa Barker, which was the first Club Selection. Barker, who was also a prominent spiritualist, was present in spirit only, one might say. To the gathering she "sent a cablegram of greeting from her Winter home on the Riviera."

the Ritz-Carlton

Barker's book had not bested its competition without a fight, however. Three Club Board members voted for The Cobra Candlestick, but one voted for Herman Landon's Murder Mansion and another voted for Lynn Brock's The Slip-Carriage Mystery.

In December author and critic Fredric F. Van de Water was chosen to replaced the fallen Flynn.  Of detective stories Van de Water phlegmatically stated, "I'd rather read 'em than write 'em and rather fish than do either."

When the new Board voted for the Club's January 1929 selection, the winner was proclaimed Anthony Gilbert's The Mystery of the Open Window, though it was a very close race. Edmund Pearson and Robert Davis voted for Window, but Carolyn Wells and Van de Water voted for Anne Austin's The Avenging Parrot and Francis Wellman opted for Lee Thayer's They Tell No Tales (all the vote-getters were women authors, incidentally).  Francis A. Skelton, the detective fiction editor for The Bookman, was prevailed upon to cast the tie-breaking vote, which went to Window.

at the sign of the
Crime Club Gunman
Of course Doubleday, Doran's own Crime Club, started in April 1928, had a much greater long-term impact than the Detective Story Club. However, apparently Robert Innes Center, along with his friend Nancy Evans, a Doubleday, Doran employee, had played roles in the creation of the publisher's Crime Club imprint (see illustration at left, showing the famous Crime Club gunman logo).

There is a tragic footnote to this story, concerning Nancy Evans.  She married NBC executive Louis Titterton in 1929, leaving Doubleday, Doran. In 1936 she was brutally murdered, in one of New York's most notorious Thirties homicides.*

(*on another see my post about the murder of publisher Claude Kendall)

Articles on the murder of Nancy Evans Titterton noted that the slain woman had had a great fondness for detective fiction. It was stated that Nancy Evans Titterton "conceived the idea that murder mystery fans would richly reward a mystery-book-of-the-month-club. She developed the "Crime Club, Inc.," sold it to Robert Innes Center, who, in turn, sold it to Doubleday, Doran" (New York Post, 11 April 1936, 1).

Note: Above are linked pieces on Elsa Barker (by TomCat), Anne Austin (John Norris) and Anthony Gilbert (by me).  

On the Doubleday Crime Club, see Ellen Nehr's fascinating encyclopedia, Doubleday Crime Club Compendium, 1928-1991 (1992), discussed here by John Norris. Based on a 1970 speech by Ogden Nash, who worked at Doubleday for seven years (including briefly as a Crime Club editor), Nehr's introduction gives "full credit" for the inception of the Crime Club idea to Doubleday advertising manager Daniel Longwell. See also the Crime Club blog.

Robert Innes Center and The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929), by Milton M. Propper

I have blogged before about the Golden Age American detective novelist Milton M. Propper (1906-1962).  However, I recently came across a fascinating contemporary review of his first detective novel, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929), that I wanted to share here.

Milton M. Propper
Propper has been out of print for over eighty years, I believe, but remains notable in American mystery genre history as a once well-regarded follower of the British crime writer Freeman Wills Crofts.

Indeed Propper may have been history's most loyal disciple of Crofts, not only in the US, but anywhere in the world.

In his 1970s essay on Propper (the source of most of the information on him), Francis Nevins does not take note of the tremendous similarities between the two authors, but please believe Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (on Crofts, as well as John Street and J. J. Connington): the similarities are there, and they are tremendous.

Although Propper was not nearly as notable a "classical" American crime writer as Ellery Queen or even Rufus King, say, he gave traditionalists what they wanted: puzzle-focused plots, with lots of material clues and scrupulous investigative detail.

These things may have gone out of fashion with many in the modern crime fiction world (hence the term "humdrum"), but at the time Milton Propper wrote his mysteries, such books still enjoyed a large and enthusiastic following.

Certainly Robert Innes Center, who reviewed Milton Propper's The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young in 1929 was an enthusiast when it came to Propper's debut detective novel:

murder at the amusement park
Of all the detective stories I have read recently (over one hundred and twenty-five of them), this book stands out as one of the very finest....Never for a minute does it relax, and this swiftness is sustained to the very last page.

Even though this is a first detective story, Mr. Propper shows a remarkable adaptability for this type of fiction.  He displays due regard for the rules of detective fiction and only violates them when absolutely necessary or to obtain a required effect.  He knows how to create suspense, atmosphere and ingenious situations....


The characters in the story are all drawn with a deft hand and there is more keen characterization than usually appears in a detective story.  However, this characterization does not interfere with the working out of the plot and does not intrude itself too much.

If Mr. Propper continues writing books of the same caliber he will certainly become an excellent addition to the highest ranks of writers in the fields of detective fiction.


This is an interesting glimpse into the mind of a contemporary fan of Golden Age crime fiction (and what a fan he must have been, having read 125 detective novels "recently"). Center did care about "the rules of detective fiction," though in his mind it might be acceptable to break them on occasion.

Also Center was happy to have "keen characterization"--as long as it "does not intrude itself too much" on the puzzle plot. Today there may be more crime fiction readers who are happy to have a keen puzzle plot, as long as it does not intrude itself too much on the characterization!

Robert Innes Center (1903-1981) graduated from Columbia University in 1925 and in 1928 was one of the founders the Detective Story Club, of which he was elected President. Center was a prominent New York literary agent and was involved in the creation of Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club, one of the most important twentieth-century mystery fiction publishing imprints.

But wait! you may be saying.  What the deuce is the Detective Story Club?  I'll have more on this organization this weekend, and more next week on Milton Propper.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Country House at War--with Murder, of Course: Toper's End (1942), by GDH and Margaret Cole

The last detective novel that was authored by GDH and Margaret Cole--this one primarily by GDH, or Douglas, as he was known--is Toper's End (1942), a murder mystery that takes place over a few days at Excalibur House, the country house of Dr. Percy Sambourne, a wealthy and eccentric chemist.

Toper's End (1942) saw the end of the Coles'
series of detective novels, started in 1923
Toper's End has a large gallery of characters, many of them named after individuals from literature, music composers or economists. Regular inmates of Excalibur House are, besides Dr. Sambourne, his research assistant, David Oman; his secretary, Mary Philip; and his domestic servants, Mr. and Mrs. Mudge. Additionally, at the time of the murder there are also seven Continental European refugees to whom Dr. Sambourne has given refuge (five--Franck, Gluck, the Meyerbeers and Rossini--named after composers) and four visiting guests: Dr. Sambourne's surviving sister, Queenie Moggridge, and her two children, Patricia and Gurth; and his and Queenie's brother-in-law, George Potts.

Oh, and Queenie Moggridge's estranged husband, Rowland, pops up too, at dinner, drunk (he's the "toper" of the title). However, he promptly pops off too!  The next day he is found dead in bed, poisoned two different ways. Meanwhile Dr. Sambourne has been poisoned too (just one way), but he's not dead--not yet, anyway!

Excalibur House is nostalgically located by Cole in rural "Brigshire," the setting for two of his earlier detective novels, Corpse in Canonicals (1930) and End of an Ancient Mariner (1933). In Toper's End, as in those two earlier novels, Colonel Hubert Walsh, chief constable of the county, and his flirtatious wife, Emily, appear; but it is the Coles' most famous series detective, Superintendent Henry Wilson, who solves the case, aided by his occasional attendant Watson, Dr. Michael Prendergast (the pair appear together in the earlier The Man from the River, 1928, and The Missing Aunt, 1938, as well as sixteen short stories).

Toper's End is an enjoyable wartime country house mystery.  The presence of Continental European refugee intellectuals adds a new wrinkle to the classic country house mystery formula, allowing Cole to satirize English xenophobia and anti-Semitism of that time (this is reminiscent of some episodes of the British detective series Foyle's War).  However, it must be admitted that the author does not favorably portray all the refugees.

The puzzle is enjoyable and the writing entertaining, making the novel a pleasing swan song in that form for the Coles and for Supt. Wilson (he appears in a later-published short story, "Birthday Gifts," though this tale may have been written earlier, in the late 1920s or 1930s).

I'm not as sure as Wilson that his case would hold up in court, however. Certainly Wilson's method of extracting information from a witness is one I have never encountered elsewhere in crime literature!