Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Meeting of Minds on Mystery: Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty Discuss Classic Crime Fiction

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long discussed the affinity great writers and intellectuals have had over the decades for classic crime fiction, reading it and occasionally dabbling in it themselves.  I do this in part because of a still-prevalent dismissive attitude toward classic crime fiction--or to be more specific, what some have called "clue puzzle" mystery fiction: i.e., works that place emphasis on presenting a "fair play" problem for the reader to solve.

Typically we hear, for example, about how T. S. Eliot loved Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.  So often people making this observation are meaning to convey that T. S. Eliot liked mysteries, but only, don't you know, the "good"--i.e., literary--stuff.

In his introduction to the prestigious Oxford University Press World's Classics edition of The Moonstone, literary critic John Sutherland pronounces in passing:

Literary pontiff that he was, Eliot was less than well equipped to pronounce on the excellence of pulp fiction....Even by 1928 [when Eliot wrote the introduction to the original OUP World's Classics edition of The Moonstone), there were more works of detective fiction than could be read in a normal lifetime--even by a fan (which T. S. Eliot was not).

Yet T. S. Eliot's Twenties articles and reviews in the Criterion reveal that he was, in fact, an inveterate reader of detective fiction, most emphatically including "mere puzzles": he refers to numerous detective fiction titles, new and old; he theorizes about it; he names favorite authors (Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, J. J. Connington, S. S. Van Dine, Agatha Christie); and he even lays out his own rules for the writing of it, preceding authorities S. S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox.  What more does an intellectual have to do to be considered a "fan" of detective fiction?

With the publication of Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan's Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, we now can see a similar case, more recent, with the great American novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty.

What Eliot did for Wilkie Collins, Welty attempted to do for the American hard-boiled writer Ross Macdonald, showering his novel The Underground Man with praise in a prominently-placed piece in the New York Times Book Review and for years lauding him both publicly and privately in correspondence with the mystery writer, to whom she became quite personally attached (as a reading of Letters will show).

Until I read this fascinating collection of letters I had no idea that Welty was such a devoted of reader of classic crime fiction.  All I really could have told you about Welty and that subject was that she loved Ross Macdonald (and his books).  I also recall once seeing a book blurb by her praising an early crime novel by Michael Gilbert--Fear to Tread, I believe.  However, from a reading of Letters it's crystal clear that Welty, like Eliot, was a "fan" of crime fiction, including puzzle-oriented works.

two writers' discussions
Ross Macdonald wanted
Eudora Welty's input
on his suspense anthology
Particularly interesting in this regard was the correspondence between Welty and Macdonald concerning an anthology he was editing for Knopf, Ross Macdonald Selected Great Stories of Suspense.

RM asked Welty's advice on selections for the volume in a letter dated 29 September 1973:

I'm sorry (for my own sake) if I gave the impression that my anthology will exclude detective stories. On the contrary, it will probably include a Christie (what do you think of is Miss Marple? I like her, and as of now propose to use What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw [4:50 from Paddington], which moves beautifully.) and, if I can get away with it, include a Margaret Millar [RM's crime novelist wife].  I'd be most grateful for any nomination you might have, English or American, long or short.

Welty got back to RM in October, assuring him

I've been reading over people I like, without seeming to hit upon the very book I like--I forget all books' titles.  Julian Symons's "The Plain Man" I just reread and started "The Belting Inheritance" again--it wasn't "The Color of Murder"--and I wonder what it was. Yes, I do like what "Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw"--that's the train one, isn't it--also I like "Mrs. McGinty's Dead"--do you remember that's Poirot and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver--Christie is endlessly diverting to me.  I haven't tried her again but did you ever read anything of Elizabeth Daly?  I like "The Book of the Lion"--well, all of hers.  I re-read a dreadful Ngaio Marsh--whom I enjoy mostly--which was maybe the first one, where Alleyn goes home each night from his case in the family Daimler sent by his mother, Lady Alleyn, and sits on her bed and let's her guess what's happened and pronounce on who couldn't possibly be the murderer, while they drink sherry and call each other "Darling."  He is just meeting Troy in time--I've already forgotten the name of the book [Artists in Crime or Death in a White Tie]....Of course Margaret Millar's got to come in!  Do you know which one?

"Christie is endlessly diverting to me"--Eudora Welty: Why have we never seen that blurbed before on a Christie novel?  This will be a bitter pill to swallow for those journalistic lit snobs and modern crime writers who have belittled Christie's writing over the years. Interestingly, like Christie, Welty also enjoyed the American classic crime writer Elizabeth Daly.  Welty's comments on the sick-making relationship between Ngaio Marsh's Alleyn and his mother--presumably cribbed by Marsh from Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and his mother--I thought highly amusing.  "He is just meeting Troy in time" indeed!

a train mystery that moves beautifully

Later that month RM thanked Welty for her input:

Your letter was most welcome, as always, and I was glad to be reminded of Elizabeth Daly, though I haven't found any of her books yet.  Glad, too, that you should mention Margaret whom I'd like to include simply on her merits--perhaps Beast in View, which I've just recently read and consider very strong.  Also read, and was impressed by, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, a poet who wrote only two mystery novels [the other being Dagger of the Mind]....I'm glad you mentioned Julian Symons, by the way....I haven't found any one book in which his great talent shows itself fully, though I enjoy everything he writes--the most recent one as much as any [presumably The Plot Against Roger Rider]. 

Still in October, Welty wrote RM that she was still on the job for him, but that the task was made difficult by the high standard that RM's own novels had set:

I read a mystery every time with thoughts of what you're looking for, as I imagine that to be, in view. I have  a lifetime habit of reading them, and am really re-reading. But with the fondest memories of a book--such as Andrew Garve's "The Cuckoo Line Affair"--I come to the conclusion none of them are good enough to mention to you.  These are the books I've kept on my shelves as the best--I can only think I've been too easy to please!  Learned from yours!

RM agreed some mysteries did not read as well on a second perusal:

....I have to admit that I share your disappointment in rereading some of the mystery fiction I used to consider first-rate.  Helen Eustis' The Horizontal Man, for instance, turned out to be quite a disappointment. Chandler stands up less well than Hammett. But Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock still has power to interest and excite.  And an unambitious police-procedural like Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing seems to have more meat on its bones than Charlotte Armstrong's novels, say.

Agatha Christie's favorite American mystery writer and one of Eudora Welty's favorites too

In November Welty fretted

I read again 8 or 10 of the mysteries in the house that I've cherished as "best" while I was down with flu and none seemed good enough for you.  I would have thought The Horizontal Man would stand up (!)  It's good The Big Clock does--As I recall Kenneth Fearing's other mystery [Dagger of the Mind]was a disappointment when it came out, wasn't it?  I made a packet of 3 Elizabeth Dalys to send you but didn't get to mail--but not that I think they're strong enough to be candidates, probably, but because she's a nice writer and I like her work--Only I can't send you the one I think may be very best one because I no longer have it, & can't find another copy.  The Book of the Lion--Joan Kahn gave me Julian Symons's new one yesterday [The Plot Against Roger Rider] which I'm anxious to get into--

Eudora Welty
On 11 January 1974, RM reported to Welty that, with the Book-of-the-Month Club "now actively involved" in the project, Margaret Millar's Beast in View had been nixed, along with a couple of short stories, on the grounds that the anthology otherwise "might be too literary."  "I think they underestimate the public," complained RM, "not for the first time."

Margaret Millar's book was to be replaced with one of RM's, The Far Side of the Dollar, which Welty duly praised as "securely among your strongest and best ones."

When Welty received a copy of the anthology in January 1975 she wrote immediately RM:

I've just finished reading dear Agatha's [4:50 from Paddington] again--The book introduced me to James M. Cain, whom I'd never read--"The Baby in the Ice Box" was great fun, so I read The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity--both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I can remember, in the 1930's I guess, my mother, a great mystery reader, saying "That old James M. Cain! I wouldn't give you 2 cents for all he's written!" (Well, you know the times--she was reading S. S. Van Dine and Mary Roberts Rinehart along then).....

There are some still classic mystery fans who would agree with Eudora's mother!

Eudora Welty and mother Chestina Welty
There's more on this subject in this wonderful collection of letters, which you should read for yourselves if you haven't already, but I'll add a postscript with a bit more on Welty's "dear Agatha."

RM had just completed what sadly would be his final novel, The Blue Hammer, when he and Welty learned that Agatha Christie had passed away, at the age of 85. (The final novels of both RM and Christie would be published in 1976, Christie's, Sleeping Murder, like RM's dealing with old family secrets.)

Welty wrote RM

Just now I heard on the news that Agatha Christie had died.  Was she a friend?  I remember hearing from Elizabeth Bowen, who came to know her well, what a marvelous person she was.  She really was an era all in herself, wasn't she?  Her life sounded very contented and benign for her--I hope it was so.

Ross Macdonald
RM answered

No, I never knew Agatha Christie except though her books.  I think she wrote well, don't you? People I know who have known her have nothing but praise for her courtesy and goodwill.  She was even modest.  Her early life, by the way, was marked by what for her was a tragedy [here RM tells the story of Christie's infamous disappearance]....

You know, one nice thing about us detective-story writers is that there are so many different kinds of us, and we don't envy each other, though we compete.

On that happy, ecumenical thought I'll close, except to note that RM's detective fiction and the classic English variety was not quite so different as some might think, at least in terms of plotting and structure. More on this soon, I hope!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not So Hard: Meet Me at the Morgue (1953), by Ross Macdonald

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1952, I was so badly crippled by gout that I was housebound in a wheelchair for months; wrote a whole book, a not very good book (Meet Me at the Morgue) with a not very good title, when all I could move was my fingers....

Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, 6 December 1971 (from Meanwhile There Are Letters)

The conventional wisdom long has been that Kenneth Millar's Ross Macdonald mysteries have a significant break in 1958/59, when Millar published novels The Doomsters and, especially, The Galton Case. Previous to that time the RM mysteries were more Raymond Chandler imitations, so this view goes, but at this point they become true Ross Macdonalds, concerned with exploring psychology and generational dysfunction, with Macdonald's series detective, Lew Archer, becoming less of a tough guy and more of a family therapist. While there's obviously a lot to this binary view, I think it can be overdrawn, as Millar had been making moves away from the Hammett-Chandler hard-boiled school for some time prior to the late 1950s.

When Kenneth Millar published the non-series novel Meet Me at the Morgue in 1953 he had already produced between 1949 and 1952 a string of four Lew Archer novels: The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin. According to Tom Nolan's biography of Millar, Meet Me at the Morgue was meant to be the a "Kenneth Millar" crime novel, the idea being to alternate it with the Ross Macdonalds.  There would be a new series character, one Howard Cross, and the series was not to be "hard-boiled."

This plan for a new series never materialized, however, nor was the novel credited to "Kenneth Millar," but rather to "John Ross Macdonald."  Yet Meet Me at the Morgue remains particularly interesting today as an early attempt to break out of the confines of the Fifties hard-boiled crime fiction aesthetic.

"As the tough style grew dumber and more brutal after Spillane, and as [New York Times mystery critic Anthony] Boucher continued to hail Macdonald as the successor of Hammett and Chandler, Millar tried to make his books less violent and more individualized, and (not so incidentally) to distance himself from Chandler," writes Tom Nolan in his fascinating biography (one of the best yet written about a mystery writer).

The game is afoot!
Meet Me at the Morgue has not a private eye as its sleuth, but rather an unremarkable California county probation officer named Howard ("Howie") Cross.  One of Cross's clients, Fred Miner--a World War Two veteran and chauffeur to a wealthy family, the Johnsons--is suspected of having kidnapped the young son of the family, Jamie Johnson.

Several years earlier, Miner was convicted of a drunk driving hit-and-run fatality, his victim never having been identified to this day, but the Johnsons kept him in their employ.  Is Miner, a war hero, now such a rotten apple that he would stoop to kidnapping?  Cross doesn't think so, and tries to get to the bottom of the whole affair.  If you think Miner's previous hit-and-run case may be implicated somehow, you may  be on to something!

I think it's a shame Macdonald himself so disparaged Meet Me at the Morgue to Edudora Welty, but Welty had been heaping boundless praise on his latest books, like The Underground Man (1971), as not mere mystery but "literature," so he may have been especially self-deprecatory about his earlier crime tales. The truth is, in my view, that Morgue is a superb fifties crime novel with a fast-paced narrative, economical but interesting character studies, enjoyable writing (Macdonald's love of simile is much in evidence) and  a well-manipulated plot that, in the manner of Agatha Christie, certainly kept me off kilter until very late in the book.  This bundle of gifts is nothing for which an author need apologize to his readers.

A tough mystery about a
kidnapping that led to

Pocket Books edition of
Meet Me at the Morgue
In his RM biography Tom Nolan provides interesting background detail on the writing of Meet Me at the Morgue, highlighting the challenges a putative "hard-boiled" writer faced in the world of fifties crime fiction publishing.  RM's publisher, Alfred Knopf, was enthusiastic about Morgue, telling Millar, "I like it immensely; I think it is one of your best."  Morgue was even sold for serialization to Cosmopolitan, quite a lucrative coup.

However, paperback publisher Pocket Books threw a wrench into the works when, in an assessment of the novel, it complained that Millar

is a very good writer and a fairly capable plotter, but for some reason all the books lack the kind of punch which should go with the sort of story he writes.  Maybe the author is just too nice a person, but his bad characters somehow or other aren't believably bad.  The sharp contrast between good and evil, so noticeable in Chandler's books and so important in this kind of story, is simply missing, at least for me. I wonder if some of your [Knopf's] experts couldn't somehow sharpen both the characters and the action.

too nice a person for all that
rough stuff: Ross Macdonald
I love Pocket's notion that RM might be too nice a person to write hard-boiled crime fiction.  (This is not a problem from which Chandler suffered!)  RM was not impressed with Pocket's advice. He wrote Knopf a five-page letter defending his writing and distinguishing it from Chandler's:

I think that perhaps a main difficulty arises from Pocket Books' assumption that this is a hardboiled novel, which it is not, and more specifically that this is an imitation of Chandler which fails for some reason to come off.  I must confess I was pleased with the characterization--the characters are more human than in anything I've done, closer to life--and more than pleased with the plot.  Plot is important to me....For [Chandler] any old plot will do....

His subject is the evilness of evil, his most characteristic achievement the short vivid scene of conflict between (conventional) evil and (what he takes to be) good....I can't accept Chandler's vision of good and evil.  It is conventional to the point of old-maidishness, anti-human to the point of frequent sadism (Chandler hates all women and most men, reserving only lovable oldsters, boys and Marlowe for his affection), and the mind behind it, for all its enviable imaginative force, is uncultivated and second-rate....My literary range greatly exceeds his, and my approach will not wear out so fast.

....I can write a sample of the ordinary hard-boiled mystery with my eyes closed.  But preferring as I do to keep my eyes open, I've spent several years developing it into a form of my own, which nobody can imitate.  When the tough school dies its inevitable death I expect to be going strong, twenty or thirty books from now....

If anyone has ever felt, as I do, that Chandler unjustly disparaged Millar's RM novels in a couple of his famously splenetic letters, Millar certainly paid Chandler back for it in full in this impassioned and eloquent epistle. ("His subject is the evilness of evil"--quite a clever putdown, I think, and I am a Chandler fan!)

The evilness of evilRaymond Chandler

Millar's whole letter, about 1200 words, is reprinted in Nolan's biography and is, I understand, included in the new Library of America omnibus of RM novels.  It's a valuable document in mystery genre history, a revelation of the early pushback the traditional hard-boiled was receiving from one of its putative practitioners, still included today as the third in the hard-boiled triumvirate: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

Incidentally, Millar also had a go-round with the publisher about the title of the novel. Millar's title was Message from Hell, which Knopf nixed, notes Nolan. (I can't blame them.)  Pocket wanted the trite The Convenient Corpse, which Millar rejected.  Nolan says that Millar "halfheartedly" suggested Meet Me at the Morgue, which Knopf thereupon accepted.  Characters in the novel do in fact meet each other at the morgue, and certainly the alliteration is so meticulously marked you won't forget the title anytime soon!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Pavane for a Dead Princess: Banshee (1983), by Margaret Millar

There was no prisoner.  No one had been arrested or even detained for very long though hundreds had been questioned, everyone who lived in the neighborhood or worked there or had reason to come deliver mail or newspapers, to read meters or service water softeners, to sell cosmetics or religion; migrant fruit pickers, registered sex offenders living in or passing through town, even a self-styled holy man who claimed to live only in the past and in the future.  After sampling the food and accommodations at the county jail he conceded he knew nothing of the future, remembered only a few fragments of the past and preferred to spend the present on the outside rather than the inside.  He went back to banging his tambourine and panhandling along the beach-front, and the death of the little princess remained a mystery.

Margaret Millar
The late crime writing couple Kenneth and Margaret Millar (1915-1983/1915-1994) both were born 100 years ago this year and accordingly they have been getting additional attention from the publishing industry of late.

The Library of America has published Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s (edited by Tom Nolan), elevating Ross Macdonald--the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar--to its ultimate crime fiction pantheon, along with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and David Goodis; while they have given Margaret Millar a single spot in their Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s (edited by Sarah Weinman).

See links to these volumes here and here. A Sixties Ross Macdonald collection from the LOA is forthcoming.

The Millars also feature prominently in the recently published Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection, co-edited by Tom Nolan, of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Kenneth Millar.  I will be reviewing this book soon.

As any reader of Tom Nolan's biography of Ross Macdonald or Meanwhile There Are Letters will know, the Millars' later years were marked by personal tragedy and physical debilities (the death of their troubled only child, Linda, Kenneth's Alzheimer's and Margaret's cancer and macular degeneration).

Kenneth Millar published his last Ross Macdonald detective novel, The Blue Hammer, in 1976, before Alzheimer's closed his world in on him; but Millar managed to produce five more crime novels between 1976 and 1986, three of which are, I think, up to the standards of her earlier work, some of the greatest crime fiction in the genre.

One of these better late novels is Margaret Millar's penultimate crime tale, Banshee, published the year of her husband's death.  This novel has been praised by my friend Jeffrey Marks, who has written about Millar in his book on mid-century American women crime writers, Atomic Rennaissance, and I second that praise.

The inspiration for Millar's book seems to have been  the composer Maurice Ravel's beautifully pensive Pavane pour une infant defunte, which is explicitly referenced by a character in the book, though he credits the work to Claude Debussy.

The first chapter of Banshee details a week in the life of Annamay Hyatt, the indulged eight-year-old daughter of the wealthy Kay and Howard Hyatt. Dubbed the princess by Millar, Annamay even has her own "castle" playhouse specially commissioned for her by an architect friend of the Kays, Benjamin York. Annamay is a "golden child" as the phrase goes, and the reader likes her too, as she is charmingly portrayed by Millar.

Sadly, Annamay vanishes one day; and the second chapter details the child's funeral, her bones having been discovered near the Hyatt estate, "a mile or so up the creek under a pile of forest litter covered by a tangle of poison oak.  The poison oak was red with autumn by this time and very pretty."

We have always lived in a castle....
I think most people concede that Millar's peak as a crime writer took place around 1950 to 1964, when she published nine mystery novels, many of which are among the mid-century's masterpieces of the genre.  Yet Banshee is on a level with this earlier work.  By turns funny and sad, warm and cold, Banshee depicts the baffling enigmas of human life in addition to the strange mystery of a beloved child's death.

The mystery puzzle element in Banshee is quite well done, with Christie-esque traps for the reader and a twisty solution that surprised me, even though the clues are there; but the tale also has notable psychological depth.  Though a short novel, around 60,000 words, there's as much insight into people as you get in some modern crime tomes that are twice or even thrice as long.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reprints and Recognitions

It's interesting times we are having in the world of vintage mystery blogging and publishing. When McFarland published my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery three years ago I was often told no one outside of compulsive crime fiction collectors wanted to read forgotten Golden Age mystery writers. Now in 2015 a lot more people are getting in on this game, which has led me to think about what might be termed some ethical questions concerning publishing and the vintage mystery blogging community.

Recently the British Library's success with their Crime Classics mystery reprint series seems to have inspired an imitator, in British independent publisher Pepik Books' Lost Crime Classics series.  The style of the books looks similar to me. Books in both series have quite attractive covers, drawn, it appears from vintage poster art.

Claire Theyers--owner, I believe, of Pepik Books--writes on the LCL website:

I was amazed how many excellent books are lost: their authors long forgotten about and their stories gathering dust in bookshops and charity stores.

American Queens of Crime is Pepik Books' first series of rediscovered crime novels. Only quality detective fiction that I have personally read and truly enjoyed makes it into the series.  

I hope to follow with many more.

Godspeed, Claire Thayers, but as far as I'm aware, it was I, your Passing Tramp, who on the internet first publicized Anita Blackmon and Margaret Armstrong, the pair of authors in Pepik Books' American Queens of Crime series, way back in 2012.

Not long after I started my blog I did a two-part series on forgotten "Had-I-But-Known" authors. Can you guess who the two authors in the series were?  I'll give you two guesses.

Got it?  I bet you did.

The first author, about whom I blogged on 11 January 2012 was Anita Blackmon, in a post titled

Had I But Known Authors #1: Anita Blackmon Crime Queen of Arkansas

About two weeks week later, on 28 January 2012, I wrote about Margaret Armstrong in a post titled

Had I But Known Authors #2: Margaret Armstrong: HIBK Patrician

I also highly praised Armstrong's Murder in Stained Glass.

So the two authors in British publisher Pepik Books' 2015 American Queens of Crime series are the two authors I highlighted in a 2012 series on my blog.  Mere coincidence?

aka Anita Blackmon
I also note that in fact Coachwhip reprinted the two Anita Blackmon mysteries a year ago, with an introduction commissioned from me. (Here are links to the first and second Blackmon books reprinted by Coachwhip.)

Coachwhip recognizes my work in rediscovering--I use this word advisedly--forgotten mystery authors and they remunerate me for commissioned introductions, so I am, I hope understandably, a bit biased in their favor.

Nor is Coachwhip the only publisher to do this.  Just this month I have been at work on introductions for mystery reprints by three different publishers. I would be pleased to work with other interested publishers as well.  I can assure them I know of a great many additional forgotten Golden Age mystery writers, many of whom are worthy of rediscovery and republication.

The Anita Blackmon reprints have not gotten the attention of those of say M. Doriel Hay, but I'm glad to say that they, like the Ianthe Jerrold books with Dean Street Press, another publisher with whom I have worked, have received good word on and

Here are some excepts from reader reviews of Blackmon's mysteries on those websites:

Oh isn't there?
[T]he grumpy but lovable personality of Miss [Adelaide] Adams keeps the reader hooked....  Readers who enjoy vintage mysteries are likely to be charmed by [Murder a la Richelieu]. The succinct introduction is very helpful in placing Anita Blackmon among the various styles of Golden Age writers.

[Murder a la Richelieu] has a strong plot with many wonderful characters. The pace never falters from one shocking death after another.

Nice characterization and an event-filled plot make [Murder a la Richelieu] an entertaining read.

If you like Agatha Christie, you will like [Murder a la Richelieu].

This is a very fun book [There Is No Return], with a feisty, quirky narrator (Miss Adelaide Adams), lots of suspicious characters, several star-crossed lovers for Miss Adams to advise, and plenty of supernatural terror in the air.  A real find for lovers of vintage mysteries!  The introduction in this edition, succinct and informative, adds to the reader's pleasure.

You'll be guessing right up to the end.  Adelaide Adams is a most delightful old young at heart spinster and accidental detective....  [T]he story [
There Is No Return] is terrific.

Anita Blackmon is a forgotten national treasure.  What a great sense of humor, with telling observations of character and lovely descriptive passages. She's a real peach of a read.

I'm so pleased for that kind of feedback for an author I helped get on the literary map again. I'm especially pleased that the Amazon reviewers liked the winning character of Adelaide Adams as much as I did.

However, to toot my own horn here (needs must when the Devil drives), I write about mystery fiction not just for pleasure, but also with some expectation of being recognized and perhaps even remunerated for my work, which includes critically praised books on the subject that have appeared every year since 2012. While my blog, which has been praised by such prominent critics as Michael Dirda and Sarah Weinman, is not, strictly speaking, for profit, I would like at least to be recognized for the work that appears on it.

Do other bloggers feel the same way about their blog work? Over the next week, in addition to some other more typical blog pieces (reviews and such) I'm going to go over some notable vintage mystery writer rediscoveries that have been made by myself and others in the blogging community and I'm going to evaluate how these rediscoveries have fared at the hands of publishers.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Pretty Poison Puzzle: An Old Lady Dies (1934), by Anthony Gilbert

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle, a test of your skill...."

Anthony Gilbert's An Old Lady Dies is the penultimate novel in the author's ten book Scott Egerton series (on #5, The Night of the Fog, see here).  When it was published it was subjected, as I see it, to a rare uncharitable review from Gilbert's Detection Club colleague Dorothy L. Sayers, then mystery reviewer for the Sunday Times.

Sayers chidingly noted that this was the third Anthony Gilbert novel published "within a year" (The previous two were 1933's Death in Fancy Dress and The Musical Comedy Crime; Gilbert between 1927 and 1934 published a dozen detective novels, an average of three every two years, while Sayers in the same period published eight, an average of one a year) and she pronounced this "rather good going."

Apparently feeling that prolific production threatened to sap her friend's talent and turn her into a hack, Sayers went on to lecture the younger writer on the perils of publishing three books in the space of a year. (Although to be fair to Gilbert, she had published two mysteries in 1933 and would again publish two in 1934, not exactly an unknown rate for mystery writers of the period--Agatha Christie herself often published two detective novels a year in the 1930s, including in 1934, the same year of this Sayers review, and one of the novels was Murder on the Orient Express.) Sayers wrote:

Higher Authority seemed
something less than pleased
The greatest genius is usually attended by a considerable fertility, but, as a rule, it is too much to expect a fresh masterpiece every four months. With the detective story the temptation to over-production is especially dangerous: first, because it is only too easy to shake up the old pieces of the kaleidoscope into what looks something like a new plot, and, secondly, because the public (and this means You!) is still too indulgent to hasty and mechanical writing where mysteries are concerned. This is not to say that "An Old Lady Dies" shows any noticeable falling-off from the author's usual standard; in fact, it is quite up to average, and is actually better put together than "The Musical Comedy Crime."  But I do not feel that there was any strong and compelling reason for writing it.

Ouch! Personally, Sayers' chastisement notwithstanding, I think the book's existence is easily justified by the fact that it is quite an enjoyable detective novel.

In her review Sayers actually allows that in An Old Lady Dies the "various characters are quite well distinguished" and "there are passages of pleasing dialogue" and an "exceedingly ingenious device" by which the the "culprit is forced into confession," but then fatally undercuts this praise by pronouncing that the novel "is not memorable."

not without detection
It's easier to understand Sayers' rather harsh criticism of what actually is, as I wrote above, quite a good detective novel, if we appreciate how at this time Sayers herself had become somewhat bored with the puzzle-oriented mystery and apparently expected everyone else to share her latest views on the matter. Sayers at this time was writing a novel, Gaudy Night, that some modern genre critics and fans consider a masterpiece, and I suppose one could say she complimented Gilbert by suggesting that she might do the same herself.  (Apparently one needs a year to compose a mystery masterpiece.) Yet we modern readers who are not so jaded as Sayers was with a surfeit of traditional detective novels are perhaps more likely to appreciate the classic craftsmanship that Anthony Gilbert put into An Old Lady Dies.

An Old Lady Dies involves the classic situation (which perhaps Sayers found dull by then) of the tyrannical old person with a string of impecunious relations who is conveniently done in most foully. After hateful old Mrs. Wolfe is fatally poisoned at the Manor in the village of Aston Merrry, suspects immediately can be found among her much younger husband, Simon Wolfe; her spinster daughter, Dorothy John; and her five charming grandchildren by her four other, now deceased, children.

and it was not a natural death....
After an inquest finds one of these individuals responsible for the murder--this is a fictional inquest where things really do pop--a private investigator is brought in with the hope of finding another culprit, and very late in the novel Scott Egerton is solicited to look over all the gathered facts.

In a classic case of mostly armchair detection, the brilliant and elegant Liberal MP alights on the culprit, who is forced out by, as even Sayers admitted, a most ingenious gambit.

While An Old Lady Dies is not nearly as atmospheric as The Night of the Fog (and not nearly as, um, long as Gaudy Night), I enjoyed it immensely, finding it smoothly readable and well-plotted.

Throughout the novel interesting characters pop up, like the shopkeeping couple who have finally attained their dream of retiring to a house near the sea, and Gilbert writes up her spinsters most effectively as usual.  There was also this striking passage, in which Gilbert discusses her MP sleuth's view of the parlous political scene in 1934:

The world, as Egerton saw it, was in a nasty mess, and the few people who cared about it were groping like ants in a vast Babylon surrounded by ruins that might collapse on their heads at any moment.  He had particular troubles, too, in his own constituency: unemployment was rife, and men who had suffered damage in the war. and recovered from it, were slipping back into their ancient disabilities; the spirit of dogged hope was breaking, and in its place came fear, dereliction, defiance; it might eventually break into open rebellion.  Egerton, who deplored all unscientific and unconstitutional methods, had to admit that he couldn't blame the participants if it did.

Sayers may not have found this memorable, but I did.  To be sure, it's rather obiter dicta as far as the story is concerned, but the story itself, as I have indicated, is far from shabby. This is another good'un from Gilbert as far as I'm concerned.

An Old Lady Dies now is available in a modern edition in the UK, though not in the US.

Note: For a discussion of how three Golden Age British detective novelists, GDH and Margaret Cole and Henry Wade, dealt with political and social issues in their crime fiction, see my newest book, The Spectrum of English Murder.

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.

Update 8/13: It now looks like Orion will be release its new edition of The Night of the Fog in the UK in December.  Good news!

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.