Sunday, August 31, 2014

Headline Crimes of the Year (1952), edited by Edward D. Radin

a not-so-sweet hitchhiker
For this month's #1952 book challenge, there are, in addition to the already discussed Black Widow, two more reviews I am adding today.

First there's Headline Crime of the Year, edited by the Edar-winning American criminologist Edward D. Radin (1909-1966).

The book was published first in hardcover by Little, Brown, but its most memorable incarnation probably was in paperback, when it was reprinted that same year by Popular Library, in an edition thrillingly headlined The Inside Story of America's Most Shocking Crimes. Who wouldn't buy that for a quarter, Popular Library must have thought.

Just how Shocking are these true crimes, all of which were in the news around the late 1940s/ early 1950s? Well, by today's sad standards, not so much, but it's still interesting to see what mayhem was going on in the United States and other parts of the world during those ostensibly good old days.

Only eight of the book's eleven crimes (all but one murders) actually took place in the US.  The one that made it on the cover involved a seventeen-year-old Texas hitchhiker con artist who at gunpoint robbed the men who picked her up; when one man resisted murder resulted.

It's not that interesting case from the standpoint of murder being a fine art, but Popular Library obviously liked the elements of sexual titillation. Also this case at the time inspired a lot of press editorializing about the menace of hitchhikers.

The real life culprit, "Sandra Peterson" (Sophie Anargeros from Massachusetts), was much younger looking than the artist's conception rendered for the cover (see pic at left).

We have pretty women murder victims in no less than four of the American cases, one a secretary at Pennsylvania's Franklin & Marshall College, one a high school student in the New Jersey factory town of Millville, one a wealthy Buffalo, New York housewife and one a high schooler--this one engaged to be married--from suburban Chicago.

The most interesting of these was the Millville murder, because the young man convicted was mentally impaired and may have been innocent, the author suggests. Certainly there would have been grave problems with his "confession" today.

The most classical of the American murders was a murder for gain perpetrated by another woman, this one a "wife from hell" from suburban Los Angeles.  The victim was shot down in his own house. Police soon focused on the wife from whom he had recently separated, but she seemed to have an alibi.

Like so many fictional slayers, she claimed at the time of the murder to have been seeing a movie. In this case the film was, appropriately enough, a little B crime movie, Decoy, starring Jean Gillie as one of the most fiendish femme fatales in cinema history.

Decoy (1946)

In another American case, a war bride provided the motive for the murder, the shooting of Harold Mast, a Medina, Ohio veteran.  There's also a race track killing.

For the most classical murder Radin had to go to another country, Sweden, for a case involving poisoned chocolates. Who put the arsenic in the candies?  Could it have been the college student who had recently directed a performance of Arsenic and Old Lace?

Even with this chocolates murder, however, Headline Crimes of the Year inevitably will disappoint students of murder as a fine art.  There's nothing here to compare with the great cases of Edmund Pearson and William Roughead, and I call that shocking!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stalkers: Possessed (1947) and The Prowler (1951)

a demon of the mind
Joan Crawford in Possessed

Joan Crawford was riding high in 1947 when she starred in Possessed, coming off an Oscar win for the classic crime drama, adapted from the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce in 1945 and another great performance in Humoresque (with John Garfield) in 1946. Though unjustly snubbed by the Academy for Humoresque, Crawford for her role in Possessed received her second of three Oscar nominations.

Crawford's role in Possessed often is compared to that of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987). One can see why, even though ultimately I think this comparison is unfair to Possessed, a more serious--and dare I say less trashy and exploitative--film.

In Possessed Crawford plays Louise Howell, a personal nurse for the neurotic wife of wealthy businessman Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Early in the film we see Louise getting dumped by the local man with whom she had been having a covert sexual fling, a sardonic construction engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin). Louise immediately goes all "Fatal Attraction" on David, telling him she won't let him go.  David, no fool he, gets the hell out of Dodge, taking a job in Canada with one of Dean's companies.

she won't be ignored....
a distraught Louise (Crawford) gets the old
heave-ho from an indifferent David (Heflin)
Meanwhile, Dean's wife, for whom Louise had been professionally caring, is found drowned in the local lake, and her death is ruled a suicide. Louise eventually marries Dean, becoming a rich man's wife, but she is still obsessed with David, the man who scorned her.

When David returns and Dean's attractive, college-age daughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks), becomes smitten with him, Louise is not pleased, not pleased at all....

As stated above, one can see similarity in all this to Fatal Attraction, but Possessed is not so tawdry a film.  It opens with a dazed Louise wandering the streets of a city in the early hours, accosting men, calling them by the name "David."  She is quickly taken to a hospital and is soon undergoing psychiatric treatment from an earnest doctor who periodically gives sermonettes on What Psychiatry Can Do For You.

We are soon launched on that favored forties film noir narrative device, the flashback (Possessed made Crawford's third film in a row where this device was used), where we learn just how Louise went off the deep end.  I commend this film for not turning its mentally disturbed female lead into an over-the-top movie monster, as I feel Fatal Attraction did with Glenn Close, but nevertheless I have to admit--maybe I'm just hard to please--that I found Possessed a bit dull.  There are several evocatively filmed, eerie sequences, but overall the affair seemed flat to me.

I found it hard to feel much sympathy for Louise after she has married Dean, who, as portrayed by a quite distinguished-looking Raymond Massey, is a veritable saint on earth--and rolling in dough to boot! In the cinematic world, most humbly circumstanced women marrying rich "old" men--Massey was merely eight years older than Crawford, who herself was six years older than Heflin--should do so well!


The talented Van Heflin took a lead role in the 1951 noir thriller The Prowler, a superlative film that I enjoyed hugely.  It's often compared to another classic forties crime film adapted from a James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity (1944), but I was more reminded of yet another Cain crime novel/film, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Personally I liked The Prowler quite a bit better than the forties film version of Postman.

just checking things out, ma'am
Evelyn Keyes, Van Heflin, John Maxwell
In the film Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a disgruntled cop, and the late Evelyn Keyes (a fine actress who deserves greater fame) plays Susan Gilvray, a dissatisfied wife.

In the early morning hours Webb and his ingenuous partner, "Bud" Crocker (John Maxwell), are sent to Susan's big southern California Spanish mission-style house after she reports having seen a man peeping at her through a bathroom window.

Webb is instantly smitten with Susan (and her house) and he visits her again, without his partner, a few hours later--just to check up on things, you know. He learns that Susan's radio personality husband is absent at nights, and that she gets very lonely in the big house.

Webb and Susan find they are both from the same part of Indiana, and that she used to see Webb when he played basketball for a rival high school (Susan lived in a much wealthier neighborhood). Both Webb and Susan are unhappy with their respective lots in life; Webb feels he lost his chance at college and big success when after one game he was kicked off the basketball team for insubordination (a poor boy, he was in college on an athletic scholarship), while Susan's marriage is literally sterile, her older husband not having been able to provide her with the children she had so desired.

Webb Garwood on the prowl....
Soon Webb is putting the move on Susan, her appeal to him only having been enhanced when he discovered that she stands to inherit a tidy sum upon the death of her husband, an amount that would allow him to buy a Nevada hotel and live the good life with Susan while other people do the hard work....

Directed by Joseph Losey and scripted by Dalton Trumbo, highly talented leftists blacklisted in the 1950s, The Prowler is an excellent film with a bigger message about the potential corrosiveness of the celebrated American dream. Clearly the film aims to indict the "success at all costs" ethos that an aggressive, amoral individualist like Van Heflin's Webb Garwood represents.

Yet the film also can be enjoyed tremendously simply as a splendid exercise in the art of noir cinema. There are numerous brilliant touches, such as the use of Susan's radio announcer husband's disembodied voice as a sort of herald of doom and judgment ("I'll be seeing you, Susan," is his closing radio tag line).

The final third of The Prowler has one of the greatest film noir situations and settings I have ever seen, reminding me not just of crime drama but William Faulkner's doom-laden tale The Wild Palms (1939); and the highly symbolic ending is unforgettable.  This is a great gritty crime movie, film noir at its best, and the performances by Heflin and Keyes are mesmerizing. Better yet, the film is available on DVD in a wonderfully restored edition, with nifty special features, including discussion of the film with James Ellroy.

This one is a real winner that you should not miss seeing.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Death in Cinemascope: Black Widow (1954)

My most recent blog book review was of Patrick Quentin's novel Black Widow (1952). Two years after the book was published, it was filmed under the same title, in what is said to be the first color cinemascope murder mystery.  It is a sumptuous adaptation, with lavish and lovely (if artificial) sets representing various New York City locales, stunning costumes and a striking score. Critically praised and a box office hit, Black Widow has been reissued on DVD in beautifully restored condition.

Like the book, the film is an enjoyable piece of high society crime drama. Here is the plot again in brief: While his celebrated stage and screen actress wife, Iris (Gene Tierney), is away visiting her sick mother the celebrated play producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin, playing the book character Peter Duluth) befriends--quite platonically, honestly--a young writer, Nancy (Nanny) Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), whom he met at a party thrown by his apartment neighbors one floor above, the celebrated stage actress Carlotta Marin (Ginger Rogers) and her amiable "kept" husband, Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner).

Peter even gives Nanny a key to his and Iris' own luxury apartment, so that she can write in a more supportive environment (she lives with another young woman in Greenwich Village), until his wife returns. Tragically, when Iris does return she and Peter find Nanny still in their apartment, hanging from the light fixture in their bedroom.  It seems Nanny has committed suicide.

Everyone--including, ultimately, even Iris--comes to believe that Peter's relationship with Nanny was something rather more than platonic.  And when it's discovered that someone strangled Nanny before she was strung up, Peter becomes the number one suspect in her murder.  Can Peter solve the crime himself and save his own neck?

from left to right:
Harry Carter, George Raft, Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Reginald Gardiner

This film is, on the whole, a faithful adaptation of the book. Yet some of the tension from the book is lost. As is pointed out in the film commentary by Alan K Rode, a few years earlier Black Widow would have been filmed in black and white and given much more of a film noir treatment.  As it is, however, the colorful set design and costumes steal away some of the viewer's attention from the suspenseful plot.

Nevertheless, this is still an engrossing high society crime melodrama, with uniformly good acting from the cast. Van Heflin, one of my favorite actors, is reliable as ever, and Gene Tierney is as lovely as ever, though she does not get to do much in the standard "fifties supportive wife" role (Iris is more interesting over the entire series of Patrick Quentin Peter Duluth novels).

Ginger Rogers as the classic drama queen diva (a role that was originally offered to Tallulah Bankhead, who turned it down, seeing it as too small a part) steals every scene she's in, while Reginald Gardiner is good as well, though rather miscast I think (going by the book, Brian must have been some dozen or so years younger than his wife, whereas Gardiner in real life was eight years older than Ginger Rogers and looked every bit of it; in all honesty some hunky young rising fifties star like Tab Hunter or, better yet, Rock Hudson would have been much closer to the book, but perhaps portraying Ginger Rogers as an aggressive cradle snatcher was too much for Hollywood).

Peggy Ann Garner, who was attempting with the Nanny Ordway role to break out of the child roles for which she had been much praised ( see, for example, The Pied Piper, Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Home Sweet Homicide--this last based on the whimsical Craig Rice mystery novel), is quite good indeed.

Also notable is the acclaimed African-American stage actress Hilda Simms, playing Anna, a minor but pivotal character drawn from the book, in a striking scene quite faithful to the book. And, of course, we should not forget George Raft, who, while nothing like the book's Lieutenant Trant, brings a measure of Jack Webb-like authority to his character, Lieutenant Bruce (though he's much better dressed!).

Who would have wanted to kill this sweet young aspiring writer?!
Peggy Ann Garner as Nanny Ordway

Some of the film's dialogue comes straight from the book. Take, for example, Nanny's self-deprecating lines to Peter, after the New Yorker turns down one of her stories: "They said it was okay to write like Truman Capote and okay to write like Somerset Maugham. But it wasn't okay to write like both of them at once." The film also makes wonderful use of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss' opera Salome, a motif taken directly from the book.

There are, however, many small changes.  Nanny's birthplace is changed from Virginia to Savannah, Georgia, where the film's writer-director-producer, Nunnally Johnson, a native Georgian, had once lived. A reference in the book to Errol Flynn becomes one to Humphrey Bogart (poor Errol).  Some aspects of the plot are streamlined; the role of the character of Peter's clever secretary, Miss Mills, is reduced to nearly the vanishing point.

By far the most significant change is the introduction very early in the film, via flashback, of vital background information concerning Nanny Ordway that appears much later in the book.  This seemed an error to me, taking out some of the mystery element from the film; but I think Nunnally Johnson was more concerned with colorfully conveying high melodrama in high life.*

*(kudos to Johnson, however, for preserving a clever clue from the book)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Practice to Deceive: Black Widow (1952), by Patrick Quentin

the 1991 IPL edition
with cover art by Nicky Zann
Poor Peter Duluth!  Over the course of the series of Patrick Quentin mysteries in which he appears his creators (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler) landed him into some real messes, but arguably the worst of them all is the one that takes place in Black Widow (1952), the last book in which Duluth plays the starring role.

The novel was filmed under the same title two years later, in an adaptation starring Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, Ginger RogersGeorge Raft and Peggy Ann Garner (a review of this film is coming soon).

Peter Duluth and his wife, Iris, would appear two years later in the Patrick Quentin novel My Son, the Murderer (written solo by Wheeler, after Webb had retired from the partnership), but in that novel it is his brother, Jake, who has the lead role, not Peter himself.

And that was the end of the Duluth trail, if not of the Patrick Quentin novels, which continued to appear until 1965.

The innovation of the Peter Duluth series, which was launched in 1936, was wedding the formal deductive mystery to the personal anxiety, or suspense, tale, associated with such writers as Mignon Eberhart in the 1930s, Dorothy B. Hughes in the 1940s (though some of Hughes' stuff is more genuine noir) and Ursula Curtiss in the 1950s. There is resemblance to Cornell Woolrich as well, though the series is not dark enough to qualify quite as true noir, in my opinion.

This arrangement must have suited the two authors, as Webb was the plotter and had excelled at plotting in his earlier "Q. Patrick" books, some of which were written with others before he teamed up with Wheeler, while Wheeler was the actual writer.

the 1952 first edition
complete with a rental library sticker
My impression, however, is that over the course of the series the anxiety elements gradually muscled out the formal deductive element, so that by the time we get to Black Widow, the novel resembles the fiction of psychological suspense--or domestic suspense, as Sarah Weinman terms it--that was produced by a number of American women authors of the period. Patrick Quentin arguably was the leading male purveyor of this sort of "suspense" in the 1950s. Women writers of the period are often said to have had a keener perception of domestic detail than men, but Patrick Quentin was a major exception to this generalization (both Webb and Wheeler likely were gay, incidentally, and apparently lived and traveled together as a couple for years--see Mauro Boncompagni's essay in Mysteries Unlocked).

In Black Widow the narrator of the novel, Peter Duluth, a celebrated play producer, is having to stag it in New York, his wife Iris, a celebrated actress on both stage and screen, having left New York to spend some time with her sick mother. When the novel opens he is attending a party in the luxury apartment above his own that is occupied by Lottie Marin, celebrated stage actress and absolute drama queen, and her amiable kept hunk of a husband, Brian (domesticated, not celebrated).

The marital relationship between Lottie and Brian inverts fifties heterosexual norms:

She had discovered him when she did her only picture in Hollywood five years before.  He was a Montana boy who had been in the Coast Guard during the war. He had all the standard male requirements except any visible ambition....But Lottie really preferred to keep him at home as a private asset and he never objected.  He seemed perfectly happy answering her fan mail, cooking for her, running errands, and reminding her how wonderful she was.

At the party Peter meets Nanny Ordway, an earnest young Greenwich Village would-be writer, and he takes a personal (non-sexual) interest in her.  Over the several weeks that Iris is out-of-town, he takes her out occasionally and is even persuaded by her to let her have a key to his apartment, so that she may have a better place to write in the mornings and afternoons, when he's not around (okay, I found this a little hard to swallow too).

Unhappily, when Iris gets back, the pair finds that Nanny has not left the apartment that day. Rather, she is hanging from the ceiling light in their bedroom, a seeming suicide.

the fifties Dell edition
Here commences the anxiety on Peter's part, as he finds that not all was as he thought it was and that everyone around him--eventually including even Iris--is convinced he was sleeping with Nanny. For his part the police force's Lieutenant Trant--he of the pre-WW2 Q. Patrick books Death and Dear Clara, Death and the Maiden and The File on Claudia Cragge--makes sufficiently clear he thinks Peter is a complete louse, who two-timed his wife and trifled with an ingenuous, star-struck young woman.

But it could get worse yet.  What if it turns out Nanny Ordway was murdered? Peter decides he has to investigate Nanny's enigmatic past to save his own neck.

This is a slickly told tale that demands reading at one sitting, and it's not surprising at all to find that it was filmed not long after its publication. There's the customary twist PQ twist ending, though with the small circle of suspects provided, PQ has set himself a challenging task in misdirecting readers. In retrospect one can see there were some clever clues to the solution provided in the text, but one is apt to be so carried away on the tide of anxiety that one may miss these!

As Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler were major contributors to mid-century American crime fiction, though their books all are out-of-print in the Anglo-American world today, a regrettable situation that one hopes will be corrected in the not-too-distant future.

Patrick Quentin's Peter Duluth Mystery Novels
A Puzzle for Fools 1936

Puzzle for Players 1938
Puzzle for Puppets 1944
Puzzle for Wantons 1945
Puzzle for Fiends 1946
Puzzle for Pilgrims 1947
Run to Death 1948
Black Widow 1952
My Son, the Murderer 1954 (sporadic appearances by Peter and Iris Duluth)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pfui on Fair Play: Rex Stout on Rules for Writing Detective Fiction

In an essay titled "The Mystery Story," which apparently first appeared in 1950 in The Writer's Book, a collection of essays on writing edited by Helen Hull, crime writer Rex Stout casts aside the much-touted rules for writing classical detective fiction (what Stout calls "the detective story of the classical pattern," where "the detective himself (or herself) is and must be the hero").


Pronounces Stout:

Lists of pontifical dicta have been drawn up by various experts, but they seem to me to be a lot of nonsense....The most frequently repeated rule, generally assented to, is the most nonsensical.  It says, "You must play fair with the reader," meaning that in the course of the narrative the reader must see and hear everything that the detective sees and hears. I don't know why people like S. S. Van Dine and R. Austin Freeman and Dorothy Sayers have insisted on it, since every good writer of detective stories, including them, has violated it over and over again.

Stout says Sherlock Holmes often found evidence he did not tell Watson (and the reader) about, and it "is the same with Dupin, Lecoq, Father Brown, Poirot, Wimsey, Perry Mason--practically all of them." He declares that a detective fiction writer need not worry about practicing "fair play," then, but s/he does need to have "the required qualifications for a storyteller":

You can create people in your mind that you get excited about; you can devise and develop a plot situation, you have a sense of structure and form; and you can write readable narrative and dialogue. Thus equipped, you can write good stories, but it doesn't follow that you can write good detective stories.  For them you need something more.

What, you must be asking.  Stout answers:

You need, not the kind of mind that likes to solve puzzles, but the kind that likes to construct puzzles, which is quite different.  You also need considerable ingenuity if they are to be not only puzzles but good ones.

What do you think?  Is "fairness" in the presentation of clues important to you in a classical detective fiction, or do you care more about the other elements--storytelling skill and ingenuity in puzzle construction--outlined by Rex Stout?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Circe of Suspense: Two Novels of Suspense by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and The Blank Wall (1947)

The 2002 Quality Paperback
Book Club edition of this
classic Holding suspense "twofer"
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novels The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946) and The Blank Wall (1947) may not necessarily be the peak of her crime writing achievement--I haven't yet read all her books to say-- but they certainly are high points in a mighty range. It's hard to imagine her doing better than these superlative crime novels.

This pair of short novels of about 60-70,000 words apiece--The Blank Wall is the longer of the two--were reprinted together in one volume by Academy Chicago (now Chicago Review Press) in 1991, after a long, nearly three-decades-long drought, during which none of Holding's books were in print. After the success, a decade later, of the critically acclaimed film The Deep End (starring Tilda Swinton in a Golden Globe nominated performance), the Quality Paperback Book Club issued an edition of the same "twofer" in 2002.

The next year, in 2003, the small publisher Stark House began reprinting additional Holding twofers (through this series Stark House currently has ten of Holding's eighteen crime novels in print, and two more are on their way next year). Finally, a decade later, in 2013, Persephone Books, an excellent press devoted to older fiction by women authors, reprinted The Blank Wall solo.

An excellent Holding novella was included in Sarah Weinman's Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which also was published in 2013.  Reviews of Weinman's anthology have repeatedly referred to the writers collected therein as "forgotten," "overlooked," "unjustly neglected," etc., while never mentioning the laudable efforts of Academy Chicago and Stark House, among others small presses,which I think is a shame. Small presses have been doing great work for decades keeping fine authors from the past in print, but they often don't have access to the publicity mills. So consider this my shout-out to Stark House and other fine smaller presses. Let's hope you get some of the attention (and the sales) you deserve.

the striking cover illustration of the
first paperback edition of
The Innocent Mrs. Duff
In an article entitled "The Godmother of Noir," Jake Hinkson compares Holding's The Innocent Mrs. Duff to the work of noir author Jim Thompson, claiming that this book and others by Holding read as if they "could have given birth to Jim Thompson's unhinged psychos." This may strike people as an extravagant comparison, but, having read Duff, I understand what Hinkson is talking about here.

To be sure, I disagree with the tendency these days to proclaim ever crime novel with serious or dark elements as "noir." When Hinkson writes that Holding "was a woman [publishing] in a distinctly masculine field," he errs, in my view. Hard-boiled and noir may have been a masculine field, with some exceptions, but psychological suspense, which is what Holding wrote, was more a feminine field (Weinman has adopted the term "domestic suspense" for these books).

Having published her first suspense novel in 1929, Holding is more accurately seen as, along with Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart of the once-derided "Had-I-But-Known" school, an American founding mother of psychological suspense.

Holding, however, feels distinctly more modern than Rinehart, whose roots go back to Gothic fiction according to Catherine Ross Nickerson, and most definitely more original and interesting than Eberhart, who all too quickly devolved into the bland, if highly profitable, formula fiction of the slicks (the hugely popular glossy women's magazines of the 1930s, so loathed by Raymond Chandler). Holding's books--some of which were serialized in the slicks as well--are darker and more adventurous; though they are not noir, from what I've read, they definitely have affinity with it.

The Innocent Mrs. Duff certainly is not anywhere as viscerally horrific as Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1952), but in its more genteel way it remorselessly anatomizes a main character who is utterly loathsome to spend time with, just as in Thompson's novel. Jacob Duff is another of Holding's middle-aged drunks from an upper crust New York background (as indicated in my last blog post, there is a similar, though much more sympathetic--and much less interesting--character in Holding's earlier The Obstinate Murderer, 1938).

Jacob Duff, we soon learn, is easily bored and perennially dissatisfied.  He invariably locates the sources of his unhappiness in others besides himself. After the death of his first wife, Helen, he married, on the rebound, young Regina "Reggie" Riordan, a photographer's model--a move he now bitterly regrets.  Once Reggie was charming to him, but now everything she does he finds alienating.

He sees her no longer as charmingly unsophisticated, but irksomely common, indulging in slang (even the very name "Reggie" he can no longer stand), enjoying doing housework herself ("You'd never have caught Helen alone in the kitchen with an apron on, he thought") and associating much too freely with servants. Additionally he deems her annoyingly inexperienced sexually  ("she's like a schoolgirl"). Already Duff's roving, bleary eye has alighted on Miss Castle, governess of Jacob Duff, Jr., his seven-year-old son with his first wife, the dead and sainted Helen.

the "mapback" of the Dell edition
showing the beach cottage of the Duffs
Just what happens there?
Read it and see for yourself.
Irony abounds in all this, because we, the readers, see the tremendous gap between Duff's perception of Reggie and the way she seems to be to us and everyone else, which is remarkably charming, forbearing and empathetic.

The more self-consciously refined sort of Anglo-American crime writer of the period--Theodora Dubois, for example--might have portrayed Reggie as gratingly "vulgar," to use a favorite word of this sort of author, but Holding does no such thing.  It's Duff's condescension to Reggie (and others) that she skewers.

Late in the book, there's an amusing exchange between Duff and a gas station attendant in a village where Duff owns a beach cottage, which illustrates the more democratic ethos of Holding's novel:

"I'd like to rent a car for a couple of hours," said Duff.
"Couldn't do it," said the man, a young man with a broad, turned-up nose.
"My name is Duff," said Duff.
"Well, I can't help what your name is," said the other.  "We don't rent cars no more."

This goes on for a while, Duff getting more and more flustered at the phlegmatic young man's refusal to be impressed by his name and his property-holding status ("Look here! I told you my name was Duff! Jacob Duff. I'm a property owner here. Everyone knows me."/"Well, I don't," said the young man.)

Over the course of the novel Duff becomes more and more dependent on on liquor (he progresses from whisky to gin, which at the start of the novel he hates) and more and more loathful of his wife. He begins to think how much more pleasant marriage with the superior Miss Castle would be....

Jacob Duff's truest love
The Innocent Mrs. Duff is a wonderful crime novel, achieving all those things that advocates of the form want to see.  Unquestionably it's a suspenseful "page-turner" (I read the book in two sittings and was tempted to go for one).

Yet the novel is also a fine study of a repellent drunk in a state of advanced moral and mental disintegration. This is where the comparison with Jim Thompson holds (liquored) water. Jacob Duff makes you cringe, but you can't look away; you feel compelled to keep reading about him.

Other characters are well observed too. There's "innocent" Reggie Duff of the title; the circumspect Miss Castle; little Jacob Duff, Jr. (Holding clearly understood children as well as she did middle-aged drunks); Mrs. Albany, Jacob Duff's wise and wealthy aunt (from whom he has great expectations); and Nolan, the Duffs' attractive and enigmatic chauffeur, late from the war.

Jake Hinkson says that in Duff "we find domestic life rendered as a kind of living hell."  I would argue that it is Jacob Duff who has made domesticity a kind of hell for those around him.  It's Duff who condemns life in suburbia and likes to imagine himself as a "natural man" who should be free to act however he desires.  It's clear, however, that Duff would never rest content for long in any environment.  "The worst sort of unfaithfulness there is," Mrs. Albany tells him, "is to get tired of people, as you do.  You're fickle, Jacob....You've got tired of [Reggie]--and when you're tired of people, you're inclined to be ruthless...."

As good as The Innocent Mrs. Duff is (it came as no real surprise to me to learn that Raymond Chandler, who greatly admired Holding, worked on a screenplay adaptation, sadly uncompleted, of the book when he was in Hollywood), Holding excelled it the next year with the novel commonly regarded as her masterpiece, The Blank Wall.  I'll have some words about this novel next week.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Obstinate Murderer (1938), by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Obstinate Murderer (1938) was her fourth book published by the heavy-hitting American crime fiction publisher Dodd, Mead, after The Death Wish (1934), The Unfinished Crime (1935) and The Strange Crime in Bermuda (1937) (these crime novels had been preceded by two early crime novels, Miasma, 1931, and Dark Power, 1930).

Holding's earlier Dodd, Mead crime novels were much praised, and The Obstinate Murderer was so as well.  Saturday Review was struck by the "amazing deviltry and horror" that animated "the entire tale."  The New York Times Book Review noted that, in addition to being a "mystery story," Obstinate was "a fascinating study of twisted mentalities."

The novel, which Holding dedicated to Frank E. Blackwell then editor-in-chief of Detective Story Magazine, is strikingly short by today's standards, barely, in fact, at some 42,000 words by my count, a novel.  It's an interesting book for its time, though one that may be too economically sketched for many readers today.  It's also a needed reminder that the psychological crime novel existed in the US in the 1930s, right along with the hard-boileds, the cocktails and quips mysteries, the zanies and the neo-Gothics.

In the novel Arthur Van Cleef, a leisured idler and semi-drunk in early middle-age, is sought out by Russell Blackman, an eighteen-year-old lad he had briefly befriended ten years earlier, when Blackman was just eight and Van Cleef thirty.  Van Cleef had been friends with Blackman's Aunt Hilda, who died tragically young.  Blackman fondly recalls his friendship with Van Cleef (something the latter man barely remembers):

"When they realized how ill [Aunt Hilda] was, they sent me off to board at the day school I went to.  It was in the Easter holidays; nobody else there.  It was the first time I'd been away from home, and it was hell.  I didn't know what to do with myself.  I felt--forgotten.  And then you came, in your car. You brought me a steamer-basket full of cakes and chocolates, and fruit, with a big silver gauze bow on the handle....When my aunt died, you came again....You drove me home and you talked to me."

Blackman has grown up to be something of a universal genius, good at everything, but instinctively disliked by everyone.  Now idle, with an allowance of $6600 month (in today's dollars) to sustain him financially but emotionally cut off from his family, Blackman has decided to look up Van Cleef, the one person who was once kind to him.

Today it's easy to discern in Holding's depiction in the novel of the relationship between Van Cleef and Blackman--whom Holding describes as "an extraordinarily handsome boy, slim, almost slight in build, with a dark narrow face, brilliant with life"--a homosexual subtext on Blackman's part.  Later in the novel another exchange occurs between the two, about women:

"You're interested in women, aren't you?" said Russell.

"After all, such a lot of 'em around..." said Van Cleef.  "It would be a bit hard, not to notice 'em."

"But you like them."

"And you don't?"

"I don't."

"Unrequited love-making make you bitter?"

"I'm not bad-looking.  I'm not stupid.  And I have money.  I could have a pretty wide choice--if I wanted."

On the same day as his meeting with Russell, Van Cleef is called by his old friend Emilia Swan, whose husband, Bill, died suddenly a few years ago, to come visit her at her mansion in the small town of Blackhaven, which she now runs as a guest house.  She's being blackmailed, she hysterically tells Van Cleef.  Russell Blackman has a car, so off the pair goes to pay Mrs. Swan a call.  Blackman tells Van Cleef, he'd "like to be a super-detective, one of the scientific kind," and he soon gets his chance, when one of the guests at Mrs. Swan's guest house is poisoned.  More poisonings follow, along with deaths.

In some ways this novel resembles a book by Agatha Christie (at least as stereotyped), with a sort of American country house/ village setting, a genteel milieu, a closed circle of for the most part, rather flat suspects and a dialogue-heavy prose.  At one point in the novel, Van Cleef, beset by a rash of misdoings in a mansion, even wonders whether "there are any of those private detectives?  Like in a book...Quiet, gentlemanly young fellow....

But with Holding the emphasis is on not clues, but psychology.  I enjoyed The Obstinate Murderer, though I would not rank it, I must admit, with the best Holdings.  It's one time I felt that a Golden Age crime novel would have benefited from some greater fleshing-out of its ideas, characters and situations But check it out for yourself; it's available both in paperback and Kindle.  In its blurb for the book, Dodd, Mead recommend it to "the mystery connoisseur...the reader who appreciates a detective novel with substance and background"--surely you're one of those people, since you read this blog!

More on Holding coming to the blog, with a review of probably her best "twofer" novel collection from Stark House.