Thursday, July 31, 2014

Polly Wants a Killer: The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939), by Erle Stanley Gardner

In 1939, the American crime fiction reviewer "Judge Lynch" (William C. Weber) listed his favorite mystery novels of the year as:

A Coffin for Dimitrios (aka The Mask of Dimitrios), by Eric Ambler
The Crying Sisters, by Mable Seeley
Strawstack, by Dorothy Cameron Disney
Overture to Death, by Ngaio Marsh
The Problem of the Green Capsule (The Black Spectacles), by John Dickson Carr
The Footprints on the Ceiling, by Clayton Rawson
The Spider Strikes (aka Stop Press), by Michael Innes

I have read all these novels and I think the first and last of these books are truly exceptional, entirely original mystery classics.  Rich Westwood at Past Offences has reviewed the Ambler for this month's mystery challenge (a book from 1939). For my part I have been rereading the Innes, but it is loooong--about 450 pages--and I will have to blog it next month to do it justice.

So, what to do?  I turned to one of mystery fiction's old reliables, Erle Stanley Gardner, and his 1939 novel The Case of the Perjured Parrot--one of four crime novels (in three different series) that the prolific Gardner published that year.

In Parrot, attorney Perry Mason is hired by Charles Sabin, the son of eccentric millionaire Fremont C. Sabin, after the elder man is found shot to death in his mountain cabin. The elder man's pet parrot, Casanova, was left unscathed. But wait!  Charles insists that this parrot is not actually his father's parrot! But wait again! Why in the world would someone have substituted parrots? And where the heck is the real Casanova (the real macaw, you might say).  Perry is intrigued.

Also in the offing are the millionaire's private secretary, Richard Waid; his gold digging second wife, Helen Watkins Sabin; and Mrs. Sabin's son from an earlier marriage, Steve Watkins.  And then there's the "other woman," quiet librarian Helen Monteith, who says Fremont Sabin married her!  When the real Casanova finally turns up, he keeps saying Helen "shot me," but can a parrot testify in court?  And which Helen does he mean, anyway? Perry has got a definite situation on his hands.

This is quite a well-plotted mystery novel that zips right along and has an especially nice twist at the end.  The writing is flat, though functional.  On the strength of the Gardners I have read so far, I would say that Gardner was an American "Humdrum"--and I mean that in a positive way.  He had, as Raymond Chandler once enviously allowed, a fertile plotting brain; and that brain was in fine form here.  If plot's your thing (with some clever legal bits thrown in) you should enjoy The Case of the Perjured Parrot.

As stated above, Gardner is a flat writer and there's not much to tie this book to the specific year 1939. However, there are references to people being out of work and to Fremont Sabin's philosophy that people are too caught up in the pursuit of material things (easy for him to say!), and these remind readers that the novel is set in a decade where there was prolonged economic depression in the United States, with people seriously reassessing their lives.

Also, I would say, on the strength of the last sentence, that Perry and his loyal secretary, Della Street, were sleeping together--but then love, surely, is timeless.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Forget It, Morse; It's Oxfordshire." Endeavour: Series Two (2014)

Two years ago I quite favorably reviewed the pilot film for Endeavour, the sixties-set prequel series to Inspector Morse (1987-2000), the path-breaking British cop show that was based on the much-admired crime novels of Colin Dexter and starred the late, great John Thaw (1942-2002).  I also greatly enjoyed Series One of Endeavour, though somehow I failed to review it here.  Series Two, however, I found ultimately disappointing, despite some very high points (episodes 2 and 3).

Morse (Shaun Evans): a battered knight, "a shop-soiled Galahad"

My dissatisfaction with Series Two had nothing to do with the acting.  Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as DI Fred Thursday continue to impress, as do Anton Lesser as the martinet Chief Superintendent Bright and James Bradshaw as Dr. Max DeBryn (a character grievously served in the original Morse series, when he was written out to make room for Amanda Hillwood's Dr. Grayling Russell, a short-lived, and quite lamentable, tepid romantic interest for Morse).

Nor in fact does my dissatisfaction have to do with most of the episodes in Series Two, two of which are especially well-crafted, in my view.

The first episode of the series,"Trove," about a murder case embroiling a British beauty queen, Diana Day (Jessica Ellerby), had a somewhat dodgy plot, depending on a hugely unlikely coincidence of the tragic Greek sort (and yet one that has been used a number of times now in modern cop shows), forced motivation, and the seemingly obligatory Colin Dexter theme of the beautiful young woman having sex with a muuuuuch older man, but it still entertained (happily, Morse got to do a bit of decoding, a nice nod to Colin Dexter's puzzle-oriented mysteries).

And episodes two and three were extremely good.  "Nocturne," about a modern murder involving a girls' school as well as a notorious Victorian-era family massacre, holds tremendous appeal, I think, for any classical mystery fan, drawing as it does on a clutch of classic crime novels set at female academic institutions (Gaudy NightLaurels Are PoisonMiss Pym DisposesCat Among the Pigeons), as well as the real life Constance Kent murder case--discussed most recently in Kate Summerscale's lauded book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher--and Colin Dexter's own historical crime reconstruction, The Wench Is Dead (itself an homage to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time). The solution to Morse's complicated case is classically-oriented too.

"Nocturne": Morse Attracts an Audience

The third episode, "Sway," is about a serial killer.  Oxford, like other parts of TV England these days, seems to be overrun with serial killers--Endeavour had a serial killer outing in Series One as well--but this one was very well done.  Both "Nocturne" and "Sway" were complexly plotted, yet provided readers with the clues by which Morse solves the crimes (I didn't get either culprit correct). "Sway" also had a quite moving World War Two back story for Inspector Thursday, involving an employee at the department store that increasingly seems to be at the center of the mystery.

Throughout these episodes there are clever and intriguing bits.  An advertisement bearing the likeness of the British beauty queen keeps popping up, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, and there are mysterious thefts of evidence from Morse's cases--oh, and Morse gets an appealing girlfriend too (though of course we know his love affairs never end well).

surveying the moral wasteland

Unfortunately, all good things must come to and end, and thus we come to episode four, "Neverland." Here series writer Russell Lewis, who has quite a lineage in British mystery film scripting, having produced scripts for, besides Endeavour, a raft of British detective series, including Wycliffe (1994), Inspector Morse (the excellent "The Way Through the Woods," 1995), Cadfael (1994-97), The Last Detective (2004-05), and Inspector Lewis (2010-12), seems to have drawn inspiration less from Inspector Morse than from the classic American noir films Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (indeed, the climax of "Neverland" seemed almost like it was ripped from the L.A. Confidential script).

The bloodshed in this episode reached ludicrous levels--by my count this highly implausible plot included one murder-in-the-past and no less than six current murders, along with a suicide, a kidnapping and two attempted murders. This is not even to mention the astonishing Putinesque level of local official thuggery and  corruption the script envisioned, or the now much-overworked theme upon which the plot was based.  If you don't realize early on who the criminal kingpin is, you don't know noir.

"Forget it, Jake; It's Chinatown."


The episode's amazing crescendo of violent death leads us to a contrived double cliffhanger coda (not to be resolved for two years!) that reminded me of the sort of thing the Sherlock series has been giving us for several years now.  But where the larger-than-life character of Sherlock Holmes--never purported to be a realistic individual--invites these sort of outlandish plots (after all, Sherlock's creator gave us Moriarty, Moran and the rumble at Reichenbach Falls), they seem to me ridiculous when applied to a purportedly realistic police procedural series.

In Season One and much of Season Two I had enjoyed the quiet character development and the plotting ingenuity of Endeavour, but all that vanished with "Neverland."  A television series is inevitably a product of its times, I suppose, and we live, to be sure, in a melodramatic age. Yet "Neverland" has whisked Morse away from his roots in the classical detective novel and deposited him in the fashionably dark land of noir; and, though I may be alone in this, I am sad to see him trapped there.  In straining for high (melo)drama, the series has lost a sense of basic plausibility.  I hope this sense is recovered in Season Three.  Endeavour still has much that it can offer.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Blonde Walked into a Bar.... Gold Coast Nocturne (1951), by Helen Nielsen

The way Casey figured it, life was a sour deal.  It was something with a beginning you didn't ask for, an ending you couldn't help, and nothing in between that would sell even at a charity auction.  But it came in a package, like a Christmas tie, and once the package was opened you were stuck with it.

                         --opening lines of Gold Coast Nocturne (1951), by Helen Nielsen

Her eyes, he noticed 
(among other things)
were like purple smoke and her mouth
was full and young....The purple-smoke
eyes were measuring Casey's face now,
every inch of it, from the unruly,
dun-colored hair to the squared-off chin
 that was just right for leading with....
Casey meets Phyllis for the first time
in Gold Coast Nocturne (1951)
Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) is one of the authors included in Sarah Weinman's engrossing anthology of mid-twentieth-century women crime writers, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (much discussed here of late!).

She published eighteen crime novels between 1951 and 1976, getting off to a strong start with The Kind Man and Gold Cost Nocturne (retitled, for no good reason, Dead on the Level in paperback and, for somewhat better reason, Murder by Proxy in the UK), which both were strongly praised in the US and the UK.

In the UK Rupert Croft-Cooke (the British mystery writer Leo Bruce) said of Nielsen, in his review of The Kind Man, "I consider her the most worth watching of all new arrivals in the world of detection."

She was also more recently praised by Marcia Muller in Muller's and Bill Pronzini's 1001 Midnights (1986) and, of course, is being currently promoted by Sara Weinman.

Since  John Norris at Pretty Sinister has already reviewed The Kind Man, I thought I would take a look at Nielsen's second crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (it's often erroneously listed as her first).

It was adapted into a 1954 British film, Murder by Proxy (Blackout in the US), directed by Terence Fisher and starring "regular Joe" American actor Dane Clark (I specifically recall him from Angela Lansbury's Murder She Wrote in the 1980s) and lovely blonde British actress Belinda Lee.

Murder by Proxy (1954) aka Blackout
aka Dead on the Level aka Gold Coast Nocturne
Whew! Can't these people settle on a title?!

I noticed some of the reviews of Murder by Proxy/Blackout on imdb.com complain that the film is not true noir, but rather a detective story, and that the mystery plot is confusing. There is one point of character motivation that I feel was a bit skirted in the book, yet overall I thought Nielsen managed the complex plot wonderfully. I plan to watch the film to see how it matches the book (from clips it looks like a close match). Like the film adaptation, it seems, the book is not true noir, but rather a (medium) hard-boiled detective novel--and a very good one.

Like so many American mysteries of this era, Gold Coast Nocturne has as its protagonist a down-on-his-luck World War Two vet (Pacific theater, as so often seems to be the case in these books), Casey Morrow, aka Casimir Morokowski, who left his mother and stepfather to join up with the armed forces, then, after the war, went into business in California.

His business went belly up, however, and when the novel opens Casey is in a bar in Chicago, miserably drowning his sorrows with his very last dollars.

There he is approached by beautiful young blonde, expensively attired, who has a proposition for him--a business proposition.

The mystery blonde wants him to marry her, in exchange for $5000!  Casey is so drunk he's not exactly sure what he's agreeing to, but he goes off with her. He wakes up the next day in the apartment of another woman, plucky artist Maggie Doone, and discovers he was dumped here by last night's blonde, who turns out to be heiress Phyllis Brunner, whose rich Daddy just happened to get his head bashed in with a poker in his study the same night she was being squired by Casey.

the British edition
Casey suspects he's been set up as a patsy for a murder.  In classic fashion, he decides he's going to have to try to solve the murder for himself, before he's hauled off to the hoosegow by the police.

This is an efficiently constructed mystery novel, with a plot that keeps one in suspense until near the very end. The author makes a sympathetic figure of Casey, who, while no Chandlerian wisecracker, is a good everyman character. There are as well interesting glimpses of Chicago, including not only the abodes of Gold Coast swells but Casey's old Polish immigrant neighborhood. While I would not rank Gold Coast Nocturne with the greatest masterpieces of the more hard-boiled detective novel, it is, I would say, a top-drawer example.  I will read more by Helen Nielsen.

Gold Coast Nocturne is available for Kindle on Amazon (under the title Dead on the Level), from Prologue Books. There is also that killer Dell paperback edition, a dreary British hardcover first by Gollancz and a scarce American hardcover first by Ives Washburn.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hudson Strode and Highsmith: The Tale of "The Heroine" and the 1946 O. Henry Prize Stories

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
It is frequently stated that Patricia Highsmith won "an O. Henry Award" for her story "The Heroine," recently anthologized by Sarah Weinman in her book Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

It is true that "The Heroine" was one of 22 "O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1946," published that year by Doubleday in an annual anthology, along with, among others, Truman Capote's "Miriam" (another fine portrait of mental disintegration), Kay Boyle's "Winter Night," Dorothy Canfield Fisher's "Sex Education," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "Black Secret" and Eudora Welty's "A Sketching Trip."

However, four specific cash prizes were awarded to stories in this anthology: first, second and third prizes, plus a special prize for a first published short story.  Highsmith did not win any of these prizes; neither did Capote, Welty, or any of the other authors listed above.

First prize went to John Mayo Goss, for "Bird Song."  Second prize went to Margaret Shedd, for "The Innocent Bystander."  Third prize went to Victor Ullman, for "Sometimes You Break Even." And the special prize for first published short story went to Cord Meyer, Jr., for "Waves of Darkness."

There were three judges for the O. Henry Prize Stories that year: James Gray, "novelist, authority on the Middle West and book reviewer, now literary editor of the Chicago Daily News"; Helen Hull (1888-1971), "novelist, short-story writer, and teacher at Columbia University"; and Hudson Strode (1892-1976), "author of travel books, lecturer, and outstandingly successful teacher of courses in creative writing at the University of Alabama."

What?  You haven't heard of Hudson Strode, "outstandingly successful teacher in courses of creative writing at the University of Alabama"?  Well, allow me to remedy this (stick with me, this will ultimately take us back to Patricia Highsmith).

Hudson Strode (1892-1976)

I have some familiarity with what might be called "the Legend of Hudson Strode," having graduated, eleven years after Strode's death, from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the center of his academic domain.  Professor Strode was famed in Alabama for his ability to get his creative writing students published. Perhaps his best-known students are Borden Deal, who wrote some crime genre stories as well as mainstream novels, and Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump (1986), who came along to UA in the early 1960s, at the very end of the Strode regime (Strode retired in 1963).

A great deal was made of Strode in Alabama academe, even though when it came to his own writing Strode himself for most of his life was distinguished for his raft of travel books, such as The Story of Bermuda (1932), The Pageant of Cuba (1934), Finland Forever (1941), Sweden: Model for the World (1949; for this one Strode was awarded the Order of the North Star by King Gustav VI Adolf, something which became an essential part of the Great Man's bio) and Denmark is a Lovely Land (1951).

Strode loved world traveling and hobnobbing with the rich and/or famous (if the truly rich and/or famous were not available, minor European royalty and aristocracy would do). When noting in his memoirs, The Eleventh House (1975), that his book on Cuba was turned down by the famed leftist publisher Victor Gollancz--the publisher, incidentally, of a great deal of crime fiction--on the grounds that the book was too conservative, Strode bemusedly reflected

I had not known that this highly successful publisher was a Communist.  I was told that he gave most elaborate and costly parties.

a cover apparently inspired by
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(I think that's our King Gustav on the
lower left, below F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Later in life Strode also published an admiring three-volume biography of Confederate president Jefferson Davis that is not taken seriously within the academic community today. His book of memoirs is the sort that is inevitably called chatty, not to mention possibly the greatest case of major (and very often minor) celebrity name-dropping ever committed to paper.

I didn't mind his recollections of the time he spent two hours sitting on a porch swing with my teenage writing idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald:

I had never met him before.  Scott was not drinking that week.  He looked as fresh as he was handsome....He was wearing plus fours and jacket of a muted mixed green color....I found his conversation fascinating....

However, Strode's prolix preoccupation with seemingly each and every member of each and every royal house in Europe grew wearying:

In the upper box above Mrs. Hanson, wife of the Prime Minister, and her companions, appeared three royal princesses: first, Sibylla, wife of the Crown Prince's eldest son; then Ingeborg, Danish-born sister-in-law of King Gustav and mother of the Crown Princess Martha of Norway and the late Queen Astrid of the Belgians.  Last, to the front seat of honor, came Crown Princess Louise, sister of England's Lord Louis Mountbatten and aunt of Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh and consort of Queen Elizabeth II.  All three ladies wore their court jewels and evening gowns of pastel colors....

If this kind of thing really interests you, there is a lot more of it in The Eleventh House. Or, of course, you could just grab a random copy of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage.

Yet as a teacher Strode clearly was beloved by his students (who were locally-known as "Strodents") and he obviously labored to help get them into print and publicized. A case in point can be seen with the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946.

Mulling his loss to John Mayo Goss?
Truman Capote (1924-1984)
Who was John Mayo Goss, who won first prize over Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, Eudora Welty, etc., for the stories considered in 1946?

Why, he was a "Stroder"--a Hudson Strode student!

Herschell Brickell, selector and editor of the volume that year, obviously realized there was a potential conflict-of-interest issue here, with Hudson Strode serving as one of the three judges, for he addressed the matter head-on in his introduction:

It needs to be explained that Mr. Strode has had Mr. Goss in his classes...in an honest attempt to lean over backward, he placed [Goss' story] second, giving Miss Shedd's "The Innocent Bystander" first place.

Of course, Goss won first prize anyway (I assume the other two judges placed him at the top of their ballots), so all worked out well for the University of Alabama creative writing program. Goss later published a novel, This Magnificent World (1948).  Patricia Highsmith and Truman Capote went on to publish a few things too, as we know, Highsmith primarily and Capote occasionally (In Cold Blood) books about crime.

Herschell Brickell seemed to feel the comparative snubbing of Capote keenly, writing (chidingly?) in his introduction that the young man--who spent some crucial childhood years in Alabama but unfortunately did not take classes in creative writing with Hudson Strode--was in his opinion the "most remarkable new talent of the year" and would "take his place among the best short-story writers of the rising generation."

Helen Rose Hull (1888-1971)
not high on Highsmith 
Little was said about Highsmith's "The Heroine" and that which was said was critical.  Judge Helen Hull dismissed the story as "having no significance," being "merely the projection into action of the daydream of a disordered mind."

Ironically, Helen Hull herself would publish, near the end of her long fiction writing career, a psychological crime novel, A Tapping on the Wall (1960). Was she inspired by Patrica Highsmith's success? Over at Goodreads, Geert Daelemans does not think too much of Hull's Tapping.  However, unlike Highsmith's "The Heroine," the novel did win a cash prize ($3000 from Dodd, Mead for the best mystery/suspense novel written by a professor). I'm going to judge for myself!

For more on 1946 literary prizes involving crime fiction, see Faulkner vs. Wellman: The Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine 1946 Showdown.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Women on the Edge of a Deserved Revival: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman

home is where the hurt is
In Penguin's anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives [TDTW] Sarah Weinman has put together an important collection of female-authored suspense fiction from the 1940s through the 1970s--one that has been needed for some time.

While I do not agree that the writers Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar were really "forgotten" when this anthology appeared--in the last thirty years these women had work reprinted by small presses (IPL, Carroll and Graf, Crippen & Landru, Stark House, The Feminist Press)--they had not received, to be sure, the attention they deserved, either from important presses like Black Lizard and Library of America or, for the most part, academic surveys.

Like many worthy male crime writers, these women authors have tended to get overlooked, I believe, because they do not fit conveniently into the tough/cozy bifurcation paradigm that critics have fashioned for older crime fiction.  Critic and crime writer Jon L. Breen noted the error in this paradigm nearly a decade ago, in his essay The Ellery Queen Mystery, and I have written about the matter at length in my books Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) and Clues and Corpses (2013) and most recently in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), the collection of essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene that I edited.

Twentieth-century women suspense writers--going back to Mary Roberts Rinehart in the United States and Marie Belloc Lowndes in the United Kingdom, and up through, among others, Margaret Millar, Celia Fremlin and Ursula Curtiss--have not received their critical due; but neither have what Breen terms "male classicists," such as Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Leo Bruce and Freeman Wills Crofts (the latter a functional stylist at best, but an important figure within the history of the genre), to name a few.

While much remains to be done for the male classicists (and, for that matter, female classicists who have not been crowned "Crime Queens"), with TDTW Sarah Weinman certainly has advanced the cause of the women suspense writers: Library of America will be issuing some works by women suspense writers next year, she tells me.

Of course TDTW has merit beyond that as a piece of advocacy: the stories are interesting and entertaining--if not all necessarily precursors to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, as some reviews have suggested. One can quibble about the inclusion of some of the tales (I found the Shirley Jackson story, "Louisa, Please Come Home," uncharacteristically flat for Jackson and would have much preferred "The Possibility of Evil", while Dorothy Salisbury Davis' "Lost Generation" and Dorothy B. Hughes' "Everybody Needs a Mink" did not seem to me to illustrate the "troubled/twisted" women theme so well), but the book nevertheless is a highly notable collection.

Patricia Highsmith
TDTW opens with Patricia Highsmith's "The Heroine," a 1945 tale about a most devoted nanny; and this psychologically perceptive and superbly chilling piece makes a strong beginning indeed, being a masterful example of what Weinman calls "domestic suspense" (I'll have more to say about the early history of this story this week).

Weinman notes that Highsmith has over the last decade or so been lovingly embraced by the critical community (she currently is the only female writer with a novel included in the Library of America), yet, she adds pointedly:

Highsmith largely wrote about, and was more comfortable with, men. When she wrote about domestic situations in her novels and stories, they were largely to do with male perception, misunderstanding, and delusion.

Weinman deems "The Heroine" as, for Highsmith, "a 'path not taken' tale."

Among the shorter tales, Nedra Tyre's "A Nice Play to Stay," Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" and Miriam Allen deFord's "Mortmain" are superb--and dark--twist stories.  Perhaps Callahan's is most striking in its evocation of the hold of childhood memory, but they are all wonderful.

Joyce Harrington's relentless "The Purple Shroud" is memorably macabre and gruesome, even though I don't know that I find myself quite so sympathetic as some reviewers have been to the protagonist's way of ending what Weinman calls a "toxic marriage."

Aside from "The Heroine", probably my favorite tales in this collection are Vera Caspary's "Sugar and Spice," Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car," Charlotte Armstrong's "The Splintered Monday," Margaret Millar's "The People Across the Canyon," and Celia Fremlin's "A Case of Maximum Need."

Armstrong's tale felt more like an actual detective story, rather than "suspense," but the detective figure is a wonderful, wise old woman (what Kevin Killian calls one of Armstrong's "Norns"); and it's certainly the quintessence of unnatural domestic death.

Like Millar's "McGowney's Miracle," previously anthologized in The Lethal Sex, Millar's "The People Across the Canyon" has a poignancy that lingers with the reader.  One cannot help but feel that this tale, which probes the failures with a daughter of two no doubt "good" parents, reflects anxieties Millar and her husband, Ross Macdonald, had about their relationship with their own troubled daughter, Linda.

In "The People across the Canyon"
Margaret Millar silences Perry Mason
With the poignancy in Millar's tale there is a certain mordant humor. Clearly condemnatory of parents who have fallen enslaved to television, Millar zings a then tremendously popular television series, based on the books of a then tremendously popular crime fiction writer:

Marion went over and snapped off the television set....
Well, let's have it," Paul said, trying to conceal his annoyance.

"Have what?"
"Stop kidding around.  You don't usually cut off Perry Mason in the middle of a sentence."
....
Paul went over and turned the television set back on.  As he had suspected, it was the doorman who'd killed the nightclub owner with a baseball bat, not the blonde dancer or her young husband or the jealous singer.

Celia Fremlin's "A Case of Maximum Need" is a creepy story of an octogenarian woman who is adamant to a young social worker that she does not want a telephone installed in her "Sheltered Housing Unit for the Elderly." The career of Celia Fremlin (1914-2009) overlapped that of her "sister" Englishwoman and crime writer Ruth Rendell, with whom she shared much affinity, I believe.  Both women wrote (Rendell of course still does) crime fiction with precise hands and penetrating eyes:

Sunday was the day when relatives of all ages, bearing flowers and pot plants in proportion to their guilt, came billowing in through the swing doors to spend an afternoon of stunned boredom with their dear ones....

Celia Fremlin's death five years ago was little noted, which is a shame.  Her debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, won the Edgar Award for best crime novel in 1960, and for some time before her death she was remembered, if at all, primarily for this one work; yet she gave us a rich corpus of suspense fiction. Happily, her books have been reprinted in the UK; unhappily, they have not been reprinted in the US.

This brings us to the anthology's two novelettes or novellas, Caspary's "Sugar and Spice" and Holding's "The Stranger in the Car."  These both are rich works, full of interesting social observation and suspense (Holding's more legitimately "domestic").

The ironically-titled "Sugar and Spice" is a "rich woman-poor woman" story of an intense and deadly rivalry between two cousins and has an interesting narrative structure, typical of this clever author. My only criticism, a matter of personal taste, is that it is perhaps a tad "slick" (incidentally, don't believe the reviewers who fashionably, if carelessly, label all the tales in TDTW "noir"; they aren't--nor do they need to be such to stand on their own as fine fiction).

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
I preferred "The Stranger in the Car," which I found darker and twistier than "Sugar and Space."  In fact, I think it's my favorite piece in the entire anthology.

Only at the end does one fully realize all that has been going on in this impressive crime novella, about a businessman husband and father who tries to stomp out all the fires he sees kindling in his mostly female household. The psychological clueing in this novella has, like the best novels of Margaret Millar, a Christie-like deftness.

Holding was much praised by Raymond Chandler and Anthony Boucher, among many others, and her novel The Blank Wall (1947) was successfully filmed twice (The Reckless Moment, 1949, starring Joan Bennett and James MasonThe Deep End, 2001, starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic), but more recently has not received the critical attention that she merits (some of her novels have been reprinted by Stark House).

If you haven't read TDTW and you like suspense fiction, my advice to you is to read it as soon as you can, and then read some of the novels by the fine authors Sarah Weinman has included in this excellent anthology.

PS.: Here's John Norris' take on TDTW over at his Pretty Sinister blog.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Some Wicked and Wounded Women: The Lethal Sex (1959), edited by John D. Macdonald


....As you read each [story], keep in mind that a woman wrote it, and try to imagine what special qualities inhabit the mind and heart and soul of that woman.  And after you are through, take all of those qualities and form of them a composite woman.

She will be magic and mystery, sensitive, earthy, compelling, wry, humorous, humble, arrogant, diligent, lazy, neat, careless, spiritual and bawdy.  I guess this is a love note to that woman.  She is a very special gal.  And she is, of course, any woman, anywhere....

....Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents...and their savage little minds.

--John D. MacDonald, Introduction to The Lethal Sex 

Reading John D. MacDonald's introduction to the 1959 Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Lethal Sex, that he edited, I was struck, 55 years later, by what seemed an awfully patronizing tone (the introduction reads like a proposition en masse).

At least the MWA focused exclusively on women writers, even if they did get a hard-boiled male author to edit and introduce the book (having recently edited a book, I think I have to cut MacDonald some slack).  Now, shall we join the ladies?

There are fourteen stories in The Lethal Sex.  Interestingly, there's not a huge amount of crossover with Sarah Weinman's recent Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.  We again have the magnificent Margaret Millar, Miriam Allen deFord and Nedra Tyre, but that's it.  However, many of the stories that Weinman collected in her anthology are post-1959, from the 1960s and 1970s.

Macdonald writes that he wanted in his anthology "bite and violence and atmosphere....If you adore those comfy little predictable puzzles, you've bought the wrong book."

Two British authors, Christianna Brand and Anthony Gilbert (yes, AG is a woman), contribute excellent and highly characteristic pieces, Brand's, "Dear Mr. Macdonald," a coy and clever murder story about two sisters, and Gilbert's, "You'll Be the Death of Me," another of this author's parables of the plain woman and the handsome devil (who may be a murdering devil).

Millar's story, "McGowney's Miracle," is an odd--and oddly moving--story about a mortician and the "client" he didn't actually bury.  It definitely has a noirish quality to it.

The concluding tale is a novelette/novella by Juanita Sheridan, whose mystery novel series in Hawaii has been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press and sounds charming.  "There Are No Snakes in Hawaii" tells of an artist and his philistine wife and how their marriage becomes dangerously unglued in Hawaii. It's a compelling tale with excellent local color.

Of the remaining ten stories, my favorites were:

"Snowball," by Ursula Curtiss, one of the most important "domestic suspense" writers of the 1950s and 1960s in my view.  At the snowbound country cottage did the husband murder the wife or the wife the husband?  Or something else?

"He Got What He Deserved," by Bernice Carey, a fine piece or irony about a mother and a daughter and the man who comes between them.

"Two for Tea," by Margaret Manners, which was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents the previous year, pits a calculating wife against a scheming mistress. Who will win?

"To Be Found and Read," by Miriam Allen deFord, with a male protagonist and a whipsaw final paragraph.

"What Is Going to Happen?", by Nedra Tyre, a dramatic monologue by an eight-year-old girl who seems to have done something very bad.

"Thirty-Nine," by D. Jenkins Smith, about a wife reaching the "dangerous age," is in some ways the most striking of the bunch, visceral in a way I wasn't expecting from such a volume, like a precursor to some of the books by Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott.

This tale would have made a fine addition to Sarah Weinman's anthology (about which I hope to writing here on Sunday).  Weinman provided some excellent short bios of the authors, something Macdonald did not do.  What about D. Jenkins Smith?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Neglected Writers, Forgotten Lines

When Troubled Daughters, Twisted WivesSarah Weinman's anthology of tales of psychological suspense fiction by women crime writers, was published last year, the project received much critical praise (just the blurbs in the book itself--all from women writers--go on for three pages). I fully concur that a book like Weinman's was long overdue and I recommend it to readers (I'm planning a full review next week).

Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the stance of some of the commentators on the book, who seemed prone to make the comparative neglect of some of these authors all a matter of gender. These women writers were neglected, so the argument goes, by men, because these writers were women. Yet, as Weinman herself recognizes, these writers were much praised in their day (by women and men), and were award-winning and popular.

Additionally, some of them who wrote novels, like Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, were kept in print into the 1980s and 1990s by presses like IPL and Carroll and Graf. Carroll and Graf recognized that Hughes was every bit a master of her craft, just like Cornell Woolrich, say, and reprinted both authors.  Douglas Greene, who was an advisor to IPL, has gone on, with his excellent Crippen and Landru press, to publish short story collections by two of the authors Weinman anthologizes (Millar and Vera Caspary) and soon will be publishing a collection by a third (Armstrong).

Margaret Millar
Potentate of Page-turners
I've had numerous conversations with male mystery fans where they highly praised some of these women writers, especially Margaret Millar (with, in Millar's case, the resultant debate about whether she or her husband, Ross Macdonald, was the better writer).

I was introduced to mystery fiction (and "mature" fiction in general) in 1974 at the age of eight by a wise old woman named Agatha Christie. As a young man I read and enjoyed a multitude of British crime queens: Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Heyer, Tey, Brand, Ferrars. When I started reading Margaret Millar in the 1990s (those IPL editions, readily available at my local Barnes & Noble), I was floored. She is one of the few mystery authors I have read where I found that I really "couldn't put the book down."

So it's hard for me to view the modern neglect of these writers as simply another round of conflict in the gender wars.  In my own work on neglected crime fiction writers, male and female, I have come to conclude that the Higher Powers of the publishing world (excluding small and micro presses, which are doing great work resurrecting forgotten authors) find it convenient to cram older crime writers into two gendered boxes:

(1) British "cozy" writers (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Tey, Heyer, etc.--the occasional donnish male Brit, perhaps Michael Innes or Edmund Crispin or maybe Nicholas Blake, is thrown in)

(2) American "tough" writers (hard-boiled and noir: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, etc.--of late Patricia Highsmith is likely to be included)

Look at the Grand Poobah of prestige publishing, Library of America.  LOA has opened its sanctum to crime writers, but apparently only if these writers are hard-boiled, noir, tough and, yes, it seems, with one exception, male.  Here from their website is their list of published crime writers with individual volumes:

Raymond Chandler (2 vols.)
Dashiell Hammett (2 vols.)
David Goodis
Elmore Leonard

LOA's American Noir set includes novels by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Patrica Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis and Chester Himes.

Fifteen writers, and one of them, Patricia Highmith, a woman.  While it's not merely women writers who are being neglected by LOA--evidently no male writer who wrote crime fiction that was neither noir nor hard-boiled need be considered--the gender disparity is dramatic.

The Only Woman? Patricia Highsmith

However, elsewhere things are looking up for once-prominent older women crime writers. Digital editions of books by Armstrong, Hughes, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart for example, are now available from Mysterious Press (they've brought back Ellery Queen too, by the way: a male writer(s) who has been, like these women, "unjustly neglected").

For my part, before reviewing Sarah Weinman's anthology of women crime writers, I'm going to take a look at a much older one: The Lethal Sex, the 1959 Anthology of the Mystery Writers of America. Fourteen crime stories, all by women writers, in an anthology edited by--John D. MacDonald!  Check in for it tomorrow!