Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rather a Shocker: Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) and Adelaide Phillpotts (1896-1993)

Eden Phillpotts
I have come across material about a grave personal transgression concerning the Golden Age crime writer Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) and his daughter, Adelaide.  Having been for years now an admirer of much of Phillpott's writing, both genre and non-genre, I was especially distressed by this.

I suspect most mystery fans know Phillpotts, if they know him, for his having encouraged a young Torquay neighbor, Agatha Christie, with her writing career. When a hugely successful writer herself, Agatha Christie retained fondness for the older author who had given her youthful writing promising words of praise. When Phillpotts died in 1960, at the advanced age of 98, Christie penned an affectionate obituary of him, singling out for praise his children's novel The Flint Heart (1910), recently reprinted in a fine new edition.

Eden Phillpotts was an extraordinarily prolific author, authoring by my count over 250 books, ten percent of which were crime and detective novels. His last novel (not a mystery) was published in 1959, just a year before he died.  Overall he is probably most admired, as a writer, as Devon regional novelist, though his contribution to mystery fiction is, I believe, notable. I have written about Phillpotts' career in crime fiction here.

Earlier in life Eden Phillpotts had married Emily Topham and with her had two children, a son, Henry (1895-1976) and a daughter, Mary Adelaide Eden (1896-1993), who grew up to be an able writer in her own right and who lived nearly as long as her very long-lived father.

Eden Phillpotts was also prominent as a playwright--his hit rustic comedy play The Farmer's Wife was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928--and he and Adelaide collaborated on several plays, the best-known of which was Yellow Sands.

James Dayananda, an English professor, interviewed Phillpotts' daughter Adelaide in 1976 for a book he was writing on her father, Eden Phillpotts: Selected Letters, published by University Press of America in 1984. In the book Dayananda writes that Adelaide Phillpotts "remained unmarried until the age of 55....In 1951 she married Nicholas Ross, an American from Boston settled in Britain, much against the wish of her father.  Eden Phillpotts cut her off, and never met her again after her marriage, despite several attempts of Adelaide at reconciliation....The letters...throw some light on the ups and downs of the relationship between Eden and Adelaide Phillpotts."

In her 1976 interview with Professor Dayananda, Adelaide Phillpotts shockingly declared that her father had sexually abused her as a child (as far back as when she was six or seven) and that he kept up an intimate relationship--elaborated as "fondling, kissing, intercourse (not penetration)"--with her, off and on, until 1929, when he married his second wife (Adelaide was in her early 30s at this time). She also claims that her father was obsessively jealous of her relationships with other men and, as indicated above, that he never spoke to her again when she finally did marry, against his will, at the age of 55.

This is, of course, a very disturbing bunch of revelations, to say the least, like something out of a modern crime novel.  More can be found here, in the Oxford DNB entry on Adelaide Phillpotts by Professor Dayananda.

Some of the letters from Eden to Adelaide included in Professor Dayananda's collection, invariably addressed to "My precious love," "My dearest love," "My sweet love," etc., are suggestive, even if there is not a "smoking gun," so to speak:

"Today I had hoped to welcome my precious girl and have my arms around her again." (1914, when Adelaide was 18)

"But I am exceedingly thankful you did what you have done [breaking off with a man-TPT] for it would be destructive to your art to tangle yourself in an engagement to be married at present and I should deplore it exceedingly. Plenty of time for that." (1917, when Adelaide was 21)

"I was not surprised after your first mention of that Jew and his politeness to hear he wanted you. The damned swine saw you were alone. You must not go to a hotel in future where that sort of vermin harbours for he might have been wickeder than he was and have planned to compromise you in some way." (1929, when Adelaide was 32)

Of course there are myriad fiction writers who seem to have been unpleasant and erring people in real life. But I have to admit these charges against Eden Phillpotts, if true, take things to a new level, as far as I am aware, regarding iniquities of Golden Age crime writers.

Cornell Woolrich'
s relationship with his mother has been seen as having incestuous overtones, but here in the case of Eden Phillpotts, it's the crime writer accused of monstrously blighting his child's life.  Oddly enough, there's a striking resemblance to one of Agatha Christie's own detective novels, written in the 1940s.

Is there any suggestion of a preoccupation with incest in Eden Phillpotts' own fiction?  I have never discerned any, though his last mystery novel, George and Georgina, published the same year his daughter married, when he was ninety years old, concerns the relationship between a much-devoted pair of male-female twin siblings.  I may take a look at this novel in the future.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Mysteries of Medora Field: Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1939) and Blood on Her Shoe (1942)

Whodunit?
The Georgia journalist Medora Field (1892-1960) was a close friend of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, as documented most recently in The Scarlett Letters, the new book about  Mitchell and the famous Hollywood film made from her famous novel.  An assistant editor on the Atlanta Journal Magazine, Field had hired Mitchell as a staff writer back in 1922.  Field had urged Mitchell to submit her manuscript of Gone with the Wind to the publisher Macmillan in 1935; Mitchell in turn encouraged Field to write her own novel, a mystery called Who Killed Aunt Maggie? in 1939, which was turned into a film the following year.

Three years later, Field published an additional mystery novel, Blood on Her Shoe, which was also filmed, in 1944.  Both novels were very popular in their day, selling well in hardcover and in paperback reprints by Popular Library.

As mentioned previously on this blog, Field was classified (along with such authors as Mignon EberhartLeslie FordMabel SeeleyAnita Blackmon and Margaret Armstrong) by Howard Haycraft in his classic mystery genre study Murder for Pleasure as one of the best students in the Mary Roberts Rinehart school of suspense mystery.  This mystery subgenre has been derided, often unfairly I think, as the HIBK (Had I But Known) school of mystery fiction. I now prefer to call it simply suspense. One could also use Sarah Weinman's term "domestic suspense," since usually books by these authors are home-centered.

Certainly that's the case with Medora Field's two mysteries, both of which are set, classically, at country house parties in Georgia, the one outside Roswell (near Atlanta), the other in southeastern Georgia, on St Simons Island.

Both of these novels are entertaining and, yes, suspenseful mysteries and I'm pleased to say they are being republished, like the two mystery novels by Arkansas' Anita Blackmon, by Coachwhip, with a 5000 word introduction by me, on Medora Field and her mysteries. The books of an additional southern woman mystery writer are going to be reprinted by Coachwhip this year, but I'll have more to say about these books, as well as Medora Field's, a bit later!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"If you want a tale that's gory/Let a woman write the story"" More on the Detective Story Club

More on the Detective Story Club, discussed in an earlier post.  For those of you eager to add to your collections, here are the monthly Club Selections I have determined so far:

November 1928
The Cobra Candlestick, by Elsa Barker


January 1929
The Mystery of the Open Window, by Anthony Gilbert

February 1929
Dead Men's Shoes, by Lee Thayer

April 1929
The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young, by Milton M. Propper

June 1929
The Studio Murder Mystery, by A. C. and Carmen Edington

August 1929
Murder at Bratton Grange (The Davidson Case), by John Rhode (Hooray for the Humdrums!)

November 1929
The Secret of 37 Hardy Street, by Robert J. Casey

February 1930
Card 13, by Mark Lee Luther and Lillian C. Ford

It's an interesting glimpse of American detective novel writing in the pivotal years of Dashiell Hammett and the hard-boiled revolution in fictional crime (Hammett's great period of novel publication was 1929-31).  Five women authors and five men, an even distribution, but I believe there are only two Brits (Gilbert and Rhode) to eight Americans. And all these novels are, I believe, examples of "classical" detective fiction.  I have all but the last of these books, but have onyl read a couple of them.

A 1928 Florida newspaper book column had some interesting comments on the Detective Story Club, as well as Elsa Barker's Cobra Candlestick and women crime writers in general.

First the columnist quoted a Walt Mason rhyme:

"If you want a tale that's gory
Let a woman write the story"


"That was when women were going strong for writing mystery stories," continued the columnist:

Something similar may be said of detective fiction: If you want a tale that's creepy and shivery and baffling, let a woman write it.  Such a tale is The Cobra Candlestick....The book has the distinction of having been the first selected by the Detective Story Club, which endeavors to supply its members with the best detective story of the month.  Further proof of the merit of the tale is that is was the choice of a board of selection composed of the following persons of distinction: Carolyn Wells, noted novelist and author of several [SIC!] detective stories of book length; Edmund Pearson, widely known expert on murder cases; William J. Flynn, for years one of the most noted detectives in the world and at the time of his death editor of a well-known detective fiction magazine; Francis H. Wellman, well-known criminal court prosecutor; and Robert H. Davis, for years editor of Munsey's Magazine.

If these five say it's a good detective story, it is.


Watch for reviews of a number of these Detective Story Club Selections over the next month!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

Here are Worsley "best" women detectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                 ***********

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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