Saturday, April 14, 2012

"It's French this time, but don't let that dismay you": Red Warning (1933), by Virgil Markham

Virgil Markham (1899-1973) spent over half his life in the shadow of his father, the once renowned and much beloved poet and man of letters Edwin Markham (1852-1940), author of "The Man with the Hoe," in the first half or so of the twentieth century one of the most celebrated American poems (it was inspired by the famous Jean-Francois Millet painting).  Actually, I should say more than half his life, because even after his father died, Virgil Markham was the tender of his father's literary reputation, still best known for being the son of Edwin Markham.

Virgil Markham's fourth mystery novel takes place in France
--a good part of the time on a train

Yet Virgil Markham was an interesting person in his own right.  He received a B.A. from Columbia University and an an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley (his 1923 thesis was titled The Satirical Method of Addison and Steele).  In the 1920s he taught at UC-Berkeley's Cora L. Williams Institute for Creative Education and the University of California Extension Division. Under the auspices of the latter Markham in 1929 launched what was called the first university class on mystery literature, "The Development and Technique of the Mystery Story."

The Markham Home in Staten Island
After traveling in Europe for half of 1925, Markham in 1926 published The Scamp, a picaresque historical novel set in Europe.  He would use European settings as well for six of the eight mystery novels he published between 1928 and 1936.

These are:

Death in the Dusk (1928)
The Black Door (1930) (in England, Shock!)
The Devil Drives (1932) (reprinted by Ramble House)
Red Warning (1933) (in England, Song of Death)
Inspector Rusby's Finale (1933)
The Dead Are Prowling (1934)
The Deadly Jest (1935)
Snatch (1936)

Markham's work often won positive critical notice (his last six novels were published in England by the prestigious Collins Crime Club), but are little remembered today.  I suspect the books may have been victims of their own originality (not to say strangeness).

Virgil Markham obviously was not content to do the same old thing with the mystery story, to steer his narratives over worn-out ruts, but rather was looking for different and exciting ways of working with the form.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940),
famous father of Virgil Markham
He certainly found them!  In a very interesting piece on Markham's first and best-known mystery novel, Death in the Dusk, blogger TomCat asserts that it rivals Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Frederic Brown's Night of the Jabberwock "in the race for most outlandish detective story ever contrived."*

*(see"The Grim Fairy-Tale of Parson Lolly")

On the other hand, that great detective fiction traditionalist Jacques Barzun lauded Markham's novel Inspector Rusby's Finale in the highest terms and more reservedly praised another, The Black Door.

So!  What,do I think of the Markham title under review here, Red Warning?

Inscribing a copy of Red Warning to an American friend, Markham humorously warned him, "It's French this time, but don't let that dismay you."

Certainly the novel is unbridled in its modernism, doubtlessly owing something to its French setting (Anglo-American readers seem to have had an easier time accepting that racy things happen in France).

Dust jacket flap
of Snatch
showing a photo of
Virgil Markham
Jack Bishop, the hero of Red Warning, is a former California philosophy professor gone to seed, living his life among cafe inebriates and prostitutes due to a failed love affair with rising American opera star Elsie Ritter.

Jack clearly is not a model mystery genre hero for the day, nor is Elsie a typical heroine, being that rarest  of things among Golden Age putative good girls, a girl who is CNAV (Clearly Not A Virgin). For good measure she also smokes, drinks and swears (how long will she keep her voice?).

During the course of the novel these two--who their despite their falling-out are still madly in love with each other--are thrown back together by criminal circumstance. Someone has been sending Elsie "red warnings"--threats of danger and impending death, all with something red in the design.

There is also the matter of the fantastically valuable emerald necklace given to Elsie by one of her most infatuated admirers, the wheelchair-bound American millionaire Waldo Torrens.

The necklace is the object of desire of the Fox, the greatest jewel thief in Europe.  Rather worrisomely, it appears that the Fox not only has the habit of theft, but also that of strangling his victims, all the while singing operatic totenlieder in the most superb basso profundo.

the suspects, erm, passengers board the death train

Also in the character mix is the enigmatic Baron Gluck, yet another of Elsie's admirers. What is his game, exactly?  And are Torrens' valet and secretary really what they seem to be?  Is Madame Torrens, the millionaire's addled mother, quite all there?  And what about Elsie's doctor and another American who is so obviously American as to seem ersatz? Or the mysterious scientific researcher, M. Roche?

The plot device of the red warnings reminds me a great deal of two detective novels from the 1980s, Photo-Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh (threatened opera star again) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) by P. D. James (threatened actress).

However Markham's narrative unfolds much more impressionistically and confusingly, as the scene shifts from Paris then to a night train then to a villa in Avignon.  The reader sometimes may wonder whether everything that is happening is really happening. Red Warning reads less like a classical detective novel and more like an Edgar Wallace mystery thriller, with heavy lashings of Georges Simenon and William Faulkner.

The basic plot of this 1980
Ngaio Marsh detective novel
resembles that of Red Warning--
but oh! what different places they go!
Yet when the explanation is offered at the end, one realizes there were clues embedded in the text.  I think I understood it all by then, though I am not completely sure.

I may have to read The Psychology of Thought, by American psychologist and college professor Harry Levi Hollingsworth (1880-1957), apparently a former teacher of Markham's at Columbia University.  This book gets quite a work-out from the author in the final pages of Red Warning.

Red Warning is quite a sophisticated book for the period--not an easy read, but an interesting one.  I am glad I read it, and I will read more works by this author--no matter the country in which they happen to be set!

Note: The tour of France will continue the upcoming week with reviews of works by Alice Campbell, Georges Simenon and Stanislas-Andre Steeman.  See you soon!--The Passing Tramp.


  1. In Italy, more than sixty years ago, the novel "The Devil Drives", was published, at two different editions by two small publishing houses, thed disappeared. I am not able to find it: it is very rare. A friend who read it in English was thrilled, and I remember that on that occasion he also spoke to me about a Locked Room by Clifford Orr (also this novel by that magic year that was 1932), The Wailing Rock Murders, according to him, magnificent.
    These novels are not yet in Italy, but I don't despair because a publishing house alternative to Mondadori, Polillo, is publishing a lot of authentic beauties. For example, two weeks ago came out in bookstores, the latest in a long series, The Mardi Gras Murders, by Bristow & Manning.


  2. @Curt:

    "...not an easy read, but an interesting one" seems to be the summation of Virgil Markham's work as it also perfectly describes the book I have read (thanks for the plug, by the way!).

    However, it did not compel me to go out and collect all of his books post-haste, but I won't look away if ever come across another one of his novels. Anyway, good and interesting review!


    I always feel a pang of envy when I read about bookstores in Asia and countries like Italy. Why do we get stuck here with pseudo-intellectual and emotional laden trash thrillers and the rare writer who does get it (like M.P.O. Books) wallow in obscurity?

  3. Sounds like THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN with the jewel theft and strangling. I've only read THE DEVIL DRIVES by Markham. He's a difficult stylist that's for sure; it was a struggle to get through the book. THE DEVIL DRIVES also reveals Markham's love of the bizarre. It's solution to the locked room aspect is something I would've expected from Harry Steven Keeler or even Carolyn Wells - had she taken a hallucinogenic drug. Although I come across Markham's books every now and then (DEATH IN THE DUSK and THE DEVIL DRIVES were reprinted extensively in the US and are the most common) I've never seen a copy of RED WARNING anywhere. A quick search reveals at least three copies for sale. Uncommon, but not rare, I'd say.

    Pietro -

    I read THE WAILING ROCK MURDERS. It has a great Gothic atmosphere, but I didn't think much of the mystery itself. After reading all those Judge Peck books which it resembles in plot mood and character (Derleth's books were written in the late 1920s), Orr's book didn't have much effect on me.

  4. John,

    Red Warnign is like Blue Train on acid (to indulge in cliche)!


    I think your review captured Markham's work well. I have two of his rarer ones, Rusby and Snatch, will have to review. Deadly Just and Dead Are Prowling regrettably are about impossible to find these days, I think we only published in UK.


    Devil Drives is a POD book in English from Ramble House today. Worth reading, I think!