Thursday, August 29, 2013

Churning It Out: Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory The Working Life of Herbert Allingham (2012), by Julia Jones

Today Herbert Allingham (1867-1936) is known, if at all, as the father of Margery Allingham (1904-1966), one of the four (maybe five) women writers from the Golden Age of detection crowned Queens of Crime.  But for half a century, from the 1880s to the 1930s, Herbert Allingham had a fascinating career in entertainment all of his own, amazingly preserved through the efforts of Margery Allingham, her younger sister Joyce and Margery Allingham biographer and authority on all things Allingham, Julia Jones, Jones also is the author of the book under review here, Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory: The Working Life of Herbert Allingham (2012), a compelling and important work of English literary history over five decades that deserves a wide readership among both fans and scholars of popular genre fiction.

When one is a writer who writes about writers, one lives for finding caches of personal papers by one's subjects.  Very late in the day when writing Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I gained access to a rich correspondence exchanged between Alfred Walter Stewart (J. J. Connington) and Rupert Thomas Gould.  When writing Clues and Corpses, I gained access to Todd Downing family letters, located and transcribed by Charles Rzepka, from which I was able to extract considerable interesting information.

Julia Jones
Julia Jones was close to Margery Allingham's younger sister, Joyce, and inherited from her at her death in 2003 sixteen boxes of material from her father, Herbert Allingham, from which Jones was able to identity ninety-eight full-length picture paper serials "published at least 299 times in various formats."  Writes Jones: "Over many years Allingham's words touched very many lives, however fleetingly."

Yet literary history has tended to be a "trickle-down" discipline.  From the period between WW1 and WW2 scholars used to restrict themselves to studying highbrow authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  Nowadays we deign to look even at "middlebrow" (or perhaps no brow) crime fiction, although even here, ironically, we see a hierarchy, even a canon.

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, American hard-boiled authors, are honored as higher literary writers who have produced serious crime fiction, works that transcend the genre, to use that threadbare phrase.  The Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (sometimes Josephine Tey), key figures in the novel of manners English school of crime fiction, have their supporters as well, despite some carping from the hard-boiled admirers traditionally, who dismiss the ladies as classist and conservative.

Agatha Christie gets attention as well, largely because of her great sales (though often she is concomitantly disparaged as an author of "mere puzzles" of no literary distinction).

No respect?
Edgar Wallace
Yet the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, for example, who in the 1920s and 1930s racked up many more actual book sales than even Agatha Christie (who like most true detective fiction writers sold more to rental libraries in those days), is practically a non-person even in most mystery genre histories.

In his day Wallace often was dismissed, with unabashed class condescension, as a writer of cheap thrills who appealed only to clerks, mechanics, shopgirls and house servants.  It was ratiocinative detective fiction, even before the literary movement within the mystery genre took form, that was hailed as more respectable, because it appealed to the "educated classes."

Now, let's turn to Herbert Allingham. Critics who see Cecil John Charles Street, one of my Masters, who wrote over 140 mystery novels, and Edgar Wallace, author of scores of thrillers, as beneath notice, surely haven't a glance to spare at an anonymously published penny paper serialist. Surely this is the definition of literally "disposable" literature.

Fortunately there was Margery and Joyce Allingham, who preserved their father's fantastic trove of serial literature, which spanned a variety of picture papers over many decades, and there is Julia Jones, who has now produced a book from it.

As Julia Jones notes, "the vast majority of working-class readers in the Great Age of Print (and working class readers were the cast majority)" who made up Herbert Allingham's readership "read newspapers and disposable serial fiction....[Allingham's] archive offers us an insider's view of a truly popular art form."

I think this is a very fair point.  Learning more about Herbert Allingham's body of work will tell us more about his very wide readership and thus more about English society at that time.

George Orwell
wrote about boys' weeklies
With Allingham, Jones counters some previous writers who have looked at mass literary culture: Marxist critics Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer as well as George Orwell, who in his 1940 essay Boys' Weeklies, writes Jones, "presented writing for the mass-market as cultural brainwashing for the masses."  Turning to Allingham's work, Jones asks: "Was he part of a capitalist conspiracy to keep the common people quiet whilst the elite manipulated the situation to their own advantage?"

Jones makes a good case that the serials Allingham produced were more nuanced than critics have credited the form with being and that Allingham's readers were not mere cultural automatons, zombies of that old voodoo capitalism, but rather retained "their right to individual discussion and response."

Jones recognizes that today we must work hard to try to reach the imaginative world of the working-class reader of eighty, ninety, a hundred years ago.

"Not only are we reading at the wrong speed and in the wrong place to re-capture the original readers' enjoyment," she pointedly writes. "But we are also living the wrong lives."

She incorporates primary material about working class readers that shows a more assertive readership than leftist detractors believed existed.

Jones also goes into great detail about the serials themselves.  This is the heart of the book, and it beats strongly.  Allingham wrote a bewildering number of serials: school stories (Barrington's Fag), romance stories (Life for Love), adventure/thriller stories (A Devil of  a Woman). As "Mab," he even wrote a women's gossip column.  Allingham's mastery of this material, which must have seemed overwhelming at first--and second and maybe third--blush, is impressive.

There is so much material that one cannot of course detail it all, but let me pluck out the tale of Plucky Polly Perkins (subtitled "a story of Pathos, Fun, and Adventure, with a bit of Love-making Thrown In"), "one of Allingham's most popular creations...reprinted at least five times during his life."

"Polly and her brother and sister are the children of artistic, middle-class parents," writes Jones, but when the story begins "the children have been orphaned and face destitution."  Polly invests their modest legacies in a sweet shop and from there continuously--and pluckily--defeats the obnoxious authority figures who get in her way.  Polly is decidedly "left-of-centre," writes Jones.  "She routs a Major General  slaps a policeman who harasses her for a kiss and, when the workpeople go out on strike, she proves equally able to stand up to a bullying mill-owner or an incensed lynch mob."

Herbert Allngham
Fabian idealist and author of
at least 98 full-length serials in
at least 58 different periodicals
Herbert Allingham--"a left-wing idealist,  a Fabian, with a genuine, if slightly self-conscious, admiration for 'the common people'"--wrote sympathetically about real social problems that afflicted everyday folk: "sweated labor, slum housing, police stitch-ups, adulterated food, poverty in old age."

Jones notes that typically in his serials social problems are displaced on the middle class or even the gentry; in that way working class readers could identify with the problems in the stories without having them hit too directly. As she puts it, when discussing Allingham's serial She Sinned for Her Children/For the Love of Her Bairns: "In Allingham's story suffering and struggle are transposed into the idiom of another class....Strong emotional involvement is possible but so too is escapism."

A perennial theme, which strongly resonated with working class readers, is the loss of home and children due to the machinations of unscrupulous connivers (see for example, Driven from Home and Mother Love). "The individual incidents and monstrous villains in Allingham's fiction might qualify then to be described as 'sensational shockers' but what is truly shocking," notes Jones incisively, "is the accuracy with which Allingham's serials depict a world where everything conspires against the attainment of this simple human dream of a home."

Working class characters, like Babs, the "gallant little cockney girl" in Human Nature, are treated sympathetically as resourceful and admirable types who "can cope in situations where the more refined hero or heroine is at a loss."  Scornful satire is reserved for the rich and privileged: "Certain professions are beyond the pale. Millionaire financiers are rarely to be trusted; lawyers are viewed with suspicion; prison warders and policemen are presented with unremitting dislike."

For those--and there should be many--interested in Margery Allingham, she definitely makes memorable appearances in the narrative. The book is chronologically ordered around Herbert Allingham's working life, but Jones brings personal details into into the narrative. There is some interesting detail as well about Margery's brother Philip, who published his own book, Cheapjack, highly praised and then forgotten, which Jones' publishing house Golden Duck has reprinted.  I found the passages on Herbert Allingham's sudden decline and death, after a lifetime of such prolific scribbling, quite moving.

Additionally, Fiction Factory is a quite attractively designed book, with illustrations from the serials themselves, very appropriately illustrating chapter themes.  This is a tremendously enjoyable and informative book that both Margery Allingham fans and those interested in English literary history should find makes quite rewarding reading.

Some additional reviews of this fine book herehereherehere.  For more on Jones' 2006 thesis version of the book, Family Fictions, see here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fatality in Fleet Street (1933), by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Christopher St. John Sprigg
Christopher St. John Sprigg (1907-1937) died before his thirtieth birthday, killed fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Between 1935 and 1937 Sprigg rapidly developed into one of the foremost English exponents of Marxist critical theory.  Whether he would have kept producing detective novels had he survived the Spanish Civil war is highly doubtful to me (after his Marxist conversion he referred to his detective fiction as "trash").  However, while he lived he produced seven mystery novels (the last published posthumously).  These are:

Crime in Kensington (1933, reprinted in the United States as Pass the Body) (Charles Venables)
Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) (Charles Venables)
The Perfect Alibi (1934, reprinted in the U. S.) (Charles Venables)
Death of an Airman (1934, reprinted in the U. S.)
Death of a Queen (1935) (Charles Venables)
The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935, reprinted in the U. S.)
The Six Queer Things (1937, reprinted in the U. S.)

Sprigg also published a psychological crime novel, This My Hand, in 1936, under the name he used for his Marxist criticism, Christopher Caudwell.

Copies of Sprigg's detective fiction have always been rare since I started following his fictional work; the last few years it seems to have completely vanished.  This is a shame, because Sprigg produced an interesting, if small, body of crime fiction.

Fortunately, Oleander Press has reprinted Sprigg's Fatality in Fleet Street as part of its "London Bound" series (paperback and eBook).  I hope someday caution can be thrown to the wind and all of Sprigg's crime fiction reprinted!

Fatality in Fleet Street is the second of four Sprigg mysteries with Charles Venables as amateur sleuth.  Sprigg clearly modeled Venables after Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  With his monocle and his facile wit, Venables immediately reminds one of Lord Peter, though Venables is without both a title and a Bunter--both handy things to have in life!

In Crime in Kensington, Venables, a society page reporter, solves a murder at a bizarre London guest house.  There is a certain love interest for Venables in the novel, though we learn in Fatality that he and Lady Viola broke up a month earlier over a bad bridge bid. Charles finds a new love interest in Fatality in the form of Miranda Jameson, the woman's page editor.  Charles, incidentally, is now the crime reporter for the Mercury, on the strength of his having cracked the aforementioned crime in Kensington.

In Fatality in Fleet Street, Charles' own boss, Lord Carpenter, Governing Director of Affiliated Publications (36, 563, 271 readers), is stabbed to death in his office, just as he is preparing to launch a press propaganda campaign that will drive Britain into a war with the Soviet Union.

Quite a lot of the book is devoted to clearing away matters concerning Communist cells and British politicians, before police Detective Inspector Manciple makes an arrest (actually his second one, but this one sticks).  The rest of the novel concerns the trial of the arrested person, with Charles trying to find the evidence that will secure a case against the individual he believes actually to be guilty.

Fatality in Fleet Street has a broader canvas than both Crime in Kensington and The Perfect Alibi, the two other Venables detective novels I have read (I have never read Death of a Queen, a mystery set in a fictional Balkan kingdom, alluded to in The Perfect Alibi), but I think I preferred the guest house and village settings of Kensington and Alibi. In Fatality I wasn't as interested in the mild press and political satire and the trial (influenced by Sayers' Clouds of Witness, perhaps?).

Still there is characteristic Sprigg wit here.  I especially liked Venables' interview with a mysteries-avid landlady:

"Give me blood," said Mrs. Tremlow, buttering a thick slice of bread.  "Give me action; and give me love.  Say what you like, none of them ever comes up to Edgar Wallace, not for real thrillers."

Sprigg manages what I think is an original twist in the mystery plot, though the reader is never made privy to a key clue.

There are twelve press suspects, as well as Communist cell members and British politicians (including even the prime minister), but only six or seven of the press characters make an impression.  There is a native Chinese correspondent who speaks in cryptic Eastern proverbs, but he does this ironically.  Miranda Jameson, Lord Carpenter's wife and a certain designing clerical worker are women characters whom Sprigg portrays well, better than most of the men, in fact.

The events in Fatality in Fleet Street are moved up five years from the then present day to 1938 (not, I believe, 1937, as is stated on the back of the book).  I had assumed Crime in Kensington takes place in 1933, or are we to understand now that Crime in Kensington takes place in 1938 too, since several times people refer to events in that earlier novel as if they have taken place quite recently?

I found this all a little odd, but I assume that Sprigg felt the events concerning the Soviet Union would be more realistic in 1938.  Sprigg tells us that Russia's "Twelve Year Plan" has been a great economic success and that "Stalin and his like had given place to rulers gentler in political methods." Didn't quite work out that way in real life!  Sprigg himself was soon to become a defender of Stalin's political methods, which tragically did not become gentler.

Certainly if you like classic English mysteries you should give Fatality in Fleet Street a look.  I hope the other Charles Venables mysteries (along with Sprigg's non-series criminous works) will be reprinted as well.  Sprigg's first six detective novels are of interest as Sayers-influenced mysteries (and Dorothy L. Sayers herself lavished great praise on two of Sprigg's books).  The last novel, an expose of spiritualism, is quite a bit grimmer, reflecting, I think, Sprigg's post-conversion mindset. It was posthumously published, after Sprigg's untimely death in Spain, at the age of twenty-nine.

See also this post, on Sprigg's "lost" short stories.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fatality in Fleet Street (1933), Christopher St. John Sprigg

Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) the second detective novel by Christopher St. John Sprigg, has been reprinted by Oleander Press.  It was one of two Sprigg mystery titles not published in the United States back in the 1930s and is quite rare today.  I hope to have the whole review up later tomorrow, so check it out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Death and A Life: Elmore Leonard and Gertrude Robins

Readers of this blog will know by now that crime writer Elmore Leonard died yesterday at the age of 87.

The last several months I have been corresponding about the Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing (of Clues and Corpses "fame") with Professor Charles Rzepka of Boston University, whose newest book, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard is now available on Kindle (the hard cover edition will be out in a few weeks).  Professor Rzepka's eulogy to Elmore Leonard can be found here.

Of course we know this blog tilts heavily toward classic mystery fiction of the period from 1920 to 1960, but the Passing Tramp is an inclusive fellow and I will be reviewing Being Cool, I hope, next month, as well as interviewing Professor Rzepka about his work on the crime and mystery genre. He is also the author of the survey Detective Fiction (2005).

Now in a shift to a much different sort of crime writer: herewith some more background on the author known as Mrs. Baillie Reynolds.  I'm finding her rather a fascinating person.

Her full name is Gertrude Minnie Robins and she was born in 1860 and died in 1939.  This makes her one of the older crime writers active during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, alongside Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Fergus Hume (1859-1932), J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935) and Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960).  She outlived all the men, with the exception of the seemingly imperishable Eden Phillpotts.

George Henry Robins
Gertrude Robins' grandfather was George Henry Robins (1778-1847), the celebrated English auctioneer, mentioned in writing by Lord Byron, Dickens and Thackeray.

Robins' most famous actuation took place in 1842, when he sold off the contents of Horace Walpole's famous Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill.  When he died in 1847 he left a will of some fifty pages, leaving personal property that would be valued today at over ten million U. S. dollars.

George Robins hoped that one of his sons would follow his trade, but none did (they were all now "gentlemen"). There were two clergyman, including the Chaplain to Queen Victoria at Windsor, and two lawyers, including Gertrude's father, Julian Robins.

Gertrude Robins was educated at South Hampstead High School, which had been founded 1876. More recent distinguished alumni of this school include Angela Lansbury and Helena Bonham Carter.

Robins published her first novel in 1886, when she was 26,under the name G. M. Robins.

South Hampstead High School
Entitled Keep My Secret, the book was a three-decker Victorian sensation novel detailing blackmail and murder plots against the heroine by her wicked uncle; and it was reviewed in the Pall Mall Gazette by no less than Oscar Wilde, in characteristic fashion:

The novel at the end gets too melodramatic in character and the plot becomes a chaos of incoherent incidents, but the writing is clever and bright.  It is just the book, in fact, for a summer holiday, as it is never dull and it makes no demands at all upon the intellect.

Another reviewer (this time anonymous) pronounced that "Keep My rather a good book....there are sliding panels, abductions, and all the rest of it, in quite Radcliffian profusion."

Oscar Wilde thought Keep My Secret
excellent summer holiday reading fare
because the book was "never dull" and it
made "no demands at all upon the intellect."
Crime novels get no respect!
Over the next decade, Robins published six multi-volume novels (seventeen volumes in all!). In 1890 she married stockbroker Louis Baillie Reynolds and had three sons: Eustace (1893-1948), Paul Kenneth (1896-1973) and Donald Hugh (1900-1991).* However, Robins kept writing under her original name at least until 1895.

A 1904 novel by Robins was published under the name Mrs. Baillie Reynolds; between that year and her death in 1939, she published under the Mrs. Baillie Reynolds name over thirty novels and short story collections.

Many of these novels, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, incorporated criminous and sometimes supernatural elements.

You'll be seeing more here in months to come about Gertrude Minnie Robins aka Mrs. Baillie Reynolds, a Victorian sensation novelist who lived to become, during the Golden Age of detective fiction, a mainstay of American publisher Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club.

*(Gertrude Robins' son Donald was a civil engineer and her son Paul was a classical scholar and archaeologist who during World War 2 was involved with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program--the so-called "Monuments Men"--which set out to retrieve cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Castle to Let: The Intrusive Tourist (1935), by Mrs. Baillie Reynolds

Gertrude Mary Robins (c. 1854?-1939)--or to use the Victorian-style matronly name under which she wrote, Mrs. Baillie Reynolds--is, like another Golden Age mystery writer with a similar married-name moniker, Mrs. Victor Rickard (Jessica Louise Moore, 1876--1963), an almost entirely forgotten writer, though she once appears to have enjoyed a certain popularity, being published on both sides of the Atlantic over several decades.  Her birth date is not even certain (another source gives 1875, but then states she was married in 1890, which seems unlikely if she was born in 1875).

Gertrude Robins was the daughter of Julian Robins, a barrister.  Another Robins uncle was a solicitor, an aunt married a vicar (a Reverend Joy; one assumes it was a happy marriage) and two final uncles were clergymen, one the Rector of Eccleston, Cheshire and the other Arthur George Henry Robins, Chaplain to Queen Victoria at Windsor from 1878-1882.

Robins was educated at the South Hampstead High School for Girls.  After her marriage to Louis Baillie Reynolds, she had three sons.  Her first novel, Keep My Secret, was published in 1885, under the name Gertrude Robins, five years before her marriage to Mr. Reynolds.  She once served as President of the Society of Women Journalists and was a suffragist and cyclist.  Here is a link to her National Portrait Gallery photograph, from around 1916.

I'm not sure how many novels with criminous content that Gertude Robins wrote, but her novels were published in the 1930s by Hodder & Stoughton (Britain) and the Doubleday, Doran Crime Club (United States), indicating definite criminous content!

Gertrude Robins' The Intrusive Tourist (1935) essentially is a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer novel with mystery elements.  We have a handsome hero and a lovely heroine who spend most of the novel bickering, but we just know they will get together at the end.

It's very charmingly done, but surely also of appeal to the mystery fan is the mystery element in the plot. A mysterious American, Gerard Athred, has turned up in England, evincing interest in an ancient English estate, Malyon Castle, owned by Sir Rodney May, brother of the lovely, young Valnora May.

It seems that long ago there was a dastardly murder among the local gentry and that murder has implications for the present-day characters.  There's quite an exciting climax, involving the castle's proverbial "haunted room."

I quite enjoyed this novel, though it's really more a romance story with mystery elements, rather than a detective novel.  But it's appealingly written (there's a floor plan--important to the tale--as well as Americans who don't constantly speak in American slang) and it makes me want to seek out more of the author's works.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Intrusive Tourist (1935), by Mrs. Baillie Reynolds

Who was Mrs. Baillie Reynolds?  Find out on Saturday, when I review her rather fine mystery novel, The Intrusive Tourist (1935).  It is very well-written, with some of the richness of Georgette Heyer's historical romances as well as Victorian sensation tales (though at the time it was published it was a contemporary novel).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Old Crime Novels People Are Reading

Here are some goodreads rankings for some older mysteries, the latest published in 1966 (rounding ratings numbers):

still the queen of mystery fiction
published c. 1920 to c. 1990
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None 152,000 ratings
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles 71,000 ratings
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep 42,000 ratings
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon 35,000 ratings
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone 25,000 ratings
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley 16,000 ratings
Lilian Jackson Braun, The Cat Who Read Backwards 14,000 ratings
P. D. James, Cover Her Face 11,000 ratings (on the other hand, James' latest novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, gets 38,000)
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night 8000 ratings
Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, 7000 ratings
Ngaio Marsh, Death in a White Tie 3000 ratings
Ruth Rendell, From Doon with Death 2700 ratings
Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool 1700 ratings
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke 1300 ratings
John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins 600 ratings
Ellery Queen, The Roman Hat Mystery 600 ratings

criminal upstarts
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Any surprises here?  A Big Four of Christie, Doyle, Chandler and Hammett is probably not so shocking!  Wilkie Collins' Victorian-era classic comes in next.

Even with an acclaimed film adaptation, Highsmith's Ripley only beats out the grandmother of all cozy cat mysteries by a bit (and Jim Thompson comes far behind it).

Sayers, Marsh and Allingham come far behind Christie, just as Ross Macdonald comes far behind Chandler and Hammett.  The two modern Crime Queens, P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, come in far behind Christie (though James' newest novel, a Jane Austen mystery pastiche, is much higher).

Two male authors of classical detection, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, come in at the bottom of the list.

Of course they all get put in the shade, even dear Agatha, by modern bestsellers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (857,000 ratings).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Introducing Miss Hermione Packer, of Chicago: The Investigators (1902), by J. S. Fletcher

"Miss Packer," said he, "you're the cleverest, the most practical, and the most sensible young woman I've ever met.  I've a most tremendous admiration for you."

"Well, I guess that's natural," said Miss Packer.

Miss Packer investigates....
The British first edition
by John Long
As far as I can tell, The Investigators, published just over 100 years ago, was J. S. Fletcher's first real mystery novel (Fletcher would produce about eighty odd more over the next thirty-five years). The novel has real charm, mostly on account of the marvelous Hermione Packer, an irrepressible Chicago pork heiress (more on her below).  However, the plot is rather feeble, like the plots of the short stories in Fletcher's mystery collection The Adventures of Archer Dawe (Sleuth Hound) (1909), previously reviewed here. Fletcher got a good deal better at mystery plotting over time.

The Investigators takes place in Lincolnshire (adjacent to Fletcher's native Yorkshire), mostly at a sinister country house, The Bower, "a queer, rambling, old place" outside the village of Danesford, not too far from Grantham.

The beautiful and vivacious Agatha Burton--wouldn't it have been great if she had been named Agatha Christie?--has returned from schooling on the Continent to reside with her bachelor uncle and guardian, Dr. Henry Williams.  The other denizens of The Bower include a forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Hargreaves, and Dr. Williams' mysterious neurasthenic patient, Charles Ashley, who keeps to his own suite of rooms, never leaving the house.

Nearby, at Danesford Manor, resides the young, unmarried, genteel and handsome squire, Leonard Charlesworth.  If you think Leonard and Agatha might catch each other's eyes before you can say Jane Austen, well, you've probably read a book or two like this before.

Our last major characters are the investigators of the novel's title: Napthali Hopps and Hermione Packer.  As their names suggest, both are nouveaux riche.  Mr. Hopps inherited a fortune from his English railroad magnate father, while the tellingly-named Miss Packer is the heiress of a Chicago nabob who made his pile in pigs.  Here's where the fun starts, and a novel lifted out of the rut.

In the opening chapter, Hopps is presented as a Sherlock Holmes figure (Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles was appearing serially around the time of the writing of this novel). He's a confirmed bachelor (no woman would marry a man with his name, he says) and he makes brilliant deductions about people, we're told:

Dr. Williams menaces....
the 1930 American edition
by Edward J. Clode
"I've been diagnosing character for over a year now, and I flatter myself that my methods are really successful.  I had no end of fun coming back from Egypt....I've got a book somewhere, in which I wrote down all my impressions and conclusions as to the characters and peculiarities of my fellow-travellers. Some day I shall develop the thing into an exact science, and write a monograph on it."

When he and the Squire encounter Dr. Williams and Agatha Burton at the Danesford train station, Hopps is filled with foreboding, as he tells Leonard:

"At present I think that he [Dr. Williams] is diabolically cruel, that he has some awful secret on his mind, that he's the sort of man who would commit the most revolting murder without a pang of commiseration for his victim, and that altogether the young lady whom he is now driving home is much to be pitied."

And, you know, Hopps is right!  But disappointingly, unlike Sherlock Holmes, Hopps never substantiates his conclusions as anything more than intuition or premonition.  And soon he is taking orders from Agatha's best friend from school, Miss Hermione Packer, of Chicago, who has come to The Bower to enjoy an extended visit with her chum.  Miss Packer senses something rotten at The Bower and, like Hopps, her suspicions focus on Dr. Williams.  The pair resolve on investigating further after an odd death takes place at The Bower.

Fletcher makes clear that it is the lady who will be taking charge:

"I've been thinking matters over," said Miss Packer, "since we last talked, and there's a thing or two I'd like to say.  Now, since we've gone into this business together, I guess we've both an equal right to consider ourselves bosses.  We're both managing partners.  But there's a notion strikes me.  It's just this--we've got to have a boss-in-chief.  And that boss-in-chief's got to be Me--just Me....You're clever, you've notions, you'll do very well, but you must play second fiddle.  I'm a woman; I can see through a wall where you can't see through a window; I'm twice as naturally 'cute as you, and I've got a bit of devilry in me that's wanting in you.  You and me, working together, can do wonders in this or any other case, but I must be the boss.  Is it a bargain?"

"I believe you're right," said Mr. Hopps, thoughtfully.  "Yes, it is a bargain.  I swear allegiance."

"Guess we shall do very well now," said Miss Packer, settling herself more comfortably in her chair, "and I'll give you our instructions right off.  First, you're never to do anything without my orders, you're to take my advice on whatever matter puzzles you, and you're to act on my instructions even if I don't choose to tell you why I issue them."

"I'm agreeable," said Mr. Hopps.  "I believe you're fully up to bossing the whole show."

Hermione Packer had sisters
 in crime detection
And, you know, Hopps is right!  Disappointingly, the investigation the two conduct goes along "elementary" lines, but Hermione Packer is a fun character, quite worth noting, I think.  It's a disappointment to me that she apparently never returned to "man" another Fletcher tale.

In The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (2011), Michael Sims has lamented "how few of the great women detectives and criminals of the Victorian and Edwardian eras are remembered today" (Lucy Sussex has written about this too).  I don't really believe Hermione Packer is a "great" detective, but had it not been for her determined investigations at The Bower the machinations of a fiend would have gone unchecked; so here's to you Miss Packer!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mystery Anglophilia: A Case Study from Allentown, Pennsylvania

"Mother's Anglophilia also led her to abhor and reject any writer of detective novels who would dare to situate their mysteries in the United States of America.  Even the well-known John Dickson Carr was rejected by Mother in favor of authors who were the real article: born, reared and published entirely in the Old Country.  As a Carr biography that I gave Mother revealed [heads up Doug Greene!--The Passing Tramp], though American born he lived out much of his life in England and based most of his novels in Agatha Christie country.  Not good enough for Mother.  In her late-in-life reading, she now enjoyed most of all those cloying "country house" murders--pioneered with considerable success by Christie in the 1920s--which declined into self-parody by the middle of the 20th century, though new ones continue to be published right up to our own time.

Only a few examples survive today from the post-postmortem distribution of her book collection.  One fine exemplar of the type of English mysteries she collected is an old copy (a rare hardback member of her largely paperback collection) of Anthony Berkeley's The Silk Stocking Murders....Other survivors of this obsessive phase of Mother's mystery collection are two works by J. S. Fletcher: The Time-Worn Tower [sic; it is Town] and The Yorkshire Moorland Murder....From the once vast collection also a work by the prolific Francis Beeding, followed by Paul and Mabel Thorne's The Sheridan Road Mystery and Milton M. Popper's The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young.  Unusually for my Mother's collection, the latter volume is an American novel, with the action situated in Philadelphia, but I quickly find the explanation for this odd exception to her rigid rule.  The book had been given to my Aunt Tinsie on February 24, 1936, just over a year before her death."

This is an except from Robert Sidney Pace's Finding My Father: The Lifelong Quest by an Iwo Jima's Marine's Son to Know the Man Who Was His Father (2009), available on Amazon.

Do you know anyone like Mr. Pace's mother?  Are you like Mrs. Pace's mother?  I believe she was born in 1919, lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania and started on her Anglophile British mystery book binge in the 1990s.

Mr. Pace's (Great) Aunt Sarah Matilda "Tinsie" Sweitzer (1877-1937) was, interestingly, the Assistant Treasurer of the Pennsylvania Power & Light Company in Allentown.  Milton Propper, about whom I have blogged, set his detective novels in Philadelphia.

Can murder in Jazz Age Chicago be cozy?
Anthony Berkeley [Cox] was one of the better known British mystery writers in the Golden Age. Crime writer Martin Edwards has contributed an essay about ABC for the collection of essays written in honor of Doug Greene that I am editing.

Oddly enough, I have read both those J. S. Fletcher murder mysteries!  I didn't find either of them cloying, nor were they country house mysteries.

I had never heard of Paul and Mabel Thorne, however, let alone read them.  The Sheridan Road Mystery was first published by Dodd, Mead in 1921. You can get it for FREE on Kindle, it seems, or in a pb edition from a micro-publisher, Resurrected Press.  It is set in Chicago--maybe another of Aunt Tinsie's?

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Adventures of Archer Dawe (Sleuth Hound) (1909), by J. S. Fletcher

There suddenly emerged into the bright June sunshine one of the oddest figures which the occupant of the pony-chaise had ever seen--a little man habited in black clothes, of which the most conspicuous article was a frock-coat in the style of forty years ago; whose tall, equally old-fashioned top hat, narrow at the crown, wide at the brim, was worn pushed back upon his head; who carried a gamp-like umbrella over his shoulder; whose trousers were too short to conceal the fact that wore hand-knitted stockings, the colour of which was neither grey nor white.

J. S. Fletcher's slim short story collection The Adventures of Archer Dawe (Sleuth Hound) is listed in Ellery Queen's Queen's Quorum as one of the most notable mystery short story collections.

Chronologically, it's #43, following, among other collections from the first decade of the twentieth century,  Maurice Leblanc's The Adventures of Arsene Lupin (1907), Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine (1907), Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner (1909) and R. Austin Freeman's John Thorndyke's Cases (1909).

A nice (and cheap!) edition of Archer Dawe is available for Kindle from Prologue Books on Amazon and, having purchased it, I finally got around to reading it, since I have been editing a J. S. Fletcher essay for The Mystery Genre Unlocked: Essays in Detective Fiction in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (forthcoming in 2014).  Although I am something of a J. S. Fletcher fan, I have to concede that Archer Dawe is no rival to Arsene Lupin, Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, The Man in the Corner or Dr. John Thorndyke.

The Lighthouse on Shivering Sands

Fletcher wrote some effective short stories (surely he was bound to, out of an estimated six to seven hundred), such as "The Lighthouse on Shivering Sands," which was recently staged in England), yet the Archer Dawe tales do not really play to Fletcher's strengths as a writer.  The mysteries are too slight to have interest as puzzles (and they typically are not really fair play anyway), and Fletcher does not have room to develop the characters and local color in an interesting way.

I did like that the stories were set in different parts of Yorkshire and that we get glimmers of the classic Fletcher with some of the characters (Yorkshire working men, old sailors, clerics, squires and antiquarians), but overall I definitely prefer the novels, which were have a certain resemblance to what people today often call the British "cozy."

Retired from the management of a cotton mill, Archer Dawe now occupies his time in amateur sleuthing around Yorkshire.   In "The Mystery at Merrill's Mill" Archer Dawe's former employer calls on him when human bones are discovered at the mill.  Archer Dawe cracks the case, but the reader certainly won't be able to, since the reader is not given a fair chance to do so.

In "An Innocent 'Receiver'" Dawe comes to the aid of a dealer in "old books and revered antiquities" in the city of Halifax.  In "The Shy Young Man's Chocolates," Dawe has to locate a chocolate box--with a diamond engagement ring inside it.  While engaging, this tale is so slight that it barely even qualifies as a detective story, I would say.  "The Man Who Stole His Own Money" is self explanatory.  The only puzzle is the location of the money, and that is not that much of a puzzle.

"A Mere Matter of Inadvertence" deals with forgery and has rather an interesting portrayal of masterful woman shopkeeper and her feckless, dependent husband.  "The Sea-Captain's Snuff-Box" makes use of the Moonstone plot (gem stolen from the East) and is moderately entertaining. "The Contents of a Coffin," dealing with more theft, is long, but not profitably so.  Better is the village and country house mystery "The Stolen Chalice and Cross" but it's mild stuff still.

Overall, I would prefer reading John Thorndyke's exploits over those of Archer Dawe any day. Yet I do want to make the case that J. S. Fletcher has definite merit as a mystery writer, so I hope to be writing here soon about a couple of his once very popular crime novels.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Say, I Reckon They Must be American....Dialect Speech in Golden Age Mystery

One finds quite a lot of dialect speech and
foreign accents in this Fletcher mystery
In a generally favorable notice of J. S. Fletcher's mystery The Orange Yellow Diamond (1920), an American reviewer was moved to comment about how unconvincing he found portrayals of American speech in British crime novels:

[The Orange-Yellow Diamond] has a leisurely movement that is distinctly pleasing to the reader, without really retarding the novel's action, and one never loses the sense--that in so many detective stories one never gains--that this is really a story about human beings.  At the same time, the American reader may be expected to express a certain weary irritation with the character who is presented as being "a New York man," who in the course of one short speech gives vent to "I guess," "Say," "I reckon," and "I've knocked around pretty considerable."

I can sympathize.  Golden Age British mystery writers often had a regrettable fondness for "colorful" dialect speech, and too rarely were they very good at it (Dorothy L. Sayers, on the other hand, may do too good a job with her Scots speech in The Five Red Herrings--readers have been known to complain that they can't understand anything the characters in this novel say!).

The stage Cockney spoken by so many working class characters in Golden Age detective novels had been mocked by critics of the period like Colin Watson, but the American speech in these books--which surely is every bit as dreadful--doesn't seem to get as much derisory notice.  I can't think why!

One sees this sort of thing not merely with J. S. Fletcher, who though he was probably the most popular English mystery writer in the United States in the 1920s never actually visited the country, but even Agatha Christie, who had an American father and ought to have known better.

Another thing authors like Fletcher, Christie and Freeman Wills Crofts like to do when they portray Americans, besides having them use (and use) the expressions quoted above, is give them these dreadful, cumbersome names like Carthage T. Cudcruncher.  Usually such an individual is a voluble, self-made millionaire from Chicago or some obscure spot on the Great Plains, like, say (say!), Prairie Oyster, Kansas.

But I suspect these writers probably really did know better, and were just adhering to a standard convention of the time.  In truth, American writers typically didn't cover themselves in glory with the way they portrayed speech by, say (say!), African-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Italian-Americans; so I reckon maybe Americans who warn't bothered by that didn't have too much right to complain about how the British did dialect speech.  I guess thar was room for considerable improvement all round!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Buy American! Were British Mysteries "Unfair Competition"?




These were the tongue in cheek headlines in a newspaper of the British Empire, when it was reported in 1929 that a Californian had written one of his senators, Hiram Johnson, complaining that "there are some half-million or more writers[in the United States] starving to death because they cannot sell the products of their pens....They have absolutely no protection against the unfair competition of foreign writers."  It was reported that this individual "is particularly the popularity of made-in England thrillers."

California senator Hiram Johnson was begged to put a stop to "unfair" British crime tales

At this time English crime writers like J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935), E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) and Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) were quite popular in the United States as well as Britain (Fletcher was, I think, more popular in the United States than he was in Britain).  And this is not to mention the young up-and-comers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers!

Shocker!  Was Edgar Wallace
plotting to destroy American crime fiction?!
Of course, the United States had S. S. Van Dine, who published his bestselling The Bishop Murder Case in 1929, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Earl Derr Biggers; and writers like Ellery Queen, Dashiell Hammett, Rufus King and Mignon Eberhart would rise fast.

So it's not exactly like there was no homegrown stuff to consume!

Nevertheless, our agitated California friend called for the imposition of a two cents per word duty "on all unpublished foreign fiction entering the United States." Down with baronets bludgeoned in the studies of their country houses!  Make my murders American!!

I personally find British mysteries quite enticing, but I like the Americans too. What about you?  Do you prefer British or American mysteries?  And why do you prefer what you prefer?  Pure aesthetics--or patriotic fervor?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"The Backstairs of the Mind" (1922), by Rosamond Langbridge

Patrick Deasey described himself as a "philosopher, psychologist, and humorist."  It was partly because Patrick delighted in long words, and partly to excuse himself for being full of the sour cream of an inhuman curiosity....

In Rosamond Langbridge's "The Backstairs of the Mind," Patrick Deasey is--like many a character in the John Rhode and Miles Burton novels of Cecil John Charles Street--a retired policeman who--"with a pension and an heiress with three hundred pounds"--invests in a public house.  But he remains filled with that "sour cream of inhuman curiosity" and thus in his new avocation devotes himself to worming the most private and personal of confidences out of his patrons.  Not for purposes of blackmail, mind you, but just to know.

Eventually he finds that one of his confidants has a very dark secret indeed....

"The Backstairs of the Mind" originally appeared in the Manchester Guardian and was reprinted in The Best British Short Stories of 1922, along with tales by Stacey Aumonier, J. D. Beresford, A. E. Coppard, Walter de la Mare, John Galsworthy, Roland Pertwee, May Sinclair, G. B. Stern, Hugh Walpole and others. The volume was edited by Edward J. O'Brien and John Cournos (the latter man should be known to Dorothy L. Sayers fans).

Though she also was a poet and playwright, Rosamond Langbridge (1880-1964) was best known as a writer of novels set in her native Ireland.  Additionally, she was the wife of the English writer J. S. Fletcher (1863-1935), with whom she had a son.

Surely one of the world's most prolific authors, Fletcher published over 200 books, including nearly 100 crime novels and short story collections (his last novel, Todmanhawe Grange, reviewed here, was published posthumously after being completed by Edward Powys Mathers, 1892-1939, the English crime fiction critic and cryptic crossword creator known as "Torquemada").

Living with a man who wrote so many murder stories day in and day out must have worn off on Langbridge eventually!  However, "The Backstairs of the Mind" offers a different spin on the crime tale.  It's online-in fact the entire book in which it appeared is online--so you can read it and see what you think.