Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Emma Lou Fetta's Susan Yates trilogy and other Coachwhip Golden Age Mystery Reprints

Coachwhip's reprints of Emma Lou Fetta's Murder in Style (1939), Murder on the Face of It (1940) and Dressed to Kill (1941) are now available on Amazon and Amazon.co.uk, though the pictures are not up yet. 

You can see the covers here, however! Fetta's series sleuth Susan Yates is a New York City high fashion designer.  Her love interest happens to be assistant district attorney Lyle Curtis, but it is Susan who is the primary crime solver.

The books are charming and intricately plotted murder mysteries by a woman who was a syndicated fashion columnist and a co-founder of the Fashion Group.

There's a twelve-page introduction by me too, I might add.  Other Coachwhip mysteries for which I've written introductions are the nine Todd Downing mysteries (you should have seen a lot about Todd Downing here by now), 1933-1941, Kirke Mechem's The Strawstack Murder Case (original title, A Frame for Murder), 1936, Willoughby Sharp's Murder in Bermuda, 1933, and Murder of the Honest Broker, 1934, and Anita Blackmon's Murder a la Richelieu, 1937, and There Is No Return, 1938.  And oh! let's not forget my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013).  What an attractive set these books make on the shelf!

One of the thing that really pleases me with this series is it gives some sense of the regional spread of the American Golden Age detective novel.  We have sophisticated settings in New York (Fetta, Sharp), but also settings in Texas and Mexico (Downing), Kansas (Mechem), Bermuda (Sharp) and Arkansas (Blackmon). And look out some more authors over the course of the year!

For Coachwhip's J. J. Connington reptints, see this blog post from a couple years ago.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Worsleying Around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Four: The Final Fury

After Parts One, Two and Three of my look at Lucy Worsley's A Very British Murder, I take a last gaze with Part Four, which concerns Dr. Worsley's analysis of the "end" of Golden Age detective fiction.

As I discussed in Part Three of this piece, in Worsley's Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," Worsley, rehashing arguments made over four decades ago by Julian Symons and Colin Watson, emphasizes the social conservatism of the Golden Age detective novel. She refers sweepingly to "the less attractive aspects of these books: the stultifying, repetitive, hide-bound and reactionary world whose values were only reinforced by the solution of the crime."  She declares that mystery writers "so often seemed to set their work in cosy English villages like St. Mary Mead."*

*(yet Miss Marple and St. Mary Mead itself only appeared in one novel and a book of short stories between the two world wars and probably could not have been identified by most Golden Age readers in 1940)

Just how well known was this lady?

I have previously argued that such portrayals as Worsley's hugely simplify the complexity of the period (for example, like P. D. James before her, Worsley does not even discuss the important work of Franics Iles), and I will leave readers to look at my blog or (better yet!) my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012). There are also excellent, academically informed studies from the last twenty years or so that take more nuanced views than does Worsley (though none of these studies are cited by Worsley, they are referenced in Masters).

This invariably orderly, rigidly stratified, Edwardian world of Golden Age English detective fiction that Worsley, Watson, Symons and James posit was destroyed, according to Worsley, by World War Two and "the horrors of the atom bomb and Auschwitz."  It has always seemed a little inconsistent to me that the insanity of trench warfare and poison gas (World War One) created a desire for detective novels, while the madness of atomic warfare and death camps (World War Two) caused an aversion to detective novels, but this war-determinist view is one of long standing (see Julian Symons) and many people subscribe to it.

What replaced Golden Age detective fiction, ostensibly no longer tenable after World War Two?  In her short Chapter 24, "The Dangerous Edge of Things," Worsley references psychological crime fiction, mentioning Graham Greene, and what she calls "the American-led thriller movement," by which she means hard-boiled detective fiction (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are invoked).  She also throws in filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.  However, it's all quite cursory, crying out for more detailed treatment (what about the impact of Eric Ambler, Georges Simenon, Cornell WoolrichPatricia Highsmith, not to mention other names, and film noir?).

And I'm dubious about the whole end of Golden Age detective fiction stuff that Worsley touts. Concerning the decade of the 1940s, she writes at one point of "a final nail" being put "into the coffin of Mayhem Parva" and at another about how "the popularity of the detective story continued to wane."

Obviously at some point the Golden Age of detective fiction, defined as the period when so-called "fair play" detection was the dominant form in mystery genre fiction, ended, but both (1) puzzle-oriented detective fiction and (2) Golden Age "style" British detective fiction, with quaint villages and country houses (Worsley conflates Golden Age form and style) in fact lived on past the 1940s to make many more fictional murders.

Complete with a new title and a
country house illustration Lucy
Worsley's A Very British Murder
comes to America this fall
Indeed, Agatha Christie became the publishing powerhouse that she is today only after World War Two, with the onset of the great paperback revolution. Worsley acknowledges, as she must, the phenomenal perennial popularity of Christie, which does not sit well with this "final nail" business. If the appeal of Golden Age detective fiction is dead, why doesn't the Agatha Christie industry die? Far from dying, it seems more active than ever.

Post-WW2 paperback publishing was in fact a boon in general to more traditional Golden Age detective fiction authors (for example, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, John Dickson CarrEllery Queen, Rex Stout), just as it was to the tough guys who wrote about hard-boiled crime. For every person who ever bought a Mickey Spillane there have been more who bought an Agatha Christie.

Further, the so-called "cozy" mystery that Worsley associates with the Golden Age of detective fiction became a true identified sub-genre only after the Second World War; and it is a hugely popular one today. Much original Golden Age work is being reprinted and over the many decades since the 1940s a goodly number of modern authors have continued to write puzzle-oriented detective fiction and/or to write in the Golden Age British country house/quaint village style (including cases of outright pastiche; see, for example, Jill Paton Walsh's Lord Peter Wimsey books and the upcoming Sophie Hannah Hercule Poirot mystery). It seems to me that the reports over the years of the death of Golden Age detective fiction (both in form and style) have been exaggerated.

What most disappoints about A Very British Murder is that while the book may join P. D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) as the primary go-to source for readers eager to learn the history of the detective fiction genre--it will be published in the United States this fall--in the main it simply repeats old arguments from the books of Julian Symons and Colin Watson (the major difference is that Worsley, like James, holds Dorothy L. Sayers in much greater esteem than do Symons and Watson).

Like James' book--which, incidentally, I would recommend over Worsley's--Worsley's work constitutes a lost golden opportunity to say something new about the Golden Age. There has been a lot of original, stimulating thinking about the Golden Age of detective fiction since the publication over forty years ago of the landmark books of Symons and Watson, and it would have been wonderful to see a high-profile book like A Very British Murder include some of those insights.  Ah, well.  Better luck next murder book!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Ballad of Baggy and Schmidty; or, The George Bagby Novels of Aaron Marc Stein: Part One, The Corpse Wore a Wig (1940)

"Baggy," Schmidty murmured, "don't be a dope."

With his long-running series of George Bagby detective novels--51 were published between 1935 and 1983--American crime writer Aaron Marc Stein merged the Great Detective and police procedural formulas by introducing two series characters, George Bagby and Inspector Schmidt, friends who refer to each other as Baggy and Schmidty during the course of criminal investigations.

George Bagby, you see, is Inspector Schmidt's "ghost"--he follows Schmidt around New York as he collars criminals and then chronicles his hero's exploits in books (this device was soon adopted across the pond by Englishman Rupert Croft-Cooke in his Leo Bruce "Sergeant Beef" detective novels).

Bagby, then, is Watson to Schmidt's Sherlock Holmes, Van to Schmidt's Philo Vance--although Schmidt is a far cry from an eccentric consulting or amateur detective. He does have one eccentricity, emphasized in the early books at least: his feet flattened from beat patrols, he always takes his shoes off indoors, even when he's on a case.

Otherwise he's a gruff cop, not too distinguishable from other gruff New York cops that I can see, aside from the fact that he actually solves his own cases and does not have to rely on Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Drury Lane or Nero Wolfe to save his bacon. However, the early cases do not seem very procedural-ish in form, despite the trimmings.  On the whole we are in the world of the classic Golden age detective novel, American style.

Case in point: The Corpse with the Red Wig (1940).  A doctor, Jeremy Bullock, is found dead, with a wig covering the bullet hole in his head.  He was also dosed with chloral.  It soon emerges that Dr. Bullock may have been up to some shady doings. Other murders follow, a pair of poisonings by cyanide and again by chloral.  Additional establishments are implicated: those of a doctor across the street from Bullock, a wigmaker and a hairdresser.

This is a short novel, but even at about 60,000 words it felt rather like a padded short story. It probably would have made a superb short story, but is a bit lacking in narrative punch for a novel. Too often one hears the machinery click and the ending seemed rushed.  Still, there was enough of interest here to encourage me to look at additional Bagby titles.

There are some colorful and perceptive descriptions of modern doctors' offices and of tenements and some quirky characters.  I especially liked the cleaning lady Oleander, who is that rare thing in American Golden Age detective fiction, a black servant character who does not speak in overdrawn, southern plantation dialect.  Nor is Oleander servile or frightened, but to the contrary quite self-assertive and pugnacious.  I was wishing she would play a bigger role in the story.

Also interesting was the wigmaker Louis Davis, who, we learn, is an ex-con who used to play the female role in badger games.  As a seventeen-year-old he would dress as a young woman and entice men into hotel rooms, where his accomplices, masquerading as policemen, would burst in to find the couple in suggestive poses.  It would then be "discovered" that the mark was with "not the young woman he supposed her to be but an adolescent boy."  The mark would thereupon conclude that "the opportunity to pay imposing sums of hush money was heaven sent."

As this account indicates, the novel happily is rather more frank on sexual matters than many detective novels of the era.  I liked this exchange as well:

"So he gave me a mink coat," she howled.  "What's it to you?"
"What did you give him?"
"Use your imagination!"

My conclusion: The Corpse Wore a Wig was not outstanding but it was promising.  I hope to have a review of Bagby's earlier and much longer Ring around a Murder (1936) up by Sunday.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985), Modernist

As mentioned in my last blog piece, crime writer Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) graduated from Princeton in 1927 and published his first novels, Spirals and Her Body Speaks, penned under his own name, in 1930 and 1931; and his first George Bagby novel, Bachelor's Wife, in 1932.  All this by his mid-twenties!

Spirals and Her Body Speaks are modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels, Stein's great grab at the brass ring of great literature, while Bachelor's' Wife, described as "the story of Tommy, a modern girl about town, who thought she was hard-boiled until she tried to forget the man she loved," appears much more a mainstream effort.

the Grosset & Dunlap reprint edition of Bachelor's Wife, by "George A. Bagby"

All these of these books, as well as Stein's first three detective novels, which appeared between 1935 and 1937, were published by Covici-Friede, a New York City firm that had published Radclyffe Hall's controversial, landmark lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928.  The firm also published John Steinbeck and a small amount of mystery fiction, including the the early Anthony Abbot detective novels and Rudolph Fisher's pioneering African-American mystery, The Conjure Man Dies (1932).

Aaron Marc Stein as a Princeton student
Stein wrote hopefully about his literary prospects to Hugh L. Bell, Secretary of the Princeton Alumni Association:

I am now engaged in writing the second book [Her Body Speaks] in such time as I have to spare from the activities by which I earn my bread and an occasional bit of butter.  My hungry mouth is fed by the proceeds derived from the writing of an odd form of art criticism for the New York Evening Post.  I have been acting as editor and critic of the antique section of that daily for two years....I have been also writing occasional articles for magazines.

A bit of a dust-up followed the publication of Spirals, when it was attacked in the pages of the Princeton Alumni Weekly [PAW], by a pseudonymous reviewer, "Jenkins Gruffanuff" (see the works of William Makepeace Thackeray), who condemned the novel as obscene.

At least two Princeton alumni came to Stein's defense, writing letters of protest to PAW. Robert Rau demanded a retraction of the review, insisting that the failure to make one would "stand as an insult to every Princeton gentleman."  David McKelvy White expounded on the iniquity of Mr. Gruffanuff at even greater length.  The reviewer had launched a "diatribe" against Spirals, declaring the novel "lewd, lascivious, filthy and obscene," complained White, yet he, White, found himself

quite unable to guess what it was that caused the outburst...Jenkins gives us no hint, content with quoting, at considerable length, the Federal Statutes relating to "lewd literature."...I can only wonder what curious obsession in Jenkins' mind is thus hinted at....

According to his New York Times obituary, Robert Rau (1907-1994; Princeton '28) was "an import-export executive and a civic leader in Manhattan."  He also served on the board of directors of the United Jewish Appeal, a philanthropic organization.

David McKelvy White (1901-1945; Princeton '25), the son of a prominent Ohio Democratic politician, earned a graduate degree at Columbia University and taught English Literature at Brooklyn College between 1928 and 1937.

He was a member of the Communist Party and in 1937 went to Spain to fight for the Republican cause in the civil war there.  He apparently committed suicide in 1945, for reasons that, according to historian Matthew Young, "remain obscure, although explanations tend to find their source in his imminent expulsion from the CP.  David's openly gay lifestyle (having lived with a long-time partner during the 1920s and 1930s), combined with his close associations with recently denounced CP leader Earl Browder, made him a target."

I think this matter sheds some interesting light on Stein at this time. Stein was the son of a Dr. and Mrs. Max Stein who in 1930 lived at 799 Madison Avenue (now home to the fine French linen store Frette).

His older sister, Miriam Anne Stein (herself later an author of three mystery novels), graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1925.

Aaron Marc Stein (or "Rod" as he was known to friends) obviously came from a prominent Manhattan Jewish family and was ambitiously seeking to make his way into higher literary circles. The New York Evening Post once noted that when Stein first appeared to work at the paper he "was carrying a copy of Aristophanes' 'The Frogs' under his arm....his copy was in the original Greek."

What was it about Spirals that so vexed Jenkins Gruffanuff? I haven't yet read Spirals (I have ordered a copy; it is rather a rare book), but it is described in a review in The Sentinel, a Chicago Jewish newspaper, as a "narrative in brief, swift strokes" in the mind of  a student, Anthony Todd, of "outstanding incidents of four years in college life at Princeton" (The Sentinel, 25 April 1930, 47).

An interesting tidbit about the novel comes in a New York Evening Post article, "Womanless Book By Stein Published."  In the body of the article it is noted, tongue-in-cheek, that "Mr. Stein has been asked to write several magazine article to explain the absence of the fair sex from his novel. As soon as he evolves an interesting theory, he expects to respond to the requests for an explanation."

Did Jenkins Gruffanuff detect homosexuality in Spirals, a "womanless" college novel?  I do not know, but I am finding some suggestive elements in Stein's crime fiction.  Perhaps Stein was--like, in all likelihood in my view, Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge (Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler), Milton M. Propper, Rufus King and Todd Downing (all reviewed on this blog)--one of the notable 1930s gay American detective novelists, not acknowledged as such at the time.

In any event, Stein's second novel, Her Body Speaks, supplied the women Spirals lacked.  Another stream-of-consciousness novel, with a strong psychological element, Her Body Speaks tells the story of "Edith Kent, a sex-starved unmarried woman of thirty-three" who witnesses a murder.  The review of the novel in PAW (not by Jenkins Gruffanuff but by Franklin Gary '27) concluded that

Mr. Stein is more interested in psychology and technique than in telling a story or in creating characters.  His technique often suggests the techniques of well known  modern novelists, Joyce, Faulkner, Mrs. Woolf, even O'Neill.  But none of these writers is interested primarily in technique for its own sake....

What was a fiction writer more interested in technique than characters to do in the 1930s? Why, become a detective novelist, of course!  Next post, I will be writing in detail about (finally!) Aaron Marc Stein's George Bagby mystery fiction.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Corpse Wore a Wig (1940), by George Bagby

The American author Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) published over 100 crime novels between 1935 and 1984, making him one of the more prolific mystery genre writers, yet he seems not to get much mention since his death.

Close to half Stein's crime novels, written under the name "George Bagby," detail the investigations of Inspector Schmidt, who debuted in 1935 and made his final appearance in 1983. The Inspector Schmidt series offers an interesting combination of police procedural and "Great Detective" traditions, at least from what I have seen of the earlier novels.

The seventh George Bagby crime novel, The Corpse Wore a Wig, was published in 1940.  The particular copy I read (see illustrations) was inscribed by Stein to John Ball (1911-1988), author of In the Heat of the Night (1965).

Stein graduated from Princeton in 1927, got a job as the "antiques and decorations" editor for the New York Evening Post and a few years later published two modernist, stream-of-consciousness novels, Spirals (1930) and Her Body Speaks (1931), as well as the first George Bagby title, Bachelor's Wife (1932). He then shifted to crime writing with his first George Bagby mystery, Murder at the Piano (1935).  I haven't read that book, but I am reading, and enjoying, Wig.  I will have to full review up this weekend.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Country Houses

One of the things I enjoy about Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels, which now cover a half-century of English history, from 1964 to 2013, is the depiction of social change.

In Rendell's Simisola (1994), the novel's ambitious grocery store chain millionaire couple, Wael and Anouk Khoori, bought a Kingsmarkham country estate, Mynford Old Hall, which they promptly demolished and replaced with another structure, because the older house had the misfortune of being a nineteenth-century Victorian mansion. Wrong style--as any reader of Golden age detective fiction will know!

Mynford New Hall is what Rendell calls a "mock-Georgian" mansion, done in the best Jane Austen taste. But it's just not the true article, outside or inside.

During the course of their murder investigation in Simisola, Wexford and Mike Burden call on the house and interview the Khoori's two Filipina servants, Juana and Rosenda:

There seemed no need to penetrate farther into the house.  The hall was a vast chamber, pillared, arched, alcoved, the walls paneled and with recessed columns, very much the kind of room guests must have been welcomed into at a Pemberley or a Northanger Abbey.  Only this was new, all new, barely furnished.  And even in the early nineteenth century, even in winter, no great house would have been as cold inside as this one.

It is interesting to see how the classical country house still serves as such a potent symbol in the English mystery novel, so many years after the end of the Golden Age of detective fiction, a literary period with which the country house has been so strongly associated.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Murdermarch? Simisola (1994), by Ruth Rendell

The American hardcover edition of Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford detective novel Simisola (1994) carries a blurb from Publishers Weekly that describes the novel as "at times like a contemporary Middlemarch with a murder mystery at the heart of it."

There is no doubt that with Simisola Ruth Rendell was aiming, like P. D. James in her Inspector Dalgleish novel, Original Sin, which appeared the same year,  at what she would see as a higher thing than a "mere puzzle" about a murder and its solution, a novel of realism about social ills afflicting modern England.

I would say Simisola is a considerable success. Beyond doubt, it is a great improvement on a previous Wexford "social problem" novel, An Unkindness of Ravens (1985).  If Ravens is much inferior to P. D. James' contemporaneous A Taste for Death (1986), I would say that Simisola is superior to James' Original Sin.

It is difficult to fully evaluate Simisola as a social problem novel because of a practical problem inherent in all mystery reviews, that of the imperative of avoiding "spoilers."  So I will try to be as circumspect as I can in my discussion (warning to anyone who picks up the American edition: it reveals too much on the jacket about the plot, in my opinion).

It is true that Simisola is Rendell's premier racism novel, yet I would argue that class issues--particularly the exploitation of the poor by the rich--ultimately are the strongest concern here (race and class do intersect, of course, and gender issues also are addressed, although more cursorily).

Since the 1990s Rendell, though herself politically to the left, has in her Wexford novels continually decried what her surrogate Wexford deems "political correctness," to the extent of creating a character evidently deemed by many the most irritating person in the Wexford canon, the excruciatingly and arguably impossibly politically correct Hannah Goldsmith.

Although Rendell continually raps racism and misogyny in her books, she has also made clear that she does not believe "political correctness" should exempt from criticism misdeeds by women and members of minority groups.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this attitude can be found in the interesting but ill-fitting Not in the Flesh (2007) sub-plot about female circumcision, a subject about which Rendell has spoken out publicly with passion and conviction.

We see this attitude as well in Simisola, in Rendell's portrayal of the ambitious and wealthy couple Wael and Anouk Khoori.

To be sure, in Simisola Rendell includes some wealthy characters who are more sympathetic than the Khooris (and also some who are even less sympathetic than the Khooris). Yet it is clear that the frequent lack of sympathy for the poor is something Rendell is greatly concerned with indicting.*

*(not only the wealthy are indicted: Wexford's subordinate, Mike Burden, is on hand, as always, to represent middle-class obtuseness and complacency, while indifferent government bureaucrats also are pummeled).

The events of the novel take place against a backdrop of economic recession and much of the action revolves around events at the local Employment Service Jobcenter (ESJC), which also houses the Benefit Office. Bringing this matter even more to home for Wexford, both his all-too-frequently hapless daughter Sylvia and her husband have lost their jobs and are spending a great deal of time with Wexford and his wife, Dora.

Given the economic state of affairs in the United States for the last five years, this subject in a twenty-year-old British novel seemed rather timely.  I found both the race and class issues were deftly integrated with the mystery plot by Rendell.

So what is the plot?  Inspector Wexford learns that Melanie Akande, daughter of his physician, Raymond Akande, a Nigerian immigrant, has vanished and he launches a police investigation into the matter. Melanie Akande disappeared after a visit to the ESJC, a fact that becomes sinister after the woman with whom she had her appointment is found dead, strangled in her bed.

The investigation of Reg Wexford and Mike Burden into the presumably related murder and disappearance is long and involved, allowing Rendell to introduce a large cast of memorable characters, including the fulsome local politician Anouk Khoori, wife of a multi-millionaire grocery store chain owner; Raymond Akande's stately spouse Laurette; Carolyn Snow, a highly vindictive wife of an adulterer; Cookie Dix, the much younger wife of a wealthy architect; Ingrid Pamber, with her amazing blue eyes; flat-bound witness Mr. Hammond, ninety-three years old but still mentally sharp; the blind but ever-mirthful Mrs. Prior; and Nigerian-born crossing guard Oni Johnson and her ESCJ habitue son Raffy (played by Idris Elba in the 1996 film version of Simisola--his sixth acting credit on imdb).

Rendell offers a clever alibi gambit and a particularly Christie-esque clue in the text; yet as the tale reaches its terminus the logic of the themes severely circumscribes the field of suspects, which leads me to disagree with the stated view of some contemporary reviewers that the solution is an astonishing surprise.

Thus I would not rate Simisola Rendell's greatest success among the Wexford novels as a puzzle.  It clearly is, however, a notable example of the modern crime novel that uses the mystery to explore social issues.  The whole thing is compellingly done by an author working at the height of her writing powers, making Simisola a book that I can enthusiastically recommend to mystery fans, even those of the more traditionalist sort. Incidentally, in a brilliant touch the novel's strikingly simple title is invoked but once, in the final line.

See also, at the Passing Tramp:

Going Wrong (1990) by Ruth Rendell
Asta's Book (1993), by Barbara Vine
Not in the Flesh (2007), by Ruth Rendell (Wexford)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Invitation....

People who read this blog and use Facebook might be interested in "Golden Age Detection" a Facebook group started by Jeffrey Marks for fans of traditional mystery (discussions also are known spill over into other areas of crime fiction).  It is a closed group, but if you "friend request" me on the Facebook page I started I can place you in the group. We would love to have you join.

Later this week, by the way, I will be posting reviews of Ruth Rendell's Simisola and Crippen & Landru's latest Edward D. Hoch Dr. Sam Hawthorne short story collection, Nothing Is Impossible. And there should also be the last part of of my consideration of Lucy Worsley's take on Golden Age detective fiction.

I am also expecting to get a series of interviews about crime fiction with some interesting people rolling soon!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Worsleying around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Three: The Lower Orders and Our Social Betters

It has taken me a while to get around to this, but here is Part Three of my look at Lucy Worsley's genre survey A Very British Murder.  See here for Part One and Part Two.

After a short chapter of about 2000 words on the Detection Club (this is acceptable, though you will learn much more about the Detection Club from Doug Greene's observations on it in his biography of John Dickson Carr, my CADS booklet Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play and Peter Lovesey's essay on the Detection Club, forthcoming in Mysteries Unlocked), Worsley in Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," adopts the old Julian Symons-Colin Watson take on Golden Age English detective novels, castigating the books for their "attitude that servants are not really human" (the chapter title is the same as the title of Colin Watson's book on the subject).

Worsley cites as evidence for this assertion Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and his manservant Magersfontein Lugg.  Do Allingham readers agree that the memorably-portrayed Lugg comes off as "not really human"?  And what about Dorothy L. Sayers' Bunter?  He may not be human, but, if so, it's because he's super-human, not subhuman!

Not really human? Lugg and Campion

Worsley also cites a character in Sayers' The Nine Tailors (a Mrs. Gates), who says of a chauffeur, "I believe him to be a perfectly truthful man, as such people go."  Worsley doesn't mention that immediately after this comment the person Mrs. Gates is talking to mentally refers to her as "this old cat." Worsley may have missed this, but Mrs. Gates and her retrograde social attitudes (and, yes, they were retrograde attitudes, even among Sayers' readership, in the 1930s) are being satirically portrayed by Sayers.  This is not evidence for Worsley's claim, but rather evidence against it.*

*(Here is a character's description of Mrs. Gates from earlier in the novel: "But I'll tell you who would have noticed anything, and that's Mrs. Gates--our housekeeper, you know....She's a perfect ghoul...She's quite nice, really, but she ought to live in a Victorian novel....")

Of course Worsley, like Symons and Watson before her, is right that there are plenty of objectionable classist attitudes about servants legitimately attributable to authors of Golden Age mysteries, but the argument can be overdrawn.  In fairness to the Golden Age mystery, there was more nuance on this matter than often is admitted.

Worsley goes on to pronounce that "in the Golden Age, too, the detective was usually of a specific social class, much more elevated than it had been in the days of Inspectors Field and Whicher, when detection was considered dirty work....Agatha Christie cleverly allowed Hercule Poirot to sidestep the issue of class by making him Belgian and therefore, notoriously, hard to categorize.  But a great many of his colleagues sprung from the ranks of the aristocracy."

Predictably, Worsley then goes on to offer as evidence of the "great many" Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Roderick Alleyn.  Once again only resort to the Crime Queens is made. But what about the resolutely bourgeois Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), Superintendent Wilson (GDH and Margaret Cole) and Inspector Macdonald (ECR Lorac)?

These are three examples, just the number Worsley offers, but additional ones could be offered (and have been on this blog).  It's simply not true that the readership of Golden Age mysteries could not abide a smart middle class policeman as a series sleuth.

a middle class copper

Part Four will consider Worsley's explanation for the "fall" of the Golden Age detective novel.

Nosing It out in Northumberland: Vera, Season One (2011)

Recently I reviewed at this blog Ann Cleeves' new Vera Stanhope detective novel, Harbour Street (2014).  I liked the characters of DCI Stanhope and her subordinate DS Joe Ashworth and the evocatively portrayed north England setting, so decided to give season one of the popular television series, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera and David Leon as Joe, a try, despite some qualms I have about Cleeves' plotting in Harbour Street. I am happy to say I liked the series and will be getting season two, though again I have some qualms about the plotting.

In my view the strongest of the four episodes in season one was the fourth episode, Little Lazarus, the only one not based on a Cleeves novel. This was an extremely good television crime film. The other three all had good points as well, but were not on par with the superlative Little Lazarus. I'll talk about each one in order.

"Hidden Depths"

Vera cogitates

Vera and her team investigate two seemingly related murders, that of a teenage boy and a young woman schoolteacher.  In both cases the corpse, garroted, was found in water, strewn with flowers. Vera focuses her sights on a group of four male ornithologists.

This was a very solid opening for the series.  As in all the episodes of season one, the score and the photography are superb. The wide open, bleakly beautiful spaces immediately reminded me of Wallander.

Also striking was the centrality to the plot of mental aberration and sexual psychosis.  It is no surprise to me that Ann Cleeves is a great fan of Nordic crime fiction in general. The influence is quite evident in all three season one episodes based on her novels.

Arguably the suspects were not as well fleshed out as the could have been, but there are a lot of interesting plot wrinkles and the final revelation of the identity of the killer allows an important thematic point to be made, one that relates to the personality of the title character. Additionally, I thought there were some memorable insights into the state of families in modern England (I also noticed this in the novel Harbour Street).

"Telling Tales"

Joe questions

In this episode Vera discovers that a recently deceased woman may have been wrongly convicted for the murder of an adolescent girl.  There soon follows another murder, which Vera believes is related to this earlier case.

I found this episode the least satisfying of the season.  Again psychosis and sexual misdeeds are brought to the fore, and I found it hard to square behavior with character, as it is presented to us. Additionally, I was left in confusion about aspects of an assault made late in the story, and Vera reaches the solution by pure (and unlikely) happenstance. Blah!

"The Crow Trap"

one of the many sad souls Vera encounters in the course of her investigations

A woman who co-owns land desired by a quarrying company is murdered.  It turns out that this woman was a suspect in a previous case, concerning the disappearance of a child. Another murder follows.

Yet again psychosis plays a great role and the whole thing seems rather far-fetched in the final analysis, but I did admire the plot construction and found the whole thing quite engrossing.

In all three of these episodes Vera's personality is nicely developed, along with her relationship with Joe. One is inevitably reminded, I think, of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Like Morse, Vera is a loner who doesn't take good care of herself and can be difficult to work with, though she can have great empathy for the sorry souls she runs across in her cases.  Like Lewis, the young family man Joe is more placid and helps anchor his boss to the social world.  They make a nice team.  Both Blethyn, a twice Oscar-nominated actress, and Leon perform extremely well in these roles.

Other members of the team are non-entities, with the exception of Holly Lawson and Kenny Lockhart, and even they are not given too much of interest to work with.  Paul Ritter's pathologist Billy Cartwright, on the other hand, offers some memorably mordant moments.

Finally we come to the season one finale:

"Little Lazarus" (story by Paul Rutman)

Vera is judged

In this one, a young boy survives a brutal attack in which his mother is killed.  Investigating into the mother's past, Vera finds a maze of mystery, some of which seems to implicate people in high places.

I found this a tremendously engrossing episode, with good characterization and an interesting, intricate plot that thankfully for once did not depend on anyone being absolutely stark ravers.  The ending I found quite poignant, because we have been made to care for the people involved, including two interesting modern couples.

Vera's relationship with the boy is nicely developed and we are left with a cliffhanger about Vera's health--as if we didn't have reason enough already to come back for season two!

Friday, April 11, 2014

True Confessions? The Diary (1952), by William Ard

Another helping of hard-boiled this week, with William Ard's The Diary (1952).  Ard has been lucky to get some vocal enthusiasts, Dennis Miller, who has a blog about the author, and genre critic Francis Nevins, who has written an introduction to some reprints of Ard crime novels by Fender Tucker's Ramble House.

a young-looking William Ard
striking a cool pose
(courtesy Dennis Miller
The Diary, the second of William Ard's Timothy Dane detective novels, has not been reprinted by Ramble House, though Ard's first and third, The Perfect Frame (1951) and .38 (1953), have been, in a twofer volume titled Perfect .38.

In his introduction to Perfect .38, Nevins distinguishes Ard's writing from what he calls the "sadism-snigger-and-sleaze" school of Mickey Spillane, arguing that Ard

carried on in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in which the private eye stands for personal and political decency, legitimate violence abounds but sadism is eschewed, sex is not a savage perversion but a restoration of oneself and a friendly caring for another.

Without getting extensively into the matter of Nevins' characterization of Spillane, who remains popular to this day, I will say that Nevins highlights some of the qualities about The Diary I found appealing.

One deal breaker for me with Spillane has always been the enjoyment his "hero," Mike Hammer, takes in killing people. It's not just that Hammer is willing to take the law into his own hands, vigilante-style, it's that in doing so he is so palpably satisfying his own personal blood lust.

Timothy Dane, on the other hand, is a different sort of hard-boiled detective, at least from my reading of The Diary. For starters, just take that name, "Timothy."  I'm not an expert in hard-boiled monikers, but there's something boyish and non-macho about the name Timothy Dane (just compare it with Mike Hammer).

And check out the striking cover illustration of the Popular Library edition of The Diary. This illustration depicts Dane, not with Diane Rebow, the brattish eighteen-year-old millionaire's daughter and author of the novel's titular diary, but rather with a young prostitute who appears in one short scene in the book, trying to pick him up.

The whole scene is extraneous to the plot, yet it has lingered in my memory:

She was young and thin and very sad looking.  Her skirts were hiked to knee level and she wore a transparent blouse and a black brassiere but not because it was hot. She asked me for a cigarette.  I handed her one from the pack and lit it.  She cupped my hand in both of hers.
"Thanks," she said.
"Nice night out."
"You live in New York?"
"You wanna get laid?"
"Sure you do."
"What's the matter--you queer?"
"I'm broke."
The girl shrugged her shoulders.  "Who isn't?"

Dane's face looks unusually softened and sensitive for a man on a hard-boiled paperback from this era (and despite her attempted airs the "girl" on the cover looks just that--a girl). Dane isn't swaggering or brandishing his gun; instead he's pensively holding out a packet of cigarettes.

Don't get me wrong, Dane does his share of tough stuff in this book, including killing a guy, but he doesn't seem to get enjoyment out of it and he expressly rejects the notion of playing God.  He is a decent man.

a much different encounter
The Diary opens very much in Chandler-Hammett tradition, with Dane getting hired to straighten out  a mess a millionaire's daughter has gotten herself into.  Diane Rebow's diary has been stolen and her father, in the midst of planning a political career, is anxious to get it back. It seems there's some steamy stuff in it, though the father insists it all must just be teenage imagination, fueled by Hollywood films and romance novels.

Soon Dane is enmeshed in a messy affair of multiple murders, drugs and civic corruption at the highest levels.

This is a good hard-boiled mystery, even shorter than most for the period and never lapsing into the tedium of endless fisticuffs.

To be sure, there is quite a lot of incident (including a good share of what Nevins deems "legitimate violence").

However, our hero, with perhaps implausible good fortune, survives a final scrape with death and at the end explains everything to the characters assembled at the millionaire's house, just like he's Hercule Poirot or something. It's masterfully done.

Dane even finds time for some romance with Eileen Kay, the personal assistant of political boss Jim Steele (yes, the very same name as Dana Chamber's hard-boiled sleuth, discussed here last week). Kay is a good character, sexy (natch), smart and independent, although Ard does have her fall prey to a couple "comic" misunderstandings that don't do her keen brain justice (Nevins justly refers to this as "elements of Hollywood sex comedy").

After she and Dane have survived a quite traumatic night, she offers herself to Dane--who has recently been sapped, shot in the shoulder and injected with codeine--and is quite miffed when he has the temerity to fall asleep on her (okay, she didn't know about the codeine, but she was around for the sapping and shooting parts and might have surmised that he might not be up to another job, so to speak, that night).

I know in hard-boiled mythology the hero is supposed to be able to manage head bashings and bullet wounds without too much more than batting an eye (let alone having to resort to hospitalization), but that he's also expected the very same night to make a woman out of the heroine is a bit much!

Be that as it may, I found The Diary a great read and will be returning again to the work of William Ard, an author who died much too young in 1960 at the age of 37.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Royal Rendell and the Great Gladys

Ruth Rendell, who turned 84 a couple months ago, is still scribbling away, five decades after the publication of her first novel, with a new book, The Girl Next Door, scheduled for publication later this year.  Rendell fans will know that she writes three types of crime novels.  Under her own name she produces traditional police detective novels and psychological suspense thrillers, while under the pseudonym Barbara Vine she writes denser, multi-layered mysteries more in the Victorian style (if fully modern in subject matter).

Ruth Rendell
In my view, the Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford series that Rendell launched fifty years ago, with From Doon with Death (1964), is one of the finest bodies of series detective fiction produced in the last half-century. Of the dozen Chief inspector Wexford novels published between 1964 and 1983, there is only one real comparative "dud," I think: the sophomore effort A New Lease of Death (1967).

While the Rendell Wexfords from this period, like Rendell's sister Crime Queen P. D. James' earlier Adam Dalgleish novels, offer clever, fairly clued puzzle plots, I think they are more forward looking than James' books. Though a policeman and not an "eccentric amateur" sleuth, James' Dalgleish seems more a throwback to the Golden Age Great Detective, being a sophisticated yet isolated loner (a poet no less).

On the other hand, Rendell's Wexford, with his wife and daughters and his sidekick subordinate, Mike Burden, seems to have helped set the mold for numerous crime fiction series about provincial English policeman (and, more recently, policewomen).  Often people say they prefer the "psychological" Rendells or the Vines, but I think the Wexfords should receive their due too.

Beginning in 1985 with An Unkindess of Ravens, Rendell began writing longer Wexfords (all her Rendells got longer at this time, like the books in her Vine series, which was launched in 1986; this has been, of course, a general trend in crime fiction over the last three decades). Between 1985 and 2013 Rendell has published another dozen Wexfords, which are more of a mixed bag in my view.  The puzzle plotting tends to be more diffuse, while there is greater emphasis on social issues (feminism, racism, environmentalism, child molestation, spousal abuse, female circumcision).

I was going to review Ravens here this week, but to be frank I found this novel the worst Wexford I have read.  To me the writing was flat and the characters uninteresting (the women, for example, seemed caricatures, either stereotypical doormat housewives or stereotypical strident feminists, which really surprised me, coming from this writer). I can't help feeling that at this time her creative interest was really drifting over to the psychological Rendells and the debut Vine (The Killing Doll, 1984, The Tree of Hands, 1984, Live Flesh, 1986, A Dark Adapted Eye, 1986). Coming right in the middle of that "Big Four," Ravens seems particularly unmemorable.

I decided to go back and look at the novel Simisola (1994), arguably, I think, the best of the later Rendell Wexfords.  This has the overt political dimension Rendell now likes in her Wexfords, plus strong writing and characters and a more focused plot.  It's also longer in the modern style (I'm guessing about 120,000 words), so I am not quite ready for the full review!  But I hope to have more soon.

Gladys Mitchell
Meanwhile, I wanted to alert readers of this blog to the fact that a lot of new Gladys Mitchell titles are available, in both the US and UK (check out Amazon and Amazon.co.uk).  I am planning a post on Gladys Mitchell later this month.  I think she was a genuine Golden Age Crime Queen, on the level of Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, but have never actually blogged about her here to date.

As in the case of my "humdrum" favorite, John Street, many of Gladys Mitchell's books are extremely rare--she never really caught on with US print publishers--and expensive, which has put them out of the reach of most readers.  Now she is accessible again, with a wide range of works.  Good news indeed!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Country House Mystery, Shaken and Stirred: Some Day I'll Kill You (1939), by Dana Chambers

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Chambers was no Chandler
but he is still worth reading
2014 has been heralded as the 75th anniversary of a hard-boiled crime fiction milestone: Raymond Chandler's first mystery novel, The Big Sleep, which was published way back in 1939.

1939 also saw the publication of another first hard-boiled novel by a middle-aged American writer: Some Day I'll Kill You, by Dana Chambers, whose real name was the something less than hard-boiled Albert Leffingwell.

Kevin Burton Smith has expressed the view that a man with such a name as Albert Leffingwell must be English, but this is not in fact the case.

Albert Fear Leffingwell (1895-1946) was the eldest son of two doctors: Albert Tracy Leffingwell (1845-1916), a prominent social reformer, and Elizabeth Fear Leffingwell (1864-1938), a pioneering woman gynecologist.

Albert Fear Leffingwell wrote admiringly about his parents in a short book dedicated to the memory of his brother, the ornithologist Dana Jackson Leffingwell (1901-1930), who died of pneumonia before he reached the age of thirty:

Albert Leffingwell's book on "American Meat" shook Chicago long before racketeers were invented; his studies of the causes of illegitimacy in Great Britain were quoted in Parliament (once his intervention purely as an interested authority changed the whole course of English justice and saved a young mother from the gallows); his work in restriction of both human and animal vivisection probably achieved more than that of any other one person in the solution of that once-burning problem.

Elizabeth Fear--the young physician whom he married in 1892--was one of the first women in America to take a medical degree and to study in the great German clinics--at a time when the mere idea of Woman as anything but housewife and nursemaid excited either derision or alarm.  

The daughter of Obediah Barnes Fear, an English Wesleyan Methodist who in 1850 migrated with his parents, wife and children to Pittson, a Pennsylvania coal mining town, Elizabeth Fear Leffingwell in addition to maintaining a successful medical practice home schooled her three sons at the sprawling Leffingwell abode on Cayuga Lake, at Aurora, New York, which the Leffingwells acquired in 1896, the year after their eldest son was born.  Constructed in 1826 in the federal style and later remodeled according to the Italianate and Queen Anne fashions, the house, which still stands, is said to be the first brick building in Aurora.

Wanting her boys to experience Europe, Elizabeth took them on a tour of Bavaria and Italy the the spring of 1912 (this was right around the time of the Titanic disaster).

Dana Jackson Leffingwell received a doctorate from Cornell, while Albert Fear Leffingwell graduated from Harvard, in 1917.

The future hard-boiled writer early on showed literary inclinations, publishing a book of poetry, Castles in Spain, while still at Harvard.

In 1925, he co-founded the advertising agency Olmstead, Perrin and Leffingwell, which four years later was absorbed by McCann (today the massive global advertising network McCann Erickson).

the Leffingwell House at Aurora, New York

Leffingwell did not publish his first crime novel until 1939, when he was 43 years old (this was also, incidentally, the year immediately following his mother's death).   

Some Day I'll Kill You would be followed by twelve additional crime novels.  All totaled, there appeared, between 1939 and 1947, ten books written under the pseudonym Dana Chambers, two under the pseudonym Giles Jackson and one under the author's own name. Probably Leffingwell derived his most notable pseudonym from a Harvard dormitory building, completed shortly after he was born, called, yes, Dana Chambers, that is now home to the offices of the Medieval Academy of America.

Leffingwell was praised in his day by no less than Anthony Boucher and Bill Pronzini has told me that he owns all the Leffingwell novels and has enjoyed his work.

In his Saturday Review notice on Some Day I'll Kill You (which appeared just one week after his notice on The Big Sleep), "Judge Lynch" praised Dana Chambers for having "lavishly overlaid" his "antiquated plot nucleus" with "rapid fire talk, brisk and bloody action, piquantly pulchritudinous females, and fervent drinking," rendering the verdict "Lusty" on the novel.

This is a good summation.

Chambers' basic mystery plot  design in Some Day I'll Kill You definitely could come right out of an English country house detective novel.  It is even set primarily at a house party in a country house, located near Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Several generations of Leffingwell ancestors hailed from this area.  Albert Fear Leffingwell's great-great-great-great grandfather Thomas Leffingwell (1649-1723) started an inn at nearby Norwich, Connecticut in 1701 (it is a house museum today).

the Leffingwell Inn at Norwich, Connecticut

Yet despite the novel's country house setting and the references to Sherlock Holmes we also have, as Judge Lynch indicated, booze, beatings, shootings, sexual byplay, beautiful women (four, to be precise) and criminal brutes, all presented to us in cool first-person narration by Jim Steele, surely the toughest radio script writer ever.

I enjoyed it all immensely.

So here's the dope on the plot.   Beautiful Lisa Ridgman calls on old beau Jim Steele, a writer of radio thrillers, to help her out of a jam.  It seems someone is trying to put the squeeze on Lisa, claiming in anonymous letters knowledge that she murdered her first husband, Norman Barclay. This person will keep quiet for major hush money.

Lisa had a nervous breakdown not long after the death of Barclay in a mysterious fire on his yacht.  She has since wed her psychiatrist, Mike Ridgman.

For Jim's part, after a madly passionate fling with Lisa (when she was in between husbands), he did a stint in the Spanish Civil War, fighting on behalf of the Republicans with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (had Leffingwell lived beyond 1946 to chronicle further adventures of his series sleuth into the Cold War, Jim's Spanish Civil War service might have made Jim a suspicious character to the American government).

life at the Ridgman country house doubtless is vastly
different from life at this Methodist church, built in 1805
 in Timsbury, England, where Albert Fear Leffignwell's
maternal grandparents and great grandparents worshiped
When Jim shows up with Lisa at the Ridgman house party near Old Lyme, he encounters:

  • Mike Ridgman, Lisa's psychiatrist husband ("He wasn't my idea of a psychiatrist," says Jim, "he looked like a man who had captained the Princeton eleven in '05, say, and spent three decades since playing polo at Westbury.")
  • Tommy and Marian Weston, a wealthy sportsman and his beautiful ex-actress wife
  • Henry Allen, the Barclay family lawyer
  • Mrs. Barclay, Norman's mother
  • Marie Ridgman, Mike's nymphet half-sister
  • Parker, the shifty English butler

Marian Weston dies that very night, from being fatally bludgeoned while taking a nap--i.e., passed out after too many highballs--on a porch swing.

Was someone after Marian, or could Marian have been mistaken for Lisa? Jim inclines to the latter supposition and he sets out to solve the mystery and save Lisa--even if she is, most inconveniently, married to another man.

There is a lot of action in this book.  Our hero actually kills a bad guy, strangling him in Mike Hammer fashion (in his defense, however, it was, well, defense).

He also beats up a bad guy, shoots another bad guy in the face, kneecaps yet another bad guy and he gives serious thought to slugging an obnoxious cop.

Moreover, he gets sapped once by a bad guy and knocked out in a car crash. And not only does he never need to visit a hospital, he claims the second crack on the head actually jogged his brain, allowing him to reach the solution of the mystery.

If all this is not exciting enough for you, there's also a second murder (a shooting this time), a kidnapping and a massive explosion on the grounds of the Ridgman mansion (in his crime fiction Leffingwell had a great fondness for explosions).

Yet there's also some good byplay and nice little character studies to go along with all the mayhem.

Here's Steele talking to the soon-to-be late Marian Weston:

La Weston said: "But how is it you [Jim and Mike Ridgman] haven't met before?"
I said: "Oh, we don't move in the same circles.  Dr. Ridgman cures the idle rich.  I distract the idle poor."
"No, radio scripts.  I write half-hour thrillers.  Sell toothpaste."

There's some nice sardonic description from Steele too:

Parker's great white ham-like face was beaded with perspiration as though he had been running.  His features were clustered too close together in the middle of it, and I had a sudden irrelevant thought that he looked like Herbert Hoover.

There's quite a measure of sexual frankness in the book.  Lisa tells Jim that her first husband, Norman Barclay, was a degenerate who sexually assaulted her that fateful night of the boat fire:

"Norman was--he was--oh, skip it.  He was a Krafft-Ebing case.  I was unconscious and he--"

Undercover Work?
Jim and Louise
There are some first class scenes between Jim and the manager of Lyme hotel, "an aged Downeaster with steel-bowed spectacles and a face like a dried prune." He's a great little comic Yankee "character."

That's the old man's granddaughter, the luscious blonde Louise, in the great cover illustration to the Popular Library edition of the novel.

Louise provides Steele information on the shady roadhouse owner Maclay, as well as something of a third point on a love triangle.

Late in the novel Lisa gets jealous about Louise:
"What was all the blonde stuff?"
"One of my assistants. Undercover girl for Dr. Steele."
"I imagine she's quite good under covers."

Lisa is an interesting character in this book.  She's smart and sexy and it's refreshing here, compared with so many traditional mysteries, to see a love interest who has been around the block several times, so to speak, and makes no apologies about it, nor is expected to.

How does it all get resolved?  Does Jim crack the case? And, just as important, what happens with Jim and Lisa?

You will want to read on to find out.  I certainly did.

Some other hard-boiled pieces at the Passing Tramp:

Murder with Pictures (1935), George Harmon Coxe
The Gentle Hangman (1950), James M. Fox
The Barbarous Coast (1956), by Ross Macdonald
The Ferguson Affair (1960), by Ross Macdonald
Detections and Tribulations: Dashiell Hammett and Bill Pronzini
Ray and Jimmy: Correspondence between Raymond Chandler and James M. Fox