Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Vultures Gather: The Grindle Nightmare (1935), by Q. Patrick

"When the buzzards roost in Grindle Oak, Death comes to the valley."--The Grindle Nightmare.

The Grindle Nightmare (1935) was the first Q. Patrick crime novel co-authored by Richard Wilson "Rickie" Webb after he met Hugh Callingham Wheeler, his living partner in Massachusetts for more than a dozen years and by far the most important of the four mystery writing collaborators he worked with over the years. Grindle had been preceded by Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932), co-authored with Martha Mott Kelley; Murder at Cambridge (1933), authored by Webb alone; and S. S. Murder (1933), co-authored with Mary Louise White, who is also credited as the co-author of Grindle.  I can't help wondering whether Hugh Wheeler may have had some influence on Grindle, however.

The next year Webb published another Q. Patrick mystery, Death Goes to School, which evidently was authored by himself alone, but Death for Dear Clara (1937) and all the Q. Patricks that followed were written collaboratively by Webb and Wheeler.

The Grindle Nightmare was, it seems, one of the more successful Q. Patrick crime novels, which were later eclipsed by Webb and Wheeler's Patrick Quentin mysteries. Reprinted by Popular Library in 1949, it appeared a final time in paperback in the Sixties in a Ballantine edition; but since then it has been out-of-print for over a half century, like all the other books in the Q. Patrick line, sadly.

At the time it was originally published in 1935, Grindle was noted for its horrific criminal subject matter, which includes animal mutilation and child murder.  The novel is set in New England in the Grindle Valley, twenty miles from the city of Rhodes, home of Rhodes University Hospital.  There are a half-dozen or so main households in Grindle (see map), populated by a group of mostly unlikable middle and upper class professional types beset by myriad physical and emotional dysfunctions, some quite bluntly presented for their day.  It all struck me rather like something out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, say Deep Water (1957).

When The Grindle Nightmare was published
mystery was made about the identity of the
author, "an important eastern executive."
When the depraved crimes commence, the reader doesn't really have much of anyone to root for, which certainly casts a wide net of suspicion.  Even the narrator, Dr. Douglas Swanson, and his housemate, Dr. Antonio Costi, "one of the youngest and smartest professors of pathology in America," in whom readers may discern the Watson and Holmes figures of the story, seem rather clinical and even callous about the mayhem.

Today such a story would be told strictly for horror and shock value, at two or even three times the length (Grindle is a short novel of only about 60, 000 words), but in 1935, the events, while no end gruesome, are intellectualized as part of a problem to be solved.

The solution is very interesting, especially for its time, but of course I can't say more about that without spoiling.  Surely someday this novel will be reprinted, so I don't want to do that.  However, I do have more to say about Grindle in a forthcoming essay included in a collection to be published next year, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin/Jonathan Stagge Consortium and The Puzzles of Peter Duluth

One of the most important American crime writers, oddly out of print today in the primarily English-speaking world (though this will change when Crippen & Landru's collection of short crime fiction, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, is published), is Patrick Quentin, who also wrote as Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge.  I've reviewed several works by this consortium, if you will, and they generally are extremely good, in my opinion, but the the authorship question has remained somewhat murky over the years, so let me try to elucidate a bit.

It all started in 1931, when the native English Philadelphia pharmaceutical executive Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966), published a mystery novel, Cottage Sinister, in collaboration with Martha Mott Kelley (1906-1998), a recent Radcliffe graduate descended from the the Quaker abolitionist and feminist Lucretia Mott and niece of the progressive social reformer Florence Kelley, under the name "Q. Patrick" (the last name derived from "Pat" for Martha Kelley's nickname Patsy and "Rick" for Richard Webb's nickname Rickie and the "Q" in honor of what they pair considered the most "intriguing" letter in the alphabet).

The public face of Q. Patrick, 1931-35
Richard "Rickie" Webb
The next year the Rickie and Patsy also published Murder at the Women's City Club, but Kelley then left the Q. Patrick team.  Retaining the Q. Patrick name, Rickie Webb in 1933 published Murder at Cambridge, which he wrote solo, and S. S. Murder, on which he collaborated with Mary Louise White (1902-1984), a graduate of Bryn Mawr.  Webb would also work with White on The Grindle Nightmare, which was published in 1935.

At that point Mary Louise White left the team, marrying Edward C. Aswell, an assistant editor with Harper and Brothers (husband and wife alike would become prominent twentieth-century American editors).  So once again, Webb, who was more of a plot man, like Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen, was left in need of a collaborator.

Happily Webb found one in a young Englishman named Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987), who had come over to the US from England with Webb in 1933, settling with him in Philadelphia. (I'm not certain whether the two lived together in these years, but, if not, they certainly were near neighbors, residing in the Locust Street-Spruce Street area.)

Hugh Wheeler, c. 1940
Wheeler had taken a BA degree with honors in English at the University of London in 1932 and was anxious to embark on a literary career.  Although he and Webb had started out writing a "pretentious novel," as Wheeler put it, nothing seems to have come of this, and the pair by 1936 had settled into a lucrative commercial partnership in crime fiction collaboration.

Webb and Wheeler intermittently continued the Q. Patrick series, but they also created two new mystery writing pseudonyms: Jonathan Stagge, under which they produced the Dr. Hugh Westlake detective novels, and the pen name for which they became most famous, Patrick Quentin.

All told, during the period of their collaboration, 1936-1952, Webb and Wheeler published six Q. Patrick novels (Death Goes to School, 1936, usually attributed to Webb and Wheeler, probably was written by Webb alone), including two Crimefiles books; nine Jonathan Stagge novels and nine Patrick Quentin novels, for a grand total of 24 novels over sixteen years.  During most of this time, 1939-1952, the pair lived together in the Berskhsires in rural western Massachusetts, except for a period during the second World War when Hugh Wheeler served in U. S. Army Medical Corps.

Hugh Wheeler in his post-Webb
collaboration days
Webb's health declined toward the end of the collaboration and in 1952, he retired from the consortium he had created, moving to France and leaving the Patrick Quentin name to Wheeler, who would write seven more Patrick Quentin novels between 1954 and 1965 before turning his professional attention exclusively toward writing for the films and the stage, an endeavor in which he enjoyed distinguished success. Wheeler would go on to win three Tony awards for his books for A Little Night Music, Candide and Sweeney Todd.

So that, relatively briefly, is the somewhat complicated story of Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin/Jonathan Stagge, which is primarily, though not entirely, the story of Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler.  There is more about the two men in The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, Crippen & Landru's forthcoming collection of the Patrick Quentin short fiction concerning the adventures of Patrick Quentin's lead series character, Peter Duluth, a theatrical producer and, of necessity, an occasional amateur sleuth (often in company with his actress wife, Iris) who appeared in nine novels between 1936 and 1954, eight written by Webb-Wheeler and one written by Wheeler.

I wrote the introduction to Puzzles and there is as well, I'm very pleased to add, a fascinating afterword by Hugh Wheeler's great-niece and "Puzzle for Proustians," an amusing postscript about Rickie Webb by Mauro Boncompagni.  There are some new photos of Webb and Wheeler included as well, including one of the pair together on vacation in Italy in the 1940s.  I think Doug Greene has done a great job putting this one together!  I hope this book will give mystery fans a taste of the deadly delights of Patrick Quentin's crime fiction and that its appearance may encourage the complete reissuing of the consortium's distinguished body of genre work.

Previous pieces on "the consortium":

On Q. Patrick: Death for Dear ClaraThe File on Claudia Cragge
On Jonathan Stagge: The Scarlet Circle
On Patrick Quentin: Black WidowMy Son, the Murderer

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Patrick Quentin Puzzles and E. R. Punshon Enigmas

I haven't been blogging too much this month because I have been busy with more book introductions (and an afterword in one case), specifically to Dean Street Press's new round of E. R. Punshon reprints and a collection of the short crime fiction by Patrick Quentin, issued by Crippen & Landru.

The Patrick Quentin collection, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, gathers all the short crime fiction about Patrick Quentin's lead series character. Peter Duluth, who appeared in nine Patrick Quentin novels published between 1936 and 1954.  About twenty years ago I bought my first Crippen & Landru book, an edition of John Dickson Carr's radio play Speak of the Devil, and it is a great honor to get to write an introduction to a Crippen & Landru volume today, especially concerning an crime writer I so admire.  I hope to have some more posted on Patrick Quentin tomorrow (have been under the weather).

Crippen & Landru, you probably know, is owned by Douglas G. Greene, biographer of John Dickson Carr, to whom Mysteries Unlocked, a collection of essays I edited, is dedicated.  More on this book soon!

I'm also very excited about the new series of Punshon reissues, the author's 11th through 15th Bobby Owen mysteries: Comes a Stranger (1938), Suspects-Nine (1939), Murder Abroad (1939), Four Strange Women (1940) and Ten Star Clues (1941).

Collectively these books constitute, in my opinion, the single best group of Punshon mysteries, published when the author was at the apex of his popularity in England.

Dean Street Press has introduced a snazzy new design for this group of reissues, which also represent some of the rarest books in the Punshon canon.  Up until now, even most Punshon collectors hadn't been able to read these books (especially the first four), because they simply weren't available on the used book market.  To be able to help bring back worthy, almost impossible-to-find editions like these is a great joy for me.

Comes a Stranger is a bibliophile mystery, with a body in the library (or maybe not); Suspects-Nine is about a murder in fashionable London circles; Murder Abroad, partially based on a real life murder case, details a murder investigation in France; Four Strange Women is a serial killer novel with more than a few hints of horror; and Ten Star Clues is a classic country manor and village case that, like Josephine Tey's celebrated Brat Farrar, draws on the Victorian cause célébré of the Tichborne claimant.  All together a most inspired and entertaining group of Golden Age detective novels.

The Punshons are available for pre-order in in the US and UK and I will let you know when The Puzzles of Peter Duluth is out.  Some good stuff all round!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Chess Problem: The Player on the Other Side (1963), by Ellery Queen

As Joseph Goodrich's recent collection of some of the correspondence between the "Ellery Queen" cousins, Fredric Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, makes clear, the two mystery writers found it something of a challenge updating tales of their Golden Age Great Detective, also named Ellery Queen, to the more modern era of the "realistic" crime novel, Ellery Queen having had his inception in the baroque era of writers like S. S. Van Dine, creator of Philo Vance, that g-droppin', high-falutin' man about town who in his spare time (that which he doesn't devote to his collections of exotica like tropical fish and Egyptian papyri) resplendently emerges from his New York brownstone, a slavishly devoted attendant "Watson" in tow, to solve diabolical yet vastly improbable crimes concerning nursery rhymes, family eliminations and cursed dragon pools.

By the mid-30s, as Van Dine began his descent into desuetude, Ellery Queen was loosening the tight puzzle boxes that were their own books.  They produced novels aimed at adaptation on the silver screen and serialization in the lucrative glossy women's magazines--the slicks--that put less emphasis on pure detection and more on human emotions; and then in 1942 came Calamity Town, the first of their Wrightsville novels, set in small, "All-American" northeastern town, which aimed at achieving greater realism in terms of milieu and character.

By the early 1950s EQ as I see it had definitely emerged into another stage, where they attempted to produce "serious" novels addressing metaphysical issues, within, however, the detective novel framework. In this period you get some detective novels with very odd symbolic elements, such as The Origin of Evil (1951), The King Is Dead (1952) and The Finishing Stroke (1958), this last novel, incidentally, having many of the elements, seemingly, of a swan song.

And, in fact, at this time Manfred Lee, who wrote the novels from Dannay's extensive outlines, dropped out of an active role in the partnership for a time, claiming, as I understand it, a case of "writer's block."  The correspondence between the cousins in the later 40s-early 50s collected by Joseph Goodrich indicates that Dannay and Lee had strong artistic disagreements about the composition of the books, Lee wanting to put greater emphasis on realism, Dannay desiring to maintain big concept puzzles, which Lee felt it was difficult to write about in a realistic fashion. You can see that split in much of their work in the 1940s and 1950s, and I can't help wondering whether Lee just got burned out with it all by the late Fifties.

In any event, there was no new Ellery Queen novel published until 1963, with the appearance of The Player on the Other Side, probably the most acclaimed EQ novel from the last eight years of the EQ saga (1963-1971).

What was not admitted at the time was that Manfred Lee did not write this acclaimed detective novel, although it was based, as others before it, on a long outline from Dannay.  The actual author was the highly-regarded sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, although according to the splendid website, Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction, Sturgeon's manuscript was extensively revised by Lee, with additional revisions made by Dannay.

Player certainly reads to me like vintage Ellery Queen. The plot is an artificial Van Dineian conception, many of the characters are classic mystery types, not really developed, and the setting is nearly timeless and placeless (aside from the introduction of a black cop into the story)--yet there are some very interesting and thought-provoking ideas lying behind it all.  Beyond that, it's just a rattling good read.

The primary setting in the novel is York Square in New York City, a highly imaginary place where four cousins live in four corner "castles" separated from each other by a small park.  The cousins have been obliged to live in these domiciles if they want to inherit shares of the fortune of their eccentric uncle, Nathaniel York. In six months the period required by the will have expired, and the cousins finally will be able to "cash out," so to speak.

Oh, and I should mention that the arrangement is a tontine (naturally!), under which when a cousin expires, his/her share goes back into the kitty for the others to divvy.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that it's not long before one of the York cousins is dead, by most violent means. Will others follow?

Soon Ellery Queen, mystery writer and Boyish Genius (by this time Ellery is vaguely middle-aged, but I can't help but think of him as Jim Hutton, who played him on the wonderful, short-lived television series and was still quite boyish-looking at that time, forty years ago), is on the case, courtesy, as usual, of his crusty old father (whom I always think of as David Wayne, due to said television series), Inspector Queen, of the NYPD.

Concerning Ellery, there's an interesting introduction to him in this book, where we learn that he, like Manfred Lee, is suffering from writer's block.  In Ellery's case, it's because he hasn't been getting "good" cases from his Dad to fictionalize in his novels.  It seems that the age of the master villain, constructing perfect murder puzzles for his opponent, the sleuth, to try to solve, has passed, regrettably replaced by modern scientific police investigation (and modern police procedurals and hard-boiled crime novels). Explains Ellery: "I haven't been able to write any more because the player on the side doesn't exist any more....The times have outdated him--swept him away, and me with him."

Of course Ellery soon finds a worthy opponent--his player on the other side--in the York case, showing that he is not so outdated after all.  There are inscrutable symbolic messages, delivered on oddly-cut pieces of paper, a classic EQ device (that part I actually figured out before Ellery), as well as some splendidly Christie-esque misdirection. (One aspect of the solution, however, is rather, shall we say, tentative.) The whole thing is more thinly clued than the baroque Golden Age EQ (what isn't?), but there was one clue I loved, so obvious when Ellery explained it, but the significance of which was missed by me at the time.

Also, the chess theme is brilliantly employed, I think, though it's something lost on the covers of the modern "playing card" editions of the novel by Orion and Mysterious Press. Is chess now too "old school"?