Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1944), aka Never Walk Alone (1951), by Rufus King

Mrs. Carter Giles, for decades the dowager of Bridgehaven, decided that her contribution to the war effort would be opening her house to the war workers who were overcrowding her little city.  She expected to be able to pick her lodgers with the discrimination for which she herself had always been noted.  But Fate and the lodgers decreed otherwise, and a few hours after the invasion of her motley crew, Mrs. Giles found a body under the bushes next to the house....

--from the front jacket flap of The Case of The Dowager's Etchings (Doubleday Doran, 1944)

River Rest was a JUNGLE--And he would be king of this jungle.  He moved down the carpeted hall, his animal senses alert and quivering....Only an old woman stood between him and his dream of wealth....Without realizing it, Carrie Giles had become a stranger in her own home.  Four roomers had moved in.  Three were cold-eyed men.  The fourth was a predatory female whose every word and gesture was a wanton invitation.  All four were interested in Carrie's etchings.  But she never knew why--until a silent killer walked into her room!--from the back cover of Never Walk Alone (formerly The Case of the Dowager's Etchings) (Popular Library, 1951)

Going stag: the hardcover edition
Surely nothing in crime fiction illustrates the calculatedly salacious marketing of fiction in the early years of the paperback revolution than the startling transformation of Rufus King's The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (a 1944 hardcover) to Never Walk Alone (a 1951 paperback).

This remarkable publishing alchemy is a process that academia now metaphorically designates "pulping," i.e., making books more available to readers as cheap paperbacks with vivid, sexualized covers--often adapted by artists from original pulps art--guaranteed to catch the eye, titillating many, while outraging others (in the 1950s Congressional pressure would encourage publishers to tone down the covers).

In 1944, The Case of the Dowager's Etchings was published by that great warhorse of American crime fiction publishing, Doubleday Doran's Crime Club. By this time the Crime Club had a visual categorization system with an array of symbols meant to immediately signify to Crime Club members and potential buyers what kind of mystery they were getting with each title.  The Case of the Dowager's Etchings was denoted with a clutching hand, signifying "character and atmosphere."

Rufus King in the 1930s
This is a fair classification.  Although in the 1930s Rufus King, like John Dickson Carr, opted in his mysteries for fleeter, more thrilling fictional narratives than those of the so-called "Humdrum" school of Freeman Wills Crofts, John Street and others, he nevertheless fashioned these narratives in the form of classical detective fiction. By the 1940s, however, King was moving away from the traditional detective fiction form to something more on the order of the suspense thriller. Perhaps the best known of this group of King crime novels is Museum Piece No. 13, a modern Bluebeard fable that was filmed, with significant differences from the novel, as The Secret Beyond the Door (1947) (see my review of the novel here).

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings is a fine example of suspense fiction, but where Museum Piece No. 13 is predominantly Gothic and gloomy, Etchings conforms much more to the novel of manners style most associated today with the British Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, with some good character studies, witty writing and minute social observation.

The protagonist of Etchings, the blue-blooded Carrie Giles (Mrs. Carter Giles), is a skillfully-delineated character, one of a long line of memorable wealthy matrons in Rufus King's fiction. King, who grew up in New York City in privileged circumstances--prep school and Yale; summers in Rouses Point, a town at the northern tip of Lake Champlain just below Canada; winters in Florida) no doubt knew such people well (I suspect he drew partly on his own mother).

Although it is unquestionably a slighter novel, Etchings reminds me to some degree of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's brilliant crime novel The Blank Wall, which it preceded by three years. Holding's novel, also set during the Second World war, offers a fascinating look at social changes wrought by the conflict, particularly in the roles of women, including, in the case of the protagonist of that novel, wealthy, sheltered white matrons.

King skillfully navigates this same process of personal growth with Carrie Giles, who feels, in an increasingly democratic age, obsolete and resented by the local hoi polloi, some of whom make their feelings vocal when they see her being driven about town, to their disgust, in a Victorian carriage, pulled by a "roached black mare" (Mrs. Giles brought out the carriage again because of wartime gasoline rationing).

Rooms to let: all just as Papa left it
Her dashing grandson is a war hero, but Mrs. Giles wants to do more personally for the patriotic cause; so she decides to open her mansion to take in a quartet of war factory workers, having learned that housing for these people is inadequate and overcrowded. Regrettably for Mrs. Giles, trouble soon flows from this noble resolution.  As the hardcover edition explains, not long after she takes in her new boarders, she finds a dead body in the bushes. Soon Mrs. Giles is tangling with mysterious forces that seem to have criminal designs centering on her house.  Who can she trust?  And will the killer feel compelled to kill again?

Mrs. Giles does some investigating in her own right and King offers readers one splendid clue, so there is genuine detective interest in Etchings, but I think readers may enjoy the novel most, like I did, for its "manners."

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how King has Mrs. Giles, a woman in her seventies, constantly reflecting on the things her Papa did or said. It seems like practically everything in the mansion, River Rest, was purchased by Papa or chosen by Papa.  It's a wonderful portrait of a masterful Victorian father, sublimely confident even when utterly mistaken and though long dead still a great influence on his daughter (however there are signs his grip finally may be slackening).

In its blurb the hardcover edition of Etchings doesn't mention, oddly, the Victorian-era etching, a pastoral scene with stag done by Mrs. Giles, that figures significantly in the plot, though it is depicted in the somewhat stodgy front cover illustration.  On the whole, however, the plot description details the novel's doings dutifully, if a bit dully.

Cinematic: ready for their closeups
With the 1951 Popular Library paperback edition, The Dowager's Etchings got  a major makeover. On the cover we have quite a dramatic moment, courtesy of Rudolph Belarski (one of his best pieces of work I think). A character in the book explicitly is compared to Humphrey Bogart, and certainly that man on the cover bears resemblance to the actor.

In the novel there also is a sexy, brassy woman factory worker (Rosie the Ravisher one might say, or, as the back cover blurb rather overheatedly puts it, "the predatory female whose every word and gesture was a wanton invitation").  I assume this is meant to be the woman on the cover who resembles Rita Hayworth (it's certainly not Mrs. Giles).

The problem is this scene never quite occurs in the book! Nor does the new title seem very particular to the novel. Perhaps it's meant to reflect how Mrs. Giles has to rely, amid great danger, on her own devices in the crisis she faces, with her beloved grandson frequently sidelined? Was the publisher drawing on "You'll Never Walk Alone," the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit from Carousel (1945)? (The song is vastly more familiar to my British readers, I suspect, in this version by Gerry and the Pacemakers.)

Don't let any misleading cover art or blurbs spoil your enjoyment of the actual text of the book.  The Case of the Dowager's Etchings is another great novel from an American Golden Age Crime King, whatever one puts on its covers.

Other Rufus King novels reviewed at The Passing Tramp:

Maneaters: Murder by Latitude (1930)
Tempests: Murder on the Yacht (1932)
Reefs: The Lesser Antilles Case (1934)

Good news too for fans: All the Rufus king novels are being reprinted, by Wildside Press. I wish I could say I has something to do with it (I had been trying for years), but at least it's finally happening.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Paperback Novelties: Death and Rudolph Belarski (1900-1983)

Rudolph Belarski (1900-1983), one of the great names in twentieth-century pulp and paperback fiction art, was born at the turn of the century in the coal mining town of Dupont, Pennsylvania, the son of immigrants from Galicia (then part of Austria-Hungarian Empire). Belarski quit school at the age of twelve to work in the local mines. After a decade had passed he began taking mail-order art courses from the International Correspondence School of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Soon after seriously taking up art Belarski moved to New York City to study at the Pratt Institute, from which he graduated in 1926.  He also taught at the school until 1933.  Two years later after leaving the school he began painting covers for pulp magazines published by Thrilling Publications.  After serving in the USO during World War Two he emerged as what David Saunders at pulpartists.com calls "the foremost paperback cover artist for Popular Library until 1951."

Like other Belarski pulps illustrations, this
one was adapted for a paperback cover, in
this case Patricia Wentworth's Pilgrim's Rest
(re-titled Dark Threat); see below
Rudolph Belarski unquestionably designed some of the most indelible banners of the post-WW2 paperback revolution.

One of my favorites by him is his cover for Fright, by George Hopley (Cornell Woolrich), a title which aptly designates Belarski's favored theme on his crime fiction paperback cover art. To be sure, this cover is somewhat exceptional, for the woman on the cover actually is dead, not in imminent danger of death; it is her murderer, a man, who is stricken with fright--quite pathologically--that his murder will out.

Usually on Belarski covers it's women who are the terrified ones, menaced by men. Occasionally a woman appears to strike back, and we see a male lying dead before her (see below the last cover, that for Rufus King's The Case of the Constant God, where the woman appears, mostly faceless, like some sort of dark, avenging angel).

On another cover (see the illustration above right) a blonde woman threatens a dark-haired woman. Whatever the variation, however, Rudolph Belarski provided memorable visions of sex and death in Cold War crime fiction.

Rufus King was one of the authors most favored with Belarski covers, and I will be reviewing a couple of these King crime novels this week. In the meantime, take a look at some of Belarski's work, mostly drawn here from non-hard-boiled crime fiction.

Also see previous posts on Arthur Hawkins, master of art deco mystery fiction jacket art, here and here.  And, since the cover of The Pink Umbrella Murder has been discussed so much below, see here for a review of the novel by Noah Stewart.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Neighbors! Disturbance on Berry Hill (1968), by Elizabeth Fenwick

I never can resist a map....
I bought my copy of Elizabeth Fenwick's Disturbance at Berry Hill at a used bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana back in the 1990s, when I was in school down there.  I have to be honest, it was the frontis map that did it.  I recently came across the book again and decided to read it, having never actually done so before, making this probably a near twenty-year lag between purchasing and reading! Well, better late than never, right?

Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996) is an interesting author in that she illustrates the case of talented mid-century women mystery writers who in the 1940s and 1950s moved away from true detective novels to "psychological suspense," or "domestic suspense," as Sarah Weinman calls it.

Fenwick published three detective novels during World War Two, the several straight novels in the 1940s and 1950s, before moving into suspense crime fiction with Poor Harriet in 1957.  Over the next dozen years she published seven additional crime novels, ending the run with Goodbye, Aunt Elva in 1968.

Fenwick's crime fiction was quite praised in its day by critics, including the influential reviewer Anthony Boucher. However, since then she seems to have been mostly forgotten, although Academy Chicago reprinted one or two of her books in the 1980s or 1990s.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that Disturbance on Berry Hill, her penultimate crime novel, was a a disappointment to me. In some ways it reminds me of Mary Roberts Rinehart's crime novel The Album (1933), which I also found disappointing.  Both have excellent closed settings in exclusive suburban northeastern U. S. neighborhoods, rather resembling what we Americans call "gated communities" today; but the mystery plots fall flat (that in The Album is too convoluted, that in Berry Hill too predictable).

Someone in Berry Hill is causing disturbances, prowling about and sneaking into homes, etc., causing people in the neighborhood to lock their doors for the first time (this was along time ago). Eventually there's a death, which is an even greater disturbance.  Who is behind all this? The answer, I must admit, was not a great surprise to me.

Berry Hill is a short novel, probably not too much over 40,000 words, and although I thought the setting was interesting, the characters were not as developed as I would have liked. I did note how "traditional" Berry Hill was, with all but one of the adult women residents being homemakers (one with a live-in maid) with commuting husbands; the one middle-aged career woman is sympathetically presented, but exceptional.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did, but the suspense is a tad tepid and the characters insufficiently engaging. However, from past reading I have a good opinion of Elizabeth Fenwick's writing, so I will take another look at her work, in a post that will have more about the author herself.  Also there's exciting news about Sarah Weinman and domestic suspense fiction, which I will be writing about more next week too.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carolyn Considers: "Why Women Read Detective Stories" (1930)

In 1930 True Detective Mysteries published a column by American mystery writer Carolyn Wells, in which she considered the question, "Why Women Read Detective Stories."  This may seem an odd question today, when we read so many articles about how men do not read fiction at all anymore. I recall several years ago reading a post on Martin Edwards' blog where he pointed out that at his talks on mystery fiction his audiences were mostly women.  The comments on Martin's piece as I recollect seemed to be the effect that men didn't like reading fiction or, if they did, they gravitated to action and event. Women, on the other hand, liked the cerebral aspect to detective fiction.

George Orwell: men's "consumption of
detective stories is terrific"
This view often is applied backward in time as well, to the Golden Age itself, in explaining the popularity of the British Crime Queens, read, so the argument runs, more by women; yet it is in fact precisely the opposite of the then current wisdom of those days, which was men wrote and read detective fiction in greater numbers than women.

Recalling his days working in a bookshop, George Orwell, for example, wrote that while "women of all kinds and ages" read novels by such mainstream bestsellers as Ethel M. DellWarwick Deeping and Jeffrey Farnol, "men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories....[T]heir consumption of detective stories is terrific."

To the extent that women were seen as mystery readers in the 1920s it was more as readers of "thrillers," books that were less about cogitation than palpitation. The English shocker king Edgar Wallace was said to have kept more women up at night than any man in England.

It was only with the rise in the 1930s of the novel of manners mysteries associated most strongly today with the British Crime Queens Dorothy L. SayersMargery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (and the concomitant decline of the "Humdrum" mysteries associated with male writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, J. J. Connington and John Rhode/Miles Burton--see my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery) that observers began to associate women more with detective fiction per se (in the US women readers had long been associated with the mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart and the so-called feminine HIBK--Had I But Known--school, yet these books were not considered pure detective fiction but rather watered-down "mystery" bearing some considerable relationship to the thriller).

This perceived gender shake-up accelerated after the Second World War, with the paperback revolution and the great success of hard-boiled, noir and espionage novels, all of which were seen as being more read (in droves) by sensation-oriented men in search of the visceral thrills of violence and sex, the two qualities often emphasized on the paperback covers of these books.

The "traditional" detective novel now was being associated, in a way it had not actually been for much of the Golden Age, with women readers and writers (increasingly the "official" British Crime Queens Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham, but also Patricia Wentworth, Georgette Heyer, Josephine Tey, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars and others).

Often elements besides the detective plot were emphasized in discussions of these books, like "love interest" (romance rather than raunch), wit (genteel repartee rather than slangy wisecracks) and minute social observation (quaint villages rather than "mean streets"), qualities that, again, were seen as appealing more to a female than a male audience. (Although in paperback these books too sometimes received the sexed-up covers we associate with hard-boiled and noir "pulp.") Eventually the term "cozy" began being broadly applied to these books and their modern day incarnations, cementing the idea that these were more "women's mysteries," the visceral American tough stuff being the natural province of the male reader.

What did Lou do?
Lou Henry Hoover and her husband, an
American president and acknowledged
detective fiction fan
But before the Second World War (certainly before the mid-Thirties), the situation was, as discussed, much different, with its being assumed that it was the male sex was the one that more preferred genuinely ratiocinative detective fiction.

So when Carolyn Wells in 1930 wondered "Why Women Read Detective Stories" this was not an odd or quirky question. Women detective fiction readers often still were seen as something of a novelty.

Wells began her article by asserting that "woman's interest" in detective fiction, though of "comparatively recent growth," was real:

The list of detective story fans, continually appearing in newspapers, includes Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Statesmen, Scientific giants, and celebrated men of all types, but never does a woman's name appear on those lists.  We are not informed that Mrs. Hoover or Queen Mary eagerly buy thrillers at the station news stands or order them from the booksellers by half dozens.  Yet recent statistics compiled by the editor of this magazine, tend to show that the interest in detective fiction is about evenly divided between the sexes.

Of course True Detective Stories, founded in 1924, was a true crime magazine and, according to authority Leroy Panek, lent "toward sensation"; but it's interesting to see Wells challenging what was then conventional wisdom about detective fiction readership.

Wells then argued that concerning detective fiction authors in the United States "there are more well-known feminine names than masculine." (However, she claimed--this may surprise people--that just the opposite was the case in England, where "there are many more celebrated masculine pens...writing detective fiction than feminine.")

Wells believed that when, after the Great War, "the better class of writers...combined the horrors of murder with the intellectual interest of problem solving, the keen logical interest present, even if partially dormant in the feminine mind, awoke, and women began to see that detective stories had a lure of their own, as compelling as crossword puzzles or village gossip."

no doubt she's now planning to curl up
with a good detective story
In the 1920s, according to Wells, women became desirous of emulating "all male pursuits," including reading detective fiction.  Woman "wanted to vote, wanted to cut her hair short, wanted to smoke, wanted to ride astride, wanted pajamas, and wanted the same untrammeled frankness of speech that man hitherto had hitherto monopolized.  These things she achieved, and it may be that detective stories fell into line."

Wells asserted to that the "feminine mind is often quicker and more direct than a man's mind....women are coming to realize more and more that detective stories appeal to the feminine mind that is willing to exercise its own peculiar gifts of logic and deduction."

Yet, Wells allowed, detective novels also offered women readers "scope for the working of their emotions....in a well-written detective story [a woman reader] finds someone to pity, someone to hate, someone to become enraged at, someone to love....she tingles with fear, she sighs with relief, she revels in the dangers and dilemmas, and her quick wits try to outrun the detective in his deductions and often do.

"As for the old love stories," Wells concluded, the woman reader "knew all seven of their plots and they held no surprises for her experienced interest....detective stories proved a new field, and women have fallen for it."

"Intellect is impartially distributed between the sexes," Wells significantly added, "and if in all ages man has achieved more lasting fame, raised to himself more enduring monuments, it is not because of a superior brain, but because of a multitude of other reasons and causes, which may not be enumerated here, however."

Perhaps the male readers of True Detective Mysteries weren't ready for such an enumeration!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Classics of Negativity: A Contemporary Review of The Bronze Hand (1926), by Carolyn Wells

The hard-working Miss Wells has not often turned out so inferior a specimen of "Fleming Stone" detective story as she here exhibits.  Its faults are overwhelming in number and variety, its merits nil, and its appeal to the imagination unprovocative of the faintest response whatever.  A shady and dissolute millionaire is murdered on board a liner bound for Liverpool, his head battered in by blows of the sinister bronze hand, modeled from Rodin's original, which the victim prizes as his mascot. The tale thereafter is incessantly padded by the gabbling of the ship's passengers, false suspicions, circumstantial nonsense, precipitous love-making and the imbecile maundering of amateur sleuths.

--Review of The Bronze HandThe Saturday Review of Literature, 20 February 1926

That is one of the most complete demolitions of a mystery novel in just over one hundred words that I have read. (My review of The Monogram Murders was much longer!)

For over three decades Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was one of the most successful mystery writers in the United States.  One of John Dickson Carr's favorite mystery writers when he was an adolescent, Wells likely helped form in him his lifelong love of locked room problems. (Wells often had locked room problems in her mysteries, though unfortunately she almost invariably invokes secret passages in her solutions of them.)

After the Second World War Carr went prowling bookshops with Frederic Dannay of Ellery Queen fame, collecting all of Wells' mysteries; and he had them shipped to him after he returned to England. Unfortunately, when he started reading the books he found that, as so often happens, gauzy memory did not match reality. (However, he did have an early Thirties mystery, Poison in Jest, in which a hand--alabaster?--played a role, and also from this period a shipboard mystery, The Blind Barber, so maybe he had memories of Wells' The Bronze Hand?)

In Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene, I contributed an essay on Wells that offered a more positive assessment than the one offered by Bill Pronzini in Gun in Cheek, his classic book on bad mystery fiction, but even I had to admit that most of the stuff she produced in the last twenty years of her mystery-writing career ranges from indifferent to dreadful.  I still maintain that in particular her novel Vicky Van (1918) has much merit, and G. K. Chesterton agreed, so there!

Previous Classic of Negativity here.
Previous Carolyn Wells pieces: Fatal FrontispiecesRaspberry JamThe Mark of CainTrick or Treat! A HalloWells Celebration

These are some of her earlier, and better, books, but it must be admitted that she produced a lot of extreme clunkers! See Gun in Cheek and "From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: The Fleming Stone Detective Novels of Carolyn Wells" in Mysteries Unlocked for more.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sound and Fury: Enter Sir John (1928), by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Like Ianthe JerroldClemence Dane (1888-1965) and Helen Simpson (1897-1940) became original members of the Detection Club on the strength of a single detective novel, in their case the well-reviewed stage milieu mystery, Enter Sir John (1928). Also like Jerrold, at the end of their first year in the Detection Club Dane and Simpson produced a second detective novel, this one set in the publishing world, Printer's Devil (1930) (in the US Author Unknown).

After that, Helen Simpson published Vantage Striker (1931) (in the US The Prime Minister Is Dead), a sort of political crime thriller, before reuniting with Dane for a final detective novel, titled, appropriately enough, Re-Enter Sir John (1932). After the appearance of that novel, Sir John exited from the fictional stage--aside from an appearance the next year in the joint Detection Club novel Ask a Policeman (1933), in a chapter written by another hand (Gladys Mitchell, as I recollect)--and Dane and Simpson ended their own performance as collaborative crime writers.

Enter First Author
Clemence Dane
Both Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson (again like Ianthe Jerrold) were already praised mainstream novelists when they published their first detective novel.  Dane's first work of fiction, Regiment of Women (1917), drawn partly from her experience teaching at a girls' school, was quite favorably received; and her 1921 play A Bill of Divorcement was a big stage hit, later adapted as a 1932 film starring Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore (this was Hepburn's first film).

Helen Simpson, who published her first novel in 1925, had attained less success than Dane by 1928, but greater renown was to come to her when she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, for her sprawling novel Boomerang (1932).

Simpson's novel Under Capricorn (1937) in 1949 would serve as the basis for an Alfred Hitchcock film, as had Enter Sir John itself, which in 1930 Hitchcock filmed, in what I believe is an unusually faithful adaptation for the director, under the blunt title Murder! The film, one of Hitch's first talkies, stars Herbert Marshall as the actor-manager turned sleuth Sir John Menier (Sir John Saumarez in the novel).

Enter Second Author
Helen Simpson
Enter Sir John concerns the brutal poker murder of backbiting provincial stage actress Edna Druce (she's Magda Druce in the American edition, "Edna" apparently having been deemed an insufficiently lofty handle by publishers across the pond).

Martella Baring, another actress from Edna's company, is arrested for the murder, as she was discovered at the scene of the crime with the bloody poker at her feet and is believed to have had a motive for the murder.

Even Martella herself thinks she may have done the gruesome deed, albeit in a state of what the psychiatrists term mental fugue (there's discussion of this psychic malady in the book).

After her trial and conviction, actor-manager Sir John Saumarez (cradle name Jonathan Simmonds), brooding over a discrepancy in the evidence missed by everyone else and impressed by Martella's good looks and fine breeding, decides to investigate the case for himself, contending that actors can make good sleuths by applying "the technique of our art to the problems of daily life."

With the help of the wonderfully-named Novello Markham and Doucebell Dear, an appealing married couple from Martella's and Edna's acting company, Sir John finds evidence clearly pointing to one particular person as the murderer. The rest of the novel concerns Sir John's effort to attain some kind of justice.

Enter Sir John is  a well-written novel, especially effective when it focuses on provincial English stage life.  Unfortunately, as a detective novel it struck me as somewhat thin. About 40% of the novel is devoted to the arrest, trial and conviction of Martella; then Sir John begins investigating and quickly discovers the truth.  What he does about it takes up most of the rest of the novel.

In short, the book seemed to me less a tale of detection than a crime novel, with the focus more on emotional drama (although admittedly there is some detection).  This is fine, of course, except that I did not find the characters compelling enough to provide sufficient emotional tension, absent a strong puzzle interest.  I think Ianthe Jerrold's The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), like the detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, offer a better balance of good writing and plot.

Moreover, I got a bit tired of hearing about how wonderfully bred Martella was and how the dead Edna was so common and vulgar.  To be sure, Sir John makes a successful amateur sleuth character, but he did not seem to me quite memorable enough to carry the tale himself.  For me the most interesting characters were the married actors, Markham and Dear, but they remain secondary figures (for my part I would have enjoyed a whole novel about them, with or without a murder; and I should note that a few years after Enter Sir John appeared Clemence Dane published one of her most popular novels, Broome Stages, a tale about several generations of actors).

Also problematic is the resolution of the mystery, about which I feel the best thing that can be said is that it is dated. It's not likely to go over all that well with modern readers, I suspect.  Interestingly, the authors' foreword to Enter Sir John gives credit for the plot to the publisher C. S. Evans, who the authors state, should be the "third name added to the two which stand at the head of this story....they owe Mr. Evans gratitude for the happy weeks spent in developing the story...."  With all due respect to Mr. C. S. Evans from Mr. C. J. Evans (alias the Passing Tramp), I would say the plot in this case was not the strongest aspect of the story.

Reviewing Enter Sir John in the Saturday ReviewDashiell Hammett, about to forever shake up the mystery publishing world with own novels, gave the book somewhat equivocal praise. He declared that while Sir John himself had "earned a place in the small company of amateur sleuths who aren't altogether unbearable," the story had an unfortunate tendency to "slip over from mellowness into sentimentality" and was "very soggy in spots."  Nevertheless, he deemed it "agreeably told," with "an interestingly devised crime."  On the whole I would say Sir John came out far better at Hammett's hands than Philo Vance had a couple years earlier, when Hammett reviewed S. S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case.

People should read the novel themselves and see what they think, of course, but regrettably it was never reprinted in paperback and relatively cheap copies have become hard to find.  I was fortunate some dozen or so years ago to be able to purchase from a bookseller a few novels from the Detection Club library that the Club had allowed to come upon the market, and my copy of Enter Sir John is one of these (three of the books, incidentally, I sold to Martin Edwards, archivist of the Detection Club; before Martin came along the Club hadn't had an archivist, which it looks like was something it rather needed).

This copy has the Detection Club bookplate, designed by the artist Edward Ardizzone, beloved for his illustrations for children's books by Eleanor Farjeon, sister of Jefferson Farjeon, and his cousin and Detection Club member Christianna Brand, among others (see my comment on this 2010 blog post by Martin).  It also bears a dedication, dated February 1929, not long after the book was published, from Clemence Dane to Helen Simpson (as John Norris suggests below, did they exchange copies dedicated to each other?).

The game is afoot!  On the
Edward Ardizzone bookplate a mystery addict stalks
the bookshelves of the Detection Club library

Helen Simpson was an active member in the Detection Club in the 1930s and a good friend of Gladys Mitchell, one of the Club's stalwarts. My guess is that Simpson, or perhaps her husband after her death, donated this copy of Enter Sir John to the Detection Club library. She died far too young, at the age of forty-two.

Having been diagnosed with cancer in 1940, Simpson was a patient in a London hospital when the Germans began their horrific air assault on England's capital on September 7, 1940.  Under wretched conditions Simpson and other desperately ill patients were evacuated to the countryside for safety. There she died five weeks later, on October 14. She was survived by her husband and her only child, a daughter named Clemence, after her collaborator in crime fiction.  Clemence Dane lived another quarter century, but never produced any more crime fiction as far as I know.

Perhaps in this second decade of the 21st century Sir John will stage another grand entrance, and the crime fiction of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson will be brought back into print.  These books surely merit some renewed attention, given the talents of their authors.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Deadly Diversions from Detection Medley (1939), edited by John Rhode: "Blue Lias," by Ianthe Jerrold

a menagerie of murders
Detection Medley (1939) is a massive 528-page anthology of 35 mystery/crime short stories and essays by 25 members of the Detection Club, with a foreword by editor John Rhode (John Street) and a droll introduction by A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and author of, within the mystery genre, The Red House Mystery (1922).

Unlike other Detection Club works from the 1930s, like The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman, Detection Medley has not yet been reprinted (are copyright hurdles insurmountable?) and it is quite rare in its English edition. There was as well a contemporaneous American edition, Line-Up, that is easier to find, but from it were cut, most regrettably, a number of the selections.

I discuss John Street's heroic efforts to put together Detection Medley in my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, a good chunk of which is devoted to Street's career.  At one point Street discussed with Dorothy L. Sayers some suggested titles for the book, including Detective's Ditty-bag, Detection Pie and Here's to Jack Ketch. Street dryly declared he was not exactly enthralled with any of them and urged Sayers to put her "brilliant brain to work" on the problem. Perhaps it's to Sayers we owe thanks for the fact that the book was not called Detective's Ditty-bag.

With a few exceptions--for example, Margery Allingham's ironic "The Same to Us," Agatha Christie's superb "Wireless" and "Death by Drowning" and Sayers' middling "Striding Folly" and charming "The Haunted Policeman"--most of the short stories in Detection Medley should not be overly familiar (or perhaps even familiar at all) to most mystery readers.  Certainly one of the most obscure tales in the collection is "Blue Lias," by Ianthe Jerrold, whose two excellent Golden Age detective novels, The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), are shortly to appear in print again, after over eight decades, as discussed here.

I have to confess that when I saw the title of Jerrold's story I didn't know to what it referred.  I have since learned that blue lias is a formation of layered shale and limestone, rich in ammonite fossils, found in coastal southern England (my understanding is that "lias" is derived from "layers," or "lyers"). 

Southern coastal England is indeed where Jerrold's nasty little murder story takes place. "Blue Lias" bears certain resemblance to one of Freeman Wills Crofts' parable-like inverted murder stories, collected in Murderers Make Mistakes (1947) and two additional volumes, which often concern businessmen in dire need of money who resort to murder (an aspect of Crofts' work that I discuss in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery is how after the onset of the Depression Crofts' portrayal of the business world becomes quite dark).

Where Crofts tends to follow a simple moral structure and focus on material investigation, however, Ianthe Jerrold, a talented mainstream novelist, offers a more complexly characterized and psychologically persuasive tale in "Blue Lias."  In this story of about 10,000 words, petrol station owner Don Leadley feels driven to desperate measures after it becomes increasingly apparent that farmland he bought speculatively for building development likely will not be purchased by the District Council after all, to a great extent due to the influence of Mr. Cutts, a retired science professor who wants to see the area largely preserved as a scenic beauty spot.

Mr. Cutts, irreverently dubbed "Old Ammonite" by the locals on account of his predilection for treks up and down the beach in search of fossils in fallen blue lias formation, has become a mortal enemy in Leadley's eyes. What can he do about Cutts?  What do you think?

The conflict between developers and preservationists is a perennial theme in classic mystery fiction, and usually, in my reading experience, authors seem to come down on the side of the preservationists. I suspect that is where Ianthe Jerrold's heart lay as well, but she does a commendable job in "Blue Lias" of portraying the point of view of a striving 'thirties petrol station owner, driven to desperate remedies....

My only regret about Ianthe Jerrold's genre fiction is that there isn't more of it (that we currently know of).

Cwmmau ("cooma") Farmhouse in the Wye Valley,
home of Ianthe Jerrold and her spouse George Menges,
brother of concert violinist Isolde Menges
--the home is now part of the National Trust