Monday, February 22, 2016

The Wailing Rock Murders (1932), by Clifford Orr

Clifford Orr's second detective novel, The Wailing Rock Murders (1932), has many of the features classic mystery fans love: a mysterious country house (actually, two of them), murder in a locked room (actually, two of them), a map, a floor plan and lots of shuddery atmosphere, including a rock formation the "wails" of which are said to foretell death.  The Rock certainly got it right in this case!

The events of the novel take place one late evening and early morning after Great Detective Spaton Meech discovers his beautiful young ward, Garda Lawrence, with her throat cut in the cupola room at Creamer and Vera Farnol's Victorian monstrosity of a mansion, perched on a cliff near Ogunquit, Maine. (This mystery takes the cake for odd names.)

Spaton Meech certainly is an unusual sleuth: he is nicknamed "Spider" on account of his hunched back, gangling arms and large head which he rests on his chest when he walks. Yet though his form is unprepossessing, to say the least, he is renowned here and yon as a Great Detective and he soon is essentially running the local sheriff's investigation, in the fashion of so many Golden Age mysteries.

Clifford Orr
Like a John Dickson Carr novel, The Wailing Rock Murders excels in atmosphere and brisk narrative pace, though it lacks, it must be admitted, the marvelous mechanical complexity of a Carr mystery. On the whole the novel strikes me as something of a Carr--S. S. Van Dine mashup (think The Greene Murder Case), though in fact Carr at this time (1932) had not achieved the outright mastery he soon would.

Unfortunately, just as Orr was really hitting his stride (his previous mystery was The Dartmouth Murders, reviewed here), he stopped writing detective fiction. Happily, however, both of Orr's detective novels will soon be available from Coachwhip, in a twofer edition with an introduction written by me.  And more is to come!  More on that soon, plus detail on the new book.

The Return of Patrick Quentin! Crippen & Landru's The Puzzles of Peter Duluth (2016)

I'm pleased today to be able to post the cover art for The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, publisher Crippen and Landru's collection of all the Patrick Quentin short fiction devoted to the exploits of Peter Duluth and his wife Iris, Quentin's series characters in nine novels, including the famous Patrick Quentin "Puzzle" series. The book will be released in just over a month, on March 25.

"Patrick Quentin," as I've discussed before on this blog, for much of his crime writing career was actually two British expatriates, Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler.  (Wheeler later continued the series solo.)

Patrick Quentin was one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed authors of mid-century American crime fiction, so it's a bit "puzzling" why his novels remain out-of-print (and have been so for about a quarter of a century), when so many less prominent vintage mystery writers are being brought back into print.  This lapse makes Crippen & Landru's new book even more welcome.  The premier publisher of short crime fiction, Crippen & Landru can always be counted on by mystery fans.

Puzzles collects two dramatic Peter Duluth novellas and a couple of short stories, including the very charming "Puzzle for Poppy."  Three of these works were written by Webb and Wheeler in the 1940s, while the last was written by Wheeler solo in the 1950s.

The interesting collection of objects you see on the cover all are integral to the stories contained therein.  A gun surely comes as no surprise to readers of crime fiction, but a Saint Bernard? Read it and see.  (A hot dog could have been included on the cover as well, but that would have been even more puzzling perhaps!)

I wrote a 3000-word introduction to Puzzles, and there's also an amusing postscript by Mauro Boncompagni and a wonderful afterword by Joanna Gondris, Hugh Wheeler's great-niece. Scholarship finally is making great strides with Webb and Wheeler (I have a new essay coming out on them later this year); let's hope a publisher catches up and reissues the PQ novels, one of the major bodies of American crime fiction.

In the meantime, you should tide yourself over with The Puzzles of Peter Duluth, a collection of really first-rate short crime fiction by a couple of masters of mystery.  Doug Greene at Crippen & Landru did a great job getting this book put together.  On a personal note, I wrote Doug, who also is the biographer of John Dickson Carr, what you might call a fan note at Crippen & Landru about twenty years ago, back when I was graduate student; and it's exciting after all these years to have had the chance to write an introduction to one of his books!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

An Echo of Eliot (Not to Mention Nabokov)

Paul Grimstad's recent New Yorker essay, "What Makes Great Detective Fiction, According to T. S. Eliot" is an interesting and well-written piece, to be sure, though it tends to fall into the standard pattern of reflexively contrasting "quaint and artificial" "British murder mysteries"--"decorous country house puzzles"--with the "meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller" "taking shape across the ocean" from Britain in the United States.

Of course Grimstad means by the latter American hard-boiled crime fiction. T. S. Eliot's admiration for the classical, clue-puzzle detective novel (by no means always British) Grimstad suggests stems from Eliot's "sharp turn to the right politically," "his conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith."  Eliot liked classical detective fiction, in short, because it provided order in a "fractured modern world."

The view that classical detective fiction and its audience are right-wing and hard-boiled detective fiction and its audience are left-wing is a common one, though in fact one familiar with the genre can easily find examples of left-wing writers and readers of detective fiction and right-wing writers and readers of hard-boiled crime fiction.  Dashiell Hammett's left-wing sympathies are well-known, but Raymond Chandler himself is on record as criticizing Franklin Roosevelt and the Soviet Union and declaring that he would have fought for the Confederate States of America during what he termed the "War Between the States."  Some of the attitudes he evinced toward homosexuals and racial and ethnic minorities have caused even some of his fans (I like a good deal of his work myself) to squirm.

Similarly, in Britain the leftist intellectuals GDH and Margaret Cole were great fans of classical detective fiction, and began writing it themselves in the 1920s.  Indeed, one could argue, I think, that the Socialists and Communists of the 20s and 30s had quite an interest themselves in instituting order in the world, albeit an order of a different sort.

So perhaps the popular right-life binary view of "cozy" and hard-boiled crime fiction is in need of some revising, but that I will save for a later day.  I touch on some of this in an essay on Chandler called "The Amateur Detective Just Won't Do: Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction," published in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014).  I recommend it to Grimstad.

Incidentally, I wonder whether Grimstad read some of my work already?  I first wrote on Eliot and his detective fiction criticism in The Criterion, a surprisingly neglected subject (usually one just reads about his admiration for Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone), in an article in CADS in 2011, which I expanded into an essay, "Murder in The Criterion: T. S. Eliot on Detective Fiction," also published in Mysteries Unlocked.

I discussed my essay on my blog last June, including in this piece a discussion of T. S. Eliot's detective fiction rules (rules of "detective conduct"), which he set down in The Criterion in 1927.  I had earlier discussed Eliot's great interest in classical detective fiction of the Golden Age on my blog in May of that year.

I don't know whether Grimstad has read any of this work--there's certainly no mention of it in his New Yorker piece--but what was even more striking to me when I read his essay is that he opens it discussing the correspondence concerning detective fiction between Russian author Vladimir Nabokov and American author and critic Edmund Wilson, the latter notoriously a detective fiction hater.  To this subject I devoted an entire February 2015 blog piece, "The Bells and the Bees: Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov Discuss Detective Fiction."

Here's Grimstad in the New Yorker:

Yet everyone [Wilson] knew seemed to be addicted [to detective fiction].  His wife of the time, Mary McCarthy, was in the habit of of recommending her favorite detective novels to their emigre pal Vladmimir Nabokov; she lent him H. F. Heard's beekeeper whodunit "A Taste for Honey," which the Russian author enjoyed while recovering from dental surgery. (After reading Wilson's essay, Nabokov advised his friend not to dismiss the genre tout court until he'd tried some Dorothy L. Sayers.)

I discuss all these points, and more, in my blog piece.  It's the fifth most-read blog piece in my blog history, on account of the fact that Michael Dirda linked to it in a Washington Post review article he wrote on the crime writer Todd Downing and my book about Downing, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing.

On other matters, I have about completed my current book project and there will be more about this soon on the blog, as well as some other projects of late and another book review.  I hope it will be as interesting as discussions about Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Hanging at Hanover: The Dartmouth Murders (1929)

Could there be a thriller
in this gent's pocket?
After a long hiatus the Passing Tramp has returned!  I have a bit of news about this year's writing projects, but I will let that wait for a few days, because I think a review is long overdue.

And since in the United States the New Hampshire primary for both major political parties is today, what better choice than a vintage detective novel set in New Hampshire?

I think many people today regard classical, or so-called "cozy" detective fiction, as something appealing more to middle-aged and older readers, so it's interesting to note that during the Golden Age of detective fiction, between the two world wars, classic mystery was seen as something of a college campus craze, like wearing raccoon coats and swallowing goldfish.

In the United States, detective novelists John Dickson Carr (1906-1977), Todd Downing (1902-1974) and Milton M. Propper (1906-1962), for example, were avid mystery readers in college, as was another detective novelist I hadn't written about on the blog before, Clifford Orr (1899-1951), Dartmouth, Class of '22.

Clifford Orr (1899-1951)
All four of these men published their first detective novels at relatively young ages for neophyte authors, as you can see by the publication years:

Carr, It Walks by Night (1930)
Downing, Murder on Tour (1933)
Propper, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929)
Clifford Orr, The Dartmouth Murders (1929)

Carr was only 23 when his first novel detective novel was published, Propper a year younger.

Downing and Orr, on the other hand, knocked about a bit after college before settling down to novel writing: Downing attended graduate school, earning an MA, and became an instructor at the University of Oklahoma, while Orr after college worked for the Boston Evening Transcript newspaper and the publishing company Doubleday, Doran before going freelance as a writer in 1928.

After publishing The Dartmouth Murders, Orr would publish The Wailing Rock Murders  in 1932 and the same year he was said to have The Cornell Murders in preparation, but the latter novel never appeared (too bad, a line of college titled mysteries could have kept Orr in gravy for some time).  Orr later went on to become an editor at the New Yorker, where he remained until his untimely death in 1951.

The Dartmouth Murders was filmed as A Shot in the Dark in 1935, a poverty row production that nevertheless has its modern admirers.  Orr's first novel holds up well for fans of classic mystery, though his second one, Wailing Rock Murders, is, in my view the superior book of the pair. The latter novel is extremely rare, but happily a new edition is forthcoming from Coachwhip, who will be publishing the novel as a twofer with The Dartmouth Murders.

North Mass, Dartmouth
(setting of the first death in
The Dartmouth Murders; note modern fire escape)
The Dartmouth Murders starts with the suicide--or is it?--of well-liked student. Rather gruesomely he is discovered hanging from a rope fire escape outside his living quarters (the real life North Mass, where Orr himself was a resident). Somewhat like the Ellery Queen mysteries, which debuted the same year, we have something of a father-son investigative team, the son being the dead boy's roommate and best friend and the father a rather meddlesome and officious attorney who just happens to be visiting the Dartmouth campus on the fatal weekend.

In classic tradition, the local sheriff allows the father to more or less run the investigation for him, Ellery Queen or Philo Vance presumably not having been available for amateur consultation that week.  Unfortunately, two more deaths will follow the first before a murdering fiend is found.  In classic fashion, the trail of the mystery seems to lead to Boston and old sins that have cast long shadows....

Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth
(scene of the second murder in
The Dartmouth Murders)
The Dartmouth Murders is an enjoyable mystery tale (one key element in the murders anticipates a John Dickson Carr novel, as I recollect) and, better yet, fans of classic mystery will soon be able to read it right in the same volume with The Wailing Rock Murders, one of the rarest Golden Age mystery titles around.

I'll have a separate post on the latter novel coming soon!