Friday, November 17, 2017

A Life of Crime: Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)

Ruth Sawtell Wallis, is a good example of the sort of person whom detective fiction boosters used to use in the Thirties and Forties to bolster the intellectual respectability of classic crime writing. (Actually, we're still doing it today as well, for crime fiction has its pooh-pooh'ers today as it did yesterday.)  If someone as brainy as Ruth Sawtell Wallis not only liked mysteries but wrote them, so the thinking went, no one should be embarrassed about being fervent mystery fiction addicts, no matter what judgmental scolds like Edmund Wilson and Q. D. Leavis had to say.

Barring sexism prevalent at the time (something with which we are still dealing today too), Ruth Sawtell Wallis might never have written any mysteries at all, however.  The future crime writer was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Grace Quimby and Joseph Sawtell, owner of a haberdashery and a descendant of Thomas Cogswell, a figure of some note in the world of 18th century American politics, when he was, during the Revolution, a commander at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and the Continental Army's chief wagon master, and, after the conflict, Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Court of Common Pleas and an Anti-Federalist pamphleteer.

Ruth Sawtell in 1923
Ruth Sawtell had much of her ancestor's fighting spirit.  She attended Vassar and Radcliffe Colleges, graduating with a BA in English from the latter school in 1919.  She thereupon decided to do graduate work in anthropology at Radcliffe, obtaining her MA in 1923. 

Awarded a Radcliffe Traveling Fellowship in Science, Sawtell went to Europe, where she did research work in France, Germany and England. 

With her colleague Ida Treat, she excavated Azilian culture graves at the village of Montardit in the French Pyrenees, with Treat publishing both a scholarly account of her findings and a popular one, Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees (1927).

On returning to the US in 1926, Sawtell transferred to Columbia University, where she worked as research assistant for Franz Boas, chair of the Anthropology Department there and often dubbed the "Father of American Anthropology."  One of her jobs with Boas was to take measurements of Sicilian heritage families in New York, which partly explained her hiring it seems, since, as she told friends, "Sicilian men in 1926 would never have allowed a male researcher to measure their wives." (With all the groping scandals getting reported these days, perhaps it might not have been Sicilian men alone who might have been concerned!)

Between 1926 to 1930 Ruth Sawtell worked as a physical anthropologist in New York City for the Bureau of Educational Experiments (now the Bank Street College of Education), a progressive institution founded by a trio of women which operated a demonstration nursery school.  Her work there served as the basis of her doctoral thesis, which she successfully submitted in 1929 at Harvard University.

With her PhD in hand, Sawtell in 1930 became a charter member--one of only two women to do so--of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the University of Iowa hired her as an assistant professor of anthropology.  The next year she published an academic monograph, How Children Grow (1931) and she wed the distinguished cultural anthropologist Wilson Dallam Wallis, a widower nine years her senior with two children, moving with him to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was a professor of sociology. 

Ruth Sawtell Wallis, as she was now known, took a position as an assistant professor of sociology at Hamline University in adjacent St. Paul.  She was, however, terminated at Hamline in 1935, in her own belief because of "envy over the dual incomes" that she and her husband received "in the midst of the Depression." (Even my mother, some three decades later, recalls hearing the same thing from people about her teaching employment prospects after her marriage to a university professor.)

During the rest of the 1930s, Ruth Sawtell Wallis was successively employed with Federal Works Progress Administration and US Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Home Economics.  During the Second World War she served as a labor department analyst for the War Manpower Commission and additionally she began writing detective novels: like other women who had had promising career paths closed to them on account of cultural biases prevalent at the times, she sought her fortune in crime fiction.

More on this and her accomplished crime novel Blood from a Stone, coming soon!  See my earlier review of her mystery No Bones About It here.

Source for much of this post: Patricia Case, "Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)," Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies, edited by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Monday, November 6, 2017

What's in a Name? Edith Caroline Rivett, ECR Lorac, Carol Carnac and the Rivett-Carnac Baronetcy

As seems appropriate to their profession, mystery writers often disguise themselves with pseudonyms.  One of the authors about whom I have written most, Cecil John Charles Street, reveled in such deception, puckishly doffing the punning authorial guises of John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye.

Edith Caroline Rivett is known among vintage mystery fans as ECR Lorac and Carol Carnac.  The pen name ECR Lorac can be deciphered as ECR representing her initials and Lorac as the name she went by, Carol, spelled backwards.  The Carol in Carol Carnac also is easily understood, but why Carnac?

the First Baronet
My guess is that this was Carol Rivett alluding to one of the notable English families, the Rivett-Carnacs. Indeed, it used to be assumed by some that Edith Caroline Rivett was actually Edith Caroline Rivett-Carnac

The September 1999 issue of Book and Magazine Collector included a piece on Lorac by DW Blake, wherein Blake erroneously declared that Carol, as I'll call the author here, was connected to the Rivett-Carnac baronets, being, ostensibly, the daughter of the Reverend Sir Clennell George Rivett-Carnac, Sixth Baronet and the sister of Sir Henry George Crabbe Rivett-Carnac, Seventh Baronet.  For the true story of the author's rather humbler ancestry, see here.

The Rivett-Carnac baronetcy was created in 1836 for James Rivett-Carnac, then chairman of the East India Company.  The name Carnac was added to the Rivett family name in 1801 through James Rivett-Carnac's brother in law, General John Carnac, Commander-in-Chief of India (i.e., the Supreme Commander of the Indian Army).  Rudyard Kipling once named the Rivett-Carnacs as one of the four leading (British) families of India.  James Rivett-Carnac also had a prominent brother, Admiral John Rivett-Carnac, an explorer of Western Australia for whom Carnac Island is named.

Interestingly, there was a lost heir in the Rivett-Carnac family, whose sad tale was the sort of thing you might have expected to see in a Victorian meller from the day, or even a "lost heir" Golden Age detective yarn, like E. R. Punshon's Ten Star Clues, or, better known, Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar.

In 1908 Claude James Rivett-Carnac--thirty-year-old son and heir of the Third Baronet, Sir James Henry Rivett-Carnac, and a valiant veteran of the Boer War--after an awful dispute with his family left home, angrily vowing never to return.  And he never did. 

Claude's father died the next year, but the family estate was not settled until 1924, when a judicial order was given allowing the presumption to be made that Claude's death had taken place on 31 December 1909.  His much older cousin, Sir William Percival Rivett-Carnac, succeeded to the baronetcy and the boodle.  The current baronet, the Tenth, is Sir Jonathan James Rivett-Carnac, is a grandson of Vice-Admiral James William Rivett-Carnac, rear-admiral in charge of the Normandy Beaches during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, and a brother of "Lulu" Guinness, a prominent British fashion accessories designer. (Perhaps this is more a case for Clothes in Books!)

So what happened to poor Claude?  No one knows, or if anyone does they haven't told.  Claude's sister said he did not give a damn for the baronetcy and according to rumor he traveled the world for many years.  In 1924 she gave an interview to a newspaper in which she declared that

we have heard of him as being in the South Seas Isles and in Canada, on the Pacific Coast of American, and in South Africa.  The latest news we have of him is that he was seen in South Africa three years ago.  He is believed to be married.  The only evidence, however, that we have of this is a report which appeared in a Sunday newspaper in 1915 that he had married an actress in San Francisco.

I can see how Carol Rivett might have been interested in the Rivett-Carnacs, even to the point of employing the Carnac surname in a pseudonym.  But was she an actual relation?  If so, it would appear to be quite a distant one.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Remarkable Case of Plagiarism: Don Basil's Cat and Feather (1931) and Roger Scarlett's The Back Bay Murders (1930)

stalking text
Plagiarism can be subtle or it can be blatant--sometimes jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly blatant. 

Case in point: Englishman Don Basil's Golden Age detective novel Cat and Feather, published in 1931 and lifted nearly word-for-word from American Roger Scarlett's The Back Bay Murders, published in the US the previous year. (The five Roger Scarlett detective novels, readers of this blog will recall, has recently been reprinted by Coachwhip).

In his January 1978 column ("The Uneasy Chair") in the landmark fanzine The Armchair Detective, edited by Allen J. Hubin, detective fiction collector Ned Guymon, who had corresponded about the matter a few years earlier with both Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, the two women who in the 1930s had written detective novels under the name "Roger Scarlett," called Don Basil’s Cat and Feather “probably the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist.”

Guymon explained that the novel
 did not involve a simple matter of "similarity of character or plot or situation."  Rather, it was a "word for word copy"

The English characters have different names, English locale has been substituted for American and there are a very few English words used to clarify American terms.  Otherwise this book is a flagrant and larcenous case of plagiarism.  You should see it to believe it.

I have seen a copy of Don Basil’s book (which is extremely rare), and, having seen it, I certainly do believe it.  Here are two pairs of matched quotations from the novels that illustrate the breadth and brazenness of Basil’s plagiarism:

the plagiarism was bold and bloodcurdling
I had known Kane for many years, but not until some months ago had I been associated with him in one of his cases.  On that occasion I had been present, as the family lawyer, at a dinner party which had a fatal ending, and had called Kane, my only friend among the police inspectors of Boston, to my assistance and to that of the Sutton family.  His spectacular solution of that case, widely known as the Beacon Hill murders, had put him in the limelight as far as the public was concerned.  (The Back Bay Murders)

I had known Richard Kirk Storm for many years, but not until some months ago had I been associated with him in one of his cases.  On that occasion I had been present, as the family solicitor, at a dinner which had a fatal ending, and had called Storm, my only friend among officials of Scotland Yard, to my assistance and that of the Stafford family.

His spectacular solution of the case widely known as The Bexhill Murder Mystery had put him in the limelight as far as the public was concerned. (Cat and Feather)

oyster stew, with flocks of oysters serious eats
Twenty minutes later Kane was propelling me through the doors of Thompson’s Spa.  “Don’t let a murderer get the best of your appetite, Underwood,” he cautioned me, grinning down at my gloomy face, “whatever else he does to you.  Here’s an empty counter and an idle handmaiden.  Sit down.”  He slapped a stool.  Without a word I climbed up on it and he sat down beside me.  “It’s past eating-time and I know it.  We’ll have oyster stew, with flocks of oysters, and, let’s see—for a climax—“  He debated gravely, and then brought out with gusto, “Pumpkin pie."

I forced a smile.
  The mention of food gave me no pleasure.  “That’s just where you’re wrong,” Kane announced when I explained this to him.  “You know,” he looked at me quizzically, “I’d lay a bet that nine out of ten really good murderers lose their appetites right after shooting.  And a heavy-eating gumshoe gets them on the hip every time. 
So forget your troubles.

He ordered for us both.  When we were served I fished about in my stew with as good grace as I could muster.
  (The Back Bay Murders)

college pudding lost recipes found
Twenty minutes later Storm was leading me through the doors of a restaurant.  “Don’t let a murderer get the best of your appetite, West,” he cautioned me, grinning down at my gloomy face, “whatever else he does to you.  Here’s an empty table and an idle handmaiden.  Sit down.”

Without a word we sat down at the marble table….

“It’s past lunch-time, and I know it.  We’ll have steak and kidney pie, with stacks of chips, and, let’s see—for a climax—“  He debated gravely, and then brought out with gusto, “College pudding.”

I forced a grim smile.  The mention of food brought me no pleasure.

“That’s just where you’re wrong,” Storm announced, when I explained to him.  “You know,” he looked at me quizzically, “I’d lay a bet that nine out of ten really good murderers lose their appetites after the murder.  So forget your troubles.”

He ordered for us both.  When we were served I toyed with my food with as good grace as I could muster. (Cat and Feather)

original drawing by Elena Kolotusha
copies available at Fine Art America
Aside from changes in paragraph structure and in character names (Kane becomes Storm, Underwood West, the Sutton family the Stafford family, the Beacon Hill murders the The Bexhill Murder Mystery), as well as some alterations of Americanisms (police inspectors of Boston becomes officials of Scotland Yard, lawyer solicitor, Thompson’s Spa a restaurant, oyster stew steak and kidney pie, flocks of oysters stacks of chips, pumpkin pie college pudding and fished about in my stew toyed with my food), the text of Cat and Feather is identical to that of The Back Bay Murders all through the book. 

This really is a remarkable--remarkably egregious--case of plagiarism.

Irony is added, as Ned Guymon noted, by the fact that “Don Basil” (if that truly was the author’s name) dedicated “his” novel as follows, “To Basil Holland, who once said, ‘Uncle, please write a detective story for me’.”  To this Ned Guymon witheringly commented: “Basil Holland got his detective story all right but his uncle didn’t write it, he copied it.”

Don Basil's perfidy went undetected in the UK, but in the US, where the novel had been picked up for publication by Henry Holt, Cat and Feather was pulled from circulation and "Don Basil," as far as we know, disappeared from the annals of mystery writing.

So who was the devious Don Basil?  Was the name a pseudonym or truly his?  If anyone knows any more about this subject I would love to hear about it!

A Little Murder Tour in France (with apologies to Henry James) Part One: The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner

"That's as may be, but you'll never stop people taking in Bellerive by saying nothing.  The less you say the more they talk."

                                                         --from The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Horner

My last visit to not French crime fiction but rather crime fiction set in France was over a year ago, with Katherine Woods's intriguing reissued mystery Murder in a Walled Town (1934), but this month I have three French-set mysteries up for review, one by an Englishman, one by an American woman and one by a certain clever Belgian famously associated with France (and I'm not talking about Hercule Poirot).

the postman cometh
The first of these crime novels is The Devil's Quill (1959), by David Stuart Horner (1900-1983), an interesting individual best known not for his writing but for his having been the longtime companion of English baronet and author Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell (1892-1969) of the eccentric and ever-so-aristocratic Sitwell clan, much written about over the years though not nearly as much read. Outspoken academic intellectual FR Leavis once acerbically declared, noted Brooke Allen in a review of Philip Ziegler's biography of Osbert Sitwell, that the Sitwells belonged "not so much to the history of literature as to the history of publicity."  They were, notes Allen

among the earliest examples of that twentieth-century phenomenon, the person who is famous for being famous....for every person who had read [Osbert's] books there were ten who knew something of him and his family.  Today the ratio would probably be more like one to a thousand.*

Though the status-conscious Sitwells did not stress the fact, the family fortune was built not on the land but what lay under it, their 17th century ancestor George Sitwell, builder of the lavish family seat in Derbyshire, Renishaw Hall, having been an extremely wealthy collier and ironmonger.  Among other things, George Sitwell was the world's largest manufacturer of iron nails. For the want of some nails, the Sitwell fortune might well have been lost, or at least substantially diminished.

Osbert Sitwell
Osbert Sitwell's first novel, Before the Bombardment (1926), was a critical success, his later ones less so, though one of his works, the short ghostly tale A Place of One's Own (1940), was adapted as a film starring a young James Mason and an even younger Margaret Lockwood.  He also produced five heavy volumes of autobiography.

Osbert met David Horner in 1921, when the exquisitely decorative and well-pedigreed young man was still an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.  The pair hit it off rather well, though for much of the Twenties they were personally involved with other individuals, Osbert with future art critic Adrian Stokes and David with the Vicomte Bernard d'Hendecourt, with whom he lived for several years in Paris and from whom he inherited a competence. 

Osbert, writes biographer John Pearson (The Sitwells: A Family Biography), "was inclined to be romantically protective to good-looking, well brought-up young men," and the slim, blond and exquisitely profiled David offered no exception in this regard.  Osbert rapturously termed David "orchidaceous," a word denoting, as Nero Wolfe no doubt would know, exotic or luxuriant beauty.  David's looks, agrees Pearson "were literally his fortune.Continues Pearson:

[David] dressed superbly, had an amusing line of gossip about all the best people, which he recounted in an engagingly basso profundo voice, and after leaving Cambridge was soon floating, as unattached, good-looking, upper-class young Englishmen could float in those more gentle, far-off days, through a rarely failing world of dinner-parties, long weekends and holidays abroad.  He was the perfect guest, the ideal ornament for any party, charming to women and agreeable to men, better connected and far better read than the usual run of gilded social butterflies, and equally at home in the best society in Paris or in London.

David was like the man-about-town you often see in Golden Age mystery, though with rather more substance and sophistication than usual and a sexual orientations that typically remained encoded in books.

the orchidaceous David Horner
Accounts I have seen indicate that David, who was the youngest son of a youngest son, was left little patrimony at his father's death in 1923, though his father actually had accumulated a sizeable estate.  Was there acrimony within the family over David's life choices?

David thus was possessed, as he left college, of little more than those celebrated orchidaceous looks of his and an "immaculate french accent" (and, one might add, a BA degree in History and Modern Languages, though he seems to have had no plan to employ that degree in an actual career).

David trumpeted throughout his life his descent from the ancient Horner family of Mells Manor.  "The Horners are probably one of the few Saxon families still extant," he (half?) joked to Osbert. "I am rather bored with the Normans and consider them nouveaux riches."  David could bask in the fact that he was included in the Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal.

The back flap author bio on The Devil's Quill, published when David when 59, makes mention of his service in his forties as a Squadron-Leader in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, but devotes more time to the author's Mells Manor connection, David himself writing:

I am directly descended from Little Jack Horner (Henry VIII) who was lampooned in the nursery rhyme--the  "Plum" being the property of Mells bought by my ancestor when the monks were kicked out of Glastonbury Abbey--his enemies said that he had stolen the title deeds: Mells, which now belongs to my first cousin Katharine [Horner] Asquith, is once again in the hands of a Catholic.

Mells Manor
For decades Osbert and David resided together in Derbyshire at Renishaw Hall; there was also a  London flat, and before and after the second World War the couple wintered at the Sitwell's Italian seat, the Castello di Montegufoni. During the war David's author sister Edith Sitwell, who like her brother had also loved, even adored, a gay man (Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew), moved in with Osbert and David at Renishaw, when David was serving in the RAF. 

Unfortunately Edith did not take well to David, nor he to her.  With Osbert and later David, once seemingly the perpetual golden boy, suffering increasing health problems, the relationship of the two men began to deteriorate in the 1950s and they became estranged in the 1960s, several years before Osbert's death in 1969.

Renishaw Hall
In his biography of English author LP Hartley, with whom David was a good friend for many years, Adrian Wright has complained that the Sitwell biographers "have sometimes suggested there was little more to Horner than his machinations among the Sitwells and his sex-seeking escapades."  Adrian Wright challenged the Sitwell supporters, however, asserting that David is due credit as a "man of taste and literary ability.

Having read The Devil's Quill, I would agree about the matter of David's literary ability--it was not insignificant by any means.  It is a shame that he did not write more fiction. 

Before the advent of The Devil's Quill, David published two other books, both of which, like The Devil's Quill, drew on his life in France: Through French Windows (1938), a combination travelogue and novel that one British reviewer presciently praised for its "Sitwellian sensibility to detail" ("he describes the interior of a bathroom better than a landscape or a church.") and Was It Yesterday? (1939). However, The Devil's Quill, which followed these two novels after a lag of two decades, is David's only crime novel--if we choose to term it such.

David Stuart Horner
Why was their such a lag between the publication of David's first two novels and his last, and why was his last a murder tale?  Intriguingly, David's next elder brother (he had two elder brothers as well as five sisters), Maurice Stuart Horner, was brutally killed in 1943, at the age of 49, and his murder remains unsolved today.  Though married, Maurice Horner in fact was gay like his brother, and he was beaten to death by a Canadian soldier he had brought home with him while his wife, who apparently knew about his sexual predilections, was out driving an ambulance. (For his part, Maurice, editor of Commercial Motor magazine, was a lance corporal in the Middlesex Home Guard.) Certainly this event, something of we have seen all too much, would have brought David up close to sordid murder in civil society.

Apparently inspired by a real life criminal case, The Devil's Quill, which is set a few years before the occurrence of the First World War in 1910, concerns an outbreak of poison pen letters (aka doxing in the pre-internet era) that afflicts Bellerive, a smug provincial French town not far from Lyons.  Before the novel is over social relations will be seriously disrupted and there will be murder done as well, though the murder is not dovetailed into the plot with the seamlessness of Agatha Christie in her own poison pen mystery novel, The Moving Finger (1942).

However, The Devil's Quill is not meant to be a Golden Age homage, a Christie-like clue-puzzle detective novel.  It is, rather, a mid-century crime novel, giving great attention to Balzacian social detail.   (It is not a crime novel demeueble!)  Atmosphere is the novel's greatest strength; as one reviewer noted, Horner "reproduces the atmosphere [of a small French provincial town] with a masterly sureness of touch.

the Sitwell siblings
Osbert, Edith, Sacheverall
David Horner paints a broad yet minutely detailed canvas of his little town, capturing the country gentry, the bourgeoisie, the servants, the police and the clergy equally well, something that cannot always be said of Golden Age detective fiction.  However snobbish David himself--not to mention the Sitwells--may have been, his novel never fails to incisively satirize its many snobbish characters, who are so preoccupied with their petty gossip and little scandals and social competition. 

The Devil's Quill
is not only a suspenseful novel, but an amusing one, in a sardonic way.  Social prejudices remain, even as envenomed letters fly around town:

"Not that I have anything against Odile, but the trouble is they have bad blood.  Etienne is quite different, but you must remember that the Girodets were in commerce.

"But, after all, your Aunt Louise's husband was in commerce."

"There you are entirely wrong.  To begin with, he was no blood relation of mine, and in addition to that he was not in commerce, he was in industry, and that makes just all the difference."

What a relief this must have been to the Sitwells!

For more on David Horner and Osbert Sitwell, see:

David Horner and Sir Osbert Sitwell

"The Golden Squirrel": The Esoteric Snap of the Day! The Week of Sitwelliana! June 11 2013, The Esoteric Curiosa

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Nightmare on Elm Street Hill: No Bones About It (1944), by Ruth Sawtell Wallis (Haunted House Series)

The Peckham house dominated Elm Street Hill.  It was not the largest house, the finest, or the oldest.  There was the Duncan-West French provincial chateau next door, an acre of gray stone.  For two hundred years before Mattie Peckham's father got his architectural inspiration at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, houses in Watson, Massachusetts had been simple and lovely.  But beside this embodiment of his dream, eclectic manor houses and Early Americana faded away.  The Peckham house was the most horrible in town.

Ir would perhaps not be too much to say that it was the most horrible house in the United States of America, at least in so perfect a state of preservation.  In shabby sections of little towns you can sometimes find the tottering remains of the monstrosities of 1876, but on the Peckham house the paint was shiny new.  A fine shade of mustard-and-water brought out its every feature: the central Gothic spire, flanked by four balconies, the overhanging peaks of the second-story windows like little Swiss chalets, and the miles of jig-saw carvings that enlaced porches, piazzas and porte-cochere.  From the street a walk of bulging bricks led up between a weeping willow and a cedar of Lebanon.  On the right the lawn showed a patch of pale green whence an iron stag had been tardily removed.

On closer view the house was worse.  There was a mad quality about it.  Under second-story gables, doors opened out onto space.  The jig-saw patterns were insane.  It smelled of owls in the attic and suicides in the cellar.  It was not a house you would want to meet on a lonely road at midnight.  It was hag-ridden.

On this sunny April afternoon the door opened and the hag stepped out....

                                                             From No Bones About It, by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

One of the considerable number of American intellectuals who enjoyed reading mysteries during the Golden Age of detective fiction, Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) in her late forties finally decided herself to dabble in the fine art of fictional murder (more on her life on the way).

Between 1943 and 1950 Wallis published five well-received detective novels, beginning with the prizewinning Too Many Bones, reviewed by blogger John Norris here. The next year came another accomplished crime tale from her pen (or typewriter): No Bones About It

This title suggests that Wallis (or her publisher, Dodd, Mead) had a "bones" series in mind, but in fact none of her remaining mysteries used the "b-word," if you will, in the title--which is just as well, because the title of No Bones About It is pretty meaningless anyway.  (William F. Deeck's 1990 reviews of Wallis's first two novels have been reprinted here at the excellent Mystery*File site.)

The jacket to the hardcover edition of No Bones About It is by an H. Koerner, who also designed the jackets around this time for Agatha Christie's Towards Zero and John Stephen Strange's Look Your Last, but I don't know who H. Koerner was, unfortunately.  I do know s/he was not W. H. D. (Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev) Korner, the noted Westerns illustrator, because Korner died in 1938, before any of these mentioned mysteries were even conceived, let alone published (also the surname spelling is different, the "o" in the latter man's name carrying an umlaut, which I haven't produced here).

Whoever H. Koerner may have been, his Bones cover is a superbly creepy jacket design, looking for all the world beyond like something out of Charles Addams

they're creepy and they're kooky
mysterious and spooky
Vintage mysteries of this era tended to associate the romantic domestic architectural styles of the Victorian era as disturbingly symbolic of disorder and unreason, the preferred building style in these books, especially in Britain, being classically and sanely symmetrical. I feel sure that although Hercule Poirot was an aesthetic modernist who lived in an art deco flat, he shared this preference during the Golden Age of detective fiction for classical over romantic architecture.

Of course what imaginative kid walking by a sprawling Victorian house, with queer turrets and jumbled jigsaw porches popping out all over, doesn't have a thrilling frisson of fear immediately and think "haunted house"?  You always expect to see someone (or something) peeping out at you from behind a window, or perhaps a hand clutching at a curtain.

In mystery fiction there was a whole subgenre of spooky "old dark house" mysteries that, drawing on age-old Gothic tropes, took full advantage of such sinister settings.  They went hand-in-hand with a slew of old dark house mystery films in the silent and then the talkie eras that lasted well into the 1940s.  (See, for example, my review last Halloween of Abbot and Costello's Hold That Ghost, 1942).

American "Atmosphere Mystery" Queens Mary Roberts Rinehart--who authored, among other mysteries, The Circular Staircase, translated to stage and film as the influential old dark house film The Bat--and Mignon Eberhart specialized in menacing old dark house settings; and they had a host of female followers, many of whom were dismissed by male critics of the time as cornily foreboding HIBK (Had-I-But-Known) authors.  But they were very popular and they remain so today among vintage mystery fans.

Massachusetts design at the 1876 Centennial Exposition
Anthony Boucher, who to his credit often promoted mysteries by women yet on the other hand numbered among those who regularly jeered at HIBK, highly praised Wallis's No Bones About It, which takes place mostly in 1932, in part for its not being HIBK:

Good sketching of people and houses, well-integrated and suspenseful narrative, fine period flavor of 1932, and not a single Had-I-But-Known make this a leading entry in the atmosphere-romance stakes.

I share Boucher's opinion.  Bones is an excellent mystery, successfully drawing on on one of the hoariest yet most perennially appealing themes in vintage mystery: the awful old relative who dominates her family to malign effect.  Here the nastily-disposed oldster is the wealthy widow Mrs. Mattie Peckham, the "hag" in the quotation that heads this review.  She's marvelously described by Wallis:

Mattie Peckham did not really look like a walking corpse.  It was not that her face was so old, but that her teeth and her hair were so new. Too white, too back, and far too abundant.  Under the inky puffs and pompadours her skin was shriveled and yellow, and the lips around the sparkling denture she wore were purple and wide.  But seventy years of peering into other people's business had not worn out the small, bright black eyes.

Malevolent Mattie knows too much about people, and after taunting her relatives--her lately-returned "cousin" from Minneapolis, Minnesota, pretty and progressive-minded young career gal Janet Carter; her brother, Virgil West; and Virgil's family, consisting of Charlotte, his wife; Duncan, his son, lately returned from a dozen expat years in Paris; Louise, his dull daughter; and her fishing enthusiast husband, Ralph--with her dangerous knowledge, she ends up quite dead indeed, snuffed out in her bedroom by fumes from a can of the prophetically named stain remover OUT.

There's also a Polish (or Polack, as many of the narrow-minded locals put it) family, the Balutas, whose fortunes seem to be tied up with those of the old-money Peckhams, Carters and Wests.  And then there's Mattie Peckham's Irish maid and all-round yes-woman, Bridie; the uppish West chauffeur, Jerry; and an enigmatic visiting Hollywood film star, Miss Mary Alden.

Before this suspenseful and well-plotted novel is over, there will be another death, rather graphically committed with a wicked knife everyone calls a snick-a-snee (also known as a snickersnee--see here for a blogger's visit to Ye Olde Snickernsee Shoppe), as well as two more attempted slayings.  There's also that tragic fatal affair that took place on Christmas Eve 1920, poignantly detailed by Wallis in a prologue.

Eric Lund, an appealing investigator of Scandinavian heritage, debuts in this novel and would appear in two more Wallis tales.  He's a nicely-drawn character, as are the others in No Bones About It.  Wallis was a natural novelist and it is a matter of regret to me that she left the field of detective fiction after producing only five mysteries.  No Bones About It is highly recommended--especially, as one reaches the startling denouement--for reading in lonely old houses on dark and stormy nights.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 27, 2017

One Fatal Passion and Four Walls: Ursula Curtiss, The Stairway (1957) and the Crime Novel Demeuble

Madeleine Bennett had learned to walk steadily, almost easily, over the small perfect rug she had bought for that one particular spot in the cool marble-floored hall.  The choice of rugs had come down to two in the end, one like a vivid mathematical flame, the other a pale Persian gold, patterned with intricacies in peach and blue.  She took the gold because it was not as reminiscent of the stain it had to cover, the stain left there by Stephen Bennett's violently shattered head.

So compellingly begins Ursula Curtiss's The Stairway, her elegantly suspenseful 1957 crime novel. 

Thirty-five years earlier the great American author Willa Cather, then near the peak of her career, published a brilliant little essay, "The Novel Demeuble" (aka The Unfurnished Novel, 1922), in which she made the case for concision in literature, the stripping away of extraneous, superfluous detail that allows one, in Cather's view, to get at the artistic heart of the matter:

The novel, for a long while, has been over-furnished.  The property-man has been so busy on its pages, the importance of material objects and their vivid presentation has been so stressed, that we take it for granted whoever can observe, and can write the English language, can write a novel.  Often the latter qualification is considered unnecessary.


How wonderful it would be to throw all the furniture out the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little--for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude.  The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls.

This is advice Cather followed splendidly in her own body of work, which includes such concise masterpieces as My Antonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1925), The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931).  But what, you may well ask, does this have to do with mystery writing?  Hang on!

Right at the top of her essay Cather distinguishes between the novel as high literature (or "art" as she puts it) and the novel "as a form of amusement":

One does not wish the egg one eats for breakfast, or the morning paper, to be made of the stuff of immortality.  The novel manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people must be considered exactly like a cheap soap or a cheap perfume, or cheap furniture.  Fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles, made for great numbers of people who do not want quality but quantity, who do want a thing that "wears," but want change--a succession of new things that are quickly threadbare and can be lightly thrown away. 

Does anyone pretend that if the Woolworth store windows were piled with Tanagra figurines at ten cents, they could for a moment compete with Kewpie brides in the popular esteem?  Amusement is one thing; enjoyment of art is another.

Every writer who is an artist knows that his "powers of observation," and his "powers of description," form but a low part of his equipment.  He must have both, to be sure, but he knows that the most trivial of writers often have a very good observation. 

tanagra figurine
Now, don't get me wrong, I am, as it seems I ever have been, a great fan of escapist crime fiction, a field I have no doubt Cather would have consigned to the ghetto of that fiction which provides, as she saw it, merely cheap entertainment to the less demanding and discriminating multitude (though in fact, as I have highlighted on this blog, a goodly number of great writers from Cather's day--such as Eliot, Faulkner and Pessoa--were themselves fans of the fine art of murder fiction). 

Nevertheless, I think Cather makes some interesting points that can be usefully applied to crime fiction--though in the above passage she probably was referring not to detective fiction but to popular mainstream bestsellers.*

*(If you ever look at bestsellers from that era, you will see few mysteries but a great many more works of mainstream fiction, most of them long forgotten.)

The distinguished late critic and public intellectual Jacques Barzun has pointed out that the detective novel depends on the investigation of material things and thus has to have the sort of material detail that was disappearing from the modern "literary" novel of that time.  It's what people of the time were referring to when they defended the detective novel on the grounds that the poor reader wanted a little plot in her fiction reading.  Mysteries certainly provide that--in fact they have to provide that to have worth as mysteries.

But there are different kinds of mysteries.  The detective novel of what came to be known as the "Humdrum" school (associated perhaps most of all with alibi king Freeman Wills Crofts and about which I have written in detail in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery) depended most on lengthy investigations of material circumstance: scatted ash from a cigarette, a soiled glove, a scented handkerchief, a single hair, a torn ticket, a red thumbmark, a railway timetable.

The "manners mystery," associated with such British pioneers of the form as Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham (Americans such as Mary Roberts Rinehart could be added to the list too), can be similarly lengthy, though in the manners mystery the focus shifts from the examination strictly of the mystery to the exploration of society.  Probably most of the readers of a book like, say, Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds, are more interested in its depiction of the fashion industry and various love lives than its mystery per se.  The same could be said of Dorothy L Sayers's once controversial Gaudy Night.  On the other hand, readers of Crofts and his confreres, such as John Street and JJ Connington, tended to want to stick strictly to the business of the mystery.

Then there is the amazing Agatha Christie, who was so adept at the streamlined textual mystery, where one has to read ever so carefully to catch verbal slips and cues.  Notably her books tend to be rather light on detailed description, which has led her utterly uncomprehending critics to condemn the "banality" of her writing.  Dorothy L. Sayers may give us a treatise on bell-ringing, PD James may provide pages of detailed architectural description of a church interior; but do they give us better detective novels that those of Agatha Christie?  I think not!  It was Agatha Christie who gave us fatal passion along with four walls in which that passion plays itself out, whether in, purportedly, Mayfair or Mesopotamia.

There is then, I think, such a thing as what we might call, to borrow from Willa Cather, the crime novel demeuble. In particular I think it is suspense fiction, another subgenre in the great house of mystery, which especially benefits from a more streamlined approach.  Case in hand: Ursula Curtiss, mistress of mid-century psychological suspense.

English edition of The Stairway
In Curtiss's short suspense novel The Stairway, set in salubrious suburban Connecticut, the cast is necessarily small: Madeleine Bennett, wife of the wealthy and influential--and mentally and physically abusive--Stephen Bennett; their five-year-old son, Matthew; Cora Applegate, a dependent "cousin" of Stephen's; Mr. Sutherland, a playwright neighbor; Janet Vickers, a disgruntled maid; Hayes, a calculating gardener; and, in their lesser but needed roles, doctor, lawyer and police chief.  Yet these characters are quite enough to get to the essence of suspense on the fatal stage on which they strut--a stage dominated by the stairway down which Stephen Bennett takes his terrible tumble, bloodily breaking his head on the attractive black and white tile floor below.

The Stairway could easily have been recast (and lengthened) as a country house detective novel, but in my view it works wonderfully as a tale of suspense, never engaging in longueurs as it takes its narrative twists and turns.  It is the essence of domestic suspense, a term recently popularized by writer Sarah Weinman, with menace conveyed subtly yet sharply in barbed bourgeois exchanges over cocktails and cups of tea; and this quality was appreciated not only by American book reviewers (Anthony Boucher lauded the "delicately shifting tension and suspicion" that "builds to a neatly ingenious surprise"), but by British critics of the time, who still believed that blood on the dining room floor was rather more shocking than a slew of St. Valentine's Day Massacres.

Said C. Day Lewis (the poet laureate who wrote crime novels as Nicholas Blake):

Every now and then a book turns up which replaces the mathematical elegance of the old-fashioned detective novel with a new kind of elegance--a nervous tension,a  tautness of form, a plot whose thrills and suspense grow organically out of the characters.  Such a book is The Stairway by Ursula Curtiss.

See here for a 2012 discussion of the matter of novel length at Martin Edwards's crime writing blog.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Haunted Houses I: The Second Sickle (1950), by Ursula Curtiss

Seacastle with the vague specter of a killing lunatic at large was becoming more and more unpalatable by the minute.  

                                                  --The Second Sickle (1950), by Ursula Curtiss 

Detective novels don't have to be scary, of course.  (In fact some have urged that too many chills put a mystery more in the thriller category.)  Yet often they do lend themselves to fright, especially those vintage tales of the "old dark house" subgenre.  English manor houses (preferably snowbound ones) may be de rigueur for Christmas holiday mysteries, yet there's nothing like a decaying Victorian house when one is reading an imaginative tale of mystery during the season of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties--and things that go bump in the night!

Much of Ursula Curtiss's second published crime novel, The Second Sickle (published as The Hollow House in the UK), takes place in an old house (as the English edition highlights), located in one of those moldering Massachusetts harbor towns that I always associate with HP Lovecraft's lurid shockers.  (Such a locale was admirably evoked in Jonathan Stagge's tricky and eerie The Scarlet Circle, which I reviewed for Hallowe'en five years ago

American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher, who highly praised both Curtiss's first crime novel, the prizewinning Voice out of Darkness (1948) and her third, The Noonday Devil (1950)--also lauded by Julian Symons and, well, modest and shy me, see here--saw The Second Sickle as a case of sophomore slump, condemning it for "conventional hackery."  This may be a bit hard on the book, but by Curtiss's standards I too think it's a disappointment.

Certainly The Second Sickle has milieu going for it, what with Seacastle, the isolated old port, and that creepy, nearly empty (or "hollow") house and--let's not forget this old standby--an escaped maniac, a sickle murderer no less (axes had already been done to death in Massachusetts, you must admit), and formerly a most unwilling inmate of Bellemarsh Sanitarium, "a huddle of antique wooden buildings on an otherwise deserted spur of Seacastle Point."

Victoria Devlin, twentyish (I'm guessing 26) New York career gal, is staying at the old family home of her onetime school friend Lilac Thall, who persuaded Victoria to cover for her while she, Lilac, left Seacastle for the weekend on her own mysterious private errand. 

Victoria is staying at the house with a devoted former family servant, Nurse Corey, who dutifully carries "trays of frothy eggnog and homemade beef broth and slender golden points of toast" up the stairs to the top of the house (where Lilac supposedly is temporarily bedridden), "only to consume them herself in the emptiness of the third floor sickroom."

Unhappily for Victoria (not to mention herself), gaunt Nurse Corey soon is most violently and fatally dispatched with a sickle, having tragically become the third victim of the escaped lunatic--or is she????

It's made sufficiently clear to readers at the beginning of the novel that this is not a really a serial killer novel, that the murderer of Nurse Corey is just using the serial killer as cover for his/her own privately motivated crime. 

The first part of the novel, when the maniac is still at large, is definitely unnerving; but gradually, as Victoria moves back and forth from Seacastle to New York (for an innocent person the young woman has a remarkable propensity for discovering bodies, by the way) and mystery backstory accumulates (and accumulates), that uneasy feeling attenuates. 

I'm afraid that I found myself losing interest in the matter of the killer's identity, and unfortunately the suspense/terror element paled into predictability as well. 

There's love too, of course, though here it feels rather forced, an obvious concession to the presumed predominant readership of the novel.  I agree with Boucher that The Noonday Devil is a marked improvement over The Second Sickle, though in my view Curtis's best books came later in the 1950s and the early 1960s, as she ruthlessly streamlined her plots, turning them into models of mid-century craftsmanship.

Some of Curtiss's later, better novels are only about 50,000 words in length.  Compare that to the 75,000 words in The Second Sickle, where the pace feels lumbering by comparison.  Readers today, who are used to behemoth crime novels of 150,000 words or, the good Lord help us, even more, may not believe it, but brevity truly is the soul of suspense.  Death so often doesn't tarry-- why do so many modern crime writers?