Anna Katherine Green | Hume Nisbet | Robert W. Chambers | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman | Pauline E. Hopkins | Elmer Rice | Lee Thayer | Donald Bayne Hobart | Melville Davisson Post | Jacqueline Cutlip | William Faulkner | Lawyer Stories | Mrs. Wilson Woodrow
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
That Affair Next Door (1897) (Chapters 1-9, 16-20, 24, 41-42) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21617)
Lost Man's Lane (1898) (Chapters 1-3, 39) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/33305)
The Circular Study (1900) (Chapters 1-10) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/18761)
Uncollected short stories
The typical Green case opens with the discovery of a murder scene. The murder was the result of a nighttime meeting or encounter; incredible passions usually raged at this meeting, involving jealousy, blackmail, parent-child conflicts or revenge, and these passions got out of hand, and led to murder. The detectives usually do a lot of well done sleuthing at this point, uncovering hidden facts about the case, various people involved, the earlier lives of the suspects and so on. This detective work is the best part of the novel. Just when readers are completely fascinated by all this sleuthing, the detective story grinds to a sudden halt, and we are treated instead to a long, long flashback dealing with the early lives of the characters. The flashback is a regular novel, not a mystery, and is filled with Victorian melodrama. Green inherited this flashback technique from Émile Gaboriau, and one finds similar Gaboriau inspired flashbacks in such Sherlock Holmes novels as A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), and The Valley of Fear (1914), where they also annoy modern readers! Green's flashbacks are even more sinister and horror filled than those of Gaboriau, or Doyle.
Green's novels also suffer in modern eyes by their general lack of puzzle plots, although there are some good puzzles in her shorter fiction. Despite these flaws, the best passages of detective work in Green's books remain first rate. It is a major contribution to the technique of the detective story, and has influenced numerous Twentieth Century detective writers.
By contrast, mystery puzzles, defined as plots with imaginative, surprising solutions, were not as emphasized. There were such stories, especially in the American Renaissance of Poe, Hawthorne and Melville. Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855) falls into the start of this era, and Richard Dowling's "The Going Out of Alessandro Pozzone" (1876) attempts ingenuity. Wilkie Collins' tales also are well plotted, as is Gaboriau's Le Crime d'Orcival. But it is not till Doyle that a systematic attempt is made at mystery puzzle plot brilliance.
Stories emphasizing detective work are a little closer to mainstream fiction than are puzzle stories. Detective tales can be considered in some ways as realistic stories about detectives, just as other Victorian fiction focused on realistic portraits of governesses or clergymen. Detective tales eventually developed story conventions different from conventional books - after all, detectives unravel hidden events, so they tell stories "backwards" from a conventional novel. And detective fiction has many special exciting events and melodramatic conventions. But still, it is more realistic and less "genre"-like than a puzzle tale, where pure ingenuity of plot is the reader's chief interest.
The best part of Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878) is the detection in Book 2. Each section brings to new light some facts about the mysterious Henry Clavering. Much of the detection is ingenious. Green draws clear lines between detection by amateurs and the police, and shows the strengths of each with remarkable vividness, imaginativeness, and clarity. Here the police and amateurs work together, each contributing numerous pieces to the puzzle. In later Green novels (1897-1900), Gryce will work with another amateur, the archetypal spinster sleuth, Miss Amelia Butterworth, in a relation that includes both the cooperation typical of The Leavenworth Case, and some competition.
Later, too, Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) will feature competition between two detectives for the solution of a case. Douglas G. Greene suggests that this influenced similar competitions in Thomas W. Hanshew's The World's Finger (1901). I might add the friendly but exuberant competition between the private eye Mr. Barnes and the amateur Mr. Mitchell in Rodrigues Ottolengui's five mystery books of the 1890's, and the more serious (though not necessarily more ingenious) battles of wits between detectives in Zangwill's Big Bow Mystery (1891) and Leroux's Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907). Such detectival competitions seem to be a common feature of mystery novels of the era.
Green shows plenty of gusto, too, in Book 2 of The Leavenworth Case, with a kind of plotting later standard in the mystery novel, but probably innovative in its day: the gradual unveiling of a buried situation, piece by piece. This is all very well done, and is virtually paradigmatic for later mystery writers. It is unclear whether Green created this kind of unveiling, but it is done awfully well by her, and probably influenced later authors.
Much of the rest of the book is not up to this standard. The detective known as Q has a good moment near the start of Book 3, and Gryce's successful attempt to smoke out the killer by his announcement in the attic at the novel's end is well done, too. But these are isolated beauties of detection in a none-too-brilliant Books 3 and 4. The detection comes to a screeching halt fairly early in Book 3, when a second murder occurs. This second murder is paradigmatic in mystery plots, too, and pops up in a million Golden Age detective novels. But it interrupts what Green does best in this book, which is pure detective work.
Agatha Christie's development and gradual unveiling of hidden facts in her books is one of her most appealing and exciting traits. The reader is always learning about events in the past which might be hidden crimes, or which could provide motives for the crime currently under investigation. It is always a thrilling experience for the reader to see such new perspectives emerge. It is an intellectual drama.
Agatha Christie's relationship to Green is paralleled in many ways by that of American mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart to Green. Rinehart records a similar personal inspiration to publish her first mysteries from Green's books. In Rinehart's work, there is a similar emphasis on uncovering a mystery, as well. In a story like "The Burned Chair", there are plenty of mysterious events. Each turn of the plot either brings new mystery, or helps uncover previous mysteries. The relentless, logically inspired focus on the mystery, seems in an ancestral line from Green.
Both Rinehart's and Christie's spinster sleuths, Miss Rachel Innes and Miss Jane Marple, seem directly inspired by Green's Miss Amelia Butterworth.
The second Butterworth novel, Lost Man's Lane (1898), seems especially influential on Rinehart. The way that all the suspects in Green's Lost Man's Lane live on a single, isolated street, anticipates Rinehart's The Album (1933); both books concentrate on five households. And the spooky goings on in the main country mansion in Green's book anticipate Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. There is also a spiral staircase, deep within the mansion in Green's book. The hidden family secrets, long in the past, will find echoes in many of Rinehart's plots. The serial killer aspects of Lost Man's Lane return in Rinehart's The After House (1914). The way amateur-detective-working-with-the-police Butterworth gets an assignment from Gryce in the opening, and her comic sparring with Gryce over it, anticipates Rinehart's nurse detective Miss Pinkerton.
It has been fashionable to date the modern mystery novel from E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Bentley's book is certainly a good novel. But long before Bentley, or his contemporary R. Austin Freeman, Anna Katherine Green was a major influence on detective fiction. Nowhere as good as a constructor of puzzles as later writers, such as Bentley, Freeman or Christie, she did excel at detection. And she helped serve as a model for the detective work of modern writers.
That Affair Next Door mercifully lacks the long non-detective flashback that takes up a major portion of other Green novels. But it does intersperse several sections, such as the long inquest, that mainly tell some of the suspects' history in a linear, non-detective way. These less than gripping passages are largely equivalent to the boring flashbacks of other Green novels.
The two brothers in That Affair Next Door recall the two sisters in The Leavenworth Case. The complex trails left by the characters anticipate The Chief Legatee (1906). The depiction of the house where the murder occurs also anticipates the Violet Strange story, "An Intangible Clue". The solution of That Affair Next Door shows some affinity to that of "The Doctor, His Wife, And the Clock" (1895). It does have ingenuity, in tying up the disparate strands of the mystery.
Lost Man's Lane (1898) has a nice opening (Chapters 1-3), with Butterworth once again sparring with Gryce, while an intriguing mystery is set forth, complete with map of a spooky country village. These sections combine comedy with a pleasantly creepy atmosphere. If some of the Violet Strange tales involve disappearing objects, this novel centers on vanishing people. Unfortunately, the rest of the book does not do much to develop this material further, until the solution (Chapter 39). And in much of the story, Butterworth seems more like a passive eye-witness to events, rather than a detective. This book does have some interest, as one of the earliest of all serial killer mystery novels.
The Circular Study (1900) shows a similar dichotomy to The Leavenworth Case, between outstanding detection, and less enjoyable material. The first half of the book (Chapters 1-10) is a straightforward investigation of a crime, with excellent detective work. There is a great deal of pleasant humor and entertaining storytelling as well, in this first half of the novel. At this point we start learning about the suspects' history, and we are in another world, Green's unique universe of nightmarish suffering and horror, where her characters have to endure the most terrible events imaginable. This flashback look at the suspects' tragic lives takes up most of the second half of the book.
Gaboriau used the floor plan in Monsieur Lecoq. There are also floor plans and other multimedia features in the otherwise dreary Notting Hill Mystery (1862) by Charles Felix.
Other Green novels continue her innovations in multimedia. The Circular Study (1900) contains a chapter printed in two columns. One column shows letters. A second column contrasts the contents of those (lying) letters with the private diary of one of the characters.
The Circular Study contains another now-standard mystery feature partaking of multimedia: a list of questions that need to be answered for the mystery to be solved. Embedding lists in novels is still not a common feature of mainstream novels, even though it is a vital part of much subsequent mystery fiction. One can find it in such on-the-record Green admirers as Rinehart, Christie and Van Dine. Green adds a final multimedia flourish near the end of the mystery, one that was not influential on subsequent writers. She repeats the list, and in the margin she writes "answered" or "not answered" in handwritten script next to each question, depending on whether the detective has yet succeeded in answering the question. Green is clearly feeling exuberant, and doing "wheelies" with the possibilities of multimedia.
"Missing: Page Thirteen" shows Green's interest in architecture. Like The Circular Study (1900), and "The Staircase at the Heart's Delight" (1894), it takes place in a complex, unusual building. This fascination with architecture is directly ancestral to the similar interest in Mary Roberts Rinehart and other Golden Age writers.
"Missing: Page Thirteen" is also constructed like one of Green's novels. It has both a modern day plot, followed by a long Gaboriau-like flashback, filled with horror, explaining the origin of events and situations in the modern story. While these flashbacks can seem overblown in Green's novels, here however it works wonderfully. The whole piece is one of Green's best works.
Green's "The Second Bullet" shows a technique in which one mystery is explained, leading to revelations of the inner situation of a mystery, followed by stripping away a second layer of revelations, and so on. It is a "box within a box" approach. "The Second Bullet" is neatly constructed out of a whole series of such layers. This short story technique is related in miniature to the detective emphasis of her novels, in which detective work penetrates deeper and deeper into a mysterious problem.
"An Intangible Clue". This tale shows in pure form one aspect of many Green novels: a scene of the crime, and the detective's reconstruction of the events that took place there. The crime is sinister, takes place at a lonely house and is full of strange coincidences: three Green traits. The detective heroine's visit to the crime scene, disguised as the gawking of a tourist, reminds one to a degree of the crime scene in Agatha Webb (1899), and the people it attracts. The newspaper account in the story mentions a floor plan, although it is not shown in the Green's tale. Perhaps such floor plans were once common in real life newspaper accounts of crime, just as in detective stories.
Green's stories are remarkably varied. They do not all fit within one paradigm of crime fiction. Some are detective novels. Others are suspense stories of crime. Most of the tales in The Old Stone House (collected 1891) fall in this category, including the long title novella. This novella seems remarkably similar to the "suspense" stories written from the 1940's on. It has no mystery, and focuses on an account of psychologically abnormal characters whose lives are careening towards murderous tragedy. This is exactly the paradigm of modern "psychological suspense" tales. Many of Green's novels also have sections similar to the modern story of suspense. I'm referring to the Gaboriau like mainstream accounts of the event leading up to the crime, that are found at the end of many Green books. I confess I do not like most of Green's suspense tales, just as I do not enjoy most modern instances of this genre.
Green's work is in fact carefully dated. The action of The Leavenworth Case takes place in March 1876, over two years before official book publication in 1878. Was this due to delays in getting published? This would not be surprising for a first novel. Was there a magazine publication c1877? I don't know. Later, in the long short story "The Doctor, His Wife and The Clock", published separately as a book in 1895, a contemporary Gryce is narrating a story from his youth, set in 1851. Gryce says that he was 30 then, so he was born c1820 - 1821. In the novel The Circular Study (1900), Gryce describes himself as an "octogenarian". This means that he is at least 80, so his latest possible birthdate must be 1820. Hence we can conclude that Gryce was born in 1820. It is possible that Green has an actual birthdate in mind for Gryce, which is mentioned in some story I haven't yet read. In any case, this birthdate would make him c55 during The Leavenworth Case, which agrees with evidence in the story.
Also, in That Affair Next Door (1897), which is set in September 1895, the narrator Amelia Butterworth estimates that Gryce "was seventy-five if he was a day". This too is consistent with a birth date of 1820. But later in the story, Gryce's age is given as 78. This suggests a birth date of 1816 or 1817. This is unfortunately not consistent with "The Doctor, His Wife and The Clock".
One might also note that in "The Doctor", Gryce says that he is "now" 70, which makes the present in that tale to be c1890. Once again, this leads one to suspect that "The Doctor" had a prior magazine publication c1890. At least in these stories, Gryce seems to be aging in "real time". Why did Green set "The Doctor" in 1851? Green was born in 1846, and would have been around 5 then. Her family lived in New York City till she was 10. So Green has set this tale in the time and place of her childhood. Does it draw on childhood memories? It is such a terrifying work. The opening scene especially, is one of the most hallucinatory in all mystery fiction. Its atmosphere and strange sense of dream like brooding are unique.
"A Difficult Problem" (1896) seems to be another Gryce-narrated short story, (although the identity of the tale's detective-narrator is never made explicit), but it makes no attempt at the precise dating used by Green elsewhere. It is a good tale. It, and the much poorer Gryce-narrated "The Staircase at the Heart's Delight" (1894) in the same volume, show an interest in murderous devices. So do many Green novels. Such devices probably influenced Burton E. Stevenson in The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet. "Staircase" is set in 1840, so Gryce was already on the force at around age 20. In The Circular Study (1900), Green says Gryce has completed sixty years of service. If he is 80 in that novel, that would mean that he started on the detective force c1840, around age 20. This would make "Staircase" set at the time when Gryce joined the force. However, Gryce makes no mention of being a rookie or brand new officer in that tale - he is simply described as "young".
Amelia Butterworth, in her debut case That Affair Next Door (1897), describes herself as being influenced by a woman's beauty, in the same way that men respond to it. She ascribes this to "something masculine in my nature" (Chapter 24). Butterworth is the original, prototypical spinster sleuth in detective fiction. It is startling to see her described as being sexually attracted to women, and in such explicit terms. Butterworth's masculine gender personality, and her gay romantic feelings, are an integral part of the characterization of spinster sleuth. The book's finale (Chapter 42) also deals with this side of Butterworth.
Sweetwater in Agatha Webb (1899), his origin novel, is deeply in love with an older man. Sweetwater will show up in later Green novels as a continuing detective character. More male-male relationships pop up in The Circular Study. Gryce talks of "adopting" the young, male, police detective, Sweetwater, "into his heart and home". He admires Sweetwater's detectival abilities, even though his looks are ordinary and plain. Later, both Gryce and Sweetwater discuss the supreme good looks of another male character in the book. In another male-male relation in The Circular Study, the murder victim's manservant has a deep attachment to the victim, and was "jealous" of the victim's falling in love with the heroine. Much is made of this jealousy as a plot element, but the idea that a man can be in love with another man, and jealous of his other relations, is simply accepted as a matter of course. Green seems to be in another world from Twentieth Century detective novelists, one in which same-sex relations are accepted much more casually than later.
Same sex relations in Green seem to involve two groups of people. One is the detective heroes themselves. Miss Amelia Butterworth, Green's prototypical spinster sleuth, is a lesbian. Mr. Gryce's adoption of Sweetwater, Mr. Raymond's pursuit of the handsome Henry Clavering are key examples. One might also add here Q's disguise as a woman in The Leavenworth Case.
The second group of people in same sex relations are servants and other lower class people who fall in love with their masters. The country woman who is so devoted to Mary Leavenworth, and Joseph's devotion to his master in The Circular Study, are examples of this. It is possible that this relationship was more acceptable to Green's readers, because they liked the idea that the lower classes were slavishly devoted to the upper. Perhaps the same sex aspect of these relationships were simply invisible to Green's 19th Century readers, who saw only the political, class relationship aspect. Be that as it may, it certainly seems very striking today.
Many modern academic critics seem to be Marxists - people whose politics are the direct opposite of Green's. These writers tend to see society as evil, and individual people as good. Green's point of view seems to be the opposite. Green regards the family as a frequently totalitarian institution, especially in its control of women by male relatives. By contrast, Green tends to like society, or at least, the existing capitalist society of her time. People are happy in Green when they escape from their families, and take part in the big, and relatively good, world. Equally evil in Green are radical political movements, which tend to control people, especially women, in similar totalitarian ways as the family.
Apparently non-political tales such as "The Doctor, His Wife, And the Clock" perhaps have a political side. That novella's unforgettable opening involves an invasion of the heroine's house, and its taking over by sinister, all controlling forces. So do "Midnight in Beauchamp Row" and "The Mystery of the Blue Wash". None of these forces are political, but they are similar in their totalitarian all-controlling way to the political forces that take over the lives of the heroines in The Chief Legatee and "The Black Cross". The heroine of the later story has her home taken over by the KKK in just the same way as the protagonists of "The Doctor" and other non-political tales do. The sinister hotel in "Room No. 3" (1909) also takes over its occupants' lives, in a somewhat similar way.
Crime stories of all eras are full of kidnapped heroines. How do Green's tales, in which not just the heroine's person, but also her home is taken over, differ from these? The home occupation tales imply that the heroine's whole life has been taken over. These tales are metaphors for the control over a person's life that comes from both the family and from radical political institutions.
Although Green lived at a time when there was an active feminist movement, she does not seem to gave supported active feminist politics and reforms. We know from Patricia D. Maida's study that, unlike the later Mary Roberts Rinehart, who marched with the Suffragettes, that Green opposed giving women the right to vote. By contrast, Green's fiction often dramatizes the problems facing women in her time. Her characters are often coping with nightmarish situations caused by male control over their lives. Green's women do not seek political solutions to their problems. Instead, they ferociously rebel in their personal lives, usually by launching some secret, conspiratorial scheme involving a secret life and activities. This rebellion is often a mainspring of Green's mystery plots.
Many of Green's women also struggle to succeed in professions, and in businesses which they run. Such business opportunities are usually presented by Green as happy, even joyous experiences for the women. Violet Strange's pleasant relationship with her male employer at the detective agency is typical of this. He values her work highly, and is always eager to talk her into taking on some case. They have pleasant banter and a friendly relationship. There is a political dimension to this: in Green, when women escape from their families, and take part in capitalist society and the world of employment, their lives become fulfilling and pleasant.
Violet Strange is one of a long series of Victorian and Edwardian female detectives who sprang up after the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, these women work as professional detectives, taking on cases for clients. Like Holmes, these women have extraordinary intellects, solving their cases through a mix of genius level mental capacity, and professional detective skills. Violet Strange reminds one of such earlier woman professional detectives, such as Catherine Louisa Pirkis' The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1893), and George R. Sims' Dorcas Dene, Detective (collected in book form 1897). One suspects that Green had read some of these authors. Violet Strange goes undercover as a nurse in a private house in one tale, just like Dorcas Dene did in one of her adventures.
The theme of murderous passion within a family circle, played out for maximum drama, does recall the works of Nisbet's contemporary Anna Katherine Green.
So does the use of a vividly described architectural setting, one that seems to partner with the people in the story, as the protagonist of the tale. In Green's fiction, the setting often serves as the title of the tale: The Circular Study, The House of the Whispering Pines, "The Staircase at the Heart's Delight", and these unusual buildings co-star with the human characters as a focus of the tale. You also see this architectural emphasis in such Green-influenced work as Wilkins Freeman's "The Long Arm". This focus persists in such American writers as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Burton L. Stevenson.
"The Haunted Station" is reprinted in Stephen Knight's anthology Dead Witness: Best Australian Mystery Stories (1989), along with many other fascinating tales.
"The Purple Emperor" explicitly mentions "the detective story" at one point, contrasting the "real life" of the story with detective fiction. This is another of the many self-reflexive references to detective fiction within detective stories themselves.
Links to the Green tradition. "The Purple Emperor" sticks closely to the paradigms of the detective story laid down by Anna Katherine Green:
It is perhaps significant that when American mainstream writers like Freeman and Chambers decided to write detective stories around 1895, they followed the approach of Green, and not of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, then at the peak of their popularity. Similarly, Richard Harding Davis' handful of crime fiction will be based on Robert Louis Stevenson, and largely ignore Doyle.
Scientific Detection. During the second half of the 19th Century, huge numbers of detective and crime short stories were published in American periodicals. A large selection of these are reprinted in LeRoy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso's Early American Detective Stories: An Anthology (2008). "The Purple Emperor" shows links to traditions found in some of these tales. (Please see a detailed discussion of this anthology.)
Some of these stories in Early American Detective Stories: An Anthology are works of scientific detection. "The Purple Emperor" is full of discussions of butterflies and insects, conducted at a scientific level. The Purple Emperor that gives the tale its title is a kind of butterfly. Science about insects also plays a role in the detective work that solves the case. "The Purple Emperor" should be seen as a "scientific detective story", among other things.
A number of the detective tales in Early American Detective Stories: An Anthology are based on "ingenious idea, through which the detective is able to link the crime to its perpetrator". This idea is the center, around which the story is constructed. "The Purple Emperor" is constructed around such an idea, which forms the finale of the tale. Like some, but not all, of such ideas in tales from Early American Detective Stories: An Anthology, the idea in "The Purple Emperor" is science-based.
Another Country. "The Purple Emperor" is an early example, of a detective tale depicting life in an exotic foreign land. We get detailed descriptions of life in a small town in Brittany, and meet various local "types". And as is common in such stories, we have an American hero who is visiting the country as a tourist. Such tales will recur throughout the history of detective fiction. For example, "The Purple Emperor" anticipates mystery novels by Aaron Marc Stein, such as Three - With Blood (1950) and Mask for Murder (1952), both of which are set in small towns in Mexico.
Freeman corresponded with Green, sending her fan letters, according to Green biographer Patricia D. Maida. See Patricia D. Maida's Mother of Detective Fiction: The Life and Works of Anna Katherine Green (1989).
Its long opening chapter includes some vivid description of small town New Jersey life of the era. After this, the book slides into grimness and dullness, although it does deal with social issues that are still of current interest.
This story is better as mainstream tale than as a mystery. The rather ordinary locked room plot is given two separate solutions by the author, one legitimate and fair, the other now considered passé.
"Talma Gordon" is reprinted in the anthology Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime and Suspense Fiction (1995), edited by Paula L. Woods.
But it does include detectives. These include the head of the US Secret Service, brought into the case by the romantic heroine, and an amateur sleuth, the heroine's black maid, Venus Johnson. Venus Johnson, who does most of the actual detecting in these sections, is the earliest known black detective in fiction, according to Stephen F. Soitos' history of black crime fiction, The Blues Detective (1996). Hopkins stresses Johnson's courage, resourcefulness, and above all, her intelligence. After doing some investigating on her own, she goes to the Secret Service chief, offering her services. He sends her out on a successful mission. We also get glimpses of professional black operatives in the Service's employ.
Hopkins' concepts of detectives builds upon those of Green. The Secret Service chief is middle aged, around 60, shrewdly professional, but mild mannered, a characterization recalling Green's Ebenezer Gryce. He both employs professional assistants, like Gryce's Q and Sweetwater, and collaborates with amateur sleuths, just as Gryce does with Amelia Butterworth. However, his collaboration with a black woman goes beyond anything envisioned in Green.
Hopkins' writing is very dramatic. Many of the scenes, such as those in the courtroom, cry out for stage presentation, and it is hard to believe that Hopkins did not have some such notion in her head while writing them. This book would make an excellent movie or TV show.
On Trial includes some mysteries in its reconstruction of a murder. These mysteries do not include the identity of the guilty party, which is never in doubt. But other aspects of the plot, initially baffling and mysterious, are slowly clarified, revealing many of the details of the case. The story thus uses some features of the true mystery story, combined with non-mystery elements of the crime thriller.
The defense attorney in the trial is most responsible for uncovering these hidden facts; he functions somewhat like the detective in a traditional mystery story. The defense attorney is not, when the play opens, clearly marked as the detective character; he only gradually emerges in this role throughout the play. Similar "emerging detectives" are found in other American mystery plays of the era, such as Bayard Veiller's The Thirteenth Chair (1916) and John Willard's The Cat and the Canary (1922). These plays, like On Trial, are to be found in Famous Plays of Crime and Detection. Rice's and Willard's plays seem much better to me than Veiller's, by the way, although Veiller's work is far from dull.
Rice is mainly a mainstream author of plays, not a mystery writer. Like several other American mainstream writers, when he did include mystery elements in his work, he drew on paradigms established by Anna Katherine Green. Such mainstream writers include Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Robert W. Chambers, Pauline E. Hopkins and William Faulkner.
In its mystery and crime elements, Rice's play involves traditions dating back to Anna Katherine Green. As in Green's work, we have a sinister crime taking place at night, in a darkened household. As in Green, the crime is based on deep, overpowering passions, that explode into violence. As in Green, these passions have long hidden roots in the characters' lives, and as in Green, the desperate characters' experiences are ultimately seen to have political dimensions: here ideas related to women's lib. As in Green, detective work involves a deep dive into the characters' past lives and histories. A detailed understanding of the complex events taking place at the crime scene is also important both here and in Green. As in many Green works, a lawyer helps out with the detection. As is often the case in Green, the crime takes a long time to unravel, and the detection is tied in with melodramatic, emotional events in the lives of the characters. Green wrote several mystery stories in which only one explanation seems possible, but which later give rise to alternate explanations: Rice does the same here. The formal inventiveness of Rice's play, involving both courtroom drama and flashbacks, perhaps relates to the multimedia proclivities of Green.
Street Scene (1929), Rice's Pulitzer Prize winning play, has some elements of crime, but no mystery or detection. It is mainly a realistic look at the lives of a block of tenement dwellers in New York City, and has little to do with mystery fiction per se. The play is happy in its adaptations: composer Kurt Weill turned it into a fine opera (1947), broadcast on cable TV a few years back; while the author himself adapted the original play for a superb screen version (1931), directed by King Vidor. The fairly short movie version is badly cut, compared to the original play, but it is superbly acted, directed and photographed.
Francis M. Nevins' article on Thayer from 1001 Midnights has been reprinted (with permission) on-line at Mystery*File. It is largely negative in its appraisal. Nevins has also published a career overview of Thayer in a second article at Mystery*File. This gives a rich look at her career as an artist, including samples of her Art Nouveau like book design, plus more realistic book jackets. It notes running motifs in her plotting, including large machines that transport people in her mystery solutions. It also gives hints about where her best books might be found.
In 1958, Lee Thayer guest starred on the TV game show What's My Line.
Clancy's much older partner is retired police Captain O'Malley. O'Malley is introduced, as an active policeman, in the second Clancy book The Unlatched Door. In that early book, Clancy is also working as a policeman, and O'Malley is his boss. In the third Clancy novel That Affair at "The Cedars", Clancy is described as a private detective: something he will remain as, throughout the series.
Both men frequently work with friendly Lieutenant (later Captain) Jacob Kerrigan of the New York police.
All of these characters are explicitly Irish, including the red-haired Clancy, and it is not hard to see a resemblance to the New York City Irish protagonists of Isabel Ostrander's fiction, which also emerged in the decade of the 1910's, a few years before Thayer's.
In many later novels Clancy is aided by his English valet Wiggar. Francis M. Nevins says Wiggar first appeared in Dead Man's Shoes (1929).
Architecture. All aspects of the mystery in this opening are carefully set against the office building where the crime takes place. Even in this first mystery Thayer is architectural in her approach. The title The Mystery of the 13th Floor also emphasizes the architectural setting.
The lawyer has his own private entrance to his personal office, different from the main entrance which passes through his support staff. This anticipates the later law office of Perry Mason in Erle Stanley Gardner.
Sleuth. Peter Clancy is an adult in all the later books. But here he unexpectedly makes his debut as an office boy, who is "almost fifteen". He has no last name here, and is just known as Peter. In his next book The Unlatched Door (1920) he is all grown up, and gets his full name of "Peter Clancy" for the first time.
Peter is an engaging character, full of gusto, detectival ambition and a warm heart. He gets good dialogue, and seems like a real person.
Peter is Irish, and comes from a poor family. He works two jobs, office boy by day and newspaper vendor by night. He is clearly designed to give a sympathetic portrait of Irish-Americans.
Impossible Crime. The Mystery of the 13th Floor is blessed with a well-done impossible crime, mystifying in its puzzling situation, surprising yet sound in its solution.
The explanation of the crime is simple: it barely takes Thayer a paragraph to explain it during the mystery's solution.
The set-up or premise of the impossible crime in The Mystery of the 13th Floor has some broad resemblances to that of the impossible crime puzzle in Q.E.D.. SPOILERS:
Romance. Early chapters suddenly stop the mystery plot, and flash back to the romance of a couple of young characters. I thought initially that this would be annoying. Surprisingly, the romance flashback is charming. It features lyrical descriptions of the countryside. Thayer's gift for lyrical nature writing will return in Q.E.D.. The rural setting of the flashback contrasts with the rest of the novel, which is mainly set in Manhattan.
The flashback includes a fishing episode, also anticipating Q.E.D..
Mystery Plot. That Affair at "The Cedars" shows certain Thayer traditions. There is an in-depth investigation of the crime scene. Evidence from the body is used to reconstruct the death - and to show that the crime is actually murder. Thayer will be using such investigations to establish the fact of murder, as late as Still No Answer (1958). In both books, such establishments take place fairly early on in the story.
That Affair at "The Cedars" has a puzzle plot. I found the main murder mystery easy to guess. Still, Thayer is in there trying, with an attempted surprise. By contrast, a subplot twist fooled me.
Setting. "The Cedars" is a country mansion on Long Island. It is near the water. Still No Answer is also set at a country house near water.
Sleuth. Sleuth Peter Clancy describes himself as a "private detective" (last part of Chapter 9, and again in Chapter 27). As best I can tell, Peter Clancy will continue to be a private detective throughout the rest of the novels that feature him.
However, in That Affair at "The Cedars" he just happens to be staying nearby at the time of the killing. He is brought into the case at first to please a friend. Then he just keeps on sleuthing, essentially as an amateur investigator. He has no client, and does not at all behave here like most private eyes in fiction.
We learn nothing in That Affair at "The Cedars" about Clancy's private detective business. And there are no series characters present other than Clancy. There is also no mention of Clancy growing up in poverty as depicted in The Mystery of the 13th Floor.
In That Affair at "The Cedars" private detective Clancy is a houseguest of the rich and socializes with them on a plane of equality. This lacks plausibility. It is impossible to imagine, for example, Dashiell Hammett's private eyes Sam Spade and the Continental Op being invited to pal around with the upper class. Even highly respectable middle class businessmen found it impossible to cross class barriers to socialize with the rich, in that era.
Much is made in That Affair at "The Cedars" of Clancy having been in the US Secret Service during World War I (start of Chapter 4, Chapter 8).
Impossible Crime. Q.E.D. is an impossible crime novel. Its solution also follows Green traditions, although one hesitates to spoil it by giving away the solution here! Thayer's impossible crime plot is logical and well constructed. It is of the "one set of footprints in the snow" variety, anticipating John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939). Impossible crimes concerning footprints appear in pre-Thayer authors: for instance, Samuel Hopkins Adams' "The Flying Death" (1903).
Sleuth. Clancy's sociological status is difficult to determine. He is a private investigator, but very different from the hard-boiled sleuths soon to follow in the pages of Black Mask magazine (from 1923 on). Clancy shows plenty of grit and determination in his work. He vigorously follows up clues in the woods and at the crime scene. He has plenty of energy, engages in some high speed car chases when necessary, and is relentless about grilling suspects. However, he does not seem to be especially "tough", and violence against underworld crooks does not seem to be part of his repertoire.
Clancy emerges from Anna Katherine Green's concepts of detectives and detection. Like the sleuths in Green's novels, both amateur and professional, he mainly seems like a person whose mission is to uncover the hidden facts behind crime, and to do so in a straightforward, imaginative and energetic way. As in Green, much of the action of the Thayer books takes place among New York Society suspects. The well dressed, polished Clancy fits right in with these people.
At times, Clancy resembles S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance to come. The names Philo Vance and Peter Clancy even have a certain similarity. However, Vance, like Ellery Queen, always works closely with the police, and uses their authority to perform investigations. Clancy seems to investigate largely on his own.
Race. Q.E.D. has some decent virtues in mystery plotting and nature writing. Unfortunately, it has a serious flaw: there are some racist remarks (start of Chapter 7, start of Chapter 14).
In real life Thayer was an artist, and an interior designer. She describes the decor in the murder victim's library with considerable élan. This might not be entirely a personal interest, however: the Van Dine novels also place great emphasis on details of the surroundings, and Thayer is paralleling the Van Dine school tradition here.
Upper Class Clothes. Thayer was also interested in clothes. It is mainly the men's clothes that are described in detail in this novel, although women's clothes were discussed in Q.E.D.. She likes the elegant tailoring of the upper crust, and her own detective Clancy dresses like a well to do gentleman. Clancy performs an office invasion in Chapter 6 of Murder Is Out: he walks right into a Wall Street financier's private office, and he looks so dignified and upper class that no one dares offer any resistance. There are hints in this behavior that his polished looks are a bit of a pose, designed to allow him to pull off stunts like this.
Rogues (in fiction) were non-violent crooks who often adopted the clothes and manners of the upper classes to pull off their schemes. Clancy uses the same techniques. The Rogues often acted as if they were thoroughly enjoying their upper class impersonation. Clancy does too.
Women. Murder Is Out is not anywhere as well written as Q.E.D.. The bubbles have really gone out of Thayer's champagne, and it is hard to see contemporary readers enjoying this slow moving, dull book. However, the book has some interest in dealing with the sexual harassment of women, and these parts still seem relevant today.
The two elderly sisters, among the victim's family, are well drawn. They recall a bit the Beagle Sisters in the mysteries of Torrey Chanslor, who had just appeared in a pair of novels (1940, 1941). However the sisters in Murder Is Out never become sleuths, unlike the Beagle Sisters.
Thayer Traditions. The best part of Murder Is Out is probably the opening (Chapters 1-5). This moves with admirable directness into Clancy's discovery of the murder, and meeting the victim's family and other suspects. It is set at night, and combines mild spookiness, elaborate architecture, and good storytelling. More nocturnal adventures occur in Evil Root, also set against architecture. Both works also include mysterious anonymous messages. doctors, colorful elderly women, and people summoning Clancy to crime scenes.
Green's work is frequently confused with Rinehart's by modern critics. The distinctness of the two authors and their literary traditions is worth emphasizing, however. Thayer's work shows little resemblance to either Rinehart's or to Rinehart's followers, the HIBK school. We are not plunged into a soap opera dealing with the personal relations of the characters, for instance. Instead, the focus is entirely on Clancy and his investigation, in the Green tradition.
Race. Murder Is Out has a policeman voice racial slurs (Chapter 7).
Evil Root is often charming in its storytelling, especially in its long opening section (Chapters 1-10). But it is mainly worthless as a mystery, with uninspired puzzle plotting, at its worst in the solution to the crimes.
Architecture. Evil Root mostly takes place at an upscale retirement home. So does Agatha Christie's By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), and Michael Innes' Honeybath's Haven (1977).
The Home is described in detail. Its inside layout is enhanced by a floor plan, supposedly drawn by Peter Clancy himself. The grounds of the estate also come in for some of Thayer's vivid descriptive writings of natural settings. All of this pleasantly reflects the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscape.
Race. Evil Root is perhaps best described as dated, but not malicious, in its treatment of race. On the negative side, the black servants talk in dialect, and there is comedy about their fondness for boyfriends. On the positive side, they are depicted as honest, sensible and good at their jobs. Such a portrayal was already old-fashioned by 1949.
But Thayer also has a point to make: an unsympathetic policeman is shown as racially prejudiced, something the novel implicitly condemns as wrong (Chapter 22). Thayer shows an awareness of the evils of prejudice, a growing issue in the Civil Rights era.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. Evil Root has a mystery plot construction that is odd, and not very good. Clancy is called in at the start to listen to suspicions of the Home's residents. These suspicions turn out to be a complete case: the residents know what crimes have been committed, and who did it! While the suspicions are unproven, at the end of the story they turn out to be 100% correct. This means the tale's main mystery is already solved, right from the start. The residents don't know how the crimes are being done medically: but this too is dropped into Clancy's lap by a doctor, halfway through the novel (Chapter 12). It is not figured out by Clancy himself.
There is a second murder halfway through the book, somewhat separate from the rest. It has its own puzzle, but it is not very creative. Its best part: the investigation of the knife and wound (Chapters 16-17). This is an example of the way Thayer is good at episodes right after a killing is discovered, where interesting deductions are made through investigating the corpse.
I didn't enjoy or approve of the way Clancy withholds information from the police. Private investigators in novels often do this, but it seems deeply impractical to me, not to mention illegal. Also, Clancy is criticized by a policeman towards the end (Chapter 30), for not taking action or contacting the authorities, as soon as he hears the residents' suspicions at the start. One must agree. Considering how many bad things are going on at the home, the Governor should have sent in the National Guard, and put the place under martial law!
Thayer also gets interest from the Canadian background: the novel takes place in British Columbia. Thayer shows different kinds of Canadian police investigating the crime, giving a pleasant, if simple, look at Canadian police procedure. Gentility is definitely the watchword, in Thayer's respectful treatment of all things Canadian.
It is pleasantly old-fashioned, to see sleuth Peter Clancy still talking in 1958 using articulate speech patterns recalling Philo Vance. By contrast, his valet Wiggar seems dated. Wiggar investigates among the servants, while Clancy hobnobs with the upper class, just like Wimsey and Bunter in Dorothy L. Sayers. I confess I never especially liked such "valet of the detective" characters, and they seem to have even less plausibility in the more egalitarian world of 1958.
The best parts of Still No Answer occur early on (Chapters 1-4). The early chapters include some mild but genuine detection, with deductions being made after studying the corpse.
The novel as a whole suffers from a paucity of suspects: the servants on the island are all too nice to be suspected of murder, and there are not that many other characters to serve as potential killers.
His solution is just ordinary, however, and contains few clever puzzle plot ideas.
The first half of Hobart's novel covers the original night of the murder and its investigation. The characters all then go to sleep, and the second half deals with the next day. This is similar to the ground plan of several John Dickson Carr novels.
Influences. Hobart's technique is hard to place. Hobart wrote at the height of S.S. Van Dine's popularity, but there is only a little sign of his influence. Hobart's detective is the chief of police in a mid size American city. He is definitely neither a genius nor an amateur, unlike Van Dine school sleuths. The first victim is a millionaire businessman, and his partner is another character, but everyone else in the novel is either middle class or working class. This is utterly unlike the upper crust characters one often finds in Golden Age novels, including those of the Van Dine school. In a financially modest way, some of the characters are members of the intelligentsia, including writers, an artist and an actress - a more Van Dine like cast, although these are mainly very young people trying to start out on their professions.
Hobart's policemen, while realistic, do not resemble those of the Crofts school of police realism, either. There is no emphasis on exhaustive leg work, scientific detection in police labs, alibis, or other features of the Crofts school. The police in The Cell Murder Mystery are all old fashioned Irish cops. They are all patrolmen who've risen through the ranks. They are far less world weary or cynical than the tired cops of the typical police procedural book. Instead, they remind one of the working class stiffs of old murder mystery movie cops. The fact that there are several police characters, each with a role to play in the investigation, does remind one of the detailed police casts in the novels of Van Dine and his followers.
Hobart's book instead rather resembles the American detective stories of 1915-1920, written immediately before the rise of the Golden Age in 1920. The good natured but tough, energetic Irish detectives recall the many Irish sleuths in Isabel Ostrander and Lee Thayer. The private detective here who is a supporting character also reminds one of the serious but non-hard-boiled private sleuths of these writers, gifted, determined, and energetic. The murder setting, a big mansion at night, with all the characters traipsing around the grounds and house, reminds one of Octavus Roy Cohen and Ostrander. In fact, the physical layout of the crime is very similar to that of Cohen's The Crimson Alibi (1918-1919), with the murder taking place in the victim's study, a room accessible both from within his house, and from the verandah on the front of the house. The medium size town of Hobart's book, North City, reminds one of the equally fictional Berkeley City of Cohen's novel. Both of these places are large enough to be completely modern. Yet both are much smaller than New York City or other great metropolises.
Writers such as Cohen and Thayer form a tradition ultimately influenced by Anna Katherine Green. However, Hobart's novel is less Green like than either Cohen or Thayer. He does not emphasize the "crime of passion" aspects, and there is less emphasis on reconstructing the crime from physical clues.
"Two Plungers of Manhattan" is much more light hearted - and enjoyable. The social background of the tale, among upper crust New York businessmen, is very similar to Arthur B. Reeve and some of Jacques Futrelle, almost a decade before they began writing. Perhaps this style of looking at American business is fairly common in popular fiction of its day.
Mason's legal technique is not what modern readers would perhaps expect; he does not get men off on "technicalities", such as improper police procedure. Instead he has his defendants openly commit full, brazen, if unorthodox crimes, and then demonstrates to the judges that current statutes simply do not cover these unusual offenses. At the core of the Mason tales is a logical analysis of the way legal statutes are written. It is the point of view of a legal scholar, perhaps, but more especially that of a logician: someone concerned with logic itself. Post is perhaps pointing out a limitation in human reason's full ability to cover and foresee all cases; it is a practical demonstration of an idea that will be argued more philosophically in "The Straw Man".
Post's "The Corpus Delecti" is obviously intended by him to be the centerpiece of The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896). It is both readable, and absolutely shocking, but is it good? It is impossible for me to recommend this story, a piece that was instantly controversial in its day, and one that still has the ability to offend. One can set Post's tale into some cultural context. The murder in the story draws on, but radically changes, the tradition of Anna Katherine Green. As in Green, the murder takes place during an assignation between two people in a lonely country house at night. Deep secrets of the past lives of the characters are being dredged up at the meeting, and one character is threatening to expose the other. There is an atmosphere of deep horror. However, in Green people act out of overwhelming passion, and the murder has strong elements of chance, whereas in Post the crime is premeditated, and done in the coldest blood in American crime fiction.
Post's fiction as a whole shows other similarities to Green:
"Naboth's Vineyard" (1916) gives an impressive and moving account of the workings of democracy. It became a favorite of American critics in the 1940's, when the problems of totalitarianism became overwhelming. In 1950, an EQMM poll of mystery experts ranked it the #8 mystery short story of all time. It would still make a good story for people to read in school, although it seems much less well known today. The stories' basic mystery plot has been much imitated in recent courtroom dramas, always without credit to Post. Post underlined this stories' significance by making it the final tale in Uncle Abner.
Many of the Abner tales involve complex legal issues. Post was a lawyer, and these legal details seem to be carefully researched. Often they are interwoven with the financial details of the cattle business and land-owning in 19th Century West Virginia. Post makes these legal ideas part of his story, helping to build his plots. Usually these legal tangles show imagination, and make for enjoyable reading. One story that is almost all law is "The Tenth Commandment" (1912). Most of the story details ingenious legal swindles in the tradition of Post's Randolph Mason tales. There are some murder elements in the tale, but they are simple and in the tradition of the "physical trail of evidence in the woods" that Post like to construct. This story is hardly a "detective story" in any conventional sense of the term, having little actual mystery to detect.
Several of the Uncle Abner tales show Abner reconstructing a murder based on clues left at the murder scene. Usually these clues are highly physical, and consist of foot prints, horse tracks, blood stains, broken down bushes, and other trails of physical evidence in the Gaboriau tradition. These stories tend not to be fair play: Post does not share what Abner sees at the crime scenes with the reader. Consequently, the stories consist of little more than the reader watching Abner reconstruct the crime. This sort of tale has much prestige; many critical traditions accord much weight to such exercises in pure detection. I confess that a little of this goes a long way with me, especially when the tales lack fair play. Examples of this include the first Abner tale, "The Angel of the Lord" (1911), and the last story in the 1910's series, "The Concealed Path" (1918), as well as "The Devil's Track" (1927). Other tales have a few more puzzle plot elements, but are basically in this same mode, such as "The God of the Hills" (1927).
By contrast, four of the Abner stories are much more significant considered as puzzle plot tales. These four tales, along with the politically impressive "Naboth's Vineyard" (1916), form the key works of the Abner series. "The House of the Dead Man" (1911) is a genuine detective story. It too concentrates on tracks of evidence, here mainly horse tracks. But these are nearly shared fully with the reader, and in the initial stages of the story, making the tale nearly completely fair play. Post also makes these part of a full mystery tale, with ingenuity expended on the interpretation of the tracks in a battle of wits with the reader, and with other aspects of the plot also taking part in the puzzle. This story also has some of the emotional depth of Post's best fiction.
"The Treasure Hunter" (1915) is a full-bodied, puzzle plot, fair play detective story. Considered as a formal mystery, it is probably the best of the Abner stories. It is in the Doyle tradition, of an isolated household with melodrama and conflict within, and under siege from without. As in Doyle, mysterious secrets are held by the characters. The reader knows these secrets exist, but only gradually learns what they are. This adds complexity to the plot.
Post's "The Straw Man" (1917?) has a feel of both Chesterton and Borges, in its paradoxical discussions about the place of reason in the universe, and its related look at the philosophy of detection. It also has some ingenious deductions from evidence.
"The Edge of the Shadow" (1918) also recalls Chesterton, in that it contains a bizarre, imaginative crime made to stand allegorically for a political and religious debate. Both the near-surrealism of the events, and the strange twists and turns of the mystery plot, also seem Chestertonian. As in Chesterton, many of the suspects in the tale are extremists and fanatics in their cause. As in Chesterton, the story opens with a tableaux witnessed but barely understood by the detectives; only gradually do they manage to ascribe meaning to it. As in Chesterton, the detectives watch but do not interfere with events. The detectives also walk from locale to locale in the story, also a familiar Chesterton technique. The story is so close to Chesterton's style that it almost seems like a Chesterton tale.
Uncle Abner was created by Post in 1911, one year after Chesterton's Father Brown stories started to appear in magazines. The two sleuths have often been linked as religious detectives. It is unclear if there was any actual historical influence of Chesterton on Post. The most Chestertonian Uncle Abner tales seem to come at the end of the series, around 1917 and 1918, although they may have been written much earlier.
In addition to the above four puzzle plot tales, the other best Abner story is "The Riddle" (1912). "The Riddle" is not really a puzzle plot tale. It does offer a series of ingenious variations on the theme of "the hidden treasure".
Many of the Abner tales do not seem to be that well plotted. "The Hidden Law" (1914), for example, is little more than a series of word plays. It does serve as a dry run, however, for Post's classic code story, "The Great Cipher" (1921), which uses similar techniques, but more creatively.
"The Doomdorf Mystery" (1914) is often cited as Post's cleverest plot. Unfortunately, the central idea is probably lifted from M. McDonnell Bodkin's "Murder by Proxy" (1897), from Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective, which has a similar mechanism. Bizarrely, "The Doomdorf Mystery" just keeps getting reprinted, and being treated as a "classic", despite the easy availability of Bodkin's story in anthologies.
The Uncle Abner tales have been praised as among the finest of all mystery tales. They were especially admired by the main American mystery critics of the Golden Age: S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Howard Haycraft, Anthony Boucher. The last three are on record as claiming that the Abner stories are the finest book of American detective short stories since Poe. Such a valuation is also implicit in Van Dine's comments. I confess that despite a few exceptions listed above, the Abner tales as a group are a big disappointment to me. Far from being great, many of them seem to be poor works of detective fiction. At his best, Post was a gifted writer of mysteries, with literary gifts as well. Still, I find it hard to believe he was a better short story writer than Jacques Futrelle, Dashiell Hammett and Ellery Queen, to name only the three most obvious candidates.
Post was born (near Clarksburg), lived for much of his life (in Grafton or near Clarksburg), went to the university (West Virginia University in Morgantown), and practiced law (in Wheeling) in the same small northernmost region of West Virginia where the Abner stories are set. It's an extremely small area by American standards - only a small fraction of the state itself. Back in the days in which the Abner tales are set, all of West Virginia was part of the state of Virginia itself - the two states did not get separated till later. There are even smaller areas used by mystery fiction: Dashiell Hammett lived, worked (in a jewelry store), and set the bulk of his mysteries all within a few city blocks of each other in downtown San Francisco! Abner country is bigger than that. But still, this is regional fiction with a vengeance.
One might note that John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, right across the northern border of Abner country, and that Mary Roberts Rinehart was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just a little bit further north.
There are other similarities, as well. Uncle Abner is a gifted amateur detective, who works with the local Justice of the Peace, Squire Randolph, at his request, as a friend and unofficial consultant. This is exactly the status of Philo Vance, and his relationship to the D.A. Markham. Both Uncle Abner and Philo Vance are members of the gentry. Both Post and Van Dine put heavy emphasis on the literary quality of their work. And both Post and Van Dine emphasize fairly simple ideas for the solutions of their cases - neither is as elaborate as Queen or Carr, for example.
Van Dine is a writer with such a strong, individual personality. Single handedly, he carved out an entirely new paradigm for the detective novel, one that was used as a model by many of the best American detective writers of the Golden Age: Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbot, Rex Stout. One can also see Van Dineian influence in C. Daly King, and in the pulp writer of weird menace tales, Paul Chadwick.
The narrator of the stories is recalling events he saw in 19th Century West Virginia as a boy. It never occurred to me that the narrator was anything other than a fictitious character. But the narrator's grandfather describes one of his relatives as having the last name Davisson (in "The Witness in the Metal Box"). This presumably means that the narrator of the tales is none other than Melville Davisson Post himself, recounting events he allegedly saw as a child. Post has inserted himself as the narrator of some otherwise fictitious events, the only real life character in a fictional world. This approach is not unique: Somerset Maugham did the same thing repeatedly in some of his short stories. Not to mention Bill Griffith inserting himself as a character in his wonderfully surrealistic comic strip, "Zippy". Still, it is unusual and distinctive. The narrator of some of the Uncle Abner tales is similarly a man recounting events he saw as a young boy in West Virginia; while he is not supposed to represent Post, he is a predecessor to the narrator of the Braxton stories.
Faulkner's short stories were written for the slick magazines of the era, such as the Saturday Evening Post. The detailed regional and rural realism of the stories was shared by other slick writers who appeared in the Post, such as MacKinlay Kantor. The Post was clearly far more interested in these aspects of the stories than in their mystery elements, as witnessed by their acceptance of the realistic "Tomorrow" and their rejection of the more mystery oriented "An Error in Chemistry".
Faulkner's gothics recall Anna Katherine Green. "A Rose For Emily" seems especially close to Green's "Missing: Page Thirteen". Ellery Queen pointed out that the tales about Uncle Gavin Stevens are reminiscent of Post's about Uncle Abner. They also remind one of Post's Colonel Braxton stories; both are about clever lawyers practicing in the rural South, and both have a great deal of information about the financial aspects of farm life in them. The resemblance to Braxton is especially strong in the first tale, "Smoke" (written 1930). In "Smoke", we see Stevens in the courtroom, pulling off courtroom tricks. This is in the tradition not just of Post's Braxton, but of other slick magazine lawyers of the era; lawyer fiction was very popular in the slicks in 1930. The contrast between virtuous country lawyer and evil representatives of the big city, present in "Smoke", was also part of other slick lawyer stories of 1930: see Hugh McNair Kahler's "Fair and Stormy" (1930), for example. Stevens does not become "Uncle" Gavin till the second and much later story, "Monk" (1937). The resemblances of the character to Post's Uncle Abner seem to have been added then. Stevens does a great deal of moralizing and preaching, just like Abner.
However, Stevens' detective technique is not especially modeled on Abner's. The plotting in "An Error in Chemistry" seems closer to Chesterton.
A persistent theme of the Stevens stories is men who have been raised by other men. There are very few women characters at all. Faulkner often includes very detailed life histories of his characters; these function as essentially mainstream stories within the stories, and show Faulkner's literary skills at mainstream fiction (for example, the first half of "Monk").
While his two best tales "A Rose For Emily" and "An Error in Chemistry" are mystery classics, much of Faulkner's fiction is horribly depressing. I debated a long time about including Faulkner in the Guide at all. He is a morbid writer. If you go on to read a lot of Faulkner, and he makes you feel terribly blue, please don't blame me. You have been warned!
Shortly before, Frances Noyes Hart's The Bellamy Trial (1927) was a best seller. I thought this book was very dull, but it showed an appetite among the American public for this sort of fiction. Hart set her story among the professional people of the upper middle class, the sort of people that Mary Roberts Rinehart was always writing about, but her work moves at a snail's pace compared to Rinehart's. It also seems far more remote from the Perry Mason tradition of courtroom pyrotechnics than are the three Collier's stories, or the Melville Davisson Post piece.
The three Collier's pieces are by four authors who are completely obscure today, some of the least known writers in Wells' collection: Mrs. Wilson Woodrow, C.C. Waddell, Jerome Beatty, and Hugh MacNair Kahler ("Fair and Stormy"). I had never heard of any of these writers, and knew nothing about them. (Some research on Kahler appears in the article about him.) By contrast, the authors she included from the Saturday Evening Post, while not necessarily famous names in mystery fiction, have at least made more of an impact on popular culture, including general publishing and Hollywood screenwriting. Maybe the Post was a much greater platform to launch a literary career.
Commentary on Mrs. Wilson Woodrow:
During 1920-1921, she published at least seven short stories about her lawyer-sleuth Heywood Atchison in The Red Book, a pulp magazine. These show her writing lawyer fiction at an early date.
By contrast, her short story "Atchison Always Wins!" (1930) was published in the slick magazine Collier's.
While reprint collections from the pulps are fairly common, reprints from the slick magazines are unfortunately rare. One of the few is American Murders (1986), edited by Jon L. Breen and Rita A. Breen. This reprints 11 of the mystery novellas that appeared in the slick American Magazine nearly every month between 1934 to 1956, and contains an annotated bibliography of the American novellas.
The series of American Magazine novellas began in March 1934 with Mrs. Wilson Woodrow's "Eyes at the Window".
The Theater. Pawns of Murder has a Broadway theater background. Unfortunately its theater characters must be the dullest found in any theater-mystery. We are used to theater novels by Ngaio Marsh and others, full of scintillating dialogue, colorful characters and references to the complex traditions of the stage. By contrast, the theater people in Pawns of Murder are colorless and the stage background is lifeless. This might be deliberate on Woodrow's part: her theater characters long to escape the theatrical life and become "normal people", and the theater is seen as a negative place, full of crooks and sleazy demimondaine types. Still, the sheer dullness of these characters makes for joyless reading.
The Rich as Dysfunctional. Many rich people in Mrs. Wilson Woodrow are also portrayed as dysfunctional. The "heroine" of Pawns of Murder is a spoiled rich girl, used to getting anything she wants, and with no common sense or discretion. She has no virtues other than being rich, young and pretty: she is not smart, gutsy, compassionate or generous. She makes a thoroughly unpleasant person to read about, over the course of a long novel.
Her boyfriend Brett Harlow is one of the few upper class or rich people portrayed by Mrs. Wilson Woodrow as having ability. He has inherited factories and manages them well. Later, he will do some good sleuthing. He is in love with the heroine, but she keeps pushing him away. Frankly, it is hard to see why this guy wants to marry the heroine. She is beautiful, from a "good family" and wealthy, and the novel seems to take for granted that any upper class young man would want her for a spouse. Maybe that is the way the world works. She certainly would be "socially acceptable" to Harlow's family and friends. Still, Brett Harlow could do a lot better, if he has any concern for the character or ability of the woman he hopes to marry.
Mystery Plot. BIG SPOILER. The chief merit of Pawns of Murder is the way it traces the crime to the Least Likely Person. The identity of the killer was a big surprise to me at the end, someone I never suspected. Making the murderer be The Least Likely Person is a convention of the traditional mystery puzzle. Mrs. Wilson Woodrow does it well here.
Stein: A Jewish Detective?. Atchison employs a detective to help him, Irving Stein (Chapter 13). Stein is described as young and skilled. He is admirable and sympathetic. From his name, one wonders if Stein is supposed to be Jewish. This recalls another sympathetic character, the hero's friend Jake Gottschalk in "Atchison Always Wins!", who is not explicitly described as Jewish, but who has a Jewish sounding name.
Stein is a professional detective. Atchison pairs him in his investigative assignment with another sympathetic character, businessman Brett Harlow. This is Harlow's first work as a detective: he is strictly an amateur. The pairing of a professional like Stein and and amateur like Harlow recalls Anna Katherine Green.
The Book Jacket: Human Chess Pieces. The book jacket shows characters standing on a checkerboard floor, suggesting they are giant, human pieces on a chess board. This is presumably inspired by the book's title, Pawns of Murder. No such chess game occurs in the actual novel.
There are examples of human chess pieces in other creators' works. The title cards of the silent film A Girl's Folly (Maurice Tourneur, 1917) show the director maneuvering human chess pieces, as a metaphor for him telling the actors where to stand.
Such chess games with humans standing in as chessmen on a large board became a staple of comic books:
"Atchison Always Wins!" has a murder mystery plot, with a man found mysteriously shot, and the killer unveiled at the end. This plot is pleasantly complex: which makes for good story telling. However, the identity of the murderer is none too surprising, and the tale lacks ingenious puzzle plot elements.
The crime takes place among people who are undergoing extreme emotions. This recalls Anna Katherine Green. So does the way in which one suspect really looks guilty.
The suspects in "Atchison Always Wins!" include both theater people, and wealthy upper class types, just like Pawns of Murder. And as in that book, both groups are seen as dysfunctional, failed people. But unlike the dull folks in Pawns of Murder, the characters in "Atchison Always Wins!" are interesting to read about. Both the lawyer hero and his opponent the District Attorney also come alive.
The hero's friend Jake Gottschalk is a pleasant character. Although this is not made explicit, I think from his name and theater producer profession that readers are supposed to understand that he is Jewish. (The real-life Louis Moreau Gottschalk was America's first great classical music composer, and was from a Jewish family. So the name Gottschalk is prominently associated with a famous Jewish American.) Including a sympathetic Jewish character in a 1930 story is an admirable Civil Rights statement. Jake Gottschalk is not a suspect in the mystery. Instead he has the role of the detective hero's friend, sort of a Watson character, although he does not narrate the story.