Burton Egbert Stevenson | Meredith Nicholson | Henry Sydnor Harrison | Donald McGibeny | Henry Kitchell Webster | Hugh MacNair Kahler | John Willard | George M. Cohan | F. Scott Fitzgerald | Ethel Lina White | Anthony Gilbert | Rae Foley | Juanita Sheridan | Katherine Hill | Medora Field
Dorothy Cameron Disney | Strawstacks | Death in the Back Seat | The Golden Swan Murder | The Balcony | Thirty Days Hath September | Explosion
Anne Nash | Said With Flowers
Mignon G. Eberhart
Leslie Ford / David Frome
Willetta Ann Barber and R.F. Schabelitz | Murder Enters the Picture | The Deed Is Drawn
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
"Fair and Stormy" (1930)
Strawstacks / The Strawstack Murders (1938 - 1939)
The Balcony (1940)
Thirty Days Hath September (1942) (written with George Sessions Perry)
The Mystery of Hunting's End (1930) (Chapters 1, 2, last part of 13, 14, 18)
From This Dark Stairway (1931) (Chapters 1-6, end of 10, 16)
The Dark Garden (1933) (Chapters 1 - 2)
The Unknown Quantity (1953) (Chapters 1 - 7)
Man Missing (1953-1954) (Chapters 1, 2, first part of 3, end of Chapter 7, last part of Chapter 15, 23)
The Cases of Susan Dare (1934)
Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (1934) (Chapters 1 - 12)
Mr. Pinkerton Grows a Beard (1935) (Chapters 1 - 7, 14)
Mr. Pinkerton Has the Clue (1936)
Homicide House (1949) (Chapters 1 - 6)
Evan Pinkerton short stories
Colonel Primrose novellas
The Philadelphia Murder Story (1944) (Chapters 1, first half of 3, 15, 16)
The Woman in Black (1947) (Chapters 1 - 11)
Walking Shadow (1959)
The Deed Is Drawn (1949) (Chapters 3, 5, 8, 16, 20, 21, 22, 25, 31, 32, Epilogue)
The above is not a complete list of the authors' novels and short stories; it just contains my favorite works, those I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others. The lists under the collections do not include all the short stories in the book, just the ones I recommend.
Although not formally separated by the author, the action in The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet breaks into two nearly equal parts. Part I reminds me of Rinehart, Part II of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin tales. Part I hardly ever gets out of the victim's New York house, or even a few rooms in that house where most of the action is concentrated. It builds up an almost claustrophobic sense of menace. While a few scenes take place elsewhere, the author makes clear that the focus of danger in the novel is in the rooms which contain the cabinet. (Godfrey makes this explicitly clear at one point, speaking for the author; but the whole tenor of the story reflects this as well.) By contrast, Part II is a duel of wits with a French master criminal, and takes place all over New York City.
Disappointingly, there is neither much pure detection in Cabinet, nor is there a clever solution of a puzzle plot. Despite its subtitle, "A Detective Story", Cabinet is hardly a mystery story at all in the modern sense. It is more like a melodrama or tale of danger. Unbelievable coincidences abound, as well. On the plus side, the novel is elegantly and clearly imagined and written. It is extremely readable, and the vivid scenes stick in the imagination. The strange first half is especially rich in mise-en-scène. Cabinet is most recommended to those who want some cultural context for Mary Roberts Rinehart.
All of the main characters in Boule Cabinet are bachelors, single men. Many are obsessed with art collecting. After the victim's death, his art collection is willed to the Metropolitan, and broken up and lost among their vast holdings. The narrator reflects on the pointlessness of the victim's life, and how little he ultimately accomplished through his collecting. This memorable moment forms the climax of Part I.
Stevenson, too, describes the unhappy marriage of a woman to a rotten European aristocrat. It is a clear portrait, written long before modern woman's lib, of a woman linked to an abusive husband. It anticipates similar relations in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920). Moffett's Through the Wall also looks inside a similarly unhappy marriage. American fiction of this era clearly made a significant attempt to explore the injustices perpetrated on women through the marriage bond.
Film. The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet was made into a pleasant B movie, The Case of the Black Parrot (Noel M. Smith, 1941). It is more of a typical Hollywood whodunit than is the book, but much of the plot involving the cabinet itself is preserved. The arch criminal is now named the Black Parrot, recalling the Bat in Rinehart and Hopwood's play.
Nicholson was a leading figure in Indiana literature, which was then a going concern, with both numerous authors and publishing houses. Rinehart's own first books were published by the Indiana based firm of Bobbs-Merrill. After all, Rinehart lived in Pittsburgh, not far from Indiana. In those days firms in the Midwest published their own; the Chicago based magazine Poetry revolutionized American verse, for example. House was a once famous book, that now seems completely forgotten by mystery fans. Its reputation survives only among scholars who study Hoosier fiction; it has been reprinted in recent years in a series of Indiana classics.
Nicholson's novel anticipates Rinehart's fiction in a number of ways. Its hero is a young architect, not unlike the hero of Rinehart's The Afterhouse (1913), and he moves in the upper middle class professional setting of Rinehart's world. His grandfather's will puts him in charge of a mysterious old mansion in the countryside, and numerous nocturnal break-ins occur. This is similar to Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. There are rumors of a hidden treasure in the mansion, as well. The whole book seems like Staircase's immediate ancestor. It also precedes and perhaps influenced the Stratemeyer Syndicate books of my youth, such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, both of which also often deal with the same "mysterious mansion full of treasure and mystery" paradigm.
Nicholson's title recalls Anna Katherine Green.
Other works in this genre include such short stories as Hugh Pentecost's "Challenge to the Reader" (1947) and Bill Pronzini's "Strangers in the Fog" (1978). Madeline L'Engle's sf novel The Arm of the Starfish (1965) has some elements of this technique.
Quite a few movies have used this approach, and fall into this small subgenre. In fact, I suspect it is more prevalent in films that in prose mysteries. A science fiction film, writer-director Kevin S. Tenney's Peacemaker (1990), focuses on two aliens. Each tries to persuade the human heroine that he is the real good guy, and that he is chasing the other, a wanted criminal. This film is very well done and entertaining, as are the Harrison, Pentecost and Pronzini tales. The use of an sf background allows a whole series of new, science fictional clues to the identities of the two protagonists to be explored, clues not present in the non-sf ancestors of the film.
There is a good deal of romance in McGibeny's novel, and if it were published a few years later I would say this romantic writing was influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But Fitzgerald was barely known in 1920, and both writers must be drawing on a tradition of popular romance in the post World War I era.
In addition to the country club main characters, McGibeny sets his book in part against the same background of radical labor unrest as Rinehart's Dangerous Days (1919) and Fitzgerald's "May Day" (1920). Later, Dashiell Hammett will describe similar events in Chapter 1 of Red Harvest (1927). One gets the impression that many people thought the US was virtually on the edge of civil war, and McGibeny's book refers interestingly to animosities between capital and leftist labor from before, during and following W.W.I. McGibeny is firmly on the side of capital here, as was Rinehart; neither at all share in Fitzgerald's left wing sympathies.
There are signs here that the right wing political views spouted by the narrator are not fully endorsed by the author; he is flatly contradicted by other characters in the book, on occasion, usually to gently humorous effect. Politically speaking, he is what academic critics refer to as an "unreliable narrator", someone whose ideas cannot be taken at face value, and whose comments are simply those of one character, not the author himself. Similarly, the complex sexual politics of the book is not resolved into a unified authorial viewpoint, but rather each character gets to present their own differing opinion of the book's divorce case. However, one doesn't want to give the impression that the book is a political tract. Mainly it is a well done Golden Age novel, with a well constructed mystery plot.
The three main suspects in the novel reflect social anxieties of upper class WASP men of the era:
Where does Webster fit in mystery tradition? It is hard to say: the best guess would be to include him in or near the Early American school of Rinehart, S.H. Adams, Frederick Irving Anderson, etc., but as an author who couldn't write for sour apples.
Kahler includes many subsidiary mysteries along the way; in fact, each new section of the story tends to include a plot development adding more mystery to the basic situation. Kahler is careful to alternate these subsidiary mysteries among his characters, so that suspicion is widely cast, and each one looks progressively more guilty. This would become a common technique among Golden Age writers, such as Agatha Christie. Kahler's storytelling can lack color, but the details of his plot often dovetail in unexpected ways, and his works can become quite absorbing reading.
Kahler's Poate collaboration, "The Vicious Circle" (1920), apparently is another story with the same detective as "The Crooked Wire".
Kahler's work makes a striking contrast to Dashiell Hammett's, which will emerge just three years later in Black Mask. Kahler is far more middle class and genteel in his picture of society. There are plenty of underworld crooks in Kahler, but they tend to be criminal masterminds, not the low lifes that flit through Hammett. These masterminds tend to be more like businessmen than hoods - in "Queer Coin" they actually are businessmen, gone bad. Kahler has an edge in social criticism over Hammett, however. The hero of "Queer Coin" is a workingman who broke his arm while on company business, was promptly fired as he was unable to work, received no compensation from his company, was forced to live off his meager savings to survive, and who is slowly starving to death as the story opens. There is nothing like this in the whole history of Black Mask, as far as I can tell. Or in any Golden Age mystery either. Kahler's blunt look at the lives of ordinary working people in the days before workman's comp and unemployment insurance seems to be unique in its era. Black Mask often showed police and civic corruption, as well as underworld violence, but economic social criticism seems largely absent from its pages.
There are other signs of economic realism in "Queer Coin". We learn the salary of the brilliant police detective who plays a role in the story - $4,000 - and what he would be paid if he accepted a job at a leading private agency: $25,000. This is one of the few detective stories I have ever read in which the detective's yearly income is specified. We also learn about stenographer's wages, and the costs of boarding houses. This is all perhaps appropriate in a story that literally revolves around money; the counterfeiting job threatens to undermine the whole economy of the United States.
The characters in "The Crooked Wire" tend to be more economically desperate than Rinehart's, as well. The young lawyer who is the protagonist is just barely getting by, and faces serious economic woes in a way that Rinehart's professionals rarely do. Rinehart did set "The Case of Jennie Brice" (1912) in a slum boarding house. But its theater people denizens seem more Bohemian, and less like ordinary workers facing economic hard times than Kahler's. Many Golden Age novels today evoke considerable charm. One would like it if everybody on Earth were able to live the carefree, glamorous, sophisticated life style depicted in them. This lifestyle was probably a pure literary fabrication of an escapist era, but it gives humanity something to work towards! By contrast, the small town world depicted in "The Crooked Wire" seems more suffocating than appealing. Even Kahler's hero wonders if he should get out and move to the big city, and little that happens in the course of the story seems designed to change his mind. Kahler's story appeared at a time when Americans were expressing doubts about small town life; it is contemporary with Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (1920), for example.
The play has genuine elements of mystery: strange, unexplained events happen through the night, events eventually given a logical solution at the play's end. There is no systematic detective work in the play, however: one of the characters simply figures out the truth at the end, in a burst of intuitionist insight.
The Cat and the Canary shares approaches with Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's mystery play thriller, The Bat (1920). Both combine comedy and terror thrills, in a spooky mansion at night. Both have a sinister, grotesque bad guy running around menacing people, a villain with an animal motif: a bat in The Bat, the cat in The Cat and the Canary.
Many traditional descriptions of The Cat and the Canary in critical literature seem to have no compunction about spoiling either the play's surprises, or its solution at the end. These tell-all commentaries seem to assume that "everyone" has seen the play, or one of its several movie versions, and hence no discretion is needed. I suspect that today's readers are once again largely unfamiliar with this work, and it can be treated more as a genuine mystery today.
The play still makes lively reading today. It is part of a major burst of mystery and crime plays of high quality that appeared on Broadway in the 1910's and 1920's. It can be found reprinted in Famous Plays of Crime and Detection (1946), edited by Van H. Cartmell and Bennett Cerf, along with other outstanding plays of its era by Roi Cooper Megrue and Elmer Rice, as well as the Biggers-Cohan Seven Keys to Baldpate and The Bat.
Biggers himself then used a variation on Cohan's ideas in his novel The Agony Column (1916). Cohan's play version of Baldpate might also have helped inspire James Whale's classic film about theater people, The Great Garrick (1937). The only novel of British playwright Frank Vosper, Murder on the Second Floor (1932), is a dismal rip-off of the ideas in Cohan's play.
Both the novel and play of Seven Keys to Baldpate have features that recall Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907): a lonely country building that becomes the center of attention from criminals, nocturnal adventures, absconding businessmen.
George M. Cohan was a famous actor, playwright and songwriter in the American theater; his songs are still widely known today. Only a small fraction of his work has any relation to the mystery.
Fitzgerald, in turn, would influence other mystery writers. Erle Stanley Gardner's early pulp stories contain Fitzgerald-inspired flappers. Of course, Fitzgerald's depiction of the Jazz Age and its heroines would influence a whole generation of American writers, including Ring Lardner and John O' Hara, so influence on mystery writers should not be surprising. Fitzgerald was the main literary model for the early fiction of Cornell Woolrich, and his poetic style left a permanent mark on Woolrich's stories.
Fitzgerald is much more of a short story writer than a novelist. His first book, This Side of Paradise, is really more a story sequence than a novel in any sense of the word. His masterpiece "The Great Gatsby" is actually novella length, but it is often called a novel, partly because there is so much academic prestige given the novel over the short story that academic critics want it to be a novel. So are other prominent novellas in American literary history: Kate Chopin's "The Awakening", Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage", Thorton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey". Kate Chopin and Stephen Crane are short story specialists, too, as is Sarah Orne Jewitt, but American critics just do not want to admit that many of the most important American fiction writers are actually short story makers.
In addition to "Gatsby", my favorite Fitzgerald stories are "Winter Dreams" (1922) and "Love in the Night" (1925). These and many other outstanding stories can be found in the big omnibus of Fitzgerald stories edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. One often sees the classic ghost story "A Short Trip Home" reprinted from this collection in suspense anthologies.
I know nothing of White's cultural context; she seems very atypical of other British detective writers of her period.
A mystery fiction bibliography is at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
But her detectives have some charm. They are a young couple, and remind one of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence. The man is a private detective, in the non-hard-boiled British mode, and the woman is an aspiring actress. Like Tuppence, she is a clergyman's daughter and a Bright Young Thing. Both are appealing members of the British middle class, and a bit poorer and harder working at their professions than Tommy and Tuppence ever were. The hero has the delightful name of Alan Foam. The first six chapters of the book contain the best characterization of the pair. Tommy and Tuppence also worked at being private detectives in Partners in Crime (1924).
Commentary on Anthony Gilbert:
SPOILER. At one point, a villain briefly tries to force the heroine into a new identity, and convince other people she is insane (Chapter 12). This recalls Anthony Gilbert's The Woman in Red (1941). This was made into a superb film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). There are antecedents for such plot gambits: see A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan (1928) (Chapters 1 - 3), and Helen McCloy's Dance of Death (1938).
Comic Relief. What I found myself enjoying the most about Death Lifts the Latch was not any of the thriller elements, but rather a few passages of comic relief. The opening chapter finds the heroine making her way through a foggy night: an irresistible setting. She meets a young man with a glib line of comic patter, who may be a good guy or a bad guy.
And later, a second case for the nurse provides laugh-out-loud humor (Chapter 8). Mrs. Trentham is full of comic observations and zany dialogue. She is a delight. Many of her observations might be classified as macabre or "black humor", long before that term seems to have been coined. This chapter also benefits from being full of mystery plot developments.
Mystery Plot. Death Lifts the Latch eventually develops a fairly elaborate mystery plot. Unfortunately, it seems full of holes and implausibilities.
There is much too little actual detection in Death Lifts the Latch for my taste. We often seem to be trapped in suspense sequences, rather than having anyone investigate the crime. The heroine's first night in the sinister house (Chapter 2) at least gets the plot moving.
Commentary on Rae Foley:
Hiram Potter's origin as a sleuth, bears some resemblance to Dvaid Frome's earlier detective Mr. Pinkerton:
Hiram Potter bears some loose relationship to Van Dine school sleuths, although the resemblance is not close:
Hiram Potter spends the book sleuthing around. But he rarely does any good detective work. Most of his best discoveries are done by pure chance - things he stumbles across. This leaves Death and Mr. Potter as a mystery without a real detective hero. Most detective works have a highly effective sleuth at their core. Whether the detective is an amateur like Miss Marple or a Scotland Yard inspector, the protagonist is a great detective. Death and Mr. Potter lacks such a figure. I find this lack makes Death and Mr. Potter less enjoyable to me, than a conventional detective yarn.
Raciness. Occasional mildly racy elements recall the racy 1950's novels of George Bagby.
On the positive side, all of the romances and encounters in Death and Mr. Potter are between consenting adults. And they're usually single, too. I'm not sure if I'd recommend any of these folks as role models. But the book has none of the sordidness of many modern crime novels.
Landscape and Architecture. The areas in front and behind Mr. Potter's house, form one of the nice cityscapes sometimes found in Golden Age mystery fiction.
I also liked the church building and its rooms (Chapter 15, section 1).
I thought The Chinese Chop has little to recommend it.
Many of Sheridan's novels are available as reprints from Rue Morgue Press, and they have an overview of Juanita Sheridan.
The amateur detective Lorna Donahue, a widow and real estate agent who uses her job to sleuth around local houses, anticipates the small-businessman heroines of countless modern-day cozies.
Katherine Hill wrote one more mystery, also starring sleuth Lorna Donahue: Case for Equity (1945).
Steve Lewis' article on Hill's Case for Equity is at Mystery*File and on Dear Dead Mother-in-Law is at Mystery*File.
Medora Field wrote one more mystery, Blood on Her Shoe (1942).
Medora Field was an Atlanta journalist who worked along side Margaret Mitchell of Gone With the Wind fame. William F. Deeck's review of Blood on Her Shoe is at Mystery*File. The comments include much information on Field's life and career.
Then Disney veered off into social commentary for two books. The Golden Swan Murder (1939) denounces Hollywood. It has interesting social comment and is quite readable, but the mystery elements are skimped and perfunctory. The Balcony (1940) is much better. This book looks at the American Old South, including its dismal heritage of slavery. This is a much more profound target than Hollywood misbehavior, and is a remarkably forward looking work for its era. The story also returns to Disney's skilled approach to puzzle plot construction. The puzzle plotting does not achieve the heights of Disney's first two novels, but it is still most satisfying and well crafted. The Balcony is one of Disney's most important books, one in which intelligent social commentary and skilled mystery construction are fused.
Thirty Days Hath September (1942) (written with George Sessions Perry) is an oddity. It is full of Disney's imaginative puzzle plot construction. However, none of the ideas here are as plausible as those in Disney's earlier books. Some of the ideas in the finale seem like complete non-starters, in fact. Still, it is an entertaining read.
Next comes a period of decline. Crimson Friday (1943) is a mystery novel somewhat in the tradition of Death in the Back Seat and Thirty Days Hath September. It seems poor to me, however. Disney tried a complete change of pace with The 17th Letter (1944 - 1945), a spy story featuring a Bright Young Couple. I didn't like it at all. Explosion (1948) is a depressed book, one in which weary characters ooze gloom. It is a pure mystery, but one in which the author uses a different and less creative technique than her earlier classics. Four chapters dealing with the explosion itself are interesting, however. Disney's last book, The Hangman's Tree (1949) attempts to imitate Disney's earlier style, with plot ideas borrowed from The Strawstack Murders and a Southern setting recalling The Balcony. But nothing here is very good.
I have seen a brief quote from Dorothy Cameron Disney praising the books of Ngaio Marsh. Otherwise, almost no non-fiction writings by Dorothy Cameron Disney about the arts seem to be available today.
She wrote a long-running marriage advice column in the magazine The Ladies' Home Journal called Can This Marriage be Saved?, starting in 1953. Information on this can be found in her New York Times obituary, where she is called by her married name of Dorothy D. MacKaye. This also says that her husband of 50 years was magazine writer Milton MacKaye.
Disney's storytelling is vigorous throughout. Each chapter leads to some new, interesting plot revelation. The murders in the book are related to such fundamental elements as fire and water. Disney uses a variety of techniques to keep her plot moving. There are a large number of subsidiary mysteries. These are small, individual mysteries - why did someone withdraw money from a bank, what happened to the garden shears - that eventually get worked up into larger patterns in the book, and get solved. Such subsidiary mysteries are a Golden Age staple, one that delights the reader. The narrator sometimes sums these up in lists, a technique labeled by Carolyn Wells as tabulation. Another technique in the book is that a sequence of events that looked one way to the reader, and to the narrator, at the time they were happening, eventually get a different interpretation. Both this approach, and the subsidiary mysteries, take considerable ingenuity.
Unlike Rinehart, Strawstacks does not include maps or floor plans. While the action corresponds to carefully thought through time tables, there are no Rinehart style movements through space. The house as a whole is of less interest to Disney than to Rinehart. Instead, Disney concentrates on describing bedrooms. These include the narrator's room, and the personal quarters of the three murder victims. Much of the novel's action actually takes place in these four rooms. Anxiety about one's home base is a key motif of the novel; the book starts out with the narrator trying to build a home for herself and her family, and the killer's motive turns out to be an attempt to preserve the killer's home. Several other key events in the book relate to preserving a home or family, or people obtaining entrance to a household.
As in many Rinehart books, there is a criminal conspiracy, something that was treated as taboo by most other schools of Golden Age authors: one of S.S. Van Dine's rules of detective fiction states that there should be just a single villain in a mystery novel, with perhaps one minor accomplice. This single villain rule was thoroughly ignored by H.C. Bailey, but most other Golden Age writers adhered to it. Rinehart started this conspiracy tradition long before the Golden Age, in such books as The Circular Staircase (1907), and it persists in such Golden Age era Rinehart novels as The Door (1930). Both Rinehart and Disney repeatedly indicate throughout their novels that a conspiracy is afoot, instead of waiting till the end to spring it on their readers. This helps preserve fair play: the idea of a conspiracy is introduced near the start.
Disney also follows the Rinehart tradition by piling up a mountain of corpses. The genteel Golden Age tradition of one murder at the start, followed perhaps by a second crime two thirds through the book, was ignored by both writers. Death in the Back Seat is especially gruesome in this regard. One has to go to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1927) to find anything more extreme. This helps give Death in the Back Seat a nightmarish quality, combined with the constant jeopardy the hero and heroine find themselves in, and their mistreatment by the police.
Death in the Back Seat is notable for the ingenuity in which it enmeshes its characters in complex schemes. The book has a very small cast, much smaller than the typical Golden Age mystery, each of which is up over his head in countless mysteries. When starting to read it one wonders how Disney can produce any mystery plot at all out of such few people and such everyday looking material. Then she starts building her plot...
Disney's book was published two years before Stuart Palmer sent his own spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers to Hollywood in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941). Withers later returned there in Palmer's Cold Poison (1954), and one of the characters in that book has similarities to one of Disney's: a young composer of dubious background, who is romancing the heroine while trying to get a musical job at one of the studios. The heroine in both novels has a film industry connection, and helps the young man to get a job. Both stories also have a movie producer, and a scene in a studio projection room, although both of these settings are probably de rigeur for mysteries with a film background.
Disney's book is well written, especially in its first half, which contains the murder and an attempted murder. Too much time is spent in its second half with the police and district attorney, who are much less interesting as characters than the Hollywood types. Disney succeeds with her storytelling. However, there is much less puzzle plot imagination here than in Strawstack. This is unfortunate.
The first half of Disney's novel is a variant on the "inverted detective" story. In the classical inverted tale, invented by R. Austin Freeman, we see the criminal commit the crime, then try to cover up his traces. Then the detective tries to track him down. In Disney's variant of the form, it is not the killer who covers up the crime, but some innocent person who conceals the murder. This person is usually someone who loves one of the suspects, and tries to protect them. This person goes through all of the plot developments of the traditional inverted tale, destroying evidence, concealing the corpse, but is not actually the guilty party, of course. This variant on the inverted story became popular in the 1940's. One thinks of Erle Stanley Gardner's "Clue of the Runaway Blonde" (1945), Rufus King's The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943), Cornell Woolrich's "Death Between Dances" (1947), many of Gardner's and Craig Rice's stories where the lawyers Perry Mason and John J. Malone conceal the murder for their clients.
Disney shows a corrosive skepticism about the police in these books. They are shown as honest, and not corrupt, but also as self seeking and determined to railroad suspects into prison. They can be quite vicious about hounding suspects. They are thoroughly unpleasant and unlikable people. Her point of view is very unusual for HIBK writers, most of whom seem to have an upper middle class comfort with the police. The police interrogation methods in Golden Swan seem more like the brainwashing sessions done by secret police in totalitarian states, than anything one commonly encounters in most mystery novels. I've seen Communist interrogators tormenting captured freedom fighters in spy novels who have exactly the same approach as the police in Golden Swan. The cop Timothy Dwight in Explosion is also loathsome.
Disney's point of view in Golden Swan is both similar and different from Chandler. Her depiction of Hollywood does not quite reach the sordid extremes of The Big Sleep. While Chandler deals with gangsters and the pornography business, Disney looks at the film industry. While Chandler's book explores drug addiction, Disney looks at gambling. Disney's relative restraint here perhaps reflects the taste standards of the women's magazines for which she and the other HIBKers wrote. However, both writers are surprisingly alike in point of view. Disney's film industry insiders may not be actual gangsters, but they have been thoroughly corrupted by their milieu. Disney paints them as people with every sort of spiritual decay. Her portrait of wide spread social corruption caused by a vicious economic institution is as least as grim and pointed as Chandler's. Both authors are equally convinced that they are in a society that has reached a moral nadir. Similarly, Chandler's treatment of drug addiction and Disney's of gambling have a similar point of view. Both are sinister portrayals of addictive behavior taking over and utterly ruining people's lives. Both authors are utterly condemnatory of these activities, and the human wreckage they leave behind them.
Disney's spinster sleuth narrator does not partake of the corruption around her. It is not so much that she is saintly. Rather, she is a starchy representative of a traditional Code of Conduct. She always performs in obeisance to this code, that of Philadelphia's Main Line, and avoids the social decay around her. Her constant comparison of Hollywood to Philadelphia at first seems funny, and is milked for comic relief. But as the book goes forward it seems like a fence keeping her out of the abyss.
The Balcony has some of the best storytelling of any of Disney's books. The characters and events are gripping, and involve the reader. The book has a background of the legacy of slavery. It has plenty to say about race relations. It must have best extraordinarily courageous in 1940. Even today, the book's forthright treatment of slavery makes an impressive contrast to the denial that many right wing Americans still feel on this subject.
The Balcony makes a welcome return to Disney's skill in puzzle plotting, after its abandonment in The Golden Swan Murder. The book has several of Disney's trademark plot surprises. It is also closer to the Rinehart tradition than Golden Swan, which was somewhat of a change of pace experiment for its author. All the material in the book about the bank and gold reminds one a bit of Rinehart's The Album (1933). The book is a little less exuberant in its puzzle plotting than Disney's first two novels. For example, the choice of the villain at the end of the book is not associated with any ingenious twist. It is psychologically "right", however, and makes a satisfying ending.
September is unusual in that the narrator is a man, the husband in the couple, and that he is the one that has the frightening HIBK encounters in the middle of the night. This is very non-sexist. He behaves in exactly the same way as the heroine-narrators of countless HIBK novels. He experiences exactly the same fears and terrors, too. While I applaud such equal treatment, I also have to admit it seems really odd to me. I am really unused to seeing a male in such a role. He conceals evidence from the police to protect his friends, just like a HIBK heroine. The hero also does all the grousing one expects from HIBK narrators about the difficulty of social events, tensions at gatherings, the struggle to keep up appearances after losing money and so on, the sort of comments almost universally restricted to females in HIBK novels up to this point.
September is also unusual in that all three main male characters are unemployed. By contrast, the women seem to be far more dynamic and effective workers, both at home, and in the business community. One would have thought that by 1942 the US economy was beginning to expand again, and such massive male joblessness was declining. This is clearly part of this book's interesting role reversal between the sexes.
September shows Disney's extreme skepticism about the police. Rinehart tended to show the police as decent, hard working, and nearly all knowing. By contrast, Disney's police are horrible human beings, always trying to pin crimes on someone innocent.
Thirty Days Hath September was written in collaboration with George Sessions Perry. George Sessions Perry was a once-famous mainstream writer, known for both fiction and non-fiction, often centering on Texas. His best-known mainstream fiction includes the novels Walls Rise Up (1939) and Hold Autumn in Your Hand (1941), and the short story collection Hackberry Cavalier (1944). The non-fiction My Granny Van; the running battle of Rockdale, Texas (1949) was also well-known. It was adapted for the Studio One TV drama series in 1950 by Loren Disney. This might or might not be Dorothy Cameron Disney's brother Loren G. Disney Jr.
The crime imagery of Explosion is related to World War II. Again and again, Disney compares it to the bombed out buildings of the war. Much of the plot also depends on the just finished war as a background.
Disney's novels show the surrealism sometimes found in modern detective fiction. In Strawstack, The Golden Swan Murder and Explosion, the crimes always take place right in a character's bedroom. It is this room treated as a character's basic living space, that is the author's point of view. This place often becomes extremely surreal, and transformed.
A major character in the book is a beautiful young woman, the kid sister of a close friend of the narrator. She recalls the narrator's niece in Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. Both women have secrets, and are not Telling All They Know. Both also are the object of tremendous sympathy and affection from the narrator.
Similarly, a mysterious young man who shows up and takes a job at the flower shop recalls the young man who goes to work as the heroine's gardener in Staircase. Both of these are handsome, noble young men with the personalities of hero figures; but both also have a mysterious past and are probably concealing something. The novels make it ambiguous whether they are in fact heroes or the killer. Much of the mystery in Said With Flowers in fact centers around this young man's character, and that of the young heroine. By the way, the young man's name is Barney Miller. Today this seems absurd, after watching the comedy TV show, but in the forties it sounded perfectly normal.
The use of a police detective who shows up, and who makes respectful friends with the narrator, is also in the Rinehart tradition. As in Rinehart, detection is done partly by the police, who use scientific methods, and partly by the narrator, who performs amateur sleuthing. Both the narrator and the police detective fully share information with each other, and seem to enjoy and respect working with each other towards a solution of the mystery.
The use of spinster narrators and a fairly middle class background make Said With Flowers resemble Rinehart's early fiction. By contrast, the mystery plot of the book turns on woman's issues, something that recalls Rinehart's late works. The story invokes feminist concerns that are still timely today.
The puzzle plot in Said With Flowers is ordinary. The one really clever idea was already anticipated by Dorothy Cameron Disney in The Strawstack Murders (1938 - 1939). The book is instead more readable for the storytelling, characters, and unfolding sense of mystery.
The narrator and her partner are roommates as well as business partners, sharing a house. Although the heroine becomes friends with the cop, neither have any actual romance. It is hard not to wonder if the narrator and her partner are in fact lesbians. The book does not make this clear. It would have been very difficult in 1943 to publish a novel with a pair of sympathetic, explicitly gay characters at its center. However, Said With Flowers comes close. It goes as far in this direction as the censorship of the time would allow. It makes a pleasant contrast to all the homophobia that was sweeping through America in the 1940's.
Anthony Boucher gave a mixed review to Said With Flowers. He suggested the small town in the novel resembled Carmel, California.
Several misconceptions abound. For one thing, Rinehart herself does not seem to have been a member of this school. She first emerged much earlier, around 1905, and seems to have been imitated by these authors without her consent or conscious participation in a literary movement. There are some signs, however, that she might have experienced some reverse influence from them. In particular, Mignon G. Eberhart published the first of a series of nurse-detective novels in 1929. Three years later, Rinehart revived her own nurse detective, Miss Pinkerton, who had hitherto appeared only in two novellas of 1914. Perhaps Eberhart's example encouraged her to do this. Eberhart is in fact the earliest author known to me in the Rinehart school, and she as much as Rinehart might be considered the founder of the movement. (However, little is known in depth about this school of fiction, so take this assertion with a grain of salt.) Kay Cleaver Strahan's first novel, The Desert Moon Mystery (1928), also shows some features of the HIBK school at an early date; it is not a very likable book.
There is no respectful name for the HIBK school. In the delightful critical omnibus The Fine Art of Murder (1993), (Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg, Larry Segriff, with Jon L. Breen, editors), they are relabeled as "Women's Suspense", in an attempt to give them some cultural dignity. I am all for this, but this name seems possibly misleading to me. For one thing, although all of these writers at least occasionally incorporated suspense elements into their tales, most of their works are essentially mystery stories. They are influenced by their Golden Age contemporaries, and have a mysterious murder, suspects, clues, a character serving as detective, and so on, in addition to their suspense elements. Both these writers and Rinehart herself largely wrote mystery fiction during this era. It may be a lot more suspense oriented than Christie or Carr, but it is still very recognizably a detective story. Even the very vivid suspense passages of Eberhart contribute to, and are integrated with, the complex cat's cradle plots of her mystery stories. Far from being merely in jeopardy, Eberhart's heroine usually continues her sleuthing during these episodes.
Another odd thing about the name Women's Suspense, is what it implies about such genuine suspense writers as Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong. They are both women and suspense authors, but they have little in common with the Rinehart school.
The whole "Women's" aspect of the Rinehart school also has some ambiguities. The term could either apply to the writers or readers of the fiction. Admittedly, many of the more fluttery stories seem geared to the taste of "women's fiction" readers of the era, but some of the writers were clearly trying to appeal to readers of both sexes. Rinehart herself fought bitterly all her life against being labeled as a woman's writer, and she claimed she had equal number of readers of both sexes. The only male author in the school I know is Baynard Kendrick, who included some aspects of the school in The Odor of Violets and other novels.
I have read a lot of Rinehart, who is a favorite author of mine, but less of the Rinehart school. Some of the school's fiction is admittedly pretty cornball, with little to recommend it. Especially hard to take is all the gloomy soap opera in bad HIBK books about upper crust society. Several works I have read are outstanding puzzle plot stories, however, and there are probably more about which I know nothing. Hopefully, I will someday get a clearer understanding of the achievements of this school.
The puzzle plot technique of Rinehart, Eberhart, Offord is clearly closest to the intuitionist school, such writers as Agatha Christie. It is hard to tell the roots of this approach. Some of it perhaps is direct influence from Christie and other Golden Age writers. But some of it comes from a common ancestor in traditional detective puzzle plot fiction, such as Doyle. After all, Rinehart and Hopwood wrote their masterpiece The Bat before Christie, Carr or Queen had published a line.
The use of science is a continuing tradition in many HIBK writers. Rinehart herself has strong affinities with the school of Scientific Detection, especially in her Miss Pinkerton stories. It can be seen in Mignon G. Eberhart's nurse detectives and medical experimenters, and the puzzle plotting of her "Postiche". There is also Leslie Ford's interest in both mechanical devices, and aircraft, and the scientist character in Lenore Glen Offord's Skeleton Key, as well as Baynard Kendrick's blind detective Duncan Maclain. This interest in scientific detection seems directly descended from Rinehart and Reeve, and is independent from the British Realist school of Freeman and Crofts.
Commentary on Mignon G. Eberhart:
The Dark Garden evokes modern art to describe both the effects of the fog, and the buildings that the fog conceals. Clearly, Eberhart felt that modern art was a high energy expression of powerful social and cultural forces, currents affecting the lives of everyone in society. She also conveyed the idea that it was a little frightening, involving the breakdown of normal perception, and the transfer of the viewer to a different kind of consciousness. The Dark Garden uses all the senses to express the heroine's perceptions: hearing, sight, touch and heat and cold perception.
It also uses words: the strange sentence the heroine hears out of the fog. This sentence seems completely nonsensical. It derives from the forms of modernist literature, such Symbolist influenced writers as T.S. Eliot and, especially, Gertrude Stein.
Eberhart's view of modern architecture also includes the technological forces used to build it, and the laws of physics that lay behind them. Like Rinehart and most of the HIBK writers, she was fascinated by science and technology. In a memorable passage, Eberhart describes the world as being built up out of energy. This is both scientifically sound, and an almost mystic vision of a hidden reality under the everyday appearance of things.
Similarly, the architecture of the hotel in "Bermuda Grapevine" (1938) plays a key role in the plot.
Eberhart's stories often open with a landscape, showing the scene where the crime will take place. This landscape often shows the route and means of arrival: how people actually come to the landscape itself. This arrival route is an integral part of the landscape. It often shows vivid weather: the train and car journey through a blizzard in Nebraska's Sand Hills in The Mystery of Hunting's End (1930), the foggy roads leading to the estate in The Dark Garden (1933), the boat journey through the lake in The Pattern (1937). Such transportation is natural in the early parts of stories - after all, the characters have to get there somehow, as part of their entrance into the narrative. But Eberhart often makes such routes a key part of the landscape itself, one that adds to the complexity of the overall pattern.
Racism in Eberhart takes the form of negative portrayals of minority characters. They are crooks in The Patient in Room 18 and The White Cockatoo; have psychological problems in Fair Warning.
Like many racists then and now, Eberhart is most disturbed by characters of mixed race:
This discussion will concentrate on Eberhart's better works, which are racism free. Such poor, racist books as The White Cockatoo and Fair Warning will not be discussed at all. However, The Patient in Room 18 will be analyzed. It is Eberhart's first novel, and full of subjects that will recur and be better developed in later and better Eberhart novels.
Sarah Keate tends to be the central character of the stories, as well as the narrator. She often takes care of helpless young male patients in a female, nurse-run world: a reversal of the social roles often prescribed for men and women of the era.
None of the books is a triumph, considered as a pure puzzle plot mystery - although the locked room in The Mystery of Hunting's End and the disappearance in From This Dark Stairway are admirable. Yet several of them have opening sections with imaginative storytelling.
The first five Sarah Keate novels appeared at the start of Eberhart's career (1929-1932); the last two followed after long intervals. There are short stories about the character, such as "The Old Man's Diamond" (1934), which appears in Mignon G. Eberhart's Best Mystery Stories. And more importantly, there are five short stories about Keate in Dead Yesterday (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru).
Fiction about nurses used to be popular. This included both mainstream novel accounts of nurses, and specialized nurse-mystery tales like the Sarah Keate stories. I have a vivid memory of being at a Michigan, USA yard sale circa 1975, and seeing a box of maybe seventy paperback nurse novels for sale. They were clearly the treasured library of a reader who loved nurse fiction.
Is Sarah Keate a Lesbian?. The short story "Dead Yesterday" (1936) has Sarah Keate making an explicit declaration: she loves a young nurse in the hospital. It is unclear how to interpret this. Is this an expression of gay love? Or does Sarah Keate love the nurse in a sisterly way, without a sexual or lesbian dimension? The story does not delve into this issue. It is hard to prove fully what Sarah Keate's feelings are.
Still, this is one of the more astonishing passages in Golden Age mystery literature.
Sarah Keate is not shown in her novels and stories as having romantic heterosexual feelings, in either the present or the past. Like many pre-1960 detectives she stands outside of the world of heterosexuality. This too can be hard to interpret, both in Sarah Keate's case, and in detective fiction as a whole. One interpretation: detectives represent the Rational side of the human spirit, therefore they are not involved in romance. Another interpretation: many pre-1960's detectives are meant to be seen as "quietly" gay.
Sarah Keate is not depicted in her tales, as best I can remember, as having a female partner or special friend: someone who could be interpreted as an active gay lover. In "Dead Yesterday", the young nurse who Sarah Keate loves, does not seem to return Keate's feelings, or even be aware of them. Instead, the young nurse develops a passionate heterosexual relationship with the noble young male doctor in the tale. Who is indeed a kindly, good man.
On the other hand, we mainly see Sarah Keate on the job, performing her duties as a nurse. Her detective cases come to her as part of her nursing work. We rarely see Keate off duty, or in her private life. So we don't really get much of a view of Keate's personal existence.
In the non-series novella "The E-String Murder" (1926) the nurse narrator-heroine shares an apartment with another woman, a close friend of hers. This relationship is ambiguous: the two women might be lesbian lovers, they might be non-sexual friends. The story does not go into this issue. Neither one has a boyfriend. Another character refers to the pair derisively as "two old maids": the heroine hates this (understandably). "The E-String Murder" is less important than "Dead Yesterday", in seeing a possible gay dimension in Eberhart's fiction. After all, women shared apartments constantly in both real life and mystery fiction, both to save money, and to have a supportive friend. It was a common situation, often with no dimension of lesbianism. By contrast, "Dead Yesterday" offers an explicit declaration of love. (One might note that "The E-String Murder" suffers badly from racist stereotypes, while "Dead Yesterday" is free of racism. "The E-String Murder" is NOT a recommended story.)
Influence on "Cool and Lam". Sarah Keate and police detective Lance O'Leary bear a physical resemblance to Erle Stanley Gardner's series sleuths Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, another female-male detective team. Sarah Keate and Bertha Cool are both middle-aged, somewhat heavy-set women. Lance O'Leary and Donald Lam are younger men, slight looking and none too tall, and attractive to women. Bertha Cool and Donald Lam debuted in The Bigger They Come (1939), a decade after Eberhart's characters. The personalities of the two teams are none too close, however, although all four characters are experienced people who emphatically work for a living.
Sleuths. The Patient in Room 18 sets up the series premise, of nurse and amateur detective Sarah Keate living in a fictitious city referred to as "B----". "B----" is called a Western city in The Patient in Room 18, and Midwestern in From This Dark Stairway. Much of The Patient in Room 18 is set in a hospital where Sarah Keate works; these scenes establish the paradigms of later Sarah Keate hospital novels, From This Dark Stairway and Man Missing.
It also introduces policeman Lance O'Leary. One of the book's best passages is the morning after the murder, when O'Leary makes his first appearance, investigating the case (Chapter 3). This paints a vivid portrait of O'Leary. It also has some comedy.
Lance O'Leary has a "social leader" quality, in this first appearance, a quality that depends on charisma and personality rather than power. This is viewed both admiringly and satirically:
Mystery Plot: The Disappearance Subplot. One of the better subplots of The Patient in Room 18 is the missing man (Chapter 3). This puzzle is propounded and solved within a single chapter. The solution is not ingenious. Yet it makes for lively storytelling, with both suspense and dark humor. Later in From This Dark Stairway, a more elaborate disappearance subplot will stretch through the whole book. It has a clever solution, much better than the one in The Patient in Room 18. Still, the idea of having a disappearance subplot accompany the main murder mystery begins in The Patient in Room 18, and it likely served as the model for the more elaborate subplot in From This Dark Stairway.
This section (Chapter 3) is an above-average part of the novel, both introducing Lance O'Leary, and containing this disappearance subplot.
Science. The radium is little more than a McGuffin: a valuable object many people are trying to steal. The Patient in Room 18 does little with the scientific aspects of radium. This contrasts with the anesthetic in From This Dark Stairway, which people are similarly trying to possess. The anesthetic gets an elaborate account of its medical properties, invention and development. From This Dark Stairway thus has claims of being a "scientific detective story", while scientific aspects are perfunctory in The Patient in Room 18.
Weather. The first murder takes place on a hot stifling night, which leads to a storm. Both hot nights and storms will recur throughout later Eberhart.
Culture. A doctor is an amateur classical paint, playing the C Sharp Minor Prelude (1892) by Sergei Rachmaninoff for his guests (Chapter 1). This anticipates the more elaborate use of classic vocal music in the opening of The House on the Roof, where the opera singer performs for her guest. Both recitals are informal events in the performer's home, during a social gathering, on a hot night.
The opening dinner party refers to The Purple Land (1885) by William Henry Hudson, a novelist of great descriptive power.
Film. The excellent 1938 film version of The Patient in Room 18 is discussed in the article on its co-director, Bobby Connolly.
As Eberhart points out, nearly the only color in the mansion is provided by various small objects that are the clues in the story, including a green jade elephant statuette. This use of color serves to highlight the objects. It also suggests that they come from a different order of being from the rest of the objects at the mansion, one that causes them to glow with inner color, and to serve as pointers to the mystery. They are objects that suggest thought - they are elements in the reasoning used to track down the case.
While the Patient Slept shows much interest in the fancy clothes worn by the suspects. Even policemen Lance O'Leary is sharply dressed. The colorful clothes and jewelry of the characters also contrast with the dark gloom of the mansion. Eberhart is much interested in sources of light: the lamps and candles used in the mansion, what filters in of the daylight through the fog, gleaming jewels, even the glowing eyes of a cat. These sources of light are the structural foundation around which her scenic descriptions are built. These sources of light are like islands, surrounded by the darkness of the mansion. In this, they are structurally similar to the clues, which are also bright spots of mental illumination in the intellectual darkness of the mystery.
Architecture. There is a small bridge on the estate. Small bridges, often in wooded areas and often scenes of suspense or plot advancement, occur in The Patient in Room 18, "Easter Devil".
The estate has a brick wall around it. It anticipates the guarded perimeter of the Navy base in Man Missing. The walled estate is referred to as a "world" (end of Chapter 3). Similarly, the hospital in From This Dark Stairway is referred to as a world, at the novel's start.
Spousal Abuse. An episode in Chapter 5 describes spousal abuse of a woman by her husband. It shows the continuing concern of Rinehart school writers with this issue, many years before it was taken up by contemporary feminists. The subject briefly returns in the opening of From This Dark Stairway (Chapter 1). A wife goes through hell from psychological abuse by her husband in the opening of Fair Warning (Chapter 1).
Mystery Plot. Like several of Eberhart's books, the mystery plot is nowhere as good as the atmosphere in the first few chapters. The financial elements at the story's end are implausible.
Film. While the Patient Slept was made into a largely faithful film (1935) by director Ray Enright. It was the first Eberhart work brought to the screen. It keeps to the plot, characters and setting of the original book. Almost all of the incidents, and much of the dialogue are taken directly from the novel. The script takes incidents not revealed to the reader till nearly the end of Eberhart's novel, and shows them to the audience from the start. This makes the film a bit more fair play, and also easier to follow. Unfortunately, the film is in black and white, and Eberhart's carefully planned color imagery is lost.
The screenwriters have added a fair amount of comedy relief, including banter between Keate and O'Leary, and a comical police sergeant played by deft comedian Allen Jenkins. The casting is a bit odd: O'Leary is a young man in the books, much younger than Keate, but in the film he is played by middle aged Guy Kibbee. Other young characters in the novel, such as the doctor and cousin Eustace, also become much older in the film.
The Mystery of Hunting's End is much like a "country house mystery", with well-to-do people gathered for a weekend party in an isolated building. However, the characters in The Mystery of Hunting's End are staying in a huge fancy hunting lodge, rather than a country mansion. They are cut off from the world by a snow storm, also a fairly common occurrence in country house mysteries.
Sarah's fictitious home city is referred to as Barrington in The Mystery of Hunting's End, rather than as "B----", as in other books. It does not seem related to any real life American towns named Barrington.
Architecture. The opening sets forth the architecture of the hunting lodge where the characters are staying. The lodge floor plan is rather like one of Eberhart's hospital corridors:
Locked Room. The rest of this minor novel is rather repetitive. It is at its best in the explanation of the locked room mystery (Chapter 14). Eberhart had also included a locked room puzzle of sorts in her previous book, While the Patient Slept, but its solution is somewhat of a shuck.
Suspense and a Disappearance. A suspense passage (last part of Chapter 13) echoes an earlier suspense sequence in The Patient in Room 18 (Chapter 3). Both involve a missing man.
Finance. SPOILER. As is fairly common in Eberhart, financial dealings play a key role in motivating the crimes (Chapters 2, 18). The Mystery of Hunting's End goes beyond other Eberhart, however, in suggesting truly widespread corruption in the world of finance. Such crooked dealings are linked to patriarchy, with fathers and father figures at their center.
Such a crooked financial institution, corrupted by the respectable looking men who run it, recalls Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907). It might also reflect concerns about the 1929 Crash that started the Depression.
Eberhart's Five Passengers from Lisbon (1946) would look at a different kind of mass corruption: civilians who collaborated with or profited from the Nazis during World War II.
Red and green colored lights are involved in the architecture, and Eberhart uses them like the colors in a William Hope Hodgson tale. Color is also displayed by the Chinese snuff bottle, reminiscent of the green jade elephant in While the Patient Slept. The bottle is carved out of blue lapis lazuli, like the cuff-links in The Patient in Room 18. The police are also in blue uniforms, and a student nurse's uniform is white-and-blue striped. Everything else is designed in black, gray and white, including the clothes and the settings. We learn that the hospital decor and furnishings were installed before modern times, before the "current" emphasis on color. Instead, these older furnishings are "chaste", "barren", and drained of color (middle of Chapter 3). Such words link color to fertility. The snuff bottle is in the shape of a pomegranate; both it and the elephant can be seen as nature icons, perhaps expressing nature's fecundity. See also the toy stuffed animals in "The Calico Dog" and the actual melon in "Murder Goes to Market".
Intense summer heat plays the role that stormy weather does in other Eberhart set pieces. The scents in the warm oppressive air are repeatedly described. This anticipates the heat and perfumes in The House on the Roof, and the scented roses in the opening of Murder by an Aristocrat. A hot building and a staircase return in "Spider".
The Storm. At the book's climax, the hot muggy weather breaks out into a thunder storm (start of Chapter 16). This storm is a well-described set piece, intended as a balance and contrast to the book's opening. It reflects Eberhart's long term interest in storms. It also forms a backdrop to the suspense scenes surrounding the capture of the killer.
Links to other Eberhart. Like The Patient in Room 18, From This Dark Stairway is a hospital melodrama, with both the staff and bigwigs who serve as directors of the hospital among the suspects. Their families are also characters. Both novels have a medical marvel serving as a MacGuffin in the plot; these are typical of HIBK writers' interest in new science and technology. The scientific MacGuffin in From This Dark Stairway is a new anesthetic (Chapters 4, 6). Both the anesthetic itself, and its invention, are described in some detail.
This also anticipates the new gold-refining process in "Bermuda Grapevine".
The Bland novella "Deadly Is the Diamond" (1942), like From This Dark Stairway, will also have characters involved in a shared, highly technological business - in this case diamond cutting - together with their families and romantic relationships. Eberhart combines both a professional/technological setting and a domestic background into the characters of these stories. An elevator and a multi-story building are key in the plot of both works, as well.
Detection. In From This Dark Stairway the murder investigation employs some standard, always welcome techniques used by many other authors before and after Eberhart:
Mystery Plot. From This Dark Stairway has two linked mystery puzzle plots: a murder and a disappearance. The disappearance is much more inventive and ingenious than the murder mystery. The disappearance is explained in two stages. First, we have a clever idea about the disappearance as a whole (end of Chapter 10). Then, at the book's end, the solution adds a detail to the explanation, that is also decent (Chapter 16).
The Depression. The young architect is facing the Depression (last part of Chapter 6). A detailed look at his many business problems and belt-tightening schemes is included. As he points out, US construction slowed to almost nothing in the Depression. It would not much resume till after the end of World War II in 1945.
We get a brief look at working class men facing hard times, and measures used to try to help them (end of Chapter 10). These church charity measures are sincere - but pathetically weak compared to the size of the problem. Only with the election of President Roosevelt and his New Deal (1933) would serious, effective steps be taken.
SPOILER. The disappearance of Peter Melady from the hospital, is linked to issues of class, race, and unemployment during the Depression (end of Chapter 10). This ties the mystery puzzle plot to American society. It focuses on contrasts between Peter Melady, a wealthy man at the top of social hierarchies, and those at the bottom. Melady, as a man of wealth and power, gets lots of extra attention (Chapter 1). By contrast, men at society's bottom are nearly invisible, and little attention is focussed on them (end of Chapter 10, start of Chapter 11). This plays a role in the disappearance.
The food the hard-working nurses are served by the hospital is not much: sandwiches for supper, boiled cabbage for lunch, coffee. This sounds incredibly cheap.
The early stages of the book propound a seemingly interesting detective puzzle. But as the disappointing story unwinds, one learns the mysterious happenings are all the coincidental result of several different subplots, and that the mysterious events do not have any unified explanation.
However, the early chapters do show good storytelling, especially when nurse Sarah Keate is confronting strange events at night (O'Leary does not appear here, or in the two final novels in the series). The vividly described roses, whose scent penetrates everywhere, are an example of Eberhart's gift at describing sensory experiences.
The early sections lack the atmosphere and scene painting that often distinguish Eberhart's openings, and the book is unusually downbeat for her.
The author succeeds in laying the crime to an unlikely person, however, and the finale does have some surprises (Chapter 22), as well as some implicit sociological commentary. The plot is also more unified here than in the earlier book.
There seems to have been a revival of interest in traditional detective stories in the mid 1950's, affecting many different writers. Man Missing and Eberhart's previous, non-series book The Unknown Quantity (1953) could well be part of this trend.
The Base: Landscape and Technology. Man Missing is set at a naval base, a fictionalized version of the real-life Hawthorne Naval Ammunition Depot in Western Nevada. (Information on Eberhart and Hawthorne is taken from Rick Cypert's biography America's Agatha Christie: Mignon Good Eberhart, Her Life And Works.) The setting is unusually male-oriented for Eberhart, as well as being somewhat less upper crust society. Eberhart's choice of this setting likely reflects:
A telephone switchboard operator often plays a role in Eberhart's hospital stories, including Man Missing. Back then, most large buildings, such as hospitals, had their own switchboard, often near the front entrance of the building. Such switchboards were often run by women. Like nursing, this gives Eberhart a chance to show women using science and technology.
Hospital Corridor. The pleasant opening of the book (Chapters 1-2, first part of 3) combines the base with an atmospheric "hospital corridor on a hot summer night" setting recalling From This Dark Stairway. The two novels' solutions also have a similar sort of family resemblance, with intricately staged moves around the hospital at night by the villain during the commission of the crime. Such movements, linked to architecture and time tables, are a Golden Age tradition.
Such familiar Eberhart details as the use of color, vividly described scents, sounds (the whistle), and descriptions of peoples' clothes and appearance all come into play in the opening section. The whistle, while shrill, is technically a musical instrument, and links Man Missing to the musical imagery in other Eberhart books.
The hospital areas in The Patient in Room 18, From This Dark Stairway and Man Missing have a similar functionality:
The Sarah Keate hospital short stories have similar architecture:
Subplot: Locked Room. Man Missing propounds a sort of impossible crime puzzle: how did someone get into and out of a locked room, to search it? This subplot is given only short passages in the novel: propounded (end of Chapter 7), solved (near the end of Chapter 15). The solution, while plausible and even a bit shrewd, is not a classic "impossible crime". Still, as long as one is not expecting ingenuity on the John Dickson Carr level, it makes a pleasant subplot. This subplot benefits from being set in the novel's most interesting locale: the hospital corridor.
This Man Missing puzzle recalls a mystery subplot in the Sara Keate short story "The Night Watch Mystery" (1933). SPOILERS. A comparison:
While the premises of the subplots in "The Night Watch Mystery" and Man Missing involve a room-that-is-locked, neither one is the standard "Locked room problem" that is widespread in mystery fiction. The premises have a fundamentally different structure.
Buffalo Bill. Lance O'Leary is not in this novel, but the vividly described character of Buffalo Bill somewhat takes his place, in the opening chapters. Resemblances:
The Arts. Its best part is its opening chapter, depicting the heroine's visit with a retired opera star. This grand dame and her music are vividly conveyed. Such opera singers are far more commonly found in Agatha Christie, than in HIBK writers, who tend to avoid the arts in favor of science, technology and politics. Eberhart made a mistake in not having this colorful lady appear after the opening chapter. The music, and the stifling heat and perfumes of the penthouse, do convey a different world of perception in the Eberhart tradition.
Other characters are also in the arts: a painter, an opera chorus singer and dancer, a minor reporter / advertising man.
Architecture. The singer's penthouse apartment, the "house on the roof" of the title, typifies the Golden Age's love of spectacular architecture. The door with a lock leading to the roof, recalls a similar roof door with spring-lock in From This Dark Stairway.
The two systems of telephones in the apartment building, one in-house (Chapter 2), recall the phones in Rinehart's The Bat (1920).
Society. Depiction of society in The House on the Roof sometimes recalls From This Dark Stairway, but unfortunately is far less detailed:
Another Eberhart Hospital. The structure of the hospital ship closely matches the regular land-based hospitals in the Sarah Keate books. There are wards, long corridors, diet kitchens along the passageways, and a steep staircase (Chapter 2), just like Eberhart's other hospitals. The reader can feel they are right back in the hospital described in From This Dark Stairway. One wonders if real hospital ships were actually laid on a such a pattern, or whether Eberhart simply imagined them to be like the hospitals in her other novels.
We never get the flood of concrete detail and atmosphere in Five Passengers from Lisbon, that so enhances From This Dark Stairway and Man Missing. Instead, the setting seems vague and abstract. Still, the description of the hospital and its staff (Chapter 2) is the best part of the novel.
The hospital ship anticipates the Army hospital in Man Missing, in that the staff and patients are members of the US Armed Services.
The hospital ship and its staff are treated with great respect by Eberhart. Unfortunately, they do not play a central role in Five Passengers from Lisbon, the way they do in such Nurse Keate novels as From This Dark Stairway and Man Missing. Instead, the focus is on a bunch of civilian suspects, with the nurses and doctors only occasionally seen. I would have liked Five Passengers from Lisbon better, had it been primarily a nurse-and-hospital detective story, the way From This Dark Stairway is.
Color. Red plays a key role:
Corruption. SPOILER. The civilian, non-Army characters in Five Passengers from Lisbon turn out to be a remarkably corrupt bunch of people. They are a bunch of scum, willing either to collaborate with the Nazis or profit from such collaboration. It is a negative portrait of humanity - or perhaps just of civilians in Europe in World War II.
There does not seem to be any political point or commentary embedded in Five Passengers from Lisbon. The Nazis and their collaborators are seen as evil (something with which I entirely agree). But no morals are drawn about Nazi politics or philosophy, or the politics of their collaborators.
Solidarity?. The opening shows three women facing the disaster on ship. It perhaps suggests themes of female solidarity, and mutual support across class lines. However, any such approach is soon undercut by the systematic corruption in most of the novel.
Mystery Plot. The various murders, attempted murders, blackmail are not creative. They form a tangled skein, mildly complex, but uninventive. SPOILER. Having so many guilty parties operating all at once robs the reader of a fair chance of figuring out the culprits and their crimes. This sort of multi-villain construction is a flaw in other lesser Eberhart novels too, such as The Patient in Room 18 and Murder by an Aristocrat.
SPOILER. The most ingenious subplot deals not with a murder, but the main villain's attempt to escape from the ship. This idea bears some resemblance to the disappearance subplot in From This Dark Stairway. However, the concrete details of the two plots are pleasantly different.
The Opening Setting. Just a handful of families own plantations on the isolated island. The setting is rather like a tropical equivalent of The Pattern (1937), in which a few interlocking well-to-do families lived on small islands on a lake near Chicago. Both novels feature locals as workers, as well. Both novels open with accounts of how the heroine has recently arrived on the island.
Like many Eberhart novels, House of Storm is best in its opening, which provides an atmospheric account of its setting (Chapter 1, first two paragraphs of Chapter 2). This is full of Eberhart's trademark skill with buildings, colors, light and scents.
The island includes a central sugar mill, used to process the sugar cane grown in the plantations. This gives a technological dimension to the island. It anticipates the even more elaborate technological facilities in the Navy base in Man Missing. The mill, like technological features of the base in Man Missing, produces sounds. It also richly produces scents, a subject in which Eberhart has deep interest.
Bananas are also grown on the island, recalling Blow-Down (1939) by Lawrence G. Blochman, set on a Central American banana plantation. House of Storm is a late entry in a series of American mysteries of the era, set in the Caribbean.
Finance. Like many Eberhart mysteries, House of Storm is structured around financial surprises about its characters. Early sections tell us about the characters' apparent financial situation (Chapters 1, 2). The finale has surprising revelations about their real status. SPOILER. As often in Eberhart, this involves hidden debts, and revelations that seemingly prosperous people are actually broke. Concealing such debts is a motive for murder.
House of Storm contains a series of Eberhart standard character types, centered on their relationship to money and work. Such types recur in other Eberhart tales, such as "The Crimson Paw":
Introducing Susan Dare. "Introducing Susan Dare" (1934) is the first story about Dare. It has elements of an origin story, depicting Susan Dare's first case, although it doesn't tell much about Susan Dare's previous life. It does show Susan first meeting her reporter boyfriend Jim Byrne, and Jim's challenging Susan to solve a mystery case. Before this, Susan seems to have had no connection to detection.
"Introducing Susan Dare" is one of Eberhart's most conventional detective stories. It has a setting that was already a cliche by 1934, although not much used by Eberhart: a house party at a country mansion. Eberhart has some decent descriptive writing, including color imagery and flowers. The opening sentence about a flower, is one of Ebert's surreal statements that at first seem incomprehensible, but later acquire a logical meaning.
There is a decent central riddle, about the ring. SPOILER. This has Scientific Detection aspects. The ring aspect is much better than anything else in the mystery plot.
Throughout the tale, there are glimpses of financial interactions among the characters. At the end, we learn these interactions were even more complex than we had thought. This type of plotting appears in other Eberhart works, such as the non-series novella "The Crimson Paw" (1952). This is a form of mystery plotting: we get an initial look at a situation, then the solution reveals surprising new facts, just like the solution to a mystery. Also like a mystery, these final revelations can be ingenious. But unfortunately, the financial revelations at the end of Eberhart tales are not usually "fair play": there is no way the reader can deduce these revelations, from facts or clues earlier in the story.
Easter Devil. "Easter Devil" (1934) has a startling, hard-to-interpret title. Eventually it is given a meaning by the story, although the meaning is not what the reader might expect. This is a bit like the "modernist" sentence that needs to be interpreted in The Dark Garden. Later, a character makes rambling remarks while sedated and falling asleep. These too have a surreal, hard-to-interpret quality. They too will eventually be made clear by later developments in the plot.
"Easter Devil" has Susan Dare go undercover disguised as a nurse. This puts her in the kind of situation that Sarah Keate, a real nurse, often finds herself. "Easter Devil" sends its heroine on a nursing assignment into a family mansion filled with sinister goings on, like the Sarah Keate novels While the Patient Slept and Murder by an Aristocrat.
"Easter Devil" has a murder mystery, treated in a perfunctory style. Far more central are the problems swirling around troubled rich wife Felicia. These have aspects of mystery too, concerning who is doing them and why. But "Easter Devil" has more of the feel of a psychological thriller than of a mystery story per se.
The Claret Stick. "The Claret Stick" (1934) is an interesting but uneven story. It is full of good mystery ideas. There is a sound "how-done-it" puzzle, about the mystery of how the murder was physically committed. There is also a mystery about how the body was transported, which gets a solution that bears a bit of a family resemblance to a body-transport idea in From This Dark Stairway.
SPOILERS. There are two decent ideas used to generate an alibi, one involving the claret stick, the other the locked theater. "The Claret Stick", like "Spider", is an alibi puzzle. Eberhart would continue to experiment with alibi problems in The House on the Roof.
But the alibi subplot also suffers from a plot holes, that prevent it from being fully successful mystery plot. For one thing, it is hard to see how the killer could have had knowledge of all the characters' activities, or control over them, so that the alibi would be effective.
The theater building in "The Claret Stick" is locked, like the hospital in From This Dark Stairway. In both works, it is puzzling to see how an outside killer could have entered or left the building. The murder thus looks like an inside job, from someone who was well-known to have been inside the building at the time of killing. SPOILERS. Both works offer some decent, fairly clever ideas on how such restrictions on entering or leaving the building could have been violated. I like the idea in "The Claret Stick", one of the two ideas enabling the alibi - but the idea depends too much on a witness (the director) sometimes being reliable and sometimes being unreliable. After all, if he is unreliable, anyone could have snuck into or out of the building. This invalidates the whole premise of this subplot, reducing it to garbage. There is no need for any clever idea: the killer could have just have sneaked in and out of the theater.
"The Claret Stick" is another hard-to-interpret title, like "Easter Devil". In both works, the title is eventually given a clear, logical meaning by the story. This is a kind of intellectual puzzle, in which an apparently surreal phrase is given logical meaning.
The theater atmosphere in "The Claret Stick" is pretty good. It anticipates the theater-rehearsal-as-murder-scene background of "Death by Black Magic" (1948) by Joseph Commings. Eberhart's skepticism about rich people involved with the arts, and the opportunistic artists they attract, anticipates the Dr. Colin Starr tales in Diagnosis: Murder (1939 - 1941) by Rufus King.
The Man Who Was Missing. "The Man Who Was Missing" (1934) takes place in a rooming house, one converted from an old mansion. In this it anticipates another such Chicago apartment building, in The House on the Roof (1934-1935). Both are atmospheric and spooky. Both buildings have an artist and a dancer among their tenants. Susan Dare's reporter boyfriend, a series character, perhaps gets echoed in The House on the Roof by the minor journalist among the suspects, although the two men's personalities are very different.
"The Man Who Was Missing" succeeds brilliantly on all levels. Rich in atmosphere, it also has a well-constructed plot.
Missing or disappeared men are at the center of some of Eberhart's better mystery puzzles: From This Dark Stairway, "The Man Who Was Missing". Her solutions tend to be quite different, from story to story.
The Calico Dog. "The Calico Dog" (1934) is Eberhart's version of the real-life mystery of the Tichborne Claimant (search the Internet for details). Many mystery writers have had a go at this puzzle: is a young man who suddenly appears the long lost heir who has been missing, or not? "The Calico Dog" comes up with an ingenious way of identifying the correct heir.
"The Calico Dog" contains a perfunctory murder mystery too, which is less interesting than the central puzzle of identity.
The Flowering Face. "The Flowering Face" (1935) has a well-constructed puzzle plot.
"The Flowering Face" takes place in a nearly abstract world. It seems made up out of light, fog and geometry. The fog recalls the opening of The Dark Garden; the lights the hospital corridor lights in Sarah Keate novels like From This Dark Stairway. It is more totally abstract than either. It mainly takes place out of doors, like the opening of The Dark Garden.
Postiche. "Postiche" (1935) is a medical mystery in a family mansion, giving it a broad resemblance to "Easter Devil", While the Patient Slept and Murder by an Aristocrat. Unlike "Easter Devil", Susan Dare does not go undercover in the mansion, or pose as a nurse. Instead, she appears as herself, and investigates the situation openly.
"Postiche" is a "how-done-it": the kind of tale in which the method used to commit the crime is a mystery. The scientific aspects are stressed, and the tale falls into the Scientific Detection category.
The title "Postiche" refers to structural aspects of the tale's mystery plot. The plot has an off trail, mildly experimental construction. This is an interesting aspect of the story.
Feather Heels. "Feather Heels" (1935) takes place in Miami Beach, among well-to-do folks vacationing at a resort hotel. Best feature: the elaborately detailed building and grounds of a casino. This shows the Golden Age interest in landscape architecture.
The landscape is carefully integrated with the crime story: the characters' movements in the landscape before, during and after the crime are well thought through. The landscape helps make the crime events possible and plausible. But: the landscape does not play a role in the solution of the mystery. It does not contain or enable any sort of surprise twist or ingenious puzzle plot idea in the solution. SPOILER. This is different from "The Flowering Face", where the landscape is the foundation of a mystery puzzle plot.
Susan's boyfriend Jim behaves rottenly in "Feather Heels". Previously he had mainly been portrayed as Mr. Perfect. I didn't like him in this tale at all, and didn't like this change.
Deadly Is the Diamond. "Deadly Is the Diamond" is a story about a seeming curse on a fabulous diamond, and is full of atmosphere. It can make good escapist reading. There is also a fake curse seemingly operating on the wife in "Easter Devil".
Eberhart is especially good at keeping sinister, unexpected events coming. There are also some decent mystery ideas.
The diamond recalls the real life Jonker diamond, discovered in 1934. A fine short film, The Jonker Diamond (1936), directed by Jacques Tourneur, describes three stages in the Jonker's history:
Murder Goes to Market. "Murder Goes to Market" is set in that then new concept, the supermarket. The supermarket, like the diamond cutting business in "Deadly Is the Diamond", and the hospitals of three of the Sarah Keate novels, exemplifies Eberhart's interest in complex institutions.
"Murder Goes to Market" has a pleasantly surreal quality. The events, presented with a realistic tone, are in fact strange, odd or zany. One of Eberhart's most atmospheric storms, and an undertone of strange comedy propel a good "read".
The discussion between Bland and the heroine, when they come home after the murder, is delightful. It shows a comic side of Eberhart that is too much neglected in her work. Like Lance O'Leary and Sarah Keate, the two are part of a non-romantic male-female duo.
Midway through the tale, a suspense passage has the heroine locking up her house. The house becomes another of Eberhart's "locked and watched buildings". She eventually makes a sound deduction about a person who enters and leaves the house. This is not a full-fledged subplot with a mystery and solution. But it does show detective work, about a kind of setting often used for mysteries in other Eberhart works.
"Murder Goes to Market" is reprinted in Jon L. Breen and Rita A. Breen's anthology American Murders (1986). It is also in the anthology Women Write Murder (1987) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Edward D. Hoch.
Quite a few of the Wickwire tales I've read are thin. Only around half have strong puzzle plots.
No Cry of Murder. "No Cry of Murder" (1952) seems to be the first Mr. Wickwire tale. It is quite different in its treatment of Wickwire from the others. Mr. Wickwire is personally involved in the mystery, rather than serving as a sort of detective-consultant as he does in the later tales. And while he does solve the mystery, he is not seen as any sort of regular detective.
My guess: "No Cry of Murder" was written as a standalone, non-series tale. After it was finished, Eberhart saw the possibility of making Wickwire a series sleuth. However, this is pure speculation on my part.
"No Cry of Murder" is a routine tale. This reader tumbled to what is going on, long before Wickwire did. A guess: Eberhart wants the crime "mystery" in "No Cry of Murder" to be obvious to readers. She wants readers to figure it out right away. And then experience suspense, watching danger build.
The Wagstaff Pearls. "The Wagstaff Pearls" (1952) is a pleasant mystery tale, involving theft.
In very broad terms, "The Wagstaff Pearls" reminds one of Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Case of the Irate Witness" (1953), a tale also published the next year in This Week. SPOILERS. Both short stories:
Precious stones or objects made of them are frequent targets of theft in Eberhart. The obsessional attraction with which characters regard the Wagstaff Pearls recalls "The Jade Cup". A motive in "The Jade Cup", an older woman infatuated with a young man lover, is invoked briefly as a possibility in "The Wagstaff Pearls".
The Dangerous Widows. "The Dangerous Widows" (1953) is a mystery with exactly two suspects, the two widows of the title. The story's first half has a lively series of events, and makes fun reading.
But the mystery that is examined in the tale's second half lacks interest. Some of the clues and reasoning use dubious logic.
The Valentine Murder. "The Valentine Murder" (1954) is a whodunit murder mystery. While its mystery plot approach is different, its storytelling has much in common with "Mr. Wickwire Adds and Subtracts". Both feature:
The Blonde from Sumatra. "The Blonde from Sumatra" (1958) engages Mr. Wickwire with strange events surrounding a client.
SPOILERS. "The Blonde from Sumatra" is indebted to "The Companion" (1930), a Miss Marple short story by Agatha Christie. The core ideas of both tales are the same. Eberhart's version has differences:
Mr. Wickwire Adds and Subtracts. "Mr. Wickwire Adds and Subtracts" (1958) is a whodunit murder mystery. It seems to be the last Wickwire tale.
It shows Eberhart tackling a standard kind of mystery puzzle: a Dying Message tale. SPOILERS. The message involves mathematical symbolism. Rex Stout had used both mathematics and a Dying Message in his novella "The Zero Clue" (1953). Eberhart's specific ideas are different from Stout's though.
Wickwire is shown as attracted to women in "Mr. Wickwire Adds and Subtracts", "The Blonde from Sumatra" and to a lesser degree "Mr. Wickwire's Gun Moll". Although he is an elderly bachelor who has never married, he definitely seems to be a heterosexual character.
Precious Object: With Powers. The jade objects recall other small precious objects in Eberhart:
Well-Dressed Sleuth. The hero Mr. Constant is another Eberhart young man who is very well-dressed, like Lance O'Leary. Both men serve as detective heroes, although Mr. Constant is an amateur sleuth, unlike O'Leary. The good clothes of O'Leary and Mr. Constant influence other people:
Mr. Constant is unusual in that his first name is never given. In some ways, this is a humorous, stylistic device. But it also serves to underscore his upper class status. He is explicitly a scion of the wealthy. The Mr. also suggests male privilege. The widow in the tale is exclusively referred to by her late husband's name, as Mrs. Carter Muir or as Mrs. Muir. This too suggests the male-dominance in society.
Tough Guy. Otto the chauffeur is a lower class tough guy. He anticipates the tough soldier Buffalo Bill in Man Missing. Both of these are sympathetic characters, but both are also seen humorously. Otto is a former Sergeant; Buffalo Bill is an active top sergeant in the marines.
SPOILERS. The end of "The Jade Cup" sees Otto and Mr. Constant forming what looks like a closer relationship. This is seen humorously, as a sort of comedy relief epilogue. But it also suggests a gay relationship developing between the two men.
Otto recalls Leslie Ford's character Sergeant Buck, who had already appeared in The Strangled Witness (1934). Both are:
Older Woman - Younger Man. Mrs. Muir and her young boyfriend are an older woman / younger man pair. The relationship is seen negatively by the story. Such relationships will be treated humorously in "The Valentine Murder" (1954).
Sarah Keate and detective Lance O'Leary are an older woman and a younger man. However, they are not given a romantic relationship.
Opera. The House on the Roof opens memorably with an opera singer at home. "The Jade Cup" actually takes us to the opera.
Appropriately, for a story that looks at the dark side of sexuality, the opera is Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Characters and Society. The heroine is sensible, and works for a living, like Susan Dare and Sarah Keate. She is not one of the upper class alleged "heroines" with lives of leisure who are so annoying in Eberhart novels.
The heroine employs a man-of-all-work assistant Mike at the kennels. He is notable as an example of a man working for a woman, with both the man and the heroine-employer happy with the employment. Mike and the security guard Brannigan are sympathetic working class characters. They make a refreshing contrast to the selfish, money-obsessed upper class people in the story.
The hero is a noble young doctor. The police suspect him of killing to get money for his research, recalling a possible motive of the doctor suspects in The Patient in Room 18. Aside from this, however, there is not much medical mystery in "The Crimson Paw".
Mystery Plot. Among the better aspects of "The Crimson Paw" is a mystery puzzle. The heroine hears people inside the murder house, who then disappear. The house is another of Eberhart's "locked and watched buildings", as in From This Dark Stairway, Man Missing and "The Claret Stick". The mystery is given two solutions. SPOILERS:
The near complete lack of clever mystery plotting or ingenuity in "Murder in Waltz Time" is a severe limiting factor. Murders are committed; at the end we learn who done it; that is all the mystery plotting in the tale.
"Murder in Waltz Time" has an odd construction. It splits into two halves, with largely different plot subjects and developments. The first half is mildly fun reading; the second half goes off on nearly unrelated tangents, and is less enjoyable:
The hero is a Korean War veteran, trying to educate himself and build a career. As in Man Missing (1953-1954), Eberhart is recognizing the military service Americans were performing.
Construction. "Murder at the Dog Show" has a construction like the Sarah Keate short story "Marked for Death" (1933). SPOILERS. Both:
Characters. The characters in "Murder at the Dog Show" recall those in "The Crimson Paw":
Dogs and Comedy. Today the "received wisdom" in the mass media is that dog-owners view dogs ultra-seriously, while cat-owners find cats funny. TV commercials tend to reflect these views; so do televised dog shows.
By contrast, American Golden Age mystery writers often saw dogs as a source of wild, raucous comedy. That is true of "Murder at the Dog Show". And also Norbert Davis' tales of Carstairs the Great Dane, and Stuart Palmer's Hildegarde Withers and her poodle Talleyrand. All of these writers saw dogs affectionately: but also engaged in farcical comedy. I confess I like this comic approach, more than the solemn depiction of dogs in today's media.
Eberhart's "Mr. Wickwire Adds and Subtracts" (1958) also contains comedy about dogs. It is less central to the tale's plot than in "Murder at the Dog Show", however.
Mystery Plot. BIG SPOILERS. A key to solving the mystery plot puzzle recalls the mystery plot solution in "Spider".
The disappearance of the murder weapon, approaches the impossible crime.
Commentary on Lenore Glen Offord:
Series Characters. Clues to Burn is the second of two novels to feature amateur sleuth Coco Hastings, a married homemaker from San Francisco. Coco is refreshingly sensible and lacking in hysteria. Her husband Bill sometimes helps her with some good detective ideas. But Coco is the principal detective. In Clues to Burn Bill is the one who first gathers evidence that the death is murder, not an accident (late in Chapter 2). But Coco figures out the mystery at the novel's end.
We learn that Coco's small son is called Butch. One could speculate that this is perhaps a tribute to Inspector Butch Geraghty of the San Francisco police, who appeared in Coco's first case Murder on Russian Hill.
Mystery Cliches: Self-Reflexive Elements. Clues to Burn invokes and mildly burlesques many cliches of mystery fiction. Coco is quite conscious of this. She points out (Chapter 1) that the fact that the characters are nearly marooned on an isolated island suggests that a murder mystery is about to occur: which it promptly does! Offord would later write a poem Memoirs of a Mystery Critic (1966) which lists and spoofs mystery cliches.
Like the typology of murderers in Skeleton Key and The Glass Mask, the mystery cliches in Clues to Burn are "Self-Reflexive Elements": they discuss mystery fiction itself, within the novel.
Howard Haycraft's Murder for Pleasure (1941) had just popularized Ogden Nash's use of "Had I But Known". It is already a mystery cliche noted in Clues to Burn (Chapter 6).
The heroine's husband humorously compares her with the sleuth Dr. Fell of John Dickson Carr (Chapter 6).
Links to Skeleton Key. Clues to Burn anticipates Offord's later (and better) Skeleton Key:
Landscape: Links to Rinehart. Offord, like other HIBK writers, does a very good job of describing the physical setting, buildings, and geography of her tale. The isolated road, its houses and the canyon are all imagined in interesting ways.
The Album (1933) by Mary Roberts Rinehart was set on an isolated street with five houses in a row, like Skeleton Key. But Rinehart's families had close ties, while Offord's neighbors are wildly different and not closely connected. Rinehart's characters are social aristocrats; Offord's are middle class. (Anthony Boucher's introduction to the paperback of Clues to Burn pointed out how in general Offord's characters are much more ordinary financially, compared to the wealthy folks in many Rinehart books.)
The Door (1930) by Mary Roberts Rinehart is set in a mansion behind which is a "deep ravine". The ravine anticipates the canyon in Skeleton Key.
The Door examines "lines of sight": what you can see from various positions inside the mansion. Skeleton Key examines "lines of sight" too, often concentrating what can be seen from different viewpoints in the street, or looking out into the street.
HIBK. Offord's HIBK mannerisms are very mild. There is a lot of sensitive human interest in her tale, but the undertones of hyper-sensitive emotional hysteria sometimes found in HIBK are thankfully absent in her work. Her heroine is sensible, and gainfully employed. Offord instead stresses the puzzle plot elements of her tale, and her work is close to the intuitionist writers of the Golden Age.
Rinehart novels like to show the protagonist suspensefully wandering around in the dark. Skeleton Key comes up with an unusually realistic, plausible reason for its heroine trying to explore in total darkness (Chapter 4). Offord wants to keep the suspense of such passages, but without the cliches.
Minorities: A Positive View. The professor's housekeeper is a dignified, non-stereotyped black character. She does talk using mild dialect, a common feature in novels of the era. But she is always shown to be a decent, "normal" person.
World War II. Skeleton Key is rich in homefront World War II atmosphere. It is much better, in my judgement, than another mystery about blackouts in wartime San Francisco: Siren in the Night (1943), one of the poorest books by the otherwise talented Leslie Ford.
Skeleton Key (start of Chapter 4) looks at civilians tracking planes as part of W.W.II Civil Defense. So does Hugh Pentecost's novella "The Corpse Was Beautiful" (1942), reprinted in Jon L. Breen and Rita A. Breen's anthology American Murders (1986).
The Typology and other Self-Reflexive Elements. There is a mildly interesting typology of murderers (Chapter 10). Perhaps this classification, which has more to do with murderers in mystery fiction than in real life, shows Offord's budding interest in mystery criticism: she would go on to be a prolific mystery reviewer for San Francisco papers. One hopes that someday her reviews, and the Edgar winning criticism of Helen McCloy, will be collected and made available.
The typology is given by Todd McKinnon, who is a writer of pulp detective stories in the tale. Offord never contributed to the pulps, at least not under her own name, and there is no pulp atmosphere whatsoever to her novel. Instead McKinnon seems like the generic "writer of mystery fiction" so often encountered as a character in Golden Age mystery fiction: see Ellery Queen, or Christie's Ariadne Oliver, or Eberhart's Susan Dare.
The typology returns in The Glass Mask (end of Chapter 7, Chapters 8, 9). There it inspires some stories-within-the-story written by McKinnon. We get synopses of these tales. This too is reflexive. The tales' crime plots echo but transform the main plot of the novel. While this idea is creative, the tales themselves are not that interesting, unfortunately.
Science Fiction and Comic Books. The neighbors half-humorously all speculate that the Professor is working on a "death ray". Death rays were omnipresent in the science fiction of the era. When teenager Ricky suggests this (first part of Chapter 2), the heroine wonders if he reads Superman comic books. Superman had debuted in 1938, and was a huge public sensation.
In 1943, science fiction publishing was almost entirely confined to comic books, comic strips and pulp magazines. Skeleton Key recognizes the existence of comic books that incorporate science fiction, like Superman. But it doesn't mention science fiction pulp magazines. This despite McKinnon being a writer for the mystery pulps. This section also unfortunately implies that reading science fiction is childish.
Scientific Detection. A number of characters in Skeleton Key are involved with either science or the arts. There is so much about the mystery subplots that is based in science and technology, that Skeleton Key qualifies as a Scientific Detective story. The use of science is confined to the subplots themselves: the sleuths do not use scientific or technological means in their detective work.
Mystery Plot. Its nominally central puzzle plot about who did the murder is pretty ordinary; far better are subplots that pop up through the novel. The identity of the killer, and the killer's motive, seem almost like afterthoughts, that have little logical relationship to the rest of the plot.
Skeleton Key as a whole reminds one of Helen McCloy. The numerous subplots, and the grounding of the story in science, are McCloy approaches. There are differences: McCloy's subplots tend to be logically independent of each other and the main crime; Offord's subplots in Skeleton Key are often more closely linked with either the killing or the victim's mysterious activities.
The killer's motive previously appeared in Helen McCloy's The Deadly Truth (1941).
How the crime was committed is full of interest, with many surprising details that only gradually emerge. Some of these solution ideas come out in the investigation immediately following the murder (Chapter 5). The most inventive idea occurs two-thirds through the novel (Chapter 11).
The best subplot concerns what looks like a grave. Offord introduces this plot at the end of chapter 1; she concludes it with the interview at the professor's house (end of Chapter 8 and in Chapter 9), halfway through the novel. The subject of graves seems to trigger off something in Offord's creative imagination; it is central to her later classic, Walking Shadow. The way the body is disposed of in My True Love Lies also has some grave-like aspects, broadly speaking.
I did not enjoy the countryside setting of The Glass Mask or of Clues to Burn. The Glass Mask seems like a journey out of the present, into a traditional past. Its small town explicitly recalls a New England village, right down to its Victorian architecture and old-fashioned stores. It is compared to the mainstream New England tales of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Chapter 5). This sort of retreat into timeless nostalgia might have had appeal to war-weary Americans in 1944. But today it seems less interesting than the detailed portraits of modern day urban California in Skeleton Key. The small town in The Glass Mask seems utterly generic and conventional, with few interesting features.
The Glass Mask takes place in an old mansion in the countryside, so technically it is a "country house mystery". But this is misleading: country house mysteries typically involve rich upper crust people having a weekend house party or aristocratic gathering, perhaps in one of the Stately Homes of England. By contrast, The Glass Mask takes place in small town USA and features folksy Americana.
Society: Small Town and Patriarchy. Many of the small town characters turn out to be surprisingly corrupt. There is no sentimentality about small towns beings morally superior. Instead, we see viciousness and greed, leading to crime.
Small town life is also presented as being under the control of a wealthy, mean, dictatorial "social leader", who makes ordinary people miserable (Chapter 12). The town and its dictator, a man, are explicitly referred to as "patriarchal", and this is seen as a political system. Patriarchy is often discussed and criticized today; it is much more unusual to see it in a 1944 novel. Today "patriarchy" is usually used to describe a general dominance of men over women; in The Glass Mask "patriarchy" refers to one powerful man, older and with money, dominating a society: a somewhat different but related concept.
SPOILER. The solution behind the murder perhaps has a feminist subtext, with a woman murder victim being exploited and oppressed in a way that benefits men and the patriarchy.
The town dictator occasionally funds poor but brainy young men and sends them to college. In 1944, this was the only opportunity many ordinary people had to go to college, which was mainly restricted to the wealthy. Corpses at Indian Stones (1943) by Philip Wylie previously discussed such arrangements. In both books, the situation is seen as non-ideal. The young men discover that they are under deep obligation to the rich man. Soon the GI Bill (1944) would provide government funding for massive numbers of ordinary people to go to college. Books like these show the public's dissatisfaction with the difficulties of getting an education pre-GI Bill. Please see my list of mysteries about Ordinary People Having Trouble Paying for College.
The townspeople spread malicious gossip, suggesting a man is guilty of murder by poison. This echoes numerous tales by Agatha Christie, in which similar rumors are spread.
The much-discussed but never seen Gilbert is a photographer. He is perhaps linked to other artist characters in Offord. He is the least "small town" in attitude of any of the characters, instead dressing in Hollywood-style sports clothes, symbolizing his profession as photographer. He seems more sympathetic than these small town suspects.
Young People. As in other Offord novels, there is a very young couple of lovers (start of Chapter 4). However, they are only briefly seen. There are two little girls with bigger roles. Plus the hero's 21-year old nephew, who is idealized for his Army service. All of these young people seem vastly better as humans than the more mature adults who are the suspects.
World War II. Most of the war-time atmosphere is concentrated in the opening (Chapter 1). We learn about the sleuth's nephew, who is a soldier on an Army camp. After this, the novel starts concentrating on its small town, which seems little affected by the war. This contrasts with Skeleton Key, which is grounded in homefront American life throughout.
The characters are made miserable by war-time rationing, and its limitations on meat and butter. No one suggests that a more vegetarian diet might be healthier! The possibility is never raised. Social change of any sort is rarely discussed in The Glass Mask.
Mystery Plot. There are three mystery subplots, each fairly simple:
The concealed motive for the murder shows a touch of skill. SPOILER. Both this motive, and the unrelated subplot of the mystery in the attic, relate to the inheritance structure among the family members. They draw on the hidden implications embedded in how the inheritances are set up. This shows a bit of ingenuity.
Mystery Plot: Self-Reflexive. There is a not-bad look at how poisons are available to the various suspects (end of Chapter 7). The sleuth makes a suggestion, that the killer knew this, and deliberately choose such a poison that would spread suspicion around. This discussion has a "reflexive" quality. It deals with the overall structure of the plot, and the creation and use of this structure by the killer.
Aside from this, there is not much Scientific Detection in The Glass Mask.
Setting and Society. My True Love Lies is set in San Francisco's art world. This is a far more cultured San Francisco than we are used to seeing in say, private eye novels. As a mystery reviewer, Offord was a San Francisco newspaper colleague of Anthony Boucher, and like Boucher, her mystery takes us to an intellectual California.
The heroine and hero work for the Navy, and another character is in the process of being "separated" from the Armed Forces and returning to civilian life. Another is recovering from a war injury. This gives My True Love Lies a "homefront" feel, showing the effect of World War II on life in San Francisco, even though the war had been over for two years when My True Love Lies was published in 1947.
As in Skeleton Key, the heroine is a working woman. Both of these single women have low level but highly respectable jobs, that take them all over San Francisco. The first chapters of both novels gives us a clear picture of the heroine's work.
Technology. There are technological aspects to My True Love Lies:
Mystery Plot. This is a minor book. The mystery and the main characters involved in it are none too interesting. Far better is the heroine, and some of the detective work. The best parts of the book are Chapter 1, which introduces the heroine, and both her romance and thriller involvement, and Chapters 4 - 6, in which the heroine sleuths along with her police bodyguard Chan Lockett, a likable lug who combines comic elements with some shrewd detection.
My True Love Lies has many thriller elements. These are vividly atmospheric, and put the heroine in considerable jeopardy. Despite this, the book never degenerates into a thriller, unlike so many 1940's novels. It remains a pure whodunit. How does Offord accomplish this? For one thing, the book is filled with mystery. There seem to be at least four mysterious situations going, each in need of explanation. In addition, the reader is hard pressed to see how there can be a connection between the plots at all, which seem at first glance to be restricted to different spheres of characters. Because of this, the story seems to be getting deeper and deeper into mystery all the time. The heroine is menaced by unknown pursuers for unknown reason. Unlike many novels, in which it is clear that the heroine is being chased because she has the MacGuffin in her purse, neither the reader nor the heroine can understand why she is being pursued. Every fresh new incident adds to the sheer mystery of this part of the book. Offord gradually builds up a miasma like effect, in which the characters seem to be getting deeper and deeper into a mysterious darkness. The sheer variety of the events in the book also add to its effect. On the one hand, things seem more life like and believable. The characters are not restricted to a few events, but seen in a wide variety of lifetime situations. On the other hand, the variety of events make the book seem more surreal. It is if the characters are trapped in a large, hermetically sealed world, one in which shadows stretch out in many strange and unexpected directions.
Offord's characters spend a great deal of time reconstructing past crime situations, adding many new details and making them seem more real. This is rather similar to what Rinehart does in Miss Pinkerton (1932), building up a visionary view of the key crime events.
The reconstruction of the killing and its circumstances leads to new insight (second half of Chapter 5). Then towards the book's end, first we get a partial reconstruction with new ideas (end of Chapter 12), then the ultimate look with still more revelations (Chapter 13). Much of this deals with "how the murder occurred", although it also involves the motives for the unusual cover-up of the crime. These aspects of "how the murder was committed" recall the emphasis on how the murder was done in Skeleton Key. The details of the murders in the two novels are mainly quite different, but the mystery plot structure emphasis on figuring out how they were done is similar.
Links to Skeleton Key. There are some similar aspects of the murders in Skeleton Key and My True Love Lies:
Like Skeleton Key and My True Love Lies, Walking Shadow begins with a description of the heroine's job. As in Skeleton Key, this is a new job for the heroine. Both My True Love Lies and Walking Shadow deal with characters attached to a single artistic institution, a sculptor's workshop in My True Love Lies, the Shakespeare festival in Walking Shadow.
Offord's Young Adult non-mystery novel Enchanted August (1956) also takes place at the Festival in Ashland, Oregon.
Commentary on Leslie Ford:
Politics. Its Washington insider setting seems designed to expose corruption in politics, just like Ford's much later Latham-Primrose novel, The Woman in Black. Here the focus is on a corrupt lobbyist, and her machinations. She could give the Watergate burglars lessons in dirty tricks.
The Strangled Witness includes a conflict between big business ownership of a power source, versus the government. Energy and power are still major issues today. Leslie Ford's writing about power reflects her interest in Scientific Detection. Later scientific detection writer Helen McCloy will investigate such issues. McCloy's The Goblin Market (1943) looks at oil tankers and their role in providing energy for World War II, while She Walks Alone (1948) shows a political battle in Washington DC, over the proposed construction of a power system somewhere in the Western US. Like The Strangled Witness, She Walks Alone deals with the conflict between private business ownership and government ownership.
The Strangled Witness is plainly in favor of the Government ownership of this power generation facility. It depicts the pro-Government forces as honest, and the private enterprise people as a bunch of greedy crooks.
Also unusual: the Administration is explicitly the sponsor of the pro-Government bill. In 1934, the Administration was President Roosevelt, and his Democratic Party. This makes a tale in which Democrats are the good guys and their big business opponents are the villains. However, the words "Democrat" and "Republican" are rarely used. It is also unclear if the opponents are Republicans. They might well be rogue Democrats who are opposing Roosevelt and his policies.
One suspects this account is a thinly veiled look at the controversy surrounding the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA was signed into law in May 1933, following years of debate. The government-backed TVA was indeed championed by Roosevelt, Democrats and liberals, and opposed by Republicans and conservatives. This is a key example of a general trend in Ford's best Primrose-Latham books: looks at up-to-the-minute political developments in Washington. Most of Ford's treatment of such material is still gripping today.
A crusading young reporter is the tale's Young Lover. This suggests the esteem in which the press was held in this era. He is very much in favor of Government ownership.
Race. The Japanese servant is a well-done character. His depiction avoids racial stereotypes, and gives a sympathetic presentation.
Police bigotry against Asians is depicted negatively. This anticipates similar critiques of police mistreatment of blacks in Murder with Southern Hospitality.
We see various black servants. They talk in dialect, common in 1934, but now considered dated. However they are all sympathetic characters, and shown as good at their jobs.
Not HIBK. The Strangled Witness has few HIBK features: there are no socialites, and little interest in family life of the characters.
Sergeant Buck. Sergeant Buck is nicely developed as a comic character. SPOILERS. His sentimental desire to help young lovers makes a delicious contrast to his macho exterior. After Grace Latham joins the series, this role of "the friend to the young couple" would be taken up by her, with less involvement by Buck.
Mystery Plot. The Strangled Witness has a good subplot about determining the time of the murder. It starts out with a pair of indications: but sees problems with them because they contradict each other. Eventually, Primrose unearths a better approach. He shows good detective work, both by the logic of his reasoning, and his sensitivity to hidden clues in various kinds of evidence he and the police routinely collect.
This subplot is unveiled step by step throughout the tale, with its solution coming well before the finale of the story. Primrose's ideas and discoveries are shared with the reader throughout, at each stage. This helps keep the mystery plot of The Strangled Witness full of plot developments and revelations.
Unfortunately, the identity of the killer is poorly done. This aspect is revealed only at the tale's end. It disappoints in several ways:
Detectives. "The Clock Strikes Twelve" features her series sleuth, Colonel John Primrose. The short, bird-dog like Colonel reminds one a little bit of Ellery Queen's Inspector Queen, and his tough aide Sgt. Buck of Queen's Sgt. Velie.
Mystery Plot. "The Clock Strikes Twelve" (1935) is reasonably pleasant reading, but it could be much better, considered as a puzzle plot mystery. The elaborate schemes of the killer, entertainingly typical of the Golden Age, seem absurdly unmotivated. The author wonders early on why the killer took the risk of murdering someone in the Supreme Court chamber, no less, but she never comes up with a decent explanation.
SPOILER. The story shows Ford's interest in mechanical devices and machinery.
Feminism. A portrait of an Amelia Earhart type woman flying ace has some intriguing feminist slants.
Washington and the HIBK School. There is some good Washington atmosphere in this tale.
Washington settings were popular among the HIBK school:
In any event, the Washington setting of the tales allows writers to reflect on the nature of basic American values: what is really important about American life, what are its essential traditions? There is a mix of patriotism about American traditions, and skepticism about politicians and diplomats. It also allows for an exploration of ambiguity. This is a place where even the good characters wear masks, where nothing is as it seems. Both the American themes and the ambiguity have a common basic approach: an attempt to find solid, worthwhile reality hidden under a maze of alternatives.
Ill Met by Moonlight is mainly a poor book. It will make disappointing reading for anyone expecting that this debut might reveal interesting things about the series characters. Grace Latham fails to come alive as a character in Ill Met by Moonlight. She lacks the distinctive personality she will later develop. The characterization is especially weak in the opening chapters; as the book goes on she begins to sound more like the Grace we know from later works.
Setting. Later and better Grace Latham novels will benefit from a Washington DC setting. But Ill Met by Moonlight takes place instead in an exclusive summer colony April Harbor, apparently in Maryland. The colony is owned and occupied by an elite group of rich families, including Grace Latham's, who have spent their summers there since the dawn of time.
Unfortunately, April Harbor has no interesting features. It is just generic and ultra-conventional. The novel itself states that the area's club is "ordinary" and its parties are just the sort "you'd find in any country yacht club in America" (middle of Chapter 3). Who wants to read about a locale this banal and routine? Not me.
Racism. Ill Met by Moonlight is drowning in racism. We get endless invective directed against Sandra, a foreign woman who has dared to marry an American WASP. The novel is coy about what nation Sandra comes form. But hints early on suggest she is some sort of Hispanic (Chapter 1), from Latin America. Narrator Grace is always railing against Sandra for not being "my own kind". Grace comes across as the worst sort of racist snob, in Ill Met by Moonlight.
Grace also critiques her black servants for being lazy (start of Chapter 3).
The other Grace Latham book that suffers badly from racism is Siren in the Night. In addition to their racism problems, neither Ill Met by Moonlight nor Siren in the Night is much good as a novel.
Mystery Plot: Alibi and Time. Ill Met by Moonlight has an interesting idea involving alibis and time (set forth middle of Chapter 7, solved middle of Chapter 8). One wishes this decent idea were in a better novel.
Ill Met by Moonlight weakens this alibi idea, by having a witness mistakenly attribute an overheard statement to the wrong person. This flaw too would have to be cleaned up and avoided in a "better novel". A good novel would simply attribute this overheard statement to an unknown person, avoiding this problem.
The time of a murder was also an issue in the earlier The Strangled Witness.
Mystery Plot: Party Line. An episode explores plot possibilities enabled by the fact that most people in this country area are all on a common party line (Chapter 9). The "party line" was a kind of telephone technology widespread in that era; it has mainly disappeared today.
The Simple Way of Poison gets Grace Latham in her home in Georgetown for the first time. This is an improvement: Grace's expertise with Washington's social life is a key part of her characterization.
The opening of The Simple Way of Poison recalls Ill Met by Moonlight. Both have Grace out shopping, where she encounters other characters and learns about an adulterous situation that threatens people's happiness.
Divorce. Reno in the 1930's was where numerous Americans went to get divorces. The laws were deliberately made lax, so that the city could serve as an easy source of divorce: much easier than anywhere else in the United States. Divorces were granted on an industrial scale. Reno Divorce Colony Literature by Patricia Cooper-Smith documents the city's history and the literature written about it.
Reno Rendezvous is set against a Background of Reno as a "divorce mill". The characters, the settings, the mystery are entirely concerned with Reno as a divorce locale.
The Eel Pie Murders had earlier looked at divorce, but from a different perspective. The Eel Pie Murders showed the long term implications of divorce, especially on people's finances. The divorce in the novel had taken place years before. By contrast, Reno Rendezvous shows the process of divorce, and the social life of people in the middle of divorce proceedings in Reno. Reno Rendezvous does not seem interested in the long term effects of divorce, or the impact of divorce on society.
Bacchanal. Reno Rendezvous shows a "culture of libertinism": a community in Reno devoted to sexual indulgence. Divorce is only one part of this carnival-like bacchanal.
Color. Dex Cromwell is introduced with strong color imagery in his clothes and car (Chapter 1). This recalls the color-rich description of the victim's clothes in The Eel Pie Murders.
Narrative Strategy. Ford once again includes documents in her exposition. We get our first understanding of the backgrounds and relationships of the characters, from a newspaper gossip sheet (Chapter 2).
While Ford regularly likes to include documents in her books, the news article in Reno Rendezvous goes beyond this in its implications. Reno Rendezvous suggests that the characters have defined themselves in terms of media images. They seem to have lost authentic reality. Media like gossip columns are defining them. SPOILERS. Dex is later compared to images in advertisements, in a striking scene (middle of Chapter 4). Such "collapse of reality into media images" is a staple of modern philosophy, such as Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation (1981). Here it is in an early mystery novel.
Other episodes suggest that reality has broken down, in favor of image:
No Politics. Unlike some Ford mysteries, Reno Rendezvous is apparently apolitical. None of the characters seem to be involved in politics or big business. To be sure, an industrious critic could probably unearth a political dimension to subjects Reno Rendezvous does cover, such as sexuality, gender, divorce laws, and the relationship of real life to mass media imagery. Still, this is quite different from Ford works like The Strangled Witness, Murder in the O.P.M. and The Woman in Black that deal with Washington DC. politics, government and big business.
Comedy. In a striking passage (start of Chapter 4), narrator Grace Latham insists the tale's events are fundamentally humorous. She doesn't have the concept of "black humor", which would soon be invented by surrealist Andre Breton in France in his Anthology of Black Humor (1940). But she characterizes the events as "grotesquely and unbelievably funny": a closely related concept.
I confess that most of the events in Reno Rendezvous did not strike me as especially hilarious. Still, the book does have a comic tone. It is clear that this comic aspect is an important part of the book's conception. One important enough to make part of a nearly self-reflexive comment by the novel's narrator.
Domestic Drama. False to Any Man is relentlessly domestic. It looks at some closely intertwined families who live in three houses right across the street from each other. The setting recalls a bit the row of five upper class houses in The Album (1933) by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
The upper crust families have deeply intertwined histories - they are more ingrown than a toenail. Their grim lives, extending across generations, make dull and often downbeat reading. These people are often mean to each other. Unfortunately, their problems rarely seem plausible, interesting or socially significant.
Overhearing. The scene (Chapter 2) where the heroine wanders into a home and overhears a private conversation, anticipates Murder with Southern Hospitality.
Scientific Detection. The murder in False to Any Man has technological features. While these never become the dominant feature of the novel, they do get developed and extended throughout the book (middle of Chapter 9, end of Chapter 11, end of Chapter 12, middle of Chapter 19, middle of Chapter 25). Some of the technology, such as the chronometer, is of historical interest.
BIG SPOILER. The killing involves automatic devices, recalling "The Clock Strikes Twelve".
The murder centers on a similar sort of domestic technology as St. Peter's Finger (1938) by Gladys Mitchell. This is perhaps just a coincidence - the details of the two books are not close.
Public Life. A weakness of False to Any Man, compared to some better Ford books, is that it only rarely shows public life, one of Ford's strengths:
Old Lover's Ghost is a middling mystery. It starts out strong, with a good opening that depicts the real-life Yellowstone National Park, and which sets up an unusual situation among its characters (Chapters 1, 2). It is intermittently interesting after that (Chapters 5, 7, 8, 10). Its mystery elements are mainly undistinguished. The characters, looks at US society and Yellowstone Park are the book's strengths.
A big negative: a racial slur (Chapter 4).
Genre. The jacket of the original hardback edition apparently billed the book as "the new mystery romance by Leslie Ford". Old Lover's Ghost does indeed seem like a fusion of the mystery and romance novel genres.
By contrast, the 1940's paperback is labeled "a Colonel Primrose mystery". Paperback mystery books in that era were often identified with their series sleuth in this fashion.
The Wilderness and Women. Old Lover's Ghost is set in Yellowstone Park, a famous wilderness area in the Western USA, mainly in Wyoming.
Old Lover's Ghost shows matriarchs vigorously enjoying rugged camping experiences in wilderness areas. Both sympathetic suspect Mrs. Chapman and narrator Grace Latham are older women who take outdoor vacations in remote areas, accompanied by their grown-but-young descendants.
Mary Roberts Rinehart had been an outspoken advocate of wilderness travel, frequently accompanied by her three sons. When Ford's series heroine Grace Latham goes to Yellowstone accompanied by her teenage son, it is hard not to see her actions as being modeled on the real-life Rinehart. Rinehart promoted such camping in nonfiction books, such as Through Glacier Park-Seeing America First with Howard Eaton (1916) and Tenting Tonight-A Chronicle of Sport and Adventure in Glacier Park and Cascade Mountains (1918). Rinehart also made women vacationing in the wilderness the center of some of her comic Tish tales, such as "Tish's Spy" (1915), "My Country Tish of Thee -" (1916), and "Hijack and the Game" (1925). "My Country Tish of Thee -" takes place in Glacier Park in Montana, an area of central interest to Rinehart, while Old Lover's Ghost is in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming.
Showing older women vigorously enjoying outdoor life definitely has feminist aspects. Contemporary readers might be pleasantly surprised by this. Older women in 1910-1940 did not spend all their time crocheting doilies and gossiping. Some were advocates of what a famed speech by Theodore Roosevelt called "The Strenuous Life" (1899).
Male Bonding. We learn that Colonel Primrose and Sgt. Buck first met and teamed up, years before when they had Army duty guarding Yellowstone Park. This reminds us that before the creation of the US National Park Service in 1916, that America's national parks were patrolled by the US Army. The recently found silent film The Sergeant (Francis Boggs, 1910) shows a US Army Sergeant guarding Yosemite Valley, and features spectacular early location footage. The Sergeant is in the outstanding DVD set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938.
Old Lover's Ghost offers perhaps the deepest look at the relationship between Primrose and Buck of any of the Ford novels. We get a backstory of how the relationship started and developed (Chapters 1, 10). Such backstories are ubiquitous in today's crime fiction, but much less common in Golden Age mysteries like Old Lover's Ghost, which tend to focus exclusively on the characters' present lives.
The Primrose-Buck relationship is treated both in Old Lover's Ghost and other novels, as paralleling heterosexual romances. The pair live and work together, with Buck serving as Primrose's aide and sort-of-servant. The two have been inseparable for decades. Buck is deeply jealous of Primrose's relationship with Grace Latham, and wants to prevent Primrose and Latham from entering into matrimony.
Readers today might easily get the impression that the two are a gay couple. However, it is unclear what this 1940 book is really trying to suggest about the Primrose-Buck alliance. There is nothing explicitly gay about Primrose or Buck. But the two's alliance goes way beyond "friendship" or "colleagues". If their relationship is not explicitly "gay" by contemporary standards, neither is it at all a conventional "friendship" either. Even by 1940 standards, this is an unusual relationship. The whole subject is treated as a matter for light comedy, further complicating the issue.
The Triangle. Old Lover's Ghost has a triangle between a woman and two men rivals for her hand. This has a long backstory, with mysterious past events that caused a break-up. Such a rivalry with complex past events will recur in Murder in the O.P.M.. This subplot in Murder in the O.P.M. seems directly modeled on Old Lover's Ghost, although plot details differ. The treatment in Murder in the O.P.M. is much better done, however, especially with coming up with past events that explain the situation.
Unfortunately the explanation of the break-up in Old Lover's Ghost is inadequate (middle of Chapter 16). It explains why the lovers broke up. But it doesn't explain the other, drastic actions taken by the man. These drastic aspects would seem to imply that something criminal or at least extreme was going on. But nothing like this is in fact occurring. So this "solution" has to be judged a failure.
The SEC. One of the characters gets in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), an important agency of the US federal government that regulates stock trades and finance. Another suspect, a lawyer, is hoping to get a big fee by defending him with these difficulties (Chapter 5). This is an example of Leslie Ford's interest in the federal government, an interest shared by HIBK writers in general. The SEC had only been founded in 1934, so this also shows Ford's interest in contemporary society and modern innovations. Ford will soon write about another new US federal agency in Murder in the O.P.M..
The Rangers. Although it is out West, Yellowstone Park is in fact under the control of the US Federal Government. In this it resembles the Washington DC setting of other Latham - Colonel Primrose tales. We get brief glimpses of the Rangers in the US National Park Service, and their buildings and activities. This occasionally gives Old Lover's Ghost the feeling of a police procedural, one dealing with the Rangers, rather than regular police. The National Park Service, like the SEC, is a federal organization.
The women characters talk about how handsome the young Park Rangers are, and wonder if they passed a "screen test" to get their jobs. I have no information on the recruiting of Rangers, but my Mother told me that in 1940's Chicago, that the handsomest police officers were assigned to Chicago's famous downtown district, the Loop. These good looking cops would offer courtesies to women visitors, like directions and help finding hotels. They were a Public Relations effort of Chicago to promote tourism and a positive image for the city. So the suggestions about the Rangers in Old Lover's Ghost might well be literally true.
The young Rangers and young Park visitors take part in dances with hip music of 1940. So Yellowstone partakes of the "youth culture" of the era. Ford stressing this, as well as her young lovers, perhaps shows her trying to appeal to the youth audience of the day. Films in the 1940's relied heavily on young people for ticket sales.
Class. Grace Latham refers to her son as a member of the upper classes (end of Chapter 4). Although this is part of a humorous remark, one suspects it is also intended to be accurate. Grace Latham and her family are indeed members of the upper classes. Leslie Ford shows an interest in class in a number of books.
Class is also reflected the high social status of Colonel Primrose. Colonel Primrose is utterly what many people in 1940 saw as an authority figure. He is a WASP, a man with Social position who is received as a social equal into the homes of America's "finest families", a top US Army officer, a leader in US Intelligence. He is one of the men leading America. He is a person of total integrity and honesty in the performance of his duty. In sum, he is the sort of person seen as an unquestionable leader in 1940, especially by his fellow WASPs and socially conventional people. Because of all this, the way he lives his personal life, and his relationship with Sgt. Buck, are simply something that must be accepted by all Americans. At least, one suspects that this is the implicit perspective of the books.
The Murder of a Fifth Columnist is unusual in Ford's work, in that it involves spies and international intrigue. Although the Nazis or Germany are not named, they are clearly the villains - the Germanic name of a character makes this clear.
US Politics - or the Lack of It. The Murder of a Fifth Columnist takes place in Washington DC. Characters include politicians and government officials. Journalists are prominent, with two political columnists and two society reporters. Washington journalism can perhaps be described as the main subject of the novel.
Ford apparently made a decision to be discreet about the actual politics of the characters. We see the two political columnists talking about the government and politicians, but they rarely say anything concrete or substantial. We learn little about the columnists' political beliefs, or about the political ideas of the politicians and government officials. This is maddeningly vague. The Murder of a Fifth Columnist can be seen as a "political novel" in which actual politics is rarely discussed. It makes the book seem pointless. Ford's motive might have been to avoid offending readers, by avoiding concrete politics.
SPOILER. The murder motive turns out to have nothing to do with politics, springing instead from the personal lives of the suspects. This too dampens any political substance in the book. Richard Starnes' Washington mystery novels And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered (1950) and Another Mug for the Bier (1950) are perhaps influenced by Ford. These "political mysteries" also have solutions that are disappointingly based on personal motives rather than the books' politics.
In addition, the depiction of journalism and Washington Society in The Murder of a Fifth Columnist seems vague and generic. If you asked your Cousin Joe who has never been to Washington to write a novel about Washington reporters, he might come up with something like The Murder of a Fifth Columnist. The book lacks inside, concrete detail about newspapers, columnists, research, Society parties and the US Government. Many mystery novels feature fascinatingly detailed Backgrounds about some profession or institution. The Murder of a Fifth Columnist seems to have a Background about Washington journalism, but it is not well researched.
We actually do learn a little about the politics of Sam Wharton, a Congressman who's just been voted out of office. He's a member of the "Strong Opposition" (Chapter 1). In 1941, the Opposition party was the Republicans, so Sam Wharton must be a Republican. However, the actual term Republican is rarely used in The Murder of a Fifth Columnist. We also learn that Wharton is a "bitter isolationist" (Chapter 2), a political position common among Republicans in that era. Wharton also supports economic cooperation with Latin America (start of Chapter 20). Wharton turns out to be a sympathetic figure. One suspects that Ford is trying to show some bipartisanship, with a good guy Republican.
Latin America. Grace Latham is hoping to vacation in Guatemala (Chapter 1). This suggests the Good Neighbor policy promoting USA-Latin American relations.
A subplot about Senor Estevan Devalle also invokes USA-Latin American ties. While the Devalle thread is harmless, it seems superficial, rarely going beyond wholesome cliches about the value of economic cooperation. It does suggest that the Nazis want to sabotage such cooperation (start of Chapter 20).
The News Letter. A news letter called Truth Not Fiction is mass mailed to several characters in the story (Chapters 2, 6, 11, 12, 16, 18, 22). Its origins are anonymous and mysterious. The news letter subplot is more interesting than most of the rest of The Murder of a Fifth Columnist.
MILD SPOILER. I think readers are intended to suspect right away, that there is something subversive about Truth Not Fiction. Its contents seem designed to undermine confidence in American institutions. Ford's comments on it are bitterly satirical.
Aside from its political aspects, Truth Not Fiction is interesting as a publication produced outside of the mass media and official world of communication. A number of 1940's crime books look at the world of "alternative communications", some non-politically:
Blackouts. Dark satire suggests that blackouts should be taking place in the USA, in preparation for the coming war (end of Chapter 2). Leslie Ford's Siren in the Night (1942-1943) would later be set in a wartime blackout in San Francisco.
Mystery Plot. BIG SPOILER. The subplot about Kurt Hofmann is something of a cliche. Variants of it were done better earlier in Helen McCloy's The Man in the Moonlight (1940) and Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940).
The O.P.M. is one of many US Government agencies made up of civilians but involved in the war effort. It seems to be the real life agency, the Office of Production Management, established by President Roosevelt on January 7, 1941. It would be replaced by the War Production Board (WPB) on January 16, 1942. Among other tasks, the O.P.M. and WPB controlled strategic materials needed for the war effort: a central concern in Murder in the O.P.M..
Oddly, while the O.P.M. plays a major role in the novel, we never actually see the O.P.M. offices. Instead, we see O.P.M. business conducted at Washington parties and homes. This allows Ford's series narrator and sleuth Grace Latham to be present at the events: Latham is a Washington Society hostess, but not a government official.
Metals and Science. In real life, rare metals played a key role in the war effort, having uses in making weapons and equipment. Ford centers Murder in the O.P.M. on an interesting story about efforts to control the use of one such strategic metal. This emphasis on science, technology and its social implications links Murder in the O.P.M. to the tradition of Scientific Detection.
The metal in Murder in the O.P.M. is "promethium". At the time Murder in the O.P.M. was published, promethium was a fictitious metal, made up for the story. Later, in 1945 a new element was discovered in real life, and dubbed promethium. The name was suggested by the wife of one of the scientists Grace Mary Coryel. Did she read Murder in the O.P.M., and get the name from there? Perhaps Life imitated Art, and Science was inspired by Leslie Ford.
Having promethium be a fictitious metal allows Ford a free reign to make up a story about its uses and efforts to control it. It also protects Ford from libel suits: had she used a real metal, manufacturers and officials involved with it could have sued her, claiming they were depicted in the novel.
Technically, an imaginary metal like promethium allows Murder in the O.P.M. to be classified as science fiction: after all, the novel is about invented science. However, Ford keeps closely to 1942 science and technology, and there are no futuristic aspects in Murder in the O.P.M. or high tech inventions. Murder in the O.P.M. is therefore not close to what most people think of as science fiction. It instead is more what today is known as Lab Lit: realistic modern-day novels about science and technology. Lab Lit is popular in the 2000's, reflecting interest in how science influences society.
Class. Class is a subject throughout Murder in the O.P.M.. We mainly see rich Americans contrasted with the working class. The wealthy Americans are actually compared with European aristocrats, with references to rich Americans forming an "American Almanach de Gotha", referring to the book that records European royalty.
The uneasy connections between rich and poor become the subject of some of the book's mystery subplots. Making a topic be the premise of a mystery, tends to increase its importance in Golden Age mystery novels. It also integrates it with the story.
Landscape and Water. Ford liked to show bodies discovered in small bodies of water. Murder in the O.P.M. has one of the most elaborate such scenes, with the body found in a Washington canal (Chapter 7). The canal area is described in vivid depth. It shows the Golden Age interest in landscape. So to a lesser degree does the region outside and around the victim's house.
Narrative Strategy. Murder in the O.P.M. shows occasional experimentation with means of narration. A letter is used for exposition (Chapter 1), and a radio broadcast tells of government events (start of Chapter 3). Both convey information that the characters would be unlikely to encounter directly, in the course of the novel. They are also both models of vigorous story telling, fast moving and packed with information.
A self-reflexive quality returns in the brief final chapter.
The title is a comic take-off on Philip Barry's play The Philadelphia Story (1939).
The goldfish pool recalls the bayou in Murder with Southern Hospitality: Ford likes bodies found in wet areas, filled with plants.
The Novel. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is both grim and poor, with little connection to the opening. As in another lesser Leslie Ford novel False to Any Man, the tale is a domestic drama, with little connection to public life. Also like False to Any Man, we have ingrown families living next door to each other, in adjacent homes.
Society. A woman offers a brief but scathingly negative view of life in upper-middle class suburbs (Chapter 4). The depiction anticipates the satirical-nightmarish look at such suburbs in the 1950's and 1960's stories of mainstream author John Cheever. Ford's version concentrates on how bad this life is for women. Ford's fiction in general suggests that women are happiest in big cities, with vast social networks.
The Philadelphia Murder Story idealizes a young Major in the Marines (first half of Chapter 3). This certainly reflects the fact that The Philadelphia Murder Story is written during World War II, when admiration for the US Armed Forces reached its peak. But it also recalls the enthusiastic description of the uniformed Park Rangers in Old Lover's Ghost, a pre-War novel. Partly this is just sexiness: the books stress how handsome men look in uniforms. Partly it is a social or political attitude. Ford strongly admired men wearing Government uniforms. Her attitude makes a contrast with today's anti-Government far right-wing libertarians.
Motive for the Crimes. SPOILER. The mystery plot involves financial chicanery of a respectable-looking crook who works in an otherwise honest financial position or institution. This recalls similar criminal schemes in Old Lover's Ghost. This chicanery is by the main murderer in The Philadelphia Murder Story, and is the root cause of the killings. By contrast it was only linked to a subplot about the lovers' quarrel in Old Lover's Ghost, rather than the main murder mystery, and is not performed by that book's killer (Chapter 16 in Old Lover's Ghost).
Architecture. The mirror set so that one can observe the front door, is an interesting architectural feature (first half of Chapter 3). This is described as a Philadelphia tradition.
Scientific Detection. SPOILERS. A clue about handwriting appears in the solution (latter part of Chapter 15). This links The Philadelphia Murder Story to the tradition of Scientific Detection, like other Leslie Ford novels.
This is part of the Albert Toplady subplot, one of the book's better features (introduced in the first half of Chapter 3). Albert Toplady is one of the Mysterious Outsiders who sometimes show up in HIBK novels. They have no apparent connection to the well-to-do upper crust suspects, and their presence is a mystery. They tend to be lower middle class or working class. Neither the detective nor the reader has any idea why they are visiting or calling on the main suspects. Their mission, goals and secrets are usually not explained till the books' end. Such Mysterious Outsiders usually form a welcome plot complication. Another Mysterious Outsider in a Ford novel is the title character in The Woman in Black.
SPOILERS. Both the way Albert Toplady is a mild-mannered lower middle class man timidly mixing among the upper crust, and the way he makes the key discovery in this subplot, make him resemble to Ford's series sleuth Mr. Pinkerton.
Politics. Ford's The Woman in Black is an early, skeptical look at what Dwight D. Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex. It shows a successful but corrupt industrialist, grown rich off the war effort, attempting to move on into the civilian sector after the end of World War II in 1945. The story makes it clear that he is little more than a vicious con artist. Ford's story is very mainstream in feel - it was syndicated in The Saturday Evening Post, as were many of Ford's novels. So presumably it reflects widespread skepticism at the time about such enterprises. President Harry S. Truman campaigned against war profiteers, who he regarded as close to treasonous. The feel in the story is more of a financially sophisticated writer showing an inside Washington story, than of anything else.
The novel compares its fictional industrialist to Samuel Insull, a famous real life businessman whose empire collapsed disastrously in the 1930's (end of Chapter 1).
Technology. The story also concerns the hunt for synthetic rubber, and what it would mean to the economy. Ford, like most of the HIBK school, was deeply interested in science and technology, an interest for which the school has never received much critical credit.
Also interesting: the plastic building material looked at in passing (Chapter 1).
Mystery Plot. The Woman in Black takes a long time before it gets a murder going (Chapters 1 - 8), and these are the best parts of the novel. The discovery of the murder also leads to some interesting and surreal plot revelations (Chapters 9 - 11). After this, the book becomes a much more routine mystery tale.
As a mystery plot, the most interesting part of the book is not "who committed the murder?" The best mysteries instead swirl around the identity, motives and behavior of the mysterious "woman in black". Everyone else in the book is a fairly "known" character; she is a wild card who mysteriously intrudes on them. Her entrance into the plot is slow, gradual and low key. Eventually, though, her presence undergoes developments, that keep changing our limited understanding of her. This progression, which goes through a series of stages, is pleasantly ingenious. It stretches through the whole opening of the novel (Chapters 2 - 11).
The woman in black is not the only discordant figure, intruding on the other characters. Many of these characters are themselves at loggerheads with each other. Ford plays this for comedy, with characters who have pushed their way into Society parties soon finding themselves in delirious comic conflict. Such comically confrontational parties allow the characters to fully display their attitudes and personalities. They also allow Ford to create social satire. Ford's earlier Murder with Southern Hospitality also often featured wildly disparate people who force themselves on each other socially, only to find events erupting into comic social chaos. Her Mr. Pinkerton stories also often had their socially low status hero constantly embarrassed by Society functions.
Innocence. Ford employs an unusual strategy early in the book, by declaring one of the characters, the detective Grace Latham's friend, to be morally innocent and of outstanding character. This unequivocally removes her as a suspect throughout the novel, and gives the detective an ally and friend. This character is embedded deep in the network of suspects in the story, and normally she would come under suspicion too. Ford is not interested in the paranoia of suspecting everyone, however. She is much more interested in the feminist vision of women working together, and supporting each other in a time of crisis. Technically speaking, other writers have created such allies for their detective by having this ally be constantly in the company of the detective at the time of the first murder, thus giving them an unshakable alibi, and permanently removing them from the list of suspects. Ford did not have such an option here, because her first murder occurs so late in the book. Latham has to accept her friend's innocence on faith and friendship alone, something she gladly does.
Narrative Strategy. Murder in the O.P.M. used a letter and a radio broadcast for exposition. The Woman in Black features an addition to a will (Chapter 1). These documents are included verbatim in the novels.
There are some differences. Mr. Pinkerton is of much lower class origins. Unlike Mr. Chitterwick, who has inherited money and who is descended from gentlemen, Pinkerton came from a modest background, and worked hard most of his life, first as a school teacher, then in his wife's boarding house. These differences perhaps reflect the two authors. Berkeley embodies the snobbishness and class consciousness of British writers of the era, in which only members of the upper classes were respected. The American Ford reflects more democratic values, with respect for people who work being a chief value of society. Mr. Pinkerton also has dreams of romance and adventure, while Mr. Chitterwick is principally concerned with criminology, being an eccentric hobbyist who specializes in the subject.
The Man From Scotland Yard (1932) is a complete botch. It is a mystery story of sorts, but has little fair play, and Mr. Pinkerton is only marginally related to the events it depicts.
The Eel Pie Murders shares features with a subsequent Mr. Pinkerton mystery Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard. Both:
The Opening. The opening is distinctly different and separate from the rest of the novel (Chapters 1, 2, 3, first half of 4). The opening depicts the initial investigation into the murder of an unknown, unidentified woman. Once the corpse is identified (middle of Chapter 4), the book changes in feel, exploring the personal life of the woman and her family.
The opening has modest-but-real charm due to:
The Gossip Columnist. Inspector Bull gets information from a newspaper gossip columnist (middle of Chapter 8). His attitudes and his work techniques and approaches get a brief but mildly interesting account. Other Ford novels also feature columnists, in bigger roles: The Sound of Footsteps, The Murder of a Fifth Columnist.
The columnist is immediately contrasted with a crime reporter, who has a very different line of patter. News people tend to have individual personalities and attitudes in Frome/Ford. They often come in pairs in a given novel, like the columnist and the crime reporter in The Eel Pie Murders.
Race. The opening has a brief but positive flashback about a Chinese family Mr. Pinkerton once helped (Chapter 1). It is good to see such a non-stereotyped reference.
Narrative Strategy. Sections of the victim's diary are included (last part of Chapter 8). Frome liked to include documents in her novels. This diary has a drastically different "voice" (prose style and emotional feel) than the rest of the novel.
The opening depicts Richmond, a famously picturesque suburb of London, filled with summer holiday tourists. A number of the Mr. Pinkerton novels take place in well-known tourist destinations.
The Detectives. The opening has a charming account of the back-stories of Mr. Pinkerton and his friend Inspector Bull (Chapter 1). It is one of the most vivid looks at these two characters and their histories in Frome's novels.
Introductory chapters showing Mr. Pinkerton and Inspector Bull relaxing at home had been a Frome tradition since the first book in the series The Hammersmith Murders.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder Mystery. Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is very much a whodunit murder mystery, of the traditional kind popular in the Golden Age.
Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard begins with neighbors gossiping that a local death ascribed to illness might really be a poisoning by a family member. This is a plot approach associated with Agatha Christie. Christie had already written short stories in this mode by the time Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard was published in 1934: see "The Cornish Mystery" (1923) with Hercule Poirot, "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter" (1928) with Miss Marple. In Christie's tales local suspicion falls intensely on one person, the victim's spouse. By contrast, suspicion in Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard falls on a wide range of suspects.
BIG SPOILER. One of the best mystery plot surprises in The Man From Scotland Yard also seems to be a kind of revelation sometimes found in Agatha Christie (second half of Chapter 24).
The Clergyman. Pinkerton and Bull meet an Anglican priest (first half of Chapter 8). This priest is active in helping the working class members of his slum parish. This is a sympathetic portrait of a priest trying to help the poor. Frome reflects liberal social values. SPOILERS. The priest anticipates the sympathetic black minister in Murder with Southern Hospitality.
In addition to the Anglo-Catholic priest, we get brief but vivid looks at Mr. Pinkerton and Inspector Bull's own religious beliefs. One also recalls the anti-liquor crusading Senator in The Sound of Footsteps, whose Evangelical religion is briefly mentioned. All of these characters come from differing Protestant denominations and religious traditions. The author does not endorse any specific one of these traditions, but she treats them all tactfully.
We get a look at both the church hall where the priest works, and the churchyard outside it. This reflects the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscape: although this church area plays no role in the mystery plot. Ford appeals to a number of senses in her descriptive writing, including scent and sight. It is a richly detailed description.
Mini-Backgrounds. Much of Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard takes place at either the victim's home, or in settings where the police discuss the case. But the book also contains depictions of interesting locales, that form a welcome change of pace:
Like Ford's "Death Stops at a Tourist Camp" (1936), Pinkerton's adventures involve moving to new lodgings overnight.
This book shows aspects of the Realist school. There is a pleasant Background of the city of Bath. Such Realist school interests as shadowing suspects and alibis play a prominent role, and so do some technical approaches in the solution.
However, the book has an overwhelmingly intuitionist feel. Mr. Pinkerton solves the case through thinking, not through leg work, and his thinking comes in an especially deep burst of insight. The story has some clever plot twists, that are presented like the puzzle plot ideas of intuitionist writers. In fact, the story seems a lot like John Dickson Carr in tone. The atmosphere in the book, of an unknown evil presence stalking a house by night, committing serious crimes, is exactly like that in Carr novels.
The cleverest plot ideas come half way through the story; the second half, while anticlimactic, is still pleasant reading. This two-part construction anticipates that of "Death Stops at a Tourist Camp" (1936); in both works, the first half concentrates on the ingenious murder plot, and how it was done; the second half on who dun it.
Mr. Pinkerton at the Old Angel has some lively passages, that make decent reading (Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 16, 19, 27). Unfortunately the book as a whole has flaws, and is often disappointing, or just plain bad.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder Mystery. The main mystery about the murders is poor. The choice of the killer is arbitrary. There are few clues pointing to the murderer. There are no clever mystery ideas or ingenious twists.
BIG SPOILERS. Most of the murder suspects are members of one dysfunctional aristocratic family. The book teases us throughout that family hatreds are the motive for the crime. Then at the end, the killer turns out to be not a family member. (It is like "political" mysteries of the period, in which the crime throughout looks based in politics, only to have a killer revealed at the end who has nothing to do with politics. Ford wrote such a "political" mystery: The Murder of a Fifth Columnist.)
Mr. Pinkerton at the Old Angel has aspects that appear in previous Mr. Pinkerton novels: "Adult siblings and their aged mother, part of a troubled family", "Family money disputes".
I only found this family modestly interesting. The characters rarely rise above standard, cliched types. It is another reason I am hesitant to recommend Mr. Pinkerton at the Old Angel.
Mystery Subplot: McPherson. SPOILERS. The best mystery plotting in Mr. Pinkerton at the Old Angel concerns two guests at the inn: McPherson and the deaf man. The solution to this mystery surprised me.
The subplot also contains a series of plot developments scattered throughout the novel (Chapters 3, latter part of 5, 16, 19, 27). These keep reader interest, and constitute good story telling. They also add to the formal and structural complexity of this subplot. The subplot consists not only of a "mystery and its solution"; it also contains intermediate plot developments and revelations.
Subplot: Kathleen. Kathleen and her relationships form another subplot.
I am hesitant to call this subplot a mystery subplot. At the book's start we don't know much about Kathleen and her relationships; we gradually learn more and more, until we know all. This subplot concentrates almost entirely of characters and their personal relationships. Furthermore, what we eventually learn does not seem to have the form of a "solution to a mystery". It is just more information about characters' personal interactions.
SPOILERS. There is a plot surprise in this subplot (end of Chapter 13). This is the closest this subplot gets to a true "mystery".
I like the initial dramatic storytelling in the Kathleen subplot (Chapters 1, 4, 8). But most of the eventual revelations about relationships seem none too interesting. They become a sudsy soap opera.
Architecture. Most of the novel takes place in inn of the title, the Old Angel. The Old Angel has a complicated architecture, with some unusual features (Chapters 1, 4, 16, 19). While no classic, the building shows the Golden Age interest in architecture.
We also get a tour of the ancient Sussex town of Rye, where the novel is set (Chapters 8, 16). At a pinch, this cityscape can be seen as part of the Golden Age interest in cityscape and landscape architecture, although this is perhaps a bit of a stretch.
Politics. Sympathetic young Jeffrey Atwater is a liberal in his politics (Chapter 9). His attitudes are explicitly linked to that of liberal parties in the House of Commons. This is another Ford/Frome mystery which treats a liberal political party as the Good Guys: see Scotland Yard Can Wait (1933), The Strangled Witness (1934).
A brief discussion says that many European countries were trying to increase their birthrate (Chapter 14). This is an unusual subject to be mentioned in a Golden Age mystery.
Ethnic Slur. Mr. Pinkerton at the Old Angel contains repeated slurs against Welsh women (see start of Chapter 6, and elsewhere). It is another highly negative feature of this book, and one why I cannot recommend it as a whole.
If Chesterton's Father Brown was less socially high powered than the people he investigated, he at least had the dignity of the cloth to protect him, as well as his moral seriousness and gigantic intellect. Little Mr. Pinkerton has none of these defenses, and his social humiliations achieve mammoth proportions. They are the most extreme of any detective protagonist since J.S. Fletcher's The Million Dollar Diamond. Other Chesterton influenced writers generally have not attempted to duplicate Father Brown's shy, humble qualities. Carr's Dr. Fell is a portrait of Chesterton himself, not a Father Brown clone. And Anthony Boucher's Sister Ursula, while sharing Father Brown's religious vocation, is aggressive and confident. However, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is often undervalued as a little old lady detective.
It is also known by its British title of Murder on the Square. This perhaps a better title; it refers to the setting of the story in a London residential Square.
Its physical setting is similar to Mr. Pinkerton Has the Clue (1936). Clue took place in a rooming house in the British city of Bath, in which Mr. Pinkerton was the last and least of the lodgers. Homicide House takes place in a similar London establishment. In both stories, Mr. Pinkerton has a tiny room on the upper floors. In both he is bullied and despised by the aggressive staff and inhabitants - the houses maintaining a huge staff of servants and managers, that seems astonishing to people like myself who are more familiar with staffless modern American apartment buildings. In both, he is a witness, and then a detective, when sinister doings engulf the residents of the buildings. The crimes in both books revolve around one large family, and its systems of romances, family secrets, and financial control of a lot of wastrel dependents by one rich, domineering elderly woman.
Homicide House is routine as a puzzle plot mystery, with Mr. Pinkerton doing very little actual detection. Its opening Chapters (1 - 6) succeed as a romance, however, with mysterious events, an intriguing setting, and characters having adventures.
A Dry Run for Primrose-Latham. Its opening is set in Washington DC, like the later Primrose-Latham novels. It startles by the way the characters anticipate those in the later Primrose-Latham series:
Evangelical. The anti-liquor crusading Senator is explicitly described as an "evangelical" in his religious beliefs. This is quite rare in traditional, pre-1960 mystery fiction. Throughout the book we hear much about the Senator's anti-alcohol activities, but very little about his religion.
He is from an unspecified state in the "West". Since both Ford and most of her characters seem to have spent most of their lives in the Eastern seaboard, the ambiguous term "West" might actually be intended to include states like Kentucky or Tennessee, places with large Evangelical populations. Tennessee and its Evangelical religion had attracted massive international publicity, mostly unfavorable, from the Scopes trial (1925). Tennessee is the first place most 1931 readers would think of, when hearing about a Senator who was a crusading Evangelical. Ford would soon be back with a thinly veiled look at the controversy surrounding the Tennessee Valley Authority in The Strangled Witness (1934). The Senator of the unnamed state in that novel is also a major character.
Public Corruption. Several of the best Primrose-Latham books deal with corruption in public life, government or business, often in Washington DC. The Sound of Footsteps deals with such corruption, too. It is thus one more way in which it can be seen as a predecessor.
However, the specific subject matter motivating the crimes in The Sound of Footsteps seems less interesting than those in the Primrose-Latham works, less trenchant and having less social significance. It also seems less believable.
Narrative Strategy. Ford likes to include various documents in her novels. These documents are typically packed with information, and serve as exposition, among other uses. The Sound of Footsteps includes reprints of newspaper gossip columns by one of the characters.
Lieutenant Kelly has working class mannerisms, and makes a contrast with the mainly unlikable upper class people who he investigates as suspects. He is an "ordinary policeman", of the kind found in countless police procedurals, although a bit more emphatically working class. He is thus far more conventional and more realistic than the series sleuths in the bulk of Leslie Ford's writings, such as Mr. Pinkerton, Grace Latham and Colonel Primrose. Unfortunately, he is also much less interesting. While mildly likable, he never develops a rich personality or individual characteristics.
Business and Engineering. The Clue of the Judas Tree features the sort of business conflict that will recur in later and better Ford mysteries, such as Murder in the O.P.M.:
Psychiatry. The early sections of The Clue of the Judas Tree offer a negative view of Freudian psychiatry. Psychiatrist Dr. Sartoris is depicted as a con man who uses his charms and psychotherapy practice to prey on and live off of rich middle-aged women. He is described a "super-gigolo with the pseudo-scientific patter of the modern Mumbo-Jumbo who lives in Vienna" (middle of Chapter 17). This thoroughly condemns Freud, as well. SPOILER. Then, nonsensically, the finale backtracks, depicting Sartoris as a skilled diagnostician of mental illness, and a swell fellow! This whole portrait is completely inconsistent.
Country House. The Clue of the Judas Tree is a "country house mystery", something not all that common in Leslie Ford's later work, which tends to deal with urban sophisticates instead. Ford's early non-series The Sound of Footsteps (1931) is also a country house mystery.
Tree. Much is made of how sinister the Judas Tree of the title allegedly looks. In fact, there is nothing sinister at all about real-life Judas Trees, aside from their unfortunate name. They are now better known as Redbuds or by their scientific name Cercis, and are a popular, wholesome and pretty tree.
However, Inspector Lord is often much less effective and competent than Crofts' Inspector French, and most of his imitators. Some of his best discoveries come from pure chance, such as those at the start and end of the novel. He is thus less the hero of the novel, than the typical expert Crofts school Scotland Yard man.
Frome featured power names for her policemen: Inspector Bull (of the Mr. Pinkerton novels), Inspector Lord. Both men are conspicuously married.
Inspector Bull and Inspector Lord have the same boss: the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Charles Debenham, C.B.E.. That means that Scotland Yard Can Wait is part of the same "universe" as the Pinkerton/Bull novels, to use the current terminology.
The Hero: Male HIBK. The hero is an adventurous young man from the upper classes. He doesn't show any brains, skill or actual heroism. In fact, he would be classified as what Monty Python called an "upper class twit", were it not for him being young and marriageable.
The hero conceals information from Scotland Yard, for no good reason. I found this as annoying as when Grace Latham conceals evidence from the police. This young man behaves a lot like a stereotyped HIBK heroine:
The hero's adventure mainly takes place in a deserted house (second half of Chapter 2). This house and its yard are described in detail. They show the Golden Age interest in architecture. The movements of the hero and others around this architecture form a core of the episode.
SPOILERS. Later, the police reconstruct the hero's adventure, using footprints left at the scene (second half of Chapter 4). This is a solid bit of detection using prints. It and the adventure itself are high points of the novel.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder Mystery. Scotland Yard Can Wait is part thriller, but it also has whodunit aspects. Scotland Yard is immediately puzzled by the identity of an unknown bank robber. And soon both the Yard and the reader wonder about the identity of an unknown killer. The Yard suspects that the robber and the murderer might be the same, unknown person. At the novel's end the identities of the criminal(s) are revealed, in standard whodunit fashion.
I thought the identity of the murderer was easy to guess. And that there was little ingenious about the murder mystery aspects of the story.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Where is the loot?. A subplot asks: where is the bank loot hidden, that was stolen eleven years ago? The book comes up with a mildly clever answer at its end (end of Chapter 15, Chapter 16).
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Mysterious Stranger. The young hero sees a mysterious unknown man meeting with Sprat Marlin at the restaurant (Chapter 1). Later on, there are revelations about who this man is (Chapters 3, 10). These revelations are unexpected and fairly clever. In fact, they are the best mystery aspects of Scotland Yard Can Wait.
The first revelation (later parts of Chapter 3) is an unclued surprise. The second revelation (later parts of Chapter 10) has a single clue, and can thus be considered a fair play puzzle for the reader to solve.
Mysterious Outsiders appear in other of the author's books, such as Albert Toplady in The Philadelphia Murder Story, and the title character in The Woman in Black. Such mysterious outsiders tend to be non-upper class. The puzzles about who they are, and how they relate to the plot, add pleasant complexity to their book's mystery. Mysterious Outsiders also sometimes occur in other HIBK writers.
The Tories. A wealthy, unsympathetic suspect got his knighthood for contributing money to the Tories: the conservative party in England (start of Chapter 6). Next year Ford's The Strangled Witness (1934) would have Democrats as the good guys and their big business opponents are the villains. Such explicit looks at party politics are fairly unusual in Golden Age mystery fiction. Both of these books are implicitly liberal in their point of view.
Narrative Strategy. The opening reprints a number of personal advertisements from The Times newspaper: Inspector Lord is scanning them for clues (Chapter 1). The author likes to include documents in her expositions. These ads are a tiny example.
The Times called its personal ads "The Agony Column". Sherlock Holmes liked to scrutinize the Agony Column as a source of mysteries, long before Frome.
"Death Stops at a Tourist Camp" seems to be somewhat unusual in Ford's work in that it contains a well done puzzle plot. In most of the Ford novels I have read, the puzzle plot is pretty weak. There is a mystery, and its solution, but there is little imaginative or clever about it. So far, the Ford novel I have read with the most puzzle plot ingenuity is Mr. Pinkerton Has the Clue (1936). Instead, the best part of Ford's writing is often her storytelling. She often unrolls an interesting situation, and gives her lead characters an adventure while investigating it. The best parts of many Ford novels are the opening chapters. Here her storytelling is strongest, and her imagination at its peak. These sections often take place before any murder has actually transpired. When the murder does occur, late in the novel, the charm of the book often stops dead in its tracks, and we get a routine murder mystery. What all of this means is that Ford is something of a specialized taste. She does not often show the virtue of mystery plot brilliance demonstrated by many of her contemporaries. And few of her books are successful from beginning to end. Yet, lurking in her work is some real accomplishment. I always look forward to starting one of her stories.
Mystery Plot. The book is a mystery, although neither the narrator nor anyone else actually works as a genuine detective. The killer is revealed at the end because the killer attacks the heroine, not through any detective work.
There are three mystery puzzles in Murder with Southern Hospitality. All of them have easily guessed solutions, that often reflect cliches in the mystery genre. The puzzles can be fun to think about, but their conventional solutions are a let-down. The three puzzles include:
Miss Letty. Miss Letty is a likable character, and her subplot is the most fun. It also has the most resonance: Miss Letty's problem is widespread, and can be made to stand allegorically for all sorts of other kinds of dark secrets, as well.
The mousey Miss Letty and the domineering people she meets recall Mr. Pinkerton and his upper class contacts. Miss Letty is easily dominated and backed into corners by people who are socially more prominent, just like Mr. Pinkerton. Miss Letty has had a life of genteel poverty on the lowest fringes of the middle class, also like Mr. Pinkerton. One is rooting for both characters to break out of their shell, and start having adventures.
Clubwomen. Murder with Southern Hospitality benefits from a tongue-in-cheek, lightly satirical tone. The principal characters are "clubwomen", forty-ish members of the upper middle classes who spend their time in gardening clubs and other civic betterment organizations. Even by the 1930's, such women were often the target of humor, with New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson specializing in lampooning them (from 1925 to 1949). The descriptions of the clubwomen immediately reminded me of Hokinson, and I was somewhat surprised to see her actually invoked later on in the novel.
The South. Ford treats the landscape of the South with enthusiasm, with numerous lovely descriptions of gardens, old mansions and bayous. Like most Ford books, it is set in a real place: Natchez during the Natchez Pilgrimage.
But the political and social treatment of the South comes in for a lightly satirical touch. Leslie Ford views die-hard supporters of the Confederacy with disdain, lampooning them as old fogies living in the past. The supporters are exclusively crooked members of Judge Drayton's family, further weakening their arguments. This approach means the book has no sympathy with Lost Cause, Gone with the Wind style hymns to the Old South - although it does not engage in detailed deconstruction of them either.
Race. SPOILERS. Murder with Southern Hospitality surprises with its progressive treatment of black people. The black chauffeur and other black servants are depicted as decent, hard working, and good at their jobs. The novel also offers a devastating look at the unfair treatment of blacks by the local police. This section has considerable punch as social commentary.
On the other hand, a rich white woman praises the local black minister for preventing racial unrest. If by unrest she means Civil Rights demonstrations, such protests were surely needed! It is unclear that this woman is a spokesperson for the author's viewpoint . Maybe it is simple realism on the author's part, to show such opposition to protest coming from a rich white Southerner of the era.
Commentary on Mabel Seeley:
The first 70 or so pages are closely tied to mysterious events happening in a decrepit old house that has been carved up into apartments. Both the house itself and the dramatic events that take place there are fairly well imagined. These segments show the strong influence of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, as various intruders keep trying to get into the house, and as mysterious nocturnal events keep happening. After this, the novel drifts off into a deep and dull investigation of hidden past crimes, all of which, through a tissue of unbelievable coincidences, turn out to be relevant to present events. The house succeeds as a Golden Age architecture extravaganza, (I just love the unusual buildings that are always getting explored in Golden Age mysteries), and the creepy initial events are not bad as melodrama, but the book never really takes off at all as a puzzle plot mystery.
Years before Steve Thayer's Saint Mudd (1988), Seeley's book reminds us that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was once one of the most corrupt in North America. It makes Chandler's "Bay City" look saintly.
The Listening House shows the somewhat startling realism about matters of sex, mistreatment of women, etc., displayed by the HIBK novel of the era. It's a tradition that mixes feminism with realism, even naturalism.
The resort in The Crying Sisters is really seedy, however, compared to the more upscale vacation spots in Eberhart or Seeley's later Eleven Came Back. Seeley describes it as a "typical" Minnesota lake resort, complete with minimalistic cabins and conveniences. It is full of modestly middle class people who seem to be just getting by in the Depression.
Frankness. The Crying Sisters continues Seeley's frankness about sex, with her explicitly virginal 29-year-old heroine "desperate" for either marriage or an "adventure" with a man, just about any man she might meet on her summer vacation. Unfortunately, the man she does get involved with doesn't treat her well at all, bossing her around, being rude and putting her in danger. The whole effect is unpleasant to read about, and sinks the novel as any sort of entertainment. It is unclear whether this is some sort of masochistic fantasy, or whether the hero represents a type of "man's man" who now seems dated or obsolete. He is physically strong, and silent to the point of total non-communicativeness, in an era in which "strong and silent" men were valued. On the positive side, he's a highway engineer, and exemplifies the value placed on men who built things, both in old mystery fiction and the Depression era USA in general.
The Crying Sisters shows the ugly side of small towns, with the heroine's home town mean-spiritedly rejoicing in her very bad luck with men.
Politics and Society. The heroine works in a small town library. We get a vivid, and depressing, look at its patrons and the lowbrow fiction they like to read (end of Chapter 1). One odd sociological note: we learn that grown men almost never come into the library, which is the haunt of women and children. There is also a brief social commentary about the privileged treatment of the small son of the town's richest citizen. This anticipates the far more extensive left wing commentary in Eleven Came Back.
Current politics are discussed (end of Chapter 13). The "outrages against Jews in Germany" are mentioned. It is good to see this included: all too often books of the period avoided any discussion of this.
A negative depiction of conditions in contemporary Mexico follows.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The mystery plot has a similar structure to that of The Listening House. In both, the characters all have hidden identities and ties back to an earlier crime. They are hanging about with new personas, at a dismal but ordinary modern day locale, with hidden agendas relating to the old crime. Eventually, at the solution their hidden original identities and ties back to the old crime are revealed.
I'm just not impressed with this as the structure of a mystery. It seems to lack plausibility. Worse, it seems to lack ingenuity as well: it is fairly easy to assign hidden old roles to a bunch of characters. It doesn't seem clever or especially imaginative.
This approach was used to a degree, before Seeley. SPOILERS. Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) did something similar. Frank Gruber's The Laughing Fox (1940) and The Mighty Blockhead (1941-1942) will also have puzzles about linking up past and present events and characters.
There is also a clever bit of business about some destroyed clothes on a vacation trip. This is genuinely ingenious, and would grace a much better puzzle plot novel than this.
Otherwise this book is largely undistinguished. It suffers from the steady undercurrent of hysteria about personal relationships that mars so many lesser HIBK novels: reading these books can be downright emotionally exhausting, and nothing in the main plot is anywhere as good as the clever bit about the clothes.
Eleven Came Back resembles The Crying Sisters and The Chuckling Fingers is that it shows a group of people on vacation. While the heroine and hero are from Seeley's native Minnesota, the book embodies a change of scenery for Seeley, in that most of the action takes place on a Western resort ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Seeley does a vivid job with the Western setting. The initial crime is atmospherically described. It takes place among cliff-filled mountains. Eleven Came Back includes both a floor plan of the resort, and a map of the outdoor murder area.
Eleven Came Back surprises with its fierce liberal politics. It pits the liberal heroine and hero against a right wing millionaire seeking media power. Many of the book's pointed criticisms of the right still seem apt today - making one wonder how little has changed. The vicious millionaire is involved with party politics. Although her party is not explicitly named, it lost power in a national election some time before; in real life, the only such election was in 1932, when the Republicans lost power to the Democrats. We get a detailed look at the millionaire's conservative politics: politics with fascist overtones. The political sections also contains glimpses of the world of radio, then at the height of its influence.
Eleven Came Back would be better as a novella. Most of the best writing is in the long opening section (Chapters 1-9). The opening of Chapter 12, some political writing at the end of Chapter 15, and the solution in Chapter 27 complete the book's other best sections.
The main mystery puzzle about whodunit shows little ingenuity. Better is the subplot about where the missing objects are hid. This gets solved in the penultimate Chapter 27. It shows the Golden Age interest in architecture. This hiding place, fun to read about, falls more into the category of "vivid, imaginative settings" than into "mystery puzzle plot ingenuity".
Eleven Came Back and Mabel Seeley's previous The Crying Sisters (1939) share a number of subjects:
Christopher "Kit" Storm is a famous illustrator; his narrator-wife Sheridan Storm is known as "Sherry" to her friends. Kit is friends with Captain Anthony "Tony" Shand of the New York City Homicide Squad, who could never solve a case without amateur-detective Kit. Sherry has a background of New York City's wealthy elite, giving her entree into the High Society setting of some of the mystery novels.
The books contain a series of pencil illustrations, supposedly made by Kit on the scene of the crimes he investigates. When someone says "crime scene" to me, I think of a dark alley with a mob hit, photographed by Weegee. This is NOT what Kit's drawings look like. Instead, Kit shows elegant New Yorkers in evening clothes, "The Winslow mansion on Fifth Avenue, the scene of the murders", and other Society stuff.
Clues are often embedded in the illustrations. Later, when Kit is explaining the solution to the case, he goes back and points out some of the clues in the pictures. The illustrations in some books are numbered for easy reference. They also sometimes include floor plans or maps.
The illustrations are of good quality draftsmanship. They resemble the illustrations found in glossy "slick" magazines of the era, showing elegant people at lavish parties.
Cartoonist Lawrence Lariar would soon be creating mystery novels mixed with illustrations, such as the cartoon-filled The Man with the Lumpy Nose (1944).
R.F. Schabelitz was a professional illustrator, whose drawings appeared in many other authors' works. His full name was Rudolph Frederick Schabelitz. He was born in 1884. Willetta Ann Barber (1911-1977) seems to be the writer in the collaboration.
On the jacket of Drawback to Murder (1947), Kit is dressed like a film noir hero. His raincoat is not quite a trenchcoat, but it is close enough that he appears to be the sort of detective found in noir private eye movies. Still, his coat is also dignified and restrained enough that it could be worn by an upper middle class New York professional man. A certain refined social standing is also a key part of Kit Storm's character.
New England. The book's fictitious estate is near the historic real-life town of Windsor, Vermont. Real-life landscape features like Mount Ascutney and the Connecticut River are visible from the estate. During this era, New England was considered a center of American traditions, and popular culture frequently used New England as a setting. Among the HIBK school, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Helen Reilly and Dorothy Cameron Disney all set some of their mystery novels in New England. So did such non-HIBK writers such as Ellery Queen in his Wrightsville novels.
Society and Class. Murder Enters the Picture is set in the summer of 1941, shortly before the US entered the war on December 7, 1941. The novel is plainly written (at least in part) after the US entered the war, and informed by the knowledge that the war will happen. A character who predicts that the US will enter the war is seen as wise, another character who predicts the US will not go to war is seen as foolish.
There are perhaps elements of class conflict in Murder Enters the Picture, in symbolic form. A young middle class man Peter is seen as good, talented and dynamic; a young rich guy Hal who inherited wealth is shown as weak, cowardly and lacking in energy. This is likely how the authors saw the two classes, as a whole. The two men are arch rivals, and so are their parents who champion their respective offspring.
Water Imagery. Murder Enters the Picture takes place on a lake at the estate. There is some good water imagery. A converted old sawmill is a setting. And a swan-boat plays a vivid if brief role. The swan-boat is shown in illustrations (pictures in Chapters 7, 27). The year before the children's book Make Way for Ducklings (1941) by Robert McCloskey helped publicize swan-boats. The next year, both Murder Enters the Picture and Phoebe Atwood Taylor's novella "The Swan Boat Plot" (1942) brought such craft into mystery fiction. It's in Taylor's collection Three Plots for Asey Mayo.
Clues in the Drawings. SPOILERS. The primary use of the drawings as detection aids in Murder Enters the Picture involves Kit reconstructing the crime. Detective Kit Storm looks at the crime scene, and figures out how the crime was committed, and what sort of people were present. This sort of "reconstructing the crime" has a long tradition in mystery fiction, going back to Gaboriau at least in the 1860's. The primary innovation in Murder Enters the Picture is that the scene is reconstructed from details in the drawings, rather than from the verbal descriptions found in a conventional novel.
Three murders get investigated and reconstructed, using clues from drawings:
The detective work in the above passages is sound and inventive, especially the first main murder and the swan-boat killing. While not at "masterpiece" or "classic" status, this work gives solid merit to Murder Enters the Picture.
Some thrilling events that are not murders also get analyzed using clues shown in drawings (Chapters 12, 23). This material is logical and sound, but less creative than the look at the book's murders.
The Ghost. SPOILERS. A subplot deals with an alleged "ghost" who is seen prowling the estate. The explanation is amusing and logical. But it suffers from a lack of connection to the rest of the plot. It is just something that is coincidentally happening at the time of the murder.
Social Issues. The story begins when Addison Winslow, heir to the family fortune, and major political fanatic, announces to the clan that he is giving away the family art collection to New York City, and the family money to a Communist Front organization (Chapters 3, 5). The rest of the Winslows are appalled, and murder ensues before long. The Deed Is Drawn, like Murder Enters the Picture, centers on a struggle over the control of a huge fortune, among an extended family.
Addison merely inherited this money. It was actually made by his late tycoon father, who was so rich that his kids called him "Money-bags".
While I have no sympathy for Communism whatsoever, I found Addison's arguments much more cogent than the rest of the family's objections. Art should indeed be shared with the public, and money does more good when used for philanthropy, rather than being used by the super-wealthy for their personal pleasure. Addison's plan to give the art collection to New York seems a good one. And while the Communist Front organization is a poor choice of beneficiary, giving the family fortune away through a philanthropic foundation would have been a good idea.
By contrast, the family's arguments seem weak. They repeatedly point out that their tycoon father would have objected to giving the fortune he amassed away. This is true - but so what? The family members also constantly talk about how they would hate being merely well-to-do, rather than being super-wealthy folks who can indulge their every whim and have their own personal art collection. This also seems unimportant. They seem like a bunch of spoiled, parasitic jerks.
Narrator Sherry is sympathetic to the family, endorses their arguments, and opposes Addison. It seems odd however that Barber and Schabelitz can only come up with such weak arguments supporting their narrator's point of view.
Characters. The detective's wife Sherry was virtually a member of this family in her youth, being best friends with young Pat Winslow. So she has the inside track on all the family goings on. This is similar to Murder Enters the Picture, where Sherry actually is a remote relative of the book's family, and grew up with them.
Stuyvesant Winslow does look good in his white tie and tails in Kit's illustrations. I wish I had his tailor.
Clues in the Drawings. Many of the early sections of The Deed Is Drawn are routine and slow moving. Its main merit emerges in the book's middle, with the illustrations, supposedly made by the artist-detective hero Kit Storm, and the use of these illustrations to reconstruct the crimes.
Kit investigates the disappearance of a character (Chapters 20, 21, 22). He does this by his standard approach: reconstructing a crime, beside on clues of his drawings of the crime scene. His reasoning leads him to the discovery of the character's location. This recalls both the main murder and the swan-boat killing in Murder Enters the Picture, in which Kit also found the whereabouts of a mysteriously disappeared person. This sequence in The Deed Is Drawn is gripping, probably the best part of the novel. It builds upon an earlier section showing the layout of the mansion and its rooms (Chapter 8).
SPOILER. The main murder in Murder Enters the Picture and the disappearance in The Deed Is Drawn involve a fairly similar kind of architecture.
The investigation of the first murder starts out with drawings of the crime scene (Chapter 16). The drawings are analyzed and interpreted, and mysterious aspects of a handprint are pointed out, but not explained (Chapter 25). This leads to a surprising deduction about how the crime was committed (end of Chapter 31, start of Chapter 32). This sequence is also in the Kit Storm tradition of reconstructing a crime based on clues in drawings.
A clue to the killer's identity involves a sort of visual pun: something in a drawing represents something different from how it seems to look (the Epilogue at the novel's end).
The Stolen Picture. The subplot about a stolen picture is pleasant. The main mystery involves the hiding place of the painting. The book comes up with a fairly clever explanation (Chapter 31). Mysteries about missing objects have a long tradition in mystery fiction: see Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer, Agatha Christie.