Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Daughter of the House (1925); Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Carolyn Wells

Over the years Carolyn Wells's vintage mysteries, though quite popular in their day, have received criticism from people like Bill Pronzini (see his amusing, Edgar-nominated book Gun in Cheek), Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, blogger John Norris and even yours truly, The Passing Tramp.  Yet over the years I have come to alter my views of Wells to a considerable extent. 

To be sure, there is no question but that the very prolific author wrote some powerfully poor books (what Bill Pronzini dubs alternative classics), such as The Umbrella Murder and The Roll-Top Desk Mystery (yes, someone is killed with a roll-top desk in the latter book, though no one actually is struck down with a fatal umbrella in the former.), yet the more I read her books the more I find titles by her which I like, such as the rather charming mystery Vicky Van, praised by GK Chesterton, no chump he.

Part of the rap on Wells has come from disappointed devotees of locked room mysteries, a most exacting breed.  Although John Dickson Carr himself was a great fan of Wells as a youngster (and after the Second World War he bought a complete set of her detective novels--all 82 of them), anyone looking for the sophisticated miracle problems Carr devised will be disappointed with Wells. 

Wells clearly loved locked rooms, but with disappointing frequency she relied on secret passages--a classic no-no in classic mystery--when elucidating the shocking secrets behind her locked room murders. 

Another problem with Wells for some readers is that her settings are always among the American leisured classes, the genteel plutocracy of the northeastern United States.  Although hard-boiled crime fiction was fast gaining popularity in the between-the-wars period,Wells was having nothing of any such leveling tendencies in her own  writing. 

Wells consistently disclaimed any interest in social realism and underworld crime, firmly declaring in a 1929 newspaper interview: "My murders always take place in the white collar class."  About a decade later, in her novel The Missing Link (1938), Wells writes of one her characters, wealthy detective fiction devotee Leif Murray:

His notion of a good [detective story] was a tale whose interest depended on originality of plot and cleverness of workmanship.  One that presented a real puzzle to the intellectual reader.

He wanted no underworld characters, no gangster's work, no torture chambers or oubliettes, but rather a nice, clean, white-collared murder, with plenty of problems for a ratiocinative mind.  


faux French shepherds
A clean, well-lighted place....A nice, clean, white-collared murder....

Golden Age mystery gets a lot of knocks for the artificiality of both its settings and its puzzles, but to my mind the settings of Carolyn Wells detective novels conform much more to the stereotype of Golden Age British mysteries than many of the British mysteries do. 

It really does remind one, as Leroy Lad Panek has argued, of Jean-Antoine Watteau's painting The Shepherds, which depicts wealthy French aristocrats playing at being rustics.  It's all play, it's all fake; yet if we accept these conventions and don't demand reality or deep feeling we can enjoy it.

Not all Carolyn Wells mysteries are like this.  I'll go back to Vicky Van, once again, where I think Wells really has something to day about the problem of dependence facing women (okay wealthy white women) in early 20th century America, around the time of the sinking of Titanic. (If you found Rose's dilemma gripping, see what faces Vicky Van.)  But in most of Wells's mysteries, especially those that came after Vicky Van, I think that the author, an essentially modest woman, was just having a bit of fun.

By 1925, the year Wells published the nineteenth Fleming Stone detective novel, The Daughter of the House, Wells had dispensed with the Great Detective's boy assistant, Fibsy Maguire (I like to think that Fibsy left to set up his own detective agency somewhere, preferably in California with the Continental Detective Agency), leaving Stone singlehandedly to solve bizarre and baffling murders afflicting wealthy families in the northeastern US, typically in lovely country colonial mansions in New England.

As happened with a number of his pre-Fibsy cases, Stone shows up in Daughter only for the last 15% of the book, strictly to solve the mysteries.  But here this okay, because instead of having other people tiresomely bumble about trying to find clues for 85% of the book, Wells builds up a character setting which is genuinely interesting.  For much of the novel we don't even know that any crime has been committed.  But the characters keep us engaged.

In The Daughter of the House the titular house is Langdene, lovely domain of wealthy and self-indulgent glass collector David Lang and his dependents: hypochondriac wife Eleanor; bobbed deb daughter Mary; neer-do-well, middle-aged brother Alexander; and assistant in, um, all things glassy, Dane Wyatt. 

Then there's Giulia Castro, an intoxicating widow who rents a cottage on the Lang estate; Hester Brace, Mary's devoted old nurse, who comes back to Langdene to care for her mother; and Mary's fickle fiancee, Forrester Carr (regrettable nicknamed Forry).

Two of these people will die, one definitely of murder (in, yes, a locked room), and two will unaccountably vanish, but for much of the novel there are only murky currents of intrigue.

Is Eleanor Lang really sick, or is she just imagining ailments?  Can Alexander Lang get his rich brother to give him a settlement so that he can marry sexy Mrs. Castro?  Is Mrs. Castro really after Forry Carr?  Will Mary break it off with Forry?  Will Dane, infatuated with Mary, ever have his chance at amour?  There were enough questions here to keep me interested until the tides of hell broke loose.  And on Mary's wedding day too!

And the plot here is good, if a bit outlandish.  But, hey, it's the Golden Age, surely we can accept some baroque detail in the structure of the good plot. Wells came up with a good one here. 

The novelist Countess Harriet Henry de Steuch (1896-1974), who despite the tony handle lived in New York (where she went simply by Harriet Henry, though she was the widow of a Swedish nobleman, Nils de Steuch), praised The Daughter of the House in what I think is a judicious and persuasive review:

For those who do not care for their detective stories straight, who like the stimulation of crime and intrigue weakened by a bit of love and chatty by-play, this book by Carolyn Wells is a first-rate tale....one gets to know Mary Lang and her father, her fiance and her mother, Nurse Brace and the seductive, alluring Guilia Castro quite well before a hint of mystery develops.  The author gives us a leisurely picture of her characters and setting before any intricacies of plot are introduced.  One feels quite intimate with these people before one has to worry about the odd and dreadful things that begin to happen to them.


The basic idea...is ingenious and nicely handled....the true-blue devotee of detective fiction does not object to a lack of plausibility when he can have thorough enjoyment for two or three hours!


I have said before that Wells' mystery fiction was dated by the 1920s, but while I think it was in milieu and class attitudes, in style it is arguably more modern, with its bit of love and chatty by-play anticipating the manners mystery associated with the British Crime Queens.  Interestingly, though Wells typically is listed as a traditionslist advocate of the pure puzzle story, she parted company with the once-influential bestselling American mystery writer S. S. Van Dine on the matter of whether love belonged in the the detective story (she said yes, he said no) and she referred explicitly, and favorably, to the manners idea in her book The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913):

The technique of the mystery story does not permit it to be a novel of manners, and yet the manners must not be neglected.  If a Detective Story is to be literature, what may be called its manners must be looked after quite as carefully as its plot, though by no means with such conspicuous result.

Is The Daughter of the House a manners mystery?  I think so, though it's more naively fashioned than the highly polished pieces by Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, Heyer and Tey.  Carolyn Wells just may just have been the Grandma Moses of the manners mystery--though her New England was a rather posher place, with not only secret passages, like in Carolyn Keene's The Hidden Staircase, but  tennis courts and stately butlers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Blast from the Past 3 The Man Who Was Leo Bruce--The First One!

Between 2011 and 2015 nine articles by me appeared in CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, currently the best magazine about classic crime fiction available, I think.  (If you are a fan of the stuff and you don't already subscribe you should.) 

Two of these CADS articles I have reprinted here: one on the crime novels of Anthony Rolls (2014) and another on The British Golden Age of Detection's Deposed Crime Kings (2011).  CADS also published a 54 page booklet by me, Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953 (2011), which a few years later served as some of the source material for another sally--longer and rather better known--in this field. 

The first piece I ever offered to CADS, however--back, I believe, in 2009--was a really long essay called The Man Who Was Leo Bruce: Rupert Croft-Cooke, 1903-1979.  (Leo Bruce, readers of this blog may know, is one of my favorite crime writers.) The Man Behind CADS, Geoff Bradley (the co-dedicatee of my book Clues and Corpses), turned it down because it was in his view (a) really long (true!) and (b) insufficiently concerned with crime content.  (Judge for yourself, but Geoff probably was right.)

Bloody but unbowed, I then offered the essay to Clues, edited by Elizabeth Foxwell...and she didn't want it either: too long again, and, I must admit, I'm not sure the tone of the piece was right for Clues.  It's scholarly, I think, but it doesn't really engage in academic shop talk, interesting in itself but not what I wanted for this essay.

I can't recall at this late date whether I actually attached the article or just talked about it in the emails, but, in any event, I didn't get takers.  Geoff, by the way, doesn't remember any of this at all.  (See below.)

When you've given birth, if you will, to a bouncing, indeed bruising, 18,000 word essay, you want someone to desire the fruit of your loins, even if you don't get paid for it.  This was before I had published anything on mystery fiction, including Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012).  So I was happy when finally, in 2010, Sam Karnick agreed to publish the piece at his American Culture website.  (This was a year before I started my blog.) 

The Man Who Was Leo Bruce
has since been up there for more than seven years and it has been and still is, I believe, the best secondary source on the man's fascinating life.

This morning I was reading Kate Jackson's Cross Examining Crime blog and was struck to learn there that the latest issue of CADS has a new article by Jamie Sturgeon, called, on the cover though apparently not within the issue itself, The Man Who Was Leo Bruce

Jamie is an excellent researcher who finds all kinds of interesting things (it was Jamie who put me on to the identity of the Roger Scarlett plagiarizer Maurice Balk; I doubt I would have found that without his insight), but I was struck by the use of "my" title on the cover for an article I didn't write.

I emailed Geoff Bradley and Geoff quickly replied, stating that the person with CADS who came up with the duplicate title for the cover thought that the title of the piece, "Leo Bruce and Rupert Croft-Cooke," was "not intriguing enough for the cover and just made up "The Man Who Was Leo Bruce" from the description I had sent. ("A look at Rupert Croft-Cooke in general and his attempts to keep it secret that he wrote detective stories as Leo Bruce.") He didn't know of your article."  And Geoff, I learned, has no memory that I ever offered the Croft-Cook essay to CADS in the first place.  But I very much have a memory of it.  One thing I think a writer always remembers: rejections.

However, we all agree on one thing, it appears: it's a damn good title!  I thought under the circumstances maybe I should point out the essay to readers of this blog.  It's a long piece, as stated, but if you stick with it you may enjoy it.  It helps if you're a fan of Leo Bruce's writing, as I am. 

I look forward as well to seeing Jamie's CADS article, which I have no doubt is excellent.  There's also, I see, a couple of pieces in the new issue on John Street, who received a great deal of attention from me in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, including an article by Tony Medawar, who was asked to introduce Collins Crime Club's reprint of the debut Dr. Priestley novel, The Paddington Mystery.

Maybe one day we will call this strange saga "The Case of the Two Leo Bruce Articles."  By all means, read them both.  Leo Bruce (and Rupert Croft-Cooke) is worth not just articles, but a full book.  Meantime, please follow this link to read The Man Who Was Leo Bruce.  The first one.

Blast from the Past II: Anthony Rolls Master of the Golden Age Crime Novel

It seems like an eternity ago now, but it is almost four years since I wrote about the Anthony Rolls crime novels on my blog.  (See also this post.)  As you will see from the comments, these posts caught the attention of John Norris, and he followed with his own Rolls rave at his blog shortly thereafter.  Two of the Rolls crime novels, Scarweather and Family Matters, have since been reprinted by the British Library and I assume both The Vicar's Experiments (Clerical Error) and the wryly witty and wonderful Lobelia Grove, will soon follow.

Also in 2014 CADS: Crime and Detective Stories published  a 4000+ word piece by me on Anthony Rolls (Welsh writer Colwyn Edward Vulliamy), which I reprint here for people who may not be familiar with the CADS article and the internet genesis, who are now able to read the once very rare Rolls books for themselves.  In the piece I closed with the hope that these novels, which have been buried prematurely, will be unearthed today by a modern publisher, so that they may be appreciated again by twenty-first century crime fiction fans.  And so they have been.  (See my previous Blast from the Past here.)

Anthony Rolls (C. E. Vulliamy)
Master of the Golden Age Crime Novel

Introduction
In his influential mystery genre survey, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972, rev. eds. 1985 and 1992), Julian Symons attributes the development of the psychological crime novel during the Golden Age of detective fiction in England primarily to the influence of the crime fiction of Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971), specifically the first two books he wrote under his “Francis Iles” pseudonym: Malice Aforethought (1932) and Before the Fact (1932).  In both of these novels, in the first of which a man plots to murder his wife and the second of which a wife grows to apprehend that her husband is planning to murder her, the emphasis is on psychological suspense rather than classical detection.  Noting that both these novels were extremely well-received by contemporary critics, Symons asserts that “Iles had several followers, who faithfully copied his avoidance of the classical puzzle and tried hard to catch his particular blend of cynicism and realism, but for the most part only succeeded in being casual about murder.”  One of the four authors Symons lists as having written crime novels “under the influence of Iles” is Colwyn Edward Vulliamy (1886-1971), who between 1932 and 1934 published four mysteries under the pseudonym “Anthony Rolls.”  Yet of the four 1930s Anthony Rolls novels Symons seems aware of only the first, The Vicar’s Experiments (in the US Clerical Error).  Concerning The Vicar’s Experiments, which details the murderous activities of a vicar who suddenly goes mad, Symons writes: “A good deal of what follows is very amusing, but the story falters sadly once suspicion of the clergyman has been aroused.”  Of Vulliamy’s later crime writing Symons notes only that there were some inferior novels by him “published twenty years and more after The Vicar’s Experiments.”  He concludes that during the Golden Age “the Iles school, including its founder, showed a certain lack of staying power.”  It is my contention, however, that Symons underestimated both the quantity and quality of psychological crime novels published during the Golden Age of detective fiction, both those that likely were influenced by Iles and those that probably were not.  In the case of C. E. Vulliamy specifically, Symons crucially missed the three additional 1930s Anthony Rolls crime novels: Lobelia Grove (1932), Family Matters (1933) and Scarweather (1934).  All three of these books are excellent crime novels, superior to as well as more original than The Vicar’s Experiments, and together they establish C. E. Vulliamy as more than a Golden Age student of the Iles school.  He was, rather, a master, eminently deserving of modern revival.[1]

Colwyn Edward Vulliamy
Although mostly forgotten today, C. E. Vulliamy enjoyed a variegated career as a writer over four decades, crime fiction being, in actuality, a relatively minor focus of his.  Born in 1886 at Glasbury House in the village of Glasbury in southern Wales, Vulliamy was descended from a prominent family of English clockmakers and architects.  Francois Justin Vulliamy (1712-1797), the founder of the English branch of the family, migrated from Switzerland to England in the 1730s and started what has been called the “Vulliamy clockmaking dynasty.”  Justin’s son Benjamin (1747-1811), was appointed Clockmaker to the King in 1771.  Benjamin’s son Lewis (1791-1871), was a notable Victorian-era architect, most admired for his designs for Westonbirt House and Dorchester House.  Louis’ son Edwin Papendick Vulliamy (1844-1914), who followed in his father’s footsteps as an architect, married Edith Jane Beavan, and with her produced one son, Colwyn Edward, the subject of this essay.[2]
Like another Golden Age crime writer, Agatha Christie, who was four years younger than C. E. Vulliamy and also hailed from the British hinterland (in Christie’s case, Devon), Vulliamy was privately educated.  Between 1910 and 1913 he studied art with Stanford Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) at the art colony in Newlyn, a fishing village outside Penzance, Cornwall (Forbes was a founding member of the colony).  When the First World War broke out, he took a commission in The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, serving over the next four years in France, Macedonia and Turkey.  He later transferred to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was demobilized with the rank of captain.  On 29 April 1916, he wed Eileen Hynes at St. Mary’s Church in Penzance.  “Owing to the war,” declared the notice in the Brecon and Radnor Express, “the wedding took place very quietly.  No invitations were issued, but on account of the popularity of the young couple, the well-known colony of Newlyn artists were present in full force.”  The Express also avowed of Vulliamy: “He himself is a man of artistic and literary abilities.”[3]
It was during the time Vulliamy spent in the Mideast that he became interested in archaeology.  In the 1920s he published several books on the subject, including Our Prehistoric Ancestors (1925) Unknown Cornwall (1925) and Immortal Man (1926), a study of burials and funeral customs (he would later draw on his archaeological expertise for his 1934 crime novel Scarweather).  With the 1930 publication of a biography of Voltaire he turned to writing about historical subjects. During this decade he also produced biographies of Rousseau, John Wesley, James Boswell, William Penn, Hester Thrale and George III, as well as studies of the Crimean War and British Imperialism in South Africa.  When discussing Vulliamy’s historical and biographical writing a friend recalled that throughout the author’s life his religious “standpoint was fundamentally agnostic” and that his “political sympathies between the wars might fairly have been described as left-wing, though he kept clear of extremism.”[4]  These attitudes can be discerned in Vulliamy’s Golden Age crime fiction as well.

Anthony Rolls
The first Anthony Rolls crime novel, The Vicar’s Experiments, which appeared in 1932, one year after Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought, does seem to show the influence of the first Iles tale, not only in its sardonic tone but in its plot structure.  Whatever we may think of Experiments now, it was quite well-received in its day.  The only Anthony Rolls crime novel published in the United States, Experiments also was placed on the recommended list of the English Book Society, a rare distinction for a mystery story.  Twenty-three years after the book’s original publication, Anthony Boucher, the dean of American crime fiction critics, warmly recalled Experiments (under its US title Clerical Error), as an “admirable ironic murder novel.”  Anticipating Julian Symons’ language by seventeen years, Boucher the same year placed Rolls among the “brightest prefects” in “headmaster” Francis Iles’ “school” of “ironic…murder novel, suavely literate and rich in subacid observation of human mores and motivations.”[5]
Experiments opens with a meeting between the Reverend Mr. Virgil Pardicott, vicar of Lower Pydal, and Colonel Cargoy, an ultra-conservative member of the parish council, in which the cheerfully ignorant and bigoted colonel opposes every innovation supported by the long-suffering country parson (the latter man is hopeful of removing from Lower Pydal to King’s Pydal).  During Cargoy’s befuddled explanation of why he opposes replacing the colored glass installed in the church chancel in 1869--“I should be sorry to see the old windows taken away.  I don’t like the notion of plain glass at all. Plain glass doesn’t seem right in a church somehow. Looks too much like a Baptist chapel.”--Mr. Pardicott’s mind abruptly snaps; and, in “a dizzy moment of revelation,” the vicar comprehends that he has “been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.”[6]  This is a brilliant line, justly quoted as well by Julian Symons in Bloody Murder, and the next few chapters, in which Mr. Pardicott plans and accomplishes the destruction of his nemesis Colonel Cargoy, are quite entertaining, with some excellent English village satire.  However, Colonel Cargoy is eliminated all too soon and Mr. Pardicott’s murderous attentions focus elsewhere--Colonel Cargoy’s widow is quite fetching, but Mr. Pardicott is, regrettably, married--with diminishing results.  The debt to Malice Aforethought seems all too evident.
Were The Vicar’s Experiments the only Anthony Rolls thirties crime novel, as Julian Symons and Anthony Boucher evidently believed, we might be justified, despite the praise earlier accorded the novel, in dismissing Vulliamy merely as a minor student in an Iles school.  However, the three Anthony Rolls crime novels that soon followed Vulliamy’s Experiments (rather aptly-titled, in this context) are superior works.  Lobelia Grove, which was published the same year as The Vicar’s Experiments, is a splendid tale of murders committed in Lobelia Grove, a neighborhood of Kipperly Park, an English suburban Garden City not far from London that is every bit as painfully proper and stiflingly conformist as any fictional English village from the period (Lower Pydal, for example).  The novel’s second chapter, in which the author describes Kipperly Park and a number of its “highly respectable, even eminent, persons,” is wonderfully wry:

If the reader is not one of the 7,416 fortunate persons who are now living in Kipperly Park, it is necessary that he should be given some idea of that delightful garden suburb and of the people who live there….Certainly it was a place where those who were ascending and descending on the social and economic scale tended to meet each other upon a common level of suburbaninity.  We say advisedly that they tended to meet each other, for in actual practice they were careful to keep out of each other’s way.[7]

Chapter One describes the disconcerting discovery, one evening in Lobelia Grove, of the fatally stabbed body of a man, local resident Victor Macumbrae, in the middle of the street; and the rest of the novel details the (frequently foolish) reactions and responses of the Kipperly Park denizens, including a couple of gung-ho retired military men, some prim matrons and much-decayed gentry, a compulsively conformist production department clerk (the memorably named Bertie Quirtle), journalist, a doctor, an academician and two men of faith, one a most robustly Christian Anglican minister and the other a fervent, if sadly misunderstood, adherent of spiritualism.  Police are mostly in the background and, although there is a nice young couple that does some amateur detecting, the solution to the murder (and another that follows it) comes to the couple by way of an unexpected confession.  There are subtle indications in the story as to who the murderer may be, but it takes quite a keen reader, in my opinion, to catch them.  Vulliamy’s interest in the novel lies not in providing a fiendishly developed murder problem, but rather in wickedly satirizing an English suburban community of the 1930s.  The high point of the novel, in terms of satirical treatment, probably is Vulliamy’s description of the meeting of the Kipperly Park Literary Society, “held in the new parish hall, a tin building of the most horrible aspect”:

It was the custom of the Literary Society to appoint on these occasions a hostess, who arranged the lighter and more social side of the entertainment, and provided biscuits and lemonade.  And you are not to suppose that such details were unimportant.  Although a number of serious people came to read papers on Shakespeare or Tennyson or Carlyle, or to listen to such papers, most of them came for biscuits and lemonade.[8]

In Bloody Murder Julian Symons has memorably avowed of Golden Age mysteries that the “social order in these stories was as fixed and mechanical as that of the Incas.”  Yet with Lobelia Grove, much of the satirical force of the novel comes from the fact that the social order is unfixed; behind their polite facades people are uneasy because they are not confident about where they “belong” socially.  I feel confident that Symons would have been surprised but pleased by this aspect of Lobelia Grove, as well as by Vulliamy’s jabs from the left at the conservative political sentiments of certain Kipperly Park residents, who are alarmingly quick to point fingers of suspicion at foreigners, Jews, Communists and the unemployed (there is, incidentally, one wonderfully spirited Jewish resident of the community, a Mrs. Gillystein, the widow of a tobacco merchant, who has the temerity to believe that “commerce was the proper occupation of those who were honest and respectable”).[9]
Family Matters (1933), Vulliamy’s third Anthony Rolls’ crime novel, is an altogether darker murder affair than either The Vicar’s Experiment or Lobelia Grove.   It both circumscribes and intensifies the author’s sardonic focus to, as the title suggests, a single household, along with some friends and relations.  Arguably the best of Vulliamy’s four Anthony Rolls novels, Family Matters brims, like the first two tales (especially Lobelia Grove), with mordant humor and intelligent observation; yet it also dares to more seriously probe the problems of extreme mental and emotional dysfunction that provoke real life murder dramas.  I found the novel strikingly reminiscent of Julian Symons’ first period mystery, The Blackheath Poisonings, which was published in 1978, forty-five years after the appearance of Family Matters, both in the virtuoso fictional use of poison to dispatch objectionable individuals and, more significantly, in its inducement in the reader of a powerfully claustrophobic sense of familial dysfunction.  This surely would have been a Golden Age crime novel that Symons himself would have admired.[10]
Vulliamy dedicated Family Matters to Osbert Guy Stanhope (O. S. G.) Crawford, a pioneering archaeologist who became enamored with Marxism in the 1930s and believed that the “traditional British way of life” was doomed.  The novel takes place in Shufflecester, a town, like Lobelia Grove’s Kipperly Park, located within the vicinity of London.  Unlike the modern Kipperly Park, however, Shufflecester seems more a Victorian backwater.  Vulliamy opens the novel with an aerial view of Shufflecester (recalling O. S. G. Crawford’s pioneering use of aerial photography in archaeology), before focusing on the troubled household that will be the center of events:

If you fly over the town of Shufflecester at an altitude of ten thousand feet you see a town below you like a dirty grey splash on the variegated patterns of brown, purple and green which mark the level landscape of the great Shufflecester plateau.  Through the middle of the town run the gentle sinuosities of the River Shuff like a white ribbon.  Seen from a lower altitude Shufflescester has a most fantastic and irregular appearance, reminding you a lot of grey and yellow bricks thrown at random upon a carpet by some heedless child.  The builders of the town seem to have been sobered or restrained by the wide levels of the country; their houses are flat, uniform, depressed, with hardly a tall building among them.  Only the towers of the cathedral suggest a vertical idea, and even these are square and heavy.  Outside the town are purple masses of timber, green or dun streaks of arable land, flowing towards the misty line of the Wyveldon Hills, above the sea.
Even this aeroplane view gives the impression of a placid, agricultural place, resisting innovation, unmoved by the hustling spirit of the age….All the inconvenience, though not the charm of antiquity, is preserved in [Shufflecester’s] narrow streets….There is no plan or regularity….The same absence of intelligent planning gives a perverse and unhappy appearance to those parts of the town which are termed “residential.” Blocks, curves and angles of grey and yellow brick, with roofs of lilac slate, produce an effect of morose, impregnable respectability….We are particularly concerned in this drama with a house in one of the less fashionable quarters—Number Six, Wellington Avenue.  It is like all the other houses in the Avenue, small, with a slate roof, a grim bit of grass between the front and the pavement, and a scrubby garden at the back.  In this house lived Mr. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, his wife, his young son, and his venerable father.[11]

Vulliamy’s Robert Arthur Kewdingham is a masterful depiction of querulous middle-class, middle-age failure.  “Poor Mr. Kewdingham had not been lucky,” writes Vulliamy, though he “came of a good middle-class family, of the sort which is capable of producing anything from a bishop to a broker—his father had been estate agent to the Duke of Tiddleswade.”  Let go from his engineering firm in 1925 at the age of 45, he has been out of work for a couple years when the novel opens, but happily for himself he has several hobbies—“science, politics, mysticism”—with which to occupy his time.  “Perhaps it was for this reason,” speculates Vulliamy, “that he thought so little about his wife and family.”[12]
Kewdingham’s wife Bertha—attractive and more than a decade younger than her husband—is growing increasingly restive over her life with her eccentric and cantankerous spouse.  Most of the Kewdingham kin, including Robert Henry, Robert Arthur’s “ancient father,” have a hearty, if misplaced, family pride, and resoundingly disapprove of Bertha, considering her insufficiently supportive of her husband (the octogenarian Robert Henry has an especially annoying habit of hurling admonitory literary quotations at Bertha).[13]  Add to this situation a spiteful bit of flirtatious feminine fluff, one Mrs. Pam Chaddlewick, an attentive but subtly sinister family doctor, Wilson Bagge, and a handsome Kewdingham cousin (a writer, no less), John Harrigall, and you have a poisonous mixture indeed. 
Where Lobelia Grove preserves the form of the detective novel, Family Matters is much more a tale of psychological suspense.  For two-thirds of the tale we tensely await for a death to occur, and when it does it is quite a doozy.  In addition to its fascinating exploration of fatal family dysfunction, Family Matters offers what is surely one of the most fascinating cases of poisoning in the literature of crime fiction.  Some may find that the novel’s scant epilogue ambiguous, but in my view Family Matters is one of the great Golden Age crime novels, unquestionably fit to stand in the company of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact.  The book was justly praised by Dorothy L. Sayers in her review of it in the Sunday Times, Sayers pronouncing: “The characters are quite extraordinarily living, and the atmosphere of the horrid household creeps over one like a miasma.”[14]
The last Anthony Rolls crime novel, Scarweather, which appeared the next year, in 1934, is a worthy successor to the earlier tales.  The story is told retrospectively by John Farringdale, a somewhat staid lawyer, eminently qualified to act as a Watson for his brilliant friend Fredrick Ellingham, a reader in chemistry at Cambridge.  Of Ellingham the admiring Farringdale declares, with positively Watsonian devotion, “I have never known any man with a wider range of interest and of real attainment.”  Farringdale’s narrative, which takes place over fifteen years, from 1913 to 1928, details the fateful consequences of the meeting of Farringdale’s handsome cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, with Professor Tolgen Reisby, who occupies the Pattervale Chair of Genetics at the University of Northport and is keenly interested in archaology, and Professor Reisby’s beautiful, much younger wife, Hilda (“Scarweather” is the name of the Reisbys’ isolated dwelling in northern England).  In the main the novel is, like Family Matters, quite serious; yet there is, as in Vulliamy’s other crime novels, ample scope, particularly in the final section, for the author’s characteristic satire, which this time is directed primarily against academics and antiquarians (there are also some acid remarks about the late Great War).  The novel’s denouement is original, as far as I am aware, as well as remarkably macabre.  “As a study in criminal aberration [the Reisby case] is…of particularly interest,” pronounces Ellingham in the opening lines of Scarweather, “while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.”[15]  All quite true in my judgment.

Conclusion
Most regrettably, after Scarweather C. E. Vulliamy published no more Anthony Rolls crime novels.  Vulliamy remained interested in his Anthony Rolls books, however, and during the Second World War he keenly negotiated their republication with Martin Secker (1882-1978) of The Richards Press.  Both The Vicar’s Experiments (under its American title Clerical Error) and Family Matters were reprinted by The Richards Press in 1946.  Under his own name Vulliamy produced a new run of crime novels in the 1950s and 1960s (there were six of them between 1952 and 1963, to be precise), but these are, as Julian Symons indicated in Bloody Murder, inferior works, resembling Michael Innes at his most meandering and archly whimsical.[16]  Yet Vulliamy’s earlier Anthony Rolls crime novels constitute one of the most notable bodies of crime fiction produced during the Golden Age.  It is to be hoped that these novels, which have been buried prematurely, will be unearthed someday by a modern publisher, so that they may be appreciated again by twenty-first century crime fiction fans.



[1] Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972; rev. ed. New York: Mysterious Press, 1993), 139-141.  Symons in fact underestimated the number and significance of authors of psychological crime novels during the Golden Age of detective fiction, both before and after the advent of “Francis Iles.”  The other purported members of the “Iles school” about whom Symons writes in Bloody Murder are Richard Hull (for The Murder of My Aunt, 1934, which Symons considers—errantly, in my opinion--the best of Hull’s crime novels, even though he finds it “labored”); F. Tennyson Jesse (for A Pin to See the Peep-Show, 1934, a fictionalized version of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case); and Raymond Postgate (primarily for Verdict of Twelve, 1940, the first of Postgate’s three crime novels).
[2] The Brecon and Radnor Express, 2 July 1914, 8.  For articles from this newspaper see Cymru 1914: The Welsh Experience of the First World War, at http://cymru1914.org/en/home.  On the clockmaking dynasty of the Vulliamys, see Chris McKay, Big Ben: The Great Clock and the Bells of Westminster (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). For the Vulliamy family tree, see the records at ancestry.com.  Vulliamy allowed himself an amusing inside joke at his family’s expense in his pseudonymous The Vicar’s Experiments/Clerical Error, whenever he referenced his illustrious architect grandfather, Lewis Vulliamy, who, we are told, restored the church serviced by Mr. Pardicott, the maniacal clerical killer of the title:

“I am so glad that you approve of what we are doing,” said Mr. Pardicott….”The present state of the chancel certainly does no credit to the taste of Lewis Vulliamy—indeed, I think his ecclesiastical work is generally atrocious.  Dorchester House—of course that was another thing altogether….”
“Dorchester House?” said the canon.  “I have a married niece—Mrs. Romaine—living in one of those new flats….”

Anthony Rolls, Clerical Error (Boston: Little, Brown), 106.  Dorchester House had been demolished in 1929 to make way for The Dorchester, a hotel which held its grand opening in 1931.  Earlier in the novel Mr. Pardicott had vociferously denounced Lewis Vulliamy’s church restoration efforts: “When the present chancel was restored by that awful old Gothic bungler, Vulliamy, in 1846, he very awkwardly cut off the lower half of the north window.  I suppose he didn’t care a toss what he did, because he was only interested in his dreadful sham Gothic….”  Rolls, Error, 84.
[3] The Brecon and Radnor Express, 11 May 1916, 5; The Times, 7 September 1971.  On Stanford Forbes and the Newlyn art colony see James Vernon, “Border Crossings: Cornwall and the English (imagi)nation,” Geoffrey Cubitt, ed., Imagining Nations (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998), 160-162.
[4] The Times, 7 September 1971.
[5] “Book Notes,” New York Times Book Review, 19 May 1932; Anthony Boucher, “Criminals at Large,” New York Times Book Review, 16 January, 11 December 1955.
[6] Rolls, Error, 5, 8.  Readers of modern crime fiction may also be reminded of Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper (2001), another mordant tale about a murderous cleric.
[7] Anthony Rolls, Lobelia Grove (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1932), 27, 29.
[8] Rolls, Grove, 130.
[9] Symons, Bloody Murder, 108; Rolls, Grove, 208.
[10] See my assessment of The Blackheath Poisonings at my blog The Passing Tramp, at http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/03/victorian-tableaux-vivants-1-blackheath.html.
[11] Anthony Rolls, Family Matters (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1933), 1-3.  On the fascinating story of the curmudgeonly O. S. G. Crawford, see Kitty Hauser, Bloody Old Britain: O. S. G. Crawford and the Archeology of Modern Life (London: Granta Books, 2008).  At the time of the publication of Family Matters, Vulliamy himself was 47 years old, the same age as his character Robert Arthur Kewdingham.
[12] Rolls, Matters, 3, 6.
[13] In The Vicar’s Experiments, Colonel Cargoy’s attractive, much younger wife also is named Bertha. 
[14] “Dorothy L. Sayers, “Three Horrid Households,” The Sunday Times, 11 February 1934, 9.
[15] Anthony Rolls, Scarweather (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1934), 3, 5.
[16] C. E. Vulliamy to Martin Secker, 28 November 1942.  Letter currently in possession of David J. Holmes, Autographs.  The first of the later Vulliamy crime novels, an inferior reworking of The Vicar’s Experiments titled Don among the Dead Men (1952), was the source for the British film “A Jolly Bad Fellow” (1963), starring Leo McKern.  See the review at http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/A-Jolly-Bad-Fellow_1963/listType/.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

How Many Clues Can Be Deduced on the Head of a Pin? The Diamond Pin (1919), by Carolyn Wells

Last year I was asked to write an introduction to Collins Crime Club's reissue, under its Detective Club Crime Classics imprint, of the bibliomystery Murder in the Bookshop (1936) by American crime writer Carolyn Wells, to be published in November of this year.  I've watched with interest the progress over the last few years of CCC's vintage mystery reprint series, which now encompasses both Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, authors about whom I've written extensively and, I think, authoritatively in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.  However, I never expected to be asked to write an introduction for CCC on Carolyn Wells--though in fact I have written about Wells pretty extensively on my blog and in an 8000-word essay in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene.  So I've been taking the opportunity recently to look once again over her work, which always seems to draw me back. 

Few people may appreciate today that in the 1920s--until the advent, in the middle of the decade, of Earl Derr Biggers and S. S. Van Dine--Carolyn Wells was, along with Englishman J. S. Fletcher, about the biggest thing in mystery novels in the US.  Admittedly Wells and Fletcher were thrown in the shade somewhat by the rise not only of Van Dine and Biggers, but of Christie, Sayers, Crofts and all the rest of the classic British crew, not to mention Dashiell Hammett and the rest of the American tough squad.  Yet with the rise of internet reprints, Wells, like Fletcher, is again being read and enjoyed by a perhaps surprisingly large number of people, considering that these are authors who seem to define the term "dated."  In other words, they were old-fashioned even in the 1920s, but perhaps that is part of their charm today.  (Incidentally, there's also an essay in Mysteries Unlocked by J. S. Fletcher.)

Reflective of her age (she was three years younger than Arthur Conan Doyle), Carolyn Wells grew up with, and loved, the word games found in the nonsense writing of authors like Edward Lear (1812-1888), Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) and her "literary chum" Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  The latter man was the American creator of the noxious Goops ("The Goops, they lick their fingers/and the Goops, they lick their knives/They spill their broth on the tablecloth/Oh! they lead disgusting lives!") and author of "The Purple Cow" ("I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one/But I can tell you, anyhow/I'd rather see than be one!"). 

Beginning in the 1890s, Carolyn Wells herself began emulating her idols, publishing verse in Punch and The Lark.  She continued to emulate those idols in her original published and punning book of nonsense verse, Idle Idylls, was published in 1900 and her Nonsense Anthology, still in print today, first appeared two years later.

Yet around this time Wells discovered the mystery fiction of Anna Katharine Green (who also influenced Christie), and she was instantly won over to this addictive field of entertainment literature.  (She also wrote a great deal of children's fiction in the first two decades of the 20th century, particularly tales, nearly two dozen in all, of the adventures of two jolly girls named Marjorie and Patty.)

In 1902, Wells penned the whimsical "A Ballade of Detection," detailing her love for the works of Green, Poe, Gaboriau, Du Boisgobey, Ottolengui and Conan Doyle, and in 1906 and 1907 there appeared, in serial form, her first detective tales, The Maxwell Mystery and A Chain of Evidence (published as novels in, respectively, 1913 and 1912).  Her first detective novel, The Clue, was published by her lifelong mystery publisher Lippincott in 1909.  The Gold Bag came the next year and her next original detective novel was Anybody but Anne in 1914.  All these tales had her most frequently appearing sleuth, patrician detective Fleming Stone.

From that point on Wells published two, sometimes three, detective novels a year until her death in 1942.  For the rest of the century, however, not a single mystery title by Wells was reprinted, as far as I can tell, barring a couple, one in England and the other in France--a remarkable literary extinction which makes her recent revival even more remarkable. (It should be mentioned here that she also wrote a notable text on mystery writing, The Technique of the Mystery Story.)

Wells certainly has had her critics over the years, and I started out my writing about her in a pretty critical frame of mind.  But she has had her defenders too, like Mike Grost and the academic writer Stephen Knight; and over the years I've come to be more more judicious in my assessments of her writing.

I think Wells's earlier books are pretty weak, on the whole, though there are some appealing aspects even in the initial tales.  (The Clue has a male-female amateur sleuth duo who to me are reminiscent of Christie's Tommy and Tuppence, anticipating that flippant flapper and her beau by a dozen years.)  But beginning with The Curved Blades (1916) I think Wells' Fleming Stone series picks up several notches. (At his Pretty Sinister blog John Norris has written about Wells's  Pennington Wise and Zizi tales, her second most important series.) 

Fibsy to the rescue
(after Iris gets kidnapped yet again)
frontispiece to The Diamond Pin
The next Fleming Stone tale, The Mark of Cain (1917),  sees the debut of Stone's "saucy" boy assistant, fifteen-year-old Terence "Fibsy" Maguire, and this entertaining duo, something like a sleuthing Batman and Robin, work wonderfully together in Well's next Stone mystery, Vicky Van (1918), a book I feel is a true genre classic.  (In England, where Wells was not so well known, the novel was praised by GK Chesterton.)

Fibsy Maguire appeared with Stone in a total of eight mysteries between 1917 and 1923, including, right in the middle, The Diamond Pin (1919).  Though there are some duds in the lot (see Feathers Left Around, 1923), on the whole I find this an enjoyable series.  The Diamond Pin is no Vicky Van, for its part, but it's an entertaining little tale of more modestly scaled ambition.

The Diamond Pin has a setting which will be familiar to readers of Carolyn Wells mysteries: A little country town (Berrien), isolated and tranquil in spite of being located less than fifteen miles from New York. I thought Wells might have had in mind Meriden, Connecticut, but that's farther away and also had a population of about 30,000 in 1920, which to my mind is not so small.  (There's also a Berrien's Island, near Rikers, in New York.) 

In any event, the setting is typical of of Wells' own home town of Rahway, New Jersey (pop. about 11,000 in 1920), where Wells grew up with a sister and brother in privileged circumstances.  Like suburban Connecticut and the Berkshires of Massachusetts, small-town, affluent New Jersey is a frequent Wellesian setting.

In The Diamond Pin there also is another common Wellesian feature: a fine country home, where a soon-to-violently-expire millionaire holds court over her/his restive dependent relations.  Here we have Ursula Pell's house Pellbrook, where dwells the eccentric "old lady" (she's all of 62) and her lovely niece (there are no plain nieces in Wells books), Iris Clyde.  The house is less fancy than some Wells domiciles (she generally prefers what was then termed monumental "colonial"--i.e., classical--architecture), but it's still rather a nice pad, with lots of rooms and a homey wraparound porch.  Plenty of places to get murdered in, have no fear!

Aunt Ursula's distinguishing characteristic is her penchant--almost pathological I would say--for playing practical jokes on her dependents, be they servants or family relations hoping to inherit something from her in her will, which is in a constant state of flux.

What is the secret of the diamond pin? 1920s Art Deco
Cartier emerald, diamond and platinum pin brooch
Granted this is a familiar character type in mystery fiction (a later example I recall is an irritating jokester minister in Leo Bruce's Death on Allhallowe'en); yet Wells does Aunt Ursula, well, um, well, this being a character who was, I suspect, rather close to her own quaintly humorous heart. Wells was 57 at the time The Diamond Pin was published and, as you will surmise, she herself loved jokes; in a typical whimsical Wellsian gesture she married her husband, William Hadwin Houghton, on April Fools' Day 1918.

After Aunt Ursula is found dead in her locked sitting room some thirty pages into The Diamond Pin, her eccentric presence is missed in the 90% of the story that remains, but the tale continues to engage us, as it develops into an entertaining "treasure" hunt affair, like such Twenties mysteries romps as Christie's The Secret of Chimneys, Crofts' Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery, JJ Connington's The Dangerfield Talisman and Christopher Bush's The Plumley Inheritance

The local police--none too bright, these guys, but not so bumptious as in some Wells tales--have no clue as to how the murderer could have gotten out of the locked room, but they end up arresting for the crime Iris Clyde's charming but indebted cousin, Winston Bannard, who with Iris is the major beneficiary in Aunt Ursula's will. 

The focus in the novel then turns, rather entertainingly in my eyes, to the matter of Iris's special legacy from her aunt: a diamond pin, which turns out actually to be, well--you really should read and see for yourself.

I will tell you that it transpires that the "diamond pin" must be a clue to the location of Aunt Ursula's fabulous collection of jewels (worth millions--Aunt Ursula's late millionaire hubby didn't trust the stock market, don't you know).  Sinister strangers keep showing up at the Pell domicile, all of them in pursuit of that dratted pin.  Like so many Twenties mystery thriller heroines, Iris manages to get kidnapped twice in the tale (once while coming to the aid of her pet dog, Pom-pom, whom we had never even heard a whisper of earlier--but don't laugh, PD James uses the same ploy, more or less, in two of her books to my recollection, except in those cases its a beloved pet cat--I take it PD James was a cat person).

Throw it over my head?
What on earth for, my dear?
see alexanderpalace.org
Eventually Fleming Stone and Fibsy show up to solve the case, and pretty quickly they do so too--though not so quickly as in some of the Wells books (In all they are around for about a third of the story.)  The treasure hunt makes good use of Wells's love of puns, and the solution to the locked room demise is better than you often get from Wells, who was no John Dickson Carr in this regard, though Carr was a great youthful fan of her books.  (I can see a 12-year-old Carr avidly swallowing every detail of The Diamond Pin.)

This is a fun, if modest, little mystery story, one even the jaded Wells critic should enjoy.  You even get a wailing cook who throws her apron up over her head to express her dismay.  This odd practice, familiar to me from other older mysteries, was amusingly noted by the late Marian Babson in one of her own mysteries.  (Marian Babson knew this genre well.) 

I'll have to get to that one someday!  Meanwhile, some more on Wells coming this week.

Previous Carolyn Wells reviews at The Passing Tramp:

The Clue (1909) and The Curved Blades (1916)
The Mark of Cain (1917)
Raspberry Jam (1920)

Monday, February 12, 2018

No Lack of the Irish: Untimely Guest (1976), by Marian Babson

[Nicholas] was too young to have learned the hypocrisy which dictated that kinship was automatically synonymous with love, liking, and all things bright and beautiful.

Eleanor had almost, but not quite, grown accustomed to the Irish ability to ignore and'or delay specific action until long past the time when the necessary specific action might have helped the situation.  Either the stitch in time philosophy had bypassed them completely, or they simply refused to believe in it.  Which, considering some of the other things they managed to believe, was rather straining at a gnat.

"We'll be lucky if this doesn't kill Mam....She'll never be able to understand."
....Mam was a woman you couldn't kill with a meat-axe [thought Eleanor].  But it was not the sort of remark calculated to endear a daughter-in-law, if repeated.

"Will she have any hair?" Nicholas kept asking urgently during the long days of waiting [for Bridie to arrive].  At seven, certain questions acquired an importance disproportionate to their intrinsic value...."Mickey Concannon says she'll be bald as an egg.  He says that's why girls go in to begin with--so that nobody will notice."


                                                                       --Untimely Guest (1976), Marian Babson

All in the family? The Coyne Clan of Salem, Massachusetts
(Marian Babson's mother Catherine Elzabaeth seated far left, with bow)
see jackfamilytree.com

As I discussed in a  blog post some seven weeks ago, the late crime writer Marian Babson (aka Ruth Marian Stenstreem) had quite a varied ancestral quilt figuratively stored away in the family chest, with Swedish (Stenstreem) and Irish (Coyne) threads as well as quaint old stitches of Puritan New England (the Babsons from whom she derived her pen name). 

Marian Babson also had an inter-denominational background, with a Catholic strand intertwining with Protestant denominations.  Her prominent ship-owning merchant great-grandfather, Gorham Babson of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was a member of the Universalist faith that gained a following in New England in the 19th century, which preached universal salvation and was rejected by some Christians as a faith that was not actually Christian. (Indeed, even some Universalists, the church since having merged with Unitarianism, no longer see themselves as Christians.)

church of the Immaculate Conception
Salem, Massachusetts,
where Marian Babson's parents were wed
When Marian Babson's parents Earle A. Stenstreem, a gardener, and Catherine Elizabeth Coyne, daughter of painting contractor Patrick Martin Coyne and Mary Dever, wed in 1928, however, it was at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Salem, Massachusetts.  Was Marian Babson raised a Catholic?  I have no idea.  Certainly the Coyne presence in Salem was substantial, with Patrick and Marian having produced a brood of nine children, six daughters and three sons (Mary Josephine, Margaret "Peg," John Francis, Susan Teresa, James Michael, Grace Agnes, Rose Agnes, Joseph Patrick and Catherine Elizabeth, Marian's mother).  Earle Stenstreem, on the other hand, was an only child, as was his mother Alphonsa Babson Stenstreem, both her older brother and sister having died in infancy.

Of Marian's grandparents, her paternal grandfather, Charles Stenstreem, had died around the turn of the century, and her maternal grandfather, Patrick Martin Coyne, would pass away fewer than six months after she was born.  However, Marian presumably would have known both of her grandmothers, with the very English Alphonsa Babson Stenstreem living until 1940 and the very Irish Mary Dever Coyne hanging on until 1942.

Universalist Church, Gloucester, Mass.
Before reading Marian Babson's intriguing eighth crime novel, Untimely Guest--published in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial (which I sat out on the sidelines, if you will, living in Mexico that year)--I had already assumed that Marian Babson identified more with the Babson side of her family than the Coyne, in part because she took Babson for her pen name, but also because she chose to move permanently to London around the time she turned forty and because of the British settings of so very, very many of her mysteries. 

The woman seems clearly to have been, like so many cozy mystery fans, a ardent Anglophile of the tea and crumpets sort.

Reading Untimely Guest--Babson's only novel, as far as I am aware, set in Ireland--has amply confirmed me in this view.  "[E]very hit goes home," pronounces the blurb on the Collins Crime Club book jacket of the first edition (the novel was not published in the US until 1987), and "hit" is an apt word in this context. 

Through Babson's focal character, Eleanor, a Protestant who has married into a troubled Catholic family in Ireland, the author gets in quite a few trenchant criticisms of Irish life in the 1970s (particularly concerning the still considerable influence of the Church on family life), though I couldn't help wondering whether her experience of Ireland was more from the 1950s, the age of "Call the Midwife" if you will, when a twentysomething Babson began doing quite a lot of trans-Atlantic traveling between the US and the British isles. 

Yet, even as the country has legalized same-sex marriage (in a 2015 referendum by a margin of 62 to 38 percent), Ireland is still dealing with bitter controversies from its Church-dominated past, particularly the treatment of children of unwed mothers in homes run by Catholic nuns, where, it has been shown, abuses ran rampant. So perhaps Babson's novel still has a timely message, when there are appalling news headlines like that about a mass grave of babies and children begin discovered on the grounds of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway. (The Home closed in 1961.)

The steps to death begin in Untimely Guest when sister Bridie, after the closing of her Chapter House (the nuns are "going to a less enclosed Order, where most of the restrictions had been eased"), returns home after a decade to live with her brother Kevin and sister-in-law Eleanor (and their two young children, Nicholas and Margaret, and their cat, Furface)--much to the chagrin of the family, who find Sister Bridie's cold and austere presence not only unsettling but actually maleficent.

The rest of Bridie's siblings and in-laws find the former nun's return offputting as well, even though they, to their manifest relief, are not the ones stuck with providing Bridie with her room and board. 

These are brother Patrick and his frequently pregnant wife, Carmel, unmarried stay-at-home sister Veronica, and free-thinking and free-loving Dee-Dee, the sister who caused scandal by divorcing her still-besotted husband, Terence (whom she had earlier taken away from Bridie in her pre-convent days), and taking up with a new man, James. 

And then there is the formidable and poisonous family matriarch, Mam, who no one dares even tell about Bridie's return, because Mam believes that Bridie's being a nun has guaranteed her an ticket to Paradise, if you will, without Mam herself having to spend any unpleasant time in Purgatory, making up for past sins.

We learn in a prologue to the novel that a family member gets fatally pushed down a stairway--but who will it be?  There's considerable suspense as to this event, which does not take place until late in the novel.  The solution comes by confession, but is deducible by the readers--at least on an emotional level.

Pope Paul VI--seen here at the
beginning of his reign in 1963--
would pass away two years after the
publication of Untimely Death (1976)
at the not untimely age of 80
I found Untimely Guest an interesting and engaging crime novel.  Is it a cozy?  Again, I don't know. There are some very bitter feelings expressed in the novel and the view of "family values" is ambiguous. In particular, "Mam" is a malevolent horror, a religious hypocrite of the first order, a person who actually encourages her son Pat to get her daughter-in-law Carmel repeatedly pregnant, in the hope that eventually a pregnancy will kill her. 

Carmel at one point fantasizes about the Pope (or Himself, as she terms him) getting abducted by a band of avenging women scientists and forcibly implanted with a human fetus, so that he will learn what it is like for the women to whom he dictates, as the duly and divinely authorized spokesman for God's Will. This seemed pretty scabrous stuff for a cozy!*

There's also complaint about the presumed election, next time around, of yet another Italian pope--quite wrong there, as those of us who watched the amazing reign of Pope John Paul II will recall.  Italian popes seem to have had their day (a very long one, to be sure).

On the other hand, the view of Eleanor and Kevin's family life (without Bridie) is charming.  Especially their young son Nicholas but also baby Margaret and Furface the cat--we all know Babson knows her cats--are wonderful characters.   (The whole saga of Nicholas' relationship with a neighbor boy, Mickey Concannon, is so very amusingly, and truly, portrayed.)  So there are definitely cozy elements to this arguably non-cozy mystery.

There's little sense of Irish place conveyed by Babson, but she does give us a fine sense of people, particularly the womenfolk in this quarrelsome but memorable family clan.  How much of this material may have been drawn from real life, I have no idea, but I do know I very much enjoyed Untimely Guest.

See also this great review of Untimely Guest by Margot Kinberg, at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.