Tuesday, October 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

                                                             From No Bones About It, by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

Out in the Country 2: Crook o'Lune (1953), by ECR Lorac

Here is another story about Lunesdale, written to give pleasure to kind friends from far and wide who have written to me and asked for another book about our valley, not forgetting Giles and Kate Hoggett.  To all of you, in the U.S.A. and Canada, in New Zealand and Australia, I can give an assurance that a place like High Gimmerdale really does exist, in the fells south of Lune.  No inhabitant of "Wenningby" will have any doubt about that.  But will all of you please remember that this is a story, no more.  If I have used some real facts, such as the sheep-stealing on Whernside, and if I have taken liberties with ancient history and adapted Benefactions to the base uses of detective fiction, it is only to make a story whose very roots grow in the place. 

No character in this book is real--except perhaps the Hoggetts, and they bear me no ill-will for even having turned their cows into fiction.  And to those of you overseas who think you might be descended from bygone Teggs and Fells and Shearlings and Lambs, well, the folk in this valley are a fine race, so good luck to all of you.  Incidentally, the house I have called Aikengill is not for sale, nor is it to let.  I live in it myself.

                                                         --ECR Lorac, foreword to Crook o'Lune (1953)

ECR Lorac's foreword to her 1953 detective novel Crook o'Lune suggests her not insignificant role--along with, certainly, Patrica Wentworth and Agatha Christie (with their Miss Silver and Miss Marple mysteries, respectively)--in helping to fashion the "cozy" country mystery so popular today.  I tend to think these books proved even more popular outside of England than within it (as Lorac's foreword suggests)--its often being easier, I think, to idealize something with which one is not actually all that familiar.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and distance makes it harder to spot unsightly blemishes.

However, by 1953 ECR Lorac lived in the Lancashire countryside about which she wrote and which she clearly very much adored.  How much do her Lunesdale tales really idealize Lunesdale?  Sure, there's the focal character (another author substitute?), Gilbert Woolfall, who lives in the, well, cozy old stone farmhouse of Aikengill, which is based on the author's own beloved Lancashire homestead, Newbanks.  But the country life Lorac writes about in this novel is not exactly glamorous.  This is not the locale of country houses and genteel life, it's the domain of small freeholders and sheepherders.  It's more Brokeback Mountain (absent same-sex attraction) than Downton Abbey, in other words.  There aren't even, really, any quaint villages, the district where all the troubles take place being too sparsely populated for such.

Newbanks Barn, Aughton, Lancashire: ECR Lorac's Aikengill?

In this sense Lorac's Lunesdale books, especially Crook o'Lune, seem more exercises in rural realism, looking ahead not so much to the modern "cozy" but rather to crime novels of rural realism like Stephen Booth's excellent Cooper and Fry series (set, incidentally, in Derbyshire, home of the hermit's cave I discussed in my last post, which also concerns Lorac).

I don't want to push this comparison too far though.  As I recollect one of the Booth novels I read includes a distressing description of  a woman freezing to death in the snow, including the unlovely detail of a hare stopping by to defecate on her neck as she expires.  This sort of thing you won't find in such unpleasant detail in Lorac's Lunesdale, though the author does include a chilling anecdote about the death of a man who was trapped by snow in his cottage with insufficient provisions.

frontis map in Crook O'Lune

There is, however, not just natural death (or is it?), but murder and arson and sheep-stealing too--the latter crime, perhaps, being the one which most distresses the locals.  Though not exactly the stuff that one associates with classic British mystery in its Golden Age heyday (there's not a single bludgeoned baronet, nor a body in a library for that matter), the plot is nicely turned out; and the local color is impressively sketched indeed.

Perhaps the closet comparison I can think of to Crook o'Lune is another Fifties crime novel, Licensed for Murder by John Rhode, another British mystery steeped in a rural milieu (one with a beautifully dovetailed plot), which I discuss in some detail in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery.  Like ECR Lorac, John Rhode (in real life John Street) wrote lovingly yet realistically about crime and the country in Fifties England.  I might also mention Ngaio Marsh's interesting and folklorish Off with His Head (Death of a Fool in the US), but for Marsh's ever-present preoccupation with the gentry and that great social scourge of Fifties Britain (at least in Marsh's view): "inverse snobbery."

the American edition of
Crook O'Lune
Original touches that are unique to Lorac come through, however.  Her charming farming couple, Giles and Kate Hoggett, make cameo appearances (and their debut novel, The Theft of the Iron Dogs, is nostalgically recalled by Lorac's sleuth, Inspector Macdonald).  Lorac's disdain with canting, cold-hearted clerical moralists is in evidence, especially in its acid portrayal of the local minister.  (Lorac herself was, I understand, a most humane believer, incidentally a Friend of Westminster Abbey who attended the 1947 Royal Wedding of the UK's currently reigning monarch.)  The shepherd Aaron Tegg (the name recalls Lorac's likely, though far distant, country ancestor Aaron Rivett) is a character who attains some poignancy, I think, contradicting those who say that in her crime fiction Lorac only ever fashioned stick men and women.

In highly praising Lorac's Crook o'Lune (in the US Shepherd's Crook) American mystery critic Anthony Boucher pronounced the novel an "almost anthropological study of the mores (criminous and otherwise) of a community...that hardly seems part of this century."  There are some, I suspect, who might well be bored to tears by the tale Lorac spins in Crook o'Lune, but I personally found the novel captivating in its commitment to telling, as the author herself put it her foreward, "a story whose very roots grow in the place."

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cave of Contemplation and Death: ECR Lorac's Death Came Softly (1943) and the Hermit's Cave at Dale Abbey

Rhodian left the drive and walked over the beech mast to the great scarp of rock where was the shadowy entrance to the cave, and stood staring a moment before he went inside.  The entrance was a pointed archway in shape--a lancet--but there was no real arch.  The stone had been hewn away to simulate an arch: it gave access to a chamber in the solid rock, some ten feet by eight and perhaps twelve feet high.  There was another lancet cut into the rock at one end of the cave, about five feet from the ground.  Along one side was a stone slab, six feet long, with a hollow at one end--the hermit's bed.  At its head a niche had been hollowed out of the living rock.  Another cavity had been carved out at the foot of the stone couch, forming recessed stone shelves.  In the wall facing the head of the couch a great cross was carved into the rocky wall.  Rhodian stood at the centre of the cave while his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, green-filtered as it came though the overhanging branches of beech.

Say, there's something fantastic about the place.  It gives me the creeps," he said.  "Do you really suppose anyone lived here?"

"Why not?" Lockersley came into the cave and stood on the dry carpet of leaves which covered the rocky floor.  "I can imagine worse places to live.  It's dry, and surprisingly warm, and utterly peaceful.  Not bad to wake up on a stone bed and look out into the woods, and see the dawn on the lake.  You try it.  It's much more comfortable than it looks.  

The stone couch was strewn with bracken and dead leaves and Rhodian sat down on it and looked through the arched entrance to the golden glory of the woods outside.

"All right in summer, maybe, but in winter--no."

"Why not?  A good wood fire--the door and lancet are so arranged that the smoke clears away pretty well," replied Lockersley.  "It'd be a damn sight more comfortable than many a Norman castle....I like it in here.  I understand how the hermit felt in his house.  Safe from the world."

                                                                --from Death Came Softly (1943), by ECR Lorac

In my recent review of ECR Lorac's Death Came Softly, I mentioned that the scene of the murder of Eve Merrion's beloved anthropologist father Professor Crewdon, menacingly depicted on the cover of the 1943 Collins edition, is a hermit's cave on the grounds of the grand mansion, Valehead House, lately purchased by Eve.  Death Came Softly is set in Devonshire, where a few years earlier ECR Lorac herself (Carol Rivett) had been evacuated from the German bombing of London, but the novel's Valehead House, a  classically symmetrical white Italianate mansion, reminds me rather of Kingston Lacy, in Dorset, of which I included some photos in the review.

remains of Dale Abbey
dissolved and despoiled in 1538
For its part the hermit's cave reminds me of the hermit's cave which is located in the Derbyshire village of Dale Abbey, near Nottingham.  Dale Abbey originally was a monastery founded around 1200.  It remained in existence for over three centuries until 1538, when is was dissolved by Henry VIII and mostly demolished.  Little of the abbey remains but the great 13th century east window, although stone from the abbey was pillaged for local construction.

Also in Dale Abbey is Hermit's Wood, wherein is found a hermit's cave and a holy well, no less.  The cave allegedly was fashioned in the twelfth century by a Derby baker, who had a beatific vision in which the Virgin Mary instructed him to lead a contemplative life of solitude and prayer. 

The cave was later enlarged in the 18th century by Sir Robert Burdett, who entertained in it.  (I'm guessing this explains those larger openings, which a lone contemplative hardly would have needed.)

Did Carol Rivett have this particular hermit's cave in mind when she wrote Death Came Softly?  Maybe there was another, actually located in Devonshire.  Dale Abbey lies about about 100 miles from Harpenden, Herfordshire, where Carol Rivett's mother, Beatrice, seems to have spent the early war years, before she became a patient at Camberwell House, a private asylum in London.  After the Second World War Carol Rivett lived at her mother's house in Harpenden for a few years before moving to Lancashire.

Whatever the inspiration for the hermit's cave in Death Came Softly, it makes a memorable murder scene; and it also speaks to Carol Rivett's growing fascination with (and spiritual sense for) rural geography, a quality she shared with her contemporary mystery writer and Detection Club colleague John Street.  It's a feeling which grows only more pronounced in her works over the 1940s and 1950s.  More soon!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Out in the Country, Part One: Death Came Softly (1943), by ECR Lorac

"Do you ever read detective stories, Chief Inspector?"

"Quite often.  I'm afraid the entertainment I derive from them is not quite what the author intends."

--Death Came Softly (1943), ECR Lorac (Carol Rivett)

Pastoral mysteries in the detective fiction oeuvre of Christopher Bush comprise a comparatively small amount of his overall output (among his first ten novels, The Plumley Inheritance, Murder at Fenwold, aka The Death of Cosmo Revere, and The Case of the Unfortunate Village stand out in this respect), yet they became an increasingly noteworthy strain in the work of Bush's contemporary and Detection Club colleague Carol Rivett, who published detective fiction as ECR Lorac and Carol Carnac.

side view of Kingston Lacey and garden, Dorset
This fact is interesting to me, because Christopher Bush's origins were much more immediately rural than those of Rivett.  Although Bush spent his earliest years in London, the majority of his adolescence was lived in the village of Great Hockham, Norfolk, where his father's side of the family farmed the land for generations (and about which he lovingly wrote in his "Michael Home" novels and memoirs).

Rivett, on the other hand, was a third generation Londoner on both sides of her family (though the families originally came from, on her father's side, Suffolk, and, on her mother's side, Wiltshire).

Death Came Softly was published in 1943, several years after Rivett had left London with the dark advent of the German air bombing campaign known as the Blitz, an event that made life in London precarious indeed.  In 1940 Rivett dwelt at the village of Thurlestone in Devon, the lovely county in which Death Came Softly is set.

In the novel wealthy widow Eve Merrion--no relation, one supposes, to Miles Burton's gentleman amateur sleuth Desmond Merrion, though I think Merrion was a family name of the author's-- is desirous of getting away from wartime London, and she comes to Devon hunting for houses. 

murder mars wartime life at the country mansion

Eve's heart alights on Valehead House, "a long Italianate building, so stylised and symmetrical, set among the rich Devonshire woodland," though it is much too big for her, from a simply practical standpoint.  Yet she buys it, just like that! (Must be nice.)  I visualize a bit of Kingston Lacey, though that great house is located in Dorset.

Happily the previous tenants of the mansion were wealthy Americans who, in the aqueous manner of their breed, installed a bevy of bathrooms.  "English people never squander money on anything so superbly luxurious," pronounces Eve, whose creator, Carol Rivett, was the great-granddaughter of the first superintendent of the Marylebone Baths, where much of Marylebone kept clean (or relatively so).

garden at Kingston Lacey
(house shown above)
Rather envious of Eve is her only sister, Emmeline Stamford, married to an absent officer in the Indian Army.  Now back in England with her two boys--who like Eve's three children are conveniently absent from the narrative, being away somewhere at school--Emmeline is loathe to leave London for the wilds of Devonshire (including, of course, Eve's grievously understaffed Italianate mansion of forty-one rooms--if you include those bathrooms).  However, straightened financial circumstances force Emmeline to take just that course. 

Also on hand at Valehead House when murder inevitably strikes are Eve's and Emmeline's father, the distinguished anthropology professor Dr. Crewdon; the professor's private secretary, Roland Keston; swarthy American explorer Bruce Rhodian; fair poet David Lockersley; and Eve's live-in servant couple, Mr. and Mrs. Carter.

Even more than Valehead House itself, Eve is enraptured by the gardens which surround it: the author, whose sister Maude Howson had an advanced degree in botany, lavishes, like Agatha Christie in Hallowe'en Party (1969), long descriptive passages on the horticultural wonders of the estate, which comes complete with an inhabitable "hermit's cave." 

the cave where Professor Crewdon meets his demise

Professor Crewdon enjoys sleeping in this cave (you tell me), and it is in this cave that he is found dead one morning, from the fatal effects of carbon monoxide exposure.  Was he accidentally killed by the coal in the brazier that lit the cave at night?  The Yard's Chief Inspector Macdonald, Lorac's redoubtable series detective, thinks not, and we know he can't be wrong!

hermit's cave, Dale Abbey, Derbyshire
This Lorac has quite a lot of the elements fans of British mystery like to see, but it didn't quite cohere for me.  The author initially devotes much time to building up the personal tension that exists between saintly Eve (who seems something of an author stand-in) and bitchy Emmeline, but in the end this plot thread is prematurely snipped.  (I'll leave you in suspense as to how.)  I felt less engaged with the second half of the novel than the first.

The presence of Rhodian and Lockersley feels somewhat artificial, as if imposed by the need of the author to expand the suspect list during wartime, when the presence of military eligible male characters had to be rationalized somehow (and perhaps one of these men actually is guilty--I'm not saying!).  The murder is gadgety without having the genius of that genius death-dealer John Street or some of the other "Humdrums."  Nor is the local color as strong as it could be.

Still, the book does offer an honest-to-goodness formal problem puzzle, and there's always something to be said for that.  Also, as is often the case with Carol Rivett, the political and social commentary is interesting and definitely not the hidebound Toryish stuff traditionally associated with British mystery at this time.

Eve and Emmeline, after a fashion
The sisters Eve and Emmeline rather remind me of the Margaret Whitton and Teri Garr characters in the short-lived 1991 American sitcom Good & Evil--Eve is so very, very admirable and Emmeline so anything but. 

It's hard to imagine Agatha Christie laying down her cards quite so forthrightly, unless it was a ploy to pull a last-minute super-surprise switcheroo!

Eve is the widow of Axel Merrion, a metallurgist who was "a man of great intellectual powers yet of marked humanity, interested in all that pertained to the advancement of human knowledge and well-being."  His influence on Eve, too, as beneficent, to say the least:

Led by his wisdom, fired by his enthusiasm for all that was noblest in human thought, Eve Merrion had developed from a kindly, lighthearted girl into a mature woman of wide information and generous mind.

Emmeline's marriage to an Indian Army officer, on the other hand

had crystallized all that was conventional in her.  "Empire, Prestige, Dignity"--these were Emmeline's values, described laughingly by Eve as "E.P.D."  In the narrow sphere of army life and thought, Emmeline had grown into what her sister ruefully described as "a perfect lady, perfect within the limitations of social convention."

Rivett's cocking a snook at Empire is especially striking given the book's publication date of 1943, when British was fighting desperately to hang on to what was left of it.

Soulful and warmhearted Eve--"Beautiful she was not, smart [i.e., stylish--TPT] she was not, but she had some quality which was as lovable as the still evening light which irradiated the quiet air."--has tired of city life and wants to dwell in the country, an attitude that apparently reflected that of the author herself at this time.  This exchange between Eve and her cook/housekeeper Mrs. Carter concerning the evening's dinner menu at Valehead House is telling:

gooseberry tart
for recipe see thepassionfruits.com
"Very good, madam.  Duck and green peas and gooseberry tart--and I've scalded some cream for you, the cows are doing that well."

"Goodness, how lovely! Though I feel guilty over having so many good things.  Isn't it glorious being here, Mrs. Carter?  I can't bear to think of living in a town again, ever."

"There's certainly  a lot to be said for the country these days, madam," replied Mrs. Carter, and her tone made Eve laugh.

"You're a real Londoner, aren't you?" she said as she turned away."

Eve's shallow and superficial sister Emmeline loves city life, however.  Yet on returning to wartime London Emmeline was most disappointed to find that

Everything seemed to be a problem--food, service, even laundry, all those things which had been taken for granted so gaily in the old world, were now major problems, crises occurring afresh week after week.  

When Emmeline suggests to Eve the county of Surrey as an alternative London getaway, Eve scoffs, lecturing Emmeline: "....Surrey is really a glorified suburb.  It's all tacked on to London, a sort of dormitory and week-end resort for wealthy stock-brokers, rather than real country."
"I always says you can't beat a bloater for tea."
"Bloaters on a piece of yellow paper" (1889)
Vincent Van Gogh
What finally drives Emmeline out of London to Eve's rarefied Devon refuge is an encounter, on a "hot and stuffy bus," with a "large and stout member of the proletariat...probably a hard-working and honest charwoman," who has brought a rather ripe fish along with her for the ride. 

The good woman chattily confides to Emmeline:

"A bit on the 'igh side maybe, but I always says you can't beat a bloater for tea."

A classic collision of the classes in Golden Age British crime fiction this is, but the author's sympathies here lie not with the distressed gentlewoman, but with the cheerful char.  And if you think it's only Tory mystery writers who in their fiction, at least, looked down on the haitch-dropping class, take a look at Socialist Margaret Cole's mysteries.

Speaking of left-wing ideology, another character, Chief Inspector Macdonald's journalist friend Peter Vernon, is spared a moment to praise the International Brigade ("Stout fellas," he avows.)

Camberwell House Asylum, now residential housing
for the Camberwell School of Art
--appropriately so, given Carol Rivett's love of art
Another interesting element that seems biographical is found in Eve's reaction to the death of her parent.  As I have discussed in a previous post, Carol Rivett lost her father when she was but six years old.  Afterward she lived for many of her adult years, first in London and then on Piggotshill Lane, Harpenden, Herfordshire, with her widowed mother, Beatrice. One presumes that the two women shared a close relationship.

Beatrice is recorded as having died at the age of 75 on May 17, 1943, at Camberwell House, a private asylum.  In Death Came Softly Rivett mentions the Camberwell district where the asylum was located when the servant Carter tells Macdonald that all of his and his wife's personal papers were stored in a room that was "Bombed flat.  Lavender Terrace, Camberwell,  Just wiped out it was, in November, 1940."  During the Second World War a high explosive bomb landed on the grounds of Camberwell House.

Commenting on her death of her father, Professor Crewdon, after the case has been solved by the perspicacious Macdonald, Eve Merrion declares, "Now I feel I can put it it all behind me.  I'm not going to sorrow over my father.  He was happy, and he died happily, in his sleep, without knowing pain or fear.

Was this the author's attitude about the death of her mother?  To be sure, Professor Crewdon died at his mental peak in a hermit's cave in rural Devonshire, Beatrice Rivett is a private asylum in London, presumable when suffering from dementia.  But it seems more than a coincidence that Carol Rivett would have tackled this subject in her fiction the same year that her own mother died.

former gardens at Camberwell House
Something more than a curate's egg (it's definitely good in more than a few spots), Death Came Softly is an example of a certain type of Carol Rivett novel, the less successful type in my view: the one that falls between two stools, what you might call the puzzle stool on the one hand and the manners stool on the other. 

The puzzle interest in not as strong in this novel as one finds in the best of the Humdrums's work (nor is the misdirection as ably handled as it is in Christie), but the characterization is not as strong as one finds with the "manners" Crime Queens (Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham).

Carol Rivett was a very prolific author, arguably too much so I think, in that some of her books are definitely weaker than others.  Death Came Softly gets a middling mark from me, but, rest assured, the next book I review by her will be ranked higher.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Roger Scarlett Reissues I: The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) and The Back Bay Murders (1930)

Here are Coachwhip's posh new editions of the Roger Scarlett mysteries, published between 1930 and 1933 by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair, two recent college graduates (from Bryn Mawr and Vassar respectively) who had worked for a few years at the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin before commencing on a joint detective fiction career as "Roger Scarlett."  These new editions draw on the reverence for distinguished (if sometimes sadly decaying) domestic architecture that positively permeates the Scarlett novels, which are filled with veritable murder mansions (and numerous floor plans).

The first two Roger Scarlett novels, The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, both appeared in 1930.  The first novel details the murderous outcome of the invasion of Boston's exclusive Beacon Hill district by the Suttons, a family of well-heeled parvenus.  That notorious "stock exchange gambler," Frederick Sutton, is determined to make his way into Boston society, but Boston society has remained rather dubious about the bumptious questing capitalist, with only the charming Mrs. Anceney, a prominent society widow, taking up his cause.

Something sinister is afoot in Beacon Hill!
Can Inspector Kane discover who daringly slew
Frederick Sutton in his his private sitting room?
Sutton's attempted social ascent is brutally cut short when he is shot in his sitting room after a dinner party he hosted at his Beacon Hill mansion, in what is the first of two ingenious "impossible" murders in the novel. (The second one takes place, most brazenly, right under the noses of the police.)

Brilliant Inspector Norton Kane of the Boston police is soon investigating the bizarre murder case, assisted (if that is the right word) by dutiful though not overly astute Sergeant Moran and his rather dim minion in blue, McBeath.  Also on hand is the chronicler of the tale, the prim attorney Mr. Underwood, who was Frederick Sutton's disapproving attorney as well as a staunch friend of Inspector Kane.

Inspector Kane ventures into another quaint Boston neighborhood in the The Back Bay Murders, this time in a case concerning horrid slayings committed among the genteel paying guests of Mrs. Quincy's refined brownstone boarding house. 

In The Back Bay Murders
a brazen murderer strikes
seemingly with impunity

Kane's investigation again is chronicled by Underwood, who still finds the idea of murder in such surroundings incongruous indeed.  He is lectured by Kane: "[Y]ou ought to be better prepared to meet the unforeseen.  You ought to know that under the surface of normal existence there are hidden currents which sometimes burst through.  You shrink from them with horror, but I'm trained to expect their manifestations."

Although there is no locked room problem per se in The Back Bay Murders, the second murder in the novel presents aspects of one and the mystery plot overall is highly ingenious and pleasingly outre, presenting such teasing clues as bloodstains which are not actually blood and a cat toying with a feather.

It was this last feature of the novel that inspired the title of the most extreme plagiarization of a mystery novel known to me: a line by line swiping of The Back Bay Murders, done by an Englishman with seemingly no sense of shame whatsoever.  It might have been enough to launch a second Boston Tea Party, as far as Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page were concerned.  More on this next post!