A few years ago I happened to mention a Valentine Williams novel in the course of a piece on mysteries written by bridge players (found here). Williams himself was not a bridge player but his co-author of Fog (1932), Dorothy Rice Sims, was a national champion. In the brief paragraph about that particular book I mentioned that it seemed likely that Williams did most of the heavy lifting with respect to writing that volume, a thriller that takes place on an ocean liner. At that time I noted Williams’s name for later investigation but since the peak of his career was in the 20s and 30s and he apparently had no long-lasting appeal or huge market, his volumes didn’t pass through my hands that often.
There’s been a couple of developments since my bridge-players article that have made Williams’s work more available. One is the general resurgence of interest in Golden Age material, and a concomitant republication of the well-aged backlist of many major publishers. The other is that, in my home in Canada, the date at which works pass into the public domain is more permissive than other jurisdictions and some very interesting authors are now available to me over the internet for no charge.
That second development is what led me to Masks Off at Midnight. The hard-working volunteers at Faded Page are currently doing an excellent job of bringing public-domain volumes back into readable electronic formats for Canadians. I hasten to echo their reminder that, if you live outside Canada, check your country’s copyright laws before downloading or accessing the files. Faded Page has made available sufficient of the works of Valentine Williams that I was able to flip through three or four of them before finding the present volume sufficiently interesting to investigate in more depth.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction and, although I do not lay out the answers, I did need to discuss the murder’s motive. If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
Laurel, a “drowsy little country town” of 20,000 on Long Island, is undergoing upheaval. When the modern reader learns in the opening paragraphs that “New York was no more than an hour away by car,” we understand that real estate development is about to come to Laurel and not everyone is going to like it. In this case the upper classes are focusing their resentment of change upon “Brent Hordern, the millionaire” (the phrase is used as if there’s only one millionaire in the vicinity).
Brent Hordern drives a $15,000 Rolls and has a White Russian chauffeur (Ivan) in smart plum-coloured livery; before Hordern finally appears in the pages, we learn that nearly everyone in the book has reason to hate him on either a financial or emotional level. Financially, as one might expect, he is busily engaged in ruining the fortunes of many local landowners. Emotionally, he is entangled with two women, each of which has her own set of admirers. Constance Barrington is a “chic and attractive widow” recently arrived from Europe, who loves Hordern but is not reciprocated; she’s a “vamp.” Jenny Tallifer is “one of the outstanding members of the younger set of Laurel,” whom Hordern wishes to marry but whose suit is not encouraged. Jenny loves the poor but honest editor of the local newspaper, but must for social reasons marry into money; her entire family has a long aristocratic lineage and is broke.
The story moves quickly towards a large set-piece; a group of monied locals has amused itself for years by putting on first a grand masked ball, each year a different period, and at midnight having a thematic pageant. All the upper classes get dressed in costume and play along but, for various social and financial reasons, Hordern has been forbidden to attend; there are many guards and they’ve been instructed to be on the lookout. This year the theme is Versailles, and at midnight it’s designed that the “Sultan of Morocco” is to be presented to “the court of Louis XVII”. Wave after wave of locals parade past the “French court”, costumed either as Moroccan or French courtiers. The parade’s climax is the time for the Sultan to open the curtains of his sedan chair and step forward — but nothing happens. Eventually someone opens the curtains to reveal the corpse of Brent Hordern dressed in a burnous, shot with a .38. Chaos ensues.
In the crowd is a young detective from Scotland Yard, Trevor Dene. Yes, he’s from Scotland Yard, and yes, this is Long Island, New York, USA. He’s a Cambridge man, on some kind of vacation with his wife (who married him in an earlier book and who is from the area) and has been making himself agreeable to the locals sufficiently to be welcomed to the pageant. We get very little idea of what Mrs. Dene is like, but Dene is immediately allowed a free hand with respect to the murder, essentially having full police powers.
Dene, an untidy young man in flannels with sandy hair and large horn-rimmed spectacles, is completely in control of the entire case. He identifies each area of the investigation and pursues it to its end, whether it’s financial or personal, and identifies motives for everyone in town. I won’t give you too much more about the plot, since that from here on in is the principal interest of this book, but it moves quickly, has a lot of interesting false trails, and finally leads to a dramatic confrontation in which Dene faces the armed and murderous killer, who confesses in great detail and is then shot by the police. Curiously, Dene decides exactly where guilt is going to be apportioned and to whom, so as to enable various nasty social secrets to be kept hidden and true love to come to fruition.
Why is this book worth your time?
I do have the habit of asking that question and most often I can be quite emphatic about my answer — a book is or isn’t worth your time. Here, I have to be a little more nebulous — let’s say yes, this is worth your time, but with qualifications.
Recently I quoted Sophie Hannah, author of the two continuation novels of Hercule Poirot to which is imminently to be added a third, as having said something sharp and on the money. I’ll repeat it again:
“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”
And that’s why this book might well be worth your time. It is a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way; I don’t think we are actually meant to believe in the existence of the characters as real people and I don’t think we are actually meant to believe that the events of the plot might have happened. This story is a kind of sketch of a real, breathing story. But it’s meant to be fun and engaging and I think it succeeds, within its own self-imposed limits.
There’s a number of reasons why the story lacks that realistic quality; I truly do think that one of the reasons is that Valentine Williams was deliberately not trying to write realistically. Looking over his publishing history, it seems as though his greatest successes were in the area of espionage/adventure fiction. He’d had some personal experience in that area and his stories about the evil genius “Clubfoot” fighting against the British Secret Service appear to have been by far his most popular work (judging solely by what I can find about him; everything seems to mention Clubfoot). I flipped through a couple of the Clubfoot books and they seem cast in an antique form; clean-limbed young Englishmen rescuing plucky young beauties from Sinister Foreigners. The Daily Telegraph called The Man with the Clubfoot “An extremely vivid story, full of thrilling incidents.” I think that’s accurate for as much of Williams’s work as I’ve seen.
That being the case, it’s reasonable to find, as I have, that this book is filled with lightly-sketched characters doing fairly silly things in the name of producing an exciting plot. So there’s “old coloured Mamie” who brings Jenny Tallifer her breakfast in bed, Ivan the White Russian dreaming of the vanished glories of the Tsar, and “one of Hordern’s farm-workers, a Polack …” because racial and social stereotypes are an easy way to populate an exciting story. I’m not as repelled by this casual stereotyping as I usually am because, frankly, all the upper-class WASPs are stereotypes too. (Particularly Constance Barrington, about whom more below.) The only characters who approach realism are the ones who take social position sufficiently importantly to commit murder to protect theirs — which is kind of why this mystery was not especially difficult to solve. The characters whom Williams troubles to motivate are the ones to keep your eye on.
Probably the main problem for the modern reader is that this book is not based in literary traditions that are fresh and familiar. Here, we have the storytelling techniques that Williams perfected in Secret Service adventures; this story mode is long gone, although shreds of it remain in the stories like the films about Jason Bourne and James Bond. As readers, we’ve learned that it’s more satisfying if Ivan the White Russian has a motive for the murder that’s individual and significant, not merely a longing for the ancien regime and a hatred of wealthy people on political grounds.
What do we learn about the social milieu?
There is one interesting idea within this novel that is likely to slide right on by the modern reader, because the “college widow” is so antique a meme that it may have completely lost its meaning today. Constance Barrington plays the role here … beautiful, wealthy, with “unassailable … social presentability”, and an outsider in local society. She is a widow, which means she’s sexually experienced and without the handicap of a husband for the local young Lotharios to overcome. “To all appearances she was not even very interested in men. For that, as every young wife in Laurel realized long before the men were aware of it, she was all the more dangerous.” Her type is related to the Theda Bara-esque vamp, but with the added overlay that in a college town she has a constant flow of new devotees.
There’s an excellent article on the college widow from the Paris Review here, which goes into more detail about why the audience of 1933 would be much more familiar with the idea. As the article notes, for the modern audience there’s only really one readily accessible point of exposure to this cliche, which was already somewhat past its prime; the Marx Brothers’ 1932 film Horse Feathers, in which the exquisite Thelma Todd is the college widow who tries to extract knowledge of the college’s secret football plays from Groucho using her sexual wiles. (The movie turns into a “football movie” in its final minutes, which is an antique form of B-movie about which I’ve written glancingly before.) Someone says that she’s the college widow, and everyone nods knowingly. Oh, THAT kind of girl.
Other than shedding some light on that antique meme, this volume doesn’t offer much in the way of social observation because it’s not really realistic. Laurel is the kind of town where everyone seems to have money, nobody really does, and nobody does anything except keep up social appearances. There is a lovely moment of description of Constance Barrington that I thought might appeal to my blogfriend Moira, whose Clothes in Books is always an interesting lens through which to view older texts:
“The barrier lay rather in the woman herself. She did all the usual things. She played a little golf, gave small teas or dinners for bridge at her charming house, visited a little. But she encouraged no intimacies. She lived her own life. She steered clear of all cliques, moving in and out of Laurel society with her slow, enigmatic smile and strange, questioning regard which Jenny was very sure missed nothing. With her dead white skin, almond-shaped eyes as green as any cat’s, and reddish gold hair—the authenticity of its tint was the subject of inexhaustible surmise in Laurel drawing-rooms—and the rather picturesque style of dressing she affected, Constance Barrington would have stood out against any background. But at Laurel the women—at any rate, as far as the married set was concerned—bothered little about clothes and still less about their complexions. To be a Tallifer, a van Bossche, a Parton, or a Foxley was sufficient to secure recognition—to rely upon dressmaker or beauty specialist smacked of the plebeian. And so against the roughened skins and sensible tweeds of the Laurel matrons Mrs. Barrington’s vivid, exotic beauty, her floppy hats and trailing frocks, were by contrast as striking as a blackbird in a field of snow.”
The perennial conflict so often noted in British GAD fiction; the tweedy countrywomen are jealous of the elaborately gowned townswoman.
The idea of the White Russian who has come down in social rank is also part of a vanished milieu that we don’t really grasp any more; Inspector Alleyn actually started his career lumbered with a White Russian butler (in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead) but this gentleman was mercifully retconned out of existence by the second book, as I recall. I’m not sure what degree of sartorial excellence, or lack of excellence, is meant to be indicated by Ivan’s plum-coloured livery (where the standard is unrelieved black). That his employer is a show-off? Aspiring to the ton? Hard to say.
At first glance I was mystified by a reference within chapter 19 to chouette, literally “owl” or “owl-like”, which in my experience is … oh, you might describe a very cool jazz musician or a super-stylish teenage girl as chouette, at least in Quebec. But that can’t be what’s meant here:
“Ned Bentley had been in a crap game, while Leo, his brother, had whiled away the tedium of waiting with innumerable rounds of chouette with Rosalie Ashford (dancing-girl) and George Foxley (Sultan’s cup-bearer).”
From the context I figured out that what was meant was a kind of three-handed variant of backgammon, of which I’d never heard.
There’s one peculiarity that I cannot reconcile. Chapter 23 contains the information:
“where the Acropolis Restaurant, Proprietor Joe Ionides, announced by a notice in the window of its built-out verandah that ‘Wines & Liquors’ were on sale within.”
This book was published in 1933 (oddly, the copyright date on my copy is 1933 AND 1934) and Prohibition ended in December of 1933. So either there’s some flouting of the law going on here that wasn’t common, to my knowledge, or else Williams is anticipating what he knew was going to be the new reality; Franklin Roosevelt had been elected in 1932 promising to end Prohibition. I just don’t recall other volumes from precisely this time period making a point of having liquor for sale in stores. Or, by the copyright dates, he may have revised it in 1934 and added this little nod that his audience would have appreciated.
There’s a mention of a man in a Palm Beach suit, which I thought was white and double-breasted. Other people agree, but I found at least one differing definition: “The “Palm Beach Suit” is a term used to describe the combination of navy blazer, buttondown oxford cloth shirt, stone colored chino’s or khakis, and brown slip-on mocs like topsiders worn with no socks.” Again, perhaps a question more suited to Moira at Clothes in Books, but it interested me.
To sum up; I enjoyed this volume although it’s light and fast-moving and not very challenging. In fact perhaps I enjoyed it because it was those things; I might just have been in the mood for something less brain-cracking than John Dickson Carr or Anthony Berkeley. I’m encouraged to know that it’s in the public domain in Canada and easily available, see above, which bodes well for the rest of the world.