The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Some lesser-known titles by Rex Stout

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Rex Stout’s lesser-known titles

A lot of my fellow bloggers will be focused on the exploits of Nero Wolfe, and deservedly so. Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest literary creations of the 20th century; the books are original, intelligent, emotionally resonant, and have that strange quirkiness that seems to convince everyone who reads them that there actually is a brownstone on West 35th and Wolfe is at this moment yelling at Archie about the germination cards.  I love the Nero Wolfe stories, all of them, and I expect to talk about at least one of them this month.  But Rex Stout wrote for many, many years, and produced some very interesting work before he settled into the corpus exclusively. There is a lot of merit (and some silliness) in these stories and you may want to experience them for yourself.  Here are some of the high spots.

Stout-Hand_in_GloveThe Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937)

Let’s start with the very best. If, perish forbid, Stout had never thought of Nero Wolfe, we might today be discussing the merits of about 35 volumes of the exploits of Dol Bonner, and the entire course of detective fiction would have been changed.  The idea of a female private investigator, or investigator in any sense, was flirted with occasionally by perhaps a double handful of early writers, but no single character really caught the public’s attention (despite a strong showing from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool) until Marcia Muller’s first Sharon McCone novel transformed the genre in 1977.  (It’s called Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and it’s worth your time; remember, she was inventing what a later generation of writers took for granted.)

dell0177Rex Stout almost managed it, though. To this day I’m not sure just why Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner, running her own private investigation agency, didn’t catch on. To me, this novel is catchy and clever, and manages to balance strongly logical ratiocinative thinking with some powerful emotional work. It is literally a country house mystery; wealthy P. L. Storrs is surrounded by his family, his associates, and his neighbours at his country estate, Birchhaven, when he is found strangled by being hung from a
dell0177backtree with wire. This is the same thing that’s been happening at a neighbour’s game farm with pheasants and small animals, but Storrs’ death starts a furore that embroils everyone for miles and results in another death before Dol identifies the killer and threatens to shoot that person in the kneecap if a full confession is not forthcoming.  I don’t want to give too much of this away, but Dol is the only person who realizes the importance of a pair of gloves to a murder by wire, and goes looking for them.  She finds them inside a hollowed-out watermelon, and just exactly why and how makes for a fascinating few chapters.  Perhaps readers didn’t like that Dol is a self-declared “man-hater” who refuses romantic involvements coldly and vehemently; what we might describe today as a bristly and angry early feminist.  To me, that’s fascinating, but it might not have been what the reader of 1937 was looking for.  For whatever reason, this was the first and last Dol Bonner novel.  She reappears a couple of times later on in the corpus, notably The Mother Hunt where Archie needs female operatives to act as nursemaids, and she appears to have spent the rest of her life running her own agency. The source novel engendered a made-for-TV movie from 1992 called “Lady Against The Odds” which stars Crystal Bernard … I’m not a fan but it has its adherents.

I think this is a vitally important point in the history of the 20th century female private investigator novel and I urge you to find a copy for yourself. My own favourite is, as usual, the mapback version from Dell but the first edition is also strongly graphic and beautiful.  I gave a copy of this to a mystery writer friend of mine who intended to teach a university class on feminism and mysteries. Nora Kelly’s comment to me was, “Why does no one KNOW about this?” You may share her pleasure.

two_complete_detective_books_194303Three Tecumseh Fox mysteries

Tecumseh Fox mysteries are … meh. They’re well written and not stupid, but they’re missing some essential spark of vivacity that they require, and Stout had missed whatever it was.  Tecumseh Fox is a “quirky” private investigator but no one ever comes right out and says anything about him that makes much sense in that context. To me he just seems grumpy and unpredictable, but energetic and
doubledeathfrontinterested in solving his cases. The first one, Double for Death (1939) is everyone’s favourite but mine; I actually prefer both the other two, 1940’s Bad for Business and 1941’s The Broken Vase.  Double for Death has a bitterly ironic twist in its finish that everyone enjoys; for me the central clue is telegraphed. Both the other two exhibit more subtlety in clueing. Stout reworked Bad For Business as a Nero Wolfe novella, “Bitter End”, in the same year, so apparently he liked the idea but not the characters.  The location of the central clue is certainly amusing, and the puzzle depends upon the reader being quite acute about a casual remark by one minor character, which I like.

Some other mysteries

5636305009_5535c76c3f_bRed Threads is a 1939 mystery starring Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s constant antagonist, who here is sympathetic and helpful. The protagonist is a young female fabric designer — she shares her avocation with Stout’s wife Pola, and so that part of it is intriguing and interesting and rings with truth.  There’s a bunch of hooey about what are called “Indians” (in my part of the world the preferred term is “First Nations”), and it is so stereotyped and awful that it seriously mars the book for me.  The book is centred around a romance and ends happily; Stout was good at writing those romantic stories, I think.

alphabet_hicksAlphabet Hicks (1941, also published as The Sound of Murder) is about a detective named Alphabet Hicks who is pretty much the same person as Tecumseh Fox.  He’s quirky and unpredictable but there is nothing real underneath the quirks.  His one outing depends, unfortunately, on convincing the reader that two people’s voices sound exactly the same and would be mistaken one for the other. That may be the case, but it’s a story that is hard to tell in the written word.

Stout-Mountain_CatThe Mountain Cat Murders (1939) is set in a small town in Wyoming and features a spunky young woman trying to solve the deaths of her father and mother. The “Mountain Cat” is a glamorous, wealthy, and often-married playgirl who is easily the most interesting character in the book; the mystery is competent but essentially dull. One point in the solution involving an illiterate miner is … far-fetched.

Two strange novels

438f09964bfb8f5e9e2764f9081e1eeeHonestly, I can’t recommend that you track down and read How Like A God, Stout’s “breakout novel” of 1929 that brought him to the public’s attention. It took me a few years to find a copy and I was almost sorry I’d found it, since the anticipation was much, much more pleasant than the achievement. This is a novel written in the second person, and I hope — sorry, you hope you’ll never have to go through that again, because you find it so damn disconcerting and unnecessary. It also has some of what a friend of mine calls “steamy bits” which are not as steamy as they must have been in 1929; as well, Stout seems to have been rather prudish about saying what he was getting at.

President_Vanishes1_fsMuch, much more interesting, I trust, is The President Vanishes, Stout’s one outing into the “political thriller”, published anonymously in 1934. There is a lot of stuff here that I wish I had the education in American history to be able to appreciate; it is clear that Stout is taking off “brownshirts” and fascism, and political laziness, and the far right wing. There is a lot of social history material here that I am only poorly equipped to grasp. What I do see is that Stout had the knack of writing a suspenseful thriller; if he had started writing them later on into their history, I think he would have produced some good ones.  There was a money-losing eponymous film made the same year; the film was protested by a Catholic morality organization for no really good reason that I can see, but again, this is social history beyond my knowledge. The book itself you may find boring and antique; I would actually agree but gee, there are the bones of a damn good book buried in there.

fb3c7e06498c97959796b4e5a674141414d6741There are other novels and stories; I understand that a very early story whose events form the basis for Fer-de-Lance and a few uncollected pieces have just very recently been collected, so there’s something out there for even the most well-read Stoutian. There is a strange “lost world adventure” called Under the Andes from 1914, there are a couple of what I think of as Oppenheimerish Ruritanian romantic stories, and just generally a handful of stories from the slicks that don’t prefigure much of the excellence which Stout was preparing to achieve with Nero Wolfe. Nothing especially stands out unless you happen to be interested in the cognates of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar stories. And finally, Forest Fire (1933) is a novel with some early LGBT interest that may make you think of Rod Steiger in The Sergeant; it’s tough going as a novel, though, especially since this is another one where Stout is being oblique and prudish.



Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

cropped-author-photoMiss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. 😉  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.


Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)


Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton. The Alice Tilton pseudonym was reserved for the eight novels featuring amateur detective Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who looked like Shakespeare”; this is the seventh.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “L”, “Read one book with a man in the title.” The titular Ernest is the victim in this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is US, Norton in 1944.  First UK edition is Collins, 1945. Many editions exist; the paperback I used is depicted at the top of this post and is from Foul Play Press, 1992.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Leonidas Witherall is known to one and all in his small New England community as “the man who looks like Shakespeare”. He’s also well-known in civic circles, he’s the owner and headmaster of a prominent boys’ school — and, a fact known to few, he’s also the writer of radio’s Lieutenant Haseltine series. “Haseltine to the res-cue!”  (Indeed, the exploits and habits of Haseltine and the beautiful Lady Alicia are a constant theme in Witherall’s adventures. We never exactly understand any of Haseltine’s story lines, but they sound hokey, simplistic, and repetitive.) As the story begins, Witherall is in his study desperately trying to complete the latest Haseltine adventure and being pestered by his housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, a sturdy middle-aged woman who is constantly expressing her “candied” opinion. She’s trying to tell him a number of important things that later he wishes fervently he’d understood, but he brushes her off and she leaves.

Almost immediately, two drunken deliverymen insist that Leonidas is to receive the delivery of a deep freeze (a household freezer), which they unload into his kitchen. Nearly simultaneously, a gorgeous violet-eyed blonde (named Terpsichore, but known to one and all as Terry) in an evening gown rings Leonidas’s front doorbell and insists that he is the person for whom she has been paid to sing “Happy Birthday” — which she promptly does. Leonidas then discovers that the deep freeze contains the corpse of Mr. Ernest Finger, whom he has just hired as the latest French language instructor at his boys’ school and who is related to his neighbours, the Finger family.

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens for the remainder of the novel; a bald recital of the facts of the movements of the characters would have my readers tugging at my sleeve and saying, “Um, WHY exactly would they all want to attend a policeman’s supper during such urgent and dangerous circumstances? Why exactly do the neighbours keep popping into the kitchen on errands? What combination of circumstances exactly left Mrs. Mullet tied up in Leonidas’s basement and only able to identify her assailant by the stitch that produced his hand-knit socks?” It’s pretty clear that it’s the murderer who is trying to get Leonidas in trouble and accused of the Finger murder, but what does moving the corpse around erratically have to do with it? (Accompanied by many, many jokes about the Finger family name; comments about “the moving Finger” and “I’ve had those Fingers in my hair all day” abound.)

Honestly, if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t be interested in reading the novel because you would, probably rightly, think that it was ridiculous and never bother to pick it up.  It IS ridiculous. Nearly everything that happens is ridiculous, zany, and improbable in the extreme. Essentially what happens is that Leonidas puts together a small crew of associates and they all race around like crazy people, reacting spontaneously to things that happen in the vicinity while they try to solve the murder of Mr. Finger and keep Leonidas from being arrested for it — or anyone else in the crew, many of whom have reason to have done violence to Ernest. Indeed, in all the books, this is the pattern; Leonidas assembles a crew that usually contains a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man, a ditzy but highly competent housewife, a child with no conscience, and a couple of salty-tongued members of the lower classes. This particular novel features lower-class Mrs. Mullet prominently, who here is constantly acting out the actions of the beautiful Lady Alicia as she attempts to aid the gallant lieutenant, and her daughter Gerty, who wishes to be known as Sonia. (Well, wouldn’t you?)

Finally, everyone takes a leaf from Haseltine’s adventures as Leonidas invokes the constant factor in the Haseltine stories; the principle of Cannae. “Cannae,” chant all the good guys simultaneously since they are all Haseltine devotees, “is the historic battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, fought in Apulia in the year 216 B.C., in which the small, weak army of Hannibal cut the incomparable forces of eighty-five thousand proud Roman legionnaires to pieces.” (The action stops for a moment while they discuss whether the word is “pieces” or “shreds”. They continue …) “By means of an ingenious strategical concentration, it caught the enemy from the flank with calvary and surrounded him. Clausewitz and Schlieffen of the Prussian General Staff elaborated the idea of Cannae into a general theoretical doctrine, and then compressed the doctrine into an exact strategical system: Blitzkrieg.”  This exact speech recurs in every single Witherall novel and signals that Leonidas is about to solve the mystery, ensure the arrest of the criminal, and cause everything to end happily. Which he does and they do. “Bathed in the refulgent glow of the setting sun, Haseltine clasped the Lady Alicia to his manly bosom.” And Leonidas and Mrs. Mullet exchange a set of little jokes about what to call the next Haseltine adventure, which will be based on recent events — not “The Moving Finger” or “Deep Freeze”, but “Dead Ernest”.

6263Why is this book worth your time?

“Screwball comedy” in film pretty much began in 1934 with It Happened One Night, according to Wikipedia, but that reference also suggests that the style ended by 1942. It also says screwball comedies  “… often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret.” That sounds like a murder mystery to me. I’ll tentatively suggest that mystery writers who were looking around for new twists on the traditional mystery noted the success of the screwball comedy in film and decided that it would go well as the foundation of a murder mystery plot. And thus began the transmigration of the filmic screwball comedy into the novelistic comedy mystery.

I can’t say that I understand the entire history of the particular sub-genre of the “comedy mystery”. I’m not certain I know of all early examples; I’m aware of a couple of instances, including works by Marco Page (a pseudonym of Harry Kurnitz) like Fast Company that were filmed at about the same time as this book was published. But historians and analysts seem to be interested in very little in the way of comedy mystery before the work of Craig Rice, whose first novel, Eight Faces at Three (1939), began the genre, it seems. Except that if that’s the case, then Phoebe Atwood Taylor beat her to it; Taylor’s first novel as by Alice Tilton, Beginning With a Bash, was published in 1937 and the third in the series in 1939.

It’s hard to tell the impact of a particular writer at such a great distance. We know that Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time (January 28, 1946), and a number of her works were filmed (including Having Wonderful Crime in 1945, the film for which certainly qualifies as some kind of comedy, screwball or otherwise). Phoebe Atwood Taylor doesn’t appear to have been the subject of any media interest that I can locate, and her cross-platform success was limited to a single year (1944-1945) of a radio program, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, starring well-known actor Walter Hampden. So I’m guessing that Craig Rice was much more impactful than Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I cannot imagine why no one tried to film any of Taylor’s Witherall adventures when lesser writers’ attempts at screwball comedy were being filmed right and left; it just didn’t happen, and now the moment has passed.

This book, and indeed the whole Leonidas Witherall series, are beautifully crafted examples of screwball comedies in novel form. They are not especially interesting as mysteries if that is your only purpose in reading. The plots are so convoluted and baroque, and move at such a careening clip, that it is impossible to suggest that you will solve the mystery in the usual sense. Usually there is one character who stands out as the only potential suspect; either that, or you take a brief moment to wonder who might have done the murder and think, “Oh, THAT person, I guess.” It’s not usually possible, in a strict and formal sense, to “solve” an Alice Tilton mystery. That requires certain kinds of facts that are not really available to the reader.

For instance, in this case, we do not “see” the actions of the murderer in the sense that we would be able to go back and trace that person’s actions throughout the day, to know where they were when and with whom as witness. Instead, and I don’t think I’m going to spoil your enjoyment of this novel by saying so before you read it, the murderer here is someone who had a reason to put Ernest Finger’s body in a deep freeze and have it delivered to Leonidas Witherall’s kitchen. That action sparks the actions of the plot, but there really is only one person who had a (barely) sane and sensible reason to do such a thing. You can imagine that that limited the list of potential murderers to a single name, which it does here. That will have to be sufficient for those of us who like to have a try at actually solving a mystery; the others will have little about which to complain. There is so much going on here, and so much of it is actually hilarious, that you won’t mind a bit that the mystery ingredient is a bit skimpy.

I’ve enjoyed this whole series and read them all a number of years ago, and they stand up well to re-reading; not all books by the writers about whom I was enthusiastic in my youth have done so. This book is funny in a way that is hard to describe; to me, the closest analogy is the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the creator of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “Silly Ass” in the tradition of Philo Vance, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. I’ve read a quotation from Wodehouse to the effect that he was being blamed for writing about the same characters, just giving them new names in each book; Wodehouse announced he was confounding his critics next time by keeping the same names. And this process is very much what happens in these eight books. They are a series of linked character trophes, like Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. There’s a smart and practical housewife whose presentation is that of a ditz. There’s a beautiful girl who is in trouble through no fault of her own. There’s a handsome young man of good family and education who is misunderstood but anxious to help solve the mystery.  And there are a couple of plucky and stupid members of the lower classes, pronouncedly comedic characters, along to do the heavy lifting and offer silly suggestions about alternatives. The author has a limited deck of characters whom she shuffles and recombines; some overlap and recur in the author’s Asey Mayo mysteries under her own name. An ineffectual middle-aged upper-class male who turns out to have a backbone. A young woman who learned competence by serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. A self-sufficient man of great age, a spoiled young wealthy woman, a preternaturally intelligent child — there are more (not all these trophes are represented in this book, I have to add).

Dead Ernest might be thought of as a kind of proto-cozy (oddly enough, this came out the same year as another possible proto-cozy, Craig Rice’s brilliant Home Sweet Homicide). It has some of the same qualities I associate with the modern cozy: violence is offstage and not indicated in any graphic way, there are strong implicit and sometimes explicit moral values, and the narrator is fallible. And that it is meant to be purchased by a female reader. To my mind, the difference is that the modern cozy lost most of the humour of a classic comedy mystery and replaced it with a kind of communication of “gentle” social values. Perhaps the premise that these two genres are related is fallacious; possibly I’ve omitted important intermediate steps. Maybe it’s just that the modern cozy is so cold-bloodedly commercial that any such relationship is possible, because commercial writing will use any cultural tradition it can to sell another book. Usually this involves the merger of the form of the “light comedy mystery” with the purveyance of a great deal of detailed information about, say, knitting; experts in knitting are easier to find than someone who can actually write comedy, so the focus changed as the cozy became more commercial, produced on assembly-line lines. I think it’s likely Taylor was writing for a female audience, but I also know many men enjoy her books (there are only a few men who can survive a regular diet of cozies). So, I’ll leave this to my readers’ speculation; I have no conclusive answers. I don’t know of any attempt that’s been made to trace this kind of literary relationship, but since there are so many doctoral students who have been forced to look at genre fiction because all the interesting work on Jane Austen has been done, perhaps we can expect such a thesis at some near future point. “Origins of the Cozy Mystery: from Craig Rice to Phoebe Atwood Taylor to Ailsa Craig to Marcia Muller, Joan Hess and beyond.” We can but hope.

Ultimately,  I think this book deserves your time because, like its seven fellows in the series, it is literate and intelligent, well-written, and fast-moving. Taylor’s work presents a detailed portrait of a certain period in American history, focused on the domestic economy of Cape Cod in the period during and immediately after WWII. She is a clever and economical constructor of characters; I suggest that the fact that she reused a group of stock characters is evidence that she understood the inherent comedy situations in class conflict (again, this echoes British bawdy humour based on repetitive trophes) and this kind of writing came naturally to her. And she is a wildly inventive and truly eccentric plotter who has the skill in writing necessary to keep her plots moving at breakneck speed without losing the reader. Best of all, you can re-read them two or three times in your lifetime at long-separated intervals and still enjoy them in the same way, for that timeless quality of inspired silliness that brings out the child in us all.


Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Norton, 1944) is available today from an American bookseller, Fine in a VG to NF jacket, for $65.  A slightly less crisp copy is $40 from a Canadian bookseller. The UK first is Collins, 1945. A number of editions exist; Norton reissued the Alice Tilton novels in hardcover in the 1970s or thereabouts, Foul Play Press did a uniform paper edition including the copy I have re-read (seen at the top of this post) in 1992, and Popular Library did a 1970s edition with a wacky and reasonably irrelevant cover illustration, which I have shown to the left.

Here, I think the first edition is the most collectible; the cover illustration is charming, a drawing of the two drunken deliverymen who make up part of the wacky crew inhabiting this novel. (Why those two, I have no idea; they’re nowhere near being the most important characters in the book.) There is not much of a market for Alice Tilton these days; she seems to go in and out of favour. Considering the nonsense that got made into movies at about the time of publication, I am at a loss to understand why any of these books were never filmed; perhaps because of the one-year tenure of The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall on Mutual in 1944/1945.

By way of contrast, Home Sweet Homicide mentioned above, that came out in the same year, by Craig Rice, NF in NF jacket, is $1,250 plus shipping. I have to say there is a chance the specific value would be affected by having been named a Haycraft-Queen “cornerstone”, and filmed to boot, but this is still  quite a difference from $65 for an Alice Tilton novel. I’m still not sure why the public loved Rice and was indifferent to Taylor, but this will give you a good idea of their value to posterity.

The handful of surviving episodes of the radio program are readily available on the internet for free, here and elsewhere; if you’re interested, I can’t guarantee that any of them contain Agnes Moorhead in her brief stint as Mrs. Mullet, but they’re worth a listen.

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