Saturday, March 17, 2018

Like Moths to a Flame Does Murder Draw Us: Wings of Mystery (1929), by William Gavine

"I have now--I think I am justified in saying it--a unique collection of tropical butterflies and moths, existing too under conditions as near to their natural ones as I can contrive.  My incubation methods too have been very successful--if only the death rate were not so very high."

                                                             --Wings of Mystery (1929), by William Gavine

Come back with me, dear readers, to 1929 and those halcyon days of fictional murder, when, around this time, mystery fans were enjoying reading about unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and crime at Black Dudley.  One forgotten story, however, concerns that spot of bother which took place that year at Dasholm House, the lovely Georgian country home of Mrs. Angeline Fry, wealthy "elderly" widow--she's 57, but I'm just quoting the characters here--and a fervent philanthropist of international pacifism, a common cause in the Twenties, when much of the world was wearied by war.

When the novel opens a crisis is coming to an unpleasant head as tensions escalate among Mrs. Fry and her relatives at Dasholm House.  These latter people are her butterfly and moth collecting nephew, Hubert Mervyn; Hubert's rambunctious 13-year-old sister, Dorothy; and a visitor, Mrs. Fry's other nephew, Hilton Amery, a Great War veteran who at the moment is rather on his uppers. Also in the mix are Dorothy's devoted governess, Miss Saunderson; the aged butler, Mr. Darrell; the inevitably Scottish gardener, George Galbraith ("I was head gardener tae puir Mrs. Fry," he explains, Scottishly, after the murder); Hubert's valet, Bunten (a poseur not at all like Bunter, let alone Jeeves); the pacifist footman, Davis; and Mrs. Fry's maid, Edith Hoskins.

herald of death?
white butterfly
Inquisitive young Dorothy seemingly can't stay out of Hubert's hothouse, wherein he keeps his precious collection of exotic butterflies and moths.  Hilton, however, cares nothing for the collection--or for Hubert, whom he considers a spineless jellyfish in the guise of a man. 

Hilton explains to Hubert that after the war he associates white butterflies not with guardian angels, as traditional folklore has it, but with grim carrion death:

"Sorry, old chap.  "My apologies to your proteges....I loathe butterflies, especially white ones.  I saw the brutes swarm too often on the dead in the gullies of Gallipoli.  They haven't much association with the fairies for me now...."

Truth be told, Hilton doesn't think much either of his aunt, Mrs. Fry, though he is hoping that the widow of rolling-in-it coal and iron magnate Jabez Fry will bestow some financial largess upon him, as she lavishes it among the peace groups whose cause he despises.  When Mrs. Fry speaks of war as abomination he thinks:

"dead in the gullies of Gallipoli"
war dead from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign
see Winston Churchill's World War Disaster
Abomination!  These sheltered women who talked so glibly.  These theorists.  His men facing the crackling scythe of the Turkish machine-guns; four out of forty reached the objective that day.  The scream and blast of Asiatic Annie's shells.  Egypt and its drouth and fatigue and hear.  Palestine and its rain and cold.  France at last and its hellish artillery fire.  Hunger and filth and stench and all that was utterly damnable and yet--There had been good times too and there were things worth fighting for. Kids like Dorothy, their safety and well-being, gentle women like his mother, beautiful things like--

Like, for example, Hubert's lovely young fiancee, Vivien Vachell, with whom Hilton has fallen in love at first sight.  Something that happens a lot in this book! (See below.)  Most bothersomely, however, beautiful Vivien's father, Austin Vachell, with whom Vivien resides nearby, is a pacifist crony of Mrs. Fry who vehemently denies to Hilton having served in the late war, though Hilton thinks he bears the hallmarks of having been gassed.

cartoon depicting Twenties efforts
by the League of Nations to muzzle
the slavering dog of war that devoured
so many human lives during the Great War
It transpires that although Mrs. Fry is a pacifist in theory she is not one in practice, for she is a believer in corporal punishment and never thinks of sparing the rod when Dorothy gets into trouble (which the boisterous girl regrettably does with frequency). After hearing Mrs. Fry beating her wailing niece, chivalrous Hilton confronts his aunt:

"You brute!...You cruel, unfeeling brute to hurt a kid so! "

In addition to the love at first sight matter, this is the sort of book where people get called brutes, beasts, bounders, hounds, rats, worms, cads and, when inspiration runs out, just plain scoundrels. 

On more than one occasion the police are denounced as infernal priers and ordered peremptorily out of houses.  This is a tale where emotions run sky high, in short, and there's a touch of the old sensation novel melodrama.  (Thank goodness we have fair play today, incidentally, and the wealthy never expect, nor receive, favorable treatment from the law!)

With the sad lack of foresight of the classic mystery murderee, Mrs. Fry informs Hubert that she is going to write Hilton into her will, reducing Hubert's and Dorothy's shares, and for good measure she forbids Hubert to marry Vivien Vachell, without providing any explanation.  The next night (August 4, the anniversary of Britain's entry into of the Great War), after her confrontation with Hilton over Dorothy, she orders Hilton (peremptorily, of course) out of the house, adding that he is henceforth Out Of The Will.  (Call her a brute, will you?!)

On the wings of mystery we'll die...
the epiphora bouhiniae
Well, you know how this script goes: Mrs. Fry is discovered dead by the butler on the floor of  her study on the evening of all those emotional theatrics. She's been stabbed to the heart with a silver paper knife!  There is in the room too, not  awhite butterfly, but a great singed moth (epiphora bouhiniae), defunct by a candle.  Is the brown moth a clue, or just a red herring?  "As an entomological stray, he's a gem," pronounces the Scotland Yard man put in charge of the case (see below).

Why rich people with encroaching relations in vintage mysteries keep such tempting deadly things around their houses I'll never know, but invariably their mansions are littered to the rafters with paper knives, letter openers, ornamental Malay kris hanging on the walls, blow pipes with curare-tipped darts brought back from that quaint scenic trip up the Amazon, heavy fireplace pokers perfectly suited for braining, fully loaded antique dueling pistols, you name it--they never learn!

So into the picture come silkily insinuating attorney Mr. Branscombe, the late Mrs. Fry's lawyer; tersely sardonic Dr. Charnock, who was something in the chemical warfare line in the late war; bucolic local Inspector Bourney, a dunderhead who drops his aitches under stress; and, because the locals are afraid to take responsibility for the case, the man on call from Scotland Yard: handsome, young Detective-Inspector Miles Trevarney, so smooth and charming he's a veritable Alleyn-in-waiting, though he's not quite so infernally precious as Ngaio Marsh's posher-than-thou sleuth. 

Welcome aboard, Cupid fanciers, it's love!
Whither wends the heart of Vivien Vachell?
S. S. Van Dine might not have approved
of all this lovey-dovey stuff, but the
love interest actually works pretty well here,
even if you're not much on love interest.
DI Trevarney's claim to Great Detective status soon goes off the rails, however when he too falls head-over-heels in love with Vivien Vachell--that makes three blokes now, including her original fiancee--and he starts to see the case in terms of how Vivien can be cleared, whatever she may have done. To be fair to Trevarney, he doesn't think Vivien actually can be guilty of murder (maybe she's just an accessory after the fact or something), because, well, because she's just so darn beautiful.  Trevarney wouldn't have lasted long in the Garden of Eden, is all I can say.

All this doesn't fly with stolid, happily married Inspector Bourney (with seven children no less), whom I started to like rather better at this point.  I guess I'm just not a romantic.

Overall, however, I would have to say this is an excellent example of the Twenties British mystery, and I have recommended it for reprinting to the Collins Crime Club, who originally published it, nearly 90 years ago.  It works up a good situation, both emotionally and ratiocinatively (I do hope that's a word), throws in a nice couple of twists and ends with a touch of poignancy.  Modern readers may find the book a bit stolid in places, but in that respect it's largely of a piece with its time, at least in many mysteries that were being published by British men at the time (the misanthropic Anthony Berkeley, certainly, excepted).

The women characters--at least the ones who aren't servants or, well, "old," like Mrs. Fry (she is, I must reiterate, 57 [!])--are rather put on pedestals by the men of their class (though, to be sure, the ladies scamper down from them on occasion). The men are sentimental indeed not only about Beauty Incarnate (Vivien Vachell), but Young Kiddies (impulsive Dorothy). However, at least the author manages to work up genuine interest in the characters, which is more than you can say about many crime writers of the period.  I also liked the bits on butterflies and moths, which is done without all the "look what I know!" fancy pants footnotes in which S. S. Van Dine lengthily indulged in his books, like The Bishop Murder Case, which appeared the same year as Wings of Mystery.

The use in the novel of the long nightmare that was the Great War was interesting as well--though ultimately it seems to me that the author is sentimental about that too.  However, the novel shows that not everyone who admitted the horrors of the First World War necessarily regretted the war itself.

But who, some may be wondering, was the author of Wings of Mystery?  Who was William Gavine, apparently the author of this lone mystery?  My theory is it wasn't William Gavine.  More on this paradox next post!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Life on the Rocks: The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1971) and The Blank Page (1973), by KC Constantine

"And to think that in, oh, say, twelve, sixteen years, you'll be down in Washington, after you do the bit in Harrisburg, of course.  What are you thinking about, Milt--you going to hustle for state's attorney general, or you going right after the governor's house?  Will it be the House first and then the Senate?"

"Beaten to death with a Coke bottle," Milt Weigh said.  "My God."
"Hell of a thought, ain't it?"  Balzic said.

"No I don't want your goddamn hanky, and no I'm not going to tell you where he is, because I don't know where.  I gave him every cent I could spare.  Sixty-two dollars.  He took the car this morning, and that was the last I saw him.  Satisfied?"
"No," Balzic said, sighing, "are you?"
She told him in Italian to fuck himself.
"That's not going to help.  You got any ideas?"

                                    --The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1971), by K. C. Constantine

I have a feeling we're not in Rocksburg anymore.
One thing hasn't changed since 1971: Devious politicians, unworthy of the devotion which sadly deluded voters have placed in them, still parade across our long-suffering land.  Rocksburg's police chief, Mario Balzic, has a low tolerance for their BS, and, if you feel the same way he does, the novels by K. C. Constantine that detail his criminal investigations can be cathartic. But I recommend them for pure entertainment too. 

Since 2016 political prognosticators routinely dub southwestern Pennsylvania "Trump Country," this region having proved essentials to enabling the celebrity real estate hustler turned Republican pol to squeak through to an electoral college presidential election victory over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.  Trump beat Clinton by 44,000 votes in the state, a margin of seven-tenths of a percent. 

Outside of eastern Pennsylvania, Clinton won merely three counties in the state, only one of which is in the southwestern region: Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh, the Steel City, is located.  There Clinton won by 56-40 percent and 108,000 votes. 

In the nearby borough of Mckees Rocks, the hometown of crime writer K. C. Constantine and the presumed model for the "Rocksburg" setting of his novels, Clinton won by an even larger margin, 66-31 percent, 1504 votes to 703.  However, Barack Obama's victory margin over Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential contest was a whopping 53%, so there was marked movement in Trump's direction even in this western PA Democratic citadel. 

Still, with a special election coming up in Pennsylvania's gerrymandered and quite Trump-friendly 18th district (he won there by 22%), which by design snakes around Pittsburgh proper, there's talk the local Democrat may actually pull out a win against the Republican, Trump-stumped in the President's inimitable fashion over the weekend.  We'll see.

Since the 2016 presidential election there has been much talk about the decline of the coal, iron and steel industries in southwestern Pennsylvania, with the concomitant turning away from the Democratic party of white working class voters alienated with the party's focus on minorities and upwardly mobile suburbanites.

Certainly Mckees Rocks has seen an ample share of decline, its population having fallen, with the demise of its traditional industries, in every US census taken since 1940.  This drop sharply accelerated between 1970 and 1980, when the town lost over a quarter of its population during the course of an economically disastrous decade.  In 1930, four years before K. C. Constantine was born, Mckees Rocks had a population of over 18,000; today it's population is estimated to be under 6000, less than a third of what it once was.  This is a more drastic diminution than what Ireland saw after the Potato Famine and decades of Irish flight (from 6.6 mil in 1841 to 3.2 mil in 1901--the island, incidentally, only recently surpassed its 1841 population).

When the first K. C. Constantine mystery, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, was published in 1971, however, Mckees Rocks still had a population of over 12,000; and the downbeat narrative of urban decay is not so pronounced in his Seventies books.  What I have come away with in my reading of the early Rocksburg mysteries are impressions not so much of woeful economic failure but rather of an intricate and fascinating multi-cultural urban mosaic reflected in Rocksburg and of the human sympathy and interest in criminal psychology evinced by the author, conveyed through the person of his earthy and empathetic Serbo-Italian police chief, Mario Balzic.  Though their series sleuths are not cops, the crime novels of the then contemporary authors Ross Macdonald and Joseph Hansen, the latter of whom preceded Constantine in print by a single year, to me seem similar to those by Constantine.

Although horrible things happen to people in the Mario Balzic books and people are apt to express themselves quite pungently (i.e., the f-word gets something of a workout, which likely made more of an impact in the early Seventies), the warmly conveyed environs of Rocksburg--Balzic's home life with his wife, mother and two daughters; his workplace with its multi-ethnic company of cops; and Muscotti's, the bar he patronizes--lend a sense of comfort to the stories. 

Indeed, if there is such a thing as a cozy police procedural, this could be it, though perhaps some people will think I've flipped my lid in making this contention.  Yet the books have got a cozy quality to them, at least for me, in that I find in Rocksburg a place to which I want to return again for additional visits.  These are people there whom I want to meet again and places that I want to see.  Life is hard in Rocksburg, and during murder investigations there are copious tears shed and some people who may be irreparably broken along the way; yet Chief Balzic sees us through all of it, as a classic sleuth is supposed to do.  He gives us some sense of closure and consolation amidst the frightening chaos that threatens to engulf us all.

Perhaps this sense has something to do with my own family background, my mother having been born in Pennsylvania only three years earlier than K. C. Constantine--or, to call him by his true name, Carl Constantine Kosak. 

Admittedly, my mother was born in a village in central Pennsylvania of only a little over 600 people, where the population has not changed much at all, one way or the other, in 150 years.  The people there are mostly of German ancestry and most of their ancestors came to Pennsylvania in the 1700s, with nary a Slavic or Italian or Greek or Irish or African American in evidence or even much Scots-Irish presence that I can recall, though there are some of partly English heritage, with the inevitable preponderance of German intermixed. The old church is Lutheran, naturally, and the cemetery is filled with headstones with German names. 

Old Pennsylvania Dutch traditions still were strong enough there in the Thirties that my mother's grandmother, who saw Lincoln's casket in Harrisburg when she was a girl and died on the eve of the Second World War, practiced the folk medicine (some said magic) known as powwow.  But there were coal mines nearby--though they never dominated the life of the village or led to any real growth there--and my mother's father worked in them, as did many neighbors.

So it may be that I'm naturally disposed to take an interest in G. K. Constantine's Rocksburg books, with their intimate ethnic immigrant working class setting, so far removed from the deliberately artificial gentrified world of Carolyn Wells and mystery writers of her ilk from the classic era, as I've mentioned before.  However, I maintain that it's more than that: the books simply are damn well written and bracingly authentic.

As mentioned in my last post, puzzle purists Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor evince a high regard in their critical tome A Catalogue of Crime for the actual detection in Constantine's second crime novel, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1972). But what about the author's first and his third books, which were smartly reissued together in one volume in the early 1980s by publisher David R. Godine?  To be honest, Barzun and Taylor, plot sticklers both, weren't so crazy about these two. 

I'm much more positive about them than is the Barzun and Taylor Catalogue, especially the third book, The Blank Page, which to me seems unique in the Constantine corpus of crime fiction. (Constantine himself declared the book is terrible, but the late genre scholar Robin Winks, a great admirer of Constantine who contributed an illuminating afterword to the excellent Godine twofer volume, begged to differ, pronouncing it the author's best.  I suspect as an academic he had a bit of a bias in its favor, but I share his admiration for the book.)

The Rocksburg Railraod Murders is about Mario Balzic's investigation into the murder of local man John Andrasko (beaten to death with a Coca-Cola bottle--they were glass back then--so much for teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony and buying the world a Coke and keeping it company).

The murdered man was attacked while at the railway station to take a train, and were this a Freeman Wills Crofts story there would be a lot about trains and timetables.  However, here Balzic quickly deduces the culprit, to a great extent for psychological reasons, and he spends the rest of the book trying to stop this person from killing again.  So people wanting a "surprise" at the end are going to be disappointed.  However, there's great local color and human interest and suspense as to how it will all turn out in the end. 

Now there's a fan!

In this one a local priest named Father Marrazo plays a big role and he's a fine character.  There's also Myron Valcanas, Constantine's splendid, and invariably sozzled, defense attorney.  Women don't yet seem to exist much in the way of professional capacities in this world, but they are well-conveyed characters when they appear, and some of them real tough birds too.

Then there are references to President Nixon and Spiro Agnew and Dick Clark's American Bandstand and "sloppy" lasagna made with cottage cheese rather than ricotta.  (My sister used to do this too.)  And Anna Magnani and Peggy Lee ("Is That All There Is?") and Frankie Avalon. "Oh Daddy.  Frankie Avalon's ancient history," a daughter tells Balzic.  That, young lady, was before "Beauty School Dropout"!

Balzic is an interesting cop.  He scoffs at the attempt of the ambitious local DA, Milt Weigh, to pin the blame for the crime on local hippy types (he wants to ride the drug issue to higher office), and for a page the police chief explains his theory as to why cops should not carry guns--which I must admit seems quaint today in our gun-happy (or perhaps unhappy) nation, as we talk about protecting our schools by arming teachers.  No doubt in today's world Balzic would be getting denounced as a dangerous liberal in tweets and on TV by the likes of Sean Hannity.  But I think Balzic could handle the criticism. 

His thoughts were a jumble.  Nothing made sense.  He felt the way he felt when he read a newspaper account of some seemingly isolated act of violence, when the reporter called the act "senseless."  The word annoyed and angered him because he believed that no violence was truly senseless.  It always made sense if you took the time to analyze it.  He believed that was as true about the violence done upstairs as about any other violence he had known, except that everything about this violence did indeed appear senseless.  There had been no robbery, no sound, no struggle, and he was willing to bet that there had been no sex....He was as sure of that as he was unsure what the piece of paper on her stomach meant.  There was a message there, but one without words and one that therefore said everything at the same time it said nothing.

--The Blank Page (1973), by K. C. Constantine

waiting for Roethke
What will he tell us?
The Blank Page, about the non-sexual murder of a non-entity community college student, Janet Pisula, found strangled and semi-nude in her room at a boarding house, a blank sheet of paper on her stomach, seems unique in the Balzic series in being more of a "literary" work.  Maybe Constantine doesn't like the book because he feels it moved too far from a blue-collar milieu in the direction of the "classic" mystery.  I myself found it a fascinating story. 

The titular blank page lends a bookish quality to the story, appealing to those of us who like tricky plot tidbits like Ellery Queen's cryptic dying messages.  Then there is the initial setting, which definitely is the stuff of classic mystery: a boarding house run by a decayed gentlewoman spinster, Miss Cynthia Summer, in the old family mansion, built many decades past by her wealthy mine and factory owner father.

Mckees Rocks home of the late Catherine Baker Knoll
former Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania
photo by Jonathan Denson; see his wonderful website,
Discovering Historic Pittsburgh
Preservation & Photography
Miss Cynthia has managed to hang on to the house by having cut a deal with the local community college, to whom she donated most of the land that went with the house; but it will go to the college after her death, and in the meantime she has to cut coupons and take in students as lodgers.

With some tweaking we might have had a real modern classic detective novel, but as it stands The Blank Page is quite an intriguing police procedural crime novel, with some piercing psychology, biting satire of academia and welcome additional personal details about Balzic.  (We learn here about his father's fate.) 

There's more with Father Marrazo and Mo Valcanas too.  And, for the literary, there's mention of Studs Lonigan, Timon of Athens and Theodore Roethke.  Lots indeed about Roethke, "the sanest lunatic of the last forty years."

This is a good one I believe, whatever Kosak thinks today: An intriguing and moving mystery about writing, which I think writers, or strivers of any sort, will especially appreciate.

Query: Could Constantine's "Balzic" be meant to suggest "Balzac"--i.e., French novelist Honore de Balzac and his novel sequence La Comedie Humaine?  Like Balzac, Constantine with his Rocksburg tales presents his readers a detailed and "unfiltered representation of society," though in Constantine's case, of course, there is always some measure of murder in the mix.  We'll talk about this more soon, I hope!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Rocksburg, Pennsylvania: The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973), by KC Constantine

"You know, Balzic," Peluzzi said, facing Balzic again, "I can remember you from Mother of Sorrows."

"You can?"

"Yeah.  I only lasted till the second grade up there, and then my old man couldn't go the freight no more.  But I remember you.  I was in the second grade and you were in first.  You were a nosy prick even then.  You used to come around asking everybody what they had for lunch."

"I guess I'm just naturally inquisitive."

                              --The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973), K. C. Constantine


Author K. C. Constantine appeared on the mystery scene in 1971 with The Rocksburg Railroad Murders.  Judging by the reviews excerpted on the back cover of Constantine's a second mystery, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (which like Rocksburg and all of the Constantine crime novels is set in western Pennsylvania), Rocksburg was raved by reviewers.  Sadly, Anthony Boucher, who I suspect would have loved Constantine's books and probably spearheaded an effort to get him a deserved Edgar nomination, passed away four years before Rocksburg was published.  However, other critics picked up the slack, at least as far as words of praise went:

In its quiet way [The Rocksburg Railroad Murders] carries a tremendous wallop.  It certainly is one of the most sensitive crime novels of recent years.--New York Times Book Review

A neat first mystery.  Best of all, Constantine has created some very personable characters....They are a winning combination that I, for one, would like to see more of.--Saturday Review

Chief Balzic isn't the ordinary mystery hero.  Neither are his friends and enemies the usual cast of supporting characters.  But they are highly effective.  K. C. Constantine has taken the virtues (and vices) of small-town Middle America, put them into The Rocksburg Raiload Murders and come up with a literate, readable mystery that could establish Mario Balzic as something of a blue-collar folk hero.--Chicago News

The dialogue is so good it might have been tape-recorded, the characterizations--a town full--superb.  At its heart is Balzic, decent, unpretentious, unsentimentalized, uncaricatured.  Not since Harry Kemelmen introduced Rabbi David Small has there been such an impressive debut.  Encore!--Washington Star

I'd be very pleased with such reviews for my debut mystery, were I a mystery writer!  Constantine followed Rocksburg the next year with another Mario Balzic saga, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973), which dealt with some singularly unpleasant subject matter.  It received another rave review from the New York Times Book Review, "Newgate Calendar" writing:

Something of a stir was caused last February with the publication of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders by K. C. Constantine.  The book attracted a good deal of attention for its middle-class ambiance, its realism and the author's indefatigable ear for blue-collar patterns of speech and thought.  Now comes The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself and it turns out to be as good as its predecessor....the mystery itself is well plotted and traditionalists will find that Constantine plays scrupulously fair in his puzzle.  But more than that, there is the evocation of the sullen. tension-ridden, anti-intellectual atmosphere that is one part of small-town America.  Constantine is a marvelous writer.  May Mario Balzic thrive!

In the second edition of their mammoth tome on mystery fiction, A Catalogue of Crime, those "traditionalists" (i.e., puzzle purists) Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor chimed in with the contemporary critics, praising The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself as "a top-grade blue-collar, small-town mystery," with dialogue "such that it might have been tape-recorded."  The pair of puzzle enthusiasts included Constantine's novel in their series 100 Classics of Crime Fiction, 1900-1975.  Only two novels, The Night Hunters by John Miles (review coming soon) and Ellis Peters' Never Pick up Hitchhikers, followed it.

It was interesting to see this book so highly lauded by Barzun and Taylor, a pair of detective fiction devotees who often are seen as dogmatists on the matter of the puzzle being placed foremost in a mystery.  Certainty no one is going to compare The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself with the great classics of the Golden Age, as far as the puzzle goes; yet it is a superb example of the modern murder mystery, where emphasis is placed on not soley on mystification and detection but on convincingly conveying a strong sense of character and milieu. 

American paperback edition
The opening of the novel is very much in the classic mode.  Police Chief Mario Balzic, a member of the Rocksburg Police Rod and Gun Club, is out hunting pheasants with the new chief of detectives of the state police, Lieutenant Harry Minyon, a man he dislikes, and Minyon's "overweight, badly conditioned, ill-tempered Weimaraner," a dog he abominates.  Balzic himself is not in the best of tempers.

The dog, on the other hand, has transfigured into ecstasy, having discovered severed human bones buried in a crab apple copse (indeed, this novel would have been called The Corpse in the Crab Apple Copse in olden times).  Thus is Balzic embarked on a new murder case, following that shocking and sordid Rocksburg Railway station affair.

According to the medical examiner's report, the bones were those of man in his forties.  Balzic finds a missing person who seems to fit this bill, which takes him to a "Freezer Meats" store put in the country.  Readers of Golden Age crime fiction might be reminded of Gladys Mitchell's The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, published four decades previously, but where Mitchell finds the idea of disjointed human corpses all rather jolly, Constantine treats the matter quite soberly.  Before the tale is over matters have gotten quite dark indeed. 

There are some spots of humor in the tale, particularly with drunken, Greek-heritage defense attorney Mo Valcanas, but overall this is a pretty grim affair--and a gripping one too.  Impeccable is the author's sense of place and character, which is conveyed most often through lively and pungent dialogue (warning to sensitive readers: epithets mouthed by the various characters for the varied ethnic groups who comprise Rocksburg are numerous).  It pulled me into the story and kept me there.  Had Sherwood Anderson, of Winesburg, Ohio fame, written crime novels, they might have been something like this.  This is emphatically not the world of vintage American crime writer Carolyn Wells, who as we saw in an earlier post liked to write about what she imagined to be "nice, clean, white-collared murders."

Rocksburg, Pennsylvania is a place we will be visiting again at this blog soon, when there will be more details about the author and the places which inspired this series of crime novels, which spanned the last three decades of the 20th century.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Write What You Know: Carolyn Wells' Country House and Luxury Apartment Mysteries

Carolyn Wells's detective novels take place not in mean streets but, typically, country mansions and luxury apartments.  (Lots of Venetian vases in this dame's vicinity, if you know what I mean!  You gotta watch your step or you're gonna break somethin' that'll set you back some g's, I'm tellin' ya.

Yet this really is the life that Carolyn Wells knew, and she wrote it.

Carolyn Wells (1862-1942)
Born in 1862, Carolyn Wells grew up in privileged circumstances in Rahway, New Jersey and was still living at home with her father, mother and sister, Ida, at the turn of the century, when in her late 30's she started to attain success as a writer of nonsense and children's books. 

Ida Wells died in 1902 and her father passed away at the age of 75 four years later, but Carolyn remained at home with her mother until 1918, when at the age of 55 she wed a friend of some years standing, 62-year-old widower William Hadwin Houghton, a relation of the publishing Houghtons and an executive in Valentine & Co., a large paint and varnish company. (Valentine was the parent of Valspar, a subsidiary of Sherwin-Williams.)

The onetime Paris representative of the company and a supporter of women's suffrage going back to the 1890s, Houghton was a longtime member of a social circle in New York that included numerous literary types.  Carolyn's marriage to Houghton ushered in the happiest time of her life, but it was sadly short-lived.  Houghton died the next year, after just a year and seven months of marriage. In Rahway Carolyn's mother also died in 1919, an ill-starred year all over the world.  

no doubt Bridget kept the Venetian vases
at the Hotel des Artistes clean
Bereft of intimates, Carolyn Wells remained in her and Houghton's apartment at the recently erected and rather swanky Hotel des Artistes (overlooking Central Park), residing with her recently hired maid-companion, Bridget Mary O'Connell, and a cook.  The presumably Irish Catholic Bridget proved useful indeed to Carolyn, who once claimed, one hopes facetiously, that she declined to attend college because she didn't want to have to make her own bed. 

"She loves to clean silver, make sandwiches and dust books," Carolyn wrote of industrious Bridget.  "She attends to accounts and does errands better than I could myself."  The highly useful Bridget was to remain with Carolyn until her mistress' death in 1942, when she reaped a considerable windfall as the principal legatee in Carolyn's will.

During the 23 years of her life that spanned from Houghton's death to her own, Carolyn penned nearly 70 detective novels, most of them tales of the exploits of her great detective Fleming Stone, one of the blandest, though best-known, fictional sleuths in between-the-wars America.  These tales almost invariably take place among millionaire sets in sprawling country homes in New England or tony townhouses in New York, with occasional trips to the shore in New Jersey. 

Wells' brother, William Farrington Wells
Wells wrote about "white-collared murder"
Dashiell Hammett and other Wells critics scoffed at the artificiality of her settings, but throughout the Twenties and Thirties Carolyn Wells remained one of the most popular mystery writers in America, one of the comparative few who accumulated a fortune through her fiction. 

The author was a member of the Colony Club, a social organization of New York's elite women founded by Florence Jaffray Harriman, and she was a friend not only of inventor Thomas Edison (her brother, William Farrington Wells, was a Rutgers-educated electrical engineer who became vice-president and general manager of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn), but of Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.

To the latter man, then the newly-elected American president, Carolyn dedicated one of her detective novels, The Tapestry Room Murder (1929).  (Like Woodrow Wilson, Hoover was a detective fiction fan, showing that love for the stuff knows no political boundaries.)  Wealthy inventors also pop up in her mysteries.  When it came to the rich and privileged people of the northeastern United States, Carolyn knew her stuff.

Darena, Long Island summer home of her friends
George Barton and Katherine Richards Gordon French
Carolyn dedicated a 1925 detective novel, The Daughter of the House (recently reviewed here), to Eleanor Brush Hempstead, the 53-year-old daughter of John T. Brush, millionaire owner of the New York Giants baseball franchise.  My particular copy of this novel was once owned by Katherine Richards Gordon (1864-1951), the one-eighth native American daughter of the Irish co-founder of the first bank in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her maternal great-grandfather was a prominent Minnesota fur trader who married a half-blood Ojibwe, or Chippewa. 

Coming from a highly musical family, Katherine Richards Gordon was an accomplished pianist and vocalist, but she gave up a career when in 1905 she married Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad executive George Barton French.  GB French was also a scientific researcher, and in his later years he retired from the railroad business to devote himself to experimental research.  He gave much effort to improving hearing aid technology, in 1930 writing in the Scientific American:

garden at Darena
No effort seems to have made to date to provide hard-of-hearing public schools pupils with an efficient mechanical hearing aid at a reasonable price to enable them to receive the benefit of education and also the benefit of the companionship of their fellow pupils.  These children are not only embarrassed during their training period, but the affliction, uncared for, will increase with advancing years and interfere to a large extent with their ability in later years to earn a comfortable livelihood....

Surveys show that there are in excess of ten million people in the United States with defective hearing, including three million school pupils in need of treatment and efficient hearing aid to enable them to keep up with their classes.

One of those people suffering from defective hearing was Carolyn Wells, who over the years became increasingly deaf after being struck with scarlet fever as a child.  (The same epidemic killed one of her sisters.)  Clearly this was another connection between Carolyn and the Frenches.

In Southampton, Long Island, George and Katherine French maintained a summer residence, Darena, described as a "gorgeous shingle style home, with a gambrel roof whose proportions should be studied by all the speculative home builders on the East End, dormers with sunburst patterned trimwork, third story eyebrow windows and extensive porches." 

Darena was built around the turn of the century and purchased by George French in 1914.  It reminds me of Carolyn's description of her own family home in "gay and airy" Rahway, with its "broad lawns, big trees, flower gardens and pleasant verandas."

The Frenches were highly active in Southampton society until George's death in 1937.  For many years Katherine French was choirmaster and organist at St. Andrews Dune Church in Southampton, a shingled beauty erected in 1879. 

Perhaps this gives some idea of Carolyn Wells's standing during her life and illustrates that, like other writers, she probably followed the motto of write what you know, at least as far as social milieu goes.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

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

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

There is no question but that over her nearly 40-year career as a detective writer the prolific author penned some powerfully poor books (what Bill Pronzini dubs alternative classics), such as The Umbrella Murder and The Roll-Top Desk Mystery. (Yes, a person is killed with a roll-top desk in the latter book, though no one actually is struck down with a fatal umbrella in the former).  Yet the more I read Wells's books, the more I find titles by her which I like, such as the rather charming mystery Vicky Van (1918), praised by GK Chesterton, no chump he.

Part of the rap on Carolyn Wells has come from disappointed devotees of locked room mysteries, a most exacting breed.  The great American  expatriate crime writer John Dickson Carr himself was a fan of Wells as a youngster (and after the Second World War he, roaming the streets of New York and possessed by nostalgia, bought a complete set of her detective novels--all 82 of them), yet anyone looking for the sort of intricate miracle problems which Carr devised will be disappointed with Wells. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By 1925, the year Wells published her nineteenth Fleming Stone mystery, The Daughter of the House, she had dispensed with the Great Detective's teenage assistant, Fibsy Maguire.  (I like to think that the indefatigable Fibsy left Stone to set up on his own somewhere, preferably in cahoots in California with the Continental Detective Agency).  This departure left the Great Detective singlehandedly to solve bizarre and baffling murders afflicting complacently wealthy families in the northeastern US, typically in lovely country colonial mansions scattered around New England.

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

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

Then there's Giulia Castro, an intoxicating, wandering widow who currently is renting a cottage on the Lang estate; Hester Brace, Mary's devoted old nurse, who comes back to Langdene to care for her mother; Mary's fickle fiancee, Forrester Carr (regrettably nicknamed Forry); and Forry's steadfast best bro, Billy Budd.  (Melville fans, take note!)

Before the book is over, three of these people will die, one definitely of murder (in, yes, a locked room), and two will unaccountably vanish, but for much of the novel one can discern only murky currents of intrigue.

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

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

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

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

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

I have said before that Wells' mystery fiction was dated by the 1920s, but while I think it was in milieu and class attitudes, in style it is arguably more modern, with its bit of love and chatty by-play anticipating the manners mystery associated with the British Crime Queens.  Interestingly, though Wells typically is listed as a traditionalist advocate of the pure puzzle story, she parted company with the once-influential bestselling American mystery writer S. S. Van Dine on the matter of whether love belonged within the confines of the detective story.  (She said yes, he said no; I don't have to tell you that she won this argument.) 

Wells also referred explicitly, and sympathetically, to the manners idea in her book The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913):

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

Where's the tennis court?  The naive New England of
Grandma Moses's The Old Checkered House (1943)
painted the year after Carolyn Wells's death and the
publication of Fleming Stone's last case
Is The Daughter of the House a manners mystery?  I think so, though it's more naively fashioned than the highly polished affairs pieced together by British Crime Queens Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, Heyer and Tey.  Carolyn Wells just may have been the Grandma Moses of the manners mystery--though her New England is an altogether posher place, with not only secret passages, like in Carolyn Keene's classic Nancy Drew tale The Hidden Staircase (1930), but  tennis courts and stately butlers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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