Friday, August 19, 2016

Acedia: The Noonday Devil (1951), by Ursula Curtiss

Thou shalt not be afraid...Of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark, of invasion, or of the noonday devil.

                                                                                                            --Psalm 91:6

Tradition calls acedia the "noonday devil," for like a demon that attacks in the light of the day, it comes when we least expect it, and it is difficult for its victim to recognize it....acedia manifests itself as a temptation for a monk to depart his cell.  This temptation if often worst around midday....

                             --Thomas Van, "Recognizing the Noonday Devil,"

The Noonday Devil, Ursula Curtiss' third crime novel, received much praise when it was published in 1951; and it was singled out for commendation over two decades later by British crime writer and critic Julian Symons in his genre survey Bloody Murder as a fine example of what he dubbed the "women's [crime] novel." 

That of Curtiss' "women's" novels Symons selected the only one (of which I'm aware) with a male protagonist seems telling, but the fact that Symons mentioned Curtiss at all, given his dismissal of a number of women suspense authors in Bloody Murder, suggests the esteem with which the crime writer was once held in the UK as well as the US.

When Ursula Curtiss published The Noonday Devil she had been married for four years. She was Ursula Reilly--daughter, as readers of this blog of course will know (or may well have known already), of crime writer Helen Reilly--when in 1947 she wed John Paul Curtiss, Jr., son of a prominent advertising executive.

 Having prepped at Choate, John graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University and worked, before the Second World War broke out, for radio producer and writer Doug Storer.

John was serving as a lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Army field artillery in the Philippines when Japanese forces attacked in January 1942, not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Several months later the beleaguered soldiers of the USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) surrendered to Japan.

The Japanese transfer of American and Filipino soldiers, accomplished by means of a brutal sixty-mile trek on foot known as the Bataan Death March, resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners. 

John Curtiss survived not only the Bataan Death March but three and half years in Japanese prisons. His wartime experiences clearly informed his wife's third crime novel, where the protagonist, Andrew Sentry, investigates the strange circumstances of his brother Nick's death six years earlier at a Japanese prison in the Philippines. 

Reminiscent of John Curtiss, Nick Sentry in The Noonday Devil was a captain in the field artillery, but he was executed for trying to escape from his confinement.  What Nick's brother, Andrew, learns to his shock one rainy night in a New York bar (where he has stopped for a quick bourbon old-fashioned) is that Nick's execution may have been engineered by another American prisoner,  a mysterious individual named Sands, about whom Nick may have known a deadly secret.  Andrew resolves to get to the truth, even in the face of Nick's seemingly faithless former fiancee, Sarah Devaney.

The Noonday Devil divides neatly into halves, the first half rather resembling a noir tale by Cornell Woolrich (I was particularly reminded of Phantom Lady), with a driven protagonist grimly pursuing elusive answers and gradually realizing that he is facing a remorseless unseen enemy, a player on the other side, determined to check him at every point, even if that means resorting to murder. 

In the second half of the novel shifts in setting to a small New England town and takes on resemblance to more typical Fifties "domestic suspense" novels (what Julian Symons called women's novels).  Perhaps this second half is a little disappointing, but if so only because the first half raises such high and fearful expectations. (The ending comes off as a bit pat, I think.)  But nevertheless Devil is a fine Fifties crime novel, one that made amply clear at the time that Ursula Curtiss already had become a master of suspense writing.  Recommended.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Death Drills Down: Death in the Dentist's Chair (1932), by Molly Thynne

Molly Thynne's Death in the Dentist's Chair (1932) anticipated Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), which memorably has Hercule Poirot walk into a baffling murder problem at the dentist's office, by eight years.  Aside from these two "dentist mysteries" I know of one other, of much more recent vintage: M. C. Beaton's Death of a Dentist (1997), which I have yet to read. 

I think the idea of murder at the dentist's office is a natural notion for a mystery writer, because for a lot of us this is a fearful locale to start with, right?  Christie's American publishers evidently found the Crime Queen's nursery rhyme title unenticing, at various times retitling the novel The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death, though neither title really takes advantage of the inspired initial setting of the dentist's office.

Molly Thynne's book certainly does, opening quite gruesomely with London dentist Humphrey Davenport just having done his work on little Mr. Cattistock:

"All the upper incisors," he assented cheerfully, "eight altogether.  They came out beautifully.  Like to see them?"

As poorly as poor Mr. Cattistock feels after Davenport's deed, the dentist's next patient, one Mrs. Miller, comes out much worse: she is found dead in the dentist's chair, her throat viciously cut.  The dentist claims that after briefly leaving his (living) patent he found the door locked upon his return (locked room enthusiasts don't get excited; the room has an unfastened window), but is he telling the truth?

Or, on the other hand, could any of the patients in the office at the time--little Mr. Cattistock, lovely Mrs. Vallon or Sir Richard Pomfrey--have had a hand in the affair?  Or was the murder an outside job?

Thynne's amateur sleuth, Greek chess enthusiast Dr. Constantine, providentially was also a patient at the office that day, and he is soon aiding the Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Arkwright, tasked with investigating the affair. Dr. Constantine, you will recall, the previous winter helped Arkwright solve that Christmastime criminal imbroglio at the country inn the Noah's Ark (chronicled in The Crime at the Noah's Ark, 1931) and the two men have since become fast friends, don't you know.

Death in the Dentist's Chair offers vintage mystery fans a pleasingly intricate murder problem that keeps those little grey cells clicking and I enjoyed it immensely.

Contemporary crime fiction reviewer Charles Williams was a fan of the Dr. Constantine mysteries too, declaring that the amateur sleuth "deserves to be known with the Frenches and the Fortunes" (referencing Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French and H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune).

It's just too bad that only three of his cases ever were recorded (the final Dr. Constantine mystery is He Dies and Makes No Sign, 1933), but happily all three soon will be back in print.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Thynne Is In! The Dean Street Press Molly Thynne Mystery Reissues

Molly Thynne's mother was a niece of
James McNeil Whistler, painter of
Whistler's Mother

As I reported here a few months ago, Dean Street Press is reprinting all of the Golden Age detective novels by English mystery writer Molly Thynne.  They will be out in September, both in paper and electronic form. 

Mary Harriet Thynne (1881-1950) , who authored a half-dozen detective novels between 1928 and 1933, had a distinguished family lineage, being not only a great-granddaughter of Thomas Thynne, 2nd Marquess of Bath, but a great-niece of American artist James Whistler, creator of the enduringly evocative "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" (popularly known as "Whistler's Mother").

Longleat, the family seat of the marquesses of Bath, is one of the most famous stately homes in England, and the current marquess, Alexander Thynn (he dropped the "e" from his surname to make its pronunciation--thin"--clearer), is one of the UK's most colorful aristocratic eccentrics.  His father, Henry Thynne, first opened Longleat to the public in the late 1940s, an action necessitated by the imposition of crushing postwar death duties (a subject to which English crime writer Henry Wade, a landed baronet, devoted a crime novel, Too Soon to Die, to denouncing).  

In 1966 Henry Thynne opened a safari park at Longleat, an action which probably inspired the classic 1969 crime novel A Pride of Heroes (in the US, The Old English Peep Show), by the late author Peter Dickinson (1927-2015).  For his part Alexander Thynn, an artist and mural painter, designed the hedge mazes which dot the estate. (Golden Age crime writer J. J. Connington used a hedge maze at a country estate as a bravura murder setting in his 1927 detective novel Murder in the Maze.)

Molly Thynne grew up not at Longleat, however, but in artistic circles in London.  Her father was Assistant Solicitor to His Majesty's Customs, but her mother, Anne "Annie" Harriet Haden, was not only Whistler's niece but a daughter of the English etcher Sir Frances Seymour Haden, at whose studio young Molly spent much of her time.  There she met such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling and Henry James.

Molly Thynne published her first novel, The Uncertain Glory, in 1914, when she was 33.  The novel concerned, appropriately enough, the love affairs of a young artist in London and Munich. Thynne's great-uncle Whistler had had a violent falling out with her grandfather Haden over what the elder man viewed as Whistler's dissolute lifestyle. 

Thynne's short-lived mystery writing career commenced in 1928, with the publication of The Red Dwarf (in the US, The Draycott Murder Mystery) and terminated but five years later with the appearance of her sixth detective novel, He Dies and Makes No Sign, one of the rarest of Golden Age mysteries.

Both The Draycott Murder Mystery (the title under which DSP is reissuing Thynne's first mystery) and The Murder on the Enriqueta, Thynne's second mystery, are murder affairs implicating England's well-off and well-born, the latter being particularly enjoyable to me on account of its bold plot (see my review here.)  Thynne's third detective novel, The Case of Sir Adam Braid, is a well-plotted puzzler about the death of an artist, again drawing on Thynne's family background. 

With her final three detective novels, Thynne employed as sleuths an enjoyable detective duo, the chess-playing Greek intellectual Dr. Constantine and his attendant Scotland Yard policeman, Inspector Arkwright.  The two men appeared first in The Crime at the Noah's Ark, a Christmas mystery set at a classic "enclosed location," a rambling, snowbound country inn.

After this auspicious debut, the crime-fighting duo went on to solve dastardly murders in Death in the Dentist's Chair (DSP's slightly altered title for the reissue), a mystery which anticipated Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in its used of a dentist's office as the setting for its first murder, and He Dies and Makes No Sign. The title of the latter novel draws on this exchange from Shakespeare's history play Henry VI, part 2:

King Henry IV: He dies, and makes no sign; O God, forgive him!

Earl of Warwick: So bad a death argues a monstrous life.

King Henry IV: Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.

Molly Thynne, a Catholic who proudly dubbed herself a "spinster" at the age of 24, never married and later in life resided at Crewys House in Bovey Tracey, Devon, where she passed away in 1950 at the age of 68, seventeen years after the publication of her last detective novel.

I'll have more to say about the two later Thynne mysteries soon.  I'm most pleased to have the chance to welcome Molly Thynne to the burgeoning ranks of rediscovered Golden Age crime writers.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mid-Century Murder: Strangle Hold (1951), by Mary McMullen

Strangle Hold, the debut crime novel by Mary McMullen, was much praised upon its publication in 1951.  Frances Lockridge, coauthor of the Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries, enthusiastically blurbed the book, lauding not only its "absorbing suspense" but its depiction of "New York's advertising world...particularly the advertising world in which women play so large a part" and concluding that "Strangle Hold is a book I think every woman who has ever worked in an office will love, whether she's a mystery fan or not."

In his review of the novel influential mystery critic Anthony Boucher declared that Strangle Hold "is surprisingly successful--as a novel, if not as a detective story."

Mary McMullen
Boucher contrasted McMullen's handling of the subject of "murder in an adverting agency" with that of Dorothy L. Sayers (Murder Must Advertise) and Julian Symons (The Thirty-First of February), declaring that while the realism of Sayers' and Symons' books had been compromised by a "faint element of parody and exaggeration," McMullen to her credit had played it "dead straight."  The result made McMullen's novel "even more chilling than those of her predecessors." Noting that McMullen was the "daughter of one well-established mystery writer and sister of another," Boucher pronounced that she "seems to be (not that I want to start a Sunday breakfast row) the brightest talent yet in the family.

At the Mystery Writers of America gathering the next year McMullen was awarded the Edgar for best debut crime novel, not altogether surprisingly given Boucher's influence with that organization.  Oddly McMullen did not publish another crime novel for 23 years, when The Doom Campaign appeared in 1974. (I'll be looking at McMullen's later books later this month.)

I agree with Frances Lockridge and Anthony Boucher that the greatest strength of Strangle Hold is found its American advertising world setting, particularly in the depiction of the place of women within it at the middle of the 20th century.  Lockridge's declaration that the novel would appeal to women whether they are mystery fans or not may well be bone-chilling words to traditionalist mystery fans, but there's the ring of truth to those words. 

The plot, concerning the strangulation murder of a woman at Wade and Wallingford, a prominent New York advertising agency (she's done in with a tweed tie, a sample from one of the advertising firm's clients), is solid and the police investigation credible, but there are no remarkable feats of detection or stunning twists.

However, throughout the novel the narrative is smooth and engrossing and the setting fascinating.  As I've indicated I was especially intrigued by the novel's depiction of gender roles in the workplace.  Let me quote a passage from the novel, which is told primarily though the perceptions of Eve Fitzsimmons, who has just come to work for Wade and Wallingford:

She had a special mental file for art directors who thought women had no place in advertising.  These unamiable creatures lumped women--all women-- under Woman, and assigned to the most sensible female all the frivolity and nonsense they connected with the sex in general.  This type of art director regarded the most well-founded suggestion or request as "just typical of a woman" and listened with an air of ironical patience to anything the enemy had to say.

McMullen has a knack for depicting both character and place, and one really feels one knows these ad execs and their offices, with their plush carpeting and pickled oak furniture, and their endless rounds of cigarette smoking!

At one point Eve gets what surely is a candidate for Worst Marriage Proposal in a Mystery Novel and it's interesting to compare her response to it with that of a character in Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), a crime novel about women in the fashion industry in Thirties England.

Mary McMullen herself studied at art school and worked on a small-town newspaper and in a war plant before getting a job at Macy's, where she became a divisional advertising manager.  She got her younger, mystery-writing sister, Ursula Curtiss, a job there too--more about that soon!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Classic Crime, Classic Parodies

Classic crime fiction, both in its "cozy" British and American hard-boiled versions, for decades has exercised such a hold over the popular imagination that it has inspired many modern parodies.  Here are two favorites of mine.

This first, which I believe originally aired as a sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus (a series which was broadcast by the BBC between 1969 and 1974), sees the great comedy troupe taking on classic British country house mystery.  People have labeled this an "Agatha Christie sketch," but in fact the obsession all the characters have with railway timetables suggests that the author being parodied surely must be a popular Agatha Christie crime writer contemporary, Freeman Wills Crofts, undisputed king of the railway timetable and alibi mystery.  Can you beat Inspector Davis in spotting the dastard who shot Sir Horace?

Clearly influenced by Monty Python, Canada's The Kids in the Hall, had a television sketch comedy series which originally aired in Canada and the United States between 1989 and 1995.  "Detective Peter Prince" is a short film which offers a decidedly queer take on the memorable fictional world of Raymond Chandler, as a pacifier-sucking shamus is hired by distraught wealthy matron Mrs. Gold to look into the disappearance of "Kitty."  In Mrs. Gold's odd mansion Prince encounters stiff-lipped British butler Baltimore and sexy cabana boy Carlos, but will he ever discover what happened to Kitty?  Warning: there's a bit of blue language at the climax!

the shocking climax of Detective Peter Prince

This six-minute film is available here on YouTube and all of the Kids in the Hall television seasons (including Season 4, where this film debuted) are available on DVD. I loved this series when it first aired and am very pleased that it is out on DVD.  I just wish these clever lads had done more mystery parodies!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

All in the Family: Helen Reilly (1891-1962), Mary McMullen (1920-1986) and Ursula Curtiss (1923-1984)

Helen Reilly was 53 when her husband died in 1944, the year she published her nineteenth detective novel, The Opening Door.  Four years later, the third of her four daughters, Ursula, published her debut crime novel, Voice Out of Darkness (1948), under her married name Ursula Curtiss.  Another Curtiss crime novel, The Second Sickle, would appear in 1950 and yet another, The Noonday Devil, in 1951, by which time one of Ursula's older sisters, Mary, published her own debut crime novel, Strangle Hold, under the pseudonym Mary McMullen (Her married name was Wilson.) The debut novels by the young Reilly women both won awards, Darkness the $1000 Red Badge Prize and Strangle Hold the Edgar for best debut crime novel. 

Ursula Curtiss went on to publish a total of 22 crime novels, becoming one of the best known mid-century American authors in the mystery subgenre then known as "psychological suspense"; yet in the case of Mary McMullen 23 years elapsed before she published her second crime novel, The Doom Campaign, in 1974. 

In the dozen years between 1974 and her death in 1986, McMullen published 18 crime or suspense novels, almost catching her sister in terms of quantity. (Neither sister, both of whom passed away in their sixties, lived to catch her mother, who wrote nearly three dozen mysteries.)

Additionally one of Helen Reilly's talented trio of brothers, James (former press secretary to NYC mayor Fiorella LaGuardia), published a paperback original crime novel, Come Murder Me, in 1952, the year of his death.  So you could say this was a family that definitely had the crime fiction bug!   

Helen Reilly herself was rather a popular American crime novelist for some four decades.  Frequently her novels were Doubleday, Doran Crime Club Selections and they were reprinted in paperback from the 1940s into the 1970s, years after the author's death in 1962.  No doubt Reilly's personal example and her prestigious name smoothed the publishing path for her daughters, who were themselves quite talented, however.

In the US Curtiss was published by Doubleday, Doran by rival Dodd, Mead (with their Red Badge mystery line), while Mary McMullen's debut mystery was issued by Harper, who under editor Joan Kahn (1914-1994) was in the vanguard of the prestigious "suspense" movement in crime literature.

A testimonial from Ursula Curtiss to her mother (probably written around 1944, when Curtiss was 21 and still "Ursula Reilly") in the mid- to late-late Forties ran on the back flap of Helen Reilly dust jackets, like the one on The Silver Leopard (1946).

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in reading this, so here it is, in full:

Growing up under the fond if preoccupied eye of a detective-story writer is calculated to turn even the gentlest of daughters into a hardened character.  While other little girls were prattling of their dollies, my three sisters and I were arguing ferociously about the relative merits of strychnine, strangulation or scythe.  In addition, we were looked upon as curiosities all through school, for it was common knowledge that, while the other children's mothers were out decently playing bridge, ours was home plotting a crime. 

In general, the emotional atmosphere of the house is up and down like the stock market; high when the book is running smoothly, low when it has struck a snag.  Solely unaffected are the nine cats; they come and go just as though the motive hasn't been invalidated by an unexpected footnote concerning ballistics on page 793 of Hans Gross, the world-renowned author on firearms.

Reading, a sensitive subject in a writer's household, is Mother's chief diversion, and, ranging widely, returns to Trollope, Jane Austen, Maugham, plays by everybody, and very, very occasionally, when the spirit takes her and her nerves are equal to it, a detective story by SOMEBODY ELSE.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Secrets Can't Be Kept: The New Pack of Punshons is Here

The new set of E. R. Punshon "Bobby Owen" detective novel reissues are available now in eBook form (paper coming soon) from Dean Street Press at and other Amazon sites.  These are:

The Dark Garden (1941)
Diabolic Candelabra (1942)
The Conqueror Inn (1943)
Night's Cloak (1944)
Secrets Can't Be Kept (1944)
There's a Reason for Everything (1945)
It Might Lead Anywhere (1946)
Helen Passes By (1947)
Music Tells All (1948)
The House of Godwinsson (1948)

As with the first fifteen Bobby Owen reissues by Dean Street Press, I wrote separate introductions of roughly 1000 words apiece for each of these latest reissues, a not inconsiderable though an enjoyable task.

In the introductions I look at E. R. Punshon's life, the books themselves of course and the literary, social and political context of the times, as Britain passed from the crisis of world war to a challenging postwar environment.

Punshon was quite aware of and engaged with his times, and numerous elements of life as he and other Britons then lived it appear in these novels, making them not only interesting mysteries but engrossing social history.  If you look at the books on Amazon, you can read the introductions by clicking "look inside."  Give 'em a look if you'd like.