Sunday, February 18, 2018

How Many Clues Can Be Deduced on the Head of a Pin? The Diamond Pin (1919), by Carolyn Wells

Last year I was asked to write an introduction to Collins Crime Club's reissue, under its Detective Club Crime Classics imprint, of the bibliomystery Murder in the Bookshop (1936) by American crime writer Carolyn Wells, to be published in November of this year.  I've watched with interest the progress over the last few years of CCC's vintage mystery reprint series, which now encompasses both Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, authors about whom I've written extensively and, I think, authoritatively in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.  However, I never expected to be asked to write an introduction for CCC on Carolyn Wells--though in fact I have written about Wells pretty extensively on my blog and in an 8000-word essay in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene.  So I've been taking the opportunity recently to look once again over her work, which always seems to draw me back. 

Few people may appreciate today that in the 1920s--until the advent, in the middle of the decade, of Earl Derr Biggers and S. S. Van Dine--Carolyn Wells was, along with Englishman J. S. Fletcher, about the biggest thing in mystery novels in the US.  Admittedly Wells and Fletcher were thrown in the shade somewhat by the rise not only of Van Dine and Biggers, but of Christie, Sayers, Crofts and all the rest of the classic British crew, not to mention Dashiell Hammett and the rest of the American tough squad.  Yet with the rise of internet reprints, Wells, like Fletcher, is again being read and enjoyed by a perhaps surprisingly large number of people, considering that these are authors who seem to define the term "dated."  In other words, they were old-fashioned even in the 1920s, but perhaps that is part of their charm today.  (Incidentally, there's also an essay in Mysteries Unlocked by J. S. Fletcher.)

Reflective of her age (she was three years younger than Arthur Conan Doyle), Carolyn Wells grew up with, and loved, the word games found in the nonsense writing of authors like Edward Lear (1812-1888), Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) and her "literary chum" Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  The latter man was the American creator of the noxious Goops ("The Goops, they lick their fingers/and the Goops, they lick their knives/They spill their broth on the tablecloth/Oh! they lead disgusting lives!") and author of "The Purple Cow" ("I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one/But I can tell you, anyhow/I'd rather see than be one!"). 

Beginning in the 1890s, Carolyn Wells herself began emulating her idols, publishing verse in Punch and The Lark.  She continued to emulate those idols in her original published and punning book of nonsense verse, Idle Idylls, was published in 1900 and her Nonsense Anthology, still in print today, first appeared two years later.

Yet around this time Wells discovered the mystery fiction of Anna Katharine Green (who also influenced Christie), and she was instantly won over to this addictive field of entertainment literature.  (She also wrote a great deal of children's fiction in the first two decades of the 20th century, particularly tales, nearly two dozen in all, of the adventures of two jolly girls named Marjorie and Patty.)

In 1902, Wells penned the whimsical "A Ballade of Detection," detailing her love for the works of Green, Poe, Gaboriau, Du Boisgobey, Ottolengui and Conan Doyle, and in 1906 and 1907 there appeared, in serial form, her first detective tales, The Maxwell Mystery and A Chain of Evidence (published as novels in, respectively, 1913 and 1912).  Her first detective novel, The Clue, was published by her lifelong mystery publisher Lippincott in 1909.  The Gold Bag came the next year and her next original detective novel was Anybody but Anne in 1914.  All these tales had her most frequently appearing sleuth, patrician detective Fleming Stone.

From that point on Wells published two, sometimes three, detective novels a year until her death in 1942.  For the rest of the century, however, not a single mystery title by Wells was reprinted, as far as I can tell, barring a couple, one in England and the other in France--a remarkable literary extinction which makes her recent revival even more remarkable. (It should be mentioned here that she also wrote a notable text on mystery writing, The Technique of the Mystery Story.)

Wells certainly has had her critics over the years, and I started out my writing about her in a pretty critical frame of mind.  But she has had her defenders too, like Mike Grost and the academic writer Stephen Knight; and over the years I've come to be more more judicious in my assessments of her writing.

I think Wells's earlier books are pretty weak, on the whole, though there are some appealing aspects even in the initial tales.  (The Clue has a male-female amateur sleuth duo who to me are reminiscent of Christie's Tommy and Tuppence, anticipating that flippant flapper and her beau by a dozen years.)  But beginning with The Curved Blades (1916) I think Wells' Fleming Stone series picks up several notches. (At his Pretty Sinister blog John Norris has written about Wells's  Pennington Wise and Zizi tales, her second most important series.) 

Fibsy to the rescue
(after Iris gets kidnapped yet again)
frontispiece to The Diamond Pin
The next Fleming Stone tale, The Mark of Cain (1917),  sees the debut of Stone's "saucy" boy assistant, fifteen-year-old Terence "Fibsy" Maguire, and this entertaining duo, something like a sleuthing Batman and Robin, work wonderfully together in Well's next Stone mystery, Vicky Van (1918), a book I feel is a true genre classic.  (In England, where Wells was not so well known, the novel was praised by GK Chesterton.)

Fibsy Maguire appeared with Stone in a total of eight mysteries between 1917 and 1923, including, right in the middle, The Diamond Pin (1919).  Though there are some duds in the lot (see Feathers Left Around, 1923), on the whole I find this an enjoyable series.  The Diamond Pin is no Vicky Van, for its part, but it's an entertaining little tale of more modestly scaled ambition.

The Diamond Pin has a setting which will be familiar to readers of Carolyn Wells mysteries: A little country town (Berrien), isolated and tranquil in spite of being located less than fifteen miles from New York. I thought Wells might have had in mind Meriden, Connecticut, but that's farther away and also had a population of about 30,000 in 1920, which to my mind is not so small.  (There's also a Berrien's Island, near Rikers, in New York.) 

In any event, the setting is typical of of Wells' own home town of Rahway, New Jersey (pop. about 11,000 in 1920), where Wells grew up with a sister and brother in privileged circumstances.  Like suburban Connecticut and the Berkshires of Massachusetts, small-town, affluent New Jersey is a frequent Wellesian setting.

In The Diamond Pin there also is another common Wellesian feature: a fine country home, where a soon-to-violently-expire millionaire holds court over her/his restive dependent relations.  Here we have Ursula Pell's house Pellbrook, where dwells the eccentric "old lady" (she's all of 62) and her lovely niece (there are no plain nieces in Wells books), Iris Clyde.  The house is less fancy than some Wells domiciles (she generally prefers what was then termed monumental "colonial"--i.e., classical--architecture), but it's still rather a nice pad, with lots of rooms and a homey wraparound porch.  Plenty of places to get murdered in, have no fear!

Aunt Ursula's distinguishing characteristic is her penchant--almost pathological I would say--for playing practical jokes on her dependents, be they servants or family relations hoping to inherit something from her in her will, which is in a constant state of flux.

What is the secret of the diamond pin? 1920s Art Deco
Cartier emerald, diamond and platinum pin brooch
Granted this is a familiar character type in mystery fiction (a later example I recall is an irritating jokester minister in Leo Bruce's Death on Allhallowe'en); yet Wells does Aunt Ursula, well, um, well, this being a character who was, I suspect, rather close to her own quaintly humorous heart. Wells was 57 at the time The Diamond Pin was published and, as you will surmise, she herself loved jokes; in a typical whimsical Wellsian gesture she married her husband, William Hadwin Houghton, on April Fools' Day 1918.

After Aunt Ursula is found dead in her locked sitting room some thirty pages into The Diamond Pin, her eccentric presence is missed in the 90% of the story that remains, but the tale continues to engage us, as it develops into an entertaining "treasure" hunt affair, like such Twenties mysteries romps as Christie's The Secret of Chimneys, Crofts' Inspector French and the Cheyne Mystery, JJ Connington's The Dangerfield Talisman and Christopher Bush's The Plumley Inheritance

The local police--none too bright, these guys, but not so bumptious as in some Wells tales--have no clue as to how the murderer could have gotten out of the locked room, but they end up arresting for the crime Iris Clyde's charming but indebted cousin, Winston Bannard, who with Iris is the major beneficiary in Aunt Ursula's will. 

The focus in the novel then turns, rather entertainingly in my eyes, to the matter of Iris's special legacy from her aunt: a diamond pin, which turns out actually to be, well--you really should read and see for yourself.

I will tell you that it transpires that the "diamond pin" must be a clue to the location of Aunt Ursula's fabulous collection of jewels (worth millions--Aunt Ursula's late millionaire hubby didn't trust the stock market, don't you know).  Sinister strangers keep showing up at the Pell domicile, all of them in pursuit of that dratted pin.  Like so many Twenties mystery thriller heroines, Iris manages to get kidnapped twice in the tale (once while coming to the aid of her pet dog, Pom-pom, whom we had never even heard a whisper of earlier--but don't laugh, PD James uses the same ploy, more or less, in two of her books to my recollection, except in those cases its a beloved pet cat--I take it PD James was a cat person).

Throw it over my head?
What on earth for, my dear?
see alexanderpalace.org
Eventually Fleming Stone and Fibsy show up to solve the case, and pretty quickly they do so too--though not so quickly as in some of the Wells books (In all they are around for about a third of the story.)  The treasure hunt makes good use of Wells's love of puns, and the solution to the locked room demise is better than you often get from Wells, who was no John Dickson Carr in this regard, though Carr was a great youthful fan of her books.  (I can see a 12-year-old Carr avidly swallowing every detail of The Diamond Pin.)

This is a fun, if modest, little mystery story, one even the jaded Wells critic should enjoy.  You even get a wailing cook who throws her apron up over her head to express her dismay.  This odd practice, familiar to me from other older mysteries, was amusingly noted by the late Marian Babson in one of her own mysteries.  (Marian Babson knew this genre well.) 

I'll have to get to that one someday!  Meanwhile, some more on Wells coming this week.

Previous Carolyn Wells reviews at The Passing Tramp:

The Clue (1909) and The Curved Blades (1916)
The Mark of Cain (1917)
Raspberry Jam (1920)

Monday, February 12, 2018

No Lack of the Irish: Untimely Guest (1976), by Marian Babson

[Nicholas] was too young to have learned the hypocrisy which dictated that kinship was automatically synonymous with love, liking, and all things bright and beautiful.

Eleanor had almost, but not quite, grown accustomed to the Irish ability to ignore and'or delay specific action until long past the time when the necessary specific action might have helped the situation.  Either the stitch in time philosophy had bypassed them completely, or they simply refused to believe in it.  Which, considering some of the other things they managed to believe, was rather straining at a gnat.

"We'll be lucky if this doesn't kill Mam....She'll never be able to understand."
....Mam was a woman you couldn't kill with a meat-axe [thought Eleanor].  But it was not the sort of remark calculated to endear a daughter-in-law, if repeated.

"Will she have any hair?" Nicholas kept asking urgently during the long days of waiting [for Bridie to arrive].  At seven, certain questions acquired an importance disproportionate to their intrinsic value...."Mickey Concannon says she'll be bald as an egg.  He says that's why girls go in to begin with--so that nobody will notice."


                                                                       --Untimely Guest (1976), Marian Babson

All in the family? The Coyne Clan of Salem, Massachusetts
(Marian Babson's mother Catherine Elzabaeth seated far left, with bow)
see jackfamilytree.com

As I discussed in a  blog post some seven weeks ago, the late crime writer Marian Babson (aka Ruth Marian Stenstreem) had quite a varied ancestral quilt figuratively stored away in the family chest, with Swedish (Stenstreem) and Irish (Coyne) threads as well as quaint old stitches of Puritan New England (the Babsons from whom she derived her pen name). 

Marian Babson also had an inter-denominational background, with a Catholic strand intertwining with Protestant denominations.  Her prominent ship-owning merchant great-grandfather, Gorham Babson of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was a member of the Universalist faith that gained a following in New England in the 19th century, which preached universal salvation and was rejected by some Christians as a faith that was not actually Christian. (Indeed, even some Universalists, the church since having merged with Unitarianism, no longer see themselves as Christians.)

church of the Immaculate Conception
Salem, Massachusetts,
where Marian Babson's parents were wed
When Marian Babson's parents Earle A. Stenstreem, a gardener, and Catherine Elizabeth Coyne, daughter of painting contractor Patrick Martin Coyne and Mary Dever, wed in 1928, however, it was at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Salem, Massachusetts.  Was Marian Babson raised a Catholic?  I have no idea.  Certainly the Coyne presence in Salem was substantial, with Patrick and Marian having produced a brood of nine children, six daughters and three sons (Mary Josephine, Margaret "Peg," John Francis, Susan Teresa, James Michael, Grace Agnes, Rose Agnes, Joseph Patrick and Catherine Elizabeth, Marian's mother).  Earle Stenstreem, on the other hand, was an only child, as was his mother Alphonsa Babson Stenstreem, both her older brother and sister having died in infancy.

Of Marian's grandparents, her paternal grandfather, Charles Stenstreem, had died around the turn of the century, and her maternal grandfather, Patrick Martin Coyne, would pass away fewer than six months after she was born.  However, Marian presumably would have known both of her grandmothers, with the very English Alphonsa Babson Stenstreem living until 1940 and the very Irish Mary Dever Coyne hanging on until 1942.

Universalist Church, Gloucester, Mass.
Before reading Marian Babson's intriguing eighth crime novel, Untimely Guest--published in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial (which I sat out on the sidelines, if you will, living in Mexico that year)--I had already assumed that Marian Babson identified more with the Babson side of her family than the Coyne, in part because she took Babson for her pen name, but also because she chose to move permanently to London around the time she turned forty and because of the British settings of so very, very many of her mysteries. 

The woman seems clearly to have been, like so many cozy mystery fans, a ardent Anglophile of the tea and crumpets sort.

Reading Untimely Guest--Babson's only novel, as far as I am aware, set in Ireland--has amply confirmed me in this view.  "[E]very hit goes home," pronounces the blurb on the Collins Crime Club book jacket of the first edition (the novel was not published in the US until 1987), and "hit" is an apt word in this context. 

Through Babson's focal character, Eleanor, a Protestant who has married into a troubled Catholic family in Ireland, the author gets in quite a few trenchant criticisms of Irish life in the 1970s (particularly concerning the still considerable influence of the Church on family life), though I couldn't help wondering whether her experience of Ireland was more from the 1950s, the age of "Call the Midwife" if you will, when a twentysomething Babson began doing quite a lot of trans-Atlantic traveling between the US and the British isles. 

Yet, even as the country has legalized same-sex marriage (in a 2015 referendum by a margin of 62 to 38 percent), Ireland is still dealing with bitter controversies from its Church-dominated past, particularly the treatment of children of unwed mothers in homes run by Catholic nuns, where, it has been shown, abuses ran rampant. So perhaps Babson's novel still has a timely message, when there are appalling news headlines like that about a mass grave of babies and children begin discovered on the grounds of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway. (The Home closed in 1961.)

The steps to death begin in Untimely Guest when sister Bridie, after the closing of her Chapter House (the nuns are "going to a less enclosed Order, where most of the restrictions had been eased"), returns home after a decade to live with her brother Kevin and sister-in-law Eleanor (and their two young children, Nicholas and Margaret, and their cat, Furface)--much to the chagrin of the family, who find Sister Bridie's cold and austere presence not only unsettling but actually maleficent.

The rest of Bridie's siblings and in-laws find the former nun's return offputting as well, even though they, to their manifest relief, are not the ones stuck with providing Bridie with her room and board. 

These are brother Patrick and his frequently pregnant wife, Carmel, unmarried stay-at-home sister Veronica, and free-thinking and free-loving Dee-Dee, the sister who caused scandal by divorcing her still-besotted husband, Terence (whom she had earlier taken away from Bridie in her pre-convent days), and taking up with a new man, James. 

And then there is the formidable and poisonous family matriarch, Mam, who no one dares even tell about Bridie's return, because Mam believes that Bridie's being a nun has guaranteed her an ticket to Paradise, if you will, without Mam herself having to spend any unpleasant time in Purgatory, making up for past sins.

We learn in a prologue to the novel that a family member gets fatally pushed down a stairway--but who will it be?  There's considerable suspense as to this event, which does not take place until late in the novel.  The solution comes by confession, but is deducible by the readers--at least on an emotional level.

Pope Paul VI--seen here at the
beginning of his reign in 1963--
would pass away two years after the
publication of Untimely Death (1976)
at the not untimely age of 80
I found Untimely Guest an interesting and engaging crime novel.  Is it a cozy?  Again, I don't know. There are some very bitter feelings expressed in the novel and the view of "family values" is ambiguous. In particular, "Mam" is a malevolent horror, a religious hypocrite of the first order, a person who actually encourages her son Pat to get her daughter-in-law Carmel repeatedly pregnant, in the hope that eventually a pregnancy will kill her. 

Carmel at one point fantasizes about the Pope (or Himself, as she terms him) getting abducted by a band of avenging women scientists and forcibly implanted with a human fetus, so that he will learn what it is like for the women to whom he dictates, as the duly and divinely authorized spokesman for God's Will. This seemed pretty scabrous stuff for a cozy!*

There's also complaint about the presumed election, next time around, of yet another Italian pope--quite wrong there, as those of us who watched the amazing reign of Pope John Paul II will recall.  Italian popes seem to have had their day (a very long one, to be sure).

On the other hand, the view of Eleanor and Kevin's family life (without Bridie) is charming.  Especially their young son Nicholas but also baby Margaret and Furface the cat--we all know Babson knows her cats--are wonderful characters.   (The whole saga of Nicholas' relationship with a neighbor boy, Mickey Concannon, is so very amusingly, and truly, portrayed.)  So there are definitely cozy elements to this arguably non-cozy mystery.

There's little sense of Irish place conveyed by Babson, but she does give us a fine sense of people, particularly the womenfolk in this quarrelsome but memorable family clan.  How much of this material may have been drawn from real life, I have no idea, but I do know I very much enjoyed Untimely Guest.

See also this great review of Untimely Guest by Margot Kinberg, at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Identity: By Hook or By Crook (1975), by Emma Lathen (with New Details on Emma Lathen Creators Martha Henissart and Mary Jane Latsis)

Ordinarily, the collapse of an obscure, elderly women in public places does not cause much excitement in newsrooms.  But any overly alert reporter could have uncovered the makings of a tabloid's delight--the disputed claims to a fortune, the long-lost relative, the poisoned toast at a family reunion.

"One thing I'll say. If you've got to get yourself killed, Fifth Avenue's the place to do it."

For every lie told about sex, there are a thousand told about dollars.

                                                    
--By Hook or By Crook (1975), by Emma Lathen    

Cases of reputed lost heirs returning--in extreme peril of their lives as it turns out--to stake a claim to a family fortune are a favored "problem" in classic mystery.  See, for example, Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, Patricia Wentworth's The Traveller Returns, E. R. Punshon's Ten Star Clues and John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge. (For more on this intriguing subject, see my introduction to Dean Street Press' new edition of Ten Star Clues). 

It is just such a case that Emma Lathen tackles in one of the most classic of her mysteries, By Hook or By Crook.  The novel tells of a pair of nasty murders impacting Parajians, Incorporated, "the largest Oriental-rug business" in the United States.

The family-run firm of Parajians was founded, as rug aficionados around the world know, by Paul Parajian, a dynamic Graeco-Armenian widower who migrated with his younger brother, Haig, to the United States in 1935, leaving behind three children, two boys and a girl (Mark, Gregory and Sara), with his mother in Greece. 

With the onset of the Second World War and the brutal Axis occupation of Greece as well as the chaos that beset the unfortunate country in the years after the conflict, when it became another bloody arena in the Cold War, Paul, having since remarried, was only able to find and retrieve his three children from a refugee camp in 1948.

Before the Second World War, Paul's sister, Veron, moved to Yerevan, Armenia (then a republic of the Soviet Union) and married a man named Harum Aratounian.  Now decades later, in the waning years of the regime of the Shah of Iran, a woman claiming to be the widowed Mrs. Aratounian has popped up in Tehran at the offices of Persian rug dealer Hector Khassim. 

Iran is the major source of Parajian rugs, though improving economic and social circumstances have led to Iranian women abandoning the trade for more attractive employment prospects in other fields and to Paul Parajian casting his eyes increasingly fondly at the labor markets in Pakistan and India.

When the alleged Veron Aratounian comes over to the US to meet her American family (and claim shares in the family's lucrative business), familial discord promptly ensues, for while Paul accepts the woman's claim, his restive relations--particularly his obnoxious, snobbish daughter-in-law, Lois Parajian (nee Turnbull)--remain dubious of their reemerged "aunt" (Lois very vocally so). 

Things quickly get much worse when Veron drops dead in the lobby of the Sloan Guaranty Trust Building, shortly after having partaken of a luncheon with the family.  An autopsy reveals that she has been poisoned! 

Soon another murder of a prominent individual in the colorful Parajian menagerie follows (this time at that holy of holies, the Parajians' Fifth Avenue showroom), with poison again having been the means of achieving termination.

called on the carpet
I like the design of these Penguin
pb eds., done when Julian Symons
was crime fiction editor--though
 the old ladydoes not conveniently
collapse on a Persian rug.
It's symbolic, people!
The energetic and intelligent Captain Muller of the NYPD is soon on the case--and there is no sidetracking the determined Muller, no matter how much the wealthy and entitled New York family tries.

Yet of course it will be the Sloan's Senior Vice President, John Putnam Thatcher, now encountering his sixteenth case of murder (banking seems rather a dangerous business), who ultimately brings two killings home to their culprit, in a classic confrontation scene at a beach "cottage" at the far end of Long Island during an oncoming storm.

In some of the Emma Lathen mysteries the murder(s) can feel a bit tacked on, to be sure.  The women writing as Lathen reflected that that while they themselves were most interested in devising devious corporate fraud scenarios, the conventions of the detective novel form compelled them invariably to include murder in their mysteries.  However, in By Hook or By Crook, murder comes first. 

This is a story that could have been plotted by Agatha Christie or any of the Golden Age virtuosi of detection, and I heartily recommend it to fans of puzzlers.  The only thing missing (from my edition, anyway) is a family tree!

As usual the writing is bright and engaging, sharp and insightful.  I particularly liked the picture of an economically emergent Iran just a few years before the stern revolution spearheaded by the Ayatollah Khomeini closed other, more humane paths for the country's development:

A rug to die for?
Any summary of recent Iranian history was bound to spell bad news for a rug buyer.  First, the sons and grandsons of weavers left the looms to work in the oil fields.  Then with the oil revenues piling up, the Shah decided to encourage industrial growth--and women flocked into new, better-paying occupations.  Now, a new school system was going to drain the pool of weavers even more.

I recollect that it was two years after this novel was published that I saw placard-bearing Iranian protesters during a school trip I was on to Washington, D. C.

Concerning much more recent events in another country, I found this passage of particular interest:

Years ago, when the upper echelons of the U. S. government had lapsed into permanent insanity, Thatcher had consoled himself by recalling that the same bureaucracy harbors thousands of capable employees, getting on with the job, while all around them lose their heads.  There are also hundreds of true experts whose mere existence is a bulwark against national disaster.

Doubtlessly certain quarters of today's increasingly and lucratively apocalyptic news/entertainment media complex would denounce Emma Lathen as an insidious modern apologist for the Deep State.

protesting the Shah of Iran--
and his primary backer
It is Emma Lathen's sharp observation of the frequently absurd and ironically amusing human condition which means that her books will never really date, whatever the exact historical circumstances which may have pertained in a particular time.  As for her often oh-so clever puzzles, there is no doubt in my mind that a good puzzle never dates, at least if one is a true fan of classic mystery.

Concerning the matter of puzzles, a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement pronounced the year before By Hook or By Crook was published that "Of the true, intelligent detective story, Emma Lathen is probably now the only competent proponent." 

Ouch! That word "competent" is especially damning, because it means that while there were other puzzle writers besides Lathen at the time, they just weren't any good in the eyes of the reviewer. 

I think this pronouncement is an overstatement.  Setting aside the fact that Agatha Christie and Rex Stout would publish detective novels in 1975, what about Ruth Rendell, PD James, Peter Lovesey, Reginald Hill, Catherine Aird, Patricia Moyes, all of whom were active at the time?  Yet as a tribute to the undoubted mystery-making merit of Emma Lathen this encomium is amply deserved.

skepticism about the American "melting pot" ideal
abounded in many quarters of the United States
during the 1920s
See the Opper Project
Another aspect of Crook that stood out for me concerns the author's ruminations and reflections on the immigrant experience in America.

This is yet another hot button topic in the US right now, as some highly vocal individuals in our country seem determined to return us to the 1950s--I've seen people commenting that Joe McCarthy wasn't so bad, really--or even to the 1920s, when J. Edgar Hoover began his long career of implacably pursuing Reds and violating civil liberties, national Prohibition went into force on the wings of the righteous outrage of rural America teetotalers and a selectively restrictive immigration bill was enacted by the federal government. Oh, those were the days all right.

In Crook Paul Parajian is a remarkable testament, albeit a fictional one, to the will and the drive of a Graeco-Armenian who migrated to the US after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at seriously restricting the immigration of people like Paul Parajian, who came from what the supporters of the act deemed, to borrow a term from our current occupier of the White House, "shithole" countries. 

Back in the Roaring Twenties, a resurgent and toxically racist Ku Klux Klan (at the time an influential national organization, unlike during Reconstruction, where it was confined to the South) was extremely vocal in its denunciations of immigrants from southern Europe and Asia.  In the Twenties the Grand Dragon of the Klan in the state of Oregon, for example, warned that "the great influx of foreign laborers, mostly Greeks, is threatening our American institutions."  As I see it, this dire pronouncement is not so far removed from, in terms of its damningly sweeping nature (limply insincere caveat notwithstanding), from: "They're bringing drugs.  They're bringing crime.  They're rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people."  History does repeat itself.

not all European countries were viewed with
equal favor by the devisors of the Immigration Act of 1924
as this map illustrates
Both Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart were daughters of immigrants.  Latsis' parents, as I have mentioned previously, came, like the fictional Paul Parajian, from Greece, while Hennisart's came from England and Poland.

Latsis' parents, who wed in Chicago in 1922, were John Helias and Mary Zachos Latsis. John Helias Latsis, who was two decades older than his wife, had migrated to the US by 1910, when he was boarding with two of his brothers, Peter and Harry Hila Latsis, at 4015 Congress Street. 

Like the maternal grandfather of the beloved American actress and Chicago native Betty White--one Nick Cachikis, who peddled ice cream from a pushcart--and multitudes of additional hard-working Greek men who migrated to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the three Latsis brothers labored in the produce business, in their case by clerking together at a fruit stand. 

Although Nick Cachikis was buried in a potter's field in Chicago, the Latsis men rose markedly upward in life, by 1930 owning three drugstores in the Chicago suburbs of Oak Park and Forest Park (see ad below).

Mary Jane Latsis in high school
in Oak Park, Illinois
John and Mary Latsis, who lived in Oak Park, sent their only child Mary Jane, who was born in 1927 (five years after Betty White was born in Oak Park), to Wellesley College and Harvard University, where she received a degree in public administration. During the Korean War the recently graduated Latsis worked for the CIA and after the war she was employed for two years as an economist with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. 

After her stint in Rome, Latsis returned to the US to teach economics at Wellesley, where she again came across her old Harvard classmate Martha Henissart, who had taken on a legal position in Boston. 

Both women being confirmed mystery fans, the pair soon decided themselves to write detective novels, drawing on their experiences in business and government (unusual for American women of their day). As Emma Lathen they published their first novel, Banking on Death, in 1961, and the rest was mystery history.

What a remarkable story indeed.  But would any of it have ever come about had the Immigration Act of 1924 been become law earlier in the century? 

Perhaps ardent immigration restrictionists would have deemed Martha Henissart's father more acceptable than Latsis', as he was born in England rather than Greece and came to the US already established in an executive position; yet even migration to the US from Britain declined after the Immigration Act went in force (though much less so than immigration from southern European countries).

Ad published in the Omaha (Nebraska) Bee on February 9, 1916 (See The National Herald)
A. Kyser presumably was Adelbert Kyser, a Kearny, Nebraska grocer
who one assumes from the surname was descended from Germans
a group pronounced (and denounced) in the 18th century by no less than
Benjamin Franklin as unassimilable.  Three years after this ad appeared, Greek
immigrant Peter Kotsiopulos settled in Kearney, opening a dry cleaning establishment
which is still in operation today.  He named it Liberty Dry Cleaning Co., in honor of
the Statue of Liberty.  See The First Greeks in Kearney.
My great-uncle Walter Evans, incidentally, at this time was the station agent
for the Union Pacific station at nearby Shelton, Nebraska. Walter once took
my father, then about ten years old, to the station to watch a  train arrive.

Moreover, the native origins of Martha Henissart's mother would have been problematic to restrictionists.  Albert Vandam and his wife Eva Bernardowna Grinoch Henissart, originally came respectively from England (though Albert's birth parents evidently both were French) and what was then Russian-occupied Poland.  I surmise that Eva Grinoch was Jewish, though I do not know this for a fact.

Albert and Eva Henissart came to the US in 1923 from France, where Albert had been employed as the Paris export manager for Antoine Chiris, a celebrated French fragrance company that was founded before the Revolution that overthrew the ancien regime

open for business--in America
Albert went to work for the sales department of the New York branch of Antoine Chiris.  A few weeks before his sudden death at the age of 56 from a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1947, when Martha was but eighteen years old, Albert had been promoted to vice-president in charge of sales.

Having arrived in the US on the eve of the passage of the Immigration Act, Albert and Eve Henissart interestingly only became US citizens in 1944, three years before Albert's death. Albert had been born in Notting Hill, London in 1891, of somewhat uncertain parentage.  It appears from baptism records at Kensal Green that his parents were an Albert and Pauline Henissart, he being a "gentleman" of 61 St. Charles Square, Kensington.

This Albert Henissart possible may have been Jules Romain Albert Henissart, who died in Tunisia in 1906 at the age of 58, leaving his estate to his London dwelling wife, Marie Gabrielle (Luce) Henissart, but would that have made young Albert an illegitimate child?  Who then was Pauline?

In the British census taken that same year, young Albert Henissart resides, as a nursing babe but two months old, in the Worcestershire household of Henry Richard and Sarah Humphreys Casewell. Henry was a gardener on the estate of Charles Tom Barton, a wealthy Kidderminster carpet manufacturer residing at "The Hill" in the village of Wolverley.  Henry and Sarah resided with young Albert on the estate at The Hill Cottage. 

Blakeshall, Wolverley
where Albert Henissart's adoptive father worked as an estate gardner

The couple had met over a decade earlier when they had been employed by Charles Dayus, a veterinary surgeon who resided at 14 High Street in the village of Dorrington, Shropshire, just a few doors down from the post office and the Horse-Shoe Inn (today known as Horseshoes).  There Henry had worked as a groomer of horses and Sarah, the daughter of a Welsh lead miner and Methodist, as a house servant.

Albert was still living with the Casewells as their adopted son in 1901, along with their adopted daughter, Ruth Fairlamb (yes, that is a real surname).  At this time Henry Casewell was a gardener at Blakeshall, the grand Wolverley country estate of William and Edith Hancocks. 

By 1911, young Albert Henissart had left the Casewells (Casewell was working independently this year as a "timber feller"), presumably for France. 

According to records, Henissart had only an eighth grade education, so how did he end up as a business professional in France?  Presumably this was due to his Henissart connections.  In the 1920s he listed his mother as a Mrs. Henissart of 2 Rue Republique, Grenoble, France.  But how did Albert during his infancy and adolescence end up in the care of the Casewells? 

Was Albert illegitimate, and did his father know the Kidderminster carpet manufacturer Charles Tom Barton, who found Albert a place with his gardener Casewell and his wife, a couple apparently unable to bear children? (They adopted at least three.)

In the light of these facts (and speculations), By Hook of By Crook reflects the backgrounds of both Latsis and Henissart.  The Greek back story obviously recalls Latsis' family, but the carpet trade setting, though it involves Greece, Armenia and Persia rather than England, recalls the connection of Henissart's father to the Kidderminster carpet manufacturer Charles Tom Barton. 

Kidderminster was an early English center of textiles production, already by 1677, well before the onset of the Industrial Revolution, boasting 459 weavers and some 3000 spinners.  The ranks of these laborers would soon be bolstered by an influx of French Huguenots, driven from their native homes by religious persecution.  Was Albert Henissart a French Protestant?  His middle name Vandam--surely Dutch?--is suggestive.

Martha Henissart at Harvard Law School
Another interesting aspect of all this is the depiction of gardening in the Lathen novels.  In Crook Mark Parajian's daughter and her husband on the side have a greenhouse business (admittedly none-too-successful).  Another of the Lathen novels, Green Grow the Dollars (1982) is about the farming of organic tomatoes.  And then there's the final Emma Lathen novel, A Shark out of Water, which is set in Gdansk, Poland--the homeland of Martha Henissart's mother.

Obviously Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart had much in common, being the daughters of immigrants and striving, successful businessmen who clearly were supportive of the education of women (or their daughters anyway).

Of Paul Parajian, whose success story resembles, albeit on a much greater scale, that of Albert Vandam Henissart and John Helias Latsis, Lathen tellingly writes of his success:

Surely this must be what he had been dreaming about when he stepped off Ellis Island or even when he opened his first small store.  Not that there was any hint of this background now.  As he made courtly farewells...he looked like a man who had been born to success.

Unlike Latsis, Henissart was not an only child, however, having had a sibling: Paul Henri Henissart, who was born in 1923, the year the Henissarts settled in the US, and died in 1982, the year Emma Lathen stopped publishing novels for a period of six years. 

Like his father and his sister, who graduated from Mount Holyoke and Harvard Law School (where she slightly preceded future US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, when she enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, was one of nine women out of a student body of over 500), Paul Henissart was an individual of considerable accomplishment.

Paul was educated at Kenyon College, Ohio (with a few years' interruption when he served in world War II) and the Sorbonne, Paris. After graduation he became a radio and print journalist, serving, in a reflection of his parents' cosmopolitanism, as bureau chief in Vienna and Paris for Radio Free Europe and as a correspondent for the New York Times, Newsweek and Time and other news sources in France, North Africa and the Middle East.

Today Paul Henissart is best known as the author of the lauded Wolves in the City: The Death of French Algeria (1970), but he parlayed the success he enjoyed with that book, which was chosen as one of the notable works of the year by the New York Times, into a career as a spy novelist, publishing, before his untimely death at the age of 58 in 1982, Narrow Exit (1973), The Winter Spy (1976) and Margin of Error (1980).  You may hear more about Paul Henissart in weeks to come!

Meanwhile, on By Hook or By Crook by all means check out this terrific post at Clothes in Books.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Deadly Detente: Murder Against the Grain (1967), by Emma Lathen

[Emma Lathen] is a sort of Jane Austen of the detective novel, crisp, detached, mocking, economical....

                                                                                                        --The London Times

Emma Lathen's crime novel When in Greece (1969)--written in a white heat of outraged inspiration over a mere six weeks by Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart) after the right-wing Generals' Coup was staged on April 21, 1967 in the country dubbed the cradle of democracy (Latsis was the daughter of Greek immigrants)--was shortlisted for an Edgar Award (losing to Dick Francis's Forfeit), making it the only Lathen novel to win notice from the Mystery Writers of America.  This was despite the acclaim Lathen received throughout the Sixties from American mystery critics (most notably, until his untimely death in 1968, Anthony Boucher of the New York Times).

From Britain's Crime Writers Association Lathen received more love, however, winning not only the CWA's Silver Dagger for her mystery Accounting for Murder (1964) but the highly coveted Golden Dagger for Murder against the Grain, a book Anthony Boucher had handsomely praised, in his last review of an Emma Lathen novel before his death, with words of which the busy blurbist all-too-often can but dream of descrying:

I keep saying 'urbane, witty, faultless, delightful'--what other adjectives is one to use for Lathen's precise blends of formal detection and acute social satire.

Russians up to no good
--or something else?
Murder against the Grain came out on the heels of Lathen's lauded Death Shall Overcome (1966), in which the author's penchant for social satire was raised to new heights.  There the subject was the struggle for civil rights on the New York Stock Exchange--though interestingly Latsis and Henissart in an interview once noted that the book was written in 1964 and was supposed to have been published in 1965, before Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round (1966), which would have made it even more topical.  (Just why it was held up is not clear--ostensibly it was "technical" reasons.) 

Social satire is evident as well in Murder against the Grain, where Lathen again tackles a broad topic: the state of US-USSR political and economic relations.  We can't call that one dated, can we? (Though Russia's position as a wheat producer has changed for the better, to be sure.)

After the annihilating specter of nuclear war menaced the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union underwent some small degree of diminution over the next few years, with both countries signing the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (concerning nuclear weapons testing), the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. 

With the commencement of the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1969, the term detente (relaxation) would come into vogue as a catchy way of encapsulating the American policy of easing relations with the USSR though diplomacy. This policy, damned as hopelessly naive by American conservatives, would terminate with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election to the presidency in 1980 of Ronald Reagan; and over the next dozen years the world would witness the stunning dissolution of the USSR and its captive Eastern Bloc in Europe, though not without a spot of detente engineered by President Reagan and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Spies Like Us
This Pocket edition of Grain made
Emma Lathen's latest crime opus
look more like Ian Fleming's
From Russia, with Love.
In Murder Against the Grain, Emma Lathen captures the Sixties pre-detente era with a story about a much-ballyhooed trade deal between the US and USSR that goes gone terribly wrong. 

For once eschewing her usual Trollopean narrative opening about Wall Street (Wall Street is....) in Grain, Lathen instead gives us a wry (or should I say rye) two-page prologue detailing global newspaper reports of a trade deal between the two countries, under the terms of which the US has agreed to sell 40 million bushels of wheat to the USSR, whose latest five-year plan has failed--as was so often the way with even the best-laid five-year plans--to meet expectations. 

It is hoped that the wheat deal will dissipate tensions between the two countries, but things soon go perilously wrong, as the deal is plagued with the weevils of theft and murder!

The mammoth Sloan Guaranty Trust of New York is left holding a very large and very empty bag when $985,000 (I was reminded of the dreadfully dated Dr. Evil's "one million dollars!" demand) involved in the wheat transaction is diverted, by means of forged bills of lading, to at least one coolly calculating criminal.  Then the driver who delivered the Sloan's ginormous check is found shot dead on the footsteps of the Russian embassy.  Was he a man who knew too much--and died on account of his knowledge?

Speaking of knowledge, Sloan has on hand its sage Senior Vice President, John Putnam Thatcher, who not only is extraordinarily adept at solving cases of fraud and theft in high places, but at digging up the dirt on low murder as well. This time around Thatcher is aided by both American and Russian investigators (the latter specially flown over from Moscow), but he is the one who finally cracks the clever crime, with the aid, albeit inadvertent, of his super-efficient Miss Lemonesque secretary, Miss Corsa.

On the whole I grade Murder Against the Grain higher than Death Shall Overcome.  There's a more concentrated focus on the crime plot and a more varied group of characters, including not just the usual male Wall Street bigwigs (of whom in this one regular Everett Gabler stands out for satirical mirth), but Soviet diplomats (including a fetching female interpreter), assorted secretaries and drivers and one tough cookie of a woman garage owner. 

No doubt when the big wheat deal went through
in Emma Lathen's Murder Against the Grain
many of the good people of the USSR
enjoyed more than a few dishes of kutia.
(for a Ukrainian version of the recipe
see Claudia's Cookbook--Ukrainian dissidents
play a role in Lathen's book, incidentally)
The criminal plot is interesting and the writing engaging.  American paperback publishers in the 1970s dubbed Emma Lathen America's Agatha Christie, but Lathen's ingenious tales of corporate malfeasance remind me more of Christie's contemporary Freeman Wills Crofts--though Lathen, it must be admitted, is a far better writer to Crofts (though, yet again, putative puzzle purists like S. S. Van Dine and Jacques Barzun would counter that literary skill is a snare and a delusion for detective novelists, distracting them from portraying the rigors of ratiocination).  However, in the 1970s it seems certain that America's Freeman Will Crofts did not have the same cachet as a slogan.

Soon I plan to look at just why Emma Lathen appealed so much to British mystery reviewers.  It turns out there was more that was "English" about Emma Lathen than her writing.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Bush Fire! The Flames of Vintage Detection Burn Bright in 2018

First, I am posting a link to a piece I wrote for The Rap Sheet on the essays in the Edgar-nominated essay collection Murder in the Closet (2017).  I believe this is the most detailed piece on the book, its contents and its intent, that you will find on the internet. 

Getting an Edgar nomination was happy though, I must admit, unexpected news.  Masters of the "Humdrum Mystery (2012) and Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014) had been passed over in 2013 and 2015 respectively and Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013) and The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and GDH and Margaret Cole (2015) had not even been considered because they were published by a micropress.  But unexpected news can signal most excellent tidings, sometimes.

Looking ahead to that which I, and perhaps you my blog readers, expected in 2018, I note that I continue to write introductions for Dean Street Press and Coachwhip Publications, plus I have an introduction to an upcoming Detective Club Crime Classic title to be published by the Collins Crime Club, which has really gotten behind vintage mystery reissues of late.

Ten more Christopher Bush mystery titles come out next month (and are available for order now), all of them with new introductions by me.  These titles are, respectively, The Case of

The 100% Alibis, The Dead Shepherd, The Chinese Gong, The Monday Murders, The Bonfire Body, The Missing Minutes, The Hanging Rope, The Tudor Queen, The Leaning Man and The Green Felt Hat.

I linked to some blog reviews of these titles, but also see the pages on Bush at the aptly-named blog of my old net friend Nick Fuller, The Grandest Game in the World.  (Be advised we don't always see eye-to-eye on every title.)

As with detective fiction in what we might term The Case of ER Punshon, I think titles 11-20 in the Bush canon represent arguably the peak of Bush's superb achievement as a mystery writer. 

There are some exceptionally ingenious books here, but you can see more of what I have to say about the books (and their author) in the introductions--though I might post a review here of one or two of my personal favorites in the series.

Finally, there is much more coming this year under the auspices Coachwhip and also, I am hoping, there will be some additional authors with Dean Street Press.  More on this in the coming weeks.  Please stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Edgar in the Closet

On Friday Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction, which I first blogged about here a year ago, was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers Association for Best Critical/Biographical work.  I both edited and contributed to this collection, which scrutinizes LGBTQ themes in and writers of crime fiction in the period before the Stonewall Riots, a pivotal moment in LGTBQ history.  (They are coming up on their 50th anniversary next year.) 

This is a subject area which some years ago I concluded, from my reading in the mystery genre from around 1920 to 1970, has been seriously understudied in works of mystery genre history.  Personally I was continually surprised by how many LGBTQ crime writers, seemingly unacknowledged as such, kept popping up from this period during my own studies (which had nothing to do, incidentally, with LGTBQ history), and by how LGBTQ themes kept appearing, if necessarily in more oblique fashion than today. "Murder, Obliquely," as Cornell Woolrich put it.

How had these themes not been acknowledged in the once quite popular and still critically well-regarded work of Patrick Quentin, for example (or the fact that the two men behind Patrick Quentin were for many years a couple)?  Weren't we ready today, I asked myself, for an unblinkered appraisal of this body of work?

In 2015 I sought out people from both the blogging and academic worlds to contribute to an essay collection, and was pleased with the enthusiastic responses.  The result was Murder in the Closet, which takes readers on quite a queer and colorful tour of crime fiction from Fergus Hume in the 1880s to the early George Baxt of the 1960s. 

I'm so glad that the MWA has recognized the worth of this study.  The other nominees are a prestigious group indeed, including biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Chester B. Himes by Tatiana de Rosnay and Lawrence P. Jackson and fascinating critical studies of the perennially popular Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes by Mattias Bostrom and Michael Sims. It really is an honor just to be nominated with this group, and I hope the nomination of Murder in the Closet may encourage some more people to rummage through the closets in the great house of vintage crime and mystery fiction.

Mistral Mystery: The White Cockatoo (1933), by Mignon Eberhart

It was clear, of course, that there was something evil going on in the old hotel: abductions, murders, shots in the night, all those things had to have some kind of hub, and the hub must be contained somewhere about that secretive place with its deserted corridors and rooms and its rattling shutters....It was as if something very dark and very strong were swirling about, and I knew of the threat of its presence but not where and how to avoid it.

To this day a sudden cold whipping in the wind will snatch my memory back in an instant to those mad days at A------, and I am once more walking cautiously along those cold dim corridors, ears alert to any sound behind me, eyes strained upon every shadow, or I am watching the flying shadows of the court from the eerie glass-walled passage outside my door, wondering if that flying shrub conceals a figure, or if this angle of the walls holds a too-substantial shadow--or peering across to the tiny lobby where I can see the cockatoo....

                                                         --The White Cockatoo (1933), Mignon Eberhart

what the cockatoo saw
The mystery novels of Mignon Eberhart (1899-1996) fall, in my view, into three distinct periods:

1929-1932, the period of the early (five in number) Nurse Sarah Keate mysteries

1933-1935, a short transitional period of a trio of non-series suspense novels with creepily atmospheric settings (hotel, mansion, apartment house)

1936-1988, the over half-century of Eberhart's polished, perfected and highly lucrative formula of mystery and romantic suspense, in which Gothic-style settings are downplayed in favor of the desperately anxious antics of ingenuous and frightened young women confronting murder in fashionable and moneyed milieus

So-called domestic suspense existed before the mid-twentieth century, when it was skillfully elaborated by crime writers Ursula Curtiss, Celia Fremlin, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong and others.  In the 19th century it was known variously as Gothic and "sensation" fiction and in the Golden Age of detective fiction it was, under the the patronizing cognomen HIBK (Had I But Known), hugely popular in the hands of such authors as bestselling novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart and the writer commonly seen as her closest and certainly most successful acolyte, Mignon Good Eberhart.

Eberhart's Nurse Sarah Keate mysteries, with which the author launched her spectacularly successful career as a mystery novelist in 1929, are reminiscent of Rinehart's Nurse Hilda Adams mysteries, but the chronology here remains cloudy, with no certain light yet discernible on the horizon.  As indicated above, the first group of Sarah Keate novels appeared from 1929 to 1932, while that latter year, 1932, was the year that Mary Roberts Rinehart revived Hilda Adams, in the novel Miss Pinkerton

So was the great Rinehart inspired by the success of Eberhart's Sarah Keate novels?  Not so fast!  Hilda Adams originally appeared in a pair of novellas, "The Buckled Bag" and "Locked Doors," in 1914, when Mignon Good was but a teenager living in Nebraska.  So was it Mignon Eberhart, then, who was inspired by Rinehart?  You've got me! (Mike Grost has thoughts too.)

In any event, Eberhart herself evidently had tired of Sarah Keate by 1932 and she resultantly dropped the confirmed snooper (along with her handsome police pal, Lance O'Leary) as a series character, though she would revive her (minus Lance) in two later novels, about one and two decades afterwards respectively. 

Over the next three years Eberhart published three suspense novels--The White Cockatoo (1933), The Dark Garden (1933) and The House on the Roof (1935)--without any series characters and with less of a formal connection to true detection. Even more than the Keate novels, this trio of books veers more toward pure suspense, though there still is clueing and explanation (quite a lot of it!) at the end.

All three novels have strong Gothic elements in the settings.  Dark Garden and House on the Roof both are set in Chicago, in, respectively, a creepy dark mansion and a creepy dark apartment house, while the events of The White Cockatoo takes place inside a weary old hotel in the town of A------ (Avignon?), southern France, during the wintry off-season, when around the aged walls and windows the mistral wind menacingly murmurs and moans.

Avignon, France

In America's Agatha Christie, Mignon Eberhart's illuminating biographer, Rick Cypert, explains that Mignon and her husband Alanson, an engineer, while in Europe over the winter season of 1931-32 stayed at a small hotel north of Nice in the Alps Maritimes, which thereupon became the setting for the author's sixth mystery novel.  As an 85 year-old Eberhart related decades later in 1984, in an interview published in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter:

We were staying at a little hotel-pension place.  It was a very poor season on the Riviera in that part of Nice, so they gave me, for nothing, a little extra room to write in.  It was cold and had no view, but a writer shouldn't have a view.

It was, then, this room without a view that produced The White Cockatoo.


Aside from the European setting in The White Cockatoo, what is unusual, indeed unique, in Eberhart's work is the fact that the narration is provided by a man, an American engineer (like Eberhart's husband), Jim Sundean, who has just finished a job in the USSR and is passing through Avignon on his way to meet a friend in Spain.  (If you think this makes Jim sound like some sort of Soviet operative, remember this is a few years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and that Mignon was a steadfast Republican, American style, and a staunch anti-Communist--no hero of hers was ever going to be a Commie symp!) 

The White Cockatoo has been dubbed, like another novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Red Lamp (1925), a rare example of "Male HIBK."  Peppery Sarah Keate pugnaciously narrated the first five Eberhart novels, but after The White Cockatoo Eberhart's use of first-person narration lapsed.  Considering the ninnies that some of her later ingenue characters can be at times, this may be just as well.

In fact The White Cockatoo is one of the few HIBK novels, as far as I know, that actually employs the notorious term "had I but known"--or, to be precise, "had we but known." 

I had, of course, no premonition that he was to become such an active and important figure in the really hideous affair which, had we but known it, had only begun.

Dorothy L. Sayers, having rather tired of the predominance in mystery fiction of the cerebral pure puzzle detective novel (or so she said), gave an enthusiastic newspaper review to The White Cockatoo, particularly praising the novel's spooky atmospherics. 

The White Cockatoo
certainly has all that, and then some.  Perhaps a touch too much, for my taste.  At over 100,000 words the novel is a little long for a suspense tale in my view, but then readers of this blog will know of my partiality for the glittering brevity, the admirable economy, of mid-century domestic suspense.

Yet Eberhart does a highly creditable job of portraying the old Avignon hotel, a formerly opulent family mansion run quite decidedly to seed, in the dead (quite literally!) season, as Sayers notes in her review:

Its action all takes place in a French country-town hotel, in the dead waste and middle of winter.  Its opening chapters, with their picture of the windy courtyard, chequered with bleak light and wavering shadows, the dim old-fashioned corridors, musty rooms filled with furniture of inappropriate splendour, the cramped little slow-moving lift, the melancholy lounge dotted with wicker chairs and desiccated palms, the whole barren dinginess of the abominable place, through which the few visitors and the skeleton staff flit like lone survivors from a catastrophe--these chapters. convey more real eeriness and discomfort than you could get from gallons of blood, dozens of sheeted spectres, or scores of conspiratorial gangs in Chinese opium dens.

Reading this description of the book over a decade ago, when I was laboriously printing out and cutting and pasting Sayers book reviews from the Sunday Times into alphabetized legal pads, I was sold on The White Cockatoo immediately. 

Influential mystery critic and "crime novel" proponent Julian Symons emphatically never took the feminine fright novels of the between-the-wars years seriously (nor did his opposite number, critically, puzzle purist Jacques Barzun), but in fact Eberhart's books constituted, as Sayers astutely observed, something of a blow struck for realism in the era of the deliriously over-the-top hair-raisers of Edgar Wallace, Sapper, Sax Rohmer and their many British and American imitators.  Indeed, Eberhart's books are, I would argue, more realistic than many of the Grand Guignol serial killer thrillers of today.

To be sure, I agree with Sayers that Cockatoo's "denouement is a trifle confused and tumultuous."  Eberhart tends to get a bit tangled up in explanation (she's not really "America's Agatha Christie," except in an economic sense), showing that she is still transitioning out of the very deliberate clues-and-confidences tradition of the ratiocinative detective novel.

Beginning in 1936 Eberhart would streamline her suspense novels, making them more resemble the sleek and sophisticated domestic suspense fiction of the fifties and sixties, though the romance element is more predominant--too much so, indeed, for this curmudgeon--in Eberhart's books.

But for the patient reader The White Cockatoo is a fine example of the between-the-wars feminine suspense novel, male narrator notwithstanding.  From the very moment on November 29, 1931 that Jim Sundean checks into the eerie Avignon hotel, the reader is awash in a superbly shuddery atmosphere of oppressive anxiety and angst.  Heck, if this were Cornell Woolrich, and everyone was left dead or spiritually destroyed at the end of the story, we could even call it noir.

There are only three other guests at this dead-alive establishment: a much-bewrapped Nebraska matron by the name of Mrs. Felicia Byng; a Russian-bearded clergyman called Pere Robart; and a beautiful, red-slippered slip of a young American, Sue Tally.  Additionally there is a servant trio composing a skeleton staff of porter, cook and maid and the owner couple, the Lovschiems, ingratiating Marcus and alluring Grethe.  And let us not forget the cockatoo Pucci, who, if not a literal lounge lizard, is a forward fellow who unabashedly makes free with the guests.  There are as well, after the murdering starts, assorted French policemen, all of them of various dim shades, and, altogether more importantly, an American detective by the name of Lorn.

Eberhart seems to have been conscious that, with his jeweled rings and oiled manners, Marcus Lovschiem, originally of Chicago, USA, might arouse suspicions of anti-Semitism.  On page 2 Jim speculates to himself concerning Lovschiem's possible national heritages:

I was at a loss to guess his nationality; there was a touch of the German about him and, faintly, of the Italian; his gestures were French, and there was something vaguely Hebraic about his full red mouth and his dark eyes, which were set just a hair's breadth too close together above the coarsely aquiline bridge of his nose.  It was therefore something of a shock when he met my eyes again, beamed broadly, rubbed his fat hands together and said: "I too am an American."
Pucci, take a bow
Something enticing from the great melting pot that in American mythology we claim to venerate, or a deceiving Janissary from the crafty forces of rootless cosmopolitanism? 

Personally I was interested to see just where the Lovscheims would end up in this intricate maze of murder and mystery.  There are surprises, though I can't of course say just what surprised me.

If you think that Jim may fall hard not for the bold and been-around-the-boulevard Grethe but for sweet and virginal Sue--true-blue and all-American too--you may well be right; it's not for the likes of myself to deny the inevitable and inerrant path of Cupid's arrows in between-the-wars classic mystery.  However, you may well be surprised by just how Pucci, something of a rootless cosmopolitan himself, triumphantly justifies his place as the novel's title character. 

Bravissimo, Pucci!
  I would have liked to see more of that memorable bird in future books.