Sunday, May 28, 2017

It Takes a Village? The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932), by Christopher Bush

"Another accident in the unfortunate village of Bableigh...."

                      --The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932), by Christopher Bush


Mysteries set in English villages remain perennially popular with fans of both classic detective fiction and the modern "cozy."  I like English village mysteries a great deal myself, as readers of this blog will know.

Because of this interest I was long anxious to track down a copy of the directly titled The Case of the Unfortunate Village, by the frequently quite excellent Golden Age detective novelist Christopher Bush. (See my review of his first-rate Dancing Death here.)  Well, I have now read the novel, which I have made available to Dean Street Press (who, I'm pleased to say, is reprinting the author), and here's my report.

Any classic mystery fan who reads Bush's Village will be immediately struck, I think, by similarities the novel has to mysteries by Agatha Christie and Gladys Mitchell, as well as to The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) by Miles Burton (aka John Street). The latter book was much praised by Jacques Barzun back in the 1970s and later myself, in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012).  Eldersham, I should note, has recently been reprinted by the British Library.

Eldersham incorporates the witchcraft theme, drawing heavily on sociologist Margaret Murray's once popularly influential tome, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), which posited the existence of an organized witch religion throughout Europe.  (Street's good friend John Dickson Carr brilliantly employed the witchcraft theme in several of his detective novels, but not so much in the village context as I recall.)  Though long discredited by scholars, Murray's book was surely quite a boon to both lurid occultists and thrillerists of all sorts, from crime writers like Burton to film studios like Hammer.

As the dust jacket to Bush's Village suggests, the novel also plays with the witchcraft theme, inviting comparison not only with Burton's Eldersham but Christie's Murder Is Easy (1939), where putative Satanists also raise their heads.  (Burton aka Street, who was fascinated with European folklore, takes the subject much more seriously than Christie, however.)

Another similarity between Bush's book and Christie's is the way a series of fatal "accidents" takes place in the respective villages.  In Bush's book, there is an accidental shooting, a cycling accident, an accidental fall in a well, etc.  Or are they accidents????

In Village Bush's amateur detective, Ludovic Travers, is drawn into an investigation into the strange goings-on at the village of Bableigh by an old public school friend, now the local gentleman and magistrate. Voltaire's philosophical novel Zadig (1747) plays a role in the solution, which is certainly something you don't encounter every day!  Another unusual aspect of the novel is the way Bush frankly admits  to choosing character names in a Pilgrim's Progress manner to illustrate their basic "types." (Parish, Faithful, Frail, Mould, Crome, etc.)  It gives the book a Cluedo feel.

Although Bush doesn't dwell on the subject, he's forthright about sex in the tale, through the inclusion of a group of artists and sculptors in the village population.  Those artists!  Such randy folk they be. This forthrightness reminded me a bit of Gladys Mitchell's village mystery masterpiece, The Saltmarsh Murders, coincidentally published in 1932, the same year as Bush's novel.

Where Village is uncharacteristic of Bush is in its failure to present the reader a complex alibi problem, as was the author's wont at this time. (see the previous year's splendid Cut-Throat, for example.)  However, Village is still an interesting read, if not, in my view, Bush at his very best.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Peter Drax's Golden Age Crime Fiction

This month Dean Street Press has reprinted six of the seven Golden Age crime novels of Peter Drax (Eric Elrington Addis), one of the great, though in modern times largely unheralded, exponents of the realistic crime novel during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Addis was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1899, not long before the commencement of the Boer War, and died during the Second World War in 1941, a casualty of a German air raid on the British Royal Navy base at Alexandria, Egypt.

During his brief life Addis published a half-dozen "Peter Drax" crime novels: Murder by Chance (1936), He Shot to Kill (1936), Murder by Proxy (1937), Death by Two Hands (1937), Tune to a Corpse (1938) and High Seas Murder (1939).  An additional crime novel, titled Sing a Song of Murder, having been left unfinished by Drax at his death and completed by his novelist wife, Hazel Adair (Hazel Iris Wilson Addis), was published in 1944.

Together the Drax novels constitute one of the most important bodies of realistic crime fiction published during the Golden Age.  Rather than the artificial and outsize master sleuths and super crooks found in so many classic mysteries from the Golden Age, Drax's novels concern, as contemporary publicity material for the books put it, "police who are not endowed with supernatural powers and crooks who are also human."  They are, in other words, books about "real" people.

a thrilling murder story

Two of the Drax novels, Death by Two Hands and Tune to a Corpse, were published in the United States, home of Dashiell Hammett and his progeny, to quite strong reviews. (In the US they were re-titled, respectively, Crime within Crime and Crime to Music).

The Saturday Review of Literature, for example, pronounced of Crime within Crime that "as a straightforward eventful yarn of little people in the grip of tragic destiny it's brilliantly done" and of Crime to Music "London underworld life is described with color and realism."  The Drax books were very well received in the UK too, where mystery writer and Sunday Times reviewer Milward Kennedy was a particularly enthusiastic and notable booster.

I'll be saying more here about the two "American" Draxes soon, I hope.  In the meantime, Eric Addis, I should mention, was a distinguished British naval officer, serving in the Second World War as Commander on HMS Warspite during the Second Battle of Narvik, a naval affray which took place during the Norwegian campaign; and dying in the line of duty, as mentioned above, at Alexandria, Egypt.

In the 1930s he left the navy and practiced as a barrister, specializing in fields of admiralty (naturally) and divorce. During commutes to work in London he read and dissected thrillers, and concluded that the vast majority of them were lamentably unlikely affairs. He set out to writer thrillers that were "credible."

Happily, in his relatively short live Addis achieved that goal, in addition to spinning seven gripping and often grim tales--not at all what people often think of, stereotypically, as the stuff of the "Golden Age."  Try them for something different, or if you are already a fan of the "tough" American crime fiction from the same era.  There's more on Addis/Drax and the books in my introduction to the series.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Worth Fifty Years of Late Fees? The Shocking Tale of William Faulkner and Marion Mainwaring's Murder in Pastiche (1954)

William Faulkner, like his mother, was a great reader of detective fiction....The classic cases and sleuths are there in hardcover and paperback.  Nero Wolfe and Inspector Maigret appear alongside the works of [John Dickson] Carr, [Carter] Dickson, [Dashiell] Hammett, [Ellery] Queen, [Mary Roberts] Rinehart and [Dorothy L.] Sayers.

John Faulkner, the author's brother, also confirms that the whole family enjoyed detective fiction.  He recounts one amusing occasions when Bill pretentiously declared that he never read anything more except Shakespeare and the
Bible," although he had asked his mother, "only minutes before, if she had anything new about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin."

                             --From "Studying the Masters: Influences from Classic Detective Fiction on Faulkner's Knight's Gambit," by Suzanne Bray, in Faulkner at Fifty: Tutors and Tyros (2014)*

(*This essay quotes The Passing Tramp on page 113, by the way.)

I remember one day walking with Faulkner over to the drugstore where he was going to exchange a stack of mystery stories for a new stack.  I asked him, "Why do you read all of these damn mysteries?" and he said, "Bud, no matter what you write, it's a mystery of one kind or another."

                             --Albert I. Bezzerides, quoted in William Faulkner, Life Glimpses, by Louis Daniel Brodsky (1990)

William Faulkner's interest in detective fiction is well-known among Faulkner aficionados, and has, indeed, been discussed previously at this blog.  In his attraction to the mystery form Faulkner hardly was alone among great writers of the 1920s and 1930s : other mystery fiends of his distinguished breed who might be mentioned are T. S. Eliot (blogged about here a number of times), Fernando Pessoa (subject of an essay by Henrique Valle in Mysteries Unlocked), Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis.

Yet with its emphasis on murky mystery embedded in complex and tricky narratives, Faulkner's "straight" fiction is especially suggestive of a man who liked mystery tales. Faulkner himself also wrote a small amount of self-disparaged crime fiction, collected in the volume Knight's Gambit; and, coincidentally, some of his early novels had dust jackets designed by one of the great between-the-wars mystery jacket artists, Arthur Hawkins, Jr.  One of these jackets, that for the notorious 1931 Faulkner novel Sanctuary, bore a strikingly similar design to that for a 1931 John Rhode detective novel, The Hanging Woman, about which I blogged here exactly three years ago today.)

There is, indeed, as much mystery in Faulkner novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! as there is in any of the most baroque Golden Age detective novels. When I read those two novels over thirty years ago I found them as purely page turning as any classic mystery in the sense of their drawing me into the dark tales with the tantalizing lure of discovering just what the heck it was that had happened to the various characters. Absalom, Abaslom! in particular draws on all sorts of classic southern Gothic tropes familiar today in the writing of such writers as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor and films like Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

In her enjoyable memoir of the Faulkner family, Every Day in the Sun, the Great Man's late niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, documents how at his home town of Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner made a habit of issuing forth from his domain at Rowan Oak to borrow mystery fiction from the nascent rental library at Gathright-Reed's Drugstore.  Writes Wells of Oxford and her distinguished yet frugal uncle [or Pappy, as she calls him]:

What did Oxford have to offer [Faulkner]?  The [town] square shut down at six.  The county was dry. There were no bars.  Restaurants stopped serving at nine.  Where could he go?

There was a single oasis on the square, Garthright-Reed's Drugstore, on the south side of the square where it had stood for thirty years, stayed open until ten.  Here was Pappy's ray of hope, his light in the window.  It wasn't exactly a watering hole, but this friendly neighborhood drugstore offered something that bars couldn't: a lending library.

Of course, Pappy had his own magnificent library at Rowan Oak, a beautiful room, understated and elegant,  Bookshelves lined two walls.  He collected everybody from Shakespeare and Henry Fielding to Henry Miller and Dostoyevsky....

Having read all the books in his library, however, Faulkner resorted to Garthright-Reed's Drugstore "for something new to read."  Pharmacist Mac Reed was a great admirer of Faulkner's writing, keeping copies of his out-of-print books for sale, "stacking them next to the cash register." Since Oxford had no bookstore, "Garthright-Reed's was the only place in town to purchase Faulkner first editions--signed when the author was in a good mood."

Square at Oxford (Mississippi)

In 1955 Reed's drugstore associate Gere Hopkins, who would later marry the best friend of Faulkner's daughter, installed a mostly paperback lending library in the drugstore.  Recalls wells:

As soon as heard about the lending library, Pappy was there.  The square was a ten-minute walk from Rowan Oak.  He could puff his pipe and pretend that he was going someone besides Garthright-Reed's and be grateful that as long last there was somewhere to go in Oxford after nine at night. He could "drop in" at the drugstore and sort through the paperbacks, greet other regular lending-library patrons, and perhaps exchange an opinion on this mystery or that.  Hopkins serenely presided over this burst of nocturnal activity.  An avid reader and devoted fan of William Faulkner, he welcomed Pappy to the store night after night.

One day, however, one of the volumes from the lending library vanished!  "The overdue book," writes Wells, "was Murder in Pastiche...by Marion Mainwaring."

Readers of this blog will recall that in my last, more than month-old post I wrote about Marion Mainwaring and her first of two detective novels, Murder at Midyears.  In the post I also mentioned how highly praised Mainwaring's second detective novel, the aforementioned Murder in Pastiche, had been by the United States's then premier crime fiction critic, Anthony Boucher

Boucher, it seems, was not the only fan of the book.  Continues Wells:

After several weeks Hopkins went to Rowan Oak to pick up the book [Murder in Pastiche].  I don't know if he went out of his way to track down every overdue item.  Maybe he was just caught up in the art of detection, or maybe he just wanted to visit with Pappy.  When Aunt Estelle [Faulkner's wife] came to the door, Hopkins explained why he had come and she said, "Just a minute, I know right where Bill put that book."  She gave it back to Hopkins and apologized for its being late. Hopkins thanked her and brought it back to the drugstore.

A mere week later, however, Hopkins

William Faulkner at Rowan Oak
noticed that the mystery had been checked out again.  He looked at the call card. The book had been signed out by...William Faulkner....

After several weeks passed, and Pappy still had not returned the book, Hopkins faced a dilemma. Should he go back to Rowan Oak again, or should he wait and let the situation resolve itself? Discretion proved the better part of valor. Hopkins relinquished
Murder in Pastiche to posterity. (I have a hunch that Pappy loaned the book to Nannie [his mother]. She would have been beside herself to get her hands on it after he mentioned it.  And he would have.)

Years later Hopkins told Wells this anecdote at the annual Faulkner Conference at the University of Mississippi.  "Not long afterward," Wells wryly reports, she and her husband "purchased a copy of the paperback and presented Murder in Pastiche to him with an apology for having "kept it" so long and, considering that the book was fifty years overdue, with a request for special consideration regarding late fees."

More on Faulkner and Square Books.

More coming soon on Murder in Pastiche!