Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Sir William Gavin (1886-1968), Agricultural Scientist and...Mystery Writer?

A month back I posted about the detective novel Wings of Mystery, published in England in 1929 by Collins and authored by one "William Gavine."  I have been able to find out nothing about this "William Gavine," but I have been able to discover a fair bit of information about Sir William Gavin, whom I suspect may have been "William Gavine."  What easier way to create a pseudonym than simply to add a letter to the end of your surname?  It wouldn't really work for me (Curtis Evanse, get real), but that simple "e" may have provided effective concealment for Sir William Gavin, who may very likely have been the only chairman of the Jamaica Banana Commission ever to publish a detective novel. (Do you know another?)

Quoting from the website History for Sale:

Sir William Gavin (original NPG)
Sir William Gavin (1886-1968) was an agricultural expert who served in various positions for the British government and in business.  He maintained a farm of 50000 acres until WW1, when he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves.  In 1917 he earned his first government position with the Ministry of Agriculture. 

Over ten years later he became a consultant with the Imperial Chemical Industries Company.  They wished to understand the perspective of the farmer, and his many years experience before and after WW1 cultivating his farm was essential in his duties.  At the onset of WWII Gavin was named the Chief Agricultural Adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture.


His obituary in the Sunday Times is more detailed:

Sir William Gavin, CBE, for many years a well-known figure in British agriculture especially through his work as Chief Agricultural Adviser to the Minister of Agriculture from 1939 to 1947, died yesterday at the age of 82.  Born in 1886, Gavin was educated at Uppingham and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Natural Sciences and a diploma in Agriculture.  He represented Cambridge at athletics and cross-country running in 1910.  when he left Cambridge, Gavin went to Lord Rayleigh's Dairy Farms and Strutt and Parker Farms in Essex, and he continued to be associated with these two enterprises, becoming a director of Strutt and Parker Farms in 1926.  When the Duke of Marlborough decided to develop his estates on similar lines, the Hon. Edward Strutt recommended Gavin who went to Blenheim and was farming some 5000 acres there when the First World War broke out.

He was commissioned in the RNVR [Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves] and served in small ships till 1917 when, at the request of Mr. Strutt, then Agricultural Adviser to Lord Ernle, Minister of Agriculture, he was seconded for special duties at the Ministry of Agriculture.  He was successively secretary and deputy director of the Army cattle committee, director of flax production and director of land reclamation. 

At the end of the war he returned to farming but in 1928, when Imperial Chemical Industries began to concern itself with agriculture, he was invited to join the company to bring the benefit of his understanding of the outlook and attitude of the farmer.  Constantly in touch with official circles, he was in 1936 appointed chairman of the Jamaica Banana Commission.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he moved his desk to Whitehall, becoming Chief Agricultural Adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture and Chief Liaison Officer to the Minister himself, having gathered around him a first-class team of liaison officers responsible personally to the Minister for the conduct of the food production campaign in the counties.  He was always accessible to anyone who wanted to see him and his understanding of agricultural susceptibilities smoothed over many awkward passages, particularly when Lord Hudson was applying his forceful drive to the ploughing up campaign in the counties.When Gavin felt that he should leave the Ministry in 1947 he reassumed his responsibilities on the agricultural side of ICI and became chairman of the Scottish Agricultural Industries.  He was a member of the Royal  Commission on Scottish Affairs (1952-1954) and to this work he brought as always practical understanding as well as sound philosophy.


Until the advent of this blog piece, there was only one webpage devoted to Sir William Gavin: "Sir William Gavin: Killer of the Countryside," at Dominic Berry's A Glonk's HPS Blog.  That's where I found Sir William's Sunday Times obit and photo, originally from the NPG.  Berry admits his title is deliberately provocative, designed to attract clicks, but Sir William, whom Berry calls "one of the most crucial and central figures" in the expanding British agricultural production during the Second World War, in truth is deeply unpopular among rural preservation activists, for his role in the development of British agrochemical farming.  It is often suggested that Sir William was corrupt, because of his promotion of pesticides while he was linked with the chemical industry.

However, what makes Sir William a villain in some people's eyes also makes him a likely candidate, in my eyes, as the author of Wings of Mystery--and, after all detective fiction is what concerns us here. 

Whomever "William Gavine" was, he was someone who knew about both insects (moths and butterflies) and chemicals and who had pronounced views about the First World War.  (No "sentimentalist," he believed the war was worth fighting and that pacifists were, well, let me put this bluntly, wankers.) 

Rayleigh Arms, Terling
Later in life, after he had finished nobly expanding food production or ruthlessly despoiling the countryside as you see it, Sir William became Vice President of the Bee Research Association and was eulogized as a great man in the British Bee Journal; and as early as 1923 he authored Bees for Beginners.  Verily, this man knew his bugs, and, like many a successful man (and woman) in his day, he may have been bitten by the mystery bug.

In 1911 Sir William Gavin, than merely William Gavin, was boarding, a single man, at the Rayleigh Arms in the Essex village of Terling, an ancient Saxon habitation which goes back to the Domesday Book.  Perhaps Gavin loved the English country too, though he obviously had differing views on economic development from environmentalists. Had he gone on to write a second detective novel (assuming he wrote the first one), perhaps he would have made it that rare thing in British mystery: a pro-developers story!

I do hope Collins will reprint Wing of Mystery, a good tale that merits it, and that we get to the bottom of the mystery of its authorship.

Tuesday Night Bloggers 2 Some Time for Sergeants: A Consideration of Beef and Cribb, Indubitably Great Detectives (with thanks to Leo Bruce and Peter Lovesey)

Sometimes accomplished mystery writers leave us wanting more, abandoning a popular series sleuth of whose exploits loyal fans were still wanting more accounts.  But these sleuths, even though the number of their recorded cases may be only in single digits, may most certainly figure as Great Detectives, like those keen coppers Sergeants Beef and Cribb, created by, respectively, Leo Bruce (Rupert Croft-Cooke, 1903-1979) and Peter Lovesey (1936), who next week in New York will be the recipient of a deserved Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.  I plan to meet him then, having only ever corresponded with him in the past.

One reason I like to read about these two clever "commoner" sleuths, Beef and Cribb, is that they are not from the posh snooty-toot school of Crime Queens Sayers, Allingham and Marsh. (I think I just originated that term, for better or worse!) Now I too like reading about the British glamour boys created by these ladies, but as I explained at length in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, I do not believe that all of classic British mystery should be defined them, as it has tended happen for a long time in the hands of such analysts as PD James and Lucy Worsley.  (We are undergoing a reassessment of this subject, to which I think my work has contributed, though I imagine many more people will be rather more directly familiar with the work of Martin Edwards, who also has revised received wisdom.)

Raymond Chandler, premier advocate and practitioner of the hard-boiled crime novel in the Forties and Fifties, complained that the British aristocratic gentleman sleuth was impossibly unrealistic and that he "just won't do," but I doubt that Chandler, who did have some nice things to say about the fictional sleuths Inspector French and Dr. Thorndyke (a medical jurist), similarly would have disapproved of Sergeant Beef, had he read any of the Leo Bruce novels, or of Sergeant Cribb had he lived to read Peter Lovesey--though I don't know how much he would have appreciated the humor in the books. (Chandler died eleven years before Cribb's first recorded adventure appeared.)

Both Sergeant Beef and Sergeant Cribb ("sergeant" carries different connotations in the two books, for Cribb is higher-ranking than Beef) appeared in eight mysteries, Beef between 1936 and 1952 (16 years) and Cribb between 1970 and 1978 (8 years).  These are:

Sergeant Beef
Case for Three Detectives (1936)
Case without a Corpse (1937)
Case with No Conclusion (1938)
Case with Four Clowns (1939)
Case with Ropes and Rings (1940)
Case for Sergeant Beef (1947)
Neck and Neck (1951)
Cold Blood (1952)

Sergeant Cribb
Wobble to Death (1970)
The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (1971)
Abracadaver (1972)
Mad Hatter's Holiday (1973)
Invitation to a Dynamite Party (1974)
A Case of Spirits (1975)
Swing, Swing Together (1976)
Waxwork (1978)

Both started off with bangs, Cribb in the brilliantly conceived Wobble to Death, about murder at a Victorian "Wobble" (all the Cribb mysteries are set in Victorian England): a marathon walking competition. (This sort of contest is known as pedestrianism).  I read Wobble over twenty years ago and was immediately delighted with the novelty of this setting, so cleverly carried out by Lovesey, an athlete himself, and the engrossing observations about Victorian England, especially its entrenched class system, which confronts Cribb all too frequently.

Beef's debut takes place in Case for Three Detectives, one of the great tours de force in classic crime fiction--still somewhat underappreciated today, I think.  The book succeeds on two levels: as a country house locked room mystery and, most notably, as a hilarious send-up of classic mystery conventions.  The conceit of the novel is that three Great Detectives appear on the scene to solve the crime: these are obviously Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and GK Chesterton's Father Brown.  Each offers a brilliant solution to the locked room murder, but each is wrong.  In the end it's the lowly local cop--darts-playing, beer-swilling, bowler-hatted Sergeant Beef--who solves the mystery! 

After the next book in the series, Case with No Conclusion, Beef leaves the force and goes into private practice as a detective, with his cases chronicled by a priggish young gentleman by the name of Townshend, who vocally disapproves of Beef's myriad insufficiencies, as he imagines them, as a Great Detective.  Yet Beef gets it right every time, even the ironic Case with No Conclusion.  It's an amusing, subversive series that belongs in the pantheon, even if none of the later books quite live up to the first (though Case with No Conclusion and Case for Sergeant Beef run it pretty close.)

For me it was the Peter Lovesey's later Cribbs books that most fulfilled the promise of his first: A Case of Spirits, with its fascinating look at Victorian spiritualism; the utterly delightful Swing, Swing, Together, a murder fantasia wondrously spun from Jerome K. Jerome's Victorian smash seller Three Men in a Boat; and the surprisingly grim Waxwork, a ingenious meditation on that most fascinating phenomenon of Victorian crime history, the accused lady poisoner of good social standing.


Why did Bruce and Lovesey abandon their series sleuths so early in their careers, Lovesey when he was 42 and Bruce when he was 49?  Lovesey I'm sure somewhere discusses this matter, but I think he might have felt the Victorian theme might be getting stale.  It's a field many another crime writer has explored since, but in the 1970s it was still quite original, I think.  (I believe John Dickson Carr, who reviewed the early Lovesey mysteries, was Lovesey's great predecessor in this regard.) 

In the 1980s Lovesey produced several classic standalones, like The False Inspector Dew, Rough Cider and On the Edge and introduced another series detective, regrettably short-lived: Prince Albert Edward, or "Bertie," son of Queen Victoria (and later King Edward VII in his own right), who drolly solves three mysteries told in novel form.  Since 1991 Lovesey has devoted himself primarily to his more serious Peter Diamond series, now seventeen in number and still going strong.  The series includes Bloodhounds (1996), an homage to John Dickson Carr and locked room mysteries.

Leo Bruce's story is a sadder affair.  As I explain in "The Man Who Was Leo Bruce," what interrupted the Beef series was the arrest of Rupert Croft-Cooke for "homosexual offenses" in 1953, an absurd affair that unfortunately resulted in Croft-Cooke's serving a six-month prison term in an English jail.  When he was released from prison, RCC understandably left England for European emigre life in Tangier.  He did not return to England for nearly two decades, a few years before his death at the age of 76 in 1979.

In At Death's Door, the detective novel RCC published in 1955, a year after his release from prison, the detective is an amateur sleuth, a schoolmaster named Carolus Deene, and one of the murder victims is a policeman.  If you can't beat  the Crime Queens, join 'em, I suppose! (The Carolus Deene series lasted until 1974.) 

It is easy to read RCC's resentment against British legal authority in this shift. Sergeant Beef never appeared again in a novel, though he did solve one last case in the short story "Beef for Christmas," which was published in a magazine in 1957 and recently reprinted in one of Martin Edwards's anthologies.  Unsatisfied with his the sales of the Carolus Deene mysteries, RCC in the late 1960s actually proposed to his publisher reviving Beef, but his publisher nixed the idea after reading Case for Three Detectives, arguing that Beef was just too old-fashioned for the modern mystery scene.  So we have the publisher to think for the fact that there were no more Beefy tales!

The publisher's lack of enthusiasm for Beef's prospects seems ironic to me, for in fact another mystery writer, Joyce Porter, at the time was making rather a success out of her Inspector Dover detective novel series.  Dover is a grosser, vastly more obnoxious version of Beef (Beef may have had a straggling ginger mustache, but Dover has showers of dandruff), and, in a fascinating reversal, it is his lowly sergeant, MacGregor, who is the posh one.  To me Dover is a Great Detective too, and I'll be writing about him next week, I hope, along with another non-gent sleuth, Anthony Gilbert's defense attorney Arthur Crook, whose short stories have been collected in a smashing new book by Crippen & Landru.  I also plan to post more specifically about a couple of Beef and Cribb books.  See you soon!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Death in Demopolis: The 1934 Extinguishing of the Frank Clements and Elsie Hildreth Smith Family

On Sunday, November 25, 1934 at Demopolis, a quiet little town of just over 4000 people situated in Marengo County at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in the heart of Alabama's old plantation belt, Gertrude Robertson, cook to 36-year-old Frank Clements Smith, cashier of the Commercial National Bank, his 22-year-old wife, Elsie Hildreth Smith, and their two young children, made a horrible discovery at the Smith house when she entered Frank and Elsie's bedroom, no one having answered her call for the Sunday breakfast she had prepared for the family. 

Gertrude, a 28 year-old black woman who a decade earlier had born an out-of-wedlock son, Nathan, knew very personally the tragedy of the death of a child, for her young Nathan had passed away earlier that year; but she surely could not have been prepared for the horror of what faced her now, in the Smith family's master bedroom.  In the bedroom she found the entire Smith family--husband, wife, toddler son and infant daughter--gruesomely slain, each and every one of them shot to death.

Frank Clements Smith (1898-1934)
Frank Clements Smith lay in his pajamas on the floor, a mortal bullet wound in his head.  Elsie lay on the bed fully clothed, with bullet wounds disfiguring both of her breasts and her arms folded across her chest.  Elsie's three year old son by a prior marriage, Frank Alkire, who normally slept in his own room, lay on the bed beside his mother, dead from a shot to the head, and the couple's infant daughter, Sabre, was in her crib, fatally shot in her mouth.

Two pistols were found in the bedroom, an automatic in the closet and a revolver under the bed.  Both had been fired.  Four shells from the automatic were on the floor and there were three empty shells in the revolver.  It could not be determined whether all of the shells in the revolver had been recently fired. 

Suspicion in the deaths focused not on Gertrude Roberston, who resided quietly with her grandparents on Arcola Street, a couple of miles away from the Smith residence on South Cedar Avenue, but rather, to the shock and chagrin of polite Demopolis society, on Frank Clements Smith himself. 

The bank cashier was the son of the late president of the Commercial National Bank, Andrew Reid Smith, and Clara Estelle Clements Smith, socially prominent natives of Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. Clara was a granddaughter of the late Hardy Clements of Tuscaloosa County, said to have been the wealthiest planter in the county before the Civil War, with declared personal wealth in 1860 of around nine million dollars in modern value.

After their marriage Andrew and Clara Smith moved south to Demopolis, and in 1907 the couple purchased Bluff Hall, a white-columned antebellum mansion in the town overlooking the Tombigbee River which originally had been owned by planter and politician Francis Strother Lyon and his wife Sarah Serena Glover Lyon, a sister of Williamson Allen Glover of Rosemount plantation in neighboring Greene County. 

At Bluff Hall Frank and his brothers, Fenton Reid Smith and Charles Singleton Smith, all three of them short, slim, blondish and blue-eyed, grew to adulthood, where presumably gilded prospects glittered enticingly before them.  Although her husband died in 1932, Clara Clements Smith still resided at Bluff Hall two years later, when her middle son and his family died so violently within a five minutes' drive of the mansion. 

Bluff Hall around the time of the deaths of Frank Clements Smith and his family
Frank Smith lived here from 1907 until his marriage to Elsie Hildreth Finch Alkire in 1933
Photo by Historic American Buildings Survey

In the pages of the New York Times, which like other newspapers around the country took notice of the shocking slayings in the refined home of a genteel southern family, it was reported that Frank and Elsie Smith, who had only married a year and half earlier, had been "apparently a devoted couple" who had gone to town on Saturday evening and returned home before midnight.  The fatal shots had been fired around 4:30 am the following morning.  Frank Smith's fingerprints were on the guns. 

Why would a devoted husband and father have so heinously slaughtered his own family?  A year after the coroner's jury regretfully concluded that the deaths were murder-suicide slayings perpetrated by Frank Clements Smith (the coroner at the time had initially held out hope that a home invader might have been responsible for the brutal crimes), distinguished historian of the American South Clement Eaton (1898-1980), then chairman of the History Department at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania (and apparently no relation of the Smith family), visited Demopolis.  There he toured the town's fabled old mansions, Gaineswood and Bluff Hall, and had his ear filled with lurid details about the ghastly murders. 

"I was told that the inheritor of Bluff Hall married a divorcee--one night he and she returned from a wild party, and later he found her untrue to him & shot her, her two children & himself," Eaton confided that night in his diary, concluding: "In this beautiful home an unlovely home life must have existed."

Bluff Hall (HABS)

As prominent a historian as Clement Eaton was, he got a few of the details wrong about the Frank Clements Smith murders. It is unlikely that Frank found Elsie being "untrue to him" at 4:30 in the morning at their own house, which, in any case, was not Bluff Hall, where his mother lived with one of Frank's brothers, Charles Singleton Smith, and Charles's wife and son. But the whispers of wild parties and amatory unfaithfulness certainly provide us with some sort of motive for Frank's seemingly inexplicable act--in this light one of the most extreme fury and despair. 

Elsie Smith was in fact twice divorced, points of interest I think, whether or not one agrees with Clement Eaton's Demopolis gossips that the dread word divorcee deserves a connotation of dubious morals. 

Josiah Franklin Alkire of Phoenix, Arizona
(1891-1951) 2nd husband of Elsie Hildreth
Although she was born in Tampa, Florida, where her father was a railroad conductor, Elsie came of a prominent agrarian family on her father's side, the Hildreths, who resided at the wealthy planter village of Jefferson in Marengo County.

Elsie's mother, Willie Jefferies Alston, died in 1910, when Elsie was but eight years old, and Elsie's father, Levan Hildreth, moved with his family to Jacksonville, Florida.  After the First World War he relocated to Prescott, Arizona, where he worked as a railroad brakeman, with his youngest son and Elsie. 

In 1920 Elsie at age 18 was lodging separately from her father in Prescott with a druggist and his family.  On December 15 of that same year, Elsie at her brother's house in Prescott married Riverside, California native George Battles Finch (1896-1986).

Elsie, whom the Prescott Weekly Journal-Miner in a notice about the wedding described as "a well known and popular member of Prescott's younger set," was dressed in "a becoming brown satin gown, with hat and shoes to match."  Despite Elsie's purported popularity, "only a few intimate friends were present" at the ceremony.  George Finch had been superintendent of the Arizona Bus Company, but the new couple was moving to his native Riverside, where George had accepted a position with the firm of J. W. Kemp, Cadillac dealers.

About a year later, however, the same Prescott newspaper reported that Elsie was leaving the region and her man in the motor trade in order to reside with relations in Marengo County, which suggests that her marriage had quickly soured and that she had may have found it advisable to "get out of Dodge," so to speak.  Yet nine years later, on December 2, 1929, Elsie, was back in Arizona again, where she married Josiah Franklin Alkire, son of the respected pioneer Phoenix rancher and printing company owner Frank Tomlin Alkire.

Although two year later Elsie gave birth to the couple's son, Frank (presumably named for his prominent paternal grandfather), the marriage foundered in 1932, and a now twice divorced Elsie returned yet again to Marengo County, where the next year, quickly on the rebound, she fatefully wed Frank Clements Smith, a diminutive but dashing UA graduate and cashier in his late father's bank who still lived with his parents at elegant Bluff Hall.

James Hildreth House, Jefferson, Alabama
built in 1848 by Elsie Hildreth Finch Alkire Smith's great-grandfather

At UA back in 1920 the school yearbook had portrayed the handsome though intense-looking young Frank, a science major and member of the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega, as a dirty-blond and blue-eyed heart breaker:

How so much good-heartedness and pep can be combined in five feet four inches, has long been a wonder to us.  A "top" sergeant in SATC days [Student Army Training Corps, not Sex and the City].  The cause of many broken hearts and wistful glances.

Yet it appears to have been UA's adored Frank Smith who in 1934 was mastered by his passion for his wayward wife and destroyed both himself and her, along with their innocent children.

Rosenbush Furniture Store  Building in Demopolis, home as well to a funeral parlor, until 1934
(see Rural Southwest Alabama)

In 2011 the Southern Jewish Historical Society sponsored an interview with Bert Julius Rosenbush, Jr., the so-called last Jew in Marengo County, whose father, Bert Julius Rosenbush, Sr. (1902-1975), owned a furniture store and funeral parlor in Demopolis at the time of the tragic extinguishing of the Frank Clements Smith family. 

The younger Bert, who was only five years old at the time of the slayings (his sister was just two), recalled that the terrible violent deaths of this attractive young family prompted his sensitive father, who was given the mortifying task of preparing the victims for burial, to abandon the funeral business for good and all:

....when my daddy went in the business he went to Cincinnati and became a licensed embalmer.  He practiced embalming along with running the furniture store with my grandmother until a tragic accident happened here in Demopolis.  After that accident...it was just such a sad affair that my daddy decided to give it up. 

What was the accident? 

It was...a man killed his family and they were about the same age as his family.  So, he just decided...just to stick to the furniture business and give up the undertaking part.


interior of Bluff Hall (HABS)

Devious and devouring death seemed greedily to stalk the Smith family in the 1930s and 1940s, for during that time Frank's older brother, Fenton Reid Smith, and sister-in-law likewise were taken in unexpected ways. 

In 1923 Fenton married Alice Portman Bright and later the couple moved to the Panama Canal Zone, where he was employed with the Panama Railroad Company.  Shortly before Andrew Reid Smith's own passing in 1932 at the age of 73, Alice Smith died from Spanish Influenza in the Canal Zone at the Gorgas Hospital (named for the famed native Alabamian disease battler William Crawford Gorgas).  Nine years after his wife's untimely death, Fenton himself perished in the Canal Zone at the age of 48, when he drowned during a 1943 fishing excursion.

An inscrutable end?
Frank Clements Smith's faded gravestone
in the family plot at Evergreen Cemetery,
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
During the 1940s Clara Clements Smith, whom her son Frank had made the beneficiary of his will in 1923, continued to reside at Bluff Hall with her surviving son, Frank's younger brother Charles Singleton Smith, a bookkeeper with the Commercial National Bank, and Charles's wife and son, Andrew Reid Smith II, though the upper floor of the mansion was converted into apartments.

Clara sold the house in 1948, when she was 77 years old, and moved to Long Beach, on the Mississippi Gulf coast, where she died in 1955.  Two decades later, in 1967, Bluff Hall became a house museum maintained by Demopolis, and so it remains today: a lovely white-columned southern mansion with an appalling family tragedy buried in its past.

What does this all this have to do with the world of vintage crime fiction with which this blog normally concerns itself?  A decade after the murders a crime writer may have drawn loosely on them in a detective novel set in a fictionalized Demopolis--one which, I can now to announce, soon will be hitting the presses again.

Bluff Hall today

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ray and Jimmy: The Raymond Chandler-James M. Fox Correspondence Part 3, "I must report immense relief at Marlowe finally being allowed to sleep with one of his women...."

Some time ago when I left off with the second installment of the saga of Ray and Jimmy--found in the six-year correspondence between Raymond Chandler and much lesser-known crime writer James M. Fox (native Dutchman Johannes Knipscheer)--we were in the middle of the saga, February 5, 1954, with Chandler telling Fox to "cut out the 'mister,' please," when Fox addresses him.  (The two men were two decades apart in age, Chandler 65 and Fox 45.)  Soon they were addressing each other as Ray and Jimmy rather than Chandler and Fox.

In the same letter Chandler tells Fox that his, Fox's, police novel Code Three--a departure for the younger author, who was best known for his medium-boiled Johnny and Suzy Marshall mystery series (see here for my less than enthusiastic review of one installment of the series, The Gentle Hangman)--"as a piece of story construction...probably is much better than Dark Crusade," Fox's recent espionage novel.  "But it is not in the same class of writing...."

James M. Fox
Apropos to this declaration concerning the merits of story construction and pure writing, Chandler reiterates views from his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," when discussing the British publisher Hamish Hamilton.  "I think he has flopped on the American books he has published more often than not," Chandler averred of Hamish Hamilton, continuing:

He has always published John Dickson Carr whom I find as unreadable as Mickey Spillane. although for different readers. [Carr and Chandler feuded around four years earlier when Carr, having taken umbrage at Chandler's withering attack on classic English mystery in his essay, had panned Chandler's Simple Art of Murder collection in a review]. 

I can't read Agatha Christie either....Most mysteries--I'd say 90%--are written by people who can't write.  I take it they write mysteries because there are enough people in the world who will read almost anything in this field....There's always a market for a clever hack and I must say that the nicest writers I have known personally are the hacks.  The others are egotists and boring.

Which reminds me I am now the same.


This is what I love about Chandler: he can but utterly, defiantly obtuse on the matter of the merits and appeal of riddlers like Carr and Christie, but then he can deflate himself in a burst of self awareness.

Fox's next letter to Chandler was full of praise for Chandler's new Philip Marlowe mystery, The Long Goodbye, often considered Chandler's best novel.

you'd think the man would be
happy to hear such praise--
he must be jaded or something
The Long Goodbye is, as you're probably quite well aware yourself, the best book you have written....Of course the Philip Marlowe novels have always been in a class by themselves.  The most elementary proof of this, I think, lies in the fact that they can all be read again and again with undiminishing returns to the reader....The Marlowe novels should probably never have been classified as "mysteries" at all.  They are novels of character, and novels of low manners, written "down" somewhat, I imagine, so as not to offend the so-called sensibilities of a certain chosen market.  The mystery part of the plots is always ingenious, and never really important.  In The Long Goodbye...the outcome is almost transparent from Chapter 13 on.  But the fortunate reader is treated to such a banquet of style, characterization, acerbic wit and plain good literature, not to mention frequent dishes of almost painfully keen philosophy, that he leaves the table with a feeling of exhilaration.

I read The Long Goodbye in one day, and wound up rather depressed, because the book made it so terribly clear how wide the gap really is between your accomplishment and mine.  It will have the same effect on all of your colleagues who are not hopeless egotists....

On the lighter side, I must report immense relief at Marlowe finally being allowed to sleep with one of his women....

....Has it seriously occurred to you to write your autobiography?...[If not] I'd like a further try at persuading you to allow me to attempt a straight biography....

On the writing of Code Three, Fox diffidently explained explained that he had "been trying for years to talk Little, Brown into letting me shift away from my medium-boiled series characters, who don't fit the present audience trend towards sex and violence,.....They finally agreed, rather late in the day, to an experiment with a hardboiled police story.  I had to do it in six weeks or so to meet their schedule....Now they want more of them quick, because they made a good reprint deal on it, and it happens I don't feel much like obliging....

It was nice of you to read it.  The only defense I can make for it is the obvious one [money?], apart from whatever slight flavor of real cop talk I managed to get in....


In his response to Fox, typed on February 16, Chandler, after a long rant against the IRS, whom he declared he intended to "cheat" out of as much tax as he could "without getting sent up," threw cold water on Fox's life story proposal, declaring: "I don't know why I should write an autobiography....If I did it, it would be full of lies.  I don't think anyone else should do it, though, and I shouldn't care for the idea...."

Concerning Fox's statement that The Long Goodbye had a transparent solution to its mystery, Chandler reiterated his view that "no 'honest' mystery plot will fool the aficionado....I never bother about who bumped off Sir Montague Gore-Cavendish in the gun room with the doors and windows all locked.  Very often just for the fun of it I look at the end and then amuse myself with watching the author try to smudge his fingerprints....

On February 24, Chandler invited Fox and his wife to visit him and his wife in La Jolla, though he noted, "My wife is not in the best of health...."  Fox accepted and reported in March that he and his wife had "had a grand time" with the Chandlers.  Chandler mostly discussed his and his wife's problem with finding good cooks:

These [I've just discussed] have all been white.  I have heard a lot about wonderful colored cooks.  I haven't met one around here.  Most people here have them, and I know one woman, the wife of a judge, who pays a colored cool $100 a month for two days a week.

From home economics back to crime writing, Chandler reported in April, with his usual chariness toward a successful new author:

I have read a book called Casino Royale which was reviewed in Time along with my book and I liked it but thought it overrated.  Get it and take a look because it's along the lines of yours.  [Dark Crusade?]  Seemed to me to contain 4 or 5 errors.  (If you can't get it, I'll send you my copy to read.  Don't buy it.)

Fox agreed with Chandler's assessment of Ian Fleming's James Bond novel, the first in the hugely successful series, which Newsweek had praised as "awash with champagne and gore":

I've just read Casino Royale, which has two very interesting scenes: the baccarat game and the torture scene.  Most of the rest I sort of raised an eyebrow at.  There were several outright impossibilities, probably injected because the author, knowing better, figured he had to cater to the reader's demand for sensational incidents or something.  He's got literary talent, I should think, but the book's architecture makes no sense to me, and the girl is surely a very unsatisfactory and unbelievable character?

In the next and last installment of this series, more on Casino Royale, the complexion of cooks and the fellow crime writer whom Chandler simply referred to as "that creep."  Great upheaval was about to hit Chandler's enclosed world.  As in any good mystery, there's a wicked twist in the tale, one which may even surprise the Chandler aficionado.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Tuesday Night Bloggers The Great Detectives 1: Roderick Alleyn Murderset: Off with His Head (1956), by Ngaio Marsh

If we keep adding Great Sleuths
this old tug may capsize--and then
who will solve our murders for us?
Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Inspector Alan Grant: they all appear as entries in a new book edited by Eric Sandberg, 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.  The perennially interesting subject addressed in this book has resulted in the reconvening of the world-renowned Tuesday Night Bloggers, who now ask the question: who else should make the cut as Great (nay, the Greatest) Detectives?

Also included in the Sandberg book are Chief Inspector Wexford, Inspector Morse, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel.  From the classic era we further have Nigel Strangeways, Philip Trent, Nero Wolfe, Chief Inspector Maigret, Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, Ellery Queen, Father Brown, Doctor Fell and Gervase Fen.  And, of course, there are icons Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin.

Right off I can think of a few obvious omissions here: Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Perry Mason, Reggie Fortune, Max Carrados, Miss Silver, Carolus Deene, for example, and four British policemen: Michael Innes's Sir John Appleby, Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef and Chief Superintendents Roderick Alleyn, created by Ngaio Marsh, and Peter Diamond, created by Peter Lovesey.  Some of these I will be talking about this month. 

I start with that handsome posh devil, Roderick Alleyn, whom one mainstream author and mystery fan, Sheila Kaye-Smith, disparagingly termed one of the "glamour boy" detectives.  Opinion has divided about "Handsome Alleyn" for decades, but over those years he has maintained a large following of dedicated admirers.

Alleyn's creator, Ngaio Marsh, usually is included by rote in the Hall of Greatness with her sister Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.  Yet in the Sandberg book her place, and her detective's, in the Crime Queen pantheon is taken by Josephine Tey and Tey's Alan Grant.  Was Alleyn unjustly exiled?

Marsh in the 1950s, probably
at the height of her critical reputation
Just as Rex Stout is credited with fusing the classical and hard-boiled traditions in the US with the teaming of master armchair brain Nero Wolfe and his wisecracking assistant Archie Godwin, Ngaio Marsh has been credited with melding the gentleman detective and policeman strains in British detective fiction in the attractive form of posher-than-thou Roderick Alleyn.  I have seen Marsh even credited with creating the first important Golden Age policeman detective.

While this latter claim is errant, certainly the first one is true.  If this fact alone does not make Alleyn one of the greatest literary detectives, his tremendous worldwide popularity over many decades should be considered as a major point in his favor.  The simple truth is that since around 1940, Alleyn's name, along with Campion's and Wimsey's, has been synonymous with British Golden Age detection. 

This dazzling trio of polished and sophisticated tecs constituted the Great Trimvirate, if you will, of British romantic gentleman sleuths from the Golden Age and I think all three of them should be considered "Greatest Literary Detectives."

"Romantic" is important here, else we could include a whole slew of additional gents, such as the aforementioned Reggie Fortune, whose greatest passions are cream puffs and his cat.  But no reader, presumably, ever indulged in fond and loving dreams about Reggie Fortune.  (I am always amazed to recall that he has a wife, one who is rather fond of him too.)  By bringing love and romance into the lives of their seluths, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh helped expand the audience for detective fiction, removing it strictly from the dry ratiocinative plain and adding the stormy dramatic emotions associated with the mainstream novel. 

Some liked this, some did not.  Naysayer Raymond Chandler complained that Troy Allen was an utterly "silly" character, apparently because she was a great woman painter.  I think what Chandler may have been getting at is that he felt Troy, like Sayers's Harriet Vane and Nicholas Blake's Georgia Strangeways, whom he specifically referenced as well, was an overliy idealized "Mary Sue" character.  As opposed to Philip Marlowe, of course!

Wimsey, Allingham and Alleyn all fell in love in the course of their mysteries and married clever and accomplished women.  Here Wimsey set the mold, to be sure, but Marsh very much imitated it, and rather ably too.  The first Marsh mysteries remind me very much of Christies, and inferior ones at that.  But with Artists in Crime and Death in a White Tie, Marsh introduced Alleyn's love interest, painter Agatha Troy, and the quality of her books jumped markedly. 

Marsh's greatest skill as a writer lies with her depiction of social manners rather than with her mystery plotting per se.  The latter, while competent, seldom reaches the higher flights of creative imagination.  Her puzzle plots often are more workmanlike than inspired, contrasting with sublime tricksters like Christie and John Dickson Carr.  Not for Marsh the cunningly hidden motive or the baffling impossible crime, such ingenuity demonstrably inspiring neither her nor her detective:

"Don't," said Alleyn wearily, "let us have any nonsense about sealed rooms."                                                                                                                   --"I Can Find My Way Out"

So to writers who prefer extreme puzzlement, Marsh can be a disappointment.  Sayers, whatever you think of Lord Peter, like John Rhode often has some fiendishly clever "howdunit" aspects to her mystery plots.  Similarly Margery Allingham can be immensely fertile in her criminal imagination.  (Further, I would argue, she is the best pure writer of the group.)

However, Marsh did offer fans of miracle problems an "impossible" situation on rare occasions.  One of these, I understand, is in her recently completed (by author Stella Duffy) Money in the Morgue.  Another is found in her 1956 detective novel Off with His Head (Death of a Fool in the US), where a man is decapitated on stage during the performance of an ancient pagan fertility rite, the South Mardian Sword Dance.  How this was done is, well, a mystery!

Handsworth Sword Dancers Sheffield, England
Sure it's a half-century before the book is set, but who would know?

This situation plays to Marsh's proven capacity as an adept director of theatrical productions, particularly Shakespearean plays, which often involved fleet movements of actors wielding swords.  Marsh, in short, had to know first and foremost how to move people around on a stage.  Indeed, her first five detective novels, as I recollect, all include restagings of the murders in various theaters of death (a country house, a stage, a hospital, a church, a stage again), with Alleyn directing his cast of suspects, if you will, hoping to catch one out in crime.  This quickly got rather redundant, and thankfully Marsh stopped doing it so much, but in Off with His Head, there's more sense to it, because the "how" is very much the thing and the setting is, literally, a stage.

Besides its miracle problem, Off with His Head offers fans of  classic English mystery what many of them like best in detective fiction: a very, very "English" setting.  Here we have a snowbound village, a ruined castle, a hideous Victorian country house, a pub and a smithy, which are variously peopled by gentry, rustics, a fetching barmaid, a village "natural," young lovers of different classes (Oh, heavens!), a rector, a doctor and a gas station owner, late of the RAF, named Simon "Simmy-Dick" Begg.  If a character is named "Simmy-Dick," you know it must be a British mystery.

The speech of all the characters, including an intrusive visiting German-born folklorist in her late 50s, one Mrs. Bunz (not Buns please!), is rendered in scrupulously observed dialect.  This is the sort of setting lovers of classic English mystery tend really to love and haters of English mystery tend really to hate.  What seems charmingly "real" olde England to some seems insufferably synthetic to others.

"[F]aked-up English country people," is how scold Edmund Wilson disparagingly referred to Marsh's provincial characters (specifically referencing her village novel Overture to Death).  Even one character in Off with His Head pronounces the whole milieu "Mummerset," employing the facetious term for the heavy imitation West Country accents used in English drama to signify bucolic rusticism.

Behold a pale rider! His steed is "Crack."
From her earliest days as a detective fiction writer, Marsh, a New Zealand native, was fascinated with the traditional English class system.  Even her biographers admit she idealized it, though they argue that over time she came to be more skeptical of it. Her classic English country house and village mysteries, extending over more than four decades, are A Man Lay Dead, *Overture to Death, *Death at the Bar, *Death and the Dancing Footman, *Final Curtain, *Scales of Justice, *Off with His Head, Dead Water, Tied Up in Tinsel and Grave Mistake, which amount to about a-third of her total output (the starred titles major efforts). 

I mentioned in my last post about Marsh, concerning her late mystery Black as He's Painted, that she liked places in England where in her eyes time stood gratifyingly still, in this case a street in London that reminded her of Shakespeare's Henry V.

I think in her own life Marsh was like a lot of Anglophile American mystery lovers who want England to be all tea and crumpets and forever quaint and cozy. I like to read about this land myself sometimes!  Fictional England in this reading becomes a kind of mental refuge from problems of dislocated modern life, a place where we can travel in our minds where everyone has the comfort of having a sure and certain place in society. 

South Mardian in Off with His Head is such a place to a great extent (rather unbelievably one could argue)--but things are changing even there.  The only representatives of the gentry are Dame Alice Mardian, 94-year-old chatelaine of Mardian Castle; her unmarried great-niece, Dulcie Mardian, a victim of too much gentry inbreeding (hey, this is what the characters say) who banged her head after falling off a horse at a hunt and has never been quite right since; her great-nephew by marriage, Reverend Mr. Samuel Stayne; and the reverend's son, Ralph, a lawyer in town. 

Obviously Dulcie is a genetic dead-ender.  (How cruel Marsh could be to "spinsters"--though she was one herself--was this more deflection on her part?)  Thus all hopes for the future rest with Ralph, who has recently thrown over the barmaid at the Green Man, Trixie Plowman, for captivating Camilla Campion, who represents an almost absurdly unlikely example of cross class breeding.

The Village Blacksmith
by Thomas Hoveden
Camilla is the granddaughter of village blacksmith William Andersen (the Guiser), whoo--along with his five strapping sons (including a set of twins and the youngest, Ernie, a "natural"), Ralph Stayne and RAF veteran and service station operator Simon Begg--every year performs the ritual Sword Dance on the grounds of the Mardian's ruined castle. 

William Andersen had one daughter, Bess, who years ago ran off with the baronet Camillo Campion (an authority on Italian primitives, don't you know), after he caught sight of the fair maid while getting his car fixed at the Andersen's smithy. Their daughter, Camilla, now a rather affected but oh! so fetching drama student, has fallen for Ralph Stayne and he for her, but, as in Overture to Death and Death at the Bar, there is grave concern about mixing up the classes. 

Even Camilla, who talks about "her gentry side" and "her rustic side" (which seems ridiculous to me, because she was never even reared in the country, as a rustic or otherwise; but then she is talking about the dubious science of ancestral inheritance and what-not), sees this as an important issue, especially after her grandfather somehow gets decapitated at the Sword Dance, where for decades he has literally played the Fool:

There'll be the most ghastly publicity, won't there? [Camilla is the type of person who uses the word ghastly a lot-TPT.]  What about that?  What sort of fiancee am I going to be to a rising young country solicitor?  Can you see the headlines?  "History Repeats Itself!" "Mother Ran Away from Smithy to Marry Baronet!"  "Grand-daughter of Murdered Blacksmith Weds Peer's Grandson"!  "Fertility Rite Leads to Engagement"! 

Camilla is 18 and it's supposed to be, I surmise, 1955, a year after Kingsley Amis published his iconoclastic novel Lucky Jim.  Modern readers may be disappointed to learn that Camilla is considering abandoning her career so soon--before it has even started--to marry and they may doubt that she really would be so desperately sensitive to what the newspapers might say about her marriage.  But this is the dramatic conflict which Marsh gives us, so you have to take it or leave it as you please.  Personally I concentrated on the milieu and the mystery. I have never been that taken with Marsh's guileless yet so very pleasantly posh young lovers, who appear in book after book after book.  (There is a similar couple who pops up as late as 1978, in Grave Mistake, except there as I recollect the nice boy is the son of a dazzlingly rich Greek, a sign of social progress in Marsh's eyes I gather.) 

In Christie's works there is always a possibility that one of the "nice" young lovers could turn out to be a conniving and rather fiendish murderer indeed, but Marsh is more like Patricia Wentworth in this regard, being a great believer in not only the passion but the purity of young love, at least in her writing (and Shakespeare's). Poor middle-aged and elderly spinsters often get rather a hard time of it in her books, as if they must be mocked for their failure to marry. (Here it's Dulcie Mardian and folklorist Mrs. Bunz--though the latter, actually a widow, makes rather an amusing satirical portrait of academic enthusiasm.)

Whether you see Marsh's milieu in Off with His Head as real or contrived, I think it's artfully done.  The setting is memorable, and the dance stuff intriguing.  Marsh by name credits two books, Douglas Kennesdy's English Dances and Violet Alford's Introduction to English Folklore, for their help, which at least indicates more research on Marsh's part than Sayers's bell-ringing pamphlet, inspiration for the latter's highly-regarded The Nine Tailors.

The problem afforded readers is a fair play one, and on rereading I can see how meticulous Marsh was with her clueing.  For a story depending so much on stage movements, a plan of the stage and the players really should have been provided, however.

As for Roderick Alleyn, Great Detective, he is his usual charming and rather precious and all-too-pleased-with-himself self. 

He still gratingly calls Sergeant Fox, his long-suffering yet fortunately phlegmatic assistant, "Foxkin" (urk!) and, in my favorite Alleynism in the novel, the handsome Super indicates that he is quotingly familiar with that supreme camp anthem, an innuendo-laden hit made famous by the inimitable Beatrice Lillie (or, as Alleyn no doubt would have known her, Lady Peel) during the Golden Age of detective fiction (arguably rather akin to Tiny Tim's Tiptoe Through the Tulips) called There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden:

"I take it," said Mr. Fox during a pause, "that we don't believe in fairies. He looked mildly around the table.
"Not at the bottom of this garden, anyway," Alleyn muttered.
"My dad did, then," Ernie shouted.
[He's the natural, naturally.]
"Did what?"  Allen asked patiently.
"Believe in fairies."
Fox sighed heavily and made a note.

I don't know about my Foxkin, but at this point I have learned to love Handsome Alleyn's priceless preciosity  and wouldn't have the dear man any other way.  Rory can visit the bottom of my garden any time he wants!  Oh dear, did I just type that?!



"You wouldn't think they'd dare/To come merrymaking there/Well--they doooo!" 

To be sure, there may not be actual fairies in this particular Marsh garden, but Off with His Head still is chock full of queer and colorful characters mysteriously and sometimes murderously gamboling in the wintry gloam.  Whether or not the novel really speaks accurately to evolving social conditions in Fifties Britain, it makes an enjoyable mystery read--and that is enough for most of us, I expect.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Out of Africa I : Black as He's Painted (1974), by Ngaio Marsh, Part 1

A better post for dealing with death and resurrection is coming on Tuesday, but for now I hope you enjoy this one, the first of a Passing Tramp series. (I hope.)

Detective novelist and theater director Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) left her native country of New Zealand for the first time at the age of 33, when in 1928 she traveled to England at the invitation of the Rhodes, a family of superior social station in Marsh's home city of Christchurch, from where they had recently departed.  (The Rhodes, on whom Marsh would base the title family in Surfeit of Lampreys, had returned to England, where they settled for a time at a Georgian manor house in Buckinghamshire, giving Marsh a taste, much relished by her, of English country house society.)  Until near the end of her life the nearly indefatigable author would travel back and forth between her mother country, with which she was much enamored, and her home in New Zealand, making her last trip to England in 1974-75, when she was nearly 80 years old.

On a 1961-62 trip to England, during which Marsh wrote her detective novel Hand in Glove, the author stayed at a "rented house in Montpelier Walk, in Knightsbridge, her favorite part of London," notes biographer Margaret Lewis.  Lodging with Marsh was one of her young actor proteges, a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, a 23-year-old fellow Christchurchian who was 43 years her junior.  (Though Marsh removed five years from her declared age, what she actually admitted to still made a great gap in years between the two.) 

Knightsbridge street, I believe, where Ngaio Marsh resided in 1961-62

To preserve the proprieties, as she imagined them, over the eighteen months during which the pair cohabited, Marsh called him her godson and he called her "Godma," a term of endearment used by a character in a late Marsh detective novel, Grave Mistake (1978).  The two got along smashingly, Marsh coaching her "godson" "to get rid of the last vestiges of his New England accent" (a lifetime bugbear for the Anglophile Ngaio) and he acting as her "squire," dining with her in the evenings and escorting her to the theater. And then there were those stay-at-home Sundays:

He could have been posing for Agatha Troy:
New Zealand professional wrestling legend
Steve Harper (1929-2015), mainstay of
the New Zealand wrestling program
"On the Mat" (1975-1984)
Not quite Shakespeare, but it'd do.
"On Sunday afternoons when they were both at home [we learn from biographer Joanna Drayton], they would watch television together.  Ngaio's favorite recreational viewing was on-the-mat wrestling.  They sat on sofas eating pieces of fruitcake topped with slices of cheese, and Ngaio would become engrossed in the action, leaning forward, leaping up and occasionally shouting directions at the screen."  Probably not your usual image of Ngaio!

Marsh adored the rented house and its quaint neighborhood, with its "street musicians and the daily cries of a knife-grinder, a flower-seller with a horse-drawn cart, and an 'any-old-rags-bones-or-bot-oools' man.  There were centuries-old echoes that reminded her of a street scene from Henry V."

In this colorful remnant of traditional England, Marsh, a cat person as you might expect, adopted a stray feline, whom she named Lucy Lockett after a character in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and an English nursery rhyme:

Lucy Lockett lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it
Only ribbon round it


This modern-day feline Lucy, who had been given Marsh by her housekeeper, a member of the Cats Protection League, had a habit, familiar to her kind, of bringing in to her home captured trophies from the outside.  On one occasion the object was a small wooden fish.

Marsh returned to reside in the neighborhood, this time in a three-room basement flat, a decade later, when she was making another visit to England in 1971.  She reported that she loved "walking down the darling little streets to my old shops," like Capri, an Italian grocery, and a "wine shop whose family greeted me as if I'd only been away for the weekend."  She was unhappy, however, with the exchange rate and the high cost of living in 70s England relative to New Zealand: "[E]verything has spiralled like crazy," she lamented.

Knightsbridge street, I believe, where Ngaio Marsh resided in 1971

Marsh would draw on these memories (well, not the whole high cost of living thing) a couple of years later in New Zealand, when she was writing her book Black as He's Painted, her 28th Roderick Alleyn detective novel, which was published in 1974, when the author was nearly 80 years old.

Elderly Golden Age mystery writers--the few of them, like Marsh, Agatha Christie and Christopher Bush, who survived and wrote into the late Sixties and the Seventies, that is--are not noted for their enlightened tolerance of the era of hippies, highs, free love and flower power, and Ngaio Marsh, a woman who very much knew what she liked and even more what she didn't, was no exception in this regard.  Happily, young people (anyone under 40, say) barely exist in Black as He's Painted

Marsh, however, does tackle, rather boldly in the circumstances, the subject of race, in the form of an African despot--or, erm, president-for-life--who just happens once to have been a great public school pal of Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, still the handsomest and downright poshest man in Scotland Yard, though he must be pushing 75 by now. (Press accounts refer to him as "Handsome Super.")

I think Marsh handles the racial aspect of the novel fairly well, despite the manifest snares it offers.  As we shall see, what real problems we find in Black as He's Painted stem more from other of the author's rather finical prejudices--of which, I've come to conclude, there was no lacking.  These prejudices do not ruin the book for me, but sadly they do undermine it.

Black as He's Painted is rather an odd sort of "detective novel," in that if I can make sense of it at all, it is a combination of cat mystery and political thriller.  There is also a fair play murder problem embedded in the story, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory, although it serves the theme of the novel, because the victim barely has any presence in, or real significance to, the story.  So there is not much of an emotional investment here.  But let's get into it, shall we?

Lucy Lockett may have lost her pocket, but she finds a fish.
The first section of the novel is a charming love story between an elderly man, Samuel Whipplestone, lately retired from the foreign service, and a delightful stray cat named, as mentioned above, Lucy Lockett. 

At loose ends in retirement, Mr. Whipplestone has left his depressing flat for new lodgings in a charming house in a charming neighborhood, the Capricorns, prompting Marsh tetchily to pronounce:

In London there are still, however precarious their state, many little streets of the character of the Capricorns.  They are upper-middle-class streets and therefore, Mr. Whipplestone had been given to understand, despicable.

This is a defensive refrain British (and white Commonwealth) Golden Age crime writers had played since the end of the Second World War, when the Labor party came to power and began enacting, to the ire of a great many of these writers, an ambitious agenda of government prompted economic redistribution. 

Soon Mr. Whipplestone is snugly ensconced in the Capricorns with his beloved Agatha Troy landscape over the mantel, a sure indicator of his refined good taste; the winsome stray cat, now named Lucy Lockett, that he rescued from young cocky Cockey vulgarians ("'One of 'er nine lives gawn for a burton,' said the youth.  He and his friends guffawed themselves into the garage."); and his most gratifyingly deferential servants, the Chubbs.  ("You won't find anything scamped or overlooked, sir....We give satisfaction, sir, in all quarters, really we do.")

Here let me digress a bit, concerning this Chubbish matter.  Despite the fact that it's ostensibly around 1973, no one in the book refers to Mr. Chubb as, well, "Mr." despite the fact that they do call Mrs. Chubb "Mrs."  Not only does Mr. Whipplestone (who is always called "Mr."--even I'm doing it) omit the "Mr."when referring to Chubb, so does Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, during the course of his murder investigation, not to mention the author herself.  (There he is, in the cast of characters: "Chubb.") 

And Chubb himself refers to Alleyn as "sir," even though he does not even work for Alleyn.  This does not seem like 70s egalitarianism to me, certainly not the 70s I knew in the US, but the fact that the Chubbs seem such throwbacks to Downton Abbey days no doubt is why Mr. Whipplestone deems them such rare and precious treasures; and he always refers to them, rather patronizingly, as "my Chubbs" and "my poor Chubbs," when the servant couple is drawn into the murderous affair detailed in the novel.

Now for a longer digression.  (I promise next post we will get into the heart of the novel!) 

Mr. Whipplestone so adores his new neighborhood, where time evidently has mostly stood still, that he is truly mortified to learn that he has for neighbors a brother and sister of appearances that are quite distasteful to him.  Of the brother and sister, Kenneth and Xenoclea Sanskrit, Marsh writes:

....he saw they were truly awful.

It wasn't that they were lard-fat, both of them, so fat that they might have sat to each other as models for their wares [they make pottery pigs], or that they were outrageously got up.  No clothes, it might be argued in these permissive days, could achieve outrageousness.  It wasn't that the man wore a bracelet and an anklet and a necklace and earrings or that what hair he had fell like pond-weed from an embroidered head-band.  It wasn't even that she (fifty if a day, thought Mr. Whipplestone) wore vast black leather hotpants, a black fringed tunic and black boots.  Monstrous though these grotesqueries undoubtedly were, they were as nothing compared with the eyes and mouths of the Sankrits which were, Mr. Whipplestone now saw with something like panic, equally heavily made-up.

"They shouldn't be here," he thought, confusedly protecting the normality of the Capricorns.  "People like that.  They ought to be in Chelsea.  Or somewhere."


This last may be a bit of a joke on Marsh's part, as Roderick Alleyn and his wife, the noted artist Agatha Troy, actually live in Chelsea, traditionally a a home to writers and even a detective novelist or two.  However, by 1974 Chelsea, particularly King's Road, which ran through the neighborhood, had become a Mecca of modish psychedelia, prompted by the opening, in 1966, of the famed prog boutique, Granny Takes a Trip.  Perhaps the Sanskrit's shopped there sometimes, however inadvisably.

Chelsea was also known for being queer-friendly and it was the longtime home of the Gateways Club, a lesbian nightclub that opened in King's Road in 1931, the year Ngaio Marsh wrote her first detective novel in yet another three-room basement flat in London.

At the blue door: entrance to the Gateways Club
Obviously Mr. Whipplestone, bless his heart, would not be in the vanguard either of fashion or transgender rights today.  But the venom of the reaction is striking to me in that it is not really moral (Marsh has always struck me as the least preoccupied of the Crime Queens with moral issues), but rather aesthetic.

Doesn't the reaction seem exaggerated and the language extravagant?  Through Mr. Whipplestone the author expresses her horror simply at how these people look-- culminating in the appalling, unspeakable fact that the man wears makeup! 

Fear of androgyny seems to be a running theme in Marsh's writing.  Yet had Marsh--who spent a substantial part of her life in theater, Shakespeare no less--really never before seen a man in makeup or, heaven forbid, drag? (Apparently Mr. Whipplestone hadn't, at least to his knowledge.) Did she find it so appalling and unspeakable then?

Was the author compensating for the face that she herself was frequently described by friends and contemporaries as "mannish in appearance":

tall, five foot ten inches...flat-chested, rather gawky...dressed usually in beautifully-cut slacks, large feet with shoes like canal boats, a deep voice--yet intensely feminine withal.

See and hear Ngaio Marsh for yourself by following this link.

Ngaio Marsh (second from the upper right) with members of the Rhode and Plunkett families

Alleyn, who shares Mr. Whipplestone's distaste for the awful Sanskrits, sums up Kenneth Sanskrit from a police report as follows, taking time to mention every thing that horrified Mr. Whipplestone:

Height 5 foot 10.  Weight: 16 stone 4.  Very obese.  Blond.  Long hair.  Dress: eccentric: Ultra modern.  Bracelets.  Anklet.  Necklace.  Wears make-up.  Probably homosexual.  One ring through pierced lobe.  Origin: uncertain.  Said to be Dutch. 

Honestly, I was expecting the poor man's origin to be from the very pits of Hell!  And what a remarkably thorough report, it lists the man's every fashion accessory.  (What, no toe ring?)  And you have to love the "Probably homosexual."  Ya think, darling Rory?  Ngaio wasn't exactly being subtle here, but then she never was with her gay characters.  Also, if I am right, Sankrit's weight was about 228 pounds?  If that is Marsh's conception of unspeakably, grotesquely "lard-fat" for a 5'10 man, she had singularly, dare I say appallingly, stringent standards for weight. 

Noted theater director reacting with disdain to strange-looking man in makeup?

But, oh, does Ngaio go on, when writing about this pair, about their weight, as well as other things:

a grotesquely fat man

a baleful fat lady

They were both fat

The man was as outlandish as ever.  Even fatter.  And painted.  And, as Mr. Whipplestone turned quickly away, what had he seen, dangling from that unspeakable neck?

the man's shirt...was unspeakable, being heavily frilled and lacy....He wore many rings on his dimpled fingers.  His fair hair was cut in a fringe and concealed his ears....The sister, vast in green, fringed satin, also wore her hair, which was purple, in a fringe and side-pieces.  These in effect squared her enormous face.  They moved slowly like two huge vessels, shoved from behind by tugs.


presumably gay, but certainly not fat,
even by Marshy standards, one presume
Chelsea Arts New Years Eve Ball, 1947
Round that ghastly fellow Sanskrit's fat neck.

those frankly appalling Sanskrits....

an astonishing deep voice inside Miss Sanskrit [as deep as the author's?--TPT]

her fat, pale hands

her embedded eyes beneath the preposterous beet-root-colored fringe

She's undoubtedly rattled, as far as one can think of blubber rattling

"Sanskirt," Alleyn repeated.  "They are enormously fat."

the elephantine bulk of Sanskrit

the great bladder-like face

walking lightly as fat people so often do

the huge bulk of Sanskrit

rather like a walking tent with his buoyant fat man's stride

a faint high-pitched voice

As the enormous tent figure, grotesque in the uncertain darkness, flounced towards them

this horrid fat man [this one from Handsome Alleyn]

smelling of hot, wet fat

his vast rump

Ngaio Marsh was not a member of any fringe groups
except perhaps the International League of Fat-Shamers
And it gets worse!  When the Sanskirts are killed--the sister symbolically makes pottery pigs and she and her brother have their heads stove in with a large one--the police surgeon snidely asks "if they would provide him with bulldozers" to remove the bodies and later adds, "You'll send these monstrosities along then, Rory?"

I find this fat obsessing and shaming, to use the author's terms, appalling (if not unspeakable).  There are genuinely unspeakable things in this world, like genocide and child abuse, but extreme girth, if extreme girth it even be, is not one of them.

Now it's true that the Sanskrits are supposed to be genuinely horrible people (the brother was a drug dealer apparently and the couple is said to have abused the cat Lucy Lockett), but since Marsh has trouble conveying real moral horror in her books (so vulgar, darling), what we really are left with is that these two "monstrosities" are horrible people because they're fat.  They might as well be Shakespeare's hunchbacked Richard III, doubled.

And, oh yes, she deplorably wears hippy clothes at, shall we say, a certain age and he's an effeminate gay.  A fat effeminate gay.  Indeed, from all this so far one could almost see the novel being titled Fat as He's Painted.  Not that Troy would want to paint a fat person, I assume.

Troy does want to paint the African dictator, however, very much.  Very much indeed.

If you can past all this classism and fat-shaming, there are good points to the novel and I will get to them, I promise, in my next post.  Marsh in my view is far more sympathetic writing about racial minorities than she is the overweight, the queer and the fringed.