Monday, January 15, 2018

Guess Who's Coming to Murder? Death Shall Overcome (1966), by Emma Lathen

"WALL STREET RACISTS ON KILLING SPREE," screamed one headline.
"POISON AND BULLETS TO KEEP BIZ WHITE," said another.


"Ran into Glover this morning.  He tells me that Owen Abercrombie has gone crazy."
"How could he tell?" asked Thatcher with genuine interest.
"Says he's talking about a Wall Street Defense Council," said Robichaux.  "With rifles.  You remember they had to take his uncle Basil off the floor in a straitjacket in '29."
"I didn't," said Thatcher, considerably entertained.
"Bad blood," Robichaux said.

"Well I ask you," Robichaux replied reasonably.  "Would you want the Sloan mixed up with someone who wants to send Negroes back to Africa, abolish social security and drop the hydrogen bomb on Cuba?"

.... as he looked at Owen Abercrombie's ponderous, underslung jaw and glittering feral eyes, he was tempted  to think that he had receded though several major geological eras and was surrounded by Neanderthals.

"They're all against us.  They'll try to muzzle us, try to smear us.  Are we going to let them get away with it?
"NO!"
"You're the only ones left to defend America.  Are you going to let the pinkos take over?"
"NO!"

a broker exits

I'm always struck when I see people declare that a given eighty or fifty or even thirty year old detective novel is "dated," because it seems to me that the old adage, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," has something of the ring of truth to it--as does another, "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Looking around today, I don't feel that Emma Lathen's fifth detective novel, Death Shall Overcome, is so all-round dated, despite the old-fashioned terminology ("negro" for black) and the fact that women play no role in the business world except as wives and secretaries. Where race is concerned, we still seem to be grappling with a lot of similar issues today.  A novel wherein one of the main characters is an old racist New York businessman of questionable mental stability who gives encouraging winks and nods to racial hate groups?  Not so dated, I think!

1966 was another troubled year for the United States and much of the rest of the world but an undeniably great year for crime writer Emma Lathen (the economist Mary Jane Latsis and attorney Martha Henissart).  With a fecundity which we associate with great Golden Age mystery producers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, Lathen that year published two detective novels about her appealing amateur sleuth, banker John Putnam Thatcher (Senior Vice President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust): Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round and Death Shall Overcome.  The pair of detective novels received boffo reviews at the time in both the United States and United Kingdom, sold like hotcakes over the years in paperback and today remain highly regarded by fans of classic crime fiction (even if the recent Thatcher eBook editions are disappointingly shoddy).

to me Lathen's cover sleuth John Putnam Thatcher
here looks like a cross between Dick Cavett and
Tom Wolfe--the latter, incidentally, an author,
it seems to me, to whom she might be compared,
just as she had been by some admirers to Jane Austen
Emma Lathen, who published her first Thatcher detective novel in 1961, would go on to produce pairs of Thatcher mysteries in additional years--1968, 1969 and 1971--as well as Thatcher singletons every other year between 1967 and 1972, for  a total of 14 Thatcher novels in the dozen years that spanned 1961 and 1972--one of the most remarkable achievements by any mystery writer, I believe, in the Silver Age of detective fiction. 

Lathen later managed two more sequences of Thatcher novels, five between 1974 and 1982 (including Double, Double, Oil and Troublereviewed here) and a final five between 1988 and 1997, the year of Mary Jane Latsis's death.  Then there were seven mysteries the pair wrote as RB Dominic, one pseudonym--as in the case of Carr and his incredibly prolific detective novelist friend John Street--not being enough to contain the pair's creative energies; these appeared in two spurts, 3 from 1968 to 1971 and 4 from 1978 to 1983.

Going back 52 years to 1966, when the Passing Tramp was but a Pramming Toddler and a mystery reader yet to be, Lathen's two detective novels from that year illustrate her three great strengths: puzzle plotting, business detail and social satire. 

Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round
is stronger on the puzzle side of the ledger, but Death Shall Overcome should be of great interest to readers today for its wry social detail.  Moreover, the puzzle is no slouch, though, like Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, it tends to get overshadowed by the author's social interest.

As suggested by the title of Death Shall Overcome, which alludes to the social activist anthem "We Shall Overcome", in this novel Emma Lathen drew inspiration from the long struggle of black Americans for civil rights, which reached a climax, of sorts, in the Sixties.  On August 6, 1965, American president Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act; a week later the Watts riots erupted in a section of Los Angeles over allegations of police brutality.   In January of the next year local NAACP chapter president Vernon Dahmer was killed by a bomb in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and the Black Panther Party was founded in October, the same month Death Shall Overcome was published.  Martin Luther King, Jr. himself had only about a year-and-a-half left to live, before he was cut down by a white assassin at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

A lot of writers, especially those of the more traditional sort of crime fiction, might well have left this touchy topic untouched, given all the controversy and all too real trauma and pain surrounding it, yet during her career Emma Lathen never shied from taking on topical events, right up to her last novel, published in 1997, which dealt with collapse of Communism in the former states of the Eastern Bloc.

In Death Shall Overcome, Wall Street has ructions aplenty when the octogenarian Nat Schuyler, the puckishly subversive eminence of ultra-prestigious brokerage firm Schuyler & Schuyler, announces that the firm plans to take  on as a new partner (fatefully with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange) distinguished multi-millionaire banker Edward Parry, who just happens to be a "negro," to use the terminology of the novel. 

Utterly appalled by this development are hidebound white racists Owen Abercrombie ("Wall Street's most vocal ultraconservative") and Dean Caldwell, young senior analyst of Schuyler & Schuyler ("He's from Alabama"), despite the fact that Edward Parry is "a replica of a Wall Street financier with a dark skin" who "in a happier era," Lathen drolly observes, "might have been a Republican."  Parry seems a true paragon of virtue, something like Sidney Poitier in the 1967 Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?--though refreshingly to my taste the Lathen novel is vastly more acerbic than that well-meant but rather saccharine and didactic star-turning film.

At an elite social get-together, however, it is not Edward Parry who drops dead but rather another partner in S&S, Arthur Foote, who is shockingly done in by means of nicotine dropped into his Bloody Mary highball glass.  But was the true target actually Edward Parry?  This theory seems to get confirmation when someone takes an errant rifle shot at Parry, outside his home in a wealthy--and lily white--suburban neighborhood.  Of Parry's admittance into this august community comments Lathen sardonically, "they were perfectly prepared to embrace any one-home builder, provided only that he was a multimillionaire."

Actual detection gets sidelined for a long time as Lathen amusingly deals with the consequences of wealthy white resistance to Parry's elevation to the Stock Exchange. 

Black novelist Richard Simpson, who opportunistically  has formed the group CASH (Colored Association of Share Holders) indiscriminately threatens the elite of New York with a "March on Wall Street"--this an allusion to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, which had helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act. (I was also reminded of, from more recent years, Occupy Wall Street.)

I think there's no doubt the women who wrote as Emma Lathen were fairly liberal on many issues and in Death Shall Overcome they rebuke white racists roundly; yet it seems to me that they also treat Richard Simpson as something of a posturing phony, more concerned with gratifying his own ego than meaningfully expanding civil liberty.  Is he based on the distinguished black author James Baldwin?  Here's the character's introduction to the reader:

Mr. Simpson, noted for his simpleminded and successful novels about an expatriate in Paris and his beautiful relationship with a sylphlike busboy, had the resonant voice of an actor, and a firm grasp on the microphone thrust before him.


Be that as it may, this novel managed to unite in a chorus of praise both the conservative critic Jacques Barzun and the liberal critic Anthony Boucher, both of whom were lovers of mystery fiction, though they frequently were at odds not only politically but aesthetically.  Barzun, a putative puzzle purist, was so impressed with Lathen's treatment of "the civil rights movement, with its attendant sing-ins and sit-ins," that he forgave her "playing down of mystery and detection in favor of social comment and superb characterization"; while in a contemporary notice Boucher proclaimed Lathen's latest her best work yet and a "wonderfully rational and pointed novel."

Traditionalists never fear, though: there is a good puzzle here, with impeccable clueing, if only sporadic investigation.  If you're a fan of classic crime fiction, Emma Lathen should overcome your entertainment doldrums.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Nixed in Norway: Death in a Cold Climate (1980), by Robert Barnard

not the land of the midnight sun
As we enjoy, if that's the right word, our first snowfall of the season in my particular neck of the woods and I eat some Icelandic yogurt with cloudberries, I see that the inoffensive country of Norway has popped up in American political news.  And what did Norway do to deserve this unsought distinction?

It was divulged the other day that the United States president (for lack, unfortunately, of another word) recently opined to a group of American congresspeople that the US needed more immigrants from Norway and fewer (apparently none would be his preference) from "shithole"--his word!--countries like Haiti and those comprising the continent of Africa.

Back in the 19th century, when the president's paternal grandfather--a man who was, like many of my ancestors, of German origin and who apparently went originally by the name of Drumpf--came to the United States, the US did get a lot of immigrants from Norway. 

Norwegian immigration to the US peaked in 1882, according to the Seattle Times, when nearly 30,000 Norwegian settlers came to American shores. Conversely in 2016--the year, incidentally, that the current American president was elected--only 1114 Norwegians immigrated to the US, about 500 fewer than the number of Americans who left the US that year to settle in Norway.

Contrary to what crime fiction tells us
Scandinavia does not lead the world in
serial killers--reason for happiness!
World Atlas lists the clear leader in this
bloody arena as the United States,
followed by England, South Africa,
Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany
Australia, Russia and India.
"Oil-rich Norway," according to the Seattle Times article, "ranks fourth in the world for GDP per person....boasts a universal health-care system, low unemployment, and $1 trillion 'rainy day' fund fueled by its offshore oil and gas resources that helps pay for generous pensions and other welfare programs."

"Last year, Norway soared to the top spot of the World Happiness Report.  The US was 14th in the latest ranking, down from No. 13 in 2016, and over the years Americans steadily have been rating themselves less happy."

If any Americans (or anyone else in the world, for that matter), feeling a tad glum about the state of their country lately, want to escape to Norway, but can't afford the trip, there's always, as there ever is, escape fiction.  And for readers of this blog, I presume, escape fiction means a nice murder tale. 

Yet today, in regard to Scandinavia, murder means so-called Nordic Noir, like the stuff written by world bestseller Jo Nesbo, whose latest opus, The Thirst, is a jolly little number described in the New York Times, where it has been listed as one of the best crime novels of 2017, as being about "a serial killer who stalks his victims on Tinder, rips out their throats with dentures made of metal spikes and drinks their blood."

To which I say, to quote Lucy from Peanuts: blech!  If I wanted that sort of thing I'd just read Edgar Wallace, who offers criminal thrills without all the disgusting gore.

cold indeed yet much cozier than
Jo Nesbo's crime thriller
But if you want a nice, classic deductive mystery set in Norway, how about Death in a Cold Climate (1980)?  It's a nearly four-decade-old crime novel by one of the great figures of the Silver Age of detective fiction, the late, and by me much lamented, British crime writer Robert Barnard (1936-2013).

I assume the title is an allusion by Barnard--who, at the time the the novel was written, taught literature in Norway at the University of Tromso, which had opened a few years earlier in 1972--to Nancy Mitford's popular novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949). 

Happily the title was allowed to stand by Barnard's capricious American publishers, who in the early years of his mystery writing career apparently often deemed Barnard's titles too subtle for American taste.

Thus Posthumous Papers became Death of a Literary Widow, Unruly Son Death of a Mystery Writer, Mother's Boys Death of a Perfect Mother, Little Victims School for Murder.  But then "Death," after all, is in the title of Death in a Cold Climate.  There's no question with this title that what we have a murder mystery here!

Aside from any allusion to Mitford's novel, Barnard's title for the novel is well-chosen as the story is structured around the chilled climate of Tromso, a Norwegian city located north of the Arctic Circle.  Back when Barnard lived there the population of Tromso was around 45,000 but the city since has increased to about 75,000, around a fifth of whom are college students.  But even 45,000 people is an ample enough number to provide suspects for a murder, as novelist Arnaldur Indrioason, who has made a lucrative career out of a critically-acclaimed detective series set in Iceland (pop. currently about 332,000), could tell you.

Barnard's narrative begins a few days before Christmas, during the polar night (when the sun is below the horizon), and ends the next year near the summer, when the midnight sun emerges and some thaw has commenced.  (Average high's in Tromso in December and May are, respectively, 31 and 47 degrees Fahrenheit.)

polar night in Tromso
the Arctic Cathedral, mentioned several times in Barnard's novel, is seen at lower left
By Osopolar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5545764

Not surprisingly Barnard's novel tends to focus on Tromso's Anglo-American foreign-born community: people, like he was, connected to the college, or to the developing petroleum industry, made much of by the Seattle Times in its discussion of the sources of Norwegian contentment. Yet there are significant Norwegian-born characters too.

The murder victim in the novel is an English "boy" named Martin Forsyth--a young man in his twenties, fair-haired, "but with a rich, golden fairness that was not Norwegian."  Inspector Fagermo, the methodical but not hugely memorable Norwegian policeman investigating Martin's murder, makes a side trip to England to interview the boy's parents, but outside of that errand the story takes place entirely in Norway.

The novel devotes the first chapter to the last hours in the life of the shortly to be murdered English boy.  It is made clear that on the day of Martin's death he is on his way to some sort of assignation--but who is he meeting, and what does the meeting concern?  These are the questions that concern the Norwegian police after Martin's body in unearthed from the deep snow a few months later by a joyfully inquisitive dog being taken out on a walk by his master.  (Ruth Rendell has a scene like this in one her her later Wexford books, Not in the Flesh, when a truffle-hunting dog digs up not a truffle but an odoriferous human corpse.)

one of Tromso's attractive older wooden homes plays a role in Death in a Cold Climate
http://mondomulia.com/2014/03/06/tromso-norway-part-2/

Climate seems to me one of Barnard's more sober novels, which may be a plus or minus depending on your temperament.  I missed some of the wicked humor that is abundant in Barnard's English village tales.  However, Barnard does get in some amusing shots (as well as some coarse physical insults) at a truly horrid Norwegian literature professor who enjoys belittling the students he teaches in order to build up his own sense of self-esteem.

As I have discussed before
--see my review of Barnard's first crime novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974)--Barnard seems really to have loathed academia and must have been very happy indeed when his success with mystery writing allowed him to leave the profession for good before he turned fifty.

Death in a Cold Climate may not be as amusing as Death of an Old Goat, but Norway comes off much better at Barnard's hands than Australia, the setting of Goat and the country where Barnard, a native Englishman, had taught before going to Tromso.  Outside of the food, Barnard doesn't seem to have taken a dislike to things Norwegian, as he seemingly did to all things Australian.  The result is a far more sober--and far less fun (at least if you're not a sensitive Australian)--novel than Death of an Old Goat.

As a mystery Death in a Cold Climate boasts one excellent piece of misdirection, the sort of thing that brings to my mind the adjective Christiesque.  Among his generation of British mystery writers, Robert Barnard may have been the most openly admiring of Agatha Christie (certainly more so than was Ruth Rendell), and it shows in occasional flashes of brilliant technique, of which Climate offers one of the earlier instances.  So try out the book, you should enjoy the trip.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Murder's Little Helper: Hours to Kill (1962), by Ursula Curtiss

"Kids are different today," I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down.
And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill.
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.

"Things are different today," I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for her husband's just a drag.
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak.
And she goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day.

"Doctor, please, some more of these."
Outside the door, she took four more.


                                        --from "Mother's Little Helper," by the Rolling Stones

it helps get her on her on way--to where?!
But she went on wondering, while she put potatoes in to bake, took frozen vegetables out of the refrigerator, swept up some cereal Hilary had poked under the radiator....

Hilary was, loosely speaking, another human being, a voice and a full set of complaints to keep her occupied.  "Would you like some apple-sauce--that goes down easily--and milk? and I'll bring my coffee in, shall I?"

She felt caught in a dangerous spiral from which only activity, any kind at all, could release her.

Margaret could never remember having spoken aloud to herself, in whatever extremity; when she had heard people do it on stage, it smacked of self-consciousness.  Now, hands still tight against her face, she said to the neat blue and white pantry, "Oh God, what shall I do?"


A year after the publication of American crime writer Ursula Curtiss's novel Hours to Kill (1962)--quoted in the four excerpts above about the novel's angst-ridden protagonist, Margaret Russell--Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique--a non-fiction book about the angst-ridden lives led by many American women--appeared in print.  Having been asked in 1957 to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion, Friedan had concluded from the responses she received that dissatisfaction with their lot in life as housewives was rife among them.  This shocking finding--perhaps not so shocking to Friedan--led her to begin researching her book, which became the bestselling non-fiction book in the US in 1964. 

Two year later NOW (the National Organization for Women) was founded, with Friedan as its first president.  The group's professed aim was bringing women "into the mainstream of American society now in fully equal partnership with men.

The same year that NOW was founded that noted feminist British rock group (sarcasm!), the Rolling Stones, rose to #8 on the American pop charts with Mother's Little Helper, a catchy, snarky little ditty about Sixties wives and mothers popping Valium pills to get themselves through their days. 

Critics of The Feminine Mystique saw the book
as a society shattering attack on domesticity and
those who practiced it, while defenders saw it as
a legitimate and overdue airing of criticism of
a cruelly self-effacing social system--yet
however you see it yourself there is no doubt
but that the book was hugely influential

Social conservatives denounced all this as an attack on the sacred sex roles of wifedom and motherhood.  As late as 2005 the magazine Human Events even included The Feminine Mystique, in an interesting melange of  books devoted to expanding state power and expanding personal liberty, with The Communist Manifesto,  Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao, Das Kapital, The Kinsey Report, John Dewey's Democracy and Education, Auguste Comte's The Course of Positive Philosophy, Freidrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and John Maynard Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, as one of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. 

Feminism and the Holocaust, Friedan and Hitler--it's all pretty comparable to the folks at Human Events, evidently (Hitler comes in at #2 and Friedan at #7, that dynamic ideological duo Marx and Engels claiming the top spot as world harmers of the last 200 years). Tellingly, perhaps, the only woman Human Events apparently managed to find to serve on the panel of "15 scholars and public policy leaders" who served as judges was the late Phyllis Schlafley, the feminist-battling late president of Eagle Forum, whose last political act before her death was enthusiastically endorsing Donald Trump for president.

Meanwhile The Feminine Mystique rolls triumphantly on, over a decade after Friedan's death. A few years ago Norton published a special 50th Anniversary Edition, complete with a cover blurb by the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, drawn from O, the Oprah Magazine.  We are a divided country still.

Putting all the controversy aside, since this is, after all, a mystery blog, I couldn't help being reminded of all the above by the subject matter and the cover of the English edition of Ursula Curtiss's marvelous little (I mean this literally, the book at 160 pages is less than 60,000 words, and none the worse for it) 1962 suspense novel, Hours to Kill.

The artful jacket, by Christopher McCartney Filgate, depicts a jaded looking, orange-hued woman holding between her fingertips a little greenish-blue pill (actually a blue and yellow capsule in the book).  Though not in fact a Valium, the sinister pill, which is prescribed to a woman, plays a major role in the nightmare of horror that unfolds over a few days in the life of imperiled house-sitter and child-minder Margaret Russell.

mornidine: making cooking fresh food
for her husband fun again
When the novel opens, single, New York working girl Margaret Russell (the informal book flap description names the book's principals by their first names, omitting surnames entirely) has flown to a town in New Mexico to mind the rented house of her recently married sister, Cornelia, who is leaving on holiday with her husband, Philip, in order to recover from a recent serious bout with flu. 

Once arrived in New Mexico, helpful Margaret, who once had been engaged to Philip herself (awkward!), is tasked for a few weeks with caring for the attractive adobe house that Cornelia and Philip rented from a certain Mrs. Hadley Foale, as well as for the rambunctious eight-year-old little girl, Hilary Reverton, who was dumped on the  couple by her carefree, Greenwich Village denizen parents, who are said to be trying out a marital reconciliation in Mexico City. 

Margaret knows those Village Bohemian types, of course, who are frequent ill-favored stock characters in mid-century crime fiction: "Margaret had never seen Hilary's parents, but she was suddenly and uncomfortably sure that they were legendary Village types: sneakered, turtleneck-sweatered, so casual...."

It isn't long before Margaret has been left alone with Hilary at the house that she starts imagining all sorts of things, and that a sense of mounting unease slips in unbidden, whispering to her a series of insinuating questions....Where exactly is Mrs. Hadley Foale, anyway?  Why do these strange visitors keep coming to the house asking about her? 

Although naughtily inquisitive Hilary has been told to leave Mrs. Foale's possessions alone, she has a knack for snooping and finding the most cryptically unsettling things....

And why does she not hear from Cornelia and Philip?  Why don't they ever call?


in Hours to Kill
little Hilary Reverton
ties Margaret Russell
all up in knots (figuratively)
I hate to say too much about the plot of this splendid suspense tale, for fear of spoiling it, so I will leave it at that.  But to me it is a fascinating exploration of "domestic suspense."  This does seem to be a novel where domesticity becomes a snare for one woman, where thick adobe walls (Curtiss excels at making this unusual setting as menacing as any Gothic castle or old dark house) shut out the world, entrapping a woman in the home with horror--and an eight-year-old hellion, who adds to Margaret's headaches when she comes down with something like flu herself.

Margaret only ever manages to leave the house a couple of times, once to take Hilary to the movie theater, where--in an act that doubtlessly would be considered child endangerment today--she leaves the girl unaccompanied to watch a film so that she can get an hour of two of comparative peace.

Margaret becomes increasingly dependent on her phone, fretfully waiting for call that don't come, leaving her prone to fearful imaginings.  She occupies her time with domestic tasks, which start to overwhelm her, despite having "all the modern household conveniences," like jars of  instant coffee (now there's something scary to modern readers!) and bags of frozen vegetables in the fridge. Although even somethign as simple as making instant coffee can be a trial when you're...unsettled:

It was the kind of morning on which catastrophe seems built-in, a smell of smoke hovers just around the corner, cups and glasses topple of themselves.  Margaret had begun it by opening a fresh jar of instant coffee and, in her distraction, forgetting what happened when vacuum seals were punctured at high altitude. A geyser of brown powder shot up and then settled down over her hair, her dress, her hands.  It was somehow, at just this point, the most natural thing in the world, and after the merest washing of her hands she wore the powder as grimy as a hair shirt while she waited for water to boil.

another of mother's little helpers
Betty Friedan has been accused in The Feminine Mystique of ignoring the plights of women who weren't middle class and white, and, interestingly, in Hours to Kill Margaret gets no help from her demure and circumspect Mexican-heritage occasional maid, Lena, and is frankly fearful of a Mexican-heritage handyman she can't understand who pounds insistently on her door a couple of times. (Margaret pretends not to be home.)

"These people are gentle as a rule--courteous to an extreme," a (white) doctor, come to treat Hillary, tells Margaret.  "I suppose now and then one of them gets a wine-drinking streak on...."  There does seem to some distance, doesn't there?

To be sure, one can push this Friedan scenario too far.  Readers can judge for themselves just how feminist the resolution to Hours to Kill is.  In all the Ursula Curtiss books I have read there remains that stock figure of so much mid-century domestic suspense fiction: the handsome (and ultimately eligible) male who helps get our heroine out of her jam and promises pleasant romantic diversion in the future.

I suspect that Betty Friedan, a critic in The Feminine Mystique of the lulling content of mid-century women's magazines, would have been pretty dubious about these sorts of fictional happy endings. Among women domestic suspense writers in the English-speaking world, I think Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin pushed a bit harder against comforting conventions.

Like Friedan, some of Curtiss's readers may well have found domestic life dull and dreary (and desperately unfulfilling), but I don't know that they all were willing to go as far along with Friedan in the search for prescriptions to ease that sense of personal malaise.

don't be deceived by appearances--danger lurks inside

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: Strange Yet Still Wonderful Days in the World of the Passing Tramp

2017, though in terms of my family life the worst since I became an adult frankly (I won't start), began happily, in terms of my work (a great thing to always have work there for you), with another book, following Mysteries Unlocked, which I edited and contributed essays to, Murder in the Closet, which deals with queer themes in pre-Stonewall crime fiction.  I've come across so many LGBTQ writers of pre-Stonewall crime fiction, never acknowledged by history as such, in my researches into crime fiction that it seemed to me I was well-positioned to spearhead such a book. It addresses what seems to me is still rather an overlooked subject within mystery fiction studies.

2017 ended with Pulitzer Prize and Edgar Award winning critic Michael Dirda, in his holiday book roundup in the Washington Post (wherein in part he mentioned Coachwhip's Roger Scarlett [Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page] mystery reissues, for which I wrote the extensive introduction), calling me "the leading American scholar of the fair-play detective story."  This was very nice of Mr. Dirda, and it is a great compliment coming from someone of his standing.  I just wish I was able to get more done than I have, because I know I have it within me to do it.  Michael Dirda is one reviewer who always takes care to pay attention to what small presses, not just the behemoths, are doing, which is mightily appreciated by hard-working and rather able small presses, I can tell you. 

With Coachwhip I also wrote introductions for The Rumble Murders, by Mason Deal (TS Eliot's older brother Henry Ware Eliot, Jr.); Murder a la Mode, by Eleanore Kelly Sellars; Anonymous Footsteps, by John M. O'Connor; The Hex Murder, by Alexander Williams; The Owner Lies Dead, by Tyline Perry; Johnny on the Spot, by Amen Dell; and The Fires at Fitch's Folly, by Kenneth Whipple.  I hope to do much more with Coachwhip next year.  I also will be doing something with HarperCollins.

I continue to work with Dean Street Press and with them helped bring out, and introduce, the important, though most unjustly forgotten, Thirties and Forties crime novels of Peter Drax.  Books like those of Drax, which don't fit the accepted paradigm of the period in which they were published, seem to me to get get punished by posterity for not fitting people's preconceptions. It has been locked into so many people's minds for so long that between-the-wars British crime fiction was all about bludgeoned bodies of baronets in country house libraries or genteel spinsters politely nosing out bloody murdah in quaint country villages, that there is still resistance to much-needed revision, though many bloggers and website writers, including myself, have been speaking out for years about people like Drax (not the Guardians of the Galaxy guy). 

Since the British Library and HarperCollins have gotten into the game, with a slew of experts on English mystery on their team and most enviable publicity, more and more people who weren't in the know before are realizing both the variety and quality of classic crime fiction (which was not just British, although, when it comes to big presses, it seems to be Otto Penzler who is doing all the work with Americans).  But the British Library takes more of a scattershot approach.  Dean Street Press has committed to releasing entire bodies of work of British vintage mystery writers, including extremely prolific writers like ER Punshon and Christopher Bush

DSP completed the Punshon reissues last year and reissued the first ten Christopher Bush books in October.  They will follow with the second ten in February.  All of these books carry a general introduction by me, as well as specific ones, which try to illuminate particular aspects about each book in interesting ways for readers. I hope people enjoy the next set, I certainly did!  I also enjoyed writing introductions to DSP's reissues of the excellent detective novels by the sadly short-lived author Elizabeth Gill.

Family problems, some of which I have alluded to on this blog (really, I won't start!), have made my doing as much with the blog as I would like something of a challenge, but I think some of the more interesting pieces I was able post this year are my 2011 Crime Kings essay; a piece on con man Maurice E. Balk, who plagiarized Roger Scarlett; book reviews and life details about Bryan Flynn, the late Marian Babson, Bill Crider, Ruth Sawtell Wallis, ECR Lorac, Armstrong Livingston, Ursula Curtiss, Alan Clutton-Brock, George Orwell, Josephine Bell, Rex Stout, Jessie Louisa (Mrs. Victor) Rickard, Marion Mainwaring, the late James Yaffe, Rufus King (an old favorite here), Lawrence Blochman, Michael Gilbert, book jacket artist Joan Kiddell-Monroe, Andrew Garve, William Faulkner, actress Philippa Bevansthe Lipstick Killer and the book and film based on his murderous doings; the film The Gazebo; and more on Patricia Wentworth, another old favorite here.(I don't have time to link all this, but you can find it all with the seach book on the blog.) 

For me writers like Rufus King and Patricia Wentworth provide great escape reads when you need it.  For all those out there who derive escape or diversion from crime fiction, cozy or otherwise, I hope I will still prove a useful guide to some of it in 2018. 

Postscript: Having learned a couple of days ago of the death from cancer of American mystery writer Sue Grafton (she of the beloved alphabet series), I hope to write a bit about her in the coming days.  My sympathies go out to her family and her many, many fans, whom she entertained for more than three decades.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Empty Chairs: The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), by Brian Flynn--Merry Christmas from the Passing Tramp

"You devil!  If words could burn, I'd rack the dictionary of Hell for your cremation--your blasted cleverness is inhuman!"

--dramatic words uttered as yet another cornered criminal fiend addresses keener-than-most-persons amateur sleuth Anthony Bathurst at the climax of Brian Flynn's The Murders Near Mapleton (1929)

Ever since back in 2011 I wrote about Golden Age crime writer Jefferson Farjeon's Christmas thriller Mystery in White--subsequently reissued, to great success, by the British Library--vintage Christmas mysteries have become quite the thing again with publishers. (Don't get me wrong, for this I credit not my blog but the popular success of the BL with their Farjeon edition, for nothing inspires imitation in the business world like the demonstrable prospect of not inconsiderable financial gain.)

This year both Cyril Hare's An English Murder (1951) and Gladys Mitchell's Groaning Spinney (1950) (reviewed here last Christmas season) have been reissued by Vintage, in editions designed to emphasize the cozy Christmas connection.  In the case of the Mitchell book, a title change was thought necessary.  (Purchasers of the new edition--entitled Murder in the Snow--may not realize the book was already available under the original title, like all of Mitchell's other mysteries.)

Similarly Dean Street Press this year has reissued Christoper Bush's Dancing Death (1931), which if not quite a Christmas mystery in the purist sense is certainly a winter seasonal one.  However, so far no one has snapped up Brian Flynn's The Murders Near Mapleton, a copy of which I have owned for a decade or more and now finally review here.  Flynn is a writer my fellow blogger The Puzzle Doctor, a fine advocate, has been writing about a good deal lately.

To be sure, the generic title of Flynn's The Murder Near Mapleton hardly gives the nature of the holiday show away, but the novel is indeed a Christmas mystery.  Perhaps it needed to be titled The Merry Christmas Murders, or something more apparent like that.

Mapleton has many of the classic elements that people never seem to tire of in a classic English mystery: Christmas, a country house, a party, snow, a brilliant amateur detective running circles around the obtuse professional investigator, and of course a jolly old spot or two of bloody murder.

The novel opens at wealthy Sir Eustace Vernon's country house Christmas party, where the host is offering a toast to the "empty chairs"--little does he know that his own chair soon will become permanently empty of him! 

Before the night is over local police will find themselves tasked with investigating not only the murder of the popular Sir Eustace (shooting, made to look like suicide in front of a train, recalling a favored gambit of John Rhode), but also, in a pleasing twist, that of Sir Eustace's butler, Purvis (poisoning for this one).

Those present at Vernon Manor on this dark and doubly fatal night are, besides the servants (a few of whom, in addition to the bumped off butler, play fairish roles in the tale):

Sir Eustace's niece, Helen Ashley and Terence Desmond, an eligible young man (if you think these two will get together before too long, you may be on to something)

the mayor of Mapleton and his wife, Alfred and Emily Venables

old country money, Major Prendergast and his wife, Diana

new city money, financier Maurice Trentham and his wife, Ruby

an austere Catholic priest, Father Jewell

Sir Eustace's physician, Dr. Lionel Carrington

This is a wide array indeed of potential culpritude, though, truth be told, they all are cardboard creations.

Brian Flynn tends to look down his nose at the novel's  financier and the politician, a common enough attitude in Golden Age English mystery, while he portrays the Catholic priest, Father Jewell, as something rather out of medieval times, as his eyes blaze with religious fervor. (Is GK Chesterton's Father Brown, created by a Catholic, the only mild Catholic priest in GA English mystery?)

Reading Mapleton I almost was expecting the good Father to start talking about what the Knights Templars are up to these days, what sort of armor Joan of Arc was wearing at her last battle, what the look in illuminated manuscripts is this year, how the current Crusade is going down in the Holy Land and the like.

a long way off from Father Jewell
But I'm of the school that we should not complain about stock characters in a classic-style puzzle mystery if the plotting is engaging; and I would say that in Mapleton Flynn has constructed a sufficiently interesting plot, with some nice twists, which can't be divulged here in detail of course. 

One of them, however, oddly is the same as a singular twist that appeared in a much better known mystery novel published the same year--though the implications, interesting to modern students of gender studies, are not explored by Flynn, who as an author is interested, in my impression, not in psychology but plot.

The plot does have its last minute surprises (at least for me), though to my taste they depend overmuch on the capacity of villains to pull off certain improbable  actions.  I'm reminded of the mysteries of A. Fielding, though, goodness knows, Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr pushed the boundaries of plausibility to the breaking point at times. Even stolid Freeman Wills Crofts was accused by that old and often pickled sourpuss Raymond Chandler of occasionally getting "too fancy."  (To be fair to RC, this is not necessarily an unfair criticism if one is harping on realism.)

Flynn's amateur sleuth, Anthony Bathurst, is a great pal of Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police; and the latter worthy pretty much allows his clever gentleman friend to stride over the field of investigation like a Greek god come down from Mount Olympus.  Of course Bathurst, once brought on the scene in a most unlikely way, does solve the case, based on deductions that are adequately demonstrated to the reader near the end of the novel. 

Often the writing tends to be on the stodgy side (see the opening quotation to this piece), though occasionally there is a pleasingly bright patch of writing. Perky housemaid Palmer observes at one point, "some of these policemen can read crimes into anything you do--innocent though it may be.  And it's worse since good old Edgar Wallace showed 'em up so in The Ringer"--this a reference to thriller titan Edgar Wallace's crime play, a smash hit on the London stage in 1929.  Wallace, the wags said, kept more women up at night than any other man in England.

Late in the novel, Anthony Bathurst--who in this tale, at least, seems immune to feminine charms-- comments unromatically that a certain married woman in the novel "probably hates her husband even more than most wives."  Ouch!  More of these unexpected asides would have been welcome in the book, to my taste. (More on Brian Flynn himself soon.)

All in all, I would say The Murder Near Mapleton is a meritorious example of the pure puzzle type of detective novel that a certain type of mystery fan still clamors for today.  Let's help make next year's yuletide gay by gifting readers with a Brian Flynn.  I have a certain feeling he will be coming back in print.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Life of Crime: Marian Babson (1929-2017), a "British" Writer and Her American Roots

Marian Babson (1929-2017), who recently passed away in London at the age, I believe, of 88 (see Martin Edwards' notice), enjoyed a career in crime fiction that spanned over four decades, from 1971 to 2012. 

When Babson's first crime novel--an amusing tale of detection called Cover-Up Story (more on this novel to come)--appeared in 1971what had come to be considered "cozy" British crime fiction was still being practiced by some of its original innovators, including the seemingly imperishable and indefatigable Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie, who that year published the beguiling Nemesis, the last of the Miss Marple mysteries she was ever to write. In truth Christie was very near the end of her writing life, with just two more newly-written books to come: the sadly rather dire Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate.

The slightly younger New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, whose American publisher in the Seventies was pugnaciously  touting on editions of her books a critic's aside that "she writes better than Christie," took a year "off" in 1971, but Marsh would be back the next year with a Christmas country house concoction--a rather synthetic one, in my view, like stale eggnog out of a carton--called Tied up in Tinsel.  However, newer, younger writers were coming along to spice up ye olde British cozy.  (And, don't get me wrong, I like a few of the Marshes from this period--review soon, I hope!)

crime writer Marian Babson (1929-2017)
aka Ruth Marian Stenstreem
Marian Babson's 45 crime novels often are sweepingly consigned to the "cozy" category, but this label, which has been used to encompass writers as diverse as Christie, PD James and MC Beaton, can be misleading.

Over her long writing career, Marian Babson produced different types of mysteries: manners mysteries in the classic style, more broadly humorous tales, tense suspense, some grim melodrama and in the later phase of her career, cat cozies. I used to frequently see Babson's works in Baton Rouge used book shops in the 1990s, when I recall reading and enjoying The Twelve Deaths of Christmas and Death Beside the Seaside, to name two I recollect.

Since then Babson's books seem to have gone entirely out of print; yet I don't believe that this is due to a lack of popularity.  In her later years the author, once a mainstay of the lending library circuit (for which she was honored by the Crime Writers Association), may not have been able properly to manage her estate. 

Two years ago Babson made the British and internet news when it was learned that the octogenarian author, wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia, had been victimized by her caregiver, who had looted 27,000 pounds from her account.  Babson eventually tumbled to the fact that a very large sum of money was missing, and she contacted the police herself.  Her uncaring carer was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to a 14-month term of prison, but since then Babson's health unfortunately continued to fail.

As crime writers Martin Edwards and Dean James have attested, Marian Babson was a beloved member of the mystery-writing community, a stalwart at conventions, longtime secretary of the Crime Writers Association and a member of the Detection Club; but not a great deal seems to have been known about her personal background, even by her colleagues.

Toad Hall Bookshop
located on the harbor in Rockport,
where Marian Babson lived as a child
(sadly the bookshop, which opened 45 years ago,
 one year after Babson publisher her first mystery
closed this year)
Most of Babson's mysteries are set in the United Kingdom, though the author was in fact an American by birth. Invariably it is stated that Babson was born in 1929 in Salem, Massachusetts, cite of the notorious 17th century "witch" trials. Babson indeed was born, according to my research, on December 15 of that year; yet in 1930 her family was living about 20 miles away from Salem, in Rockport, a fishing town and artists' colony located on the tip of a peninsula directly east of the port of Gloucester, a place with long associations with many of Babson's ancestors.

Babson's real name was Ruth Marian Stenstreem, the author having drawn her pseudonym from her middle name and her Babson family line, which came down through her paternal grandmother.  Her parents were Earl and Catherine (Coyne) Stenstreem. Marian appears to have been an only child.

Earl, a gardener, was the only son of Charles Stenstreem, Jr, who died not long after his son was born (early death formed a common pattern among the men in Marian's family), and Alphonsa Babson.  Charles, a ship caulker, was the son of Charles Stenstreem, Sr., a fishing boat captain who was lost at sea  in 1890, and Hulda Hanson, both of whom were Swedish immigrants. 

I believe this is the Patrick Coyne house
in Salem, Massachuetts
Marian's mother, Catherine Coyne, wove another strand into the author's ancestral tapestry: she was a daughter of Patrick Martin Coyne and Mary Dever, who hailed from, respectively, the highly euphonious Irish communities of Doocastle, County Mayo and Letterkilley, County Donegal. Patrick Coyne, who arrived in the US as a teen and was naturalized in 1893, was a successful painting contractor who with his family resided in Salem at a splendidly situated Victorian house overlooking the ocean that Patrick and Mary crossed to reach America.

Marian, who after the Second World War visited Ireland, made use of an Irish setting and Irish issues in at least one of crime novels.

While three of Marian's grandparents--Charles Stenstreem, Patrick Coyne and Mary Dever, thus were descendants of nineteenth-century immigrants to the United States, the American ancestry of Marian's remaining grandparent, Alphonsa Babson, went all the way back to 1637, when the middle-aged widow Isabel Babson (1579-1661) arrived with two sons in Salem from Wookey, Somersetshire in 1637. (Yes, you might say the Babsons were Wookies.)

Five years later Isabel moved to Gloucester, where she was a highly respected nurse and midwife.  Gloucester honored the memory of Isabel Babson with the Isabel Babson Memorial Library, which specializes in books for expectant mothers, and the Isabel Babson Maternity Wing at Addison Gilbert Hospital.

Marian was a tenth generation descendant from Isabel.  Her paternal grandmother, Alphonsa Babson, was a daughter of Alphonso Babson, a fisherman who was drowned off his dory with another fisherman off the aptly-named Folly Cove in 1877, when he was but 37 years old, and Lucy Pool Hopkins.  (Thus both of Marian's paternal great-grandfathers went down to watery graves.)

The Herring Net (1885), Winslow Homer

The Fog Warning (1885), Winslow Homer

Folly Cove
beautiful but deadly to Marian's great-grandfather Alphonso Babson

Alphonso's father, Gorham Babson, was a prominent Gloucester merchant and shipowner and member of the Universalist Church (meaning he was a believer in universal salvation), as well as a State Representative for one term and Gloucester's Collector of Customs. His grandfather William Babson was lost at sea in 1777 aboard the Gloucester, a brig fitted for privateering during the American Revolution.  After capturing the British brig Two Friends off Newfoundland and unloading at home the ship's valuable cargo of wine and salt, the Gloucester returned to battle, if you will, but was never heard from again, along with its 130 man crew.

the house in Brighton (Boston, Mass) where I believe
Marian Babson lived 
in the 1950s and 1960s
One might have thought that with this background Marian Babson might have devoted her crime writing career to quaint regional New England mysteries, like Phoebe Atwood Taylor; yet I don't believe she wrote a single such one, strangely.  Marian Babson quite clearly was, like a lot of mystery mavens, an ardent Anglophile; like John Dickson Carr before her; and at some point in her life she settled permanently in London, where she found much of the material for her stories.

I've seen claim made that Babson moved to England in 1961, but records indicate that throughout the Sixties she maintained a residence at 155 Bennett Street in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, where she had lived since the early 1950s, when she worked as a librarian and stenographer. 

On the other hand, records also indicate that from at least 1967 to 1982 Babson lived in a flat in King's Cross, an area that has been described as having been made notorious by the Eighties for its prostitution and drug abuse, though relatively cheap rents and its central London location made it appealing to artists and designers--and perhaps mystery writers!  Certainly the district offered good copy for a crime writer, of which Babson made considerable use in some of her novels.

I plan, events permitting, on writing in detail about some of Babson's books soon.  She was an interesting writer and I hope her work is reprinted and her memory made secure.  I'm sure a lot of the readers of this blog used to read her like I did.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Romanced to Death: A Romantic Way to Die (2001), by Bill Crider

One reason I like reading mysteries is that from them I learn about subjects concerning which I often know, quite frankly, dismayingly little--all the while still getting to enjoy a nice little murder.  This is part of the reason I enjoy Golden Age greats like John Rhode and R. Austin Freeman.  I barely got through chemistry in high school and didn't dare dream of taking physics (it would have been more like a nightmare, actually); yet as an adult I came to hugely enjoy reading these two masters of the so-called "humdrum" mystery ingeniously apply science to deft  criminal devices in their baffling books. 

On the other hand, in college I minored in English and American literature and I don't so much share the fascination many vintage mystery fans have with the game of literary quotations that some GA mystery writers reveled to play. (I'm looking at you Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes!)  Too much shop, I suppose.

Similarly, I majored in history, in fact received a PhD in American history and briefly taught it, but I'm not so fascinated by consciously "period" mystery either--unless we count as "period" mystery the mysteries written in the 20th century.  (I do have some exceptions too, like John Dickson Carr's brilliantly conceived The Devil in Velvet).

However, I greatly like small-town American  regional mystery, especially when set in New England or New England's historical antagonist, the Deep South.  I grew up in the Deep South myself (indeed, like Bill Crider, my father is from Texas, though a much different part of the state)--though it was the more homogenized suburban South of the Seventies and Eighties, which to a large extent actually resembled the rest of the country.  (Shocker!)

My Mother grew up in a small town (village, really) in the "Dutch" (i.e., Deutsche) region of Pennsylvania, another fascinating region, something to which I alluded in my introduction to the recently reprinted vintage mystery The Hex Murder.  Between 1930 and 2000, the population of my mother's home town grew by all of 39 people, from 637 to 676 (though there was a boom the decade after that, with the pop. going all the way up to 765).

I found that fascinating small-town environment as well in Atoka, Oklahoma, where GA crime writer Todd Downing grew up, and I wrote about this in Clues and Corpses, my book on Downing and his crime fiction reviews.

It's this same quality that I find and enjoy in Bill Crider's Sheriff Dan Rhodes mysteries, set in Clearview, Blacklin County, Texas, somewhere between Dallas and Houston in the southeastern (more traditionally southern) part of the state. 

The Crider books are cozies, I would say, complete with the sheriff's pet animals (there about have to be cats and/or dogs in a modern cozy, I contend); but what is distinct about them is the strong sense of place and the gently wry humor.  Also, I would argue, the books work better as puzzles than many modern cozies.  Bill Crider gives the satisfaction of actually providing the reader with, well, clues.  This is not something you always get from, say, MC Beaton.

One of my favorites in the Dan Rhodes series is 2001's A Romantic Way to Die, this in part because it deals with another foreign subject to me: the world of romance fiction. 

The late Robert Barnard, the son of a romance novel writer (his father, not his mother, his father having written under a pseudonym as I recall), bumped off a romance fiction queen three decades ago in his mystery Death in Purple Prose, but Bill Crider in his book takes out a local aspirant to that exalted status.

pecs front and center: romance cover model Jason Aaron Baca
(see below for more)

This violent death takes place at a writer's conference at another small Blacklin County town, Obert, an even more obscure community than Clearwater--though we learn that, on account of its hill, "the highest point between Houston and Dallas," the little town "had at one time been considered as a possible location for the Texas state capitol.

After losing out to victorious Austin, "Obert had sunk into an extended period of obscurity, its only claim to fame being the small private college, which had been founded shortly after the Civil War and had struggled along under the management of one denomination or another for nearly a hundred years before closing its doors forever in the early 1960s."

Old Main, Trinity University, Tehuacana
the inspiration, I believe, for the main setting of
A Romantic Way to Die (see below for more)

Readers of A Romantic Way to Die learn that a previous Dan Rhodes murder investigation (chronicled a decade earlier in Booked for a Hanging) involved the defunct Obert college--clearly an ill-starred place indeed! 

However, Tom Chatterton, a wealthy antiques dealer from Dallas, bought the college property and restored it to function as a conference center, with the romance fiction writers conference to be "just the first of many that Chatterton hoped to host on his rejuvenated property."  Oh, the best-laid plans! (Ha! A literary reference!)

The big draw at the conference is not organizer Vernell Lindsey, a local woman who has just published a successful romance novel, but the spectacular--or should I say pecstacular--Terry Don Coslin, another local success story.  A popular romance novel cover model with "rock-hard pecs," his great ambition is to become the new Fabio, getting on the cover of every historical romance novel published.

A Romantic Way to Die amusingly opens with Vernell and Terry Don doing a book signing at the mobbed local Wal-Mart.  Naturally Crider as an astute social observer has caught, in his distinctive and deceptively simple narrative voice, the impact, good and bad, that Wal-Marts have had on small towns:

Wal-Mart, Mexia

Sometimes it seemed to Sheriff Dan Rhodes as if the Wal-Mart were, in fact, the only store in town, and that half the population could be found there at any given hour.  Which wasn't too far from the truth, considering that the downtown section of Clearview had virtually disappeared over the course of the last few years.  Well, it hadn't disappeared so much as been abandoned.  And then some of the buildings had started falling down.  Rhodes didn't much like to drive through what was left of the downtown these days.

But as the downtown had crumbled, the area around the Wal-Mart had thrived.  There was a new restaurant called the Round-Up, a new car dealership, a Sears catalog-order and appliance store, a big grocery store, and even a McDonald's.  No wonder the parking lot was crowded.

When back in April I was spending a lot of time in Holly Springs, Mississippi, a lovely old southern town where my father was undergoing rehab, I saw at first hand some of the phenomenon Bill Crider describes in the above passage.  The local Wal-Mart was packed!  All. The. Time. Happily, however, the wonderful downtown area with its fabulous courthouse square still is very much alive and well.

at the romance fiction conference
someone suffers a fatal fall
from a high window
At Obert's romance fiction conference Terry Don--he of the rock hard pecs--is a rooster in a hen house, if you will. Soon claws are out and feathers are flying, much to Thomas Chatterton's mortification! Under the circumstances it's not so shocking when a woman is found dead from a blow to her head. Sheriff Dan has only started investigating this death when another conference participant falls--or is pushed--from one of the old main building's windows. 

Sheriff Dan and his deputy, Ruth Grady, had better get moving on this case quick, before someone else is bumped off at this deadliest of literary dos.  The pair finds that there is rather a lot of dirty laundry to sort though!

I've always assumed that Bill Crider's home town of Mexia, Limestone County, Texas, was the inspiration for Clearwater, but I'm certain that the tiny town of Tehuacana (pop. 283), in the same county, is the inspiration for Obert.  Tehuacana, like Obert, lost out in the battle to become capital of Texas. Afterward the town sank into obscurity, especially after it lost Trinity University, to which it was home between the school's founding in 1869 and its transfer to the town Waxahatchie in 1902.

The splendid old mansard-roofed, Second Empire main building of Trinity University, Tehuacana is still standing today and seems clearly to have been Bill Crider's inspiration for Obert's Old Main. I love a mystery with a strong sense of place, and Bill Crider's books always have that, A Romantic Way to Die being no exception.

The romance novel material is another plus for me.  Bill Crider is amusing in his take on this branch of fiction, without being condescending.  After all, he notes, the people who don't want to write romance novels, all seem to want to write mysteries.  To each her own when its comes to genre fiction, I say!

Jason Aaron Baca in the flesh
(though a rare shirt-on photo)
I learned a bit about the cover boy biz in A Romantic Way to Die.  Romantic fiction is directed almost entirely at straight women (though there is gay romantic fiction as well, much of it written, often mashed up with mystery, by the awesomely prolific Josh Lanyon, a contributor to the book Murder in the Closet); and in catching buyers' eyes the male cover model thereupon is much more important than the female cover model--this in stark contrast with the hard-boiled paperback fiction of the 1940s/50s. 

Just as those beautiful dolls on mid-century crime fiction paperbacks always seemed to be popping out of their dresses, the male lovelies on the covers of romantic fiction can't seem to keep their shirts buttoned (or even on, frequently).  Hence the need for those "rock hard pecs"!

It almost seems like Bill Crider anticipated the remarkable career of Jason Aaron Baca, who in 2017 passed Fabio as the model on the most romance novel covers--over 500 in the last decade!  That's a lot of romance for one mortal man. 

Originally not from Texas but California (though he does seem to frequently figure as shirtless southwestern cowboys on book covers), Baca broke into the cover model biz two decades ago, not long before A Romantic Way to Die was published, after he concluded, after being employed as a stunt double in the horror film I Know What You did Last Summer, that he would never make a successful actor.  Happily for him, he's been a fantastically successful cover model--indeed, the world's most successful cover model. (Sorry, Fabio!) 

Jason Aaron Baca is clearly the man Terry Don Coslin wanted so fervently to be in A Romantic Way to Die.  What happens to him and the other characters in this clever tale may not be romantic, but it sure is entertaining!  Read it and see for yourself.

In the novel, incidentally, the character of Thomas Chatterton always makes sure to remind people, almost always unnecessarily, that he is "no relation to the English poet," referencing the tragic 18th century youth of the same name.  You know who else drops Chatterton's name into one of his detective novels?  Michael Innes!  So, you see, Bill Crider is folksy yet literary too.  A man of parts, and the mystery world is richer for his three decades of crime writing.

See also my review of Bill Crider's A Mammoth Murder (2006).