Monday, March 30, 2015

"Such Fiction Is the Fairy-tale Grown Up"

"American Style in American Fiction."
By Florence Finch Kelly (1858-1939).
The Bookman (May 1915), pages 299-302.
Online HERE.

A hundred years ago American writers were feeling a bit self-conscious about their art. Britain's political empire was at high tide, although she was locked in a military struggle with her nearest Continental rival that would in the long run cause the eventual disintegration of her imperium.

With political dominance also comes cultural influence, and Americans were still trying to shrug off an inferiority complex induced in no small part by being constantly reminded by the Brits that they were, after all, a step-child of English culture. But our author notes that while America did owe something to Britain, American writers were well on their way to producing a distinctive literature of their own, one that was, in her words, "fresh, virile, creative, characteristic evolution of our national life."

Returning now to the narrower purposes of this particular weblog, we must give Ms. Kelly credit when she acknowledges the contributions of mystery and thriller writers (although she doesn't use those terms) to the forging of America's literature:
. . . For one form of fiction, that which depends chiefly upon incident, plot and action, we have shown particular aptitude, and we have so developed and refined it as to make it almost a distinctively American product. Perhaps it is the expression in literature of that resourcefulness and mechanical ingenuity which are national characteristics.
Louis Joseph Vance, to mention one of many American novelists who do this sort of thing most admirably, can pick up a character out of the humdrum of daily life and send him spinning through a tale as complex, as perfectly made, as finished, as trim and as swift as a high-powered automobile. Admitted that nothing like it ever happened or probably ever will happen to mortal man. But who wouldn't like to find himself suddenly whirling through such an adventure? Such fiction is the fairy-tale grown up, and it has an equal right to considera-tion.
Moreover, no matter how impossible its story may be, it expresses us spiritually in a dozen ways. You will find in it our democracy, our idealism, our need of action, our love of definite achievement, and, very often, you will find also, as in the work of Jack London and Rex Beach, swift pictures of life that are vivid with local colour and living presentations of men and women.
We are well entitled to feel pride in the perfection to which we have brought this form of fiction and the distinctively American development it has taken under our hands.
The ability to tell a good story, which she finds so lacking in British literature, is a hallmark of the American genius:
. . . a novel that does not tell a good story has not sufficient reason for having been written to justify its existence as a book. The American reader, every blessed one of him, wants a story when he reads a novel—and may his taste never change! It is the eternal child in him that makes the demand, and it shows him to be a faithful lover of "the true romance."
Ms. Kelly's vivid comparison of British and American literature seems especially apt, even after all this time:
. . . the method of the American novelist is like a trim schooner, scudding before the wind, with everything taut and ship-shape, while the British method is like a houseboat drifting lazily down stream, with awnings and easy-chairs and hammocks and flower-boxes filling its decks.
- Louis Joseph Vance's defense of the "puzzle novel" is HERE.

Category: Fictional criticism

Friday, March 27, 2015

"A Hardcore Mystery Fan Couldn't Ask for a More Literate and Witty Refresher in the Genuine Traditional Mystery"

J. F. Norris, curator of Pretty Sinister Books, has single-handedly disinterred an unjustly forgotten Golden Age mystery author in "Harriet Rutland," about whom almost nothing is known. The GAD Wiki tells us:
Harriet Rutland (???-???) was the pseudonym of Olive Shinwell, a British writer cited during the 1940s (by Howard Haycraft in Murder for Pleasure) as an up-and-coming author.
Since only three mystery novels have as yet been attributed to Olive, it would seem this "up-and-coming author" got up and went—which, as Norris and contemporary critics attest, is a shame; the consensus is she was that good.

By Harriet Rutland.
1939. 292 pages. $2.00
[Full review] English "hydro" terrorized by triple murderer. Local Insp. puzzled, but deceptive "amateur" sleuth puts him on proper track. - Solution made especially difficult by apparent un-relation of crimes. Chorus of crotchety Britishers supplement main characters. - Verdict: Exceptional. ("The Criminal Record," The Saturday Review, November 18, 1939, page 29)
[Full review] Very well written, intelligent story of triple murder in an out of the way setting, a drab watering spa in England, where some carping aged and crippled relish every scandal sorespot among the younger guests, and live to see their juniors die off via murder. Acid characterization, if deduction not too energetic. (Kirkus ReviewsNovember 7, 1939)
[Review excerpts] . . . You couldn't find a more unusual detective novel than Knock, Murderer, Knock! (1938). From it's quasi Shakespearean allusion in the title to the quote lifted from The Pickwick Papers that serves as the novel's epigraph a hardcore mystery fan couldn't ask for a more literate and witty refresher in the genuine traditional mystery. Harriet Rutland in her debut as a mystery writer not only adheres to the tenets of the fair play detective novel she adds her own subversive spin . . . (J. F. Norris, Pretty Sinister Books Blog, March 27, 2015)
By Harriet Rutland.
Smith & Durrell.
1940. 269 pages. $2.00
[Full review] Scotland Yard expert on incognito fishing-trip in Wales unsnarls tough problem of predatory lady's poisonous demise. - Murder method interesting, characters well drawn and likable, sleuth unobtrusively slick and finish dramatic—if not too unexpected. - Verdict: Good grade. ("The Criminal Record," The Saturday Review, June 29, 1940, page 18)
[Review excerpt] . . . There are a couple of neat twists in this clever plot, many secrets revealed and a finale that gives three surprises one right after the other.  . . . (J. F. Norris, Pretty Sinister Books Blog, January 26, 2011)
By Harriet Rutland.
Smith and Durrell.
1942. 288 pages. $2.00
[Full review] The none-too-nice Hardstaffe family, he—a schoolteacher, lecher and bully, she—a chronic complainer, and their horsey spinster daughter find themselves good prospects for murder. A writer, planning these deaths on paper, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, the only outsiders in a neat, nasty case. Even paced—English. (Kirkus Reviews, October 19, 1942)
J. F. Norris promises a review of Blue Murder on the Pretty Sinister Blog in the near future.

Category: Detective fiction

"If He Had a Tail He Would Wag It Incessantly"

"My Favorite Fiction Character."
By Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943).
The Bookman (February 1926), pages 672-673.
Online HERE.

You might be surprised at who was Benét's favorite fictional personality:
HEROES and idols are birds of a different feather. If one could crack a bottle of Anjou with the Three Musketeers — or come jingling down for Christmas to Mr. Wardle's. But there an uneasy sense of my own incapacities overwhelms me. Porthos would have on his company manners for a stranger and Aramis look a little askance as soon as he discovered one's lack of quarterings, while the Comte de la Fere's exquisitely handsome features would take on the perturbed expression of one who unexpectedly finds a fly in his wine. And the hearty practical fun of Manor Farm might seem a little too hearty and practical after a while for a constitution degenerately modern.
Watson, on the other hand — one cannot imagine feeling gauche or ill at ease in Watson's presence — the very thought of him is as stodgy and comfortable as a morris chair. Surely there is no other character in fiction with so ineffable a capacity for surprise or so restfully limited a vocabulary for its expression. "Marvelous, my dear Holmes, marvelous!" the hearty voice booms out for the thousandth time, with as fresh an accent of wonder as a child's. If he had a tail he would wag it incessantly — there is something very canine about him somehow; it is easy to see him transformed, a solemn, ponderous St. Bernard, galumphing after Holmes with portentously stately bounds.
As far as professional skill goes, one cannot rank him with the leaders, I fear — his practice was too subject to continual interruption. But his bedside manner must have been ideal. I would rather die some pleasantly fictional death with Watson in attendance than recover under the aseptic hands of a modern practitioner.
And then, of course, there are the tales still locked in his little black bag. Holmes discusses only bees, now, and Conan Doyle has forgotten — but I am sure that if you got Watson alone in a corner, you could wring from him a few, at least, of the superb, unwritten adventures to which his creator has so tantalizingly alluded only in passing — the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker — the Addleton tragedy — the incident of Wilson, the notorious canary trainer, whose arrest removed a plague spot from the East End of London.
- We've communed with Pulitzer Prize and O'Henry Award winner Benét before; go HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Our 500th Post: What Are We Doing Here?

ONTOS is a creature of the Internet, designed to seek out potentially interesting detective fiction (plus a few other genres as well) and bring it to your attention via that wonderful gadget, the hot link. Once in a while we indulge in our own opinions, but most of the time we prefer letting you know what others think about these things, both professional critics and average Joes and Janes from all eras. We hope you have found and will continue to find ONTOS worth the trip.

Disclaimer — There are two things we can't guarantee: the quality of what we point to (de gustibus non est disputandem) or that there will be anything at the far end of the links, because on the World Wide Web, as Dorothy Gale remarked in another context, "People come and go so quickly here!"

Category: Public relations

Monday, March 23, 2015

"You're Sympathizing with the Wrong Party"

"Broadsheet Ballad."
By A. E. Coppard (1878-1957).
In The Best British Short Stories of 1922 (1922), pages 78-85.
Edited by Edward J. O'Brien and John Cournos.
First appeared in The Dial (1922).
Reprinted in EQMM, February 1949 and June 1964.
Online HERE.

An ironic tale of love, jealousy, and a miscarriage of justice that could have been written by Thomas Hardy.
"She was found on the sofa one morning stone dead, dead as a adder."
"God bless me," murmured Sam.
"Poisoned," added Bob, puffing serenely.
- Our prolific author also wrote pure fantasy and horror fiction; go HERE for biographical information and HERE for a bibliography of his macabre fiction.

Category: Crime fiction

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Its Literary Significance Is Equivalent Perhaps to That of the Crossword Puzzle"

"Current Short Stories."
By Gerald Hewes Carson (?-?).
The Bookman (September 1925), pages 40-42.
Online HERE.

A review from the mid-twenties by a critic who seems to think that the mystery story ("loosely described") is defective from its inception, with only the skill of certain authors enabling the genre to (here we go again) transcend its limitations. Unfortunately, he roams well outside mysterydom's well-populated pastures to find what are, no doubt to his literary mind, acceptable examples of the mystery story ("loosely described") by outliers straying into the field. We apologize in advance for having to DELETE some items, but Mr. Carson's loquacity necessitated it.

It starts out well enough:
ONE type of short story which never seems to become exhausted is that loosely described as the mystery story, the crime or detective story. Its vitality is the more noteworthy because its chief aim, its identifying quality, is nothing more nor less than its devilish ingenuity.
This kind of story exerts a great fascination. Its literary significance is equivalent perhaps to that of the crossword puzzle. It seldom affords a recognizable or interesting portrait of a human being. Dealing frequently with the materials of the life about us, it shamelessly tosses those materials into the melodramatic postures of absurd artifice. What it does is to create a more or less impossible situation, pose a dilemma which the reader is piqued to solve, but cannot.
Only the nimblest writers can keep themselves free of "absurd artifice":
How does the author extricate himself? That is the nub of the matter. The whole piece is pointed toward the moment of recapitulation, and it is really for that moment that magazine readers devour thousands of words, and it is backward from that moment, as coy authors occasionally reveal to us, that such stories are frequently created, or more properly, built.
Grudgingly, our critic allows:
Yet for all of this, the detective story has its persuasive and engaging practitioners. One of them is Mr. G. K. Chesterton, who combines business with pleasure in presenting from time to time "Father Brown", a hero of the Catholic church, one of the great amateur detectives of modern times. Father Brown's chief strength and reliance lie not in his skill with the reading glass and dark lantern, nor yet with the scientific trumpery of modern criminology, but in his ineffable comprehension of the human heart. That is to say. Father Brown, duly reflecting his creator, is a mystic and a specialist in motives.
The Marquis of Marne, center of interest in Mr. Chesterton's "The Chief Mourner of Marne" (Harper's, May), was a hermit, brooding, secretive, said to be priest ridden. There had been a duel in his early life [SPOILERS DELETED]. James had [SPOILERS DELETED]; James's life was thought to be [SPOILER DELETED].
Father Brown, however, discovered that Marne was in hiding not because of what he was, but of [SPOILER DELETED]. The duel [SPOILERS DELETED]. ["The Chief Mourner of Marne" is online HERE; a less revealing critique is HERE.]
In his "The Song of the Flying Fish" (Harper's, June) Mr. Chesterton begins with the theft of some artificial fish, rare and precious curiosa. Father Brown's lucid genius for penetrating stubborn human fibre again triumphs. It is important to notice here that one's interest lies not only in the fact that he solved it, but in his recapitulation where he takes the reader by the hand and threads the maze with him. ["The Song of the Flying Fish" is online HERE; a critique is HERE.]
It would be nearly impossible to ignore GKC.
One American mystery author barely makes the cut:
Mr. Harvey O'Higgins has a skill in these matters which compares well with Mr. Chesterton's, though his sense of literary form and style is perhaps less sure than that of the rotund and versatile British journalist. Mr. O'Higgins's puppet is a detective named Duff. One of Duff's exploits is recounted in "James Illinois Bell" (Red BookJune). Duff trips up the gentleman whose name the story bears, just as the latter prepares to [DELETED]. Duff, being  also a sleuth for human motives as well as facts, is successful in finding out not only how Bell had lived his life but why. That, it happens, is more than the unfortunate gentleman knew himself, and in the denouement we are allowed to sit in and learn about Bell at the same time he learns about himself. [See HERE for more about O'Higgins's works.]
O'Higgins actually wrote detective stories.
The reverse twist upon this sort of story is, of course, to enlist the reader's sympathy with the clever criminal; and to endow him with all the admirable qualities of intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness. An example is Irvin S. Cobb's "The Black Duck" (Cosmopolitan, July); another, Florence M. Pettie's "The Crystal Vampire" (Munsey'sJune).
The latter story deals with a charming girl criminal. She responded poignantly to beauty in all forms, particularly diamonds. So strong was her feeling for this sort of thing that she [SPOILERS DELETED]. Mr. Cobb's story has the  artistic touch of irony he likes so well. His crook [DELETED], only to be [DELETED]. In "Legerdemain" (McClure's, May) by Mortimer Levitan, the robber is [DELETED]. A professional jewel thief is [DELETED]. When he emerges he finds that [DELETED], and, what he finds as worse, has [DELETED]. Did he requite them? He did. That is the story.
Irvin Cobb, an outlier who gets our critic's approval.
The genre of science fiction (SF), which hadn't even been christened at this time, was just being defined, and SF was often lumped with mysteries:
In these stories the type broadens out. The interest does not lie in the challenge of how a particular situation is to be unravelled but in the high color, the mood of excitement, tension and escapade which pervade them. That is true also of Percival Gibbon's fantastic story of international intrigue, "The Man of Science" (Saturday Evening Post, June 20), in which a German professor and a group of rascals from all nations [SPOILERS DELETED]. They were [DELETED]. And even in this sinister atmosphere Mr. Gibbon contrived to make two young hearts blossom, as only they can blossom, one sometimes feels, in a spring number of the "Post".
And finally, the biter gets bit:
Richard Connell's "The Fourth Degree" (Saturday Evening Post, June 6) despite the fact that it is a thriller is different in this respect, that it has an idea. The scheme is to show that when it comes to horrors, the unknown is infinitely more terrifying and destructive than the known. Mr. Connell first shows an innocuous gentleman of the academic cloth [DELETED]. Then the situation reverses itself. The professor [DELETED].
Richard Connell, another outlier, ditto.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

True Crime Roundup VI

It's the early '20s, and Eliot Ness and his "Untouchables" are yet to get into the fray over bootleg liquor in violation of the The National Prohibition Act (the Eighteenth Amendment, popularly known as the Volstead Act, in effect January 1920 - December 1933). That act proved to be a disastrous example of excessive do-gooding, but there were justifiable health concerns. Meanwhile diploma mills were churning out unqualified medicos, and Philadelphia tried to get tough on crime (proving that the safer you are, the less free you are). Brief excerpts:
Ness and the Untouchables were ultimately able to nail "Scarface" Al Capone on income tax evasion.
 ~ "The Bootlegger Triumphant" (The Nation, February 22, 1922, 1 page):
TO THE BOOTLEGGERS we take off our hats. Not only do they, like the operators of the Underground Railroad of yore, successfully defy the militant agents of State and Federal governments, but they have brought to despair one powerful bureau of the Treasury. We mean, of course, that wherein the income-tax officials supervise our financial destinies.  . . .
~ "The Poison in Prohibition Moonshine" (The Literary Digest, November 10, 1923, 2 pages):
PRECAUTIONS TAKEN by the pre-Prohibition moonshiner to insure the purity of his product are now thrown to the winds . . . The poisons always present in raw liquor, which are properly reduced by aging or by redistillation, are retained, owing to haste to market the valuable product . . . The most casual survey of the public press must impress everyone, the writers say, with the vicious if not deadly character of the illicit liquor that is now being dealt in and consumed for beverage purposes.  . . .
~ "The 'Respectable' Criminal in Court" (The Literary Digest, November 10, 1923, 1 page):
STEAL A MILLION and you're safe; steal a dime and you'll go to jail, it has often been said, half in jest and half in earnest. It does seem sometimes that the greater the crime, the slower and the less the retribution. "Bank busting," we are told, is attended with less serious consequences for the "buster" than is the same result accomplished by ruder methods by men whose names have never graced a society column. Which explains to some observers of the times the cynicism with which the courts and legal processes are sometimes regarded. . .
~ " 'Quack Doctors by the Thousand' " (The Literary Digest, December 8, 1923, 2 pages):
. . . "These parasites and their accomplices give pause to the thought that human nature is being purged of cruelty. Plain thuggery and crimes with special motives of enmity are not so sickening as the homicides of these imposters, who set up as physicians and surgeons knowing that they are more likely to kill than cure."  . . .
Quackery in medicine is nothing new, as this Hogarth painting shows: "The Visit to the Quack Doctor" (1743).
~ "Uncle Sam's Chief 'Devil Dog' to Police Philadelphia" (The Literary Digest, December 29, 1923, 1 page):
. . . [Brigadier] General [Smedley Darlington] Butler intends to "remolthe department throughout," and declares, "When I get through with it the criminals and the vicious element will scurry to cover whenever they see a bluecoatI'm going to make my men feel proud of their jobs and proud of their own honesty and immunity to corruption." That, he thinks, is "the foundation of a fine police force."  . . . [For more information about Butler's controversial time as Director of Public Safety in Philadelphia go HERE.]
~ The Rise and Fall of Prohibition: The Human Side of What the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act Have Done to the United States (1923).
By Charles Hanson Towne.
Nonfiction (220 pages).
Online HERE.
. . . If, in correcting one evil, we bring to life greater evils, are we on the right track?  . . .
- ONTOS's last True Crime Roundup was HERE.

Category: True crime