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.
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.
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.
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

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"Murder in the Void"

"Murder in the Void."
By Edmond Hamilton (1904-77).
Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1938.
Online at HERE.
Crane's bronzed, aquiline face tensed as he crouched for a moment beside a stiff, grotesque shrub. As a member of the Terrestrial Secret Service he had been sent by the TSS to get Doctor Alph's secret weapon and he'd do it or die trying.
Rab Crane of the TSS is on the trail of an unidentified brain thief who likes to snap necks; trouble is, the brain thief knows it only too well and won't hesitate to kill anyone in his way. Let's be honest here: as an agent Crane is no James Bond. As for the plot, it reads like a mashup of a couple of Bond films, Dr. No and Moonraker, with a weak mystery tossed in. In subject matter and style (lots of exclamation marks!!!!!) this one just oozes pulp.

- Wikipedia's article about space opera maven Edmond Hamilton is HERE, and his ISFDb bibliography is HERE.

Category: Science fiction (interplanetary spy division)

Like Father, Like . . . You Know Who

"The Master Thief."
By James L. Ford (1854-1928).
In Hypnotic Tales and Other Tales (1894), pages 209-214.
Online HERE and HERE.
Once upon a time there was a retired thief who desired that his son should follow the profession in which he himself had amassed a fortune . . .
There's a lesson in this . . . somewhere.

Category: You name it

"Detective-story Addicts May Be Divided, As Roughly As You Feel Like Handling Them, Into Two Classes . . ."

"Selected Detective Fiction."
By J. Ketch.
Scribner's, December 1936.
Online HERE.

This seems to be the only review signed by "J. Ketch" that we can locate. See if you agree with all of his thumbnail assessments from the Golden Age of Mystery Fiction (the capitals seem appropriate). A few partial excerpts:
Detective-story addicts may be divided, as roughly as you feel like handling them, into two classes: Class A, the man (or woman) who revels in great gobs of gore, palpitating action, tough language, and a detective who can shoot it out with the wickedest of killers; Class B, the man (or woman) who likes a genteel, not-too-frightful murder, a plenitude of infinitesimal clues, a tweed-clad detective who punctuates every movement with scotch and soda, and a sober, slow, but relentless, pursuit of clues and destruction of indestructible alibis until the inevitable end. The following selection from an unusually large and healthy fall and winter output of detective stories is intended to be a judicious admixture of the two classes.  . . .
. . . [Re: Van Dine's The Kidnap Murder Case] has more gun-play and less erudition than other Vance exploits, with the customary water-tight plot and impeccable sleuthing.  . . . [GAD Wiki review is HERE.]
. . . [Re: Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia has] a colorful archeological background atoning for certain weaknesses in the tale.  . . . [GAD Wiki review is HERE.]
. . . [Re: Wheatley's Crime File No. 1: On Bolitho Blane] A super-clever stunt-book, but no masterpiece as a story.  . . .
. . . [Re: Knight's The Wheel That Turned is an] excellent example of the nutmeg and codfish school . . . [GAD Wiki info about Kathleen Moore Knight is HERE.]
. . . [Re: Disney's Death in the Back Seat is one in which] a young artist and his wife encounter murder, kidnaping, robbery, and general frightfulness on a "quiet vacation."  . . . [GAD Wiki review is HERE.]
. . . [Re: In A Puzzle for Fools Quentin] chooses comparatively virgin soil for the scene of his story — a sanitarium for wealthy neurotics and complete nuts where a peculiarly cold-blooded murderer breaks loose.  . . . [At the Scene of the Crime review HERE.]
. . . [Re: Coffin's The Forgotten Fleet Mystery has an] unusual and exceptionally spooky background . . . [The real "Geoffrey Coffin" is discussed HERE.]
. . . [Re: Walling's The Corpse With the Floating Foot] The atmosphere is delightful, the talk good, and the puzzle a hard one to solve.  . . . [GAD Wiki review HERE.]
. . . [Re: In Bush's The Body in the Bonfire] principal puzzle is that of a man whose hand committed a murder tomorrow but who, himself, was killed yesterday — all very perplexing and pleasant reading.  . . . [GAD Wiki review HERE.]
. . . [Re: Croft's Man Overboard is] a sober-sided opus with one tiny mistake leading the killer to his doom.  . . . [GAD Wiki review HERE.]
. . . [Re: Bailey's A Clue for Mr. Fortune features] The ace of all British fictional sleuths . . . [Much about H. C. Bailey is HERE.]
. . . [Re: Heyer's  Behold, Here's Poison! is] a glittering tale of poisoning in a quarrelsome English family, solved by a thoroughly malicious and supremely delightful young Britisher.  . . . [Info about Georgette Heyer is HERE.]
. . . [Re: Bentley's Trent's Own Case] contains some interesting information about wines, among other engrossing matters.  . . . [E. C. Bentley is discussed HERE.]
. . . [Re: Doyle's The Complete Sherlock Holmes features] the mightiest of all detectives . . . [The illustrated Holmes stories are HERE.]
. . . [Re: Oppenheim's omnibus Spies and Intrigues] contains his best mystery novel . . . [More about E. Phillips Oppenheim is HERE.]

Category: Detective and spy fiction

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Men Are Such Brutes"

"Men Are Such Brutes."
By Charles Brackett (1892-1969).
Collier's Weekly, October 18, 1930.
Short short short story (1 page).
Online HERE.
Then she knew without doubt that he was a monster. Springing forward, he clapped his hand over the brooch.
A man, a woman, a brooch—what could go wrong?
- We believe—but we're not certain—that this Charles Brackett is Charles William Brackett, the Hollywood screenwriter responsible for such classic films as Ninotchka (1939), Ball of Fire (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), The Uninvited (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Edge of Doom (1950), and Niagara (1953); see the Wikipedia article HERE.
Is this our author?

Category: Short short short stories in Collier's Weekly

Monday, March 9, 2015

"When People Talk of the Perfect Murder . . ."

"The Perfect Murder."
By Edmund Pearson (1880-1937).
Scribner's, July 1937.
Online HERE.

Is the perfect crime feasible? Edmund Pearson says yes—but only in fiction. Apparently, as far as murder goes, any attempts by life to imitate art are doomed to failure. Note his frequent references to then quite popular detective story writers. Some excerpts:
. . . In a mechanized age such as this, it is believed that elaborate technical ingenuity, the employment of strange chemicals and complicated engines, make a detective story interesting. And, perhaps as a result of this fallacy, people indulge in gossip about the perfect murder, and fearfully imagine that we may soon live in constant danger of murder through some contraption invented by the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.
Does it occur to anybody that what chiefly makes crime worth reading about, either as fiction or fact, is the human element, the strange problems it presents in human conduct, the revelations it makes of the dark recesses of the human heart?
. . . In the two motion pictures named for The Thin Man, I wonder if it is not the rollicking nonsense of Mr. Powell, Miss Myrna Loy, and their dog, which makes these film plays so enjoyable? Are there not many others, besides myself, who long ago gave up risking a headache by trying to follow the complicated and over-ingenious plots with which such films and plays are burdened?
. . . Lord Peter is delightful entertainment; but the details of the murders, their methods and causes, make you reach for the aspirin.
It is probable that the authors of detective novels will continue to write as they choose, since their ingenious scientific plots do interest many readers. It does not follow, however, that when novelists invent elaborate and abstruse methods for committing murder they are basing their work on the facts of actual contemporary crime.
Frederick Small: He planned the perfect murder.
. . . Suppose we examine what was perhaps the most carefully plotted and scientifically executed murder ever done in the United States: the killing of Florence Small by her husband [Frederick Small], at Mountainview, New Hampshire.
. . . It must, you think, have been a baffling crime, only to be unraveled by a detective of supreme skill. As a matter of fact, the murderer was under arrest within twelve hours; and was convicted, sentenced, and executed within the briefest limit of time allowed by the laws of the state. The scheme went utterly to smash, and to my mind, its failure makes rather ludicrous much wise talk about "the perfect murder."
. . . Thanks to the efforts of the writers of detective stories, they [people] think of delicate machinery, of mysterious poisons from South America, trained spiders from Sumatra, "death rays" wielded by mad scientists, and all the rest of the armory of weapons which have been invented by novelists.
. . . The persistent belief of a small minority in [Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno] Hauptmann's partial or complete innocence is probably due—in no slight degree—to the fact that writers of fiction, in stories, novels, plays, and films, have continued to present the threadbare situation of a prisoner at the bar who is the spotless and pitiable victim of brutal police, ruthless prosecutors, and savage judges. Fiction about the criminal character—or ninety per cent of it—is designed to please emotional rather than rational folk.
A little reading in the fiction of crime, and still a little more about the facts of crime, in England and America, ought to convince anybody that the myth of the marvelous amateur detective has been built up at the expense of the ordinary and frequently honest policeman. It is amusing to have Sherlock Holmes expose Inspector Lestrade as an ass, and to see Philo Vance show up Sergeant Heath as a blustering nincompoop. But it has furnished a little bit too much ammunition to those who are over-ready to work themselves to a boiling point of indignation in behalf of any and every hoodlum and killer who has at last been run down and put where he belongs.
. . . The fingerprint bureaus, the use of photography, of chemical analysis, the examination of footprints, and many other methods have helped to protect innocent persons, as well as to imperil the guilty. But I have not seen it emphasized, in the great number of books and articles on the subject, that the old-fashioned, plodding work of the humble cop is still important.
. . . clergymen, I have observed, are assiduous and intelligent students of crime.
. . . Final advice to those contemplating murder would be: Don't follow the detective novelists. Avoid elaborate and "scientific" methods. Be direct and ruthless, and, instead of fearing witnesses, get as many around you as possible. The more, the luckier. 
Carlyle Harris: Six capsules and a date with the electric chair.
- A Wikipedia article discusses would-be perfect murderer Frederick Small HERE, while a more detailed account of his trial is HERE. The Carlyle Harris case is discussed HERE, HERE, and HERE.
- Our last visit with Edmund Pearson was HERE.

Category: True crime vs. detective fiction

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Law According to Nott

If the setting and actors in the endless drama are prosaic and commonplace, the drama itself is not, and its variety is endless.
Justice Charles C. Nott, Jr., very much a product of his time, was one who, like many of his contemporaries, fell under the seductive spell of the eugenics movement, which very likely shaped his outlook on the administration of the law.

"In the District Attorney's Office."
By Charles C. Nott, Jr. (1869-1957).
The Atlantic Monthly (April 1905), pages 476-484.
Online HERE.

. . . The purpose of this article is to sketch very briefly some of the conditions attending the trial of average, commonplace felonies which are proceeding day after day, during every month of the year, in the county—the old city—of New York.  . . .
The administration of the criminal law in New York, even in important cases, is far from a spectacular affair.  . . .
. . . Crime brings with it other punishments than imprisonment, but as far as the danger of imprisonment in state prison is concerned, the well-connected embezzler's risk, from a business point of view, is not much greater than that incurred by the ordinary business man in embarking on any ordinary commercial venture.  . . .
. . . The question is often asked by laymen, how far an attorney may properly go in the defense of one known by him to be guilty. The answer would seem simple enough.  . . .
. . . Bearing in mind that the defendant's guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it is but seldom that a fair-minded prosecuting officer can quarrel with the verdicts of acquittal rendered in the county of New York. Frequently, juries will disagree in the most exasperating manner, owing to the presence of "the eleven obstinate men;" but when a verdict is rendered, it is safe to say that it is a vindication of the wisdom of the fathers in leaving the question of the guilt or innocence of a citizen to the judgment of twelve of his fellow citizens.  . . .
"Coddling the Criminal."
By Charles C. Nott, Jr. (1869-1957).
The Atlantic Monthly (February 1911), pages 164-169.
Online HERE.

. . . The fact is that our administration of the criminal law has as nearly reached perfection in guarding the innocent (and guilty) from conviction as is possible for any human institution; but in securing the safety and order of the community by the conviction of the guilty it is woefully inadequate.  . . .
. . . The appalling amount of crime in the United States, as compared with many other civilized countries, is due to the fact that it is known generally that the punishment for crime is uncertain and far from severe. The uncertainty of punishment is largely due to the extension in our criminal jurisprudence of two principles of the common law which were originally just and reasonable, but the present application of which is both unjust and unreasonable.  . . .
. . . Under the common law as it existed long after these principles originated, every felony was a capital offense, and every misdemeanor was punished with branding, mutilation, or transportation. There were no prisons except those for detention for trial. After conviction the defendant was hanged, or his ears were cropped, or he was transported to the colonies. At his trial he was not entitled to counsel. He could not take the stand and testify in his own behalf, even if there were no witnesses available to him. If convicted he was allowed no appeal.  . . .
. . . Indeed the trial of a criminal case often degenerates into a proceeding which cannot be dignified by the name of a trial in a court of law, but which amounts simply to a hearing conducted arbitrarily in defiance of all rules of law, and in accordance with the whims of a judge who has taken an oath of office to do justice 'according to law,' and not according to his own whims. It is a safe assertion that, under our present system, fully seventy-five percent of judgments of acquittal could be reversed on appeal for errors committed against the prosecution.  . . .
. . . All of this state of affairs would be practically reformed by two changes in the law . . . [in consequence of which] we should have a marked improvement in both the effectiveness of the criminal law and the moral tone of the courts and criminal bar.
"The Juror's Part in Crime."
By Charles C. Nott, Jr. (1869-1957).
Scribner's (January 1926), pages 94-96.
Online HERE.

. . .  it is with much hesitation, after twenty-three years spent in the administration of the criminal laws, I advance any ideas on the present conditions of crime in this country.  . . .
. . . If by "the law," the administration of the law is meant, a different situation arises. Undoubtedly the administration of the law in all parts of this country is less efficient than in some other countries; but also undoubtedly in some parts of this country it is at least as efficient as in some other countries—and yet even in such parts the percentage of crime is higher with us.  . . .
. . . In my opinion the weak spot in our administration of the criminal law is not so much in our police forces, or our prosecutors, or our courts as in our juries, which is equivalent to saying—in our people's general attitude to the criminal.  . . .
. . . This quality in American juries is the expression of a wide and underlying attitude in the mass of our people toward the criminal. Of course, every one has, and expresses, a dislike for crime in the abstract, but in dealing with the concrete manifestation of crime, which is the criminal, this attitude of good-natured sympathy and tolerance for him, and of indifference to the evil he accomplishes, goes far toward paralyzing the efforts of judges and prosecutors.  . . .
. . .  This attitude of juries is well illustrated in their attitude toward the police. It may be stated generally that they have no liking for the police, no sympathy with them in the performance of their duties, and that they rarely believe them if there is any excuse whatever for their not doing so. But the moment that a policeman is himself brought to trial as a defendant, he is taken into the sympathy extended to all defendants, his word is taken and believed (although, of course, his motive to falsify is much stronger than in any case where he testifies merely as an officer), and if any of the witnesses against him are criminals, their testimony is regarded, for once, with suspicion.  . . .
"Coddling Criminals."
By Charles C. Nott, Jr. (1869-1957).
Scribner's (May 1926), pages 540-543.
Online HERE.

A CRIME is not necessarily a sin, nor is a sin necessarily a crime—none of the seven deadly sins denounced by the church are crimes. The law, therefore, is not an institution calling upon the sinner to repent, for it has no concern with sin, as such, but only with crime.  . . .
. . . In considering the matter of the punishment of crime and the treatment of the convict, this underlying distinction must be kept in mind if the punishment of crime is to be worked out along lines to make it effective to accomplish its intended end. During the last fifteen or twenty years, in the State of New York at least, a large, influential, well-meaning, and extremely vociferous body of people and organizations have been doing all in their power to ignore and to compel the authorities to ignore the fundamental difference between reformation of the sinner and punishment as a deterrent to crime. Of course, the result has been, on the one hand, to diminish the force and effect of punishment as a deterrent to crime; while, on the other, the increase in the amount of reformation effected over that obtained by the old system has been negligible.  . . .
. . . a prison is and necessarily must be a most unfavorable place to effect a reformation of the individual. Reformation is a work requiring individual effort of a high order of spiritual quality upon the individual sought to be reformed; it requires a favorable environment and associations, and long-continued watchfulness and care. None of these conditions is or can be found in a prison.  . . .
. . .  many who have had a clear idea of the function of the criminal law had prophesied years ago that carrying the softening of prison discipline to foolish lengths not only would accomplish little in the way of reformation, but would end in increasing crime—and their prophecies have been and are being fulfilled.  . . .
. . . All of the foregoing is only a brief and partial indication of the many ways in which it has been sought during the last twenty years to soften the quality and lessen the quantity of prison discipline, until now a discharged convict knows that if he should subsequently be sentenced, he will retire from the world for a sufficient season to enable him to get the alcohol and venereal disease out of his system, will work minimum hours, get a maximum of recreation and entertainment, and may, if his soul rises above the frivolities of prison life, also acquire an education or learn a trade.  . . . 
. . . Crime is not less in the twentieth than in the eighteenth century because punishment has been diminished; but punishment has been diminished because crime is less. No one is in favor of making punishment more severe than is necessary to accomplish its end. As, therefore, the human race has gradually emerged from the virtual barbarism of those old days, its progress and the progress of civilization have resulted in a lessening of crime—and naturally punishment also has been relaxed. But when it is so relaxed as to become no punishment at all and is so frequently escaped as to warrant the assumption it will be escaped altogether, then there can be no wonder that it fails to act as a deterrent.  . . .
"Old Adam: The Criminal Is Natural Man."
By Charles C. Nott, Jr. (1869-1957).
Scribner's (December 1926), pages 686-688.
Online HERE.

. . . in the last few years a cult has grown and flourished, along with many other sentimentalized fads, which announces that crime is abnormal and that any man who commits a crime thereby demonstrates that he is and must be mentally abnormal, and is therefore a subject for the psychiatrist (or at least the psychologist) and the asylum or sanitarium rather than for the police, the courts, and the penal institution.  . . .
. . . To any one who has observed and studied the criminal over many years, he seems intensely human—much more human and normal than do the neurasthenic philosophers who proclaim his abnormality. This is not strange, since the criminal is the natural man, animated by the old Adam, taking what he wants when he wants it and "doing up" those whom he dislikes; while the philosophers are an intensely artificial lot who see everything as abnormal which is natural enough to be beyond their unnatural way of regarding things.  . . .
. . . Should it be asked, "Are there no criminals who are insane or abnormal?" of course the answer is yes. There are insane burglars, murderers, and thieves, just as there are insane grocers, lawyers, or plumbers—but their occupation in neither case is in itself evidence of insanity—even admitting the overcrowded condition of the legal profession.  . . .
. . . Why crime and criminals should so often inspire sentimentality is indeed hard to say, for any one who has for years been familiar with them. The honest poor who, through their refusal to steal, finally finish their career in our city poorhouses, inspire no such feeling and are objects of entire indifference to the sentimentalists, although they are very often confined under worse conditions than those existing in many of our prisons.  . . .
- A Wikipedia article about Judge Charles C. Nott, Jr. is HERE.
Category: True crime

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


The Smart Set endured a sometimes chequered career, undergoing numerous editorial changes over its thirty-year lifetime. The magazine's founder, says Wikipedia, "wanted to provide sophisticated content that would reinforce the social values of New York’s social elite and gave it the subtitle 'The Magazine of Cleverness'." Judge for yourself just how clever the following criminously related pieces are.
"The Unconscious Detective."
By Caroline Duer (1865-1956).
The Smart Set (May 1902), pages 151-157.
Online HERE.

As Miss Marple demonstrated, little old ladies can make good detectives—even unconscious ones:
. . . "I suppose you heard of the burglary," I observed; "and I almost think it served those silly young women right, for wanting to deck themselves out so inappropriately. The idea of bringing their jewels down to the country!"  . . .
"The Great Security Bank Mystery."
By Isaac Anderson (1868-1961).
The Smart Set (December 1902), page 96.
Online HERE.

Did he say "great detective"?
. . . "The burglar," he announced, confidently, "was a man of less than medium height." 
"But how—?" began the president. 
"Very simple, indeed," interrupted the detective.  . . .
"Cause for Suspicion."
By Tom P. Morgan.
The Smart Set (April 1905), page 61.
Online HERE.

What could possibly move the thief to commit burglary? You'd be surprised—then, again, maybe you wouldn't:
. . . "Pshaw! why, Lester Pinney is as honest as the day is long!"  . . .
"More Adventures of Oilock Combs: The Succored Beauty."
By William B. Kahn.
The Smart Set (October 1905), pages 93-95.
Online HERE and on Bill Peschel's blog with his comments HERE.
. . . The manner in which she made this statement as well as the declaration itself seemed to make a deep impression upon Combs. Without uttering one word he sat there for fully four minutes. The way in which he puffed nervously at the pipe showed me that he was thinking. Suddenly, with an exclamation of delight, he dashed out of the room and down the stairs, leaving the amazed duchess and myself in his apartments. But not for long. In forty-three seconds he was again in the room and, dropping into his chair thoroughly exhausted, he triumphantly cried: "I have it!"  . . .

Categories: Humorous detective stories, Sherlock Holmes parodies