Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Q Patrick & the Pseudonym Enigma

The young and rugged Hugh Wheeler
The Q. Patrick pseudonym is one of those puzzling oddities of the mystery writing realm that has nothing to do with a fictional murder. For still unknown reasons it underwent multiple changes of writing partners. When Richard Webb first started writing detective novels he had as his partner Martha Mott Kelley. Together the duo wrote Cottage Sinister (1931) and Murder at the Women's City Club (1932). In 1933 Webb decided to go it alone as a mystery novelist. His solo effort as Q. Patrick was Murder at Cambridge. Then out of the blue it seemed Webb teamed up with another woman, Mary Louise Aswell, and with her wrote S.S. Murder (1933), The Grindle Nightmare (1935). Sometime in 1936 he found Hugh Wheeler. It is with Wheeler he continued the Q. Patrick pseudonym as a writing partnership until Webb quit writing in 1950. The two men also created another pseudonym - Patrick Quentin - and the marvelous husband & wife detective team of the theater, Peter & Iris Duluth.

Webb and Wheeler wrote quite a few remarkable novels together under both pseudonyms. But I'm wondering if the Q. Patrick novellas I have read in the pages of The American Magazine were the work of Webb alone. These two novellas are markedly different in tone, fairly formulaic in plot, excessively melodramatic with some preposterous ideas, and have some excruciatingly rendered dialog. They don't have the Wheeler-Webb flair. For me it was not so important to learn whodunit in these two novellas as it was to discover who actually wrote the stories. They seem like Q. Patrick impostor works.

"Exit Before Midnight" appeared in the October 1937 issue. It's a fairly routine story employing one of the most overused of detective story tropes - a group of characters in a setting cut off from the outside world who are systematically killed. That they are trapped in a locked office building with a power failure and that a board meeting of shareholders has brought them together did not help to enliven the proceedings for me. I find nothing at all exciting about big business having worked in offices all my life. Even if a corporate merger seems timely in this day and age, one that took place in 1937 between a fictional chemical processing company and a dye manufacturer seemed utterly dreary to me. The stock characters didn't help matters either.

Prior to the shareholder meeting a secretary discovers a threatening note naming seven of the primary shareholders in Leland & Rowley as potential murder victims. The anonymous note writer warns that the vote to merge the two companies must not be passed. If it does, he will begin killing those named in the note and will continue doing so until they change their voting results by midnight. Sound like a 1930 B movie programmer? It is. It does not improve any either.

There are sheets ripped from a desk calendar left on each victim. The remaining characters tremble in fear as they watch the calendar change from December 31 to January 1 then suddenly jumping ahead to January 4. One victim is found, but they know that two more are planned.  Exclamations marks are used in abundance in the dialog. Who is the killer? Who will survive? Does it matter?

It's all handled perfunctorily with wretched dialog, paranoid characters accusing each other histrionically or acting and talking so cool and sarcastic as to be unreal. There is a also a requisite "romance" between the secretary and two of her male suitors that is inserted at a point in the story that slows down the action. It all reminded me of dozens of movies I'd seen before and that were done far better. Although this predates And Then There Were None by about three years, the action in the story for me was too familiar and not at all handled in any original manner. Detection is at a bare minimum and limited to the observations of the secretary who the reader follows from start to finish although she is not the narrator.

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing is the only "trapped in an office building" mystery story that holds any excitement for me. It's far superior to this yeoman effort by Q. Patrick. No surprise that "Exit Before Midnight" has never been reprinted outside of the magazine. At least not according to my reference books and research.

The better of the two novellas (but not by much) is "The Jack of Diamonds." It was the lead work of fiction in the November 1936 issue. It is also --as far as my research tells me-- the first time a Q. Patrick story was published in The American Magazine.

Once again we have a small cast of characters who are cut off from the rest of the world. In this case we have an invited group of guests who are to attend a skating party at the home of Theo Vanderloon. Only a few hours into the weekend there is a snowstorm that makes the roads impassable and the intense wind knocks out the electricity and presumably the telephone. (Another power failure! Didn't Wheeler and Webb have better ideas than these cliches?) The butler must act as maid, cook and footman since the host has sent the other servants away for the weekend. He's the best character in the story. I watched him closely as he was clearly intended to be someone that was to be taken for granted yet it was obvious that the authors (author?) would make him a key player in the denouement.

It's sort of a subversive story since it tells the tale of a group of blackmail victims conspiring to murder their tormentor. They will lure him to the sabotaged lake which has a pre-cut hole in the ice, cause him to fall through the ice and leave him to drown in the freezing water, thereby making his death look accidental. Nice people. That they will be skating at night seems to raise no questions of suspicion among any of them. But I'm sure the police would remark on that immediately. However, the plot backfires. It has to otherwise there would be no real story. And what follows is at least somewhat more interesting and even a bit exciting than what happens in "Exit Before Midnight."

The title refers to a playing card dealt out to one of the characters who is elected to dispatch the nasty blackmailer when their targeted victim fails to fall through the ice as planned. At least it wasn't called "Ace of Spades." That was one bit of novelty in this improvement over the other story.

There is yet another routine romance (love at first sight no less), even more melodramatic dialog, and a bunch of stock characters including an opera singer who bursts into snippets of arias at the most ridiculous and inappropriate times and a young ingenue with the unfortunate name of Carmelite who actually says to her besotted lover "Take me away from all of this!" That was only one of the many examples of hackneyed speech that sent me into fits of eyeball rolling, head shaking and groaning. But this time the story works. And there is actually a bit of suspense. Although I easily managed to figure out one of the tricks in the story there was a final twist in the last few paragraphs that, although not truly surprising, did manage to elude me.

The sappy love at first sight scene in "Jack of Diamonds"
Out of curiosity I went in search of other Q. Patrick stories or novellas that were published in The American Magazine.  At the Fiction Magazine database I found four more, one of which is a story featuring Peter & Iris Duluth and published under the Q. Patrick pseudonym rather than Patrick Quentin. I'll be searching the internet and elsewhere to see if anyone is offering these issues for sale. If affordable, I'll be purchasing some of them.  I'm curious to see if they get any better.  I certainly hope so. 

The involved merry-go-round of Q. Patrick partner changes (both writing and otherwise) is detailed in a series of comments at the Golden Age of Detection website page for Patrick Quentin. You can read about Webb, Aswell and Wheeler at length (little is known about Kelley, sadly) by clicking here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the comments section for interesting tidbits about the three writers and intimations on Webb and Wheeler's personal life.


  1. Fascinating stuff John, I really hope you review more of these 0 I've certainly never come across them on my side of the pond! Even if they are sub-par for these authors (or 'author' perhaps). Apparently to some of the GAD forums getting reprint rights tot eh Q. Patrick short stories is difficult which is a real shame as, these novellas notwithstanding, they did some exceptional work in shorter forms.

  2. This blog just keeps getting better. It's so nice to see the book covers, but the illustrations add another dimension entirely. Seeing how illustrators envisioned characters and scenes from the book or story helps place them in the time and context in which they were written. Thanks for continuing to spice up your reviews with visuals.

  3. Excellent and fascinating post, John! The mechanics of the writing team are so complex, though, that I'm just going to stick to "Patrick Quentin" and hope that someone will come up with a flowchart or biography or something in the future that will make it easier to understand who wrote what...

  4. Thanks for reviewing these, John! It's a shame they seem to have failed to maintain their overall quality in shorter form, but I still wish I was able to read and evaluate them for myself.


    Douglas Greene (from that wonderful publishing house, Crippen and Landru) tried more than once to secure the rights for a short story collection, but the representatives of their estates remains unresponsive and uncooperative.

  5. I'm thinking these came to light for you in some of those magazines you got recently. If or if not, a fascinating post though I admit not something I'd take the time to read, having read your excerpts and review. I agree, this blog just keeps getting better and better.

  6. Of course Webb and Wheeler also wrote a clutch of novels under the name Jonathan Stagge about amateur sleuth Dr. Hugh Westlake and his daughter, Dawn. I read one of them ("Death's Sweet Old Song") years ago, and recall it as a crispy, witty affair, reminiscent of the crisp, witty novels that the pair wrote about Peter and Iris Duluth.

    Perhaps I missed something, but I'm curious, John: Why do you speculate that these mediocre magazine efforts were "the work of Webb alone," rather than the work of Wheeler alone? Is it well known that one of those men was the sharper writer of the two?

  7. Yes, I think Hugh Wheeler was the better writer of the two. Apart from his solo efforts I know he wrote several books for musicals and his skill at dialog is far better than what is displayed in the two examples reviewed above. Wheeler didn't start writing solo until after 1950 when Webb quit writing altogether. Also, since Webb was the one who wanted to write mystery novels in the first place, and went through a period with no writing partner (from late 1935 to 1936) it made sense to guess that he might have written these two alone.

    The more American Magazine novellas I read, the more I think that the stories were devised to fit a plot formula of the editor's creation. Nearly all of them feature a group of suspects in a closed setting, have an obligatory romantic element, and movie style dialog. This is true of the Kelley Roos stories and the one by Alexandra Brown. I have uncovered some by George Harmon Coxe as well as well as two more by Patrick Quentin/Q Patrick and will be comparing those against the ones I recently read. More critiques/reviews on the way.

  8. Thanks for your response on the Webb/Wheeler question. What you say makes sense. I haven't read any of the Q. Patrick efforts from the pre-1936 period, but if I get a chance to, I'll be looking to see if they lack the wit and polish of the novels from the 1936-1950 period. No doubt they do.

    Your surmise about an editorially imposed format for those American Magazine short novels also makes sense. From what I've gathered over the years, slick-paper fiction in its early 20th-century heyday could be at least as formulaic as its rough-paper (pulp) counterpart.