Friday, January 24, 2014

FFB: The Careless Hangman - Nigel Morland

Dubbed "the toughest woman in Christendom" by reporter Dick Lodden, Palmyra Pym is the original badass police woman.

She began her professional life in journalism, then joined the Royal Navy during World War I and was sent to China where she worked as Chief Secretary to the Director of Remounts for four years eventually join in the Shanghai police force. Her unusual career then took her the United States where she became a consultant for various police forces including New York, Chicago and of all places Omaha, Nebraska. She can also boast having helped out police organizations in Berlin, Stockholm, Rome, Madrid and Buenos Aires.

How do I all know this? Nigel Morland supplies her Who's Who entry as the foreword to The Careless Hangman (1940), her tenth appearance as Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. That makes her the earliest highest ranking police woman in detective fiction. Mrs. Pym has not only loads of experience but an ample amount of chutzpah. What a refreshing change from the eccentric and near sociopathic amateur detectives that make up most of the lead characters of the Golden Age.

In The Careless Hangman Mrs. Pym and her colleague and partner Chief Inspector Shott uncover the reason a skeleton was hidden inside a tailor's dummy, why it was dressed in the clothing of a wealthy businessman who made his fortune selling a miracle depilatory and why some well known con artists have coincidentally moved next door to the cosmetics millionaire. Morland mixes these oddities usually found in a traditional whodunit and throws them into the structure of a police procedural with skill and imagination. As the story unfolds Morland also introduces forensic anthropology, innovative autopsy techniques, and an abundance of scientific arcana -- his most consistently fascinating contribution to his crime fiction. Even a modern reader can join in the surprise when Professor Shebron says, "This is most interesting. I had no idea that bacteriology had such practical possibilities in police investigation."

With the creation of Palmyra Pym Nigel Morland was attempting to bring the crime novel out of the realm of puzzling fantasy into the real world of messy crime where not all the clues will necessarily fall neatly into place. Mrs. Pym is as far removed as possible from the brilliant detective who explains all as if he were putting all the evidence in a neat gift package, wrapping it with pretty paper and tying it up with a perfect bow. There is disorder in the world of Palmyra Pym. There is danger and menace. Bullets fly and policemen's lives are at risk daily. She faces it all with guts and insolence and unorthodox police procedure.

Nowhere is this realism more apparent than in The Careless Hangman. There are multiple criminals at work not one fiendish individual, there are two attempts on Mrs. Pym's life one of which she laughs off as half-witted calling it a "stunt that'd make a Chicago man laugh himself sick." One of the policemen prides himself on his intimate knowledge of the people in Barbary Cut, the neighborhood where the tailor's dummy was discovered. Pym and Shott are able to get better cooperation because of this policeman's disregard for class distinctions, noting instead the importance of their family life details which he has wisely memorized. Prior to each introduction of a witness the policeman asks about a husband, a wife, a child thereby humanizing the police and lessening the innate suspicion the people of Barbary Cut have for the "rozzers".

In the final pages Morland allows Mrs. Pym to emphasize what must be his manifesto for the future of the crime novel:

"Is there one single case in the Registry files that's been put away with every tidy angle rounded off? Come again, Superintendent! Human nature doesn't go in for card-indexing systems in its actions, and if we're going to mess about with motives, reasons and logic in crime we'll be here for a month."
There is nothing tidy about crime and certainly not in solving crime. The Palmyra Pym crime novels are pivotal in de-emphasizing the puzzles of the whodunit and focusing on the chaos of violent crime and unpredictable criminal behavior. The Careless Hangman is an accomplished example of this turning point in the development of the modern crime novel as we we know it today. Who says you can't learn from the great writers of the past?

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I'm crossing off another square on my Bingo card. This counts as space E5 ("Book Set in England") in Bev Hankins' Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge.


  1. This sounds great John - thanks as always, another series to add to the list. I really don't think I've read anything by Morland (shame on me, obviously). Fascinating also because, as far as I was aware, women police officers were only introduced in Britain in 1949 ...

    1. According to the Metropolitan Police historical website the first official women's police unit was started in 1918. The page I read includes a photo dated 1918 of a WPC walking next to a woman Inspector. So it is perfectly possible for Palmyra Pym to have achieved the rank of Deputy Asst. Commissioner by the mid 1930s. Prior to that women in the police force were dubbed "police matrons" and whose primary responsibility was the care of female suspects being questioned and overseeing female prisoners while in the courtroom and the jails.

      I highly recommend any of the Mrs. Pym novels. I would also suggest any of the detective novels Nigel Morland wrote under his many pseudonyms -- more on this coming next week.

  2. I remember reading a couple of Mrs. Pym novels years ago -- they're not easy to find, in my experience, I don't see them often. My memory was that I'd found them a bit disjointed, but, John, you've explained that in a way that makes sense to me. As always, you make me want to go back and read them again!

  3. Palmyra Pym - now there's a name to be reckoned with. Never heard of these John. But thanks for bringing this series to my attention. Since they are so hard to find, I doubt I'll ever read one - but I'll certainly keep an eye out. The more I learn about the past (reading-wise) the more I realize I must have been out to lunch. :)

  4. P.S. On a tangent: John do you recommend the Arsene Lupin books? Just wondering. I am so intrigued by the cover art I see on line.

    1. I've reviewed one book on my blog: The Secret of Sarek. I found it to be very strange but enjoyed it. It was almost a parody of a Sax Rohmer thriller. Probably the best place to start is the notable short story collection Eight Strokes of the Clock (named in Queen's Quorum) or the very first book Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar also published as The Exploits of Arsene Lupin. The more you get into the series the more convoluted it gets with lots of references to characters and events in previous books. The Arsene Lupin stories and novels are best understood and enjoyed if read in the order of publication.

    2. Many thanks for the info, John.

  5. Hmmm. The name Palmyra Pym is ringing a bell, but I can't think why. I know I haven't read anything by Nigel Morland. Your review makes me want to remedy that as soon as possible!


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