Thursday, June 4, 2015

Death Takes an Editor - Nigel Morland

For one reason or another in the world of popular fiction some publishers and agents suggest prolific authors resort to using pseudonyms, especially if they are trying out new characters or writing books that veer away from their usual fare. This was a trend that dates back to the Golden Age and carried on into the 1970s.  I guess there are still a few prolific writers who have multiple identities, as it were (I can think of a few male thriller writers still active under several pen names), but it was more common decades ago. Nigel Morland was one of those prolific writers with a schizoid writing career.

Morland's Palmyra Pym police procedural mysteries were his mainstay and were published in the UK and the US by two top-line publishers.  When he chose to write outside of the series, usually under a pen name, his crime novels often tackled unusually technical and scientific concepts in a mystery novel and I guess he had to shop them around. Surefire sellers with recognizable series characters are easier to accept for a publisher while risky or controversial subject matter may not at all be attractive when it comes to selling books. It wasn't altogether clear to me why Death Takes an Editor (1949) wasn't released by his regular publisher in the UK. It seemed fairly straightforward with its newspaper setting, formulaic cast of characters, and an eccentric consulting detective with a background in abnormal psychology. Why did Morland hand over his book to the obscure and long gone publisher Aldus Publications Ltd.? At the halfway mark the book's content makes a startling turn into a lurid world and the answer to that question was made perfectly clear. In 1949 there weren't too many mystery novels that dealt with sadomasochistic sex so candidly.

At first I thought this was going to be one of Morland's strange forays into scientific detection because the police detective is Chief Inspector Jonathan Lamb. Under the pseudonym John Donavan Morland wrote a handful of complex and engaging detective novels with Johnny Lamb, a policeman with a background in chemistry who solves cases involving poisoning via an air conditioning system (Case of the Rusted Room), poisoning by iodine gas (Case of the Violet Smoke), and odd botanical toxins (Case of the Beckoning Dead). But this Lamb is of a completely different wool and he turns out to be the secondary detective.

The real sleuth in Death Takes an Editor is Professor Steven Malone, "the most brilliant medical jurist of his day." A former forensic professor at the University of Egypt Malone worked all over Europe and at the start of this novel he is employed in a "revolutionary Medico-Legal department...attached to Scotland Yard" where he acts as "part of a police organization without being subordinate to it." Malone, like his creator Nigel Morland, also happens to have an extensive knowledge of abnormal psychology and is well acquainted with some of the more sensational cases of the past as detailed in the numerous criminology textbooks he has devoured over his long career. This arcane information serves as the springboard to the solution of a series of murders all having their roots in possessive and controlling love.

The plot includes a few miracle problems like the vanishing of two men from a locked and guarded newspaper office as well as some odd red herrings like a box of poisoned chocolates and the appearance Bernard Ambrus, the mysterious "astropathologist" -- really nothing more than a glorified astrologist who claimed to treat disease. At first the case seems to focus on the puzzling personality of the murder victim Ernest Shipper. Each character presents a completely different perception of Shipper. At first a scold and office dictator disliked by all his co-workers, then a misunderstood quietly tolerant man, then a thrill-seeker slumming for sex in dive bars.

The more he thought about [Shipper] the more seemingly negative characters of the editor took on a full and amazing life. From being a minus sign in human form he was gradually emerging into the full flower of a thoroughly contradictory personality.

One of Morland's many true crime books
Malone however turns his attention on Jill Bethanny, Ernest Shippers wife who chooses not to use her husband's surname. This book is marketed salaciously on the DJ blurb as if Jill is some sort of femme fatale who weaves a spell over all the men in the story. This is not the case at all. She turns out to be a victim of the perverse sexual predilections of her husband. As Malone uncovers more dirty secrets in the Shippers' lives -- pornography in a secret drawer in Shipper's office, S&M paraphernalia hidden in the bedroom, signs that someone was lashed to a water heater -- the novel descends into a& world that Morland would like us to think is amoral and thoroughly evil.

Malone acts as Morland's voice here and it's hard to dismiss the misogyny that completely overtakes the story. Malone quotes from an ancient criminology book called The Female Criminal, gives examples of outdated Freudian psychology and tries to explain the difference between men and women who become criminals. It's all hogwash. Morland tries to shock his readers with a still misunderstood world of alternative sex practices but it just comes out embarrassing. His views (and the books he quotes from) are dated, chauvinistic and hateful. Additionally, these criminal facts color his moral worldview and for Malone (and presumably Morland) there is no room for forgiveness or redemption or a second chance when it comes to indulging in "perversity".

WARNING! ...SPOILERS A-COMIN'... I'm about to give away the biggest "shock" of the finale. Stop here if you don't want the book ruined. Not that it makes much of a difference, IMO.

Jill, we learn, was not only abused by her husband but as a result of succumbing to his will and participating in his hedonism she is doomed and cursed to a life of irredeemable amorality. She commits murder in order to free herself, but by then as far as Malone is concerned it is too late for her. She has become thoroughly corrupted. In the end he plants the idea in her head that she would be better off dead and she commits suicide. Nice, huh? There's some advanced twentieth century thinking for you!

...END OF SPOILER...

When Death Takes an Editor sticks to police procedure and forensics it makes for an intriguing detective novel. When Morland becomes a moralizing lecturer, however, the book fails disastrously. I'll be sure to avoid any of his other books published by the more obscure houses of the past like Aldus. It's clear to me that the mainline publishers saw some of his books as disguised treatises to espouse his personal beliefs and not as a novel meant to entertain.

* * *

I read this as part of Rich Westwood's "1949 Mystery Novel Challenge" for the month of May. But I so hated this book I decided to wait to write it up until after the challenge was over. I found a much better book -- Death Knocks Three Times by Anthony Gilbert -- to replace this one for that challenge.

7 comments:

  1. My guess is the regular publisher shied away from the book because of that "abnormal psychology". Just the words could be enough to turn off an editor.

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  2. Spoilers under a Spoiler Alert warning ? Well, I am reminded of an English word beginning with H !

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    1. Oh come on! Of all people I thought you'd appreciate the warning. Besides, I've done this before. Just type "warning" in the search box. The only reason I did give away a portion of the ending is because the book is very scarce. You'll probably never find a copy - especially in digital format. I only found three copies for sale online. It's truly a terrible book. Anyone with an ounce of humanity in them would find it repellent for Morland's view of women and their innate weakness in relationship to men.

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  3. Never read Morland but have stidiously avoided the spoilers, tjough now, after your concluding comments, I might just read your review and just try a different Morland - where to start John?

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    1. Any of the Palmyra Pym books from the 1930s or 1940s is the place to start. If you can find one! His strength is in thrillers of the Edgar Wallace school and police procedurals. I can send you a copy of The Careless Hangman if you want to try him out. He can concoct intricate plots in his novels of scientific detection (another of his fascinations in the world of true s crime) and I enjoyed all of the books he wrote as "John Donavan". The Nigel Morland bibliography is complete over at the Golden Age of Detection wiki. Click here to go to that page.

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  4. I think I'll skip this one, John. Ugh. But of course not so outlandish when you think how 'fallen' women were treated in books and movies in the past - and even, occasionally, today. If a women 'sinned' (never mind that the men were doing the same thing) then ipso facto she had to be made to suffer. Usually that meant death or miserable unhappiness in the end.

    Would I like the Palmyra Pym books? I do like police procedurals.

    But you forgot to mention Harry Potter's creator J.K. Rowling who writes a fabulous detective series (two books along) under the name of Robert Galbraith.

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    1. This book more than any other truly sickened me mostly because of the detective's condemnation of Jill Bethanny and his suggestion to kill herself. I'm so over misogyny in crime fiction -- both in the past and the present. I cannot excuse it for any reason and certainly not when the writer presents it as scientific fact!

      Yes, I think you would like Palmyra Pym. I have an extra copy of one I reviewed here. Check your mail box in the coming weeks. :^D

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