Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Out of the Shadows -- Charles Ashton, Mystery Writer

Pietro dePalma uncovered a book by little known mystery writer Charles Ashton and wrote about it on his blog Death Can Read. He was frustrated that he could find no biographical info on the writer. So recognizing a research challenge when I see one I set out to prove him wrong. With only three quick internet searches I uncovered quite a fascinating biographical sketch on Charles Ashton in a place no mystery fiction researcher would think of looking.

Here's how I did it.

French edition (Colnem, 1945)
Translation of Fate Strikes Twice (1944)
1 & 2. First and foremost of course, look up his books online. Using only two search criteria -- his name and the date range of all his known published books -- I brought up a brief list of books for sale. I read all the info in the booksellers' catalog descriptions. Ashton's publishers were not among the elite in the British book industry. Therefore the number of his books are few and far between. Most of his books that turned up for sale are in French editions. But I hoped for an enterprising and show-off bookseller (there are many of us out there) who included some biographical info on the writer. And I found one! Luckily, it's an English edition:

ASHTON, Charles (Charles Henry), 1884-1968 STONE DEAD. London : Mellifont Press, [1944]. [Second edition]. A country-inn mystery from photographer, war-hero, silent movie star and ultimately crime-writer Charles Ashton. Originally published by Robert Hale in 1939. Crown 8vo (18cm). 96pp.

3. Aha! He was an movie actor. Off to Enter Charles Ashton and look for the one with silent movie credits. Lo and behold! a full biography on Charles Ashton:

British actor Charles Ashton became an actor not long after receiving a medical discharge from the army due to injuries he received at the Battle of Ypres in World War I. He made his film debut in Pillars of Society (1920). He appeared in a string of films for such well-known directors as Maurice Elvey and Victor Saville. Ashton was one of the many silent-era actors whose career ended with the advent of sound, and he made his last film in 1929. However, he did begin another career as a successful novelist in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly of crime thrillers.

And there you have it. Charles Ashton -- war veteran, silent movie actor, and mystery writer -- resurrected from obscurity.


  1. You should be an detective, John! Or ah ah ah
    I would not have thought to do as you did. OK. But you must recognise you have been lucky!
    I remember several years ago it happened the same thing has happened to you: a friend of mine, a great italian student of Mystery (one among those who participated to Lacourbe meeting of which talks John Pugmire in "A locked room library"), Igor Longo, would have wished owning the copy of a famous Mystery by George Antheil/Stacey Bishop, "Death in the Dark" (do you know it, John?) but he was not able to get it. He asked me - as a joke - that if I had been able to find a clue who could direct his researches he would have done a statue to me. I began and as you, "with only three quick internet searches", I found that a copy of that book was in a library of an american university. Today, if I wanted doing same thing, I would be not able doing it probably. At the time, I was lucky.

    1. I will never discount luck when it comes to this type of research, Pietro. I make jokes about how my life is cursed, but I am always surprised by how much good luck comes my way and far outweighs the pitfalls and disappointments.

      Someday I'd love to find a copy of Death in the Dark only because it's a mystery written by a man known primarily for composing music for the movies. But I have a feeling I'll never be able to afford one due to its legendary status and rarity.

      And to give you full credit: Poor old Charles would still be lingering in the Limbo of Forgotten Writers were it not for your post. We have you to thank for resuscitating an interest in his work and bringing attention to his unusual career path. Now he has his own page at the GAD wiki which, at your suggestion, I added last night.

  2. Yes you are right. The good Charles, in the afterlife, will now be happy to know that someone has remembered and will remember him well in the future.I think the thing have done to you even more pleasure because he was an actor, what you have been also. I caught your surprise

  3. But why do you speak about pitfalls and disappointment? What did it happen to you? Can tell me also by email.

    1. Just more of my cynical humor. I'm always making fun of myself and the world at large.

  4. AAAAAhhhhhhhhh
    Have you ever bought mysteries from Bob Adey's heirs?
    If you had bought them, now you would be happy.
    That's because I am sad.

  5. John: Well done. Searching is now so different from the 1960's when I was in school and the 1970's when I was in university and the mid-1970's when I was a young lawyer. My partner and I did anticipate electronic research in 1981 when we established our firm. Believing legal research would not stay in books we did not establish an office library. While it took longer than we expected I am glad we did not buy large quantities of case reports.

  6. Well done signor Norris - am doffing my cap (you know which one) :)

  7. I agree, John. You do a great job of sleuthing out information about authors. Very much appreciated.