Thursday, January 31, 2019

FFB: Journey Downstairs - R. Philmore

THE STORY: Sir Geoffrey Howarth, M.P., is holding a dinner part at his estate called Kemble. Among the guests are schoolmaster Richard Philmore, his dear friend the writer and publicist Swan, Rev. John Cornish and his wife Joyce, and Ralph Sedgwick, an architect hoping to get some help from Howarth in obtaining a commission to design and build a new student housing facility at the local university. They are soon joined by Peter Howarth, Sir Geoffrey's profligate nephew known for his spendthrift habits and penchant for gambling. Shortly after dinner Sir Geoffrey is found stabbed in his study. Swan does some preliminary investigations and based only on two bits of evidence is certain he knows the identity of the killer, but he needs to get proof to satisfy the police. And so with permission of Chief Constable Greening he sets out to do so. Dick Philmore acts as his Watson as they uncover a lurid trail of blackmail, adultery, prostitution and illegal stock speculation.

THE CHARACTERS:  Swan (whose first name is never mentioned once in his debut appearance) belongs to a long line of academics who turn to amateur sleuthing as an intellectual kick. He proposes that Philmore turn secretary and record their investigations. Luckily, Philmore has a skill in shorthand making it all the more easy to get down the minutest details. Readers may notice that Philmore, like S. S. Van Dine and Anthony Abbot among other less notable Golden Age detective fiction writers, is also the author of the book signalling that it is a pseudonym which, obviously, it is. As a Watson Philmore proves to be more than helpful when it comes to interviewing women in the case. He has a charm and affability about him that the distant and intellectual Swan lacks. Also Philmore confesses to us in his narrative that he has fallen a bit in love with Joyce Cornish which makes his interactions with her a mix of anticipatory gladness and discomfort knowing he needs to treat her as a suspect. Joyce is too smart not to notice this. In fact she is very much aware of her allure and uses it to her advantage as often as she can.

Most of the men find Joyce's attractions difficult to ignore. She has openly talked of the lack of passion in her marriage, lets both Swan and Philmore know that she and her husband have separate bedrooms at Kemble and by inference we know that is true of their own home. It is a happy but loveless (translation: sexless) marriage and Joyce finds herself straying.  Frequently. Who among the male guests at the dinner party have succumbed to her slyly implied open invitations to join her after hours? Swan thinks he knows who; more than one man is guilty. But like a typical omniscient detective of this genre he's keeping mum. Swan's favorite and most irritating catchphrase is: "I don't think I'll tell you that right now, Dick." Infuriating both his assistant and the reader every single time.

As is the case with large casts -- and this one is hefty -- I find myself drawn to the quirky and eccentric characters. Some of these people show up only in one scene and yet their appearance is jarring or touching or humorous enough to merit mention. And so I pick the following three supporting players.

Mrs. Hannon, an elderly woman of less than modest means, finds it necessary to rent a spare room in her house to prostitutes. Basically Mrs. Hannon is running a no-tell-motel in her own home. She has a pleading speech poignantly rendered and I imagine delivered with much emotion (though Philmore doesn't let us know that) that fully justifies her need for the money and simultaneously explaining how her renting is an act of compassion despite looking like selfish greed to others.

Her primary renter is Lily Chambers, not so much a hooker with a heart of gold, as she is a woman of desperate circumstances. She finds her trade reprehensible yet necessary. When she is accused of having a sexual relationship with Rev. Cornish with whom she is known to take back to Mrs. Hannon's on more than one occasion her outrage knows no bounds. She insists that the reverend is her friend and confidante, that there is nothing sexual. She says she never once charged him a shilling for his visits. But is her anger feigned or genuine?  We are never sure until the final pages.

Rounding out this trio is Archie Twite, a weasely pimp, who we discover was an agent working for Geoffrey Howarth. It seems that Howarth owned several buildings some of which were brothels and hotels frequented by prostitutes. Twite says his main source of income was helping to drum up business in these houses of ill repute. But of the these three involved in the world's oldest profession Twite will turn out to be the most surprising his insights and his aspirations to leave the sordid life he despises. He's one of the finest and most complex minor characters in Journey Downstairs (1934) -- sharp witted, impressive, and loathsome all at once. His street smarts and observational skills in the end prove extremely helpful to Swan.

INNOVATIONS: The detection in Journey Downstairs is based more on behavior and psychology than anything else. In this regard it owes a lot to the Anthony Berkley school where psychological motives are the focus. Swan's summation in the final chapter is almost exclusively based upon his observations of the suspects, his uncanny knack of figuring out who the really are based on their behavior and speech, and his refusal to believe that most of these people could commit murder. He eliminates suspects using behavioral clues and does not really build his case on physical evidence. In fact, there is very little of that at all.

Italian edition. Title is literally
translated as Invitation with Murder
Here's an anti-innovation not at all the fault of the writer. One crucial piece of physical evidence is casually mentioned in passing very early in the book and never talked of again. If the reader bothered to read the lengthy blurb that precedes the title page in the US edition (the one I own and read), also found on the front flap of the US dust jacket, he will have that piece of evidence crammed into his face in a tantalizing series of questions. An unwise choice on the part of Doubleday Doran's editors, in my opinion. If you ever find a copy I suggest you do not read the blurb until you have finished the book. It doesn't give away the game, but it certainly ruins the fair play elements a bit by drawing to the reader's attention the one clue that shows who is responsible for the murder.

What is innovative is the manner in which Swan employs Philmore as his Watson. Periodically, the two sit together and Swan encourages Philmore to ask questions of him about the murder investigation and he will elaborate and elucidate if the question merits an answer. But too often Swan gives us the old "I'd rather not tell you at this stage" type of comeback. This is a tactic that I thought went out of fashion in the early 1920s but apparently was still a standard annoyance in 1934.

Clearly, some of the answers to Philmore's pointed and intelligent questions would spoil the suspense. But in one case (having to do with the true identity of a "Mr. Robinson" who took Joyce to a hotel) I thought, after seeing the answer given in the final chapter, that telling Philmore and therefore the reader the answer when it was first asked that nothing would have been spoiled. In fact it would've made the story more exciting. But this is, after all, a first novel. So I'm willing to forgive the writer for his laxity and lazy style of holding back facts until the denouement.

Lastly, I feel it necessary to call attention to the title of the book. Just like Helen McCloy did with Cue for Murder, the title Journey Downstairs is one of the best clues to lead the reader in the proper direction.

Herbert Edmund Howard (1900- ?)
THE AUTHOR: "R. Philmore" was the pseudonym for writer Herbert Edmund Howard who wrote as H. E. Howard.  Howard was a researcher and historian whose non-fiction writing graced the pages of many an academic journal throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote The Eighteenth Century and the Revolution, 1714-1815 (Gollancz, 1935) published as part three in Gollancz' multi-volume set "An Outline of European History." Of interest to crime fiction devotees are his two essays for the Cambridge University Press publication Discovery, subtitled "The Popular Journal of Knowledge" and helmed by C. P. Snow, one of Howard's close friends. "Inquest on Detective Stories" appeared in the April 1938 issue of Discovery. The essay written in collaboration with physician Dr. John Yudkin examines the validity and efficacy of some poisoning murders in several popular detective novels from the 1920s and 1930s. Its follow-up "Second Inquest on Detective Stories" written solely by Howard was published in the December 1938 issue. This time Howard in the guise of "R. Philmore" looked at a variety of motives of fictional murderers in detective novels. Both essays can be read using Google Books. His detective fiction consists of seven novels, five with Swan and Philmore as the sleuthing duo, and two featuring Inspector Garnett.

THINGS I LEARNED:  In one unusual and inventive scene Swan visits Rev. Cornish at a boys' club.  He insists that Cornish, his vicar/boss Canon Golightly, and all the boys play a game called "Priest in the Parish." The rules are cursorily explained in the book and not well enough for me to understand what was going on. So I headed to Google and found the game described in great detail in a Wikipedia article! (Does EVERYTHING have a Wikipedia page?  Well, H. E. Howard doesn't.)

Basically it's a call and response game designed for large groups  I can't imagine it working very well with less than ten people. One person plays the Priest and the rest of the players are split into groups and assigned into rows. The Priest calls out a phrase to which the players must respond with a given reply and must do so quickly and in unison. If they answer out of turn or one person in the group is not with the others, then they forfeit and must go to the back row and all other groups advance forward filling in the missing row. The goal is to be the group that is the closest to the front when the Priest ends the game. Swan sees the game as a test of concentration, teamwork and -- oddly -- devotion. He manages to discover a few things about Cornish and Canon Golightly that he otherwise would not be able to discern through mere questioning. Interested in the exact rules of "Priest in the Parish"?  See this blog article. 

EASY TO FIND?  Well, what do you think?  That's right. No. Through sheer luck and timing I found the only available copy of the US edition back in April of last year and spent a mere $23. There are currently two UK editions for sale online, both with dust jackets, and both priced way too high for anyone but the most discerning and rich of book collectors. I enjoyed reading this book and was hoping I could find at least one or two others. However, the only other title being sold is one in French (L'election de minuit, 1936). Based on the publication date I'm guessing it's the French edition of Riot Act, the second Swan and Philmore mystery, which has a political background that would match the "election" in the French title. There are literally zero copies of any other R Philmore mystery novels offered anywhere in the world. At least via online third party bookselling sites. What a shame. Based on my reading of his debut novel, the laudatory comments that Gollancz plastered all over the front of their editions of Journey Downstairs, plus the few reviews I've read of other Philmore mystery novels these seem to be top notch example of detective fiction.  Perhaps a plea to independent presses out there might make new editions materialize out of the limbo of the past. Yes, I'm pleading.

R. Philmore's Detective Novels
Journey Downstairs (1934)
Riot Act (1935)
The Good Books (1936)
No Mourning in the Family (1937)
Short List (1938)
Above five titles with Swan and Philmore

Death in Arms (1939) - with Inspector Garnett
Procession of Two (1940) - with Inspector Garnett

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful review of what sounds to be a fascinating book, if dated in style and plot. Too bad it's unavailable, along with the rest. I'm not sure what the chances of a book or series like this are to become republished in print or an ebook.

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    1. I can't disagree with you more, Rick. I am continually amazed by the choices of some of these reprint publishers. Two of them choose some of the most off-the-wall, forgotten writers who write formulaic books unworthy of rediscovery. Then there's something as sophisticated and witty with an iconoclastic worldview as this that was lauded by insightful critics like L.A.G. Strong (no mean writer of detective novels himself) and it languishes in the limbo of out-of-printdom. In my opinion the books that deserve to be reprinted are those that distinguish themselves from formulaic dull stories with imaginative plots and advanced observations for the time that will resonate with modern readers. I'm tired of quaint country house detective novels flooding the market. Give me a book like this that deals with prostitution in pre-WW2 era England any day over that fodder! Most importantly books that deserve reprinting should be those that are next to impossible to find in used book market. How else are you guaranteed sales? Your edition should be the only one people will find when they go looking to buy, right? But my clamoring and common sense approach continues to fall on deaf ears.

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  2. Philmore presents a problem perhaps for publishers because of a scandal in his background, one that would prove quite offputting to potential readers. I've put off writing about it, but maybe I should now. It's been kind of lurking back there.

    I managed actually to track down four of his books!

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    1. You must have found those books years ago or have some sort of secret pipeline to extremely scarce books.

      I can't find a damn word written about Howard's life anywhere. I had to do intense sleuthing and internet searching just to find his writing outside of detective fiction. How on earth could this "scandal" intimidate publishers from reprinting his books? Not a word about him can be read unless it's mentioned in some obscure newspaper article or in some other writer's biography. I have a feeling what it must be since you mention Murder in the Closet. Don't get me started on my outrage about people digging up the past, making "secrets" public, wrecking careers and lives, and ruining reputations. I'm going to go into a corner and seethe a little.

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    2. H.E. Howard stopped writing in 1940 as well as Philmore, but that needn't have ended the Philmore books - another Gollancz author, "Cameron McCabe", remained unidentified for many years. Even if Howard was revealed as Philmore, Gollancx was famously left-wing and progressive, so would probably have been happy to publish him with another pseudonym.

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    3. Most of his later books were published by Collins Crime Club if you bothered to look at the illustrations and publications dates. Gollancz only published his first three detective novels of the total seven. Knowing what the scandal entailed (which I have no intention of going into) I sincerely doubt Gollancz would have published anything, new pseudonym or not. Curt has already informed me of the details and it is, as I suspected, something horribly taboo. Howard ended up leaving England in disgrace and settling in a different country.

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  3. P. S., I had him in mind if there's ever a Murder in the Closet 2! ;)

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  4. ...more info with date of death: "R. Philmore was the pseudonym of Herbert Edmund Howard (1900-63), and his protagonist, an amateur detective named C. J. Swan, was reputedly based on his close friend C. P. Snow. Scarce in this condition with the dust jacket." William Amos in The Originals says Howard was also the model for George Passant in Snow's Strangers and Brothers roman-fleuve. https://www.peterharrington.co.uk/journey-downstairs.html
    Snow's first novel, Death Under Sail, was a detective story. It was published by Penguin, so should be easy to find, though - going by his later books - Snow didn't have much sense of humour.

    According to http://www.crimefictioniv.com/Part_28.html
    "PHILMORE, R. Herbert Edmund Howard, 1900-1963. Born in Norfolk, moved to Leicestershire where he was a school history master for 40 years; well-known broadcaster and scriptwriter, often appearing on the “Round Britain Quiz” radio program."
    If that's correct, and it doesn't refer to another Howard, the scandal can't have been too damaging.
    In C.P. Snow: The Dynamics of Hope By Nicolas Tredell there is more information on Howard, but the scandal it mentions must have been much later if the contributor to Round Britain Quiz was Snow's teacher: he was still appearing in 1962 https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/bbchomeservice/basic/1962-11-28 . It might be worth looking at other books on Snow or Alderman Newton's School if you want to go further.

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    1. I've read and reviewed Death under Sail on this blog. It's a superior detective novel with some scenes of farcical humor and satire. I've never read any of Snow's mainstream fiction. But he does indeed have a sense of humor in his first detective novel. Late in his life he wrote another mystery novel (A Coat of Varnish) that someday I'll have to read.

      CLearly you paid no attention to my feelings about digging up the past. "It might be worth looking into..." has no appeal to me. Unless you're addressing others who might stumble across these comments, but I wouldn't count on it these days. As the Time's Up and #MeToo movements have reminded us no one can ever escape their past. Such was the case for Howard. The exact dates of his "scandalous" behavior make no difference. When his secret was out, he was ruined. And that's all I have to say about Howard and his "secret." Let the poor dead man rest in peace.

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