A little digging is a dangerous thing, to paraphrase Alexander Pope. His original quote about a little learning continues: "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." Often I find that my digging into the past lives of these obscure authors unearths a treasure trove of information that I hit that spring and before I can sample it I find I'm drowning in it. Buried in data about the writer's lives I try to sort it out and assemble it and then I forget about writing about their books. In the case of Victor Wolfson, a prolific writer of plays, television scripts and a handful novels, there are just a couple of crime novels to his name. So it should be easy to toss off a brief review of this one before I unleash the torrent of info on his other writing. I think he was a little embarrassed by this one book for he hides behind the androgynously odd pseudonym of Langdon Dodge. Perhaps a signal that he was planning to dodge metaphorical bullets fired from the typewriters of harsh or indifferent book reviewers.
Midsummer Madness (1950) is the one of two books Wolfson left fans of crime novels and it's as odd as his choice of pseudonym (the source, inspiration or meaning of which I was unable to determine in my digital shovelling through his past). I've tagged this as a "badass biddy" suspense novel but truthfully the two women battling each other for the affection of the Byronic hero and possibly the wealth he is due to inherit are far from biddy age. Selena our protagonist and heroine is barely forty years old while her antagonist the extremely unbalanced and duplicitous Zilla is just entering her middle aged years. And Zilla's no biddy in the looks department. Described by Dodge as a sort of Jayne Mansfield type gone off the deep end Zilla is Rubenesque, blond and deeply disturbed. Still, at its core Midsummer Madness is very much in the tradition of what I like to call "badass biddy" novels in which two women go to great lengths to do each other in, or drive one or the other to the brink of madness. Selena is not really the target here but her charge is -- the young son of Gayden Goodale. Wolfson's early playwriting days betray him here in his use of awkwardly and groan inducing alliterative names as odd as the consonance of his pen name.
In a nutshell this is Jane Eyre redux with an overdose of nasty cruelty and murderous avarice. Selena is cast in the role of Jane, Gayden is Rochester, and instead of Adele as the governess' charge we have Bobby, Gayden's asthmatic son. While there is no real counterpart for the crazed ex-wife kept hidden away in an attic Wolfson does offer up an invalid mother in the person of Mrs. Goodale, the specter of a long dead wife named Lucy who may have been murdered, and of course the nasty villainess Zilla. So Mrs. Rochester's spirit at least is present albeit divided into three different characters. The structure is Jane Eyre no matter how you look at it. But the conflict is pure badass biddy crime novel. Zilla is out for the Goodale money and she is intent on eliminating every one of the Goodale family starting first with Bobby whose respiratory ailments and frail physique make him a prime target for Zilla's devilry. And she has some extremely cruel and nasty methods of attempting to do in the poor boy. One of which involves trapping Bobby on a speedy roller coaster at a local carnival and preventing him from leaving as they repeatedly ride the coaster as he screams to be let off.
Rounding out the cast of characters are Zilla's bullying son Allan; a sinister butler named Collins who seems to know more than anyone at Hawk's End; a Polish handyman who speaks no English; Millie, an easily intimidated simpleton of a maid who attempts to become Selena's ally and fails, and Mrs. Goodale the archtype of the imperious invalid matriarch confined to her bedroom who is policed and tended to by an overly protective matron nurse.
|French paperback edition.|
That can only be Zilla on the cover!
The Gothic elements continue into the marvelous setting. Thornfield Hall is replaced by Hawk's Head, a rambling estate near oceanfront cliffs in northeastern United States, perhaps somewhere in New England. The house is ironically claustrophobic in its immensity and the typical brooding atmosphere of dread and paranoia infects the place. Two key scenes take place at a summerhouse situated on the precipice of the seaside cliffs. It is a place that the boys were warned to avoid because of its rickety wooden railings and a porch in disrepair. You just know that something awful its going to happen there. And it does. Twice!
Midsummer Madness for all its stereotypical trappings and familiar character types makes for an interesting read. The battle of wits and two hand-to-hand battles --these are tough women!-- between Selena and Zilla hold the reader's attention for the most part even if the filler story is easily guessable. Zilla is never meant to be ambiguous as the villain of the novel. Though Wolfson tries to make Gayden seem like he may be a baddie he's too steeped in the Gothic traditions to be anything but a requisite Byronic hero. Selena is smart, strong willed, outspoken and athletic. A refreshing change from the guileless nitwits one usually finds in neo-Gothics.
Best of all -- the climax of the book, the ultimate reveal of what happened to Lucy, and the revelation of Zilla in all her malevolence includes a neat surprise in the person of the sinister Collins who turns out to be not so sinister after all. And whose knowledge of the household is matched by his knowledge of foreign languages. I'll say no more. There are plenty of copies of Midsummer Madness out there to be found and you will have to discover the thrilling escapades and nasty schemes of Zilla, her tortured victim Bobby, and the resourceful heroine Selena all on your own. You can find it in both hardcover editions under the Langdon Dodge pseudonym and paperback editions under Wolfson's real name.
Victor Wolfson (1909 - 1990) began his professional career "organizing acting clubs for striking miners in West Virginia" according to his New York Times obituary. Theater was apparently his first love and from 1926 through 1955 he worked as an actor, assistant stage manager, director and producer in addition to his seven contributions as a playwright.
Though his career as a playwright did not yield many memorable or long running plays despite the star power of Shirley Booth in the shipboard comedy Excursion (1937) or Gloria DeHaven, Ricardo Montalban and Bea Arthur in Seventh Heaven (1955), a musical for which he supplied the book, Wolfson would go on to become highly successful as a television script writer. He wrote for several anthology series throughout the 1950s when such shows were at the height of popularity. Among his TV credits are scripts for Suspense (14 episodes!), Kraft Theater and Climax. The episode "No Right to Kill" on Climax (Aug 9, 1956), starring John Cassavetes and Terry Moore, was based on Wolfson's own stage adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment which had been on Broadway at the Biltmore Theater in 1935. Most notably Wolfson wrote six scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The Hitchcock TV scripts include some of the best of that series, some of which were based on well known short stories by master crime fiction writers. Wolfson wrote the scripts for "The Specialty of the House" and "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" both based on the stories by Stanley Ellin, "Malice Domestic" based on Philip MacDonald's story and "The Perfect Murder" taken from the story of the same name by Stacy Aumonier, an underrated crime writer of short stories whose work was made more famous thanks to at least three episodes on the Hitchcock TV series.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Wolfson's years in TV came in 1961 when he won an Emmy for his work on ABC-TV's 26 part mini-series "Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years."
Some of his mainstream novels all published under his real name are The Lonely Steeple (1945), reprinted as The Passionate Season (1966); The Eagle on the Plain (1945); and Cabral (1972), his second crime novel. My Prince! My King! (1962), a novel based on several of his autobiographical stories, focuses on his days as a child of Russian immigrants. The stories originally appeared in The New Yorker back in the 1940s told, amongst other things, the story of his mother's grief following the death of Wolfson's father. His nonfiction works include The Man Who Cared (1966), a biography of Harry S Truman; and The Mayerling Murder (1969), in which he examines the legends and myths surrounding the still unsolved apparent murder–suicide pact of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover, Mary Freiin von Vetsera.
In May 1990 Wolfson died tragically in a fire in his home a Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He was 81 years old.