Saturday, July 17, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: One Cried Murder - Jean Leslie

It's too bad that the striking cover illustration at left for this debut mystery novel by Jean Leslie, and the introduction to her decades long association with Doubleday Doran's Crime Club, is no indication of the story within. One Cried Murder (1945) has nothing to do with a horde of bats invading a town nor does it feature anything vaguely resembling  Gothic motifs. The story could have done with a few macabre and outre touches. But as it stands it is still one of the best academic mysteries I've read by any American writer of this era, including the many academics who hid behind pseudonyms and wrote mystery novels set on university campuses. In One Cried Murder Professor Peter Ponsonby makes his first appearance in what would be a three book series and turns amateur sleuth when faced with the apparent suicide of a psychology professor at a small university somewhere in California. This is one of the few academic mysteries of the WW 2 era where I got any inkling that the writer actually was a teacher (Leslie was a psychology fellow and taught for a while early in her career). The detail of university politics, the hierarchy of the deans and the faculty and how they influence and affect the various departments and division heads rang 100% true. I say this having worked in academic medicine for the past 24 years.

The only reason Ponsonby, an English professor, gets involved with the psychology department is because he wanted to talk with his friend Marshall d'Arcy, a child psychologist who was noticeably absent from his office on the day of Ponsonby's visit. In trying to locate d'Arcy Ponsonby enters the office of Prof. Wagner, a psychology professor of German heritage, and finds the man dead from a bullet wound to his head.

The gun it seems was astoundingly used as a prop in a variety of psychology experiments. Yes, a real gun, not a toy gun, not even a replica of a gun. A real gun. I guess that's another sign of the extreme changing times. I was flabbergasted that teaching professionals would allow a real gun to be used as a prop and handled by students in an experiment when a replica, or even a photograph of one would serve the purpose. The experiment is not crucial to the plot but is explained in detail and there is no reason why a real gun is necessary at all. [It's just a novel, I know. I'll calm down.] In any case, this gun used a prop, is never loaded during the experiments. But -- of course -- there is a box of bullets stored with the gun and anyone had access to both gun and bullets. It is kept stored in an unlocked supply closet which was covered by only a curtain. When Ponsonby finds the box two bullets are missing. He had no time to examine the gun and assumes that the second bullet is still loaded in the gun.

Suspects are many and the motives start to pour in when Ponsonby discovers that Wagner was an unethical psychologist who used confidential medical files to blackmail former patients. There is also some discussion as to the cabal of foreigners -- mostly German and Italian heritage -- who live within close proximity of one another and keep their offices just as close. Ponsonby toys with the idea of a conspiracy of Axis spies on the campus but this is soon dismissed as absurd by Mara Mallory, a secretary in the psychology department. She accuses the English professor of allowing his imagination to get the better of him. You see, Ponsonby is also a writer of murder mysteries. His most recent novel, rather popular and selling well, has a silly alliterative title. And Mara, the sassy secretary, pops off the percussive title with this derisive exclamation: "The Poison Pen Puzzle by Professor Peter Ponsonby, Purveyor of Pulp. What a comedown!"

Peter and Mara have a Benedict and Beatrice relationship that blossoms into a sleuthing partnership (albeit begrudgingly on Mara's part) as well as a cocktails and dancing partnership. He convinces Mara to allow him access to her boss' files and in return he'll take her out for a night on the town. This romantic subplot is handled with some wry humor, a sophisticated game of literary quote dropping, and a heavy dose of sexual innuendo the likes of which I've never encountered in any Crime Club novels. Jean Leslie seems to have taken a lesson from her hardboiled contemporaries when it comes to expressing the male libido and does so with relish. At times it gets to be a little much like when Ponsonby listens to one of the oversexed psychology faculty members talk about his hobby of watching the co-eds wearing skimpy gym costumes at archery practice outside his office windows. "Do you like legs?" he asks while "grinning offensively" to which Ponsonby replies, "I like legs, but I prefer them a pair at a time."

Leslie's plot meanders at times and she can't seem to make up her mind if she wants the book to be about the burgeoning romance between Peter and Mara or if she wants Peter to stick to his initial decision to match wits with his own creation, French criminal psychologist George Bouchet.  When Peter is left to his Q&A sessions with the various teachers, students, faculty wives and others Leslie displays some fine work at creating characters. The scenes with Drs. Ring, James, George and the graduate student Kurstein are highlights in the novel.  A mystery woman Ponsonby encounters in the waiting room near d'Arcy's clinic and dubs the "star sapphire woman" for the brooch she was wearing also provides him with some intriguing information about the staff.  As Ponsonby delves further into his snooping and questioning the list of blackmail victims grows, motives multiply and he inadvertently stumbles onto an undercover FBI operation which seems to validate his conspiracy of German spies among the faculty.

I enjoyed this book even if it took me three times as long to read it as it should have. The rambling nature of the story is crammed with red herrings and minutiae that prove in the long run to be pointless. Still, Leslie was clearly having fun with her story and her characters.  When Peter's mom appears it was like having a cameo by the British actress Frances De la Tour show up for some grandiosely arch comic relief. Agatha, his mother, is a radio personality with a cooking and housekeeping tips program. She also happens to have stopped by for a spontaneous chat with the wife of a faculty member. That chat comes in very handy in clearing up some alibi issues. It's characters like Agatha, Dr Ring, R.H.J. James and others among the supporting cast that will be keep me coming back for more in Jean Leslie's mystery novels.

I'll leave you with this one quote I thought was telling about how college life and college teaching in America has not changed one iota.  Dr Ring ,the self-confessed "hack professor" and the most senior member of the faculty int he psychology department has this to say about his survival and long lasting tenure:  "If I do no good I also do no harm. It is not my wish to call myself to the attention of the administration. I might also add that by the same token I never flunk a football player."

Prof. Peter Ponsonby Detective Novels
One Cried Murder (1945)
Two Faced Murder (1946)
Three Cornered Murder (1947)

Friday, July 9, 2021

MOONLIGHTERS: E. L. Withers - The Man Who Used His Wife’s Name

Pseudonyms are a funny thing. In mysterydom we often find women hiding behind androgynous or obvious male names. Anthony Gilbert, Leslie Ford, Craig Rice and John Stephen Strange are all women using such names. The opposite tactic – men employing women’s names – is less common but still prevalent if you read enough genre fiction. Prolific author John Creasey, the Emperor of Crime Fiction Pen Names, used Margaret Cook and Elise Fecamps when he wrote romance novels. Michael Avallone, as much a pracitcal joker as a mystery writer, used a feminized version of his private eye character Ed Noone when he invented Edwina Noone, his alter ego when he wrote a brief series of outlandish Gothic and horror novels. The Golden Age mystery writer John Haslette Vahey (aka Vernon Loder, et al.) we now know was the real man behind the “Henrietta Clandon” mystery novels. That’s just a sampling. But using your wife’s name as your pseudonym? That’s an odd choice even if it's meant as a sign of affection and admiration. Bill Potter did just that when he used the pen name E. L. Withers, the actual initials and maiden name of his wife Emily Louise Withers.

George William Potter, Jr.  (1930 – 2010) was born and raised in Missouri and lived most of his life in Kansas City in that state. Of all the writers I’ve so far highlighted in my "Moonlighters" feature Potter earns the title of genuine Renaissance man. He studied music at Kansas City University where he met his wife Emily and the two married in 1956. An accomplished piano composer Potter was also an artist. He exhibited pen and ink drawings in the US and the Netherlands and was a notable supporter of the arts in his home state having served on the board of directors for The Kansas City Ballet, Elizabeth Post Memorial Art Reference Library and was a trustee of his alma mater UMKC Conservatory of Music from 1988 – 2000.

His love of fine art encompassed a wide range from Renaissance paintings to Faberge to antique English oak furniture. Over his lifetime he amassed a fine collection of antique furniture, paintings and scuplture. According to his New York Times obituary “the breadth and scope of [Potter’s] understanding of fine arts was unparalleled." The obituary goes on to describe how he and his wife traveled the world collecting art and furniture pieces to add to his Missouri home. This massive collection was auctioned off after his death inside his Kansas City showplace home that Potter himself transformed into a replica of a Tudor Style castle.

Potter wrote six crime novels each as different as the other in his brief novelist career as "E. L.Withers." I own three of these books (and read two book so far) and was struck by how unusual each one is. From the suspense novel about a 11 year-old girl trying to outwit her murderous stepfather to a crime novel about murder at a uranium mine to the decimation plot in his best known whodunnit Diminishing Returns Potter was as unique an experimenter in post WW2 era crime fiction as were his predecessors in the Golden Age. Like Jefferson Farjeon Potter employed narrative tricks and unusual shifts in point of view. He loved arcane subject matter like many of the Golden Age detective fiction authors and reveled in creating wickedly amoral characters like the hardboiled writers of 1940s American crime fiction. None of Potter’s crime novels is similar in any way.

The House on the Beach (1957) tells a fairly simple story of a young girl at the mercy of her amoral and avaricious stepfather. I thought I was going to get a variation of Let’s Kill Uncle combined with the terror and dread of Potter's popular contemporaries Ursula Curtiss and Doris Miles Disney who in 1957 were at the height of their powers. The fear and dread are there but the cat-and-mouse aspect I was expecting is fairly absent. What we get instead is a sort of Perils of Pauline with a pre-teen cast in the role of imperiled heroine.

The novel takes place over a mere three days and during that short time Katherine is caught in three near deathtraps and must extricate herself from those almost entirely on her own. She spends the last third of the book trying to convince the one adult she trusts to believe what sounds like a preposterous story: “Paul is trying to kill me!” But like the boy who cried "Wolf!" she comes across like a child with a wild imagination. Does Mr Wetherby believe her?  And will he call the police? It doesn't seem as if he does. Then Katherine is forced to run away and hide for a third time.

The cast of characters is limited to Katherine, her aloof but frighteningly unhinged stepfather Paul, her Aunt Millicent (apparently her mother’s sister), an elderly and not too bright housekeeper and two neighbors who live in the small, isolated beach community somewhere on the west Coast. Interestingly Potter tells the entire novel from the viewpoint of Katherine. The narrative voice is a mature one, often far too mature for Katherine’s life experience. Her thoughts are expressed in inappropriately sophisticated vocabulary that was jarring. On rare occasions Potter succeeds in coming up with some understanding of an 11 year old’s thinking and expresses it perfectly as in the sequence when Katherine is stuck on the roof and expects her Aunt Millicent to know exactly how to get her down. But instead Katherine must explain to her aunt where to find a ladder, how to place it and to hurry up about the whole thing. Her exasperation would be funny if it weren’t for the rainstorm that clearly makes her rescue a real emergency. However, too often the third person narrative voice is like an omniscient being watching Katherine and acting as a doom-filled voice judging the girl’s every movement and thought. She’s certainly plucky and brave given all she has to endure before the literally breathtaking final pages.

Potter followed up this pure suspense thriller with The Salazar Grant (1959). Hendrick Van Doorn, a Dutch mining engineer, travels to the "arid wastes and abandoned mining towns of the Southwest and into a delirium of brutal and vicious murder" according to the dustjacket blurb on the first American edition.  Van Doorn is investigating a lead on undetected uranium deposits but instead finds a corpse on the "long-unworked mines of the Salazar Estate."  I've not read the copy I purchased, but it seems to be a legitimate detective novel employing Potter's extensive knowledge of his primary career as president of Ortiz Mines, Inc.  Despite being published in both the US and the UK that there were no paperback reprints of The Salazar Grant (unlike his first and third novels) seems to suggest that the book did not sell well. Hopefully, this will prove to be a fascinating read and an enlightening one as well because I know about as much about uranium mining as the average mystery reader.  I'll be writing it up in a separate post later in the summer.

His third novel Diminishing Returns (1960) apparently was his most popular book. According to contemporary reviews used to help sell the book it seemed to better received than The House on the Beach.  The abundance of copies available for sale in the used book market underscores the book's popularity as it must have been bought and read by many people, at least in its paperback reprint edition.

Potter starts with an enticing premise – someone is killing off a group of friends and managing to make all the deaths seem like accidents. The catch is the deaths only occur when all members of the group are together in one place. The initial death occurred at a post-dinner cocktail party where all members were poisoned from the same tainted bottle of liquor. And the gimmick (which I really shouldn’t reveal but will) is that what should have been a simple murder plan failed at that cocktail party and the culprit must improvise in order to kill the intended target for the remainder of the novel. But a series of genuine accidents that result in death are also mixed into the murder plot and the story devolves into a messy and disappointing finale.

A neat surprise is that Mr. Wetherby, the kindly lawyer from The House on the Beach, shows up as the detective of sorts in Diminishing Returns. He manages to see through the elaborate scheme using a combination of keen observation and – towards the latter portion of the novel – a very odd reenactment of the events leading up to one of the fatal accidents on a penthouse terrace. He’s a likeable character, a bit more shifty than he appeared in his debut, but he’s no great shakes as a detective when it’s all over and done with.

Potter tries for a sort of variation on And Then There Were None and borrows heavily from the Mignon Eberhart school of suspense and terror. He slips in some ballsy rule breaking plotting, but I found the whole thing utterly preposterous. The murder plot has to be improvised as the story continues and it becomes increasingly over-the-top and stretches the limits of anyone’s suspension of disbelief. When the finale comes and the motive is explained there is too much conjecture and guesswork on Wetherby’s part. Some highly questionable tactics that were employed in committing the final murders come off as ludicrously improbable. One involves the apparent murder of complete strangers just to come up with corpses! No explanation of who they were or where they came from is given and that omission taints the story just like the poisoned cocktails that started the whole mad scheme. I can’t really recommend a book that leaves such a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, July 2, 2021

SWAN SONG: The Intimate Journal of Warren Winslow - Jean Leslie

Today I introduce a new category for the blog -- the "Swan Song" post.  This will be devoted to a writer's final book in the crime fiction genre if not their final book altogether. Often I read a last book of a writer that's new to me without realizing that it was in fact their final book in their entire output.  Rarely do I do this consciously. I prefer to start at least in their mid-career if not at the very beginning when sampling a new writer. And so I thought I'd give a category to last books since it seems to be a n odd and coincidental reading habit of mine that is happening more and more frequently.  

The Intimate Journal of Warren Winslow (1952) is also one of the many books I've purchased this year that were tagged by Doubleday's Crime Club with the ! logo as a mystery that promises "Something Special.” I've previously written about this tagging/categorization of the Crime Club books from the late 1940s through the early 1960s in other posts. Most recently I specifically wrote about the "Something Special" category which has been a lure for me over the decades in choosing books published by the Crime Club imprint,  in my post on The Magic Grandfather by Doris Miles Disney.  

Warren Winslow is a bestselling novelist suffering from a heavy case of self-doubt as he impatiently waits to hear from his publisher on when his latest novel is to be released.  Both his agent and the publisher seem to be dragging their feet in making a decision. To pass the time and occupy his obsession Winslow creates a diary capturing his thoughts and emotions on everything that is haunting him including his failing relationship with his wife, his dwindling creative powers, his past life as the wunderkind of the bestseller list and the insidious seed of jealousy that grows monstrously out of control. By the time the first diary is filled with his invective towards John Bailey, a rising writer who respects Warren and pays too much attention to Warren's wife Robin, Warren Winslow reveals himself to be a man overcome with a dangerous mixture of jealousy and self-doubt. He starts a second diary with the news of the fate of Thence to a Lonely Dwelling, a novel that he thinks will be his crowning achievement.  The manuscript, however, has been rejected.

The diaries soon grow to four full volumes and jealousy gives way to murderous rage.  We not only read of Warren's dwelling on his past glory as a novelist, but learn of his tortured childhood, his strange relationship with his wife and her mother, how he met both women, the affair he thinks Robin and Bailey are having, and his plans to put an end to John Bailey as his rival in love and the bestseller list. The murder plan is carried out but there are surprises in store for both Warren Winslow and the reader when he begins to realize that the truth was clouded by fantastic imaginings. But by then it is too late for him.

As a portrait of a vain, petty man who fails to see his days in the limelight are long over The Intimate Journal... initially makes for some difficult reading. The first diary is dominated by the outpourings of a mean-spirited man angry he has grown old,  envious of better writers, jealous of younger men with good looks and wholly possessive of his much younger wife who seems to be straying from him. Only when the novel begins to focus on Winslow's nasty murder scheme does the book become taut with tension and less off-putting as the non-stop name calling and insulting of everyone he meets gives way to an obsession of revenge.

Intermingled with the story of Winslow's murder plot and jealousies is a subplot involving Winslow's secretary who has been entrusted with rewriting portions of Thence to a Lonely Dwelling in order to make the book more attractive to the publisher.  This at first seems to be merely story filler, a way to flesh out Winslow's struggle to confront his dwindling creative powers and compromising himself for the sake of money and a contract, but will prove to be one of the more intriguing twists to the novel as a whole.

One of the most interesting characters is Dr. August Fremling, a psychologist who is also one of Warren Winslow's biggest fans. Fremling keeps asking Winslow to visit him to look over his fine collection of glass, something that Winslow belittles in his diary confessing that the many invitations are unwelcome while publicly he dons his genteel mask of the urbane sophisticate and politely and repeatedly declines. Eventually he finds himself at a party at Fremling's home and he reluctantly enters the room with Fremling's glass collection. Winslow is astonished by the collection, ironically entranced by something he disparaged as a childish hobby. He goes into great detail describing the way the art objects are arranged and how the light passes through each object and fills the room with color. This unusual scene gives way to an odd intimacy between the two men and a mutual admiration builds up almost instantly.  Fremling then slyly offers up some observations about Winslow's life, insights that are frankly shocking to Winslow, all the while paying homage to his writer hero and flattering him with deft praise.

Jean Leslie cleverly has inserted Dr. Fremling into the story as a sort of detective of the soul. Leslie was not only a mystery writer but also an academic in the field of psychology. She uses Fremling as a sounding board for theories that she must have learned and taught in her studies. Winslow's family doctor has a brief speech about the importance of psychiatry to heal the minds and souls of modern men.  The scenes with Fremling also contain some of Leslie's most compassionate writing and allow us to see Winslow in a new light, dimming some of the glare of his reprehensible traits and allowing a soft glow of humanity to emanate from his bitter, envious body.

And she adapts her love of all things psychological in the context of this story about writers and writing, the struggles of creativity, and the burden of a guilty conscience. Winslow at one point offers up a not too original, but still insightful observation that novelists and actors have much in common. Later Dr. Fremling expounds on his theory of the writer's life as a source for his supposedly fictional work. His keen understanding of Winslow comes almost entirely from having pored over the novels, sometimes reading his favorites more than once. For Fremling Winslow's novels reveal exactly who is he and where he came from. Having already read some of the anecdotes from Winslow's past life in the pages of the first three diaries we know that Fremling has nailed the man with an eerie accuracy.

QUOTES:  All novelists are actors. What else is a novelist but a man playing many parts? He must be able to project himself into a dozen roles if he is to write with authority.

This morning I awakened in a state of great mental perturbation... It was as though I had come back suddenly from some black abyss and I could not help but wonder if I would have died in my sleep if I had not awakened when I did and defied the Dark Stranger.  Reason tells me this is fanciful, but the feeling persists. [...] It is childish to be afraid of the truth, but I am afraid.

Bailey is dead. He died to save our marriage. Then what is this new ghost that stands between [Robin and I]?  Is there any peace for me, anywhere?

"Are we to call Sabrina inventive genius or are we to assume that Bailey wrote from that great reservoir of experience which is man's private world? Does he "dream up" the conflicts, as you say, or does he express his own conflicts disguised in such a manner that we accept them as fiction? I say this is what the writer does, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously," Fremling said. "I would go further that that and say that the intensity of the inner struggle is positively correlated with the need to write."

Dennis Malcolm, Winslow's physician:  "Our culture has placed certain restraints upon a man so that he may not handle them for himself.  Confronted with a situation in which his behavior would be anti-social he must take his choice between driving the conflict underground or letting a psychiatrist help him to face it."