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."


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have just ordered a copy. The heavy use of psychiatry is to be completely expected in a book published in 1952.

  2. If this is to be a unique category, won’t it have something to say about the authors previous books, successes, characters, etc.? This one, though possibly of interest, isn’t enough to grab me. Is psychology also an ingredient in the earlier books?

    1. I would have mentioned earlier books here but as the first paragraph implies this is the first book I’ve read by Leslie. She started with a series character— Prof.Ponsonby, an academic who wrote crime stories for the pulps. I bought two of those books and will discuss him in a Neglected Detectives post later this year.

  3. I sometimes end up doing the same, such as with the Leonidas Witherall series, as I read The Iron Clew first. At least that time it did not matter too much reading the last book.
    I initially liked the sound of this book as texts within texts do appeal to me, but I am not sure I could bear this particular diary writer. He sounds a bit draining.

    1. The first diary is like reading something by Highsmith as if she had composed it while on speed. But once you get into the second diary Winslow’s character has toned down his vitriol and it is much more readable. The best part of the book is the portion about the manuscript revision in the relationship of Winslow and his secretary (a male, BTW). What really caught me off guard and was totally unexpected was how the crime plot turned out. And for that reason I tried not to discuss it too much in this post. I thought the way the crime plot wrapped up was extremely well done, surprising, and perfect for the story. For that reason I started looking for Jean Leslie’s earlier books. More reviews on Jean Leslie coming soon!

  4. Thank you for these super reviews. Do you think that this nivel is so good as "Madame Baltimore" and "Bedeviled" or hoy so much?

    1. In order of “greatness” I’d rank the three this way: 1. Bedeviled 2. Madame Baltimore 3. Intimate Journal…. And to be perfectly frank the first two are far superior to Leslie’s mystery on so many levels. This is clever, but very familiar as far as odious vengeful narrators in crime fiction. It’s only the metafiction aspect that makes it a slight stand-out. And the neat little twist in the finale.