Sunday, October 2, 2016

Early influences

By now, I know most of you have heard me tell the story of my father bringing home a copy of The Underdog and Other Stories by Agatha Christie, and thinking I might enjoy it.

However, in becoming a biographer, there were other influences that occurred around the same time. The first of these was brought back to mind by the EQMM conference I spoke at on Friday. Since I am writing about the men who wrote the Ellery Queen stories, I was there primarily as a biographer. During the discussion of the magazine covers, I recalled a series of covers from the 1970s, featuring a number of famous mystery authors. Those photos intrigued me. Who were these people? Why had they written?

I've put a few covers here to prove my point, and for the record, they were published in 1979, my final year of HS when I was reading every mystery book I could get my hands on. So these among the others were fascinating to me. I looked for biographies of many of these authors, but in the 1970s, the biographical and critical studies of the genre and its practitioners was not very far along.

 The other influence was the fact that a man from my church, Charles Norton, wrote a book about Melville Davisson Post (who you need to read if you have not yet.) I was so pleased that someone had answered questions I had about the authors of my favorite genre. Not just the Crime Queens or the best sellers, but a fascinating man who is not remembered today.

I can't find my copy; it has been 40 years or more since I read it. However, it did interest me in forgotten American mystery authors, and now I write of them as well.

I don't go to that church these days, and I believe that Mr. Norton has passed away, but I did come away with an avocation and a joy in reading mystery related biographies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Back in 2005, I watched the EQ Centenary Symposium from the comfort of my home. For those of you who know me, I've always loved Ellery Queen's works. From the time I was a teen, I've read and reread them. In fact, when I had my neck surgery in 2011, I used the time off to reread the series from start to finish.

In 2016, there will be another anniversary Symposium at Columbia University in New York City. It's part of a larger exhibit regarding Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine that will run at the Butler  Library until the end of the year.

This year, the symposium is being held at the end of September, and I'll be speaking.with Charles Ardai, and Sarah Weinman (how is that for a dream team?) on the subject of Making Mystery Matter. It's from 2-3pm at the Butler.

I am beyond thrilled to be a part of this. I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that I'm currently writing a biography of the two cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen, but I am excited to actually be talking about the mounds of research I've been accumulating for the past few years.

Of course, New York friends, I want to see you! We'll try to make plans.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Devil's in the details

Beyond the regional flavor of the books, Taylor reflected the era in her details. The books set before the war deal with the hardships of the Great Depression. From 1941 to 1945, the reader gets a glimpse into the world of ration coupons that went on across the country, blackouts, people missing while serving at war. Taylor’s fictional world is such a mirror of the times that the reader can play historian and archaeologist as well as sleuth. This level of accuracy is leveraged well in the books. The reader is so entrenched in the minutiae of the book that it becomes easier to accept the more preposterous events that take place over the course of the novel. Were the book not so well grounded in real details, the reader might not be willing to move along with the plot.

These day-to-day particulars came easy to her as an author. Taylor was keenly aware of her own powers of observation. In a letter to her cousin, Taylor once wrote, “I tell myself I don’t see enough, but the photographic memory works in spite of myself and I notice as much as I do at home – the trick of observation is largely lost, I think, in childhood; I leaned to cover up long ago, but notice too much always, and it’s helpful traveling, but if an occasional social curse at home.” 
I expect that a century from now people will still read Taylor’s books and understand the hardships of the greatest generation. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beginning with Less of a Bash

Beginning with a Bash really didn’t. The first book written in the series featuring Leonidas Witherall really didn’t begin the series. The first book was published in Mystery League, the short lived (only 4 issues) magazine edited by the two men writing as Ellery Queen, appearing in 1933.

In it, Witherall is working as a janitor in a bookstore, a far cry from his later work as a schoolmaster and writer of the Lieutenant Hazeltine thrillers under a pen name (as Alice Tilton was a pen name for Phoebe Atwood Taylor.) However, the familiar lightning speed action, amiable crooks and high-spirited yet society minded women all appear in this first book.

Once the book appeared in Mystery League, the hilarious tale could find no publisher in the United States. The book was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club. It did not appear until the Norton reprinted series in 1972.

So while the book does not appear on the copyright renewal registry in the United States, it really has no reason to be since it was not copyrighted until 1972, meaning that it remains under copyright until 2051. Regardless, St. Swithin opted to create an eBook version of the title and sells it despite the copyright issues.

It’s no surprise that Taylor’s works are as confusing as their plotlines. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

World's Fair

While she was already writing two series, Bennett Cerf of Random House approached Taylor in 1938. He wanted a mystery novel that would take place at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. However, he wanted the book to be published prior to the fair for the sake of advance publicity. Taylor agreed to write Murder at the New York World’s Fair, under a second pen name of Freeman Dana, another concoction from her family history. She toured the fair site in Flushing Meadows, New York, in April of 1938 and then set to work. Taylor had to use her active imagination, because the fair site was nothing more than muddy fields when she began to write the book. She surrounded herself with publicity materials, architectural renderings of the buildings and a map of the fair site. In 31 days, she had finished a first draft of the novel.

The book differs from her other two series. Taylor was known for her eye for detail and attention for the small things that brought reality to the surreal plots. Since she was unable to see the site, she could not accomplish that in this book. The names of the various parts of the fair are given, but little detail is provided on how each one looked.

Additionally, the build-up to get the main characters to the fair and to dump a dead body in their lap takes up a considerable portion of the book. The real investigation only begins with the second half of the book. There’s no emotional impact in the discovery of the victims, who are unpleasant people, but certainly worth a paragraph of regret.

The book suffered a number of editorial revisions, something that Taylor was not used to. She chafed a bit under the direction, and the correspondence between author and editor was less than pleasant. The book was published in November 1938 with a first printing of just 900 copies. Taylor considered the book so insignificant that she didn’t even bother to list it in her credentials. The book is available now as an eBook, for those interested in reading more from Taylor.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Five Favorite Wolfes

In listing out my favorites Nero Wolfe’s, I found a few themes that occurred in more than one book: strong, unique women. politics and Orrie. Who knew?

5. Plot it Yourself – someone is accusing playwrights and novelists of plagiarism by having copies of books typed before the best-selling books are published. How is the criminal doing this? Stout has such obvious fun with the subject matter that it’s contagious. The plagiarists start ending up dead after Wolfe gets involved and he has to solve the case. 

4. The Silent Speaker – Cheney Boone of the BPR is bludgeoned to death right before an industrial association’s meeting. Of course the association is accused of murder (indirectly) assuming that one of its members committed the actual deed. Upon calling one of his famous meetings of all involved, Phoebe Gunther doesn’t show, and Phoebe turns out to put Archie through his paces. Of course, being a match for our intrepid bachelor is a death sentence and Gunther becomes the next victim. Of all the Wolfe victims, I think I’m sorriest to see her go. She was such a good balance for Archie.

3. Death of a Doxy – Orrie’s in trouble and Wolfe has to bail him out. He’s been seeing a “doxy,” a Scrabble-player’s delight that means “mistress” as well as a supposed fiancĂ©e. Of course, the doxy had another man paying her bills. Wolfe and Goodwin have to determine who was paying the bills and likely killed her for stepping out on him. Julie Jaquette makes this book with her attitude and mannerisms.

2. In the Best Families – the last of the Zeck books and by far my favorite. I always like Wolfe encountering an environment outside of his own, and this book has that in spades. Wolfe has “disappeared” after being hounded by Zeck. Archie takes a case, which Wolfe solves quickly and efficiently after the Zeck mess is completed.

1. The Doorbell Rang – without a doubt my favorite of the series. The book has all the things I love about this series: witty banter, a worthy opponent, politics and a mention of books of interest. Wolfe goes up against the FBI and J. Edgar after he takes a case for a woman being pestered by FBI surveillance. A rather prescient look at tactics used throughout the 1960s against “enemies.”

Monday, January 4, 2016

I can't read 55

There has to be some consolation for being 55, or at least I told myself that.

To treat myself, I broke out the one Nero Wolfe I’d never read, The Final Deduction and read it for my birthday.

When I was young, I read voraciously. I would pick up 10-15 books a week to read, and my favorite genre was (of course) mystery. I’d nearly polished off all of the Wolfes, when I realized that there was one that I hadn’t read. I debated finishing the series off, but something held me back, and like a fine wine, I decided to let it sit for a while before I read it.

Forty years after that, I decided it was time. I have to say that it wasn’t the best in the series (I’ll post my top 5 Wolfes in a week or two), but it was a great one to hold back. It’s one of the few cases that involves a kidnapping, and Wolfe makes some fascinating deductions up front that help the reader going forward.

Of course, there has to be at least one or two words that I have to look up and “subdolous” was the word here. My spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it, that’s how unfamiliar it is to the modern reader.
Without giving away the plot too much, Stout used a certain device that let me know who the murderer was before the final showdown with the killer. I think it would have been a stronger plot without that particular ploy, which immediately telegraphed the killer to me. However, it was a pleasure to read, and made the sting of aging a little less this year.

I’ll have to come up with a new to me series for 60, since I’ve finished off most of the series that could probably be recommended to me.