Saturday, February 27, 2021

Prillilgirl by Carolyn Wells (1924)

 


photo: Robert Erwin books

About the author: Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) was married to Hadwin Houghton, the heir of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing empire. Like Mary Roberts Rinehart, being in a publishing family created an easy pipeline for getting her works into print. She wrote a total of more than 170 books. See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:
  • Guy Thornike, the shy, introverted actor
  • Corinne Deane, a.k.a. Prillilgirl
  • Lora Lamb, Guy's housekeeper
  • Mallory Vane, playwright
  • Roland Ross, Vane's relative
  • Pete Jessup, Mallory's artist roommate
  • Dan Larkin, competing theatrical manager
  • Jeffreys. an actor
  • Agatha Barr, an agressive actress
  • James Manning, a fictitious person
  • McGee, detective

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: Guy Thorndike is an accomplished, wealthy actor, looking for his next big dramatic role. One day, Corinne Deane (Prillilgirl), a naive young woman of 19, appears at his home. He thinks she is just a fan looking for a photo, but she appeals to him to marry her. She explains how a marriage of convenience would benefit them both. Guy considers her proposal and accepts, and they are quickly married. Housekeeper Lora Lamb assumes the mother role for them both.

Mallory Vane has written a play and is looking for a buyer. Guy Thorndike had suggested a role in the play, with an eye to playing it himself. Dan Larkin is also interested in the play, and would cast his favorite Jeffreys and Agatha Barr. Agatha appeals to Prillilgirl to get Guy to give in on the play, but Prillilgirl proves perfectly capable of sticking up for herself and Guy.

Mallory Vane invites Prillilgirl to his place and begins to make advances to her; now two men - he and Larkin - have their eyes on Prillilgirl. Artist Pete Jessup (Mallory's roommate) arrives and saves her from their clutches. Vane invites her back - under false pretenses - and while she is present and hiding, Vane is stabbed with his ornamental dagger which he has adapted into a pen.

Review: Well, this was a surprise! I was expecting the usual country-house stuffy crusty characters, but Guy and Prillilgirl are quite the change. He is a dual personality, a shy introvert in real life, a dramatic actor on the stage. She is a young naive farm girl, unaware that ladies must not go to carabets or other men's apartments alone; yet she knows how to stick up for herself in the face of nasty antagonists like Agatha Barr and lechers like Mallory Vane.

The book follows the usual Wells format - the local invcstigator (McGee) does all the legwork and gathers up the clues, then Fleming Stone pops in at the end for his "and-now-the-envelope-please" moment. This time, however, McGee is a pretty productive detective instead of the usual bumbler.

I did get a chuckle that following their civil ceremony, she asks Guy for a kiss to consummate their marriage! It is not recorded whether he gave in. After all, this *was* 1924!

The ending has a couple of curious twists which I did not see coming - although Twist #1 laid the groundwork for Twist #2.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine (1926) #1

 

dustjackets.com



Major Characters:

  • Philo Vance, dilettante detective
  • John F. X. Markham, district attorney
  • Sgt. Ernest Heath, Homicide Bureau
  • Alvin Benson, wall street broker, dead in his home as story opens
  • Major Anthony Benson, brother of the murdered man
  • Mrs. Anna Platz, housekeeper for Alvin Benson
  • Muriel St. Clair, a young singer
  • Captain Philip Leacock, fiancé of Muriel St. Clair
  • Leander Pfyfe, friend of Alvin Benson
  • Mrs. Paula Bannon, friend of Leander Pfyfe
  • Colonel Bigsby Ostrander
  • Elsie Hoffman, secretary of the firm Benson and Benson

Locale: New York City

Synopsis: District Attorney John F. X. Markham invites Philo Vance along to a murder scene. Broker Alvin Benson has been found dead in his home. Sgt. Ernest Heath is in charge of the investigation. A drawing of the scene is provided:



Not much to go on for clues: a grey Cadillac was seen parked outside with fishing tackle sticking out the back, in the room are found a pair of ladie's gloves and a handbag, with the monogram "M. St.C". The housekeeper, Anna Platz, heard the shot in the night but did not recognize it as such.

The handbag turns out to belong to Muriel St. Clair, who had been to dinner with Benson, but denies any involvement. Muriel, however, is engaged to Capt. Philip Leacock, who was none too pleased to find that she has been stepping out with Alvin Benson.

Vance finds that five people had motive and opportunity to do away with Benson, and examines a theory for each to find the murderer. The five:
  1. Muriel St. Clair, whom Benson had been unwelcomely courting 
  2. Capt. Philip Leacock, St. Clair's fiancé, was at the scene and had threatened Benson
  3. Leander Phyfe, whose car was at the scene
  4. Mrs. Platz, who had best opportunity
  5. Colonel Ostrander
Review: This is the first of the 12 Philo Vance stories, and it is easy to see how it got readers hooked into the series. Vance is quite pedantic through the first half, describing everything in way too much detail. Then when things get interesting, the story tightens up as Vance goes through the list (above) of suspects. The story improves throughout. The method the killer used to get to the scene and back - unseen - is quite clever. My edition has three sketch maps which are quite valuable in following the action.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Lab Report 1: Sorting Blogger Labels

Sorting Blogger Labels

Perhaps you are using Blogger labels to organize your authors. You probably have noticed it is not easy to have the author names sorted by last name in your label list. Entering your labels like this:

Anthony Berkeley
Agatha Christie

results in this, sorted alphabetically, left-to-right:





Which is not too satisfactory, as people automatically look for authors by last name order; and Anthony Berkeley should come before Agatha Christie. We can't use a format of Lastname (comma) Firstname because Blogger specifies commas as label separators. So if you try to enter them as Lastname (comma) Firstname:

Berkeley, Anthony
Christie, Agatha

Blogger thinks those are four separate labels, and you get something like this:





So the way to deal with this is to use a semicolon instead of a comma, in this format: Lastname (semicolon) Firstname. Blogger treats a semicolon as any other character.

Berkeley; Anthony
Christie; Agatha

results in proper sorting by last name:





Birds of Ill Omen by Kathleen Moore Knight (1948)

 

Fantastic Fiction

Major characters:

The Canniffs:
  • Louise Canniff - elegant, aristocratic, always gets what she wants 
  • John Canniff - her wealthy take-no-prisoners husband
  • Dennis Canniff (John's son) - 
  • Mark Pryor (Louise's son) - a brat
  • Veronica "Ronnie" Pryor (Louise's daughter) - a schemer
At the San Cosmé hacienda:
  • Antonietta "Toni" Lind, proprietor 
  • Don Antonio Salazar, her elderly great-grandfather
    • Bartolo Gomez - his servant
    • Ana Cristina Lind, her mother
    • Nicha, Ana Cristina's maid
    • Peter Lind - Toni's brother - blinded in the war
    • José - Peter's servant
    • Roldan Licona, Toni's assistant
    And..
    • Gilberto Romero, a travel agent
    • Chief Rodriguez, of the police
    Locale: Mexico

    Synopsis:

    Bitchy Louise Canniff sees a photo of the San Cosmé hacienda guest house in Mexico, and instantly recognizes it from her dreams. She tells wealthy, pushy husband John Canniff he is to buy it for her, sight unseen. John sends his practical, diplomatic son, Dennis Canniff, down to inspect it and make an offer. 

    Dennis meets with proprietor Toni Lind, and finds her unwilling to sell. He finds other family members live there in seclusion: widowed 97-year old Don Antonio Salazar, Toni's invalid mother, and her brother Peter Lind, who has blinded in the war. Coincidentally, two species of birds arrive at the same time, which legend has it portends death.

    Louise and John arrive. Louise encounters 97-year old Don Antonio Salazar while exploring, and he suddenly has an attack and dies. His servant Bartolo hangs himself in grief that evening.

    Louise and John continue to try to convince Toni to sell. She states she can not legally do so, with Don Antonio's death the property has passed to her brother Peter.

    Louise's daughter Ronnie encounters Peter Lind, to find that he is unaware he is living in a cottage on the grounds of his own home; thinking he is in some hotel. The family, thinking he has amnesia, has kept him unaware he is on their own property.

    Review:

    Kathleen Moore Knight again creates a colorful exotic atmosphere, perfect for us reading during a New England winter. The despicable Canniffs are the ugly Americans you love to hate, except for son Dennis who somehow turned out a decent human being. 

    As the story winds on, it becomes a bit of struggle remembering the various tangled family generations (there are four present) and relationships; but it does not detract from the story.

    The enjoyable, developed characters are Toni Lind, Dennis Canniff, and (surprisingly) Peter Lind. 

    The climactic scene takes place in an abandoned chapel, and has a Hitchcock feel to it (Birds? Abandoned chapel? What could possibly go wrong?). Despite the title, the birds are a minor aspect of the story, and their role is reminiscent of the rooster crowing when Peter denies the Lord three times (Mark 14:30).

    The ending didn't quite play out as I expected it to, leaving it somewhat to the imagination; yet still a satisfying conclusion.

    Death Blew Out the Match by Kathleen Moore Knight (1935)

     

    dustjackets.com

    Radio dramatization available: I came across this public domain .mp3 recording of this book, which was on the Crime Club radio program in the 1930's-1940's. I have placed it on my web site so you may enjoy it. Here it is (30 minutes): DeathBlewOuttheMatch.mp3


    Major characters:
    • Anne Waldron - our narrator and protagonist
    • Hazel "Kerch" Kershaw - her friend who is staying with her
    • Leonard "Len" Case - Anne's friend, in a body cast
    • Wing Lo - Leonard's assistant and housekeeper
    • Marya Van Wyck - a New York playwright
    • David Hyland - a mysterious outsider
    • Jeffery Pemberton - a wealthy resident
    • Henry Cahoon - deaf and mute local, a tinkerer
    • "Simple Sam" Layborn - a local, friend of Henry
    • Chris Witherbee - a local
    • Gloria - Len Case's tame crow
    • Elisha Macomber - investigator, chair of the Board of Selectmen
    • Buck Edwards - chief of police of Medbury
    Locale: Penberthy Island, Massachusetts

    Synopsis:

    Our narrator Anne Waldron and her friend Hazel "Kerch" Kershaw are opening up their summer cottage on Penberthy Island. Leonard Case lives nearby on a hilltop with the village in view. He is recovering from a car accident and is in a body cast. He spends time watching birds and the villagers through a telescope.

    Len calls Anne. Through his telescope, he has observed a door open at playwright Marya Van Wyck's cottage; believed vacant. He asks Anne to go secure it. When she does, she looks inside to find the body of Marya, on the floor in front of the fireplace - holding a burned out match. She had died in the act of lighting the fire. The doctor is called, and states it appears to be some fast-acting poison. Elisha Macomber heads up the local investigation.

    Initial suspicion is on mysterious David Hyland, who has suddenly appeared on the island and is renting the Mannering cottage. He lurks around and peeps in windows. Simple Sam Layborn and Henry Cahoon have disappeared. Kerch disappears, and in her search for her, Anne is kidnapped.

    Review:

    This story is written in a diary-entry format which is quite effective and realistic. My edition (Crime Club, 1935) contains a sketch map on the endpapers which is helpful. The parallel story of the tension between the local, Elisha, and a mainland investigator, Coughlin, is evident. The author is quite successful in fooling the reader in suspecting (incorrectly) several characters in turn. Another excellent work by Kathleen Moore Knight.

    The Trouble at Turkey Hill by Kathleen Moore Knight (1946)

     

    mysteriousbookshop.com
    Major characters:

    • Elisha Macomber, selectman, investigator
    • Marcella Tracy, librarian, our narrator
    • Tad Marsh, returning Army veteran, manager of Turkey Hill Farm
    • Lays Marsh, his wife
    • Pershing Willis, returning Army veteran
    • Candy Pierce, Pershing's girlfriend
    • Pudgy Billins, returning Army veteran
    • Zaire Pinho, had affair with Tad
    • Harvey Winchester, owner of Turkey Hill Farm
    • Enoch Snow*, hired man at Turkey Hill Farm
    • Mattie Mason, cook at Turkey Hill Farm
    • Miss Marion Thorne, mysterious veiled lady

    Locale: Penberty Island, off Cape Cod, MA.


    Synopsis: The island community of Penberthy Township gathers at the dock to welcome three local boys returning from the war: Tad Marsh, Pershing Willis, and Pudgy Billings.


    Harvey Winchester is the owner of Turkey Hill Farm and is looking forward to Tad’s return to his former job as farm manager. The other employees are Enoch Snow*, hired hand; and Mattie Mason, cook.


    The boys are met at the dock by Tad’s wife Alyse March (who has never forgiven him for a previous affair with sultry Zaida Pinho), and Pershing’s girlfriend Candy Pierce (distant due to news of Pershing’s brief marriage overseas which ended with the wife’s death in childbirth).


    A town dance is held in celebration that evening, but most of the attendees are busy shooting eye-daggers at each other. Miss Marion Thorne, who is always veiled, is injured by a thrown rock outside the dance.


    The next morning librarian (and narrator) Marcella Tracy goes to Turkey Hill Farm to find Alyse dead from violence. While she and selectman Elisha Macomber investigate, another murder occurs at the farm.


    Review: 


    Elisha Macomber is sharper-tongued than in other books, and here enlists a local as both narrator and co-investigator. Petty jealousies abound between members of the small island community, and what should have been a happy homecoming for the three servicemen falls apart quickly. I had to make a sketch of who-loves-who as there are several affairs happening simultaneously. 


    Elisha solves the case not by active investigation, but in his role as father-confessor for the town as various people reveal things to him. The final scene is exciting as two people struggle at the top of a cliff, alternately illuminated by the red and white beams from the lighthouse, a setting which reminded me of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at their struggle on the cliff. 


    One nitpick: In the denouement, Elisha reveals several facts which had not been shared with the reader.


    *sound familiar? This is also a character name from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carouselwhich was written in 1945.

    Death Came Dancing by Kathleen Moore Knight (1948)

     

    dustjackets.com

    Major characters:
    • Barbara Locke, assistant to Tod Richmond
    • Tod Richmond, owner of Tropical Tourist Agency
    • Liane Richmond, his predatory wife
    • Peter Scotland, newspaper reporter, friend of Tod
    • Sidney Bonfield, British diplomat
    • Mark Fleming, banker
    • Carol Fleming, his pregnant wife
    • Dr. Lucius Lear
    • Julia Lear, his wife
    • Eric Thurman, antique dealer
    • Gustav Nilsson, a trader
    • Elisha Macomber, investigator
    • Police Judge Urriola
    Locale: Panama City

    Synopsis: Barbara Locke, our protagonist, has come to Panama seeking glamour and excitement. She takes a job at Tropical Tourist Agency, as an assistant to owner Tod Richmond. Tod's wife, Liane, is a predator and has her eyes and claws out toward various possibilities: Sidney Bonfield, British diplomat; and Mark Fleming. 

    Preparations are underway for a gala evening: the Pollera Ball. At a pre-gala cocktail gathering, Liane mentions she will be wearing her Tembleques, a priceless Panamanian gold hair ornament. The pairings for the ball indicate the dysfunction of the Richmond marriage: Tod is taking Barbara (instead of his wife), while Sidney Bonfield is taking Liane. After the ball, Barbara returns to her room to find Liane is dead and the Tembleques gone.

    Elderly Julia Lear (Liane's aunt) is aghast, she is more upset that the tembleques are missing than her niece is dead. Later she receives a package with the tembleques in it, and is instructed to attend the carnival that night to find out who killed Liane. Julia wears the templeques to the carnival, and she is killed also; and the tembleques she is wearing are found to be a copy.

    Elisha Macomber is still in Panama on vacation, and is urged to investigate.

    Review: This novel is a sequel to The Tainted TokenWhile it is a standalone story, The Tainted Token sets up the locale and the background for why Elisha Macomber is in Panama, and his relationship with the authorities.

    Knight has, again, set up the atmosphere of Panama well; and in a similar household setting as The Tainted Token. The characters all inhabit a common version of an apartment building, a hollow single-story square with a balcony around the outside and a common courtyard in the center.

    There are two intertwined mysteries: the two killings, and the situation of the original and the copy of the tembleques. They turn out connected, and the solution revealed satisfactorily. The ending seems to me hastened, with the killer bowing out of the story suddenly, and the love story between Peter and Barbara coming to an ambiguous ending.

    The two stories should be read together, in sequence, for the best experience.

    Bait for Murder by Kathleen Moore Knight (1948)

     

    dustjackets.com

    Major characters:

    Andrea Philbrick, mystery writer and our narrator

    Pleasure crew of The Cormorant:
    Ives Berrien, a plagiarist
    Charlotte Quentin, his wife
    Miles Granby, his agent

    Pleasure crew of Xiphias:
    Dick Eaton, author
    Guy Philbrick, publisher, Andrea's husband
    Dan Warner, writer's agent

    Commercial crew of The Rover:
    Tony Matarellis
    Matt Matarellis

    Commercial crew of The Three Sisters:
    Olaf Magnusson
    Seth Benton

    Alice Chilton, wealthy cougar

    Elisha Macomber


    Locale: Penberthy Island, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts

    Synopsis: Two pleasure swordfishing crews arrive on Penberthy Island. Guy Philbrick and the crew of Xiphias, from a publishing company; and the crew of The Cormorant, headed by Ives Berrien. Bad blood exists between them - Berrien has plagiarized and published work by Dick Eaton. Guy brings his wife, Andrea, along; but she prefers to remain on the island and work on her mystery story.

    Berrien and crew quickly antagonize the commercial crew with their dishonest work. Twice they attempt to take swordfish which other crews are fishing. They collide with The Three Sisters, seriously injuring Olaf Magnusson. Berrien continues to make enemies among the locals, and as expected, turns up dead on his boat. The locals are surprised to find that Charlotte Quentin is married to him. Wealthy Alice Chilton shows up in her speedboat, she is after Berrien himself and is also quite annoyed to find him married. Alice looks like the prime suspect, but then she is killed as her speedboat runs up on the rocks.

    Review: An excellent Knight, told from the unusual third-person aspect of a mystery writer, observer, and narrator Andrea Philbrick. The tensions between the pleasure fishermen and the locals is tangible and realistic. The same tensions exist here in Maine between locals and fishermen from away.

    Berrien is a first rate cad and no one is sad to see him go. A couple more deaths pile up and may not be accidents. 

    The story takes a surprising Agatha Christie-style turn at the end when the murderer is revealed. The solution skirts with fair play a bit, as some aspects were not revealed to the reader as they occurred. The end is eye-opening, however, and the ultimate ending a bit sad.

    The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934)

     

    dustjackets.com


    This is a collection of 11 short stories:
    • The African Traveler, in which Ellery Queen has three of his students examine a corpse of a man just back from Africa at a crime scene, to try to solve the crime. Of course, all three get it wrong.
    • The Hanging Acrobat, in which an Acrobat's wife is found hanging backstage at the theatre. The puzzle is: why did the murderer pass up four possible weapons close at hand and commit the crime the most difficult possible way?
    • The One-Penny Black, in which one of two priceless postage stamps is stolen from a dealer. Who did it? And where did it go?
    • The Bearded Lady, in which a painter is murdered - and his dying clue is to paint a beard on a woman in a painting. What was he trying to tell us?
    • The Three Lame Men, in which a kidnapping goes bad and a woman dies unintentionally. Footprints indicates three men were involved - and all limping.
    • The Invisible Lover, in which competition for the girl results in one man dead and the other framed for murder. Ellery indulges in some night-time grave digging to examine the body.
    • The Teakwood Case, in which a man is murdered in his apartment, and the only clue is the one that is not there - his teakwood cigarette case, which is missing.
    • The Two-Headed Dog, in which Ellery stops at the Two-Headed Dog pub, and find a salesman murdered in his cabin; the same cabin a jewel thief used months earlier.
    • The Glass-Domed Clock, in which a curio shop owner is murdered, but leaves a mysterious dying message pointing to his killer.
    • The Seven Black Cats, in which a bedridden woman who hates cats, adopts one every week; all black with green eyes.
    • The Mad Tea Party, in which Ellery is invited to a friend's house for their son's birthday party, featuring a play of Alice in Wonderland. All is fine until the Mad Hatter, played by the host, disappears.

    Review:

    This collection of short stories is not too satisfying. The mysteries are so-so, generally needing a long stretch of imagination and complicated explanations as in all the early Queens. However, the stories are overshadowed by a lot of the baggage of the 1930's writing styles :

    Female gender stereotypes abound, especially in The African Traveler. The young woman student is patronized by Queen. It also irks me that women tend to be treated differently - why is it that a woman enters a scene, the writer provides a head-to-foot description of her clothing and accessories, but when a man enters a scene, nothing?

    Pejorative racial terms are used for Black and mixed-race persons in Three Lame Men and The Teakwood Case. Granted, the n-word does not appear, but several others of their ilk do. Not only that, the appearance of a Black woman is only as a menial chambermaid in each.

    Intentional harm to pets appears in Two Headed Dog and Seven Black Cats. Distasteful in the extreme. In a murder mystery, the murder victim usually deserves it, but innocent animals never do.

    The best stories - by process of elimination - are The Hanging Acrobat, The One-Penny Black, and The Mad Tea Party. After subtracting the stories noted above, and two in which the dying victim spends his last precious moments constructing confounding dying messages (Bearded Lady and Glass-Domed Clock), they are pretty much the only ones remaining.

    There is a sequel about ten years later: The New Adventures of Ellery Queen. I will try that one.






    Wednesday, February 17, 2021

    Murder for Empire / Intrigue for Empire, 1944

    fantasticfiction.com


    Major characters:

    • Pat Torreon, just out of a concentration camp
    • Judith Trowbridge, magazine correspondent
    • Brad Maury, magazine correspondent
    • Tom de Vasco, Brad's friend
    • Señor Ibarra
    • Stanley Pierce, a newspaperman
    • Nina Rodriguez, cold as ice

    Locale: Morocco, Cuba

    Synopsis: It is 1944-1945? and Pat Torreon, a Mexican, has just been liberated from one of Franco's concentration camps in Morocco. He is waiting for transport back, but all air travel is reserved for necessary travel; and Torreon - being a liberated prisoner - has no passport. He encounters Judith Trowbridge, an American correspondent. While having dinner at a cafe, another customer - Judith's co-worker, Brad Maury, falls dead - poisoned. Pat examines the body and lifts his passport, along with an identification bracelet.

    Maury had arranged transport for Judith and himself to the US via Cuba. Pat decides to stand in as Maury and take his place on the plane. He finds Maury's bracelet has the name of a historical Spanish figure. A gunman, Señor Ibarra, enters Pat's room, demanding Maury's papers. Pat shoots him in the scuffle. He finds this Ibarra is wearing a simliar bracelet. Pat and Judith get on the plane and go to Cuba.

    In Cuba, Judith looks up a newspaper friend, Stanley Pierce, who suggests the men are part of an Axis plot, named Hispaniadad, to take control of countries in Central and South America; and the bracelets are a token to identify each other.

    Review: A love-struck couple is stuck in Morocco toward the end of WW II, trying to find passage to the Americas. Sound familiar? It should - being the same setup as 1942's CasablancaPerhaps this 1944 novel was inspired by Casablanca, as was a number of spin-off films of the time. The difference? This time, the guy and girl both make the plane. 

    This is the first spy novel by K.M.K. I have read (not sure if there are others) and it is a far cry from quiet little Pemberthy Island. The plot is exciting, the characters well developed.  Mixed feelings about protagonist Pat Torreon - a good guy, but a bit quick on the trigger. Judith is an assertive news reporter but does run to tears when the going gets tough. Nina Rodriguez makes a great evil-mastermind's-moll in her sexy outfits, a la James Bond movies. The marriage-of-convenience ploy may have been necessary at the time, but is passé now. The story element of the I.D. bracelets works well. 

    The edition I have is a 1944 wartime oversize paperback titled 'Murder for Empire'. The cover proudly proclaims "A full length novel", yet the flyleaf states in tiny print "This edition respresents an abridgement of the original to speed the action."

    Kathleen Moore Knight: 1946 interview

    Surprising little is known about Kathleen Moore Knight (1890-1984), at least online. She is not listed in Wikipedia nor the more popular mystery fiction directories; her booklist is on Fantastic Fiction. My count is 34 mystery novels, all published by the Crime Club; a few under the pseudonym of Alan Amos.

    I recently discovered a copy of an archived 1946 newspaper interview (at this link) which includes not only her background, but also the only photograph I have ever seen of her (her dust jackets apparently never included a photo). Note her pins spell out "K M K". The text in the archived scan is difficult to read, so I have typed it out for you below, and included the photo. 


    The Boston Daily Globe - Friday, June 21, 1946 - page 19


    Kathleen Moore Knight Pictured Corpses All Over Martha’s Vineyard - Then Wrote

    by Paul F. Kneeland


    BETWEEN MURDER MYSTERIES, and en route from Mexico to Martha’s Vineyard, Kathleen Moore Knight stopped off in Boston one morning last week long enough to have breakfast at the Copley Plaza and reveal that her next Crime Club book would be conceived July 10.


    “I believe it will be my 20th” - she paused to screw a cigarette into a holder - “or perhaps my 21st. People always ask me how many books I have written and I never seem able to give them the latest correct figure.”


    If appearance means anything, then Miss Knight* ought to remember, looking, as she does, very much like an efficient and statistically-minded business woman. She was one, too - a YWCA executive secretary. That rigidity of a social worker vanishes, however, once she appraises a humorless situation; it is then that she relaxes completely and her teeth flash strong and white with frequent outbursts of laughter.


    “There was nothing very funny about the weekly train ride I used to take to Boston,” Miss Knight said with a smile. “From the time I was 12 years old until I was graduated from high school I was dismissed at noon every Friday in order to hear the Boston Symphony play. Of course, quite a few classmates envied my excursions - if they only knew that I HAD to go.”


    The daughter of George Knight, wealthy Brockton shoe machinery inventor, Miss Knight turned down college for Lasell Seminary, and after a fling at public relations (“those days are best forgotten”) I went to work promoting funds in New York for intrepid explorers, aviators, and adventurers who made headlines (“we won’t name names”) after Lindbergh’s solo hop across the Atlantic. With the crash and ’29 depression, she fled to Martha’s Vineyard and there, actually from sheer boredom and want of something better to do, wrote her first murder mystery. 


    “One day I happened to be looking out of the window and wondering what it would be like if the island homes around me housed murderers; in my own imagination I scattered the landscape with corpses and before I knew it, a detective story was born,” Miss Knight recalled. “That was in March - six months later the book was completed and with one revision, accepted as a Crime Club selection by Doubleday Doran. They’ve published everything I’ve written ever since.”


    Miss Knight attributes her success - critics for years now have been raving about her deftly constructed, cleverly carpentered murder mysteries - to the fact that she has inherited some of her father’s inventive genius. “He designs new machinery. I try to devise fresh plots,” she said.


    Although she never was a crime story fan, and had only the average reader’s en passant page-turning acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes and his ilk, Miss Knight is a severe critic of detective fiction - including her own. Here’s what she thinks about a best-selling author of whom she is a best-selling contemporary:


    “His first six books were good, but after you’ve read the same story in six different volumes, that same story becomes rather tiresome in the next six books.”


    She also has no use for the old - and now unreliable - “whodunits” of the locked door, “had-I-but-known,” secret room, and “the-butler-did-it” schools of sleuthing. 


    “I avoid those hackneyed threadbare situations along with the death-by-unusual-secret-weapon sort of thing because smart editors just won’t stand for them,” she added. “And I have long since learned that it takes more than a puzzle, the pieces of which must be fitted together by the reader, before a detective story writer can boast that he is having a wonderful crime.”


    Of course she has had some wonderful crimes, and sales, too. The Kathleen Moore Knight output has not only sold big in original Crime Club editions, but the reprints at a dollar down have been coming off the presses by the hundred thousand. And to top it all, the other day one of the 25-cent pocket-book publishers snapped up nearly a dozen of her thriller-diller-chillers which go into an even 1,000,000 copies for a starter - that’s not mentioning the British editions and the new French market just opened since the war ended.


    “It pleases me very much, but I’m not much for publicity,” she revealed. “This is my first interview in ages.”


    Miss Knight prefers writing the intrigue story to the murder mystery and has created a couple of detective characters, Blair Margot** and Elisha Macomber, who are becoming as popular as Father Brown and Philo Vance. They’re both at work in her four latest books published during the past 18*** months - “Design in Diamonds,” “Intrigue for Empire,” “Stream Sinister,” and “The Trouble at Turkey Hill.”


    “I’ve been thinking seriously about doing a straight novel - incidentally, detective fiction is fast becoming high calibre literature - but I don’t get much encouragement from my agent,” she went on. “If you want sales to drop off for about two years, go ahead,” he tells me. Miss Knight prepared her holder for about the sixth cigarette of the morning and accepted a light from an attentive waiter who was quicker on the draw with a book of matches than the writer with his lighter. 


    “What I should really do though,” she said, inhaling deeply, “is buy a recording instrument. Then I could dictate my little 60,000 word stories in an ever greater - ahmm - ‘record time.”

    Bells for the Dead by Kathleen Moore Knight (1942)

     

    dustjackets.com

    About the author: Kathleen Moore Knight (1890-1984), who also wrote as Alan Amos, was an American author. Her series detective was Penberthy Island selectman Elisha Macomber. She also wrote four mysteries featuring Margot Blair, partner in a public relations firm, Norman and Blair. (gadetection) Also see this Boston Globe interview.

    The dust jacket describes it thus: A malign influence breeds murder and horror in a unique matriarchy.

    Major characters:

    Joan Thorntree, the newlywed
    Jeremy "Jerry" Thorntree, her husband 
     
    Dick Thorntree, Jeremy's brother
    Michaela Thorntree, Dick's wife
    Peter Thorntree, their infant son
    Armando Rey, Michaela's brother
    Lisabeta "Lisa" Rey, Michaela's sister (twins) 

    Carla Thorntree, Jeremy's second cousin

    Madame Thorntree, Jeremy and Dick's grandmother
    Señora Ynez Pidal, Madame's companion 
     
    Blake Farland, general manager of the Thorntree coffee business
    Elena Farland, his wife


    Locale: Guatemala

    Synopsis: World War II is in progress as Joan Thorntree, our protagonist, has married Jeremy Thorntree in New York after a brief romance, and he brings her to Guatemala to Casa Serena, the lavish family estate; a magnificent, isolated castle perched high above the water.

    Joan is immediately resented by Madame Thorntree, who considers herself the one to choose a bride for Jeremy; as well as companion Señora Ynez Pidal who really runs the place. Madame tells Joan she will cut them (Jeremy/Joan) out of her will and instead name Carla Thorntree as heir.

    At night, the sound of bells is heard coming from the water. The servants are frantic, they know the legend that the bells foretell a death.

    The next day, Joan is sunbathing and hears a scream, and sees Carla fall to her death from the high patio. Joan rushes to the edge and peers over, breaking her fingernails and getting her hands dirty - circumstantial evidence that she pushed Carla over - her motive being the inheritance.

    The bells sound again.

    Review: Last night I dreamt I went to Casa Serena again. Oh, this SO Rebecca! Coming out just two years after the famous film, the influence is clear.  As in the book/film, the naive new bride jumps into a spontaneous marriage, and comes home with her spineless husband to her magnificient sight-unseen estate (Casa Serena); only to the resentment of everyone in the family - who all just want to get rid of her by framing her for a convenient murder! And even her name is Joan (the role is played by Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film). The creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is replaced by creepy Señora Ynez Pidal, who sneaks around, complete with high-necked black dress.

    The story glides along with the reader taking in the scenery when it takes a sudden, jarring turn about 3/4 in - when you are starting to wonder 'so where's the detective, anyway?' The reader expects old Madame Thorntree, confined to her bed, to be the next one to go the way of the bells ... but surprise, she gets a shot of adrenaline and turns into the energetic investigator! Her actions and speech even mimic Elisha Macomber of the Pernberthy Island series. She is still confined to bed, but teams up with Joan to set a trap for the murderer.