Sunday, July 8, 2012

Leslie Ford's Fall from Grace

Leslie Ford (Zenith Jones Brown)
1889 - 1983
Many people often accuse me of possessing the sensitivity of a paving brick; those who actually know me, however, aver that a paving brick is much more sensitive by far. When I delve into the world of potboilers and pulp thrillers from years gone by -- the secret and guilty pleasure of many bibliophiles and book-snakes -- I sometimes need a bit of insensitivity, otherwise my self-esteem and emotions would get ripped by the self-appointed jackbooted Book Police from the Ministry of Politically Correctness: "How can you possibly read that filthy trash, so full of cultural stereotypes and racist hate-speech?"

Since none of them read much of anything, and especially not period fiction which is my forte, I have to commit a visual sin to arouse their ire -- The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, any of the Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto books, or, perhaps, a pulp magazine or a 1950s adventure magazine with any kind of a native depicted on the cover. With mystery writer Leslie Ford's Washington Whispers Murder (1952), however, I am safe from their hateful predacity...if they only knew!

Leslie Ford was born Zenith Jones (nee Brown) in 1889 in Smith River, Calif., where her father was a missionary among the Indians, and spent her earliest years in a papoose, raised among the Indians to whom her father ministered. She studied to be a journalist and started freelancing in 1928. She wrote her first novel, Footsteps on the Stairs in 1931 and her last, Trial for Ambush, in 1962. In-between, she wrote more than 60 mysteries, created two major crime series (as Leslie Ford and David Frome), and was a foreign correspondent in the European and Pacific Theaters.

As Leslie Ford, she is best known for a mystery series featuring retired Army officer Colonel John Primrose, his inimitable man-at-arms Sergeant Buck, and widow Mrs Latham. To the world, it was "A Colonel Primrose Mystery," but I always called them Grace Latham Mysteries, for Grace was the narrator and, to me, the more dominant and more interesting character. Yes, I realize that no one calls The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Speckled Band Doctor Watson stories, but there I am, and there I stay -- Grace Latham Mysteries they are and will be.

Grace is a Washington, DC, widow, whose diplomat husband was killed in an aircraft accident, and who has since been trying to raise her two sons with the help and moral guidance of her Negro housekeeper. Grace is a woman with high social connections in a town where society and politics are very often the same thing. And, truth be told, she's something of a busybody, a meddler and a danger magnet, and often finds herself in hot water, embroiled in murders with far-reaching ramifications. Her world is a now-vanished one of mink coats, afternoon cocktails, garden parties, political intrigue (well, yes, that's still around, but not the same flavor), cultural mores, lunches with the girls, and, of course, the Negro servants living their separate lives away from the knowledge and understanding of the white folk.

Ah, perhaps you begin to understand why the Ministry of Politically Correctness get their knickers in a twist about Leslie Ford and her Grace. Leslie Ford's popular morality tales, easily argued to be "American cozies," were serialized in the once-prestigious Saturday Evening Post (holy grail of many a pulp magazine writer) before being ushered into hardcover and mass market pocketbook, but are now all out of print, found only in the few remaining brick-and-mortar used bookshops and in dusty Internet niches. Now, here's the thing -- Leslie Ford's precipitous fall was from Grace, but, as will all too-rapid descents from high places, we have to ask, Did she fall, or was she pushed?
"Then there are writers like Leslie Ford, whose ubiquitous and unconscious racism automatically eliminates her from our consideration, customer requests notwithstanding."-- Tom & Enid Schantz, Rue Morgue Press
One thing I have noticed about book censors ("It's for your own good") is that they have much in common with former smokers, redeemed hookers and people who have discovered Islam -- they not only eradicate  everything (now) unacceptable  from their own lives but from everyone elses as well. They purge from culture all that with which they disagree and now hold to be evil -- the Liberal prude will denounce Charlie Chan films  he has never seen and the reformed chain smoker will shoot you dead for second-hand smoke; explorer Thor Heyerdahl had a devil of a time researching the early history of the now-Islamic Maldives for The Maldive Mystery -- artifacts had been destroyed or hidden away -- and who can forget that the Taliban celebrated the 21st Century by dynamiting 400-foot-tall statues of Buddha?

Whenever I start a book, vintage or modern, I look at the copyright date, for I need to envision the clothes worn by the people in my mind, and what vehicles they use. I need to know if the buildings will be anonymous glass, streamlined deco or Victorian grotesque. Will I see color? Black and white? Sepia? When my college professor told us the setting of Camus' The Guest was totally immaterial in reading and understanding the story, I told him he was full air.

With Leslie Ford's stories, I was not judgemental. I envisioned the period and let her tell the story. It was humorous, charming, chatty and fraught with danger. Unlike others of her time, she did not ignore her black characters who were very much a part of the lives of people like Grace. No cruelty, derision or "monkeyshines" -- her Blacks were carefully crafted sympathetic characters, true to their times; what's more, Ford portrayed the society they kept amongst themselves with sensitivity and as much insight as could an observer. In retrospect, she would have been better off had she shoved all her black people in a bag, as did many writers. Her books would be "safer," and they might be rescued from oblivion, but they would not be nearly as good.

And they really are good novels, not just for the murder mysteries and the glimpses of pre-war and wartime America, but for the complex personal interaction between Mrs Latham and Colonel Primrose, which occurs much to the chagrin of Sergeant Buck, who always worries that his boss will fall into the clutches of the scheming and highly influential Washington widow. Although the series can be enjoyed in any order, it's best to read them in the order published to trace the development of that relationship, from initial encounter to final question. And it really does help your enjoyment if you do not demand that mid-century characters have early 21st Century sensibilities; after all, the popular fiction  of our own "enlightened" age will surely also be out of style, if not out of favor (451 degrees Fahrenheit?) less than two generations from now.

  • The strangled Witness (1934)
  • Ill Met By Moonlight (1937)
  • The Simple Way Of Poison (1937)
  • Three Bright Pebbles (1938)
  • Snow White Murder [False to Any Man] (1939)
  • Mr. Cromwell Is Dead [Reno Rendezvous] (1939)
  • Old Lover's Ghost (1940)
  • Road To Folly (1941)
  • A Capital Crime [Murder of a Fifth Columnist] (1941)
  • The Priority Murders [Murder in the O.P.] (1942)
  • Siren In The (1943)
  • Crack Of Dawn Night [All for the Love of a Lady]  (1944)
  • The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945)
  • Honolulu Murder Story [Honolulu Story] (1947)
  • The Woman In Black (1948)
  • The Devil's Stronghold (1948)
  • The Lying Jade [Washington Whispers Murder] (1952)

Could the murderer be the ghost of Benjamin Franklin?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Sterling Silver

Patricia Wentworth
(1878 - 1961)

I first encountered Miss Maud Silver, retired governess turned private detective, at a book sale. I freely admit I had never before come across this literary sleuth, and as I read the back cover, the thought passed through my mind that she must have been patterned along the lines of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or even Heron Carvic's comic parody Miss Seeton. But then I looked at the copyright date of Grey Mask (1928) and realized Miss Silver predated both -- Miss Marple's Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930 and the parodical Miss Seeton did not appear on the literary scene until 1968.

The story of Grey Mask is melodramatic, very cozily English, and chocked with characters to the manor born, inheritances, star-crossed lovers, family secrets, scoundrels, stiff upper lips, mysterious masked masterminds, and, of course, Miss Maud Silver to straighten it all out, a motif for all the books that follow.

Miss Silver was the creation of Patricia Wentworth, born Dora Amy Elles, in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India in 1878, daughter of a British Army officer. After writing several competent but unremarkable romances, Miss Wentworth turned her hand to mysteries, just as other women (Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, etc.) were doing in the Golden Age of Mysteries. Altogether, she wrote 75 novels (starting with A Marriage Under the Terror [1910], a romance set in the French Revolution), 32 of which involved Miss Silver, former governess living at 16 Montague Mansions, West Leaham Road, SW, London, who expected no better fate than a penurious existence dependent upon a tiny pension and a niece's charity...until she discovered her talent for hunting murderers.

There's something appealing, I suppose, about octogenarian women solving murder cases, plunging into dangerous situations all in a quest to bring order out of chaos and preserve society's morals. How else to explain the virtual army of old women with knitting in one hand, a magnifying glass in the other? Could it be a modern avatar of the Jungian archetype of the tribal wise woman? All I know is that the easiest way to create a sympathetic and popular character is to make her an old busybody who finds herself in the most perilous profession possible -- Miss Marple, Miss Seeton, Miss Silver, Jessica Fletcher, Agatha Raisin, the Snoop Sisters, Hidegard Withers, and even Gracie Allen (guesting in a Philo Vance novel).

Unlike Miss Marple and many of the others, Miss Silver is an actual private detective, or private enquiry agent as they are sometimes termed in England. She is paid for her work, but, of course, her real reward are the lives saved and the couples united, all memorialized in her modest flat by dozens of framed photos. 

Clients who come her way, steered toward her either by others she has helped or by Scotland Yard Inspectors Lamb and Abbott (who were, separately, two of her charges when she was an active governess), or by the Hand of Fate, often think they have made a mistake...
However she had done her hair, it would have appeared, as she herself appeared, to be out of date. She was very neatly dressed in an unbecoming shade of drab. Her indeterminate features gave no indication of talent or character. Her smooth sallow skin was innocent of powder. She was knitting a small white woolly sock, and at the moment of Henry's entrance she was engaged in counting stitches. After a minute she looked up, inclined her head, and said in a quiet toneless voice,
"Pray be seated."   --The Case is Closed (1937) 
Miss Silver knits all the time, usually for one or more of her niece's endless supply of children, but she has few other habits. She may not have the eccentricities of Sherlock Holmes, and certainly not the addiction to the 7% Solution, but he would definitely recognize and approve her methods. Whereas Miss Marple is continually extrapolating the vices and virtues of the inhabitants of St Mary Meade into the larger world, detecting by analogy, Miss Silver employs keen observation and unemotional deduction.

Aside for my predilection for the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, which I've mentioned elsewhere, I think one of the reasons I so much enjoy the Miss Silver series of novels is because justice is always served, and served well. Also, she is forceful and strong without being a bully, well spoken and refined without being snooty, and embodies all that is good and fair in the British Classic Mystery, an excellent representative of the the Empire. It also helps that she is always quoting Tennyson, one of my favorite poets. And like all the best detectives, she is a fixed point in time, as constant as the North Star, changeless in a tumultuous world, and ageless -- she is always the same person, from her first appearance in Grey Mask to her last bow in 1961's The Girl in the Cellar. Hopefully, this little taste has whetted your appetite for...
"...everyone's favorite spinster detective. In her black cloth coat and with her ever-present capacious knitting bag, she appears every bit the proper Victorian governess, which indeed she once was. Now she has taken on the much more lucrative occupation of private enquiry agent. Armed with the tenacious commonsense of the British and an uncanny ability to see into the very souls of murder suspects, Miss Silver is as memorable as the finest creations of Agatha Christie." (Cover blurb from the Bantam paperback editions)
If so, you might want to track down copies of Miss Silver's cases, which are quite easy to find. And unless you are into first editions (well, what book lover isn't, really?) the prices for the later editions are not too bad. To help you in your quest for completeness, I've adapted the listing from the Fantastic Fiction website, marking (*) my favorites, and including the alternate titles.

*Grey Mask (1928)
*The Case Is Closed (1937)
Lonesome Road (1939)
Danger Point (1941) aka In the Balance
The Chinese Shawl (1943)
*Miss Silver Intervenes (1943) aka Miss Silver Deals with Death
The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944)
The Key (1944)
*She Came Back (1945) aka The Traveller Returns
Pilgrim's Rest (1946) aka Dark Threat
*Latter End (1947)
Spotlight (1947) aka Wicked Uncle
The Case of William Smith (1948)
*Eternity Ring (1948)
*The Catherine Wheel (1949)
*Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1949)
The Brading Collection (1950) aka Mr Brading's Collection
The Ivory Dagger (1950)
*Through the Wall (1950)
Anna Where Are You? (1951) aka Death at Deep End
*The Watersplash (1951)
Ladies Bane (1952)
*Out of the Past (1953)
*The Silent Pool (1953)
The Vanishing Point (1953)
The Benevent Treasure (1954)
*The Gazebo (1955) aka The Summerhouse
*The Listening Eye (1955)
*Poison in the Pen (1955)
*The Fingerprint (1956)
The Alington Inheritance (1958)
The Girl in the Cellar (1961)