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?


  1. I love these books. I have a few in hardback but most are paperback and are falling apart. I'd like to volunteer to get them in the Gutenburg Project, but I don't know whether they are still covered by copyright. Do you know?

    1. Some of her early books, those written before the 1950s, might be in the public domain of no extension was filed. The publisher or her estate would know for sure. Here's a flowchart, though that might help you...

    2. All of Zenith Brown's novels -- whether written as Leslie Ford, David Frome or Brenda Conrad -- had their copyrights properly renewed. They are protected by copyright until 95 years after their pub dates.

  2. I loved the Leslie Ford mysteries. I have a box of them in storage and will undoubtedly reread them again at some point. I always found her characterization of Blacks in her stories were fairly honest and sympathetic for the time, and as the mother of a biracial son I might have winced from time to time, but I was never offended. I've always enjoyed her books and I'm sure I will again, though my copies, too, are falling apart!

    1. I never had any problem with her depiction of Blacks, or in the separate society they dwelt in at the time (a gentler society than Blacks have artificially constructed around themselves now), neither deprecating nor romanticizing, just showing them as good folk. Ironically, the only negative commentary I have ever read about her Black characters were written by guilt-ridden Whites. "Sic semper mundis."

  3. I just acquired a modern mystery set in Williamsburg, Taffy Cannon's Guns and Roses, through A review on the back mentions Ms Ford's work.

    By Margaret Maron: "Anyone who remembers Leslie Ford's mysteries set in Williamsburg just when Rockefeller money as beginning to buy up dilapidated Colonial properties will delight in ...."

    I checked stopyourekillingme and fantasticfiction, but did not see an indication of which these were. A Google search led to your site. I would assume the earlier ones with Grace Latham are the most likely. Do you have any info as to which these might be?

    I am a recent employee of Colonial Williamsburg, and am trying to read up on history and fiction in this area.

    Can anyone comment on this, here? Thank you.

    1. The book you're looking for is "The Town Cried Murder," which was one of Miss Ford's standalone mysteries. It was published in hardcover in 1939 by Charles Scribners Sons, then in paperback by Pocket Books and later by Popular Library. The story is narrated by Miss Lucy, a white woman living in one of the colonial houses restored by the "Restoration people." After a brief establishment of characters and place (Miss Ford excels at both), then we have a murder, and since this is at its heart an American Southern novel everyone has secrets, even Miss Lucy. Fortunately, as is often the case with once-popular authors now turned obscure by changing tastes (or, as in Miss Ford's case, a world gone wildly PC)copies abound in used book stores and on-line. If you do a Google search for the name of the book and author, you'll find several places carrying it at reasonable prices, as well as links to a few modern and period reviews. Hope this helps.

  4. I just bought The Honlulu Story first edition for $1 at a local estate sale. Can hardly wait to read it; dust cover gone but oh well.

  5. I am another Leslie Ford fan and have collected them all--including her first book (The Death of an Old Man) which was published only in the UK and as far as I know is only in the library at Harvard in the US. Ratty paperbacks. Old book club editions. Yes, she was a product of her time and writes as she would not if she were alive today. So what? It was another world and another time. Note that times change, and read on. I really dislike self-righteousness.

    I am rereading "Gone with the Wind" and Leslie Ford wrote nothing that Margaret Mitchell didn't. GWTW has never been out of print. (Copyright now held half by a family member and half by the Roman Catholic Church.)

    I have had fun wandering around the Washington/Annapolis area where I live looking for her sites which are based on reality, but then changed. I have a candidate for Mrs. Latham's house on P Street. She lived in an 18th century house in Annapolis, Maryland. Also in London and the UK--last year I went looking for the imagined site of the Old Angel in Rye, England. Also found the house she and her husband lived in when she wrote her first book and where the landlady's husband was the inspiration for Mr. Pinkerton.

    Please note that she was Zenith Jones Brown, nee Jones not Brown which was her married name and the one she used. She also published a few books as Brenda Conrad and some non-mystery magazine stories as Zenith Brown.

  6. According to Mary Gallagher who was Jackie Kennedy's White House secretary, Mrs. Kennedy's post-WH Georgetown house was in "The Simple Way of Poison." Trivia for those it interests.

  7. I am re reading again The Simple Way of Poison, and wish I could locate more of these books.

    1. Difficult to find, and when you do, they tend to be pricey and/or in bad shape. I wish the copyright holder would either find some small publisher not afraid to publish such lovely stories, or make them available in Kindle.

  8. Was "Washington Whispers Murder" the final book in the Grace Latham/Colonel Primrose adventures?

    1. As far as I know it was -- 1952. Here's a link to Fantastic Fiction's Leslie Ford page:

      It's a good resource for tracking down series and pseudonyms. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

  9. I have been a Leslie Ford fan since the 1960 when I was in the Army at Fort Knox. One of the libraries on post had both All for the Love of A Lady and Siren in the Night and I was hooked on Leslie Ford from then on. Have all her books except Sound of Footsteps which last time I looked is on sale on Amazon for over a hundred dollars. The only tv adaptation of one of her books took place in April 1958 on NBC Matinee Theatre with Lynn Bari as Grace Latham and Donald Woods as Colonel Primrose. I was at work and missed it(would someone had already invented VCR's) but I cant imagine better casting. Re-read these books all the time. All for the Love of a Lady my favorite. /Robert Garvin

  10. I forgot to say that the book adapted was Washington Whispers Murder. Lynn Bari and Donald Woods also appeared in the film City of Chance in 1940, for us movie buffs./Bob Garvin

  11. You'll find The Philadelphia Murder Story on line.. in the newspapers digitized for the Australian National Library. Here's the direct link.
    I haven't had a chance to see if there are others there, too.

  12. I just discovered Leslie Ford. With the corona keeping me more indoors, I've been rummaging through my large library discovering books I purchased second hand years ago. I find her mystery stories charming and am sorry that I may be limited to the three that I now have. I'm fascinated with the pre and post war period in Washington, DC that she recreates.I find her books psychologically sound; she understood people and what motivated them to act or to refrain from acting.The three books I read never left me dissatisfied and incredulous.