“Revisionist History” (by Jon L. Breen)

Jon L. Breen will need no introduction to readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He is a fiction writer with several novels to his credit and many of his short stories have appeared in EQMM. For today’s blog, though, he draws on his thirty years as reviewer for our long-running book-review column “The Jury Box.” He retired from full-time wielding of “The Jury Box” gavel in 2011, but continues to contribute two columns per year. If anyone has a broad overview of the mystery/crime/suspense field, it’s Jon, and he has some insights that many may find surprising.—Janet Hutchings

Memory, both individual and collective, can be a tricky thing. I doubt if anybody has perused more books about mystery and detective fiction (biographies, bibliographies, critical studies, histories) than I have, and even the best of them have occasional errors, sometimes based on the writer’s reliance on memory. For example, Robert L. Gale’s recent Characters and Plots in the Fiction of Raymond Chandler (McFarland), an otherwise estimable reference book, credits Dashiell Hammett with the script for Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. While the knowledgeable author might easily have conflated the titles of two 1931 films—City Streets was the one Hammett worked on—the Chaplin reference was probably the trying-to-be-helpful contribution of a much younger editorial assistant who knew little about Hammett or Chaplin.

Not one to point fingers too cheerfully, try though I might to avoid them, I have suffered such lapses myself. In the first edition of Novel Verdicts: A Guide to Courtroom Fiction (Scarecrow Press), I mistitled Henry Wade’s The Verdict of You All as The Evidence of You All (no idea why; a mistake that has been repeated [not by me] in at least one other reference book), and in A Shot Rang Out: Selected Mystery Criticism (Surinam Turtle/Ramble House), I opined that Francis M. Nevins’s The Ninety Million Dollar Mouse was one of his best novels when I actually meant The 120-Hour Clock. (They’re both good, but as Mike Nevins himself pointed out to me, Clock is much better.)

But errors of collective memory (that is, mistaken or incomplete knowledge of the past) are much more unfortunate than individual mental slip-ups. To link the two phenomena, I’ll use the work of Headon Hill, pseudonym of Francis Edward Grainger, a prolific British mystery writer of the late-19th and early 20th century. When the learned mystery scholar Bob Adey informed me he’d compiled a couple of massive volumes collecting Hill’s short fiction, I dimly recognized the name, though I’d never read any of his work or had reason to think he was anything but a very minor and justifiably forgotten writer. One of the two new books, Zambra the Detective, leads off with the contents of Clues from a Detective’s Camera (1893), and that title did ring a bell. I was certain the book was included in Queen’s Quorum, Ellery Queen’s list of the most important mystery short-story collections. Just as well I didn’t rush into print anywhere with that statement, since a check of Queen’s Quorum turned up no Zambra. Turns out I remembered the title because it was one of the ones EQ referred to for its extreme rarity.

But the important thing about Hill is that he was pretty good. A sampling of the Zambra stories reveals a good narrative style, well constructed plots, and an early use of the camera as a detective’s tool. A story called “The Episode of the Tattooed Arm” has less actual detection but a harrowing account of a slave-ship atrocity. A comic send-up of Sherlock Holmes headlines The Solutions of Radford Shone and Other Detective Short Story Series, a well-chosen title since Shone’s solutions to some cleverly plotted and humorous-short-of-farcical mysteries are always wrong.

It seems Hill was in a class with some contemporaries who, while certainly not household names, have not fallen into quite such obscurity. Amazon’s Kindle store offers e-books of only two Hill novels and none of his collections. By contrast, you can find several collaborative collections by L. T. Meade, though you will have to wade through a lot of juvenile titles to find them, and nearly all of Rodrigues Ottolengui’s output in book form is readily available as well. By the time of Howard Haycraft’s 1941 history Murder for Pleasure, Hill was already too obscure to be included, though Meade was. Meade and Ottolengui, both represented by titles in Queen’s Quorum, also rate mentions in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime (revised edition, 1989) and in the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), but Hill does not.

The two compilations mentioned above run 505 pages (Shone) and 614 pages (Zambra), include period illustrations, are handsomely produced on good paper with a classy built-in Library of America-style cloth bookmark, and have excellent introductions by Bob Adey. They aren’t available from Amazon but can be procured directly, along with many other remembrances of detection past, from the publisher, George A. Vanderburgh’s The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box.

The mystery field, strong as it is on remembering, has its odd lapses, not confined to the neglect of individual old-timers, a phenomenon common to all fields of endeavor, but sometimes revising history to disrespect whole groups of writers. Consider two persistent myths about the mystery genre, both gender related, one of them to the disadvantage of male writers, the other of female.

Myth #1: Golden Age detective fiction, generally defined as puzzle-centered mysteries published between the World Wars, was essentially a British and female art form. Male and American practitioners may get the occasional nod from critics and scholars, but it’s basically all about Christie, Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham, with the borders occasionally widened to include Josephine Tey or Gladys Mitchell. Chipping away at that mistaken view is an excellent new book that celebrates in detail three male British writers who have been unfairly maligned by historians: Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart, and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (McFarland) by Curtis Evans. (Street wrote as John Rhode and Miles Burton, Stewart as J.J. Connington.)

Myth #2: Until the 1970s or ’80s, American women mystery writers were a downtrodden underclass, unappreciated in a male-dominated marketplace. On the contrary, through the 1940s and beyond, most major mystery book editors were women (Marie F. Rodell, Lee Wright, Joan Kahn, Isabelle Taylor), several of the major reviewers were women (Avis de Voto, Lenore Glen Offord, Frances Crane, Dorothy B. Hughes), and many of the most honored and respected novelists were women. For some reason, these writers—Charlotte Armstrong, Mabel Seeley, Helen Reilly, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Doris Miles Disney, Patricia McGerr, and Helen McCloy among them—have not received nearly the scholarly and critical attention accorded pioneers like Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart or contemporaries like Mary Higgins Clark and Marcia Muller. One biographer/scholar who has somewhat addressed this imbalance is Jeffrey Marks, author of Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery (2001) and Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s (2003), the latter discussing Millar, Hughes, Armstrong, Leslie Ford, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Patricia Highsmith (an exception to the noted neglect), and Mignon G. Eberhart.

To paraphrase an old wheeze, more harmful than the things we don’t know are the things we do know that aren’t true.

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4 Responses to “Revisionist History” (by Jon L. Breen)

  1. Joseph Goodrich says:

    A fascinating piece…How certain “facts” get passed along—how mistakes are validated through repetition—never ceases to amaze me. For instance, Patricia Highsmith never won an Edgar Award (though she was nominated three times), but even the most reputable biographies say she did—and that “fact” is repeated and repeated and repeated.

    On another note, I can’t help imagining what a Hammett-scripted CITY LIGHTS might have been like…

    Thanks, as always, Mr. Breen!

  2. Jon L. Breen says:

    Thank you, Joseph Goodrich. And thanks, too, for your great book collecting the letters of the Ellery Queen team, BLOOD RELATIONS. (Unsolicited plug.)

    • Dan Zeff says:

      Dear Jon: We at World Book have been trying for several months to locate you. Could you provide your new e mail address or some way we canb contact you for future assignments?

      Dan Zeff
      Humanities Editor
      The World Book Encyclopedia

  3. A great piece. If you allow me some self-promotion, I addressed Myth #1 on my blog. Mr. Evans’ book does a great job undermining what amounts to a rewriting of history. Nice to see Disney and McGerr listed among the female crime writers in need of a revival. I fail to understand why no one in the Academia seems to have any interest in female mystery writing of that period, even though it’s arguably one of the richest in the history of the genre.

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