FFB: Murder at the Women’s City Club – Q. Patrick

 Friday's Forgotten Books, Q. Patrick, Reading Challenges, Richard Wilson Webb  Comments Off on FFB: Murder at the Women’s City Club – Q. Patrick
Aug 012014

The prolific and multi-partnered Richard Wilson Webb teamed up with Martha Mott Kelley under his Q Patrick pseudonym and wrote two novels. Cottage Sinister (1931) was their first followed by Murder at the Women’s City Club (1932). This second team effort from Webb and Kelley shows some slight improvement mostly in the tight plotting if not their tendency to indulge in nonsensical chit chat and quirky character traits. The most remarkable thing about Murder at the Women’s City Club is that there are only three men among the large cast of characters: Inspector Manfred Boot,  Bob Dunn a journalist, and Sebastian Thurlow, fiancé to one of the women suspects.  The mostly female cast, therefore, allows the writing partners to spend a bit too much time with gossip, bitchy verbal catfights and other eccentricities in this dialogue-laden mystery novel. Oddly, while I was bothered by this kind of speech and chit chat in Cottage Sinister it works well in this book and is only enhanced by a baffling series of murders that border on the impossible crime subgenre.

Dr. Diana Saffron, ex-dean of a Women’s Medical College and currently Professor of Internal Medicine, is being cared for by her devoted friend Deborah Entwhistle and watched over by her protégé Dr. Freda Carter at the Women’s City Club. Dr. Saffron is irascible and demanding and very much disliked among the rest of the residents of the club. Among the permanent guests are Mrs. Mabel Mulvaney, the dictatorial president of the club, Constance Hoplinger, a ditzy mystery novelist; Amy Riddle, dutiful social services worker; and Millicent Trimmer, Secretary-Treasurer of the club and the one burdened with listening to the almost daily complaints from the other members. One night Dr. Saffron is found dead in her room having apparently committed suicide by turning on the gas tap located directly next to her bed. But there are whispers of murder when the Dr. Saffron’s room is gone over by Inspector Boot. Too many oddities in the bedroom don’t add up to a clear picture of death by suicide, like the partially open window and the puzzling discrepancy of the two gas taps, one open and one closed. When a second death by gas occurs Boot is convinced there is a mad killer hiding amongst the residents of the Women’s City Club.

The plot is tricky and a bit convoluted with a neat twist in the finale. Manfred Boot is a gruff, not very pleasant policeman who does admirable detective work. In the end, however, he is upstaged by Deborah Entwhistle. She has been doing detective work of her own both on and offstage and comes up with the somewhat startling solution to the deaths. And there is also a final surprise in the last sentence.

Amid the fine detective work by both professional and amateur is a primary focus on the characters’ idiosyncrasies. The action is enlivened by absurd exclamations from Constance Hoplinger (published under the pseudonym “Gerald Strong”) who treats the murder investigation as a sort of writer’s laboratory. She plans to use the circumstances surrounding Dr. Saffron’s death for an exciting chapter in her current still unfinished novel and keeps pestering Boot for insider police information to give her work authenticity. Webb and Kelly have also thrown into the pot a pair of not so funny comic servants. They are a married black couple who, typically for this era, behave and speak like cartoons with their embarrassing phonetically rendered dialogue and foolish superstitious antics as when one literally jumps into a closet to hide from the police. The maid Cornelia, especially, seems to have escaped from the pages of an Octavus Roy Cohen book and seems very out of place here.

I liked the sequence when Boot having had his fill of “Gerald Strong”, aka Miss Hoplinger, decides to read one of her books to get an idea if she’s smarter than she appears. He discovers in the pages of The Black Serpent a plot with remarkable similarities to the murders committed at the Women’s City Club. In Strong’s novel the victim was murdered by automobile exhaust and the serpent of the title was a black rubber tube run from the car’s tailpipe into a bedroom via a cracked window. He begins to think that either Miss Hoplinger may in fact be a bit more sinister than she presents herself or that one of the women in the club has a perverse sense of humor and has it in for the mystery novelist.

Murder at the Women’s City Club is one of the most difficult books in the Q Patrick canon to locate.  Unlike most of the books published under this pseudonym it was not reprinted in paperback by Popular Library in the United States, nor am I aware of a British paperback edition. It exists as far as I know only in a scarce hardcover from the little known (and short-lived) Philadelphia publisher Roland Swain and in an even more uncommon British edition from Cassell under the title Death in the Dovecot. I was lucky enough to find one amid the ocean of used books in the eBay auctions a while ago and paid only $65, but that was an utter fluke. It should’ve been priced probably twice that amount. While this book has a few elements to recommend it I wouldn’t break my back looking for a copy. The few that are for sale online are in the collector’s price range starting at $100 and go up to $650.

 Posted by at 3:28 pm
Jul 042014

I’m on vacation in Washington state (first time here, only seven more states left and I’ll have been to all 50 at least once) and didn’t have time to get my Friday’s Forgotten Book post up. In fact I left all my notes for the past five books at home and I won’t be able to write any reviews or essays until I get back home. Without my notes I’m lost. I read too many books each month to remember everything about the characters and plot details.

Life has been very chaotic and I’ve been forced to change a lot about how I live. I’ll spare you the stories of my adventures with the two physical therapists I am currently seeing. Because of that I haven’t been up to sitting at my computer for long periods of time to write the many reviews I am behind on.

In lieu of my usual FFB I’m going to list all the books I plan to review this month (all but one of them read in June) and also take this opportunity to catch up on my Golden Age Bingo Card in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge

Rare photo of Richard Wilson Webb posing as “Q Patrick”

Death in the Dovecot – Q. Patrick
“Book with an animal in the title”
This is the British title for Murder at the Womens’ City Club, a very rare Q Patrick title that I was very excited to find on eBay for a bargain price. The book is most interesting in that’s it’s the second of Richard Wilson Webb’s mystery novels and the second (and last) book he wrote with his first collaborator Martha Mott Kelley.  An almost all female cast of characters (only three men) is an additional unique aspect to this detective novel.

Return to the Scene – Q. Patrick (Webb & Wheeler)
“Book featuring a mode of transportation”
Boats are featured in this mystery set in Bermuda. The victim falls overboard and people are constantly going back and forth to a small private island where the body washed up. I’m proud to say that I figured identity of the murderer, the motive and the method of one of the murders in this book. But I also think, while the killer is a surprise, veteran mystery readers will also be able to figure whodunit in this one. Reminded me of Christianna Brand because all the characters are lying and protecting one another and colluding during the murder investigation.

Come and Be Killed! – Shelley Smith
“Book featuring cooking or food”
Poisoned food is the killer’s choice in this book. One of the best “badass biddy” books I’ve read. A groundbreaking book, I think, way ahead of its time. Reminds me of the best of Ruth Rendell but it was published in 1947. The murderous Mrs. Jolly (how’s that for a killer’s name?) almost tops my favorite spinster killer Claire Marrable in The Forbidden Garden. The climactic scene where one clever woman confronts the villainess is classic.

The Blue Horse of Taxco – Kathleen Moore Knight
“Book set in country other than US or UK”
Set in Mexico. A fascinating near noir thriller cum detective novel, very different from her Cape Cod books featuring Elisha Macomber. Troy Banister, the woman protagonist, is the closest I’ve come the discovering a female Tom Ripley. One of the first anti-heroines in detective fiction who at first is utterly despicable and then suddenly you find yourself sympathizing with. Plus, an unusual background in silver jewelry design and the silversmith industry which is still what Taxco is known for today. Very interesting and mature work from this unappreciated and very forgotten American mystery writer.

And the fifth book I will leave a mystery. It’s the book I read for the July 11 “Femme Fatale” theme. And it’s ready to go for next Friday. I guarantee no one has heard of it nor reviewed it since FFB has been going. It’s a book that has been incredibly hard to find for decades and was just reprinted two months ago by a British indie press.

There’s enough to tease you for the coming days. In depth reviews on all books listed above are coming when I return from Washington. Stay tuned…

Oh! and I now have a total of four Bingo rows on my Golden Age Mystery bingo card. I’ve read more than the mere 29 books shown on the card below. Some of the books were reviewed but didn’t qualify for the challenge because I couldn’t find a category to apply to the book. I’m excited that with half the year gone I have only seven more books to read (that will fit the categories left) and I’ve filled the card.

 Posted by at 9:10 am
Aug 232013

“Merape is a charming woman and distinguished poet. […] She is also a beautiful ruin. Ruins have gaping cracks in their battlements, rats in their armouries, jackdaws in their bell towers. And this, too, is true of Merape. You must beware, my dear sir…”

— Professor Fishbourne-Grant in The Crippled Muse

Merape Sloane is a mysterious reclusive poet with a mystical aura and a coterie of protective sycophants. Horace Beddoes has traveled to the Isle of Capri where Merape lives in a sort of exile of retirement where he hopes to meet her, gain an interview and propose that he write her definitive biography. He happens to be an expert on Merape’s poetry having completed his Ph.D. thesis on her work which he titled “The Last Flowering of the Romantic Age”. But when he meets Mike McDermott, a hack writer of sleazy potboilers, Horace is appalled to learn that McDermott has beaten him to the punch. Somehow McDermott managed to convince Merape Sloane that he would be the perfect man to write her biography and he has already a collection of notebooks with spicy gossip.

McDermott has also decided to title his book The Crippled Muse, alluding to Merape Sloane’s lifelong battle with illness that left her lame. This further upsets Horace because not only is it a near duplicate of his own planned title (The Crippled Corinna), the change of single word makes it a much better title in his estimation. Horace finds himself festering in jealousy and anger, struggling to keep from exploding with rage. A sex writer in charge of the life story of the genius Merape Sloane! What a cruel irony it all is.

Horace proceeds to drown his sorrows and sublimate his furor by getting blissfully drunk at a party where Merape is the guest of honor. In his besotted state he makes a fool of himself by introducing himself to Merape and groveling in her presence while slurring his drunken praise and admiration for her work. Shortly thereafter while stumbling home he comes across a bloody champagne bottle. Simultaneously he learns that Mike McDermott has disappeared from the party and not returned to his lodging. The next morning McDermott’s battered body is found at the foot of a cliff. It is thought that he too got carried with away with drinking, slipped and fell to his death. But the bloody bottle leads Horace to suspect foul play.

Soon Horace finds himself inextricably implicated in McDermott’s death. He was seen holding the bottle by at least one person the previous night who then witnessed him throwing the bottle into the ocean. How will he prevent himself from being named McDermott’s murderer? But the novel is not simply another riff on the oft used wrong man theme. The crime plot serves only as background to Hugh Wheeler’s highly literate, allusion filled, languorous novel which touches on so many themes: love vs. desire, the importance of art in one’s life, the transcendent nature of lyrical poetry, the need to belong, the importance of finding home. The story defies categorization. It’s a mixture of a literary detective novel, murder mystery and metaphysical exploration of attraction between all the sexes; a triple play mystery novel incorporating all connotations of the word mystery.

It’s difficult not to find similarities in this book with some of Tennessee Williams’ more recognizable plays about the sexual tension between a virile young Adonis and an artistic grand dame (Sweet Bird of Youth, Orpheus Descending, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) until you realize that Wheeler’s novel predates all of those plays by almost ten years. Did Williams perhaps read this book and pick up on its theme either consciously or subconsciously?  The similarities in this one book to Williams favorite motifs are amazing — the erotic temptations of Girlie and Loretta, the Duchessa who has a keen insight into the closeted homosexuality of McDermott and her sad resignation to being attracted to men who prefer men, Horace’s repellent attitude towards the menacing pansexual Latvian gigolo Askold who attempts to blackmail Horace with sexual favors contrasted with Horace’s admiration (attraction?) and envy for the brawny physiques of the Swedish masseurs who remind me of the athletic German couple and their overt sexuality in Williams’ Night of the Iguana.  The book is drowning with Williamsian desires whether they are forbidden, fantasized, or unrequited. Horace not only has the mystery of Merape’s life to solve and clear his name of McDermott’s murder he must confront the mystery of human sexuality in all its varied and nuanced guises. Horace’s feverish confusion of sexual desire and love culminate in this lament:

Was this the way love operated–like a staphylococcus, one moment drowsing latent in the bloodstream, the next moment flaring up with renewed violence? […] I’m a man and I don’t know whether or not I’m in love–or with whom.

Isle of Capri by Jasper Francis Crospey (1893)

More than any of the Patrick Quentin or Jonathan Stagge books The Crippled Muse shows off Wheeler’s gift for dramatic monologue. The sections with Clara Pott, Horace’s landlady with a closetful of secrets, in particular foreshadow Wheeler’s later success as an award winning playwright. There is a classic moment when Clara delivers a lengthy monologue detailing how Merape robbed her of her husband and her comfortable her life in Ohio. Her words are polite and contradictory to her actions. As she speaks Horace notices a flower in her hand that she continues to twist and crumple.  “No, I didn’t dislike Merape,” she says tossing the utterly destroyed flower to the ground. The book is replete with dazzling moments like that.

The Crippled Muse (1952)  is Wheeler’s only novel published under his real name and it appears to have been a very personal work for him. He dedicates the book to Rickie – no doubt Richard Webb, his collaborator on dozens of detective novels using their pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge. Webb had retired from writing in 1951 and Wheeler continued writing the mystery novels under those pen names alone. Unlike his mystery novels, as good as they are, in The Crippled Muse we discover another side of Hugh Wheeler. He gives us another gripping and suspenseful crime plot, but there is also a greater display of Wheeler’s love of literature, his love/hate affair with American culture and Americans,  his fascination with exotic locales and even more exotic people. Perhaps, too, if we read a little deeper into the story of Horace’s self-discovery we find a  revelation of the enigmatic writer himself.

 Posted by at 4:53 am
Jul 262013

I have this idea that Richard Wilson Webb still hadn’t recovered from his intensely lurid thrill ride with his writing partner Mary Aswell when the two of them concocted the brutal and savage crimes depicted in The Grindle Nightmare. One year later in what appears to be his first collaboration with his partner (in more ways than one) Hugh Wheeler he once more delved into noir territory in creating the murders in The Dogs Do Bark (1936). Oddly enough the book first appeared in England under the title Murder Gone to Earth before it was published by the estimable Doubleday Doran Crime Club under the title reviewed here. Although the level of violence never reaches the heights (depths?) of the butchery in The Grindle Nightmare this is definitely a book anyone would describe as grisly.

A nude woman’s dismembered corpse is uncovered in a fox burrow at the tail end of a hunting expedition in the Massachusetts town of Kenmore. The body has been decapitated and is missing both arms. While the head does not turn up until the penultimate chapter the arm bones are soon found in the kennel that houses the bloodhounds for a hunt club. The flesh had been completely devoured by the ravenous dogs the night before. All this happens in the first two chapters. Grisly enough for you? But there’s more.

Dr. Hugh Westlake, in his debut as Stagge’s series detective, is promptly deputized by the local policeman giving him the chance to turn amateur detective with some authority. Prior to the discovery of the murdered woman Westlake had been consulted by Louella (Aunt Lulu) Howell, one of those garrulous fearful invalids that turns up in mysteries of this era. She is fearful of the baying hounds a sure omen of horrible things to come. Nurse Leonard who had been caring for the Aunt Lulu has recently been fired for indiscretions observed on the job. She was convinced the nurse was dallying with her husband, an unattractive dumpy man who Westlake has hard time envisioning as an object of desire. But could the nude corpse be Nurse Leonard?

Then there’s Elias Grimshawe. A Bible thumping fundamentalist of the worst kind (yes, they had them back in the 30s, too) he has been battling with the horsey crowd and their obsession with fox hunting for a long time. That the body is found on his property during another of their bloody hunts angers him beyond reason. His daughter Anne who is rumored to have been carrying on with several men, some of them married, has also gone missing. Grimshawe startles Westlake and Inspector Cobb when in referring to the murder victim he quotes an Old Testament passage about Jezebel being fed to the dogs. No one but the the detective duo knew about the dog kennel business. They ask Grimshawe to go to the morgue to identity the body. Grimshawe is adamant that the victim is Anne.

The atmosphere builds to one of Gothic dread set up perfectly with the opening paragraph in which Dawn, Westlake’s ten year-old daughter, is seen chanting an old nursery rhyme (“Hark, hark, the dogs to bark/The beggars are coming to town…”) while standing at an open window and listening to the howling bloodhounds. Little does she know exactly why they are howling, but her precocious allusion is just as chilling as Aunt Lulu’s prediction of horrible events to come. Once again as in The Grindle Nightmare animals are at the mercy of the murderous fiend on the loose and soon a horse is killed by an unusual method nearly killing its owner in the process.

Horses and hunting will play a prominent role throughout the story. So too will the Grimshawe property which Westlake and Cobb learn Anne would have received on her twenty-fifth birthday. The property is of interest to several characters in the book and provides an obvious motive, especially for Walter, Anne’s handsome and athletic brother.

Handsome men with athletic builds are another recurring motif in the book and in others in the series. The descriptions of male physique stand out like posing gym boys in comparison to how the women are described and signal to me another kind of fascination of the authors. At times the rhapsodic physical accounts approach the kind of recitals of male beauty you would expect to find in the pages of a bodice ripper. I wouldn’t exactly call these passages homoerotic, but they are very noticeable and perhaps revealing of the two men who wrote the book.

Dawn, who will later become more active in the series, is depicted here as a cute little prop used mostly for comic effect. For the most part she behaves like a kid but often she has an oddly precocious and inconsistent vocabulary. In one scene Webb and Wheeler have her confuse the word distinguished for extinguished. Then later she will correctly use the word ominous in sentence. She has a kind of schizoid role — at times a mysterious oracle as in the opening paragraph and later when she helps her father with offhand comments, at other times a goofy awkward kid obsessed with rabbits. Dawn has always a problem for me in these books. It doesn’t help matters much that Westlake refers to her by the ironic endearment “brat” and rarely calls her by name. Still in this first appearance the relationship between father and a daughter is honest and affectionate. Dawn didn’t annoy as much as she does in other books.

The Dr. Westlake books would go on to feature equally bizarre and unusual crimes with a tendency towards the Gothic. Turn of the Table has a murderer who might be a vampire. The Stars Spell Death uses astrology and superstition as a springboard for the plot. In The Yellow Taxi the writers recycled the equestrian themes found in the first book as well as lifting the climactic barn fire towards the end of The Dogs Do Bark and duplicating it even to the point of Westlake’s escape through an upper level window. Perhaps the most haunting and chilling entry is The Scarlet Circle with its unearthed graves, corpses daubed with lipsticked circles, and the creepy Talisman Inn.

As a beginning to a short-lived series The Dogs Do Bark shows great promise. Veteran detective novel readers may catch on early to the surprise twist in the tale, but that won’t ruin what is essentially a fine example of a traditional detective novel with an ample amount of puzzling plot points, intriguing characters and evocative atmosphere.

 Posted by at 7:09 am

The Grindle Nightmare – Q. Patrick

 horror, publishing history, Q. Patrick  Comments Off on The Grindle Nightmare – Q. Patrick
Mar 062012

Sometimes I come across a book in my reading and I wonder how it was received upon it’s first publication. So I trundle through the interweb looking for old book reviews. In the case of the fittingly titled The Grindle Nightmare (1935) I found these terse comments:

Animal and human killings in a mystery involving morbid psychology. A pathologist turns sleuth and ferrets out the answer. Good reading.

Kirkus Reviews, Aug 10, 1935

Murderous madman loose in New England valley kills animals and humans until young doctor traps him. Summing Up: Hereby awarded Malignancy Medal for 1935. More nasty people and unpleasant events you’ll never find between two covers. Verdict: Ghastly

Saturday Review, Aug 10, 1935

The Kirkus reviewer seemed to overlook the obvious. Good reading but no warning about the violent, grisly, and over-the-top lurid events you will encounter. Saturday Review hit the nail on the head, and delivered the kind of reaction I would have expected. Near revulsion.

I have to confess that I was surprised at the level of violence in this book. It ought to have been marketed as a “shocker.” When it was twice reissued in paperback editions the sales teams at Popular Library and Ballantine recognized the book for what it really is. Each publisher promised horror and “gruesome surprise” on the covers and chose ominous vultures to symbolize the violent carnage inside the pages. A nice metaphoric touch (the buzzards are mentioned only in passing and never actually appear, by the way) rather than going for a more literal depiction of the book’s grisly events. I’m sure that would have revolted even the most bloodthirsty of readers at the time.

The book has more in common with the stories that filled the shudder pulps of the day rather than a puzzling detective novel. I think because of the lurid content no respectable publisher would touch it. No surprise that the hardcover edition was published, not by one of the leading houses of the time, but rather an obscure independent publisher. Hartney Press, a firm that appears to have only lasted one year, released the book and judging by their catalog that included such titles as Tough Little Trollop and Raiders of the Tonto Rim (both by utterly forgotten writers) they seemed to be attracting the readers of pulp magazines. They do have one claim to fame apart from giving us The Grindle Nightmare: one of their books has garnered cult classic status among crime fiction devotees. The Green Shadow by James Edward Grant has become one of those books with an amazing dust cover illustration that is very scarce and highly desirable (translation: outrageously priced) in the collector’s market.

I like that punny use of the verb “to ferret.” in the Kirkus review above. If you read the book you’ll know that several of the victims are animals — a mix of livestock and household pets — including two dogs, a kitten, some sheep and goats, and a marmoset. [A what? I hear you say.] You know, that odd primate that fashionable 1930s women desired as an eye catching accessory. If you can’t have an ocelot, go for a marmoset, right? One of the eccentric woman characters takes Queenie, her marmoset, everywhere often draping the animal around her neck like some kind of live fur. Very Charles Addams, I say. But enough of all this background and teasing. Don’t you want to know what goes on in this wild book? Of course you do –- like a gawking rubbernecker at a highway accident you must be satisfied.

Grindle Oak has fallen victim to a madman on the rampage. Several animals have been mercilessly slaughtered and disemboweled over a period of weeks. Amid all the animal killings little Polly Baines has gone missing. Her father, Jo Baines, asks Dr. Douglas Swanson to help him locate the girl. He doesn’t trust the police. Swanson is to meet Baines at the Old Mill Pond the next morning to start their search for Polly. But when Swanson turns up at the site he finds Baines dead, face down in the water. His body is abraded and bleeding, his hands are encased in animal traps. It appears that he has been dragged behind an automobile then his broken torn up body thrown in the creek that feeds the pond. And that’s just the beginning of the human violence.

The book is a relentless assault of nightmare visions, a veritable horror show of sadistic torture perpetrated on both human and animal victims. A Sealyham terrier suffers a similar fate to Baines but is rescued before it is strangled by the cord tied around its neck. There is an arson attack, near daily discoveries of eviscerated livestock, and the constant fear that Little Polly will eventually turn up the second of the madman’s human victims.

Mark Baines, the mentally challenged son of the murder victim and brother to the missing girl, is one of the more interesting characters in the book. He has a near supernatural command over animals. He can quiet a unruly dog and can run into a burning barn to rescue two horses that seem hypnotized under his guiding hands. But Mark is also known to have been somewhat cruel to some local girls and the townspeople are frightened by his uncanny love for animals and his indifference to people. It is suggested that Mark may have something to do with his sister’s disappearance.

Animal research and animal abuse are at the heart of the story. Complaints from anti-vivisectionist groups and the SPCA are directed at the experimental research of Swanson and Antonio Conti, his scientific partner. They are in the process of creating hematologic sera and vaccines and use dogs and other animals as test subjects in their experiments. Both are targeted throughout the story with at least two people and the local deputy gunning for Conti as the sick mind behind the animal killings and torture.

This leads to a discussion of sadism and the possible escalation of a warped mind that finds perverse delight in harming animals to seek out humans as his targets. Abnormal psychology soon becomes the focus of Dr. Swanson’s amateur investigation as he begins to suspect that his research partner may indeed have a few screws loose. Then an offhand comment about an infamous historic murder trial sends the story into an arena that is completely unexpected and a surprise ending that caught me completely offguard.

I’ll spare you a summary of  the most horrific scenes in the book. You’ll have to discover those on your own — if you dare. I have two copies of this book and am willing to sell either one dirt cheap to anyone who is interested in delving further into its bleak world. But it’s not for the faint of heart, as they used to say way back when. Gore hounds will love The Grindle Nightmare. All others stay far, far away.

 Posted by at 8:06 pm