Fri 11 Jan 2013
by Francis M. Nevins
During 2012 I spent more time on Ellery Queen than on any other author or character. I hadn’t planned to tackle another Queen project so soon after completing The Art of Detection, but over the holidays I did. A few months ago Joseph Goodrich, editor of the book of selections from the correspondence between Fred Dannay and Manny Lee that was published as Blood Relations (2012), had generously sent me a 97,500-word document containing virtually all of Manny’s letters to Fred, far more material than there was room for in the book.
I had done some organizing and rearranging and had added a number of bracketed annotations explaining obscure points in the letters but I hadn’t yet made myself thoroughly familiar with the material. This I set out to do over the holidays. Some remarkable discoveries rewarded me. Here’s one of them.
Among the many problems Fred had to deal with as founding editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine was figuring out who would take over in that capacity if he were to die or become disabled. Manny had no interest in short detective fiction and very little editorial experience, but neither man relished the prospect of the magazine being run by a stranger. So, for a short time anyway, Manny was sent some of the stories submitted to EQMM and undertook to write comments on them for Fred.
Among those he evaluated was a 57-page manuscript by Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969), who was best known for the spectacularly successful suspense novel The Unsuspected (1946). “Night Mustn’t Fall” begins when a dog is found poisoned in a quiet suburban neighborhood one summer Saturday afternoon. A young visitor named Mike Russell tries to help its 11-year-old owner and his sixth-grade buddies find out whether the poisoner was the homeowner on whose lot the dog was found — and with whom most of the neighborhood kids had had run-ins — or someone else.
Manny found many things wrong with the tale. In a letter dated April 29, 1950, he agreed with Fred that the story was “at times too sentimental and gushy” and that its “psychological and emotional aspects are over-inflated.” He also considered it far too long. “I could guarantee to take this manuscript as it now stands, without changing one word…, and cut its 57 pages down to, say, 30 (or less!) and thereby improve it one thousand percent. It is repetitious throughout, and whatever is good in the writing is blunted by the sheer bludgeon blows of over-and-over-again.”
But, he went on, “the story is worth saving. It has its potentialities, certainly, not the least of which is the kernel of its message, which is that truth is a hard job and that children have to be trained to look for truth … and that if more children were so trained, this would be a far different adult world.”
After some conversations with Fred, Armstrong resubmitted her story as ”The Enemy.” It was published under that title (EQMM, May 1951), won first prize in the magazine’s annual short-story contest, and a few years later became the basis for a feature-length movie (Talk About a Stranger, 1954). The story is included in Armstrong’s collection The Albatross (1957).
From reading the published version it’s clear that she thoroughly cut, revised and improved the manuscript Manny read. The repetitious writing has been eliminated, the emotions are tightly controlled as in Hemingway or Hammett. Manny had complained that altogether too many people in the neighborhood were able to tell Russell and the boys at exactly what time they had seen the dog, but apparently Fred wasn’t bothered by this point.
What puzzles me is the number of plot flaws that survived the revision. One minuscule problem: The story needs to take place on a Saturday because the boys couldn’t be on the scene if it were a schoolday. But near the end we learn that one of the witnesses who noticed the dog before its death was a girl had a sore throat that day and was sitting on her porch, “waiting for school to be out, when she expected her friends to come by.”
A much more serious flaw to my mind is in the solution, which I must reveal in part if I’m to discuss the story seriously. The man on whose property the dog’s body was found lives with his wheelchair-bound wife and crippled stepdaughter. At the climax we discover that when he went out to play golf that Saturday morning, the younger woman, who cooks for the three of them, gave him a lunch box containing hamburger sandwiches laced with arsenic.
Unable to stomach her cooking, the lucky man ate out. But instead of disposing of the burgers in a trash can like any normal person, he brought them home and threw them onto the empty lot next to his house, where the unlucky dog found them and died minutes later! “The Enemy” is a fine story overall, but was it the best choice for first prize winner?
I hadn’t read one of John Rhode’s detective novels about Dr. Lancelot Priestley in several years. Over the holidays I decided it was time to revisit that curmudgeonly old amateur of crime and chose Death on the Boat Train (1940), which I’d first read in my teens but had completely forgotten long before the 21st century began.
At the end of a train’s run between the English Channel port of Southampton and London’s Waterloo Station, the body of a poorly dressed man is found in a first-class compartment and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn of Scotland Yard is summoned. The cause of death turns out to be a poison called ricin which was injected into the man’s butt (which Rhode discreetly calls “the right-hand side of the back”) with a hypodermic syringe.
The victim turns out to be steel magnate Sir Hesper Bassenthwaite, who for some obscure reason had chosen to travel on the Channel steamer from the island of Guernsey to Southampton and then on the Southampton-Waterloo boat train more or less in disguise. Since Sir Hesper had had a compartment to himself both on the steamer and the train, how could anyone have injected poison into his kiester without his knowledge? In due course Waghorn and his boss, Superintendent Hanslet, drop in on Priestley to discuss the case over dinner and drinks and their host, true to form, offers one inspired suggestion after another.
Death on the Boat Train is among the more solidly plotted Rhodes but, as always, the characters are wooden and the prose leaden. (In the novel’s innumerable Q&A sequences anyone’s answer to a question is followed by the words “he [or she] replied.” It was my noticing that the same linguistic oddity infested the detective novels of another Golden Ager, Miles Burton, that allowed me to deduce, way back in the Pleistocene era, that Rhode and Burton were the same man.)
What most surprised me about the book is that amid the dry-as-dust exposition and dialogue are a few gaffes almost in the Mike Avallone league. “‘I seem to remember that at one time you knew how to make unprotected females unbosom themselves.’” (219) “She returned her shoulder to him and read a few lines of her magazine.” (221) “His glance wavered round the room as though seeking some form of liquid refreshment.” (273) “Late that night a very weary Jimmy unbosomed himself into Diana’s sympathetic ears.” (281)
Could this most staid and stolid of English crime novelists have been fixated on a certain body part which shall be nameless?