CORNELIA PENFIELD – After the Town Clerk Died. Typed manuscript with corrections made by hand. No date. Unpublished.


Prologue: Cornelia Penfield was the author of two published works of detective fiction, both of which have recently been reviewed on this blog: After the Deacon Was Murdered and After the Widow Changed Her Mind. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend going back to read the earlier reviews (follow the links) before continuing:

   The Internet is wonderful. It’s terrific. It took only a few days to trace down the family of Mrs. Cornelia Penfield Lathrop. She died in 1938, and a son Robert died several years ago, but Marilyn Lathrop, Cornelia’s daughter-in-law, is still alive and well. She lives two towns over to the east of me, and I’m not sure exactly what she thought when she opened the letter I wrote her, asking if she indeed was who I thought she was. (No, I have that wrong. I wrote the letter to Robert Lathrop, as the telephone is in his name, and I wasn’t sure if it were Robert the son, still living, or perhaps Robert, a grandson.)

   In any case, she wrote back, saying yes, Cornelia was her mother-in law, and yes, she’d welcome a chance to talk to me on the phone. I called not too late the following evening, hoping to set up a time when we could talk longer. What happened instead was a conversation about Cornelia Penfield that lasted at least 30 minutes. I no longer remember whether I received the answer in the initial letter that she wrote me or in that conversation, but the question that I was simply itching to ask, given the first suitable opportunity, was “Do you know why the third book was never published?”

   What I didn’t expect, whenever it was that the question was asked, or at least not realistically, was the reply that manuscript still existed, and would I be interested in seeing it sometime? I think my mind went blank right about then, but you know what my reply had to have been.

   I went to see it, had a chance to have another lengthy conversation with Marilyn Lathrop and (which I never really anticipated) I was allowed to borrow it. I have kept it far too long. There were some extenuating circumstances, including a number of unexpected events that intervened and kept me from starting to read it, but I think the real reason I put off reading it for so long was that for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was simply relishing the anticipation much longer than I should have.

   As to the answer to the question as to why the book was rejected – and this is the family’s version of what happened – is that the publisher said it “wasn’t seamy enough.” When we get to the review proper, I’ll go into that, but later on Marilyn partially reconsidered, saying that perhaps “seamy” wasn’t the word that was used, but even if it wasn’t, it was close.

   What I didn’t realize right away, though, is that the title of the manuscript I have is NOT the title of the third book that was promised, and there is nothing in the story itself to suggest the title was changed, there being no doctor in the tale that I have.

   So there is a fourth novel, and it is still missing, and unless someone in the Lathrop family remembers something – a box or trunk never opened – we shall reluctantly have to assume that it no longer exists.

   It also seems possible that After the Town Clerk Died is a novel that was never sent to Putnam’s. It may have been that After What the Doctor Said was the one that was rejected, with the aforesaid comment attached, and that Town Clerk was abandoned before completion, almost but never quite finished.

   It is, I am sure, no longer possible to say. It is remarkable that the typed pages still exist. As a mystery, it needs some work. I’ve never tried to write a full-fledged detective novel, or even an unfledged one. Reading this, in what I’m going to continue to think of as being in the form of a rough first or second draft, gave me quite a bit of insight into the physical problems of doing so. Being sure that an event mentioned on page 233 (say) as having happened earlier on page 165, really occurred, for example, and that a clue discussed on page 198 (say) was mentioned and pointed out back on page 53.

   That’s what still needs some fixing, not a lot, and editors of detective story fiction deserve all the praise we can give them. (There are still a few of them, but not as many as before.)

   Jane Trimble, the semi-elderly genealogist who appeared in the two published books, also appears in this one, her primary focus being that of keeping her friend Gordon Burr from becoming a suspect in the death of a man in a suspicious fire. Burr is a writer who is not only having problems completing his latest book, but who is also having domestic troubles with his wife, and Jane cherishes them both.

   I don’t imagine retelling the plot in detail makes a lot of sense, as when is anyone else ever going to be able to read this as a work of detective fiction? I’ll retract a good deal of what I was going to say, and start painting things with a wider brush.

   But what I started to say still applies. Jane was hardly the detective of record in the first book at all, and it was something of a surprise to find that she appeared in the second. In the second one, Widow, she shared sleuthing duty with another character, but in this one, she is the primary detective, even to the extent that she is the one with a watchful eye out for trouble even before there is trouble to be had.

   And here lies a problem. It takes nearly 150 pages before the body of the dead man is discovered, and it takes a fairly talented mystery writer to keep the reader’s interest that long, with little or no “action” taking place. There are a lot of characters to identify, a lot of refined conversation to listen in on – this is suburban Connecticut, after all, and even in (say) 1935, the level or refinement was greater than many another part of the world.

   Once Jane’s detective activities begin in earnest, it is quite a complicated state of affairs the mystery finds itself in, and – here’s another problem – many of the clues happened or were discovered back in the earlier portion of the book when no one (but Jane) even suspected that they were clues. An alert reader might get glimpses of the essentials of the plot in its early going, but as the manuscript now stands, some strong rewriting seems to be very much necessary.

   There is a great to-do about who was where and saw what when, and even more about beards, false beards, who had one and who shaved one off and who hired someone to impersonate them who did or did not have a beard when he needed one. I may not have implied what I wanted to in that sentence. It is all very fascinating.

   Penfield’s great talent was in miniature characterization, burbling good humor, dialogue, and in the end, a kindly heart. The mystery, as in Widow, turns out to have been a minor affair, complicated by a myriad of factors, related and unrelated, but once again – with a sense of forgiveness for loose ends – it’s a charming affair that I’m glad to have had the pleasure to read. (By the way, the Town Clerk’s death is involved, but he died of natural causes, and his involvement comes only in a clever way, one that could have been known only by someone intimately involved with the problems of genealogical research, and as such, it may be a First. The entire series, in other words, and this one in particular, may be “One for the Books.”)

Postscript: I have debated for a while whether I should do this, and once again, since you’re reading this, you will know that the better argument won. Here’s a longish quote from pages 245-246, getting within a hundred pages from the end. It will give you a sense, I think, of Cornelia Penfield’s knowledge of the conventions of the mystery field, and how, as I’ve mentioned in the two previous reviews, how she liked to play around with them.

   Reviewing her evening with the Admiring Confidants, in the foggy dawn of a New York spring day, Jane felt she had not shone. How was it that fictional detectives made themselves the center of awestricken attention, summed up their findings in crisp dramatic sentences, and stated so authoritatively that the criminal must have done this and that as was clearly shown by these and those?

   How was it that invariably they enlisted the kindly and obsequious services of? (1) Scotland Yard (2) the Division of Investigation of the Department of Justice (3) the Police Department of the metropolis concerned – (Select (1), (2), or (3) giving reasons for choice and write in your own words a complete detailed description of methods employed by that organization.)

   By what magic did they also find various district attorneys, solicitors, barristers, photographers, experts in criminology and laboratory practice, reporters, butlers and valets to abet and assist the Super-Detective without wanting any reward beyond a kindly smile, who argued with him just sufficiently to point out his infallibility- and were content with being yes-men and filling about two hundred and ninety pages of escape literature?

   None of her own intense concentration and really intelligent work on the Dymchurch affair had to date earned her a darned thing — and might possibly, as Judge Whitaker had hinted, be bringing her activities suspiciously into the official limelight.

   However positive she might be that at least one of the theories so neatly worked out and counter-indexed in her notebook was a correct solution, just how was she going to submit the notebook to the Principal Official and secure his kind attention? After having, for reasons which at the time appeared to her sound, led him to believe her a romantic and muddleheaded moron?

   And coming down to her own friends from whom at least she had the right to expect some awed silent admiration, what had been their attitude?

   Merely a polite and passing interest in the least important phases of the whole affair – the beard and the altered entry – and in order to explain those she had had to battle against guppies and banal bunnies as conversational topics!

   Worse of all, Judge Whitaker upon whom she had relied for so much of encouragement and intelligent cooperation, had not only failed her utterly, but had expressed his opinion in tactful judicial terms that she was a Meddlesome Mattie, and had better let the state of Connecticut and the town of Dymchurch deal with their own affairs as they were so well equipped and prepared to do.

   â€œAh well,” said Jane, ringing the pantry service. “A bit of breakfast may chirk me up. I must hold to the thought that I am not a Super-Detective, but merely riding a hobby-horse I found grazing along the roadside: and that even so I am an unpretentious Jarrocks and not eligible to the Hunt Club: nor am I called upon to demonstrate haute école before a circus audience that thinks a balotade is probably an off-color French joke… But, all the same, if this sinister Langton person does do away with me and dispose of my body in a crematory way, won’t all the grown-ups be sorry and begin to appreciate the risk I am taking?”

   The pause-giving difficulty would be that she would not be around to hear the post-mortem regrets and to see Judge Whitaker turn her notebook pages with trembling fingers or to hear him say “Poor Jane! How little we appreciated all this clever work of hers!”

   She sipped her coffee and enjoyed one of the famous St. Crispin croissants and decided to live a while longer, Langton willing. Even though a few more deaths were needed to bring the Dymchurch quota up to a good Van Dine average.

   I’ve decided that if I’m going to do long quotes from the text, I ought to do it right. Here’s an earlier passage, from pages 35-38, in which Jane meets Don Wyckoff, a local attorney, who may or may not be representing either artist Jack Collins or his wife Julia in their upcoming divorce proceedings. As part of their conversation, some more light is shed on Jane’s detective proclivities:

   Wyckoff smiled diplomatically. “… But I can’t undertake to nurse Jack Collins all the time.”

   â€œAre you representing him or Julia in the oncoming action? Or doesn’t one ask?” Phyllis nibbled a cracker.

   â€œOne doesn’t – not at this moment.”

   â€œBut is Julia really going to carry it through, Don? I should almost think after all these years … tell the waitress no mayonnaise for me, please – just the diet dressing … I’m sorry, Don. Ethics always seem so silly among friends – professional ethics, I mean.”

   There was a slight frown on Wyckoff’s bland forehead and he addressed his next remark directly to Jane. “Judge Whitaker spoke of you as a triple A detective, Miss Trimble.”

   â€œI suppose he referred to the Gleason will case. That was simple genealogical research. Elementary.”

   â€œThe name is Wyckoff, not Watson. And I know an unfortunate lot about how much ability as well as research that sort of thing takes. Being myself mostly a digger-out of facts for others to profit by.”

   â€œOh, Don! Don’t be so ’umble. He’s in with the oldest, snootiest law firm in Tidewater, Jane – seven names and an ampersand on the door – and every one of the seven is a judge or a trustee or a receiver or something.”

   â€œExcept me and the ampersand. The only way I maintain my dignity out of office-boy hours is to keep a few clients of my own over here in Dymchurch.”

   He began to outline amusingly a case involving a farmer and his step-son. Phyllis listened with applauding phrases at the right moment. Jane divided her attention between the table in the alcove – as yet unclaimed – and his bland face and pleasant voice. She had rather a prejudice against young lawyers, so given as a rule to screening their uncertainties by bumptious pronouncements and bristling authority. Wyckoff was of another sort. He had an adaptable geniality that hinted of the politician – of experience in gaining the confidence of folk of all degrees. A tactful young man, she concluded, who had been about a bit, who was sure of himself but not irritatingly so, and who might will be exactly what her beloved old neighbor, Judge Whitaker had been in his green legal youth. The anecdote finished, he again referred to Jane’s detective experience.

   â€œIt’s been rather accidental and incidental,” she said. “If I ever tried real detecting, I’m afraid I’d be much more interested in a criminal’s heredity and background and other antecedents than in the crime and whodunit. In the long run, though, I suppose detection and genealogy require about the same amount of patience and imagination and experience – and luck – ”

   â€œThe ideal job of detection may,” laughed Wyckoff, “but the detectives I’ve met in real life depend principally upon a lack of delicacy and a certain flair for installing dictaphones, breaking down doors, and otherwise intruding on the private life of a sincere criminal. Not picturesque persons – and the less imagination the better. You ought to hear our local chief of police, Hal Flint, cuss out detective story detectives. So many of the young literary colonists scribble mystery novels and they keep looking Flint up and getting in his hair and asking him questions.”

   â€œAnd I suppose he replies in the same spirit as did the doctor whose dinner-partner wanted free medical advice and asked him what he did when he had a cold – he snorted at her and said ‘Same as everybody else ma’am. I cough and sneeze’ –”

   â€œExactly the way Flint feels. Routine and romance don’t team successfully. And what’s more, if your average detective has no imagination, your average criminal certainly has less. I’ve never met a master-mind, I never hope to see one – but if I do, I’ll call you in, Miss Trimble. I promise.”

   â€œThank you,” said Jane solemnly. “I’ll endeavor to cope genealogically.”

   One more quote. I hope I’m not overdoing this, but I’d like to demonstrate what I mentioned earlier about Cornelia Penfield’s knack for dialogue. Jane is talking to Mrs. Turner, the cook in the Burrs’ household. Her husband Jim is the Burr’s handyman, and Beulah is their daughter, whom they’ve been concerned about. Either I’m right, or I’m hopelessly wrong, but I think this is the way people actually talk, instead of in neat diagrammable sentences. From pages 76-77:

   â€œPerhaps I can give Mrs. Burr a few hints when she comes back,” concluded Jane. “She hasn’t, I know, the faintest idea of making it hard for you.”

   â€œI know she hasn’t. That’s why I’ve kep’ my mouth shut and tried to do my best. Of course I never thought I’d get to do housework for other folks, but we couldn’t have it nicer than we have here, with our own little house an’ all. And after stretchin’ an’ strainin’ so many years, it’s a real rest to spend somebody else’s money for a change … not but what I don’t try to manage just as close ’sif it was my own” – added Mrs. Turner conscientiously, “But Mr. and Mrs. Burr, they’ve never had to count every cent twice, and they both do like good victuals … if we only had Beulah back and Jim didn’t get upset so easy–”

   â€œAbout her?”

   â€œYes. That’s the whole trouble. Jim kep’ straight ’s string till she went off t’ New York, but people ’round here don’t give him credit for that. An’ I was hopin’ maybe if she did come home–” Mrs. Turner’s tight lip quivered – “You see, Miss Trimble, we lived out of Branford on a farm of our own when we was first married, and all the time Beulah was growin’ up we had all our own things nice. Then the bank closed in New Haven where we had our money, and the other bank foreclosed on a moggidge Jim had taken out to buy some more proputty with, and it was before they started the Home-Owners’ Loan or anything and we couldn’t beg or borrow a cent – so we lost our place and had to sell our furniture for what it’d bring – I had real nice walnut suites that had b’longed to my folks – and the best we could do was try to live with Jim’s step-uncle over Redding-way, but he’d never liked Jim – and his second wife didn’t get along with Beulah an’ we all had it pretty hard till Beulah took a notion to take her high-school cookin’ and so on seriously and get herself a job waitin’ on tables at the Tavern. She did real well with tips an’ all an’ then she found out there’d be this place for us all so we decided we’druther be independent an’ work for pay than keep on where we were … Only with Beulah gone and no relyin’ on Jim no more, I guess the Burrs is about ready to make a change. And if we haveta leave here, Jim’ll just get from bad to worse.”

In conclusion: Thanks again to Marilyn Lathrop for allowing me the use of the manuscript, and for the conversations we have had concerning her husband’s mother. Since Marilyn never knew her mother-in-law, her own knowledge is based on what Robert and other members of the family have told her over the years. Cornelia’s daughter Helen Harriet Petty is still living. She is in her late 80s, and the memories she has of her mother have been conveyed to me through Marilyn. A nephew, Fred Lathrop, is also still alive, and he has assisted me in proofreading the reviews and commentary above. He remembers her only as a young boy, recalling for the most part the years toward her death, when she was often bedridden with tuberculosis.

   My impression of Cornelia Lathrop, through these conversations, was that she was a very progressive woman, ahead of her time in many ways. Similar in nature, I believe, to Eleanor Roosevelt, a lady whom Cornelia is said to have met. Not many women in the 1920s, for example, would take her three children to live in France for well over a year without her husband, who stayed home working.

   She was always interested in the arts. Besides her brief involvement with Broadway, previously mentioned, in the mid-30s she also wrote several articles for Stage Magazine, including five in a 1936 series on famous Hollywood directors.

   The photo you see at the top of this article/review is a publicity shot taken by her mystery publisher, G. P. Putnam. It’s nice to be able to display it again.

— February 2004