Search Results for 'Death in a little town'

William F. Deeck

R. C. WOODTHORPE – Death in a Little Town. Doubleday Crime, US, hardcover, 1935. First Edition: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, UK, hardcover, 1935.

   A usually enjoyable subgenre of the crime story is the English village setting. This is one of the most delightful of them. Mr. Woodthorpe, in this and other novels, can be compared — but, since comparisons are odious, this reviewer won’t stoop to it — to Robert Barnard in one of his more mellow moods.

R. C. WOODTHORPE Death in a Little Town

   The most hated man in the town in murdered shortly after the villagers have torn down the fence he put across a public right-of-way. The murder is investigated by the local police sergeant, one Whalebone, who is himself an interesting and intelligent character, and by some anonymous individuals from Scotland Yard who deal mostly with paperwork.

   In the novel we meet Miss Mathilda Perks, former schoolmistress, with a blunt tongue and a foul-mouthed and surprisingly bright parrot named Ramsey MacDonald; Miss Perks’ brother Robert, who has a tendency to disrobe on occasion wherever he might happen to be; Daphne Chrystal, a slattern who could give Gracie Allen some pointers in witless conversation; her husband, Walter, who suspects her of infidelity for reasons best known to himself…

   More: Frank Thornhill, a former pupil of Miss Perks, who is of independent means and no particular ambition except maybe to set up a nudist colony; the Rev. William Chandos, whose biggest concerns are neutrality in all things and how to handle the various views in the village about public bathing on Sunday; and Michael Holt, about whom the police say:

    “There’s nothing against him, except that he’s a writer of fiction. Quite a respectable person; doesn’t even write detective stories….”

   A novel well worth trying to find by those inclined to enjoy the English village setting and somewhat eccentric characters. The humor, it should be added, is natural and unforced. The detection, however, does leave something to be desired.

— From The Poisoned Pen, Vol. 7, No. 1
(Whole #33), Fall-Winter 1987.

Bibliographic Update:   Miss Mathilda Perks also appeared in The Shadow on the Downs (1935). Woodthorpe’s other series character, Nicholas Slade, also made two appearances, one of which, Death Wears a Purple Shirt, was also reviewed by Bill Deeck in that same issue of Poisoned Pen. It was posted here earlier on this blog.

Reviews by L. J. Roberts


CHARLES FINCH – An Extravagant Death. Charles Lenox #14. Minotaur Books, hardcover, February 2021; softcover, January 2022. Setting: Newport RI / New York City, 1878.

First Sentence: It was a sunny, icy late morning in February of 1878, and a solitary figure, lost in thought, strode along one of the pale paths winding through St. James’s Park in London.

   British Enquiry Agent, Charles Lennox, solved a case that brought down Scotland Yard with the three top men headed to trial. Prime Minister Disraeli determines it best that Lennox is not in England during the trial and sends him to the United States with the Queen’s Seal on a tour of the East Coast law enforcement agencies. 1878 Newport, Rhode Island: a place of extreme wealth and self-indulgence. A place of new money, and a focus on marrying well. The murder of a young woman of the first diamond doesn’t fit into this scenario. Lennox’s help is requested.

   Finch does an excellent job of providing a summary of Lenox’s background, folding in that of his wife, Lady Jane, in the process. However, it is confusing that the case for which Lennox is being lauded falls into a huge gap: When did Lennox and Jane have a second child? When did Polly and Dallington, Charles’ partners in the agency, get married? And most of all, what was the case that brought down Scotland Yard? Either this reviewer blanked out this information, or Finch and/or his publisher just decided to skip a book and these annoying little details.

   As Lenox gets to know New York, Finch presents the stark contrast between the wealthy and the laboring class very well, demonstrating compassion but not dismissiveness or pity. Lenox’s excitement is tangible as he crosses the border from New York to Connecticut, consulting his little book of maps showing the thirty-eight states, as one learns the origin of the word “shrapnel,” and later the term “I heard it through the grapevine.” Those small bits of information lend richness to the story.

   Just as with the contrast in settings, Finch displays the contrasts in characters and their lives with the working class and merchants of the town, to the very wealthy “cottage” owners such as the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Astor. As is often true, some of the most interesting characters are those of ex-soldier James Clark, and Fergus O’Brian, the Irish valet,

   It is interesting to see Lenox dogged determination and attention to detail as he investigates every aspect and every possible suspect. The details of how and why Lily, the victim, was killed are laid out perfectly and done in a scene of edge-of-seat suspense rather than the more pedestrian style of Christie. The final chapters are heart-warming, especially the requests he makes on behalf of others.

   An Extravagant Death is just shy of being excellent, in part due to a scene at the end. The mystery is well done with some secondary characters nearly stealing the show. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here.

Rating: Good Plus.

MARY (THERESA ELEANOR) HIGGINS CLARK, author of some 50 plus crime and suspense novels died yesterday, January 31, 2020, at the age of 92. Her sales, in the millions of copies, must rank her as being among the greatest of any recent or current writer in the field.

   Theatrical films have been made of the following novels: A Stranger Is Watching (1982), Where Are the Children? (1986), Lucky Day (2002) , and All Around the Town (2002), and dozens more have been adapted into made-for-TV films.

   The following bibliography has been taken from the Fantastic Fiction website:

      The Alvirah and Willy series —

   [A lottery winner and her husband use their winnings to solve crimes.]

1. Weep No More, My Lady (1987)

2. The Lottery Winner (1994)
3. All Through The Night (1998)
4. Deck the Halls (2000) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
5. The Christmas Thief (2004) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
6. Santa Cruise (2006) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
7. Dashing Through the Snow (2008) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
8. I’ll Walk Alone (2011)
9. The Lost Years (2012)
10. As Time Goes By (2016)
11. All By Myself Alone (2017)

      The Regan Reilly series (with Carol Higgins Clark)

   [Regan Reilly is a private investigator based in Los Angeles.]

Deck the Halls (2000)

The Christmas Collection (2006)
Santa Cruise (2006)
Dashing Through the Snow (2008)

      The “Under Suspicion” series

   [Laurie Moran is a producer on the television series ‘Under Suspicion’, a documentary program which investigates unsolved cold cases.]

1. I’ve Got You Under My Skin (2014)

2. The Cinderella Murder (2013) (with Alafair Burke)
3. All Dressed in White (2015) (with Alafair Burke)
4. The Sleeping Beauty Killer (2016) (with Alafair Burke)
5. Every Breath you Take (2017) (with Alafair Burke)
6. You Don’t Own Me (2018) (with Alafair Burke)

       Other Novels —

Aspire to the Heavens (1960) aka Mount Vernon Love Story (non-criminous)
Where Are the Children? (1975)

A Stranger Is Watching (1978)
The Cradle Will Fall (1980)
A Cry in the Night (1982)
Stillwatch (1984)
While My Pretty One Sleeps (1989)
Loves Music, Loves to Dance (1991)
All Around the Town (1992)
I’ll Be Seeing You (1993)
Remember Me (1994)
Pretend You Don’t See Her (1995)
Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1995)
Silent Night (1995)
Moonlight Becomes You (1996)
You Belong to Me (1998)
We’ll Meet Again (1998)
Before I Say Good-Bye (2000)
On the Street Where You Live (2000)
He Sees You When You’re Sleeping (2001) (with Carol Higgins Clark)
Daddy’s Little Girl (2002)
The Second Time Around (2003)
Nighttime Is My Time (2004)
No Place Like Home (2005)
Two Little Girls in Blue (2006)
I Heard That Song Before (2007)
Where Are You Now? (2008)
Just Take My Heart (2009)
The Shadow of Your Smile (2010)
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (2013)
Inherit the Dead (2013) (with C J Box, Lee Child, John Connolly, Charlaine Harris, Jonathan Santlofer and Lisa Unger)
The Melody Lingers on (2015)
I’ve Got My Eyes on You (2018)
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry (2019)

   Seven issues of Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine were published sporadically between 1996 and 2000.


ALISTAIR MacLEAN – River of Death. Collins, UK. hardcover, 1981. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1982. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1983.

RIVER OF DEATH. Cannon Films, 1989. Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. Director: Steve Carver.

   I imagine a conversation between Alistair Maclean and his editor going something like this: “Imagine a story where you have an adventurer, an Allan Quatermain sort ripped straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, who discovers that a Nazi war criminal is not just hiding in South America, but that he’s hiding in a lost city originally founded by a hitherto unknown Indian tribe!” That is, to be sure, an intriguing premise to a story.

   But there are obvious questions raised by the idea. How did the Nazi get there? What is he doing there? Just hiding out or up to something far more nefarious? And who is this adventurer who gets the honor of serving as the tale’s protagonist?

   Sadly, it’s the near complete dearth of character development, to say nothing of the achingly dull plot, which relegates Maclean’s River of Death to a minor work in the author’s far more distinguished canon. Hamilton, the hero of the story, is introduced to the reader almost simultaneously with other characters, all of whom will play far lesser roles in the plot.

   There’s no real moment in the first third of the novel when the reader gets a feel for Hamilton and learns why he might be so motivated to return to the site of this so-called lost city. That, along with the fact that many of the characters seem to speak exactly alike, is unnecessarily confusing and does very little to keep one engrossed, let alone interested, in what’s transpiring.

   And then there are the Nazis. In the novel’s prologue, which is undoubtedly the best part of the work, Maclean is at his best at least as far as this work is concerned. He paints a picture of two Nazi war criminals. It’s the end of the war, when it’s clear to all but the most deluded fanatics that Germany is about to be a defeated power. Two S.S. officers, Van Manteuffel and Spaatz, decide to abscond to South America with treasures they have looted from a Greek monastery.

   But Nazis aren’t the sorts to play fair. It’s no surprise that Von Manteuffel, a poorly developed arch-villain if there ever were one, decides he’d rather have the loot all to himself and have his would-be partner in crime out of the way.

   Fast-forward several decades. Spaatz, who managed to survive Van Manteuffel’s bullet, is now working and living in Brazil under the laughably generic name Smith. He hires Hamilton, the story’s hero-adventurer, to lead him into the Amazonian jungle under the pretense that he’s interested in seeing the lost city for himself. What he’s really after, of course, is revenge. He knows that Van Manteuffel is living a Kurtz-like existence out in the jungle.

   Most of the novel follows Hamilton and Smith, along with a motley crew of thrill seekers, as they traverse rough terrain, fight off Indian tribes, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. The dialogue is forgettable, as are the descriptions of the group’s infighting. Like slogging through the rainforest, it requires patience to get where you’re going.

   And, unfortunately, the payoff isn’t really worth it. Yes, they find Van Manteuffel and the implication of the ending is that the bastard gets his just desserts. Nevertheless, it all left me with a feeling of “so what.” Unlike Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (reviewed here), which raised all sorts of ethical and political questions, Maclean’s work seems to be content with just following through with a mildly quirky, albeit intriguing, premise.

   The cinematic adaptation of Maclean’s work isn’t much better than the novel itself. What starts off as a sweaty, low-budget adventure film with potential to punch well above its weight, ends up faltering under the weight of so many 1980s action movie clichés. You’ve got some gunfights, some explosions, uncivilized natives, and the cruel and sadistic Nazis.

   Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence, who portray the two Nazi war criminals, could have put in solid dramatic performances rather than the cartoonish ones they deliver here. Michael Dudikoff, who plays Hamilton, is stilted from the very beginning. He radiates as much personality as his character in the novel. Which is to say almost none. It’s a shame. When given the opportunity to do so, he was capable of so much more than phoning it in.

   The one exception is L. Q. Jones. A veteran of many Sam Peckinpah productions, Jones is a welcome presence in River of Death. He plays a shifty fixer, the type of guy you might very well meet in a small town Brazilian watering hole a million miles from nowhere. It’s a real good role for him and one that I admit kept me watching the movie longer than I would have otherwise.



WILLIAM L. HEATH – Temptation in a Southern Town. Hillman #114, paperback, 1959. Reprinted in the UK as Blood on the River by John Long, hardcover, 1961.

   W. L. Heath wrote several books about life and crime set in small-town rural south, the best known of which (because it was filmed) is Violent Saturday, but all of his work is worth reading for the sharply observed characters, well-knit plots and subtle atmosphere.

   Temptation in a Southern Town follows two characters to their inevitable meeting: aging Sheriff Deparis, who learns late in the book that he has stomach cancer (a sentence of painful death in 1959) and Billy South, a strong, hard-working black man who got in with a crowd of rum-runners a ways back and messed up his life.

   Heath does a compelling job of charting a collision course without making it look contrived. He picks out little bits of detail, highlights the bit players (a short interview with a mill foreman makes the character real for us, even though he’s never seen in the book again) and throws in the little details that make a story come alive without slowing the pace.

   There’s an incredibly tense few chapters that occur when a run goes wrong, and another nice bit when Billy’s associates turn on him, but the quiet scenes in little shops, watching children at play or just hanging around an empty jail are no less entertaining.

   And best of all, when the story gets to where we knew it was going all along, Heath goes for drama instead of melodrama. When the ending comes, it never seems stage-managed, but arises easily from the characters themselves.

   I’ll add that Heath treats the racial prejudice of his time much as Jane Austen treated the plight of women in hers: He acknowledges its presence and patent evil, bases some of the plot on it, but makes the book more about individuals than issues.

   If you’ve never read anything by William L. Heath, you should give yourself a treat.

Note:   For a short biography of the author and a list of the books he wrote, go here:

RICHARD M. BAKER – Death Stops the Bells. Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, 1938.

   This is the third and final case tackled and solved by a middle-aged scholar by the name of Franklin Russell in book form. The earlier entries in the series were Death Stops the Manuscript (Scribners, 1936) and Death Stops the Rehearsal (Scribners, 1937). Russell is by profession a schoolmaster in a small town in Massachusetts, but his true calling is as an amateur detective, and in Death Stops the Bells, he really has his work cut out for him.

   He is on hand for the first death. It takes place in a compound of two homes and two families whose members respectively hate each other. To be correct in that statement, the elder members of each family do. The younger members of both sexes find the opportunity to meet and consort on many an occasion, to the consternation of their respective parents. A third home in the block is owned by a friend of Mr. Russell, who happens to be on hand when whoever is playing the bells in a church tower on the estate stops suddenly, mid-song, then starts playing again, the entire song through.

   To Russell’s fine-tuned ear, however, it is clearly a second player ringing the bells. It is soon discovered that the first player is dead, murdered, it is assumed when the first song stopped. Was it the murderer who started ringing the bells again? And if so, why?

   The writing is old-fashioned and stilted, not at all how you would think a book written in 1938 would sound. The number of suspects is also very limited, which makes the questioning quite tedious, as it goes over the same topics again and again. Even Detective-Sergeant McCoun seems to squirm a lot in his seat as he listens to Mr. Russell interrogate all of the suspects in turn, and then as further events occur, start all over again.

   In other words, a lot of talk is all there is to propel the story forward, and not a lot of action. None, in fact. The solution, when it comes, is, unfortunately, little more than yawn-producing. A mediocre effort, in other words. If Scribners, publishers of the S. S. Van Dine mysteries, were thinking they had another Philo Vance on their hands, they were sadly mistaken.

William F. Deeck

TIMOTHY KNOX – Death in the State House. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1934. Black Cat Detective #24, digest-sized paperback, 1946.

   In the Capitol of an unnamed state — internal evidence suggests New Jersey — the Governor is working late. When someone inserts a knife in his neck. he stops working. Since the Governor is a womanizer, a gambler, and an owner of a “speak” and gambling den, he has lots of enemies.i

   Called in to investigate is Eli Scott, apple grower and chief of police of a small town. Solving the murder is beyond the dubious talents of the capital city’s police since this is an impossible crime: Those who could have murdered the Governor all clear each other.

   An only novel, interesting primarily because it’s a rather good impossible crime for the times.

— Reprinted from MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 1990, “Political Mysteries.”

Bibliographic Notes: Bill was quite correct in saying that this was Timothy Knox’s only novel. What he may not have known is that Knox was the pseudonym of Charles Fisher & Elizabeth K. Read, about either little is known. Fisher, however, was also the author of a short story collection entitled Some Unaccountable Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1956; perhaps self-published).

EILEEN DEWHURST – There Was a Little Girl. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1986. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1984.

   Eileen Dewhurst is an author new to me, so I started looking up what I could find out about her and her mystery fiction. First of all, she was born in 1929 and is apparently still living. One source says: “Eileen Dewhurst was born in Liverpool, read English at Oxford, and has earned her living in a variety of ways, including journalism. When she is not writing she enjoys solving cryptic crossword puzzles and drawing and painting cats.”

   I have found 25 mysteries that she has written. A few never appeared in this country, and there is a curious footnote to her book The Innocence of Guilt (Piatkus, 1991). Apparently Doubleday printed up copies in this country, but then they changed their minds and never sent them out for sale. Curious, but considering the whims of publishers, this is not particularly surprising.

   Some but not all of her book belong to various series. The case in hand is solved by Detective Inspector Neil Carter; he appeared in four others, three before this one, and one afterward. Inspector Tim Le Page appears in three books, all coming after this one. Phyllida Moon, an actress who moonlights as a private eye, appears in nine books. Helen Johnson, described in one source as the wife of a high member of British Intelligence, appears in two earlier mysteries, while someone named Humphrey Barnes crosses over into one Neil Carter book plus one of those that Phyllida Moon is in. The Neil Carter books may also overlap some of the Phyllida Moon books. Sorting all this out is beginning to sound lke a chore for another day.

   Enough background, perhaps. There are a couple of interesting aspects to There Was a Little Girl, and the first is the little girl herself, a 15-year-old schoolgirl whom we first see being sent off by train to London by her aunt for the weekend, and next as a murder victim – a prostitute Inspector Carter had previously chatted up in a bar for a short time and whom she telephoned for help just before her death, he arriving too late.

   Somehow, or is it my imagination, do the British do the messy sex-related mysteries better and/or more often than American authors do? Not the US hard-boiled version, but the “malice domestic” variety. If so, here’s another one.

   Another aspect is the marital status of Inspector Carter himself, which changes in Chapter 3 from single to married, and Dewhurst portrays the day, the ceremony, and the reception to perfection. A dreamlike panic.

   More. The wedding night. This has to be a first. Neil is hesitant to ask, but his new wife Cathy eagerly accepts. Instead of their regularly scheduled honeymoon location, off they go instead to Bellfield, the small town in the New Forest where the girl was from, where they do some incognito and continuing investigating on their own (department sanctioned), Neil not convinced that the man they have arrested for the murder is actually guilty.

   Query: Is this the first murder investigation conducted by a newly married couple on their honeymoon? And mind you, Cathy takes an active role in the case, an unofficial colleague as it were, allowing certain doors to open more easily than if Neil were on his own. In the process they find themselves embarrassed in how easily they are accepted by those who are (truthfully) suspects in the case.

   The author is very observant when it comes to human nature, and although this is not at all like one of Miss Marple’s detective puzzles, at least in terms of situation, I was reminded of Christie’s works more than once. Christie often made complex plotting look easy, however, and Dewhurst is just a little awkward at it, about which more I cannot say, but if you were to read this book and then go back and read one of the earlier chapters again, you will know what I mean

— July 2004

WICHITA TOWN. NBC/Four Star Productions. 26 x 30m episodes, 30 Sept 1959 to 6 April 1960. Stars: Joel McCrea (Marshal Mike Dunbar), Jody McCrea (Deputy Ben Matheson). Townspeople: Robert Foulk, Frank Ferguson, Bob Anderson, George N. Neise.

   This series has not been officially released on DVD. It is only available through what is generously called the grey market. I recently obtained several episodes in this fashion. The picture quality was only fair but watchable. Below are my notes on each episode as I watched them, not chronologically but in the order they appeared on the discs.

Episode 1. “The Night the Cowboys Roared.” 30 September 1959. Guest Cast: James Coburn, Tony Montenaro. Trail boss Mike Dunbar has just brought his herd of cattle up from Texas into Wichita, but the job having been completed, disclaims responsibility for the subsequent shoot-em-up ruckus caused by his former crew of cowhands. Until, that is, the small Mexican boy who has befriended him is accidentally shot and killed by a ricocheting bullet. Then he steps in and helps the deputy marshal Ben Matheson send the cowboys on their way. Deciding that he needs roots, Mike Dunbar decides to stay on when offered the job of marshal. He is clearly taking on the role of Wyatt Earp, without the name, and it is obvious who his new deputy is intended to be. James Coburn is his usual smart-aleck self as the loud-mouth leader of the cowhands, but the big friendly smile of 12-year-old Anthony C. Montenaro makes an even bigger impression, his first ever role in movies or on TV.

Episode 21. “The Frontiersman.” 2 March 1960. Guest Cast: Gene Evans, Mary Sinclair. This appears to have been produced separately as a pilot for a proposed series starring Evans, as a spinoff from Wichita Town. The version I watched is the pilot itself, with its own title and closing pitch to prospective sponsors. It was not picked up, however, and was broadcast as an episode of Wichita Town. The concept is a good one. The rough-hewn Evans plays Otis Stockett, whose goal is the fight the lawlessness of the frontier with education, with books and learning. When that fails, however, he’s handy with a fist, as he demonstrates in this pilot, then, as he admits in his closing argument, with a gun, but only if absolutely necessary. Joel McCrea appears only briefly.

Episode 11. “Death Watch.” 16 December 1959. Guest Cast: John Dehner, Phillip Pine, Tina Carver, Jean Howell. Ben is trapped in a cyclone cellar with a gambler, a dance hall girl, a dying man, and a killer — a man who thought he could earn a woman’s love by shooting and robbing the man who is dying. As a rarity, the gambler (John Dehner) is not a card shark, but a man who is sadder and wiser about the way the world works. While three people die during the course of this episode, it is talkier than a lot of other westerns, with Dehner taking top honors in that regard, a fine performance. Marshal Dunbar steps back and lets young Ben learn a lesson on his own.

Episode 19. “Brothers of the Knife.” 10 February 1960. Guest Cast: Abraham Sofaer, Anthony Caruso, Robert Carricart, David Whorf. This one felt as though it could be an episode of The Untouchables, as the Mafia tries to make a foothold in Wichita, where a sizable Italian population has made a new home. What the two men sent to enforce a protection racket don’t realize is that once men taste freedom, they will fight for it. Joel McCrea as Marshal Dunbar has little role beyond that of an onlooker. Jody McCrea does not appear in this one. An excellent episode that could only have benefited from having more than the 26 minutes allowed.

Episode 3. “Bullet for a Friend.” 14 October 1959. Guest Cast: Carlos Romero, Robert J. Wilke, James Griffith. On a day when both Marshal Dunbar and his deputy are out of town, two gunslingers come riding in. One is Rico Rodriquez (Carlos Romero), the uncle of Manuel, the young boy who was killed in Episode 1. The other is Johnny Burke (Wilke), who aims to kill a former partner of his, now a successful cattle-buyer in town. Things take an interesting twist when Rodriguez learns that Dunbar was a friend of his nephew, if only for a day, and he decides to do the marshal’s job for him. At the end of program Rodriguez is persuaded to stay on as a second deputy, but this is the first I’ve seen of him. McCrea is present for only the last two minutes, a funny way to be the star of a series, but this was an excellent episode.

Episode 5 “Drifting.” 28 October 1959. Guest Cast: John McIntire, John Larch. When Ben Matheson’s father (John McIntire) comes drifting into town, it is not to a warm welcome. It has been twelve years since he abandoned his son, and Ben finds it difficult to even talk to the bedraggled old man. The problem is that a gunslinger with a fancy saddle has also just come to town, and it is Ben’s father whose trail he is on. Dealing with the situation is what Ben has to do, and it’s his story all the way, and I enjoyed it. Joel McCrea shows up briefly only at the beginning and end.

Summary:   Based on the episodes I’ve been able to see, this was a very enjoyable series. These were largely homespun tales, punctuated by spurts of sudden violence, usually toward the end. The acting was uniformly above average, especially on the part of the guest stars. Joel McCrea was fine, too, but perhaps one reason why this series is as forgotten as it is, is that Joel McCrea almost nearly wasn’t in it.

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.

   “Ah 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.”

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

   “One doesn’t – not at this moment.”

   “But 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.”

   “I suppose he referred to the Gleason will case. That was simple genealogical research. Elementary.”

   “The 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.”

   “Oh, 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.”

   “Except 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.

   “It’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 – ”

   “The 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.”

   “And 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’ –”

   “Exactly 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.”

   “Thank 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:

   “Perhaps 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.”

   “I 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–”

   “About her?”

   “Yes. 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