Largely forgotten today, Welsh crime writer Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) wrote 17 novels. In her day she was as well known as writers like Agatha Christie. White started out writing short stories and working at the Ministry of Pensions but left her job to scratch out a living as a writer after an offer of ten-pounds for a short story.
Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for
Ethel Lina White
White wrote three non-crime novels between 1927 and 1930 before turning to crime. Her first crime novel Put Out the Light was published in 1931 when she was fifty-five. Her work often featured lonely but strong heroines in dark country houses as metaphors for repression. She became known for writing suspense that set your heart racing, as well as her colloquial conversation style in dialogue. Some of these skills were probably picked up while indulging her favourite downtime activity of watching films.
Her novel Some Must Watch (1933) was made into a Hollywood Movie called The Spiral Staircase (1946). The Wheel Spins (1936) was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938). Midnight House (1942) was also filmed as The Unseen with Raymond Chandler as one of the script writers.
The Wish-Bone (1927) Twill Soon Be Dark (1929) The Eternal Journey (1930) Put Out the Light (1931) aka Sinister Light Fear Stalks the Village (1932) Some Must Watch (1933) aka The Spiral Staircase Wax (1935) The First Time He Died (1935) The Wheel Spins (1936) aka The Lady Vanishes The Third Eye (1937) The Elephant Never Forgets (1937) Step in the Dark (1938) While She Sleeps (1940) She Faded Into Air (1941) Midnight House (1942) aka Her Heart in Her Throat, The Unseen The Man Who Loved Lions (1943) aka The Man Who Was Not There They See in Darkness (1944)
It’s a while since I’ve written a dames or crime post. This one is about the mysterious Scottish author and playwright Elizabeth Mackintosh (1987-1952) also known as Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey.
The period between the First and Second World Wars was the golden-age of crime fiction, when the Detection Club, a dining society for mystery writers was frequented by authors such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio March and Dorothy L. Sayers. Rules emerged for mystery writing that were later codified into the ‘Ten Commandments’ by British writer Ronald Knox. They included beginning with a body and ending with a reveal of the killer.
It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it.
The Daughter of Time
Tey was never a member of the Detection Club and she was a breaker of rules when it came to writing mysteries. Her characters did not conform to the usual profiles of the day. Five of Tey’s mystery novels star Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard Inspector and one of the first police protagonists to appear in crime fiction, an ordinary hard working fallible man. The Daughter of Time was voted the greatest mystery of all in 1990 by The British Crime Writers’ Association. In this novel, from a hospital bed, Grant solves the mystery of whether King Richard III of England murdered his nephews.
Tey was interested in exploring the psychology of her characters and the dark side of humanity, she wrote eight mystery novels and showed a fascination for identities and how a persons public face can contradict their true natures. Herself a lone wolf, Tey was said to have three distinct personas to accompany her three names. She did not give interviews, there are few photographs of her in existence, and she never married. The absence of information has led many to examine her novels for insight into the author.
‘She wasn’t fond of being interviewed. And she used to tell a different story each time. When someone pointed out that that wasn’t what she had said last time, she said: “But that’s so dull! I’ve thought of a much better one.” No one ever knew where they were with her. Temperament, they called it, of course.
A Shilling for Candles
Tey’s early and later life was spent in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, with a stint as a physical education teacher in England in between, an occupation that provided fodder for her 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes. As a playwright she went by the name of Gordon Daviot, producing a dozen one-act plays and the same number of full length plays. Richard of Bordeaux (1932) had some success in London’s West End running for 14 months and starring John Gielgud.
Someone had said that if you thought about the unthinkable long enough it became quite reasonable.
Author Nicola Upson, who initially planned to write a briography of Tey, eventually decided that the intensely private, elusive author was more suited to fiction and made Tey the amateur detective in her 2008 novel An Expert in Murder, as well as in subsequent books in the series. It was not until 2015 that a biography, Josephine Tey: A Life, was written by Jennifer Morag Henderson.
Australian born of French heritage, Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897-1940) achieved much in her relatively short life. Simpson moved to England as a teenager and was educated at Oxford where she studied music. Her education was interrupted by the war, and in 1917 she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Services to work as an interpreter and decoder, unscrambling secret messages for the British Admiralty.
Simpson met and became close friends with another female crime writer, Dorothy L. Sayers in London. Both women were early members of the Detection Club along with other well known British detective writers like Agatha Christie. Sayers contributed to two of the Detection Club’s round-robin works The Floating Admiral (1931) and Ask a Policeman (1933) and the creative non-fiction The Anatomy of Murder (1936).
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
Oath of the Detective Club
Simpson was a woman with dynamic energy and broad interests. She was known to be a good fencer, an accomplished horsewoman, and a student of witchcraft. She played the flute and piano and was an excellent cook and wine maker using ancient recipes to make her brews which she stored in the cellars under her London house. She also worked as a radio broadcaster, a playwright and ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate on the Isle of Wight in 1938.
Simpson was a versatile writer, publishing poetry, writing plays, short stories, crime fiction, historical fiction and historical biography and non-fiction. Her first book, Aquittal (1925), was written in five weeks as the result of a bet. Five of her novels were mysteries, three of which were written in collaboration with English novelist and playwright Clemence Dane (also known as Winifred Ashton) whom Simpson named her own daughter after. The authors first collaborative work was Enter Sir John (1928), followed by Printer’s Devil (1930) and Re-Enter Sir John (1932) set in the English theatre world with protagonist, amateur sleuth and actor Sir John. During this period Simpson also wrote the dark political novel Vantage Striker (1931).
Simpson won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her 1932 novel Boomerang which was her first big success. Two of Simpsons novels and one collaboration were turned into movies. Enter Sir John (1929), written with Clemence Dane, was filmed as Murder! (1930) by Alfred Hitchcock; Under Capricorn (1937) set in NSW was turned to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1949 and starred Ingrid Bergman and Michael Wilding; and Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935) was filmed in 1948.
Simpson died age 42 in October 1940 after a short illness.
Novels: Acquittal (1925) Cups, Wands and Swords (1927) The Desolate House (1929) Enter Sir John (1929)(with Clemence Dane)-filmed as Murder! (1930) by Alfred Hitchcock Printer’s Devil (1930)(with Clemence Dane) Vantage Striker (1931) Re-enter Sir John (1932)(with Clemence Dane) Boomerang (1932), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize The Woman on the Beast (1933) Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935, produced as a film) The Female Felon (1935) Under Capricorn (1937, produced as a film in 1949) A Woman Among Wild Men (1938)(with Clemence Dane) Maid No More (1940)
Biographies: The Spanish Marriage (1933)(with Clemence Dane) Henry VIII (1934)(with Clemence Dane)
Collections: Philosophies in Little (1921) The Baseless Fabric (1925) Short stories Mumbudget (1928) short fairy stories for children Heartsease and Honesty: Being the Pastimes of the Sieur de Grammont (1935). Translation from the French
Drama: Masks (1921) A Man of His Time (1923) Pan in Pimlico, collected in Four One Act Plays, edited by AP Herbert (1923) The Women’s Comedy (1926) Gooseberry Fool (1929), with Clemence Dane Oxford Preserved (1930), with music by Richard Addinsell
Non-fiction: The Waiting City: Paris 1782-1788 (1933), an abridged translation of Le Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sebastien Mercier Has Russia Hoaxed the Worker?. Billings Gazette, 15 January 1933 What Communism Does to Women. Los Angeles Times, 29 January 1933 The Happy Housewife (1934) The Witch Unbound. Collected in The Boat Train (1934), edited by Mary Agnes Hamilton What’s Wrong with Our Hospitals?. Time and Tide, 1934 The Female Felon (1935)
Short fiction: [Title unknown]. Nash’s Magazine, December 1928 My Daughter’s Daughter. Sphere, 1 December 1929 London in June. Sphere, 14 June 1930 Death Versus Debt. Broadcast as a reading by Simpson. BBC National Service, 29 June 1934 Puss in Boots. Collected in The Fairies Return (1934) No Jewel Is Like Rosalind (1938). Broadcast as a reading by Simpson on the BBC (1938)
Translation: A selection from Louis-Sebastian Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris under the title ‘The Waiting City’ (1933).
This post continues my Grand Dames of Crime series exploring some of the best women crime writers from history.
American mystery writer Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014) was born in Chicago and adopted out to a tenant dairy farmer and his Irish immigrant wife. Davis grew up in Illinois and Wisconsin, only finding out she was adopted in adulthood. She studied English and History, graduated in 1938 in the middle of the Great Depression and secured a job as a magician’s assistant, an experience that emerged in her novels which often included a seedy magician. Eventually she moved on from magic after finding a job in public relations and become a magazine editor. She married character actor Harry Davis (The Fortune Cookie, America America) in 1946 and they moved to New York where she began to write.
We reveal more of ourselves in the lies we tell than we do when we try to tell the truth.
A Death in the Life
Her first novel, the Judas Cat was published in 1949. The story opens with the mysterious death of a recluse in a small town, his bloody demise witnessed only by his cat. Davis often murdered people and animals in the first pages of her books, but her tautly crafted stories generally contained little violence otherwise, though they were not cosy mysteries. The author relied on plots driven by psychological suspense and portrayed complex characters and strong women.
Flattery makes fools of the best of us
A Death in the Life
A Gentle Murderer, Davis’s third novel published in 1951 was selected to be included in the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones of Crime as one the 125 best mysteries ever written. She was nominated eight times for the renowned Edgar Award for best novel, and served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1956. In 1985 Davis was awarded the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award for her body of work, and was one of the founding members of Sisters in Crime along with Sara Paretsky in 1987, an organisation dedicated to supporting women who write crime fiction. In 1989, she earned the Lifetime Achievement Award at Bouchercon, and in 1994, Malice Domestic named her their Guest of Honor.
Davis wrote twenty novels and more than thirty short stories during her five decade career. Apart from the Mrs Norris series (three books) and the Julie Hayes mysteries (four books), Davis novels were stand alone, which along with her mysteries containing little violence made her unusual in the world of crime fiction. Most of her work was in the mystery genre, though she also wrote a number of historical fiction novels including Men of No Property (1956), set in Ireland during the potato famine, The Evening of the Good Samaritan (1962) set during and after the Second World War, and God Speed Night (1968), a suspense about Nazi resistance during the second world war.
Beware of feelings, Father. They are the biggest liars in us. They make truth what we want it to be.
Where the Dark Streets Go
After her husband Harry died in 1993, Davis stopped writing novels but continued to produce short stories. The last one titled Emily was written when she was 91 for the 2009 Mystery Writers of America anthology to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. In 2013, the year before her death, Open Road Media reprinted twenty two of her novels including her most commercially successful novel A Gentle Murderer, first published in 1951 about the psychological disintegration of the young murderer of women. Davis died in 2014 aged 98.
Born in the same year as Custer made his last stand, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, first trained as a nurse then took up writing post marriage in 1903 at the age of twenty-seven, spurred by financial necessity. Her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908 and her second The Man in Lower Ten published the following year. These two pulp novels were very successful, and are the earliest works by an American author still in print purely for entertainment, (as opposed to being classics or literature), a testament to her storytelling capabilities.
…a man may shout the eternal virtues and be unheard forever, but if he babble nonsense in a wilderness it will travel around the world.”
The Red Lamp
A feminist, Rinehart created middle aged spinster Tish in 1910. Tish become the central protagonist in a serious of comic long short stories that ran over thirty years. The series was about the wild adventures of the protagonist and her friends, Aggie and Lizzie, who did all the things women were not supposed to at the time, like race cars, do stunt work, and hunt.
Rinehart’s work has much in common with hard boiled crime and scientific detection in style and subject, and she utilised realism to depict life and social issues of the time, such as class and gender. Her writing often combined murder, love, surrealism and humour, and she wrote a series of love stories dealing with nurses and hospital life, as well as several Broaway comedies. The most popular stage production, Seven Days, written with Avery Hopwood in 1909, was a farce based on Rinehart’s novella of the same name, and became a runaway hit.
…at last she drew on her gloves, straightened her hat, and went away with that odd self-possession which seems to characterize all the older women of the Crescent. Time takes its toll of them, death and tragedy come inevitably, but they face the world with quiet faces and unbroken dignity.
During the First World War Rinehart became a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post and after using her nurse training to earn Red Cross credentials was allowed to got to the front where she visited hospitals, toured “No Man’s Land,” and interviewed both the king of Belgium and the queen of England.
The biggest cliche in mystery writing, the Butler did it is often attributed to Rinehart’s novel The Door, published in 1930, in which the Butler turns out to be the villain, although the phrase itself does not appear in the text. An obliging mother, Rinehart wrote The Door in a hurry whilst recovering from an illness in hospital to help her sons fledgling publishing house. Rinehart was the near victim of a servant herself in 1947, when her chef tried to shoot and stab her in the library of her home. She was saved from injury by the brave intervention of her butler and some other servants. So apparently, it was the chef who did it in the library after all.
People that trust themselves a dozen miles from the city, in strange houses, with servants they don’t know, needn’t be surprised if they wake up some morning and find their throats cut.
The Circular Staircase
Her last book, The Confession, was published the year after her death in 1959. At the time, her books had sold more than 10 million copies, which is partly why she is often compared to Agatha Christie.
New Zealand born Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) has ancestry that traces back to the twelfth-century de Marisco family of pirate lords operating from Lundy Isle (at the entrance to the Bristol Channel). This might be where she inherited her Amazonian appearance from. It is said she was a charismatic woman with a deep powerful voice, a powerhouse, domineering and determined, characteristics she no doubt needed as a single woman to make it in a mans world.
Marsh was the only child of unconventional parents, raised on a diet of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Her governess Miss Ffitch would often read her The Tragedy of King Lear, so little wonder she grew up to be one of the original queens of crime and well as a theatre director.
She painted, wrote and acted all through school but her writing career took off after she sailed to the UK in 1928 and started to carve out a name as a crime fiction author alongside other greats such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Ellingham. Marsh’s first novel A Man Lay Dead, written in the depths of the Depression, introduced Roderick Alleyn, a tall, cultured, detached, thorough Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. An objective man with a poor memory which meant he kept a small note book of important facts on hand constantly.
Marsh went on to write thirty two crime detective novels mostly set in English theatres and country houses, plus four in New Zealand, thirty-two with the Alleyn character. More popular than Agatha Christie at the peak of her career, one million copies of ten of her titles were released by Penguin and Collins on the same day in 1949, all of which sold.
When Marsh returned to New Zealand to care for ailing parents the second world war broke out. During the war period she volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver ferrying repatriated soldiers around for Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital, and continued to write novels, producing four book during the war period (Death of a Peer, Death and the Dancing Footman, Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool).
A woman with energy and an appetite for productivity she also began an association with the Canterbury University College Drama Society during this time which enabled her to invigorate her love of Shakespeare. The association resulted in more than twenty full-scale Shakespearean productions, from her 1943 modern-dress Hamlet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (starring Sam Neil) in 1969. Marsh’s last theatrical effort was to write and produce a one-man show in 1976 on the Bard of Avon, Sweet Mr Shakespeare.
Marsh never married or had children and was fiercely protective of her private life. She enjoyed the close companionship of women including her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox, and a coterie of handsome gay boys, but denied being a lesbian. She was generous with her knowledge and skills and nurtured many young writers and actors, splitting her time between New Zealand and the UK.
Marsh’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew was published in 1965 to no great acclaim, then in June 1966 she became Dame Ngaio Marsh (Civil Division) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 1978 four of her novels were adapted for New Zealand television, and she received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America. She just just managed to complete her final work, Light Thickens, a mere six weeks before her death from a cerebral haemorrhage and eight weeks before her eighty-seventh birthday. She died in her own home, which was subsequently turned into a museum.
Marsh’s elegant writing style and well crafted characters set in credible settings was said to have helped raise the whodunit detective novel to the level of a respectable literary genre. Harper Collins published a biography of Ngaio Marsh by Joanne Drayton in 2008 (Ngaio Marsh – her life in crime) which is said to have bought Marsh to life removing her from the cardboard cutout of respectability and decorum she presented publicly to the world to reveal a more textured and fascinating story of a woman with ambiguous sexuality who revealed in the abandon of the Bohemian Riviera and enjoyed her place at the table of the English in-set.