Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with Curtis Evans about his essay Masters of the"Humdrum" Mystery.


The last year the publisher McFarland has published Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery by Curtis Evans, an essay who focuses on three masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (Crofts, Rhode, Connington). Certain authors, of the '20s-'30s, were called by Julian Symons in his essay about detective fiction "Bloody Murder", "humdrums." Basically Symons abhorred some authors whose many years before he had been a fan, for their insistence in dealing exhaustively detail the plot running out the puzzle and the detection, without regard to outline the characters psychologically or without to linger about the descriptions.
For the first time, an indipendent scholar tries to lift the heavy curtain lowered by Simons and outlines a rediscovery of some of these "humdrums writers", also speaking at length about the evolution of Detection Novel 1920-1961.
These three authors, in some ways, were masters of crime fiction, more than the '30s, the '20s. In particular Rhode, who despite being the author of the '30s, seems be more author of the twenties than he seems at first sight. In particular, his tendency to dwell on crimes committed with diabolical gadgets, a characteristic that takes us back in time, and that can also be explained by the fact that Rhode had been formerly a military.
Moreover, in his essay mentioned above, Simons was rather laconic in speaking about these authors (also included Walling, Wade and Cole), and only Croft had been sufficiently outlined.
Curt, in love with this historical period of Novel Detection, widely tries to clear the three principal authors of this hypothetical subgroup, speaking at length about their works. The essay analyzes but also the British Novel in its evolution.
In short, a sample of which it has been discussed not much, a sign of how the essay by Simons has influenced the criticism of the crime fiction sector, an essay who would deserve, for its rigor, for the profusion of details and for its quality of writing, much more attention.

1) Curt, can you tell us something about yourself? Title of study, work, family. Your passion, mystery: how did it start?

I received my Ph.D. in history back in 1998 and taught American history for a short time.  I’m now what they call an “independent scholar,” but I try to write in a way to reach both academics and the mystery fan community.  So often it seems like these two groups don’t really talk to each other.

My Ph.D. is in American history, with my chief interest the nineteenth-century American South.  But I always have been a great fan of mystery fiction, even since I read Agatha Christie and the Sherlock Holmes tales in grade school back in the 1970s.  I got my first Agatha Christie books off the paperback racks at Sanborns department store in Mexico City: And Then There Were None, Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy) and Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral).  They were 95 cent paperbacks, or 14 pesos (or about $1.12).  They were my introduction to the mystery genre, outside of the Scooby Doo cartoons!  A few years later I read Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which had just been published in paperback, and soon afterward all the Arthur Conan Doyle tales about Sherlock Holmes.  By the time I had finished high school in the 1980s, I probably had read two-thirds of the Agatha Christie mysteries.  Towards Zero was the last one I read in high school, I recall. 

In the 1990s, while I was in graduate school, I became acquainted with the works of other great British Golden Age detective novelists besides the renowned Crime Queens, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh.  These included the so-called “Humdums,” of course, but also John Dickson Carr, about whom my friend Doug Greene had written a fantastic biography, and Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, R. Austin Freeman, Henry Wade, Clifford Witting, Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand, Elizabeth Ferrars, etc.  I loved Carr, but I also was intrigued by the Humdrums, especially John Street, because Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor wrote so highly of him in that massive tome of theirs, A Catalogue of Crime.

With the rise of internet commerce, I was able to track down a great number of these English authors, doing buying and selling myself.  I felt uniquely placed to write about them in a serious way.  Academic criticism tends to focus almost exclusively, when it come to the Golden Age of mystery fiction, on the Crime Queens in England and hard-boiled writers in the United States. I combined book dealing with researching and after a number of years was able to produce Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, my study of Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington.  It was published last year.

Since 2000 I also have read much more American mystery: Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and less known writers like Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick, Fredric Brown, Helen McCloy and Rufus King.  People have this idea American mystery in the 1930s was all hard-boiled, which is so far from the truth.

2) You have a beautiful blog, Curt. I noticed that almost never talk about Hardboiled, but preferentially about Mystery. I wonder how you manage to set your articles: where are the sources and photographs, often absolutely unprecedented?

Thank you.  It’s fun to do a  blog and one naturally does take a certain pride in it.  My preference if for what is termed classical mystery though I in fact do like hard-boiled.  I like Hammett’s short stories especially and I think Chandler certainly is one of the very greatest crime genre stylists.  In a few of his books, he’s also an underrated puzzler.  Ross Macdonald is very interesting too, to mention the other member of the great triumvirate.  Macdonald’s The Ferguson Affair was one of the best books I read last year, as I wrote on the blog.  I hate this idea that classical mystery and hard-boiled are necessarily in opposition to each other.  It’s perfectly possible to like both!  Just ask Bill Pronzini.

I have accumulated a collection of mystery material: books articles, interviews, etc.  In my view primary research in this field is just as important as it is in the history of the American South, for example, and I approach the subject of mystery genre writing the same way I did my Ph.D. dissertation.  Too many academic studies, in my opinion, are too little interested in the facts on the ground.  I’m interested in theory too, but I have a passion for research in original sources.  Good research in primary source material should inform the theory. 

3) Before writing the book, did you write other book (yet published)?

My Ph.D. revised dissertation was published, in 2001.  It’s called The Conquest of Labor: Daniel Pratt and Southern Industrialization.  It won the Bennett H. Wall Award from the Southern Historical Association.  Unfortunately Masters of the Humdrum Mystery was passed over by the Mystery Writers of America, which was a great disappointment to me.  Of course Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes are hotter subjects, no doubt.  And it’s simply hard to break through a hardened mindset with new ideas.

4) You never wrote stories or novels or plays, with subject detective? Or did you write only critical works?


When I was writing my dissertation I kept thinking how it might make a great mystery.  Daniel Pratt founded the factory town of Prattville, Alabama back in the 1830s, and there was a family crisis when his daughter and heiress eloped during the Civil War with a young man named Henry DeBardeleben (he was later important in the development of Birmingham, Alabama).  I imagined this as the basis for, say, a book called The Cotton Mill Murder!  Sadly, I just don’t believe my creative ability runs to fiction writing.

5) Let's talk about your book. You have treated the “Humdrum Mystery”: tell us something about it?

It’s a study of three once popular but today unjustly neglected, in my opinion, British Golden Age detective novelists: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart (J. J. Connington).  Besides studying their work, I also go into great detail on British Golden Age mystery writing in general and the evolution of the view of the “puzzle mystery.”  For their sin of heavy emphasis on the puzzle and detection, Street, Crofts and Connington have been dubbed “Humdrums” in modern times.  The lofty crowd finds emphasis on the puzzle lowly, in contrast with the modern crime novel, with its admirable emphasis on psychology and realism; however plenty of intellectuals during the Golden age loved the pure puzzle mystery, as I show in Masters and other work.

6) I was struck by your division of the writers of the Golden Age into two main areas:The Crime Queen (Sayers, Christie, Allingham, Marsh) and The Humdrum Mystery (Wade, Connington, Crofts, Rhode). It is, as we see, divided at two areas  for sex: female first, the second male. Would you talk about?

The predominant view of British Golden Age mystery writing is that the genre was “feminized” in Britain.  Often the Crime Queens are the only authors people talk about in reference to British mystery writing from the period.  I argue this is an ahistorical view.  If one goes back to the years usually seen as comprising the Golden Age (roughly 1920-1940), the “Crime Queens” did not dominate the period as they are portrayed as having done.  Christie and Sayers certainly were at the very top of English mystery writing in the 1930s, but Allingham’s real rise was in the late 1930s and Marsh’s more in the 1940s.  The Crime Queens were not crowned overnight.

In fact, the 1920s was the great age of the Humdrum, so to speak.  Street, Crofts and Connington represent the scientific/technical school of British detection really founded by the great crime writer R. Austin Freeman early in the twentieth century.  For people impressed with the science in the Sherlock Holmes tales, they need to read Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke tales for the real thing. 

Austin Freeman and the Humdrums also have some very different detectives from what we see with the Crime Queens.  Crofts with his plain cop sleuths, especially his once famous Inspector French, and his emphasis on detailed investigation was very highly-regarded.  Connington had a policeman detective as well, of a distinctly unromantic sort.  How many time are we given the impression that all British Golden age detectives were these suave, quotation-spouting gentleman detectives?  Under his Miles Burton pseudonym, Street had one of these, Desmond Merrion, though drawn more mildly; but his most famous detective, Dr. Priestley, was a prickly, elderly scientist (originally a mathematician).  We are told Priestley was once married but it’s pretty hard to imagine his ever having had intimate physical contact with another human being!

The Crime Queens represent one strain of mystery fiction, a very significant one.  Christie of course is almost a category unto herself, with her sales that became so huge with the rise of the paperback market after World War Two, and her unique brilliance at puzzle construction and misdirection.  And the “novel of manners” style of Sayers, Allingham and Marsh is very important in the mystery genre.  But there was much more going on in the mystery genre in the 1920s and 1930s than many people seem to realize.

7) Another thing that struck me is that it is only formed by British authorsThere is a categorization also effective for American authors?As an alternative to hardboiled school, what would be the alternative to the two British groups (Humdrum Mystery and Crime Queens) in American crime fiction of the twenties?
 

Certainly.  The emphasis on Chandler and Hammett and the hard-boiled school has led writers to neglect really important American mystery writers like Rex Stout and Ellery Queen.  Those two writers are amazingly ignored by academia today.  And there were a tremendous number of additional interesting American writers of classical detective fiction who are extremely neglected today: Helen McCloy, for example, and Rufus King.  Some attention has been paid to the neo-gothic writing of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart, but there’s still much that needs to be redressed.

8) At The Humdrum Mystery, you've analyzed the work of three authors in particular: Connington, Rhode and Crofts. Why only these and no other authors of the '20s, such as Kitchin, Henry Holt, Berkeley?

Because they were a discrete school of writers and an important one, that I feel has been much maligned over the years for its emphasis on the puzzle and ratiocinative process.  I’ve written nearly 200 pages of wider survey that will deal with many more writers in a broader, if briefer, way.

9) In my opinion your essay could have had better luck and be chosen for the final five dell'Edgar. Perhaps, the only challenge that the reader can make is not having reserved equal attention to all three authors, but to have privileged Rhode than the other two. It 's just a matter of written works? Or you could have had better luck if you had chosen to write an essay about more famous writers?


I doubt that was the operative factor with the Edgars.  The two academic books nominated dealt with Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle.  I suspect looking at my book, the main question was, who the hell are these people he’s writing about?!!  It’s tough to get people to get past the same tried-and-true names.  It’s a long, detailed book (though I believe entertainingly and accessibly written) and people have to be open and willing to commit to it.

Incidentally, even though I think Masters is an important work of genre scholarship, I was unable to get a single English academic press even to read it, because they couldn’t get past the idea that these weren't famous authors.  One reason we get books almost exclusively about the Crime Queens, is that is what publishers will publish.  I feel fortunate I found a good publisher for the book--though it is an American one, McFarland, and currently my book about the British mystery genre is in only one library in the United Kingdom, in Scotland.

Street is my personal favorite of the three and he wrote over 140 mystery novels.  He’s probably the most prolific true detective novelist in the history of the genre.  He had two major pseudonyms.  Crofts and Connington together wrote less than half what Street did.  I just wrote what came naturally.  At some 150,000 words, the book seemed long enough to my publisher!

10) When you examine the work of an author who has written extensively, normally we tend to underestimate its consistency and quality, highlighting how much of its production is done by minor works. This judgment in a manner that can be applied to John Rhode (Miles Burton)?

 Street wrote more than he should have, no question, and many of his books in the 1950s even I find routine and dull.  But I find his books from around 1926 to 1945 to be quite consistently good.  I wanted to talk about them in depth, as many as I could, because there is a tendency for people to feel overwhelmed by such a prolific author.  They don’t know where to start.  The same problem occurs with the incredibly prolific (and underappreciated) mystery thriller writer Edgar Wallace. Some one needs to write a serious book on him!

11) I really enjoyed the respect you have for the readers of your book,because unlike other authors who, in dealing with the matter and analyzing certain securities,
 have talked extensively about the stories and revealed too much of the plot, when you talked about certain works, you always felt the need to warn the reader with "Spoiler"What do you think?

I’m afraid a lot of people who write about mystery writers don’t really care too much about the plots or the people who want to read them for entertainment.  I felt with writers like Street, Crofts and Connington, I had to talk a lot about plotting, not only to pay tribute to their skill with the mechanics--one of my most challenging pieces of writing was writing about the labyrinthine plot of John Rhode’s The Davidson Case in an intelligible way--but for what they tell us about the writers’ handling of such issues as those concerning class, race and gender.  But I’m a mystery fan too, and I didn’t want to ruin plots for the readers. 

Books by these three authors are very popular on the collectors market, sometimes selling for hundred of dollars.  I also have hope they eventually all will be reprinted.  Orion Books will have all the Conningtons reprinted in e-Book form this year.

12) In my opinion, the greatest mystery author was John Dickson Carr, not only for creativity but also for the quality of his descriptions and his atmosphere, for that is the innate ability to write novels and write well them.  In your opinion, which of the three writers you analyzed, had the greatest influence on Carr and for what reasons? One would think Rhode, since they wrote a book together. But..it's really so?

Street and Carr were great drinking buddies--Street loved pub settings in his books--and as Doug Greene briefly discussed in his John Dickson Carr biography and I show in Masters they had a close relationship in the 1930s, after Carr joined the Detection Club.  Street did write some locked room mysteries--one a locked house, for example, another a locked bathroom--but he’s a much plainer writer than Carr, both in writing style and milieu.  Street wrote a couple detective novels involving ghost stories, The Hanging Woman and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge, yet there’s never any attempt to make us believe the ghosts might be real or to really induce shudders.

Carr also believed very strongly in the idea of the detective novel as a game of wits between the reader and the writer.  This idea appeals very strongly to Carr’s fans.  I think Street was less concerned with fooling the reader to the end of the novel than with constructing an involved yet technically sound plot and criminal investigation.  Many of his plot are extremely ingenious and complex, like, say, Dorothy L. Sayers’ plot in her Have His Carcase, with which Street assisted Sayers, by the way. 

The same is true of Connington and Crofts, although Connington has more literary than Crofts and, on the whole, Street.  Carr highly praised the hedge maze murder setting of Connington’s Murder in the Maze, as did T. S. Eliot.

 
13) If one day you thought to take up this essay, which other writers you would analyze and why?

My sections on Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole were cut by my publisher because it was felt the manuscript was too long and because I argue that they aren’t truly Humdrums.  Henry Wade is one of the more literary Golden Age writers in my opinion, and the Coles really were more farceurs, who didn’t have the technical patience of the Humdrums.  Certainly I will be publishing these chapters separately as a short book.  I would also like to publish something on Rupert Croft-Cooke and his Leo Bruce mysteries.  Rufus King would be fun too, to mention an American.  I think he’s really very good.

14) You believe that Rufus King was or was not homosexual? Whether he was or not, I do not think is important in itself, because the value of the person goes beyond sex, age, race, religion, but as in his novels there are hints ambiguous, and you're an estimator of Rufus King's novels, you know that I am too, I would like to have your opinion.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that he was, given his books and background history.  And it definitely influenced his books in some ways.You know he was a pal of Cole Porter’s in the Yale Dramatic Society and was the go-to guy for women’s (drag) parts in the production of their stage musicals.I don’t believe there’s any indication he an intimate relationship with Cole Porter.  Also at that time on the Yale “Dramat” as it was called was Monty Woolley, the Oscar-nominated actor.  He was gay as well and a lifelong friend of King’s. 


15) A short time ago you published another essay about Todd Downing, a very little known author, whom I know very well. Tell us why you have so much interested to write a novel about his own figure?

Well, for one thing, I think that Downing’s Hugh Rennert detective novels, all published in the 1930s, are very good books.  Working with Coachwhip Publications and the heir to Todd’s literary estate, I was able to get all nine Downing’s detective novels--seven of which are Hugh Rennerts--reprinted and it seemed like it would be a good time to get out a book about Downing as well.  I was able to visit his home town of Atoka, Oklahoma, and work with his surviving correspondence, courtesy of Professor Charles Rzepka of Boston University, who owns the original copies.  Downing was a Choctaw Indian and University of Oklahoma Spanish  instructor who set his detective novels primarily in Mexico.  His mysteries are very well-written, with good fair play plots.  In the 1930s Downing also reviewed detective novels and these reviews are included in my book, Clues and Corpses, The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing, available through both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, as well as other internet outlets.

16) Before you leave, tell us if you're already working with some other wise?

I have been asked to edit a collection of essays in honor of Douglas Greene, the biographer of John Dickson Carr and  head of the short story publisher, Crippen & Landru.  This book will be out in 2014.  As indicated earlier, I also plan to publish a short book this year on the British mystery writers Henry Wade and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole.  Additionally, this year I expect to complete a manuscript on the Golden Age English fair play puzzle mystery, a broader study that will address a lot of issues of interest to me and I hope others.  I hope that will be out by 2015.  I view it as my “grand summation” on the mystery genre.


Thanks Curt of your availability.
I wish you luck and success in increasing your labors editorial ..
See you soon.

Pietro De Palma




10 comments:

  1. Fantastic interview - well done to Pietro and to Curt - thanks very much guys.

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  2. Does anyone know what the story is with the reprinting of Rhode's books? I notice lately that a few of them have come out on Kindle (which I think is an inadvisable way to collect) so I assume there must be some kind of activity going on with his estate's executors.

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  3. I don't believe the Kindle books have obtained legal permission from Street's literary agency, but perhaps I am wrong. The agency has already rebuffed two attempts from good quality small publishers to reprint the books in paperback. I have tried to persuade Orion Books to try to reprint the Streets, since they have done so with the Conningtons, but so far no action has been taken as far as I know.

    Glad you enjoyed the interview, Sergio! My thanks to Pietro as well.

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  4. In Italy, in fairly recent times, have been published unpublished novels by Rhode / Burton both from the publishing house Mondadori and from publishing house Polillo. I do not know if other countries, recently have been published novels by the author.

    Pietro.

    P.S.
    It was a pleasure to do the interview with you, Curt

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  5. Thank you for your response. In view of your contacts with Street's estate, perhaps a complaint to his heirs, and then from the heirs to the agency, might produce results. My paperback copy of The Claverton Affair references Harold Ober Associates of 40 East 49th Street New York as the rights holders, but that was back in 1986. Harold Ober seems to be some sort of literary agency. The people who are really being hurt here are the heirs. I don't think there is a lot of money here, but there is some money.

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  6. The heirs are the two children of a first cousin of Street's second wife (if you can follow that!). I have concluded they don't feel inclined to press the literary agency. I was told they get royalties on the Italian editions.

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  7. Thank you for your information. That is too bad. I note that someone on Amazon.com is peddling a copy of The Paddington Mystery for more than $800. I guess I am going to have to wait for the books to start coming out of copyright.

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  8. Let buy Street's novels in Italy!

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  9. I would do that if they were printed in English.

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  10. Evidently, requests for the publication of novels, come from Italy and don't come from other countries. :-(
    It is no coincidence that the Mystery is published mainly in Italy and Japan.
    For example, a few days ago was printed for the first time a famous Locked Room by Wynne.

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