Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mysteriously yours

Being a mystery fan myself (and I know many of you are as well), it's always fun to come across new authors for my Overwhelming List who also belong on my Mystery List. With this most recent update, there were eleven authors who published one or more mysteries or thrillers.

Now, the majority of these are on the obscure side, as one would expect. But one in particular is a rather embarrassing oversight. I would venture to guess that not many of the authors who qualify for my list but have not yet been added were the authors of massive international bestsellers within my lifetime (and it was still all over bookstore shelves when I was old enough to be reading, no less), but perhaps I flatter myself. Because MARY MARGARET KAYE (better known to her legions of readers as M. M. Kaye) was practically a household name following her 1978 epic about the British Raj, The Far Pavilions, and still I had somehow forgotten to include her on my list until now. Oops!

M. M. Kaye

I can only guess that I assumed Kaye must be too young for my list since Pavilions appeared so far after my cutoff. But that will teach me to assume things, since she in fact began her publishing career in the late 1930s with a couple of children's books, followed by her first adult novel in 1940. She also qualifies for my Mystery List because of her 1950s series of mysteries set in various exotic locales where she and her husband were stationed. Predictably, following the success of The Far Pavilions, these mysteries were re-released in revised editions (presumably to update them so that readers would believe they were more recent writings?). As it happens, I just picked up one of these titles at our library's $1 book sale, so perhaps I'll be reporting on it here soon.

Also not terribly obscure—at least in one sense of the word, since mystery fans are likely to have heard of her and perhaps even have read her novels—is CLARA BENSON. I had actually heard of Benson a while back, but initially hesitated to add her to my list. Her official story, as presented by her publishers, is that Benson wrote numerous mysteries in the first half of the century, most featuring Angela Marchmont as their detective, but never attempted to publish them. They began to be released as ebooks in 2013, beginning with The Murder at Sissingham Hall

There remains a bit of mystery, however. First, some readers believe the books contain anachronisms or stylistic anomalies for books written in the 1930s or thereabouts. I haven't read any of them yet, but Jerri Chase, a reader of this blog, reported to me that she found them entirely plausible and consistent with other works from the time, which is good enough for me (thanks for your input, Jerri!). More puzzling, however, researcher John Herrington has been able to find no trace of Benson in official records—at least using the birth and death dates released by her publishers. There could be explanations for this, of course. Perhaps the name Clara Benson is a pseudonym and her family (or whoever the copyright holder might be) wishes her true identity to remain a secret? Regardless, since I am unable to prove or disprove the information released by the books' publishers, I figured it was time to add her to the list, even if there's a bit of an implied question mark next to her name.

And although Welsh writer MENNA GALLIE is scarcely a household name, she too is at least in print from Honno Press, a small press specializing in Welsh literature (I don't know how I had neglected to add a link to Honno in the right column, but I've rectified that now). She is also not primarily known as a mystery writer, but her debut, Strike for a Kingdom (1959), is described as a poetic detective story set in a small Welsh town during the 1926 miners' strike. Honno has also reprinted most of Gallie's other novels—has anyone read any of her work?

Menna Gallie

The other eight new mystery writers are all distinctly more obscure, though MARGARET TURNBULL, at least, was apparently well-known in the show business world. Born in Scotland but emigrating to the U.S. in youth, Turnball was a successful screenwriter in both Hollywood and London, which formed the backdrop of some of her fiction. It's unclear whether any of her other titles might be crime-related, but The Coast Road Murder (1934) certainly is; it was described by Kirkus as follows: "American so-called society with a girl reporter acting detective. The setting is a roadhouse where a week end house party is disporting itself." Hmmmm.

Kathleen Hewitt

KATHLEEN HEWITT may also have been a success in her day, racking up as she did nearly two dozen novels from the 1930s to the 1950s. But it took a comment from Grant Hurlock about Hewitt's World War II-related novels to bring her to my radar. Grant was particularly interested in her 1943 novel Plenty Under the Table, which deals with the black market, but also mentioned two other titles. Lady Gone Astray (1941) is about a young heiress with amnesia up against unscrupulous refugees, and The Mice Are Not Amused (1942) deals with a legal secretary who takes a job as doorman at a block of flats infested with Fifth Columnists. Of Hewitt's other works, presumably at least Murder in the Ballroom (1948) is also a mystery or thriller. (Thanks to Grant for mentioning Hewitt and providing information about her books!)

Scottish author KATHERINE JOHN only qualifies for both of my lists by the smallest possible margin, co-writing only a single title—1933's Death by Request (1933)—with her husband Romilly John. She was also a book reviewer for the Illustrated London News and a translator of numerous books from Scandinavian languages into English. Sadly, I recently made an unsuccessful attempt at reading Death by Request, but I don't begrudge her a spot in my lists.

I don't know very much about MOLLY THYNNE's work, but one of her most horrifyingly intriguing titles, Murder in the Dentist's Chair (1932), is available from the HathiTrust in the U.S., so I have no excuse (except too little time and way too many books) for not giving it a try. She wrote a total of six novels, all in a six year period, and then fell silent. Is she a great lost puzzler? Probably not, but then again, you never know!

And what about the remaining four authors I've added to my Mystery List? I've been able to find very little about any of them online, but one or more of them could be a treasure for all I know. Perhaps PAMELA FRY, who emigrated to Canada when she was 12 and later published two mysteries, Harsh Evidence (1953) and The Watching Cat (1960), as well as, rather oddly, a cookbook called Cooking the American Way (1963)?

Or could the treasure be LORNA NICHOLL MORGAN? We haven't been able to identify her beyond the fact that she published four mystery novels in the 1940s—Murder in Devils' Hollow (1944), Talking of Murder (1945, briefly discussed here), The Death Box (1946), and Another Little Murder (1947).

Maybe MILDRED RICHINGS is a lost great? She published three novels under the pseudonym John Knipe which sound like they could be thrillers—The Watch-Dog of the Crown (1920), The Hour Before the Dawn (1921), and Whited Sepulchres (1924). Or are they historical dramas instead? Too little information is available for me to be sure, but she definitely wrote one later historical novel under her own name, Men Loved Darkness (1935), as well as a well-regarded history, Espionage: The Story of the Secret Service of the English Crown (1934).

And finally, KATHLEEN GROOM certainly seems to have written at least a couple of mysteries and/or thrillers—at least, I assume Detective Sylvia Shale falls into the category, and probable The Folly of Fear and a few others. But I suspect there may still be a bit of mystery about Groom herself. The dozen or so novels I've found for her were written under four pseudonyms, but there are some intriguing gaps in her writing career. Her final novel as "Kit Dealtry" appeared in 1909, her first as "C. Groom" only appeared in 1918. And a similar gap lies between her last title as "Mrs. Sydney Groom" in 1924 and her first as Kathleen Groom in 1947. With an author as fond of varying her nom-de-plume as Groom obviously was, I can't help but wonder if there are additional titles under as-yet-undiscovered pseudonyms which might properly flesh out her body of work. Will we ever know what they are? Well, you know I'll keep poking around just in case!

What do you think? Are there any new mystery authors here that you simply must sample for yourself?


  1. Thanks for the confidence, Scott! I do see why some readers distrust the Clara Benson dates, but I stand by my feelings. One major example, the nuclear issue, I have seen atomic related secret spy plots in books from the 1930's. I have come to like the characters and the plot arc. I wish we could know more about Clara and her background.


    1. It's a bit odd that Benson can't be located in the official records, but that might be just a pseudonym issue, and doesn't mean that the real person, whatever her name was, wasn't exactly as described by the publishers. Just enough uncertainty to feed the speculation, however. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, Jerri!

  2. I cannot resist reading your wonderful blog, Scott, even though it always ends with me buying books which I try hard not to do, at least until I get the ones in my house under control!

    1. Tell me about it, Kristi! I've been trying to weed out books that aren't favorites in order to clear bookshelf space, but yesterday at our $1 library book sale, I managed to accumulate nine new ones. Several may be giveaways or re-donations, but a few are not. It's quite hopeless!

  3. I owned Death By Request at one point - I don't think I do anymore (and that should tell you all you need to know about the state of books in this house from the fact that I don't *know* if I own a book or not!). Alas I can recall nothing about it apart from the fact that I had several of those lovely Hogarth reboot crime classics and they were pretty wonderful! :)

    1. I do love those Hogarth Crime books, Karen, and I've enjoyed almost all the others I've come across (including at least a few Gladys Mitchells), but I just didn't get on with this one. It's in my pile to be donated to the library book sale, however, so hopefully it will find a more appreciative owner.

      Re the state of your house: So, if I were to pay you a visit, you might not notice if a few books were missing when I left...? :-)


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