Friday, June 22, 2018

The Americans: B's (4 of 4)

Finishing up the B's this time around, with some mystery or suspense writers (for a forthcoming American mystery list?), a couple of scandalous women, some socially conscious authors, and a few odds and ends.

DOROTHY BENNETT seems to have had a quite popular name, as we identified no fewer than three other Dorothy Bennetts writing around the same time: a Dorothy Agnes Bennett, born Minneapolis, curator at the Hayden Planetarium and editor of Simon & Schuster's "Little Golden Books" for young children, a Dorothy Bennett née Barnes, a British crime novelist (who will be added to my British Women Writers list when I get around to a new update), and yet another Dorothy Bennett, born Indiana, who wrote several plays and then became a Hollywood screenwriter. But the woman in question here is one Dorothy Evelyn Bennett, who wrote one mystery novel in traditional form, Murder Unleashed (1935), set in San Francisco and now available in e-book, and a second that's definitely not in traditional form—How Strange a Thing (1935), in which the story is told entirely in verse. The Passing Tramp discussed the latter here.

EVELYN BERCKMAN was the author of more than two dozen novels, including straightforward mysteries, romantic suspense, historical fiction, and supernatural tales. Her earliest titles, including The Evil of Time (1954), The Beckoning Dream (1955, aka Worse Than Murder), The Strange Bedfellow (1956, aka Jewel of Death), and The Hovering Darkness (1958), were psychological thrillers. She was also a musician and composer. She spent her later years living in London.

Although contemporary reviews seem to have been lackluster, the three mysteries by MARJORIE BONIFACE have an intriguingly unusual setting and cast of characters. Murder as an Ornament (1940), Venom in Eden (1942), and Wings of Death (1946) all seem to feature Mabel Wickley, a Brooklyn widow transplanted to southern Texas, who keeps getting involved with murder and helping local Sheriff Odom solve the cases. One review says specifically that Venom in Eden takes place on the Mexican border, and I can't help but wonder how that border was portrayed during World War II as opposed to today. For whatever reason, Wings of Death (1946) appears to be available for downloading from

Back cover of Dell paperback featuring
map of the "scene of mystery"

KATHARINE NEWLIN BURT was not particularly well-known as a mystery writer, but at least one of her books, Lady in the Tower (1946) appears to be mystery or suspense, based on a paperback reprint. 

Burt was the author of more than two dozen novels in all, many apparently with Western settings and themes. Other titles include Penelope Intrudes (1912), Quest (1925), A Man's Own Country (1931), When Beggars Choose (1937), Fatal Gift (1941), Close Pursuit (1947), and Escape from Paradise (1952). After her final adult novel, Burt published three children's books.

ANITA BOUTELL was the author of four well-received crime novels. According to The Passing Tramp, the first, Death Brings a Storke (1938), is a traditional whodunnit set in an English village, while the three later novels—Tell Death to Wait (1938), Death Has a Past (1939), and Cradled in Fear (1943), are more psychological suspense. Boutell had relocated to England with her third husband, and apparently wrote most of her books there, before returning to the U.S. just before World War II. The Passing Tramp discussed her books, her sometimes dramatic life, and her extraordinarily bad luck with husbands here.

But the biggest name among the mystery writer B's, at least in her own time, is clearly ZENITH JONES BROWN, who published more than 60 mystery novels, most under her Leslie Ford and David Frome pseudonyms. Like Boutell, she began writing while living with her husband in England, and for the most part her Frome titles are set in the U.K., while her Ford titles are mainly set in the U.S., particularly in the Washington DC area or in Maryland where Brown lived for many years. Many of the Frome titles, beginning with The Hammersmith Murders (1930), feature series characters Mr Pinkerton and his friend, Inspector Bull of Scotland Yard. Other titles in the series include Two Against Scotland Yard (1931), The Eel Pie Murders (1933, aka Eel Pie Mystery), Mr Pinkerton Grows a Beard (1935, aka The Body in Bedford Square), Mr Pinkerton at the Old Angel (1939), and Homicide House (1950). 

Judging from this cover, it appears this one is about
the murder of an alien with a block of kryptonite?

Many of Brown's Ford titles feature series characters Colonel Primrose and Sergeant Buck, as well as widow Grace Latham. That series includes The Strangled Witness (1934), Ill Met By Moonlight (1937), Old Lover's Ghost (1940), The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941, aka A Capital Crime), All for the Love of a Lady (1944, aka Crack of Dawn), The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945), The Woman In Black (1947), and Washington Whispers Murder (1953, aka The Lying Jade). Under a third pseudonym, Brenda Conrad, Brown published a handful of romantic novels during WWII. Some of Brown's mysteries have been reprinted and/or released as e-books in recent years, though the Frome e-books available in the U.S. have an "editor" and contain notes to the effect that they have been "adapted to the American reader"—a rather odd thing when the author herself was American. Some concerns have been expressed in recent years about Brown's portrayals of African-American characters; perhaps these edits are an attempt to adapt or censor such content? I have to give special thanks to Linda Lyons for sharing her wealth of knowledge and research about Brown.

Of the two scandalous women included in this post, one of them gains an entry on my Grownup School Story list (or will when I get round to updating it). CARMAN BARNES was most famous for her debut novel, the scandalous international bestseller Schoolgirl (1929), which was set in a girls' boarding school and included themes of lesbianism and sexual experimentation. Barnes, who was only sixteen and in boarding school herself when the book appeared, was summarily expelled. She revisited that book's main character in her later novel Young Woman (1934). Her others are Beau Lover (1930), Mother, Be Careful! (1932), and Time Lay Asleep (1946). There's an interesting article about her life and work here.

Natalie Barney

More famous than Barnes (though not necessarily for her writing) was NATALIE CLIFFORD BARNEY. Although born in Ohio, Barney spent her adult life in Paris. Apart from one novel, The One Who Is Legion (1930), most of her work was published in French, and much of it has only been translated late in the 20th century, most notably in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney (1992). In her own lifetime, she was far more influential as a hostess, maintaining a famous salon in her Paris home for more than half a century. Guests over the years included the likes of André Gide, Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Sitwell, Rainer Maria Rilke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan, Peggy Guggenheim, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Truman Capote. Her final salon was reportedly held in the midst of the student riots of May 1968. She was the companion of painter Romaine Brooks for nearly half a century, although she also had other lovers (including Dolly Wilde, Oscar's flamboyant and tormented niece). Barney and her well-known lesbian circle were portrayed humorously but affectionately in Ladies Almanack, a short, anonymously published satire by Djuna Barnes, whom I mentioned in an earlier B's post.

Several of my B's were concerned in various ways with social and political issues, and used their fiction as a platform from which to discuss them. MARGARET CULKIN BANNING's 30+ novels were "problem" stories exploring themes like women's rights, religious conflict, parenting, birth control, and domestic economy (her 1955 novel The Dowry deals with a wife making more money than her husband). Despite usually featuring a central social issue, critics noted that her novels were highly readable—of her debut, This Marrying, a reviewer said: "The success of the story lies not in an original plot, nor even in an unusual manner of telling the story, but rather in a certain freshness and joy in the experience of it all." Other titles include Country Club People (1923), Money of Her Own (1928), The Iron Will (1935), The Clever Sister (1947), Echo Answers (1960), and Such Interesting People (1979). She also published a wartime memoir, Letters from England, Summer 1942 (1942).

BETSEY A. BARTON channeled her own personal obstacles into her fiction. Badly disabled in an auto accident at age 16, she first published a memoir of her long and painful rehabilitation, And Now to Live Again (1944), in part to inspire those injured in WWII. She then wrote a novel, The Long Walk (1948), detailing one day in a the life of a Veterans' Hospital for soldiers with spinal injuries. Her second and final novel, Shadow of the Bridge (1950), is set in a girls' boarding-school and focuses on a senior with deep resentments about her childhood. Saturday Review called it "a long, tortured groping through a psychological labyrinth," but also noted that Barton "succeeds to a remarkable degree in capturing the bewilderment and anger of the girl who is a victim of her own bitterness." Barton returned to the memoir form for her final book, As Love Is Deep (1957), about the death of her mother from cancer.

Gwendolyn B. Bennett

GWENDOLYN B. BENNETT was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing a regular column in the African-American periodical Opportunity and beginning a support group for African-American writers that became a veritable who's who of major authors of the period. Sadly, however, her work was never collected in her lifetime and some of it has likely been lost. Her poems have sometimes appeared in anthologies, and she published at least two short stories in the 1920s, which allow her to just squeak onto this list. She was also an artist and illustrator.

And CATHARINE BRODY was a journalist and author of four novels—Babe Evanson (1928), West of Fifth (1930), Nobody Starves (1932), and Cash Item (1933). In the early 1930s, she wrote a series of articles based on her experiences working at various jobs in 20 different American cities, and Nobody Starves, a tragic story of Depression-era Detroit, grew out of her experiences at a Detroit automobile factory. According to her passport application, Brody was apparently born (as Borodovko) in Russia, though her family relocated to New York soon after. She was a friend of Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and was definitely still alive in 1960 when her mother's death notice appeared in the New York Times, but we have so far been unable to find a record of her death except for an Ancestry tree which gives 1962 with no supporting record.

And finally, two random Browns to finish out the B's, one of them rather prolific, the other distinctly not. ALICE BROWN was a playwright, poet, and author of more than 40 volumes of fiction, much of it set in rural or small town New England. She was particularly acclaimed for her short stories, of which she published nine collections beginning with Meadow-grass: Tales of New England Life (1895). Other titles include Stratford-by-the-Sea (1884), Mercy Warren (1896), The Story of Thyrza (1909), John Winterbourne's Family (1910), The Prisoner (1916), Old Crow (1922), The Mysteries of Ann (1925), The Diary of a Dryad (1932), and The Willoughbys (1935).

KAREN BROWN, by contrast, is the untraced author of only two novels—Shanghai Lady (1929), a novelization of a film of the same name, and The Girl from Woolworth's (1930), which apparently became one of the first movie musicals.

Among this batch of authors, Zenith Jones Brown and Carman Barnes seem to intrigue me the most. Are any striking your fancy?

I've actually just finished drafting the blurbs for the authors whose names begin with C, so those will be coming along soon. Now the search is on to find good cover art to show you…


  1. "Now," Scott writes, "the search is on to find good cover art tos how you..."
    You certainly will have to search hard to surpass this batch - LOVE the cover art!
    Don't know a single one of these ladies, but am so intrigued.

  2. I reviewed THE MAN FROM SCOTLAND YARD, by "David Frome", from 1932, at my blog a few years ago. I quite enjoyed it.

  3. For some reason, I thought this was the most exciting B post yet! I just wish there were more hours in the day, because my TBR list is simply insane.

  4. I have two books using the Leslie Ford name, but have never gotten around to reading them. Date with Death, 1949, if I am reading my Roman numerals correctly, and Murder in the OPM published in 1942. Not sure why I have never read them. No DJs? I should give them a try. The opening of Murder in the OPM is promising.


  5. Ah yes, those covers. Zowie!

    Especially....The Strange Bedfellow. I dunno. What's so strange about a gigantic head floating in the, uh, stairwell? Oversized casket? Open courtyard?

    Thanks again, Scott, for all your research.

  6. As a mature student reading English and Creative Writing at University I was overwhelmed with the diversity of women’s writing in the nineteen hundreds. So much so I have decided to write my dissertation on obscure women writers between 1930-50s.
    I shall enjoy using this location, and sourcing the books for my library.


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