Friday, July 27, 2018

The Americans: C's (2 of 4)

As promised, an entire post dedicated to 10 more American women who wrote mystery or suspense novels. In fact, there are several here who, while not necessarily household names, were quite successful and prolific. And this genre is always good for some wonderful (and occasionally wondrously bad) cover art.

You know how I love authors with some sort of relationship with one another, and URSULA CURTISS is not only closely related to two other authors which will appear further down my list, but as it happens all three were mystery/suspense writers. Curtiss is the daughter of Helen Reilly and the sister of Mary McMullen, and she published nearly two dozen novels which, according to the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, "successfully blended elements of the gothic and the detective genres into popular suspense stories. She was a master at creating intriguing chapter endings and swiftly paced plots, and the portraits of even relatively minor characters … are sharply and memorably drawn." Her titles include Voice Out of Darkness (1948), The Noonday Devil (1951, aka Catch a Killer), The Iron Cobweb (1954), The Stairway (1957), So Dies the Dreamer (1960), The Forbidden Garden (1962, aka Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?), filmed as What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? in 1969, Don't Open the Door (1968), The Birthday Gift (1975, aka Dig a Little Deeper), and Death of a Crow (1983).

Also prolific, and going on my TBR list, is FRANCES CRANE, who published around 30 novels, all mysteries except the first and all but four of the remaining in her hugely popular Pat and Jean Abbott series, about a husband and wife team. The Abbotts are based in Santa Maria, New Mexico, a thinly-veiled version of Taos, though the duo frequently travel throughout the U.S. and internationally. Crane's first book, The Tennessee Poppy (1932), was described by Rue Morgue Press as a collection of her sketches from The New Yorker, though the Bookman sums up the plot as "A little Southern dumbbell sets out to marry into the English aristocracy." 

Following her divorce, and after being expelled from Nazi Germany for a series of anti-Nazi articles, she turned to mystery writing with The Turquoise Shop (1941). Her Abbott series was popular enough to inspire a radio show, Abbott Mysteries, which ran 1945-1947. Other titles in the series (all but the last of which feature colors in their titles) include The Yellow Violet (1942), The Pink Umbrella (1943), The Shocking Pink Hat (1946), The Flying Red Horse (1950), Murder in Bright Red (1953), Horror on the Ruby X (1956), The Man in Gray (1958, aka The Gray Stranger), and Body Beneath a Mandarin Tree (1965). That last title and her four non-series books were published only in the U.K.

More of a psychological suspense author than a straightforward mystery writer, VERA CASPARY is particularly well known for Laura (1943), upon which the classic 1944 film was based. Her first four novels—The White Girl (1929), Ladies and Gents (1929), Music in the Street (1930), and Thicker Than Water (1932)—were mainstream novels which garnered comparisons to the work of Fannie Hurst. But with Laura she found her niche. Other successful suspense novels were Bedelia (1945, filmed in 1946), The Murder in the Stork Club (1946, aka The Lady in Mink), Stranger Than Truth (1946), The Weeping and the Laughter (1950, aka The Death Wish), Thelma (1952), False Face (1954), The Husband (1957), Evvie (1960), A Chosen Sparrow (1964), and The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966). 

Some of her late novels shift gears a bit. The Rosecrest Cell (1967) deals with American communists in Connecticut before and during World War II. One paperback publisher described The Dreamers (1975) as a "sweeping saga of women's fantasies and dark passions." And Elizabeth X (1978, aka The Secret of Elizabeth) is about a married couple trying to help a young woman with amnesia. Caspary's memoir was The Secrets of Grown-Ups (1979). She also wrote or co-wrote several plays and an array of screenplays, including Easy Living (1937), Claudia and David (1946), based on the novel by Rose Franken, A Letter to Three Wives (1949), and I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951). Most of Caspary's novels are actually in print!

A very young Harriet(te) Campbell, circa 1900

Then there's HARRIETTE R. CAMPBELL (actually born Harriet, but she must have liked the flair of the extra "te"). Campbell's first published work was a novel, Is It Enough?: A Romance of Musical Life (1913). After World War I, she published several children's titles, including The Little Great Lady (1925), Patsy's Brother (1926), included in Sims & Clare's list of school stories, The Mystery of Saint's Island (1927), The New Curiosity Shop (1929), Red Coats and Blue: A Story of a British Girl in the American Revolution (1930), and The Piper's Lad (1931), as well as 1934's A Royal Cinderella, a retelling for children of Margaret Irwin's novel Royal Flush. Thereafter she turned to writing mysteries, publishing eight of them in all, which have been reprinted in e-book and print-on-demand paperback in recent years. Those titles are The String Glove Mystery (1936), The Porcelain Fish Mystery (1937), The Moor Fires Mystery (1938), Three Names for Murder (1940), Murder Set to Music (1941), Magic Makes Murder (1943), Crime in Crystal (1946, reviewed here), and Three Lost Ladies (1949). Some sources have her born c1883, but she appears on the 1880 U.S. census, so I believe the 1879 date given in some Ancestry family trees is correct.

As with several other authors on this list, ALICE CAMPBELL might be looked for on my British list, as many of her works are set in England. But she was in fact born and raised in the U.S., but moved to Paris in 1910 and then, with her husband, to England where she remained for the rest of her life. She was the author of 20 volumes of crime fiction and apparently a single earlier romantic novel, The Rugmaker's Daughter (1916). Her crime novels include Juggernaut (1928), Spiderweb (1930, aka Murder in Paris), Desire to Kill (1934), Keep Away from Water (1935), A Door Closed Softly (1939), No Murder of Mine (1941), Ringed with Fire (1943), set during the Blitz, The Cockroach Sings (1946), and The Corpse Had Red Hair (1950). Several sources mention that she used the pseudonym Martin Ingram, but I haven't been able to locate any titles published under that name. Perhaps only periodical fiction?

MARY COLLINS was the author of six mysteries set in California, where she spent most of her life. If the books themselves are as enticing as the cover art I found, they are certainly promising. Titles are The Fog Comes (1941), Only the Good (1942), Dead Center (1942), Sister of Cain (1943), Death Warmed Over (1947), and Dog Eat Dog (1949).

Only two of NELLISE CHILD's four novels were mysteries—the first two, Murder Comes Home (1933) and The Diamond Ransom Murders (1935). The latter two—Wolf on the Fold (1941) and …If I Come Home (1943)—are more serious and, judging from reviews, tend toward melodrama. A French Wikipedia page for Child also credits her with five plays—Weep for the Virgins (1935), After the Gleaners (1938), Sister Oakes (1940), Bird of Time (1959), and The Happy Ending (1960)—but I haven't been able to confirm. She clearly seems to have been born Lillian Lieberman, but some records do show her first name as Nellise (as does her New York Times obituary), so perhaps it's a middle or family name? You can read some interesting tidbits from her press coverage coverage here.

MARJORIE CARLETON is best known for her later suspense novels, which garnered critical praise, including Cry Wolf (1945, aka The Demarest Inheritance), The Swan Sang Once (1947), The Bride Regrets (1950), Vanished (1955), The Night of the Good Children (1957, aka One Night of Terror), and Dread the Sunset (1962, aka Shadows on the Hill). Her three earlier novels may have been lighter in tone. I've found no details of her debut, Their Dusty Hands (1924), but according to Saturday Review, her second, The Swinging Goddess (1926), is about a trapeze artist trying to achieve respectability: "It is all very simple, lively, and not the least bit real, but spiritedly written and generously supplied with conventional theatricals." Lorinda (1939) appears to be a romantic novel set on the Titanic, though details are sparse.

And the last two authors on this list both saw film adaptations of their novels featuring glamorous stars (though neither of the films seem to be exactly immortal classics). MARGARET CARPENTER published only a single novel, a successful thriller called Experiment Perilous (1943), made into a film of the same name starring Hedy Lamarr in 1944.

CLARISSA FAIRCHILD CUSHMAN was the author of nine novels, many of them serialized in major American magazines. This Side of Regret (1937) is about a married designer who falls for an army officer. The Other Brother (1939) is a college story (Cushman's husband was a professor at Cornell) which the Ithaca Journal called "heartwarming". All the more surprising, perhaps, that her next novel was I Wanted to Murder (1940), a well received mystery. It was Cushman's next novel, Young Widow (1942), which was turned into a film of the same name in 1946, starring no less bodacious a figure than Jane Russell's. Cushman's other novels were The New Poor (1927), But for Her Garden (1935), Bright Hill (1936), Glass Barracks (1950), and Fatal Step (1953).

And that's that for this post. Some real potential here for mystery fans, I think. And next time, I have nine children's authors (including one of the biggest-selling American authors of all time—I bet some of you will know immediately who that is) and, rather randomly, two pairs of intriguing fiction-writing sisters.


  1. The "occasionally wondrously bad cover art" is also so wonderful in its own (occasionally cheesey and tasteless) way, though, Scott! Love it!
    Speaking of cover art, the only author herein I know is Vera Caspary, and I HVE one of those Bedelias - the one with the lilac and pink cover art.
    I know it's not actually cover art, but NATURALLY, Jane Russell in"The Young Widow," - well now - THAT is art! HA!
    Love these columns, Scott! I may have to get Bedelia down and reread it.

    1. Thanks, Tom. Just as well your copy isn't the one referring to the "wickedest woman who ever loved". How scandalous!

  2. I'm assuming you'll have a writer who is still alive, then?

    1. I think you've guessed correctly, Rich. One of the few living authors on either of my lists!

  3. Oh gosh, Scott, there was a flashback for me. As soon as I saw the title The Night of the Good Children, I saw a different cover picture in my mind: a young woman running from peril with a child in her arms; a different title, and the information, "originally published as The Night of the Good Children. I also recalled thinking I wouldn't have bought the book (likely from Scholastic Book Club, or TAB, when I was perhaps 12) if it had been sold under its original title, very sophisticated and grown-up sounding.

    Well, there you go.... all that memory was confirmed as soon as I scrolled down a bit. Yes! One Night of Terror!

    I don't recall the story at all, um, perhaps a babysitter trying to protect her charge?

    1. Glad I could provide your flashback, Susan. It's funny how memories of childhood reading can be very hazy but then suddenly very vivid about certain details.


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