Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Illuminating Mystery Fiction’s Twilight Side

(Editor’s note: Tennessee scholar/book dealer Curtis Evans writes The Passing Tramp, an excellent blog about classic crime fiction. He is also the author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart, and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 [2012], Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing [2013], and The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G.D.H. and Margaret Cole [2015]. Evans’ latest book is Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall, about which he writes below.)

In her 1943 writing guide, Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique, editor and occasional mystery author Marie F. Rodell advised prospective crime writers during the height of the Second World War that the depiction of sexuality in crime fiction was a metaphorical minefield, a virtual Iwo Jima of infractions:
The morality of the average mystery fan is apparently pretty strait-laced. He will countenance murder, but not sexual transgressions … booksellers will tell you it is true. …

Sexual perversions, other than sadism, are definitely taboo. And sadism must be presented in its least sexual form. Homosexuality may be hinted at, but never used as an overt and important factor in the story. An author may, in other words, get away with describing a character in such fashion that the reader may conclude the character is homosexual, but he should not so label him. All the other perversions are absolutely beyond the pale.

Even references to normal sex relationships must be
carefully watched. Except in the “tough” school, unmarried heroines are expected to be virgins, and sympathetic wives to be faithful to their husbands. … Abortion is considered legitimate mystery material if it is handled carefully and, of course, condemned. Apparently it is regarded by the fans as closer to murder than to sex.
Rodell allowed that these taboos limited the “field of potential material for murder fiction,” but she reminded her audience of hopeful neophyte mystery-makers that their chosen line of writing was escapist literature and that shocks and controversies savoring of real life “are among the things the [mystery] reader is trying to escape from.” Rodell advised, no doubt bloodcurdlingly to many modern crime writers: “If you have a message, if you want to write fiction with a purpose, try some other form. Mystery fiction will not serve.”

Today Rodell’s book gives bemused readers of modern crime and mystery fiction—a genre in which, to borrow from Cole Porter, anything goes—a hint of the confining strictures under which crime writers once labored. It has become accepted everyday wisdom that in crime fiction published before Stonewall—the 1969 street demonstrations sparked by an early morning police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, an event recognized as an epochal turning point in the fight for LGBTQ rights—comparatively little was written about LGTBQ life and that what was written was uniformly disapproving.

Traditionally, pre-Stonewall LGBTQ history has been seen through the powerful negative image of the closet, that dark place where all “the gay” had to be hidden away from public view, confined to its own restricted world of twilight (to use a common code word in pre-Stonewall fiction for homosexuality). Scholar Michael Moon defines the closet as “a powerful social mechanism for regulating the open secret that same-sex desires and relationships existed, but did so largely invisibly and inaudibly.” Violating what he calls the “code of the closet” could bring about “exposure, public disgrace, social ostracism, criminal prosecution.”

Across much of the 20th century, writers of popular fiction such as crime novelists undeniably faced, whether they considered themselves queer or “normal,” pressure to hoe straight rows in their writing, adhering to accepted social standards of what was deemed proper for inclusion in literature of escape. Yet historians, having come to appreciate that the pre/post-Stonewall binary paints too limited a picture of pre-Stonewall queer life, have revised the confining construct of the closet, arguing that it falsely reflects, as scholar George Chauncey has put it, “the Whiggish notion that change is always ‘progressive’ and that gay history in particular consists of a steady movement toward freedom ... ”

During the period between the two world wars, for example, queer people became for a time much more publicly visible in the western world, both simply as themselves, at such popular urban venues as nightclubs and drag balls, and as creative constructions in films, plays, and the more daring mainstream fiction. (Chauncey has charted the course of this phenomenon in his 1995 book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, through documentation of the Prohibition-era “pansy craze.”)

Similarly, during service in the Second World War “large numbers of young gay men and women came to discover their sexual identity,” and not long after the conflict seemingly everyone was reading, or at least reading about, the landmark Kinsey Reports on human sexuality, with their deeply intriguing scale of sexual responses indicating that homosexual activity was much more widespread than had previously been suspected. In those years queer subject matter began appearing more frequently in fiction, both in the form of hardback books and in what had become ubiquitous paperbacks, the latter frequently decked out with provocatively sexualized covers. That movement toward greater sexual frankness in entertainment media became something of a pride parade by the mid- to late Sixties, as legal impediments to free speech fell.

* * *

This complex queer history is in fact reflected in crime fiction published prior to the Stonewall riots, a fact amply illustrated in a new essay collection which I had the honor of editing: Murder in the Closet: Essays on Queer Clues in Crime Fiction Before Stonewall (McFarland). Aggregately, the essays in Murder in the Closet lend support to the view that in crime and mystery fiction published before Stonewall, more queer things made it out from behind seemingly secured closet barriers onto printed pages than many people have been inclined to credit. Like the clever culprits in their books, mystery writers knew a thing or two about getting past locked doors.

In Murder in the Closet, 17 contributors—in 23 essays—explore queer aspects of crime fiction published over the course of eight decades, from the late Victorian era to the height of the Swinging Sixties. The study ends with early mysteries by American writers Joseph Hansen and George Baxt, whose telltale titles included Known Homosexual (1968) and A Queer Kind of Death (1966), both of which indicated that by the mid- to late Sixties the closet door was hanging precariously on its hinges.

“Locked Doors,” the first section of this book, covers authors who established themselves in detective fiction from the 1880s to the 1930s. Australian writer-academic Lucy Sussex, for instance, looks at the “The Queer Story of Fergus Hume,” an author made famous by his Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), though in fact he wrote scores of additional mysteries and other works, never replicating that initial great success. Sussex, who also composed Blockbuster!: Fergus Hume & the Mystery of a Hansom Cab (2015), highlights quite a few queer threads in the tapestry of that fictionist’s life and work.

In the book’s other essay concerning a pre-World War I wordsmith, “A Redemptive Masquerade,” John F. Norris examines a fascinating find from the hand of the muckraking American journalist and author Samuel Hopkins Adams (best known among mystery-fiction fans for his “rival of Sherlock Holmes” short-story collection, Average Jones): a rather queer novel indeed called The Secret of Lonesome Cove (1912).

The next group of essays gets into the Golden Age of Detective Fiction proper. A half-dozen pieces—by Noah Stewart, John Curran, Michael Moon, Brittain Bright, Jamie “J.C.” Bernthal, and Moira Redmond—queerly illuminate crime fiction by perennially popular British Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, and Josephine Tey. Following those are essays by Michael Moon and yours truly, which appraise a couple of trebly initialed male English mystery writers: C.H.B. Kitchin and G.D.H. Cole, the latter of whom appears prominently in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder (2015) and in my own The Spectrum of English Murder.

Then, in “Two Young Men Who Write As One,” I take the latest look at the British expatriate couple Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, who wrote some of the finest mid-20th-century American crime fiction, under the pseudonyms Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, and Jonathan Stagge. More and more has been trickling out about Webb and Wheeler over the last few years, as can be seen in an essay by Mauro Boncompagni in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene (2014), as well as in the introduction and afterword (written, respectively, by me and Joanna Gondris) to publisher Crippen & Landru’s Patrick Quentin short-story collection, The Puzzles of Peter Duluth (2016).

The final three essays in this section of Murder in the Closet are devoted to the vintage American mystery writers Todd Downing, Rufus King, Clifford Orr, and Mignon Eberhart. Downing was a part-Choctaw Oklahoman whose mystery fiction, once praised, had for a time fallen into neglect. However, his books have recently been rediscovered and reprinted (see numerous posts in my blog, along with my book Clues and Corpses), and they are the subject of “Queering the Investigation,” an essay by Charles Rzepka.

In “A Bad, Bad Past,” I retrace the queer college backgrounds of both Rufus King, one of the most important (and unjustly neglected) pre-war American crime writers, and Clifford Orr, who produced only two detective novels before becoming a columnist for The New Yorker; and I relate those backgrounds to their crime fiction.

In the last essay in section one, titled “Foppish, Effeminate, or ‘A Little Too Handsome,’” Rick Cypert recalls one of the most read U.S. mystery writers, Mignon G. Eberhart (dubbed, more on account of sales than real similarities, “America’'s Agatha Christie”). Specifically, Cypert analyzes how this very popular author—a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award winner—treated men and masculinity in her books, particularly those males who are just “a little too handsome.”

The second section of Murder in the Closet, titled “Skeleton Keys,” primarily covers writers from the post-World War II era. However, its opening two essays—James Doig’s on the outré Australian serial-killer novel Twisted Clay (1934), and Drewey Wayne Gunn’s on real-life, 1940s Canadian-American killer Wayne Lonergan and his murder scandal’s influence on crime fiction—focus on precursors to the more explicitly LGBTQ fiction of that period.

Tom Nolan’s “Claude Was Doing All Right” scrutinizes kinder and gentler but still hard-boiled detective fictionist Ross Macdonald’s evolving attitude toward homosexuality, both in his fiction and in his own life, while my “Elegant Stuff … Of Its Sort” details the provocative mid-century crime-fiction career of “Edgar Box,” aka Gore Vidal.

Going back across the pond to Great Britain, J.F. Norris’ “Adonis in Person” studies the crime fiction of gay man of letters Beverley Nichols, while Bruce Shaw’s “More Than Fiction” spotlights the life and writing career of iconic lesbian Nancy Spain. Finishing the collection are three essays—by Nick Jones, Josh Lanyon, and again, Norris—on the writers Patricia Highsmith, Joseph Hansen, and George Baxt, whose fiction reflected cultural changes as the world moved toward Stonewall. Mystery fiction certainly was not in Kansas anymore, if you will—though in truth it never really quite was, despite Marie F. Rodell’s admonishments.

I am very proud of Murder in the Closet and I think the essays it contains make a significant contribution to LGBTQ history, mystery genre history, and cultural history in general. I hope mystery-fiction fans will give it more than a passing glance.


Art Taylor said...

Terrific post here, Curtis (and hats off to The Rap Sheet, as always too). Sounds like a great collection! Looking forward to it.

Kristopher said...

Excellent post. This book is definitely going my list of books to read. Thanks for sharing this information with us.

The Passing Tramp said...

Thanks, Art and Kristopher. I do hope people look at the book, whether through sellers or libraries. I think there's a lot of fascinating information about the mystery genre in it, engagingly presented.