Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Red Castle Women by Margaret Widdemer

The Red Castle Women (Doubleday, 1968) is the last book written by prolific novelist, children’s author, and poet Margaret Widdemer (1884-1978), who shared the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with Carl Sandburg in 1919. This gothic romance is set along the Hudson River north of New York City about 1840, where a small girl and her unconscious mother were discovered by the river ferryman, who took them both in. The ferryman gave Perdita Van Dorn her name and raised her as his adopted daughter near the Red Castle, a huge mansion where the Somerwell family lived. The Somerwells were known for their wealth and family misfortunes. The parents of the current residents, two cousins named Eugenia and Isobel, were killed when their yacht capsized in a sudden storm years ago. Eugenia and Isobel were raised by a distant cousin, who remains with them as one of their few living relatives.

The present Miss Somerwells are also known for their raging bad tempers. In a dramatic fit of anger Eugenia breaks her engagement to her cousin Mark, accusing him of an improper relationship with Perdita. Because of Eugenia’s threats against Perdita, Mark promptly offers to marry Perdita and she accepts, going from nameless foundling to a member of a wealthy and socially prominent New York family in a matter of minutes. This is the basis of a convoluted but briskly executed plot with kidnapping, human trafficking, attempted murder, bigamy, and criminal insanity. In addition, plot threads with the Underground Railroad, a family curse from an Oneida maiden, and a ghost or two ensure this story has a little something for everyone in less than 300 pages.

I read this book in high school and I was enthralled, both with the romance and the mystery. Apparently I looked for crime in my books even then. This one is undoubtedly a love story but has more violence and felonious activity than I remember in other gothic romances of the time. Re-reading it after so many years also gives me a completely different view of events and motives of the characters. For instance, when Mark offers to marry Perdita to protect her reputation, I originally thought it every woman’s dream come true. Who doesn’t want a Prince Charming to marry her in a whirlwind and then swoop her off to Tiffany’s to buy her diamonds? Now my more cynical reaction is that Mark jumped at the chance to avoid marrying an irascible virago and instead quickly married a more malleable girl barely out of her teens before the virago could change her mind. But that’s just me.

This story is a fine gothic romance, and it can easily pass for a cozy historical mystery that’s a little heavier on the love story than usual. A nice change from present-day thrillers and psychological suspense crime fiction.

 

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Foggy, Foggy Death by Richard and Frances Lockridge

Foggy, Foggy Death by Richard and Frances Lockridge (J. B. Lippincott, 1950) is the fourth book in the Inspector Heimrich police procedural series, which consists of 24 books released between 1947 and 1977. Heimrich is part of the New York State Police Criminal Investigation Division, and his bailiwick is Westchester County and its surroundings.

In this early entry some of the themes common to the series are evident. The Lockridges wrote about the friction between newcomers to the heretofore exclusive small towns and wealthy country enclaves outside New York City. The sweeping societal changes wrought by the nation’s participation in World War Two created opportunities for the middle class to buy property in areas previously inaccessible to them. The inevitable clashes of values and priorities, at least in the Lockridge books, often lead to murder.

In this particular title, instead of buying the house next door, the encroaching member of the middle class married into an established Westchester family, much to the dismay of the family matriarch. Scott Bromwell met Marta, a Nebraska native, while he was serving in the Army and married her on impulse. The entire family regrets his decision, as Marta has not adapted to the lifestyle or expectations of Scott’s imperious mother. The family is housebound in late January by a dense cold fog that has lasted for days and the unavoidable confinement exacerbates underlying tensions. Marta goes for a walk to escape and is found hours later facedown in a stream on the property.

This is a classic country house mystery with a limited set of suspects due to the weather conditions. Nearly all of the action takes place on the Bromwell estate and most of it within the house. While the homicide forensics team assesses the area around the stream as well as searches the house, Inspector Heimrich and Sgt. Forniss devote most of their time to interviewing the family, the staff, and some incidental visitors who turn out to have a greater involvement with the family than originally supposed. Because of this strict observance of the country house set-up, there is little action and a great deal of talk.

The books in this series seem generally timeless, probably because of the lack of references to technology or other elements that would place the book firmly in a chronological frame. It is one of the reasons this Lockridge series, rather than the Mr. and Mrs. North books, remains among my favorites.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Blackshirt Passes By by Roderic Jeffries

Blackshirt Passes By (Hutchinson, 1953) is the third Blackshirt adventure by Roderic Jeffries in the continuation of his father’s series. Blackshirt has had a long and unusually varied career. Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982) under the pen name Bruce Graeme created the character of Richard Verrell, a well-known author whose alter ego Blackshirt dresses completely in black and finds stealing exhilarating. This Blackshirt appeared in stories released between 1925 and 1947, mostly in the 1930s.

Using the name of David Graeme, supposedly Bruce Graeme’s cousin, Jeffries also wrote a series of books about Monsieur Blackshirt, Richard Verrell’s 17th-century French ancestor. They appeared in the 1930s, except for the last one which was released in 1963.

During World War II Jeffries wrote several short stories about the son of Richard Verrell, who used the name Lord Blackshirt. He imagined the son of Blackshirt living in a post-war England and carrying on the family legacy. These stories were also attributed to the authorship of Bruce Graeme.

Super Detective Library featured illustrated Blackshirt adventures during the 1950s.

Jeffries’s son Roderic Jeffries revived the Richard Verrell/Blackshirt character under the name Roderic Graeme, releasing 20 novels about the gentleman burglar between 1952 and 1969. In this particular outing, ruthless thieves target a figurine in a museum display of artifacts on loan from the Middle East. The horse-shaped figurine is made of gold and has a huge ruby for a saddle. Its value is incalculable. The local thug talent drafted for the actual theft are assured that no violence will be involved and consequently are stunned when the ring leader offhandedly shoots the guards who try to stop them.

Richard Verrell, Blackshirt’s alter ego, is walking down the street across from the museum, intent on an innocuous errand, when he sees the gang driving frantically away in his own car, which he housed in a nearby garage. The police question him closely as a witness to the get-away. When an international incident over the theft threatens, the Inspector in charge of the case, desperate to save his career and who knows about Verrell’s hobby of burglary, blackmails him into finding the figurine and identifying the culprits.

The ensuing adventure, full of creative characters and narrow escapes, reminded me of The Saint’s exploits, except that this one is more violent.

The book Literary Afterlife: The Posthumous Continuations of 325 Fictional Characters by Bernard A. Drew (McFarland & Company, 2010) and the invaluable website Stop, You’re Killing Me! (http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/) served as my resources for this review.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Curiosity Killed a Cat by Anne Rowe

Curiosity Killed a Cat (Morrow, 1941) is the third book by Anne Rowe and the first with Inspector Josiah Pettengill in Maine. Kay Wentworth moves with her widowed engineer father to Cliffport, Maine, where he will consult with the Federal government on the upgrade and expansion of what sounds to me like the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as World War II looms forebodingly on the horizon.

She had been keeping house for her father since her mother died and accompanying him was never in question but she had a particular interest in Cliffport. Five years earlier as an impulsive 18-year-old she secretly married Bruce Jollimar, whom she had just met and who abandoned her three weeks later. One of the few bits of information she had about her husband is that he was from Cliffport. Now in love with a more eligible man, she is anxious to find Bruce to end their marriage. She sees him on the street one evening and thinks he enters what is supposed to be an empty house. She later visits the house and finds the body of a visiting professor, bringing Inspector Josiah Pettengill into the story.

Steve Lewis reviewed Too Much Poison by Rowe for Friday’s Forgotten Books several years ago on his Mystery File blog. See his review here: http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=622. It also involves a secret marriage. Rowe must have had a particular unease about them, and the social mores from that time are absorbing. Kay was extremely concerned about the publicity surrounding a divorce, and solicited her aunt’s assistance in keeping the newspapers at bay while she plotted a quiet change to her marital status .

The mystery itself is well planned, I did not suspect the killer at all. What is more interesting is the social setting, with the inherited family servants who tell Kay and her father what they will and won’t do, and the society leader of the town, who never knocks on doors, she simply enters any house she pleases. The reclusive family member who turns out to be a world-famous designer of high-end clothing for women is particularly intriguing.

In his review Steve Lewis included this information about the author taken from Crime Fiction IV by Al Hubin:

ROWE, ANNE (Von Meibom) (1901?-1975?)

  • The Turn of a Wheel (n.) Macaulay 1930
  • Men Are Strange Lovers (n.) King 1935
  • Curiosity Killed a Cat (n.) Morrow 1941 [Insp. Josiah Pettengill; Maine]
  • The Little Dog Barked (n.) Morrow 1942 [Insp. Josiah Pettengill; Maine; Theatre]
  • Too Much Poison (n.) Mill 1944 [Insp. Barry; New York City, NY]
  • Fatal Purchase (n.) Mill 1945 [Maine]
  • The Painted Monster (n.) Gifford-UK 1945 [Insp. Josiah Pettengill]
  • Up to the Hilt (n.) Mill 1945 [Insp. Barry; Connecticut]
  • Deadly Intent (n.) Mill 1946 [Insp. Barry; New York City, NY]

When I included Anne Rowe’s original name in my search, I found entries in WorldCat, Alibris, and this entry in The General Fiction Magazine Index, http://www.philsp.com/homeville/GFI/z54.htm:

“Rowe, Anne (Von Meibom) (1882-1961)  Born in Germany; married Leon Randall Rowe; died in Alameda, California.”

Al Hubin’s list contains one more title than WorldCat does. The WorldCat entries for each title show few holdings, which suggests these books are hard to find.

The local library unearthed a contemporary review of this book. Here is the citation:

“CURIOSITY KILLED A CAT. By Anne Rowe. 282 pp. New York: William Harrow & Co. $2. New York Times (1923-Current file); Jun 1, 1941; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. BR13”

The reviewer states this is Rowe’s first mystery and hopes it is not her last.