Stacey Bishop, mystery writer & ‘Bad Boy of Music’

Stacey Bishop. Death in the Dark (Faber, London 1930)

A thriller by the New Jersey born composer George Antheil (1900-1959) under the pseudonym Stacey Bishop. Self proclaimed 'Bad Boy of Music', championed by Ezra Pound, composer of over 30 Hollywood film scores, including the much rated Dementia (1955) and practicing “endocrine criminologist” he also wrote this scarce detective novel published by Faber (under the auspices of T.S. Eliot) in 1930.

The story behind the writing of the book goes something like this: from 1927 to 1933 Antheil lived variously in Vienna, Tunis, and Cagnes-sur-Mer, writing opera and stage works for productions in Vienna and Frankfurt; in 1929 he was summering in Rapallo, Italy something of an ex-pat artists colony. That year T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats came through and also the German writers Gerhart Hauptmann and Franz Werfel. All of these writers are said to have had a hand in the work, with some final editing done by Eliot for the London Faber edition. Antheil had been surprised to see that off-duty these highbrow writers tended to read detective writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers. Antheil had an interest in criminology through theories he had developed about the thymus gland and endocrinology in crime detection. So serious was Antheil’s belief in endocrinology that it is said the Parisian police made him an honorary lifetime member.

Antheil assured the assembled authors that he could write a detective story as good as anything they were reading and Death in the Dark was the result. Theoretically it should be a C item in the bibliographies of Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Hauptmann and Werfel as they are all said to have helped with its writing. The book's hero Stephen Bayard was based on Pound. The plot and style of the book is said to be derived very obviously from S.S. Van Dine who created the languid detective Philo Vance. Despite the involvement of 2 Nobel Prize winners and il miglior fabbro himself the book is generally considered almost unreadable. Rapallo will always be associated with Max Beerbohm and it would good to think he also dropped by to add a whimsical chapter.

The book was issued without a jacket (possibly a glassine wrap may have existed) with very attractive pictorial boards - one of only two books issued in this way by Faber, the other being Bruce Hamilton's To Be Hanged - A Story of Murder, a rather scarce thriller dedicated to Patrick Hamilton, the author's brother. The British Museum have Antheil's book filed under these categories 'Private investigators — New York (State) — New York — Fiction -- Murder — Investigation — Fiction.' It has not been reprinted. The fascinating story around it more than outweighs its supposed unreadability and it may be a good investment, although a deep academic analysis of its genesis could affect prices -up or down. It has to be admitted some of the information about the book comes from Antheil himself and book-dealers whose enthusiasm may outweigh their scholarship. There is an Italian edition La morte nel buio (preface by Mauro Boncompagni – translation Giancarlo Carlotti – Shake Edizioni, Nnoir Sélavy , Milan 2009. The 1930 edition is rare and quite valuable.

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