Collected books that appeared a hundred years ago. No 1) The Red House Mystery by A.A.Milne

Jot 101 Red House MysteryMost readers know A. A. Milne as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger, but four years before these characters appeared Milne published his one true detective novel, The Red House Mystery (1922).

By 1922 the forty-year old had become best known as a playwright and writer of screenplays for the cinema, as well as being  a prolific contributor to Punch, where his gently humorous style gained him many fans. Thus the appearance of The Red House Mystery must have been welcomed by a growing number of his admirers as something of a novelty. Here was a comic writer trying his hand at a genre that was becoming increasingly popular in what later became known as ‘The Golden Age’ of crime fiction.

Milne’s debut proved immediately popular. The well known critic Alexander Woollcott even went so far as to call The Red House Mystery ‘one of the best mystery stories of all time.’ The action was set (where else?) in a country house party hosted by Mark Ablett and attended by a handful of minor characters. At some point Robert, Ablett’s black sheep of a brother, who was living in Australia, turns up and before long is found shot dead in the head. Another guest, Tony Gillingham, appoints himself a latter day Sherlock Holmes and with the help of his friend as Dr Watson, this pair of amateur sleuths get to work on what appears to be a very puzzling crime indeed.

Milne was a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge and so it comes as no great surprise that at the centre of the book is a logic puzzle, but Raymond Chandler, who twenty-two years later was to demolish the raison d’etre of the Red House Mystery in The Simple Art of Murder, had serious reservations regarding the credibility of the plot. To him the novel was:

‘ an agreeable book, light amusing in the Punch style, written with a deceptive smoothness that is not as easy as it looks . Yet however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be …’ Continue reading

Facts found in fiction


Can information found in fiction be trusted? By definition much of it is imaginary, but some of it can sound very convincing. However  most factoids are quickly proved or disproved online (but not so easily in the case of Le Carre, and with mixed results with Borges). Three examples from recent reading…


In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (in Ficciones, Grove Press 1962 page 19) he refers to a book that had appeared ‘in the library catalogues of Bernard Quaritch’  – A General History of Labyrinths by Silas Haslam. Quaritch is a real bookstore and is still trading, but the book is imaginary and cannot be found in any library (despite some wag’s  entry at GoodReads  with an Amazon ‘buy’ button.) However 6 pages later in a footnote Borges  writes – ‘Russell (The Analysis of Mind 1921 page 159) conjectures that our planet was created a few minutes ago, provided with a humanity which “remembers” an illusory past.’  A fairly typical Borges conceit? No, the book exists and the conjecture is indeed on page 159,  although as an idea, logically possible, it is swiftly dismissed by (Bertrand)  Russell*.


Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight (2012) is a ‘cosy’ detective novel featuring the real life crime fiction writer Josephine Tey (1896-1952) as a sleuth and sapphist. She is in 1930s Portmeirion solving a murder, while Alfred Hitchcock is casting a film. A couple of women friends, driving down to join her, stay at the Mytton and Mermaid hotel just outside Shrewsbury. Nicola Upson describes this as a half way house for people driving from London to Portmeirion (on the Welsh coast) then a full day’s journey. She states that it was bought for this purpose by Portmeirion’s architect and owner Clough Williams Ellis. TRUE! Clough actually bought it and  redesigned it in the early 1930s. It is still there on the banks of the  Severn – serving a good afternoon tea, according to tripadvisor.


In Le Carre’s Agent Running in the Field (2019) the aging spy  worries that he will be soon sent to the Retirement section ‘…who will offer me tantalizing openings in the arms industry, private contracting or other laying-out places for old spies such as The National Trust, the Automobile Association and private schools in search of assistant bursars…’ But can old spies just walk into jobs at the A A and the NT? Is that greying bursar at the exclusive boarding school an old spook who has handed in his Biretta? They have served their country and may deserve further employment; certainly after WW2 openings were made in many businesses for old soldiers, especially wounded ones, so it’s hard to hold up the LIE card confidently…

Portmeirion is now a 5 hour drive from London, without stopping and in good traffic. The Mytton and Mermaid  is just over half way and would still make a good stop off. It is  haunted by an eccentric  former owner ‘Mad’ Jack Mytton, or so they say.. Continue reading

Mary Fitt – life as a caravanserai

Found on the back of a 1946 green Penguin Death and the Pleasant Voices by Mary Fitt this self-penned portrait of herself. Mary Fitt (1897-1959) is fairly well covered online, both under her real name Kathleen Freeman, and her pseudonym – under which she wrote classic late golden age detective fiction. As Kathleen 9710253386Freeman she wrote many books on Ancient Greece, Socrates, the Sophists etc, She lived near Cardiff with a friend Lilian Clopet also a writer – Lilian survived her by 30 years. There is a good bibliography of both writers at the University of Toronto site.  The piece on the back of the Penguin is charming and informative:

Asked for a biography, Mary Fitt says:

‘It is, I think, the writer of fiction who is interest to the public, not the person of whom the writer is a part. Therefore I do not propose to give details of where I was born, where educated, and so forth. In my character as Author, I was born some years later than myself, in that part of the world which lies between classical Greece and Elizabethan England.

‘In the present, the Author and I have identical interests. We live in the country, in what a friend recently described as “your Italian-blue house”. It is not Italian, but it is blue – sky-blue*. Our hobbies are – our hobby is – people, their pleasant or queer or sinister possibilities; for we have noticed that Character really is Destiny.

‘Such a hobby involves travelling; so we travel, but not as Author: people see authors coming and they “talk script”; we like to see and hear them as they are off the set, because what they then say and do is new.

‘My interests range over time and space. My greatest regret is that one day I too shall have to pack up and leave this caravanserai, which is so mad, so bad, and so wonderful.’ 

*Lark’s Rise, a house in St. Mellons.

Exactly who wrote ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’?

Baskerville Addington Peace book cover
The title page of the 1902 first edition bears just one name—Arthur Conan Doyle. And if you believe Conan Doyle’s son Adrian and just about every Sherlockian you’ll ever meet, only one man wrote the famous detective story. But in a newspaper cutting from the Daily Express dated March 16 1959 in the Haining Archive, the journalist Peter Evans tells how he met an 88 year old man from Dartmoor who swears that another writer of detective stories, Bertram Fletcher Robinson (1870 – 1907), the author of The Chronicles of Addington Peace (1905) contributed some material to the book. That man was Harry Baskerville and he had worked as the coachman to Fletcher Robinson’s father.

According to most accounts, Fletcher Robinson’s only contribution was to tell his friend Conan Doyle about the West Country legend of a ghostly hound and to borrow the name of the family coachman for Sir Henry Baskerville. Indeed, the octogenarian even showed Evans the inscribed first edition of the book in which Fletcher Robinson acknowledges as much. But Baskerville claimed much more for his employer’s son:

‘Doyle didn’t write the story himself. A lot of the story was written by Fletcher Robinson. But he never got the credit he deserved. They wrote it together at Park Hill, over at Ippleden. I know, because I was there.

According to Baskerville, long before Conan Doyle arrived at Park Hill, Fletcher Robinson had confided:

“Harry, I’m going to write a story about the moor and I would like to use your name”.

Baskerville then continued:

“Shortly after his return from the Boer War, Bertie (Robinson) told me to meet Mr Doyle at the station. He said they were going to work on the story he had told me about. Continue reading

A train spotter writes…

Sherlock Holmes CushingWe all know about the nerds who post online corrections to errors or omissions in books, films, dramatisations and the like. Well back in 1987 , before the Internet made it all too easy, there were people like R. Lujer, who typed their complaints to—in this case—the publisher of Peter Haining’s The Television Sherlock Holmes. Haining, who was doubtless royally entertained by this particular letter, kept it in his Archive. Here it is in full.

Dear Mr Haining,

I received a copy of your book last Christmas and have thoroughly enjoyed dipping into it before embarking upon a more orthodox read, until I reached page 179 and “The Mystery of Watson’s Dog”. I remember the review by Nancy Banks Smith and thought at the time that she had resurrected a non-event. The real mystery is the TRAIN, not the dog.

Bulldogs experience, as a rule, shortish lives, the result of overweight front ends and convolutory respiratory passages. Trains, or more exactly steam locomotives, generally had working lives of 50 or more years. Even some of the G.W.R. “Bulldog” class of 1901, transformed into “Earls” in the 1930s, were still running in the 1960s. Surely Watson’s dog simply died an early, natural death; and he found it convenient or prudent (or both) not to secure a replacement.But what of the locomotive in “The Copper Beeches”? Continue reading

The creator of Perry Mason with two of his team of secretaries

Erle Stanley Gardner 001When Erle Stanley Gardner( 1889 – 1970), the famous American crime novelist, began contributing stories to pulp magazines in the twenties, he used his own two fingers to type. However, realising that self-imposed targets of 1,200, 000 words a year were unlikely to be achieved in this primitive way, he took on what eventually became a ‘ team ‘ of secretary/typists. In this press photo of 1943 from the El Mundo archive we see two of them, Jean Bethel and Henriette Trilling, on either side of the ( ) year old novelist. The two women seem to be performing different tasks. Bethel is possibly taking notes on plots and characters for the novel that her partner is typing out from Gardner’s dictation, for future novels or for the travel books that the prolific writer also published. Gardner’s secretaries also acted as temporary corpses—assuming positions on the floor for added verisimilitude.

Over the years Gardner must have become very attached to Jean Bethel in particular. In 1968, following the death of his first wife, he took his ‘ faithful secretary’, then aged 66, as his second. At his death in 1970, aged 80, Jean became his literary executor and twenty years later, at 88, she was still administering his estate, which included a huge archive. [R.R.]

The Herlock Sholmes Parodies, 1915 – 1940


The contribution of W.O.G. Lofts ( 1923 – 1997) to the history of boys’ fiction in the British periodical press is immense. ‘Bill’ Lofts, a mechanical engineer by training, but a fact-collector by inclination (why did he never enter BBC’s Mastermind ?), was also interested in detective stories. Sexton Blake and Sherlock Holmes were two creations on which his skills as an astonishingly assiduous researcher were exercised to great effect. Years spent among the riches of the British Museum Periodical Library at Colindale on projects which probably no-one else had either the energy or commitment to pursue produced what turned out to be invaluable guides to the more obscure purlieus of popular literature. One such study was The Adventures of Herlock Sholmes: a History and Bibliography, a pamphlet co-written in 1976 with the owner of the Dispatch Box Press, Jon Lellenberg, an expert in the history of Sherlock Holmes in parody and pastiche.

According to Lofts and Lellenberg, the story of the Herlock Sholmes parodies was also the story of their creator, Charles Hamilton (above)  the most prolific writer in the English language, who as the mainstay of Amalgamated Press, is estimated to have written around 72 million words in his whole career , the equivalent of a thousand full-length novels. Using the pen name ‘Peter Todd’, which was the name of a pupil at Greyfriars School, which Hamilton had dreamed up for The Magnet, Hamilton made Todd a contributor of Sherlock Holmes parodies to The Greyfriars Herald, the school’s own newspaper, which Amalgamated Press brought out as a separate publication.

Continue reading

Sherlock’s Watson — was he a bad doctor?

Found in The London Mystery Magazine of April/May 1951 this amusing Sherlockian poem casting doubt on Watson's medical credentials…The author 'Sagittarius' was a journalist named Olga Katzin* who wrote several humorous and satirical books, some in rhyme. A short life  is appended below. The London Mystery Magazine began in 1949 and went on into the mid 1950s. It gave its address as 221b Baker Street. Adrian Conan-Doyle (Arthur's son) 'not uncharacteristically' sued the magazine, but lost the case.

Illustrated by 'Figaro'


Holmes left one unsolved mystery,
The case of the strange M. D.;

Was he ever qualified?

Had he anything to hide?
And why was he always free?
Facts of his previous history
Researchers fail to trace,

But there’s something queer in his medical career,
For he never had a single case.

Nobody called Dr Watson
For medical advice;
If Sherlock in a hurry asked his company in Surrey,
Watson would be ready in a trice.
No one ever seemed to worry,
When he drove to Charing Cross,
Which strengthens the suspicion that as surgeon or physician
Watson was a total loss.

Continue reading

Jack Trevor Story / Sexton Blake

Two attractive British pulps from Jack Trevor Story. He wrote at least 20 Sexton Blakes -there are those who say he wasted his talent on them -having written the state of the nation novel Live Now Pay Later (1963) and also the story on which Alfred Hitchcock's black comedy The Trouble with Harry is based. The Nine O'Clock Shadow title from 1958 qualifies as a rock and roll novel and is quite early in the canon. The other novel belongs in the murder in the suburbs category and is set among the amateur dramatic community… The Jack Trevor Story website has much on this prolific writer and its main quotation from his works comes from a slightly later Sexton Blake Danger's Child (1961) --

There is a sadness which grows from the seeds of remembered happiness; there is a weariness which springs unrequested from the remembered fountains of youth; there is a nostalgia conjured from faraway places and gone people and moments which have long since ticked into the infinite fog.

Some curious changes in book titles

Found - an article by Ellery Queen -Some curious changes in book titles in the omnibus Carrousel for bibliophiles, a treasury of tales, narratives, songs, epigrams and sundry curious studies relating to a noble theme by William Targ (Duschnes, New York 1947.) The book is a late example of one of those bibiophilic tomes that were published in such numbers at the end of the 19th century (Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, Autolycus of the Book-Stalls, Shadows of the Old Booksellers, The Souls of Books, Book Song, Behind my Library Door, The Romance of Book Collecting etc., etc.,) and are now almost unknown. Queen's article is about changes of title of British editions of (mostly) detective fiction when published in America.

Thomas Burke. The Pleasantries of Old Quong (Constable 1931) became A Tea-Shop in Limehouse (Little Brown 1931)

W. W. Jacobs. Sea Urchins (Methuen 1899) became More Cargoes (Copp, Clark 1899)

R.Austin Freeman. Dr. Thorndyke's Casebook (Hodder 1923) became The Blue Scarab (Dodd, Mead 1924)

Continue reading

Pulp fiction art

This original artwork was one of three covers created for a number of 1940s pulp magazines published by a British company. The series was called the ‘Headline series’ because each story was built around a newspaper headline-- to be found sketchily depicted at the bottom left hand corner of each cover. The other two pieces of artwork were for Road to Nowhere and Road to Revenge—both stories by someone called Max Foster. There seem to have been at least 20 tales in this particular series.

In the ultimately futile three hundred year old debate that has raged regarding ‘high ‘ and ‘ low art’, such ‘ low’ art as these pulp fiction covers, is often derided for the poor quality of the  draughtsmanship, whereas the simple truth is that for pure draughtsmanship, as opposed to piercing originality or ‘ vision’, this art is often more impressive than that of many ‘ high’ artists. Next time you visit Tate Britain wander around the many rooms devoted to Turner and study the groups of figures that inhabit the foregrounds of his huge oil landscapes. You might be surprised at how inept our greatest painter could be at depicting the human figure.

Then return to the work of ‘low’ book illustrators and marvel at how well most of them could draw. [RMH]

The Ghost Man – a blurb from the 1930s

Found in the massive and unending Donald Rudd collection of detective fiction -a Gerald Verner thriller The Ghost Man (Wright and Brown, London 1936) in its sensational jacket. Gerald Verner was the pseudonym of John Robert Stuart Pringle. He had over 130 books published under four names during his lifetime and was hugely popular with his audience and a favourite of the Duke of Windsor, who was presented with an especially bound set of 15 of Verner's thrillers. He attempted to take over the mantle of the prolific (and wealthy) Edgar Wallace after his death in 1932. The jacket has elements of Wallace, even down to the style of the logo. The blurb on the inside flap reads:

Who was the man called Conner, bank robber and murderer, who was hanged at Wandsworth Prison? What connections did he have with the murderer of the Shabby Peddler in the garden of Janet Lacey's country cottage? Why did he search the place so thoroughly before he was killed? And what was the significance of the stanza from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam? Mr Gerald Verner's new mystery is  so full of excitement, his plots so ingenious, mysterious, and so subtly unfolded that it will be impossible to put the book down until the last word has been read.

The book is not listed by Bleiler (Supernatural Fiction) or George Locke (Spectrum of Fantasy)which would indicate the ghost is rationally explained. It is, however, an Omar Khayyam item..

An Ear for Murder

Found - a rare and sensational Australian pulp mystery/ thriller from the late 1940s. Unknown to online malls and the great bibliography of crime fiction by Allen J Hubin, although he lists other titles by Max Afford. It is titled An Ear for Murder (Frank Johnson, Sydney, no date). The inside cover reads:

This is a Magpie novel - read it now it will hold you to the end.
What manner of creature was this, to whom the slaying of his victim was not enough? What manner of foul beast was it whose bloody fingers must perform the further savagery of mutilation? What strange secrets lay behind the locked doors of the mysterious, corpse-guarded study? These are the questions answered by world-famous criminologist Jeffery Blackburn in this punch-packed story of murder on the loose. With thrills on every page, this grand story of crime and detection is a "must" for murder-fiction fans. You won't be able to put it down until you've turned the last page.

The book appears intelligent and well written , the sleuth's day job being a professor of higher mathematics. The claim on the cover 'No crime could be more horrifying in its ferocity' may be something of an exaggeration..the plot involves a crazed novelist, a millenarian sect and a titled British millionaire stockbroker. There are as many as 100 books in the Magpie series, not all thrillers or even fiction.

Ruscovitch – forger and criminal apologist

Found in a thriller from  the Donald Rudd collection of detective fiction, this preface to The Poison and the Root (Jarrolds, UK 1950) by Richard Savage. It is a sort of apologia or plea for the criminal by one G. Ruscovitch, 'professional forger'. I had thought this person was fictitious or possibly a character in the book (which is not about forgery) but in fact there was a forger of this name. He is mentioned by Havelock Ellis in The Criminal (1890) and appears to have flourished in the mid 19th Century. He may also have been a murderer but Ellis describes him thus:

'...a prince among forgers, the accomplished student of science, the perfect master of half-a-dozen languages..' He then quotes the same piece as Savage. Possibly this was spoken from the dock in mitigation:

Too often it is forgotten that criminals are members of society. These bodies, sometimes abandoned by all except the satellites charged to guard them, are not all opaque; some of them are diaphanous and transparent. The vulgar sand that you tread underfoot becomes crystal when it has passed through the furnace. The dregs may become useful if you know how to employ them; to tread them underfoot with indifference and without thought is to undermine the foundations of society and fill it with volcanoes. The man who has not visited the caverns, can he know the mountains well? The lower strata, for being situated deeper and farther from the light, are less important than the external crust? There are deformities and diseases among us to make one shudder; but since when has horror forbidden study, and the disease driven away the physician?

Crime Fiction by Setting

Hubin's Comprehensive Bibliography of Crime Fiction 1749-1990 lists crime novels by their 'setting' in its second volume. This is mostly places, countries, states and towns with a few other settings like the past, the future, aircraft and academia. Naturally there is an emphasis on America  e.g. under 'Massachusetts' Hubin lists 200 thrillers but at the next entry 'Mauritius' just one - J.C. Shill's Murder in Paradise. The section on the Canary Islands is of interest with just these 5:

P. Attlee. Silken Baroness.

R. Harding. Appointment in Tenerife.

R. MacLeod. Legacy from Tenerife.

D. Serafin. Port of Light. 

J.M. Walsh. Danger Zone.

Madeira has these:

M. Farnsworth. Castle that Whispered.

E. Ferrars. Skeleton Staff.

E. Ferrars. Witness Before the Fact. 

R. Goddard. Past Caring.

Alicen White. Watching Eye.

The sparsely populated Azores throw up just one novel:

Denis Wheatley. They Found Atlantis.

Locked Room Murders – 20 Solutions

From Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (Ferret Fantasy, London 1979)

Major discussions on the subject of locked room murders are to be found in Carr's The Hollow Man, Rawson's Death from a Top Hat and Holmes' Nine by Nine.

There appear to be some 20 different ways in which a locked room can be breached.

Analysis of solutions

1 Accident.

2 Suicide.

3 Remote control – poison gas or impelled to do so with his own hands.

4 Mechanical and other devices.

5 Animal.

6 Outside the agency made to look like inside agency. E.g. dagger fired through window.

7 Victim killed earlier but made to appear alive later.

8 Presumed dead but not killed until later, e.g., by the first person to enter the room.

9 Victim wounded outside, dies inside.

10 Turning key, bolt, catch, etc, from outside with pliers, string, etc

11 Unhinging and rehinging door or window.

12 Taking out and replacing windowpane.

13 Acrobatic manoeuvre,.

14 Door locked or wedged on outside. Key replaced or bolt thrown after re-entrance.

15 Door locked on outside. Key returned before re-entrance.

16 Other methods of gimmicking doors, windows etc.,

17 Secret passages, sliding panels, etc.,

18 Murderer still in room when entrance forced.

19 Alibi provided while murder committed in an apparently  
guarded area.
20 Other impersonation stunts

  A further mystery is the price and rarity of the much enlarged edition from Crossover Press 1992. A copy on Canadian Amazon (often a home for awesome prices) at $10000 seems to have now vanished...

100 year old con man – the Yellow Kid

Found in a sensational crime paperback The Big Con (Pocket Books, NY 1949) a press cutting dated 1975 - the obituary of an amazing conman/ hustler/grifter Joseph Weil (1875-1975). He seems to have been the first to put forth the idea (often mentioned in the TV series Hustle) that 'you can't con an honest man.' It is possible that their  character Albert Stroller (Robert Vaughn) the elderly 'roper' responsible for ensnaring potential marks, is based on Weil. There is an exhaustive profile of Stroller at Wikipedia with no mention of any influences but useful info such as '...he cannot go to Indonesia as he sold the air force some fighter jets in the '70s, and they still haven't arrived.' Weil's comments on bankers are especially prescient..

Joseph (Yellow Kid) Weil, 100, Leading U. S. Trickster in '20s. From Wire Dispatches Chicago, Feb 27- 1975.

 Joseph (Yellow Kid) Weil, 100, the 1920s confidence artist whose con schemes netted him an estimated $8 million, died yesterday in a convalescent home.
 For nearly three years, the fragile little man had been a welfare patient, living out his life on the memories of his heyday, when his canary-yellow gloves, cravats and suits, yellow calling cards and autos, yellowish red hair and golden whiskers made him an international figure.
"If I had to do it all over again, I would be foolish if I didn't," Weil told an interviewer last summer on his 100th birthday
. "I don't feel a day over 70. I still like to look at the ladies and take a sip of wine. I like to listen to the radio, but I'll be damned if I'll play bingo with the rest round here. It's a ripoff."

Continue reading

Hope Mirrlees The Counterplot (1925)

Found in the Donald Rudd collection of detective fiction at the back of Death of a Millionaire (Collins 1925) amongst the publishers announcements of forthcoming books this summary of the plot of the very rare Hope Mirrlees novel The Counterplot. These publishers advertisements  are useful to dealers, scholars, collectors etc., as they are able to ascertain what a book is about without the tedium of reading it. Also they are particularly useful for collectors of fantasy to see whether there is any supernatural content. Hope Mirrlees did write one fantasy Lud-in-the Mist published by Collins in 1926. This novel was described by Neil Gaiman as 'one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written.' Her novel The Counterplot contains within it a 100 page play. Hope is also celebrated for her ultra modernist long poem Paris (Hogarth Press 1919).

The Counterplot

The Counterplot is  a study of the literary temperament. Teresa Lane, watching the slow movement of life manifesting itself in the changing interrelations of the family, is teased by the complexity of the spectacle, and comes to realise that her mind will never know peace till, by transposing the problem into art, she has reduced it to its permanent essential factors. So, from the texture of the words, the emotions, the interactions of the life going on around her, she weaves a play , the setting of which is a Spanish convent in the 14th century, and this play performs for her the function that Freud ascribes to dreams, for by it she is enabled to express subconscious desires, to vent repressed irritation, to say things that she is too proud and civilised ever to have said in any other way.