Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013) by Curtis Evans

Today’s review is a continuation of my plans to focus this month on some of the non-fiction books sitting on my TBR pile.

One of the first things to interest me in this book, (on the very first page no less), was how Evans describes the lack of discussion, critical or otherwise on a multitude of mystery writers during the interwar years. I wouldn’t say that things have completely reversed since that point in 2013, but I think things have changed a certain amount in the last four years, though in some respects there is still a long way to go before well-established stereotypes about interwar mystery fiction are finally uprooted. However I digress.

Evans’ book looks at the reviews Todd Downing wrote in the 1930s for the Daily Oklahoman, with the book’s title being taken from the column he had for a number of years: Clues and Corpses. His most prolific reviewing period was between 1932 and 1934, where he would review 2-3 books a time. Reviews either side of these dates are less frequent, though interestingly his reviews were usually longer than other contemporary reviewers, such as Judge Lynch, writing between 150-350 words a review. However before the reader arrives at these reviews, (and Evans commentary on them), the reader has the additional delight of an in depth and substantially researched introduction by Evans, which explores his life, work and reviews, noting the various influences which affected him, such as the books he read, Mexican culture and his 1/8th Native American heritage. Evans also reveals the parallels which can be made between Downing and his fictional sleuth, Hugh Rennert. In regards to his own writing career, Evans is adept at recommending the best titles to read first, as well as charting the various aspects of Downing’s fiction as his writing career progressed.

Looking at Downing’s reviews in a general sense, one of the key things I took away from the book was the richness and diversity of the mystery fiction being produced in the 1930s, which disturbs and disrupts the confining ideas people can have about this writing period, (i.e. the UK did cosy/genteel mystery fiction, whilst the US was the producer of purely hardboiled works). An advantage of having Downing’s reviews all in one place is that you can observe how his reading tastes evolved and changed and how his opinion on specific writers transformed, though in the main he preferred mysteries with a decided shudder/horror factor and anything written by Rufus King, who he loved. Evans in his introduction also provides some illuminating review statistics, revealing that there was definite dominance of male writers over their female counterparts, as 77% of his 286 reviews were written by men and Evans feels that this counteracts the accepted theory of classic detective fiction being dominating by women (in terms of number of writers). However interestingly in 1934 Downing wrote, in a Dorothy L Sayers review, that: ‘when and if detective fiction establishes its right to the dignity of critical studies, some bespectacled student will find material for a thesis in the subject of femininity in the genre.’ He also goes on to say that the ‘readers of mystery yarns are predominately masculine,’ but that female writers most consistently delivered ‘some of the best work in the field.’ Is this the reason for their longevity? In addition, like Sayers, in her own reviews and critical work, Downing considers the evolution of characterisation in mystery fiction, remarking on the increased importance this writing aspect was having on the genre. However in contrast to Sayers, it seems that even over time, Downing was still much more conservative towards the love interest in detective fiction.

The authors Downing most reviewed in his column were Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Eden Phillpotts, H. C. Bailey, John Dickson Carr, Carolyn Wells, (despite not hugely liking her work), Herbert Adams, John Street, Patricia Wentworth, (who grew on him as a writer, though becoming almost like a guilty pleasure for him,) Anthony Wynne, Mignon Eberhart, Harry Stephen Keeler, Rufus King, Milton Propper and Dorothy L Sayers, amongst others. As an additional task, when reading this book, I decided to keep score of how many of the books Downing reviewed, that I had read. Perhaps shockingly, or perhaps not, this final score was only 32.5 (or 34.5 if I can count each Sayers novel in the Omnibus he reviewed). Either way it seems quite a low figure, given how many books I read from the 1930s. This is partially because he reviews some authors a lot, which I have not tried and partially because I have tried various authors he has but not that specific book. Though to console myself slightly, I do have two of his review books in my TBR pile, The Deadly Dowager by Edwin Greenwood and The Case of the April Fools by Christopher Bush. However on the bright side this book does go to show how many new authors there are waiting for me in 1930s mystery fiction, especially new writers of psychological crime fiction, which is usually associated more with the 40s and 50s, but was actually being published a lot, in the 30s.

Downing on French Mystery Fiction

Although most of the mystery novels Downing reviewed were by UK or US authors, he did also look at new translations of French writers, though sadly he did not hugely enjoy them in the main to the extent that in one review he writes: ‘We wish that some Francophile would come to the defense of the French mystery story and aid us in our benightment. So many French fans can’t be wrong.’ It was pleasing to see Xavier Lechard and his blog, At the Villa Rose, mentioned in the footnotes. Perhaps Xavier could have convinced Downing that not all French mystery fiction was bad?

Odd Authors

One of the advantages of these reviews being accompanied by a commentary is that you are able to glean extra and unusual nuggets of information about the writers being reviewed, such as finding out that one writer was also an editor of collections of drinking songs, whilst another allegedly disappeared in Norway during the 1940 German invasion, whilst another was more famous for running a hand loom weaving correspondence course. There is also the author who wins the prize for the weirdest title – Willoughby Sharpe’s The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules, though sadly this never made it into print. I feel there should also be a special mention of Walter S. Masterman, who in Death Turns a Traitor, forgets to explain one of the murders which occurs at the start of his book. Oops!

Recommendations to My Fellow Bloggers

One of the things I have loved most about starting a blog was finding other bloggers who shared my passion for vintage fiction and over time, through diligent perusal of their blog posts, it has been possible to identify some niche preferences my fellow bloggers have and therefore decided to keep my eyes peeled for any books I could recommend for them from Downings’ reviews.

First up for all my fellow bloggers who love impossible or locked room mysteries, (in particular JJ (The Invisible Event), Dan (The Reader is Warned) and Ben (The Green Capsule), Downing would definitely recommend the work of Anthony Abbot. For instance in Abbot’s About the Murder of Geraldine Foster, Downing summarises that, ‘the pigeons have died from drinking the blood of the dead girl, but the medical examiner has said that she has been dead only two days, while the pigeons have been dead ten.’ Baffling and icky at the same time! Equally in Murder at the Library by Charles J Dutton, a librarian is strangled within calling distance of 50 other library users.

For our vintage fashion expert, Moira (Clothes in Books), there is Carolyn Wells’ The Umbrella Murder. Whilst Downing does not wholly rate Wells as a writer, he does note that she is big on describing swimwear in this novel.

Aidan, at Mysteries Galore Blog, is a new blogger who joined the scene last autumn, is planning on reading lots of inverted mysteries this year, so to stop him running out of titles to pick from, Downing would probably recommend J H Wallis’ The Servant of Death.

Last but not least there is Bev Hankins, writer of the blog My Reader’s Block and Brad Friedman of ahsweetmysteries blog. Bev is a big fan of academic mysteries, whilst Brad is keen on ones with a theatrical milieu. Yet surprisingly there is somewhat of a lack of both of these subgenres in Downing’s reviews. However two which did crop up are Murder at Cambridge by Q Patrick, though I feel Bev is sure to have read this one already and Death in the Theatre J R Wilmot.

Opinions on the Big Names

When reading a work such as this it is always interesting to see what the reviewer has to say about the big names from this writing era, mainly because you’re more likely to have read some of their work and be able to assess the reviewer’s opinions.

The Puzzle Doctor (In Search of the Classic Mystery) is a big fan of both John Street and Brian Flynn. Whilst Flynn is not reviewed in this collection, Downing does review Street, though perhaps not as favourably as the Puzzle Doctor would like…

‘The murder of old Mr Coningsworth is an ingenious one, but the author has not shown equal ingenuity in concealing the identity of the murderer. If the reader cannot identify him before he has read half the book he had better quit reading detective stories.’ (Dr Priestley Investigates)

‘No excitement in the tale save that deriving from interest in the solution of the problem. The last, however, is neat, logical and within the grasp of any alert reader.’ (Death in the Tunnel)

Of course writers such as Christie are reviewed and Downing says of her work that ‘the reader of mystery stories has learned that he has about nine chances out of ten of obtaining a good yarn when he buys a book with Agatha Christie’s name on the cover.’ Moreover in a review of Death in the Clouds, Downing writes that you are ‘pitting your wits against the cleverest baffler in the field of detective fiction’ and that ‘Miss Christie is going in for the X-ray fashion of peeking into character’s minds.’ Additionally he seems to have liked The Murder on the Orient Express so much, that it very likely inspired his own train bound mystery, Vultures in the Sky. Fear not, Carr fans, as Downing writes in one review that he is ‘among [Carr’s] most vociferous fans’ and he also pleasing describes The Blind Barber, as a ‘comedy of terrors’ and that he is soon planning to re-read it. Finally a comment which will surely divide the GAD fiction community, Downing writes of Sayers’ Gaudy Night, that it is ‘the most engrossing and gruesome baffler of Miss Sayer’s career.’

Amusing Put Downs

There is something about a negative review, which gives it the potential to be that much funnier than a positive review and Downing does not disappoint us, though I feel Dorothy L Sayers will always hold the prize for being the bluntest. Here are a few of my favourites…

‘Jimmy set a trap for the murderer and was as surprised at the result, although not as disappointed, as the reader will be […] We prefer our sleuths without wives and maiden aunts, however.’ (The Murder Trap by Armstrong Livingston)

‘As if a love sick inspector were not bad enough, there is a police superintendent who quotes classic poets […] The author assures us that the characters in his book are entirely fictitious. It is a relief to know that so many tiresome people do not really exist.’ (The Round Table Murders by Peter Baron)

The Lonely House by Arthur Gask ‘is said to be threatening Edgar Wallace’s popularity in England, where his stories are creating a “sensation”. I never did have a very high opinion of the English.’

On reviewing the 741 paged The Matilda Hunter Murder Harry by Stephen Keeler, Downing writes that it is ‘too long, too complicated, too scientific, for anyone but a Robinson Crusoe.’

‘Dick cogitates and opines: ‘The reason for such an inhumane crime is indistinguishably bound up with its perpetrator.’ Just what we suspected all along.’ (The Birthday Murder by Kathleen Sproul)

The bell ringing terminology in Sayers’ The Nine Taylors ‘left us feeling as if we had tried to master a correspondence lesson in calculus.’

Mean Davis gets the prize for over the top prose with examples including: ‘sudden gusts of terror, like darting sharks beneath a summer sea,’ ‘his voice tiptoed into her intensity’ and ‘her eyes glowed like ripe olives.’

Dorothy Bennett wrote a detective story, called How Strange a Thing, in the form of a poem. Suffice to say it was not a success…

Points to that make you think

Like Sayers’ reviews, Downing often included comments that encompassed the mystery genre more generally, which at times gave me pause for the thought. For instance in a review of Found Drowned by Eden Phillpotts, Downing writes that ‘I am always more interested in the murderer than in the detective, perhaps because most of the murderers one meets in books are so much less tiresome than most detectives…’ Whilst in a review of a story collection edited by Kenneth Macgowan he writes that:

‘There are two kinds of people in the world – those who read detective stories and those who don’t. the latter have had all the innings so far, as evidence[d] by the sheepish and apologetic air which the reader of detective fiction […] assumes when he is caught coming out of a bookstore with a lurid-covered tale of murder under his arm. Things are looking brighter for those of us belonging to that happy first class […] in time we may be able to return some of the sneers that have been cast at us. For detective fiction […] is beginning to assume the dignity of such accepted hobbies as bridge and philately.’

I don’t agree with all of Downing’s comments on mystery fiction though, as for example I don’t find Miss Marple ‘naïve’ in The Tuesday Club Murders and I think some will find contention with his belief that ‘a mystery writer’s business is to keep the mystery reader’s mind away from, not on, serious matters.’ Equally I think reading tastes have definitely changed in regards to H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune. Downing writes in one review that ‘the thought occurs that Reggie Fortune is probably the only sleuth active today who meets with the approval of every mystery fan of our acquaintance.’ Yet today I would say Fortune is struggling to find much of an audience at all.

The Appendices

If that wasn’t enough Evans also treats us to an interview Kenneth C. Kaufmann did with Todd Downing in 1934, in which he cites his 6 favourite mysteries: Murder by Latitude or any other mystery by Rufus King, The Greene Murder Case or The Bishop Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Red Lamp by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Silver Scale Mystery by Anthony Wynne and From This Dark Stairway by Mignon Eberhart. There is also Downing’s review of Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941), as well as his 1943 essay, ‘Murder is a rather serious business’ and articles on Downing’s own mystery fiction.

Overall Thoughts

Unsurprisingly this is a book I highly recommend and thankfully its’ price is not out of range for the average vintage mystery fan, nor is it inaccessible in its writing style. It was also lovely to see in the commentary footnotes, mentions of other fellow bloggers, such as TomCat (Beneath the Stains of Time), for his review on Virgil Markham’s Red Warning and John Norris (Pretty Sinister), for his posts on R C Ashby and August Derleth. In terms of comparing my reading tastes with Downing’s I think we would have got on well with a mutual love of psychological and suspense mystery fiction, though I think I might appreciate the humour of writers such as Richard Hull more. Equally I was much more positive on Francis Beeding’s The Norwich Victims, though Downing’s lukewarm response might be due to the dustjacket of the original edition including spoilers. I am also intrigued by a thriller which has an Orpington (presumably a chicken) that apparently ‘change[s] its identity in the grave.’ It is only a pity that Downing didn’t think it a very good book.

I am going to be taking a break from my nonfiction books on crime fiction and head back into the world of fiction for a while, with my next read hopefully happening in time before JJ and his confederates discuss it.

Rating: 4.5/5

See also by Evans:

The Spectrum of English Murder: The Detective Fiction of Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher and G. D. H. and Margaret Cole (2015)

See also by Todd Downing:

Murder on Tour (1933)

The Cat Screams (1934)

Vultures in the Sky (1935)

34 comments

  1. Perhaps Xavier could have convinced Downing that not all French mystery fiction was bad?

    I don’t know whether I would have succeeded, but I certainly would have tried, at least with regard to French mystery fiction at the time; I readily admit though that our crime fiction has always been an acquired taste as, quoting Symons from memory, it follows a path alien to that of other schools, especially the English-speaking one. It’s been a long time since I last read Curtis’s book and I don’t have it at hand – actually I don’t even know where it is (Someday, I’ll bring some order to my mess of a library – someday) so my memories are rather blurry: Which writers did he take issue with?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Having a quick skim through I think they were George Simenon, Roger Francis Didelot, Simone d’Erigny and Jean Toussaint-Samat, though I think he liked some Simenon novels more than others. The writer Curtis says he preferred was Stanislas-Andre Steeman.

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      • Yes, he was with Xavier on Streeman! I don’t know that I can blame him so much about Simenon, because I’m not sure the translations at that time were so great and I think middle period Simenon is his best, anyway.

        Of course Downing could read French, so he could have been reading them in the original anyway! At the time what interested me about Simenon though in this book was that there was a little burst of interest in French mystery in the US, there was a sort of cachet which reminded me of the whole Scandi-noir deal today. But it died down until Simenon really reemerged near the end of the 30s.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a source of permanent puzzlement to me that Simenon caught on with English-speaking audiences (though not with Downing, it appears) whereas Steeman didn’t. I mean, I’m a fan of both for different reasons, but I think Steeman with his extremely clever plotting, witty writing and emphasis on fair-play was much more closer to English-speaking crime fiction mores of the day and today than Simenon. Maybe the latter was deemed to be more “local colour” or was perceived as doing something different, just like the Scandi are seen to do nowadays. Still, it’s a pity that the discerning readers of this blog are barred from reading Les Atouts de Monsieur Wens, L’Assassin Habite au 21 or Le Trajet de la Foudre. Some courageous publisher really should redress that injustice. (I once “predicted” E.R. Punshon’s return to the bookshelves years before the thing happened, so maybe my call will be heard once again!)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hopefully they will as I am intrigued by the work of Steeman, based on the odd comments I have read about him. Like you I can’t see why Simenon became so famous, as I’ve read quite a few by him but not enjoyed any of them hugely. They’re just so bleak and bland.

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  2. This sounds like an excellent place to discover new authors as well as some vivid criticism. And an Orpington with a post-mortem identity crisis is worth knowing about whatever the rest of that particular book may be like.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good luck finding an affordable Anthony Abbott book out there, if you can navigate the other writers also called Anthony Abbott!

    And to be fair, I was not a fan of Dr Priestley Investigates aka Pinehurst, and Death In The Tunnel isn’t his most gripping narrative (although it’s better than Downing suggests).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a wonderfully detailed review and discussion both of Curt’s book on Todd Downing and on the variety of Golden Age detective fiction as well. I will need to check out Clues and Corpses. And much of Richard Hull’s work is very enjoyable indeed. I’ve been slowly working my way through his 15 books, and hope to review them all (provided Invitation to an Inquest can be found for something less than a small fortune).

    Thanks for your great review; I always enjoy stopping by your site!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a really fantastically detailed review, the most detailed the book has received. I’m glad you liked it, I personally always enjoy reviews collection–among other things they are valuable primary material for scholars and useful references for fans. I wasn’t sure about combining Downing’s life with the reviews and was thinking about doing the book in halves, which would have made the individual halves cheaper. I think Michael Dirda, in his WaPo review of the book, was most interested in the reviews and the annotated footnotes. But I wanted people to get to know Downing, not just as a reviewer but as an author and a person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whilst it is probably true that I am a long winded reviewer, I think when it comes to books such as yours, it is important to write that little bit more in my opinion, otherwise it is so hard to get a flavour of them. Some people might think that a collection of reviews would be dull, but I’d like to think this review has shown they can actually be quite funny and interesting reads. It was great finding out about Downing, as usually readers don’t know a whole lot about the background of the writer they are reading, unless they are Christie, Sayers or Marsh, whose bibliographies are more well known.

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  6. One thing about citing blog pieces in my book. I did that because they frequently are the best sources of information out there and they deserve the credit. It doesn’t do to act, as some books I have seen have, as if blog reviews and articles don’t count for citation purposes.

    I’m pleased that you got as much as you did out of the book. I appreciate the time it must have taken to put that together.

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