Thursday, March 5, 2015

Todd Downing's detective fiction and criticism

Lots of leads here for reading material:

Reading for a winter's night: The detective fiction of Todd Downing

Michael Dirda:
Downing’s newspaper column “Clues and Corpses” allowed him to write regularly about his favorite genre, usually 150 to 350 words (and sometimes more) for each of two or three current books. On March 1, 1931, he discussed “About the Murder of Geraldine Foster,” by Anthony Abbot. It’s somewhat formulaic, Downing says, but “what makes this story remain in the memory . . . is the element of horror which permeates the tale, from the finding of the several dead pigeons to the final revelation of the manner in which Geraldine met her death. 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. With this clue as a starting point, [Thatcher] Colt uncovers one of the most fiendish crimes ever committed in fact or fiction.” 

That section of “Clues and Corpses” is the highlight of the book. The biographical introduction may exasperate readers by presenting too much information about Downing’s ancestry and family. Admittedly, some of this is colorful: His grandfather was a bigamist with 17 children. In essence, though, Downing grew up in Atoka, Okla., taught languages at the University of Oklahoma, moved briefly to New York, worked in advertising in Philadelphia and eventually took up teaching again in 1950 for a brief while at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. He spent his last years as an instructor in French and Spanish at Atoka High School while living in his family home. Downing never married, and from the evidence, it seems likely that he was gay. His active literary career was largely confined to the 1930s. 

Downing’s newspaper column “Clues and Corpses” allowed him to write regularly about his favorite genre, usually 150 to 350 words (and sometimes more) for each of two or three current books. On March 1, 1931, he discussed “About the Murder of Geraldine Foster,” by Anthony Abbot. It’s somewhat formulaic, Downing says, but “what makes this story remain in the memory . . . is the element of horror which permeates the tale, from the finding of the several dead pigeons to the final revelation of the manner in which Geraldine met her death. 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. With this clue as a starting point, [Thatcher] Colt uncovers one of the most fiendish crimes ever committed in fact or fiction.”
This is intriguing on its own, but Evans’s substantial footnote further explains that Anthony Abbot was the pen name of Fulton Oursler — now mainly remembered for his bestseller about the life of Christ, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” — and then goes on to characterize his half-dozen mysteries, all of their titles beginning “About the Murder of . . . ” For the reader, this back and forth between Downing’s reviews and Evans’s historical expertise generates not just synergy but pointers to many forgotten books worth searching out. After Downing praises, with reservations, “Red Warning” by Virgil Markham, Evans’s footnote tells us more about Markham’s eccentric fiction, adding that one mystery fiction blogger named TomCat maintains that Markham’s “Death in the Dusk” (1928) rivals Joel Townsley Rogers’s “The Red Right Hand” (1945) and Fredric Brown’s “Night of the Jabberwock” (1950) “in the race for most outlandish detective story ever contrived.” Already owning the Rogers and Brown, I immediately went searching the Internet for “Death in the Dusk.”

Elsewhere, Downing writes of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” (1937) that “Not since Victoria Lincoln’s February Hill , have we spent such a hilarious and altogether mirthful evening as the one we spent getting acquainted with the old Dowager Arabella, Lady Engleton, and watching her insure the lives of her relatives and then start killing them.” I added “The Deadly Dowager” and “February Hill” to my book searches.

When Downing was once asked to name his favorite detective novels, he chose the following: Rufus King’s “Murder by Latitude,” S.S. Van Dine’s “The Greene Murder Case” (or “The Bishop Murder Case”), Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s eerie “The Red Lamp,” Anthony Wynne’s “The Silver Scale Mystery” and Mignon G. Eberhart’s “From this Dark Stairway.” As the magazine advertisements used to say: How many of these have you read?
See also:

Curtis Evans' blog: The Passing Tramp 

Curtis Evans' book: Clues and Corpses


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