REPRINT OF THE YEAR: The Stuff That (Bad) Dreams Are Made Of

In case you weren’t paying attention last weekend, Kate Jackson of Cross Examining Crime has assembled an illustrious group of bloggers to highlight some of the great vintage mysteries that have been republished in 2018. I jumped at the chance to be included in this because it gave me a chance to spread the most exciting news for me personally this year,  and that is the re-release – albeit solely on Kindle so far – of the works of Patrick Quentin.

Quentin was one of the authors I chose in my early 20’s to supplement the dwindling load of Christies, Carrs, and Queens, my go-to mystery giants. Yet when I read the first six novels chronicling the troubled marriage of Broadway producer/reluctant sleuth Peter Duluth and his gorgeous actress wife, Iris, I knew nothing about the author, except the following:

  • “Quentin” appeared on the store shelves right next to “Queen”; hence, buying him was convenient.
  • Each title began with the words Puzzle for. . ., followed by a noun: Fools, Players, Puppets, Wantons, Fiends, and Pilgrims. This reminded me of the titles to Ellery Queen’s Period One international mysteries (i.e. The Greek Coffin Mystery), and the similarities between authors was reinforced by all the covers of both featuring one or more pretty girls.

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As it turned out, the PQ novels were not much like the EQ mysteries at all. For one thing, they were sexier by far, in ways both romantic and subversive. (Catch Peter’s misadventures in a San Francisco steam bath in Puzzle for Puppets.) And when Quentin went screwball, the results were both funny and genuinely bizarre. (One of my favorites is when Peter wakes up in someone else’s house in Puzzle for Fiends and is gaslighted into believing he isthat person.)

Although some of them have a traditional closed circle puzzle at their heart, the Peter and Iris Duluth tales are more character than puzzle driven, charting the course of the couple’s relationship, from first meeting (in an asylum, of all places) to marital bliss, to a perilously rocky near-dissolution. Unlike Queen (but more like the trio of mysteries by Edgar Box, the pseudonym for Gore Vidal) the Duluth mysteries are witty and more adult, referencing a wide range of “aberrant” sexual and mental behavior.

I read them, I enjoyed them, and that was that. I had no idea there were more adventures for Peter (some, not all, including Iris), and I was unaware of almost anything else about the man, such as that he wasn’t a man at all but essentially a name brand, and that all but a few of the thirty-nine novels and numerous short stories and novellas that spanned the Golden and Silver Ages of mystery were actually written by two people. The earlier books better conformed to the strictures of classic puzzles, but because of the nature of the authors, primarily Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote most of the canon, the subject matter and tone of the novels sometimes pushed the boundaries of relative coziness one often associates with classic mysteries. rickiepic                      90                      This is Richard Webb . . .                                               . . . and this is Hugh Wheeler.

Patrick Quentin, along with his other pseudonyms Q. Patrick, and Jonathan Stagge, like so many other successful mystery authors of the day, has faded to the ranks of obscurity. But thanks to the efforts of the Mysterious Press and the scholarly work of Curtis Evans, most if not all of their work is available again. When I read about this in Curtis’ blog, The Passing Tramp, early this year, I grew very excited, and I urge you to explore Curtis’ site for loads of information about Patrick Quentin.

I had PQ on the brain when I visited the Mysterious Bookshop in New York in July, and I snatched up a few titles under all three aliases. Now I’m jumping at the chance to use Kate’s project to spread the word about this sadly neglected author. In fact, I had intended to talk about early PQ this week and a Jonathan Stagge book next week, but something else popped up on the radar for my second entry. Suffice it to say that this blog will be frequently exploring Patrick Quentin, under all his aliases, in the future.

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The Grindle Nightmare (1935) was the fifth novel written by “Q. Patrick,” the first alias in the brand, and already the history of this author was complicated. It had begun in 1931 when Richard Wilson Webb, an Englishman living in America as a pharmaceutical research manager (he helped invent and manufacture Benzedrine!), teamed up with a Radcliffe graduate named Martha Mott Kelley (Patsy to her friends) to write a murder mystery. Their nicknames formed the basis for their pseudonym (“Pat” + “Rick”, with the addition of “Q” as the most mysterious letter in the alphabet. Their partnership lasted for only two novels, after which Webb wrote a novel by himself and then teamed up with another woman, a journalist named Mary Louise Aswell for two more novels.

Aswell is credited by some as co-writer for Grindle, but according to Evans, who wrote an insightful essay about the book and the author for his collection Murder in the Closet, Rickie Webb probably wrote the book alone and probably received support and inspiration from the man who would, immediately following this novel, become Webb’s third, longest, and final partner in this writing enterprise – Hugh Wheeler.

I know Wheeler from the worlds of film and theatre. He wrote the libretto for one of my favorite musicals, Sweeney Todd, as well as the stage and film versions of A Little Night Music, the screenplay for Cabaret, and a variety of other libretti, plays and screenplays, including one of my favorite cult films, Something for Everyone. And yet I did not realize until a year ago that Wheeler not only wrote mysteries but that I had read and enjoyed many of them!

Webb and Wheeler turned Q. Patrick into a cottage industry, branching out into two more aliases. The best of the mysteries were written as Patrick Quentin, and a third pseudonym, Jonathan Stagge, chronicled the nine cases of Dr. Hugh Westlake and his daughter. (I tracked down a few Dr. Westlake mysteries in New York and will cover one of them next week.) I didn’t know any of this until recently, and it’s thrilling to discover an author you once read and admired wrote not six but nearly forty mysteries, a gold mine for this mystery fan.

All but one of the dozen mysteries by Q. Patrick were written between 1931 and 1942, which places them firmly in the Golden Age. During this time, we are taught, the mystery focused on the puzzle and served as literary comfort food. The violence was either muted, focused offstage, or presented in such an intellectual light as to render it harmless, and no matter what harm had been inflicted on this or that literary society, order was essentially restored by the end.

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Therefore, dear reader, please stand warned that Webb is shooting for something quite different here. The Grindle Nightmareis a book that lives up to its name. Were it not for the fact that the narrator here is a clinical researcher and a charming young man, who brings humor and dispassionate analysis to the events that occur in the New England village of Grindle, I might have given this horror show a pass. Yet that would have been a shame, for this is a powerful little thriller and, in some aspects that I touch on below, ahead of its time.

Douglas Swanson and Antonio Conti are doctors focusing on medical research in the New England town of Rhodes, as well as roommates who live in a cottage not too far away in the valley community of Grindle, a property owned by Seymour Alstone, a nasty tycoon like those found in many a mystery. The medicos have carved out an amicable existence that “was the envy of the entire married community,” but their happy life is cut short when Polly Baines, one of the many children belonging to Alstone’s head gardener, goes missing.

From there, one horrific event follows another, and since it involves the mutilation and murder of both humans and animals, it’s clear that a maniac is running loose in Grindle. And there are plenty of residents who might qualify, at least to the villagers, due to their “difference” from the norm. These include Polly’s brother, Mark, who today we might describe as being on the spectrum; Edgar Tailford-Jones, a veteran of the war, whose debilitating injury has rendered him “less than manly” and pushed his nasty wife Roberta to a life of philandering and all-around evil; Alstone’s son and grandson, both repressed by the patriarch’s bullying ways; and an assortment of other neighbors and visitors, who all seem too “normal” to be true.

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The novel is action-packed, to say the least, as the Grindle maniac commits one cringe-worthy crime after another, mostly against animals and children. A local deputy named Bracegirdle assumes charge of the case, and our hapless narrator, Doug Swanson, tries his own hand at sleuthing when he’s not pining for a pretty neighbor named Valerie Middleton. Ultimately, the identity of both the killer andthe detective are something of a surprise. I can’t say that Q. Patrick plays particularly fairly with clues here, but the shape of the mystery is there, and it is so crowded with curious incidents and nasty surprises that I was having too much fun to care about fairness.

Just to give you some perspective of how different this novel is from its peers, in 1935 Agatha Christie published Three Act Tragedy, with its ingenious motives, and Death in the Clouds, a perfectly okay B-level Christie. Ellery Queen gave us The Spanish Cape Mystery, the death knell of Period One, and “The Lamp of God,” an intriguing impossible crime novella. And John Dickson Carr produced four novels, including arguably his best (it’s not, but it’s certainly brilliant), The Three Coffins. And while some of these titles are better than Grindle, none of them is weirder or attempts to accomplish so much as this little monster of a book.

First, it grapples more realistically with psychology than any of its contemporaries. The characters may not be deeply drawn, but they are compelling enough, and their circumstances give rise to a wealth of intriguing theories as to who might be responsible for these atrocities. Ultimately, the solution is founded on real psychological theory, which lends a touch of realism to these fantastical events.

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Secondly, Webb effectively draws comparisons throughout between the brutality of the killer and the lawful cruelties practiced by the “law-abiding” citizens of Grindle valley, effectively raising passages of Grindle to the status of non-genre fiction. Nobody is wholly good or evil here, except the killer. For example, the behavior of the local villains, Altstone and Roberta Tailford-Jones, wreak havoc on friends and family – and just might have inspired the murders. And yet Alstone sometimes acts out of deep concern for the grandson he has tormented emotionally, and Roberta makes a point about the research work in which Doug and Tony are engaged, which involves the vivisection of animals – and the devout wish that moreanimals were available. Most powerful is the metaphor of hunting, whether it is of animals or humans. In the horrifying scene at the center of the novel involving a coon hunt, the parallels between the madman and these legal “killers” are made abundantly clear.

Finally, as Evans details in Murder in the Closet, the novel includes elements of queer culture that go beyond subtext. In Chapter One, it is almost impossible not to read Doug and Toni’s relationship as that of a gay couple:

“I remarked on this to Toni who had emerged magnificent from the shower. But he only grunted again. And what could one really expect but a grunt from Dr. Antonio Conti, one of the youngest and smartest professors of pathology in America? . . . But for all his grunts, Toni was no heartless scientist. . . . It was Toni’s influence that helped me to get in on all the most exciting laboratory experiments. It was he who had urged me to share with him the charming little farm house which he had rented from Seymour Alstone in Grindle Valley some twenty miles out of town; and it was the handsome and aggressive Toni who borrowed from our richer neighbors guns for me to shoot with and horses for me to ride. For some time now we had lived in style as only bachelors can . . . “

Mmm-hmmm.

Things calm down a bit with the entrance of Valerie, and the belief on Doug’s part that a rivalry exists between Toni and him for her affections. But that doesn’t stop Doug from constantly referring to Toni’s male beauty, or for Tony to strip down in the living room after the guests have gone. And these elements are further explored in other ways that I don’t want to get into here, for fear of revealing too much of the plot.

To be honest, I had resisted picking this title up for a while due to its promise, as the back cover says, “of sinister atmosphere and gruesome surprises.” But I have to say that The Grindle Nightmare is breathlessly exciting and downright scary, as well as a fascinating example of a Golden Age mystery that pushes beyond the normal boundaries of its time.

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14 thoughts on “REPRINT OF THE YEAR: The Stuff That (Bad) Dreams Are Made Of

  1. This post is quite the tour de force! I feel much better informed on the background. In particular I had never cottoned on that they were being written so early, as in my head they were always 1950s onwards. Not sure I will try this one, animal and child mutilation is not quite my cup of tea, but I will be keeping an eye out for your future Quentin posts to see which book could be my next read, as I did enjoy the one I read a couple of months ago.

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  2. Thank you, Brad, for such interesting background information! As I was reading your post, I was thinking how it is that some authors, who are prolific and talented, are not also remembered later. I find that fascinating, especially in cases like this. It’s one reason I’m so glad that some of this work is starting to get some attention and some reprints.

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  3. Never would I expect you to choose this book. I’ve always been impressed with its Gothic and brutal excesses. It is indeed a nightmare of a book. And one of the earliest true noir novels that has never been given attention or noted for its landmark status in the history of the genre. Until Curt wrote about it, I guess, and “everyone” took notice. Mostly it gets dismissed with that negative adjective “lurid.” I think I used that word in my 2012 review, but I use it as a badge of honor. Webb returned to the themes of animal experimentation and medical ethics in Murder by Prescription. You ought to try that one soon if it’s among the reprints. To contrast and compare the two books is to delve into his passions and obsessions.

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  4. Blimey (as we say over here). I think Kate sums it up for me: fascinating info on the mysterious worlds of Patrick, Q, Stagge etc – you make it very clear. Whenever I mention him/them on the blog I always say ‘go and look it up on Wikipedia’ because I can’t explain it all to myself, let alone to readers. But now you have laid it out nicely…
    But, as Kate says, the book sounds very proficient, but it’s not pulling me in with that description.

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    1. Why ever not, Moira? 🙂 I’m actually going to write a second post about it, focusing on how many times Dr. Toni is nude. This will be on my new second blog site: No Clothes in Books!

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    2. I just read it.

      My take is a bit different (and of course, righter) than Brad’s. I found it a vivid and well characterized tale, let down by the solution. QP doesn’t dwell on the carnage, as many a contemporary writer would. Indeed even the characters often seem a bit flippant (and a bit heartless) about the dire doings. The effect to me was less wallowing in depravity than a comedy of manners. It is certainly not gore porn in any way at all.

      While an outlier amongst detective fiction, it’s not as much of an outlier amongst fiction of the era more generally as many might think. On another blog I mentioned a few of the notorious books of the time, such as King’s Row.

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      1. I do think the scene around the tree is pretty horrifying, and I tend to flinch at cruelty to animals. The murderer’s method of choice is downright sick, don’t you think? But yes, of course, it’s not anywhere near as gruesome as modern crime fiction, and I thought I had mentioned the wit. Ah, well, maybe not . . .

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      2. Sure, but Robert Louis Stevenson horrifying, not Clive Barker horrifying. There are some callous jokes about the victim, which the author seems to expect us to share in. I am struggling to identify just what I mean here, but it’s along the lines of: a Nightmare is not a Horror, one wakes up from a nightmare and gets over it. And there is some Arsenic and Old Lace quality here too I think.

        Hard boiled/noir. To me it’s not boiled nearly as hard as say The Postman Always Rings Twice, which preceded it. I am a bit afraid it would be a SPOILER ALERT to explain why, but I expect you will see my point. There is no crazy in Postman or its duo. No happy romantic ending either 😉

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  5. This is one that both pulls me towards reading it and repulses me at the same time. I enjoy the novels written by the various combinations under various pen names, so I’m sure I’d enjoy the writing. But the bit about ” the Grindle maniac commits one cringe-worthy crime after another, mostly against animals and children” really puts me off. I have great difficulty with murder/crime novels that involve children. So, I’m not sure I could do it….But, all that aside, great post and lots of of good information on the author/s.

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    1. I totally get what you and Moira are saying, Bev. Believe me, I resisted picking this one up for years because of this very issue. I won’t go to movies with animals in them because every bad screenwriter abuses/kills the animal to score cheap emotion points. Yet John, above, ranks it as top notch early noir, and that is what it is. Despite its brutality, it is also witty and moving and a puzzle and an underlying spotlight on early social mores in the way its author signals his own sexuality. In other words, I think I stumbled upon an important book!

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  6. Incidentally Brad, since I like grinding the Symons axe, Symons discusses the aliases and personnel in Bloody Murder. So I knew this stuff for 45 years before reading my first QPQ! People should read their Symons … 😉

    I voted for Grindle over at Kate’s, and for Fools too.

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