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Monday, October 24, 2011

Forgotten crime writers

What do Robert Twohy, Dennis Lynds, Leon Comber, and Barry Perowne have in common?

They've all written at least one highly original detective story, and I have never heard of them before.

Long ago, some English lecturer at Wellington's Victoria University ran a course on popular crime fiction, and so the library holds a shelf of ancient whodunits alongside the serious tomes of literary criticism.  Curious about what was popular back in those days, I was scanning the faded titles, and found a collection called Best American Detective Stories of the Year (15th Series) that was edited by a wellknown name, Anthony Boucher.

A wellknown name in science fiction.  It was a great surprise that he had anything to do with crime fiction at all.  However, it seems the great fantasist also wrote detective novels, at least one of them under the pseudonym "H.H. Holmes," which was the name of a late nineteenth century serial killer.  (Anthony Boucher" wasn't a real name, either: he was actually Christened William Anthony Parker White.)

Boucher was also a noted editor and critic, so I borrowed the book with high expectations of finding originality, substance, and style in this 1966 collection.  About half of the stories were dated, possibly because they have been imitated so often since, but the handful of names cited above proved most rewarding, in their different ways.

Robert Twohy's Routine Investigation wasn't even crime fiction -- it really belongs in a fantasy collection, but boy, what a story.  It's a way-out plot, deftly presented, evoking an incredulous laugh and an "OMG" from the reader at the end.  Definitely worth hunting down, if you want an original read, but who was Robert Twohy, and where is he now?  A frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, he was nominated in 1984, 1985, and 1989 for various awards, and seems to have edited (or maybe wrote) five anthologies, the last being Silver Screams in 1994, but since then he has dropped out of sight.

Dennis Lynds's No Way Out is a classic locked room mystery, though in this case the room wasn't empty, being full of alert guards when the crime was committed.  It may even have been the inspiration for part of Silence of the Lambs ... but who was/is the author, and what else did he write?

Well, surprise, surprise, he has a Wikipedia page ... under the name of Michael Collins, the moderately wellknown science fiction writer, and also the creator of the sleuth Dan Fortune. 

The Temple by the River by Leon Comber got full marks from me for its beauty.  It is a classic the-female-of-the-species mystery, but takes place in old China, with Chinese characters, and is truly most exquisitely written.  I find that he produced a collection, The Strange Cases of Magistrate Pao, which I will hunt down swiftly -- and I also find (if I have the right Leon Comber, that is) that the story of his life would make a rousing book on its own.  After serving most of World War Two as an officer in the Indian Army, he served in Malaya's secret police during the Emergency, then went on to a prominent role in publishing in the East.  Now in his 80s, he can be located in an undoubtedly booklined office at Monash University, Melbourne, famous as the author of A Historical Survey of Sino-Malay Relations.

He was also, for a while, married to Han Suyin.  Remember A Many-Splendoured Thing?  Rather daunting for an author, I should imagine.

That brings us to Barry PerownePapa Tral's Harvest has a wonderful sense of place -- the Provencal setting is picturesque and evocative -- and has a most unusual moral theme.  Unusual in a crime story, that is.  For once, the reader has absolute sympathy with the criminal.  But who was the author?

Good lord, more pseudonyms!  Barry Perowne was one of the pennames of William Philip Atkey (1908-1985), another being Pat Merriman.  Atkey was mostly known, it seems, for continuing the Raffles series after the death of Hornung.

Why all these pseudonyms?   Was the way to make a tad more cash in those days?

It's a mystery in itself.

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