Mystery Muses.

Filling and then whittling down my writing lair’s to-be-read endtable yields a lot of books, some few keepers finding their way onto already over-stuffed bookshelves, the rest crammed into cartons headed for the used booksellers. This time it took two trips to turn in three hefty cartons, most of those the non-keepers from my sheltering-in reading. No point in grousing about the out-of-pocket spending for those boxes-o-books vs. what I got back. Reading isn’t a business, after all. Usually all that fresh cash is burning a hole in my pocket before I can leave the store anyway. This time I behaved, more or less, and only walked out with one book (hard to believe).

Jim Huang and Austin Lugar’s 2006 Mystery Muses – 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers is a follow up to their 100 Favorite Mysteries Of The Century and They Died In Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated And Forgotten Mystery Novels. Huang and Lugar are just the editors, letting 100 mystery writers ranging from the well known to some newcomers (newcomers fifteen years ago, that is) comment on classic mystery novels that inspired or played a seminal role in their own mystery and crime fiction careers. This 224-page trade pb was a quick read, though I’ll need to revisit it again, this time with a pen and notepad handy. I’m embarrassed to admit that there were quite a few classics I still haven’t read (and a few I’d never heard of!) but also, the participating writers included a number of names I wasn’t familiar with and, in some cases, now want to know more about. 

It’s More Than Just A Fetish Picture.

The Artless Heiress 1

The picture”? Scroll way down for that one.

Clarence Budington Kelland (1881 – 1964) described himself as “the best second-rate writer in the world”. But, if he was, he was a pretty successful second-rate wordsmith, credited with 60 published novels and over 200 short story sales from westerns and mysteries to multiple juvenile series, including his story “Top Hat” which was the basis of the 1936 Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck film Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.

The Artless Heiress 2

His story “The Artless Heiress” (AKA “Miss Drugget Takes The Train”) was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1957, later collected with two other novellas in a 1962 Walter J. Black Inc. Detective Book Club hardcover edition. A long-forgotten kind of cozy, even somewhat creaky mystery, Kelland’s tale lives on because of the Post editor’s or art director’s decision to assign popular illustrator Robert Meyer to the series, one illustration in particular appropriated as a kind of a staple at many pulp and even some creepy fetish sites.

The Artless Heiress 3

Columbine Pepper Drugget is the unofficial secretary to her Aunt Egeria Cordwainer, headmistress of the Cordwainer finishing school.  Prim, proper but ‘spunky’ twenty-one year-old Columbine still favors the same severe uniform style shifts, schoolgirl hats, chunky oxfords and thick white stockings she grew accustomed to when a pupil at Cordwainer herself. She hasn’t even gotten her hair cut short and bobbed yet, and wears steel-rimmed specs, considering horn-rimmed glasses a trendy affectation. When a mysterious attorney’s letter that may promise an inheritance prompts her to take a train ride (just like the title says) she’ll quickly become embroiled in a dangerous – make that potentially deadly – mystery that begins with a luggage mix-up, a cache of precious gems, a voodoo doll and a revolver in a stranger’s suitcase. Her inheritance turns out to be a peculiar old Arizona resort hotel. Multiple mysterious mishaps occur while Columbine acquires an entourage of oddly named acquaintances like Roxy Thistlebun and Artemus Thumb, and emboldened by her adventures, eventually exchanges her schoolgirl coif and dowdy duds for an all-new style. Ultimately finding herself in quite a fix when bad guys after the property (or mysterious valuables hidden there) get rough, Columbine triumphs and everything turns out well in the end, befitting Kelland’s typically tame puzzlers.

The Artless Heiress 4

While many pulp and paperback artists never got a chance to read a summary of the material they were illustrating, Robert Meyer’s paintings all faithfully depict actual scenes from Kelland’s tale. It’s just that they put a slicker contemporary spin (for 1957) on a rather obsolete story. Whether that was the illustrator’s intent or he was prodded to freshen up Kelland’s fun but fundamentally fussy tale remains unknown. Regardless, I assume there’s a legion of folks with a squirm-worthy fondness for a pair of damsels in visible distress, even if they’ve never heard of Clarence Budington Kelland, couldn’t care less about Columbine Pepper Drugget blossoming into an independent woman (circa 1957, that is) as she puzzles her way through a series of adventures, and may not even know who artist Robert Meyer (1919 – 1970) was. Yes, that particular picture really is more than just a tawdry bit of provocative perviness, and surprisingly, you can track down Kelland’s story (in either title) quite easily online.

Clarence Budington Kelland Books

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