Anita Blackmon (1892-1942)
by Carol Westron
mystery fiction novels. This school was founded by Mary Roberts Rhinehart in 1908 with the publication of her immensely popular novel The Circular Staircase, although the term ‘Had I But Known’ was coined much later, from an Ogden Nash satirical poem written in 1940, and was used in a derogatory way by critics writing about the genre, the majority of whom were male.
The action is set in the Richelieu, a small hotel, which is ‘grandiloquent in name only.’ Adelaide explains that it has some passing trade but in the main ‘caters to quiet, respectable people, mostly permanent guests, many of whom, like myself, have occupied the same room or rooms in the hotel for years.’ The hotel is situated in Arkansas, the city is not named but is clearly Little Rock, where Blackmon had lived for some years. Indeed Little Rock does actually boast a Hotel Richelieu.
Blackmon describes the inhabitants of the Richelieu with a sure and humorous touch, filtering the observations through Adelaide’s prejudices and, in this way, skilfully helping us to get to know Adelaide herself. Adelaide’s narrative includes the secrets that most middle-aged/elderly women of the time would not have shared, like the removable bridge that replaces a gap in her front teeth, without which she lisps and is almost unintelligible; and the row of false curls that augment her thinning hair, which at night she keeps in the drawer beside her bed. Despite her tough, prickly exterior, Adelaide is a kind, generous person, and, although she expresses herself in cliches, she has a shrewd, incisive mind and the courage to act in defence of the under-dog. She will wade in fighting to aid not just young girls of her own class but the young, vulnerable and often foolish waitresses in the hotel restaurant.
With a sure grasp of psychology, Blackmon makes clear the reason why Adelaide is still a spinster and her deep regrets about her lost opportunity to be a married woman with children of her own. It is because of this that she is inclined to favour young people, especially Kathleen Adair, a quiet, well-behaved young woman who does not indulge in alcohol or make-up, although she is irritated by Kathleen’s slavish devotion to her ineffectual, ailing mother. Adelaide definitely disapproves of Stephen Lansing, a handsome and flirtatious young man with several young women pursuing him, although, to her annoyance, her attempts to snub Stephen prove unsuccessful. ‘I can’t remember when I have ever felt more irritated. I glared across the room at the man. I am afraid I looked bloodthirsty. The Adair child was too nice to lose her heart to a cheap philanderer, I thought peevishly. To my astounded sense of outrage the young man caught my eye, lifted his glass, and with an impudent smile toasted me silently before he emptied the glass.
The Richelieu is plunged into chaos and suspicion when a man is murdered. For Adelaide the crime becomes personal: she had little acquaintance with the dead man but he was discovered with his throat cut, hanging from the chandelier in her sitting room. In the true spirit of a nosey, elderly spinster, Adelaide starts to ask questions and finds she has attracted the attention of a blackmailer, who may also be a killer. She agrees to pay in the hope of outwitting and identifying the blackmailer. Because she does not know who to trust, she arms herself with a gun that she fondly believes is unloaded, planning to intimidate the perpetrator when he or she appears to pick up the money. Needless to say, the plan goes wrong when the container holding the money is literally hooked up and hoisted away from the fire escape outside Adelaide’s window. Her attempts to retrieve it and identify the culprit provide one of the many laugh-out-loud moments in the book:
The action in There Is No Return starts in good classic detective mystery style: an isolated inn, accessible only by a bridge that is swiftly washed away by flood water; a murdered man, killed in the middle of a séance when the lights mysteriously fail; the majority of the guests belonging to one extended family who all have reasons to hate the victim; a medium and his young and vulnerable assistant; a young man who knows more about what is happening than he is willing to explain; a country sheriff and his assistants who are completely out of their depth and arrogantly unaware of this; plus an ‘old battle-ax’ who is fond of interfering in any murder mysteries that come her way, and her best friend who disapproves of most things she does and yet tries to beat her at her own detection game.
All the ingredients are there and, for much of the book it works really well, although more sinister and less humorous than Murder à la Richelieu. There is a drop of pace towards the end of the book, although it finishes with a flourish. There Is No Return is not quite as good a novel as Murder à La Richelieu, but it is still an amusing read, not least for the strength of the friendship between Adelaide and Ella and the sharp, prickly way it is expressed. ‘I owed my life to Ella and I would never live it down. I realized that at once. She had arrived, as she expressed it, in the nick of time… Fannie Parrish looked from one to the other of us with a baffled expression. I have no doubt she had expected Ella and me to fall into each other’s arms after what had happened. What Fannie Parrish did not realize was that both Ella and I were badly shaken by the narrowness of my escape, more shaken than either of us cared to admit... no matter what Fannie Parrish may think, Ella and I are fond of each other. It is just that it embarrasses us to betray it. That is why Ella’s first remark was, to say the least, unsympathetic. “It is exactly like you, Adelaide Adams, to try to get yourself killed, so I’d have it on my conscience for the rest of my life.”’
Sadly, Blackmon’s second Adelaide Adams book was also her last. Her husband died in 1942 and Blackmon returned to live in Little Rock. Her health deteriorated and she moved into a nursing home where she died the next year.
In his 1941 study of the detective story, Murder for Pleasure, Howard Haycraft listed Blackmon as one of the ten best female authors of the Had I But Known school of detective fiction. It is unprofitable to speculate how any writers’ career might have progressed, but it does seem possible that if Blackmon’s health had not failed she would have written more Adelaide Adams books and consolidated her position as a detective fiction writer and Adelaide would have become one of the female detective icons of the Golden Age. Unfortunately that comes into the ‘We Will Never Know’ category.
Both of Anita Blackmon’s Adelaide Adams books have been republished in the last few years.