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Sunday 12 March 2017

Anita Blackmon (1892-1942)

The  Golden Age
Anita Blackmon (1892-1942)
by Carol Westron

Regular readers of these articles will know that, with the exception of Georges Simenon, I have focused on British authors of the Golden Age, and there are a vast number of them that I have yet to cover. However, for the next couple of months I’m going to feature two little remembered American Golden Age authors, Margaret Armstrong and Anita Blackmon, for the simple reason that I enjoyed their books and would like to share that pleasure.

Anita Blackmon was born in Augusta, Arkansas in 1892. Her father, Edwin Blackmon, was the local postmaster and later became mayor, and her mother was the principal of Augusta Public School. Blackmon had her higher education at Ouachita College and the University of Chicago, after which she returned to Augusta and taught Latin, German and French at a local school. After five years she moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she met and married Harry Pugh Smith in 1920.

In 1922 there was a break in this conventional working life when the couple moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and Blackmon gave up teaching in order to concentrate on writing. Over the next twelve years she wrote an impressive number of short stories under her married name of Mrs Harry Pugh Smith, these included both romantic and detective stories and were published in various magazines such as Detective Tales, Love Story Magazine and Cupid’s Diary. Some newspapers published her longer work in serial form, most notably the newspapers of her home state: The Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas records that in her twenty years of professional writing she wrote more than 1000 short stories.

In 1934 Blackmon published her first novel, Her Private Devil, using her maiden name. This was a break from the very respectable Mrs Harry Pugh Smith, and the sexual content of the book caused great outrage in her home town of Augusta. Blackmon’s publisher, William Godwin, specialised in sexually explicit and titillating novels, however Blackmon’s book, which details the life of a southern small-town girl who falls victim to her strong sexual desires, handles the subject with sensitivity and understanding.

For the next few years, Blackmon wrote traditional, mainstream novels under her married name, Mrs Harry Pugh Smith and also had published in novel form the stories that had originally been serialised. Her second novel, Handmade Rainbows (1936) tells the story of the Great Depression and a mother’s desperate struggle to support her family. It is set in the southern states of America and much of its power is due to Blackmore’s understanding of small-town America.

In 1937, Blackmon turned to writing detective fiction, adopting the style of the ‘Had I But Known’ school of
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.

1937 saw the publication of Blackmon’s Murder à la Richelieu. This followed the conventions of the ‘Had I But Known’ school, which involved a female narrator, talking directly to the reader in a discursive manner, and throughout the book expressing her regrets of how murder (and her own uncomfortable proximity to it) could have been avoided had they but known. It has to be admitted that this style of narrative can be irritating and the viewpoint character has the potential for being self-righteous and narrow-minded. However, Blackmon brings her own brand of subversive humour to the narrative and creates a narrating character that is remarkably human and funny.

In my opinion, the opening paragraph is masterly, it sets the scene, introduces the character and draws the reader in: ‘I, Adelaide Adams, spinster, was knitting in the lobby of the Richelieu the morning it all started. Not that I realized anything was starting. I am not a timorous woman. I understand I have occasionally been referred to by certain flippant members of the younger generation as “The Old Battle-Ax.” Be that as it may, had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels.’

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.

“Why – why the insolent young whippersnapper!” I exclaimed weakly.
Across the room Stephen Lansing winked at me.’

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:
‘I still insist, regardless of Ella Trotter’s gibes on the subject, that I should have succeeded in wriggling my rather corpulent body through the opening without too much difficulty. As I have bitterly pointed out, I must indeed have been at least halfway through for my writhings to have discharged the revolver in my pocket.
Yes, it went off, as empty guns have a trick of doing at the most inopportune times. Went off with a deafening explosion and an acrid puff of gunpowder, which promptly flew up my nostrils like a cloud of brimstone. Naturally I sneezed, went into a violent fit of coughing, and completely lost my balance.
That is why, when Stephen Lansing again bounded up the fire escape in his brocaded dressing gown it was to discover me hanging out my window by my knees, in the manner of the famous three-toed sloth, upside down, with tears streaming down my cheeks as I clutched the rungs of the fire escape and indulged in a series of asthmatic wheezes, while in the pocket of my purple bathrobe a small fire blazed merrily up.
“Good God, Miss Adelaide, make up your mind!” he gasped. “Are you trying to hang yourself? Or shoot yourself? Or burn yourself up?”
“At-choo! Glug! Was the only response to which I was equal at the moment.’
That’s the wonderful thing about Adelaide Adams, she tells a great story even when she is, literally, the fall guy.

The second of Blackmon’s Adelaide Adams mysteries, There Is No Return, was published a year later in 1938. Again it was set in Arkansas and in a hotel, this time in the distant Ozark Mountains at the Lebeau Inn, which, as Adelaide explains, is situated ‘in the extreme northwest and most inaccessible corner of our state, located on Mount Lebeau, the highest spot between the Cumberlands and the Rockies, or so the prospectus reads.’
Once more the book starts with Adelaide’s protests that ‘had she but known’ what was going to happen she would have not visited the Lebeau Inn where her good friend and rival in self-importance, Ella Trotter, was spending the summer vacation. This time, however, the scene Adelaide outlines is darker and more menacing: : As I pointed out, to no avail, when the body of the third disembowelled cat was discovered in my bed, had I foreseen the train of horrible events which settled over that isolated mountain inn like a miasma of death upon the afternoon of my arrival, I should have left Ella to lay her own ghosts.’

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.

The cheapest paperback books are:

Murder à la Richelieu
Published by: Coachwhip Publications.ISBN: 978-1616462222

There is No Return
Published by: Coachwhip Publications.ISBN: 978-1616462239

Both are also available on Kindle:
Murder à la Richelieu
Published by Black Heath Editions.ASIN: B00SS193D8

There Is No Return
Published by Pepik Books.ASIN: B016UPDNQ6

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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