Mary McMullen (1920-1986), a/k/a Mary Reilly Wilson, had an interesting writing pedigree. Her mother was the distinguished and prolific mystery writerMary McMullen (1920-1986), a/k/a Mary Reilly Wilson, had an interesting writing pedigree. Her mother was the distinguished and prolific mystery writer, Helen Reilly, which brings up interesting comparisons between them and the mother/daughter duo, Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, although I daresay the Clarks are more successful financially. Mary McMullen, however, also had a sister, Ursula Curtiss, who was a suspense author, and her uncle James Kieran wrote mystery fiction (yet another family member, John F. Kieran, was a sportswriter and long-time panelist on the1940s radio program Information Please).
McMullen had early success in 1952 when she received the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, Stranglehold, but didn't publisher another novel for over two decades until 1974 and then, in a flurry of activity, cranked out 18 additional mysteries in just 12 years.
Her stories often drew on the advertising and fashion worlds she was familiar with and her settings included sleepy hamlets, but her writing was neither cozy nor noir, a hybrid which reviewer Steve Lewis called "domestic malice" with a lot of bite. A Country Kind of Death from 1975 starts out as an idyllic summer for the young daughters of the Keane family who pass the two months their mother is off in Europe inventing murder stories, not surprising since their father is a crime writer. But when the stories become all too real, everyone including the police wants to believe a mysterious death was an accident, since the alternative is an unthinkable crime committed by someone in their midst.
McMullen's writing is filled with details that evoke a distinctive sense of place and she also possessed a wry, ironic humor and enjoyed poking fun at pretentious people. The Keane family is a semi-Bohemian clan and neighbors to the unfortunate Mrs. Mint, who
"did not allow the Keanes or her stepchildren or any but the most honored visitors to use the front way, as the door opened directly into her living room, a perfect marvel of cleanliness, cretonne, tautly pinned-on antimacassars, rubber plants so dusted and oiled as to seem artificial, china figurines, tapestry-covered footstools, and fat hard upholstered furniture. There were no books, no magazines, newspapers, or ashtrays in the room and it was always kept dark, the cretonne curtains drawn, the shades down, so that the sun couldn't fade its splendors."
Patrick Keane, brother of the crime-writer father and a successful playwright, plays a crucial role in the denouement and has his own wry observations about the literary and entertainment circles the Keanes run in:
"The dinner party had gone predictably, from the shrimp dip to the cold sliced ham and turkey to Elaine Bonner attacking him fiercely with hot gray eyes and half-bared breasts whenever her husband's back was turned, to the local bon vivant who probably told the same long anecdotes at every Bedford party to the three women who told him they adored his plays to Johnny Coe, urged finally to the piano, and singing, 'Oh Oh Oriole' and 'Pray Forget Me,' this last bringing tears and a meaning look at Patrick to Elaine's eyes."
The strength of this particular novel by McMullen is less in the whodunnit and police procedural aspects which are minimized and more in the characterizations and how human failings and foibles knit closely together to create tragedy.
All of McMullen's books are out of print, although several of her works were included in The Detective Book Club subscription series of 3-in-1 (and some 2-in-1 and singles) reprinted novels by various authors distributed from the early forties onward by publisher Walter J. Black....more
British author Alfred Edward Woodley (A.E.W.) Mason, born in 1865, spent much of his career serving in Parliament and in World War I where he worked iBritish author Alfred Edward Woodley (A.E.W.) Mason, born in 1865, spent much of his career serving in Parliament and in World War I where he worked in naval intelligence. Although his first novel was A Romance at Wastdale, Mason is credited with one of the earliest fictional police detective protagonists, Inspector Hanaud of the French Sûreté. The novel in which Hanaud made his debut was Murder at the Villa Rose, published in 1910.
Mason created Hanaud as an anti-Sherlock Holmes, at least in appearance, a short, broad man who resembles a "prosperous comedian." Hanaud's Watson-esque sidekick is Julius Ricardo, a fussy English dilettante. It's quite possible that Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings (or possibly Christie's Mr. Satterthwaite) were modeled on the characters of French-speaking Hanaud and Englishman Ricardo.
The plot is based loosely on real cases (a wealthy French widow found murdered in her villa and an English shopkeeper murdered for jewels), and Mason also drew on procedural details from the memoirs of French policemen. Basically, when the elderly and eccentric Mme. D'Auvray is murdered in her home, the Villa Rose, and suspicion falls on her young companion, Celia Harland who's gone missing, Hanaud is called onto the case. But Hanaud solves the crime midway through the book, with the latter half told in flashback as the readers are left to piece together what exactly happened and are challenged to guess the solution to the murder mystery from the clues provided.
Several of Mason's works were later adapted for the silver screen, including four versions of Murder at the Villa Rose, a silent film in 1920 and two "talkies" from 1930 (one in English, one in French), and another in 1940. Mason went on to write four other books featuring Inspector Hanaud, but he's perhaps best known for his novel The Four Feathers (not a crime fiction novel per se), which is one of the most-filmed novels of the 20th century, including the latest incarnation from 2002 with Heath Ledger in the role of Harry Feversham.
A few interesting trivia bits about Mason: England's King George V was a friend and one of his most avid readers; although Mason penned little in the way of spy stories, he was a successful agent for years in Spain and Northern Mexico (it's said he may have foiled a German plot to move anthrax infected livestock into France during WWI); Mason was a failed actor, although he appeared in a small number of works on the London stage during the late 1880s; his story "The Crystal Trench" was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of the few episodes directed by Hitchcock himself; and Mason was offered a knighthood for his literary work, but declined it, saying such honors meant nothing to a childless man....more