Classic Crime: A Man Built in a Wall

The last time I posted to my Classic Crime series, it was to share a relatively unknown Edgar Allan Poe murder mystery. Today, I’m sharing a tale that might be one of the inspirations for one of my favorite Poe stories.

Joel Headley (1813 - 1897)
Joel Headley (1813 – 1897) Source: Wikimedia

“The Cask of Amontillado,” first published in 1846, has inspired countless readings and presentations. The one I like best is Vincent Price’s recital from An Evening with Vincent Price (1970). I also recently discovered this interpretation by Lou Reed, featuring Steve Buscemi (Fortunato) and Willem Dafoe (Montresor), which is worth a listen. It probably doesn’t make as much sense if you don’t already know the story, but I doubt that’s an issue with most people who come across it.

I’d never given much thought to where Poe might have gotten the idea — he’s Poe, after all; but, then, I stumbled on a reference to Joel Headley‘s anecdote, “A Man Built in a Wall,” from his travelogue Letters from Italy, and its possible influence on “Cask.” In 1843, Headley wrote of viewing a skeleton immured in the wall of the Church of San Lorenzo, in the town of San Giovanni. The skeleton had been discovered during renovations of the church, and left in place.

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Classic Crime: Thou Art the Man

LitHub’s This Week in Literary History for the week of April 17-23, 2022 commemorated the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Magazine April 1841, thereby launching the modern detective story.

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, engraving by Thomas Welch and Adam Walter, circa 1840s. Source: Wikimedia

One might take issue with the statement that Poe “invented” the detective story: E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1819 Mademoiselle de Scuderi certainly counts as a detective story, in my mind; and you can trace demonstrations of Holmesian-style ratiocination all the way back to at least the 1557 story cycle Peregrinaggio (you can find my retelling of the specific tale I’m thinking of here). But it is true that Poe’s Auguste Dupin and the adoring narrator-friend of Dupin’s cases defined the framework that gave us Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the entire genre of ratiocination-style tales as we know it today.

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The Four-Fifteen Express

Since I have a little extra time, I’ve decided to post an “extra” winter tale this week: namely the one I meant to post the first week of December! I originally chose “The Four-Fifteen Express” as this year’s opening story, because it’s a good transition from the Classic Crime series to Winter Tales.

Clerkenwell tunnel 768

William Langford returns home from business abroad just in time to spend December with some old friends in East Anglia. A chance encounter on the train ride to his hosts’ home leads to a mystery, a scandal, and maybe more….

You can read “The Four-Fifteen Express” here.

Writer and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) might be best known today for her ghost story “The Phantom Coach” (which is also set at Christmas). In addition to ghost stories, her short fiction includes “whodunnits,” as well as other types of crime stories and tales of the macabre. Many of her supernatural stories have a strong crime fiction sensibility. That’s a good combination, as far as I’m concerned. If you agree, then I hope you will enjoy “The Four-Fifteen Express.”

And be sure to look out for my Christmas eve tale, later this week.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Featured Image: Train in the Snow or The Locomotive, Claude Monet (1875). Source: WikiArt

Metropolitan Railway at Clerkenwell Tunnel, P. Broux, Illustration for Les nouvelles conquêtes de la science, vol. 2 by Louis Figuier. Source: Old Book Illustrations.

Classic Crime: Talma Gordon

Today: the second Lizzie Borden-inspired crime tale, and of the earliest (possibly the first) published mysteries by a black author. “Talma Gordon” appeared in the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine, an early literary and cultural journal for African-American readers. The author of “Talma Gordon,” Pauline Hopkins, was also the magazine’s editor, and one of its most profilic contributors.

Pauline Hopkins
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930). Source: coloredamerican.org

I wrote about Pauline Hopkins for my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series, so I’ll quote what I said about “Talma Gordon” there:

Lovely golden-haired Talma Gordon is accused of the grisly murder of her wealthy father Jonathan Gordon, her stepmother, and her infant half-brother. During the investigation it comes out that Talma did not get along with her stepmother, that her father had forbidden Talma’s marriage to struggling artist Edward Turner — and that Gordon had been planning to leave the bulk of his wealth to his son, with only a small annuity to each of the two daughters of his first wife. Talma is acquitted legally, but not necessarily in the court of public opinion. What really happened?

You can read “Talma Gordon” here.

If you’ve read Hopkins’ fiction before, you’ll recognize the themes in “Talma Gordon.” On the plus side, it’s a crisp and engaging crime tale, and if there had been an American equivalent of The Strand Magazine at the time, “Talma Gordon” would have been right at home. On the other hand, I do have to give it a point off for a Deux ex machina ending, and some aspects of the story haven’t aged well—because some of the cultural attitudes of the time are, thankfully, no longer acceptable.

All in all, if you’re looking for a unique take on the Lizzie Borden story, as well as an interesting piece of literary and African-American history, do check out “Talma Gordon.” I hope you enjoy it!

Classic Crime: The Long Arm

Today’s Classic Crime is one I’ve shared before, but it’s a story I really like, by an author I admire. “The Long Arm,” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, is the first of two women-authored murder mysteries I plan to present that were probably inspired by the infamous Lizzie Borden case.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman Source: Wikimedia

Sarah Fairbanks is an unmarried schoolteacher who’s been engaged to her beau for five years. But for some reason, her father disapproves of the relationship. Sarah argues loudly with him about her fiancé one night when she is home for summer vacation. The next morning, she finds her father in his bed — murdered. Suspicion falls quickly on Sarah, and soon she’s arrested.

At the trial, Sarah is acquitted (like Lizzie Borden was), but she is shunned by the community, which still suspects her guilt. So to clear her own name, Sarah decides to investigate the murder herself. Can she find the murderer and prove her innocence?

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Classic Crime: The Archduke’s Tea

Today’s classic crime story comes from journalist, Golden Age mystery author, and historical novelist Henry Christopher Bailey. Bailey is probably best remembered today for his long-running series of Reggie Fortune stories, featuring a surgeon with a talent for solving crime. In this post, I’m sharing Reggie Fortune’s debut case!

CallMrFortune

The Archduke’s Tea” opens with Reggie’s parents going on holiday, leaving Reggie to mind his father’s thriving medical practice. Almost immediately, Reggie is summoned to attend the Archduke Maurice, heir to the throne of Bohemia, who currently lives in the wealthy suburb where Dr. Fortune practices. The Archduke was stuck by a hit-and-run driver while on one of his habitual countryside rambles. While hurrying to his patient, Reggie comes across another hit-and-run victim lying by the side of the road–very dead. And this victim bears a striking bodily resemblance to the Archduke.

Suspicious. Also suspicious: Maurice’s brother Leopold–next in line for the throne–is visiting his brother. And it seems the Archduchess, who hates life in the royal Court, is a speed-demon who loves to race up and down the roads in her own “ferocious vehicle”…

Who struck the Archduke? Can Reggie catch the attacker before they strike again?

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Two Bottles of Relish

9780008159368

I’ve long been a fan of Lord Dunsany’s beautiful prose, and I can’t get as much of it as I would like. Much of his early work, now in the public domain, is high fantasy, which is a genre I’m not fond of. His later (non-public domain) work isn’t much published anymore. So I was overjoyed to discover that Harper Collins has reprinted Dunsany’s only volume of crime stories, Two Bottles of Relish: The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories — and at a very reasonable price. An early Christmas gift to me! Continue reading

A Little More than Kin, and Less than Kind

Cigar

My husband and I had a quiet evening at home last night, watching a Columbo episode: “Short Fuse”. He and I are huge Columbo fans; we have both entire series (the original 1970’s series, and the late eighties/early nineties series) on DVD. I’ve seen the entire seventies series several times, plus a few episodes of the generally inferior “new” series.

Anyway, the plot of “Short Fuse” is as follows: David Buckner (James Gregory) is president of Stanford Chemicals, which is owned by his wife, Doris “Dory” Buckner, née Stanford (Ida Lupino). Buckner wants to sell Stanford Chemicals to The Conglomerate. He is opposed by his nephew, Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall), whose father founded Stanford Chemicals. Roger’s parents (both chemists?) died in a chemical explosion when Roger was underage, and apparently his Aunt Dory became his guardian and inherited the company.

For some reason, Roger doesn’t have enough shares in the family company to block the sale, but he does have influence over his Aunt Dory, who does. Buckner tries to blackmail Roger into dropping his opposition, so that Aunt Dory will also agree to the sale. Luckily, Roger is also a boy genius chemist (PhD before he was 21!); he fixes up an exploding cigar box to kill Buckner. He then plants evidence to suggest that the company vice-president, Everitt Logan, is engaged in industrial espionage for a competitor.

Buckner goes “BOOM!”. Aunt Dory fires Logan, then appoints Roger to be the head of Stanford Chemicals. Everything is going Roger’s way, until Columbo discovers the truth. End of story.

It’s a pretty good episode. Roddy McDowall seems to be having fun in his role, with his groovier-than-Greg-Brady poet shirts and his incredibly tight jeans. James Gregory is always a pleasure to watch, and Ida Lupino is lovely. Peter Falk is his usual terrific self. But let’s be honest — the plot is way more convoluted than it needs to be, and doesn’t entirely make sense.

If Roger’s father founded Stanford Chemicals, and Roger is now an adult, why does Aunt Dory still own it? Why doesn’t Roger have the controlling shares? Wouldn’t this all make more sense if the company were owned by Roger’s mother, and David Buckner was his stepfather? No mysterious, parent-killing explosions at the plant when Roger was underage, no guardian arrangements — so much cleaner.

Ah, but then it would be patricide.

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