Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Forgotten Classics: “Shakespeare of London” by Marchette Chute

You’re reading an article on literary criticism, and you spot an almost easy-to-overlook aside: “For example, no one has really explained William Shakespeare like Marchette Chute did in 1947.” The reference is to a book she wrote, Shakespeare of London, and it was published in 1950, not 1947. But it was high praise indeed.

You ask yourself, “How is that possible? How is a biography of Shakespeare published 70 years ago better than anything more recent? We have so much more research, so many more historical and literary studies, so much more information. And we have the internet. How could someone make a statement like that?”

They were able to make the statement because it’s true. Shakespeare of London has been long out-of-print, but it is still a classic, and you can still find used copies via sources like Amazon and Alibris.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, June 29, 2020

“Alias S.S. Van Dine” by John Loughery

While the mystery detective story may have been invented by Edgar Allen Poe, detective stories generally languished in America until the 1920s, with a few notable exceptions like Mary Roberts Rinehart. The British dominated the genre, both in Britain and the United States. Then, in 1926, Scribner’s published The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine, a story featuring a rather snobby, almost effete detective named Philo Vance. 

Scribner’s was not known for publishing mystery or detective stories. Van Dine’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, also served at the time as the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and for Thomas Wolfe and Margaret Kinnan Rawlings a few years later. In this case, the detective mystery sold well, so well that Scribner’s contracted with Van Dine to publish more. The second in the series, The Canary Murder Case, skyrocketed Philo Vance and S.S. Van Dine to national fame. 

Willard Huntington Wright
Part of the attraction was S.S. Van Dine’s identity. No one knew who it was, and Scribner’s wasn’t saying. And part of the attraction was that the fictional detective happened to capture the spirit of the Jazz Age better than just about any fiction being published. The public couldn’t get enough of Philo Vance. 

Not everyone was impressed; one of the very few negative reviews of The Benson Murder Case came from a relatively unknown writer named Dashiell Hammett. But Philo Vance and S.S. Van Dine put the American detective story on the map, paving the way for an entire generation of noir writers like Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Van Dine was Willard Huntington Wright, known for being more of an art critic, book reviewer, and editor than a mystery writer. He had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Seta novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore DreiserWright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. He knew Max Perkins from his brief Harvard days, and he presented the editor with three story treatments, which became the first three Philo Vance stories.

But the man was complex, and he’d led a complicated life. John Loughery tells the story of that life in Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance. Published in 1992, the biography deservedly won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best biography. It is a well-researched, in-depth work, its accomplishment even more marked by the fact that Wright told so many different stories (some embroidered truths, others outright lies) about his childhood, upbringing, education, and work experience. Loughery sifted through all the information to produce a well-written, engaging biography.

He tells a complete story. Wright had a first-rate mind, but he tended to squander his talents. He didn’t like to follow direction, especially from the people who employed him. He treated his wife and daughter rather shamefully, and his serial philandering was the least of that treatment. He disdained popular literature, seeing himself as an arbiter of artistic ideas and understanding. In many cases, he was exactly that. He borrowed money from whomever would lend it to him. 

John Loughery today
Finally, in desperate financial straits, he presented Perkins with three ideas for detective stories. The editor, no fan of detective fiction, immediately recognized the commercial possibilities. From 1926 to about 1934, Wright rode a wave of popularity that combined publishing and film (most of the Philo Vance stories became movies). But his creativity waned; the later of the 12 novels were weaker than the earlier ones. By 1938, Perkins was saying they would publish no more; the stories simply weren’t selling like they had. But Scribner’s knew that Van Dine and Philo Vance had saved the publishing firm from disaster after the stock market crash of 1929.

Loughery has also published Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish AmericaDorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American CenturyThe Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay IdentitiesJohn Sloan: Painter and Rebel, and other works. He’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography and received the Edgar Award in Biography from the Mystery Writers of America for Alias S.S. Van DineHe has also edited three anthologies. First Sightings: Contemporary Stories of American Youth (1993), Into the Widening World: International Coming-of-Age Stories (1994), and The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic and Creative Nonfiction (2000). Born in 1953, he lives in New York City.

Wright died in 1939 from heart disease; he was 51. He and his novels were quickly forgotten until a minor revival in the 1990s. But Philo Vance was an American original; he put American detective fiction on the world literary map and could rightly point to what he made possible – Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane, Perry Mason, and so many characters and stories in detective fiction. Alias S.S. Van Dine tells a fine story about a talented and very imperfect man.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

The prophetess

After Luke 2:35-38

She’d been here
for years, never
leaving, always
serving, speaking
words that inspired
or foretold or
frightened or all 
of the above, often
at the same time.
She’d lived here,
in worship and prayer,
fasting and praying,
until she saw
the child who
was foretold.
As a prophetess 
does, she saw the child
and prophesied.

Photograph by Glen Hudson via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Saturday Good Reads

Coronavirus. The upheaval of protests and riots. The spectacles of watching people attack statues of not only Confederate generals but also Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists, and the 54th Massachusetts. At Breaking Ground, poet James Matthew Wilson considers these things and suggests that understanding is only going to come through contemplation, and poetry is the fine art of contemplation. Read “Verse Lines When the Streets Are on Fire.”

Poet and writer Angela Alaimo O’Donnell published a book about Flannery O’Connor, entitled Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor. Paul Elie reviewed it for The New Yorker, and it wasn’t the most balanced or thoughtful of reviews (consider the review’s title: “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”). A number of writers took issue with Elie’s review, including Jessica Hooten Wilson, who describes “How Flannery O’Connor Fought Racism” for First Things Magazine. I don’t write for The New Yorker, but even I understand what Flannery O’Connor was doing in her stories.

Samuel James took a respite from blogging, and now he’s back. I’ve always found his writing to be thoughtful, considerate, and deep. He takes a look at a book he read two years ago, The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, and considers the topic that is more controversial than both religion and politics.

My favorite story of Washington Post craziness was the January 2017 report of Russians hacking the electric grid, a story that the Post kept dialing backward after repeated criticism (including from some journalists) until it bore no resemblance to the original (you can do things like this online, a contemporary version of the old Soviet encyclopedia). Josh Barro and Olivia Nuzzi at New York Magazine have found another one, and ask “Why Did the Washington Post Get This Woman Fired?.”

More Good Reads


The Wife’s Lament: A Medieval Poem about Isolation – Eleanor Parker at Torch Oxford.

The Enigma Machine – Amit Majmudar at Literary Matters.

Patrick’s Rune – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Telling the Bees About Love – Bruce Meyer at The Chained Muse.


Fatherhood: Much More than Financial Provision – Gisle Sorli at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics.

Marxism, Postmodernism, and Critical Race Theory – Brant Bosserman at Gentle Reformation.

My Favourite Graveyard – Seth Lewis.

Writing and Literature

Please! Hold Off on That Novel Coronavirus Novel! – Bill Morris at The Millions.

Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth Sermon – Adam Horn at Church Life Journal.

Walker Percy’s “The Second Coming” – James Como at The Imaginative Conservative.

Life and Culture

Of dishonored memory – James Bowman at New Criterion. 

The Blind Boys of Alabama: Amazing Grace

Painting: Young Man Reading, oil on panel (ca. 1650) by Jacob van Loo (1614-1670).

Friday, June 26, 2020

A surprise

After Luke 2:25-25 and 2 Corinthians 5:20

The parents watched
the child raised 
in the air by
the old man,
standing in front
of them, radiant,
surrounded by
a fire without 
flame and heat,
a sound without
The parents watched.
The parents saw.
The parents marveled.

Photograph by Caleb Jones via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"Murder to Music" by Margaret Newman

Detective-Superintendent Simon Hudson is falling in love. A widower for many years (his first wife died when had been married for only four months), Hudson knows that his relationship with Delia Jones is becoming serious, and he’s considering when it might be best for him to ask her to marry him. Delia is a member of the Metropolitana, an amateur 200-strong choral society that stages productions in London. Young as she is, she’s also a member of the society’s managing committee and knows quite a bit about the organization’s politics and personalities.

The personalities include the official conductor, the 79-year-old Evan Tredegar, who’s something of a major presence in London music. He’s just finished composing a choral mass, and the Metropolitana will be performing it. Another personality is Owen Burr, the prickly assistant conductor who has the gift of managing to offend and insult everything he works with. The work is considered so significant that an Italian tenor Cassati will be joining them – a huge coup for the society.

Hudson is in the theater for the performance, with an excellent seat thanks to Delia. The performance is a triumph with a considerable amount of loud music at the end. As the audience is standing in thunderous applause, Owen Burr clutches the conductor’s podium and falls over, dead. He’s been shot, and the angles suggest the gun could have been fired from one of three “plumes” of direction. Two of the three plumes implicate members of the orchestra and choir (including Delia); the third points to the composer himself. And so Hudson finds himself investigating a murder in which one of the suspects is the woman he intends to propose to.

First published in 1959, Murder to Music by Margaret Newman tells the story of how Hudson solves the crime, sometimes stumbling his way into revelations about the various suspects. No one seems particularly interested in helping too much, and Hudson more than once finds himself having to put suspects in the places and being a bit heavy-handed with his intended fiancĂ©e.

Margaret Potter (1926-1998), nee Newman, wrote under both her married and maiden names, as well as the pen names Anne Betteridge and Anne Melville. She published more than 50 romance, children’s and mystery novels and numerous short stories. Murder to Music is the only novel the British author published under her maiden name. She received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford.

Murder to Music is an intriguing mix of mystery, with the extensive overlay of music, a music society and its politics, and a motive buried in the distant past. 

Top photograph by Manuel Nageli via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Finding Romance in Alaska, Part 1

Sometimes you head north – the far north – to find romance.

Cadence Whitmore has arrived in Sunset Ridge, Alaska, for a somber purpose – the reading of her great-aunt Patty’s will. Patty has left the town’s star resort to Cadence and her two sisters, one a chef in New York City and the other married to a surgeon in Hawaii. Cadence herself is an aspiring real estate agent in Kansas. She has strong memories of the summer she and her sisters lived with Patty; Cadence was 13, her mother had died, and her father was unable to cope with his wife’s death. 

The plan is to list and sell the resort as soon as possible. Next-door neighbor Ford Harris has a different idea. He wants to see the resort reopened, and he has an incentive. His young sister is preparing to leave for college in Boston, and her scholarship only covers about half of what’s needed. Patty, in a separate document the Whitmore sisters don’t know about, promised $50,000 to Ford if he can convince them to reopen the lodge. Convincing “them” means first convincing Cadence, who’s the one on the scene and in charge of working with the attorney.

Jacqueline Winters
Ford is not interested in romance. He’s never really recovered from the death of his wife, and he’s been content to serve as brother and surrogate parent to his sister Riley. He first meets Cadence when she has something of a confrontation with Ed the Moose, and while he’s putting in plan in place to convince her to stay, he finds himself falling, and falling hard, for her.

Moose Be Love by Jacqueline Winters is the story of Cadence and Ford and the first in the author’s Sunset Ridge series. She’s also written several novels in the Starlight Cowboy series and the Simply Scandalous series. A native of Nebraska, Winters spent a decade living in Alaska.

It’s a fun story that ends as expected (and hoped for – that’s what romance novels are supposed to do). It also introduces Sophie and Tessa, the other Whitmore sisters, and it’s easy to see what’s coming next in the series. And a favorite character has to be Ed the Moose.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Poets and Poems: Major Jackson and “Holding Company”

It’s been some time since we had one of our Tweetspeak Poetry parties on Twitter – online poetry jams playing off prompts from memoirs, poems, plays, or other literary works. I miss them; Tweetspeak itself was born in a poetry party moment. Editing the submissions into coherent poems can be a challenge; aligning lines of five, ten, or twenty people tweeting in response to a prompt or each other can look daunting at best or chaotic at worst. That is, until you find the theme or idea that brings order to the chaos, and often brings it suddenly.

Reading the 80 poems of Holding Company, the 2010 poetry collection by Major Jackson, is a similar experience. Jackson brings together ideas, themes, phrases, and often jolting metaphors in these poems, surprising, perplexing, and sometimes shocking the reader. And then the understanding comes, and with a smack of the head, the reader asks, “Why didn’t I see that immediately?” It may be because Jackson leads the eye and mind to a different understanding and a different context.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, June 22, 2020

"The Winter Murder Case" by S.S. Van Dine

Few outside his immediate circle of friends knew it, but S.S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries, was in declining health. He had suffered a mild heart attack; he was told by his doctor that the prognosis was not good and that his end would be sooner rather than later. He continued to work; the need for money was always present.

He wrote the next Philo Vance mystery as he had written the previous stories. He would create a core story of some 20,000 words, and then rewrite it, adding in all the detail, footnotes, and extended discussions of art, theater, sports, and anything else that served as one of the hallmarks of the detective. In other words, he first wrote the basic narrative, and then he came back to embellish it.

The 1939 book cover
He did finish the basic story of the last manuscript – some 20,000 words. The typist stacked the pages neatly on his desk. But he never finished the novel, and he never saw the typed version. He died on April 11, 1939, the manuscript unfinished.

As a consequence, The Winter Murder Case is the shortest of the Philo Vance mysteries. It’s missing some of the familiar characters, like Sergeant Ernest Heath and his band of detectives. District Attorney John F.X. Markham has but a fleeting role at the beginning of the story. And there are no footnotes and other Philo Vance trademarks. Even the narrator “Van” is barely mentioned.

Vance has been asked to come to the Carrington Rexon estate in the Berkshires. It’s the height of winter and snow is everywhere. There’s a house party involving the usual assortment of jaded friends and hangers-on, and the Rexon patriarch is fearful that his collection of emeralds is at risk. The daughter of the estate manager is an accomplished ice skater, and ice-skating looms large in the story. An estate guard is found dead, seemingly of an accidental fall but actually of a blow to the head. The patriarch is himself attacked and knocked out, and some of the prize emeralds are stolen.

Movie poster via Wikipedia
It’s an odd story for a Philo Vance mystery. Vance has never been called in before a crime happens, but in this case he is. The murders (there are two) appear almost accidental, with one of the “master criminal mind” directing them. It’s a Philo Vance story that “might have been,” had Van Dine lived long enough to finish the rewriting and editing.

Working with executives at Paramount Studios, Van Dine wrote the story specifically to provide a role for skating star Sonja Henie (the studio suggested the title be The Sonja Henie Murder Case, following the success of The Gracie Allen Murder Case book and movie, but Van Dine resisted).  

Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) was an art critic who had been literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, an editor of The Smart Set, a novelist, an art historian, and art exhibition organizer. A friend of H.L. Mencken and an admirer of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Wright hated romance and detective fiction with a passion, until he needed money. In 1926, he published the first Philo Vance story, The Benson Murder Case, with Scribners. And he used the pen name “S.S. Van Dine.” 

S.S. Van Dine
Scribner’s dutifully published The Winter Murder Case as written in 1939, but its sales were disappointing. Paramount did eventually film and release the movie, but dropping the Vance character, changed the title, and rewrote the story so much that’s unrecognizable from the book. The 1941 movie was called Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie, Milton Berle, John Payne, and Glenn Miller. The movie is best remembered for its Glenn Miller tunes, including “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

The novel, more properly called a novella, was usually included in various Van Dine anthologies. It was reprinted in 1993 by mystery expert and publisher Otto Penzler, as part of his Classic American Mystery Library series. To help make it a fuller book, Penzler included Van Dine’s once-famous article “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”


Sunday, June 21, 2020

A revelation

After Luke 2:25-25 and 2 Corinthians 5:20

He knew, within
the confines of
the place, the city,
because it had been
revealed, only to him,
a personal prophecy,
the time of the wait,
the long wait, that
he would not greet
death until he saw
the king, the one
promised, the one
foretold, the one
named messiah.
That time came,
unexpectedly, a thief
in the night, and
he knew the promise
was fulfilled. He knew
he could now die,
a believer before

Photograph by Stefan Kunze via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Dancing Prince Available for Pre-Order

A mother's last words, a father's final message, and a strange painting: Michael Kent-Hughes faces personal tragedy, one that leads to long-lasting damage to the relationship with his youngest child, Prince Thomas. As the young boy grows to adulthood and the estrangement from his father continues, he finds his own way in life. But in the boy's hands and heart will lie the future of the kingdom. Dancing Prince is the moving conclusion of the Dancing Priest series.
Dancing Prince, to be published about July 1, is now available for pre-order.
What readers say about the Dancing Priest series
"At least a dozen times, I had to stop reading Dancing Priest for a moment to control the tears. The story is that gripping, that real."
"I found myself not wanting Dancing Priest to end. There was so much imagery and amazing detail in the story. As an artist, I was amazed at how accurately he understood us."
"In turns suspenseful and heartwarming, A Light Shining has all the qualities of those classic tales that stay with you for the long journey. These characters become friends and fellow sojourners, making their way into a reader's heart and encouraging a deeper faith - one that has hands and feet. We all need such role models as Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes."
"Read A Light Shining any way you can: Kindle, Nook, paper. Be prepared to leave long blocks of time to read. Guaranteed. Be prepared to be captured with this story."
"With Dancing King, it is such a joy to be back in this world, which is so well-rendered it could qualify as alternate history. And no one writes a crowd scene like Glynn Young."
"Themes of redemption, restoration, courage, and community run deep through the lines of Dancing King. Once again, Glynn Young exceeds readers' hopes, showing a main character in Michael Kent-Hughes who continues to mature in his faith and leadership."
"In Dancing Prophet, Glynn Young continues to weave a great story with stirring characters and plot lines that anticipate the headlines. This book gives him a chance to give more backstory to some familiar characters while moving our principals, Michael and Sarah, forward into their new roles. I only wish book 5 was already out!"
"It's 3 am but I just finished reading a wonderful book that I couldn't put down, the fourth book in the Dancing Priest series by Glynn Young, entitled, Dancing Prophet. Wow, it lived up to the greatness of the prior three books."