04/17/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

Getting Reacquainted with a Crime Fiction Great ‹ CrimeReads

When Elzabeth Fenwick’s psychological crime thriller The Make-Believe Man was published in 1963, one of the novel’s many laudatory reviewers, a young North Carolina newspaper columnist named James Alexander Dunn, in the Chapel Hill News perceptively placed his finger on the signal quality of the author’s crime fiction.  “Elizabeth Fenwick has successfully combined a believable situation with people who matter—not that they are important people,” he observed.  “On the contrary, there is not an entity in the lot.  But they are familiar people whom you would not like to be in the situation Miss Fenwick places them in.”  In reviewing the same novel that year, Robert R. Kirsch, longtime literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, echoed with Dunn’s sentiment, trenchantly declaring: “The great gift of Miss Fenwick is to take the ordinary situation and translate it into nightmare.”  Elizabeth Fenwick’s own colleagues concurred in these judgments. The next year The Make-Believe Man placed second for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best novel to Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (perhaps better known under its film adaptation title, Topkapi), along with Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man and Ellery Queen’s The Player on the Other Side—an estimable lot of crime fiction.

Arguably this was the high point in the career as a crime writer of a woman who in her lifetime never received, despite the praise afforded her, sufficient due, both critical and monetary, as such; and who herself well knew from personal experience about the desperate struggles of people sunk in the depths of situations they do not want to be in, yet which they have somehow to navigate in order to reach the shelter of a safe harbor.  That shelter was something which Elizabeth Fenwick herself never quite achieved until later in life, despite her many remarkable accomplishments.  Yet she persevered, leaving readers all the richer for her work.

The crime writer known as Elizabeth Fenwick went through several authorial appellations in life, but she started off as plain Elizabeth Jane Phillips. Born on April 6, 1916 in the city St. Louis, Missouri, Elizabeth was the second daughter of Jerome Jay Phillips and Elizabeth Jane Nicholson, who called each other Jay and Beth.  Elizabeth grew up as an only child, her slightly elder sister Eleanor having passed away in 1920 during the dying days of the deadly flu pandemic; and as a solitary child she lived a precarious, peripatetic existence with colorfully quirky parents.

Beth Nicholson was a pretty, spirited young woman of pious, patriarchal Canadian Scots-Irish descent who rebelling against a repressive father left her home in Canada at the age of seventeen in 1903 to settle with relatives in Boston.  Over a decade later she met Jay Phillips while dining alone at a rathskeller at a St. Louis hotel during a tour with the Ziegfeld Follies.  Small and bowlegged, Beth to her chagrin had been hired by Florenz Ziegfeld, the Great Man himself, after he got a good look at her gams, strictly to play boys.  No mere boy himself, Jay—six feet tall, blond and blue-eyed, good-humored, well-mannered and single, of prominent family and in control of his own considerable fortune—seemed an enviable catch indeed for the Follies performer and Beth soon hauled him into her matrimonial net, wedding him at Greenwich, Connecticut on February 3, 1914 and bearing him a daughter, Eleanor, later that year.  However, the couple’s promising fortunes were undone by the improvidence of Jay, an amiable drinker and gambler who remained, even after his marriage, under the thumb of his formidable widowed mother, Nellie Usher Curlee Phillips, and refused to leave St. Louis for Boston.

Nellie Phillips, known among the family she dominated as “Mommy,” came from a prominent Mississippi family that had transplanted itself to St. Louis in the twentieth century and done very well there indeed.  The Curlee House in Corinth, Mississippi, which served as headquarters to both Union and Confederate generals during the Civil War and today is a National Historic Landmark, had been the childhood home to several of Nellie’s cousins, one of whom, Shelby Hammond Curlee, founded the nationally prominent Curlee Clothing Company in St. Louis and at his death in 1944 left an estate valued at over a million dollars, or about sixteen million dollars today.

Reflective of the effort at the time to recover and apotheosize a rigorously scrubbed, pristine version of the country’s complicated past through architectural restoration (the most famous example of which is found at Colonial Williamsburg, proudly dubbed the world’s largest living history museum), both Shelby Hammond Curlee, Sr. and his brother Francis Marion Curlee, Sr., an attorney and Great War veteran known in the press as “Colonel Curlee,” were heavily involved with historical restoration, the former buying back and restoring the old Curlee home in Corinth and the latter purchasing and restoring the homestead of Nathan Boone, where Boone’s father, famed pioneer Daniel Boone, had died.  “This place will never become a ‘hootch’ joint or a roadhouse,” Curlee passionately vowed in 1926, two years after the exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924 was passed.  “Italians were trying to get the property when I bought it,” he added darkly, “and if they had succeeded, it is probable that they would have made a roadhouse of it….”  Both the Curlee House and the Daniel Boone Home, as it is known, are publicly owned house museums today, with nary a bottle of hootch in sight, one surmises.[1]

Jay Phillips, who himself was known to enjoy a tipple or two, lacked the drive of either his mother’s dynamic cousins Shel and Frank Curlee or his own late father Joseph Phillips, a former trader of Atoka, Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) who became a prominent bank director in St. Louis, and he frittered away his once comfortable estate in a series of failed agencies. (Successively he fitfully sold automobiles, cut glass and Corona typewriters.)  “[Jay’s] entire personality was so mysterious and admirable to her that [Beth] was unable, even years later, to make sense of his disaster,” Elizabeth Fenwick in her unpublished memoir Beth: My Mother’s Story, 1886-1965 recalled of her lovable, wayward parents, whom she likened unto birds of paradise.  “She went over and over his virtues, and still found them sound.  There was the glorious sense of humor, the kindness and generosity, the handsomeness and lovely manners, and a fine intelligence—‘very deep.’  She could only conclude that it was his mother who ruined him.  The two women never got along well.”

Leading an uncertain existence as an adolescent, Elizabeth over the years moved around the eastern half of the country—sometimes with both Beth and Jay, sometimes just with Beth—to Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, San Antonio and Dallas. The Boston move came only after her parents had divorced in the early Twenties and her mother had returned with her to the city she had adopted as her home.  There Elizabeth saw much of her beloved Uncle Fen, aka John Fenwick Nicholson, a commercial traveler from whom she would derive her prominent authorial surname.  After Beth married another, older man, she and Elizabeth lived briefly with him in Detroit.  The marriage soon failed, however, and Beth, not liking life as a single working mother, in 1927 remarried Jay, who had been living with Mommy while desultorily laboring at “some sort of job with Uncle Shel” and falling thousands of dollars behind in child support.

With the onset of the Depression and the realization, as Elizabeth bluntly put it, that “[n]either of them was much good at making a living,” Beth agreed to reside in an apartment in St. Louis with Jay and Elizabeth, supported by a stipend from Mommy, whom Beth and her daughter, offended by her disdainful and imperious behavior, refused ever to see again.  Jay sank into semi-invalidism after Mommy, when Beth was away visiting relatives, had him receive an experimental injection for a growth on his neck, and Beth herself, likely motivated by the disasters that had befallen her husband and her elder daughter, became a zealous advocate of Christian Science, leading Elizabeth for a time to question her mother’s sanity. For several years the family moved around Texas on account of Jay’s health, before finally settling down for good back in St. Louis, supported by Mommy’s grudging benevolence.

Despite her aptitude in English, Elizabeth, who had blossomed into an extremely comely blonde with a pretty pert nose and delectable Cupid’s bow mouth, never attended college after graduating from high school in San Antonio, instead learning shorthand to take up secretarial work and earn money of her own when the family moved back to St. Louis.  However, in 1936, when she was twenty years old, Elizabeth joined a remarkable writers’ circle centered on a trio of male Washington University literature students: future U. S. Poet Laureate William Jay Smith; poet Clark Mills McBurney; and future landmark playwright Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams.  There were also several young women besides Elizabeth, including Louise Antoinette Krause, who was writing a thesis on John Donne and composing her own metaphysical poetry.

William Jay Smith later recalled that the little group, which grandly dubbed itself the “St. Louis Poets Workshop” on the letterhead of their own stationery, “met usually at Tom’s house at Arundel Place, a few blocks from the university, first in the living room where Mrs. Williams received us, and afterward on the sunporch, where we sat for hours criticizing one another’s poems.”  He added wryly that Mrs. Williams, familiarly known as “Miss Edwina,” presided over the Williams’ two-story modern brick craftsman house “as if it were an antebellum mansion.”

In his memoirs Tennessee Williams recalled that the “little poetry club…contained only three male members,” characteristically adding snobbishly and chauvinistically (and not entirely accurately, at least concerning Elizabeth’s economic standing) that “[t]he rest were girls, pretty, with families who owned elegant homes in the county….[and who at meetings] provided lovely refreshments and décor.”  At the time Williams could vaguely recall of this pulchritudinous, refreshments-bearing feminine contingent only a girl named Betty Chapin and “the wealthiest, Louise, who took us all out in the family limousine to a ballet performance one night.”  On the other hand, the rather-less-full-of-himself Bill Smith—“the handsomest of us three boys,” allowed Williams—to his credit remembered “Elizabeth Fenwick Phillips,” who “as Elizabeth Fenwick wrote several fine mystery novels.”

For Elizabeth’s part her association with such adepts of Literature as Tom, Clark and Bill in what she lightly termed “our Poetry and Chowder Society” inspired her first published literary effusions, which appeared in the magazine Poetry in 1936, under the modest name Betty Phillips.  “[W]hat wonders the others lived with, and passed on to me!” she later exclaimed in recollected awe, revealing how the Poetry and Chowder Society altered the course of her life.  “Proust, Kafka, Rilke; Brahms, Debussy, Vivaldi; French books, movies and records; endless free or cut-rate tickets to the symphony, the ballet, the opera, the plays that came to town—and best of all, talk.  We never stopped.  Our talking became to me like air to breath.”  (I am reminded of lyrics in the B-52s’ 1989 song “Deadbeat Club,” about another garrulous group of arty types in another college town: “I was good, I could talk/A mile a minute/On this caffeine buzz I was on/We were really humming.”  People are the same all over the world.)

Evincing the same cosmopolitan wanderlust which had taken hold of her mother nearly four decades earlier around the turn of the century, Elizabeth, as the advent of the Second World War loomed closer, resolved, like her friends, to move to New York: “The lively minds were all there, waiting for us.  My gang assured me that I was probably better equipped to make a living there than any of them.  I meant to go.”

Yet in spite of this brave resolve, in 1940 Elizabeth still resided, at the age of twenty-four, with her parents at their place at Donaldson Court Apartments, located at 613 Westgate Avenue, University City (an inner ring suburb of Saint Louis), where, like Dolly Parton in the 1980 hit film, she worked as a stenographer from “nine to five,” Mondays through Fridays, making $1080 that year (or about $21,500 today).  This was the family’s only actual earned income (distinguished from Mommy’s stipend), and it covered the rent at the attractive art deco apartment complex, which according to the National Register is generally regarded as the most attractive one that was built in the eastern part of University City during the Twenties.

The next year Elizabeth finally made her big move to the Big Apple.  After a bout of emotional recriminations from Beth (she “disowned me, assured me I should never see or hear from her again,” her daughter recalled, although this rage fortunately soon passed), Elizabeth found her parents a cheaper apartment in St. Louis and settled far away into her own place on West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village (an extremely posh address today).  Within a few months, however, the single working girl abruptly moved in with one of her old poetry circle compatriots, Clark Mills McBurney.

After he left Saint Louis in 1937, Clark spent a heady year at the Sorbonne and then resignedly obtained a position teaching French at Cornell University, which was located to the west of New York City at the town of Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region.  In her memoir of her mother, Elizabeth states unambiguously that she and Clark wed, although I have been unable to discover any marriage record for the couple.  For his part Clark in his 1943 U. S. Army enlistment record gave his marital status as “single.”  However, there is a later record of a marriage between Elizabeth and Clark having been annulled, so evidently Clark, for reasons of his own, simply lied about his matrimonial status, or the two wed after he enlisted.

Three years older than Elizabeth, Clark Mills McBurney was an imposing figure at six feet tall and 180 pounds, with brown hair and hazel eyes, over which he wore the spherical glasses of the intellectual.  Tennessee Williams, who idolized his friend at the time, referred to the poet in his memoirs as not only “brilliantly talented” but “handsome” too.  In 1940, the year before Elizabeth burst into his life in a bold new way, Clark, who published his critically praised and cutting edge but decidedly unremunerative poetry simply as “Clark Mills,” had confided to Tennessee Williams that he planned to commit suicide.  “[Clark Mills] came over and told me quite seriously that he decided to kill himself within the next year,” Williams recorded.  “He is tied to an academic job at Cornell which smothers his creative life and he sees no possible escape, as his poetry, very fine but completely noncommercial could never support him.”  Williams talked his friend out of self-destruction, but it was an ill omen for the potential stability of Clark and Elizabeth’s coupling.

The pair remained together in Ithaca until Clark was inducted into the army at Syracuse in June 1943.  Over the rest of that year Elizabeth lived with him at camps in South Carolina, Wisconsin and Maryland, additionally spending six months with her mother in Cleveland, where Beth had gone to live with a sister after Mommy had placed Jay in a nursing home and turned her daughter-in-law, in the latter woman’s querulous words, “out into the world with ‘a few hundred dollars’ and ‘a train ticket.’”  Jay passed away not long afterward in 1942.  Clark was sent overseas to Europe in 1944, leaving Elizabeth alone but hardly idle.

In December of 1943, Elizabeth as “E. P. Fenwick” published her first detective novel, The Inconvenient Corpse, which she probably wrote in Ithaca during the first half of the year.  (The novel is set in the Catskills region of New York.)  Thus was launched her career as a novelist, albeit of mysteries.  Two more detective novels, Murder in Haste and Two Names for Death, rapidly followed in 1944 and 1945, prompting the impressed crime writer and reviewer Anthony Boucher rapturously to dub her the first “student” of pioneering suspense novelist Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and “a possible major contender” in the mystery field.  However, Elizabeth soon changed tracks as writer, Boucher’s praise notwithstanding.

In the meantime, there was a grave personal matter with which Elizabeth had to deal: she had been callously deserted by her husband.  Her marriage to Clark had been a great relief to her mother and aunt, Elizabeth later recalled: “Now I no longer would be ‘unprotected.’  They never lost the feeling—in fact, it increased as they grew older—that single women were in some great danger, and to be regarded with pity, anxiety and a bit of scorn.  No woman could possibly choose to stand open to the wind, so, if she could help it.”  With Clark absconded, however, Elizabeth had again become one of those unprotected, pitiable and pathetic women.

During the war years of 1944-45, Clark served as a master sergeant in the Counter Intelligence Corps, where men with foreign language skills were in particularly high demand.  Afterward he stayed on in the newly created Central Intelligence Agency, a product of the National Security Act of 1947, at posts in Berlin, Bonn and Frankfurt, not returning to the United States and the teaching profession until 1951.  After months of not hearing from him, his letters to her having unaccountably ceased, Elizabeth was granted an annulment in November 1946.  Apparently she never saw Clark again, although two decades later, her daughter from her second marriage reports, she referred witheringly to his having married again.  This was “a terrible time” for Elizabeth, her daughter has written.  “Much later she wrote in a journal about the loss of hope for the home and family she thought she had found.”

During this difficult time Elizabeth determinedly had started work on a mainstream (i.e., non-criminous) novel entitled The Long Wing, which she proudly published with Rinehart under the name Elizabeth Fenwick in February 1947.  Concerning a young woman and her mother-dominated father and his family, the novel, which is set in St. Louis, obviously is heavily biographical, having clearly been inspired by the author’s need to work though her ambivalent feelings toward Jay and the Phillips/Curlee clans, which after all those years, she finally realized, had accepted neither Beth nor herself.  She sadly reflected that, after receiving a brief telegram at Ithaca from one of her father’s brothers notifying her of Jay’s death, “I never could bring myself to write.  For the first time, I began to understand the depth and breadth of the gulf that had separated us for years from my father’s people; it was too sad to try to bridge it now.”  Still, she transmuted the situation into art with The Long Wing, an impressive novel which likely none of the St. Louis Curlees and Phillips ever read.  Nor, it would certainly appear, did Tennessee Williams, even though the put-upon “Edwina” of the novel seems to reflect aspects of both Tennessee’s mother Edwina and his sister Rose.

The Long Wing received extremely good reviews, critics generally lauding it as a most promising first novel by an up-and-coming young author.  In the Saturday Review Nathan L. Rothman, in a notice tellingly titled “Mama’s Boy,” pithily summarized the plot of the author’s “brilliant little novel” as follows: “A man returns to his mother’s house for a two-week visit and doesn’t get away again.”  Elizabeth, however, was not going to make this same mistake.  She returned to New York City, altered her birth year to 1920 rather than 1916 and found employment as a secretary to a professor at Columbia University, devoting her evenings to writing in a bid to make it as a “serious” novelist.

In June 1947, Elizabeth encouragingly was featured in a Life Magazine article, “Young U. S. Writers: A Refreshing Group of Newcomers on the Literary Scene is Ready to Tackle Almost Anything,” along with five other hopeful neophytes, including Gore Vidal and Truman Capote.  To be sure, the star attraction of the piece was the elfin “Tru,” who appeared on the first page of the article in a three-quarter photograph of him “on a couch in a checkered waistcoat, a cigarette in his hand,” soulfully gazing out “with big eyes and a wistful look on his face”; but at least Elizabeth’s photo was as big as Gore Vidal’s, who was quite vocally disgusted with receiving second billing, along with all the others, to the likes of Truman Capote.

The next year Elizabeth was invited to spend the summer as a guest at the famed Yaddo artists’ colony at Saratoga Springs, New York, along with such future famous names as Flannery O’Connor, Chester Himes and Patricia Highsmith.  Flannery O’Connor, then just twenty-three years old, became a lifelong friend of Elizabeth, who in 1949 found Flannery a place near her own to live while in New York.  After Flannery retired to reside with her mother on a farm in Georgia upon her terminal lupus diagnosis in 1951, she and Elizabeth corresponded up until her death in 1964, although her last in-person meeting with Elizabeth was in 1958.

The late writer Fredrick Morton, who was also at Yaddo during the summer of ’48, recalled Elizabeth as “a kind of sexy creature, very attractive physically,” and with this estimate Flannery—who in old-fashioned southern lady fashion always referred formally to Elizabeth as “Miss Fenwick”—clearly concurred, although not in quite those words.  “She…is a big soft blonde girl and real nice to be around except that she bats her eyelashes,” Flannery wrote a friend about Elizabeth in 1960, “we get on famously.”  This is far more than one can say about Flannery and Patricia Highsmith, who obviously loathed one another at Yaddo as only temperamental polar opposites can.  (Elizabeth, on the other hand, should have appealed tremendously to Highsmith; it may be, however, that their time at Yaddo just missed overlapping, Highsmith having been there for only two months in the early summer.)

At Yaddo Elizabeth worked on her second novel, Afterwards, which she published in 1950.  Twentieth-Century Fox purchased the film rights to the new novel, assigning the projected flick, which was to star Joseph Cotten, to producer Julian Blaustein, who in 1951 would produce both the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and the psychological thriller Don’t Bother to Knock, based on the Charlotte Armstrong novel Mischief; but sadly the project fell through and the novel was never filmed.  (This would not be the last time that film adaptation would narrowly elude Elizabeth.)  Despite piquing the interest of a Hollywood film studio, Afterwards, about a divorced couple with a child who get back together in Boston after several years apart (the author again was clearly drawing heavily on her own life), was not as well-received by critics and Elizabeth would not publish another novel for six years.

Yaddo and Life notwithstanding, the writing career of “Elizabeth Fenwick” was wobbling.  While her books, especially The Long Wing, had won her flattering plaudits from reviewers, to be sure, very little actual money had gone along with that praise.  “I wrote a novel a few years ago,” Fenwick with evident bitterness recalled in a San Francisco Examiner article on women mystery writers in 1971, after she had long shifted over to publishing crime fiction.  (The novel to which she referred was surely The Long Wing.)  “I got my picture in all the magazines, a few bucks and a lot of letters from nuts.”

She was desperately lonely as well, as she had been so often as an adolescent.  “I returned to being the child and girl who belonged nowhere, was obsessed with other peoples’ homes, and wanted only to have someplace where I belonged,” she later reflected of this time in her life.  “I thought I had found it in Ithaca, with Clark, and when I lost it after Clark went back to Germany, I went back to being ‘homeless and no family’ me in New York.”  In 1950, the year Afterwards appeared, Elizabeth wed her second husband, David Jacques Way, a twice-divorced partner in the small New York publishing and printing firm Clark & Way who was a couple of years younger than she, and in October she gave birth to her only child, Deborah.  Yet domestic bliss again cruelly eluded her, as did that sense of belonging as a wife.  To be sure, she had a dearly loved daughter to care for, but her spouse proved an altogether thornier presence in her life.

At 6’4” Elizabeth’s second husband was even taller than her first one, although in 1940 his recorded weight was just under 150 pounds.  Gangling, brash and brightly red-haired, with glasses and a mustache and one blue and one brown eye, David Way was a distinctly memorable individual.  Initially Elizabeth deemed him a “charming and funny and brilliant” man who seemingly knew “everyone and everything.”  Unfortunately her estimation of David proved as errant as the one her mother had made of Jay, though in an even worse way, as it were.

To obtain a better environment for the baby (Deborah’s carriage was covered over in a film of soot every morning), the couple at Elizabeth’s insistence departed from the Village, settling in the coastal town of Stonington in western Connecticut, which would serve as the fictionalized setting for her 1971 crime novel Impeccable People.  David commuted to work in the city, staying at an apartment during weekdays and returning to spend weekends in Stonington.  Elizabeth raised Deborah and ran the little book and game shop that was semi-attached to their house at 110 Water Street.

After two years, however, the family returned to New York City, for Elizabeth felt isolated and unhappy in Stonington.  David having proven a rageful and violent husband, she lived apart from him with Deborah in the same apartment building, with David visiting them at dinnertime.  He began seeing a psychiatrist, but according to Elizabeth these visits failed to help him, since even his psychiatrist was mortally frightened of him. She and Elizabeth would attend cocktail parties and never get invited back again because of his aggressive, angry behavior.  David and Elizabeth’s own daughter described her father as “terrifying” in his “rages.”

After several years Elizabeth consented to live with David again and the pair moved with Deborah to Mamaroneck, a city in wealthy suburban Westchester County, where, Deborah recalls, Elzabeth and David occupied separate tbedrooms in a “very pleasant Cape Cod style house” located at 911 Stuart Avenue, just a three minutes’ drive, as it turns out, from the house where famed detective novelist John Dickson Carr lived with his wife in the early Sixties.  There David joined the Episcopal Church, made a great hit with both the rector and the deacon, and sang, along with Deborah, in the choir.  Meanwhile Elizabeth after four years had managed to complete her third mainstream novel, Days of Plenty (1956), but with the book decidedly failing to ignite the literary world, she resolved in Mamaroneck to try her hand at crime fiction.

Crime writing might at least prove lucrative and finally make Elizabeth financially independent of her frighteningly moody and mercurial husband.  With two small rooms at the top of the house at her disposal, her bedroom and a tiny writing-room/study, Elizabeth, working during the winters when her daughter was at school, between 1957 and 1963 published a half-dozen crime novels—Poor Harriet (1957), A Long Way Down (1959), A Friend of Mary Rose (1961), A Night Run (1961), The Silent Cousin (1962) and The Make-Believe Man (1963)—that established her as one of the preeminent authors of domestic suspense from those years.

During the summers Elizabeth would drive with Deborah to Cleveland to visit her mother Beth and her aunt, trips which were something of an idyll for the author and her daughter, as Deborah has recalled:

We went on these trips as soon as school was out, and each time we drove away from Mamaroneck in great high spirits, very early in the cool of the June mornings.  She seemed to leave all of her troubles and worries behind as we headed off to Cleveland.  We would stop at a “homey” motel in the mid-afternoon when the heat became unbearable, and no matter how cheap and homey the motel was, it had to have a pool, for us both to jump in and cool off.  We were always welcomed to the house in Cleveland with great joy, and we would spend our week there in great comfort, my mother sitting peacefully with my grandmother and (great) aunt, with their endless conversations, myself playing contentedly around the house, or with the neighborhood children.

Unfortunately Elizabeth’s crime novels, well-received as the majority of them were, failed to earn their author enough money to free her for good and all from David.  Despite being published in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, each book, Deborah recalls, typically only netted her mother royalties of about a couple of thousand dollars, or around $20,000 today.  This was about as much as Elizabeth annually had made, in other words, from the nine-to-five stenographic work which she had performed in her early twenties—a dispiriting reminder to us today of the pecuniary limitations of even a lot of critically-acclaimed mystery writing.  While all of Elizabeth’s crime novels were loyally published in the U. K. by Gollancz, her publication record was spottier in the United States, where, despite the high praise afforded her first three crime novels, A Night Run never found a publisher and The Silent Cousin was not picked up for four years.  Nor was Elizabeth fortunate, on the whole, with paperback publication.

Whenever Elizabeth did receive a check from her publishers, David, his own publishing business having been “constantly on the rocks” for years according to Deborah, responded by halting his own checks to the family until Elizabeth’s money ran out, meaning she was damned if she wrote and damned if she did not write.  This continually stressful situation to which her husband subjected her inevitably began to exact its physical toll on Elizabeth, who started to suffer physically (aside from David’s outburst of violence toward her), developing migraines, facial rashes and numbness in her extremities.  Her friend Flannery O’Conner, nearing death herself, was convinced that Elizabeth like she was suffering from lupus, but it turned out “merely” to be Raynaud’s Syndrome.  1964 saw the demise both of Flannery and Elizabeth’s mother Beth, who, afflicted with dementia, had been placed in a nursing home.  Deborah, then barely in her teens, remembers “how frightening that tiny, sharp, disheveled, toothless person” had become, asking “the same questions over and over and over.”

Back in Mamaroneck after her mother’s funeral, Elizabeth again was faced with that same question which faced so many of the female protagonists of domestic suspense fiction from the period: How to extricate herself from the terrible, soul-destroying marriage which she had made with a man who was entirely unworthy of her.  According to Deborah:

She racked her brains to think of a way to support herself so she could leave him—the writing just did not bring in enough for financial independence.  She thought of going back to secretarial work, but she was so much older, had no recent experience and it would mean my coming home to an empty apartment after school.  She thought of divorce and alimony, but could she support us on that? My father did not want a divorce, and seemed to be clinging tightly to this life he had made. She wondered how long she could stick it out.

With cruel and classic irony it was David himself who settled the matter for good in 1966 when he, like Clark had before him, abandoned Elizabeth, leaving her for a graphic designer in his firm, who, at twenty-three, was proverbially young enough to be his daughter.  Upon sixteen-year-old Deborah’s graduation from high school in June, Elizabeth sold the house in Mamaroneck and with her daughter set out for the west coast, as if to put as much distance between herself and her old life (and her faithless husband) as she could.  However, there was more purpose to this western venture: Deborah was going to college in Portland, Oregon while Elizabeth, ironically, was going to stay with David’s family in California.  “They had always loved her dearly and preferred her company to his,” Deborah bluntly recalls, “and invited her to come to them when the marriage broke up.”

Over the next six years Elizabeth in California completed five more crime novels, her final published works: The Passenger (1967), Disturbance on Berry Hill (1968), Goodbye, Aunt Elva (1968), Impeccable People (1971) and The Last of Lysandra (1973), the last two of which were published only in the U. K.  Over the summer of 1966, before Deborah went away to college, Elizabeth, while renting a small apartment in Pasadena, started writing The Passenger, a “road” novel which reflects some of her traveling experience with her daughter.  She completed the novel later that year, but during the bleakly lonely winter, she later admitted to Deborah, she had, like Clark back in 1940, seriously contemplated suicide.

Fortunately the next year Deborah transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and Elizabeth was able to purchase a small house with a rose garden in Walnut Creek, closer to her daughter and to David’s kindly son from one of his prior marriages, with whom she and Deborah had long been close.  There Elizabeth was able to live off her royalties, along with the alimony she had exacted from David as a condition of consenting to a divorce.  Presumably she was divorced by November 1971, when an article on women mystery writers in the San Francisco Examiner referred to her as “a tweedy, English-looking Walnut Creek wife and mother who writes books of what she calls ‘domestic menace.’”  Perhaps in spite of herself Elizabeth, like her mother, still saw something pitiable in the state of a single woman, second wave feminism notwithstanding.

Disappointingly, an attempt by producer-director Robert Aldrich to film Elizabeth’s “domestic menace” novel Goodbye, Aunt Elva as What Ever Happened to Dear Elva? or What Ever Happened to Dear Daisy?—the third in a trilogy of his so-called “psycho-biddy” films, following What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?—fell through in 1971, film success thus eluding Elizabeth again, as it had two decades earlier.  Then ideas for stories finally just stopped coming to her a couple of years later, after the publication in the U. K. of The Last of Lysandra.  She ceased writing for publication, instead quietly keeping her diaries, caring for her roses and her dog and cats and receiving visits from her family.  Her writing reputation began to wane, even as her personal contentment waxed.

About a decade later Elizabeth moved to Colorado, where Deborah had taken a residency in radiology.  She again found a little house with a lovely garden to tend, but in 1987, when she was seventy-one years old, she was diagnosed, sadly recalling the experience of her mother Beth, with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  From these afflictions she suffered for nine more years, until she passed away in her sleep at the age of eighty on November 20, 1996.

*

As public tastes in crime fiction changed, many works by women writers of mid-century domestic suspense fell into unmerited neglect after their deaths, but Elizabeth Fenwick’s books plummeted, quite unaccountably, into even greater neglect than most.  With the exception of Goodbye, Aunt Elva, which the publisher Academy Chicago reissued in 1987, it appears that until this year not a single Fenwick crime novel had been reprinted in paperback for half a century.  Yet several of the author’s crime novels were embraced in their day as true classics of suspense.

Perhaps the most lauded of these novels were Poor Harriet (1957), surely one of the most raved debuts in the history of crime fiction, A Long Way Down (1959), A Friend of Mary Rose (1961) and Edgar-nominated The Make-Believe Man (1963), which were published successively in the United States by the Harper & Brothers’ prestigious “Harper Novel of Suspense” imprint, edited by the hugely influential crime fiction editor Joan Kahn.  Throughout the Fifties and Sixties (and beyond), Kahn through this imprint published an impressive array of talented crime writers, including Patricia Highsmith, Michael Gilbert, Julian Symons, Andrew Garve, Dick Francis, Maurice Proctor, Lionel Davidson, Gavin Black, J. J. Marric, John Ball, Elizabeth Linington, Nicholas Freeling, Peter Dickinson, Nicholas Blake, Shelley Smith, Sara Woods, and John Dickson Carr.

What is remarkable about this list, aside from the notably few exclusive practitioners of classic detection like Carr and Sara Woods and the heavy preponderance of British writers, is how phallocentric it is.  There are a wildly disproportionate number of men, especially when one considers that the editor of the imprint was a woman.  Not only are traditional detective novelists of the British Crime Queen school absent, but so, largely, are women authors of “domestic menace,” like Celia Fremlin, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Ursula Curtiss and Jean Potts.  It appears that Kahn left it largely to Elizabeth Fenwick (along with British suspense writer Shelley Smith) to hold this flag high.  And hold it high she did, despite her adversities, although between 1966 and 1968 she was affiliated in the United States not with Harper but with Atheneum, publishers of P. M. Hubbard, Eric Ambler and Len Deighton, the first of whom Fenwick especially resembles in her insidious explorations of psychological aberrations.

Unpredictability in domestic life—the way the cozily familiar can, in the blink of a disoriented eye, turn into the crazily off-kilter—is something Elizabeth Fenwick, drawing on her sometimes painfully lived experiences of forty and fifty years, powerfully depicted in the eleven crime novels which she published between 1957 and 1973.  Her body of mid-century crime fiction is an important and compelling one, making Stark House’s recent reprinting of several of her novels after the author’s long era of neglect a welcome event indeed.  Welcome back, Miss Fenwick!  The suspense is finally over—and it has only just begun.

 

Note: Stark House has reprinted an Elzabeth Fenwick “twofer” of The Make-Believe Man and A Friend of Mary Rose.  Early next year a twofer of Poor Harriet and The Silent Cousin will follow.

 

[1] In a strange twist which could have come out of a mystery novel, both Shelby Hammond Curlee’s nephew Francis Marion Curlee, Jr. and his son and principal legatee, Shelby Hammond Curlee, Jr., died untimely accidental deaths shortly after his own unexpected demise in January 1944.  Francis expired in an automobile accident in February, while Shelby in September was found dead in the swimming pool of a St. Louis racquet club.  In the latter case the county coroner speculated from a bump found on the top of Curlee’s head and other marks about his head and face that the dead man “may have struck the bottom of the pool in diving” and then “lost consciousness and drowned.”  Colonel Curlee was the lone survivor of this mayhem, passing away in 1958.