Mystery Writers Read by the Hoovers: Part III

A group sits inside the President's cabin at Camp Rapidan. Lou Henry Hoover is seen on the left with guests.
A group sits inside the President’s cabin at Camp Rapidan. Lou Henry Hoover is seen on the left knitting.

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Many of the leading mystery writers of the era were English and tended to place murder settings in country manors. Class status, a pronounced feature of British society up to and beyond World War II, played a prominent role in defining the characters. American mystery writers tended to define characters less by class then by occupation, especially if they were a criminal element posing as an honest professional. The murders were more graphically described, more violent in nature, and the writing sparer and more direct, defining “hard-boiled” detective novels that served as the foundation for film noir.  Examples of these contrasting styles can be seen in the novels by Margery Allingham and Dashiell Hammett found in the Hoover’s Camp Rapidan Library.

Margery Allingham was born on May 20, 1904 in London. Her mother and father were both writers, accounting for her interest to pursue creating fiction novels that led her to attempt mysteries. Her second and third mystery novels—Mystery Mile (1930), and The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (1931) American title of the English publication Look to the Lady—developed the character of Albert Campion. Although a minor figure in Allingham’s first mystery, Champion become the central figure in these novels. His origins are shrouded in mystery with a hint of lineage to the royal family. He lives above a police station and his manservant is a former burglar, Magersfontein Lugg. Champion seamlessly navigates between upper class associates and criminal elements, at ease with both. He uses this ability to gather information from many sources to solve the murders related to a criminal mystery. In Mystery Mile, Champion helps find a missing judge only to uncover a vast criminal organization operated by a crime boss known only as Simister. No one knows Smister’s identity, even criminals who work for him, which makes everyone a suspect. In The Gyrth Chalice Mystery, Champion protects a young man estranged from his family that has connections with the Crown going back centuries. As family tradition demands, the young man will learn the secret of the Gyrth Chalice, entrusted to his family’s care by Kings and Queens of England for safe keeping. Again, Champion discovers a crime organization that is determined to steal the chalice and do harm to the young man.

Dashiell Hammett was born in Maryland on May 27, 1894. His father’s impaired health required Hammett to quit school at the age of 13 and work to provide income for his family. He worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Baltimore which underscored important lessons on criminality. His first novel, Red Harvest, was part of the Hoover Camp Rapidan library. The book is loosely based on a union strike in Butte, Montana that the Pinkerton Agents helped break. Before Hammett’s most memorable characters, Sam Spade and Nick Charles, were created, a man with no name only referred to as The Continental Op served as the chief protagonist. Hammett’s fictional Continental Detective Agency is loosely based on his career with the Pinkerton group. The story begins with the violent murder of a newspaper publisher and son of a wealthy mining family that owns almost every important business—legitimate and other—in Personville, Montana. Locals refer to the town as “Poisonville” which is more apt as the story unfolds. The reader is introduced to a town based on corruption either by the mine owner, rival gangs, and the police that are all on the take. Every leading character in the novel meets with a violent death. Even The Continental Op is framed for the murder of one victim and spends the remainder of the novel trying to learn why. Eventually, all becomes clear and Continental Op chooses to leave under the cover of darkness to return to San Francisco knowing that all the guilty were dead and the Governor called out the National Guard to restore law and order in the town.

Margery Allingham’s writings are pure fantasy based on her imagination and knowledge of the English countryside. Hammett’s own life and experience reflects more of the violent and carnal nature of human behavior. His villains have very base motives and means to achieve their goals. There is nothing fanciful or refined in Hammett’s writings or descriptions. Like his coarse characters, Hammett’s writing is basic and sparse while Allingham’s writing reflects the stylish upper-class sensibilities that populate her novels.

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