Mystery Writers Read by the Hoovers: Part VIII

By Thomas F. Schwartz

The Cask of Death and Other Crimes by H. [Harry] Ashton-Wolfe provides a collection of historical mysteries allegedly based on true cases in the secret police archives at the Quai des Orfévres. Ashton-Wolfe claimed that M. Jean Chiappe, the Prefect of the Paris Police, provided exclusive access to the secret police archives dating from the French Revolution. 

“Trying to clarify the facts of Ashton-Wolf’s life is difficult,” wrote one biographer, “because he’s our primary source of information.” The biographer concludes: “Ashton-Wolfe was one of the greatest liars of all times.” It is doubtful that the Hoovers knew anything about the author. Ashton-Wolfe claimed he served as a British spy operating in Belgium in World War I and afterwards served with the French police in Paris, Lyons, and Monto Carlo. In 1923, Ashton-Wolfe served as a French interpreter for the British courts, participating in two high profile murder cases.

Although The Cask of Death and Other Crimes is illustrated, the reader cannot assume that the images are true reflections of the places and people discussed in the text. He recycled the image of a tattooed man in other stories as representing three different individuals. David O. Selznick, the great Hollywood director/producer, thought Ashton-Wolfe’s stories from the French Police files would make an entertaining series of B movies. Selznick selected Frank Morgan, a character actor best known as the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, to play the lead detective. But studio lawyers could not verify any of Ashton-Wolfe’s historical assertions. The result was a mashup film, Secrets of the French Police (1932), combining some of Ashton-Wolfe’s mystery articles with an unpublished novel about the mystery surrounding the Russian Princess Anastasia.  

Readers of Harry Ashton-Wolfe are confronted with an author whose life is more mysterious than the mysteries he wrote. And unlike the X Files, the truth may not be out there.

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