Saturday, 7 November 2015

Book of 1922: The Vanishing of Betty Varian by Carolyn Wells


published 1922



Vanishing Betty Varian



Mrs Blackwood was a widow, young, attractive, and of a psychic turn of mind. Not enough of an occultist to make her a bore, but possessing quick and sure intuitions and claiming some slight clairvoyant powers. She dabbled in water colors, and did an occasional oil. She was long-limbed, with long fingers and long feet, and usually had a long scarf of some gauzy texture trailing about her. Of an evening or even on a dressy afternoon, she had a long panel or sash-end hanging below her skirt, and which was frequently trodden on by blundering, inattentive feet.

Good-looking, of course, Claire Blackwood was,— she took care to be that,— but her utmost care could not make her beautiful,— much to her own chagrin. Her scarlet lips were too thin, and the angle of her jaw too hard. Yet she was handsome, and by virtue of her personality and her implicit belief in her own importance, she was the leader socially, notwithstanding the fact that the colony disclaimed any society element in its life.



commentary: For many of us taking part in Rich Westwood’s regular Crime of the Century meme over at Past Offences, this month’s choice of book made life quite difficult – we had to find, read and review a work of crime fiction first published in 1922, and it turns out it was not a vintage year.

One obvious choice would be Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, but I covered that earlier this year. Of course plenty of books were published in 1922, but the craze for crime fiction hadn’t really got going then, it was early days.

I got wind of a book by early crime writer Isabel Ostrander: it was called The Tattooed Arm, and I thought that was a great title, but I couldn’t find a copy of it. So next choice was Carolyn Wells, an amazingly prolific crime writer who wrote more than 170 books in all (not all crime titles.)

Betty Varian was an easy, entertaining read. It sets up a holiday house on a cliff in Maine, with only one way in and out up a rocky path. A group of family and friends ventures forth on a picnic: at the last moment the daughter of the house runs back to collect a forgotten item. She fails to return, so her father goes to look. Next thing we know, we have a dead body and a missing young woman – but apparently there is no way any malefactors could have got in or out, and nowhere for the young woman to have gone. So that’s a pretty good setup. To modern eyes, nothing much happens then for a long long time, except for a lot of fruitless searching, and repeated claims that there is no way in or out except via the front gate, which is locked and under observance. Various parts of the house are given special attention, by several people, and we are assured that they completely check out.


 
 
NOT REALLY A SPOILER ---



 
 
-- but I have a grudge against a locked room, a disappearing person, a sealed up space where it turns out that someone was lying, or mistaken or just not very observant. That is not, to me, an adequate solution to the crime.

But – Mrs Wells was something of a pioneer so we’ll let her off. One of her series detectives now turns up: a man called Pennington Wise (later references to Penny Wise confused me slightly) with a very strange female assistant called Zizi. They investigate the family background of Betty Varian, the missing girl – it’s not difficult for a modern reader to get one step ahead, but it is a complex and interesting tale.

As a book of 1922 it was highly enjoyable, with plenty of fascinating details. I was charmed that on the day in question, all the staff are out of the house because they have all gone to the circus: every servant in the neighbourhood has gone. The matriarch of the family says later:
I’ve never stayed nights in a house without a man in it,— beside the butler, I mean.
Someone else goes missing, but his straw hat is still in the hall:
The man must have been forcibly carried off. He couldn’t have walked out without collar, tie or hat!
When the villain is uncovered, the evil one declaims:
“Bad I’ve lived and bad I’ll die. You’ll never find Betty Varian….”
-- I quite regret the fact that no modern author would put that in a book.

And – most unlikely feature of all, completely unexpected – silent-movie-making and lipreading play a small but vital part in the book.

I would never have read this book except for the 1922 challenge, and I am glad I did, though will probably not be reading more by Wells.  

The picture above, with the eminently steppable-on and annoying long gauzy scarf, is from a fashion advert of the 1920s.

















21 comments:

  1. "Bad I’ve lived and bad I’ll die."

    That's always been my philosophy!

    Carolyn Wells has rather an interesting place in detective fiction. I've written the longest extant piece on her in Mysteries Unlocked, Bill Pronzini and Jon L. Breen have written about her too. Doug Greene mentions in his book on Carr how Carr was a great fan as an adolescent. Bill is very dismissive of her and she wrote a lot of bad books, but I'm a defender of some of the earlier ones, up to the early twenties particularly.

    Some of her books are really loopy, so that Bill calls them "alternative" classics. There's one where the heroine comes home at night, finds the butler murdered and then goes upstairs to bed, figuring someone else will deal with it. That's the nice thing about having servants, I suppose!

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    1. "Bad I've lived and bad I'll die" is a motto for us all Curt!
      Thanks for all the info - very interesting indeed.

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  2. This certainly is an interesting setup, Moira, and what a very 1922 sort of book! It seems to say as much about the society of the time as it does about the actual mystery plot. And I think it adds to the story that she included lip-reading and silent film-making - another look at those times. That and servants going to the circus. Very 1922...

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    1. What I love is that I think someone faking a 1920s setting, writing a historical book, would put in quite different details. I'm sure no modern author would put in the silent movie and the circus.

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  3. Just read a Christie short story in which TWO people find the body but say nothing and leave it for the servants to "discover" in the morning. I think.

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    1. So - any advance on two bogus body-botherers? Which story was it Lucy?

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    2. Yes, which one, Lucy, I don't remember that one. Wells seems to specialize in young rich women who do that sort of thing!

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  4. Don't think I'll be bothering with any of this author's books, or indeed the year.

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    1. Really not a vintage year, and especially not for your preferred genres!

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    2. That said, I have now found a book....

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    3. Are you going to say what it is or are we going to have to wait for the review?

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    4. I don't think my comment took...so here we go again. 1922 - no big secret - E. Phillips Oppenheim - The Evil Shepherd. You read The Great Impersonation after a tip-off from yours truly.

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    5. I certainly did - it was a hoot, I hope your book is as much fun.

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  5. You do tempt me, Moira, as regards what modern authors can and can't do! I have always wanted to write 'A shot rang out,' and I did, though I can't remember where now or whether it go through the edit.

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    1. You should get in as many as you can! I have a favourite line from a 1920s book which is: 'From the garden rose a scream, loud and piercing, ending in a blood-curdling gurgle.'
      You know where you are with a book that ends a chapter like that!

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  6. Great stuff! And it occurs to me. Isn't it in Fear Stalks the Village that all the staff go off somewhere together - I think it was a fair, rather than a circus.

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    1. I wonder if it was a real likelihood, or just handy for mystery writers? Getting rid of the servants is key to all kinds of things.

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  7. Moira, I so do want to read Carolyn Wells books, especially since many of them are available legally in public domain. I have downloaded "Raspberry Jam" though I not read it yet. I think, she also wrote westerns and those I'd like to read.

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    1. Look forward to reading your views Prashant. She wrote SO much, there must be something for everyone.

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  8. Hmmm, I am not sure whether I would like this book or this author or not. I guess I will try one of her books if I run into them. I know I have heard of her, maybe from The Passing Tramp's posts.

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    1. I didn't know very much about her, and I'm glad I sampled this one, but I won't be chasing up more of them.

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