Thursday List: Books About Poison Pen Letters






No-one has seen me write this, I am very secretive



There is a small but riveting sub-genre of books and films that deal with outbreaks of anonymous letters: they make for great plots. I wonder how often they happen in real life – they seem designed for crime stories. You do read about murders in the papers, but how often do you hear of an outbreak of poison pen letters? My (completely unresearched) guess would be that anonymous letters may be common, but they would normally be someone ‘dropping a dime’ (splendid American phrase) on a specific other: reporting someone to the authorities for tax evasion, say. Or even a one-off, telling one half of a marital couple of a conjugal infidelity. 

But: ‘everyone in the village has had one’? It doesn’t sound likely, though it’s one of the clich├ęs of the poison pen crime novel genre. Here’s a list of some of the received ideas, along with a list of poison pen books. 

1) It’s always a woman behind it, probably a frustrated spinster. Though even the most traditional Golden Age versions tout that theory in order to mislead, so we are all terribly surprised when it is a man. 

2) People who claim they haven’t had a letter are probably lying – they are ashamed, don’t want to say what they were accused of... 

3) … and also there is much talk of ‘will she go to the police?’ Not too soon, is the answer. 

4) People burn the letters. (This would be much harder nowadays, with fewer open fires and no handy ashtrays and boxes of matches around.) But sometimes they claim to have done so, but really keep the letter. In their jewellery box, in the case of women.

5) The writer always sends a letter to his or herself, that’s part of the joy of writing them you see, as well as an attempt to divert suspicion.


They will think it is that woman above who wrote it, because I am a man. And we have similar black and white floors and tablecloths.






6) The writer will try to do the letters in an illiterate fashion, with mis-spelt words, but this will not get past the investigators, as quite simple words will be wrong, while harder words will be right. 


7) The writing of the letters may be a smokescreen for something else, and perhaps another person – not responsible for the majority of the letters – writes one for a special purpose. 

8) The words are pasted onto ‘cheap stationery’ maybe from Woolworth’s – not heavy paper engraved with the sender’s address then… This is from the Wentworth below: 
‘The paper is cheap block stuff – ruled. Envelope rather better. Writing big and thick, clumsy ill-formed letters – the experts say left-handed. A sprinkling of spelling mistakes – probably deliberate. No fingerprints except what you would expect – branch office – postman – recipient. All very helpful!’ 
9) It will end in murder. 

This is from the Wentworth book below and sums up a lot of the thinking: 

‘Such letters as you describe are instigated by a desire for power, or by either a personal or a general spite. If the motive is a personal one it may wear itself out or at any rate go no further, but if it proceeds from a desire for power or from a general spite there is no saying where it will stop or how much mischief it may do.’ 

Killing people to cover up anonymous letters - killing three people perhaps, as in one of the books below - seems somewhat out of proportion. (But once you start questioning motives, half the crime fiction world would disappear.) 


10) Typing them is problematic (once everyone realized how easily typewriters can be identified) so generally they are made up of words or letters cut out of newspapers – it always sounds so time-consuming and fiddly doesn’t it? In The Moving Finger a book of sermons is cannibalized: how inappropriate. In the Wentworth book below the perpetrator uses a sharpened matchstick dipped in ink. 

You do think there must be a terrific amount of mess, and that anything left out or visible to a sharp-eyed visitor or housemate or servant would completely give the game away. It just sounds so impractical. In particular, it is hard to imagine how some of the culprits below find either the time or the space to do the busybody letter activity…

If I spell it 'ingorant trollip' none will guess tis me


Now for the books – the links are to the blog entries on some of them:


1) The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie – one of the very best ones, blog entry here.

2) The Long Divorce by Edmund Crispin –blog entry upcoming.

3) Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers – who is it who hates the academics of the Senior Common Room of a women’s college at Oxford? Entry yesterday, and see note below.

4) The Voice of the Corpse by Max Murray, on the blog earlier in the summer. This time, unusually, the writer is the victim, and no-one is very sorry. She also organized folk dancing and knitted doghair into jumpers – either of these activities is seen as an understandable and justifiable motive for her murder.

5) Poison in the Pen by Patricia Wentworth – entry upcoming.

6) Night at the Mocking Widow by John Dickson Carr – one of this week’s posts. The letters are the starting point for a farrago of village activity.

7) The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters by Enid Blyton – can’t miss out this classic of the genre. The final scene - the revelation - has a moment almost identical to the ending of Gaudy Night. How unexpected. See details below.

8) Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling – sex-obsessed letters in a small Dutch town. Suggested by marvellous Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist; blog post to follow.



Also:

One of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues dealt with a writer of anonymous letters, who ended up very happily in jail, busy and companionable at last, helping less literate prisoners write their letters home.

There was some discussion on a Golden Age Discussion forum of poison pen, with particular reference to two films: The French Le Corbeau, and an English-language version called The 13th Letter. Online friend Noah Stewart kindly enabled me to watch the latter – I greatly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to seeing the French version.


SPECIAL NOTE: There is an odd link between Gaudy Night and the Enid Blyton – the revelation scenes are strangely similar (I am wording this carefully, and the excerpts are filleted for spoilers):


a) ‘I want to see X. Will you please bring X here at once.’ [on X’s entrance], neat and subdued as usual, X approached the table: ‘you wished to see me?’ Then X’s eye fell on the newspaper spread out upon the table, and drawing breath with a long, sharp hiss, X’s eyes went round the room like the eyes of a hunted animal.

b) ‘Mrs Hilton – may I ring the bell?’ said Y. She nodded. He went over to the wall and rang the bell hard. Everyone waited. Footsteps came up the hall. Z appeared looking surprised and rather scared on seeing so many people sitting quietly there. ‘Did you ring?’ Z asked, voice shaking a little.


I’ll leave you to guess which is which.


What have I missed out? Do please add extra books and films in the comments.

Comments

  1. What a fantastic post, so interesting and showing quite a bit of research.
    Impressive.

    I haven't read these books nor run into this particular plot device too often, but people getting messages with words cut out of magazines, yes, that happens.

    And, yes, it is amazing that those in the paintings have the same floors and table clothes. It must be the same artist and perhaps this was his house or one in which he painted.

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    1. Thanks Kathy! Now you can investigate poison pen letters, I'm sure you'd enjoy some of the books, and it's an intriguing sub-genre.

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  2. Moira, as Kathy says, this is a splendid post, very original. I haven't read most of the books you mentioned but I do feel like reading "The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters" right away. We have a large pile of Enid Blytons. When I was young I remember the family receiving anonymous chain letters by post instructing us to forward it to five people immediately and that if we broke the chain then bad luck would rain down upon us. Who does that? We used to tear up the letters and nothing happened. I used to receive somewhat similar chain mail by email until a few years ago — and I'm still here!

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    1. I'd forgotten about chain letters Prashant, I haven't heard of those for years. I wonder if anyone ever used that theme in a crime story? - you'd think you could do something with that.
      I really enjoyed re-reading the Enid Blyton for the blog - I loved those books when I was a child, and then my children liked them in turn.

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    2. I think chain letters still exist but have gone electronic. I've seen something similar on Facebook along the lines of: Post this on to 6 people and in 20 days you'll receive $1 million / the man of your dreams will appear / your wishes will come true. Don't pass it on and you'll have bad luck."
      Enjoyed your post. Of course Moving Finger was an oddity in that the poison pen letters were generally written by a man - the assumption that a woman was responsible was crucial to the mystery. Thanks for reminding me too of Enid Blyton's mysteries, I always hold them responsible for getting me into crime fiction.

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    3. Yes, I've seen that on FB too, it is the natural child of chain letters - 3 good things will happen to you. And yes, totally agree, Enid Blyton's simple mysteries led me on to the next stage. Each of those Mystery ones was a neat example of one or other kind of crime story.

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  3. Well, I'm getting a crash course in English mysteries.

    I just read Catherine Aird's "Henriette Who?" and loved it. Have to find more of her books. I didn't think I would like it, as I'm more prone to big city mysteries, but Aird's was making me smile throughout.

    Just got "The Man in the Brown Suit," yesterday and want to read that.

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    1. I've read a few Catherine Aird's and liked them - they are very traditional village (or small town) mysteries but none the worse for that. Henrietta Who? had an interesting setup I thought.

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  4. Moira - First, thank you for the kind mention. I appreciate it. I'll be keen to get your take on Double Barrel. I love your list of patterns in 'anonymous letter' plots. I've noticed a lot of those elements too. And you've got a nice lot of books here too with that element in them. It's interesting to think about how that plot point might be adapted for today's electronic world...

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    1. And thank YOU for the tipoff! Good point - there's room for some newer versions in this age of emails, fake accounts and Twitter. Can we hope for a blogpost on this subject from you?

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  5. Happy to have helped with the film; glad you didn't paste together a thank-you note! LOL Great piece; this is the kind of analysis across a genre that I really enjoy.

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    1. Thanks Noah, and thanks so much for enabling me to see the film: it was a good one.

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  6. Enid Blyton also does anonymous letters in one of her school stories - In the Fifth at Malory Towers, I think. No investigation as far as I remember; the girls discuss in horrified tones who it might have been, and All Is Revealed when a member of staff happens to find a draft note in the culprit's desk.

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    1. Oh thank you for that! I did have a faint memory of anonymous letters at school, but couldn't remember if it was Malory Towers or St Clare's or which year. Excellent addition to the list...

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  7. Thank heavens there is someone else around who understand the reference if I say: signed, a friend - to indicate that the previous remark was entirely critical. Also, I've often thought those 'tablecloths' - actually oriental carpets - must have been the devil to write on. Just a thought. ..

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    1. Thanks Gabi - 'signed a friend' is a great trope to add to the list. I missed out 'Wellwisher' too. And good point about the carpet tablecloth.

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  8. I'm struggling to think of any book I've read that featured poisoning. I obviously haven't read any of those listed

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    1. It's not really a very hard-boiled thing is it? And down these mean streets, perhaps people don't care so much about village-style gossip....

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  9. Great post, fascinating subject. By the way, my The Cipher Garden starts with a sort of poison pen letter, and was published in the US by... The Poisoned Pen Press

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    1. Thanks Martin - someone else mentioned your book, time I read it....

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  10. This whole post is wonderful! I love the Five Finder Outers series -- had never noticed the parallel with Gaudy Night though. It's remarkably close. Hmmm.

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    1. Thanks Vicki! It's a pity the order of publication rules out the idea of DLS being influenced by Blyton, wouldn't that be brilliant? But still, it never does to underestimate Blyton. As I say elsewhere, I think she gave a lot of us our ideas of what a book should be...

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  11. Who are the artists of these classic works? I know I must know this.

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  12. Kathy - the top one is by Vermeer, second one down by Gabriel Metsu (a Dutch artist I had never heard of before) and the third one is by George Goodwin Kilburne, again, an artist I was not familiar with.

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  13. Thanks. I was interested in the black and white floors, so I wanted to know the artists.

    This is what I just found online at a Verneer web page: "He was also a realist and in many of his paintings he depicted black and white tiled floors in houses which was a popular style at the time."

    Mystery solved -- so easily these days on the Internet.

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    1. Thanks, that's interesting, isn't it? You wouldn't know if an artist was showing the unusual or something very normal, without checking....

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  14. Very nice post. I can think of no examples. If any sneak into my brain, I will come back. I will try some of these. The only one I know I have read is Gaudy Night. Possibly a couple of the others.

    I have never read Enid Blyton. As far as I know, haven't read any Nancy Drew. My husband read some Hardy Boys books. I have no idea if there is any comparison, just know that they are all children's books.

    I really like the two paintings.

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    1. I wonder if the genre really is a British thing? Certainly most of my examples were. I don't expect Enid Blyton hit the USA much either - very English. They aren't terrifically well-written, but they are very easy to read, and there are literally hundreds of books by her, and I think those two factors really encourage children to read.

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