Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Sunday Brunch Full of Mysteries

Welcome to Sunday Brunch at Collecting Children’s Books. Most of today’s entries concern mysteries….


The year was 1955 and the place was the "juvenile department of a highly respectable New York publishing house."

The problems started slowly but, according to this published report, they progressed with malicious abandon: “Ink was spilled on art work, manuscripts were stolen, files were jumbled, the punch at a company cocktail party was spiked, and a letter opener was misplaced -- but found soon enough, protruding from the throat of brilliant but odious young illustrator.”

A true crime story from Court TV?

It was actually the plot of an old mystery novel, DEAD INDEED by M.R. Hodgkin.

I recentlyy learned about this book in FROM CHILDHOOD TO CHILDHOOD, which was written by the late great Atheneum editor Jean Karl. Ms. Karl said that DEAD INDEED was read most avidly by those in the children’s book industry.

I tracked down a copy this week:

I was so intrigued by the Ursula-like editor in the bottom right-hand corner, as well as the girl standing on the stool leaning into her co-worker’s cubicle (how come I never work in this kind of fun office?) that I almost missed the dead illustrator with the letter opener in his neck slumped over the pool of blood (I repeat: how come I never work in this kind of fun office?) in the upper left-hand corner.

I thought DEAD INDEED would make great Thanksgiving-weekend reading, but I’ve been so busy eating leftovers and napping and putting in the storm doors and napping and working of our Candlewick book and napping that I haven’t gotten to all the reading that I planned for this weekend.

But I like what I’ve read so far. According to the jacket flap, the author “served in various capacities at the firms of Holiday House, William R. Scott, Inc., and principally the Junior Books Department of the Viking Press, Inc.” The publishing house depicted in the novel is called Brewin Books and a note informs us that “The premises of Brewin Books, Inc., have been freely, not to say impertinently, adapted from those of an existing firm of the utmost respectability.” So reading this book is a lot of fun if you’re trying to figure out Brewin’s real-life counterpart, as well as guess who’s who among the characters. The first scene takes place at the Christmas Book Festival in the Children’s Room of the New York Public Library. The event ends with famous authors standing up to take a bow as the head librarian (ACM?) reels off their names:

“Salute to Rachel Mullins!”

“Salute to Julia Pindar for giving us the incomparable horse, Trottie!”

“A salute, a Christmas salute, to Terence Oldfather!”

One wonders if this event bears any resemblance to Anne Carroll Moore’s annual Christmas events at the NYPL? And if there is a real-life counterpart for “Mrs. Drummond,” an author/storyteller who presents a “spirited story” and “always sang at some point in every story she told.” (Did Ruth Sawyer sing?) And who could resist dialogue that includes this line from an editor: “Really I think we stand a good chance for the Caldecott Medal with Fly with Me.

Reading DEAD INDEED, I wondered why no one in the five decades since it was published has ever placed a mystery novel in the colorful world of children’s books -- especially in recent years when the field has achieved some public renown? Isn’t it about time for a kids’ book roman a clef?

I think it would be a lot of fun to read a book like this.

Heck, I think it would be even more fun to write one!

Imagine creating a world of quirky editors and even quirkier authors. Writers “accidentally” electrocuted by their word processors and copyeditors felled by heavy paperweights. Dialogue such as, “This book is sure to be the next Harry Potter!” or “She would KILL -- and I do mean KILL -- to win the Newbery!” or “He was blackmailing a critic for starred reviews!”

And even someone like me, who operates on the very outside periphery of the children’s book world, knows a few editors who I’d like to bump off (figuratively) in the pages of a crime novel.

And if today’s world of children’s publishing is too cold and corporate to capture anyone's imagination, a mystery writer could find a goldmine of material writing about yesteryear. We’ve already got mystery novels featuring Jane Austen as a detective. How about a 1940/1950s “children’s book noir” that teams up Ursula Nordstrom and Anne Carroll Moore (with doll Nicholas in tow) to solve THE CASE OF THE CALDECOTT KILLER or LITTLE HOUSE OF ILL REPUTE (in which Laura Ingalls Wilder is kidnapped by a rival publisher and hidden in a brothel.)


You may be wondering about the author of DEAD INDEED, M.R. Hodgkin. Her real name was Marion Rous and, in addition to the publishing companies mentioned earlier, she was later an editor at Macmillan in Great Britain. She moved to Great Britain after marrying British physiologist Alan Lloyd Hodgkin. In 1963, Dr. Hodgkin won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. As if that weren’t enough, three years later, Marion Rous Hodgkin’s own father won the Nobel in the same category. Overachievers. In 1972, Alan Hodgin was knighted by the Queen of England, making “Editor Marion Rous” into “Lady Hodgkin.” Talk about a “storybook ending.”


Speaking of mysteries, are murder mysteries and detective stories starting to make a comeback in young adult fiction? For the past few years, paranormal themes have dominated YA books, but over the past few months I’ve noted more traditional mysteries being published. There’s LOSING FAITH by Denise Jaden, ALL UNQUIET THINGS by Anna Jarzab, THE RIVER by Mary Jane Beaufrand, THE SPACE BETWEEN TREES by Katie Williams, LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS by Francisco X. Stork, and several more. And true crime has hit YA nonfiction with AN UNSPEAKABLE CRIME : THE PROSECUTION AND PERSECUTION OF LEO FRANK by Elaine Marie Alphin. …A trend for the future?


Another recent trend involves writers of mystery and suspense authors for adults joining the field of children’s and young adult books. James Patterson has made his presence known with the “Maximum Ride” books. Peter Abraham has written several recent books for young readers. John Grisham has published THEODORE BOONE : KID LAWYER. By writing for kids, all these authors have broadened their fan bases and expanded their “franchises.” But as far as I’m concerned, they’re all still a bunch of pikers.

My favorite adult mystery and suspense author turned YA writer is, was, and always will be M.E. Kerr.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the author published twenty suspense novels under the pseudonym “Vin Packer”:

Spring Fire, 1952
Dark Intruder, 1952
Look Back to Love, 1953
Come Destroy Me, 1954
Whisper His Sin, 1954
The Thrill Kids, 1955
The Young and Violent, 1956
Dark Don't Catch Me, 1956
3 Day Terror, 1957
The Evil Friendship, 1958
5:45 to Surburbia, 1958
The Twisted Ones, 1959
The Girl on the Best Seller List, 1960
The Damnation of Adam Blessing, 1961
Something in the Shadows, 1961
Intimate Victims, 1962
Alone at Night, 1963
Sudden Endings, 1964
The Hare in March, 1967
Don't Rely on Gemini, 1969

Originally published in paperback and acclaimed by critics, who described her work as reminiscent of John O’Hara, these books are now considered collectors’ items and deserve to be brought back into print for twenty-first century audiences. After leaving "Vin Packer" behinad and writing a handful of novels under her own name -- Marijane Meaker -- the author entered the field of young adult literature in 1972 with DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! As M.E. Kerr, she has continued to publish some of the best YA fiction of the last forty years. I don’t even want to list individual titles for fear of leaving off another favorite. Suffice to say, nearly every M.E. Kerr book is wonderful.

What I admire about Marijane Meaker is that, unlike the authors mentioned above -- such as Patterson and Grisham -- she didn’t just move into YA books to expand her core mystery and suspense audience. She reinvented herself and began writing a completely different type of book in a brand new genre. And succeeded brilliantly. The only “Kerr” books in which the author re-visited her “mystery book” past were FELL, and its sequels FELL BACK and FELL DOWN.

They are also among her few young adult books that went out of print.

Go figure!

Marijane Meaker would later explain in an interview:

I hadn't planned well, nor had I planted enough fascinating recurring characters. My editor said "FELL is not exactly falling off the shelves." I replied, "He's not on the shelves to fall off," taking a slap at the distributors, but despite good reviews and an Edgar nomination, sales perhaps reflected my lack of foresight. I always felt Fell should have had a brother instead of a baby sister, so he could have interaction with a close contemporary. Dib, his dull roommate, who could have been developed were he not so dull, I had to murder in the second book he was so boring to write.


As mentioned above, there are quite a few writers of adult mysteries who have later written for kids. Can you think of any writers for young people who have later attempted adult mystery and suspense novels?

I can think of a couple.

After a long line of hilarious teenage fiction, Paul Zindel published an adult suspense novel called WHEN A DARKNESS FALLS.

Chris Crutcher of STOTAN! and STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES fame published the adult mystery THE DEEP END.

Can you think of any others?


Sometimes it takes modern science to solve an historical mystery.

Louisa May Alcott died in 1888 of a stroke. She was only fifty-five, but had been complaining of ill health in her journal for many years. Even before LITTLE WOMAN was published, Louisa May had suffered from headaches, digestive issues, and fatigue, usually blaming these problems on overwork.

However, in 2007, Drs. Ian Greaves and Norbert Hirschhorn wrote a paper suggesting that the author had died from lupus. They based their “diagnosis” on a portrait of LMA that hangs at “Orchard House,” the Louisa May Alcott Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. The portrait reveals a rash that appears in a “butterfly” formation across the author’s nose and cheeks. This is usually considered a primary sign of lupus.

The doctors’ comments are considered speculation and probably wouldn’t hold up in court, but it’s intriguing to see a mystery from the past tackled one hundred years after the death of this classic children’s book author.


Nearly every children’s mystery series -- from Nancy Drew to the Three Investigators -- features a story involving invisible ink.

In the past this meant mysterious notes written with lemon juice held up to a candle. Today it may refer to the rapidly changing pixels of Wikipedia.

Although I love using the Wikipedia for quick reference, I just had another lesson in why an encyclopedia that “anyone can edit” is not necessarily trustworthy.

Writing about LMA made me wonder what the character Beth March died from in LITTLE WOMEN. I believed it was the after-effects of Scarlet Fever, but wanted to check and make sure. Imagine my surprise when I checked the Wiki and read:

When Beth's health eventually begins a rapid decline, the entire family nurses her -- especially Jo, who rarely leaves her side. [...] In her last year, Beth is still trying to make it better for those who will be left behind. She is never idle, except in sleep. But soon, Beth puts down her sewing needle, saying that it is "too heavy", never to pick it up again. In her final illness, she overcomes her quietness when she discusses the spiritual significance of her death to Jo. She becomes more and more ill, until she can not talk. But Beth gradually gets better and does NOT die.

What the ???

Obviously some joker went online and inserted that last incorrect line to be funny. I’m sure that someone will remove it soon. In fact, it may be gone by the now. But the point is, it was there this afternoon and some kid who didn’t read the book and relied on the Wiki in doing their homework assignment may soon learn that “anyone can edit” does not necessarily mean “anyone can edit” correctly!


Fifteen-year-old Ames Ford leads a charmed life: a mansion, an exclusive private school, and vacations to Alaska to soak in hot springs and view the aurora borealis. But her family’s lifestyle proves to be as ephemeral as those northern lights when Dad is caught mishandling money at work and loses his job. In this timely narrative, Ames watches in stunned disbelief as her family loses everything, Dad begins drinking, and Mom becomes cold and short-tempered. The family is forced to move from Boulder to rural Texas, renting a filthy tract house from Dad’s parents, whom Ames never even knew existed. Enter Marc -- a neighbor who agrees to help the family clean and restore their home. To Mom and Dad, he’s a religious, homeschooled teenage boy. But Ames soon learns he’s much older, and very different, than he seems. In fact, he embodies the anger that Ames feels toward her parents and their sudden change of circumstances, quickly becoming a controlling and dangerous partner to the confused fifteen-year-old caught between her own need for love and a desire for revenge. There is nothing subtle about either the plot or the characters here. Many elements of the narrative seem rushed while others -- such as the introduction of Ames’ heretofore unknown grandparents (who ask her to call them Mr. and Mrs. Ames) – seem underdeveloped within the larger confines of the story. Despite these flaws, this teen-pleasing story moves quickly, and with mounting suspense, toward a pulse-pounding conclusion.


By the way, did you recognize the title DEAD INDEED from a nursery rhyme?

I did not.

The rhyme, printed at the front of the novel, goes like this:

A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds;

And when the weeds begin to grow,
It's like a garden full of snow;

And when the snow begins to fall,
It is like a bird upon a wall;

And when the birds begin to fly,
It's like a shipwreck in the sky;

And when the sky begins to roar,
It's like a lion at the door;

And when the door begins to crack,
It's like a stick across your back;

And when your back begins to smart,
It's like a penknife in your heart;

And when your heart begins to bleed,
Oh, then you're dead, and dead indeed!

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you’ll be back!


hschinske said...

Louisa May Alcott attributed many of her health problems to mercury poisoning following her bout of typhoid (she was treated with large doses of calomel), and was probably right about the ones immediately following the war. Whether the mercury was still causing her problems so many years later is a dicier question. See for instance

Helen Schinske

Bybee said...

You made me laugh aloud at "Little House of Ill Repute"!

grrlpup said...

I looked at the Wikipedia discussion page for that entry, and it sounded like someone is not trying to be funny but rather wants to avoid spoilers. I felt compelled to correct it, but I tried to put it gently, not just "Then Beth dies." We'll see if it reverts... Wikipedia ends up being written by the people who care enough to keep fighting in the edit wars.

Sam said...

Kidlit authors who go on to write adult mystery...

I'm not sure about when they wrote what, but I've always been amazed that the two most famous talking bear authors also wrote adult mysteries.

I've never read A.A. Milne's mystery, but I've read some of Michael Bond's. I eventually had to stop because I was blushing too hard to continue!

Reka said...

Jane Langton! One of my favorite children's writers became one of my favorite authors of adult mysteries when she wrote the wonderful Homer Kelly series, set near the author's beloved Walden Pond.

Then there's Joan Aiken ("Beware of the Bouquet," anyone?) who wrote mysteries and thrillers and Jane Austen sequels as well as her incomparable Wolves chronicles.

And Nina Bawden and Penelope Lively have written a few adult mysteries, it seems. Must get my hands on those . . .

CLM said...

I am now longing to read Dead Indeed. I see the British Library owns it (not convenient, alas) as does the Boston Public Library (library use only - understandable but very inconvenient as it often means 9-5). Maybe it will turn up elsewhere.

Re children's authors who later wrote suspense, Dorothy Gilman Butters comes to mind at once. My favorite of her juveniles is The Calico Year (1953), a delightful story of orphaned teens in Western Mass. I am a fan of her Mrs. Pollifax novels but I think her most outstanding book is The Tightrope Walker which includes a description of a rare and precious children's book, The Maze in the Heart of the Castle - which she then wrote several years later. I am recommending this to you on Goodreads.

Another example is WEB Griffin, known for his adult war/suspense/police procedurals but who also wrote Susan and the Classic Convertible (a YA favorite, just ask Wendy and Laurie). In fact, WEB is one of those authors who wrote dozens of books under various names so I really cannot swear to the chronology but it is worth mentioning because so unexpected.

How about Phyllis Whitney, who died not very long ago - she was a short story writer and children's book editor whose first novel was a YA-ish book about girl who organizes her friends to create a co-op job bureau. Later, of course, Phyllis became renowned for her adult suspense/gothic and her juvenile mysteries. Mystery on the Isle of Skye was my favorite. I didn't really like her adult novels although waded through them the summer I ran out of Georgette Heyer.

What you do not mention, although I am sure you would share my angst, is how to shelve authors whose output includes adult and juvenile books. I own little Whitney but many books by the other two so must consider this carefully as I unpack in my new home...

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hschinske said...

I think I remember _The Tightrope Walker_ -- if it's the one I'm thinking of, there was some gossip a few years ago about a modern children's book possibly having been plagiarized from it.

Helen Schinske