One thing I enjoy about writing this blog is discovering authors I’d never heard of before. Such a practitioner is Nancy Hermione Bodington, who, from the 1940s through the swinging ’70s, produced a string of mystery and psychological suspense novels under the pseudonym Shelley Smith—books that earned her acclaim from at least one eminent authority on the genre: Julian Symons. As critic Mike Ripley recalled in a “Getting Away with Murder” column he penned for Shots back in 2012, “Symons likened [Bodington/Smith] to a cross between Mary Roberts Rinehart and Francis Iles—good company to be in.” Ripley added that another reviewer called her, “rather generously, ‘the English Patricia Highsmith’ although the Shelley Smith books are far more genteel.”
A bit of Web searching tells me the author was born Nancy Hermione Courlander in Surrey, England, on July 12, 1912. According to the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, “she was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and married Stephen Bodington in 1933.” Her premiere as Shelley Smith came with the 1942 publication of Background for Murder, a novel that modern British mystery writer Martin Edwards describes as “a genuine whodunit, with a dizzying list of suspects.” It was that book in which Smith introduced Jacob Chaos, an English detective who would reappear in one later yarn, 1947’s He Died of Murder! Most of Smith’s tales were standalones, including The Woman in the Sea (1941), The Man with a Calico Face (1950), An Afternoon to Kill (1953, which Edwards calls “a real tour de force”), The Party at No. 5 (1954), The Lord Have Mercy (1956, aka The Shrew Is Dead), The Ballad of the Running Man (1961), and A Grave Affair (1973).
The Crooked Man was Smith’s eighth novel to see print, published in the States by Harper & Brothers in 1952 (and in Great Britain under the title Man Alone). The 1954 Perma Star paperback edition—shown atop this post, with a beautiful but ominous cover painting by George Erickson—calls it “the terrifying story of a man whose mind was warped by strange desires.” Kirkus Reviews offered the following assessment:
The downgrade from meticulous petty thievery to murder in the life and crimes of Thomas Bates. There’s Grace Pickering, whose life he saves and who rewards him with an affection he avoids until he finds out about her savings account which he can only disengage through marriage. His next victim, a man, he is forced to kill. He marries again, for a dowry in jewels, but returns to Grace until he disposes of her with greater finality. But when his last enterprise, marriage to a wealthy woman whom he removes from an asylum, ends in suicide, his innocence of the crime is invalidated by the past. An unsavory study which is precise in pathology and cold in ridicule.A couple of Smith’s works were adapted as screen dramas: The Party at No. 5 became an episode of the series Climax! in 1957, and barrister-author John Mortimer—later famous for his Horace Rumpole stories—turned The Running Man into a 1963 film of the same name. In addition, Smith contributed a couple of scripts to TV anthology series in the UK, and she co-wrote (with John Hawkesworth) the screenplay for Tiger Bay, a 1959 crime drama—“the story of a girl, a gun, and a killer,” to quote blogger John “J.F.” Norris—that featured the first major role for young actress Hayley Mills. However, The Crooked Man appears never to have been launched past its early print existence. The author reportedly passed away on April 15, 1998, at the Carisbrook Lodge Nursing Home in Sussex, England.
Now let us shift our focus over to this week’s second featured work, the similarly titled There Was a Crooked Man (Gold Medal, 1954), by Day Keene. As any regular reader of this blog should know, Keene was a nom de plume employed by Gunnar Hjerstedt (1904-1969), described by the Los Angeles Review of Books as “one of the leading paperback mystery writers of the 1950s.” Just looking down the lengthy list of his published titles is enough to make any aspiring fictionist go green with envy. Keene created only a single recurring protagonist—half-Irish, half-Hawaiian L.A. private eye Johnny Aloha, the star of Dead in Bed (1959) and Payola (1960); the rest of his books were standalones—“some crap,” opines The Thrilling Detective Web Site’s Kevin Burton Smith, “but what’s amazing is how much of it was good stuff.”
There Was a Crooked Man was brought to the public marketplace early in Keene’s book-writing career, which had begun with Framed in Guilt (1949) and would conclude with Acapulco G.P.O. (1967). Perhaps not surprisingly, Texas author-blogger Bill Crider, who has repeatedly expressed his “affection” for Keene’s prodigious output, composed a “forgotten books” post about There Was a Crooked Man in 2011. It described the novel’s plot thusly:
The “crooked man” of the title is Clay Burgess, a good cop in a corrupt town, who goes along to get along and soon finds himself liking the money that comes with being bent. Eventually he’s as bad as anybody, but then his daughter gets polio. He steals a bundle and disappears, but it’s too late for his daughter. I’m not spoiling anything here, by the way. We learn all this in the first chapter, which sets up a flashback in which we find out all about the decline and fall of Clay Burgess. Okay, maybe not all about him, but nobody who reads this blog is going to be surprised by the big reveal at the end. I doubt that Keene expected anyone to be. He does throw a nice curve in the ending, though. A little sentimental? Sure. But I don’t mind.The artist responsible for illustrating the Gold Medal façade of There Was a Crooked Man was Raymond Johnson, whose fine work I’ve showcased on several occasions in the past.
Even if you know where things are going, Keene’s propulsive writing carries the day. You keep right on reading to find out about Burgess and what drives him and how low he’s going to go. At 144 pages, the perfect Gold Medal length, the story covers a heck of a lot of ground, and it’s just right for a few hours of good reading.