Saturday, August 8, 2009

Death Has a Small Voice,
by Frances and Richard Lockridge

I think of Richard and Frances Lockridge as having written intelligent and often intriguing, but generally pretty soft amateur detective tales in the S.S. Van Dine tradition. However, this week’s cover--taken from the 1960 Avon Books edition of Death Has a Small Voice, the Lockridges’ 17th Mr. and Mrs. North novel--suggests something considerably more sinister. The illustration shows a well-endowed young blonde who has either stumbled or been pushed to the ground (that mishap having loosened one spaghetti strap of her dress), and who’s now being menaced by a shadowy male figure clutching a handgun and a flashlight. The image supports the jacket blurb from The New York Times, which describes Death Has a Small Voice as an “unusually suspenseful thriller.”

I don’t own this particular edition of Death Has a Small Voice. But looking to the flap copy of the original, 1953 J.B. Lippincott Company hardcover version, I can see why the Times would make such an assertion. Its description of the story reads:
When Pam North receives a dictating machine record in her mail, she thinks it is a message from her husband, Jerry, who is in San Francisco on business. She goes to his office to play back the record and hears an ear-witness account of a murder actually taking place!

Harry Eaton, a small-time burglar, is found dead and the police discover in his apartment a dictating machine that has been stolen from the home of the missing Hilda Godwin, young poet and novelist. Pam is reported missing and Jerry hurries back to join Captain [Bill] Weigand in an effort to find her and to locate Hilda Godwin as well.

The manuscript of Miss Godwin’s first novel is stolen from her publisher’s office under mysterious circumstances. A number of her friends, all of whom are characterized in the novel under different guises, could be guilty. Captain Weigand and Jerry manage to get on the trail of Pam, and a fast three-way race back to New York ensues.
By the time they penned Death Has a Small Voice, the Lockridges were well practiced at crafting fair-play puzzle mysteries. Fellow newspaper reporters, Richard Lockridge and Frances Louise Davies married in the early 1920s and moved from the American Midwest to Manhattan. Their novel-writing premiere came with The Norths Meet Murder (1940), which grafted characters he had used in a succession of comic vignettes for The New Yorker onto a plot she’d been toying with, mostly to her frustration. That collaboration led the pair to compose 25 more novels featuring New York City book publisher Jerry North and his curious and often clever wife, Pamela.

Crime and crime-solving among upper-middle-class Manhattanites--mostly portrayed as sophisticated folk, often intellectuals--and the witty conversation between the Norths (and between them and some of the more doltish members of the Gotham constabulary) were all principal focuses of this series. In addition, Charles L.P. Silet observes in an essay for that “the books contain a good deal of political and social commentary, a richly detailed look at the changing life in New York City, as well as glimpses of the outlying suburban counties. Also, the Norths’ stable marriage relationship presents a marked contrast--and a welcome one--to the traditions of the lone detective characteristic of much other American mystery fiction.” Film and crime-fiction enthusiast Mike Grost adds that “The biggest strength of the North novels are the people in them. Pam and Jerry North are appealing human beings, and so are most of the suspects in the story. Unlike some detective authors, who mainly write about nasty characters, the denizens of a North tale tend to be civilized, intelligent, decent people. They are people whom one would love to know in real life.”

The Norths’ relationship bears a resemblance to that of Nick and Nora Charles, the alternately imbibing and investigating couple from Dashiell Hammett’s last, 1934 novel, The Thin Man, and the series of witty William Powell/Myrna Loy films it spawned. (The fact that the cat-loving Norths named at least three of their sly felines in honor of alcohols--Gin, Sherry, and Martini--only strengthens the North-Charles connection.) It may remind you as well of another pair of husband and wife sleuths: Stewart and Sally McMillan from McMillan & Wife. That 1971-1977 NBC Mystery Movie series starred Rock Hudson as a San Francisco police commissioner and Susan Saint James as his much younger spouse, the two of whom often became embroiled in nefarious doings.

However, ABC-TV’s Hart to Hart (1979-1984) might owe a still greater debt to Pam and Jerry North of Greenwich Village. That’s because, like the Norths, neither of the principals in that series--businessman Jonathan Hart (Robert Wagner) and his journalist wife, Jennifer (Stefanie Powers)--had a professional snooping background. As Ivan G. Shreve Jr. wrote in his original Thrilling Days of Yesterday blog,
One might be tempted to compare the Norths with that other famous literary sleuthing couple, Nick and Nora Charles ... But Nick Charles was a retired detective, and knew a little about the science of detection--Jerry North, on the other hand, was strictly an amateur; a run-of-the-mill book publisher aided and abetted in his investigations by his irrepressible wife, Pam. This could explain why their adventures had such a tremendous appeal for audiences--the Norths were an average couple who just happened to have a knack for stumbling onto murders.
Long before McMillan & Wife and Hart to Hart debuted, the Norths were familiar to TV and movie audiences in their own right. In 1942, Gracie Allen (yes, the same Gracie Allen who was married to comedian George Burns) starred alongside William Post Jr. in Mr. and Mrs. North, a big-screen adaptation of a stage play written by Owen Davis. CBS Radio listeners were treated to yet another interpretation of the Norths’ adventures from 1942 to 1954. And in 1952, television’s Mr. & Mrs. North debuted, with Richard Denning playing Gerald North (though he was now an “ex-private eye turned publisher”) and Barbara Britton as his “vivacious, attractive, somewhat addlebrained [wife] whose main occupation was stumbling over corpses,” to quote Richard Meyers from his 1981 book, TV Detectives. That series remained on the air (switching from CBS to NBC) until 1954, appealing to viewers with its blend of suspense, romance, and whimsical crime-solving.

The jacket of Avon’s 1960 paperback edition of Death Has a Small Voice was obviously designed to exploit that novel’s suspense and thriller elements. Its illustration is credited to Mort Engel. It’s said that Engel was still a very green art student in New York City when he beat out all other competitors to win Pocket Books’ fourth annual design contest, held in 1955. He went on to create the fronts for a number of western novels (including Powder Burn, by Bradford Scott, and Mulvane’s War, by William Heuman), as well as for mystery yarns and some racier offerings from Monarch Books, such as The Promiscuous Doll, by Clayton Matthews.

In addition to their Mr. and Mrs. North novels, the Lockridges penned non-fiction books about cats, plus three more mystery-fiction series. The best remembered of those--running to more than 20 installments--starred Inspector Merton Heimrich of the New York State Board of Criminal Identification (or, in later books, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation). Heimrich had appeared as a secondary player in a couple of North novels before being spun off as a separate series lead in Think of Death (1947). The Lockridges’ other series protagonists were both New York City police detectives: Nathan Shapiro (The Faceless Adversary, 1956) and Paul Lane (Night of the Shadows, 1962).

The North stories concluded with Murder by the Book, which was published in the same year--1963--that Frances Lockridge died. But Richard Lockridge continued to write the Heimrich books and others, finishing his career not too long before his own passing in 1982.

It would be pleasant to think that somewhere, in some phantasmal Manhattan, the Lockridges are tipping glasses--and tackling villainy--in company with Mr. and Mrs. North. But I’m not sure even they could keep up with their intuitive creations.

READ MORE:Mr. & Mrs. North,” by Bill Crider (Bill Crider’s
Pop Culture Magazine).


Frank Loose said...

Nice article. I'm not familiar with the books, but all the references to old tv series characters was interesting to read.

Sleestak said...

Do you know who did the art for this:

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Dear Sleestak:

I don't know for sure who illustrated the cover of that edition of Murder in a Hurry. Asking around a bit, one possible artist looks to have been George Erickson, who created a lot of fronts in the 1950s. But I don't have a definitive answer for you. I shall keep my eyes open for more information about that Lockridge novel jacket.


Dewey said...

Great article. Thanks. I just finished the novel and enjoyed it. I bought the hardcover (no dust jacket) at the library booksale for a quarter.