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Abbot, Anthony

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years ago

Anthony Abbot was the pseudonym of Charles Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), who allegedly chose both the name and his method of titling (About the...) to bring his books to the beginning of alphabetical lists. He wrote under his own name on Christian themes, including The Greatest Story Ever Told.

 

Charles Fulton Oursler was born in Baltimore. He studied law but became a reporter, then arts critic and magazine editor. As a convert to Catholicism, he wrote many popular religious books. His series detective was Thatcher Colt.

 

Mike Grost on Anthony Abbot

 

Anthony Abbot is one of the most important of the "little known" mystery writers. Like Ellery Queen an early follower of S.S. Van Dine. Abbot's books are distinguished by a wonderful plot complexity. Abbot is good at misdirection. The reader is encouraged to view subplots as having a certain significance, when in reality they point in an entirely different direction, one that is only revealed at the end of the story. This is perhaps related to the plotting technique of pulp writers, in which so many actors are doing so many things that the reader is constantly misled about the real origins of every startling, new plot twist.

 

Abbot seems to have a natural liking for the complex plot. Even when he does a tongue-in-cheek short story that consciously combines humor and mystery, such as "About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry", there is a delightful, well constructed mystery plot full of unexpected turns and complexity. Abbot's work also has the quality of "readability": they carry one along, and one can enjoy one of his books in a single sitting.

 

Abbot's interest in misdirection can lead to vivid evocations of the difference between illusion and reality. Although Abbot does not conspicuously underline any philosophical implications of this theme, the strong plots cause this theme to emerge anyway. Abbot's fiction has a haunting quality. Both humans' ability to understand reality, and human life itself, seem frail and fragile. There is a note of pathos in his work, that seems autumnal, in contrast with Ellery Queen's springtime vigor. There is a sense of a last look at things, before they disappear into the mist.

 

Another contributor to this effect is Abbot's emphasis on the investigation of murder scenes. Described gently, and with delicate but powerful mise-en-scène, Abbot's vivid descriptions of houses, rooms, streets and yards show an architectural imagination at work.

 

If Abbot's work looks forward to the pulp techniques of the 1930's and 1940's, it looks backward to the scientific detectives of 1905-1914. About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) digresses from its main mystery to offer a full portrait of "high tech" police techniques. These seem oddly similar to those of Cleveland S. Moffet and Arthur B. Reeve of twenty years earlier.

 

Abbot's detectival setup offers an intriguing variation on Van Dine's formula. In Van Dine, and in Ellery Queen as well, a genius amateur detective works closely with the New York Police as an unofficial, but highly respected, consultant. Each has a personal connection with officialdom: Van Dine's Philo Vance is a personal friend of the DA, and Ellery Queen is Police Inspector Richard Queen's son. In Abbot's books, the genius detective Thatcher Colt is himself the Police Commissioner, and his connection with the New York Police come about naturally as the head of police. There is still a bit of "amateur detective" status about Colt: like Philo Vance, he is from a higher social stratum than most of the police, and the Police Commissioner's job is usually considered administrative and political, so Colt's involvement in solving actual cases is unusual, and the result of his rare personal abilities. Just as Vance is an art expert and connoisseur, Colt is an expert on literature, collecting rare books and writing poetry in his spare time.

 

Abbott wrote four Thatcher Colt detective novels in 1930 - 1932. They are especially Van Dine like in their tone, and in their detectival approach. He then paused for three years, without publishing any more Colts. During 1935 - 1943, he published four more Colt novels, at long intervals. These later novels are much less Van Dine like in tone, perhaps not surprising, in that Van Dine was no longer anywhere near as popular as in the early 1930's. They also contain much more about an Abbot enthusiasm of those years, psychic phenomena.

 

Abbot was deep into what might be called "WASP Macho". There is tremendous emphasis on Colt's power and prestige as head of the police. He is also big on intimidating criminals. Abbot has really bought into ideas about leadership of social institutions equaling manhood and masculinity. Of course, this leadership was a privilege reserved in his day to WASPs, and one that they valued very highly. While there is no sign of prejudice against immigrants or other ethnic groups in Abbot, it is clear that he was deep into the social ideals of his own ethnic group, and felt that his hero should be a leader of men. Colt is the literary equivalent of the sympathetic, jut-jawed, well tailored men seated at big desks in big offices that showed up in so many 1930's movies (think of Walter Huston as the factory owner in Dodsworth).

 

Paradoxically, while Abbot idolized men in leadership positions, his fiction is more rooted in middle class life than are most other authors of the Golden Age. This is especially true of the non-police characters in his tales. The investigation into the death of Geraldine Foster reveals a poignant look at the stresses and strains in the life of a young, middle class woman of the period. Similarly, "ordinary man" Mr. Digberry's survival and even triumph suggests an allegory of the survival and triumph of the middle classes.

 

Bibliography

 

About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) aka The Murder of Geraldine Foster

About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) aka The Crime of the Century, The Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress, The Mysterious Murder of the Blonde Play-Girl

About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (1931) aka The Night Club Lady, The Murder of the Night Club Lady

About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932) aka The Murder of A Circus Queen

About the Murder of A Startled Lady (1935) aka The Murder of A Startled Lady

About the Murder of A Man Afraid of Women (1937) aka The Murder of A Man Afraid of Women

The Creeps (1939) aka Murder at Buzzards Bay

The Shudders (1943) aka Deadly Secret

 

Short Stories

 

  • About the Disappearance of Agatha King (1939)
  • About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry (1940)
  • The Face From Beyond (1946)
  • The Ship of Sleepless Men (1958)

 

Published Anonymously

 

Dark Masquerade (1936)

 

With others

 

The President's Mystery Story (1936)

 

Comments (1)

Jon said

at 1:56 pm on Dec 21, 2010

I agree with Curt. The early titles with that odd About the Murder of... formula for each title are definitely the best. (Although there is something to be said for the ingenious murder method in The Shudders). They are all of the Van Dine/Queen school minus the amateur sleuth. Abbot's books are a combo of the traditional detective novel and the police procedural and he loved to include the latest in police techniques and go into great detail discussing those techniques. There is also a lot of business about police politics and how they figure in the running of a city what with the D.A. always poking his nose into each case. ...The Man Afraid of Women had a very long section on ballistics with emphasis on how the gun barrel leaves microscopic scores on the bullet that help identify the bullet to the exact gun. This obviously is old hat to a modern reader but was fairly new for readers in the 1930s.

Abbot could pull a real fast one on the reader every now and then. I was taken completely by surprise by one element of the solution in ...The Man Afraid of Women. I can't recall if that one was based on a true crime case, but the first three are definitely inspired by actual murder cases. This was also a gimmick of sorts with the Anthony Abbot books. Sadly it's had to find his books since only a few of them were reprinted in paperback editions. The Shudders and The Creeps were done up as Dell Mapbacks and About the Murder of a Circus Queen was a Popular Library reprint. But the rest are only available in hardcovers. Surely a reason why few modern readers know about him or have read him.

The Creeps is the least like any of Abbot's earlier books and reminded me of a very pale imitation of The Rim of the Pit - an utter masterpiece of detective fiction. It was no favorite of mine.

J F Norris (AKA John)

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