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Ford, Leslie

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 9 months ago

Leslie Ford

Leslie Ford (1898-1983) was one of the pseudonyms of Zenith Brown (nee Jones). The other names this author used are Brenda Conrad and David Frome. Leslie Ford was born in Smith River, California and educated at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1921 she married Ford K. Brown. Leslie Ford became the Assistant in the Departments of Greek and Philosophy, then the Instructor and teacher of English for the University of Washington between 1921 and 1923. After that she was Assistant to the Editor and Circulation Manager of Dial Magazine in New York City. She became a freelance writer after 1927. Ms. Ford was a correspondent for the United States Air Force both in the Pacific area and in England during the Second World War. Her series characters were Lieutenant Joseph Kelly, Grace Latham and Colonel John Primrose.

 

See Girl Detective for a positive assessment of Ford's work.

 


Mike Grost on Leslie Ford

 

Leslie Ford's novella "Death Stops at a Tourist Camp" (1936) contains a well done impossible crime plot. Somewhat unusually, how the crime was committed is revealed half way through the story, with the revelation of whodunit reserved for the actual ending of the tale. These later sections are a bit anticlimactic, whereas the earlier impossible crime part is first rate. Apart from the impossible crime, the basic story setup in the novella recalls Rinehart's The Circular Staircase.

 

"Death Stops at a Tourist Camp" (1936) seems to be somewhat unusual in Ford's work in that it contains a well done puzzle plot. In most of the Ford novels I have read, the puzzle plot is pretty weak. There is a mystery, and its solution, but there is little imaginative or clever about it. So far, the only Ford novel I have read with much puzzle plot ingenuity is Mr Pinkerton Has the Clue (1936). Instead, the best part of Ford's writing is her storytelling. She often unrolls an interesting situation, and gives her lead characters an adventure while investigating it. The best parts of many Ford novels are the opening chapters. Here her storytelling is strongest, and her imagination at its peak. These sections often take place before any murder has actually transpired. When the murder does occur, late in the novel, the charm of the book often stops dead in its tracks, and we get a routine murder mystery. What all of this means is that Ford is something of a specialized taste. She does not show the virtue of mystery plot brilliance demonstrated by many of her contemporaries. And few of her books are successful from beginning to end. Yet, lurking in her work is some real accomplishment. I always look forward to starting one of her stories.

 

The Colonel Primrose tales

 

Ford's novella "The Clock Strikes Twelve" (1935) (also known as "The Supreme Court Murder") is reasonably pleasant reading, but it could be much better, considered as a puzzle plot mystery. The elaborate schemes of the killer, entertainingly typical of the Golden Age, seem absurdly unmotivated. The author wonders early on why the killer took the risk of murdering someone in the Supreme Court chamber, no less, but she never comes up with a decent explanation. The story shows Ford's interest in mechanical devices and machinery. There is some good Washington atmosphere in this tale, and a portrait of an Amelia Earhart type woman flying ace that has some intriguing feminist slants. Washington settings were popular among the HIBK school. Mary Roberts Rinehart, who lived in Washington for a time while her husband was a government official, wrote about the city in her non mystery, "One Hour of Glory", and Mignon G. Eberhart set "Murder Goes to Market" (1943) there. Disney's The Strawstack Murders (1938 - 1939) is set in Maryland near Washington. Even Patricia McGerr's Selena Meade spy stories in the 1960's show signs of the HIBK tradition. Washington settings were good for HIBK writers partly because much of Washington's "business" is transacted at social events. These social events are run by women characters, often sophisticated power brokers, and yet the events are full of government activity, intrigue, spies, lawyers, and big businessmen with agendas. It allows the writers to mix social activity and glamorous woman characters naturally with mystery, intrigue and suspense. Even away from Washington, Lenore Glen Offord postulated spies operating in Berkeley, California in Skeleton Key; see also Rinehart's "Murder and the South Wind" and Kendrick's The Odor of Violets. Admittedly many of these stories are set in the early 1940's World War II era, when espionage was much on Americans' minds. In any event, the Washington setting of the tales allows writers to reflect on the nature of basic American values: what is really important about American life, what are its essential traditions? There is a mix of patriotism about American traditions, and skepticism about politicians and diplomats. It also allows for an exploration of ambiguity. This is a place where even the good characters wear masks, where nothing is as it seems. Both the American themes and the ambiguity have a common basic approach: an attempt to find solid, worthwhile reality hidden under a maze of alternatives.

 

"The Clock Strikes Twelve" features her series sleuth, Colonel John Primrose. It was published before any of the Primrose novels, and is one of the many novellas by Golden Age writers that appeared in The American Magazine - Ford did eight in the 1930's. The short, bird-dog like Colonel reminds one a little bit of Ellery Queen's Inspector Queen, and his aide Sgt. Buck Queen's Sgt. Velie.

 

The Mr. Pinkerton stories

 

Mr. Pinkerton and his friend Inspector Bull of Scotland Yard first appeared in The Hammersmith Murders (1930).

 

The originals of Mr. Pinkerton and Inspector Bull can be seen in Anthony Berkeley's The Piccadilly Murder (1929). This is one of three Berkeley novels featuring his mild mannered amateur sleuth Ambrose Chitterwick, and the only one in which he has a starring role. Mr. Chitterwick, like the later Mr. Pinkerton, is a mild mannered, extremely timid, hen pecked and socially self conscious middle aged Londoner. Despite their social fears, both men are gifted, talented detectives, who often are much cleverer at finding the solution to the mystery than are the self-confident representatives of Scotland Yard. Both men are much bullied by everyone around them, but both men also have lots of tenacity, and an obstinate curiosity that keeps them investigating the crime. Both men tag along with a friendly, if intimidating Scotland Yard official, who allows them to watch the investigation of a case. Mr. Chitterwick's friend is Inspector Moresby, Mr. Pinkerton's Inspector Bull. Both men watch in the background, and are frequently the subject of comic condescension by officials of the police. Both men are also socially intimidated and comically bossed around by members of the social elite. Both Berkeley and Ford derive much social comedy from the collision between their timid protagonist, and the aggressive members of society and officialdom which they meet.

 

There are some differences. Mr. Pinkerton is of much lower class origins. Unlike Mr. Chitterwick, who has inherited money and who is descended from gentlemen, Pinkerton came from a modest background, and worked hard most of his life, first as a school teacher, then in his wife's boarding house. The differences here perhaps reflect the two authors. Berkeley embodies the snobbishness and class consciousness of British writers of the era, in which only members of the upper classes were respected. The American Ford reflects more democratic values, with respect for people who work being a chief value of society. Mr. Pinkerton also has dreams of romance and adventure, while Mr. Chitterwick is principally concerned with criminology, being an eccentric hobbyist who specializes in the subject.

 

Most of the early Pinkerton novels (pre-1934) are pretty ordinary. I did not care for The Hammersmith Murders (1930) or The Eel Pie Murders (1933), for instance. The Man From Scotland Yard (1932) is a complete botch. It is a mystery story of sorts, but has little fair play, and Mr. Pinkerton is only marginally related to the events it depicts.

 

The series gets more interesting with [Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard] (1934), which has some lively writing.

 

Frome's Evan Pinkerton short story, "The Man on the Iron Palings" (1941), shows a strong influence of Chesterton: There is the impossible crime plot, resolved partly through a look at the geometry of the murder situation. There is the mousy, diffident detective, a bit out of place among a bunch of aggressive society higher-ups. Ford pushes this social difference to an extreme, with her shy Mr. Pinkerton a bullied bundle of nerves. And there is a common background of London club life, somewhat eccentric organizations that have dinners and get togethers: see Chesterton's "The Queer Feet", for example. Like that other American Chestertonian, John Dickson Carr, Ford wrote so convincingly of London life than many people thought she was British.

 

If Chesterton's Father Brown was less socially high powered than the people he investigated, he at least had the dignity of the cloth to protect him, as well as his moral seriousness and gigantic intellect. Little Mr. Pinkerton has none of these defenses, and his social humiliations achieve mammoth proportions. They are the most extreme of any detective protagonist since J.S. Fletcher's The Million Dollar Diamond. Other Chesterton influenced writers generally have not attempted to duplicate Father Brown's shy, humble qualities. Carr's Dr. Fell is a portrait of Chesterton himself, not a Father Brown clone. And Anthony Boucher's Sister Ursula, while sharing Father Brown's religious vocation, is aggressive and confident. However, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is often undervalued as a little old lady detective.

 

The Mr. Pinkerton series largely appeared between 1930 - 1939. They are part of a Golden Age world that became less fashionable after the War in the early 1940's.

 

Bibliography

 

The Sound of Footsteps {aka Footsteps on the Stairs} (1931)

Murder in Maryland (1932)

By the Watchman's Clock (1932)

The Clue of the Judas Tree (1933)

The Strangled Witness (1934)

Burn Forever {aka Mountain Madness} (1935)

Ill Met by Moonlight (1937)

The Simple Way of Poison (1937)

Three Bright Pebbles (1938)

Reno Rendezvous {aka Mr Cromwell Is Dead} (1939)

False to Any Man {aka Snow-White Murder} (1939)

The Town Cried Murder (1939)

Old Lover's Ghost {aka A Capital Crime} (1940)

Road to Folly (1940)

The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941)

Murder in the OPM {aka Priority Murder} (1942)

Murder with Southern Hospitality {aka Murder Down South} (1942)

Siren in the Night (1943)

All for the Love of a Lady {aka Crack of Dawn} (1944)

The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945)

Honolulu Story {aka Honolulu Murder Story} {aka Honolulu Murders} (1946)

The Woman in Black (1947)

The Devil's Stronghold (1948)

Date with Death {aka Shot in the Dark} (1949)

Murder Is the Pay-Off (1951)

The Bahamas Murder Case (1952)

Washington Whispers Murder {aka The Lying Jade} (1953)

Invitation to Murder (1954)

Murder Comes to Eden (1955)

The Girl from the Mimosa Club (1957)

Trial by Ambush {aka Trial from Ambush} (1962)

 

As Brenda Conrad

 

The Stars Give Warning (1941)

Caribbean Conspiracy (1942)

Girl with a Golden Bar (1944)

 

As David Frome

 

The Murder of an Old Man (1929)

In at the Death (1929)

The Hammersmith Murders (1930)

Two Against Scotland Yard {aka The By-Pass Murder} (1931)

The Strange Death of Martin Green {aka The Murder on the Sixth Hole} (1931)

The Man from Scotland Yard {aka Mr Simpson Finds a Body} (1932)

The Eel Pie Murders {aka Eel Pie Mystery} (1933)

Scotland Yard Can Wait! {aka That's Your Man, Inspector!} (1933)

Mr Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard {aka Arsenic in Richmond} (1934)

Mr Pinkerton Finds a Body {aka The Body in the Turf} (1934)

Mr Pinkerton Grows a Beard {aka The Body in Bedford Square} (1935)

Mr Pinkerton Has the Clue (1936)

The Black Envelope {aka The Guilt Is Plain} (1937)

Mr Pinkerton at the Old Angel {aka Mr Pinkerton and the Old Angel} (1939)

Homicide House {aka Murder on the Square} (1950)

 

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