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Wilde, Percival

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 7 months ago

Percival Wilde (1887-1953) is best known as a writer of one-act plays, but he also wrote several mystery novels and short stories. He was born in New York and graduated from Columbia in 1906. He sold his first story in 1912. He married Nadie Rogers Marckres in 1920 and served in the Navy in WWII. His correspondence is stored in Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


Mike Grost on Percival Wilde

 

Percival Wilde's Rogues in Clover (collected 1929) is a set of mystery tales in which former card sharp Bill Parmelee exposes crooked gamblers and their schemes. The tales I have read so far do not involve murder or other crimes - the tales stick strictly to gambling swindles. On the other hand, the tales are set up as full, fair play mystery stories. We see the mysterious situation, we are given clues to how it might be done, at the end of the tale Bill shows us the crooks' methods. These stories are probably one of the most sustained looks in 20th century mystery fiction at fair play mysteries that do not involve murder. The stories originally appeared in a pulp, Street & Smith's The Popular Magazine, around 1924-1925. This was a general purpose pulp, not one that specialized in mystery fiction. It is sometimes referred to as a "family pulp", because it published non hard-boiled fiction suitable for a family readership, in imitation of such slick magazines as The Saturday Evening Post.

 

Behind these tales stands the Rogue tradition, stories of clever rogues and their ingenious crimes. Like such British Rogue-influenced detective story writers as J.S. Fletcher and E.C. Bentley, Wilde combines this with the detective story proper. The tales are told from a detective's point of view, not the criminal's, and treated as a mystery for the detective to solve. Formally, his tales have much in common with theirs. However, thematically, there are substantial differences. Fletcher and Bentley, like other British Rogue writers, are interested in tweaking the nose of the British class system. Many of their tales involve lower class people who assume the clothes and power of the upper classes. The American writer Wilde seems to have no interest in this at all. Instead he is best compared to the other American magazine writers of his day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the entries in Carolyn Wells' Best American Mystery Stories of 1930. Wilde, like them, is interested in the bright, well to do young men of the Jazz Age. These men combine virtue and vice in strange and fascinating ways, at least to the readers of their era. The young men attempt to exude an aura of vice, vague licentiousness and general naughtiness. Clearly they are breaking taboos in ways that are titillating to their readers, in ways that involve both romance (Fitzgerald) and high stakes gambling (Wilde). At the same time, they are incredibly clean cut, at least by modern standards. They are all basically wholesome, clean cut young men from the most proper families. All have plenty of money, and are ultimately very marriageable.

 

Wilde, like other American magazine writers of the era, also shows signs of continuity with the Early American scientific school of Rinehart, Reeve, Futrelle, Moffett, etc. His interest in a specialized subject area, games of chance, can be seen as his equivalent to the scientific knowledge that plays such an important role in their stories. Like Reeve, his stories take place in the arena of public life, not private relationships. And like Reeve, he often deals with corrupt high livers, big time crooks and swindlers from the upper reaches of society.

 

Parmelee goes "undercover" with an assumed identity in some of these tales. This is a persistent plot gambit in Wilde, whose characters are always assuming new identities.

 

Wilde wrote four mystery novels in 1938-1942. Inquest (1940) is a Golden Age mystery story with a fairly elaborate, but not very good, puzzle plot. An agent gets killed in a summer house during a garden party, in a setup that recalls Chesterton's "The Oracle of the Dog" (1923). The solution of the book has some similarities with the plot of the movie Sunset Boulevard (1950). Wilde experiments with multiple narrators in this story, in a way that recalls Wilkie Collins. The best feature of this otherwise ho-hum novel is one of these narrators, town handyman Ben Willett. The first 6 sections of his The Tale of the Grim Reaper offer some good characterization and observations on life, and show Wilde's skill at writing mainstream fiction. Both here and with P. Moran, Wilde shows his sympathy with working class characters. I also liked the parts of "The Diary of a Public Character" (another section of Inquest) that deal with an author's rise to success. Wilde liked to write about characters' money making schemes. These schemes seem somewhat implausible to me sometimes, but they are clearly pleasant wish fulfillment daydream fantasies for both Wilde and his readers.

 

Design for Murder (1941) pays tribute to Poe, Gaboriau, Doyle, Chesterton, Christie and Van Dine. Aside from Gaboriau, these are all writers in the intuitionist detective tradition. Such references to earlier mystery writers are a perennial feature of detective fiction. However, it is difficult to fit this book into the intuitionist tradition. For one thing, there is no actual detective. The crime is "solved" at the end by letting us into the killer's thoughts. No one actually solves the case. This contrasts with the genius sleuths of the intuitionist school.

 

One can see some personal Wilde approaches here. The book is set in his home stomping grounds of Connecticut. The story involves a "Murder" game at a wealthy country estate. The atmosphere of game playing among high powered but somewhat child like people recalls all the high stakes card games of Rogues in Clover. There is much criticism of rich people here, especially those born to wealth. One of the few truly admirable characters is a self-made business man, Jim, who shows Wilde's success fantasies. Wilde was a playwright, and he compares the novel to a play in his preface. It certainly is staged like a play, with a continuous action in two adjoining rooms, just like a stage set, and much bright dialogue. The book also continues his experiments with multiple narrators, this time people who are recording their observations in bursts as the action progresses, something Wilde handles nicely. The story is in five parts, each with its own narrator. The first three sections are quite well written, with lively storytelling. However, the solution seems to me to be a let down, and the book is mainly just a curiosity.

 

Wilde's P Moran, Operative spoofs from the 1940's are good natured satires in which his moronic correspondence school detective attempts to track down crooks. The stories are partly narrated by P. Moran himself, and partly by others, recalling Wilde's experiments with multiple narrators in Inquest. Moran has a wonderfully individualistic voice, as do the various narrators in Wilde's novels. They are also set in the New York-Connecticut border region of that novel, and show considerable local color. "P. Moran, Shadow" (1943) is laugh out loud funny. The story deals with mobsters and the underworld, not with the genteel upper crust murders of the Golden Age. Even here, these crooks are very small beer, compared to the macho supermen of crime stalking through the pages of the pulps. P. Moran would be a perfect character for Jim Carrey to play, in his full Dumb and Dumber mode. A lot of 40's writers attempted to bring humor to mystery fiction: one thinks of Craig Rice, Merle Constiner, Ken Crossen. Wilde seems closest in these tales to the tradition of the professional American humorist: the stories are like the result if George S. Kaufman or Jean Kerr or Patrick Dennis had attempted spoofs of pulp crime tales. Like Kaufman and Kerr, Wilde had been a professional playwright.

 

A humorous story like "Beginner's Luck" (1924) from Rogues in Clover recapitulates many of Wilde's traditional themes: 1) The story opens in Bill Parmelee's farm in West Woods, Connecticut; Western Connecticut locations recur in Inquest and P. Moran. 2) Parmelee's devotion to and fascination with farming recalls the Grim Reaper's absorption with his grass cutting job in Inquest. 3) Parmelee's friend Tony goes undercover to help him; impersonation is a major Wilde plot device. This impersonation is the cleverest part of the story. 4) Tony's naiveté in his job, played for laughs, anticipates the even less competent P. Moran. 5) The successful businessmen Tony meets as suspects recall Wilde's interest in business success fantasies.

 

Bibliography

 

Reverie (1924)

The Toy Shop (1924)

Rogues in Clover (1929)

Devil's Booth (1930)

There is a Tide (1932)

Mystery Week-End (1938)

Inquest (1940)

Design For Murder (1941)

Tinsley's Bones (1942)

P Moran, Operative (1947)

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