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Williams, Valentine

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 7 months ago

George Valentine Williams (1883-1946) was an English journalist, actor, lecturer and screenwriter. He created "The Fox" (Baron Alexis de Bahl), "Clubfoot" (Dr Adolph Grunt), Mr Treadgold the tailor and Detective Sergeant Trevor Dene. He also wrote one book under the name Valentine Douglas.


Williams was the son of G. Douglas Williams, Chief Editor of the Reuters News Agency. After being privately educated in Germany, Williams joined Reuters as a sub-editor in 1902. Williams joined the Daily Mail in 1909 and over the next few years reported on various international stories including the Portuguese Revolution in 1910 and the Balkan Wars (1912-13). On the outbreak of WWI, Williams was sent to the Western Front. He disagreed with what he called "the unenlightened and unimaginative censorship" exercised by the Army's senior commanders. He joined the Irish Guards as a Second Lieutenant in 1915, and saw action at the front in the Somme sector, where he was seriously wounded in 1916. Williams was also awarded the Military Cross.

Mike Grost on Valentine Williams


Valentine Williams is a nearly forgotten writer today. His Mr. Treadgold stories feature an amateur detective who is a Saville Row tailor. The detective plots often turn around clothes, on which subject Treadgold is an expert. The tales are far more democratic than most British fiction of the era, which would have despised making a tradesman a hero of fiction. The only other such character I can recall is Sayers' traveling salesman, Montague Egg. Mr. Treadgold moves with complete social assurance through all classes of society; the upper class people he meets often have startling vices, and hardly seem like a right winger's fantasies of social rectitude. Williams also shows tremendous enthusiasm for all things American in the book, including American idioms and speech patterns. He seems to welcome America as an admirable alternative to modern Britain. Williams also seems genuinely internationalist in scope, with sympathy for people of all nations.


Williams' stories show a great variety of approaches. There are intuitionist puzzle plots suggesting Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes style deduction from physical clues, and even a scientific crime scheme out of Freeman or the Coles ("The Singing Kettle"). Williams also occasionally mixes spy material with his country house plot matter, as well. Although all of his Treadgold tales have mystery plots, some of them come close to degenerating into pure thrillers. This eclecticism makes him hard to classify, but I think he belongs most closely with the intuitionists. Although he was praised by Howard Haycraft and has an entry in the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, the most important writer who seems to have noticed Williams is Agatha Christie, who burlesqued his Okewood Brothers spy tales in Partners in Crime (1928). The names "Okewood" and "Treadgold" have a certain similarity; each has two syllables, both heavily stressed, and with a d sound at the end, and plenty of o vowel sounds in the names. He also had a series character named "Clubfoot", which continues the pattern.


Williams seems more like a follower than a leader. Many British detective writers of the era seem to be straining to be innovators, to create a New Type of Detective Story, one with their own personal stamp on it. Sometimes, as in Bentley's or Freeman's case, this is admirable; sometimes, in Berkeley's case, it is merely pretentious. Williams seems more content to grind out stories in established modes. Even at his best, there tends to be a somewhat labored quality to Williams' work. He doesn't seem to be a "natural", the way Christie was. Yet his best tales contain some real merit. If he was laboring, at least his work sometimes achieved results.


"The Strange Disappearance of Miss Edith Marless" (1937) is a tale in the same genre as Van Dine's excellent The Kidnap Murder Case (1936). Disappearance tales are loaded with an interesting ambiguity. Has a person run off? been kidnapped? murdered? Williams does himself proud in a genuinely puzzling mystery. This story and "The Blue Ushabti" (1937) suggest a writer in the puzzle plot Christie tradition, although there is a strong Doyle feeling to them as well. Such a direct Doyle influence is rare is authors of the 1930's.


"The Case of the Black 'F'" (1937) and "The Man With The Two Left Feet" do not have puzzle plots, but they do have a well-handled mix of detective work and international intrigue. Both tales show good storytelling. If other Williams tales recall Christie, these seem rather Sherlock Holmes like. The latter story has a treatment of contemporary 1930's politics that still seems relevant and gripping.


Williams' autobiography The World of Action (1938) describes his discovery of mystery fiction through reading the Sherlock Holmes stories as a child, during their original appearance in The Strand. He would have been nine... They clearly made a deep impression on him. Doyle still seems to be the dominant influence on the Treadgold stories. Williams went on to read widely in the Sensation novelists of the 1860's, and Gaboriau. He is the author of a much quoted article about Gaboriau. The scenes in which Mr. Treadgold examines various victims' clothes for clues recall similar ones in Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886). Williams' autobiography also makes clear that Williams regarded himself much more as an author of "shockers" (spy stories, thrillers, and related works), than of mystery fiction proper, although much of Treadgold falls in the latter category. No less a figure than John Buchan helped get Williams' first novel through wartime censorship, and Williams later became friends with E. Phillips Oppenheim on the Riviera. These are the major names in British spy fiction of the era. Williams also quotes with justifiable pride Kipling's praise of his writing. By contrast, Williams seems personally unacquainted with any of the Golden Age mystery authors.


Williams' lesser stories recycle material from his better ones. "Donna Laura's Diamond" is another woman's disappearance story, but with much less of a puzzle plot than "The Strange Disappearance". Similarly, "The Dot-and-Carry Case" (1937) and "The Murder of Blanche Medloe" are lesser stories in the tradition of "The Case of the Black 'F'". All three involve two men from different classes whose identities are confused, and the last two deductions about appearances from clothes. "Dot", "Medloe" and "Donna Laura" also contain portraits of underworld types, flashy young crooks who Williams shudderingly regards as Hopelessly Vulgar. One can see why the underworld story never caught on in Britain as it did in America. The same crooks that Americans regarded as glamorous, the British despised as totally non-U. One has to admit that there is a certain element of realism to the British viewpoint. I suspect most real life crooks were just plain sleazy. Americans' fictional glamorous crooks were basically just fantasies. In each case, Williams contrasts his crooks with allegedly admirable men from the upper middle classes, all of whom show much more good taste. However, Williams' portrait contains ambiguities; in each case, it is Mr. Flashy Vulgar Crook who gets the girl. Williams clearly harbors uncomfortable suspicions that the life style of upper class Good Breeding is terminally dull.


The last story in the collection is a novella, "Murder Stalked at Sea Nest". It is a complete Golden Age country house novel in miniature, complete with alibis, motives and servants. It is painfully routine. Its American setting is startling for a British writer: it is an estate on Long Island Sound, filled with New York professional people, the kind one might meet in a Mr. and Mrs. North novel by the Lockridges. There is not an aristocrat in sight: everybody works for a living, in the American style. Williams seems completely ambidextrous as a writer, able to turn out British settings or American with ease. Also, one might note that when Golden Age intuitionist writers brought the full machinery of the country house mystery into short fiction, they tended to make it a novella (short novel), and not a short story proper. Example include Phillpotts' "Prince Charlie's Dirk", Christie's "Dead Man's Mirror", Carr's "The Third Bullet", and C. Daly King's "The Vanishing Harp". Perhaps they believed that only a novella could accommodate all of the features of a full Golden Age plot. Or, conversely, perhaps they were commissioned to write a longer piece of fiction, and felt that readers would expect them to provide a "novel in miniature".


Williams' spy story, "The Pigeon Man" (1927), presents us with a character whose motivations are as obscure as any in modernist literature. Why is the hero doing what he is doing? Why, for that matter, are the other characters? Williams never says explicitly, leaving readers to puzzle this out for themselves. In addition, the story presents a fable as strange as any in Kafka or Hawthorne. The Pigeon Man is perhaps an upper class English gentleman who has completely managed to de-class himself, turning himself into a Belgian peasant tramp. Or maybe not. Such a motivation is consistent with Williams' concerns about class in the Mr. Treadgold stories. But the Pigeon Man ultimately goes far beyond this, achieving a complete obscurity. His life reminds one of Hawthorne characters who erase all worldly ties, as in Hawthorne's stories about the Shakers, or "Earth's Holocaust" (1844). He also recalls the devious antagonist in Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1868), who conceals his aristocratic lineage behind a convincing lower class facade, and which he proceeds to live out for a long period of time. The intelligence officer grilling the Pigeon Man recalls Lecoq interrogating the disguised suspect in that novel.


These allegorical rumblings only emerge slowly from a realistic mise-en-scène. Williams was a foreign correspondent, and the story prides itself on giving the reader an inside look at the German Army of World War I. Its moral failings are detailed with considerable finesse, and are redolent of the pacifist feeling after World War I, and a disgust with how the war had been conducted. The careful observations on class and sexism within the German Officer Corps also are examples of Williams' interest in this subject. They parallel works by American writers on class and the Army, discussed in the article on Donald McGibeny. The Mata Hari like opening character, and intrigue over conveying information on troop movements to the enemy, come from a spy fiction tradition established at least as early as Richard Harding Davis' "Somewhere in France" (1915), and one that would give rise to such films as Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored (1931) and Curtis Harrington's Mata Hari (1985).


Dead Man Manor (1935 - 1936) seems to be the only novel about Mr. Treadgold. It has little interest as a mystery story, but there are some felicities in the characters and location. It is set in neither the USA nor in Britain, the two most common locales for detective fiction, but in a small town in Quebec. The detailed painting of both the scenery and the local customs is typical of Williams' writing. Williams' internationalism is perhaps part of his heritage as an espionage writer. Authors like Oppenheim and Le Queux also regularly took their readers to foreign countries.


At several point Williams actually mentions the Depression. This is atypical of British writers, whose upper crust characters were not supposed to notice such things. Many of the characters in this book come from professional classes, such as doctors or lawyers, but most are just getting by. No one is especially wealthy. In fact the prosperous tailor Mr. Treadgold seems as affluent as anyone in the novel.


The progress shown by the Lord of the Manor involves nearly as much stripping away of class privilege as the Pigeon Man. First he loses his wealth, then his home, then moves to another country and gets a very middle class job, and finally he sneaks back into his old home to die, living like a tramp in it, during his final days.


The crime scene elements in the book show the influence of Gaboriau. There are footprints, bloodstains and the evidence of candles and lights. The characters do some shrewd work in reconstructing the crime based on these clues, in the manner of Gaboriau.




The Secret Hand (1918) aka Okewood of the Secret Service

The Return of Clubfoot (1922)

The Yellow Streak (1922)

The Orange Divan (1923)

Clubfoot the Avenger (1924)

The Three of Clubs (1924)

The Red Mass (1925)

Mr Ramosi (1926)

The Pigeon House (1926) aka The Key Man

The Eye in Attendance (1927)

The Crouching Beast (1928)

Mannequin (1930) aka The Mysterious Miss Morisot

The Knife Behind the Curtain (1930)

Death Answers the Bell (1931)

The Gold Comfit Box (1932) aka The Mystery of the Gold Box

The Clock Ticks On (1933)

Fog (1933) with Dorothy Rice Sims

The Portcullis Room (1934)

Masks Off at Midnight (1934)

The Clue of the Rising Moon (1935)

Dead Man Manor (1936)

The Spider's Touch (1936)

Mr Treadgold Cuts In (1937) aka The Curiosity of Mr Treadgold

The Fox Prowls (1939)

Double Death (1939)

Courier to Marrakesh (1944)

Skeleton Out of the Cupboard (1946)

The Scoop (1983)

As Douglas Valentine

The Man with the Club Foot (1918)

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