Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Dorothy Bowers and Rue Morgue

I came quite late to the work of Dorothy Bowers. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of her, but an article by the industrious Philip Scowcroft in Deadly Pleasures alerted me to her existence. She only wrote five books and died in 1948, shortly after being admitted to the Detection Club. Yet her work earned much acclaim, and in some quarters she had been seen as a successor to Dorothy L. Sayers. I was impressed by Deed Without a Name, which features Inspector Dan Pardoe, and has a very well-realised setting in England’s ‘phoney war’, and wanted to find out more about this relatively little known author

In the end, I did, thanks in part to the admirable detective work of Tom and Enid Schantz. They are booksellers based in Boulder, Colorado, who have set up Rue Morgue Press, which is dedicated to rediscovering worthy but forgotten detective novels. They’ve now reprinted all of the Bowers books, and have discovered facts about her rather sad life which are recorded in the valuable introduction to these nicely produced new editions. Like several other detective novelists, including Colin Dexter and Bob Barnard, she was keen on crossword puzzles and sometimes compiled them for publication. She never married, and succumbed to TB, which no doubt explains the six-year gap between her fourth and fifth books; she died at the age of 46, a year after the publication of The Bells at Old Bailey, a book that, compared to her best work, I found rather disappointing,. Before long, all her work was out of print.

Bowers’ mysteries remain intelligent, well-written and readable to this day. There’s something out of the ordinary about them which puts Bowers head and shoulders above many of her contemporaries. I’ve been hoarding the one that I haven’t read, and which Tom and Enid reckon is one of her best – Fear and Miss Betony. I’m starting it now and after a run of modern crime novels, it will be good to slip back sixty-odd years in time.

As for Rue Morgue Press, it’s worth checking out their list. I thought I was familiar with plenty of crime writers of the thirties and forties, but I must admit the names of Maureen Sarsfield and Joan Coggin had completely passed me by. Thanks to Tom and Enid, though, the books of those writers, both of whose careers in the genre were very brief and frankly made little impact even at the time, have been made available for a fresh generation of readers. And Murder at Shots Hall, by Sarsfield, became one of their best-sellers.

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