Actress Cicely Foster, calling at the home of movie mogul Jacob Singerman to discuss a role in a ‘talkie’, is innocent enough to be shocked by his advances and fights him off, striking him on the head in the struggle before fleeing. When reporter Julian Mendoza, “the bloodhound of Fleet Street”, tracks her down and tells her that Singerman was found dead shortly after her departure, it looks bleak…but for the small matter of the corpse having been found with a bullet between his eyes.
My slow progress through the work of James Ronald has reached Cross Marks the Spot (1933), the fifth time that I’ve been fortunate enough to track down a novel by this most elusive of authors. He might even be my Brian Flynn — a long-forgotten mystery author I single-handedly delight in tracking down and telling people about — but for the fact that I lack the industrious spirit of Puzzle Doctor when it comes to finding Ronald’s books, a reprint though I feel (some of) his work certainly deserves. No doubt Ronald’s forgotten status is merited by the Pulp-y tone of his prose and the somewhat uncertain nature of his output — at least three of his books weren’t criminous, and that fact that he reused plots and republished them under at least three names adds a level of confusion it’s difficult to unpick — but thus far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read and, availability willing, I hope to go on to read much, much more.
Because, put simply, Ronald can really write. His plotting may be all over the place, as it is here, but for something constructed as if put out on the fly there’s far too much delight to find in individual sentence or moments to dismiss him as just another keyboard-hammering hack trying to grind out 40,000 words a month regardless of their content. From his summation of the exclusive block of flats in which the late Mr. Singerman’s remains are discovered…
It is easier to get into heaven than to become a tenant of Dorian House, for while heaven demands only goodness and piety, Dorian House requires a minimum income of five thousand pounds a year
…to the questing urge that beats in the breast of our reporter-sleuth Julian Mendoza…
The night was dark. He consulted his watch. Ten o’clock. Things happen in London between ten o’clock and the dawn. In the dark, Roguery and Vice stalk the streets. Murder raises its head. The dark beckoned to him.
…to the sly humour that creeps into much of Medoza’s actions, such as the following exchange when calling at the Colossal Film Company to speak to the remaining Singerman brother, Hyman:
“Sorry,” [the commissionaire] said loftily. “Mr. Singerman can’t see anyone today.”
“He hasn’t been struck blind, has he?” asked Julian innocently.
“Not as I know of.”
“Then he’ll see me.”
…Ronald displays a talent with pockets of tone that convince me he deserves to be much better known. Not everything works:
The stillness seemed to lie heavily upon her chest. All she could hear was the fitful whispering of the decaying house, like the tired voice of a dying slut.
…but he hits more often than he misses, veering effortlessly from the sad state of the carpet in a cheap boarding house to a steam room described via a Shakespearean allusion without even pausing to question the possibly undeserving elevation he brings to the former and the weird — if magnificently fitting — appropriation of the latter.
I’m grateful to John Norris for informing me that this book was at the very least the basis for, and may indeed even be the exact same text as, the novel The Frightened Girl (1941) published under Ronald’s Michael Crombie nom de plume, which enables my use of that cover up top since I’m unable to find a single example of what the Cross Marks the Spot cover might have looked like. That Crombie title makes a damn sight more sense than the one under which I read it, as the first half here is concerned almost exclusively with Cicely Foster and her involvement in the murder of Jacob Singerman (chapter two is even called ‘The Frightened Girl’ which, yes, should have been a clue). The second half takes on the aspect, honestly, of a sort of soap opera as the people surrounding Cicely get dragged into the new talkie being made by the exalted-if-difficult German director Gustav Von Blon, but the first 15 chapters really belong to Cicely and Julian.
And, for a novel from 1933 which comes with the associated difficulties when addressing foreigners and non-white members of its milieu, there’s a surprisingly informed portrait painted of the naive if determined young lady who ends up the centre of the media circus surrounding the murder (“You are news. Your mother is news. Everything about you is news.” Mendoza informs her, having saved her from the mob, before limping off to file his copy for the evening edition). Cicely has heart enough to help the drunkard Philip Dressler, a co-boardee in cheap lodgings, when he staggers home insensible at three o’clock in the morning, and, when she ends up stuck in his room, both kicks against the fact that women are always having to defend themselves against accusations of impropriety, while also admitting that, well:
Could she blame them if they decided that a girl who went in night attire to a drunken man’s room at three in the morning needn’t be so fussy as to waken the whole house to protect her honour?
Her relationship with her fiancé Kenneth Archer is also very neatly observed: witness them “hand in hand, like children out for a lark” ascending to the rooftops to avoid the newspapermen clamouring below, running across to a house several doors down and through an associate’s window to evade their pursuers — a rare moment of levity in what has been, to that point, a real cauldron of emotion. And then, when Kenneth seems to have the coming months all planned out, complete with elopement to Manchester, marriage, and a job at his father’s factory she “thank[s] him, a trifle satirically, for disposing of her future with so little need for mental effort on her own part”. And when Kenneth then goes on to demand an explanation upon discovering her presence in Philip’s room, Cicely is moved to reflect, not unfairly, that if the man loved her he would trust her.
In short: a 1930s pulp-adjacent novel written by a man in which the leading lady isn’t a wet blanket? Good heavens!
Of course, Kenneth could well be said to be smarting at how quickly Cicely has turned to Julian Mendoza for help; like I say, Ronald’s plotting is a bit lumpy, so she sees “something indefinable about the reporter which made Cicely decide to trust him” straight away. Our limping reporter (his right leg having been mauled by a tiger some three years previously, Julian gets around with the aid of a stick) justifies this with some good, basic detection to members of Scotland Yard demonstrating Cicely’s innocence — something for Moira: “women don’t have pockets”…! — but poor Kenneth is left in the cold on account of his general willingness to “punch the head of anyone who ventured to doubt Miss Foster’s story”.
Mendoza’s style of detection is more ‘third degree’ than ‘gather the suspects in the library’ — “You’ll tell me what happened and tell me quickly, or I’ll shake the miserable life out of you.” — but Ronald makes him an irresistible force whose physical malady is played upon less than you might fear. Having written with surprising restraint concerning the mentally ill in They Can’t Hang Me (1938), Ronald never seeks to cheapen or artificially heighten Julian on account of his disability. There are times when his physical capacity is taken for granted, but this is written as being simply because his adversary is a master of jiu jitsu rather than because Julian has a withered leg. Indeed, I got distinct John J. Macreedy vibes from Mendoza, which can be taken as a compliment in no uncertain terms.
Ronald also understands his criminals well, as evinced in my reading of him to date — Murder in the Family, a.k.a. The Murder at Gay Ladies (1936) containing one of the best motives for murder I’ve ever encountered. See the diatribe offered by a blackmailer when confronted with his misdeeds, or the panicked scheme our murderer here engages in as death after death piles up. Alas, Ronald’s treatment of foreigners hasn’t quite aged so well, even if there is no outright malice behind the words — I’d suggest Ronald is actually being very respectful to Von Blon’s Japanese factotum, but the unrefined attitudes of the time renders some of the expressions used less than salutary 90 years later. As to Von Blon, well the German character in a pulp-adjacent novel written in the 1930s coming off as a bully, sadist, and anti-Semite isn’t exactly going to surprise anyone, eh?
It’s a shame that the plot strands of the second half draw together with so much authorly interference — aahhh, the days when world-famous movie directors listed their addresses publicly so that anyone could send them a letter at home that they’d definitely read — because this then becomes a different book which, while very enjoyable and built from strands first woven in the first half, never has the space it needs to develop. There’s a superb mystery novel to be wrought from the making of a film in which the central love triangle is played by three actors who were engaged in a love triangle in real life, and the raft of murders that occur is weirdly at odds with Cicely’s experience in the first half so that both feel underdeveloped. As I said above, it starts to feel like a soap opera with murders added in for good measure, and a single allusion to the Sherlock Holmes canon isn’t going to fix that.
This is listed in Locked Room Murders (1991) for that opening shooting, and while it’s never quite established as fully impossible — the window was open, for one — I can see how the mechanics, entirely unclued, lead to that designation. We’re in pulp territory, so certain allowances must be made, but one clever idea aside this isn’t something you need to track down for its baffling scheme. We can also add it to the litany of books who think you can hiss a sentence that does not contain a single sibilant (“You poor fool!”), a monograph I am preparing as a subproject on this very blog. Please do not inundate me with other examples.
And so, what of Cross Marks the Spot? Doubtless you will struggle to find a copy for sensible money, and I don’t think that’s a crying shame. I have read far better from Ronald, and this feels like the sort of thing a completist would delight in but a mere passer-by would find oddly unsatisfying. The structure is off, the impossible crime slightly unsatisfying, the movie studio milieu covered better in And So to Murder (1940) by Carter Dickson…and yet I enjoyed the hell out of it, and remain undeterred from my stated intention of finding as much of Ronald’s criminous writing as possible. You, however, should concentrate on the titles I’ve already read: I can vouch for them more fully, and you wouldn’t want to tread on my toes after I’ve done such good work bringing light to this dim and forgotten corner of the GAD library, now, would you?
Dorothy L. Sayers in The Sunday Times, 20th August 1933 : [A] jolly mystery yarn… Julian Mendoza is a detective who will appeal to every woman’s heart, as he does to that of his nice Scotch landlady. He is shabby and lame and occasionally takes one over the eight, but he is exceedingly lovable, and, moreover, does his detective efficiently. Beginning with the shooting of a film magnate in an actress’s flat [sic] the tale leads on, through sentiment and sensation, to the oft-told but always effective episode of the actor who is really killed in a stage fight. It is humorously and agreeably written, with good light entertainment on every page.
James Ronald reviews on The Invisible Event:
Six Were to Die, a.k.a. The Dark Angel (1932)
Cross Marks the Spot (1933)
Murder in the Family, a.k.a. The Murder in Gay Ladies (1936)
They Can’t Hang Me (1938)
This Way Out, a.k.a. The Suspect (1939)