Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cooling off with Mr. and Mrs. North

It was too hot to do anything but seek the cool comfort of the snappy, cocktail-party repartee of Mr. and Mrs. North.

While I'm enjoying the literary pleasures of Ron Carlson's new novel, Return to Oakpine, I was in the mood for something a little lighter at the end of an unbearably hot day.  (Did I mention that our home in Butte, Montana doesn't have air conditioning and that the mercury in the thermometer has taken up residency north of 85 degrees* for the past two weeks?)

So I set aside Oakpine and went on a browse through my vintage mystery novels shelf.  That's when Jerry and Pam North waved their hands and called out, "Oh, hello, darling!  Nice to see you again."  I'd visited the Norths once before in the 1941 novel Murder Out of Turn and really enjoyed their company.

For those who have yet to make their acquaintance, a brief primer: book publisher Jerry North and his charming wife Pam always happen to be in the right place at the right time to assist the New York Police Department in solving whatever murder has just fallen into their laps.  While most police departments in amateur detective novels are conveniently inept, the gumshoes in the North novels are good fellows--Lt. Bill Weigand and his assistant Sergeant Aloysius Mullins--who just happen to work for an inept department.  The Norths are childless (at least in the two books I've read so far) and lead sparkling lives of champagne, laughter and parties in their Greenwich Village social circles.  The writing is so good in these books, solving the mystery is almost beside the point.

You'll find echoes of Mr. and Mrs. North in the Nick and Nora Charles Thin Man series, but for my money they more closely resemble Susan St. James and Rock Hudson in McMillan and Wife, a Sunday night television mystery series to which I was glued as a young boy.  Pam North, like Sally McMillan, is the prime crime-solver.  While neither Jerry nor Mac are merely dense lugs just along for the ride, it's the women who really have the bold pluck and gumption to get to the bottom of things.

The Mr. and Mrs. North series of 26 novels were written by the husband-wife team of Frances and Richard Lockridge starting in 1940 and continuing until Frances' death in 1963.  After she passed away, Richard wrote no new North novels (though he did continue to write other series which he and his wife had started, including books featuring Lt. Heimrich, Nathan Shapiro, and Paul Lane).  According to this post at,
The characters were originally invented by Richard for some vignettes he wrote for the New York Sun during the early thirties and which he later resurrected in the short domestic comedies he contributed to The New Yorker, by which time the Norths had acquired their full names but not yet their abilities as amateur detectives.  A collection of the stories was published in 1936 as Mr. and Mrs. North.  The crime novels originated when Frances Lockridge started writing a mystery during one summer vacation.  Stuck on a plot complication she called on her husband for help and the writing team was launched.  Because the Norths already had some name recognition, the Lockridges decided to use Pam and Jerry as their central characters and retain the humorous tone and the playful interaction between the couple from the earlier stories.
As with many amateur sleuths in the Golden Age of Mystery Novels, the Norths spawned a TV series, a radio show, a Broadway play, and a movie (starring Gracie Allen as Pam).  You can see a couple of the TV episodes on YouTube here and here.

As for me, I decided upon the 1955 novel Death of an Angel which opens with the Norths attending a Broadway play written by one of their friends, Sam Wyatt, and starring the enormously popular actress Naomi Shaw.  During an after-show party, rich playboy Bradley Fitch announces he's going to marry Naomi and whisk her away from the theater, causing quite a stir and more than a few astonished tete a tetes among the guests.  Young Mr. Fitch is later found dead as a doornail--poisoned!--in his apartment and the Norths soon find themselves at the center of the case when one of their cocktail napkins is found in the corpse's apartment.

I pulled the book off the shelf, poured myself a drink (whiskey, neat), settled into a relatively cool spot in the house (the living room), and started to read.  I found this amusing passage early on in Chapter 1 in which the Norths are discussing the writer Sam Wyatt--who is oddly down in the dumps about the success of his play--as they return to their seats after intermission:
     "Writers are strange things, aren't they?" Pam asked.
     "Yes," Jerry said.
     They went down the aisle, found their seats.  The house lights were still up.
     "Has he always been like this?"Pam asked.
     A good deal like this, Jerry told her.  When Wyatt was a novelist--merely a novelist--it had been very hard to get him to read proofs.  When he was got to read them, it was very hard to prevent him from rewriting, in entirety; a practice of which publishers disapprove.
     "Once he's done with anything, he hates it," Jerry said.  "Sees no possible good in it.  If critics like it, the critics are fools.  If it sells, the public is a fool."
Ah, writers....I could compose an entire blog post on how I am Sam Wyatt incarnate in this regard.  But I'll save that for a later day.  For now, I've got to help the Norths solve a mystery.

*I know 85 would be a relatively arctic pleasure to those suffering in the triple digits elsewhere in the U.S. this summer; but trust me, anything above 75 in Montana makes me feel like oven-baked Shrinky-Dinks.

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