Fame is a funny, fickle thing. Marjorie Torrey, who as Torrey Chanslor wrote Our First Murder, was one of the major illustrators of children’s books in the mid-twentieth century, achieving back-to-back Caldecott Honor awards, but today she is virtually forgotten. She was born in New York in 1899 but somewhere in the late 1950s, she seems to have quietly passed from the scene.
She wrote a few children’s books herself but she was primarily an artist, whose old-fashioned style was ideally suited to illustrating books for young people. She also did the covers for the two mysteries featuring the Beagle sisters, Our First Murder (1940) and Our Second Murder (1941). Although these covers were uncredited, there’s absolutely no doubt whose work it is when one compares the playful, yet extremely accurate, cover of Our First Murder (reproduced for this edition in a slightly enlarged form) with the delightful illustrations in her 1946 Caldecott Honor book, Sing Mother Goose.
The Beagle Sisters books were her only books written for adults. They belong to that school of elaborately plotted mysteries solved by very eccentric detectives popularized in this country by S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. What makes Torrey Chanslor’s books stand apart from her predecessors are her delightful and unusual sleuths. The Beagle sisters are two sixtyish spinsters from a small upstate New York town who inherit a New York City private detective agency from their brother and almost immediately plunge themselves into a spectacular murder case. Elder sister Amanda Beagle (think Margaret Hamilton or Edna May Oliver) heads up the firm and runs it with an iron hand, but most of the sleuthing is done by Lutie, the younger sister (think Helen Hayes), who honed her adopted craft by reading scores of mysteries borrowed from the East Biddicutt circulating library. The action is described by their Watson and somewhat younger niece, Marthy Meecham (picture Spring Byington). Their other cohorts in crime are Jeff Mahoney, a young, lanky redhead (think a young Van Johnson on a Jimmy Stewart frame) who does some of the legwork and all of the heavy lifting; Tabby, a cat; and Rabelais, a parrot with a colorful vocabulary (learned from his previous owner, a sailor).
The Misses Beagle weren’t the first women in the genre to assume the duties of what P.D. James called “an unsuitable job for a woman.” Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, gave us Theolinda “Dol” Bonner in The Hand in the Glove (1937), and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver earned her keep as an English private detective for many years, starting with The Case is Closed (also 1937) among others. But the Beagle sisters were among the earliest and certainly the most eccentric women ever to walk the mean streets as private eyes. Lutie, though several decades older, is as adept as Dol in her use of and fondness for revolvers, while Amanda and Miss Silver share a stern resolve and reliance on common sense.
Contemporary critics gave the Beagle sisters a warm welcome. “Quaint but funny,” is how Will Cuppy, a major critic of the day, accurately described Our First Murder in Books, while Isaac Anderson in the New York Times gratefully acknowledged the arrival of “two such delightful spinsters.” Marian Wiggin, writing in the Boston Transcript, was even more enthusiastic: “The Misses Beagle (what a name for detectives!) are charming, especially Lutie, who has stepped up to the head of the list of my favorite detectives. These two women greatly enhance what would be, anyway, a very neat case of hidden identity.” In spite of those reviews, the Beagle sisters returned for only one more case, Our Second Murder, in 1941, after which Marjorie Torrey devoted herself almost exclusively to writing and drawing for children because, as she once commented, “what happens to children is the most important thing in the world, I think.”
Marjorie Torrey herself began drawing as a child in and near New York City and entered the National Academy of Design at the age of thirteen before moving on to the Art Students League. She was inspired to draw by her father, who entertained young Marjorie and her brother with his own drawings, which accompanied games he invented. An injury to her back kept her out of regular school, but she spent many years at home “drawing, painting, reading, reading, reading, and writing stories.” After she started at the National Academy, her father built her a small studio beside a brook on their property where she could work during summer vacations.
Her favorite memories of her art school days involved winter evenings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when “it was even more still and magic, and with a small group of young people—not all art students—informally led by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (the poet), we wandered where we chose, gazing raptly at sculpture, at medieval tapestries, at Egyptian mummies, discussing what we saw, trying to express what we felt.” Those excursions paid off when one of her earliest art jobs called for her to draw cartoons of medieval ladies and their courtiers for tapestries. She longed “to make a cartoon of modern young people on Riverside Drive, with the Palisades in the background, but was told this would not be salable… However, I sketched New York scenes, mostly of children playing, and painted from these during the weekends.”
After she finished school, she married and had a son. Soon she was getting a great deal of illustration work from various magazines, which required two extended trips to Europe. Such work was mostly for the adult market and she soon gave it up. She moved to the San Fernando Valley in California with her husband, Roy Chanslor, a novelist who was beginning to get considerable screen work. His most famous novels were Johnny Guitar and The Ballad of Cat Ballou, both made into even more famous movies. Our Second Murder was dedicated to Roy, who died in 1964. Marjorie earned a screen credit herself (some sources credit Roy) for the 1936 screwball comedy The Girl on the Front Page, starring Gloria Stuart, who was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in Titanic.
From her hilltop home overlooking the valley, Marjorie Torrey was finally free to devote herself exclusively to creating books for children. She wrote and illustrated four of her own: Penny (1944), Artie and the Princess (1945), Three Little Chipmunks (1947), and The Merriweathers (1949). But it was her work as an illustrator that brought her fame and awards. Her first Caldecott Honor book, Sing Mother Goose, with songs by Opal Wheeler, came in 1946. The following year she earned another Caldecott Honor medallion for illustrating Sing in Praise: A Collection of the Best Loved Hymns, once again selected by Wheeler. A Caldecott historian wrote of her work: “The full-color illustrations reflect the solemnity and reverence seen in Torrey’s Mother Goose collection, and these interpretations communicate the essence and importance of the songs’ words…Torrey’s gentle black-and-white illustrations possess the softness of pencil, some the sharp lines of pen and ink, and others a combination of both.”
She also illustrated Fairing Weather by Elspeth MacDuffle Bragdon in 1955, Far from Marlbrough Street by Elizabeth Philbrook in 1944, and several books by Doris Gates, including Sarah’s Idea (1938), Sensible Kate (1943), and Trouble for Jenny (1951). She deftly illustrated reprints of several classic children’s books, including Alice in Wonderland in 1955 and Peter Pan in 1957, after which she seems to have vanished without a trace. Marjorie is not mentioned in Roy’s obituary in a 1964 edition of Variety and he appears to have remarried.
All of her books are out of print today. Even her Caldecott honor books are difficult to find, often confined to rare book rooms or the special collections section of larger libraries. Ironically, she’s perhaps best known today for her two mysteries, which have been mentioned in Carolyn G. Hart’s popular “Death on Demand” mystery series and are sought after by collectors specializing in the evolution of the private eye novel, especially those featuring women sleuths.
Marjorie Torrey gave us perhaps the ultimate portrayal of the spinster sleuth. The adventures of Amanda and Lutie on the streets and in the nightclubs of 1940 Manhattan might seem preposterous to the jaded reader of today, who associates private eye novels with gritty urban cityscapes and even grittier characters. In their joyful innocence they offer up a picture of time when people read murder mysteries just for fun. It was a period in which America was emerging from the Great Depression and not yet embroiled in the Second World War. The country certainly needed a laugh then. Who is to say that it doesn’t need another one today?
Tom & Enid Schantz