Rue Morgue Press
Frances Crane

After she was expelled from Nazi Germany prior to the start of World War II, Frances Kirkwood Crane, recently divorced and with a daughter heading for college, needed to find a new way to make a living. The old market for her writing—primarily poking gentle fun at Brits from the point of view of an American living abroad—was suddenly out of fashion. Americans no longer wanted to laugh at the foibles of the English now that brave little Britain was engaged in a desperate struggle for its very survival against the forces of Hitler.

Up to that point, life had been relatively easy for Frances. Her husband, Ned Crane, was a well-paid advertising executive with the J. Walter Thompson agency, whose dubious claim to immortality was the Old Gold cigarette slogan, “Not a cough in a carload.” Frances herself was a regular contributor to a new sophisticated humor magazine called The New Yorker. Many of her short sketches for that magazine were collected in book form in 1932 as The Tennessee Poppy or Which Way Is Westminster Abbey?

She had greatly enjoyed those years of living abroad, mostly in England, and in the late 1930s she went to Germany for an extended stay. Always outspoken and known for a volatility she was said to have inherited from her father, Frances did not mix well with the new order in Germany. Once, while visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Frances was accosted by an indignant German soldier when she failed to stop and listen attentively to a speech by the Führer being broadcast over loudspeakers. Instead of complying with the soldier’s order to stand at attention, Frances thumbed her nose at the statue. In reprisal, the soldier asked for her papers and no doubt filed a report about this disrespectful American. On another occasion, she entered a restaurant that bore the sign “No Jews Allowed.” “Oh, but I am a Jew,” exclaimed Frances, who was in fact descended from Scottish Presbyterians who had escaped their homeland to the U.S. in the 1700s to avoid religious persecution, addressing the headwaiter in English. “Oh, no, Madam,” he replied, seating her. “You are an American.”

Frances was to have a far more sinister—and personal—experience with Nazi anti-Semitism when her own housekeeper suddenly disappeared with her young son from the top floor of the house Frances was renting in Berlin. From neighbors, Frances learned that the two had been “taken away” for committing an offense against the state. Furious, she went to the local officials and futilely demanded information on their current status and to be told the nature of their offense. Later, she learned that the “offense” was being Jewish. Her granddaughter, Diana Farris, said she didn’t know if Frances wrote about this particular incident, but her “unfavorable articles” about the Nazis were among the reasons cited for her expulsion from Germany.

Frances’ reaction to all forms of social injustice was a forcefully uttered, “No.” She was a woman of strong opinions who wasn’t afraid to voice them, according to many of her surviving friends and relatives in her home town of Lawrenceville, Illinois, a small community of 4,000 people (today’s population) located in the southeast corner of the state, where she was born on Oct. 27, 1890 (not 1896, as most biographies incorrectly state). The Kirkwoods put a high value on education and several of Frances’ male relatives were doctors. Her aunt Nancy, who had graduated from college in the 19th century (unusual for women at that time) and may even have earned a master’s degree, was a major influence in her niece’s life. Nancy’s extensive library helped to inspire a lifelong love of literature in Frances, who was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Urbana.

Frances named her only daughter, who was born in 1921, for her beloved aunt. Although daughter Nancy was primarily a sculptor, she wrote for the slick magazines in the late 1940s during the time she was married to pulp magazine writer Norbert Davis (also published by The Rue Morgue Press). Norbert Davis committed suicide in 1949, possibly because he learned he had cancer,  according to Nancy’s younger daughter, Cynthia Geoghegan. But Nancy’s elder daughter, Diana, who was three at the time and a product of an earlier union, said it was more likely depression brought on by a severe writer’s block and the still-born death of his and Nancy’s son. Broke, Nancy moved back to Lawrenceville with Diana. While driving to Chicago to do some shopping, her car—the same car in which Davis gassed himself—was hit by a drunk driver and she was declared dead on the spot, her beautiful face horribly mutilated. But as she and Diana rode in the ambulance, Diana begged them to call “Doctor Tom,” Frances’ surgeon brother. The ambulance attendant knew who Tom Kirkwood was and called him from the hospital. Tom rushed to the hospital and performed an emergency operation on Nancy in the corridor, saving her life. Nancy was in and out of hospitals for some time after that, undergoing more than twenty plastic surgeries. All of this no doubt explains why Frances Crane published no novels in 1949. Nancy not only survived but later was able to have one more child, the “miracle baby,” as Cynthia refers to herself.

At the time of the accident, Frances Crane had been publishing mysteries for about eight years. In need of money—living in the United States was more expensive than living in Europe—she had turned to the mystery field at the suggestion of one of her old editors who told her it was a “hot market.” Not long after arriving in Taos, New Mexico, Crane, now around 50, heard about an incident involving a jewelry store in that artists’ colony, which inspired her first Pat and Jean Abbott mystery, The Turquoise Shop, published by Lippincott in 1941.

Although she changed the name of town to Santa Maria and even commented that it had not yet been spoiled in the fashion of Taos and Santa Fe, there is absolutely no question that it was based on Taos. In fact, Mona Brandon and her hacienda  in The Turquoise Shop are loosely based on Mabel Dodge Luhan and her famous adobe home (now a bed and breakfast inn). Mabel was largely responsible for turning Taos into a haven for writers and painters, including D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willa Cather, Ansel Adams, Robinson Jeffers and a host of others. While Mabel could be, in the words of her biographer, Lois Palken Rudnick, in an interview conducted by Lynzee Webb, “a difficult woman who brought people here and sometimes drove them away,” filling her house with “a lot of tension and anger,” she was a far more accomplished and intelligent woman than the fictional Mona Brandon. Mabel saw Taos as a “second garden of Eden,” but her garden “had as many snakes as the original, if not more.” But Rudnick argues that it was that tension and conflict that helped generate the kind of creativity Mabel craved. Certainly, Mona in The Turquoise Shop is responsible for much of the tension in Santa Maria.

There are any number of other superficial similarities between Mabel and Mona Brandon as well. While Mabel arrived in Taos in 1918 (after stints as a literary and artistic patron in Europe and Greenwich Village) and married Tony Luhan, a handsome Pueblo Indian who dressed in a traditional blanket and wore his hair long, Mona is a slightly more recent arrival in New Mexico who “adopts” rather than marries an equally handsome young Pueblo Indian. Taos old-timers, including her many admirers, describe Mabel’s demeanor as controlling and “queenly,” recalling how she would drive up a local shop or house with her husband, honk her horn until the residents came out, and then “invite” them to dinner at her house. The fictional Mona issues similar invitations and, indeed, her arrival by car on the plaza has all the trappings of a state visit.

Both Mabel and Mona are responsible for their respective towns having a hospital but Mabel apparently did not divert the waters of the local hot spring for her personal use (though some residents say she might have wanted to), as Mona does in The Turquoise Shop. Nor does Mona operate a small school on her property for her own children (she has none) and the children of the artists, writers and prominent townspeople, as Mabel did with her Log Cabin School (the structure was torn down by Dennis Hopper when the actor bought the Luhan house after Mabel’s death). Like Mabel, Mona provides housing and sometimes money to aspiring writers and artists, often putting them up in her home or in a guest cottage located not too far from the main house. Artist Michael O’Hara lives in a similar cottage with his wife in The Turquoise Shop.

Considering Crane’s background and the size of Taos, she and Mabel had to have met. One can only imagine the clash of personalities between these two very independent women. Young Jean Holly no doubt reflects Crane’s attitude toward Mabel when she thinks “down with tyrants everywhere” after an encounter with Mona. Given the harsh portrayal of Mona, if Frances and Mabel were acquaintances, it’s doubtful they would have had much to do with each other after The Turquoise Shop was published.

There are other significant differences between Mabel and her fictional counterpart. Most people who knew her would say that Mabel was sincere in her love of Native American and Mexican culture, though some say that the Indians, who were living without modern conveniences like electricity, resented her attempts to keep Taos “quaint and primitive,” just as there were apparently some ill feelings at the pueblo about her marrying Tony and taking him away from his people. But Mona is a far more calculating and shallow person than Mabel.

Jean Holly (she sounds terribly experienced and world weary, yet she’s only 26) is acutely aware of the various ethnic groups that make up the exotic multicultural community she now calls home. The three groups—Mexicans, Indians and Anglos—pass each other on the plaza in front of her store but each group keeps largely to itself. Various mystical powers are attributed to the Indians (as with its model, Taos, a giant ancient pueblo lies just outside of Santa Maria) but Crane (through Jean) merely comments on these claims without accepting or disputing them. The Mexicans are an even more dominant presence in the town, although even Jean is surprised at how greatly they outnumber the Anglo population when so they show up in town for a pre-election political rally. Most of the Mexicans she sees on a daily basis work for the Anglos, herself included. She notes but does not comment on the fact that the Mexican barkeeper at the Castillo (where she eats every day) refuses to serve Mexicans at his bar. One can almost hear Crane shouting “No!” at this example of social injustice, yet Jean herself merely observes it in passing. That it is mentioned at all indicates that the author considers the situation ironic at the very least. The local, Anglo sheriff in The Turquoise Shop is not cut from the typical fictional redneck fabric of the time but speaks Spanish and shows a great deal of respect for the culture and work habits of both the local Hispanics and Indians, and both Jean and Pat frequently expresses their approval of Sheriff Trask. Crane’s own feelings on the town’s cultural division are further indicated when Jean notes that she is one of only two Anglos who show up for the funeral of a young Mexican girl.

The Turquoise Shop was followed by 25 more books featuring Pat and Jean Abbott, who marry toward the end of the third book, all with a color in the title. Many of them take the Abbotts to locales across the United States and around the world, although they were to return to Santa Maria several times in the course of the series. While some contemporary critics weren’t always kind to her books, readers loved them, and still do. Even today, more than sixty years after her first mystery was published, she remains one of the most sought after mystery writers in the out-of-print market. The scarcest of her books remains The Turquoise Shop, which was reprinted in the U.S. by Popular Library in paperback during World War II but has not been back in print for six decades. The series was so popular that it spun off a radio program, Abbott Mysteries, which ran on the Mutual Network in the summers of 1945, 1946 and 1947. Charles Webster and Julie Stevens portrayed Pat and Jean, although Les Tremagne and Alice Reinheart also took turns playing the sleuthing duo.

Like Crane herself, Jean Holly came to New Mexico to start life over (Jean because her parents had been killed in an accident), though one might ask how much living an 18-year-old girl could have done. Jean’s intention was to become an artist but her talent—or rather her lack of it—forced her to find another way to make a living in order to remain in this small New Mexico town she had come to love. She’s been running her business, The Turquoise Shop, for eight years when in walks her future husband, Patrick Abbott, a tall, handsome private detective in his early thirties from San Francisco, who aspires to be an artist. While Jean shows a fair amount of independence in this book, it’s Patrick who does most of the detective work and continues to do so in subsequent books. The claustrophobic (we learn about this condition in subsequent books) Jean is around to record the cases and occasionally get into hot water, literally sometimes, doing her best thinking in a bathtub because, as she once remarked,  “a bath always makes me very logical.” 

The tradition of the husband-and-wife sleuthing team really started with Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell’s Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man, but the couple is better known for the several movies inspired by that stand-alone novel. Pat and Jean are very much like three other popular husband-and-wife teams of the era, Anne and Jeffrey McNeill from Theodora Dubois, Mr. and Mrs. North (Pam and Jerry) from Frances and Richard Lockridge, and  Jeff and Halia Troy from Kelley Roos, the joint pseudonym used by Audrey and William Roos (soon to be reprinted by The Rue Morgue Press). In all three series, the wife usually gets into trouble and needs the husband to rescue her, but humor is far more in evidence in these series, especially the Roos and Lockridge books, than in those featuring the Abbotts.

In some ways it seems rather odd that Crane let Pat upstage Jean. She was, according to her granddaughters, a staunch feminist at a time when it wasn’t nearly as fashionable as it is today. Nor would it have been odd for a woman to have handled the bulk of the detective work during this era. In the 1930s and 1940s, female detectives, especially in the United States, often occupied center stage. Their ranks included Hildegarde Withers, Jane Amanda Edwards, Toni Ney, Doll Bonner, Lily Wu, Emma Marsh, Maud Silver, Miss Marple, and a host of others, not to mention the many zany heroines who paraded across the pages of books by Constance and Gwenyth Little. But all of these sleuths shared one thing in common—they weren’t married. For whatever reason, when it came to sleuthing the marriage vows in detective fiction definitely favored hubby.

Nor was Crane ignorant of the trends in contemporary detective fiction. She was extremely well-read in the field. Along with fellow women mystery writers Lenore Glen Offord and Dorothy B. Hughes, she was one of the most influential mystery reviewers in the country, dwarfed in influence only by Anthony Boucher (for whom Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, is named). She relished her place in the literary world and numbered among her friends such literary lights as James Jones and Sinclair Lewis as well as her editor at Random House, the very urbane Bennett Cerf. Yet she realized she was not in that same league with these literary heavyweights, remarking once to Cerf that she was but a “minor light.”

But all good things seemingly must come to an end. The Abbotts cracked their last case in 1965 with Body Beneath the Mandarin Tree. In the 1960s, Crane also wrote five stand-alone mysteries which were published in England but failed to find an American publisher. The last of these, Worse Than a Crime, appeared in 1968 when she was 78 years old, and though she would live another 13 years and enjoy relatively good health, her career as a mystery writer was over, and she settled into a well-earned retirement. Yet she had a better run than many women writers of her era, and, unlike most writers, male or female, she earned a good living at it. While many other female mystery writers who began in the 1930s and 1940s saw their careers end with the death of the rental libraries and the advent of the male-oriented paperback original in the early 1950s, Crane not only survived, publishing well into the 1960s, but endured, as any out-of-print book dealer who has ever offered one of her titles in a catalog and been overwhelmed with orders can testify. Her fans don’t just enjoy her books, they revel in them, then and now.

She spent much of the last forty years of her life in her adopted New Mexico, mostly in Taos (though the “hippie invasion” in the 1960s drove her eventually to move to Santa Fe). She returned frequently to Lawrenceville to visit family. Three months before her 91st birthday, failing health forced her to enter a nursing home in Albuquerque, where she died on November 6, 1981. She made one final posthumous visit to Lawrenceville, a trip that many old-timers in that town still recall with amusement. The postmaster sent word to her nephew Bob, a local doctor, that a package had arrived for him from New Mexico. “Only,” he explained, “you’ll have to pick it up yourself. I’m not touching it.”

The package was marked “human remains.” Bob and other fellow family members scattered the ashes it contained on the family farm. Frances Kirkwood Crane not only came home, she did so in her usual unconventional style.

Tom & Enid Schantz
August 2004

 

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