Four and a half decades after their 21st and final novel, The Black Iris, appeared, Constance and Gwenyth Little continue to have a following of fanatical readers who haunt used bookshops looking for their more elusive titles, all but one of which, the first—The Grey Mist Murders—had black in the title. If these two Australian-born sisters from East Orange, New Jersey, are not better known today, it’s probably because they chose not to write a series.
But if the characters in each of their books had different names, you could always recognize a Little heroine, whether she was a working woman or a spoiled little rich brat. Nothing held her back or kept her from speaking her mind, which may explain why she so often fell under suspicion when a body turned up and why she was so often able to extricate herself even as the evidence against her mounted to amazing levels.
Sometimes she had to resort to a family member for a little help. Fathers play important roles in the Little books, usually adding a touch of comic relief. The Littles’ own father, James F. Little, an insurance executive, was known to be a bit impulsive. Iris Heitner, a third Little sister (who wrote two mystery novels herself as Robert James in the 1950s), reports that he once announced to the family that he had grown tired of Australia and packed one and all off to England, even though he had no job prospects lined up. It’s a situation you might find in a Little novel. Whether the fathers were rich, like Hammond Vickers in The Black Gloves, or down on their luck, as in The Black Honeymoon, the daughters maintained a playful, affectionate relationship with them. At times these fathers acted more like wayward uncles or interfering big brothers than a parent figure.
There was usually a romantic element in the books. Whatever the outcome of the murder investigation, the typical Little heroine always got her man—and a ring around her finger—but it was always on her terms, not his. Love might be in the air but the Little heroine is always practical. After all, a girl’s gotta eat and if she can get out of housework too, so much the better. Marriage seldom meant settling down.
Settling down was something neither the Littles nor their heroines ever did for long. Whether it was with their families or just the two of them, the Constance and Gwenyth Little liked nothing better than hopping on an ocean liner and heading for someplace new. Three times they managed to make it around the world. No wonder their heroines so often celebrated the conclusion of a successful murder investigation with the suggestion that a trip was in order.
When The Black Honeymoon first appeared in 1944, the world was at war and so was the Little heroine. Miriel Mason Ross was still quick with a sharp retort, still independent and still very much her own person, but she was also determined to do her bit for the war effort—and the country needed nurses. In several other Little wartime and postwar books, their women went to war, even going to far as to enlist.
Gwenyth was the sister who set out to be a writer—“Gwenny used to write ditties even when she was a child,” according to Constance—and when she had a short story accepted, she decided to try her hand at a novel but couldn’t make it jell. Constance, who during this period was concentrating on tournament tennis (a background that was used in The Black Gloves) and running a dance studio with sister Iris, looked at this effort and told her sister, “Let’s try one together. I think your plots are weak.”
Their first joint effort wasn’t a mystery and apparently lacked any action. After their mother fell asleep reading the manuscript, the sisters decided to try their hand at something a bit more exciting. Eight months later they shipped The Grey Mist Murders off to the Doubleday, Doran Crime Club which published it in 1938.
If their books—call them screwball cozies, the kind of thing that Frank Capra or George S. Kaufmann might have come up with had they written mysteries—were unusual, so was their writing regimen. They gleefully admitted to writing all their books in bed. Constance (her family called her Con) thought of the plots, outlined them in great detail in large script, all from her bed, and sent them over to Gwenyth, who did the rewrite and injected the humor, all from her bed. “Use a desk?” Gwenyth gasped in response to a contemporary interviewer’s query. “Chairs give one backaches.”
Years later Gwen confessed that their collaboration didn’t always follow that plan—except for the part about writing in bed. “I couldn’t really say that Constance outlines the plot and I do the writing because that is not entirely so,” she told a reporter while the pair was working on their 19th book in the early 1950s. “Sometimes I fix up the plot and sometimes she does the writing but Constance usually handles the clues. She may be working on one chapter while I’m working on another. Con will send me what she’s done and say, ‘I don’t care what you do, only don’t mess up my clues.’ ”
The sisters did all of their writing in the morning, working about an hour and a half a day, which allowed them to finish three books over a two-year span.
During a December 1938 interview published just after The Grey Mist Murders came out, a photographer asked the sisters, “How can you write about a murder when you never saw one?”
“Oh, my!” recoiled Gwenyth.
“I can tell you some good murder stories,” the photographer raced on enthusiastically. “Did you ever hear of the Indian girl in Newark who was so slashed up her body was almost in ribbons? Did you know ice picks don’t leave noticeable wounds? Did you—”
“Oh, my!” moaned Gwenyth.
“Our murderers strangle,” said Constance coldly. “We have no sliced up corpses in our books.”
But as the books continued to flow from their respective beds—even after Constance moved to Boston—so did the murder methods continue to evolve. Certainly the feathers used in The Black Honeymoon constituted one of their more unusual methods but they employed others in the same book that might have made even Edgar Allan Poe wince, although the reader never sees the blood flow.
That photographer wasn’t the only person willing to lend the Littles a hand with their books. Years later, Gwenyth lamented that their friends in East Orange “completely ignore” their prowess as writers and “suggest plots which they will gladly give us for nothing.”
“And which are always impossible,” added Constance.
The sisters, however, did listen to suggestions from their publisher, who sent them a drawing of two ladies viewed through a window, each with a gun in her hand pointed at the other, along with a note: “Our art department went wild over this picture and think it would make a good story for your next book.”
The Littles accommodated Doubleday and the result was The Black Iris, their 21st and final collaboration, published in 1953. It’s been incorrectly reported that the sisters stopped writing in order to care for their ill husbands, but this wasn’t the case. Gwen’s husband did die from cancer during this period but Con’s actually outlived her. It was a different era and the demand for comic cozy mysteries evaporated about the time television aerials started popping up on rooftops. It’s unfortunate. One can only imagine what mischief a Little heroine might have gotten into at Woodstock.
The Little books are, after all, wonderful portraits of what life was like if you were young and just starting out in life during the 1940s. You get a sense of what people did for entertainment back then or how they coped with conditions on the home front while the men were overseas. You get a feeling for what life was like when the war was finished and the men came back to face an incredible housing shortage when even people with money, like the young doctor in The Black Goatee, couldn’t find a place to rent and had to resort to incredible subterfuges to put a roof over their heads.
If the Littles missed writing at all, their new-found free time at least provided them ample opportunity to travel. That, after all, was their real passion. From an early age, they took off on long jaunts whenever they could. When their mother, who believed that young ladies should have an education in case something happened and they had to support themselves, suggested school, the two sisters pointed out that travel was very educational. The family compromised on art school in England, where the sisters stayed with an English family as paying guests.
During a visit to London Gwenyth met and married Bernard H. Jones, an executive with the Prudential Insurance Company. Born in 1903, Gwen died in 1985 in Newton, New Jersey. Constance’s husband, Lawrence Baker, started his career in the fashion industry in Rome before returning to the United States where he was a men’s clothing designer for the Dubois Uniform Company in New York City. Born in 1899, Constance died, also in Newton, in 1980.
Neither sister had any children but they’ll be remembered by readers well into the next century for their marvelous and eccentric mystery novels and for giving us a vivid portrait of a time that even now is fading into history.
Tom & Enid Schantz
For more information on the Little sisters see the introduction to The Black Gloves (Rue Morgue Press, 1998).