Agatha Christie gave us the first husband and wife detective team in her second book, The Secret Adversary, in 1922, but the idea of using a married sleuthing team on a regular basis didn’t really catch the fancy of other writers—and the reading public—until Nick and Nora Charles made their memorable appearance in 1934 in Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man. Hammett did not write any other Nick and Nora mysteries, although he worked on some of the six screenplays featuring the hard-drinking, sophisticated sleuths that played in movie theaters from the late 1930s into the early 1940s.
The couple’s popularity on film no doubt helped inspire Patrick Quentin to create his New York theatrical sleuths, Peter and Iris Duluth, who debuted in 1936’s A Puzzle for Fools and were featured in a half-dozen other cases into the 1950s. Next up were Jake and Helene Justus, those rye-soaked Chicago amateurs who aided and abetted lawyer John J. Malone in a series of very funny novels by Craig Rice, starting with 1939’s Eight Faces at Three. One year later, Richard Lockridge and his collaborator wife Frances turned a pair of Manhattan sophisticates he had originally created for a series of non-mystery short stories published in The New Yorker into martini-guzzling, cat-loving sleuths in The Norths Meet Murder. Like Nick and Nora, Pam and Jerry North were better known to most of the public because of their appearances in other media, notably in a couple of long-running radio and television series. Their 26-book run as married sleuths was equaled by Pat and Jean Abbott, the creations of another New Yorker writer, Frances Crane. Pat and Jean met in 1941’s The Turquoise Shop but did not marry until the end of the third book in the series, The Yellow Violet, in 1942.
Mostly forgotten today was another husband-and-wife team, Jeff and Haila Troy, who made their first appearance in Made Up To Kill in 1940, the same year the first Mr. and Mrs. North mystery hit the bookstores. Like the North series, the Troys were the collaborative work of a husband-and-wife writing team, William and Audrey Roos, who combined his last name with her maiden name to create their literary persona of Kelley Roos.
Why the Rooses and their series are largely forgotten today is a mystery itself, because at their best, as in The Frightened Stiff or Sailor, Take Warning!, they were the equal of—and perhaps a good deal better than—their more famous contemporaries. The Troys were funnier than the Norths, livelier than the Abbotts, often more involved in doing the actual detection than the Justuses, and a more convincing couple than the Duluths. Much of the couple’s cheerful charm is on display in A Night to Remember, a 1943 slapstick comedy based on The Frightened Stiff, in which Loretta Young plays Haila (inexplicably renamed Nancy) and Brian Aherne portrays Jeff, who has been transformed from a jack-of-all-trades to a mystery writer.
The first eight books in the series, published during a nine-year span between 1940 and 1949, are light breezy affairs typical of the period in which Jeff does most of the detecting—or most of the meddling, as New York homicide cop Lt. George Hankins might put it—while his actress wife Haila narrates the action and occasionally spots the pivotal clue or rushes in where only fools and amateur sleuths dare go. A ninth book, One False Move, appeared seventeen years later, in 1966, with the couple unaged but now divorced (they reconcile). In tone, it somewhat resembles their other post-Troy books, in which suspense and psychological issues replace detection, though much of the good old humor is still present. Although The Blonde Died Dancing in 1956 did not feature the Troys, it was an expanded version of a Troy novelet in which the names of the couple were changed. It too was filmed, in France, in 1959, as Do You Want To Dance With Me? with Brigitte Bardot portraying the renamed Haila Troy.
Another non-Troy book, To Save His Life (1968), was turned into a highly regarded made-for-TV movie entitled Dead Men Tell No Tales in 1971. The Kelley Roos team wrote the television script for The Case of the Burning Court in 1960, based on the novel by John Dickson Carr, for which they won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America. Their other connection to filmed drama involved writing the novelization of The Scent of Murder, the 1959 movie in which the ill-advised technique of Smellovision debuted and died.
While their post-Troy books were often well-crafted crime novels, occasionally probing the mind of the killer and showing that the Rooses were changing with the times, the Jeff and Haila Troy series remains their legacy.
“The Troys were a lot like my parents,” explains their son Stephen Roos, an accomplished author himself of a score of light, humorous books for kids. “They laughed a lot, drank a lot too. They worked very hard at their writing, but they never looked on their work as art. It was fun. They were entertainers. They loved great acting and great writing and they loved meeting actors and writers and making friends with them. They could be killingly social but they could spend a year at a time in Europe happily restricted to each other’s company. They worried too much about money; sometimes they were next to broke but only sometimes. But not once did either one of them ever consider getting a real job. It would have ruined everything. They grew up in an age when the couple was celebrated in fiction as well as in real life and I think that’s what they were about mostly.”
William Roos was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1911. His parents died when he was around ten and he was brought up by his German-born grandparents along with his older brother and younger sister. He first attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, before transferring to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh to study drama. He started out as an actor but later became more interested in writing and began writing light, comic plays.
Audrey Kelley was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1912, but moved with her family to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in her teens. She attended Sullins College in Bristol, Virginia, but, like her husband, transferred to Carnegie Tech to study acting.
It was there that Rooses met and fell in love. Although Audrey was still interested in pursuing a career in acting, William had decided his future lay in playwriting. However, he lacked one of the most important basic skills needed for his profession. He couldn’t touch type. His solution was to pay Audrey’s way through touch-typing school. After she successfully completed that course of study, they were married in November 1936 and, like other would-be actresses and playwrights, moved to New York City.
Unlike Haila Troy, Audrey’s acting career didn’t go anywhere. Following the birth of her daughter Carol in 1938, she decided to try writing as a career, focusing on mysteries because she had heard that it was possible to make a living writing them. Besides, she was already a great mystery reader, inspired perhaps by the work of a fellow Allentown resident, John Dickson Carr.
How the collaboration was born between Audrey and her husband isn’t known, although their son suspects it came about while they were relaxing over drinks at the end of the day. Audrey would describe her mystery plot and William would make suggestions. Finally, one morning he started rewriting her first chapter and the collaboration was born. Their first book, Made Up To Kill, was published in 1940 by Dodd, Mead to favorable reviews and went on to a paperback edition. They received a $500 advance from Dodd, Mead.
In the early years of their collaboration, they would spend two or three months plotting the book and an equal amount of time on the actual writing. One would work on the even-numbered chapters, the other the odd-numbered chapters, then they would turn their chapters over to the other for rewrites.
However, as the years passed, raising their two children—Stephen and Carol—took up more and more of Audrey’s time. While they continued to plot the books together, William now did the entire first draft himself, turning it over to Audrey for the final edit. He still couldn’t touch type, so Audrey always managed to get the last word in. On one memorable occasion, Audrey discovered that William had decided on his own that someone other than their designated murderer would be the actual killer in Requiem for a Blonde, explaining that he had fallen in love with the original killer and couldn’t bear the idea of her going to the chair. Audrey pointed out that this turned all of their carefully planted clues into nothing more than red herrings. In the end, as usual, she prevailed, although she was persuaded to commute the killer’s sentence to life in prison.
If Audrey was busy raising the kids, William did all the housework He not only naturally was compulsively neat, but he’d do just about anything to actually put off writing. Besides, as Audrey explained, she was too busy doing all that touch-typing to bother with making the beds or washing the dishes.
When he wasn’t working on their mysteries, William continued to write plays. His first play closed after five performances. His second, January Thaw, ran for only six weeks in New York but became a high school staple. He wrote the book for the 1948 Mike Todd musical, As the Girls Go, which had a year-long run in New York. He and Audrey collaborated on a mystery play, Speaking of Murder, which ran for a month in New York but did better in London.
After a dozen years in New York City, the Rooses sold their brownstone on East 93rd Street and moved to a late eighteenth century farmhouse in Connecticut. Carol left home for college in 1956 and Audrey, William and Stephen moved back to New York City for a year. Eventually they moved to the south of Spain where they mostly lived for the next ten years.
In the late 1960s, they bought a whaling captain’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the locale of their last mystery novel, Murder on Martha’s Vineyard, where they lived until their deaths. Audrey died in 1982 and William in 1987.
You won’t find their names among the giants of the genre but their contribution to what that other Allentown mystery writer—John Dickson Carr—called the “Grandest Game” deserves not to be overlooked. They showed, as son Stephen put it, what it was like to be young and in love in the New York of the 1940s and, perhaps even more importantly, that mysteries were meant to be fun.
Tom & Enid Schantz