Very early on in her writing career Margaret Scherf made it clear that readers wishing for serious or weighty topics would do better to look elsewhere. Even the titles of her first two books, The Corpse Grows a Beard (1940) and The Case of the Kippered Corpse (1941) are—well, dead giveaways of her intent to amuse rather than to thrill or scare the pants of her readers. Of course, that didn’t stop fans and friends from trying to persuade her to be a tad more literary. But Margaret—Peggy to everyone but the reading public—wasn’t about to change, sticking her tongue firmly in cheek and offering up the following explanation:
It is very difficult to be a writer. If you are a dentist, your friends accept the fact and let your profession alone more or less. But if you are one kind of writer, people are always trying to make you into some other kind of writer. Especially if you happen to write mysteries. This is looked upon as easier than but in the same class as strip tease. ‘When are you going to write something really serious?’ they ask. Of course they know I haven’t an idea in my head and they would read anything serious with my name on it. What drove me to writing was that nobody would listen to me talk.
People who can’t pick up their offices and move them to Montana or Italy when they feel like it become very irritated when they see someone else doing it. Particularly New Yorkers. They think a little poverty would be salutary, so they try to needle me into doing something they know that I can’t do. Instead of cheerfully knocking off people in pleasant surroundings, they want me to take death seriously. “We have Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams,” I remind them. “Isn’t there room for one lightweight?”
They answer me with, “Why don’t you write about love?” Frankly I don’t feel that I know enough about biology. Love has become so intimately anatomical in today’s fiction that I’m afraid to tackle it.
I have made concessions to critics, though. My aunt said that there was too much whiskey in my books, so I did one with nothing but Coca-Cola. And my father objected to that; he dislikes Coca-Cola as fiercely as he does the French parliament. You can’t please everybody.
In addition to your friends, you have to think sometimes about your readers. Something told me to go to England last fall, and when I was settled in Sheriff’s Hotel in Bath I was up to my ears in material for murder. Two delicious old ladies gave off wonderful dialogue over their breakfast kipper. The ceiling in the dining room flaked and fell into the food (mix arsenic or cyanide with plaster that there might be a story in that); there were gloomy subcellars, and a cistern that was just the place to dispose of several bodies.
Detective Inspector Coles at the Bath Police Station gave me all the data on procedure including: Means of Identifying Bodies Found in Cisterns and How to Test Plaster for Traces of Arsenic and Cyanide. I was all set. I came home and told Crime Club editor Isabelle Taylor that I proposed to do a story with an English setting.
I crossed the ocean, lived in England for four months, did all that research and what happens? My editor informed me gently that she has quite enough English corpses in stock, and added that Americans prefer to have American mystery writers kill off American corpses in American locales.
And so I’m left with nothing to show for four months’ research in England but the information that the local police and Scotland Yard are not rivals. But I don’t see how I’m going to use it in a mystery story set in Montana.
Even with all those difficulties, however, it is very rewarding to be a writer because of the awe and reverence with which people regard this profession. The questions they ask make this obvious. The one I hear most often is: “Are you working now or are you still writing?”
Even though she didn’t take herself seriously, Scherf was as serious about her writing as she was about the other great passions in her life: travel, Montana, antiques and Democratic party politics. Scherf was born on April Fools Day 1908 in Fairmont, West Virginia, a largish town in the northern part of the state near Morgantown and the Pennsylvania border. Her father was a high school teacher and the family moved first to New Jersey and then to Wyoming, before finally settling in Montana. After graduation from high school in Cascade, Montana, she attended Antioch College (1925-1928) in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a very small town near Dayton. She left college short of graduation to take a job as an editorial secretary with Robert M. McBride, a book publishing firm located in New York City. Wanderlust struck her in 1929 and she embarked on a round-the-world trip, an experience that would instill in her a love of travel that would stay with her for the rest of her life. Upon her return to the United States, she joined the staff of the Camp Fire Girls national magazine in 1932 (an experience she would put to use in 1948’s Murder Makes Me Nervous), then moved on to the staff of the Wise Book Company as a secretary and copywriter in 1934. In 1939, she quit her job and launched her career as a full-time writer, publishing three mysteries with Putnam between 1940 and 1942. With the advent of World War II, she temporarily abandoned her writing career and took a job as Secretary to the Naval Inspector, Bethehem Steel Shipyard in Brooklyn.
After the war, she returned to writing and eventually found herself back in Montana, a state she was to call home for the rest of her life. She had enjoyed her years in New York but she much preferred life in small towns. She continued to revisit New York settings in her books during this period, most notably in the Emily and Henry Bryce series, but her postwar books were primarily set in more rustic locales. “Small town characters, especially Episcopalians, were my delight,” she wrote to a critic in 1979.
Chief among those characters was the Reverend Martin Buell, an Episcopalian minister just on the wrong side of middle age who brings both his housekeeper and a “we’ll do things my way” attitude to a small Montana parish (the original Doubleday Crime Club edition preface mistakenly said the series was set in Colorado, presumably because Easterners think mountains exist only in the Mile High State). Martin’s bishop explained that things had been “slipping” in the parish and the parishioners needed a bit of “bullying.” He sent the right man. Buell was to ride roughshod over his parishioners during the course of seven books published between 1948 and 1965.
Scherf alternated the Buell books with a daffy series featuring Emily and Henry Bryce, two Manhattan decorators. When we first meet them in 1949’s The Gun in Daniel Webster’s Bust, Emily is pushing Henry to marry him, an idea that doesn’t sit too well with him given the fact his last marriage ended when his wife threw a cup of hot coffee in his face. But marry they did, and continued to solve crimes in their own fashion, Emily providing the right-brained, intuitive approach to crime solving while the left-brained Henry relied—more or less—on logic. The Bryce series ended in 1963 after four books.
Her other major series featured Dr. Grace Severance, a retired pathologist. This series, like Scherf herself, moved between Montana and Arizona, beginning with Arizona-based The Banker’s Bones in 1968 and ending four books later in 1978 with The Beaded Banana, set in Montana. The Arizona locale was a familiar one by this time, as Scherf was now spending her winters in Quartzsite, Arizona, a small mining town near the California border, halfway between Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nevada.
But she was no longer alone. In 1965, at the age of 57, she shocked friends and relatives by marrying Perry E. Beebe. Her relatives shook their heads with amusement at this December bride but later admitted that married life seemed to suit her just fine. She helped her husband run a cherry orchard near Yellow Bay, Montana, when she wasn’t writing or tending to one of the three antique shops she owned at various times in and around Kalispell. The same year she married Perry the politically outspoken Scherf was also elected as a Democrat to the Montana state legislature. Scherf later gave a lighthearted account of her days as a politician in an article entitled “One Cow, One Vote.” Perry died in 1975 and Peggy moved into a house she had built in Bigfork. On May 12, 1979, she was struck and killed by a drunk driver south of Kalispell.
Scherf’s career began near the end of the Golden Age of detective fiction but, unlike those of so many other contemporary female authors, her career didn’t decline in the early 1950s when the rental libraries disappeared and the market came to be dominated by male-oriented paperback originals. More than half of her books were published after the watershed year of 1953. Apparently there was still a good market for a writer who didn’t take herself seriously but was serious about writing funny books.
Tom & Enid Schantz