When Novels Were Novels

Grosset & Dunlap: Publishers of Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys.

On Christmas Day, back in the fraught year of 1914, Metta Hiley presented her Aunt May with this copy of Earl Derr Biggers’ bestselling mystery Seven Keys to Baldpate. You can see her beautiful calligraphic dedication here in my post about The Mystery Bookstore.

When I opened the book and discovered the elegant inscription, I hoped that Aunt May got a kick out of the comedy/mystery/romance back when she unwrapped it nearly a century ago. Now, having read Seven Keys to Baldpate for myself, I’m certain she did. The novel fulfills the three basic requirements of the comedy/mystery/romance genre: it is comic, mysterious, and romantic. Which explains why Baldpate remains in print long after the works of other big-time novelists of the day — Arnold Bennett, say, or Booth Tarkington, or even the esteemed Gertrude Atherton — crumble to dust in used book shops. I expect it will go right on entertaining generations yet unborn.

The story gives us one Billy Magee, successul writer of potboilers, retreating to rural, snowbound Baldpate Inn, the property of a college pal’s dad. Baldpate is a popular summer resort, but when Magee arrives it is empty, shuttered for the winter. Magee, a bit ashamed of his popular hackwork, seeks isolation for the composition of his magnum opus, a serious novel. Instead of seclusion, though, Magee finds himself in the middle of a melodrama involving a high-stakes political scandal, gunplay, star-crossed lovers, a safecracker, detectives and a crazy hermit tossed in for the fun of it.

Biggers has that Wodehousian knack for deliberately postponing plot resolutions just to keep the ball rolling — but somehow never making you impatient. You settle back and enjoy how, for example, he takes what a contemporary writer would render as “Mr. Magee walked outside in the dark” and turns it into:

“The justly celebrated moon that in summer months shed so much glamour on the romance of Baldpate Inn was no where in evidence as Mr. Magee crept along the ground close to the veranda.”

Our dull post-Hemingway, Strunk-and-White infected, current crop of fiction writers might tersely say: “She stared at him coldly.” Not our man, Earl Derr. No, he gives us:

“The lady had a glittering eye; she put it to its time-honored use and fixed Mr. Magee with it.”

Speaking of Wodehouse, I smiled at Magee’s alluding to Rime of the Ancient Mariner with a line which would become a standard of Bertie Wooster — and in this Woosterish context:

He paused and looked at Mr. Magee. “Have you ever stood, poised, on the brink of marriage?” he asked.

“Never,” replied Magee. “But go on. Your story attracts me, strangely.”

If you like P.G. Wodehouse (already in Biggers’ time doing nicely with his Psmith series) and are delighted rather than annoyed with plot complications tossed in merely to forestall the happy ending, you will get a kick out of Metta Hiley’s thoughtful gift to her aunt.

Seven Keys to Baldpate
by Earl Derr Biggers
(Dodo Press, Paperback, 248pp.)

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