20 August 2013

Sic Transit Gloria, Mason

Have you ever heard of F. Van Wyck Mason?  I couldn't place the name when I stumbled across it recently.  Since then, it's been on my mind.  But let me start at the beginning.
Earlier this year, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine published a story of mine, "Margo and the Silver Cane," that I'm hoping will be the first installment of a new series.  It features a young woman working in radio in New York City in 1941 who finds herself drafted into an amateur counterespionage operation.
For a Margo story I was writing a few weeks back, "Margo and the Milk Trap," I needed a few titles of bestselling novels from 1940.  Once upon a time, filling that need would have meant a drive down to the central library and a visit to the microfilm room to look over old reels of the New York Times.  Nowadays, one can simply do a search on Google or Bing or whatever for something that sounds like an unproduced Busby Berkeley musical:  "Bestsellers of 1940."  So that's what I did.  Most of the titles and authors on the resulting list were familiar, either from my past reading or from film adaptations.  But one author-title combination was completely unfamiliar.  It was Stars on the Sea, by F. Van Wyck Mason.

F. Van Wyck Mason
Intrigued (and, as always, easily distracted), I did a search on Mason's long name and found a Wikipedia entry.  It turns out that Mason was a fellow mystery writer.  He was also a writer of historical novels for both adults and young adults and a decorated veteran of both world wars.  He died on August 28, 1978, thirty-five years ago next Wednesday.  And I couldn't remember ever hearing his name.

After Mason's somewhat improbable service in World War I (he was a seventeen-year-old lieutenant when the war ended), he attended Harvard and started an importing business that took him to many exotic places around the world.  Sometime in the late 1920s, he began writing short stories for pulp magazines.  His success at this was described thusly by Wikipedia:  "The magazines paid well at this time and he was able to build a comfortable home outside Baltimore, Maryland."  (Sigh.)

In 1930, Mason began a long-running mystery series featuring Hugh North, army intelligence officer and James Bond precursor.  The first title in the series was the appropriately named Seeds of Murder.  The last in the series was 1968's The Deadly Orbit Mission.  By the late 1930s, Mason was doing so well he was able to "split his time between Nantucket, Bermuda, and Maryland."  (Heavy sigh.)

During the war, Mason served as Eisenhower's staff historian and was with the first troops to enter Buchenwald.  After the war, he resumed writing the North series and his historical novels (Stars on the Sea, his prewar bestseller, was one of these) and started writing historicals for the school kid market, under the name Frank W. Mason.  (Early on, he seems to have written mysteries as "Van Wyck Mason" and historicals as "F. Van Wyck Mason."  Later, this distinction went away.)  When he died in 1978--drowning while swimming off Bermuda--he'd published over seventy books.

After squeezing Wikipedia dry, I found my curiosity was far from satisfied.  I switched over to Amazon to order a Hugh North mystery from a used book seller.  The book I selected was The Shanghai Bund Murders from 1933.  In it, North must solve a series of murders and decipher a dying man's cryptic last words in order to save Shanghai from a bloodthirsty war lord.  Politically correct, it ain't.  North is the kind of lean, tight-lipped hero who is always ratcheting up his keen powers of perception to a perceptively keener power, but by the end, I was rooting for him.  That ending left me wondering if Ian Fleming, James Bond's creator, had read The Shanghai Bund Murders before starting Dr. No.  North ends up a prisoner in an underground torture chamber and, to escape, he must wiggle out through a sewer.  The description of that wiggling is not for the claustrophobic.  (There's another curious link between Mason and Bond.  007's birthday, according to experts on the subject, is November 11, the same as Mason's.)

So why is F. Van Wyck Mason so little known today?  For mystery fans, like me, it may be because Hugh North gave up solving murders sometime after World War II and evolved into an espionage agent.  It may be because Hollywood never clasped North to its celluloid bosom.  Or perhaps the question should be stated differently:  How does any popular author stay popular, with so many shiny new ones hitting showroom floors every year? 

I don't know the answer to either question, but next Wednesday I'll be lifting a highball (North favored them) to F. Van Wyck Mason and to all those dead magazines that paid him so well.


  1. Fascinating article, Terry. It proves once again Mike Nevins' adage that most mystery novels do not survive the author's death. There are obvious exceptions, Christie and Doyle, for example, but the general rule remains. So as Spock said, "live long and prosper!"

  2. A nice piece.
    And now with Wikipedia, he has a modest immortality!

  3. "most mystery novels do not survive the author's death...So as Spock said, "live long and prosper!"

    Does this means our better shot at immortality is to write sci-fi? :-)

  4. In much the same way as I like B movies, I like so-called silver and golden age mysteries and pulp fiction, although remembering authors isn't my strong point. Thanks for the article, Terry!

  5. It is sad it's so difficult to make a living writing fiction. Most people seem to prefer repetitious TV hack writing, same-o, same-o.

  6. I never read him but I know the name, either from my parents' book shelves or the public library where I wrked in high school.

    Just today I discovered a longdead writer I'll bet you have never heard of: Johnston McCulley.

    But I'll bet you've heard of one of his characters: Zorro.

  7. Nicely written article. My own experience started with a discarded copy of The Hongkong Airbase Murders. It took me years to collect and read the books as well as research and write the Wikipedia article (still working on it). It is amazing how quickly his fame seemed to have died with him as there was a flurry of his books published and reprinted during the 70's but all his works went out of print after his final novel was published posthumously.


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