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|
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.