It is too soon to write the obituary for The Philadelphia Inquirer (the Inky to its friends), but there is no doubt that the old gal is on life support. Once one of the great dailies in the nation, it’s staff has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The newspaper that once filled the elegant 18-story building on North Broad Street now is housed on a single floor of a former downtown department store.
So it is with a high level of nostalgia that I flip through these browning and delicate remnants of Inquirer’s past, and consider their links to Vincent Starrett.
It is easy to believe that the demise of newspapers is a new topic, but in fact, there have been several “near death” experiences for that old institution of ink and paper. Back during the Great Depression and into World War II, newspapers were under siege from several sides: paper was in short supply and the cost was high, inks were also tough to find in some parts of the country. There was also a decline in advertisers, the life blood of any newspaper.
New threats arrived as the 30’s moved into the 40’s. Radio was providing news you could hear, not just read. Movies were cheap to attend and an afternoon matinee of short subjects, newsreels, a cartoon and a feature offered as much variety as the local daily. There were also rumors of new device, called television, which would soon mesmerize the American public.
Newspapers fought back. One technique was to beef up the size and variety of the Sunday supplements or rotogravure sections, which had been introduced during the first World War.
Starting in 1934, The Philadelphia Inquirer introduced the Gold Seal Novel series, a whole (well, often abridged) novel or short story collection published in one section with a full-color cover. The novels were reprints of older works no longer on any best-seller list (which no doubt kept down their permission’s price to the authors). There were many writers whose names have faded from view, but mysteries were popular, so Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, George Simenon and Leslie Charteris were common contributors.
At least five issues of the Inquirer were dedicated to the works of Vincent Starrett. I have four which feature short story compilations featuring Starrett's best-known detective, Jimmie Lavender, and one featuring Starrett’s last mystery novel.
For the record, here's what I own:
- August 20, 1944: The Lisping Man and other stories from the Case Book of Jimmy (sic) Lavender. The other stories are Recipe for Murder and The Man who Couldn't Fly. A photo and bio of Starrett is also included.
- September 3, 1944: The Case of Two Flutes and other stories: From The Case-Book of Jimmy (sic) Lavender. The other stories are The House that Vanished and Food for the Sharks. A photo and bio of Starrett is also included.
- January 25, 1945: The Raven's Claw and Other Stories. The other stories are The Lame Duck and The Case of Abner Gunsmith.
- April 15, 1945: The Woman in Black: From the Case Book of Jimmy (sic) Lavender. The other story is The Note of the Cracked Bugle.
- May 16, 1948: Murder in Peking (This is a novel and not one of the Jimmie Lavender stories.)
(For some reason, the Inquirer editors insisted on spelling Lavender's first name as Jimmy in headlines, even though the copy clearly uses "Jimmie," the original spelling created by Starrett. Makes you wonder if the editors even read the stories.)
There might be other issues of the Inquirer with Starrett stories out there. The online database of the Inquirer only goes back to the 1980s, so others could be lurking out there, unknown and waiting to be found.
The August 20, 1944 issue featuring "The Lisping Man" is typical of the short story compilations. There are two other Lavender stories besides the cover story: "Recipe for Murder" and "The Man who Couldn't Fly". This issue also has a photo of Starrett and a brief biography. (The same text was repeated in the Sept. 3 issue, but with a different photo.)
Three of the issues feature large wash portraits clearly by Philadelphia artist Ben Dale. They deserve a mention of their own. The Lavender stories first appeared (for the most part) in the 1920s and 1930s, but Dale has chosen to update the character for the 1940s. Dale worked for an advertising agency and his artwork could clearly have been used to show off any men's product of the era. Dale has depicted Lavender as a handsome middle-aged man with a receding hairline that has been Brylcreemed to a high shine, a stylish suit and tie, and a Kirk Douglas-ish dimple in the chin. I've seen several depictions of Lavender, and believe these are the best rendered and most handsome of the lot. The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies has a nice page devoted to Dale, and notes that:
Dale studied Industrial Arts at the Philadelphia Museum School [he was listed in the June 1907 roster of students, as a student of Industrial Drawing even though the school also had a class of Illustration] and later produced illustrations for Ladies Home Journal, American Home the Philadelphia Ledger, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
So much for the artist. What about the author?
The biography of Starrett that is published with the first two sets of Lavender stories is similar to, but longer than, others that I've seen. It reads as follows:
Although few know it, his full name is Charles Vincent Emerson Starrett and he has been called "the most distinguished-looking writer in America." Born 58 years ago in Toronto of Scotch-Irish parentage, his grandfather was Jake Young, a famous Canadian publisher.
Taken to Chicago as a child, he attended public schools there but declares he received his education from working on newspapers in that city. During 1914-15 he served as war correspondent in Mexico and was wounded in the leg.
His earlier ambition was to be an illustrator, but his course suddenly switched to writing after getting a check for a mystery story. Since then he has been a man of letters, in the full meaning of that term. Besides being the author of seven novels, two books of short stories and 20 volumes of essays and miscellany, he founded and edited "Wave," a literary monthly, is responsible for the standard bibliographies of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce, and has edited the uncollected works of Arthur Machen, whom he introduced to American, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Gissing, Edgar Saltus and others.
He has been an instructor in short story writing (which he insists "cannot be taught") at Northwestern University, and has lived in most of the important capitals of the world, including Peking. One of his greatest enthusiasms is Sherlock Holmes, and he helped found the famed Baker Street Irregulars.
He is married and now lives in Chicago, where his home, according to Charles E. Honce, his bibliographer, "is not quite of this earth. It is some fabulous place …"
The only Starrett novel I've been able to find from the Inquirer's Gold Seal series is Murder in Peking, a story that has as convoluted a publishing history as The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The cover is illustrated by H.H. Chambers in a style completely different than the Lavender illustrations by Dale.
Unlike those Inquirer editors who repeatedly misspelled Lavender's name it is possible that Chambers actually read the novel, since the dominant element of the illustration is the laughing Buddha. In fact, the book was originally published under the title, The Laughing Buddha in 1937.
If you're interested in reading more about the Gold Seal series in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Steve Trussel has a detailed listing of the issues and the featured writers. Trussel is a Georges Simenon collector, and there are several of Simenon's works on the Gold Seal Novel list.