Vintage Pulp Dec 22 2018
COLUMN LIKE WE SEE IT
Biggers isn't always better but he tried.


What's an agony column? Basically it's a newspaper feature in which readers writes messages to other readers. For example: “Regular at Main Street Cafe who takes her coffee every weekday morning just before 9:00. Would you be amenable to meeting a certain gentleman who has admired you from afar?” You get the idea. The “agony” in the terminology derives from the fact that people who write in generally are suffering from some sort of heartache or other.

The Agony Column is basically an epistolary mystery, in which a man writes letters to the crush he contacted through a London newspaper's agony column, and details his involvement in a puzzling murder case. It's a very esoteric set-up for a novel, and besides mystery there's a dose cute romance. Nearly the entire book takes the form of the main character's letters, though some sections are conventionally written.

The nature of the novel requires more suspension of disbelief than usual, simply because nobody really writes letters with detailed, multi-character dialogue, but once you get over that hurdle it works pretty well. There are other hurdles. About London's Chinatown the main character writes, “Not only the heathen Chinee so peculiar shuffle through its dim-lit alleys, but the scum of the earth of many colors and of many climes. The Arab and the Hindu, the Malayan and the Jap, black men from the Congo and fair men from Scandinavia.”

Ouch. That brought the cuteness to a screeching halt. But readers should note that Biggers evolved, and would later create the Chinese American detective Charlie Chan partly as a counter to racist portrayals of Asians. The books were popular, but as the decades progressed people soured on them because Chan too is a racial stereotype. It's difficult for authors to write characters—especially outside their own ethnic group—that stand up over time as social mores change. But they keep trying, and should, in our opinion. What would fiction be like if they didn't?

The Agony Column has plenty of positives. Being set on the eve of World War I in a London gripped by tension over the looming global hostilities lends it atmosphere, and the mystery itself contains a few surprises we doubt most readers will foresee. It's also a short tale, which keeps the epistolary gimmick from wearing thin. We think it's worth a read. The Agony Column originally appeared in 1916, with this Avon edition, illegibly signed by the cover artist and unattributed inside, coming in 1943. 

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
May 12
1957—Von Stroheim Dies
German film director and actor Erich von Stroheim, who as an actor was noted for his arrogant Teutonic character parts which led him to become a renowned cinematic villain with the nickname "The Man You Love to Hate", dies in Maurepas, France at the age of 71.
May 11
1960—Adolf Eichmann Is Captured
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, four Israeli Mossad agents abduct fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who had been living under the assumed name and working for Mercedes-Benz. Eichman is taken to Israel to face trial on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. He is found guilty and executed by hanging in 1962, and is the only person to have been executed in Israel on conviction by a civilian court.
2010—Last Ziegfeld Follies Girl Dies
Doris Eaton Travis, who was the last surviving Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, dies at age 106. The Ziegfeld Follies were a series of elaborate theatrical productions on Broadway in New York City from 1907 through 1931. Inspired by the Folies Bergères of Paris, they enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, became a radio program in 1932 and 1936, and were adapted into a musical motion picture in 1946 starring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, and Lena Horne.
May 10
1924—Hoover Becomes FBI Director
In the U.S., J. Edgar Hoover is appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a position he retains until his death in 1972. Hoover is credited with building the FBI into a large and efficient crime-fighting agency, and with instituting a number of modern innovations to police technology, such as a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories. But he also used the agency to grind a number of personal axes and far exceeded its legal mandate to amass secret files on political and civil rights leaders. Because of his abuses, FBI directors are now limited to 10-year terms.
1977—Joan Crawford Dies
American actress Joan Crawford, who began her show business career as a dancer in traveling theatrical companies, but soon became one of Hollywood's most prominent movie stars and one of the highest paid women in the United States, dies of a heart attack at her New York City apartment while ill with pancreatic cancer.
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