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 of 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.
December 05
1933—Prohibition Ends in United States
Utah becomes the 36th U.S. state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, thus establishing the required 75% of states needed to overturn the 18th Amendment which had made the sale of alcohol illegal. But the criminal gangs that had gained power during Prohibition are now firmly established, and maintain an influence that continues unabated for decades.
1945—Flight 19 Vanishes without a Trace
During an overwater navigation training flight from Fort Lauderdale, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers lose radio contact with their base and vanish. The disappearance takes place in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.
December 04
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
December 03
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
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