When Charlotte Murray Russell shipped off the manuscript of her first mystery, she sent it to the Doubleday, Doran Crime Club, saying, “I might as well start at the top and work down from there.” But when a parcel about the same size as the one she sent off to Doubleday showed up in the mail a couple of weeks later, she hid it in the attic without opening it, reluctant to face that letter of rejection. Imagine her surprise two weeks later to receive a warm letter from Doubleday welcoming her to the ranks of Crime Club authors. Hurriedly, Charlotte rushed to the attic and discovered that the package she had secreted away was a box of stationery ordered by her husband Marcus.
Published in 1935, Murder at the Old Stone House was the first book acquired by longtime Crime Club editor Isabelle Taylor. In it we meet Jane Amanda Edwards, a self-satisfied spinster of 45 who tips the scales at 180 pounds—“full-fashioned,” not fat, as she tells one and all, although she complains that “since Helen Hokinson began to publish I never look in a full-length mirror.” “For some obscure reason,” wrote a reviewer for The New York Times, “it seems that a story involving an old maid sleuth is always sure to be entertaining. This one is no exception to the rule, and we hope to hear more of Jane Edwards.” The Times would not be disappointed, as the tart-tongued Jane would go on for another sixteen years, gleefully meddling in the affairs of her neighbors in Rockport, Illinois (a thinly fictionalized version of Charlotte’s own home town of Rock Island) at the slightest provocation. When murder strikes, as it does with alarming regularity given the fact that only 40,000 people call Rockport home, “old X-ray Jane,” as she calls herself, is usually the first person on the scene.
Jane has a rare—and, she protests, unappreciated—talent for cracking murder cases, explaining in The Bad Neighbor Murder (1946): “I somehow, at frequent intervals, brush up against murder. Brush? Merely graze? No. It is not a delicate contact. Rather do I scent from afar, feel in my bones, ferret and fish for information, hunt and harry, and finally corner a guilty, wretched villain. Whereupon Detective Captain George Hammond... takes over, basks in the resultant publicity (always making use of a newspaper cut ten years old), hies himself out to our house for one of Theresa’s chicken-and-dumpling dinners topped off with lemon pie, and explains the case to me. This pattern tends to repeat itself. I have come to accept the recurrence.”
Happily, so did Charlotte Murray Russell’s many readers. In all she published 20 mysteries between 1935 and 1953. Four of her books were non-series mysteries while four others featured Homer Fitzgerald, a small-town Indiana police chief. But her reputation in the field is based on the even dozen books in which Jane runs roughshod through one murder scene after another, unabashedly stealing evidence and excusing her indiscretions with exclamations like, “The police wouldn’t know what to make of this anyhow.” She points out in Cook Up a Crime that she does “not disparage policemen. They have organization, routine, experience, scientific aids, and, above all, the majesty of the law on their side. But they can’t beat me on the observant eye.”
This attitude doesn’t exactly endear Jane to George Hammond, but he puts up with her and even, on occasion, actively seeks her help. Their relationship is a bit like that of Hildegarde Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper in the contemporaneous mysteries of Stuart Palmer. Jane is quite content in her spinsterhood and George, five years her senior, is a confirmed bachelor. There’s not a hint of romance in the air, but from time to time the two appear together at the odd social gathering or spend a companionable evening together listening to the radio in Jane’s home.
But Jane’s domestic life clearly revolves around her siblings. Her family belongs to what passes for Rockford society, although in recent years they have fallen upon hard times. They have been reduced to living off their capital, perhaps because no one in the family seems ever to have held a job. Her sister Annie is a year Jane’s junior and, according to Jane, too wishy-washy to make it on her own (although she seems to be a remarkably well-adjusted individual), while their younger brother Arthur is merely waiting for the right opportunity, employment-wise. In the meantime, Jane must be constantly vigilant lest the hapless Arthur fall prey to strong drink, as the poor boy’s constitution is so delicate that it takes but a single glass of wine (or so Jane would have us believe) to wholly rob him of his faculties. Arthur also has a weakness for unsuitable women, which Jane does her best to curb. Theresa, their long-suffering and bluntly outspoken housekeeper and cook (imagine Thelma Ritter in the part), thinks Arthur is no more than a lily of the field, but her aspersions usually fall on deaf ears. In Jane’s eyes, Arthur can simply do no wrong; she dotes on him totally and her attempts to manage his life are only for his own good.
Indeed, in case after case it’s Arthur’s Mr. Toad-like indiscretions that quite often require Jane’s intervention in matters criminal. He always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and more than once the police have been poised to cuff this rotund good fellow and haul him off to jail until Jane pulls the real culprit out of a hat.
Charlotte Murray Russell’s mystery writing career began in 1933 when she won a writing contest sponsored by a Rock Island newspaper in which contestants had to furnish the final chapter to a mystery plot devised by the paper’s editors. She then began writing her first novel, which would take her some two years to finish. Her writing was no hobby. It was the height of the Depression, her husband had lost his real estate business, and Charlotte’s books helped put food on the table. The Russells were forced to rent out their home and move in with Charlotte’s parents until her royalties started coming in and Marcus found work with John Deere. They then moved back into their own house, which was not large, and Charlotte’s daughter, Marianne Nelson (born the year Charlotte won the newspaper contest), remembers her mother pounding away at a manual typewriter on a dining room table strewn with papers, clearing it off only for meals. It was not until after the war that she acquired an actual desk to write at. At night, Marianne would lie in bed and listen to her parents discuss clues and alibis in the living room.
Charlotte was an avid mystery fan herself, especially fond of the English mystery writer Ngaio Marsh. Other favorites were Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. Certainly, there’s more than a touch of Miss Marple in Jane.
In 1953, Charlotte announced she was tired of writing and took a job as a book cataloguer at the Rock Island Public Library. She never again considered writing a mystery, though she worked off and on for several years on her memoirs, filling shopping bags and bureau drawers with handwritten notes that she never got around to organizing.
Born Charlotte Murray on May 22, 1899, in Rock Island, she lived most of her life there and was known as Chatty by her many friends. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago and did graduate work at McGill University in Montreal before returning to her home town to teach French and Latin at the Rock Island High School until she married Marcus J. Russell in 1925. She died on her birthday in 1992 at the age of 93.
One of the most successful early exponents of the American cozy school of mystery writing, Charlotte Murray Russell is a spiritual forebear of such popular contemporary farceurs as Charlotte MacLeod, Joan Hess, Deborah Adams, and the early Sharyn McCrumb. And in her blithe refusal ever to admit she is wrong, Jane foreshadows Elizabeth Peters’ equally obstinate and meddlesome heroine, Amelia Peabody. Russell did not invent the old-maid sleuth—it was already an established convention when she began writing—but Jane Amanda Edwards was one of the most appealing of her generation of busybody spinsters and certainly deserves to be better known today.
Tom & Enid Schantz