Collecting Delaware Books
The period between 1920 and 1930 was one of the richest in the 150 year history of the detective story. Many of the most familiar writers and their fictional detectives appeared during this decade. Though not as successful as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, or Ngaio Marsh, Delaware's own Katharine Virden wrote two rip roaring whodunits set in recognizable parts of our state: The Crooked Eye and The Thing in the Night.
Virden was born in New York in 1892 but spent her early years and was educated in Dover, Delaware. From 1912 until her marriage in 1923, she was an advertising copy writer for Crowell Publishing Company of New York. She married Clarence A. Southerland, a 1905 graduate of Wilmington Friend's school, lawyer, state attorney general, and a director of the Historical Society of Delaware. Virden died in 1955.
Both her books were published in 1930 by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, N. Y. for the Crime Club, Inc. The Crooked Eye was also serialized in the Wilmington Sunday Star and published in England by Hall. Both bear the author's name spelled Katharine, not Katherine, yet most biographies spell it with the e .
New Castle is quite recognizable, and the families appear to have been modeled on real families or composites. However, the author would have us believe there are tunnels and secret passages under the streets, once used by smugglers and now by bootleggers. We are told the mud of the reed marshes along the river can swallow up dogs, men, and whole automobiles.
Mystery story writers of the 1920s and 30s were terribly class conscious, and Katharine Virden was no exception. The hero of the story is a small-town lawyer from a prominent family. Though socially inferior to his wealthy clients, the main impediment to his romance with the pharmacist's daughter is that she is from a lower class. Another step down in society are the villainous bootleggers and descendants of pirates who inhabit the Sussex County forests and prey on honest farm folk.
There is plenty of adventure in Virden mysteries before the puzzle is unraveled. The hero in this story is rescued from the villains by a naked forest princess who leads him in a desperate midnight swim across what appears to be Indian River Bay.
Virden's other book, The Thing in the Night, is set in Shipton (Wilmington) and includes some of the same characters. It takes place in the residences along Delaware Avenue and in Brandywine Park. A lively picture of high society is painted. This is the society in which Virden lived, so the descriptions are accurate and believable. There also are excursions into seamy districts modeled on Wilmington's South Side. It is here the debutantes go for cocaine. The protagonist is again a lawyer, this time a confidential assistant to a prominent judge.
It is a shame Katharine Virden did not continue the series. How about murder on The Green in Dover, on the beach at Rehoboth, or under the academic elms in Newark? In truth, her books were not that good. The publisher may have had enough with two. But they sure are a lot of fun to read, if you know the venue.
Delawareana collectors will have difficulty finding these books. The Crime Club books are sought by the many collectors of mystery stories, who will often pay between $50 and $150 depending on condition.