My top picks of 1908 bestselling novels

The bestselling novels of 1908 provide some good entertainment and a couple contains some historical insights, but none really stand out as novels you can’t afford to miss.

Of the lot, The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by the prolific and versatile Louis Bromfield and The Shuttle by the equally prolific but less versatile Frances Hodgson Burnett are the best: They are certainly the most unusual.

The plots of both novels are set in motion by some really despicable characters.

For something lighter, appropriate perhaps to kicking back after the presents are opened, the Christmas dinner dishes washed and put away, I suggest The Man from Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon, another prolific author. Its light humor won’t upset your digestion.

The Shuttle

The Shuttle is touched off by a titled and nearly penniless Englishman’s attempt to restore his fortunes by marrying the the daughter of a rich American businessman.

Any heiress will do: Sir Nigel Anstruthers isn’t fussy as long as the girl is rich and easily cowed.

Rosalie Vanderpoel seems to fit the bill. She’s young, pretty, malleable, and next to brainless.

Sir Nigel doesn’t realize that Reuben Vanderpoel made his money the hard way, and he’s not about to throw it away in supporting a son-in-law he rightly suspects is a leech as well as a loser.

Unable to live in New York City on his father-in-law’s money, Sir Nigel takes Rosalie home to England where he gets her to sign over all her property to him. He leaves her and their son, Ughtred, at Anstruther’s crumbling county estate, while he enjoys Rosalie’s money in London.

Rosalie is so pathetic a doormat that readers will want to smack her up the side of the head and tell her to brighten up.

Rosalie’s younger sister, Betty, grows up under her father’s influence and with his financial acumen. At age 20, Betty comes to England to save Rosalie from her husband and herself.

What keeps The Shuttle interesting today is the historical setting. The titled Englishman who went to America for a rich bride to restore the family fortunes was a familiar tale from the late 1800’s to the World War I. Not all of the cross-Atlantic matches were as successful as the one in Downton Abbey.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg

The villain in Annie Spragg was her father.

Or perhaps it was her brother.

Or perhaps there were several villains.

Annie Spragg was an old woman when she turned up in an out-of-the-way village in Italy, not quite right in the head but seemingly harmless.

When she died, the women who laid her out found what they said were stigmata on her body.

An investigation by an amateur writer turned up some background on Annie, but he was unable to find out how she got the odd marks.

He learned Annie grew up in the days when America’s heartland was mostly empty acres. Travelers were few. Those who came were accepted with few questions about their background.

Annie’s father was a cult religious leader who moved his wife and 13 legitimate children around in a covered wagon, setting up wherever he could rally a small following, and staying until he wore out his welcome.

Eventually “Reverend” Spragg set himself up as a prophet, keeping to a tent from which he gave orders to his congregation. The only people allowed to see him were young virgins who attended to his needs.

Eventually Spragg was murdered by a jealous lover of one of the virgins who served him.

After their parents’ deaths, Annie and her preacher-brother lived together. When Uriah was found murdered, suspicion fell on Annie.

There was a heavy whip in the cabin and handcuffs that Uriah used to chain her in her bed at night.

When she was she was stripped and examined, investigators found she had unusual scars. They let her go without probing too deeply.

Neither The Shuttle or The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg is cheerful holiday reading. You might want to save them for a February evening when the wind is howling outside.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing buttoned-down about The Man From Brodney’s

As The Man From Brodney’s opens, “Taswell Skaggs was dead and once more remembered.”

Three law firms on two continents are fighting to win Skaggs’s fortune for their respective clients: Skaggs’s grandson, Robert Browne; his late partner’s granddaughter, Lady Agnes Deppingham; and the inhabitants of Japat, the South Sea island on which both men lived and died.

Small island in vast ocean.


The Man From Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon
Illus. Harrison Fisher. 1908 bestseller #9.
Project Gutenberg ebook #11572. My grade: B+.

To inherit, Browne and Lady Agnes must be man and wife a year from Skagg’s death.

Both are already married.

As the hopeful inheritors hasten to the island, American Hollingsworth Chase is kicked out of the Grand Duchy of Rapp-Thorberg: The man he struck for annoying Princess Genevra was her fiancé.

The parties of the two grandchildren are already in residence when the Brodney law firm’s agent representing Japat’s inhabitants arrives.

Brodney’s man is Hollingsworth Chase.

All that—and more—happens in just the first three chapters.

Although Skaggs’s will sounds crazy, it’s in keeping with his life. In fact, George Barr McCutcheon makes all the crazy things the characters do appear plausible for them in their circumstances.

McCutcheon keeps the story in high gear to the end with murder and mayhem, spies and sabotage, romance and retribution, and sprinkles it all with laugh-out-loud lines.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Black Bag holds face-paced mystery

No one could mistake The Black Bag for literature with or without a capital L.

But for a puzzling mystery at a break-neck pace, The Black Bag is an unmistakable winner.A black bag with that title and author Louis Joseph Vance's name in gold type on the bag.


The Black Bag by Louis Joseph Vance
Illus. Thomas Fogarty. ©1908. 1908 bestseller #9.
Project Gutenberg ebook #9779. My grade: B.

Philip Kirkwood is preparing to leave London for San Francisco. A Mr. Calendar asks Philip to carry something to America for him.

Philip declines. He doesn’t trust Calendar.

In in the hotel dining room later, Calendar asks Philip to escort his daughter home, saying he expects to be arrested momentarily.

To spare the girl, Philip agrees.

Looking for a man with a girl, detectives stop Philip.

Calendar gets away.

“Home” turns out to be an unlighted townhouse with a “To Let” sign.

Walking to his hotel, Philip has second thoughts about leaving Miss Calendar there.

He returns, finds the door ajar, the building in darkness.

Within those events, Louis J. Vance has hidden all the prompts for Philip’s subsequent adventures—chases on land and sea by hansom, train, automobile, and boat—and the story’s dramatic denouement.

Discerning readers will see that within a year the besotted Philip will be bored stiff by Dorothy Calendar, but that’s a story for another novelist to tell.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Surprise ending raises Lewis Rand above pot-boilers

In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses
Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.

Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Shuttle is tightly-woven, multi-genre tale

When she learns of her sister’s engagement, eight-year-old Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel cries, “He’ll do something awful to you….He’ll nearly kill you. I know he will.”

Sir Nigel Anstruthers turns out as nasty as Betty predicts.


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1908 bestseller #5.
Project Gutenberg ebook #506. My grade: A-.

Green, hilly English countryside with a few sheep grazing, no people in sight.When he realizes Reuben Vanderpoel won’t support him, Sir Nigel craftily isolates Rosalie from family back in New York, then bullies her into transferring her property to him.

While Rosalie withers, Betty is educated in France, Germany, and in company of her astute capitalist father.

At 20, Betty goes to England to see Rosalie.

Sir Nigel has thoroughly cowed Rosalie and Ughtred, his son to whom the estate is entailed.

Betty takes charge, using her charm and her father’s money to make the estate liveable and her sister comfortable.

Inevitably, the Vanderpoel heiress is swarmed by suitors.

Betty’s heart, however, throbs for Lord Mount Duncan, who scorns the practice of marrying American money to put a deteriorating English estate to rights.

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett gives the novel the love-interest of a romance and the suspense of a thriller, the novel is deeper than those categories.

Burnett explores personalities, digs into gender roles, and shows how England and America were separated by culture and reunited by money.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Lure of the Mask doesn’t last

The Lure of the Mask is a novel composed entirely of characters.

Readers must take them as Harold MacGrath drew them; their fascination never makes them believable people.

Lady in fancy evening dress lowers her mask and looks over her shoulder toward the reader.


The Lure of the Mask by Harold MacGrath
Illus. Harrison Fisher and Karl Anderson.
Bobbs-Merrill, 1908, 1908 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #22158. My grade: B-.

Italian-born American John Hillard hears a woman singing in classical Italian at 1 a.m. in January. He’s so charmed that he places an ad in The Times asking her to contact him.

She responds. They correspond. The woman refuses to reveal any personal details.

Finally she agrees to meet.

Hillard is blindfolded, brought to a home that seems familiar.

The lady is masked.

Hillard knows no more about her afterward than before.

Unable to locate the woman with whom he is infatuated, Hillard agrees to take his friend Dan Merrihew to Italy, where both can recover from the loss of their loves—or find them again.

They are accompanied by Giovanni, Hillard’s servant, who hopes his 7-year absence will have lessened the interest of the police in arresting him so he can finish the murder he botched earlier.

MacGrath’s complicated story is well-plotted and remains unresolved until the last page.

The Lure will catch and hold you for an entire evening.

You’ll be released untouched at bedtime.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Barrier contains prejudice, romance, adventure

John Gale watches soldiers building a military post on the Yukon River and thinks, “The trail ends here!”

Necia Gale, his daughter, sees Lieutenant Burrell and thinks her trail is just beginning.

old photo shows Fort Yukon from vantage point in excavated pit
                        Old Fort Yukon

The Barrier by Rex Beach
[Harper’s, 310 pp.] 1908. 1908 bestseller #2.
Project Gutenberg ebook #4082. My grade: B.

In its first chapter, The Barrier prepares readers for a romance in which the Kentuckian’s bias against non-whites will have to be overcome.

Predictably, the young people fall in love.

But prejudice is trivial compared John Gale’s problem.

Gale’s difficulties are revealed slowly while readers see the kind of man he is and speculate on what he might have done in his early years.

Stark, a saloon-keeper, and his rascally companion, Runnion, arrive in Flambeau just as “No Creek” Lee finds gold. Stark puts up a tent and by nightfall is in business taking money from those who aim to strike it rich.

photograph of gold mining operation sluices
                            Mining for gold in the Yukon

Poleon Doret, who has loved Necia for years, gets only sisterly love and a commission to find out if Burrell means to marry her.

I won’t reveal the ending which is as quarter-turn left of predictable.

Aside from Necia, the characters, too, are just unusual enough to keep readers’ full attention.

Necia, sad to say, is just a pretty face with nothing between the ears.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mr. Crewe’s Career shows politics is not kind

Mr. Crewe is not the hero of the Winston Churchill novel that bears his name, nor is he heroic.

While Crewe has a good brain, a fortune, and aptitude for hard work, he also has one serious handicap: Mr. Humphrey Crewe doesn’t have a lick of sense.


Mr. Crewe’s Career by Winston Churchill
1908 bestseller #1. Project Gutenberg Ebook #3684. My grade: B.

1800's era railroad train

Churchill’s real story is about lawyer Austen Vane, whose father is lobbyist for the Imperial Railroad, and Victoria Flint, daughter of the railroad’s CEO.

Predictably, Austen and Victoria fall in love.

The romance, however, is secondary to the young people’s relationships to their respective fathers.

Austen wins a case against the railroad, and Victoria starts asking her father embarrassing questions.

The railroad lobby, in the person of Hilary Vane, controls the state’s Republican Party and the statehouse.

Austen and Victoria both realize they need to set their own course without cutting off relationships with their fathers.

Meanwhile, Crewe, stymied by the railroad lobby in his efforts to pass reform legislation, declares himself candidate for governor.

Churchill uses Crewe’s career as a way to get an inside picture of the political machine.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Churchill wisely refrains from ending the novel with universal happiness. Too many of the characters have too many regrets for that.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ahead: Reviews of 7 remaining 1908 bestsellers

I got my notes mixed up earlier when I posted my list of novels I planned to review in the remaining days of 2016, and gave you a list of novels whose reviews will appear in 2017. My apologies.

You will be getting reviews of the seven six bestsellers from 1908 that I hadn’t located when their time came around.

Here’s the list and their posting dates:

1908 #1 Mr. Crewe’s Career by Winston Churchill [Nov. 22]
1908 #2 The Barrier by Rex Beach [Nov. 26]
1908 #3 The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
1908 #4 The Lure of the Mask by Harold MacGrath [Nov. 29]
1908 #5 The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett [Dec. 3]
1908 #6 Peter by F. Hopkinson Smith
1908 #7 Lewis Rand by Louis J. Vance [Dec. 6]
1908 #8 The Black Bag by Harold MacGrath [Dec. 10]
1908 #9 The Man from Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon [Dec.13]
1908 #10 The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield
1908 #10 The Weavers by Gilbert Parker [This was also a 1907 bestseller. My review of it will be posted early in 2017.]

The poll of your picks of the 1908 bestsellers will be posted on Dec. 17.

I’ll reveal my picks on Dec. 20.

I’ll probably have some extra content as my Christmas gifts to readers on Dec. 24 and again on Dec. 27.

Dec. 31 I’ll see out the old year with a post about the best of the novels I reviewed here in 2016.