My top picks of 1930

Of the nine 1930 bestselling novels I’ve found, none is a great novel, but several are definitely worth reading. (I’m still looking for Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes, which won a Pulitzer in 1931.)

My top picks are Twenty-Four Hours by Louis Bromfield and Angel Pavement by J. B. Priestley.

Bromfield, who has a knack for turning ho-hum plots into gee-whiz ones, turns his hand to a murder mystery compressed into one day. Nothing about the plot or the characters of Twenty-Four Hours standard-issue.

J. B. Priestley’s novel is also about a crime, but in this case it’s a white-collar crime with a half-dozen victims.  Readers know from the start who-done-it and why (it’s the money). The interest is in seeing how the staff of victimized business respond.

Not far behind these two are Cimarron by Edna Ferber, Exile by Warwick Deeping and The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart. These novels are more predictable in their plotting, but with just enough individuality to keep them from being dull.

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Twenty-Four Hours Shows What a Difference a Day Makes

In Twenty-Four Hours, Louis Bromfield takes a plot that appears to be plodding off in one direction, gives it more twists than a bag of pretzels, and turns out a story that seems perfectly plausible.

As the curtain rises, old Hector Champion is giving a dreary dinner to distract himself from worry over the results of medical tests he will get the following day. His dinner guests include a nouveau riche financier, the financier’s current mistress and her husband, Hector’s nephew, the woman the financier wishes to marry, and the woman who had wanted to marry Hector some 50 years before.

As the party breaks up, Hector gets a telegram from his black-sheep sister who scandalized society years before by running off with her brother-in-law.

Bromfield leaves Hector at home fretting and follows the guests home.

Before 24 hours are up, the financier breaks up with his mistress and proposes to another woman, Hector’s nephew marries his actress girlfriend, two people are murdered, the mob puts a contract on one of the murderers, and the cuckolded husband is in a fair way to be fingered for the other murder.

By dinner the next evening, 67-year-old Savina Jerrold has straightened out all the remaining muddles, including Hector.

Twenty-Four Hours
By Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1930
463 pages
1930 bestseller #10
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Young Man of Manhattan, Grow Up!

In Young Man of Manhattan, Katherine Brush shows how a talented writer can make a scruffy boy-meets-girl plot sparkle.

The boy in the story is a young sportswriter, Toby McLean. The girl is Ann Vaughn, a film reporter for another newspaper. Both are still tied to the apron strings of their upbringing.

In Toby’s case there wasn’t much in upbringing. His father was an alcoholic. Toby has a reputation for being fond of the bottle himself.

Ann is ambitious. Toby is  talented but not really concerned about getting to the top of his profession.

Ann  lives within her means. Toby lives from day to day.  His pockets are always at his friends’ disposal.

Obviously this marriage is going  to require some major adjustments.

When Ann  begins to be successful, Toby knows he should be pleased for her. He tries to be, but deep down he is jealous. He would like to be successful, too, if only it didn’t require so much work.

Any writer who can make a plot this threadbare into a bestseller is good.

Brush makes these kids so young, so earnest, so hopeful that readers can’t help wanting them to grow up and be happy.

Young Man of Manhattan
by Katherine Brush
Farrar and Reinhardt, 1930
325 pages
1930 bestseller #9
My grade: B

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Take Chances Without Thinking

If you don’t look too closely, A. Hamilton Gibb’s 1930 bestseller, Chances, is a heart-warming tale of love between brothers.

Tom and Jack Ingleside are 15 and 13½ respectively when they are packed off to boarding school in France to crack their British insularity.  Until they are finished at Oxford and launched on their careers, the brothers share everything.

Then both boys fall for Molly Prescott, a Paris-educated artist they knew as children. Neither brother is aware of the other’s interest in her. After a squabble with Jack, Molly accepts Tom.

The brothers go off to war.

On leave from France, Jack and Molly reunite. When Tom learns his fiancee has left him for his brother, he refuses to even speak to Jack.

When the push comes, however, Tom proves blood is thicker than water.

Beneath the melodrama, the plot won’t hold up. It is incredible that two boys nearly as close as twins can both be madly in love and neither have an inkling of the other’s feelings.

Apparently the continental education didn’t achieve its aim. The boys developed good accents, but remained emotionally insulated when it comes to the most basic of human relationships.

Chances
by A. Hamilton Gibbs
Little, Brown,1930
285 pages
1930# 8
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rogue Herrie Is a Spellbinder

In Rogue Herries, Hugh Walpole turns a trunkful of novelistic faults into a drama that makes Wuthering Heights seem cheerful.

The Herries household moves to northwest England, a dark, foggy, isolated place whose superstition and backwardness is legendary even by 1735 standards.

Some years after his wife dies, Herries falls in love with a girl 30 years younger than he. When her lover is killed, Herries marries Maribell, hoping his love will be reciprocated.

Rogue Herries’ manic-depressive behavior is counterbalanced by the stalwart pleasantness of his unfailingly loyal son, David. The novel gives the impression that Walpole set out to write a book about David, but found his father more interesting.

Walpole opens one secondary plot after another only to abandon it, leaving a trail of red herrings worthy of Agatha Christie.

The ending is so melodramatic as to be laughable if it were not that the entire story is touched with insanity that makes absurdity seem normal.

In this hodgepodge, readers can never be sure whether what Rogue Herries says of his own motives is true. The violence of the period and the gloom of the landscape add to the general impression of a man trapped in a nightmare of his own creation.

Rogue Herries
by Hugh Walpole
Doubleday, Doran, 1930
524 pages
1930 bestseller # 7
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Door Conceals Classy Murder Mystery

Mary Roberts Rinehart can be counted on for mysteries with a cast of people with motive for murder and a maze of clues. Her novel The Door is in the classic “the butler did it” tradition, complete with a butler. Readers get all the clues they need to solve the murder, with enough red herrings to keep them from getting it right.

Miss Bell, a well-to-do, older woman, tells of the investigation into the disappearance and murder of Sarah Gittings, a private nurse who had worked for the whole Bell family as needed for years.

Suspicion falls on Jim Blake, Miss Bell’s cousin. The DA puts together a solid case, but something about it doesn’t feel right to the toothpick-chewing Inspector Harrison. The family rallies around Jim, doing some sleuthing on their own. Miss Bell helps by destroying evidence that would have bolstered Jim’s defense.

At the last minute, Rinehart pulls the threads together to finger the real murderer.

Although The Door is definitely a Roaring Twenties period piece, it remains solidly entertaining today.

I was disappointed Miss Bell and the Inspector didn’t pair off, but perhaps Rinehart felt the Inspector’s habit of dropping chewed toothpicks would lead to another murder.

The Door
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Farrar & Rinehart, 1930
314 pages
1930 bestseller # 6
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Angel Pavement Business Failure Is Novelistic Success

Angel Pavement is a spellbinding insiders’ view of a small business failure.

Twigg & Dersinghan at 8 Angel Pavement, London, sells veneers and inlays. The firm makes enough to pay the six-person staff, but business is steadily declining. Mr. Smeeth, the bookkeeper, fears Twigg & Dersinghan could go under.

A stranger arrives with a business proposition. Through his contacts in the Balkans, Mr. Golspie offers to provide Mr. Dersingham with veneer and inlays at far cheaper rates  than the firm had been paying. Mr. Smeeth feels there is something not quite right, but Mr. Dersingham reassures him.

J. B. Priestley takes readers into the lives of the office staff, letting us see what their colleagues don’t see.

Unlike Mr. Smeeth, who lives for his job, Mr. Dersingham would rather be anything than a businessman.  Stanley, the office boy, wants adventures, as does the formidable Miss Matfield, though she is too genteel to admit it.

Turgis wants love enough to die for it, except that he lacks money for the gas meter so he can commit suicide. Poppy Sellers wants Turgis.

Business booms as Golspie promised. The staff get raises.

But Mr. Golspie is a crook; the boom can’t last — and it doesn’t.

This sympathetic but unsentimental story will hold your attention to the last paragraph.

Angel Pavement
J. B. Priestley
Harper & Brothers, 1930
400 pages
1930 Bestseller #5
My grade: A-

© Linda Gorton Aragoni

Woman of Andros Too Slim to Entertain or Enlighten

The title character of Thornton Wilder’s The Woman of Andros is an hetaira, a highly cultured and highly discriminating courtesan of ancient Greece.  However, if you are looking for steamy sex, look elsewhere.

Chrysis is the topic of gossip on Brynos primarily because she’s a foreigner from Andros but also because she reaches above her social and economic status. The islanders could tolerate her allowing favored young men to spend the might if she didn’t put on such airs.

Although she is scarcely above slave status, Chrysis reads and recites poetry and encourages young men to study philosophy and debate the best way to live.

For Chrysis, the debate is academic. She’s 35 and dying.

Chrysis has a younger sister.  Glycerium sneaks out to get away from her too-restrictive older sister. By accident she meets Pamphilus, son of one of the island’s leading citizens. Soon she’s pregnant.

When Chrysis dies,  everyone in her household is sold into slavery.  Glycerium, however is rescued by her lover’s father. He takes her to his home where Glycerium dies giving birth to a child, who also dies.

Wilder’s novel is scarcely longer than a short story. The Woman of Andros has some lovely description and an intriguing glimpse into ancient Greek life, but the slender plot is depressing.

Worse, what plot there is lacks substance to hold up a serious philosophical discussion.

The Woman of Andros
Thornton Wilder
Boni, 1930
162 pages
1930 bestseller #3
My grade: C-

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Exile Is Worth Bringing Home Again

To relieve her widowed mother’s financial burden and escape England’s gray drizzle, Miss “Billy” Brown goes to Tindaro. Her lack of Italian is no handicap for her job at Julia Lord’s English library and tea shop.

Before long, even Tindaro’s misfit exile community are shocked when novelist Oscar Slade decides to add the lovely and innocent Billy to his conquests through marriage. His jealous housekeeper prevents the marriage by murdering Slade before drowning herself.

Billy, who knew nothing of Slade’s reputation, hardens herself against her loss. She turns her energies to business, helping transform Julia’s modest operation into a thriving service agency.

Thomas Isherwood. an architect gassed in the war, has come to Italy to repair the damage to his lungs. In her professional capacity, Billy helps Isherwood locate and furnish a villa. In her unprofessional capacity, Billy helps him repair the damage to his emotions and softens her own in the process.

In outline, this plot sounds trite, but the novel has depth and perception.

Warwick Deeping’s keen eye for character and detail raise Exile above the pedestrian, subtly revealing the far-reaching consequences of youthful choices. His portrait of her mother’s relationship with Billy is a gem, but it’s only one of the nuanced portraits that make Deeping’s readers feel they are making discoveries about real people.

Exile
By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1930
330 pages
1930 bestseller #2
My grade B+

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cimarron Sings Praises of Frontier Women

In her foreword, Edna Ferber says that only the “fantastic and improbable” events related in Cimarron are true. Perhaps that historical sense is what propelled Cimarron to the top of the charts in 1930.

The novel is about Sabra Cravat. Her husband, a lawyer, newspaperman, and adventurer, brings her and their young son, Cimarron, west to Oklahoma just after the 1889 run that opened the land to settlers.

Sabra soon learns her flambuoyant husband is already well-known for his oratory and his shooting. Yancey champions the Indian’s plight and teaches Cim to be pro-Indian, too.

Yancey periodically disappears for days, weeks, then years at a time.

Sabra keeps the newspaper going, makes it prosper, crusades for morality, education, and culture. Eventually she becomes US Senator.

When oil is found in Oklahoma, Yancey — always one to be where the action is — comes home again in time to die as dramatically as he lived.

Ferber makes the point that men went west for adventure. Frontier women were “the real hewers of wood and drawers of water,”  the ones who made life possible.

The plot and characters of Cimarron are forgettable, but they are just interesting enough to make the history turn-of-the-century Oklahoma easy reading.

Cimarron
By Edna Ferber
Doubleday, Doran 1930
388 pages
#1 on 1930 bestseller list
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni