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 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.
January 22
1946—CIA Forerunner Created
U.S. president Harry S. Truman establishes the Central Intelligence Group or CIG, an interim authority that lasts until the Central Intelligence Agency is established in September of 1947.
1957—George Metesky Is Arrested
The New York City "Mad Bomber," a man named George P. Metesky, is arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut and charged with planting more than 30 bombs. Metesky was angry about events surrounding a workplace injury suffered years earlier. Of the thirty-three known bombs he planted, twenty-two exploded, injuring fifteen people. He was apprehended based on an early use of offender profiling and because of clues given in letters he wrote to a newspaper. At trial he was found legally insane and committed to a state mental hospital.
January 21
1950—Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury
American lawyer Alger Hiss is convicted of perjury in connection with an investigation by the House unAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), at which he was questioned about being a Soviet spy. Hiss served forty-four months in prison. Hiss maintained his innocence and fought his perjury conviction until his death in 1996 at age 92.
1977—Carter Pardons War Fugitives
U.S. President Jimmy Carter pardons nearly all of the country's Vietnam War draft evaders, many of whom had emigrated to Canada. He had made the pardon pledge during his election campaign, and he fulfilled his promise the day after he took office.
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