“In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter.”      Annie Proulx

Everything old is new again is not limited to technology or song lyrics. Fans of retro short fiction will want to check out Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories by Earl Derr Biggers, a recent release in book form of a collection of the author’s work that was originally published in magazines and periodicals between 1907 and 1922.  There is an e-book of the same name (with different stories) available from Project Gutenberg Australia but the hard-cover version that I read was published in California under the Pulpville Press imprint.

… the literary equivalent of eating a donut.

I’ve always loved the conciseness of a short story. The beginning, middle and end of a cracking good yarn, all wrapped up in less than seventy-five hundred words makes for a stimulating and (for me) instantly satisfying read. Sort of the literary equivalent of eating a donut.

This print version of Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories contains one short novel/novella (Love in Hollywood), a novelette (The Ebony Stick) and eight of his short stories: Milly, On Behalf of the Boobs, The Duel, Bread Cast Upon the Waters, The Honor of the Bluebottles, The Deuce of Hearts, A Lost Quixote and The Apron of Genius.

Literature, like every other aspect of civilization, changes and evolves over time …

Earl Derr Biggers was born in 1884. He graduated from Harvard University, worked for a time as a newspaper editor and drama critic and then went on to become a successful novelist and playwright. His literary legacy, not especially large (he died at the relatively young age of 48) was magnified many times by stage and film adaptations of his work. One of his novels, Seven Keys to Baldpate was adapted for the Broadway stage and for nine different film versions, two of them under different titles.  His six Charlie Chan detective novels inspired more than fifty films in the United States and China that featured the erudite fictional detective.

Literature, like every other aspect of civilization, changes and evolves over time so it is a given that anyone who reads retro fiction should keep an open mind. It is inevitable that some of the disagreeable cultural biases and vernacular of the period will be found in the texts of older writing, particularly stories that were written for the popular press more than one-hundred years ago. To me, some of those old stories serve as a ready reminder of how far societies have advanced. But I will say that notwithstanding the above caveat, there are remarkably few cultural warts in Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories.

… many of the characters have a refreshing innocence about them, creatures of a simpler era.

One of the appealing things (for me) about these ten stories is their kitschy quality, the sense of nostalgia that they can evoke with their well-aged, steeped-in-time flavour. Another is that many of the characters have a refreshing innocence about them, creatures of a simpler era.

As a writer. Earl Derr Biggers had the ability to describe a scene in a story the way it might be arranged on a stage set. He was also a spot-on observer of what made people tick and he was able to transfer that to a page with pinpoint accuracy. And then, he crafted his works in the style of that period for mass market fiction. The stories are mainly plot-driven and there is very little belly-button gazing going on.

All of the pieces in Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories accurately capture the essence of the early twentieth century, but as with any collection of music or writing by a single artist or author, many people will have a favourite. In this group, mine is The Honor of the Bluebottles. This story pokes a great deal of gentle fun at the general mindset of the snobbish, old-moneyed families of — in this case — Boston, and their stuck-in-the-mud attitudes toward maintaining class distinction, at all costs. The first-person narrator of this story is the dowager and keeper-of-the-key, Aunt Lucinda Bluebottle.

Aunt Lucinda is shocked, shocked! at the news…

‘When I say that Minerva Bluebottle had always been a thoroughly admirable young woman, I mean just that. Other girls in her set had done unprecedented things. Phyllis Olcott, for instance, had donned what is vulgarly called a “sandwich board” and paraded up and down the Common to call attention to a suffrage meeting. Helen Thurley had become acquainted with an English aviator at a dance and later had gone up in his machine, to the great joy of the newspapers. Margaret Wells had broken her mother’s heart by publicly declaring at dinner that she considered Longfellow a nursery-rhymish sort of poet.’

‘When we Bluebottles heard of these things, we were startled, of course. And then our thoughts turned serenely to Minerva. She was, we felt sure, a sane and conservative girl. The honor of the Bluebottles was safe with her.’

Then Aunt Lucinda gets a telephone call from her sister-in law, Prudence (an Ogden before her marriage) and is shocked, shocked! at the news Prudence tells her about her suddenly wayward daughter, Lucinda’s niece.

‘”It’s about Minerva,” she said.

“Tell me this minute,” I commanded, all the indiscretions of which the modern young person seems capable marching in swift array through my brain.

“Minerva,” said Prudence, and her voice broke, “has written a play!”

What is worse is that the play has been sold to (gasp) an actress, and will be performed in a public theatre, with all the attending publicity. Aunt Lucinda does her level best to head off the impending disaster and preserve the Bluebottle family’s dignity and sterling reputation in the face of this stunning revelation, but of course, as in the best of French theatre farces, everything unravels in the end. Delightful!

Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories is an amusing and charming collection of short plot-driven fiction that will transport a reader back in time a hundred years without the nuisance of a WABAC Machine (anyone remember Rocky and Bullwinkle?) So if you are a devotee of these type of oldies, go for it. You won’t be disappointed.   REG

Links for additional information:

Earl Derr Biggers

Pulpville Press