Six Letters, Starting With B

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Dorothy Bowers was a crossword compiler, born in Leominster, Herefordshire in 1902. She was the daughter of a bakery owner, and after a short and not especially joyful life died at 46 from tuberculosis.

At least she had the satisfaction of knowing that, on the basis of just six books, she had just been inducted into the Detection Club, the society formed in 1930 by a group of Golden Age mystery writers that included Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton. She might have gone on to greater things but for her ill-health.

After being one of the first women accepted at Oxford, Bowers struggled for several years to find a job as a history tutor, supplementing her meagre income by compiling her own crossword puzzles. Keen to write, she found herself drawn to detective novels, but this was a career that usually attracted ladies of leisure.

Still, she quickly found her feet in the field. Her first novel, ‘Postscript To Poison’, was well received and inspired her to continue with the same leading characters, Inspector Dan Pardoe and Sergeant Salt, featuring in another three volumes.

According to Rue Morgue Press, who rescued her mysteries from obscurity, critics felt she might have gone on to succeed Dorothy L Sayers, but Bowers’ time was occupied by her lowly teaching job and hampered by her delicate constitution. Her crime thrillers were championed by the press as ‘fair play’ mysteries where the clues are cunningly displayed within the context of the story, but in such a way that the reader is misdirected to disregard them.

‘Postscript To Poison’ features a hateful victim, Cornelia Lackland, who constantly changes her will and terrorizes her two granddaughters before being dispatched by an unknown member of the household. ‘Shadows Before’ also features a poisoning – in the tea, of course. Bowers’ plots are intricate and her prose is thoughtfully crafted, with a certain amount of careful, eloquent wordplay integral to the solutions. If there’s a criticism, it’s that she coolly moves her characters like chess pieces, but this was a traditional approach in Golden Age crime.

One of the most skilful wielders of the red herring, it’s conceivable that Bowers would have gone on to produce a full body of work, for that is the best way to achieve a degree of artistic immortality.

Rue Morgue are to be commended for resurrecting them even though the covers appear to have been drawn by a not especially talented child, and the prose has been peppered with Americanisms.

8 comments on “Six Letters, Starting With B”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    The cover of this one rather suggests that this too, like “The Nine Tailors” by the more successful Dorothy L Sayers, requires a knowledge of campanology. I only hope it is easier to get through.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Admin-I must confess to being really taken in. I thought your blog was a spoof, but just to make sure I looked on Amazon and found, to my embarrassment, that these are real books.

    I had another senior moment 2 days ago when I went to download “Strange Tide” and accidentally downloaded “Five on Brexit Island” instead.

  3. Roger says:

    “After being one of the first women accepted at Oxford,”
    There had been women’s colleges at Oxford for about forty years, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the university recognised and awarded women’s degrees, so Dorothy Bowers’ “acceptance” at Oxford was more important as a sign of Oxford facing reality than for any effect it had on the women’s colleges..

  4. Brooke says:

    Some vintages of her works are on offer for $1000. USD. Ms. Bowers could have used that money.

  5. crprod says:

    Amazon’s offering of “Shadows Before” has the correct text, but the graphic is of “The Big Red Book of Spanish Vocabulary”. However, in the Age of Trump, “what you see is what you get”, so I would be cautious about ordering this.

  6. Roger says:

    In what way was her life “not especially joyful”? Agreed, TB was not something which improved the quality of life, but were there more problems than that? Where were her crosswords published – did she use a nom de guerre or were they anonymous?
    On your Forgotten Authors page it looks as if Bowers couldn’t support herself through her writings alone. Gladys Mitchell was a successful and apparently prolific author who had to have a day job – what were the usual earnings of crime writers in the Golden Age, or did some publishers exploit them exceptionally?

  7. admin says:

    She hoped to marry but never met anyone, was sick and permanently hard up. I did a fair bit of research on her, but the ‘Invisible Ink’ columns were always only 400 words, so I always cut my findings down. It’s a problem I’ve been able to remedy in the upcoming ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’, because I’ve started afresh with each author.

  8. Roger says:

    I look forward to the book, though my yet-to-read pile is reaching Alkanian heights!
    “Gladys Mitchell was a successful and apparently prolific author who had to have a day job” should read “Gladys Mitchell was a prolific and apparently successful author who had to have a day job” of course.

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