Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Charles Layng

Charles Layng (b. Cincinnati, Ohio, 10 February 1895; d. Winter Park, Florida, 19 March 1970)

Charles Louis Layng appears in the 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Censuses with his surname given as “Lang”. In all three instances he is listed as living with his aunt and uncle, Louis and Martha Flugel, with his parentage given as Irish (matching that of his aunt Martha Flugel).  His service record for World War I, which gives his last name as Layng, also notes that his was given an honorable discharge on 28 February 1918, with a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability, judging him as one-hundred percent disabled. By the time of the 1920 Census, he was working as a stenographer for a railroad company. Soon after this he married Margaret Burgoyne (1893-1972), who was also from Cincinnati, and the couple moved to Chicago.

Layng worked as a cub reporter on the Chicago Daily News for a few years before taking on a much higher paying job as the editor of a prosperous trade journal.  His first three books appeared from a Chicago publisher at the beginning of the craze for crossword puzzle books, Layng's Cross-Word Puzzles: First Book (1924); Layng’s Junior Cross-Word Puzzles: First Junior Book (1924); and Layng’s Cross-Word Puzzles: Second Book (1925).  He and his wife regularly traveled to Europe, and for much of the 1930s he contributed to various magazines, including pulps like Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories, Blue Book, Top-Notch, and Railroad Stories, as well as slicks like Redbook. His third book The Monarch Who Wouldn’t Go Mad (1934), a biography of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria (1830-1916), appeared from another Chicago publisher, Reilly & Lee, after which time his luck with publishers seems to have run out. 

During the late 1930s and 1940s, Layng worked as a foreign correspondent.  While reporting from Munich and Vienna, Layng began a mystery novel, Murder in Munich, which was bought by Doubleday after they saw the first six chapters.  Layng sent them the rest, and heard nothing further.  Returning after the war, he discovered that the man who had bought it had left the firm, and that other editors had decided it was not salable in the U.S. because Americans wouldn’t buy whodunits set in foreign lands. 

After WW II he become involved with the Baker Street Irregulars, a society devoted to the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.  After submitting an essay to the Baker Street Journal, edited by Edgar W. Smith, Layng was encouraged to write a book of such essays, examining many anomalies in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Smith said he knew a publisher who would be interested in such a book.  But when, some years later, Layng had finished the book, Layng learned that Smith had died, so the project languished. In 1964 Layng sent a copy of the typescript, titled The Game Is Afoot!, to Peter Ruber, who was then corresponding with Layng about his friendship with the Chicago bookman Vincent Starrett, about whom Ruber was writing a biography. Three decades later Ruber found the typescript in his files, and it was published in 1995 by George Vanderburgh under the imprint of the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library.

In the early 1960s Layng and his wife settled in Winter Park, Florida, where Layng died in 1970. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ronald S. L. Harding

Ronald S. L. Harding (b. Beckenham, Kent, 19 March 1905;  d. Sydenham, Lewisham, 28 January 1960)

Ronald S.L. Harding was the author of some ten ephemeral lowbrow thrillers, which were published primarily for the popular fiction vendors and the lending library market beginning in the mid 1930s, and which are more renowned today for their scarcity than for any literary qualities.  At birth his name was apparently registered as Vivian Stanley Lowne Harding, but by the time of his baptism some six weeks later, his full name was recorded as Ronald Stanley Lowne Harding.  He was the son of Stanley James Harding (b. 1878), a technical journalist, and Emily Blanch Jenoyz Lowne (b. 1870), the daughter of Robert Mann Lowne (c. 1845-1929), an inventor and manufacturer of scientific instruments.  Ronald had a sister Catherine Blanche Harding, three years younger than himself.

Little is known of his life, but his family seems to have been active in scientific and artistic circles, particularly with regard to music.  His first book was The Demon of Hong Kong (London: F.M. Mowl, 1934), followed by “One Dreadful Night—”: A Tale of the Unknown (London: Modern Publishing Company, [1935]).  His next four books were published by Fiction House of London, as part of their numbered Piccadilly Novels series:  The Murder Maniac (no. 36, c. 1935); The Black Bottle (no. 56, c. 1935); Strange Fate (no. 71, 1937); and Castle of Fear (no. 91, 1938).  The Murder Maniac is a rationalized supernatural horror story concerning a mad Egyptian’s attempts to mummify archeologists and to sacrifice the heroine in a pyre of engine oil in an English country house.

His seventh novel was The Library of Death: A Tale of Mystery (London: Modern Publishing Company, [1938]), a dreary and forgettable work. Over half of the book is mere romance, as John Tarren, secretary to the lecherous Sir Charles Dorsay, is in love with Dorsay’s step-daughter and ward, Elsie Mervyn.  After their affair is discovered, much to the wrath of Sir Charles, who wants to marry Elsie himself, there is a quarrel after which Sir Charles is found murdered, his face obliterated by a shotgun.  A dithering inspector rounds up and interviews possible suspects, in the meantime learning of a supposed family curse whereby for the last several generations the male Dorsays have had stakes driven through their hearts shortly after death, in order to prevent them from rising as vampires.  In the end Sir Charles is discovered to have faked his own death, and he was planning to disappear to avoid bankruptcy after having squandered his family fortune. Some of the scenes are played for melodrama and thrills, but the characters are one-dimensional and clichéd, and their actions contrived and implausible. 

In an entry in a writers’ directory, Harding listed among his output three further novels, published by Phoenix Press. They are not listed in The British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books.  Their titles are The Grimpton Bride [1944]; The Blue Light [1945];  and Dream of Love [date unknown].  No copies are known to exist in libraries.

Harding also noted that he was a contributor to The Stage, and to the British Engineers Export Journal, and that he was the librettist and composer of a five-act grand opera Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s story. The original manuscript, dating from the 1920s, was lost when his home was damaged by a bomb during the Blitz, but he re-composed it over a five year period and saw it performed once by his friends.  

Harding married Dilys Hughes (1901-1985) in Dolgelly, Merionethshire, in the spring of 1927.  Harding died in Sydenham; his widow outlived him by twenty-five years, and died  in north Wales.

N.B.: I am grateful to Andrew Parry for sharing with me information on Harding, including the notes on the plot and the cover scan of The Murder Maniac