Give them what they want—which is a story.
by Z.J. Czupor
Charlotte Jay was a trailblazing author who only published nine mystery novels all set in exotic locations. She also won the first Edgar for “Best Mystery Novel,” and while she was considered one of the best suspense writers of her era she has unfortunately slipped into near obscurity. American crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) called her “one of the most important writers of far-off places and their mysterious qualities.”
Charlotte Jay was the pseudonym of Australian writer Geraldine Mary Jay (1919-1996) who was born in Adelaide, South Australia. She graduated from the University of Adelaide and then worked for twelve years as a shorthand typist in Australia and England, and as a court stenographer in Papua New Guinea before she took up writing as a serious vocation.
Oddly, her first novel, The Knife is Feminine (1951), was set in Sydney, Australia but was never published in Australia. Collins, her London publisher, promoted the novel on the book’s front cover as “New thrills by a new author.”
The Knife is Feminine concerned a ruthless industrialist who uses his daughter as a weapon against the man she loves and who tries to expose the idea of fascism in her father’s factories. Jay called her novel “an adventure story, an entertainment.” That novel is no longer in print and only a few copies exist worldwide.
But it was her second novel that brought her notoriety. Beat Not the Bones (Harper, 1952) was chosen by Mystery Writers of America (MWA) as the first Edgar winning best mystery novel awarded in 1954. And, therein, lies some confusion.
There isn’t much written about Charlotte Jay, but most articles published about her declare her novel, Beat Not the Bones, to be the inaugural winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award granted by MWA in 1954. But the Edgar Awards were first given out in 1946. However, the 1954 award was the first time a “best mystery novel” category was announced. Previously, MWA only awarded the Edgar to the “best first novel.”
Beat Not the Bones follows Stella Warwick who travels to the fictional island of Marapai, off the coast of New Guinea, to investigate the supposed suicide of her anthropologist husband. Stella believes her husband was murdered. There are several possible suspects including a tribe that practices witchcraft in an area where her husband discovered gold. Stella ventures deep into the jungle in search of the truth.
The San Francisco Chronicle said, “This might easily scare you out of your wits. Extremely well-handled mystery, authentic horror and atmosphere that closes in like jungle heat.”
The New York Times Book Review said, “Charlotte Jay works you up to the revelation of a horrible secret, and the secret turns out to be the horrible surprise you hoped it would be.”
Andrew Nette, who writes the blog Pulp Curry (April 19, 2016), called Jay’s plot suspenseful. “…she absolutely nails the bizarre nature of so much expat culture, the drunks, cheats, liars, carpet baggers and the just plain insane individuals that are attracted to remote developing countries, the racism and atrocious behavior that results from the brew of boredom, cultural disassociation, heat, excessive drinking and underserved privilege.”
Jay said when she won the Edgar she didn’t know what the award was, but it later dawned on her that her adventure novel was a departure from the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers (1892-1957) and Agatha Christie (1890-1976), or from American writers who set their crime novels in the backstreets of New York and San Francisco. “I took the crime story out of that arena and put it in the jungle…that struck people as refreshing.”
Beat Not the Bones became an international success and especially in America.
Her second crime novel, The Fugitive Eye (Harper, 1953), was adapted for television and produced by Alcoa Premiere for its first season on ABC-TV in 1961 and as an anthology drama series for Kraft Mystery Theater in 1963 (NBC-TV). The story starred Charlton Heston (1923-2008) playing the main character, Paul Malone, who wakes up in a forest to find an empty limousine, a dead chauffeur, and three unsavory characters staring at him. However, in Jay’s novel, the main character is named Ian Kane. He witnesses a murder, loses his eyesight in an accident, and finally escapes his enemies.
In the opening pages, Jay introduces a man named only as “Kane” driving a car at night on an empty road between narrow hedges:
He had not driven a car since he had lost the sight of his left eye in the last year of the war and found that he was not by any means sure of himself. He could hear the hawthorn branches scraping across his righthand mudguard—for he was driving well over on the right. The first tearing scratch horrified him, but after a while he began to enjoy the destruction he was wreaking on the paint work. The car belonged to his wife.
The Fugitive Eye won high praise from Dorothy B. Hughes on the jacket cover. “In my opinion, Charlotte Jay was the most important discovery of 1953. Her first book, Beat Not the Bones, was so impressive from every standpoint that one knew that here was a new star who would be permanently fixed in the mystery galaxy. Yet there is always the small fear that a first timer won’t repeat with the second. Miss Jay has. The Fugitive Eye, with an English countryside rather than a Papuan jungle background, even surpasses its predecessor in breathless suspense. Again, I hail Charlotte Jay and wish her to know that I await in eager anticipation Number Three.”
Jay turned to crime writing after her father influenced her in reading two books Crime and Detection (O’ Sullivan, 1928) and Tales of Mystery and Imagination (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1908). “I adored those books and read them again and again. I adored being frightened by them, I thought that’s what I am going to do. I am going to frighten people.”
When she was interviewed in 1992, by Carmel Shute, one of the founders of Sisters in Crime Australia, Jay admitted she wasn’t a fan of contemporary novels. “Frankly, they disappoint me. They can be beautifully written, but many of them don’t tell a story. They don’t have a structure. They don’t even entertain. These things, to me, are absolutely essential. You must have a story. You must have structure and you must write something which attacks a moral problem or some major issue.”
Critics and reviewers were equally impressed with Jay’s last mystery novel, A Hank of Hair. But her publisher, Harper Collins, refused to publish it considering it “risqué.” Pan Publishing (now Macmillan) accepted her novel and released it in 1964.
The novel is described as a psychopathological horror novel in which the unreliable narrator, Gilbert Hand, moves into a hotel after the death of his wife. In a secret drawer he discovers a thick hank of hair and suspects either himself or a murderer. Of the novel, The Minneapolis Tribune said, “Filled with satisfaction, fascinating people and breath-taking suspense, told with skill and polish. One of the best thrillers of the year.” And the New York Times Book Review said, “Do I need to add, to readers of this column, that Miss Jay cannot write a dull or graceless sentence.”
Geraldine Mary Jay married Albert Halls (1904-1982), an Oriental specialist, who worked for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and traveled broadly with him using the locations as settings for her novels. They married in Lahore, Pakistan in 1951. She said she had the ideal life. “My husband was not a man who wanted a social life. So he would go off to work in the morning and I would stay at home and write my books.” They had no children and returned to Adelaide, South Australia in 1971 to retire, where Albert became an antique dealer.
Jay said she chose her pseudonym because “Jay” was a family name, and she thought the name “Charlotte” sounded literary.
Her advice to writers: “…if you’ve got a gift you’ve got it. If you haven’t there’s no good…If you’re going to be a writer, you should take enormous pleasure in writing, to be determined to give pleasure, not just for yourself, but to readers. You must tell a story. That goes for any novel really.”
Dave Halls, Charlotte Jay’s step grandson, called his grandmother “an absolutely amazing woman in many ways.” He described how she would sit in the lounge area of her room with a cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other and “spent most of her time thinking up new stories.”
Halls said his grandmother was “very modest of her winning the Edgar award. She never got to see the film version of her book The Fugitive Eye. And she was not fussed about any accolades from writing. Her interest was in writing and developing new stories. First in her crime novels and later in what she called her ‘serious’ novels.”
While it was her mystery novels that earned her a reputation as a respectable author of suspense, in her forty-year writing career, she wrote another seven novels as Geraldine Halls (Halls was her married name) and she wrote another under the alias Geraldine Mary Jay.
She said, “Thrillers and crime stories have always been the light reading of intelligent people. You find them amongst professional people like doctors and lawyers and so on—nearly all read crime fiction. And I think that it’s, frankly, because they give you what you want, which is a story.”
Today, her books are difficult to find and some of her early editions can be purchased online but for hefty sums. For example, a hardcover first edition of Beat Not the Bones, in very good condition, can be purchased from Biblio.com for $500. A first edition of The Fugitive Eye can be purchased on Amazon for $89.
In 1993, seven of her books were republished by Wakefield Press, a South Australian publisher. Three years later, she died at the age of 76 in her hometown of Adelaide.
Jay is one of only two Australians to have won an Edgar for Best Novel. Jon Cleary’s (1917-2010) novel Peter’s Pence (1974) won in 1975.
Jay borrowed the title for Beat Not the Bones from William Shakespeare’s comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost (mid-1590s), in which Shakespeare uses the character Don Adriano de Armado, a Spanish dandy, to mock the fallen glory of the Spanish Armada. In Act 5, Scene 2, Armado says, “The sweet war-man is dead and rotten; sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried: when he breathed, he was a man.” The play was first performed at Christmas 1597 at the Court of Queen Elizabeth 1.
The Edgar Awards is the premier award given out annually by Mystery Writers of America and named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. Awards are handed to both established and aspiring authors and began in 1946. The very first Edgar was given to Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) for Outstanding Mystery Criticism in 1946. Between 1946 and 1954, MWA added awards for Best Play, Best Short Story, and Best Television Episode. In 1953, the first Raven Award was given to E.T. Guymon Jr. (1900-1983) for his library of mystery literature. After a debate as to whether it was possible to narrow the entire field of published books down to winners and nominees, the MWA decided to officially add the Best Novel category in 1953.
Z.J. Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.