By Z.J. Czupor
She Wrote the First Legal Thriller
On a Saturday morning, September 16, 1922, the Episcopal Reverend Edward W. Hall and his choir member (lover) Eleanor Mills were discovered shot dead under a crabapple tree in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their love letters had been torn up and left under their bodies. He was shot once in the temple. She was shot three times in the face and her throat was slit ear-to-ear.
The Hall-Mills Murders, as they would become known, was called the “Crime of the Century” by national media. Famed short story writer and journalist Damon Runyan (1880-1946) covered the trial as did crime novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958).
While the reverend’s wife and her brothers were suspected of killing the lovers they were acquitted at trial. The case was never solved but this true crime played an important role in American fiction.
Some historians have speculated that F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) partly based the ending of The Great Gatsby (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925) on the Hall-Mills Murders. But the case also caught the attention of Frances Noyes Hart, a short story writer, who refashioned the true crime into her own mystery novel, The Bellamy Trial (Doubleday, Page and Company, 1927). Her novel reflected the country-club atmosphere of the “The Jazz Age” with infidelity and murder, much like Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby. More importantly, Hart’s stand-out novel blazed the trail for a new genre of legal thriller writing.
According to bestselling thriller author Hank Phillippi Ryan, writing in the introduction to Hart’s re-issued novel, “Fifty-eight years before Presumed Innocent, about thirty years before Anatomy of a Murder and Twelve Angry Men, and six years before The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first Perry Mason mystery, The Bellamy Trial is surely one of the very first legal thrillers ever written.”
Only Agatha Christie’s short story, Traitor’s Hands, preceded Hart’s novel by two years in 1925. Christie’s short story was published in Flynn’s, a weekly pulp magazine (January 31, 1925).
The Bellamy Trial takes place over eight days in a small-town courtroom on Long Island, New York, in which Susan Ives and Stephen Bellamy are accused of murdering Bellamy’s wife. The novel is written in the point of view of two nameless journalists—a “girl with red hair” and a hardboiled “reporter”—who react to the trial’s principals, startling fingerprint evidence, sordid secrets, and its subsequent revelations.
Hart’s writing style was considered a fresh departure from the stuffy Victorian prose of the 1920s. On top of the trial, the reader sees a budding romance developing between the two reporters and the overall plot is complex with three-dimensional characters.
In the opening chapter, the “red-headed girl” reporter and the male reporter exchange barbs about what could be more important than a murder trial. Hart boils down the essence of a good story when we hear the redhead say:
“All right, I’ll tell you that the only story that you’re going to be able to interest every human being in, from the President of the United States to the gentleman who takes away the ashes, is a good murder story. It’s the one universal solvent. The old lady from Dubuque will be at it the first thing in the morning, and the young lady from Park Avenue will be at it the last thing at night. And if it’s a love story too, you’re lucky, because then you’ve got the combination that every really great writer that ever lived has picked out to wring hearts and freeze the marrow in posterity’s bones.”
Ryan describes the trial as a “murder mystery without a detective…in which the reader (is) in the position of juror, weighing, essentially, only the testimony from the witness stand, and forces (the reader) to come up with a fair verdict.” But the truth of the trial is only revealed at the very end.
Aside from inventing the legal thriller as a genre, Hart’s novel was first serialized in eight editions of the Saturday Evening Post, which ran from September 10 – October 29, 1927. British crime writer Julian Symons (1912-1994) said the original publication of her book marked the start of serializing novels in magazines and replaced short crime stories as commercial articles.
A silent movie, based on her novel, appeared in 1929 by MGM. Unfortunately, the film is incomplete as only reels seven and eight, out of eight reels survived.
Hart was born in 1890 in Silver Spring, Maryland, the daughter of Frank Brett Noyes, who published the Washington Star newspaper and served as honorary president of the Associated Press. Her mother, Janet Newbold Noyes, was a well-known civic leader in the Washington, D.C. area, and was instrumental in passing the National Arboretum Act of 1931.
Frances graduated from the Chicago Latin School, Columbia University, and the Sorbonne in Paris, France. During the First World War, she served in U.S. Naval Intelligence as a translator and volunteered at YMCA canteens in France. In 1921, she married Edward Henry Hart, general counsel for the New York Federal Reserve Bank. They had two daughters.
In addition to her most famous work, Noyes authored popular crime novels and short stories which appeared in such national magazines as McClure’s, Scribner’s, the Ladies Homes Journal, and Saturday Evening Post during the 1920s and 1930s. She also wrote under the pseudonyms of F. N. Hart, Frances N. Hart, and Frances Newbold Hart.
A Time magazine review of Hart’s second-best known novel, Hide in the Dark, (Doubleday Doran, 1929) said, “Hart…has inlaid her mystery with a filigree of wit and romance, confined the action to one night, eliminated detectives. The result is incredibly novel, exciting.” (Oct. 21, 1929).
Like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery, Hart places thirteen guests in a haunted Maryland estate on Halloween night. The weekend exposes old loves and hatreds over dinner, then the group plays the game “Hide in the Dark,” which turns into murder. The novel suggests various guests had a motive to commit murder. Add a storm that causes the bridge to go out with no escape and phone lines down, the remaining friends are left to investigate the crime themselves.
Hart created a balance of fun and malice in the novel and even included a cast of characters list, which was a popular literary device in the “Golden Age” of detective fiction predominant in the 1920s and 1930s.
While Hart was never considered a profound or prolific author, her body of work excelled due to her attention to detail. She was an entertaining storyteller and her writing captured the ideals, styles, and social rebelliousness of the Jazz Age.
In October 1943, Frances Noyes Hart checked herself into the Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT claiming a need for rest. She died unexpectedly at the age of 53.
- The Bellamy Trial is listed in Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, the “Definitive Library of Mystery Fiction.” Originally published as Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, by historian Howard Haycraft, 1941. The list includes books from 1748-1952 with subsequent updates by Ellery Queen.
- Julian Symons’s 1972 book Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (Faber & Faber, UK; published in the U.S. as Mortal Consequences) is considered one of the most renowned critical works in the field of crime fiction. He received a special Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1973.
- Launched in 1924, Flynn’s magazine became one of the most popular, and longest running, of all the detective fiction pulps. In 1928, the name was changed to Detective Fiction Weekly, later Flynn’s Detective Fiction Magazine and finally as Dime Detective Magazine until the publication folded in 1951. Agatha Christie published ten short stories in Flynn’s from 1925-1929.
- Christie’s short story Traitor’s Hands was later included in Christie’s 1933 UK collection The Hound of Death. She then adapted the story into a stage play in 1953. The story centers on a 1920s murder in London and courtroom drama. In 1948, the story was published in the collection, Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories, which gained new audiences through several stage plays and TV and film adaptations.
- Hank Phillippi Ryan in her introduction to Hart’s re-issued novel reminds us that when The Bellamy Trial was published in 1927, “Sinclair Lewis’s (1885-1951) Elmer Gantry was number one on The New York Times bestseller list with Dorothy Sayers’ (1893-1957) Unnatural Death and Thornton Wilder’s (1897-1975) The Bridge of San Luis Rey not far behind. Lindbergh (1902-1974) flew the Atlantic, work began on Mount Rushmore, and Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020) was born.”
- In a bit of interesting and layered coincidence, the Reverend Hall was said to have given his lover Mills a novel that is the same book Nick Carraway (the fictional narrator of The Great Gatsby) reads while his cousin Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, is with his mistress, Myrtle. The novel was Simon Called Peter by Robert Keable (1887-1927), a bestseller in 1921 about a Catholic priest who has an affair with a nurse in wartime France. When Carraway reads a chapter he says, “either it was terrible stuff or the whiskey distorted things, because it didn’t make any sense to me.”