Day: May 9, 2020

Frances Noyes Hart (1890 – 1943)

frances-hart-1Frances Newbold Noyes Hart (1890-1943) won fame with The Bellamy Trial, listed as one of the Haycraft-Queen detective fiction ‘cornerstones’. A relative of Edith Wharton, Hart was born in Maryland and educated at the Sorbonne and Columbia University. Her father, Frank Brett Noyes, was a long-time president of the Associated Press and editor and proprietor of the Washington Star. She married lawyer Edward Henry Hart in 1921. The couple had two daughters. Hart was a translator for Naval Intelligence and an overseas YMCA canteen worker during WWI. After returning home, she wrote six novels, numerous short stories, and a non-fiction memoir about the war.

Following the publication of many short stories in Scribner’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies’ Home Journal, and a collection of them titled Contact and Other Stories (1923), Hart became famous for The Bellamy Trial (1927), which was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, published in book form, and later dramatized. According to Julian Symons, the original publication of this book marked the start of serialized novels replacing short crime stories as commercial articles.

Based loosely on the sensational 1922 Hall-Mills murders in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for which Mrs. Hall and three others were brought to trial and acquitted five years later, the novel is set entirely in a small-town courtroom during eight days of testimony in the trial of Susan Ives and Stephen Bellamy, accused of murdering Bellamy’s wife. The point of view is primarily that of a writer reporting on the trial, reacting to its principals and its revelations. Reviewers in 1927 and today’s readers alike agree The Bellamy Trial is entertaining, spirited, and clever. (You can read about the Hall-Mills Murder case here).

Hart’s subsequent mystery novels—Hide in the Dark (1929) and The Crooked Lane (1934)—while entertaining and suspenseful, do not have the interesting form of The Bellamy Trial. Hart’s Pigs in Clover (1931, British title Holiday) is a travel record of a motor trip through France made by Hart and her husband; it is outstanding for its culinary descriptions. She died in 1943.

Bibliography: Contact and Other Stories (1923); The Bellamy Trial (1927); Hide in the Dark (1929); The Crooked Lane (1934).

Of the detective stories written by FRANCIS NOYES HART (1890 – 1943) only The Bellamy Trial (1928) has distinction. Based on a famous American murder case of the period, it is remarkable for the care with which it gets the feeling of a court room. Like an actual trial (the whole book takes place in court) it is slow, repetitive, at times obscure. These are hardly recommendations, yet the method is justified in this one case by the powerful climax and the semi-hypnotic effect of that court room buzz upon the reader. (Julian Symons, Bloody Murder, Penguin Books, 1974. pp.224).

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(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Doubleday Page & Co. (USA), 1927)

A murder trial scandalizes the upper echelons of Long Island society, and the reader is on the jury…

The trial of Stephen Bellamy and Susan Ives, accused of murdering Bellamy’s wife Madeleine, lasts eight days. That’s eight days of witnesses (some reliable, some not), eight days of examination and cross-examination, and eight days of sensational courtroom theatrics lively enough to rouse the judge into frenzied calls for order. Ex-fiancés, houseworkers, and assorted family members are brought to the stand—a cross-section of this wealthy Long Island town—and each one only adds to the mystery of the case in all its sordid detail. A trial that seems straightforward at its outset grows increasingly confounding as it proceeds, and surprises abound; by the time the closing arguments are made, however, the reader, like the jury, is provided with all the evidence needed to pass judgement on the two defendants. Still, only the most astute among them will not be shocked by the verdict announced at the end.

Inspired by the most sensational murder trial of its day, The Bellamy Trial is a pioneering courtroom mystery, and one of the first of such books to popularize the form. It is included in the famed Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list of the most definitive novels of the mystery genre. (Source: Penzler Publishers)

The Bellamy Trial has been reviewed, among others, at Only Detect, and Cross-Examining Crime.