WHO IS AMY BREWSTER?"Amy Brewster is a cigar-smoking, 300-pound lawyer-financier introduced by Sam Merwin Jr. in 1945. Upper-class but unfeminine, she is enlisted by friends to solve crimes. She appears in Knife in My Back (1945), Message from a Corpse (1945) and A Matter of Policy (1946). Both Bertha Cool and Amy Brewster are defined against the genre's stereotypes, particularly the femme fatale: they are not attractive, not home-bound, and not submissive, either conversationally or professionally.' -Frances A. DellaCava and Madeline H. Engel, Female Detective in American Novels, A Bibliography and Analysis of Serialized Female Sleuths (1993).
Sadly, the late Sam Merwin, Jr. and his mysteries are largely forgotten today. The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, for instance, comprehensive as it is in other respects, contains no entry for him or for the Amy Brewster books. This neglect is particularly tragic when it comes to his three Amy Brewster mysteries, for Amy is a unique, proto-feminist character who stands out vividly against the background of her time (the 1940s).
Sam Merwin Jr. was a triple-threat man who sold stories in the mystery, sports and science fiction genres. Oddly, since mysteries were his first love, it is for his science fiction that he is remembered today, when he is remembered at all. Science fiction fans seem to have substantially longer memories than mystery fans, for some reason.
Though he was highly regarded by his contemporaries, particularly for his work as a mystery editor—he edited the entire line of nearly a dozen mystery magazines published by then industry giant Popular Publications—during his lifetime he was overshadowed by his far more successful father. Sam Merwin Sr. (frequently in collaboration with Henry Kitchell Webster) was one of the bestselling authors of his own day (the early 1900s). The two men were among the first to focus their plots on the workings of American industry in a series of novels of which Calumet K (one of the late philosophical novelist, Ayn Rand’s favorite books, according to her biographers) was representative, the story of a construction foreman working against a difficult deadline to overcome natural disasters and sabotage by competitors to finish a grain elevator on time. The editors of the Saturday Evening Post credited Merwin with “making the novel of business popular in America."
That Sam Merwin Jr. chose to pursue a career as a writer with a father already ranked among the giants of literature is testimony of the strength of his own urge to write. He began as a journeyman in the pulps, where he sold stories to virtually every mystery pulp including Thrilling Detective, Popular Detective, G-Men Detective, Exciting Detective, and more than a dozen others. Later as a matured writer his work was accepted by the classier digest-sized mystery magazines like Ellery Queen, Pursuit, and Manhunt.
As the heyday of the pulps waned due to the rise of television, Sam Merwin Jr. increasingly turned to novel-length works. One result was the three Amy Brewster books: A Matter of Policy, Knife at My Back, and Message from a Corpse. (There is also an associated mystery, Murder in Miniatures, which features Sergeant Lanning, whom Amy matches wits with in this book.) Considering the public passion for mystery series at the time (consider Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, Mr. and Mrs. North, Mike Shayne, etc.), why there were only three Brewster tales remains ... a mystery. Perhaps a woman as unconventional in every way as Amy was simply too far ahead of her time. If she had eaten less, dressed better, avoided profanity and shed a few pounds, her chances for success in the 1940s, when all women were supposed to be-oh-so-glamorous and innocent, might have been greatly enhanced. One imagines that if her author were living and writing today, Amy would be as popular as Kinsey Mulhone and V. I. Warshawski.
Where did the author come up with so original a character, not to mention a woman, as Amy Brewster? She was modeled on a real woman, a genuine American original, and a celebrity of her time, who dropped in to visit his famous father one day. Though the name Elsa Maxwell was a household word then, it would likely draw a blank even with a well-informed person today. But in the 1920s and '30s, she was America’s "hostess with the mostess," a wealthy member of the Four Hundred famed for her wide social contacts which included heads of state, writers, athletes, and even interesting hobos, all of whom could be counted on to attend the lavish, and justly celebrated, bashes she gave in New York, Washington D.C. and points west. Her entry in American Heritage Dictionary memorializes her as an, "American gossip columnist and professional hostess noted for her extravagant high-society parties." What it leaves out is everything distinctive about her: her gargantuan gourmet’s appetite, her propensity for sizzling profanity, her size-fifty frame, her utter disregard for convention, and her penetrating intelligence. All characteristics guaranteed to leave their impression on a teenage boy whose father she dropped in to visit for a day, and all characteristics Ms. Maxwell shares with that boy’s creation, Amy Brewster.
Perhaps a word should be said about the author’s penchant for strong female characters. The reader will note, perhaps wonderingly, that all three women in this book are steel-willed, intelligent and resourceful. This holds true for Sam Merwin Jr.'s other mysteries. One short novel, "The Stones in the Script," features a cool-headed brunette who isn’t afraid to use a gun and a blonde who slams out home runs on the ball field. Likewise, it’s the young heroine of Murder in Miniature who spots the important clue.
Samuel Kimball Merwin Jr. was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1910. He received his degree from Princeton, was a highly-respected writer and editor who authored more than one dozen books and several hundred short stories. He passed away in 1996 at his home in Los Angeles, California at the ripe age of eighty-five, and is survived by his third wife, Amanda Varela, to whom he had been married for over a quarter of a century.
Today his mysteries can be found only at used and rare book shops. Like the Amy Brewster novels, most have been out of print for more than fifty years. The editorial board of Deerstalker Classics is particularly proud to be part of the effort to placing all three in print again after far too long a lapse of time.
Jean Marie Stine
The blurb for A Matter of Policy (only $2.99 at Amazon/Kindle):
(Covers from the hardcover and the paperback first editions above.)