Entertaining readers was no mystery at all Books: Zenith Jones Brown of Annapolis published more than 60 detective novels between 1929 and 1962. As an author, she was said to be fTC a member of the "blunt instrument school and likes a good, clean murder."

Remember When

March 30, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Day after day, for as long as 16 hours at a stretch, she sat in her third-floor study filling up yellow legal pads with elaborate plots and chatty dialogue, all dutifully hand-written in fountain pen or pencil. While she worked, her faithful cocker spaniel, Dr. Watson, guarded the door.

For more than 30 years, Zenith Jones Brown wrote detective novels that sent Baltimoreans racing to their nearest bookstore to immerse themselves in the latest intrigues of such characters as Inspector Bull, the babbling yet perceptive Mr. Pinkerton, Col. Primrose and Sgt. Buck.

Between the publication of "Murder of an Old Man" in 1929 and "Trial by Ambush" in 1962, Brown published more than 60 detective novels, using the pseudonyms of Leslie Ford in the United States and David Frome in England.

"What gives her books a charm that has lasted 40 years and may last much longer is their delicately sardonic, yet photographically accurate evocation of a style of life that, if not extinct, is far along the road to extinction in the United States," said Baltimore critic and journalist Gerald W. Johnson in 1969.

"She is satirical, but delicately so, frankly an entertainer, never a philosopher," he wrote.

Not for instruction

Brown once modestly explained that "mystery fiction is written to entertain, not to instruct. I don't regard it as 'literature' or of lasting value."

Brown, who lived for many years on St. Paul Street and later in Annapolis, was the wife of Ford K. Brown, an English professor at St. John's College.

Having many of her stories set in Maryland certainly added to their popularity locally. "Date With Death" was set in Annapolis, "The Girl from the Mimosa Club" in Baltimore, and "Murder Comes to Eden" on the Eastern Shore.

"She plots her tense stories in a graciously furnished Colonial home in peaceful Annapolis, where she, her husband and daughter have lived for the past 20 years," said the Associated Press in 1946.

"No one has to visit her to know keeping an artistically furnished house is as important a career for Leslie Ford as her writing. Her murder stories are best-known for their atmosphere and descriptions of homes. She works hard reproducing atmosphere, she says, 'because people in Charleston, S.C., would not kill for the same reason as a Philadelphian.' "

It was said that Brown was a member of the "blunt instrument school and likes a good, clean murder."

Another critic, writing in The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1946, said, "Brown probably commits the cleanest and most charming murders in contemporary criminal circles.

"No blood seeps under the door. No hound bays in Baskerville tones. No screams rend the Annapolitan air. And no one ever suspects Mrs. Brown."

"I believe in getting the murder over quickly and proceeding to the emotional complications," she told an interviewer in 1946.

"Settings, characters, fast-paced dialogue are more important to the Ford and Frome story than an exotic murder method," said The Sun.

Brown, who said that "money is the chief spur to writing," also produced fiction for the Saturday Evening Post and Good Housekeeping.

Names from phone book

For inspiration before writing a new story, she would visit the locale where the action was to take place to soak up the atmosphere and talk to police. She also relied upon the local telephone book as a source for character names.

In a 1962 Evening Sun interview, she said she often sought the assistance of Baltimore police detectives, whom she described as being "extremely helpful and very cordial to writers."

"She talks with people and collects picture postcards to remind her of the place long after she has returned to her third-floor den. She never takes notes, for she says, 'Only what's in my head is of any use,' " The Sun said in 1946.

She also never wrote plot synopses and told The Sun in 1948, "Once you've written an idea out in brief, the story's done. Writing it again in full is like chewing cold mutton."

Born in Smith River, Calif., and a graduate of the University of Washington, Brown had deep Maryland roots. Her father, the Rev. Milnor Jones, was born in Chestertown and graduated from Washington College. Her grandfather had been rector of Emmanuel Church in Chestertown for 20 years.

Brown wrote her first book in 1928 in England, where her husband was studying on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The reason she wrote her first detective novel was because a friend of hers had one published. "I looked at her and thought, 'If she can do it, I can,' " she told The Sun in 1939.

The one thing that she abhored were readers who turned to the last chapter to see "whodunit." She described them in a 1948 Sun interview as, "just plain dishonest."

Books still selling

Judith Orlinsky, a bookseller at Mystery Loves Company in Fells Point, reports that Brown's books have not lost their popularity, even though the last one was published 35 years ago.

"We get calls and requests for them all the time," said Orlinsky, who has been employed at the bookstore since 1995.

"A lot of people read a couple of them and then contact us to see if we can fill in with other titles. It's a pretty steady demand."

Brown died in 1983 at Church Hospital in Baltimore. She was 85.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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