Sara Elizabeth Mason

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Sara Elizabeth Mason

Birthdate:
Death: August 15, 1993 (81)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Edwin Bolton Mason and Fenton Mason

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About Sara Elizabeth Mason

Sara Elizabeth Mason (1911-1993) was an author of detective fiction whose main period of productivity was in a five-year span in the 1940s. Her profession and her fiction were rooted in her Alabama heritage.

Born on Sept. 2, 1911, in Demopolis, in Marengo County, she never married. Mason earned a B.A. from the University of Alabama and an M.S. in Library Science from Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) in Nashville, Tennessee. She also earned an advanced degree from the University of Chicago. Mason taught in public schools in Alabama and Georgia and in federal government schools for children of American servicemen in Frankfort am Main, Germany. She also held various posts at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama and at the Birmingham Public Library, where she became head of the Catalog Department in 1961.

Mason drew on her surroundings for the settings of her novels. She published her first novel, Murder Rents a Room, in 1943 while she was working as a history teacher at Gadsden High School in Etowah County. In it, she incorporated both her love of old regional maps and her interest in the history and folklore of Greene County. Mason's other mystery novels reflect the same dominant interests as her first. The Crimson Feather, for instance, is set in Tuscaloosa, and The Whip is set in Chicago. Mason's fiction reflects her own not-very-original formula, which she referred to as "Three Easy Steps to Writing a Mystery Novel: Take a villain and a victim; toss in some love interest; scatter plenty of clues around." The Crimson Feather is a good example of how she applies the formula. Ann Bartley, her protagonist, a talented artist who has spent years away from home practicing her craft must return to her small southern hometown because of a serious bout with pneumonia. At home, under what superficially seems to be a normal family life with her sister and brother-in-law, sinister tensions begin to surface and some frightening things begin to happen. Bizarre anonymous notes arrive, bureau drawers are mysteriously ransacked, and a dog is poisoned—all followed by a hunting accident that suggests murder.

Mason rejected the "hardboiled" school of mystery fiction and authors who retold the same story repeatedly. Reviewers in the 1940s generally assessed her work as entertaining and readable. She died in Homewood, Jefferson County, on August 15, 1993.

Works by Sara Elizabeth Mason

Murder Rents a Room (1943)

The House That Hate Built (1944)

The Crimson Feather (1945)

The Whip (1948)

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Sara between 1929 and 1938 attended Agnes Scott, a woman’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and earned degrees from both the University of Alabama--she matriculated at UA just two years after Carl Carmer left the school under a cloud, the married yet dangerously sociable professor having developed what was deemed too intimate a relationship with a female student—and the University of Chicago before she was awarded an MS degree in library science from Peabody College in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University).

When Sara was a student at the University Of Alabama, Sara’s distant relation-through-marriage Hudson Strode had not yet inaugurated his vaunted creative writing workshop, but then the late Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016), who attended UA some dozen years after Sara had graduated, would manage rather well without it.

Sara Mason at Gadsden High School During the Second World War Sara returned to reside with her parents in Gadsden, where she taught American history to students at Gadsden High School; yet after the war, Sara like her brother traveled to chaotic postwar Europe, where she found employment as a teacher in Frankfurt, Germany with the American High School, which served the children of American government, military and civilian personnel.

Returning to Alabama after a few years, she took positions at the University of Alabama at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library, built a decade earlier on the site of the antebellum Rotunda, burned during the Civil War ; the Birmingham Public Library, where she was head of the catalog department and curator of the cartographical collection; and the Gadsden Public Library, where she was appointed Assistant Director.

Her third crime novel, The Crimson Feather, the last of her mysteries with a southern scene, is set in Tuscaloosa among the local elite, including members of the University faculty. Before her death in Homewood, near Birmingham, on August 15, 1993, she published A List of Nineteenth Century Maps of the State of Alabama (1973) and, reflecting her interest to the end of her life in her own family heritage, The Glovers of Marengo County, Alabama (1989).

During Sara Mason’s short career as a crime writer, reviewers lauded the good writing and authentic mise-en-scene that graced her four mysteries, in the first three of which the author adhered to the tried-and-true romance and ratiocination formula of such hugely popular American authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhert and Leslie Ford. In the last of them, The Whip, Sara Mason veers more from traditional suspense to the manner and form of the psychological crime novel that such authors as Margaret Millar, Very Kelsey, Dorothy Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong were developing at this time.

Two of her novels, The Crimson Feather and The Whip, were reprinted in paperback, the former by Dell in 1947 (as part of their “mapback” series, beloved by modern collectors) and the latter by Bantam in 1950, but all four of them received good notices in the newspapers.

Murder Rents a Room, which introduces rural county Sheriff Bill Davies, was deemed by Isaac Anderson in the New York Times Book Review a promising first detective story, while William C. Weber in the Saturday Review declared that the tale had “plenty of zip” and influential crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle enjoyed the “pleasant romance about nice people in a timeless southern setting.”

Boucher found The House That Hate Built, set in the fictional mill town of Monroe, a “[m]inutely detailed small-town novel,” while Weber praised it as “[c]apably plotted, with some rather surprising situations” and “interesting characters.”

Weber was similarly praiseful of The Crimson Feather, wherein county Sheriff Bill Davis returns to investigate a murder, this time in nearby Tuscaloosa (though the town in the novel is not so named). Weber lauded Feather’s “[a]bly concocted plot, enlivened by sharp pictures of southern small-town life and family squabbles,” and he additionally admired the novel’s “[u]nostentatious sleuth,” who performed a “believable job” of criminal investigation. Anthony Boucher echoed Weber’s words in his review of Feather, noting the “shrewd inspection of Sheriff Bill Davies” and the tale’s compelling “family atmosphere.”

After a lapse of more than two years (when she was teaching school in Frankfurt, Germany) and a change of American publisher from Doubleday to Morrow, Sara returned to print in January 1948 with The Whip, structurally her most unusual crime novel in that it relies heavily, in the manner of noir cinema, on a flashback narrative and the analysis of disordered emotional states (the hero is a psychiatrist); reviewers found the author had not lost her touch in the interim.

In the Saturday Review a pleased William Weber judged that the psychological crime novel, which he colorfully termed a “believable brain-prober,” presented a rare “case where [the] flashback method of narrative” did not “retard action.” In the New York Times Book Review Isaac Anderson, obviously impressed with Mason’s new tack, declared that the “excellent novel” was “a moving narrative of unfeeling cruelty practiced upon a sensitive young girl by a selfish old woman and her relatives.”

For fans of Sara Mason’s mysteries it is disappointing to see that her interesting and entertaining fiction writing career came to an end after so brief a span of time, with places like Birmingham or even Frankfurt, Germany left unexplored, but it is pleasing to know that she went out on a high note.

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Sara Elizabeth Mason's Timeline

1911
September 2, 1911
1993
August 15, 1993
Age 81