Also wrote under: Rowland Wright
Daughter of William E. and Anna Wells; married Hadwin Houghton, 1918
A precocious child, Carolyn Wells hated formal schooling and refused to attend college. Scarlet fever, suffered at the age of six, caused her to become hard of hearing. Reared in New Jersey, she made her home in New York City after her marriage to Haldwin Houghton, of the Houghton Mifflin publishing clan. She loved puzzles, bridge, chess, charades, and detective stories (her discovery of a mystery by Anna Katharine Green was pivotal, inspiring her both to read voraciously and to write voluminously in that genre). Her literary career began almost by accident, with the contribution of jingles to humorous periodicals. She considered 1902 an important date in her career: by then she had written eight books and had begun composing juveniles; after this date she consistently published at least three or four books annually. From 1909 on she wrote mysteries, and she claimed in an autobiographical work (The Rest of My Life, 1937) to have written 170 books, including 70 detective stories—"so far."
Her other main literary activity was as an anthologist, but she was also an important collector and bibliographer of the works of Walt Whitman. Her parody of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (Pto-maine Street, 1921), in which Carol Kennicott becomes Warble Petticoat, is funny and full of witty puns. Sometimes it misses its mark because both locale and social class are changed, but it wickedly refashions a number of episodes from the original.
Wells' juveniles are intended for young girls; different series are aimed at different age groups. Marjorie is in her early teens, for example, and is presented as a child, sometimes mischievous though generally a model little girl (in Marjorie's Vacation, 1907, and five other novels through 1912). Patty, on the other hand, is in her later teens, and the final books in her series lead to her marriage (in Patty Fairfield, 1901, and 16 other novels through 1919). In the middle are "two little women," who are fifteen when their series begins (see Two Little Women, 1915, and two other novels through 1917). All these novels are seriously dated by their intense concern for the social conventions of the early-20th century. For example, Patty's main problems and decisions grow from situations in which she has (either apparently or actually) been led to behave in an unconventional manner (such as going out without a chaperone).
Although also clearly limited by its time and place, Wells' detective fiction holds up somewhat better. She claimed the title of "Dean of American Mystery Writers" and was widely considered an authority. The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913; revised 1929), heavily larded with quotations of both primary and secondary materials, is a thorough survey of the field, written for aspiring authors. Unfortunately, Wells' own style is undistinguished; dialogue and dialect are often clumsily handled. Characterization is flat, characters often being hard to distinguish from each other. Her women are often irritatingly coy, shallowly coquettish ingenues—whom the reader is clearly expected to find charming—and she made it a rule that a woman could never be the murderer (though women were sometimes the victims in her stories). Although male figures are more varied, heroes and detectives are consistently well educated and wealthy. Plotting, however, is inventive, and Wells made interesting use of such conventional types as the "locked room" mystery.
Wells created a number of detectives, the best known and most frequently used (in 61 novels) being Fleming Stone, a professional detective who is a cultivated gentleman, moving easily in the elevated social circles in which Wells' mysteries occur. He was her first creation (The Clue, 1909), and she continued to use him until the end of her career (Who Killed Caldwell?, 1942). Similar to Stone in characterization and methods of detection is Kenneth Carlisle, but he is distinguished by being a former screen star and matinee idol (in Sleeping Dogs, 1929, and two other novels). More interesting is the team of Pennington ("Penny") Wise and Zizi (in The Man Who Fell Through the Earth, 1919, and five other novels). His approach to detection is rational while hers is intuitive; both are fallible, although Zizi is more often right. She is presented as a mysterious young sprite of a girl who seems to have no background or past. Wells' other detectives are Lorimer Lane (in More Lives Than One, 1923, and another novel) and Alan Ford (in Faulkner's Folly, 1917, and two other novels). Wells' sleuths often work wonders of detection, but they occasionally err and thus illustrate her distaste, often expressed, for the "omniscient detective."
Once well known and highly respected, Wells's works now languish unread. She was too prolific, wrote too easily and rapidly, reflected her age too uncritically, and restricted herself too narrowly to popular genres and formulas. Her importance thus is largely historical, and is most clearly found in her practice of the detective novel.
The Jingle Book (1899). The Story of Betty (1899). Idle Idyls (1900). Folly in Fairyland (1901). The Merry-Go-Round (1901). Mother Goose's Menagerie (1901). Children of Our Town (1902). Abeniki Caldwell: A Burlesque Historical Novel (1902). Eight Girls and a Dog (1902). Folly in the Forest (1902). A Nonsense Anthology (1902). The Pete & Polly Stories (1902). A Phenomenal Fauna (1902). Trotty's Trip (1902). Folly for the Wise (1904). The Gordon Elopement: The Story of a Short Vacation (with H. P. Taber, 1904). In the Reign of Queen Dick (1904). A Parody Anthology (1904). Patty at Home (1904). The Staying Guest (1904). The Dorrance Domain (1905). The Matrimonial Bureau (with H. P. Taber, 1905). Patty in the City (1905). A Satire Anthology (1905). At the Sign of the Sphinx (1906). Dorrance Doings (1906). Patty's Summer Days (1906). Rubáiyát of a Motor Car (1906). A Whimsey Anthology (1906). The Emily Emmins Papers (1907). Fluffy Ruffles (1907). Patty in Paris (1907). Rainy Day Diversions (1907). A vers de société Anthology (1907). The Happychaps (1908). Marjorie's Busy Days (1908). Patty's Friends (1908). Year Book of Old Favorites and New Fancies for 1909 (1908). Dick and Dolly (1909). Marjorie's New Friend (1909). Patty's Pleasure Trip (1909). Pleasant Day Diversions (1909). The Rubáiyát of Bridge (1909). The Seven Ages of Childhood (1909). Betty's Happy Year (1910). Dick and Dolly's Adventures (1910). Marjorie in Command (1910). Patty's Success (1910). The Gold Bag (1911). Marjorie's Maytime (1911). Patty's Motor Car (1911). A Chain of Evidence (1912). The Lover's Baedeker and Guide to Arcady (1912). Marjorie at Seacote (1912). Patty's Butterfly Days (1912). Christmas Carollin' (1913). The Eternal Feminine (1913). Girls and Gayety (1913). The Maxwell Mystery (1913). Patty's Social Season (1913). Pleasing Prose (1913). The Re-echo Club (1913). Anybody but Anne (1914). Jolly Plays for Holidays: A Collection of Christmas Entertainments (1914). Patty's Suitors (1914). Patty's Romance (1915). The Disappearance of Kimball Webb (1915). The White Alley (1915). The Bride of a Moment (1916). The Curved Blades (1916). Patty's Fortune (1916). Two Little Women and Treasure House (1916). Baubles (1917). Doris of Dobbs Ferry (1917). The Mark of Cain (1917). Patty Blossom (1917). Two Little Women on a Holiday (1917). Patty—Bride (1918). Such Nonsense! An Anthology (1918). Vicky Van (1918). The Diamond Pin (1919). Patty and Azalea (1919). The Book of Humorous Verse (1920; revised 1936). In the Onyx Lobby (1920). Raspberry Jam (1920). The Room with the Tassels (1920). The Come Back (1921). The Luminous Face (1921). The Mystery of the Sycamore (1921). A Concise Bibliography of the Works of Walt Whitman, with a Supplement of Fifty Books about Whitman (with A. F. Goldsmith, 1922). The Meaning of Thanksgiving Day (1922). The Mystery Girl (1922). Queen Christmas: A Pageant Play (1922). The Sweet Girl Graduate: A Commencement Play (1922). The Vanishing of Betty Varian (1922). The Affair at Flower Acres (1923). Feathers Left Around (1923). An Outline of Humor: Being a True Chronicle from Prehistoric Ages to the Twentieth Century (1923; revised edition, World's Best Humor, 1933). Spooky Hollow (1923). Wheels Within Wheels (1923). Cross Word Puzzle Book (1924). The Fourteenth Key (1924). The Furthest Fury (1924). The Moss Mystery (1924). Prillilgirl (1924). Anything But the Truth (1925). Book of American Limericks (1925). The Daughter of the House (1925). Face Cards (1925). The Bronze Hand (1926). The Red-Haired Girl (1926). The Vanity Case (1926). All at Sea (1927). American Detective Stories (1927). American Mystery Stories (1927). Ask Me a Question: Over 2000 Questions and Answers on Interesting and Informative Subjects (1927). A Book of Charades (1927). The Sixth Commandment (1927). Where's Emily? (1927). The Crime in the Crypt (1928). Deep-Lake Mystery (1928). The Tannahill Tangle (1928). The Tapestry Room Murder (1929). Triple Murder (1929). The Doomed Five (1930). The Doorstep Murders (1930). The Ghosts' High Noon (1930). Horror House (1931). The Skeleton at the Feast (1931). The Umbrella Murder (1931). Fuller's Earth (1932). The Omnibus Fleming Stone (1932). The Roll-Top Desk Mystery (1932). All for Fun: Brain Teasers (1933). The Broken O (1933). The Clue of the Eyelash (1933). The Master Murderer (1933). Eyes in the Wall (1934). In the Tiger's Cage (1934). The Visiting Villain (1934). The Beautiful Derelict (1935). The Cat in Verse (1935). For Goodness' Sake (1935). The Wooden Indian (1935). The Huddle (1936). Money Musk (1936). Murder in the Bookshop (1936). The Mystery of the Tarn (1937). The Radio Studio Murder (1937). Gilt Edged Guilt (1938). The Killer (1938). The Missing Link (1938). Calling All Suspects (1939). Crime Tears On (1939). The Importance of Being Murdered (1939). Crime Incarnate (1940). Devil's Work (1940). Murder on Parade (1940). Murder Plus (1940). The Black Night Murders (1941). Murder at the Casino (1941). Murder Will In (1942).
Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976). NCAB. St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).
NYT (27 March 1942). NYTBR (4 Dec. 1937).
—MARY JEAN DEMARR