Sunday, July 13, 2014

Who Wrote the R.R. Ryan Novels?

Someone recently asked me to draw together the various Wormwoodiana posts on Rex Ryan to explain why I believe he wrote the R.R. Ryan novels.  This struck as a useful thing to do, especially now now that Ramble House continues to issue the books as though they were written by Rex Ryan's daughter, Denice Bradley-Ryan.

When I first became interested in the identity of R.R. Ryan I thought like most people that the name was probably a pseudonym.  Nevertheless I went through the motions of looking through the birth/marriage/death indices for Great Britain looking for a Ryan whose first name started with “R.”  I checked the indices from 1940 – the year the last book was published – into the 1950s.  There were several candidates, including a few servicemen who died during the war (eg a few Richard Ryans, Robert Ryans etc), which would explain why no R.R. Ryan novels were published after 1940.   One of the possible candidates was a Rex Ryan, who had died at Hove in 1950.

When Random House finally allowed access to the R.R. Ryan file, the address on the contracts led me to the same Rex Ryan who had died in 1950.  All of the books are contracted to R.R. Ryan of 16 Granville Road, Hove, Sussex, except No Escape, Ryan’s last novel, which is addressed to 80B Lansdowne Place, Hove, Sussex.  Electoral rolls and phone directories show that Rex Ryan and his wife, Anne, had moved from 16 Granville Road to 80B Landsowne Place in 1939.  Rex Ryan’s death certificate revealed that he was a “retired theatrical manager and author”:


So, the primary documents point to Rex Ryan as the author of the books.  "R.R. Ryan" is not a pseudonym at all - seven of the Herbert Jenkins books were written under his own name (the exceptions being three books written under the name Cameron Carr, and one under the name John Galton).  Why the two pseudonyms?  R.R. Ryan was a prolific author – eleven novels were published in just five years – and the publisher may have felt it prudent to break up the torrent of R.R. Ryan titles so as not to flood the market.

There are two types of evidence used to establish an author’s identity – external documentary evidence and internal textual evidence.  “Internal,” as Altick and Fenstermaker observe in The Art of Literary Research, “is the more slippery.”  My view is that the documentary evidence is enough to prove Rex Ryan’s authorship.  Nevertheless, a powerful case can also be made for Rex Ryan on internal evidence. 

The biographical information that has emerged about Rex Ryan has been compelling in the context of the R.R. Ryan novels and shows the development of the writer – from an unusual and eccentric childhood in a large house replete with homemade theatre, a “Bluebeard’s Chamber,” and hidden rooms, plus the ignominy of his father going to prison; to his professional work in the theatre as actor, manager, playwright and novelist; and his unusual domestic life, constant travelling with his repertory companies, untimely pregnancies with children placed in foster homes.  The evidence shows that in the 1910s and early 1920s he wrote plays, many in collaboration with his partner, Annie Howard, and from the mid-1920s he wrote novels for the Anglo-Eastern Publishing Co.

Let’s have a look at some of the characteristics of the R.R. Ryan novels.

The theatre - even before I was aware of the existence of Rex Ryan it was clear that the author of the novels had a background in the theatre.  The protagonist in Devil’s Shelter is a London theatre actress.  The villain in The Right to Kill is a budding actor.  Cameron Carr’s A New face at the Door is set in a boarding-house (which Rex Ryan was familiar with) and the characters are members of a repertory company in a provincial theatre. The use of stage expressions and words are also suggestive.  In Echo of a Curse for example: ‘His head was bare, revealing a tough looking thatch, which was almost too course for human hair and resembled nothing so much as what is known in theatrical circles as a scratch wig.’  Similarly, slang such as “soger” for soldier, and expressions such as “we’re in, Meredith”, which derives from a music hall sketch called “The Bailiff”, first produced in 1907, indicate familiarity with popular theatre.  The melodramatic elements in the novels, which has led some modern critics to believe that Ryan was a woman, also reflect a background in theatre: ‘Mary, a bruise on her forehead, stood, in an unconscious attitude of crucifixion, back against the mantelpiece, her arms extended.’  This could almost be stage direction.

Dwayne Olson’s introduction to the Midnight House edition of Echo of a Curse is the best and most comprehensive essay on the R.R. Ryan novels, and he identifies common themes and interests across the novels: 

The moral angle – Herbert Jenkins billed The Right to Kill as a “profound study” of whether it was morally defensible to kill a person in certain circumstances, in this case where a woman’s virtue is at stake.  A similar theme is explored in Death of a Sadist and No Escape

Other R.R. Ryan novels have professed "serious" themes.  Consider the following contemporary review of The Subjugated Beast that appeared in the Aberdeen Journal in January 1938: “Those who read Mr Ryan’s “Devil’s Shelter” will find in this book similar elements, and if you liked the earlier book you will enjoy this one much more.  To Many, however, the thrill element is lost in the scientific and philosophic sidelights which tend to slow up the pace at which the grotesque plot should move to inspire unreservedly “the creeps.” Reading this book is like being drawn up in a train at every wayside station, when a metropolitan terminus is the destination.  There is much heaviness in the telling which should be got rid of.”

Other novels like Gilded Clay deal with moral dilemmas around abortion and unwanted pregnancy, and the hypocrisy of self-righteous men and women who judge “fallen” women who have lost their virtue through events they cannot control.  Jenkins' blurb for Gilded Clay says: "This is an important book: not only because it is a good story well told, but also because it deals with certain serious social problems in a most graphic and telling manner."

This moral content – often referred to in advertising material and reviews - is also a feature of many of his plays:


The Newcastle Daily Journal wrote of his play, “Slaves of Vice”, in February 1914: “This piece has been written with a purpose, for it exposes some of the evils of the white slave traffic.”

The moral angle is also explicit in much of the output of the Anglo-Eastern Publishing Co, which Rex Ryan wrote for – the exposés of the white slave trade, the difficulties faced by poor, young woman placed in difficult circumstances.  Rex Ryan’s novel, The Tyranny of Virtue, written under the name Noel Despard, is a prime example of this, and even has an author’s preface where he sets out his moral theme at some length.

The sadism of Ryan’s villains – R.R. Ryan novels are noted by modern critics for their sadistic villains and descriptions of depravities.  We see something of this already in his play The Secret Mother (1920): the censors “insisted on removing as ‘an unnecessary horror’ the visual evidence of a character having been flogged, and demanded ‘a written undertaking that the towel and shoulders marked with red will be omitted.” 

Madness – as with sadism, we also find madness in his plays: Ambrose in The Hooded Death has a split personality as a result of a head injury, leading a pious life on the one hand, and a life as the Hooded Death, desiring the death of his mother and sister, on the other - we see similar characters in Cameron Carr's The Other and Echo of a Curse.  Mad scientists, homicidal maniacs, demented wives, husbands or children were staples of the popular theatre of the day and, certainly, the R.R. Ryan novels can only be fully understood in the context of the popular theatre of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Black humour – in a couple of places Dwayne Olson emphasizes Ryan’s use of black humour.  Contemporary reviews of his plays also emphasize this aspect of his work.

Untimely pregnancy – untimely pregnancy often out of wedlock is another staple of R.R. Ryan’s novels, and this is also a feature of a number of his plays.  Rex Ryan and Anne Howard of course had first-hand experience of this and of the guilt and personal difficulties that arise as a consequence.

Difficult marital relationships – again, Rex Ryan may well have had first-hand experience of this with the break-up of his second marriage.  In 1924 the successful acting and writing pair Dennis Clyde and Annette Howard suddenly changed their names to Rex Ryan and Pauline Duke and their profile dropped markedly.  It could well be that Rex Ryan’s second wife had caught up with them and they felt it prudent to change their identities. 

Denice Bradley-Ryan - Ramble House has been reprinting the R.R. Ryan novels in recent times with introductions by John Pelan, who follows David Medhurst’s lead in asserting that Rex Ryan’s daughter, Denice Bradley-Ryan, wrote the novels published by Herbert Jenkins.  David Medhurst is the son of Denice Bradley-Ryan, and I've recently learnt that he is also now the R.R. Ryan estate holder. 

As far as I can make out no documentary evidence has ever been forthcoming linking Denice Bradley-Ryan to the novels R.R. Ryan, however David Medhurst says that his mother told him that she wrote more than the four Kay Seaton novels published between 1946-49, and that the style of the Herbert Jenkins novels is hers.  

This seems a curious position to take.  If Denice Bradley-Ryan wrote the R.R. Ryan novels why, when casting around for a pseudonym, would she choose one that so closely reflected her father’s name?
Whoever wrote the novels for publisher Herbert Jenkins was a prolific novelist – eleven books were published in four years.  And yet here is an article on Denice Bradley-Ryan (kindly sent to me by David Medhurst a few years ago) in The NAAFI News for Christmas 1949:

“If you have read “Phantom Fear” or “Tyranny Within” or “Pawns of Destiny,” by Kay Seaton, you have been entertained by a Naafi girl. “Kay Seaton” is the pen [name of] Miss Denice Bradley-Ryan, who works […] in H.Q. Staff Branch on BAOR, and writes novels in her hostel in the evenings. [Only her] closest friends knew her secret. She [writes the] books in longhand and sends the manuscript to her father in Hove, who has them [typed and] sent to the publishers. She is now working on a fourth novel, drawing on material […] BAOR.” Italics mine.

The article speaks for itself.


  1. You make a convincing case. I enjoy this kind of research.

  2. Thank you for the interesting write-up. I have been getting the Ramble House books, and this clears up some things.