But for the existence of a continuing character in his works--such as Miss
Marples, Lord Peter Whimsey or Philip Marlowe--the Calumet Region's most
accomplished mystery writer could be entertaining you each Thursday on PBS's
"Mystery." Still, Leslie John Edgeley has already given you the chills over and
over in radio, TV and the movies--without your knowing it.
Born Oct. 14, 1912 in London, Leslie left behind the suspense and horror of
World War I Zeppelin and airplane bombings when his parents emigrated to Canada
in 1918. Five years later, Leslie's father Edwin followed the song of the
Calumet Region and found a job in one of the rolling mills of Youngstown Sheet
and Tube (now LTV Steel). Three years later Edwin sent for his family and the
Edgeleys established a new home in Marktown, and Leslie enrolled in Washington
High. It was a cultural shock for the sensitive lad.
Dominated by eastern and southern Europeans, Mexicans and African-Americans
from the rural south, Indiana Harbor harbored people who tended to speak
standard American English as a second language. Rather than relying on dubious
verbal symbols, they conveyed their thoughts largely with emotion and body
language, and, on the assumption that volume promoted communication, they
shouted at each other in broken English. For a reserved, discriminating lad
from London who had been brought up to value calmness and to believe that
proper thought depended on proper English, The Harbor seemed about as civilized
as an Eastern bazaar and a very spooky place.
Leslie took an insouciant attitude toward what he found in The Harbor,
finding refuge in writing and in making the National Honor Society. With his
faint English accent, which he retains to this day, Leslie projected aloofness
to many of his more hot-blooded classmates. Even an appearance in "Patsy," the
senior play, did little to change his image. In a yearbook photo of the play,
tall, slim, blonde Leslie Edgeley in formal attire is shown bending from the
waist and kissing the hand of Patsy, the ingenue, while the caption protests:
"That's a heck of a place to kiss a girl."
After also editing the Weekly Anvil, the school newspaper, Leslie graduated
into The Great Depression when jobs were as numerous as nonsmokers in a
millgate shanty. While developing his writing skill, he worked
catch-as-catch-can, as a bank messenger, truck driver and gravestone salesman.
Finally, he gained a job at Youngstown, working as a mailboy from March 1934 to
July 1935. It was an ideal position. Between trips to the various mills, Leslie
would retreat to the basement and write.
In 1935 Leslie married Mary Gustaitis, a Lithuanian girl he had met at a
funeral when his hiccups provoked uncontrollable giggles in her. It was love at
first hic. He then quit Youngstown, free-lanced in radio for a year before
landing a job with NBC Radio in 1936. As one of a half-dozen network writers,
Leslie wrote everything from variety show blackouts to traffic safety dramas.
Importantly, he wrote many mysteries for such coast-to-coast shows as "Lights
Out," "Inner Sanctum," "The Fat Man," and others.
"We would write dramas, comedy routines, all sorts of programs," he said
recently. "We'd write a soap opera one time and a mystery another. It was a
marvelous training ground for young writers. You had to be versatile to
survive. It also meant that you had to meet deadlines. So when I became a
free-lance and had to bring up a family on what I earned, I was able to set my
own deadlines and thus keep the work going."
While working at NBC, Leslie began to write books. After publishing the
non-best seller "Your Health Dramatized: Selected Radio Scripts" (E.P. Dutton,
1939), Leslie published "No Birds Sing" (Farrar & Rinehart, 1940), a
Hemingwayesque novel set in Indiana Harbor (Steelton) that communicated life
there so convincingly that it could have been nonfiction.
The novel features a frustrated, bored young man who could not get a job in
the mill, a young girl from a Lithuanian enclave dominated by ancient customs
and her authoritarian father who called the shots for his daughter. Of course,
the characters are composites, but few old-timers would fail to recognize
Leslie's father-in-law or the doctor who always had a chaw of tobacco in his
cheek (Doc Niblick), or the protagonist's spiritual triumph over a hostile
environment. "In the case of Dr. Niblick, my late brother-in-law, Dr. John
Gustaitas, worked with him when he was first out of medical school," Leslie
After the brutally cold wartime winter of 1943-44, Leslie became the model
for the man who tired of Chicago's winters and moved to a mall. Late in 1944,
he and his family drove to California, each member holding his breath all the
way, hoping the ration stamps and the car would hold out. Once there, he
returned to free-lance work in radio, movies and TV.
During a slump in radio, however, Leslie said to his wife, "I'm going to sit
down and write a book, and I'll give myself a month to do it." He picked
mysteries because they had the readiest market and because he had written so
many of them for network radio. In a month he finished the book and, luckily,
sold it. From that time on, he would write books between radio, TV and movie
stints. All received good reviews. You might like to challenge your local
library to find some of his best-known works:
"Fear No More" (Simon and Schuster, 1946); "The Angry Heart"
(Doubleday, 1947); "False Face" (Simon and Schuster, 1947); "The Shadow
of Guilt" (Doubleday, 1947); "The Crooked Frame" (Unicorn Press, 1952); "From
This Death Forward" (Doubleday, 1952); "The Judas Goat" (Doubleday,
1952); "Vengeance Street" (Doubleday, 1952); "The Runaway Pigeon"
(Doubleday, 1953); "Stranger in Town" (Doubleday, 1953); "When Strangers
Meet" (Doubleday, 1956); "Kill With Kindness" (Doubleday, 1962);
"Portrait of Murder," a drama (Samuel French, 1964); "A Dirty Business"
(Putnam, 1969); and "Final Reckoning" (R. Hale, 1971).
(Note: Leslie also wrote under the name Robert Bloomfield, among others).
At the same time, Leslie wrote numerous movie scripts, most of which were
paid for by big studios and vaulted. In addition to television scripts for such
programs as "Rawhide" and various Disney shows, he wrote mystery scripts for
"Perry Mason," which still follow him around the world. Once while staging his
play "Portrait of Murder" in England, Leslie turned on the TV set in his hotel
room only to find a rerun of a "Perry Mason" he had written.
At age 78, Leslie Edgely still writes because "writing has become a
compulsion by now." In fact he's collaborating long-distance with his son
Michael, a writer in Alexandria, Va., on a new play which is in the third
rewrite and should be ready by the first of the year. Titleless at the moment,
Leslie might call it Hamlet II. Asked if it was autobiographical, Leslie said,
"No, my days of indecision are behind me. I hope."