Anthony Abbot | About the Murder of the Circus Queen | The Shudders | About the Disappearance of Agatha King | About the Murder of the Night Club Lady | About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress | About the Murder of a Startled Lady | About the Murder of Geraldine Foster | The Creeps | About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women
C. Daly King | The Curious Mr. Tarrant | Later Tarrant tales | Obelists Fly High
Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett / John Stephen Strange | The Man Who Killed Fortescue | The Strangler Fig | The Bell in the Fog | Look Your Last
Anne Austin | Murder at Bridge
Richard M. Baker | Death Stops the Bells
Torrey Chanslor | Our First Murder | Our Second Murder | Penny
Richard Burke | Chinese Red | The Corpse in Grandpa's Bed
Blanche Bloch | Biography | The Bach Festival Murders
Lawrence Lariar | The Man with the Lumpy Nose
Harry Kemelman | The Nine Mile Walk: Nicky Welt Short Stories | Friday the Rabbi Slept Late
John T. McIntyre | Ashton-Kirk: Investigator | Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent | Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist | The Museum Murder | Mooney Moves Around | Murder Is Stupid
Rufus Gillmore | The Alster Case | The Ebony Bed Murder
Hulbert Footner | The Deaves Affair | The Mystery of the Folded Paper | Death of a Celebrity | The Murder That Had Everything | Who Killed the Husband? | The House With the Blue Door | Orchids to Murder
Hugh Lawrence Nelson | Fountain of Death | Dead Giveaway
Gregory Dean | Lillian de la Torre | Timothy Fuller | Rink Creussen | David Alexander | Lloyd Biggle, Jr. | S. S. Rafferty
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) (Chapters 1 - 4)
About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932)
About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) (Book One: Chapters 1 -3, Book Two: Chapter 4)
Thatcher Colt stories
Too Many Cooks (1938) (Chapters 1, 3, 10, 11, 16, 17)
Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939)
The Silent Speaker (1946)
Murder by the Book (1951) (Chapters 1 - 3)
Might As Well Be Dead (1956) (Chapters 1-5, 7, 12-14, 18-19)
Champagne for One (1958) (Chapters 1 - 6, 11, 15 - 17)
Plot It Yourself (1959) (Chapters 1 - 4, 16, 19)
The Final Deduction (1961) (Chapters 1-2)
A Right to Die (1964)
The Doorbell Rang (1965) (Chapters 1 - 5, second half of 11, 12)
Alphabet Hicks stories
Our Second Murder (1941) (Chapters 1, 2, 7, 13, 15-21)
Quinny Hite stories
Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966)
Who Killed the Husband? (1941) (Chapters 1-4, 6, 10, first half of 18, 21, 23, Postscript)
The House With the Blue Door (1942) (Chapter 1)
Abbot seems to have a natural liking for the complex plot. Even when he does a tongue-in-cheek short story that consciously combines humor and mystery, such as "About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry", there is a delightful, well constructed mystery plot full of unexpected turns and complexity. Abbot's work also has the quality of "readability": they carry one along, and one can enjoy one of his books in a single sitting.
Abbot's interest in misdirection can lead to vivid evocations of the difference between illusion and reality. Although Abbot does not conspicuously underline any philosophical implications of this theme, the strong plots cause this theme to emerge anyway. Abbot's fiction has a haunting quality. Both humans' ability to understand reality, and human life itself, seem frail and fragile. There is a note of pathos in his work, that seems autumnal, in contrast with Ellery Queen's springtime vigor. There is a sense of a last look at things, before they disappear into the mist.
Another contributor to this effect is Abbot's emphasis on the investigation of murder scenes. Described gently, and with delicate but powerful mise-en-scène, Abbot's vivid descriptions of houses, rooms, streets and yards show an architectural imagination at work.
Abbot was deep into what might be called "WASP Macho". There is tremendous emphasis on his series hero Thatcher Colt's power and prestige as head of the police. He is also big on intimidating criminals. Abbot has really bought into ideas about leadership of social institutions equaling manhood and masculinity. Of course, this leadership was a privilege reserved in his day to WASPs, and one that they valued very highly. While there is no sign of prejudice against immigrants or other ethnic groups in Abbot, it is clear that he was deep into the social ideals of his own ethnic group, and felt that his hero should be a leader of men. Colt is the literary equivalent of the sympathetic, jut-jawed, well tailored men seated at big desks in big offices that showed up in so many 1930's movies (think of Walter Huston as the factory owner in Dodsworth).
There is still a bit of "amateur detective" status about Colt: like Philo Vance, he is from a higher social stratum than most of the police, and the Police Commissioner's job is usually considered administrative and political, so Colt's involvement in solving actual cases is unusual, and the result of his rare personal abilities.
Just as Vance is an art expert and connoisseur, Colt is an expert on literature, collecting rare books and writing poetry in his spare time. See About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (beginning of Chapter 2).
Abbott wrote four Thatcher Colt detective novels in 1930 - 1932. They are especially Van Dine like in their tone, and in their detectival approach. He then paused for three years, without publishing any more Colts. During 1935 - 1943, he published four more Colt novels, at long intervals. These later novels are much less Van Dine like in tone, perhaps not surprising, in that Van Dine was no longer anywhere near as popular as in the early 1930's. They also contain much more about an Abbot enthusiasm of those years, psychic phenomena. (Mediums are also mentioned briefly in his first book About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (Chapter 1).)
Although it is not pointed out in the story, further reflection suggests that the novel's characters exist in doubles. The hero and heroine, a pair of married aerialists, employ a second couple of aerialists to assist them; they have even had this second couple change their stage names to match the husband's. Another pair of similar characters includes the circus' manager, and the circus' millionaire backer; both are older businessmen. The heroine employs both a personal maid, and a male assistant to help her with her act. Both the hero and heroine had a previous spouse. The District Attorney, a none too intelligent blunderer who is always wrong in the story, is accompanied by his two nephews, who seem to be miniature copies of himself.
Perhaps the most striking pair of doubles in the book includes Thatcher Colt, and the witch doctor Keblia. Keblia is the leader of a tribe of Ubangis that have been imported to form an exhibit at the circus. Both Keblia and the Ubangis are sympathetic characters in the story. Just like Colt, Keblia plays the role of detective in the story. With the aid of his tribe, Keblia tracks down the real killer, and tries to intervene to protect the heroine. In fact, he finds the real killer long before Colt. Just as Colt is assisted by his "tribe" of policemen, Keblia is assisted by the tribe of Ubangis - another set of doubles in the story. Keblia is dressed in a fashionable suit in the story - a costume that in other Abbot works is strongly associated with the elegant Colt. The sophisticated Colt treats the Ubangis with the greatest respect. One striking scene shows a pact between Colt and the Ubangis to share information about clues to the mystery. Abbot's novel contrasts the respect with which his hero Colt treats the tribe, with the racist dismissal they are given by the low brow District Attorney in the book. The book's narrator falls somewhere between these two extremes in his attitude. While not sharing in the DA's contempt, he finds the Ubangis to be eerie and frightening. He clearly finds the strange and exotic to be threatening. The narrator is not supposed to be as intelligent and knowledgeable as Colt.
The treatment of the African Ubangis is progressive, especially for its day. They are depicted as both intelligent and kind hearted. Their religious ceremonies are depicted with dignity, although they are also milked for maximum eerie effect, like all the other events of the novel. The books portrayal of the Ubangis' social organization is in the "tribal" tradition, one that has roots in Jack London, and other turn of the century authors. Just as in London, the tribe is shown to be dominated by a witch doctor, and devoted to a set of superstitious rituals and beliefs. This portrayal of tribal life was very popular from 1900 through the 1940's. Today it seems old fashioned and out dated, having been replaced by more sophisticated anthropological ideas about tribal culture. Still, it seems to be the "best" model of tribal life available to literary authors of its day. Also dated today is the constant emphasis on how "eerie" the narrator finds the Ubangis. Despite this dated portrait of tribal life, Abbot's treatment of the Ubangis is clearly in the anti-racist tradition of Van Dine and other authors of his school. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.
The Ubangis are associated in the story with enclosed spaces: trunks and underground chambers. They are chthonic, and associated with the earth. The aerialists, by contrast, have there domain high in the air, on their trapeze wires, and in a high apartment. They have glittering clothing, and are associated with powder and greasepaint and gasses. The aerialists have a circle, a circus ring, under their domain, whereas both the Ubangis and Colt seem associated with rectilinear geometry. Colt keeps discovering boxes associated with the murder, the trunk and the box like room of the flood light chamber. Colt also seems to have a special affinity with Madison Square Garden itself, a building considered in the book as the last word in progressive modern accomplishment. It is made of concrete over a steel frame, and such hard construction seems symbolic of Colt. The trunk and the bunker like flood light chamber also seem rock hard constructions. Colt also owns Police Headquarters and his apartment. Colt's association with both modern buildings and modern organizations such as the police department and science are seen as emblems of a splendid masculinity.
Colt never actually climbs into the aerialists' trapeze area, whereas he has no trouble penetrating to the Ubangis' regions. He is the opener and discoverer of the Ubangis; he is always opening up their domains. He also brings in the professor who understands their language and customs, and serves as the professor's sponsor throughout the story.
Unlike buildings, guns, bullets and shooting are associated not with the police in the novel, but with the older male authority figures of the circus: the animal trainer, the millionaire backer, and the circus owner. Such guns are seen only negatively as emblems of destruction, never of accomplishment. Colt instead works to outlaw guns; he is an enthusiastic advocate of gun control, as part of his role as Police Commissioner, and chief preventer of crime in New York City. The Ubangis also have the role of protectors of people and preventers of trouble, another affinity between Colt and the Ubangis.
Instead of fighting, Colt's ability to see and perceive everything is emphasized. He is unusually good at sight, hearing, smell and the other senses. Colt is the one who hears the changes in the drum beat, for example. His senses are almost as heightened as the hero of the TV series, the Sentinel. He also has the brain power to interpret what he sees as clues. Colt also has a magnificent physique, as do the aerialists in the story.
Unlike private eyes, Colt is rarely stonewalled by witnesses in the story. P I's are always spending hours grilling witnesses who refuse to talk, or who lie to them. By contrast, Colt, like the other detectives of the Van Dine school, has little trouble acquiring mountains of information. The Van Dine school sleuths have a number of techniques: they use the exhaustive search of both victims' rooms and crime scenes; they query disinterested passerby who have tons of information to share; and they institute resourceful police inquiries for information. Because of this, they are always purposively filling in their picture of the crime. It is only the murder itself that is an obstacle to the Van Dine school detective: it is always "a carefully planned crime" perpetrated by "one of the most fiendish brains that it has ever been the misfortune of" the narrator to encounter. Despite this satire, the Van Dine school's approach is plainly a lot more fun to read. Their detectives go right in and detect, and this is the way it should be.
Images of ruination recur throughout the novel:
Why does Abbot include scenes of home movies in his books? This is hard to say. He is certainly not sneaking clues into the stories with them, as John Dickson Carr would be. One reason is that Abbot is a writer interested in high technology and scientific detection, and during the 1930's such movies partook of high tech. Also, it allows him to show highlights of his characters' past lives, always an Abbot interest. Most importantly, however, is the structural role these scenes play in Abbot's architecture. Abbot's books are marked off into distinct episodes, like movements in a piece of classical music. Introducing an episode narrated in a distinct fashion, through film, allows Abbot to build a fence around one part of the narrative. Each episode plays its own unique role in the design of the book. They add to the beauty of the overall pattern. Similarly, in Circus, there is a stretch in Chapter 16 in which Colt reports on the results of his officer Inspector Flynn's investigations into the characters' backgrounds. This forms a deeply satisfying extension of the book's plot to date, offering a formal conclusion to several plot threads in the book. Its position in the story seems like a sort of coda in music, or other part of a formal pattern.
"About the Disappearance of Agatha King" looks as it it got its basic framework from the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" (1892) by Doyle. Abbot has added to this framework a wealth of original ideas.
Mystery Plot. Even in this short story, Abbot keeps to his traditions by having both life histories for his characters, and a detailed look at their complex relationships. Part of the mystery plot grows out of these relationships.
Pro-Civil Rights. "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" has a pro-Civil Rights theme. Like About the Murder of the Circus Queen it takes a positive look related to black people. SPOILERS. "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" criticizes bigoted police for beating up blacks, and the justice system for condoning this. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.
"About the Disappearance of Agatha King" also has a white man suspect, who is described as loving a male friend. This might well be a gay reference. The story certainly sees the love as positive.
Imagery. Imagery in "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" recalls About the Murder of the Night Club Lady:
The how-done-it crime is another example of "killing someone at a distance, without leaving any traces": an Abbot tradition. This is also found in About the Murder of the Circus Queen and The Shudders, two Abbot novels that share much imagery with Night Club Lady, and which are often close to it in approach.
Abbot's how-done-it solution brings the novel into the realm of the scientific detective story. So do some other aspects of police lab work. Several of Abbot's tales involve such scientific and technological details - it is a running strand throughout his fiction.
The impossible crime is framed within a situation derived from Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905) - a ploy that has been much used in films and comics ever since Wallace invented it. Abbot's explanation of the impossible crime is different from Wallace's, however. There is also little in About the Murder of the Night Club Lady of anything political, while Wallace's book is soaked in social commentary.
Impossible Appearance. The final quarter of the book, after the explanation of the how-done-it three quarters way through (Chapter 13), is anticlimactic, and not as successful as the previous three quarters of the novel. Its plot elements are mainly less interesting than those that went before.
We do get a solution to a second impossible mystery: where was someone hiding in the penthouse, despite not turning up during a very through search by Thatcher Colt? (posed end of Chapter 7, solved last part of Chapter 19). This sort of mystery can be dubbed an Impossible Appearance: somebody or something appears where it cannot possibly be, the way this person turns up in the penthouse.
Erle Stanley Gardner's The Bigger They Come (1939) has the Impossible Appearance of a guest inside a watched hotel: a similar problem to Abbot's impossible appearance inside a penthouse. Its solution is quite different, however. In Gardner's The Case of the Singing Skirt (1959) (Chapters 5 - 6), Perry Mason engineers the Impossible Appearance of a gun.
The "impossible" appearance of the character in About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (end of Chapter 7) has elements of the Surrealism that runs through Abbot and many other detective writers.
Impossible crimes aside, About the Murder of the Night Club Lady shows less colorful storytelling, and less imagination its plotting, characters and setting, than the best of Abbot's writing.
Imagery. Its night-club opening scene, and the Night Club Lady's penthouse apartment where most of the action occurs, while well described, are hardly novel settings for crime fiction. Both seem like female settings, elaborate ornate boxes that contain entire lives of the heroine and her female relatives and friends. These womb symbols are constantly contrasted with the male police officers and their masculine and phallic symbols, with Thatcher Colt in top hat and tails, uniformed officers on motorcycles, a policeman undercover in doorman's uniform recalling a 19th Century "chausseur", etc. The women are in white, with occasional flashes of red, while the men are in dark colors such as Colt's black tail coat or blue police uniforms. White tie and tails are a tradition in Abbot books.
The glittering night-club is full of mirrors, crystals and jewels. The night-club is a real-life location of the era: The Mayfair Club and Crystal Room inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan. The novel says it was filled with show biz celebrities.
Heights and Underground. The night-club is underground; the penthouse is high in the sky: two extremes that will re-appear in About the Murder of the Circus Queen. The penthouse has a high window playing a role in the plot, not unlike other Abbot books.
The penthouse's address on East 58th street places it in or near the Manhattan neighborhood Sutton Place. Sutton Place is explored in depth in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress.
Helen Reilly explores a Manhattan penthouse in McKee of Centre Street (1933) (Chapter 7). Reilly is more interested in the rooftop outside the penthouse, while Abbot emphasizes the interior. Colt does do a thorough exploration of the roof. however.
The sleuths briefly meet at the club room at the very top of the real-life Chrysler Building skyscraper (start of Chapter 15). The narrator gives a negative review, saying the views have been ruined by obstructions. Other real-life New York skyscrapers appear in Abbot: the RCA building in Rockefeller Center in About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women, Tudor City in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress.
Policewoman. Policewoman Dorothy Lox appears and is treated respectfully (Chapters 3, 14). Lox is mentioned again in About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (Chapter 2.1), as part of a description of New York City's policewomen as a whole. And she appears in person in that book (Chapter 9.2). Today's readers would likely welcome an Abbot tale with a policewoman protagonist, but I don't know of one.
Earlier (Chapter 1) when Colt is cornered by some women and asked questions, one is "whether women were of any account as detectives." We don't get his response. But clearly the Dorothy Lox sections are answering the question in the affirmative. This scene shows Abbot was conscious of the public's interest in women detectives. And specifically the female part of the public.
Doubles. The two young women in Night Club Lady have plot-lines that move in parallel: they are perhaps examples of the doubling characters that will appear more systematically in About the Murder of the Circus Queen.
Abbot Subjects. Abbot once more features life histories of the characters, that play a role in the solution.
While other Abbot books such as About the Murder of the Circus Queen and The Shudders, open on Friday the Thirteenth in a rain storm, this one is set on New Year's Eve in a snow storm. The male characters are once again in deep trouble. While those books refer to the chemical industry, and have ties to Germany, this one is set against the medical supply business, and refers to the characters' past lives in France.
The Men Higher-Up. About the Murder of the Night Club Lady depicts a jewel theft ring and secretly being controlled by well-to-do, apparently respectable men (first part of Chapter 1). They are referred to as the "men higher-up". Similarly About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women depicts a sinister drug pushing syndicate that is controlled by such wealthy higher-ups (Chapter 1.1). The book makes it clear that there is moral rot in at least some members of the upper classes.
Long before this William MacHarg & Edwin Balmer's "The Man Higher Up" (1909) posited finding such higher-ups as a key goal of detective work.
The later stages of the novel do show Abbot's ability to handle a complex plot, and the final revelations about the crime do surprise.
True Crime. The novel's second paragraph points out its resemblance to two famous real-life cases: the Hall-Mills murders (1922) and the Clarence Richeson case (1911). In fact, the novel's main plot (which emerges after the opening chapters) can be seen as a mildly ingenious fusing of these two cases. SPOILERS:
I tend to be skeptical about using real-life murder cases as a basis for mystery fiction. I think mystery fiction tends to be better when writers use their own imagination, rather than drawing on "true crime". The best aspects of About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress occur when Abbot uses his imagination rather than true crime, as in the opening, and in the ingenious aspects of the solution.
Sutton Place. Sangster Terrace, a fictitious setting for a scene of the crime, is explicitly said to resemble the famous real life Manhattan neighborhood Sutton Place (Chapter 3). Sangster Terrace is said to be adjacent to Sutton Place. Essentially, Sangster Terrace is simply an imaginary addition to the real life Sutton Place.
The book notes that the Sangster Terrace / Sutton Place neighborhood joins the extremes of wealth and poverty. Precisely this same characteristic of contrasting wealth and poverty would soon make Sidney Kingsley choose Sutton Place as the setting for his famous play Dead End (1935). Dead End made Sutton Place the archetypical setting that symbolizes Inequality. About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress made the same observation four years before Dead End.
Sutton Place symbolizes privilege in Mr. Smith's Hat (1936) and Dead Man Control (1936) by Helen Reilly, where it contains police "Commissioner Carey's tall narrow house". And in Murder in a Hurry (1950) by the Lockridges, with its wealthy family's home.
Tudor City. Tudor City, where the bodies are first found (Chapters 1, 3), is a real residential complex in Manhattan. It was brand new in 1931. It is upscale, like the fictitious Sangster Terrace.
Color. Sangster Terrace has doors painted in bright colors, "in the new manner" as the book calls it. This anticipates the green Manhattan doors in Murder in the Mews (1931) and Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940) by Helen Reilly. The murder house in Sangster Terrace has a red door: something repeatedly referred to in the book, including its last line.
Other pieces of color imagery in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress:
Height and Underground. Two rooms are contrasted in the Sangster Terrace house. One is upstairs; the the other is at ground level. These are not quite the high in the sky / underground chambers found in other Abbot books - but they approach this effect.
Two different underground tunnels play a role in the opening. Since they are near real places, the morgue and Tudor City, these tunnels might be real-life places.
Tudor City consists of skyscraper apartments, in fact the world's first skyscraper apartments. It is very much "high in the sky". However, we do not go inside Tudor City in the book.
Surrealism: The Boat. There is a surrealistic feel to Colt's having the entire boat picked up and moved inside the morgue. Boats are supposed to be outside - not indoors.
This fate of the boat is soon echoed by it origin. We learn that the boat was built inside a fancy house in Sangster Terrace. Once again, the boat does not belong indoors such a house.
On both occasions, the boat with the corpses inside, was carried by men. Such a "carting of a container with a body" also appears in "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" and About the Murder of a Startled Lady.
Currents. Colt does some detective reasoning based on water currents (Chapter 3). Please see my list of detection involving Currents in mystery fiction.
Doubles. Abbot books sometimes have characters whose lives parallel each other. In Clergyman's Mistress such "doubles" include Bessie Struber and murder victim Evelyn Saunders.
Alternatives to Capitalism. Most locales in the opening stand outside of the capitalist system and market economy:
By contrast the actual murder house in Sangster Terrace is very much private property. This house is part of the market economy: it has been rented out. And Tudor City is also capitalistic: we hear briefly about the ballyhoo used to promote it.
Please see my list of Cooperatives and Worker-owned Businesses in mystery and science fiction.
The Church. Abbot will return to a setting of this novel, the (fictitious) Church of St. Michael and All Angels in New York, for his fine short story, "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" (1932). There are many real-life Anglican / Episcopalian churches named St. Michael and All Angels, especially in England - but none of them are in New York City.
After these excellent opening sections in Clergyman's Mistress and Startled Lady, virtually a whole new novel begins. For the first time we meet the characters of the mystery story. Up till that time we had been dealing with a discovered body, vividly described murder locations, and the police. Now we are introduced to the suspects, and a whole, conventional murder mystery ensues, with most of the focus on the motives of the suspects and their personal relationships with the victim. These later chapters in both novels are far more routine. There is much less actual detection, and what revelations ensue tend to be the result of routine police inquiries: realistic, but not very imaginative. Towards the end of both stories Colt builds a straw case against each of the characters in turn. Both books also come to a similar kind of solution to their puzzle plot, although to say more about this would spoil the reader's interest in the mystery.
Subjects. The opening of About the Murder of a Startled Lady also shows subject matter links to Clergyman's Mistress. Both:
The medium's room in the rooming house is high on the third floor (Book Two: Chapter 4).
Characters. The opening chapters of Startled Lady are full of people with a show business background: the sort of cheap entertainers that might hang around carnivals or fair grounds. There are the medium and her husband in the first chapter, then the artist with a waxworks and amusement park life history in Chapter 3. These people's colorful life stories recall the circus performers in Circus Queen (1932). The professor in Chapter 1 of Startled Lady also recalls the savant Colt meets in Circus Queen.
Abbot likes to include a whole "life history" for the characters in his novels. While it is not likely in real life that the police would have thumb nail biographies for everyone they meet, one tends to accept this as a bit of poetic license. It does add to the storytelling charm of the book, as well as making the characters more rounded.
Unfortunately, after its early sections, Startled Lady declines into a far more ordinary novel. Most of the suspects in the later part of the book are unpleasant, even psychologically abnormal. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of their emotionally disturbed personalities. There is also a consistent tone of sordidness struck throughout, something that is not typical of Abbot, and not consistent with the personality shown in his other works.
Mystery Plot. The best section in the later part of the novel is Book Two: Chapter 4. This resolves the medium subplot of the opening chapter. Abbot shows a flair for one type of impossible crime, the apparent supernatural event. Abbot does not describe the kind of physical impossibility we associate with G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and their successors. Instead, this tale is in the same genre as Craig Rice's "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" (1956), a case of apparently supernatural knowledge that eventually is explained in realistic terms. Please see my list of Dreams and Premonitions: Impossible Crimes.
This section is architectural, something also found elsewhere in Abbot.
Paradoxically, while Abbot idolized men in leadership positions, his fiction is more rooted in middle class life than are most other authors of the Golden Age. This is especially true of the non-police characters in his tales. The investigation into the death of Geraldine Foster reveals a poignant look at the stresses and strains in the life of a young, middle class woman of the period. Similarly, "ordinary man" Mr. Digberry's survival and even triumph in "About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry" suggests an allegory of the survival and triumph of the middle classes.
If Abbot's work reflects contemporary pulp techniques of the 1920's and 1930's, it looks backward to the scientific detectives of 1905-1914. About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) digresses from its main mystery to offer a full portrait of "high tech" police techniques. These seem oddly similar to those of Cleveland L. Moffett and Arthur B. Reeve of twenty years earlier.
Crime Scenes. About the Murder of Geraldine Foster shares crime scene settings and clues with the later About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress. SPOILERS. Both have:
Minorities and Leftists. This first book in the series About the Murder of Geraldine Foster is also the debut of some continuing supporting characters. Police Captain Israel Henry is in charge of the Commissioner's office suite, and serves as what we now call a "gatekeeper" (Chapter 1). Does his first name Israel signify he is Jewish? I am not sure. He is certainly a sympathetic character, always depicted positively in the Colt books.
A passage (first part of Chapter 2) mentions Manhattan's Lower East Side, and cites real-life novelists Fannie Hurst and Nat Ferber as depicting its Jewish inhabitants. Fannie Hurst is still well-known, but Nat J. Ferber has sunk into obscurity. Reviews of the era suggest Nat Ferber was an example of "Naturalism", and downbeat. He was also a journalist, and married to the left-wing labour organizer Marie Ganz.
A fictional character in About the Murder of Geraldine Foster is a radical left-wing lawyer, George Maskell (Chapter 1). He is described as having worked with famous real-life left-wing lawyers Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays.
Thatcher Colt himself is compared to Teddy Roosevelt (start of Chapter 1). Although the book does not say so, Roosevelt was famous as a champion of the Progressive movement.
Left-of-center writers Theodore Dreiser and W. Adolphe Roberts get a positive mention in About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (start of Chapter 4.1). However, the book cites them for their accomplishments as writers, and does not mention their political activities.
The book has some sordid imagery, which recalls the also sleazy Startled Lady.
The country house setting of The Creeps differs from the Manhattan locales emphasized in previous Colt novels.
The Creeps lacks all ingenuity. The explanation of the medium's message shows none of the cleverness of the earlier novel. None of the murders in the books show any cleverness either. The story is labored and dull.
Good Parts. This unsuccessful book does have some good features:
Secretary. The heroine Carol Burgess is a secretary, like the title character in About the Murder of Geraldine Foster. In both cases their employers are dubious people, who may or may not be involved in crime.
Gun Control. Colt speaks out in favor of what we now call gun control (Chapter 1.1).
Doubles. Abbot books sometimes have characters whose lives parallel each other. SPOILERS. In About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women, first Tad Wing disappears. Then Thatcher Colt disappears too (Chapter 3.5, 3.6). The parallels are emphasized in the narration.
Height. Abbot likes settings high up in architecture.
The victim has offices on the forty-first floor of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center (start of Chapter 2.3). Like Tudor City in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress this is a famous real-life skyscraper, that was new at the time of writing.
The Tad Wing subplot takes place on the top floor of a six-story walkup apartment building. This recalls the rooming house in About the Murder of a Startled Lady (Book Two: Chapter 4).
A real-life landmark, the Jefferson Market Police Court with its clock tower, is mentioned (start of Chapter 4.1).
The murder scene is on the third floor of another apartment building (Chapter 4.1). Once again a high window of the apartment, plays a role in the plot.
Greenwich Village Back Streets. This murder scene is on Nightcourt Lane in Greenwich Village. Nightcourt Lane is a fictitious back street which the book says resembles a nearby real-life one, Patchin Place (start of Chapter 4.1). This mixture of reality and fiction recalls About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress, with its fictitious Sangster Terrace resembling and nearby the real Sutton Place.
Patchin Place has ten buildings. Its street numbers simply range from 1 to 10. Similarly the murder scene building in Nightcourt Lane is Number Ten (start of Chapter 4.1). The buildings in Patchin Place have three stories; those in fictional Nightcourt Lane have three stories plus an attic (Chapters 4.1, 9.5).
The visit to Greenwich Village brings back nostalgic memories for the narrator Tony, who recalls knowing Theodore Dreiser and Harold Hersey there (start of Chapter 4.1). In real life these writers lived in Patchin Place, according to the Wikipedia. Harold Hersey knew Anthony Abbot and Theodore Dreiser.
Greenwich Village back streets are featured in Helen Reilly novels: Murder in the Mews (1931), All Concerned Notified (1939), Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940). Such tiny back streets, almost concealed from public view, are fascinating. Reilly's treatment is more elaborate that Abbot's.
Imagery and Settings. King's work is full of horror. He likes to depict bizarre religious rituals as part of his horror atmosphere. These rituals often seem to involve cycles of time: the Aztec cycles in "The Codex' Curse", the repetitions of the Requiem in "The Nail and the Requiem", the nightly events on the highway in "The Headless Horrors". Light and darkness, and their alteration are also important elements in King's storytelling, adding both drama, and contributions to the puzzle plots.
King's impossible crime technique seems to focus on hidden places and hidden spaces. Although presided over by images of women, never living women, men seem to emerge from these spaces, or be swallowed up by them. The images of women are naked, and emphasize their sexuality. Perhaps these hidden spaces are womb symbols. They also seem to have a magic or ritual quality to them.
There is also a theme of "policemen in jeopardy", that seems to involve their uniforms. King seemed to have a special sympathy for these "hard young men", as he put it, and their lives seem to be in danger in his tales.
Another set of perennial characters in King are the mild mannered, ineffectual authority figures of various institutions where the horror is taking place, who have clearly lost control of their turf. These include the museum director in "Codex", the apartment manager in "Nail", and the police chief in "Headless Horrors".
Influences. One of the best locked room tales in The Curious Mr. Tarrant, "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem" (1935), oddly anticipates The Silence of the Lambs, of all things. The mad killer's escape from the box-like penthouse in King, seems oddly similar to Hannibal's escape from his box-like cage toward the end of the movie (I've never read the book).
King's tale, in turn, bears a family resemblance to MacKinlay Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" (1930). Other possible influences on King's fiction are discussed in the articles on Stuart Palmer and Sax Rohmer.
Characters: Golden Age Standard. Several of the characters are fairly standard types in Golden Age mystery fiction.
King's horror motif contrasts oddly with the country club, fun young couples background of his Watson, Jerry Phelan. Phelan, his girlfriend, and his sister, who winds up dating detective Tarrant, seem right out of the world later to be occupied by such Bright Young Couples as seen in the works of Patrick Quentin, or The Norths, by the Lockridges. "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935) does much to characterize Phelan and his family, and has some pleasant romance. It is set in a small town in New Jersey; King himself lived in Summit, New Jersey, and frequently set his works either in that state, or in nearby New York City.
Not all of King is horror based. "The Episode of the Vanishing Harp" is a country house, Golden Age style mystery, complete with a wealthy couple, the family secretary, the family banker, and the family physician. This is a standard Golden Age cast of characters. "Harp" is a pleasant enough piece of storytelling. But its locked room problem's solution, while fair and believable, is easily guessed. This tale is well-liked by a number of mystery fans, so perhaps I'm underestimating it a little.
A early section of "The Episode of the Vanishing Harp" details Tarrant's interests in science and the arts. This seems modeled, broadly speaking, on Philo Vance's intellectual interests in S.S. Van Dine novels. Both men are presented as genius sleuths with a wide range of deep intellectual passions. Tarrant's readings in modern physics recall the Vance novel The Bishop Murder Case (1928). Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
Strengths and Weaknesses. King is far from being my favorite author. Just as in Clayton Rawson, there is something distasteful about King. King's strongest suit is his ability to create suspense. His better tales sweep one along as a reader, and show some real excitement, as well as some creepiness in the horror department.
But they often turn upon clichés, sometimes including the disagreeable ethnic stereotypes of their era: "The Headless Horrors" and "The Man with Three Eyes" both suffer from racism. This racism is especially unfortunate in the case of "The Headless Horrors", spoiling a tale which otherwise has interesting aspects.
Several of the tales' mystery plots are obvious, and easily figured out. There is often only one real suspect, and sure enough, at the end he did it - not much of a use of the whodunit potential of the mystery tale. "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem", however, succeeds as a puzzle plot tale - it is a significant contribution to the locked room story.
By contrast, King's version of the Mary Celeste, "Torment IV", is ridiculous, one of the all time dumb mystery tales. Caveat lector! (Which could mean either "Let the reader beware"; or "Beware of Hannibal Lector" - not bad advice either way. This is my first Latin pun.)
Crippen & Landru has republished the Tarrant stories, together with four additional tales not in the first collection, as The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant (2003). Three of these later tales add considerably to the mystery value of the series as a whole.
Little Girl Who Wasn't There. "The Episode of the Little Girl Who Wasn't There" (1944) is a locked room story. It is full of ingenious ideas. It keeps proposing different solutions to its central riddle, in the tradition of E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913), Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), and other Golden Age multi-solutioned tales. The story is hard to read, and lacks gracefulness. It is perhaps more intriguing than fun. But still, it shows lots of thinking.
Aspects hearken back to "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem", and can be considered as a development of the ideas in that tale.
Sinister Invention. "The Episode of the Sinister Invention" (1946) is a minor pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. Aside from the zany inventions mentioned in the tale, the main interest here is some of Tarrant's use of deductive reasoning. Both this tale and the previous one show Tarrant functioning as an armchair detective.
The hall where the murder takes place is another of King's rooms. King deduces some architectural features of the hall from the story told him about the killing there by his policeman friend. Once again, King shows an interest in the engineering and construction of a room. And here, these features are made the center of logical deduction, an interesting extension of King's ideas.
Perilous Talisman. "The Episode of the Perilous Talisman" (1951) is a combination fantasy and mystery story. Such hybrid works are fairly common in the sf world. This tale is nicely done, with some clever ideas, and King's patented ability to create suspense. This seems to be King's final work of fiction published during his lifetime.
Although the plot deals with a small box, the ideas in the story seem oddly architectural. The box is of the oblong dimensions favored by King for his locked rooms, and is a similar complex engineering construction. The box also has features that recall "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935). King's interest in light and dark is also present. King's interest in optical devices recalls R. Austin Freeman. In general, King's concern with engineering and mechanical constructs is in the tradition of Scientific Detection.
The Egyptian box is "a foot long by about eight inches wide". This means the box is roughly in the Golden Ratio. There is much discussion today if ancient Egyptian architects consciously used the Golden Ratio in their work.
Absent Fish. "The Episode of the Absent Fish" was not published till long after King's death (EQMM April 1979). It is an imaginative story, in the tradition of "The Nail and the Requiem". Like that earlier story, it is a locked room problem, which takes place in an architecturally complex penthouse apartment. King's "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" is also architectural in subject. King was fascinated with architecture, and many of his most creative works deal with it. Even when it plays little role in the mystery plot, such as the New Jersey highway landscapes in "The Headless Horrors" and Obelists Fly High, it is a fascinating part of the tale. King likes the engineering aspects of architecture, such as the infrastructure of the buildings, machinery in them, such as elevators or gas stations, and their industrial construction. King's creative use of architecture is part of Golden Age mystery tradition, while his interest in their engineering aspects is relatively personal and unique.
Strengths and Weaknesses. It has a clever impossible crime plot, and surprises in its murder mystery that completely fooled me. And it has an enjoyable look at airplanes and airports of the era, in its early sections. So maybe I should be recommending it - or at least its plot.
However, the book has some real problems. The storytelling drags interminably, especially in the second half where King explores an all too obvious alibi subplot. The characters are nasty. There is endless propagandizing for King's controversial views on psychology, religion and science. It continues King's vicious stereotyping of minority groups, this time of gays. It is not a pleasant reading experience at all. King has been overpraised by mystery critics. While his works have too much plot creativity to ignore, they have too many other problems to be actually good.
One might also point out that Obelists Fly High lacks the fabulous plot complexity of Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr. Its story could be compressed to novella length without any harm.
Imagery and Settings. Obelists Fly High has some common imagery with other King works. Much of it takes place in an enclosed area, the airplane. This is similar to the penthouse of "Nail", the museum room of "Harp" and the basement room of "Codex". Common aspects:
Mysteries on Planes. The vivid background description of airports and air travel Way Back When is one of the most appealing features of the novel. There was much interest in mysteries set on planes during this period:
The illustration emphasizes that pilots of the era were armed, a fact made much of by King. Ostensibly, this was because they carried mail, and hence were officials of the US Government. But in reality, it seems to be contrived to make them authority figures during flight, and for the sake of image, along with their uniforms.
The William Sutherland and Franco Valiati titles on the above list are from Curtis Evans' article at The Passing Tramp. Thanks!
Ideologues. Obelists Fly High also has the fanatic ideologues of King's short stories. These extremely creepy characters generate horror from their participation in monstrous rituals and activities. But whereas the characters in Mr. Tarrant are members of fringe cults, those in Obelists Fly High are supporters of mainstream American belief systems: scientists. This gives the novel much more topicality and social punch, as well as controversy.
The Detective. Michael Lord, King's series sleuth in his novels, has some features in common with other Van Dine School detectives. Like them he is New York City based. In many ways, he is related to the "genius amateur with personal connection to the police" of Van Dine's Philo Vance and EQ's Ellery Queen. He is a young policeman, not an amateur, but he owes his association with the police to his friendship with the Police Commissioner, just as Vance has a friendship with the DA, and Ellery is the son of Inspector Richard Queen. He is a wealthy, sophisticated young man whose father was the Commissioner's best friend. The Commissioner made him a Lieutenant, but his genius detective skills made him rise rapidly to the rank of Captain. He is a Special Officer attached to the staff of the Police Commissioner.
As a social sophisticate attached to the police, he resembles Anthony Abbot's detective Thatcher Colt. Like Thatcher Colt, he is concerned with his leadership position. Lord's "I am in charge here" routine on the airplane in Obelists Fly High would make Al Haig blush. The Commissioner in King also resembles Colt in his insistence on saluting and other forms of discipline.
However, like other authority figures in King, Lord manages to completely lose control of his turf. The novel opens with an Epilogue, showing how Lord has botched his case, and lost control of the airplane to an armed criminal. In fact his performance here is one of the least effective of all Golden Age detectives. King has presumably been reading E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Shared features:
Mystery Traditions. Obelists Fly High occasionally echoes earlier mystery authors:
Stout's strongest feature as a writer is his superb dialogue. This dialogue shows the influence of that in the S.S. Van Dine books. Both authors indulged in complex, point-counter-point dialogues. Behind both authors is the stichomythia in Greek drama - the ingenious line by line counterpointing dialog that is so brilliant in Aeschylus and other writers. Stout's storytelling can also be superb. Like Van Dine, he knows how to make a really interesting tale unfold.
Stout's weakest feature is his puzzle plotting. His novellas are often well plotted, but his novels seem much weaker. The best Wolfe novel I have yet read with a good mystery plot is Some Buried Caesar. This book also has some of Stout's best humor and characterization, as well as some of Stout's most resonant symbolism, as discussed above. It is universally admired as one of its author's finest works. So we can all agree on something... Stout's fiction has been much praised by top critics of the 1940's (Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr), and the 90's (Jon L. Breen, William L. DeAndrea). The recent paperback release of Stout contains glowing introductory tributes from dozens of mystery writers. So why can't I enjoy much of it? Stout's bad plotting drives me crazy. I work my way through many of his novels, and get nothing in return. The Tecumseh Fox novel, Double For Death (1939), is especially disappointing in this regard, as is And Be a Villain (1948). So far, the Stout novels I have most actively enjoyed on all levels, puzzle plot and storytelling, are Some Buried Caesar, The Silent Speaker, Champagne for One, Plot It Yourself.
Also, there are some more idiosyncratic factors at work. All the fierce, unfriendly deal making in Stout's books is a big turn-off to me. I dislike purchasing something in an antique shop, or being involved in any situation where I have to negotiate a price with an antagonist out to get me. I just don't like adversarial situations. I never play combat-based computer games either. Adversarial negotiations have little to do with today's business world. Corporations are looking for people who are good at working with and supporting others on their team. Business negotiations center on trying to move toward win-win situations, coming up with creative ideas that benefit all parties. Antagonism is out, problem solving is in.
Van Dine often included collectors and enthusiasts in his tales. Examples are the dog lovers in The Kennel Murder Case (1932), the tropical fish lovers of The Dragon Murder Case (1933), the Egyptologists of The Scarab Murder Case (1929). Ellery Queen followed suit with the rare book lovers of many of his tales, and the stamp collectors of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). Stuart Palmer had the museum setting of "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), and the dog show setting of "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders" (1934). Rex Stout followed this Van Dine School tradition by using an orchid grower and/or flower show background for several of his works, including Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939), "Black Orchids" (1941), and "Easter Parade" (1957). There are also the expert chefs and gourmets of Too Many Cooks (1938) and "Poison à la Carte" (1958), and the fishing expedition of "Immune to Murder" (1955).
Van Dine often included bizarre, ingenious murder methods in his work. These occur frequently in Stout as well. The opening sections of a Stout mystery often depict a mystery against a colorful background. How the crime was committed is completely unclear. Eventually, Nero and Archie figure out the details of the bizarre murder method used. The solution to this problem is revealed almost at once, often around half way through the story, or even earlier. Throughout the rest of the tale, the focus is figuring out whodunit, the actual killer. This is revealed at the end of the story. This two part construction, figuring out the method of the murder in the first half, the identity of the killer in the second, occurs in such works as Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939), "Black Orchids" (1941), "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (1942) and "Poison à la Carte" (1958). Stout often put his greatest creativity into the first half of these tales. Both the colorful background, and the mystery puzzle surrounding the hidden method of murder, are often brilliantly done. By contrast, the actual whodunit section in the second half tends to be much less ingenious.
The Van Dine School often emphasized positive portraits of minority characters, and attacks on racism. This is true of Stout as well, especially in his looks at black characters and Civil Rights in Too Many Cooks and A Right to Die. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers. One also suspects from his name that top operative & key series character Saul Panzer is Jewish, although this is not discussed explicitly.
Van Dine's work emphasized the individual psychology of the characters; their diverse psychological profiles served as identifications of the killer. Some of Stout's novels focus especially on individual attributes, especially tastes and preferences:
Stout's prose also has little in common with the hard-boiled writers. It has few metaphors or wisecracks, although Archie lets off some startling similes in "Black Orchids" (1941). Nor does Stout indulge in the ornate descriptive passages of the hard-boileds.
One might also point out that Stout was not an alumnus of Black Mask magazine, unlike many hard-boiled authors. His Wolfe stories appeared in books and slick magazines right from the start.
One can also question whether Archie really relates to the hard-boiled dicks of his era. He talks in a direct way, and has few pretensions as an All-American kind of guy. But he also seems much fresher and less cynical and hard-bitten than Sam Spade, for instance.
Another possible precursor is R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke detective series. Similarities:
Stout's work has similarities to the American Scientific School:
Examples of these women include:
The League of Frightened Men presents a negatively stereotyped view of a disabled man. This is offensive and tasteless.
For that matter, I didn't like the negative view of poetry, as something coming from a diseased brain.
The League of Frightened Men lacks mystery plot ingenuity. SPOILERS. Particularly bad is the way the series of apparent crimes is eventually explained away as simply a tangle of coincidences. This plot teases us with a mystery then fails to come up with an actual culprit and cause.
This is a different sort of two-part construction for Stout. It is NOT his often-used structure of "the first half explores how the murder was done, the second half figures out who did it".
Links to Champagne for One. The Red Box anticipates Champagne for One. In both:
Links to Too Many Cooks. The psychological test in The Red Box (Chapter 6) anticipates the ingredient guessing game in Too Many Cooks. Both have characters going one-by-one into a room with food, and making some response to the food. There are differences: the test in The Red Box is arranged by the detectives to help solve the mystery, while the game in Too Many Cooks is arranged by chefs, and is purely culinary in intent.
Class. Archie says "a workingman like me is class-conscious" (Chapter 6).
Sweets with Fruit. Among the pieces eaten from the candy box are a candied pineapple and a candied plum (Chapter 5). These can be classified as "sweets with fruit". In the later "A Window for Death", mango ice cream will play a role: also a "sweet with fruit". There is no mystery plot necessity for Stout to make either the candy or the ice cream involve fruit. But it seems to be imagery he liked, or found vivid or interesting.
SPOILERS. Also notable is the climactic American Dinner featuring US contributions to haute cuisine (start of Chapter 16). This is created by black cooks, who get publicly recognized. This combines the book's patriotic American theme with its Civil Rights advocacy. The US is seen as a place where many races contribute to national achievement.
Other racial minorities are visible: a woman is a Chinese-American; pavilions in the resort are named for West Virginia counties, with the main one in the book named Pocahontas. This is a diverse America.
Appalachians. Most of the characters in Stout's books are sophisticated and classy. The same is true of his white West Virginians, such as young Prosecuting Attorney Barry Tolman. Ugly, all-too-common stereotypes of Appalachians are completely absent in Too Many Cooks.
Catalans. The Spanish Civil War is raging, cutting off access to Spain, we briefly learn. Two of the main characters are Catalans: Jerome Berin and his daughter Constanza. Berin is from the real-life Catalan town of Figueres (which means "fig trees" in Catalan, one of the novel's more subtle food references). One suspects that the Spanish Civil War had heightened Stout's awareness of Catalans.
Experts. The great chefs are depicted as genuine experts in their field. They are satirized for being temperamental, and having professional rivalries. But they really know their stuff. There is none of today's corrosive anti-intellectual put-down of experts.
Experts in Too Many Cooks are depicted as still having things to learn: Nero Wolfe teaches them about American cuisine. Everyone is shown as having plenty of room to grow, and to expand knowledge.
Secret Knowledge. Both the chef who invented it and Nero Wolfe want to keep the recipe for "saucisse minuit" (midnight sausage) secret. Various tactics are discussed for doing so, including never writing the recipe down (Chapters 1, 17). These tactics and the struggle of others to get the recipe, show mild ingenuity. While this secret knowledge is about food, its concealment techniques are similar to those in spy novels about top secret info.
I confess I found myself out of sympathy with this goal of secrecy. Throughout history, the biggest problem has been spreading knowledge: educating a mass public. And trying to ensure that valuable knowledge is not lost through secrecy and/or neglect.
The recipe, and the ways of keeping it secret, reminded me of the guilds and their control of secret knowledge in the futuristic science fiction novel Starman Jones (1953) by Robert Heinlein. The guilds keep all knowledge in their heads, and pass it down orally to students. I disapproved of this, too - as perhaps Heinlein intended readers to.
The opposite approach was taken by Julia Child, who educated a mass public about haute cuisine. First through her pioneer cookbooks, then her TV series, she constantly innovated to teach Everybody about "advanced" food.
Nero Wolfe says that mass knowledge of the recipe would be a disaster (Chapter 1). According to him, most people can't cook, and if the recipe were widely known, people would simply make terrible, inferior versions of it. This point of view is that a mass public is too inferior to use knowledge.
Julia Child had to face this issue too: she spent much effort in educating people about techniques of cooking, trying to elevate their skills. Unlike Wolfe, she was optimistic that through the public's hard work, and her skilled instruction, that she could elevate public ability to use knowledge.
"Black Orchids" deals with the secret, guarded knowledge of growing the title orchids. Wolfe tries to get this knowledge for himself too, in a plot-line that seem modeled on the one in Too Many Cooks.
None of the Wolfe books shows the efforts to massively spread and increase knowledge about plants, practiced by organizations like the International Palm Society. Starting in the 1950's it brought professional botanists and amateur "citizen scientists" together to research and assemble knowledge about palm trees and publish it in books and journals. Both the Society and Julia Child had a vision of expert knowledge being published and widely shared.
While many Stout novels focus on a business, this one centers on a Civil Rights organization, playing the same structural role in the novel as a business typically does in a Wolfe book. (Another mystery set at a liberal "non-profit" is The Sleepwalker (1974) by Helen McCloy.)
Please click here for my discussion of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.
Organizations. Nero Wolfe tales often focus on an organization or business, and some its leading employees. The Silent Speaker is unusual in that it has two organizations.
The Silent Speaker recalls "Booby Trap". Both have:
Recordings. The Silent Speaker recalls Alphabet Hicks:
There is also a sound suggestion based on a list (end of Chapter 1), about the list's possible purpose.
In addition, Wolfe comes up with a good plan for further detection, finding a way forward when the case looks like a blank wall (end of Chapter 3). This too is creative detection. SPOILERS. This plan is to research "typing services".
Most of this detection is based on two documents available to the detectives, a list and a letter. Deduction from a list recalls Warrant for X (1938) by Philip MacDonald. Stout's deductions are completely different from MacDonald's, though.
Publishing Mystery. The opening section of Murder by the Book is set in the publishing industry and concerns a mysterious manuscript, anticipating Plot It Yourself. Stout himself had a real-life career in publishing, working at the Vanguard Press.
Law Firm Mystery. Later sections of Murder by the Book concentrate on the employees of a law firm. This anticipates "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo".
Out of Town. Murder by the Book and Might As Well Be Dead open with an out-of-town, Midwestern businessman consulting Nero Wolfe to help his child, who lives in New York City.
Woman Workplaces. The "typing services" are all businesses run by women, as the book points out (Chapter 4). This anticipates the answering phone business in "The Next Witness". Both works show women as the backbone of communication industries. Both show women working in cramped office spaces. And presumably none of these women workers are well paid.
Too Many Cooks takes place at a spa where the cooks and waiters are all black: something that plays a major role in this pro Civil Rights novel. Like the Wolfe looks at all-female places of employment, this examines a business that depends on the work of The Other.
The Opening. The opening (Chapters 1-4) is a missing persons plot. It shows Wolfe and Archie slowly converging on a solution. While there is some simple but solid detective work, this section is mainly notable for its emotionally affecting story. It is one of Stout's most involving sagas. The character of P.H., beaten up by life, anticipates the protagonist of Jack Webb's One for My Dame (1961), who is also memorably delineated as one of life's pounded and saddened.
The Rest of the Novel: The Main Mystery. The rest of the book tells a murder mystery. This recalls the novellas Stout was writing in this era. (SPOILERS) The central idea of the solution, is to look to see who had the knowledge and ability to stage an important event. This recalls the key idea of "Too Many Detectives" (1956) of the same year. The details of the two plots are highly different however, despite their common structural approach. Another difference: in "Too Many Detectives" this knowledge-ability concept is only revealed in the solution at the tale's finale. In Might As Well Be Dead, it emerges in Wolfe's reasoning midway through the book. It is implicit in Wolfe's instructions to his detectives (Chapter 7), and fully explained by him in a later scene with the police (Chapter 12). The latter chapter has two fine episodes of detection as well, one building on the other. At the end, during the solution (Chapter 18), we get a full depiction of the details of the knowledge-ability situation.
Stout includes a few mild clues to the identity of the killer: a relationship (Chapter 10), some of the killer's behavior (Chapter 13). However, these hardly amount to the sort of rigorous fair play one finds in an Ellery Queen novel, say. The identity of the killer is not perhaps a triumph.
Worse is the killer's motive, which is completely withheld from the reader before the finale.
Might As Well Be Dead is unusual in Stout's work, in that the suspects do not all work in the same industry or business. Nor do we get an inside look at any business or institution, also unlike Stout. In other words, Might As Well Be Dead lacks a "Background". The characters all work in various white collar New York City jobs, some fairly upper middle class in the Stout manner, but we learn little about their work. These are the sort of people who run through Stout, but divorced from their business backgrounds.
Fertility Rituals. Before that, the opening scenes depict a party with many aspects of a fertility ritual. This formal society dinner party embodies all the rituals of that strangely elaborate social protocol. These are combined with an unusual asymmetry between the men and women guests. In many ways, the men are on display here as potential romantic partners to the women, and vice versa. This gives an odd and interesting effect to all the ritual. The institution with the women recalls the female factory in "Bitter End" (1940), and its comparison to a maternity ward. The romantic exhibition of the men, including Archie, who are their most polished and suave here, recalls tales such as "A Window for Death" (1956), and Archie's friendship with Arrow. Archie clearly enjoys taking part in this refined ritual exhibition. The novel demonstrates Stout's abilities to create unique situations, ones loaded with symbolic resonance.
The dinner party and the women's institution recall a bit Hulbert Footner's The House With the Blue Door (1942).
Mystery Plot. The actual murder is somewhat in the tradition of Ellery Queen's Calamity Town (1942). SPOILERS:
The tone is different too. In Calamity Town Ellery's watching is stretched out over many chapters, to maximize suspense. Champagne for One does the opposite: it restricts Archie's watching to just a few minutes. Up to that point, the party in Champagne for One is fun and mainly light-hearted, for both Archie and the reader. Only at the last minute does Archie have to start watching, and then almost immediately the murder occurs.
Champagne for One has a creative puzzle plot, one with aspects of the impossible crime. Once again, Stout shows ingenuity in showing how an inexplicable crime was actually done.
The book's subject matter, an ingenious poisoning with a dinner party set-up, resembles Stout's novella "Poison à la Carte" (1958) written immediately after Champagne for One, although the two works' puzzle plots are quite different. A killing at a party also recalls Too Many Cooks.
The opening of Champagne for One (Chapters 1-6) is pretty exclusively confined to the party, initial investigation, and a backstory of some of the characters. This is a vigorously told sequence.
Class Warfare. The ability of the upper classes to buy justice and the police is a theme running through Champagne for One. Archie has to defy everyone, and stick to his guns with his "inconvenient" story, fighting against the rich and the police. He gets some help from another working man (Chapter 3). Champagne for One shows working people like Archie, on their own in conflict with the rich and their police supporters.
The Police Commissioner is depicted in an especially negative light in Champagne for One (Chapter 11) and, with a bit of ambiguity, The Doorbell Rang (Chapter 4).
One of the women seems to be a lesbian, although this is never made explicit. There is also what seems to be another essentially sympathetic lesbian character, the more mannish Judy in next year's "Method Three for Murder" (1960).
Later sections (Chapter 3) take place in a house with an elaborately decorated set of rooms. The decor emphasizes yellow and red, like Nero Wolfe's office. The house might be seen as something of a dark parody of Wolfe's brownstone. Both are west side Manhattan houses, with elaborate interior design, presided over by a wealthy, powerful man and his support staff. Both involve wish fulfillment fantasy, and personal relationships. After this opening, the book becomes much less interesting.
"Disguise for Murder" (1950) previously involved murder and a love nest, like Too Many Clients. It also has a tailing sequence, with a simple discussion os some alternative approaches.
There is a clever mini-mystery in the opening (Chapters 1-2), which is the best part of the book.
Taking on the FBI. The book is best in its first third (Chapters 1 - 5), when Wolfe is taking on the FBI. Wolfe later resumes his encounter with the FBI (second half of Chapter 11 and Chapter 12), leading to some mildly ingenious comic fun. One might stress that this is the FBI of the later J. Edgar Hoover era, not the reformed FBI that emerged after Hoover's passing.
The opening is eclectic, with many diverse aspects of a "duel with the FBI" taken on. Some recall earlier Wolfe books:
Stout seizes the chance to offer vivid character sketches of various series regulars, as they get involved with the events.
The Trap. The trap is amusing (second half of Chapter 11 and Chapter 12). The account emphasizes living arrangements within Wolfe's brownstone. Activities at the brownstone in general are one of the key subjects in the Wolfe saga, always a fun subject for readers. The scheme also draws on two favorite Wolfe topics: orchids and gourmet dinners. All of this makes it different from typical "biter bit" schemes in mystery fiction, which do not have this sort of background to draw on.
Archie's speech (near the end of Chapter 2) mentions how good the FBI are at getting through locked doors. Wolfe's trap uses this skill against them.
Murder Mystery Plot. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is taken up by a poorly constructed murder mystery.
Distributing Information. Rachel Bruner distributes the book to a startlingly wide group of social authority figures (Chapter 1). This recalls Stout's real-life work as founder and chairman of the Writers' War Board. The Board created and distributed truly massive amounts of information. Stout's work at the Vanguard Press also focussed on getting political material before a wide audience.
The Photo. A nude photo of the male murder victim turns up, likely taken by one of his girlfriends during a tryst (Chapter 10). The photo is thus seen as part of a heterosexual relationship.
But in real-life, nude or near-nude male "physique" photos were often associated with gay men. Several professors' careers were shattered in the 1960 Newton Arvin case, when police established they had such photos of near-nude adult men. The mystery novel Murder's Little Helper (1963) (end of Chapter 3) by George Bagby refers to "art studies" one can purchase in Times Square: a gay context.
Earlier there are secret meetings between men in hotel rooms (Chapter 4). This is part of the FBI intrigue. But it also subtly evokes the clandestine meetings between gay men of that era.
The Hand in the Glove (1937) is an unpleasant book. This is due to the relationships of the characters, who are both full of guilty secrets, and given to lying to each other about their romantic relationships. Because of this, a nightmarish anxiety hangs over the work. Few people ever speak up and are honest with each other, and when they do the results are so traumatic they are not to be born. The character of the servant De Roche recalls Stout's early story "Sanétomo" (1915), but without the intelligently sympathetic presentation of that tale.
All of this does not do justice to Stout's detective heroine Dol Bonner, who is far and away the most interesting character in the story. She is an exemplary feminist, battling male authority figures for her right to be a detective. Stout makes clear all the opposition she has to face from men in the book, and her intelligence, courage and principled resistance to their oppression in struggling to perform as a detective. Dol does not wimp out. She consistently shows intelligence in solving the crime, and successfully performs all the detection in the book, with little help from either the police or men associates.
Dol Bonner is shown at her best in Chapters 4 - 10. These are the sections describing the initial investigation of the crime. These are also the best mystery plot chapters of the book. Like many Stout works, we see how the crime was committed in the first half of the book, and then, often anticlimactically, who did it in the second half. The Hand in the Glove adheres to this pattern. Chapters 4 - 10 set forth the "how dun it" of the crime. This material is nowhere as clever as such later Stout how-done-its as "Black Orchids" or Some Buried Caesar, but it still makes interesting reading.
Unfortunately Stout never brought Dol back for a second case, although she makes cameo appearances in some Nero Wolfe stories. She remains a good character in what is largely a bad book.
The Office. Dol Bonner's office, like Wolfe's, is full of brightly colored furniture. We are also informed of the materials from which it is made. It is as if Stout is appealing to all the senses to make this place real.
Alphabet Hicks suffers from being derivative. Many aspects of the book were done earlier and better by previous writers.
Alphabet Hicks has some good sections: Chapters 3, 8, 10, 11. These show interesting settings: the complex office and landscapes of the crime scene, and Hicks' room (Chapter 8). They include much of the tale's use of technology. These sections also are set forth with Stout's story telling skill.
The Detective. Alphabet Hicks is a sort of private investigator, although he only occasionally takes cases, and mainly works as a taxi driver.
Alphabet Hicks is a former lawyer, now disbarred. In this he resembles an earlier character, Donald Lam by Erle Stanley Gardner. Lam debuted in The Bigger They Come (1939). Both Lam and Hicks wind up working as private investigators.
Alphabet Hicks engages in bad behavior I didn't like, in early sections of the book:
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. As Hicks himself points out (Chapter 24), the killer's alibi and the trick used to generate it, are old and obvious dodges. In fact, S.S. Van Dine was pleading for writers to stop using this ancient gimmick, in his anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) (see the last section of the Introduction). To be fair, Stout does introduce what Hicks calls a "new twist" on this ancient plot.
There is a nicely done little mystery subplot (Chapter 8).
Setting. Among the best parts of Alphabet Hicks is its crime setting (Chapters 3, 10, 11). The lab is a high tech environment. It anticipates a later high tech office, in "The Zero Clue" (1953).
However, the lab is not only a technological area. It is also a design display area, showing what can be done with plastics. Businesses involved with design will repeatedly appear in the Nero Wolfe tales.
The design display in Alphabet Hicks allows a rich use of color, some of the most elaborate color imagery in Stout (Chapter 3). Such a riot of color anticipates Horatio's cottage in Ellery Queen's There Was an Old Woman (1943) (Chapter 4). See also the multi-colored farm machinery in Sitting Up Dead (1958) (Chapter 10) by Aaron Marc Stein.
The setting is introduced in a long tailing sequence (Chapter 3). The next year "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (1942) will have Archie Goodwin doing a similar long tail. Such tailing sequences enable Stout to include journeys, usually a pleasant feature of fiction in which the hero travels through a landscape, telling us about it as he journeys.
Plastics. The company in Alphabet Hicks invents and manufactures plastics. Plastics return in such mysteries as:
Sound Recording. Bugged rooms and sound recording on records play a key role in Alphabet Hicks. Earlier such technology appeared in The Dead Can Tell (1940) by Helen Reilly. Alphabet Hicks was likely published late in 1941: reviews came out in January 1942 magazines. This would have given Alphabet Hicks plenty of time to be influenced by The Dead Can Tell.
Another link: both Alphabet Hicks and The Dead Can Tell mention The New Yorker. The heroine of The Dead Can Tell sometimes works for The New Yorker.
BIG SPOILERS. Hearing only sounds of an event, and possible deceptions enabled by this, will later appear in Stout's "Murder Is No Joke" (1958).
Milieu. Alphabet Hicks has features that recall a slightly earlier novel The Deadly Truth (1941) by Helen McCloy:
Intellectual Property. One firm in Alphabet Hicks is accused of stealing another firm's inventions. This was a key subject in Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) by Freeman Wills Crofts.
These problems aside, the tale is entertaining. It contains an enjoyable legal fight within it.
The unequal relationship in the tale between Warner and his wife will be transferred to Archie Godwin and Nero Wolfe, with Archie struggling against Nero's dominance the same way Warner struggles against his wife's. Similarly, we will soon have the relationship between the smart young law clerk and his ineffective but powerful boss in "Justice Ends at Home" (1915). Stout tends to see his central relationships as one of dominance and submission between two people with very different power.
One of the main characters in Stout's mainstream novel Forest Fire (1933) is lazy, like Wolfe and Leg.
"Justice Ends at Home" is very readable, but the puzzle plot is obvious, and the story can only be recommended to people curious about Stout's evolution as a writer.
There are good ideas about a cinema (Chapter 6).
Among the tale's other merits: a look at corruption and "influence" being brought to bear on the police authorities of the era. Such frank looks at civic corruption are part of the American Scientific School's traditions.
The opening of the story echoes Some Buried Caesar (1939) in dealing with the mass production of food. The manufacture of the food, in an antiquated factory run entirely by women, is compared to a maternity ward by Stout. This bizarre production of food-as-children in the first half of the story is echoed by the real and even more bizarre child raising practices in the second half. The deliberate spoiling of the food seems rather analogous to the sacrifice of the bull in Caesar. It also anticipates the rejection of the child in the second part of the story. The architecture of the factory also seems interesting, with tunnels for trucks leading in and out representing the female body.
The idea of a female factory symbolizing the reproductive process recalls Herman Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids" (1855), which describes a paper factory. There are important differences between Melville and Stout as well, however:
The storytelling of the tale is fairly weak. The non-series characters are uninteresting. Series regulars come off poorly:
However, the subsidiary subplot mysteries in "Booby Trap" are all quite clever.
One subplot mystery in "Booby Trap" is simply of how the crime was done. "Booby Trap" is one of Stout's "how-done-its": a mystery where the detective and reader have to figure out how the crime was physically committed.
SPOILERS. Another subplot mystery is how the suitcase vanished, and who took it. This vanishing comes close to being impossible, due to the military guard watching the area. Such impossible disappearances of objects are common in some Van Dine School writers, such as Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer, but are rarer in Stout.
SPOILERS. Also fascinating in "Booby Trap" is the mystery of the roles of the characters: what they want, what they are doing, how they fit into the big picture.
The Military. Stout derives many paradoxes from the military setting. This is one of the few works of his that has such a background.
Stout was an ardent patriot, who spent the war years doing public service on the war effort. Yet he is quite skeptical about the military. He depicts it as an institution riddled with both politics and corruption. This is the point of view that will be found later in Lawrence G. Blochman's service tales. Stout's point of view seems to stem from a suspicion of the rich and powerful in all areas. Since such people tend toward corruption, he logically deduces that they will be equally corrupt when put in charge of the Armed Forces. Stout's politics can be described as liberal, but definitely not radical. After the war, in the late 1940's, Stout will be just as savagely critical of the Communist far left as he was of fascists and appeasers during the war. This anti-Communist stance also anticipates Blochman, and his work of the 1950's.
If Stout was critical of high level Army officials, he was fascinated by the way the Army was run. He clearly loved the uniforms, the saluting, and all the military and Intelligence ethos. His attitude echoed that of the 1940's American public, who regarded such things with similar enthusiasm, almost as a new toy. By the 1960's, such things will be unfashionable with the general public, and much ridiculed. Stout was plainly thrilled to put Archie in uniform, and give him an officer's rank. This is the closest Archie gets to an independent life in any of the tales. It is also the most recognition Archie gets from society as a person of ability.
There will be a little of the same effect again, when Archie goes out on a prestigious solo social outing at the start of Champagne for One (1958), and gets involved in a murder mystery. The tuxedo that Archie and the other men wear is referred to metaphorically as a uniform.
The Military and Industry. "Booby Trap" looks at corruption in links between industry and military production. It is especially concerned with new technology. Another mystery writer who explored these themes was Leslie Ford in Murder in the O.P.M. (1942) and especially in The Woman in Black (1947). Both writers showed daring in taking on a controversial subject.
The Letters. SPOILERS. The mass-mailing of letters in "Booby Trap" anticipates the mass distribution of books in The Doorbell Rang. Both have:
Duncan Street. The Military Intelligence building in "Booby Trap" is on Duncan Street. New York City has a real-life Duncan Street in the Bronx, but it is unclear if Stout meant to refer to that.
The milieu, a barbershop, is far more working class than much of Stout's fiction.
The story shows Stout's flair for buildings which are more than homes, and also have elements of an institution. Wolfe's brownstone is one such establishment, and the Huck home in this novella is another. It echoes Wolfe's in subtle ways. Both have:
"The Zero Clue" is about a business that uses mathematical probability to predict the future. The story's ideas about using probability and data to uncover knowledge are beginning to come true in real life, with such modern computer techniques as neural networks and database mining. The story is ahead of its time: almost a piece of science fiction.
"The Zero Clue" itself mentions science fiction, in the section on the inventor. Archie refers to it as "space science fiction". Another book by Van Dine School mystery writers, Frances and Richard Lockridge's A Client Is Canceled (1951), will include a science fiction writer as a romantic hero. Science fiction was beginning to be known to a wider audience in those years.
Customers as Suspects. "The Zero Clue" is one of many Wolfe tales focussing on a small but successful New York business. However, unlike many such tales, the suspects are the business' customers, rather than the business' staff. In fact, we never see or hear about any staff of the business, aside from its mathematician head.
Each customer has an interesting story about why they want to hire the business. Most of these stories give a detailed look at how the business' use of probability could benefit some situation. This approach enables an in-depth look at the main scientific premise of "The Zero Clue". One suspects that Stout chose the customer-centric approach of "The Zero Clue" precisely so he could explore the business' use of probability in this way.
One customer runs a fashion magazine. Fashion and couture businesses regularly show up in Wolfe tales.
Scientific Detection. By contrast, one customer Susan Maturo is a nurse who worked for a hospital. Hospitals are far less common in Wolfe tales. Medical workers and settings are frequent in Scientific Detection tales by authors other than Stout. Both the mathematical subject matter of "The Zero Clue", and its hospital background, help make "The Zero Clue" a tale of Scientific Detection. So does the episode about the inventor.
SPOILERS. The violence at the hospital recalls "Booby Trap". "Booby Trap" is also a tale about new technology, and thus qualifies as Scientific Detection.
Design. Leo Heller's business office has a "futuristic" feel in its decor. This is perhaps intended to symbolize the high-tech, mathematical nature of the business itself. This design approach is different from that of most businesses in the Wolfe saga. It lacks "chic". Instead, it suggests there is something atypical about this business, and that it stands outside conventional social norms of the era.
Dying Message. "The Zero Clue" is one of Stout's few Dying Message mysteries.
"The Zero Clue" comes up with three different interpretations of the dying message. All three are clever.
Identifying the Killer. There is nothing in "The Zero Clue" that would allow the reader to identify the criminal before the end. Ordinarily this is simply a flaw. But Wolfe near the end of "The Zero Clue" outlines a plan of future detective work, that should enable the police to identify the killer. The plan is sound and logical, and would likely work. Just the announcement of this plan by Wolfe is enough to get the real killer to confess. This makes for a substantial finale to the tale.
Doubling Wolfe. Mathematician Leo Heller has features in common with Nero Wolfe. Both:
Susan Maturo: Someone Different. Suspect Susan Maturo is different from the other suspects:
These differences with Susan Maturo play a structural role in the tale's plot.
A few Nero Wolfe mysteries have an "extra woman": a non-suspect who nevertheless plays a key role in the plot. Susan Maturo is not such a character - but she approaches the "extra woman" category. She is still a suspect - but less suspicious than the other suspects in the tale.
Mystery Plot. "Dog" shows Stout's fondness for animals. It also has some very good plotting, with a complex mystery situation becoming gradually unveiled, in the Anna Katherine Green style. Along with Some Buried Caesar, it is Stout's best mystery work. It seems significant that both of these outstanding pieces have animal backgrounds.
The solution depends on ideas that are cleverly concealed by the tale. This is most satisfying. SPOILERS. These ideas are separate from the gradually unveiling mystery situation in the midsections of the tale. They give the tale an extra dimension of plotting.
Feminism. "Die Like A Dog" raises issues that later would be of importance to feminists. "Die Like A Dog" is one of Stout's most feminist tales.
A Building of Artists. "Die Like A Dog" takes place in a small apartment building with a handful of tenants. It resembles such rooming-house Stout novellas as "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Counterfeit for Murder". Unlike them, it has no landlady running the building. And the characters in "Die Like A Dog" are much less eccentric than those in the rooming-house tales. And just a touch more affluent, although hardly rich.
The characters in "Die Like A Dog" tend to have jobs in the arts, broadly speaking. This is a Van Dine School tradition. The rooming-house inhabitants in "Counterfeit for Murder" also have professions in the arts.
The apartment in "Die Like A Dog" is in Greenwich Village, a good choice for a building full of tenants in the arts. It is located on one of those very short Greenwich Village backstreets, that are so colorful and unusual. Such backstreets appear in earlier Van Dine School writers: Helen Reilly: Murder in the Mews (1931), All Concerned Notified (1939), Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940), Anthony Abbot: About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937).
Stout's interest in legal ideas is continued in two of his next tales, "Immune to Murder" and "Too Many Detectives". The opening of "Detectives" also builds upon some plot ideas in the opening of "The Next Witness".
Links to Too Many Cooks. "Immune to Murder" is very much a tale in the same mode as Too Many Cooks:
International Intrigue. While the State Department men in The Black Mountain are wholly admirable, Assistant Secretary of State David M. Leeson in "Immune to Murder" is a more ambiguous figure. Both tales bring elements of International Intrigue to Stout's work.
"Immune to Murder" has vivid characterization. Oddly, one benefit of the International perspective is that it helps get very different people into the plot. State Department officials are different from oil tycoons, who differ from foreign diplomats, who are not the local police. This is a more varied cast than Stout tales where everyone works for the same business.
Conflict over oil rights is a major plot element in "Immune to Murder". This is even more timely today. Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
Landscape. "Immune to Murder" has an elaborate river landscape as part of its plot. Landscapes are not common in Stout's mystery work, but he shows he can do them well. The river perhaps echoes the brook in Stout's Alphabet Hicks (Chapter 3). River landscapes are quite frequent in British mysteries of the Golden Age.
Adirondacks. The Adirondacks setting is a favorite of Rufus King, occurring in A Variety of Weapons (1942) and "The Steps to Murder" (1960). Arthur B. Reeve used it in "Spontaneous Combustion" (1911). Reeve, King and Stout all feature luxurious Adirondacks compounds of the rich. Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Z (1933) refers briefly to a rich man's cabin in the Adirondacks. Today the Adirondacks are popular in mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming, S.W. Hubbard, Jamie Sheffield, and Gary and Justin VanRiper.
"A Window for Death" is one of Stout's "how-done-its": Wolfe and the reader have to solve the mystery of how the crime was committed. The killing resembles the how-done-it in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death", in that both killings are cleverly disguised as natural deaths due to illness.
Johnny Arrow. "A Window for Death" has a good character in Johnny Arrow. The friendship that develops between Arrow and Archie is a welcome addition to Archie's world.
Harassment. "A Window for Death", like "Die Like a Dog" and "Too Many Detectives", shows Stout becoming sensitized to women's issues. And unfortunately, the harassment of women the tale critiques is still all-too-common today.
An Influence from Gardner. Elements of "A Window for Death" recall Erle Stanley Gardner:
Surrealism: Echoes. SPOILERS. The current crime echoes and repeats elements of a second crime. This is a surrealistic effect. Such "surrealistic echoes" are a standard gambit in mystery fiction, and a welcome one.
The murder in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" also echoes an earlier death.
Uranium. The prospectors have grown rich by finding Uranium. Uranium plays a significant role in the modern world, although this is not much discussed in the story. Van Dine School fiction often offered its readers a view into "modern life". You could read it, and learn what was happening in America's largest city, New York. It was up-to-date.
"Too Many Detectives" has an Ellery Queen like approach to its puzzle plotting, complete with such EQ traits as:
"Christmas Party" recalls The Red Box in that both:
SPOILERS. "Easter Parade" reminds us that S.S. Van Dine liked to experiment with unusual murder methods; Stout's version of the same sometimes involves mechanical contraptions. Such strange devices show up in "Easter Parade" and in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-lance (1934).
"Murder Is No Joke" recalls The Red Box in being set at an elite Manhattan couture business. And is similar to The Red Box and such tales influenced by The Red Box as "Christmas Party" and Champagne for One in involving cyanide poisoning.
SPOILERS. The backstory gets international intrigue going: something Stout liked in his tales.
Mystery Plot. "Murder Is No Joke" has a well constructed mystery plot. One learns steadily more and more about the facts behind the crime. This occurs throughout the tale, rather than being all saved for the finale. The gradual uncovering of the truth is due to good detective work by Wolfe, Archie and Cramer.
I like the way Inspector Cramer contributes to the unravelling of the mystery (Chapter 2). It is good to see Cramer depicted as intelligent, and eager to do detective thinking.
Nero Wolfe cleverly connects up two apparently unrelated cases (first part of Chapter 3), something he also did in Murder by the Book (end of Chapter 2). He tells Archie the cases are connected, but doesn't tell him how. This creates a mystery for both Archie and the reader to solve, as Archie explicitly notes. This mystery is solved later, with an explanation by Wolfe (first part of Chapter 4). This is a good mystery puzzle plot. It is part of the gradual, step by step unearthing of more facts about the crime.
There is also something "meta" or reflexive about this. It involves an extra layer, beyond the mystery itself: what Wolfe tells and does not tell Archie and the reader.
Phone Numbers. SPOILERS. Both Wolfe and Archie think hard, and bring back the memory of what a phone number sounded like when it was dialed. This helps them differentiate between two numbers (Chapter 4). This is good, and part of the tale's admirable detective work. But an even better trick is in Hulbert Footner's Who Killed the Husband? (1941) and in Holly Roth's spy thriller The Mask of Glass (1954), where a man learns to identify the digits of a phone number, simply though hearing them dialed.
The Clue. "Murder Is No Joke" has an enjoyable clue at the end used by Wolfe to determine the murderer. It pleasantly takes the reader by surprise. It involves Wolfe thinking in a new way, about something he and the reader already knew.
But this clue has some problems. Most - but not all - of the clue was shared earlier with the reader. And while only one of the known suspects is consistent with this clue, Wolfe doesn't investigate the possibility that some outsider we haven't seen before committed the crime.
Tailing. "Frame-Up for Murder" opens with a tailing sequence: something Stout was interested in. Like the tailing in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death", it is a comic sequence, with off-trail happenings. The tailing is not present in the shorter version "Murder Is No Joke".
Character Notes. John J. McAleer's Introduction to the revised version "Frame-Up for Murder" has an interesting revelation. It reprints Stout's character list for the story, from his previously unpublished notes. The list includes the characters' names, ages and professions. The professions mainly re-appear in the actual story, but the ages do not. One wonders if there are unpublished character lists for many Stout works. They would make a good addition to Stout's oeuvre.
Too Many Cooks, Stout's earlier mystery about chefs, also has elements of permutation theory in its mystery plot (Chapter 11). (Another resemblance: Too Many Cooks is about a gathering of chefs; "Poison à la Carte" features a gathering of gourmets.)
Processes. Despite all the talk about food in the Wolfe stories, there is little actual description of eating, or of food as a sensuous experience. Stout is much more oriented to the act of preparing the meal: setting the menu, getting the ingredients, cooking, and serving the food. It is this whole preparation process that intrigues Stout. Food descriptions in Stout tend to focus on the ingredients. We read about mango ice cream, or steamed fish with a sauce made of mussels and mushrooms. These descriptions are more recipes, descriptions of how the food is made, than they are of what the food tastes like.
Stout in general is a process oriented writer. His stories are full of processes, from methods of detection, to Archie's repeated challenge of gathering together the suspects, which is always described in detail:
The mystery puzzle recalls, in general terms, "Too Many Detectives": both involve access to knowledge. Stout comes up with a clever puzzle gimmick in the solution.
The story's main weakness is that the murder plot is so unmotivated: something Wolfe recognizes and tries to dance around in his solution.
"Method Three for Murder" has a number of subplots that are not mysteries, but which greatly enrich the story:
Gay Subtexts. Stout's "The Rope Dance" (1916) is an early look at a cowboy roper coming to New York City, and using his talents there. Stout would later use a similar plot in his Wolfe novella "The Rodeo Murder" (1960), some forty years later.
In both stories, the potential of the rope imagery to suggest bondage is lightly brushed on. Stout wants to titillate his readers' fantasies a little without appearing to cross the lines of good taste. Also in "The Rope Dance", there are suggestions of Stout's triangle situations in the story's imagery. The hero is supposed to rope the heroine as part of his act, but he loses his job by roping the villain in the audience instead. If the roping can be thought of as a form of sexual advance, we see the hero pursuing a man instead of a woman, and losing society's approval in the process. All this is below the surface of the tale however: superficially, the final roping is just the hero catching a bad guy.
Similarly, cowboy Cal Barrow's proposition to Archie in "The Rodeo Murder" about the two of them joining forces to give another man a well deserved beating can be seen as a bit of kinky fantasy, although it is presented without comment as just another detective story plot element. Their discussion is linked to Archie stroking the shiny leather of the prize saddle (start of Chapter 1). The encounter has a strong gay subtext. It looks as if Archie will agree to Cal's proposition (end of Chapter 1), but a murder cancels all such plans.
Cal Barrow has a similar name as Johnny Arrow in "A Window for Death", another young man with whom Archie male-bonds. Both men are virile men from the West.
Stout's mainstream novel Forest Fire (1933) has gay subject matter, anticipating "The Rodeo Murder".
Montana. Forest Fire is set in Montana. In "The Rodeo Murder" there is a briefly mentioned backstory of Archie staying for a month at Lily Rowan's ranch in Montana. Archie met cowboy Harvey Greve there; Greve is one of the suspects in "The Rodeo Murder". Greve returns in Stout's Western-mystery hybrid Death of a Dude (1969). Death of a Dude is set at Lily Rowan's ranch in Montana, a locale only talked about in "The Rodeo Murder".
Illustrations. Illustrations of "The Rodeo Murder" emphasize Western leather:
Context: Westerns. An enjoyable silent film showing cowboys coming to New York City is Bucking Broadway (1917), directed by John Ford.
"The Rodeo Murder" was written in 1958 - a peak year for television Westerns, which were becoming a national craze. Stout perhaps wanted to find a subject that appealed to the public. A character from "The Rodeo Murder" will return in Stout's Western-mystery hybrid Death of a Dude (1969).
Architecture. The architecture of the penthouse and its roof is pleasant (Chapters 1, 2). Stout emphasizes "lines of sight": what can be seen from where. This is a subject sometimes found in Mary Roberts Rinehart.
There are some similarities between the penthouse and Wolfe's brownstone:
Characters. The second version is especially detailed in its look at the inhabitants of the boarding house. The feisty landlady Hattie Annis survives in the second version, and becomes a major character. Raymond Dell, the aging actor, gets his personality much more developed. But all the boarding house characters are extended in the second version. Each now gets a detailed life story, including their current employment. It is if Stout had shined a major light on this bunch. Since they are among the main appeal of the story, one can see why Stout did this.
This is not to imply that the characters do not sparkle in the first version. Indeed, "Brownstone" contains much dialogue and characterization of the characters not present in the revised "Counterfeit" version. Noel Ferris, in particular, comes off as more of a person in the first version.
The aging Shakespearean actor, down on his luck, but with an infinitely colorful personality and past, is a perennial figure in popular culture:
Noel Ferris' job in "Counterfeit for Murder" is fascinating. It doesn't link up directly with much of anything in any other Stout tale. SPOILERS. It perhaps shows Stout's liking for animals.
No sexual orientation is specified for most of the non-series characters. One is free to think that any or all of them are quietly LGBT: something fairly common in the tale's theatrical milieu. This contrasts with, say, Stout's "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" in which the three suspects are heterosexual, and we get brief accounts of all three men's involvement with women.
Setting. Both "Counterfeit for Murder" and Stout's early novella "Not Quite Dead Enough" have a similar setting, a cheap but respectable rooming house run by a crusty old landlady. The denizens of these houses are among the few financially strapped groups of suspects in Stout's work; he tended to write about upper middle class New Yorkers, in the Van Dine tradition. Even here, however, in "Counterfeit for Murder", the characters are all theatrical types, and preserve the intellectual character of the Van Dine school.
Mystery Plot. Stout strengthened the puzzle plot in the second version, such as it is, by adding some mild clues to the killer among all this extra biographical material. Individually the clues are non-conclusive. But each one is legitimately suggestive of the killer, and cumulatively they have weight.
An earlier deduction by Archie about the victim is clever. SPOILERS. In a broad way it recalls a revelation about a character in "Booby Trap". "Counterfeit for Murder" also resembles "Booby Trap" in involving a federal investigation into a locale: a military intelligence office in "Booby Trap", a boarding house in "Counterfeit for Murder". In both works the attitudes and roles of the denizens are mysterious, leading to the revelations about people such as the victim in "Counterfeit for Murder".
Supporting Cast. Nero Wolfe figures out who the killer is at the end, as usual. But much of the earlier work in the tale is done by Archie, without much input from Wolfe. And much of the finale, killer's identity aside, is the work of Saul Panzer. "Counterfeit for Murder" seems designed to give the supporting players in the saga a chance to shine.
Concealing Evidence. Many Wolfe tales made a big deal about Wolfe sharing all the evidence with the police, but keeping his deductions about the evidence to himself. I'm not a lawyer and have no idea if he is right or wrong, legally speaking. But in "Counterfeit for Murder" and "Assault on a Brownstone" Archie is clearly way over the line. He is concealing evidence, and in a major felony. He's in the wrong.
"Counterfeit for Murder" perhaps follows the conventions of mid-Century mysteries: little-old-lady heroines can do anything, even conceal evidence and perjure themselves, and no bad consequences will ever come to them. Especially if they have money. This is especially true in some Rinehart School mysteries. In "Counterfeit for Murder" Archie is concealing evidence to help little-old-lady Hattie Annis. In 1950's era mysteries, this might be seen as ample justification. Also, the fact that "Counterfeit for Murder" is comic allows the reader to suspend judgment.
T-Men. "Counterfeit for Murder" includes both New York policeman Inspector Cramer, and Treasury agent Albert Leach. This anticipates The Doorbell Rang, and its mixture of Cramer and the F.B.I. It is an uncomfortable relationship between Cramer and the Feds in both tales. This is played for both humor and plot detail, in both works.
Commentary on Clyde B. Clason:
The ancient Greek poet Theocritus frequently made references to gay love in his idylls.
The admiration shown to handsome men in books like The Fifth Tumbler might also have a gay subtext.
An Origin Story. It shows Westborough getting involved with sleuthing for the first time - it is like what comic books call an "origin story". Westborough's late brother James turns out to have known and helped the policeman in charge of the case. This gives amateur sleuth Westborough the "link through friendship to an official detective" that is key to Van Dine School detective stories.
Westborough takes the initiative, asking the policeman if he can tag along and witness the investigation.
Police. Van Dine School books often have a whole team of police, that recur in novel after novel. The Fifth Tumbler introduces such series characters:
Chris Larson, the novel's Handsome Young Hero, gains sympathy when we see his work schedule (Part One, Chapter 3). He's a poor man working his way through college, and his work load is formidable. (During this period Clason was working full-time as an advertising copywriter, and working nights and weekends on his fiction. He was similarly exhausted. There is an autobiographical dimension to Larson's problems.)
Chris Larson is Scandinavian (Chapter 1). His depiction goes against the nasty stereotypes of the day that showed Scandinavians as of low intelligence. Instead Larson is a brainy, highly educated scientist. This is admirable.
Both Chris Larson and Captain Terence O'Ryan are huge, well-built men. They are today what we would call "hunks". Clason often admired athletic men in his tales.
A different bur parallel kind of attractiveness is embodied in James Chilton (start of Chapter 4). Chilton, is a tall, handsome Man of Distinction. An admirer compares him to a Hollywood actor.
Characters. Westborough and the detectives aside, the characters are a colorless lot. There is a certain air of Depression-era realism hanging over The Fifth Tumbler. The characters and situations try to be ordinary, typical people you might meet in real life. All this is well and good enough, but it robs the book of color and anything unusual.
Mystery Plot. There is only a little clever or creative about the mystery plot. The locked room aspects are especially routine.
The first part of the murder investigation tells us about the science behind the crime (Part One, Chapters 2, 3). It also introduces the police, and shows Westborough getting involved in the investigation for the first time. This is one of the novel's better sections.
The killer's alibi is fun to read about, when explained (Part Six, Chapter 27). But as the book itself points out, there is nothing original about it. One part is accurately called by Lt. Mack "The oldest trick known to detective-story writers." Still, the various components of the alibi subplot are decently put together.
The subplot about James Chilton is not original either, but it is fun. (Chapters: start of 4, 17).
Scent. Clason was interested in scents and smells. His Poison Jasmine is set at a perfume firm. The Fifth Tumbler invokes scent in key ways:
SPOILER: The impossible crime bears some resemblance to "A Chess Problem" in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1924).
The non-impossible crime elements of the mystery are fairly simple and uninventive.
Background. The basic construction of the book comes from Van Dine's The Scarab Murder Case (1929). That novel dealt with murder in a private museum of Egyptology, a museum located in a private mansion, and whose suspects were mainly specialists in Egyptian art. The Man from Tibet uses a similar approach, with Tibet substituted for Egypt.
There are several limitations of characterization in The Man from Tibet:
Clason was interested in other Asian cultures, too. The sequence in the Japanese restaurant is delightful (Part Thirteen).
Architecture. The floor plan of the mansion in The Man from Tibet has the same structure as the hotel in The Fifth Tumbler:
The book's second half adds little to what has gone before, and its emphasis on romantic triangles and intrigues lacks appeal.
Clason thought Murder Gone Minoan was his best book, followed by Green Shiver and Poison Jasmine. See the author profile in Poison Jasmine. I agree with Clason's assessments.
Department store owners are characters in both Murder Gone Minoan and Blind Drifts. Department stores are places where many objects are exhibited, like the museums that run through Clason's tales.
Mystery Plot. The mystery elements are weaker than in Clason's best-plotted books. There is no impossible crime, in the strict sense. The book's mystery plot is extremely simple, with a solution that contains only one idea, and a not particularly creative one, at that.
Also, the choice of killer seems implausible. The book is best read for its lively first half.
Mystery Plot. Dragon's Cave has an unusual structure:
Background. The photo engraving plant recalls the artist Graham and his high tech productions using photostats in The Fifth Tumbler.
The photo engraving plant is a family-run business, anticipating another family business in Poison Jasmine. Both businesses are highly technological.
The weaponry room recalls, in a simpler way, the private museums in homes in The Man from Tibet and Green Shiver.
The scientific name of this plant is Gelsemium sempervirens, as Clason makes clear (start of Part Two). Despite its common name "Yellow Jasmine", it is NOT related to the plants typically called Jasmine. It is in a separate plant family. Today it is often called Yellow Jessamine, a name which (accurately) makes it sound distinct from the true Jasmines.
The paperback of Poison Jasmine is a beautiful job, with highly readable text. But the flowers illustrated on the cover look nothing like Gelsemium sempervirens. Suggestion: the Internet is full of pictures of Gelsemium sempervirens, if you just search for it.
Mystery Plot: Impossible Crime. Poison Jasmine has a simple, but effective impossible crime puzzle. (SPOILERS) It anticipates ideas John Dickson Carr will use in The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) (END OF SPOILERS).
Background. The book's look at a business as a background for a crime resembles Rex Stout. As in Stout, we have a group of suspects that work as officers and consultants for a small, successful business. They are upper middle class, educated people of considerable business skill. Stout's businesses tend to have an intellectual feel, such as a design firm, publishing or broadcasting. Similarly, Clason's perfume firm is steeped in cultural traditions of the world of scent production.
Unlike some other Clason works, Poison Jasmine does not recreate another culture. It does offer a sympathetic, anti-racist account of the Chinese chef, which is in accord with the anti-racist views expressed in Clason's other fiction.
Color. Poison Jasmine shows Clason's flair for color imagery. Both the flowers, and events of the mystery plot, are described in color terms.
Best Parts. Poison Jasmine seems padded. Like many mystery novels, it would have been better as a novella. Most of the meat of both the mystery plot and perfume background are in Part Two, Part Three: Sections 1,2,6, Part Four: Sections 3-6, 8, Part Five: Sections 1 and 4, Part Nine: Sections 1 and 3. These sections total around seventy pages.
Mystery Plot. Unfortunately, the mystery elements of this book are routine, if elaborate. To his credit, Clason manages to avoid the coincidentally occurring subplots that afflict many lesser Golden Age novels. Instead, his solution manages to link up and explain all the disparate elements of the story as parts of a unified, connected common plot.
Towards the end of his novel, Clason introduces what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. Clason uses this to motivate the actions of many of the characters. It is not quite clear if a MacGuffin, introduced towards the end of a book, is quite fair play or not. But it is interesting the way Clason uses it to give hidden meanings and significance to the actions of many of the characters in the book. At the end, we see their behavior in a new light, and this is moderately ingenious.
Links to The Man from Tibet. Green Shiver has a similar structure to the earlier The Man from Tibet (1938). In many ways, this second novel is an extension or variation of the first. Both:
The imagery of Green Shiver is more upbeat. Its depiction of Chinese culture concentrates on favorable aspects, while The Man from Tibet often focuses on horror material. Green Shiver is not Pollyanna-ish, but its dark side is in its depiction of the Japanese invasion of China, not its very positive look at Chinese culture itself. Characterization also seems richer in Green Shiver.
Imagery. Clason is sensitive to color, and his book is a riot of color imagery.
Clason is knowledgeable about botany, and many exotic plants are described.
The names in the story seem to have symbolic meanings. Green Shiver includes such names as Jocasta (wife of Oedipus), Faith, Jasper and Eugene (meaning "well-born", a name given to the spoiled son of a wealthy family).
Green Shiver is rich in discussions of Taoism. Westborough is depicted as a follower of Taoism, and the author is clearly sympathetic.
Architecture. Much of the novel takes place in a large, Chinese style house built by a well to do collector in Los Angeles. Even by the standards of the Golden Age and its interest in architecture, this building is unusual. Oddly, Clason does not make the architecture play a role in the mystery plot. A well done suspense passage (Part Seven) is set against the building and its grounds, however.
Politics. This book was published before the US entered World War II, but Clason makes no secret of his pro-Chinese, anti-Axis attitudes. Clason's Chinese sympathies recall those of Erle Stanley Gardner. Clason, like many others of his day, was outraged by Axis bombing raids. Bombing is treated in this book as a horrific war crime. It makes a telling contrast to today's attitudes in the United States, where bombing is considered the most popular way to wage war.
At this point one is hoping that one has discovered a woman member of the Van Dine school, which as currently constituted seems to be all too much of a boy's club (Van Dine, Queen, Abbot, Palmer, King, Stout, to name them in their order of appearance), but it is not to be. Everything declines into dullness: the romance, the plot, the detection. At this stage of her career, the author had little detectival technique. The solution to the novel (Chapter 29), while fair, has fewer plot fireworks than just about any Golden Age detective novel one could name. However, this was her first book, and perhaps she developed a lot more later. To be continued ...
Detectives. This is the debut of one of Tillett's series sleuths, New York police detective Van Dusen Ormsberry. His name recalls Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the "The Thinking Machine" detective of Jacques Futrelle. His name also recalls S.S. Van Dine. Van Dusen Ormsberry is a well-dressed sophisticate, and good looking in a refined way. People looking at him guess he's an actor in Murder on the Ten-Yard Line. And The Saturday Review described him as "that sleek detective of sartorial perfection" in their review of The Clue of the Second Murder. Unlike many detectives of the pre-1945 era, he is attracted to women, and shown dating a Broadway "musical comedy star".
Van Dusen Ormsberry's sophistication recalls Van Dine's detective Philo Vance. However Ormsberry is not as intellectual as Vance, or such Vance influenced sleuths as Ellery Queen or Thatcher Colt. Tillett's books are not as purely Van Dine-like as those of other authors.
Ormsberry instantly recognizes that the heroine is lying and holding back information (Chapter 4). Similarly in The Bell in the Fog sleuth Barney Gantt can immediately tell when people are concealing things. I find this dubious.
Ormsberry's sardonic day-dream is of retiring as a detective and growing petunias (Chapter 29).
The Man Who Killed Fortescue is also the debut of series character young Bill Adams, who wants to be a detective. He is first seen here working as an office boy (Chapter 5). He does some good detective work (Chapter 29). Lee Thayer's The Mystery of the 13th Floor (1919) previously contained an office boy hero who wants to become a detective.
Series character reporter Jim Gaynor is also introduced in The Man Who Killed Fortescue. He communicates with Ormsberry, as well as doing his reporting job.
Characters. Among the characters are types that run through the author's books:
Architecture and Views. People in Tillett's books like to look out upper story windows. They see large panoramas and vistas. See The Man Who Killed Fortescue (Chapter 1), The Strangler Fig (Chapter 2). They also watch processes develop from beginning to end.
SPOILERS. In The Clue of the Second Murder (Chapter 26), the view from the cupola becomes a major part of the mystery puzzle plot.
Evening Clothes. When we first see suave Ormsberry, he is in evening clothes (Chapter 1). In The Strangler Fig, Huntington's disappearance occurs while he is in evening clothes (Chapter 3).
Mystery Plot. The Strangler Fig shows the same structure as The Man Who Killed Fortescue. There is a crime in the past, one that is still mysterious and unsolved, and it triggers related crimes in the present. (The later Look Your Last (1943) has a similar two-crime construction.) All events in the book are carefully dated.
Unfortunately, after its opening The Strangler Fig largely degenerates into a mechanically worked out story. Sleuth Brown does little actual detection.
The Strangler Fig is a "mystery set in a country house mansion".
Corruption. Tillett examines social corruption, especially how large money interests do things that hurt society. Here it leads to the discussion of the Neptune (Chapter 14).
Stereotypes. The black workers are depicted throughout the book as filled with superstition. And the poor white residents are shown as lazy (opening of Chapter 1). Not many books manage to defame both black and white people, but The Strangler Fig does.
Description. Tillett's descriptive powers have grown:
Bolivar Brown worked his way up from poverty, studying nights (start of Chapter 2). He started out as an office boy, like young Bill Adams in The Man Who Killed Fortescue. His current office boy Thomas appears (first half of Chapter 15). His boss has Thomas listen in on a phone extension to an important conversation, and take notes, reminding one of Archie Goodwin to come in Rex Stout books. I liked the way the enterprising Thomas is good at shorthand, a valuable skill in the pre-Internet era. Shorthand plays a role in John T. McIntyre's Ashton-Kirk: Investigator (1910).
The buildings, roads and natural features on the island are all carefully described. This is an example of the Golden Age interest in landscape.
The island (Chapters 1-10) resembles the one in The Strangler Fig (Chapters 1-3) in being a mile long but very narrow. It differs in being full of humble, traditional New England buildings, while the one in The Strangler Fig has a single upper class mansion on it,
Both islands have no direct communication with the outside world. You have to take a boat trip to the nearby mainland town for a phone call or telegraph. Mail is regularly brought in and out by boat. There is a brief but vivid scene of the hero making a phone call on the mainland in The Strangler Fig (middle of Chapter 15).
All-encompassing weather grips both islands:
Helen Reilly sent a young lawyer hero to a New England island with a mansion in The Thirty-First Bullfinch (1930). The Thirty-First Bullfinch was copyrighted June 20, 1930, and The Strangler Fig August 29, 1930. This makes it hard to see how either book could have influenced the other.
Sociology. The characters attempt to be typical people one may meet on a Maine island. They work in tourism, fishing, run a boat, keep a lighthouse, etc. There are tourists and an artist who has moved to the island, too. But none of these people are the extreme Yankee eccentrics found in Phoebe Atwood Taylor's comic Cap Cod mysteries.
It is hard to get a clear idea of how well-to-do the "summer people" are, who come stay on the island in the summer. But there is no indication that they are as wealthy as the Big Rich Society Elite who stayed in real-life Bar Harbor, Maine. Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote mysteries inspired by Bar Harbor, The Wall (1938) and The Yellow Room (1945), and they include Elite characters. By contrast the summer people in The Bell in the Fog seem affluent, but not super-rich.
Machinery. There is a detailed description of the complex machinery of the fog bell (Chapter 10). This recalls the young inventor in The Clue of the Second Murder.
Detectives. The Bell in the Fog is the debut of one of Tillett's series sleuths, New York City newspaper photographer Barney Gantt.
Gantt has parallels with the earlier reporter Jim Gaynor:
The mail robbery is an unusual subject for a mystery. Mail plays a role in other Tillett mysteries. SPOILERS:
Women's Roles. Barney's loyal girlfriend Muriel Singmaster writes an "advice to the lovelorn" column at the same newspaper where Barney works. She's a working woman.
But otherwise the roles available to women seem ultra-conventional:
Both the murder victim and Lotta Hendricks are people with unknown pasts. Similarly no one can trace the background of victim Diederich in Murder on the Ten-Yard Line.
Van Dine School novels often investigate the movement of people around the crime scene at the time of the murder. The Bell in the Fog follows this tradition, by noting the movements of people around the whole island, on the morning of the murder.
Mystery Plot: The Killer. There are two clues to the identity of the killer. However, the big one is not well explained to the reader, which makes it unfair. SPOILERS. This involves the killer buying the boots off-island, thus showing he was lying about staying on the island. As far as the reader knows, he could have got them at the island's general store. or bought them through the mail.
BIG SPOILERS. The killer in The Bell in the Fog turns out to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. I usually dislike such solutions, and The Bell in the Fog is no exception. It's unpleasant.
Fog. Fog is associated with certain mystery writers:
Its biggest problem: it seems to be a work of Communist propaganda. One character even rationalizes Stalin's purges of the 1930's as Stalin just cleaning out a few traitors and Nazi sympathizers! (Chapter 12.) The whole book is a similar bunch of hooey. The book also denies the reality of the Armenian massacres (Chapter 6) and suggests that every anti-Communist Russian and Ukrainian is a Nazi tool or worse (Chapter 8); both of these assertions would be challenged as nonsense by any disinterested historian. The book also denounces freedom of speech (Chapter 14), because it allows people to speak against Communism. Contemporary Marxists keep promoting the idea that much was lost when American Communist art of the 1930's and 1940's was banned in the 1950's. Well, here is an example of such art, and it is really trashy.
A possible oil company merger, and its effect on investors, is a sub-plot in The Man Who Killed Fortescue (beginning in Chapter 3). Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
Series sleuth James F. "Bonnie" Dundee is explicitly described as Scotch-Irish in Murder at Bridge (Chapter 1). Scotch-Irish Americans are their own ethnic group, distinct from both the Scotch and the Irish. Please see the Wikipedia on Scotch-Irish Americans. One reason I'm guessing that Hamilton is in Ohio, is that the Scotch-Irish are prevalent in Southern Ohio. In general the Scotch-Irish are common in Appalachia and the South, and are less common in most of the rest of the Middle West.
However, characters in Murder at Bridge regularly get expertise from the big city of Chicago. This suggests the books' Hamilton might be close to Chicago: in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana.
Van Dine Influence. Some general approaches recall the Van Dine School:
The murder victim, a New York City dancer, recalls the title New York City singer victim in S. S. Van Dine's The "Canary" Murder Case (1927). In both books the heroine represents an intense sexuality which has a powerful effect. In both books, the heroine's boyfriend also represents such sexuality, in a male form.
The heroine's maid is prominent in both Murder at Bridge and The "Canary" Murder Case.
The deductions from ballistics about the path of a bullet firing, recall in a broad way Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926).
Mystery Plot: Clues. The initial investigation of the crime (Chapter 2) is full of features that are prominently high-lighted. When the solution is revealed at book's end, these features can be seen as clues that indicated the solution. These features are hardly "hidden clues" - they are conspicuously discussed by the detectives. The only things hidden are the surprise solution, and the way that these features point to it. These features include (SPOILERS):
Surrealist Echo. SPOILERS. The second murder echoes the first, in its setting and structure. This echoing is surrealistic. Surrealistic echoes of one event for another, appear in several mystery writers. They tend to be pleasing and interesting.
The characters in Murder at Bridge are quite conscious of the similarities in the two murders. A local newspaper headlines "Second Bridge Dummy Murder" (start of Chapter 23).
Architecture and Socializing. The house is nice, and probably better than the places where most of the book's readers lived. But it is far from being any sort of mansion. It is not Downton Abbey or Stately Wayne Manor.
The book suggests the house is well-designed to host the sort of small parties shown in the novel (see Dundee's reflections in the last part of Chapter 2). Each room and feature of the hose seems designed with this sort of entertainment in mind. By contrast, there is no study or office. And no library. The woman who lives there has a modest desk in her bedroom, where she carries on small amounts of correspondence and bill-paying. This serves in place of a study.
Today there is much concern about social media on the Internet, and the way it consumes so much time and energy. But this house is just as exclusively oriented towards the social network. The people who live there seem to have no other interest but entertaining members of their exclusive country club set.
While I have reservations about this house's lifestyle, one has to admit the house makes for good storytelling. Every feature of the house suggests the sort of entertainment events that go on there. So the reader is always getting a vivid glimpse of this way of life.
Architecture: Exploration. BIG SPOILERS. The discovery of the hiding place (Chapter 18) recalls the finding of the secret space at the end of Faulkner's Folly (1917) by Carolyn Wells. Both are hidden spaces in a house. And in both our understanding is greatly aided by a floor plan of the house.
Bridge. Sleuth Bonnie Dundee demands the witnesses give a detailed account of the bridge game that took place just before the murder. The bridge game is then described in depth. I can't see what, if anything, the bridge game actually has to do with the murder, though. There are no clues embedded in the game details, unlike some later bridge mysteries. The only feature of bridge relevant to the mystery is that the player known as the "dummy" can get up and leave the bridge table. Other than this, the book could have been Murder at Pinocle or Murder at Canasta without affecting the mystery plot in the slightest.
Bridge lovers might enjoy reading about the game. However, readers should be warned that most of the bridge is confined to two chapters. Murder at Bridge is NOT a novel with a "Background" in bridge: in other words, the book does NOT consist of 300 pages of bridge action. And there is nothing exceptional about the games described, as best as a non-bridge-expert like me call tell. This is a weekly suburban game among socialites, not a championship tournament.
People who know nothing about bridge will have few problems reading and enjoying Murder at Bridge. They won't understand the bridge games, but as said before, these games are a brief feature of the novel, and one with little relevance to the mystery.
As best I can tell, the form of bridge in Murder at Bridge is standard "contract bridge". The Wikipedia says that contract bridge was invented in 1925, and in a "few years" was widespread. So the bridge in Murder at Bridge (1931) was something fairly new, maybe even trendy.
There is a survey of bridge mystery novels at Noah's Archives.
Literary References. A rich man collects what we now call Dime Novels, although that term is not used in Murder at Bridge (last part of Chapter 21).
The characters put on an amateur performance of The Beggar's Opera (Chapter 19). The men "enjoyed it hugely because it gave then an opportunity to wear tight satin breeches and lace ruffles." Such costumes were featured in Hollywood films of the era: see Johnny Mack Brown in the party in The Divine Woman (Victor Sjöström, 1928). This scene in Murder at Bridge is also one of a number of places where men are seen as attractive. The novel emphasizes how good looking architect Clive Hammond is (start of Chapter 4).
Class. The heroine's family has lost their money, and has to move from their house into a modest apartment. A severe loss of money leading to a decline in class was common in America in 1931, less than two years after the start of the Depression. However the Depression is not mentioned. Instead, the family's problems are due to the father deserting them. This recalls the film The Crowd Roars (Howard Hawks, 1931), where the hero declines into being a tramp - but whose problems are due to alcoholism, not the Depression. Apparently, Austin and Hawks wanted to show the financial problems common in the United States - but didn't want to ascribe them to the Depression.
Rufus King. Murder at Bridge anticipates the Dr. Colin Starr tales (1939 - 1941) by Rufus King, which are set in Ohio. Both:
Commentary on Richard M. Baker:
WASPs. The characters are upper class WASPs who live near Boston. The setting is the suburb of Newtown. This sounds like Newton, a real-life suburb, historically a WASP stronghold (this has changed today). Franklin Russell teaches in one of the elite prep schools that were so important to upper class WASPs in that era.
Franklin Russell's name evokes that of the United States President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a member of the upper classes, a political liberal who believed in public service.
The families in the story live next to an Episcopalian church. The main family has historical ties to this Church of St. Giles (a name which likely derives from a famous real-life London church). In that era Episcopalianism was a denomination closely associated with upper and upper middle class WASPs.
Van Dine School. The opening description of Franklin Russell stresses his knowledge of psychology (page 1). This recalls Van Dine's detective Philo Vance.
A series of killings in an upper class family, centered on their home, recalls Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928).
Van Dine School: Intellectual Subjects. Van Dine School characters are often involved with intellectual subjects. Death Stops the Bells follows this tradition (Chapter 1):
All of these subjects involve "language and literature". This contrasts with the art background frequent in Van Dine. These all can also be categorized as being about "communication".
Death Stops the Bells has a background of campanology: bell ringing. This is also an intellectual subject. And indeed, Franklin Russell knows a good deal about it, in the tradition of erudite sleuths of the Van Dine School. He also has informed comments on the drama criticism of the suspect.
The chime book contains a written record of the bells used to sound out various hymns (Chapter 2). It is an interesting, unusual reference work, with an original method of recording information. The chime book is also a way of "communicating" knowledge, in this case musical knowledge.
The Bell Tower. The opening has vivd descriptions of a concert played on the bell tower (Chapter 1). This has a tactile quality: it describes how the sound actually feels on the ears.
Even better is the detailed look at the bell tower (Chapter 2). This is the high point of the novel. All aspects of the bell technology are described in detail. And we get a full look at the architecture of the tower, in the Golden Age tradition of interest in unusual architecture.
Campanology. A few years before Dorothy L. Sayers wrote another mystery based on campanology, The Nine Tailors (1934). Today The Nine Tailors is one of the most famous mysteries of the Golden Age, while Death Stops the Bells is one of the most obscure.
"Campanology" is an odd word. Many terms ending in "ology" denote the scientific study of some topic. By contrast campanology refers to something invented or made-up: complex patterns of bell ringing. Death Stops the Bells (Chapter 1) accurately refers to it as "the art of campanology". It is indeed an art, and not a scientific discipline, unlike many "ology" terms.
Police. Van Dine School books tend to have police who are series characters, appearing in book after book. In Baker novels Franklin Russell works with policeman Detective-Sergeant McCoun.
The law enforcement colleagues of Van Dine sleuths tend to be at the same social level as the sleuth. For example, in Van Dine, both sleuth Philo Vance and District Attorney Markham are from the social elite. By contrast, Franklin Russell is a Boston WASP, while McCoun is an Irishman. He is much earthier than Russell in his speech and manner. In this era social and political conflicts between Boston WASPs and the Irish were rampant. WASPs were dominant, and (unfairly) saw the Irish as being at a lower level.
It is possible that this friendship between a WASP detective and an Irish policeman, is an example of the positive respect for minorities shown by the Van Dine School.
McCoun has a rank, Sergeant, wears his hair in a brush cut, and has a "martial air" (Chapter 2). This militaristic feel makes a contrast with the upper class WASP milieu of the suspects.
In Van Dine and several of his followers, we meet a whole staff of policemen who assist the main cop and who appear in book after book. Death Stops the Bells (Chapter 2) contains a few such characters.
Chauffeur. Among the characters in Richard M. Baker's Death Stops the Bells is the sympathetic chauffeur Albert Runnion. Like many chauffeurs in mysteries of the era, he is good at all sorts of machinery: he takes care of the bells as well as the car. (Today experts in technology tend to be computer whiz types.) Runnion is described as intelligent. He is also an author, of the chime book (Chapter 2) and teacher (first half of Chapter 7), making him a member of the intelligentsia, albeit a working class one.
Albert Runnion is good looking, with curly hair (Chapter 2). The virile chauffeur is a mystery tradition. Runnion's account of what he was doing at the time of the murder (first half of Chapter 7) contributes to the image of the sexy chauffeur. The car he is polishing is also a symbol of masculinity.
Runnion is the teacher of the Bell Ringers' Guild of St. Giles, the local church. Many of the young men in the Guild are upper class - but are being taught by a chauffeur.
Like many chauffeurs in mysteries, Runnion lives over the garage. In general chauffeurs have their own place to stay, separate from both their employers and the other servants. There is something appealing about this: these sound like enjoyable places to live.
Chauffeurs occasionally pop up in Van Dine School books: The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen, Orchids to Murder (1945) by Hulbert Footner. Like Albert Runnion, they are sympathetic. Please see also my discussion of Chauffeurs in Pulp Fiction.
The older Beagle Sister, Amanda, is a tough, practical woman who runs the detective agency. But most of the actual sleuthing is done by the younger sister Lutie. There are signs of a genteel romance blooming between Amanda and the "gentlemanly" homicide cop Inspector Moore. But Lutie, like many detectives in traditional mystery books, stands outside of the world of heterosexuality, and has no involvement with men.
The Beagle Sisters novels are narrated by their cousin Martha "Marthy" Meecham, a woman who accompanies them on their cases. The narrator resembles Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in that she is a vivid personal presence in the tales. She is not the "invisible narrator" found in Van Dine and some of his followers.
The Beagle novels are interesting, in that Torrey drew the jacket illustrations (reprinted on the covers of the modern editions). Both jackets show the four main sleuths, investigating the body at the crime scene. It is unusual to see a writer who is also also a skilled illustrator, offering portraits of her characters. Many Golden Age mystery writers had a background in the visual arts: please see my list. The cover for Our Second Murder shows more details of the crime scene itself, including the method of murder.
Also good: a section (Chapters 17-18) where one of the sisters reconstructs the crime from evidence left at the scene. This section further helps characterize the detectives. It fails to be "fair play": the evidence used was not all shared earlier in the story with the readers, so that they could make their own deduction. Still, it shows some solid detective work.
The solution at the end is built around an unoriginal twist, with long histories in crime fiction. The twist does make some aspects of the mystery more plausible, especially the behavior of the victim. Lutie discovers the twist from medical evidence. Her reasoning is sound deduction (a good thing) but she does not share this clue with the reader in advance (a bad thing). Still, it does show Lutie Beagle reasoning out a solution, and not guessing. SPOILER: Ancestors of the main plot twist can be found in Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1914), and G.K. Chesterton's "The Secret Garden" (1910), as well as many successors. Our First Murder combines elements of both. END OF SPOILER.
Many Van Dine School writers were progressive, pro-Civil Rights on race. That is unfortunately not the case with Our First Murder. Its one paragraph on black people manages to offer a negative view of them (Chapter 5). One also is a bit uncomfortable with its portrait of the detective agency's Irish-American employee, who is shown as none too competent. By contrast, the Beagle Sisters, who are New England WASPs, seem successful at everything they do, despite a lack of experience or training. Fortunately, Chanslor's sequel Our Second Murder is free from any ethnic or racial stereotypes.
The map has a three-dimensional quality, with ladders to the roof marked, giving a vertical dimension. Some of Van Dine's own maps and those of some of his followers, also have 3D aspects.
Also good: A character moves from one position to another nearby, over the time period of the crime. Torrey marks both positions and the move between on the map.
Many mystery novels are best in the opening murder and solution at the end, with their middle section suffering from padding. Our Second Murder is unusual that it is at its best in the middle (Chapters 13, 15-21).
Background. Our First Murder took place at a seedy theatrical rooming house, Our Second Murder transpires among New York's social elite, in glamorous settings. The suspects are mainly debutantes and their beaux. In 1941, debutantes were huge media celebrities, something that is a bit hard for people to understand today. The doings of debutantes were covered in national newspapers, magazines and radio; individual debutantes were famous names who endorsed products in ads. Today celebrities are often followed chiefly for sordid gossip, but the debutantes had audiences with little modern equivalents: young men viewed the debs as the last word in beauty and glamour, women followed the fashion-setting clothes worn by the debs. The novel points this out. I confess I can't work up much interest in the debutante characters in Our Second Murder.
The brief glimpses of a swing band (Chapter 2) are more interesting. Torrey has a flair for describing their music performances in words. The swing band members are among the most likable people in the novel. This give Our Second Murder an aspect of the "show biz background" often found in Van Dine School mysteries. Also likable are the various waiters and private detectives, who form a working class counterpoint to the wealthy and often nasty suspects.
One suspects that in the 1940's, swing music's fans were largely teenagers or in their early twenties. The debutants are very young too, by definition (these are young women just joining Society as new adults.) So the suspects in Our Second Murder are people of considerable interest to young people, and one wonders if Torrey was trying to write a novel that would appeal to youth.
The women detectives get elaborate finery, carefully described, to go to the ball with the debutants. Jeff and the other male detectives get to dress up in white tie and tails. Getting dressed up was a national dream or goal in this era: comic book heroes frequently appeared in white tie and tails, too. Please see my list of comic book characters in white tie and tails for more information.
The suspense finale of Our Second Murder takes place on City Island, where some of the suspects keep yachts. City Island is a real place, off the East coast of the Bronx in New York City; it is still well-known today for its yacht clubs. Unfortunately, Our Second Murder does little to evoke this locale.
Animals in Penny are treated as characters in their own right, almost on equal footing with the humans. Penny getting to know a dog is depicted in largely the same way as Penny getting to know a person. The animals are not anthropomorphized, though, but depicted realistically. Both animal and human characters get detailed portraits in the illustrations.
Penny appeared the same year as the film Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944). Both evoke nostalgia for traditional upper middle class American life circa 1900. In both, such nostalgia probably represented escapism into an era of peace, for an audience in the middle of World War II.
Women. Penny is a "realistic" book: the events are limited to typical activities of daily life, in a country home circa 1900. This "realism" also has strong doses of conventionality and conformity. Both Penny and her aunt are utterly conventional people. Neither ever does anything beyond the mildest of activities considered suitable for women, such as cooking and sewing, or sports popular with young girls such as swimming or horse riding. Only Penny's day-dreams, where she makes up elaborate stories, show any signs of individual initiative. This is perhaps a portrait of a "future writer in the making". However, Penny is never shown actually writing, or considering a career as an author.
One suspects that many readers, then and now, preferred to read about far more adventurous girls, such as detective Nancy Drew or free-spirited Pippi Longstocking (1945-1948), not to mention the dynamic little girls played in the movies by Shirley Temple. It isn't surprising that Penny has drifted into obscurity.
As a country woman with a genteel upper middle class lifestyle and strong domestic routine, the Aunt resembles the Beagle Sisters at the start of Our First Murder. But the Beagle Sisters break out of their lifestyle with a vengeance, moving to New York and becoming private eyes. Nothing like this is ever done by the characters in Penny.
Race, Ethnicity and Class. Supporting characters include the Aunt's black servant Jonah, and an Irish cleaning lady who works as a part-time servant at a neighboring farm. Jonah is decent, sensible and good at his job. But he is completely subservient to white people, and there is no sign that the position of blacks in US society contains any sorts of problems. Similarly, the Irish cleaning woman is also uneducated and subservient. By contrast, the Aunt has a WASP name, and the neighboring farm family has a boy named Caleb Peters, suggesting they too are WASPs, although much poorer than the Aunt. This is a portrait of a 1904 America with WASPs on top, and blacks and white ethnics locked into low status jobs.
Penny neither endorses nor condemns this state of affairs. It is just "there", something the book depicts but does not evaluate. Penny is "realistic", and one can argue that it simply offers an accurate, if partial, portrait of what US society was like in 1904.
Penny is emphatic that well-to-do WASPs like Penny and her Aunt, should reach out in friendship and social equality to working class WASPs like Caleb and his farm family. They meet in positions of social equality in Penny, and one suspects the book is offering a message attacking class warfare and supporting brotherhood between classes - as long as everyone is a WASP.
Penny also seems to argue that people like Penny should have friendly feelings towards blacks and white ethnics - but not do anything that would alter their low social status. At times, one suspects that one is getting a World War II era message, that all Americans should stick together, in spite of class, race or ethnicity. One of the final illustrations, showing all the characters together, black and white, rich and poor, suggests some sort of solidarity - maybe.
The ideas of Penny were perhaps mildly progressive in their time. But the idea that blacks and whites can be friends while locked into rigid racial hierarchies is a deeply flawed one, doomed to failure.
Architecture. The Aunt's home has a tower room on top, to which the heroine and her friend climb. In a mild way, this recalls the characters climbing up the ladders around the crime scene in Our Second Murder.
The best part of the book mainly consists of Burke's building. The architecture is featured most heavily in Chapters 2-5, 7 and 19. Burke's building is fully three dimensional, with characters moving up and down through elevators and stairs, as well as around individual floors. This 3D quality recalls Mary Roberts Rinehart's buildings in The Album (1933).
Also pleasant: the author's sympathetic treatment of the Chinese characters. He is clearly trying to inform readers about the true nature of the Chinese community in New York City, and to kill off old negative stereotypes. There are only three Chinese characters in the story, however; most of the suspects are various white customers at the restaurant. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers like Burke.
Burke's puzzle plot is easily guessed. The mystery plot, while fairly elaborate, is not especially creative. Also, the killer is easy to spot right away.
Chinese Red stars Burke's series detective Quinny Hite. Burke's hero is a former policeman, now working as a private eye. However, his sleuth is not very hard-boiled.
Instead, the book seems to come out of the Van Dine school tradition. As in Van Dine writers:
In addition to its upper class suspects, the book includes some bums, as well as some colorful characters from Times Square. Such low lifes appeared in films of the period, such as Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1942), and mystery novels, such as Robert Reeves' Cellini Smith: Detective (1943).
Chinese Red resembles Torrey Chanslor's earlier Our Second Murder (1941), although it differs in details:
This is a fun little tale, that shows Burke's gift for comic zanies.
The story shows Burke's fondness for show biz people who are fakes. These are innocent impersonations done for the sake of show biz illusion.
William F. Deeck's review of The Bach Festival Murders has been reprinted on-line at Mystery*File.
Blanche Bloch accompanied her well-known classical violinist husband Alexander Bloch in his recitals. The Blochs had two children and five grandchildren. The Bloch family papers are at the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, in Laramie, Wyoming.
During their earlier careers, the Blochs often performed in the New York City area. The team made their debut at Town Hall in 1913. Alexander also ran Hilldale Music School near Austerlitz, in upstate New York. They were friends with poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay and Blanche Bloch liked to play music for two pianos together, in Millay's home Steepletop.
In 1936 the Blochs moved to Rollins College near Orlando, Florida, where both Blanche and Alexander Bloch taught. Blanche also music-directed musical stage productions, such as a performance of The Gondoliers in 1942. While there, she published her only mystery novel, The Bach Festival Murders. It has as its background the classical music scene in a provincial US city, something Blanche Bloch knew from first hand.
In the fictitious American town Crescent City, competition is fierce between two Society women who are patronesses of the arts. Oil heiress Miss Serena Fulenwider has devoted her life to funding the local symphony, while glamorous, elegant sophisticate Mrs. Clara Kenworthy has just blown in from several years in Paris, and has decided to start a rival Bach Festival. Jockeying for conducting positions in these institutions among local classical male musicians is also fierce. Causing further problems is the presence of Tony Farnum, handsome young composer, cad, and sexy rotter who has broken the heart of most of the women in the story, as well as arousing the jealousy of the men. Three guesses as to who gets bumped off.
The Bach Festival Murders is a good natured but minor mystery novel. As a portrait of the classical music scene, it has a weakness in that it focuses more on Society patrons of the arts, rather than actual classical music making itself. This look at Society was undoubtedly what many readers wanted in 1942, but it makes the characters blander and less interesting than they might have been. Occasionally there are interesting glimpses of classical technique. The author points out that orchestral conductors have a common, universally understood language of hand gestures, while choral conductors each have a private, personal repertoire of signals. Bloch was a professional classical musician, and undoubtedly knew much more about classical music, than she manages to incorporate in this novel. All the music references do seem accurate. The heroine strikes up a friendship with another woman musician, who suggests they play piano duets together. In real life, Bloch was friends with the famed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the two liked to play duets at Millay's home.
The Bach Festival Murders lacks a strong puzzle plot:
The Bach Festival Murders also lacks a strong detective figure. The crimes are finally figured out by Sally Carrier, the musician wife of the young classical conductor of the local symphony. But Sally does not do a whole lot of detecting during the course of the novel. Sally becomes platonic friends with the policeman Inspector Wilkins who investigates the case. Wilkins is genial but under-characterized, and we learn little about him or his men.
Where does The Bach Festival Murders fit into detective fiction history? It is hard to say. The book is clearly slanted towards woman readers, with a female detective figure and prominent female characters. But it is not a Had I But Known novel in the Rinehart tradition. There is (deliberately) little suspense; the detective heroine is happily married throughout, and not the subject of a romance, and the tone is light, not melodramatic. The Bach Festival Murders exploits the Society setting favored by Rinehart and her followers, and the female protagonists, without turning into "woman's suspense".
The Bach Festival Murders also bears some distinct resemblances to the Van Dine School, without being a full fledged member. Its background among intellectuals; its amateur sleuth with friendly relations with the police; its team of policemen; its how-done-it aspects all seem Van Dinean. However, the book lacks the vigorous, straightforward murder investigation found in Van Dine and his followers. What detection that transpires is wishy washy and frequently barely there. And Sally is hardly a genius in the Philo Vance or Ellery Queen tradition.
Oddly, the genteel, soothing The Bach Festival Murders is more relaxing than it has any right to be, given its limitations as a detective novel. It ends with a tribute to the story's most interesting character, Miss Serena Fulenwider, and her idealistic love of classical music.
William F. Deeck's review of Death Paints the Picture (1943) has been reprinted on-line at Mystery*File, along with a partial bibliography and some useful links.
The artist group examined in The Man with the Lumpy Nose are cartoonists: people who contribute humorous cartoons to national magazines. Both magazines and the cartoons they featured were a huge deal in the 1940's, regarded by Americans as the height of glamour and success. Real magazines that ran such cartoons are named in passing in the novel: The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post.
An editor is portrayed as a young man from a tycoon's family, who edited the real-life The Harvard Lampoon while a football star at Harvard. Today, legal reasons would probably prohibit such a mention.
Multi-Media: A Visual Novel. The Man with the Lumpy Nose includes sample cartoons, portrayed as being by the various cartoonists who serve as the book's subjects. This gives the book a dimension of multi-media. This material is innovative and inventive.
SPOILERS. The main clue to the killer, involves finding traces of an artist's style. The mystery puzzle is to determine which artist drew an evil Nazi-propaganda cartoon. The sleuths and the reader can solve this mystery, by comparing the cartoon with samples of the suspects' cartoon work, and finding which suspect's art style is embedded in the cartoon. Lariar has done this well: the style elements are visible in the cartoons. It is a fully "fair play" mystery: one in which clues are shared with the reader, and with sound evidence that points to the killer.
Van Dine novels talk about examining the suspects' psychology, and seeing which suspect has a psychological personality consistent with the crime. The cartoon puzzle in The Man with the Lumpy Nose is perhaps an "art" version of this, one in which the cognitive psychological concept of an "artist's style" is used to identify the killer.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The Man with the Lumpy Nose does something odd with its mystery plot. We learn right away that the crimes are being committed by a hit-man: the title man with the big nose. But we don't know who he is reporting to. Unfortunately, this eliminates many elements that make up traditional whodunit mysteries. In a regular mystery, the killer himself commits the crime. His alibi is important; so are his movements around the crime scene at the time of the killing, and any clues he might leave behind. All of this adds to the mystery puzzle, in an admirable way. None of this matters in The Man with the Lumpy Nose: we know right away that the hit-man committed the murder. Only the identity of the hit-man's boss has any mystery attached to it.
The only real clue to the identity of the killer, is the artist's style puzzle described above. Otherwise, there are no supporting clues or mystery puzzles identifying the guilty party.
The events of The Man with the Lumpy Nose include the various Nazi spies betraying and attacking each other. It is sort of an espionage version of "dishonor among thieves". This adds a lot of apparent complexity to the plot. However, none of this activity is fairly clued, so that a reader could deduce what was happening. These aspects are therefore not impressive as any sort of mystery puzzle or plot.
Politics. The Man with the Lumpy Nose opens with a look at current news events. This centers on what seems to be a tribute to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Army and the Soviet Union. This was published right in the middle of World War II, when the Soviet Union was the ally of the United States. Still, this glorification of the Soviet Union can startle and appall.
The editor comes from a wealthy background: he's the son of a tycoon. And he is a totally odious and evil person. One suspects that this is a political comment on the rich. SPOILERS. Suggestions that wealthy Americans might be Nazi sympathizers and traitors also occur in several war era mysteries. Please see my list of The Wealthy as Nazi Supporters in mystery fiction.
Women Cartoonists. Women cartoonists get a mixed treatment. One the on hand, two woman cartoonists are featured prominently among the book's characters. They are shown as fully professional.
On the other hand, derisive comments are made about one of them. Her success is speculated as being caused by her sleeping with an editor.
Style. A well-dressed young man, an elite sophisticate in New York City, wears his hair "in the crew style" (start of Chapter 4). Another young fashion plate is compared to the champion of a college crew team (rowing) (start of Chapter 5). Was this a big style in 1944? Was it the ancestor of the later popular hair style, the "crew cut"? According to the Wikipedia, the crew cut was invented for the Yale rowing team in the 1890's, used by the US Armed Forces in World War II (the time of the novel), and became popular among civilians in the 1950's.
There are other traditions in mystery fiction, in which detectives try to interpret a piece of text: Dying Messages and Textual Analysis. But "The Nine Mile Walk" does not seem close to either of these. It is something different.
Like "The Ten O'Clock Scholar", the deductions in "The Nine Mile Walk" group into sections:
The Ten O'Clock Scholar. "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" (1952) has the widest range of suspects of the Welt tales. As a whodunit with many suspects and a complex solution, it is the kind of short story known as a "mystery novel in miniature", to use a phrase of Edward D. Hoch's. "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" is also the second-longest of the tales.
The deductive solution of "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" seems especially Queen-like.
Welt's solution in the finale consists of three separate parts, each involving much reasoning:
End Play. "End Play" (1950) is in the mode of "The Ten O'Clock Scholar", although smaller in scope. It serves as a precursor to "The Ten O'Clock Scholar". SPOILERS. Both tales have:
The Family Tales. "The Straw Man" (1950) and "The Bread and Butter Case" (1962) share common approaches. Both have:
The opening chapter is a well-done set piece, in which Rabbi Small conducts an investigation into a legal dispute between some members of his temple. It is not a crime investigation, and not related to the book's mystery plot. But the trial-like scene shows reasoning and insight, and is related in its kind of imagination to some of the author's short stories.
SPOILER. The choice of murderer in Friday the Rabbi Slept Late reflects Ellery Queen traditions.
The first three Ashton-Kirk novels were filmed as a series in 1915. All three starred Arnold Daly as the detective; Daly was fresh from playing Arthur B. Reeve's sleuth Craig Kennedy in The Exploits of Elaine movie serials. Daly was a Broadway star, who had previously acted in McIntyre's play Steve (1912) on-stage.
A bibliography can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. A detailed profile by Kevin Plunkett of John T. McIntyre is available here. Overviews by Steve Lewis at Mystery*File are here and here.
The Detective. As a detective, Ashton-Kirk in some ways looks back to the past. As many commentators from S.S. Van Dine on have reported, Ashton-Kirk is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Like Holmes, he is a consulting-detective, to whom people in trouble come to with mysteries they need to solve. Like Holmes, Ashton-Kirk is a genius, with a broad command of specialized knowledge he can bring to bear on any case. Ashton-Kirk shares with Holmes and many other early detectives a skill with disguise, as well as being the possessor of a chemical lab in his living quarters (something he doesn't use in this novel).
But in other ways. Ashton-Kirk looks forward to the future of the mystery, in ways that seem bold for 1910. Unlike the staunchly middle-class Holmes, Ashton-Kirk is a wealthy social aristocrat who solves crimes for the sheer pleasure. He appeared over a decade before two other upper crust sleuths he resembles: Lord Peter Wimsey (who Dorothy L. Sayers created in 1923) and Philo Vance (who S.S. Van Dine would first write about in 1926). Like both of these sleuths, Ashton-Kirk has friendly contacts on the police force, who give him their full cooperation. Ashton-Kirk is thus the "genius amateur who works with the police" that would play such a major role in the Golden Age to come.
Both Ashton-Kirk: Investigator and Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist open with surveys of the sleuth's reading, which is highly intellectual. This anticipates the more elaborate opening of Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, which describe the sleuth's art collection. In both novels, Ashton-Kirk is also shown reading about crime and criminals.
Also interesting - and perhaps pioneering - are the detective assistants that Ashton-Kirk employs, such as Fuller and Burgess (none of these men have any first names, just like Ashton-Kirk himself). These expert operatives remind one of Nero Wolfe's team of detective employees to come, such as Saul Panzer. Fuller is sometimes misleadingly referred to by critics as a "Watson". He is not - he does not narrate the stories, and he is a professional detective, not a friend.
A Gay Detective?. We learn right away, that although Ashton-Kirk is young, handsome, a star athlete in full training, universally respected as a person, wealthy, and from an old family, that everyone expects he will never marry (start of Chapter 2). Like so many other great detectives of pre-1945 mystery fiction, Ashton-Kirk stands outside the world of romance. One has to wonder, if the book is quietly signaling that Ashton-Kirk is gay.
The Setting. Ashton-Kirk collects books, like Wimsey to come. And Ashton-Kirk: Investigator is set against the shop of a murdered numismatist (coin collector), filled with antiquities of every sort. Such collectors will form a major subject in the novels of Van Dine, Ellery Queen and other Golden Age writers of the Van Dine school.
The Mystery. Ashton-Kirk: Investigator splits into two almost equal halves. The first half (Chapters 1-13) is a pure mystery tale. The second half is mainly a thriller, with characters chasing each other around the countryside, suspenseful stakeouts, and other mild thriller material. I think that the book's mystery oriented first half is much better. Anyone can read the first half (Chapters 1-13), then some concluding sections of the second, in which some mystery riddles are explained (Chapters 24-25), and get the full plot of the novel.
Much of the mystery in the first half centers on reconstructing the murder, based on evidence left behind at the crime scene. This is an ancient tradition in mystery fiction, going back to Gaboriau in the 1860's.
The crime also takes place at night, in an elaborate and out-of-the-way building, with interesting architecture. Such a locale recalls Anna Katherine Green, another widely influential mystery author of the time. Green's later novels would be serialized in the same pulp which first published Ashton-Kirk: Investigator as a magazine serial, The Popular Magazine.
Sociology. The opening of Ashton-Kirk: Investigator leads one to expect the worst. Ashton-Kirk's family mansion is located in a now run down section of town, which has become a tenement full of East European immigrants. The disdainful narrator describes these slum dwellers unflatteringly, and one fears one is in for a racist diatribe.
But instead, when individual immigrant characters appear later on, they are treated with great sympathy. They become a major leitmotiv throughout the book. One suspects that the poor immigrants are reality, and upscale Ashton-Kirk is the fantasy.
John T. McIntyre was himself the desperately poor child of Irish immigrants, growing up in a slum worse than any in Ashton-Kirk: Investigator. And one suspects that the readers of the novel were not exactly rich, either. The Popular Magazine was a peculiar hybrid of a magazine. It was an imitation of the "family magazines" aimed at the middle classes, such as The Saturday Evening Post. Yet it was also a pulp, printed on the same cheap pulp paper as other pulps, and affordable by working class readers, like the other pulps. Readers of the magazine could see Ashton-Kirk, living in his glamorous mansion, and also read a tale full of working class immigrants like themselves.
Information: City Directories. City directories were a key source of information in this pre-Internet era. Examples of their use by classic mystery writers:
Information: Shorthand. Shorthand was another important tool for spreading information in this era. It appears in:
The Holmes Legacy. Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent starts out promisingly enough, with a household under siege from mysterious incidents of persecution (Chapters 1, 2). The whole thing is a direct imitation of the many Sherlock Holmes in which a "man with a past" settles down, only to have all sorts of frightening events constantly plague the family. Doyle loved stories about a household under siege, with mysterious events and warnings occurring in the house over a period of weeks, and many of the members of the household working at cross purposes to each other in the melodrama that envelops the home. We see similar mystery set-ups in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent. Such tales involve an active struggle, not a simple passive mysterious situation that needs elucidating, although that eventually comes too.
Ashton-Kirk is consulted about the case, just like Holmes. A strange diagram is the center of attention, as in some Holmes tales. Various approaches are used to try to interpret it. At one point (Chapter 11), Ashton-Kirk borrows some books on religious history and symbolism, from a friendly local priest. Ashton-Kirk's detective assistant Fuller, his "Polton", remarks humorously:
The Mystery. The mystery plot resembles the whodunits of the Golden Age to come, especially such intuitionist writers as Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine. The resemblance is especially strong in terms of structure, the basic architectural pattern of the book considered as a detective story. There is a murder, a lot of suspects who mainly live in the same household, and a final surprise solution where the crime is pinned on the least likely person. Most of the suspects are involved in various mysterious subplots; these make all the suspects look guilty, when in actual fact their secret activities are not always tied directly to the murder. There is a lot of movement of the suspects around the crime scene both immediately before and immediately after the murder. All of this looks like the ground plan of a Golden Age intuitionist book.
McIntyre puts especial emphasis on long chains of circumstance that make a suspect look guilty, but which are in fact capable of another, more innocent interpretation, as is eventually revealed. This sort of sustained ambiguity of situation recalls the work of Fergus Hume, another pioneer who contributed to the rise of the modern intuitionist detective novel. Ambiguity in Hume is often grounded in ambiguous personal relationships. By contrast, in McIntyre the ambiguity is more typically centered on activities that look specifically criminal, but which in fact are not.
The initial chapters in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent often seem especially Doyle like, as they concentrate on his Holmes-like sleuth and a Doyle-like plot situation. But as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more similar to a Golden Age intuitionist whodunit, with these aspects of the plot coming to the fore. The transition especially takes place with the murder (Chapter 4) and its subsequent mystery itself, which seem very close to those in Golden Age books.
Spies. However, McIntyre does not sustain the pure mystery elements. Soon, we are engulfed in a routine spy novel, imitative of William Le Queux. A key character is the household's next door neighbor, a Japanese spy named Okiu. The sophisticated Okiu employs a whole houseful of spies, including a butler who is a gigantic Sumo wrestler - no well-appointed establishment should be without one! Here things really go bad. Sometimes Okiu is an interesting character - but McIntyre also mixes cheap anti-Asian stereotypes into the story. This turns a story that starts out as a not-bad historical curiosity, into a book that cannot be recommended to anyone.
Okiu oddly mirrors Ashton-Kirk himself:
Color. As the title "the Scarlet Scapular" suggests, the diagrams involve vivid color imagery (Chapters 1, 2). The description of the German Embassy Ball (start of Chapter 22) emphasizes the brilliant color of the spectacular dress uniforms of various nations.
Geographical Information. Like Sherlock Holmes, Ashton-Kirk keeps detailed files (Chapter 2). But Ashton-Kirk has something unique: a detailed, ever changing and updated map of his city and its suburbs. This handmade map records every house and street number. Ashton-Kirk would have loved today's Internet maps. His own map stems from the same sort of impulse, to collect as much geographical information as possible. During research sessions, he combines the use of the map with the telephone directory.
Ashton-Kirk's map also uses multi-colored inks: more employment of color in the novel.
A "Boom" Suburb. Much of the mystery takes place in a new, still underdeveloped suburb called Eastbury. In 1912, such as place is called a "Boom" suburb: likely referring to an attempted housing boom there by entrepreneurs. A new Manhattan suburb is the setting of "The Purple Flame" (1912) by Frederick Irving Anderson. Clearly such suburbs were attracting the attention of American mystery writers. "The Purple Flame" also shares with Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent an interest in color imagery.
How Good Is This Book?. The first two-thirds of The Museum Murder (Chapters 1 - 18) make absorbing reading, with detailed story telling and some good plot ideas. But its final third is uninteresting, with an uncreative solution to who committed the murder. The book is thus in the middle rank, neither fully successful nor a flop. Should you read it? It is not as good as the many genuine mystery classics recommended in this Guide. So you should probably NOT rush out to get a copy. Still, parts of the book have merit.
Stereotype. Nasty museum director Custis has some sort of unspecified disability. This is an offensive stereotype. It is another reason why one cannot recommend The Museum Murder.
Links to Van Dine. The Museum Murder seems to be McIntyre's attempt to write a novel in the S.S. Van Dine tradition.
The Museum Murder has a background set among artists, art experts, dealers and collectors, echoing the Van Dine approach of setting books among the intelligentsia.
The first Van Dine mystery The Benson Murder Case (1926) depicted Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance as an art expert and collector. McIntyre's sleuth in The Museum Murder is similarly a collector-expert. In that sense The Museum Murder is an imitation of Van Dine.
But in other ways The Museum Murder anticipates Van Dine, doing things he had not yet done. The Museum Murder is actually set in the art world: something Van Dine had not yet done in 1929. And The Museum Murder takes place in a museum. Van Dine would not have a museum setting until The Scarab Murder Case (1929), which began serialization in December 1929.
One might also note that long before Van Dine started publishing mysteries, McIntyre's Ashton-Kirk: Investigator (1910) featured a coin collector and his shop. The art objects in The Museum Murder include collectables such as glassware, and dealers that sell them.
Duddington Pell Chalmers is a comic variant on Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance. Like Vance:
Sections of the Book. The Museum Murder falls into three discrete sections:
Mystery Plot: Impossible Theft. A theft occurs in the museum, and it looks impossible at first. Impossible thefts of art objects appeared in mysteries before The Museum Murder. For example, see "The Stolen Romney" (1919) by Edgar Wallace. The approach to the impossibility in The Museum Murder has much the same structure as "The Stolen Romney". However the details in The Museum Murder are new and original.
The actual physical theft in The Museum Murder is made part of a larger mystery, in which there are clues and hidden patterns creatively mixed in. All of this is mainly contained in the middle section of the novel (Chapters 5-18).
Architecture. The architecture of the museum is carefully explained. It is mainly fairly conventional. Exception: the back door has an unusual lock. I've never seen anything like this in other books.
Chalmers' apartment is on the fifteenth floor. This anticipates McIntyre's later sleuth Jerry Mooney, whose office is in a tower building.
Class. The Museum Murder recalls Ashton-Kirk: Investigator in its treatment of social class. Both works begin by focusing on a wealthy, upper class detective, and a moneyed milieu. But eventually, lower class characters emerge, who are treated with surprising sympathy. In The Museum Murder, these include:
In addition to the unpleasant anti-semitism, the writing is lifeless, and the events seem remote from any sort of reality. The writing lacks the "hard-boiled" tone so often found in the Black Mask school, being bland and straightforward in style.
The garment business is portrayed as full of characters who have close ties to mobsters. Although the businessmen try to use the mobsters on small errands, the mob types get out of control, and start wrecking havoc on their own. It is an unusual setup, and one that could have served as the premise of a novel better than Mooney Moves Around. People might want to see the fine film The Garment Jungle (Robert Aldrich, Vincent Sherman, 1957) for a later take on problems in the garment industry.
The Detectives. This is the first book about private eye Jerry Mooney. He comes across as a generic shamus, with a small office and long suffering secretary Mickey, who he has promised to marry, as soon as he settles down, makes some money and stops playing the horses. The author mentions that "Mooney was about thirty-five, and quite big. He'd been a wrestler; he'd been a policeman; he'd been a top sergeant in the Marines." But little is done with this interesting background in the rest of the book. Mooney's work as a wrestler recalls the better developed character of ex-wrestling champion Bat Scanlon in the Ashton-Kirk saga.
In the Mooney short story "Murder Is Stupid", Mooney is "big, athletic, fast-looking". He does calisthenics every morning. And likes to doodle circles while he's thinking. (Bat Scalon in Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist is "swift and fit" (Chapter 1). McIntyre liked his detective heroes to be fast.)
Mooney's police contact is Captain Pash, a twenty-eight year veteran of the force. Pash is "a smart cop, though eccentric and hard to keep up with. He was small, and gray, and thin; his uniform always looked too large on him." As a small, older policeman, Pash recalls Inspector Richard Queen in the Ellery Queen books. However, Pash is much less sympathetic than Inspector Queen.
In addition to Jerry Mooney and his secretary Mickey Sayre, we meet his intelligent office boy Ates Haley. An office boy in a detective agency recalls Tommy Howd in the Continental Op stories by Dashiell Hammett. Both Ates and Tommy are fourteen years old. However, before Hammett had published any stories, McIntyre had included Danny the red-haired office boy at Scanlon's Gymnasium in Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist (Chapter 1). Danny works for sleuth Bat Scanlon, just as Ates does for Mooney.
A Bookie. The polished young dancer and bookie Ripple is an amusing character (end of Chapter 14, Chapter 16). He has plenty of swagger. Ripple is well-dressed, like the equally swaggering young Federal Attorney in "Murder Is Stupid". The Attorney is honest however, while Ripple is on the fringes of legality.
Ripple likes swing music, and he hangs out in nightclubs that play it.
Ripple's dance milieu and social polish recall the glamorous young men in The Social Gangster (collected 1916) by Arthur B. Reeve.
Ripple is a darkly comic "double" of the hero Mooney. Both men:
It appeared in The Blue Book Magazine (December 1944), one of at least eight short stories about Mooney in that magazine. It was reprinted by Rex Stout and Louis Greenfield in their anthology Rue Morgue No. 1 (1946).
The Etruria Tower. In a nice touch, most of the case takes place in the high-rise office building where Mooney works, the Etruria Tower. The victim, witnesses and most suspects all work there too, in various offices. The Etruria Tower has many floors. Much is made of its elevators. In such novels as Mooney Moves Around and Death Strikes at Heron House (1943-1944), Mooney's office is in Bergman Tower, instead.
Such towers can be seen as:
The Detectives. "Murder Is Stupid" includes a large cast of supporting players working as detectives. Jerry Mooney, secretary Mickey Sayre and office boy Ates Haley all return. Police Captain Pash is supported by his assistant Engle, and desk sergeant Berg (who appeared briefly in Mooney Moves Around). We also meet Feds: Mooney's friend, sympathetic, intelligent young FBI man Dave Shugrue, and an unnamed Federal Attorney. Such large casts of supporting detectives are a tradition of the Van Dine School. They also recall the detective assistants that Ashton-Kirk employs.
The confident young Federal Attorney is very well-dressed (section 4). This was a period in which Federal men maintained a well-dressed image: it was one of the main things everybody knew about them. He is treated with admiration by the author. The 1940's was an era which admired men who were well-suited. This is also reflected by the sharp suits worn by the Hollywood heroes of film noir.
In Mooney Moves Around, Mooney is defiant of the authority of Captain Pash, but without much real power of his own to back this up (Chapter 7, start of Chapter 12). All Mooney has are unnamed "friends" who he claims can protect him from Pash. But in "Murder Is Stupid", the authority of the Federal men takes precedence over Pash, and they take complete charge of the case. Since the Feds support Mooney, Mooney now sees Pash thoroughly put under control. This is an early example of a popular trope of contemporary detective fiction, the conflict between the Feds and local cops for control of a case.
Both novels are narrated by a stuffy family lawyer. Gillmore's near-parody pushes this character to extremes. While Green's lawyer was highly competent, Gillmore's young narrator is a near idiot, comically outclassed by everyone around him. Totally smitten by one of the heiresses, he believes any lie told him. Gillmore's narrator spends much of the book being humiliated, dominated and controlled by everyone in the case, including the tough, brainy detective Trask. It is quite an odd piece of comic fantasy. The book as a whole is an odd combination of nightmarish thriller events, and the narrator's comic encounters. It gives The Alster Case a unique tone of dark comedy.
While Green's mystery is solved by a New York City police detective, Gillmore's sleuth is a private detective. Trask is an energetic hawkshaw, always one step beyond everyone else, in spying on everyone around him. His character is both darkly comic, and a bit intimidating, even frightening. Trask reflects ideas of what a keen-eyed, intense manhunter was like, in those pre Black Mask days.
Trask embodies a robber-baron-era ideal of masculinity, ferocious, domineering and hard charging. So do several businessmen characters in the novel. One can see a similar idolization of captains of industry in Jacques Futrelle.
Adding to the near burlesque of The Leavenworth Case, is a subplot involving the servants. In The Leavenworth Case, a maid goes missing on the night of the killing; in The Alster Case, the butler disappears. Did the Butler Do It? He is certainly a prime suspect. This butler is young, sexy and sinister, and may or may not be involved with one of the heiresses. Other features echoing Green's novel: a floor plan; an inquest held in the victim's mansion; a missing key; and the immediate presence of the detective on the murder scene, even before the narrator arrives.
The Alster Case takes place entirely in Manhattan. While the early sections are pure mystery, set at the family mansion where the murder takes place, a long later section of the book is a thriller, set in a deserted building. This thriller section shows both originality, and ingenuity. It has the architectural interest in unusual buildings, of the Golden Age to come. Elements resemble the 1910's novels of Carolyn Wells.
The Alster Case is surprisingly readable, even gripping. But it hardly has a puzzle plot. There is plenty of mystery surrounding the handful of suspects, all of whom have deep dark secrets, and who are concealing their behavior on the night of the murder. But the unraveling of said secrets mainly comes from the suspects Telling All at the end of the book, rather from any real detective work. The secrets are mainly anti-climactic, and show little plot ingenuity. The solution is thus likely to come as a disappointment. Still, the solution also has some oddball features that impress.
The Alster Case was made into a silent film in 1915, by the now forgotten director J. Charles Haydon. The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company that made the movie was Chicago based, and they transferred the action to Chicago from the book's New York City. Matinee-idol-in-training Rod La Rocque played the novel's young inventor, one of the suspects. Its star Ruth Stonehouse also made in 1915 a film of "The Papered Door" by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
The other sleuths in Gillmore's book have diminished in their cloning as well. The DA is the detective's friend, and brings him in as an amateur consultant to solve the murder, just as in Van Dine. But he seems less noble, intelligent and flexible than the idealistic, dedicated DA in Van Dine. And the police Sergeant Mullens is just plain obnoxious, always trying to pin the crime on a young woman in the case. Van Dine's Sgt. Heath may be low brow, and often mistaken in his ideas compared with Vance, but he is also generous, decent, open minded, genuinely concerned with truth, and filled with great respect for Vance.
Griffin Scott's secret den at the beginning is full of high tech gizmos, and there is an interesting look at tear gas later on. Such a secret den recalls the heroes of the pulp magazines, more than the Van Dine school. Scott also performs some not bad medical detection in the opening chapters. In general, there is a small atmosphere of scientific detection to the book, reminiscent of such Van Dine school writers as Abbot and C. Daly King.
The mechanical but never lazy plotting recalls that of 1930's film whodunits, with suspects always moving around. The second murder in the story is especially startling, and also resembles in its choice of victims King.
Despite a general lack of inspiration in this minor novel, it somehow remains likable. There is no sense of malice in Gillmore. Racial minorities are not belittled, although in fact they hardly show up at all, nor are the servants caricatured.
The murdered women's numerous husbands are chronicled with some storytelling verve, so are her mercenary relatives. She resembles to a degree the much married woman in Earl Derr Biggers' Keeper of the Keys (1932), although she is far more mercenary. The story also resembles Biggers' novel in involving a shooting, and in tracking the movements of the characters at the time of the murder.
Footner's career is a bit hard to place: Madame Storey seems to have been accepted as a Golden Age detective, with her work collected in books, but her cases also appeared in pulp magazines throughout the Depression: maybe other markets were tighter then. Footner suggests that the usual rigid dichotomy between pulp fiction/Golden Age detective stories was in fact something of a semipermeable membrane.
Footner's other series detective is Amos Lee Mappin, a successful, middle-aged crime writer whose mysteries tend to occur in New York's cafe society. Mappin is unusual in that his Watson (at least in some of his tales) is a young woman, his secretary Fanny Parran. Madame Storey's assistant-and-Watson is also female, Bella Brickley. They are some of the few female Watsons in fiction, an example of how female oriented Footner's fiction is.
Fanny Parran is already present in Death of a Celebrity (1938), before Ellery Queen got his own secretary Nikki Porter on his radio show in 1939.
"The Murder at Fenhurst" treats a refined young woman as a main suspect in the murder of her father. Such "family crimes maybe by young women" also recall Green: see her The Leavenworth Case.
Usually the handsome men relate to women. But sometimes a gay subtext seems to emerge, with scenes that can be ambiguously interpreted as men attracted to other men. SPOILERS:
Mystery Plot. The Deaves Affair is a comic, cheerful novel about a young New York City artist who meets an eccentric millionaire and helps him deal with blackmailers. The artist hero does some detective work investigating the mysterious gang of blackmailers, but in many ways The Deaves Affair is as much as an adventure story or comic thriller, as it is a detective story.
Rogue Fiction. The Deaves Affair takes place in a New York City world, that in some ways already seems a bit dated for 1922. It recalls:
Later Footner novels often have gold-digging young men who prey on wealthy women. The hero of The Deaves Affair does everything to seize his new relationship with the elderly male millionaire, and turn it to financial profit. He is honest, unlike Footner's later gigolos, but The Deaves Affair is still a book about a young man who meets the rich and tries to make a living off them.
Sexuality. Footner is good at describing the attraction between his hero and heroine. Footner makes it clear that his artist is not a "long hair" or sloppy dresser, unlike the Bohemian artists of the day, but a young man who shines his shoes and keeps his hair short.
Commercial Art. The artist makes his living painting labels. Commercial art and artists seem to fascinate Golden Age mystery writers. See Helen Reilly.
These later novels have features recalling the detective novels of S.S. Van Dine. But Mappin aside, there is little in The Mystery of the Folded Paper that is at all Van Dine-ish. Only Mappin, a New York sophisticate turned criminologist, recalls Van Dine.
Despite its title The Mystery of the Folded Paper is mainly a thriller rather than a mystery or detective story. It does contain a mysterious killing, which is traced to a surprise villain at the finale. So it contains a murder mystery element. But mainly it is an inane thriller about international intrigue, a chase after a valuable jewel, etc.
The Mystery of the Folded Paper contains regressive and offensive social attitudes. They are too sordid and depressing to write about in detail.
Christopher Morley's Theater. The Mystery of the Folded Paper gets some mild charm, when it writes about a real-life theatrical venture of Footner's real-life friend Christopher Morley (end of Chapter 7, first part of Chapter 8). Morley's theater did campy comedy spoofs of old melodrama plays, in a theater in Hoboken, New Jersey. Morley briefly appears as a character in the novel.
The description of the theater building has architectural interest, in the Golden Age manner. The theater has two buildings, connected by a bridge. The two buildings are a bit like the "houses entered from next door" found in other Mappin tales.
The theater is mentioned again in The Finishing Stroke (1958) (Chapter 14) by Ellery Queen, a historical mystery set in 1929.
The Mappin Series Begins. Death of a Celebrity seems to be the second novel about Amos Lee Mappin, and the first to feature him as the central character. It is the start of a series of Amos Lee Mappin detective tales.
It contains what seems to be the debut of such supporting characters in the Mappin series as:
Stan Oberry can be categorized as a "well-mannered private detective who is hired to assist the sleuth hero with research and tailings". This type was well-established before its use here by Footner, for example:
Reviews. There is a play within the novel Death of a Celebrity, and we read some of the play's reviews. They offer a multitude of perspectives on the drama. The feel anticipates another mystery set in the literary world which contains reviews of an imaginary novel, Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956) by Helen McCloy. McCloy's treatment is more elaborate.
Phoenician. The use of the Phoenician alphabet as a code is a clever idea. This would not deter code experts, but it would keep most ordinary people from understanding a message.
Characters. A none-too-honest character is nicknamed Slippery Slim. This anticipates the later series character Slip'ry Sneak in the Dick Cole comic books.
We get a portrait of a spoiled heiress, demanding things of the detectives (Chapters 1, 2). This anticipates the more vicious and even more demanding heiress in Orchids to Murder (Chapter 11).
Detection. Much of the detection is in the Gaboriau tradition, of discovering clues left at a crime scene, and using them to reconstruct the events of the murder (Chapters 5 - 6).
Mystery Plot: What Is It?. Mappin picks up a mysterious black glass object at the crime scene (Chapter 5). He has no idea what the object is, or what it is used for. We eventually get an explanation (end of Chapter 14). This is one of the better mystery sub-plots in The Murder That Had Everything.
Mysterious, puzzling objects of unknown identity or function would later sometimes appear in Helen McCloy. McCloy's "The Nameless Clue" (1941) in fact deals with a mysterious black disk, just like The Murder That Had Everything. The explanation of the two disks in quite different, however.
Architecture. There is a good deal of architectural interest in the apartment occupied by the victim in The Murder That Had Everything (Chapters 5 - 6); creative buildings were a Golden Age specialty.
Also architectural: there is a nice piece of detection (end of Chapter 4 and Chapter 5), where the hero tracks down the location of the victim's apartment.
Common factors in the architecture in The Murder That Had Everything and "The Ashcomb Poor Case":
Gun Murders. Common factors in the gun murders in The Murder That Had Everything and "The Ashcomb Poor Case":
Mappin made his first appearance in The Mystery of the Folded Paper (1930), but that earlier book is not at all Van Dine-like.
Van Dine school books often deal with the intelligentsia. The Murder That Had Everything looks at the celebrity press. These gossip columnists and reporters are lower-brow than the typical intellectuals in a Van Dine school novel. But they can be seen as related to the intellectuals and entertainment figures in other Van Dine authors. An earlier Mappin mystery Death of a Celebrity is more traditionally Van Dine-ish, dealing with Broadway theater people.
Mappin plans a gourmet luncheon (start of Chapter 2). Gourmet food is associated with Van Dine school author Rex Stout and his sleuth Nero Wolfe.
Society photographer Alastair "Al" Yohe is one of the good-looking, irresistible men who run through Footner. So is Rulon Innes (first part of Chapter 3).
Detection. In a virtuoso piece of detection, Mappin identifies the location of a room in Manhattan, simply by studying photographs from inside the room (Chapter 10). This recalls Mappin finding the victim's apartment in The Murder That Had Everything (end of Chapter 4 and Chapter 5).
Mappin humorously compares his detective work to Sherlock Holmes, in this section.
A later section (first half of Chapter 18) has Mappin tracking the movement of a package of caviar. While not brilliant, it is still fun to read, in its story telling detail.
Color Imagery. The package of caviar is in a bright green and red box (start of Chapter 18).
Mappin is introduced wearing "a crimson damask dressing gown with a blue silk scarf around his throat and blue morocco slippers" (start of Chapter 1). On a later day his "dressing gown was orange faced with black; the scarf and slippers scarlet" (start of Chapter 5). Having accessories (like the scarf and slippers) be all of one color, was popular in the 1940's among both men and women.
Architecture. Architecture is a big source of enjoyment and charm in Who Killed the Husband?. The book opens with a map of the apartment. Later we learn about the movements of the suspects in this apartment at the time of the crime: a Van Dine School tradition - and a good one! The apartment shows features found in other Footner architecture:
Social Commentary. Inspector Loasby cultivates reporters. And he makes an interesting point: "In a free country every public official has to keep in with the press" (first part of Chapter 7). In 1941, the differences between a free country like the United States and the totalitarians at war in Europe would be on everyone's mind. There is also a reference to a charity fund-raiser that reflects the war in Europe, the Polish Relief Ball (first part of Chapter 2). We also hear about a chef in New York who is a French refugee (start of Chapter 3).
An elderly waiter fears age discrimination, and had trouble getting a job before Yohe employed him (first third of Chapter 18). At the end, we happily learn the waiter still has a job (Postscript).
This story has more low-life characters than The Murder That Had Everything, with many of the ex-con's former criminal associates prominent in the plot. The tone is also darker, and more tragic.
The House With the Blue Door is always readable, and never becomes actually dull. But after its vivid first chapter, it is not as inspired or as fun as Footner's best works.
Tails. The hunk dresses in white tie and tails to look especially appealing (Chapter 1). White tie is indeed the most dressed-up look for men. It also appears in The Murder That Had Everything (Chapter 7), where we learn that everyone but the gossip columnist is wearing it in a popular night club. The columnist's dissent from this standard is a sign of his personal power and individuality. Please see my list of comic book characters in white tie and tails.
Architecture. The heiress' huge estate has many facilities on its grounds (Chapter 1). This anticipates the even more elaborate facilities at the millionaire's country home in Orchids to Murder (Chapter 5).
The other building, the house of the title, is described in disappointingly generic terms.
SPOILERS. Like some other Footner works, like Death of a Celebrity and The Murder That Had Everything, characters come to the crime scene in the house from next door. However, I thought the architecture of the neighboring homes, and the paths between them and the crime scene, in these other books is more interesting than that in The House With the Blue Door.
Mystery Plot. Like The Murder That Had Everything, Orchids to Murder opens with a disappearance. In both books, Mappin is asked by friends or relatives of the vanished person to look for them. The disappearance plot is longer-drawn-out in Orchids to Murder than in The Murder That Had Everything.
Another similarity: Inspector Loasby says the crime in Orchids to Murder "has everything" (start of Chapter 6). In The Murder That Had Everything it is reporter Tom Cottar who says "This case has everything" (near start of Chapter 6).
Detective Team. Mappin's allies return. They were all previously seen in such Mappin books as The Murder That Had Everything and Who Killed the Husband?:
Flowers as Clues. Gardenia clues were important in The Murder That Had Everything, and a woman carries red roses when she visits her father in prison (start of Chapter 14). Orchids serve as clues in Orchids to Murder. So do hyacinths and leaves (Chapter 13).
As best as I can tell, the "Investia orchid" in Orchids to Murder is made-up for the novel, not a real species. The orchids are green-and-black: color imagery that runs through the novel.
Architecture. A number of scenes take place in detailed architectural settings:
Such converted farmhouses were considered glamorous in that era. Evidence of Things Seen (1943) by Elizabeth Daly, So Much Blood (1944) by Zelda Popkin, and The Farmhouse (1947) by Helen Reilly take place in a similar milieu. I have wondered, without any solid evidence, whether the glamorization of such residences in books and Hollywood films, helped lead the way to the rise of suburbia in post-1945 United States.
SPOILERS. The body is hidden twice in Orchids to Murder (start of Chapter 12; end of Chapter 13). Both times, it is pushed through an opening, and then falls down into an enclosed architectural area or pit. This is exactly how the killer hid the corpse in The Murder That Had Everything (Chapters 5, 6). The fall is part of Footner's interest in height and vertical space: which gives his architecture a three-dimensional quality.
Both locations in Orchids to Murder are treated as crime scenes to be investigated: a core part of Footner's detective technique. As usual, the detective reconstructs the criminal's activities there.
SPOILERS. Consulting an architectural sketch plan helps Mappin find a hidden area (start of Chapter 13). This is a good piece of detective work. The hidden area is part of the infrastructure, like the coal scuttle that plays a role in The Murder That Had Everything.
Men: A Positive View. Two of the main characters are an impoverished chauffeur, Ewart Blanding, and a millionaire businessman, George Restorick. SPOILERS. Although both feature prominently as suspects, as Mappin gets to know them better, they emerge as fine fellows. Both in their own way come to seem as idealized images of manhood. They make a welcome change of pace from the gigolos and fortune hunters of other Footner books. They instead show what men might be at their best.
Opening. The opening (Chapters 1, 2) of Fountain of Death contain an unusual mini-mystery. The medical examiner summons Steve Johnson in an unusual way, and makes odd statements to Johnson about the killing. Steve Johnson has to reconstruct the history of the medical examiner's actions, and figure out reasons for his somewhat atypical behavior. This is a "mystery puzzle with solution". But it is a non-standard one, involving the behavior of an investigating official, rather than a criminal.
The police medical examiner is Dr. Quincy, anticipating the TV series about a pathologist, Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983). Quincy is a continuing character in the Steve Johnson series.
Some of the dialogue between Johnson and Quincy recalls H. C. Bailey - a writer not otherwise close to American police procedurals. "So you did notice that. I wondered." sounds especially Bailey-ish.
There is some pleasant local color in the opening about San Francisco's cable cars. This includes a look at politics surrounding them. Unfortunately, this subject mainly does not extend into the rest of the book.
Surrealism and Mystery. SPOILERS. Some aspects of the dead man seem surreal, especially his green hands (Chapter 1), and the odd contents of his pockets (Chapter 2). The pocket contents are hard to explain, or give a coherent logical view of. Eventually, these mysteries are explained by the dead man's profession (Chapter 7.3).
The victim's unusually long fingernails (Chapter 2.1), while not as surreal, are also eventually explained as part of his profession: another man in the same profession has long nails too (Chapter 9.2).
Later aspects of the victim's life also seem surreal, notably the photos in his safe (end of Chapter 9.2).
Adding Meaning to Objects. Nelson likes to introduce objects - then add meaning to them later on. The addition of meaning is a step by step process, with layer after layer added to the meaning of objects. Examples of this process in Fountain of Death include the vehicles involved with the opening murder, and later the photos in the safe.
The initial murder involves two linked objects: a San Francisco cable car and a nearby taxi. Layers of meaning about these vehicles:
A Jewish Policeman. One of the continuing series policeman in the Johnson books is Detective Isadore Harmon. From his name, he is likely intended to be Jewish, although I don't recall this being explicitly discussed. Like the other series policemen who work for Johnson, Harmon is a good guy. One suspects that Nelson is trying for both realism, and an anti-racist statement, by including a Jewish character on the team.
Like the other police in the series, there are light comedy aspects to Harmon's adventures. He tends to come up against officious people who give him a hard time.
The Far-Left Professor. There is a brief but funny satire on a far-left professor (Chapter 7.2). He's likely a Communist, from his glib line of patter, although his specific politics are not made explicit. SPOILER. Especially funny is his account of the crime.
Imagery. Nelson has a gift for symbols, and for symbolic objects. His hero's tuxedo serves many purposes during the course of the story, gradually becoming a symbolically rich object worthy of Hawthorne. Nelson enjoys writing about fancy suits for men: Ring the Bell at Zero (1949) opens with a description of the hero's specially modified suit.
Nelson used the technique of adding on layers of meaning to a symbol to other elements too. In the earlier Fountain of Death (Chapter 3.2), we learn that Detective Harmon is obsessed with his dream of opening a chicken ranch in the country. In Dead Giveaway (Chapter 1), Harmon is introduced in the novel, by seeing his reaction to actual chickens in the here-and-now, when he is assigned to police patrol San Francisco's wholesale poultry processing district. This is funny.
The chicken ranch recalls The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice, and policeman von Flanagan talking about buying a mink farm when he retires.
Background. "Giveaways" were live shows, in which prizes were given away to the audience. They were used by some movie theaters of the era, to lure customers to the theater. Dead Giveaway has a Background, of a troupe that specializes in putting on Giveaways. Oddly enough, we never see an actual, full Giveaway show.
Mystery Traditions. Dead Giveaway perhaps shows the influence of a number of mystery schools, without being closely associated with any of them.
Hugh Lawrence Nelson published just one pulp mystery story under his own name: "The Five-Fingered Clue" (Ten Detective Aces Vol. 38 #2, April 1940). Despite this, Dead Giveaway is somewhat in the tradition of such 1940's pulp writers of humorous mysteries as Norbert Davis and Frank Gruber. It also shows some similarity in tone to Craig Rice, whom Gruber probably influenced.
Dead Giveaway reminds one of the Van Dine school:
Van Dine School. The book has features of the Van Dine School:
The best parts of the novel are the opening (Prologue, Chapters 1-5), a deepening of the mystery (Chapter 15), and the solution of the locked room problem (Chapters 22-23). The rest of the novel is taken up by a dull, uninteresting look back at the early lives of the characters.
BIG SPOILERS. The solution to whodunit is an example of a famous mystery trope. Please see my list of examples.
The fine first story in the series, "The Great Seal of England" (1943), also shows signs of affinity with EQ and his traditions: it has a deductive finale, where logic is used to deduce the identity of the culprit. It also uses that favorite EQ plot, the search for a missing, ingeniously hidden object. So do other tales in the series, such as "Prince Charlie's Ruby". Many of the mysteries in the Johnson tales involve the concealment of an object or a person. As is often in de la Torre, the characters' motives for their schemes is to protect some person in trouble. The story also shows de la Torre's fondness for highwaymen, those 18th Century robbers now seen as colorful quasi-heroes.
Lillian de la Torre shows other features linking her to the Van Dine school as a whole, of which EQ was a member:
I am of two minds about these fictionalized true crime tales. I respect the ingenuity the author shows in them, working within the strict historical limits of the cases. But I do not enjoy any of them as much as the cases de la Torre has made up out of her own head. These purely fictitious tales show much more imagination and mystery puzzle plot ingenuity than the true crimes.
In addition to "The Great Seal of England", my favorites are "The Flying Highwayman" (1946) and "The Manifestations in Mincing Lane". These two works have an abundance of mystery. In neither are the mysteries hard to fathom, and readers should not expect overwhelming ingenuity on the order of Agatha Christie here. Yet the mysteries in these stories are beautifully wrought, considered as pieces of storytelling. The plots have the right "shape": they are enjoyable to think about, and savor mentally.
"Prince Charlie's Ruby" (1944) also has a mystery to it, in fact two different sets of mysteries in the first and second halves of the story. Yet it is mainly a historical work. Like that other EQMM contributor, James Yaffe, de la Torre believed in giving readers a large quantity of mystery plot, with clues, subplots, and series of ingenuities along the way.
"The Monboddo Ape Boy" (1945) is nicely done as a historical tale, but it only has a thin mystery.
"The Wax-Work Cadaver" (1945) has the opposite problem. It has some real ingenuity, with a role reversal plot in the tradition of Doyle. But the story is the sort of macabre tale I've never enjoyed.
"The Bedlam Bam", like some other tales in The Return, is less a mystery than an adventure story of crime defeated. It combines the "social victim rescued" motif of "The Blackamoor Unchain'd" (1974) and the coffin and burial story of "The Resurrection Men" (1972).
"The Virtuosi Venus" (1973) is unusual as a story in that it is actually solved three times. It is in the tradition of such multiple solution Golden Age novels as EQ's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932). That de la Torre does this all in the space of a short story shows her commitment to bringing the reader a full mead of mystery.
"The Westcombe Witch" (1973) is a story of a coven, reminiscent of John Rhode's The Secret of High Eldersham (1931). This is just a little anecdote, hardly a full fledged puzzle plot mystery, but it is charming. There is a pattern in some of de la Torre's work in the 1970's. She will start out with a work that is exceptionally well crafted both as historical fiction and as a puzzle plot story: in 1973, "The Virtuosi Venus", in 1976, "The Aerostatick Globe". She will then write a second tale, less fully crafted and with hardly any puzzle plot, but with some charm: "The Westcombe Witch" (1973) and "The Spirit of the '76" (1976), respectively. Many of these 1970's stories involve foreigners in England, either Italians or Americans.
"The Aerostatick Globe" (1976) is the best work in the Exploits collection, both as historical fiction, and as a mystery. Its unusual, gentle mystery subject reminds us that de la Torre is typically far more interested in robbery than in murder. The somewhat unusual subject matter allows innovation in the plot construction. I think authors should experiment more with off trail subjects for mystery. Murder has been done to death - some less extreme crimes offer some real plot possibilities.
"The Aerostatick Globe" was followed by another story about scientists, "The Spirit of the '76" (1976). In this case Johnson meets Ben Franklin. The story was clearly written to celebrate the Bicentennial of the United States, held in 1976. The Dr. Johnson tales sometimes reflected 20th Century events of the time they were written; for example, "Coronation Story" (1953), which depicts the coronation of King George III in 1761, was written in the same year (1953) as the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Dr. Johnson tales often include a narrative process. Examples include plays, trials, historical accounts, launching a balloon, and rituals like coronations and funerals. This process includes a strong beginning, middle and end. It adds a well defined structure to the story, and a framework for the reader's expectations. These processes also function as stories, and grip the reader's interest. There is a great deal of visual pageantry in these stories, such as the gorgeous costumes worn and other visual effects. There is also much emphasis on the scientific and technological methods that underlay these processes.
De la Torre differs from many historical mystery writers of today in that she is more interested in civilization than primitiveness. Dr. Johnson was an advanced thinker of his time, in one of the most intellectual cities of the Enlightenment. He represents a peak of civilization. Many of the stories are about advanced science of their time ("The Aerostatick Globe", "The Monboddo Ape Boy") or art ("The Banquo Trap", "The Virtuosi Venus"). By contrast, many of today's historical mysteries want to explore the most barbaric activities of their times. The stories of de la Torre are also much happier and more cheerful than many contemporary historical tales. Their happy atmosphere resembles that of fairy tales.
Timothy Fuller was at one time a well-known author, and shows up in histories of mystery fiction. So coverage here is warranted. However, I have been underwhelmed by Fuller's books, so far. His inclusion here is NOT to be interpreted as any sort of recommendation.
Harvard Has a Homicide suffers from bigoted portrayal of minorities. The stereotyping is relentless. SPOILERS:
Architecture. The architecture of the building where the murder takes place, is of some interest, in the Golden Age tradition. The 1940's mapback illustration is especially good, showing the architecture. The building is described in the opening investigation (Chapters 2, 3). These chapters offer some of the best comic writing in the novel - at least until the end of Chapter 3, when we start getting a look at the caricatured black servant.
One wonders if "Creussen" ever published stories under his own name.
The story was reprinted in Ellery Queen's anthology The Queen's Awards. 1948 : the winners of the third annual detective short-story contest sponsored by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
A bibliography can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. Marcia Muller's articles on David Alexander from 1001 Midnights have been reprinted (with permission) on-line at Mystery*File, and also at Mystery*File.
Murder Points a Finger is a dying message mystery, a subgenre of detective fiction most closely linked to Van Dine School member Ellery Queen. Queen's first dying message book is in fact The Tragedy of X. The dying message in Murder Points a Finger gets multiple interpretations, also a Queen tradition. Alexander shows ingenuity with his solutions.
While the sleuth and dying message recall Van Dine traditions, Murder Points a Finger also includes a fairly realistic look at mobsters and civic corruption. This was a popular topic in 1950's American mysteries, including such Van Dine school writers as Hampton Stone and his The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still (1950).
I first learned about Murder Points a Finger, from the previously cited Beneath the Stains of Time. Thank you!
Links to Uncle Abner. The Grandfather Rastin stories recall the Uncle Abner tales (1911-1928) of Melville Davisson Post. Both:
Links to the Van Dine School. The Rastin have similarities to the Van Dine School of mystery fiction:
The Van Dine School is part of a bigger tradition in mystery fiction, the Intuitionist detective tale. Some of the elements listed above, such as amateur detectives and mysteries solved through pure thinking, are elements of the Intuitionist tradition as a whole, rather than Van Dine writers specifically.
The Rastin stories stick to Golden Age approaches, in avoiding complex backstory for their series characters.
Where is Borg County? Borgville is fictitious. So is Borg County which contains it. The clearest indication of its location is in "The Unasked Question" and "A Matter of Friendship", where it is described as being somewhat south of the real Michigan city of Jackson. This would place Borgville in the extreme South of Michigan. This is consistent with the lack of anything like a tourist economy in Borgville, tourism being the major business in many Northern Michigan towns. In fact, when a stranger shows up for a visit in Borgville in "The Gentle Swindler" (1960), it is such an unusual event that it triggers an investigation from the Sheriff. A location south of Jackson also makes Borgville not too far from such real Michigan cities as:
A real-life area in roughly the same geographical position as fictitious Borg County is Lenawee County. The real-life county seat of Lenawee is Adrian, a moderately large town that is the site of Adrian College. Similarly, the (fictitious) county seat of Borg County is Wiston, a moderately large city that is home to Wiston College. Lenawee County is full of small townships and villages that are comparable in size to Borgville.
I don't recall any other fiction set in this part of Michigan. Borg County is now Biggle's own, a region that belongs to his fictional universe, the way "Abner country" does to Melville Davisson Post.
Some of the early Rastin tales treat the townspeople of Borgville as a sort of "collective protagonist". They appear in a group. And take turns acting or talking, making "typical" remarks or actions. Such tales include "The Face Is Familiar", "A Case of Heredity" and "The Gentle Swindler". I don't find this approach too interesting, and am glad Biggle mainly dropped it in most of the tales.
The Teen Narrator. The narrator of the Grandfather Rastin tales is his teenage grandson Johnny. Johnny is a friendly, hard working young man. Without being any sort of copy or imitation, Johnny recalls aspects of Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout:
Johnny is remote from the stereotyped way of depicting teenagers in the media. He is not a party animal, is unconcerned about being popular, and spends little time worried about being "hip". Instead, he is an intelligent, decent person who seems well-informed about and interested in the world around him.
Johnny does have features that recall other teenage boys. He is always hungry, and frustrated that his Grandfather doesn't give him enough time to eat. He reminds me of the non-stop appetite of my own teenage years.
Biggle was a science fiction writer. He likely met countless teenage male science fiction fans, who were the core audience for science fiction in that era. These science fiction fans were typically intelligent, curious, interested in learning about the world, and positive in attitude. They well could have served collectively as models for Johnny.
The Mystery Plots. Among the better puzzle plots in the Grandfather Rastin stories are "The Phantom Thief" (1968) and "A Matter of Friendship" (2007). These tales describe thefts that occur despite areas being monitored, by humans in "The Phantom Thief" and a ferocious dog in "A Matter of Friendship". These stories are borderline impossible crime tales.
Grandfather Rastin's disappearance from the street in "A Matter of Friendship" also has links to the impossible crime. It is not treated as a mystery however: the reader knows right from the start how it occurs. "The Gentle Swindler" also has a character cleverly evading surveillance.
Some of the early Rastin stories, "A Case of Heredity" (1959) and "The Gentle Swindler" (1960), deal with strangers coming to Borgville, on unusual errands. These stories are amusing anecdotes, with some nice plot ideas about the strangers' business in town. They are not quite mysteries in the strict sense, with a murder or theft to be solved, and a culprit to be identified. Still, "The Gentle Swindler" is a mystery, in the sense that the stranger's mission is unknown, and only revealed at the end of the story. Biggle eventually developed a genuine detective tale about a mysterious stranger in town, "The Pair of Knaves" (1965). Once again, the stranger's business in Borgville is the most interesting part of the solution of "The Pair of Knaves". This story develops two solutions, in the tradition of E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen (who was the editor who first published most of the Rastin stories).
SPOILERS. Both solutions in "The Pair of Knaves" show why a local person might collaborate with the mysterious stranger. Elements of collaboration also play roles in the mystery plot solutions in "The Gentle Swindler" (quite close to the second solution in "The Pair of Knaves") and "The Lesser Thing". A bit more distantly, the newspaper subplot in "The Automation Mystery" has someone collaborating with the main crook, although this is more a form of assistance, and less like the collaborations in the other tales.
The other best story in the collection is "The Unasked Question" (1971). This unpretentious tale starts off with an ordinary looking murder. But the story is loaded with pleasant, logical detail, and shows some nice off-trail detection, before winding up with an ingenious solution.
"The Knave of Hearts" (2007) also has a two-level-deep solution. The first solution is more imaginative and unexpected. The second solution is more realistic, but less appealing and more ordinary.
As in several Rastin tales, "The Knave of Hearts" looks closely at the financial history of its characters, giving them a motive for their crimes. Many mysteries (buy other writers) deal in big-bucks motives, with greedy heirs, say, competing for a fortune. Biggle is unusual in looking at the finances of ordinary, middle class people, and finding causes for crime. The characters' financial history is explored in detail, often with numerous aspects mentioned, and a history of events. Embedded in this history are clues to the real - but hidden - state of affairs.
The better Rastin tales are good at concealing their villains. The choice of bad guy revealed at the end is a surprise.
Among the other tales, "The Fabulous Fiddle" (1963) is a modest but nice anecdote. It has some structural features in common with a better known tale editor Ellery Queen published two years later, "The Adventure of Abraham Lincoln's Clue" (1965).
The Rastin stories suffer from unevenness. The worst tales "The Mother Goose Murder" (1972), "The Unmurdered Professor" (1964) and "The Lesser Thing" (1960) are dreary in their storytelling, don't have much Borgville local color, and lack fair play in their solutions. "The Lesser Thing" does have a OK alibi puzzle idea. The earliest story, "The Face Is Familiar" (1957), hardly has any substance at all. "The Great Horseshoe Mystery" (1962) has only a mildly inventive puzzle plot, but has a certain social and human interest. Other Rastin tales are more like ingenious anecdotes than true mystery tales, as we noted before. Still, the better Grandfather Rastin tales have a distinctive niche in mystery fiction.
Landscape and Architecture. "The Pair of Knaves" and "The Phantom Thief" show large groups of disparate people interacting, making a complex pattern. The sleuth has to elucidate this pattern, and find subsystems of interactions within it that are relevant to the crime. These interactions have mystery puzzle implications. They also charmingly depict parts of Borgville society, showing how typical interactions within it occur.
In these tale, the characters are moving around a locale during the interactions, something that is traced out by the sleuths. In "The Phantom Thief" this locale is a single large building. The building's layout plays a role in the story. This recalls the interest in architecture in Golden Age mystery fiction.
In "The Pair of Knaves" the movements are around a yard, which forms one of the landscapes that also were popular in the Golden Age mystery.
The opening of "A Matter of Friendship" describes the victim's unusual house. It is an example of the sort of self-built, Primitive Art architecture that fascinated the art world in that era. Biggle gives the house a musical, sound-producing twist, in accord with Biggle's background as a musicologist. The house architecture plays little actual role in the mystery plot, however.
"The Great Horseshoe Mystery" and "The Knave of Hearts" have similar settings: alleys and side passages next to Borgville businesses and homes. SPOILERS. Both have similar sorts of crimes, small robberies from such Borgville businesses next to the alleys. And similar sympathy for the none-too-sinister people committing the crimes.
Cultural Transmission. Biggle's best-known science fiction tale "Tunesmith" (1957) deals with cultural transmission: the passing of cultural knowledge down from the past to present day generations. This subject occasionally appears in the Rastin tales. "The Great Horseshoe Mystery" shows Johnny learning the very existence of the game of horseshoes from his grandfather, as well as learning how to play it. (We briefly see in "Tunesmith" that the hero learned things from his grandfather.)
Some of the cultural backgrounds in the Rastin stories involve cultural transmission: the college in "The Unmurdered Professor", the high school in "The Phantom Thief", the encyclopedia salesman in "The Knave of Hearts".
Printed material brings information and products to the small town of Borgville: magazines in "The Unasked Question", a mail order catalogue in "The Great Horseshoe Mystery".
The newspaper subplot in "The Automation Mystery" shows information being spread through mass media: also a key subject in "Tunesmith". By contrast, we learn in "The Gentle Swindler" that Borgville has no movie theater. However it does have a post office, which plays a role in the solution to "A Case of Heredity". The post office is an information source, in this story's plot. As a kid, I was always learning things, about new stamps especially, from the little postal substation near where we lived. Post offices can be underrated as a source of information in US society.
Both cultural transmission and the media likely have links to Van Dine School tradition of creating mysteries with backgrounds of intellectuals, collectors, and people in the arts and show biz.
The Influence of Science Fiction. "The Automation Mystery" (1969) reminds one that Biggle was a science fiction writer. Like many sf stories, it looks at the social consequences of technological change. Biggle's comments on automation are interesting, and the tale is funny. Unfortunately, his unsympathetic portrait of labor unions is one-sided - although it is fairly mild compared to today's right-wing anti-union screeds. And the main mystery plot about the machine is easily guessed. The subplot about the newspaper article shows some imagination, however.
The mix of mystery and social satire in "The Automation Mystery" recalls T. S. Stribling.
The town of Borgville is also an imaginary society, something that is central to science fiction.
Biggle's science fiction background also might influence his over-all approach to mystery fiction. Science fiction writers are trained to develop content, details that embody and illustrate a science fiction premise. Biggle uses a somewhat similar approach in his mysteries. In some ways, he is more interested in content than form. His impossible theft tales "The Phantom Thief" and "A Matter of Friendship" depend on concrete ideas for carrying out the thefts, rather than the formal juggling that some more traditional mystery authors bring to impossible crime stories. The looks at visitors with unusual business in town in "A Case of Heredity", "The Gentle Swindler" and "The Pair of Knaves" is also very concrete and content-oriented, with specific clever ideas about their activities. So are the financial investigations that run through his tales.
Some of the best plotted mysteries in the Chick Kelly series are early tales, not included in Rafferty's collection Die Laughing. These include "Buzz 'Em, Chick!" (1976) and "Curtain Going Up, Chick!" (1977). Their puzzle plots reflect broad intuitionist school traditions. They tend to be "disguised impossible crime tales". In this sort of story, it looks impossible for one of the characters to have committed the crime. The author eventually comes up with an ingenious explanation of how they actually did do it. While the tale is not strictly speaking an impossible crime tale - there are several non-guilty suspects who could easily have committed the crime, which does not look at all impossible to the reader - the technique is still strongly in the tradition of the impossible crime. Both Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen wrote this sort of story.
Not all of the Kelly tales are mystery stories. "The Ling Woo Longshot" (1975) is a comic tale involving mobsters and gamblers, somewhat in the tradition of Damon Runyon.
Two tales have similar structural approaches to mystery and detection. "Two Tokens to Trouble" (1974) and "Live and Let Live, Chick!" (1975) have mysteries, but neither is really a fairly clued, puzzle plot story. Instead, both tales concentrate on showing us Chick's detective work to solve the case. Both stories takes place in New York's underworld, with mobsters and police officials being prominent characters. In both, Chick uses unusual detective approaches, calling on the resources of crooks and people with street wise connections to help him gather information. The detection here is quite innovative, with Rafferty pulling on sources not usually found in detective tales. "Live and Let Live, Chick!" (1975) also contains an inside look at New York's numbers racket. The gambling theme is continued in "Alectryon Slept" (1977), although this story has more of a traditional, clued puzzle plot than the others. All of these underworld tales make interesting reading. Their downside is that they are full of broad ethnic portrayals, often bordering on stereotype.
Rafferty's first Chick Kelly tale was "Hang In, Chick!" (1973), and his second mystery short of any kind. It too mixes detective work and a mob background. This tale is just a brief anecdote, with echoes of works as different as George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1912) and Baynard Kendrick's "Silent Night". But it does establish Chick Kelly's voice. Chick's narration, beautifully sustained over all his different tales, is one of the best features of the series. It is a verbally inventive line of show biz patter, gung ho, enthusiastic, and full of show biz allusions and lingo. It is a style of talking associated with New York show biz, at least since the 1950's. One can envision agents talking this way over the telephone to producers in 1963. It takes a good deal of creativity to write such original dialogue, and to keep coming up with fresh new things for Chick to say. The narration also has interiority: we see a lot of Chick thinking, the whole inner workings of his mind. Although the narration is comic in tone, it establishes a genuine portrait of a person thinking. Chick is always analyzing and categorizing everything he encounters. He has an impression of everyone, and usually something fresh and vivid to say about them.
"Hang In, Chick!" (1973) established Chick Kelley's profession as a comic, and gave a history of his career. The third Chick story, "Two Tokens to Trouble" (1974), was the one in which he bought his restaurant-nightclub, and the one in which he started getting his large entourage of continuing characters.