Anthony Abbot | C. Daly King | Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett / John Stephen Strange | Rex Stout | Clyde B. Clason | Gregory Dean | Rink Creussen | Torrey Chanslor | Lawrence Lariar | David Alexander | Harry Kemelman | John T. McIntyre | Rufus Gillmore | Richard Burke | Blanche Bloch
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)
Might As Well Be Dead (1956) (Chapters 1-5, 7, 12-14, 18-19)
Champagne for One (1958) (Chapters 1 - 6, 15 - 17)
Plot It Yourself (1959) (Chapters 1 - 4, 16, 19)
The Final Deduction (1961) (Chapters 1-2)
A Right to Die (1964)
Alphabet Hicks stories
Our Second Murder (1941) (Chapters 1, 2, 7, 13, 15-21)
Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966)
Chinese Red (1942) (Chapters 1-5, 7, 19)
Quinny Hite stories
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.
If Abbot's work looks forward to the pulp techniques of the 1930's and 1940'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 S. Moffet and Arthur B. Reeve of twenty years earlier.
Abbot's detectival setup offers an intriguing variation on Van Dine's formula. In Van Dine, and in Ellery Queen as well, a genius amateur detective works closely with the New York Police as an unofficial, but highly respected, consultant. Each has a personal connection with officialdom: Van Dine's Philo Vance is a personal friend of the DA, and Ellery Queen is Police Inspector Richard Queen's son. In Abbot's books, the genius detective Thatcher Colt is himself the Police Commissioner, and his connection with the New York Police come about naturally as the head of police. 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.
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.
Abbot was deep into what might be called "WASP Macho". There is tremendous emphasis on 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).
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 suggests an allegory of the survival and triumph of the middle classes.
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; see the article on Anthony Boucher for a discussion of this.
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.
The Shudders repeats imagery from Abbot's About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932). There is the death that results from a drop from a high place. There are the explorers who travel in the tropics, looking for rare chemical knowledge: here it is New Guinea, in Circus, Equatorial Africa. Both encounter an extremely colorful group of aboriginal people: the Dyaks in Shudders, the Ubangi in Circus. Both books deal with the possibility of killing someone at a distance, without leaving any traces. Both contain home movies, that are projected in a private dwelling. Both have scenes of men dressed up in white tie and tails. Both open on a rainy night of Friday the Thirteenth, and both contain much horror imagery. Both describe Colt's army of police recurring characters in detail, making them part of the plot. These recurring police characters are part of the Van Dine tradition. Both contain life histories of the suspects, exploring their professional and romantic lives in great detail. Both have a background of the chemical industry. Both contain references to Germany's involvement with the same. Both contain an apartment, which people enter and leave through a high window. Both contain a romantic triangle of sorts, with a younger couple, and an older man of considerable wealth, and dubious morals. Images of death are often linked to those of rebirth, both in the body in the trunk in the opening of Chapter 10 of Circus, and in the solution of Shudders. Many of the male characters seem to be in trouble in Abbot's books; this emotional mood probably subconsciously reflects the real life general vulnerability of men during the Depression, who were often unemployed and lacking in prospects.
One villain in The Shudders is a Uriah Heep type. He worms his way into a position as confidential secretary to a millionaire banker, takes over his life, and promptly murders him for his money. Although the author does not point this out, this seems to exaggerate and parody the relationship between Thatcher Colt and his secretary, the Watson-like narrator of the Colt novels. The narrator is a born number two, who owes his entire existence to being Colt's secretary.
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.
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 Abbot of anything political, while Wallace's book is soaked in social commentary.
Abbot's howdunit 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.
Impossible crime aside, the novel shows less colorful storytelling, and less imagination its plotting, characters and setting, than the best of Abbot's writing.
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, 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, and 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 two young women in the story 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 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 final quarter of the book, after the explanation of the howdunit three quarters way through (Chapter 13), is also anticlimactic, and not as successful as the previous three quarters of the novel. Its plot elements are less interesting than those that went before.
Abbot will return to the setting of this novel, the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in New York, for his fine short story, "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" (1932).
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately, after its early sections, Startled Lady declines into a far more ordinary novel. Most of the suspects in 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.
Abbot has tried to add a little raciness to the novel. The narrator-Watson of the book, Thatcher's male confidential secretary, is repeatedly accused of being jealous of Colt's new fiancee. This leads to the encounter in Chapter 9, Section 2, one of the more deliriously baroque in the popular fiction of the era.
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.
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 Q. Patrick, 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. It 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).
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.
"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 (1912), 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.
"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.
"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.
"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. 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 homosexuals. 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 stories set on planes during this period: see Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933), Philip Wylie's "Death Flies East" (1934) and Agatha Christie's Death in the Air (1935). The vivid illustration that accompanies Wylie's story, showing the interior of the plane's cabin, would make an excellent cover for King's book as well. It helped me visualize the setting of King's novel.
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.
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 Abbot, 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. Abbott has presumably been reading E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1912): in addition to the ineffectiveness of his detective hero, Lord manages to fall in love with his chief suspect, just like Trent, and his author explores multiple solutions, in the tradition of Bentley's novel.
Lord's physical vulnerability is also related to the fact that he is a policeman: young men in uniform are always in the greatest danger in King's works. The young Army pilot in the novel also collapses.
A bibliography can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. Marvin Lachman's article on The Strangler Fig has been reprinted (with permission) on-line at MYSTERY*FILE.
Bolivar Brown, the new sleuth of Fig, is a brilliant amateur. A lawyer, he likes to solve puzzles and problems. He is especially good at thinking. These are all traits of intuitionist school detectives.
Tillett's descriptive powers have grown. The early scenes (Chapters 1 - 3) presenting the island are a vivid piece of writing. The Strangler Fig also shows Tillett's interest in rooms which are the scenes of crimes. They tend to be studies, and full of the personal and professional effects of the victims, and clues to their murder. People in Tillett's books like to look out upper story windows. They see large panoramas and vistas. They also watch processes develop from beginning to end.
Unfortunately, after its opening The Strangler Fig largely degenerates into a mechanically worked out story. Brown does little actual detection.
Tillett does have an interest in social corruption, especially how large money interests do things that hurt society. Here it leads to the interesting discussion of the Neptune (Chapter 14).
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.
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 novel I have most actively enjoyed on all levels, puzzle plot and storytelling, is Some Buried Caesar.
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.
Stout also wrote a sequel of sorts, many years later, in which one of the characters from the earlier book returns. A Right to Die (1964) is a lively look at the Civil Rights era, and shows good storytelling. But its puzzle plot is weak. A Right to Die develops an interesting pattern of personal relationships among its characters, that interacts with the political ideas and issues of the era. The pattern is creative, and helps make the book one of the most enjoyable of Stout's novels. Each character in the story has their own relationship to the murder victim, and their own political beliefs about Civil Rights; the political beliefs and the relationship are often connected. 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. Please click here for a discussion of Civil Rights in Van Dine School Writers.
The Doorbell Rang (1965) is shorter than many of Stout's novels, and its technique seems more similar to his novellas than to that of his novels. The book is best in its first third (Chapters 1 - 5), when Wolfe is taking on the FBI. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is taken up by a poorly constructed murder mystery. Wolfe resumes his encounter with the FBI in the second half of Chapter 11 and Chapter 12, leading to some mildly ingenious comic fun.
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. There is a different sort of two part construction in The Red Box (1936 - 1937). Stout solves one, preliminary mystery (Chapters 1 - 8), which immediately leads to a second mystery taking up the rest of the book (Chapters 8 - 20). Stout's writing in the first section is quite lively.
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. In the first half of The Red Box (1936 - 1937), the varying tastes of the individuals for different kinds of candy serves Wolfe as a window into the crime's mechanism. In And Be a Villain (1948), Wolfe looks at approaches to soft drinks.
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.
Stout had an early writing career in the 1910's, long before Nero Wolfe debuted in 1934. The collection Target Practice (1998) reprinted his short fiction from All-Story, a pioneer pulp magazine. A few of these are crime stories. "Secrets" (1914), which the book's back cover describes as Stout's first crime short story, deals with a lawyer. The crime in the tale is embezzlement from a bank. This is a favorite subject of the early American Scientific school: it occurs in Jacques Futrelle's "The Man Who Was Lost" (circa 1906), Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907), and Clinton H. Stagg's "The Keyboard of Silence" (collected in book form in 1915). The use of a painter as a character also recalls Futrelle.
Stout's work has some similarities to the American Scientific School. His detective Nero Wolfe is a genius, like Futrelle's detective the Thinking Machine and Arthur B. Reeve's scientist-sleuth Craig Kennedy. Wolfe has some interest in science, as an orchid grower, and science sometimes plays a role in the Wolfe stories, especially animals and mathematics. The use of individual psychology in Stout's novels recalls the word association tests favored by the Scientific school. Wolfe works as a private detective on a consulting basis, just like the Thinking Machine, Craig Kennedy, Thornley Colton, and other of the school's detectives. He tends to deal with crimes that center around business, and less around the personal lives of his characters. The characters represent the upper levels of finance, industry, and public life, just as in Arthur B. Reeve and the others. Stout's technique of having Archie gather all the suspects together for the big finale also derives from Arthur B. Reeve, who is the earliest writer known to me systematically using this device: it is regularly used in Reeve's first collection of Craig Kennedy tales, The Silent Bullet (1911). Other Stout features recalling Reeve: the way Wolfe listens in on conversations, reminding one of Reeve tales with listening devices. An episode in Fer-de-lance (1934), the first Nero Wolfe novel, recalls the plot of Reeve's "The Black Diamond".
One does not want to carry this relation between the Scientific School and Stout too far. The other main mystery work in Target Practice, the novella "Justice Ends at Home" (1915), has as its amateur detective not a scientist, but middle aged lawyer Simon Leg and his 20 year old office boy Dan Culp. The back of the book also points out that these could be rough sketches for Wolfe and Archie. Leg is as lazy as Wolfe: having inherited money he wants to sit around all day reading adventure stories, just as Wolfe loves orchids and food. However, he is a lot more good natured than Wolfe, and far less brainy. The real detective genius of the pair is Dan Culp. This likable young man does a lot of energetic leg work, just like Archie, and it is this vigorous detective work that is the stories' focus. There are some good ideas about a cinema in Chapter 6. The novella 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. 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 being part of the American Scientific School's traditions.
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, also 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), while the actual murder is somewhat in the tradition of Ellery Queen's Calamity Town (1942).
Champagne for One also 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, also resembles Stout's novella "Poison à la Carte" (1958) written immediately after Champagne for One, although the two works' puzzle plots are quite different.
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: Stout seems to deal more with the actual creation and raising of children, whereas Melville's imagery reflects sexuality. Melville's tale tends to depersonalize the people caught in it, whereas Stout's work heightens his characters' unique personalities.
"Not Quite Dead Enough" (1942) includes one of Stout's best puzzle plots. He returned to the mood of this story in two novellas he wrote in early 1959, "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" and "Counterfeit for Murder". "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" has another fine puzzle plot in the tradition of "Not Quite Dead Enough". It also shows good storytelling throughout. "Counterfeit for Murder" is weak in the puzzle plot department, but its characters have charm. Both "Counterfeit" and "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.
I'm not sure whether to recommend "Booby Trap" (1944) or not. The central puzzle plot is completely ordinary. It is one of those tales in which Wolfe finds the killer, not through logical deduction from clues, but by setting a trap for the killer. This sort of thing violates fair play; logically, the killer could have been any one of the six suspects in the tale, and there is nothing to suggest one over the other. However, the subsidiary mysteries in "Booby Trap" are all quite clever. 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 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.
Many of the transitional novellas Stout wrote in the late 1940's and early 1950's are not that good. But "The Cop-Killer" (1951) is a solid work, with a well hidden plot idea in its solution. Like "Too Many Detectives" (1956), the plot focuses on the "economy of knowledge", showing how information is passed around. Several of Stout's puzzle plots involve such an intricate dance of knowledge. The milieu, a barbershop, is far more working class than much of Stout's fiction.
The sheer amount of mystery in a novella like "Invitation to Murder" (1953) is notable. It starts out with a mystery being proposed to Wolfe to solve: which one of three women is having an affair with a millionaire? It moves on to add a murder mystery. Then a third mystery question is introduced. Finally, during Wolfe's solution, his chain of deductions results in a fourth mystery being briefly dangled before the reader. This plethora of mysterious situations is very satisfying. The story also 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, one than echoes Wolfe's in subtle ways: both have elevators, both have elaborate arrangements about kitchens and food, both have studies in which Wolfe propounds his solutions.
Stout brought back some of his prewar non-Wolfe detectives, such as his woman private eye Doll Bonner, and Alphabet Hicks, including the former in his Nero Wolfe series. "Too Many Detectives" (1956), with Bonner, has an Ellery Queen like approach to its puzzle plotting, complete with such EQ traits as: a deductive finale; the solution subtly emerges from an in-depth investigation of circumstances; it focuses on what people knew and could not have known, just like EQ's The French Powder Mystery (1930); and a plot whose pattern comes with many surrealist echoes and repetitions. Even the choice of villain is in a Queen tradition. But the style and storytelling of this tale is sweetly Stout's own.
If "Too Many Detectives" is Stout's Ellery Queen tale, then "The Next Witness" (1955) is his Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason story. While the puzzle plot is easily guessed, the storytelling has charm, and one likes the courtroom background of part of the tale. It is very unusual for a courtroom story not to have a lawyer for a protagonist, but Stout pulls it off. Stout's interest in legal ideas is continued in the next two 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".
When Ellery Queen reprinted "Die Like A Dog" (1954), he retitled it "A Dog in the Daytime". This is a clever allusion to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time", a quote from "Silver Blaze" (1892), my favorite Sherlock Holmes story. The story has often been reprinted under this title, but it does not seem to be Stout's official name for the story. "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. Stout is also good with stories that deal with Wolfe's beloved orchids, such as "Easter Parade" (1957). This latter story 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 here and in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-lance (1934).
Some of the other stories in And Four To Go have merits, and almost made the list of recommended stories above. "Christmas Party" (1957) has some good ideas in its opening sections, especially dealing with Archie and Wolfe's relationship, but its later mystery elements become routine. "Murder Is No Joke" (1957) is pleasant reading. The weakest of the tales is the uninspired "Fourth of July Picnic" (1957).
"Method Three for Murder" (1960) shows Stout's ability to tell a story backwards. Each section reveals more and more of the underlying mystery situation, characters and relationships. A steady pace of revelation is set right at the start, and continues throughout the tale. In this it recalls "Die Like a Dog". It also recalls "Die Like a Dog" in its Greenwich Village setting, and its background of artists. Such looks at artists are part of the Van Dine School tradition, of backgrounds of the intelligentsia.
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. It has an imaginative architectural setting for the crime: a Golden Age tradition. This involves a whole cityscape. Characterization is rich. There is a highly pleasing look at the Archie-Wolfe relationship, that gets played out as a story with a beginning, middle and end throughout the tale.
Another mathematical story is "Poison à la Carte" (1958), the first three chapters of which involve permutation theory. Chapter 5 of the novella goes into a more vivid illustration of the mathematics involved. These chapters describe an interesting investigation into a murder mystery. Unfortunately, here murder leaves off and misogyny takes over, with the latter sections of the novella showing little real detection. Too Many Cooks, Stout's earlier mystery about chefs, also has elements of permutation theory in its mystery plot.
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. In The Black Mountain (1954), the most enjoyable part of the story is the process of getting Nero and Archie from the US to Montenegro (Chapters 4 - 6). In "Poison", the whole crime and the events surrounding it turn out to be one large process. They are integrated together in one single pattern. By process, I mean a step by step series of events that take place in time; this is similar to what the artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank calls a script.
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. 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.
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.
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 howdunits 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.
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.
Commentary on Clyde B. Clason:
Westborough takes the initiative, asking the policeman if he can tag along and witness the investigation.
Van Dine School books often have a whole team of police, that recur in novel after novel. The Fifth Tumbler introduces such series characters:
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. This book uses a similar approach, with Tibet substituted for Egypt.
There are several limitations of characterization in the book. The lama is never convincing, with his child like personality. The rich son is constantly condemned for a lack of masculinity. This was a popular theme in the Depression, but measuring a man against standards of machismo seems inaccurate and cruel. Many of the other characters seem like stick figures. The non-impossible crime elements of the mystery are also fairly simple and uninventive.
All this said, The Man from Tibet is surprisingly entertaining. Clason has researched his subject in remarkable depth, and builds an appealingly intellectual novel out of it. The opening chapter of The Man from Tibet is pretty good. It is mainly a flashback to an adventure in Tibet, not a mystery story. Clason was interested in other Asian cultures, too. The sequence in the Japanese restaurant is delightful (Part Thirteen).
The Man from Tibet shows Clason's series sleuth, Roman historian Theocritus Lucius Westborough, working on a soon-to-be published book, Heliogabalus: Rome's Most Degenerate Emperor. The book is mentioned again in a later novel, Murder Gone Minoan, as already published, and selling well. Since Heliogabalus is mainly known for extreme homosexual behavior, this perhaps offers some clues to Westborough as well, who has no heterosexual love life in the novels. It might be a hint that Westborough is gay, too.
SPOILER: The impossible crime bears some resemblance to "A Chess Problem" in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1924).
The book's second half adds little to what has gone before, and its emphasis on romantic triangles and intrigues lacks appeal.
The mystery elements here are weaker than in Clason's best 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.
The book's look at a business as a background for a crime also 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. 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.
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).
Poison Jasmine shows Clason's flair for color imagery. Both the flowers, and events of the mystery plot, are described in color terms.
Agatha Christie in The Big Four (1924) included a section called "The Yellow Jasmine Mystery" (Chapters 9-10). This deals with the same poisonous plant that gives the title to Poison Jasmine.
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.
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 center around the culture of a particular foreign country: China and Tibet, respectively. Both deal with wealthy American collectors who have a private museum of Asian art in the geometric center of their homes. Both collections contain a valuable stolen cultural object from Asia around which intrigue swirls, and both novels have a distinguished visitor from Asia. Both have frequent flashbacks to turbulent adventure in Asia. Green Shiver is much less linear than The Man from Tibet, and this is a good thing. The reader is often hard pressed to see the underlying significance of events in Green Shiver, meanings that are only revealed at the solution. This extra dimension of mystery in the book adds to its complexity. The imagery of Green Shiver is much 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.
Clason is sensitive to color, and his book is a riot of color imagery. Clason is also knowledgeable about botany, and many exotic plants are described. The names in the story also 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.
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.
This book was published before the US entered World War II, but Clason makes no secret of his pro-Chinese, anti-Axis attitudes here. 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.
Like many Van Dine school works, Murder on Stilts has mild locked room features. As in such Van Dine books as The Kennel Murder Case, the locked room is more explained by some simple gimmicks, than by any profoundly imaginative puzzle plot ideas. Still, Dean's locked room concept is pleasant enough, although its ideas would have been considered a bit dated even by 1939.
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.
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.
Under the name Marjorie Torrey, the author also wrote and illustrated children's books. She was married to Roy Chanslor, who wrote both suspense and Western novels. 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 a list. The cover for Our Second Murder shows more details of the crime scene itself, including the method of murder.
Kathleen Gregory Klein published a well-researched book, The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre (1988). This academic study looks at woman professional detectives in fiction. Klein's comments on the Beagle books are mainly negative. She claims that the books do not show the Beagle Sisters really doing good detective work, that their solutions at the end depend more on guessing and assertion than deduction, and that the books' implicit claims that the sisters are Great Detectives in the Golden Age tradition therefore ring hollow. I partly agree, and partly dissent. Klein is partly right about the solutions to the killings at the novels' ends. The solutions are fairly uninventive, and do not show a mountain of first-rate detective work. However, the middle sections of both novels have the Sisters performing detective tasks with long traditions: reconstructing a crime from crime scene evidence in Our First Murder, exploring the motions of suspects around a crime scene in Our Second 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 a 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.
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 examine 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 the mysteries of Helen McCloy.
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.
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 George Bagby and his The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still (1950).
I first learned about Murder Points a Finger, from the previously cited Detection by moonlight. Thank you!
SPOILER. The choice of murderer in the first novel Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) reflects Ellery Queen traditions.
The deductive solution of "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" (1952) seems especially Queen-like.
"The Ten O'Clock Scholar" 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 Straw Man" (1950) and "The Bread and Butter Case" (1962) share common approaches. Both involve as an extra character Ellis Johnston, an attorney for a neighboring county. SPOILER. Both feature extended families. In both what look like public or even mob-related killings, are actually family-motivated. Both have puzzles involving complex financial arrangements.
SPOILER. A number of Kemelman mysteries have seemingly nice young men as killers.
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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
The Holmes Legacy. Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent starts out promisingly enough, with a household under siege from mysterious incidents of persecution. 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:
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 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. Ashton-Kirk also employs a large staff, who assists him in his detective work. Both men are cultivated intellectuals, who love to read. Both men live in large houses, and have entree into upper crust social circles.
The first novel about sleuth Ashton-Kirk, Ashton-Kirk: Investigator, tells us to watch out for a sequel, called "Ashton-Kirk and the Scarlet Scapular". This is undoubtedly the same book as Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent - the scapular plays a major role in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent. But somewhere along the way, the book has undergone a name change.
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 of 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 howdunit 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.