Frederick Irving Anderson
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Key studies of Anderson are by Benjamin F. Fisher:
But the tone of Anderson's work is very different from the heroic scientists and dramatic storytelling of Reeve. Anderson clearly aspired to the irony, sophistication, and wit, of such writers as Saki and Oscar Wilde. His picture of endlessly fertile police spreading an infinitely wide and ingenious net to catch criminals, complete with every sort of scheme, impersonation and high tech tracking device, seems more in the classic whimsy tradition of Lewis Carroll or W.S. Gilbert, rather than anything remotely approaching realism. Like Carroll, there is both an obsessive and a surreal tone to Anderson's comedy.
While there are sometimes puzzle plot aspects to Anderson's work, the main emphasis is on detection, especially his extravagant version of police work. There is an important element of complex plotting, as well, with many surprising twists and turns - Anderson is always trying to sneak up on the reader out of left field - so his fiction will probably interest readers who are interested in plot technique.
"Beyond All Conjecture" and "The Man from the Death House" derive sly humor, from encounters between villains from ethnic elite backgrounds, and Jews who innocently bring these villains low. The contrast between such ethnic elites, who had a near monopoly on power in that era, and largely powerless Jews is striking.
A perhaps related comic touch: Unlikable, dishonest men show unexpected fear and dislike of cats in "Madame the Cat" and "The Magician". It gives a counterpoint to their otherwise tough guy personas. It is also funny. Plus there is something reassuring about tough guy villains being shown up by something apparently powerless and innocent, like a cat.
Old New York. "The Fifth Tube", "Counterpoint", "The Peppercorn Entail", "Beyond All Conjecture", "The Japanese Parasol" and "The Man from the Death House" evoke the life-styles of Old New York, and their precarious survival into modern times. They especially look at the old rich, and the mansions that preserve the ancient life-styles. Anderson's descriptions are charming. While Anderson views such relics from the past with nostalgia, the end of "Beyond All Conjecture" suggests there was a dark side to the behavior of such rich elites, and their treatment of ordinary people.
Restaurants. Intertwined with Anderson's look at Old New York, is his love of restaurants. These are often depicted in evocative detail. And sometimes with an emphasis on old traditions. See "An All-Star Cast", "The House of Many Mansions", "Gulf Stream Green", "Madame the Cat", "The Pandora Complex", "The Phantom Guest".
Prohibition. Prohibition (1920-1933) was an era in US history when alcohol was banned, leading to the rise of mobsters who made or smuggled liquor. Prohibition plays a key role in "The Magician", "Madame the Cat" and "The Pandora Complex", and adds some color in passing to "Gulf Stream Green". In "Gulf Stream Green" and "Madame the Cat", restaurant waiters seem especially sensitive to its effects. There is often an element of high comedy in Anderson's treatment. Jokes about Prohibition open "The Door Key".
Prohibition helps enable mystery-story plots:
The cast of the TV series White Collar would make excellent actors for versions of Anderson. One sees Tim DeKay as Deputy Parr, Matt Bomer as Morel and Willie Garson as Pelts. White Collar has the sophistication and wit of Anderson's tales.
Anderson's stories remind one of his contemporary, the film director Ernst Lubitsch.
My sister Alexis Quinn says that Anderson reminds her of Frank Sullivan, the sophisticated humorist and member of the Algonquin Round Table. She finds Anderson especially close to such comedy gems as "Captain's Dinner" (1936) and "Les Amis D'Automat" (1937), found in Sullivan's collection of comic sketches A Pearl in Every Oyster (1938). Both Anderson and Sullivan started out as New York City reporters, before writing their more personal works.
Male Friendship. Personal to Anderson, perhaps, are the tales of developing friendship between men. These include "The Peppercorn Entail" and "The Magician". These can be read as love stories between men.
Related: the quest of the lonely hero of "An All-Star Cast" to find a male friend. And the friendship between series protagonist Oliver Armiston and businessman Reginald Baker in "The Footstep".
The Assistants. Policeman Pelts' devotion to his boss Deputy Parr in "Gulf Stream Green", might be seen as having a gay subtext.
Parr's other chief assistant Morel, is described as "a sort of Ganymede to" Parr's "immediate thoughts" in "Murder in Triplicate". The Zeus-Ganymede relationship is an archetypal gay one in Greek Mythology.
Well-dressed Men. Very well-dressed, good-looking men run through Anderson's tales: Marvin Scott in the finale of "Counterpoint" (who prompts a "queer smile" from Godahl), Angus Stewart in "The Peppercorn Entail", Sangree in "Hangman's Truce", Morel in many stories. They can be seen as figures of gay romance.
The "happy-days man" in "The Peppercorn Entail", seen just briefly in a pair of sentences (Part III), is an intriguing addition to this list. One would like to learn more.
Only rarely in Anderson do good-looking young men turn out to be villains. Wickert in "Murder in Triplicate" is a late example. Aleck in "Thumbs Down" is said to be "glamorous to both men and women".
Anderson's stories, which largely appeared in the 1910's and 1920's, are contemporary with silent film, which also extensively featured very well-dressed men.
Dominance. Such early and none-too-good tales as "Blind Man's Buff" and "Counterpoint", both in the collection Adventures of the Infallible Godahl, can be read as having dominance-and-submission elements. However, this might simply reflect the Rogue fiction tradition in which they take part. Rogues are always dominating and humiliating other men, especially the wealthy and authority figures like policemen. Godahl does this too. And also in the finale of "The Fifth Tube". It is unclear whether these are simply power fantasies, or whether such works have a gay subtext.
There are also scenes of the police dominating people. In "Hangman's Truce" Deputy Parr briefly disciplines Pelts (end of section 1). The finale of "Hangman's Truce" has a large group of police putting a captured gang through a difficult scene.
It is unusual to see an inverted detective story at such an early date. Most histories of detective fiction state that the form was created by R. Austin Freeman, with "The Case of Oscar Brodski" (published in magazines in 1910), which was first reprinted in book form along with Freeman's subsequent inverted stories in 1912, in The Singing Bone. But Anderson's tale looks fairly close to the inverted form. The story is seen from the point of view of the killer, a surgeon, and we watch along with him as the Press gradually closes in. Unlike Freeman, we do not actually see the crime being committed in the first half; and unlike Freeman, the point of view does not actually shift to the detectives in the second half. But we certainly do see the reporter detective's evidence collected against the killer in the final sections of the story. The story is less "fair play" than Freeman's work; the reader does not see all the evidence in advance, but must simply sit back and watch as the reporter cracks the case. I have no idea if Anderson hit on the inverted format independently of Freeman; or if he read Freeman's work in magazines in 1910; or if there are other early prototypical inverted stories that influenced both writers.
The detective features at the end involve the use of technology. So "The Peppercorn Entail" can be considered as a work of Scientific Detection, like many other Anderson tales.
"The Peppercorn Entail", like some later Deputy Parr tales by Anderson, has an Old New York subject matter. It anticipates Avram Davidson.
"The Peppercorn Entail" develops some nice architectural features. Parts somewhat recall buildings in "An All-Star Cast".
The millionaire has a limitless number of agents and guards to do his bidding. This recalls other Anderson stories, in which the police have similarly unlimited resources and manpower to carry out their detective schemes.
The millionaire's interest in eating "health food", recalls the earlier sleuth Thorpe Hazell of Victor L. Whitechurch.
Links to later Anderson tales. The key anticipates the title object in "The Door Key", although it plays a different role in the plot. Both keys are produced at dramatic moments, and laid by one man in front of another man, in hopes of gaining a dramatic effect. In both tales, the man producing the key wants to intimidate the other man.
The two main characters anticipate those in "The Magician":
Modernity and High Tech. The tale evokes what academics call "modernity": it gives a vivid picture of high technology and advanced social organization in the 1910's. It shows the latest, most formidable aspects of life in New York City, perhaps the world's most advanced city in that era. The look at high technology relates "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" to Scientific Detection.
The story transpires in the Financial District, the area in the far South of Manhattan, then and now the center of American finance. In the 1910's, this area also contained New York's jewelry trade, centered on Maiden Lane. In the 1940's, this moved to a separate locale, Manhattan's "Diamond District". "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" also shows reporters from Park Row to the North of the Financial District, then the center of NYC's newspapers. All told, it is a look at the center of both business and communications in the United States.
Links to later Anderson tales. The contrast between the complete emptiness of the Financial District after dark, and its bustle during the day, will recur with the Meatpacking District in "An All-Star Cast".
The lonely policeman on his nocturnal beat is unexpectedly confronted by a pair of sinister strangers in a car. This is echoed in the opening of "The Phantom Guest", whose lonely nighttime hotel clerk is confronted by the unexpected arrival by car of two menacing guests.
The strangers are nearly entirely concealed within a greatcoat, car rugs and motor goggles, not to mention a huge mustache. Enveloping clothes are worn by the Senator in "Madame the Cat".
Science and Technology. The setting of the robbery, the Assay Office, uses electrolytic chemistry. In the later "The Phantom Alibi" (1920) we learn that this was what Oliver Armiston studied in college, and still pursues as a hobby.
However, the actual robbery does not use electrolysis. SPOILERS. Instead, the robbery is based on fluid dynamics. This anticipates all the river settings in later Anderson tales.
The street-cleaner shoveling mud, known as a "mud rat", anticipates the steam dredge scooping up mud at low tide in "The Recoil".
Society. The crowds outside the building watching gold being delivered, anticipate the crowds gathered outside buildings hoping to see celebrities in later Anderson tales.
The description of the old Assay Office recalls the Old New York atmosphere in other Anderson stories. Many of these works emphasize the isolated survival of ancient structures in modern neighborhoods. The Assay Office is atypical for Anderson survivals in being a public building rather than a private mansion.
Much of "The Signed Masterpiece" deals not with Sophie herself, but with Anderson's ongoing series sleuth, the policeman Deputy Parr. Parr will return, without Sophie, in Anderson's next collection, Book of Murder (1930), and will be the star figure in many of those stories. "The Signed Masterpiece" is clearly designed to introduce Parr to Anderson's readers. Its first half gives an enormously in-depth look at Parr's flamboyant police methods, showing his huge network of undercover operatives spread out over New York City. However, neither of Parr's skilled assistants, Morel or Pelts, makes an appearance in this story. In fact, the tale instead satirically stresses the uniformity and interchangeability of Parr's young police assistants. These early sections dealing with the police are great fun. The second half of the story, dealing with Sophie's criminal schemes, is a distinct let down.
"The Signed Masterpiece" shows the same interest in social class as other Rogue stories. Sophie appears in the tale impersonating a sophisticated upper class widow, whereas Parr's police all are undercover in lower class roles: stable keepers, garage mechanics, building inspectors, and the like. This allows Sophie to manipulate them, using upper class privilege. The real life police in these roles seem to be unsophisticated men of lower class origins themselves. Later, in Book of Murder, when Parr becomes the genuine detective hero of the stories, and not merely the foil to Sophie, this will all be changed. Parr and his men will become just at home undercover in upper crust situations as any other, and will no longer display working class mannerisms.
The numerous police going undercover in "The Signed Masterpiece" in various roles have a predecessor in the first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891). Holmes employs a similar huge number of disguised operatives for his schemes there. "A Scandal in Bohemia" also resembles the Sophie Lang tales, in that it is about a male detective with numerous allies trying to catch a clever female crook, who plays a much more isolated hand. Sophie Lang's resourcefulness and cleverness recall Irene Adler in Conan Doyle's story.
Much of Anderson's fiction turns on virtual persons. When Armiston creates a fictional master thief in "The Infallible Godahl", a real life crook brings him to life. In "The Signed Masterpiece", Sophie Lang starts out purely as a hypothetical construct of the police: whenever Parr and his associates find traces of a perfect, unsolvable crime, they ascribe it to a master criminal they call "Sophie Lang". "Sophie" is nothing more than a police fiction, a dumping ground for perfect crimes. Eventually, the reader learns that the police, perhaps fortuitously, have been correct: most of these crimes are in fact the work of a single brilliant woman. The story continues to call her "Sophie Lang", but that is not actually a name she has ever used. The whole process is one of watching a mental construct come to life, and assume a flesh and blood identity. A classic story about a virtual person is "Putois" by Anatole France.
This interest in imagination becoming reality persists through Anderson's late work. Another virtual person plays a role in "The Phantom Guest" (1941). In Anderson's final story, "The Man from the Death House", a premeditated crime is brought to life.
The inverted detective story construction of "The Unknown Man" can perhaps be linked to the "imagination becomes reality" theme in Anderson's fiction. Here at the start of the story the surgeon anticipates that his crime might be discovered and traced to him by the Press; the rest of the tale consists of watching such a process unfold.
"The Jorgensen Plates" (1922) is from Anderson's hard to find collection, The Notorious Sophie Lang. Lang is a clever lady jewel thief, and her exploits certainly have elements of the Rogue tradition. More important, however, is the ambiguity of Anderson's plot presentation: one cannot tell till the end of the tale, exactly what any of the characters are up to, although there are clues along the way. This gives the tale aspects of the mystery or riddle story. The story has a musical quality, a harmonious progression of plot ideas, that is quite pleasing. There is also a sustained note of satire and irony.
Anderson scaldingly satirizes Britishers that are condescending to Americans. This is a sore point with US writers - see also Ellery Queen's "The Dead Cat" (1946).
"The Jorgensen Plates" was written just before the first tales in Book of Murder, but is less ambitious than most of those stories, which benefit from even more complex plots and more sympathetic characters than the scoundrels and monstrous aristocrats of the Lang tale.
The descriptions of Anderson's books in standard reference works does not at all gibe with the actual texts. In "The Infallible Godahl", Godahl is not a character in the tale. The work focuses on Oliver Armiston, an author who writes a series of stories about a thief called Godahl. But reference books seem to imply that Godahl is an actual character in the tale. (By the way, I do not like this early tale at all.)
Similarly, many reference works describe Book of Murder (there is no "The" in its title) as being about Deputy Parr and his writer friend Oliver Armiston. Actually six of the ten tales focus on Parr and Armiston. Three others center on the New England backwoods characters of farmer Jason Selfridge and constable Orlo Sage.
In "The Door Key", the collaboration between the two sets of detectives is clearly the central interest of the tale. Elegantly symmetric, the first two thirds takes place in the country world; the last third in the city. In the first third, the amateurs Selfridge and Armiston predominate, investigating what is apparently eccentric behavior; in the middle third, the professionals Sage and Parr look at what is now clearly a crime. Parr begins to take over the investigation roughly half way through the middle section, which is also the halfway point of the entire story, marking the beginning of the transition from "country" to "city" in focus. The emphasis on tracking by the country detectives is balanced by the fingerprints and Bertillon measurements of the city ones. The villain also shares a duality of interest between city and country - but I don't want to give away too much of the plot. The topic of antiques in the opening section deals with the economic and cultural relations between country and city, and adds to the thematic interest. Even the fishing trip of the detectives up north in New England in the first half of the story, is balanced by the Southern journeys of the rich and the crooks who prey on them in the later sections.
The story has much more impact when read as the finale of the collection, watching well understood detectives at work, than it does as a stand alone piece in anthologies. Anderson later choose this piece as his favorite for a Howard Haycraft anthology; I am not sure I would fully agree, but it is a well done "group portrait" of his detective world, with beautiful formal patterns. It reminds one of the promotional art Elzie Segar once did, just a few years later, for his comic strip Thimble Theater, where he assembled the entire cast of his strip for several years, on stage to take a bow.
Time Patterns. "The Magician" starts at night, moves through the dawn and morning activities of Jason Selfridge's farm. "The Door Key" shows the opposite temporal pattern, probably deliberately. It starts in late day, shows the evening routine of the Selfridge farm, and moves on into night. Both stories show Anderson's ongoing interest in contrasting daytime and nighttime views of places.
Links to other Anderson tales. In both "The Magician" and "The Door Key", the crime is associated with a rural stream or river. See also:
The somewhat sinister commercializing of antiques studied in "The Door Key", recalls the critical look at commercializing celebrity in "Gulf Stream Green". And the evocation of Old New England by the antiques, recalls Anderson's interest elsewhere in Old New York.
Orlo Sage is shown walking, at some time or other, most of the streets in his rural community. This is paralleled to Parr patrolling New York's streets. The description of Parr walking, invisibly accompanied by his men, recalls the opening of "The House of Many Mansions", where such a scene is shown in detail.
"Dead End" gets off to a good start, but it falls apart in the middle. The second half suffers from negative depictions of an ethnic group (Central Americans). Fortunately, most of the Anderson tales available today avoid racial stereotyping.
The first two pieces, "Dead End" and "The Magician", are especially rich in descriptions of New England country life. Anderson is particularly interested in water, and its exploitability to form electric power. He also likes building, stonework, and every sort of construction and civil engineering project. One can see that Anderson was a contemporary of the Tennessee Valley Authority. His description of farm life includes economic factors, treating farms as a business enterprise, rather than simply rural nostalgia. Anderson was the author of such non-fiction books as The Farmer of To-morrow (1913) and Electricity for the Farm: Light, Heat and Power by Inexpensive Methods from the Water Wheel or Farm Engine (1915). Both of these books are available for reading on the Internet. (In the silent film Poor Mrs. Jones! (Raymond Evans, 1926) one can see the farm wife heroine repairing the generators she uses to make electricity. The DVD notes point out that by 1926, only 10% of US farms had electricity, often self-generated.)
Plot. SPOILERS in this section.
Orlo Sage does a nice piece of detective work, when his monitoring of the water system allows him to deduce Jake is in town.
"A Start in Life" looks at a mass impersonation done by someone other than the police, so it has a formal relation to the Parr tales.
The idea of famous folks from the big city hiding out in small country villages as ordinary townsmen, will return in "The Door Key". It gets a more criminous twist there, used by a crook.
Cognition. Sam's ability to perform what today we call "thought experiments" on hypotheses is interesting. Today, some experiment-like activities are conducted virtually by computer simulations.
There are feminist perspectives in "Big Time" and its sequel "Gulf Stream Green". Both have odious, powerful men sexually harassing and mistreating vulnerable women. In "Big Time" this harasser is the murder victim, in "Gulf Stream Green" the killer. "A Start in Life" also contains a powerful man who exploits women. Anderson's loathing of all these men is obvious: he can make your flesh crawl reading about them.
Scientific Detection. "Big Time" includes scientific detection, both in the murder method, and the dust. The account of the dust is a surreal set-piece, juxtaposing many disparate sources (end of section 2). It anticipates the surreally joined lists of scientific imagery in The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-1968) by J.G. Ballard. As a surreal list, it also anticipates the list of crooks in Anderson's "The House of Many Mansions". See also the list of Eddie's businesses in the first section of "Hangman's Truce".
Locked Room. "Big Time" also incorporates a "locked room" mystery puzzle. It is unusual among impossible crimes, in that the solution seems witty and sophisticated. Anderson never loses his savor faire, even when venturing into the "locked room" tradition.
Society and Commerce. The middle sections of "Big Time" are especially well written, full of satirical but lyrical detail:
How the Count gets his furniture, anticipates the schemes surrounding antique furniture in "The Man from the Death House". The schemes in the two tales are different but related. Both schemes are linked to Anderson's satirical exposes of finance among the sophisticated.
Architecture. The houses and their gardens show the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscapes. The urban backyards forming a courtyard anticipate landscapes in Panic (1944) (Chapter 2) by Helen McCloy, "Rear Window" (1942) by Cornell Woolrich, and its film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The victim's apartment house has one of the "box stairways long since outlawed". This is an observant look at an architectural feature, one rarely described in mystery fiction. And an evocation of a favorite Anderson topic, Old New York.
Science in "Gulf Stream Green" centers on physics. Please see this List of Mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics. One gets the impression that physics was part of the zeitgeist of the period, something intellectuals as a whole were interested in. Physics is also mentioned twice in "Big Time", although it is less central to that tale.
"Gulf Stream Green" is a how-done-it: a tale in which the detectives and reader are challenged to figure out the means used by the villain to commit the crime. These how-done-it aspects are far more important in "Gulf Stream Green" than the identity of the killer, which is revealed early on.
The opening of "Gulf Stream Green" deconstructs the financial aspects and commercial deals that underpin the cult of celebrity. In this it anticipates Very Caspary's novella "The Murder at the Stork Club" (1945). "Gulf Stream Green" seems to be one of the earlier mysteries to explore the dubious financial side of celebrity-worship.
A police procedural element: the discussions of how and when the New York City police use motorcycle squads.
Pelts' devotion to his boss Deputy Parr is compared to that of a dog. This recalls the actual dog-character, and his love for humans, in "The Magician". And the restaurant-dog briefly seen in "An All-Star Cast", and the dog in "The Half-Way House".
Towards the end, Parr's man Morel gets involved. He too contributes an idea directly out of his head, without the police undercover or investigative work he typically does in other stories. Morel's idea is identifying the actual culprit.
The murder setting involves both landscape and architecture: two popular, interlocking interests of Golden Age mystery fiction. The landscape is quite interesting.
The most haunting part of "The Recoil" describes the victim, and his life routine. This builds up an image of the almost meaningless routine of much middle class life, and also the dangers of stepping outside it. Thematically, the tale recalls a bit the Flitcraft incident in The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett, although the concrete details are quite different. It also recalls the young bank employee in Anderson's own "An All-Star Cast", and his rigid, un-fulfilling middle class existence.
The murder setting involves both landscape and architecture: two popular, interlocking interests of Golden Age mystery fiction. The landscape is quite interesting. The landscape has an empty quality. Its dominance by advertising billboards also conveys the idea of a meaningless commercialism. It too seems a bit like a metaphor for the routine insignificance of some middle class life. So does the bland diner where the hero eats lunch.
We get to see a bit of Oliver Armiston's background: the private school he attended. It is clear that the school is a place for upper classes, especially Socially Proper people with money. Similarly, in "The House of Many Mansions" Armiston comes across a representative of old Society, who looks down on the questionable nouveau riche people who live in the apartment house of the title.
A different, unrelated case, the Thwing jewel robbery is discussed first, and forms a parallel case to "compare and contrast" with the main story in "The Recoil". This is an interesting technique. The name is perhaps in honor of anthologist Eugene Thwing, who was including one of Anderson's stories that same year in The World's Best One Hundred Detective Stories, Volume Three.
Ocean currents Ocean currents, and how the police use them to investigate drowning victims, appear in the first section. The tale appeared just a year after The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts. The treatment in "The Wedding Gift" is different from Crofts'. It is also much simpler, while still scientifically sound.
Anderson returns to currents and their effect on bodies in "Murder in Triplicate" (1946).
Philosophical Beginnings. The statistical look at life that opens "The Wedding Gift" is memorable. Among other things, it offers a sobering look at Class in American life.
It recalls the extended look at coincidence that opens "The House of Many Mansions". Both are story beginnings that explore a philosophical concept. Both concepts involve probability and how it interfaces with life events.
Deputy Parr also pays tribute to chance in "The Recoil".
Mystery Plot: Structure. "The Purple Flame" (1912) is another detective story starring series sleuth, reporter Mr. White. Like an earlier Mr. White tale "The Unknown Man" (1911), "The Purple Flame" is in large part an inverted detective story. That is, in the first part of the tale, we see Homer Jaffray commit the crime; at the end, we see Mr. White figure out the murder.
As in "The Unknown Man", the entire tale is from the Point-of-View of the killer.
In addition to the above "inverted" structure, "The Purple Flame" has an element of true mystery. While we see Jaffray commit the murder, we are not clear about how he did it. We learn how-he-did-it only at the tale's end, when Mr. White figures this out. So the "how-he-did-it" serves as a puzzling mystery, solved at the end by sleuth Mr. White.
Color: Scientific Detection. Anderson liked bright color imagery in his tales, including the title flame in "The Purple Flame". "Murder in Triplicate" has a victim with bright blue or purple spots on his hands. In both tales, such color elements are clues in the mystery plot. They are explained in terms of science, and thus form part of a Scientific Detection approach.
Links to "Gulf Stream Green". "Gulf Stream Green" is a later Anderson tale in which the title color plays a Scientific Detection role.
"Gulf Stream Green" also resembles "The Purple Flame" in being a tale in which the main mystery is how the crime was committed, how-done-it, rather than the identity of the killer, which is revealed early on.
SPOILERS. The solution of "The Purple Flame" depends on color not just in the flame, but in the match that creates the fire.
Suburbia. "The Purple Flame" is unusual in Anderson, in that it is mainly set in Suburbia. Most Anderson tale are set either in Manhattan, or deep in the most rural parts of the countryside, usually New England.
The suburb in "The Purple Flame" is an upscale development for the rich elite. We see its financial underpinnings: part of the tale transpires at the real estate office that manages the suburb. "The Purple Flame" makes the suburb look as unattractive. cold and unwelcoming as possible. It emphasizes that the suburb is a "restricted community". Today this suggests the community racially discriminates. However, I know too little about history to be sure what this term meant in 1912. Whatever the 1912 meaning, it is clear that Anderson was unsympathetic to it.
The Secretary. The businessman hero Homer Jaffray has a male secretary John, briefly seen at the start of the story. The secretary is "almost his second self". This anticipates the relationship between Deputy Parr and his assistant Morel.
"The Phantom Alibi" was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (July 2004). It is now collected in The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.)
Detective. "The Phantom Alibi" opens with a recap of "The Infallible Godahl" (1913). I'm guessing that this likely means that:
Armiston appears in "The Infallible Godahl", but he is NOT the detective in that tale. His role as detective in "The Phantom Alibi" is something new.
In "The Phantom Alibi", Armiston is a brilliant amateur sleuth; Deputy Commissioner Parr is the honest but unimaginative cop who needs the amateur's help. These roles have been seen in countless mystery tales. However, 1920 is a very early date for such a set-up. It is before the debuts of the famous amateur detectives of Dorothy L. Sayers in 1923, and S.S. Van Dine in 1926, for example.
We learn a bit about Armiston: he studied electrolytic chemistry at "the Polytechnic", and still keeps up with the subject as a hobby. This gives Armiston a scientific background, as well as a literary one. Both of Armiston's early cases "The Phantom Alibi" and "The Half-Way House" have him investigating scientific or technological-based crimes. This is part of a consistent interest in Scientific Detection in Anderson's tales.
Similarly, we will learn in "Dead End" (1923) that farmer & amateur detective Jason Selfridge has a college degree, and in "The Magician" (1925) Selfridge seems to be technically trained.
Anderson's concepts of Armiston as a detective are the most interesting aspects of "The Phantom Alibi". They are the main reason someone might want to read this otherwise minor tale.
In later tales, Deputy Parr is depicted as a much more imaginative sleuth. He will also become the central detective of many later stories, with Armiston accompanying him as a Watson-like friend.
Mystery Plot. The core idea of the mystery solution in "The Phantom Alibi" is a standard, much-used cliche. Readers will guess it right away. And they will think Parr and the police are remiss not to figure it out immediately, too.
At the tale's end, we learn Armiston's reasoning in finding the culprit. This reasoning unfortunately is based on clues not shared with the reader earlier. In other word, the story is not "fair play".
However, an idea in this reasoning, about the victim's signature, is not a bad one.
Mystery Plot. The robbery involves a how-done-it mystery: the sleuths and reader have to figure out how the robbery was actually committed. Like many how-done-it tales, "The Footstep" approaches the impossible crime: it seems almost impossible for the theft to have occurred.
SPOILERS. The mystery involves a seemingly impossible disappearance of an object. A later, quite different how-done-it about a vanishing object is "Madame the Cat". See also the impossible crime of stealing the gold in "The Fifth Tube".
Architecture. The jewelry store shows the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture. There are also pleasant architectural aspects to the house with the safe.
Scientific Detection. A brief-but-good bit of Scientific Detection is performed at the end by Parr, when he tells Pelts to look for a certain tell-tale-sign of how the crime might have been committed.
Morel. The same finale commits a faux pas by stating that Morel's "speciality was women". This is not his role in most of his stories. And he does not psychologically manipulate women, or anybody else. Instead he spreads his charm and sophistication in all directions.
Businessman. Sympathetic businessman Reginald Baker is of a type that sometimes appears in American detective fiction of the era: the virile, dynamic, successful young businessman. See "The Diamond Master" (1909) by Jacques Futrelle.
Such Anderson businessmen as Homer Jaffray in "The Purple Flame" and Francklyn Aylesworth in "The Peppercorn Entail" are related to the above types, but more distantly. Anderson shows all these businessmen in their offices, rather than in their homes.
"The House of Many Mansions" concentrates on clever crooks in a comic, none-too-violent story. In this it recalls such early Anderson works as "The Night of a Thousand Thieves".
The crooks and their activities are under surveillance by Anderson's series detectives, Parr's men Morel and Pelts. The surveillance anticipates that in "Madame the Cat". Both stories have comic but suspenseful scenes in high class dining halls or restaurants. These scenes show acute police detectives trying to monitor equally wily crooks. Anderson had previously looked at more lower class restaurants in "An All-Star Cast".
Scientific Detection. Morel's skill with Bertillon identification techniques will return in "The Door Key".
"The House of Many Mansions" recalls "The Japanese Parasol" (1926). Both stories:
Links to Pulp Fiction. Although "The House of Many Mansions" was published in a slick magazine, it shares some features with contemporary fiction from pulp magazines:
Unfortunately, the middle section digresses to offer a negative portrait of Roy, a man with trouble with his thymus gland. This is a bigoted portrait of a man with a disability. Similarly, "The Japanese Parasol" (1926) suffers from offensive comments about a mentally disabled man. These tales are blots on Anderson's record.
SPOILERS. The solution at the end looks at corruption masquerading as business. This is an example of the mass deceptions in Anderson. These can be practiced by crooks, as in this story, or by cops.
We learn a little about Deputy Parr's background in the first section of "Hangman's Truce". Looks back at detectives' lives are ubiquitous in current mystery fiction, but fairly rare in Golden Age writers.
Mystery Plot. I guessed the solution of the mystery right away. BIG SPOILERS. The idea that an exotic European dancer touring New York might actually be a "nice" local woman pulling off a deception, was the premise of the film comedy Delicious Little Devil (Robert Z. Leonard, 1919).
Society: An Unbelievable Depiction. The depiction of the classical music world is problematical.
"Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" suggests that most of the young people who don't "make it" in such fields as classical music, the theater or literature are without talent. By contrast, I think these fields waste huge quantities of talent, putting up artificial barriers that keep talented, hard-working aspirants from participating in them.
I found it hard to believe that young aspirants in 1929 lived in lavish, fancy apartment houses. In real life, young musicians and writers mainly lived in cheap rooming houses, according to everything I've read.
I also found it hard to believe that rich people in 1929 were spending large sums of scholarship money supporting talentless but genteel students in music.
Admittedly, Anderson was alive in 1929 New York, and I was not! So maybe he knew things I didn't.
"Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" builds upon subjects, such as classical debut recitals, discussed in an earlier and much better tale, "Big Time" (1927).
Electric Power. A plus: the references to electrical power generation in Manahhatan, and the requirement for back-up power in apartment buildings. I've never seen such things referred to in other writers' mystery fiction. Electric power generation in rural New England is a subject in some of Anderson's Jason Selfridge tales.
Links to the Selfridge and Sage tales. "The Two Martimos" recalls such Selfridge and Sage tales as "A Start in Life" and "The Door Key". SPOILERS. All of these have outsiders form the big world hiding out in remote New England areas.
Just as Parr collaborates with local New England lawman Orlo Sage in "The Door Key", so does Parr collaborate with the local Sheriff in "The Two Martimos".
Communications. Modern high tech communications are a subject running through Anderson's tales. "The Two Martimos" has one of the biggest, most imaginative and most detailed of all such portraits. This look at communications, and the delightful character Seth involved in them, forms the high point of the story.
Racial Slurs. Unfortunately, "The Two Martimos" is an otherwise good story marred by an ethnically stereotyped villain. It has a Cuban bad guy, recalling the stereotyped Central American crooks in "Dead End".
Making the crook Cuban plays no role in the plot: he could have been from any background, and the story would not be affected. It is just something done, apparently, to disrespect Cubans.
Snow and Night. The story's best part is the opening section. This is an atmospheric account of Manhattan at night during a snow storm. It anticipates "The Phantom Guest", which opens on a snow storm at night in the countryside. Both tales have handfuls of hardy people, braving the night to find their way to mainly deserted businesses open despite the storm.
Anderson is also the author of "In the Snow" (1910), one of his earliest short stories.
Architecture. The opening includes a description of the architecture of an oyster bar. A later section extends our knowledge. This reflects the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture.
Restaurants. The oyster bar is another one of the restaurants vividly depicted in Anderson stories.
Metal Working. Two women characters are sculptors; one has made bronze doors. This metal-working recalls the gold-working in "The Fifth Tube" and "Murder in Triplicate".
Women Artists. The two women sculptors recall other sympathetic women in the arts in Anderson, such as dressmaker Estrelle and opera singer Locadie.
Mystery Plot. The plot is deliberately constructed on a series of coincidences. The detectives explicitly point out these coincidences, during the course of the tale. Unfortunately, in my judgment, a mystery plot built on coincidences has little value. I was annoyed when we reached the tale's end, and none of the coincidences had been "explained".
Enterprises and Infrastructure. Among the best part of "Unfinished Business" is the subplot about the strange activities at the drug store. SPOILERS:
However, when we finally meet the spoiled young heir, he shows bravado and panache, thus building up a certain sympathy.
The Police Hoax. The police pull off an elaborate hoax, involving a sizable number of cops. Elaborate police activities are an Anderson tradition.
This hoax takes advantage of hierarchies: police with superior ranks, like a Sergeant and a Lieutenant, give orders to lower-down cops. This "chain of command" effect makes the hoax more effective, somehow. For other examples, please see my article on Superman.
Anderson had been a successful magazine writer from 1910-1933. This abruptly stops early in 1933, when Anderson was 55. He will apparently only publish four more stories during the last fifteen years of his life, plus one posthumous one. (There could be others. Possibly he published something under a pseudonym, or in a magazine so obscure that records of it don't appear on the Internet.) Two of these four stories are the little Judge Ebbs tales. They appeared in the first two issues of the magazine American Cavalcade, which itself lasted for only seven issues in 1937. American Cavalcade was full of "name" authors, including Anderson himself.
Colonial costume. The wedding in Colonial costume is a neat idea. Both cops and crooks in Anderson like to dress up and take part in elaborate schemes. The wedding is a group of "civilians" who like to do the same thing, without any involvement in crime or law enforcement. The wedding also recalls the big shots who meet rustically in "A Start in Life".
Anderson liked to evoke the lifestyles of Old New York. "At Early Candlelight" evokes the Colonial period as a whole.
The character who is a professional conjurer recalls "The Magician".
Anderson uses obscure, interesting bits of old rural commerce, to add color to his stories:
"Murder in Triplicate" has one of Anderson's openings that discuss a theme. Such prologues explore a subject - before the story proper gets going. The subject discussed in "Murder in Triplicate" is more crime-oriented, and less philosophical, than those in the openings of "The House of Many Mansions" and "The Wedding Gift".
SPOILERS. Many early Anderson tales offer purely idealized view of the police, with Deputy Parr and his men depicted as honest and indefatigable. But some late stories offer negative portraits of some individual policemen, acknowledging there are problems in the police of that era:
Links to early Anderson tales. Running through "Murder in Triplicate" is a description of "the alley", a Manhattan block full of dubious lawyers and their associates. "Murder in Triplicate" thus resembles "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" (1913) in looking at downtown Manhattan districts and their businesses.
"Murder in Triplicate" notes that there are more telephones in the "alley" than in any other block in the city. Similarly "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" stressed the high tech communication system of alarms in the financial district.
SPOILERS. The motive behind the crime turns out to be stealing gold. This brings Anderson back full circle to his early tale about gold theft, "The Fifth Tube" (1913). Both tales involve technological means to steal the gold. Both are thus examples of Scientific Detection.
Characters. His final story, "The Man from the Death House", shows no diminution of his charm and sophistication, with Parr's man Morel conducting a polished investigation of a murder at an upper crust musical soiree. Morel is my favorite among Anderson's series characters; one suspects he was Anderson's favorite, too.
The tale is a sequel of sorts to "Big Time" and "Gulf Stream Green" (1929), in that key characters return from those tales. These include young, decent but over-dignified lawyer Cuyler Braxton and his girlfriend, famed dressmaker Estrelle. These are a nice young couple, idealized lovers. And also people who conspicuously work for a living, albeit in glamorous professions. Opera singer and diva Locadie from "Gulf Stream Green" is name-checked too.
A memorable moment has Morel talking to young policeman John Terry, from "Beyond All Conjecture" and "Madame the Cat". "The Man from the Death House" is like a reunion of some of Anderson's favorite characters.
Social Commentary. The opening of the tale discusses changes in a New York City neighborhood over time; a similar account formed a scene-setting opening in "The Signed Masterpiece" (1921).
Crowds gather to get a glimpse of celebrities, at the start of "The Man from the Death House". This scene echoes and extends smaller-scale accounts in "Gulf Stream Green".
"Gulf Stream Green" deconstructed the financial underpinnings of celebrity culture. "The Man from the Death House" looks at sinister financial deals that might underlie elite socializing and Society. See the Mrs. Corson subplot. One wonders if today's elite partying among the 1% might be rife with similar corruption.
One notes that good guy characters lawyer Cuyler Braxton and dressmaker Estrelle also make their living working for Society and the rich elite, although presumably in a non-corrupt way.
Mystery Plot.The plot is full of clever, paradoxical turns. It has a Borges like feel, in its account of a premeditated crime coming to life. It also maintains a faithfulness to the Reeve tradition of scientifically based crime.
There are brief aspects of a how-done-it, as the murder method is initially unknown. However, the cause of death is later simply announced by a character. No detective work leads to its gradual discovery, as would be more typical of most how-done-its.
When Was This Written?. "The Man from the Death House" was published posthumously, in the January 1951 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Ellery Queen's introduction says that Anderson's sister found the manuscript of this story among Anderson's papers. The introduction offers no clue as to when it was actually written.
"The Man from the Death House" has repeated references to people being out of work. This suggests it is set during the Depression, perhaps around 1933 when the Depression was at its worst. Its references to "the war" are clearly to World War I: that war's start in 1914 is mentioned.
Anderson's bibliography shows his publication rate slowing down drastically after 1933. It is unknown whether he wrote less - or whether he lost his markets. "The Man from the Death House" might be a tale from around this time.
"The Half-Way House" was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (October 2003).
Both "The Phantom Alibi" and "The Half-Way House" are shorter and more concise that the typical Anderson tale. I think that Anderson benefited from the larger canvas of his other stories.
Like the Selfridge tales to come, "The Half-Way House" takes place in New England. "The Half-Way House" is set in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Belden is a civil engineer; his next project is building a bridge in the Andes in South America. Civil engineers are seen favorably by Anderson. And many other American writers of his era.
Mystery Plot. "The Half-Way House" is a "how-done-it": it challenges the detective and reader to figure out how the crime was committed. Anderson's "Gulf Stream Green" (1929) will also be a how-done-it.
Like many how-done-its, "The Half-Way House" can be considered a borderline "impossible crime" tale. The events in it do look impossible.
"The Half-Way House" has a fake supernatural atmosphere later given a logical explanation. This is a type of tale later associated with impossible crime writers like John Dickson Carr, who debuted in 1926.
BIG SPOILERS. The solution of the how-done-it has a broad family similarity to the solution of "The Purple Flame", although the details are different. I think the treatment in "The Half-Way House" is better, in part because it is developed into a full-fledged mystery with a complex plot.
Anderson elegantly divides the story into two parts. The first half introduces the characters, the second half develops the mystery story. As in "The Jorgensen Plates", we do not learn till well into the story, what the various characters are up to. This adds most pleasantly to the plot complexities of the story. One is always wondering what the characters will do, and how they will fit into the story.
When the plot turns to a mystery puzzle at the very end, it is the mysterious disappearance of an object, almost an impossibility. Such disappearing objects will soon become a specialty of Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer. Unlike Queen to come, Anderson's treatment is short and brief, and he does not include an intensive search in the story. "Madame the Cat" also includes police surveillance: they are watching during the disappearance, but apparently do not see it. Such "watched impossibilities" will become a specialty of John Dickson Carr.
"Madame the Cat" also anticipates Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories, several of which involve either disappearing objects or surveillances. The restaurant setting of "Madame the Cat" will also become an Asimov favorite. The New York City restaurant of "Madame the Cat", like those of Asimov to come, is fairly small and unpretentious, but also a home of gourmet cooking.
Patrolman John Terry, a major character in "Beyond All Conjecture" (1928), makes a brief return appearance. It is satisfying to see him progressing.
The chess problems on which Armiston is working, are a metaphor for the complex police maneuvers going on around him. So perhaps is the sheer elaborate complexity of the gourmet food the restaurant serves.
Starrett also wrote what might be called horror fiction. These are not supernatural tales. These are murderous stories, which show that violence has unpleasant effects on people. "The Man in the Cask" (1927) is the most reprinted of these tales.
Commentary on Vincent Starrett:
Their work often involves routine sleuthing and tracking of characters. Often these characters are members of the underworld, in the pulp style.
In the 1920's Starrett often appeared in Real Detective Tales, the same Chicago pulp magazine that featured the early work of MacKinlay Kantor.
"The Eleventh Juror" (1927) and "The Body in the Ostrich Cage" share plot elements:
Negative but comic depictions of landlords occur in "Missing Men" and "The Tragedy of Papa Ponsard".
"The Eleventh Juror" is also perfectly executed, as a piece of story telling. Every paragraph is full of just the right amount of intriguing detail.
"The Eleventh Juror" is a mystery story: it opens with a mysterious murder, and at the end we find out who did it. However, there is no detective, and it is not a "detective story". The solution is revealed by a confession of the killer at the end, rather than by any sort of detective work or reasoning. Normally I regard a lack of detective work as a flaw in a mystery. It is certainly not any sort of positive virtue in "The Eleventh Juror". Still, "The Eleventh Juror" is so pleasantly done in all other ways, that it is best just to accept the story and its approach on its own terms.
The zesty, vernacular speech and narration in "The Eleventh Juror" recalls Ring Lardner. A discovery of ordinary, everyday American speech was one of the literary innovations of the era. Both Lardner's "Haircut" and "The Eleventh Juror" have crime and murder elements, although "The Eleventh Juror" is closer to mystery fiction in structure. Both Ring Lardner and Vincent Starrett were Chicago-based newspapermen, and almost the same age.
Both "The Eleventh Juror" and Lardner's "Haircut" (1925) are tales told by a regular-guy narrator, designed to read as if they were being spoken aloud by the narrator to the reader. Literary theorists use the term skaz to classify such stories. "Skaz" is a Russian word for such tales, which have a long tradition in Russian and Slavic literature. The term has been adopted to describe similar works throughout world literature. The concept of "skaz" was first noted by Russian Formalists, and is now part of Narratology, the study and theory of narrative. Most narratologists today think of skaz in connection with mainstream fiction. But I can point out that it appears in genre fiction too, in mystery stories like "The Eleventh Juror", and science fiction tales like Nancy Kress' "Out of All Them Bright Stars" (1985).
Starrett's fiction also shows an influence from Doyle, not surprising in the editor of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and other Holmes scholarship. Sleuth Jimmie Lavender sees clients in his sitting room, like Holmes, and has a Watson-like friend and narrator Charles "Gilly" Gilruth. And several of Starrett's detectives perform well done deduction from physical evidence. However, Starrett's stories do not have a Doyle like feel to their plotting, unlike, say, George R. Sims or Valentine Williams. They use some of Doyle's detective techniques, but are quite different as works of storytelling.
Starrett was a big admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson, and his New Arabian Nights stories (1878). Starrett's "The Blue Door" seems to be a deliberate imitation of Stevenson's work, featuring two young men who get involved in a mystery adventure on Chicago's North side. As in other of Starrett's tales, the detective work in the story is richer than the solution at the end of the puzzle plot. We are used to seeing 1920's Chicago treated in snappy gangster films; there is a jolt of cognitive dissonance in seeing the Chicago of gangsters, speakeasies, and public corruption used as the background of a Stevensonian adventure, or one of Jimmie Lavender's mock Sherlock Holmes pastiches. It is a very odd effect.
The amateur detective in "The Blue Door" is a mystery writer, and one that seems to be modeled on Starrett himself. Soon, both Ellery Queen and Mignon G. Eberhart's Susan Dare will become mystery-writer sleuths, not to mention the mystery writer sleuth in G.D.H. Cole's The Brooklyn Murders (1923).
As a character, Troxell bears some resemblance to Christopher Morley's bookstore owner in The Haunted Bookshop (1919).
The very fat Troxell, who rarely leaves his shop, or even his large chair, and the dynamic young police reporter Dellabough, who executes Troxell's ideas, and traipses all over Chicago, also seem like possible prototypes for Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Stout also wrote a series of Wolfe works with "Too Many" in the title: Too Many Cooks (1938), Too Many Women (1947), "Too Many Detectives" (1956), Too Many Clients (1960). Troxell is sometimes insulting to Dellabough, who shrugs it off, just like Goodwin. Dellabough is also physically active, and sometimes gets involved in fist fights, also like Goodwin. Like Goodwin, he also gets good sleuthing ideas on his own, as well. In later years, the 1940's and after, Starrett and Stout became personal friends, with Starrett becoming one of Stout's most vociferous critical champions.