Isaac Babel | Pulp Detective Stories | The Pulp Style of Plotting | Carroll John Daly | Paul Cain | Horace McCoy | Forrest Rosaire | Robert Leslie Bellem | Raoul Whitfield | Charles G. Booth | Glenn Low | Charles G. Givens | Lester Dent | The Hard Boiled Style: Revivals: Dent, Sampson, Pronzini
J. Lane Linklater | Shadow for a Lady
Geoffrey Homes | The Man Who Murdered Himself | The Man Who Didn't Exist | Then There Were Three | No Hands on the Clock | The Hill of the Terrified Monk | Six Silver Handles | The Judge Finds the Body
Baynard Kendrick | Blood on Lake Louisa | The Eleven of Diamonds | The Last Express | The Whistling Hangman | The Odor of Violets | Blind Man's Bluff | Death Knell | You Die(t) Today | Make Mine Maclain
George Harmon Coxe
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Vee Brown short stories
Jerry Frost and Hell's Stepsons short stories
Blair short stories
The Lady Is Afraid (1940) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, 7)
The Glass Triangle (1940) (Chapters 1, 5-13)
The Jade Venus (1944 - 1945) (Chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, start of 11)
The Hollow Needle (1948) (Chapters 1 - 7, 23)
The Frightened Fiancée (1950) (Chapters 1 - 12, second half of 19, last part of 23).
The Crimson Clue (1952) (Chapters 1, 3, 4, first half of 5, last part of 15, 16, first part of 17, second half of 18, first half of 19, 20)
The Whistling Hangman (1937)
Make Mine Maclain
Uncollected short stories
Babel's tales remind one of the stories of Argentine low-lifes that Borges would go on to write, such as "Hombre de la esquina rosada" ("Streetcorner Man"). Borges claimed an influence from the late 1920's gangster films of Josef von Sternberg. Gangster stories were clearly a world wide phenomenon.
Secondly, I think pulp tales are at their best when they are pulpiest. The urge to give pleasure is strongly related to the urge to create beauty. Tales created for the pleasure of readers are the finest works in both genres, hard-boiled and classical. The pulp writers became less themselves, and more formal, more committed to standard formulas for "literature", when they created books. These impersonal, scholarly tomes are not nearly as imaginative as the exuberant pulp fictions they wrote when no one was looking. So the novellas they contributed to the pulps are generally much better than their books.
The essential features of this plot construction approach:
It helps in this approach to have a set of characters who are as diverse as possible, so that they are involved in radically different activities.
A benefit of this technique is the naturalness with which it lends itself to surrealism. Because each new development can come as a complete surprise to the reader, the plot events can be made into a series of surrealistic set pieces, erupting into the book in the most logically unexpected manner possible. Surrealism has a long history in American mystery fiction: think of Futrelle, Ellery Queen, Craig Rice. Readers and writers of mystery fiction feel it has a natural place in the genre. Here is a technique that encourages it.
The "pulp style of plotting" seems to go back to Carroll John Daly and his story "Three Gun Terry" (1923). It was also widely used at an early date by Erle Stanley Gardner.
After its early use in the 1920's by Carroll John Daly and Erle Stanley Gardner in Black Mask, the "pulp style of plotting" is widely associated with the "second generation" of Black Mask writers, writers who appeared in the magazine in the early 1930's: Theodore Tinsley, Forrest Rosaire, Paul Cain, Todhunter Ballard, Baynard Kendrick, Merle Constiner, and Norbert Davis. Many of these writers wrote for other pulps, as well as Black Mask, and they seemed just as likely to use the "pulp style" in stories written for other pulp magazines as in Black Mask itself. Still, there is a common association of all of these writers with Black Mask.
Many Black Mask writers, such as Dashiell Hammett or Cornell Woolrich, apparently never had any involvement with "pulp style of plotting".
Baynard Kendrick's mystery novel You Die(t) Today (1952) has a discussion (Chapter 6), about mystery solutions that involve two culprits working separately, each doing different things. This discussion seems relevant to the "pulp style of plotting". It is far from a full account, and does not look at this as a sort of approach found in specific writers or in pulp fiction.
Daly's most admired work tends to be his earliest. These tales of 1922 - 1923 are clearly pioneer works in pulp writing. They also tend to have some creative plotting, especially "The False Burton Combs" (1922). This was reprinted in Herbert Ruhm's anthology The Hard-Boiled Detective (1977). It stars a tough adventurer-for-hire, who in many ways is a lot like Daly's private eyes to come. He narrates in a rough vernacular, and has his own "code of values". He also spends the tale facing danger.
"Three Gun Terry" (1923) was reprinted in William F. Nolan's anthology The Black Mask Boys (1985), where it was cited by Nolan as the pioneering work of private eye fiction. Peviously, Bill Pronzini made similar claims about "Three Gun Terry" in his anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Detective and Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps (1983). Pronzini's book reprints "Knights of the Open Palm" (1923), the debut of Daly's series private investigator Race Williams. "Knights of the Open Palm" originally appeared two weeks after "Three Gun Terry". "Three Gun Terry" stars a a short-lived series character, shamus Terry Mack.
"Three Gun Terry" does indeed seem to be the real start of hard-boiled private eye fiction, one in which a tough, wise cracking, slang talking private eye fights off an underworld plot in a hail of bullets. "Terry" is still an enjoyable story. The constant use of slang by Terry seems to anticipate both Robert Leslie Bellem and Forrest Rosaire. Not to mention how the wisecracks suggest Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The use of a loner private detective who narrates the story makes Daly's early Black Mask tales seem like the archetypal private eye tales.
There are antecedents; Octavus Roy Cohen's private investigator Jim Hanvey was already detecting in the Saturday Evening Post a year before, although his low-key, non-hard-boiled, humorous style tended to run more to con men and their sneaky rich victims. Private detectives were fairly common in mystery fiction before Daly - but none of them seem to resemble the tough shamuses found in "Three Gun Terry" and so many later hard-boiled private eye tales. And the infiltrating of a house full of bad guys, which Terry does in Daly's story, was already well established in Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (1919).
"Three Gun Terry" is also the earliest known to me work to contain the "pulp style of plotting", a kind of plot construction in which varied characters interact in mysterious ways. This style is more fully discussed above, in a previous section of this article. The key features of the "pulp style of plotting" exist in fully formed detail in "Three Gun Terry":
The constant paranoia of Daly's stories clearly appealed to readers, who saw a very tough man coping with constant danger. Even by pulp standards, Daly's world was a tough place, and his detective is constantly proving his toughness. The world view of Daly's stories can also be related to Daly's personal life. Daly was a complete recluse, one who rarely stepped outside of his middle class suburban home, a man who apparently lived in constant fear of anything that was not his controlled environment.
There are some other recurrent themes in Daly. There is the smuggled, and then concealed, gun, suddenly extracted and then drawn by either the hero or the bad guy, to rapidly change the balance of power in a confrontation.
There is the emphasis on social corruption, on the way a mob or other organized source of evil can infiltrate and obtain a strong position in both society and the political order. Daly achieved a definitive version of this in his early classic, "Knights of the Open Palm" (1923), his anti Ku Klux Klan story. Written when the KKK was at the height of its power, when the Indianapolis based KKK was well onto the road to legitimacy in American society and was becoming virtually a third political party, it pulls no punches in its look at a KKK dominated small town infiltrated and brought down by Daly's hero. Daly's tale is one of the landmarks of pulp writing: an important look at a social evil, and one of the very first hard boiled tales as well, with one of the earliest tough guy heroes, a model for much later pulp fiction.
Daly's work emphasizes some of the small pleasures of life. Both his heroes and bad guys love to eat, and restaurants are a common setting in his tales. There is also a love of both music and reading, especially detective stories. One of his heroes, Vee Brown, is a famous composer of popular songs in his other identity. It is rather if Batman's alter ego were Cole Porter.
Speaking of Batman: Daly's tales seem very ancestral to Batman and other crime fighters of the comics. Historians emphasize Daly's ancestral relationship with the hard-boiled writing of the pulps, and I think there is a similar ancestral relation with the comics. Batman and other superheroes are always trying to infiltrate the bad guys' den, and are always having physical fights with the bad guy's henchmen. This stuff comes right out of Daly.
The relation of Daly's hero to women also shows some consistent approaches. Daly's heroines pursue the detective, not the other way around. For all his machismo, he is shy, virginal, and too tough to relate well to dames. Often times these women have "bad" characteristics. There is The Flame, beautiful leader of a band of underworld racketeers. She loves Race Williams, and wants to throw her underworld empire at his feet. His detective Satan Hall is similarly pursued by a society girl, a headstrong young woman who is now running with a gang of mobsters - whether for thrills, or as an undercover infiltrator, or what - Satan has a hard time deciding in "Mr. Sinister" (1944), a detective tale with some strong puzzle plot features. While these beautiful, aggressive women have underworld ties, none is marked as clearly evil, like his bad guys. All are rather ambiguous figures, whose deviations from the straight and narrow are balanced by some warm heartedness and emotional fire, and whose ties with the underworld make them very desirable to the hero.
"Not My Corpse" is a good story, with a very tangled publishing history. It was reprinted in Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg's The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories (1988), where I read it. It appeared under that title in the 1953 Top Detective Annual, a yearly pulp collection. But internal evidence shows that the events of the story are taking place around 1946, shortly after the end of World War II in 1945. The Annuals were full of reprint material, suggesting that this is a retitled version of a story Daly first published c1947. A good candidate is "Unremembered Murder" (1947), a tale from the March 1947 Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine. The title of "Unremembered Murder" fits the plot of the story. This Race Williams novella is a bit different in tone from some of his earlier works. It is more purely a detective story, with Williams solving a set of serial killings. Williams seems to be adapted a bit to the conventions of the Raymond Chandler private eye tale, then at the peak of its influence and popularity. There is no sign of the "pulp style of plotting" which Daly pioneered; instead, all the crimes turn out to be the work of a single villain, as in the classical detective tale. Daly's story evokes the plots of Hammett's "The Scorched Face" (1924) and Christie's The ABC Murders (1936), without stealing from either. Daly's novella keeps coming up with plot twists, developments that put a new perspective on the story. This unfolding plot is the back bone of the story, its central element. Daly has less emphasis on action here than in some of his earlier tales. Yet when it becomes time for Daly to unleash an action scene, the crowd at Grand Central Station, his mise-en-scène is among the best in pulp history.
The novel appeared in Black Mask between Hammett's The Big Knockover (1927) and Red Harvest (1927). Most of Hammett's Continental Op short stories had appeared by this time. Black Mask had also published a large number of Erle Stanley Gardner short stories, including the often sophisticatedly plotted short stories collected in Dead Man's Letters. So this was not exactly early in hard-boiled history.
The Snarl of the Beast is almost pure action, with very little mystery or detection. Race Williams defines the detective's role as one of trying to stay alive, while hunting down and killing criminals. Race Williams depicts every scene as a direct threat to his life; and details his survival strategies to the reader at great length. The book is in some ways a classic of paranoia: what it would mean to live such a hunted life. Both the story's paranoia, with one isolated hero hunted by all the crooks and police in New York City, and its depiction of mean streets, recall Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914 - 1915). So does its focus on women intervening in the criminal world, with powerful personalities and mysterious identities and pasts.
Daly's vision of the underworld in The Snarl of the Beast is much different from later hard-boiled writers. Many later hard-boiled pulp authors depict such "public" underworld activities as: running night clubs and casinos; getting involved with urban politics, usually corrupt; police corruption; phony cult groups; the vice trade. These are all activities in which prominent underworld mobsters interface with the general public. These mobsters are famous Broadway figures, and dress in tailored tuxedos, hosting the fashionable night clubs they run.
By contrast, the underworld in Daly is restricted to secret activities, mainly performed at night, such as murder, burglary and blackmail, combined with the "big criminal scheme", such as counterfeiting or fraud. This is also the sort of crime that shows up in Frank L. Packard. The denizens of the Daly-Packard underworld are mainly known, petty crooks. They have names like Larry the Bat, and dress in cheap workingman's clothes. They are people who engage full time in burglary, fencing, or murder for hire. They hang out exclusively in cheap underworld dives and flop houses, and shy away from all public haunts. The Daly-Packard tradition also seems to have persisted in some hero pulp writers, who were directly influenced by Packard, such as Walter Gibson and his Shadow stories.
By the time of "Not My Corpse" (1947), Daly had widened his view of the underworld to take in the elegant mobsters of the other hard-boiled writers. But it is still combined with many of the features of his original conception. The mobsters are still running a lot of secretive, lucrative businesses along the lines of burglary and fencing. And much of the underworld is still full of secretive, two bit figures.
Dashiell Hammett's underworld figures start off at the Packard level. For example, the small time crook Itchy in the story "Itchy the Debonair" (1924) is straight out of the Packard tradition. The criminals in such tales as "The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925) and "The Big Knockover" (1927) remain faithful to the Packard paradigm, although their crimes are becoming very large scale. However, such crooks as those that run Poisonville in Red Harvest (1927) are beginning to become public figures, through their involvement with corrupt politics, and the crooked machine politicians of The Glass Key (1930) are even more established. Also, many of Hammett's criminals are far more glamorous and polished that the rough underworld mugs of Packard.
Race Williams explains his theories of detection throughout Daly's The Snarl of the Beast. This is in a very ancient mystery tradition: one can find similar explanations of their views on detection in the stories of Poe and the Casebook writers. Such disquisitions have persisted from Poe onward, to the present day. In Chapter 27, Williams explicitly disassociates himself from being the sort of detective that finds clues and interprets them.
There is also much in Daly's The Snarl of the Beast about Race Williams' personal code of morality. Oppenheim's heroes also had their own individual moral code before this. The discussions of morality here are very elaborate, and are at the start of an immense "private eye with his own code of morals" tradition, one that continues in private eye writers to this day. Raymond Chandler immediately comes to mind here, as do many of his successors. See William L. DeAndrea's Killed in Paradise (1988) and The Werewolf Murders (1992) for a funny satire on this.
Even the very gratuitousness of the plotting, hardly a virtue from a mystery point of view, can contribute to the dream like atmosphere. One theory of dreams is that the brain generates a stream of possibly random, or at least non-rational, imagery, and then other, reasoning parts of the brain try to interpret these images, to link them up into a rational piece of storytelling. There is perhaps something of this same effect in The Snarl of the Beast. Williams is always being surprised by strange events which occur, often dimly illuminated in the dark. He then tries to "interpret" these events, to figure out what they mean. For example, in Chapter 15, he first hears a sound, then decides there is a man in the room behind him. He then tries to decide, through reasoning, what kind of man it is, and concludes that it is most likely a policeman. This is similar to the theory that dreams consist of imagery rationally "interpreted" after the fact. Daly's later puzzle plot tales, such as "Not My Corpse" (1947), also depend on interpretation. New events in the story constantly cause the events of the story to be reinterpreted. Trying to find the right understanding of what is going on, forms the main detective element of the story. The reader and the detective are walked through many different approaches to interpreting what is going on in the plot.
When Race Williams reaches a conclusion in The Snarl of the Beast, it is accompanied by emotion: he hopes it is a policeman, for then he can deal with him, but is afraid it is another assassin, who could kill him. This is also similar to the emotions of dreams: many events in them seems to be accompanied by some feeling, describing the emotional attitude the dreaming brain is taking towards the events. The narration of The Snarl of the Beast is first person, and we are always strongly within Race Williams' consciousness; this is also similar to dreams.
The Snarl of the Beast is lacking in any "objective" reality against which Race Williams can check his perceptions. Race has neither a Watson, nor police partners with whom he can share his ideas. He is completely alone. Williams keeps stressing his personal isolation, and lack of friends, loved ones, family or other emotional ties. The police are depicted in the book as remote and limited; only Race has any understanding of the crime. Nor do the media ever develop any realistic perception of the case. Race lives in a completely solipsistic universe. This also contributes to the dream like quality of the book: the dreaming brain is also an isolated figure wandering through the world of dream events.
The visionary quality of The Snarl of the Beast is not only restricted to the sense of sight. Sounds and hearing play a major role too, as well as the sense of temperature - Race is very sensitive to cold and heat - and occasionally scent as well. Daly's elaborate, vividly described nocturnal visions remind one of William Hope Hodgson. So does the monstrous, animal like nature of his villain. The visionary quality reaches its peak with the episode at the lawyer's office (Chapters 16 - 24). If the earlier episodes seem more dream like, this is a full fledged visionary work with a Hodgson like power. These scenes are the best in the novel.
The dividing lines between the stories is easily discerned in the book version. I do not have editions of the original Black Mask stories to compare, but my guess as to how chapters in the novel line up with the Black Mask stories:
Some of the later sections of The Hidden Hand show Daly at his dullest, grinding out routine tales that are simply all action. But the early parts of the book (Chapters 1 - 10) remind us how colorful Daly could be. The focus on master villains, and crime's ties to business, once again recalls Frank L. Packard, and his Crime Club.
The Black tales show many signs of influence from Dashiell Hammett:
"One, Two, Three" (1933) also uses elaborate symmetry, with two parallel groups, each consisting of a man and a woman. When the sleuth tries to reconstruct the crime, actions committed by one character are often mistakenly ascribed to another one, in the tradition of the "pulp style of plotting". Such mis-attributions are also made the subject of systematic symmetry, with all sorts of permutations ascribing the deed of a man or woman from one group, attributed to the man or woman from the other. Sometimes, each pair's action is mistaken for an action of the other entire pair. In other cases, the action of a man or woman alone is mis-attributed to the man or woman on the other team. In still other cases, actions ascribed to a man, were really committed by a woman.
Two recognition scenes are major turning points in the plot; they too contribute to the pattern.
"One, Two, Three" also resembles many Erle Stanley Gardner novels to come, in that its characters move from city to city throughout the investigation. Such travel becomes part of the plot patterns in the story. As in Gardner, the base of operations is Los Angeles, with side trips to a smaller town in the region.
"Parlor Trick" (1932) is a brief little story, and as its title implies, it is mainly a stunt. The trick plotting is clever. It contains a murder mystery, which is soon given a twist around, so that a second solution has a similar structure, but role-reversed protagonists. Then Cain provides a coda, in which a resolution of the plot is also given a role-reversal. The story is a virtuoso exercise in plotting.
The plot of "Pigeon Blood" shows symmetry, of sorts. The second half of the tale replays the first half, only with new meanings and perspectives. The two men in the tale (other than sleuth Druse) seem to reverse roles. It is an ingeniously constructed piece. Each man has a meeting with Druse. Each has a relationship with the heroine. These echo and reverse between the two men, in the two parts of the tale. As in "One, Two, Three", actions attributed to one man, were really committed by the other.
The reversal also serves as the surprise solution of a puzzle plot mystery.
"Pigeon Blood" shows some of the Golden Age interest in architecture. However, this is applied not to the mystery / reversal elements, but rather to the thriller finale.
Grand Central Murders (1942) does not seem to be a very personal work for Cain. It has a complex flashback structure, perhaps influenced by Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941).
By contrast, Twelve Crowded Hours (1939, directed by Lew Landers) shows something of the feel of Cain's prose fiction. It takes place in a fairly hard-boiled world, in which reporters, police, and racketeers keep encountering each other, throughout the course of a single night. So do a framed suspect and his innocent sister. The film is intricately plotted. It involves a complex web of relationships among the characters. The film is not a whodunit. Instead, it has to be classed as a gangster film, although the lead characters are a non-crooked reporter and the decent sister of an accused criminal. The reporter here recalls the novelist hero of The Black Cat, although he is much tougher and more working class. The crooked characters are all involved in New York City's numbers racket, and recall the racketeers in Cain's prose fiction. The film's complex plot consists of a series of schemes and counter-schemes. First one character will develop some scheme, then another character will interfere with the scheme in an ingenious way, producing a different effect. Such a plotting approach recalls some of the crook stories of Erle Stanley Gardner.
McCoy's protagonists tend to be rough, macho agents of the Texas State Government. McCoy's characters are often summoned to the State house in Austin Texas, where they meet a tough, fatherly commander of their force. He has a big office filled with imposing furniture, and he lauds the hero for his work. His characters pretend indifference to all this, but the scene is so common in McCoy's fiction, it was clearly a very gratifying fantasy to him. Jim Corbett's boxer in Gentleman Jim is given a priest as his sympathetic father figure. Similar macho fantasies form the substance of "The Mopper-Up" (1931), in which Texas Ranger Tom Bender takes over and tames a wild West Texas oil town. He earns the total respect of all the people in the town, both good and bad. McCoy's work shows an almost limitless need for public recognition.
Behind Forrest Rosaire stands Carroll John Daly. The detective narrator of "The Devil Suit" describes everything in very lively slang. Rosaire's use of slang in the descriptions mixes humor with vivid detail. You can see a similar use of a slangy, detective narrator in Carroll John Daly's early tale, "Three Gun Terry" (1923).
Rosaire's story looks backward to Dashiell Hammett, who had largely stopped publishing pulp stories when this came out. The plot elements dealing with thieves who are struggling at cross purposes over loot recalls such Hammett works as "The Whosis Kid" (1925) and The Maltese Falcon (1929). So do the complexly negotiated fights and struggles which conclude the story. There are also evidences here of a certain cultural tradition at Black Mask: just as Hammett's "Fly Paper" (1929) explicitly draws on a story by Dumas, so does Rosaire's build on one of Maupassant's. I have wondered (and this is pure speculation) if editor Joseph P. Shaw had fed such cultural references to 19th Century French authors, to his authors as ingredients for stories.
Rosaire's story looks forward to Raymond Chandler, who had not yet begun to publish, his first tale coming out a year later in the same pulp magazine (Black Mask). The L.A. setting of the tale immediately reminds one of Chandler. So do specific locations: the beach near Santa Monica, the house in Topanga Canyon in the hills overlooking the beach. Characters in the tale also seem to anticipate Chandler's world, including a violent, giant ex-con, and an upper middle class doctor who wanders into the plot, offering the hero some support, rather like Annie in Chandler's work. One thing different from Chandler: the strong social support network the hero has. He has both personal friends, and cooperative contacts with other agents. He is a federal agent, not an antisocial loner like Marlowe working for himself. The atmosphere of good cheer and macho adventure is also a little different from Chandler's angst. Still, the tale could be a role model for Chandler's fiction.
This ultra-tough hard-boiled yarn startles by including an impossible crime plot. Its solution is easy to guess. But it shows the devotion of writers of all types, pulp as well as slick, to the formal standards of complex plotting during the Golden Age. The story also has elements of science and technology.
I suspect that Bellem knew how funny his broader effects were, and was deliberately including them for the entertainment of his readers. No one could write prose this outrageous, without having his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Some of Bellem's tales have deductive solutions in their finales, a structure associated with Ellery Queen:
Many of Bellem's most puzzle plot oriented tales were written in either 1935-1936, or in 1943-1944, the latter two years containing some of Bellem's finest works, such as "Homicide Highball" (1943), "Gun From Gotham" (a.k.a. "Sleep For a Dreamer") (1944) and "Dan Turner Deals an Ace" (1944).
"Action! Camera! - Drop Dead!" shows Bellem's ability to have a surface series of events, which contain some hidden events concealed inside. This "story within the story" effect is part of Bellem's mystery plotting technique. It helps Bellem develop the complex plots of some of his best work.
Bellem's "Preview of Murder" (1949) focuses on a new detective, Hollywood stuntman turned private eye Nick Ransom. The narration of this story is more subdued than the Turner stories, although it eventually includes some unique Bellem stylings and aphorisms. The story continues Bellem's interest in architecture. The opening of the tale describes in detail a cheap hotel with a special apartment in it. Later on, the story will explore a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. There is also a good description of the night sky, a long time Bellem trademark.
Bellem's stories betray a continuing interest in still photography, especially its technical aspects. Many also take place on movie sets, and involve the technology of film making.
Before any of these writers, Carroll John Daly included a chauffeur as a character in his Florida-based The Hidden Hand (1928) - see Chapter 10, and Race Williams' only friend in Daly's The Snarl of the Beast (1927) seems to be his chauffeur Benny. Perhaps this just suggests again how influential Daly was on later hard-boiled writers. Often times these chauffeurs are figures of menace. They are also often very macho, and exemplars of male sexuality.
Dan Turner goes undercover in a chauffeur's uniform at the start of Bellem's "Hair of the Dog" (1947). The chauffeur who highjacks Dan Turner in Chapter 2 of "Drunk, Disorderly and Dead" (1940) gets the funniest line in the story. Both of these tales are fairly minor as mysteries. "Diamonds of Death" also contains a good looking chauffeur. This tale is reprinted in the anthology The Arbor House Treasury of Detective and Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps (1983), edited by Bill Pronzini.
Wooley's introduction to Roscoes in the Night has a lot of useful biographical information on Bellem.
I also enjoyed Blackmail (1947), the B-movie adaptation of Dan Turner. It is based on the short story "Stock Shot" (1944).
Bellem worked extensively as a television scriptwriter from 1951-1967.
Surrounding this whodunit is a portrait of tough city life. Whitfield's work is more civic than Hammett's, more oriented to the hardball politics and sometimes corrupt public life of typical cities. Whitfield's work seems much less violent than some of his hard-boiled contemporaries. It also seems to be among the most realistic. Hammett had a personal vision of worlds where social authority had broken down. Whitfield had nothing this personal or this artistic, but he did have a sober, steady exploration of the real life, rough world of public life, one that is not present to such a degree in Hammett's more personal art. Whitfield is also interested in business organizations, such as newspapers or Hollywood studios, in a way not typical of Hammett or his contemporaries. He liked to draw pictures of tough, authoritative bosses in such organizations, often apparently condemning them, but with a sneaking fondness underneath. Even his detectives seem like shrewd businessmen. So, to a degree, seem Nebel's later characters, especially Cardigan and the Cosmos Detective Agency.
"About Kid Deth" shows the "pulp style of plotting". That is: it has many separate villains, each running around mysteriously committing crimes, and it is impossible to tell who is doing what, till it is all unravelled at the end of the tale. As an extension of this approach, Whitfield also keeps us guessing about the motives of the heroine in her big scene.
"Inside Job" is a formal murder mystery. Its mystery plot bears a strong resemblance to the first killing in S.S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928). This is another example, of how Whitfield combines hard-boiled and Golden Age mystery approaches in his work. In some ways, the inside look at the newspaper is also the hard-boiled equivalent of the portraits of the intelligentsia and media that run through Van Dine school writers.
Whitfield also includes some hard-boiled action in "Inside Job". A scene on a bridge shows Whitfield's fondness for waterside settings.
Still, I feel great reservations about such World War I air ace turned pulp fiction writers of air adventure as Whitfield and Horace McCoy. While they present a macho image, basically what they had in common was despair.
The villain in "Sal" is eager to get money so that he can go and live in Europe, just like his creator was about to do. One tends to think of American expatriates as writers of literary fiction, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But pulp writers of the era, like Whitfield and Max Brand, also went abroad.
Booth's story for the spy film The House on 92nd Street (1945) helped to inaugurate a tradition of semi-documentary realism in the post war film, and shows some mild interest in Scientific Detection. It also won an Oscar for him.
What is good about "One Shot" is the storytelling, especially the atmosphere. "One Shot" takes place in a nearly deserted house, which the hero explores. It anticipates the opening of Mr. Angel Comes Aboard, where the hero explores a spookily deserted ship. The exploration in "One Shot" takes place at night, and scents are evoked: both Booth traditions.
The characters are also appealing. Both hero Peter Stoddard, and Walter Hammond, are examples of the noble engineer who builds big projects around the world, a once beloved type of hero in adventure stories. The heroine, who insists on telling truth despite it making her look like a murder suspect, is also interesting.
"One Shot" is reprinted in Otto Penzler's anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010).
It is also notable for its introduction of a sweet little old lady into a hard-boiled tale, treated realistically and without obvious comedy or camp, although Booth clearly relishes the incongruity. Despite his hard-boiled mannerisms, Booth shows signs of wholesomeness and even sentimentality breaking through in parts of his tale. There is also a good deal of pleasant male bonding going on between Booth's agency operative Blair, and his police friend Pete Hurley.
Booth is good at descriptive writing about locations; he likes night scenes, and is good at picking up on scents, how things smell. Booth is also alive to the significance of hand gestures. Andrew Sarris has pointed out how important these are in the films of Booth's contemporary Josef von Sternberg. Booth's tale does have some of the same physicality as a Sternberg movie, with vivid descriptions of the physical locations of the action, and his chorus girl heroine dressed in feathers, no less. Sternberg's films explicitly influenced the early crime stories of Borges, and it is possible that they were well known to American writers of underworld stories, too. On the other hand, maybe they both just shared the same gangland zeitgeist.
As in other Booth mysteries, there are strong, tough female characters. The burlesque dancer recalls the chorus girl of "Sister Act". Color imagery plays a role in the story. Night scenes return again. The deserted theater anticipates the deserted ship in Booth's Mr. Angel Comes Aboard.
"Stag Party" takes place in a raffish urban theater district, filled with colorful showbiz and underworld characters. There is perhaps some sign of influence from Broadway chronicler Damon Runyon, whose Guys and Dolls (1932) had just appeared in book form the previous year, and made a huge splash. The character of Maggie O'Day seems especially Runyon-like.
The hero of all three novellas is called "Handsome" McFee, no official first name, at least in the book. He works with policeman Pete Hurley. He seems to be the same character as Blair, the no-first-name private eye who works with Hurley in "Sister Act". Both "Sister Act" and "Stag Party" appeared in Black Mask, in the February 1933 and November 1933 issues respectively. The second of the novellas, "Cigarette Lady" (1933), appeared in another pulp magazine, Clues, in October 1933. One wonders if Booth changed the names of his characters for book publication. I don't have access to the original magazine appearances to check this. The third story in the collection is "Queen High". I don't know where it was first published; perhaps it appeared under another title. It directly continues the action of "Cigarette Lady"; perhaps both stories were just published together in Clues as one long novella.
A scene from "Stag Party" (end of Chapter 10) that evokes its era is the hero's preparation for the final showdown, at an underworld run nightclub. The hero carefully dresses in evening clothes for this. It might be an armed showdown, but at least he will be properly dressed for it! In the thirties, everyone wanted to be well dressed. It was considered a universal ideal. Even though most people were too poor to have good clothes, they idolized movie stars who wore them. Unlike today, when people are always looking for excuses to dress down, in previous eras people wanted to dress up. Most of Booth's readers probably didn't own tuxedos, but the idea of wearing one to a night club seemed profoundly right to them. Similarly, in Hugh B. Cave's Black Mask tale "Dead Dog" (1937), the hero feels strange when he barges into a nightclub on business just wearing his "street clothes": presumably a suit when everyone else there is in evening clothes.
In the first chapter his reporter heroine makes an explicit stand for female equality and gender free behavior; it is one of the most principled stands for feminism anywhere in the pre 1950 mystery novel, and recalls the gutsy female characters in "Sister Act". The prominence of romance in this book recalls "Sister Act" as well, as do the sympathetic portraits of older people.
The story contains a complex landscape, intermeshing with an unusual piece of architecture: both a Golden Age tradition. Low would go on to publish Western novels, and the feel of the rural landscape here is of a Western ranch - although the story actually takes place at a farm some distance from Baltimore. The landscape somewhat anticipates one in a Western comic book a few years later: see "The War for Water" (Western Comics #9, May-June 1949). Low uses technology throughout the tale: most startlingly, in an account of how the map of the farm landscape was produced. The landscape, and the story as a whole, is hauntingly atmospheric, something like the feel of a dark fairy tale.
The story concerning the murder of a city editor takes place against the background of a tough, rough urban newspaper. There is all sorts of inside journalism information that sounds reasonably authentic. 1930 was the early part of the Depression, and there is much about the financial problems caused by the times, and the trashing of newspaper traditions into tabloid sensationalism that resulted.
The narrator detective is the paper's crime reporter, and he and the other newspaper staffers are extremely hard-boiled. The word "hard-boiled" is in fact used to describe them repeatedly through the tale.
Givens' short story "The Rose Petal Mystery" appeared over a year before Raoul Whitfield's "Inside Job" (1932), also set on a big city newspaper, and perhaps influenced it.
Dent's use of bright color in his supernatural events recalls William Hope Hodgson. So does the use of photography, and the forthright way in which his characters battle the "supernatural" forces.
Backgrounds. In April 1936 the American Magazine published Leslie Ford's impossible crime novella, "Death Stops in a Tourist Camp". This story has a climax set in caverns. So does at least one more subsequent American Magazine novella in July 1936, Philip Wylie's "The Paradise Canyon Mystery" (1936). Dent's story, climaxing in a Death Valley cavern, was written in the second half of 1936, and appeared in Argosy in December. This is three cavern novellas in one year; it seems likely that there was some influence between them or common new event behind them.
Dent's style is full of at least one too many fights; fight scenes appear with mechanical regularity at every few pages in his story. By contrast, the story itself is colorful, and full of interesting incident. Dent, like his American Magazine contemporaries, includes detailed backgrounds in his story; in Dent's case these include Hollywood and Death Valley.
In Dent's "Angelfish" (1936), the characters sail into a hurricane. Here they enter into Death Valley. Both of these anticipate the emphasis on desolate waste places and storms found in Norbert Davis' work.
Characters. The highly competent female characters in the novella are treated completely non-sexistly.
The wandering, poverty stricken hero and his comic sidekick, just trying to earn a buck through odd jobs, anticipate such characters as Frank Gruber's Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg, and Craig Rice's Bingo and Handsome.
What is perhaps paradoxical is that these modern authors are not the first to consciously attempt a pastiche of the Black Mask style. So did many of the writers who appeared for the first time in Mask during 1933-1936, after the first heyday of the magazine had passed. For example, Lester Dent's two stories about Oscar Sail, which appeared in Mask in 1936, are just as much careful, loving imitations of the Black Mask style as are Pronzini or Sampson's stories 50 years later. So, to a degree, are the tales of W.T. Ballard, or the early Mask fiction of Norbert Davis, before he found his own humorous, more screwball style, a style which was probably influenced by the detective farces of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. What makes it even more paradoxical is that some of these works are now considered definitive expressions of the hard-boiled style, for instance, Dent's two Sail stories, which have been much reprinted. I admire Dent's two tales highly - they are superb - but I also think that they are more conscious objets d'art, than straightforward attempts to write fiction in a style natural to Dent. This hardly makes them artistically poorer, but it is good to recognize that despite clichés about a monolithic entity called "pulp fiction", that pulp magazines took part in diverse literary movements, just like any other branch of literature. Captain Joseph Shaw leaving the editorship of Mask in 1937 apparently put an end to attempts to promote a well-defined, hard-boiled Black Mask style. Submissions to the magazine after his editorship often took place in a tough underworld milieu, recalling earlier stories, but otherwise do not seem to ape Black Mask's literary conventions in great detail.
Links to Erle Stanley Gardner. In his collected reviews The Anthony Boucher Chronicles, Anthony Boucher suggests that the author of Shadow for a Lady is a member of the "Gardner school". I agree.
Shadow for a Lady has a setting that recalls Erle Stanley Gardner. It takes place in Southern California, It oscillates between Los Angeles and a nearby small town in the orange-growing district. Similarly, Gardner set many of his novels in Los Angeles and small neighboring towns. And Gardner characters often make trips between their base in Los Angeles and such small towns: just like the heroes of Shadow for a Lady.
Some of the characters in Shadow for a Lady use trailers, also recalling Gardner.
Shadow for a Lady recalls Gardner, in that many suspects are middle class people engaged in business deals, rather than professional criminals or underworld types.
Silas Booth's office, with its secretary and business-like attitude, recalls that of Gardner's lawyer hero Perry Mason. Booth does not much resemble the typical tough-guy shamuses of much private eye fiction.
Silas Booth has a trickster aspect, finding ways to con criminals out of their money, and keeping it for himself. In this he recalls such Gardner con-man heroes as Lester Leith and the Patent Leather Kid. Silas Booth is handsome in a slick way (start of Chapter 5): something shared with the glamorous Lester Leith and Patent Leather Kid. One might note, however, that Linklater had his own slick trickster figure who preys on crooks Paul C. Pitt, in his short stories like "A Hundred a Minute" (1936). Both Silas Booth and Pitt help the innocent for free, while extracting a "fee" from crooks.
Silas Booth expresses his philosophy about how things should work (later part of Chapter 2). There are somewhat similar scenes in Gardner, where heroes expound on their philosophies. In Gardner, such philosophizing can be either serious or comic. Silas Booth's viewpoint is comic. Linklater's hero Paul C. Pitt in "A Hundred a Minute" also expresses his philosophy.
When I read Shadow for a Lady, my first impression is that it was influenced by Gardner. However, the reality might be more complicated. Monte Herridge's article on Linklater's Hugo Oakes stories suggests that lawyer-detective Oakes is a precursor to Gardner and Perry Mason. The Oakes stories appeared from 1929-1934. Perry Mason made his debut in 1934. So there might be Linklater influences on Gardner, as well as Gardner influences on Linklater.
Gus. Gus Keyes, Silas Booth's assistant detective, reminds one a bit of Todhunter, the police assistant in Helen Reilly's novels. Both are small inconspicuous men, both are good at shadowing suspects. Both are working stiff, Everyman types. Both men are quite likable and sympathetic.
Precursors. The scene where Silas Booth and Gus arrive in the small town of Kalinio (start of Chapter 2) is a replay of the opening of Linklater's short story "A Hundred a Minute". Both have a conspicuous, handsome, well-dressed urban hero arriving in a small town in a spectacular limousine, and attracting plenty of attention. The locals are not used to such a city slicker. Both have the hero's assistant nervous about this, and wish the hero were not so conspicuous.
The assistants differ in characterization: a "huge" burly chauffeur in "A Hundred a Minute", the small detective Gus in Shadow for a Lady. The chauffeur Dan is mainly a comedy relief figure, while Gus is a talented detective.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder Mystery. Among the weaknesses of Shadow for a Lady is that there are no clues to the identity of the killer. The killer is picked out seemingly arbitrarily from among the suspects, at the novel's end. In other words, Shadow for a Lady lacks "fair play" (clues that allow the reader to deduce the solution).
Late in the book there is a third murder. Detective Silas Booth established that all but one suspect has an alibi. The one left over is then picked out by him as the killer (Chapter 19). This shows Booth finding the killer through detective work: always a good thing. However, none of this information is shared with the reader in advance: also a failure of fair play.
In addition to the fair play problems, I just didn't find much about the murder plot interesting or creative.
Mystery Sub-Plot: the Inheritance. Shadow for a Lady has a decent subplot about an inheritance a woman has received (Chapter 2, start of Chapter 11, second half of Chapter 15). SPOILERS. It eventually builds up a surprising revelation. This is fairly ingenious.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Quillaja. A decent subplot involves Quillaja, the "soap-bark" tree (second half of Chapter 16, middle of Chapter 18, end of Chapter 19). Quillaja is a fascinating plant (Internet searches will tell you a lot about it). This is the only reference I've seen to Quillaja in detective fiction.
SPOILERS. This subplot does something that is always appealing in mystery fiction: it takes events that look initially to readers to have one meaning, and shows that they instead have a hidden meaning and significance.
SPOILERS. Suspect Asa Messerley's slovenly appearance is a a factor in this subplot. His unpressed suit is described as "amorphous" (a good choice of words) (second half of Chapter 16). Similarly, Linklater's sleuth Hugo Oakes is described as wearing "shapeless clothes".
SPOILERS. Quillaja causes people to sneeze and blow their noses. Strangely enough, Shadow for a Lady manages to work this into the actual mystery plot (end of Chapter 19). This recalls the reporter hero of "Death at Both Ends" (1947) and his frequent nose-blowing (he has hay fever).
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Envelope. The finale explains another subplot, that involving the envelope. The envelope is a MacGuffin: something valuable that everybody wants. This subplot turns out to have little to do with the murder. It has a nice touch or two, but mainly is routine. Best feature: SPOILERS. The explanation of Don's movements, why he went where he did.
Both this subplot and the Quillaja subplot have ties to the orange-growing district where the tale is partly set. Linklater's short stories "A Cold Night for Murder" (1948) and "An Orange for the Killer" (1948) have an orange-grove background. "A Cold Night for Murder" includes the smudge pots that play a key role in the Quillaja subplot of Shadow for a Lady. The orange grove background in "A Cold Night for Murder" is more interesting than its mystery or crime elements.
Black People and Housing. Shadow for a Lady notes that a black family is stuck in cramped, substandard housing, and deplores this (start of Chapter 11). It is just a brief episode. But it makes a pointed comment on the awful restrictions black people faced, calling them "a disgrace".
Interurban. Characters frequently take Pacific Electric trains from one town to another. Similarly in "An Orange for the Killer" a suspect tries to take an interurban electric train.
Also like Boucher, Homes' work is full of writers:
Detectives. Series sleuth Robin Bishop is in this novel an ex-newspaperman and ex-alcoholic, who is now working as an investigator for Oscar Morgan's tiny firm. Morgan and Co. is almost-but-not-quite a private detective agency. It exclusively handles missing person cases and searches for lost heirs, charging a large percentage of the inheritance for those it tracks down.
A whole series of subsidiary detectives are brought in. In fact, they multiply like rabbits throughout the book. Except for the police, these detectives are shown as energetic and skilled. Homes puts effort into their characterization and personalities:
Overweight boss Oscar Morgan who stays at the office, and well-dressed legman Robin Bishop who investigates all over, recall a bit Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin by Rex Stout, a series that began with Fer-de-lance (1934). However, Robin Bishop is unquestionably the novel's main figure, with Oscar Morgan a supporting character.
Success. Robin Bishop is an idealized figure, who succeeds in life. The Man Who Murdered Himself emphasizes how much money he is making (Chapter 6). Later books will show Bishop succeeding in journalism. Bishop also succeeds in his personal life, having a happy, idealized romance with Mary Huston. He shows the dream of many Americans of the time, and now, to succeed financially and to get married. He does this without "connections" or upper class ties. Robin Bishop's life and career success is actually fairly unusual in traditional detective fiction.
Homes' detectives carry fake business cards, which they use to assume new identities while quizzing witnesses. This is funny. Some of these new identities are of more successful people, and one suspects they represent some wish-fulfillment fantasy:
The butler is also a pleasing comic creation (Chapter 14).
Setting. The reservoir that opens The Man Who Murdered Himself is one of the water settings that are memorable in Homes. Others include the ocean in Then There Were Three, the canal in Six Silver Handles.
The reservoir is an area where a body is discovered. Dramatic discoveries of hidden bodies run through Geoffrey Homes mysteries. Such discoveries often show good detectival reasoning in the part of his sleuths.
Mystery Plot. The Man Who Murdered Himself has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as later Homes books like Then There Were Three. On the positive side:
But The Man Who Murdered Himself has limitations, also anticipating later Homes:
The chief victim is a mystery writer. Like Homes, he is a former mainstream writer who has switched over to writing mystery fiction, after the commercial failure of his "serious" fiction. Also like Homes, he is writing mysteries under a pseudonym, so they will not be confused with his mainstream work - Homes' real name was Daniel Mainwaring. The novelist has the same birth date as Homes himself, 1902. The novel does a good deal of worrying about whether the writer's mystery writing will interfere with his ability to produce mainstream work.
By contrast, the novel also includes a great deal of wish fulfillment fantasy. Robin Bishop gets to be involved in exciting sleuthing, and the novelist's mystery books become huge best sellers, as well as prestigious critical favorites, lauded for their superb writing.
The book is at its best when it concentrates on the literary world. These sections show a vivid literary style. Homes has a flair for clever phraseology. By contrast, the sections dealing with the suspects are dull. Only the non-narrative passages dealing with literary history really come alive.
Mystery Plot. The technique of the novel is an eclectic mix. Like Homes' later film Out of the Past (1947), there is a long look backward at the earlier lives of the characters, and their complex interactions with each other, romantic, financial and criminous. The novelist's new identity as a mystery writer recalls Jeff Bailey's new identity when hiding out from gangsters in Out of the Past. Both men retreat to the California mountains, at one point.
Homes uses a modified version of the "pulp style of plotting" in both The Man Who Didn't Exist and Then There Were Three. This plotting technique, especially associated with Black Mask writers, involves many different characters all acting independently of each other, committing a series of intricately interlocking actions. The reader is hard pressed to understand who is doing what; untangling the series of events is a chief mystery of the plot. Homes combines this "pulp style of plotting" with a 1930's Golden Age tone, and a search for a principal killer.
The Man Who Didn't Exist refers to Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the principal exponents of the "pulp style", as well as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.
Then There Were Three echoes some of the approaches of The Man Who Murdered Himself:
Los Pinos is full of well-to-do people who either go on tourist vacations there, or who have established residences. It includes painters and writers, and is some sort of cultural area. This makes many of the suspects be the sort of upper middle class or upper class people who populate Golden Age detective novels.
Bill Pronzini has hailed Geoffrey Homes for his gift of description. It is operating at full power throughout Then There Were Three.
Mystery Plot. There is some interesting detective work in Then There Were Three. The sleuths investigate mysterious situations, and do some ingenious work in looking for missing characters. Much of the best such work is in the first half of the novel.
The murder mystery plot as a whole has limitations, though:
I am recommending Then There Were Three. The vivid, detailed portrait of the town, the two well-characterized sleuths, and some good detective investigations make it a pleasant read. But readers should be aware that it lacks a clever solution or overall mystery puzzle.
No Hands on the Clock shows Homes' verbal skill. Here that skill is applied to clever comic dialogue, reminiscent of 1930's screwball comedy movies. It also applies to descriptions of nature and the city of Reno. This makes the book succeed as a piece of storytelling.
The typical joke is Homes showing an unexpected side of some character. A detective will suddenly indulge in kid's games, or a robber will get side tracked with something nutty. This is funny. But it also adds to characterization. Those stick figures of a million novels, detectives and crooks, suddenly get the personalities of real people. Related to this are the thoughts that pop into Campbell's mind. They tend to be odd analogies to situations in front of him. They too tend to be comic, funny, unexpected, and additions to characterizing the scene in nice ways.
The pure descriptive passages in Homes somewhat resemble Dashiell Hammett. They often describe taut criminous situations. However, Homes was a struggling mainstream novelist when he started writing mysteries. He has no pulp background.
Detective. Detective Jose Manuel Madero is mainly seen from afar: we never get the close-up portrait of him afforded sleuths Robin Bishop and Humphrey Campbell in Then There Were Three. This makes Madero a less interesting figure. The other characters are somewhat stick-like too.
Action. SPOILER. Both Then There Were Three and The Hill of the Terrified Monk have a scene midway through in which a corpse is dramatically discovered in a macabre place. This is successfully surreal in Then There Were Three, with welcome touches of dark humor and grotesquerie. But it seems labored in The Hill of the Terrified Monk.
Movies. The Hill of the Terrified Monk refers to a real horror film, The Mad Doctor of Market Street, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, now viewed as a major talent. The imaginary movie that plays a key role in the book, The Invisible Zombie, has a title that recalls another real life Lewis film, Invisible Ghost. I have no idea if Homes had some connection with Lewis, or not. Homes might simply have liked the title The Mad Doctor of Market street because it refers to the San Francisco road Market Street: Homes loved everything to do with California.
The publicity schemes dreamed up to promote the film The Invisible Zombie are nutty. But real-life movie publicity in this era often was too. See the book The Crime Films of Anthony Mann (2014) by Max Alvarez for a vivid account of the actual publicity campaigns of some low budget 1940's thrillers. They make The Hill of the Terrified Monk seem unexpectedly accurate in its portrayal.
Homes' depiction of the film exhibition business is both sophisticated and limited. The theater chain is showing a low budget horror flick called The Invisible Zombie. The Invisible Zombie is depicted as a bad movie in the full sense of the term: as an artistically worthless, poorly made film. The fact that the theater chain is showing it, indicates the bottom-of-the-barrel nature of the chain. There is some truth to the latter view, perhaps: cheap movies might indeed indicate a financially failing theater chain. But is less clear that B-movies are as artistically poor as The Hill of the Terrified Monk suggests. The real life Invisible Ghost has been hailed by contemporary film historians as a gem.
Homes includes a rival, successful theater chain. Their success is typified by the way they showed Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is indeed one of the most financially successful films ever made. But whether it is a "better" movie artistically than Invisible Ghost is another question. The treatment of black people, slavery and racial issues in Gone With the Wind is an abomination, while Invisible Ghost has a non-stereotyped, progressive portrait of its black butler (Clement Muse).
Susan Ohmer's book George Gallup in Hollywood (2006) depicts the US film industry as trying to appeal to two very different audiences in the 1940's, with two different kinds of films:
However, to be fair to The Hill of the Terrified Monk, it does not depict the audiences at the theaters in class terms, or stigmatize poor viewers. Still, one suspects that it might be uncritically echoing Hollywood prejudices of its time, in depicting various levels of the film industry.
Setting and Description. Six Silver Handles is best in its opening (Chapters 1,2), a look at a young soldier and would-be writer wandering around rural California. The story pays tribute to the aspiring author's hero, John Steinbeck, and his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). There is much atmospheric writing, describing the "Steinbeck country" in California, to which the youthful author is paying a pilgrimage. While Homes pokes some good-natured fun at the young would-be writer's naivete, this is basically a sympathetic portrait. One suspects that it is also a sincere tribute to Steinbeck.
Later we see briefly the lives of fruit pickers on a peach farm (Chapter 12). This has a Steinbeck feel. Even more, it recalls Homes' mainstream short story "Fruit Tramp" (1934), which deals with labor conflicts and a strike among fruit farmers in what seems to be the same California region as Six Silver Handles. The opening of "Fruit Tramp" sets forth in detail many aspects of life and work on California fruit farms.
A romantic swim in a canal is full of local color (Chapter 10). It too has fruit imagery.
Six Silver Handles makes an attempt to describe homefront America during World War II. I especially liked the woman taxi driver (start of Chapter 7). Women driving cabs while men were off to war, were a staple of Hollywood movies of the era.
Detective Work. Six Silver Handles shows the multiplying detectives also seen in other Homes mysteries. Some of these have new and original relationships to the hero (Chapters 3-9). Long time employer Oscar Morgan now has a new role. And there is a new private detective in town, Les Pritchard. Both have relationships with the hero Humphrey Campbell that are new not just to Homes, but to detective fiction in general. I will not specify more about these relationships, to avoid spoiling the story. But will add that both relationships have the effect of funneling information about the case to hero Campbell, also in original ways. The information becomes part of the ongoing detective investigation, that is such a prominent part of many Homes mystery novels. So the relationships become props and support for the plot structure of Six Silver Handles, and its detective work.
This aspect of Six Silver Handles makes fun reading. It also has a light-hearted and often comic feel.
A limitation: these relationships violate good standards of ethics, in terms of confidentiality, responsible policing and legal tactics. Six Silver Handles itself describes Oscar Morgan as "unscrupulous". The book employs some strategies to make the situation more palatable:
Politics. There is a negative, highly critical account of the activities of a pro-Nazi Bund in the US in the years before the war (end of Chapter 6).
Six Silver Handles suffers from its negative stereotyped portrait of the disabled suspect Bruce Peyton. Similarly, "Fruit Tramp" contains a stereotyped portrait of a hunchback as a villain.
Mystery Plot. Six Silver Handles has another of Homes' not-very-good mystery plots, with numerous crooked characters all doing things coincidentally at once. It has the modest virtue of a lot of plot always happening.
Collectors. Collectors play a role, recalling the Van Dine School, which frequently had backgrounds of various kinds of collectors and hobbyists. Homes' collectors seem less genteel and more menacing than those in Van Dine writers, though.
Movies. Six Silver Handles briefly continues Homes' commentary on the movies. Once again as in The Hill of the Terrified Monk, inexpensively made horror B-movies are dismissed as worthless, while big budget A-films are held up as outstanding (Chapter 24). In Six Silver Handles, such real-life low-budget horror films as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943) and I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) are written off as a "waste of time". This double bill of B-movies is contrasted with a theater playing "good", more expensive films - and which charges more money. This theater has A-movie big name stars: Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Homes' analysis of the two kinds of films made by Hollywood, and the two ways they were exhibited is accurate. I just don't agree with Homes' viewpoint on the two kinds of films' artistic merit, however, even though Susan Ohmer's book George Gallup in Hollywood shows it was widespread in 1940's Hollywood. Today I Walked with a Zombie is widely considered one of the finest films of its era.
"The Judge Finds the Body" starts out as if it is going to be a low-key thriller. But it eventually develops into a full-scale murder mystery. SPOILERS. It has an alibi puzzle. It also has howdunit features, and as is often the case with howdunits, the howdunit puzzle approaches the impossible crime.
Once again, Homes makes references to other mystery writers. There is comic dialogue about the clipped speech of such sleuths as H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune, David Frome's Mr. Pinkerton, and George Worthington Yates' Hazlitt Woar.
"The Judge Finds the Body" is included in the anthology The Mystery Companion (1943) edited by A. L. Furman.
|Blood on Lake Louisa||1934||Shooting||-||Snake's sister||Bartlett||Dogs||-||X||-|
|The Eleven of Diamonds||1936||Stabbing||Seeing in Dark||Eleven of Diamonds||Fowler, Juan||-||-||-||X|
|The Last Express||1937||-||Night Club||The Last Express||Chapter 6,7||Mice||X||X||-|
|The Whistling Hangman||1937||Fall||-||Bible||Killer, Holden||-||X||-||X|
|Blind Man's Bluff||1943||Fall||-||-||Finale||-||X||X||-|
|You Die(t) Today||1952||Hanging||-||Photograph||Tubby, Joan||-||-||-||-|
|The Murderer Who Wanted More||1944||-||-||-||Man in Black||-||-||-||-|
|Melody in Death||1945||-||-||Song||-||-||X||-||-|
|The Silent Whistle||1947||-||-||-||-||Dog||-||-||X|
If you are new to Baynard Kendrick, a good place to start reading him is The Whistling Hangman. His next most interesting book is his debut novel Blood on Lake Louisa.
Had I But Known. Blood on Lake Louisa is full of the literary techniques of the Had I But Known (HIBK) school. But it has almost no female characters, and is set among a world of outdoor sportsmen, moonshiners, policemen and other macho types. This is very unusual. Still, it is full of passages that recall Mary Roberts Rinehart novels:
Other mystery traditions are invoked too. The complex map of the countryside and the alibi-and-timing aspects recall Freeman Wills Crofts.
Architecture. The floor plan of the house bears some resemblance to the layout of the bridge club in The Eleven of Diamonds. Both have verandas or porches, that reach around right angle bends. And lines of sight play a role in both mysteries, based on the floor diagrams.
SPOILERS Blood on Lake Louisa has scenes in underground areas, something that will recur in The Last Express and The Whistling Hangman.
Mystery Subplots. The shooting in Blood on Lake Louisa resembles the stabbing in The Eleven of Diamonds, in that neither is an impossible crime - yet both could easily have been made so, had the author chosen.
Later Kendrick novels will have the killer identified by knowledge of information or access to objects. Blood on Lake Louisa is moving in this direction - but is not quite there yet. The killer does have unusual knowledge of something - but it is broad factual information, not some unique aspect of the crime known only to the killer. This knowledge does serve as a tentative indication of the killer, who would have been likely to research such facts. But it is not a true "killer's knowledge plot". And it is not a rigorous clue to the killer, that would guarantee guilt, or exclude all other people.
The Detective. Miles Standish Rice works as a private investigator in The Eleven of Diamonds. But compared to many private eyes in fiction, Rice has an unusually close relationship with the police. He is actually hired by his client, on the recommendation of the police. Rice is a personal friend of police homicide Captain Vincent LeRoy, and the two men essentially investigate the crime together, as a team. Rice and LeRoy in fact resemble the amateur sleuth / police partnerships of the Van Dine school, such as amateur genius Ellery Queen's working with the New York City homicide squad to solve cases. Rice and the police constantly share information.
Stan Rice, as he is often called, is a tall, lanky thin young man. He recalls the private eye Paul Drake in the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner:
Relationship to Impossible Crimes. SPOILERS ahead. The Eleven of Diamonds has an unusual structure. It starts off by looking like an utterly conventional, routine murder, a simple stabbing. There doesn't seem to be anything unusual about the crime, or hard to explain, except of course, whodunit. But gradually, Rice comes up with an unusual explanation of how the crime was committed, as a physical act.
Kendrick could easily have written this killing in The Eleven of Diamonds as an impossible crime. He could have made the wing of the building where the murder took place locked and guarded. Then he could have used the exact same murder mechanism to solve a locked room, impossible crime tale.
Had Kendrick done so, he would have wound up with an impossible crime novel, with some broad similarities to his later impossible crime novel, The Whistling Hangman. The two have completely different solutions. But both involve the killing of an apparently isolated figure, by a killer who is somehow acting at a distance.
Kendrick might also have been wiser to write The Eleven of Diamonds as a locked room tale, in terms of the book's long term reputation. There is a steady readership for impossible crimes, and a small but loyal audience for this kind of fiction. The Eleven of Diamonds would probably be better remembered and read today, if it fell into this sub-genre.
The crime and its physical solution are found in chapters in the book's first half. The opening chapter introduces some characters, and sets up a mysterious background for them. Then the murder and its initial investigation are in Chapters 2, 3, 5, 6 - much of which are quite dull and seemingly routine. An interesting clue relating to the puzzles of Chapter 1 appears in Chapter 9. The solutions start coming in Chapters 11, 12, 16, including all about the murder, and also about an interesting puzzle about Fowler from Chapter 1. The mysteries of chapter 1 finally get a full explanation in Chapter 23.
Meanwhile, there is a vividly described second murder in Chapter 15, which is the book's best-written set piece. It introduces aspects of impossible crime. Unfortunately, the same puzzle and solution had already appeared in Ellery Queen's "The Adventure of the House of Darkness" (1935) of the year before. It is a vision-related plot idea: a kind of mystery concept that will return with the night club murder in The Last Express.
Mystery Subplots. There is much mystery in Fowler's background, and also that of Juan. Such background mysteries run through Kendrick.
The "Eleven of Diamonds" subplot is fairly elaborately developed, going through several stages. It might be considered as a form of message, and it even takes on aspects of a Dying Message.
Characters. The Last Express deserves credit for introducing Maclain. But most of the numerous ideas it presents about Maclain seem to be repeated in later novels - so readers will not actually miss much about Maclain if they fail to read this debut.
The portrait of Charles Hartshorn, upper crust young man-about-town, is a satiric gem (start of Chapter 6).
The youthful hit man, a known villain seen throughout the novel, is constantly indicated to be gay, although the label is never quite explicit. He is even wearing a "pinkish suit" at one point! This homophobia is a major flaw of the novel. This characterization perhaps influenced that of the sinister but handsome twins in The So Blue Marble (1940) by Dorothy B. Hughes.
Mystery Plot. The best mystery elements take up a fairly small section of the novel. They are its best part. They include the first murder and its investigation (end of Chapter 3 through Chapter 7), and solutions (Chapters 29, 30, 33).
The reconstruction of the first crime is solid detective work.
The best of several Golden Age puzzle features is the identity of the head villain, revealed at the end by the detective. It's both logical and surprising:
Weaker Golden Age aspects include a far-fetched Dying Message (stated end of Chapter 3, solved end of Chapter 30). Dying Messages were associated with Ellery Queen, and were also common in other American writers. Kendrick's Dying Message involves the location of valuable property, rather than a clue to the killer.
Somewhere in the mid-level of quality: a nightclub murder which depends on a rather recherché gimmick for its surprise mechanism (end of Chapter 29). It anticipates the main crime in The Whistling Hangman, in being witnessed, but not understood. In The Last Express the witnessing is visual, in The Whistling Hangman it is aural. Both crimes also have a technological aspect, linking Kendrick to the tradition of Scientific Detection.
The Last Express manages a good plot twist (Chapter 6, 7). This gambit recalls "The Master of the Conjurers' Guild" (1930) by Joseph Szebenyei, The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen, The Unicorn Murders (1935) by "Carter Dickson" (John Dickson Carr). It might be linked to the mysteries of background in other Kendrick books.
Mystery Plot. Baynard Kendrick's The Whistling Hangman (1937) is a largely straightforward whodunit, with a mysterious murder solved by a detective. This pure whodunit structure makes it different from some of Kendrick's other works, which can combine mystery with thriller elements. The detective here is Kendrick's famous blind private investigator, Captain Duncan Maclain.
The murder method in The Whistling Hangman is itself a mystery. It is an example of the howdunit: a crime committed by a mysterious method, one that has to be figured out by the sleuth. Making it more complex than most howdunits: the crime is actually partly witnessed, by two different people. What they see and hear is itself baffling, and does not explain the killing.
Like several other howdunits, the murder in The Whistling Hangman is a borderline impossible crime. It does not seem to have any plausible explanation.
Like other Golden Age novels, Kendrick includes several subsidiary mysteries along the way. The focus is kept steadily on the unraveling of these mysteries. The book never stops dead in its tracks, for soap opera passages or other filler. Each chapter usually brings new revelations about the tale's mysterious events. We do learn a lot about the suspects' personal lives - but this is all carefully interwoven with attempts to uncover those characters' mysterious pasts.
I was able to figure out whodunit. But this is because I noticed some (but not all) of the numerous fair play clues to the killer Kendrick sprinkled through the book. Some of these clues center on the killer having knowledge and access needed to commit the crime: a Kendrick tradition.
There are interesting puzzles about the hidden backgrounds of some of the characters. These recall the puzzle about Fowler's background in The Eleven of Diamonds.
Towards the end, there is a puzzle about where an object involved in the crime might be hidden. Such Concealed Object puzzles were associated in the 1930's with Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer.
The Bible is one of the last things looked at by the murder victim. It has some aspects of both an information source and a dying message: so it perhaps falls into the message subplots in Kendrick.
Had I But Known. As in Kendrick's later The Odor of Violets, there are some Had I But Known (HIBK) elements:
The Hotel. The Whistling Hangman resembles in its settings Helen Reilly's The Line-Up (1934). Both are principally set at lavish New York City residential hotels, occupied by wealthy families. Both novels also have a secondary setting, which is similar in both books. That setting is a surprise, sprung in later chapters. I have no idea if these common settings are just a coincidence, or a sign of influence. The Whistling Hangman differs in that it concentrates on the hotel and its staff as a whole, while The Line-Up mainly looks at one family's domicile within the hotel.
The luxury hotel in The Whistling Hangman and its elite staff anticipate Hugh Pentecost's Pierre Chambrun series.
We learn a fair amount about the architecture of the hotel: an example of the Golden Age interest in architecture.
There are some technological ideas in The Whistling Hangman. Oddly, these involve not so much the murder or mystery plot, as some suspense passages in the finale. In these last chapters, Kendrick explores some of the technological features of a 1937 hotel. These take us to the hotel's sub-basements, far below ground. The Last Express explored Maclain's training facility, in the sub-basements of his own building.
The entry on Kendrick in The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976) edited by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, says that Kendrick worked as "general manager of a New York City hotel chain (1930-1931)".
Kendrick's book suffers from his grim tone, which even the author describes as one of "horror". This is not the standard Gothic trappings, but a full look at modern problems. The book includes borderline incest, date rape, a dog trained to kill, the death of dozens of men on a sabotaged submarine, Nazi torturers, and a decapitated woman. Yikes! This would be pretty strong stuff in the 1990's, and in 1940 it must have been startling. (Admittedly, most of this stuff happens "offstage", and is not directly portrayed, in deference to 1940's taboos. Still, all of these things form principal elements of the plot.)
The novel's grim view of sex and romantic relationships is also prominent. In most cases in the book, sex and romance lead immediately to death. At least one person in many "romantic" relationships turns out to be a spy, interested in the other person only for espionage purposes. Men are always getting shot or stabbed in the back, with all of this method's disturbing symbolic overtones. This is a strange book. While its form has roots in the pulp tradition, its content is distinctly different.
Pulp Heroes. Some of Kendrick's characters are out of the superhero pulp PI tradition, such as Maclain and his team, which includes a largely unstereotyped black chauffeur. This team can remind one of Doc Savage and his men, for example. Maclain's private eye partner is in fact named Spud Savage. He is brainy, as well as being tough and daring, in an era that valued intellect in its detectives.
Had I But Known - Women. On the other hand, the initial viewpoint character Norma, is a palpitatingly emotional woman right out of the Had-I-But-Known school, not so much of Rinehart as of such Rinehart imitators as Mignon G. Eberhart and Mabel Seeley. Norma is always seething with emotion about her family and romantic relationships, when she is not walking into dark and lonely rooms concealing the murderer and various corpses. I have never seen the combination of Pulp PIs and Had-I-But-Known-ism, before. It is not as much fun as it sounds, partly because Kendrick's tone is so grim that it precludes all sense of tongue-in-cheek fun, but somehow it all manages to work. What the Had-I-But-Known element does do, is allow Kendrick to talk seriously about relationships, particularly their negative and problem sides, such as divorce and date rape. This serious, realistic portrayal of relations has always been one of the strong sides of the Had-I-But-Known school, both here and elsewhere.
The Pulp Style of Plotting. Kendrick is described in the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection as an outstanding creator of plots in the 1930's style. This statement can be defended, but it is misleading. My impression (before I had read Kendrick's novel) was this meant that Kendrick was Ellery Queen #2, spinning out Golden Age detective puzzle plots. This is not true at all, at least in this book. Anyone coming to Kendrick's book looking for an outstanding formal detective story in the Christie-Carr-Queen tradition will be disappointed.
Many of the book's spy characters are acting independently of each other - none of the US government agents seems to inform Maclain of anything, for example, even though he is working for G2 - and we have the familiar pulp plot construction approach of a large number of independent groups all playing a role in a mysterious situation. This "pulp style of plotting" dominates the book's plot construction.
Kendrick's short fiction appeared in Black Mask, and Kendrick's plotting style has its roots in the pulp mystery fiction of its day. The plotting techniques reminded me of Kendrick's Black Mask colleagues, from Carroll John Daly onward.
Kendrick's book is at the middle level of "pulp style of plotting". It is not bad, but it is not as good as Merle Constiner at his best, for example. It is more at the level of Todhunter Ballard. Kendrick's writing style is smoother than Todhunter Ballard's, although a lot grimmer and more downbeat.
Mystery Plot. There is a whodunit aspect to the book, with a series of murders, and the final unmasking of the chief Nazi spy behind the murders at the end. However, there are some major changes to the ground plan of the typical whodunit. Motive becomes a non-operative factor in the mystery puzzle, because the villains' motives are simply that they are Nazis, a fact known right from the start.
SPOILERS More crucially, unknown to the reader a large number of characters in the book are leading double lives as spies. No less than three characters turn out to be US Government agents, while another three character are Nazi spies. This is perhaps related to the puzzles about characters' backgrounds in other Kendrick.
Blind Man's Bluff suffers from dullness. It has an atmospheric opening leading up to the crime (Chapter 1), with more facts coming out in the immediate investigation (Chapter 2, Sections 1-2). But not a whole lot else happens of interest, till the solution at the end (Chapter 8, Sections 2-4). There are two more murders - but they both simply re-use the same mysterious approach of the first crime, and thus don't add much to the plot. Had Kendrick written this tale as a longish short story, including the material in the opening, the solution from the end, and some brief bridging material in between, it would have been a much better reading experience.
The murder in Blind Man's Bluff is partially witnessed, as in The Whistling Hangman. A witness has some facts she observed, but doesn't understand, just as in the earlier novel. And as before, these serve as a clue to how the impossible crime was committed. Unlike the earlier book, in Blind Man's Bluff these observed facts are not brought out and shared with the reader right away. They only emerge under Maclain's questioning, later in the novel (end of Chapter 5, Section 4).
Despite the many tributes in Blind Man's Bluff to the skill of the New York Homicide police, it seems to me that they do a less than skillful job in searching the crime scene and questioning witnesses. Had they brought more facts out, the impossible crime could have been solved sooner.
Had I But Known. The opening chapter has links to the Had I But Known tradition:
Racism. Blind Man's Bluff has a brief but highly offensive endorsement of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (Chapter 1, Section 2). It repeats the discredited lies that they were security risks. Kendrick lived and worked for decades after this book. But he still allowed it to be reprinted unchanged in the 1970's, long after the truth about this situation became widely known.
Society. Blind Man's Bluff is set among failed financial institutions in the Depression, and how they are treated afterwards by the US Government. This is interesting. It has echoes of the 2000's, and the similar collapse of Wall Street firms today. One sees that in the Depression, such failed firms came under the control of the Government. They were not merely bailed out like many firms today.
The visit to a jewelry store (Chapter 4. Section 1) has some comic sparkle.
SPOILERS in the rest of the discussion of Blind Man's Bluff.
Identifying the Killer. The killer is identified, in part, due to being the sole person who has information about the other characters' movements and appearances in the building. Such access to information is a standard kind of Kendrick clue to a killer - and normally, a pretty good one. However, we never actually learn before the solution that the killer had access to the information. Instead, the book simply has the killer in a position in the story, that it becomes plausible in the solution that he or she had such access. This is OK - but not as good as the more rigorous use of such clues in other Kendrick, which fully spell out long before the solution who had access.
The identity of the killer uses a Least Likely Suspect approach, commonly associated with Ellery Queen. So do some previous Kendrick novels. Both this Least Likely Person aspect, and the access to information clue to the crime, seem modeled on similar elements in Kendrick's The Last Express (1937).
The other main clue to the killer involves access as well: in this case, access to financial opportunity to commit financial wrong doing. This is a well done clue.
A Suspect's Background. A subplot deals with the hidden background of a suspect. This is solved in the last section of the book (Chapter 8, Section 4). This subplot seems modeled on one from Kendrick's Blood on Lake Louisa.
Subplots. Also, while The Whistling Hangman sticks closely to detective work unraveling the mystery, much of Death Knell is consumed with soap opera about the book's uninteresting characters. This soap opera is largely seen from male points of view: the husband, the secretary; and Death Knell largely lacks the Had I But Known aspects of some other Kendrick novels.
There is just less mystery in Death Knell than in Kendrick's 1930's novels. His 1930's books were full of mystery subplots.
Death Knell has a mysterious invitation - but little is done with this, and it does not lead to an ingenious solution. It does recall the phony notes passed to both the victim and the mobster in The Eleven of Diamonds, which caused them to go places.
Identifying the Killer. Death Knell does come up with a logical choice of a killer. Sleuth Maclain gives a surprisingly brief and cogent pair of reasons why one person is the most likely murderer - in a single sentence on the last page of the book. These reasons are more "common sense" like than those in many mystery novels. They don't prove that this person is the killer, in the logically rigorous style of an Ellery Queen novel. But they are certainly a strong indication.
SPOILERS. The clues are related in basic approach to the knowledge-based and access-based clues that were so good in The Last Express:
The Literary Life. The mainstream novelist who is the chief character, is viewed ambiguously as an author. Sometimes he is seen as talented. But he also comes across as a bit of a commercial hack. His books seem to be racy novels, at a time when the trashy historical Forever Amber (1944) was a real-life best-seller (and one of the most talked-about and spoofed books of its era). An interesting passage near the start has his work denounced for ignoring social realties, especially racial conflicts in the USA and the struggles between capital and labor. This seems like a left-wing critique.
The novelist bats out 2,000 words of fiction every afternoon. This is a terrific pace. He could compose an 80, 000 word novel in just 40 working days - less than two months. Later, the beginning writer of You Die(t) Today will have a goal of 500 words per day.
There is a witty homage to Ellery Queen at the end. One suspects that by this time, Kendrick knew Queen personally, through their mutual involvement with the newly formed Mystery Writers of America, if nothing else.
The book's plot is highly complex - but a mess:
However, unlike other Kendrick books, the howdunit:
Other Mystery Plot. Subplots about characters' backgrounds play a large role in You Die(t) Today. They are more elaborate - but in my judgment less plausible or sound - than the simple-but-good background subplots in some other Kendrick novels.
The photograph is an example of the information-bearing objects that run through Kendrick. There are some related hard-to-interpret markings, made by a deceased character, that give it something of a Dying Message aspect, although it is hardly a pure or traditional Dying Message.
Characters. Ted Yates is a likable character. He gets a lot of attention in the opening (Chapters 1, 5). But then he unfortunately disappears from much of the book.
Setting. The health farm is an interesting place (Chapters 10, 12, 15). It takes paying guests, and in some ways resembles the hotel in The Whistling Hangman, also a notable Kendrick setting.
You Die(t) Today also has an actual hotel, a rundown but still respectable Broadway spot. It too is pleasantly described.
The Catholic mission for the poor is a third hotel-like structure in the book (Chapter 12).
The Silent Whistle. "The Silent Whistle" (1947) has a main mystery plot that is somewhat different from Kendrick's usual approaches. It looks at a nocturnal errand done by the victim, and keeps imagining different explanations of what happened on the errand. These explanations are not masterpieces, but they offer solid ingenuity.
The structure of this main story in "The Silent Whistle" anticipates that of Kendrick's "5 - 4 = Murderer" (1953):
Elements of the background recall Erle Stanley Gardner:
The trap set by the killer at the end, recalls a bit the one in Cornell Woolrich's "The Room with Something Wrong" (1938).
Melody in Death. "Melody in Death" (1945) is a not-very-good novella, suffering from both dull storytelling and a lack of mystery puzzle ingenuity. The best mystery subplot involves the song. This is an examples of the messages that run through Kendrick. Like others, this one is close to a Dying Message. What it leads to or indicates is also clever. This whole subplot is resolved halfway through the novella.
Kendrick tries for one of his puzzles, where the killer is indicated by being the only person with access to knowledge. Unfortunately, this subplot is a botch. The reasoning is far-fetched. It also has flaws (the victim could have been spreading the information right and left through phone calls, for example). The basic construction of this puzzle is different from typical in Kendrick. In "Melody in Death", the claim is that the killer could only have learned something from the victim, just before he killed her, and hence is the murderer: the period just before death was the only time of possible contact between victim and the alleged killer. If he hadn't killed her, there would have been no other contact, and he would not have known this information. By contrast, in most Kendrick, there is a piece of general knowledge, shown to have been possessed by whoever did the murder, and it turns out that only one person had the necessary access to the information. The construction of the puzzle in "Melody in Death" is interesting. One only wishes it had been executed a little better.
There is a suspense finale, something common in Kendrick. This one involves mechanical aspects of an opera house, recalling a bit the mechanical aspects of a hotel building used in the nice finale of The Whistling Hangman. This finale is the second-most-decent feature of "Melody in Death".
Earlier, the region under the opera stage is discussed, reflecting Kendrick's interest in underground regions. However, the action of the novella never actually goes under the stage.
The Murderer Who Wanted More. "The Murderer Who Wanted More" (1944) is mainly a suspenseful tale about a "woman in jeopardy". It has a simple whodunit plot, with a solution whose clueing seems to depend entirely on a dubious motive. Despite its limitations as a detective puzzle, it is a good piece of story telling. The opening suspense sequence, showing a journey taken by the heroine, is especially well done. Most of the rest of the story takes place in the real town of Tottenville, Staten Island, New York. The tale shows Kendrick's skill at scene painting. Blind Man's Bluff, published the previous year, also opens with a woman making a spooky journey in New York City at night.
The opening journey recalls the long trips in Blood on Lake Louisa. Like them, the journey leads to a discussion of alibis and alternate routes. In both works, this likely reflects the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts. There is a pleasant contrast in the two works: Blood on Lake Louisa takes place in the warmth of Florida, "The Murderer Who Wanted More" in Staten Island during a winter snow storm. (A journey on the Staten Island ferry also occurs in Frank Sullivan's comedy gem "Captain's Dinner" (1936) found in his collection of comic sketches A Pearl in Every Oyster (1938). This humorous short play first appeared in The New Yorker, May 9, 1936.)
The subplot about the mysterious man in the black overcoat, is simple, but also a nice mystery element. It eventually leads to a plot idea about the background of the man, a Kendrick specialty. Kendrick's description of the man stresses the elegance of the belted overcoat. Overcoats were among the most festive and swaggering elements of men's fashion in that era.
The sinister past of Staten Island in Colonial days is discussed. A liberal critique of slavery in that era is brought in. The same year, Dragonwyck (1944), an historical novel by Anya Seton, would look at the sinister anti-democratic regimes of Old New York. The Balcony (1940), a mystery novel by Dorothy Cameron Disney, also looks back critically at the legacy of slavery.
A good guy character is a Certified Public Accountant in New York. This recalls the interest in finance in Blind Man's Bluff. We also get a look at financial deals behind World War II war industry work.
Scientific Detection. Coxe used at least seven series detectives in his tales. Two were newspaper photographers who fought crime. Flashgun Casey appeared in the pulp Black Mask and in a few books, whereas the similar Kent Murdock showed up in numerous novels. It is often hard to tell the two detectives apart! Flashgun Casey is a technologically oriented person. Much is made of his camera equipment. Clues often come to him photographically.
Another Coxe detective, Dr. Paul Standish, practiced medical detection in the 1940's and early 1950's, somewhat in the spirit of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke. This means that Coxe has elements of Scientific Detection in his ancestry. However, he only occasionally emphasized these scientific aspects as much as most full fledged members of this school did.
His Kent Murdock novel The Hollow Needle (1948) is among his most technological fiction. Other Murdock tales have Scientific Detection too: "Speak No Evil", The Crimson Clue.
Van Dine School. S.S. Van Dine and his followers were non-tough, non-hard-boiled mystery writers. Among other characteristics, they frequently included backgrounds of the intelligentsia: professors, collectors, people in the arts and show business.
Coxe is generally not a Van Dine follower. But some of the Kent Murdock novels do indeed include people in the arts and show business:
Van Dine school books are typically set in New York City, and have much sophisticated Big City flavor. Coxe's Casey and Murdock mysteries are mainly set in Boston: another Big City.
Such Coxe detectives as Kent Murdock and Dr. Paul Standish have strong heterosexual sides, with Kent Murdock falling in love with a woman and marrying her in the early books. Other characters are often heterosexual too.
The discussions of various tales below document concrete examples of these subjects.
Casey's partnership with Logan is plainly important to him. Newspaperman Flashgun Casey and policeman Logan remind one a little of that earlier Black Mask pair, Frederick Nebel's drunken reporter Kennedy and policeman Steve MacBride, although Casey is a lot more responsible and sober than Nebel's dipsomaniac. Coxe's storytelling reminds one a little of Nebel's, as well. The newspaper setting allows the hero to be a working man, sensible and realistic. He does not have the gunman image of the private eye which descends from Daly, with wisecracks, constant violence and dames throwing themselves at him. Raoul Whitfield's "Inside Job" (1932) also has a newspaperman hero.
"Reward for Survivors" is notable for the intricate network it builds up among the good guys in the story. The warm feelings among these men seems to be very important to Casey, and to Coxe. This network includes the photographers and editors of two papers, the police, and various working guys Casey knows. This network is almost the mirror image of the group of villains in this, and other Coxe tales, who are also typically composed of a group of networked bad guys.
Flashgun Casey is a leader within his world. He is always being paired with some young news person who idolizes him: a woman cub reporter in "Too Many Women", and a young male photographer in "Reward for Survivors". Casey is a bit older than many pulp heroes, with gray temples suggesting his maturity. Kent Murdock will also be an older man, and a leader of younger newspaper employees, in such novels as Murder on Their Minds (1957).
In pulp stories, we are used to private eyes being good guys. But in the Flashgun Casey and Kent Murdock stories, private eyes seem frequently to be bad guys, sinister figures hired by other villains in the tale, but often branching out on their own. Casey himself is a newspaper man, not a p.i., and he works well with the police. There do not seem to be any sympathetic private detectives in this equation. The big exception: The honest private eye Jack Fenner who does jobs for Kent Murdock.
"Murder Mixup" shows Coxe's admiration for good guys who are well-dressed. Both the Secret Service agents, and police Lt. Logan, are tough guys who also maintain sharp middle class standards of dress. This is a combination that runs through Coxe's fiction.
By contrast, certain milieus are largely absent from the Coxe novels. They don't feature Organization Men who are employees of vast corporations, or the suburban tracts where such corporate workers live. Nor do we see Beat, Bohemian artist or counter-cultural types. We do get entertainers who work in popular culture: the nightclub band leader in The Lady Is Afraid, the film company in The Glass Triangle.
Sidney Lumet was reportedly the director of the early TV show based on the Casey stories, Crime Photographer (1951-1952). Lumet is the archetypal director of urban New York tales. His characters, such as those in his film Prince of the City (1981), embody similar sorts of big city machismo and success as the men in Coxe's books.
The following discussion of the Flashgun Casey short stories will emphasize structure.
Coxe's plots tend to have a crime in the present that Flashgun is investigating. The suspects tend to have a long complex history of interaction, often around crooked schemes. Casey often finds hidden murders in the past, that help motivate the present killings, and provide plot surprises.
The Casey stories seem to gravitate towards the bad guys' apartments in later stages of the plot. These locations are fraught with menace, and often show the bad guys threatening the hero there.
The second half of "Murder Picture" becomes a pure thriller, without mystery elements, although Casey does do a nice piece of detection about an elevator. Mainly, in this second half Casey tries to rescue a young newspaper man. This half has some of Coxe's male bonding, exploring relationships between Casey and newspaper legman Potter, a cab driver, and Casey's editor Blaine. The whole story is entertaining, but it does not have as complex a plot as some of Coxe's best work.
In between the apartment house sequences, there are more comic interludes, that focus on the relationships between the good guys.
Mystery Plot. Through most of its length, "Murder Mixup" seems like a nearly pure thriller. But at the end, Coxe pulls off some simple but effective mystery plot surprises. MILD SPOILERS: there is an interesting symmetry, in the revelation of whodunit.
And there is also an interesting subplot, about the plate-carrying cases. Here is a plot dealing with Casey's profession of photographer - but NOT one dealing with what a "mystery photo" reveals, as in some other Coxe works.
"Reward for Survivors" clears up one mystery: Is Casey's nickname Flashgun or Flash? In "Reward for Survivors", both nicknames are used, at different times. So apparently both are correct. Some works tend to emphasize one or the other.
First Half: A Mystery. "Reward for Survivors" opens with a mysterious murder, and by the story's midpoint, we mainly know who-done-it. This gives the first half of "Reward for Survivors" the structure of a murder mystery. Learning the truth is aided by detective reasoning by Casey. However, Casey does not directly investigate the killing; instead, he looks into a mystery surrounding a photo. This in turn helps lead to truth about the murder. It is an unusual construction.
The photo was taken at the crime scene. Coxe works often involve the investigation of some object at a crime scene, and elucidation of a mystery or revelation of a clever twist about that object. The mysterious photo in "Reward for Survivors" is somewhat in this tradition.
The first half of "Reward for Survivors" contains an early example of a perennial Coxe plot: bad guys want to steal a photo that reveals their secrets. The crooks' secret in "Reward for Survivors" is one of the liveliest in any such Coxe tale. It is likely inspired by a famous real-life crime case. SPOILER: See here.
Second Half: A Thriller. The second half of "Reward for Survivors" is more a thriller than a mystery. It eventually has a mild plot surprise, but it mainly involves Casey battling the bad guys. It is mildly pleasant, but not at the level of the tale's first half.
One problem: instead do waiting for the police, Casey goes all by himself into a building he knows is full of bad guys. His stated reasons for doing this are poor, in my judgement. Heroines of the Had-I-But-Known school are popularly supposed to behave this way - although critics have exaggerated how often they do in actual books! It is odd to see a tough pulp hero operate in the same way.
Biography. This pleasant story is notable for the large amount it tells us about Standish's life and career. It has a detailed flashback with his life story.
However, this account is not consistent with the profile later given in the anthology Four-&-Twenty Bloodhounds. "The Painted Nail" shows Standish serving in World War II, and already being a doctor when the war broke out. Four-&-Twenty Bloodhounds has him graduating from medical school after the war, and does not include war service. This would make him a bit younger, than the character in "The Painted Nail".
Another difference: The town in "The Painted Nail" is called Union City: the name of a real place in Connecticut. In Four-&-Twenty Bloodhounds it is called Uniontown. Perhaps the name was changed for legal reasons.
"War workers" coming to Union City are mentioned briefly. Union City seems to be a manufacturing center: something common in New England in that era. This recalls the boom in wartime factory jobs mentioned in Alias the Dead (Chapter 1). Neither Alias the Dead nor "The Painted Nail" brings factories or factory workers on-stage.
Architecture. We get a simple description of the apartment building where the victim lives. As is typical of Coxe, we eventually get a look at the area outside the building too. This outside are consists simply of a side street, and a ramp leading to the building's basement.
Photographer. One of the suspects, Barry Corwin, is a photographer - or at least, runs a photographic studio. Unlike the news photographers that form two of Coxe's series heroes, this man runs an ad agency specializing in photography. This gives Coxe a chance to explore another side of photography. The ad agency is a success, and the character is prosperous.
Men's Clothes. Coxe likes men to be well-dressed, and in "The Painted Nail" there is much about men's clothes. Barry Corwin's dark gray double-breasted suit recalls the suit the hero gets in Coxe's Alias the Dead (1943) (start of Chapter 2). Such suits were an ideal in the period. Perfectly dressed man Barry Corwin is compared to a Hollywood movie. Hugh Pentecost's "The Dead Man's Tale" (1943) also compares a character's fine clothes to those of a Hollywood film.
Corwin wears a covert-cloth topcoat over his suit. A covert overcoat is cited as a prestige item in Drop Dead (1949) and Dead Drunk (1953) by George Bagby.
Prosperous suspect Arthur Fielding wears a brown Shetland suit. This too recalls a snazzy suit the hero gets in Alias the Dead.
A suspect, Lt. Walter Garvey, is in uniform for the War. This is described as making him attractive to a woman, who hastily marries him before he ships out.
Policeman Lt. Tom Ballard is a continuing character, and Standish's chief contact with the police. Ballard's pinstripe suit here gives him the natty look Coxe favored in detectives. Pinstripes were big in the film noir era.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. However in "The Painted Nail", these descriptions of men's clothes unexpectedly serve as clues in the puzzle plot. They are part of a clue that identifies the killer.
SPOILERS. The nail fragment recalls the glass fragment in The Groom Lay Dead. Both unexpectedly wind up in places, that help reveal the identity of the killer.
SPOILERS. Both crimes are disguised by the killer to look like something other than what they seem. Dr. Standish has to figure out the true cause of death in both cases. These aspects are simple, but pleasant. They recall the more elaborate attempts by villains in other Coxe works to cover up the crime.
Money vs Government Service. In "Death Certificate" Dr. Standish is nagged by his devoted nurse Mary Hayward to take on more patients, just like the private eye hero's secretary in The Lady Is Afraid tries to talk him into accepting more clients. In both works, the specific patient or client is a wealthy man, one who could lead to more business, and more paying business, for the hero. In the comic The Lady Is Afraid, this nagging seems like a purely good thing, trying to install a work ethic in its rich dilettante hero. In "Death Certificate" the nagging seems more sinister, trying to distract the hero from his public service role as medical examiner, and into more lucrative, but less socially productive work as a rich man's physician.
Dr. Paul Standish has both a private practice, and a part-time government job as medical examiner. Implicitly, a contrast is made between working for the government, and making money in the private sector. The sympathies of both Standish and Coxe's story seem to be in favor of government work. Coxe had recently shown his hero Kent Murdock working for the US government, as an Army Major in World War II, in the novel The Jade Venus (1944 - 1945).
A Procedural. "Death Certificate" is in part a procedural. We see the work of both the medical examiner hero Standish, and his police colleagues, in detail. Some other Standish tales like "The Appearance of Truth" have similar procedural elements.
Story Structure: Turning Over the Body. A dramatic moment comes when Dr. Standish turns over the corpse, revealing the victim's face. This enables Dr. Standish to identify the body. This is like a brief version of a key Coxe structural approach: first we see a character about which the hero and reader knows nothing, then later we learn the person's identity and background.
Turning over the corpse plays a role in the mystery puzzle plot of The Lady Is Afraid. In "Death Certificate", this turning does not play a role in the mystery, but instead is a story telling strategy.
Male Bonding. Male bonding is once again emphasized. It plays a role in the hero's detective work: his "faith" in the victim's character helps Dr. Standish solve the mystery. Male bonding is also important in the story telling, especially the tale's climax.
Mystery Plot. Standish uncovers the truth by careful detective work. He finds things out by investigating. The truth does not come to him by chance. Instead, everything he discovers is through a process of observation, reasoning and investigation.
The detective plot is carefully structured, as a series of new things Standish figures out about the case. It forms a step-by-step series of revelations about the mystery. Constructing such a plot takes skill.
SPOILER. Mystery ideas about a disappearing crook, recall a bit From This Dark Stairway (1931) by Mignon G. Eberhart.
SPOILER. The doctor who is the murder victim always carried his doctor's bag, like most physicians of the era. It plays a role in the mystery plot. Similarly, Coxe's photographer characters are always lugging around their photographic equipment.
Mystery Plot. "The Appearance of Truth" starts out well, with Standish's detective work leading to a pair of good plot surprises. Then the tale runs out of ideas. Rather than plot, much of the rest of the tale concentrates on uninteresting characters.
SPOILER. The second of the early plot twists, turns "The Appearance of Truth" into one of Coxe's stories in which "a crime in the past is linked to a crime in the present". This second twist is the best plot idea in the story. It turns what looked like an accident, into murder.
Heroes. It is unusual in Coxe's work in being a police procedural, featuring Homicide detective Carl Broderick. The tale gives Broderick a newspaper columnist as an observer, recalling the news photographers that run through Coxe. Both men are refined and middle class acting, coping with a tough urban world: also a standard Coxe combination. And it builds up other good guys along the way, including the satisfying finale. Coxe shows both male bonding, and a look at little guys fighting back against criminals.
Newspaper columnist Wally Grant is honest, unlike the sleazy gossip columnist who is the murder victim in The Camera Clue. Coxe stresses that the columnist is a former newspaper reporter, and that he still functions with a reporter's skills and instincts. One gets the feeling that Coxe respects reporters, but not necessarily columnists. The columnist in "A Routine Night's Work", however honest, is also bitingly sarcastic, and frequently puts down the policeman hero. The columnist is not completely a "nice" person.
Story Structure: Learning About Characters. New characters, both good and bad, keep getting introduced throughout the story. Often we get brief verbal descriptions of them from a third party. Then, later on in the tale, they show up in the flesh. Coxe then gives a deeper portrait of them. The technique is a bit like the way characters in "Too Many Women" first appeared in a photograph, then showed up in person for a detailed characterization later.
Mystery Plot. "A Routine Night's Work" is a mystery, but not a fair play puzzle plot one. It recalls in approach Coxe's pulp short stories from the 1930's, so much so that one wonders if it might be a tale from that era which Coxe reworked. It contains many of Coxe's motifs:
The heroes descend a steep gravel bluff to get to the shoreline. This descent adds the concept of height to the landscape, giving it a three-dimensional quality.
Men's Clothes. Carl Broderick's "neat blue suit" recalls Fenner in the Murdock novels.
A Woman Detective. "A Neat and Tidy Job" is unusual for Coxe because it has a female detective as protagonist. Mary Heath is an amateur sleuth: an elevator operator in an office building where a crime happens to occur. This is apparently her only case, unlike Coxe's male detectives who tend to be professionals and investigate a series of cases. The heroine Mary Heath has aspects that recall Coxe's male protagonists, just slightly modified for a woman:
The heroine's elevator is a kind of "kinetic architecture": architecture that moves. In this it recalls Leon's portable bar in Murder with Pictures. Mary Heath feels that she owns the elevator, that it is hers because she runs it, even if she is not the actual legal owner. This is a bit similar to the way Leon is the actual owner of his bar. Both are working class people who offer a service to middle class customers or clients.
Timetable. Like some other Coxe mysteries, "A Neat and Tidy Job" features elaborately timed events surrounding the crime, the sort of information often included in timetables. However, in "A Neat and Tidy Job" this timetable turns out to be none too useful in solving the crime.
Working Class Young Adults. The depiction of young people of modest but hard working background in "A Neat and Tidy Job", and their personal dreams and aspirations, recalls Thomas Walsh, and such Walsh short stories as "Dangerous Bluff" (1960). Like Walsh's characters, these young people are fully functioning adults, mature and responsible.
One notes that this 19-year-old's entry level job pays enough for her to rent her own "tiny apartment". She has financial self-sufficiency. Today by contrast, many of the "working poor" in the USA can't even afford food, let alone medical insurance. She also plans for marriage to a modest middle class man, which is also financially realistic in 1960. This is before working people were crushed by the 1% and their libertarian far right wing ideology.
One problem with the Great Artist treatment Chandler often gets today is that these questions do not get asked. Chandler is considered as a Literary writer, and everything he ever wrote is considered to be a personal artistic expression for him, pure and simple. If The Big Sleep (1939) is incredibly sordid compared with most other American novels, whether literary or mysterious, it must simply be because Chandler wanted it that way.
Coxe Subjects: Origins. Murder with Pictures includes the seeds of subjects that will be treated better in later Murdock novels:
Murder with Pictures is thus like such debut novels as The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen, and The Patient in Room 18 by Mignon G. Eberhart: a book that is creative in establishing series characters, approaches and settings, but which is nowhere as good as a mystery or as a whole as the authors' later books.
Fenner. In addition to the debut of Kent Murdock, Murder with Pictures also marks the debut of private investigator Jack Fenner. Fenner is an honest private eye, who sometimes works for Murdock, doing leg work on his cases. It recalls the way private investigator Paul Drake works for Perry Mason, in Erle Stanley Gardner novels.
Fenner is a continuing character in the Murdock books, and also in novels that feature him as main sleuth. While there is no secret about his first name being Jack, he is almost always called simply "Fenner".
Murder with Pictures establishes that Murdock (and presumably author Coxe) has a low opinion of private eyes as a whole - but makes an exception for Fenner. This attitude runs through Coxe's work.
Murder with Pictures stresses Fenner's neat, traditional style of dress, a subject that returns in later Coxe novels (start of Chapter 4). We get concrete details of his clothes. Fenner's blue suit and gray topcoat will return in The Camera Clue. Later, in The Charred Witness (start of Chapter 9) we read that Fenner "dressed conservatively, and at first glance, he looked more like a moderately successful young businessman than a detective." Similarly in The Glass Triangle (start of Chapter 12) Fenner resembles "a successful salesman rather than a private detective."
But Murder with Pictures does not do too much to characterize him, otherwise. We learn that Fenner is young, honest, and that he and Murdock have a long history of friendship. Fenner is slim and wiry, which makes a contrast to Murdock's build. Fenner also seems earthier in manner than the refined Murdock.
Architecture. Bartender Leon's "portable bar", which he can move from building to building and set up at parties in varying locales, is a nice touch (Chapter 2). It seems to be of adjustable size. Today there is an interest in "kinetic architecture", architecture with movable aspects, and this portable bar is on the fringes of such a category.
Mystery Plot. Murder with Pictures has the two-crime structure of some Coxe, with a murder in the past and a second murder in the present, interlocking. Unfortunately, neither murder mystery is creative.
Barotique is a tiny, isolated resort island in the Caribbean. Kent Murdock and his new wife Joyce are vacationing there when they immediately stumble over a murder mystery. Barotique is really small: six cabins in a row on the beach, where the suspects all live, plus a more stately bungalow above them for the island's owner. Tourist cabins are common in the work of Coxe's Black Mask colleague Erle Stanley Gardner, although Gardner's are usually in Southern California. The six cabins in a row on an isolated island, also remind one oddly of the five houses in a row in an isolated street in The Album (1933) by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
The sheer minimalism of the setting also evokes avant-garde theater, like Thorton Wilder or Samuel Beckett.
Not Van Dine-ish. Murdock is not as interesting on vacation, as when he is doing his regular photographer's job. And one misses the big city locale of many of his books.
This is one of the least Van Dine like of Murdock novels:
The mixing of American racketeers and upper class types perhaps symbolizes Coxe's mysteries as whole, with one foot in tough pulp traditions and the other in sophisticated Van Dine School worlds.
Characters. Bodyguard Joe "Brick" Endicott is a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of Murdock's. He is one of those maybe-reformed underworld types with whom Murdock likes to bond. Like Nate Girard in Murder with Pictures, Brick is an ex-bootlegger with a record of non-killing. Brick is much less of a big shot than most such ambiguously reformed hoods in Coxe, however.
His nickname "Brick" is interesting. The science fiction comic strip Brick Bradford debuted in 1933. Later, Tennessee Williams named the hero of his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) "Brick".
Ralph Coleman is the book's Young Lover. As a tall, virile, well-built hunk from a well-to-do family (Chapter 2), he anticipates the Elliott twins in The Crimson Clue. SPOILERS. Both Ralph Coleman and the Elliott twins are eventually discovered by Murdock to be involved in hidden activities; but neither are really evil, or responsible for the murder. Both wind up getting sympathy from Murdock.
Spousal Abuse. The Barotique Mystery recognizes the reality of spousal abuse:
Racism. An Indian family faces racial prejudice from the aristocratic British owner of the island (near start of Chapter 2). I think this is intended as a realistic look at the bigotry minorities face. The prejudice is NOT endorsed by the novel.
Queer?. Noel Joslin is an introverted young writer and poet who wears thick glasses, and who is clumsy and bad at sports. Murdock calls him queer, and two other characters immediately agree (near the end of Chapter 9). Despite this, it is unclear whether the book means queer as in "odd", or queer as in "gay". Joslin is never shown as bonding with or being attracted to other men. Instead, he is fond of an older woman, to the point of obsession.
In any case, he hardly is any sort of role model: Murdock suggests he should be studied by a psychiatrist because he is so introverted (later part of Chapter 10). Actually, being introverted is normal for many people. This whole characterization is one of Coxe's poorer moments.
Men's Clothes. Various hero types are well-dressed in white tropical clothes:
An Egalitarian Marriage. The Murdocks have a fairly egalitarian marriage. We learn about their financial arrangements, with both spouses bringing income into the marriage (Chapter 18). This is unusual for couples in pre-1965 US books and films, which tend to insist that happy marriages only occur when the man is the main provider.
Stilts. A sandwich man on the street walks on stilts (near the start of Chapter 2). For some reason, stilts were popular in this era, showing up in movies like Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933) and The Nitwits (George Stevens, 1935). Perhaps stilts were popular in the Depression, because they cost no money to operate. They also demanded personal skill, something esteemed.
Coxe like "kinetic" objects and architecture: objects or buildings that move. Stilts are perhaps an example of this.
Another example: the cellaret in the victim's office (Chapter 3). This is a fancy piece of furniture, considered sophisticated in the era, that holds liquor supplies. In the cellaret in the book, one lifts the lid, and a tray rises with liquor, glasses, etc.
Architecture. A detailed account of the architecture of the murder building is provided (Chapter 2). As is typical of Coxe, we also get a view of the street scene outside this building.
This office building is quite new (Chapter 2). It has an automatic elevator, rather than one that requires an operator. The victim has an electric icebox in his fancy office: something many ordinary Americans did not have in their home in 1937. The automatic elevator and the electric refrigerator are both signs of Modernity, high technology, and luxury. The building's chrome-and-brass entryway is also a sign of a ritzy, perhaps over fancy building in 1937.
Detectives doing illegal things. Murdock hesitates before sneaking into the murder building for the first time, fearing (rightly) that he is betraying his friends on the police by his illegal activity (Chapter 2). This anticipates a somewhat similar scene in the wartime mystery The Jade Venus, where Murdock hesitates to enter an apartment for an illegal search, feeling he is betraying the Captain's uniform he wears and the honor of the Army (Chapter 10). I personally feel that Murdock is wrong to do such illegal searches, and shows poor judgment and a lack of prudence.
When Murdock asks his private eye friend Fenner to help him, in these fairly illegal circumstances, Fenner is resistant, and worries that he might lose his private investigator license (Chapter 2). This recalls Paul Drake's similar worries, when Perry Mason asks him for help in dubious circumstances, in Erle Stanley Gardner novels.
Mystery Plot. While they strongly differ in plot details, The Camera Clue, the novella "Casey - Detective" (1935), and "A Neat and Tidy Job" show some similarity in the structure of their mystery puzzle plots. SPOILERS:
In The Camera Clue, the details of the crime scene are found not just by direct observation of the scene, but also later on by studying photographs of the murder area. These photos are clearer and more accurate than the sleuth's memories of the scene. This approach helps bring photographs into the mystery plot: something Coxe often tried to do in his photographer-sleuth tales.
Motive. SPOILERS. When the murderer's identity is revealed at the end, the killer turns out to be a plausible choice, having a believable involvement with the victim. It is logical that this person was involved with the victim, given their relationship. In fact, the choice of killer is so logical, based on this relationship, that it functions more-or-less as a clue to the killer's identity.
Coxe was good at motives.
The Film Business. Some of the vignettes dealing with a company of film people are well done (Chapters 1 and 7). These focus on the often obnoxious social interactions of the characters. One learns little about actual filmmaking itself.
Male Bonding. The man to man relationships that build up between Murdock and the policeman investigating the case, and the suspect Ben Pollard, show Coxe's interest in male bonding. The policeman Lt. Bacon has a similar name to Flash Casey's friend Lt. Logan.
SPOILER. Ben Pollard is an unrepentant ex-mobster/bootlegger who years ago pushed his way into legit business, a characterization that recalls Ned Ambler in The Lady Is Afraid. Ben Pollard is more elaborately characterized than Ambler, however, and more sympathetic (end of Chapter 9). Pollard seems of more substance, more classy, and more sophisticated. The art on his wall is of a major American group of realist painters, the Ashcan School: John Sloan and George Bellows. This art seems symbolic of the milieu and attitude of Murdock and Pollard: a tough but vital city, full of creativity and elan.
The Fight. Young Austin Chadwick tries to hit a no-good man he suspects has improper designs on the women he loves; he gets slugged for his trouble by the no-good man, instead (Chapter 1). Similar events befall the hapless hero of The Frightened Fiancée. Both fights are over almost as soon as they started.
Mystery Plot: The Cover Up. An absorbing middle section in the book (Chapters 5 - 13) deals with an attempt by the villains to cover up the crime, and Murdock's effort to counter the same. This section shows Coxe's skill with plot construction and story telling.
These events have a broad similarity to those in a later Murdock novel The Crimson Clue. The details are enjoyably different in the two books however.
SPOILERS. In both books, events begin with Murdock deliberately failing to report a body he's accidentally discovered to the police, to protect a woman friend. Erle Stanley Gardner's lawyer-hero Perry Mason regularly delayed reporting crimes too. In real life, this is a very bad idea! Many Had-I-But-Known writers also had their heroines conceal info from the police, often to protect young lovers.
Mystery Plot: The Solution. Unfortunately, the story eventually completely unravels into one of those tales in which numerous different suspects all engage in some sinister activity, making the final explanation an endless group of coincidences. Such finales violate Occam's Razor.
SPOILER. A mystery plot idea in the solution is a variant on a gambit that had previously been used several times by Ellery Queen. It is a new variant, though. It leads to some sound clues to the killer's identity and actions. This mystery puzzle does employ that Coxe favorite, an object left at the crime scene. But it goes beyond making deductions about this single object, to look at a wider pattern of clues.
Motive. SPOILER. The killer's motive reflects the way Coxe men are deeply concerned about being well-dressed.
Architecture. The Adler Building has two parts: a hotel and an office building. These are connected by a corridor. Similarly, the house in The Charred Witness is composed of two separate parts, connected by a corridor and door.
Men's Clothes. The film director Garland wears incredibly loud clothes: a green hat, a brown-and-white plaid coat. These play a role in the mystery plot: any witness who sees them will always notice and remember them, making their wearer be easily traced. Other unlikable men in loud clothes include Pete Douglas in The Charred Witness and Roger Drake in The Frightened Fiancée.
By contrast, sympathetic tough guy Ben Pollard is excellently dressed, in a chalk-striped double-breasted suit (middle of Chapter 9). This is the kind of sharp suit that will be prestigious in the film noir 1940's era, just beginning in 1940. His suit anticipates that of glamorous radio man Randy Kingsford in The Charred Witness.
The same passage (middle of Chapter 9) has Murdock unexpectedly impressed with the excellence of the decor in Pollard's apartment. Similarly, hero Max Hale is surprised by the good taste of ambiguous crook Ned Ambler's apartment in The Lady Is Afraid (end of Chapter 6).
Mustache. Glamorous young men in The Glass Triangle wear mustaches:
Today one tends to associate 1940's mustaches with upper class Society types. But in The Glass Triangle mustaches are linked to professions: movie actor, pilot.
Fenner. Good guy private eye Fenner is described as around thirty-five (start of Chapter 12). This is a change from his debut in Murder with Pictures, where he is "young". Coxe typically reserves the term "young" for men in their twenties. Fox example, Austin Chadwick in The Glass Triangle is called a "youth"; he is in his mid-twenties (Chapter 1).
Photography. We get an interesting picture of Kent Murdock at work, taking a portrait photo of a famed inventor for a magazine (middle of Chapter 1). We see Murdock's thought processes while he works. And get a look at an unusually structured portrait photo he takes.
In The Charred Witness Murdock is free-lancing for a magazine called Perspective (Chapter 1). Perspective seems to be a fictitious magazine, made-up for the novel. Perspective is described as "one of the picture magazines". This suggests it is in the photo-journalism tradition of Life magazine. I would have liked to learn more about Perspective, but unfortunately Coxe doesn't provide much detail.
Police Brutality. The Charred Witness speaks out against police brutality. The local cops in the city of Riverton like to interrogate suspects with a rubber hose (Chapter 5). Coxe provides a vividly negative picture of this.
These rotten cops are contrasted with Lt. Tait of the Connecticut State Police (Chapters 4, 5). Tait is presented as the ideal in police behavior: thoughtful, low key, intelligent and responsible. He is an example of the way State Policemen were often idealized in this era: see my list of State Police in fiction. The briefly seen federal agents are also portrayed positively (end of Chapter 6).
The introduction of the two brutal local cops puts them in uniforms with a sharp badge (first part of Chapter 4). There is a hint of sadomasochistic fantasy in their treatment. The two men are given prestigious ranks.
Architecture. The large country house has a wing built on it (Chapter 1). This anticipates the house in Alias the Dead.
The Dell Mapback edition of The Charred Witness has nice floor plans on its back cover, showing the layout of the house. These plans are consistent with the description in the novel. It is unclear whether these plans on the back cover were done in collaboration with Coxe, or whether they are purely the interpretation of a cover artist who had read Coxe's novel on his own.
Office Furniture. Lawyer Alex Williamson has impressive-looking furniture in his office (middle of Chapter 7). This recalls the hero's lavish office in The Lady Is Afraid.
Williamson had previously been described as a businessman with an impressively confident personality (middle of Chapter 4). He is a glamorized portrait of a businessman with a polished image.
Men's Clothes. Randy Kingsford is a young man in his late twenties in a glamorous big city profession: he's a producer-director of radio programs in New York City. We learn he is "expensively but not very conservatively dressed", wearing a double-breasted gray chalk-striped suit (first half of Chapter 6). This is exactly the sort of heightened, spectacular men's suit popular in the film noir era, then just starting in the early 1940's. It anticipates similar noir suits worn by later Coxe characters: the hero's dark gray double-breasted suit in Alias the Dead, Police Lt. Tom Ballard's pinstripe suit in The Painted Nail".
By contrast Pete Douglas is a very handsome artist who is supported by his rich woman lover. He wears ornate, loud sportswear (middle of Chapter 6). This is an unsympathetic figure. He anticipates the evil portrait painter in "Seed of Suspicion".
Modern Art. There is a touch of modernism in Douglas' paintings, but they are still of recognizable subjects (Chapter 7). Coxe will give a better, more in-depth look at modern art in The Jade Venus.
Murdock in Uniform. The best idea in The Jade Venus involves Murdock's wartime role (Chapters 4, 5). SPOILERS:
The general description of the monuments group, and Murdock's role there, is interesting (Chapters 4, 5). But the specific thriller plot that eventually emerges, about the victim's family and recovering art, is dull and uninventive (Chapter 7). This is cliche thriller material. It centers around that old standby, the search for what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin: a valuable object everyone wants.
Men's Clothes. Murdock has always been well-dressed. The Jade Venus stresses how good he looks in his Captain's uniform (near the start of Chapter 4, near the start of Chapter 6). Other people admire Murdock's appearance, especially his old friends and newspaper colleagues.
Painting. The "Jade Venus" is a surrealist painting. We learn how surrealism might be incorporated in Broadway set design (middle of Chapter 5). Surrealism was referenced in other American mysteries of this period: The Body Goes Round and Round (1942) by Theodora Du Bois, So Much Blood (1944) by Zelda Popkin. Surrealism and its parent Dada would soon have a major influence on the breakthrough school of American painting post-1945, Abstract Expressionism. And also on such San Francisco poets as Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia. It is interesting that American mystery writers recognized it as well.
The Broadway producer owns a wide selection of famous American artists in his collection (near the end of Chapter 8). These include such Ashcan School artists as Bellows and Sloan. This echoes the collector in The Glass Triangle. In both books, art collecting is seen as a male activity, something done by dynamic, successful men.
The Art Mart is described as a gallery run in an innovative fashion (Chapter 5). The innovation involves its unusually low key commercial aspects, rather than art policy.
The slick owner of the gallery is that Coxe staple, an ex-bootlegger turned fairly legitimate businessman. But he is one of the least sympathetic such characters in Coxe.
No Support. An odd feature of The Jade Venus: Murdock is on his own. Although he is trying to solve a crime linked to his official Army mission to recover art, Murdock never tells his Army superiors about his problems, or asks them for help. In real life, a Captain on official business during wartime would be able to call on the US Army, the FBI, and many other government agencies for help. Instead, Murdock is just as on his own as he was during his civilian days. This made sense back when Murdock was a civilian news photographer with no official standing or role. It is implausible for a Captain handling an important crisis during wartime.
Murdock has to beg policeman Lt. Bacon for a favor, in the name of their old friendship (Chapter 3). This was normal in their civilian lives, but it too makes no sense during wartime. The Army would be able to get official cooperation from the Boston Police, on issues affecting the national interest.
One suspects that Coxe was simply preserving the traditional paradigm of the Murdock novels. Murdock is shown operating in The Jade Venus just as he did pre-war.
Identity Theft. SPOILERS. The opening describes crooks stealing Murdock's identity. This is a lively passage. It anticipates the identity thefts in You Can't Live Forever (1951) and The Big Money (1954) by Harold Q. Masur.
Gathering Evidence. Murdock offers ideas about evidence gathering, that roughly anticipate today's concerns about not contaminating crime scenes (start of Chapter 11). This is not quite identical with today's ideas. But it is intelligent, and The Jade Venus deserves credit for a creative approach.
Architecture. Murdock searches a crook's apartment (Chapter 10). This is one of Coxe's patented specialities, visiting an apartment at night, in a mildly suspenseful scene. While this scene is simple, it is satisfying. As in most such Coxe episodes, we get a view of the architecture of both the apartment itself and the street landscape outside. Also typical: the apartment has a back door with its own staircase leading outside.
Suspects. Some of the suspects recall favorite Coxe types:
Men's Clothes. You can tell that some of the suspects are sympathetic, because they are well-dressed:
Scientific Detection. SPOILERS. The best part of "Speak No Evil" comes at the finale, when Murdock unexpectedly uses some neat scientific detection to get evidence against the killer. This section references Murdock's war work with the Monuments group, previously described in The Jade Venus.
Two brief discussions of barbiturates also add science to the tale.
A Radio Mystery. Murdock goes to New York City, investigating a murder among people who make radio drama. Unfortunately, the radio background in The Fifth Key is simple and conventional. The Fifth Key will disappoint fans of Old Time Radio hoping for an "inside" look at producing radio.
The radio program in The Fifth Key is about a pair who are a news reporter and photographer. This echoes Murdock's own profession of news photographer. It also echoes the real-life radio series based on Coxe's Flash Casey, Casey, Crime Photographer (1943-1950). This echoing has a self-reflexive quality. It makes a nice, playful touch. However, Coxe does not stress this aspect, and does not attempt to milk it for either surrealism or comedy.
Too Many Crooks. All sorts of bewildering things happen around the time of the murder. This reader expected that they were all part of a criminal scheme, one that would be explained at the end of the novel.
Instead, we eventually learn that these actions are the result of five independent, unconnected subplots, performed by five different suspects. Only one of these subplots is committed by the murderer, The other four have nothing to do with the killing. They are just coincidentally happening around the time of the killing.
This construction seems like a flaw, or a liability. Especially because at first the various actions look all connected, and part of the murder mystery.
The opening has a dream-like feel. We only get glimpses of the various denizens of the house. This makes them seem like characters in a dream.
Kent Murdock develops a friendship with ambiguous tough guy Nick Taylor, in the Coxe tradition of male bonding. The book takes place in that Golden Age staple, the isolated mansion in the country, with the wealthy family and their servants as suspects. It has a more hard-boiled feel than most such tales, however, with various bodyguards and enforcers constantly present. This mixing of hard-boiled and Golden Age approaches is typical of Coxe. The description of Nick Taylor as a "thug in a Brooks suit" epitomizes this mix of the genteel and the hard-boiled. Murdock himself is a combination of a two-fisted newspaperman and a social sophisticate: he is always very well dressed.
Scientific Detection. The use of science and technology throughout is also typical of Coxe, and forms a fusion with the tale of Scientific Detection, bringing a third school of mystery fiction into the mix. The hollow needle of the title is a piece of broken glass from a technological device, just like the "glass triangle" of the earlier book The Glass Triangle.
Mystery Plot. As in The Glass Triangle, the plot involves criminal schemes to cover up crimes, and Murdock's efforts to uncover them.
Architecture. The architecture of the house and grounds is elaborately described. Different rooms and corridors tend to be associated with different people.
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Opening. The Crimson Clue has a pleasant opening section, about events leading up to a Society wedding (Chapters 1, 3, 4, first half of 5). This mainly takes place among the sort of genteel urbanites one might find in a novel by the Lockridges. The wedding reception at the family mansion is a well-done set piece. The reception is admirably full of suspense, mystery and intrigue.
The wedding itself is not shown. One suspects that Coxe did not want to mix suspense and crime with a church service like the wedding, fearing that might be in bad taste or give offense.
BIG SPOILERS. The opening contains a good mini-mystery about the twins. This mystery is both set forth and solved in the opening (the solution comes in the first half of Chapter 5, near the end of the opening). The Jade Venus has crooks stealing Murdock's identity. The twins in The Crimson Clue don't steal each other's identity. But these identical twins are capable of impersonating each other.
Mystery Sub-Plot: Scientific Detection. Lew Klime is one of the sleazy, negatively-viewed private eyes that run through Coxe. Klime has an apartment, interestingly filled with technological equipment (Chapters: last part of 15, 16, first part of 17). In some ways, he is a dark double for Murdock himself, both being men who regularly use advanced technology for their work.
The way Klime is systematically organized, with catalogues and file cabinets, is also interesting. One suspects Coxe admires this.
Murdock investigates Klime's equipment, and comes up with a technology-based surprise (second half of Chapter 18, first half of Chapter 19). This is a sound, if simple, piece of Scientific Detection.
Mystery Plot: The Finale. The solution comes up with an interesting motive for the murder. The whole situation about the motive is unexpected (Chapter 20).
Motive aside, the clues to the killer's identity are pretty mild. They are barely there, and inadequate for a really fair play mystery. There are two clues. SPOILERS:
The Title. Maybe I missed it, but I can't figure out to what the title The Crimson Clue is referring. The title is not explained in the book. And none of the book's clues seem red or crimson. It's a catchy title, though. It recalls Coxe's earlier The Camera Clue.
Learning About Characters. In Coxe's "Too Many Women", first we see unidentified characters in a photo; only later do we learn who they are. The treatment of Audrey Wayne in The Crimson Clue is a bit similar. SPOILERS. First we are introduced to her, but learn little about her (Chapter 2). Only later do we learn how she fits in with the other characters (end of Chapter 8).
These sections aside, the passages with Audrey Wayne are among the least interesting in the novel. The plot tends to stop cold when she shows up, to be replaced by mild romance with Murdock, or putting her in jeopardy from the bad guys.
Cleaning Up Their Act. Some Coxe books find their hero male-bonding with a reformed criminal or bootlegger. Such a character is not present in The Crimson Clue. But there is a character who's reformed after a checkered past, with whom Murdock bonds. Patricia Canning is an heiress who once as a wild youth, ran off and got married to an undesirable man. Now she is trying to put that behind her, and enter into a respectable marriage.
Kent Murdock likes her. He (and Coxe) like her new, responsible lifestyle. Her story presents an optimistic look that people can change for the better.
It is one of the deplorable aspects of popular culture, that in many books and films women who are sexually active get punished in the end. That is a vicious misogynist approach. The Crimson Clue is completely different. Both Patricia Canning, and her male relatives who help her avoid scandal, get off scott free at the end. Nobody gets punished for her sexual activity. Furthermore, the book and Murdock treat this as as happy ending.
Jazz. Lew Klime's apartment is full of jazz records. A paragraph lists some, mentioning names of jazz greats (first part of Chapter 17). Murdock is impressed. We learn he likes to listen to jazz records himself. A few more jazz names are mentioned in the music store (first half of Chapter 19). I like jazz, but know too little about it to offer a commentary on the artists mentioned in The Crimson Clue.
Gay Subtext. There are suggestions that Lew Klime has a gay side. His wife, from whom he is separated, makes a couple of suggestive comments about him (last part of Chapter 15):
The Elliott twins can be seen as symbolic of close bonds between men.
Men's Clothes. The twins are handsome men and figures of glamour. They wear identical well-tailored cutaways to the wedding (start of Chapter 3).
The story becomes less interesting in later chapters, when the focus shifts to the suspects in the mystery, and away from the lives of newspaper employees and detectives. Some of the suspects are interesting characters though, notably wealthy, imperious matriarch Harriett Alderson. Murder on Their Minds includes a diversity of characters, of all ages, genders and social classes. One suspects Coxe, like many entertainers of the 1890-1966 era, was trying to appeal to a wide audience, and wanted characters that readers could identify with, whether they were young or old, male or female.
Murder on Their Minds reuses story ideas from The Camera Clue. In both:
Architecture. Coxe includes precise descriptions of the offices and work areas of his heroes. Although simple, these recall the Golden Age tradition of interest in architecture.
Murdock's photography studio at his newspaper is shown. And in the Coxe tradition, we also see the street outside the newspaper building. This approaches a full scale cityscape in detail.
The victim's apartment in Murder on Their Minds is not the scene of a murder, but a suspenseful passage does occur there (Chapter 8). The apartment recalls the victim's apartment in The Lady Is Afraid, and the second victim's apartment in The Jade Venus:
These clues are also less "interesting in their own right", less creative, than the ideas about the crime scene in fine Coxe works like The Camera Clue, "Casey - Detective", and "A Neat and Tidy Job". By the way, these clues in Murder on Their Minds are not part of the crime scene, and so Murder on Their Minds does not belong to the Coxe tradition of "mystery puzzles centering on analyzing clues at the crime scene".
More ingenious and original in Murder on Their Minds are the reconstructions of the crime, and how the victim's own gun got involved (Chapter 5, last part of Chapter 21). This murder gun is part of the crime scene. This material does not really offer a solid clue to the murderer's identity, though, or relate to other aspects of the book's plot.
Max Hale's office is especially amusing (Chapter 1). While most fictional P.i.'s hang out in seedy offices on which they can barely pay the rent, Hale's fancy office looks like a stockbroker's or high-toned lawyer's.
In his other books and stories, Coxe regularly views private eyes with distaste, often portraying them as cheap, lowlife crooks. In The Lady Is Afraid Hale is contrasted with a professional private eye Ludlow, who is just as sleazy and unpleasant as the private eyes in other works by Coxe.
Max Hale seems created to be the exception, a "good" private eye, and a deliberate opposite to this image. However, Hale is only a rich young man pretending to be a shamus, not the real thing. Only such an "amateur" status allows Coxe to envision a "good" private detective. (Another, very different exception in Coxe: Kent Murdock's friend, good guy private investigator Jack Fenner. Fenner is an earthy guy, not a social aristocrat like Max Hale.)
While Hale is ultimately a bit of a comic fantasy, Coxe presents this material with a straight face. The reader is supposed to take Max Hale's detective adventures seriously, even if the sleuth himself is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. "Hale and hearty" is a phrase that expresses health and well-being. The name "Max Hale" might thus be interpreted as meaning "maximum fitness". Max Hale is indeed a superb specimen.
Max Hale's devoted secretary Sue Marshall has to talk him into accepting cases, like Archie Goodwin talks Nero Wolfe (in Rex Stout books) (Chapter 1).
Youth Market. There are signs that The Lady Is Afraid is written to appeal to a young, perhaps teenage audience:
One also wonders if the youth appeal of The Lady Is Afraid is linked to Coxe's hope for a sale of the book to the movies. Hollywood in this era often depended on the youth audience.
The Writer. Screenwriter Johnny Trenholm is something of a fantasy version of a successful writer, just as hero Max Hale is a glamorous fantasy of a private eye. Trenholm is young, from an upper crust family, strong, two-fisted (Chapter 3), and looks great in tennis clothes (first part of Chapter 10).
Johnny Trenholm's slim, "wiry" build (Chapter 2) recalls Fenner: see the description of Fenner in Murder with Pictures (start of Chapter 4). Fenner is also young, just like Johnny Trenholm.
Male Bonding. Max Hale regularly engages in the male bonding that runs through Coxe's books:
Men's Clothes. Like Hale and other Coxe detective heroes, Lieutenant Cody is well-dressed (Chapter 6).
Band leader Don Washburn wears a spectacular red tuxedo for his performance (Chapter 2). This is a heightened style of dress for 1940. It suggests the renewed interest in stylish men's clothes in the 1940's, as seen in Hollywood films of the film noir era. That same year Clayton Rawson had his magician-detective hero Don Diavolo in a red tailcoat for his magic act.
Architecture. The band plays at a venue that runs through much hard-boiled fiction: a night club run by underworld figures. And like many such night clubs, it has a corridor behind the scenes leading to the manager's office and other rooms (Chapter 2), places where suspenseful activities take place. Such locales are archetypal in "tough" crime fiction.
Social Commentary. The Lady Is Afraid shows skepticism about the Society Swells who represent the upper classes. One of them stiffs a black washroom attendant out of a tip, something of which hero Max Hale explicitly disapproves (end of Chapter 2). There is an allegory here about the wealthy victimizing both the working classes and other races.
Narrative Structure: Introducing Characters. Max Hale stakes out an apartment building, watching for a long time as various people enter and leave the building (Chapter 3). Sometimes we know nothing about the people, other than their visual appearance. Only later on do we learn more about these suspects. This is a bit like the structure of "Too Many Women", in which characters are introduced as anonymous subjects in a photo, and only gradually show up in the plot. However, there are two such suspects at the apartment in The Lady Is Afraid, fewer than the sizable group of people in "Too Many Women". So The Lady Is Afraid is simpler.
Similarly night club owner Ned Ambler is briefly seen and identified by name at the night club (Chapter 2). But only later do we get an in-depth introduction to his character and life history (Chapter 3). This shows a similar structure.
Narrative Structure: The Movies. We see Johnny Trenholm working on a film script, and the special techniques he uses (Chapter 7). These include how to show events for the movie camera. This parallels the photographs taken by Kent Murdock and Flash Casey in other Coxe tales.
At other times, the narration of the novel The Lady Is Afraid directly compares itself to the movies. There is something reflexive about calling attention to the novel's approaches, and comparing them to typical films:
The Frightened Fiancée seems atypical of Coxe's work, mainly involving neither urban settings nor international adventure. But it is impressively well-written. The Frightened Fiancée is best in its first half (Chapters 1-12). After this it largely runs out of inspiration; also the tone darkens unpleasantly. There are some good if brief sections in its second half (second half of Chapter 19, last part of Chapter 23).
Hero. The hero John Holland is a familiar figure in American fiction: a virile young man who travels all over the world on his technical job. This hero John Holland works for an oil company. We learn little about his work.
Sam Crombie. Sam Crombie reminds one of the Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett:
Rinehart Influence. The Frightened Fiancée is set in a summer colony area of Connecticut, near Old Lyme. A "New England summer colony of the well-to-do" locale recalls such Mary Roberts Rinehart novels as The Wall (1938) and The Yellow Room (1945). (Rinehart's books are implicitly set in Maine, where she lived, rather than Connecticut.)
There is much water in the landscape, recalling Rinehart's The Wall.
The hero wanders alone in the dark, exploring a mysterious situation (Chapter 4). This is a classic Rinehart development. (A critical cliche is that Rinehart has heroines wandering around at night. In fact, some Rinehart novels have male heroes wandering in the dark: The Man in Lower Ten, The Yellow Room. These anticipate the male hero in The Frightened Fiancée.)
Also Rinehart-like: the architecture of the house is explored in three dimensions: height, length and width. Much is made of people going up or down the outside wall of the house, emphasizing height. Height is also part of Coxe's mysteries involving elevators: "Murder Picture" (1935), The Camera Clue (1937), and especially "A Neat and Tidy Job" (1960).
The grounds includes both the main mansion, and the guesthouse. Having a mansion and a smaller building within a grounds recalls Rinehart's The Great Mistake (1940) and "Episode of the Wandering Knife" (1943).
A matriarch lives in the mansion: perhaps an echo of Rinehart's dynamic older women. Fanny Allenby comes alive as a character. I like her. But she has little actually to do other than carry on a series of conversations with the hero. The darkening of her character near the book's end is a mistake, in my judgement.
The Murder. The description of what the hero sees before and after the murder is committed is an outstanding set piece (Chapters 4-6).
This account is throughly grounded in two favorite Golden Age subjects: the architecture of the buildings where the events occur, and the landscape of the grounds between them. Coxe delights the reader by providing rich detail.
Later, the detectives explore the mystery plot implications of what the hero saw at the time of the murder (Chapter 11).
There are only two main clues to the identity of the murderer. These are discussed in the solution at the very end of the novel (last part of Chapter 23). SPOILERS. The better of the two clues is interestingly linked to the architecture.
More Landscape. Later excellent sections also explore the landscape:
SPOILERS. This solution builds on knowledge about the heroine introduced earlier (Chapters 2, 3, last part of 6). These chapters contain the plot building blocks, out of which the solution is constructed. By having this knowledge, the reader should be able to figure out the heroine's mysterious motive. In fact I did!
Kinetic Architecture. The moving seat that ascends the staircase by the rail (Chapter 2), is an example of Coxe's interest in Kinetic Architecture.
SPOILERS. The interesting developments in the drawing room (second half of Chapter 19) are also Kinetic Architecture.
Male Bonding. The hero's best friend had been mysteriously murdered, sometime before the book opens.
Later the hero and private eye Sam Crombie male bond. At the novel's end, in its last paragraph, the hero's friendship with Crombie is put on the same level as the hero's relationship with his female fiancée - at least as far as the hero's feelings go. This is unexpected.
I confess that the hero's relationship with Crombie never seems that interesting. It is unclear what virtues Crombie has. By contrast, the hero's relationship with his late friend seems believable.
Men's Clothes. Roger Drake wears flashy clothes: a loud sport coat with padded shoulders. The hero disapproves (start of Chapter 2, start of Chapter 5). An earlier unsympathetic character in loud sportswear is Pete Douglas in The Charred Witness. Both Pete Douglas and Roger Drake are handsome men, but the books disapprove of their sartorial approach. Both men are attractive to women, but not ethical in their approaches. There is perhaps a hint that wearing such clothes is "cheating", doing something unfair to attract women.
Keith Erskine is dressed as a proper upper class man, and not "flashy" like Roger Drake. But he is lavishly dressed, in expensive, fancy fabrics:
The hero is regularly shown stripping, in the privacy of his bedroom (start of Chapter 1, start of Chapter 4, start of Chapter 7, middle of Chapter 12). He keeps wanting to get out of his clothes due to the summer heat. In 1950, not even these rich people have air conditioning.
Like macho Ralph Coleman in The Barotique Mystery, much is made of the hero being in swimming trunks.
A key plot event in Alias the Dead (start of Chapter 8) begins with the hero stripping. The fact that the hero has his clothes off plays a role in the mystery plot. By contrast, the hero stripping in The Frightened Fiancée is mainly not linked to the mystery puzzles. However, there is a clue about the hero's robe and slippers which he has taken off.
The young hero is an aspiring newspaperman. He is considerably less successful than Flash Casey or Kent Murdock.
Coercion. Alias the Dead has some approaches in common with another non-series Coxe novel, The Groom Lay Dead:
Private Eyes and Organized Labor. Coxe once again shows his negative views towards private eyes, with the book's crooked private eye who sets the illegal plot in motion (Chapter 1).
This man gives a negative account of his typical work (near the start of Chapter 3). In addition to "divorce work", the much cited low point of fictional private eyes' life, he also mentions "labor cases". He does not elaborate - but this is likely strikebreaking and other sinister attacks on labor unions. Since this man is one of Coxe's negatively seen private eyes, the story likely is viewing such anti-labor activities in a negative way too.
Old Age. A chilling look shows old men sitting around a public square in Los Angeles, men whose lives and attitudes have dwindled into futility (Chapter 1). We often forget that before the government social safety net, that old age was often a time of horror, extreme poverty and despair. Social Security had just been passed a few years ago, and was just taking effect in the early 1940's. And Medicare was decades in the future. The opening of Alias the Dead is a good reminder, of what a wonderful positive change Social Security and Medicare have made in the lives of senior citizens. Government programs can be a Good Thing.
Men's Clothes. The hero negotiates getting some really good clothes (start of Chapter 2). He expresses the value of getting dressed up, and what it does for a man's confidence and social acceptance. Coxe heroes prize being well-dressed. Earlier, he is disturbed by his rumpled, unpressed suit: a sign of both poverty, and a slipping outside of normal society (Chapter 1).
The dark gray double-breasted suit the hero gets was a fashion ideal in the film noir era. The hero would have been all set for a movie adaptation of Alias the Dead in such a suit.
Please see my lists of:
The killer is a logical, plausible choice. SPOILERS:
Mystery Plot: The Encounter Subplot. SPOILERS. There is some mild ingenuity about an accidental encounter between Comstock and the hero (start of Chapter 8, explained in middle of Chapter 23).
This is partly staged in a mirror. Mirror shots were popular in film noir, and this is perhaps a movie influence on the book.
Mystery Plot: The War Subplot. A subplot is related to World War II. It is full of cliches that already were much used by 1943.
Characters. The Groom Lay Dead has features that recall The Glass Triangle. In that novel, the murder victim was a big time but vicious Hollywood producer who liked to play humiliating practical jokes on an employee. This sort of character recurs in more extreme form in The Groom Lay Dead. Here the murder victim is a millionaire playboy who likes to torment people. He is referred to at least three times in the book as a "sadist". Instead of mere practical jokes, he likes to put other people in extreme or life-ruining situations, for kicks. The narrator is one such target, and the opening details what the millionaire does to him (Chapter 1). This is not elevating reading, but it isn't boring, either. We also learn what the millionaire does to a playwright (middle of Chapter 3).
In both The Groom Lay Dead and The Glass Triangle, the evil male goes after other men. In the novella "Seed of Suspicion" (1947), a male painter who mistreats women is referred to as a "sadist".
Links to The Charred Witness. Coxe's earlier The Charred Witness (1942) has a brief account of the feud between Harry Oliver and his rich father-in-law (second half of Chapter 9). The father-in-law deliberately destroys Oliver's stage career. This anticipates the more elaborate accounts in The Groom Lay Dead of the millionaire ruining mens' lives.
These parts of The Charred Witness and The Groom Lay Dead also resemble each other, in that a victim in both novels is involved with the theater.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The puzzle plot of The Groom Lay Dead also recalls The Glass Triangle, in that once again glass shards are central to the mystery. Aside from this, the two books' mystery plots have little in common, however. The glass shard is involved in the "small-but-decent mystery puzzle idea" referred to previously.
Inland Waterway. Inland Passage is a boating mystery set on the Inland Waterway that runs up and down the East Coast of the USA. The Face of Hate (1948) by Theodora Du Bois was an earlier suspense-mystery book about a boat trip on the Inland Waterway.
Mystery Plot. A good passage towards the end shows the hero and his policeman friend Laughlin doing some detective investigation (Chapters 18, 19, first half of 20). This solves a key element of the case. In fact, it solves most aspects of the mystery other than who committed the crime.
The "Hero". The hero is a New York City copywriter. He definitely has lax or sleazy personal morals, having spent the last three months drunk and womanizing in Florida. 1949 is early for satires on Madison Avenue, but even at this early date there are hints that advertising men are self-indulgent and morally bankrupt.
The so-called hero is lacking in another way: he is not well-dressed, something Coxe strongly values in his good guys. His casual clothes are contrasted with those of an expensively dressed fashion-plate lawyer (end of Chapter 1).
However, the hero is not a crook, and is financially honest. Both he and good guy Alan Harding have honorable service records in World War II, while it is suggested that crook Perry Noland made his money in the illegal black market during the War (Chapter 1).
Race. Inland Passage uses dated terms to describe some black characters seen in passing. I suspect these terms were already dated by 1949.
Narrative Structure: Introducing Characters. The boat passengers are introduced without much background or biographical detail. The hero knows what they look like, but little else about them. They are just "customers". Only gradually do we learn their life histories, or their connection to the plot.
Photography. Alan Harding takes photos of the bad guys as a deterrent (end of Chapter 5). This links him to Kent Murdock and Flash Casey. Later, the hero uses the photography department of his ad agency on some detective work (Chapters 18, 19, first half of 20).
Kinetic Architecture. The river bridge that raises and lowers (end of Chapter 6), is an example of Coxe's interest in Kinetic Architecture.
So is the seat raised to access a compartment within.
The Hollow Needle states that Joseph Conrad is a favorite writer of Coxe's series detective Kent Murdock. Coxe's own novels set in exotic places follow the Conrad tradition. Conrad, like Coxe, is also a writer who mixes many schools of fiction, using a fusion of eclectic approaches in his writing.
The Opening. One Minute Past Eight has a well written first half (Chapters 1-9), which offers a nice combination of adventure and mystery. This section also includes some pleasantly mysterious characters, whose background is gradually elucidated. Unfortunately the book runs out of steam after this. And the solution to the actual murder mystery, in Chapters 20 and 22, is perfunctory.
Medium Boiled. The novel mixes hard-boiled and middle class characters, in Coxe's pleasant style. There is an overtone of respectability about everything concerning Coxe's hero, a nice young businessman from Boston, who has something of the same smoothness and decency as Kent Murdock. But the hero also gets innocently mixed up with a whole series of shady or tough characters in his adventures, just as Murdock does in his.