Scientific Detectives | Scientific Detection Today | Early Scientific Detection | L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace | C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne | Rafael Sabatini | P. G. Wodehouse | Victor L. Whitechurch | Stacy Aumonier | Nigel Morland | Brander Matthews | Samuel Hopkins Adams | Cleveland L. Moffett | William MacHarg & Edwin Balmer | Arthur B. Reeve | Francis Lynde | Arnold Andrews | Clinton H. Stagg | Eustace Hale Ball | Psychology and Ernest M. Poate | Horatio Winslow and Leslie Quirk | Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning | George Dyer | Cromwell Gibbons | James G. Edwards | Ruth Sawtell Wallis
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
"The Mysterious Card" (1896) (available on-line at http://www.everything2.net/index.pl?node_id=1915233)
The Silent Bullet (1911) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2454)
While all these writers included aspects of science in their works, it was still a leap to create the first detective stories totally centered on science. A number of important individual tales using scientific detection were written from 1865 on. Scientific detection began to flourish, according to Dorothy L. Sayers, with L.T. Meade and Halifax's Stories From The Diary of a Doctor (1894). L.T. Meade is the first known writer to create a large number of stories whose solutions were fundamentally based on technology and science. After her came the science-based O'Malley tales of C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne, which were apparently never collected in book form, but which are turning up in anthologies, and the much longer lasting series of Dr. Thorndyke tales by R. Austin Freeman (no relation to Mary). Next came Futrelle, and the American school of scientific detection. The American writer Samuel Hopkins Adams' tales followed the traditions of Meade & Eustace. Adams' stories, like those of Meade & Eustace and other early writers in this school, tend to be horror-filled in tone.
A more purely American school will be born with the Luther Trant stories (1909 - 1910) of MacHarg and Balmer, which emphasize high technology. Instead of the horror-based writing of earlier authors, these American writers will stress the pleasure and thrills of high technology. Cleveland Moffett's Through the Wall (1909) also contains a pioneering American look at scientific crime fighting, one that has much in common with MacHarg and Balmer. They are followed by Arthur B. Reeve, whose works form the climax of the American school. As Sam Moskowitz pointed out, Reeve's book The Silent Bullet (1911) was directly inspired by the works of MacHarg and Balmer. I think also that Reeves' story of "The Diamond Maker" might draw upon Futrelle's "The Diamond Master" (1909).
Mary Roberts Rinehart's first two Miss Pinkerton stories (1914), were also in this tradition, with a nurse detective and science based mysteries. The two Miss Pinkerton novels, much later (1932, 1942) were not especially science oriented, but the final Miss Pinkerton novella, "The Secret" (1950), reverts to the scientific detection paradigm, over thirty years after it was abandoned by nearly everyone but Freeman! Rinehart's connection with the science tradition is not generally pointed out by commentators, who insist on tagging her with the Had I But Known label, but it is abundantly clear to anyone who reads the stories. Rinehart's detective Miss Pinkerton is a nurse, one of the few science/medicine professions generally open to women in those days. Rinehart was a nurse herself. This was not unusual; Doyle, Chekhov and Freeman were all doctors.
Some Golden Age (1920 - 1950, roughly) mystery writers continued the scientific detection genre: Nigel Morland, Philip Wylie, Theodora Du Bois, Helen Reilly, Lawrence G. Blochman, Helen McCloy. None of their detective books is really well known today, unfortunately. One can also see elements of scientific detection in some of the Golden Age followers of Mary Roberts Rinehart, such as Dorothy Cameron Disney, and Mignon G. Eberhart.
Hugo Gernsback was the editor of the first science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories (1926 - ). Gernsback published many scientific detective tales from 1920 on in the magazines he edited, such as Electrical Experimenter, Science and Invention, Radio News and Amazing Stories. A detailed account can be found in the article Scientific Detectives by science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, in The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976), edited by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler. Moskowitz discusses many scientific detective writers, both in and outside the Gernsback magazines, whose works are not widely available today.
Gernsback also created a pulp magazine that specialized in high tech sleuthing, Scientific Detective Monthly. It only lasted for ten issues in 1930. It reprinted tales by MacHarg & Balmer, and Arthur B. Reeve, as well as publishing new tales by science fiction pulp writers like Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith. Gernsback's writers' guidelines are available on-line. They give an unusually clear and detailed contemporary view of the Scientific Detective subgenre.
The disappearance of science from much of the non-pulp mystery story during the Golden Age is perhaps echoed by other literary phenomena. In particular, science fiction was ghettoized from a subject of general purpose fiction suitable for all readers and the greatest writers, into the pulps and comic strips. In general, sf was not even published in the form of books during this era. Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, Sinclair Lewis Arrowsmith, and Henry Ford served as a villain in Dos Passos' USA, but in general, science and progress were completely ignored in modernist literature. "Serious" writers promoted Fascism and Communism, not science and progress, as a solution to human problems. How wrong they were! Others, like Lawrence, Joyce and Fitzgerald, concentrated on the 1920's sexual revolution. Few writers for grownups during 1916-1945 treated science as worth discussing.
In the previous generation, characters in Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs sailed, gathered herbs, ran farms and explored the Arctic. All were proud of their technical skills. This whole attitude had changed later.
This article looks at early scientific detection, in both Britain and the United States. People interested in the subject might want to explore other articles on scientific sleuths in this Guide:
But since then, people tend to regard them as a bunch of separate narrow fields:
Today, mystery fans love to read about forensic detectives, and TV shows about scientific crime investigation are hugely popular. But the ancestors of these contemporary scientific detectives seem little remembered. There is some very good reading here!
LeRoy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso's anthology Early American Detective Stories (2008) includes:
Meade and Eustace's tales anticipate, and probably influenced, those of Arthur B. Reeve. Some points of similarity: There is the story built around a scientific innovation. There is a common interest in drugs. There is an international perspective, with characters often from foreign countries, and international financial schemes part of the plot. Industrial enterprises and high finance play a role in both writers. There is the similar emphasis on dramatic storytelling. Police raids occur in both authors. The villains are often high-powered, influential people. Female characters are often prominent, with a scientific background.
Meade and Eustace's "The Man Who Disappeared" (1901) contains imagery that will find echoes in Freeman's "A Silent Witness" (1914): there is the well described Hampstead Heath, the use of sinister basements, and the similar use of chemistry as well. Also, the desire for an autopsy in Meade & Halifax's "Without Witnesses" anticipates attitudes of Freeman, as does the doctor detective of the series. However, Freeman's work in general seems much less related to what I have read of these authors.
The Florence Cusack stories open with "Mr. Bovey's Unexpected Will" (1899). This tale's plot, in its comic mode, shows signs of being a dry run for the more sinister "The Man Who Disappeared". If Meade's grimmer stories invoke magic, this light hearted one recalls fairy tales. It also begins with the detective Miss Cusack announcing that she is suffering from nervous problems, a plot thread that is dropped. Sympathetic characters who suffer from mental illness run through the Meade tales.
"The Tea Leaf", Eustace's late (1925) collaboration with Edgar Jepson, finds him pursuing many of the same themes, some 20 years after his collaboration with Meade ended. There is the same interest in freezing, the same impossible crimes explained through chemistry, the same interest in the geometry of rooms and buildings, the same obsessive characters, and the same brilliant female scientists: here one serves as the detective. The plot of this story has been re-used and summarized so many times it has passed into the folklore of the detective story, so this tale has lost some of the punch it must have originally had. But it is still a very well done story.
A Master of Mysteries has been called the first collection of impossible crime tales. Like many alleged "firsts" in mystery history, this claim is hard to prove or disprove. It is certainly the earliest impossible crime collection known to me, or mentioned in standard reference works. This landmark status can lead to inflated expectations. The stories in A Master of Mysteries are pretty mild, and often mediocre.
The explanation of all the impossibilities centers on technological devices or scientific situations. The stories thus are part of both the impossible crime and Scientific Detection traditions.
Meade and Eustace's sense of magic is also strong. Like many impossible crime writers, the apparently impossible framework's of their tales are set forth with a magical atmosphere. I use the word magic, and not the word supernatural, because unlike John Dickson Carr, Meade and Eustace's work has little invocation of traditional supernatural events, such as ghosts, witches, etc. Instead it has an overwhelming effect of magic breaking through into people's lives. Their "The Secret of Emu Plain", a story of apparently magical events in the Australian Outback, is a definitive look at the eerie properties of that region, anticipating the great Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Some of the stories turn on rooms with pure geometric shapes: "The Mystery of the Circular Chamber" makes striking use of the roundness of its architectural environment. "How Shiva Spoke" takes place in an elliptical room. This story's impossible crime ideas aren't bad, but the tale is sunk by its awful bigotry about Asian religion.
The last story in the collection is more of a thriller than a mystery, and the story farthest removed from the "impossible crime". This tale is not bad. It involves the hero racing around roads, a kind of thriller also found later in M. McDonnell Bodkin's "Quick Work" in The Quests of Paul Beck and R.A.J. Walling's That Dinner at Bardolph's (1927). A subplot is yet another version of Wilkie Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed" (1852). The sickroom subplot has some original ideas, that bring it into the scope of technological fiction.
"The Tragedy of a Third Smoker" (1898) deals with a death on a railroad, that is hard to ascribe to anyone other than a single suspect, who was the only one with access to the dead man. The suspect's legal team showed how it actually occurred, clearing their client. Freeman used a similar basic pattern for his story "The Blue Sequin" (1908).
"The Banknote Forger" (1899) deals with forgery and uses photography, both key elements on Freeman's work in later years - see, for example, The Red Thumb Mark.
Another similarity to the Thorndyke tales is the use of a legal team as detectives. A whole series of four persons on the team serve as continuing characters in Hyne's stories.
"The Evidence of the Sword" (1900) might be a precursor to the "inverted crime" tales later pioneered by R. Austin Freeman. It does not have the full paradigm of "inverted" tales developed by Freeman. But there are some similarities. In the first half of "The Evidence of the Sword" we get a full account of a crime, and see a bad guy develop a frame-up of the innocent hero. In the second half, the hero, serving as a detective, points out physical evidence that clears himself. The basic structure of a Freeman inverted, a two part construction of first seeing the crime in detail, then watching a detective find hidden evidence implicit in the first half that elucidates the crime, is present in "The Evidence of the Sword". Differences from the Freeman paradigm: the first half is seen from the Point of View of the innocent hero, rather than the perpetrator of the crime, as in Freeman's inverteds. The detective work in the second half is real and solid. But it involves a single clue, set forth briefly, rather than a full, detailed investigation as in Freeman. "The Evidence of the Sword" also has more romance and historical adventure, and less pure crime and detection, than a typical Freeman inverted. Still, it contains the core architecture of the "inverted tale" in rudimentary form.
"The Evidence of the Sword" is historical fiction. Sabatini also set some stories in modern-day Britain, where he lived. "Shrinkage" (1914) is a tale of scams and counter-scams, set against a background of the shipping industry. The plot has a simple scientific base, involving the shrinkage of the title, although the plot mainly concerns business rather than science. Similarly, the clue in "The Evidence of the Sword" is mildly technological in nature. Scams and counter-scams will later play a role in some of the pulp stories of Erle Stanley Gardner. As in Gardner, Sabatini's hero takes advantage of a crook's swindle, to launch a counter-swindle of his own that turns the tables on the crook.
"The Dream" (1912) is a none-too-good thriller about a sinister hypnotist gaining control of a woman, in the tradition of George Du Marier's Trilby (1894) and Somerset Maugham's The Magician (1908). Its villain is an "evil intellectual", showing that negative depictions of thinkers were already established in this era.
Whitechurch's early fiction is hard to classify. It mixes railroad technology with spy, mystery and adventure elements, and seems designed to please railroad enthusiasts as much as mystery fans. It also oscillates between impossible crime and technology based fiction, with stops along the way for just plain mystery writing. The tone is far removed from Meade and Eustace, or Arthur B. Reeve, and one hesitates to include it in the "scientific detection" tradition. Whitechurch's tone is light. There is a sense of "artificiality" about his plot elements, such as the mystery, crime, or espionage stories. They seem to be constructed as a support element for his ingenious railroading ideas. Despite this, they are often very good pieces of storytelling in their own right.
Several of the best Hazell tales deal with thefts from the railways. These include "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture" (1905), "The Affair of the German Dispatch-Box", and "The Stolen Necklace". These stories are often impossible crime tales, or border on them. There is a family resemblance between the techniques used to pull off the thefts in "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture" and "The Affair of the German Dispatch-Box". And both involve duplicate copies of the objects to be stolen. These two stories have been reprinted in anthologies, and are much better known than anything else Whitechurch wrote. They are the works that have kept Whitechurch's reputation alive, for over a century.
There is also a good natured adventure story among the Hazell tales, "How the Bishop Kept His Appointment". A non-mystery, it is linked to the often humorous "clerical" fiction that Whitechurch also wrote.
The 6 non-Hazell stories are a mixed bag. Mostly they are best classified as "ingenious tales about railroads", not mystery fiction, strictly speaking (they largely do not contain puzzles or mysterious situations to be solved). Yet their clever plotting, and crime or spy backgrounds, will commend them to mystery fans:
Similarly, Ivan Koravitch was collected in book form in 1925, but some Koravitch stories appeared in The Railway Magazine in 1897.
This means Whitechurch's stories appeared early in the Impossible Crimes movement, and very early in the Technological Detective movement too. Both genres had already been piloted by L.T. Meade in this era, but just barely: the medical stories in "The Diary of a Doctor" appearing in 1894, and the impossible crimes of A Master of Mysteries in book form in 1898. The spy elements in Whitechurch's tale were also fairly brand new in this era. Whitechurch may not have been the originator of these movements, but he was an early contributor, someone who helped turn them into actual flourishing literary trends. It also helps explain a certain casualness or tentativeness in his approach. Hazell is presented as an expert on railways. But he is not depicted as the Most Advanced Scientific Genius of Our Time, the way Dr. Thorndyke or Craig Kennedy are. (OK, so I'm exaggerating a little!) Similarly, the frequently impossible nature of Whitechurch's crimes is not underlined by fake supernatural atmosphere, or an elaborately surrealistic mise-en-scène.
It's hard to know what sort of audience this uneven book might have today, if any. Much of it is routine. But some sections have comic charm, and an evocation of another time and place: the introduction of the aristocrat and the thieves (Chapter 2), the first look at the American relatives (Chapters 5-8).
And the thieves' plans for the robbery are well thought through, and would do credit to a detective story (Chapter 9). They include a simple but effective faked alibi, something that recalls Freeman Wills Crofts. When the actual robbery does take place, it follows the plan pretty closely, and the account does not add much to the crime plot. But the details do have charm.
Whitechurch is often observant about men's clothes:
The best aspects of the tale, as a mystery puzzle plot, involve interpreting two pieces of text. This is a kind of mystery that runs through Whitechurch. 1) The address found in the victim's notebook is a clever clue. It is explained towards the end of Chapter 12. 2) A separate piece of text, the dying message, is not as ingenious, but actually is more in line with the text interpretation puzzles in "The Murder on the Okehampton Line" (1903) and Murder at the College (1932). It is simpler than either. The dying message relates to a subplot in the novel, not the main murder mystery. The text interpretation problem in Murder at the College will also relate to a similar subplot.
The motive for the actual killing is similar to the one in Murder at the College. It is part of a richer structure in that latter book.
The victims in the two novels turn out to have similar professions and activities.
Both Murder at the Pageant and Murder at the College have subplots, in which a suspect is made to seem guilty, through a long train of circumstantial evidence. Then the suspect will be cleared, by new revelations, that show he was innocent after all. Both the original trail, and the story that clears them, tend to be long, event-filled accounts of what the suspect might have been doing, or actually was doing, during the time surrounding the murder. Whitechurch shows ingenuity in constructing these trails.
The Pageant description (Chapter 1), the most colorful part of the book, displays the interest in antiquarianism often found in R. Austin Freeman. However, Whitechurch is more interested in clothes, while Freeman loves antiques. The clothes relate to Whitechurch's interest in disguise, which throughout his work centers around people dressing up in costumes. Whitechurch's clerical romance The Canon in Residence also opens with his hero getting into new clothes, which lead to a new attitude and comical misadventures.
Murder at the College is far from being a great detective novel: much of it depends on some unfortunate coincidences, the part of the mystery involving a criminal scheme lacks fair play clues that would allow the reader to deduce it in advance of the solution, and the ingenuity of the solution, while pleasant, is fairly mild and simple. Still, it is surprisingly readable throughout, due to its wealth of precisely imagined detail.
The rest of this discussion might contain SPOILERS.
Murder at the College is in some ways a police procedural in the Freeman Wills Crofts tradition, as was Murder at the Pageant (1930):
The many clergymen characters remind us that Whitechurch wrote clerical romances earlier in his career, as well as mysteries. Whitechurch also does a good job with the working class characters in the story, recalling "A Case of Signaling", with its lower class heroes.
A subplot in Murder at the College is directly in the tradition of "The Murder on the Okehampton Line" (1903), one of Whitechurch's series of short tales about railway detective Godfrey Page, the "railway maniac" or "railwayac", as Whitechurch humorously dubbed him for short. In both works, the sleuths find cryptic notes left behind by the victim, which mainly consist of a string of letters and numbers. In both they have to interpret the notes. Both interpretations have some common features involving architecture, in the broad sense of the term. And in both, it leads the sleuths to a key piece of the puzzle, the MacGuffin behind the story. Godfrey Page is an amateur detective; by profession he is an architect, like many of the characters in Murder at the College.
Murder at the College shows the Golden Age interest in architecture, with the crime scene a precisely described locale in the college buildings. The architecture plays a role throughout the mystery and its solution. In some ways, the architecture has the same central role as trains did in earlier Whitechurch stories, forming a locale in which the crime is carried out. The biggest mystery in Murder at the College, how the killer left the crime scene without being seen by the numerous witnesses, links Murder at the College to the impossible crime tale. This recalls the several borderline impossible crimes in Stories of the Railway. The impossible exit of the killer in Murder at the College is as linked to the architecture, as the impossible thefts in Stories of the Railway are linked to the set-up of the trains.
Some other points. 1) A pleasant theme throughout Murder at the College are the many characters who engage in detection. At a number of points, we see the story through fresh eyes, while these sleuths investigate some aspect of the mystery. There is something almost Pirandellian about this, a mildly avant-garde feature. None of these characters ever meet each other. Instead, they share their ideas in interviews with the tale's chief sleuth, policeman Sgt. Ambrose. "The Murder on the Okehampton Line" and Murder at the Pageant also had a profusion of sleuth characters. 2) The Thorpe Hazell tales in Stories of the Railway also contain a number of characters whose amateur sleuthing aids the hero. Both Ambrose and Hazell also have Scotland Yard contacts, who can be employed to answer questions that require serious police assistance. 3) The victim in Murder at the College is an amateur sleuth, who bears some resemblance to Thorpe Hazell. At the end of the novel, we learn he refused to cover up his findings - which is why the murderer killed him. This is the exact opposite of Hazell, who conceals his discoveries at the end of "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture", because the culprit is an aristocrat, and Hazell wants to prevent scandal. This is incredibly snobbish - but one feels Whitechurch has some sympathy with Hazell, and the murderer in the novel. 4) There are other similarities between Murder at the College and "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture": both involve complex rings of thieves, who are stealing priceless art objects for unscrupulous collectors. 5) The disguise used by the villain in Murder at the College was previously used by Hazell in "The Affair of the German Dispatch-Box".
Lamb is in the mode of earlier young upper crust policemen:
Even during this period Morland was self-educating himself in forensic science, and in later years would edit scientific journals and publish textbooks in this area.
The Case of the Rusted Room (1937) gets the Johnny Lamb series off with a bang. It contains a vivid telling of a murder both committed and detected by scientific means. The story is at its best in the first half (Chapters 1-14). After this, it runs out of inventiveness, and there is nothing interesting in the arbitrary choice of villain at the end. The story shows the Golden Age interest in architecture.
Morland also has a good grasp of commercial life in 1930's England, with convincing looks at engineering businesses and shady financial transactions. Such a flair for business Backgrounds recalls the Realist School of British detection, which grew out of the Scientific School via the works of Freeman Wills Crofts. Lamb's policeman boss Cross is depicted as a methodical, plodding officer, recalling Crofts' sleuth Inspector French, and other policeman heroes of the Realist school writers. Both Cross' presence, and the attention Morland devotes to in-depth looks at business enterprises, represent the incorporation of Realist School approaches as a subsidiary element in his story. Morland has fun contrasting the plodding Cross with his lightning-fast assistant Lamb, the two men also standing for two different schools of detective fiction.
"The Twinkling of an Eye" is most notable for its charming behind-the-scenes look at what a 1895 business manufacturing office is like. The description forms a Background, somewhat similar to those in scientific detection stories of the 1910's to come by MacHarg, Balmer and Reeve. The young hero's education, set forth in detail, is also interesting.
In a small way, "The Twinkling of an Eye" anticipates "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905) by Jacques Futrelle. In both stories, the actions of the hero produce mysteries, startling events that will only be explained at the end of the tale. This makes them different from conventional mysteries, in which only the villain's crimes are mysterious. These hero-created mysteries are far more numerous and hard-to-explain in Futrelle.
"The Twinkling of an Eye" is also a tale in which "secret business information mysteriously escapes an office". Futrelle would write his own such tale, in "The Silver Box" (1907). Meade and Eustace also produced a puzzle of this kind, "The Arrest of Captain Vandaleur" (1899). Both the tales of Meade and Eustace, and that of Futrelle, are more ingenious and impossible crime oriented in this "information escapes" aspect than "The Twinkling of an Eye".
"The Twinkling of an Eye" was a forgotten tale, till LeRoy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso included it in their anthology Early American Detective Stories (2008).
If Adams' tales derive commercially from MacHarg and Balmer, artistically they seem closest to those founders of the scientific school, Meade and Eustace. Several of the plots involve chemistry, others poisonous animals; both are Meade and Eustace trademarks. Just as in M&E, there is often more emphasis on the villain's schemes than on the hero's detection. Adams' villains are more sympathetic than M&E's, however; often they are attacking bad guys who really deserve it, whereas M&E's villains tend to go after innocent victims and nice people.
The Mercy Sign. There is often an atmosphere of horror in Adams's stories, like those of M&E. Adams' "The Mercy Sign" has the best horror mise-en-scène of any story since Meade and Eustace's "Madame Sara" (1902). "The Mercy Sign" is the best story in the collection. It also has the strongest elements of mystery, as opposed to the thriller. It builds up a deep sense of mystery. Strange event follows strange event, all unexplained (till the finale), and all adding to the puzzle. An eerie atmosphere builds up, the sense that that the reader is journeying to the heart of something strange and sinister.
"The Mercy Sign" is in two distinct parts, each with its own characters and setting. The first half recalls Adams' "The Flying Death", with its scientific characters, and outdoor setting in a lonely nature-filled area surprisingly close to New York City. The second half of "The Mercy Sign" instead resembles Adams' "The One Best Bet", with its tale of a political assassination plot, played out against urban buildings.
"The Mercy Sign" is filled with the liberal politics, that one often finds in the American Scientific School. It is one of the most politically significant of detective stories.
The One Best Bet. The tales in the first half of Adams' book tend to have more mystery than those in the second half, the latter being closer to pure thrillers - and less interesting for it. The least likable tale is "The One Best Bet". I read Adams' book twice, many years apart, and both times this story gave me the creeps.
The Man Who Spoke Latin. "The Man Who Spoke Latin" is one of Adams' most comic tales. Like his non-series story "The Flying Death", it involves the bizarre eruption into the present of something from the distant past. The story is set among the intelligentsia and collectors, the same terrain that will be explored so well by S. S. Van Dine and his successors, starting in the 1920's. The story was reprinted by Ellery Queen, who often specialized in such settings.
"The Man Who Spoke Latin" is notable for the exuberance and invention of its undercover roles, something adopted by both villains and heroes in the story. One finds a more serious, or at least more solemn, treatment of undercover work, in MacHarg and Balmer's "The Man Higher Up" (1909). Adams shows good plotting, with the careful elaboration of the undercover identities. There is also much careful detective work, with each new discovery by the hero being justified by a clue he has unearthed through sleuthing. This detective work is inventive, too.
It has three detective characters, each scientifically skilled in different ways. Together, they make up a team. Male bonding runs through the Average Jones stories, as well. A story like "The Mercy Sign" also eventually builds up a team of sleuths.
"The Flying Death" is told with multiple narrators, each producing documents that narrate their part of the case. Such document narration was common in 19th Century authors like Wilkie Collins. It is less frequently seen in 20th Century authors.
"The Flying Death" has less actual detection than the Average Jones stories, which often feature complex deductions by their sleuths. Instead, it simply states a baffling impossible crime problem, then provides a solution at the end.
It is set at Montauk Point, on the far Eastern tip of Long Island in New York. In Adams' era, this locale was nearly devoid of human settlement; today it is the populous summer home of America's snootiest millionaires, and is known as "the Hamptons". More importantly, abstract painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning lived there.
A character in the story is named Colton, anticipating Clinton H. Stagg's detective, Thornley Colton.
Adams expanded the short story "The Flying Death" into a novel, also called The Flying Death (1908). The novel is less of a pure mystery than the short story, mixing in science fiction elements.
Moffett's novel is set in 1907 Paris, where he worked as a foreign correspondent, and is rich in period atmosphere. It is long (400 pages) and leisurely, and filled with humor, melodrama, Great Detectives and master villains, and everything else one can think of. It is also a genuine detective story, with a complex, admirable plot. There is less emphasis on "playing fair" with the reader, and on deduction in obtaining the solution, than in Freeman or later Golden Age writers, however. Moffett does excel, however, at the gradual uncovering and unveiling of the truth behind the mysterious situation through detective work, a skill he could have learned from Anna Katherine Green, or other early writers. His detective is named Paul Coquenil, recalling émile Gaboriau's Parisian detective Lecoq. The villain in Moffett's book and the plot intrigues which surround this villain, bear a family resemblance to those in Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (1868).
The sheer size of Wall, together with the complexity and tremendous variety of the scope of the plot, gives one an "oceanic" feeling, of being involved in a large world where anything can happen. Wall changes its "scale of focus" many times, in a way different from most Golden Age detective novels. It contains everything from the minute examination of physical clues, to complex struggles of political intrigue, from personal attacks on its detective hero, to puzzle plots and scientific detection. At the end one feels that one has lived through a complex experience, one that involves many pauses for reflection, and several gradually dawning new perspectives and points of view.
Toward the end, Moffett makes a sudden detour into "scientific detection", and introduces an early version of both the lie detector and the word association test. He does this with his usual vivid storytelling, and eye for almost surrealistic detail. Both of these devices are used by MacHarg & Balmer. Did he influence MacHarg & Balmer - or vice versa? It would be interesting to find out. I have seen references to non-fiction articles of the period on such devices; perhaps both independently drew on such non-fiction accounts.
Through the Wall makes an interesting contrast with Crofts' The Cask (1920); it shows the romantic's Paris, while The Cask shows the businessman's Paris. Oddly enough, there is plenty of excitement and even romance, too, in The Cask; the two books are complimentary.
There are thematic links between the Card stories and Through the Wall, although they cannot be discussed without giving away their plots.
While "The Mysterious Card Unveiled" involves the paranormal, the events in the much better first story, "The Mysterious Card", are completely naturalistic. Looking at "The Mysterious Card" just by itself, without reference to the sequel, the plot elements form a mystery without a solution. In theory, this mystery could be given a naturalistic solution, although Moffett does not do so. I have always believed that the events in "The Mysterious Card" are so extreme, that it is hard to imagine any solution being created for them. However, the modern writer Edward D. Hoch came up with a reasonably plausible explanation of them in his "The Spy and the Mysterious Card" (EQMM, October 1975), an imaginative feat.
The Man Higher Up. My favorite short story in the collection is "The Man Higher Up" (1909). This tale has brilliant mise-en-scène, where it generates higher and higher excitement as the detectives get closer and closer to nailing the title villain. The story also shows a great deal of realism, taking the reader back stage at the docks, a place and time now preserved forever in their fiction. Arthur B. Reeve, who wrote many scientific detective stories in the 1910's following MacHarg and Balmer, also regularly employed such detailed background portraits of a business or institution in his fiction. One wonders if the "background" in this story and Reeve's work influenced the Freeman-Crofts school's interests in backgrounds, which began with Freeman Wills Crofts' detailed portrait of the shipping industry in The Cask (1920).
"The Man Higher Up" (1909), along with Cleveland L. Moffett's Through the Wall of the same year, marks the first use of the lie detector in fiction.
"The Man Higher Up" is perhaps the most ferocious work of liberal social criticism in detective fiction history. Its attack on corporate corruption seems even more relevant today. The story has an odd sidelight: the heroine of this tale drives an electric car, which were common in 1909, but which Americans cannot buy for love or money in 2006. The oil industry, which considers Americans its slaves, won't let them.
"The Man Higher Up" has a mystery plot, but one which focuses more on understanding a complex, mysterious situation, and less on who done it. The mystery plot is both baffling, and fairly clued. Such an approach will also often be followed by Arthur B. Reeve, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Rinehart's tales will often focus on a Big Secret shared by some of the characters. Finding the secret will be a more central part of the mystery, than identifying the murderer.
The Axton Letters. "The Axton Letters" (1910) is apparently the first of all mystery tales wherein the detective deduces psychological or sociological facts about a bad guy, based on clues he inadvertently included in a letter he wrote. MacHarg and Balmer here deserve credit here as pioneers, but I confess that I have always had considerable skepticism about both this story, and the genre as a whole. Detectives in stories are always noticing that a letter writer spelled a date English style, and rushing out to arrest the Duke of York, the only Englishman among the suspects. But couldn't such a thing be a personal affectation of an American crook? Couldn't the writer have just received a note from a British cousin, and subconsciously imitated his dating style? Suppose it were just a typo? Or what if it were done on purpose, to mislead? Or suppose that the writer's first grade teacher was from England, and taught our crook the English way of doing things. Detectives in stories never seem to encounter any of these glitches. In any case, the storytelling here is nowhere as good as "The Man Higher Up".
The other Trant story in anthologies, "The Private Bank Puzzle", just seems mediocre.
Most of the cases have realistic New York City backgrounds, ranging from the poor in tenement halls to rich people hanging out in night clubs. They probably served as a model for Ellery Queen's later series of short mysteries with realistic New York settings, Q.B.I. (1949-1954). Very few of the cases have mob or underworld settings. The stories are full of a tough, low key realism, but are not especially hard-boiled or in any Hammett derived pulp tradition. Whether rich, poor, working or middle class, the characters in the story are depicted as "typical New Yorkers".
The brief tales are heavily plot oriented. Some of them have mystery puzzle plots, in others the killer's identity is simply found through police work.
O'Malley puts great emphasis on coming up with ingenious ideas to make the killer confess, or make a damaging admission of guilt; the stories contain numerous gimmicks of this type. These stories form a subcategory of the inverted stories of Freeman; here it is not so much how the police are going to discover the killer's identity that is important, as how they are going to trick him into confessing. One sees a similar emphasis on tricking the killer into confession in some of the inverted stories Cornell Woolrich wrote in the early 1940's, and one wonders if Woolrich used the O'Malley tales as a model. The O'Malley stories appeared in slick magazines, such as Colliers, in the 1930's, and some of the police schemes in stories like "No Evidence" remind one of Frederick Irving Anderson's 1920's Book of Murder, which also appeared in the slick Saturday Evening Post. Erle Stanley Gardner's The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) also contains a look at psychological pressure on a criminal to get him to confess. Clearly this idea was "in the air" around 1940. (Gardner's novel also resembles the O'Malley tale "Too Many Miles" in that both deal with mileage on automobiles.)
The science in the early Luther Trant tales tended to be based on psychology, such as the lie detector, or what the killer's words revealed about his mental makeup. The emphasis was on getting the criminal to reveal his mental secrets. This is related to the later approach of the O'Malley tales, with their emphasis on triggering criminal confession. What science there is in the O'Malley stories tends to invoke altered states of consciousness, in which killers might talk, such as "The Sleeptalker" (1931), or the anesthetic based dentistry of "The Man on the Truck". The O'Malley stories also include episodes in which the detective gets small children ("The Sleeptalker", "The Key Man"), naive adolescents ("Too Bad") or animals ("The Scotty Dog", "Dumb Witness") to reveal what they know. In each case, O'Malley has to coax the knowledge out of a brain that is different from an adult's, finding ways of interpreting the non-standard psychology of the witness.
Another persistent theme in the tales concerns O'Malley's ingeniously tracking down suspects, by following up often meager clues. One suspect often leads to another suspect, who in turn leads to a third, until ultimately the actual killer is traced. In general, the O'Malley tales emphasize the ideas of the detective, whether they consist of novel ways to get a killer to confess, or finding ways to track down suspects from the slenderest of clues. Almost none of them glamorize the "routine police work" beloved of the Freeman Wills Crofts school of police procedurals. O'Malley does a good deal of routine investigation, and more frequently delegates this to other cops, but the knowledge gained therefrom is more often treated as the raw material for O'Malley's clever ideas, not as an ultimate end in itself.
Several of the cases involve a tangle of personal relationships, with jealous love triangles and rival lovers. The pattern of interrelationships can get complex, and forms a major part of the plot.
"Written in Dust" and "The Widow's Share" (1937) deal with payroll robberies, a subject that would later be popular in books and films. As in "The Man Higher Up", these stories take one back stage at a business. So, in its own way, does "The Locked Door", a tale that shows some interesting geographical patterns.
The story "Man Missing" (1935) suggests that MacHarg had been reading Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920). "The Right Gun" (1939) recalls Ellery Queen, with its boxing arena setting, and search for a missing gun. Also Queen like is this stories' sympathetic black character.
The cover of the 1951 paperback of The Affairs of O'Malley (1940) (retitled Smart Guy) shows a vivid illustration taken from the story "A Little More Evidence". I don't know the name of the artist.
S.S. Van Dine started a tradition, followed by Ellery Queen and other later commentators, of slamming Reeve's work, and suggesting that it is less "realistic" than R. Austin Freeman's. This is a complex issue. Freeman's work tends to deal with detection using small, scientifically accurate facts. In this sense there is probably more accuracy in Freeman's work. Freeman's cases tend to be ordinary crimes, and only the detection draws on scientific methods. These detective methods are presented with meticulous, accurate care. They form a realistic picture of the best aspects of scientific lab work used in crime detection of their era.
Reeve tends to deal with sweeping advances in technology, and use these as the center of his mystery plots. Reeve undoubtedly oversteps the bounds of accuracy on several occasions. But his work is inspiring in the way Freeman's is not. In Reeve one gets the sense of massive waves of technological advance breaking on humanity's shores. These advances will change the way in which people live. It is easy to understand why The Silent Bullet caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1910's. It paints an electrifying picture of the march of science. Sam Moskowitz has aptly linked Reeve's popularity, to the eventual rise of Hugo Gernsback and the first American science fiction magazines. His work certainly seems ancestral to the sense of wonder found in 1930's and 1940's sf.
In the first two volumes of Kennedy tales, the detective gathers all the suspects together at the end of the story, then reveals the identity of the killer to them during his final speech solving the crime. This is a plot device that will be greatly reused by later writers. Reeve is the first writer known to me systematically to adopt this approach.
Scientist Craig Kennedy is assisted in all the tales by his "Watson", newspaper reporter Walter Jameson. These professions recall Jacques Futrelle's scientist-detective, the Thinking Machine, and the newsman Hutchinson Hatch who assists him. While some of the Thinking Machine stories center on science, the series as a whole is not systematically science oriented, the way the Craig Kennedy stories are. Both Craig Kennedy and the Thinking Machine frequently send their aides out on mysterious errands, connected with the case. Walter Jameson recalls Watson in Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales, in that he narrates the stories, is frequently baffled by the sleuth's detective work, is deeply loyal to the detective, and rooms with the sleuth in modestly middle class lodgings.
Reeve's tales are far less puzzle plot oriented than Futrelle's, and many other mystery writers; there are few impossible crime tales among Reeve's huge output, unlike Futrelle, who specialized in such works.
Paradoxically, while there are many vividly described locales in Reeve's work, there are few maps, and the actual geometric layout of a room or building is rarely relevant to Reeve's plots. The same can be said of the scientific detection school as a whole: the locale and architecture are important, the geometric layout is not, and I cannot recall ever seeing a map or floor plan diagram in any scientific detective work.
"Spontaneous Combustion" and "The Death Tube" have a similar structure. In both, events are seemingly caused by one set of technological circumstances, but the detective proves that they are actually produced by different technological causes. Both possible explanations are given interestingly detailed expositions. We are also shown Craig Kennedy using science and technology to gather evidence for the different solution. All of this material is fascinating. Who committed the crimes lis less emphasized. At the tales' end, we learn who-done-it, after Kennedy gathers scientific evidence against them, but there are few clues before this to the identity of the guilty party. In other words, the who-done-it aspects lack "fair play". The choice of criminal and their motive is plausible, though, and especially detailed in "The Death Tube". Both motives involve financial gain in wealthy families, exploiting or ripping-off other members' money. Both tales have looks at sympathetic servants.
"The Death Tube" has some of the "light show" qualities one associates with William Hope Hodgson. The tales have other sidelights not closely related to their mystery plots: "Spontaneous Combustion" looks at how news was gathered by papers, and travel to a remote resort area in the Adirondacks. "The Death Tube" shows the somewhat "fast" lifestyles of the wealthy, anticipating the deeper look at pre-Jazz Age mores in The Social Gangster.
"The Black Hand" is a thriller or suspense tale without mystery. Kennedy works to rescue a kidnapped child, of a famous Italian tenor. "The Black Hand" gives an exceptionally detailed look at Italian-American life of the era, bringing in all sorts of unexpected sidelights. It is one of Reeve's interesting sociological portraits, a picture of contemporary life. Reeve also trains his sights briefly on candy, talking about the sociological and manufacturing background of the candy the poor Italian children eat. The story is the work of a man genuinely curious about society, and eager to share what he knows with readers.
"The Black Hand" shows the maze-like architecture of the urban Italian neighborhoods. The ability to approach areas from back entrances and obscure paths is emphasized in both the restaurant and crime scene buildings. The path followed by the wires, and by Kennedy when he installs them, is dramatic and interestingly oblique.
Both the restaurant and the candy show the Italian districts as centers of food production and distribution.
Technology in "The Black Hand" involves listening devices. Reeve's finale shows how such devices can intervene in a split-second rescue and negotiation with crooks. This idea is simple but effective. It shows Reeve's technology affecting a thriller situation, rather than being used for detection as in his other tales. Still, the technology is used to gain information about a crime, making it borderline-detection, too.
The Poisoned Pen. The short stories in Reeve's second collection The Poisoned Pen are a direct continuation of the Craig Kennedy series in The Silent Bullet. Although not quite as intense, they too are often outstanding works of detective literature.
"The Campaign Grafter" in The Poisoned Pen takes us backstage at a political campaign, showing us its operation in detail. Many of Reeve's stories give a detailed, systematic exposition of some institution of public life. The campaign here is run on organized principles, with the aid of both technology and modern methods of business organization: also typical of the institutions or businesses Reeve shows us. Such backgrounds were present in Reeve's fiction, many years before Freeman Wills Crofts introduced the Background as part of British Realist School's approach, in The Cask (1920). Reeve's work could easily have been influenced by the background in MacHarg and Balmer's "The Man Higher Up" (1909).
Hugh Greene, in his introduction to The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1976), noted all the social criticism in this and other American detective stories of the period. The characters in "The Campaign Grafter" are explicitly involved in liberal politics. Samuel Hopkins Adams was a liberal crusader outside of his fiction work, and there are liberal political orientations in MacHarg and Balmer, and Francis Lynde, as well. One can see strong liberal social criticism in Mary Roberts Rinehart's scientific detective novella, "The Curve of the Catenary" (1915). Such liberalism seems to be common in American scientific detective school writers. So far, I have seen little sign of it in their British scientific detective fiction predecessors.
"The Campaign Grafter" looks at scientific aspects of interpreting photographs, and at the use of sound communication technology, such as dictaphones. Both image and sound technology will run through Reeve's fiction, in some of his best stories.
The Dream Doctor. Reeve's third Craig Kennedy collection, The Dream Doctor (collected 1914), continues the scientific detection of the first two. Especially interesting in it are "The Phantom Circuit" and "The Green Curse". These inventive stories show the possibilities of technological variations on the telephone, utilized both for crime and detection. Both stories differ from most earlier Kennedy tales in that they have suspense-oriented climaxes, instead of the pick-the-killer finales of earlier Reeve stories. The finale of "The Green Curse" is especially well done. Both stories also have criminals from outside of the characters depicted in the story; Reeve experiments here with sinister European radical groups as villains. "The Kleptomaniac" (1912) is another story in the same telephone-oriented approach, but it is not quite as inventive. It includes an early description of a wire recorder, later a much used device in real life.
"The Vampire" (1913) is a rich story. Part of it shows us the world of industrial research, a subject that will return in later scientific detective authors, such as Lawrence G. Blochman's "A Taste for Tea" (1958). Part of it also explores the world of microbiology, a subject that had recently been written about by R. Austin Freeman, in "A Message From the Deep Sea" and "A Wastrel's Romance". Reeve extends this study of the very small to the medium of motion pictures, an imaginative idea for 1913. The finale of the tale shows many different clues dovetailing together to reveal a coherent solution: always an exciting experience for mystery fans.
"The Ghouls" also deals with innovative motion picture bio-photography, the best part of a more minor story.
The scientific aspects of "The Death House" seem dubious, especially the idea that other scientists would overlook the discoveries made so easily by Craig Kennedy in the tale. The story does contain a touching account of a widow's attempt to help her husband, who is in Sing Sing Prison. Director Maurice Tourneur would soon make a film on location at this famous US prison in Ossining, New York, Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915). This delightful crime movie was released on video from the US Library of Congress. Among prose writers, Jacques Futrelle's famous "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905) had also dealt with a prison, and Jack Boyle would soon write about prison life in Boston Blackie.
The War Terror. Reeve's fourth Craig Kennedy collection, The War Terror (collected 1915), opens with a politically remarkable story, "The War Terror" (1914), which appeared shortly after the start of the war in Europe in August 1914. Reeve indicates sympathy with the anti-war goals of the villains, but is opposed to their violent methods.
"The Air Pirate" is one of Reeve's most lyrical stories. It creates an elaborate land-and-waterscape, centering on a bay in Long Island, and populates it with different kinds of light. It has the visionary qualities one associates with William Hope Hodgson, but in a gentler and more joyous spirit. Its setting among rich socialites enjoying themselves anticipates Reeve's "The Social Gangster" in his next collection, and its water and boats subject matter anticipates "The Sixth Sense" in that same upcoming collection.
The Social Gangster. Reeve's fifth Craig Kennedy collection, The Social Gangster (collected 1916), is set at a turning point in American history. It is the period just before the Jazz Age. There are clear signs here that Americans want to party, and live wilder and more bon vivant life styles than before. The two opening tales in the collection, "The Social Gangster" and "The Tango Thief" (1915), offer vivid and frank looks at this new attitude. (These tales seem to be known as "To Save Gloria" and "The Dancing Blackmailer" in the British edition.) "The Social Gangster" depicts nightclubs as places where women can hire "a new class of men", gigolos or lounge lizards who quietly sell their romantic services to women. Here it is men who have become the sex objects, dressing up in fashionable clothes, and having elaborate manners. But the story also shows that mainstream men are part of the same movement, with the wealthy husband showing off his social status by dressing up as the Master of the Fox Hunt at the Hunt Club where he is president. This is a place where nouveau riche Americans can pretend to be part of ancient English traditions. It's a "swagger organization", Reeve points out. It's all an elaborate pretense: there is no actual fox in the hunt, which is simply following trails of scent. This is both humane, and an expression of the swagger of the characters in creating social rituals. A decade later, Jazz Age chronicler F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1925) will have his hero dressed to the teeth in the male finery used by Reeve's lounge lizards, and his rich villain in the hunt costume used by the wealthy man in Reeve's story. Reeve's tale is a vivid look at these new possibilities for men. Reeve locates all of this as part of New York City culture, as Fitzgerald later will, with the rich Society types in both hanging out on Long Island. In both Reeve and Fitzgerald, women find these kind of men irresistible, something that both the men and the women seem to enjoy, despite all of Reeve's narrator's moralistic clucking. Coincidentally or not, Reeve and Fitzgerald both attended Princeton University, very much a home in that era of this sort of high life.
The other best detective tale in The Social Gangster, "The Sixth Sense" (1915), deals with a whole host of new communication devices. Like the best stories in The Dream Doctor, these are creative versions of the telephone. "The Social Gangster" also has a subplot, dealing with a different sort of extension of another communications medium, radio. Both tales also have Italian characters, probably reflecting the fact that Marconi, the famous inventor of radio, was Italian. Among the most vivid images in "The Sixth Sense" are the sparks in the stable. This image is echoed by the iodine at the end of "The Evil Eye", another tale in the collection.
"The Evil Eye" is an entertaining tale, involving strange chemicals, as well as some non-stereotyped sidelights on race relations circa 1915. Its basic plot has similarities to Agatha Christie's "The Cretan Bull" in The Labors of Hercules (1939 - 1940). One of the chemicals in "The Evil Eye", pilocarpine, also turns up in Christie's "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter" (1928) in The Thirteen Problems. Reeve's nightclub in "The Social Gangster" with its irresistible gigolo finds an echo in a similar club in Christie's "The Capture of Cerberus" in The Labors of Hercules. Reeve's constant use of romantic subplots playing both a role in the mystery, and a love interest strand for readers who like love stories, is also a feature of much of Christie's fiction.
The Panama Plot. Reeve's seventh Craig Kennedy collection, The Panama Plot (collected 1918), starts out with six tales set in Latin America, followed by four US laid tales. The Latin American stories have some common features:
The tales are somewhat on the middle level of Reeve's achievement. They all tend to be weak as mystery stories, with the exception of "The Black Diamond". The identity of the criminal in them is often arbitrary. However, the knowledge makes a good reading experience.
Later, in the 1930's, both Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie will include the dope trade in their stories, with a singular lack of realism: both make it sound like a Satanic cult participated in mainly by rich members of Cafe society, and sold by ingenious if implausible drug supply networks whose literary source seems to be cheap spy thrillers. The sorts of spy rings prominent in English fiction, with secret warehouses, ingenious means of transporting secret documents, members with aliases, and odd communication schemes have simply been adapted by 1930's British writers to form a portrait of drug cartels. Reeve is far more realistic, and leaves behind a grim portrait of some of the human wreckage caused by the drug traffic.
The drugstores here and in Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (1919) are so sinister that one wonders what ordinary people thought about them in the teens. Later in the 30's Mary Roberts Rinehart will depict them mainly as well lit places that are open all night and where one can make a telephone call: this suggests urban alienation and the sort of loneliness shown in Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks (1942).
Reeve's work in these tales is more cynical than his Craig Kennedy stories. Those tales often depicted the well to do as corrupt, and had plenty of social commentary. But they usually showed the police as honest. Here there is Drummond, a crooked detective, who makes deals with and shakes down the drug dealers. Constance Dunlap herself is a reformed thief, and her friends are deep in vice and drug use. It is a very dark portrait, and definitive in its condemnation of drug use. I liked the world of the heroic, idealistic Kennedy better, but have to admit that this one has compelling qualities, too.
"The Clairvoyants" (1914) has become famous for its mention of Freud, very early in the history of detective fiction, and perhaps of literature of any kind. The tale explores Freud's theories of dream interpretation. Two of a woman's dreams are given interpretations, first by a crooked psychic, then using Freud's ideas by heroine Constance Dunlap. Dunlap's interpretations focus on sexuality, which she says Freud views as the basis of dreams.
The dreams, as interpreted by Dunlap, focus on the feelings the woman has for two rival men in her life. They show the men as attractive, and sources of sexuality. Like Reeve's later Kennedy tales "The Social Gangster" and "The Tango Thief", "The Clairvoyants" shows male sexuality and its attractive display, this time in dreams.
The crooked psychic is billed as a "dream doctor". This echoes the title of one of Reeve's Kennedy stories, "The Dream Doctor". "The Dream Doctor" is also Freud-based, and is close in its ideas to "The Clairvoyants". Both stories show:
"The Clairvoyants" is barely any sort of mystery story. The reader and Dunlap suspect right away that the psychic is a phony, and there is otherwise no mystery puzzle in the plot. SPOILER. Dunlap does do a nice piece of detective work, in deducing that the woman has worked with a stockbroker before. This is based on Dunlap's conviction that dreams reflect the past.
The emphasis on public and industrial life in Lynde, and the fighting of villains composed of wealthy, robber baron era plutocratic forces, links Lynde's tales to other American scientific detective writers of the era, such as MacHarg and Balmer. Lynde in fact uses "the man higher up" to refer to such big time corporate crooks, just as MacHarg and Balmer did in their Luther Trant mystery short story, "The Man Higher Up" (1909). Since one does not know the original date of Lynde's stories publication in magazines, it is hard to tell whether Lynde has priority is using this phrase, or MacHarg and Balmer. Peter Haining, in the excellent anthology Murder on the Railways (1996), says the first Sprague stories appeared in Scribner's Magazine in 1911. Also, at least two of Lynde's Sprague tales first appeared in The Popular Magazine in 1912. Meanwhile MacHarg and Balmer's The Achievements of Luther Trant was in book form in 1910, so one suspects that MacHarg and Balmer came first.
A limitation of Lynde's work is its simplicity as a mystery. The mystery plot of "The Electrocution of Tunnel Number Three" will be easily guessed by most readers. The unfolding "mystery" is so obvious, in fact, that the story seems more like a non-mystery oriented thriller, rather than a true work of mystery and detection.
Lynde's characters are largely engineers and railway men. They have a uniform characterization: most are handsome, virile young men, out to build great railways across the vast continent. This can lead to a story in which the twenty main characters all have nearly the same personality and characterization. Tales about such daring young engineers, building great projects in remote locations, were standard in the adventure fiction of the time, often having no mystery elements. Lynde's work, with its rich engineering and railroad detail, and skimpy mystery aspects, can often seem to be essentially part of this non-mystery adventure genre. Lynde's characters have almost no private lives; the romantic intrigues prevalent in most mystery fiction are simply absent here, and the stories tend to have all-male casts.
Lynde's emphasis on complex, constructed landscapes can recall the works of Arthur Morrison. The tunnel and surrounding railroad lines in "The Electrocution of Tunnel Number Three" are described in vivid detail. As in Morrison, this landscape is full of technology, and its operation is explained in terms of scientific principles.
"In the Shadow of the Pines" takes place in a North Woods logging camp, apparently in Canada. A logging camp is a technological locale, and the story is tentatively placed among Scientific Detection. Such a locale recalls a bit the railroad construction camps in Francis Lynde's Scientific Sprague. However, Andrews seems less detailedly technological than Lynde, and "In the Shadow of the Pines" lacks a technologist sleuth-hero comparable to Lynde's.
The North Wood background also recalls Hesketh Prichard's November Joe: Detective of the Woods (1913).
SPOILER. "In the Shadow of the Pines" has "how-done-it" aspects: there is a mystery about the means used to commit the murder.
And the story takes place in the public realm familiar to us from Arthur B. Reeve. Stagg uses the same sort of embezzlement from a bank situation that another scientifically oriented detective writer, Mary Roberts Rinehart, used in The Circular Staircase (1907). While Rinehart set her story in a country house in the days following the embezzlement, Stagg set his tale in the bank itself, right at the time of the robbery.
Stagg's story also reminds one more than a little of Stagg's other American contemporaries Jacques Futrelle and Thomas Hanshew, both of whom fall among the impossible crime specialists of their time. The story does not promote itself as an impossible crime tale, but it is indeed darned hard to figure out how this crime could have been committed. Futrelle also wrote a classic involving bank embezzlement: "The Man Who Was Lost". "The Fee", the New York City working class kid who assists Colton, recalls a similar boy Dollops, who works with Hanshew's detective Hamilton Cleek.
Stagg's tale is more a full fledged puzzle plot detective story than are the works of S.H. Adams, for instance. Indeed, S.S. Van Dine clearly tagged Stagg as an intuitionist writer. Stagg was one of the authors burlesqued by Agatha Christie in Partners in Crime (1929); and this story in particular seems to be the subject of Christie's spoof. So for all its obscurity today, Stagg's work was fully known to some of the major intuitionist writers of the Golden Age, Van Dine and Christie. Van Dine also felt the compensating powers given to Colton by his creator were unbelievable, and that he suffered in realism compared with Bramah's blind sleuth Max Carrados. Christie's parody also hints at a lack of realism in Colton's treatment. I would extend these remarks to a broader criticism, that not only the treatment of blindness, but many aspects of Stagg's writing, suffer from implausibility. Still, even if implausible, it is joyously inventive, and I am looking forward to more of Stagg's fiction.
Isabel Ostrander created the blind sleuth Damon Gaunt, who appeared in the pleasant-enough but fairly ordinary mystery novel At One-Thirty (1915); he seems just a bit later than Thornley Colton and Max Carrados. One suspects that At One-Thirty is the same work as the magazine serial Eyes that Saw Not, which appeared in The Cavalier starting in February 14, 1914. There is a vivid portrait of what seems to be Damon Gaunt on the cover of this issue.
MacHarg and Balmer produced a mystery novel with a blind hero, The Blind Man's Eyes (serialized in The Blue Book Magazine in 1915, in book form 1916).
Later, in the 1930's, Baynard Kendrick will create famed blind detective Captain Duncan Maclain.
Silver Sandals is an inoffensive novel, but uneven in its quality. It has a startling opening scene, the best thing in the book. But the macabre scene is eventually "explained" in an arbitrary fashion, that never links the opening events to any motive that is part of the real world, or to anything that is logical or consistent. This non-explanation is bound to disappoint any fan of Golden Age mystery fiction, who expects a logically constructed puzzle. Stagg sometimes wrote excellent puzzle plot mysteries, such as "The Keyboard of Silence" - but not here.
The actual murder mystery does get fully solved: this book is a real detective novel, not a thriller.
The subplot about the missing waiter is inventive, in a pure mystery sense. It comes to an impressive solution in Chapter 9, halfway through the book.
Silver Sandals has a quality of sinister mystery hanging over the characters, the sense they are all trapped in some dark, secret events. This quality is quite powerful in some early American detective novels, such as Cleveland Moffett's Through the Wall (1909), and the works of Anna Katherine Green. As in such Green books as The Chief Legatee (1906), we eventually discover that many of the characters have been involved in sinister subcultures, that stretch back over decades of their lives.
Also somewhat Green-like, is the way that partial explanations of the mysterious plot keep dribbling out, chapter after chapter, with a sense that the darkness of the mystery is slowly being penetrated. Stagg manages to make most of these revelations fairly interesting. They are not fair play: the reader cannot logically anticipate them through the use of clues. But they do form logical extensions of preceding events. The revelations come at a fairly slow pace: Stagg is trying to fill up 300 pages. But they do have a relentless, implacable quality.
Stagg has more Green-like features, in which Colton looks over the crime scene, gathering clues that help him reconstruct the crime (Chapter 11). Such reconstructions were Green specialties, something she inherited from Gaboriau. Colton's version is also logically designed, to show off his blind detective's special skills.
Should you read Silver Sandals? Only if you have a special interest in this sort of Edwardian melodrama kind of detective fiction. The book is best in its first half (Chapters 1 - 11), which has atmosphere and storytelling. The book would make a good movie, especially if the action concentrates on the first half of Stagg's novel.
Ball's tone is a good deal livelier and more slangy than Reeve's, however. Ball tries to give a satiric account of fast living in New York City.
The book is strongest in the first eight chapters. After this, the invention flags, the science mainly disappears, and we get more of a routine thriller. Detection disappears too: in Chapter 9, the sleuth figures out who the villain is just by looking at him! There are few mystery or detection elements after this point.
Ball's knowledge of motion picture technology seems sophisticated. Ball was the author of a how-to-write-screenplays guide The Art of the Photoplay (1913), whose title page gives a long resume of Ball's employement in the film industry. Its dedication is to the members of the "Screen Club of New York". Ball also wrote Photoplay Scenarios: How to Write and Sell Them (1915).
Shirley differs from many other sleuths of his era, in that he is unequivocally heterosexual. He has a full scale romance with a heroine who aids him in his work in this novel. The author repeatedly shows Shirley's sexual passion for the heroine.
Shirley also differs from many other sleuths in that he is an ex-jock, having been a star football player at college.
While Shirley has the scientific skills of other detectives of the era, he also gets involved in violence, in a way that does not resemble most members of the Scientific School. He regularly has to battle gangsters and hitmen, and gets involved with shoot-outs. The level of violence anticipates hard-boiled pulp private eyes of the 1920's. Shirley is very much a private detective for hire, and he works with a tough ex-cop who runs a private detective agency.
Shirley has also studied "jiu-jitsu" under a Japanese teacher (Chapter 3). As far back as 1915, white US detectives were mastering the mysterious arts of the East, to aid them in their work! Ball has his terminology right, even in this era: his sleuth now understands the ways of "samurais".
The upper crust villain also loves the arts. He has a large art collection, which anticipates Philo Vance's art collection, seen in Vance's debut in The Benson Murder Case (1926). However, the villain's art collection in The Voice on the Wire is not as intellectually sophisticated as Vance's, or as reflective of world art. The villain seems especially proud of his etchings by Whistler - linking the villain to the Aesthetic Movement (Chapter 16). The villain also has a crayon sketch by Franz von Lenbach, the Bavarian portrait painter who is best known for painting Richard Wagner, and his over 100 portraits of German military leader Otto von Bismarck. There is perhaps a political undertone here. Ball also makes an interesting observation on the paradox of the villain's love of art and his sinister lack of morals: "That such a connoisseur of art objects could harbor in so broad and cultured a mind the machinations of such infamy seemed almost incredible. The riddle was not new with Reginald Warren's case: for morals and "culture" have shown their sociological, economic and even diplomatic independence of each other from the time when the memory of man runneth not!"
Among the philosophers the villain admires are Tolstoi and Kropotkin. But Ball shows little interest in or understanding of the anarchism these writers preached.
The villain is one of the young men who like to hang around tango dance halls. Ball describes such young men in terms similar to Arthur B. Reeve: "that peculiarly Manhattanse type of hanger-on — well-groomed, happy-go-hellward youths who danced, laughed and drank well" (Chapter 4); "The newcomers were garbed in that debonair and "cultured" modishness so dear to the hearts of magazine illustrators" (Chapter 9). However, these young men seem to be richer than Reeve's polished gigolos - the men in Ball seem to have ties to Wall Street. Still, in both Reeve and Ball there is something transgressive about these polished young men. They seem to be upsetting the social and sexual order. Naturally, in the real world outside of fiction, this characterization and look seems to be making a big hit with the public! By the time of Dashiell Hammett's "The Scorched Face" (1925), such polished clothes and appearance have spread to lower middle class young salesmen in San Francisco. Hammett also sees such young men as ominous and distinctly sinister.
Ball notes that the food at a typical tango tea-room consists of "indigestible pastries". Ball's tone is satiric: he is giving an inside look about everything that is second-rate in the fashionable world. Such an observation would never appear in Arthur B. Reeve. In Reeve, the reader is always seeing what Reeve considers "the best" or "most advanced": the latest and greatest in society, science and life. Reeve might consider tango tea-rooms as evil, but there is nothing second rate about them! At least in Reeve's depiction. Ball's sly skepticism pervades his slangy, humorous comments on the city scene throughout The Voice on the Wire.
The Voice on the Wire is full of what the author calls "gangsters". These violent, sinister members of criminal gangs are not quite what most people think of as gangsters today. In 1915, a "gangster" was a lower class member of a two-bit street corner gang, a violent, unscrupulous brute who engaged in murder, theft and other violent crimes. Only in the mid-1920's did big-time gangsters involved with illegal booze like Al Capone emerge - the modern image of the "gangster". The depiction of the gangster in The Voice on the Wire recalls movies of the era, such as D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and Raoul Walsh's Regeneration (1915). A theatrical manager says that "the public... [is] just crazy about gangster melodrama. They're paying opera prices for the old time ten-twent-and-thirt-melodrama, right on Broadway" (Chapter 12), an interesting observation about which I would like to know more.
In general, Ball seems observant of social trends. His ideas are probably superficial. Still, one of the selling points of his book was undoubtedly that it gave readers an inside look at all sorts of glamorous or fascinating activities in New York City.
In his history of detective fiction, S.S. Van Dine grouped Ernest M. Poate, A.E.W. Mason, and himself all together; there are suggestions that this is because all use a "psychological" approach to detection. However, the authors are all very different. Poate's main series detective character, Dr. Bentiron, is a New York City psychiatrist, and Poate's works are full of a doctrinaire Freudianism. The detection in a Poate story such as his novella "In Self Defense" (1920), is little more than a series of Freudian profiles of the main suspects. Arthur B. Reeve had introduced Freud in "The Clairvoyants", one of his Constance Dunlap stories (1914), as well as in his Craig Kennedy story, "The Dream Doctor" (1913), but Poate's fiction is apparently its first systematic use in mystery fiction. Dr. Bentiron uses such MacHarg and Balmer like devices as a lie detector at the climax of this story, and his detective is a psychologist like MacHarg and Balmer's sleuth Luther Trant, but his main interest here is psychopathology. I confess that I am really allergic to Poate's Freudian sludge, and enjoy it not at all. Other early looks at Freudianism in mystery fiction include Harvey J. O'Higgins' Detective Duff Unravels It (collected in book form 1929, but probably earlier in magazines) and Nancy Barr Mavity's The Tule Marsh Murder (1928-1929). All of these works seem colossally unappealing to me. They are all downright depressing.
A. E. W. Mason's interest, by contrast, is in the depiction of monstrously abnormal killers. These characters are rooted in horror fiction. While clearly depicted by Mason as mentally aberrant, they are mainly used to give the reader chills.
Van Dine's approach is very different from either of these writers. It is based in what we would today call cognitive psychology. Philo Vance believes that all people have characteristic mental patterns, and that by studying the patterns of a crime and its suspects, one can identify the author of a crime. It is similar to the way an art historian can identify the authorship of an anonymous painting, by comparing its visual style to those of known painters. This is an interesting idea, and one that would appeal to an art connoisseur like Van Dine, but one which he never really applies in much depth to his detective novels.
Rufus King also has his detective interested in psychology. In King's case, this is mainly the aberrant psychology of criminals, but King's own popularized brand of the same. Valcour mainly encounters beautiful but evil seductresses, weaving their webs of crime, and his female characters often encounter handsome, suave crooks whose appeal masks heaven knows what deviltry. "Psychology" in King is often limited to an exploration of what these sexy villainesses and villains are up to.
But all of this is embedded in a Carolina based tale, which also makes it very different in feel from Bentiron. Poate has loaded his story with traditional Southern atmosphere, including white columned mansions for the town's leading citizens, shrewd, homespun country sheriffs, small town politics and bootleggers in the hills who are afraid of revenuers. Think of a cross between Gone With the Wind and The Dukes of Hazzard, and you will get the idea. Poate has some good descriptive writing: see the scrub oak country visit at the start of Chapter 21.
Mainly this book is a minor curiosity. Its leisurely paced storytelling is sometimes fun to read, but anyone should be able to figure out the mystery. The solution involves one of the mystery clichés Craig Rice later said she would love to spoof: see the introduction to Rice's People Vs Withers and Malone. I've always wondered about the origin of this cliché: maybe this book is it!
The novel reflects many features of the American Scientific school of its day:
There are three different sets of impossible crimes in the story:
Into Thin Air contains a number of experimental features, offering variations on the typical detective story construction. Such experimentation derives not from the Scientific School, but from an eclectic series of general purpose detective novels.
An unknown person invites eight guests to a party at a swank penthouse apartment. No one knows who the host is. But the guests discover that they are locked in. And the radio tells them that their host is going to kill them, one by one. This is largely the same setup Agatha Christie used eight years later in And Then There Were None. Christie undoubtedly knew this book, and built upon its ideas. However, Christie's version is also much more entertaining. While both authors eventually provide a fair play solution to the mystery, Christie's is different - and vastly more imaginative.
Another key difference in the two works: The Invisible Host is steeped in technology. The authors have come up with endless high tech devices to keep the guests trapped in the penthouse. For example, doors that will electrocute anyone who touches them. In many ways, this is a scientific detective story. They also make a big deal about the radio that speaks with messages from their sinister host all night. Christie has none of this. Christie instead isolates her guests by the simple device of having them all stranded on an island. Low tech, but effective. There is also no equivalent of the radio in Christie's novel.
The Invisible Host is pretty grim. It is full of despairing meditations by the guests about approaching death. This might be realistic, but it is not what most people want to read after a hard day's work. Nor are the endless sadistic technological traps set by the bad guy really much fun. The book is a disappointing curiosity of detective fiction history.
A mystery fiction bibliography can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
Dan Stumpf's review of Five Fragments is at MYSTERY*FILE. The film version Fog Over Frisco is discussed as well in my article on its director William Dieterle.
How Done It?. The Catalyst Club has two chief merits. One is a "howdunit" mystery plot. It is not clear how the murder was committed: what physical methods were used. The Catalyst Club develops four different solutions to this puzzle, each a fairly plausible explanation of how the crime was committed.
The first solution is offered right away (Chapter 2). The other three possible answers emerge in stages throughout the novel. Because at least one solution is set forth at the book's start, the killing never remotely looks like an "impossible crime". The killing always looks totally possible, even if its actual method of execution is a riddle. This makes the killing in The Catalyst Club different from the howdunits of many other authors, which often look impossible and which make their plots "impossible crime" puzzles.
Forensics. The other chief merit of The Catalyst Club, is the result of the first forensic investigation of the corpse and crime scene (Chapter 4). This is one of the most detailed forensic examinations in a Golden Age era mystery.
Who Done It?. The Catalyst Club also has many limitations. The identity of the murderer is easily figured out. SPOILER. This is mainly because the killer is linked to a phony alibi of a kind that is utterly standard and common. As soon as I read this alibi, I knew who the killer was. Also, the killer is a standard sociological type, whose profession and attitudes were often the sign of a crazed killer in old mysteries.
Only the last of the four explanations of the "howdunit" gives us any clue to the murderer: they are mainly methods that could be used by anyone.
The best clue to the murderer involves the unusual hammer found at the crime scene. The hammer has a strange shape, one I've never seen - and which the book's characters had never seen either. The book includes a drawing of the hammer: one of the multi-media features that sometimes occur in old detective fiction. This makes the shape clear. Both the hammer's shape, and forensic details, provide well-done clues to the killer's identity.
Group Detection. Detection in The Catalyst Club is unusual, in that it is performed by a whole team of sleuths, the Catalyst Club of the title, rather than by a single detective. The book makes a big deal of this approach. At one point, the author declares that good detective work requires a whole team, and that the individual genius sleuth should be discarded as an approach.
I am less impressed with this idea as some sort of great innovation, than the author himself is. Most mystery novels draw on the local police force as an investigating team. Whether the lead is a cop himself, or an amateur or private eye, usually there are police in the background to do leg work, forensics, manhunts and other team-requiring business. And if the sleuth needs scientific expertise or skill in a foreign language, there is usually a friendly professor with whom he consults. Thus, most mystery novels draw on a whole "team" of detectives, while maintaining one sleuth in the lead role as chief investigator in the book.
Characters. The Catalyst Club is mainly populated with "types", rather than genuinely characterized individuals: another limitation. We get a generic young crime reporter, a standard chemistry-lab head who does forensic work, a rich businessman robber baron, a typical wealthy nephew, a spoiled rich girl and so on. They all seem like types we've met before.
The energetic crime reporter Persen "Buzz" Drake is convincing in his job performance. George Dyer had worked as a newspaperman in San Francisco, and there is a lot of detail about a reporter's life. However, none of this detail seems especially original.
The most original character in The Catalyst Club is Newton Bulger, one of the sleuths. He is a middle-aged man of apparently working class origin, who is an expert on every sort of machinery (Chapter 1). He is currently working as an industrial machinery salesman: a white collar job, but still a sort of "working stiff" profession. Bulger applies his skill at machinery and the mechanical to analyzing crime scenes. As a character, he resembles a bit Polton in R. Austin Freeman's books and Archibald Hobson in Clifford Witting's Measure for Murder (1941). All of these men serve as reminders that the working class is rich in both intelligence and skills. Their mechanical expertise is of great use to everyone.
Violence and Misogyny. The crime in The Catalyst Club is grislier than most Golden Age mysteries: hardly a virtue from my point of view. We gets lots of gory detail. There was a subgenere of luridly violent pulp magazine short stories in the 1930's, but few "respectable" mysteries published as books that were this gruesome.
As in many of today's serial killer stories, the violence is against women: something many people today argue is offensive and misogynist. I agree. Also, the victim is a "woman being punished for sexual activity": one of the most misogynist cliches of today's horror films.
Racism. Two of the characters go out of their way, to use an ugly term to describe the elderly Chinese servant. This is highly objectionable.
Mystery Traditions. The Catalyst Club has link to the British Realist School. It resembles R. Austin Freeman of the Realist School in:
Landscape Architecture. The grounds of the murder mansion are depicted in detail, complete with map. Such an interest in landscape architecture was popular in many schools of mystery fiction, not just followers of Freeman Wills Crofts. For example, aspects of the grounds in The Catalyst Club recall The Dragon Murder Case (1933) by S.S. Van Dine.
Cyriak Brill-Jones' investigation of the murder grounds is especially good (Chapters 13, 14). It turns many features of the grounds into subjects for study and investigation.
The team's meeting place in a park (Chapter 1) is also original and imaginative, considered as a place mixing landscape and architecture. This meeting place combines aspects of "indoors" and "outdoors".
Much of The Catalyst Club takes place outside, but in outdoor locations that are also highly "architectural". In addition to the elaborately built-up mansion grounds and the team's meeting place in the park, there are also views of the San Francisco docks.
Murder in Hollywood combines this scientific detection with thriller elements out of old time melodramas and tales of master criminals and their gangs. The best of this material involves the architecture of the spooky murder mansion. The book's first seven chapters contain this intriguing setting, along with the book's most interesting science: the discovery of the bizarre murder method.
Chapter 16 also contains a bit of both scientific detection (radio broadcasts) and unusual setting (a criminal hideout is disguised as an exclusive club, a gambit which recalls the Rogue school).
The solution completely lacks fair play: no clues have been shared with the reader, that would allow the reader to figure out who the killer is.
Another flaw: despite a cast of Hollywood movie people, we get few backstage looks into the movie industry. The discussion chiefly centers on how gossip in the press affects the movie business. Rex Huxford's researches into color film, however, do give a brief glimpse into a fascinating topic (start of Chapter 6).
Edwards' mysteries were published by the prestigious imprint The Crime Club. In the late 1930's Universal filmed eight Crime Club novels as a series of B-movies: an unusual concept for a movie series based on a publisher, rather than a star detective like the Saint. One of Edwards' medical mysteries was selected, filmed as Mystery of the White Room (1939). Please see this article on the Crime Club films.
The author was billed as "James G. Edwards, M.D." This was the pseudonym of James William MacQueen. Under the pseudonym Jay McHugh he also published a racy comic novel about an aphrodisiac, Sex Is Such Fun (1937).
We learn surprisingly little about how mental patients in the 1930's were actually treated by doctors. People hoping for an inside look at the medical world are going to be disappointed. Much of the focus is not on "normal" medicine of the era, but on a controversial doctor with new and bizarre ideas on treating the mentally ill. Mainly, he thinks tormenting them will distract from their mental problems. The normal hospital staff and the book's hero characters are appalled and want him fired: rightly so, in my opinion. A consequence of concentrating on this jerk is that we actually see very little of the normal medical operations of the clinic.
Attention is also paid to the internal politics of the clinic: fights between the noble and evil doctor for control, and the intervention of the sanitarium's board, known as the Staff Committee. This is also depicted on the most conventional level. These internal power struggles in a private sanitarium oddly anticipate The Cobweb (1955), a powerful film directed by Vincente Minnelli.
William F. Deeck has a list of crime fiction set in asylums at MYSTERY*FILE. The commenters extend this list with further books and stories.
In the collected 1940's reviews of Anthony Boucher, The Anthony Boucher Chronicles, there are positive reviews of Sawtell books by Boucher and Lenore Glen Offord.
Mystery Traditions: Scientific Detection. Too Many Bones takes place at a private museum of anthropology. The heroine is an anthropologist specializing in studying human bones and skeletons. We learn something about anthropology work: but only a little (Chapters 2, 3, 6, 19). We also learn about job hunting in the anthropology world.
There is a section that involves Scientific Detection (Chapter 21-22): but this is just a fairly short episode. This is supposed to be the book's Big Surprise. But it seemed to me to be an obvious plot gambit right from the start.
SPOILER. The episode is linked to that R. Austin Freeman concern, "disposing of the body". We are in a plot not too different from Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911).
The heroine's educational background is like that of Ruth Sawtell Wallis herself. The heroine has a degree in anthropology from a fictitious Ivy League woman's college with ties to a top university for men. In real life Wallis had a similar degree in anthropology from Radcliffe, the woman's university closely connected to Harvard.
Mystery Plot. The mystery plot is otherwise simple. It is in fact painfully simple. Several people had motives to kill the victim. At the end, sure enough we learn that one of them did it. That's all. There is no clever puzzle plot. And few clues to the killer's identity, which is not revealed through detective work, but through the killer's confession. Also, there is no mystery at all till nearly half-way through the novel, when the first crime elements enter.
I've been resisting jokes, saying that the plot is "skeletal". Or that it is a "bare bones" of a plot.
The plot suffers from a major coincidence, that approaches a failure of fair mystery plotting. SPOILER. The material about Randy Bill turns out to be a coincidence, something that just accidentally took place on the night of the crime.
Small Town Life. Somewhat unexpectedly, the museum is in a really small and decaying town, somewhere in the Middle West. The story is soaked in small town atmosphere. It is not "cozy": Too Many Bones is part of a literary tradition that takes a skeptical look at small town life. In mainstream fiction, there are the 1920's novels of Sinclair Lewis. In mystery fiction, we have a better book than Too Many Bones about a small town in the Middle West, Trial by Fury (1941) by Craig Rice. Both Too Many Bones and Trial by Fury look at women expressing their sexuality in a small town.
No one in this town is especially good, or filled with positive values. Even the morally innocent "good" town characters seem mainly to be small-minded gossips. Too Many Bones takes a negative view of human nature, especially in the provinces.
Minorities. Too Many Bones is notable for a positive, progressive view of some minorities. The book's two black servants are depicted with dignity. They have big roles in the story. Too Many Bones also breaks Civil Rights ground, by showing a scene of racial integration (Chapter 18): a black woman joins a previously all-white church group.
1943 was a year in which the Civil Rights struggle took off. Hollywood films began showing a more positive image of African-Americans, following negotiations with Civil Rights groups. An example is Cabin in the Sky (1943), directed by Vincente Minnelli. One wonders if Too Many Bones is part of this same trend.
Also interesting: the heroine's difficulties getting hired for a job, in a male-dominated profession (Chapters 2, 4). One would like there to be more of this. The book backs off from looking deep into gender discrimination as an institution. Instead, it depicts the heroine's job difficulties as stemming from a jealous older woman! This is a cop-out. Still the way the book raises the issue in the first place, is notable.
Too Many Bones also takes a negative look at both men and marriage, as an option for the heroine. The book's so-called hero, the heroine's handsome young scientist boss, is full of negative traits. The book also takes a skeptical look at young women abandoning their professional dreams (Chapters 19, 25). The heroine is strongly urged not to do this.
There are less likable aspects of the book's look at discriminated groups. There is a gratuitous anti-gay slur (Chapter 19). Prejudice against gays was likely at its peak in the 1940's in the USA.
The book also takes a long look at the DAR: the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR was a woman's organization, limited to women whose ancestors took part in the American Revolution in the late 1700's. On the surface, this was a patriotic theme, celebrating American traditions. In practice, it was a way for WASPs to have a snobbish social organization that excluded "white ethnic" people whose ancestors arrived in the USA as immigrants after 1800. Most of the white ethnics I've known, including my parents, cheerfully loathed the DAR. One has to mention, in fairness, that the modern-day DAR has tried to go in for service and charitable activities.
The depiction of the DAR in Too Many Bones is largely but not entirely positive. The heroine joins, and we get a look at her genealogy and the way she is a member in good standing in America's WASP elite. The DAR members are shown as mainly fairly positive people.
By contrast, the one woman who is barred in membership from the DAR, coming originally from one of those dubious "poor white" families, is depicted in a negative way. The DAR members show good breeding and "family values". The rejected lower class white woman is a sexual predator with no morals. Too Many Bones seems to imply that non-WASP women are sluts without family values.
The DAR was critiqued in this era, by Grant Wood in his painting Daughters of Revolution (1932), and by Sinclair Lewis in his novel It Can't Happen Here (1935). Too Many Bones mentions Grant Wood (Chapter ).