Rufus King | Biography | State Troopers

Reginald De Puyster: Reginald De Puyster short stories

Lieutenant Valcour: Lieutenant Valcour | Murder by the Clock | Somewhere in This House / A Woman Is Dead | Murder by Latitude | Murder on the Yacht | Valcour Meets Murder | The Lesser Antilles Case | The Case of the Constant God | Crime of Violence | Murder Masks Miami

Plays: I Want a Policeman!

Cotton Moon: Holiday Homicide

Dr. Colin Starr: The Medical Mysteries: Dr. Colin Starr | The Case of the Lonely Ladies | The Case of the Peculiar Precautions | The Y-Shaped Scar

Early Science Fiction: The Fatal Kiss Mystery

Suspense Novels: Design in Evil | A Variety of Weapons | The Case of the Dowager's Etchings | The Deadly Dove | Museum Piece No. 13 / Secret Beyond the Door | Lethal Lady

Florida Short Story Collections: Introduction | Malice in Wonderland | The Steps to Murder | The Faces of Danger | Uncollected Short Stories

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Rufus King

Recommended Works:

Murder by the Clock (1929) (Chapters 1 - 6)

Murder by Latitude (1930)

Valcour Meets Murder (1932) (Chapters 1-6, 20, 23, 25, 33, 37, 38, 41-57)

The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) (Chapters 1 - 5, 8, 24, 25)

Crime of Violence (1937) (Chapters 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 16)

Murder Masks Miami (1939)

Holiday Homicide (1940)

A Variety of Weapons (1943)

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943)

Lethal Lady (1947) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 20, 23, 36, 37, 39, 42, 44, 50)

Reginald De Puyster short stories

Diagnosis: Murder (1939 - 1941) Uncollected Dr. Colin Starr short stories Malice in Wonderland The Steps to Murder The Faces of Danger Uncollected Stuff Driscoll short stories

Rufus King

Rufus King was a prolific mystery and detective novelist, playwright, and short story writer in the Van Dine school, whose career stretched from the 1920's to the 1960's. Some of his work is fair play, puzzle plot detective fiction, others are suspense pieces. He is not to be confused with earlier figures from US history also named Rufus King.

Commentary on Rufus King:

Biography

The book jacket of the US edition of Valcour Meets Murder makes claims about Rufus King's life that have generally not made it into modern reference sources. It asserts that he "has served with the marine division of the New York police". It also says he salvaged a ship off Pernambuco, Brazil. And that "He has been a wireless man on freighters, tankers and fruit ships."

The jacket of Murder in the Willett Family says that King was a former "New York river policeman. He was associated for some time with one of America's most famous detectives, on whose methods those of Lieutenant Valcour are modeled." Murder in the Willett Family also says "Mr. King has been successively, Yale graduate, sea-going wireless operator, and New York river policeman."

The book 10,000 Famous Freemasons from K to Z, Volume 3 by William R. Denslow, states that Rufus King got his degrees as a Mason in 1926, in Champlain N.Y. Champlain is right on the border with Canada. It is nearly directly south of Montreal: which perhaps explains Lt. Valcour being a native of Montreal. This region is the setting of King's Somewhere in This House and Valcour Meets Murder.

Champlain N.Y. is near the large Lake Champlain. Valcour Island is in Lake Champlain. This is perhaps the real-life origin of Lt. Valcour's name.

The book also states that Rufus King graduated from Yale in 1914; similar claims are made on the book jackets of King mysteries. The Wikipedia article on Elihu, a left-leaning, intellectual Yale "secret society" backs this up. It says Elihu included Rufus King from the Class of 1914. It also describes King as "president of the Yale Dramatic Association". Both pieces of information are drawn from a New York Times article of May 20, 1913. Cole Porter was associated with the Yale "Dramat" in 1909-1913, so likely King knew him. Montey Woolley was also involved with the Dramat in this period. Both Porter and Wooley were gay, and the Dramat was known in this era for drag performances with men taking on women's roles.

In his history of detective fiction Murder for Pleasure (1941), Howard Haycraft says that the number of books sold by Rufus King is only a little less than those of the biggest seller in American mystery fiction Erle Stanley Gardner. Since Gardner was hugely popular, this is impressive.

Rufus King never seems to have published any non-fiction. After 1929, he seems to work exclusively in the crime fiction field.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper (November 17, 1937) reports that movie studio "Universal has purchased Rufus King's mystery story, "The Victoria Docks at Eight."" Famed novelist Nathanael West reportedly worked on a screenplay adaptation of The Victoria Docks at Eight in 1939 or 1940, that was not produced. Years later The Victoria Docks at Eight was cited as the source of the film White Tie and Tails (1946). One sometimes sees claims that The Victoria Docks at Eight is a novel, but I can find no sign that any such novel was ever published. A guess: The Victoria Docks at Eight is actually either a short story or short movie treatment, rather than a novel.


State Troopers

During this period state policemen were often idealized by mystery writers. They were seen as bringing a special intelligence, competence and even sophistication to the rural areas where they worked.

Rufus King was one of the leaders in such idealized depictions of State Troopers:

Examples in other writers: Comic Book stories:

The Reginald De Puyster short stories

Rufus King had a vivid writing style, with colorful characters, events, and images. He was clearly a born writer. "The Weapon That Didn't Exist" (1926) shows a special exuberance in its allusion filled prose. It also has a nice puzzle plot.

The star of this tale is King's series detective Reginald De Puyster, who is clearly related to Philo Vance. It is hard to tell at this date, who came first, Vance or De Puyster. The first Vance book appeared in 1926, one year after the De Puyster apparently appeared in short stories in magazines. Both men are verbally witty sophisticates. King's later series detective, Lt. Valcour, is much more down to earth, but similar sophisticates appear as suspects in some of the Valcour novels, such as Dumarque in Murder by Latitude (1930). The clever, arch repartee ascribed to Dumarque seems especially Philo Vance like.

De Puyster was spoofed by Isaac Asimov, no less, in his story "Author! Author!" (1943), a fantasy which focuses on a mystery writer whose fictional detective Reginald de Meister comes to life. Asimov's basic situation has been much imitated by later writers and filmmakers.

A minor character called "Reginald De Puyster Haugh" appeared in the book Wallingford in His Prime (1913) by George Randolph Chester. The material and character originally appeared in a short story in Cosmopolitan magazine (Vol. 50, April 1911), part of a tale entitled The New Adventures of Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. (The same issue has an article on progress in aviation called "New Wonderful Feats of the Wizards of the Air". Even at this early date, one of the pilots is in a glamorous leather coat. And a short article sarcastically entitled "Where Ignorance Is Bliss" by Reginald Wright Kauffman reminds us that "Ignorance is never bliss. It is always pitiful, cowardly or criminal".)


Lieutenant Valcour

After De Puyster, Rufus King created New York police Lieutenant Valcour, and starred him in a series of 11 novels from 1928 to 1939. King was formed as a mystery writer before Van Dine, unlike most of the Van Dine school, so he is less close to Van Dine than are such younger writers who followed in Van Dine's footsteps such as Anthony Abbot, Ellery Queen, and so on. In addition to characters who recall Philo Vance, other similarities of King's Valcour novels to Van Dine include unusual, hard to detect murder methods, a setting among New York's upper crust, elaborate, novel length storytelling, a tragic tone, complex literary style and well constructed dialogue. Lt Valcour's interest in psychology also links him to Van Dine.

Differences include less of an interest in pure detection: Valcour seems less relentlessly focused on detective investigations than are Philo Vance, Thatcher Colt or Ellery Queen. There is considerable emphasis on the emotional life of King's suspects, often at the expense of the mystery plot. The overwrought emotionalism of the opening chapters of Valcour Meets Murder (1932) even recalls the Had I But Known school. Some of King's stories show a tendency to degenerate from mystery tales into thrillers, for example, Murder by the Clock (1928-1929).

Valcour Meets Murder (1932) opens with a "biography" of King's series sleuth, Lt. Valcour. Valcour is French Canadian, and the son of an émigré; French police officer. The biography states that Valcour was trained in the "brilliantly" intuitive methods of the French police. It explicitly contrasts these with the "plodding detailed routine" of British police officers. I have no idea if there is the slightest real life accuracy to these images, but they certainly do reflect the intuitionist / realist divide in 1930's mystery fiction. King is allied with the Van Dine school, and hence is a confirmed intuitionist. Here he is explicitly disassociating himself from the plodding approach of the British Realist School, then immensely prestigious.

King has gone so far as to make his detective of French ancestry, to suggest an intuitionist affiliation for his hero. Similarly, such intuitionist detectives as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, John Dickson Carr's Henri Bencolin, and T.S. Stribling's Henry Poggioli, were made non-WASPs. Christie was likely directly inspired by Gaston Leroux's French novel Le mystère de la chambre jaune (1907) when she created Hercule Poirot, and there clearly was an association in the minds of intuitionist school writers between French culture and intuitionist methods. Carr's first novel, It Walks by Night (1930) also mentions Leroux. At the end of Chapter 11 of It Walks By Night, Bencolin also explicitly denounces the routinely plodding investigator. He says that this is a terrible ideal. Here he is speaking as the (fictional) head of the Paris police. He also satirizes the tough guy world of American civic corruption. Bencolin does not mention nationalities when discussing the plodding investigator, but he views the French approach as different from these.


Murder by the Clock

Murder by the Clock (1929) is best in its well written opening (Chapters 1 - 6).

The first chapters, in which wealthy and beautiful Mrs. Endicott summons Valcour to her home, mix flirtation and mystery with the sort of double meanings at which King excelled (Chapter 5). This is one of many passages in King, written from a woman's point of view, in which she thinks about romance.

After its vividly written opening, this book declines in interest. This is one of several Valcour novels which largely deal with the denizens of a single house, most of whom are decidedly odd. Valcour spends a lot of time interviewing them, and trying to understand their abnormal psychology. I confess I do not enjoy such characters, and find this sort of King novel generally dull.

The Van Dine School

Murder by the Clock centers on the killing of a prominent male member of New York City's upper crust, in his own expensive house. This recalls the first Van Dine novel, The Benson Murder Case (1926).

Valcour's interest in psychology also recalls Van Dine.

Valcour is not as infinitely cultured as Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance: who is? But we learn Valcour is a graduate of McGill University, and that there he acquired cultural skills. As an example, he is able to recognize and appreciate the modernist furniture in the murder mansion (Chapter 1).

The rest of this discussion contains SPOILERS. The reader is advised to read Murder by the Clock before proceeding further.

An Odd Beginning

The opening chapter draws us into a mysterious situation. We gradually learn more and more about what is going on. This chapter has an odd feel. It eventually becomes fully surrealistic. It is not much like passages in other detective novels, having instead its own unique logic and atmosphere.

The surrealist jolt of this opening might suggest something irrational. But actually, the chapter is constructed according to the strictest detective logic. Everything that happens, occurs because either the wife or Lt. Valcour is drawing deductions from evidence, in the strictest detective story traditions. This step-by-step investigation, completely rational, and yet emotional too, takes us to odder and odder circumstances.

The next chapter (Chapter 2), also has an odd, nearly surrealist feel. But it too consists of Valcour doing the strictest of pure detectival investigations.

An Experimental Mystery

The early chapters of Murder by the Clock include an unusual plot twist (end of Chapter 5). This does strange things to the paradigm of the detective story. It turns Murder by the Clock into an experimental detective novel, one that operates on different rules from a conventional mystery story.

Some later passages dealing with this plot twist are almost science fictional. They are not believable, but they aren't dull, either. King's apprenticeship as an sf writer shows here.

Grime: Poetic Imagery

The opening of Murder by the Clock shows Valcour studying physical evidence at the crime scene (Chapter 2, 6). He keeps discovering "grime": smudges, traces of dirt, smeared dust. This is significant evidence of the murderer's activities, in the traditional detective story mode. It helps Valcour reconstruct the killer's actions.

But it is also described with tremendous vividness by King. It forms a kind of poetic imagery, one that appeals to both the eye and the sense of touch.

These chapters have strong color imagery, with both lemon yellow and a reddish coral color predominating.

The architecture of the crime scene is explored in the same passages (Chapter 2). An interest in architecture was strong in the era of the Golden Age mystery.

Gay Imagery

Murder by the Clock opens with a wealthy woman reflecting on how handsome New York City policemen are. Soon (Chapter 3), Lt Valcour summons a team of five young cops to the murder mansion. The policemen are described as well built and in immaculate uniforms. Valcour picks out the youngest to be with him at the murder room. The relationship between Valcour and the young officer has elements of a flirtation. It is a happy relationship, one that contrasts with the sinister atmosphere and bad personal relationships among the denizens of the murder mansion.

The happy relationship between older man Valcour and the young policeman, anticipates the friendship that develops between Valcour and the young security guard Arthur in Murder Masks Miami.

Anti-Racism

The opening of Murder by the Clock shows Valcour repeatedly repudiating racism. His distaste for the "ethnic humor" of the era is underscored (Chapter 2).

And there are repeated burlesques of the cheap mystery fiction of the era, with their sinister foreign villains preying on rich good white people (Chapter 3, 6). These low-brow cliches are implicitly contrasted with the "real world" of Murder by the Clock, in which victim and the suspected killers are all socially prominent WASPs.

Anti-racism was a prominent feature of the Van Dine School. Please see my detailed discussion here.

Publication History

One suspects Murder by the Clock is the same novel as Double Murder, which was serialized in The Red Book Magazine beginning in the January 1929 issue. Such an issue would have been on newsstands in later 1928. This explains why the novel's copyright dates include 1928.

My impression is that The Red Book Magazine, soon to be known as Redbook, was a fairly prestigious and popular periodical. Publishing there was a step up for Rufus King. His previous pre-Valcour works appeared in such pulp magazines as Argosy and Flynn's, which would be less prestigious.

King would continue to be associated with higher prestige magazines in the 1929-1947 era, especially Redbook and Cosmopolitan. Such an association would be of immense importance to the careers of most of the authors such magazines published. In that era, an author's success was measured by the public, critics, editors and Hollywood, by the magazines in which his work appeared.


Somewhere in This House / A Woman Is Dead

The Valcour novel known as Somewhere in This House (1929 in magazines, 1930 as book) in the US and A Woman Is Dead in Britain, is one of Rufus King's least interesting works.

Mystery Plot

The mystery plot is lacking in ingenuity. SPOILER. In addition, it suffers from a bad coincidence: the small cast of suspects includes two murderous people who both happen to be committing crimes on the same night.

The dramatic opening at the New York Police Commissioner suggests some mysterious action is afoot at the house of the title. I was expecting some grandiose international scheme or major crime enterprise - both of which might have made entertaining reading. SPOILER. Instead, events that cause the Commissioner's intervention prove to be simple, sordid and lacking any originality.

Imitation of Murder by the Clock

Somewhere in This House attempts to repeat plot and atmosphere from King's previous smash-hit Murder by the Clock. However, Somewhere in This House is simpler, less inventive and less surreal than the better Murder by the Clock: Murder by the Clock is not mentioned by name in Somewhere in This House. Instead, its events are referred to as the "Endicott business", after the main characters in Murder by the Clock.

Characters

The anti-heroine is a cheap, mercenary woman who is a major home-wrecker. The book is relentless about exploring her psychology, and condemning her actions. I fully agree with King that such home-wrecking types are rotten. But I personally tend not to like books about sub-standard, second rate human beings, and didn't find the in-depth look at this woman interesting or appealing.

SPOILER. Some of the book's better plot surprises do come about in the opening chapters, when we learn about secret liaisons in which the anti-heroine is involved. These are examples of the hidden relationship subplots that sometimes appear in Rufus King.

Setting

Somewhere in This House is set on Lake Champlain in upstate New York, very near the Canadian border. Rufus King frequently lived in this area in real life. Unfortunately, there is only a little local color.

The local milkman / dairy farmer is an interesting type reflecting rural life. He is only briefly talked about. Milk as a subject perhaps reflects King's interest in liquids. Milk returns in the finale of Crime of Violence (Chapter 23).

A winter blizzard recurs in King's novella "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" (1942).

The modest, provincial, limiting quality of the tale's upper class house is well-described.


Murder by Latitude

Mystery Plot

Murder by Latitude (1930) is a whodunit, but it is not especially fair play: there is not a single clue that would let the reader identify the killer. It is well written, however, and there is a small surprise twist in the solution.

Better is the subplot about stolen objects (this starts in Chapter 13). This comes to an unexpected and imaginative solution.

The secret code used by the police in their telegrams, is conscientiously explained at the solution. How the code works is kept mysterious throughout the novel, before this explanation at the end. In theory, this would give readers a chance to try and break this code, before the end. I'm not sure, however, if the sample given of a coded message is large enough to allow this.

SPOILERS. Both the shipboard setting, and aspects of the murder plot, have technical aspects. They link King to the Scientific Detection School of detection.

The Avenger from the Past

Francis M. Nevins' insightful article on Milton M. Propper from 1001 Midnights has been reprinted on-line at Mystery*File. It points out that in many Propper novels "the murderer was an avenger from the past who infiltrated the victim's life in disguise." This is already true of Propper's first mystery novel The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929).

More such avengers appear in some Rufus King novels: Murder by Latitude. The Lesser Antilles Case.

Architecture and Mystery

Most of Murder by Latitude places little emphasis on the architecture of the ship, or the layout of the rooms. A key exception: the mysterious disappearance of the killer (start of Chapter 31). SPOILERS. This has an inventive architectural solution, given by Valcour.

Like a Play

Sections of Murder by Latitude resemble a stage play: The later King novel The Deadly Dove will push this approach to an extreme, with the entire book resembling a play.

In addition to their play-like aspects, these ensemble scenes of the passagers as a whole, subtly suggest a collective destiny for the characters. After all, they are all sailing together on a ship.

At Sea

The book has a sustained atmosphere, and is interesting reading throughout. This shipboard novel lacks the high spirits one might associate with cruises. Instead it is mournful and elegiac in tone. It has a tragic quality, and reminds one of Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). Much of the novel involves mourning for the first victim, a member of the ship's crew. Especially close to him was a sailor on the ship. Also, a woman among the passengers was touched as well. These elegiac passages are written in King's most lyrical style. They alternate with descriptions of the sea and sailing, also written with poetic vividness. This mixture of descriptions of the sea with more philosophical material seems especially Melville like.

Also like Melville, King had been a sailor in real life: The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection says that he was a ship's radio operator circa 1920, just like the first victim in Latitude. Presumably that book's portrait of ship board life is based on King's personal experience.

Earlier shipboard mysteries include:

Rufus King included a yacht setting in his earlier Mystery de Luxe (1927).

Radio

Radio was considered the last word in high technology in 1930. Everything about it would have fascinated readers. King includes a brief description of the process of receiving a radio message on board ship (Chapter 4).

Later King will have a brief but interesting technical discussion of ship radio and tracing radio signals in "Miami Papers Please Copy" (1956).

Van Dine School: Traditions

Some Van Dine School books show their sleuths investigating the movements of the suspects around the crime scene, at the time of the murder. (This also sometimes appears in works not in the Van Dine School, as well). Murder by Latitude has a section in which Valcour conducts such an investigation (Chapters 28-33).

Van Dine School books typically have a genius amateur working closely with the official police. Murder by Latitude has a somewhat related structure: it has a genius sleuth Valcour working closely with the ship officials. Howver, there are crucial differences here from the Van Dine School paradigm. Valcour is a genius, but far from an amateur: he's a New York homicide detective. And the officials are not police, but rather ship's officers.

The officers in Murder by Latitude do resemble other books' police, in that none of them is ever a murder suspect. (Valcour presents evidence early on that the killer must be one of the passengers, not one of the ship's crew.)

Van Dine School mysteries sometimes have unusual, non-naturalistic chapter titles. This is also a feature of Murder by Latitude.

The Hand: A Rinehart Influence?

A scene in Murder by Latitude has a witness see an unidentified hand eerily stick itself into a room (end of Chapter 28). This echoes a development in Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat (1920).

See also the coastguardsman's hand and wrist sticking through the porthole, at the end of King's "Miami Papers Please Copy".

Liquids: Poetic Imagery

Rufus King's early Valcour novels are full of water imagery: the sea and the wet fogs in Murder by Latitude, and the rain, mist and flooded rivers and bogs in Valcour Meets Murder. Liquids are often referred to by him as well: ink, tap water, creams, drinks, wax. King's novels are full of abstract imagery, used to describe mental processes or emotions, and this imagery is full of references to fluids, too: tears, lakes, rain, protoplasm, jelly, and words like "floating" or "drenching".

The first meal the passengers eat together focuses on soup (Chapter 1).

A bottle of red ink serves as a clue (Chapter 7).

Gay Imagery

Murder by Latitude shows a gay sensibility: Ted Poole, Mrs. Poole's young new husband, is one of the hunks that run through Rufus King. He gets a description of his good looks (first part of Chapter 3).

Miss Sidderby's attraction to men in white ship's uniforms, anticipates the guard who is Valcour's friend in Murder Masks Miami, and his fancy uniform.

Mrs. Poole

A prominent character is Mrs. Poole, a glamorous Society woman. Valcour has many interviews with Mrs. Poole, who tends to stonewall his questions. This somewhat recalls sophisticated Mrs. Endicott in Murder by the Clock, who also verbally fences with Valcour. In both novels, King gets mileage out of these atmospheric, subtle conversations.

But there are differences. Mrs. Endicott is above all a murder suspect. Mrs. Poole is mainly treated as a potential victim, sometime targeted by the killer. While Mrs. Poole is technically a suspect - in theory she like everyone on board the ship could be the killer - in practice neither Valcour nor the reader suspects her very much. Also, Mrs. Endicott seems in total control of her ideas and words, while Mrs. Poole is in the grip of her personal obsessions.

Valcour keeps trying to prod Mrs. Poole to remember facts from the past, while Mrs. Poole is the kind of person who tries to obliterate all memories of past events. This produces memory problems. This anticipates a bit the vague, half-formed impressions of a witness in A Variety of Weapons, which play a role in that novel's mystery puzzle.


Murder on the Yacht

Murder on the Yacht (1932) collapses after a promising beginning. It tries to repeat the success of Murder by Latitude, with: However, the plot and the writing both become less interesting as the novel progresses.

Main Mystery Plot

The main mystery goes through a series of stages:
  1. The opening sets forth a fairly interesting disappearance mystery (Chapters 1-8). This comes with some intriguing plot twists.
  2. Characters soon expound key ideas about the disappearance (middle of Chapter 11). These ideas are fairly simple: sound, mildly clever, not deeply ingenious. The ideas form a partial solution to the mystery. SPOILER. They are in the broad tradition of a solution in E. C. Bentley's influential Trent's Last Case (1913).
  3. Valcour raises an objection, exposing a hidden difficulty in the criminal engineering the disappearance. How the criminal pulled this off is mysterious (middle of Chapter 15), and forms a mystery subplot.
  4. Valcour solves this subplot (end of Chapter 34). The solution shows some mild ingenuity. This solution has some formal similarity to a twist about the Toody subplot in Murder by Latitude, although the concrete ideas are different.
  5. The solution to the crime is set forth in detail (Chapters 38, 39). SPOILER. It fully conforms to the above ideas. The main new feature is the identification of the murder weapon. (Identifying a murder weapon used as a blunt instrument, is also a subplot in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions".) The identification reconstructs the crime based on physical clues at the crime scene, recalling Murder by the Clock.
This mystery material takes up only 28% of the book, mostly towards the beginning of the novel. It would have made a decent-enough novella. It is fairly light-weight for an entire mystery novel.

Nothing in the above mystery plot or its solution gives clues to the identity of the criminal.

Mystery Sub-Plot: The Final Crisis

SPOILER. Like Murder by Latitude, Murder on the Yacht has a thrill-filled climax at sea. And like Murder by Latitude, there is a mystery subplot about who is responsible for this crisis, and how they caused it. The solutions to the riddle of "how the crisis was caused" is quite different in the two books.

The solution to the "crisis riddle" in Murder on the Yacht is mildly ingenious. And it gives fair play clues to the identity of the criminal.

Wharton Luke

Wharton Luke is an interesting character. He seems like a rough sketch for a similar figure Cousin Walter in King's later short story "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions". Both men: Cousin Walter is more extreme, more bitchy and more comic than Wharton Luke.

Racial Stereotypes

One of the crooks is racially stereotyped (Chapter 26). This is a rare lapse for King, whose books are usually free from prejudice. Depicting criminals as coming from racial minorities is a pernicious stereotype.

By contrast, Murder by the Clock ridicules racial prejudice, with Valcour distancing himself in disgust from racial "jokes" popular then. There are also brief spoofs of the "foreign" villains so popular in cheap crime stories of the day.


Valcour Meets Murder

Valcour Meets Murder (1932) is an uneven, but sometimes interesting, mystery novel. Best parts: Chapters 1-6, 20, 23, 25, 33, 37, 38, 41-57.

Description

The search in the mist is a brief but vivid episode (Chapter 23). The search involves three dimensions: a vertical element has the searchers passing down into and up out of the pools of mist. Rufus King always was interested in mists and fog.

Also good descriptive passages: the town of Marly (start of Chapter 25), the trip to the customs border town of Rouses Point (Chapters 37, 38). The overall geography is established at the book's start (Chapter 1). These passages combine landscape and cityscape.

Linked to these is a long passage in the dock district and lake (Chapters 41-55).

All of these outdoor passages are some of the best aspects of Valcour Meets Murder. They are as important as any of the book's mystery plot ideas, in the book's accomplishments.

Some areas in Valcour Meets Murder are real-life: Lake Champlain, the Richlieu River, the town of Rouses Point. But I have been unable to determine if the town of Marly is real or fictitious.

SPOILERS. The finale has the heroine kidnapped by villains aboard a boat. This anticipates in a mild way the far more elaborate "heroine kidnapped on a yacht" plots of Design in Evil and "Miami Papers Please Copy".

Links to Somewhere in This House

The opening premise of Valcour Meets Murder recalls Somewhere in This House. In both:

Mystery Plot: Murder

SPOILERS. The murder takes place on a staircase (Chapter 3). This makes the crime architectural. It also gives the murder the vertical dimension of height.

It is not clear at first how the murder was committed. Mysteries in which the physical mechanism of the murder is mysterious are known as how-done-its.

How-done-its often shade into impossible crimes, something true of Valcour Meets Murder. It looks impossible for the murder in Valcour Meets Murder to have been committed.

The solution at the book's end explains how the murder was committed (Chapter 53).

Mystery Plot: Hidden Objects

Mystery plots about ingeniously hidden objects appear in many writers. Valcour Meets Murder comes up with a couple of good hiding places for objects (Chapters 20, 55). One of these mysteries is linked to an ingenious crime subplot (Chapter 33). This is some of the best mystery plot material in Valcour Meets Murder.

More hidden object puzzles appear in "The Y-Shaped Scar", A Variety of Weapons.

Mystery Plot: Madame Sangevin

Madame Theodora Sangevin's name reflects King's interest in fluids: In French "sang" means "blood" and "vin" means "wine".

SPOILERS. The disappearance of housekeeper Madame Sangevin (Chapter 14) anticipates the disappearance of nurse Marcella Dorfrey in "The Y-Shaped Scar". Both are employees in a house, who mysteriously just disappear, without taking wages owed them.

Multiplying Detectives

In the latter half of Valcour Meets Murder more and more detective, police, insurance and customs characters keep getting introduced. They are usually pleasantly sketched in, making enjoyable reading. This creates a contrast to the isolated farmhouse in the beginning, where we mainly saw suspects.

Clark Ashton

One of the suspects is named Clark Ashton. The name recalls the real-life poet and fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith. I have no biographical information, on whether or not there were connections between Rufus King and Clark Ashton Smith.

Color: Red

The town of Marly likes bright color on its houses and farms (first part of Chapter 25). Its red doors recall: See also Leonard's maroon silk tie in Valcour Meets Murder (Chapter 43).

The Lesser Antilles Case

Mystery Plot

The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) is another shipboard mystery. It is a pure puzzle plot tale, with a fairly elaborate solution in the Golden Age style. Unfortunately, the solution manages to be both easily guessed and preposterous. The writing is much thinner and less stylish than Murder by Latitude, and the characters are not likable either. It is one of King's least enjoyable books.

The mystery plot gains complexity and interest, with two of the alternative solutions King proposes (end of Chapter 4). These solutions are unexpected, and show some creativity. SPOILER. The actual explanation turns out to be a baroque variation, on some of these earlier solutions. Giving the reader early on, a "simpler version of a complex solution" is a good structural approach in mystery fiction. It helps make the later complex solution seem more "fair".

Valcour's insight (end of Chapter 2) that the odd, hard-to-explain killing of the Third Mate might be the key to the puzzle, is also a good bit of thinking.

SPOILER. The theft of the chart, is a variation of an idea King used earlier in Murder by Latitude. In Murder by Latitude, this idea is part of the solution of the murder; by contrast, in The Lesser Antilles Case it is part of the initial premise of the mystery.

The plot does anticipate some of John Dickson Carr's books.

Mystery Plot: Dying Message

There is a sort of Dying Message mystery (set forth at the end of Chapter 8, solved in Chapter 25). It describes the location where Edmund has hidden some evidence. Unfortunately, I don't think there are any clues which would enable the reader to solve this.

Diving

The diving sequence (Chapter 23) anticipates a better and more elaborate one in Rufus King's Holiday Homicide (1940). In both books, the diving is both exciting in its own right, and woven into the mystery or detection plot.

The diving sequence creates a clue that indicates the killer. Valcour immediately picks up on this clue, and explains to the other characters and the reader how it reveals the killer's identity. This clue is "fair": shown to the reader in full before it is interpreted by Valcour - although just before. But it comes very late in the book, immediately before Valcour reveals the book's solution.

In the same passage, Valcour reveals some fingerprint evidence indicating the killer. This is not "fair play": it is not shared with the reader before the solution.

Gay Characters

The victim Lawrence Thacker seems to be one of a middle-aged gay couple, along with his lifelong friend Edmund Gateshead. We see very little of their relationship, though. Such gay characters recur throughout King's writing. They are rarely if ever explicitly labeled as gay, but they are often elaborately characterized, and easily recognized today.

Van Dine School: Traditions

Van Dine School mysteries sometimes have unusual, non-naturalistic chapter titles. This is also a feature of The Lesser Antilles Case.

King Imagery

Miss Whitestone wears a black opal ring (Chapter 2). This anticipates the heroine's necklace of black opals in "The Body in the Rockpit". In both works, such opals seem sinister.

Journalism

A woman newspaper reporter Veronica Dawes interviews Erika, hoping for the woman's point of view, for women readers (Chapter 1). She anticipates the "sob sister" woman reporter Louella Larke who repeatedly interviews landlady Mrs. Lovestone in Lethal Lady. King is clearly skeptical and satirical about this whole reporting tradition, although he views these reporters as skillful.

There is also some nice comedy about a New York Times reporter being much more educated than a reporter for a tabloid paper - tabloids are always seen as lowbrow journalism (Chapter 1, first part of Chapter 26). This anticipates similar humor in Rex Stout's Before Midnight (1955) (Chapter 16) and Gambit (1962) (last part of Chapter 3). In both authors, the humor is quite indulgent and flattering to the Times.


The Case of the Constant God

The Case of the Constant God (1936) is one of Rufus King's hybrid suspense and mystery novels. It is unusually downbeat, and is not much fun to read.

Riding Clothes and Upper Class Lifestyles

Riding clothes have long been used as symbols of upper class masculine arrogance AND glamour. See: Such clothes are ambiguous, at once sexy and signifiers of upper class advantage and oppression. Both aspects get invoked in The Case of the Constant God (Chapter 1). Young rich guy Jonathan Alden thinks he's hot stuff in them. But he is also signalling social attitudes that have unintended consequences.

SPOILER. Rich young man Jonathan Alden values upper class ostentation above all things. We see his valorization of upper crust conventionality (Chapter 1). He thinks this is glamorous, appealing, and leading to avoidance of "trouble": the problems than stem from bohemian life-styles. Unfortunately, he will soon learn otherwise: his unyielding adherence to social norms is deeply hurting his wife. He doesn't realize this at all: he is at once sincere, unknowing, pathetic, and the cause of major problems.

In some ways, this situation anticipates the Culture Wars that have been raging since the 1970's: are right-wing, money-oriented life-styles the key to libertarian Success, or do they smother human feelings, especially of creative types, women and gays?

Class Conflict

Class conflict erupts twice in the opening of The Case of the Constant God (Chapter 1): King does not take sides in this issue. He will explore such conflicts at much greater length in A Variety of Weapons. In A Variety of Weapons, the treatment is ambiguous: the radical is viewed as personally pathetic - but his anti-rich comments are seen to have some pith. The Case of the Constant God also develops some ambiguity. For one thing, the rich young man who gets denounced in the restaurant actually works. He is a lawyer, admittedly from a wealthy family. He might be very privileged, but he is not idle. SPOILERS. Other ambiguities emerge in the course of the novel.

Crime of Violence

Crime of Violence (1937) is an uneven but sometimes inventive Valcour novel.

The main murder mystery is something of a mess, with a convoluted motive, and an implausible and poorly clued choice of killer. By contrast, some of the mystery subplots are good. The characters are also very uneven in interest. Best parts of the novel: Chapters 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 16.

A Medical Mystery

SPOILER. A very good subplot in Crime of Violence involves a medical mystery. This anticipates the medical tales Rufus King would soon write about Dr. Colin Starr.

Some of the Starr tales have villains doing strange things to victims, which cause the corpse to look as if one thing has happened to it, while something else really took place. Often, this is done to provide the killer with an alibi.

In Crime of Violence, something odd and misleading has indeed happened to the corpse, which makes the actual history of the corpse different from what it first appears. However, unlike the Starr tales, this misleading event is the result of pure chance. It is not something deliberately done by the killer, as in the Starr stories. Valcour investigates the possibility that it is deliberate (end of Chapter 5), but ultimately rejects this as something no killer could control.

As in the Starr stories, this event does indeed affect alibis. It differs a bit from the Starr stories, in affecting all the suspects' alibis, not just that of the killer, as in the Starr tales.

The medical subplot in Crime of Violence also recalls Murder by the Clock, but in a different way. In Murder by the Clock, an odd, startling development happens to the corpse, that offers a surrealist jolt. In Murder by the Clock, this plot development has nothing to do with the mystery. It is simply something surreal that occurs in the story. The revelation in the medical mystery in Crime of Violence also has a bit of a surreal jolt, although not quite as strong as in Murder by the Clock. But the events in Crime of Violence very much do affect the mystery plot of the novel.

To sum up: the events in Crime of Violence are partway between those in Murder by the Clock and those in some of the Dr. Colin Starr tales.

The Arthur Subplot

An unrelated mystery subplot centers on Arthur: what was he doing at the time of the killing? He leaves on some mysterious journey for the day, and sleuth Valcour and the reader want to learn what it was.

We learn early on that Arthur's trip involves a woman (Chapter 6). SPOILER. The solution involves a kind of puzzle that appears in the Dr. Colin Starr tales, and elsewhere in Rufus King: a hidden relationship.

Arthur is an odd character, a mix of decadence and innocence. He is very young and very good looking, recalling another suspect, young Mr. Force in Murder by Latitude.

Arthur's decadence is partly indicated by the way he dresses. This rich young man is rarely seen in ordinary clothes worn by middle class people, such as a suit and tie. Instead, he wears a dressing gown, or a tuxedo.

Arthur's decadent personality is poured on thick in the opening chapters. One gets the impression he is so decadent that he makes Dorian Gray look like Babbitt. SPOILER. But this impression proves oddly misleading.

Characters

The characters in Crime of Violence fall into a number of groups. The rich people in Crime of Violence are the main suspects. They are a thoroughly unpleasant lot. Reading about them is no fun, except for Arthur.

By contrast, the other characters in the book are lively: the servants, the lawyer, the young doctor who aids the police, and the various cops and police officials. The chapters I've highlighted as the best (Chapters 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 16) mainly concentrate on these "supporting" characters - as well as including the book's best plot developments.

The young doctor is a likable and smart, also being a research scientist. One wishes that Rufus King had made him a continuing character, assisting Valcour. But there was to be only one more Valcour novel. Instead, King would create a full-fledged medical sleuth Dr. Colin Starr, and feature him in a series of short stories.

The doctor is muscular and compared to a college football player (Chapter 1). He recalls a bit the young football player-scientist hero of The Fatal Kiss Mystery. Both are examples of the "hunks" that run through Rufus King.

We see a bit of a woman from a well-to-do background who is a modern artist of sorts in New York City's Greenwich Village (Chapters 2, 4). The novel paints Selina Lane as a shrewd business-woman who knows how to pressure her rich friends into buying her second-rate work. The art world is often depicted cynically or negatively in Rufus King.

The butler Plymouth is a nicely drawn character. King covers everything from Plymouth's morals to his hair care product, the last being part of King's flair for liquids and soft substances. The servants are also seen preparing different kinds of drinks and liquid remedies. (Other interesting, but very different, butlers are in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" and "The Case of the Lonely Ladies".)

Setting

The mansion is directly on the beach, and its sheltered courtyard is full of tropical plants (start of Chapter 6). Although the mansion is in Long Island, New York, these features anticipate the Florida short stories King wrote at the end of his career. All of these buildings and grounds, both in Crime of Violence and the Florida tales, seem like fun, upbeat places in which to live, despite their often sinister inhabitants.

Crime of Violence repeatedly refers to something called a "bar highway", apparently a kind of road in 1930's Long Island. I don't know what this means. It doesn't play any role in the mystery plot.

A starchy woman servant goes into a New York City drug store to make a phone call (Chapter 1). In those days, drug stores were the center of the USA's communication network: a place where ordinary people could always find telephones and make calls. Drug stores were also infinitely "respectable": a place where a solitary woman could enter and conduct business with complete propriety.


Murder Masks Miami

Mystery Plot

Murder Masks Miami (1939) is the last Valcour novel. It is a genuine who done it, not a thriller, and is exceptionally readable. Murder Masks Miami is just plain fun. When mystery fans say they would like to read a Golden Age mystery novel, this is the sort of book they are talking about. This book is a formal detective novel, like King's next novel, Holiday Homicide (1940). Why a writer who so often strayed away from Golden Age norms should suddenly adhere so closely to the formal mystery is not clear. Still, I think it has made for one of King's most entertaining novels.

King has mastered the mystery art of telling a story backwards. Each scene unearths some new hidden facts about the characters and the plot, and the book gradually reveals the whole story of their relationships, and what took place during the crimes.

The ultimate solution does not contain any great ingenuity, although it does have a small twist. It is plausible and emotionally satisfying, however.

The book takes place in a vacation area near Miami, and is pleasantly escapist. King writes with tremendous verve, and is in his more upbeat mode.

Gay Imagery

There is a great deal of romance and soap opera about the characters' loves, all of which is closely integrated into the mystery plot, so it is not a digression from the main detective work. Once again, the heroine's longing for the good looking lifeguard Don can be seen as an expression of gay feeling. The ambiguity surrounding the lifeguard - he is a suspect in the story, along with everyone else, and could be the killer - seems like a referendum on the validity of such longings. The book keeps one in suspense till the end about how this affair will turn out.

Valcour himself invites a young male security guard Arthur Moffat to breakfast, thus dropping some broad clues about his own sexual orientation. There is a definite party-like aspect to this scene (Chapter 5). If Murder by Latitude was King's tragic gay novel, Murder Masks Miami is his comic one.

Much is made of Arthur's very fancy night watchman uniform (start of Chapter 2). It is compared to US Marine Corps dress uniforms. We also learn that the heavy uniform is just a bit uncomfortably hot.

Arthur eventually becomes a kind of character that runs through mystery writer C. Daly King: a sympathetic, uniformed young man in danger (last part of Chapter 10). (Another example in Rufus King: handsome young cop Roy Suffolk in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies".)

A second lifeguard eventually shows up, the sexy Pete (Chapter 12). He looks much like Don, and in fact is at first mistaken for Don, from the rear. He serves as an unofficial "double" for Don in the story. Both the heroine and Valcour pay attention to Pete. Valcour compliments Pete on his looks, admittedly humorously.

The Doctor

Swaggering Dr. Horatio Prissbare deliberately tries to be a figure of glamour in his medical work (start of Chapter 3). Dr. Prissbare models his actions on the star of the Broadway medical play Men in White (Sidney Kingsley, 1933).

Valcour enjoys watching Prissbare in this masquerade. Although the novel is a bit ambiguous on this point, Valcour seems to be fully conscious of Passmore's modeling and posing. Valcour regards Passmore's behavior as "a good show".

The situation anticipates young banker Lorrimer Keith in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies". Keith enjoys posing as what he considers a businessman should look like, even though his real personality is very different. And King's series sleuth Colin Starr enjoys watching Keith is his posing, even though Starr knows it is all a fake.

Do the actions of Valcour and Starr have gay dimensions? It is hard to say.

Dr. Horatio Prissbare is another of the hunks in Rufus King. His is big and well-built. While the novel doesn't say so, one wonders if Passmore's looks are also relevant to the way Valcour likes to watch the doctor and his posing.

Race

The briefly seen black maid is treated in a dignified, non-stereotyped fashion (Chapter 12).

The Title: What Does It Mean?

By the way, the title of the story is never explained in the book. The title has plenty of alliterative punch, and is very suggestive in its imagery. But what is being masked, or how murder does it, is not made clear.

Architecture

The architecture of the resort, the Triton Villas, is featured throughout the story. We learn about the villas and cabanas, as well as the main office of manager Carstairs. This resort is one of the most elaborate architectural settings anywhere in Rufus King's fiction.

A unique touch: the various places night watchman Arthur has to punch a time clock on his rounds (Chapters 2, 5).

The villas and cabanas sometimes have more that one story. This adds the dimension of height to the architecture.

Valcour gets involved in the architecture: he's staying in the suite over manager Carstairs' office. While Valcour is a tourist on vacation, this locale seems to link him to the staff of the Villas. So does the friendship he develops with Arthur, who works as night watchman at the Villas.

The tourist residents and staff of the Villas resemble the passengers and crew of ships in other King works.

Murder Masks Miami also has an actual ship. There is a brief reference to the ship's radio operator, but he is not seen "on stage" (Chapter 13). A ship's radio operator was a key character in Murder on the Yacht, Design in Evil and Murder by Latitude.

Resort areas are not common in King's fiction. There are the river camps in Lethal Lady (Chapter 6), and the beach in "Rendezvous with Death". Many of King's late Florida-set stories can be considered to be in a resort area, broadly speaking, even if they are not at an actual resort.

Scientific Detection

The time clocks are technology (Chapters 2, 5). They give Murder Masks Miami aspects of Scientific Detection.

So does the murder method. And the forensic investigation (last parts of Chapter 11).

Valcour's long distance phone call to New York City was also high tech in 1939 (end of Chapter 11). Long distance phone calls recall Helen Reilly.

Murder Masks Miami emphasizes the speed in which the long-distance connection is made: four minutes. This was fast for 1939, I think. See The Election Booth Murder (1935) (middle of Chapter 9) by Milton M. Propper, in which the Philadelphia police have special technology that enables them to place such calls fast.

Liquids: Poetic Imagery

The opening shows King's liking for fluids. Mrs. Waring drinks tea with milk, on her patio with a Spanish fountain. Later the banker sips old-fashioneds (Chapter 1).

Mrs. Waring's marmalade and Theodessa's "sea grape preserve" are also near-liquid (Chapter 1). They contribute to the Florida atmosphere, with oranges and sea grapes widely grown in the Sunshine State.

Later, we often read about drinks enjoyed by the characters. Orangeade is prominent. And a lunch includes green turtle soup with sherry (start of Chapter 13).

Many of these fluids are bright-colored. The remark about Loftus' "gamut of acquaintances" (Chapter 13) offers something original and sparkling in color imagery.

Nuts: Poetic Imagery

The walnut (start of Chapter 6) anticipates the details about nuts in Holiday Homicide.

Comedy

The drunken upper crust woman Mrs. Witcault serves as comedy relief (start of Chapter 13). She recalls a bit Lady Breen in I Want a Policeman!.

Radical Politics

There are some comic references to the rich suspects, who are Republicans, being worried about Communists and/or revolution (Chapters 11, 13). These references are mainly played as light, topical humor. We see the conservative wealthy suspects, but not any left-wing characters.

Later King novels as A Variety of Weapons and Museum Piece No. 13 reference radical politics and right wing / left wing conflicts.


I Want a Policeman!

I Want a Policeman! (1936) is the last of three plays King had produced on Broadway during 1933-1936. It was written in collaboration with Milton Lazarus, an obscure playwright of the era. It was copyrighted in 1935, and debuted on Broadway January 14, 1936, running for 47 performances. The play was published in 1937 by the Dramatists Play Service, a group that specialized in making texts of plays available to amateur theater groups. This is where I read it.

I Want a Policeman! has an interesting character in comic amateur detective wannabe Charles Talbot. And occasionally decent story telling and mystery. But otherwise I Want a Policeman! is mainly disappointing. It doesn't show King's lyrical descriptive writing skill. Also, the account of the three crooks manages to include racial slurs against three different ethnic groups (Act I, Scene 4).

Genre: A Mystery-Comedy

The 1937 title page describes I Want a Policeman! as a "mystery-comedy". Mystery-comedies are a huge genre on television today - perhaps half the crime shows in English-speaking countries fall into this category. And there was plenty of comedy in many 1930's detective novels. But I am unused to seeing anything in the 1930's billed by a publisher explicitly as a "mystery-comedy".

It's possible that the play is classified as a "mystery-comedy" to improve its sales. It could be put on by stage troupes looking for either a mystery or a comedy.

There are SPOILERS in the rest of this discussion.

Imagery

Charles Talbot, a wealthy young heir and comedy relief figure who fancies himself a Great Detective, does the play's most original action. He sets off flares outside, to illuminate the grounds at night, and catch the criminal in the act (last part of Act I, Scene 4). Likely this is staged by having bright colored lights be seen through the french windows of the living room.

Lady Breen is a haughty, upper class British woman. She gets the play's funniest comic relief, when she starts downing cocktails by the tray-full when the action gets suspenseful. The cocktails show King's interest in fluids. Another upper crust older woman with a comic weakness for cocktails is Miss Whitestone in The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) (Chapters 5, 8).

Medical Detection

The play contains a mildly interesting piece of medical detection (Act II, Scene 2). This deals with the means of death, and difficulties of detecting it. Such medical detection anticipates King's medical sleuth Dr. Colin Starr. The ideas in the play are simpler than those in the Starr tales.

Oddly this detection is not done by the police, but by amateur sleuth Charles Talbot.

Alfaro and his Methods

Detective Alfaro is a New York City cop. I Want a Policeman! repeatedly suggests, but never quite explicitly says, that the suave Alfaro specializes in seducing woman witnesses and suspects, to get them to talk. Alfaro's cast description reads "Physically attractive to women, he has his own particular methods of getting information from them." Alfaro does this on direct orders from his police superiors.

We see Alfaro getting orders, straight from the New York Police Commissioner, to work on a wealthy young widow (Act I, Scene 2). The end of the same scene has the Commissioner reiterating his orders while Alfaro stands at attention, telling Alfaro "Don't stop at anything!"

A man giving another man orders about his sexual behavior has a gay subtext.

I don't think that such professional seducers are common in police fiction (another example is in "The Monkey Murder" (1947) by Stuart Palmer). But they recall spies, many of whom are expert seducers in the line of duty. And many male spies get their orders from patriarchal social authority figures, like the Police Commissioner in I Want a Policeman!.

The idea of a professional police seducer is objectionable, morally and socially. It violates both civil liberties and norms against sexual harassment. However, one suspects the authors were merely trying to come up with a bit of racy fantasy, and unfortunately failed to think through the implications of their concept. Throughout its history, Broadway plays were more explicit about sex than other forms of entertainment. Broadway norms would both permit and expect a play to be racier than print literature or films.

When Alfaro does talk with the widow, he limits himself to simply being polite, suave and sophisticated with her. There is no clear "seduction" going on - which is a Good Thing. One suspects that the authors realized that it was one thing to talk about seduction with the Commissioner, and quite another to show it actually going on with an actual woman.

Alfaro's interrogation of the widow, in some ways recalls Lt. Valcour's interrogation of Mrs. Endicott in Murder by the Clock. Both show a suave, sophisticated policeman interrogating a wealthy sexy widow of a murdered millionaire. The Valcour - Mrs. Endicott scenes are loaded with flirtation and erotic tension. However, Valcour is not a seducer, and his scenes do not cross the moral line that Alfaro's do.

The title I Want a Policeman! contains a racy double meaning. It's a standard phrase used by a person in trouble requesting help from the police. But it also suggests that "I" want a policeman sexually.

Dennis: Tough Cop

Alfaro's tough-guy police partner Dennis has a queer moment too, when he emerges from a closet accidentally covered in women's clothes (end of Act II, Scene 3). This is comedy relief, like most of Dennis' role.

Charles Talbot

There are signs of a gay subtext about wannabe detective Charles Talbot too: Talbot is the son of an immensely wealthy banker. As another character says, "He'll inherit most of Wall Street" (Act I, Scene 2). It's a great line of dialogue.

Despite all the comedy associated with Talbot, he performs the play's main piece of detection. And his setting off of flares is the play's most interesting image. He is perhaps the actual hero of the play.


Holiday Homicide

Detectives

Rufus King's Holiday Homicide (1940) introduces two new sleuths, high priced private detective Cotton Moon, and his secretary-assistant-narrator, Bert Stanley. The two are direct clones of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and the novel as a whole is a pastiche of Rex Stout.

Moon is a pleasant character; instead of raising orchids, like Wolfe, he collects rare nuts. The novel might be best read with a copy of Edwin A. Menninger's Edible Nuts of the World (1977) on hand: a fun book, by the way. This zany hobby is typical of the book's tongue in cheek approach: nothing is ever completely serious here. Other rich men in King are collectors: Harold Davis in Lethal Lady collects rare books, Newspaper magnate Colonel Eustace Fitzhutt in "Miami Papers Please Copy" collectes flutes. See also the rich older man who plays the ocarina in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions", and the rich woman who plays the clavichord in in The Deadly Dove, although they are not collectors. All of these musical people are comic figures who inflict their dubious music making on others because they're rich.

King's pastiche of Archie Goodwin is especially good. King has caught Archie's bemused, intelligent, slightly smart alecky tone of narration very closely. King has combined this tone with his own vivid writing style, to make a very interesting synthesis. The descriptions include King's interest in rich concoctions, such as food, perfumes, and fluids. King also uses his examination of conventional story telling ideas here, constantly turning over stock phrases and situations, commenting on them all the while - this is an early use of a technique that will reach its apogee in King's "The Faces of Danger" (1960). Since Archie is also a somewhat sardonic observer of the human scene King can fuse his own meta-narrative approach with Archie's common man take on the well to do world about him. Bert is a bit more bitchy than Archie usually is, in keeping with the campier tone of King's fiction.

Scientific Detection

Some of the evidence collected in the earlier chapters is simple forensic data, based on the state of the corpse (Chapters 2, 8). This links Holiday Homicide in approach to the medical short stories King was writing about Dr. Colin Starr.

Some footprint evidence (Chapter 6) also is of a technical analysis of evidence kind. The snow containing the footprints also embodies King's love of vividly described soft materials.

The diving sequence also links Holiday Homicide to the tradition of Scientific Detection. It is pure technology, put in the service of sleuthing.

Mystery Plot

While Holiday Homicide is well written, it has problems as a puzzle plot. There is no fair play: Moon identifies the killer because he discovers the killer's fingerprints at a crime scene. This clue is not shared with the reader, and there is no logical way for the reader to deduce who the killer is. Nor is the mystery's solution especially clever. It does succeed in making a logical story out of the book's scramble of events and clues, and this shows a bit of ingenuity.

The subplot about "where the nut comes from" (Chapters 8, solved 24) is in King's tradition of mysteries of origins of objects. The subplot comes to an ingenious solution. It perhaps has elements of the Impossible Crime: it looks impossible that the nut could have been obtained. In addition to the solution of how it was committed, the subplot has some indications of who did it. These indications are the closest the book comes to real fair play clues to the identity of the murderer.

Holiday Homicide has a similar status as Murder by Latitude in King's career. Both books are 1) genuine whodunits, not suspense novels; 2) mainly lack fair play in their solutions; 3) are well written, with special gifts of prose style and verbal adroitness; 4) show good storytelling.


The Medical Mysteries: Dr. Colin Starr

While Rufus King was reaching new heights with the traditional formal mystery tale, he also created another new sleuth, Dr. Colin Starr. Starr appeared only in short stories, not novels, and mainly solved mysteries with medical clues. This links him to a long series of medical sleuths, notably R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke, Mary Roberts Rinehart's Miss Pinkerton, Theodora Du Bois' Dr. Jeffrey McNeill, George Harmon Coxe's Dr. Paul Standish, and Lawrence G. Blochman's Dr. Coffee.

Many of the medical mystery ideas in the Colin Starr tales show ingenuity. However, they are not always fair play; King does not always share clues with the reader. However, the tales make interesting reading anyway.

Publication

Some of the earliest Dr. Starr cases were collected in the book Diagnosis: Murder (1939 - 1941). There are also later, uncollected tales, some of which were reprinted in EQMM and The Saint Mystery Magazine.

Ellery Queen called Diagnosis: Murder an "excellent collection of stories" in his introduction to a King tale in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (September 1951).

Titles

The titles of the Colin Starr tales use Perry Mason conventions: they tend to begin with "The Case of", then have an (often alliterative) adjective and noun. Erle Stanley Gardner started using this pattern with his first Perry Mason mystery The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), years before the Colin Starr stories.

King will also publish the novels The Case of the Constant God (1936), The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943), The Case of the Redoubled Cross (1949).

Characters

The Starr tales take place among the country club set of a small Ohio town. These rich people are mainly dedicated to l'amour. King perfects the tone here he will later use in his South Florida short stories, of love affairs wryly narrated, and set among the luxurious homes and clubs of the well to do. The stories are rich in color, and a sensuous feel. The third person narrator maintains a tone of sly cynicism in describing these affairs. This Ohio town is near many rivers, and the presence of water also anticipates the Florida Gold Coast setting of the later short stories.

Intermixed with Society people come intellectuals. Some of these are men in arts sponsored by the rich. Others are Society people themselves with artistic or intellectual pretensions. King's attitude towards these people in the arts is uniformly negative. They tend to be destructive, financially exploitative, and often downright crooked. An air of decadence hovers over them. These sinister intellectuals seem only involved with the arts, not science or politics.

By contrast, wholesome young men who are interested only in sports or their jobs are King favorites.

As in other King books, there are a lot of extremely handsome young men in the Colin Starr tales. As always with King, these are leading men types, what we today might call "hunks". Starr himself notices these men's looks in "The Case of the Three Baleful Brothers" and "The Case of the Buttoned Collar". "The Case of the Buttoned Collar" has an interesting sentence, about how the man's looks impress both women and men.

Setting

Trying to figure out where King's imaginary town of Laurel Falls is, leads to inconclusive results. It is explicitly set in South-Eastern Ohio. Some tales put it on the real-life Muskingum River, like the real-life cities of Zanesville and Marietta. Other stories say it is on the Onega River, an apparently fictitious waterway: there are a real life Lake Onega, Onega River and Onega Bay in the far north of Russia, but apparently nothing in Ohio. "The Case of the Prodigal Bridegroom" places Laurel Falls right between the Plains region of Ohio and the Appalachian Plateau. This means that Laurel Falls is definitely not on or near the Ohio River, but further inland: more like Zanesville, and definitely unlike Marietta. Hills and a cliff play a role in the story "The Case of the Buttoned Collar", so we are more in the start of the Appalachian Plateau, and less in the Plains region.

In any case, Laurel Falls is not too far from Abner Country in West Virginia in Melville Davisson Post's tales; the West Virginia panhandle setting of Ellery Queen's The Egytptian Cross Mystery; or Mary Robert Rinehart's Pittsburgh stories.

Mystery Plots

SPOILERS. "The Case of the Three Baleful Brothers" and "The Case of the Imperious Invalid" have a two-stage cover-up of the crime by the killer. The two stages take place at two different times. In both tales, this is linked to an alibi situation. The alibi aspects are not fair play (fully shared with the reader as a puzzle), but they do show some imaginative plotting.

The nature of the cover-up itself is also a mystery in both of the tales. This cover-up gets the main medical clue in both stories, one linked to the state of the bodies.

Several of the stories have a hidden relationship involving the killer. This relationship motivates the murder to take place. In "The Case of the Three Baleful Brothers", this hidden relationship is the subject of a full-scale puzzle plot, with clues to its existence. The hidden relationship is more perfunctory as a puzzle in other tales, such as "The Case of the Prodigal Bridegroom" and "The Case of the Imperious Invalid". In all the tales, King develops sleuth's account of the hidden relationship into a large-scale piece of storytelling in the finale.

"The Case of the Three Baleful Brothers" has interesting mystery subplots about the origin of objects (guns, money). "The Case of the Prodigal Bridegroom" also looks at the origin of an object (the matches), but does not treat this origin as a mystery puzzle.

"The Case of the Buttoned Collar" shows variations on the paradigms of some other Colin Starr tales. It has a cover-up involving two different times. This leads to an alibi puzzle, like some other tales. But the cover-up does not lead to or cause the story's medical clue.

The medical clue in "The Case of the Buttoned Collar" does involve the state of the body, as in "The Case of the Three Baleful Brothers" and "The Case of the Imperious Invalid". Unlike them, where the state of the body involves forensic facts that apply to almost all corpses, this state in "The Case of the Buttoned Collar" deals with the specific method of death.

"The Case of the Buttoned Collar" gives an explanation of the source of an object (the charcoal).

Architecture

"The Case of the Three Baleful Brothers" and "The Case of the Buttoned Collar" have similar three-part settings: a large mansion, a rustic nearby dwelling where an artist lives (a houseboat and a cabin in the woods, respectively), and a nearby place where the artist does his work (a theater, a forge). These show the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture. However, at least in the edition I read, there are no floor plans or maps in the book.

"The Case of the Sudden Shot" and "The Case of the Imperious Invalid" have two mansions in close proximity, where the suspects can walk between.


The Case of the Lonely Ladies: a Dr. Colin Starr novella

Diagnosis: Murder also contains "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" (1940?). This long novella is written in a different style from the rest of the Starr tales.

Mystery Plot

Dr. Colin Starr has a smaller role than usual. Tthe simple medical evidence he uses to identify the killer is routine, and not part of any sort of puzzle plot. In fact, the mystery is fairly thinly plotted as a whole.

The blood stains that serve as clues, recall the spilled red ink that serves as a clue in Murder by Latitude. In addition to their significance as clues, both are examples of King's interest in liquids.

Best puzzle element: the contest the daughter wins, and her subsequent picture in the paper. This perhaps relates a bit to the "visionary" mystery subplot in "The Patron Saint of the Impossible".

Big Secret & Backstory

The tale as a whole has a Mary Robert Rinehart feel, It resembles such Rinehart works as The Bat (1920), with menace at night in a heroine's lonely mansion.

The solution involves one of those scandalous Big Secrets that plague rich women's families in the later books of Rinehart. However, King's specific Big Secret is different from any in a Rinehart story.

SPOILERS. The killers' motives are linked to an elaborate backstory. This backstory has similarities to the backstory behind the crimes in Murder by Latitude. In both, an unsympathetic person left their spouse, and worse, abandoned their child. In both, these actions were motivated by a selfish quest for what society considers "success".

The backstories in both "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" and The Case of the Dowager's Etchings are elaborate, and linked to complex political and social forces. Please see the discussion in the section on The Case of the Dowager's Etchings.

Race: A Positive View

The story's two elderly black servants at first look like countless others in mystery fiction of the era. But they turn out to be far more active and more sympathetic than most. There is likely a pro-black, anti-stereotype message embedded. Anti-racism was a prominent feature of the Van Dine School. Please see my detailed discussion here.

SPOILERS. The black butler makes his biggest impact, when he arrives unexpectedly at a scene. In the later The Case of the Dowager's Etchings, it is handsome young white war hero Kent Giles who arrives unexpectedly, and whose appearance has suggestions of both magic and sexuality. But here is is an elderly black man, who does the same surprising thing. This puts a black man in a hero's role.

King Subjects

The sign out front of the mansion, advertising for tourists to stay at the mansion, is perhaps a simple example of King's interest in technology. The sign lights up, and can be turned on and off. It recalls the flares set off outside the mansion in I Want a Policeman!.

Real-life architect Stanford White is referred to, at the tale's start.

Daughter Nan is a designer. Characters with an interest in the arts are common in the Van Dine school of mystery fiction.

The hot chocolate fixed for Nan (Chapter 1) is an example both of King's interest in liquids, and of King's liking for sweet desserts.

Characters

Young banker Lorrimer Keith has a polished, ultra-conventional business exterior, that masks a very different inner personality. He anticipates another "perfect"-imaged small town businessman, Howard Graham in Murder and Blueberry Pie (1959) by Frances and Richard Lockridge. Later, Dr. Starr reflects approvingly on Keith's dramatization of his personas like "banker", "suave clubman" and "modest golfer". Starr regards these polished personas as a good "safety valve against repressions".

Lorrimer Keith inherited his family's banking business. In this, he recalls another banking heir, Charles Talbot in I Want a Policeman!. Charles Talbot is far more eccentric than Keith, but both men are in fact full of odd impulses. Both men seem happy, and glad that they are indulging their impulses. Both of their impulses seem to allow them to express their sexuality.

Sinister stranger Chester Parne conveys an atmosphere of sexual menace and virility. Parne is compared to a gangster in appearance, at one point. His flashy pinstripe suit sounds like those worn in Hollywood in the film noir era.

Handsome young cop Roy Suffolk is an example of sexy men in uniforms in Rufus King tales.

All three of Lorrimer Keith, Chester Parne and Roy Suffolk have character aspects that express sexuality and potency. Male sexuality is a recurrent theme in King's work as a whole.

Magazine Publication?

One suspects this is the same story as "A Lonely, Lovely Lady" (Redbook, August 1940). The setting of the tale is consistent with a 1940 date. There is no reference in the tale to World War II, and the tale seems set before the US entered the war in late 1941. Nobody is in uniform, and there is clearly no food rationing. Parne is associated with meat-eating: in particular, beef-eating.

The Case of the Peculiar Precautions: a Dr. Colin Starr short story

Rufus King kept writing Colin Starr short stories after Diagnosis: Murder. One of the best uncollected Starr tales is "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" (1942). It was reprinted in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (September 1951), where I read it.

Cousin Walter

Cousin Walter is a lazy middle-aged guy who sponges off his rich relative. All the other characters despise him, and he has no redeeming characteristics. But this reader enjoyed his bitchy commentary on the tale's events. One suspects that Rufus King does too. Walter's comments are often quite insightful. As a middle-aged sophisticate with a line of arch patter and a fondness for candy and a figure to match, Walter resembles the character Chalkley in Helen McCloy's Who's Calling? (1942). Walter's chocolate-covered marshmallows are more of the sweets that run through King.

Murder Masks Miami can be read as a referendum on the lifeguard and what he represents. Is he innocent or guilty? Are the ideas he symbolizes good or bad? In a lesser way, "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" might be read as a referendum on Walter, and what he represents.

"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" recalls Murder on the Yacht:

Masculinity

"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" is an early King tale to show men in uniform, presumably for World War II, although the war is not actually mentioned in the tale. As in A Variety of Weapons, King relates such Armed Forces men to ideas about masculinity and sexual attractiveness.

"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" appeared in Redbook Magazine in January 1941. It is unlikely King would have been able to do any writing on the tale after the US entered World War II on Pearl Harbor day, December 7, 1941. More likely the servicemen in the story are part of the peacetime draft (started in 1940) and other measures the US took to prepare for the war, before actually entering it.

Mystery Plot

SPOILERS in the rest of this discussion.

This tale is a variant on a situation prominent in Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales: a country home under siege from mysterious external forces, and with the man head-of-the-house not speaking up about the sinister enemies who are attacking his home. The "Peculiar Precautions" of the title refer to defensive measures taken by that man. Rufus King's solution manages to come up with some original ideas relating to this old plot. King would soon write A Variety of Weapons, a novel about a giant country estate far more elaborately guarded.

Once again, a killer covers up the original crime. And once again, medical detection by Dr. Starr reveals the truth. This is simpler than in some earlier Dr. Starr tales: alibis are not involved, there is only a single act of covering up. Still, the cover-up is clever, with its existence and what is being covered-up both being pleasant surprises. And Dr. Starr does some brief but interesting scientific work in his detection.

"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" also has a good mystery idea in its solution that has nothing to do with medical detection or cover-ups. While this idea is not used to create an impossible crime, it does enable something that at first seemed impossible.


The Y-Shaped Scar: a Dr. Colin Starr short story

Another good uncollected Starr tale is "The Y-Shaped Scar". This is likely the same story as "The Case of the Passementerie Band" (Redbook Magazine, September 1942). I haven't seen a copy of the magazine with "The Case of the Passementerie Band", but "The Y-Shaped Scar" makes a big deal of a Passementerie Band worn by a suspect. The tale was possibly retitled "The Y-Shaped Scar" by editor Ellery Queen, when he reprinted it in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (September 1952) under that title. Ellery Queen liked to change titles of the stories he published. The tale was also anthologized under this new title, in Ellery Queen's 1963 Anthology (Volume 4), where I read it.

This might be the last Dr. Colin Starr short story to be published. I wish King had continued the series.

Links to "The Case of the Lonely Ladies"

"The Y-Shaped Scar" takes place against the same sort of background as the Starr novella "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" (1940): A difference: the guests at the tourist home are all male in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies", but all female in "The Y-Shaped Scar". (In the later The Case of the Dowager's Etchings the dowager rents rooms in her mansion to both men and women.)

The Van Dine School: Traditions

Van Dine school mysteries often have characters involved with the arts. "The Y-Shaped Scar" is an example: there is a classic furniture expert, a writer of historical novels, and a theater troupe.

The music box is also linked to the arts.

Another Van Dine school tradition: the detective explores the movements of a witness and a suspect around the crime scene, at the time of the murder. (The episode where detective Starr visits the cottage, is where he explores these movements.)

Mystery Plot: Aligning Past and Present

One subplot in "The Y-Shaped Scar" recalls Murder by Latitude. In both works, the detectives have to match up a person from the distant past, one who has since disappeared, with one of the suspects in the present. King includes plot twists making the match trickier in both tales. The twist in "The Y-Shaped Scar" involves medical ideas, consistent with Dr. Starr's expertise as a medical detective.

Matching up suspects from the distant past and the present, is a mystery plot structure also used by Frank Gruber. It also appears in Rufus King's Design in Evil (Chapter 13).

SPOILERS in the rest of this section.

Mystery Plot: Hidden Object

"The Y-Shaped Scar" also has a hidden object puzzle, anticipating A Variety of Weapons. Its hiding places is ingenious.

Note: the idea that a hidden object is relevant to the mystery, is itself not made explicit through most of the story. Only at the finale do we realize with surprise that such a puzzle has been woven into the plot.

Mystery Plot: New Evidence

Starr finds new evidence, when he searches the cottage. And he reasons out carefully what the evidence implies. Both the evidence and the reasoning are clever. And all of this gives a soundly reasoned indication of the killer's identity.

The evidence is an an obscure, easily overlooked spot. Such an obscure spot is a bit related to the obscure hiding places in "hidden object" mysteries. However in most "hidden object" tales, a human deliberately hides something in an obscure spot. By contrast, the evidence that Starr finds in "The Y-Shaped Scar" found its way to its obscure locale by chance.


Science Fiction: The Fatal Kiss Mystery

The Fatal Kiss Mystery (1924, 1928) is a misleading title. The story is not a mystery at all; it is a whimsical science fiction novel about a young scientist who transports people to another dimension. There is much romance involving Bright Young Things in the 1920's sophisticated style. The whole book seems paper thin and largely uninspired.

Chapter 2 has an interesting introduction of his hero, student scientist and muscular football fullback Ramier Bellmy. King's macho men tend to be highly muscular, from the beginning here of his career, to his final stories.

The college snack shop is full of sweet concoctions (Chapter 3). Even at this early date, King is interested in desserts. However they are not described in terms of color and flavor as they are in his later stories.


Design in Evil

Design in Evil (1942) is the first of Rufus King's non-series thrillers, after he abandoned the formal detective novel following Holiday Homicide (1940).

Dating the Events

There are brief references to war news from Europe, but no sign of Americans in uniform in Design in Evil. One suspects that Design in Evil was written before the US entered the war on Pearl Harbor day, December 7, 1941.

I haven't seen a copy of the magazine containing King's novella "Her Past Should Be Her Own" (Redbook Magazine, February 1942). But one suspects, based on the title, that this is just a magazine version of Design in Evil. (The villains in Design in Evil attempt to impose a new past on the heroine.) A magazine dated February 1942, would have been on the newsstands in December 1941 or January 1942. And any fiction in it would have been written quite a while before those dates.

Suspense Plot: Forced Into a New Identity

The early chapters (1 - 13) are well written, with King showing in detail the trap that confronts his heroine. These chapters show King's feel for sailing material, taking place on a sea going yacht. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is flat.

Design in Evil is in the tradition of the "innocent young woman forced into a new identity" school. It follows such pioneering works as Helen McCloy's Dance of Death (1938), and Anthony Gilbert's The Woman in Red (1941), the latter being made into a superb film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). The male hero is forced into a new identity in A. Merritt's thriller Seven Footprints to Satan (1928) (Chapters 1 - 3).

King's version of this story is never plausible, unless everyone is in on this bizarre plot; yet King wants only one person to be guilty, and everyone else to be an innocent dupe.

Mystery Plot

The later sections of the book contain a murder mystery. However, there are only two serious suspects, and the mystery is never developed into an interesting or even very elaborate plot.

There is only one clue to the killer's identity (last part of Chapter 28). While the clue is sound and logical, it is simple, lacking subtlety, and not especially creative.

Links to A Variety of Weapons

The central idea, a woman forced into a new identity, is derivative, as discussed above. Yet aspects of this idea might have helped develop King's much better next novel, A Variety of Weapons. In both Design in Evil and A Variety of Weapons:

Men

Murray the steward is an example of that King perennial character, the handsome man in uniform (Chapters 4, 8).

New York - and a Critic

The opening shows the heroine's miserable life in New York City, before she enters the yacht (Chapter 1). Many mystery novels depict New York as a glamorous place, full of successful people. But some 1940's mystery novels suggest that Manhattan could be rough, especially on young single women looking for fulfillment. Zelda Popkin's Time Off for Murder (1940) opens with a look at a group of young, fairly successful career women who are single, depressed and increasingly frustrated by their lifestyle of casual dating. The heroine in Design in Evil is even worse off, being a destitute career failure. The openings of both Time Off for Murder and Design in Evil convey a sense of malaise and anomie.

The heroine's rotten boyfriend in Design in Evil is a literary critic for a minor magazine (Chapter 1). As a critic myself, I've noticed that nobody seems to love a critic! The critic in Design in Evil is sure a dismal excuse for a human being, an aimless, goalless man, obsessed with Manhattan gossip, and treating the heroine as an object. He is completely lacking in color, personality or sparkle. This seems to be Rufus King's portrait of the critics of his day. Presumably, King met plenty of critics and other writers in New York City, so this portrait might have some sociological validity.

We learn a bit more about the heroine's life in New York (Chapters 3, 4, 6). And more, in the series of messages from a police detective at the book's end (Chapter 27). This last section is one of the most cheerful in the novel. As the book points out, the messages are comic in tone.

Joseph Conrad

King indicates that Joseph Conrad is one of his hero's favorite authors (Chapter 15). It certainly makes sense that King admires Conrad: both were sailors in real life, and wrote frequently about the sea, and both men wrote rich descriptive prose.

King will refer to Conrad again in "Miami Papers Please Copy", along with Jack London. Conrad's Typhoon is discussed briefly in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" in Diagnosis: Murder.

King's early novel North Star (1925) is a tale of a dog in the Northwest, and Whelp of the Winds is another dog novel. They might reflect the influence of Jack London.

Psychiatry

King is of two minds about psychiatry, then becoming unfortunately fashionable in the media, in its Freudian version. In Design in Evil, psychiatry is treated as a serious science, and yet the older psychiatrist is the book is shown as a completely mistaken dupe. This is at least more skeptical than the religious reverence with which psychiatry was usually held in this era.

Another psychiatrist will appear in King's short story "Murder on Her Mind".


A Variety of Weapons

A Variety of Weapons (1943) is a combination suspense melodrama and whodunit murder mystery. It is not a series novel: the detective policeman Sergeant Hurlstone only appears in this novel.

A Variety of Weapons breaks into two nearly equal parts. The first half (Chapters 1-15) is a suspense thriller; the second half (Chapters 16-35) more concentrates on a whodunit mystery, although it too has some suspense.

The First Half

The first half of A Variety of Weapons is full of plot surprises. It is the fashion today to claim that virtually any mystery is full of surprising twists and turns. However, the plot events in A Variety of Weapons really are startling, and developed on a large scale.

The first half of A Variety of Weapons can be categorized as "suspense". This is a broad term. A Variety of Weapons has few heart-in-your-mouth passages where the heroine's life is in danger. Instead, it develops large-scale situations that are strange, intriguing and sinister in atmosphere. Perhaps it might be better described as a "melodrama" than as a "suspense" novel.

Like King's later Secret Beyond the Door, A Variety of Weapons would have made a good movie. Unfortunately, A Variety of Weapons was never filmed, and the novel has drifted into obscurity.

A Citadel of the Rich and a Socialist Critique

A Variety of Weapons takes place at a isolated compound run by an extremely wealthy family. Such a "citadel of the rich" is also the locale of G.K. Chesterton's "The Arrow of Heaven" (1925) and The King Is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen. Queen's version of such a compound is more baroque and excessive than King's.

The compound in A Variety of Weapons is in an isolated region of the Adirondacks. King himself sometimes lived in far upstate New York, and the area regularly recurs in his fiction. His novella "The Steps to Murder" will be partially set in the Adirondacks.

The socialist Fleury is presented as a somewhat pathetic and ineffectual character, and as a man suffering from an obsession (Chapters 14, 17). However, his critiques of big concentrations of money do not seem out of place in a mystery centering on a family of immense wealth. All in all, King's attitude towards Fleury and his politics is ambiguous. Fleury is a Socialist who wants people voluntarily to build socialist communities: he definitely does not seem to be a Communist.

Art

There are references to sophisticated art: Rodin, Robert Adam, Cellini, all of whom worked in three dimensions, rather than being painters.

More surprisingly, modernist Francis Picabia is mentioned. King is normally not interested in Modern Art.

Scientific Detection

Some of the crimes are based in science and technology. This links A Variety of Weapons to the tradition of Scientific Detection.

However, little of the sleuthing or detective work is science-based - only the crimes themselves. This makes A Variety of Weapons less science-oriented than King's mysteries about Dr. Colin Starr.

Mystery Plot

In the second half of A Variety of Weapons, King gets down to business, and starts investigating the murder in detail. We get a fair play murder mystery puzzle plot. This puzzle is soundly constructed, and has a decent pair of ideas. However, it is fairly brief to serve as the mystery for an entire novel. The mystery puzzle aspects could be squeezed into a short story without any loss of detail.

Hidden Objects

A Variety of Weapons offers two different subplots about ingeniously hidden objects. One subplot, the account of the hidden emeralds, is not a mystery (Chapter 3). It is offered a as a straightforward account, in which the reader knows all the facts. Although it is not a mystery, it is clever, and could easily have been presented as a mystery puzzle if King had chosen to do so.

The other hidden object subplot is indeed the basis of a mystery (solved Chapter 34). While this subplot is linked to the killer's motive, it has no other ties to the main whodunit mystery of the novel.

A Trap for the Killer

In addition to fair play clues signaling the killer's identity, A Variety of Weapons also contains a trap into which the killer falls, thus betraying the killer's identity. Normally I tend not to think much of such traps in crime fiction: they tend to be a poor substitute for the detective deducing who the killer is through clues. But just this once, the trap in A Variety of Weapons shows some ingenuity.

Characters: Male Perfection

The heroine's boyfriend Bill and state trooper Sergeant Hurlstone are almost pure embodiments of idealized masculinity. They are extraordinary in body: some of the most extreme of King's hunks (Chapters 2, 17, 19). They also have outstanding mental gifts and job skills. This ideal perfection might have been excessive for any year other than 1942. But in that year, the United States had just entered World War II. The two men represent the capabilities of American manhood. Bill has just enlisted in the Marines, and represents all US soldiers, symbolically. Sergeant Hurlstone represents the authorities back home, and is depicted as infinitely capable. (Although Hurlstone will be entering the service in another month too.) The two form a patriotic picture of American men fighting the war, and King likely felt it was both necessary and desirable to lay on their masculine perfection with a trowel.

Bill has limitations: he is a cavemen when it comes to romance, and lacks the skills to navigate its trickier obstacles. Since it was a cliche at the time that only women could master such things, such a "limitation" does not detract from Bill's masculinity. King can depict Bill as clueless in the fancier forms of romance, without suggesting that the heroine will ever ultimately fail to submit to his advances.

King in fact gets comedy out of kidding the men over their perfection. Sergeant Hurlstone's limitless set of skills and training come in for ribbing. But this only serves ultimately to dramatize his gifts.

The Lawyer

The wealthy lawyer Clarence Harlan likes to dress in clothes tailored to make him look deceptively ill-suited (Chapter 15). This is an ingenious idea.

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings

During the 1940's, Rufus King published a number of mystery and suspense novels without continuing series characters. One of the better of these is The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943). This is a light hearted escapade, mainly notable for the charm of its storytelling and its vivid writing. It does not have a great puzzle plot, but it is fun to read.

Influence from The Circular Staircase and The Bat

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings shows signs of influence from Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907), which also deals with a well to do elderly woman sleuth's slightly comic but thrilling adventures with murder and detection in her mansion, mainly nocturnal. King's novel also has a thriller finale in the top floor of the mansion, just like Rinehart's book. Just as Rinehart's spinster has to help out her niece, who is involved with the case and covering up what she knows, so does King's sleuth have to aid her grandson.

One suspects that King might have been familiar with Rinehart's plot in the form of its stage adaptation, The Bat (1920): his next book, The Deadly Dove, also shows signs of influence from The Bat.

BIG SPOILERS. The identity of the murderer in The Case of the Dowager's Etchings recalls that in The Bat. The same clever plot idea is used in this choice of murderer.

Rinehart's patented plot gambit, "upscale Society matron gets innocently involved in crime" also appears in such Rinehart works as The Great Mistake and "Episode of the Wandering Knife". It's the basic premise of King's The Case of the Dowager's Etchings.

King's stories do not partake of the characteristics of the later HIBK novels of the Rinehart school, however - they do not seriously look at personal relationships, for example, or maintain a solemn tone.

Opening the Home to Outsiders

King's earlier Dr. Colin Starr tales "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" and "The Y-Shaped Scar" feature a formerly well-to-do woman, now reduced to turning the family mansion into a tourist home. This brings outsiders, often mysterious acting, into her home as customers staying there.

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings uses a related premise. Its wealthy matron opens her mansion to outsider residents, as a patriotic wartime gesture, during a severe housing shortage for defense plant workers. Once again, this brings mysterious strangers into her home as residents.

The residents of these mansions form a group of suspects. In this they recall the passengers in King's ship mysteries like Murder by Latitude. They are groups of strangers, now brought together in a common residence.

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings recalls "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" in another way. Both have a grown child or grandchild of the heroine, coming home after a long absence. Mystery comes along with both of these kids.

Outside Forces, Behind the Crime

In both "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" (1940?) and The Case of the Dowager's Etchings, we discover at the end that large-scale political and social forces are behind the criminal activity. Although both take place is an apparently isolated mansion owned by a genteel widow, massive interests are in fact converging on the mansion. They are sending in sinister representatives to achieve their evil goals.

In both works, there is not just one such outside group. In fact, each story contains two such outside interests. These are rival interests, dueling each other for success.

I don't recall such outside social groups or political interests behind the crimes, in Rinehart works. Instead, this aspect is something added to the plots by Rufus King.

The discussion of these outside interests, adds complexity to the solution of the crimes. They enable elaborate backstories for the tales' events. They also allow King to depict social forces that otherwise don't appear much in his fiction.

Links to "The Faces of Danger"

Among King's works, The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943) and "The Faces of Danger" (1960) are the same kind of story. Both are an unusual combination of the thriller and the mystery story. Many mystery stories have elements of suspense or adventure; this is not the sort of combination we are talking about here.

Instead, it is a question of knowledge, and when it is revealed to the reader. In these King tales, several of the villains and their schemes are identified right away, and shown to the reader. The reader knows these people are up to no good, and knows that they are menacing the good characters in the story. However, the reader does not know all the details of their schemes - these aspects will be hidden, and only emerge much later, at or near the solution. In addition, there is a murder in the story, treated as a full puzzle plot mystery. The reader is not told who did the murder, or why. There is also a detective in the tale, as well as amateur detection by the good characters; at the end of the story, these detectives will solve the murder, reveal the killer, and reveal all about the villains' schemes. The whole tale is a combination of two types of story. The villains and how they menace the innocent characters are right out of a non-puzzle plot thriller, a melodrama where all is known to the reader as the story goes along, and where there is an exciting confrontation between good and evil. Combined with this is a classical murder mystery.

In addition to their unusual, shared form, both stories have similarity of approach. Both stories have:

Art

King's works of the 1940's show an interest in art. The Dr. Starr tales refer to paintings of the Hudson River School, while Dowager refers to Bougereau. These are realist painters of the 19th Century, artists who preceded the modernist movement, and took absolutely no part in it. (One might contrast King's taste with Stuart Palmer - his Cold Poison (1954) refers to such modernist painters as Klee, Picasso and Dali.) King's references in both cases are designed to illustrate the contents of old mansions, buildings whose art was acquired a long time ago by their occupants' ancestors. Under these circumstances, fairly old movements in art are most appropriate. King's comments show considerable sophistication about art.

The heroine, a Society woman with an active interest in the arts (as the creator of the title etchings), also recalls the many Society people with ties to the arts in Diagnosis: Murder.

Characters involved with the arts, are common in the Van Dine School.

Mystery Fiction

Dowager contains some self referential comments on the mystery field. His protagonist is thinking of Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (1844), and is not sure whether it was written by Poe or Gaboriau. Once again, this is a very 19th Century sort of reference.

Desserts

King liked sweet concoctions, often brightly colored. The heroine eats an example: raspberry sherbet with angel food.

Uniform

The heroine's war hero grandson becomes that King staple, the sexy man in a uniform. The grandson is described as "strong", "hard", grown-up and manly. He is also compared to a sculpture.

SPOILERS. The grandson enters the novel unexpectedly, twice: first at night, then at the train station during the day. His appearance out of nowhere at these times has elements of surrealism. Both times, his uniform is stressed. So is his metal Army identification tag. Both times, he is linked romantically with the sexy Miss Ashley.

The grandson's appearances-out-of-nowhere have dimensions of magic. And also of sexuality.


The Deadly Dove

The Deadly Dove (1944 - 1945) is the sort of middling work that is hard to evaluate. The book is well written, and full of dark humor. But it is nothing as a puzzle plot, hardly containing any mystery at all, and many of the characterizations are minor. I enjoyed reading it, but am afraid to recommend it because I'm not sure if anyone else would like it. It is definitely one of King's minor works.

A Play?

The Deadly Dove shows signs of being adapted from a stage play. Most of the action occurs in one location that could easily be a stage set: the morning room of a large country house. Dialogue is featured heavily, as in a play, and much of it consists of fancy repartee that would have worked well on the Broadway stage of the 1940's. One guesses that either King adapted this novel from a stage play he wrote previously, or he wrote the novel with a future stage adaptation in mind.

The shortness of The Deadly Dove also suggests a play rather than a novel. It is actually of novella length.

Influence from The Bat

The Deadly Dove is in roughly the same genre as The Bat (1920), Mary Roberts Rinehart's and Avery Hopwood's stage-play adaptation of Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. Both works are set in the living room of a country mansion, both contain a diverse group of characters who are menaced by a mysterious professional criminal who wanders in and out of the spooky mansion. The hit man here, the Dove, even has the same sort of winged animal nickname as the criminal the Bat. Both works mix comedy and thrills. The owner of the mansion is a sixty year old woman, just as in The Bat, and her niece and the niece's boyfriend also play roles in the plot, just as in the earlier play.

King's novel even mentions Avery Hopwood by name, as the leading light of an earlier era of Broadway theater (Chapter 6). One wonders if King had met Hopwood in gay circles earlier - Hopwood was certainly gay, and one strongly suspects that King was. Hopwood lived the sort of bon vivant life style on the Riviera often aspired to by King's characters.

The characters in The Deadly Dove are much nastier and more murderous than Rinehart and Hopwood's innocents. Also, the story has little of the earlier authors' gift for ingenious plotting.

Other Broadway hit plays might also have inspired Rufus King. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941) by Joseph Kesselring mixes murder and comedy. You Can't Take It With You (1936) by Kaufman and Hart shows a house full of zany, eccentric people. A comedy film about a rich family with a way-out guest in the arts is My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936).

Hit Man

SPOILERS. Hit-men in old gangster movies usually gun down rival mobsters in barbershops or restaurants. The Dove, by contrast, is a suave, mild-mannered man who makes his murders look like accidental deaths (Chapters 2, 21, 23). He perhaps resembles real-life professional spies, who are often said to be "mild, ordinary-looking people who nobody ever notices". The whole sinister conception is quite frightening.

The Dove tends to use scientific, technical and medical means to kill people. This is another instance of King's interest in Scientific Detection - although here it is the killer and not the detective who is scientific.

One can compare the Dove with the killer character Fergus Wade in King's previous novel The Case of the Dowager's Etchings. Wade is a ruthless cold-blooded killer too, with a long history of murder. But Wade differs from the Dove:

Detection: Like an Inverted Mystery

One of the few detection-oriented passages in The Deadly Dove has the local police tracking down sweet-little-old-lady shoplifter Cordelia (Chapters 15, 16). These chapters introduce the book's policeman, state trooper Sergeant Emmett Asher.

SPOILER. This concludes with a nice twist about fingerprints. This gambit is more plausible in a lightly comic novel like The Deadly Dove. It would not withstand the heavy in-depth police investigation found in many "serious" murder mysteries.

The novel adds further detective work, for another twist (start of Chapter 20). While comic, it uses rigorous detection.

In the above sections:

The above pattern is essentially that of the inverted mystery.

Uniform

We learn right away that Sergeant Asher is big and uniformed (Chapter 15). His Trooper uniform is clearly fancy, involving a belt and gauntlets.

The Boy-Friend

The niece's boy-friend Barry Vanbuskirk turns out to be an unexpectedly interesting character (Chapter 4). He is lively, articulate and funny. This chapter where he has a role, comes closest to the witty "comedy of manners" genre of play. The chapter, including Barry's dialogue, is also full of sparkling cultural references.

The boy-friend is educated. This seems to be seen by King as a Good Thing. He will be working as part of the US Army of Occupation in Germany, because he knows a little German.

Barry Vanbuskirk looks exactly like a "minor official in a good banking house" who graduated from Harvard. This recalls the hero Lorrimer Keith of "The Case of the Lonely Ladies", who also has a perfect image as a banker. And as the scion of an upper crust family, Barry recalls the far more eccentric Charles Talbot in I Want a Policeman!.

Television

The boy-friend mentions television in his dialogue. Television at the time was in its earliest stages: there had been a few broadcasts starting in 1939, but it would not take off in a big way till after the war ended in 1945. Such a technological interest reflects King's involvement with the scientific detective story.

Radicalism

There is a hint of radicalism, in zany Godfrey's blithe dismissal of "the capitalistic press" (Chapter 4). As in Murder Masks Miami, this reference to radicalism is treated as comedy.

The food-obsessed Godfrey recalls the candy-obsessed Walter in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions". Godfrey is cooking petits fours (Chapter 4): an example of King's fondness for desserts.


Museum Piece No. 13 / Secret Beyond the Door

Rufus King's "biography" of Valcour associates the French school with an interest in psychology; the article on Ernest M. Poate discusses this further. King's work sometimes dealt with characters who suffered psychological abnormalities. These were not the foaming at the mouth serial killers of today; instead they were troubled by the Freudian-oriented psychodramas of 1940's noir.

Museum Piece No. 13 (1945-1946) is one such excursion. A woman marries in haste, only to discover that her husband has this psychological problem... The problem is G-rated, but boy is it a doozie. (This is the sort of over the top 1940's psychoanalysis that was spoofed by Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.)

I found the novel Museum Piece No. 13 disappointing. It does contain the key ideas and characters that later would populate Fritz Lang's film version. But the book's storytelling runs out of steam after the first few chapters, which contain all of King's creative ideas.

Film Version

One of the best film noir thrillers of the 40's, Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1947), was based on Rufus King's novel. The article on Lang has a detailed discussion of the differences between King's novel and Lang's film version.

While our hero's traumas are never believable, the film is extremely entertaining and gripping, with first rate storytelling, direction and photography.

The hardback of Museum Piece No. 13 says that it originally appeared condensed in Redbook magazine (December 1945) as The Secret Beyond the Door, which is where the film presumably got its title. After the movie came out, the novel appeared in paperback as Secret Beyond the Door.


Lethal Lady

Lethal Lady (1947) is a non-series novel.

A novella "The Lady Said 'If'" appeared in Redbook magazine, May 1947. I haven't seen it. Its title suggests this is a version of Lethal Lady.

Plot Structure: Inverted + Thriller

Lethal Lady is a thriller or tale of suspense. It is full of crime. It has no mystery: the reader always knows what has happened.

While there is no mystery, the book does have detective work, in which cop Sergeant Walter Morris tries to figure our what has been going on. The episodes with this detective work are some of the best in the book (Chapters 3, 6, 8, 10, 20, 23, 36, 37, 39, 42, 44, 50). These sections make up over one quarter of the book - around 35 pages in one edition of the novel. They are the length of a longish short story, embedded in the novel. Policeman Morris is a good character, too.

The inverted is a standard form of crime tale. In an inverted, we see a criminal commit a crime in the first part, and a detective solve the crime in the second part. Lethal Lady has the elements of an inverted: a criminal committing a crime, followed by the cop figuring it out. But the police episodes are only part of the book's second part. In addition, there is a lot showing the criminal committing more crimes, plus suspense passages with other characters. All told, Lethal Lady is both an inverted tale, AND a suspense thriller. It combines features of both approaches.

Lethal Lady seems like an ancestor of the inverted tales, that make up a portion of the last three short story collections King wrote.

An Influence from Cornell Woolrich?

The mixture of suspense and a policeman detective, recalls many tales by Cornell Woolrich. The male bonding that grows between policeman Morris and suspect Harold Davis also recalls a few Woolrich tales. The way Morris starts investigating the case on his own time, recalls the house detective in Woolrich's "The Room with Something Wrong" (1938).

Realism

SPOILERS. Lethal Lady has a dramatic opening premise: two women who look exactly alike, which triggers a murder plot (Chapters 1, 2). But after this, the novel follows low key realism. It takes place among regular people in a regular American city. Lethal Lady is much more "realistic" than most of King's earlier non-series thrillers.

Unfortunately, this realism often verges on blandness.

Class Struggle

Clara's attack on Solda Carmandine, is a rich woman launching a vicious attack on a lower middle class working woman. There could be a political allegory here, suggesting the rich preying on workers.

Many of the sympathetic characters work for a living. This includes the policeman Sergeant Walter Morris, who is explicitly trying to provide for his family (Chapter 6).

By contrast, rich man Harold Davis does not work (Chapter 3).

If a political commentary is intended by Lethal Lady, it is not made explicit. There are no passages of open political discussion or commentary in the book.

Industrial City

Lethal Lady takes place, not in Florida like the final three King collections, but in New England. It transpires in a fictitious New England manufacturing city, Blush Falls.

The name Blush Falls recalls Laurel Falls, the fictitious town in King's stories about Dr. Colin Starr.

Like many New England cities of the era, Blush Falls has much textile manufacturing. We read about the "mill section" of town (Chapter 1), the company called Frankton Mills (Chapter 2), a company called Amalgamated Knitting (Chapter 9). Such cities that manufacture cotton or textiles are known as "mill towns". Blush Falls is one of them. We learn "The principal industry was the mills. They offered the biggest pay" in Blush Falls (end of Chapter 36).

We briefly meet sympathetic Loftus Suffern, who trouble-shoots problems for Amalgamated Knitting (Chapter 9). He travels around a lot. He anticipates Aaron Marc Stein's series detective Matt Erridge, who travels to trouble-shoot technical problems in factories. Matt Erridge made his debut in Sitting Up Dead (1958).

In 1947, the most famous fictitious industrial New England city in mystery fiction, was Wrightsville. Wrightsville appeared in a long series of novels by Ellery Queen . These started with Calamity Town (1942) and The Murderer Is a Fox (1945). The factories in Wrightsville that we learn about, mainly produce machinery. This contrasts with the textile mills in Blush Falls.

Blush Falls has around fifty thousand residents. This makes it around five times the size of Wrightsville, which has over ten thousand inhabitants.

Links to Design in Evil

Lethal Lady has loose parallels with King's earlier novel Design in Evil:

Gay Characters

Solda Carmandine likes "privacy" (Chapter 2). She almost never lets anyone into her rooms. She does like her friendship with her landlady. This could be a portrait of a woman who is quietly lesbian.

One wonders if the name Carmandine is a tribute to mystery writer S.S. Van Dine.

Edmonde, the hair stylist, is a sympathetic character. His sexuality is not discussed. But he could be a portrait of a gay man who has worked hard to build a business ad find a place for himself in an American city. His beauty salon is mauve (Chapter 10), definitely a gay color back then.

Edmonde comes from a small village in Quebec. This recalls the Quebec rural and small town setting of Valcour Meets Murder.

The name "Edmonde" is made up by the character. It seems like a version of the standard name Edmund. The character Edmund Gateshead in The Lesser Antilles Case is likely a gay man.

Joe is another of the hunks frequent in Rufus King. Joe is not gay. But the sex appeal of Joe likely reflects gay imagery and feelings.

Fake Youth

Middle-aged Harold Davis tries to look young, to keep up with his young wife. This is like a more innocent version of the sinister campaign by Mrs. Poole in Murder by Latitude to convince her husbands she is very young.

Water

There is much of King's favorite water imagery, in the river that runs through town (Chapter 6).

Desserts

The characters like to eat the lush desserts found in King: We also learn about the unappetizing pudding made by the farm cook (Chapter 7).

King's Florida Short Stories

Rufus King's last works were a series of short stories set among the rich in Miami and its environs, often in the imaginary town of Halcyon, Florida. Many of them were published by Ellery Queen in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (EQMM).

There are three collections: Malice in Wonderland, The Steps to Murder and The Faces of Danger, as well as some uncollected tales in magazines.

Although King's use of Florida has been compared to John D. MacDonald, it also recalls the earlier Florida stories of Philip Wylie. In addition to setting, other Wylie-like features include:


Malice in Wonderland

Malice in Wonderland is the first of Rufus King's short story collections from late in his career. It contains the only three stories King wrote about cop Bill Duggan: "Let Her Kill Herself" (1956), "Malice in Wonderland" (1957) and "Agree--Or Die" (1957).

Malice in Wonderland

"Malice in Wonderland" (1957) contains some of Rufus King's most magical atmosphere and mise-en-scène. The tale is written as a sort of sinister fairy tale, full of events that can be given a supernatural interpretation - although there is no need to accept this interpretation, to enjoy the story. King used rich and brilliant color in these Miami stories, especially in his descriptions of desserts. In "Malice", we see exotic ice cream dishes that are described in full color.

By the way, "Malice in Wonderland" was originally the title of a 1940 novel by Nicholas Blake. When Ellery Queen first published King's short story in EQMM, he thought the phrase would make a good title for the story, and he used it, with the permission of both Blake and King.

"Malice in Wonderland" is a whodunit, combined with suspense and thriller elements. Like some other late King Florida stories, the mystery involves Dying Message elements. The Dying Message is more complex and more puzzling than those in "Rendezvous with Death" and "The Faces of Danger". It also involves an unusual, inventive way that the Message is communicated, which gives the plot an extra dimension.

Miami Papers Please Copy

Mystery Plot. "Miami Papers Please Copy" (1956) is a delightful comedy tale. It is a tale of suspense, with only a little mystery. A principal plot twist is thriftily re-used by King from Murder by Latitude. Here it is used by the good guys, not the villains.

In both Murder by Latitude and "Miami Papers Please Copy", the reader knows that some sort of twist is going on. But the exact nature and details of the twist are kept as a mystery, one that both the reader and the men who run the ship need to solve. This gives a mystery puzzle element to the tale.

Both tales have some initial clues, that might help readers solve the mystery.

SPOILERS. King comes up with a new astronomy-based clue that finally reveals what is going on with the twist, related to but different from the astronomy clue in Murder by Latitude. Both clues have strong elements of surrealism.

Suspense Plot. SPOILERS. The heroine is lured onto the yacht under false pretenses, then kidnapped as the yacht heads out to sea. This recalls the initial premise of Design in Evil.

Fluids. "Miami Papers Please Copy" is rich in King's imagery of water, drinks and fluids. They help give the story its beautiful style. Especially nice: the brief sun shower, a delightful kind of weather, here appearing in the suspense genre that typically emphasizes major storms. The sun shower is perhaps a metaphor for the characters' problems in this tale.

The Arts. The good guys also resemble the bad guys in earlier King tales, in having an interest in the arts. While artists in Diagnosis: Murder were financially exploitative young Adonises who preyed upon the rich, here the newspaper editor has a regular job, and is a skilled professional who earns his paycheck.

Several King works have humorous references to the theater of an earlier day. "Miami Papers Please Copy" has one of the most elaborate, as it burlesques old-school sentimental melodrama.

Gender. The editor is a middle-class good guy. He is described in restrained terms, being compared by the heroine to actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was a warm leading man with plenty of appeal, but he is less of an extreme "hunk" than are many King males.

SPOILERS. The finale of the couple's romance recalls the end of A Variety of Weapons. Both tales pair a middle class working man with an heiress, in both it looks like class or other obstacles will prevent a coupling, in both the ingenious, very aggressive heroine finds slick ways around this that are socially acceptable. Both stories end with the heroine making a public announcement, solving the couple's problems.

The Body in the Pool

"The Body in the Pool" (1955) is a pure suspense tale. It is lively, and builds up a central character who seems routine at first, but who subtly gathers in complexity as the tale progresses. The setting, a Florida estate with a private house and a rockpit pool in one corner and suspenseful goings on, seems like a initial sketch for the locale of "The Faces of Danger" (1960). This might be the earliest of King's Halcyon, Florida short stories.

To Remember You By

"To Remember You By" (1957) is an inverted mystery. King telegraphs most mystery plot developments ahead of time, but the tale is oddly satisfying anyway.

This seems to be the debut of Monsignor Lavigny, who returns in "The Patron Saint of the Impossible". The elderly Monsignor seems to specialize in helping young people in big trouble. He is an amateur sleuth, unlike the professional police officials or occasional insurance investigators that run through King's Florida tales.

Agree--Or Die

"Agree--Or Die" (1957) is a whodunit mystery. The killer's identity in the solution is plausible, but it is not actually clued, and the tale lacks any sort of puzzle other than this simple choice of killer. But the characters and their relationships are complex, linked to motives and an unfolding story. This gives interest to the plot.

The Body in the Rockpit

"The Body in the Rockpit" (1955) is an indifferent suspense story, without mystery. Oddly, while some King stories have actual rockpits, the Rockpit in this tale is simply the name of a Florida estate.

This is one of those stories, popular circa 1955, about romantic passion and triangles leading to attempts at the Perfect Murder. The woman is one of those man-hungry types. She's a sophisticate, and recalls Mrs. Poole in Murder by Latitude, although Mrs. Poole at least wanted to marry the men in her life, and was emotionally more sincere.

The heroine is a well-known writer - and like many people in the arts in King, she is an exploitative person. Some of her story-notes play a role in the plot: King often used important documents as part of his crime stories.

The bartender hero perhaps recalls the steward characters in King shipboard books like Murder on the Yacht. The heroine and bartender discuss such liqueurs as allasch and kummel: reflecting King's interest in liquids.

The bartender has "strong, well-formed hands". This recalls the young mob killer Fergus Wade in The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (Chapter 6), who likes to kill people with his hands. Fergus Wade's hands are similarly described as "remarkably strong, and perfectly modeled".

SPOILER. The murder attempt centers on skin diving: recalling the suspense sequences involving standard diving in The Lesser Antilles Case and Holiday Homicide. The murder method has technological aspects, making this partly a tale of Scientific Detection, or at least, scientific crime.

Let Her Kill Herself

"Let Her Kill Herself" (1956) is a whodunit novella. It has a repulsive title, and is unlikable as a story, filled with unpleasant characters and relationships. The story's motel setting is also one of the least colorful in the late King tales.

We see the murder committed, by an unnamed, shadowy person. This means we readers know all about how the killing was done, but not who did it. Later, King's series cop Bill Duggan has to figure out how the crime was actually done, after the killer disguises the murder as an accidental drowning. These parts essentially have the structure of an inverted tale, in which the reader knows about the crime, and watches the sleuth gather evidence about its true nature. These parts are of mild interest, involving forensic investigation. Although the crime is not medical, the forensic investigation is.

By contrast, the whodunit aspects are skimpy. Duggan eventually uncovers evidence that identifies the killer, but there are hardly any clues or evidence shared with the reader that would allow the reader to do so. And this whodunit side hardly involves much puzzle ingenuity, either.

The Pills of Lethe

"The Pills of Lethe" seems to be the same story as "Each Drop Guaranteed" (1958), collected in The Faces of Danger, and discussed there below. It is unclear why it is in two King collections. In this earlier version, the doctor is a non-series character. In "Each Drop Guaranteed", he has been changed to be the series Medical Examiner Dr. William Ainsworth in the Stuff Driscoll series. I think this is an improvement, and that the slightly re-written version is the better one. King also removes a phrase explaining what Halcyon is, presumably figuring it is not needed in the context of the later book.

The Steps to Murder

The Steps to Murder is the second of Rufus King's short story collections from late in his career. Among many non-series tales, it contains two stories about King's series detective Stuff Driscoll: "The Patron Saint of the Impossible" and "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand".

The Steps to Murder

"The Steps to Murder" (1960) is a novella. It seems to have been first published in the story collection of the same name, The Steps to Murder. "The Steps to Murder" is a relentlessly morbid, downbeat story: one of King's most depressing works. It is not especially worthwhile.

The tale describes a series of Machiavellian schemes by an evil rich woman, and the way they keep blowing up in her face by chance, and by her underestimating the people around her. Both the schemes and their flaws have mild ingenuity, but nothing really special.

"The Steps to Murder" is unusual among King's late short stories, in that it is not set in Florida. Instead it takes place near Washington DC, Long Island and the Adirondacks.

Part of the backstory resembles The Deadly Dove. Both works have a rich woman, who buys a designer boyfriend / husband, and who also has an eccentric man in the arts duped into working as a cook in her home.

The upstate Adirondacks setting in "The Steps to Murder" recalls a little bit the Catskills mansion in The Deadly Dove.

Both "The Steps to Murder" and "The Y-Shaped Scar" have men who aspire to careers as diplomats with the US Government. Such careers as seen as vulnerable to any accusations of scandal.

The Patron Saint of the Impossible

"The Patron Saint of the Impossible" (1958) has a better subplot (the heroine's apparently visionary experience) than a main murder plot. SPOILER. This subplot involves advances in technology, linking the story to the Scientific Detection tradition.

The murder itself is solved through fairly simple mystery ideas. Best part: how an innocent suspect's fingerprints show up at the crime scene. Rufus King had used a different simple-but-nice fingerprint idea in The Deadly Dove.

This seems to be the second and final tale starring Monsignor Lavigny as an amateur detective.

King compares Lavigny's appearance to that of the distinguished actor Walter Hampden as Cardinal Richelieu. Hampden revived Edward Bulwer-Lytton's play Richelieu (1839) on Broadway in 1929. King tends to like references to older theater. (Richelieu is the play where Bulwer-Lytton noted that "the pen is mightier than the sword", a profound observation.)

When this tale was first published in EQMM (December 1958), the police contact for Monsignor Lavigny is named Chuck Day. But when it appeared in The Steps to Murder in 1960, the police contact was rewritten to be King's series sleuth Stuff Driscoll, who had been created in the interim. In both versions, the contact is the honest-intelligent-but-not-a-genius-cop with whom Van Dine School genius amateur sleuths are often coupled. One suspects that Chuck Day is an "early draft" of Stuff Driscoll, someone who helped King develop the ideas for the character.

Rufus King's stories sometimes have phallic imagery. Men are compared to jets of water: the father's nickname in "Miami Papers Please Copy" is Old Faithful, after the geyser; the boyfriend in "The Patron Saint of the Impossible" is Raul Fuentes: Fuente means fountain or spring in Spanish. Both men are dramatic and emotional, although good guys. And his calmer detective figures are linked to phallic machines: the editor in "Miami Papers Please Copy" has his silver pencil; sleuth Monsignor Lavigny in "The Patron Saint of the Impossible" has a spray gun he uses to shoot insecticide on his flowers. Even the first name of Stuff Driscoll perhaps suggests phallic ideas. Similarly, the muscular young scientist hero of The Fatal Kiss Mystery is named Ramier.

Murder on Her Mind

"Murder on Her Mind" (1957) combines a thriller about psychiatry, with an eventual whodunit murder mystery. It is one of King's poorest stories. The characters and the setting are nothing special. The identity of the killer is arbitrary, and there are no clues associated with it, and no ingenuity. The police figure out the crime, not through clever detective work, but because the victim has thoughtfully left behind a long account of everything he knows in his safe!

The only moderately interesting mystery puzzle involves the subplot of "who created the whip?" and related issues.

The thriller aspects about a psychiatrist getting blackmailed show a bit more inventiveness. Like Design in Evil, "Murder on Her Mind" suggests skepticism about some individual psychiatrists at least, if not necessarily psychiatry as a whole.

BIG SPOILER. The initial premise of the thriller in "Murder on Her Mind", recalls in general terns the final surprise in the last chapter of Murder by the Clock. The two plots have differences as well as similarities.

A young man in "Murder on Her Mind" is an abstract painter. Abstract painting was at the height of its prestige in the US in the 1950's. References to modern art are fairly rare in Rufus King. Like many people in the arts in King, this young man is not very likable.

Crime events in "Murder on Her Mind" involve a back-story of characters fleeing from the Holocaust. I'm of two minds about King's treatment. King should get credit for mentioning this important subject, at a time when it was often ignored. But his treatment also seems a bit tacky.

A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand

"A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" (1959) is a short but unusually constructed mystery. Its first half is a police investigation into a man's mysterious death: which is similar to any other murder mystery.

The second half has investigator Stuff Driscoll announcing his solution. He talks about a series of four different physical evidence clues. In part, he uses the clues to reconstruct the murder: a bit like the physical evidence used to reconstruct the crime in Murder by the Clock (Chapter 2, 6). But Driscoll also uses the clues to show how the "perfect murder" executed by the killer has flaws: the same bits of evidence contradict and reveal the truth about the killer's schemes. Finding such "flaws in a perfect murder" is typical of inverted mysteries. This gives the solution in "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" the "feel" of a typical solution to an inverted.

However, "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" is not actually an inverted. In a true inverted mystery, we see the killer's actions in the first part, and the sleuth's discovery of flaws in the killer's scheme in the second half. By contrast, in "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" we learn about both the killer's scheme, and the flaws in it, at the same time, in the second part of the tale.

Many of the clues are scientific, linking "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" to the Scientific Detection tradition.

There are perhaps hints that the accountants Burd and Miss Ott are both gay. By contrast, the unpleasant business people for whom they work are conspicuously married and straight.

Burd is compared to a computer: still a fairly new device in 1959. This is perhaps a sign that King is trying to keep up with current events and society.

There is more of King's richly colorful dessert imagery: this time, cookies. The tale's second half recalls the final confrontation in Crime of Violence (Chapter 23), with the killer attempting to serve the detective a murderous snack.

Rendezvous with Death

"Rendezvous with Death" (1958) is a thriller combined with mystery. The mystery puzzle has two components, linked to each other. SPOILERS.: The mystery is easily solved, but this hardly affects the enjoyment of the story. It is a delightful suspense tale about a "nice young woman in jeopardy". And if the mystery is not hard to figure out, it is richly detailed, including a full investigation from a non-series sleuth.

The suspense elements include a science-based attack on the heroine. This, along the the technology-based attack on the ship, put the tale in the realm of Scientific Detection.

"Rendezvous with Death" includes a vivid description of a beach, and the marshy area leading to it. This links it to King's interest in water-side areas.

The heroine has a brief but well-done dream sequence. Inventively, the dream mixes the sea imagery of much of the story, with details of the (non-sea) attack on the heroine.

The hero wears flamingo colored bathing trunks at the beach. This recalls the heroine of "Miami Papers Please Copy", and the spectacular flamingo taffeta gown she wears to the theater. Flamingo is a shade of pink. In 1955 pink trunks would have been a bit subversive for men, with a gay subtext. However, the hero is not gay.

The hero Duke Hart has features that recall previous Rufus King heroes:

None of these young men, however sexy, quite falls into that category common in Rufus King, the hunk. Instead the "hunk" role in "Rendezvous with Death" is taken up by smooth executive Wallace Mannering. He's "good looking, well-built". As his name suggests, he has excellent upper class manners.

A Borderline Case

"A Borderline Case" (1959) is another inverted. As a mystery it is pretty routine. And its final twist can be spotted long in advance. But the storytelling is decent. The sections early in the tale, showing how the protagonist lost his social standing after his father lost his money, have some bite.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum is humorously mentioned, comparing the hero's bull-like body to the macho pioneers often portrayed by Borglum. Gutzon Borglum is another of the realist, completely non-modernist artists sometimes cited by Rufus King.

"A Borderline Case" partly takes place in New England. And partly in Florida, tying it to the main locale of King's late work. New England was previously the setting of Lethal Lady.

The scenes where the hero encourages a man to tail him, recall Lethal Lady (Chapter 36) where the policeman hero is conscious that a man is clumsily tailing him. There are comedy aspects to this, in both works.

"A Borderline Case" has a waterside setting, a favorite in King.

The smokehouse on the hero's Florida estate is an interesting touch.

The Tigress of the Chateau Plage

"The Tigress of the Chateau Plage" (1959) is an inverted tale, with the first part leading up to an attempted crime, the second showing a police investigation. It is a direct ancestor of King's later inverted "Gift for the Bride" (1962). Both tales star a similar pair in their first sections, a sinister male blackmailer and a middle-aged female victim anxious for her daughter's wedding to proceed. However, unlike "Gift for the Bride", "The Tigress of the Chateau Plage" concentrates on its first part almost entirely, with the second-part investigation being much shorter.

This brief tale is far from King's best, but it does succeed on its own terms as a straightforward look at a clever crime.

SPOILER: The crime in "The Tigress of the Chateau Plage" shares a methodology with that in Murder by Latitude. Both tales involve disorientation of a victim's location to accomplish their ends. The plot also depends on a ferocious rainstorm, in keeping with King's interest in fluids. END SPOILER.


The Faces of Danger

The Faces of Danger is the third and last of Rufus King's short story collections from late in his career. It contains four stories about King's series detective Stuff Driscoll: "The Faces of Danger", "Gift for the Bride", "The Gods, To Avenge..." and "The Caesar Complex".

The Faces of Danger

"The Faces of Danger" (1960) is written in a partly summarized style. This style recalls, to a degree, that used by Ellery Queen in his Q.B.I. stories and parts of his Cat of Many Tails. However, King's approach is less condensed than Queen's. Queen used it to tell a whole story in less than ten pages, while King's novella sprawls over forty. Both writers like to use the approach to invoke, and partially lampoon, the clichés of storytelling. In both, there is a certain sophistication of tone, a suggestion of sophisticated satire on conventional plotting. There is the feeling in both writers in which a game is being played by the author. In this game, the author tries to come up with the "best" response by the characters to each new situation. For example, a body might be discovered, and the next step in the story is tell what the characters are going to do. Sometimes this response is original, sometimes conventional. The more conventional responses are presented to the reader with irony, using a summarized statement to invoke the chief elements of the familiar situation. Less familiar responses are sometimes contrasted with the clichés of fiction, to underline the originality of the situation. So a description will contain both its true content, and its opposite.

The whole effect is of a game the author is playing with the reader, challenging them to guess how the characters will behave in any new situation, suggesting a duel of wits between the writer and the reader over the most original response to any event in the plot. This is in keeping with, but further extends, the basic active reading approach of most mystery fiction. In most mystery tales, the reader is not supposed to sit back, and just let the events of the tale wash passively over them. Instead, the reader is challenged to deduce the true solution of the mystery at every turn. The reader, in turn, constantly monitors the author's plot for logical consistency, and surprise. This sort of active readership is applied to every event in the mystery plot. In Queen and King, this approach is extended not just to the mystery puzzle plot itself, but every fictional development in the story: the characters' attitudes, responses to events, social conditions and backgrounds, police procedure, the romance subplot, details of the social milieu such as butlers and mansions, in short, every aspect of the story. This allows active readership as a universal response to the tale.

King always likes verbal fireworks in his tales; such an approach gives him many opportunities in that direction. It allows for an exuberant writing style, one filled with elaborate turns of phrase and much wit.

"The Faces of Danger" is an inventive combination of a thriller and puzzle plots. Some of these puzzles are medical mysteries, such as the cause of the poisoning. The explanation of the poisoning might not be fully clued, but it is ingenious.

The main mystery, that of the identity of the villain, has numerous fair play clues embedded in the story. Oddly, King does not highlight all of these clues during the solution. But they stand out in a re-reading of the story. This is one of the most clued whodunit puzzles in King.

King also throws in a simple Dying Message mystery subplot. It is even simpler than the one in "Rendezvous with Death". While not especially good in itself, it does contribute to the rich inventiveness of the tale, which is bursting in all directions with both thriller and mystery plot ideas.

The Caesar Complex

"The Caesar Complex" (1963) is a full-fledged medical mystery, very much in the tradition of the Dr. Colin Starr tales. The medical aspects recall "The Case of the Buttoned Collar" in their general approach. Both tales deal with markings on the body left by methods of death. In both, one method is mistaken for another method, that leaves similar marks. King also include a great deal of vividly described medical background information.

Some of the Starr tales have cover-ups involving two different times. "The Caesar Complex" is not so elaborate: but the killer's actions do involve two different stages and processes. Both sections also involve water, that King favorite.

SPOILER. "The Caesar Complex" concludes with a final twist, recalling the final surprise in Murder by the Clock.

"The Caesar Complex" has a nice, if tiny, subplot about a Florida ranch where one of the characters once worked. A series of motives are ascribed for this job. The ranch setting extends King's world into the sexual mystique of the Cowboy.

"The Caesar Complex" also reverses the Colin Starr tales, in which athletes are good, and intellectuals and people involved with the arts tend to be evil. Here we have an athlete looked at skeptically.

The Gods, To Avenge...

"The Gods, To Avenge..." (1963) was published shortly before "The Caesar Complex", and like it, deals with fake evidence left on a body for one method of death rather than another. But it is a simpler and much easier to guess story. It draws on botany, for a simple clue. While it is a whodunit mystery, it doesn't have many suspects, and it is easy to guess the culprit, who King hardly tries to conceal.

There is some atmospheric writing about tisane, another fluid appearing in a King story. But mainly the tale is grim and unpleasant.

Its modest merit is the subplot about the hypnotist, which has some mild ingenuity. Like the murder method in "Each Drop Guaranteed" and the blackmailed psychiatrist in "Murder on Her Mind", there are aspects of "subverting or fooling doctors, and their medical treatment" in this subplot.

Each Drop Guaranteed

"Each Drop Guaranteed" (1958) is also a medical mystery. But it differs from many King tales about Dr. Colin Starr in that it involves no cover-up, and no alibi. Instead, it is a howdunit, where the means of killing seems obscure. It is decently crafted, if simple - I found the plot easy to figure out. The tale also is a real whodunit with multiple suspects, unlike say "The Gods, To Avenge...", which has only one obvious suspect.

The tale stars a different detective, Medical Examiner Dr. William Ainsworth. He will later be seen in a supporting role in Stuff Driscoll tales like "The Gods, To Avenge..." and "The Caesar Complex".

"Each Drop Guaranteed" is full of King's fluid imagery, everything from a torrential rainstorm to the drinks served to the victim.

Gift for the Bride

"Gift for the Bride" (1962) is a pure inverted story, in the tradition of R.Austin Freeman. First we see an attempted crime from the point of view of the criminal, then investigator Stuff Driscoll's attempt to bring home the crime. The idea used by Driscoll to expose the crime is sound, apparently original, but far from brilliant. It is technological, but not medical, unlike much of King's fiction.

"Gift for the Bride", like many inverteds, suffers from gloom, forcing us into the mind of a criminal.

The tale shows us Stuff Driscoll's home life, which is mildly interesting. Driscoll is depicted as middle class, in distinction to the upper crust suspects in the tales. He is educated, but also a tough cop: a combination of the old style tough policeman and the new middle class American dream of the era. The story emphasizes that Driscoll is one of King's muscular he-men. Driscoll and his wife live near a canal, echoing King's love of water. The earlier investigator in the Florida tales, Bill Duggan, is also a young muscular man, who is some ways seems like a rough sketch for Driscoll. However, Duggan is unmarried, unlike Driscoll, and is not as well characterized or developed. For better or worse, Duggan also seems more purely working class, with a background as a lifeguard - recalling the lifeguards in Murder Masks Miami.

Happy Ending

"Happy Ending" (1958) is a pure thriller. It is morbid, and the poorest tale in the book.

Uncollected Florida Short Stories

Rufus King wrote a handful of stories in his later years, that did not make it into his three late collections. Others include "Damon and Pythias and Delilah Brown" (1958), a Stuff Driscoll tale "The Perfect Stranger" (1964), "Anatomy of a Crime" (1966).

The Seeds of Murder

"The Seeds of Murder" (1959) is an impossible crime tale. There are clues that allow one to deduce who the killer is, at least after you have figured out how the crime was done. This is the paradigmatic detective situation in such Ellery Queen works as The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935). This story seems even closer to Queen than to Van Dine. It focuses on the sort of rich, eccentric, multi-talented extended family of adults that often pops up in Queen tales.

"The Seeds of Murder" appeared in EQMM (August 1959) and was reprinted in the anthology EQMM Annual, Volume 15 (1960). It is a Stuff Driscoll tale.

The Bluebird Persuaders

"The Bluebird Persuaders" (1960) is another inverted tale. It shares situations from another sordid Rufus King tale "Happy Ending". Its readability picks up in its second half, when the murder elements enter and take over from the ugly date-rape aspects. It is not quite a pure inverted: we don't actually see the criminal commit the crime, but it is so obvious what has happened that the story is close to a pure inverted. The policeman's reasons at the end for disbelieving in the apparent set-up are not convincing or especially clever. All in all, a minor story. The tale does involve medical facts. And it centers on another fluid: blood. It appeared in EQMM (May 1960).