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 | The Lesser Antilles Murder 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 | Uncollected Short Stories

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

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)

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

Murder Masks Miami (1939)

Holiday Homicide (1940)

A Variety of Weapons (1942)

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943)

Reginald De Puyster stories

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


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. 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."

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 directly south of Montreal: which perhaps explains Lt. Valcour being a native of Montreal.

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.


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. See here for a detailed discussion.

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 1929-1945 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.


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.


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.

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

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).

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, dew 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".

Gay Imagery

Murder by Latitude seems to show a gay sensibility. The first murder victim, and his close sailor friend, seem to be a loving couple in the Melville sense. Dumarque notices other men's looks. And the women in the novel who are attracted to men are perhaps surrogates for men with gay feelings.

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: 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.

The Lesser Antilles Murder Case

Mystery Plot

The Lesser Antilles Murder 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 Murder Case it is part of the initial premise of the mystery.

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


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 Imagery

The victim seems to be one of a middle aged gay couple, although we see very little of their relationship. 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.

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.


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. (Another interesting, but very different, butler is in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions".)


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 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).

Valcour also enjoys watching handsome, swaggering Dr. Horatio Prissbare (start of Chapter 3). Dr. Prissbare deliberately tries to be a figure of glamour in his medical work. Humorously, Dr. Prissbare models his actions on the star of the medical Broadway play Men in White (Sidney Kingsley, 1933). He is another of the hunks in Rufus King.

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.


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.


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 and Murder by Latitude.

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.


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.


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.

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


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.

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. The earliest cases were collected in Diagnosis: Murder (1939 - 1941); there are also later, uncollected tales, some of which were reprinted in EQMM and The Saint Mystery Magazine. The titles of the tales use Perry Mason conventions: they tend to begin with "The Case of", then have an alliterative adjective and noun.

Many of the medical mystery ideas 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.


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.


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).


"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

Diagnosis: Murder also contains the less interesting "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" (1942?). This long novella is written in a different style from the rest of the Starr tales, grim and not much fun. Starr has a smaller role than usual, and the simple medical evidence he uses to identify the killer is routine, and not part of any sort of puzzle plot. In fact, the story is fairly thinly plotted as a whole.

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".

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

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 more active and more sympathetic than most. There is perhaps a pro-black, anti-stereotype message embedded.

One suspects this is the same story as "A Lonely, Lovely Lady" (Redbook, August 1942).

Uncollected Short Stories: Dr. Colin Starr

Rufus King kept writing Colin Starr short stories after Diagnosis: Murder.

The Case of the Peculiar Precautions

One of the best uncollected Starr tales is "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" (circa 1942).

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" is an early King tale to show men in uniform for World War II. 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" recalls Murder on the Yacht:

SPOILERS in the rest of this discussion.

This tale is a variant on a situation prominent in the 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. 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.

The Y-Shaped Scar

Another good uncollected Starr tale is "The Y-Shaped Scar" (circa 1942).

"The Y-Shaped Scar" takes place against the same sort of background as the Starr novella "The Case of the Lonely Ladies":

SPOILERS in the rest of this discussion.

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.

"The Y-Shaped Scar" also has a hidden object puzzle, recalling A Variety of Weapons. This puzzle has two different aspects, involving two different hiding places. Both hiding places are ingenious. One gives a clue to the killer's identity, also cleverly.

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.

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 deserts. 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 with Holiday Homicide (1940).

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.


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 The 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.

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.

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:

New York - and a Critic

The opening shows the heroine's miserable life in New York City, before she enters the yacht. 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 fulfilment. 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. 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.

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 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.


King is of two minds about psychiatry, then becoming unfortunately fashionable in the media, in its Freudian version. 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.

A Variety of Weapons

A Variety of Weapons (1942) 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.

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.


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. 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.

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.

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 have well to do female protagonists who live in a large mansion. Both stories have a tone of escapist adventure - many of the melodramatic elements of the tale form an exciting adventure story for their protagonists. Both stories have much comedy, and are light hearted in feel, despite all the melodrama they contain. Both contain elements of international intrigue - not surprising in a work like Dowager written and set during World War II.


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.

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.

The Deadly Dove

A Play?

The Deadly Dove (1944 - 1945) 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.

The Deadly Dove 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.

Influence from The Bat

The Deadly Dove is in roughly the same genre as The Bat (1920), Mary Roberts Rinehart 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.

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 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.

The Boy-Friend

The niece's boy-friend 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 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.

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.

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 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 (1948), 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.

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 deserts. 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

"Miami Papers Please Copy" (1956) is a delightful comedy tale. It has no mystery to be solved: it is a tale of suspense. 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.

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.

"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.

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 melodrama.

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 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 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.

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

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 Detective 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 desert 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 recalls "Miami Papers Please Copy" and Murder by Latitude, involving an attacked ship. While it has a different puzzle than those tales, like them it is a technologically based crime. King includes a Dying Message from the ship's Captain, a kind of puzzle not common in his pre-1955 tales. 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.

"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.

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" mainly takes place in New England. It has a few references to Florida, tying it the main locale of King's late work.

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

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 life guard.

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).