Rufus King | Biography | State Troopers
Reginald De Puyster: Reginald De Puyster short stories
Lieutenant Valcour: Lieutenant Valcour | Murder by the Clock | Somewhere in This House / A Woman Is Dead | Murder by Latitude | Murder on the Yacht | Valcour Meets Murder | The Lesser Antilles Case | The Case of the Constant God | Crime of Violence | Murder Masks Miami
Plays: I Want a Policeman!
Cotton Moon: Holiday Homicide
Dr. Colin Starr: The Medical Mysteries: Dr. Colin Starr | The Case of the Lonely Ladies | The Case of the Peculiar Precautions | The Y-Shaped Scar
Early Science Fiction: The Fatal Kiss Mystery
Suspense Novels: Design in Evil | A Variety of Weapons | The Case of the Dowager's Etchings | The Deadly Dove | Museum Piece No. 13 / Secret Beyond the Door | Lethal Lady
Florida Short Story Collections: Introduction | Malice in Wonderland | The Steps to Murder | The Faces of Danger | Uncollected Short Stories
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Murder by Latitude (1930)
Valcour Meets Murder (1932) (Chapters 1-6, 20, 23, 25, 33, 37, 38, 41-57)
The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) (Chapters 1 - 5, 8, 24, 25)
Crime of Violence (1937) (Chapters 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 16)
Murder Masks Miami (1939)
Holiday Homicide (1940)
A Variety of Weapons (1943)
The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943)
Lethal Lady (1947) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 20, 23, 36, 37, 39, 42, 44, 50)
Reginald De Puyster short stories
Commentary on Rufus King:
The jacket of Murder in the Willett Family says that King was a former "New York river policeman. He was associated for some time with one of America's most famous detectives, on whose methods those of Lieutenant Valcour are modeled." Murder in the Willett Family also says "Mr. King has been successively, Yale graduate, sea-going wireless operator, and New York river policeman."
The book 10,000 Famous Freemasons from K to Z, Volume 3 by William R. Denslow, states that Rufus King got his degrees as a Mason in 1926, in Champlain N.Y. Champlain is right on the border with Canada. It is nearly directly south of Montreal: which perhaps explains Lt. Valcour being a native of Montreal. This region is the setting of King's Somewhere in This House and Valcour Meets Murder.
Champlain N.Y. is near the large Lake Champlain. Valcour Island is in Lake Champlain. This is perhaps the real-life origin of Lt. Valcour's name.
The book also states that Rufus King graduated from Yale in 1914; similar claims are made on the book jackets of King mysteries. The Wikipedia article on Elihu, a left-leaning, intellectual Yale "secret society" backs this up. It says Elihu included Rufus King from the Class of 1914. It also describes King as "president of the Yale Dramatic Association". Both pieces of information are drawn from a New York Times article of May 20, 1913. Cole Porter was associated with the Yale "Dramat" in 1909-1913, so likely King knew him. Montey Woolley was also involved with the Dramat in this period. Both Porter and Wooley were gay, and the Dramat was known in this era for drag performances with men taking on women's roles.
In his history of detective fiction Murder for Pleasure (1941), Howard Haycraft says that the number of books sold by Rufus King is only a little less than those of the biggest seller in American mystery fiction Erle Stanley Gardner. Since Gardner was hugely popular, this is impressive.
Rufus King never seems to have published any non-fiction. After 1929, he seems to work exclusively in the crime fiction field.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper (November 17, 1937) reports that movie studio "Universal has purchased Rufus King's mystery story, "The Victoria Docks at Eight."" Famed novelist Nathanael West reportedly worked on a screenplay adaptation of The Victoria Docks at Eight in 1939 or 1940, that was not produced. Years later The Victoria Docks at Eight was cited as the source of the film White Tie and Tails (1946). One sometimes sees claims that The Victoria Docks at Eight is a novel, but I can find no sign that any such novel was ever published. A guess: The Victoria Docks at Eight is actually either a short story or short movie treatment, rather than a novel.
Rufus King was one of the leaders in such idealized depictions of State Troopers:
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".)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And there are repeated burlesques of the cheap mystery fiction of the era, with their sinister foreign villains preying on rich good white people (Chapter 3, 6). These low-brow cliches are implicitly contrasted with the "real world" of Murder by the Clock, in which victim and the suspected killers are all socially prominent WASPs.
Anti-racism was a prominent feature of the Van Dine School. Please see my detailed discussion here.
My impression is that The Red Book Magazine, soon to be known as Redbook, was a fairly prestigious and popular periodical. Publishing there was a step up for Rufus King. His previous pre-Valcour works appeared in such pulp magazines as Argosy and Flynn's, which would be less prestigious.
King would continue to be associated with higher prestige magazines in the 1929-1947 era, especially Redbook and Cosmopolitan. Such an association would be of immense importance to the careers of most of the authors such magazines published. In that era, an author's success was measured by the public, critics, editors and Hollywood, by the magazines in which his work appeared.
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.
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.
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.
Better is the subplot about stolen objects (this starts in Chapter 13). This comes to an unexpected and imaginative solution.
The secret code used by the police in their telegrams, is conscientiously explained at the solution. How the code works is kept mysterious throughout the novel, before this explanation at the end. In theory, this would give readers a chance to try and break this code, before the end. I'm not sure, however, if the sample given of a coded message is large enough to allow this.
SPOILERS. Both the shipboard setting, and aspects of the murder plot, have technical aspects. They link King to the Scientific Detection School of detection.
More such avengers appear in some Rufus King novels: Murder by Latitude. The Lesser Antilles Case.
In addition to their play-like aspects, these ensemble scenes of the passagers as a whole, subtly suggest a collective destiny for the characters. After all, they are all sailing together on a ship.
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:
Later King will have a brief but interesting technical discussion of ship radio and tracing radio signals in "Miami Papers Please Copy" (1956).
Van Dine School books typically have a genius amateur working closely with the official police. Murder by Latitude has a somewhat related structure: it has a genius sleuth Valcour working closely with the ship officials. Howver, there are crucial differences here from the Van Dine School paradigm. Valcour is a genius, but far from an amateur: he's a New York homicide detective. And the officials are not police, but rather ship's officers.
The officers in Murder by Latitude do resemble other books' police, in that none of them is ever a murder suspect. (Valcour presents evidence early on that the killer must be one of the passengers, not one of the ship's crew.)
Van Dine School mysteries sometimes have unusual, non-naturalistic chapter titles. This is also a feature of Murder by Latitude.
See also the coastguardsman's hand and wrist sticking through the porthole, at the end of King's "Miami Papers Please Copy".
The first meal the passengers eat together focuses on soup (Chapter 1).
A bottle of red ink serves as a clue (Chapter 7).
Miss Sidderby's attraction to men in white ship's uniforms, anticipates the guard who is Valcour's friend in Murder Masks Miami, and his fancy uniform.
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.
Nothing in the above mystery plot or its solution gives clues to the identity of the criminal.
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.
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.
Also good descriptive passages: the town of Marly (start of Chapter 25), the trip to the customs border town of Rouses Point (Chapters 37, 38). The overall geography is established at the book's start (Chapter 1). These passages combine landscape and cityscape.
Linked to these is a long passage in the dock district and lake (Chapters 41-55).
All of these outdoor passages are some of the best aspects of Valcour Meets Murder. They are as important as any of the book's mystery plot ideas, in the book's accomplishments.
Some areas in Valcour Meets Murder are real-life: Lake Champlain, the Richlieu River, the town of Rouses Point. But I have been unable to determine if the town of Marly is real or fictitious.
SPOILERS. The finale has the heroine kidnapped by villains aboard a boat. This anticipates in a mild way the far more elaborate "heroine kidnapped on a yacht" plots of Design in Evil and "Miami Papers Please Copy".
It is not clear at first how the murder was committed. Mysteries in which the physical mechanism of the murder is mysterious are known as how-done-its.
How-done-its often shade into impossible crimes, something true of Valcour Meets Murder. It looks impossible for the murder in Valcour Meets Murder to have been committed.
The solution at the book's end explains how the murder was committed (Chapter 53).
More hidden object puzzles appear in "The Y-Shaped Scar", A Variety of Weapons.
SPOILERS. The disappearance of housekeeper Madame Sangevin (Chapter 14) anticipates the disappearance of nurse Marcella Dorfrey in "The Y-Shaped Scar". Both are employees in a house, who mysteriously just disappear, without taking wages owed them.
The mystery plot gains complexity and interest, with two of the alternative solutions King proposes (end of Chapter 4). These solutions are unexpected, and show some creativity. SPOILER. The actual explanation turns out to be a baroque variation, on some of these earlier solutions. Giving the reader early on, a "simpler version of a complex solution" is a good structural approach in mystery fiction. It helps make the later complex solution seem more "fair".
Valcour's insight (end of Chapter 2) that the odd, hard-to-explain killing of the Third Mate might be the key to the puzzle, is also a good bit of thinking.
SPOILER. The theft of the chart, is a variation of an idea King used earlier in Murder by Latitude. In Murder by Latitude, this idea is part of the solution of the murder; by contrast, in The Lesser Antilles Case it is part of the initial premise of the mystery.
The plot does anticipate some of John Dickson Carr's books.
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.
There is also some nice comedy about a New York Times reporter being much more educated than a reporter for a tabloid paper - tabloids are always seen as lowbrow journalism (Chapter 1, first part of Chapter 26). This anticipates similar humor in Rex Stout's Before Midnight (1955) (Chapter 16) and Gambit (1962) (last part of Chapter 3). In both authors, the humor is quite indulgent and flattering to the Times.
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?
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.
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.
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.
By contrast, the other characters in the book are lively: the servants, the lawyer, the young doctor who aids the police, and the various cops and police officials. The chapters I've highlighted as the best (Chapters 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 16) mainly concentrate on these "supporting" characters - as well as including the book's best plot developments.
The young doctor is a likable and smart, also being a research scientist. One wishes that Rufus King had made him a continuing character, assisting Valcour. But there was to be only one more Valcour novel. Instead, King would create a full-fledged medical sleuth Dr. Colin Starr, and feature him in a series of short stories.
The doctor is muscular and compared to a college football player (Chapter 1). He recalls a bit the young football player-scientist hero of The Fatal Kiss Mystery. Both are examples of the "hunks" that run through Rufus King.
We see a bit of a woman from a well-to-do background who is a modern artist of sorts in New York City's Greenwich Village (Chapters 2, 4). The novel paints Selina Lane as a shrewd business-woman who knows how to pressure her rich friends into buying her second-rate work. The art world is often depicted cynically or negatively in Rufus King.
The butler Plymouth is a nicely drawn character. King covers everything from Plymouth's morals to his hair care product, the last being part of King's flair for liquids and soft substances. The servants are also seen preparing different kinds of drinks and liquid remedies. (Other interesting, but very different, butlers are in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" and "The Case of the Lonely Ladies".)
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.
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.
Valcour himself invites a young male security guard Arthur Moffat to breakfast, thus dropping some broad clues about his own sexual orientation. There is a definite party-like aspect to this scene (Chapter 5). If Murder by Latitude was King's tragic gay novel, Murder Masks Miami is his comic one.
Much is made of Arthur's very fancy night watchman uniform (start of Chapter 2). It is compared to US Marine Corps dress uniforms. We also learn that the heavy uniform is just a bit uncomfortably hot.
Arthur eventually becomes a kind of character that runs through mystery writer C. Daly King: a sympathetic, uniformed young man in danger (last part of Chapter 10). (Another example in Rufus King: handsome young cop Roy Suffolk in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies".)
A second lifeguard eventually shows up, the sexy Pete (Chapter 12). He looks much like Don, and in fact is at first mistaken for Don, from the rear. He serves as an unofficial "double" for Don in the story. Both the heroine and Valcour pay attention to Pete. Valcour compliments Pete on his looks, admittedly humorously.
Valcour enjoys watching Prissbare in this masquerade. Although the novel is a bit ambiguous on this point, Valcour seems to be fully conscious of Passmore's modeling and posing. Valcour regards Passmore's behavior as "a good show".
The situation anticipates young banker Lorrimer Keith in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies". Keith enjoys posing as what he considers a businessman should look like, even though his real personality is very different. And King's series sleuth Colin Starr enjoys watching Keith is his posing, even though Starr knows it is all a fake.
Do the actions of Valcour and Starr have gay dimensions? It is hard to say.
Dr. Horatio Prissbare is another of the hunks in Rufus King. His is big and well-built. While the novel doesn't say so, one wonders if Passmore's looks are also relevant to the way Valcour likes to watch the doctor and his posing.
A unique touch: the various places night watchman Arthur has to punch a time clock on his rounds (Chapters 2, 5).
The villas and cabanas sometimes have more that one story. This adds the dimension of height to the architecture.
Valcour gets involved in the architecture: he's staying in the suite over manager Carstairs' office. While Valcour is a tourist on vacation, this locale seems to link him to the staff of the Villas. So does the friendship he develops with Arthur, who works as night watchman at the Villas.
The tourist residents and staff of the Villas resemble the passengers and crew of ships in other King works.
Murder Masks Miami also has an actual ship. There is a brief reference to the ship's radio operator, but he is not seen "on stage" (Chapter 13). A ship's radio operator was a key character in Murder on the Yacht, Design in Evil and Murder by Latitude.
Resort areas are not common in King's fiction. There are the river camps in Lethal Lady (Chapter 6), and the beach in "Rendezvous with Death". Many of King's late Florida-set stories can be considered to be in a resort area, broadly speaking, even if they are not at an actual resort.
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.
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.
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! 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).
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.
Lady Breen is a haughty, upper class British woman. She gets the play's funniest comic relief, when she starts downing cocktails by the tray-full when the action gets suspenseful. The cocktails show King's interest in fluids. Another upper crust older woman with a comic weakness for cocktails is Miss Whitestone in The Lesser Antilles Case (1934) (Chapters 5, 8).
Oddly this detection is not done by the police, but by amateur sleuth Charles Talbot.
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.
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.
Moon is a pleasant character; instead of raising orchids, like Wolfe, he collects rare nuts. The novel might be best read with a copy of Edwin A. Menninger's Edible Nuts of the World (1977) on hand: a fun book, by the way. This zany hobby is typical of the book's tongue in cheek approach: nothing is ever completely serious here. Other rich men in King are collectors: Harold Davis in Lethal Lady collects rare books, Newspaper magnate Colonel Eustace Fitzhutt in "Miami Papers Please Copy" collectes flutes. See also the rich older man who plays the ocarina in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions", and the rich woman who plays the clavichord in in The Deadly Dove, although they are not collectors. All of these musical people are comic figures who inflict their dubious music making on others because they're rich.
King's pastiche of Archie Goodwin is especially good. King has caught Archie's bemused, intelligent, slightly smart alecky tone of narration very closely. King has combined this tone with his own vivid writing style, to make a very interesting synthesis. The descriptions include King's interest in rich concoctions, such as food, perfumes, and fluids. King also uses his examination of conventional story telling ideas here, constantly turning over stock phrases and situations, commenting on them all the while - this is an early use of a technique that will reach its apogee in King's "The Faces of Danger" (1960). Since Archie is also a somewhat sardonic observer of the human scene King can fuse his own meta-narrative approach with Archie's common man take on the well to do world about him. Bert is a bit more bitchy than Archie usually is, in keeping with the campier tone of King's fiction.
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.
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.
Many of the medical mystery ideas in the Colin Starr tales show ingenuity. However, they are not always fair play; King does not always share clues with the reader. However, the tales make interesting reading anyway.
Ellery Queen called Diagnosis: Murder an "excellent collection of stories" in his introduction to a King tale in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (September 1951).
King will also publish the novels The Case of the Constant God (1936), The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943), The Case of the Redoubled Cross (1949).
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.
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.
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 Sudden Shot" and "The Case of the Imperious Invalid" have two mansions in close proximity, where the suspects can walk between.
The blood stains that serve as clues, recall the spilled red ink that serves as a clue in Murder by Latitude. In addition to their significance as clues, both are examples of King's interest in liquids.
Best puzzle element: the contest the daughter wins, and her subsequent picture in the paper. This perhaps relates a bit to the "visionary" mystery subplot in "The Patron Saint of the Impossible".
The solution involves one of those scandalous Big Secrets that plague rich women's families in the later books of Rinehart. However, King's specific Big Secret is different from any in a Rinehart story.
SPOILERS. The killers' motives are linked to an elaborate backstory. This backstory has similarities to the backstory behind the crimes in Murder by Latitude. In both, an unsympathetic person left their spouse, and worse, abandoned their child. In both, these actions were motivated by a selfish quest for what society considers "success".
The backstories in both "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" and The Case of the Dowager's Etchings are elaborate, and linked to complex political and social forces. Please see the discussion in the section on The Case of the Dowager's Etchings.
SPOILERS. The black butler makes his biggest impact, when he arrives unexpectedly at a scene. In the later The Case of the Dowager's Etchings, it is handsome young white war hero Kent Giles who arrives unexpectedly, and whose appearance has suggestions of both magic and sexuality. But here is is an elderly black man, who does the same surprising thing. This puts a black man in a hero's role.
Real-life architect Stanford White is referred to, at the tale's start.
Daughter Nan is a designer. Characters with an interest in the arts are common in the Van Dine school of mystery fiction.
The hot chocolate fixed for Nan (Chapter 1) is an example both of King's interest in liquids, and of King's liking for sweet desserts.
Lorrimer Keith inherited his family's banking business. In this, he recalls another banking heir, Charles Talbot in I Want a Policeman!. Charles Talbot is far more eccentric than Keith, but both men are in fact full of odd impulses. Both men seem happy, and glad that they are indulging their impulses. Both of their impulses seem to allow them to express their sexuality.
Sinister stranger Chester Parne conveys an atmosphere of sexual menace and virility. Parne is compared to a gangster in appearance, at one point. His flashy pinstripe suit sounds like those worn in Hollywood in the film noir era.
Handsome young cop Roy Suffolk is an example of sexy men in uniforms in Rufus King tales.
All three of Lorrimer Keith, Chester Parne and Roy Suffolk have character aspects that express sexuality and potency. Male sexuality is a recurrent theme in King's work as a whole.
Murder Masks Miami can be read as a referendum on the lifeguard and what he represents. Is he innocent or guilty? Are the ideas he symbolizes good or bad? In a lesser way, "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" might be read as a referendum on Walter, and what he represents.
"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" recalls Murder on the Yacht:
"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" appeared in Redbook Magazine in January 1941. It is unlikely King would have been able to do any writing on the tale after the US entered World War II on Pearl Harbor day, December 7, 1941. More likely the servicemen in the story are part of the peacetime draft (started in 1940) and other measures the US took to prepare for the war, before actually entering it.
This tale is a variant on a situation prominent in Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales: a country home under siege from mysterious external forces, and with the man head-of-the-house not speaking up about the sinister enemies who are attacking his home. The "Peculiar Precautions" of the title refer to defensive measures taken by that man. Rufus King's solution manages to come up with some original ideas relating to this old plot. King would soon write A Variety of Weapons, a novel about a giant country estate far more elaborately guarded.
Once again, a killer covers up the original crime. And once again, medical detection by Dr. Starr reveals the truth. This is simpler than in some earlier Dr. Starr tales: alibis are not involved, there is only a single act of covering up. Still, the cover-up is clever, with its existence and what is being covered-up both being pleasant surprises. And Dr. Starr does some brief but interesting scientific work in his detection.
"The Case of the Peculiar Precautions" also has a good mystery idea in its solution that has nothing to do with medical detection or cover-ups. While this idea is not used to create an impossible crime, it does enable something that at first seemed impossible.
This might be the last Dr. Colin Starr short story to be published. I wish King had continued the series.
The music box is also linked to the arts.
Another Van Dine school tradition: the detective explores the movements of a witness and a suspect around the crime scene, at the time of the murder. (The episode where detective Starr visits the cottage, is where he explores these movements.)
Matching up suspects from the distant past and the present, is a mystery plot structure also used by Frank Gruber. It also appears in Rufus King's Design in Evil (Chapter 13).
SPOILERS in the rest of this section.
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.
The evidence is an an obscure, easily overlooked spot. Such an obscure spot is a bit related to the obscure hiding places in "hidden object" mysteries. However in most "hidden object" tales, a human deliberately hides something in an obscure spot. By contrast, the evidence that Starr finds in "The Y-Shaped Scar" found its way to its obscure locale by chance.
Chapter 2 has an interesting introduction of his hero, student scientist and muscular football fullback Ramier Bellmy. King's macho men tend to be highly muscular, from the beginning here of his career, to his final stories.
The college snack shop is full of sweet concoctions (Chapter 3). Even at this early date, King is interested in desserts. However they are not described in terms of color and flavor as they are in his later stories.
I haven't seen a copy of the magazine containing King's novella "Her Past Should Be Her Own" (Redbook Magazine, February 1942). But one suspects, based on the title, that this is just a magazine version of Design in Evil. (The villains in Design in Evil attempt to impose a new past on the heroine.) A magazine dated February 1942, would have been on the newsstands in December 1941 or January 1942. And any fiction in it would have been written quite a while before those dates.
Design in Evil is in the tradition of the "innocent young woman forced into a new identity" school. It follows such pioneering works as Helen McCloy's Dance of Death (1938), and Anthony Gilbert's The Woman in Red (1941), the latter being made into a superb film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). The male hero is forced into a new identity in A. Merritt's thriller Seven Footprints to Satan (1928) (Chapters 1 - 3).
King's version of this story is never plausible, unless everyone is in on this bizarre plot; yet King wants only one person to be guilty, and everyone else to be an innocent dupe.
There is only one clue to the killer's identity (last part of Chapter 28). While the clue is sound and logical, it is simple, lacking subtlety, and not especially creative.
The heroine's rotten boyfriend in Design in Evil is a literary critic for a minor magazine (Chapter 1). As a critic myself, I've noticed that nobody seems to love a critic! The critic in Design in Evil is sure a dismal excuse for a human being, an aimless, goalless man, obsessed with Manhattan gossip, and treating the heroine as an object. He is completely lacking in color, personality or sparkle. This seems to be Rufus King's portrait of the critics of his day. Presumably, King met plenty of critics and other writers in New York City, so this portrait might have some sociological validity.
We learn a bit more about the heroine's life in New York (Chapters 3, 4, 6). And more, in the series of messages from a police detective at the book's end (Chapter 27). This last section is one of the most cheerful in the novel. As the book points out, the messages are comic in tone.
King will refer to Conrad again in "Miami Papers Please Copy", along with Jack London. Conrad's Typhoon is discussed briefly in "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" in Diagnosis: Murder.
King's early novel North Star (1925) is a tale of a dog in the Northwest, and Whelp of the Winds is another dog novel. They might reflect the influence of Jack London.
Another psychiatrist will appear in King's short story "Murder on Her Mind".
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 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.
The compound in A Variety of Weapons is in an isolated region of the Adirondacks. King himself sometimes lived in far upstate New York, and the area regularly recurs in his fiction. His novella "The Steps to Murder" will be partially set in the Adirondacks.
The socialist Fleury is presented as a somewhat pathetic and ineffectual character, and as a man suffering from an obsession (Chapters 14, 17). However, his critiques of big concentrations of money do not seem out of place in a mystery centering on a family of immense wealth. All in all, King's attitude towards Fleury and his politics is ambiguous. Fleury is a Socialist who wants people voluntarily to build socialist communities: he definitely does not seem to be a Communist.
More surprisingly, modernist Francis Picabia is mentioned. King is normally not interested in Modern Art.
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.
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.
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.
One suspects that King might have been familiar with Rinehart's plot in the form of its stage adaptation, The Bat (1920): his next book, The Deadly Dove, also shows signs of influence from The Bat.
BIG SPOILERS. The identity of the murderer in The Case of the Dowager's Etchings recalls that in The Bat. The same clever plot idea is used in this choice of murderer.
Rinehart's patented plot gambit, "upscale Society matron gets innocently involved in crime" also appears in such Rinehart works as The Great Mistake and "Episode of the Wandering Knife". It's the basic premise of King's The Case of the Dowager's Etchings.
King's stories do not partake of the characteristics of the later HIBK novels of the Rinehart school, however - they do not seriously look at personal relationships, for example, or maintain a solemn tone.
The Case of the Dowager's Etchings uses a related premise. Its wealthy matron opens her mansion to outsider residents, as a patriotic wartime gesture, during a severe housing shortage for defense plant workers. Once again, this brings mysterious strangers into her home as residents.
The residents of these mansions form a group of suspects. In this they recall the passengers in King's ship mysteries like Murder by Latitude. They are groups of strangers, now brought together in a common residence.
The Case of the Dowager's Etchings recalls "The Case of the Lonely Ladies" in another way. Both have a grown child or grandchild of the heroine, coming home after a long absence. Mystery comes along with both of these kids.
In both works, there is not just one such outside group. In fact, each story contains two such outside interests. These are rival interests, dueling each other for success.
I don't recall such outside social groups or political interests behind the crimes, in Rinehart works. Instead, this aspect is something added to the plots by Rufus King.
The discussion of these outside interests, adds complexity to the solution of the crimes. They enable elaborate backstories for the tales' events. They also allow King to depict social forces that otherwise don't appear much in his fiction.
Instead, it is a question of knowledge, and when it is revealed to the reader. In these King tales, several of the villains and their schemes are identified right away, and shown to the reader. The reader knows these people are up to no good, and knows that they are menacing the good characters in the story. However, the reader does not know all the details of their schemes - these aspects will be hidden, and only emerge much later, at or near the solution. In addition, there is a murder in the story, treated as a full puzzle plot mystery. The reader is not told who did the murder, or why. There is also a detective in the tale, as well as amateur detection by the good characters; at the end of the story, these detectives will solve the murder, reveal the killer, and reveal all about the villains' schemes. The whole tale is a combination of two types of story. The villains and how they menace the innocent characters are right out of a non-puzzle plot thriller, a melodrama where all is known to the reader as the story goes along, and where there is an exciting confrontation between good and evil. Combined with this is a classical murder mystery.
In addition to their unusual, shared form, both stories have similarity of approach. Both stories have:
The heroine, a Society woman with an active interest in the arts (as the creator of the title etchings), also recalls the many Society people with ties to the arts in Diagnosis: Murder.
Characters involved with the arts, are common in the Van Dine School.
SPOILERS. The grandson enters the novel unexpectedly, twice: first at night, then at the train station during the day. His appearance out of nowhere at these times has elements of surrealism. Both times, his uniform is stressed. So is his metal Army identification tag. Both times, he is linked romantically with the sexy Miss Ashley.
The grandson's appearances-out-of-nowhere have dimensions of magic. And also of sexuality.
The shortness of The Deadly Dove also suggests a play rather than a novel. It is actually of novella length.
King's novel even mentions Avery Hopwood by name, as the leading light of an earlier era of Broadway theater (Chapter 6). One wonders if King had met Hopwood in gay circles earlier - Hopwood was certainly gay, and one strongly suspects that King was. Hopwood lived the sort of bon vivant life style on the Riviera often aspired to by King's characters.
The characters in The Deadly Dove are much nastier and more murderous than Rinehart and Hopwood's innocents. Also, the story has little of the earlier authors' gift for ingenious plotting.
Other Broadway hit plays might also have inspired Rufus King. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941) by Joseph Kesselring mixes murder and comedy. You Can't Take It With You (1936) by Kaufman and Hart shows a house full of zany, eccentric people. A comedy film about a rich family with a way-out guest in the arts is My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936).
The Dove tends to use scientific, technical and medical means to kill people. This is another instance of King's interest in Scientific Detection - although here it is the killer and not the detective who is scientific.
One can compare the Dove with the killer character Fergus Wade in King's previous novel The Case of the Dowager's Etchings. Wade is a ruthless cold-blooded killer too, with a long history of murder. But Wade differs from the Dove:
SPOILER. This concludes with a nice twist about fingerprints. This gambit is more plausible in a lightly comic novel like The Deadly Dove. It would not withstand the heavy in-depth police investigation found in many "serious" murder mysteries.
The novel adds further detective work, for another twist (start of Chapter 20). While comic, it uses rigorous detection.
In the above sections:
The boy-friend is educated. This seems to be seen by King as a Good Thing. He will be working as part of the US Army of Occupation in Germany, because he knows a little German.
Barry Vanbuskirk looks exactly like a "minor official in a good banking house" who graduated from Harvard. This recalls the hero Lorrimer Keith of "The Case of the Lonely Ladies", who also has a perfect image as a banker. And as the scion of an upper crust family, Barry recalls the far more eccentric Charles Talbot in I Want a Policeman!.
The food-obsessed Godfrey recalls the candy-obsessed Walter in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions". Godfrey is cooking petits fours (Chapter 4): an example of King's fondness for desserts.
Museum Piece No. 13 (1945-1946) is one such excursion. A woman marries in haste, only to discover that her husband has this psychological problem... The problem is G-rated, but boy is it a doozie. (This is the sort of over the top 1940's psychoanalysis that was spoofed by Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.)
I found the novel Museum Piece No. 13 disappointing. It does contain the key ideas and characters that later would populate Fritz Lang's film version. But the book's storytelling runs out of steam after the first few chapters, which contain all of King's creative ideas.
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.
A novella "The Lady Said 'If'" appeared in Redbook magazine, May 1947. I haven't seen it. Its title suggests this is a version of Lethal Lady.
While there is no mystery, the book does have detective work, in which cop Sergeant Walter Morris tries to figure our what has been going on. The episodes with this detective work are some of the best in the book (Chapters 3, 6, 8, 10, 20, 23, 36, 37, 39, 42, 44, 50). These sections make up over one quarter of the book - around 35 pages in one edition of the novel. They are the length of a longish short story, embedded in the novel. Policeman Morris is a good character, too.
The inverted is a standard form of crime tale. In an inverted, we see a criminal commit a crime in the first part, and a detective solve the crime in the second part. Lethal Lady has the elements of an inverted: a criminal committing a crime, followed by the cop figuring it out. But the police episodes are only part of the book's second part. In addition, there is a lot showing the criminal committing more crimes, plus suspense passages with other characters. All told, Lethal Lady is both an inverted tale, AND a suspense thriller. It combines features of both approaches.
Lethal Lady seems like an ancestor of the inverted tales, that make up a portion of the last three short story collections King wrote.
Unfortunately, this realism often verges on blandness.
Many of the sympathetic characters work for a living. This includes the policeman Sergeant Walter Morris, who is explicitly trying to provide for his family (Chapter 6).
By contrast, rich man Harold Davis does not work (Chapter 3).
If a political commentary is intended by Lethal Lady, it is not made explicit. There are no passages of open political discussion or commentary in the book.
The name Blush Falls recalls Laurel Falls, the fictitious town in King's stories about Dr. Colin Starr.
Like many New England cities of the era, Blush Falls has much textile manufacturing. We read about the "mill section" of town (Chapter 1), the company called Frankton Mills (Chapter 2), a company called Amalgamated Knitting (Chapter 9). Such cities that manufacture cotton or textiles are known as "mill towns". Blush Falls is one of them. We learn "The principal industry was the mills. They offered the biggest pay" in Blush Falls (end of Chapter 36).
We briefly meet sympathetic Loftus Suffern, who trouble-shoots problems for Amalgamated Knitting (Chapter 9). He travels around a lot. He anticipates Aaron Marc Stein's series detective Matt Erridge, who travels to trouble-shoot technical problems in factories. Matt Erridge made his debut in Sitting Up Dead (1958).
In 1947, the most famous fictitious industrial New England city in mystery fiction, was Wrightsville. Wrightsville appeared in a long series of novels by Ellery Queen . These started with Calamity Town (1942) and The Murderer Is a Fox (1945). The factories in Wrightsville that we learn about, mainly produce machinery. This contrasts with the textile mills in Blush Falls.
Blush Falls has around fifty thousand residents. This makes it around five times the size of Wrightsville, which has over ten thousand inhabitants.
One wonders if the name Carmandine is a tribute to mystery writer S.S. Van Dine.
Edmonde, the hair stylist, is a sympathetic character. His sexuality is not discussed. But he could be a portrait of a gay man who has worked hard to build a business ad find a place for himself in an American city. His beauty salon is mauve (Chapter 10), definitely a gay color back then.
Edmonde comes from a small village in Quebec. This recalls the Quebec rural and small town setting of Valcour Meets Murder.
The name "Edmonde" is made up by the character. It seems like a version of the standard name Edmund. The character Edmund Gateshead in The Lesser Antilles Case is likely a gay man.
Joe is another of the hunks frequent in Rufus King. Joe is not gay. But the sex appeal of Joe likely reflects gay imagery and feelings.
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:
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.
In both Murder by Latitude and "Miami Papers Please Copy", the reader knows that some sort of twist is going on. But the exact nature and details of the twist are kept as a mystery, one that both the reader and the men who run the ship need to solve. This gives a mystery puzzle element to the tale.
Both tales have some initial clues, that might help readers solve the mystery.
SPOILERS. King comes up with a new astronomy-based clue that finally reveals what is going on with the twist, related to but different from the astronomy clue in Murder by Latitude. Both clues have strong elements of surrealism.
Suspense Plot. SPOILERS. The heroine is lured onto the yacht under false pretenses, then kidnapped as the yacht heads out to sea. This recalls the initial premise of Design in Evil.
Fluids. "Miami Papers Please Copy" is rich in King's imagery of water, drinks and fluids. They help give the story its beautiful style. Especially nice: the brief sun shower, a delightful kind of weather, here appearing in the suspense genre that typically emphasizes major storms. The sun shower is perhaps a metaphor for the characters' problems in this tale.
The Arts. The good guys also resemble the bad guys in earlier King tales, in having an interest in the arts. While artists in Diagnosis: Murder were financially exploitative young Adonises who preyed upon the rich, here the newspaper editor has a regular job, and is a skilled professional who earns his paycheck.
Several King works have humorous references to the theater of an earlier day. "Miami Papers Please Copy" has one of the most elaborate, as it burlesques old-school sentimental melodrama.
Gender. The editor is a middle-class good guy. He is described in restrained terms, being compared by the heroine to actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was a warm leading man with plenty of appeal, but he is less of an extreme "hunk" than are many King males.
SPOILERS. The finale of the couple's romance recalls the end of A Variety of Weapons. Both tales pair a middle class working man with an heiress, in both it looks like class or other obstacles will prevent a coupling, in both the ingenious, very aggressive heroine finds slick ways around this that are socially acceptable. Both stories end with the heroine making a public announcement, solving the couple's problems.
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.
This is one of those stories, popular circa 1955, about romantic passion and triangles leading to attempts at the Perfect Murder. The woman is one of those man-hungry types. She's a sophisticate, and recalls Mrs. Poole in Murder by Latitude, although Mrs. Poole at least wanted to marry the men in her life, and was emotionally more sincere.
The heroine is a well-known writer - and like many people in the arts in King, she is an exploitative person. Some of her story-notes play a role in the plot: King often used important documents as part of his crime stories.
The bartender hero perhaps recalls the steward characters in King shipboard books like Murder on the Yacht. The heroine and bartender discuss such liqueurs as allasch and kummel: reflecting King's interest in liquids.
The bartender has "strong, well-formed hands". This recalls the young mob killer Fergus Wade in The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (Chapter 6), who likes to kill people with his hands. Fergus Wade's hands are similarly described as "remarkably strong, and perfectly modeled".
SPOILER. The murder attempt centers on skin diving: recalling the suspense sequences involving standard diving in The Lesser Antilles Case and Holiday Homicide. The murder method has technological aspects, making this partly a tale of Scientific Detection, or at least, scientific crime.
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 tale describes a series of Machiavellian schemes by an evil rich woman, and the way they keep blowing up in her face by chance, and by her underestimating the people around her. Both the schemes and their flaws have mild ingenuity, but nothing really special.
"The Steps to Murder" is unusual among King's late short stories, in that it is not set in Florida. Instead it takes place near Washington DC, Long Island and the Adirondacks.
Part of the backstory resembles The Deadly Dove. Both works have a rich woman, who buys a designer boyfriend / husband, and who also has an eccentric man in the arts duped into working as a cook in her home.
The upstate Adirondacks setting in "The Steps to Murder" recalls a little bit the Catskills mansion in The Deadly Dove.
Both "The Steps to Murder" and "The Y-Shaped Scar" have men who aspire to careers as diplomats with the US Government. Such careers as seen as vulnerable to any accusations of scandal.
The 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.
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.
The second half has investigator Stuff Driscoll announcing his solution. He talks about a series of four different physical evidence clues. In part, he uses the clues to reconstruct the murder: a bit like the physical evidence used to reconstruct the crime in Murder by the Clock (Chapter 2, 6). But Driscoll also uses the clues to show how the "perfect murder" executed by the killer has flaws: the same bits of evidence contradict and reveal the truth about the killer's schemes. Finding such "flaws in a perfect murder" is typical of inverted mysteries. This gives the solution in "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" the "feel" of a typical solution to an inverted.
However, "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" is not actually an inverted. In a true inverted mystery, we see the killer's actions in the first part, and the sleuth's discovery of flaws in the killer's scheme in the second half. By contrast, in "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" we learn about both the killer's scheme, and the flaws in it, at the same time, in the second part of the tale.
Many of the clues are scientific, linking "A Little Cloud...Like a Man's Hand" to the Scientific Detection tradition.
There are perhaps hints that the accountants Burd and Miss Ott are both gay. By contrast, the unpleasant business people for whom they work are conspicuously married and straight.
Burd is compared to a computer: still a fairly new device in 1959. This is perhaps a sign that King is trying to keep up with current events and society.
There is more of King's richly colorful dessert imagery: this time, cookies. The tale's second half recalls the final confrontation in Crime of Violence (Chapter 23), with the killer attempting to serve the detective a murderous snack.
The suspense elements include a science-based attack on the heroine. This, along the the technology-based attack on the ship, put the tale in the realm of Scientific Detection.
"Rendezvous with Death" includes a vivid description of a beach, and the marshy area leading to it. This links it to King's interest in water-side areas.
The heroine has a brief but well-done dream sequence. Inventively, the dream mixes the sea imagery of much of the story, with details of the (non-sea) attack on the heroine.
The hero wears flamingo colored bathing trunks at the beach. This recalls the heroine of "Miami Papers Please Copy", and the spectacular flamingo taffeta gown she wears to the theater. Flamingo is a shade of pink. In 1955 pink trunks would have been a bit subversive for men, with a gay subtext. However, the hero is not gay.
The hero Duke Hart has features that recall previous Rufus King heroes:
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum is humorously mentioned, comparing the hero's bull-like body to the macho pioneers often portrayed by Borglum. Gutzon Borglum is another of the realist, completely non-modernist artists sometimes cited by Rufus King.
"A Borderline Case" partly takes place in New England. And partly in Florida, tying it to the main locale of King's late work. New England was previously the setting of Lethal Lady.
The scenes where the hero encourages a man to tail him, recall Lethal Lady (Chapter 36) where the policeman hero is conscious that a man is clumsily tailing him. There are comedy aspects to this, in both works.
"A Borderline Case" has a waterside setting, a favorite in King.
The smokehouse on the hero's Florida estate is an interesting touch.
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 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.
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.
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.
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", like many inverteds, suffers from gloom, forcing us into the mind of a criminal.
The tale shows us Stuff Driscoll's home life, which is mildly interesting. Driscoll is depicted as middle class, in distinction to the upper crust suspects in the tales. He is educated, but also a tough cop: a combination of the old style tough policeman and the new middle class American dream of the era. The story emphasizes that Driscoll is one of King's muscular he-men. Driscoll and his wife live near a canal, echoing King's love of water. The earlier investigator in the Florida tales, Bill Duggan, is also a young muscular man, who is some ways seems like a rough sketch for Driscoll. However, Duggan is unmarried, unlike Driscoll, and is not as well characterized or developed. For better or worse, Duggan also seems more purely working class, with a background as a lifeguard - recalling the lifeguards in Murder Masks Miami.
"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.