Rufus King | Biography
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
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
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
Commentary on Rufus King:
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 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 a young security guard 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. See here for a detailed discussion.
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.
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.
SPOILERS. Both the shipboard setting, and aspects of the murder plot, have technical aspects. They link King to the Scientific School of detection.
Earlier shipboard mysteries include:
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 novels' 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.
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 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.
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. (Another interesting, but very different, butler is in "The Case of the Peculiar Precautions".)
Later State Troopers in other King works will be in similar modes:
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.
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 to breakfast, thus dropping some broad clues about his own sexual orientation. There is a definite party-like aspect to this scene. If Murder by Latitude was King's tragic gay novel, Murder Masks Miami is his comic one.
King's pastiche of Archie Godwin 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 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.
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.
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).
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:
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" takes place against the same sort of background as the Starr novella "The Case of the Lonely Ladies":
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and more surprisingly, modernist Francis Picabia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 (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.
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.
There are three collections: Malice in Wonderland, The Steps to Murder and The Faces of Danger, as well as some uncollected tales in magazines.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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" 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.
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.
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 life guard.
"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.