T. S. Stribling | Hulbert Footner | Samuel Spewack | Percival Wilde | Patrick Quentin / Q. Patrick | Dorothy Bennett | Lillian de la Torre | Fred C. Levon | James Yaffe | Clarence Budington Kelland | Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post | Richard Connell | William J. Neidig | Frederick Skerry
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The House With the Blue Door (1942) (Chapter 1)
Randy Hyde stories
His earliest and most famous mystery book, Clues of the Caribbees (1925-1926), is his weakest, offering little more than some interesting travel writing, the well-plotted "Cricket", and a final story ("A Passage to Benares") with a startling finale. These early stories first appeared in Adventure, a pulp magazine specializing in tales set round the globe; some of what it published were mystery stories, many were not. Each story in Adventure had its usually exotic location listed right in the table of contents. Stribling was a regular contributor to the magazine during the mid 1920's. Its contents had little similarity in tone or style to the hard-boiled fiction then appearing in Black Mask. Stribling's autobiography Laughing Stock (1982) describes his entertaining encounters with the editorial staff of Adventure. It also records his friendship with mystery writers J.S. Fletcher, and Harry Stephen Keeler, the last two people I would ever have expected him to know.
Much better than Clues of the Caribbees are the tales he wrote in the early 1930's, now collected in Dr. Poggioli: Criminologist, and the final, larger group of stories written after 1945, partly collected in Best Dr. Poggioli Detective Stories. These last tales appeared when the elderly Stribling had lost all markets for his writing except Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and a few other mystery magazines. (There are apparently several unpublished mainstream novels dating from this period.) Even these later works are by no means uniform in quality.
Hidden criminal schemes form subplots in many mystery writers, from Freeman Wills Crofts to Edward D. Hoch. But the paradoxical schemes found in Stribling seem different. These paradoxical schemes are not found in any other mystery writer, and help make Stribling's stories unique. Stribling's work falls within the tradition of the fair play mystery puzzle plot, but is otherwise hard to place. He does not seem to be closely aligned with any other writer:
The deductions in "The Shadow" (1934) from the woman's letter and photograph, and in "The Newspaper" (1935) from the woman's compact, are based in ideas about how women behave romantically and what sort of image they like to project. Such behavior has likely changed a lot since the 1930's. Even in their era, they might have been over-generalizations. Still, the vigorous deductions are fun to read from a detection aspect.
The highly complex plots and intricate chains of deductions in Stribling's later tales make them seem quite long, whereas they are actually only around 15 pages or less.
Two discussions stand out. One describes the "paradoxical" logic Poggioli uses. The other describes the series of surprises necessary for a good Poggioli tale.
"Cricket" (1925) is an early tale with a self-reflexive analysis of logic. It doesn't discuss story structure the way "The Case of the Button" does. But it does look at the logic used by detectives, both Poggioli and others.
In "Cricket", Poggioli keeps stumbling over ideas and new insights into the case. Sometimes he does this himself, through detectival reasoning. But other times things are learned simply by accident. Even more embarrassingly for Poggioli, sometimes other characters figure these ideas out, then present them to Poggioli.
The whole process is messy, and involves a multitude of approaches. Poggioli concludes that Berkeley was right: there is no such thing as sound human logic, when it comes to how people actually think. Instead, Berkeley claims, people messily come up with many ideas, then in retrospect rewrite their mental history, so that it looks as if they were reasoning logically.
This approach is a not-bad description of Poggioli's thinking in "Cricket". But at the tale's end, we learn that another character has indeed solved the case, through a rigorous series of logically joined ideas! This person seems to be contradicting Berkeley's claim, instead thinking with a fair amount of logical rigor.
In Poggioli's later stories, he himself thinks logically, just like the other character in "Cricket".
Such attempts by authorities to cover up crimes recur in some of Stribling's later American tales, such as "The Mystery of the Seven Suicides" (1948). In this tale, the cover-ups reach both a disturbing level, and achieve a paradoxical feel.
Dashiell Hammett frequently wrote about societies or groups in which law and order had broken down. His tales too sometimes reach paradoxical extremes. Hammett's and Stribling's tales have some broad similarities in approach on this subject, although they differ in details.
Both Hammett and Stribling were pulp magazine writers, flourishing in the 1920's. Perhaps there are direct links on this subject between the two authors, forged in part by their common publication in the pulps.
The story "The Shadow" (1934) is especially odd in this way. In addition to Poggioli's odd role and characterization, he is shown operating in New York City, an atypical locale for him.
"Death Deals Diamonds" (1952) also investigates smuggling. It is best in its first half, which gives a geographic look at the widespread smuggling of diamonds across many cities. Poggioli has some good reasoning about this geography.
"Death Deals Diamonds" shares features with the later "The Man in the Shade". Both:
These mystery short stories include "The Telephone Fisherman" (1955) and "Murder at Flowtide" (1955). "The Telephone Fisherman" is by far the better tale, including interesting local color about different means of fishing, and some of Poggioli's deductive work.
Subject and Setting. The Count Jalacki tales draw on approaches Stribling had used in some of his 1930's tales. The Jalacki stories posit a bitter rivalry between two families who are linked by marriage. A similar idea is the basis of "Private Jungle" (1933). In the Jalacki tales, this rivalry gets extended into big business conflicts, something not present in "Private Jungle". In both stories, a possible pregnancy by a wife leads to a a potential heir, complicating the financial conflicts between the two families.
Both the Jalacki tales and "Private Jungle" have elaborate settings of a Florida mansion and its extensive grounds. These reflect the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscape. The settings are the main interest of the otherwise minor "Private Jungle", with its Florida backwoods buildings, garden and roads. The Jalacki mansion is more "sophisticated", being set in Miami among the elite.
"Private Jungle" anticipates some tales by other authors:
"Count Jalacki Goes Fishing" and "The Pink Colonnade" (1933) both involve yachting in the ocean offshore from Miami. Like "Private Jungle" and the Jalacki stories, "The Pink Colonnade" has a Florida mansion with elaborate grounds.
Mystery Plot. The Jalacki tales and "Private Jungle" contain less of the constant deduction that plays such a part in other Poggioli tales. Poggioli and the narrator simply watch as the tales' events unfold.
SPOILERS. "Count Jalacki Goes Fishing" and "Private Jungle" involve elements of Scientific Detection in their crimes.
Aside from "Cricket", "Bullets" seems to be Stribling's first really good detective story, his breakthrough work. The earlier tales in Clues of the Caribbees are mainly long and meandering; they lack the intricate plotting, concise writing and sparkling paradoxes of Stribling's work following "Bullets". The same is true of the long and not very interesting paranormal story "Shadowed" (1930).
In the 1920's Stribling also contributed to early science fiction pulps. "A Passage to Benares" has elements of the fantastic, as does a strange non-mystery story Stribling contributed to Adventure shortly after "Benares" called "Christ in Chicago" (1926), a tale which attacks the then rising eugenics movement. As one character in the tale puts it, "A civilization can be measured by how many of the poor and the weak it can support". Since eugenics played a major role in the rise of Nazism during this era, Stribling's tale can be seen to have been prophetic.
Footner's career is a bit hard to place: Madame Storey seems to have been accepted as a Golden Age detective, with her work collected in books, but her cases also appeared in pulp magazines throughout the Depression: maybe other markets were tighter then. Footner suggests that the usual rigid dichotomy between pulp fiction/Golden Age detective stories was in fact something of a semipermeable membrane.
Footner's other series detective is Amos Lee Mappin, a successful, middle-aged crime writer whose mysteries tend to occur in New York's cafe society. Mappin is unusual in that his Watson (at least in some of his tales) is a young woman, his secretary Fanny Parran. Madame Storey's assistant-and-Watson is also female, Bella Brickley. They are some of the few female Watsons in fiction, an example of how female oriented Footner's fiction is.
Fanny Parran is already present in Death of a Celebrity (1938), before Ellery Queen got his own secretary Nikki Porter on his radio show in 1939.
"The Murder at Fenhurst" treats a refined young woman as a main suspect in the murder of her father. Such "family crimes maybe by young women" also recall Green: see her The Leavenworth Case.
Usually the handsome men relate to women. But sometimes a gay subtext seems to emerge, with scenes that can be ambiguously interpreted as men attracted to other men. SPOILERS:
Mystery Plot. The Deaves Affair is a comic, cheerful novel about a young New York City artist who meets an eccentric millionaire and helps him deal with blackmailers. The artist hero does some detective work investigating the mysterious gang of blackmailers, but in many ways The Deaves Affair is as much as an adventure story or comic thriller, as it is a detective story.
Rogue Fiction. The Deaves Affair takes place in a New York City world, that in some ways already seems a bit dated for 1922. It recalls:
Later Footner novels often have gold-digging young men who prey on wealthy women. The hero of The Deaves Affair does everything to seize his new relationship with the elderly male millionaire, and turn it to financial profit. He is honest, unlike Footner's later gigolos, but The Deaves Affair is still a book about a young man who meets the rich and tries to make a living off them.
Sexuality. Footner is good at describing the attraction between his hero and heroine. Footner makes it clear that his artist is not a "long hair" or sloppy dresser, unlike the Bohemian artists of the day, but a young man who shines his shoes and keeps his hair short.
Commercial Art. The artist makes his living painting labels. Commercial art and artists seem to fascinate Golden Age mystery writers. See Helen Reilly.
Architecture. The crime scene is a penthouse "sunroom": a greenhouse-like area in a rooftop penthouse apartment, with mainly glass walls, and glass doors leading into it from its foyer. Footner liked rooms with lots of glass windows:
Reviews. There is a play within the novel Death of a Celebrity, and we read some of the play's reviews. They offer a multitude of perspectives on the drama. The feel anticipates another mystery set in the literary world which contains reviews of an imaginary novel, Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956) by Helen McCloy. McCloy's treatment is more elaborate.
Characters. A none-too-honest character is nicknamed Slippery Slim. This anticipates the later series character Slip'ry Sneak in the Dick Cole comic books.
We get a portrait of a spoiled heiress, demanding things of the detectives (Chapters 1, 2). This anticipates the more vicious and even more demanding heiress in Orchids to Murder (Chapter 11).
Detection. Much of the detection is in the Gaboriau tradition, of discovering clues left at a crime scene, and using them to reconstruct the events of the murder (Chapters 5 - 6).
Mystery Plot: What Is It?. Mappin picks up a mysterious black glass object at the crime scene (Chapter 5). He has no idea what the object is, or what it is used for. We eventually get an explanation (end of Chapter 14). This is one of the better mystery sub-plots in The Murder That Had Everything.
Mysterious, puzzling objects of unknown identity or function would later sometimes appear in Helen McCloy. McCloy's "The Nameless Clue" (1941) in fact deals with a mysterious black disk, just like The Murder That Had Everything. The explanation of the two disks in quite different, however.
Architecture. There is a good deal of architectural interest in the apartment occupied by the victim in The Murder That Had Everything (Chapters 5 - 6); creative buildings were a Golden Age specialty.
Also architectural: there is a nice piece of detection (end of Chapter 4 and Chapter 5), where the hero tracks down the location of the victim's apartment.
Common factors in the architecture in The Murder That Had Everything and "The Ashcomb Poor Case":
Gun Murders. Common factors in the gun murders in The Murder That Had Everything and "The Ashcomb Poor Case":
Van Dine school books often deal with the intelligentsia. The Murder That Had Everything looks at the celebrity press. These gossip columnists and reporters are lower-brow than the typical intellectuals in a Van Dine school novel. But they can be seen as related to the intellectuals and entertainment figures in other Van Dine authors. An earlier Mappin mystery Death of a Celebrity is more traditionally Van Dine-ish, dealing with Broadway theater people.
Mappin plans a gourmet luncheon (start of Chapter 2). Gourmet food is associated with Van Dine school author Rex Stout and his sleuth Nero Wolfe.
This story has more low-life characters than The Murder That Had Everything, with many of the ex-con's former criminal associates prominent in the plot. The tone is also darker, and more tragic.
The House With the Blue Door is always readable, and never becomes actually dull. But after its vivid first chapter, it is not as inspired or as fun as Footner's best works.
Tails. The hunk dresses in white tie and tails to look especially appealing (Chapter 1). White tie is indeed the most dressed-up look for men. It also appears in The Murder That Had Everything (Chapter 7), where we learn that everyone but the gossip columnist is wearing it in a popular night club. The columnist's dissent from this standard is a sign of his personal power and individuality.
Architecture. The heiress' huge estate has many facilities on its grounds (Chapter 1). This anticipates the even more elaborate facilities at the millionaire's country home in Orchids to Murder (Chapter 5).
The other building, the house of the title, is described in disappointingly generic terms.
SPOILERS. Like some other Footner works, like Death of a Celebrity and The Murder That Had Everything, characters come to the crime scene in the house from next door. However, I thought the architecture of the neighboring homes, and the paths between them and the crime scene, in these other books is more interesting than that in The House With the Blue Door.
Mystery Plot. Like The Murder That Had Everything, Orchids to Murder opens with a disappearance. In both books, Mappin is asked by friends or relatives of the vanished person to look for them. The disappearance plot is longer-drawn-out in Orchids to Murder than in The Murder That Had Everything.
Another similarity: Inspector Loasby says the crime in Orchids to Murder "has everything" (start of Chapter 6). In The Murder That Had Everything it is reporter Tom Cottar who says "This case has everything" (near start of Chapter 6).
Detective Team. Mappin's allies return. They were all previously seen in such Mappin books as The Murder That Had Everything and Who Killed the Husband?:
Flowers as Clues. Gardenia clues were important in The Murder That Had Everything, and a woman carries red roses when she visits her father in prison (start of Chapter 14). Orchids serve as clues in Orchids to Murder. So do hyacinths and leaves (Chapter 13).
As best as I can tell, the "Investia orchid" in Orchids to Murder is made-up for the novel, not a real species. The orchids are green-and-black: color imagery that runs through the novel.
Architecture. A number of scenes take place in detailed architectural settings:
Such converted farmhouses were considered glamorous in that era. Evidence of Things Seen (1943) by Elizabeth Daly, So Much Blood (1944) by Zelda Popkin, and The Farmhouse (1947) by Helen Reilly take place in a similar milieu. I have wondered, without any solid evidence, whether the glamorization of such residences in books and Hollywood films, helped lead the way to the rise of suburbia in post-1945 United States.
SPOILERS. The body is hidden twice in Orchids to Murder (start of Chapter 12; end of Chapter 13). Both times, it is pushed through an opening, and then falls down into an enclosed architectural area or pit. This is exactly how the killer hid the corpse in The Murder That Had Everything (Chapters 5, 6). The fall is part of Footner's interest in height and vertical space: which gives his architecture a three-dimensional quality.
Both locations in Orchids to Murder are treated as crime scenes to be investigated: a core part of Footner's detective technique. As usual, the detective reconstructs the criminal's activities there.
SPOILERS. Consulting an architectural sketch plan helps Mappin find a hidden area (start of Chapter 13). This is a good piece of detective work. The hidden area is part of the infrastructure, like the coal scuttle that plays a role in The Murder That Had Everything.
Men: A Positive View. Two of the main characters are an impoverished chauffeur, Ewart Blanding, and a millionaire businessman, George Restorick. SPOILERS. Although both feature prominently as suspects, as Mappin gets to know them better, they emerge as fine fellows. Both in their own way come to seem as idealized images of manhood. They make a welcome change of pace from the gigolos and fortune hunters of other Footner books. They instead show what men might be at their best.
Characterization. Spewack is good at characterization.
In general, Spewack is a people centered writer. He is chiefly interested in his characters, their often flamboyantly exhibitionist personalities, and their relationships with each other. His characters often demand attention for their ideas or actions. They often surprise the reader by having more to say than one might expect.
Mystery Plot. Murder in the Gilded Cage is at a medium level of plot complexity. It has some nice twists, but it is nowhere near as complex as many Golden Age detective stories. Its puzzle plot ideas are nice, but not especially original. However, they fooled me.
Mystery Traditions. Murder in the Gilded Cage is clearly an intuitionist detective novel, with a genius detective who solves the crime.
Boris Sergeivitch Perutkin has features that remind one of Agatha Christie's sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Like Poirot, he is a flamboyant, good natured, slightly comical sleuth who admires his own "genius". The last names of the two sleuths are somewhat similar, containing the letters p-r-t in sequence. Like Poirot, he was originally a police officer from a foreign country, in this case Russia, but who left his native land as a refugee during the upheavals of World War I, and who has now settled permanently in an English speaking country. While Christie had no personal connection to Belgium, Spewack was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States, rather like his detective hero, who was from Riga (the capital of Latvia).
Christie introduced Poirot and created his background in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), and Murder in the Gilded Cage has other features that remind one of that book. Both novels are about wealthy middle aged women who take up with younger men over the objections of her family. Like Christie, Spewack laces his book with humor and good-natured social satire.
Spewack's subject matter also reminds one of Hulbert Footner. Rich society women and their gigolo hangers on were a Footner specialty. Spewack's gigolo here is much less knowing and predatory than Footner's expert fortune hunters. Footner's tend to have the get up and go of a Roaring Twenties business type, while Spewack's is much more pathetic.
Spewack's ex-newspaperman narrator reminds one of the anonymous narrator of S.S. Van Dine's novels. He starts out as a full character in the story, but gradually becomes a mere recorder of events.
The stories originally appeared in a pulp, Street & Smith's The Popular Magazine, around 1924-1925. This was a general purpose pulp, not one that specialized in mystery fiction. It is sometimes referred to as a "family pulp", because it published non hard-boiled fiction suitable for a family readership, in imitation of such slick magazines as The Saturday Evening Post.
Behind these tales stands the Rogue tradition, stories of clever rogues and their ingenious crimes. Like such British Rogue-influenced detective story writers as J.S. Fletcher and E.C. Bentley, Wilde combines this with the detective story proper. The tales are told from a detective's point of view, not the criminal's, and treated as a mystery for the detective to solve. Formally, his tales have much in common with theirs. However, thematically, there are substantial differences. Fletcher and Bentley, like other British Rogue writers, are interested in tweaking the nose of the British class system. Many of their tales involve lower class people who assume the clothes and power of the upper classes. The American writer Wilde seems to have no interest in this at all.
Instead he is best compared to the other American magazine writers of his day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the entries in Carolyn Wells' Best American Mystery Stories of 1930. Wilde, like them, is interested in the bright, well to do young men of the Jazz Age. These men combine virtue and vice in strange and fascinating ways, at least to the readers of their era. The young men attempt to exude an aura of vice, vague licentiousness and general naughtiness. Clearly they are breaking taboos in ways that are titillating to their readers, in ways that involve both romance (Fitzgerald) and high stakes gambling (Wilde). At the same time, they are incredibly clean cut, at least by modern standards. They are all basically wholesome, clean cut young men from the most proper families. All have plenty of money, and are ultimately very marriageable.
Wilde, like other American magazine writers of the era, also shows signs of continuity with the Early American scientific school of Rinehart, Reeve, Futrelle, Moffett, etc. His interest in a specialized subject area, games of chance, can be seen as his equivalent to the scientific knowledge that plays such an important role in their stories. Like Reeve, his stories take place in the arena of public life, not private relationships. And like Reeve, he often deals with corrupt high livers, big time crooks and swindlers from the upper reaches of society.
Parmelee goes "undercover" with an assumed identity in some of these tales. This is a persistent plot gambit in Wilde, whose characters are always assuming new identities.
A humorous story like "Beginner's Luck" (1924) from Rogues in Clover recapitulates many of Wilde's traditional themes:
Wilde experiments with multiple narrators in this story, in a way that recalls Wilkie Collins. The best feature of this otherwise ho-hum novel is one of these narrators, town handyman Ben Willett. The first 6 sections of his "The Tale of the Grim Reaper" offer some good characterization and observations on life, and show Wilde's skill at writing mainstream fiction. Both here and with P. Moran, Wilde shows his sympathy with working class characters.
I also liked the parts of "The Diary of a Public Character" (another section of Inquest) that deal with an author's rise to success. Wilde liked to write about characters' money making schemes. These schemes seem somewhat implausible sometimes, but they are clearly pleasant wish fulfillment daydream fantasies for both Wilde and his readers.
One can see some personal Wilde approaches in Design for Murder:
The book also continues his experiments with multiple narrators, this time people who are recording their observations in bursts as the action progresses, something Wilde handles nicely. The story is in five parts, each with its own narrator. The first three sections are quite well written, with lively storytelling. However, the solution seems to me to be a let down, and the book is mainly just a curiosity.
"P. Moran, Shadow" (1943) is laugh out loud funny. The story deals with mobsters and the underworld, not with the genteel upper crust murders of the Golden Age. Even here, these crooks are very small beer, compared to the macho supermen of crime stalking through the pages of the pulps. P. Moran would be a perfect character for Jim Carrey to play, in his full Dumb and Dumber mode.
A lot of 40's writers attempted to bring humor to mystery fiction: one thinks of Craig Rice, Merle Constiner, Ken Crossen. Wilde seems closest in these tales to the tradition of the professional American humorist: the stories are like the result if George S. Kaufman or Jean Kerr or Patrick Dennis had attempted spoofs of pulp crime tales. Like Kaufman and Kerr, Wilde had been a professional playwright.
The collection The Puzzles of Peter Duluth is available from its publisher Crippen & Landru. I enjoyed all four of the stories and novellas in this collection.
Stevenson. Characters wander around of the streets of New York at night encountering puzzling adventures, in "Death Rides the Ski-Tow", "Murder with Flowers". This recalls Robert Louis Stevenson's story of fantastic adventures in London, New Arabian Nights (1878).
Rogue. The crook-protagonists in Rogue fiction often dress up in upper class clothes to which they are not entitled, or do other things that mislead:
Scientific Detection. A number of Quentin works invoke Scientific Detection:
I've dubbed these sources "oracles", because they resemble the oracles of Ancient Greece. "Murder with Flowers" calls its source a "drunken oracle". Examples:
SPOILERS. "Girl Overboard" does not involve poison. But intrigue over a glass of milk recalls similar timing issues about poison in other tales.
Such scenes have paranoiac overtones. They recall a classic comic book tale drawn by Steve Ditko, "Which Face Hides My Enemy?" (Beware the Creeper #4, November-December 1968).
The authors were hardly the first to use such infiltrated villains. As Francis M. Nevins has pointed out, they regularly occur in Milton M. Propper.
BIG SPOILERS. The infiltrated character in A Puzzle for Fools (1936) recalls the one in Death of an Airman (1934) by Christopher St. John Sprigg, in having special abilities related to his show biz background.
"Another Man's Poison" recalls the earlier A Puzzle for Fools. Both:
Murder Unleashed is poetic, but it does not resemble much "literary detective novels" such as Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), or crime novels like Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1952). It is far more cheerful. No one has emotional problems. Except for some brief descriptions of the killer, no one is psychologically disturbed. Everyone is a functioning human being, and usually a cheerful, upbeat one too. The book emphasizes the joy of life, especially the love of nature. Human beings are depicted as mainly positive, and having inner lives we should cherish and admire.
Murder Unleashed emphasizes characterization, and such literary crime fiction as The Fashion in Shrouds also emphasizes characterization. But Murder Unleashed differs from books like The Fashion in Shrouds and The Killer Inside Me in the great wealth of poetic descriptive writing Bennett includes. This makes Murder Unleashed a poetic novel in a way that the others are not.
Bennett likes music. Her hero sings for the radio, a glamorous job in 1935, and songs and music are often poetically described.
It is unclear what "literary" influences might be at work in Dorothy Bennett. Part of Murder Unleashed takes place in Monterey and other nearby California towns, and Murder Unleashed is full of poetical descriptions of this region. Today, these locales instantly evoke John Steinbeck. However, Steinbeck was just becoming well-known in 1935 for Tortilla Flat (1935), and one suspects he was an obscure figure when Bennett wrote her novel.
Bennett's publishers, The Crime Club, recognized her book's unusual qualities. The publisher's blurb begins: "Dorothy Bennett in her first book has already succeeded in breaking with the conventional formula of the mystery story and in giving us a novel and highly unique book which is definitely stamped with her own attractive personality". It continues: "Here is a mystery story possessing high literary quality, splendid characterizations, rapid action and an intelligent and solution-defying plot."
The Detective. The detective figure in Murder Unleashed is Dennis Devore. This young man gets involved with the crime when he discovers the body. He then becomes the police's number one suspect, and has to solve the murder to clear his name. He enlists some professionals to help him: lawyer Peter Byrne, newspaper reporter Kennedy. At first it looks as if either Peter or Kennedy will be the detective in the tale. They do help out and do some sleuthing. But somewhat unexpectedly, it is Dennis who makes most of the detectival discoveries, and who solves the case at the end.
As a detective tale, Murder Unleashed has links to the Intuitionist tradition. The detective is of a kind that is central to Intuitionist writers:
Mystery Plot. Murder Unleashed is a fair play detective story. As a detective tale, it is not an immortal classic - but it is a solidly crafted tale, with clues hidden in the tale that point logically to the identity of the killer.
Dennis has a skill at reconstructing the crime. There are numerous passages scattered throughout the novel, in which Dennis offers his imaginative account of the actions of the murderer or possible suspect, during the commission of a crime. These passages are part of the detective puzzle plot: Dennis reasons the killer's possible actions out based on evidence that has been gathered. But these passages also serve both as lyrical, poetical accounts, and a portraits of characters and their personalities.
SPOILERS. Aspects of the murder mystery plot of Murder Unleashed follow Intuitionist tradition:
A Pulp Link?. The presence of a reporter named Kennedy in Murder Unleashed brings to mind pulp writer Frederick Nebel, and his long running series of Police Captain MacBride and reporter Kennedy tales in Black Mask magazine, which started in 1928. This could be just a coincidence, however.
Murder Unleashed does not otherwise evoke pulp magazine traditions:
At times Murder Unleashed vaguely recalls pulp fiction writer Erle Stanley Gardner. It has a California setting and a lawyer character, both Gardner favorites. The characters' get-up-and-go, and willingness to take vigorous action to solve the crime, also recall Gardner. They have Gardner's positive attitude towards life. However, one suspects that Gardner, although he was well-known to pulp magazine readers by 1935, was nowhere nearly as famous as he would later become.
Society. During the inquest (Chapter 17), the hero briefly compares the disdain he is experiencing to the negative treatment society gives poor people. As an example, he thinks of "class war", and expresses some emotional sympathy for the radical left wing I.W.W. This is hardly endorsement of their actions: the I.W.W. is portrayed as a group that goes on destructive rampages, and the hero disapproves of them. But he feels sympathy for the way poor and working people are despised by society.
The hero is a college educated man, and so is his lawyer friend. The hero has inherited property, and is likely at least Upper Middle Class, maybe even Upper Class. The book's perspective is from the Upper Middle Class.
Much is made of the hero being a football player in college. A genteel woman reminisces about putting up photos of football stars as romantic pin-ups. A male character immediately expresses discomfort over men being made into Sex Objects for the Female Gaze (although these modern terms are not used in this 1935 novel.) Bennett is raising issues that would interest later feminist critics.
The fine first story in the series, "The Great Seal of England" (1943), also shows signs of affinity with EQ and his traditions: it has a deductive finale, where logic is used to deduce the identity of the culprit. It also uses that favorite EQ plot, the search for a missing, ingeniously hidden object. So do other tales in the series, such as "Prince Charlie's Ruby". Many of the mysteries in the Johnson tales involve the concealment of an object or a person. As is often in de la Torre, the characters' motives for their schemes is to protect some person in trouble. The story also shows de la Torre's fondness for highwaymen, those 18th Century robbers now seen as colorful quasi-heroes.
Lillian de la Torre shows other features linking her to the Van Dine school as a whole, of which EQ was a member. Her detective is a genius amateur who occasionally works closely with the police of the era. Many of the characters in the tales are intellectuals, involved in science or the arts; her detective is an authority on the arts. Several are collectors, looking for missing priceless objects around which the mysteries swirl. Theatrical settings are common. There is the persistent Van Dine school concern with racial minorities, notably in the anti-slavery tale "The Blackamoor Unchain'd" (1974). There is the detailed rich storytelling valued by the Van Dine writers.
But there are influences here outside of the Van Dine school, notably from John Dickson Carr. Carr's biographer Douglas G. Green, in his John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995), quotes de la Torre as saying she was inspired by Carr's The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) to create her historical detective stories. Carr's book is a factual, non-fiction account of a real life murder case. But it is written much like a novel. Carr's book, like de la Torre's stories, takes place in England of a few hundred years ago. Carr is not a member of the Van Dine school. Carr and the Van Dine writers are in turn members of a larger group, the intuitionist detective writers. So de la Torre definitely is oriented towards the intuitionist approach.
I am of two minds about these fictionalized true crime tales. I respect the ingenuity the author shows in them, working within the strict historical limits of the cases. But I do not enjoy any of them as much as the cases de la Torre has made up out of her own head. These purely fictitious tales show much more imagination and mystery puzzle plot ingenuity than the true crimes.
In addition to "The Great Seal of England", my favorites are "The Flying Highwayman" (1946) and "The Manifestations in Mincing Lane". These two works have an abundance of mystery. In neither are the mysteries hard to fathom, and readers should not expect overwhelming ingenuity on the order of Agatha Christie here. Yet the mysteries in these stories are beautifully wrought, considered as pieces of storytelling. The plots have the right "shape": they are enjoyable to think about, and savor mentally.
"Prince Charlie's Ruby" (1944) also has a mystery to it, in fact two different sets of mysteries in the first and second halves of the story. Yet it is mainly a historical work. Like that other EQMM contributor, James Yaffe, de la Torre believed in giving readers a large quantity of mystery plot, with clues, subplots, and series of ingenuities along the way.
"The Monboddo Ape Boy" (1945) is nicely done as a historical tale, but it only has a thin mystery.
"The Wax-Work Cadaver" (1945) has the opposite problem. It has some real ingenuity, with a role reversal plot in the tradition of Doyle. But the story is the sort of macabre tale I've never enjoyed.
"The Bedlam Bam", like some other tales in The Return, is less a mystery than an adventure story of crime defeated. It combines the "social victim rescued" motif of "The Blackamoor Unchain'd" (1974) and the coffin and burial story of "The Resurrection Men" (1972).
"The Virtuosi Venus" (1973) is unusual as a story in that it is actually solved three times. It is in the tradition of such multiple solution Golden Age novels as EQ's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932). That de la Torre does this all in the space of a short story shows her commitment to bringing the reader a full mead of mystery.
"The Westcombe Witch" (1973) is a story of a coven, reminiscent of John Rhode's The Secret of High Eldersham (1931). This is just a little anecdote, hardly a full fledged puzzle plot mystery, but it is charming. There is a pattern in some of de la Torre's work in the 1970's. She will start out with a work that is exceptionally well crafted both as historical fiction and as a puzzle plot story: in 1973, "The Virtuosi Venus", in 1976, "The Aerostatick Globe". She will then write a second tale, less fully crafted and with hardly any puzzle plot, but with some charm: "The Westcombe Witch" (1973) and "The Spirit of the '76" (1976), respectively. Many of these 1970's stories involve foreigners in England, either Italians or Americans.
"The Aerostatick Globe" (1976) is the best work in the Exploits collection, both as historical fiction, and as a mystery. Its unusual, gentle mystery subject reminds us that de la Torre is typically far more interested in robbery than in murder. The somewhat unusual subject matter allows innovation in the plot construction. I think authors should experiment more with off trail subjects for mystery. Murder has been done to death - some less extreme crimes offer some real plot possibilities.
"The Aerostatick Globe" was followed by another story about scientists, "The Spirit of the '76" (1976). In this case Johnson meets Ben Franklin. The story was clearly written to celebrate the Bicentennial of the United States, held in 1976. The Dr. Johnson tales sometimes reflected 20th Century events of the time they were written; for example, "Coronation Story" (1953), which depicts the coronation of King George III in 1761, was written in the same year (1953) as the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Dr. Johnson tales often include a narrative process. Examples include plays, trials, historical accounts, launching a balloon, and rituals like coronations and funerals. This process includes a strong beginning, middle and end. It adds a well defined structure to the story, and a framework for the reader's expectations. These processes also function as stories, and grip the reader's interest. There is a great deal of visual pageantry in these stories, such as the gorgeous costumes worn and other visual effects. There is also much emphasis on the scientific and technological methods that underlay these processes.
De la Torre differs from many historical mystery writers of today in that she is more interested in civilization than primitiveness. Dr. Johnson was an advanced thinker of his time, in one of the most intellectual cities of the Enlightenment. He represents a peak of civilization. Many of the stories are about advanced science of their time ("The Aerostatick Globe", "The Monboddo Ape Boy") or art ("The Banquo Trap", "The Virtuosi Venus"). By contrast, many of today's historical mysteries want to explore the most barbaric activities of their times. The stories of de la Torre are also much happier and more cheerful than many contemporary historical tales. Their happy atmosphere resembles that of fairy tales.
The restaurant setting of "Mom Makes a Bet" (1953) returns in the banquet opening of Mom Among the Liars (1992). Yaffe likes settings involving food and drink. The Mom short stories are all set at Mom's dinner table. Yaffe also makes the crimes echo some personal interest of Mom's: in "Mom in the Spring" (1954), both Mom and the elderly lady victim are interested in dating; in "Mom Sings an Aria" (1966), Mom and the other characters are big opera fans. This makes the stories as a whole somehow portraits of Mom's character.
Many of the suspects in Yaffe's work are given to lying, fantasizing and delusional behavior. Employees and servants often indulge in small hidden schemes they keep secret from their employers. Both types of lying play a role in his puzzle plots.
Yaffe's fiction is filled with careful deductive work. Each story has a series of questions asked by Mom, wherein she uses her growing understanding of the crime to make guesses about the crime's circumstances. These passages are virtuosic. The end of the story shows Mom going over clues embedded in the tale. Yaffe shows an inventiveness in coming up with these. It is a full measure of puzzle plot mystery.
Ellery Queen especially encouraged the publication of armchair detective stories in his Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In addition to Yaffe's and Asimov's, he also published Anthony Boucher's Nick Noble stories in the 1940's, and the first of Harry Kemelman's Nicky Welt tales, "The Nine-Mile Walk" (1947), is also an armchair detective tale. Many of these EQMM armchair detective tales continue the S. S. Van Dine - Ellery Queen tradition of a genius amateur detective who works with the police: Boucher's Nick Noble solves problems brought him by a policeman, Kemelman's Nicky Welt by his friend the District Attorney, and Yaffe's Mom by her policeman son. Ellery Queen also occasionally wrote armchair detective stories himself, notably his Puzzle Club stories.
Most of the EQMM authors wrote very pure armchair detective tales. One or more people would bring a problem to the detective character, who would then ask a few questions, then immediately solve the case. There would be no lapse of time, and the detective would not send the other characters out to do further sleuthing. Furthermore, the solution would be very carefully based on reasoning about the crime. Deduction would reign supreme. This is in contrast to another approach, earlier employed before 1940 by such writers as Vincent Starrett and Rex Stout. Starrett's George Washington Troxell and Stout's Nero Wolfe would sit at home, directing investigations carried out by their legmen, Fred Dellabough and Archie Goodwin. Because of this, both sleuths are related to the tradition of armchair detection. However, they are very different in approach to most of the writers discussed above.
All of the above writers are in the intuitionist school of detective fiction. Intuitionists emphasized genius amateur detectives who solved mysteries through pure reasoning. Such an approach is closely related to the armchair paradigm. It is not much of a leap from a genius who solves crimes through deductive reasoning (the intuitionist approach) to a genius who solves mysteries through pure thinking without ever visiting the scene of the crime (the armchair detective).
It is not really clear to me that the armchair detective writers form a school of detective fiction. Rather, it seems more likely that intuitionist writers form a school, and that armchair detection is one approach that is sometimes employed by intuitionist authors. The word "school" refers to a group of writers who all share a common approach to mystery fiction, and whose techniques and approaches have more in common with each other than they do with anyone outside of the school. In other words, it is not true that such armchair detective writers as Isaac Asimov and James Yaffe are closely linked in all the techniques they use in their mystery plots. Rather, both Asimov and Yaffe are in the intuitionist tradition, and both just happen to be employing the armchair approach.
Aside from Ellery Queen himself, it is notable that most of the post-1945 writers of armchair detection were not really full members of the professional, book writing, adult-oriented, mystery fiction establishment of their day. Sobol is a children's book writer, who published much mystery fiction for children, but little for adults. Most of the other writers' mystery publications were largely confined to EQMM. Asimov was a science fiction writer, and rarely published pure mystery novels. Although Kemelman would go on to write the best selling Rabbi Small mysteries after 1964, for the first twenty years of his career his published mystery output was restricted to a handful of stories in EQMM. Similarly, Yaffe was mainly a mainstream, non-mystery writer who only published a handful of mystery short stories in EQMM, before his branching out into mystery novels in 1988. There is something oppositional, almost defiant about all these writers. The received wisdom of the mystery publishing industry of the 1945 - 1980 era was that puzzle plot mysteries were old fashioned and passé. Many editors of the time had an intense hatred for the traditional mystery: see Joan Kahn's remarks on the subject, for instance. The armchair detective stories in EQMM were published in the teeth of this opposition, in deliberate contrast to this anti-puzzle plot belief of the mystery establishment.
The other notable fact about the post-1945 armchair detective writers is that many of them are Jewish. It is very problematic to assert that there is any connection between a writer's ethnic or religious background, and their fiction. It is tempting to suggest that there might be a correlation between the armchair detective's emphasis on pure thinking, and the reverence in which thinking, scholarship and intellectuality were held by many American Jews of the post-1945 era. However, I cannot really prove such an assertion.
While EQ deserves much credit for bringing us Yaffe's excellent work, Yaffe's stories are actually much closer to a tradition that includes Baroness Orczy, G.K. Chesterton, and above all, Agatha Christie. Yaffe's fiction seems especially close to Agatha Christie. The give and take of his characters over the dinner table while discussing the case recalls the free flowing dialogues in Christie's The Tuesday Night Club Murders, and not the more formal approach of Orczy. So does the way in which Mom relates each crime to something homey in her experience, just like Christie's sleuth Miss Marple. Yaffe likes tales of impossible poisonings, such as "Mom Makes a Bet" (1953), "Mom Sings an Aria" (1966), and other works. These recall Christie's interest in the same subject in such works as Sad Cypress, "How Does Your Garden Grow". He uses the same approach as Christie: there is apparently exactly one suspect who could have done the crime, and it seems impossible for anyone else to have committed it. Yaffe's interest in impossible crimes also recalls Chesterton and Carr.
Such Yaffe tales as "Mom Makes a Wish" (1955) and "Mom and the Haunted Mink" (1967) share common formal patterns. In each, we see a series of events that look one way. At the end of the story, Mom reveals that the events can be given a completely different interpretation. This approach is guaranteed to warm the heart of any true mystery fan; Yaffe pursues it with considerable ingenuity. One can see such stories as far back as the American Renaissance: for example Herman Melville's great "Benito Cereno" (1855). It became a systematic technique in the hands of Fergus Hume, and then in writers Hume influenced, such as Baroness Orczy. It was employed regularly by Chesterton: see, for example, his "The Vampire of the Village". The Orczy and Chesterton influenced Christie used it repeatedly in her work as well.
Kelland's tale does not actually include any actual elements of mystery. It is not a puzzle plot story, by any means.
"Ramikin Rubies" is loaded with plot threads, including several that are not wrapped up by the story's conclusion. Kelland clearly planned it as the start of a series, and possibly such a series actually exists (I read this tale in an anthology.) The Saturday Evening Post strongly encouraged series stories, just as the pulp magazines did.
One interesting plot angle is that the millionaire has hired a double to stand in for him at boring social events; this anticipates John Dickson Carr's "William Wilson's Racket" (1941), and might have influenced him.
The story concerns a television variety show whose members are menaced by a gang of crooks. The young director of the show serves as an amateur detective, with the show's comedienne serving as his detective partner and love interest. Kelland does a very good job with his description of early live television. There is a tone of wholesome gentility to the proceedings, a look inside a glamorous profession served up as escapism for middle class readers.
While the story is not a whodunit, it has the feel of a 1940's or 50's mystery story, such as the Lockridges' Mr. and Mrs. North books. There is the initial murder, the hero and the heroine keep turning up new facts, a buried series of past sinister events gradually come to light, and the crooks become more and more threatening. The feel of the book is much closer to a true mystery novel than of what we today think of as a "thriller" or suspense story.
Towards the end of the tale, a non-stereotyped black character turns up among the good guys, a welcome surprise.
In the early 1920's the Post was already publishing Octavus Roy Cohen's stories about private detective Jim Hanvey. Hanvey, who was described as the "terror of crooks from coast to coast", dealt with a variety of swindlers, thieves and other crooks, not quite as grim as the characters encountered by the Continental Op and other Black Mask detectives, but still definitely not murder in an upper class drawing room. His first collection, Jim Hanvey, Detective (1923), appeared in book form in the same year that Carroll John Daly's Terry Mack and Race Williams, and Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op debuted in Black Mask. Private detectives such as Nick Carter, had been big in dime novels and adventure magazines since before the turn of the century. Still, their appearance in the Post was something special, at least in terms of sociological acceptance of crime fiction. The Post was aimed squarely at America's middle class. During this era, one out of every ten Americans read the Saturday Evening Post. The Post was also publishing Secret Service tales by Melville Davisson Post by 1919.
This is in contrast to Black Mask, a pulp magazine whose circulation peaked in 1930 at 103, 000, and which was often significantly less (often around 60, 000). Admittedly, Black Mask authors such as Dashiell Hammett, Raoul Whitfield, and Carroll John Daly saw their Mask work reprinted in hard covers, where it acquired a whole new influence. Even so, it is clear that accounts of detective history that concentrate on only one magazine are lop sided and distorted.
In 1931, editor Carolyn Wells put out Best American Mystery Stories, the first of an annual anthology series (it only lasted one more year, unfortunately). This anthology shows the deep interest American magazines, and their numerous readers, had in tales of gangsters. From the Saturday Evening Post, she reprinted such stories (all from 1930 or 1929) as Ben Ames Williams "Man Afraid", which deals a drug store clerk who is kidnapped by bank robbers; Clarence Budington Kelland's "Ramikin Rubies", in which an amateur detective deals with professional gunmen; James Warner Bellah's "Mr. Picarelli Takes a Bath", a murder mystery dealing with Mafia dons, and solved by an English ship's steward; and Frederick Irving Anderson's "Madame the Cat", in which police detectives lay a trap for a big time bootlegger. These stories all form a pattern. A respectable, wholesome, normal person must fight the denizens of the underworld. The normal person is described almost sentimentally, and is the sort of person the average reader of the magazine could identify with. By contrast, the criminals step right out of gangdom, and are full representatives of mob violence and lawlessness at its worst. There is a "worlds - in -collision" effect in these tales, as the wholesome world of the heroes' comes up against the sinister underworld of the bad guys. The Post's rival Collier's was pushing a similar pattern. In Hugh MacNair Kahler's "Fair and Stormy", an honest country prosecutor must outwit a bank robber from the big city, and his slick big city defense attorney. Howard McLellan's "The Moll-Trap" shows a young policeman (whose wife is expecting their first child) who must take on some hired killers.
All of the heroes of these tales show great gumption and courage. But none of them are as ostentatiously "tough" and hard-boiled as the typical Black Mask hero. Instead, they are the sort of wholesome, clean cut people, who appealed to the middle class readers of the day. They do represent all sociological ranks of society, from the handsome young millionaire amateur detective of Kelland's "Ramikin Rubies", who seems to have stepped out of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's romances, which were also appearing in the Post during that era, to the poverty stricken young drug store clerk and steward.
Most of these tales are not mystery stories, strictly speaking. There are no mysterious events that have to be explained, no puzzle to be solved. The exceptions are what is certainly the best of the tales, Anderson's "Madame the Cat", which does contain some puzzle elements, worked into a thriller background, and the worst of the tales, Bellah's, which comes complete with lead paced storytelling and stereotyped Italian mobsters, although it has a fairly ingenious puzzle. However, many of the tales are highly plotted, and show some ingenuity in construction, so they should appeal to fans of the classic mystery tale. I enjoyed most of these works, in ways I did not at all anticipate.
The plot situations of these works seem remarkably similar to those of many later movies and novels. Who hasn't seen tales about a stakeout, ("The Moll-Trap") or a courtroom drama ("Fair and Stormy")? Here are many conventions of the crime thriller, all at a fairly early date.
One can see differences in tone between Collier's and the Post. Collier's also published several stories included in this collection (not mentioned here) whose protagonists were thieves. It also got "down and dirty" in its underworld portrait in "The Moll-Trap" in a way that the Saturday Evening Post never did. By contrast, the Post emphasized "class". There is an attempt at elegance in the Post writers' storytelling, and a concern that its authors show as much sophistication as possible.
The detective Matthew Kelton is a genius intellectual who works with the police as an amateur detective and consultant, in the Philo Vance tradition. In 1928 Vance was at the height of his fame. Kelton has a few mild eccentricities in the Vance tradition, and has intellectual hobbies: he likes to solve word puzzles, and he raises bees.
"The Sting of the Wasp" is a pleasant enough tale, with enough novel features to offer some interest, whose sound craftsmanship shows again that real detective stories are fun to read.
His novel The Fire Flingers was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1918. It appeared in book form a year later. It was filmed by actor-director Rubert Julian in 1919. It mixes romance and mainstream fiction, with elements of crime and suspense.
Neidig's college short story "The Snob" (1918) was filmed by director Sam Wood in 1921. A 1919 article in Stanford University's newspaper The Stanford Daily claims it is based on a true story.
"Alibi" shows good storytelling - and thus is fun to read.
"Alibi" is mainly a thriller or adventure tale, rather than a "mystery solved by a detective". But the tale does include one good mystery subplot, with a solution that surprised me. SPOILERS. This mystery is "Where are the jewels?" The investigator cleverly figures this out.
"Alibi" is reprinted in Carolyn Wells' Best American Mystery Stories (1931),
"Halloween Assassin" includes the Golden Age interest in architecture. Skerry was a Boston born architect who lost his business during the Depression, and turned to writing instead.