T. S. Stribling | Samuel Spewack | Percival Wilde | Patrick Quentin / Q. Patrick | Dorothy Bennett | Fred C. Levon | James Yaffe | Clarence Budington Kelland | Ben Ames Williams | Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post | Richard Connell | William J. Neidig | Frederick Skerry
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
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 (There are apparently several unpublished mainstream novels dating from this period.)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.
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:
Doctors Get Involved with Mystery. In a number of R. Austin Freeman tales, doctors get innocently involved in mysteries, through visiting their patients. So does Dr. Hugh Westlake in books like Murder or Mercy?. Another possible predecessor: veterinarian Dr. Michael Lawless visits several patients who will soon be engulfed in mystery at the start of The Link (1930) by Philip MacDonald.
Show Biz. The followers of S.S. Van Dine often employed Backgrounds in show business. So did Quentin:
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.
Other Gay References. The female medical student Gail Fiske in Murder or Mercy? is described as "boyish" (Chapter 8), having "cropped hair" and no make-up (Chapter 3) and is fierce in attitude. However, she is married to a man, and gives every sign of being heterosexual.
Gertrude Stein is mentioned in Murder or Mercy? (first part of Chapter 6). Stein's memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) had recently made her famous. The comments in Murder or Mercy? are satirical about Stein's convoluted literary style.
"Another Man's Poison" recalls the earlier A Puzzle for Fools. Both:
The Eberhart Tradition. "Another Man's Poison" recalls an earlier hospital mystery From This Dark Stairway (1931) by Mignon G. Eberhart. Both have:
Character Bill Strong is among the most interesting. He is on-stage only briefly (Chapter 6). The desperate poverty in which he lives shows the awful conditions in which the elderly struggled before Social Security and government safety nets.
Anti-Modern Art. One of the suspects is an interior designer, who specializes in "modern" design. Murder or Mercy? expresses the disgust with modernism sometimes found in British mysteries of the era (first part of Chapter 2). The narrator seems especially offended that the design is applied to an old mansion - which presumably represents Tradition. See the condemnation of modern art in The Jacob Street Mystery (1942) and The Stoneware Monkey (1938) by R. Austin Freeman.
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 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.
Some of the better films based on Williams: Across to Singapore (William Nigh, 1928), Man to Man (Allan Dwan, 1930), Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945), The Strange Woman (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946).
Reconstructing the Crime. We briefly learn about the architecture of the crime scene building (start of Chapter 3) and its back yard (fairly near the end of Chapter 4). SPOILERS. At the book's end Inspector Tope reconstructs the crime, using this information (Chapter 19). The reconstruction is a decent piece of detective work. It would have made part of a solid mystery short story.
Reconstructing crimes is part of the Anna Katherine Green tradition. So is the way the crime takes place at night. Green also used professional police detectives in many of her books.
Heroes. The murder in Death on Scurvy Street is solved by 60-ish policeman Inspector Tope, head of the Homicide Bureau. He is accompanied on the case by young crime reporter Charlie Harquail. Harquail occasionally does some routine investigation. But mainly he serves as a Watson to Tope. Harquail also seems naive and gullible, for a big city crime reporter.
The pair, an older man detective and a young non-detective hero who serves as the book's romantic leading man, anticipate the duos found in numerous John Dickson Carr books to come. However, Carr's young heroes have both more talent and more personality than Harquail, who is likable but who is mainly a generic crime reporter without much individuality.
Drug Store. A drug store clerk is a witness (Chapters 2, 5). He is one of the more likable characters in the book. Drug stores were an essential part of life in that era: they were working people's main source of medicine, and had phone booths where ordinary people without home phones could make calls. Another drug store clerk will encounter gangsters in Williams' short story "Man Afraid" (1930).
Mystery Traditions. Death on Scurvy Street does not fit easily into mystery schools of its era.
Death on Scurvy Street has little in common with the Van Dine School that was so popular at the time. Policeman Tope and crime reporter Harquail are both professionals, and there are no Van Dine-ish amateur detectives in sight. No one is conspicuously intellectual.
There are both gangster and well-to-do upper crust characters in Death on Scurvy Street. The gangsters are bootleggers who are quite willing to murder each other. But the book's quiet tone is far removed from the hard-boiled approach of Black Mask. Gangland violence is talked about, but rarely shown directly "on-screen". A gangster is depicted in low-key terms, as a quiet man who answers police questions (last part of Chapter 7). He is composed and self-possessed. The gangster might be tough - but there is little tough atmosphere in Death on Scurvy Street, aside from an opening near the docks.
The last third of Death on Scurvy Street is a courtroom drama, with one of the suspects on trial for murder.
The City. Death on Scurvy Street is set in an unnamed city that strongly resembles Boston. Like Boston, it has a subway and elevated train, docks, old buildings that date back to Colonial times, a proximity to Montreal and Quebec, and a train that leads directly to Portland, Maine. However, unlike many Boston novels, we do not meet "stuffy Bostonian" elites whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower.
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.
Aside from this piece, William J. Neidig seems largely forgotten. And no, this is not the mis-use of the term "forgotten" to refer to any author not currently on the best-seller list. Neidig seems genuinely forgotten, in that hardly anyone alive today has heard of him or read any of his works; almost nothing is written about him; and he is in few reference works on mystery fiction.
"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).
SPOILERS. The location of the jewels in "Beating the Lights" is fairly clued, a positive feature. But the solution was anticipated by Agatha Christie in "The Affair of The Pink Pearl" (1924).
SPOILERS. The emphasis on color blindness, and clues about left-handedness, anticipate subjects later used by Ellery Queen. Queen's specific plot ideas are different from Neidig's though.
"Front Does It!" has aspects of the inverted crime story, in that we see the villain commit the crime, then the policeman track him down. Unusually for an inverted tale, the story alternates in point of view, between the crook and the detective.
The policeman uses some fairly good detectival reasoning the identify the culprit.
The highly visible trail the crook leaves behind recalls "The Blue Cross" (1910) by G.K. Chesterton. However this trail is more of an accident in "Front Does It!" than in Chesterton.
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. According to FictionMags's web site, early in his career Neidig "taught English at Stanford and U. of Wisconsin".
"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.