Philip Wylie | The Trigger
Willis Perkins short stories: In a Hole
Mystery Novellas: Death Flies East | Murder at Galleon Key
| The Trial of Mark Adams | The Paradise Canyon Mystery
| Murderers Welcome | Puzzle in Snow
| It Couldn't Be Murder | Rx: Death
| Stab in the Back | Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments
| Death Whispers | Experiment in Crime
Novels; Corpses at Indian Stones
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments (available from its publisher
Crippen & Landru)
- Murder at Galleon Key (1935)
- In a Hole (1931)
- It Couldn't Be Murder (1939)
- The Paradise Canyon Mystery (1936)
- Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments (1944)
American Magazine novellas, uncollected
- The Trial of Mark Adams (1935)
- Rx: Death (1941)
- Stab in the Back (1943)
Three To Be Read
- Experiment in Crime (1949) (Chapters 1 - 8, 17) (also available as a separate book)
Philip Wylie's mystery novellas are collected in
Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments, available from its publisher
Crippen & Landru.
The collection is edited by Bill Pronzini.
The individual tales are discussed below. I liked five of the six longish tales included in
Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments, and recommend it as the best introduction to Wylie's mystery work.
Wylie's work has links to the Scientific School of mystery fiction:
Wylie's best tales have a poetic quality. There is a stream of inventiveness,
in which plot events, characters and background are full of colorful detail.
- Scientist, engineer or explorer heroes who serve as detectives.
- Backgrounds in locations full of scientific or technological interest.
- Much about plants and botany.
Commentary on Philip Wylie:
Some Wylie mysteries have a trigger: an event that sets off the crime, and starts the villain on his path.
This trigger is revealed at the end of the story. It is always some event that the reader has fully seen
early in the tale - but didn't realize that the event was causing the villain to start his crime spree.
The triggers play a number of roles in the tale's plot structure, all quite pleasant:
Some examples. SPOILERS:
- Such triggers add to the story telling: they add an incident to the plot.
- They make the story more logical, producing a sound logical reason why the crimes started.
- They form a solution to a sort of mystery puzzle: What did set the killer off?
- In "Death Flies East", it is the professional detective joining the plane flight, at the tale's start.
- In "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" it is the hero retrieving his can of African rocks from his sister's home.
- In "Rx: Death" it is the arrival of the doctor in Key West that gives the villain the idea to commit the
crimes using medical ideas. This is a less pure example of a trigger, in that the villain had long planned such crimes.
The doctor hero's arrival simply triggers the medical approach to the crimes.
- In Corpses at Indian Stones, the start of a new "season" at the summer resort serves as a psychological trigger.
And although the solution does not highlight it, implicitly it is the return of Hank Bogarty to the community after many years,
that sets the criminal events in motion.
In a Hole: a Willis Perkins short story
Wylie's "In a Hole" (1931) is a charming humorous short story about amateur detective Willis Perkins
and his attempt to solve a bank robbery. It originally appeared in the
July 11, 1931 Colliers magazine, and was reprinted in the anthology
Ellery Queen's Mystery Jackpot (1970) as "Perkins Finds $3,400,000".
It is now available in the collection Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments.
It is similar to a good deal of other
mystery fiction in slick magazines of its era: it features an
ordinary middle class guy who gets involved with crimefighting;
and it has a playful sense of genre bending, the sense that a
mainstream storyteller is exploring the detective story form to
see what sort of storytelling opportunities it contains.
Wylie's comic, upbeat portrait of an intellectual, middle class amateur sleuth making good,
will return with the young men of his novellas.
The construction site setting recalls the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscape.
The setting uses height and depth, like a number of detective tales of the era.
The puzzle plot has a solution, that bears some formal similarity to the howdunit
mystery in "Murder at Galleon Key". SPOILER: Both involve linking an object to a powerful force,
that moves it from one point to another. There is also a means of transportation in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments",
that takes the corpse from where it was killed to where it is found.
Novellas: many from The American Magazine
Death Flies East
"Death Flies East" (1934) is Wylie's first mystery novella
for The American Magazine, a popular "slick" magazine of its era.
"Death Flies East" is reprinted, in the anthology
American Murders (1986) edited by Jon L. Breen and Rita A. Breen,
a collection of mystery novellas from The American Magazine.
American Murders contains a detailed bibliography of Wylie's work for the magazine.
American Murders reprints the story's illustration from its original magazine appearance.
It shows the ultra-glamorous pilot, aboard the airplane that is the tale's setting.
"Death Flies East" is full of coincidences and is labored in its plotting.
It lacks the inventiveness and storytelling charm of Wylie's later novellas.
It has an appealing heroine and hero, however, and a good romance between them.
The flying aspects are also decently done, including the scenery seen from the plane.
Also pleasant: the choice of the character who eventually serves as detective.
This only gradually emerges during the course of the story.
A later mystery with a slowly emerging detective:
An English Murder (1951) by Cyril Hare.
Links to The Murderer Invisible
The opening of "Death Flies East" has structural resemblances to the start of The Murderer Invisible:
- Both have gloomy weather, that matches characters' ominous moods:
fog in "Death Flies East", a frozen winter night in The Murderer Invisible.
- Both have heroines who have fled a past life, which we learn about as she reminisces.
She has fled under difficult circumstances.
- The heroine's new environment, where she has just arrived, is a technological marvel:
the airplane in "Death Flies East", the lab in The Murderer Invisible.
An airplane-set mystery previously opened Stuart Palmer's
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933).
"Death Flies East" echoes subject matter from Lebbeus Mitchell's mystery novel
The Parachute Murder (1933). Both:
Wylie is a much better storyteller than Mitchell in the deadly dull The Parachute Murder.
The details of the mystery plot are different in the two works.
- Have a murder take place on one of the small commercial passenger airplanes of the day,
with the passengers serving as suspects.
- Have a man leave the plane in mid-air, possibly with a parachute.
There is speculation that the passenger brought the parachute aboard hidden in a suitcase.
- Have the events take place at night.
- Have the airplane washroom as a sinister setting.
- Have a Japanese character. Wylie's treatment of the Japanese is far more respectful
and non-stereotyped than Mitchell's.
Murder at Galleon Key
"Murder at Galleon Key" (1935) is Wylie's second
American Magazine novella. It was reprinted in the anthology
Murder in Miami, edited by Brett Halliday.
It is now available in the collection Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments.
It was the first Wylie mystery novella set in South Florida, this time at a fishing camp in the Florida keys.
The setting is described in vivid detail, and is entertaining.
However, the choice of the murderer is arbitrary and not clued, making the whodunit aspect uncreative.
The same limitation afflicted "Death Flies East".
Its best mystery plot feature is a look at ocean currents, and how they affected
the transport of a body. This aspect is deeply puzzling at first, and forms a "howdunit":
it seems difficult to figure out how it could have happened. Like many howdunits,
it approaches the impossible crime, since it looks impossible for the situation
to have taken place. Wylie uses the word "impossible" in the story.
Wylie will look at ocean currents in
greater depth in the later "Stab in the Back" (1943).
That later story includes a whole ocean seascape, precisely defined,
in the Golden Age tradition of creative use of landscape.
A second puzzle in "Murder at Galleon Key" centers on a person's disappearance.
This has a fairly ingenious solution. This subplot recalls a bit
the disappearance in Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle
of the Pepper Tree (1933), although the solution is somewhat different, as well.
The Trial of Mark Adams
"The Trial of Mark Adams" (1935) is
Wylie's third American Magazine novella.
It was reprinted in the October 1965 EQMM as "Not Easy To Kill",
and under that title in the anthology Ellery Queen's Cops and Capers (1977).
The tale is a combined thriller with mild whodunit features.
It is exceptionally readable, with many absorbing events.
Both the shipboard setting and first method of murder in this
tale recall Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle
of the Silver Persian (1934) of the previous year.
Many familiar Wylie character types appear in this tale:
- This story contains another young scientist hero, this time a
doctor who wants to do research.
- To earn money, he works as a cruise ship doctor among a group of rich people.
Wylie often features a middle class young man, who works among the wealthy.
- Another important character is a business tycoon,
a dynamic man essential to America's prosperity. As in the later
"Murderers Welcome" (1936), someone is trying to kill him.
The Paradise Canyon Mystery
"The Paradise Canyon Mystery" (1936)
was reprinted in the August 1966 EQMM.
It is now available in the collection Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments.
"The Paradise Canyon Mystery" is a good piece of storytelling.
While it does not have a solution of Agatha Christie
level brilliance, the way the characters dance in and out of the
Golden Age style whodunit plot is most satisfying. The story has
a musical quality, with each event unfolding at precisely the
right moment in the tale.
Both "Death Flies East" and "The Paradise Canyon Mystery"
have heroes involved in science and engineering.
They show a 1930's faith that dynamic young men will make discoveries
in science and get the country moving again, despite the Depression.
Wylie also wrote a great deal of science fiction, much of it with
Edwin Balmer, and his mystery work shows some continuity with
the tradition of American Scientific Detection that Balmer helped
to found. Wylie's "In a Hole" also has a construction site location
that reflects an interest in engineering.
Wylie's content bears a resemblance to that of Earl Derr Biggers,
a mystery writer who was a frequent contributor to The Saturday
Evening Post. One might compare "The Paradise Canyon Mystery"
to Biggers' Post novella "The Dollar Chasers" (1924).
Both deal with a likable young middle class working man of modest means
who spends time with a bunch of rich people at an upper class retreat -
a yachting party in Biggers, a desert resort hotel in Wylie. In both the young man solves a
light hearted mystery, while romancing a young woman, and having
some pleasant adventures.
In addition to the hero, who is both an athlete and an engineer,
there is a second young male character, Herb Willet. also a recurring Wylie character type:
a man who engages in scientific exploration in remote areas. Like the
explorer protagonist of Corpses at Indian Stones, Willet is socially an unappealing nerd,
not conventionally attractive. Yet he is someone we are encouraged to admire anyway,
due to his daring as an explorer, and contribution to human knowledge.
Both men are also rich, with ties to upper crust Society.
"Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" also has an explorer character - but he is more conventionally attractive socially,
and also from a modest middle class background. Despite these differences,
the hero of "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" seems linked to the earlier explorer characters.
SPOILERS: Both "The Paradise Canyon Mystery" and "Murder at Galleon Key"
open with similar mysteries: the murder of one character,
followed by the disappearance of another.
"Death Flies East" also has both a murder and a disappearance.
A disappearance is key in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments".
More importantly, the mystery plot of "The Paradise Canyon Mystery"
shares approaches with "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments". Both have subplots,
distinct from the murders and disappearances, that involve the landscapes of the stories:
the US desert in "The Paradise Canyon Mystery", Africa in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments".
Both subplots are colorful and detailed.
Ellery Queen also reprinted others of
Wylie's novellas. "Murderers Welcome" (1936) originally appeared in Liberty,
another slick magazine of the era. It was reprinted in the November 1968 EQMM as
"Invitation to Murder". It is an uninspired novella about a 1930's millionaire
trying to smoke out his attempted killer. Suspense is emphasized over mystery, in
one of Wylie's least creative tales.
Comments on how women must have invented hunting, and depictions of women hunters
skilled with guns, anticipate "It Couldn't Be Murder".
In many ways "Murderers Welcome" is just that staple of mystery fiction,
a country house with a house party of upper class murder suspects.
Only instead of a country house, "Murderers Welcome" is set at a remote lodge
in the North woods. However, the lodge is as luxurious as the typical country house of fiction.
The North woods setting in Canada
recalls the vacation locales in other Wylie - but it is badly underdeveloped, and
plays much less of a role in the plot than the landscapes in Wylie's better tales.
The businessman hero planning to donate his businesses to his employees is an unusual economic touch.
Please see my list of Cooperatives and Worker-owned Businesses
in mystery fiction.
The brief mention of the hero's building a dam recalls the engineer heroes of other Wylie.
Black Hair and Black Eyes
The hero's black hair and black eyes recall:
- The superman hero of Gladiator.
- The romantic-lover scientist Bromwell Baxter has dark eyes and curly black hair
in The Murderer Invisible (start of Chapter 2).
- The scientist hero of "Death Flies East" also has black eyes, his most conspicuous feature.
- The professor hero of "Experiment in Crime" has dark hair.
There is a whodunit, but the single clue to the killer's identity is routine.
A subplot about an external group of hunters stalking the protagonists has some modest merit.
The last two pages have an unusual alibi subplot that depends on nature.
This weird subplot is not especially good - but it is different.
Puzzle in Snow
"Puzzle in Snow" (1937), another American Magazine
novella, was reprinted in the February 1964 EQMM as "The Blizzard Murder Case".
Like "Murderers Welcome", it too has a sympathetic businessman hero, and both stories
depict businessmen as the wellsprings of American prosperity.
The first third of "Puzzle in Snow",
setting up the mystery plot, is pretty good, but then the story
drags. The puzzle plot shows some mild technical merits, but the story
is nowhere as much fun to read as "The Paradise Canyon Mystery".
The solution seems influenced by R. Austin Freeman's
A Silent Witness (1914), and shows Wylie's interest in
the scientific detective story. Although Wylie shows
interest in science in his tales, his work has otherwise little
in common with the realist school of Freeman and Crofts; instead
his American Magazine novellas are classical detective
stories in the intuitionist, Golden Age tradition.
It Couldn't Be Murder
"It Couldn't Be Murder" (1939) is a novella
reprinted in the collection Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments.
It has a pleasant howdunit puzzle that verges, like many howdunits,
on the border of the impossible crime.
"It Couldn't Be Murder" anticipates Wylie's "Death Whispers" (1944) in its subject matter,
although not in its howdunit puzzle. Both deal with an intelligent young man who gets
tangentially involved as an outsider/witness/sleuth with a murder in a well-to-do family.
Both have an urban background, at or near New York City. The characters in neither tales
are scientists, unlike so much of Wylie's fiction. Instead, both heroes are in the "commercial arts":
a magazine illustrator in "It Couldn't Be Murder", a newspaper editorial writer in "Death Whispers".
Both stories have a likable young woman artist.
Both mysteries are medical: probably poisonings, the characters guess early on.
However, "It Couldn't Be Murder" is much more enjoyable than "Death Whispers".
"It Couldn't Be Murder" is much more cheerful in tone than "Death Whispers",
with its hero only occasionally in the sort of jeopardy that faces the characters
in the grim, suspense oriented "Death Whispers". The story's characters are also
more interesting, and more unusual as human beings. "It Couldn't Be Murder" also benefits
from one of the best developed romance subplots in Wylie's novellas.
The relationship between the hero and the New York homicide detective Riley, is another
of Wylie's friendly amateur sleuth / professional policeman pairs, as in
"In a Hole" and "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments". Both the amateur hero and Riley
bring insight into the crimes.
The garden shows Wylie's ongoing interest in plants and botany.
The commercial artist hero is an illustrator for slick magazines. The slicks were noted for
their lavish illustrations, both of stories and in ads. In fact, the main point of the
slick paper on which they were printed was to allow such illustrations. There is something
reflexive about having an artist for the slicks be the central character for a Wylie mystery -
whose main market was the slick magazines.
We learn much more about the artist and his studio, and the garden run by the chef, than we do
about any of the upscale homes and lifestyles of the rich suspects.
The story finds interest in men who work in creative crafts, like the artist and the chef.
The tale is not principally about the rich.
There is some intriguing political satire early in the tale, dealing with how the rich treat
other classes. The Greenwich Village artist hero turns out to have voted for Republican
Alf Landon in 1936: something possible in real life, but atypical. Despite this apparent concession
to the political conservatism of many slick readers - the slicks were expensive, and read by affluent
middle classes rather than the poor - "It Couldn't Be Murder" is definitely anti-rich,
pro-middle class. By 1939 and a decade of Depression, much of the American public hated the rich.
The hero's concern about what the press prints about him, recalls the heroine's concern
over her press coverage in "Death Flies East". The low quality of the reporting
in "It Couldn't Be Murder" seems like a negative comment on the Press.
On the other hand, while the heroine of "Death Flies East" worries about what the Press might say,
the published articles wind up treating her well.
"Rx: Death" (1941) is a medical mystery novella,
reprinted in The Third Mystery Book (1941), an anthology of long tales.
While the solution to the mystery shows little ingenuity, once again
Wylie's complex storytelling makes interesting reading.
"Rx: Death" shows Wylie's ties to the Scientific School.
Medicine is heavily employed in the crimes, but plays little role in the detection.
The medical mysteries that open the tale, are almost
immediately solved by the doctor. He doesn't know who did these crimes - but he knows
all the details about how they were committed medically.
Problems make "Rx: Death" less creative than those Wylie tales fully developed as mysteries:
- The solution of the whodunit mystery is arbitrary. There are no clues to the killer's identity:
that is, the tale lacks "fair play".
- A subplot about one of Wylie's "disappearing objects" (the ampoules)
is simple and skeletal. We learn at the end, that the killer did the strange things with the ampoules
just to confuse people. There is no logical explanation in terms of a sound reason for these actions.
Consequently, while the subplot of the ampoules makes good story telling and is fun to read,
it is not well-crafted a "mystery puzzle with a logical solution".
"Rx: Death" shows the surrealism that is so widespread and so pleasant in American mystery fiction.
SPOILERS. The second killing surrealistically echoes the first. This is a stratagem popular
with Ellery Queen and Craig Rice.
The way the ampoules and other evidence keep turning up, is both darkly funny and surreal.
A killing late in the story, is linked to architecture and technology in the victim's house.
This is quite interesting. The house's architecture is also linked to technical issues in the Key West landscape.
Characters: Wylie Traditions
The young doctor hero once again finds himself dealing with a lot of rich suspects,
in a vacation area, this time Key West. However, the tone is much
more somber than Wylie's other "vacation" novellas. Unlike Wylie's
1930's tales, Key West is depicted in a darkly atmospheric way.
"Rx: Death" resembles "It Couldn't Be Murder" and "Death Whispers",
in pitting a young man amateur detective against murders in a well-to-do family.
In all of these tales, it is pretty obvious from the start that the killer is either a family member,
a servant or a close family associate,
and that the events and motives for the crime are restricted to the family circle.
The young man hero, an outsider to the family, gets romantically involved with a young woman
in the family.
"Rx: Death" also recalls "It Couldn't Be Murder" in having:
- Sympathetic working women in intellectual, skilled professions.
- Friendly, folksy "man of the people" cops, contrasting with the rich haughty suspects.
- A scene where the hero takes his clothes off: to paint ("It Couldn't Be Murder"), to swim ("Rx: Death").
The hero of Corpses at Indian Stones wears a swimsuit too, in a key scene (end of Chapter 5).
- A series of crimes.
- SPOILERS. Poisons being the true causes of the mysterious deaths.
- Doctors struggling to save a poisoned victim's life.
Names: Links to The Murderer Invisible
Rich victim Burgess Cutter has one of those odd but high-toned WASP names sometimes created by Wylie,
like dashing wealthy scientist Bromwell Baxter in The Murderer Invisible.
Dr. Treaddle's name echoes housekeeper Mrs. Treadle in The Murderer Invisible.
Both are low-brow locals in small towns.
Stab in the Back
"Stab in the Back" (1943) returns to Florida, this time
a suburban housing area on a man-made island off Miami. It shows
the Golden Age fascination with architecture. This time we see
a whole island, together with its homes and the surrounding sea
area. Wylie even roots the story in the construction of the island
years ago, with the developer being a character. The first two
thirds of this tale is delightful, with a vivid description of
a mystery based in and closely linked to the architecture of the
island. The last sections of the story are not as good, with a
completely arbitrary, un-clued choice of murderer. Still, most
lovers of Golden Age mystery fiction will enjoy this piece, especially
those who like Golden Age buildings and landscapes. The precise technical
treatment of the building construction and ocean aspects give
the tale something of the flavor of a science based detective
"Stab in the Back" was reprinted in The Fifth Mystery Book
(1944), an anthology of long tales. It originally appeared in the
October 1943 American Magazine.
The story has links with other Wylie works. While the island is not a vacation area, it is a
retirement community for the well to do, and it has much the same
feel as the resort in "The Paradise Canyon Mystery".
The South Florida setting is a favorite with Wylie. And there
is another of Wylie's young inventors. Like most of Wylie's sleuths,
the hero is an amateur detective.
Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments
"Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" (1944)
is a novella reprinted in the collection Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments.
It originally appeared in the February 1944 American Magazine.
It continues Wylie's interest in Scientific Detection: it takes place in New York's
famous Museum of Natural History, and most of the characters are
scientists and technicians working there. Most of the mystery plot
elements also reflect this scientific locale.
"Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" has detection performed by a couple.
Both help solve the case, although the woman makes a bigger contribution. This is non-sexist.
See also the woman amateur detective who solves the crime in "Death Flies East".
Like "In a Hole", "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" contrasts these intelligent amateur sleuths with
sympathetic, tough policemen. This pattern of relationships and contrasts among the detectives helps
give structure to the story.
Some aspects of the setting recall Stuart Palmer's
Murder on the Blackboard (1932). Both take place at large, deserted, spooky New York City
institutional buildings: a school in Murder on the Blackboard,
the museum in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments". Both buildings are multi-story.
Both are full of educational objects and paraphernalia. Both tales also have subplots
about the remains of objects burned in furnaces, although the details differ in the stories.
Cans Placed on Desks
A key piece of imagery in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" is the coffee can filled with
African rocks. Dr. Weber places the can on the hero's desk.
SPOILERS. In "Rx: Death" a can of chloroform is mysteriously placed on the hero's desk.
It is perhaps the most striking, dramatic and surreal image in the story.
The role of the cans and desks are different in the plots of the two tales.
But viewed purely as imagery, the events show similarity.
Both objects are described with bright color, further heightening the imagery.
"Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" is a whodunit murder mystery. But it lacks fair play:
there is no way for the reader to figure out the killer, or identify the murder weapon,
or solve the other aspects of the mystery. Despite this limitation,
the tale's good storytelling, inventive subplots and well used scientific background
make this enjoyable reading.
There is a clue of sorts to the murder weapon: it is the only possible-weapon that is
highlighted early in the story. This is not a rigorous clue: there are lots of
other possible weapons in the museum. Still, it is a clue.
It is woven into a storyline that is interesting and detailed.
The mystery events begin with the disappearance of a character, a story line
that recalls the disappearance in "Murder at Galleon Key". SPOILER: Both come to an ingenious
resolution, with an unusual hiding place for the corpse. Several other mystery aspects
in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments" also involve clever hiding places for objects.
Mystery Plot: Nested Subplots
SPOILERS. The mystery subplots are "nested". That is, the early parts of the story
discuss three subjects, the African travels of the hero, the hiding place of the body,
and the contents of Martha's office.
Each subject turns out to be the core of a different mystery subplot.
Then the solution towards the end draws on these three subjects in reverse order:
The office, the hiding of the body, and crimes linked to the hero's travels in Africa.
This makes it seem as if the three subplots are nested within one another:
Martha's office is "within" the hiding of the body, which in turn is "within" the African travels subplot.
This is an elegant, appealing architecture for the story.
It has a striking, dramatic quality.
One can also compare the three subjects to what computer scientists call a "Stack".
A stack is a pile of data, in which the last object to be added, in this case Martha's office,
is the first object to be removed. And in which the first object to be added (African travels)
is the last object to be removed.
"Death Whispers" (1944) is a novella reprinted in the collection Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments.
As Bill Pronzini points out in his introduction, its premise recalls
"Rear Window" (1942) by Cornell Woolrich.
The hero, temporarily blind after an operation, recalls the blind sleuths
pioneered earlier by the Scientific School, such as Clinton H. Stagg's
detective Thornley Colton.
Unlike much of Wylie's mystery fiction, "Death Whispers" takes place in
"ordinary" settings (an apartment house in a mid-size US city) and among
ordinary people. There is little about science or technology. All of this makes
"Death Whispers" blander and less colorful than Wylie's best work.
"Death Whispers" also suffers from the way mystery elements are downgraded in favor
of suspense. "Death Whispers" is a whodunit, but there is only one simple
and inconclusive clue pointing to the killer. Subplots are skeletal compared to
Wylie's better tales. "Death Whispers" is readable, and benefits from
Wylie's skill at constructing the story around the blinded man's other senses, such as hearing and smell.
But overall it seems like a lesser Wylie tale.
Experiment in Crime
"Experiment in Crime" (1949) is a long post-war novella.
It has been reprinted as both a small book, and as part of the larger Wylie
collection Three To Be Read. It originally appeared as a serial in
The Saturday Evening Post in 1949.
It is a pure thriller, and has no mystery or puzzle plot elements
per se. It is set in a more underworld milieu than Wylie's American
Magazine novellas, with both gangsters and crime rings. This
is in accord with the more hard-boiled world that was fashionable
in crime fiction after World War II.
"Experiment in Crime" falls naturally in two sections:
Plot elements of "The Trial of Mark Adams" recur with variations in
the opening section of "Experiment in Crime". The young professor
recalls the scientist heroes of Wylie's 30's fiction. The professor's
adventures among gangsters in the opening recall the adventures
of young men among the rich in Wylie's earlier fiction - the two
kinds of plot are formally nearly identical. In fact, these gangsters
are rich, and seem quite similar in personality to Wylie's
earlier millionaires. As in "The Trial of Mark Adams", the young
hero discovers a whole new personality for himself, and a new
role in life.
- Chapters 1 - 8 form a light hearted, delightful tongue
in cheek narrative of how a young professor became involved with
- The rest of the book narrates a more serious adventure of the professor.
It is pleasant enough, but not as good as the opening chapters.
Some clues in the story come from botany; in fact, Wylie picks up strongly
on the plant life of South Florida throughout the tale. There
is also the ingenious mangrove disguise in Chapter 11.
Wylie likes to set his work on high tech transportation systems.
The hydroplane in "Experiment in Crime" recalls the airplane in "Death Flies East",
the ocean liner in "The Trial of Mark Adams", as well as the many modest little
boats and diving equipment in "Stab in the Back". There
is also a vacation or travel feel to Wylie's work. In addition
to all these means of transportation, we have the desert resort
locale of "The Paradise Canyon Mystery". "Experiment in Crime" takes
place during the Christmas holidays,
and many of its settings are the night clubs and casinos of a tourist's Miami.
"Experiment in Crime" is filled with local color. Many of the scenes are very
visual, and one suspects that Wylie hoped it would be made into
a movie. Its light hearted tone would have been out of synch with
1940's film noir, when it was written. But it would fit in very
well with today's comedy cop shows, location filming, and color
cinematography. Adrian Pasdar would make an ideal hero for the
story as the professor.
Corpses at Indian Stones
Influence of Mary Roberts Rinehart
Corpses at Indian Stones (1943) takes Wylie into
Mary Roberts Rinehart territory:
- While the young scientist heroes of other Wylie works
tend to be relatively poor outsiders who are working among the
rich, here the archaeologist hero is the nephew of a wealthy society
spinster. Like Rinehart's spinster in The Circular Staircase
(1908), the story opens with closing down her winter home, and
moving into a country house for the summer.
- As in Rinehart's The Wall (1938) and The Yellow Room (1945), the story
takes place at an exclusive summer colony, where all the families
know one another, and where the families have been interacting
for years, having a tangled personal history.
- Like the heroine of Rinehart's The Great Mistake (1940), the aunt has a
secret that she is scared to share with the rest of the world,
either her nephew or the police, and she is caught up with sinister
doings with the other older characters in the story.
- The hero's first name is Agamemnon, but everyone calls him Aggie,
recalling the woman named Aggie in Rinehart's Tish stories.
- As in Rinehart's The Album (1933), the older characters condescend to the
younger, under-35 ones, and do not share information with them.
- And the secret, when it is revealed halfway through the
novel, seems directly related to one in The Album. Wylie's
sociological explanation of that secret in Chapter 9 is actually
pretty detailed and interesting, and helped me understand some
of the social background of The Album, which Rinehart treats
more matter of factly.
Corpses at Indian Stones is not that satisfying a read.
Too much of the book is soap opera, dealing with the lives of
the unappealing characters.
The hero is never especially believable.
Although he is a Great Explorer who has done archaeology all over
the jungles of the world, he is also a mousy, shy man who dresses
like a wimp and has no confidence. We are supposed to welcome
his blossoming out during the story, but with all of his advantages
of wealth and social position, it is hard to identify with him
or care that much about his social problems finding acceptance
with High Society. Admittedly, many people are far better at their
job than in impressing other people at a party, and this book
could be construed to be about them.
Corpses at Indian Stones (end of Chapter 4) contrasts the odd-looking,
socially unpopular hero, with the good-looking, socially popular police captain Wes Wickman.
They recall the main male characters in The Murderer Invisible,
the socially rejected because of his repellent looks William Carpenter,
and the handsome, socially popular Bromwell Baxter.
Wylie really piles on the social rejection in both works,
stressing how painful this is for his protagonists.
Both are simply rejected because of their looks, rather than because they have done anything wrong.
Another similarity: The Murderer Invisible stresses how physically powerful and well-built Carpenter is,
and Corpses at Indian Stones makes this clear too about its hero,
especially in the scene where he wears his swimsuit (end of Chapter 5).
Despite the hero's jealousy of Wickman, Wickman and the other State Troopers are depicted in a mainly positive way.
There was a general trend in crime fiction of this era for highly positive images of State Police.
See my list of State Police works.
Wickman is a phallic name. See Lynn Brock's sleuth
Colonel Wick Gore, who debuted in 1924.
A reflexive passage wittily contrasts Wickman with
the cliche version of a country sheriff (end of Chapter 4). He's completely different.
This recalls "Death Flies East" (early in the story),
where the heroine realizes the detective is exactly like the cliche of detectives in fiction.
Social Class and College
Wylie's novel shows the dark side of the business relationships
he extolled in his 1930's American Magazine novellas. In them,
businessmen were dynamic figures whose enterprise created American
prosperity. Here, they are a bunch of WASP's who have inherited
money, and who will do anything to hang on to it. They get involved
in a bunch of schemes, some legal, some not, some admirable, some
despicable, to try to extend their wealth. It is a far less glamorized
picture. It also seems one with far fewer idealized consequences
for the United States and its society.
Also looked at from a new
point of view is the treatment of the poor young men. In the 30's
stories, the best thing that could happen to a young guy was to
be taken up by these millionaires and brought into their business.
This was treated as a full Cinderella story for the young man,
one that opens all his dreams. Here, we get a darker picture.
The rich WASP's sponsor a series of young men, setting them up
in enterprises or sending them off to college. The relationship
that develops is far from ideal, however; after a while frightful
tensions erupt between the young businessman and the rich people,
tensions that lead to the murderous events of the novel. Even
at its best, as in the young police chief whose education they
have sponsored, one wonders if young men really want to have this
sort of feudal-vassal relationship to a bunch of rich liege lords.
After World War II, the GI Bill would make it possible for young
men to go to college on their own. This must have been like getting
out of prison for America's lower class youth.
The doctor hero of Wylie's "The Trial of Mark Adams" was financed through school by some doctors and his professors.
Percy in Wylie's "Rx: Death" is another character who had been sent to medical school,
this time by a doctor and with funding raised from the doctor's church.
Wylie is not alone in discussing such issues. See my list of mysteries about
Ordinary People Having Trouble Paying for College.
Danielle is presented as some sort of rebellious individualist.
The author seems to want us to like her, and maybe admire her spirit.
Unfortunately, I can't see anything admirable about her.
She is not one of the working women who often make sympathetic Wylie heroines:
Danielle is just a rich idler. And she is an adulterer and home-wrecker. Yecch!
The hero's beard is a symbol of his academic nerdishness and isolation from the world and real life.
This recalls the comedy film of the year before The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942).
Both film and Wylie's novel end with the scholar shaving off his beard, marking
his new involvement with the real world.
The story does pick up during the crime investigations: Chapters 4, 5 look at the first murder,
Chapter 9 at the big secret, Chapter 10 at the second murder,
which has mildly locked room features, and Chapter 15 at its explanation.
SPOILERS: The first murder resembles the elevator killing late in "Rx: Death".
Both have victims of assault disguised as "accidental" deaths,
by placing their bodies in deadly looking traps: the elevator in "Rx: Death",
the deadfall in Corpses at Indian Stones (end of Chapter 3).
SPOILERS: The big secret has some similarities to a subplot in "The Paradise Canyon Mystery".
Both involve secret activities of a group of rich people. "The Paradise Canyon Mystery"
involves Nature in all its majesty, though, while the secret in Corpses at Indian Stones
is more at the level of mere finance. Still, the two works and these subplots have
some formal similarity.
The solution to the locked room second murder, is sound and fair.
But it is not especially clever.
Mystery Plot: The Killer
SPOILERS. As in most mysteries, the solution at the end reveals the killer.
Unfortunately, the killer turns out to be a likable, sympathetic character,
someone presented as appealing throughout most of the novel.
I personally almost never like it when the killer turns out to be someone
seen in most of a mystery tale, to be likable. It seems distressing to me.
However, this might just be a personal idiosyncrasy of mine.
I've never read an article or review by a mystery fan or mystery historian,
which expresses a distaste similar to mine.
The killer's motives are sound, and fairly presented early in the novel.
They anticipate the killer's motives in Punked (2010), an episode of the TV series Castle.
Scent and Synesthesia
A single sentence (later part of Chapter 2) describes a woman's perfume
as affecting other senses. This seems to be the phenomenon known as Synesthesia,
although Wylie does not use that term.
Scent serves as a clue in "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments",
when the heroine goes in Martha's office for a second time, and it smells different.
This alerts the sleuth heroine that something has changed.
Gladiator (1930) is a science fiction novel - not a mystery.
It deals with a super-powered human. As many people have pointed out,
the hero anticipates Superman. The hero has the same super-powers associated with
the original 1938 version of the Superman character:
Both the hero and Superman are notable for their dark hair.
Consciously or not, Wylie avoided any Aryan imagery when he created his superhuman.
- Running at high speed
- Leaping great distances.