Anthony Abbot | About the Murder of the Circus Queen | The Shudders | About the Disappearance of Agatha King | About the Murder of the Night Club Lady | About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress | About the Murder of a Startled Lady | About the Murder of Geraldine Foster | The Creeps | About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women

C. Daly King | The Curious Mr. Tarrant | Later Tarrant tales | Obelists Fly High | Mysteries on Planes

Rex Stout

Clyde B. Clason | The Fifth Tumbler | The Death Angel | The Purple Parrot | The Man from Tibet | Murder Gone Minoan | Dragon's Cave | Poison Jasmine | Green Shiver

Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett / John Stephen Strange | The Man Who Killed Fortescue | The Strangler Fig | The Bell in the Fog | Silent Witnesses | Look Your Last

Anne Austin | Murder at Bridge

Richard M. Baker | Death Stops the Bells

Torrey Chanslor | Our First Murder | Our Second Murder | Penny

Richard Burke | Chinese Red | The Corpse in Grandpa's Bed

Blanche Bloch | Biography | The Bach Festival Murders

Lawrence Lariar | The Man with the Lumpy Nose

Harry Kemelman | The Nine Mile Walk: Nicky Welt Short Stories | Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

John T. McIntyre | Ashton-Kirk: Investigator | City Directories | Shorthand | Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent | Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist | The Museum Murder | Mooney Moves Around | Murder Is Stupid

Rufus Gillmore | The Alster Case | The Ebony Bed Murder

Hulbert Footner | The Deaves Affair | The Mystery of the Folded Paper | Death of a Celebrity | The Murder That Had Everything | Who Killed the Husband? | The House With the Blue Door | Orchids to Murder

Robert J. Casey | The Secret of 37 Hardy Street | The Third Owl

Roger Scarlett | Murder Among the Angells

Hugh Lawrence Nelson | The Copper Lady | Fountain of Death | Dead Giveaway

James Holding | The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery | The Library Fuzz | Test Run

Emma Lathen | Green Grow the Dollars

David Alexander | Murder Points a Finger | Shoot a Sitting Duck

Gregory Dean | Lillian de la Torre | Kirke Mechem | Timothy Fuller | Rink Creussen | Lloyd Biggle, Jr. | S. S. Rafferty

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

Anthony Abbot

About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930)

About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) (Chapters 1 - 4)

About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932)

About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) (Book One: Chapters 1 -3, Book Two: Chapter 4)

Thatcher Colt stories

C. Daly King

The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant

Rex Stout

The Red Box (1936 - 1937) (Chapters 1 - 8)

The Hand in the Glove (1937) (Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, first part of 8, start of 9, end of 9, 10)

Too Many Cooks (1938) (Chapters 1, 3, 10, 11, 16, 17)

Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939)

The Silent Speaker (1946)

Murder by the Book (1951) (Chapters 1 - 3)

Might As Well Be Dead (1956) (Chapters 1-5, 7, 12-14, 18-19)

Champagne for One (1958) (Chapters 1 - 6, 11, 15 - 17)

Plot It Yourself (1959) (Chapters 1 - 4, 16, 19)

The Final Deduction (1961) (Chapters 1-2)

The Mother Hunt (1963) (Chapters 1 - 14)

A Right to Die (1964)

The Doorbell Rang (1965) (Chapters 1 - 5, second half of 11, 12)

Target Practice

Black Orchids Not Quite Dead Enough Trouble in Triplicate Curtains for Three Three Men Out Three Witnesses Three For the Chair And Four To Go Three at Wolfe's Door Homicide Trinity Trio For Blunt Instruments "Santa Claus Beat" (1953)

Alphabet Hicks stories

Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett (wrote as John Stephen Strange)

The Bell in the Fog (1936) (Chapters 1-10)

Anne Austin

Murder at Bridge (1931)

Richard M. Baker

Death Stops the Bells (1938) (Chapters 1, 2, first half of 3, first half of 7, opening of 9)

Torrey Chanslor

Our First Murder (1940) (Chapters 1-4, 17, 18)

Our Second Murder (1941) (Chapters 1, 2, 7, 13, 15-21)

Richard Burke

Chinese Red (1942) (Chapters 1-5, 7, 19)

Quinny Hite stories

Lawrence Lariar

The Man with the Lumpy Nose (1944)

Harry Kemelman

The Nine Mile Walk (all stories in this collection are good)

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966)

John T. McIntyre

Ashton-Kirk, Investigator (1910) (Chapters 1-13, 24, 25)

Hulbert Footner

Madame Storey (available on-line at Uncollected Madame Rosika Storey tales The Murder That Had Everything (1939) (Chapters 1 - 7, 11, start of 12, 14)

Who Killed the Husband? (1941) (Chapters 1-4, 6, 10, first half of 18, 21, 23, Postscript)

The House With the Blue Door (1942) (Chapter 1)

Robert J. Casey

The Secret of 37 Hardy Street (1929) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 25, 26, 27, 31)

Hugh Lawrence Nelson

Fountain of Death (1948) (Chapters 1, 2, 4.2, 5, 7.2, 7.3, 9.2, 11.4, 17.1, 20.1, 22.1)

James Holding

The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru) The Library Fuzz Megapack Con Men tales

David Alexander

Murder Points a Finger (1953) (Chapters 1-7, 26, 30)

Shoot a Sitting Duck (1955) (Chapters 1, 3, 5, 6, start of 7, 15)

Lillian de la Torre

Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector The Detections of Dr. Sam: Johnson The Return of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector Uncollected Dr. Sam: Johnson stories

Rink Creussen

"The Silver Dollar" (1948)

Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

The Grandfather Rastin Mysteries (collected 2007) (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru) Lady Sara Varnly short stories The Metallic Muse

S. S. Rafferty

Cork of the Colonies Die Laughing and Other Murderous Schtick Uncollected Chick Kelly short stories

Anthony Abbot

Anthony Abbot is one of the most important of the "little known" mystery writers. Like Ellery Queen an early follower of S.S. Van Dine, Abbot's books are distinguished by a wonderful plot complexity. Abbot is good at misdirection. The reader is encouraged to view subplots as having a certain significance, when in reality they point in an entirely different direction, one that is only revealed at the end of the story. This is perhaps related to the plotting technique sometimes used by pulp writers, in which so many actors are doing so many things that the reader is constantly misled about the real origins of every startling, new plot twist. (Please see my discussion of A Pulp Style of Plotting.)

Abbot seems to have a natural liking for the complex plot. Even when he does a tongue-in-cheek short story that consciously combines humor and mystery, such as "About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry", there is a delightful, well constructed mystery plot full of unexpected turns and complexity. Abbot's work also has the quality of "readability": they carry one along, and one can enjoy one of his books in a single sitting.

Abbot's interest in misdirection can lead to vivid evocations of the difference between illusion and reality. Although Abbot does not conspicuously underline any philosophical implications of this theme, the strong plots cause this theme to emerge anyway. Abbot's fiction has a haunting quality. Both humans' ability to understand reality, and human life itself, seem frail and fragile. There is a note of pathos in his work, that seems autumnal, in contrast with Ellery Queen's springtime vigor. There is a sense of a last look at things, before they disappear into the mist.

Another contributor to this effect is Abbot's emphasis on the investigation of murder scenes. Described gently, and with delicate but powerful mise-en-scène, Abbot's vivid descriptions of houses, rooms, streets and yards show an architectural imagination at work.

Abbot was deep into what might be called "WASP Macho". There is tremendous emphasis on his series hero Thatcher Colt's power and prestige as head of the police. He is also big on intimidating criminals. Abbot has really bought into ideas about leadership of social institutions equaling manhood and masculinity. Of course, this leadership was a privilege reserved in his day to WASPs, and one that they valued very highly. While there is no sign of prejudice against immigrants or other ethnic groups in Abbot, it is clear that he was deep into the social ideals of his own ethnic group, and felt that his hero should be a leader of men. Colt is the literary equivalent of the sympathetic, jut-jawed, well tailored men seated at big desks in big offices that showed up in so many 1930's movies (think of Walter Huston as the factory owner in Dodsworth).

A Van Dine School Writer

Abbot's detectival setup offers an intriguing variation on Van Dine's formula. In Van Dine, and in Ellery Queen as well, a genius amateur detective works closely with the New York Police as an unofficial, but highly respected, consultant. Each has a personal connection with officialdom: Van Dine's Philo Vance is a personal friend of the DA, and Ellery Queen is Police Inspector Richard Queen's son. In Abbot's books, the genius detective Thatcher Colt is himself the Police Commissioner, and his connection with the New York Police come about naturally as the head of police.

There is still a bit of "amateur detective" status about Colt: like Philo Vance, he is from a higher social stratum than most of the police, and the Police Commissioner's job is usually considered administrative and political, so Colt's involvement in solving actual cases is unusual, and the result of his rare personal abilities.

Just as Vance is an art expert and connoisseur, Colt is an expert on literature, collecting rare books and writing poetry in his spare time. See About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (beginning of Chapter 2).

Abbott wrote four Thatcher Colt detective novels in 1930 - 1932. They are especially Van Dine like in their tone, and in their detectival approach. He then paused for three years, without publishing any more Colts. During 1935 - 1943, he published four more Colt novels, at long intervals. These later novels are much less Van Dine like in tone, perhaps not surprising, in that Van Dine was no longer anywhere near as popular as in the early 1930's. They also contain much more about an Abbot enthusiasm of those years, psychic phenomena. (Mediums are also mentioned briefly in his first book About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (Chapter 1).)

About the Murder of the Circus Queen

About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932) shows good storytelling and detail throughout its length, but its solution is routine. It is an interesting book, most notable for its elaborate Golden Age style description of the characters and their circus milieu, two bizarre murders, and the detailed investigation that follows, one that keeps bringing to light more and more clues, and more and more interrelationships among the characters' past lives. This fan of Golden Age fiction enjoyed reading it, but was disconcerted by its lack of a clever finale. The investigation forms an infinitely detailed design that is beautiful in its unfolding patterns. Circus is remarkably rich in visual imagery. It is almost as if Abbot had planned it as a movie; it was in fact made into one in the next year. Color is especially used to describe men's clothes and circus makeup. Abbot is much better at picking up on men's clothes, than on women's. Many of the men in the story also have brilliantly colored hair, such as the DA's red, and the scientist's yellow.

Although it is not pointed out in the story, further reflection suggests that the novel's characters exist in doubles. The hero and heroine, a pair of married aerialists, employ a second couple of aerialists to assist them; they have even had this second couple change their stage names to match the husband's. Another pair of similar characters includes the circus' manager, and the circus' millionaire backer; both are older businessmen. The heroine employs both a personal maid, and a male assistant to help her with her act. Both the hero and heroine had a previous spouse. The District Attorney, a none too intelligent blunderer who is always wrong in the story, is accompanied by his two nephews, who seem to be miniature copies of himself.

Perhaps the most striking pair of doubles in the book includes Thatcher Colt, and the witch doctor Keblia. Keblia is the leader of a tribe of Ubangis that have been imported to form an exhibit at the circus. Both Keblia and the Ubangis are sympathetic characters in the story. Just like Colt, Keblia plays the role of detective in the story. With the aid of his tribe, Keblia tracks down the real killer, and tries to intervene to protect the heroine. In fact, he finds the real killer long before Colt. Just as Colt is assisted by his "tribe" of policemen, Keblia is assisted by the tribe of Ubangis - another set of doubles in the story. Keblia is dressed in a fashionable suit in the story - a costume that in other Abbot works is strongly associated with the elegant Colt. The sophisticated Colt treats the Ubangis with the greatest respect. One striking scene shows a pact between Colt and the Ubangis to share information about clues to the mystery. Abbot's novel contrasts the respect with which his hero Colt treats the tribe, with the racist dismissal they are given by the low brow District Attorney in the book. The book's narrator falls somewhere between these two extremes in his attitude. While not sharing in the DA's contempt, he finds the Ubangis to be eerie and frightening. He clearly finds the strange and exotic to be threatening. The narrator is not supposed to be as intelligent and knowledgeable as Colt.

The treatment of the African Ubangis is progressive, especially for its day. They are depicted as both intelligent and kind hearted. Their religious ceremonies are depicted with dignity, although they are also milked for maximum eerie effect, like all the other events of the novel. The books portrayal of the Ubangis' social organization is in the "tribal" tradition, one that has roots in Jack London, and other turn of the century authors. Just as in London, the tribe is shown to be dominated by a witch doctor, and devoted to a set of superstitious rituals and beliefs. This portrayal of tribal life was very popular from 1900 through the 1940's. Today it seems old fashioned and out dated, having been replaced by more sophisticated anthropological ideas about tribal culture. Still, it seems to be the "best" model of tribal life available to literary authors of its day. Also dated today is the constant emphasis on how "eerie" the narrator finds the Ubangis. Despite this dated portrait of tribal life, Abbot's treatment of the Ubangis is clearly in the anti-racist tradition of Van Dine and other authors of his school. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.

The Ubangis are associated in the story with enclosed spaces: trunks and underground chambers. They are chthonic, and associated with the earth. The aerialists, by contrast, have there domain high in the air, on their trapeze wires, and in a high apartment. They have glittering clothing, and are associated with powder and greasepaint and gasses. The aerialists have a circle, a circus ring, under their domain, whereas both the Ubangis and Colt seem associated with rectilinear geometry. Colt keeps discovering boxes associated with the murder, the trunk and the box like room of the flood light chamber. Colt also seems to have a special affinity with Madison Square Garden itself, a building considered in the book as the last word in progressive modern accomplishment. It is made of concrete over a steel frame, and such hard construction seems symbolic of Colt. The trunk and the bunker like flood light chamber also seem rock hard constructions. Colt also owns Police Headquarters and his apartment. Colt's association with both modern buildings and modern organizations such as the police department and science are seen as emblems of a splendid masculinity.

Colt never actually climbs into the aerialists' trapeze area, whereas he has no trouble penetrating to the Ubangis' regions. He is the opener and discoverer of the Ubangis; he is always opening up their domains. He also brings in the professor who understands their language and customs, and serves as the professor's sponsor throughout the story.

Unlike buildings, guns, bullets and shooting are associated not with the police in the novel, but with the older male authority figures of the circus: the animal trainer, the millionaire backer, and the circus owner. Such guns are seen only negatively as emblems of destruction, never of accomplishment. Colt instead works to outlaw guns; he is an enthusiastic advocate of gun control, as part of his role as Police Commissioner, and chief preventer of crime in New York City. The Ubangis also have the role of protectors of people and preventers of trouble, another affinity between Colt and the Ubangis.

Instead of fighting, Colt's ability to see and perceive everything is emphasized. He is unusually good at sight, hearing, smell and the other senses. Colt is the one who hears the changes in the drum beat, for example. His senses are almost as heightened as the hero of the TV series, the Sentinel. He also has the brain power to interpret what he sees as clues. Colt also has a magnificent physique, as do the aerialists in the story.

Unlike private eyes, Colt is rarely stonewalled by witnesses in the story. P I's are always spending hours grilling witnesses who refuse to talk, or who lie to them. By contrast, Colt, like the other detectives of the Van Dine school, has little trouble acquiring mountains of information. The Van Dine school sleuths have a number of techniques: they use the exhaustive search of both victims' rooms and crime scenes; they query disinterested passerby who have tons of information to share; and they institute resourceful police inquiries for information. Because of this, they are always purposively filling in their picture of the crime. It is only the murder itself that is an obstacle to the Van Dine school detective: it is always "a carefully planned crime" perpetrated by "one of the most fiendish brains that it has ever been the misfortune of" the narrator to encounter. Despite this satire, the Van Dine school's approach is plainly a lot more fun to read. Their detectives go right in and detect, and this is the way it should be.

The Shudders

Abbot's The Shudders (1943) seems more like a horror novel than a mystery book. It has some plot twists, but they are not imaginative enough to make the book fascinate the average mystery fan. The book does show plot complexity. Many of the scenes display considerable mise-en-scène as well.

Images of ruination recur throughout the novel:

The Shudders repeats imagery from Abbot's About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932): SPOILERS. One villain in The Shudders is a Uriah Heep type. He worms his way into a position as confidential secretary to a millionaire banker, takes over his life, and promptly murders him for his money. Although the author does not point this out, this seems to exaggerate and parody the relationship between Thatcher Colt and his secretary, the Watson-like narrator of the Colt novels. The narrator is a born number two, who owes his entire existence to being Colt's secretary.

Why does Abbot include scenes of home movies in his books? This is hard to say. He is certainly not sneaking clues into the stories with them, as John Dickson Carr would be. One reason is that Abbot is a writer interested in high technology and scientific detection, and during the 1930's such movies partook of high tech. Also, it allows him to show highlights of his characters' past lives, always an Abbot interest. Most importantly, however, is the structural role these scenes play in Abbot's architecture. Abbot's books are marked off into distinct episodes, like movements in a piece of classical music. Introducing an episode narrated in a distinct fashion, through film, allows Abbot to build a fence around one part of the narrative. Each episode plays its own unique role in the design of the book. They add to the beauty of the overall pattern. Similarly, in Circus, there is a stretch in Chapter 16 in which Colt reports on the results of his officer Inspector Flynn's investigations into the characters' backgrounds. This forms a deeply satisfying extension of the book's plot to date, offering a formal conclusion to several plot threads in the book. Its position in the story seems like a sort of coda in music, or other part of a formal pattern.

About the Disappearance of Agatha King: a short story

"About the Disappearance of Agatha King" (1932) is a well-done short story. It was reprinted in a 1939 anthology, The Mystery Book. This story cries out for reprinting today.

"About the Disappearance of Agatha King" looks as it it got its basic framework from the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" (1892) by Doyle. Abbot has added to this framework a wealth of original ideas.

Mystery Plot. Even in this short story, Abbot keeps to his traditions by having both life histories for his characters, and a detailed look at their complex relationships. Part of the mystery plot grows out of these relationships.

Pro-Civil Rights. "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" has a pro-Civil Rights theme. Like About the Murder of the Circus Queen it takes a positive look related to black people. SPOILERS. "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" criticizes bigoted police for beating up blacks, and the justice system for condoning this. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers.

"About the Disappearance of Agatha King" also has a white man suspect, who is described as loving a male friend. This might well be a gay reference. The story certainly sees the love as positive.

Imagery. Imagery in "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" recalls About the Murder of the Night Club Lady:

About the Murder of the Night Club Lady

Impossible Crime: Killing at a Distance. About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (1931) has an original impossible crime. This impossibility is the best part of this work. The impossible crime has aspects of the "how-done-it": it asks the detective and reader to figure out a method by which a seemingly impossible murder occurred. Such how-done-its were also a staple in Van Dine and Stuart Palmer.

The how-done-it crime is another example of "killing someone at a distance, without leaving any traces": an Abbot tradition. This is also found in About the Murder of the Circus Queen and The Shudders, two Abbot novels that share much imagery with Night Club Lady, and which are often close to it in approach.

Abbot's how-done-it solution brings the novel into the realm of the scientific detective story. So do some other aspects of police lab work. Several of Abbot's tales involve such scientific and technological details - it is a running strand throughout his fiction.

The impossible crime is framed within a situation derived from Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905) - a ploy that has been much used in films and comics ever since Wallace invented it. Abbot's explanation of the impossible crime is different from Wallace's, however. There is also little in About the Murder of the Night Club Lady of anything political, while Wallace's book is soaked in social commentary.

Impossible Appearance. The final quarter of the book, after the explanation of the how-done-it three quarters way through (Chapter 13), is anticlimactic, and not as successful as the previous three quarters of the novel. Its plot elements are mainly less interesting than those that went before.

We do get a solution to a second impossible mystery: where was someone hiding in the penthouse, despite not turning up during a very through search by Thatcher Colt? (posed end of Chapter 7, solved last part of Chapter 19). This sort of mystery can be dubbed an Impossible Appearance: somebody or something appears where it cannot possibly be, the way this person turns up in the penthouse.

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Bigger They Come (1939) has the Impossible Appearance of a guest inside a watched hotel: a similar problem to Abbot's impossible appearance inside a penthouse. Its solution is quite different, however. In Gardner's The Case of the Singing Skirt (1959) (Chapters 5 - 6), Perry Mason engineers the Impossible Appearance of a gun.

The "impossible" appearance of the character in About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (end of Chapter 7) has elements of the Surrealism that runs through Abbot and many other detective writers.

Impossible crimes aside, About the Murder of the Night Club Lady shows less colorful storytelling, and less imagination its plotting, characters and setting, than the best of Abbot's writing.

Imagery. Its night-club opening scene, and the Night Club Lady's penthouse apartment where most of the action occurs, while well described, are hardly novel settings for crime fiction. Both seem like female settings, elaborate ornate boxes that contain entire lives of the heroine and her female relatives and friends. These womb symbols are constantly contrasted with the male police officers and their masculine and phallic symbols, with Thatcher Colt in top hat and tails, uniformed officers on motorcycles, a policeman undercover in doorman's uniform recalling a 19th Century "chausseur", etc. The women are in white, with occasional flashes of red, while the men are in dark colors such as Colt's black tail coat or blue police uniforms. White tie and tails are a tradition in Abbot books.

The glittering night-club is full of mirrors, crystals and jewels. The night-club is a real-life location of the era: The Mayfair Club and Crystal Room inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan. The novel says it was filled with show biz celebrities.

Heights and Underground. The night-club is underground; the penthouse is high in the sky: two extremes that will re-appear in About the Murder of the Circus Queen. The penthouse has a high window playing a role in the plot, not unlike other Abbot books.

The penthouse's address on East 58th street places it in or near the Manhattan neighborhood Sutton Place. Sutton Place is explored in depth in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress.

Helen Reilly explores a Manhattan penthouse in McKee of Centre Street (1933) (Chapter 7). Reilly is more interested in the rooftop outside the penthouse, while Abbot emphasizes the interior. Colt does do a thorough exploration of the roof. however.

The sleuths briefly meet at the club room at the very top of the real-life Chrysler Building skyscraper (start of Chapter 15). The narrator gives a negative review, saying the views have been ruined by obstructions. Other real-life New York skyscrapers appear in Abbot: the RCA building in Rockefeller Center in About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women, Tudor City in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress.

Policewoman. Policewoman Dorothy Lox appears and is treated respectfully (Chapters 3, 14). Lox is mentioned again in About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (Chapter 2.1), as part of a description of New York City's policewomen as a whole. And she appears in person in that book (Chapter 9.2). Today's readers would likely welcome an Abbot tale with a policewoman protagonist, but I don't know of one.

Earlier (Chapter 1) when Colt is cornered by some women and asked questions, one is "whether women were of any account as detectives." We don't get his response. But clearly the Dorothy Lox sections are answering the question in the affirmative. This scene shows Abbot was conscious of the public's interest in women detectives. And specifically the female part of the public.

Doubles. The two young women in Night Club Lady have plot-lines that move in parallel: they are perhaps examples of the doubling characters that will appear more systematically in About the Murder of the Circus Queen.

Abbot Subjects. Abbot once more features life histories of the characters, that play a role in the solution.

While other Abbot books such as About the Murder of the Circus Queen and The Shudders, open on Friday the Thirteenth in a rain storm, this one is set on New Year's Eve in a snow storm. The male characters are once again in deep trouble. While those books refer to the chemical industry, and have ties to Germany, this one is set against the medical supply business, and refers to the characters' past lives in France.

The Men Higher-Up. About the Murder of the Night Club Lady depicts a jewel theft ring and secretly being controlled by well-to-do, apparently respectable men (first part of Chapter 1). They are referred to as the "men higher-up". Similarly About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women depicts a sinister drug pushing syndicate that is controlled by such wealthy higher-ups (Chapter 1.1). The book makes it clear that there is moral rot in at least some members of the upper classes.

Long before this William MacHarg & Edwin Balmer's "The Man Higher Up" (1909) posited finding such higher-ups as a key goal of detective work.

About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress

About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) is perhaps a bit over praised among Abbot's work. The book is readable throughout. It is at its vivid best in its opening (Chapters 1-4), in which Colt identifies the unknown corpses, and reconstructs the murder events at the crime scenes. These sections show good detective work, much of it based in scientific detection by the police. They also display Abbot's gift for architectural writing, and his command of atmosphere and mise-en-scène.

The later stages of the novel do show Abbot's ability to handle a complex plot, and the final revelations about the crime do surprise.

True Crime. The novel's second paragraph points out its resemblance to two famous real-life cases: the Hall-Mills murders (1922) and the Clarence Richeson case (1911). In fact, the novel's main plot (which emerges after the opening chapters) can be seen as a mildly ingenious fusing of these two cases. SPOILERS:

The part of the novel that draws on these two murder cases the least is the opening (Chapters 1-4). This opening is the most creative part of the novel.

I tend to be skeptical about using real-life murder cases as a basis for mystery fiction. I think mystery fiction tends to be better when writers use their own imagination, rather than drawing on "true crime". The best aspects of About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress occur when Abbot uses his imagination rather than true crime, as in the opening, and in the ingenious aspects of the solution.

Sutton Place. Sangster Terrace, a fictitious setting for a scene of the crime, is explicitly said to resemble the famous real life Manhattan neighborhood Sutton Place (Chapter 3). Sangster Terrace is said to be adjacent to Sutton Place. Essentially, Sangster Terrace is simply an imaginary addition to the real life Sutton Place.

The book notes that the Sangster Terrace / Sutton Place neighborhood joins the extremes of wealth and poverty. Precisely this same characteristic of contrasting wealth and poverty would soon make Sidney Kingsley choose Sutton Place as the setting for his famous play Dead End (1935). Dead End made Sutton Place the archetypical setting that symbolizes Inequality. About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress made the same observation four years before Dead End.

Sutton Place symbolizes privilege in Mr. Smith's Hat (1936) and Dead Man Control (1936) by Helen Reilly, where it contains police "Commissioner Carey's tall narrow house". And in Murder in a Hurry (1950) by the Lockridges, with its wealthy family's home.

Tudor City. Tudor City, where the bodies are first found (Chapters 1, 3), is a real residential complex in Manhattan. It was brand new in 1931. It is upscale, like the fictitious Sangster Terrace.

Color. Sangster Terrace has doors painted in bright colors, "in the new manner" as the book calls it. The murder house in Sangster Terrace has a red door: something repeatedly referred to in the book, including its last line. These anticipates the green Manhattan doors in Murder in the Mews (1931) and Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940) by Helen Reilly.

Other pieces of color imagery in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress:

Height and Underground. Two rooms are contrasted in the Sangster Terrace house. One is upstairs; the the other is at ground level. These are not quite the high in the sky / underground chambers found in other Abbot books - but they approach this effect.

Two different underground tunnels play a role in the opening. Since they are near real places, the morgue and Tudor City, these tunnels might be real-life places.

Tudor City consists of skyscraper apartments, in fact the world's first skyscraper apartments. It is very much "high in the sky". However, we do not go inside Tudor City in the book.

Surrealism: The Boat. There is a surrealistic feel to Colt's having the entire boat picked up and moved inside the morgue. Boats are supposed to be outside - not indoors.

This fate of the boat is soon echoed by it origin. We learn that the boat was built inside a fancy house in Sangster Terrace. Once again, the boat does not belong indoors such a house.

On both occasions, the boat with the corpses inside, was carried by men. Such a "carting of a container with a body" also appears in "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" and About the Murder of a Startled Lady.

Currents. Colt does some detective reasoning based on water currents (Chapter 3). Please see my list of detection involving Currents in mystery fiction.

Doubles. Abbot books sometimes have characters whose lives parallel each other. In Clergyman's Mistress such "doubles" include Bessie Struber and murder victim Evelyn Saunders.

Alternatives to Capitalism. Most locales in the opening stand outside of the capitalist system and market economy:

Most of the people met in the opening are either police, other city employees, or the collectively-employed night watchman. There is also the clergyman victim, who works for a church. All of these men are employed outside of the capitalist system.

By contrast the actual murder house in Sangster Terrace is very much private property. This house is part of the market economy: it has been rented out. And Tudor City is also capitalistic: we hear briefly about the ballyhoo used to promote it.

Please see my list of Cooperatives and Worker-owned Businesses in mystery and science fiction.

The Church. Abbot will return to a setting of this novel, the (fictitious) Church of St. Michael and All Angels in New York, for his fine short story, "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" (1932). There are many real-life Anglican / Episcopalian churches named St. Michael and All Angels, especially in England - but none of them are in New York City.

About the Murder of a Startled Lady

Structure. About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) shows relationships with Abbot's earlier novels, especially About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931). Both books begin with the discovery of an unidentified corpse under mysterious circumstances. Several chapters of virtuosic detective work follow, during which Colt and nearly the entire New York City police force identify the victim. In both of these novels the opening chapters are sinister, even spooky in tone, with a macabre feel. The macabre quality is pushed to an extreme in Startled Lady.

After these excellent opening sections in Clergyman's Mistress and Startled Lady, virtually a whole new novel begins. For the first time we meet the characters of the mystery story. Up till that time we had been dealing with a discovered body, vividly described murder locations, and the police. Now we are introduced to the suspects, and a whole, conventional murder mystery ensues, with most of the focus on the motives of the suspects and their personal relationships with the victim. These later chapters in both novels are far more routine. There is much less actual detection, and what revelations ensue tend to be the result of routine police inquiries: realistic, but not very imaginative. Towards the end of both stories Colt builds a straw case against each of the characters in turn. Both books also come to a similar kind of solution to their puzzle plot, although to say more about this would spoil the reader's interest in the mystery.

Subjects. The opening of About the Murder of a Startled Lady also shows subject matter links to Clergyman's Mistress. Both:

High and Low. The diving for the body has a chthonic feel (Book One: Chapter 2). It is underwater, although not underground.

The medium's room in the rooming house is high on the third floor (Book Two: Chapter 4).

Characters. The opening chapters of Startled Lady are full of people with a show business background: the sort of cheap entertainers that might hang around carnivals or fair grounds. There are the medium and her husband in the first chapter, then the artist with a waxworks and amusement park life history in Chapter 3. These people's colorful life stories recall the circus performers in Circus Queen (1932). The professor in Chapter 1 of Startled Lady also recalls the savant Colt meets in Circus Queen.

Abbot likes to include a whole "life history" for the characters in his novels. While it is not likely in real life that the police would have thumb nail biographies for everyone they meet, one tends to accept this as a bit of poetic license. It does add to the storytelling charm of the book, as well as making the characters more rounded.

Unfortunately, after its early sections, Startled Lady declines into a far more ordinary novel. Most of the suspects in the later part of the book are unpleasant, even psychologically abnormal. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of their emotionally disturbed personalities. There is also a consistent tone of sordidness struck throughout, something that is not typical of Abbot, and not consistent with the personality shown in his other works.

Mystery Plot. The best section in the later part of the novel is Book Two: Chapter 4. This resolves the medium subplot of the opening chapter. Abbot shows a flair for one type of impossible crime, the apparent supernatural event. Abbot does not describe the kind of physical impossibility we associate with G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and their successors. Instead, this tale is in the same genre as Craig Rice's "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" (1956), a case of apparently supernatural knowledge that eventually is explained in realistic terms. Please see my list of Dreams and Premonitions: Impossible Crimes.

This section is architectural, something also found elsewhere in Abbot.

About the Murder of Geraldine Foster

About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) is Abbot's first Thatcher Colt book.

Paradoxically, while Abbot idolized men in leadership positions, his fiction is more rooted in middle class life than are most other authors of the Golden Age. This is especially true of the non-police characters in his tales. The investigation into the death of Geraldine Foster reveals a poignant look at the stresses and strains in the life of a young, middle class woman of the period. Similarly, "ordinary man" Mr. Digberry's survival and even triumph in "About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry" suggests an allegory of the survival and triumph of the middle classes.

If Abbot's work reflects contemporary pulp techniques of the 1920's and 1930's, it looks backward to the scientific detectives of 1905-1914. About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) digresses from its main mystery to offer a full portrait of "high tech" police techniques. These seem oddly similar to those of Cleveland L. Moffett and Arthur B. Reeve of twenty years earlier.

Crime Scenes. About the Murder of Geraldine Foster shares crime scene settings and clues with the later About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress. SPOILERS. Both have:

The visits to the murder houses are among the best scenes in both novels.

Minorities and Leftists. This first book in the series About the Murder of Geraldine Foster is also the debut of some continuing supporting characters. Police Captain Israel Henry is in charge of the Commissioner's office suite, and serves as what we now call a "gatekeeper" (Chapter 1). Does his first name Israel signify he is Jewish? I am not sure. He is certainly a sympathetic character, always depicted positively in the Colt books.

A passage (first part of Chapter 2) mentions Manhattan's Lower East Side, and cites real-life novelists Fannie Hurst and Nat Ferber as depicting its Jewish inhabitants. Fannie Hurst is still well-known, but Nat J. Ferber has sunk into obscurity. Reviews of the era suggest Nat Ferber was an example of "Naturalism", and downbeat. He was also a journalist, and married to the left-wing labour organizer Marie Ganz.

A fictional character in About the Murder of Geraldine Foster is a radical left-wing lawyer, George Maskell (Chapter 1). He is described as having worked with famous real-life left-wing lawyers Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays.

Thatcher Colt himself is compared to Teddy Roosevelt (start of Chapter 1). Although the book does not say so, Roosevelt was famous as a champion of the Progressive movement.

Left-of-center writers Theodore Dreiser and W. Adolphe Roberts get a positive mention in About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (start of Chapter 4.1). However, the book cites them for their accomplishments as writers, and does not mention their political activities.

The Creeps

The Creeps (1939) seems written in a different style from several of Abbot's earlier books, and critic Francis M. Nevins has speculated that it may have been ghost written by a different author. That may be true. However, it has a "supernatural" scene where a medium claims to be in contact with a dead person. The ghostly message is very similar in content to the one in About the Murder of a Startled Lady, a book that everyone has always considered as Abbot's own. The two novels share a similar fascination with psychical research as well. The tone of both novels mix skepticism with enthusiasm. Abbot considers many practitioners of such studies frauds, yet seems enthused about the long term prospect of honest researchers in these fields. I cannot agree with him. I think the evidence sixty years later suggests that this is all a bunch of hooey. Be that as it may, this material suggests a continuity of authorship.

The book has some sordid imagery, which recalls the also sleazy Startled Lady.

The country house setting of The Creeps differs from the Manhattan locales emphasized in previous Colt novels.

The Creeps lacks all ingenuity. The explanation of the medium's message shows none of the cleverness of the earlier novel. None of the murders in the books show any cleverness either. The story is labored and dull.

About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women

About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937) is Abbot's least known Thatcher Colt book, rarely reprinted. And with good reason. The plot is largely reworked from a well-known tale by Doyle. And the book relentlessly flaunts racial stereotypes, in a way that is thankfully absent from Abbot's other books, which usually present positive pictures of racial minorities.

Good Parts. This unsuccessful book does have some good features:

The police organization sections (36 pages) and the Tad Wing episodes (29 pages) make up a relatively small part of the book as a whole (293 pages). One wishes that Abbot had published them as a separate novella. The Tad Wing episodes, in particular, have little to do with the rest of the novel.

Secretary. The heroine Carol Burgess is a secretary, like the title character in About the Murder of Geraldine Foster. In both cases their employers are dubious people, who may or may not be involved in crime.

Gun Control. Colt speaks out in favor of what we now call gun control (Chapter 1.1).

Doubles. Abbot books sometimes have characters whose lives parallel each other. SPOILERS. In About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women, first Tad Wing disappears. Then Thatcher Colt disappears too (Chapter 3.5, 3.6). The parallels are emphasized in the narration.

Height. Abbot likes settings high up in architecture.

The victim has offices on the forty-first floor of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center (start of Chapter 2.3). Like Tudor City in About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress this is a famous real-life skyscraper, that was new at the time of writing.

The Tad Wing subplot takes place on the top floor of a six-story walkup apartment building. This recalls the rooming house in About the Murder of a Startled Lady (Book Two: Chapter 4).

A real-life landmark, the Jefferson Market Police Court with its clock tower, is mentioned (start of Chapter 4.1).

The murder scene is on the third floor of another apartment building (Chapter 4.1). Once again a high window of the apartment, plays a role in the plot.

Greenwich Village Back Streets. This murder scene is on Nightcourt Lane in Greenwich Village. Nightcourt Lane is a fictitious back street which the book says resembles a nearby real-life one, Patchin Place (start of Chapter 4.1). This mixture of reality and fiction recalls About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress, with its fictitious Sangster Terrace resembling and nearby the real Sutton Place.

Patchin Place has ten buildings. Its street numbers simply range from 1 to 10. Similarly the murder scene building in Nightcourt Lane is Number Ten (start of Chapter 4.1). The buildings in Patchin Place have three stories; those in fictional Nightcourt Lane have three stories plus an attic (Chapters 4.1, 9.5).

The visit to Greenwich Village brings back nostalgic memories for the narrator Tony, who recalls knowing Theodore Dreiser and Harold Hersey there (start of Chapter 4.1). In real life these writers lived in Patchin Place, according to the Wikipedia. Harold Hersey knew Anthony Abbot and Theodore Dreiser.

Greenwich Village back streets are featured in Helen Reilly novels: Murder in the Mews (1931), All Concerned Notified (1939), Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940). Such tiny back streets, almost concealed from public view, are fascinating. Reilly's treatment is more elaborate that Abbot's.

C. Daly King

C. Daly King's work is clearly aligned to the S.S. Van Dine school. He published six novels and a story collection from 1932 - 1940. After World War II, he published two new stories in EQMM; in the intro to one of them, Ellery Queen mentioned that a new King novel had been finished and would soon be appearing. This book was never published; it is another evidence of the deliberate suppression of the traditional detective story after 1945 by publishers. Mary Roberts Rinehart could not get her detective tales published in the Saturday Evening Post, nor could T.S. Stribling; Milton M. Propper could not get his books published, and eventually wound up in an insane asylum; Hake Talbot's third novel was not published, apparently leading him to write no more; Norbert Davis had publishing difficulties; Dorothy Sayers and Anthony Boucher largely chose not to write any more detective stories; John Dickson Carr turned to a series of anemic historical novels. Recently, in Twentieth Century Mystery Writers, Helen McCloy regretted that she had written fewer mystery novels and more suspense novels after World War II.

Commentary on C. Daly King:

The Curious Mr. Tarrant

The Curious Mr. Tarrant is a collection of stories, most of which deal with impossible crimes. They star detective Trevis Tarrant, who appeared mainly in King's short stories; Michael Lord was the series detective in many King novels. Tarrant would later appear in The Episode of the Demoiselle D'Ys (1946), the above mentioned unpublished novel. I have no idea if the manuscript survives; the manuscript of Hake Talbot's third book seems permanently lost, for example.

Imagery and Settings. King's work is full of horror. He likes to depict bizarre religious rituals as part of his horror atmosphere. These rituals often seem to involve cycles of time: the Aztec cycles in "The Codex' Curse", the repetitions of the Requiem in "The Nail and the Requiem", the nightly events on the highway in "The Headless Horrors". Light and darkness, and their alteration are also important elements in King's storytelling, adding both drama, and contributions to the puzzle plots.

King's impossible crime technique seems to focus on hidden places and hidden spaces. Although presided over by images of women, never living women, men seem to emerge from these spaces, or be swallowed up by them. The images of women are naked, and emphasize their sexuality. Perhaps these hidden spaces are womb symbols. They also seem to have a magic or ritual quality to them.

There is also a theme of "policemen in jeopardy", that seems to involve their uniforms. King seemed to have a special sympathy for these "hard young men", as he put it, and their lives seem to be in danger in his tales.

Another set of perennial characters in King are the mild mannered, ineffectual authority figures of various institutions where the horror is taking place, who have clearly lost control of their turf. These include the museum director in "Codex", the apartment manager in "Nail", and the police chief in "Headless Horrors".

Influences. One of the best locked room tales in The Curious Mr. Tarrant, "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem" (1935), oddly anticipates The Silence of the Lambs, of all things. The mad killer's escape from the box-like penthouse in King, seems oddly similar to Hannibal's escape from his box-like cage toward the end of the movie (I've never read the book).

King's tale, in turn, bears a family resemblance to MacKinlay Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" (1930). Other possible influences on King's fiction are discussed in the articles on Stuart Palmer and Sax Rohmer.

Characters: Golden Age Standard. Several of the characters are fairly standard types in Golden Age mystery fiction.

King's horror motif contrasts oddly with the country club, fun young couples background of his Watson, Jerry Phelan. Phelan, his girlfriend, and his sister, who winds up dating detective Tarrant, seem right out of the world later to be occupied by such Bright Young Couples as seen in the works of Patrick Quentin, or The Norths, by the Lockridges. "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935) does much to characterize Phelan and his family, and has some pleasant romance. It is set in a small town in New Jersey; King himself lived in Summit, New Jersey, and frequently set his works either in that state, or in nearby New York City.

Not all of King is horror based. "The Episode of the Vanishing Harp" is a country house, Golden Age style mystery, complete with a wealthy couple, the family secretary, the family banker, and the family physician. This is a standard Golden Age cast of characters. "Harp" is a pleasant enough piece of storytelling. But its locked room problem's solution, while fair and believable, is easily guessed. This tale is well-liked by a number of mystery fans, so perhaps I'm underestimating it a little.

A early section of "The Episode of the Vanishing Harp" details Tarrant's interests in science and the arts. This seems modeled, broadly speaking, on Philo Vance's intellectual interests in S.S. Van Dine novels. Both men are presented as genius sleuths with a wide range of deep intellectual passions. Tarrant's readings in modern physics recall the Vance novel The Bishop Murder Case (1928). Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.

Strengths and Weaknesses. King is far from being my favorite author. Just as in Clayton Rawson, there is something distasteful about King. King's strongest suit is his ability to create suspense. His better tales sweep one along as a reader, and show some real excitement, as well as some creepiness in the horror department.

But they often turn upon clichés, sometimes including the disagreeable ethnic stereotypes of their era: "The Headless Horrors" and "The Man with Three Eyes" both suffer from racism. This racism is especially unfortunate in the case of "The Headless Horrors", spoiling a tale which otherwise has interesting aspects.

Several of the tales' mystery plots are obvious, and easily figured out. There is often only one real suspect, and sure enough, at the end he did it - not much of a use of the whodunit potential of the mystery tale. "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem", however, succeeds as a puzzle plot tale - it is a significant contribution to the locked room story.

By contrast, King's version of the Mary Celeste, "Torment IV", is ridiculous, one of the all time dumb mystery tales. Caveat lector! (Which could mean either "Let the reader beware"; or "Beware of Hannibal Lector" - not bad advice either way. This is my first Latin pun.)

The Later Trevis Tarrant tales

After 1944, King began a second series of Tarrant tales, three of which eventually appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Crippen & Landru has republished the Tarrant stories, together with four additional tales not in the first collection, as The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant (2003). Three of these later tales add considerably to the mystery value of the series as a whole.

Little Girl Who Wasn't There. "The Episode of the Little Girl Who Wasn't There" (1944) is a locked room story. It is full of ingenious ideas. It keeps proposing different solutions to its central riddle, in the tradition of E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913), Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), and other Golden Age multi-solutioned tales. The story is hard to read, and lacks gracefulness. It is perhaps more intriguing than fun. But still, it shows lots of thinking.

Aspects hearken back to "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem", and can be considered as a development of the ideas in that tale.

Sinister Invention. "The Episode of the Sinister Invention" (1946) is a minor pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. Aside from the zany inventions mentioned in the tale, the main interest here is some of Tarrant's use of deductive reasoning. Both this tale and the previous one show Tarrant functioning as an armchair detective.

The hall where the murder takes place is another of King's rooms. King deduces some architectural features of the hall from the story told him about the killing there by his policeman friend. Once again, King shows an interest in the engineering and construction of a room. And here, these features are made the center of logical deduction, an interesting extension of King's ideas.

Perilous Talisman. "The Episode of the Perilous Talisman" (1951) is a combination fantasy and mystery story. Such hybrid works are fairly common in the sf world. This tale is nicely done, with some clever ideas, and King's patented ability to create suspense. This seems to be King's final work of fiction published during his lifetime.

Although the plot deals with a small box, the ideas in the story seem oddly architectural. The box is of the oblong dimensions favored by King for his locked rooms, and is a similar complex engineering construction. The box also has features that recall "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" (1935). King's interest in light and dark is also present. King's interest in optical devices recalls R. Austin Freeman. In general, King's concern with engineering and mechanical constructs is in the tradition of Scientific Detection.

The Egyptian box is "a foot long by about eight inches wide". This means the box is roughly in the Golden Ratio. There is much discussion today if ancient Egyptian architects consciously used the Golden Ratio in their work.

Absent Fish. "The Episode of the Absent Fish" was not published till long after King's death (EQMM April 1979). It is an imaginative story, in the tradition of "The Nail and the Requiem". Like that earlier story, it is a locked room problem, which takes place in an architecturally complex penthouse apartment. King's "The Episode of the Tangible Illusion" is also architectural in subject. King was fascinated with architecture, and many of his most creative works deal with it. Even when it plays little role in the mystery plot, such as the New Jersey highway landscapes in "The Headless Horrors" and Obelists Fly High, it is a fascinating part of the tale. King likes the engineering aspects of architecture, such as the infrastructure of the buildings, machinery in them, such as elevators or gas stations, and their industrial construction. King's creative use of architecture is part of Golden Age mystery tradition, while his interest in their engineering aspects is relatively personal and unique.

Obelists Fly High

Obelists Fly High (1935) is the most admired of King's six published mystery novels.

Strengths and Weaknesses. It has a clever impossible crime plot, and surprises in its murder mystery that completely fooled me. And it has an enjoyable look at airplanes and airports of the era, in its early sections. So maybe I should be recommending it - or at least its plot.

However, the book has some real problems. The storytelling drags interminably, especially in the second half where King explores an all too obvious alibi subplot. The characters are nasty. There is endless propagandizing for King's controversial views on psychology, religion and science. It continues King's vicious stereotyping of minority groups, this time of gays. It is not a pleasant reading experience at all. King has been overpraised by mystery critics. While his works have too much plot creativity to ignore, they have too many other problems to be actually good.

One might also point out that Obelists Fly High lacks the fabulous plot complexity of Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr. Its story could be compressed to novella length without any harm.

Imagery and Settings. Obelists Fly High has some common imagery with other King works. Much of it takes place in an enclosed area, the airplane. This is similar to the penthouse of "Nail", the museum room of "Harp" and the basement room of "Codex". Common aspects:

The early sections (pp. 33 - 70) of Obelists Fly High depict Newark Airport. This is embedded in a New Jersey landscape similar to "The Headless Horrors". Both landscapes feature, not nature or traditional vistas, but modern highways centered around technological buildings: the gas station of "Horrors" and the hangars of Obelists.

Planes: Illustration. The vivid illustration that accompanies Philip Wylie's "Death Flies East", showing the interior of the plane's cabin, would make an excellent cover for King's book as well. It helped me visualize the setting of King's novel. Wylie's novella and its illustration are reprinted in the anthology American Murders (1986), edited by Jon L. Breen and Rita A. Breen.

The illustration emphasizes that pilots of the era were armed, a fact made much of by King. Ostensibly, this was because they carried mail, and hence were officials of the US Government. But in reality, it seems to be contrived to make them authority figures during flight, and for the sake of image, along with their uniforms.

Ideologues. Obelists Fly High also has the fanatic ideologues of King's short stories. These extremely creepy characters generate horror from their participation in monstrous rituals and activities. But whereas the characters in Mr. Tarrant are members of fringe cults, those in Obelists Fly High are supporters of mainstream American belief systems: scientists. This gives the novel much more topicality and social punch, as well as controversy.

The Detective. Michael Lord, King's series sleuth in his novels, has some features in common with other Van Dine School detectives. Like them he is New York City based. In many ways, he is related to the "genius amateur with personal connection to the police" of Van Dine's Philo Vance and EQ's Ellery Queen. He is a young policeman, not an amateur, but he owes his association with the police to his friendship with the Police Commissioner, just as Vance has a friendship with the DA, and Ellery is the son of Inspector Richard Queen. He is a wealthy, sophisticated young man whose father was the Commissioner's best friend. The Commissioner made him a Lieutenant, but his genius detective skills made him rise rapidly to the rank of Captain. He is a Special Officer attached to the staff of the Police Commissioner.

As a social sophisticate attached to the police, he resembles Anthony Abbot's detective Thatcher Colt. Like Thatcher Colt, he is concerned with his leadership position. Lord's "I am in charge here" routine on the airplane in Obelists Fly High would make Al Haig blush. The Commissioner in King also resembles Colt in his insistence on saluting and other forms of discipline.

However, like other authority figures in King, Lord manages to completely lose control of his turf. The novel opens with an Epilogue, showing how Lord has botched his case, and lost control of the airplane to an armed criminal. In fact his performance here is one of the least effective of all Golden Age detectives. King has presumably been reading E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913). Shared features:

Lord's physical vulnerability is also related to the fact that he is a policeman: young men in uniform are always in the greatest danger in King's works. The young Army pilot in the novel also collapses.

One wonders if the name Michael Lord was inspired by young good-guy Christopher "Kit" Lord in Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X (1932).

Mystery Traditions. Obelists Fly High occasionally echoes earlier mystery authors:

Mysteries on Planes

The vivid background description of airports and air travel Way Back When is one of the most appealing features of C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High. There was much interest in mysteries set on planes during this period: In addition, some tales have plane elements, but are not really a "mystery on a plane": I learned about some authors on the above list from other scholars. Thanks!:

Rex Stout

Commentary on Rex Stout: Rex Stout's novels have a common basic pattern. There is some fairly upper class business, such as cooking, cattle breeding, or radio, in which most of the characters are employed. The characters are involved in a complex dispute, which leads to much negotiation and deal making. The deals are often changed and renegotiated, often with the help of detective Nero Wolfe. Interspersed with all of this is a mystery. The mystery plot has some simple trick solution, hopefully fairly clever. Starting in 1940, Stout also became a prolific author of mystery novellas, most of which were published in the slick American Magazine, or, after 1956, in the Saturday Evening Post.

Stout's strongest feature as a writer is his superb dialogue. This dialogue shows the influence of that in the S.S. Van Dine books. Both authors indulged in complex, point-counter-point dialogues. Behind both authors is the stichomythia in Greek drama - the ingenious line by line counterpointing dialog that is so brilliant in Aeschylus and other writers. Stout's storytelling can also be superb. Like Van Dine, he knows how to make a really interesting tale unfold.

Unfortunately, there are some more idiosyncratic factors at work. All the fierce, unfriendly deal making in Stout's books is a big turn-off to me. I dislike purchasing something in an antique shop, or being involved in any situation where I have to negotiate a price with an antagonist out to get me. I just don't like adversarial situations. I never play combat-based computer games either. Adversarial negotiations have little to do with today's business world. Corporations are looking for people who are good at working with and supporting others on their team. Business negotiations center on trying to move toward win-win situations, coming up with creative ideas that benefit all parties. Antagonism is out, problem solving is in.

Stout's Mystery Plotting

Stout's weakest feature in many of his novels is his puzzle plotting. His novellas are often well plotted, but his novels seem much weaker. The best Wolfe novel I have yet read with a good mystery plot is Some Buried Caesar. This book also has some of Stout's best humor and characterization, as well as some of Stout's most resonant symbolism, as discussed above. It is universally admired as one of its author's finest works. So we can all agree on something... Stout's fiction has been much praised by top critics of the 1940's (Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr), and the 90's (Jon L. Breen, William L. DeAndrea). The 1990's paperback release of Stout contains glowing introductory tributes from dozens of mystery writers. So why can't I enjoy much of it? Stout's bad plotting drives me crazy. I work my way through many of his novels, and get nothing in return. The Tecumseh Fox novels, Double For Death (1939) and The Broken Vase (1941) are especially disappointing in this regard, as is And Be a Villain (1948).

So far, the Stout novels I have most actively enjoyed on all levels, puzzle plot and storytelling, are Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar, The Silent Speaker, Might As Well Be Dead, Champagne for One, Plot It Yourself. Also, some novels have good opening sections: The Red Box, Murder by the Book, The Final Deduction, The Mother Hunt.

Anthony Boucher thought Stout's novellas were better than his novels. I agree, with the exception of the novels listed above.

Historically, much of the best mystery fiction by all authors is in short forms: short stories, novellas, radio plays. Ignoring these leads to a woefully incomplete knowledge of the mystery genre.

If you have never read Stout, a good place to start is some of his novella collections, especially Three Men Out, Three Witnesses, Three For the Chair. If you prefer to begin with a novel, the novels just recommended are the best.


A "how-done-it" is a mystery, where the goal is for the detective and reader to figure out the actual physical method of a murder. How-done-its have been written by a broad variety of mystery writers, including S.S. Van Dine: see Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case (1928), The Casino Murder Case (1934).

How-done-its by Rex Stout:

Hidden Object

Some Stout mysteries involve the whereabouts of hidden objects: The Silent Speaker is a Nero Wolfe tale. But many others on this list are not.

"Booby Trap" has a "vanishing object" mystery, somewhat related to the above "hidden object" mysteries.

Architecture Mysteries

Golden Age mystery writers often liked to base events in architecture. This is occasionally found in Stout: Stout often stresses the layout of Wolfe's brownstone. This is always enjoyable to read about. But it only occasionally plays a role in the mystery plot, per se.

Some Buried Caesar has aspects that deal with the practice of architecture:

  1. An architect is a character: young Jimmy Pratt (Chapter 2).
  2. His uncle Thomas Pratt talks briefly about how poor financial prospects are for architects. This is in the middle of the Depression (Chapter 2).
  3. A barbecue pit is being constructed (middle of Chapter 3).

Landscape Mysteries

Golden Age mystery writers also often liked to base events in landscapes. This is sometimes found in Stout:

Stout and the Van Dine School

Stout's basic paradigm is fairly similar to that of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance books. One difference is that Wolfe and Archie are private detectives, whereas most Van Dine school sleuths are either genius amateurs who work with the police as unofficial consultants, or genius amateurs who have gone to work for the police. Wolfe is certainly an eccentric genius, in the full Van Dine tradition, but he is not an amateur. And his relations with the police, while close and sometimes collaborative, are also much less friendly than most Van Dine school detectives.

The Intelligentsia. Van Dine often included collectors and enthusiasts in his tales. Examples are the ceramics collectors and dog lovers in The Kennel Murder Case (1932), the tropical fish lovers of The Dragon Murder Case (1933), the Egyptologists of The Scarab Murder Case (1929). Ellery Queen followed suit with the rare book lovers of many of his tales, and the stamp collectors of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). Stuart Palmer had the museum setting of "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), and the dog show setting of "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders" (1934).

Rex Stout followed this Van Dine School tradition by using an orchid grower and/or flower show background for several of his works, including Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939), "Black Orchids" (1941), "Door to Death" (1948), and "Easter Parade" (1957). There are also the expert chefs and gourmets of Too Many Cooks (1938) and "Poison à la Carte" (1958), and the fishing expedition of "Immune to Murder" (1955). See the chess-players of Gambit (1962). The classical music composers in "Invitation to Murder" (1953) and "Blood Will Tell" (1963). The design world in The Red Box (1936 - 1937), Red Threads (1939), Alphabet Hicks (1941), "Bullet for One" (1948), Prisoner's Base (1952), "Christmas Party" (1957). The painter in "Die Like a Dog" (1954), the photographers in "Easter Parade" (1957), the artists in "Method Three for Murder" (1960). The radio workers in And Be a Villain (1948), magazine employee in Before Midnight (1955), theater people in "Counterfeit for Murder" (1961), television producers in The Father Hunt (1968).

Murder Methods. Van Dine often included bizarre, ingenious murder methods in his work. These occur frequently in Stout as well. The opening sections of a Stout mystery often depict a mystery against a colorful background. How the crime was committed is completely unclear. Eventually, Nero and Archie figure out the details of the bizarre murder method used. The solution to this problem is revealed almost at once, often around half way through the story, or even earlier. Throughout the rest of the tale, the focus is figuring out whodunit, the actual killer. This is revealed at the end of the story. This two part construction, figuring out the method of the murder in the first half, the identity of the killer in the second, occurs in such works as Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939), "Black Orchids" (1941), "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (1942) and "Poison à la Carte" (1958). Stout often put his greatest creativity into the first half of these tales. Both the colorful background, and the mystery puzzle surrounding the hidden method of murder, are often brilliantly done. By contrast, the actual whodunit section in the second half tends to be much less ingenious.

Civil Rights. The Van Dine School often emphasized positive portraits of minority characters, and attacks on racism. This is true of Stout as well, especially in his looks at black characters and Civil Rights in Too Many Cooks and A Right to Die. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers. One also suspects from his name that top operative & key series character Saul Panzer is Jewish, although this is not discussed explicitly.

Psychology. Van Dine's work emphasized the individual psychology of the characters; their diverse psychological profiles served as identifications of the killer. Some of Stout's novels focus especially on individual attributes, especially tastes and preferences:

Series Characters: Police. Van Dine included a sizable cast of police detectives, who appeared in book after book. The even bigger cast of series characters in the Nero Wolfe perhaps was inspired by this. Stout's series supporting characters are developed in greater depth than Van Dine's.

Van Dine-inspired groups of series police characters also show up in Ellery Queen, Helen Reilly.

Stout: Not Hard-Boiled

It has become a truism of criticism that Stout's work is halfway between Golden Age writers like Van Dine, and hard-boiled writers like Hammett. According to this view, Wolfe is in the Van Dine tradition, whereas Archie is a hard-boiled detective like Hammett's Sam Spade. I cannot agree with this point of view at all, however, and find little to support it. Differences between Stout and hard-boiled fiction: Stout's prose also has little in common with the hard-boiled writers. It has few metaphors or wisecracks, although Archie lets off some startling similes in "Black Orchids" (1941). Nor does Stout indulge in the ornate descriptive passages of the hard-boileds.

One might also point out that Stout was not an alumnus of Black Mask magazine, unlike many hard-boiled authors. His Wolfe stories appeared in books and slick magazines right from the start.

One can also question whether Archie really relates to the hard-boiled dicks of his era. He talks in a direct way, and has few pretensions as an All-American kind of guy. But he also seems much fresher and less cynical and hard-bitten than Sam Spade, for instance.

Archie has some of the characteristics of the "sophisticated New Yorker", a popular type in books, films and comics. He's well-dressed, eats three gourmet meals a day, knows about orchids, regularly attends the theater and goes dancing in night clubs. His work with Wolfe has also brought him into contact with a huge range of New York sophisticated humanity.

Stout and Scientific Detection

Stout might have been influenced by earlier writers of Scientific Detection: R. Austin Freeman. A possible precursor to Stout, is R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke detective series. Similarities:

American Scientific School. Stout's work has similarities to the American Scientific School:

And some Stout features specifically recall Arthur B. Reeve:

Stout had an early writing career in the 1910's, long before Nero Wolfe debuted in 1934. The collection Target Practice (1998) reprinted his short fiction from All-Story, a pioneer pulp magazine. A few of these are crime stories. "Secrets" (1914), which the book's back cover describes as Stout's first crime short story, deals with a lawyer. The crime in the tale is embezzlement from a bank. Bank embezzlement is a favorite subject of the early American Scientific school. It occurs in:

The use of a painter as a character in "Secrets", also recalls Futrelle.

Stout's Antecedents: More Possibilities

Vincent Starrett. In the 1920's Vincent Starrett wrote a series about bookstore owner and armchair detective George Washington Troxell, who solves problems brought to him by police reporter Frederick "Fred" Dellabough. The article on Starrett describes how these tales might have served as a prototype for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Elmer Rice. The article on Elmer Rice describes how his play Counsellor-at-Law (1931) might have influenced Nero Wolfe. The law office in Counsellor-at-Law anticipates business aspects of Nero Wolfe's private investigator establishment.

An Extra Woman

A few Stout stories employ a plot construction: This woman is something "extra" in the plot. She extends the story beyond the men who are the actual suspects.

Examples of these women include:

These women are all strikingly different from each other, and so are the overall plots of the tales. These tales have a common structural "building block" in the plot - but otherwise are quite varied.

Ritual Sacrifice

A persistent theme in Rex Stout's stories is the ritualistic sacrifice. This ritual has associations with ancient fertility rites such as the Dionysius cult. For example: There is another element in many of these stories of ritual sacrifice. It is an emphasis on the large number of people who will participate: As in the Dionysius story, and other ancient myths, the sacrifice is participated in, and benefits, the entire nation. The people as a whole take part in it.

"The Squirt and the Monkey" does not have ritual killings. But it shares features with some of the above tales with ritual murders. SPOILERS:


Occasionally Stout stories have aspects of "performance": people playing roles. These are not on stage or for film. Instead they are at parties or gatherings or public events: The rodeo stars put on a contest at a party in "The Rodeo Murder", but they are appearing as themselves, not acting roles.


Stout often depicted businesses. But nonprofit organizations also appear:

Woman Workplaces

The "typing services" in Murder by the Book are all businesses run by women, as the book points out (Chapter 4). This anticipates the answering phone business in "The Next Witness". Both works show women as the backbone of communication industries. Both show women working in cramped office spaces. And presumably none of these women workers are well paid.


Female-run places regularly appear in films directed by Robert Siodmak and Lamont Johnson.

The large engineering firm in Too Many Women has 500 woman employees. But it is not woman-run.

Caroline Pratt is a businesswoman turned full-time champion golfer in Some Buried Caesar. However, the business she worked for was male-run; we learn little about the business side of golf.

Too Many Cooks takes place at a spa where the cooks and waiters are all black: something that plays a major role in this pro Civil Rights novel. Like the Wolfe looks at all-female places of employment, this examines a business that depends on the work of The Other.

Women's Issues

Women's issues are central to:

Women Accused of Theft at Work

Stout sometimes showed women accused of theft at work. It is usually unclear at the outset of these plots, who actually committed the theft:

Information: Newspaper Morgues

A newspaper "morgue" is a huge collection of old newspapers and/or clippings. People would use them to research nearly any topic.

Today, morgues seem like a predecessor to today's Internet websites and their mountain of information. Americans valued information tools in older eras, even if they unfortunately didn't have modern technology.

Examples in Rex Stout:

Examples in other mystery fiction:

Archie and Male Bonding

Archie Goodwin sometimes bonds with other men:


Contests appear in:


Color imagery plays a role in: Color imagery in Stout tends to be spectacle. It highlights an eye-popping display of clothes, furniture or plastic products. There is a sense of visual abundance, a lot to see.

Sweets with Fruit

Some food in Stout can be classified as "sweets with fruit": There is no mystery plot necessity for Stout to make the candy, sherbet or the ice cream involve fruit. But it seems to be imagery he liked, or found vivid or interesting.

SPOILERS. The Hand in the Glove (Chapter 10) uses fruit in its mystery puzzle.

Beebright, a fictional soft drink flavored with honey, is perhaps related. See "This Won't Kill You" (Chapter 2).


Fer-de-Lance (1934) is the first Nero Wolfe novel.

Bigotry. Fer-de-Lance suffers badly from its negative portrait of a Latin American man. There is also a slur on gay people (Chapter 1).

These offensive aspects are divisive. They are unwelcoming to readers. And although Fer-de-Lance is the first Wolfe book, in my judgement it is a terrible place to start reading the series.

Characters. The characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are different in personality here from how they are depicted in later books. They less interesting and appealing as characters in Fer-de-Lance than they are in later works.

The Set-Up. Fer-de-Lance has a good section, showing Nero and Archie investigating the crime (Chapters 2, 3). This depicts the exhaustive questioning of witnesses that would become a hallmark of the series.

This section also contains much pleasant detail about daily life and routine in Wolfe's brownstone. This is foundational for the entire series.

Next we get Wolfe's solution of the opening mystery (Chapters 4, first half of 5). This is a fairly clever solution. Best feature: the way it ties together to apparently unlinked events, in two very disparate worlds. Such "unexpected linkages" are a good feature of much detective fiction. (SPOILERS. We are talking about the two worlds of the poor Italian-American and the well-to-do University President.)

This section (Chapters 4, first half of 5) contains less information about Wolfe's world. Instead, we get a boring encounter of Archie and a DA's office.

Helpful Young Men. Archie goes to the office of a medical magazine, to see if they have information on a doctor suspect (Chapter 11). This office is an example of the periodical "morgues" people used for information. This magazine office differs from the typical morgue in fiction, in that Archie winds up getting more information directly from the employees, than he does from back issues of the magazine: the typical contents of a morgue. (Please see my list (in this article) of Newspaper Morgues in detective fiction.)

Archie is aided by a very helpful, energetic young man who works in the office. Decades later, Archie seeks information in a real estate management office, and is aided by a similar helpful young man, in The Father Hunt (1968) (Chapter 12). Archie, and Stout, clearly admire both of these young men. They both have some similarity to Dan Culp, the admirable go-getting young office boy and sleuth in Stout's "Justice Ends at Home" (1915).

The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men (1935) is one of Stout's most over-rated novels. It's another example of a Stout novel (as opposed to novella) that is highly touted, but whose merits are invisible to me upon reading.

The League of Frightened Men presents a negatively stereotyped view of a disabled man. This is offensive and tasteless.

For that matter, I didn't like the negative view of poetry, as something coming from a diseased brain.

Mystery Plot. The League of Frightened Men lacks mystery plot ingenuity. SPOILERS. Particularly bad is the way the series of apparent crimes is eventually explained away as simply a tangle of coincidences. This plot teases us with a mystery then fails to come up with an actual culprit and cause.

Doped. Archie is doped to sleep by a villain, who wants to escape. A vividly written sequence shows Archie trying to come to, while still under the influence (Chapters: end of 18, 19, start of 20).

This scene includes dark variations on a standard feature of the Wolfe tales: Archie on-the-road phoning the brownstone and communicating with Wolfe or Fritz.

Crime writers of the era who had sequences of people who were doped:

The drug scenes in both Reilly and The League of Frightened Men are sinister and anti-drug.

The Red Box

Two Parts. There is a two-part construction in The Red Box (1936 - 1937). Wolfe solves one, preliminary mystery (Chapters 1 - 8), which immediately leads to a second mystery taking up the rest of the book (Chapters 8 - 20). Stout's writing in the first section is lively.

This is a different sort of two-part construction for Stout. It is NOT his often-used structure of "the first half explores how the murder was done, the second half figures out who did it".

Links to Champagne for One. The Red Box anticipates Champagne for One. In both:

See also the discussion of the novella "Christmas Party", for its links to The Red Box.

Links to Too Many Cooks. The psychological test in The Red Box (Chapter 6) anticipates the ingredient guessing game in Too Many Cooks. Both have characters going one-by-one into a room with food, and making some response to the food. There are differences: the test in The Red Box is arranged by the detectives to help solve the mystery, while the game in Too Many Cooks is arranged by chefs, and is purely culinary in intent.

Morality. The best moral challenge anywhere to Wolfe's stay-home-in-his-brownstone policy is found in The Red Box (Chapter 1). The moral arguments are intelligent and well-expressed. They are in fact convincing - but if they had been followed in later books, they would have removed one of the most enjoyable elements of the Wolfe series!

In later books, it was not so much morality that would get Wolfe out of his brownstone, but his interest in orchids and gourmet food.

Class. Archie says "a workingman like me is class-conscious" (Chapter 6).

Mystery Plot: Knowledge. Wolfe unexpectedly pulls a rabbit out of his hat, during the first murder investigation (Chapter 2). This clue he finds, involves knowledge: what did characters know and not know, at the time of the killing. Mystery plot ideas centering on knowledge are important in Ellery Queen, Baynard Kendrick.

In-Depth Questioning. Nero Wolfe unearths this clue, by his standard method of questioning witnesses in depth, about every detail they can remember. This approach brings out new information, that short, routine questionings don't.

In The Red Box (Chapter 2), the in-depth answers given by the two women witnesses, also aid in their characterization. Their answers also enable Stout to use his skill in dialogue writing.

Surrealist Echoes. Events in the book's middle (end of Chapter 8) echo previous events (Chapter 2). Books where one scene echoes another are fairly common in mystery fiction. Such echoes often have Surrealist overtones.

Too Many Cooks

Civil Rights. Two of the Wolfe novels are interesting for their look at racial integration. This is a subject of substance, and one of great personal interest to Stout. Too Many Cooks (1938) has a memorable encounter in Chapters 10 and 11, in which Nero Wolfe interrogates a group of black waiters. These chapters are an early expression of Civil Rights idealism in mystery fiction.

SPOILERS. Also notable is the climactic American Dinner featuring US contributions to haute cuisine (start of Chapter 16). This is created by black cooks, who get publicly recognized. This combines the book's patriotic American theme with its Civil Rights advocacy. The US is seen as a place where many races contribute to national achievement.

Other racial minorities are visible: a woman is a Chinese-American; pavilions in the resort are named for West Virginia counties, with the main one in the book named Pocahontas. This is a diverse America.

Please click here for my discussion of Minorities and Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers, such as Stout.

Appalachians. Most of the characters in Stout's books are sophisticated and classy. The same is true of his white West Virginians, such as young Prosecuting Attorney Barry Tolman. Ugly, all-too-common stereotypes of Appalachians are completely absent in Too Many Cooks.

West Virginia is also the site of other famous mystery books: the Uncle Abner tales (1911-1928) of Melville Davisson Post, The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen.

Catalans. The Spanish Civil War is raging, cutting off access to Spain, we briefly learn. Two of the main characters are Catalans: Jerome Berin and his daughter Constanza. Berin is from the real-life Catalan town of Figueres (which means "fig trees" in Catalan, one of the novel's more subtle food references). One suspects that the Spanish Civil War had heightened Stout's awareness of Catalans.

Setting. The grounds around the giant spa (middle of Chapter 2) anticipates in feel the landscape in Alphabet Hicks. Both include paths and little foot bridges. Both also include more than one building.

Alphabet Hicks is full of color and sound. Too Many Cooks is full of different food tastes.

Too Many Cooks will be an major influence on "Immune to Murder": details are in the section on that story. It's a tale with an even more extensive use of landscape.

Links to "Bullet for One". Too Many Cooks shares features with Stout's later novella "Bullet for One" (1948):

Experts. The great chefs are depicted as genuine experts in their field. They are satirized for being temperamental, and having professional rivalries. But they really know their stuff. There is none of today's corrosive anti-intellectual put-down of experts.

Experts in Too Many Cooks are depicted as still having things to learn: Nero Wolfe teaches them about American cuisine. Everyone is shown as having plenty of room to grow, and to expand knowledge.

Secret Knowledge. Both the chef who invented it and Nero Wolfe want to keep the recipe for "saucisse minuit" (midnight sausage) secret. Various tactics are discussed for doing so, including never writing the recipe down (Chapters 1, 17). These tactics and the struggle of others to get the recipe, show mild ingenuity. While this secret knowledge is about food, its concealment techniques are similar to those in spy novels about top secret info.

I confess I found myself out of sympathy with this goal of secrecy. Throughout history, the biggest problem has been spreading knowledge: educating a mass public. And trying to ensure that valuable knowledge is not lost through secrecy and/or neglect.

The recipe, and the ways of keeping it secret, reminded me of the guilds and their control of secret knowledge in the futuristic science fiction novel Starman Jones (1953) by Robert Heinlein. The guilds keep all knowledge in their heads, and pass it down orally to students. I disapproved of this, too - as perhaps Heinlein intended readers to.

The opposite approach was taken in real-life by Julia Child, who educated a mass public about haute cuisine. First through her pioneer cookbooks, then her TV series, she constantly innovated to teach Everybody about "advanced" food.

Nero Wolfe says that mass knowledge of the recipe would be a disaster (Chapter 1). According to him, most people can't cook, and if the recipe were widely known, people would simply make terrible, inferior versions of it. This point of view is that a mass public is too inferior to use knowledge.

Julia Child had to face this issue too: she spent much effort in educating people about techniques of cooking, trying to elevate their skills. Unlike Wolfe, she was optimistic that through the public's hard work, and her skilled instruction, that she could elevate public ability to use knowledge.

"Black Orchids" deals with the secret, guarded knowledge of growing the title orchids. Wolfe tries to get this knowledge for himself too, in a plot-line that seems modeled on the one in Too Many Cooks.

None of the Wolfe books shows the efforts to massively spread and increase knowledge about plants, practiced by organizations like the International Palm Society. Starting in the 1950's it brought professional botanists and amateur "citizen scientists" together to research and assemble knowledge about palm trees and publish it in books and journals. Both the Society and Julia Child had a vision of expert knowledge being published and widely shared.

Food. Too Many Cooks perhaps has the most about food of any Wolfe book, although many Wolfe tales are full of good meals. This recalls S.S. Van Dine, and his sleuth Philo Vance's love of the culinary in The Benson Murder Case (1926) (start of Chapter 22).

Chefs and food form a Background in Too Many Cooks. We get a systematic account of the worlds of great chefs and their gourmet food. Backgrounds among intellectuals are a standard feature of the Van Dine School.

Mystery Plot: Foreshadowing. Aspects of the mystery plot to come, are subtly foreshadowed in the opening (Chapter 1). In other words, plot ideas appear in the opening, that are related to ideas in the actual mystery plot:

This foreshadowing is an interesting idea. It is unusual: I don't recall a similar structure in other books.

I don't know if this foreshadowing was something Stout was conscious of. These linked ideas might instead have features in common, because they are all the product of Stout's brain.

Stout also wrote a sequel of sorts to Too Many Cooks, many years later, in which one of the characters from the earlier book returns. A Right to Die (1964) is a lively look at the Civil Rights era, and shows good storytelling. But its puzzle plot is weak. A Right to Die develops an interesting pattern of personal relationships among its characters, that interacts with the political ideas and issues of the era. The pattern is creative, and helps make the book one of the most enjoyable of Stout's novels. Each character in the story has their own relationship to the murder victim, and their own political beliefs about Civil Rights; the political beliefs and the relationship are often connected.

While many Stout novels focus on a business, this one centers on a Civil Rights organization, playing the same structural role in the novel as a business typically does in a Wolfe book. (Another mystery set at a liberal "nonprofit" is The Sleepwalker (1974) by Helen McCloy.)

Please click here for my discussion of Minorities and Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers, such as Stout.

The Solution. Many mysteries about politics or government titillate the reader with the possibility that the crime is political and that politicians or government officials are responsible. Then at the finale, the crime is revealed to be non-political in nature, with all the politicians are pure as lambs and their political ideas as irrelevant. I regard such solutions as cop-outs.

SPOILERS. To its credit, A Right to Die does NOT evade the issues the story raises in its solution. The solution does not actually involve politics. But it is very much rooted in racism. A Right to Die shows racism as real, evil, and the cause of the murder in the story.

Some Buried Caesar

Story Telling. Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939) has unusually good story telling. And outstanding mystery plotting. These combine to make one of Stout's best mystery novels.

Capitalism. Monte McMillan has had his fortune wiped out by disaster. Daniel Cullen is one of the world's richest men. But Cullen still puts pressure on McMillan to sell his bull at horrendously low sale prices, exploiting McMillan's disaster (Chapter 2). It's an ugly picture of capitalism.

Food. The good food at the exposition tent (Chapter 6), recalls Nero Wolfe's enthusiasm for vernacular American cooking in Too Many Cooks.

The Suspects. and the Book's Structure. Some Buried Caesar has two groups of suspects:

  1. One group are businessmen and organization heads, that deal with cattle.
  2. The other group are members of two families, that are personally or romantically involved with each other.
Either group would be plenty of suspects for a Wolfe novella. This double helping of suspects seems proportionate to a long novel like Some Buried Caesar.

Some Buried Caesar introduces its suspects and situations remarkably systematically:

  1. Chapter 1: the bull and his landscape.
  2. Chapter 1: heroine Lily Rowan, ranch hand Dave - two characters that don't fit into groups.
  3. Chapter 1: Caroline Pratt.
  4. Chapter 2, first half: the rest of the Pratt family.
  5. Chapter 2, second half: the businessmen and organization heads.
  6. Chapter 2, end, and Chapter 3, start: the story's main plot premise, and the dispute it triggers.
  7. Chapter 3, first half: the Osgood family.
  8. Chapter 3, middle: the barbecue pit.
  9. Chapter 3, second half: romantic relationships among the characters.
  10. Chapter 3, end, and Chapter 4: the murder.
The systematic organization makes these events easy to follow. And perhaps more importantly, they give a rhythmic feel to the storytelling - a steady march of characters and settings that is artistically satisfying to read.

Hidden Criminal Scheme. SPOILERS in this section. The finale of Some Buried Caesar has Nero Wolfe revealing a hidden criminal scheme. Such schemes are fairly widespread in detective fiction. They consist of a bad guy's criminal activity, concealed during most of the book from the detective, the other characters, and the reader. Eventually the sleuth finds obscure clues to the existence and content of the scheme, and deduces that the scheme exists, and what it does.

Rex Stout did not invent such hidden criminal schemes: other writers had pioneered them long before. But Some Buried Caesar executes its hidden criminal scheme aspects very well.

Who Done It?. SPOILERS in this section. Once detective Nero Wolfe unveils the hidden scheme, it allows him to identify the killer:

This sort of reasoning, "using a hidden criminal scheme to identify the murderer", is employed by other mystery writers as well. Stout did not invent it. But he does it very well in Some Buried Caesar.

The Silent Speaker

Story Telling. The Silent Speaker (1946) has unusually good story telling.

Organizations. Nero Wolfe tales often focus on an organization or business, and some of its leading employees. The Silent Speaker is unusual in that it has two organizations.

These two organizations are the business association NIA and the governmental BPR, discussed further below. Both are fictional, made up by Stout. The Wikipedia article on The Silent Speaker suggests real-life antecedents for them.

The Silent Speaker recalls "Booby Trap". Both have:

Despite these common features, The Silent Speaker is hardly a dull retread of "Booby Trap". Instead, both tales seem like vigorous variations on common themes.

Recordings. The Silent Speaker recalls Alphabet Hicks:

The recording technology in The Silent Speaker is conventional: a kind of Dictaphone. In contrast, the system in Alphabet Hicks involves a high tech plastic unique to that novel. The Silent Speaker is far less technology oriented than Alphabet Hicks.

Cramer. SPOILERS. Inspector Cramer memorably does similar actions, in The Silent Speaker (last part of Chapter 35) and The Doorbell Rang (second half of Chapter 4).

The Silent Speaker and The Doorbell Rang are both about government organizations.

Lists and Surrealism. A list of startling items are to be used by Boone in his speech (Chapter 6). Unfortunately we never learn how in fact he intended to employ them, in specific terms. But the list is enjoyable in itself, and a positive addition to the novel. Such a list has a surrealistic quality. It anticipates the surreal lists in the surrealist-inspired author J.G. Ballard, and his experimental fiction The Atrocity Exhibition.

Murder by the Book

Detection. Murder by the Book (1951) has good detection in its opening (Chapters 1-3). Wolfe comes up with three good conclusions, one (end of Chapter 2) based on deduction, two more (end of Chapter 3) serious possibilities based on evidence. These are all three surprising, yet logically sound and based on evidence fully shared with the reader: always a pleasing combination.

There is also a sound suggestion based on a list (end of Chapter 1), about the list's possible purpose.

In addition, Wolfe comes up with a good plan for further detection, finding a way forward when the case looks like a blank wall (end of Chapter 3). This too is creative detection. SPOILERS. This plan is to research "typing services".

Most of this detection is based on two documents available to the detectives, a list and a letter. Deduction from a list recalls Warrant for X (1938) by Philip MacDonald. Stout's deductions are completely different from MacDonald's, though.

Publishing Mystery. The opening section of Murder by the Book is set in the publishing industry and concerns a mysterious manuscript, anticipating Plot It Yourself. Stout himself had a real-life career in publishing, working at the Vanguard Press.

Law Firm Mystery. Later sections of Murder by the Book concentrate on the employees of a law firm. This anticipates "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo".

Out of Town. Murder by the Book and Might As Well Be Dead open with an out-of-town, Midwestern businessman consulting Nero Wolfe to help his child, who lives in New York City.

Before Midnight

Before Midnight (1955) starts out not-bad in its first half, but ultimately loses all interest. Best parts: Chapters 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 16.

A Poor Mystery Plot. Its big problem: Before Midnight lacks any good mystery puzzle plot ideas.

Nero Wolfe tales are sometimes falsely accused of never having good mystery plots. This article documents that there are indeed quite a few Wolfe tales with good mystery puzzles. Unfortunately, Before Midnight is not one of them. It is devoid of mystery ingenuity.

Backgrounds. Before Midnight has some brief Backgrounds. A Background is an inside look at some business or institution. In Before Midnight these include:

Before Midnight deals with an ad contest promoting a perfume company. And the perfume company's head Talbott Heery is a character, in fact one of the better characters in the book. From all this, one might guess that Before Midnight might offer an inside look Background on the perfume business. Not so! We see the perfume company marketed and advertised by the ad agency, but learn almost nothing about the perfume industry itself. (A mystery that does deal with the perfume business is Poison Jasmine (1940) by Clyde B. Clason.)

One of the contestants (Chapter 7) works at a (fictitious) magazine called Clock. We don't learn much about Clock, and the episode can't be called a real Background. Still, what we do learn is amusing, a nice little set-piece by Stout. Clock seems to be a serious magazine, based in New York City, with a large staff. Its name recalls the real-life Time. SPOILERS. The fictitious head of Clock is Mr. Tite; the head of Time was Henry Luce. The names Tite and Luce sound like "tight" and "loose".

The above chapters (4, 5, 7, 9) also include the most in-depth characterizations of the suspects.

New York Times. A news conference (Chapter 16) has a New York Times reporter talking in the beautifully polished prose often seen in that newspaper. It's funny without being insulting. A Times reporter gets spoofed again, over different things, in Gambit (last part of Chapter 3). There is also a merry, but not satirical, account of a Times reporter at the start of The Rubber Band.

Ad Contest. The ad contest is much less interesting and complex than the culinary challenge in Too Many Cooks (Chapter 3). See also the cowboys' roping contest in "The Rodeo Murder". These contests are frameworks around which Stout can build his stories. The contestants in all these tales become suspects. So do some non-contestants. Stout seems to like these contestants, with their talents and colorful personalities.

Most of the historical women the contest clues point to, gained their fame through romances with men. This contrasts with the three women contestants, who seem to be hard workers, and NOT defined by their relationships with men.

Verse. The poetic clues in the contest recall some early British crosswords, in their style and approach.

As poetry, I thought these clues were competent, professional - but not inspired (Chapters 1, 8). Still Stout deserves credit for trying to do "something different" by including poetry in his novel.

Nero Wolfe often reads real-life books that are named in the tales. Here he is reading Beauty for Ashes (1953) by Christopher La Farge (see end of Chapter 9, start of Chapter 10). Beauty for Ashes is a verse novel: a novel told in poetry. Its mention in Before Midnight is consistent with the poetry clues in that novel. (Christopher La Farge is the grandson of the talented painter John La Farge. Nero Wolfe reads The Sudden Guest (1946) by Christopher La Farge in Too Many Women.)

Might As Well Be Dead

Might As Well Be Dead (1956) tells two nearly separate stories, both well.

The Opening. The opening (Chapters 1-4) is a missing persons plot. It shows Wolfe and Archie slowly converging on a solution. While there is some simple but solid detective work, this section is mainly notable for its emotionally affecting story. It is one of Stout's most involving sagas. The character of P.H., beaten up by life, anticipates the protagonist of Jack Webb's One for My Dame (1961), who is also memorably delineated as one of life's pounded and saddened.

The Rest of the Novel: The Main Mystery. The rest of the book tells a murder mystery. This recalls the novellas Stout was writing in this era. (SPOILERS) The central idea of the solution, is to look to see who had the knowledge and ability to stage an important event. This recalls the key idea of "Too Many Detectives" (1956) of the same year. The details of the two plots are highly different however, despite their common structural approach. Another difference: in "Too Many Detectives" this knowledge-ability concept is only revealed in the solution at the tale's finale. In Might As Well Be Dead, it emerges in Wolfe's reasoning midway through the book. It is implicit in Wolfe's instructions to his detectives (Chapter 7), and fully explained by him in a later scene with the police (Chapter 12). The latter chapter has two fine episodes of detection as well, one building on the other. At the end, during the solution (Chapter 18), we get a full depiction of the details of the knowledge-ability situation.

Stout includes a few mild clues to the identity of the killer: a relationship (Chapter 10), some of the killer's behavior (Chapter 13). However, these hardly amount to the sort of rigorous fair play one finds in an Ellery Queen novel, say. The identity of the killer is not perhaps a triumph.

Worse is the killer's motive, which is completely withheld from the reader before the finale.

No Background. Might As Well Be Dead is unusual in Stout's work, in that the suspects do not all work in the same industry or business. Nor do we get an inside look at any business or institution, also unlike Stout. In other words, Might As Well Be Dead lacks a "Background". The characters all work in various white collar New York City jobs, some fairly upper middle class in the Stout manner, but we learn little about their work. These are the sort of people who run through Stout, but divorced from their business backgrounds.

If Death Ever Slept

If Death Ever Slept (1957) is a mediocre mystery novel.

Undercover. Archie goes undercover, as he did in Too Many Women. In both books he is impersonating a middle-class, white collar worker who's starting a new job in the business world. He's not playing a big shot. He's mainly there to gather information on the new people he's working with.

These are some of the most middle class undercover assignments in mystery history. Undercover assignments in other writers are often far more dramatic.

Archie is rarely in danger in these roles. And the business work he looks at is generally not that interesting.

Target. In If Death Ever Slept and "Bullet for One" Nero and Archie are hired to prove that one suspect is guilty. At least that is what the clients want - Nero insists he will follow the evidence wherever it leads. BIG SPOILERS. Both works have similar solutions, in the treatment of whether this suspect is actually guilty.

Both tales also deal with leaks from businesses, where people are suspected of selling off information to their employer's rival.

Champagne for One

Champagne for One (1958) also has elements of a public murder.

Fertility Rituals. Before that, the opening scenes depict a party with many aspects of a fertility ritual. This formal society dinner party embodies all the rituals of that strangely elaborate social protocol. These are combined with an unusual asymmetry between the men and women guests. In many ways, the men are on display here as potential romantic partners to the women, and vice versa. This gives an odd and interesting effect to all the ritual. The institution with the women recalls the female factory in "Bitter End" (1940), and its comparison to a maternity ward. The romantic exhibition of the men, including Archie, who are their most polished and suave here, recalls tales such as "A Window for Death" (1956), and Archie's friendship with Arrow. Archie clearly enjoys taking part in this refined ritual exhibition. The novel demonstrates Stout's abilities to create unique situations, ones loaded with symbolic resonance.

The dinner party and the women's institution recall a bit Hulbert Footner's The House With the Blue Door (1942).

Mystery Plot. The actual murder is somewhat in the tradition of Ellery Queen's Calamity Town (1942). SPOILERS:

The details and mystery puzzles are different in the two books.

The tone is different too. In Calamity Town Ellery's watching is stretched out over many chapters, to maximize suspense. Champagne for One does the opposite: it restricts Archie's watching to just a few minutes. Up to that point, the party in Champagne for One is fun and mainly light-hearted, for both Archie and the reader. Only at the last minute does Archie have to start watching, and then almost immediately the murder occurs.

Champagne for One has a creative puzzle plot, one with aspects of the impossible crime. Once again, Stout shows ingenuity in showing how an inexplicable crime was actually done.

The book's subject matter, an ingenious poisoning with a dinner party set-up, resembles Stout's novella "Poison à la Carte" (1958) written immediately after Champagne for One, although the two works' puzzle plots are quite different. A killing at a party also recalls Too Many Cooks.

The opening of Champagne for One (Chapters 1-6) is pretty exclusively confined to the party, initial investigation, and a backstory of some of the characters. This is a vigorously told sequence.

Class Warfare. The ability of the upper classes to buy justice and the police is a theme running through Champagne for One. Archie has to defy everyone, and stick to his guns with his "inconvenient" story, fighting against the rich and the police. He gets some help from another working man (Chapter 3). Champagne for One shows working people like Archie, on their own in conflict with the rich and their police supporters.

The Police Commissioner is depicted in an especially negative light in Champagne for One (Chapter 11) and, with a bit of ambiguity, The Doorbell Rang (Chapter 4).

Plot It Yourself

Mystery Plot. The opening of Plot It Yourself (1959) (Chapters 1 - 4) is essentially a short story, which contains a nice mystery about a crime not involving murder. This mystery is partially, and cleverly, solved, by the end of this opening section. This mystery's ideas ideas are further developed in Chapters 16 and 19. A complete solution to the mystery is given in Chapter 19, the book's last chapter.

Aside from these sections, the rest of the book is much less inventive.

With its series of crimes, and a search for hidden structure contained in the series, the opening mystery resembles an Ellery Queen style plot.

Both the partial solution to the mystery in the opening (Chapters 1 - 4), and the full solution at the end of the book (Chapter 19), are based on sound evidence. Wolfe explains this evidence in detail, and his admirably logical reasoning based on it. However, this evidence is NOT shared ahead of time with the reader. The reader only learns about the evidence, when Wolfe uses it to propound the solutions. In other words, the mystery in Plot It Yourself is not "fair play". In my judgement, while this lack of fair play sharing with the reader is a flaw, it is only a minor flaw, and not one which damages the book significantly.

SPOILERS. Nero Wolfe's solutions to the crime depend on his stylistic analyses of various books. Such analysis can be considered part of the scientific study of literature. This makes what Wolfe is doing part of Scientific Detection.

Nero Wolfe has some sound ideas for further detective work (last part of Chapter 2).

A Clue. SPOILERS. A suspect's dialogue is lacking in comments on a subject (end of Chapter 5). Nero Wolfe deduces guilty knowledge from this lack (Chapter 19).

This clue recalls main clue to the killer in "This Won't Kill You" (1952). Both clues have a similar structure. However the clue in "This Won't Kill You" is much more detailed, solid and convincing. The clue in Plot It Yourself is week, and inconclusive: alternative explanations for the suspect's dialogue can be imagined.

Background. Plot It Yourself has a full-scale Background, showing the Publishing Industry in New York. Plot It Yourself only looks at mainstream fiction - it does not include genre fiction like mysteries, Westerns or science fiction. And all of these mainstream works seem intended to attract mass audiences - none of them are avant-garde or targeted to small elite highbrow audiences of "literary" people.

We learn about many specific novels, short stories and plays. Their titles, made up by Stout, subtly burlesque the overdone, over ornate titles fashionable in mainstream literature.

Other mystery writers in the Van Dine School also looked at the world of Mainstream Fiction / Publishing Industry:

McCloy's novel explicitly draws a contrast between mainstream fiction designed for a mass audience, and mainstream works for the small audience of elite literary intellectuals. I don't recall Plot It Yourself explicitly making such a distinction. But all the works in Plot It Yourself are definitely designed for a mass audience.

Stout's decision to focus on mass audience fiction might be grounded in the needs of his mystery plot: mass audience fiction can generate big money, and thus motivate the crimes shown in Plot It Yourself. By contrast literary fiction for a small audience usually made modest money. However, one suspects Stout was also genuinely interested in the world of mass audience mainstream fiction.

Characters. One of the women seems to be a Lesbian, although this is never made explicit. She is sympathetically depicted. Next year's "Method Three for Murder" (1960) also has what seems to be another essentially sympathetic Lesbian character, the more mannish Judy Bram.

Of the suspects in the case, Simon Jacobs is more sympathetic than the others. His biography is especially full of features that make him likable (last part of Chapter 3). SPOILERS. His war service would have been a big plus in Rex Stout's eyes. So might his background as a pulp magazine writer.

Plot It Yourself is generally much more sympathetic to the successful authors who are being victimized, than to the failed authors who are victimizing them. Simon Jacobs is the exception.

Plot and Literature. It has been a cliche, among both mainstream novelists and some crime writers, that a writer ought to create good characters, then let the plot emerge naturally from their interaction. Unexpectedly, Plot It Yourself offers the opposite point of view. An author instead recommends that writers create a good plot. Presumably the writer would then fit their characters into it - although Plot It Yourself doesn't explicitly say so.

"Plot it yourself" is how the author sums up this advice to writers (middle of Chapter 3).

This is an interesting issue, both for working writers of fiction, and literary theorists.

Archie says he read this advice in a piece in the Times Book Review. Is this article a real-life article? Or did Stout make it up for this novel?

Too Many Clients

Tailing. Too Many Clients (1960) is a mainly minor Nero Wolfe mystery. It has an interesting opening (Chapters 1,2), which looks at a "mystery about a tailing".

A client hires Archie to perform a tailing. Stout explores many different approaches to the tailing. It forms a "logical analysis" of how tailing might take place, and how its results might be obrained. The tailing involves a cab, like the opening of "Method Three for Murder" (1960) of the same year, and both stories involve Archie operating solo.

SPOILERS. Why is the tailing ordered by the client? It's a mystery. And the tailing unexpectedly leads to a second mystery (end of Chapter 2). These two mysteries are likely related, part of one big mystery puzzle. Unfortunately, this tailing puzzle comes to a disappointing non-solution, or perhaps anti-solution (Chapter 10). The detailed whys and wherefores of the tailing, are airily "explained" as someone simply wanting to send a signal to his wife.

The opening also explores two different responses by cabbies, to Archie's request (Chapter 2). This too is an "exploration of alternatives".

The Rooms. Later sections (Chapter 3) take place in a house with an elaborately decorated set of rooms. The decor emphasizes yellow and red, like Nero Wolfe's office. The house might be seen as something of a dark parody of Wolfe's brownstone. Both are west side Manhattan houses, with elaborate interior design, presided over by a wealthy, powerful man and his support staff. Both involve wish fulfillment fantasy, and personal relationships.

Problems. After this opening, the book becomes much less interesting. Much of the material after the opening suffers from sordidness.

Worst part: a sinister encounter (first part of Chapter 14). Stout should have resisted writing this at all costs. It is seemingly the opposite of his progressive, feminist treatment of related issues in "Die Like a Dog", "Death of a Demon".

Predecessors. "Disguise for Murder" (1950) previously involved murder and a love nest, like Too Many Clients. It also has a tailing sequence, with a simple discussion os some alternative approaches.

The plastics company in Too Many Clients recalls Alphabet Hicks. Too Many Clients examines business conflicts within the company, however, while Alphabet Hicks more interestingly looked at plastic products.

The Final Deduction

The Final Deduction (1961) seems like a minor novel. Its main situation and solution are something of a cliche in crime fiction: they already appeared in Dashiell Hammett's "Crooked Souls" / "The Gatewood Caper" (1924), for example.

There is a clever mini-mystery in the opening (Chapters 1-2), which is the best part of the book.


Links to Too Many Cooks. The murder in Gambit (1962) recalls Too Many Cooks: Links to The Red Box. The poisoned hot chocolate in Gambit recalls the poisoned candy in The Red Box.

Links to The Father Hunt. Gambit opens with a young woman taking a large sum of cash to Wolfe's office, and attempting to hire him to solve a mystery concerning her father. A similar scene will appear in The Father Hunt (Chapter 2).

In both books issues are raised about how the daughter obtained the cash.

Links to Bullet for One. The chess club in Gambit and the riding stables in "Bullet for One" are entertainment enterprises that cater to upper middle class New Yorkers. See also the golf course in Fer-de-Lance.

Links to Hamlet. The situation in Gambit, with the daughter worried that a man has killed her father so he can romance her mother, recalls that in Hamlet. The protagonist is now a daughter, rather than a son.

The Chess Club. The chess club in Gambit has a lot of financially elite members. Such elites are typical of Nero Wolfe mysteries.

This forms a contrast with another tale at a chess club, "The Chessplayers" (1953) by Charles L. Harness. The club in "The Chessplayers" takes pride in that members' prestige comes from their chess abilities, not from their jobs in the outside world. It is very democratic.

For another fictional look at chess life, see the kids' novel John and the Chess Men (1953) by Helen Weissenstein, a book with a touch of mystery.

Destroying a Book. I revere books. And find the opening with Nero Wolfe destroying a dictionary, repellent. It is a betrayal of civilized and intellectual values.

Lon Cohen. Series character Lon Cohen is a newspaperman who Knows Everything about people-around-town. He often shows up, filling Archie in on the background of a tale's suspects. We see Lon Cohen at work, and usually don't learn much about his personal life.

Gambit however, establishes that Lon Cohen is both married and sexually attracted to women. He is straight. We don't usually see anything relevant to Cohen's sexual orientation in the other books.

The Mother Hunt

Two Mysteries. The Mother Hunt (1963) contains two different mysteries:
  1. Finding out the identity of the unknown mother of an abandoned baby (Chapters 1 to the first part of 14). This is the "Mother Hunt" of the title. This part uses sound detective work: it's a model tale of detectives uncovering a mystery. It is also pleasantly detailed, making good storytelling. Archie announces that this hunt is finished near the start of Chapter 14.
  2. Finding out who the killer is (Chapters 14 - 19). This part is poor: it lacks plot ingenuity, clues to the killer's identity, and even a good motive for the killer.
The Mother Hunt thus resembles The Doorbell Rang in that its non-murder elements are much better than its uninteresting murder mystery.

Publishing: A Small Background. The deceased man was a novelist. We learn about his contacts in the publishing industry (Chapter 9). We get a small amount about their business enterprises - but not enough to amount to a large, detailed Background on the publishing business.

Later, there is an inside look at a newspaper publishing an article (Chapter 12), which perhaps continues the publishing subject matter.

Murder by the Book and Plot It Yourself involve publishing.

Moral Issues. The Mother Hunt never comes up with good reasons for Wolfe withholding information on the killings from the police. Admittedly, going to the police would expose his client to police interrogation. But this is not enough to justify the felony of withholding evidence.

The Mother Hunt never considers whether it is moral for Wolfe and his client to uncover the identity of the baby's mother. In real life, babies who are given up by the parents, often come from very painful origins. Nor does the book inquire into the morality of Wolfe investigating the personal lives of many women who are "suspects" for the role of the baby's unknown mother.

The Doorbell Rang

The Doorbell Rang (1965) is shorter than many of Stout's novels, and its technique seems more similar to his novellas than to that of his novels.

Taking on the FBI. The book is best in its first third (Chapters 1 - 5), when Wolfe is taking on the FBI. Wolfe later resumes his encounter with the FBI (second half of Chapter 11 and Chapter 12), leading to some mildly ingenious comic fun. One might stress that this is the FBI of the later J. Edgar Hoover era, not the reformed FBI that emerged after Hoover's passing.

The opening is eclectic, with many diverse aspects of a "duel with the FBI" taken on. Some recall earlier Wolfe books:

More sophisticated are the means of communication Archie sets up (Chapter 3). These are interesting in their own right. SPOILERS. But they also subtly lay the groundwork for the next episode, when a mysterious someone uses hidden means to contact Archie (Chapter 4). This reverses roles: instead of Archie using means he has invented to contact others, some unknown person has invented means he uses to contact Archie. Even more importantly, this leads immediately to a mystery: who is this person, and what do they want? Archie proposes several possible solutions. But the actual solution is unexpected and ungenerous. This mystery puzzle is the best mystery plot in The Doorbell Rang.

Stout seizes the chance to offer vivid character sketches of various series regulars, as they get involved with the events.

The Trap. The trap is amusing (second half of Chapter 11 and Chapter 12). The account emphasizes living arrangements within Wolfe's brownstone. Activities at the brownstone in general are one of the key subjects in the Wolfe saga, always a fun subject for readers. The scheme also draws on two favorite Wolfe topics: orchids and gourmet dinners. All of this makes it different from typical "biter bit" schemes in mystery fiction, which do not have this sort of background to draw on.

Archie's speech (near the end of Chapter 2) mentions how good the FBI are at getting through locked doors. Wolfe's trap uses this skill against them.

Murder Mystery Plot. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is taken up by a poorly constructed murder mystery.

Distributing Information. Rachel Bruner distributes the book to a startlingly wide group of social authority figures (Chapter 1). This recalls Stout's real-life work as founder and chairman of the Writers' War Board. The Board created and distributed truly massive amounts of information. Stout's work at the Vanguard Press also focussed on getting political material before a wide audience.

The Photo. A nude photo of the male murder victim turns up, likely taken by one of his girlfriends during a tryst (Chapter 10). The photo is thus seen as part of a heterosexual relationship.

But in real-life, nude or near-nude male "physique" photos were often associated with gay men. Several professors' careers were shattered in the 1960 Newton Arvin case, when police established they had such photos of near-nude adult men. The mystery novel Murder's Little Helper (1963) (end of Chapter 3) by George Bagby refers to "art studies" one can purchase in Times Square: a gay context.

Earlier there are secret meetings between men in hotel rooms (Chapter 4). This is part of the FBI intrigue. But it also subtly evokes the clandestine meetings between gay men of that era.

The Father Hunt

Not a Sequel. The Father Hunt (1968) has a premise similar to Stout's earlier The Mother Hunt: figuring out the identity of a mysterious, unknown parent. Aside from this, the two books are not related - there are no shared characters, aside from Nero, Archie and crew. Stout has also tried to make the two mystery puzzles as different as possible: There are also key differences in the books' mystery structure: These differences might be conscious and deliberate on Stout's part. He clearly had a Good Idea in building a mystery around a unknown parent's identity - one he wanted to use to the max. But he also likely didn't want a trivial rerun of an earlier book.

Best Parts: Detection. Nero Wolfe and especially Archie do detective work, to track down the mysterious father's identity. These detection chapters are the best parts of The Father Hunt. These detection episodes include: Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, end of 8, 10, 11, 12. In the 1993 paperback of The Father Hunt, these sections take up 90 of the book's 195 pages: 46%, nearly half. They form a solid novella, within the weaker novel as a whole.

The chapters come in two clusters: Chapters 3-6, Chapters 10-12.

The detective work in The Father Hunt is solid but simple and straightforward. The father's trail is traced through written documents and eye-witnesses' memories. Most of this is not particularly clever or original. But it is satisfying to read about, like most sound detective work in mystery novels.

Information Sources: Detection. Archie uses information sources available in 1967, in his detective work:

Such sources served as information resources, in those pre-Internet days.

Who Done It?. Archie figures out who the killer is (Chapter 11). SPOILERS. Stout managed to surprise me, with a well-concealed killer I didn't suspect. Stout introduces the killer outside of the range of suspects, an approach sometimes found in mystery fiction. It serves to persuade the reader subtly that the person is not a suspect.

This "identity of killer" mystery forms a separate component of the mystery plot, only partially connected to the "routine" detective work pursued by Archie.

Archie: The Main Detective. Archie both figures out the killer's identity, AND does the "routine" leg work tracking down the father's trail. He is the main detractive in The Father Hunt, not Nero Wolfe.

Background: Banks. Many of the characters are bankers, and the banking history of suspects is a key issue in the mystery. The Father Hunt thus has a mild Background showing banks and bankers.

Archie and a banker even go to the Banker's Club for lunch (Chapter 6). We learn what Archie got for lunch. It sounds lighter and less flavorful than the gourmet food Archie eats at Wolfe's. Perhaps there is a touch of satire here, about bland, colorless bankers.

Computers and Science. There are a number of references to computers and automation, scattered throughout the novel. None are closely related to the plot. Still they help establish a "modern milieu" to the story, reflecting the rise of computing by 1968.

There are a number of similar references-in-passing to science. These too establish a modern setting. Wolfe seems interested in science as an institution, one affecting modern society.

There is a reference to the moon program, and the fact that mankind has not yet reached the moon.

Fritz. A pleasant feature of The Father Hunt is new detail about chef Fritz. We learn a bit more about the contents of his basement den (Chapter 16). And some dialogue and an anecdote show how Fritz regards himself as In Charge in his kitchen (Chapter 7).

Saul Panzer and Music. Saul Panzer also comes into better focus in The Father Hunt (Chapter 12, end of Chapter 16).

Particularly interesting is the debate Saul Panzer gets into on whether music has intellectual content (Chapter 12). I would enjoy an in-depth analysis of this issue. We also learn that Saul Panzer plays classical piano: something I would not have suspected from other books.

Saul is also depicted as a serious cook (Chapter 12). He is interested in learning cooking skills.

Chair. The red leather visitors' chair in Wolfe's office is difficult to get out of. This subject forms a running thread throughout The Father Hunt. For details, see my list of the tricky deep chairs reserved for an executive's visitors.

Dol Bonner: The Hand in the Glove

Stout wrote stories about detectives other than Nero Wolfe. These include a single novel about a woman private detective, Dol Bonner. Dol Bonner is not hard-boiled; she solves crimes among the upper middle classes, just like Wolfe, and in many ways is his female counterpart.

The Hand in the Glove (1937) is an unpleasant book. This is due to the relationships of the characters, who are both full of guilty secrets, and given to lying to each other about their romantic relationships. Because of this, a nightmarish anxiety hangs over the work. Few people ever speak up and are honest with each other, and when they do the results are so traumatic they are not to be born. The character of the servant De Roche recalls Stout's early story "Sanétomo" (1915), but without the intelligently sympathetic presentation of that tale.

All of this does not do justice to Stout's detective heroine Dol Bonner, who is far and away the most interesting character in the story. She is an exemplary feminist, battling male authority figures for her right to be a detective. Stout makes clear all the opposition she has to face from men in the book, and her intelligence, courage and principled resistance to their oppression in struggling to perform as a detective. Dol does not wimp out. She consistently shows intelligence in solving the crime, and successfully performs all the detection in the book, with little help from either the police or men associates.

Mystery Plot. Dol Bonner is shown at her best in Chapters 4 - 10. These are the sections describing the initial investigation of the crime. These are also the best mystery plot chapters of the book. Like many Stout works, we see how the crime was committed in the first half of the book, and then, often anticlimactically, who did it in the second half. The Hand in the Glove adheres to this pattern. Chapters 4 - 10 set forth the "how done it" of the crime. This material is nowhere as clever as such later Stout how-done-its as "Black Orchids" or Some Buried Caesar, but it still makes interesting reading.

This initial investigation section (Chapters 4 - 10) also shows Dol solving a well-done hidden object mystery. The solution recalls a bit that of "The Affair of The Pink Pearl" (1924) in Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie. But Stout's solution also has original ideas.

A Clue Exists. Dol takes a tour of the estate grounds (first part of Chapter 8). Later, she realizes that something she has seen is odd and hence a clue - but what this something is she doesn't know or remember (start of Chapter 9). Later still, she figures it out (end of Chapter 9, details given in depth in Chapter 10).

This offers the reader information about the mystery, on a meta-level. The reader is implicitly told that something they have seen on Dol's tour is a clue - if only they can figure it out.

Similar meta-level information is offered in "This Won't Kill You". Nero Wolfe tells the police that there is a clue he's found in his investigation, but won't tell the cops what the clue is (end of Chapter 4). Wolfe does insist that the police have learned this fact too. Once again, the reader is implicitly urged to review the details of Wolfe's investigation, to look for the hidden clue.

Color Highlighting. When the clue-object is identified by Dol, it turns out that its original description involved color (first part of Chapter 8).

Ellery Queen regularly highlighted objects that were important in the mystery plot by describing them in color. My list of color descriptions in Ellery Queen documents this. Rex Stout has done something similar here in The Hand in the Glove.

Universe. Unfortunately Stout never brought Dol back for a second case, although she makes cameo appearances in some Nero Wolfe stories. Even in The Hand in the Glove it is clear that she is part of the same "universe" as Nero Wolfe:

Dol Bonner remains a good character in what is an imperfect book.

The Office. Dol Bonner's office, like Wolfe's, is full of brightly colored furniture (Chapter 2). We are also informed of the materials from which it is made. It is as if Stout is appealing to all the senses to make this place real.

The gold lettering on Dol Bonner's office door, sometimes also shows up in color descriptions in Ellery Queen.

Landscape. The grounds or estate of the country house Birchhaven, is a prominent locale in the novel (Chapters 3, 4, first part of 8, end of 9, 10). The grounds add much charm and interest to The Hand in the Glove. They exemplify the "Golden Age mystery" interest in landscape. And the Dell mapback edition showed a map of the grounds on its back cover.

The grounds of a country house, shows up fairly often in Golden Age mysteries. The Hand in the Glove is unusual among mysteries, however, in emphasizing food production areas of the grounds.

I'm used to fish ponds seen in public parks: they are usually ornamental, designed to be pretty. It took a while for me to figure out that the fish pond on the estate of Birchhaven, is designed instead as a source of food. Its fish are referred to as "panfish": apparently fish you can cook in a pan. The pond is stocked with edible fish such as blue-gills and perch (start of Chapter 8).

The fish pond anticipates the rivers that can be fished in "Immune to Murder". Those fish too are meant for eating.

The vegetable garden anticipates "Murder Is Corny", in which Wolfe tries to buy sweet corn from a farmer.

The fish pond and vegetable garden recall aspects of Nero Wolfe's brownstone:

Prejudice. A county detective passes on to his superiors, an intelligent suggestion about the case, that he got from some Italian workmen (Chapter 5). The trooper is promptly chewed out by his superiors, and the idea is dismissed and ignored. The arrogant superiors likely feel horror at the idea that they might learn anything from men who they regard as their racial inferiors. It's an ugly portrait of racism.

By contrast, Dol Bonner's sympathetic secretary is "Mediterranean" and dark (start of Chapter 2). Dol Bonner clearly believes she can be helped by listening to other ethnic groups.

Literature. Internet searches fail to find the poem quoted by reporter Len Chisholm (Chapter 2). Perhaps Stout wrote it himself for The Hand in the Glove. The couplet is well-written, and sounds as if it comes out of the nineteenth century.

Contemporary poet Ogden Nash is mentioned (Chapter 8). Dol Bonner has a book by Nash in her car. This recalls the many named real-life books read by Nero Wolfe. (Please see the list of my Favorite Poems by Ogden Nash.)

The Mountain Cat Murders

This novel was first published in hardback as Mountain Cat (1939). But the title was soon changed to The Mountain Cat Murders for paperback editions, and this is mainly how the book has been known ever since. It is indeed a murder mystery.

Setting. Two aspects of The Mountain Cat Murders are unusual for its era: it is set in a small town, and mainly among lower middle class people. It forms a contrast with the Nero Wolfe stories, which mainly take place in New York City among the upper middle class.

The closest ancestor I know of to The Mountain Cat Murders is the D.A. series by Erle Stanley Gardner. The series began with The D.A. Calls it Murder (1936-1937). Both the D.A. series and The Mountain Cat Murders:

Wyoming. Cody, Wyoming, the setting of The Mountain Cat Murders, is a real-life city. The novel depicts local government officials negatively. I have no idea how Stout avoided getting sued by their real-life counterparts!

The Mountain Cat Murders depicts Wyoming as a center for both divorce and gambling. In real life, Nevada was a famous haven for both activities in that era. But I've never heard of anything similar going on in Wyoming. Is Stout's linking of Wyoming to divorce and gambling historically accurate?

Working Women. The two sisters are archetypal lower middle class working women of the time: one teaches school, the other is a secretary and bookkeeper. This is consistent with Stout's long term interest in working women.

Women in The Mountain Cat Murders stick together and support each other. This has an interesting display of female solidarity.

Food. Evelina Sammis in The Mountain Cat Murders (Chapters 3, 5) resembles Nero Wolfe: she's a heavyset person who loves good food, and who hospitably takes delight in feeding other people.

As in the Wolfe books, food in The Mountain Cat Murders is described in terms of its ingredients. For example, we hear about "turkey sandwiches and potato salad" (Chapter 3).

The food in The Mountain Cat Murders is not gourmet food, unlike the Wolfe tales. But it sounds very appetizing all the same.

The Psychology Student. The Psychology student Cooper is only seen briefly, but he is one of the best characters in the book (second half of Chapter 9). He unites features of two characters in The Hand in the Glove:

Mystery Plot. The mystery plot mainly lacks inspiration.

There is a decent subplot, about the ingenious hiding place of the stolen money.

Alphabet Hicks

Alphabet Hicks (1941) is Stout's only novel about detective Alfred "Alphabet" Hicks. It was later republished as The Sound of Murder. Stout later brought Hicks back in the short story "Curtain Line" (1955). Occasional references in Alphabet Hicks establish that Hicks is in the same "universe" as Nero Wolfe: Rusterman's restaurant.

Alphabet Hicks suffers from being derivative. Many aspects of the book were done earlier and better by previous writers.

Alphabet Hicks has some good sections: Chapters 3, 8, 10, 11. These show interesting settings: the complex office and landscapes of the crime scene, and Hicks' room (Chapter 8). They include much of the tale's use of technology. These sections also are set forth with Stout's story telling skill.

The Detective. Alphabet Hicks is a sort of private investigator, although he only occasionally takes cases, and mainly works as a taxi driver.

Alphabet Hicks is a former lawyer, now disbarred. In this he resembles an earlier character, Donald Lam by Erle Stanley Gardner. Lam debuted in The Bigger They Come (1939). Both Lam and Hicks wind up working as private investigators.

Alphabet Hicks engages in bad behavior I didn't like, in early sections of the book:

Alphabet Hicks is famous, and was the subject of a Profile in the real-life magazine The New Yorker (start of Chapter 1). I didn't find this at all plausible: has The New Yorker ever profiled anyone with a working class job, such as a taxi-driver? This is not how celebrity works in America.

Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. As Hicks himself points out (Chapter 24), the killer's alibi and the trick used to generate it, are old and obvious dodges. In fact, S.S. Van Dine was pleading for writers to stop using this ancient gimmick, in his anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1927) (see the last section of the Introduction). To be fair, Stout does introduce what Hicks calls a "new twist" on this ancient plot.

There is a nicely done little mystery subplot (Chapter 8).

BIG SPOILERS. A missing object turns out to be hidden underwater. A similar underwater hiding place for a stolen object appeared earlier in Clyde B. Clason's Green Shiver (1941). Green Shiver was reviewed February 8, 1941, while Alphabet Hicks was reviewed 11 months later.

Setting. Among the best parts of Alphabet Hicks is its crime setting (Chapters 3, 10, 11). The lab is a high tech environment. It anticipates a later high tech office, in "The Zero Clue" (1953).

However, the lab is not only a technological area. It is also a design display area, showing what can be done with plastics. Businesses involved with design will repeatedly appear in the Nero Wolfe tales.

The design display in Alphabet Hicks allows a rich use of color, some of the most elaborate color imagery in Stout (Chapter 3). Such a riot of color anticipates Horatio's cottage in Ellery Queen's There Was an Old Woman (1943) (Chapter 4). See also the multi-colored farm machinery in Sitting Up Dead (1958) (Chapter 10) by Aaron Marc Stein.

The setting is introduced in a long tailing sequence (Chapter 3). The next year "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (1942) will have Archie Goodwin doing a similar long tail. Such tailing sequences enable Stout to include journeys, usually a pleasant feature of fiction in which the hero travels through a landscape, telling us about it as he journeys.

Plastics. The company in Rex Stout's Alphabet Hicks invents and manufactures plastics. Plastics appear in such mysteries as:

Sound Recording. Bugged rooms and sound recording on records play a key role in Alphabet Hicks. Earlier such technology appeared in The Dead Can Tell (1940) by Helen Reilly. Alphabet Hicks was likely published late in 1941: reviews came out in January 1942 magazines. This would have given Alphabet Hicks plenty of time to be influenced by The Dead Can Tell.

Another link: both Alphabet Hicks and The Dead Can Tell mention The New Yorker. The heroine of The Dead Can Tell sometimes works for The New Yorker.

BIG SPOILERS. Hearing only sounds of an event, and possible deceptions enabled by this, will later appear in Stout's "Murder Is No Joke" (1958).

Milieu. Alphabet Hicks has features that recall a slightly earlier novel The Deadly Truth (1941) by Helen McCloy:

Reviews of The Deadly Truth appeared in June 1941.

Intellectual Property. One firm in Alphabet Hicks is accused of stealing another firm's inventions. This was a key subject in Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Warner & Wife

"Warner & Wife" (1915) is a well written but politically dubious piece of storytelling. Its hero is a man who is dominated by his feminist lawyer wife, and exploited as her unpaid legal assistant. Right away we can see problems. It is very unlikely in real life that any typical town would allow a woman to be this successful, even a town where the New Woman was "fashionable", as Stout puts it. Also, it was very common for educated women of that era to contribute in an unpaid, unacknowledged way to their husband's career. For example, Alma Hitchcock worked every night on her husband Alfred's films, both scripts and direction. But let a man do it, as in this story, and it becomes a matter for outrage. How many men in real life have ever played this role? It must be almost zero.

These problems aside, the tale is entertaining. It contains an enjoyable legal fight within it.

The unequal relationship in the tale between Warner and his wife will be transferred to Archie Godwin and Nero Wolfe, with Archie struggling against Nero's dominance the same way Warner struggles against his wife's. Similarly, we will soon have the relationship between the smart young law clerk and his ineffective but powerful boss in "Justice Ends at Home" (1915). Stout tends to see his central relationships as one of dominance and submission between two people with very different power.

City Politics. The city in "Warner & Wife" has a new administration. The story repeatedly emphasizes that it is liberal. The city is locked into a powerful dispute with a wealthy businessman. The anticipates the dispute in The Silent Speaker between the business association NIA and the governmental BPR.

The city's new liberal mayor is one of the tale's most liable and interesting characters.

Justice Ends at Home

Detectives. One does not want to carry similarity between the Scientific School and Stout too far. The other main mystery work in Target Practice, the novella "Justice Ends at Home" (1915), has as its amateur detective not a scientist, but middle aged lawyer Simon Leg and his 20 year old office boy Dan Culp. The back of the book points out that these could be rough sketches for Wolfe and Archie. Leg is as lazy as Wolfe: having inherited money he wants to sit around all day reading adventure stories, just as Wolfe loves orchids and food. However, he is a lot more good natured than Wolfe, and far less brainy. The real detective genius of the pair is Dan Culp. This likable young man does a lot of energetic leg work, just like Archie, and it is this vigorous detective work that is the stories' focus.

One of the main characters in Stout's mainstream novel Forest Fire (1933) is lazy, like Wolfe and Leg.

Stout describes interactions between good guys Leg, Culp and Miss Venner in detail. He's already showing his skill, that will produce even more complex interactions between Wolfe, Archie and the other brownstone denizens like Fritz. These interaction all produce a lot of story: events that move the tale along, and keep readers interested in the unfolding of events.

Leg hires what are supposed to be New York City's best private detectives to help his investigation. This anticipates Wolfe's hiring of Saul Panzer, also the best private eye in the business. Leg's private eyes are pleasant enough, but they are underdeveloped as characters compared to Saul Panzer.

Office boy Dan Culp can be contrasted with teenage detective Barney in The Adventures of Detective Barney (collected 1915, in magazines earlier) by Harvey J. O'Higgins. Barney works for an actual detective agency. Not only are their jobs different. Dan Culp is "around twenty" while Braney is sixteen. Dan Culp is seen as an adult. He is suitable for marriage, for example.

Background: Professions. "Justice Ends at Home" shows how people did their jobs, from a justice to janitors to garage workers. It looks at how various professions functioned in the New York City of the day. This anticipates many later Nero Wolfe tales that show us people in some profession.

Mystery Plot. "Justice Ends at Home" is very readable, but the puzzle plot is obvious.

BIG SPOILERS. This solution's key idea had appeared previously in "Naboth's Vineyard" (1912) by Melville Davisson Post. It's a clever idea, and has been in a number of films since then. Rex Stout might have developed this idea on his own, independently of Post.

This solution violates paradigms of the detective story, although in a "fair way".

Detective Work. A plus is the solid detective work the heroes do, to investigate the crime. Most of these ideas come from Dan Culp:

Culp makes a big deal out of searching the victim's papers, as part of this detective work. Similarly the private eye in "Jonathan Stannard's Secret Vice" (1915) insists on searching the papers in the title character's desk.

Technology. As mentioned, one of Dan Culp's ideas involves movie theaters (Chapter 6). It also involves making multiple copies of a typed letter on a "multigraph". Internet research suggests a multigraph was an office printer of the era, that made numerous copies of typed documents.

Words like "modern" and "modernity" are not emphasized in "Justice Ends at Home". But one wonders if Dan Culp's use of technology, was seen as part of modern innovations in society. In "Jonathan Stannard's Secret Vice" the conservative protagonist denounces Futurism, an Italian movement that among other things, celebrated technology.

Civic Corruption. Among the tale's other merits: a look at corruption and "influence" being brought to bear on the police authorities of the era. Such frank looks at civic corruption are part of the American Scientific School's traditions.

Warner & Wife. "Justice Ends at Home" reuses imagery from a story Stout published earlier the same year, "Warner & Wife". In both:

These actions have more sting in "Warner & Wife" than in "Justice Ends at Home". The attorney in "Justice Ends at Home" freely admits he is just coasting through life, and is not really any sort of decent lawyer. Being criticized doesn't hurt him. And the assistant moving into the office is leaving his wife in "Warner & Wife", but simply his mother in "Justice Ends at Home": a much less drastic departure.

Bitter End

Stout's first Nero Wolfe novella was "Bitter End" (1940). This was an adaptation of Stout's Tecumseh Fox novel, Bad For Business (1940), with Nero and Archie substituted as detectives. While the puzzle plot is ordinary, the story is oddly compelling reading.

Subjects. The family relationships that are set up seem genuinely bizarre and strange. The horrifying relationships of the family in the tale even penetrate to the all male refuge of Wolfe's brownstone in the novella's opening, as family problems invade Wolfe's retreat.

The opening of the story echoes Some Buried Caesar (1939) in dealing with the mass production of food. The manufacture of the food, in an antiquated factory run entirely by women, is compared to a maternity ward by Stout. This bizarre production of food-as-children in the first half of the story is echoed by the real and even more bizarre child raising practices in the second half. The deliberate spoiling of the food seems rather analogous to the sacrifice of the bull in Caesar. It also anticipates the rejection of the child in the second part of the story.

The architecture of the factory also seems interesting, with tunnels for trucks leading in and out representing the female body.

The idea of a female factory symbolizing the reproductive process recalls Herman Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids" (1855), which describes a paper factory. There are important differences between Melville and Stout as well, however:

Spitting. "Bitter End" opens with a bizarre comedy scene involving spitting. Spitting was regularly a subject in films directed by Raoul Walsh.

Not Quite Dead Enough

"Not Quite Dead Enough" (1942) includes one of Stout's more striking puzzle plots. When I first read it, I was impressed by the unexpected twist in the solution. However, a re-reading shows plot problems. This murder scheme is sure to fall apart, after another person starts speaking up and telling the police what they know.

The storytelling of the tale is fairly weak. The non-series characters are uninteresting. Series regulars come off poorly:

Stout returned to aspects of this story in two novellas he wrote in early 1959, "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" and "Counterfeit for Murder":

Booby Trap

Mystery Plot. The central puzzle plot of "Booby Trap" is completely ordinary. It is one of those tales in which Wolfe finds the killer, not through logical deduction from clues, but by setting a trap for the killer. This sort of thing violates fair play; logically, the killer could have been any one of the six suspects in the tale, and there is nothing to suggest one over the other.

However, the subsidiary subplot mysteries in "Booby Trap" are all quite clever.

One subplot mystery in "Booby Trap" is simply of how the crime was done. "Booby Trap" is one of Stout's "how-done-its": a mystery where the detective and reader have to figure out how the crime was physically committed.

SPOILERS. Another subplot mystery is how the suitcase vanished, and who took it. This vanishing comes close to being impossible, due to the military guard watching the area. Such impossible disappearances of objects are common in some Van Dine School writers, such as Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer, but are rarer in Stout.

SPOILERS. Also fascinating in "Booby Trap" is the mystery of the roles of the characters: what they want, what they are doing, how they fit into the big picture.

The Military. Stout derives many paradoxes from the military setting. This is one of the few works of his that has such a background.

Stout was an ardent patriot, who spent the war years doing public service on the war effort. Yet he is quite skeptical about the military. He depicts it as an institution riddled with both politics and corruption. This is the point of view that will be found later in Lawrence G. Blochman's service tales. Stout's point of view seems to stem from a suspicion of the rich and powerful in all areas. Since such people tend toward corruption, he logically deduces that they will be equally corrupt when put in charge of the Armed Forces. Stout's politics can be described as liberal, but definitely not radical. After the war, in the late 1940's, Stout will be just as savagely critical of the Communist far left as he was of fascists and appeasers during the war. This anti-Communist stance also anticipates Blochman, and his work of the 1950's.

If Stout was critical of high level Army officials, he was fascinated by the way the Army was run. He clearly loved the uniforms, the saluting, and all the military and Intelligence ethos. His attitude echoed that of the 1940's American public, who regarded such things with similar enthusiasm, almost as a new toy. By the 1960's, such things will be unfashionable with the general public, and much ridiculed. Stout was plainly thrilled to put Archie in uniform, and give him an officer's rank. This is the closest Archie gets to an independent life in any of the tales. It is also the most recognition Archie gets from society as a person of ability.

There will be a little of the same effect again, when Archie goes out on a prestigious solo social outing at the start of Champagne for One (1958), and gets involved in a murder mystery. The tuxedo that Archie and the other men wear is referred to metaphorically as a uniform.

The Military and Industry. "Booby Trap" looks at corruption in links between industry and military production. It is especially concerned with new technology. Another mystery writer who explored these themes was Leslie Ford in Murder in the O.P.M. (1942) and especially in The Woman in Black (1947). Both writers showed daring in taking on a controversial subject.

The Letters. SPOILERS. The mass-mailing of letters in "Booby Trap" anticipates the mass distribution of books in The Doorbell Rang. Both have:

The mass mailing in "Booby Trap" is directly involved in the mystery plot; by contrast the sending of books in The Doorbell Rang is not specifically involved in the mystery, rather it serves as a background event.

Duncan Street. The Military Intelligence building in "Booby Trap" is on Duncan Street. New York City has a real-life Duncan Street in the Bronx, but it is unclear if Stout meant to refer to that.

Bullet for One

A New York Western. "Bullet for One" (1948) has a setting that anticipates Stout's "The Rodeo Murder". "The Rodeo Murder" features cowboys coming to New York. It makes for a neat contrast and combination. "Bullet for One" also looks at horsemen in the heart of Manhattan. But its men in the saddle are not cowboys, but well-to-do Manhattan businessmen riding in Central Park. Like the cowboys, they are glamorous, and wear special clothes.

The murder in "Bullet for One" echoes action popular in Western tales. It too has a surrealist touch.

The instant antipathy and ritual insulting between Archie and mounted policeman Officer Hefferan likely conceals male bonding. It anticipates the bonding between Archie and cowboy Cal Barrow in "The Rodeo Murder".

Color. The victim's special riding clothes (Chapters 8, 14) are some of the brightest color imagery in Stout since Alphabet Hicks (Chapter 3).

Mystery Plot. BIG SPOILERS. "Bullet for One" is Stout's attempt to do a classic alibi puzzle. It has such traditional features of alibi mysteries as:

Alibi mysteries are favorites of Freeman Wills Crofts. Stout's mystery technique is consistent with Crofts' approaches. And the stolen designs in "Bullet for One" recall a plot feature sometimes found in Crofts: a Criminal Scheme separate from the main murder. So the plot of "Bullet for One" recalls Crofts.

But otherwise, "Bullet for One" is not too Croftsian in feel. Its storytelling, characters and settings recall other Stout, rather than Crofts.

A Woman Worker. Audrey Rooney is fired from her job due to unsubstantiated suspicions of theft. She fights back (Chapter 6). She anticipates the fired woman in "Santa Claus Beat".

Disguise for Murder

Mystery Plot. "Disguise for Murder" (1950) has a sound mystery puzzle and some good story telling.

SPOILERS. The mystery plot's main idea is one long used previously by Ellery Queen. However, Stout comes up with an original clue to it.

The existence of this clue is highlighted for the reader, by Archie talking about how Nero Wolfe spotted the clue, but no one else has. This is sort of a meta-structure imposed on the story.

There are also two good clues to the crime that takes place before the story starts.

The Action Sequence. A long action-and-suspense sequence in the second half, is right out of the pulp magazine action tradition. This is atypical for Stout. But he shows he can write this sort of set-piece well.

SPOILERS. Archie gets tied up. This recalls "The Rodeo Murder" and "The Rope Dance".

The Cop-Killer

Many of the transitional novellas Stout wrote in the late 1940's and early 1950's are not that good. "The Cop-Killer" (1951) suffers from unpleasant treatments of characters: sexism in the statements of Janet (Chapters 2, 5), and a negative depiction of refugees (Chapter 4).

"The Cop-Killer" does have a well hidden plot idea in its solution. Like "Too Many Detectives" (1956), the plot focuses on the "economy of knowledge", showing how information is passed around. Several of Stout's puzzle plots involve such an intricate dance of knowledge.

Meta-Fiction. Series policeman Purley Stebbins says that the murder victim had a "lead" he did not share with anyone (Chapter 2). This statement by Stebbins highlights the existence of a clue - a clue nobody knows about in specific detail. This recalls "Disguise for Murder", where Archie Goodwin tells the reader that Wolfe has a clue - but doesn't say what it is.

Background. Many of Stout's works have a background of some business, with various employees serving as suspects. This is true of "The Cop-Killer". But the milieu, a barbershop, is far more working class than much of Stout's fiction.

The Squirt and the Monkey

"The Squirt and the Monkey" (1951) is a novella.

Mystery Plot: Achievements. "The Squirt and the Monkey" has a complex mystery plot: a positive feature. Also nice: the plot has a complex solution. The detailed plot helps make the tale absorbing reading throughout.

The solution is of the kind, where the sleuth builds up a Profile that the killer must match.

Mystery Plot: Problems. But the plot has problems that make it unbelievable:

The plot also has a difficulty that makes it less logically rigorous. The main clue to the killer's identity, is Wolfe's profile point number 3 (See Chapter 7). SPOILERS. The clue points to the character most likely to have been told by Harry Koven about his scheme. Problem: What if the killer learned about the scheme by overhearing? Or what if the killer has some hidden relationship with Koven, leading to learning about the scheme? In short, this clue seems inconclusive and problematical.

Not a real Background. "The Squirt and the Monkey" is set among a small Manhattan creative team that produces a comic strip. The strip is financially successful, and the team forms one of Stout's typical upscale businesses. However, we learn surprisingly little about the comic strip business. So the tale does not really have a full "Background" showing the comic strip industry.

Ellery Queen. The opening scenes of "The Squirt and the Monkey" resemble a bit a plot development in There Was an Old Woman (1943) (Chapter 6) by Ellery Queen:

  1. An odd, deceptive scheme involving a gun is going to be executed by a mix of a series sleuth and suspects.
  2. The scheme is supported by the genius detective - but a lower-down detective is skeptical. (In "The Squirt and the Monkey", genius Nero Wolfe endorses the scheme, but Archie Goodwin is skeptical. In There Was an Old Woman genius Ellery supports the scheme - but Sgt. Velie is skeptical.)
  3. The lower-down turns out to be right: The scheme blows up and turns into a disaster.
However, the details of the schemes are completely different in the two works.

Not Political. "The Squirt and the Monkey" is not political. It was published between two other Wolfe novellas that have political aspects: "The Cop-Killer" (refugees) and "Home to Roost" (Communists). All three novellas are included in the collection Triple Jeopardy.

Modern Art. Comic strip artist Pete Jordan wants to quit, and produce serious paintings instead (Chapter 1). He regards his comic strip work as "crap" that he does to earn a living. We later learn that Jordan has painted some "modern" art paintings, and tried to get them exhibited in galleries (first part of Chapter 6).

This is a familiar real-life dilemma of the era: a conflict between commercial art, music or writing that makes money, and modernist art, music or writing that does not.

There are aspects to this real-life conflict not explored in "The Squirt and the Monkey", though. Many real-life comic strips were full of creative, imaginative art. Their art wasn't usually "modern art" - but it was imaginative and inventive all the same. And comic strips were widely popular. They were read by a huge cross section of Americans.

BIG SPOILERS. The two artists Pete Jordan and Byram Hildebrand are the most honest and honorable people in the tale. They've been hired to draw the comic strip, and by gum, they're doing it, to the best of their ability. One suspects that Rex Stout liked artists. And so did Americans of that era.

List of Characters. "The Squirt and the Monkey" has a list of suspects on its second page. This is not typical of Nero Wolfe stories. Each suspect's name is followed by what Archie has learned so far about their profession. Interestingly, in two cases Archie is not sure yet what the character's profession is, and the list reflects this. The list contains partial information about the profession, or Archie's guess work.

John J. McAleer's Introduction to the revised version of "Frame-Up for Murder" reprints Stout's character list for the story, from his previously unpublished notes. Stout did NOT include this list in the actual story. This list contains the characters' names, professions and ages. Unlike the list in "The Squirt and the Monkey", this list has the full facts on each character's profession.

This Won't Kill You

"This Won't Kill You" (1952) is the last novella Stout published, before the great run of his outstanding 1950's short works begins in 1953.

The gratuitous middle section containing distasteful, gross violence harms "This Won't Kill You", which otherwise has well done plotting and clues.

Links to later Stout. "This Won't Kill You" deals with a baseball team during the World Series. It anticipates later Nero Wolfe stories, in which competitors take part in a mystery: the cowboys in "The Rodeo Murder" and the chess players in Gambit. Both of these later tales take place during special exhibition contests.

All of these tales likely show the influence of Too Many Cooks, and its murder during a culinary contest.

The baseball players threaten to beat up the villain, at the end of "This Won't Kill You". This anticipates a cowboy's invitation to Archie to beat up someone in "The Rodeo Murder".

BIG SPOILERS. A plot twist that shows up early (Chapter 2) in "This Won't Kill You" (Chapter 2), has links to the main mystery solution in Gambit. The treatment in Gambit is much more complex, and part of a large scale mystery puzzle plot. However, the motives for the twist are the same in both works.

Mystery Plot. Nero Wolfe's figuring who committed the crime is well-done. His approach is unusual: a type of clue I don't recall seeing in other tales. Exception: Stout used a similar approach in his later "Blood Will Tell".

Baseball. Archie has an earthy, non-formal way of referring to events in the baseball game (Chapter 1). It's not quite slang, but it's close. This adds a lot to the atmosphere of the tale. It's an accomplishment in prose style.

Archie's statements show how many Americans thought and talked about baseball, in that era.

Stout later included "This Won't Kill You" in his collection Three Men Out. That title is a baseball term: an inning ends when three men get declared "out".

Invitation to Murder

Mystery. The sheer amount of mystery in a novella like "Invitation to Murder" (1953) is notable: This plethora of mysterious situations is very satisfying.

Architecture. The story shows Stout's flair for buildings which are more than homes, and also have elements of an institution. Wolfe's brownstone is one such establishment, and the Huck home in this novella is another. It echoes Wolfe's in subtle ways. Both have:

The staff at the Huck mansion is all-female, while the staff at Wolfe's brownstone is all-male.

The Composer. Suspect Paul Thayer is a classical music composer (Chapter 3). He writes avant-garde, experimental music. The USA was a hotbed of experimental classical music, in the post-war 1946-1980 period. But such music only rarely appears in mystery fiction of the era. Another example: the composer Marius Carlo in The Finishing Stroke (1958) by Ellery Queen.

Paul Thayer wants to spread his music far and wide, through radio broadcasts and recordings. He anticipates another character who tries the mass communication of information: Rachel Bruner, who distributes a book to many people in The Doorbell Rang.

Paul Thayer uses the term "the music of the future" to describe his experimental compositions. This is a long-time real-life term in classical music: it was already in use in Germany in the 1800's.

There are perhaps quiet elements of male bonding between Archie Goodwin and Paul Thayer. Thayer is quite macho. He is also good at communication: like Archie and his reports.

Archie's Role. Archie goes undercover in new jobs in Too Many Women and If Death Ever Slept. What Archie does in "Invitation to Murder" differs. He goes off to the mansion by himself to investigate, as in those books. But here he is still in his own identity and role as Archie Goodwin the detective. However, he has made up a fake new detective inquiry, one that has nothing to do with the actual mystery he is really investigating. Stout shows plot ingenuity with this fake inquiry.

The Zero Clue

"The Zero Clue" (1953) doesn't fully click as a mystery, but many of its plot ideas show imagination. Everything in this tale is based on mathematics.

"The Zero Clue" is about a business that uses mathematical probability to predict the future. The story's ideas about using probability and data to uncover knowledge are beginning to come true in real life, with such modern computer techniques as neural networks and database mining. The story is ahead of its time: almost a piece of science fiction.

"The Zero Clue" itself mentions science fiction, in the section on the inventor. Archie refers to it as "space science fiction". Another book by Van Dine School mystery writers, Frances and Richard Lockridge's A Client Is Canceled (1951), will include a science fiction writer as a romantic hero. Science fiction was beginning to be known to a wider audience in those years.

Customers as Suspects. "The Zero Clue" is one of many Wolfe tales focussing on a small but successful New York business. However, unlike many such tales, the suspects are the business' customers, rather than the business' staff. In fact, we never see or hear about any staff of the business, aside from its mathematician head.

Each customer has an interesting story about why they want to hire the business. Most of these stories give a detailed look at how the business' use of probability could benefit some situation. This approach enables an in-depth look at the main scientific premise of "The Zero Clue". One suspects that Stout chose the customer-centric approach of "The Zero Clue" precisely so he could explore the business' use of probability in this way.

One customer runs a fashion magazine. Fashion and couture businesses regularly show up in Wolfe tales.

Scientific Detection. By contrast, one customer Susan Maturo is a nurse who worked for a hospital. Hospitals are far less common in Wolfe tales. Medical workers and settings are frequent in Scientific Detection tales by authors other than Stout. Both the mathematical subject matter of "The Zero Clue", and its hospital background, help make "The Zero Clue" a tale of Scientific Detection. So does the episode about the inventor.

SPOILERS. The violence at the hospital recalls "Booby Trap". "Booby Trap" is also a tale about new technology, and thus qualifies as Scientific Detection.

Design. Leo Heller's business office has a "futuristic" feel in its decor. This is perhaps intended to symbolize the high-tech, mathematical nature of the business itself. This design approach is different from that of most businesses in the Wolfe saga. It lacks "chic". Instead, it suggests there is something atypical about this business, and that it stands outside conventional social norms of the era.

Dying Message. "The Zero Clue" is one of Stout's few Dying Message mysteries.

"The Zero Clue" comes up with three different interpretations of the dying message. All three are clever.

Identifying the Killer. There is nothing in "The Zero Clue" that would allow the reader to identify the criminal before the end. Ordinarily this is simply a flaw. But Wolfe near the end of "The Zero Clue" outlines a plan of future detective work, that should enable the police to identify the killer. The plan is sound and logical, and would likely work. Just the announcement of this plan by Wolfe is enough to get the real killer to confess. This makes for a substantial finale to the tale.

Doubling Wolfe. Mathematician Leo Heller has features in common with Nero Wolfe. Both:

This makes Leo Heller something of a double for Wolfe.

Susan Maturo: Someone Different. Suspect Susan Maturo is different from the other suspects:

Both of these make Susan Maturo substantially different from the other characters. This difference is interesting. SPOILERS. And eventually, her different goal (helping the hospital) leads to significant plot developments.

These differences with Susan Maturo play a structural role in the tale's plot.

A few Nero Wolfe mysteries have an "extra woman": a non-suspect who nevertheless plays a key role in the plot. Susan Maturo is not such a character - but she approaches the "extra woman" category. She is still a suspect - but less suspicious than the other suspects in the tale.

Santa Claus Beat

"Santa Claus Beat" (1953) is unusual in Stout's post-1930 fiction in not being a novel or long novella. Instead it is a brief short story: under five pages. It shows Stout's virtuosity as a story teller: it has a full mystery plot, vivid situations, good dialogue and four well-developed characters - all in five pages! It is also highly satisfying.

A Business. "Santa Claus Beat" is a bit like a Nero Wolfe novella in miniature. Like so many Wolfe works, it takes place at a New York business, with most of the characters having some connection to that business. This two-bit enterprise is comically far less glamorous than the elite enterprises in most Wolfe tales, though.

Detective. "Santa Claus Beat" is not apparently part of the Wolfe "universe". Neither Wolfe nor Cramer are mentioned in the tale.

But the young cop hero Art Hipple wants roles similar to these two mens':

There is a bit of comedy in that he is not presented with such a traditional detective story murder-mystery. Instead, he gets an unglamorous case of theft.

The hero takes advantage of this opportunity and does not reject it. The story perhaps has an implicit lesson about seizing opportunity, and not condescending to things.

Detective Story Structure. The case and the hero do follow traditional, intuitionist detective story paradigms, just as the hero wants:

Feminism. "Santa Claus Beat" implicitly reminds readers of some key feminist points:

A nearly contemporary Stout tale "Die Like a Dog" also has feminist viewpoints.

Die Like a Dog

When Ellery Queen reprinted "Die Like a Dog" (1954), he retitled it "A Dog in the Daytime". This is a clever allusion to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time", a quote from "Silver Blaze" (1892), my favorite Sherlock Holmes story. The story has often been reprinted under this title, but it does not seem to be Stout's official name for the story. (One might reassure animal-loving readers that despite its title the dog in "Die Like a Dog" is unharmed in the tale, and in fact is never in any danger.)

Mystery Plot. "Dog" shows Stout's fondness for animals. It also has some very good plotting, with a complex mystery situation becoming gradually unveiled, in the Anna Katherine Green style. Along with Some Buried Caesar, it is Stout's best mystery work. It seems significant that both of these outstanding pieces have animal backgrounds.

The solution depends on ideas that are cleverly concealed by the tale. This is most satisfying. SPOILERS. These ideas are separate from the gradually unveiling mystery situation in the midsections of the tale. They give the tale an extra dimension of plotting.

Tailing. "Die Like a Dog" is another Stout work involving tailing (Chapter 3). As is typical for Stout's tailing episodes, he tries to make this sequence inventive. It also has an interesting idea about Archie verifying the woman's identity, at the conclusion of the tailing.

Feminism. "Die Like a Dog" raises issues that later would be of importance to feminists. "Die Like a Dog" is one of Stout's most feminist tales.

The feminist aspects are carefully structured, to take part in the mystery structure in the tale. SPOILERS:

This whole pattern forms a rising arc, from invisibility at the work's start, to centrality in the mystery plotting at the end.

None of these feminist revelations would have occurred, without Archie and Wolfe's relentless detective work. However, neither Archie nor Wolfe are looking for specifically feminist information. They are simply trying to solve the mystery. It is the heroine who unexpectedly reveals feminist-relevant events. Similarly, while Wolfe and Archie keep urging the heroine to speak up and tell what she knows - a common pattern in mystery fiction - they don't seem to anticipate at all that the heroine's knowledge will contain feminist elements.

Criminal Scheme?. Many detective stories, including some of Stout's, have what I call a "Hidden Criminal Scheme". This is some crooked money-making activity, that some characters in the tale are carrying on in secret. Neither the detectives nor the reader have the slightest hint at the tale's start that this criminal activity is going on: it's "Hidden" from them. But the detective gradually unearths everything about this "Hidden Criminal Scheme" by the end of the story. Typical Schemes might include theft, selling dope, blackmail, forgery, embezzlement, etc. The Scheme is often quite ingenious - and so is the way it is hidden from the sleuth and the reader.

There is no "Hidden Criminal Scheme" in "Die Like a Dog". But the feminist issues that afflict the heroine, play a similar role in the plot structure of "Die Like a Dog", that a "Hidden Criminal Scheme" does in other crime tales. The feminist issues in "Die Like a Dog" are initially concealed from the reader and sleuths, who don't suspect their existence. And then they are gradually unearthed due to relentless detective work by sleuths Wolfe and Archie. This is all just like a "Hidden Criminal Scheme".

The feminist issues in "Die Like a Dog" are criminal, all right. But they are not for profit crime, unlike the typical "Hidden Criminal Scheme" in other mysteries. (The feminist issues in "Die Like a Dog" are far more immoral and harmful than most "Hidden Criminal Schemes", by the way.)

A Building of Artists. "Die Like a Dog" takes place in a small apartment building with a handful of tenants. It resembles such rooming-house Stout novellas as "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Counterfeit for Murder". Unlike them, it has no landlady running the building. And the characters in "Die Like a Dog" are much less eccentric than those in the rooming-house tales. And just a touch more affluent, although hardly rich.

The characters in "Die Like a Dog" tend to have jobs in the arts, broadly speaking. This is a Van Dine School tradition. The rooming-house inhabitants in "Counterfeit for Murder" also have professions in the arts.

Background?. Unlike some Stout tales "Die Like a Dog" does not have a unified Background throughout, concentrating on one business, craft or industry. We do learn much more about the painter's work, than we do about the other tenants' jobs. These painting aspects might comprise a mini-Background.

Greenwich Village. The apartment in "Die Like a Dog" is in Greenwich Village, a good choice for a building full of tenants in the arts. It is located on one of those very short Greenwich Village backstreets, that are so colorful and unusual. Such backstreets appear in earlier Van Dine School writers: Helen Reilly: Murder in the Mews (1931), All Concerned Notified (1939), Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940), Anthony Abbot: About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937).

Allusions. The last line of Chapter 3, humorously alludes to a famous episode in the Western novel The Virginian (1902) by Owen Wister.

The Next Witness

If "Too Many Detectives" is Stout's Ellery Queen tale, then "The Next Witness" (1955) is his Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason story. While the puzzle plot is easily guessed, the storytelling has charm, and one likes the courtroom background of part of the tale. It is very unusual for a courtroom story not to have a lawyer for a protagonist, but Stout pulls it off.

Stout's interest in legal ideas is continued in two of his next tales, "Immune to Murder" and "Too Many Detectives". The opening of "Detectives" also builds upon some plot ideas in the opening of "The Next Witness".

One wonders if the character named Bagby is a tribute to real-life mystery writer George Bagby.

Immune to Murder

"Immune to Murder" (1955) shows Stout's expert storytelling.

Links to Too Many Cooks. "Immune to Murder" is very much a tale in the same mode as Too Many Cooks:

Too Many Cooks is one of Stout's most popular and admired tales. Perhaps he wanted to extend his creativity in its same direction again.

International Intrigue. While the State Department men in The Black Mountain are wholly admirable, Assistant Secretary of State David M. Leeson in "Immune to Murder" is a more ambiguous figure. Both tales bring elements of International Intrigue to Stout's work.

"Immune to Murder" has vivid characterization. Oddly, one benefit of the International perspective is that it helps get very different people into the plot. State Department officials are different from oil tycoons, who differ from foreign diplomats, who are not the local police. This is a more varied cast than Stout tales where everyone works for the same business.

Conflict over oil rights is a major plot element in "Immune to Murder". This is even more timely today. Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.

Landscape. "Immune to Murder" has an elaborate river landscape as part of its plot. Landscapes are not common in Stout's mystery work, but he shows he can do them well. The river perhaps echoes the brook in Stout's Alphabet Hicks (Chapter 3). River landscapes are quite frequent in British mysteries of the Golden Age.

Adirondacks. The Adirondacks setting is a favorite of Rufus King, occurring in A Variety of Weapons (1942) and "The Steps to Murder" (1960). Arthur B. Reeve used it in "Spontaneous Combustion" (1911). Reeve, King and Stout all feature luxurious Adirondacks compounds of the rich. Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Z (1933) refers briefly to a rich man's cabin in the Adirondacks. Today the Adirondacks are popular in mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming, S.W. Hubbard, Jamie Sheffield, and Gary and Justin VanRiper.

A Window for Death

Mystery Plot. Stout had a period of excellent short story writing in the mid 50's, starting in 1953. The puzzle plots of his novellas grew stronger. Even a minor but pleasant piece like "A Window for Death" (1956) has a decent if easily guessable plot.

"A Window for Death" is one of Stout's "how-done-its": Wolfe and the reader have to solve the mystery of how the crime was committed. The killing resembles the how-done-it in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death", in that both killings are cleverly disguised as natural deaths due to illness.

Johnny Arrow. "A Window for Death" has a good character in Johnny Arrow. The friendship that develops between Arrow and Archie is a welcome addition to Archie's world.

Harassment. "A Window for Death", like "Die Like a Dog", "Too Many Detectives", "Death of a Demon", and "Kill Now - Pay Later", shows Stout becoming sensitized to women's issues. And unfortunately, the harassment of women the tale critiques is still all-too-common today.

An Influence from Gardner. Elements of "A Window for Death" recall Erle Stanley Gardner:

These plot elements are used quite differently by Stout, however.

Surrealism: Echoes. SPOILERS. The current crime echoes and repeats elements of a second crime. This is a surrealistic effect. Such "surrealistic echoes" are a standard gambit in mystery fiction, and a welcome one.

The murder in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" also echoes an earlier death.

Uranium. The prospectors have grown rich by finding Uranium. Uranium plays a significant role in the modern world, although this is not much discussed in the story. Van Dine School fiction often offered its readers a view into "modern life". You could read it, and learn what was happening in America's largest city, New York. It was up-to-date.

Too Many Detectives

Stout brought back some of his prewar non-Wolfe detectives, such as his woman private eye Dol Bonner, and Alphabet Hicks, including the former in his Nero Wolfe series. "Too Many Detectives" (1956) includes Bonner, an appealing addition.

"Too Many Detectives" has an Ellery Queen like approach to its puzzle plotting, complete with such EQ traits as:

But the style and storytelling of this tale is sweetly Stout's own.

Christmas Party

Some of the stories in And Four To Go have merits, and almost made the list of recommended stories above. The weakest of the tales is the uninspired "Fourth of July Picnic" (1957). "Christmas Party" (1957) has some good ideas in its opening sections, especially dealing with Archie and Wolfe's relationship. But its later mystery elements become routine.

"Christmas Party" recalls The Red Box in that both:

The best parts of "Christmas Party" are new, and have no analogue in The Red Box:

Easter Parade

Stout is good with stories that deal with Wolfe's beloved orchids, such as "Easter Parade" (1957).

The Parade. Archie winds up in that real-life New York City tradition, the Easter Parade. This is not what is usually meant by "Parade". Instead, it is a large conglomeration of New Yorkers dressed up to the hilt in spring fashions. Archie talks about "lipstick colors and patterns", suggesting the clothes are a riot of bright colors. There is also a woman in purple (start of Chapter 2). This all recalls the multi-color display of plastics in Alphabet Hicks (Chapter 3).

Please see Rex Stout's article Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids (Life April 19, 1963) for a look at Nero Wolfe's love of color. According to it, Wolfe's love of orchids is caused by his love of color.

The four color photos serving as clues in the original publication of "Easter Parade", can be found in the Wikipedia

Archie also refers to "flossy neckties". This suggests the men too are opulent. The photos do not show this, however: the men's ties are plain. But the third photo does show the men in well-shined black leather shoes: something not mentioned in the story itself.

I like the way the clothes are (briefly) described in the story. However, the clothes in the photos show Eisenhower-era drabness. They also emphasize stuffy ideas of upper class refinement - something also not emphasized in the story.

Photojournalism. "Easter Parade" first appeared in Look magazine. Look emphasized photojournalism, Look was widely seen as an imitation of Life magazine, the most famous photojournalism periodical of its day.

Because of this appearance in Look, it is appropriate that four of the suspects in "Easter Parade" are professional photographers. At least two are full-time photojournalists, and the other two might potentially also do photojournalism some times. The photographers are also consistent with the Van Dine School's interest in people in the arts.

I would have enjoyed more detail of these photographers' work. We learn just a little. It is thus not a full-scale Background, looking at photojournalism in-depth.

Orchids: Hybrids. Wolfe and Archie get involved, because Wolfe wants to see another orchid collectors secret new hybrid Vanda. Other Wolfe stories suggest that Wolfe's central interest in orchid involves breeding them an decreasing new hybrids. Archie is always working on updating breeding records for the orchids, for example.

An interest in making new orchid hybrids might have been common in that era. But many real-life orchid growers are instead interested in collected species, just as they exist in nature. And studying their botany and evolution.

Religion. Mrs. Bynoe's remark about Good Friday (last part of Chapter 4) is one of the few references to religion anywhere in the Stout canon. It refers to morals, behavior and, implicitly, character, rather than theology. An emphasis on morals and character is typical of Mainline Protestantism; Stout was born into a Quaker family, a Mainline denomination.

I had the feeling that Stout was sympathetic to Mrs. Bynoe's attitudes.

Earlier, the characters emerge from Saint Thomas church, to join the Parade. No denomination is specified.

Nonprofit. The Bynoe's run the Bynoe Rehabilitation Fund, a philanthropic group (Chapter 4). This anticipates the later look at a nonprofit in A Right to Die.

Murder Methods. BIG SPOILERS. "Easter Parade" reminds us that S.S. Van Dine liked to experiment with unusual murder methods; Stout's version of the same sometimes involves mechanical contraptions. Such strange devices show up in "Easter Parade" and in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934). The devices in the two works are related.

Speaking Up. The heroine finally speaks up in an accusatory way, at the finale. This recalls an even more forceful scene at the end of "Die Like a Dog".

Murder Is No Joke

"Murder Is No Joke" (1958) is pleasant reading. Stout expanded it as "Frame-Up for Murder" (1958). I think the shorter version "Murder Is No Joke" has a faster pace and is more gripping.

"Murder Is No Joke" recalls The Red Box in being set at an elite Manhattan couture business. And is similar to The Red Box and such tales influenced by The Red Box as "Christmas Party" and Champagne for One in involving cyanide poisoning.

SPOILERS. The backstory gets international intrigue going: something Stout liked in his tales.

Mystery Plot. "Murder Is No Joke" has a well constructed mystery plot. One learns steadily more and more about the facts behind the crime. This occurs throughout the tale, rather than being all saved for the finale. The gradual uncovering of the truth is due to good detective work by Wolfe, Archie and Cramer.

I like the way Inspector Cramer contributes to the unravelling of the mystery (Chapter 2). It is good to see Cramer depicted as intelligent, and eager to do detective thinking.

Nero Wolfe cleverly connects up two apparently unrelated cases (first part of Chapter 3), something he also did in Murder by the Book (end of Chapter 2). He tells Archie the cases are connected, but doesn't tell him how. This creates a mystery for both Archie and the reader to solve, as Archie explicitly notes. This mystery is solved later, with an explanation by Wolfe (first part of Chapter 4). This is a good mystery puzzle plot. It is part of the gradual, step by step unearthing of more facts about the crime.

There is also something "meta" or reflexive about this. It involves an extra layer, beyond the mystery itself: what Wolfe tells and does not tell Archie and the reader.

Phone Numbers. SPOILERS. Both Wolfe and Archie think hard, and bring back the memory of what a phone number sounded like when it was dialed. This helps them differentiate between two numbers (Chapter 4). This is good, and part of the tale's admirable detective work. But an even better trick is in Hulbert Footner's Who Killed the Husband? (1941) and in Holly Roth's spy thriller The Mask of Glass (1954), where a man learns to identify the digits of a phone number, simply though hearing them dialed.

The Clue. "Murder Is No Joke" has an enjoyable clue at the end used by Wolfe to determine the murderer. It pleasantly takes the reader by surprise. It involves Wolfe thinking in a new way, about something he and the reader already knew.

But this clue has some problems. Most - but not all - of the clue was shared earlier with the reader. And while only one of the known suspects is consistent with this clue, Wolfe doesn't investigate the possibility that some outsider we haven't seen before committed the crime.

Tailing. "Frame-Up for Murder" opens with a tailing sequence: something Stout was interested in. Like the tailing in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death", it is a comic sequence, with off-trail happenings. The tailing is not present in the shorter version "Murder Is No Joke".

Character Notes. John J. McAleer's Introduction to the revised version "Frame-Up for Murder" has an interesting revelation. It reprints Stout's character list for the story, from his previously unpublished notes. The list includes the characters' names, ages and professions. The professions mainly re-appear in the actual story, but the ages do not. One wonders if there are unpublished character lists for many Stout works. They would make a good addition to Stout's oeuvre.

Poison à la Carte

Permutation Theory. Another mathematical story is "Poison à la Carte" (1960), the first three chapters of which involve permutation theory. Chapter 5 of the novella goes into a more vivid illustration of the mathematics involved. These chapters describe an interesting investigation into a murder mystery. Unfortunately, here murder leaves off and misogyny takes over, with the latter sections of the novella showing little real detection.

Too Many Cooks, Stout's earlier mystery about chefs, also has elements of permutation theory in its mystery plot (Chapter 11). (Another resemblance: Too Many Cooks is about a gathering of chefs; "Poison à la Carte" features a gathering of gourmets.)

Processes. Despite all the talk about food in the Wolfe stories, there is little actual description of eating, or of food as a sensuous experience. Stout is much more oriented to the act of preparing the meal: setting the menu, getting the ingredients, cooking, and serving the food. It is this whole preparation process that intrigues Stout. Food descriptions in Stout tend to focus on the ingredients. We read about mango ice cream, or steamed fish with a sauce made of mussels and mushrooms. These descriptions are more recipes, descriptions of how the food is made, than they are of what the food tastes like.

Stout in general is a process oriented writer. His stories are full of processes, from methods of detection, to Archie's repeated challenge of gathering together the suspects, which is always described in detail:

By process, I mean a step by step series of events that take place in time; this is similar to what the artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank calls a script.

Method Three for Murder

"Method Three for Murder" (1960) shows Stout's ability to tell a story backwards. Each section reveals more and more of the underlying mystery situation, characters and relationships. A steady pace of revelation is set right at the start, and continues throughout the tale. In this it recalls "Die Like a Dog". It also recalls "Die Like a Dog" in its Greenwich Village setting, and its background of artists. Such looks at artists are part of the Van Dine School tradition, of backgrounds of the intelligentsia.

A woman impersonating a taxi cab driver, recalls The League of Frightened Men (Chapter 19).

Mystery Plot. The mystery puzzle recalls, in general terms, "Too Many Detectives": both involve access to knowledge. Stout comes up with a clever puzzle gimmick in the solution.

The sleuths explore the suspects' movements, before and just after the murder. Such movements are a staple of Van Dine School investigations. Such movements also get explored in The Hand in the Glove.

The story's main weakness is that the murder plot is so unmotivated: something Wolfe recognizes and tries to dance around in his solution.

Cityscape. "Method Three for Murder" has an imaginative architectural setting for the crime: a Golden Age tradition. This involves a whole cityscape.

The cityscape includes one of Greenwich Village's obscure "alleys", which regularly appear in Helen Reilly. For details, see this list of alleys in Helen Reilly.

As in Reilly, the hidden architectural contents of the alley surprise Archie Goodwin. New Yorkers like Archie are shown in both Reilly and "Method Three for Murder" as being unfamiliar with buildings and landscapes in these alleys.

The cityscape certainly includes architecture: a house and walls. But the cityscape is also a landscape, consisting mainly of outdoor areas. The house has a flower garden and ornamental pool, echoing the vegetable garden and fish pond in the landscape in The Hand in the Glove.

Non-Mystery Aspects. "Method Three for Murder" has a number of subplots that are not mysteries, but which greatly enrich the story:

The Rodeo Murder

The first two chapters of "The Rodeo Murder", dealing with the cowboys' roping contest, are entertaining. The contest recalls a bit the ingredient contest in Too Many Cooks. But the later murder investigation in "The Rodeo Murder" is routine, and with some sexist stereotypes to boot (the Laura Jay episodes).

Gay Subtexts. Stout's "The Rope Dance" (1916) is an early look at a cowboy roper coming to New York City, and using his talents there. Stout would later use a similar plot in his Wolfe novella "The Rodeo Murder" (1960), some forty years later.

In both stories, the potential of the rope imagery to suggest bondage is lightly brushed on. Stout wants to titillate his readers' fantasies a little without appearing to cross the lines of good taste. Also in "The Rope Dance", there are suggestions of Stout's triangle situations in the story's imagery. The hero is supposed to rope the heroine as part of his act, but he loses his job by roping the villain in the audience instead. If the roping can be thought of as a form of sexual advance, we see the hero pursuing a man instead of a woman, and losing society's approval in the process. All this is below the surface of the tale however: superficially, the final roping is just the hero catching a bad guy.

Similarly, cowboy Cal Barrow's proposition to Archie in "The Rodeo Murder" about the two of them joining forces to give another man a well deserved beating can be seen as a bit of kinky fantasy, although it is presented without comment as just another detective story plot element. Their discussion is linked to Archie stroking the shiny leather of the prize saddle (start of Chapter 1). The encounter has a strong gay subtext. It looks as if Archie will agree to Cal's proposition (end of Chapter 1), but a murder cancels all such plans.

Cal Barrow has a similar name as Johnny Arrow in "A Window for Death", another young man with whom Archie male-bonds. Both men are virile men from the West.

Stout's mainstream novel Forest Fire (1933) has gay subject matter, anticipating "The Rodeo Murder".

Montana. Forest Fire is set in Montana. In "The Rodeo Murder" there is a briefly mentioned backstory of Archie staying for a month at Lily Rowan's ranch in Montana. Archie met cowboy Harvey Greve there; Greve is one of the suspects in "The Rodeo Murder". Greve returns in Stout's Western-mystery hybrid Death of a Dude (1969). Death of a Dude is set at Lily Rowan's ranch in Montana, a locale only talked about in "The Rodeo Murder".

Illustrations. Illustrations of "The Rodeo Murder" emphasize Western leather:

Context: Westerns. An enjoyable silent film showing cowboys coming to New York City is Bucking Broadway (1917), directed by John Ford.

"The Rodeo Murder" was written in 1958 - a peak year for television Westerns, which were becoming a national craze. Stout perhaps wanted to find a subject that appealed to the public. A character from "The Rodeo Murder" will return in Stout's Western-mystery hybrid Death of a Dude (1969).

Architecture. The architecture of the penthouse and its roof is pleasant (Chapters 1, 2). Stout emphasizes Lines of Sight: what can be seen from where. This is a subject regularly found in Mary Roberts Rinehart.

There are some similarities between the penthouse and Wolfe's brownstone:

Counterfeit for Murder

Stout produced an earlier and a later version of a novella, back to back in early 1959:
  1. The early version was filed away unpublished until it was retrieved by Stout biographer John J. McAleer and published as "Assault on a Brownstone" in 1985.
  2. The later version "Counterfeit for Murder" was published in 1961.
The two versions tell what are essentially the same story, but the writing is nearly completely different. The two versions also differ in choice of murder victim, and in a search of Wolfe's brownstone home. The two stories seem like the science fiction concept of parallel universes, recalling Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of the Forking Paths" (1941).

Characters. The second version is especially detailed in its look at the inhabitants of the boarding house. The feisty landlady Hattie Annis survives in the second version, and becomes a major character. Raymond Dell, the aging actor, gets his personality much more developed. But all the boarding house characters are extended in the second version. Each now gets a detailed life story, including their current employment. It is if Stout had shined a major light on this bunch. Since they are among the main appeal of the story, one can see why Stout did this.

This is not to imply that the characters do not sparkle in the first version. Indeed, "Brownstone" contains much dialogue and characterization of the characters not present in the revised "Counterfeit" version. Noel Ferris, in particular, comes off as more of a person in the first version.

The aging Shakespearean actor, down on his luck, but with an infinitely colorful personality and past, is a perennial figure in popular culture:

In "Brownstone", some of the actors disdain television, and refuse to work in it. In the more realistic "Counterfeit", all of the actors take what little TV work they can get. In that era television had a staggering talent pool of actors to draw on.

Noel Ferris' job in "Counterfeit for Murder" is fascinating. It doesn't link up directly with much of anything in any other Stout tale. SPOILERS. It perhaps shows Stout's liking for animals.

No sexual orientation is specified for most of the non-series characters. One is free to think that any or all of them are quietly LGBTQ: something fairly common in the tale's theatrical milieu. This contrasts with, say, Stout's "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" in which the three suspects are heterosexual, and we get brief accounts of all three men's involvement with women.

Setting. Both "Counterfeit for Murder" and Stout's early novella "Not Quite Dead Enough" have a similar setting, a cheap but respectable rooming house run by a crusty old landlady. The denizens of these houses are among the few financially strapped groups of suspects in Stout's work; he tended to write about upper middle class New Yorkers, in the Van Dine tradition. Even here, however, in "Counterfeit for Murder", the characters are all theatrical types, and preserve the intellectual character of the Van Dine school.

Mystery Plot. Stout strengthened the puzzle plot in the second version, such as it is, by adding some mild clues to the killer among all this extra biographical material. Individually the clues are non-conclusive. But each one is legitimately suggestive of the killer, and cumulatively they have weight.

An earlier deduction by Archie about the victim is clever (start of Chapter 5). This deduction expands the story. It makes the already good story in "Counterfeit for Murder" even bigger and better. It shows hidden elements and patterns, behind a story we thought we already knew. The deduction actually has two parts, both of which enhance the story.

SPOILERS. In a broad way Archie's deduction recalls a revelation about a character in "Booby Trap". "Counterfeit for Murder" also resembles "Booby Trap" in involving a federal investigation into a locale: a military intelligence office in "Booby Trap", a boarding house in "Counterfeit for Murder". In both works the attitudes and roles of the denizens are mysterious, leading to the revelations about people such as the victim in "Counterfeit for Murder".

Supporting Cast. Nero Wolfe figures out who the killer is at the end, as usual. But much of the earlier detective work in the tale is done by Archie, without much input from Wolfe. Especially in Archie's long series of excellent deductions midway through the tale (start of Chapter 5). And much of the finale, killer's identity aside, is the work of Saul Panzer. "Counterfeit for Murder" seems designed to give the supporting players in the saga a chance to shine.

Concealing Evidence. Many Wolfe tales made a big deal about Wolfe sharing all the evidence with the police, but keeping his deductions about the evidence to himself. I'm not a lawyer and have no idea if he is right or wrong, legally speaking. But in "Counterfeit for Murder" and "Assault on a Brownstone" Archie is clearly way over the line. He is concealing evidence, and in a major felony. He's in the wrong.

"Counterfeit for Murder" perhaps follows the conventions of mid-Century mysteries: little-old-lady heroines can do anything, even conceal evidence and perjure themselves, and no bad consequences will ever come to them. Especially if they have money. This is especially true in some Rinehart School mysteries. In "Counterfeit for Murder" Archie is concealing evidence to help little-old-lady Hattie Annis. In 1950's era mysteries, this might be seen as ample justification. Also, the fact that "Counterfeit for Murder" is comic allows the reader to suspend judgment.

T-Men. "Counterfeit for Murder" includes both New York policeman Inspector Cramer, and Treasury agent Albert Leach. This anticipates The Doorbell Rang, and its mixture of Cramer and the F.B.I. It is an uncomfortable relationship between Cramer and the Feds in both tales. This is played for both humor and plot detail, in both works.

Death of a Demon

No Supernatural. There are no supernatural aspects in "Death of a Demon" (1961). And no demons in the tale. There is simply a very evil villain, who is metaphorically called a "demon", to show how bad he is. (I cannot recall any supernatural elements in any Stout mystery story. This is fine with me: I don't believe in or approve of the supernatural, and don't want to read about it.)

Action. "Death of a Demon" has one of the better action scenes in the Wolfe stories (Chapter 5). It emphasizes the strategy Archie uses to contain the bad guys, rather than violence. Archie's strategies in "Death of a Demon" are often of storytelling interest. They are part of the tale's plot, rather than being violent action for its own sake.

Mystery Plot. The heroine's story (Chapter 1) ultimately turns out to have nothing to do with the actual murder mystery plot. It is just a coincidence, that the heroine does things at the same time as the actual killer.

The heroine's actions at the start, and their consequences (Chapters 1 - 3), are considerably more interesting than the actual killing and murder plot. And they, and the action scene (Chapter 5) make these opening chapters more interesting than the second half of the story, which concentrates on the actual, main murder plot.

Why are the heroine's actions and their consequences "interesting"? Reasons:

Why is the main murder plot "not interesting"? Reasons: Feminism. SPOILERS. The heroine's story at the start also benefits from raising what are now recognized as feminist issues. The heroine is abused by her husband. And he refuses to let her leave the marriage. Similar concerns are in "Die Like a Dog".

The titles "Die Like a Dog" and "Death of a Demon" are similar. Both have two words beginning with D, linked by "a".

Invention. SPOILERS. Stolen inventions once more play a role, as they did in Alphabet Hicks.

Kill Now - Pay Later

Mystery Plot. "Kill Now - Pay Later" (1961) is of mixed quality. It succeeds as story telling, characterization, and to a degree, as social commentary. But it fails as a mystery puzzle plot.

As Bob Schneider points out in his analysis of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Novellas, there is only one weak clue to the identity of the killer. The clue is so weak that Schneider refers to it as a "half-clue".

Stout likely recognizes that the clue is weak, because he then, at the finale, introduces two whole pieces of new evidence. These have never been shared with the reader before. Such lack of sharing of evidence and clues is known as a lack of "fair play". It is a standard kind of plotting failure in poorer detective stories.

Worse is the subplot mystery, about who has been spreading lies about the heroine's reputation. Stout fails to come up with a complete solution of this. This makes this whole subplot inconsistent. It is a plotting mess.

Harassment. "Kill Now - Pay Later" paints a vivid picture of a workplace where the female employees are sexually harassed.

Stout makes a observation true of many such businesses: the company's head knows his top salesman is harassing the female employees, but refuses to do anything about it, because the man is viewed as a success and is making so much money for the company (Chapter 5). There are also hints in the head's glib dismissal of the problem, that he doesn't care very much about the harm it causes the women workers.

"Kill Now - Pay Later" was written before movement feminism identified harassment as a political problem. So the harassment it depicts is not viewed politically.

But the harassment is condemned totally by the story. And it is seen implicitly as a common problem in the business world. The company is seen as more typical than unique.

Immigrants. Immigrants are thankfully viewed much more positively in "Kill Now - Pay Later", than they were in "The Cop-Killer".

Making Industrial Machinery. The bobbin company in "Kill Now - Pay Later" is yet another business setting for a Stout tale.

The company makes manufacturing equipment, used by other firms in New York's garment industry (start of Chapter 3). This manufacture of industrial machinery recalls Calamity Town (1942) by Ellery Queen. In both "Kill Now - Pay Later" and Calamity Town, this has a reflexive quality: the companies make equipment, which is in turn used by other companies to manufacture things.

A shelf in the firm's head office displays samples of the company's products (Chapter 8). Less is made of this, that the spectacular such product display in Alphabet Hicks.

Presumably someone has to design these products, but we do not meet any designers for the firm. This differs from several Stout tales, in which design work is central.

Floor Plan and Witness. We learn about the floor plan layout of the business office, and what a receptionist could see of it from her desk at the time of the crime. This recalls The Rubber Band. Details differ in the two works.

In general Lines of Sight play a role in some mystery fiction: what can be seen from where. They are even more important in "The Rodeo Murder".

Link to Prisoner's Base. Wolfe's actions in "Kill Now - Pay Later" (end of Chapter 2) are the exact opposite of his actions in the earlier Prisoner's Base. And they work well in "Kill Now - Pay Later", unlike the disaster they cause in Prisoner's Base.

Prisoner's Base. is not mentioned in "Kill Now - Pay Later". But one wonders if implicitly it is hanging over "Kill Now - Pay Later". Wolfe seems to have learned from his mistake in Prisoner's Base, and improved his behavior.

Blood Will Tell

"Blood Will Tell" (1963) is Stout's next-to-last Nero Wolfe novella.

Setting. The setting and premise of "Blood Will Tell" recall "Die Like a Dog". Both are set in a small apartment building in Greenwich Village, in which each floor has a different tenant. The tenants become suspects.

In both "Die Like a Dog" and "Blood Will Tell", sinister sexual advances by various men towards a woman, are motives for the crime, and plot engines for the story. The specific sexual attempts and relationships are different in the two tales, however.

Composer. Classical composer Vance calls his music the "the music of the future" (Chapter 2). So did composer Paul Thayer in "Invitation to Murder". Stout did not invent this phrase; it was in use in Germany in the 1800's.

Struggling Paul Thayer is a sympathetic character. Rich, self-promoting Vance is much less so (Chapter 2).

Vance is an avant-garde composer. He has sheet music for a real-life avant-garde work, Vers la flamme ("Towards the flame") (1914) by Alexander Scriabin (Chapter 8). This is a piano piece, as the tale mentions, consistent with Vance being a piano player. Modernism was big among 1960's intellectuals, but this is a rare specific reference in Stout to a specific modernist work. Few of the many authors read by Wolfe have any ties to modernism, with the possible exception of Mark Van Doren.

Mystery Plot. Wolfe points out four facts, all of which help him identify the killer (end of Chapter 7).

The first fact points out an odd aspect to the killer's behavior. This aspect only makes sense, if the killer is a specific one of the suspects. It's a strong clue.

The other three facts deal with behaviors of that suspect. They are all oddities in the suspect's behavior. They only make sense if this suspect is the killer. SPOILERS. This recalls the oddity in a suspect's behavior in "This Won't Kill You", which similarly allows Wolfe to identify the suspect as the killer.

SPOILERS. In both "This Won't Kill You" and "Blood Will Tell" the suspect's behavior is fully shared with the reader. The oddities are fully shared as well. But they are not highlighted as oddities. They are instead treated as just details of the suspect's actions, duly reported to the reader. Later, Nero Wolfe will cleverly highlight these oddities, and point out that they are clues indicating the suspect's guilt. This whole approach is admirable, as detective story technique.

These three facts are pretty good too. They have a cumulative impact: any one of them might be explained away, but all three together look damming.

Murder Is Corny

"Murder Is Corny" (1964) is the last Wolfe novella to be published. I wish there were many more.

Good and Bad. "Murder Is Corny" is a good title. It makes the tale sound like a comic romp - which it emphatically is not.

The tale starts off pleasantly, with Wolfe's disquisition on cooking sweet corn. These corn aspects are fun, but the rest of "Murder Is Corny" is dismal.

Clyde B. Clason

Clyde B. Clason is a writer in the S. S. Van Dine tradition, as Jon L. Breen argued in his article on Clason in Twentieth Century Mystery Writers. One can point out some of the similarities between Clason and Van Dine in detail: There are formal similarities between Clason's novels, and Van Dine's, as well. As in Van Dine, the story develops into an elaborate, complex pattern, every nook and cranny of which is packed with detail. It is this over all storytelling which is the richest element in the books. There is also a great deal about the backgrounds of the characters, and their current romantic liaisons. Clason, like Van Dine, is a literate writer, with an elaborate, sometimes ornate prose style.

There are negative aspects of Clason's writing:

Commentary on Clyde B. Clason:

A Gay Detective?

The Purple Parrot and The Man from Tibet show Clason's series sleuth, Roman historian Theocritus Lucius Westborough, working on a soon-to-be published book, Heliogabalus: Rome's Most Degenerate Emperor. The book is mentioned again in a later novel, Murder Gone Minoan, as already published, and selling well. Since Heliogabalus is mainly known for extreme gay behavior, this perhaps offers some clues to Westborough as well, who has no heterosexual love life in the novels. It might be a hint that Westborough is gay, too.

The ancient Greek poet Theocritus frequently made references to gay love in his idylls.

The admiration shown to handsome men in books like The Fifth Tumbler might also have a gay subtext.

The Fifth Tumbler

The Fifth Tumbler (1936) is the first Westborough novel. Its detective characters aside, it is a mild, inoffensive but not especially interesting book. Best parts: Chapters 2, 3, start of 4, 17, 27.

An Origin Story. It shows Westborough getting involved with sleuthing for the first time - it is like what comic books call an "origin story". Westborough's late brother James turns out to have known and helped the policeman in charge of the case. This gives amateur sleuth Westborough the "link through friendship to an official detective" that is key to Van Dine School detective stories.

Westborough takes the initiative, asking the policeman if he can tag along and witness the investigation.

Police. Van Dine School books often have a whole team of police, that recur in novel after novel. The Fifth Tumbler introduces such series characters:

All of these return in The Purple Parrot. Mack, Phelan, Dr. Hildreth and Selzer appear in Dragon's Cave, with Mack in the biggest role. And the likable amateur detective of The Fifth Tumbler, Chris Larson, also makes some cameo appearances in The Purple Parrot (first part of Chapter 9, start of Chapter 27).

Chris Larson. A non-series, non-police character Chris Larson also does some decent detective work. He figures out the mechanism of the crime, when he is among the first to see the body. And tells the police much about the science of the crime (Chapters 2, 3). He also suggests interviewing the chambermaid (end of Chapter 3). He can be seen as among the book's detective characters.

Chris Larson, the novel's Handsome Young Hero, gains sympathy when we see his work schedule (Part One, Chapter 3). He's a poor man working his way through college, and his work load is formidable. (During this period Clason was working full-time as an advertising copywriter, and working nights and weekends on his fiction. He was similarly exhausted. There is an autobiographical dimension to Larson's problems.)

Chris Larson is Scandinavian (Chapter 1). His depiction goes against the nasty stereotypes of the day that showed Scandinavians as of low intelligence. Instead Larson is a brainy, highly educated scientist. This is admirable.

Both Chris Larson and Captain Terence O'Ryan are huge, well-built men. They are today what we would call "hunks". Clason often admired athletic men in his tales.

A different bur parallel kind of attractiveness is embodied in James Chilton (start of Chapter 4). Chilton, is a tall, handsome Man of Distinction. An admirer compares him to a Hollywood actor.

Characters. Westborough and the detectives aside, the characters are a colorless lot. There is a certain air of Depression-era realism hanging over The Fifth Tumbler. The characters and situations try to be ordinary, typical people you might meet in real life. All this is well and good enough, but it robs the book of color and anything unusual.

Mystery Plot. There is only a little clever or creative about the mystery plot. The locked room aspects are especially routine.

The first part of the murder investigation tells us about the science behind the crime (Part One, Chapters 2, 3). It also introduces the police, and shows Westborough getting involved in the investigation for the first time. This is one of the novel's better sections.

The killer's alibi is fun to read about, when explained (Part Six, Chapter 27). But as the book itself points out, there is nothing original about it. One part is accurately called by Lt. Mack "The oldest trick known to detective-story writers." Still, the various components of the alibi subplot are decently put together.

The subplot about James Chilton is not original either, but it is fun. (Chapters: start of 4, 17).

Scent. Clason was interested in scents and smells. His Poison Jasmine is set at a perfume firm. The Fifth Tumbler invokes scent in key ways:

The Death Angel

The Death Angel (1937) is Clason's second detective novel. I don't like it very much. But it has some virtues.

Mystery Plot. The Death Angel has many mystery subplots. It is one of those books with many culprits all committing major crimes at the same time. In general, I find such solutions disappointing, and The Death Angel is no exception. In The Death Angel, at least four different crimes are committed by three different culprits. In addition, an innocent fourth man obligingly behaves in a mysterious manner, just to confuse things further.

The best mystery plot is the disappearance of Bancroft. The solution of this surprised me. Had Clason used this plot in a short story or brief novella, I'd likely be recommending it. The solution gives an ingenious twist to a character's situation, that hadn't been suggested before.

Landscape. The narrow cleared corridor through the woods is interesting ("Thursday", Chapter 9).

Architecture. Architecture on the estate is simple. There are a few good touches:

Doors we hadn't been much aware of are suddenly described as existing. This gives the effect of dreams, where a door suddenly appears in a room we are in. See:

The Set-Up. The Death Angel shares initial premises with the later and better novel Murder Gone Minoan:

The chauffeur in The Death Angel is a more conventional and sketchily-drawn character than the one in Green Shiver.

The local police fingerprint expert Elmer Humphreys is young and enthusiastic. His youth recalls fingerprint expert Jimmy Selzer in The Fifth Tumbler. Both men are skilled at their job.

The Purple Parrot

Publication Order. The Purple Parrot (1937) is Clason's third detective novel. It is often shown as his fourth book in lists - but there is good evidence it is his third, with Blind Drifts (1937) being his fourth: A novella version of The Purple Parrot appeared in The American Magazine (March 1937). The American Magazine featured a mystery novella every month.

Mystery Plot: Forensics. Medical examiner Dr. Basil Hildreth does good work determining the time of death, and establishing that the crime is in fact murder (Chapters 4, 5).

Mystery Plot: The Murder. The Purple Parrot has entertaining storytelling throughout. So why isn't it a Famous Mystery Classic? Likely answer: the solution of the murder at the end is a Real Stinker. What is wrong with this terrible solution?:

However, much of The Purple Parrot before this finale is substantially better. The rest of this article will try to analyze some of these positive features.

Mystery Plot: The False Solution to the Murder. Earlier, the hero-narrator comes up with a solution to the murder (Chapter 27). This solution turns out to be false.

Impossible Crime experts Robert Adey in his book Locked Room Murders and TomCat in his review, think that this false solution is much better than the true solution at the novel's end. I agree.

Among other merits to this false solution, it offers an actual explanation of the book's impossible crime (the true solution does not).

This false solution is sound - but not brilliant. I had thought from the start that something like this must be possible (although I didn't guess the concrete details). It is a somewhat "obvious" solution. There are strong hints that help make it obvious (middle of Chapter 7, last part of Chapter 15). In general, I'd argue that surprising solutions are usually better than obvious solutions.

Still, the subplot as a whole has merit. It is original: I don't recall anything like it in other mysteries. And it is an interesting idea, even if it doesn't startle the reader with surprise.

The subplot is architectural: something frequent in classical Golden Age mystery fiction.

The Purple Parrot recalls The Fifth Tumbler and Dragon's Cave, in that getting in and out of an entire building is a puzzle in the mystery plot. Earlier, Carolyn Wells often wrote impossible crime tales, in which the mystery involves an entire sealed apartment or house. This is a different sort of puzzle from a "locked room" mystery.

Mystery Sub-Plot: The Parrot. There is a subplot about the parrot, that runs through the novel. Everything about the sub-plot is nicely done, both the story telling and the solution. Sleuth Westborough includes two good plot surprises in his solution (Chapter 25).

The hero-narrator does a good piece of detective work (Chapter 17). While not immediately connected to the parrot subplot, it is part of a broad stream of events that form the parrot subplot as a whole. This chapter contains a good, detailed Background of an advertising agency: Clason's real-life career in that period.

Clason is sensitive to color. The parrot subplot makes use of bright color in its depiction of the parrot.

Architecture. The floor plan has structural similarities to those of the mansion in The Man from Tibet and the hotel in The Fifth Tumbler. All are oblong rectangles, with entrances and exits near the short sides of the rectangle, that is, the top and bottom of the page.

In general The Purple Parrot benefits from stressing the victim's house. It sets up a strong focus to the novel. Most of the tale's mysterious events happen there.

Positive Characters. SPOILERS. The hero and heroine unexpectedly show strong resilience through many trials. They keep having a positive, constructive attitude. So does sleuth Westborough. And so, also unexpectedly, does minor character Brenda Carstairs, a character who would instead be treated negatively by many authors. All of this is admirable and inspiring.

Catalans. One of the suspects, Thomas Vail, is of Catalan descent. The Spanish Civil War was raging at the time. One suspects it heightened awareness of Catalans. Similarly Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks (1938) contains Catalan characters.

Vail's home has Spanish decor, and some impressive Spanish pieces (Chapter 10). This anticipates in a simple way, the home-based private museums filled with one ethnic group's content in the later Clason novels The Man from Tibet and Green Shiver.

New Zealand. Similarly, we get a mini-dissertation about New Zealand, and its unique landscapes and biota (Chapter 16). This too anticipates Clason's interest in other countries in his later novels.

Rare Books. Lt. Mack has never heard of rare books, and repeatedly expresses shock that people are willing to spend big money for them. This is not plausible: Mack is a top homicide detective in Chicago. He certainly would have heard about rare books, and the fact that they are the targets of crime like theft and forgery.

The victim's collection of rare books in his house's study, is a simpler, smaller analogue to the private museums in homes, in other Clason mysteries. And the victim is found in the study, just as victims are found in the museums in later Clason.

The victim's home contains information sources: the catalogue of books, the long series of financial records.

The Man from Tibet

Mystery Plot. The Man from Tibet (1938) contains a locked room mystery. While the basic idea is simple, the impossible crime shows imagination in its storytelling trappings. It is not related to the Zangwill-Chesterton tradition of rearrangements in space and time. Instead, it recalls the impossible crimes in S. S. Van Dine and Edgar Wallace, in its simpler technical approach, and the colorful storytelling woven around it.

BIG SPOILER: The impossible crime resembles "A Chess Problem" in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1924).

The non-impossible crime elements of the mystery are fairly simple and uninventive.

Background. The basic construction of the book comes from Van Dine's The Scarab Murder Case (1929). That novel dealt with murder in a private museum of Egyptology, a museum located in a private mansion, and whose suspects were mainly specialists in Egyptian art. The Man from Tibet uses a similar approach, with Tibet substituted for Egypt.

There are several limitations of characterization in The Man from Tibet:

All this said, The Man from Tibet is surprisingly entertaining. Clason has researched his subject in remarkable depth, and builds an appealingly intellectual novel out of it. The opening chapter of The Man from Tibet is pretty good. It is mainly a flashback to an adventure in Tibet, not a mystery story.

Clason was interested in other Asian cultures, too. The sequence in the Japanese restaurant is delightful (Part Thirteen).

Architecture. The floor plan of the mansion in The Man from Tibet has the same structure as the hotel in The Fifth Tumbler:

A difference: the mansion in The Man from Tibet has a museum display area in the center, while the hotel merely has an air shaft or "court".

Murder Gone Minoan

Murder Gone Minoan (1939) shows excellent storytelling in its first half (up till around Part Four, Chapter IV). These chapters include both: The story's twelve suspects are also vividly characterized, often in their own words - much of the book is constructed out of documents and letters, in the manner of Wilkie Collins. Sympathetic portraits of a poor artist, and a well-to-do, gentle young archaeologist, are among the highlights. Both men are contrasted favorably to a macho but obnoxious athlete - Clason has been having welcome second thoughts about the primacy of machismo. These characterizations go some way towards making up for the attitudes expressed in The Man from Tibet.

The book's second half adds little to what has gone before, and its emphasis on romantic triangles and intrigues lacks appeal.

Clason thought Murder Gone Minoan was his best book, followed by Green Shiver and Poison Jasmine. See the author profile in Poison Jasmine. I agree with Clason's assessments.

Department store owners are characters in both Murder Gone Minoan and Blind Drifts. Department stores are places where many objects are exhibited, like the museums that run through Clason's tales.

Mystery Plot. The mystery elements are weaker than in Clason's best-plotted books. There is no impossible crime, in the strict sense. The book's mystery plot is extremely simple, with a solution that contains only one idea, and a not particularly creative one, at that.

Also, the choice of killer seems implausible. The book is best read for its lively first half.

Dragon's Cave

Dragon's Cave (1940) seemed not too interesting as story telling, on first reading years ago. A second reading recently was more enjoyable. Still, it is one of Clason's weaker novels.

Series Characters. Barry and Sylvia, the hero and heroine of The Purple Parrot, make a welcome if brief return (start of Part Two).

Assistant State's Attorney Teagan, an unsympathetic prosector, also returns briefly from The Purple Parrot (see Chapter 3.3).

Mystery Plot. Dragon's Cave has an unusual structure:

Background. The photo engraving plant recalls the artist Graham and his high tech productions using photostats in The Fifth Tumbler.

The photo engraving plant is a family-run business, anticipating another family business in Poison Jasmine. Both businesses are highly technological.

The weaponry room recalls, in a simpler way, the private museums in homes in The Man from Tibet and Green Shiver.

The play Romeo and Juliet in which two characters act, the adventure novels in the victim's library (Chapter 2.5), and young Martin's literary interests (Chapter 2.6), all reflect the intellectual backgrounds liked by the Van Dine School. The quote about Theocritus (Chapter 2.6) is from Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Movies. Some of the suspects have spent an evening at the movies (Chapter 2.6). So did some suspects in The Fifth Tumbler. This was an extremely common activity in that era. See also the Police Captain's family who want to spend the night at the movies in Green Shiver (Chapter 6.1).

They watch a film about motorcycle racing, Record Smashers, apparently a fictitious film made up for Dragon's Cave. In real life, I cannot find any examples of Hollywood motorcycling racing films earlier than the 1950's: The Pace That Thrills (1952), The Wild One (1953). But Britain made a film about a motorcycle race: No Limit (Monty Banks, 1935). By contrast, Hollywood regularly made films about auto racing and horse racing. My impression is that most of pre-1950's Hollywood was just not interested in motorcycles. By contrast, Golden Age mystery writers, including Clason, found them a phenomenon they wanted to include in their books.

Pulp and Slick Magazines. Clason satirizes first a Western pulp magazine read by the cop (Chapter 5.3), then a slick magazine read by the heroine (start of Chapter 5.4). We can tell the second magazine is a "slick", because it has elaborate illustrations: something made possible by the high-grade glazed paper slicks are printed on. True to sociological cliche, the inexpensive pulp magazine is read by a working class guy (the policeman), while the expensive slick is read by an upper class woman, who can easily afford it.

Clason includes the plot of a Western story from the pulp magazine (Chapter 5.3). Earlier he has a synopsis of a movie Sundered Hearts watched by a character (Chapter 2.5). Both seem to be made up by Clason for the novel.

Architecture. The trip to the house next door (Chapter 6.6), recalls the trip to the cellar in The Purple Parrot (Chapter 20).

The mere fact that the next-door house is relevant to the mystery, also recalls The Purple Parrot.

Poison Jasmine

Scientific Detection. Poison Jasmine (1940) is a scientific detective story: Poison Jasmine recalls The Fifth Tumbler: The Poisonous Plant. Agatha Christie in The Big Four (1924) included a section called "The Yellow Jasmine Mystery" (Chapters 9-10). This deals with the same poisonous plant that gives the title to Poison Jasmine. Clason's plot is very different from Christie's however.

The scientific name of this plant is Gelsemium sempervirens, as Clason makes clear (start of Part Two). Despite its common name "Yellow Jasmine", it is NOT related to the plants typically called Jasmine. It is in a separate plant family. Today it is often called Yellow Jessamine, a name which (accurately) makes it sound distinct from the true Jasmines.

The paperback of Poison Jasmine is a beautiful job, with highly readable text. But the flowers illustrated on the cover look nothing like Gelsemium sempervirens. Suggestion: the Internet is full of pictures of Gelsemium sempervirens, if you just search for it.

Mystery Plot: Impossible Crime. Poison Jasmine has a simple, but effective impossible crime puzzle. (SPOILERS) It anticipates ideas John Dickson Carr will use in The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) (END OF SPOILERS).

Background. The book's look at a business as a background for a crime resembles Rex Stout. As in Stout, we have a group of suspects that work as officers and consultants for a small, successful business. They are upper middle class, educated people of considerable business skill. Stout's businesses tend to have an intellectual feel, such as a design firm, publishing or broadcasting. Similarly, Clason's perfume firm is steeped in cultural traditions of the world of scent production.

Unlike some other Clason works, Poison Jasmine does not recreate another culture. It does offer a sympathetic, anti-racist account of the Chinese chef, which is in accord with the anti-racist views expressed in Clason's other fiction.

Color. Poison Jasmine shows Clason's flair for color imagery. Both the flowers, and events of the mystery plot, are described in color terms.

Best Parts. Poison Jasmine seems padded. Like many mystery novels, it would have been better as a novella. Most of the meat of both the mystery plot and perfume background are in Part Two, Part Three: Sections 1,2,6, Part Four: Sections 3-6, 8, Part Five: Sections 1 and 4, Part Nine: Sections 1 and 3. These sections total around seventy pages.

Green Shiver

Green Shiver (1941) involves collectors of Chinese jade. Every part of the book dealing with Chinese art, culture and philosophy is well done, and makes good reading. Characterization is also strong.

Mystery Plot. Unfortunately, the mystery elements of this book are routine, if elaborate. To his credit, Clason manages to avoid the coincidentally occurring subplots that afflict many lesser Golden Age novels. Instead, his solution manages to link up and explain all the disparate elements of the story as parts of a unified, connected common plot.

Towards the end of his novel, Clason introduces what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin. Clason uses this to motivate the actions of many of the characters. It is not quite clear if a MacGuffin, introduced towards the end of a book, is quite fair play or not. But it is interesting the way Clason uses it to give hidden meanings and significance to the actions of many of the characters in the book. At the end, we see their behavior in a new light, and this is moderately ingenious.

Dream Mystery. The heroine's dreams form the basis of a mystery. This makes Green Shiver part of a small subgenere of mystery fiction, in which seeming impossibilities involving dreams or premonitions. Please see my list of Dreams and Premonitions: Impossible Crimes.

I would rank Clason's solution to the dream mystery as solid. But not brilliant or highly creative. SPOILERS. Clason treats the dreams situation as a psychological problem whose solution is also psychological.

Not a Locked Room. Clason wrote several locked room novels. But Green Shiver is not one of them, in my judgment.

The murder takes place in an apartment. Policeman Captain Collins immediately notices a fire escape might have been used by the killer to exit the apartment (Chapter 6.1). This exit means the apartment is not "locked" - and that Green Shiver is not a locked room mystery.

Robert Adey's book Locked Room Murders is a classic study of impossible crimes. But I believe Adey is mistaken about Green Shiver:

In short, Adey depicts Green Shiver as a failed locked room mystery. By contrast, I see Green Shiver as not being a locked room mystery at all - just a plain, ordinary mystery without any sort of locked room (or locked apartment).

However, I would agree that there is nothing creative about the fire escape. Countless crime books and films have killers exiting by fire escapes.

Series Police: Los Angeles. Police Captain M.P. Collins of the LAPD Homicide Bureau, and Captain Albert Cranston of the Bureau of Investigation form a group of recurring police characters in Clason's Los Angeles novels. They parallel the series police characters in Clason's Chicago books. Groups of police characters that recur in book after book, are prevalent in the Van Dine School.

My best guess is that Cranston and Collins first appeared in Clason's The Whispering Ear. Cranston re-appears, and Collins is mentioned, in Murder Gone Minoan. Both Cranston and Collins play a role in Green Shiver. (They do not appear in Poison Jasmine, which is set 150 miles north of Los Angeles.)

Also in the Van Dine School tradition: intellectuals like lecturer Dr. Liao Po-Ching and author Kerry O'Connor.

Links to The Purple Parrot. The heroine shows up at the crime scene just before the murder, and the crime takes place almost immediately while she is close nearby. This recalls similar events in The Purple Parrot. In both books, this makes her a leading suspect for the killing.

SPOILERS. The killer has an alibi in both The Purple Parrot and Green Shiver. The gimmick used to create the alibi in Green Shiver is much fairer in than the one in The Purple Parrot.

BIG SPOILERS. The MacGuffin involving the parrot in The Purple Parrot, anticipates the MacGuffin of the statue in Green Shiver. Somewhat similar plot revelations eventually occur in both books.

Links to The Man from Tibet. Green Shiver has a similar structure to the earlier The Man from Tibet (1938). In many ways, this second novel is an extension or variation of the first. Both:

Green Shiver is less linear than The Man from Tibet, and this is a good thing. The reader is often hard pressed to see the underlying significance of events in Green Shiver, meanings that are only revealed at the solution. This extra dimension of mystery in the book adds to its complexity.

The imagery of Green Shiver is more upbeat. Its depiction of Chinese culture concentrates on favorable aspects, while The Man from Tibet often focuses on horror material. Green Shiver is not Pollyanna-ish, but its dark side is in its depiction of the Japanese invasion of China, not its very positive look at Chinese culture itself. Characterization also seems richer in Green Shiver.

Imagery. Clason is sensitive to color, and his book is a riot of color imagery.

Clason is knowledgeable about botany, and many exotic plants are described.

Police Captain Collins does some detective work by smell, investigating the victim's perfumes and scents (Chapter 6.1). This recalls the perfume-centered Poison Jasmine.

The names in the story seem to have symbolic meanings. Green Shiver includes such names as Jocasta (wife of Oedipus), Faith, Jasper and Eugene (meaning "well-born", a name given to the spoiled son of a wealthy family).

Green Shiver is rich in discussions of Taoism. Westborough is depicted as a follower of Taoism, and the author is clearly sympathetic.

Architecture. Much of the novel takes place in a large, Chinese style house built by a well to do collector in Los Angeles. Even by the standards of the Golden Age and its interest in architecture, this building is unusual. Oddly, Clason does not make the architecture play a role in the mystery plot. A well done suspense passage (Part Seven) is set against the building and its grounds, however.

Science. The secretary Jethro Coggin who started out to be an electrical engineer in Green Shiver (Chapter 7.1). recalls the night clerk Chris Larson who is studying to be a chemist in in The Fifth Tumbler. This section offers a brief but interesting look at machinery Coggin has installed.

Politics. Green Shiver was published before the US entered World War II, but Clason makes no secret of his pro-Chinese, anti-Axis attitudes. Clason's Chinese sympathies recall those of Erle Stanley Gardner.

Clason, like many others of his day, was outraged by Axis bombing raids (Chapter 5.4). Bombing is treated in this book as a horrific war crime. It makes a telling contrast to today's attitudes in the United States, where bombing is considered the most popular way to wage war.

Oil. Green Shiver looks negatively at the impact of oil on civilization (first part of Chapter 5.4). Oil is seen as powering cars and planes - both of which are now sinister for their ability to cause mass destruction in World War II. Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics. Unlike most mysteries on energy, Green Shiver does not feature some fictitious new invention providing energy or a more efficient engine. Instead Green Shiver offers commentary on the existing real-life world of oil and the machines it powers. Clason's commentary involves religious imagery. This echoes the rest of the book's look at Taoism.

Chauffeur. As in many mysteries and non-mysteries, the chauffeur Mike Fry is a figure of sexual virility (Chapter 6.6). Like other such chauffeurs in fiction, he wears a sharp uniform.

Chauffeurs are especially plentiful in Los Angeles based mysteries, like Green Shiver. Please see my discussion of Chauffeurs in Pulp Fiction.

This chauffeur is older (47) and has a beautiful grown daughter: an unusual twist in chauffeur fiction. Like her father, she expresses sexuality (Chapter 9.1). Like him, she is uniformed in her job (working in a candy store). Both father and daughter are conspicuously working class - like most fictional chauffeurs. She is like her father, but transformed into a woman. There is something androgynous about this pair. They seem like one essence that can manifest itself in male and female avatars.

Influences?. The murder takes place in a fortune teller's office, which is an apartment in an apartment building. This setting recalls the mystery The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) by Rudolph Fisher.

Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett / John Stephen Strange

Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett wrote under the pseudonym John Stephen Strange. Commentary on Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett: References to mystery fiction in Tillett:

The Man Who Killed Fortescue

The Man Who Killed Fortescue (1928). The early chapters (1-5) set up an intriguing and complex crime situation, set in the upper class world we are familiar with in S.S. Van Dine. The writing in the early chapters is delicate, and combines the Van Dine approach with romantic writing out of the "woman's fiction" tradition. The early chapters are, in fact, emotionally involving. Tillett is especially concerned with women and their fortune hunting boyfriends.

At this point one is hoping that one has discovered a woman member of the Van Dine school, which as currently constituted seems to be all too much of a boy's club (Van Dine, Queen, Abbot, Palmer, King, Stout, to name them in their order of appearance), but it is not to be. Everything declines into dullness: the romance, the plot, the detection. At this stage of her career, the author had little detectival technique. The solution to the novel (Chapter 29), while fair, has fewer plot fireworks than just about any Golden Age detective novel one could name. However, this was her first book, and perhaps she developed a lot more later. To be continued ...

Detectives. This is the debut of one of Tillett's series sleuths, New York police detective Van Dusen Ormsberry. His name recalls Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, the "The Thinking Machine" detective of Jacques Futrelle. His name also recalls S.S. Van Dine. Van Dusen Ormsberry is a well-dressed sophisticate, and good looking in a refined way. People looking at him guess he's an actor in Murder on the Ten-Yard Line. And The Saturday Review described him as "that sleek detective of sartorial perfection" in their review of The Clue of the Second Murder. Unlike many detectives of the pre-1945 era, he is attracted to women, and shown dating a Broadway "musical comedy star".

Van Dusen Ormsberry's sophistication recalls Van Dine's detective Philo Vance. However Ormsberry is not as intellectual as Vance, or such Vance influenced sleuths as Ellery Queen or Thatcher Colt. Tillett's books are not as purely Van Dine-like as those of other authors.

Ormsberry instantly recognizes that the heroine is lying and holding back information (Chapter 4). Similarly in The Bell in the Fog sleuth Barney Gantt can immediately tell when people are concealing things. I find this dubious.

Ormsberry's sardonic day-dream is of retiring as a detective and growing petunias (Chapter 29).

The Man Who Killed Fortescue is also the debut of series character young Bill Adams, who wants to be a detective. He is first seen here working as an office boy (Chapter 5). He does some good detective work (Chapter 29). Lee Thayer's The Mystery of the 13th Floor (1919) previously contained an office boy hero who wants to become a detective.

Series character reporter Jim Gaynor is also introduced in The Man Who Killed Fortescue. He communicates with Ormsberry, as well as doing his reporting job.

Characters. Among the characters are types that run through the author's books:

Greenwich Village. The Greenwich Village setting of the murder will soon reappear in books by Anthony Abbot and Helen Reilly.

Architecture and Views. People in Tillett's books like to look out upper story windows. They see large panoramas and vistas. See The Man Who Killed Fortescue (Chapter 1), The Strangler Fig (Chapter 2). They also watch processes develop from beginning to end.

SPOILERS. In The Clue of the Second Murder (Chapter 26), the view from the cupola becomes a major part of the mystery puzzle plot.

Evening Clothes. When we first see suave Ormsberry, he is in evening clothes (Chapter 1). In The Strangler Fig, Huntington's disappearance occurs while he is in evening clothes (Chapter 3). In Silent Witnesses, sleuth Barney Gantt gets to wear white tie and tails, for a big date that includes attending the opera (Chapter 1). This is a bit atypical of a tough newspaperman like Barney Gantt. But he clearly loves being dressed up. Please see my list of characters in white tie and tails.

The Strangler Fig

The Strangler Fig (1930) is a minor novel. Its best feature is a description of Florida landscapes during its brief opening (Chapters 1-3). This description gets a brief extension in the phone call scene (middle of Chapter 15).

Mystery Plot. The Strangler Fig shows the same structure as The Man Who Killed Fortescue. There is a crime in the past, one that is still mysterious and unsolved, and it triggers related crimes in the present. (The later Look Your Last (1943) has a similar two-crime construction.) All events in the book are carefully dated.

Unfortunately, after its opening The Strangler Fig largely degenerates into a mechanically worked out story. Sleuth Brown does little actual detection.

The Strangler Fig is a "mystery set in a country house mansion".

Corruption. Tillett examines social corruption, especially how large money interests do things that hurt society. Here it leads to the discussion of the Neptune (Chapter 14).

Stereotypes. The black workers are depicted throughout the book as filled with superstition. And the poor white residents are shown as lazy (opening of Chapter 1). Not many books manage to defame both black and white people, but The Strangler Fig does.

Description. Tillett's descriptive powers have grown:

Detectives. Bolivar Brown, the new sleuth of Fig, is a brilliant amateur. A lawyer, he likes to solve puzzles and problems. He is especially good at thinking (start of Chapter 2). These are all traits of intuitionist school detectives.

Bolivar Brown worked his way up from poverty, studying nights (start of Chapter 2). He started out as an office boy, like young Bill Adams in The Man Who Killed Fortescue. His current office boy Thomas appears (first half of Chapter 15). His boss has Thomas listen in on a phone extension to an important conversation, and take notes, reminding one of Archie Goodwin to come in Rex Stout books. I liked the way the enterprising Thomas is good at shorthand, a valuable skill in the pre-Internet era. Shorthand plays a role in John T. McIntyre's Ashton-Kirk: Investigator (1910).

The Bell in the Fog

The Island. The Bell in the Fog (1936) is set on a small island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. The island is fictitious. But the book's dedication suggests it is based on a real island. The island is charming, with well-described scenery and atmosphere. As in The Strangler Fig, this description is best in the opening (Chapters 1-10). This long opening, the first third of The Bell in the Fog, is the book's best part.

The buildings, roads and natural features on the island are all carefully described. This is an example of the Golden Age interest in landscape.

The island (Chapters 1-10) resembles the one in The Strangler Fig (Chapters 1-3) in being a mile long but very narrow. It differs in being full of humble, traditional New England buildings, while the one in The Strangler Fig has a single upper class mansion on it,

Both islands have no direct communication with the outside world. You have to take a boat trip to the nearby mainland town for a phone call or telegraph. Mail is regularly brought in and out by boat. There is a brief but vivid scene of the hero making a phone call on the mainland in The Strangler Fig (middle of Chapter 15). (See also the ship-to-shore phone call in Silent Witnesses (last part of Chapter 6).)

All-encompassing weather grips both islands:

The Chinese Jar has weather linked to both books: a giant all-encompassing fog along the shore, as in The Bell in the Fog; the fog is seen from a boat at sea, like the hurricane in The Strangler Fig.

Helen Reilly sent a young lawyer hero to a New England island with a mansion in The Thirty-First Bullfinch (1930). The Thirty-First Bullfinch was copyrighted June 20, 1930, and The Strangler Fig August 29, 1930. This makes it hard to see how either book could have influenced the other.

Sociology. The characters attempt to be typical people one may meet on a Maine island. They work in tourism, fishing, run a boat, keep a lighthouse, etc. There are tourists and an artist who has moved to the island, too. But none of these people are the extreme Yankee eccentrics found in Phoebe Atwood Taylor's comic Cap Cod mysteries.

It is hard to get a clear idea of how well-to-do the "summer people" are, who come stay on the island in the summer. But there is no indication that they are as wealthy as the Big Rich Society Elite who stayed in real-life Bar Harbor, Maine. Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote mysteries inspired by Bar Harbor, The Wall (1938) and The Yellow Room (1945), and they include Elite characters. By contrast the summer people in The Bell in the Fog seem affluent, but not super-rich.

Machinery. There is a detailed description of the complex machinery of the fog bell (Chapter 10). This recalls the young inventor in The Clue of the Second Murder.

Detectives: Barney Gantt. The Bell in the Fog is the debut of one of Tillett's series sleuths, New York City newspaper photographer Barney Gantt.

Gantt has parallels with the earlier reporter Jim Gaynor:

Detectives: Postal Inspector. In The Bell in the Fog (1936) Gantt works with his friend US Postal Inspector Tom Powell. While Postal Inspectors were prominent in real life, not too many appeared in fiction, unfortunately, as best I can tell: The mail robbery is an unusual subject for a mystery. Mail plays a role in other Tillett mysteries. SPOILERS:

Women's Roles. Barney's loyal girlfriend Muriel Singmaster writes an "advice to the lovelorn" column at the same newspaper where Barney works. She's a working woman.

But otherwise the roles available to women seem ultra-conventional:

Mystery Plot. The book gets two related mysteries underway speedily. Unfortunately the solution to the mystery shows little ingenuity.

Both the murder victim and Lotta Hendricks are people with unknown pasts. Similarly no one can trace the background of victim Diederich in Murder on the Ten-Yard Line.

Van Dine School novels often investigate the movement of people around the crime scene at the time of the murder. The Bell in the Fog follows this tradition, by noting the movements of people around the whole island, on the morning of the murder.

Mystery Plot: The Killer. There are two clues to the identity of the killer. However, the big one is not well explained to the reader, which makes it unfair. SPOILERS. This involves the killer buying the boots off-island, thus showing he was lying about staying on the island. As far as the reader knows, he could have got them at the island's general store. or bought them through the mail.

BIG SPOILERS. The killer in The Bell in the Fog turns out to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. I usually dislike such solutions, and The Bell in the Fog is no exception. It's unpleasant.

Fog. Fog is associated with certain mystery writers:

Silent Witnesses

Silent Witnesses (1938) is the second Barney Gantt mystery novel. It is set in Barney Gantt's home turf as a newspaperman, Manhattan. Silent Witnesses is a mild book. It has some decent touches, as discussed below. But it lacks brilliance. Best parts: Chapters 1-5, 9, 13, 18, 30, 31, 33.

Detectives. In The Bell in the Fog Gantt works with his friend US Postal Inspector Tom Powell. In much of Silent Witnesses Gantt works with likable Sergeant Rand of the Missing Persons Bureau. Both organizations are atypical of Golden Age mystery fiction.

Later, a far more typical homicide detective will appear, Inspector Beecher. Beecher is an unlikable man with a chip on his shoulder.

Van Dine School. Silent Witnesses adheres to some Van Dine School paradigms:

Mystery Plot: The Villain. There are no good clues to the identity of villain. And no ingenuity in the villain's actions. This makes the main mystery plot uninteresting.

Mystery Plot: The Disappearance. The apparent victim in Silent Witnesses disappears. This recalls a mysterious disappearance in The Strangler Fig. Neither disappearance is especially ingenious, considered as a mystery puzzle. But both amply succeed as story telling. SPOILERS. The finding of the disappeared person, in a dramatic, unexpected location, is a well-done scene in both tales. See Silent Witnesses (Chapter 31).

Mystery Plot: A Suspect. BIG SPOILERS. The most ingenious plot aspect of Silent Witnesses is making an innocent person (Stella Vaughan) look like they are responsible for the sinister events. The true explanation is cleverly done (Chapters 14, and especially 18).

The explanation has feminist aspects. These might interest modern day feminists, showing that Strange was exploring an issue that is still relevant today, back in the 1930's. However, this is far from the first exploration of this issue in mystery fiction. See for example The Mystery of Angelina Frood (1924) by R. Austin Freeman's.

Snow. Silent Witnesses opens in a snowstorm, the way The Bell in the Fog takes place in fog. The descriptions are fairly atmospheric.

Cityscape. Key events take place on a Manhattan street, and one of its cross-streets (Chapters 1, 5, 30, 31). We get a detailed description of the street. These descriptions are pleasant. But there is nothing special about the street or its architecture.

The street is Bank Street, a real Manhattan road. Bank Street is in Greenwich Village. The Man Who Killed Fortescue also took place in Greenwich Village.

A Gay Suspect?. Suspect Rexford Johnson might be gay, although this is never made explicit. Hints:

Making a none-too-admirable suspect gay is not a good approach. Making Rexford Johnson be gay seems harmless at first, when he seems to be just a likable witness. But as his actions become darker and darker in the course of the book, it becomes offensive.

Rexford Johnson is introduced at a dinner party that is "really gay" (Chapter 1). It is indeed a merry, sophisticated party: the standard meaning of "gay" at the time. And the other two attendees at the party are a heterosexual couple. But the word "gay" meaning homosexual was coming into use in the late 1930's. One wonders if its usage in Silent Witnesses involves this double emending.

Look Your Last

Look Your Last (1943) is a combination spy and mystery novel, the sort that was popular during World War II. Its villains are members of Big Oil, and features a long historical look back to events in the 1930's, as well as the book's "present" of 1941. This sounds a lot more interesting than it is - the book is not very good.

Its biggest problem: it seems to be a work of Communist propaganda. One character even rationalizes Stalin's purges of the 1930's as Stalin just cleaning out a few traitors and Nazi sympathizers! (Chapter 12.) The whole book is a similar bunch of hooey. The book also denies the reality of the Armenian massacres (Chapter 6) and suggests that every anti-Communist Russian and Ukrainian is a Nazi tool or worse (Chapter 8); both of these assertions would be challenged as nonsense by any disinterested historian. The book also denounces freedom of speech (Chapter 14), because it allows people to speak against Communism. Contemporary Marxists keep promoting the idea that much was lost when American Communist art of the 1930's and 1940's was banned in the 1950's. Well, here is an example of such art, and it is really trashy.

A possible oil company merger, and its effect on investors, is a sub-plot in The Man Who Killed Fortescue (beginning in Chapter 3). Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.

Anne Austin


Anne Austin's series books differ from the Van Dine School in that they are not set in New York City, or any other huge metropolis. Instead, they are in an apparently fictitious Midwestern small city, Hamilton. My guess is that Hamilton might be set in Ohio, although the books never specify a state. There is indeed a real-life Hamilton in Southern Ohio. What relation it has, if any, to Austin's Hamilton is unclear.

Series sleuth James F. "Bonnie" Dundee is explicitly described as Scotch-Irish in Murder at Bridge (Chapter 1). Scotch-Irish Americans are their own ethnic group, distinct from both the Scotch and the Irish. Please see the Wikipedia on Scotch-Irish Americans. One reason I'm guessing that Hamilton is in Ohio, is that the Scotch-Irish are prevalent in Southern Ohio. In general the Scotch-Irish are common in Appalachia and the South, and are less common in most of the rest of the Middle West.

However, characters in Murder at Bridge regularly get expertise from the big city of Chicago. This suggests the books' Hamilton might be close to Chicago: in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana.

Murder at Bridge

Murder at Bridge (1931) is a mystery novel featuring series sleuth James F. "Bonnie" Dundee.

Van Dine Influence. Some general approaches recall the Van Dine School:

Hero Bonnie Dundee is a professional, an investigator with the D.A.'s office, not an amateur like Van Dine's Philo Vance. But he has a bit of the same feel. He's a literate, thoughtful man, working in collaboration with a friendly team of cops who are much more low-brow than he is, just like Vance. And like Vance, there is just one of him, while the police are a large organization.

The murder victim, a New York City dancer, recalls the title New York City singer victim in S. S. Van Dine's The "Canary" Murder Case (1927). In both books the heroine represents an intense sexuality which has a powerful effect. In both books, the heroine's boyfriend also represents such sexuality, in a male form.

The heroine's maid is prominent in both Murder at Bridge and The "Canary" Murder Case.

The deductions from ballistics about the path of a bullet firing, recall in a broad way Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926).

Mystery Plot: Clues. The initial investigation of the crime (Chapter 2) is full of features that are prominently high-lighted. When the solution is revealed at book's end, these features can be seen as clues that indicated the solution. These features are hardly "hidden clues" - they are conspicuously discussed by the detectives. The only things hidden are the surprise solution, and the way that these features point to it. These features include (SPOILERS):

Surrealist Echo. SPOILERS. The second murder echoes the first, in its setting and structure. This echoing is surrealistic. Surrealistic echoes of one event for another, appear in several mystery writers. They tend to be pleasing and interesting.

The characters in Murder at Bridge are quite conscious of the similarities in the two murders. A local newspaper headlines "Second Bridge Dummy Murder" (start of Chapter 23).

Architecture and Socializing. The house is nice, and probably better than the places where most of the book's readers lived. But it is far from being any sort of mansion. It is not Downton Abbey or Stately Wayne Manor.

The book suggests the house is well-designed to host the sort of small parties shown in the novel (see Dundee's reflections in the last part of Chapter 2). Each room and feature of the hose seems designed with this sort of entertainment in mind. By contrast, there is no study or office. And no library. The woman who lives there has a modest desk in her bedroom, where she carries on small amounts of correspondence and bill-paying. This serves in place of a study.

Today there is much concern about social media on the Internet, and the way it consumes so much time and energy. But this house is just as exclusively oriented towards the social network. The people who live there seem to have no other interest but entertaining members of their exclusive country club set.

While I have reservations about this house's lifestyle, one has to admit the house makes for good storytelling. Every feature of the house suggests the sort of entertainment events that go on there. So the reader is always getting a vivid glimpse of this way of life.

Architecture: Exploration. BIG SPOILERS. The discovery of the hiding place (Chapter 18) recalls the finding of the secret space at the end of Faulkner's Folly (1917) by Carolyn Wells. Both are hidden spaces in a house. And in both our understanding is greatly aided by a floor plan of the house.

Bridge. Sleuth Bonnie Dundee demands the witnesses give a detailed account of the bridge game that took place just before the murder. The bridge game is then described in depth. I can't see what, if anything, the bridge game actually has to do with the murder, though. There are no clues embedded in the game details, unlike some later bridge mysteries. The only feature of bridge relevant to the mystery is that the player known as the "dummy" can get up and leave the bridge table. Other than this, the book could have been Murder at Pinocle or Murder at Canasta without affecting the mystery plot in the slightest.

Bridge lovers might enjoy reading about the game. However, readers should be warned that most of the bridge is confined to two chapters. Murder at Bridge is NOT a novel with a "Background" in bridge: in other words, the book does NOT consist of 300 pages of bridge action. And there is nothing exceptional about the games described, as best as a non-bridge-expert like me call tell. This is a weekly suburban game among socialites, not a championship tournament.

People who know nothing about bridge will have few problems reading and enjoying Murder at Bridge. They won't understand the bridge games, but as said before, these games are a brief feature of the novel, and one with little relevance to the mystery.

As best I can tell, the form of bridge in Murder at Bridge is standard "contract bridge". The Wikipedia says that contract bridge was invented in 1925, and in a "few years" was widespread. So the bridge in Murder at Bridge (1931) was something fairly new, maybe even trendy.

There is a survey of bridge mystery novels at Noah's Archives.

Literary References. A rich man collects what we now call Dime Novels, although that term is not used in Murder at Bridge (last part of Chapter 21).

The characters put on an amateur performance of The Beggar's Opera (Chapter 19). The men "enjoyed it hugely because it gave then an opportunity to wear tight satin breeches and lace ruffles." Such costumes were featured in Hollywood films of the era: see Johnny Mack Brown in the party in The Divine Woman (Victor Sjöström, 1928). This scene in Murder at Bridge is also one of a number of places where men are seen as attractive. The novel emphasizes how good looking architect Clive Hammond is (start of Chapter 4).

Class. The heroine's family has lost their money, and has to move from their house into a modest apartment. A severe loss of money leading to a decline in class was common in America in 1931, less than two years after the start of the Depression. However the Depression is not mentioned. Instead, the family's problems are due to the father deserting them. This recalls the film The Crowd Roars (Howard Hawks, 1931), where the hero declines into being a tramp - but whose problems are due to alcoholism, not the Depression. Apparently, Austin and Hawks wanted to show the financial problems common in the United States - but didn't want to ascribe them to the Depression.

Rufus King. Murder at Bridge anticipates the Dr. Colin Starr tales (1939 - 1941) by Rufus King, which are set in Ohio. Both:

Richard M. Baker

Richard Merriam Baker wrote three 1930's mystery novels in the S.S. Van Dine tradition, starring amateur detective Franklin Russell. He is not to be confused with a later writer named Richard M. Baker Jr. (1924-1978).

Commentary on Richard M. Baker:

Death Stops the Bells

Death Stops the Bells (1938) is the third and last mystery novel about amateur sleuth Franklin Russell. Best parts: The opening (Chapters 1, 2, first half of 3), and some later sections (first half of 7, opening of 9).

WASPs. The characters are upper class WASPs who live near Boston. The setting is the suburb of Newtown. This sounds like Newton, a real-life suburb, historically a WASP stronghold (this has changed today). Franklin Russell teaches in one of the elite prep schools that were so important to upper class WASPs in that era.

Franklin Russell's name evokes that of the United States President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a member of the upper classes, a political liberal who believed in public service.

The families in the story live next to an Episcopalian church. The main family has historical ties to this Church of St. Giles (a name which likely derives from a famous real-life London church). In that era Episcopalianism was a denomination closely associated with upper and upper middle class WASPs.

Van Dine School. The opening description of Franklin Russell stresses his knowledge of psychology (page 1). This recalls Van Dine's detective Philo Vance.

A series of killings in an upper class family, centered on their home, recalls Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928).

Van Dine School: Intellectual Subjects. Van Dine School characters are often involved with intellectual subjects. Death Stops the Bells follows this tradition (Chapter 1):

Unfortunately these intellectual subjects mainly disappear from the novel, after the first chapter. I would have welcomed detailed discussions of all of them.

All of these subjects involve "language and literature". This contrasts with the art background frequent in Van Dine. These all can also be categorized as being about "communication".

Death Stops the Bells has a background of campanology: bell ringing. This is also an intellectual subject. And indeed, Franklin Russell knows a good deal about it, in the tradition of erudite sleuths of the Van Dine School. He also has informed comments on the drama criticism of the suspect.

The chime book contains a written record of the bells used to sound out various hymns (Chapter 2). It is an interesting, unusual reference work, with an original method of recording information. The chime book is also a way of "communicating" knowledge, in this case musical knowledge.

The Bell Tower. The opening has vivd descriptions of a concert played on the bell tower (Chapter 1). This has a tactile quality: it describes how the sound actually feels on the ears.

Even better is the detailed look at the bell tower (Chapter 2). This is the high point of the novel. All aspects of the bell technology are described in detail. And we get a full look at the architecture of the tower, in the Golden Age tradition of interest in unusual architecture.

Campanology. A few years before Dorothy L. Sayers wrote another mystery based on campanology, The Nine Tailors (1934). Today The Nine Tailors is one of the most famous mysteries of the Golden Age, while Death Stops the Bells is one of the most obscure.

"Campanology" is an odd word. Many terms ending in "ology" denote the scientific study of some topic. By contrast campanology refers to something invented or made-up: complex patterns of bell ringing. Death Stops the Bells (Chapter 1) accurately refers to it as "the art of campanology". It is indeed an art, and not a scientific discipline, unlike many "ology" terms.

Police. Van Dine School books tend to have police who are series characters, appearing in book after book. In Baker novels Franklin Russell works with policeman Detective-Sergeant McCoun.

The law enforcement colleagues of Van Dine sleuths tend to be at the same social level as the sleuth. For example, in Van Dine, both sleuth Philo Vance and District Attorney Markham are from the social elite. By contrast, Franklin Russell is a Boston WASP, while McCoun is an Irishman. He is much earthier than Russell in his speech and manner. In this era social and political conflicts between Boston WASPs and the Irish were rampant. WASPs were dominant, and (unfairly) saw the Irish as being at a lower level.

It is possible that this friendship between a WASP detective and an Irish policeman, is an example of the positive respect for minorities shown by the Van Dine School.

McCoun has a rank, Sergeant, wears his hair in a brush cut, and has a "martial air" (Chapter 2). This militaristic feel makes a contrast with the upper class WASP milieu of the suspects.

In Van Dine and several of his followers, we meet a whole staff of policemen who assist the main cop and who appear in book after book. Death Stops the Bells (Chapter 2) contains a few such characters.

Chauffeur. Among the characters in Richard M. Baker's Death Stops the Bells is the sympathetic chauffeur Albert Runnion. Like many chauffeurs in mysteries of the era, he is good at all sorts of machinery: he takes care of the bells as well as the car. (Today experts in technology tend to be computer whiz types.) Runnion is described as intelligent. He is also an author, of the chime book (Chapter 2) and teacher (first half of Chapter 7), making him a member of the intelligentsia, albeit a working class one.

Albert Runnion is good looking, with curly hair (Chapter 2). The virile chauffeur is a mystery tradition. Runnion's account of what he was doing at the time of the murder (first half of Chapter 7) contributes to the image of the sexy chauffeur. The car he is polishing is also a symbol of masculinity.

Runnion is the teacher of the Bell Ringers' Guild of St. Giles, the local church. Many of the young men in the Guild are upper class - but are being taught by a chauffeur.

Like many chauffeurs in mysteries, Runnion lives over the garage. In general chauffeurs have their own place to stay, separate from both their employers and the other servants. There is something appealing about this: these sound like enjoyable places to live.

Chauffeurs occasionally pop up in Van Dine School books: The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen, Orchids to Murder (1945) by Hulbert Footner. Like Albert Runnion, they are sympathetic. Please see also my discussion of Chauffeurs in Pulp Fiction.

Torrey Chanslor

Characters and Mystery Traditions

Torrey Chanslor wrote two mystery novels. Both feature the Beagle Sisters, two elderly New England spinsters who inherit a New York City detective agency. The books have been reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press, and they have a profile of Chanslor. In their profile, Tom and Enid Schantz state that the Beagle novels belong to the Van Dine school, because of their "elaborately plotted mysteries solved by very eccentric detectives." I agree, and one might point out other Van Dine school features as their: The Beagle Sisters are not amateurs: they own the Beagle Detective Agency, which makes them private eyes. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is also a private eye. As spinster sleuths, the Sisters were preceded in the Van Dine school by Stuart Palmer's Hildegarde Withers. There is also a resemblance to a British-set series not often regarded as Van Dinean: Our First Murder (start of Chapter 6) mentions David Frome, whose Mr. Pinkerton was an amateur sleuth who works with the police. Pinkerton comes from as restricted and conventional a background as the Beagle Sisters.

The older Beagle Sister, Amanda, is a tough, practical woman who runs the detective agency. But most of the actual sleuthing is done by the younger sister Lutie. There are signs of a genteel romance blooming between Amanda and the "gentlemanly" homicide cop Inspector Moore. But Lutie, like many detectives in traditional mystery books, stands outside of the world of heterosexuality, and has no involvement with men.

The Beagle Sisters novels are narrated by their cousin Martha "Marthy" Meecham, a woman who accompanies them on their cases. The narrator resembles Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in that she is a vivid personal presence in the tales. She is not the "invisible narrator" found in Van Dine and some of his followers.


Under the name Marjorie Torrey, the author also wrote and illustrated children's books. She was married to Roy Chanslor, who wrote both suspense and Western novels.

The Beagle novels are interesting, in that Torrey drew the jacket illustrations (reprinted on the covers of the modern editions). Both jackets show the four main sleuths, investigating the body at the crime scene. It is unusual to see a writer who is also also a skilled illustrator, offering portraits of her characters. Many Golden Age mystery writers had a background in the visual arts: please see my list. The cover for Our Second Murder shows more details of the crime scene itself, including the method of murder.


Kathleen Gregory Klein published a well-researched book, The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre (1988). This academic study looks at woman professional detectives in fiction. Klein's comments on the Beagle books are mainly negative. She claims that the books do not show the Beagle Sisters really doing good detective work, that their solutions at the end depend more on guessing and assertion than deduction, and that the books' implicit claims that the sisters are Great Detectives in the Golden Age tradition therefore ring hollow. I partly agree, and partly dissent:

Our First Murder

Our First Murder (1940) is best in its portraits of its detectives. It is weakest in its puzzle plot, which is not especially creative or original. The book's best section is the opening (Chapters 1-4), which offers a delightful portrait of the many detectives in the case, including the Beagle Sisters, their helpers and their police contact. This section also serves as an "origin story" for the sisters, showing how they became detectives.

Also good: a section (Chapters 17-18) where one of the sisters reconstructs the crime from evidence left at the scene. This section further helps characterize the detectives. It fails to be "fair play": the evidence used was not all shared earlier in the story with the readers, so that they could make their own deduction. Still, it shows some solid detective work.

The solution at the end is built around an unoriginal twist, with long histories in crime fiction. The twist does make some aspects of the mystery more plausible, especially the behavior of the victim. Lutie discovers the twist from medical evidence. Her reasoning is sound deduction (a good thing) but she does not share this clue with the reader in advance (a bad thing). Still, it does show Lutie Beagle reasoning out a solution, and not guessing. SPOILER: Ancestors of the main plot twist can be found in Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1914), and G.K. Chesterton's "The Secret Garden" (1910), as well as many successors. Our First Murder combines elements of both. END OF SPOILER.

Many Van Dine School writers were progressive, pro-Civil Rights on race. That is unfortunately not the case with Our First Murder. Its one paragraph on black people manages to offer a negative view of them (Chapter 5). One also is a bit uncomfortable with its portrait of the detective agency's Irish-American employee, who is shown as none too competent. By contrast, the Beagle Sisters, who are New England WASPs, seem successful at everything they do, despite a lack of experience or training. Fortunately, Chanslor's sequel Our Second Murder is free from any ethnic or racial stereotypes.

Our Second Murder

Our Second Murder (1941) is an uneven book, with vivid descriptive writing in many chapters, but an uncreative solution. Although the Beagle Sisters are still the sleuths, there is less about them and more about the murder case in this sequel. The book has well-written sections, concentrating on describing various locales: Floor Plan and the Suspects' Movements. Investigations of movements of characters around crime scenes form a major part of many Van Dine School mysteries. The elaborate investigation in Our Second Murder is my favorite part of the novel (Chapters 13, 15-19). This builds on the earlier description in the opening of the same crime scene (Chapters 1, 2). Unfortunately, I think that Torrey cheats at the book's end, which reveals the killer's actual movements at the scene. It is just not consistent with eye witness testimony we read earlier. She has a decent idea about the killer's movements, though - but one which needs more work to make it jibe with the earlier investigation. These problems sink Our Second Murder as a puzzle plot mystery.

The map has a three-dimensional quality, with ladders to the roof marked, giving a vertical dimension. Some of Van Dine's own maps and those of some of his followers, also have 3D aspects.

Also good: A character moves from one position to another nearby, over the time period of the crime. Torrey marks both positions and the move between on the map.

Many mystery novels are best in the opening murder and solution at the end, with their middle section suffering from padding. Our Second Murder is unusual that it is at its best in the middle (Chapters 13, 15-21).

Background. Our First Murder took place at a seedy theatrical rooming house, Our Second Murder transpires among New York's social elite, in glamorous settings. The suspects are mainly debutantes and their beaux. In 1941, debutantes were huge media celebrities, something that is a bit hard for people to understand today. The doings of debutantes were covered in national newspapers, magazines and radio; individual debutantes were famous names who endorsed products in ads. Today celebrities are often followed chiefly for sordid gossip, but the debutantes had audiences with little modern equivalents: young men viewed the debs as the last word in beauty and glamour, women followed the fashion-setting clothes worn by the debs. The novel points this out. I confess I can't work up much interest in the debutante characters in Our Second Murder.

The brief glimpses of a swing band (Chapter 2) are more interesting. Torrey has a flair for describing their music performances in words. The swing band members are among the most likable people in the novel. This give Our Second Murder an aspect of the "show biz background" often found in Van Dine School mysteries. Also likable are the various waiters and private detectives, who form a working class counterpoint to the wealthy and often nasty suspects.

One suspects that in the 1940's, swing music's fans were largely teenagers or in their early twenties. The debutants are very young too, by definition (these are young women just joining Society as new adults.) So the suspects in Our Second Murder are people of considerable interest to young people, and one wonders if Torrey was trying to write a novel that would appeal to youth.

The women detectives get elaborate finery, carefully described, to go to the ball with the debutants. Jeff and the other male detectives get to dress up in white tie and tails. Getting dressed up was a national dream or goal in this era: comic book heroes frequently appeared in white tie and tails, too. Please see my list of characters in white tie and tails for more information.

The suspense finale of Our Second Murder takes place on City Island, where some of the suspects keep yachts. City Island is a real place, off the East coast of the Bronx in New York City; it is still well-known today for its yacht clubs. Unfortunately, Our Second Murder does little to evoke this locale.


Penny (1944) is a short novel for children, written and illustrated under the name Marjorie Torrey. It tells about young Penny's summer in the country with her Great-Aunt Penelope, in 1904. The story is bland, low key and nearly plotless. It has no mystery elements. On the positive side, it is sweet, often poetic in its depiction of the countryside and country life, and has some good illustrations.

Animals in Penny are treated as characters in their own right, almost on equal footing with the humans. Penny getting to know a dog is depicted in largely the same way as Penny getting to know a person. The animals are not anthropomorphized, though, but depicted realistically. Both animal and human characters get detailed portraits in the illustrations.

Penny appeared the same year as the film Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944). Both evoke nostalgia for traditional upper middle class American life circa 1900. In both, such nostalgia probably represented escapism into an era of peace, for an audience in the middle of World War II.

Women. Penny is a "realistic" book: the events are limited to typical activities of daily life, in a country home circa 1900. This "realism" also has strong doses of conventionality and conformity. Both Penny and her aunt are utterly conventional people. Neither ever does anything beyond the mildest of activities considered suitable for women, such as cooking and sewing, or sports popular with young girls such as swimming or horse riding. Only Penny's day-dreams, where she makes up elaborate stories, show any signs of individual initiative. This is perhaps a portrait of a "future writer in the making". However, Penny is never shown actually writing, or considering a career as an author.

One suspects that many readers, then and now, preferred to read about far more adventurous girls, such as detective Nancy Drew or free-spirited Pippi Longstocking (1945-1948), not to mention the dynamic little girls played in the movies by Shirley Temple. It isn't surprising that Penny has drifted into obscurity.

As a country woman with a genteel upper middle class lifestyle and strong domestic routine, the Aunt resembles the Beagle Sisters at the start of Our First Murder. But the Beagle Sisters break out of their lifestyle with a vengeance, moving to New York and becoming private eyes. Nothing like this is ever done by the characters in Penny.

Race, Ethnicity and Class. Supporting characters include the Aunt's black servant Jonah, and an Irish cleaning lady who works as a part-time servant at a neighboring farm. Jonah is decent, sensible and good at his job. But he is completely subservient to white people, and there is no sign that the position of blacks in US society contains any sorts of problems. Similarly, the Irish cleaning woman is also uneducated and subservient. By contrast, the Aunt has a WASP name, and the neighboring farm family has a boy named Caleb Peters, suggesting they too are WASPs, although much poorer than the Aunt. This is a portrait of a 1904 America with WASPs on top, and blacks and white ethnics locked into low status jobs.

Penny neither endorses nor condemns this state of affairs. It is just "there", something the book depicts but does not evaluate. Penny is "realistic", and one can argue that it simply offers an accurate, if partial, portrait of what US society was like in 1904.

Penny is emphatic that well-to-do WASPs like Penny and her Aunt, should reach out in friendship and social equality to working class WASPs like Caleb and his farm family. They meet in positions of social equality in Penny, and one suspects the book is offering a message attacking class warfare and supporting brotherhood between classes - as long as everyone is a WASP.

Penny also seems to argue that people like Penny should have friendly feelings towards blacks and white ethnics - but not do anything that would alter their low social status. At times, one suspects that one is getting a World War II era message, that all Americans should stick together, in spite of class, race or ethnicity. One of the final illustrations, showing all the characters together, black and white, rich and poor, suggests some sort of solidarity - maybe.

The ideas of Penny were perhaps mildly progressive in their time. But the idea that blacks and whites can be friends while locked into rigid racial hierarchies is a deeply flawed one, doomed to failure.

Architecture. The Aunt's home has a tower room on top, to which the heroine and her friend climb. In a mild way, this recalls the characters climbing up the ladders around the crime scene in Our Second Murder.

Richard Burke

Commentary on Richard Burke: Richard Burke's Here Lies the Body (1942) is a minor mystery novel of little distinction.

Chinese Red

Richard Burke's Chinese Red (1942) shows the Golden Age enjoyment of unusual architecture. The novel takes place in an elaborate, multi-story Chinese restaurant. It is full of staircases, mezzanines, balconies, roofs, hallways and elevator shafts. The back of the 1940's paperback edition contains complete floor plans, which are useful for following the story. Burke has his characters traipsing all over this building before and after the crime, in the full Golden Age tradition.

The best part of the book mainly consists of Burke's building. The architecture is featured most heavily in Chapters 2-5, 7 and 19. Burke's building is fully three dimensional, with characters moving up and down through elevators and stairs, as well as around individual floors. This 3D quality recalls Mary Roberts Rinehart's buildings in The Album (1933).

Also pleasant: the author's sympathetic treatment of the Chinese characters. He is clearly trying to inform readers about the true nature of the Chinese community in New York City, and to kill off old negative stereotypes. There are only three Chinese characters in the story, however; most of the suspects are various white customers at the restaurant. Please see my list of Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction, which includes a section on Van Dine School Writers like Burke.

Burke's puzzle plot is easily guessed. The mystery plot, while fairly elaborate, is not especially creative. Also, the killer is easy to spot right away.

Chinese Red stars Burke's series detective Quinny Hite. Burke's hero is a former policeman, now working as a private eye. However, his sleuth is not very hard-boiled.

Instead, the book seems to come out of the Van Dine school tradition. As in Van Dine writers:

On the other hand, Burke's sleuth is clearly not a social aristocrat, unlike Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance. Instead, he is a somewhat raffish low life, whose home base is Times Square, and whose background is strictly working class. Quinny Hite is also a somewhat comic character.

In addition to its upper class suspects, the book includes some bums, as well as some colorful characters from Times Square. Such low lifes appeared in films of the period, such as Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1942), and mystery novels, such as Robert Reeves' Cellini Smith: Detective (1943).

Chinese Red resembles Torrey Chanslor's earlier Our Second Murder (1941), although it differs in details:

Chinese Red resembles the B-movie mystery films popular in the 1940's. Like many of them it has: Burke's earlier novel The Dead Take No Bows had been filmed, as a Michael Shayne B-movie whodunit. Perhaps Burke was hoping for a similar movie sale with Chinese Red. Unfortunately, nothing else Burke wrote was ever filmed.

The Corpse in Grandpa's Bed: a short story

"The Corpse in Grandpa's Bed" (1946) was Burke's first Quinny Hite short story. It shows in miniature the same architectural imagination as Chinese Red. Once again, bodies are being carried through a complex, three-dimensional maze of urban architecture.

This is a fun little tale, that shows Burke's gift for comic zanies.

The story shows Burke's fondness for show biz people who are fakes. These are innocent impersonations done for the sake of show biz illusion.

Blanche Bloch

Blanche Bloch was a classical musician, and author of The Bach Festival Murders. Some sources credit her with a second mystery novel The Strange Case of Mrs. Crawford, but it is hard to find signs that this was actually published.

William F. Deeck's review of The Bach Festival Murders has been reprinted on-line at Mystery*File.


Blanche Bloch was a classical pianist and conductor. She was the founder and conductor of the New York Women's Orchestra in 1929. Blanche Bloch also wrote and lectured about classical music.

Blanche Bloch accompanied her well-known classical violinist husband Alexander Bloch in his recitals. The Blochs had two children and five grandchildren. The Bloch family papers are at the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, in Laramie, Wyoming.

During their earlier careers, the Blochs often performed in the New York City area. The team made their debut at Town Hall in 1913. Alexander also ran Hilldale Music School near Austerlitz, in upstate New York. They were friends with poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay and Blanche Bloch liked to play music for two pianos together, in Millay's home Steepletop.

In 1936 the Blochs moved to Rollins College near Orlando, Florida, where both Blanche and Alexander Bloch taught. Blanche also music-directed musical stage productions, such as a performance of The Gondoliers in 1942. While there, she published her only mystery novel, The Bach Festival Murders. It has as its background the classical music scene in a provincial US city, something Blanche Bloch knew from first hand.

The Bach Festival Murders

The Bach Festival Murders (1942) is the only known mystery novel of Blanche Bloch.

In the fictitious American town Crescent City, competition is fierce between two Society women who are patronesses of the arts. Oil heiress Miss Serena Fulenwider has devoted her life to funding the local symphony, while glamorous, elegant sophisticate Mrs. Clara Kenworthy has just blown in from several years in Paris, and has decided to start a rival Bach Festival. Jockeying for conducting positions in these institutions among local classical male musicians is also fierce. Causing further problems is the presence of Tony Farnum, handsome young composer, cad, and sexy rotter who has broken the heart of most of the women in the story, as well as arousing the jealousy of the men. Three guesses as to who gets bumped off.

The Bach Festival Murders is a good natured but minor mystery novel. As a portrait of the classical music scene, it has a weakness in that it focuses more on Society patrons of the arts, rather than actual classical music making itself. This look at Society was undoubtedly what many readers wanted in 1942, but it makes the characters blander and less interesting than they might have been. Occasionally there are interesting glimpses of classical technique. The author points out that orchestral conductors have a common, universally understood language of hand gestures, while choral conductors each have a private, personal repertoire of signals. Bloch was a professional classical musician, and undoubtedly knew much more about classical music, than she manages to incorporate in this novel. All the music references do seem accurate. The heroine strikes up a friendship with another woman musician, who suggests they play piano duets together. In real life, Bloch was friends with the famed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the two liked to play duets at Millay's home.

The Bach Festival Murders lacks a strong puzzle plot:

These features add up to an OK solution, but nothing especially noteworthy by the best Golden Age puzzle plot standards.

The Bach Festival Murders also lacks a strong detective figure. The crimes are finally figured out by Sally Carrier, the musician wife of the young classical conductor of the local symphony. But Sally does not do a whole lot of detecting during the course of the novel. Sally becomes platonic friends with the policeman Inspector Wilkins who investigates the case. Wilkins is genial but under-characterized, and we learn little about him or his men.

Where does The Bach Festival Murders fit into detective fiction history? It is hard to say. The book is clearly slanted towards woman readers, with a female detective figure and prominent female characters. But it is not a Had I But Known novel in the Rinehart tradition. There is (deliberately) little suspense; the detective heroine is happily married throughout, and not the subject of a romance, and the tone is light, not melodramatic. The Bach Festival Murders exploits the Society setting favored by Rinehart and her followers, and the female protagonists, without turning into "woman's suspense".

The Bach Festival Murders also bears some distinct resemblances to the Van Dine School, without being a full fledged member. Its background among intellectuals; its amateur sleuth with friendly relations with the police; its team of policemen; its how-done-it aspects all seem Van Dinean. However, the book lacks the vigorous, straightforward murder investigation found in Van Dine and his followers. What detection that transpires is wishy washy and frequently barely there. And Sally is hardly a genius in the Philo Vance or Ellery Queen tradition.

Oddly, the genteel, soothing The Bach Festival Murders is more relaxing than it has any right to be, given its limitations as a detective novel. It ends with a tribute to the story's most interesting character, Miss Serena Fulenwider, and her idealistic love of classical music.

Lawrence Lariar

Lawrence Lariar was a professional cartoonist and mystery novelist.

William F. Deeck's review of Death Paints the Picture (1943) has been reprinted on-line at Mystery*File, along with a partial bibliography and some useful links.

Links to Van Dine School Traditions

Lawrence Lariar wrote four novels about amateur detective Homer Bull. They have links to the Van Dine school: However, the feel of the Lariar books is different from Van Dine or most of his followers. The Man with the Lumpy Nose has scenes with hit-men, tough action, and murderous Nazi traitors. These parts are more like a private eye novel in tone, than a typically genteel Van Dine school novel. It shows Lariar wanting to combine the Van Dine formula, with rough action fiction. Lariar is not as good with this material; the best parts of The Man with the Lumpy Nose focus on the artists who are the book's main characters, not the tough spies.

The Man with the Lumpy Nose

Cartoonists. The Man with the Lumpy Nose (1944) is the third Homer Bull novel.

The artist group examined in The Man with the Lumpy Nose are cartoonists: people who contribute humorous cartoons to national magazines. Both magazines and the cartoons they featured were a huge deal in the 1940's, regarded by Americans as the height of glamour and success. Real magazines that ran such cartoons are named in passing in the novel: The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post.

An editor is portrayed as a young man from a tycoon's family, who edited the real-life The Harvard Lampoon while a football star at Harvard. Today, legal reasons would probably prohibit such a mention.

Multi-Media: A Visual Novel. The Man with the Lumpy Nose includes sample cartoons, portrayed as being by the various cartoonists who serve as the book's subjects. This gives the book a dimension of multi-media. This material is innovative and inventive.

SPOILERS. The main clue to the killer, involves finding traces of an artist's style. The mystery puzzle is to determine which artist drew an evil Nazi-propaganda cartoon. The sleuths and the reader can solve this mystery, by comparing the cartoon with samples of the suspects' cartoon work, and finding which suspect's art style is embedded in the cartoon. Lariar has done this well: the style elements are visible in the cartoons. It is a fully "fair play" mystery: one in which clues are shared with the reader, and with sound evidence that points to the killer.

Van Dine novels talk about examining the suspects' psychology, and seeing which suspect has a psychological personality consistent with the crime. The cartoon puzzle in The Man with the Lumpy Nose is perhaps an "art" version of this, one in which the cognitive psychological concept of an "artist's style" is used to identify the killer.

Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The Man with the Lumpy Nose does something odd with its mystery plot. We learn right away that the crimes are being committed by a hit-man: the title man with the big nose. But we don't know who he is reporting to. Unfortunately, this eliminates many elements that make up traditional whodunit mysteries. In a regular mystery, the killer himself commits the crime. His alibi is important; so are his movements around the crime scene at the time of the killing, and any clues he might leave behind. All of this adds to the mystery puzzle, in an admirable way. None of this matters in The Man with the Lumpy Nose: we know right away that the hit-man committed the murder. Only the identity of the hit-man's boss has any mystery attached to it.

The only real clue to the identity of the killer, is the artist's style puzzle described above. Otherwise, there are no supporting clues or mystery puzzles identifying the guilty party.

The events of The Man with the Lumpy Nose include the various Nazi spies betraying and attacking each other. It is sort of an espionage version of "dishonor among thieves". This adds a lot of apparent complexity to the plot. However, none of this activity is fairly clued, so that a reader could deduce what was happening. These aspects are therefore not impressive as any sort of mystery puzzle or plot.

Politics. The Man with the Lumpy Nose opens with a look at current news events. This centers on what seems to be a tribute to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Army and the Soviet Union. This was published right in the middle of World War II, when the Soviet Union was the ally of the United States. Still, this glorification of the Soviet Union can startle and appall.

The editor comes from a wealthy background: he's the son of a tycoon. And he is a totally odious and evil person. One suspects that this is a political comment on the rich. SPOILERS. Suggestions that wealthy Americans might be Nazi sympathizers and traitors also occur in several war era mysteries. Please see my list of The Wealthy as Nazi Supporters in mystery fiction.

Women Cartoonists. Women cartoonists get a mixed treatment. One the on hand, two woman cartoonists are featured prominently among the book's characters. They are shown as fully professional.

On the other hand, derisive comments are made about one of them. Her success is speculated as being caused by her sleeping with an editor.

Style. A well-dressed young man, an elite sophisticate in New York City, wears his hair "in the crew style" (start of Chapter 4). Another young fashion plate is compared to the champion of a college crew team (rowing) (start of Chapter 5). Was this a big style in 1944? Was it the ancestor of the later popular hair style, the "crew cut"? According to the Wikipedia, the crew cut was invented for the Yale rowing team in the 1890's, used by the US Armed Forces in World War II (the time of the novel), and became popular among civilians in the 1950's.

Harry Kemelman

Harry Kemelman wrote eleven mystery novels featuring Rabbi David Small as detective, and a book of short stories The Nine Mile Walk with Professor Nicky Welt as sleuth.

Links to Van Dine School Traditions

Both series show the influence of the Van Dine school tradition: The emphasis on deduction and reasoning in the solutions to the mysteries, reflects the approach of Ellery Queen in particular. Ellery Queen published the Nicky Welt tales in his magazine.

The Nine Mile Walk: Nicky Welt Short Stories

Deduction from Text. "The Nine Mile Walk" (1947) is a famous exercise in deduction. The sleuth hears a single phrase, and gradually deduces a whole account of a crime from it. A later tale in the series "The Whistling Tea Kettle" (1963) follows the same structural approach. These are probably the finest short stories in The Nine Mile Walk.

There are other traditions in mystery fiction, in which detectives try to interpret a piece of text: Dying Messages and Textual Analysis. But "The Nine Mile Walk" does not seem close to either of these. It is something different.

Like "The Ten O'Clock Scholar", the deductions in "The Nine Mile Walk" group into sections:

Times and schedules play a role in the crimes in both "The Nine Mile Walk" and "The Ten O'Clock Scholar". Both stories mention hearing church clocks chime, establishing times. Trains and their schedules appear in "The Nine Mile Walk" and "End Play".

The Ten O'Clock Scholar. "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" (1952) has the widest range of suspects of the Welt tales. As a whodunit with many suspects and a complex solution, it is the kind of short story known as a "mystery novel in miniature", to use a phrase of Edward D. Hoch's. "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" is also the second-longest of the tales.

The deductive solution of "The Ten O'Clock Scholar" seems especially Queen-like.

Welt's solution in the finale consists of three separate parts, each involving much reasoning:

The brief mention-in-passing of the Nazi concentration camps has nothing to do with the plot. But it is a significant attempt to acknowledge this important history, at an early date in popular fiction.

End Play. "End Play" (1950) is in the mode of "The Ten O'Clock Scholar", although smaller in scope. It serves as a precursor to "The Ten O'Clock Scholar". SPOILERS. Both tales have:

"End Play" takes place against a background of military research at a university. This sort of intrigue is well-done in "End Play". But it is fairly rare in Kemelman's short stories. And the Army Intelligence Colonel Edwards does not reappear. "End Play" was Kemelman's second-published story. It shows him experimenting with a direction he did not take.

The Family Tales. "The Straw Man" (1950) and "The Bread and Butter Case" (1962) share common approaches. Both have:

SPOILER. A number of Kemelman mysteries have seemingly nice young men as killers.

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) is the first of the Rabbi David Small books.

The opening chapter is a well-done set piece, in which Rabbi Small conducts an investigation into a legal dispute between some members of his temple. It is not a crime investigation, and not related to the book's mystery plot. But the trial-like scene shows reasoning and insight, and is related in its kind of imagination to some of the author's short stories.

SPOILER. The choice of murderer in Friday the Rabbi Slept Late reflects Ellery Queen traditions.

John T. McIntyre

John T. McIntyre's early mystery fiction, has a detective and setting, that anticipate the Van Dine school to come.

The first three Ashton-Kirk novels were filmed as a series in 1915. All three starred Arnold Daly as the detective. Daly was fresh from playing Arthur B. Reeve's sleuth Craig Kennedy in The Exploits of Elaine movie serials. Daly was a Broadway star, who had previously acted in McIntyre's play Steve (1912) on-stage.

A bibliography can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. A detailed profile by Kevin Plunkett of John T. McIntyre is available here. Overviews by Steve Lewis at Mystery*File are here and here.

Ashton-Kirk: Investigator

Ashton-Kirk: Investigator (1910) is the first of four novels starring the title sleuth. Ashton-Kirk is the last name of the genius investigator; we never learn his first.

The Detective. As a detective, Ashton-Kirk in some ways looks back to the past. As many commentators from S.S. Van Dine on have reported, Ashton-Kirk is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Like Holmes, he is a consulting-detective, to whom people in trouble come to with mysteries they need to solve. Like Holmes, Ashton-Kirk is a genius, with a broad command of specialized knowledge he can bring to bear on any case. Ashton-Kirk shares with Holmes and many other early detectives a skill with disguise, as well as being the possessor of a chemical lab in his living quarters (something he doesn't use in this novel).

But in other ways. Ashton-Kirk looks forward to the future of the mystery, in ways that seem bold for 1910. Unlike the staunchly middle-class Holmes, Ashton-Kirk is a wealthy social aristocrat who solves crimes for the sheer pleasure. He appeared over a decade before two other upper crust sleuths he resembles: Lord Peter Wimsey (who Dorothy L. Sayers created in 1923) and Philo Vance (who S.S. Van Dine would first write about in 1926). Like both of these sleuths, Ashton-Kirk has friendly contacts on the police force, who give him their full cooperation. Ashton-Kirk is thus the "genius amateur who works with the police" that would play such a major role in the Golden Age to come.

Both Ashton-Kirk: Investigator and Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist open with surveys of the sleuth's reading, which is highly intellectual. This anticipates the more elaborate opening of Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, which describe the sleuth's art collection. In both novels, Ashton-Kirk is also shown reading about crime and criminals.

Also interesting - and perhaps pioneering - are the detective assistants that Ashton-Kirk employs, such as Fuller and Burgess (none of these men have any first names, just like Ashton-Kirk himself). These expert operatives remind one of Nero Wolfe's team of detective employees to come, such as Saul Panzer. Fuller is sometimes misleadingly referred to by critics as a "Watson". He is not - he does not narrate the stories, and he is a professional detective, not a friend.

A Gay Detective?. We learn right away, that although Ashton-Kirk is young, handsome, a star athlete in full training, universally respected as a person, wealthy, and from an old family, that everyone expects he will never marry (start of Chapter 2). Like so many other great detectives of pre-1945 mystery fiction, Ashton-Kirk stands outside the world of romance. One has to wonder, if the book is quietly signaling that Ashton-Kirk is gay.

The Setting. Ashton-Kirk collects books, like Wimsey to come. And Ashton-Kirk: Investigator is set against the shop of a murdered numismatist (coin collector), filled with antiquities of every sort. Such collectors will form a major subject in the novels of Van Dine, Ellery Queen and other Golden Age writers of the Van Dine school.

The Mystery. Ashton-Kirk: Investigator splits into two almost equal halves. The first half (Chapters 1-13) is a pure mystery tale. The second half is mainly a thriller, with characters chasing each other around the countryside, suspenseful stakeouts, and other mild thriller material. I think that the book's mystery oriented first half is much better. Anyone can read the first half (Chapters 1-13), then some concluding sections of the second, in which some mystery riddles are explained (Chapters 24-25), and get the full plot of the novel.

Much of the mystery in the first half centers on reconstructing the murder, based on evidence left behind at the crime scene. This is an ancient tradition in mystery fiction, going back to Gaboriau in the 1860's.

The crime also takes place at night, in an elaborate and out-of-the-way building, with interesting architecture. Such a locale recalls Anna Katherine Green, another widely influential mystery author of the time. Green's later novels would be serialized in the same pulp which first published Ashton-Kirk: Investigator as a magazine serial, The Popular Magazine.

Sociology. The opening of Ashton-Kirk: Investigator leads one to expect the worst. Ashton-Kirk's family mansion is located in a now run down section of town, which has become a tenement full of East European immigrants. The disdainful narrator describes these slum dwellers unflatteringly, and one fears one is in for a racist diatribe.

But instead, when individual immigrant characters appear later on, they are treated with great sympathy. They become a major leitmotiv throughout the book. One suspects that the poor immigrants are reality, and upscale Ashton-Kirk is the fantasy.

John T. McIntyre was himself the desperately poor child of Irish immigrants, growing up in a slum worse than any in Ashton-Kirk: Investigator. And one suspects that the readers of the novel were not exactly rich, either. The Popular Magazine was a peculiar hybrid of a magazine. It was an imitation of the "family magazines" aimed at the middle classes, such as The Saturday Evening Post. Yet it was also a pulp, printed on the same cheap pulp paper as other pulps, and affordable by working class readers, like the other pulps. Readers of the magazine could see Ashton-Kirk, living in his glamorous mansion, and also read a tale full of working class immigrants like themselves.

Information: City Directories

City directories were a key source of information in this pre-Internet era. Examples of their use by classic mystery writers: Maps that parallel city directories, are also created by private organizations. These organizations are neither for-profit-business, nor government institutions. The tales compare how these organizations use the sophisticated maps and accompanying information, to the core information efforts of an advanced commercial for-profit business. These maps employ color:

Information: Shorthand

Shorthand was another important tool for spreading information in this era. It appears in many mysteries, both in the U.S. and Britain, and is known by both men and women: In her book Arthur Dove: Always Connect (2016), Rachel Z. DeLue suggests that the abstract painter Arthur Dove was inspired by Gregg shorthand in his paintings. Dove was the United States' first abstract artist, and a contemporary of many of the mystery writers above.

Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent

Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent (1912) is an uneven, unsuccessful book, nowhere as good as the first novel about sleuth Ashton-Kirk, Ashton-Kirk: Investigator. It also gets Ashton-Kirk involved in spy intrigue, something not present in Ashton-Kirk: Investigator, which is a pure detective novel.

The Holmes Legacy. Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent starts out promisingly enough, with a household under siege from mysterious incidents of persecution (Chapters 1, 2). The whole thing is a direct imitation of the many Sherlock Holmes in which a "man with a past" settles down, only to have all sorts of frightening events constantly plague the family. Doyle loved stories about a household under siege, with mysterious events and warnings occurring in the house over a period of weeks, and many of the members of the household working at cross purposes to each other in the melodrama that envelops the home. We see similar mystery set-ups in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent. Such tales involve an active struggle, not a simple passive mysterious situation that needs elucidating, although that eventually comes too.

Ashton-Kirk is consulted about the case, just like Holmes. A strange diagram is the center of attention, as in some Holmes tales. Various approaches are used to try to interpret it. At one point (Chapter 11), Ashton-Kirk borrows some books on religious history and symbolism, from a friendly local priest. Ashton-Kirk's detective assistant Fuller, his "Polton", remarks humorously:

The Victorian English employed by Philip Warwick to narrate the events at the household, is an asset to the story. Its articulate use of a large vocabulary and turns of phrase, allows the precise expression of a great range of events, feelings and atmosphere.

The Mystery. The mystery plot resembles the whodunits of the Golden Age to come, especially such intuitionist writers as Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine. The resemblance is especially strong in terms of structure, the basic architectural pattern of the book considered as a detective story. There is a murder, a lot of suspects who mainly live in the same household, and a final surprise solution where the crime is pinned on the least likely person. Most of the suspects are involved in various mysterious subplots; these make all the suspects look guilty, when in actual fact their secret activities are not always tied directly to the murder. There is a lot of movement of the suspects around the crime scene both immediately before and immediately after the murder. All of this looks like the ground plan of a Golden Age intuitionist book.

McIntyre puts especial emphasis on long chains of circumstance that make a suspect look guilty, but which are in fact capable of another, more innocent interpretation, as is eventually revealed. This sort of sustained ambiguity of situation recalls the work of Fergus Hume, another pioneer who contributed to the rise of the modern intuitionist detective novel. Ambiguity in Hume is often grounded in ambiguous personal relationships. By contrast, in McIntyre the ambiguity is more typically centered on activities that look specifically criminal, but which in fact are not.

The initial chapters in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent often seem especially Doyle like, as they concentrate on his Holmes-like sleuth and a Doyle-like plot situation. But as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more similar to a Golden Age intuitionist whodunit, with these aspects of the plot coming to the fore. The transition especially takes place with the murder (Chapter 4) and its subsequent mystery itself, which seem very close to those in Golden Age books.

Spies. However, McIntyre does not sustain the pure mystery elements. Soon, we are engulfed in a routine spy novel, imitative of William Le Queux. A key character is the household's next door neighbor, a Japanese spy named Okiu. The sophisticated Okiu employs a whole houseful of spies, including a butler who is a gigantic Sumo wrestler - no well-appointed establishment should be without one! Here things really go bad. Sometimes Okiu is an interesting character - but McIntyre also mixes cheap anti-Asian stereotypes into the story. This turns a story that starts out as a not-bad historical curiosity, into a book that cannot be recommended to anyone.

Okiu oddly mirrors Ashton-Kirk himself:

Title. The first novel about sleuth Ashton-Kirk, Ashton-Kirk: Investigator, tells us to watch out for a sequel, called "Ashton-Kirk and the Scarlet Scapular". This is undoubtedly the same book as Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent - the scapular plays a major role in Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent. But somewhere along the way, the book has undergone a name change.

Color. As the title "the Scarlet Scapular" suggests, the diagrams involve vivid color imagery (Chapters 1, 2). The description of the German Embassy Ball (start of Chapter 22) emphasizes the brilliant color of the spectacular dress uniforms of various nations.

Geographical Information. Like Sherlock Holmes, Ashton-Kirk keeps detailed files (Chapter 2). But Ashton-Kirk has something unique: a detailed, ever changing and updated map of his city and its suburbs. This handmade map records every house and street number. Ashton-Kirk would have loved today's Internet maps. His own map stems from the same sort of impulse, to collect as much geographical information as possible. During research sessions, he combines the use of the map with the telephone directory.

Ashton-Kirk's map also uses multi-colored inks: more employment of color in the novel.

A "Boom" Suburb. Much of the mystery takes place in a new, still underdeveloped suburb called Eastbury. In 1912, such as place is called a "Boom" suburb: likely referring to an attempted housing boom there by entrepreneurs. A new Manhattan suburb is the setting of "The Purple Flame" (1912) by Frederick Irving Anderson. Clearly such suburbs were attracting the attention of American mystery writers. "The Purple Flame" also shares with Ashton-Kirk: Secret Agent an interest in color imagery.

Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist

Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist (1918) is the fourth and final detective story, solved by genius consulting-detective Ashton-Kirk. This is a middling mystery. It has virtues and faults intermixed. Among its merits: Among its faults: The Influence of Anna Katherine Green. Once again in a McIntyre mystery, we have a killing in a remote building at night - something that recalls Anna Katherine Green. And the novel's technique of creating a surprise killer, also recalls such Green mysteries as The House of the Whispering Pines.

The Museum Murder

The Museum Murder (1929) is the only mystery novel about amateur sleuth Duddington Pell Chalmers. The Museum Murder was published in the midst of the Golden Age, and is the McIntyre novel that adheres most closely to common perceptions and paradigms of what a "typical" Golden Age novel is.

How Good Is This Book?. The first two-thirds of The Museum Murder (Chapters 1 - 18) make absorbing reading, with detailed story telling and some good plot ideas. But its final third is uninteresting, with an uncreative solution to who committed the murder. The book is thus in the middle rank, neither fully successful nor a flop. Should you read it? It is not as good as the many genuine mystery classics recommended in this Guide. So you should probably NOT rush out to get a copy. Still, parts of the book have merit.

Stereotype. Nasty museum director Custis has some sort of unspecified disability. This is an offensive stereotype. It is another reason why one cannot recommend The Museum Murder.

Links to Van Dine. The Museum Murder seems to be McIntyre's attempt to write a novel in the S.S. Van Dine tradition.

The Museum Murder has a background set among artists, art experts, dealers and collectors, echoing the Van Dine approach of setting books among the intelligentsia.

The first Van Dine mystery The Benson Murder Case (1926) depicted Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance as an art expert and collector. McIntyre's sleuth in The Museum Murder is similarly a collector-expert. In that sense The Museum Murder is an imitation of Van Dine.

But in other ways The Museum Murder anticipates Van Dine, doing things he had not yet done. The Museum Murder is actually set in the art world: something Van Dine had not yet done in 1929. And The Museum Murder takes place in a museum. Van Dine would not have a museum setting until The Scarab Murder Case (1929), which began serialization in December 1929.

One might also note that long before Van Dine started publishing mysteries, McIntyre's Ashton-Kirk: Investigator (1910) featured a coin collector and his shop. The art objects in The Museum Murder include collectables such as glassware, and dealers that sell them.

Duddington Pell Chalmers is a comic variant on Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance. Like Vance:

Links to Nero Wolfe. Chalmers' fondness for gourmet food and drink anticipates Rex Stout's detective Nero Wolfe. We actually get recipes (embedded in the dialogue) and detailed accounts of food in both authors. Both Wolfe and Chalmers are heavy, not surprising for all the alcohol they consume.

Sections of the Book. The Museum Murder falls into three discrete sections:

  1. Chapters 1 - 4. An opening that introduces characters and the art world background. Little happens that is obviously criminous. It does wonder about Sheerness' oddly generous behavior to the museum and its director Custis: one of the mainsprings of the plot.
  2. Chapters 5 - 18. Events at the museum, including the murder and its investigation. This is the best section in the novel. It eventually solves many non-murder aspects of the mystery. But does not reveal who committed the murder.
  3. Chapters 19 - 28. A dull final section, that explores in depth who-done-it. The solution to the murder is disappointing. It is based on coincidental action by the killer that just happens to occur at the same time as other events: something the book itself points out. And there are no clues to the killer's identity.

Mystery Plot: Impossible Theft. A theft occurs in the museum, and it looks impossible at first. Impossible thefts of art objects appeared in mysteries before The Museum Murder. For example, see "The Stolen Romney" (1919) by Edgar Wallace. The approach to the impossibility in The Museum Murder has much the same structure as "The Stolen Romney". However the details in The Museum Murder are new and original.

The actual physical theft in The Museum Murder is made part of a larger mystery, in which there are clues and hidden patterns creatively mixed in. All of this is mainly contained in the middle section of the novel (Chapters 5-18).

Architecture. The architecture of the museum is carefully explained. It is mainly fairly conventional. Exception: the back door has an unusual lock. I've never seen anything like this in other books.

Chalmers' apartment is on the fifteenth floor. This anticipates McIntyre's later sleuth Jerry Mooney, whose office is in a tower building.

Class. The Museum Murder recalls Ashton-Kirk: Investigator in its treatment of social class. Both works begin by focusing on a wealthy, upper class detective, and a moneyed milieu. But eventually, lower class characters emerge, who are treated with surprising sympathy. In The Museum Murder, these include:

Mooney Moves Around

Mooney Moves Around (1939) is a private eye novel, involving murder, kidnapping and underworld figures, in the garment district of a large American city. The book gets off to a terrible start, with crudely caricatured portraits of Jewish manufacturers in the clothing trade. One of them has been kidnapped, and we learn that both rival manufacturers and some mob types are involved.

In addition to the unpleasant anti-semitism, the writing is lifeless, and the events seem remote from any sort of reality. The writing lacks the "hard-boiled" tone so often found in the Black Mask school, being bland and straightforward in style.

The garment business is portrayed as full of characters who have close ties to mobsters. Although the businessmen try to use the mobsters on small errands, the mob types get out of control, and start wrecking havoc on their own. It is an unusual setup, and one that could have served as the premise of a novel better than Mooney Moves Around. People might want to see the fine film The Garment Jungle (Robert Aldrich, Vincent Sherman, 1957) for a later take on problems in the garment industry.

The Detectives. This is the first book about private eye Jerry Mooney. He comes across as a generic shamus, with a small office and long suffering secretary Mickey, who he has promised to marry, as soon as he settles down, makes some money and stops playing the horses. The author mentions that "Mooney was about thirty-five, and quite big. He'd been a wrestler; he'd been a policeman; he'd been a top sergeant in the Marines." But little is done with this interesting background in the rest of the book. Mooney's work as a wrestler recalls the better developed character of ex-wrestling champion Bat Scanlon in the Ashton-Kirk saga.

In the Mooney short story "Murder Is Stupid", Mooney is "big, athletic, fast-looking". He does calisthenics every morning. And likes to doodle circles while he's thinking. (Bat Scalon in Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist is "swift and fit" (Chapter 1). McIntyre liked his detective heroes to be fast.)

Mooney's police contact is Captain Pash, a twenty-eight year veteran of the force. Pash is "a smart cop, though eccentric and hard to keep up with. He was small, and gray, and thin; his uniform always looked too large on him." As a small, older policeman, Pash recalls Inspector Richard Queen in the Ellery Queen books. However, Pash is much less sympathetic than Inspector Queen.

In addition to Jerry Mooney and his secretary Mickey Sayre, we meet his intelligent office boy Ates Haley. An office boy in a detective agency recalls Tommy Howd in the Continental Op stories by Dashiell Hammett. Both Ates and Tommy are fourteen years old. However, before Hammett had published any stories, McIntyre had included Danny the red-haired office boy at Scanlon's Gymnasium in Ashton-Kirk: Criminologist (Chapter 1). Danny works for sleuth Bat Scanlon, just as Ates does for Mooney.

A Bookie. The polished young dancer and bookie Ripple is an amusing character (end of Chapter 14, Chapter 16). He has plenty of swagger. Ripple is well-dressed, like the equally swaggering young Federal Attorney in "Murder Is Stupid". The Attorney is honest however, while Ripple is on the fringes of legality.

Ripple likes swing music, and he hangs out in nightclubs that play it.

Ripple's dance milieu and social polish recall the glamorous young men in The Social Gangster (collected 1916) by Arthur B. Reeve.

Ripple is a darkly comic "double" of the hero Mooney. Both men:

Murder Is Stupid: a Novella

"Murder Is Stupid" (1944) has Mooney investigating a wartime case that mixes domestic espionage with old-fashioned pulp-fiction-style murder. As a mystery, it's pleasant enough, but routine. It contains likable portraits of the series characters in the Mooney tales, and is the best place to get acquainted with the Mooney series.

It appeared in The Blue Book Magazine (December 1944), one of at least eight short stories about Mooney in that magazine. It was reprinted by Rex Stout and Louis Greenfield in their anthology Rue Morgue No. 1 (1946).

The Etruria Tower. In a nice touch, most of the case takes place in the high-rise office building where Mooney works, the Etruria Tower. The victim, witnesses and most suspects all work there too, in various offices. The Etruria Tower has many floors. Much is made of its elevators. In such novels as Mooney Moves Around and Death Strikes at Heron House (1943-1944), Mooney's office is in Bergman Tower, instead.

Such towers can be seen as:

The Villain. "Murder Is Stupid" is a murder mystery. But its crime has only two suspects, and the tale telegraphs their likely guilt early on. One is Baritz Jano, who is overweight, intellectual in his speech, and friendly to sleuth Mooney: all recalling villain Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett.

The Detectives. "Murder Is Stupid" includes a large cast of supporting players working as detectives. Jerry Mooney, secretary Mickey Sayre and office boy Ates Haley all return. Police Captain Pash is supported by his assistant Engle, and desk sergeant Berg (who appeared briefly in Mooney Moves Around). We also meet Feds: Mooney's friend, sympathetic, intelligent young FBI man Dave Shugrue, and an unnamed Federal Attorney. Such large casts of supporting detectives are a tradition of the Van Dine School. They also recall the detective assistants that Ashton-Kirk employs.

The confident young Federal Attorney is very well-dressed (section 4). This was a period in which Federal men maintained a well-dressed image: it was one of the main things everybody knew about them. He is treated with admiration by the author. The 1940's was an era which admired men who were well-suited. This is also reflected by the sharp suits worn by the Hollywood heroes of film noir.

In Mooney Moves Around, Mooney is defiant of the authority of Captain Pash, but without much real power of his own to back this up (Chapter 7, start of Chapter 12). All Mooney has are unnamed "friends" who he claims can protect him from Pash. But in "Murder Is Stupid", the authority of the Federal men takes precedence over Pash, and they take complete charge of the case. Since the Feds support Mooney, Mooney now sees Pash thoroughly put under control. This is an early example of a popular trope of contemporary detective fiction, the conflict between the Feds and local cops for control of a case.

Rufus Gillmore

Rufus Gillmore published three early mystery novels during 1912 to 1914, long before Van Dine. When he returned to mystery novel writing in the 1930's with The Ebony Bed Murder (1932), he adapted his work to the popular Van Dine approach of that era.

The Alster Case

The Alster Case (1914) is virtually a parody of Anna Katherine Green's The Leavenworth Case (1878), at that time one of the most famous of all detective novels. As in Green's book, the chief suspects are two willful, spoiled young heiresses. In both Green and Gillmore, these force-of-nature young women lie, scheme, keep secrets during a murder case, and generally run amok. Their wealth, arrogance and social position leads them to behave as if they were above any law or "normal" human restraint. Green's readers were obviously fascinated by the possibility that young, beautiful women might have committed murder, that of a family member, no less. In both books, the heiresses are nieces of the murder victim.

Both novels are narrated by a stuffy family lawyer. Gillmore's near-parody pushes this character to extremes. While Green's lawyer was highly competent, Gillmore's young narrator is a near idiot, comically outclassed by everyone around him. Totally smitten by one of the heiresses, he believes any lie told him. Gillmore's narrator spends much of the book being humiliated, dominated and controlled by everyone in the case, including the tough, brainy detective Trask. It is quite an odd piece of comic fantasy. The book as a whole is an odd combination of nightmarish thriller events, and the narrator's comic encounters. It gives The Alster Case a unique tone of dark comedy.

While Green's mystery is solved by a New York City police detective, Gillmore's sleuth is a private detective. Trask is an energetic hawkshaw, always one step beyond everyone else, in spying on everyone around him. His character is both darkly comic, and a bit intimidating, even frightening. Trask reflects ideas of what a keen-eyed, intense manhunter was like, in those pre Black Mask days.

Trask embodies a robber-baron-era ideal of masculinity, ferocious, domineering and hard charging. So do several businessmen characters in the novel. One can see a similar idolization of captains of industry in Jacques Futrelle.

Adding to the near burlesque of The Leavenworth Case, is a subplot involving the servants. In The Leavenworth Case, a maid goes missing on the night of the killing; in The Alster Case, the butler disappears. Did the Butler Do It? He is certainly a prime suspect. This butler is young, sexy and sinister, and may or may not be involved with one of the heiresses. Other features echoing Green's novel: a floor plan; an inquest held in the victim's mansion; a missing key; and the immediate presence of the detective on the murder scene, even before the narrator arrives.

The Alster Case takes place entirely in Manhattan. While the early sections are pure mystery, set at the family mansion where the murder takes place, a long later section of the book is a thriller, set in a deserted building. This thriller section shows both originality, and ingenuity. It has the architectural interest in unusual buildings, of the Golden Age to come. Elements resemble the 1910's novels of Carolyn Wells.

The Alster Case is surprisingly readable, even gripping. But it hardly has a puzzle plot. There is plenty of mystery surrounding the handful of suspects, all of whom have deep dark secrets, and who are concealing their behavior on the night of the murder. But the unraveling of said secrets mainly comes from the suspects Telling All at the end of the book, rather from any real detective work. The secrets are mainly anti-climactic, and show little plot ingenuity. The solution is thus likely to come as a disappointment. Still, the solution also has some oddball features that impress.

The Alster Case was made into a silent film in 1915, by the now forgotten director J. Charles Haydon. The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company that made the movie was Chicago based, and they transferred the action to Chicago from the book's New York City. Matinee-idol-in-training Rod La Rocque played the novel's young inventor, one of the suspects. Its star Ruth Stonehouse also made in 1915 a film of "The Papered Door" by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

The Ebony Bed Murder

The detectives in Rufus Gillmore's The Ebony Bed Murder (1932) are clones of those in S. S. Van Dine's novels. The main detective Griffin Scott is not a social aristocrat, but the owner and manager of a New York advertising agency. He is a connoisseur of antique furniture, however, just like Vance, including the ebony bed of the title. After a few chapters, the detective's sophisticated conversation and cultural references fall away, however, and we are left with a very ordinary figure. Modern critics have often expressed a wish that Philo Vance were not an aesthete with a flamboyant personality, and were just a regular guy instead. Here is the result of that wish fulfilled. And what is the upshot? Total dullness, that's what! While Philo Vance is an unforgettable original, Scott is just a painfully ordinary guy.

The other sleuths in Gillmore's book have diminished in their cloning as well. The DA is the detective's friend, and brings him in as an amateur consultant to solve the murder, just as in Van Dine. But he seems less noble, intelligent and flexible than the idealistic, dedicated DA in Van Dine. And the police Sergeant Mullens is just plain obnoxious, always trying to pin the crime on a young woman in the case. Van Dine's Sgt. Heath may be low brow, and often mistaken in his ideas compared with Vance, but he is also generous, decent, open minded, genuinely concerned with truth, and filled with great respect for Vance.

Griffin Scott's secret den at the beginning is full of high tech gizmos, and there is an interesting look at tear gas later on. Such a secret den recalls the heroes of the pulp magazines, more than the Van Dine school. Scott also performs some not bad medical detection in the opening chapters. In general, there is a small atmosphere of scientific detection to the book, reminiscent of such Van Dine school writers as Abbot and C. Daly King.

The mechanical but never lazy plotting recalls that of 1930's film whodunits, with suspects always moving around. The second murder in the story is especially startling, and also resembles in its choice of victims King.

Despite a general lack of inspiration in this minor novel, it somehow remains likable. There is no sense of malice in Gillmore. Racial minorities are not belittled, although in fact they hardly show up at all, nor are the servants caricatured.

The murdered women's numerous husbands are chronicled with some storytelling verve, so are her mercenary relatives. She resembles to a degree the much married woman in Earl Derr Biggers' Keeper of the Keys (1932), although she is far more mercenary. The story also resembles Biggers' novel in involving a shooting, and in tracking the movements of the characters at the time of the murder.

Hulbert Footner

Commentary on Hulbert Footner:


Hulbert Footner's tales of Madame Rosika Storey have a period charm. Madame Rosika is somewhat unusual as a great detective of the era who happens to be a woman. She works as a paid professional, uses her brains, is universally respected for her skill, and basically plays the same role in her world that Hercule Poirot does in his. It is a very non-sexist portrait. Footner's stories are not much reprinted today: they have mainly shown up in anthologies devoted to female detectives, such as Ellery Queen's and Michelle Slung's. (A large selection of Footner e-books are now available on public domain sites for free, though.)

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.

Mystery Plots: Influence from Gaboriau

Footner's mysteries tend not to be overwhelmingly brilliant as puzzle plots. Footner's tales from the 1920's and 30's seem oddly old-fashioned for their era. His detective technique would have seemed familiar to Émile Gaboriau in the 1860's: These "hidden financial schemes" can be inventive and detailed. They brighten up such short stories as "The Murder at Fenhurst" (1928) and "The Sealed House" (1933). In both stories, the details of the scheme are slowly uncovered step-by-step by sleuth Madame Storey, a process that shows sound and enjoyable detective work.

Mystery Plots: Influence from Anna Katherine Green

The climactic debate over which of two suspects is guilty in "The Ashcomb Poor Case" recalls another early writer of detective fiction, Anna Katherine Green. SPOILERS. It comes to a solution similar to some of Green's.

"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.


Hulbert Footner was good at describing every sort of romantic attraction. He was alert to the emotional feelings of his characters. His characters are oddly, rawly sexual for their eras: one is especially startled by the gigolos in "Wolves of Monte Carlo", but Footner liked to include really handsome, seductive young men in many of his tales. Footner is perhaps a bit influenced by the Jazz Age tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and its emphasis on both romance and sexuality. However, there is already a full Footner treatment of such handsome men in "The Ashcomb Poor Case" (1922), published at a time when Fitzgerald was just becoming well-known. Perhaps both Footner and Fitzgerald are simply reflecting a shared Jazz Age zeitgeist.

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:

The many handsome, sexy men in Footner recall the equally enthusiastic descriptions of men in Rufus King. In King's case, these men reflect King's gay interests. One wonders if a similar gay sensibility runs through Footner. For much more on LGBTQ characters, see my list of Minorities and Civil Rights in Mystery Fiction.

The Deaves Affair

The Deaves Affair (1922) is a non-series book. The Deaves Affair is likable without being brilliant or especially inventive.

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:

Footner is drawing on traditions of Rogue school writers like O. Henry and Packard, but without having a Rogue hero himself.

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.

The Mystery of the Folded Paper

The Mystery of the Folded Paper (1930) is a very bad novel. Its main merit: it introduces Footner's series sleuth Amos Lee Mappin, as a supporting character. He doesn't get to do anything interesting. Mappin will return in 1938 as the star in a series of detective novels, that while no classics, are vastly better than a disaster like The Mystery of the Folded Paper.

These later novels have features recalling the detective novels of S.S. Van Dine. But Mappin aside, there is little in The Mystery of the Folded Paper that is at all Van Dine-ish. Only Mappin, a New York sophisticate turned criminologist, recalls Van Dine.

Despite its title The Mystery of the Folded Paper is mainly a thriller rather than a mystery or detective story. It does contain a mysterious killing, which is traced to a surprise villain at the finale. So it contains a murder mystery element. But mainly it is an inane thriller about international intrigue, a chase after a valuable jewel, etc.

The Mystery of the Folded Paper contains regressive and offensive social attitudes. They are too sordid and depressing to write about in detail.

Christopher Morley's Theater. The Mystery of the Folded Paper gets some mild charm, when it writes about a real-life theatrical venture of Footner's real-life friend Christopher Morley (end of Chapter 7, first part of Chapter 8). Morley's theater did campy comedy spoofs of old melodrama plays, in a theater in Hoboken, New Jersey. Morley briefly appears as a character in the novel.

The description of the theater building has architectural interest, in the Golden Age manner. The theater has two buildings, connected by a bridge. The two buildings are a bit like the "houses entered from next door" found in other Mappin tales.

The theater is mentioned again in The Finishing Stroke (1958) (Chapter 14) by Ellery Queen, a historical mystery set in 1929.

Death of a Celebrity

Death of a Celebrity (1938) is an Amos Lee Mappin mystery, set among Broadway theater people. The pleasant series characters aside, it is somehow not very likable or interesting either.

The Mappin Series Begins. Death of a Celebrity seems to be the second novel about Amos Lee Mappin, and the first to feature him as the central character. It is the start of a series of Amos Lee Mappin detective tales.

It contains what seems to be the debut of such supporting characters in the Mappin series as:

While they have drastically different personalities, in jobs the three recall Nero Wolfe characters Archie Goodwin, private eye Saul Panzer and cop Inspector Cramer. These three Wolfe characters were already long-established by 1938 when Death of a Celebrity appeared.

Stan Oberry can be categorized as a "well-mannered private detective who is hired to assist the sleuth hero with research and tailings". This type was well-established before its use here by Footner, for example:

All of these private eyes have one-syllable first names, perhaps to make them sound earthy or forceful.

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:

The rooftop garden outside the sunroom, ends in the wall of the adjacent office building. This wall, which can be climbed, gives the aspect of height which Footner liked in his architecture. So does the emphasis on elevators in both buildings.

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.

Phoenician. The use of the Phoenician alphabet as a code is a clever idea. This would not deter code experts, but it would keep most ordinary people from understanding a message.

The Murder That Had Everything

Mappin stars in The Murder That Had Everything (1939), which is something of a guilty pleasure. This good-naturedly trashy tale of wealthy society women and the young male fortune hunters who prey on them is a lot more entertaining than it has a right to be. Its early sections are its best (Chapters 1 - 7); the trip to Chicago (Chapter 11 and the start of Chapter 12) is also fun. Unfortunately, the fizz of the early sections is not sustained, and one certainly does not want to paint it as any more than a curiosity.

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":

Scarves. Scarves play a role in both works: the scarf from the piano in The Murder That Had Everything, and the chiffon scarf in "The Ashcomb Poor Case". Both scarves are used to wrap things. The detectives in both tales regard the scarves as clues, and use them to help reconstruct the crime.

Gun Murders. Common factors in the gun murders in The Murder That Had Everything and "The Ashcomb Poor Case":

Van Dine school. The book shows affinities with the Van Dine school, at least superficially, in its: Footner was born in 1879, long before Van Dine or most of his followers, and there are signs that Footner was perhaps an established author adapting to new currents in detective fiction.

Mappin made his first appearance in The Mystery of the Folded Paper (1930), but that earlier book is not at all Van Dine-like.

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.

Who Killed the Husband?

Who Killed the Husband? (1941) is an Amos Lee Mappin mystery.

Society photographer Alastair "Al" Yohe is one of the good-looking, irresistible men who run through Footner. So is Rulon Innes (first part of Chapter 3).

Detection. In a virtuoso piece of detection, Mappin identifies the location of a room in Manhattan, simply by studying photographs from inside the room (Chapter 10). This recalls Mappin finding the victim's apartment in The Murder That Had Everything (end of Chapter 4 and Chapter 5).

Mappin humorously compares his detective work to Sherlock Holmes, in this section.

A later section (first half of Chapter 18) has Mappin tracking the movement of a package of caviar. While not brilliant, it is still fun to read, in its story telling detail.

Color Imagery. The package of caviar is in a bright green and red box (start of Chapter 18).

Mappin is introduced wearing "a crimson damask dressing gown with a blue silk scarf around his throat and blue morocco slippers" (start of Chapter 1). On a later day his "dressing gown was orange faced with black; the scarf and slippers scarlet" (start of Chapter 5). Having accessories (like the scarf and slippers) be all of one color, was popular in the 1940's among both men and women.

Architecture. Architecture is a big source of enjoyment and charm in Who Killed the Husband?. The book opens with a map of the apartment. Later we learn about the movements of the suspects in this apartment at the time of the crime: a Van Dine School tradition - and a good one! The apartment shows features found in other Footner architecture:

Social Commentary. Inspector Loasby cultivates reporters. And he makes an interesting point: "In a free country every public official has to keep in with the press" (first part of Chapter 7). In 1941, the differences between a free country like the United States and the totalitarians at war in Europe would be on everyone's mind. There is also a reference to a charity fund-raiser that reflects the war in Europe, the Polish Relief Ball (first part of Chapter 2). We also hear about a chef in New York who is a French refugee (start of Chapter 3).

An elderly waiter fears age discrimination, and had trouble getting a job before Yohe employed him (first third of Chapter 18). At the end, we happily learn the waiter still has a job (Postscript).

The House With the Blue Door

The House With the Blue Door (1942) is another fairly entertaining Mappin mystery. Once again, we have a wealthy society woman, who gets involved with a good looking young man. He's an ex-convict, who like many such Footner hunks, is involved in con games and swindles. The description of the con games in Chapter 1 is especially lively. It also drops the other shoe, in showing the impact of such good looking men on other men.

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. Please see my list of characters in white tie and tails.

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.

Orchids to Murder

Orchids to Murder (1945) is an Amos Lee Mappin mystery and Hulbert Footner's last novel. It is a lightly charming work: nothing brilliant, but with a delicate touch to its characters and settings.

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:

These show the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscape. "The Ashcomb Poor Case" also contains a detailed architectural look at a country home.

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.

Robert J. Casey

Robert J. Casey was a prolific Chicago journalist and author of non-fiction books.

Commentary on Robert J. Casey:

The Secret of 37 Hardy Street

The Secret of 37 Hardy Street (1929) is the first mystery novel starring Jim Sands. The Secret of 37 Hardy Street is a good-natured work. It is most interesting for the surrealism it builds up, rather than for its mystery puzzle plot.

Mystery Traditions: Van Dine School. The Secret of 37 Hardy Street has features that recall the Van Dine School:

However, the personality of hero Jim Sands is quite different from Van Dine's sleuth Philo Vance. Jim Sands is a raffish ex-newspaperman with a snappy line of patter. His raffish feel extends to the book as a whole, which has more of the "common touch" than do the Van Dine books. Jim Sands is also very well-built, something atypical of Van Dine School sleuths. He looks like a prizefighter (Chapter 1).

Surrealism. Surrealism is an important element of many classic mystery writers. The Secret of 37 Hardy Street achieves Surrealism through two different techniques:

Chicago?. The Secret of 37 Hardy Street takes place in an unnamed city. But it is likely Chicago, or a fictionalized equivalent:

Melodrama. Old-time stage melodramas are a recurrent subject in The Secret of 37 Hardy Street. The murder victim was an author of them.

We learn that a local theater is putting on old melodramas, for the audience to laugh at (Chapter 26). This is a subject that will recur in Hulbert Footner's The Mystery of the Folded Paper (1930). I like Casey's treatment more than Footner's, although both are quite informative in different ways about this phenomenon.

Snickering at old dramas and films was known in the 1960's as Camp - a term still in use today. Camp was associated with gay male subculture. But the 1929 laughter-at-melodrama in The Secret of 37 Hardy Street is associated with the "intelligentsia" (start of Chapter 26), rather than with gay people. And the attendees at the theater showing the melodramas are depicted as both male and female.

The Third Owl

The Third Owl (1934) is another mystery novel starring Jim Sands: apparently the fifth and last Jim Sands novel. It is mainly set in a small town near Chicago. Best parts: Chapters 1, 8, first part of 9, 26.

The Third Owl has big problems, with a negatively portrayed mentally disabled man. The man is a major character who runs throughout the book - and the same negative characterization is seen throughout. This ruins The Third Owl. It is not recommended.

The Third Owl is mainly not that good, anyway, as a work of story telling. It is downbeat, grim and not much fun. It comes to a grim conclusion, with its choice of killer.

Mystery Plot: The Twist. By far the best feature of The Third Owl is a surprise plot twist (last part of Chapter 8, first part of Chapter 9). It builds on ideas set forth in the opening (Chapter 1). The idea is further extended much later on (Chapter 26, 27).

This plot twist is not too plausible. But it is imaginative.

This plot twist has surrealistic aspects, like other works of Casey's. Like Halfway House (1936) by Ellery Queen, the surrealism involves the joining together of disparate social classes. Like Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), the surrealism is linked to a funeral.

The plot twist offers a motive for the killings. But otherwise, it is not too closely linked the the main murder mysteries of the novel.

Crewe. The Third Owl also brings back another series sleuth, a man who works with Sands, police Captain Joseph K. Crewe. Crewe is Chief of Detectives. Crewe, like Sands, made his debut in The Secret of 37 Hardy Street.

Crewe has the role of friendly police contact to amateur sleuth Sands: a type of character frequently found in Van Dine School novels.

Roger Scarlett

Roger Scarlett was an American mystery writer. "Roger Scarlett" was the pseudonym of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page. Blair and Page were a Lesbian couple.

Roger Scarlett published five mystery novels (1930-1933). All starred Inspector Norton Kane of the Boston Police as their detective. According to Cat's Paw (Chapter 1), Kane is "inspector under the Bureau of Criminal Investigation". This is referred to by its initials as "the B.C.I." in Murder Among the Angells (Chapter 7).

Murder Among the Angells

Murder Among the Angells (1932) is the fourth Inspector Norton Kane mystery novel. Best parts; Chapters 1, start of 2, second half of 5, 7, 8. 13, 14, 15, 17, 18. The Angells are a wealthy family in Boston, and the main suspects in a murder mystery in their mansion.

Unfortunately, I found Murder Among the Angells to be only of moderate interest. It has a number of virtues, and cannot be dismissed as junk. But it isn't especially interesting or enjoyable, either.

Characters. A big problem: the book's mainly unsympathetic characters are depressing to read about. The detectives and servants aside, the suspects are a bunch of upper class idlers. They have neither jobs nor hobbies nor anything else to give them interest or sympathy.

In Murder Among the Angells, Inspector Kane is bland, and without much interest as a character. On the plus side: Kane's references to the Bible (start of Chapter 8) do give him an intellectual feel. He also has a flair for surprises in his detective work (end of Chapter 8, end of Chapter 16).

Servants. The servants are more sympathetic. Our brief glimpses of Ellen the chambermaid and Gertrude the cook are pleasant (second half of Chapter 5, first part of Chapter 8). The two are together far from the scene of the crime when the crime occurs, and we hear the distant murder shot through their ears. They are thus alibied, and definitely not suspects.

Ellen and Gertrude are friends, as well as co-workers. They show no direct signs of being Lesbians. But as a team of women who operate as a pair, they have the sympathy of their authors. They also evoke admiration because they work for a living, unlike the rich idlers who are suspects.

I wish Ellen and Gertrude had a bigger role. Or maybe a whole novel centered around them.

Architecture. Murder Among the Angells benefits from the architecture of the murder mansion. SPOILERS. It has been split into two halves. The way these two parts are joined together is interesting and original. We learn about the architecture in two stages:

  1. We get a verbal description in the novel's opening (Chapters 1, start of 2).
  2. Then we learn more from the the two floor plans (start of Chapter 8).
The first floor plan also shows simple features of the streets and yard outside the mansion. So this floor plan doubles as a landscape map, as well. This too is interesting, formally.

The L-shaped mansion recalls the L-shaped house in the previous Scarlett novel Cat's Paw (1931).

Timetable. Murder Among the Angells includes that feature of traditional mystery fiction, a timetable of the events (first part of Chapter 10). It is fairly simple, compared to timetables in other authors' mysteries.

Mystery Plot: A Clever Twist. Inspector Kane does a creative bit of detective work (end of Chapter 8). He comes up with new conclusions about an aspect of the case. His plot discoveries are "logical but surprising", in the best detective tradition. The book could have used a lot more of this sort of detective fireworks.

Mystery Plot: The Will. SPOILERS. How Inspector Kane gets ahold of the will, is treated as a brief mystery (end of Chapter 16, first part of Chapter 17). It is provided with three different solutions. The third solution is clever. The whole mystery, while brief, makes a nice plot addition to the novel.

Mystery Plot: Locked Room. There is a locked room murder mystery in the book (set forth in Chapters 13, 14, 15, solved in Chapters 17, 18). It is like a short story embedded in the novel. The solution is moderately clever.

The locked room mystery has an interesting setting, one related to the book's architecture. Mysteries based in architecture are a Golden Age tradition.

Underwood, the Watson-like series character in the Kane novels, actually helps solve this locked room mystery (Chapter 17). This adds pleasantly to his stature as a character.

Hugh Lawrence Nelson

Hugh Lawrence Nelson wrote two series of mystery novels: Commentary on Hugh Lawrence Nelson:

The Copper Lady

The Copper Lady (1947) is a Steve Johnson police procedural. It's a minor book, and probably not worth reading. The book as a whole lacks much detectival interest. Some passages have decent story telling or backgrounds (Chapters 1, 3, 7.1, 8.3, 9.3, 9.4, 10, 14.5, 15.2, 15.3).

Work: Technological. The Copper Lady is most interesting when it shows work and work environments (Chapters 1, 3, 7.1, 8.3, 9.3, 9.4, 10). This includes:

Both business have technical aspects, making The Copper Lady be a scientific detective story. The surprise motive, revealed at the end, also has scientific aspects.

The Copper Lady notes that the shop often hurts the health of the men who work there (Chapter 10.2). There is criticism of the business as exploitative of working people.

The Copper Lady (reviewed early August 1947) resembles a bit another mystery novel published the same year, My True Love Lies (1947) by Lenore Glen Offord (reviewed early April 1947). Both:

Mystery Plot: No Ingenuity. The Copper Lady is a conventional who-done-it, with two mysterious murders and the killer identified at the end. But the plot lacks much ingenuity. There are no clues to the identity of the killer. And there no ingenious twists like clever alibis, a locked room, or a Least Likely Suspect.

Much of the mystification is due to innocent characters who won't speak up and tell the police what they know. Such people are just as annoying here as in other mystery stories.

Some positive subplots of the mystery:

Mystery Subplot: The Motive. The underlying motive for the crimes is not revealed till near the end of the book (end of Chapter 20, Chapter 21). It is startling. And succeeds as story telling. However, it doesn't add much to the mystery puzzle per se.

Earlier in the book there are clues to the motive: the swan statuette (Chapter 5), the library book (Chapter 19.1). The meaning of both clues are explained near the book's end (Chapter 21). As clues to the motive, these are far-fetched, especially the swan. It would be hard to deduce the motive from them. However, both clues succeed as colorful bits of storytelling.

The explanation of the clues (Chapter 21) adds meaning to the objects serving as clues. Such "additions of meaning to objects" are a technique found in other Nelson books too.

Both clues are "obviously" clues: the reader is meant to see right away that they have some sort of hidden significance in the mystery.

Mystery Traditions: Van Dine School. A character collects copper objects, both artworks and tools, and has a special exhibition room for them in his home. Such private museums regularly appear in Van Dine School mysteries. However, the room is mainly seen just once (Chapter 5), and plays less of a role than the private museums in some other Van Dine School writers.

The Public Library. The Public Library also appears in The Copper Lady. Unfortunately, it is negatively treated (start of Chapter 16).

Another mystery of the era with a negatively seen Public Library: The Crying Sisters (1939) (end of Chapter 1) by Mabel Seeley. Both novels' critiques focus on the limited patronage of the Public Library: how few people use it. I don't know if these critiques are valid.

Tuxedo. We briefly learn that at the party "Dr. Ogden wore evening clothes that clashed with Pete Cranford's tweeds" (near start of Chapter 2). Hero Steve Johnson's tuxedo will play a bigger role in Dead Giveaway.

Fountain of Death

Fountain of Death (1948) is a Steve Johnson police procedural. Best parts: Chapters 1, 2, 4.2, 5, 7.2, 7.3, 9.2, 11.4, 17.1, 20.1, 22.1.

Opening. The opening (Chapters 1, 2) of Fountain of Death contain an unusual mini-mystery. The medical examiner summons Steve Johnson in an unusual way, and makes odd statements to Johnson about the killing. Steve Johnson has to reconstruct the history of the medical examiner's actions, and figure out reasons for his somewhat atypical behavior. This is a "mystery puzzle with solution". But it is a non-standard one, involving the behavior of an investigating official, rather than a criminal.

The police medical examiner is Dr. Quincy, anticipating the TV series about a pathologist, Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983). Quincy is a continuing character in the Steve Johnson series.

Some of the dialogue between Johnson and Quincy recalls H. C. Bailey - a writer not otherwise close to American police procedurals. "So you did notice that. I wondered." sounds especially Bailey-ish.

There is some pleasant local color in the opening about San Francisco's cable cars. This includes a look at politics surrounding them. Unfortunately, this subject mainly does not extend into the rest of the book.

Surrealism and Mystery. SPOILERS. Some aspects of the dead man seem surreal, especially his green hands (Chapter 1), and the odd contents of his pockets (Chapter 2). The pocket contents are hard to explain, or give a coherent logical view of. Eventually, these mysteries are explained by the dead man's profession (Chapter 7.3).

The victim's unusually long fingernails (Chapter 2.1), while not as surreal, are also eventually explained as part of his profession: another man in the same profession has long nails too (Chapter 9.2).

Later aspects of the victim's life also seem surreal, notably the photos in his safe (end of Chapter 9.2).

Adding Meaning to Objects. Nelson likes to introduce objects - then add meaning to them later on. The addition of meaning is a step by step process, with layer after layer added to the meaning of objects. Examples of this process in Fountain of Death include the vehicles involved with the opening murder, and later the photos in the safe.

The initial murder involves two linked objects: a San Francisco cable car and a nearby taxi. Layers of meaning about these vehicles:

SPOILERS. A later object that gets layers of meaning added, is the stack of photos found in the safe: The added meanings about the cable car and taxicab are both political, and furnish clues the mystery subplot about Dr. Quincy's behavior. The added meanings about the photos are somewhat different: they form a key subplot of the mystery, but have no obvious political significance. The meanings about the photos form a series of mystery plot revelations, each one going deeper and deeper into a hidden mystery.

A Jewish Policeman. One of the continuing series policeman in the Johnson books is Detective Isadore Harmon. From his name, he is likely intended to be Jewish, although I don't recall this being explicitly discussed. Like the other series policemen who work for Johnson, Harmon is a good guy. One suspects that Nelson is trying for both realism, and an anti-racist statement, by including a Jewish character on the team.

Like the other police in the series, there are light comedy aspects to Harmon's adventures. He tends to come up against officious people who give him a hard time.

The Far-Left Professor. There is a brief but funny satire on a far-left professor (Chapter 7.2). He's likely a Communist, from his glib line of patter, although his specific politics are not made explicit. SPOILER. Especially funny is his account of the crime.

Dead Giveaway

The Police. Dead Giveaway (1950) is one of the Steve Johnson police novels. There is much about the intricacy of police politics in Dead Giveaway, which forms a humorous, slightly satiric inside view of the police. No less than six different police officials are profiled in the opening chapters, all involved with homicide investigations. Their relations are explored: the officers' interactions are as important as their individual personalities.

Imagery. Nelson has a gift for symbols, and for symbolic objects. His hero's tuxedo serves many purposes during the course of the story, gradually becoming a symbolically rich object worthy of Hawthorne. Nelson enjoys writing about fancy suits for men: Ring the Bell at Zero (1949) opens with a description of the hero's specially modified suit.

Nelson used the technique of adding on layers of meaning to a symbol to other elements too. In the earlier Fountain of Death (Chapter 3.2), we learn that Detective Harmon is obsessed with his dream of opening a chicken ranch in the country. In Dead Giveaway (Chapter 1), Harmon is introduced in the novel, by seeing his reaction to actual chickens in the here-and-now, when he is assigned to police patrol San Francisco's wholesale poultry processing district. This is funny.

The chicken ranch recalls The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice, and policeman von Flanagan talking about buying a mink farm when he retires.

Background. "Giveaways" were live shows, in which prizes were given away to the audience. They were used by some movie theaters of the era, to lure customers to the theater. Dead Giveaway has a Background, of a troupe that specializes in putting on Giveaways. Oddly enough, we never see an actual, full Giveaway show.

Mystery Traditions. Dead Giveaway perhaps shows the influence of a number of mystery schools, without being closely associated with any of them.

Hugh Lawrence Nelson published just one pulp mystery story under his own name: "The Five-Fingered Clue" (Ten Detective Aces Vol. 38 #2, April 1940). Despite this, Dead Giveaway is somewhat in the tradition of such 1940's pulp writers of humorous mysteries as Norbert Davis and Frank Gruber. It also shows some similarity in tone to Craig Rice, whom Gruber probably influenced.

Dead Giveaway reminds one of the Van Dine school:

As police procedural detective stories with a comic touch, the Johnson books can remind one of George Bagby and his tales of Inspector Schmidt. Bagby is strongly in the Van Dine tradition.

James Holding

The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery: a short story collection

James Holding's collection The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery consists of short stories first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from 1960 to 1972. These mystery tales feature a pair of series detectives who work together, King Danforth and Martin Leroy. The pair are loosely based on the real-life cousins who wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee.

Van Dine Sshool?. The Danforth-Leroy mysteries feature amateur detectives who solve mysteries through brain power: key elements of Van Dine School fiction (and of intuitionist writers as a whole, of which the Van Dine School is a subset). Beyond this, however, the stories are not always close to other Van Dine School traditions. For example, the duo collaborate with friendly policemen only in "The Hong Kong Jewel Mystery", "The Philippine Key Mystery". Mainly, they work on their own: something untypical of Van Dine School mysteries.

Puzzles. Two of the tales feature puzzles to be solved, rather than mysteries: "The Italian Tile Mystery", "The Japanese Card Mystery". Such puzzles were later common in the Black Widowers stories by Isaac Asimov. Puzzles are less common in Van Dine School writers.

An influence from Helen McCloy?. Some of the tales use mystery plot patterns that recall approaches used by Helen McCloy. I have no idea whether these similarities are just a coincidence, or whether they are caused by an actual influence from McCloy on Holding.

The initial mystery premise in "The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery" can be classified as a "bizarre event, hard to explain". It seems like a surreal, strange event, one that has no logical explanation or rationale. McCloy used such events as mystery situations throughout her novels.

The tiny spheres found in "The Borneo Snapshot Mystery" are hard to identify. What are they, and what are they used for? An answer is eventually forthcoming. Such "Hard to Identify Objects" appear in a few McCloy mysteries.

Several Holding tales involve ingeniously hidden objects: "The Norwegian Apple Mystery", "The African Fish Mystery", "The Italian Tile Mystery", "The Hong Kong Jewel Mystery", "The Philippine Key Mystery". Many mystery writers have created such "hidden object" mysteries. McCloy is one of them.

Armchair Detectives. Sometimes Danforth and Leroy take direct, active roles in the investigation. This is true in the puzzle tales "The Italian Tile Mystery", "The Japanese Card Mystery". And in the murder mystery "The Borneo Snapshot Mystery". But other stories show them working as "armchair sleuths", investigating crimes purely on the basis of facts given them by other people. Examples: "The African Fish Mystery", "The Philippine Key Mystery".

Fred Dannay (Ellery Queen) clearly liked armchair detectives stories, and regularly featured them in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. For examples, please see my article on James Yaffe. These Holding armchair detection tales might show Dannay's editorial influence.

The Library Fuzz: a short story collection

The Library Fuzz short stories star Hal Johnson, a man who collects overdue library books and fines for a public library.

Holding published the last of his Danforth-Leroy tales in January 1972. The first of the new Hal Johnson stories appeared later that year: "Library Fuzz" (November 1972). It was as if the new Hal Johnson series was a replacement for the Danforth-Leroy series.

Royalty. The names of some of Holding's series sleuths suggest royalty. "King Danforth" includes the word "King". "Martin Leroy" includes "Leroy", from two French words meaning "The King".

"Hal Johnson" sounds more guy-next-door-ish. But the most famous Hal in literature is Prince Hal in Shakespeare, later to be King Henry V. This is royalty too.

The boyfriend's name in the non-series "Test Run" is a variation on that of Holding's series detective King Danforth. It too evokes royalty.

Private Eye?. Hal Johnson bears some resemblance to a typical private eye of fiction. He's a tough ex-cop, who still keeps up his helpful ties with his old police colleagues. This is a premise found fairly often in private eye tales.

Aside from the police, Hal Johnson works by himself. He recalls the many one-man private eyes of fiction, such as Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler.

Criminals Around. SPOILERS. "The Elusive Mrs. Stout" suggests that deadly career criminals are hanging around, causing danger and trouble. Similar bad elements appear in such late Danforth-Leroy tales as "The Philippine Key Mystery", "The Borneo Snapshot Mystery". These dangerous criminals are more hard-boiled than the typical suspects in Van Done School fiction - although such professional criminals sometimes show up in Van Dine School authors too.

Observing Limits. In "The Elusive Mrs. Stout" the hero suspects that something bad is going on inside the apartment. Does he break in, which would be illegal? No, he calls the police and gives them reasons to investigate. This shows an admirable respect for the rule of law. Similarly Danforth and Leroy investigate everything they can as amateur detectives, then turn over what they know to the authorities.

Con Men: short stories

Holding wrote a number of short stories about con men.

Test Run. "Test Run" (1970) starts out with a "bizarre event, hard to explain". Gert can't figure out why her unscrupulous boyfriend wants her to do something, something odd and peculiar. It's a mystery to the reader, too. At the tale's end, the mystery is solved.

So "Test Run" is a mystery story, in that it opens with a mystery that is given a logical solution at the end. However "Test Run" is NOT a detective story: there is no detective figure who solves the mystery. Instead, the tale just lets us enter the boyfriend's mind at the end, where we see why he has behaved as he has.

It looks at first as if Gert is going to be a sleuth. While she drives to the motel, she enumerates a list of things she find mysterious about the event: such lists often being created by detectives in fiction. But Gert ultimately fails to solve the mystery.

"Test Run" takes place at a nice motel. As a place for tourists, it recalls the cruise ship that is the setting for the Danforth-Leroy tales. And also the apartment house of "The Elusive Mrs. Stout". The motel's name has a mythological reference, like the cruise ship.

The heroine at the start suspects that her boyfriend's mysterious request might be part of an attempt to seduce her. This gives the request, and the tale as a whole, a sexy edge. The final emphasis in the tale about how muscular the boyfriend is, also has a sexy feel.

The boyfriend's name Danny suggests he is a young man. So does his crewcut. Another young man hero will be named Danny Fields in the romance comic book tale "Play With Fire" (Girls' Love Stories #178, July - August 1973), also from the early 1970's. See my discussion. Both Danny in "Test Run" and Danny Fields are irresistible to their tales' heroines.

SPOILERS. The boyfriend Danny is part of a long tradition of conman heroes in Rogue fiction. Like many Rogues, Danny is non-violent and only swindles the big rich.

Emma Lathen

Emma Lathen has affinities to the Van Dine School: Emma Lathen was hailed as a writer by Anthony Boucher, early in her career. Boucher was a member of the Van Dine School, as well as a famous critic.

Green Grow the Dollars

Emma Lathen's Green Grow the Dollars (1982) deals with plant breeders and plant genetics.

One suspects that the title refers to "Green Grow the Lilacs", a 19th Century Irish folk song. The song inspired the play Green Grow the Lilacs (1931) by Lynn Riggs.

Scientific Detection. The plant genetics subject brings the book within the scope of the scientific detective story. However, we learn more about the business organization of plant science, and the products it markets, than we do about science itself.

The murder method uses a small bit of science (last part of Chapter 19).

SPOILERS. One of the clues to the killer, involves scientific aspects of the killer's career (Chapter 26).

Mystery Plot. Green Grow the Dollars has a formal murder mystery plot. Unfortunately, it is a small one.

There are two simple clues to the identity of the killer. Neither one is conclusive. Thatcher also gets a piece of financial evidence against the killer; it is perfectly sound, but it is NOT shared with the reader until the solution. These clues and evidence, plus two discoveries made earlier by other people, are pretty much the entire mystery plot of Green Grow the Dollars.

Disconcertingly, Thatcher does no detective work until the nook's next-to-last chapter. I found this hard to take. It's a mystery without much detective work! This has a very odd feel. The small mystery plot and the dearth of detective work produce a mystery plot that can be fairly called "minimalistic". This mystery plot is inoffensive. But it is small and thus disappointing.

Earlier, good detective work is done by people other than Thatcher:

One could argue that both of these discoveries are more important, than anything Thatcher comes up with.

The Business of Plants. Some of the best chapters are looks at the world of plants, and their marketing and business (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 9, first part of 10, 11). These chapters often have little connection to the book's mystery plot or characters. They are often filled with comedy, as well as social observations.

Ritchie. Green Grow the Dollars shares subject matter with the very brief, crime fiction short story "The Seed Caper" (1977) by Jack Ritchie:

Both works have a comic approach.

Feminism. Green Grow the Dollars has many brainy women who accomplish things in their work: Fran Pendleton, Mary Larrabee, Hilary Davis.

There is also sympathy for homemaker Ellie Norris, and what she is taking on in support for her family (last part of Chapter 17). Even Society wife Gloria, while satirized for her limited upper crust social sphere and viewpoint, is shown to be coping admirably with a lot of family problems on her plate (Chapter 20). She is also loyal and supportive.

So the novel admires both women's work in the world, and women's work at home.

Aside from suspect Hilary Davis, most of these women are treated as non-suspects in the mystery plot. This adds to their sympathetic characterizations.

David Alexander

David Alexander wrote mystery novels, mainly during the 1950's.

A bibliography can be found at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. Marcia Muller's articles on David Alexander from 1001 Midnights have been reprinted (with permission) on-line at Mystery*File, and also at Mystery*File.

Links to Van Dine School Traditions

David Alexander's work is linked to the Van Dine tradition, as the blog Beneath the Stains of Time pointed out. I can add a number of features in Alexander recalling the Van Dine school: David Alexander is rowdier in tone than typical Van Dine School writers. His characters are more often raffish low lifes. David Alexander's work is not anywhere as close to Van Dine, as are those writers influenced by Van Dine in the 1930's.

Murder Points a Finger

Murder Points a Finger (1953) is the only novel featuring veteran actor Dab Ashton as sleuth. Dab perhaps shows the influence of The Tragedy of X (1933) by Ellery Queen, which stars veteran actor Drury Lane as detective. Drury Lane lives in a castle on the outskirts of New York City; another modern-day replica of a castle in New York plays a role in Murder Points a Finger. (Another sympathetic aging actor is James Lennox in Alexander's Shoot a Sitting Duck (second half of Chapter 5, Chapter 17).)

Murder Points a Finger is a dying message mystery, a subgenre of detective fiction most closely linked to Van Dine School member Ellery Queen. Queen's first dying message book is in fact The Tragedy of X. The dying message in Murder Points a Finger gets multiple interpretations, also a Queen tradition. Alexander shows ingenuity with his solutions.

While the sleuth and dying message recall Van Dine traditions, Murder Points a Finger also includes a fairly realistic look at mobsters and civic corruption. This was a popular topic in 1950's American mysteries, including such Van Dine school writers as Hampton Stone and his The Needle That Wouldn't Hold Still (1950).

I first learned about Murder Points a Finger, from the previously cited Beneath the Stains of Time. Thank you!

Lt. Romano. Homicide cop Lt. Romano is the main policeman in Murder Points a Finger. He will later return as a series supporting character in the Bart Hardin books. The Hardin series will debut in 1954, soon after Murder Points a Finger (1953). Today readers would say this makes Murder Points a Finger be set in the same "universe" as the Hardin series. However, I'm not sure Alexander thought in these "world-building" terms. He might just have liked Lt. Romano as a character, and wanted to include him in the Hardin series.

Alexander will later spin off a lawyer from the Hardin books, Marty Land, into his own book series.

Shoot a Sitting Duck

Shoot a Sitting Duck (1955) is one of the series featuring Broadway newspaper editor Bart Hardin as sleuth. The book has some atmospheric sections (Chapters 1, 3, 5, 6, start of 7). These sections also look at architecture.

Manhattan. The novel concentrates on two linked districts of Manhattan: Broadway and Greenwich Village.

The activities of these Manhattan areas as depicted in the novel, consist half of endless gambling and drinking, half of involvement with the theater and painting.

Christmas on Broadway. Much dark comedy results from the way-out ways in which these Broadway denizens celebrate the Christmas season (Chapters 1, 3). The target of the satire here is Broadway and its mores. Christmas as celebrated by non-Broadway Americans is treated with respect.

Shoot a Sitting Duck is included on some lists of Christmas Mysteries. This is accurate: the book opens on Christmas Eve. But it is also a very non-cozy novel, remote from what most people think of as a Christmas tale.

Lt. Romano. There is a humorous explanation of why series cop Lt. Romano is working on Christmas Eve (first part of Chapter 3). Romano's comic complaining recalls that of Craig Rice's earlier comic policeman Daniel von Flanagan, There is comic talk of what Romano might do after retiring in this section: also a perennial topic with Daniel von Flanagan. Romano is always described as big and husky, recalling the way Flanagan is big. Romano is Italisn, while Flanagan is Irish.

Minetta. The hero goes to a real-life street Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village. And eats at what seems to be a real-life restaurant there, the Minetta Tavern (Chapter 6). Including real establishments in a work of fiction gives an odd effect.

Minetta Lane is also mentioned in the mystery short story "The Girl with the Burgundy Lips" (1952) by Lawrence G. Blochman.

Autobiography. Bart Hardin, his newspaper, and his Broadway world, reflect autobiographical elements in David Alexander's own career.

The opening of Shoot a Sitting Duck says "the worlds of the theatre and the racetrack, which were the sole interests of the [newspaper] sheet he [Bart Hardin] edited." This is echoed on the 1957 paperback's back cover, which says: "David Alexander, for ten years editor and columnist for the Morning Telegraph, New York's oldest sports and theatrical daily [newspaper], writes with intimate authority of the Broadway world in the distinguished and unusual Bart Hardin Mystery Series."

Architecture. We learn about the architecture of the building where the murder takes place (Chapter 3). This is relevant in explaining the movements of the killer. All of this reflects the interest in architecture in traditional mystery fiction.

We also get a brief but vivid look at the upscale real-life Manhattan neighborhood of Gracie Square (Chapter 1). This has nothing to do with the murder mystery plot. But it is fun to read about anyway.

The design of the small theater in Greenwich Village is discussed (end of Chapter 6). It is contrasted with the effects possible in a Broadway theater (start of Chapter 7).

Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. A key element of the mystery plot, is a subject also explored earlier by Ellery Queen. Alexander has cleverly concealed two clues on this subject, in different points in the novel (explained in Chapter 15).

Gregory Dean

Murder on Stilts

Gregory Dean's Murder on Stilts (1939) is the last of his three mystery novels. William F. Deeck's article on Murder on Stilts is at Mystery*File.

Van Dine School. The book has features of the Van Dine School:

There are differences from the Van Dine School: Mystery Plot. Like many Van Dine school works, Murder on Stilts has mild locked room features. As in such Van Dine books as The Kennel Murder Case, the locked room is more explained by some simple gimmicks, than by any profoundly imaginative puzzle plot ideas. Still, Dean's locked room concept is pleasant enough, although its ideas would have been considered a bit dated even by 1939.

The best parts of the novel are the opening (Prologue, Chapters 1-5), a deepening of the mystery (Chapter 15), and the solution of the locked room problem (Chapters 22-23). The rest of the novel is taken up by a dull, uninteresting look back at the early lives of the characters.

BIG SPOILERS. The solution to whodunit is an example of a famous mystery trope. Please see my list of examples.

Lillian de la Torre

Lillian de la Torre's short stories about Dr. Sam Johnson are the ancestors of much of today's historical mystery fiction. Real life personages and events are often woven into these stories, and there is a great deal of historical atmosphere and dialogue. Unusual aspects of 18th Century law enforcement are often worked into the tales.

Influence of Ellery Queen & Van Dine School

The cleverest puzzle plot in the series is "The Stroke of Thirteen" (1953). This tale has affinities to the impossible crime school. It does not deal with a locked room or other physical impossibility; instead it deals with events which seem to be absurd, and gives them an ultimately logical explanation. The elaborate complexity of the plot in this tale recalls Ellery Queen, who published de la Torre's stories in EQMM.

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:

Influence of John Dickson Carr

But there are influences here outside of the Van Dine school, notably from John Dickson Carr. Carr's biographer Douglas G. Greene, 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.

True Crime

Some of the Sam Johnson tales involve de la Torre's recreations of famous unsolved true crimes. Usually these have new solutions suggested by her. These solutions tend to scrupulously stick to the facts of the case, and yet try to suggest a surprising guilty party and explanation of the crime. Her non-Johnson play Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden (1947) is also in this tradition. This whole approach is exactly that of Carr in The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey.

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.

Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector

The whole first collection, Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector, is especially charming as a historical work. The tales' events are often colorful, and de la Torre is a superb prose stylist with a grasp of the possibilities of 18th Century English usage. In some ways, it might be best just to recommend the whole collection. Still the tales are very different from each other, and vary in their success as mystery and historical works.

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 Later Tales

"The Banquo Trap" (1959) is ordinary as a mystery, but its recreation of being backstage in the 18th Century theater is outstanding. The first half of the story is especially rich in detail. One feels as if one were actually there.

"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.

Kirke Mechem

The Strawstack Murder Case

The Strawstack Murder Case (1936) is the only published mystery novel by Kirke Mechem. It is an often mediocre work that has a few good ideas. Best parts: Chapters 2, 3, 11, 12, 13, 23.

Van Dine School?. Curtis Evans' introduction points out in detail the resemblances between the detectives in this book, and the series sleuths in Van Dine's mysteries. See also this article at Evans' blog The Passing Tramp.

The Strawstack Murder Case has a few other Van Dine School traditions:

Influence on Clason?. TomCat's review of The Strawstack Murder Case suggests Mechem is closest to Clyde B. Clason among the Van Dine School writers. I would add that there are broad similarities between The Strawstack Murder Case and Clason's Blind Drifts. Perhaps The Strawstack Murder Case (1936) influenced Blind Drifts (1937). Similarities:

There are mild SPOILERS in the rest of this discussion.

Mystery Plot. The Strawstack Murder Case has one good mystery plot idea. As the detective asks early on, how did the killer get the body up onto the strawstack? It doesn't look like there was any practical method to do this. This puzzle is on the fringes of both the "impossible crime" and the "how-done-it". At the book's end, a clever idea explains how this was done.

Architecture. Golden Age mystery fiction was often interested in unusual architecture. The Strawstack Murder Case has something genuinely unusual: the giant strawstack of the title (Chapters 2, 3).

Unfortunately, this architecture plays little role in the actual mystery plot of the novel.

The hunting lodge is much more conventional, but it too is pleasantly described in its architectural layout (Chapter 3).

Timothy Fuller

Timothy Fuller wrote five comic detective novels, starring sleuth Jupiter Jones.

Commentary on Timothy Fuller:

Timothy Fuller was at one time a well-known author, and shows up in histories of mystery fiction. So coverage here is warranted. However, I have been underwhelmed by Fuller's books, so far. His inclusion here is NOT to be interpreted as any sort of recommendation.

Harvard Has a Homicide

Harvard Has a Homicide (1936) is the first mystery novel about sleuth Jupiter Jones. It basic concept is appealing: A comic murder mystery set at Harvard, starring a fresh, wisecracking student as detective. However, there are serious problems with the execution of this idea. Its mystery puzzle aspects are routine.

Harvard Has a Homicide suffers from bigoted portrayal of minorities. The stereotyping is relentless. SPOILERS:

Van Dine School. Harvard Has a Homicide has links to the Van Dine School: However, the mystery plotting is much less skillful than in the best Van Dine School writers.

Architecture. The architecture of the building where the murder takes place, is of some interest, in the Golden Age tradition. The 1940's mapback illustration is especially good, showing the architecture. The building is described in the opening investigation (Chapters 2, 3). These chapters offer some of the best comic writing in the novel - at least until the end of Chapter 3, when we start getting a look at the caricatured black servant.

Rink Creussen

The Silver Dollar: a short story

Rink Creussen was the pseudonym of a Princeton undergraduate. Ellery Queen published his first story, "The Silver Dollar" (1948). The storytelling and plot seem to be in the EQ tradition, including a simple deductive finale, and in addition, editor EQ supplied an alternative, equally deductive solution to the tale. (EQ's comments show some interesting analytical sidelights on his approach to mystery plotting.) The coin collecting in the tale also seems in the EQ mode. Creussen showed good touches of characterization, especially in the humorous portrait of the none too swift cop in the story.

One wonders if "Creussen" ever published stories under his own name.

The story was reprinted in Ellery Queen's anthology The Queen's Awards. 1948 : the winners of the third annual detective short-story contest sponsored by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Grandfather Rastin

Lloyd Biggle's magazine short stories about sleuth William "Grandfather" Rastin have been collected in The Grandfather Rastin Mysteries (collected 2007), available from its publisher Crippen & Landru. Rastin lives in the small Michigan, USA town of Borgville, and solves humorous mysteries there.

Links to Uncle Abner. The Grandfather Rastin stories recall the Uncle Abner tales (1911-1928) of Melville Davisson Post. Both:

Unlike the Abner tales, the Rastin stories do not discuss religious or political themes, however. The Rastin stories are also more humor-oriented than the Abner tales, and the actual mystery plotting technique of the two series seems dissimilar.

Links to the Van Dine School. The Rastin have similarities to the Van Dine School of mystery fiction:

The Rastin tales are far from any sort of direct imitation of Van Dine. Their small town locale is the opposite of the sophisticated New York setting of most Van Dineans, and Biggle's middle class characters are not the upper middle class folks sometimes found in the Van Dine School.

The Van Dine School is part of a bigger tradition in mystery fiction, the Intuitionist detective tale. Some of the elements listed above, such as amateur detectives and mysteries solved through pure thinking, are elements of the Intuitionist tradition as a whole, rather than Van Dine writers specifically.

The Rastin stories stick to Golden Age approaches, in avoiding complex backstory for their series characters.

Where is Borg County? Borgville is fictitious. So is Borg County which contains it. The clearest indication of its location is in "The Unasked Question" and "A Matter of Friendship", where it is described as being somewhat south of the real Michigan city of Jackson. This would place Borgville in the extreme South of Michigan. This is consistent with the lack of anything like a tourist economy in Borgville, tourism being the major business in many Northern Michigan towns. In fact, when a stranger shows up for a visit in Borgville in "The Gentle Swindler" (1960), it is such an unusual event that it triggers an investigation from the Sheriff. A location south of Jackson also makes Borgville not too far from such real Michigan cities as:

The region south of Jackson is rural and full of small towns, but not really provincial, being fairly close to major cities and universities. The people in Borg County are in touch with the rest of the world, and are fairly "typical Americans". They are not "hicks". They are well-informed and modern.

A real-life area in roughly the same geographical position as fictitious Borg County is Lenawee County. The real-life county seat of Lenawee is Adrian, a moderately large town that is the site of Adrian College. Similarly, the (fictitious) county seat of Borg County is Wiston, a moderately large city that is home to Wiston College. Lenawee County is full of small townships and villages that are comparable in size to Borgville.

I don't recall any other fiction set in this part of Michigan. Borg County is now Biggle's own, a region that belongs to his fictional universe, the way "Abner country" does to Melville Davisson Post.

Some of the early Rastin tales treat the townspeople of Borgville as a sort of "collective protagonist". They appear in a group. And take turns acting or talking, making "typical" remarks or actions. Such tales include "The Face Is Familiar", "A Case of Heredity" and "The Gentle Swindler". I don't find this approach too interesting, and am glad Biggle mainly dropped it in most of the tales.

The Teen Narrator. The narrator of the Grandfather Rastin tales is his teenage grandson Johnny. Johnny is a friendly, hard working young man. Without being any sort of copy or imitation, Johnny recalls aspects of Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout:

Johnny is far from being a clone of Archie Goodwin, or anyone else. He has his own distinctive "voice" and personality.

Johnny is remote from the stereotyped way of depicting teenagers in the media. He is not a party animal, is unconcerned about being popular, and spends little time worried about being "hip". Instead, he is an intelligent, decent person who seems well-informed about and interested in the world around him.

Johnny does have features that recall other teenage boys. He is always hungry, and frustrated that his Grandfather doesn't give him enough time to eat. He reminds me of the non-stop appetite of my own teenage years.

Biggle was a science fiction writer. He likely met countless teenage male science fiction fans, who were the core audience for science fiction in that era. These science fiction fans were typically intelligent, curious, interested in learning about the world, and positive in attitude. They well could have served collectively as models for Johnny.

The Mystery Plots. Among the better puzzle plots in the Grandfather Rastin stories are "The Phantom Thief" (1968) and "A Matter of Friendship" (2007). These tales describe thefts that occur despite areas being monitored, by humans in "The Phantom Thief" and a ferocious dog in "A Matter of Friendship". These stories are borderline impossible crime tales.

Grandfather Rastin's disappearance from the street in "A Matter of Friendship" also has links to the impossible crime. It is not treated as a mystery however: the reader knows right from the start how it occurs. "The Gentle Swindler" also has a character cleverly evading surveillance.

Some of the early Rastin stories, "A Case of Heredity" (1959) and "The Gentle Swindler" (1960), deal with strangers coming to Borgville, on unusual errands. These stories are amusing anecdotes, with some nice plot ideas about the strangers' business in town. They are not quite mysteries in the strict sense, with a murder or theft to be solved, and a culprit to be identified. Still, "The Gentle Swindler" is a mystery, in the sense that the stranger's mission is unknown, and only revealed at the end of the story. Biggle eventually developed a genuine detective tale about a mysterious stranger in town, "The Pair of Knaves" (1965). Once again, the stranger's business in Borgville is the most interesting part of the solution of "The Pair of Knaves". This story develops two solutions, in the tradition of E.C. Bentley, Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen (who was the editor who first published most of the Rastin stories).

SPOILERS. Both solutions in "The Pair of Knaves" show why a local person might collaborate with the mysterious stranger. Elements of collaboration also play roles in the mystery plot solutions in "The Gentle Swindler" (quite close to the second solution in "The Pair of Knaves") and "The Lesser Thing". A bit more distantly, the newspaper subplot in "The Automation Mystery" has someone collaborating with the main crook, although this is more a form of assistance, and less like the collaborations in the other tales.

The other best story in the collection is "The Unasked Question" (1971). This unpretentious tale starts off with an ordinary looking murder. But the story is loaded with pleasant, logical detail, and shows some nice off-trail detection, before winding up with an ingenious solution.

"The Knave of Hearts" (2007) also has a two-level-deep solution. The first solution is more imaginative and unexpected. The second solution is more realistic, but less appealing and more ordinary.

As in several Rastin tales, "The Knave of Hearts" looks closely at the financial history of its characters, giving them a motive for their crimes. Many mysteries (buy other writers) deal in big-bucks motives, with greedy heirs, say, competing for a fortune. Biggle is unusual in looking at the finances of ordinary, middle class people, and finding causes for crime. The characters' financial history is explored in detail, often with numerous aspects mentioned, and a history of events. Embedded in this history are clues to the real - but hidden - state of affairs.

The better Rastin tales are good at concealing their villains. The choice of bad guy revealed at the end is a surprise.

Among the other tales, "The Fabulous Fiddle" (1963) is a modest but nice anecdote. It has some structural features in common with a better known tale editor Ellery Queen published two years later, "The Adventure of Abraham Lincoln's Clue" (1965).

The Rastin stories suffer from unevenness. The worst tales "The Mother Goose Murder" (1972), "The Unmurdered Professor" (1964) and "The Lesser Thing" (1960) are dreary in their storytelling, don't have much Borgville local color, and lack fair play in their solutions. "The Lesser Thing" does have a OK alibi puzzle idea. The earliest story, "The Face Is Familiar" (1957), hardly has any substance at all. "The Great Horseshoe Mystery" (1962) has only a mildly inventive puzzle plot, but has a certain social and human interest. Other Rastin tales are more like ingenious anecdotes than true mystery tales, as we noted before. Still, the better Grandfather Rastin tales have a distinctive niche in mystery fiction.

Landscape and Architecture. "The Pair of Knaves" and "The Phantom Thief" show large groups of disparate people interacting, making a complex pattern. The sleuth has to elucidate this pattern, and find subsystems of interactions within it that are relevant to the crime. These interactions have mystery puzzle implications. They also charmingly depict parts of Borgville society, showing how typical interactions within it occur.

In these tale, the characters are moving around a locale during the interactions, something that is traced out by the sleuths. In "The Phantom Thief" this locale is a single large building. The building's layout plays a role in the story. This recalls the interest in architecture in Golden Age mystery fiction.

In "The Pair of Knaves" the movements are around a yard, which forms one of the landscapes that also were popular in the Golden Age mystery.

The opening of "A Matter of Friendship" describes the victim's unusual house. It is an example of the sort of self-built, Primitive Art architecture that fascinated the art world in that era. Biggle gives the house a musical, sound-producing twist, in accord with Biggle's background as a musicologist. The house architecture plays little actual role in the mystery plot, however.

"The Great Horseshoe Mystery" and "The Knave of Hearts" have similar settings: alleys and side passages next to Borgville businesses and homes. SPOILERS. Both have similar sorts of crimes, small robberies from such Borgville businesses next to the alleys. And similar sympathy for the none-too-sinister people committing the crimes.

Cultural Transmission. Biggle's best-known science fiction tale "Tunesmith" (1957) deals with cultural transmission: the passing of cultural knowledge down from the past to present day generations. This subject occasionally appears in the Rastin tales. "The Great Horseshoe Mystery" shows Johnny learning the very existence of the game of horseshoes from his grandfather, as well as learning how to play it. (We briefly see in "Tunesmith" that the hero learned things from his grandfather.)

Some of the cultural backgrounds in the Rastin stories involve cultural transmission: the college in "The Unmurdered Professor", the high school in "The Phantom Thief", the encyclopedia salesman in "The Knave of Hearts".

Printed material brings information and products to the small town of Borgville: magazines in "The Unasked Question", a mail order catalogue in "The Great Horseshoe Mystery".

The newspaper subplot in "The Automation Mystery" shows information being spread through mass media: also a key subject in "Tunesmith". By contrast, we learn in "The Gentle Swindler" that Borgville has no movie theater. However it does have a post office, which plays a role in the solution to "A Case of Heredity". The post office is an information source, in this story's plot. As a kid, I was always learning things, about new stamps especially, from the little postal substation near where we lived. Post offices can be underrated as a source of information in US society.

Both cultural transmission and the media likely have links to Van Dine School tradition of creating mysteries with backgrounds of intellectuals, collectors, and people in the arts and show biz.

The Influence of Science Fiction. "The Automation Mystery" (1969) reminds one that Biggle was a science fiction writer. Like many sf stories, it looks at the social consequences of technological change. Biggle's comments on automation are interesting, and the tale is funny. Unfortunately, his unsympathetic portrait of labor unions is one-sided - although it is fairly mild compared to today's right-wing anti-union screeds. And the main mystery plot about the machine is easily guessed. The subplot about the newspaper article shows some imagination, however.

The mix of mystery and social satire in "The Automation Mystery" recalls T. S. Stribling.

The town of Borgville is also an imaginary society, something that is central to science fiction.

Biggle's science fiction background also might influence his over-all approach to mystery fiction. Science fiction writers are trained to develop content, details that embody and illustrate a science fiction premise. Biggle uses a somewhat similar approach in his mysteries. In some ways, he is more interested in content than form. His impossible theft tales "The Phantom Thief" and "A Matter of Friendship" depend on concrete ideas for carrying out the thefts, rather than the formal juggling that some more traditional mystery authors bring to impossible crime stories. The looks at visitors with unusual business in town in "A Case of Heredity", "The Gentle Swindler" and "The Pair of Knaves" is also very concrete and content-oriented, with specific clever ideas about their activities. So are the financial investigations that run through his tales.

Lady Sara Varnly

"The Case of the Headless Witness" (1999) is set in the London of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales. Its plot also seems Doyle like, with a crime elaborated into a bizarre (but not sick) situation. Also like Doyle, Biggle gives a detailed, non-condescending look at middle class and working class Londoners. Biggle clearly based his tale on a close reading of maps of London. The city and its districts play a major role here.

S. S. Rafferty

Rafferty's work reflects writers in the intuitionist tradition, especially the Van Dine School. The restaurant owned by comedian-detective Chick Kelly, and its numerous employees who are regular characters, recall the brownstone establishment owned by Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Kelly himself has the detective skills of Wolfe, combined with the fresh guy mannerisms and charisma of Archie Goodwin. The emphasis on food recalls the Nero Wolfe stories, too. The New York City setting, and its cross section of the city, also recalls both Rex Stout, and Van Dine school writers as a whole. The show business background of many of the Kelly tales reflects the Van Dine school tradition of characters drawn from the theater and show biz. The 18th Century historical background of the Cork of the Colonies tales reminds one of Lillian de la Torre. Even Rafferty's choice of initials in his pseudonym, recalls that of S. S. Van Dine.

Some of the best plotted mysteries in the Chick Kelly series are early tales, not included in Rafferty's collection Die Laughing. These include "Buzz 'Em, Chick!" (1976) and "Curtain Going Up, Chick!" (1977). Their puzzle plots reflect broad intuitionist school traditions. They tend to be "disguised impossible crime tales". In this sort of story, it looks impossible for one of the characters to have committed the crime. The author eventually comes up with an ingenious explanation of how they actually did do it. While the tale is not strictly speaking an impossible crime tale - there are several non-guilty suspects who could easily have committed the crime, which does not look at all impossible to the reader - the technique is still strongly in the tradition of the impossible crime. Both Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen wrote this sort of story.

Not all of the Kelly tales are mystery stories. "The Ling Woo Longshot" (1975) is a comic tale involving mobsters and gamblers, somewhat in the tradition of Damon Runyon.

Two tales have similar structural approaches to mystery and detection. "Two Tokens to Trouble" (1974) and "Live and Let Live, Chick!" (1975) have mysteries, but neither is really a fairly clued, puzzle plot story. Instead, both tales concentrate on showing us Chick's detective work to solve the case. Both stories takes place in New York's underworld, with mobsters and police officials being prominent characters. In both, Chick uses unusual detective approaches, calling on the resources of crooks and people with street wise connections to help him gather information. The detection here is quite innovative, with Rafferty pulling on sources not usually found in detective tales. "Live and Let Live, Chick!" (1975) also contains an inside look at New York's numbers racket. The gambling theme is continued in "Alectryon Slept" (1977), although this story has more of a traditional, clued puzzle plot than the others. All of these underworld tales make interesting reading. Their downside is that they are full of broad ethnic portrayals, often bordering on stereotype.

Rafferty's first Chick Kelly tale was "Hang In, Chick!" (1973), and his second mystery short of any kind. It too mixes detective work and a mob background. This tale is just a brief anecdote, with echoes of works as different as George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1912) and Baynard Kendrick's "Silent Night". But it does establish Chick Kelly's voice. Chick's narration, beautifully sustained over all his different tales, is one of the best features of the series. It is a verbally inventive line of show biz patter, gung ho, enthusiastic, and full of show biz allusions and lingo. It is a style of talking associated with New York show biz, at least since the 1950's. One can envision agents talking this way over the telephone to producers in 1963. It takes a good deal of creativity to write such original dialogue, and to keep coming up with fresh new things for Chick to say. The narration also has interiority: we see a lot of Chick thinking, the whole inner workings of his mind. Although the narration is comic in tone, it establishes a genuine portrait of a person thinking. Chick is always analyzing and categorizing everything he encounters. He has an impression of everyone, and usually something fresh and vivid to say about them.

"Hang In, Chick!" (1973) established Chick Kelley's profession as a comic, and gave a history of his career. The third Chick story, "Two Tokens to Trouble" (1974), was the one in which he bought his restaurant-nightclub, and the one in which he started getting his large entourage of continuing characters.