Frederick Irving Anderson

Vincent Starrett

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

Frederick Irving Anderson

Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (collected 1914) (available on-line at http://manybooks.net/titles/andersonfother09adventures_of_the_infallible_godahl.html, and at http://archive.org/details/AdventuresOfTheInfallibleGodahl) The Notorious Sophie Lang (collected 1925) Book of Murder (collected 1930) The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (collected 2016) (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.) Uncollected Deputy Parr stories Uncollected non-series stories

Vincent Starrett

Non-series stories The Blue Door (collected 1930) Jimmie Lavender stories Alexandre Dulau stories Sally Cardiff stories The above is not a complete list of the authors' works. Rather, it consists of my picks of their best tales, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.

Frederick Irving Anderson

Frederick Irving Anderson was a major writer of mystery short stories. He was a prolific contributor to The Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines. There are four book collections of his short stories. But much of his work has never been published in book form. Anderson began publishing fiction around 1910, before World War I, and was still at it in 1946. All the works discussed in this article are short stories.

As best I can tell Anderson never published a novel in book form. However he had a six part serial in The Saturday Evening Post, titled An Hour of Leisure (1914). Perhaps this is a novel or a novella.

Key studies of Anderson are by Benjamin F. Fisher:

See also:

Influences on Anderson

Frederick Irving Anderson can be seen as a member of the Arthur B. Reeve school, but with some personal twists. Like Reeve, he often focuses on both crimes committed by scientific means, and on the detection of those crimes by the police using scientific criminology.

But the tone of Anderson's work is very different from the heroic scientists and dramatic storytelling of Reeve. Anderson clearly aspired to the irony, sophistication, and wit, of such writers as Saki and Oscar Wilde. His picture of endlessly fertile police spreading an infinitely wide and ingenious net to catch criminals, complete with every sort of scheme, impersonation and high tech tracking device, seems more in the classic whimsy tradition of Lewis Carroll or W.S. Gilbert, rather than anything remotely approaching realism. Like Carroll, there is both an obsessive and a surreal tone to Anderson's comedy.

While there are sometimes puzzle plot aspects to Anderson's work, the main emphasis is on detection, especially his extravagant version of police work. There is an important element of complex plotting, as well, with many surprising twists and turns - Anderson is always trying to sneak up on the reader out of left field - so his fiction will probably interest readers who are interested in plot technique.

Writers Anderson Possibly Influenced

The articles on Erle Stanley Gardner, William MacHarg, Helen Reilly, Cornell Woolrich, suggest ways in which Anderson might have influenced their fiction. Like Anderson these are talented writers whose work is not always compliant with what we often think of as the norms of standard Golden Age mystery fiction.

Politics and People

Anderson's favorite people are clearly young men who are working for a living. Whether detectives or technologists or farmers, they are always presented with a great deal of glamour. Andersen also went out of his way to indicate sympathy with immigrants, Jews and Black people. By contrast, he was clearly very troubled by rich people who didn't work, at least not honestly, and these tend to be the villains in his tales.

"Beyond All Conjecture" and "The Man from the Death House" derive sly humor, from encounters between villains from ethnic elite backgrounds, and Jews who innocently bring these villains low. The contrast between such ethnic elites, who had a near monopoly on power in that era, and largely powerless Jews is striking.

A perhaps related comic touch: Unlikable, dishonest men show unexpected fear and dislike of cats in "Madame the Cat" and "The Magician". It gives a counterpoint to their otherwise tough guy personas. It is also funny. Plus there is something reassuring about tough guy villains being shown up by something apparently powerless and innocent, like a cat.

Old New York. "The Fifth Tube", "Counterpoint", "The Peppercorn Entail", "Beyond All Conjecture", "The Japanese Parasol" and "The Man from the Death House" evoke the life-styles of Old New York, and their precarious survival into modern times. They especially look at the old rich, and the mansions that preserve the ancient life-styles. Anderson's descriptions are charming. While Anderson views such relics from the past with nostalgia, the end of "Beyond All Conjecture" suggests there was a dark side to the behavior of such rich elites, and their treatment of ordinary people.

Restaurants. Intertwined with Anderson's look at Old New York, is his love of restaurants. These are often depicted in evocative detail. And sometimes with an emphasis on old traditions. See "An All-Star Cast", "The House of Many Mansions", "Gulf Stream Green", "Madame the Cat", "The Pandora Complex", "The Phantom Guest".

Horses vs Cars. The opening of "The Pandora Complex" (1932) tells how the police treatment of cars in a storm, differed from their treatment of a horse-centered city in the 19th Century.

In "The Dancing Man" (1932) a millionaire deliberately has bad roads on his vast country estate, so that it can only be navigated by horses, and is impenetrable to cars.

"The Siamese Twin" (1919) shows encounters between a horse-drawn vehicle and cars, on Manhattan streets.

The late story "The Man from the Death House" notices that just a few horses are left on Manhattan streets, having been replaced by cars.

Prohibition. Prohibition (1920-1933) was an era in US history when alcohol was banned, leading to the rise of mobsters who made or smuggled liquor. Prohibition plays a key role in "The Magician", "Madame the Cat" and "The Pandora Complex", and adds color in passing to "Gulf Stream Green". In "Gulf Stream Green" and "Madame the Cat", restaurant waiters seem especially sensitive to its effects. There is often an element of high comedy in Anderson's treatment. Jokes about Prohibition open "The Door Key".

Prohibition helps enable mystery-story plots:

The later 1920's saw the rise of gangster stories about organized crime during prohibition. The gangster stage-play Broadway (1926), by Philip Dunning and George Abbott is a landmark in such writing. Anderson was part of this trend. Anderson's "The Magician" (1925) is even earlier than Broadway.

Parallels and Comparisons

Four films have been adapted from Anderson stories.

The cast of the TV series White Collar would make excellent actors for versions of Anderson. One sees Tim DeKay as Deputy Parr, Matt Bomer as Morel and Willie Garson as Pelts. White Collar has the sophistication and wit of Anderson's tales.

Anderson's stories remind one of his contemporary, the film director Ernst Lubitsch.

My sister Alexis Quinn says that Anderson reminds her of Frank Sullivan, the sophisticated humorist and member of the Algonquin Round Table. She finds Anderson especially close to such comedy gems as "Captain's Dinner" (1936) and "Les Amis D'Automat" (1937), found in Sullivan's collection of comic sketches A Pearl in Every Oyster (1938). Both Anderson and Sullivan started out as New York City reporters, before writing their more personal works.

A Gay Subtext?

Some Anderson tales can be interpreted as having a possible gay subtext.

Male Friendship. Personal to Anderson, perhaps, are the tales of developing friendship between men. These include "The Peppercorn Entail" and "The Magician". These can be read as love stories between men.

Related: the quest of the lonely hero of "An All-Star Cast" to find a male friend. And the friendship between series protagonist Oliver Armiston and businessman Reginald Baker in "The Footstep".

The Assistants. Policeman Pelts' devotion to his boss Deputy Parr in "Gulf Stream Green", might be seen as having a gay subtext.

Parr's other chief assistant Morel, is described as "a sort of Ganymede to" Parr's "immediate thoughts" in "Murder in Triplicate". The Zeus-Ganymede relationship is an archetypal gay one in Greek Mythology.

Well-dressed Men. Very well-dressed, good-looking men run through Anderson's tales: Marvin Scott in the finale of "Counterpoint" (who prompts a "queer smile" from Godahl), Angus Stewart in "The Peppercorn Entail", young lawyer Carman in "The Siamese Twin", Sangree in "Hangman's Truce", Morel in many stories. They can be seen as figures of gay romance.

The "happy-days man" in "The Peppercorn Entail", seen just briefly in a pair of sentences (Part III), is an intriguing addition to this list. One would like to learn more.

Only rarely in Anderson do good-looking young men turn out to be villains. Wickert in "Murder in Triplicate" is a late example. Aleck in "Thumbs Down" is said to be "glamorous to both men and women".

Anderson's stories, which largely appeared in the 1910's and 1920's, are contemporary with silent film, which also extensively featured very well-dressed men.

Dominance. Such early and none-too-good tales as "Blind Man's Buff" and "Counterpoint", both in the collection Adventures of the Infallible Godahl, can be read as having dominance-and-submission elements. However, this might simply reflect the Rogue fiction tradition in which they take part. Rogues are always dominating and humiliating other men, especially the wealthy and authority figures like policemen. Godahl does this too. And also in the finale of "The Fifth Tube". It is unclear whether these are simply power fantasies, or whether such works have a gay subtext.

The good-looking young lawyer Carman in "The Siamese Twin" (1919) eventually becomes quite dominant. See his treatment of the fixer Whitney.

There are also scenes of the police dominating people. In "Hangman's Truce" Deputy Parr briefly disciplines Pelts (end of section 1). The finale of "Hangman's Truce" has a large group of police putting a captured gang through a difficult scene.


Periods of Anderson's Works

The writings of Frederick Irving Anderson (1877-1947) fall into several periods: Frederick Irving Anderson was startlingly successful in his writing career. However, he does not seem to have had "connections". Benjamin F. Fisher in The Purple Flame says Anderson's father was a tailor, and Anderson was born in East Aurora, Illinois, near Chicago. I can't find any record that Anderson went to college - but who knows?

Yet by age 21 Anderson was apparently working for one of America's top newspapers, the New York World, run by the still legendary Joseph Pulitzer. Most journalists, even successful ones, spend their entire careers without a job on a paper as powerful as the New York World.

And three years after Anderson started publishing short stories in 1910, he cracked America's top magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1913. He published in the Post for the next twenty years, till 1933. Once again, most fiction writers spent their entire lives without selling to the Post.

Anderson ultimately had to please just one man at the Post, George Horace Lorimer, who was editor of The Saturday Evening Post from 1899-1936. Lorimer was famous for "promoting or discovering a large number of American authors" (Wikipedia).

Both Pulitzer and Lorimer were aggressive in going after talent they wanted to employ. Both men were "builders", who developed legendary periodicals. Maybe both just really, really liked Anderson's work, and wanted it in their publications.

However, Anderson published fiction in a wide variety of magazines other than the Post. He was not just a one-editor writer.

We know very little about Anderson's life. He functioned in a Thomas Pynchon-like obscurity. There is just one photograph of him, and one small interview-of-sorts (with Charles Honce). Both can be found in The Purple Flame, along with other information dug out by Benjamin F. Fisher.


The Unknown Man

Ellery Queen reprinted Anderson's first mystery tale in EQMM. "The Unknown Man" (1911) is an inverted detective story, focusing on a medical murder committed by a surgeon. The killer is tracked down not by the police, as in Anderson's later stories, but by the Press. The depiction of the Press' complex machinery of crime reporting and detection is presented with some satirical paradoxes. It forms a small, rough sketch of the immense police detective apparatus of Anderson's later fiction.

The story is clearly in the Arthur B. Reeve tradition of scientific crime popular in its era.

It also mentions Gaboriau. Gaboriau's police detectives often used disguises and multiple identities; this would clearly appeal to Anderson, whose police heroes do much undercover work.

Inverted. It is unusual to see an inverted detective story at such an early date. Most histories of detective fiction state that the inverted form was created by R. Austin Freeman, with "The Case of Oscar Brodski" (published in magazines in 1910). This short story was first reprinted in book form along with Freeman's subsequent inverted stories in 1912, in The Singing Bone.

But Anderson's tale looks fairly close to the inverted form. The story is seen from the point of view of the killer, a surgeon, and we watch along with him as the Press gradually closes in. Unlike Freeman, we do not actually see the crime being committed in the first half; and unlike Freeman, the point of view does not actually shift to the detectives in the second half. But we certainly do see the reporter detective's evidence collected against the killer in the final sections of the story. The story is less "fair play" than Freeman's work; the reader does not see all the evidence in advance, but must simply sit back and watch as the reporter cracks the case.

I have no idea if Anderson hit on the inverted format independently of Freeman; or if he read Freeman's work in magazines in 1910; or if there are other early prototypical inverted stories that influenced both writers.


The Angle of Refraction

"The Angle of Refraction" (1915) is a mainstream short story about the Theater. It is not as good as Anderson's crime fiction. Anderson tries hard. The piece is written in his lavish style. The tale gets better as it goes along. As an "inside look" at the Theater, it might have been more informative to readers in 1915, than it is today after countless such inside looks have been created.

The tale is explicitly set on Broadway. It looks at two artistically ambitious productions, with completely different aesthetics:

The opening sections of "The Angle of Refraction" include ideas about aesthetics. Earlier, Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray mixed aesthetic reflections with fiction. Anderson could have used this as a model.

Everyone in "The Angle of Refraction", playwrights, directors and actors, is already within the charmed circle of "people employed on Broadway". They are not beginners trying to break into the Broadway theater. By contrast "Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" (1929) will give an acid look at young people trying to crack the worlds of New York City classical music and writing.

Anderson liked to look at the financial underpinnings of the arts. "The Angle of Refraction" includes material on storing and selling props and sets for a play, after it finishes its run. This is not the main focus of the tale, however. A sentence in "Thumbs Down" (1930) (start of Chapter 2) returns to the idea of storage after a finished play.

"The Angle of Refraction" is mainly enthused about the accomplishments of Broadway theater in its era. By contrast, modern histories of 1910's American drama tend to concentrate on outsider challenges to Broadway, occurring in Greenwich Village, with such writers as Eugene O'Neill and Susan Glaspell. Such histories tend to ignore what was actually happening on Broadway in the 1910's, other than implying it is too mediocre to discuss.

The Finale. SPOILERS. "The Angle of Refraction" develops feminist ideas in its finale. This is admirable. It defends the heroine's pursuits of a job and career, over her husband's strong objections. Anderson's other tales include admirable working women, such as dressmaker Estrelle and opera singer Locadie. There is no sign of an organized feminist movement in "The Angle of Refraction"; instead the heroine has to come to an endorsement of her choice to have a career, after long private reflection.

Mainstream Fiction. "The Angle of Refraction" should be classified as mainstream fiction, NOT as detective fiction. It has no crime elements. And it lacks the structural aspects of detective fiction: there are no mysteries, no detective figures solving mysteries, no hidden schemes to be revealed.

Title. Anderson uses a scientific concept for his title. My impression: this is rare in mainstream fiction. It makes for a good title.


The Peppercorn Entail

Detection. "The Peppercorn Entail" (1916) is a non-series short story. It starts out as an amusing tale of business, but eventually develops some features of crime and detection. It is not however a standard tale of "mystery investigated by a detective".

The detective features and clues at the end involve the use of technology. So "The Peppercorn Entail" can be considered as a work of Scientific Detection, like many other Anderson tales.

The millionaire has a limitless number of agents and guards to do his bidding. This recalls other Anderson stories, in which the police have similarly unlimited resources and manpower to carry out their detective schemes.

Health Food. The millionaire's interest in eating "health food", recalls the earlier sleuth Thorpe Hazell of Victor L. Whitechurch. The "predigested" aspect of the biscuits recalls a bit the high-tech food in the futuristic science fiction novel Ralph 124C41+ (1911) by Hugo Gernsback.

Setting. "The Peppercorn Entail" develops some nice architectural features. Parts somewhat recall buildings in "An All-Star Cast".

A corner was sliced off the mansion, when building the grid of Manhattan streets made this a necessity. This is an interesting geometrical image: the regular, strict grid being superimposed on the irregularly laid-out mansion. The street grid is perhaps an instance of Modernity, replacing Old New York like the mansion. Grids were used by the Modern Artist Piet Mondrian. Perhaps Anderson is associating grids with Modernity.

"The Peppercorn Entail", like some later Deputy Parr tales by Anderson, has an Old New York subject matter. It anticipates Avram Davidson's short story "The Lord of Central Park" (1970). Both deal with now forgotten, underground creeks leading into Manhattan, used by various knaves. Both tales feature contemporary men who explore architecture built or used by their distant ancestors, linked to such creeks.

"The Lord of Central Park" features actual journeys on such a creek, while "The Peppercorn Entail" does not. I also thought that the architecture around the creek, and position of the creek, were clearer in "The Lord of Central Park" than in "The Peppercorn Entail". Neither of these "problems" prevents "The Peppercorn Entail" from being an exceptionably charming work.

Setting and Sociology. John T. McIntyre's Ashton-Kirk: Investigator (1910) has an upper crust mansion as a lone survivor in a neighborhood now full of tenements of East European immigrants. Similarly, in "The Peppercorn Entail" the millionaire's business office and mansion are antique survivals in a neighborhood now part of the Garment District (the Manhattan neighborhood where clothing was manufactured).

While Anderson makes much of the contrast, he does not criticize the poor garment workers.

In the 1910's such garment workers were often Jewish, although "The Peppercorn Entail" describes them as speaking "many tongues". Other Anderson works like "Beyond All Conjecture" and "The Man from the Death House" contrasted ethnic elites with sympathetic Jews.

Links to later Anderson tales. The key anticipates the title object in "The Door Key", although it plays a different role in the plot. Both keys are produced at dramatic moments, and laid by one man in front of another man, in hopes of gaining a dramatic effect. In both tales, the man producing the key wants to intimidate the other man.

The two main characters anticipate those in "The Magician":

However, the two men in "The Peppercorn Entail" wind up in much deeper conflict, while the two in "The Magician" reach a near-instant friendship.

The Siamese Twin

"The Siamese Twin" (1919) is a non-series tale.

A Mystery?. It is not quite a crime story: hardly anything in it is actually criminal, although some actions towards the end of the story are near the borderline of crime.

However, much of the story has the structure of a mystery tale:

Two different "hidden schemes" play a role in the plot. These are not criminal schemes, or at least not primarily criminal. But they play a similar structural role as criminal hidden schemes often do in detective tales.

Because of all these factors, "The Siamese Twin" should be considered as a work of mystery fiction. It is NOT a mainstream tale, even though its events mainly lack actual crime.

Non-Series. SPOILERS. One pleasant consequence of this being a non-series tale: the reader has never seen the man in the store before, or lawyer Carman. So the reader has no idea how "good" these characters are at their roles, of mystery man and detective. This adds to the suspense of the storytelling. And the plot's ability to surprise us.

Inspection. Carman's impersonating a building inspector, anticipates more elaborate actions by Parr's policemen at the start of "The Signed Masterpiece" (1921).

Comedy. "The Siamese Twin" falls into the category of an "amusing comic anecdote". It can recall the comic tales of O. Henry.

An Anderson Plot. "The Siamese Twin" centers around a plot that Anderson used in "The Peppercorn Entail" and "The Magician". In this plot, a clever outsider tries to penetrate a wealthy man's establishment. In "The Siamese Twin", outsider Carman attempts to penetrate a wealthy man's home.

Title. The title "The Siamese Twin" is purely a metaphor. There are no actual Siamese twins in the tale.


The Night of a Thousand Thieves

"The Night of a Thousand Thieves" (1913) is an early tale describing a Big Robbery: a raid on a guarded vault done on a huge scale. It doesn't have a story, in the sense of following a group of characters through a plot. Instead, it shows various vignettes involving the robbery and police response.

Modernity and High Tech. The tale evokes what academics call "modernity": it gives a vivid picture of high technology and advanced social organization in the 1910's. It shows the latest, most formidable aspects of life in New York City, perhaps the world's most advanced city in that era. The look at high technology relates "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" to Scientific Detection.

"The Night of a Thousand Thieves" is a look at a neighborhood that was the center of both business and communications in the United States:

While the science fiction novel Ralph 124C41+ (1911) by Hugo Gernsback shows the infrastructure of a future Manhattan, "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" shows that of contemporary Manhattan.

Links to later Anderson tales. The contrast between the complete emptiness of the Financial District after dark, and its bustle during the day, will recur with the Meatpacking District in "An All-Star Cast".

The lonely policeman on his nocturnal beat is unexpectedly confronted by a pair of sinister strangers in a car. This is echoed in the opening of "The Phantom Guest", whose lonely nighttime hotel clerk is confronted by the unexpected arrival by car of two menacing guests.

The strangers are nearly entirely concealed within a greatcoat, car rugs and motor goggles, not to mention a huge mustache. Enveloping clothes are worn by the Senator in "Madame the Cat".


The Fifth Tube

Robberies. "The Fifth Tube" (1913), like "The Night of a Thousand Thieves", is also about a robbery in the Financial District, in a high tech environment. But in "The Fifth Tube" much of the emphasis is on the puzzle of how the mysterious theft was committed - it's an impossible crime. In addition to subject matter, "The Fifth Tube" shares architectural and cityscape imagery with "The Night of a Thousand Thieves". The two tales form a pair. Both robberies are essentially nonviolent, making them a bit more sympathetic. They are extravagant, and a bit fantastic: neither tale is designed to be completely realistic.

Science and Technology. The setting of the robbery, the Assay Office, uses electrolytic chemistry. In the later "The Phantom Alibi" (1920) we learn that this was what Oliver Armiston studied in college, and still pursues as a hobby.

However, the actual robbery does not use electrolysis. SPOILERS. Instead, the robbery is based on fluid dynamics. This anticipates all the river settings in later Anderson tales.

The street-cleaner shoveling mud, known as a "mud rat", anticipates the steam dredge scooping up mud at low tide in "The Recoil".

In "The Pandora Complex" we learn that 19th Century New York police brought out sand boxes to the streets during snow storms to help fallen horses. This too is a little-known fact about NYC street maintenance. And one involving odd substances: mud in "The Fifth Tube", sand in "The Pandora Complex".

Society. The crowds outside the building watching gold being delivered, anticipate the crowds gathered outside buildings hoping to see celebrities in later Anderson tales.

Old New York. The description of the old Assay Office recalls the Old New York atmosphere in other Anderson stories. Many of these works emphasize the isolated survival of ancient structures in modern neighborhoods. The Assay Office is atypical for Anderson survivals in being a public building rather than a private mansion.


An All-Star Cast

"An All-Star Cast" (1914) is somehow not as charming as Anderson's best work. The crime scheme in the tale's second half is fairly routine. The first and more creative half suffers from a nightmarish quality. Still, this first part has some interesting ideas: Threats to a person's safety deposit box will return in Anderson's "The Recoil" (1929). "The Recoil" is also a tale that looks disturbingly at middle class life.

The Signed Masterpiece

"The Signed Masterpiece" (1921) is the first short story in The Notorious Sophie Lang (collected in book form in 1925; in magazines 1921 - 1924). This collection apparently never published in America, only Britain. It was made into a series of three films in the 1930's, starring Gertrude Michael, who was dating hard-boiled writer Paul Cain at the time.

Much of "The Signed Masterpiece" deals not with Sophie herself, but with Anderson's ongoing series sleuth, the policeman Deputy Parr. Parr will return, without Sophie, in Anderson's next collection, Book of Murder (1930), and will be the star figure in many of those stories. "The Signed Masterpiece" is clearly designed to introduce Parr to Anderson's readers. Its first half gives an enormously in-depth look at Parr's flamboyant police methods, showing his huge network of undercover operatives spread out over New York City. However, neither of Parr's skilled assistants, Morel or Pelts, makes an appearance in this story. In fact, the tale instead satirically stresses the uniformity and interchangeability of Parr's young police assistants. These early sections dealing with the police are great fun. The second half of the story, dealing with Sophie's criminal schemes, is a distinct let down.

"The Signed Masterpiece" shows the same interest in social class as other Rogue stories. Sophie appears in the tale impersonating a sophisticated upper class widow, whereas Parr's police all are undercover in lower class roles: stable keepers, garage mechanics, building inspectors, and the like. This allows Sophie to manipulate them, using upper class privilege. The real life police in these roles seem to be unsophisticated men of lower class origins themselves. Later, in Book of Murder, when Parr becomes the genuine detective hero of the stories, and not merely the foil to Sophie, this will all be changed. Parr and his men will become just at home undercover in upper crust situations as any other, and will no longer display working class mannerisms.

The numerous police going undercover in "The Signed Masterpiece" in various roles have a predecessor in the first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891). Holmes employs a similar huge number of disguised operatives for his schemes there. "A Scandal in Bohemia" also resembles the Sophie Lang tales, in that it is about a male detective with numerous allies trying to catch a clever female crook, who plays a much more isolated hand. Sophie Lang's resourcefulness and cleverness recall Irene Adler in Conan Doyle's story.

Some undercover police have roles linked to perennial Anderson subjects. SPOILERS:

Imagination and Reality

"The Signed Masterpiece" also hooks up Parr with Oliver Armiston, the "extinct author". In an earlier story, "The Infallible Godahl" (1913), a crook used one of Armiston's mystery stories as the blueprint for a real life crime. In "The Signed Masterpiece", we see the sequel to this event: appalled by this, Armiston has stopped publishing his stories. Now, he writes only for the police: when Parr is stuck on an unsolved mystery, Armiston whips up a crime story based on the real life situation, one whose solution often turns out to be the actual solution of the real life mystery. This sort of complex interplay between fiction and reality is one of the hallmarks of Anderson's work.

The inverted detective story construction of "The Unknown Man" can perhaps be linked to the "imagination becomes reality" theme in Anderson's fiction. At the start of the story the surgeon anticipates that his crime might be discovered and traced to him by the Press; the rest of the tale consists of watching such a process unfold.

This interest in imagination becoming reality persists through Anderson's late work. In Anderson's final story, "The Man from the Death House", a premeditated crime is brought to life.

Virtual Persons

Much of Frederick Irving Anderson's fiction turns on virtual persons. When Armiston creates a fictional master thief in "The Infallible Godahl" (1913), a real life crook brings him to life.

In Anderson's "The Signed Masterpiece" (1921), Sophie Lang starts out purely as a hypothetical construct of the police: whenever Parr and his associates find traces of a perfect, unsolvable crime, they ascribe it to a master criminal they call "Sophie Lang". "Sophie" is nothing more than a police fiction, a dumping ground for perfect crimes. Eventually, the reader learns that the police, perhaps fortuitously, have been correct: most of these crimes are in fact the work of a single brilliant woman. The story continues to call her "Sophie Lang", but that is not actually a name she has ever used. The whole process is one of watching a mental construct come to life, and assume a flesh and blood identity.

Another virtual person plays a role in "The Phantom Guest" (1942).

Works by other writers:

Frederick Irving Anderson refers briefly to Anatole France in "The Man Who Couldn't Go Home" (1914). But not in the context of visual persons.

The Whispering Gallery

"The Whispering Gallery" (1922) is the second short story in The Notorious Sophie Lang. It is a labored and uninspired tale.

World Building. "The Whispering Gallery" brings back prestigious jeweler Ludwig Telfen, who earlier appeared in "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" in Adventures of the Infallible Godahl. Events from this earlier story are recapitulated in "The Whispering Gallery".

Telfen will be mentioned briefly, but not appear "on stage", in "Impromptu Con Brio" (1925).

The same type of special Dolgoda pearls appear in all three of "The Night of a Thousand Thieves", "The Whispering Gallery" and "Impromptu Con Brio", always linked to Telfen. As best as I can tell, "Dolgoda pearls" are something Anderson made up for his fiction. "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" and "The Whispering Gallery" refer to "the Dolgoda pearl", as if it were something unique. But in "Impromptu Con Brio" a woman has a necklace of "Dolgoda pearls".

Assistants. Men have similar assistants in the two tales:

Both men are resourceful, hard working, and keep their heads in movements of crisis. Both are likable.

Geometry. The whispering gallery is a moderately interesting piece of architecture (Chapter 1). It has purely geometric, mathematical aspects. However, it turns out to have not much to do with the actual plot of the story.

The gallery is in the shape of a parabola. This anticipates the "great circle" airplane routes of "The Two Martimos". Both circles and parabolas fall into the mathematical category of conic sections.

Sculptor. The sculptor (Chapter 1) anticipates the two sculptors in "The Pandora Complex". He is male, while the sculptors in "The Pandora Complex" are female.


The Jorgensen Plates

Anderson also has links to the Rogue school. Some of his early fiction deals with clever thieves. However, Anderson's fiction does not have the light, romp-like tone and anti-authoritarian zest of regular rogue fiction. His work is largely sui generis, and he should be viewed as a unique, very individual author.

"The Jorgensen Plates" (1922) is from Anderson's hard to find collection, The Notorious Sophie Lang. Lang is a clever lady jewel thief, and her exploits certainly have elements of the Rogue tradition. More important, however, is the ambiguity of Anderson's plot presentation: one cannot tell till the end of the tale, exactly what any of the characters are up to, although there are clues along the way. This gives the tale aspects of the mystery or riddle story. The story has a musical quality, a harmonious progression of plot ideas, that is quite pleasing. There is also a sustained note of satire and irony.

Anderson scaldingly satirizes Britishers that are condescending to Americans. This is a sore point with US writers - see also Ellery Queen's "The Dead Cat" (1946).

"The Jorgensen Plates" was written just before the first tales in Book of Murder, but is less ambitious than most of those stories, which benefit from even more complex plots and more sympathetic characters than the scoundrels and monstrous aristocrats of the Lang tale.


Book of Murder

It is unfortunate that so much of Anderson's work is uncollected. Anderson seemed to get better, not worse, as a writer as the years went by. In 1951 Ellery Queen thought that his best story collection was his third, Book of Murder (1930), which collects some tales published in magazines during 1923-1929.

The descriptions of Anderson's books in standard reference works does not at all gibe with the actual texts. In "The Infallible Godahl", Godahl is not a character in the tale. The work focuses on Oliver Armiston, an author who writes a series of stories about a thief called Godahl. But reference books seem to imply that Godahl is an actual character in the tale. (By the way, I do not like this early tale at all.)

Similarly, many reference works describe Book of Murder (there is no "The" in its title) as being about Deputy Parr and his writer friend Oliver Armiston. Actually six of the ten tales focus on Parr and Armiston. Three others center on the New England backwoods characters of farmer Jason Selfridge and constable Orlo Sage.

The Door Key

In the tenth and last story of Book of Murder, "The Door Key" (1929), both Parr and Selfridge join forces in a single story, by way of a finale to the collection. The date indicates that Anderson did indeed write this story last, or nearly last, as a way of tying together his two series of detectives. Ellery Queen was clearly aware of the collection's pattern; he described Book of Murder as being "principally" about Parr in Queen's Quorum; but many subsequent writers are not. One suspects that they have not actually read Anderson's book.

In "The Door Key", the collaboration between the two sets of detectives is clearly the central interest of the tale. Elegantly symmetric, the first two thirds takes place in the country world; the last third in the city. In the first third, the amateurs Selfridge and Armiston predominate, investigating what is apparently eccentric behavior; in the middle third, the professionals Sage and Parr look at what is now clearly a crime. Parr begins to take over the investigation roughly half way through the middle section, which is also the halfway point of the entire story, marking the beginning of the transition from "country" to "city" in focus. The emphasis on tracking by the country detectives is balanced by the fingerprints and Bertillon measurements of the city ones. The villain also shares a duality of interest between city and country - but I don't want to give away too much of the plot. The topic of antiques in the opening section deals with the economic and cultural relations between country and city, and adds to the thematic interest. Even the fishing trip of the detectives up north in New England in the first half of the story, is balanced by the Southern journeys of the rich and the crooks who prey on them in the later sections.

The story has much more impact when read as the finale of the collection, watching well understood detectives at work, than it does as a stand alone piece in anthologies. Anderson later choose this piece as his favorite for a Howard Haycraft anthology; I am not sure I would fully agree, but it is a well done "group portrait" of his detective world, with beautiful formal patterns. It reminds one of the promotional art Elzie Segar once did, just a few years later, for his comic strip Thimble Theater, where he assembled the entire cast of his strip for several years, on stage to take a bow.

Time Patterns. "The Magician" starts at night, moves through the dawn and morning activities of Jason Selfridge's farm. "The Door Key" shows the opposite temporal pattern, probably deliberately. It starts in late day, shows the evening routine of the Selfridge farm, and moves on into night. Both stories show Anderson's ongoing interest in contrasting daytime and nighttime views of places.

Links to other Anderson tales. SPOILERS. In both "The Wedding Gift" and "The Door Key", the crimes are linked to a possible "faked death by a crook who wants to disappear". An Anderson mystery about a bewildering disappearance of a person is "Vivace - Ma Non Troppo".

The somewhat sinister commercializing of antiques studied in "The Door Key", recalls the critical look at commercializing celebrity in "Gulf Stream Green". And the evocation of Old New England by the antiques, recalls Anderson's interest elsewhere in Old New York.

Orlo Sage is shown walking, at some time or other, most of the streets in his rural community. This is paralleled to Parr patrolling New York's streets. The description of Parr walking, invisibly accompanied by his men, recalls the opening of "The House of Many Mansions", where such a scene is shown in detail.

Streams and Rivers

In both "The Magician" and "The Door Key", the crime is associated with a rural stream or river. See also:

The New England Tales

Oddly enough, in their three country outings, Selfridge and Sage don't do a great deal of detecting. In "Dead End" (1923), the crime sort of unravels itself, although Selfridge and Sage do some detecting; in "The Magician" (1925), a stranger assumes the role of detective; and in "A Start in Life" (1926), there is no actual mystery, although there is a tale of murder and politics. Of the three, "The Magician" is the only "real mystery story", with a mysterious crime detected to a solution.

The first two pieces, "Dead End" and "The Magician", are especially rich in descriptions of New England country life. Anderson is particularly interested in water, and its exploitability to form electric power. He also likes building, stonework, and every sort of construction and civil engineering project. One can see that Anderson was a contemporary of the Tennessee Valley Authority. His description of farm life includes economic factors, treating farms as a business enterprise, rather than simply rural nostalgia. Anderson was the author of such non-fiction books as The Farmer of To-morrow (1913) and Electricity for the Farm: Light, Heat and Power by Inexpensive Methods from the Water Wheel or Farm Engine (1915). Both of these books are available for reading on the Internet. (In the silent film Poor Mrs. Jones! (Raymond Evans, 1926) one can see the farm wife heroine repairing the generators she uses to make electricity. The DVD notes point out that by 1926, only 10% of US farms had electricity, often self-generated.)

Location. Anderson is coy about where exactly these New England tales in Book of Murder are set. Howard Haycraft in Murder for Pleasure says Anderson's New England stories are inspired by the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. Some towns in the tales seem to be modified versions of real places in the Berkshires:

A place mentioned in "A Start in Life" is Naugatuck in Connecticut. Also mentioned: the Housatonic Railroad, which in this era seems to have run from the Massachusetts Berkshires through Connecticut.

The Golden Fleece

Earlier, Jason Selfridge was the central character in "The Golden Fleece" (1918), a tale not in Book of Murder. "The Golden Fleece" has some not-bad ideas in its second half. These include technical ideas about automobiles. In his Introduction to The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories, Benjamin F. Fisher cites a nonfiction letter Anderson wrote, "The Automobilist's Dream" (Scientific American January 13, 1917). That letter endorsed electric cars: in fact, cars which run on what we now call radiation. Both the letter and "The Golden Fleece" propose a radical rethinking of cars, although in different ways.

Also good: a nice plot twist at the end. SPOILERS. This twist depends on some carefully constructed earlier episodes, which are filled with ambiguity.

"The Golden Fleece" has an example at an early date, of the tricky deep chairs reserved for an executive's visitors.

On the poor side: Selfridge's character is inconsistent in "The Golden Fleece". He is shown having technical and business experience in the second half, but comes across as a cliched naive country bumpkin in the first half.

The tale has political problems. An account of a big-time engineer and his private armies verges on colonialism. And separately, there is a painfully dated racist term in "The Golden Fleece", although there are no minority characters.

Film Version. "The Golden Fleece" was turned into a silent film, also called The Golden Fleece (1918). It is very obscure, and I have never been able to see it. The film's Library of Congress entry says there are "No holdings located in archives": it's a lost film.

The characters' names in the film are mainly the same as in the short story. And the main plot (summarized in the AFI Catalog) sounds like a faithful version of the short story. However, a long final sequence has been added to the film's story, where the hero's girlfriend Rose comes to New York and gets involved with the hero. This final sequence in not in the short story. Posters (which survive) suggest that heroine Rose has a much bigger role in the film than in the short story.

A photo in the Wikipedia article on the movie, shows the hero sharing his park bench with a tramp. Photo. This is a faithful evocation of a scene in the short story. The short story says the hero is still respectably dressed at this point in his career. The photo shows the details of his good suit, in the film version. Film director Gilbert P. Hamilton liked to feature very well-dressed men in his films, often in ensembles full of dramatic poses:

Dead End

"Dead End" (1923) is the first tale about farmer Jason Selfridge and constable Orlo Sage in Book of Murder.

Jason Selfridge seems wiser than he did in his earlier appearance in "The Golden Fleece" (a tale not included in Book of Murder). Aside from stating that Selfridge has a college degree in technology, there is little reference to the events of "The Golden Fleece".

Both "The Golden Fleece" and "Dead End" begin with descriptions of traditional farm life. "The Golden Fleece" is more nostalgic; "Dead End" stresses more the rigors of farm life.

"Dead End" stresses the possibility of radical change coming to its region, through technology. This has an apocalyptic quality.

"Dead End" opens with a detailed account of the landscape in which the tale is mainly set. It is quite mountainous.

"Dead End" gets off to a good start, but it falls apart in the middle. The second half suffers from negative depictions of an ethnic group (Central Americans). Fortunately, most of the Anderson tales available today avoid racial stereotyping.

A Start in Life

"A Start in Life" (1926) is the third tale about farmer Jason Selfridge and constable Orlo Sage in Book of Murder.

Plot. SPOILERS in this section.

Orlo Sage does a nice piece of detective work, when his monitoring of the water system allows him to deduce Jake is in town.

"A Start in Life" looks at a mass impersonation done by someone other than the police, so it has a formal relation to the Parr tales.

The idea of famous folks from the big city hiding out in small country villages as ordinary townsmen, will return in "The Door Key". It gets a more criminous twist there, used by a crook.

Cognition. Sam's ability to perform what today we call "thought experiments" on hypotheses is interesting. Today, some experiment-like activities are conducted virtually by computer simulations.

Beyond All Conjecture

Inverted detection techniques sometimes appear in later Anderson tales, such as "Beyond All Conjecture" (1928). "Beyond All Conjecture" has an unusual structure: The whole structure involves an unusual inclusion of an "inverted" section, in an otherwise conventionally structured "police investigate a crime" tale. One might add that everything is well done: "Beyond All Conjecture" is one of Anderson's most perfectly executed mystery tales.

Big Time: Bad Relations

Relationships. Anderson clearly felt that there was something perverse about sexuality. In several of his tales, personal relations are milked for their maximum horror. "Big Time" (1927) is especially hair raising in this regard, although here, as elsewhere, Anderson never loses his tone of perversely elegant comedy. Other tales in this vein include "The Wedding Gift" (1929), which anticipates James M. Cain's Double Indemnity (1936), and "The Phantom Guest" (1942) (not included in Book of Murder). These tales also include finales where the police, represented by Deputy Parr and his assistants, elegantly torture suspects though staged scenes in order to get them to confess. These tales represent a personal vision of Anderson's, and are hardly devoid of artistic merit, with many felicitous touches in their storytelling and writing. All the same, I like them a lot less than Anderson's more high tech crime tales.

There are feminist perspectives in "Big Time" and its sequel "Gulf Stream Green". Both have odious, powerful men sexually harassing and mistreating vulnerable women. In "Big Time" this harasser is the murder victim, in "Gulf Stream Green" the killer. "A Start in Life" also contains a powerful man who exploits women. Anderson's loathing of all these men is obvious: he can make your flesh crawl reading about them.

Scientific Detection. "Big Time" includes Scientific Detection, both in the murder method, and the dust. The account of the dust is a surreal set-piece, juxtaposing many disparate sources (end of section 2). It anticipates the surreally joined lists of scientific imagery in The Atrocity Exhibition (1966-1968) by J.G. Ballard. As a surreal list, it also anticipates the list of crooks in Anderson's "The House of Many Mansions". See also the list of Eddie's businesses in the first section of "Hangman's Truce".

Locked Room. "Big Time" also incorporates a "locked room" mystery puzzle. It is unusual among impossible crimes, in that the solution seems witty and sophisticated. Anderson never loses his savor faire, even when venturing into the "locked room" tradition.

Society and Commerce. The middle sections of "Big Time" are especially well written, full of satirical but lyrical detail:

Other Anderson tales look at the hidden financial aspects of celebrity culture, or elite Society entertaining. "Big Time" takes a satirical look at the costs and management of classical singers' debut recitals. Then as now, breaking into the classical world world is an extraordinarily difficult task.

How the Count gets his furniture, anticipates the schemes surrounding antique furniture in "The Man from the Death House". The schemes in the two tales are different but related. Both schemes are linked to Anderson's satirical exposes of finance among the sophisticated.

Architecture. The houses and their gardens show the Golden Age interest in architecture and landscapes. The urban backyards forming a courtyard anticipate landscapes in Panic (1944) (Chapter 2) by Helen McCloy, "Rear Window" (1942) by Cornell Woolrich, and its film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The victim's apartment house has one of the "box stairways long since outlawed". This is an observant look at an architectural feature, one rarely described in mystery fiction. And an evocation of a favorite Anderson topic, Old New York.

Gulf Stream Green

"Gulf Stream Green" (1929) is a sequel of sorts to "Big Time": Cuyler Braxton, Estelle and classical music will all return in Anderson's "The Man from the Death House".

Science in "Gulf Stream Green" centers on physics. Please see this List of Mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics. One gets the impression that physics was part of the zeitgeist of the period, something intellectuals as a whole were interested in. Physics is also mentioned twice in "Big Time", although it is less central to that tale.

"Gulf Stream Green" is a how-done-it: a tale in which the detectives and reader are challenged to figure out the means used by the villain to commit the crime. These how-done-it aspects are far more important in "Gulf Stream Green" than the identity of the killer, which is revealed early on.

The opening of "Gulf Stream Green" deconstructs the financial aspects and commercial deals that underpin the cult of celebrity. In this it anticipates Very Caspary's novella "The Murder at the Stork Club" (1945). "Gulf Stream Green" seems to be one of the earlier mysteries to explore the dubious financial side of celebrity-worship.

A police procedural element: the discussions of how and when the New York City police use motorcycle squads.

Pelts' devotion to his boss Deputy Parr is compared to that of a dog. This recalls the actual dog-character, and his love for humans, in "The Magician". And the restaurant-dog briefly seen in "An All-Star Cast", and the dog in "The Half-Way House".

The Recoil

"The Recoil" (1929) is a bit unusual in Anderson's work. Parr and his police do little investigative work. Instead, the facts of the case are recounted to writer Oliver Armiston, and Armiston serves as an "armchair detective". In other words, Armiston solves the case through pure thinking, without much direct investigation.

Towards the end, Parr's man Morel gets involved. He too contributes an idea directly out of his head, without the police undercover or investigative work he typically does in other stories. Morel's idea is identifying the actual culprit.

The murder setting involves both landscape and architecture: two popular, interlocking interests of Golden Age mystery fiction. The landscape is quite interesting.

The most haunting part of "The Recoil" describes the victim, and his life routine. This builds up an image of the almost meaningless routine of much middle class life, and also the dangers of stepping outside it. Thematically, the tale recalls a bit the Flitcraft incident in The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett, although the concrete details are quite different. It also recalls the young bank employee in Anderson's own "An All-Star Cast", and his rigid, un-fulfilling middle class existence.

The murder setting involves both landscape and architecture: two popular, interlocking interests of Golden Age mystery fiction. The landscape is quite interesting. The landscape has an empty quality. Its dominance by advertising billboards also conveys the idea of a meaningless commercialism. It too seems a bit like a metaphor for the routine insignificance of some middle class life. So does the bland diner where the hero eats lunch.

We get to see a bit of Oliver Armiston's background: the private school he attended. It is clear that the school is a place for upper classes, especially Socially Proper people with money. Similarly, in "The House of Many Mansions" Armiston comes across a representative of old Society, who looks down on the questionable nouveau riche people who live in the apartment house of the title.

A different, unrelated case, the Thwing jewel robbery is discussed first, and forms a parallel case to "compare and contrast" with the main story in "The Recoil". This is an interesting technique. The name is perhaps in honor of anthologist Eugene Thwing, who was including one of Anderson's stories that same year in The World's Best One Hundred Detective Stories, Volume Three.

The Wedding Gift

"The Wedding Gift" (1929) does not succeed as a whole. Its first third is interesting; but the last two sections deal with an unpleasant cat-and-mouse game where the police wait out known murder suspects.

Ocean currents Ocean currents, and how the police use them to investigate drowning victims, appear in the first section. The tale appeared just a year after The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts. The treatment in "The Wedding Gift" is different from Crofts'. It is also much simpler, while still scientifically sound.

Anderson returns to currents and their effect on bodies in "Murder in Triplicate" (1946).

Philosophical Beginnings. The statistical look at life that opens "The Wedding Gift" is memorable. Among other things, it offers a sobering look at Class in American life.

It recalls the extended look at coincidence that opens "The House of Many Mansions". Both are story beginnings that explore a philosophical concept. Both concepts involve probability and how it interfaces with life events.

Deputy Parr also pays tribute to chance in "The Recoil".


The Purple Flame

"The Purple Flame" is the title story of the collection The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.)

Mystery Plot: Structure. "The Purple Flame" (1912) is another detective story starring series sleuth, reporter Mr. White. Like an earlier Mr. White tale "The Unknown Man" (1911), "The Purple Flame" is in large part an inverted detective story. That is, in the first part of the tale, we see Homer Jaffray commit the crime; at the end, we see Mr. White figure out the murder.

As in "The Unknown Man", the entire tale is from the Point-of-View of the killer.

In addition to the above "inverted" structure, "The Purple Flame" has an element of true mystery. While we see Jaffray commit the murder, we are not clear about how he did it. We learn how-he-did-it only at the tale's end, when Mr. White figures this out. So the "how-he-did-it" serves as a puzzling mystery, solved at the end by sleuth Mr. White.

Color: Scientific Detection. Anderson liked bright color imagery in his tales, including the title flame in "The Purple Flame". "Murder in Triplicate" has a victim with bright blue or purple spots on his hands. In both tales, such color elements are clues in the mystery plot. They are explained in terms of science, and thus form part of a Scientific Detection approach.

Links to "Gulf Stream Green". "Gulf Stream Green" is a later Anderson tale in which the title color plays a Scientific Detection role.

"Gulf Stream Green" also resembles "The Purple Flame" in being a tale in which the main mystery is how the crime was committed, how-done-it, rather than the identity of the killer, which is revealed early on.

SPOILERS. The solution of "The Purple Flame" depends on color not just in the flame, but in the match that creates the fire.

Suburbia. "The Purple Flame" is unusual in Anderson, in that it is mainly set in Suburbia. Most Anderson tale are set either in Manhattan, or deep in the most rural parts of the countryside, usually New England.

The suburb in "The Purple Flame" is an upscale development for the rich elite. We see its financial underpinnings: part of the tale transpires at the real estate office that manages the suburb. "The Purple Flame" makes the suburb look as unattractive. cold and unwelcoming as possible. It emphasizes that the suburb is a "restricted community". Today this suggests the community racially discriminates. However, I know too little about history to be sure what this term meant in 1912. Whatever the 1912 meaning, it is clear that Anderson was unsympathetic to it.

The Secretary. The businessman hero Homer Jaffray has a male secretary John, briefly seen at the start of the story. The secretary is "almost his second self". This anticipates the relationship between Deputy Parr and his assistant Morel.

The Phantom Alibi

"The Phantom Alibi" (1920) is a mystery in which writer Oliver Armiston serves as amateur detective. It's an inoffensive but minor and disappointing work.

"The Phantom Alibi" was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (July 2004). It is now collected in The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.)

Detective. "The Phantom Alibi" opens with a recap of "The Infallible Godahl" (1913). I'm guessing that this likely means that:

However, I've not found independent confirmation of the above guesses - and they could be wrong.

Armiston appears in "The Infallible Godahl", but he is NOT the detective in that tale. His role as detective in "The Phantom Alibi" is something new.

In "The Phantom Alibi", Armiston is a brilliant amateur sleuth; Deputy Commissioner Parr is the honest but unimaginative cop who needs the amateur's help. These roles have been seen in countless mystery tales. However, 1920 is a very early date for such a set-up. It is before the debuts of the famous amateur detectives of Dorothy L. Sayers in 1923, and S.S. Van Dine in 1926, for example.

We learn a bit about Armiston: he studied electrolytic chemistry at "the Polytechnic", and still keeps up with the subject as a hobby. This gives Armiston a scientific background, as well as a literary one. Both of Armiston's early cases "The Phantom Alibi" and "The Half-Way House" have him investigating scientific or technological-based crimes. This is part of a consistent interest in Scientific Detection in Anderson's tales.

Similarly, we will learn in "Dead End" (1923) that farmer & amateur detective Jason Selfridge has a college degree, and in "The Magician" (1925) Selfridge seems to be technically trained.

Anderson's concepts of Armiston as a detective are the most interesting aspects of "The Phantom Alibi". They are the main reason someone might want to read this otherwise minor tale.

In later tales, Deputy Parr is depicted as a much more imaginative sleuth. He will also become the central detective of many later stories, with Armiston accompanying him as a Watson-like friend.

Mystery Plot. The core idea of the mystery solution in "The Phantom Alibi" is a standard, much-used cliche. Readers will guess it right away. And they will think Parr and the police are remiss not to figure it out immediately, too.

At the tale's end, we learn Armiston's reasoning in finding the culprit. This reasoning unfortunately is based on clues not shared with the reader earlier. In other word, the story is not "fair play".

However, an idea in this reasoning, about the victim's signature, is not a bad one.

The Footstep

"The Footstep" (1925) is a tale about a mysterious jewel robbery.

Mystery Plot. The robbery involves a how-done-it mystery: the sleuths and reader have to figure out how the robbery was actually committed. Like many how-done-it tales, "The Footstep" approaches the impossible crime: it seems almost impossible for the theft to have occurred.

SPOILERS. The mystery involves a seemingly impossible disappearance of an object. A later, quite different how-done-it about a vanishing object is "Madame the Cat". See also the impossible crime of stealing the gold in "The Fifth Tube".

Architecture. The jewelry store shows the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture. There are also pleasant architectural aspects to the house with the safe.

Scientific Detection. A brief-but-good bit of Scientific Detection is performed at the end by Parr, when he tells Pelts to look for a certain tell-tale-sign of how the crime might have been committed.

Morel. The same finale commits a faux pas by stating that Morel's "speciality was women". This is not his role in most of his stories. And he does not psychologically manipulate women, or anybody else. Instead he spreads his charm and sophistication in all directions.

Businessman. Sympathetic businessman Reginald Baker is of a type that sometimes appears in American detective fiction of the era: the virile, dynamic, successful young businessman. See "The Diamond Master" (1909) by Jacques Futrelle.

Such Anderson businessmen as Homer Jaffray in "The Purple Flame" and Francklyn Aylesworth in "The Peppercorn Entail" are related to the above types, but more distantly. Anderson shows all these businessmen in their offices, rather than in their homes.

The House of Many Mansions

"The House of Many Mansions" (1928) is a richly inventive tale. It was reprinted in the anthology The World's Best One Hundred Detective Stories, Volume Three (1929), edited by Eugene Thwing. It is now collected in The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (available from its publisher Crippen & Landru.)

"The House of Many Mansions" concentrates on clever crooks in a comic, none-too-violent story. In this it recalls such early Anderson works as "The Night of a Thousand Thieves".

The crooks and their activities are under surveillance by Anderson's series detectives, Parr's men Morel and Pelts. The surveillance anticipates that in "Madame the Cat". Both stories have comic but suspenseful scenes in high class dining halls or restaurants. These scenes show acute police detectives trying to monitor equally wily crooks. Anderson had previously looked at more lower class restaurants in "An All-Star Cast".

Scientific Detection. Morel's skill with Bertillon identification techniques will return in "The Door Key".

"The House of Many Mansions" recalls "The Japanese Parasol" (1926). Both stories:

"The House of Many Mansions" is much better than "The Japanese Parasol", being more comic and rich in pleasing detail.

Links to Pulp Fiction. Although "The House of Many Mansions" was published in a slick magazine, it shares some features with contemporary fiction from pulp magazines:

Hangman's Truce

"Hangman's Truce" (1928) is an uneven story. Its first and third sections tell an interesting story about a former safecracker Eddie Reel who claims to have turned into an honest businessman. Is he telling the truth?

Unfortunately, the middle section digresses to offer a negative portrait of Roy, a man with trouble with his thymus gland. This is a bigoted portrait of a man with a disability. Similarly, "The Japanese Parasol" (1926) suffers from offensive comments about a mentally disabled man. These tales are blots on Anderson's record.

SPOILERS. The solution at the end looks at corruption masquerading as business. This is an example of the mass deceptions in Anderson. These can be practiced by crooks, as in this story, or by cops.

We learn a little about Deputy Parr's background in the first section of "Hangman's Truce". Looks back at detectives' lives are ubiquitous in current mystery fiction, but fairly rare in Golden Age writers.

Vivace - Ma Non Troppo

"Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" (1929) is a disappearance mystery. It is uneven. The disappearance tale is nicely done (set forth in Chapter 1, solved in Chapter 3). But the tale's social commentary seems off (mainly in Chapter 2).

Infrastructure. We learn that the heroine has disappeared, by seeing the impact of her vanishing on the infrastructure around her (Chapter 1). This is a clever idea, executed stylishly. It reflects Anderson's perennial interest in infrastructure.

Electric Power. A plus: the references to electrical power generation in Manhattan, and the requirement for back-up power in apartment buildings. I've never seen such things referred to in other writers' mystery fiction. Electric power generation in rural New England is a subject in some of Anderson's Jason Selfridge tales.

Society: An Unbelievable Depiction. The depiction of the classical music world is problematical.

"Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" suggests that most of the young people who don't "make it" in such fields as classical music, the theater or literature are without talent. By contrast, I think these fields waste huge quantities of talent, putting up artificial barriers that keep talented, hard-working aspirants from participating in them.

I found it hard to believe that young aspirants in 1929 lived in lavish, fancy apartment houses. In real life, young musicians and writers mainly lived in cheap rooming houses, according to everything I've read.

I also found it hard to believe that rich people in 1929 were spending large sums of scholarship money supporting talentless but genteel students in music.

Admittedly, Anderson was alive in 1929 New York, and I was not! So maybe he knew things I didn't.

"Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" builds upon subjects, such as classical debut recitals, discussed in an earlier and more plausible tale, "Big Time" (1927).

Mystery Plot. I guessed the solution of the mystery right away. BIG SPOILERS. The idea that an exotic European dancer touring New York might actually be a "nice" local woman pulling off a deception, was the premise of the film comedy Delicious Little Devil (Robert Z. Leonard, 1919). Delicious Little Devil doesn't use this idea as the premise of a mystery story, however. "Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" does use this idea to solve its mystery. This is clever and charming.

Biography. We learn an interesting fact about Oliver Armiston's writing, and its reception (Chapter 3). This sort of information about Anderson's detectives is rare.

The Title. "Vivace - Ma Non Troppo" means "Lively - but not too much" in Italian. In classical music, such Italian phrases give instructions to musicians, telling them how to play a piece of music. They regularly appear at the start of music scores.

Anderson earlier wrote a story titled "Impromptu Con Brio" (1925): also an Italian instruction to classical musicians. I think "Impromptu" means "Improvised" or "Make the piece sound improvised", "Con" means "with", "Brio" means "energy and flair".

Thumbs Down

"Thumbs Down" (1930) is a delightful tale. It shows Anderson's vigorous, detailed storytelling.

Architecture. "Thumbs Down" has a detailed architectural setting. This is different from most other architecture, both in 1930 and today.

The break-out spots are an inventive idea (last part of Chapter 1).

The closet door that opens inward, is related to the inward-opening door in "Blind Man's Buff". SPOILERS. The doors are manipulated the same way in both tales. So is the door at the end of "Impromptu Con Brio" (1925). In all three tales, this is related to escape. For the record, I like "Thumbs Down" much more than either "Blind Man's Buff" or "Impromptu Con Brio".

Infrastructure. Anderson likes basing plot ideas on infrastructure:

Modernism. The villain makes a philistinish comment, putting down avant-garde classical composer Igor Stravinsky. Does this imply that Anderson was pro-Stravinsky and pro-Modernist music?

The Two Martimos

"The Two Martimos" (1930) is an off-trail story in which the sleuths uncover a strange scheme. The scheme is so unexpected it approaches the surreal: something odd which erupts out of nowhere early in the tale. Other aspects of the story, especially the Sheriff's sons, are also full of the unexpected and surreal.

Similarities to the Selfridge and Sage tales. "The Two Martimos" recalls such Selfridge and Sage tales as "A Start in Life" and "The Door Key". BIG SPOILERS. All of these have outsiders from the big world hiding out in remote New England areas.

Just as Parr collaborates with local New England lawman Orlo Sage in "The Door Key", so does Parr collaborate with the local Sheriff in "The Two Martimos".

Selfridge is a technically skilled man working in a rural area. Seth is too, in "The Two Martimos". Anderson saw rural New England as a center of advanced technology. Today people often associate technology with urban areas, like Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Massachusetts. It would be good for people to think of technology as something relevant to rural areas too.

Landscape. The tale sets out in detail an elaborate landscape. Landscapes were an important part of much Golden Age mystery fiction.

The landscape is very hard for the heroes to enter, at the tale's start. It is a backwoods area that lacks easy access. In "The Dancing Man" we see a country estate whose millionaire owner has made deliberately hard to access.

Communications. Modern high tech communications are a subject running through Anderson's tales. "The Two Martimos" has one of the biggest, most imaginative and most detailed of all such portraits. This look at communications, and the delightful character Seth involved in them, forms the high point of the story.

The dialogue describing this achieves a prose-poem complexity.

Racial Slurs. Unfortunately, "The Two Martimos" is an otherwise good story marred by an ethnically stereotyped villain. It has a Cuban bad guy, recalling the stereotyped Central American crooks in "Dead End".

Making the crook Cuban plays no role in the plot: he could have been from any background, and the story would not be affected. It is just something done, apparently, to disrespect Cubans.

"The Man Who Couldn't Go Home" (1914) is a routine adventure tale set in the Caribbean. It too suffers from a negative approach to people in the area. The tale has some mild plot twists that recall "Blind Man's Buff" (1913).

"When No Man Pursueth" (1931) has brief but negative depictions of people in the Panama Canal Zone: also a Caribbean place.

The Pandora Complex

"The Pandora Complex" (1932) is a murder mystery.

Snow and Night. The story's best part is the opening section. This is an atmospheric account of Manhattan at night during a snow storm. It anticipates "The Phantom Guest", which opens on a snow storm at night in the countryside. Both tales have handfuls of hardy people, braving the night to find their way to mainly deserted businesses open despite the storm.

Anderson is also the author of "In the Snow" (1910), one of his earliest short stories.

"The Pandora Complex" gives a detailed meteorological account of the origin of the storm. This reminds us that Anderson wrote scientific and technological nonfiction, as well as mysteries.

Architecture. The opening includes a description of the architecture of an oyster bar. A later section extends our knowledge. This reflects the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture.

The vestibule recalls the vestibule in "Blind Man's Buff".

Restaurants. The oyster bar is another one of the restaurants vividly depicted in Anderson stories. It is very modest and working class, compared to some of the other dining establishments. Its food sounds appealing.

Metal Working. Two women characters are sculptors; one has made bronze doors. This metal-working recalls the gold-working in "The Fifth Tube" and "Murder in Triplicate".

Women Artists. The two women sculptors recall other sympathetic women in the arts in Anderson, such as dressmaker Estrelle and opera singer Locadie.

The Prolog. The first page of the story acts as a kind of Prolog. It briefly tells of a crime, completely different from the main crime of the story. The two crimes are unconnected. But they offer parallels. Both:

Mystery Plot. The plot is deliberately constructed on a series of coincidences. The detectives explicitly point out these coincidences, during the course of the tale. Unfortunately, in my judgment, a mystery plot built on coincidences has little value. I was annoyed when we reached the tale's end, and none of the coincidences had been "explained".

Despite this serious plotting problem, I really enjoyed "The Pandora Complex".

Unfinished Business

"Unfinished Business" (1933) was Anderson's last work for the The Saturday Evening Post. And it is the last tale published during the major period of his career (1910-1933). (One can speculate that some tales published much later were actually written at this time, around 1933: "The Phantom Guest", "The Man from the Death House". This is pure guesswork - and might not be true!)

The story opens in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, soon to be the setting of The Man in the Moonlight (1940) by Helen McCloy. Both Anderson and McCloy mention the German heritage of the neighborhood.

Enterprises and Infrastructure. Among the best parts of "Unfinished Business" is the subplot about the strange activities at the drug store. These include many descriptions of infrastructure. BIG SPOILERS:

Inherited Wealth. The condemning look at young wastrels who have inherited money, is consistent with Anderson's distaste for people who do not work. In "Unfinished Business" (middle part of Chapter 2) they are satirized with a whole series of clever phrases.

However, when we finally meet the spoiled young heir, he shows bravado and panache, thus building up a certain sympathy (first part of Chapter 3). His attitudes are also ingeniously paradoxical.

The Police Hoax. The police pull off an elaborate hoax, involving a sizable number of cops. Elaborate police activities are an Anderson tradition (first part of Chapter 2).

This hoax takes advantage of hierarchies: police with superior ranks, like a Sergeant and a Lieutenant, give orders to lower-down cops. This "chain of command" effect makes the hoax more effective, somehow. For other examples, please see my article on Superman.

The Sergeant and the Lieutenant further impersonate Authority Figures, by giving moral instruction.

At Early Candlelight

"At Early Candlelight" (1937) is a short story about Judge Alan Ebbs. Judge Ebbs was a short-lived series character. His stories are only around six pages long, much briefer than typical Anderson tales.

Anderson had been a successful magazine writer from 1910-1933. This abruptly stops early in 1933, when Anderson was 55. He will apparently only publish four more stories during the last fifteen years of his life, plus one posthumous one. (There could be others. Possibly he published something under a pseudonym, or in a magazine so obscure that records of it don't appear on the Internet.) Two of these four stories are the little Judge Ebbs tales. They appeared in the first two issues of the magazine American Cavalcade, which itself lasted for only seven issues in 1937. American Cavalcade was full of "name" authors, including Anderson himself.

Colonial costume. The wedding in Colonial costume is a neat idea. Both cops and crooks in Anderson like to dress up and take part in elaborate schemes. The wedding is a group of "civilians" who like to do the same thing, without any involvement in crime or law enforcement. The wedding also recalls the big shots who meet rustically in "A Start in Life".

Anderson liked to evoke the lifestyles of Old New York. "At Early Candlelight" evokes the Colonial period as a whole.

What Is the Goat's Name?

"What Is the Goat's Name?" (1937) is another short story about Judge Alan Ebbs.

The character who is a professional conjurer recalls "The Magician".

Anderson uses obscure, interesting bits of old rural commerce, to add color to his stories:

SPOILER. Another tidbit about publishing leads to a clever ending of the story.

Autobiography. A character has their alleged birthdate and place given: November 14, 1877, in Aurora, Illinois. In real-life, this was when and where Frederick Irving Anderson was born! Is this just an inside joke? Something of symbolic significance? (Anderson's birthdate is given at the IMDb.)

In the Anderson story "Hokum!" (1919), the hero, now long resident in New York City, uses his old Illinois accent when he wants to pose as an out-of-towner. This too recalls Anderson, as a man who moved from Illinois to New York.

Murder in Triplicate

"Murder in Triplicate" (1946) is one of Anderson's last stories. Pelts gets to perform the starring role: a nice outing for this excellent character. Pelts does good detective work.

"Murder in Triplicate" has one of Anderson's openings that discuss a theme. Such prologues explore a subject - before the story proper gets going. The subject discussed in "Murder in Triplicate" is more crime-oriented, and less philosophical, than those in the openings of "The House of Many Mansions" and "The Wedding Gift".

SPOILERS. Many early Anderson tales offer purely idealized view of the police, with Deputy Parr and his men depicted as honest and indefatigable. But some late stories offer negative portraits of some individual policemen, acknowledging there are problems in the police of that era:

Links to early Anderson tales. Running through "Murder in Triplicate" is a description of "the alley", a Manhattan block full of dubious lawyers and their associates. "Murder in Triplicate" thus resembles "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" (1913) in looking at downtown Manhattan districts and their businesses.

"Murder in Triplicate" notes that there are more telephones in the "alley" than in any other block in the city. Similarly "The Night of a Thousand Thieves" stressed the high tech communication system of alarms in the financial district.

SPOILERS. The motive behind the crime turns out to be stealing gold. This brings Anderson back full circle to his early tale about gold theft, "The Fifth Tube" (1913). Both tales involve technological means to steal the gold. Both are thus examples of Scientific Detection.

The Man from the Death House: The Last Published Story

Anderson continued to write tales about Parr and his coworkers right up to the time of his death in 1947.

Series Characters Return. His final published story, "The Man from the Death House", shows no diminution of his charm and sophistication, with Parr's man Morel conducting a polished investigation of a murder at an upper crust musical soiree. Morel is my favorite among Anderson's series characters; one suspects he was Anderson's favorite, too.

The tale is a sequel of sorts to "Big Time" and "Gulf Stream Green" (1929), in that key characters return from those tales. These include young, decent but over-dignified lawyer Cuyler Braxton and his girlfriend, famed dressmaker Estrelle. These are a nice young couple, idealized lovers. And also people who conspicuously work for a living, albeit in glamorous professions. Opera singer and diva Locadie from "Gulf Stream Green" is name-checked too.

A memorable moment has Morel talking to young policeman John Terry, from "Beyond All Conjecture" and "Madame the Cat". "The Man from the Death House" is like a reunion of some of Anderson's favorite characters.

Social Commentary. The opening of the tale shows an ancient but still elegant apartment house. Changes in a New York City neighborhood over time formed a scene-setting opening in "The Signed Masterpiece" (1921).

Crowds gather to get a glimpse of celebrities, at the start of "The Man from the Death House". This scene echoes and extends smaller-scale accounts in "Gulf Stream Green".

"Gulf Stream Green" deconstructed the financial underpinnings of celebrity culture. "The Man from the Death House" looks at sinister financial deals that might underlie elite socializing and Society. See the Mrs. Corson subplot. One wonders if today's elite partying among the 1% might be rife with similar corruption.

One notes that good guy characters lawyer Cuyler Braxton and dressmaker Estrelle also make their living working for Society and the rich elite, although presumably in a non-corrupt way.

Mystery Plot.The plot is full of clever, paradoxical turns. It has a Borges like feel, in its account of a premeditated crime coming to life. It also maintains a faithfulness to the Arthur B. Reeve tradition of scientifically based crime.

There are brief aspects of a how-done-it, as the murder method is initially unknown. However, the cause of death is later simply announced by a character. No detective work leads to its gradual discovery, as would be more typical of most how-done-its.

The solution of the mystery is clever.

Antecedent. Anderson's "Impromptu Con Brio" (1925) shares story-background features with "The Man from the Death House". Both take place at private, invitation-only classical piano recitals, given by a foreign virtuoso, hosted by a woman, attended by an elite Manhattan audience, held during a snow storm. "The Man from the Death House" is a much better story. It's also much cheerier. And its mystery plot has nothing to do with "Impromptu Con Brio".

Architecture. We learn something of the apartment house where the crime takes place. This is architectural, but not as detailed as some Golden Age mysteries.

Greatcoat. The prosecutor Colonel Wrentham has a military manner. In this cold weather he wears a greatcoat: a long heavy coat worn by traditional military officers. Both then and now, greatcoats are cool.

When Was This Written?. "The Man from the Death House" was published posthumously, in the January 1951 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Ellery Queen's introduction says that Anderson's sister found the manuscript of this story among Anderson's papers. The introduction offers no clue as to when it was actually written.

"The Man from the Death House" has references to people being out of work. This suggests it is set during the Depression, perhaps around 1933 when the Depression was at its worst. Its references to "the war" are clearly to World War I: that war's start in 1914 is mentioned.

Anderson's bibliography shows his publication rate slowing down drastically after 1933. It is unknown whether he wrote less - or whether he lost his markets. "The Man from the Death House" might be a tale from around this time.


The Half-Way House

"The Half-Way House" (1922) is another tale in which Oliver Armiston serves as amateur detective, like "The Phantom Alibi". It has a good mystery plot, and thus succeeds as a detective tale.

"The Half-Way House" was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (October 2003).

Both "The Phantom Alibi" and "The Half-Way House" are shorter and more concise that the typical Anderson tale. I think that Anderson benefited from the larger canvas of his other stories.

Like the Selfridge tales to come, "The Half-Way House" takes place in New England. "The Half-Way House" is set in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Belden is a civil engineer; his next project is building a bridge in the Andes in South America. Civil engineers are seen favorably by Anderson. And many other American writers of his era.

Mystery Plot. "The Half-Way House" is a "how-done-it": it challenges the detective and reader to figure out how the crime was committed. Anderson's "Gulf Stream Green" (1929) will also be a how-done-it.

Like many how-done-its, "The Half-Way House" can be considered a borderline "impossible crime" tale. The events in it do look impossible.

"The Half-Way House" has a fake supernatural atmosphere later given a logical explanation. This is a type of tale later associated with impossible crime writers like John Dickson Carr, who debuted in 1926.

BIG SPOILERS. The solution of the how-done-it has a broad family similarity to the solution of "The Purple Flame", although the details are different. I think the treatment in "The Half-Way House" is better, in part because it is developed into a full-fledged mystery with a complex plot.


Madame the Cat

My favorite, so far, of all of Anderson's work is "Madame the Cat" (1930), written too late to appear in any of Anderson's books. "Madame the Cat" appeared in The Saturday Evening Post just three months after the publication there of the last story in the Book of Murder collection, "The Door Key" (1929). It stars the same characters as Book of Murder, and can be read as a coda to that collection. "Madame the Cat" was reprinted by Carolyn Wells in her anthology Best American Mystery Stories (1931).

Anderson elegantly divides the story into two parts. The first half introduces the characters, the second half develops the mystery story. As in "The Jorgensen Plates", we do not learn till well into the story, what the various characters are up to. This adds most pleasantly to the plot complexities of the story. One is always wondering what the characters will do, and how they will fit into the story.

When the plot turns to a mystery puzzle at the very end, it is the mysterious disappearance of an object, almost an impossibility. Such disappearing objects will soon become a specialty of Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer. Unlike Queen to come, Anderson's treatment is short and brief, and he does not include an intensive search in the story. "Madame the Cat" also includes police surveillance: they are watching during the disappearance, but apparently do not see it. Such "watched impossibilities" will become a specialty of John Dickson Carr.

"Madame the Cat" also anticipates Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories, several of which involve either disappearing objects or surveillances. The restaurant setting of "Madame the Cat" will also become an Asimov favorite. The New York City restaurant of "Madame the Cat", like those of Asimov to come, is fairly small and unpretentious, but also a home of gourmet cooking.

Patrolman John Terry, a major character in "Beyond All Conjecture" (1928), makes a brief return appearance. It is satisfying to see him progressing.

The chess problems on which Armiston is working, are a metaphor for the complex police maneuvers going on around him. So perhaps is the sheer elaborate complexity of the gourmet food the restaurant serves.


The Phantom Guest

"The Phantom Guest" (1942) is a fairly minor story, although it is readable and parts have charm.

The tale was reprinted in a 1991 anthology edited by Eleanor Sullivan. The anthology is variously known as Fifty Best Mysteries, and as Fifty Years of the Best from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Satire. Anderson often went after wealthy elites. "The Phantom Guest" has acid satire of the Social Register. Oliver Armiston snobbishly refuses to believe that anyone in High Society would commit murder.

Facey. Facey is a U.S. Government agent: a "Fed". He appears in "The Phantom Guest" (first part of Chapter 3) as a friend of Oliver Armiston's, someone from whom Armiston can get information. Facey is also referred to as "an intelligence officer" in "The Phantom Guest".

Facey appeared earlier in some minor, rather poor Anderson stories:

Facey is part of the "world building" in Anderson's tales.

We never learn anything about the government agency that employs Facey.

I like Federal agents in general, and think they make good detectives in mystery stories. But I can't see anything special about Facey. He is less colorful and well-characterized than Armiston, Morel and Pelts. On the plus side, he does employ an unusual technique of crime investigation in "The Dancing Man".

When Was This Written?. "The Phantom Guest" was published in the Winter 1942 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (EQMM). (This was just the second issue of EQMM.) But the story takes place around 1933. One wonders if it were written in 1933, was rejected by magazines, and was finally dusted off nine years later for EQMM.

In any case, we are lucky to have this story, and that it survived.


Vincent Starrett

Vincent Starrett was a Chicago critic and essayist, famous for his love for and expertise on books and literary culture. He also wrote a lot of detective fiction, especially short stories.

Starrett also wrote what might be called horror fiction. These are not supernatural tales. These are murderous stories, which show that violence has unpleasant effects on people. "The Man in the Cask" (1927) is the most reprinted of these tales.

Commentary on Vincent Starrett:

I didn't like Starrett's mystery novel Murder on "B" Deck (1929).

Chicago: Detectives and Settings

Sally Cardiff, the detective heroine of what is one of Starrett's best pieces, "Murder at the Opera", seems to be a Chicago sleuth. Other Starrett sleuths such as Jimmie Lavender, Alexandre Dulau and George Washington Troxell are based in Chicago, as was Starrett himself. (Troxell's bookstore is in Dearborn Street, near the bridge.)

Their work often involves routine sleuthing and tracking of characters. Often these characters are members of the underworld, in the pulp style.

In the 1920's Starrett often appeared in Real Detective Tales, the same Chicago pulp magazine that featured the early work of MacKinlay Kantor.

Plot Elements

Several Starrett tales begin with a woman coming to a private detective, and asking him to look for a missing person: BIG SPOILER. The solutions of both "Missing Men" and "The Body in the Ostrich Cage" scramble the identity of various missing or dead characters. The British Realist School often dealt with the "breakdown of identity" of people. However, the Realist School often juggled identity to create alibis. Starrett's stories have nothing to do with alibis.

"The Eleventh Juror" (1927) and "The Body in the Ostrich Cage" share plot elements:

Starrett heroes sometimes live where they work, and get visitors there on business: Starrett likes cultural and educational institutions: Starrett likes French characters, both in the Paris-set "The Tragedy of Papa Ponsard", and his sophisticated consulting detective Alexandre Dulau in "The Other Woman".

Negative but comic depictions of landlords occur in "Missing Men" and "The Tragedy of Papa Ponsard".

Experimental Mystery Stories

"Missing Men" and "The Other Woman" have off-trail solutions. These solutions can seem like variations on norms of the detective story, or burlesques or satires on its conventions. "The Other Woman" is especially experimental. It recalls 19th Century Riddle stories in its unusual approach.

The Eleventh Juror: Experimental Mystery

"The Eleventh Juror" is Starrett's most famous mystery short story. Its fame might come from a clever plot gimmick. Its gimmick offers a variation on conventions of mystery fiction. It also offers a surprising plot twist.

"The Eleventh Juror" is also perfectly executed, as a piece of story telling. Every paragraph is full of just the right amount of intriguing detail.

"The Eleventh Juror" is a mystery story: it opens with a mysterious murder, and at the end we find out who did it. However, there is no detective, and it is not a "detective story". The solution is revealed by a confession of the killer at the end, rather than by any sort of detective work or reasoning. Normally I regard a lack of detective work as a flaw in a mystery. It is certainly not any sort of positive virtue in "The Eleventh Juror". Still, "The Eleventh Juror" is so pleasantly done in all other ways, that it is best just to accept the story and its approach on its own terms.

The zesty, vernacular speech and narration in "The Eleventh Juror" recalls Ring Lardner. A discovery of ordinary, everyday American speech was one of the literary innovations of the era. Both Lardner's "Haircut" and "The Eleventh Juror" have crime and murder elements, although "The Eleventh Juror" is closer to mystery fiction in structure. Both Ring Lardner and Vincent Starrett were Chicago-based newspapermen, and almost the same age.

Both "The Eleventh Juror" and Lardner's "Haircut" (1925) are tales told by a regular-guy narrator, designed to read as if they were being spoken aloud by the narrator to the reader. Literary theorists use the term skaz to classify such stories. "Skaz" is a Russian word for such tales, which have a long tradition in Russian and Slavic literature. The term has been adopted to describe similar works throughout world literature. The concept of "skaz" was first noted by Russian Formalists, and is now part of Narratology, the study and theory of narrative. Most narratologists today think of skaz in connection with mainstream fiction. But I can point out that it appears in genre fiction too, in mystery stories like "The Eleventh Juror", and science fiction tales like Nancy Kress' "Out of All Them Bright Stars" (1985).

Influences on Starrett

Vincent Starrett's fiction has some similarities to Frederick Irving Anderson's. The social settings in a story like "Murder at the Opera" (1934) range from sophisticated high life in Chicago, centered around musicians, to rural regions. These are two principal areas of Anderson's fiction. There is an Anderson like feel to the vividly detailed, slightly satiric social descriptions in the tale, as well. Both Starrett and Anderson range freely between gangsters and high society in their fiction, and both move at a slow stately pace, enlivened by richly embroidered descriptions. In addition, this tale shows the police using sophisticated cleverness and guile to sneak up on a person they are arresting - another Anderson specialty. However, Starrett's work is closer to the whodunit, puzzle plot story than are most of Anderson's. The biggest similarity between the writers is the social content of the people and milieus they discuss.

Starrett's fiction also shows an influence from Doyle, not surprising in the editor of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and other Holmes scholarship. Sleuth Jimmie Lavender sees clients in his sitting room, like Holmes, and has a Watson-like friend and narrator Charles "Gilly" Gilruth. And several of Starrett's detectives perform well done deduction from physical evidence. However, Starrett's stories do not have a Doyle like feel to their plotting, unlike, say, George R. Sims or Valentine Williams. They use some of Doyle's detective techniques, but are quite different as works of storytelling.

The Blue Door: Influence of Robert Louis Stevenson

The novella "The Blue Door" is one of Starrett's Real Detective Tales pieces, but it is uncertain what year it was published - probably the later 1920's.

Starrett was a big admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson, and his New Arabian Nights stories (1878). Starrett's "The Blue Door" seems to be a deliberate imitation of Stevenson's work, featuring two young men who get involved in a mystery adventure on Chicago's North side. As in other of Starrett's tales, the detective work in the story is richer than the solution at the end of the puzzle plot. We are used to seeing 1920's Chicago treated in snappy gangster films; there is a jolt of cognitive dissonance in seeing the Chicago of gangsters, speakeasies, and public corruption used as the background of a Stevensonian adventure, or one of Jimmie Lavender's mock Sherlock Holmes pastiches. It is a very odd effect.

The amateur detective in "The Blue Door" is a mystery writer, and one that seems to be modeled on Starrett himself. Soon, both Ellery Queen and Mignon G. Eberhart's Susan Dare will become mystery-writer sleuths, not to mention the mystery writer sleuth in G.D.H. Cole's The Brooklyn Murders (1923).

An ancestor of Nero Wolfe?

Another of Starrett's sleuths is bookstore owner and armchair detective George Washington Troxell, who solves problems brought to him by police reporter Frederick "Fred" Dellabough. Unlike most armchair detectives in fiction, Troxell is not infallible, and goes through many mistakes and wrong solutions before arriving at the ultimate truth. Each bad idea sends Dellabough out on more legwork. This is supposed to be humorous, but it seems somewhat frustrating to read about, and can make a tale like "Too Many Sleuths" (1927) (in the collection The Blue Door) seem routine. It is, however, probably more realistic to see a detective whose solutions are more iterative than instant.

As a character, Troxell bears some resemblance to Christopher Morley's bookstore owner in The Haunted Bookshop (1919).

The very fat Troxell, who rarely leaves his shop, or even his large chair, and the dynamic young police reporter Dellabough, who executes Troxell's ideas, and traipses all over Chicago, also seem like possible prototypes for Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Stout also wrote a series of Wolfe works with "Too Many" in the title: Too Many Cooks (1938), Too Many Women (1947), "Too Many Detectives" (1956), Too Many Clients (1960). Troxell is sometimes insulting to Dellabough, who shrugs it off, just like Goodwin. Dellabough is also physically active, and sometimes gets involved in fist fights, also like Goodwin. Like Goodwin, he also gets good sleuthing ideas on his own, as well. In later years, the 1940's and after, Starrett and Stout became personal friends, with Starrett becoming one of Stout's most vociferous critical champions.