Lawrence G. Blochman | Periods
Allan Vaughan Elston | Short Stories | Dan Murphy | Murder by Mandate | Western-Mystery Hybrids
Karl W. Detzer | True Tales of the D.C.I. | Murder in the Movies | Calling All Cars!
Milton M. Propper | The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young | The Ticker-Tape Murder | The Student Fraternity Murder | The Divorce Court Murder | The Election Booth Murder | One Murdered: Two Dead | The Great Insurance Murders
Christopher Hale | Stormy Night | Hangman's Tie | Midsummer Nightmare | Rumor Hath It
Clifford Knight | The Affair of the Scarlet Crab | The Affair in Death Valley | The Affair of the Fainting Butler | The Affair at the Circle T | Death of a Big Shot
Elizabeth Daly | Antecedents | The Assistant | Murders in Volume 2 | Evidence of Things Seen | The Book of the Dead | Any Shape or Form
Dorothy Gardiner | Sheriff Moss Magill | Regionalism | What Crime Is It? | The Seventh Mourner | Lion in Wait
Richard Starnes | The Other Body in Grant's Tomb | The Early Books
Ben Benson | The Venus Death
Earl Derr Biggers | Joseph Gollomb | Charles B. Child | H.T. Alfon | Hughes Allison | A.H.Z. Carr | Harry Miner | Allen Richards | Michael Scott Cain | Pulp Inverted Stories | Frederic Arnold Kummer | C. William Harrison | Robert Arthur | William Manners | David X Manners
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
O'Reilly Sahib stories
John Long stories
Rather Cool for Mayhem (1948, 1951) (Chapters 1-7, 10, 18)
Marshall T. Custer short stories
Uncollected Dr. Coffee stories
The Ticker-Tape Murder (1930) (Chapters 1-6, 8, 9, 13, 17)
The Divorce Court Murder (1934) (Chapters 1-7, 10, 11, 19)
The Great Insurance Murders (1937)
Hangman's Tie (1943) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, end of 4, end of 9, first half of 10, last part of 11, 13, 14, 15)
Death of a Big Shot (1951) (Chapters 1 - 5)
Huntoon Rogers short stories
Any Shape or Form (1945) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, start of 7, 10, 17, 18)
"Death Debt" (1935)
"Killer's Keeper" (1940)
"Terror Panics the Crime Quiz" (1945) (available on-line, at http://www.pulpgen.com/pulp/downloads/list_by_author.php, then go to Page 34)
"Summer's End" (1940)
"Cut Glass" (1937)
"Mrs. Belcourt Draws A Bier" (1948)
"Wish You Were Dead" (1945)
"Calling Dr. Death" (1949)
"Eye Witness" (1939)
Mystery and More Mystery
The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 13, 14, 16)
One tends to think of the Realist school of Freeman, Crofts, Sayers and other writers as being centered in Britain in the 1920's. This is certainly true, but the school influenced several later American writers. Each of these American writers seems to have been influenced separately and individually by the Realist tradition. These American writers do not form a "school" of American Realists. In other words, Blochman and Helen McCloy are not closely aligned with each other; they merely show signs of being individually influenced by Freeman and his followers. There is also a Realist influence visible on some American writers discussed in other articles, such as Lenore Glen Offord.
Blochman also shows signs of continuity with Arthur B. Reeve and the American Scientific School:
High points of Blochman's first period include the India set short story "The Zarapore Beat"; high points of his second, three books about pathologist detective Dr. Coffee.
"The Fifty-Carat Jinx" shows signs of Blochman's later plotting technique:
Adventure specialized in tales set in exotic countries. Some of the stories it published were mysteries, many were not, but all catered to the thirst for adventure in foreign lands. "River Pick-Up" is a mystery, set against a back-stage look at banana plantations on the coast of Guatemala. Blochman would return to banana plantations for his novel Blow-Down (1939). "River Pick-Up" shows Blochman's skill at painting tropical backgrounds, complete with non-stereotyped diverse characters.
Once again, a crime in the past plays a role in a murder in the present day. Blochman gives life histories for some of the suspects: also a Blochman tradition.
But "River Pick-Up" also has something new. It is a scientific detective story in which pathology helps solve the mystery: a kind of tale that will play a major role in Blochman's work. The science-based murder here is simple, hardly fair play, and not as developed as later Blochman. Still, it helps give the tale added interest.
This story deals in stolen netsuke; Blochman also liked tales about rare books, jewelry, and other valuable objects.
Art expert Fred Forest is honest, but naively oblivious to the crookedness going on around him. In this he anticipates scholar Leonard Henderson from "The Zarapore Beat". Both men oppose the crooks, as soon as they belatedly realize what is going on.
However as a red-haired American, Forest resembles the policeman hero O'Reilly of "The Zarapore Beat". The heroes Lee Marvin of Bengal Fire and Jim Lawrence of Rather Cool for Mayhem are also red-haired. On the other hand "The Half-Naked Truth" will deconstruct the idea of a tough hero with red hair, pointing out that this is an image rather than reality.
Fred Forest would traditionally be considered as the hero of the story, being an American Good Guy. But one can argue that the young Japanese Momonoki has as much claim to be the tale's hero.
Momonoki shows an interest in Western culture, playing the harmonica and learning English. In this era, the films of Yasujiro Ozu exemplify Japanese interest in Western and American culture.
Blochman shows his interest in botany, by having the climactic scene set among Cryptomeria trees, an important Japanese redwood.
"A Perfect Target" is full of descriptions of sounds, from crickets to a harmonica to car horns at the finale.
"A Perfect Target" (1932) is from the pulp magazine Adventure, August 1, 1932. It was reprinted in the October 1955 Saint Mystery Magazine, where I read it.
"Open All Night" is mainly set in the TriBeCa district of Manhattan, mentioning real roads like Greenwich Street, West Street and Jay Street. In "Open All Night" TriBeCa is a home of piers, and grim rooming houses for poor working men. Ironically this neighborhood of tough Depression survival has today become one of Manhattan's most upscale neighborhoods, home to millionaires and celebrities.
The comic wartime feud between the hero and DeWitt, recalls the feud between the soldier leads of What Price Glory? (1924), the big-hit anti-war play by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings. The feud in "Open All Night" differs in details, being mainly about food and cooking.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. In Bombay Mail, a disparate group all take the same train. Many eventually are discovered to have secrets, or turn out to be not who they seem. Similarly in "Open All Night" a disparate group gathers at the diner, in the opening section. Many of them too turn out to have secrets. In fact, only the hero, his assistant cook Edwards, and the various police turn out to be secret-free.
A mysterious bad guy is identified at the end, due to the hero's detective work. The hero bases his ideas on two clues. Unfortunately, while the clues are (admirably) mentioned in the story, they are (regrettably) not fully explained to the reader: so the story is not "fair play". Still the use of clues and detective reasoning is pleasant.
Men's Clothes and Color. Men's clothes are elaborately described. As in India-set works like "The Zarapore Beat", clothes form part of the atmospheric description of the region (in this case a rough neighborhood in Manhattan).
Some of the clothes are described in color. The same is true in "The Zarapore Beat", "Murder Walks in Marble Halls" (1942), "The Girl with the Burgundy Lips" (1952) with its Hollywood-based writer in overwhelmingly bright clothes, and the much later "Missing: One Stage-Struck Hippie" (1970) with its Mod era costumes. Robert Arlington in "Catfish Story" has a Hollywood-Miami wardrobe of brightly colored sports shirts, a clue to his background - but we don't learn what specific colors they are.
Max Shavers wears spats. In See You at the Morgue (first part of Chapter 6), an unusual fact about spats in mentioned.
Anti-Colonialism. "Brown Man's Burden" is implicitly anti-Colonialism. It doesn't spell out this point of view in an explicit moral. But its portrait of ugly vicious colonialists mistreating Asian locals certainly conveys this point of view strongly.
The bad guys are harvesting wood to make battleships. There is perhaps an anti-arms-manufacturer "Merchants of death" point of view, as well.
Plot and Structure. "Brown Man's Burden" is more a thriller than a traditional mystery. SPOILER. Blochman does introduce some well-done-if-brief elements of mystery, eventually.
Heroes. British District Officer Roger Torrence and his Malay courier Ali are the Good Guys in the tale. They recall heroes Fred Forest and Momonoki in "A Perfect Target":
Botany. Blochman shows in his interest in botany, with tropical trees like teak (Tectona grandis) and upas (Antiaris toxicaria) playing roles in the story.
The idealized friendship between O'Reilly and the Maharajah, anticipates the friendship between other Blochman series characters:
The framework of the story, rightful heir to throne vs evil usurper and his sinister supporters, goes back at least to Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). It has been used for countless works since 1894, most typically set among European royalty. The use of this framework in "The Zarapore Beat" is not original. But it has the odd, beneficial side effect of avoiding stereotypes. Indian royalty in "The Zarapore Beat" is presented as exactly equal and parallel to European royalty in The Prisoner of Zenda and its many off-shoots.
"The Zarapore Beat" contains trains and scenes at train stations: subjects that run through Blochman's India tales.
Color and Clothes: Turbans. The Maharajah's pink turban and his secretary's blue turban are visual motifs that run through the story. Later Bengal Fire will have a man in a purple turban, although this will be used less creatively than the turbans in "The Zarapore Beat". Later Dr. Mookerji will often wear a pink turban, like the Maharajah. Both are Good Guys.
Plot. SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. The diamond plays numerous different roles throughout the tale. Blochman's use of the diamond to construct several different kinds of plot is ingenious. Stages the diamond passes through:
Bombay Mail (1933 - 1934), the first of the trilogy, is also apparently Blochman's first novel. It is readable, and creditable for a first book, but it is a pretty routine, by-the-numbers mystery thriller. Most of Blochman's energies go to describing a large group of suspects, all of whom are riding the same train as the victim, and all of whom have a motive to kill him, a motive usually based in the political and business life of British ruled India of the 1930's. The subplot involving suspect Beatrice Jones has some ingenuity, and most of the characters have some interest, but the book has little in the way of clever mystery plotting to recommend it. Nor is there much detection in any strict sense of the term. The opening four chapters have both the most plot, and the most Indian atmosphere.
Although most of the characters are either British or Indian, with a scattering of Europeans as well, Blochman's hero is a young American miner, prospecting in India for gems. Both his profession and his emotional generosity make him typical of Blochman's heroes in his later Indian books. Such American technical types having adventures around the globe remind one of Richard Harding Davis. Like most of Blochman's characters, he is a dynamic, high energy person, full of purposeful activity both in the pursuit of his profession, and his emotional life. Also scientific in orientation is Dr. Lenoir, a French doctor studying Indian snake poisons. Such medical types will play a major role in Blochman's later Dr. Coffee tales. In Blochman works, each character is marked out by his position in the social and technological network of the world of the story. He is more than that - each person also has both an individual personality, and often romantic relationships with the other characters. But usually each person also occupies an absolutely distinct position in the socio-technological matrix. This position tends to be linked to their job. It is also controlled by their politics. This position tends to be stable in the story: it rarely changes through the duration of the tale. People often tend to have a humorous self awareness of the arbitrariness of their position, a realization that others do not share their politics or beliefs. But they also tend to justify their actions and beliefs, and cling to them throughout the book.
Mystery Plot: Deduction. Bombay Mail has a deductive finale, in which Prike one by one eliminates the suspects. This recalls the work of Ellery Queen. Prike's reasons are not always ironclad, unlike EQ's: he often merely establishes that a person's guilt is unlikely, not impossible the way EQ does.
Victim and Killer. BIG SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. The victim and killer in Bombay Mail have jobs and social positions that anticipate those in Blow-Down. In both books:
Recipe for Homicide also offers a variation on this pattern. The victim is not an authority figure. But the killer is very much a mid-level, responsible executive who is betraying his company's trust. He is not corrupt in the financial sense, though, or trying to cover up corrupt activities. Instead, he has a vicious scheme to take over the company that employs him.
"The Wolf and The Wayward Wac" also has a mid-level man who betrays his position of trust within an organization, killing to cover up his corruption. The organization is the US Army. The victim is not the organization's authority figure, the General, though. "The Wolf and The Wayward Wac" also resembles Bombay Mail in that most of the suspects have offices in the same building, the way the suspects in Bombay Mail are all on the same train.
Film. Bombay Mail was made into a good film in 1934. The film is largely faithful to the book's plot. Somewhat astonishingly, the book's huge cast of suspects are all packed into the fairly short film: around a dozen of them. Only the Iowa painter tourist Ursula Klink seems to be absent.
The film Bombay Mail is notable for its sympathetic treatment of Indian Independence crusaders. And Indians in general are treated with respect.
Screenwriter Tom Reed had previously worked with directors Paul Fejos and Edward L. Cahn on some of their most prestigious films.
Leading man Edmund Lowe is American and so in theory an odd choice to play the British hero Inspector Prike. But Lowe is a gifted actor, and plays his part with both charm and conviction. Lowe and the film make no attempt to suggest Lowe is British, or give him a British accent - instead they ignore the issue altogether. This turns out to be a workable approach.
The film Bombay Mail is very much in the tradition of modestly-budgeted whodunits of its era. It is unpretentious, but has decent story telling. People who like Hollywood whodunits will have fun. But no one should expect a major work of cinema along the level of great directors like Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock.
When I first read Bengal Fire many years ago, I enjoyed it. I love cities and am fascinated by India, and this novel's portrait of Calcutta in the 1930's was full of interest. However, a recent re-reading of the book has highlighted its faults. The mystery plotting is mainly not that great, and the story telling sometimes lags.
A safe, and questions of who had access to it, plays a role both here in Bengal Fire, and later in Blow-Down.
Animals. Suspect Kurt Julius is a wild-animal buyer. He is upset that he's the only one in his business without a "book or movie", and hires a press agent (first part of Chapter 2). This is likely a satirical reference to real life trapper Frank Buck, a huge celebrity at the time. His book Bring 'Em Back Alive (1930) was turned into the first of a series of Frank Buck films in 1932.
There are vivid description of Julius' animals, held in his "animal hotel" (second half of Chapter 12). Animals return in other Blochman, such as the Prike short story "The Dog from Singapore", and in several Dr. Coffee tales: "Catfish Story", "Deadly Back-Fire", "But the Patient Died".
The "animal hotel" is described as a building. It shows the Golden Age interest in architecture.
Rescue from Drowning. The hero Lee Marvin is under obligation to the morally dubious Harrison Hoyt, because Hoyt rescued Marvin from drowning (start of Chapter 2). This recalls a key incident in Blochman's early apprentice work "The Chota Sahib" (1930), where young hero Roy Spence was rescued from drowning by older man Sam Whyler. This too leads the hero to feel a deep obligation to Whyler. The episode in "The Chota Sahib" is seen in a more heroic light, with Spence narrowly surviving after an accident in which Spence's ferry boat was rammed by a barge. By contrast, the near-drowning in Bengal Fire occurs when the hero is just swimming after drinking. The more worldly Marvin is also more cynical about Hoyt's character, while young Spence hero-worships Whyler.
Forensics: Toxicology. Prike has a forensics investigation run by an expert medical Indian Professor of Toxicology, Dr. T.T. Chaudry (first half of Chapter 10). This anticipates the expert Indian pathologist Dr. Mookerji, who is a continuing character in the Dr. Coffee tales. This is also an early inclusion of forensics in Blochman's body of work.
Near the novel's end, Prike uses the results of Chaudry's research to figure out the poison used in the crime (Chapter 28). This is a nice, if small, medical-based mystery.
However, it seems odd that scientist Chaudry would not have figured this out by himself, without needing policeman Prike's help. The later Dr. Coffee tales are more logical about this: pathologist Dr. Coffee and his team solve medical mysteries by themselves, while police colleague Max Ritter often solves non-medical mysteries.
Subplot: Using Toxicology Again. Prike employs some toxicology on his own, to make a good deduction (first half of Chapter 12). This is a subplot unrelated to the main murder mystery investigated by Dr. Chaudry.
The deduction involves Prike figuring out where a character comes from. In "The Dog from Singapore", Prike has to figure out where the dog comes from. (Non-spoiler alert: the dog does indeed come from Singapore!)
H. C. Bailey used scientific clues to track down remote locations where characters are, or where a crime has taken place. See Bailey's "The Yellow Diamonds" (1933), "The Broken Toad" (1934), "The Yellow Cloth" (1938), The Bishop's Crime (1940).
The Murder Method. It is not at all clear to the police how the victim could have been poisoned. The solution comes up with a fairly ingenious method (Chapter 29). This method in turn points to the killer. In fact, this seems to be the sole clue identifying the murderer. (Other clues, such as the killer's blood pressure and the report from the Raffles Hotel, are not shared with the reader in advance. They are thus not "real" clues, according to mystery story paradigms.)
Criminal Scheme. Freeman Wills Crofts and writers influenced by him often include a hidden Criminal Scheme. This is a concealed ongoing illegal activity by bad guys, that furnishes a motivation and framework for the murders. Bengal Fire has a Criminal Scheme, a very large scale one (revealed first part of Chapter 29). It is so large scale that it loses believability and veers into melodrama.
Different "hidden Criminal Schemes" will play a role in Blow-Down, See You at the Morgue, and the Dr. Coffee story "Calendar Girl".
Mystery Subplot: Meeting the Boat. SPOILERS. There is a solid mystery subplot about why Harrison Hoyt is afraid to meet his fiancee at the boat (set forth in Chapters 1, 2, solved in Chapter 29). The solution is both logical and unexpected: always a desirable feature in a mystery plot.
Dying Message. The victim leaves behind a cryptic note. It is one of the less plausible and less creative Dying Messages in mystery fiction. Blochman will later use a Dying Message in "Girl in Trouble" (1956).
However, the first half is pretty readable, with some excellent depictions of first Calcutta, where the story opens, and then the train ride to Darjeeling. This is reminiscent of Blochman's first two Prike novels, with the Calcutta sections recalling Bengal Fire, and the train ride Bombay Mail.
Red Snow at Darjeeling displays Blochman's interest in botany, with his detective Inspector Prike showing his expertise on orchids, as part of the plot. Blochman's depictions of the Indian scene in his novels always pick up most pleasantly on plants, trees and vegetation as well. The hero's father in Recipe for Homicide was a botanist, and there is a great deal about his garden, too. Blochman always displays a reverence for knowledge in his works. For all his adventurousness, he had a deep belief in civilization, an attitude that is badly needed today.
A new carburetor that drastically saves gasoline plays a role (see the finale). Issues of Energy were important in this era, and were discussed explicitly in fiction. Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. The first murder comes to light with the discovery of a crime scene. There are dramatic blood stains - but no corpse. Only a bit later in the book is the body discovered. Blochman will later use a similar discovery in Blow-Down. Earlier, in "Open All Night", bloodstains were discovered where a man used to be - but it turns out that he was merely wounded.
The disposal of the body in the first murder in Red Snow at Darjeeling has some broad similarities with a scheme exposed at the end of "The Zarapore Beat". Both tales are quite ingenious.
Mystery Subplot: Emmet-Tansley. "Open All Night" and Red Snow at Darjeeling have a similar character: a young man in dressy evening clothes who seems to be a harmless member of the upper classes. But a brief flash of his eyes with an alert look suggests that there might be more to this person that at first seems. Both tales come to somewhat similar revelations at their ends. We are referring to Letterman in "Open All Night" and Emmet-Tansley in Red Snow at Darjeeling. The two men have quite distinctive personalities, with Letterman seeming tougher and quite virile, and Emmet-Tansley a comic "upper class twit" in Monty Python's immortal phrase. The two wear different kinds of evening clothes:
Emmet-Tansley makes jokes about the hyphen in his name. It recalls another hyphenated character: William Luke-Patson in Bombay Mail. The hyphen suggests both are members of the British upper crust. See also Dr. H. Leighton-Woods in "Dr. Coffee and the Philanderer's Brain" (1966), an American scientist originally named Woods who expanded his name when he won a scholarship to Britain, apparently to sound more impressive.
Mystery Plot. "The Dog from Singapore" is competent, mildly pleasant but often routine. It does get more interesting as it goes along, with its better ideas in its second half.
Unlike the Prike novels, there are no espionage, political or revolutionary elements. It is a pure murder mystery tale, in which money and romance form the possible motives, rather than politics or espionage. Blochman was transitioning to "pure mystery fiction" around 1941, and this tale's approach might be part of that transition.
The story is not "fair play": it is hard to see how readers could pick out the killer, from events or clues early in the story. The single clue to the killer's identity is suggestive, rather than being conclusive. It could be merely a coincidence, for example. BIG SPOILERS. The clue involves cities characters have visited in their past. A similar clue of "matching cities" is found in the wardrobe labels of two characters in "Catfish Story", both of whom have bought clothes in Miami. In both "The Dog from Singapore" and "Catfish Story", that fact that two characters have visited the same city, is used to suggest that the characters are connected and knew each other in the past.
Backgrounds. "The Dog from Singapore" is set in Assam, in the far East of India. There is a Background showing life on a "tea garden", one of the large tea-growing plantations that are so central to Assam's economy. The manufacture of tea will later be central to the Dr. Coffee tale "No Taste for Tea". By this time Blochman had also published Blow-Down (1939), set on a banana plantation in Central America.
Blochman had a long term interest in botany, and Red Snow at Darjeeling had previously established Prike's expertise on the subject. This continues in "The Dog from Singapore" with Prike's insights into how tea is being grown on the plantation. This, while brief, is one of the most interesting parts of the tale. It is the part of the tea garden Background I found most absorbing.
SPOILERS. The unusual soil, and what it leads to, form an inventive subplot. This material can be considered a second Background.
The pits in the second half of "The Dog from Singapore" anticipate the digging in the garden near the end of "Catfish Story". In both tales, traces of soil forms a clue.
Sound. The howling sounds made by the dog, recall the noises made by the cicadas in "A Perfect Target".
Traveling. "The Dog from Singapore" opens with a visitor coming to stay in one of the modest "rest houses" the British Government maintained for travelers, and riding in a "tonga" vehicle. Both rest houses and tongas previously appeared in "The Chota Sahib" (1930). Both tales also use the (accurate) term "dak bungalow" for the rest houses.
SPOILERS. Both tales have dramatic fires.
Ships. Midnight Sailing has the structure of one of Blochman's train mysteries: a group of suspects all together on a vehicle, making a journey.
SPOILERS. One difference: A ship can change direction mid-ocean, unlike a train. Such changes in course previously occur in Murder by Latitude (1930), a ship mystery by Rufus King.
Medical Mystery. There are some simple medical aspects to the murder and its solution (end of Chapter 11, Chapter 33). This anticipates the more elaborate medical mysteries in later Blochman.
Foreign Correspondent. The hero of Midnight Sailing is a newspaperman, a reporter promoted to foreign correspondent: a prestigious position in that era. This is like the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock's soon-to-be-made film Foreign Correspondent (1940). Blochman includes a brief bit about the reporter hero having to learn to accept and look good in formal clothes, demanded of foreign correspondents reporting from government venues (Chapter 1). Hitchcock includes more extensive comedy sequences showing his hero outfitted in such formal day wear.
Unfortunately, the "hero" of Midnight Sailing seems to have low ethical standards. His plan to get the heroine's story, is to make love to her under false pretenses (Chapter 2). By contrast Hitchcock's hero is an idealized newspaperman, vigorously trying to find out the truth.
The reporter hero of Blochman's Rather Cool for Mayhem will be much more idealistic.
Food Production. It is something of a breakthrough for Blochman. It is his first novel to deal with food production, the subject of his later Recipe for Homicide (1952), and several of his best Dr. Coffee short stories. These opening chapters contain a detailed Background look at a Central American banana plantation. Blochman compares the whole operation to that of a modern factory, and there is an emphasis on all the mechanical and technological infrastructure supporting it. This section has a personal feel. Here, Blochman is writing about the things that matter most to him as an artist.
Blochman also continues his interest in botany. In addition to the banana plants themselves, we get a scientifically accurate look at some of the other trees in the region, such as ceiba and bactris palms. One odd note: Blochman depicts nipa palms as growing along the rivers. Nipa is very common in the Asian tropics, such as Indonesia, the setting of Blochman's "Red Wine", but I don't think it grows wild in the New World.
Gourmet Cooking. The discussions of gourmet cooking (Chapter 18) also recall the Dr. Coffee tales to come. Blochman's characters especially like fancy dishes made in casseroles.
Anti-Nazi. Blochman deserves credit for his anti-Nazi stance. Many 1930's writers and Hollywood filmmakers avoided attacking the Nazis. A few others would make negative depictions of the Nazis, but avoid naming Germany, simply having an unnamed European dictatorship as a villain. By contrast, Blow-Down is full of explicit (and negative) references to Germany and the Third Reich. The German villain's first name is Adolf.
Influence: Caribbean Setting. During the early 1940's, the Good Neighbor policy encouraged Americans to look to Latin America for close ties. There was a huge outpouring of Hollywood films with Latin American settings, especially Argentina and Brazil. Mystery writers seemed to favor the Caribbean, instead. It was a place easily traveled to by ordinary Americans, and it was a place close to United States borders, making it a good setting for spy fiction. In addition to Blochman's Blow-Down, we get Richard Sale's "Cape Spectre" (1941), Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market (1943) and Charles G. Booth's Mr. Angel Comes Aboard (1944). Blochman and Booth were friends. There were also such mystery films as the Panama set Phantom Raiders (1940), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and based on a story by mystery writer Jonathan Latimer.
In addition to a Caribbean locale, several characters in Blow-Down anticipate those in Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market:
Influence: Communication Technology. Blow-Down emphasizes radio, the telephone and the telegraph as means of communication: especially radio, a main subject of the story. Radio fascinated writers of the 1930's and 1940's, and was seen as the world's most advanced and high tech form of communication. Richard Sale's mysteries also emphasize radio. Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market has much about telegrams.
Blow-Down was serialized in the "slick" magazine Collier's under the title The Resounding Skies. This title apparently refers to all the messages sent by radio through the air. Collier's used the promotion tagline "Invasion by radio" to describe the first chapter of the novel.
Pulp Magazines. There is a negative reference to pulp magazines (Chapter 3). They are depicted as the reading material of low-brow men - as opposed to intelligent men who read books. This attitude is a bit odd on Blochman's part: much of his early sales were in fact to pulp magazines.
Later authors will relentlessly stereotype comic books as the favorites of low-bow, stupid adults. This option was not much available to Blochman in 1939, when comic books had just exploded onto the scene the year before in 1938 with the first appearance of Superman.
Hero and Heroine. Like its predecessor among Blochman's novels Midnight Sailing, Blow-Down has much romance and intrigue involving its hero and heroine. I didn't find this endless romantic story thread very interesting. It can seem like an interruption to and distraction from the book's main mystery plot.
The hero of Blow-Down is mainly a generic Handsome Young Man. Still he is morally decent throughout: an improvement over the ethically second-rate protagonist of Midnight Sailing. He also is a young man who clearly has options, choosing a career in public service (see Chapter 7). This is admirable.
More importantly, the heroine of Blow-Down is a big step up over her predecessor in Midnight Sailing. SPOILERS. She is middle class, and a representative of the admirable Working Woman of the era, rather than the heiress of dubious morals in Midnight Sailing. She stands for the United States' business ability, acumen and organization (Chapter 1). And we gradually learn that she in fact is the main person running the entire banana planation, even though her job title depicts her as the secretary of a male boss (start of Chapter 3, Chapter ). This portrait of a "working woman as mainstay of American business" certainly has a feminist dimension.
Most of the non-German characters in Blow-Down are explicitly heterosexual. Comandante Jose Blanco has an especially beautiful wife.
Race. There are some positive treatments of racial minorities in Blow-Down. Unfortunately, there are some stereotyped ones as well, that make it impossible to recommend the book as a whole.
On the positive side, we've already noted the admiring treatment of Comandante Jose Blanco.
Also notable: the dignified depiction of the black Jamaican foreman Henry Morgan (end of Chapter 2). The hero treats him as an equal, surprising the foreman.
Negatives: the buffoonish character of the corrupt government official Manzana. While it is always sound to criticize corruption, Manzana's depiction crosses over into grotesque inanity. Blow-Down does note that "official corruption" in the 1938 United States was even bigger and worse than in this Central American country (Chapter 4).
Worst of all: The depiction of some members of a minority group as "dim-witted" (Chapter 9).
Mystery Plot. Blow-Down has a decent plot twist at the end, when the killer is revealed. SPOILERS. The choice of killer comes as a surprise, because it definitely looks as if this person's innocence has been established. A clever idea enables this person to be the culprit. Blochman's idea has predecessors in mystery fiction, and is not entirely original. Still, it is well done.
The solution also reveals a hidden criminal scheme secretly perpetrated by the villain. Such schemes are a mainstay of good mystery fiction. This one has some virtues:
In later books such as Recipe for Homicide (1952), Blochman will write with brilliance and sympathy about business women, portraying them with a complete lack of sexism. Here the ideas about women in business are conventional.
The heroine is attempting to launch a career as an illustrator, so far without success (first half of Chapter 1). She can be contrasted with the highly successful illustrator heroine of Helen Reilly's The Dead Can Tell (1940), of the previous year.
See You at the Morgue shows continuity with Blochman's other fiction. It opens with a threat against the life of a character, a threat that is duly carried out after several chapters; in this it is like Bombay Mail. In both books, this threat stirs up the plot right away, prodding the characters into action. It also serves to introduce an element of mystery immediately, allowing Blochman to delay the actual murder for several chapters, while he introduces his characters and situations, without any loss of mystery emphasis to the book.
See You at the Morgue lacks fair play, in the sense that it would be hard for a reader to predict solutions based on clues in the tale. Instead, it eventually engulfs its characters in a maze of storytelling. The intricate patterns of plot that ensue give pleasure. This is similar to the form of construction Blochman used in Bengal Fire.
Blochman shows two apartments in the novel; one being the murder scene, and the other an unoccupied apartment next door. This rather oddly recalls the two household effects found in stories by writers of the pulp tradition, such as Raymond Chandler's "Goldfish" (1936) and Erle Stanley Gardner's The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939). (Please see the article on Gardner for a further discussion of this). Blochman's emphasis on his characters' motions around these locations recalls the intuitionist tradition, such writers as John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen.
Blochman typically adds to the intrigue and plotting of his books by having several of his characters engaged in illegal activity. In the Indian books, these schemes, while illegal, were not necessarily immoral. His Indian characters were often engaged in working towards Indian independence, something that was illegal under British rule, but hardly seen by Blochman as an immoral activity. And the European characters are often engaged in activities, such as prospecting for gems, that while essentially moral, causes them to go up against the red tape of British Government regulations. By contrast, in See You at the Morgue, when his characters engage in illegal schemes, they are just plain crooks, pure and simple. This makes See You at the Morgue far less ambiguous and less complex than the early Indian novels. In all of Blochman's works, these illegal activities are used to give characters motives for murder. They also greatly add to the mystery of the plot. Typically we learn early on that the character is involved in some scheme, but we don't learn what the scheme is. We get some interesting clues, but the actual scheme itself is left as an intriguing mystery to be solved later. This increase of mystery is something that is always desirable in a detective novel: typically, the more mystery, the better in a detective tale.
See You at the Morgue has a structure similar to Blochman's later "Calendar Girl" (1952), in that its first half suggests the crime springs from its characters' romantic entanglements, and its second half gradually reveals its characters' involvement in money-making criminal schemes instead, schemes which lead to the murder. This is not fair play, because there are few real clues to these activities.
Blochman tried to give plenty of New York City atmosphere to this work, just as he depicted Calcutta in his Indian books. While he often succeeds at scene painting - the description of New York City in the autumn in Chapter 3 is especially good - he does not succeed in the sort of sociological detail he achieves in his early India books, or in his portrait of the modern United States in Recipe For Homicide (1952). See You at the Morgue shows the technological side of New York, just as Bombay Mail does of India. The many scenes set on the New York Subway system are the equivalent of the train chapters in Blochman's Indian thrillers. The look at a New York City phone answering system, and mystery plot ideas that emerge from it, is the equivalent of the stress paid to telegraphing and messengers in the Indian books.
Recipe For Homicide (1952) includes a detailed look at a soup canning factory, and several short stories of its period also look at industrial food production. Blochman includes a mild early predecessor of this in See You at the Morgue, by having two characters work for a liquor company, one as a biochemist, the other as a public relations man (Chapter 2).
Blochman's detective in See You at the Morgue is a policeman, Kenneth Kilkenny. He is closely associated with a medical man, the Assistant Medical Examiner, Dr. Joseph Rosenkohl. This anticipates the later set-up of the Dr. Coffee stories, with scientist Dr. Coffee working with policeman Max Ritter. However, here it is the policeman who is the central character, whereas in the Dr. Coffee stories it is the scientist who is the chief sleuth. Like the later Dr. Coffee, Dr. Rosenkohl is a pathologist. However, the pathology sections are brief, and compared to the later Coffee novels, short on medical substance and relevance to the plot. Like the later team of Coffee and Ritter, the two men are close personal friends, with a common fondness for food and eating together.
The fact that the sympathetic Dr. Rosenkohl is Jewish is clearly Blochman's comment on Hitler era Anti-Semitism. Blochman had long included characters of many races and nationalities in his tales. Max Ritter is the later Dr. Coffee stories is also Jewish.
It is set at the New York Public Library, and is one of the few Blochman stories in which the floor plan and architecture of the setting plays a crucial role: one can follow the movements of the characters all over the Library, and the architectural orientation gives pleasure in the way typical of Golden Age mysteries.
It is one of Blochman's few stories set among the intelligentsia, along with "The Swami of Northbank". The people in the story are all "knowledge workers": people who produce knowledge the way characters in other Blochman tales produce food or minerals. The characters in the story do not merely stand around and expound on their intellectual specialty. Each has a job, and each is busy producing something as part of it. This beehive of work is integrated into the mystery plot. Both the Library and the knowledge work are part out the main productive output of New York City, its work as an industrial center of the mind. The story continues Blochman's interest in the life of New York City started in See You at the Morgue. Blochman also views the Library as a window on the world: he emphasizes the Oriental Room, the Slavonic Room, and other centers of International scholarship in the Library. He also shows how the Library is the center of what we today call multi-media, including music, radio and dance. This makes the Library virtually the "brain center" of Blochman's universe, the central locale connecting up all of Blochman's interests.
Kenneth Kilkenny and Dr. Joseph Rosenkohl return in this story, and Blochman clearly hoped to make them series sleuths at this point of his career. However, the young hero and amateur sleuth who is the novella's Point of View character does most of the actual detection in the tale. As far as I know, this story marks the second and last appearance of Kilkenny and Rosenkohl in a long Blochman tale. Kilkenny will reappear later in at least one short story.
The structure of the story has several Blochman trademarks:
Custer and Kilkenny personify what this Guide calls the Intuitionist and Realist approaches, respectively. The story is a comic riff on the contrasts between the two methods:
Mystery Plot. The main mystery idea in "The Girl with the Burgundy Lips" is an old plot. However Blochman dresses it up with new details. The story is full of sparkling dialogue, and is a fun read.
Subjects and Imagery. Suspect Pierre Duval is a professional wine taster. He works for a firm that manufactures wine. He anticipates the professional tea-taster in "No Taste for Tea". And the industrial food-tasting scene in Recipe for Homicide (Chapter 4).
We learn right away that author Custer is a member of the Mystery Writers of America. The tale even includes this real-life organization's address. This is Blochman's tribute to and promotion of a group with which he was heavily involved.
Minetta Lane, where the victim lived, and Washington Square where the painter has his studio, are real places in New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood.
Ancient Greece. Blochman liked references to Ancient Greece:
Sources. I learned about "The Girl with the Burgundy Lips" from Ontos. This Ontos article has a link to the text of the story.
According to Ontos, Custer returns in "The Man with the Blue Ears" (1954). So "The Girl with the Burgundy Lips" is not his Last Stand (sorry, I couldn't resist!).
Blochman might well have expanded or modified the magazine version for book publication.
1947 is the year the first Dr. Coffee short story appeared, so presumably this novel was written around the same time. The hero-narrator is a serviceman who has just returned from World War II, and it is apparently set in October 1945.
Quality. The novel is uneven. After a pretty good beginning many of the later chapters are inconsequential. These opening chapters and the finale (with the solution) together make up a decent short story.
Detectives. Both the amateur detective hero Jim Lawrence and the professional policeman Captain Hugh McKay contribute to solving the mystery. Blochman detectives often come in pairs. But this amateur / professional combination is less common in Blochman. See also "Murder Walks in Marble Halls", "The Girl with the Burgundy Lips".
The two don't really work as a team. Each one keeps coming up with discoveries independently, which they then share.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder. The main murder story suffers from a general lack of fair play - it is hard to see how anyone could deduce the solution from the clues presented.
The motive for the murder is imaginative, however (Chapter 18). The novel does try to set up the premise for this, in the early chapters. It might not be fully "fair play", but it does lay the groundwork for the solution.
Mystery Subplot: The Opening. SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. The opening chapters set forth a mysterious situation, in which people are summoned to the cabin (Chapters 2-6). This subplot shows some similarities to events in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939), although it lacks the mass killings of that novel.
This subplot contains some mysteries, notably: who is behind the summoning? The story comes up with an unexpected answer, which surprised me (end of Chapter 6). This section also comes up with a logical motive for the situation, which previously was mysterious.
Also notable as a mystery plot achievement: it looks obvious to everyone what the telegrams' promised "entertainment at five" will be: the murder. It is a surprise later to learn that the person who sent the telegrams had a different "entertainment" in mind. What looked like a "obvious" goal turns out to be something different. This recalls the subplot in Bengal Fire, in which Harrison Hoyt "obviously" wants to avoid meeting his fiancee at the boat. Surprisingly, what he actually wants to avoid is something else entirely.
Neither of these situations looks at first like a mystery. Instead, the detectives and the reader think they understand them fully. Nothing looks mysterious. Yet they have a hidden meaning and reality that is eventually sprung as a surprise plot development.
The quality of this opening subplot and the various components of its solution, is a key reason why I am recommending these early chapters.
Pathologist. One of the characters in the tale is a pathologist. Unlike the heroic Dr. Coffee, the pathologist in the story is not a sympathetic character. He is a first rate pathologist, however, the same as Dr. Coffee.
The novel's magazine version Cocktails at Blindman's Lake (1948) appeared shortly after the first Dr. Coffee short story "But the Patient Died" (1947). These stories are noteworthy for continuing Blochman's interest in incorporating medical detail as part of their plot.
The medical detail in parts of Rather Cool for Mayhem are divorced from the rest of the plot, and are not well integrated with anything else. Furthermore, they never form a part of any puzzle plot in the strict sense. This is unlike the later Dr. Coffee stories, in which the medical aspects usually form part of an ingenious mystery. Still the medical ideas are not uninteresting, and form a prelude to Blochman's important Dr. Coffee series.
Dr. Hurley's story is about a a patient who bleeds to death after surgery, due to non-clotting (Chapter 7). In this it resembles the first Dr. Coffee short story "But the Patient Died". The causes and medical details are different in the two works, however.
Hero: Wiseguy Patter. The hero, an ex-newspaperman, has a smart aleck mouth and a lot of attitude. Jim Lawrence is rough, tough and given to wisecracks and adroit phrases, many of which show verbal cleverness. This sort of smart guy patter is rather startling in Blochman, whose Dr. Coffee tales are narrated with a serious earnestness. Even here, his narrator's hard-boiled cracks show unusual literacy, with many twists on standard phrases.
Separated and Reunited Lovers. The heroine and the hero have been separated three years by World War II. He returns to the USA, and she tells him she is marrying another man. This has both similarities and differences with the romantic triangle in Bengal Fire. There an American woman long separated from her fiance in Asia visits him, only to discover he is about to be married to another woman.
Differences: The couple in Bengal Fire were engaged, and the jilted woman has been deceived. In Rather Cool for Mayhem the hero and heroine had broken up before he left for the war, and the heroine is certainly under no obligation to be faithful to him, or refuse to marry another man.
A similar triangle had just appeared in the first Dr. Coffee short story "But the Patient Died", with a sailor coming home from the war to find his fiancee married to another man.
Military and Militarism. The novel has a Background describing what the characters did before, during and after World War II. Such a "through the war" perspective is found in a number of World War I novels, such as Donald McGibeny's 32 Caliber (1920). Blochman's little crime story "Riviera Renegade" (1948) also follows two characters (narrator James Patterson and Giacomo) through World War II, despite its brief length.
One of the characters in Rather Cool for Mayhem is a manufacturer, who grew rich from his factory making cotton shirts for GI uniforms. This focus on the intersection of manufacturing and politics will reoccur in the later Dr. Coffee stories. There Blochman will largely concentrate on food manufacturing plants.
Rather Cool for Mayhem has a good deal of idolization of the military ethos, with men in uniform being admired and civilians being regarded as second rate. This was a not uncommon attitude during World War II. It extends in the book to the detective, a state trooper named Captain Hugh McKay. McKay and his men are uniformed and very militaristic in their approach. McKay is tall, wears a tailored gray trooper's uniform and Stetson, and is ultra-tough and disciplined. He is always barking out commands and imposing his authority on the suspects. Everything he says is either a direct query demanding information, or an order. He also directs the flow of conversation among the suspects, controlling everything they say. He refuses to answer questions himself, and makes sure that everyone understands the flow of information will be strictly one way.
State Policemen were often idealized in this era. See my list of State Police in fiction.
The military will return in Recipe For Homicide (1952), and in some of Blochman's Dr. Coffee short stories of the 1960's. They will be treated in a progressively more skeptical manner by Blochman as the years go by. Even in the World War II Mayhem Blochman expresses concern about civilian war profiteers, although the armed forces are treated with reverence. As time goes by, Blochman's skepticism will extend to members of the armed forces themselves, in such Dr. Coffee stories as "The Wolf and The Wayward Wac" (1963).
Hero: Military Service and the OWI. The hero worked in an US information service in London, during his three years in the US Army. He was a P.R.O.: a Public Relations Officer. He pokes fun at himself and his activities (Chapter 10). He says a P.R.O. "is a newspaperman dressed up in a soldier suit." He also notes he took part in Army radio broadcasting and sometimes psychological warfare.
Blochman served in the United States Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II (according to William L. DeAndrea: Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994)). Although the hero's organization is not named in Rather Cool for Mayhem, the hero's activities sound a lot like those of the OWI. The hero also resembles Blochman in having earlier worked as a newspaperman. The hero of Rather Cool for Mayhem thus has autobiographical elements, at least in terms of his professions. Also, the last name of hero Jim Lawrence is the same as Lawrence G. Blochman's first name.
The OWI had a huge staff. They included famous literary writers like Archibald MacLeish, Gordon Parks and Robert Sherwood, and science fiction authors like Murray Leinster and Cordwainer Smith. Their mystery writers included Blochman and Theodore Tinsley.
Women in Technical Jobs. The heroine started out as a photojournalist, a good one. She now has her own business making photographic studies for medical schools (first part of Chapter 1).
Later we learn that suspect Conchita Westerford served as a radio recording technician, one of many women who took on jobs while men were off fighting the war (first part of Chapter 11).
Rather Cool for Mayhem has a recognition that women work in skilled technical jobs. This recalls the skilled businesswoman heroine of Blow-Down. And Doris Hudson, the chief technician in the pathology lab in the Dr. Coffee stories.
US Society. Recipe for Homicide does more. Blochman saw India as a dynamic place, seething with intrigue and competing political factions. Recipe for Homicide offers a similar portrait of modern America. There are Communists, capitalists, representatives of labor unions, government agents. Each is presented as is, with an attempt to offer a sophisticated, realistic portrayal, not a stereotype common to a thriller (e.g., the dreadful Mickey Spillane).
Blochman's portrait of Communism is complex. He is definitely not a Communist sympathizer. Far from it. He shows US. Communists as a sinister group willing to sabotage the US military, a point of view that is perhaps extremely anti-Communist, but which gains reasonable credence in 1996 from all we know about the systematic willingness of Communist Party members in real life to engage in anti-US. espionage and anti-Trotskyist terrorism. Blochman shows Communists as willing to murder their own members, also a realistic portrayal. But Blochman also shows how idealistic Americans got caught up in Communism because of a desire to treat areas of US society in genuine need of reform, such as the treatment of the poor and racial discrimination. The fate of these idealists is portrayed as genuinely tragic, as their ideals are eventually betrayed by Communist realities.
Blochman's portrayal of capitalism is equally complex. He shows how many factory owners are genuinely concerned about the safety and welfare of their employees. He also shows that the ranks of capitalists include crooks and schemers willing to go to any lengths to achieve their swindles. It is a balanced portrayal, which is probably unsatisfactory to ideological extremists of either left or right, but which certainly can be defended as "realistic" and non-superficial.
Blochman's greatest deviations from realism come from the demands and conventions of the mystery genre. In a mystery novel, you must have a murder, and a large cast of suspects who can reasonably suspected of the murder. Probably this is not realistic, in the strictest sense. Neither US Communists or capitalists have typically engaged in Agatha Christie style murder schemes to further their goals. Nor have most other people, of course. The types of murders portrayed in mystery stories are largely a literary convention, designed to create entertaining, ingenious plots. Political ideologues of all stripes can reasonably claim that Blochman has exaggerated the willingness of their side to engage in murderous activities. Of course he has - otherwise he wouldn't be able to write a mystery novel about them.
The conventions of the mystery story aside, Blochman has created one of the most realistic portraits of American society in this novel. It is also a portrayal that is quite different from that of many modern mystery writers. Mysteries often portray daily life in the US as humdrum, routine, and commonplace. Blochman shows US daily life as the operating ground of many powerful forces, technological, scientific, economic, political. It comes across as a very interesting, dynamic place.
Class. Recipe for Homicide goes out of its way to invoke Thorstein Veblen, a non-Marxist critic of capitalism (last part of Chapter 3). Veblen created the concept of "conspicuous consumption", especially among the "leisure class", the latter phrase being quoted in Recipe for Homicide. Recipe for Homicide depicts such consumption among characters who are part of the upper class, contrasted with the subdued approach of the middle class hero:
One might note that Thorstein Veblen had links to Pragmatism, an American school of philosophy led by John Dewey. Dewey, Veblen and colleagues were once vastly influential in American thought.
Psychological Warfare. The hero worked in Psychological Warfare during World War II (Chapter 3). This recalls the hero of Rather Cool for Mayhem, whose Army information job sometimes included Psychological Warfare.
The Major who ran the Psychological Warfare unit goes back to his advertising executive's job after the war. Although the hero had been a newspaper reporter before the war, he follows the Major and becomes a junior executive at the same New York ad agency. Recipe for Homicide seems to be positing a link between Psychological Warfare and advertising. This is not satire - it is a literal assertion of a similarity between the two fields. After all, both are in the business of mass persuasion.
Certain Sleep (1961) (Chapter 1) by Helen Reilly offers a systematic critique of Madison Avenue and its effect on US culture.
Publicity and the Media. Without offering explicit moral or political commentary, Recipe for Homicide shows the symbiotic relationship between publicity generated by businesses like Barzac, and items that appear in the mass media. The first page shows this in detail. Peggy Bayliss' work sending newspapers recipes featuring Barzac products also illustrates this (start of Chapter 2, end of Chapter 4).
Characters. We get a biography of the hero, showing us what he was doing before, during and after World War II (second half of Chapter 3). Such a "through the war" life history is a standard Blochman technique.
The hero is pressured into doing things he doesn't want to do by a "friend" he distrusts (Chapter 3). This recalls Bengal Fire, whose hero was pressured by the unethical Hoyt. In both cases, this pushes the hero into the midst of mysterious situations.
Color. Blue is strongly linked to Barzac Cannery, serving as what is today called a "corporate brand":
In addition this is sound creative writing, giving the Cannery a vivid, consistent "look" in the reader's mind. It also helps distinguish Barzac Cannery from real-world soup manufacturers, who use different color codes.
Color is not much used to describe people's regular, non-Cannery clothes, unlike some Blochman tales. Exceptions:
Abstraction and Visionary Writing. The hero has a brief period of abstraction, when he is reacting in shock to the first killing (first part of Chapter 5). This involves science fictional imagery, mainly concerning time. It also says that the hero feels like an "automaton": also science fiction imagery.
Such moments of abstraction appear a number of times in Helen Reilly. One also occurs in Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930) (Chapter 22), by Freeman Wills Crofts.
Blochman's abstraction passage is unusual compared to other writers, in that it includes something that finally pulls his hero out of the abstraction: the striking clock.
A second passage soon follows, in which the sight of women walking in evening gowns is called a "kaleidoscope of color". This isn't abstraction, but it is "visionary", and reflective of the hero's out-of-the-ordinary mood.
This second passage also includes the regular beat of a car's windshield wipers. The sound is compared to a metronome. This recalls a bit the "monotone" sound of the cicada in "A Perfect Target", and the monotone wail of the title menace in "The Phantom Cry-Baby". Blochman was sometimes a sound-oriented writer.
The end of the first, abstraction period coincides with the hero discovering what he wants to do, and feeling a sense of urgency. The windshield wipers in the visionary second episode seem to symbolize this urgency.
Babu English. A number of Indian characters in Blochman speak "Babu English". This is a real-life approach to speaking English, which pre-dates Blochman, and was NOT invented by him. It involves speaking English with elaborate, formal phrases, and much rhetorical ornamentation. It is completely grammatically correct, and requires an expertise in literary phraseology. It is comic, but also requiring an impressive amount of oratorical skill.
As far back as "The Chota Sahib" (1930), the character Bannerjee speaks in what is explicitly labeled Babu English. The Babu English in this tale is fairly simple, though, compared to later examples in Blochman. By the way, "The Chota Sahib" is an apprentice work, not especially good, and not recommended. It has thriller elements, but is not really a mystery or detective tale.
Gundranesh Dutt in Bengal Fire gives a fuller embodiment of "Babu English". He is mainly a comic character, and not a very impressive one.
Blochman's treatment of "Babu English" climaxes with the series character Dr. Mookerji in the Dr. Coffee tales. The first Dr. Mookerji tale "Rum for Dinner" explicitly says he uses Babu English. Dr. Mookerji's employment of the elaborately formal Babu English is clearly designed to add some comedy to the tales. However, it is not intended as a put-down of Dr. Mookerji, who is shown as a brilliant scientist and a person of the highest intelligence and moral character.
I have no idea if some consensus has formed today about the use of Babu English in fiction, or not. I am going to hope that today's readers are going to at least forgive the use of Babu English in the Dr. Mookerji tales. Dr. Mookerji is an early attempt in American fiction to create a completely admirable Indian character. He is a man who shows the brilliant level at which Indians can contribute to society.
Categories. Blochman's Dr. Coffee short stories break down into a number of categories:
There are other mystery aspects to some of these stories, aside from their core crime plot. Many of the tales involve Hidden Relationships ("But the Patient Died", "Catfish Story", "Rum for Dinner", "The Swami of Northbank", "The Square on the Hypotenuse", "The Half-Naked Truth").
Animals and their biology play a role in several stories, as a subplot ("Catfish Story", "Deadly Back-Fire", "But the Patient Died").
Individual Tales. Some remarks on individual short stories.
"But the Patient Died" (1947), is a straightforward Dr. Thorndyke imitation. The first tale in the Dr. Coffee series, it furnishes a good summary of both the daily hospital work and routine of Dr. Coffee, and of his and his police friend Max Ritter's personalities. It makes for pleasant reading, although quite mechanical in its approach to mystery. The best touches in the story deal with politics in Coffee's hometown of Northbank.
More creative, and with a better puzzle plot, is "Catfish Story". In "Catfish Story", Dr Coffee's medical deduction plays only a small part in the story. This lividity subplot is sound and clever. But most of the tale is taken up by two other complex plots. These are solved by policeman Max Ritter, who is the principal detective in the story. It is nice to see Ritter getting an outing. These two Ritter subplots do not involve medical mysteries - instead, they are well-done non-medical mysteries.
The abundance of plot in "Catfish Story" is a virtue, with a near-constant stream of revelations throughout the tale.
Similarly, in "Old Flame" (1959), Ritter is the one who actually solves howdunit, finds the criminal, and exposes the killer's motive. He does all this at the very end of the tale, and his detection takes up a smaller portion of the story than it does in "Catfish Story".
"Calendar Girl" is one of the less satisfying tales. Its main non-medical mystery uses an old plot idea, that previously appeared in such works as Dashiell Hammett's "One Hour" (1924) and Baynard Kendrick's Blood on Lake Louisa (1934).
"The Phantom Cry-Baby" (1948) concerns the heiress to the Barzac Cannery, later used as the setting of Recipe for Homicide. Its plot is alluded to in Chapter 6 of Recipe, and in some ways forms a prequel to that novel. The Cannery itself is hardly discussed in "Cry-Baby", however.
SPOILERS. "The Phantom Cry-Baby" is one of the few Dr. Coffee stories to use mechanical, non-medical technology as part of the plot. (Another Blochman mechanical device is in Bengal Fire (Chapter 29).) The premise and solution of "The Phantom Cry-Baby" bear a broad family resemblance to "The Flaming Phantom" (1905) by Jacques Futrelle and especially "The Ghost at Massingham Mansions" by Ernest Bramah. However the details are quite different.
A goal of the heiress to use her mansion for a charitable purpose, recalls "Episode of the Wandering Knife" (1943) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. So does the injured soldier.
A locked room story is "Murder Behind Schedule" (1963) (also published as "Young Wife"). This is a very well done tale, brief but with a well constructed plot. It contains a gracious homage to John Dickson Carr. Carr in turn was a fan of Blochman's, and praised his stories in print. This is much shorter than Blochman's other Dr. Coffee tales, presumably because it appeared in This Week, a magazine that offered high prices for very short mystery stories - Ellery Queen's Q.B.I. also appeared there in the early 1950's.
The characterization of Paul Monson in "Murder Behind Schedule" is interesting. It emphasizes his interior world, his attitudes and thoughts, as well as his talents. It also stresses the relationship between the character, and society, especially the sociology of modern life. Many of Blochman's characters seem to exist on such an interface. The plot of the tale, like many of Blochman's, interweaves a cat's cradle of relationships among the characters. The solution is also typical of Blochman, in that it involves the detective discovering new previously hidden relationships among the characters.
"Kiss of Kandahar" (1951) is set in the same world as Recipe for Homicide (1952), with its factories, its food processing, and its poisons. This tale, like its predecessor "The Swami of Northbank" (1950), is in the pure Freeman tradition of scientific detection. Both stories involve some interesting science.
The later "No Taste for Tea" (a.k.a. "The Man Who Lost His Taste") (1958) also recalls Recipe for Homicide, as such Blochman interests as botany, medical detection, and the world of industrial food preparation all intermix. Blochman's interest in industrial food preparation exposes a whole hidden side of modern American life. Despite the ubiquity of grocery stores and prepared food, most people have little consciousness of this. It underpins all of modern life on a daily basis.
Blochman also enjoys the technology of gourmet cooking, and exotic foods. The Caribbean meal in "Rum For Dinner" is an example. I've seen the ackee trees (Blighia sapida) discussed in that story at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Miami.
In addition to his industry set stories, Blochman also wrote tales set among the criminal element. "Stacked Deck" (1956) is especially Freeman like. Its dubious death is a major Freeman theme, and the blood analysis recalls such Freeman tales as "The Old Lag" (1909) and "The Pathologist to the Rescue". Blochman includes complete life histories for his characters. Blochman is an especially people oriented writer. He notices his characters, their beliefs, their relationships, their histories, their physical appearance, and their medical conditions: much of the science in Blochman's tales revolves around this latter.
Of the two last stories in Clues For Dr. Coffee, "The Wolf and The Wayward Wac" (1963) is not bad, with interesting business detail about the Army. Its medical aspects are somewhat weak compared to the best Dr. Coffee tales, going a long way to set up a mystery plot element. But the tale's vivid, detailed story telling is fun to read.
"Wrong-Way Tosca" (1964) is unpleasant. "Wrong-Way Tosca" suffers from a stereotyped, negatively depicted gay character, one of the few examples of prejudice anywhere in Blochman's work.
Death by Drowning?. Despite its brevity, Blochman has crowded many of his themes into "Death by Drowning?" (1965):
Dr. Coffee and the Philanderer's Brain. "Dr. Coffee and the Philanderer's Brain" (1966) returns Blochman to the international intrigue found in his 1930's novels.
I liked the account of the scientist victim's top-secret astronomy work, and wished there were more about it. The work uses spectrographic analysis. Forensic scientists had used spectrographic analysis in Blochman as far back as Bengal Fire. Here Blochman is extending this technique to astronomy.
It is another Blochman tale in which a crime that first seems motivated by romantic conflicts actually turns out to be caused by colder criminal motives. However, too much time is spent on the victim's unpleasant liaisons, and the tale is not enjoyable reading.
There is ingenuity in the treatment of the shot neighbor Mrs. Plotkin hears, and Dr. Coffee's detective ideas on the subject. The murder method as a whole also shows some ingenuity.
Unfortunately, the tale depends on Dr. Coffee initially neglecting his forensic investigation. As the story points out, this is completely out of character for Dr. Coffee. This too is a misstep, that makes the tale less enjoyable. The feds too fail to investigate. It is believable in all the Dr. Coffee tales that Coffee is much better than the local Coroner, a lazy hack politician. It is less believable that the feds here would be so shoddy in their investigation.
Missing: One Stage-Struck Hippie. Blochman will develop a much more objective look at gay people in "Missing: One Stage-Struck Hippie" (1970). The medical model of gayness here is typical of Blochman's medical orientation, but it seems oddly old fashioned, and recalls the 19th Century, when writing about gay people was often done by medical experts. Neither this tale nor "Wrong-Way Tosca" shows any consciousness of gay people as an often discriminated against minority. But "Missing" does depict gay people as deeply integrated into the fabric of American society, and making a positive contribution to public life.
"Missing: One Stage-Struck Hippie" tries to cover a lot of ground. It is a full-scale look at the Counter Culture, left-wing protest (treated unsympathetically) and the darker side of heterosexual relations among protesting young people.
"Missing: One Stage-Struck Hippie" has color imagery, in its treatment of Mod clothes styles of the era.
Dr. Coffee and the Amateur Angel. "Dr. Coffee and the Amateur Angel" (1971) is a minor tale that suffers from grimness, and a lack of believable characterization in both the victim and the killer.
Two characters, the victim and Jones, get "through the war" life histories, showing their lives before, during and after the Vietnam War. Such "through the war" accounts are a Blochman tradition. "Dr. Coffee and the Whiz Kid" (1972) will also have a "through the Vietnam War" perspective.
One character is black, a second is bisexual. This continues the attempt by Blochman to include diverse characters in his stories. The black man Jones is the most interesting character in the tale.
Blochman likes sociological observation:
SPOILERS. In Rather Cool for Mayhem, a hidden crime is concealed in a character's "through the war" story. This crime is revealed only at the novel's end, in the solution to the mystery. Similarly in "Dr. Coffee and the Pardell Case" hidden criminal activities are concealed in the main character's life history. These are only revealed as surprises at the tale's end. In both works, these surprise revelations are very much part of the mystery plot.
A back-story deals with that key Blochman subject, industrial food production. It is set, once again, at Barzac Cannery.
Mystery plot ideas are variants on previous Blochman stories. SPOILERS:
Dr. Coffee and the Whiz Kid. One of the best is "Dr. Coffee and the Whiz Kid" (1972). Blochman kept up with the times in his later work. This story has a "through the Vietnam War" perspective similar to the "through World War II" approach of Rather Cool For Mayhem. Blochman is interested in depicting not just a current event, but how the aftermath of the event will impinge on people's lives. It is a whole historical process that Blochman writes about. (A sympathetic witness in "Dr. Coffee and the Pardell Case" is a Vietnam veteran.)
This tale has the richest look at Max Ritter's family background in the Dr. Coffee saga. The tale also has a semi-satiric look at Ritter's relatives in academia. Blochman has captured the feel of 1970's American academia well, half pretentiousness, half genuine scholarship and learning. These are among the few academic people in all of Blochman; it is a side of modern life in which he had previously displayed little interest.
Other late Blochman tales include academics:
Dr. Mookerji is still a first rate scientist from India. But now he too is played by a young, hip and very cool man. He no longer is the rotund and eccentric character from the books. This might be the first portrait of a continuing Indian character on American TV. It is astonishingly dignified, glamorous and non-stereotyped.
Doris Hudson the lab technician is now a comedy relief figure, with an unrequited love for Dr. Coffee, just like Nikki Porter and Ellery Queen. She is vaguely Brooklyn-esque in her speech and manner. But she is also depicted as an expert technician: her test for blood stains is deft, efficient, and one of the show-piece highlights of the first episode.
There is also a jazz-loving teenager who works in the lab, Link, who is somewhat comic and trying to "find himself". He completes the "hip" tone of the show. He has no counterpart in the books.
The show's first episode A Case of Radiant Wine has surfaced. While the characters and style click, the plotting and scientific detection are not as good as in Blochman's tales. Still, with its glamorized scientist characters and heroes of different races and genders, it gives a fascinating glimpse of an idealistic society, one already determined to put a man on the moon.
The sophistication and coolness of the characters recall Peter Gunn. But the filming techniques of A Case of Radiant Wine instead recall the live TV dramas of the era:
Blochman's career. Oddly, I can see no sign that Blochman, his agent or his publishers used this TV series to promote the Dr. Coffee prose tales. One would have thought that this TV series could have been a boost to Blochman's career.
Blochman had a major career as a mystery writer from 1930 to 1952. He published ten novels, and from 1938 on often appeared in the high-paying "slick" magazines. But from 1953-1974 he published only short stories, and almost exclusively in the modest paying "digest" magazines, such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and The Saint Mystery Magazine. From a commercial standpoint, this is much less of a career - although these digest magazines were widely respected for the quality of the fiction they published.
This story is a complete change of pace for Blochman. It shows him taking on many of the features of the intuitionist school:
The story does show some of Blochman's approaches:
Portrero also appears in "The Spectre of Russian Hill" (1963), a short story in the January 1963 Saint Mystery Magazine. This is a routine tale, with a few good touches:
Much of what she wrote is outside the scope of this Guide, which concentrates on detective fiction, defined as "mysterious situations, such as murder or theft, solved by detectives". But some of her works that approximate the true detective tale are discussed here.
Holding later used the setting of "The Kiskadee Bird", the imaginary Caribbean island of Puerto Azul, for such EQMM stories as "People Do Fall Downstairs" (1947).
"The Unbelievable Baroness" (1945) is another spy story set on a Caribbean Island. It is a little lighter in tone and more escapist than "The Kiskadee Bird". It is a genuine mystery tale, and a good one. Instead of a single well defined event, such as murder that needs to be explained, the story focuses on a bewildering tangle of mysterious little events. None of these is as sinister as a murder, but they plunge the reader into a situation that is hard to understand or explain. Eventually, Holding comes up with logical explanations for everything. This approach of plunging the reader into a bewildering situation that reaches a satisfying explanation recalls Mary Roberts Rinehart. So do Holding's strong women characters.
Miasma stars a young, penniless doctor who gets involved with mysterious events, when he goes to work for an older doctor as his assistant. The young doctor functions a bit as an amateur detective, trying to track down information and explanations about what is going on. However, Miasma is more a sinister thriller or tale of suspense, than any sort of pure detective novel.
I didn't like Miasma as a whole: it is morbid and downbeat, as well as more than a little "sick". But am including a review here for completeness.
Structure. The two halves of Miasma are different in approach:
The poor young doctor-hero is under pressure to become a financial success: his fiancee expects it, and so does her family. The people he meets also condemn him for his poor clothes. This is definitely not a society in which genteel poverty is a respectable option.
Culture Wars. The contrast between the young doctor, with his stern moral code, and the sybaritic older doctor, his advocacy of pleasure, and his morally compromised actions, oddly anticipates today's Culture Wars.
However, today it is the left which represents poor people with financially limited life styles, and the right which celebrates the rich, money and materialism. By contrast in Miasma, its is the young doctor with traditional Christian morals who has the poverty-driven austere life style, and the paganistic older doctor who enjoys wealth and luxury.
SPOILER. The central subject of the novel, is a prominent flashpoint in today's Culture Wars. While this subject is treated as one of the book's mysteries, Holding does not try too hard to conceal it. Instead, an early speech by the older doctor clues the reader in at an early chapter, to suspect something like this is going on. Such an approach emphasizes suspense over mystery.
Doped. The sinister drug sequences lead to delusions of grandeur: things seem perfect and the drugged victim begins to believe he is all-powerful. This anticipates Agatha Christie's "The Flock of Geryon" (1940) in The Labors of Hercules. which has an oddly similar treatment. In Christie the delusions of grandeur extend to politics, something not found in Holding.
Ancestors. I don't know of close ancestors to Miasma, among other authors' books. The following suggestions are some works to which it has some broad or distant similarity.
Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (1919) is an earlier example of a thriller that fits into the same broad category as Miasma: ordinary people in middle class settings who become amateur investigators of strange events that just happen to surround them. The Haunted Bookshop has its characters trying to penetrate a mysterious house where they suspect sinister activities are occurring; the second half of Miasma has its hero go to a danger-filled house on a medical call. However, the tone of Miasma is much darker and more morally threatening than the cheerful, often comic The Haunted Bookshop. The resemblance between the two books is not close.
I've speculated that The Haunted Bookshop might be an influence on the pulp magazine stories of the 1920's. Some of suspense happenings in the sinister house in Miasma also have a bit of pulp feel. The presence of that favorite pulp character, a chauffeur, also gives a pulp aspect. But Miasma is far more middle class and small town in setting than most hard-boiled pulp tales, and completely remote from anything like the gangsters or the underworld that are prominent in the pulps. It would be difficult, maybe impossible, to use the word "hard-boiled" to describe Miasma.
R. Austin Freeman's "31 New Inn" (1911) begins with a young doctor asked to see a patient in a strange home, thus initiating a mystery. Other Freeman works also have medical backgrounds. The young doctor hero gives Miasma a bit of a Freeman-like feel, although the tone is quite different from Freeman. Miasma has other medical aspects in its plot, making it on the borderline of the "scientific detective story".
Elston also wrote Western stories, some of which combine elements of crime and suspense. Elston wrote nearly 30 Western novels, from the 1940's to the 1960's. His Western short story "Triggers in Leash" shows his fondness for symmetry. This tale was dramatized on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV.
"Live Bait" and "Blackmail" also share plot imagery of people being pursued to the doors of their suburban homes. These two stories also share a similar plotting style, off trail, elegant variations on conventional detective formulae. One thing that is "off trail" about Elston's stories is that they tend not to follow the paradigm of murder, leading to investigation by a professional detective. Instead the protagonist tends to get involved with the crime in some unusual, unique way, then has to resolve the mystery. This detectival approach to solving the crime also tends to be something unusual dreamed up by Elston, which varies from story to story.
"Live Bait" is included in the anthology Murder for the Millions (1946) edited by Frank Owen.
A minor but pleasant Elston tale is "The Bookshop Mystery"; its plot recalls Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop (1919).
Some of Elston's non-Murphy tales include settings that seem Croftsian: the use of trains in "Drawing Room B", the harbor and boat scenes in Murder by Mandate (1945).
In "The Unloaded Gun" Murphy is the viewpoint character; in "The Blackout Murders" he is not, the story being seen from the point of view of the main suspect; this switch is unusual in detective series, most of which establish a point of view, then stick with it consistently throughout.
A continuing "bad guy" in the Murphy series is the sensationalistic local newspaper editor, Clagle of the Daily Trumpet. A similar negative media presence haunts the non-Murphy tale "Live Bait"; this is apparently a persistent Elston theme. "Blackmail" also involves a newspaper of dubious ethics, the Clarion.
"The Unloaded Gun" is set in fictitious Citrus Valley in California, "The Blackout Murders" in Citrus City. Citrus fruit are a major crop in California.
"The Blackout Murders" takes place against a World War II blackout of an American city. The detailed portrait of the blackout can be considered as a Background in the Croftsian sense. The action is restricted to a single neighborhood, which gets an in-depth look. This anticipates a bit the island setting of Murder by Mandate: both are restricted to a well-defined location. (Despite the title, there is only one killing in "The Blackout Murders".)
"The Blackout Murders" is a full-fledged murder mystery. SPOILERS. Its puzzle includes alibi aspects. The many plot details that involve light and the darkness of the blackout are systematically developed.
"The Blackout Murders" has as its protagonist a widowed bank teller with three children. The story describes the hero as underpaid, and he also does not get much support from anyone in society. The tale sympathizes with this sort of very lower middle class character. There is a struggling young architect in "The Unloaded Gun", but he seems less marginalized than the teller in "The Blackout Murders".
"The Blackout Murders" is included in the anthology The Mystery Companion (1943) edited by A. L. Furman, and originally appeared in the pulp magazine Short Stories. "The Unloaded Gun" is included in the anthology Third Mystery Companion (1945) edited by A. L. Furman, and originally appeared in Collier's Weekly, September 5, 1942.
Murder by Mandate shows the Realist School's fondness for tropical settings during the W.W. II era. Unlike Lawrence Blochman and Helen McCloy, the book is set not in the Caribbean, but in an imaginary South Pacific island in French Polynesia. One can consider the island setting as a Background, but this is perhaps stretching it. Unlike Blochman, whose Blow Down (1939) offers a systematic look inside a banana plantation, Murder by Mandate does not attempt to offer a systematic depiction of any specific institutions of island life. Murder by Mandate does convey a vivid feel of island living however, and manages to look at a wide range of island denizens: planters, beach combers, harbor men, the police, government officials and the clergy.
Murder by Mandate is set very precisely in 1941, after France has been overrun by the Nazis, but before the United States has entered the war. Among other things, this allows the young American reporter hero to still be practicing his civilian profession. Had the book been set after America had entered the war, the hero would probably have been in uniform.
Like many detective novels of the war era, the story combines pure mystery with current wartime events. These current events can seem more in the tradition of spy fiction, than of Golden Age mystery fiction. Right in the first chapter, the reader and the hero learn that some mysterious scheme is taking place on the island. This scheme might have something to do with current wartime events - or it might not. Throughout the rest of the book, more and more information is uncovered about the scheme. Figuring out the nature of the scheme is as much the subject of the puzzle plot as whodunit. Finally, at the end of the story, all details of both the scheme and who did the murder are fully disclosed. The authors stick to unearthing the truth about their dual mystery, the scheme and the murder. The book has the Golden Age focus on solving a mystery, even if the mystery has an unusual double nature. One recalls that some of Freeman Wills Crofts' books concentrate on elucidating mysterious enterprises, for example, The Box Office Murders (1929).
Murder by Mandate is a beautiful book. The island setting is evoked with lyrical grace. The authors include a great deal of realistic detail, that makes the setting vivid and believable at all times. The book has an effortless "you are there" quality, that suggests that at least one of the authors knew French Polynesia at first hand. Wherever the book goes, whether rowing out to an incoming ship in the harbor, to a island hotel, to driving along inland roads, it is full of specific detail. The detail is often very lyrical. The book treats Polynesia as a sort of paradise on Earth.
Murder by Mandate has a huge cast of characters. Around twenty people recur throughout the book. The entrances and exits of the characters are handled with gracefulness. It is like watching a beautifully executed dance.
The cowboy who serves as detective, Cimarron Steve Wilder, is an amateur, not a lawman. His motivation is to help a young cowboy friend in trouble, Benny Corbin. Corbin used to work for the hero, and the hero's fondness for him is why he is involved in the investigation. Corbin has a romance with a woman in the tale; the detective hero does not. Instead, the story emphasizes how physically attractive the hero thinks young Corbin is. It is hard to tell if the hero is helping a friend - or whether the hero should be seen as a gay character. In any case, the hero is highly likable.
The early chapters involve the hero impersonating Corbin, briefly. These sections have a bit of symmetry to them.
Also personal for Elston: the characters wind up under siege at their home, the Box Cross Ranch.
The Division of Criminal Investigation was a real-life organization, founded in late 1918, shortly after the end of World War I. The DCI was dissolved in less than a year, in mid 1919. However, during its brief life, it was a large organization, handling over 4500 cases. This information is from a factual account (not by Detzer), available here.
Detzer's D.C.I. tales are compactly written. They are packed with detail about both French life and American troops. Such a in-depth look at the life of the era can be considered as a "background".
The tales look at the detective work by both local French policemen, and American military police, who often collaborate with the French. This means the stories can be considered as "police procedurals", broadly speaking.
True Tales of the D.C.I. anticipate a bit the stories of the talented contemporary writer Martin Limón. Limón's tales take place among American soldiers stationed in Korea after the Korean War. They are investigated by two US military policemen, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom. Limón's work thus recalls Detzer's, in having a background of US troops stationed post-war in another country, and being police procedurals focussing on military policemen.
"Through Bolted Doors" is one of Detzer's few known locked room stories. The solution is easily guessed, and the story lacks the dazzling ingenuity of G.K. Chesterton or John Dickson Carr. On the other hand, the solution is completely sound, workable and believable. It is also fairly clued, and allows the reader full opportunity to figure out how the crime was done: perhaps it is even too obvious, as noted above!
"Through Bolted Doors" shows the interest in architecture often found in Golden Age mysteries. The two French buildings are carefully described. The finale of the non-mystery crime story "Number 52 Rue Nationale" also has detailed architectural settings.
"Neglect of Duty" is a mystery about a theft. Detzer uses an unusual technique. He opens the tale with some cryptic remarks about its outcome, then flashes back and tells the story from the start. The opening remarks turn out to be accurate in a literal sense, but misleading in terms of what they suggest to the reader. This deceives the reader about the solution of the mystery.
Some of the tales describe a near complete breakdown in social order. Between the troop concentrations of idle soldiers, liquor, the local vice trade and other factors, one can see orderly life disintegrating. See such tales as "Number 52 Rue Nationale" and "The Guilty Party". "Number 52 Rue Nationale" is especially disturbing. The breakdown of society oddly recalls the stories Dashiell Hammett was writing in the 1920's. Hammett's works, which take place among regular civilian society, are more creative, though.
Neither "Number 52 Rue Nationale" or "The Guilty Party" are primarily mysteries in structure: they do not center on mysterious situations that have to be explained. Both occasionally do have surprise twists, and odd situations to be explained. The first of the three crime anecdotes in "The Guilty Party" does indeed open with a bizarre event that needs to be explained, at least in its motive.
"Murder in the Movies" perhaps has some affinities to the realist school:
The republication of this tale in Queen's anthology seemed to trigger a mild boom in mystery stories located on Hollywood sets: see Ray Bradbury's excellent "Yesterday I Lived!" (1944), Dorothy Dunn's "It Had To Be-" (1944), and A. Boyd Correll's "Press Agent For Murder" (1945).
Its most interesting feature is its inside look at the police's communication grid. In his youth Detzer worked as a reporter and a news photographer; in his later years he was a newspaper publisher; he was clearly a man interested in all media. I bet he would have loved today's multimedia computer networks.
I also like its Michigan setting; I don't get to read many mysteries set in my home state. Detzer's "Bank Job" (1940) is a similar, mild but realistic tale of a manhunt conducted by the Michigan State Police.
Detzer is good at describing teams of people, such as a movie crew or the police, each with their own special skill. There is a flow of information through the group; this flow is an engine that moves the plot along. People in his tales are always breaking up into small groups, then rejoining the large central crowd. Detzer tracks this regrouping geographically, as his characters move from point to point; this movement also contributes to his plots.
State Policemen were often idealized in this era. See my list of State Police in fiction.
An excerpt from a Propper letter to mystery fan P. M. Stone has surfaced on the net: "My latest Tommy Rankin exploit has just been published under the title The Boudoir Murder. . . . My own humble opinion is that it is better than either of [my previous efforts]. I am in complete agreement with you as to the general superiority of English detective stories, especially those of Lynn Brock and Croft, who also happen to be my favorite authors, though I would exclude Fletcher's third-rate tales of the past five years. But in defense of America, I would suggest the late Isabel Ostrander, whose ingenuity and plotting were unsurpassed." Propper's references are likely to Lynn Brock, Freeman Wills Crofts and J.S. Fletcher. There is a Croft Hall at the university in Propper's The Student Fraternity Murder, likely a homage to the author.
Commentary on Milton M. Propper:
The book has some strengths: it creates Propper's series sleuth, young Tommy Rankin of the Homicide Squad - who is seen at his best in those same four opening chapters. It is also the debut of Rankin's friendly superior Thomas, who is only Lieutenant Thomas at this early date.
And the book comes up with a surprising killer. Other than the choice of murderer, there is not much of a real puzzle plot in the book, just a lot of routine investigation of what usually turn out to be red herrings.
The boarding house is compared to the setting of the play The Show-Off (1924) by George Kelly (Chapter 4). George Kelly was a famous playwright in that era. George Kelly resembled Milton M. Propper in that both were from Philadelphia, and both were gay. (Note added later: Curtis Evans' article on The Election Booth Murder points out that the Kelly family home, built 1929, was around a mile from the Propper family home.)
Architecture. The amusement park "scenic railway" where the crime occurs is actually one large building (Chapter 3). This unusual structure shows the Golden Age interest in architecture. The curvilinear shape of the track, is soon echoed by the curving road along Wissahickon Creek (Chapter 4).
The scenic railway is explored twice: once in darkness, once in bright light. This is an unusual effect.
Curved tracks and roads, sometimes elevated like the scenic railway, were a specialty of the 1940's comic book artist Bob Davis. See the discussion of Davis' comic book series Dick Cole, the Wonder Boy, or go directly to the article's section on Curved Roads.
Relationships. The relationships of the people in the opening chapters fall into three distinct groups:
Two of these kinds of groups will be prominent in The Student Fraternity Murder. Older lower class women take care of young men. And the fraternity represents brotherhood and acceptance into a circle of men, like the group of reporters in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young.
Tommy will ask a friendly group of reporters to help him in The Student Fraternity Murder (Chapter 5).
City Directory. Billy Fairchild, the most prominent of the reporters, consults a City Directory to get information about a street, thus helping Tommy (Chapter 3). They were an important information tool in the pre-Internet age. See my list of mystery writers who used City Directories. Tommy will consult a directory in The Ticker-Tape Murder (Chapter 8), and in the finale of The Great Insurance Murders.
Tommy Puts it in Writing. Tommy loves to make written notes of everything, as part of his police investigations (Chapter 1). We learn he "reasoned on paper", his use of logic spelled out in his writings.
Tommy's written ideas include lists (second half Chapter 9). Lists had already had a long history in mystery fiction by 1929. Their usage is set forth in The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913) (Chapter 16), by Carolyn Wells.
Gay Content. BIG SPOILERS in this section. The killer in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young is revealed at the end to have gay aspects (Chapters 28, 29). The character is not quite explicitly gay - but sure comes close.
This can be seen negatively, as a flaw: Associating gayness with a villain can be read as a denunciation of gayness. I think most LGBTQ supporters today would rather see a gay hero than a villain.
On the positive side, at least the novel offers "visibility" to LGBTQ characters and subject matter.
On the whole, I think that the gay-character-as-villain aspects strip The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young from having permanent, lasting value as a work of gay fiction. The novel's gay aspects are interesting, and offer a certain view into queer sensibilities in 1929, but not really something one would rush out to read. It is NOT a gay classic. By contrast, I think the book's opening, with its detection and architecture, is first rate.
Publication. The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young was serialized in the magazine Pictorial Review, starting in January 1929. It seems to be one of Propper's few magazine sales.
Cover Art. The book jacket has beautiful, modernist-styled art showing the amusement park railway.
Quality: Good and Bad. The Ticker-Tape Murder is hard to evaluate as a whole. The book is full of nasty characters: only the farm family among the suspects shows any decency. And it has a bitter, sometimes horrifying tone. As a whole, it can be a downbeat experience. And it mainly contains only a little good mystery puzzle plotting. All of this makes the book as a whole hard to recommend.
Yet it contains some vividly told passages. Especially good as story telling: The opening nocturnal discovery of the murder (Chapters 1, 4) and some later sections that investigate the same material (Chapters 5, 6, 9, 13, 17). Much of these sections take place at night, and describe journeys by rail or car.
These chapters offers the best mystery plotting in the novel:
A recurring image in the opening chapter: the contrast between various lights and the enveloping darkness. Near the end of a chapter, a farmhouse is dark - then a light goes on in its upper story. All of this recalls the contrast between light and darkness in the "scenic railway" in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young.
Also well-done: Tommy Rankin's manhunt for some bad guys (Chapter 8). This section is like a short story contained within the novel. It combines solid detective work with action and thrills.
Setting Up the Story. A pleasant section that introduces characters, settings, and the book's backstory has good storytelling (Chapters 2, 3).
This section gets intriguing mystery subplots going concerning the characters. The solutions of these subplots in later chapters are not all that interesting, involving secrets of the characters. But the presence of mystery adds to the enjoyment of this section (Chapters 2, 3).
This section incorporates some mystery traditions not always employed by Propper elsewhere. Propper is perhaps experimenting with these different mystery approaches:
The mansion staff in The Ticker-Tape Murder is unusual in that not only is there a chauffeur, but also a garageman to maintain the cars. In most books, the chauffeur also does the mechanical maintenance.
Whodunit?. I had no trouble figuring out early on who the killer was. This was not due to actual clues, but to structural aspects of the novel. BIG SPOILERS. The killer is someone who keeps hanging around the case - but who is never treated as a suspect. Such characters often turn out to be the "surprise" murderers in mysteries.
Sleuths. Sgt. Daniel Gilmore is the actual sleuth in this novel. Rankin comes in for a few episodes. But mainly Gilmore is on-stage for almost all the book. In later tales, Gilmore will be a supporting character to Rankin. The next Propper mystery The Boudoir Murder stars Rankin.
This book is the origin of Gilmore. However, we learn little of his background. Like many Golden Age sleuths, the focus is on showing Gilmore do detective work, rather than his biography or personal life.
Like Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French, Gilmore is married. Both men have supportive wives (start of Chapter 9). Like French, Gilmore knows how to be deceptively charming to witnesses (Chapter 12). Unlike French, Gilmore has children (start of Chapter 2).
The Ticker-Tape Murder also features brief appearances by policemen Jenks and Smith. They have little personality here, however. Dr. Sackett appears as well. Propper is creating the ensemble cast of officers that will run through his novels.
Title. I've examined (but do not own!) a 1930 hardback First Edition of the book (without dust jacket). There is indeed a hyphen in "Ticker-Tape", despite what some reference works say. Oddly, versions of the dust jacket reproduced on the Internet do NOT have a hyphen, though.
The stock market ticker is only mentioned once (Chapter 2). It does not play a role in the plot. It symbolizes the financier Philip Nixon, being in his business office when the sleuth first meets him. Tickers are symbols of capitalism and finance. They also are phallic symbols, and express the traditionally male behavior of the financier.
The financier carries a charm on his watch fob, something common in men of the 1930 era. SPOILERS. This particular charm is a small ivory skull mounted on a gold coin: symbolizing the fusion of Capitalism and Death.
Before the Crash. The Ticker-Tape Murder was reviewed in The Saturday Review, April 19, 1930. This means it might well have been written before the Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929. The Crash is not mentioned in the novel. And the frenzied enthusiasm shown in the stock market perhaps has a pre-Crash feel.
Implicitly, the action of The Ticker-Tape Murder takes place in 1929: a character "had come to Philadelphia in the fall of 1926, three years before" (Chapter 15).
Relationships. The relationships of the people fall into three distinct groups, just as in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young:
Gender. Many of the characters are in stereotypically male professions: financier, banker, stock broker, chauffeur, garage mechanic, railway workers, farmer, gangsters, policemen. The Ticker-Tape Murder explores masculinity.
Two key characters, the financier Nixon and secretary Gardiner, are shown as having indulged in really bad behavior (Chapters 14, 16). In both cases this is linked to their heterosexuality. The Ticker-Tape Murder rubs the reader's nose in the dark side of straight male behavior. The murder victim Nixon is a sexual predator; he anticipates the stockbroker murder victim Bruce Clinton in The Great Insurance Murders, who is also a predator.
After the sexual ambiguity of The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young, The Ticker-Tape Murder represents a heterosexualization of Propper's fiction. The unmarried (maybe-he's-gay) Tommy Rankin is replaced by the married Daniel Gilmore as sleuth. Suspects are in conspicuously "masculine" professions. Many are explicitly heterosexual. However, this "straight world" is not idealized. Instead, we see the darkest, most rotten behavior by straight men possible.
And the transition to a focus on "straight men" is not permanent. In Propper's next novel Rankin will resume as lead sleuth.
Architecture. The train and train-tracks opening (Chapters 1, 4) recalls the amusement park "scenic railway" in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young. Both are dynamic environments full of movement. In both a body is discovered.
A room with a wall of windows: the conservatory at the mansion, a site of repeated visits in the novel. And the bank has a very large plate glass window (Chapter 6).
The financier's mansion (Chapter 3) anticipates the fraternity house in The Student Fraternity Murder (start of Chapter 1). Both buildings have a creeper growing on the wall, which is described as making the buildings look old.
The farm house has a peaked roof (Chapter 1): a feature fairly common in Propper descriptions.
Color. The financier's Rolls-Royce is yellow. This anticipates the "expensive yellow roadster" on the first page of The Student Fraternity Murder. It is contrasted with a black car.
Two overcoats, one gray, one brown, play a role in the plot. They anticipate the more brightly colored robes in The Student Fraternity Murder and polo team uniforms in The Great Insurance Murders. Propper seems to have "thought in color".
Stockbroker Russell Stirling lives in a lavish, brightly colored apartment, and wears brilliantly colored clothes (middle of Chapter 12). The apartment building itself is red brick with white tile.
Rinehart. There are similar settings in the openings of The Ticker-Tape Murder and The Man in Lower Ten (1906) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. SPOILERS. These include a nocturnal train ride that meets disaster in the countryside, and a nearby farmhouse. These similarities might just be a coincidence.
Influences?. Two famous playwrights made works that echo The Ticker-Tape Murder. Thornton Wilder wrote The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931); the trips in The Ticker-Tape Murder begin in Camden. And The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964) is a film written by playwright Terence Rattigan, just like the yellow car in the novel.
This might all be coincidence. However, Propper, Thornton Wilder (probably), and Terence Rattigan were all gay, and perhaps had obscure connections, or at least read each others works. Wilder worked in New Jersey in the 1920's, not far from Propper's Philadelphia. Ballistics expert Thornton Dodd is a character in Propper's mysteries.
We go inside a University Chemistry lab, discussing the poisons in the case; this gives the novel a slight scientific flavor of the Realist school.
Fraternities. Propper dedicated the book to both his past and his current fraternities. As he was 26 at the time, he presumably was either returning to college, or active as an adult in a frat. According to Francis M. Nevins' article on Propper in 1001 Midnights, Propper had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's law school three years earlier. This is the same University at which the novel is set. Like the work of other Croftsians, the Background of the book stems from Propper's own experiences. The details in the book have the feel of authenticity.
The aspect of fraternity life that most intrigues Propper is the initiation. His first chapter describes one in great detail. Such an initiation represents acceptance into both society, and a circle of men, something Propper probably wanted more than anything else. His hero is poisoned just before he is admitted into the fraternity. It is Propper's situation too: he can never be quite accepted into society, no matter how close he comes. This is genuinely tragic. As an allegory of the plight of gay life, it is hard to surpass.
We also learn that Propper's series detective, policeman Tommy Rankin, was too poor to go to college himself, entering the police force after high school. This too has considerable pathos. The murder victim was an orphan, and none of the young men in the book has any visible support from a family. They all seem painfully on their own. Propper keeps stressing the need for confidentiality when dealing with their problems. There are a series of older, lower class women who seem to look after the students: the char woman at the dormitory, the farm wife who lets the victim make a telephone call. These sympathetic older ladies are the only sort of support any of the characters seem to receive.
The initiation is elaborately color coded, with different shades on the monk's robes worn by the participants. It is a full religious ritual, and probably seen by Propper as a genuinely sacred event. This is the only color in the novel, except for automobiles, which are also a subject of fascination to him, and a white ledge. Color is used by Propper as a way of underlining what is important to him. Daily life is seen in the book as colorless, or in black and white. While events that deeply appeal to Propper appear in full, bright primary color.
The frat brothers are mainly described sympathetically. Most are very good looking. Many of them seem to be in trouble. They all have a hard time maintaining the standards of decency to which society subjects them. Their plight also echoes the status of gay men of Propper's day. These are young men who can barely fit themselves into society's constraints, and Propper derives great pathos from this situation. The murder victim's personal life comes under double scrutiny. First, he suffers under a will, telling him he will not be able to inherit if his guardian finds any flaws in his character. His guardian interprets that to mean any sexual activity on his part. Secondly, after his death, the detective scrutinizes every aspect of his life, including his friends, his papers and possessions. The detective is increasingly dismayed that he cannot find any interest in women in the student's record. Such a minute spotlight put on a person seems almost totalitarian. Propper might well have undergone such a scrutiny in his own life, as a gay man.
One might note hazing has little interest for Propper. It is sometimes described in retrospect, and always with emphasis on how much fun it is for the already accepted brothers doing the hazing. But it is never described in detail, or made the subject of a flashback scene. Instead, the other aspect of fraternity life that most intrigues Propper is the ability to take women to one's room in the upper part of the fraternity, and make out. It is an image of sexual maturity and freedom. But just like the initiation itself, it is constantly being interrupted before it can be brought to a successful conclusion. Characters in general suffer from a lack of privacy. Nearly every wall in the book can be heard through, making one wonder about building practices in Philadelphia of the era.
Plot. As a mystery, Propper's novel suffers from coincidence. It is full of disconnected subplots, each one centering about a character who is doing something suspicious. By chance, their actions just happen to be identical to that of the real murderer, thus causing Rankin to suspect them. For example, one student steals the same obscure poison used in the crime. He's not the criminal; its all just a coincidence. This makes for an unfairly plotted book. Earl Derr Biggers, another American Croftsian, also wrote mysteries that suffered from an excess of subplots.
We do see everything that Propper's detective Rankin sees throughout the novel, and share his thoughts as the case progresses. This is typical of both Crofts, and such Crofts influenced writers as Dorothy L. Sayers.
Sinister monitoring and surveillance is a theme running through the films of directors Robert Bresson, Fritz Lang, Vincente Minnelli. These linked articles of mine document in detail the occurrence of surveilling in these directors' films.
Law. Like some other Propper mysteries, The Divorce Court Murder opens at an institution where an organized activity is taking place: the divorce hearing of the title. As in other Propper, this reflects real-life activities in Philadelphia. The hearing is based on the peculiarities of 1933 Pennsylvania law: divorces were not mainly tried in courtrooms, but in the legal offices of lawyers who had been appointed "Master" of a particular case. The hearings are fully legally binding, are conducted under strict legal rules, and are a highly unusual example in American law of legal hearings not held in courtrooms. The Divorce Court Murder is also unusual as a law-based mystery that never gets near a courtroom.
Like Erle Stanley Gardner's "Leg Man" (1938), The Divorce Court Murder shows the endless chicanery and fraudulent evidence that in practice surrounded high-toned divorce law of the 1930's, with its moralistic insistence on only granting divorces when one of the couple is to blame and the other innocent. Gardner's tone is one of blistering cynicism. Propper's is more moralistic, and apparently more supportive of the law. But both works show ugly realities of endless fraud and lying to obtain divorce. The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932) (Chapter 28) by Helen Reilly also has brief but highly negative comments on the divorce law of the era.
Just as Propper dedicated The Student Fraternity Murder to his own fraternities, The Divorce Court Murder is dedicated to Propper's fellow students in the University of Pennsylvania law class of 1929. This perhaps reflects the value Propper placed on membership in male groups.
Also as in The Student Fraternity Murder, The Divorce Court Murder has a will giving one person control over the life of another (Chapter 5). In The Divorce Court Murder, there is perhaps an element of kinky fantasy to this. The will also involves the detailed financial elements often found in Propper.
The Divorce Court Murder is only in part a "legal thriller", in the modern sense. Both lawyers and a legal Background are prominent in the early chapters. But then they mainly disappear from the story.
Sleuths. We see series sleuth Tommy Rankin briefly at home. He has a modest bachelor apartment off Rittenhouse Square, with maid service to clean up during the day. Rankin is also seen eating quick meals, in brief breaks during his work. Rankin's apartment was briefly mentioned in his debut novel The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young.
Sgt. Daniel Gilmore, who assists Rankin with the investigation, gets some of his better characterization in the books (Chapter 6).
Plot. The best puzzle plot ideas involve not the murder, but subplots centering around surveillance situations in the past. Propper has two good ideas: one revealed half-way through the book (Chapters 10, 11), one revealed in the solution at the end. This second idea anticipates the solution of Ellery Queen's The Scarlet Letters (1953). It is unclear whether Queen knew of Propper's book. Queen's treatment is simpler, cleaner, and hence more plausible and self-consistent than Propper's.
Propper's choice of murderer is logical. It fully and logically explains a puzzling feature of the killing: thus forming a solid clue to the killer's identity. Oddly, while this puzzling feature is stressed in early sections of the novel, the solution in the final chapter does not bring it out.
If Propper had left it at this, he would have had a sound puzzle. Unfortunately, he gussies up the murder mystery by all sorts of suspicious actions by the other suspects. These actions sometimes involve unbelievable coincidences. For example, he repeats a flaw of The Student Fraternity Murder by having more than one person coincidentally buy the poison used in the killing! This turns the murder mystery into a mess.
One feature added to the murder mystery does show ingenuity, however: the involvement of the husband Mortimer Keith (Chapter 7). While admittedly a pure complication extraneous to the main mystery, it is plausible, not too coincidental, and best of all, ingenious. This subplot resembles some of the main mysteries in Propper concerning an infiltrator from the past who takes on a new identity to get close to a victim. Keith, however, is from the present, rather than the past.
Like some other Propper novels, The Divorce Court Murder has a floor plan of the building where the crime occurs. It also has a timetable, which largely describes the movements of people around this floor plan at various times.
Plot. The mystery plot of The Election Booth Murder is flawed. Propper's use of subplots reaches unacceptable levels. There are no less than three independent suspects or groups of suspects hanging around the crime scene. The poorly motivated actions of one group, which turns out to be innocent, enables the crime to be committed easily by another suspect - purely through coincidence (Chapter 14). In addition, a fourth suspect, who didn't actually go to the crime scene, obligingly acts suspicious at the time of the killing (Chapter 8).
Aside from all this coincidence, there is nothing interesting or ingenious about the actual killing. One of the suspects simply shoots the victim.
One mildly interesting aspect: how the gun that commits the crime turns up. This serves as a clue to the killer. This subplot has some broad resemblances to he murder weapon subplot in One Murdered: Two Dead.
SPOILER. Although politics and civic corruption are prominent in The Election Booth Murder, they turn out to have nothing to do with the killing. This is actually pretty common in so-called "political" mysteries. Still, it seems like something of a cheat, evading the announced subject of the book. After all, this is called The Election Booth Murder.
Ethnicity and Race. The Election Booth Murder sinks under the weight of ethnic stereotyping. There are lots of Irish and Italian crooks.
Ugly terms are used for black people, there is a talked-about black racketeer in the numbers racket, and a cab driver makes a racist remark (Chapters 7, 9, 15). By contrast, the book's one on-stage black character is an honest porter at a train station, who is depicted sympathetically (start of Chapter 9).
The Jewish lawyer is treated sympathetically and without stereotypes (Chapter 6).
Phone Technology. A positive feature of The Election Booth Murder is the look at phone technology. This was high tech in 1935.
A threatening anonymous call is traced to its source, by the phone company (Chapter 6). Scenes like this are common in TV crime shows of the last fifty years or more. I do not know the first such scene, or when such tracing technology was invented. But one suspects The Election Booth Murder is a fairly early example. A call is traced in the British novel The Perfect Murder Case (1929) by Christopher Bush.
In 1935, it took a long time to set up long distance phone calls: up to a half hour or more. Rich businessmen would often schedule a call for say 2PM, so that all the set-up work would have time to take place, and the call would be ready for them at two. We learn in The Election Booth Murder that the Philadelphia police headquarters has special phone technology, that enables long distance calls to be arranged much faster (middle of Chapter 9). Tommy Rankin makes a trip to headquarters, so he can make a speedy call to Atlanta, Georgia.
The police use of phone technology can be contrasted with the emphasis on radio use by the New York police in McKee of Centre Street (1933) by Helen Reilly.
Tracking Down Leonard Doran. The high tech phone episodes are part of a section about tracking down missing suspect Leonard Doran (Chapters 6, 8, 9). This section forms a sort of short story within the novel. It is a police procedural, with Tommy Rankin interviewing witnesses and gathering clues. This episode shows decent storytelling. Unfortunately, it also contains the cab driver's racial slur (start of Chapter 9). This badly mars one of the book's otherwise better sequences.
The Leonard Doran episode recalls the attempt to identify the victim in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (Chapter 4):
Crime Scene. The opening crime scene in The Election Booth Murder shares features with the one in The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young:
Car Chase. A car chase following the murder is one of the book's better passages (Chapter 2). This sort of action sequence perhaps recalls hard-boiled fiction. It stars Tommy Rankin and Jenks, two favorite police characters from the novels.
The car chase includes a welcome map of the area, and its streets and alleys. What seem to be real Philadelphia streets are mentioned. Similarly, the hunt for Leonard Doran is always set on named Philadelphia streets and locations.
Cover Art. The cover is signed Leo Manso in the lower right corner. Leo Manso is well-known for both his often surrealistic book covers, and for his "fine art" abstract paintings and collages. The killer's coat or jacket seems oddly curved. It suggests a leather motorcycle jacket.
Some good passages in the book:
Mystery Plot: Tying Together Two Story Lines. SPOILER. There is an interesting clue discussed in the solution (Chapter 21). This involves tying together one character dropping out of sight, and another character turning up at the same time. This recalls a much-used mystery plot construction in Frank Gruber, where the sleuth and the reader have to join together "events in the past" and "events in the present", seeing what links they can forge between the two. They have to connect up past and present characters.
This subplot also recalls (in an odd way) the timetable puzzles in The Ticker-Tape Murder. In both books the detective has to tie together various witness accounts, into a coherent story. In The Ticker-Tape Murder the stories that need connecting are minutes apart, and take place during a single evening. By contrast, in One Murdered: Two Dead the stories that need connecting, take place over years.
Color. SPOILER. The finale discusses a clue based on the colors red and black (Chapter 21). Like the different-colored fraternity robes in The Student Fraternity Murder, these colors in One Murdered: Two Dead are linked to a school. This is another example of Propper assigning references and meanings to color, See also the different-colored polo uniforms in The Great Insurance Murders.
Fingerprints. Fingerprints are checked first locally in Philadelphia. If not found, they are sent on to the national collection at the Department of Justice in Washington DC. This is the procedure followed in both The Election Booth Murder and One Murdered: Two Dead (start of Chapter 4).
Class. One Murdered: Two Dead is set among the social elite, and mentions in footnotes two previous cases that it explicitly notes were set among the upper crust: The Boudoir Murder and The Divorce Court Murder (start of Chapter 2). This is drastically different from Rankin's previous book The Election Booth Murder, with its numerous racketeers and criminal low-lifes. One wonders if Propper is trying to change his image with One Murdered: Two Dead, and portray himself as a mystery novelist who writes about the rich.
One Murdered: Two Dead continues Propper's theme of rich people mistreating poorer people. Rich woman Madeline Kent is rotten to her boyfriend Jerry Logan (Chapter 21).
Jerry Logan has a union card (Chapter 10). Such cards are surprisingly rare in mystery fiction.
Abortion. One Murdered: Two Dead is atypical of older mystery fiction, in that it mentions abortion. We learn that the wealthy heiress had an abortion, after she got pregnant while single (last part of Chapter 18, first part of Chapter 19). The heiress's wealthy father was in charge of this, and maybe pressured her, to "save the family name from a ruinous scandal".
Policeman hero Tommy Rankin firmly notes abortion is illegal. But otherwise One Murdered: Two Dead does not offer an opinion on the moral or political aspects of abortion. It is neither pro-life nor pro-choice. It simply treats abortion "realistically", as something that happened in the 1930's.
The rich woman gets the abortion at an exclusive sanitarium that quietly offers many services to its wealthy clientele. One Murdered: Two Dead does not mention or discuss the "back street" abortionists used by middle class and poor women in this era.
The woman is a member of the Arrogant Rich, a group seen negatively by both Propper and much of the population in the Depression era. Perhaps the novel is linking abortion to bad-activities-of-the-rich. However, this interpretation might be a stretch. If Propper had wanted to offer a political commentary against abortion, he could have come right out and said so explicitly. He didn't.
SPOILERS. An abortion is mentioned in Helen Reilly's The Dead Can Tell (1940) (start of Chapter 9). This too is among the well-to-do. The Dead Can Tell does not use the word "abortion", but it is very clear what sort of "operation" is being discussed. As in Propper, the policeman hero of The Dead Can Tell (first part of Chapter 14) recognizes abortion is illegal, but the book does not otherwise discuss moral or political aspects of abortion. Both novels' policeman heroes stress that their only concern is investigating a murder, and that the abortion is not really in their jurisdiction or part of their concern. One difference between the two books: the woman dies from the abortion in The Dead Can Tell; One Murdered: Two Dead explicitly notes the woman "had no harmful effects".
In About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) (Chapter 17) by Anthony Abbot, an abortion is briefly discussed, but does not take place. It offers little detail.
Links to other Propper books. The Great Insurance Murders is in the tradition of Propper's earlier The Student Fraternity Murder:
The middle-aged woman housekeeper in this book is very sympathetic (Chapter 10). Propper clearly liked such women. They have a kindness and concern for others lacking in his exploitative upper class males.
Propper keeps up his sympathy for outsiders to institutions. Here the young architect Alex Randolph has neither the time or money to be part of the country club set; he is too busy working and building a career. Such outsiders were probably identified with by Propper. The architect is described in terms that parallel him with Propper's police detective Tommy Rankin. Rankin too is depicted as hard working and interested in building his career. We also learn about Rankin's ideal vacation: going hiking in the mountains of Northern Pennsylvania. Such walking tours were very popular with British Realist school writers of the era, such as the Coles. We also learn that Rankin likes to eat exotic, ethnic food. Rankin seems to come alive more as a character here than in some of the books.
If The Student Fraternity Murder looked at the problems of undergraduate life, The Great Insurance Murders examines the anxieties of grown up workers, such as the young architect and the factory worker. The workers seem as insecure and vulnerable as Propper's younger characters. Propper is sympathetic to both middle class and working class people. Both seem to be frequently victimized by upper class crooks. These crooks operate with the full protection of the police and courts, in their exploitation of the less powerful. There is certainly a social message here, in the depths of the Depression. There is also a feeling of deep lack of confidence, the suggestion that society is against one, and that flourishing is difficult.
The "unkempt", worn-out looking "old-young man" head clerk at the brokerage house, and "sporty", "typical go-getter" insurance agent who Tommy finds "somewhat trying", are contrasting looks at how lower middle class young men are fitting into the business world (Chapter 5). Both men in their innocent way are dismaying. They suggest that options for young men working in the Depression are limited, and that just struggling with a career will turn you into a highly restricted personality type. (Another "old-young man" is the valet Carson in One Murdered: Two Dead (Chapter 10).)
Another key piece of social commentary: Propper includes a sympathetic Jewish character, a New York City police inspector who is Rankin's contact for Philadelphia-New York police cooperation (Chapter 15). It is good to see Propper is not a hater. Such a character was a rebuke to Hitler's ideology, then on the rise. Inspector Goldman is a continuing character in Propper's books, appearing before in The Election Booth Murders, as Propper points out in a footnote in the S. S. Van Dine manner.
Mystery Plot: Unexplained Features. I read The Great Insurance Murders in a 1943 Prize Mystery Novels paperback. I have no idea if it was abridged, but the story seems to move at a much faster pace than other Propper novels. The ending of this version leaves several threads dangling: it could use some further exposition.
Some good mystery plot opportunities are wasted by this rushed finale. Much is made earlier in the book about a set of mysterious fingerprints found at the second murder's crime scene. The finale implicitly suggests whose prints these are. And why they are oddly prevalent at many places at the crime scene. This is clever. But the rushed finale never actually talks about this, or makes it explicit.
This all recalls The Divorce Court Murder, whose early chapters have a puzzling feature that offers a good clue to the killer - but which is not mentioned in the solution at the end! In both books, Propper has created inventive mystery plots - then failed to explicitly explain them at the end.
Mystery Plot. The Great Insurance Murders does not have a Background. It does have other features of the Crofts school:
The Great Insurance Murders has many subplots, in the Propper manner. However, the subplots all hang together better here. The book does not pile up coincidence as excessively as The Student Fraternity Murder. Each subplot seems to be a fairly complete mini-mystery in itself. Most of the subplots have a crime, a police investigation, interesting detective work, and some ingenious revelation. The whole book seems almost like a story sequence, or anthology of linked tales.
Dying Message. The third murder contains a dying message. This message is well handled, but very differently from those in Ellery Queen or other intuitionist writers. EQ tries to interpret dying messages with a flash of intellectual insight. Propper instead uses systematic police work to try to find the meaning of the message (start of Chapter 19). There is no clever plot twist here, but there is an absorbing look at the exhaustive effort to interpret the message. Such an approach is consistent with Propper's heritage of the Crofts school, and its emphasis on police investigation.
No Avenger. Francis M. Nevins noted that in many Propper books "the murderer was an avenger from the past who infiltrated the victim's life in disguise".
Propper's "avenger from the past" gambit usually doesn't add much to his books. It often drags in a killer at the end, for whom there are no "fair play" clues earlier in the story.
One refreshing thing about The Great Insurance Murders is that it does NOT use such an avenger.
Leather Jackets and Camping. A visit to the hunting section of a "Sportsmen's Shop" is briefly noted to be selling leather jackets, along with camping equipment (Chapter 9). My impression is that leather jackets in this era were mainly restricted to certain professions (pilot, truck driver, taxi driver, etc) and to very young men. They didn't become a fashion craze till the mid-1940's. Outdoors sports activities were one of the few opportunities for most men to wear leather clothes. Similarly, Perry Mason wears a leather jacket to go horseback riding in The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942) (Chapter 3) by Erle Stanley Gardner. The sympathetic police Deputy in Christopher Hale's Stormy Night (1937) wears a leather jacket and hunting boots when he looks for a missing person in the woods.
Tommy Rankin himself is earlier described as planning to go on a camping trip (start of Chapter 2). He will be joined by two "cronies on the police force". Tommy's vacation is with two male friends. Tommy's enthusiasm for male friendship might or might not have a gay subtext.
In About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) (Chapter 1) by Anthony Abbot, the hero Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt is about to leave for a vacation "roughing it" in the Canadian wilderness. His vacation plans are interrupted when he gets called onto a murder case. This is similar to Tommy Rankin's camping plans being interrupted by an assignment in The Great Insurance Murders (1937).
Cover Art. The terrific cover shows Death playing polo. Appropriately, he is depicted as riding a pale horse.
Commentary on Christopher Hale:
I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and I've never heard of "The First Families of Michigan". Internet search engines don't seem to know this phrase either. Is this a real group? I've never heard of any sort of hereditary aristocracy in Michigan. Instead, Michigan has always seemed to be a commercial state, in which the big-shots were auto industry executives, along with bankers, developers etc. Admittedly, I'm more familiar with the automotive parts of Michigan, rather than the rest of the state.
Also odd: the wealthy French drives a Rolls. In real-life, auto industry Vice Presidents always drive a Michigan-made car. Michigan is not a place where British cars are considered hip.
In Stormy Night (start of Chapter 7) we learn that French's wealthy family "owns most of the northwest corner of the state." This would presumably be in the Upper Peninsula. In Rumor Hath It (Chapter 4.2) we learn that French's "father owned great tracts of forest in the upper peninsula."
Stormy Night emphasizes how well-dressed French is. Also that he is young, under thirty, and college educated.
Stormy Night establishes that French is heterosexual. He is attracted to heroine Ann York.
In Stormy Night the opening legal disclaimer states that not only all "events, localities, characters" are imaginary, but so is all "police procedure". I've never seen this sort of disclaimer about police procedure in any other mystery writer. Stormy Night (Chapter 9) gives an inside look at the Michigan State Police. Presumably, this was entirely made up for the novel, and has no basis in fact.
I think it's fine that Christopher Hale used her imagination to create her novels. There is no reason fiction has to be "accurate" or reflect real life.
Opening. Stormy Night has a vividly written account of the night of the murder (Chapters 1-6). This is the "stormy night" of the title, and the book goes all out with descriptions of weather. The opening also introduces almost all of the book's characters, except Lt. French. This mood is sustained in the inquest (Chapters 7,8), in which people mainly testify about the same murder night. We learn still more facts about this night during the solution (Chapter 26).
The opening events play out against a pleasant country landscape. As in some other Christopher Hale books, one can follow the events on a nice map. Both Stormy Night and Midsummer Nightmare have rivers and bridges in their landscapes and maps.
Smoke Screen, Stormy Night and Midsummer Nightmare have multiple buildings where people stay, as opposed to a single Country House.
The openings of Stormy Night and Midsummer Nightmare place as much emphasis on various servants, as they do their upper class employers.
The Second Murder. The second crime also shows good storytelling, both the first investigation of the crime scene (Chapter 14) and the subsequent look for causes (Chapter 15). The crime is discovered during stormy weather in a country landscape, like the opening, and has something of the same descriptive power. The opening and the second murder are very much cut from the same cloth, as works of literature.
The opening mainly involves pedestrians. By contrast, the second crime scene is approached by cars.
The Third Crime. The third crime also has a good crime scene, set against a rural landscape (Chapter 17). It is briefer than the episodes about the first two crimes. It does not involve storms or weather.
Both the second and third crime scenes involve investigations and discoveries by boys. This enables some funny change-of-pace comedy relief.
Both investigations also have good cameos of expert police technicians investigating the crime: the mechanic Kelly at the second crime, Gus the photographer at the third crime scene. Interestingly, although Kelly is a veteran expert, he is eager to learn from other people.
Both investigations tell us about Nicholas Post. Although Post is technically a private investigator, he comes across more as an obnoxious amateur detective. We get a life story about Post, and learn about his career.
Communication. The poor man O'Callaghan living in a shack has an unusual way of communicating with the outside world (first part of Chapter 10).
French's interview with the man recalls the book's opening:
O'Callaghan is a feisty old geezer who lives simply and who values his independence and being what he calls a "freethinker". This is a type that runs through Erle Stanley Gardner.
Mystery Plot. When I read the excellent long opening, I hoped that the book was some sort of classic. Unfortunately, the mystery plot has few good mystery ideas.
A false solution to the crime is proposed, before the true solution is revealed (end of Chapter 24). This false solution is more ingenious than the real one. BIG SPOILERS. The false solution in Stormy Night anticipates aspects of the actual true solution in Midsummer Nightmare. Both involve one killing over an impersonation, and a second killing of a person who is close to the impersonated person and who could expose that deceit.
There is a decent idea about faking an alibi in the solution (Chapter 26).
The solution also points to two clues, that were indeed highlighted in the opening (Chapter 2).
Women and Work. The nurse and various women servants clearly work hard. But there is little sign that the heroine or other upper class women work or have careers. This is in marked contrast to the interesting businesswomen in Hangman's Tie and Midsummer Nightmare.
Riverdale. The events take place near the fictitious small town of Riverdale. This was four years before the 1941 creation of comic book characters Archie, Betty and Jughead who famously live in their version of Riverdale. There are also real life places called Riverdale, including a very upscale district in the far north of New York City.
In Stormy Night Riverdale is not too far from a bigger town named Garfield. There are numerous Michigan towns or townships named Garfield. I have no idea if the book's Garfield is one of them, or simply a fictitious place.
Forty miles from Garfield is a locale called Barracks, headquarters of the Michigan State Police. Barracks is in "almost the exact center of the State" (opening of Chapter 9).
Michigan. Although Stormy Night takes place in Michigan, I couldn't see any Michigan atmosphere or local color in it. It could have been written by an author who had been locked in a cellar in Tasmania all their life.
Against Personality Cults. There is an odd but interesting reference (start of Chapter 20). Lt. Bill French, who is attracted to Ann York, likes that while she has strong principles, that her quietness is the opposite of the "personality cult". A guess: this is referring to, and criticizing, the personality cults around Hitler and Stalin, in 1937 raging in Europe.
Social Commentary. Stormy Night (end of Chapter 3) attacks drunk driving. This is fairly rare in mysteries of its era.
The heroine has young cad Haverford force his attentions on her (middle of Chapter 4). She successfully resists. This is an example of sexual harassment, something unfortunately still all too prevalent today.
Business Women. The novel's point of view character is Josephine Picard. She is middle-aged, unmarried and a prominent administrative official at City Hall. As a highly competent businesswoman who is actually running a large organization, she anticipates Olivia Warburton, who runs the furniture business in Hale's Midsummer Nightmare. Both Josephine Picard and Olivia Warburton are sympathetic figures who are the central characters of their novels.
Josephine Picard graduated from Wellesley College at age 20 (Chapter 1). Olivia Warburton also went to college. These heroines are educated, as well as being good at business.
I like Josephine Picard's fights with the bullying, obnoxious Mayor (Chapters 3, second part of 13). The initial investigation of the murder (Chapter 3) helps characterize Josephine Picard and Lt. French.
In addition to her role in managing much of the town and government, Josephine Picard also serves as an amateur sleuth, investigating the crimes.
A Lesbian Heroine. Both Josephine Picard in Hangman's Tie and Olivia Warburton in Midsummer Nightmare have beautiful, very young women working as their secretaries. Both of these secretaries live in the same house as their employers.
However, Josephine Picard differs from Olivia Warburton, in that she has no romantic involvement with men. Instead, she is "trying hard not to love" her secretary (first half of Chapter 1). Although the word is not used, I think Josephine Picard is a lesbian. And one who is portrayed in a positive light.
Josephine Picard does not share her feelings with her secretary. Instead, Josephine Picard encourages the secretary's romance with young Jonny Marsh.
Josephine Picard's voice is described as "manly" (end of Chapter 2). She is also huge, powerful and intimidating. She is a force in her city, in what is otherwise seen as a man's world.
Sexual ambiguity is also invoked in a male character, Larry Dennison (start of Chapter 9). The pretty Dennison looks both male and female. He is startlingly compared to the title character of Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando (1928), a character who becomes both male and female.
Servants. Hangman's Tie continues Christopher Hale's emphasis on servants. Alfredo, the skillful-at-everything servant of Josephine Picard, is a likable character (Chapters 1, end of 4). He has a well-developed personality.
Alfredo gets to do some good detective work (last part of Chapter 9, first part of Chapter 15). This involves talking with various low-level business people, and getting information out of them. This is seen as something of an art. It is not routine.
Suspects: Uninteresting. Both Josephine Picard and Alfredo are detective characters, and well drawn. By contrast, most of the book's suspects are uninteresting people. The book turns dull when they shows up.
Handsome but brain-dead young hero Jonny Marsh is especially annoying. He can be counted on to do the worst possible thing in all circumstances, making him look guilty. There is perhaps a gender reversal here. Too many mysteries feature a young woman in trouble, sometimes due to her own bad decisions. Hangman's Tie features an incompetent young man - one who needs to be rescued by a brainy woman like Josephine Picard.
The Opening Storm. Hangman's Tie recalls Stormy Night, in that both open with good-guy characters wandering around at night visiting various homes, during a ferocious storm (Chapters 1, 2). These journeys are simpler in Hangman's Tie however, and involve visiting just two houses. The storm is well-described in Hangman's Tie, but it is less of a huge set-piece than the one in Stormy Night. This section also benefits by describing the opening murder.
A brief passage of driving (end of Chapter 4) resumes this "moving at night during a storm" subject. It further develops a plot event from the opening. It also helps characterize Alfredo. And it includes a bit of tailing, anticipating a more elaborate tailing sequence later in the book.
Tailing. The tailing section (first part of Chapter 14) is another episode of people moving at night to various homes, during wet weather. It is brief but nicely done.
The Second Murder. The second murder also has some absorbing passages:
Mystery Plot. Unfortunately the mystery's solution is perfunctory and unimaginative. There are few good clues to the killer or the solution.
The killer's motive develops logically from what we know about the characters and their activities. This is good. The motive also succeeds as storytelling. However, there is no way for the reader to deduce this motive, before the killer reveals it at the novel's end.
Smells as Clues. Clues as to the mechanism of the second murder take the form of smells. This recalls the smell-based clue in Stormy Night (Chapter 2). In both books these make interesting reading.
Multiple Copies of Objects. There are potentially more than one copy of some objects involved in the case. SPOILERS. These include the title tie, and the smelling salts bottle. Both of these are used in the murders. This anticipates the duplicate knives, one of which is used in the killing in Midsummer Nightmare. All of these recall multiple-copy objects in Freeman Wills Crofts, such as the casks in The Cask (1920).
Dirty Clothes. In Midsummer Nightmare the good-guy Senator gets his clothes dirty while doing some detective work. SPOILERS. In Hangman's Tie the villain's clothes get soiled by doing the murder. This serves as a clue to who did the killing.
Police Corruption. The novel's fictitious town Oak City has just exposed a major run of police corruption. Sixteen cops were sent to prison (Chapter 2). Josephine Picard doesn't trust the city police. So she calls in the State Police and Lt. French.
The conflicts in Oak City recall those in the D.A. novels (1936-1949) of Erle Stanley Gardner. In Gardner, the D.A. is an official of a county who clashes with those of an antagonistic city; in Hangman's Tie the State Police are honest, competent outsiders who provide an alternative to the dubious Oak City mayor and police.
Links to Crofts. Plot aspects recall Freeman Wills Crofts. SPOILERS:
Interestingly, it changes his appearance. His normal good grooming is messed up by his digging in the dirt for clues.
The heroine of Stormy Night has a relative who is an influential Senator. But he is simply referred to, and does not make an on-stage appearance.
Landscape and Architecture. Among the more appealing features of Midsummer Nightmare is the opening description of the rural complex where the characters are staying (first half of Chapter 1). The map on the back of the Dell "mapback" paperback charmingly echoes this description, showing the buildings of the estate and the brook that runs through them. The bridge over the brook, and the steps leading down to it, are a good touch.
Brief but nice: the description of a real-life upper crust Grand Rapids neighborhood around Morris Avenue (middle of Chapter 13).
The fire echoes Hale's first Lt. Bill French novel Smoke Screen.
No Background. Among the suspects are Sybrand Jennesma, who has long run a Grand Rapids furniture company, and his brother Gerrit Jennesma, an inventor hoping to break into the auto industry. While this namechecks two of Michigan's most important real-life industries, we actually learn very little about either business or industry in Midsummer Nightmare. In other words, we never get a Crofts-style Background, giving readers a detailed inside look at these industries.
And I suspect that the real-life furniture industry in Grand Rapids is far more creative and hard-charging than the unimpressive, mediocre Sybrand Jennesma.
Suspect Jason Kimball is a business publicity man. We never learn much about any marketing or publicity campaigns he is presumably working on.
Real People. Real life famous people are referred to:
Women in Business. Olivia Warburton has been the real force running the Jennesma furniture business, building it up, then keeping it alive through the Depression and beyond (middle of Chapter 2). But she gets very little credit for this, and is increasingly treated as some sort of minor employee (first half of Chapter 1). Today we would see a feminist perspective on this, of women in fact running a company but not treated with respect. No such explicit feminist perspective is in this 1945 novel though. Still, the situation is interesting, and it is good that this novel has recorded it, as the kind of thing that happened in this era.
Technology. The car motor invented by Gerrit is intended to use less gasoline, thus "conserving petroleum" (first half of Chapter 1). Issues of Energy were important in this era, and were discussed explicitly in fiction. Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
Toby Newcomb. The most interesting parts of the plot center on boyfriend Toby Newcomb (Chapters 1.3, 2.4, 3.2, 5.3, 20.2). These sections create a detailed character.
And they also present the reader with a bit of mystery: What is Toby Newcomb really like? Everything mysterious about Toby Newcomb is explained by the book's end.
Class War. The wealthy family in Rumor Hath It are bitterly opposed to Toby Newcomb becoming engaged to the young heroine. This is because of his poverty-stricken family background. This is a look at the bitter class snobbery of the era, very grudgingly giving way to more egalitarian ideas during World War II. At least for straight white men like Toby Newcomb.
The family seems to have few values beyond money-worship and class snobbery and hatred. They form a look at a dreadful upper class America.
Women in Business. Letitia Pomeroy is very successful at funding other people's business proposals and start-ups (Chapter 2.1). Often times these involve wild new ideas. Pomeroy is what we would today call a "venture capitalist". She has amassed a fortune of over two million dollars: a huge amount in 1945.
Unfortunately, we don't see much of Letitia Pomeroy in her role as businessperson. It would make for a more interesting novel.
The emphasis on innovative business proposals, recalls the inventor in Midsummer Nightmare.
There is a gap, in my judgment, between the innovate business ideas Letitia Pomeroy finances, and her ultra-conventional upper class lifestyle. Her business aside, Letitia Pomeroy is simply an unpleasant, controlling upper class dowager, of no distinction or merit.
The young heroine insists on leaving for another city and getting a job there. She thus becomes a "working woman", as the book calls her, against her family's wishes. We don't learn much about her career.
Race: Not Stereotyped. The black servants are shown sympathetically, as intelligent and good at their jobs. They are not caricatured.
Harrison is described as intelligent, in his first appearance (start of Chapter 1.3). He rarely talks in dialect.
Pliny talks in dialect, something common in 1940's fiction. But he is shown as both observant and articulate (Chapter 5.2).
Michigan. Rumor Hath It takes place in a fictitious Michigan small town Lawnsdale. Lawnsdale is very affluent and upscale. It pretentiously calls itself a Village (Chapter 2.1). It seems to be not too far from Detroit. The name Lawnsdale recalls the small town of Riverdale in Stormy Night.
Some real Michigan cities get mentioned in passing: Detroit, Ann Arbor, Bay City, Muskegon.
Multiple Copies of Objects. As in other Hale books, multiple copies of objects play a role in the mystery plot. Toby's ring might also exist in near duplicates.
Commentary on Clifford Knight:
Mystery Traditions. The Affair of the Scarlet Crab has links to Realist School traditions:
Mystery Plot. Puzzle plot elements are skimpy in this not very inspired mystery. The best ideas involve the second murder, and follow Realist school traditions of alibis and the "breakdown of identity". The storytelling is also grim and depressing, and the book is not recommended.
Influence. The Affair of the Scarlet Crab seems oddly anticipatory of Michelangelo Antonioni's film L'Avventura (1959 - 1960). This is discussed in the article on Antonioni.
Links to Other Knight Books. The Affair of the Scarlet Crab shares subjects with Knight's The Affair of the Limping Sailor (1942):
The Affair in Death Valley has features in common with The Affair of the Scarlet Crab and The Affair of the Limping Sailor. All three:
Both The Affair in Death Valley (Chapter 3) and some of Gardner's tales like "Law of the Rope" (1933) and "Carved in Sand" (1933) show detective work based on clues and trails left in the desert around crime scenes. This is most satisfying in both Gardner and Knight.
US Government and the New Deal. Several characters are Rangers in the US National Park Service, stationed in Death Valley National Monument. This area was run by the US Federal Government and its Rangers.
Leslie Ford's Old Lover's Ghost (1940) of the same year was set in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is similarly run by Rangers, employees of the US Federal Government. In both books the Rangers are treated in respectful, even idealized fashion. This was an era when Americans had a deep respect for the Federal Government.
Both works also emphasize how good-looking the Rangers are in their uniforms. Leslie Ford (a female author) compares them to glamorous Hollywood stars; Clifford Knight (a male author) suggests they are ideal figures of masculinity.
Death Valley National Monument was established in 1933, near the start of the Roosevelt Administration. A New Deal institution created by Roosevelt also appears and is given positive treatment: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The Affair in Death Valley thus deals with fairly recent, modern institutions, ones linked to the liberal Roosevelt. Old Lover's Ghost also deals with a New Deal institution, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
One of the better features of the otherwise unsuccessful The Affair of the Limping Sailor is its respectful treatment of the US Coast Guard (Chapters 2 - 7).
Seeing People by Plane. The body is first spotted by a pilot who happens to see it from the air. In The Affair of the Limping Sailor (Chapters 4, 5) the US Coast Guard conducts a search for missing people by air.
The story is set on the literary fringes of Hollywood. Characters include a popular romance novelist turned screenwriter, and a prominent Shakespearean stage actor trying to break into Hollywood. The book is more a comic portrait of the literary world, especially kinds of popular fiction writing, than of Hollywood itself.
The Affair of the Fainting Butler repeatedly points out how many Americans are trying to write novels. These include both still commercially unsuccessful would-be professional writers, and many ordinary people who are writing novels in their spare time. The book gets comedy out of the ubiquity of this phenomenon, and the unexpectedness of some of the folks who are writing. But it also seems sympathetic to these writers, and suggests they have genuine talent.
Architecture. The Affair of the Scarlet Crab opened with a striking looking man putting his head over the wall of a California garden, startling the narrator. The first chapter of The Affair of the Fainting Butler includes a similar image. Unlike The Affair of the Scarlet Crab, which soon abandons the garden for other settings, most of The Affair of the Fainting Butler is set in its garden and the adjoining mansion.
The garden wall is simple, compared to the elaborate architecture in many Golden Age mysteries. But the novel uses it repeatedly, in different contexts and with different bits of business at the wall.
Motive. SPOILER. Both The Affair of the Scarlet Crab and The Affair of the Fainting Butler have as murder motive, the attempt to steal someone else's intellectual property. In both books, victims are killed off who know a secret about this property, thus opening the way for the killer to attempt the theft.
SPOILER. However, the motive aspects of The Affair of the Fainting Butler have an additional plot idea not found in the simpler The Affair of the Scarlet Crab. This plot idea involves a hidden Scheme perpetrated before the book opens, by innocent characters. The Scheme is only revealed at the end of the story, as part of the mystery's solution (start of Chapter 22, first half of Chapter 24). The Scheme's basic situation has been much employed through the years by other authors, and also is regularly used in television mysteries. I don't know who was the first mystery writer to create it.
The Affair in Death Valley has a writer trying to steal another writer's work. However, this plays little role in any of the book's mystery plots. It is just a brief, mainly comic episode in the story.
Paranormal. The Affair of the Fainting Butler is unusual for its era, in that it contains a paranormal episode. Usually, detective fiction was strictly scientific. A witness sees an apparent corpse (end of Chapter 1), that vanishes. People suspect it is a paranormal vision (end of Chapter 3). I was hoping for and fully expecting a rational explanation. But at the end, it turns out indeed to have been a psychic vision (end of Chapter 24). This is a real cheat!
"The Affair at the Circle T" is included the anthology The Queen's Awards (1946) edited by Ellery Queen.
An Influence from Gardner. Knight's Death of a Big Shot (1951) shows several similarities with Erle Stanley Gardner:
The Opening. This does not mean that Knight's book is derivative. In fact, its opening chapters (1 - 5) are strikingly original. These sections are more thriller than mystery; they also contain a delicate love story, and lots of entertainment value. They are only marginally related to the mystery plot that follows, although Knight does return to their plot briefly with some interesting material at the end of Chapter 15. The later mystery sections of the novel disappoint. They also change the position of the hero in unpleasant ways. In the early sections, he is a powerful, clever rogue who does a lot to help the heroine. He, and the author, are also ingenious about both his hit man work, and his ways of aiding the heroine. In the later book, the world starts closing in on him, a much less fun thing to read about. One wishes Knight had stuck to his guns, and written a whole book about the protagonist in his opening pages.
On the Road. One might also note that the opening chapters of Death of a Big Shot constitute a prototypical Road tale, several years before Beat writers made being On the Road (1957) fashionable in mainstream literature. (Apparently, Jack Kerouac's On the Road was actually written in 1948-1951, long before its 1957 publication.)
The Affair in Death Valley (1940) is also a Road tale, with its characters doing much driving around Death Valley. Many locales are linked to road travel: an inn, a garage.
Commentary on Elizabeth Daly:
Despite this, I have been unable to enjoy most of what Daly I've read. Her only book that seemed actively fun to me was Evidence of Things Seen. In most of her books, I don't enjoy her plots, storytelling or characters.
Many Daly books are grim in their storytelling. Unexpected Night, Deadly Nightshade and The Book of the Dead deal with horrific illnesses and medical problems that attack the characters. I tend to dislike both grim books, and fiction about terrible medical crises. Another problem: in some of her novels like The Book of the Dead, it is highly sympathetic characters who get bumped off, which is upsetting to read about. By contrast, the pleasant Evidence of Things Seen is distinctly more light-hearted in tone.
Daly books are sometimes referred to as "cozies", but this is misleading, in my judgement. They are indeed genteel and deal with socially proper people, often upper class. But they often have horrifying subject matter, far removed from typical light-hearted cozy fare.
Her series sleuth Henry Gamage is an expert on old manuscripts and books. He often studies these technologically, examining paper, ink, bindings, etc. This puts him in the tradition of Scientific Detection. Gamage seems especially close to R. Austin Freeman and his sleuth Dr. Thorndyke:
Harold Bantz also functions as Gamage's secretary, recalling sleuth Dr. Priestly's secretary Harold Merefield in the novels by John Rhode. Harold Bantz's origin story is told in Deadly Nightshade (second half of Chapter 1).
The gentility and upper class settings of some Dorothy L. Sayers books return in Daly. Other resemblances:
Freeman, Rhode, Sayers and Wade are all members of the British Realist School. So the Realists are perhaps Daly's biggest influence. One notes that Gamage, like a number of Realist sleuths, is heterosexual, and falls in love and marries in the course of the series.
The settings in Daly can recall Helen Reilly:
Daly's descriptions of architecture are skillful and knowledgeable. But they lack the burning visionary quality that makes Relly's work a cultural treasure.
We get an "origin story" for Harold Bantz in Deadly Nightshade (1939) (second half of Chapter 1), a book set in September 1939. He was seventeen when he first met Gamage two years before, in 1937, and asked him for a job.
So Harold will be roughly 23 in 1943, when The Book of the Dead takes place. In that tale Harold is off serving in the Marines. He therefore has no role in The Book of the Dead. One half humorously suspects that Harold might find the Marines a refreshing change of pace. Even the 1940's Marine Corps *%$%@&%*!! profanity might be a relief after all the stuffy upper crust gentility of some of Gamage's cases.
We learn at the end of Any Shape or Form (1945) (Chapter 20) that Harold does not plan to resume working with Gamage, after he returns from W.W. II. Gamage gets a new assistant David Malcolm, a man I find much less interesting and likable than Harold. This man is from an upper class background, unlike the working class (or even poorer) Harold.
Harold is part of a tradition in American mystery fiction. Giving genteel upper crust detectives very young, working class assistants from a poor background, recalls such 1910's sidekicks as Dollops in The Man of the Forty Faces (collected 1910) by Thomas W. Hanshew, and Fibsy in books by Carolyn Wells. One suspects that young readers identified with such youthful assistants. And that working class readers of all ages liked the recognition that working class heroes had something to contribute to society.
However, as a lab assistant and technology expert working for Gamage, Harold recalls Polton in the Dr. Thorndyke books by R. Austin Freeman. Polton is also of working class origin. However, unlike Dollops, Fibsy and Harold Bantz, Polton is not especially young. Another grown-up technical expert of working class origin will be police scientist Jub Freeman, who debuted in V as in Victim (1945) by Lawrence Treat. See also machinery expert Newton Bulger in The Catalyst Club (1936) by George Dyer, another grown man of apparently working class origin.
Murder Mystery. It has murders, that don't take place till the middle of the book (nearly the exact half-way point). I can't see anything inventive about the murder mystery.
Daly is mainly interested in "who done it". The solution is chiefly concerned with identifying the murderer. This is legitimate - but awfully simple.
Mystery Subplot. More interesting is a non-murder subplot that occurs right away (Chapters 1-6). It is partly solved at the end of this opening section (Chapter 6), with a fuller solution later (middle of Chapter 14). This subplot benefits from a colorful premise (Chapter 2).
SPOILERS. Daly's solution involves motive: who benefits? knowledge: who had information required? And skill: who had the ability to carry this off? These are not profound questions, and they hardly break new ground in the technique of the mystery story. But they are sound. And allow Gamage to trace back the crime to an unlikely culprit, one I didn't suspect.
BIG SPOILERS. The basic premise of the solution recalls Daly's debut novel Unexpected Night. Both books feature a bunch of no-good heirs, hanging around waiting for a rich relative and/or benefactor to die so that they can inherit his money. In the meantime, they are living on allowances, rather than working. They engage in sinister, often criminal conspiracies, to gain their inheritance. Both groups of heirs are portraits of the upper classes at their worst: parasites who don't work and who pursue evil schemes to make sure they stay in the ruling class 1%. Daly's descriptions of these people can make your flesh crawl.
The lack of violence and the ultra-genteel settings sometimes lead critics and readers to label Daly's novels as "cozies". But the chilling portraits of upper class evil-doers are far from cozy.
SPOILERS. The conspiracy in Murders in Volume 2 has elements of inventiveness and ingenuity. They help give this subplot a certain distinction as a mystery plot puzzle - as do the clues of "motive, knowledge and skill" to its solution.
Cult Group. Gamage interviews the leaders of a genteel but sinister cult (Chapter 10). This is a skillful depiction of rich people behaving in an evil fashion. It only has a little to do with the mystery plot: It helps motivate the opening subplot.
More spiritual cults return in Daly's Any Shape or Form (1945).
Stereotype. After the opening, Daly introduces a disabled character, Cameron Payne (end of Chapter 7). He is depicted negatively. This is a major problem with the novel. It makes it impossible to recommend as a whole.
Mystery Plot: Impossible Crime. Evidence of Things Seen is an impossible crime tale, in its main murder mystery. Unfortunately its solution re-uses a gimmick used many times before and since this book. It is one of the cliches of the locked room mystery. This idea is perfectly sound, both here and elsewhere, so the murder mystery in Evidence of Things Seen is fair and believable. But it lacks all originality.
Gamage later says he knew who the killer was immediately, as soon as he heard the details of the crime. Unfortunately, I did too - because the book employs a standard gimmick whose solution is obvious to anyone who has read this gimmick in other novels.
Mystery Plot: Subplots. Some subplots are better done. Gamage does a good job, reconstructing the events that led up to the crime in the victim's life. This includes him reconstructing the motive for the murder.
I also liked the mild intrigue surrounding some of the refugees living in the area.
Freeman Minimalism. The premise of The Book of the Dead recalls R. Austin Freeman, and such late Freeman novels as The Penrose Mystery (1936), Felo De Se? (1937) and The Jacob Street Mystery (1942):
Breakdown of Identity. SPOILERS. Early on, Gamage brings up the possibility that somehow the identity of the mysterious man might have been switched (end of Chapter 3). This is an example of what I have dubbed the "breakdown of identity". It is a favorite plot device of Freeman and the Realist School as a whole.
Home Front. Like some other Daly novels, The Book of the Dead is firmly set at a specific time: Summer 1943.
This is in the middle of World War II. The Book of the Dead depicts civilian life on the "home front". We see shortages of both supplies and manpower. A New England factory has closed, simply because it cannot get raw materials to use in manufacturing. A hospital is drastically understaffed. This historical background in interesting. The Yellow Room (1945) by Mary Roberts Rinehart is another mystery that shows World War II USA from a civilian perspective.
The opening of The Book of the Dead takes place among far more "ordinary" people than do some Daly novels. The characters, while respectable-looking and far from the toughs and hoods seen in private eye tales, seem like regular people, rather than upper crust members of the 1%.
Mystery Plot: Criminal Scheme. BIG SPOILERS. The main mystery plot centers around a hidden criminal scheme. The scheme is of the same type as the ones in Unexpected Night, and to a lesser degree Deadly Nightshade and the opening subplot of Murders in Volume 2. This seems to be a patented type of Elizabeth Daly plot. As in Unexpected Night, the scheme is based in greed, and involves a wealthy innocent person in frail health.
The scheme in Any Shape or Form is pleasantly complex: a plus for it as a mystery plot. This leads to a question in mystery plot aesthetics. Which is superior, the plot in Unexpected Night, which presents Daly's scheme ideas in a pure, clean and simple form, or the plot in Any Shape or Form, which elaborates such ideas into a more complex, detailed plot? I will tentatively plump for the more complex plot in Any Shape or Form as preferable. In general, I admire complexity in works of art. This recalls the aesthetics widespread in the world of classical music, where the complexity of classic music is seen as one of its most important virtues.
SPOILERS. The main clue to the scheme involves the victim's clothes. This clue is interesting, and full of complex detail of clothing. However, I'm not sure if it offers conclusive evidence: after all, maybe the victim's clothes are simply caused by her being an eccentric dresser!
Mystery Plot: The Statue. The statue is pointed to right away, in the opening sentence of the novel. This suggests it will be important in the mystery plot. And indeed, in the solution at the end, it ingeniously plays two unexpected roles in the solution to the mystery.
The statue is part of the elaborate grounds of the estate (Chapters 1, 3, 4). Such grounds are part of the Golden Age interest in landscape. The grounds are mainly different kinds of garden, all interconnected.
Cult Group. The victim belongs to a genteel cult group. This recalls the creepier cult group in Murders in Volume 2. These groups signal Daly's belief that something is wrong with upper class lifestyles.
Race: A Positive View. The depiction of the two black servants is an attempt to make a positive, non-stereotyped view of black workers (first half of Chapter 7). There is a bit too much about their "feudal" devotion to their employer to satisfy modern taste. But mainly this is a highly dignified view.
However, the links between Gardiner and the Crofts tradition are not close. There is little emphasis on alibis, or other complex puzzles. There is only a little police lab work, and it is mainly off-stage.
Magill also meets some charming young crooks: Kendrick in What Crime Is It?, Angus MacPherson in The Seventh Mourner. These young men offer a change of pace and some comedy, in the middle of their novels. (One wonders if Kendrick is named in honor of Baynard Kendrick. Both Gardiner and Baynard Kendrick were heavily involved with the Mystery Writers of America.)
Is Sheriff Magill "quietly" gay? It is hard to say. He might simply be a straight man uninterested in romance. Then again, his male bonding might have a gay subtext.
Gardiner is careful not to exaggerate the atmosphere of Notlaw: she keeps the characters and their professions relatively restrained, realistic representatives of a small tourist town in the Colorado Rockies. While they have comic sides, they are not eccentrics or zanies. The characters are all gainfully employed, and are the sort of people that could be found in any small or medium sized American city. They are not "hicks".
Notlaw has what might be called "cultural ties" with New York City. Some of the characters in What Crime Is It? and Lion in Wait have moved to Notlaw from New York. Others do business there. What Crime Is It? has an extensive section set in New York. Both Notlaw and New York are portrayed as having both honest and dishonest citizens. Neither is depicted as having a monopoly on virtue or vice.
There are no signs whatever of any Southern aspects to Notlaw. None of the locals is given any Southern background. When tourists' background is given, Illinois is mentioned in What Crime Is It? and Nebraska in Lion in Wait. Some residents have ties to New York City. No one seems remotely to be a "good old boy".
People in Notlaw also regularly have ties to Western Europe: Switzerland in What Crime Is It?, Scotland in The Seventh Mourner, the janitor Clarence is from England in Lion in Wait. This gives a cosmopolitan atmosphere to the novels. Unlike some modern mysteries which depict their small towns as hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, the Gardiner books have both New York and European ties.
The mystery solution in The Seventh Mourner has little value. Only the subplot about Angus MacPherson is any good. It is unconnected with the book's main mystery puzzles.
In general, Gardiner's storytelling is better than her mystery plotting. It is best to regard her books as comic novels, and not to have much expectations of puzzle plot brilliance.
We also get a bit of a look at Sheriff Moss Magill at home and at his jail. One suspects that Gardiner was trying to round out Moss' character, and show parts of his world.
Lion in Wait falls apart badly in its later sections. Problems:
Commentary on Richard Starnes:
Mystery Traditions. The Other Body in Grant's Tomb is a curious hybrid of the R. Austin Freeman tradition of medical detection, and the hard-boiled novel.
The book has an elaborate, well crafted puzzle plot, whose solution shows formal features out of the Freeman tradition. The dock-side setting of the tale reminds one of the realist school's fondness for the sea and harbors, and shows an in-depth knowledge of such areas worthy of Freeman or Crofts.
Starnes shows influences from other mystery traditions. Dr. Peachy has comic characteristics that recall John Dickson Carr's sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale, and Starnes flirts with locked room ideas in this novel.
The book has some hard-boiled features, then at the peak of their popularity in American crime fiction. Starnes' use of the hard-boiled tradition is selective, employing some of its characteristics, ignoring others. It takes place in the world of urban corruption familiar from Raymond Chandler. Starnes' dialogue and narration also employ the wisecracks and startling similes made de rigueur in hard-boiled fiction by Chandler. Starnes has a gift for creating well turned phrases, ones which cleverly sum up a situation.
The book does not feature the relentless action familiar in many hard-boiled novels, however. There is a brief final shoot em up, and a few scenes of fighting, but most of the book stresses sleuthing, not violence. Nor are there any mobsters or gang figures, or private eyes. The newspaper hero of the story has no romances, and he and the doctor are brain workers, not figures of violence, and neither is especially tough. None of these men are alienated or loners; all are well integrated into the institutions of American society. They are all vastly more normal that the suspects they meet.
Background. Starnes' book takes place at a seedy waterfront bar, and adjacent areas, such as a dockside mission. This setting can be considered as a Background showing life among the down and out, although it seems a little less concrete than many realist school Backgrounds, which often deal with a single institution.
The bar is regularly visited not just by the poor, but by intellectuals and college students looking to experience the seedy side of life. The intellectuals are chess playing figures who sit around and discuss philosophy, and who look down there noses at "square" guys like the hero who wear suits and ties, and who are part of mainstream American life. We seem to be seeing a very early look at the Beat movement here, although this term is never used by Starnes. Starnes' narrator-hero Barney Forge is definitely not part of this crowd, and these intellectuals are only seen from outside: none ever becomes a major character in the book, although perhaps the piano player can be considered one of them. This was years before the Beats became at all known to mass America and the mass media.
Starnes' novel forms a drastic contrast with 1940's depictions of tough neighborhoods, such as the Skid Row shown in William Keighley's film, The Street With No Name (1948). The tough guy urban area in that film is the home of the poor, the tough, and the macho. There is nary an intellectual in sight.
By contrast, most of the denizens of Starnes' waterfront district are there because they are alcoholics. Many of them have attitude problems and are severely maladjusted. Both the alcoholics and the intellectuals are people who are in revolt against the norms of mainstream American life. This gives Starnes' portrait an entirely different feel. It is one of the earliest depictions in American fiction of an alienated underworld of the disaffected. Starnes differs from the Beats in that he is not advocating such disaffection. His sympathies instead seem to lie with Forge, Dr. Peachy, and the other mainstream characters. Still, his book is both a satirical and a poetic and moody evocation of the world of the lost.
The depiction of Washington in And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered recalls that in such Leslie Ford mysteries as The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941) and The Woman in Black (1947). There is the same focus on genteel parties and social gatherings among Washington Society, intermixed with newspeople and businessmen with government connections. In both And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered and The Woman in Black, there is a recognition of corruption in the business deals of people linked to government.
In And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered, this crookedness centers on a Middle East oil deal: a prophetic subject. Similarly, in Another Mug for the Bier a crooked natural gas deal being pushed through Congress is the focus. The novel links this to issues of "power" in general: what we tend to call "energy" today. Energy is much discussed in 1940's US science fiction, and it appears in US mystery fiction of the era too. Please see my list of mysteries about Energy, Oil, Power and Physics.
Another Mug for the Bier is more directly political than And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered, with events taking place in Government buildings.
SPOILER. The murder in both Another Mug for the Bier and And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered turns out to have nothing to do with politics, deriving from personal motives instead. This is a bit of a letdown: why have a political setting, and then have it not related to the mystery? Perhaps the author was trying not to offend anyone politically.
The Columnist. Another Mug for the Bier has a Washington columnist-broadcaster as a villain. The powerful broadcaster is anti-munitions and opposed to government arms spending and waste. The narrator views this as evil, and betraying US troops. This attitude, combined with an anti-gay slur in the opening chapter, suggests perhaps a right wing point of view in Another Mug for the Bier. This contrasts with what a more liberal perspective in Leslie Ford.
The fictitious columnist villain in Another Mug for the Bier is likely based in part on the real-life columnist Drew Pearson. Pearson supported cuts to government arms spending. Pearson had a massive public feud with Defense Secretary James Forrestal, who opposed such cuts. Pearson had left wing ties, further suggesting that Another Mug for the Bier perhaps has a right wing perspective.
Another Mug for the Bier has an interesting opening crime scene, involving two real-life US government buildings connected by an underground trolley. This reflects the Golden Age interest in unusual architecture.
Commentary on Ben Benson:
Ben Benson's full name was Benjamin Benson. Benson is not uncommon as a Jewish name, and one wonders if Ben Benson was Jewish. Research by Victor Berch is posted at Mystery*File. It says Benson's parents Hyman D., and Rivka [Rebecca] (Charmonsky) were immigrants to the U.S. from Russia.
The Venus Death follows at least some aspects of the Freeman Wills Crofts tradition:
The big weakness of The Venus Death is its obvious plotting. I could guess every twist and turn of the mystery plot, including:
And it follows realist tradition by sympathetically including a character of a minority race, the Chinese detective Charlie Chan. Chan is depicted in the book as a person of high intelligence, ability, and moral character, who is uniformly respected by everyone in the society around him. Biggers explicitly created his hero Chan as a reply to the racist Yellow Peril stories that were so popular in their era, with their Oriental villains scheming to take over the world. After years of cliched movie adaptations, Charlie Chan is now frequently considered a lamentable stereotype. I am certainly not defending some of the film versions of the character. But it seems inaccurate and unjust to judge the original books by later film versions. Biggers worked hard to shatter racist stereotypes and replace them by positive images of Chinese people. He deserves credit for this, not blame. Chan personally has to battle racial prejudice against Chinese in some of Biggers' books; a memorable example is found in Chapter 21 of The Chinese Parrot (1926).
Biggers commitment to the Realist approach varies from novel to novel. It is strongest in The House Without a Key, more moderate in Behind That Curtain, and Keeper of the Keys, and weakest in The Chinese Parrot. Behind That Curtain opens with an explicit disavowal of the uses of science in detection, so if Biggers was influenced by Crofts, he had no interest in the scientific approach of R. Austin Freeman. The same opening discussion in Curtain also suggests that detective fiction bears little resemblance to real life police work; Biggers takes the Croftsian position that real life detection is largely dependent on a mixture of hard work and luck. This sort of self referential discussion of The Detective Story within a detective story has a long tradition in mystery fiction. The Chinese Parrot also contains several witty allusions to detective story conventions.
Howard Haycraft justly complained about the "mechanical" nature of Biggers' plot construction. The House Without a Key contains numerous subplots, rather arbitrarily sewn together. The best parts of the book are not the mystery plot or investigation, but the events leading up to the murder (Chapters 1 - 7). Similarly, the best parts of The Chinese Parrot are the first three chapters. In both novels, these opening sections contain the most important parts of the Background, and well done elements of intrigue and adventure.
The murder victim in Behind That Curtain (1928) leaves behind a non-verbal, symbolic clue that serves as a Dying Message. This convention would soon be used by Ellery Queen in numerous stories. I have no idea whether Biggers was the first mystery writer to use this non-verbal, symbolic Dying Message.
But, several of its chapters are written in the form of detective short stories. They show the police of various cities investigating and solving mysterious crimes. Some of these detective tales are solidly done, and will interest lovers of mystery fiction.
"A Case Without a Clew" and "Too Many Clews" are mysteries based in odd informational premises. The tales can have a feel that anticipates Borges'. This is especially true of the off-trail "Too Many Clews".
The Chafik stories I have read emphasize adventure as much as mystery. Their general lack of rigorous, fair play puzzle plotting is frustrating to readers like me.
Both Allison and his lead detective character are black, and there is a great deal of pithy detail about both black life of the era, and the troubled state of race relations in the period. The story is a ground breaking work of sociological realism in the mystery story.
The title "Corollary" is about how investigation of one crime can lead to clues about another. Such an interest in the theory and practice of detection is part of the Croftsian school.
Of Carr's other fiction, "Murder at City Hall" (1951) falls flat on its face. It is less meaningful than "The Trial of John Nobody", and with less interesting characters or events.
"Tyger! Tyger!" (1952) is a genuine detective story, solved by a high brow poet who spends a lot of time thinking about mysticism, the problems of evil, human nature, and The Bomb. We also see samples of his William Blake style poetry throughout the story; they are not bad, and make the poet a reasonably believable figure. Carr is also more competent than most writers in showing the poet's compositional processes. The poet is given an admiring poetry loving policeman Watson on the homicide squad. The friendship between the two men reminds one a little of that between Dr. Coffee and policeman Max Ritter. The mystery story plot is closely integrated with a Background of a Russian restaurant.
The light hearted "A Case of Catnapping" (1954) is pretty minor as a detective story, but it has good background detail, and is fun to read.
"The Washington Party Murder" (1964) is a long short story or novella. It is ambitious, but somehow not pleasant in its story telling.
The drug distribution network of "Tyger! Tyger!" recalls on a small scale such elaborate Croftsian (non-drug) networks as found in The Pit-Prop Syndicate and The Box Office Murders.
There are some alibi features in "Murder at City Hall". Crofts specialized in alibis.
Other Realist School features include scientific characters such as the rain-making scientists in "Murder at City Hall", and the skeptical doctor in "The Trial of John Nobody". Still science plays a much smaller role in Carr's tales than in R. Austin Freeman and such Freeman-influenced writers as Lawrence G. Blochman and Helen McCloy.
"A Case of Catnapping" shows Carr's technique of developing a solution in layers. Carr's works involve the step by step unveiling of the truth. We see what his detective sees, and often times, through long sections of the story, we know what the detective knows. This is a Croftsian approach. However, Carr goes beyond this in his plot construction. His solutions come in layers, like a piece of puff pastry. First one layer is revealed, then another, and so on till all of the ideas making up the solution are exposed. This can be a very complex process, involving many different kinds of ideas. There are often lots of guilty parties taking part in the crime. They are all collaborating together, and know about each other's works, but they are doing different kinds of things. The revelation of each villain in turn, is also linked to the disclosure of what kind of criminal activity they have been up to. This allows the progressive peeling away of the solution that Carr favors.
In retrospect, the social analyses of such Realist School writers as Blochman, McCloy, Allison, Childs and Carr seem much more intellectually sophisticated than those of their crime novel contemporaries. The writers of straightforward, non puzzle plot police fiction of the era seem narrowly focused on Crime, whether committed by juvenile delinquents or mobsters. Much of their analysis of the situation is full of low brow bromides on juvenile delinquents reforming, ordinary people standing up to the mob, etc. The crime novelists were focused on Crime, whereas the Realist School was interested in Society.
Miner's tale also falls into the "civics lesson" tradition that was popular in early 1950's American mystery stories, not just those of the Realist School. There is an election, politics, and a low key look at that early 50's favorite, mob justice versus the rule of law. See the article on Charlotte Armstrong for a discussion of this.
Miner's tale also falls into some categories of mainstream literature. Rural fiction was still a big deal in the 1930's, when magazines like The Saturday Evening Post paid big bucks to writers like William Faulkner and MacKinlay Kantor to write short stories filled with local color. My impression is that by 1954 such rural portraits were considered less significant in American Literature, and that Miner's tale is a bit out of its time.
Another tradition that Miner's work evokes is that of the tale about snow. Many writers, not only fiction authors, but also poets, have been fascinated by snow, and written about it vividly. Miner makes a contribution to this tradition.
"Due Process" appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 1954.
Mystery novels have traditionally been full of time tables, floor plans and other multimedia. This story actually includes business spreadsheets, an unusual multimedia feature. This was long before computerized spreadsheet software, too.
To Market, To Market does not fall easily into any category of the mystery novel. Its complete lack of hard-boiled features, and its setting among reasonably prosperous New Yorkers make it remote from most of the tough guy school. Its detailed, expert Background of department store business life, and the carefully worked out Criminal Scheme of the bad guys show distant echoes of the novels of Freeman Wills Crofts. The book also shows the general surface realism that was de rigeur in American mystery fiction after 1945. It sticks closely to actions and characters that would be plausible among real life New York City business people of the time.
"What a pleasure to come on your review of To Market, To Market which I wrote nearly 50 years ago, under the pseudonym Allen Richards.
I especially enjoyed your noting my use of a spreadsheet as a vital clue in tracking down the killer. The book had good reviews by Anthony Boucher and Saturday Review, but this aspect wasn't noted. It reflected what I was trying to do which was to have a detective story in the midst of one's day-to-day working slob existence rather than in a British castle or urban cop/criminal underworld. I wrote while it I was working full time as a costume jewelry buyer for Abraham & Straus. It took a year and a half, I rarely slept more than 3 hours a night, and never felt better.
I did one other book, a self help work for people with hearing loss, which came out of my own experiences, a hearing loss from World War II. The Hearing Loss Handbook, St. Martins Press, 1976. And for 4 years I was a business and feature writer for Women's Wear Daily, but otherwise did not write much more than letters to the editor. That is until recently. From 1993 to 2003 I was employed as disabilities advocate for the Town of East Hampton NY.
After nearly 3 years at it am just about finished with a new satirical, suspense novel. I have written it purposely not thinking of a publisher. With To Market, To Market, I simply took it around the corner from where I was living in New York City and dropped it on the desk of the Macmillan mystery editor, confident it would be read. Six weeks later she called me with an offer. No agent. No précis.
After writing To Market, I learned that Lawrence Blochman was a second cousin of mine. I have actually read little of him, but did meet him occasionally between 1965 and his death. A lovely man who would serve wonderful wine at dinner as he expanded on poisons that could be in the food and drink and put us away without the FBI, Hercules Poirot or Sherlock Holmes ever figuring it out.
My favorite writers are Updike and Chandler and if anyone influenced me it would be Chandler, if only in the sense that he made me want to write. I think there were 2 aspects to this that I was unaware of at the time -- that simply looking about you at the urban scene or any scene can be wonderful, that excitement and fascination are implicit in a mundane existence. I saw this first through Chandler. And how marvelously Updike shows it through Rabbit.
The second aspect re Chandler was my identification with Marlowe. Looking back I realize it was much more than good guy bad guy stuff. He was lonely & alienated in a big city. He played chess with himself. He rarely got laid -- remember this was the forties -- and could not be casual about sex, or anything else for that matter. Yet he never succumbed to his cynicism, which was as it turned out sharp and often hilarious.
He knew he wasn't the smartest man around, (the reader would always know he was going to be beaten up before he did) but instead of acquiescing to his dumb slob niche, he focused and triumphed and then told his cynical user-client to take their 5 C's and shove it. At the end there was always his integrity. Chandler made this stuff, perhaps clichés of their depression W.W.II time, rich and believable.
I also admire Graham Greene. I think he was 80 when he finished his last work, and though I forget the title, it was wonderful. And I've loved Anne Tyler's way of having taken-for-granted- housewives take off in the middle of their lives and start anew."
"On Separate Tracks" has a Background, showing how rock musicians record albums. Like many Realist School backgrounds before, this one mixes business and technology. The tale concentrates closely on recording: unlike many tales of rock music, it doesn't show concerts or much about the personal lives and lifestyles of rockers. Unlike virtually all rock music mysteries, there are no groupies!
"On Separate Tracks" resembles the Crofts tradition in another way: it has a Criminal Scheme, that is more interesting than the actual murder.
There are some good post-pulp inverted detective stories; see "Sound Alibi" (1957) by Jack Ritchie. Short inverted tales were also popular in the slick magazines of the 1930's: see Samuel Hopkins Adams' "The Unreckonable Factor" (1938), for example. Isaac Asimov included several Freeman-like inverted detective stories, such as "The Singing Bell" (1954), in his collection Asimov's Mysteries. The title of this tale, and its successor "The Talking Stone" (1955), are clearly in homage to Freeman's classic collection of inverted tales, The Singing Bone (1912). And as has often been pointed out, Freeman's inverted story pattern, in which we see the killer commit the crime first, and the detective track him down afterwards, forms the basic framework for the TV detective series Columbo.
Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg are also the editors of two enormous anthologies of tales reprinted from the pulps, Hard-Boiled Detectives (1992), which reprints stories from the pulp magazine Dime Detective, and Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames (1993). Many stories from these collections are discussed in the articles on Pulp Adventure and Weird Menace fiction. The tales in these omnibuses are of surprisingly high quality; many combine well made puzzle plots with adventure elements. Mystery fans are greatly in these editors' debt, for their excavating so many lost gems of detective fiction.
Commentary on Frederic Arnold Kummer:
"Pig's Feet" appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, February 2, 1924. The Saturday Evening Post was one of the most popular magazines of all time. Anything published in it would become widely known to middle class readers. This means that the gangster/bootlegger subject matter of "Pig's Feet" was common knowledge among educated, middle class Americans early in 1924. One notes that the hard-boiled private eye tale had just been created the year before in 1923, in the pulp magazine Black Mask, first by Carroll John Daly, followed shortly after by Dashiell Hammett. Real-life gang bosses were well-established before 1924: Chicago gang boss Big Jim Colosimo was murdered in 1920, probably by Johnny Torrio so that Torrio could take over Colosimo's criminal empire and use it to enter the bootlegging business.
The middle class The Saturday Evening Post is typically more genteel than the hard-boiled Black Mask, and this gentility perhaps influenced "Pig's Feet". Most of "Pig's Feet" deals not with gangsters, but with bonds embezzled from a bank, a middle class setting more in keeping with the general tone of The Saturday Evening Post.
"Pig's Feet" is not being recommended here. Among other problems, it is relentlessly racist in depicting various criminal types. It is a tale of purely historical interest. "Pig's Feet" lacks any sort of mystery plot, dealing with various schemes instead.
After the murder, the hero gradually uncovers the true story of the events of the night surrounding it. The uncovering is done in step by step fashion, gradually revealing another layer of events. Each step in the process is logically supported by clues and evidence. The story is not "fair play": the clues are not all shared ahead of time with the reader, so the reader can draw their own deductions. Still the whole uncovering of the truth is a pleasant process to read about. It has some structural relationship to the "inverted tale", in which physical pieces of evidence also lead to the step by step uncovering of the truth.
"Eight Bells" has a pleasant background, dealing with the still timely subject of political chicanery in Washington D. C.
The story's setting aboard of a luxury passenger cruiser recalls Roland Phillips' "Clews in the Wind" (1930).
Mystery Plot. The subplot about the traveling salesman Hart has some modest merit. But the main mystery plot is not much.
Ancestors. The scarecrow imagery of the title recalls Ellery Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932). Aspects of the novel recall Mary Roberts Rinehart's The After House (1914) a bit.
The detective, a wise elderly Judge in the Southern (Maryland) setting, is in the tradition of Irvin S. Cobb and William Faulkner, although less colorful.
Harrison's tale is notable for the way that strange evidence keeps turning up, indicating the hero's guilt, even though he is innocent. This evidence is so detailed, and so unlikely given what we know as facts, that the story is borderline-impossible crime. The evidence, and the way it shows up, has both a surreal and a paranoiac quality. The evidence almost seems to indicate a parallel world, a non material place where clues and evidence exist in Platonic archetypal form. It forms an alternative reality, a world which keeps shadowing our own, and forming a strange, idea oriented imitation of it.
There is a fair amount of interesting material on the technical aspects of photography in Harrison's story, and this is rather Freeman like.
There are some common images between "Wish You Were Dead" and Harrison's inverted story "Calling Doctor Death" (1949):
By contrast, "Eye Witness" is narrated entirely from the point of view of the detectives. It begins with one detective synopsizing to another, the story of how the villain probably committed the murder. Then the rest of the story is their detective work, building up evidence against the criminal. The structure of "Eye Witness" is thus closer to Freeman's paradigm. The early synopsis of how the crook probably committed the crime is not too dissimilar to Freeman's initial accounts of the crook committing the murder, while the detective work in the rest of the story corresponds exactly to the detection which forms the second half of a Freeman inverted. As in all kinds of inverteds, we know the criminal right away here; the suspense, mystery and intellectual interest coming from how the detectives are going to prove his guilt.
Finally, the mystery subplot these chapters set forth is solved towards the end of Chapter 16, "Jupiter Solves One Mystery". These chapters, which deal with a historical mystery, are much more imaginative than the modern day mystery which takes up much of the rest of the book.
Out of the blue I received e-mail from his son, Michael A. Manners, full of information on him, and his brother William Manners, who was also a mystery writer, as well as the founding editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Excerpts from Mr. Manners' very interesting letter of 12-30-1996 follow:
"My brother Tim alerted me today that by doing an Internet search for David X Manners, I would find that my father, David X Manners, and my uncle William Manners were included in a compilation of mystery writers. I thought you might be interested to know a little more about these two authors. They were both quite prolific and had several careers besides mystery writing.
"WILLIAM MANNERS wrote many mysteries, had a notable career as a professional boxer (52 pro bouts, 51 knock-outs), and wrote several non-fiction books that were very successful. Among them, FATHER AND THE ANGELS, an autobiographical account of growing up the son of a Rabbi, WAKE UP AND WRITE! - a quick and energized course in how to be a writer - T.R . AND WILL, the story of the stormy friendship between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt - LAGUARDIA, the story of Fiorella LaGuardia, the outspoken mayor of New York. He also was editor for Alfred Hitchcock magazine for a number of years. His wife, Ande Manners, wrote a self help hardcover of several hundred pages - A PARENTS GUIDE TO MUSIC LESSONS - and a very important book "POOR COUSINS" that was critically acclaimed and a New York Times Best Seller. It detailed the story of East European Jews and how they were treated by their already "landed" cousins when they reached America. Uncle William was a life long athlete and vegetarian - even during his years as a professional boxer. He and my mother Ruth Ann Manners wrote "The Quick and Easy Vegetarian Cookbook" together and it has enjoyed 24 years of multiple new printings and re-releases in more than 14 languages.
"DAVID X MANNERS, (there is no period after the "X", it's his full middle name) was born in Zanesville Ohio in 1912. The son of Rabbi Harris Rosenberg and his second wife Bertha. David wrote pulps, worked as an editor for some of the biggest publishing houses buying manuscripts and also was one of the pioneers of the whole "Do it yourself" publishing industry. Many would say he was the one who really created it. Among other odd accomplishments, he is generally credited with introducing the Sauna to America. He has written hundreds of books and magazine articles on subjects from "how to do your own concrete and masonry" to "How to fix your own Television". When Writers Digest put together a 75th anniversary hardcover book containing the best "How to be a writer" articles it had ever published, "The 10 Deadly Sins", written in 1940 by David X Manners, was in there alongside articles by Louis L'Amour, Erle Stanley Gardner, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov. The TEN DEADLY SINS he outlined in 1940 are still great advice, and might be a great addition to your site, as I suspect many visitors are would - be writers.
"David also designed and built his own house from scratch. Not just any house, but one that has been featured over and over again in magazines such as HOUSE BEAUTIFUL. David also founded The David X Manners Company, a public relations firm that today is run by his youngest son, Timothy, and now specializes in the field of marketing. His wife Ruth Ann has also published several do it yourself books, on subjects including sewing and kitchen design, in addition to the best-selling QUICK AND EASY VEGETARIAN COOKBOOK.
"My parents met as students at The Art Students League of New York City. I've found that creative people generally have more than one outlet for expression. I'm never surprised to hear that a well known musician, writer or actor also paints or sculpts.
"David wrote a TON of mysteries and westerns. He and my Uncle Bill also wrote and hosted a "solve the mystery" radio show in New York called ISN'T IT A CRIME with a chap named Ted Cott in the 1940's.
"William passed away in 1994 at the age of 86. David X Manners will turn 85 in February and we still can't keep him from climbing ladders to fix the roof. The man is made of bronze."
Readers can check out ELEVEN MANNERS, a family web site with much information on David X Manners, on line, at an external web site (out of this Guide).