Originally published in 1935
Riley Blackwood #1
Followed by Midnight and Percy Jones
This book was expanded from Recipe for Murder published in 1934
When a New York banker is discovered dead from an apparent morphine overdose in a Chicago hotel, the circumstances surrounding his untimely end are suspicious to say the least. The dead man had switched rooms the night before with a stranger he met and drank with in the hotel bar. And before that, he’d registered under a fake name at the hotel, told his drinking companion a fake story about his visit to the Windy City, and seemingly made no effort to contact the actress, performing in a local show, to whom he was married. All of which is more than enough to raise eyebrows among those who discovered the body.
Enter theatre critic and amateur sleuth Riley Blackwood, a friend of the hotel’s owner, who endeavors to untangle this puzzling tale as discreetly as possible. But when another detective working the case, whose patron is unknown, is thrown from a yacht deck during a party by an equally unknown assailant, the investigation makes a splash among Chicago society. And then several of the possible suspects skip town, leaving Blackwood struggling to determine their guilt or innocence―and their whereabouts.
As nice as it is to see new editions of books by Carr, Gardner and Queen appearing in the American Mystery Classics range, the books that truly excite me are the ones I have never heard of. That unfamiliarity is nice not only because of the variety it brings to a range, but also because there is something rather exciting about approaching a work with no expectations at all beyond what little information a cover and blurb may suggest.
The Great Hotel Murder begins with Blaine Oliver anxiously trying to summon Dr. Trample in the lobby of the Hotel Granada where she had an appointment to meet him. He is neither responding to calls to his room nor can he be found anywhere in the lobby. A friend happens upon her and suggests that they try going to his room and knocking directly but they find a Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door and no response from inside. Finally they persuade the management to unlock the room and enter to find a man lying dead on the bed. To their surprise however it is not Dr. Trample and it turns out that he has died of a morphine overdose although he no syringe can be found and he does not appear to be a habitual user of the drug.
Before anyone gets too excited at the words ‘unlock the room’, I should say that the way that this case plays out serves to minimize that aspect of the plot. For one thing, we are told almost immediately after its detection that the poison could have been administered before the victim returned to the room and locked themselves in. We are also aware that several of the staff possess master keys so the locked door is less a barrier and more a logistical obstacle that the reader will have to factor into how they explain the sequence of events leading to the murder.
Instead this will be a case where we are looking for someone who has a motive for murder. While there is one character that seems to have had the clearest opportunity, it is hard to understand exactly why he would kill someone he appears to have only known for a few hours. In a reversal of the usual structure of the whodunit, here we begin with just one or two suspects and our field widens throughout the novel as we learn more about the victim. This approach works pretty well and I am happy to say that I was surprised by several aspects to the solution.
Our unlikely sleuth is theatrical critic Riley Blackwood, whose involvement in the case is justified by his being a friend of the hotel’s owner. Blackwood is a detective whose personality feels reminiscent of the Ellery Queen school of amateur detectives. He is well-read, whimsical and has a habit of responding to problems with quotations. In terms of the way he approaches the case however I think he also feels like he exists on the edge of a more hardboiled, pulpy sort of detection. After all, he forms attractions to women involved in the case, dives into a body of water to rescue someone and even carries a gun at one point. It makes for an interesting mix of traits that I think works pretty well for this sort of a case.
The pool of suspects that he is investigating make up a pretty interesting mix of characters from a variety of different walks of life. Given the importance of finding a motive to this case, the question becomes one of how the various characters knew the deceased, whether they knew he was there and what may have prompted a murder at that precise time.
These are pretty interesting questions and managed to sustain my interest for much of the book. I will say that while this is a puzzle plot, the individual steps of the puzzle are relatively straightforward and typically a problem raised is solved fairly quickly. An early example would be the importance of a pair of binoculars – connecting the evidence to its likely cause is not particularly difficult, even if you can see why its significance might have passed others by as it does not appear to be directly related to the case.
More importantly, I think the way the story unfolds is pretty entertaining. Blackwood is often quite amusing, as are a couple of the suspects, and there are several moments of tension and action that help to keep things moving. This isn’t simply a short story with some padding to fill out the page count – it is a pretty engaging softboiled thriller that hits some solid comical notes.
Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. The plot is a little too simple and a little too familiar for that, but it entertains. In that sense it sits comfortably alongside the likes of Home, Sweet Homicide or Your Turn, Mr. Moto which are also part of this range and is worth a look for those who like novels that blend mystery and adventure.
The Verdict: Pretty entertaining Golden Age fare that blends action and mystery with a likable sleuth.
The publication history of this book is just as interesting as the book itself. The Studies in Starrett Blog posted a series of articles about this back in 2017. The first installment focuses on the Redbook short story and how it differs from Starrett’s previous work. The second installment looks at the 1935 novel and the changes that were made from the Redbook version. The final installment focuses on the film adaptation which diverges quite radically from either of the texts with the author noting in his memoirs ‘Nobody was more surprised than the author by the revelation of the killer’s identity’.