Cries in the Night by J. H. Wallis

Originally published 1933
Inspector Jacks #4
Preceded by The Servant of Death
Followed by The Mystery of Vaucluse

In the early hours of the morning a man is woken by a woman’s scream coming from one of the boats off the shore of Port Washington. Investigating, he finds a man who claims that his boat was stolen and that his wife, the actress Daphne Eden, was taken or murdered by a pair of pirates.

Connecting Eden’s disappearance with those of four other actresses, whose bodies were never found, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case. He will have to discover the reason why these particular women were targetted and identify the criminals before they can strike again…

If you haven’t been following this blog for long the chances are that you will not be familiar with the work of James Harold Wallis. He has been largely forgotten as a mystery writer with most of his eight novels having been out of print for decades and little-reviewed on the internet. When he is remembered it is usually in connection with The Woman in the Window, an early film noir movie adapted from one of his final novels (which reminds me that I really should write about that film on this blog at some point).

Since first discovering Wallis’ novels about two years ago, I have worked to track them down and have now reviewed almost all of them. This novel was the only Inspector Jacks story I had not read which means that after this I will only The Woman He Chose, a legal thriller, left to read. It’s a strange feeling given how much time I invested in this project to be nearly at its end. Happily I can say that I feel that time was well-spent as I have enjoyed all of the books and the only disappointment I feel about the project is that the obscurity of these titles means that I have little opportunity to hear what others make of them.

Cries in the Night begins with a man being woken in the early hours of the morning by a woman’s scream. He recognizes that the sound came from the water and, upon investigating, discovers a man, Whitney Sinclair, who claims that his boat was stolen by pirates and that they either kidnapped or murdered his wife, the actress Daphne Eden. Sinclair is taken back to his rescuer’s home but before calling the Police he places a call in which he is overheard saying that he can’t have something uncovered.

The New York City police connect Eden’s disappearance with several previous cases also involving actresses, though they were much less publicized. No ransom demands were ever received, nor were any bodies discovered in those cases. Fearing more disappearances may follow, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case and to test the theory that there may be some connection between these different cases.

Of all of the scenarios Wallis creates in his Inspector Jacks novels, I think that this is one of his most grabbing. Part of the reason for this is that this is his only case where we begin the book at a point at which the crime has already taken place, throwing us directly into the story. Not only that but because we join the story with the fifth crime, it means that a considerable amount of information has already been gathered, allowing Jacks to quickly focus on the most interesting aspects of the case.

I also think that the lack of information we have about exactly what has happened to those women helps to elevate the sense of mystery and tension. We may wonder whether the women are still alive and whether Jacks stands any chance of possibly recovering them all of which ties into the book’s most crucial question – why were these women kidnapped in the first place?

While the wide scope of this mystery may seem to suggest that anyone might have done the crime, the reader will likely find themselves focusing on a small group of suspects. These characters each have quite strong and distinct personalities that make enough of an impression that they can be easily distinguished from each other.

One of the things that struck me most while reading this was the way Wallis acknowledges the role race plays in how characters have been treated. This is most directly addressed in the way that the disappearances of four actresses, though each were talented and quite successful, were met with little attention. Daphne Eden, it is suggested, received more attention and media coverage as she was the first white victim. Similarly Wallis recognizes further inequalities in discussions about the victims’ careers and the opportunities they have been given. He would return to this theme much more forcefully a decade later in his final novel The Niece of Abraham Pein which discussed antisemitism.

In a passage later in the novel Wallis takes us to Harlem and describes the community and life there. I should say that while it seemed clear to me that Wallis intended to celebrate Harlem, there are a couple of descriptive phrases that do evoke some stereotypical ideas (principally that all Black people are happy and carefree). On the whole though I think these passages evoke a sense of respect for the community and the characters we encounter feel as dimensional as their white counterparts which is not always the case in Golden Age works…

As much as I appreciate the social context of this story, which also includes some reflection about the damage that the Great Depression has done to some personal fortunes and businesses in New York, the primary draw here for most will be the mystery and I am pleased to report that I think this one of the author’s most successful efforts.

Wallis’ approach here is to blend elements of the thriller and the fair play detective story which I feel is highly effective. While there are a few sensational developments, particularly in the final few chapters, Wallis does provide the reader with enough information to make the necessary deductions before they reach the Challenge to the Reader page. I will not claim that I think that every aspect of the solution here is likely or realistic, but I did find it to be entertaining and largely satisfying.

Overall then I found this to be one of the best examples of Wallis’ mystery writing I have encountered. The scenario he creates is intriguing and raises some interesting questions for the reader to solve. Unlike some of his other mysteries, this moves at a pretty slick speed, helped by the crime having already been committed at the start of the novel, and the inclusion of some thriller elements work well to raise the stakes and ensures that the book builds to an exciting conclusion.

The Verdict: The blend of thriller elements and fair play detection works well and makes this one of his most successful efforts.

The Capital City Mystery by J. H. Wallis

Originally published in 1932
Inspector Jacks #2
Preceded by Murder by Formula
Followed by The Servant of Death

From among a brilliant galaxy of Senators, Representatives, Diplomats, Governors, artists, society women, wealthy aristocrats, and influential newspaper publishers of Washington D.C. – a wealthy Congressman disappeared almost before their eyes, during the progress of one of his wife’s famous Sunday night suppers.

Inspector Jacks of New York had hardly started work on the case when there was an even stranger disappearance. How he wove a cunning web into which he drew many unsuspecting human flies and finally a diabolical pair that buzzed too long around the scene of their crime, is the high water mark of a most unique and blood-curdling mystery tale.

I was really excited to get hold of The Capital City Mystery a few months ago as it completed my collection of James Harold Wallis’ detective stories. These books have been largely forgotten but I have found each of the ones I have read interesting, even if they were not always entirely successful. This is one of his earliest efforts featuring his series detective, Inspector Jacks – an independently wealthy police detective from New York.

Each week US Representative Lester Armaude and his wife Lily host Sunday supper parties for their friends and neighbors who are a mix of politicians, news publishers and other dignitaries. This week is no different, although a heavy fog does mean that the gathering is expected to be a little smaller than usual. Anticipating the arrival of a colleague, Lester decides to walk down to unlock a side gate and wait to greet them. Guests begin to arrive but Lester does not return and when the visitors he was waiting for arrive and say they didn’t see him, a small search is mounted and while his pen is found, Lester is nowhere to be seen.

While his wife seems initially unconcerned by the absence, the next day she receives a telegram purporting to be from Lester in which he explains his absence. Rather than settling the matter, the note instead makes her suspicious as there is a telltale sign that it would not be from him. Fearing kidnap but daring not to go to the Police and cause a scandal, Lily’s house guest Lais suggests that they reach out to Inspector Jacks from New York who she met when he investigated her ‘trouble’ three years earlier (the events of the previous novel, Murder by Formula) and who can be trusted to be discrete. He agrees to take some leave and visit to look into the matter for them.

A deeper investigation of the scene only seems to confirm their suspicions that something sinister has happened and leads to a more formal investigation taking place. With no trace or sightings of him anywhere, the question is where could he have vanished to and for what purpose. And then another character disappears without a trace…

While the mechanism for involving Jacks in this capital-centered case is a little contrived, I found Wallis’ setup for this story and, in particular, the political aspects of the story to be quite intriguing. One common trick Wallis used in several of his setective stories is to have characters discuss the potential for a crime in an apparently hypothetical way that subsequently turns out to be rather prescient. Here we have just such a case where characters’ comments about the potential for murder are used to set the mood and prepare us for what we know must surely have happened, even in the absence of a corpse.

Wallis would have been familiar with the world of Washington from his experience working with Herbert Hoover as a special assistant when he was serving as Secretary of State. He also had some personal political experience both from his own time in local government and as a newspaper owner. All of that knowledge and detail is there on the page, making this depiction of the capital feel well-observed with plenty of references to actual political figures and legislative debates that would have been fairly recent as well as comments on some of the locations and neighborhoods around the District of Columbia. All of the figures involved in this case however are fictional (including the President), allowing for the possibility that anything might happen to them.

This attention to the details of the setting and the characters that inhabit it is easily the most successful and interesting part of The Capital City Mystery. The pool of suspects is drawn from those characters who attended the Armaudes’ party, with the exception of Lais who is clearly established as the romantic interest for Jacks (this does feel pretty convincing and clearly evolves out of the circumstances of the previous book). This means that the suspects are all from Washington’s high society, leading Jacks to move in some relatively high circles. Wallis explains the tensions between the various suspects well and while carrying out an abduction or murder might seem to be a high risk endeavor, I had little difficulty accepting their possible motives for doing so.

Perhaps the most striking of the various suspects is Tonescu, a diplomat from one of the Balkan countries (Wallis avoids being too specific). What makes Tonescu memorable is his willingness to embrace a sort of blunt materialism where he makes no pretense about what he wants. This apparent honesty about his interest in Lily Armaude as well as his willingness to admit involvement in a previous murder (which describes in just a few lines an idea that Christie would use as the solution to a novel a couple of years later), makes him a difficult character to fully grasp and understand for much of the book and yet he plays off Jacks superbly.

Wallis’ only slight misstep on the characterization front is the character of Gaiety Joy, an out of work jester who Jacks encounters in a diner and hires to be his eyes and ears. This mechanism of hiring a surrogate is a decent one that has been used very effectively elsewhere, yet Joy is a rather odd character and as useful as he proves it is hard to understand exactly what causes Jacks to be willing to make the investment in him. There is also a rather lengthy sequence in which Joy performs some political poetry that drags on a little too long. Still, the character does open up some interesting doors to the investigation later or and there is a rather amusing development involving a decision he takes shortly after being hired.

All of which brings me to the bigger question of the plot. I do think that the book starts with a really interesting scenario and I think that the solution given is quite a lot of fun, albeit quite a familiar one. I do have to note though that it is more thriller than detective story in the telling. While I think the reader can presume some answers, I don’t think they are given quite enough to prove anything themselves. This may frustrate some readers but I remained engaged and entertained by the various twists and turns the case goes on.

Overall then I found The Capital City Mystery to be an enjoyable read. While it may not have been a fair play mystery, I had little difficulty in working out who was responsible and their motives or in maintaining my interest. Still, in spite of that it is a fun journey packed with strong characters and, in my opinion, one of the better Inspector Jacks stories.

The Verdict: Not so much a fair play mystery as a thriller but the capital setting and the development of the cast of suspects is handled well.

The Mystery of Vaucluse by J. H. Wallis

Originally published 1933
Inspector Jacks #5
Preceded by Cries in the Night
Followed by Murder Mansion

Students at Vaucluse College learn that Professor Dart is on the verge of making a discovery of a process to turn sugar into fuel. The next day he is found stabbed through the back with two bloody fingerprints on his collar and a puddle of water near him.

As the police are able to determine that no one entered or left the building after he was last seen alive, the killer must be one of those ten students. Searches of the students and the rooms reveal no weapons so who killed Professor Dart and how did they manage it?

I was introduced to the works of J. H. Wallis a few years ago when Kate at CrossExaminingCrime suggested I might be interested in one of his novels based on one of Todd Downing’s reviews collected in Clues and Corpses. I really enjoyed that book – The Servant of Death – and so slowly over the past couple of years I have worked to acquire affordable copies of each of his other novels. Finally this week I was able to track down the only one I was missing, completing my collection!

The Mystery of Vaucluse is part of Wallis’ Inspector Jacks series although readers should be aware that he is not the novel’s primary detective. Instead most of our time is spent following Devaney, a detective from New Haven, as he tries to make sense of this crime. While the series can be read in any order, I would suggest that this would be best enjoyed after reading some of Jacks’ earlier cases as I think that enhances a key moment late in the story.

This story is set at a college that has been set up as part of Yale University for adult students looking to spend time away from the world in academic pursuits. All students are required to be over forty years old and they are seeking personal enrichment or a chance to spend time with other prominent individuals rather than career qualifications.

One of the key figures at the college is Professor Dart, an internationally renowned scholar who has several significant academic projects on the go. During a dinner being held for the new intake of students, the Dean mentions two such projects that he considers tremendously exciting. One is a pesticide. The other, which he begins to describe, involves the refinement of sugar into a fuel that will replace oil.

Dart is uncomfortable talking about this and instead deflects their attention by talking about the history of the building they are in. We learn it is an exact copy of the Abbey Margawse on the Orkney Islands and was built from its original stones. Dart tells the story of a strange murder that took place six hundred years earlier in the room that is now his study in which a monk was found murdered with a stab wound in his back and a pool of water next to the body. The monks never learned which of their number did the crime or how it was committed.

After the speech Dart meets with the Dean in his study and shares his misgivings about his discovery. He wonders if it would be right to develop this process given that it will almost certainly cause enormous economic turmoil in the short term. The Dean presses him to ignore these misgivings and focus on the good it will do. He refuses however to learn where Dart is keeping the secret to the process – a fact known only to him – and leaves him in his study. As he departs though he has a sense of a figure lurking in the darkness. A short while later he is stabbed to death in the exact same location and way as the monk centuries earlier with the same mysterious pool of water near the body.

Quite by chance the police are summoned to the college at about the time the dean leaves as a student has reported a theft. Thanks to this coincidence, they are able to establish that no one had entered or left the building after the Dean which limits our suspects to just the ten individuals staying in the Abbey. Devaney, a detective from New Haven, is assigned the case and examines each room and person in turn but cannot find any sign of the murder weapon.

Devaney is shown to be a diligent detective, if not a hugely imaginative one. Throughout the case he takes actions that are designed to increase the pressure on those ten students, forcing them to spend time with each other and eat their meals in the room where the murder took place. Tempers inevitably flare between some members of the group, allowing Devaney and the reader a greater sense of each of their personalities.

This attention to characterization is one of the book’s strengths as Wallis clearly provides us with some biographical information about each of the ten students staying in the Abbey. He even produces a table at an early point in the novel summarizing their relationships, backgrounds, reasons for attending Vaucluse and the types of investments they hold.

Each character has some distinctive personality traits and in several cases we are aware of some mystery surrounding them. For instance, a married couple have accompanied their wealthy neighbor to the college but Devaney is unsure about the nature of their relationship and whether they are pests or welcome companions.

Some are more interesting and entertaining than others. Dentzer, a 112 year old who bores many in the party with his insistence on talking about centenarians at length, overstayed his welcome with me. The rest however each have their moments and were mysterious enough to leave me in some doubt about the killer until close to the end.

Let’s turn to focus more specifically on the plotting itself. Wallis’ invention of the historical crime is fun although it is perhaps not used to its full potential. I had expected some question about whether the room itself might kill but this is never really considered by Devaney. Still, it added to the atmosphere and it is used to unsettle the students before they even hear of Dart’s murder.

The decision to provide us with a pretty clear motivation for the murder is an interesting and fairly effective one. Dart’s discovery is so clearly the cause, the question is not why but whether it actually applies to the suspect and whether they had the means and opportunity.

One specific element of the crime will likely be quickly solved by most readers as it has been used frequently over the years. This is unfortunate but as that element of the mystery is not the primary focus, I think the experience isn’t spoiled if you immediately guess it.

Another however would be almost impossible to predict, particularly given that the circumstances of the murder seem to suggest it was a suddenly conceived plan. This unfortunately has the effect of making that part of the murder seem highly contrived (and it really, really is), but I think some observations can be inferred prior to the reveal that at least clue the reader in as to the nature of that element.

As to the killer’s identity – I think there are reasonable clues given that point to their identity. One piece of evidence is held back from the reader but I did not feel cheated – their identity can be reasonably inferred without that by the point you reach the challenge to the reader. I felt the reveal was strong and enjoyed the sequence in which they were caught.

Overall I found The Mystery of Vaucluse to be an interesting read and enjoyed the challenge of identifying the killer. It is not the author’s best work – I prefer his next book Murder Mansion or his early inverted mystery The Servant of Death – and one part of the solution feels well-worn, but the setting is interesting and Wallis’ stakeout sequences are tense and thrilling.

The Verdict: An interesting setting and colorful characters but unfortunately one part of the solution is all too easily guessed.

Murder Mansion by J. H. Wallis

Originally Published 1934
Inspector Jacks #6
Preceded by The Mystery of Vaucluse
Also Published As The House of Murder (UK)

In New York City an elderly woman lives alone in a mansion, cared for by a handful of old retainers. Her family had been one of the city’s most prominent and one of the nation’s richest and when she dies after receiving a blood transfusion in her home a media circus kicks off as everyone wants to know what will become of the money (and if they can get a slice of it).

In the days following her death a will is produced, apparently signed in the last days of her life without anyone’s knowledge, leaving large sums to three of her servants and the remainder divided up between medical charities. Distant relatives emerge however and decide to challenge the will, seeking to break it on the grounds that she was not in her right mind.

The four closest family members identified by the courts as next of kin meet and discuss their options. They have to stay in the city while the case progresses and so they decide on a whim to all stay together in the deceased woman’s home, partly out of their curiosity and also to experience living in such a grand home. While the glamor of the house doesn’t quite match their expectations, things nonetheless seem to be going well until one of the party is discovered dead in their bedroom in an apparent suicide…

If you haven’t been following this blog for long the chances are that you will not be familiar with J. H. Wallis. He has been largely forgotten as a mystery writer with most of his work having been out of print for decades and is generally only remembered in connection with The Woman in the Window, an early film noir movie adapted from one of his last books. Having now read several of his books I think this is unfortunate as while his prose can be a little earnest and stiff, he creates clever mystery plots and also showed a willingness to experiment by trying different styles such as legal thrillers and inverted stories.

Murder Mansion may be my favorite of his books that I have read so far and a lot of the appeal comes from its core premise: that someone is knocking off claimants to an estate to extract a bigger share of the proceeds estate. This not only means that we have a clear and strong motive established for the murders from the start, it also creates a scenario where the killer is among the potential victims and risks exposing themselves the closer they get to success.

There are elements of this situation and the way Wallis handles it that evoked a later and much more famous work: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None… For instance, characters reference the “Ten Little Indians” song on several occasions in the story, saying things like:

“Four little claimants, as snug as could be.
One turned on the gas, and then there were three.”

Sure, the execution is not quite so crisp as Agatha’s, nor does Wallis quite succeed in using it to cultivate a sense of impending doom. This is partly because the rhyme never forms the focal point of the murder sequence, usually coming out of the discussions, but it is also because there are fewer deaths and so we never quite get time to feel a pattern developing. Still, I will always find tontine crime stories highly engaging and this proves no exception.

Wallis’ characters come from a range of backgrounds and each feels quite distinctive making the story easy to follow (while there are only four heirs, we do meet a pretty large cast of characters including servants, lawyers and doctors, so this proves quite helpful in keeping everything straight).

As there is no need to establish motives for each character the focus instead is on developing our understanding of their personalities and instincts. This is managed through showing their differing opinions on matters like how they should handle the servants and their expectations from the estate or how they should handle the discovery of a body. I felt these disagreements, though sometimes quite small and apparently insignificant, between the characters gave insight into each character and what they would be capable of.

While Wallis creates several credible suspects it should be said that he does undo a little of his good work by the way he uses the omniscient narration to provide us with information we could not otherwise have known based on what we have witnessed up to that point. Sometimes, such as with the revelation that the elderly woman had been killed, this information can and should be welcomed as advancing our understanding and allowing the reader knowledge that gives them an advantage over Inspector Jacks (who approaches the case from the base assumption that it was a natural death) but there are times later in the story where he reveals a character’s innocence through sharing their state of mind, significantly reducing the field of suspects.

I would add that though Wallis develops a strong cast of suspects and people involved in this case, his series detective feels a little bland and uninteresting. Attempts to provide us with a little insight into his tastes when off duty add little to readers’ understanding of the character while he can seem curiously passive at points in the case when it seems likely that further murder attempts might be made.

It may be that previous stories provide a stronger sense of his character and personality and this may be presuming prior knowledge of the character but there is little here to capture the imagination or make you feel you know him. There is nothing here to hate or even really dislike but it does feel odd to spend as much time as the reader does with him without even knowing him a little.

In terms of the plotting of the mystery, I think Wallis’ efforts are largely successful and I was pleasantly surprised to find it was constructed around a real puzzle for the readers to solve. The clues are clever and are laid out pretty clearly for the reader though it is possible that they miss the significance of information.

That does not mean that every aspect of the solution made perfect sense – I had questions about one character’s actions prior to the murder though I did manage to make up an explanation for myself of how it all came together. Still, for the most part I think the setups and executions of each development in the mystery worked well and I think Wallis brings them together with a clever, if rather fantastic, explanation at the end.

I have read several mystery novels by Wallis at this point and I feel quite comfortable saying that his is quite comfortably his strongest effort. It boasts a strong puzzle mystery and some exciting twists and turns all born out of its engaging premise and interesting mix of characters. It is, of course, not perfect and I certainly wouldn’t advise breaking the bank for it but it is definitely worth a read should you ever stumble upon a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

The Niece of Abraham Pein by J. H. Wallis

Originally Published 1943

The Varak Valley is a region of small farmers and traders. Its seclusion tempts the mathematician, Walter Dyce, to make his summer home there. To this rustic, suspicious community come Abraham Pein and his youthful niece, Esther Kiesen, exiles from Nazi tyranny. Esther’s strange disappearance sets in motion a dramatic train of events. Pein’s enemies place him on trial for his life. And the progress of the case of the State vs. Abraham Pein keeps one guessing and wondering until the final chapter brings a startling denouement.

It has been a while since I last wrote about any of the works of the American mystery writer James Harold Wallis in part because getting hold of them is quite difficult. With the exception of his novel Once Off Guard which was later reissued under the title The Woman in the Window, his mysteries do not seem to have been reprinted since they were initially published in the 1930s and 1940s. I was understandably very excited when I happened upon an affordable copy of this novel.

The Niece of Abraham Pein was one of the last novels published by Wallis although he would live for a further fifteen years after its publication. It was published in 1943 and it is clear that this was a book written to remind readers of the Nazi persecution of Jews, to encourage support of the war effort and to influence readers to be on their guard against similar attitudes developing in the United States.

The story is narrated by Arthur Dyce, a headmaster from a New England preparatory school, who has bought a holiday home in a small town in rural New Hampshire. In the summer of 1939 he takes his annual holiday only to find that the usually peaceful community is riddled with tension and suspicion at the arrival of a pair of Jewish refugees who had escaped from Nazi Germany several years earlier.

Dyce feels that Abraham Pein and his niece Esther are the victims of racial and religious intolerance and he tries to intervene but with no success. When his enemies notice that the niece has not been seen for a few days they begin to ask questions, causing Pein to become agitated and evasive. Before long the authorities are checking up on his story and, unable to confirm it, Pein finds himself arrested for her murder and placed on trial.

Deeply disturbed and concerned that Pein will not be given a fair trial, Dyce contacts Clenard, a lawyer friend, who reluctantly agrees to take on the case as a public defender. The lawyer notes that while he finds Pein to be an unconvincing witness, the authorities have been unable to produce a body which puts the prosecution at a disadvantage and he feels optimistic. The rest of the book details the pair’s efforts to construct a defense and then the conduct of the trial itself.

Though there is a mystery here concerning the fate of Esther, this book is not structured as a detective novel. Instead it is presented as a legal thriller in which Dyce and Clenard are less focused on detection of the truth than they are in presenting a defence.

Typically in legal thrillers the protagonist would be the lawyer for the defendant but Wallis opts instead to present the story through the eyes of an outsider to the community. I think this is an interesting and effective choice on several levels. Firstly, it gives us an authoritative moral voice within the story to identify those antisemitic forces within the community and to act as a witness to some of the most crucial developments in the case before it goes to trial. While we know Dyce feels sympathetic to Pein, we are also aware that he is an inherently trustworthy narrator and that facts he establishes are likely to be truthful allowing us to focus on other questions.

Secondly, this creates a secondary character, Clenard, to act as Pein’s lawyer who is able to examine the situation on legal merit as opposed to a sense of moral justice. This has the benefit of creating a dynamic where the defence and progress of the trial are explained to Dyce and also to the reader. This helps the reader follow the action of the trial and to understand how new evidence will affect Pein’s chances.

Where Dyce is principled and rigid sometimes seeming a little patrician in his attitudes, Clenard is a much more grounded and pragmatic figure. He recognizes the problems inherent in their case, even though he has faith in the judicial process.

The problem is principally that Abraham Pein does not trust them or the American legal system. Pein cuts an interesting and ambiguous figure, simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious. It is pretty clear from the moment he is introduced that he is a victim of antisemitic prejudice and persecution first in Russia, then Germany and then in the United States. While we understand the forces that have made him hard and bitter it is clear that his treatment of his niece was frequently violent.

The tension is derived from not knowing exactly what evidence the prosecution will produce to support their case and our uncertainty as to what actually took place in that house. While I suspect many readers would be able to deduce some elements of the book’s conclusion from consideration of my brief outline and the themes of the novel, even if you know where this is ending up the journey there is pretty effective.

There are surprisingly few sensational developments in the trial and it is clear that the author aims to accurately portray the American legal system with equal time given to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In this I think he is quite successful.

Judged purely as a mystery or thriller I think it is a little less successful, in part because so much of the conclusion can be inferred at the start and Wallis does not provide many surprises. I think though that Wallis understood that he was using a genre as a vehicle to discuss societal issues. In that respect this work is more successful as Wallis writes boldly, with passion and conviction, building to a powerful if not surprising ending.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Person’s Name in the Title (What)

Once Off Guard by James Harold Wallis

Once Off Guard
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1942

I first encountered Wallis’ work after Kate suggested I try The Servant of Death, one of his inverted stories. Wallis had a relatively short but prolific career as a mystery novelist, turning out at least one book a year for the better part of a decade but most of these are now extremely difficult to come by.

Once Off Guard is probably the title that the author is best remembered for. In the various articles I have read about the author it is one of the two novels that gets mentioned most often, the other being Murder by Formula, which I suspect reflects that it was adapted and turned into a Fritz Lang picture, The Woman in the Window. Following that movie’s release the book was reissued under the title, often in an abridged form.

Professor Wanley has stayed in the city for the Summer to teach some courses and earn a little extra money while his wife vacations. One night after he has dinner with a few friends at his club he decides to read a little erotic Greek poetry, sip some brandy and then take a walk to look in an art gallery window.

As he stands looking at a painting a woman who resembles the model comes up to him and propositions him. Overcome with the potent mix of poetry, alcohol and beauty, he finds himself going home with the woman and cheating on his wife for the first time. He regrets his decision later that same evening as he prepares to take a walk of shame but suddenly the woman’s boyfriend enters the apartment and seeing Wanley, attacks him. In the confrontation, Wanley is passed some scissors by the woman and stabs the man killing him.

Wanley and the woman realize that if they were to report the death that there would be no other witnesses and even if the Police didn’t charge them, Wanley’s infidelity would be revealed. Instead Wanley agrees that he will dispose of the body but an added complication is that the murdered man is one of the most prominent men in America and within hours his disappearance is noticed. A hunt gets underway to find the man’s killer and Wanley feels certain that at any moment he will be discovered…

The title for the novel comes from a discussion between Wanley and his friends at the start of the book in which they talk about how an action taken instinctively when off guard can destroy a life. What follows puts the ideas of that discussion into effect, demonstrating how someone might end up making a series of catastrophic choices that would have far worse consequences for them. This is a similar approach to the structure of Murder by Formula and it does allow the author to work with and develop a theme. Wallis’ decision to employ an inverted form works well with that choice, ensuring the reader’s focus stays on the psychological effects that Wanley’s decisions have on him.

While it turns out to be an effective way of exploring that theme however, I think the work does become rather repetitive and dreary. While Wanley’s cycle of guilt convinces psychologically, it confines the narrative and can feel overwhelming to read. This can make the novel feel like a heavy and ponderous read, particularly as the middle section of the book contains few unexpected developments.

One of the choices that I found grating was the repeated references to the foulness of the ‘harlot’ that Wanley had slept with. While Wallis does point out at one point that Wanley is being somewhat hypocritical in thinking that way as he had made the choice to cheat on his wife, it does reflect that this character is portrayed exclusively as a temptress and libertine rather than anything approaching a three dimensional character.

The heavy-handed tone of Wallis’ writing frustrates in part because it threatens to overwhelm some of the more promising aspects of the story. One of the aspects that I liked most was the way that he has Wanley realize that he can exploit some of his friendships at the club to extract information about how the case is progressing. This is potentially a dangerous game as in asking questions he is also exposing himself to scrutiny and it does lead to one of the stronger sequences in the book in which Wanley takes a car ride to see the crime scene which is the tensest moment in the whole novel.

That sequence provides a possible blueprint for an altogether more interesting take on the novel in which Wanley plays a far more active role in getting close to the investigation. Instead the character comes off as self-pitying and strangely passive at moments in the story, making it hard to feel either any great hatred or any sympathy for him.

The ending, when it arrives, seems to be contrived to produce a surprise for the reader and I do think it is cleverly engineered but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying as a repayment for the time invested in reading the piece. Still, I did appreciate its tone and thought it worked well enough to pull things together.

Though Once Off Guard is a novel which shows plenty of promise I feel that the work is simply too long and too repetitive. With a little judicious trimming I feel that the book could have felt a little less overwhelming, the character study may have benefited from providing some relief and these good ideas would have been given a little more room to breathe. It is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as The Servant of Death and while I am curious to watch the movie which is being re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the US this Summer to see if any significant changes were made, my overall feeling is one of disappointment.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)

Murder by Formula by James Harold Wallis

Murder by Formula
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1931
Inspector Wilton Jacks #1
Followed by The Capital City Mystery

Having selected The Servant of Death as my most recent Book of the Month I was keen to return to Wallis as quickly as I could. Given that his books are out of print and owned by relatively few libraries in the United States, this proved a little more challenging than I had hoped but I managed to track down a copy of his first mystery novel, Murder by Formula.

While the title may have you expecting a case of poisoning, the formula referred to in the title is actually a somewhat fourth wall-bending reference to the conventions and tropes of mystery fiction. Right before the murder takes place, the victim engages in a conversation in which they all discuss the common plot elements, devices and tropes that they think make for a good crime story. One of these is that the crime should take place by the end of the second chapter. Wallis obliges almost immediately and within a few paragraphs our victim has been murdered.

That victim is Andrew Wingdon, a celebrated writer who is a member of his club’s Arts Committee. The group meets to discuss a proposed theme for a new exhibition but following a fine dinner they sit in The Asylum – a large and dimly lit room which is housing a collection of medieval weaponry. The group share their opinions of mystery fiction and the most enthusiastic of them describes how he would murder someone in that very room. Wingdon is found the next morning, seemingly killed in exactly that way.

On the case is the enthusiastic young Inspector Jacks, a college graduate who joined the Police hoping that he would be able to become one of the leading men of his field. He seems reasonably smart and does a decent job following his leads, even if he does seem to write off two possible candidates for murderer far too quickly. I was pleased that he is at least challenged on this later in the novel and he does at least give a decent reason for why he had opted not to investigate one of those two characters. His failure to look into the other, the widow of the victim, is much harder to accept and she quickly becomes a (strikingly inappropriate) romantic interest for him.

Wallis’ story unfolds at a steady pace with several further attempted murders but while this should retain the reader’s interest, none of these developments are particularly shocking or outrageous. In fact, those who were paying close attention to the discussion in The Asylum should be pretty clear about who the second victim will turn out to be.

The second killing does spin the investigation off into a more interesting direction and while I had little difficulty in figuring out the solution, I did enjoy the process of getting there. The only review I have read of this at Mystery*File implies that the mystery does not play fair which I do not entirely agree with, though it would be accurate to say that some of the most critical evidence is kept back until very late in the story.

I think it would be fair to say that Murder by Formula is hardly a classic in the field of detective fiction but it is a solid, entertaining read. If you can stomach the holes in the investigator’s approach and some slightly pulpy storytelling developments, it has some fun moments. It is nowhere near the quality of The Servant of Death though and if you are able to track down either of these I’d strongly suggest starting with that later title.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A Journalist/Writer (Who)

The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis

The Servant of Death
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1932
Inspector Wilton Jacks #3
Preceded by The Capital City Mystery
Followed by Cries in the Night

At the very start of 2018, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a review of Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book sounded fascinating and I duly ordered a copy but one of the things I appreciated most about Kate’s review was that she pulled out books that Evans liked as suggested reading for some of her fellow bloggers.

Kate’s reasoning for suggesting this book for me was quite simple: it is an inverted mystery and I make little secret of my love of this sub-genre. In what is something of a first for me, I was taken aback when right before the final chapter I was commanded to stop reading and decide how the murderer will be caught. Yes, there is a challenge to the reader in an inverted mystery!

The story is told from the perspective of Eyliffe Trent Van Maarden, a man born into a notable family who has managed through poor fortune and judgment to go from a comfortable existence to becoming heavily indebted to a lawyer he went to college with who loaned him money. He has lost his investments, his family home and now lives as a tenant of that lawyer, paying him monthly installments that barely touch the principal of the loan.

One possible way out would be through marriage to a childhood sweetheart who has become a wealthy widow. Eyliffe has been biding his time before making romantic overtures to her to try to make sure of his feelings. Unfortunately for him, while he has been thinking about making his move that same lawyer friend has been actively wooing her and Eyliffe is sure that it will just be a matter of time before they get married. Unless something were to happen to him first…

As with many of the strongest inverted mysteries, the book is essentially a character study of a criminal that forces the reader to assess that character and determine how and why they have made the choice to take a life. You might argue that Eyliffe is made by circumstance, his actions borne out of a sense of hopelessness. Alternatively, his sense that he is a victim and his paranoia may be skewing his perception of events. I would suggest that here it is the second of those options and I think this view is only reinforced by events that occur in the immediate aftermath of that murder.

Eyliffe is, as we have established, living on extremely reduced means and in humiliating circumstances. While we are told that he has realized that he loves Madeline, we might equally well think that he has decided that she could be his saving and his way to retain face and status. Given those circumstances, he seems a credible candidate to morph into a killer.

While Downing’s short review will try to sell you on the idea that he has committed a seemingly perfect crime, I think that is an exaggeration. The crime, while efficient, is hardly ingenious in its creation or execution. Certainly it seems unlikely that anyone might track him down based on the initial evidence but it is not particularly hard to figure out how they might trace the crime back to him. The journey to that point is entertaining though and I think there are some excellent false leads and developments dropped in along the way.

What I think makes this story interesting and what I think gives it a rather different tone are the ways in which we see Eyliffe’s crimes affecting his mood and behavior as the novel goes on. The tone is sometimes haunting, sometimes a little melodramatic, but I think it is effective and helps explain why he makes some of his choices, particularly in the final third of the novel.

With so much of the focus falling on Eyliffe and his actions, it will likely not be surprising that few other characters get much attention. Of those that do feature, Madeline is probably granted the most space but I did not feel we really got to know her. She is less important as a character in her own right than she is as an influence on our murderer and indeed she is written out of much of the second half of the novel.

One character who does make a big impression is the young law clerk Veede who lives in the same building as Eyliffe and has decided that he will study criminology in the hopes of finding his boss’ killer. Keep in mind that while a police investigation does take place in this novel, in fact featuring Wallis’ series detective, almost all of that sleuthing takes place in the background. This makes Veede the most visible threat to Eyliffe’s safety and because we have little idea what information he has been able to confirm or what he has deduced from it, we cannot know for sure how far along the case against him has become.

When Eyliffe is undone, as all criminals in inverted mysteries inevitably are, it happens quickly. I appreciated the opportunity to pause to consider the evidence and I liked the solution of how he would get caught a lot, feeling that it was tidy, simple and well explained. I also appreciated that there are some aspects of this story that give the book a strong sense of place and time, such as the suggestion that a scientific test might be applied to this case to identify the killer or establish a suspect’s guilty.

Overall, I felt that The Servant of Death was one of the stronger examples of the inverted mystery form I’ve read yet. Wallis creates a memorable killer and I think his reasoning for that person’s actions throughout the novel make sense, even if we might view some of those choices as being bizarrely risky or foolish. It sadly is not in print so if the concept of this one interests you, do keep in mind that it may be tricky or slow to track down. I do think it is worth it however for those that do.