I read The Black Spectacles very shortly after starting this blog. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it was the first book I read specifically for this blog (my very first few posts were written about books I had already read), when I reviewed it as The Problem of the Green Capsule.
As many of you know, and have been excited about, it has recently been reprinted as part of the British Library Crime Classics range, and when I reread it, I knew I wanted to revisit it here somehow. I decided though that I didn’t want to just write a new blog post – instead I’d add a second entry to my series of video posts discussing vintage crime novels (the first being about my favorite crime novel, A Kiss Before Dying).
Slight spoiler alert: I still loved it. Thoughts follow – feel free to share your own feelings about the book below!
With my week of leisure coming to an end and a bit of uncertainty about how much time I’ll have to blog over the next few months, I wanted to focus on something positive and think about the books I’m most looking forward to getting – even if it may be a while until I get to them.
Below are the five reprints I am most looking forward to seeing arrive on my doorstep – restricting myself to one title per imprint to spread the love around. The eagle-eyed among you may see a sixth title that goes beyond the brief but as it is clearly genre-related, I think it fits here all the same. Consider it a bonus pick!
Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston
British Library Crime Classics – April 10, 2023 (UK)
It’s been a while since I have picked up anything new from the British Library Crime Classics range – mostly because I had cut back on importing copies from the UK and the US editions are released with a delay. I ended up breaking that self-imposed rule to get hold of John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles for an upcoming book club. Of course, once you order one you might as well get a slightly bigger package…
Unlike some of the other upcoming titles, this one is completely unknown to me which adds intrigue for me. This novel, the only one by Houston, appears to be a country house mystery in which a scientist is murdered in his study during a house party. The most novel aspect of this book for me is its conscious playing with time, as suggested by its title, as apparently it will cover twelve hours of events leading up to the murder and twelve of investigation.
Death of a Stray Cat & An Affair of the Heart by Jean Potts
Stark House Mystery Classics – May 19, 2023
Last year I had my first encounter with Jean Potts and while I had a couple of reservations about a few aspects of that story, I was excited enough to go out and buy copies of each of the other reprint collections published by Stark House. This volume, published next month, is the next and offers up two more stories from the author, each containing elements that intrigue me.
Of the two, the one that appeals most to me from the description is An Affair of the Heart – a story in which an advertising agent is found dead from an apparent heart attack in his mistress’ apartment. The question is why he didn’t have his heart pills with him, particularly as he had recently survived a heart attack.
I find mysteries in which it’s not even initially clear that a murder has taken place at all to be interesting so I am really interested to see what Potts does with this premise. That I’ll get a second story into the bargain makes this all the more appealing!
The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle
Library of Congress Crime Classics – June 6, 2023
Sometimes the joy of a reprint is getting access to a book that was completely inaccessible. Most of the time though, for me, it’s about getting it in the format you’d prefer to read.
Jacques Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine has long been in the public domain so this is not a case of the former. Instead what excites me here is getting a print edition that will have been properly proof-read. I am even quite looking forward to the footnotes which I know have been quite divisive with readers in previous publications.
As for what the book’s about – it’s a short story collection featuring a detective who solves crimes by the rigorous application of logic. I’ve never read it and I am aware that the quality is not entirely consistent but I will be excited to give it a try for myself.
The Devil’s Flute Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Pushkin Vertigo – June 29, 2023 (UK), July 4, 2023 (US)
While I haven’t quite got around to reading all of the Yokomizo novels I have on my shelf, I have been really excited by these new translations from Pushkin Vertigo. I am likely to tackle the next one, The Devil’s Flute Murders, before going back to the two I have yet to read because I find its premise pretty appealing.
The mystery takes place in the home of a brooding, troubled composer who has recently been found dead. His family have gathered to try to contact his spirit but when one of their number is found killed, Kosuke Kindaichi is called upon to investigate.
The chief appeal factor for me here is the idea referenced in one of the blurbs that the composer’s most famous piece is one that utterly chills all those who hear it. I am hoping that this leans into that sense of dread to create an atmospheric read. I am hoping to get to this one pretty quickly after publication!
Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot
American Mystery Classics – October 3, 2023
Unlike the other titles on this list, I already own a copy of Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. So, why am I excited to buy another one? Well, I think it boils down to formatting but also because knowing it will be widely available gives me that little extra push to settle down and read it. Why? Because it’s great to know that when you are done reading it that others will be able to do so as well and you can talk with others about it.
The book is a highly recommended example of the impossible crime story, set in the snowy wilds of New England. It features a séance to contact the dead husband of the medium but things seem to go wrong with the dead man’s spirit apparently inhabiting the body of one of the guests.
There’s lots to interest me here but if there’s one element that particularly grabs me it’s the evocation of the supernatural. After several years of reading people rave about this (it was second in the 1981 Locked Room Library list), I am excited to finally get around to reading this for myself.
How to Survive a Classic Crime Novel by Kate Jackson
British Library Publishing – June 8, 2023 (UK)
Those who have been counting carefully will note that this is the sixth book on my list which basically means it’s an extra. The reason is that it isn’t a reprint but rather an original humorous work discussing the lessons that can be learned from reading lots of vintage mysteries. And, for those who are unaware, Kate Jackson (who blogs at Cross Examining Crime) is a prolific reader of vintage mysteries.
I’m looking forward to seeing what lessons Kate extracts from the books I have already read but also to learning about writers and novels that will be entirely new to me. From the blurb alone I already have found one I’m excited to read myself. This will be another case of a title that causes me to break my self-imposed “no imports” rule!
One of my goals in undertaking this project to acquaint myself with each of the members of the Detection Club was to encounter some writers from the Golden Age who were completely unknown to me. Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch fits that bill perfectly.
Though he is referenced a couple of times in The Golden Age of Murder, discussion of his life and work is pretty thin. That may perhaps reflect that he died just a few years after the start of the club or that he was not such a strong personality as some other founder members of that club. After briefly outlining his series character and listing him as one of the Christian members of the Club, the next time he is mentioned is to note the vacancy caused by his death. His seat would be filled by Gladys Mitchell.
Whitechurch had a series detective, Thorpe Hazell, who was unusual in being a detective with a specialty topic – railway crimes. I previously read one of his stories, The Affair of the Corridor Express in the Blood on the Tracks collection issued by the British Library. A quick glance at my review of that book saw me praise the tightness of its construction and select it as one of the two highlights of the collection along with the offering from R. Austin Freeman.
Edwards highlights an unusual aspect of this character, his health fanaticism, with a pretty amusing description of a passage from a story. He also notes that Whitechurch was notable for his attention to police procedure, supposedly checking the authenticity of his work with Scotland Yard.
While I don’t know that I would have guessed that Whitechurch had gone to those lengths off the back of either of my experiences of his work, it is certainly noticeable that the story I picked to read by him, Murder at the Pageant, reads at least in part as a police procedural. Though the central sleuth is working in a private capacity, we are privy to the progress of that official investigation and read details of some of the exhaustive, detail-driven aspects of what is done.
Murder at the Pageant would turn out to be one of the last novels by Whitechurch but I suspect I will be seeking out more of his work in the future…
The pageant was held, amid great ceremony and pomp, at Frimley Manor, and it featured the reenactment of Queen Anne’s visit to the great country estate in 1705. Visitors flocked to see the lavishly costumed affair, especially the ritual carrying of Queen Anne in a sedan chair from the entrance gate of the estate to the front steps of the great house.
Mrs. Cresswell, a guest of Sir Harry Lynwood, Lord of Frimley Manor, grandly impersonated the Queen, dazzling the crowd with her spectacular pearl necklace. But her performance in the sedan chair would soon be upstaged. In the dead of night, under an eerily fading moon, the chair would be discovered with a new occupant: a dying man, whose last words were “The… line.”
Excerpt from the lengthy blurb of the 1987 Dover reprint.
I should probably start by explaining that I had initially planned to tackle Victor L. Whitechurch some months ago. Indeed I even trailed those plans, only to hit an unexpected snag when I got about a third of the way in to discover that the cheap secondhand copy I’d found had been rendered unreadable by a previous, careless reader. Consider that a lesson learned to flip all the way through any purchases as soon as received…
The cost of buying a second copy wasn’t a problem – as noted above, this is one of the titles that is in pretty plentiful (and affordable) supply – but it did take a while for a new copy to arrive. Long enough that I would need to start over from scratch.
As it happens that didn’t turn out to be a bad thing. As the title indicates, this book takes place following a historical pageant – the reenactment of a monarch’s visit to the country estate where it is set. What have I been up to over the past few months? Well, a big chunk of that was spent researching historical reenactments as part of my college studies. While this book can’t be said to give much insight into the practice, I appreciated the subject matter all the more for that as well as the book’s somewhat comic depiction of the inconsistent commitment to authenticity among the participants.
After enjoying the festivities commemorating that monarch’s visit, the owners of the estate and some of their guests retire to relax and dine together. Later that night however one of them, retired intelligence officer Captain Roger Bristow, is surprised to observe two individuals running from the manor carrying the sedan chair that had been central to the pageant. They flee on being discovered in another unlikely vehicle, leaving Bristow to discover one of the other guests on the point of death who leaves a somewhat cryptic message with his final breath.
Bristow is an interesting choice of protagonist as he is both amateur and professional. He has no formal standing in the case for much of the novel and yet the police are aware of his abilities and skill as an investigator. This enables him to sit on the edge of the investigation, avoid being too beholden to the process of police procedure, and yet he is still diligent and thorough in his approach to detection. Indeed the character he reminded me most of was the earlier version of Inspector French, where corners were sometimes cut for practical reasons but the investigation was thorough and detailed with a focus on following each investigative thread to its end. Like French, Bristow is not a particularly colorful figure (aside from the occasional allusion to his past career) but he inspires confidence while avoiding coming off as arrogant.
Bristow’s investigative efforts are mirrored by an official police investigation which we also follow. Those characters are well drawn with Whitechurch doing a fine job of illustrating the dynamics between the individuals working the case and their way of working.
These two investigations run parallel throughout the novel. At some points we follow the police investigation more closely, at other times Bristow. These two investigations are not exactly in competition, though there are points at which one investigation has information withheld from the other. This works quite nicely and adds some additional interest, particularly in the final third of the novel as we move toward the endgame.
One slight curious note is that while there is a murder and a jewel theft to consider, we spend much of our time focused on the latter. There are reasons given for that choice – namely the investigators work on the assumption that the one was a product of the other – but I did find it a touch odd that Whitechurch doesn’t focus more on the murder element of his plot. Indeed it’s surprisingly easy to forget that one happened at all for big chunks of the story.
I did appreciate the cast of characters that Whitechurch creates to populate Frimley Manor. As with the investigators, none are particularly colorful yet they represent a solid mix of upper class types and present a range of possibilities for the reader to consider.
In terms of the puzzle itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how solid it seemed. There is, for instance, some neat misdirection and I enjoyed following Bristow as he pieced the thing together from the information we are given. My only real disappointment lay within the dying words aspect of the story which is – not all that puzzling. Still, as the main deductive process does not utilize it, the disappointment was short-lived.
Overall, I was largely impressed with this encounter with Whitechurch. While this is by no means a flashy mystery, I felt it presented a neat twist on the manor mystery and I enjoyed following along with the investigation. Indeed my biggest question really is why this has yet to secure a reprint. Should it ever do so, or if you ever stumble on a cheap secondhand copy, I think it’s worth a look!
Last week I shared some thoughts about one of the most recent reprints of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, The End of Andrew Harrison. In that post I noted that I really appreciate the idea that the entirety of his output will at some point be available again and that each new set of titles moves us closer to that. It is worth pointing out though that I doubt I would have encountered Crofts at all had it not been for a crime fiction imprint that takes a different, ‘curated’ approach to its releases.
Ranges like the British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics are wonderful tools for discovery. Readers may well pick up a copy of The Mad Hatter Mystery or It Walks By Night based on already knowing and loving the author but by giving the impression of careful selection and the implication that the title is one of the highlights of that author’s work, it also provides an easy jumping on point. It is, in essence, a literary tasting menu.
Earlier this year I treated myself to a subscription to Penzler Publishing’s American Mystery Classics range through The Mysterious Bookshop. I would get a copy of whatever titles they put out with the knowledge that I’d be getting some authors I’d already know of and others that would be completely new to me. Roger Scarlett, the author of this novel, fell neatly into that second category.
I might not have picked up this book had it just been one of a half dozen titles by the author on a shelf. Indeed I would likely never have looked closely at it at all (one of the few knocks I’d make on this publication is that the image of the cat on the cover gives the book a much cozier appearance than its reality). As part of an ongoing range which has had far more hits than misses for me however I find myself more willing to give a book the benefit of the doubt and at least give it a chance to impress me.
Which Cat’s Paw did.
The story concerns the murder of a septuagenarian who is visited at his Boston mansion by members of his extended family, all hoping that they will be remembered in his will. When he shares some information at his birthday party however they are appalled and before the night is out he has been murdered.
Scarlett gives us family tensions, unspoken secrets and a cast of characters all seemingly having been pushed to desperation. It’s a very solid base for a mystery. What I appreciated here though is that while there are some familiar elements here, it feels like Scarlett is trying to give the suspects a range of backstories. Learning what those are is as exciting as discovering the solution to the mystery overall.
With much of the novel devoted to getting to know the victim and the suspects, I think that they feel particularly dimensional and well developed. It is this focus on character that makes this book such a pleasure to read and helped me really invest in discovering the truth. That solution, when it comes, is well constructed and clued, helping the book deliver a nice, punchy conclusion with an excellent final page reveal.
It was a great read and I am grateful to the American Mystery Classics range for selecting this and helping me to encounter it. I came away from the book excited to read more Roger Scarlett in the future. Now I just have to wait for someone to go ahead and reprint them…
Originally published in 1945 Inspector Littlejohn #9 Preceded by Death in the Night Watches Followed by The Case of the Scared Rabbits
The mayor of Westcome, Sir Gideon Ware, has a speciality for painting a target on his own back. Most recently, he has gained numerous enemies for transforming the quaint harbour town into a sprawling, manmade boardwalk through a series of bribes, blackmail, and backhand deals.
So when Sir Gideon Ware dies at his annual luncheon, it’s no surprise that foul play is suspected.
Inspector Littlejohn is brought in to investigate the murder, but with so many motives to sort through, the suspect list is endless. And with the Chief Constable covering up critical clues at every turn, Littlejohn is left on his own to get to the bottom of Ware’s murder.
But when a second body is found, Littlejohn’s investigation gets put on a fatal timer.
Sir Gideon Ware came from humble beginnings before striking it rich as a property developer, taking the sleepy harbor town of Westcombe and turning it into a thriving, if garish, holiday destination. It is a change that many of the locals resent, feeling exhausted by the steady stream of holidaymakers most of the year round. In spite of that ill-feeling though, Ware has been able to find success in local politics, becoming the town’s mayor just a few years after first being elected.
He’d Rather Be Dead opens by giving us a brief overview of Ware’s background and career as he prepares to speak at a luncheon he is throwing for local dignitaries. Many of the town’s most prominent people have been seated at his table yet, as we learn, most have reason to loathe their host. As Ware rises to give his speech he shows signs of being unwell, collapsing just a short while later. His appearance and subsequent autopsy points to strychnine poisoning but it is difficult to see how the drug, which should be fast-acting, could have been administered to him when everyone ate from the same communal pots and there is no trace of the poison on any of his dishes.
This is the basis for a case in which the question of how the murder was achieved will be as much a focus as whodunnit. I even briefly considered whether I ought to classify this novel as an impossible crime story; it’s the closest thing I have found in Bellairs’ oeuvre so far, though I would suggest that those reading purely for that aspect of the puzzle are likely to be disappointed but the solid but unexciting explanation as to how it was managed.
Like most of the Bellairs novels I have read the author’s greatest interest seems to lie in trying to capture a sense of a place and the people who might reside in it. The victim, Ware, should rank among his best creations (up there with the wonderfully-drawn Harry Dodd) for some of the complexities and contradictions in his character. He feels dimensional and realistic, reminding me of a few people I have met in my own life, and the author does a fine job of exploring the gap between how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by those who have come to rely on him.
This attention to characterization is replicated throughout the rest of the novel’s cast of characters with even some of the most incidental of figures given unexpected depth or personality traits that help to bring them, and the story’s setting, vividly to life. Their resentments that we learn of in the course of Littlejohn’s investigation feel credible and realistic to this sort of town setting and I enjoyed the process of uncovering those secrets and building fuller portraits of each of the figures involved in the case.
One particular source of pleasure for me was in the depiction of the local police who make for rather colorful figures. I am used to these figures quickly becoming anonymous once they call in the assistance of Scotland Yard but I was rather pleased to realize that they would actually be given some prominence in the story. Bellairs captures the tensions between two of the most important police figures in the story, once again helping to build that sense that Westcombe might be a real place.
As wonderful as the character development is, the actual procedural aspects of the case are unfortunately a little less exciting. There was certainly some interest for me in that central question of how the poison could have been administered but I felt that the investigation was rather straightforward with little to cause unexpected shifts in focus or thinking.
It perhaps didn’t help that I think the killer’s identity becomes clear rather earlier in the story than I think Bellairs believed it would as our focus quickly narrows to just a couple of serious suspects thanks to some of the more technical components of the case. I am the last person to complain about an obvious killer but the book isn’t set up to read as an inverted story and aside from the rather awkward shift to a first person account right at its end, does little to capture that killer’s perspective or voice.
Nor does it help that the solution as to how the crime was committed turns out to be quite practical and straightforward, making it feel a little less clever than I had hoped. What’s more, discovering that nature of that solution only makes the solution as to whodunnit even more obvious long before we actually reach the novel’s conclusion.
Bellairs, to his credit, does try to add some dramatic elements to the book’s conclusion, giving us one of the few moments of surprise in the novel, but then undercuts its effect with that strange choice to cut to a first person account from the murderer. This, written in a rather formal and old-fashioned way, feels stylistically strange and also a little redundant as very little of what is revealed was unknown to us. The one thing that this could have given us was an exploration of the emotional angle but here he misses and we never get any deep contemplation of that aspect of the killer’s crimes. It’s a missed opportunity that also blunts the impact the author might otherwise have achieved with the remainder of the ending.
These disappointments, both in terms of the investigation and its resolution, unfortunately waste what was one of the author’s most intriguing setups and some truly marvelous character development. He’d Rather Be Dead is still quite readable with some beautifully observed moments but those reading primarily for the puzzle are likely to be a little disappointed by how straightforward the case becomes.
The Verdict: One of the authors’ most promising setups is not fully realized thanks to some straightforward plotting that indicates the solution far too early. The rich setting and interesting characters compensate somewhat.
I had expected that this next installment of my Detection Club series would feature Victor Whitechurch but issues with my copy of Murder at the Pageant left me scrambling for a replacement copy (thankfully on its way) and a new subject to profile. Fortunately I happen to have rather a lot of John Rhode novels on my TBR pile…
Rhode, born Cecil John Charles Street, was one of the more prolific members of the Detection Club. Though he was late to start writing mystery fiction, beginning in his 40s, he would write over one hundred and forty novels in about thirty five years, utilizing multiple pen names to do so. Of these the most famous were John Rhode and Miles Burton though he also wrote as Cecil Waye.
In spite of the length of his career, outlasting many of his peers in the Detection Club, Rhode’s reputation would be strongly affected by Julian Symon’s categorization of him as a “humdrum” writer. There is a value judgement to that phrase that I think is rather unfair but there is some truth to the broader suggestion that his work was antithetical to the type of stories contemporary crime writers were creating towards the end of his long career. He did not, for instance, show much interest in exploring the social issues around crime and his characters are often quite functional, defined by their professions and roles in the story rather than their own personalities.
Instead Rhode’s interest lay in the technical challenges of puzzle design – an area in which he could be quite masterful. While the quality of his output could vary, he crafted some truly ingenious murder puzzles that often utilized unusual and unexpected murder methods leaving the reader wondering how the murder was done.
I have previously read several works by this author both from his Dr. Priestley series (written as Rhode) and the Desmond Merrion series (as Burton) including several from the period before this blog began. While I have to acknowledge that this is only a fraction of his output and I may come across works to change my mind, at this time I have a pretty strong preference for the Rhode stories.
My reason is that I really like the somewhat fussy scientist who typically plays armchair sleuth, giving advice to the professional police to get their floundering investigations back on track. I enjoy the character’s logical approach to breaking down problems which, to my mind, really suits the types of ingenious puzzles Rhode tended to construct.
Today’s read, The Claverton Affair, is a good example of the author’s skill at constructing that type of puzzle. Though it is not an inverted mystery, readers may well have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the crime from the outset of the investigation. The focus therefore is not on whodunnit but how and the answer, as is typical of Rhode, is quite remarkable…
The Claverton Affair by John Rhode
Originally published in 1933 Dr. Priestley #15 Preceded by The Motor Rally Mystery Followed by The Venner Crime
After drifting apart from Sir John Claverton, Dr. Lancelot Priestley is finally visiting his old friend for dinner. But Claverton’s situation is worrying. He’s surrounded by relatives, among them a sister who speaks to the dead—but not to him—and a niece who may or may not be a qualified nurse. Based on Claverton’s odd behavior, Priestley and a mutual friend suspect that someone is slipping him arsenic.
But when Priestley discovers that Claverton has died just a week later and shares his concerns with the police, no trace of arsenic—or anything else untoward—is found during the autopsy. Still, the perceptive professor can’t shake his sense that something isn’t right, and Claverton’s recently revised will only adds to the mystery . . .
This novel finds Dr. Priestley visiting an old friend, Sir John Claverton at his invitation. Over the years the pair have fallen out of touch and Priestley has some misgivings about resuming the friendship but when he arrives he finds a strange atmosphere in the home and his friend recovering from a bout of sickness. As he bids farewell with a promise to return the following week, Priestley speaks with Claverton’s physician who confides that while his patient is on the path to recovery, he believes that someone gave him arsenic.
When Priestley returns the following week he discovers that Claverton had died shortly before while his doctor was away. He decides he must share the information about the earlier attempted poisoning, expecting that the medical examination will reveal signs of arsenical poisoning, but it surprised when there are no signs of the poison. Priestley is certain that his old friend was murdered – the question is: how was it done?
One of the things I really like about the setup for The Claverton Affair is its subversion of our expectations. We come to the novel expecting that we will quickly learn the way Claverton was murdered and try to work out whodunnit but instead a large part of the case will involve overcoming the evidence that seems to suggest a natural death. This is not dissimilar to the setup found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, though I would suggest that this has the more technically creative solution, for better and worse.
The problem with any puzzle that has a very technical solution, as we saw with my previous Detection Club Project title, The Documents in the Case by Sayers and Robert Eustace, is that when a problem requires some technical knowledge the author either has to make an effort to subtly provide that to the reader or else you run the risk that you get a puzzle that doesn’t feel fair. I think an argument could be made that Rhode doesn’t explain every element of his solution prior to its reveal. The key elements however are all easily identified and, I would argue, the reader ought to be able to work out most of the solution even if they do not possess the technical expertise to solve it in its entirety.
Indeed a large part of Rhode’s skill as a mystery writer is taking a technical problem with medical or scientific elements like the one presented here and making it accessible. His characters often speak in a rather dry and mannered way but while that doesn’t feel like natural dialogue, it is essential for clean, clear distribution of key points of information.
A strong example of that can be found here in the conversations concerning the autopsy. Rhode clearly outlines what the tests for arsenical poisoning are in an exchange between Priestley and the police pathologist as the latter walks Priestley through those tests as he repeats them for his benefit. The exchange is somewhat redundant – the latter acknowledges that Priestley likely knows just as much if not more than him about those tests – but it occurs primarily for the benefit of the reader and to demonstrate conclusively to us that it is not a case of a test not being run or scientific incompetence.
This brings me to one of the differences between this and most of the other Priestley stories I have read before; in The Claverton Affair our sleuth is unusually active both in finding the case for himself and working to collect evidence. Typically Priestley behaves as an armchair detective, listening to the accounts of others and then pointing out the type of evidence he would like the police to look for. The initial setup here does include someone bringing their concerns of foul play to him but the difference is that once this happens he becomes personally involved in gathering that evidence.
Priestley is not a natural lead investigator in large part because of his personality. His fussiness and attention to detail wouldn’t be an asset in the type of story where he has to conduct lots of interviews, befriend witnesses and so forth. He is perfectly suited however for this sort of story in which he has to find the small details and inconsistencies, interacting primarily with medical professionals to spot the evidence that will enable him to prove murder.
As I have found with other Rhode stories, the personalities of the suspects here are not particularly noteworthy. While the family members do make an impression when they are first introduced for not being very talkative, I don’t feel that they have particularly strong personalities. One of them however does have an interesting background that Rhode will utilize: working as a medium.
The séance is one of those great tropes of the Golden Age that when done well, as it is here, can really elevate a story. This is no exception. Rhode not only does a good job of using it to create an atmosphere but the device also plays an important role in advancing the story, particularly as we reach the novel’s conclusion.
That conclusion is both dramatic and interesting, providing a very satisfying conclusion to what is one of the most intriguing Priestley cases I have read to date. While I was able to work out a few key points of the crime, the actual method used caught me by surprise (and, I should note, I did know a crucial piece of information prior to reading it so I could well have got to it if the idea had ever occurred to me).
The Verdict: One of the more successful Dr. Priestley stories I have read offering a curious puzzle with a rather ingenious solution. While the sleuth is rather unusually active in this investigation, it offers a good example of Rhode’s most notable attributes as a writer – his ingenuity and ability to convey technical information clearly so that even those with no scientific ability (i.e. me) should have no difficulty following the solution.
Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery considered this an interesting take on the impossible crime.
Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, who is far better read in Rhode than me, describes this as ‘One of Rhode’s undoubted classics’. He also notes that the atmosphere generated in this story is unusual for the author.
Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, the title was recently republished by Mysterious Press as an eBook (cover page pictured above) complete with introduction from Dr. Curtis Evans.
Originally published in 1929 Walter Ghost #1 Followed by Dead Man Inside
For the passengers aboard the Latakia, the transatlantic journey from New York to Cherbourg promises weeks of rest and relaxation, no matter what class of ticket they have. But after an Italian baroness is found strangled in her cabin, the situation on board becomes more tense. The main suspect soon goes overboard, creating more questions than answers: Did a guilty conscience spur a suicidal act, or was he a witness silenced by the true killer, still at large on the luxury liner.
Enter former intelligence officer Walter Ghost, tapped by the ship’s captain to play detective and solve the murder. He’s joined by his friend Dunsten Mollock, a novelist whose experience with mystery stories gives him helpful insights into the case. With clues including an amateur film, a doll, and a card from Memphis, Tennessee, it seems the duo have plenty to work with. But will they be able to solve the crime before word of the murder makes it into the steamship’s rumor mill, surely sending any guilty persons even deeper into hiding?
Several years ago Penzler Publishers reprinted Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder as part of their American Mystery Classics range. I enjoyed that book’s blend of mystery and adventure enough that I was excited to see another of the author’s works, Murder on “B” Deck, added to the range earlier this year and I would have got to it sooner except its publication coincided with a period where this blog went into a bit of an unplanned hiatus.
This novel, Starrett’s first genre offering, similarly is more of a lighthearted adventure or thriller than detective story. In its memorable opening chapter we follow mystery novelist Dunstan Mollock as he grudgingly pays a farewell visit on board an ocean liner bound for Europe and by misfortune finds himself accidentally caught up in a transatlantic crossing. After considering ways that he might be taken back, he decides instead to see the ship’s bursar to pay for passage and enjoy the trip in the company of his old friend, Walter Ghost.
After befriending an attractive young woman, he rashly suggests that he will write a mystery novel while on board, drawing inspiration from their own trip and the characters on board, and proposes reading the first chapter to her that night. As he reads that night however a crime is discovered whose circumstances uncannily mirror those described in his work and he finds himself assisting Ghost who has been asked to investigate the murder and find its solution before the ship reaches Cherbourg and the killer can escape.
The early chapters of this book setting up the circumstances of the adventure were for me its most enjoyable. Starrett does a wonderful job of creating a bustling sense of energy as Mollock reluctantly heads aboard and conjures up a picture of the cramped champagne party in his sister’s room very nicely. While the circumstances of the writer ending up aboard the ship are perhaps unnecessarily contrived (there is no story reason that he couldn’t just have bought his ticket in the first place), it does establish the book’s entertaining screwball comedy tone and helps introduce several of the characters quite organically.
These early chapters contain some of the book’s sharpest and wittiest remarks and I particularly enjoyed the reading of Mollock’s first chapter, interspersed with commentary from that character that reflects on the genre in a rather pompous manner clearly intended to impress the young woman he admires. The idea that the fictive crime should so closely resemble the actual one that we will spend the novel investigating is an entertaining one and Starrett pitches that idea nicely, playing with the idea without allowing it to become a distraction (Mollock, for instance, is not ever really considered as a possible murderer in spite of the coincidences).
Following the murder our focus shifts to following Ghost with Mollock falling into the sidekick role. The best parallel I can think of here is Poirot and Hastings in Murder on the Links. Mollock is there, listens to the evidence and provides his own theories from the perspective of a mystery novelist, but his actions sometimes frustrate the progress of the investigation. He is, after all, romantically interested in someone who might be a suspect in the case and is as interested in developing that romance as in finding the killer.
Ghost, whose background is a little enigmatic for a good part of the novel, is keen to emphasize that he is not a formally trained investigator. He is smart and logical in his thinking but he doesn’t always attack the matter in a clear procedural way, additionally hampered by the investigation needing to be a discrete one as for much of the novel the murder is kept a secret. It may feel a little untidy but it is also charmingly natural and reminds us that our detectives are approaching this as amateurs.
The main reason that this less disciplined investigative approach doesn’t bother me though is that the book is not intended to be a fair play mystery – at least in terms of establishing whodunit. Starrett does not, for instance, spend much time fleshing out the suspects and some potential leads are briefly addressed but never fully resolved.
The question of why however is much fairer game. Starrett provides much better clueing for the sort of explanation we ought to be looking for here and while we may not anticipate all of the elements of the murder, I thought that the story was a rather interesting one. I particularly appreciated some of the little elements of social history woven into this part of the story and though there are no shock revelations with regards this aspect of the novel, I found it interesting and effective.
As we approach the conclusion to the novel things do get a little messy. There are some fortuitous discoveries that end up putting Ghost and Mollock on the right track. Indeed my biggest problem with the book is that the solution is essentially gifted to them because of something the killer does that feels utterly bizarre and which will lead the investigation directly to them.
Those who approach this hoping to play armchair detective are likely to be frustrated both by this development and also by the killer’s identity which felt rather disappointing after so much build-up. Fortunately I came to this book after that previous experience with Starrett and so I was prepared to enjoy this for the ride rather than the conclusion.
Starrett’s writing, for instance, can be delightful and witty. I enjoyed the colorful cast of characters he develops and I felt he conjured up a really strong sense of the place and time. Indeed it is possibly the social history found in the novel that I think will stick with me longest. I found the discussion of midnight sailings really interesting and appreciated the further discussion of this both as a practice and in terms of how it inspired Starrett to start this story that can be found in Ray Betzner’s excellent introduction to this American Mystery Classics edition.
While I consider The Great Hotel Murder to be a better example of a detective story, I found Murder on “B” Deck to be a more interesting and entertaining read overall. Starrett balances comedy and action well to create a thoroughly engaging and readable novel that sustains its energy nicely. While I would caution that the conclusion may well frustrate, I found plenty to enjoy about the journey from its metafictional elements to its appealing characters and settings.
The Verdict: This flawed but entertaining adventure thriller is certainly worth a look for those in search of a lighthearted murder story.
Second Opinions:Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime also enjoyed this, noting the thriller-ish tone of the story and comments about Ghost’s fallibility and how that is used by Starrett in a way that feels natural.
Bev @ My Reader’s Block describes the book as a pleasant read but felt that the race against time element of the story didn’t give the story the sense of urgency expected.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for the paperback of the American Mystery Classics reprint is 9781613162798, the hardcover is 9781613162781.
Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the paperback and the hardcover at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: these are affiliate links – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.
Despite a career in crime fiction spanning more than forty years, Robert Eustace was the most mysterious member of the Detection Club. For decades after his death, students of the genre speculated about his identity, his date of birth, and even his sexual orientation.
I think it is safe to say that back when I first conceived of my project of reading a work by every member of the Detection Club, I didn’t expect that I would be writing about Robert Eustace before Dorothy L. Sayers. As it happens though my book club is reading The Documents in the Case, his collaboration with her, this month. As it is a work he regarded with some enthusiasm, declaring it ‘the best idea of my life’, it seemed foolish to not select it for this series.
While details Eustace’s life may not have been quite as enigmatic as some suggest, he does not leap off the page as one of the more memorable figures in The Golden Age of Murder. In that book he is discussed principally in connection with his work on The Documents in the Case, though what information we do get about his personality paints a portrait of a rather eccentric individual. At the point at which he joined the Detection Club he had been an active figure in the genre for several decades and while his early stories featured crimes, they were often works of suspense – some suggesting supernatural elements.
Eustace’s primary profession was that of medical doctor but he pursued fiction as a way of supplementing his professional income. Almost all of his works were written in collaboration with others such as L. T. Meade and Edgar Jepson. It was a collaboration with the latter that produced one of his most memorable works, The Tea-Leaf – a short story which features in the British Library’s Capital Crimes anthology.
In that story a man is stabbed to death in the steam room of a Russian bathhouse but no weapon can be found. It is one of those stories that sadly suffers from its pretty inventive central concept being frequently appropriated by subsequent, often inferior works. While the work’s brevity works in its favor, if you happen to have read another book that utilizes the method developed for that story there will be no mystery in the solution at all.
The idea at the heart of The Documents in the Case would be far more complex and it has lost none of its novelty. That story was built around a scientific idea that Eustace had researched that would play a key part in developing its resolution and which also appealed to Sayers. His role in developing the work that would emerge was to further research and refine that idea, providing technical assistance to Sayers who would be responsible for developing the narrative around that.
It would prove to be a one-off experiment as Sayers was ultimately displeased with her efforts which she apparently felt did not do justice to Eustace’s idea. Still, it does illustrate Eustace’s enthusiasm for constructing a story around a novel technical solution…
The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Originally published in 1930
The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted . . .
Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?
The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London.
The Documents in the Case is an example of a dossier crime novel in which the novel is comprised of a collection of documents and accounts from the characters involved in the story. While I can think of a few examples of this approach, the only other book in this style that I have written about so far on this blog is Andrew Garve’s excellent political thriller The File on Lester.
The choice to write crime fiction in a dossier presentation style is an intriguing one, particularly given it makes for quite a departure from Sayers’ usual approach which was a detective story with a clear sleuthing character. While the reader here can infer who is likely responsible for collating these documents reasonably early in the book, they cannot be certain why they are doing this until close to halfway into the story.
The advantage of this style is that it can allow for the development of strong and distinctive character voices, permitting us access to their internal thoughts and feelings. In particular we will read the thoughts of the victim and those we will come to suspect of killing them, getting a sense of their personalities and how their perspectives sometimes contradict those of the other narrators. There are some points where this can be quite effectively done, particularly as we get to learn about the state of Harrison’s marriage, but it can also lead to some rather ponderous storytelling as characters reflect, pontificate and opine about the same things we have already seen before.
One way that this might have been avoided is to have more variety in the type of documents found inside the book but here the reader is to be disappointed. Almost everything in the first part of the novel is a letter, often with multiple letters sent from the same writer to the same recipient presented in a row. This, to my mind, removes the principal benefit of the form – that of variety.
That being said, these early chapters do raise an interesting point regarding the reader’s sympathies in the conflict between the Harrisons. The viewpoints expressed about the same sets of events differ so wildly in interpretation that we might wonder where the truth lies as both characters are, of course, writing for their respective audiences. This raises the possibility of unreliability but this is an idea that never really gets taken up seriously as the accounts prove surprisingly straightforward.
That itself perhaps reflects that while the book does not directly explain what happened until close to its end, aspects of the solution will likely jump out at the reader early. The authors seem less interested in keeping the reader guessing who was responsible as how they will be caught. The effect is not dissimilar to that found in one of Sayers’ earlier works, Unnatural Death. The difference between the two works is largely, in my view, one of the accessibility of the solution.
Robert Eustace’s great idea that so intrigued Sayers is undoubtedly a really clever one but it has a problem that plagues so many detective stories predicated on a highly technical explanation – to feel involved in the deductive process, the reader will have to possess the information needed to decode it prior to the story’s denouement. Unlike Unnatural Death which hinges on a single, simple idea, the concept at the heart of The Documents in the Case requires considerable explanation to be properly appreciated.
It is a shame that one of the documents included wasn’t a diagram or illustration to show more practically the idea that ends up being discussed at length as it might have helped compact the explanation (or at least given me something interesting to look at as my eyes glazed over). Instead however it ends up being trailed in a dense and rather dry passage of the type that will delight those who appreciate inventive scientific thinking while boring those less scientifically-minded, keeping it from achieving its full effect – at least upon this reader.
If that seems overly negative, I should say that there were aspects of the book I enjoyed such as the characterization of Munting, the writer, whose letters often contain mildly acidic observations of the other figures involved in the drama and betray a deep desire to be left out of the whole affair. There is some interesting musing about art, the natural world, and publishing too, and I appreciated that the victim is built up to be a properly dimensional character and I appreciate that the book explores some of his ambiguities.
The problem is that the things that interest me here are simply not the ones that most interest Sayers and Eustace. Their focus is on the method of detection and as much as I recognize and admire the cleverness of the concept, I find it all a bit dry for my taste and though interesting in places, it entertained less than I should have liked.
The Verdict: Eustace was right to think his idea brilliant but it is also rather dry. Given that there is no body until over halfway into the book and little suspense about who the victim and killer will be, too much hinges on how the thing was done and the case proven.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book appears to not currently be in print in the United States but there is a British edition published by Hodder Paperbacks (ISBN: 978-1473621343) that can be imported from booksellers who ship internationally. It is however available as an eBook (which is how I read it) – albeit one that has more typos than I would like and which, annoyingly, has no table of contents.
Originally published in 1944 using the pseudonym William Irish.
When Quinn first meets Bricky, she’s working as a partner-for-hire at a dancehall and he’s struggling to shake the anxiety of his guilty conscience. Earlier that day, the young man took advantage of a found key and used it to rob a stranger’s home. Now, with the purloined money in his pocket, Quinn is unable to escape the memory of his wrongdoing―and not even a night spent dancing is enough to silence his nagging thoughts.
When the dancehall closes, he and Bricky―linked, after many intimate hours, by a budding romance―return to the scene of the crime intending to restore the stolen fortune and begin a new life together, only to discover, upon arrival, that the owner of the property has been murdered. There’s evidence present that easily links Quinn to the crime, and he expects that, as soon as day breaks and the authorities learn of the gruesome scene, he will be arrested straight away. Which means that he and Bricky have only a few short hours to find the true killer and clear Quinn’s name for good.
What begins as a romance soon turns into a nightmare, as this young couple trek through the dark underbelly of old New York in a desperate race for salvation.
Deadline at Dawn concerns two people, one a dancer for hire, the other an out-of-work handyman, who meet and recognize that they both came from the same town. Had they each stayed there they may well have been sweethearts – instead they each made their way to the big city where they failed to realize their dreams, leaving them feeling chewed up and hopeless.
Both had contemplated heading back to their small town but felt unable to do so on their own. They think that together though they might finally do it and they agree to catch a bus together at 6am. There is a complication however. Quinn had pulled off a robbery earlier that evening, breaking into the home of a former client and stealing a sizeable sum of money. It’s a decision he regrets, finding he cannot enjoy his ill-acquired gains, but he also fears that the police will be after him. Bricky presents a solution – if they can return the money before the client returns to their home and realizes the theft has happened then he might escape charges. Unfortunately for the pair when they do return to the house they find a dead body…
One of the things that defines the story is that it takes place over a very short space of time – just a little over five hours. This is driven home to the reader by the fun device of beginning each chapter with an analog clock reading rather than a title or number. It isn’t just the novelty of this that makes it memorable though – rather it’s the way that this contributes to the pressure that our heroes are under, reminding us just how little time remains for them to accomplish their goals. It’s a great device for creating and building pressure and it worked well for me.
Of course the reader must accept that these two characters would in just a few hours throw themselves in together in the way shown. Their connection is far from typical after all. Woolrich does a really good job though of convincing the reader of their desperation and sense of hopelessness. Each begins the story seeming doomed and so while a romance ensues, it is as much about clinging to one another in the hope of survival and exploring what might have been as it is the hope of how that will develop now.
I really liked both Bricky and Quinn and quickly came to care for them as their stories are revealed and we get to know them. It is easy to understand how each fell into their respective positions of hopelessness, the barriers that have kept them from heading home and to understand the desperation that led Quinn to steal. While we begin the book keenly aware of the darkness they are in, there is also a sense of hope – they found each other in their darkest moment and together they might just pull through.
The discovery of the body is obviously an enormous complication for our young pair and it does represent a further challenge to the credibility of our heroes actions. It is nearly always questionable why an amateur ends up investigating a murder and here we may think our heroes foolish for not immediately reporting the crime, as bad as it might look. Woolrich has done such a strong job of building that ‘it’s now or never’ message though that I think he just about sells it – any kind of a delay is sure to damage their resolve and mean they will never get on that bus…
Their investigative efforts are characterized more by their urgency than the quality or complexity of their reasoning. This is not the sort of case where the reader has anything much to solve – we hardly know anything about the victim, let alone those who may wish to kill him. Still there are a few nice moments where we see our heroes draw smart and logical conclusions from the evidence they have been presented with and I enjoyed seeing how they divided responsibility, each pursuing separate leads.
One of the aspects of this book I appreciated most was its seedy depiction of the city in those early hours of the morning. This starts with the description of Bricky leaving the dance hall and trying to elude the men waiting at the doors, hoping to convince the girls to go with them. There are similarly effective moments that take place in the cabs, pharmacies and bars that we visit in the course of that evening. All of this reinforces that notion of the city as having a façade of loveliness which covers a much rougher reality experienced by the people who make that dream seem real.
The investigation comprises lots of false starts and dead ends. One positive of this is that we get a number of glimpses into the lives of other people roaming the city in those early hours, getting a glimpse at some of the other hopeless situations people have found themselves in. One of the most poignant of these comes in an unexpectedly emotional exchange between Quinn and a man he believes is carrying a gun. That sequence was for me one of the highlights of the book.
The less positive consequence of the structuring of that investigation though is that when we enter the story’s final act, Woolrich has a lot of dots left to connect and not much space left to do it. This in turns brings two issues with it. The first is that credibility gets stretched just that little bit further as things have to be wrapped up one way or another by that 6am deadline. I will admit to having little sense of the geography of the area in which the story is set so I don’t know if these locations are closer together than I was assuming but the reader will have to swallow a lot of swift movement and decision making – particularly in those final few chapters.
The other is that as we near that conclusion, I found the sudden acceleration in storytelling and the incorporation of some more action-driven sequences led to me having to reread some passages carefully to be sure I was following the developments in the story correctly. When I did though I found a story that felt largely satisfying, particularly when viewed on a thematic level. I might suggest that Woolrich does engage in a few overly neat story moves, leaving things overly tidy, but that is perhaps a necessary consequence of the messy way in which the adventure begins.
Overall I am happy to be able to say I had a great time with this one. I admired its depiction of two people who begin the story hopeless but find strength and support in one another. I came away from this reminded that I have a couple of other Woolrich titles on my TBR pile that really deserve my attention. Expect to see me tackle them at some point in the next few months…
The Verdict: This entertaining race against time story features some compelling characters and an intriguing situation. There’s no detection here to speak of but the ride is worth experiencing for anyone who enjoys a good thriller.
You may recall that when I wrote my post about Clemence Dane a few months ago as part of this series, I noted that I had struggled with the decision as to whether to write a single profile with her and Helen Simpson. The reason for considering doing that is that most of their detective fiction output was the result of collaborating with each other.
Indeed there seems to have been some speculation whether Simpson was actually a full member of the Detection Club in her own right as she is described as an ‘associate member’ in a contemporary list of members. Martin Edwards notes though in his survey of the history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, that she was eminently qualified for membership in her own right and that her interest in the genre outlasted that of her writing partner.
One sign of that is that while Dane only wrote mysteries in collaboration, Simpson did write a mystery novel on her own and contributed to several of the Club’s collaborative works. She also was friendly with Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading members of the Detection Club, and was collaborating with her on a history of Lord Peter.
The portrait of Simpson in The Golden Age of Murder is not particularly lengthy but does a good job of giving a sense of her abilities and wide range of interests which included witchcraft and smoking cigars. One of those passions was politics which we will see reflected in the book discussed below…
The Prime Minister is Dead by Helen Simpson
Following the publication of Enter Sir John and Printer’s Devil, Helen Simpson went on to write this novel which was originally published in the UK as Vantage Striker in 1931. As you can see I have opted to use its American title for this post. That partly is to acknowledge the edition that I read but mostly it’s because I think the original title is terrible, conveying little sense of what the book is actually about to those unfamiliar with the term.
The novel is one of those which arguably exists on the edge of the genre. It is a story about a murder, its investigation and the resolution of the case yet that detective process never feels like the focus of the book. Rather I would suggest that the book feels like it is most concerned with exploring the political fallout from an event of the type depicted and working through how the establishment might respond to such a situation.
We begin shortly after the conclusion of a party leadership election in which a new Prime Minister, Mr. Aspinall, has been selected. That person was not regarded as the best or brightest but rather an affable and inoffensive lightweight. The assumption is that the runner-up, the International Secretary Justin Brazier, will resign. Instead he stubbornly holds onto his office while making it quite clear that he does not approve of his new leader. A political crisis seems to be in the offing so Aspinall decides he will try and reach out, arranging a private meeting between them over dinner. Rather than bridging their divide, the evening ends with Aspinall dead from a head injury.
One of the reasons that this story struck me as being on the edge of the genre was that it takes a really long time to get to its death and even once we do, it is several chapters before the manner of that death is ever described to the reader. Instead Simpson places the focus on establishing the professional relationships between the various characters. There are several lengthy sporting sequences – one that takes place in a boxing match, the other tennis – which serve as analogies of sorts to the situation being constructed. Both are solidly described though I felt both went on a little longer than I desired.
Those political relationships are quite interesting however and I appreciated the often witty observations and commentaries Simpson offers on politicians and elective office. It’s by no means razor sharp satire, but Simpson is thoughtful about her topic and does a good job creating credible characters to explore those issues with.
As I suggested earlier, I do feel that there are some issues with the pacing of this story if we are trying to read it as a work of mystery fiction. One of these is that Simpson devotes so much time to setting up her scenario that the murder sequence and investigation feel very short in comparison to the point of being rushed. This strikes me as a shame because when Simpson finally does have those elements in place in the final few chapters of her story, she does use them well to create a very interesting and original conclusion.
Unfortunately though it is rushed and there is little sport to be had in trying to play along with this one. Simpson offers little in the way of credible misdirection, leaving the murderer quite visible and easy to identify from an early point in the story. It perhaps doesn’t help either that some assumptions that may have been outrageous and unthinkable in 1931 would represent our default mindset today, meaning that one reveal is unlikely to surprise quite as it would have done ninety years earlier.
The Prime Minister is Dead may not be a classic work of detective fiction but it does offer some points of interest, particularly for those with an interest in all things Westminster. It also demonstrates that the author was as comfortable creating a story in that setting as they had been in exploring the theatrical world in Enter Sir John.
The Verdict: More interesting for its depiction of Westminster than its rushed and ultimately unsatisfying murder plot.