The Capital City Mystery by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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.

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.


My Thoughts

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 Mystery of Vaucluse by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

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

Book Summary

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?

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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.

Murder by Formula by James Harold Wallis

MurderbyFormula
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)