Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Fifth Tumbler

In the detective fiction collecting world The Fifth Tumbler has a reputation for being one of those highly sought after books. It tops many collectors' want lists and they wait agonizingly for a scarce copy to come up for sale anywhere. When it does there is often a flurry of traffic (on-line at least) to purchase the copy no matter what it's condition. While the book may be prized by a collector lucky enough to have captured an elusive title like The Fifth Tumbler, it is all too rare that the contents of the book live up to its prize status. Clyde Clason's first mystery novel is, sadly, not one of those double rarities.

This is the first appearance of Clason's mild mannered, absurdly erudite professor of ancient history and sometime archaeologist Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough (why is it professors of archaeology must have such goofy names?). As with many of his cases he just happens to be on the premises when a baffling murder occurs, usually one of the impossible crime nature or a locked room murder. The title of his first sleuthing adventure hints at the recurring motif of locks and keys and does not refer to a drinking glass nor an acrobat.

The story is almost exclusively set in the Hotel Equable on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Elmo Swink, a dislikable man with a habit of womanizing and drinking heavily is found dead in his locked room. He has been poisoned by an ingeniously contrived booby trap - when he opened his door he caused a test tube containing a solution of potassium chloride and sulfuric acid to fall to the hard floor. When the two liquids mixed upon impact it released the poison hydrocyanic gas so popular with mystery fiction murderers. Lt. Mack is stumped as to how anyone could have procured the ingredients and fashioned the booby trap, then locked the door without anyone seeing all the activity that must have been involved in staging the crime. Westborough asks meekly and politely if he may sit in on the interviews of the hotel residents and begins taking notes.

Anyone who has read Clason's books (many have been re-issued by the wonderful couple at Rue Morgue Press) will know that these mysteries can get very eggheady as the investigation proceeds. Clason likes to populate his books with characters who have technical and scientific knowledge, characters who are well read and have a habit of alluding to their favorite works and writers, and characters who have other arcane bits of info that will somehow find itself into the dialog. Westborough, of course, is the main lecturer and allusion dropper - much of his prattle is just that and has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. This kind of pretentious malarkey is also found in the works of Ellery Queen and S.S. Van Dine. Some may find this quaint, some may find it eye-opening, with me it gets old very fast.

We have mini lectures on organic chemistry, the various methods of creating prussic acid, and the numerous uses of potassium cyanide (one of its ingredients) in business and industry. The night clerk Chris Larson just happens to be taking a course in chemical engineering and willingly shows off what he knows to help the police. But whereas a few sentences might suffice to relay this information to the reader Clason goes on for pages. There is also a lecture on how locks work, emphasizing the difference between a cylinder lock and a "paracentric" lock which is apparently the lock of choice at the Hotel Equable. While I was finally satisfied that a mystery writer had the smarts to explain it's not easy to pick many types of locks, I did think that Clason was indulging himself with the lock business as well. But then locks and keys have an awful lot to do with this book. The preponderance of locked doors, locked rooms mysteriously accessed, lock picks and hotel passkeys in the book makes The Fifth Tumbler a fitting title. Especially so when Westborough uses the inner workings of a lock as a metaphor for his approach in solving the crime:
"Let me elucidate by means of an analogy. The situation is not unlike the mechanism of a pin-tumbler lock."
"I'll be taking locks to pieces in my sleep," Mack declared with emphasis. "There's five pin tumblers, and the wedges on the key have to raise 'em all in a line before the plug can turn. That what you mean?"
"Exactly. To carry the parable a step further, I might add that four of my tumblers have reached the proper height, but an obstinate fifth prevents the lock from opening."
When the time comes for Westborough to reveal the identity of the murderer we get yet another long lecture and a killer who, when faced with his mistakes, crumbles under pressure and confesses. But his motive is kept secret for yet another chapter when the requisite surprise is delivered with a resounding thud. This is the only part of the book that fails to honor the fair play tenets of the detective novel. Although some background is given earlier in the book only the most imaginative reader could have made the outrageous leap required to connect the murderer and his motive. For me this was not so much a surprise as it was one of those eleventh hour tricks found in many of Carolyn Wells' mysteries. You expect a rabbit to be pulled out of the hat, but instead a kangaroo jumps out, hops all over the page, and practically thumbs its nose at you. You feel kind of stunned and cheated, no smile on your face and no desire to applaud.

UPDATE:  The Clyde B. Clason bibliography.  All books feature Prof. Westborough as the detective.

The Fifth Tumbler (1936)
The Death Angel (1936)
Blind Drifts (1937)
The Purple Parrot (1937)
The Man From Tibet (1938)*
The Whispering Ear (1938)
Murder Gone Minoan (1939)*
Dragon's Cave (1939)*
Poison Jasmine (1940)*
Green Shiver (1941)*

*These titles are available in trade paperback reissues from Rue Morgue Press.  Tell them I sent you.

16 comments:

  1. David here

    First congratulations on the award. It is indeed a stylish blog.

    Re Clason, Queen, Van Dine, and the literary and scientific asides of the characters, someone once said of Van Dine's THE BISHOP MURDER CASE, that it was a fair play mystery only if the average reader could be expected to be well acquainted with Einsteinian mathematics, German opera, the properties of heavy water, a German treatise on criminal psychology, and the origin and meaning of nursery rhymes.

    Achieve all that and you might beat Philo Vance to the killer.

    I've never found Clason quite in the class with the others mentioned or with Anthony Abbott or C. Daly King who were also in the general Van Dine school.

    Re why fictional archaeologist, paleontologist, and other such scientific sleuths tend to have such elaborate names (and usually three of them) I suspect they were often trying to invoke the image of someone like Othneil Charles Marsh, Edward Drinker Cope, Flinders Petrie, and others of a more swashbuckling age of science.

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  2. I find sometimes American authors from this period (Rupert Penny was an English cousin) really tended to overelaborate. The Van Dine influence, I think. John Street and Freeman Wills Crofts and usually John Dickson Carr manage to have complicated plots without getting quite so outre and desperate to show off learning. What Street and Crofts lose in "excitement" I think they make up for in credibility. Somehow Street can make you seriously believe in a purple hedgehog as an instrument of annihilation (and he doesn't need twenty-seven showoff footnotes to explain it).

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  3. David Again:

    I agree about the abiltities of Major Street and Crofts. The 'humdrum' school, as Curt Evans calls it, has many pleasures beyond visceral thrills for lovers of the fair play mystery.

    In Van Dine's case, at least, the eruidition was genuine (unlike some of Lord Peter's), and when he quoted extensively from a German book on criminal psychology you could be certain there was such a book, and it was the most important such book available.

    Those footnotes and scientific asides were genuine, and once in a while key to the plot, as in the above mentioned BISHOP MURDER CASE where it is suggested that the killer may have been unhinged in part by some of the implications of the higher math that became the basics for quantum mechanics.

    From Van Dine to Michael Crichton American audiences have often had a penchant for rather heavy doses of scientific theory appearing in large and often undigested form in their popular fiction --- just as Tom Clancy was later as popular for scavanging JANES FIGHTING SHIPS as for his jingoistic plots. At large part of the popularity of THE DA VINCI CODE was fairly obscure history and speculation --- and a whole school of fiction now turns on that.

    But back to Van Dine, Mike Grost has pointed out in his blog that the Van Dine school also had a history of challenging racial stereotyping and racism at a time that social criticism was not to be expected in popular fiction.

    And if most of those influenced directly by Van Dine are forgotten today, keep in mind that among that number are Ellery Queen (both as Queen and in the Barnaby Ross books about Drury Lane) and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Besides which, without Van Dine and Philo Vance we would never have had the Vance films or Elliot Paul's delightfully madcap Homer Evans books like THE MYSTERIOUS MICKEY FINN and HUGGER MUGGER IN THE LOUVRE.

    Ogden Nash's 'kick in the pance (sic)' aside, in many ways he is the American fair play detective novel in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

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  4. I hardly dare enter this comment among the learned statements above (not being sarcastic - I'm getting a crash course in vintage crime from some very knowledgable folks which is quite enjoyable for me), but here it is: "Elmo Swink" is a grand name for a victim.

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  5. Carol -

    Indeed it is. In fact, I removed the parenthetical comment that read (great name for the victim!) because I'm trying to curb my parenthetical comment habit. There's one in nearly every paragraph. (...sigh...) There I go again! Guess I'll never be a good adherent to Elmore Leonard's rules for good writing. Then again he says "Never use adverbs" in a sentence that employs a very common adverb. Clearly he's not up on his Strunk & White.

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  6. David -

    I've always liked the Queen and Van Dine books. I ate them up as a kid and all that lecturing and erudition was fun then. Now that I'm much older it's just tiresome. In Clason's case the dispensing of knowledge is excessive and, in many cases, just plain showing off for the hell of it. Do I really need to know that Yvette Gant reads Aldous Huxley if it's not part of the plot? Must there be a scene where Westborough dictates a huge chunk of his book on Trajan to Miss Gant just so Clason can throw about all his ancient history trivia. It's like all the padding and filler you find in contemporary books that make them 400+ pages long because editors think readers crave backstory and detail. I don't. I just want a cleanly written, well told story. Leave the padding to goose down quilts.

    The Westborough books are entertaining but aren't landmarks or innovations in the genre, sadly. I've got all of them but I can only take them in small doses. This is coincidentally only the fifth I read. I must've picked one of the best ones first THE MAN FROM TIBET with its bizarre murder method and creepy setting. I thought that his other books would be just as clever and odd. But nothing has really lived up to that one. I still want to get to the others, but unlike some authors whose books I'll read one right after another I just can't do that with Clason.

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  7. John, stop dangling hard-to-find books with professors in front of me! :-) I don't care how much they don't quite come up to snuff....my "academic mystery" (my definition) alarm system goes off and I have to put it on the list to find and buy.

    And, I'm sortof married to the parenthetical comments myself....

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  8. Bev -

    Start with THE MAN FROM TIBET. You can find many of Clason's books from Rue Morgue Press. You can also find used copies of those editions at half.com and amazon. And if you really want to read The Fifth Tumbler I can loan my copy to you. You'll be looking for this one for a long time. Took me 12 years to locate a copy that I could afford.

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  9. "Re Clason, Queen, Van Dine, and the literary and scientific asides of the characters, someone once said of Van Dine's THE BISHOP MURDER CASE, that it was a fair play mystery only if the average reader could be expected to be well acquainted with Einsteinian mathematics, German opera, the properties of heavy water, a German treatise on criminal psychology, and the origin and meaning of nursery rhymes."

    Me, me, me, fits me to a Tee. The nursery rhymes part, that is. Forget the rest.

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  10. John, congrats on the award, it's deserved. * This is another one of those books that, if at hand I would likely read, or at least begin reading, but is probably far too difficult and expensive to obtain. You do keep doing this, as does Geoff Bradley in his fine publication CADS, and I never seem to find those 1930s and 1940s fair play mysteries when I go to the local book shop. * the Van Dine quote: yes, but from that description, surely Sherlock Holmes would be able to figure it out. Heh.

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  11. I never liked The Bishop Murder Case despite several tries, because for me it's just too much. Greene arguably is too, though I have a weakness for the large family multiple elimination round murder tournament books. I actually like some of the later Van Dines, like Scarab or Kennel (despite unnecessary footnotes and lecturettes), or even Garden or Casino (which have largely abandoned the notes), better. Haycraft and Symons say that Van Dine got more and more elaborate in his later books, but that's not true.

    Ellery Queen's first few books are too top heavy with that sort of thing too, imo, but after he (they) settled down a bit he's a favorite for me.

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  12. David Here:

    No argument that Van Dine has his problems (the killer always shows up on the same page and virtually in the same paragraph), and as stated here some of his imitators used the footnotes for pointless digession and became merely pedantic with it.

    Ellery Queen started out as Philo Vance light in personality, but as the Queen's kept writing they evolved him into something much different. From THE DOOR BETWEEN on the books became not only better, but much more serious as novels and detective stories.

    Clason has his good points, but he is a minor writer in the field. For someone who is sometimes equal to or surpasses Van Dine check out Anthony Abbot's Thatcher Colt mysteries. Colt, based on Teddy Roosevelt's days as New York Police Commissioner, is a first rate sleuth in some fine books.

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  13. So, how does the playful, overt erudition of, say, Avram Davidson sit with you?

    And what drives the collectors' frenzy with this novel?

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  14. Todd -

    I'm not sure who you're addressing with that question about Davidson. I don't know anything about his short stories. According to the bibliographic experts he ghost wrote a few later Queen novels and one of them The Player on the Other Side went way over my head when I read it as a teen. I'd have to re-read again to see how it "sits with me" 40 years later.

    As far the collectors' frenzy - who can say? I'm no student of collector psychology. Each collector wants a book for his own reason. My experience as a seller has shown me that The Fifth Tumbler shows up on a lot of want lists. Every time I have tried to purchase a copy when it came up for sale on internet sites someone beat me to it. Until just a few years ago when I managed to obtain one without a DJ for an affordable price. When eBay was a hotbed for mystery collectors (from about 2000 - 2006) several copies with DJs came up over a six month period and they all sold over the $300 mark. Too rich for me. I have no interest in delving into the mindset of a collector willing to pay an outrageous sum in an online auction just to complete his collection.

    I wanted to read the book to find out why it was so sought after. I was disappointed that the book's contents didn't live up to its legend as a prize among mystery novel acquisitions.

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  15. John

    Give PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE a second try, it really is a remarkable novel and pursues themes that have been present in the EQ saga from the start (but which certainly show up as early as the novella THE LAMP OF GOD). Though
    Davidson 'ghosted' it, by all accounts it was from an in depth outline by Fred Dannay.

    I've always held it to be one of the best books in the series.

    In general in his stories and novels Davidson's eruidition is more playful than annoying. You can read his fantasy novels about the poet Virgil and enjoy them without being well versed (sorry about that) in Virgil's history or writings. At least one if his short stories ("Thou Still Unvanquished Bride") became a classic episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR with a guest appearence by David Carradine.

    As for collectors and their feeding frenzies I'm not sure anyone can explain them, and they have always made collecting a pain for those of us who want to read books rather than investing in them. THE FIFTH TUMBLER is likely collectable for the simple reason it wasn't as well distributed as other works by Clason.

    TAMURLANE is at best second class Edgar Allan Poe, but if you run across a copy hang onto it since the last one went for seven figures. Collectors are funny that way.

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  16. I have read the Rue Morgue Clason books, and enjoyed them. From the little I have seen of the "Purple Parrot", it seems fascinating. Since you have all the Clason books, I'd like to know your reaction to that book.

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