Sunday, February 6, 2011

Philip Wylie & the Detective as Superman

I'm putting my money on Wylie's one time amateur sleuth, Agamemnon Telemachus Plum, for the fictional detective with the most ridiculous name. He appears in the 1943 mystery novel Corpses at Indian Stones, an entertaining story with an locked room murder. Our hero prefers to go by Aggie and he's a professor of anthropology, an archaeologist and "something of a hobbyist in vertebrate paleontology." His baggy out of style clothes, stooped posture, "wispish Vandyke" and downward cast eyes give people the impression that he is "wizened." It's no wonder then that he's treated with ridicule and derisive comments. But they don’t seem to bother Aggie too much. He's pretty much a misanthrope and shuns all forms of socializing in groups. But the inhabitants of the town where he's summering are in for a surprise. Appearances are deceiving and Aggie will prove to be someone utterly different than how they perceive him.

Aggie has come with his aunt Sarah Plum to the fictional upstate New York summer getaway of Indian Stones. She has a plan for some matchmaking but Aggie will have nothing to do with that. Within a few hours of arriving he finds a calling card impaled on a knife on the door post of their cottage. He pulls the hunting knife out and sees on the card the name Henry H. Bogarty and wonders who it might be. Without thinking he puts the knife on the porch banister and goes inside. A series of local characters are then introduced in an nicely handled expository section, among them the highly disliked Jim Calder who's come to have it out with Sarah over something very personal. Shortly afterwards Calder is found dead in the woods. He's been crushed between two logs that made up the fatal parts of a deadfall – some kind of bear trap. Aggie's keen powers of observation reveal several clues that make him think it's not an accident.

Enter the local police in the person of sharp witted Wes Wickmann. Wes is not easily persuaded that a murder has been done, but assures Aggie and Sarah he'll keep his eye out for suspicious behavior. A few days later Dr. Davis is seen taking photographs around the gruesome accident site. Later, he also turns up dead. His body found in a locked makeshift photographic darkroom, the missing hunting knife buried in his chest. Wes and Aggie join forces to root out the villain wracking havoc and littering the town with bodies.

This is a book that lends itself to one of those Dell Mapback "What this book is about" teasers. In fact Aggie lists the unusual elements in a long list just to aggravate Wes:  "You've got a knife, a calling card, a fox, an automobile, some veal bones that were in it. [...] You've got the deadfall and the bread and the honey and so on. You've got a wine cellar, a bottle of hock, an open cellar window, a secret door, a secret safe that contains straw and some chips from boxes. You've got broken telephone wires, a missing million in gold and platinum..." And of course two dead bodies. But were they murdered? One seems more like an accident, the body in the locked room might even be a suicide. And what happened to Hank Bogarty? Why was the fox wearing a dog collar? Who took the gold? Where is it? Have no fear, Aggie figures it all out.

To appreciate this deceptively lightweight mystery novel even more you need to know about Wylie's other work. One of Wylie's better known books is the one that directly precedes this mystery novel. A Generation of Vipers, is a polemical work filled with vicious tirades about hypocritical views of sex and his savage indictment on mothers he called "Momism." Earlier in his career, Wylie wrote two books that touched on his interest in the superman archetype. One, The Savage Gentleman, is about a young man raised in the jungles apart from any women or female influence. The other is said to have inspired the superheroes of pulp magazines and comic books like Doc Savage and Superman. That book is Gladiator, his first real novel completed in 1926, accepted by Alfred Knopf in that year, but not published until 1930.

In Gladiator the main character, Hugo Danner, is the product of a scientific experiment in which his father injects his pregnant mother with a serum that later endows Danner with superhuman strength, speed and bulletproof skin. He is seemingly invulnerable, but he keeps all these powers hidden. What he really wants is acceptance. Ironically, Danner is made an outcast, shunned and feared for his freakishness.

All of the ideas presented in those three books resurface in the character of Agamemnon Plum.  In Aggie we see yet another version of Danner with intellect substituted for superpowers and the fear that Danner encountered replaced by ridicule that Aggie experiences. Additionally, unlike Danner who has a tragic end, Aggie is redeemed in the eyes of many of the characters - mostly the women - when he literally must strip himself of his professorial facade and reveal the real man beneath the baggy clothes. Wylie seems fascinated with the virile male physique and its effect on how others perceive it. Aggie, in a scene where he is wearing only swim trunks, is described as "a man knotted with lean muscle, a man with the build of an acrobat, a man of visible, formidable strength." Not at all what most people think of when presented with a "rabbity" professor of anthropology.

It is the women who are primarily impressed and who almost immediately change their opinions of him. Beth Calder, previously his primary taunter, sees him walking to the canoe and rowing out into the lake, and says, "We've got that guy all wrong. He's dangerous." And Mrs. Drayman slightly stunned by Aggie's appearance remarks, "He isn't little, even." The woman who Aggie is most drawn to, however, is not surprised at all.

Danielle Davis - daughter of the second murder victim - is convinced there is something hidden about him. His athletic ability and physique only confirm her suspicions. She is an outspoken, outrageous and defiant young woman who takes every opportunity to draw attention to herself in the most socially inappropriate ways possible. Wylie likes these two extremes of misanthropy - the withdrawn intellect who prefers solitude and loathes people and the ├╝ber-extroverted rebel who couldn't give a damn what anyone thinks of her behavior. They are - of course- destined to end up together in the book's final pages.

Philip Wylie (from Life, Jan. 1942)
As a detective novelist Wylie tries to honor the traditional fair play tenets of the Golden Age, but there are several instances of Aggie's observations that come up out of nowhere. Aggie may have seen it, but the reader was not told until pages later. These are mere quibbles though. The plot is engaging enough. The banter between Aggie and his bedridden aunt,  suffering a bout of mumps for most of the book, is amusing. The crimes are puzzling including the very odd solution to the locked room murder. Finally, the confrontation between detective and culprit is presented in a well done send-up of the know-it-all amateur sleuth's lecture.

For me the most fascinating part is this odd reworking of the themes in Gladiator and The Savage Gentleman in the character of Aggie. It is almost a complete reversal of the other books. Aggie goes from social outcast to accepted hero merely by taking off his clothes and getting in a canoe. At the same time it's a quaint idea and purely of its time. No writer would ever want to attempt something like this in our age of a health club mad citizenry utterly obsessed with appearance and fitness.

UPDATES (Feb 7, 2011)

1. For more on Gladiator go to this unusual site completely devoted to the book. Make sure you visit "The Inscription" page, especially, to learn how Wylie felt about the sci-fi and mystery books he wrote in the 1930s.

2. Corpses at Indian Stones is the only pure detective novel Wylie wrote solely himself. After 1943 he wrote a handful crime fiction books but they are mostly in the thriller or espionage category. He did, however, write three other detective novels in collaboration with Edwin Balmer who was also co-author on When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide. They are:

Five Fatal Words (Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932)
The Golden Hoard (Stokes, 1934)
The Shield of Silence (Stokes, 1936)

10 comments:

  1. I could have sworn I commented on this (but can't remember if you have to approve before it appears...). If you get some of this twice, my apologies.

    My first comments were about how you've gotten me to add another to my TBR/TBO (To Be Owned) list. I love academic mysteries and a vintage academic mystery...gotta have it. I asked if this was the Philip Wylie who did the When Worlds Collide books...then I went and did a search and discovered that yes, indeedy, that's him. I read the Collision books when I was a teenager. Kind of hokey but I loved them then.

    Re: youre comments on the Ironside book. Glad to have enticed you into adding one. :-)

    I missed a day and a half of work last week due to the storm. The worst day was when we had the power out. We got a bit of snow yesterday (maybe two inches) and are supposed to be getting more right now, but nothing's happening at the moment. How are things your way?

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  2. John, this is a wonderful review. Normally I don't read every word of a review for fear of learning too damn much about a book I might be interested in reading, but this review was just right. (In truth, call me crazy, but most of the reviews I read are of books I've ALREADY read. It's a quirk of mine.)

    This book sounds like something I definitely want to read. I'd only heard of Wyle in connections with GENERATION OF VIPERS. Didn't know he wrote mysteries.

    Note; WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is one of my favorite sci-fi movies though it is dated as hell.

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  3. John, I'm so glad you created this site. I'm working my way through the entries and adding titles to my TBR file. Excellent choice of some the less well-known mysteries and eye-opening for me. I'll be back frequently.

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  4. Bev-

    Wouldn't exactly categorize this as an academic mystery. But I see your personal definition in the All Booked Up post fits it. If you find a copy of this book and get to read it you'll see that Agamemnon has a quirky personality that changes from intellectual academic to slangy, relaxed "dude" depending on who he is intereacting with. This is even commented on by one of the woman characters.

    And all is well post-blizzard out here. Had to shovel a bit yesterday, but praise be to the gods, it stopped at less than 2".

    Yvette -

    I'm just getting the knack of summarizing mystery plots. I have had a tendency to give away too much. I'm glad you think this was just the right amount. I still think it could've be less!

    Wylie wrote three other detective novels at the time he wrote When Worlds Collide and its sequel. His collaborator on that book, Edwin Balmer, was also the man with whom he co-wrote those detective novels. I have never come across any of them in my years of collecting and dealing. I'm updating the post to include this info.

    Carol -

    Do stop by as often as possible. I can assure you there will NEVER be a review of an Agatha Christie book on this site. About 90% of what I read no one has ever heard of - hence the urge to create this blog and write like a demon.

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  5. John - this sounds like a great read, and I'll have to try to get a copy. FYI, Crippen & Landru have (has?) published a collection of Wylie's short mystery stories called "Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments," which I enjoyed very much. He creates fascinating characters and he also "plays fair" with the reader.

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  6. Yes, I know I have a rather loose definition of academic mystery. I have a thing for them though because I work in the English Department here.

    Re: Aggie's personality shift. I know someone like that....He's actually one of my favorite people.

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  7. Wylie's GOLDEN HOARD deals with a miser who refused to turn in his gold when the government called in all the gold reserves in the 1930's, and the heroes battle to keep gangsters and other unscupulous types from getting a hold of it.

    He also wrote quite a few detective novellas for AMERICAN MAGAZINE, at least one of which was the basis for a digest sized paperback, and a few which were reprinted in EQMM.

    As GLADIATOR inspired SUPERMAN, his THE SAVAGE GENTLEMAN inspired the creation of Doc Savage, and his Crunch and Des stories John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee.

    In addition the murder of his daughter and her friend in their New York apartment inspired the made for television movie THE MARCUS-NIELSON MURDERS that first introduced television viewers to Telly Savalas Lt Kojak.

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  8. David (I think this is you) -

    Thanks for the summary of GOLDEN HOARD. Wylie intrigues me now after reading this book. I went looking for the Wylie/Balmer books and figured they were probably thrillers based on the titles. I found all three, some with DJs, but I wasn't willing to shell out nearly $100 for all three just to have the DJs. I settled for an unjacketed cheap copy of THE SHIELD OF SILENCE because it has a kind of Sax Rohmer feel to the title. Probably cops and robbers, though. I'll soon find out. I'll start with that and see if I want to go for the others. GOLDEN HOARD's story doesn't appeal to me and I don't think I'd get through the whole thing. Too much of a Chelsea House crime thriller feel by the sound of it.

    Never knew that about the "Kojak" TV movie pilot. Too many writers' children met violent deaths. Remember what happened to Dominick Dunn's daughter? Really sad.

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  9. David here:

    The murder of Wylie's daughter and her roomate in an upscale Manhattan apartment was a cause celebre at the time and inspired the teleplay by Abby Mann which fictionalized the case and the trial (mostly name changes) and introduced Telly Savalas as Kojak, the investigator on the case.

    Tragedy does seem to haunt some authors --- Dunne's daughter murdered, Doyle losing a son in WW I, Poe's lost love, Bram Stoker's venereal disease ... No wonder so many drink.

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  10. I came by to see this post after reading Bev's review of Corpses at Indian Stones. There is so much interesting information here. I will have to find one of his mysteries soon.

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