These days killers may dress in lint free coveralls and cover their crime scenes in plastic sheeting for easy disposal of blood, hair, fibers and other pesky detritus that might give them away. Or they may pour gallons of bleach over the crime scene to eradicate that troublesome genetic info left behind. Gone are the days when a murderer had to use his ingenuity to mislead or cover up a crime. Now it's all about science. That's right I'm blaming DNA technology for ruining crime fiction. And especially for putting a damper on writers' imaginations. Give me a corpse with shrunken gums so a murderer can shove a set of someone else's dentures in the mouth and have the corpse misidentified. That's misdirection! Did I say not disgusting enough for CSI? I take that back.
Somewhere Fergus O'Breen picked up this fact of gums shrinking after death and relays it to his Watson Norman Harker, a budding playwright from Oklahoma, and the ever exasperated Lt. A. Jackson in his penultimate adventure The Case of the Solid Key. The corpse in question -- which may or may not be sporting its own dentures -- is discovered in the locked theatrical workroom where the victim had been experimenting with fire effects. Unfortunately, the fire effect seems to have exploded rendering the face utterly unrecognizable – thus the need to resort to dental records for identification. The victim is Rupert Carruthers, a shady theater owner who financed the company through extortion. The suspects are a motley group of actors and actresses, the stage manager, the company manager and a playwright.
This is a theater mystery. With actors and actresses in the list of suspects the reader should be on the lookout for impersonation, insincere emotions, volatile temperaments and plenty of heavy drinking. It's also a theater situated in Hollywood and many of the actors have motion picture careers on their minds. Fergus O'Breen's sister Maureen just happens to be a publicity agent at Metropolis Pictures. The movie studio and Maureen play a secondary but integral role in an unusual subplot involving one of the actresses with whom Norman is smitten.
This is yet another example of a detective novel with multiple solutions and one in which the detective gets it all wrong. Fergus realizes too late that he overlooked a rather obvious fact which shifted all the other evidence making his rather brilliant solution nothing more than one of his fanciful theories. There is a lot of banter between Lt. Jackson and O'Breen about the difference between police work and private eye sleuthing. Jackson even reveals he's rather well read in detective fiction:
"I'll admit," said Jackson, "that Rupert Carruthers was asking for murder. On purely psychological grounds, maybe this looks like a murder case, but the physical evidence is too strong the other way."Later, just to rile O'Breen, Jackson does a little role reversal:
"Too strong is right. It's so strong it smells. No natural death could ever be so congoddamedclusively natural."
Jackson grinned. "You've been reading Chesterton again. Bad influence."
"In the meantime, Fergus, let me call your attention to one fact: there's only one conceivable advantage that that solid key has over an ordinary key."I liked this thoroughly American mystery novel. I've been reading far too many Brits with far too many plots about someone who makes the fatal mistake of announcing he is changing his will in front of all his heirs. It was a refreshing change to have a story about acting and the movie business, scenes set in coffee shops and bars, jokes about comic books and Lifebuoy soap, and a rambunctious detective swearing up a storm with tongue twisting conglomerations like the one above. (But I tried it. Just not natural, not at all something that comes trippingly off the tongue.)
"And that is?"
"That,"said Lt Jackson, "is its disadvantage."
"Hey! Fergus protested. "I'm supposed to be the brilliant if eccentric sleuth that makes cryptic remarks. Remember?"
"Sorry, I could not resist it."
|from the DJ of The Compleat Werewolf|
The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937)
The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939)
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940)
The Case of the Solid Key (1941)
The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942)
Short story collections
The Compleat Werewolf (1969) - two short stories w/ O'Breen
Far and Away (1955) - one story w/ O'Breen