Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Geoffrey Homes & the Reporter Sleuth

The Man Who Murdered Himself (1936) - Geoffrey Homes

Reporters make good detectives. Well versed in the five Ws of fundamental journalism, armed with sharp wit, innate curiosity, and usually gifted with manipulative interviewing skills they are a natural choice for a mystery writer's protagonist. Add a sarcastic sense of humor, a jaded outlook on life, and a mistrust of humanity in general and you've got the makings for the prototype of a private eye. Although one of the earliest reporter detectives is Joseph Rouletabille created by Gaston Leroux back at the turn of the 20th century, the journalist sleuth is a typically American choice of hero for crime writers. There's Kent Murdock and Flash Casey (both reporter/photographers); the numerous reporter heroes in the wacky novels of Harry Stephen Keeler; the newspapermen (both editors and reporters) in Fredric Brown's books; an entire library full of the Phoenix Press mystery novels, a publishing house that seemed to require that the lead character be a reporter detective. Geoffrey Homes' (in reality Daniel Mainwaring, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter himself) contribution to this popular type of fictional detective is the one-time alcoholic journalist turned private eye Robin Bishop.

Bishop's first case is an involved tale of multiple missing persons that leads to the discovery of multiple dead bodies. His employer, Oscar Morgan, runs a private detective agency that specializes in missing persons and Morgan selects the most financially rewarding cases by scanning the local newspapers and keeping a eye out for life insurance policies with large pay outs. At the start of the story Morgan proposes to Bishop that they go after the missing brother of a recent apparent murder victim.

Allen Hastings, an unemployed pilot is found drowned in a reservoir. He has also been shot in the abdomen. Broken chair and bloodstained walls in his kitchen indicate a struggle there. A .32 caliber bullet is pulled out of the living room wall. Smart aleck and lazy cops assigned to the Hastings murder find a way to manipulate the coroner's inquest jury to return a verdict of suicide. The newspapers rage at the cops. Next day, in retaliation for the absurdity of the inquest findings the papers are calling Hastings "The Man Who Murdered Himself."

Hastings has a brother, Robert, who the police can't locate. He's the sole heir to a $20,000 life insurance policy. Morgan figures he and Bishop should track down Robert, give him the good and bad news, and maybe they will get a cut of the insurance money. This is the standard operating procedure at Morgan & Company. Bishop agrees to start the search for Hastings by visiting his brother's rooming house. In the basement he finds a trunk and when the landlady is distracted by a phone call which takes her back upstairs he manages to steal the trunk, load it into his ca,r and take off. Inside the trunk he finds a cache of hidden letters - the first piece of evidence that will take him on a wild chase throughout southern California as he unearths secret after secret in the two Hastings brothers' lives.

Homes depicts the police in this book as lazy, irresponsible dullards. They simply don't want to do any investigating. If the case has even the slightest appearance of an accident or suicide they'll do their best to monkey with the evidence to close the case so that it is never treated as a murder. It is Bishop and a fellow reporter, Guy Bentley, who do all the real work. There are several scenes where the reporters badger the police, show them up at their own game, reveal that they have more evidence than the police (they usually hit the crime scenes first and steal the evidence), and pretty much make the police look like a bunch of fools. Bentley even boasts that he found one of the missing people in the morgue. The chief of police shoots him down by saying "You found Raymond Harris in the morgue" (an alias for the true identity of the dead body). Splitting hairs, to be sure, and a feeble attempt by the police to save face.

Homes has a laconic style, serves up a fast paced action based story, and is most adept at creating dialog that sings with realism and wit. The story gets very involved and hints at the convoluted noir masterpiece that would be his final novel Build My Gallows High, later turned into a classic film noir Out of the Past. The plot machinations involving two different life insurance policies are almost unnecessary because in the end they are nothing but red herrings. The solution and the identity of the killer do come as a big surprise but we learn everything second hand in a lengthy monologue from Bishop who tells of his findings to Bentley and Mary, the secretary at Morgan & company.

I'll be reviewing the rest of the Robin Bishop books in the coming weeks. This is a short series and I'm interested in reading them in order to see how Homes continues his views on reporters whom he purports to be better at detective work that actual police detectives. For a book written in 1936 it's one of the best of the semi-tough subgenre of the hardboiled school (I think some call it soft-boiled, but that's too evocative of diner food to me). More smarts here than brawn. Maybe the witty wordplay and verbal sparring give way to more physical fighting later in the series. But to be sure this was a most promising debut of one of the best of the reporter detectives of the American Golden Age.

Robin Bishop detective novels
The Man Who Murdered Himself  (1936)
The Doctor Died at Dusk  (1936)
The Man Who Didn't Exist  (1937)
The Man Who Murdered Goliath  (1938)
Then There Were Three  (1938)
(This last novel introduces Humphrey Campbell,
a milk drinking private eye who will replace Bishop
as Homes' series character.)

8 comments:

  1. This sounds really good, but I doubt if I can find it. Since I'm in the midst of a big book storage problem (see tomorrow's post) I'll not try to buy a copy. Wish these were available in an omnibus edition.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The idea of the stupid or corrupt cop was common in American Classic mysteries. I have be trying to think of the first intelligent heroic policeman to be featured in a successful mystery series.

    Considering the union busting, prohibition, and corruption common in most big city police departments in the first half of the twentieth century in America, I guess I should not be surprised when this was the era of the amateur detective.

    Any idea about who was the first popular American hero cop?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rick -

    I think this one is easy to find in a Dell mapback reprint. Most of Homes' books were reprinted in PB editions. Dell or Bantam if my memory serves correctly. The Bantam PBs, however, had the titles changed making it a pain in the neck to try and keep them all straight.

    Michael -

    Inspector Christopher McKee of Center Street, maybe? Helen Reilly's policeman was defintiely a popular character of his time. His first book The Diamond Feather was published in 1930. The earliest I can think of is actually an ex-cop -- Tim McCarty created by Isabel Ostrander who continues to assist his former co-workers long after he has left the force. His first appearance is in The Clue in the Air in 1917. He was popular in his time, too, but quickly faded into limbo by the 1930s.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Interesting to read michael's comments. Private investigators tend to be the heroes in classic Canadian mysteries, but there is almost always at least one "intelligent heroic policeman". In other words, the private dick has someone in law enforcement upon whom he can rely. And they're often drinking buddies!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the answer John.

    Today's amateur detective often thinks the police are idiots too, but today the cop becomes the love interest. What would Holmes say about that?

    Brian, my classic era is the early twentieth century detectives and thieves. From Lupin to Nero Wolfe. The pulps in the U.S. were where the PI and cop became friends or working contacts. But read any PI centered mystery and it will be the PI revealing the killers to the less than brilliant cops. Hammett, Chandler, etc.

    I do think Ellery let his Dad solve one, didn't he?

    Recently, I was listening to the old radio series "The Amazing Mr. Malone" where one of the running gags was the cop was occasionally right and Malone wrong. In one episode Malone's proof that someone was the killer was the cop was right last week so it was his turn now because he was the title character.

    But I would not be surprised if Canadian mysteries were different. The British were somewhat more respectful to the police. Well, Mrs Marple was, maybe not Poirot or Holmes.

    I think it changed in the fifties with the Dragnet era cops as American society's view towards the cop changed.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I was just reading Ellery Queen's The Adventure of the African Traveler and for some reason in it Ellery is teaching a college seminar in, um, murder solving and his Dad allows him to bring his three students right to a murder scene and search for clues and everything. The police were extremely accommodating!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I have to disagree with myself over my comment about the cop's role as hero changing in the fifties. It changed in the thirties with such pulp cops as Gangbusters.

    I still find it interesting the few number of policeman heroes between 1900 and 1929.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Isn't it interesting how reporters and lawyers (yes, lawyers) often make the best mystery writers and, I suppose, good detectives as well.

    Love the covers as usual, John.

    ReplyDelete