Herbert Endicott, a philandering husband, is found dead in a walk in closet in his bedroom. There are some suspicious signs that lead Valcour to think foul play yet there is no sign of a weapon and no visible wound on the corpse to verify murder. But when the body refuses to stay dead and the suspects begin to voice their utter hatred for the victim I knew the book was going to stray far away from the typical "find the cigarette ash and footprints" stories that flooded the market in the 1920s. King's writing, too, is a big clue that this book is meant to be more than just a time passing entertainment. He has a way of capturing your attention with neat turns of phrase, lyrical styling, and an eccentric sense of humor.
How pleasant it would be he reflected, to come across the perfect imprint of a shoe [...] -- or what was it that was so popular at the moment? -- of course: the footprint of a gorilla. The case would then be technically known as an open-and-shut one. He'd simply take the train for California and arrest Lon Chaney, and-- But enough.
A notable feature of the story is that it takes place in less than 12 hours, from 8:37 PM to 7:11 AM the following day, with the action almost entirely confined to the Endicott household. Valcour makes a few side trips to interview suspects not in the home and does so in the wee hours of the morning adding a very surreal element to the story. None of the characters seems to be too upset about someone knocking on their door at two or three in the morning – even if it is a policeman. In one case Valcour doesn't even get to identify himself since the woman who answers the door thinks he is Endicott. Valcour even allows her to badger him with questions for a few pages before he bothers to correct her assumption.
King experiments with the narrative. We mostly follow Valcour's point of view but on occasion he allows us into the thoughts of other characters. For example, we learn that Nurse Morrow who is put in charge of watching over Endicott, is a dreamy romantic woman who hopes her life will finally blossom into the kind of adventurous one she always imagined it would be:
At the halfway mark of the one night's investigation Valcour finds Tom Hollander, a former war buddy of Endicott and who some members of the household think is the only man who Endicott can call a friend. Valcour sends for Hollander hoping that when Endicott recovers from his semi-comatose state he will confide in Hollander and reveal who attacked him. Events do not go as planned, however. Hollander is not the friend he presents himself as. Valcour inadvertently has placed Endicott's life in further danger.The present case looked as a heaven sent oasis. Who knew what might not develop out of it? It awakened all the atrophied hunger of her starved sentimentalism. And even if nothing did result form it -- nothing practical, like marriage, or a good bonus -- it would at least leave her something to think about during those endless, tiresome, tiring hours of the future.
|1931 film poster. The movie blended the plots of two|
plays, one of which was an adaptation of King's novel.
Despite all his efforts to protect Endicott the murderer does make a second and successful attempt on his life. But it seems nearly impossible. With two policeman in the room and a nurse on duty could someone really have fired a gun from the balcony through the small opening where the window was raised and struck Endicott fatally wounding him? In the remaining three hours of the book's plot Valcour manages to unearth more secrets, prevent a suicide attempt, and find the hiding place of the murderer who has remained in the house the entire night.
Murder by the Clock is unlike any other American mystery I have read from this era. True, there is detection and the policeman hero is doggedly determined to bring in the villain of the piece, but the emphasis here seems to be less on the mechanics of the criminal investigation and more on the after effects of the crime as it alters the lives of the Endicott household. In this respect King's novel is far more modern than one would expect for his era. He may have been one of the earliest writers to explore the real drama inherent in crime and its aftermath rather than exploiting a fictional murder as a mere puzzle entertainment.