Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Sentry-Box Murder - Newton Gayle

My attempt to tackle as many obscure writers as possible this year (I have a reputation to uphold after all) turned up this oddity that I had forgotten I owned. So far it is the only detective novel set in pre-World War Two era Puerto Rico I've ever heard of let alone read. The premise - a treasure hunt in an ancient fort with a haunted tower- was so enticing, so much like something John Dickson Carr might write if he were more a fan of exotic locales, that I had to tear into it.

A group of tourists are engaged in a treasure hunt on the grounds of El Morro, a historic fort in Old Juan (and now the only national park on that island commonwealth). Among the participants we find Senator John Monarch; his wife, movie actress Melita Avery; Monarch's lawyer and Melita's sometime lover, Fergus McKelvie; Monarch's nephew Elmer; Stella Tophet, a strident American housewife; Jim Greer, ex-British Secret Service agent; and Robin Upwood his friend and an agent in the British Foreign Office. The treasure hunt ends abruptly when someone quite literally stumbles upon the corpse of the senator in the location of the title. He has been shot in a room with only one entrance, two windows that are no more than slits in the masonry, and that was being watched by two guards. An impossible murder! More Carr influence at work?  Well, not quite.

The book is narrated by Upwood and while he is involved in the action and we get to follow him along on his creepy adventures in the dungeon during the treasure hunt, the true detective of the piece is Jim Greer. Because Upwood is the first person narrator we only know of Greer's activities if the two of them are together. However, Greer is offstage a lot for much of the first part of the book and we only learn of his findings through dialogue exchanges with Upwood. This was beginning to bother me because I prefer fair play detective novels in which the reader and detective discover clues together. But later Greer will team up with Upwood and we get to follow the detection first hand via Upwood's narration.

The now inaccessible haunted sentry box at El Morro
Greer is one of those know-it-all amateur detectives. He reminded me of a British Philo Vance minus the foppery and quirky exclamations like "Oh my aunt!" He seems to be brilliant and intuitive but has a tendency to jump to conclusions, display his biases and chauvinism and make specious comments that rule out minor characters committing the crime like this: "Oakley [the chief of police] assures me that deliberate murder is totally alien to Puerto Rican character. There's a fair amount of crime of the passionel kind down here, but the local records contain no single case of killing planned in cold blood." I can't believe that the island was that much of an Eden even in 1935.

While the Puerto Rican characters are allowed to speak Spanish with Upwood acting as sometime translator (he is practically fluent in the language), there is the other end of the spectrum embodied in the character of Félise, a maid from the Virgin Islands. She speaks in heavily rendered phonetic dialog and is thrown in as the usual black character intended as an object of ridicule. With her "dems" and "dose" and her talk of spooks and superstition it's the most off putting part in a book which for the most part is very modern and sophisticated. Here's a sampling of Félise's words of wisdom, some keen advice for anyone investigating mysteries (with or without ghosts):
"Dar does be tings dat you believes and tings dat you doesn't believe. Sometime it seem a long way out but den you take a little jump home and it coom."
There is ample amount of detection but most of Greer's energy seems to be focussed on extraneous matters. A packet of shirts found in the bushes with odd scribbling on the cuff on the left sleeves, the search for the owner of a mysterious British accented voice that threatened Monarch with a terrible vengeance, and some strange verse-like scribblings left in a hotel room are only a sampling of the numerous clues that monopolize Greer's investigation. All of these seem to lead to the murderer and I was convinced I had nailed the culprit only to have the rug pulled out from under me in the final paragraphs of the penultimate chapter. While I was disappointed in the identity of the real murderer I must allow a tip of the hat to Gayle in fooling me by leading me down to the garden path to the false culprit. No mean feat for a novice mystery writer. This was, after all, the second book of a total of five.

Aerial view of the entire park enclosing El Morro
The investigation of Senator Monarch's murder is only the second book with Greer and Upwood and yet the story is peppered with allusions to several cases in their past. It happens about five times in the course of the book. The first time is a reference to their first case which was published as Death Follows the Formula (1935). This is understandable and a typical marketing strategy of publishers who want to sell books. Many of the detective novels of the 1930s have these kind of footnotes luring readers to the writer's earlier work. But later Upwood talks about the Stavinsky case "one of those things that cannot yet be told" which also "had been a crime with certain similarities" to the one being investigated in The Sentry-Box Murder. Gayle is trying to make Greer into a sort of Holmes with his own giant rat of Sumatra and other astonishing career adventures. It's irritating, especially since Greer is hardly in the class of Holmes.

More interesting than the book are the biographies of the two people who authored it. "Newton Gayle" is the pseudonym of a writing duo made up of Muna Lee and Maurice Guinness. Lee was a well known poet from Mississippi whose early career included work with the U.S. Secret Service as a confidential translator where she censored mail written Spanish as well as in Portuguese and French. She married another poet from Puerto Rico, Luis Munoz Marin and the two moved to Puerto Rico. While living there she collaborated with Guinness, a Shell Oil executive, on five detective novels most of which feature Jim Greer. Not surprisingly both their backgrounds come into play in their books. Death Follows a Formula deals with a man who discovers an alternative fuel to gasoline and his eventual murder. Their third book, Murder at 28:10 (1936), is also set in Puerto Rico. For more about Lee see this detailed article about mystery writers from Mississippi.

This is my first successfully finished book in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Crampons and ice pick were not necessary on this leg, though they may be required later in the year as I scale the hazardous peaks in the mini-mountain range I call my TBR pile.

13 comments:

  1. Well, this was one of the impossible crime novels that caught my perusing eye, while flipping through the pages of Adey's book, but none of the local book dealers had this particular Newton Gayle title on their shelves – so I shoved it on the long list.

    By the way, is it just me or are these attempts at covering obscure mysteries slowly turning into a duel, in which the young, up-coming rookie tries to topple the seasoned veteran in order to reach the top of the mystery fandom? Like Hikaru no Go, but with rare, hard-to-get and forgotten detective stories.

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  2. I'll never reach the top of mystery fandom in this sea of blogs. I was hoping for a minimum of 50 followers by the end of 2011 and I have a paltry 36, many of whom stopped by once or twice and then took off never to return. But if it's a duel you want - bring it on!

    This is going to be a year of super obscurity as I try to make it through five boxes of books I intend to sell online. Many of them are by minor writers whose books are extremely hard to find. I want to read as many as I can before they are allowed to leave my book-laden home.

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  3. If it's any consolation, I'm follower 37...

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  4. It's often said that John Dickson Carr was the only American member of the Detection Club in the 1930s, but Muna Lee apparently was another, since "Newton Gayle" was admitted.

    I didn't much like Death Follows a Formula, though it got a lot of good reviews; and Murder at 28.10 has a bravura idea (murder during a hurricane, including charts showing its approach) and wonderful narrative tension, but its ending I found on the ludicrous side (if interesting).

    By the way, as I recall the Gayle books are written in deliberate immediate sequence: i.e., Formula on a ship going from Britain to the U. S., the next two in Puerto Rico, the next one in the U.S. and the next one back in U.K.

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  5. John, I can't decide if I love your blog or should run from it* (I know what my husband "Don't you have enough books yet?" would say. Here you go dangling another new-to-me author in front of my face. And your write up is so darn good and tempting that, of course, I've got to put Gayle down on the long TBR list.

    *I won't run--I promise!

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  6. Thanks, Darrell. You made my day. One step closer to my dream of 50 followers. And welcome to the blogosphere! Looking forward to your reviews in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge.

    Curt -

    I read Nick Fuller's comments at the GAD wiki about DEATH FOLLOWS THE FORMULA and I wouldn't dare attempt it. Guinness must've been in charge of the plot with all the geological talk and didactic droning. Did you read this one? Interesting about that progression in settings. Greer and Upwood are indeed on a boat from UK headed for the Panama Canal at the start of SENTRY BOX. Upwood wants to go to the Galapagos because he's just finished reading Darwin's book and is eager to see it all. Then weather and fuel problems cause them to make a detour to P.R.

    Bev -

    If you ran, I'd send a pack of digital bloodhounds after you! ;^)

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  7. Yes, I've read Sentry Box. This was probably my favorite, though 28.10 is more exciting (I found the ultimate motive in 28.10 hard to swallow, though it's certainly interesting).

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  8. 37 is such a respectable number! Ask me. I don't even have half of that number!

    If it is any consolation, the most popular post on my blog is the one where I direct visitors to your post on The Monkey's Paw. Cheers to that.

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  9. Great pics of the novel's environs, by the way!

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  10. I too have a love/hate relationship with this blog: I love finding new authors but I hate feeling that I have so many new authors to read. If this is a dual, I am sadly under-gunned. However, I'm enjoying the contest from the sideline. I learn something new with each post and the comments contain a wealth of information. Not to mention that I now have more blogs to follow. It may be a small group who gather here, but it's choice.

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  11. Luis Munoz Marin was the name, if I'm not mistaken, of a governor of Puerto Rico many MANY years ago. I wonder if it's the same man?

    My mother thought he was a great man. I always remember her mentioning his name when I was a kid. I believe her step brother, an eye surgeon, was a friend of the governor. (Old lady memory might be wrong though, but not about that name.)

    At any rate, there aren't that many books around which use P.R. as a setting. This one sounds interesting, except for that dialect thing which would drive me nuts.

    There is though a modern day police series set there. I've never read any though.

    Years ago I saw a movie supposedly set in P.R. It was a Mr. Moto mystery. I howled with laughter because the P.R. shown in the film was not remotely like the real thing. I suspect whoever wrote the film had never actually been on the island.

    What are you selling? Are you selling any of the Cole books?

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  12. Yvette -

    Yes, it is the same man! I tried to slip in that he later became the first democratically elected governor of P.R., but the sentences were getting messy in that paragraph and so I left it out.

    As for books for sale I'll be posting a small piece about it this weekend. The titles will change from week to week. There may be a few of the Coles' books thrown in the lot when I'm finished reading them. Less blogging, more selling this year.

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  13. El Morro is also mentioned in a 1956 novel by Philip MacDonald, Guest in the House (aka No Time for Terror).
    Great great article, John. Congratulations!

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