Friday, November 30, 2012

FFB: Murder Yet To Come - Isabel Briggs Myers

The first thing that struck me as remarkable about Murder Yet to Come (1930) was the author's gutsy use of The Moonstone and several other Wilkie Collins novels as a framework for her plot. Can it be altogether coincidental that the crux of the story is about a jewel stolen from an ancient Indian idol and later stolen again years later in a different country? Is the shared similarity of a heroine suspected to be the victim of inherited madness (see The Woman in White) yet another coincidence? I think not. I think Isabel Briggs Myers knew her Collins and knew it well. Wisely she cribbed from the best. Murder Yet to Come was her first detective novel and it won her $7500 in a writing contest for new mystery writers. It was a well deserved award, too.

Malachi Trent, eccentric millionaire, is found dead in a locked room. It appears that he has fallen from a ladder while searching for some books on the highest shelf in his bookcase lined library/study. Playwright and amateur detective Peter Jerningham soon points out that Trent has been murdered by a blow to the back of his head and the entire scene is a hastily staged scene to give the illusion of an accident by falling. Out of date textbooks stored on the highest shelf are strewn about the body? Algebra, a foreign language ancient history. Why would Trent need all of them at once and why would he select such out of date books even if he were doing some sort of research? The wound to the head is so powerful it could not have come from an accidental fall. A statue in the room shows trace signs of the victims' hair and blood. Murder has been done. But if so, then how did the murderer escape? The room has two doorways, but the main entrance was bolted shut and was broken down to gain entry. The other door at the rear of the room was nailed shut. And what happened to "The Wrath of Kali" – the huge ruby Trent kept locked away in his safe? It carries with it a curse from the goddess Kali herself who will strike down anyone who dares to defile the idol from where it was taken. Could Malachi Trent have been killed by supernatural means?


The plot thickens when Linda Marshall, Trent's 17 year old ward, is found hiding in the room. Is she the killer? Was she an eyewitness? Or did she enter afterwards? She has absolutely no memory of how she got into the room or why she was there. As the story progresses it is learned that Linda has frequent blackouts and memory losses. She also displays erratic and melodramatic behavior. There is talk of insanity. Only recently has she returned from an asylum where she was under the care of a psychiatrist and Trent had threatened repeatedly to send her back for good.

1995 reprint from CAPT, a publisher
specializing in research on psychology type.
The household has two sinister servants – Mrs. Ketchum who makes cryptic references to black magic and witchcraft and has a habit of laughing wickedly at the most inappropriate times. There is also Ram Singh, a servant who came with Trent from India, who seems to have control over Linda. It is suggested that he is using hypnotic power to manipulate Linda as an instrument of Kali's vengeance. Or is it Mrs. Ketchum who has the mind controlling power? And if so, what is her motive?

The book has some excellent detective work all reminiscent of the Van Dine school. In addition to the quick work done to reveal the staged accident, there is the unraveling of the illusion of the locked room; some clues involving an inkwell, broken eyeglasses, and backward handwriting on a blotter; and an alphabetically coded safe's combination that is solved through deduction and inference. By the midpoint there is an increasing emphasis on psychology and subconscious suggestion. This leads Jerningham and his detective cohorts into a intense discussion of hypnosis focusing on the differences between cheap tricks seen in vaudeville theaters and hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. It is this psychological element in combination with the expert fair play detective work that make for an engrossing, lively and very smart mystery novel.

Isabel Briggs Myers' name may ring a bell. Especially if you are a student of psychology or are in the Human Resources field. Myers, along with her mother Katharine Briggs, developed one of the most widely used personality assessment tools now known as the MBTI, or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Elsewhere on the internet in essays about Murder Yet to Come you will find people claiming that the book outlines Myers' theories of personality types inspired by the work of Carl Jung and his archetypes. I found none of that in the book. It is a straightforward detective novel with a love story subplot, very much influenced by S.S. Van Dine and Wilkie Collins. It's an admirable debut novel, but to look for signs of the future MBTI within its pages is a fool's errand. Her real work in the field of personality type didn't emerge until well after the start of World War 2.

Myers wrote one more detective novel, Give Me Death (an extremely rare book in the collector's world) before she completely abandoned the genre. I am sorry she didn't continue with a few more books. Based on this effort alone I think she would've given Ellery Queen and Philo Vance a run for their money.

10 comments:

  1. Really interesting post John, thanks for that. Another book I have not heard of before at all but I love the idea of a Queen/Van Dine book so steeped in Collins lore. $7.500 really would have been a lot of cash at the height of the Depression - this is going to be another not cheap buy, isn't it ..?

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    1. If you go to capt.org you can buy a brand new copy of their paperback reprint for $15. Very few used copies available from the online booksellers (I found only three!) and they range from $35 to $100.

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  2. I have Give Me Death and have been meaning to read it for years. Didn't her first one beat out Ellery Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery for that prize money? Nice that it was reprinted, we should see more of that. There are so many enjoyable books from that era. Thanks for the insightful review.

    That house plan, by the way, looks like it came straight out of Van Dine. The Mental Murder Case?

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    1. Tomorrow I'm doing a follow-up post on the "scandal" involving that contest Myers won. Queen was the real winner and the book was published by Stokes, but the money went to Myers and her book was published first. It's complicated. Tune in tomorrow -- same Bat time, same Bat blog.

      I love that map. I purposely blew it up to full size. One of my favorites as far as crime scene maps go. The corpse and the books and the fallen grandfather clock (all described in detail inthe story) are the perfect touches. Usually you get an X for the victim.

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  3. Thanks, John, for reviewing this book. I've had a copy (the CAPT reprint) on my shelf for a while now, but I'd forgotten about it, and your post definitely spurs me to give it a look. I have a casual interest in personality-type psychology, and in fact I first learned about this title at an MBTI-related Web site. It's a little disappointing to hear that the book doesn't contain the kind of ur-MBTI material that it's been advertised to contain. But the prospect of reading what appears to be a highly accomplished Van Dine pastiche easily makes up for that disappointment. (Both the murder-scene diagram and your description of the murder set-up suggest thematic kinship to "The Scarab Murder Case," published that same year.)

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    1. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the actual types like you, Mike, may be able to label each of the characters according to the MBTI. No character at any time talks about personality type or discusses behavior using MBTI terminology. I expected the book to be a sort of combo of mystery and psych treatise and was disappointed it had been advertised by CAPT for something it is not.

      Still, it is an excellent detective novel and I highly recommend it. Unlike some of the private eye books I've been going through I never once lost interest in the tale. That Myers and Queen were basically tied in the writing contest is amazing to me. She has the goods on display here.

      I've taken the MBTI and other similar tests many times and I always come out as one of those Idealist/Feeler types. Can't remember the exact four letter type I was given. I always envision myself as a creative go-getter, but my subconscious seems to overrule when taking these tests. For me it's always disappointing to look into the mirror.

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  4. This sounds wonderful, John. Especially since I've just finished (within the past three weeks or so) reading THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins and you know how much I adored THE WOMAN IN WHITE. I've never heard of this author (why am I not surprised?) so this is another name to add to my vintage list of authors I hope to find somewhere, somehow.
    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the covers you've posted as well - and the map. :)

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  5. The first thing that occurred to me when I read your review was that I still haven't read The Moonstone, after all these years! The second thing I noticed was a pang of jealousy at your ratio for finding mysteries that are both obscure and good. I guess I have some digging around to do for this one and I'm looking forward to your follow-up post on the contest.

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  6. John: I am very intrigued by the comparison to The Moonstone--which I love (Woman in White, not so much)--and Van Dine. Definitely going to be this on the must-look-for list!

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  7. I like the Indian angle to this story, however remote it may seem. Goddess Kali is used as a leitmotif in many books and films and often associated with curses against anyone who incurs her wrath. I enjoyed your review, John, and I'm going to see if I can find this book.

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