Saturday, June 20, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: Burton Keirstead, The Economist & the R.C.M.P.

What a surprise it was to learn that this excellent detective novel was the work of a young economics professor who was teaching at the University of New Brunswick when it was published. Burton Keirstead (writing as B. S. Keirstead) co-authored his first and only novel with D. Frederick Campbell, who apparently was also working at the university though I was unable to uncover anything about him. The Brownsville Murders (1933) is an engaging and fascinating blend of police procedural, a novel of rural Canadian life, a satire of naive thinking, and an eye-opening account of the RCMP in 1930s Canada. Keirstead seems to draw from American pulp writers and the nascent detective novels just beginning to become popular as million copy bestsellers. Well reviewed in the American press The Brownsville Murders showed promise for the young man who wrote only one other detective fiction work published only in serial format, but would go on to make a name for himself as one of Canada's leading economists of the early 20th century.

The Brownsville Murders is set in the titular Canadian farming village sandwiched between Woodstock and Fredericton in the province of New Brunswick. In the opening pages we meet a young couple engaged to be married who while driving to Fredericton come across a body in the middle of the road. Upon close inspection they see it is a man who has been shot in the head. When they go for help and return to the accident scene the body has disappeared. A search ensues and soon another person is dead. And then another!  Only 35 pages have passed and already we have three bodies, one missing, and two young people terrified to have been caught up in a true murder mystery.

Brian Woodworth, the young man driving the car that night, we soon learn is a law student finishing his studies and employed in the office of Lawyer MacPherson whose first name is never mentioned. Macpherson is our narrator and the unofficial detective of the novel. This is a blend of both amateur and professional detective work. Inspector Eccles of the RCMP will eventually take charge of the investigation aided by MacPherson and Sgt. LaTour. Interestingly, MacPherson notes that the young sergeant is the more capable of the two policemen. He describes LaTour as a man of "sheer native wit and shrewdness and insight." In contrast Eccles is an an impulsive and fanciful thinker who MacPherson believes relies too much on imaginative ideas "full of bad psychology." Eccles is certain that two people were responsible for the three murders and the vanishing of two corpses. He cannot envision that one person could carry out all the activity necessary in killing three people and moving the bodies.

The man found dead in the road is identified after painstaking questioning and turns out to be a local named MacLeod with a reputation as a womanizer. In one of the most intriguing fictional inquests I've ever read the Brownsville murder case reveals a torrid lover's triangle heightened by impassioned jealousies and rampant cruelty. We meet a sadistic Fundamentalist Christian farmer who according to gossip beats his daughter. A feeble minded "half-wit" confesses his love for MacLeod's wife and talks of his passion for late night salmon fishing. Finally, we learn of the life and work of the stranger in town, a writer and illustrator named Stephen Jamieson.

Canadian law allows for a police counsel to question witnesses at a coroner's inquest.  In The Brownsville Murders the police counsel is Mr. Des Barres who is determined to implicate Albert Denton, the "half-wit fisherman" who was seen wandering near the site of the shootings. This eyewitness is Mrs. MacLeod, the object of Albert's obsessive affection and also the wife of the murdered man in the road. As MacPherson watches the inquest unfold from the gallery he is suspicious of every word uttered by Mrs. MacLeod. Is it possible that she is perjuring herself in order to escape suspicion and help Des Barres build his case against Albert?

Poor Brian Woodward is also badgered on the witness stand during the inquest. He is advised by MacPherson to keep his temper under control and not allow himself to be bullied into an outburst. MacPherson is sure that Brian will be manipulated and exploited by the shrewd and controlling police counsel. It's all Brian can do to keep from criticizing Des Barres' methods rather than simply answering his questions. At times he cannot speak, rather he sits seething in the witness stand.

The inquest ends with a circumstantial case built against Albert who has been painted as an obsessive stalker angry with MacLeod and protective of his "love" for Mrs. MacLeod. Albert's father is worried that the police will soon arrest Albert and hires MacPherson as his lawyer. The case becomes one of MacPherson trying to save Albert from trial and determined to help Eccles and LaTour find the true murderer of the three shooting victims.

I was completely enthralled with this novel. It's an impressive debut work and all the moreso because the writing duo managed to fool me.  The James M. Cain-like atmosphere of jealous lovers and volatile extramarital affairs was so convincing and so neatly laid out with multiple suspects I was completely taken in. But all the while Keirstead and Campbell had another angle with clues cleverly planted so off-handedly that I dismissed them entirely as red herrings. Much to my embarrassment (and later delight) these supposed red herrings were the real clues leading to the solution. In fact, one bit of investigation about a shack on one of the farms near the initial murder and roadside accident should have been so obvious to me that I was kicking myself for overlooking it.

Young Burton Keirstead, circa late 1930s.
Burton Seely Keirstead (1907-1973) was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick and was the son of Dr. Wilfrid Currier Keirstead, a pastor for the United Baptist Church and a noted professor himself. Dr. Keirstead taught philosophy and social sciences at University of New Brunswick where his son would eventually study and teach.

Burton would choose economics over religion and philosophy and his studies included a stint as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford where he was involved in the Adelphi Club, the Dialectical Society and the Lotus Club. While at Oxford he often entertained students in a salon in his private rooms. One of the most famous salons he arranged included a talk by fellow student E. M. Forster, famed novelist of A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard's End and Maurice.

Over his lengthy career as an academic and economist Keirstead taught at University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University's Institute of Public Affairs, McGill University and University of Toronto. He was a visiting lecturer at MIT, University of Arizona and The University of West Indies in Jamaica where he studied and eventually published a book on freight rates and the federal shipping service. He published several books on economics throughout his life notably The Economic Effects of the War on the Maritime Provinces of Canada (1944), The Theory of Economic Change (1948), Canada in World Affairs, Vol. VI (1956), and Capital, Interest and Profit (1958).

While The Brownsville Murders is Keirstead's only published detective novel it is not his only contribution to crime fiction. The editor of Maclean's magazine after reading an enthusiastic review of Keirstead's debut mystery novel in a New York newspaper met Keirstead in person to discuss his fiction. Together they came up with a plan to publish Keirstead's second idea for a detective novel as a serial. The first part of Murder in the Police Station appeared in the January 15, 1934 issue. MacPherson, Brian Woodward (now a partner in MacPherson's firm), Inspector Eccles and LaTour all appear in this second work. A nice surprise is that after his success with the Brownsville case LaTour has been promoted to the rank of Inspector in the RCMP. Murder in the Police Station was published in six bi-monthly installments from January through April 1934. The entire serial is available to read at the Maclean's website. I hope to read the whole thing and write a review of that obscure fiction work soon.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

FFB: Murder R.F.D. - Herman Petersen

THE STORY: In the first chapter of Murder R.F.D. a runaway bull is captured just after goring a farmhand. This leads to an investigation as to who let loose the bull and if it was a bizarre act of revenge. While all the bitter relationships on the local farm are sorted out Tom Wykeham is found dead - a bullet to his head. Now the police have both a weird farm accident and a murder to contend with. Or are they two murders? And are the deaths related? Doc Miller, local coroner, Ben Wayne, new to the farm town and new to farming, and D.A. Paul Burns team up to sort out the evidence and determine who the angry killer is.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder R.F.D. (1942) is the second novel to feature Doc Miller, Wayne and Burns. The setting as with the other books by Petersen is upstate rural New York. Ben Wayne is our narrator and the first case he and Miller were involved with -- Murder in the Making (1940) -- is alluded to a couple of times. Ben does some interesting detective work on his own, but it is mostly Miller who sorts through the evidence, discarding one theory after another, then pretty much uncovering the killer.

Doc Miller is a cantankerous man, wise but impatient. He seems friendly with Wayne and Burns but he definitely has an ego. Though Burns at first seems to be in charge, Miller takes over given the opportunity or not. State troopers are present but are mere background characters. The police seem unimportant here and there may not be a police force at all in this upstate New York farm village. The Petersen novels seem inspired by Queen and Van Dine with the presence of a District Attorney and an amateur sleuth.

The murder investigation primarily targets Orville and Agatha Deuel, the wealthy farmer gentleman and his wife, who have a rocky marriage. Agatha was allowed a friendship with Tom Wykeham, a man considerably younger than her, and it seems to have developed into something deeper and romantic though she denies anything physical between the two. Their intimate meetings suggest otherwise. Agatha visited Wykeham frequently at his ramshackle cottage. Her bathing suit is found hanging out to dry in his shack. And she was seen cradling his dead body moments after he was shot. Clues like a woman's white slipper, a burned dress, and blood stained clothing all suggest that one or both of the Deuels are involved in Wykeham's murder. Later some evidence about the use of a boathouse near the murder scene will add another layer of deceit and lies.

Other suspects include Jim Kinney and Pat Gordon, two farmhands who work on Deuel's land. Kinney seems to have been responsible for letting the bull loose as revenge on another farmhand he disliked. Kinney comes off as a passive aggressive whiner, a weak man with a juvenile temper, who couldn't possibly be a killer. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Gordon, a hulking savage, with an intimidating physique and a sadistic personality. He will feature in one of the strangest action sequences in the final third of the book.

Louis Telford is the man who saved the day by single-handedly capturing the rampaging bull. A former cattle rancher from out west, Telford is described as "a wealthy bachelor who liked the bottle and was a connoisseur of women." Ben is mistrustful of Telford. Despite the playboy personality Telford seems eager to help the trio of detectives track down the killer.

Christine Nelson, is Agatha's niece, and she turns up about midway in the book arriving by bus from the big city. She has a few moments of sleuthing on her own and serves as the requisite damsel in distress late in the novel.

INNOVATIONS: It's mostly the rural setting that makes this book and all the other in the brief series so intriguing. It's wartime yet there is little talk of anything outside of the farming community. The characters have plenty to worry about among themselves without thinking of fighting overseas. In essence this is almost like James M. Cain on a farm with a plot heavily focused on a strange affair between an older woman and a younger man that apparently does not involve sex, and jealousies and highly charged emotions.

The detection mostly consists of the usual American countryside mystery fare. Farming routine, property rights, care of animals are always at the forefront. The clues are heavy on tracking footprints and discovering items left behind in tall grasses. A half-wit farmhand named Willie obsessed with American Indians often imagines himself in pursuit of wild men. Of all the characters Willie is the most skilled at following footprints and pathways through the grasslands. All Doc Miller and Ben need do to goad him into helping them is tell him is that they are after an Indian and Willie is set into motion.

Apart from the extensive tracking sequences there are other subtle clues like the discovery of a party line phone in Wykeham's riverside shack and the previously mentioned boathouse and the borrowed boat. But whether or not this can be considered entirely fair play is a matter of debate. A clever reader might be able to piece together all the clues, but the motive barely suggested in some brief theorizing and dialogue on Wayne and Miller's part is not fully brought out into the open until the killer explains his motivations himself in the final pages.

THE AUTHOR: Herman Petersen (1893-1973) spent his entire life in upstate New York. Born in Utica he worked for several newspapers there and eventually settled in the small town of Poolville. For many years he was the postmaster in that village. From 1922 through 1939 he wrote dozens of short stories sand novellas for pulp detective magazines. His affintiy for that action oriented story telling is evident in his novels of the 1940s. Most of his stories appeared in The Black Mask during its heyday when the work of Hammett, Gardner and Chandler appeared in its pages. On occasion Petersen made the cover of a magazine issue so he must have been popular with readers. Other stories were published in Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, Bulls-Eye Detective and Soldier Stories. His final novel published first in the the pulp magazine Two Complete Detective Books (June 1948) was promised to be appear as a full length book from Lippincott but that never actually happened. I managed to score a copy of that issue and will be reviewing his final Gothic sounding novel Night on Castle Hill later this year.

Herman Petersen's Detective Novels (all with Miller, Wayne & Burns except those noted)
Murder in the Making (1940)
Murder R.F.D. (1942)
Old Bones (1943)
The D.A.'s Daughter (1943) - no series characters
Night on Castle Hill (948) - magazine publication only