Aggie has come with his aunt Sarah Plum to the fictional upstate New York summer getaway of Indian Stones. She has a plan for some matchmaking but Aggie will have nothing to do with that. Within a few hours of arriving he finds a calling card impaled on a knife on the door post of their cottage. He pulls the hunting knife out and sees on the card the name Henry H. Bogarty and wonders who it might be. Without thinking he puts the knife on the porch banister and goes inside. A series of local characters are then introduced in an nicely handled expository section, among them the highly disliked Jim Calder who's come to have it out with Sarah over something very personal. Shortly afterwards Calder is found dead in the woods. He's been crushed between two logs that made up the fatal parts of a deadfall – some kind of bear trap. Aggie's keen powers of observation reveal several clues that make him think it's not an accident.
Enter the local police in the person of sharp witted Wes Wickmann. Wes is not easily persuaded that a murder has been done, but assures Aggie and Sarah he'll keep his eye out for suspicious behavior. A few days later Dr. Davis is seen taking photographs around the gruesome accident site. Later, he also turns up dead. His body found in a locked makeshift photographic darkroom, the missing hunting knife buried in his chest. Wes and Aggie join forces to root out the villain wracking havoc and littering the town with bodies.
This is a book that lends itself to one of those Dell Mapback "What this book is about" teasers. In fact Aggie lists the unusual elements in a long list just to aggravate Wes: "You've got a knife, a calling card, a fox, an automobile, some veal bones that were in it. [...] You've got the deadfall and the bread and the honey and so on. You've got a wine cellar, a bottle of hock, an open cellar window, a secret door, a secret safe that contains straw and some chips from boxes. You've got broken telephone wires, a missing million in gold and platinum..." And of course two dead bodies. But were they murdered? One seems more like an accident, the body in the locked room might even be a suicide. And what happened to Hank Bogarty? Why was the fox wearing a dog collar? Who took the gold? Where is it? Have no fear, Aggie figures it all out.
To appreciate this deceptively lightweight mystery novel even more you need to know about Wylie's other work. One of Wylie's better known books is the one that directly precedes this mystery novel. A Generation of Vipers, is a polemical work filled with vicious tirades about hypocritical views of sex and his savage indictment on mothers he called "Momism." Earlier in his career, Wylie wrote two books that touched on his interest in the superman archetype. One, The Savage Gentleman, is about a young man raised in the jungles apart from any women or female influence. The other is said to have inspired the superheroes of pulp magazines and comic books like Doc Savage and Superman. That book is Gladiator, his first real novel completed in 1926, accepted by Alfred Knopf in that year, but not published until 1930.
In Gladiator the main character, Hugo Danner, is the product of a scientific experiment in which his father injects his pregnant mother with a serum that later endows Danner with superhuman strength, speed and bulletproof skin. He is seemingly invulnerable, but he keeps all these powers hidden. What he really wants is acceptance. Ironically, Danner is made an outcast, shunned and feared for his freakishness.
All of the ideas presented in those three books resurface in the character of Agamemnon Plum. In Aggie we see yet another version of Danner with intellect substituted for superpowers and the fear that Danner encountered replaced by ridicule that Aggie experiences. Additionally, unlike Danner who has a tragic end, Aggie is redeemed in the eyes of many of the characters - mostly the women - when he literally must strip himself of his professorial facade and reveal the real man beneath the baggy clothes. Wylie seems fascinated with the virile male physique and its effect on how others perceive it. Aggie, in a scene where he is wearing only swim trunks, is described as "a man knotted with lean muscle, a man with the build of an acrobat, a man of visible, formidable strength." Not at all what most people think of when presented with a "rabbity" professor of anthropology.
It is the women who are primarily impressed and who almost immediately change their opinions of him. Beth Calder, previously his primary taunter, sees him walking to the canoe and rowing out into the lake, and says, "We've got that guy all wrong. He's dangerous." And Mrs. Drayman slightly stunned by Aggie's appearance remarks, "He isn't little, even." The woman who Aggie is most drawn to, however, is not surprised at all.
Danielle Davis - daughter of the second murder victim - is convinced there is something hidden about him. His athletic ability and physique only confirm her suspicions. She is an outspoken, outrageous and defiant young woman who takes every opportunity to draw attention to herself in the most socially inappropriate ways possible. Wylie likes these two extremes of misanthropy - the withdrawn intellect who prefers solitude and loathes people and the über-extroverted rebel who couldn't give a damn what anyone thinks of her behavior. They are - of course- destined to end up together in the book's final pages.
|Philip Wylie (from Life, Jan. 1942)
For me the most fascinating part is this odd reworking of the themes in Gladiator and The Savage Gentleman in the character of Aggie. It is almost a complete reversal of the other books. Aggie goes from social outcast to accepted hero merely by taking off his clothes and getting in a canoe. At the same time it's a quaint idea and purely of its time. No writer would ever want to attempt something like this in our age of a health club mad citizenry utterly obsessed with appearance and fitness.
UPDATES (Feb 7, 2011)
1. For more on Gladiator go to this unusual site completely devoted to the book. Make sure you visit "The Inscription" page, especially, to learn how Wylie felt about the sci-fi and mystery books he wrote in the 1930s.
2. Corpses at Indian Stones is the only pure detective novel Wylie wrote solely himself. After 1943 he wrote a handful crime fiction books but they are mostly in the thriller or espionage category. He did, however, write three other detective novels in collaboration with Edwin Balmer who was also co-author on When Worlds Collide and its sequel After Worlds Collide. They are:
Five Fatal Words (Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932)
The Golden Hoard (Stokes, 1934)
The Shield of Silence (Stokes, 1936)