|The young and rugged Hugh Wheeler|
Webb and Wheeler wrote quite a few remarkable novels together under both pseudonyms. But I'm wondering if the Q. Patrick novellas I have read in the pages of The American Magazine were the work of Webb alone. These two novellas are markedly different in tone, fairly formulaic in plot, excessively melodramatic with some preposterous ideas, and have some excruciatingly rendered dialog. They don't have the Wheeler-Webb flair. For me it was not so important to learn whodunit in these two novellas as it was to discover who actually wrote the stories. They seem like Q. Patrick impostor works.
"Exit Before Midnight" appeared in the October 1937 issue. It's a fairly routine story employing one of the most overused of detective story tropes - a group of characters in a setting cut off from the outside world who are systematically killed. That they are trapped in a locked office building with a power failure and that a board meeting of shareholders has brought them together did not help to enliven the proceedings for me. I find nothing at all exciting about big business having worked in offices all my life. Even if a corporate merger seems timely in this day and age, one that took place in 1937 between a fictional chemical processing company and a dye manufacturer seemed utterly dreary to me. The stock characters didn't help matters either.
There are sheets ripped from a desk calendar left on each victim. The remaining characters tremble in fear as they watch the calendar change from December 31 to January 1 then suddenly jumping ahead to January 4. One victim is found, but they know that two more are planned. Exclamations marks are used in abundance in the dialog. Who is the killer? Who will survive? Does it matter?
It's all handled perfunctorily with wretched dialog, paranoid characters accusing each other histrionically or acting and talking so cool and sarcastic as to be unreal. There is a also a requisite "romance" between the secretary and two of her male suitors that is inserted at a point in the story that slows down the action. It all reminded me of dozens of movies I'd seen before and that were done far better. Although this predates And Then There Were None by about three years, the action in the story for me was too familiar and not at all handled in any original manner. Detection is at a bare minimum and limited to the observations of the secretary who the reader follows from start to finish although she is not the narrator.
The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing is the only "trapped in an office building" mystery story that holds any excitement for me. It's far superior to this yeoman effort by Q. Patrick. No surprise that "Exit Before Midnight" has never been reprinted outside of the magazine. At least not according to my reference books and research.
Once again we have a small cast of characters who are cut off from the rest of the world. In this case we have an invited group of guests who are to attend a skating party at the home of Theo Vanderloon. Only a few hours into the weekend there is a snowstorm that makes the roads impassable and the intense wind knocks out the electricity and presumably the telephone. (Another power failure! Didn't Wheeler and Webb have better ideas than these cliches?) The butler must act as maid, cook and footman since the host has sent the other servants away for the weekend. He's the best character in the story. I watched him closely as he was clearly intended to be someone that was to be taken for granted yet it was obvious that the authors (author?) would make him a key player in the denouement.
It's sort of a subversive story since it tells the tale of a group of blackmail victims conspiring to murder their tormentor. They will lure him to the sabotaged lake which has a pre-cut hole in the ice, cause him to fall through the ice and leave him to drown in the freezing water, thereby making his death look accidental. Nice people. That they will be skating at night seems to raise no questions of suspicion among any of them. But I'm sure the police would remark on that immediately. However, the plot backfires. It has to otherwise there would be no real story. And what follows is at least somewhat more interesting and even a bit exciting than what happens in "Exit Before Midnight."
The title refers to a playing card dealt out to one of the characters who is elected to dispatch the nasty blackmailer when their targeted victim fails to fall through the ice as planned. At least it wasn't called "Ace of Spades." That was one bit of novelty in this improvement over the other story.
There is yet another routine romance (love at first sight no less), even more melodramatic dialog, and a bunch of stock characters including an opera singer who bursts into snippets of arias at the most ridiculous and inappropriate times and a young ingenue with the unfortunate name of Carmelite who actually says to her besotted lover "Take me away from all of this!" That was only one of the many examples of hackneyed speech that sent me into fits of eyeball rolling, head shaking and groaning. But this time the story works. And there is actually a bit of suspense. Although I easily managed to figure out one of the tricks in the story there was a final twist in the last few paragraphs that, although not truly surprising, did manage to elude me.
|The sappy love at first sight scene in "Jack of Diamonds"|
The involved merry-go-round of Q. Patrick partner changes (both writing and otherwise) is detailed in a series of comments at the Golden Age of Detection website page for Patrick Quentin. You can read about Webb, Aswell and Wheeler at length (little is known about Kelley, sadly) by clicking here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the comments section for interesting tidbits about the three writers and intimations on Webb and Wheeler's personal life.