Monday, January 16, 2012

FIRST BOOKS: Murder by the Clock - Rufus King

My latest addition to the Perilous Policemen part of the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge takes me back to 1929 and the very first Lieutenant Valcour novel written by the unjustly dismissed Rufus King. It's been a long time since I've read a book from the late 1920s that seems more like something from the mid 20th century. By the time I finished the book I found more comparisons in the brooding psychological private eye novels of Ross MacDonald, the sexual temptresses of nearly every hard-boiled writer during the 1950s, and the paranoid urban households in so many paperback originals of the 1960s. King even flirts with elements of the surreal in this book classified as a detective novel from Doubleday's Crime Club, a publisher better known for traditional whodunits than this kind of literate novel that uses crime not as a means to entertain but as the springboard for delving in the darker recesses of human behavior.

Herbert Endicott, a philandering husband, is found dead in a walk in closet in his bedroom. There are some suspicious signs that lead Valcour to think foul play yet there is no sign of a weapon and no visible wound on the corpse to verify murder. But when the body refuses to stay dead and the suspects begin to voice their utter hatred for the victim I knew the book was going to stray far away from the typical "find the cigarette ash and footprints" stories that flooded the market in the 1920s. King's writing, too, is a big clue that this book is meant to be more than just a time passing entertainment. He has a way of capturing your attention with neat turns of phrase, lyrical styling, and an eccentric sense of humor.
How pleasant it would be he reflected, to come across the perfect imprint of a shoe [...] -- or what was it that was so popular at the moment? -- of course: the footprint of a gorilla. The case would then be technically known as an open-and-shut one. He'd simply take the train for California and arrest Lon Chaney, and-- But enough.

When the body is found there is no sign of any weapon. The police physician at first thinks Endicott has suffered a stroke or heart attack and his death is a natural one. Valcour finds evidence of another person being in the closet, and signs that Endicott's body has been searched. He suspects foul play and orders an autopsy of the body while it is still in the house. That's when the physician discovers that Endicott is still alive. Valcour then sets up a plan to keep Endicott guarded by both a nurse and two policemen to prevent another more fatal attack on Endicott. Perhaps he may even catch the culprit in the act of a second murder attempt.

A notable feature of the story is that it takes place in less than 12 hours, from 8:37 PM to 7:11 AM the following day, with the action almost entirely confined to the Endicott household. Valcour makes a few side trips to interview suspects not in the home and does so in the wee hours of the morning adding a very surreal element to the story. None of the characters seems to be too upset about someone knocking on their door at two or three in the morning – even if it is a policeman. In one case Valcour doesn't even get to identify himself since the woman who answers the door thinks he is Endicott. Valcour even allows her to badger him with questions for a few pages before he bothers to correct her assumption.

King experiments with the narrative. We mostly follow Valcour's point of view but on occasion he allows us into the thoughts of other characters. For example, we learn that Nurse Morrow who is put in charge of watching over Endicott, is a dreamy romantic woman who hopes her life will finally blossom into the kind of adventurous one she always imagined it would be:
The present case looked as a heaven sent oasis. Who knew what might not develop out of it? It awakened all the atrophied hunger of her starved sentimentalism. And even if nothing did result form it -- nothing practical, like marriage, or a good bonus -- it would at least leave her something to think about during those endless, tiresome, tiring hours of the future.
At the halfway mark of the one night's investigation Valcour finds Tom Hollander, a former war buddy of Endicott and who some members of the household think is the only man who Endicott can call a friend. Valcour sends for Hollander hoping that when Endicott recovers from his semi-comatose state he will confide in Hollander and reveal who attacked him. Events do not go as planned, however. Hollander is not the friend he presents himself as. Valcour inadvertently has placed Endicott's life in further danger.

1931 film poster. The movie blended the plots of two
plays, one of which was an adaptation of King's novel.
There is an air of dread that settles over the Endicott household. Like a Gothic novel death settles upon everyone and everything. The characters become brooding, turn inward, and allow their imaginations to run wild. Nurse Morrow comments to the two policeman sharing her watch over Endicott that "there is something sinister" about it all. She notes a eerie quiet that "settled gently on the house. The stillness of a grave." Mrs. Endicott's lugubrious servant Roberts, meanwhile, dwells on her haunted past. She reveals that she cannot abide her employer, pesters Valcour with odd questions like if he believes that "the dead [can] remain in emotional touch with the living." She drops several hints that Mrs. Endicott and Hollander were probably having an affair of their own. But is there proof or is it merely the product of Roberts' jealous and confused mind? Later Valcour describes Roberts as "the shortest step this side of some fervour bred in the swamp of lunacy." Menace, madness, and death are everywhere Valcour turns.

Despite all his efforts to protect Endicott the murderer does make a second and successful attempt on his life. But it seems nearly impossible. With two policeman in the room and a nurse on duty could someone really have fired a gun from the balcony through the small opening where the window was raised and struck Endicott fatally wounding him? In the remaining three hours of the book's plot Valcour manages to unearth more secrets, prevent a suicide attempt, and find the hiding place of the murderer who has remained in the house the entire night.

Murder by the Clock is unlike any other American mystery I have read from this era. True, there is detection and the policeman hero is doggedly determined to bring in the villain of the piece, but the emphasis here seems to be less on the mechanics of the criminal investigation and more on the after effects of the crime as it alters the lives of the Endicott household. In this respect King's novel is far more modern than one would expect for his era. He may have been one of the earliest writers to explore the real drama inherent in crime and its aftermath rather than exploiting a fictional murder as a mere puzzle entertainment.


  1. Thanks for refreshing my memory on this one, John. I read it...but it's been about 20 years ago now and I couldn't have told you anything about it if I'd been asked--just knew I had it marked in my notebook as a winner.

  2. Great review, I enjoyed reading about this book. I am unfamiliar with this author but will have to look out for some of his work in the future.

  3. Terrific review, John. I always enjoy reading your posts. Even if I've never heard of the author or the book - which is often.

    Don't think I've ever heard of this particular book at all. But it was still fun to read about. In fact the only names I recognized are that of Regis Toomey and William Boyd on the movie poster.

    Is Boyd the same actor who went on to play Hopalong Cassidy? I wonder...

  4. Yvette-

    Boyd's filmography at says yes! He is the same guy who became Hopalong. He played Lt. Valcour in this movie.

    I read a review of the movie here. It's not at all like King's novel. It retains only Lt Valcour, some of the characters, and a smidgen of the plot. Instead it's been turned into a horror movie about a half-wit killer on the loose and a "family mausoleum where a device has been installed to sound a horn to alert any passersby that the occupant has been buried alive." Guess the screenwriters took the idea of a murder victim being revived and exploited that for pulpy horror thrills. Supposedly the best part of the movie is the performance of Lilyan Tashman, an actress who died three years after this movie was made and that's why very few people (including me) know anything about her.

  5. King's SOMEWHERE IN THIS HOUSE was one of the strangest books I read all of last year. It failed completely as a plot, but its characters were interesting (if odd) and the humour was positively brilliant. I still remember the mad, drunken ravings of one of the characters. Pure gold, that!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Patrick. I'm intrigued by King's approach to the crime novel. I know from some of my outspoken posts at the yahoo forum that I'm one of the few GADers who likes to read about dark motives in fictional crime, oddball often amoral characters, and all the Gothic melodrama that goes with these kinds of books. I own SOMEWHERE IN THE HOUSE and will definitely be reading that and all the other Lt Valcour books I own as part of the Mt. TBR Reading Challenge.

  7. Murder by the Clock I read long ago. Rufus King is one of my favorite authors, a master of suspense.
    Murder by the Clock I remember that begins as a classic mystery of the Golden Age and then gradually acquires genuine suspence.
    Another mystery by Rufus King, a novel to be rediscovered, is The Lesser Antilles-Case, indicating the murderer in the last bars at the bottom of the sea. I remember a scene in the corridors of the ship, including cabins, with a level of suspense, one could say
    .. visual, very cinematographic.

  8. Pietro -

    I have a copy of THE LESSER ANTILLES CASE and hope to read/review it later this year. I really enjoyed this. An unusual blend for a book from the 1920s of the traditional detective story, a dark psychological novel of crime, and a tinge of Gothicism.

  9. Rufus King was quite a well-regarded American mystery writer at one time, one people would have pegged to last. But he didn't, for whatever reason.

    I felt Murder by the Clock was stronger on atmosphere than plot, but it certainly has the qualities you describe.

  10. I read this one a year or two ago and remember thinking that the first part of the book, which dealt with the bizarre problem of the resurrected body in the walk-in closet, was far more interesting than the successful murder under investigation in the second part.

    It also bugged me that the murder was teased, for a brief moment, as a locked room mystery. Curse those windows and doors conveniently left open at the scene of the crime! But, all in all, it was an interesting diversion from your usual GAD novel.

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me that there's another writer I should look further into.

  11. Dear people interested in Rufus King - how delightful to find your website!
    The author was a family friend. His father, Dr. King, was a friend and client of my grandfather, who was a lawyer and Rufus's trustee. (Dr. King somehow knew that Rufus needed his money looked after..) My father,also a lawyer, inherited this position. AS a child and young person, I adored Rufus; he was an enchanting person. We had an obligatory long weekend chez Rufus every summer, at his home in Rouse's Point, NY. My father found Rufus alarming, but my mother and Rufus laughed gaily and understood each other. When asked, he presented her with a copy of Museum Piece No.13,inscribed. Knowing him, my mother said, "Now Rufus, please write something I can show to my dignified friends." Upon which he wrote, "For Jane, to show to her dignified friends. With love to her,and nuts to them." I have the book!
    I might add that I thought that The Case of the Constant God has a stunningly good plot. Rufus said that his 'reader' was his widowed mother. She was given the manuscript half-way through. If she could guess who the murderer was, he re-wrote.
    For the interested reader, who wondered above, why "he didn't last", I think we should consider the fact that tastes change. Rufus's period was the late 1920's into the 30's, and his social circle was the well-off, ivy-league crowd. And he loved the talk of gangsters of the period! Read The Deadly Dove!
    P.S. -- I have an anecdote about I Want a Policeman. And did you see the movie of the era, -- Murder at the Vanities? (Earl Carrol's Vanities, the NY answer to the Folies Bergeres.) It is available on Amazon.