While it may not be as utterly outrageous as the second book in the series, Murder in the Palisades (1930), it presents the reader with an opening tableau rarely encountered in a detective novel from this period. A murderer strikes in five different cities in New Jersey and New York over a period of only three hours and manages to kill four of his seven intended targets. Levinrew invented spree killing, in essence, decades before that criminal phenomenon was headline making news.
As the title suggests the murders appear to be the work of a person who has died. Rodney Borger, the cruel patriarch of a feuding family, visits Brierly to ask for his help in trying to flush out the person who he suspects of poisoning seven of his relatives at a dinner party a few weeks ago. He is convinced someone is trying to get to his money. But Borger has worked out a revenge. He also reveals to Brierly a will outlining his curious terms for his legatees. In order to inherit any money or property the surviving oldest Borger must live in the family estate and specifically in Rodney's bedroom for a prescribed period of days. During that time the survivor cannot leave the house. Brierly smells lunacy in the air, a little bit of paranoia, and is hesitant to take on the case. His delay proves fatal to Borger. He dies a few days later long with four other Borgers, all apparently the victims of yet another poisoning binge. The burning question, of course, is how the poison is being administered at different locations almost at exactly the same time.
|The first Professor Brierly detective novel|
The most jaw dropping part of this book is Brierly's unconventional method for detecting poisons. He tastes the food! Not only that he has other people taste the food and some of them do so willingly because they trust him. In one case, however, he is not so forthright. He dupes a woman into tasting coffee that he has doctored with tobacco from one of Hale's cigarettes so that he will jar her taste buds into "remembering" the flavor of the tainted coffee she drank the night of her attempted poisoning. She screams in terror when she detects the same flavor and accuses Brierly of trying to kill her. "Calm down, dear lady," he tells her. "You have merely confirmed my suspicions of nicotine poisoning." Ah, the days of the arrogant borderline sociopathic fictional sleuth! How I miss them.
The book has some fair play detection, some interesting chemical experiments, lots of taste testing (!) and a bit too much grilling of the suspects. But the murders themselves and the mysterious method keep the reader glued to the pages. Brierly learns that the mad killer has used a variety of poisons and has found a fiendish way to introduce those poisons into each household. I was impressed by the method having guessed a portion of it early on by heeding the few clues dropped rather obviously in the narrative. Admirers of the detective novels of John Rhode, the master of the murder means, might find the death traps in this book to be the most ingenious parts of Levinrew's sensationalized murder tale. Those hoping for a touch of the supernatural alluded to in the title will not be disappointed in the final chapters.
|Paperback retitled version of the|
ultra rare Murder at the Palisades
The Professor Brierly Detective Novels
The Poison Plague (1929)
Murder at the Palisades (1930)
also publ as The Wheelchair Corpse (1945)
Murder from the Grave (1930)
For Sale - Murder (1932)
Death Points the Finger (1933)
READING CHALLENGE NOTE: This will serve as one title off the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge for 2013. This one fits the category Murder Is Academic since Brierly is a chemistry professor at a New Jersey university.