Friday, February 15, 2013

FFB: Coffins for Three - Frederick C. Davis

INT: Club Grotto
Characters: "Joan Doe", Cyrus Hatch, Danny Delevan

"Joan" enters and approaches table with Cyrus and Delevan. Tells them she's waiting for some who she plans on killing. Wants to appear that she's not alone for safety. When she sees her mark she abruptly leaves ready to carry out her plan.

SFX: Gunfire, Screams, Crowd noises

CUT TO: Man shot down on the front steps of the club. "Joan" is spotted fleeing the crime scene accompanied by a mustached dandy who shoves her into a car. Together they speed away before the police arrive.

There's a cinematic opening for you. It all happens within the first ten pages of Coffins for Three (1938), the debut Crime Club detective novel from Frederick C. Davis. Primarily a prolific pulp magazine fictioneer Davis is best known for his stories featuring Mark Hazzard aka Secret Agent X, Steve Thatcher aka the Moon Man, and various weird menace tales. When he turned to novel writing he created Cyrus Hatch, professor of criminology a Knickerbocker College.  Hatch is partnered with ex-prizefight Danny Delevan who acts as his "bodyguard" and man-of-all-work.  Mark Hatch, Cyrus' father and the police commissioner, sees his son as a kind of tougher version of Philo Vance and thinks he needs a good kick in his pants. Rounding out the cast of series regulars is the ever faithful Jane Porter (no not the same one in the Tarzan stories) but rather Hatch's eager to please secretary who envisions herself an amateur sleuth.

The plot of Coffins for Three is a mix of pulp action, detective fiction and a generous helping of the utterly bizarre. How bizarre? The search for the real identity of "Joan Doe" leads Hatch to the home of fashion model Rhoda Quinn. When he first encounters her she is in her bathtub. She steps out completely nude, reaches for her gun, and trains it on Hatch for the remainder of the scene never once pausing to grab a towel to cover herself. Halfway through the scene Hatch pleads with her to put on a robe so he can concentrate on what she's telling him. Quite a surprise to me. Not the kind of thing you usually find in a Crime Club novel in 1938, that's for sure.

Want more? Characters resort to leaving secret messages relayed via racing pigeons and -- even stranger -- by knocking off bronze letters on a gravestone. One of the murder victims is strangled with a noose. Later in order to prevent suspicion from falling on a certain someone another character disposes of the body. With the noose still around the corpse's neck and the other end tied to the leg of a grand piano the body is tossed out of an apartment window.  A bypasser sees the hanging body suspended in midair and notifies the police. Gruesome indeed. Typical stuff of a pulp writer.

The plot is as convoluted and complex as a Victorian sensation novel. I'll make no attempt to summarize it here, though I made three pages of notes. There are crooked lawyers, forged documents, blackmail, and a dastardly plot that comes right out of The Woman in White. It's a plot lover's smorgasbord. And on top of it all, carrier pigeons! Coffins for Three may have a grisly title but it is an entertaining, fast moving read.

Cyrus Hatch Detective Novels
Coffins for Three (1938)
He Wouldn't Stay Dead (1939)
Poor, Poor, Yorick (1939)
Let the Skeletons Rattle (1944)
Detour to Oblivion (1947)
Thursday's Blade (1947)
Gone Tomorrow (1948)

[NOTE FROM THE MANAGEMENT: I attempted to replicate the look and feel of a screenplay in the opening of this post. I know very well it is not correct format nor do I use the proper terminology for camera angles and what not. Please refrain from fault finding.]


  1. Humm, sorry to hear about (okay, read of) your spammer problems, as there are still a few folks out there w/o blogs/posting accounts. Well, I'm certain you had to do it (he said).

    This sounds like it could either be a disaster or a lot of fun, depending on how well it's carried out. I wonder, on the first (Crime Club) cover, what the letters A, S, and EEE signify. Does it relate to the plot or is it just an artist having one on?

    1. Those letters were knocked off the gravestone, part of the weird coded message I mentioned in the review. Overall, I liked the book. Sometimes in my posts I come off as disparaging, but it wasn't my intention here. It's a quirky and odd book, perhaps not for everyone. Pulp magazine story fans will definitely get a kick out of it.

  2. Nice job of conveying the pulp-like antics that drive this novel. Back when I was a teenager, I went through a Thirties hero-pulp phase, during which I read a couple of Secret Agent X novels. Before long, I outgrew my taste for that kind of thing, and nowadays the helter-skelter nature of pulp plotting tends to turn me off. I've read one novel by Davis—"Deep Lie the Dead" (1942). It's a straight country-house mystery, with a bit of wartime espionage thrown in to add a bit of contemporary spice, and from reading it I would never have guessed that Davis had been a pulp writer.

    1. I have Deep Lay the Dead novel, Mike. I thought it was a Cyrus Hatch book but I soon learned I was wrong and had to delete it from the list along with the very cool Crime Club DJ. But no matter it's already on my blog here. That's why there's another pulp magazine besede the bibliography at the bottom of the post. Darrell Johnson reviewed He Wouldn't Stay Dead last year on his blog. It was a review that made me seek out the Cyrus Hatch books. I'd also like to read some of Davis' books as "Stephen Ransome", one of his pseudonyms as a novelist and all published by Doubleday's Crime Club. He seems to be a writer of many moods.

  3. This does sound like a lot fun...messages by racing pigeons! I'd need to be in the proper mood for it, but I could definitely see myself enjoying a pulp/detective fiction/bizarre kind of mash-up. Thanks for spotlighting it, John!

  4. John: Just got back to B-town (long story--but I've been off-blog for about a week). While away, I picked up more books [big surprise, I know] and Deep Lay the Dead by Davis is one. No dust jacket :-( --but a fine Crime Club edition none-the-less. Will be posting about my loot soon.