Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Murder from the Grave - Will Levinrew

Professor Herman Brierley, chemist and amateur criminologist, is one of the most obscure of the American scientific detectives. He made his debut in The Poison Plague in 1922 when the story was originally serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly. In that tale Brierly stops a mass murderer from decimating the population of New York with an exotic poison launching him on a career of investigating bizarre and grotesque crimes. Multiple murders, especially murder by poison, became the specialty of the series. Murder from the Grave (1930) is no exception.

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 book is really more of a howdunit than a whodunit. The victims, intended victims and suspects are all members of the Borger family who we learn are descended from the infamous Borgias, the Italian Renaissance family known for their adept skills in concocting and administering poisons. Cute, right? But the emphasis is always on the eccentric character of Professor Brierly and his reporter colleague Jimmy Hale who serves as the book's Watson. No other character in the book (and there are many) rises above the level of a surface sketch or an utter cliché. In some cases we never get to meet the character thanks to the rapid elimination of family members at the hands of the maniacal poisoner.

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
I am slowly working my way through my collection of Scarlet Thread Mysteries after doing an illustrated feature on the art work which you can view here. When writing about them I realized that I have never read any of them. No time like the present! You can look forward to all seven books I own being reviewed over the coming months this year. Improvements in the storytelling will be a blessing for the remainder of the Scarlet Thread Mysteries, but I am not too optimistic. Perhaps having low expectations for this imprint will fend off any future disappointment.

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.


  1. I like that description: "arrogant borderline sociopathic fictional sleuth." The plot sounds interesting, although I doubt I will have the opportunity to ever read it. The book cover is wonderful.

    In my experience, lowered expectations are far better than high expectations -- when reading books. Then you can be pleasantly surprised to find a gem.

    I look forward to the remaining reviews. I had seen and enjoyed your previous post on the Scarlet Thread Mysteries.

  2. Oh, John, there you go again--dangling little known academic mysteries in front of me. This sounds delightful. And I agree with TracyK the description "arrogant borderline sociopathic fictional sleuth" is awesome. Catch me being a taste tester for a sleuth looking for poison....not!

  3. This sounds marvelous and insane John - but in a good way! Really looking forward to reading abotu the other 'Scarlet' books - cheers mate.