Saturday, May 25, 2013

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Superintendent Cobham

Superintendent Cobham is on the case in Between Twelve and One (1929) by prolific (but sadly overlooked) Golden Age detective novelist Vernon Loder. Cobham is a likable detective who does an early form of what Columbo did -- he misleads suspects into thinking he's absent-minded or less than intelligent.  He also has the habit of humming operatic arias and music hall tunes while puttering about the crime scenes or waiting for suspects to be show into his office. He's one of the more human and eccentric characters I've come across in a long time.

THE CASE:  Speculating financier Mr. Cupoli invites nine of his investors to his home for a weekend. While entertaining his guests he plans to make an announcement about the project in which they have put their money -- an industrial plant that will extract nitrates from polluted air.  Before he can meet with his guests he is taken ill by an apparent overdose of cocaine. Next morning after a rousing and frightening thunderstorm Cupoli is found stabbed in his bedroom.  His body is found half hanging out a window and medieval poniard is on the floor. But there is no blood on the poniard.  The textured design of the blade should've caught flash or viscera, the medical examiner tells Cobham. However, the blade is absolutely clean. The poniard does not appear to be the weapon. What then caused the fatal stab wound?

Cobham does some nimble detection.  Most of the time we get fair play mode but sometimes it's of the "he put it in his pocket" variety.  That is, Cobham finds a piece of evidence and pockets it or does something inexplicable and the reader hasn't a clue what it means. Case in point -- the chair in Cupoli's bedroom.  Cobham marks an X on the chair's underside then removes it to his office at Scotland Yard. Why? We only find out in the final chapter. And it has a great significance to what happened to the actual murder weapon.  But the true detection in the novel makes up for these slight cheats in the narrative.

One of the better sequences involves the discovery of scratches on the outside window ledge indicating the use of a grappling hook. Later a grappling hook is retrieved from a pond. The hook is covered in fish spawn and bears traces of oil. The police will also find a brand new rope attached to a windlass of an ancient well that has been saturated with brackish, non-potable water.  Cobham will eventually prove that the murderer went to great lengths to give the impression that someone climbed into the bedroom window using the rope and grappling hook, but his genius lab workers prove this all to be a charade. Comparison of well water and pond water; the life cycle of the roach, a fish that lives in brackish water, and other arcana enter into unveiling one of the most elaborate red herrings I've encountered in the genre.

There is are several clever sequences.  One involving the investigation of the ancient well and what they find there. Another when Cobham asks suspect Vance Maud to give him a tour of a country club. He especially wants to see the locker rooms.  Maud thinks the policeman has lost his mind, but nonetheless obliges with his odd request. Clive Merton, Cobham's right hand man, is also baffled. He thinks Cobham is being frivolous and unprofessionally curious about the operation of a country club and not focussing on the real reason for being there which is to find the possible hidden location of some missing money. But of course it's all Cobham's sly way of further proving his theories.

The detection in this novel is much improved from The Mystery at Stowe. Cobham's sham act manages to fool not only the innocent among the suspects but the arrogant murderer as well.  It's a shame that this appears to be his only appearance in Loder's vast output as he is one of the more original policeman characters of this era. The uncanny similarity to Lt. Columbo one I couldn't get out of my head.  For that reason I think this book would be of great interest to fans of that brilliant TV series.

Of all of Loder's books Between 12 and 1 -- which was originally published in the UK under the bland title Whose Hand? -- is the easiest to get a hold of.  A few copies are available for sale via online bookselling sites and one copy can be had for as little as $10.

2 comments:

  1. Will keep a look out for this one as well as The Mystery at Stowe. So did you enjoy this one more?

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    1. Between 12 and 1 will appeal to fans of scientific detection, I think. Overall, it has better detection for those who hold that as the e defining criteria in a GA mystery novel. I liked the outrageous plot elements in Mystery at Stowe, but that's my personal preference. The weirder, the more bizarre and I will eat it up. Both are worth seeking out -- as are most of Loder's books (I have two more reviews coming). While the detection is better in the book reviewed above, the finale and the revelation of the killer are not at all surprising which is the only drawback to the book.

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