Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Case of the Frightened Fish - William DuBois

The murder of a lawyer found in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village is tied to the death of a marine biologist in the Bahamas in the unusual and action-oriented sophomore effort The Case of the Frightened Fish (1940) by playwright and journalist William DuBois.  Tabloid reporter Jack Jordan who first appeared in The Case of the Deadly Diary (repeatedly referred to throughout the course of this one) is worried for his friend Dave Yates, a PR man for a millionaire with interests in marine life.  See, the studio apartment belonged to an artist and a painting that Jordan recognized as the work of Dave's fiancee Elsa Ulrich was found near the body. Jordan is worried Elsa may be implicated in the poisoning of the lawyer.  Elsa, we will soon learn is also the daughter of famed ichthyologist Dr. Hubertus Ulrich whose research is being funded by Dave's  millionaire brother Tony Yates.  Feel like you're in over your head already?  Well, grab your life preserver or your fins and mask because the waters only get deeper in this innovative, aquatic themed, and deftly plotted mystery.

Though we start in Bermuda with the expository set up about the murdered lawyer, the missing artist, and the mystery of why Elsa's painting is a the scene of the crime we (along with Jack, Dave and the rest of the cast of characters ) are soon headed on a boat headed for Tony Yates' private island in the Bahamas where he is funding Dr. Ulrich's research with a series of high-tech aquariums all set up for the study of rare fish species and life among the coral reefs. No sooner have they landed but a second body turns up, this time an apparent suicide.  It's "Zoobug" (Alfred to his parents) Strong, one of Dr. Ulrich's research assistants and coincidentally an old college pal of Jordan's.  Through some keen detective work Jordan learns that Zoobug is the missing artist who was renting the studio apartment where the lawyer was killed.  Now he needs to find the link between the two deaths.  Did Zoobug really commit suicide by drowning himself? Or was he too murdered? And why was a marine biologist masquerading as an artist in Greenwich Village?

When another body turns up at the bottom of a tank filled with ravenous barracudas Jordan and Dave are convinced that someone is trying to sabotage the work at the research center. But why? Someone suggests that visiting rival scientist Dr. Karl von Merz, an Austrian, is actually a Nazi spy and wants the island for a submarine station. He'd have easy access to Miami's shoreline -- only a day's travel underwater -- thereby also gaining access to a key US port and naval air station. Nazis and barracudas! How can you pass this one up?

UK 1st edition (Gerald Swan, 1947)
This is a tightly plotted mystery with an exotic setting and background so far removed from the usual detective novels of the period.  There isn't a last will and testament in sight, thankfully.  The stuffy interiors of drawing rooms, studies and libraries are absent and instead we get mostly exterior scenes by boat docks, marine laboratories, the several fish tanks and aquariums and a smattering of exciting underwater sequences including a fight in the ocean that would play just as well in a Bond movie. DuBois' talent as a playwright is shown to great effect in his razor sharp dialogue and his skill at constructing cliffhanger chapter endings.  You can't help but keep reading as the plot grows ever more complicated and the characters reveal hidden motives and deep, dark secrets.

If I have to find anything to criticize it's DuBois' embarrassing depiction of London, a black handyman and dock worker, described in animal terms best left unquoted.  Although London has the ability to speak, he is not given one line of dialogue. Anytime he does speak it is rendered third hand or quoted by Jordan. I found that really odd, but not as odd as the writer's 18th century love of the "noble savage" idea.  It's a minor fault, really, but still rather jarring in book that otherwise appears to be have been created by a sophisticated and smart writer. DuBois does redeem himself when he allows London to act selflessly and heroically in saving the life of two people in one action sequence and in recovering a piece of crucial evidence that had been submerged by the dock when everyone else failed.

Jack Jordan appears in a third mystery The Case of the Haunted Brides (1941) then disappears, along with William DuBois, from the mystery world. I suspect poor sales forced Little Brown to drop him from their list.  After having had success in the 1930s as a playwright (four plays made it to Broadway though all had short runs), DuBois returned to writing primarily for newspapers with occasional stints as a scriptwriter for radio and the movie screen. Though he gave up as a mystery novelist he did pen at least one other novel, The Island in the Square (1947) about the world of newspapers and theaters in the Times Square district of Manhattan.

6 comments:

  1. Despite the oddities you've noted, this sounds like a title worth hunting down. I am especially interested in the Caribbean setting. Coincidentally, I have just started looking for another book whose events take place in a small West Indian island: 'Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors' by Roger East.

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    1. I very much enjoyed this book. I purchased it specifically for the DJ and I am always happy when the story is as imaginatively created as the artwork that surrounds the book itself.

      I have a copy of that Roger East book but have yet to read it. Should I add it to the "To Be Reviewed" pile? I'll take requests just like an old time disc jockey.

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    2. I would be pleased to learn your opinion of the Roger East book. Robert Adey said he enjoyed it, and I seem to recall you liked another of East's mysteries.

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  2. I do like that cover...I can see why you bought the book specifically for the DJ. And it sounds like a winning story too.

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  3. Hey there, John! This one sounds great...as an avid scuba enthusiast and lover of tropical island settings (and also mystery novels), it sounds pretty irresistible. Do you happen to know if any of DuBois' Jordan novels have ever been reprinted in easier-to-find paperback editions?

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    1. No paperbacks that I came across, Jeff. I think they were poor sellers in the US and that tends to preclude paperback reprint editions. There are UK hardcover editions of each of the three William DuBois mysteries, but only TCOT Frightened Fish seems to be offered for sale online.

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