Sunday, December 8, 2013

IN BRIEF: It Was Locked - John Hawk

Ready for another weekend house party gone wrong? The myriad guest list includes an world renowned explorer, a Russian prince, a woman violinist, four titled aristocrats and a young British poet. Who'd turn down that party? You'll even be greeted by a suspicious butler of French extraction. Add one locked room, one murder victim, a curious weapon and the familiar motif of the "wrong man accused" and you have It Was Locked (1930), yet another formulaic detective novel drawing upon tropes already getting cliche as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century. Why then did I accept the invitation to this party? Well, there were enough oddities to keep me turning the pages. Too bad nothing really paid off.

An overly sensitive poet allows his wounded pride to get the better of him and he flees a weekend house party after being humiliated by a beautiful woman, her fiancée and a couple of other guests. Rather than subject himself to further embarrassment by reading his flowery love poetry to the guests as requested by Lady Dorothy, his hostess, Robin packs his bag, locks the door to his room, pockets the key unknowingly, and escapes via his bedroom window. Minutes later Lord Edward Winston goes missing. The search is on for both the missing earl and the mysteriously absent poet who was expected to entertain the guests. Lord Edward is found stabbed in the locked bedroom and Robin is immediately suspected of the murder.

An involved inquest that reads more like a very biased criminal trial further implicates Robin when the coroner’s jury finds a verdict of murder and names Robin as the evil deed doer. He is arrested, jailed, and spends most of the book pining over his rash decision to run away. Meanwhile, the police inspector and all of Robin's friends believe wholeheartedly in the poet's innocence and do their best to find the true culprit. How could such a docile childish young man ever kill anyone, they variously muse? The solution to the crime hinges on the murder weapon, a hunting knife of French Canadian manufacture bearing some incriminating initials. Assiduous detective work reveals the weapon is tied to a long hidden blood feud having its origins in the forests of Canada where trappers do a lot of heavy drinking and carry life long grudges.

This is supposedly a locked room puzzle as suggested by the bland title. The puzzle in this one -- how did the body get in the room if Robin had the key and no duplicate key existed? That part of the story offered so many interesting possibilities but the reason is explained, not so believably, in a very offhand manner. Hawk apparently didn't care how the body got there and none of his characters questioned how it mysteriously moved from its hiding place to its position when the door was broken down. Sloppy writing and careless plotting fairly ruins an intermittently entertaining detective novel that turns into a thriller in the final chapters.

It Was Locked, a rather hard to find book with only two editions in hardcover and no paperback reprints available, is barely worth tracking down unless you are interested in the author’s very strange ideas of Canada of the 1920s. Hawk would have us believe French Canada is as stereotypically savage and violent as a pulp writer’s idea of Italy being populated with nothing but Mafioso thugs.

13 comments:

  1. I hate it when you spend a lot of time trying to figure something out and then get slapped with the old offhand explanation. An insult to the reader! And to writing!

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  2. I really should be working, but can never put off reading your posts. This one had me wondering about John Hawk. A quick web search failed to satisfy. That said, I did come across this remarkable ad in the 6 Oct 1930 edition of Long Island's Daily Star.

    "A violent murder committed in a thunder storm!"

    Wow!

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  3. John Hawk was Helen Sybil Norton, who married John Cournos, Dorothy L. Sayers' ex-lover, in 1924. Kind of ironic Cournos left Sayers for a vastly inferior mystery writer! I read some of the Hawk books a few years ago and was not impressed. this is so bizarre, however. I was just thinking about blogging this book next week and discussing the Sayers connection and I see John has done it. Crazy. I am starting to believe in telepathy, or brain-waves, or something.

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  4. Here's a link about the Sayers connection:

    Sayers’s frustrations in young adulthood were exacerbated by crises in her personal life. One of the most traumatic incidents was her relationship with writer John Cournos. They met in 1921 and Sayers became deeply committed to him. Cournos claimed to oppose marriage and having children on principle, but was willing to be Sayers’s lover if they used contraception. She refused, ending the affair in 1922 because she desired marriage and despised the anxieties of a clandestine relationship: “One can’t be ecstatic about something which involves telling lies to one’s charwoman!” (1:222) Cournos had also scorned detective stories, even as Sayers was beginning to write them. She was thus wounded deeply to learn in 1924 that he had wed an American detective writer with two children. Her letters to him following this discovery are the most poignant in these volumes, not only because of the specific suffering Cournos had caused Sayers, but also because these missives were one of the rare times that she gave full expression to her emotions.3

    Read more: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=13-04-028-f#ixzz2mvN1Yvnw

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    1. “One can’t be ecstatic about something which involves telling lies to one’s charwoman!” is one for the ages.

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  5. Meant to make that clickable, you should read the piece (not by me).

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  6. As ever Curt has uncovered the most fascinating part -- the life of the writer. I really should spend more time looking into the writer's life more often. It's my literature criticism background that takes over. I'm surprised to learn that Hawk is a woman. Usually I get the woman disguised under a male pen name vibe in the writing itself. I just thought Hawk was a like Herbert Adams - another mystery writer kind of hung up on young lovers in peril. But casting the lead role as a poet who falls in love so easily at first sight should have tipped me off.

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    1. But that makes for a nice balance, John, for those of us who read you both!

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    2. Yeah, my history background does tend to crop up with me. But I like the depth you go into with the book analysis. I tend to go into less detail with the books.

      I was surprised too to find out John Hawk was a woman!

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    3. And brava for Peggy Ann's sentiment!

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  7. Thanks for reading this one John so we get all the benefit without having to fork out and then be disappointed by the plot fizzling out! You're a mate!

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  8. Interesting pseudonym for a woman, John. So male. So expressive of - I don't know - brutal things happening in the forest. Jack Hawk might have been better, but one can't have everything. I don't like that she married that jerk who caused Dorothy Sayers so much heart ache. But of course I just found out about this and that is my initial gut reaction. Men can be such a pain. Not that I don't love 'em - most of the time. :)

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