Friday, March 7, 2014

FFB: Nine Doctors and a Madman - Elizabeth Curtiss

UK 1st edition (Herbert Jenkins, 1938)

Elizabeth Curtiss' debut mystery novel Nine Doctors and a Madman (1940) first came to my attention in a brief review at Mystery*File. Interestingly, the evocative title and its subject matter -- the murder of a sadistic, egocentric psychiatrist at a mental institution -- sparked a lengthy discussion in the comments of detective novels set in asylums and mystery plots that deal with madness. A shame that somehow Curtiss' book was lost in the shuffle because it is not only one of the more fascinating debuts by a mystery writer, but it is a classic case of a book that breaks several rules and still succeeds as a fair play detective novel.

Dr. Frank Blythe is one of those characters in detective fiction who well deserve their violent end. Despised and mistrusted by every one of his colleagues at the asylum where he works he believed he had the power to manipulate and "hypnotically control" anyone he encountered. He even bragged that he could put a weapon in the hands of a violent inmate and prevent him from committing a murder. When he is found stabbed to death in a patient’s room it at first looks as if his arrogance has got the better of him and his experiment fatally backfired. But the placement of the body leaves room for doubt that the patient had anything to do with the crime. Furthermore, the unusual murder weapon was an item known to only three people and was always hidden in Blythe's apartment in the staff housing separate from the patient quarters. That weapon, an antique British Meat skewer, was presented as a gift to his wife Myrna, a woman who lived in fear of her husband. Who wouldn’t be frightened of a man who gives a meat skewer as a gift? A skewer that is engraved with the Latin phrase Hoc me occide, si audeus (translated in the book as "Kill me with this if you dare") -- the very same phrase the Borgias engraved on murder weapons they gave to their enemies.

As the title suggests there are nine other doctors in the cast of characters who are immediate suspects. Yet all of them have near iron-clad alibis for the time of the killing. There is not one madman but several in the cast, but as the story progresses the reader learns that perhaps the titular "madman" is one of the doctors. The case is investigated by Dr. Nathaniel Bunce aided by his resident intern Dr. Theophilus ("Call me Phil") Bishop who also serves as narrator. Bishop is no dullard like Captain Hastings nor is he the awestruck and sometimes confused John Watson. He is sharp as a tack. It helps that he is the son of a district attorney. But under Bunce's tutelage as both a student of psychology and criminology Bishop has lots to learn.

US 1st edition (Simon & Schuster, 1937)
Complicating the story of Dr. Blythe's murder is the fact that Bunce is assisting the police in a case of strychnine poisonings. Is there a serial killer on the loose killing men of "small, unprepossessing appearance and effeminate physical type"? Do those poisoning murders have anything to do with the twelve guinea pigs in Dr. Gina Fiske's lab that have all mysteriously died of some poison? Could the killer be among the staff at the asylum?

The story is rife with clues and red herrings. A button torn from a nurse's uniform, a set of missing spoons, a nurse who manages to appear in two different places within a span of one minute, a noisy and powerful X-ray machine that when in use causes all the lights in the institution to dim, and a sparrow's nest in a clock tower are among the more imaginative bits that make for quite a puzzling case. Add in a group of patients who have taken to swallowing objects like pieces of pottery and kitchen utensils and Dr. Blythe's cruel antipathy for alley cats that led him to order the groundsman to shoot them on sight and you have more than enough ingredients for a bubbling cauldron of suspicion and intrigue.

Perhaps most striking of all is Curtiss' handling of the denouement. The final pages are reminiscent of some of the cases of Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Beatrice Bradley where a fictional detective decides to become both sleuth and judge. Dr. Bunce presents alternate theories about what actually happened in the patient’s room. He hints that the death of Dr. Blythe was a just one and finagles the evidence and manipulates the police inspector in charge of the case to think that one of the solutions he presents is the correct one, when in fact it is not. In the final chapter Dr. Bishop and another psychologist discover for themselves the true identity of the killer and are astonished at the unethical practices of Dr. Bunce.

Nathaniel Bunce appeared in only one other book (Dead Dogs Bite, 1939) and Elizabeth Curtiss seemed to abandon the genre completely afterwards. What a shame. Based on her debut alone she showed great promise. She might have been one of the few ingenious woman mystery writers of this era, one who could've shaken up the tired formulas of the genre and given her seasoned colleagues a real run for their money


  1. In Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique (1952) Marie Rodel says, "Insofar as the rules of the game are concerned, an insane murderer represents cheating on the author's part, because the reader cannot be expected to figure out for himself the murderer's mental processes."

    Does this book break or bend this rule?

    1. Well, I disagree with Rodel. I can think of many books with insane murderers where the detective work helps explain to the reader the killer's "mental processes." CAT OF MANY TAILS by Ellery Queen is a perfect example. Also, MURDER IS EASY by Agatha Christie. I can probalby come up with a list of over a hundred if you give me time.

      Curtiss neither breaks nor bends this "rule" about the cheat of an insane killer. The rule Curtiss disregards is the reader's expectation of a detective with integrity. I've mentioned it above, but I don't want to go into any other specifics for fear of ruining the final twist. The identity of the murderer in NINE DOCTORS AND A MADMAN can indeed be figured out by an assiduous mystery reader. There are enough clues given but some are expertly hidden among the red herrings. Curtiss also shows a deft hand at misdirection. This is an admirable work for a novice mystery writer. Smart, witty and thoroughly engaging.

  2. Sounds like a winner, John. And I think it's interesting that you've got a book with hypnotism as a plot point. I've been on a little run of those myself.

  3. This sounds like another winner and as long as it plays by its own rules I never really care if ti break other people's *as it were). If I ever come across a reasonably priced copy I will certainly snap it up - thanks chum.

  4. Very interesting review, John. It is always nice when you find a vintage book that is a good read. I love the covers. I have read a couple of books where I felt disappointed with an insane murderer, but in general I think it really depends on how the author handles the story.

    1. If it's any incentive for you to track down a copy (and there a a few out there for under $15) the murderer turns out to be completely sane and rational.