Friday, October 24, 2014

FFB: The Longbow Murder - Victor Luhrs

Howard Haycraft, noted detective fiction historian and critic, called Victor Luhrs' debut mystery novel The Longbow Murder (1941) a curiosity. At the time of its original publication the subgenre of the historical mystery was relatively new. Agatha Christie's famous contribution set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944), had yet to see the light of day. The use of a genuine historical figure such as Richard the Lionhearted as the detective protagonist was so unique in detective fiction and perhaps a bit too strange that no other writers followed suit. Now we are fairly inundated with real historical people solving fictional murders. Kings, queens, U. S. presidents and senators, even detective novelists all show up as amateur sleuths in historical mysteries these days. Victor Luhrs, if not the first to do so, was certainly one of the first and sadly completely forgotten as well. Turns out that Coeur de Lion makes quite the clever detective in this novel.

Richard faces a series of murders by poison arrow while at the same time trying to fend off assassination attempts on his own life. With the aid of a simple-minded scribe named Peter of Caen who serves as the Watson of the piece, he ferrets out two separate conspiracies all with traditional detective novel puzzle elements. Two murders are committed in locked and guarded rooms but only incidentally appear to be locked room murders. Some of the evidence and the eventual revelation of collusion by a guard reduce the cleverness of the impossibility Luhrs presents and I have to disqualify it from being considered a genuine "locked room" or impossible crime. Nonetheless, Luhrs is rather ingenious in coming up with a murder method and assassination plot that Richard also uncovers and prevents that rivals the main plot of the actual murder victims.

Richard I, ace detective
Luhrs is noted as being an avid medievalist. According to the informative bio sketch on the rear DJ panel he was obsessed with all things of the middle ages from his boyhood and has read extensively about the period in both fiction and non-fiction. That he is a devotee of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is never in doubt. The plot of The Longbow Murders is heavily influenced by Scott's classic novel of Richard I. Robin of Locksley (aka Dickon Bendbow, aka Robin Hood) even makes a cameo appearance. A custom made arrow stolen from his quiver turns out to be one of the murder weapons. Luhrs' love for the period is also quaintly depicted in his frequent use of archaic language. Some may find it quaint. For me the mix of modern day language and speech peppered with a plethora of methinks, yclept, mayhap, and prithee elicited more eyeball rolling than smiling.

There are other touches of quaintness as well as some troublesome anachronisms. One of Luhr's more notable atmospheric period touches is the character of John Star, a wizard who acts as coroner in the investigation. He determines time of death and then retreats to his alchemical lab where he distills the poison from the arrows and identifies it by name. Star often falls into a spell Richard calls "being in the mist", meaning Star can go into a trance-like state. While in this state the wizard seemingly confused confesses to the murders. His "in the mist" state leads to much confusion and an inabilit for Star to distinguish reality from fancy. This "misty" trance seems to be a form of fugue state and he suffers from temporary bouts of amnesia. Star is one of the most original characters in the supporting cast. I only wish he had a larger onstage role. Most of his activity is reported second and third hand. It would have been a lot more interesting to see him interacting with others while in this state rather than hearing of it afterwards.

The solution of the murder, however, while surprising in revealing the murderer's identity is too dependent on a couple of vainglorious notes left by the murderer. The main question is whether they are meant as taunts or intended to frame another person. Both notes teasingly refer to the six letters in the murderer's first and family names. This is the kind of plot gimmick you find in novels by Edgar Wallace or Johnston McCulley who both created a slew of egomaniacal master criminals prone to leaving signature cards, with or without riddles, at the scene of the crime. It seems like a far too contemporary idea for a medieval criminal to contemplate; it bothered me. There are other subtle signs of modern crime solving leaking into this middle age world like trying to determine the exact time of death, alibi breaking, and intermittent use of contemporary phrases and idioms. But I have to say I liked the way Richard swore in medieval style. One of his commonly used oaths is "Holy Virgin!" There are a fair share of "Zounds! and "Gramercy!" exclamations as well and you learn the origin of the word "Good-bye" to boot. Some lapses in medieval verisimilitude were easier to excuse than others. Originality in plotting notwithstanding, the murderer's notes and the evidence of how the medieval alphabet is used in spelling was a bit too much for me to swallow.

Victor Luhrs, from the 1st edition DJ
 (photo uncredited)
Luhrs is also noted in his bio as being a detective novel aficionado. The numerous puzzles he incorporates into the plot make that quite clear. And I can only guess that he read a lot of stories in the pulp magazines. Richard at times adopts the brash and brutal manner of a tough guy private eye beating his witnesses (some of whom are also loyal knights in service to him) by boxing their ears, slapping their faces repeatedly, and once literally kicking ass. He's kind of a Carroll John Daly character of the Middle Ages but also shares qualities of the logical and rational crime solving methods of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

The bio hints that Luhrs hoped to write more adventures using Richard I as a detective, but unfortunately this is the only one. My guess is that despite the book's cleverness, its colorful medieval setting, and a larger than life Richard I as the lead, the book probably did not sell well. Luhrs never wrote another novel that I know of, certainly not another detective novel set in the Middle Ages. The only other book I find listed with Victor Luhrs as author is a history of the "Black Sox" scandal during the 1919 World Series.

Copies of The Longbow Murder are out there -- many of them have the attractive DJ with medieval inspired artwork -- but most of them are priced too high for the average reader. Check your local library though. Anyone who enjoys historical mysteries, and those set in the Middle Ages especially, will discover a wealth of entertainment in this well written and cleverly constructed mystery.

10 comments:

  1. Utterly fascinating - I dare say someone has tried coming up with a real listing for when the earliest historical mysteries were published, but this sounds like it must be in there with a fighting chance to be near the first in terms of the gap between the writing and the period depicted. I love the idea of King Richard kicking ass - I won't heold my breath about finding this, but lgad to hear that it's not impossile either. Thanks chum!

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    1. Prior to discovering this book I only knew of Samuel Johnson as the earliest fictional detective who is also a real historical person. Lillian de la Torre's first story -- "Dr Sam: Johnson, Detector" (aka "The Great Seal of England") -- was published in the Nov. 1943 issue of EQMM. If anyone can think of something earlier please feel free to leave a comment with the title and publication date. I'm putting my money on Victor Luhrs as the first mystery writer to come up with this idea for a fictional detective.

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    2. It's too bad that nobody online is offering a merely good ex-library copy without a dust jacket. I'd grab it in an instant. When I see prices above $80, I get nosebleeds. Maybe somebody will reprint this someday. Wat do you think?

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    3. Maybe I'll do it, Steve! I'm in the process of working out just how to use CreateSpace to make Pretty Sinister Books an imprint of my own. I'm starting with expired copyrighted work then I'll work on several ideas I have based on numerous email exchanges I've had with the relatives of writers like Daniel Mainwaring (aka "Geoffrey Homes") and the son of John Franklin Bardin whose "Gregory Tree" books I' d like to see back in print.

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  2. I strongly dislike the idea of having real historic people solving mysteries. I don't mind when real people traipse through a book in a way that seems true to what we really know of them (like Howard Hughes in James Ellroy's THE BIG NOWHERE), but I don't like to see them sleuthing any more than I like to see them hunt vampires. That said, you've made a nice case for this one, and I like anything with real puzzles in it. I'll file this one under "maybe."

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  3. From what I've read about the real Richard the Lionheart, he was more apt to brutally attack and kill the first suspect that turned up and thereby put an end to the mystery. Not only was he a pederast (the word used in history) but not a very nice fellow to boot - bloodthirsty just about covers it. Of course his mother Eleanor of Acquitaine adored him, but you know how mothers are. :)

    But maybe that accounts for the abuse of his servants mentioned in your review.

    I like the idea of real life folk inserted in a mystery, but I'm with Kelly as far as making them actually BE the detective. Still, you've made the thing sound very intriguing, John and I do like historical mysteries.

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    1. The question of Richard's sexuality is still debated. While I have never have any problem believing that throughout history men in power had all-encompassing tastes in sex as recreation I don't know how anyone can prove that kind of thing in such an early period in world history. Without eyewitness accounts you need personal letters or diaries. I doubt that those types of deeply personal written confessions existed in medieval times.

      The history in this book is pretty accurate as far as I can tell based on material I found discussing Richard's life and exploits. One thing I didn't mention above is Luhrs' fascination with medieval clothing and armor. Heavy on detailed descriptions of every character's wardrobe whether it be made of fabric or metal. He really paints some splendid word pictures that help the era spring to vivid life off the pages.

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    2. I'm no expert, John, heaven knows. I'm going on what I've encountered while reading historical bits and pieces over the years, including the biography of ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE by Alison Weir which tells about her sons and all the drama therein. Apparently Richard hated England and spent very little time there. I was so disappointed when I learned, years ago, that the stalwart Lionheart presented in the Errol Flynn Robin Hood movie was only a figment of the film-makers' imagination.

      Now that I think on it, Alison Weir only hinted at things of a sexual nature but I'd read these rumors before not that I suppose it matters much in the great scheme of things - except to spur our occasionally gleeful interest in the personal lives of historical figures.

      I do love medieval fashion details, John. Love the idea of 'mail' and gherkins or jerkins or whatever they call them. Tights and capes and such and of course, armor. It's one of my favorite sections of the Metropolitan Museum.

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  4. This sounds enthralling -- I'd never heard of either the book or Luhrs. One to look out for at library sales, I guess, to judge by Steve Lewis's market research.

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  5. You seem to have discovered a real gem John. Now I too have become intrigued about who was the first to think of casting a historical figure as a detective and which person did s/he select.

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