Thursday, March 5, 2015

Madmen Die Alone - Josiah E. Greene

There's another lunatic on the lam in the opening chapters of Madmen Die Alone (1938) and Dr. Richards doesn't want any bad publicity for his institution. Of course it's Joseph Parisi who's gone missing. Parisi is the most violent of the patients at Exeter Hospital in the frozen north of Minnesota. At the suggestion of one of his junior staff members he calls Captain Louis Prescott of the Exeter Police. Richards knows Prescott can be discreet and prevails upon him to take this up as a personal not a police matter. Perhaps he'll be able to locate Parisi within a few hours, return him safely to his room, and thus prevent scandal and embarrassment befalling the hospital. But when Prescott arrives and is given a meandering tour of the hospital they discover the corpse of Dr. Herbert Sylvester, Exeter's genius psychiatrist, and the only staff member who could reasonably handle the unpredictably violent Joseph Parisi with a minimum of outbursts. Now there's not only a lunatic art large but a possibly murderous lunatic.

Madmen Die Alone is one of the better detective novels set in a mental institution.  Never once are we given a variety of cartoon nut cases. Each patient is presented with compassion; their diagnoses don't label them. Often Prescott thinks the patients are perfectly normal and wonders why someone as friendly and lucid as Mrs. Windowmore is in the place at all. Greene seems to be using the novel as a primer in humane understanding and a less clinical approach to the treatment and care of the mentally ill. Dr. Sylvester, frequently described as a genius by his co-workers, is someone who in this day and age might be said to have an exceptionally high emotional intelligence. Sylvester is talked about as someone with great empathy, who often knows what someone wants better than the person himself knows. He treats everyone with amazing equanimity whether they were a patient, co-worker or friend. As Johnny Dennis explains to Prescott Sylvester never thought lesser of someone if they exhibited what might be seen as negative traits such as being lazy, unambitious, moody or sullen. But Sylvester was also unconventional in his treatment methods and tended to use the patients as guinea pigs in a variety of unusual psychological experiments. A rumor begins to circulate that he intentionally let Parisi free and that it backfired on him leading to his grisly death.

Prescott learns that Parisi was criminally insane and that he came from a family of con artists and thieves. His interrogation of the family reveals that they all seem a little bit off and D.r Richards even suggests that there is a genetic tendency towards mental illness in the Parisi family. Further investigation shows that they have ties to some mob activity and Parisi's father was seeking revenge on a rival businessman and a fellow Italian immigrant. When the rival also turns up dead the same night Prescott begins to think that an elaborate vendetta was put into action with the escaped madman part of the plan and the intent of using Joseph as a scapegoat.

However, the two storylines don't mesh all that well. When the plot is focused on the Exeter hospital, it's staff and patients, the book is both engaging and informative and often enlightening in Greene's ideas about how to better understand mentally ill people. When the plot travels outside of the hospital into the city and we are dealing with the Parisi family, a couple of teenage thugs and a posse of stereotyped Italian American gangsters the book devolves into the netherworld of pulp magazine cliches. Much of the plot becomes too predictable and a final twist in the revelation of Sylvester's murderer comes not as the intended surprise but as an anticlimax.

*   *   *


Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space D6- "Author has name with initial same as me"
Josiah and John both start with J.

3 comments:

  1. Shame the two halves don;t really mesh - must admit, I am a bit of a sucker for hospital-set mysteries. Which begs the question (sorta), what was the first detective story to feature a mad killer on the run? Ellery Queen's CAT OF MANY TALES is clearly too late and some of the early Philip MacDonald books like MYSTERY OF THE DEAD POLICE and MURDER GONE MAD might be quite suitable candidates? it

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like that this early book shows the patients in a compassionate light. It is a shame that the story doesn't completely gel, because it sounds like it could have been very good indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very interesting book cover design. Sometimes I wish I was rich and could have a room just for books like this, whether I wanted to read them or not. The mental institution setting (when this was written) does sound interesting.

    ReplyDelete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.