Friday, March 25, 2016

FFB: Breathe No More - Marion Randolph

THE STORY: At the start of Breathe No More (1940) N. B. Guardet has summoned friends and family to a weekend celebration during which he plans to make an announcement. There's plenty of French food, an exotic frozen dessert especially ordered from a local caterer, and champagne is flowing. The new air conditioning ordered only two weeks prior is cooling the mansion and keeping the Connecticut summer heat at bay. Until the system fails and everyone feels groggy and N.B. is found dead in his bedroom. Asphyxiation is the cause. He has breathed his last. Unfortunate accident as a result of the new air conditioning? No, my friends. A cleverly engineered and very bizarre murder.

THE CHARACTERS: N. B. Guardet has modeled himself on a very famous person. Let's see if you can tell who. Guardet lives in a palatial estate called Malmaison furnished almost exclusively with early 19th century French antiques. His two daughters are named Josephine and Marie-Louise. And even his short stature of only five feet three inches matches that of his idol. Got it? Yes, those first two initials stand for Napoleon Bonaparte. Like his namesake Guardet rules his family like a military man. Upon his death his two daughters feel released from his tyranny and openly confess their hatred of him. In fact, nearly everyone from the servants to his business associates admits to similar feelings ranging from tolerable dislike to outright enmity. It's left to Jeremy Gaunt, Josephine's publisher friend who is quickly rediscovering a deep attachment to the elder daughter, and Dr. Knowlton to investigate the accident and prove murder was done.

Knowlton is the coroner in Rowdean, CT but he oddly behaves more like a homicide detective. Since the primary reason for the investigation is tied to the inquest, and finding proof of whether or not the strange accident that befell Guardet is actually a murder, his behavior in the context of this novel seems somewhat justified. Still, with the few policemen taking direct orders from a coroner it's a bit unsettling that Dr. Knowlton has so much clout and is the primary representative of the law here. He's sort of a 1940s era Quincy, M.E.

Among the other suspects are the drop dead gorgeous butler William Fish, who is the object of desire of three of the women; an unctuous overweight lawyer; and Guardet's middle-aged fiancee whose money may have been the primary draw for the impending engagement.

True crime inspiration for the deadly means
1st edition (Doubleday Doran, 1937)
INNOVATIONS: The murder method (which I won't discuss in detail) is perhaps the most ingenious part of the book. The same means was used in a very well known mystery by John Dickson Carr published in 1941. Obviously, if I give you the name of Carr's book that will spoil much of the reading if you're not familiar with it. Interestingly, Randolph actually beat the master at his own game by using the method one year earlier. Though it's scientific plausibility as a means of murder is described in detail Randolph seems to have got the idea from a true crime book. In the plot the murderer has found a review copy of a book that Jeremy Gaunt was about to release called The Doctor Looks at Murder. This is a real book published in 1937 and written by M. Edward Marten who was Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in New York. The book turns up in an unlikely place with the stamp of Gaunt's publishing house inside the front cover. Trying to find out who recently visited his office and who might have been the thief forms part of the murder investigation.

Randolph also employs a standard detective novel motif known as the tabulation scene -- basically, the recap which occurs midway through the book. Here it is presented in reverse chronological order and written out, at the suggestion of Dr. Knowlton, as a study of the many coincidences that occurred on the night of Guardet's death. The idea was originally suggested by Gaunt when he talked of the use of too many coincidences in fiction as being "unreal" and that perhaps all of the coincidences they have encountered as sleuths might in fact be part of a deviously engineered plan.

She also employs another of my personal favorites of the many detective novel motifs of the Golden Age which unfortunately must remain unnamed. It's this aspect of the plot that almost qualifies the book for the label of "impossible crime mystery", more than that I cannot say without ruining it all. I will mention for diehard fans that the best practitioners of this motif were two British writers whose best work was in the 1930s: Vernon Loder and Anthony Wynne. Both of these writers, especially the unjustly forgotten and underrated Loder, have been written up in great detail on this blog.

THE BONUS: Like a real good old-fashioned murder mystery there are these very cool floor plans that serve as endpapers.  For some reason on the second floor plan where the name Gaunt should appear there is the name Jones!  Did Randolph originally name her publishing sleuth Jeremy Jones? Later changing his name to Gaunt just prior to publication?  We may never know. In any case it's a pretty egregious error for a top line publisher like Henry Holt.

You can click to enlarge to see both of these plans up close and personal.

THE AUTHOR: Time to reveal the secret identity of the writer. "Marion Randolph" is the alias for Marie Rodell, a prominent literary woman who began her career as an assistant editor at William Morrow eventually landing as mystery fiction director at Duell, Sloan and Pearce, home of Lawrence Treat, H.H. Holmes (Anthony Boucher), Lenore Glen Offord and Dorothy B. Hughes, among many others. The DJ blurb for Breathe No More says of this find of the season: "We discovered [the novel] on the desk of a mystery editor for another New York City publishing enterprise. It turned out that the author-editor was reluctant to publish a self-created story. So Marion Randolph is not the author's real name..." Rodell later left editing to start her own business as a literary agent. She eventually was responsible for publishing Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and in 1958 the first non-fiction work by Martin Luther King, Jr. Notable for crime fiction fans is that she served as secretary for the Mystery Writers of America for a brief stint in the 1940s and wrote a text book on crime fiction, Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique.  In 1949 she was awarded a Special Edgar from the MWA for her editorship of the "Regional Mystery" series. She said of the statuette that Poe's face reminded her of her first husband John Rodell, a ne'er do well playwright, of whom she rarely spoke and never kindly (Linda Lear, p. 153). More on Rodell can be found in Sarah Weinman's web article "The Women Who Edited Crime Fiction" and in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear, which includes intriguing biographical detail on Rodell and her working relationship and friendship with Carson.

As the Henry Holt publicity people have called this book their "find of the season" so will I. Breathe No More is a real detective novel aficionado's mystery. It has it all: a baffling murder with a truly unusual method; cleverly planted clues, not too complex yet not too obvious; all sorts of timetables and alibi breaking business; a pair of sharply defined detectives -- one amateur, one professional; two nicely done love interest subplots that are directly related to the investigation; nifty floor plan endpapers and other illustrations that serve as fair play clues; and a cast of eccentric characters whose dialog and speech also reveals their character. Overall, this debut mystery novel hits all the right notes with resounding music that may have you cheering for more. I know I'll be reading her other books hoping they'll be two more for the Randolph Hit Parade.

Detective Novels by "Marion Randolph"
Breathe No More (1940)
This'll Kill You (1940)
Grim Grow the Lilacs (1941)


  1. Very interesting information about this author and a lovely cover. Thanks very much for this review.

    1. I ordered a copy with a DJ and because of the relatively low price I thought I was getting the Tower Books reprint. The edition was not stated nor was the publisher's name of this copy part of the seller's description and it didnt' matter to me at all. When I opened the package and saw I had a copy of the 1st edition I was elated. And the DJ is in much better condition that I expected, too! his is now a "Keeper."

  2. Very interesting. I've read Rodell's book about writing crime fiction, but not her novels.

    1. This book was a delight, Martin. Especially refreshing and very welcome after I had read three duds prior to this one. No reviews of that trio, I'm afraid. I'm eager to read Rodell's other mysteries now. I found a copy of the second already and I'm keeping my eyes for the third.

  3. Nice floor plan, all those closets! Always had trouble warming to Rodell because of her comments about homosexuality as a perversion that must not be directly mentioned in her mystery writing guide book.

    1. Oh dear! Well, no sign of any type of bigotry in this book. I'll be sure to report on any of that if I find in the other two books. Knowing that about Rodell the crack about all those closets is pretty funny. Oddly enough, the closets are actually very important to the plot. I was proud that I figured out her main trick which is very well done. She is one of the best cluers among the lesser obscure American mystery writers. This is reminiscent of McCloy but with less of her intellectualism.

    2. I feel neglectful now because I never read her mysteries. Her guidebook has a lot of good technical advice, but her view that if you have anything relevant to say you should not write mystery fiction is an aesthetic take that is totally out-of-fashion today of course and arguably was getting so when she wrote it.