THE CHARACTERS: A large cast requires extra concentration so the list of characters and their relationships at the front of the book was extremely helpful in keeping everyone sorted out. Mason married into a wealthy family of railway people. His wife Gwendolyn, the daughter of the railway president, is a beautiful young woman very protective of her husband's reputation which as the story unfolds turns out to be pretty much a sham. Mason knew next to nothing at all about construction, let alone the intricate physics behind railway bridge construction. As Andy and Sue dig into the lives of the construction crew they learn that Mason was most likely responsible for ruining the project. The bridge is already collapsing due to poor judgment, bad planning and inferior materials. Andy reveals that Mason was faking his knowledge and putting everyone else's reputations at risk, to say nothing of the dangers and unsafe conditions at the bridge site. Motives are aplenty among the workers when Andy further learns of the anger and hatred that have been brewing around Mason's inept handling of the project.
|Hillman Publ. #10, 1948|
INNOVATIONS: Mason's murder is utterly mysterious. He's found halfway between his home and the construction site with his head bashed in. The ground is fairly muddy but there are no footprints around the body. No murder weapon can be found. It's a nearly impossible murder. One of the women turns out to be a highly skilled baseball player, especially in pitching. Sue remembers the affair and rampant jealousies leading her to believe that the woman might have thrown some heavy object at Mason from her backyard which abuts the murder scene. But the solution is much more complex and horrifying. The murder means, the weapon itself, is one of the most unusual choices to kill someone.
Andy and Sue are one of the better husband/wife sleuthing teams from this era. There is no artificiality in their banter; they are devoted to one another, very much in love; both are intelligent and exacting in their detection. Thankfully, Sue shows not an iota of light hearted whimsy (Haila Troy), vapid domesticity (Anne MacNeill) or absent-minded wackiness (Pam North). Too many wives in these detective duos act as the Gracie Allen of the piece and can have a tendency to irritate. While Andy is the lead detective dealing mostly with police and engineers Sue does her fair share of noticing the tell-tale clues and making suggestions to her husband that will lead them to the final solution.
THINGS I LEARNED: Obviously the setting itself and the microcosm of this railway construction village is teeming with opportunities to educate a curious reader. You learn all about the physics and math and geometry knowledge needed on a construction site of such complexity. And the human element of how the wives figure into the world of the project both as advisors and advocates was even more fascinating than all the work and labor involved. The role of women in this mystery was much more involved that I ever would have expected.
THE AUTHOR: "Sue MacVaigh" is obviously a pseudonym. Hardcore vintage mystery fans know this gimmick of character-as-author was used frequently in Golden Age crime fiction as exemplified in everything from the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen books to the short-lived Gale Gallagher series I wrote about two years ago. In reality the writer was Elizabeth Custer Nearing, a newspaper reporter living in New Jersey who wrote for three different newspapers including the New York Telegram and Philadelphia Ledger. She was married to a civil engineer involved in the railway business. Based on those credentials I'm guessing that everything you read in Murder under Construction is 100% accurate. This was her debut mystery novel and she went on to pen three other mysteries featuring the MacVeighs involved with trains, the railway business and murder. Her second novel Grand Central Murder, was turned into a very good movie with Van Heflin starring as an Andy MacVeigh stand-in named Rocky Custer. You can find it at various online movie websites for free since it has apparently has fallen into the public domain.
EASY TO FIND? MacVeigh's first two books turn up more often than the others in the series. Currently there are eight copies of Murder under Construction and four of Grand Central Murder. One copy of the book reviewed here is being sold for only $12. Hurry before it's gone! These books were published only in the US, yet even with reprints from Grosset & Dunlap and paperback digest editions all four titles are still scarce. Ah well. Did you really think otherwise? Libraries and used bookstores may turn up a copy or two. I serendipitously found my copy of Murder Under Construction in a Boise, Idaho bookshop on our vacation this past summer. That it came with a undamaged DJ in nearly pristine condition was astounding to me. And at only $22 I felt like I was stealing it from the bookstore owner.
Sue & Andy MacVeigh Detective Novels
Murder under Construction (1939)
Grand Central Murder (1939)
Streamlined Murder (1940)
The Corpse and the Three Ex-Husbands (1941)