|Three Dead Men (Brentano's, 1932). US first edition|
THE CHARACTERS: Three Dead Men (1931) begins with an arch, lighthearted, dryly satiric tone as we are introduced to Mr. Horner who we think will be a sort of amateur sleuth and who will outshine the police. But as the novel progresses Horner retreats to the background and Detective-Inspector Cummings of Scotland Yard takes over as lead investigator. Horner does indeed have an innate curiosity and keen observational skills that make him a perfect accidental detective and Cummings takes advantage of those traits. They make a fine duo playing off of each other. The real surprise is that the bulk of the novel is one of the finest examples of a police procedural from the 1930s. Like any contemporary crime novel published these days we are introduced to a battalion of policemen each with his own specialty. There is a fingerprint technician, a tire track expert, the ballistics guy, and even a detective who knows automotive mechanics so well he is brought in to determine exactly how a car's gasoline tank was meticulously emptied so that it would run out of gas at a specific remote spot where one of the victims was then waylaid and murdered. That section was an amazingly modern touch and it felt as if I had time travelled out of 1931 to a techno-thriller of the 21st century.
The suspects are a varied and engaging group consisting of a mix of local yokels, quick witted (for a change) police, and some mysterious hotel guests. Stand outs in the large cast of characters include vile tempered, vulgar and hostile tavern owner Mr. Prump; lovely Miss Temple who seems to be hiding a secret; Covey, a poacher who raises a insanely violent ruckus in order to be deliberately arrested and put in jail; and Dr. Supple who is called upon to perform autopsies and has an odd habit of unexpectedly turning up in the most surprising locations.
McGuire has a talent for replicating a variety of local dialects using a combination of phonetics and unusual grammar peppered with regionalisms and slang. The dialogue is rendered so well I could actually hear distinct accents and voices while reading. Each person in the novel is singularly designed and speaks uniquely in character revealing their personality moreso than what they do. That's a true writer's gift. McGuire might have been a great talent as a playwright or a screenwriter had he chosen that career path. That this was only McGuire's second novel impressed me even more.
|Three Dead Men (Skeffington, 1931) UK edition|
McGuire is daring enough to kill off one of the lead characters at the midway point and considering who that character is it comes as quite a shock. I better not say anymore, but I feel compelled to raise that point because for a 1930s detective novel I was wholly unprepared for the scene. I imagine when this book was first published readers were gasping aloud. I almost did. I definitely raised my eyebrows when the third dead man turns out to be... Oh! almost went too far there.
QUOTES: McGuire's writing can often be striking and caught me offguard at the most inopportune moments. There are some typically 1930s sentiments that are inexcusable today (I included one below), but he also displays a knack for lyricism juxtapoised with irony.
"We begin to know something about the mentality of the criminals, Mr. Horner; and you don't fit in. The type is the clever fool, the kind that allows his own cleverness to cloud his vision. If you'll excuse me saying it" --his smile would have pleaded for high treason-- "you're not what I call clever, and you're not, most definitely not, a fool."
"They're fools to kill a policeman. No criminal gets away with that, unless he has the luck of a Chinaman or the help of the Devil."
"They committed murder," said Mr. Horner, and Cummings --who was the model-- could not have said it more impressively, "and they did not remember the noose."
Cummings was genuinely interested; but then he had a patience that was almost like an artist's patience and an artist's curiosity about life as it is variously lived.
A blackbird was singing on an elderberry bush, quite heedless of the cars roaring up and down the road, quite heedless of Mr. Chief Inspector Cummings, quite heedless...of this mortality, of accident and death.
EASY TO FIND? Well... Oh yeah. You know the drill by now. It's another scarce one, gang. Only
[UPDATE: That $14 copy is sold as of 12:15 PM, Central Daylight Time. Damn! I wish I could earn a referral commission for all these books I manage to sell for other people once I write about them.]