Friday, August 17, 2018

FFB: Three Dead Men - Paul McGuire

Three Dead Men (Brentano's, 1932). US first edition
THE STORY: Prim, restrained, fairly unadventurous Herbert Chuff Horner while vacationing in Brinesey Bay goes sunbathing for the first time. There by the seashore he chances to look up at the cliffs just as a man goes plummeting off a precipice to the rocks below. Mr. Horner is convinced the man did not jump or fall. There was no scream for one thing and the way he fell without flailing his arms or legs is suspicious. Maybe, Mr. Horner tells the police, he was already dead. Several other strange circumstances lead the police to agree with Mr. Horner and he is soon unwillingly enlisted to aid in the investigation which soon uncovers two connected deaths.

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
INNOVATIONS: I liked the way this novel changed tone and tenor over the course of the story. The wry Wodehouse-like narration that starts us out gives way to a typically puzzling murder mystery, transforms into a fascinating police procedural, then morphs again into a sort of gangster thriller by the time the climax is reached. I have purposely been shying away from vintage fiction this summer. But having immersed myself in a book so thoroughly Golden Age as Three Dead Men I was so pleasantly surprised and fairly rapt from first chapter to the very last page. This book delivers the goods. You definitely get more than you would ever expect from a book with such a boringly pedestrian and unimaginative title. It's overloaded with expert detective novel plotting and ingenious detection with nicely planted clues. There's even a nod to Sherlock Holmes when Cummings and Horner manage to identify an unusual type of tobacco from the remains of a rolled and crushed cigarette. Of course it turns out to be bizarre -- a Brazilian tobacco rolled in a maize leaf! The whole book is filled with wonderful Golden Age details like that. Reading Three Dead Men was like a homecoming for me and renewed my love for the genre that I seem to have a love/hate relationship with these days.

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.

THE AUTHOR: Paul McGuire was born in Peterborough in 1903, educated at Christian Brothers College, Adelaide, and later University of Adelaide. During World War 2, Paul McGuire served with Naval Intelligence, reached the rank of Commander, and was made a CBE in 1951. He had a distinguished career as a diplomat serving as an Australian minister in Italy, Ambassador to Rome, served in the Holy See where he worked with Pope John XXIII and was honored with numerous awards for his services to both Church and state. After his naval service he worked briefly as a journalist for Melbourne Argus which led to fiction writing, literary criticism and an author of history and travel books. His crime fiction began with Murder in the Bostall (1931) and ended with The Spanish Steps, aka Enter Three Witches (1940). He wrote a total of sixteen novels.

EASY TO FIND?  Well...  Oh yeah. You know the drill by now. It's another scarce one, gang.  Only five four! copies offered for sale from online bookselling sites. And with the exception of one copy priced at a steal of $14  they ain't cheap. [...sigh...] Check your local library. I'm guessing if you live in Australia your chances are better than the rest of us.

[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.]


  1. I've read only a single McGuire book, BURIAL SERVICE, and it was extremely enjoyable, despite a not particularly good mystery plot. It was the setting, the characters and the skilled writing that lifted it into excellence.

    1. That’s an odd book unlike any of his traditional detective novels. Jacques Barzun praises it in Catalog of Crime. I have three other hard to find McGuire novels I’m planning to write about later this year.

  2. Sounds rather fabulous, and for some reason Paul McGuire's name is somewhat familiar...though a quick look at his GADetection page doesn't throw any titles I've heard of or read at me. However, I shall keep an eye out for this one, and I look forward to reading it in 2026!

    1. HA! I can’t help myself. It’s always these rarities they turn out to be the books that I end up highly recommending. I’m sure you’ve heard or read about FUNERAL IN EDEN (aka BURIAL SERVICE). That’s his best known book and usually easy to find in the 80s paperback reprint from Harper Perennial.

  3. Thank you very much for your review. I have just finished reading the book, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Your review was spot on about the characterization of Mr. Horner, and the mix of mystery, police procedural, and thriller as the book progresses. I very much look forward to your reviews of the other three McGuire novels you mention in your response to Ron Smyth.