THE CHARACTERS: Death at the Wheel (1933) features a large cast led by Arthur Way, a rural chief constable at odds with the more experienced city cops of Scotland Yard. Arthur, however, sees this unusual set of crimes as an opportunity to shine as the detective he always wanted to be. He has some very ingenious ideas how to approach the crime and is complimented for his contributions. Scotland Yard should be assisting only at his instruction but that doesn't stop Assistant Commissioner Cance from setting up a rather unethical undercover operation with his ace detective Inspector Brow. When Arthur stumbles upon Brow in the disguise of a fly fisherman on holiday he becomes very angry.
Meanwhile, Clare's stepfather Holroyd Sayce is targeted as the primary suspect as the mastermind of the jewel robberies. Sayce happens to be in the jewelry business making it all the more likely that he may be involved with a ring of thieves who are all carnival workers who have always been nearby each time a home was burglarized.
Loder's signature wit is not lacking here. Clare Winkton is definitely a highlight with her brash wit and good sense. Clare is always teasing her stepfather nicknaming him Holly and treating him irreverently. Paradoxically she also seems to be protecting him from the police.She provides Arthur with one of the cleverest ideas when they brainstorm about where Smith, the master crook, might be hiding out. She also points out to Arthur that a slip of paper that he is convinced is an intricate code is actually nothing more than a series of dates and initials. The reader knows this as quickly as Clare does. In his attempt to prove himself a great detective Arthur does tend to overthink a lot of the obvious
Also I liked the bit part of Sir Guy Lunt, owner of an amber necklace that was stolen and broken up for its gemstones. Lunt is a foppish hypochondriac with a malingering case of "bronchitic tendencies." He reminded me of the vile Frederick Fairleigh in Collin's The Woman in White who never stepped out of his dressing gown and complained of aches and pains while pawing over his pornographic drawings. Sir Guy Lunt is just as ludicrous, a perfect satiric creation and one more character in Loder's collection of worthless aristocrats who pop up frequently in his mystery novels.
INNOVATIONS: Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too many policemen don't spoil this detective novel. There are a slew of policemen that I didn't really think I needed to keep straight. The more that were added to the story the more I kept thinking that this might have been Loder's attempt to imitate Henry Wade. By the midpoint of the novel I was truly impressed with how different this was form the usual Loder detective novel which is usually brimming with eccentric touches, bizarre murder methods and outlandish incidents. In a high contrast to his first eight books Death at the Wheel is grounded in real crime, murder committed with guns, dogged police work and career criminals. It's a genuine police procedural and one of the best of its type by any of his contemporaries. Loder can stand shoulder to shoulder with Wade, Nigel Morland or Helen Reilly, three of the best practitioners of true police procedurals, meaning detective novels that not only show us how police solve crimes but also explore the culture of police stations and the collegiality of policemen.
|Guns & bicycles! The murder weapon was|
manufactured by this company based in St. Etienne.
Loder manages to juggle parallel storylines and we follow Arthur's raw edged, ingenious and experimental style of detection which is in strong contrast to the polished technical police work of the Scotland Yard men and local police. The book might very well have been called The Case of the Three Shells for the bulk of the novel deals with the bullets, casings and shells of a French made .22 handgun, the murder weapon in both shootings. Arthur spends a lot of time thinking about three .22 shells, where they were found, the lack of fingerprints on some when they should be present. He creates a variety of involved experiments like the one with a pair of trousers worn by one of the victims. Arthur tires to discover if a fingerprint on a shell casing could be worn away over time if placed in a tight fitting pocket. He also studies wear patterns in the fabric to determine whether or not a gun could have been habitually carried in a certain pocket in the trousers. This was a fascinating section of the book showing off Loder's masterful plotting techniques and unusual ideas about crime solving.
QUOTES: One of these mystery story writers would have made something of that, he mused. There would be a masked gang...with headquarters in some riverside dive. Clare would be their languid queen, at one moment in a Paris gown at some elegant hotel, at another clothed in black tights burgling the suite of a duke...
Arthur Way was a man with an active mind, and even the most busy of country Chief Constables finds that the routine of his job does not highly try his faculties. The idea of doing a bit of detective work on his own appealed to the boy which is latent in most of us.
"Good luck to you," said Cance, "but try to use your imagination, Brow! Common sense is a fine thing, but there isn't much of the X-ray about it!"
Clare: "...I could have skipped down to the gun-room, got one of Holly's shotguns and peppered the brute. I wasn't really afraid."
That was like her. It had always struck him that she was both cool and courageous.
It's a solid police procedural, one of Loder's better books filled with creative ideas and invention. But as such it's very different from the weirdness that was displayed in the more original and bizarre mystery The Shop Window Murders recently reprinted by HarperCollins.