THE CHARACTERS: The narrator for Murder Draws a Line (1940), and the entire series, is Sheridan Locke, Kit's fiancée in this book, later his wife. Sherry is a children's book writer and is cajoled by her artist paramour into becoming the documentarian, so to speak, of their adventures in murder. But she goes about it in an entirely verbose and overwrought manner. One imagines that Sherry read way too many Mary Roberts Rinehart novels in her day (or at least Willetta Barber did). The narration is drowning in words, bursting to the seams with minutiae and unnecessary tangents, and burdened by the often annoying intrusion of the phrase "Had I known..." Even Rinehart never resorted to those telltale words as often as Barber does in the guise of Sherry Locke. In a review of this book in the August 10, 1940 issue of The Saturday Review the pseudonymous Judge Lynch said "Plot excellent, characters vivid, numerous illustrations -- but superabundance of had-I-but-knowing annoys cranky judge." I started to count them all but gave up when it exceeded 15 instances well before the novel's midway point.
|Our heroes: Sherry Locke, |
Kit Storm and Det. Tony Shand
The cast of characters is large and as vivid as Judge Lynch says they are. We get all types of suspects from blustery and temperamental Alessandro Marioti, a failed opera singer, to Albert Putnam, nervous lovelorn singing student of Freda Bransen's. In an attempt to fill in the puzzle of Freda's life Barber finds it necessary to dig into her past and introduce nearly every person she ever encountered. As a result we get several bogey characters who serve no purpose whatsoever and who offer little insight into Freda other than superficial commentary. They exist only as the many examples of vain upper-crusters of Manhattan's elite. However, one supporting player from Freda's past appears to deliver the bombshell piece of evidence. She is a flighty, bubbly and garrulous ex-member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus. Freda has also worked there for a time as did the fiery Marioti. Daisy Jackson (aka Mrs. Elmer Schlummer) is a delight in her one big scene. What she has to say is key to understanding why Freda was killed and wraps up the bigger mystery of why the murder took place in Kit's studio.
Other interesting suspects include the dentist who lives upstairs, Peter Rollins, who seemed to be too interested in Freda's money; John Hunt, another of Barber's ne'er-do-well New Yorkers who at first seems like a superficial guy with no skills or ambition (he's a part time artist's model) but whose background in the military as a psychologist will play a significant factor in an intriguing subplot; and Ralph Whitley, a friend of Kit and Sherry's who stops by frequently to show off his very good caricature drawings but who is harboring a deep, dark secret.
THINGS I LEARNED: The deluded and vain Marioti exclaims to the police: "I shall be a great tenor. As great even as Melchior." Not being too much of a opera fan I was clueless who he meant. Are you as curious as I was? Probably not, but I'll tell you anyway. Lauritz Melchior was a Danish American opera singer who was the leading Heldentenor at the Metropolitan Opera for three decades, from the late 1920 through the early 1950s. He specialized in Wagner and made the previously lesser-thought-of German composer one of the better regarded musicians in opera companies. Thanks to Melchior's fantastic singing, a voice remarkable for carrying over the orchestra, Wagner's work became mainstay of opera repertoire in the US.
THE AUTHORS: Although a newsletter published by the Doubleday Crime Club claimed that Barber and Schabelitz were married this does not appear to be true. Willetta Ann Barber (1911-1977) married Matthew Smith, an actor and writer, in 1948 and there is no record of her marrying any other person. She was the step-daughter of shipping magnate Edward J. Barber, son of Irish immigrant James Barber who founded Barber Steamship Lines of which Edward became president in 1917. [Small Worldism: In 1942, the Barbers lived in my hometown of Ridgefield, CT on a thrillingly hilly street where I regularly rode my bicycle while growing up!] Supposedly Willetta was one of Schabelitz' models according to that same newsletter article. But I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. You can see a photo of her posing on one of her stepfather's passenger ships here. Just scroll down to the entry on Willetta Ann Scott.
|DJ illustration by Schabelitz|
A Song of Sixpence by Frederic Arnold Kummer
EASY TO FIND? Some of the Kit Storm mysteries were reprinted in paperback, but not his debut in print. Published only in the US by Doubleday Crime Club and later reprinted by Doubleday owned Sun Dial Press, Murder Draws a Line is relatively scarce. I found only eight copies of both first edition and reprints for sale using the usual online book search services. Only two of those come with dust jackets. Prices range from $29 for a reading copy to $100 for a VG/VG copy with DJ. There are an additional six copies held at various US academic libraries as well as The Library of Congress. It's a possibility your local library may have a copy.
Christopher Storm Detective Novels
Murder Draws a Line (1940)
Pencil Points to Murder (1941)
Drawn Conclusion (1942)
Murder Enters the Picture (1942)
The Noose is Drawn (1945)
Drawback to Murder (1946)
The Deed is Drawn (1949)