Friday, December 6, 2019

FFB: Flying Clues - Charles J. Dutton

UK 1st edition (Bodley Head, 1927)
Provocative illustration of a character
who appears nowhere in the book
There are a handful of Charles J. Dutton's books that I have recommended repeatedly and I’ll do that again right now before I launch into this review. Dutton had a fascination with criminal psychopathology but is never mentioned in the development of the American mystery novel for being perhaps the first writer of detective fiction to delve into criminal profiling before that methodology actually had a name. The three books I always recommend for this facet alone are Streaked with Crimson (1929), The Crooked Cross (1922) and Out of the Darkness (1922). Unfortunately, Flying Clues (1927) has nothing to do with criminal pathology, serial killer behavior, mental illness as related to homicide, or any genuinely clever plotting.

In the New York Times Book Review of Feb 13, 1927 the anonymous reporter said this about Flying Clues: "With a sextet of mystery stories to his credit it is scarcely surprising that Charles J. Dutton's latest work should show the signs of a practiced hand. Indeed, the presence of those signs stands out in the book as almost a defect." The review goes on to call his book "too accustomed, too usual and much in its matter that is too routine."  Someone one once accused me of writing a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed as "damning with [it] faint praise."  The accuser was wrong and I defended my stance. However, the NY Times reviewer gives us the epitome of that phrase. I will not be so kind nor ambiguous at all in my feelings here.

Flying Clues, though intermittently entertaining and eyebrow raising in its 1920s social commentary, has its share of storytelling flaws and the most egregious is its title. The very last lines in the book consist of the detective telling his Watson (the ultra dull Pelt who has no first name) that the best title for his write up of this case should be Flying Clues. But I tell you it’s not. Why? Because it is a giveaway to one of the “mysteries” that befuddle Professor Hartley and the police. Well, the title tells you everything, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out exactly what kind of flying clues are responsible, especially when Dutton spends two paragraphs describing a flock of what looks like falcons in the sky and another time when some ignoramus sees some birds in a cage on board a ship, birds that look like chickens. They turn out to be pigeons.

Chickens Pigeons roosting in a rooftop coop
Now I know you are asking yourself exactly the same thing I did: “When have pigeons ever looked like chickens?” Is this some odd evolutionary quirk of the 1920s? Doubtful. I’ll tell you when pigeons look like chickens. When a mystery writer is trying his hardest to plant a red herring in his mystery novel by creating some dumb yokel who has never seen a damn pigeon in his life but has seen more than his share of chickens. You’re welcome to blow a raspberry at Dutton as I did. The louder the better. He’s dead, he’ll never hear you, but it’ll feel really good.

So onto the rest of Flying Clues. We have an impossible crime! A murder that takes place in a physician’s private exam room located in his own home. A woman has been stabbed in a chair in his “waiting room” and then moved to the “operating table.” I’m not going to address the operating table in the private exam room. You can do all that research on your own. And good luck.

The murder was committed in a room where the door was open and yet no one managed to see anyone go in or out of the room. A window leads to the outside but after a heavy rain that very night there are no footprints anywhere near the window and no signs of mud or anyone having entered or exited via the window. How was the woman killed without being seen? Trust me. It’s extremely obvious. There is hardly anything that will puzzle even the most neophyte of mystery readers.

A much better detective novel is
Streaked with Crimson (1929)
Still Dutton insists on trying to make it all seem baffling. The police are convinced that the butler did it! He, after all, was the one who was supposedly watching the room and the only person to leave the dining hall adjacent to the exam/waiting/operating room. During the only span of time that the woman could have been killed a dinner party is going. There are twelve possible suspects besides the butler and the physician who hosted the party and yet all of them were in the dining room at the time of the murder. The bulk of the book is spent discovering who the woman is and her connections to the people at the dinner party. None of it really matters. The killer is as obvious as the title.

What is interesting are two other aspects of the book. One is a subplot dealing with a cult religion called the Home of Universal Truth run by scarlet silk robe clad, turban wearing prophet named Savitr. The other is the apparent motive for the killing which involves cocaine smuggling, illegal drug use and widespread drug dealing. Dutton who was a Unitarian minister gives us a theology lesson in comparative religions, focusing on Hindu spirituality, and exposes the false gods that Savitr claims to represent. As bonus lecture we get the fundamentals of Vedic mythology which helps to explain the self-proclaimed guru's odd name.

Prof. Bartley, Dutton's criminologist sleuth, is just as informed on drug dealing as he is on ancient Indian mythology. In a page long lecture he offers up current cocaine pricing:  $14/ounce purchase price for dealers; $300 to $400/ounce for the users. I have to tell you I gasped when I read this. The handy internet US inflation calculator tells me that $400 in 1927 is equal to $4,437 in 2019. In an eerily prescient passage all too resonant for our troubled times Dutton accuses pharmacists all over the USA of being collaborators, whether unintentional or not, in the cocaine problems that plague 1920s America. One can only draw parallel to the opioid crisis we're dealing with now, more than 80 years later.

So if social history is your thing by all means pick up a copy of Flying Clues (if you can find one!).  Otherwise, here is a yet another early American murder mystery that is deserving of its forgotten fate.

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