Monday, August 3, 2020

Magpie Murders TV Series Coming Soon!

This just in...

Magpie Murders, the meta-mystery novel by Anthony Horowitz about a mystery novel manuscript within a novel, is coming to Masterpiece on PBS here in the US. This most likely means it's already scheduled for UK television and will probably air before we get it over here. 

Unlike the recent spate of mangled Christie programs this is one TV adaptation I'm looking forward to seeing. It will be scripted by Horowitz himself so we can surely expect a faithful adaptation with no ludicrous monkeying around with characters and plot. I'm fascinated to see how a book so much about writing and manuscripts will be translated to the television screen. Can the very excellent Daniel Hawthorne mystery novels also written by Horowitz be next on the slate?

For more on this six part (!) series in co-production with Eleventh Hour Films see this publicity piece on the PBS Masterpiece website.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Murder at Deer Lick - A.B. Cunningham

THE STORY:  Powerfully built, intimidating but respected physician John Bruce is found stabbed. His pistol still in its holster, his fierce and equally intimidating horse is roaming nearby a bit confused. How could the man have been knocked from his horse and killed? The horse was known to be "as savage as a boar hog." No one could have approached the doctor while on the animal without major difficulties. Yet Dr. Bruce was discovered off the horse, contusions on his arms, his throat cut and multiple stab wounds to his body. Even more remarkable, the pistol still in its holster proves the doctor never had a chance to defend himself. It was some sort of surprise attack but from where? The body was found on an open roadway beneath an old tree. Nowhere for anyone to hide. Sheriff Jess Roden is faced with this puzzling murder and some surprising additional mysteries in the aftermath Dr. Bruce's brutal killing.

THE CHARACTERS:  Murder at Deer Lick (1939) is the first detective novel in a long series featuring Sheriff Jess Roden, the sole law official in the fictional county of Deer Lick in Kentucky. Roden, as I've discussed previously here and here, follows in a long line of rural fictional detective who use their knowledge of animals and plants to help gather evidence and solve the crimes. Tracking of footprints in these books is very often not so much about human feet as it is about animal tracks. In the case of Dr Bruce's murder someone has cleverly obliterated all traces of tracks and yet in the end this obliteration turns out to be a dead giveaway as to the identity of the murderer when Roden witnesses exactly the same pattern being made somewhere else while investigating the crime.

In one of the opening chapters we get an elaborately detailed biographical sketch on just how Roden has used his knowledge of the woods, streams and fields of Kentucky. It's a brilliant example of what sets a country detective apart from his urban colleagues and is as eye opening as the first glance of a meteor shower. His talents include identifying fish with only a single clue ("a pike by a single tooth, a bass by the anal fin, a perch by one scale...); secrets of mammal life ("..the difference between the smell of muskrat and mink, the shape of a gray squirrel's teeth,...the deep-heeled track of a polecat..."), reptiles ("the size of turtle eggs..., the smell of a copperhead..."), and birds ("how a [heron] made its nest"). He knows the tastes and scent and texture of dozens of trees by touching, smelling or tasting their leaves, nuts and roots. All these observational skills of the natural world only serve to fuel his observation of humans: "He was aware that Ed Lefferton held his cud of tobacco in his right jaw, ...that Mun Lee was left-handed, that little Bo Strange talked to himself, that Potbelly Losee always wore an asafetida bag suspended from a dirty twine string around his great fat neck."

That last fact is crucial in solving the murder of Dr. Bruce. When Losee is singled out by the townspeople as a possible suspect Roden learns that the treasured asafetida bag went missing and Potbelly was beside himself with worry. Later, that bag is found clenched in Doc's hand and things look bleak for the poor mentally retarded young man. Mute since birth and feeble minded Potbelly can barely understand simple sentences, but his mother has a special way she can communicate with him and calm him where all others fail. She asks Roden to do his best to prove that her son is innocent. Mrs. Losee knows in her heart that her dear son could never have killed anyone though he certainly has the strength to harm grown men.

Other suspects include Mun Lee, a young man with a secret who wants desperately to leave town with his girl and is adamant that Roden has no business knowing why he wants to flee. Roden prevents Mun's flight on several occasions, once resulting in a fist fight. Perhaps the most suspicious of the lot is Ezekiel Stout, a crazed preacher, who had a disagreement with Doc Bruce over the way to treat Middy Wily's smallpox. Stout took Middy out of the physician's care, very much against Doc's direct orders, to a prayer meeting trying to save the isck woman. She died in the makeshift church surrounded by Stout's zealous followers; prayer no aid against the ravages of disease. It doesn't help matters that Roden is prejudiced against the preacher who he views as a hypocrite who he knows is a wife beater and sadist.

No comment on the section of Deer Lick
located on the left side of this map
This last bit is an excellent touch in direct contrast to contemporary novels set in the South in which most law officials back up the local preacher and are devout Christians. Roden has an intolerance for fake religion and disdains blood and thunder style fearmongering in the guise of teaching the Lord's ways. Cunningham seems to be voicing his own opinions about zealotry and religious hypocrisy in addition to adding another dimension to Roden's character as this lengthy section vehemently denounces Stout's methods and his foolish, unquestioning followers.

Roden is assisted by his deputy Cary Davis, a coffinmaker named Ed Lefferton, and the local coroner, who is yet another of those forerunners to the cynical medical examiner with a deep black humor, a now common character type. Cunningham foreshadows another convention of crime fiction series novels in that many of the supporting characters have mini-dramas of their own to deal with. Apart from Mrs. Losee's fear of Potbelly being arrested, tried and hanged for the physician's murder there is the drama of Ed Lefferton's ailing wife Molly, the rivalry between local midwife Aunt Minervy and Rev. Stout, and Mayme, a housekeeper formerly employed by Doc Bruce, who makes several attempts to seduce Roden even managing to inveigle her way into his home with the promise of skilled cleaning and delicious cooking.

INNOVATIONS: Cunningham has invented a rather bizarre method of murder in the death of Doc Bruce. This will prove to be an ongoing feature in the Sheriff Roden series like an accidental death that is actually an cleverly engineered poisoning or in another book a death trap of mechanical ingenuity that rivals the imaginative murder means in the John Rhode detective novels. The manner in which Roden stumbles across the actual method of Doc Bruce's murder is both gruesome and efficient. Witnessing this unexpected episode forces Roden to re-evaluate nearly all the evidence he has at hand.

THE AUTHOR:  Albert Benjamin Cunningham (1888-1962) was born in Linden, West Virginia. He was a educated at Muskingum College in Ohio, did graduate work at New York University where he also received a PhD in sociology and psychology. After serving in World War I Cunningham taught English at Texas Tech University from 1930 to 1945. In addition to the 21 detective novels featuring Jess Roden he wrote one crime novel under the pseudonym "Estil Dale" and several mainstream novels as "Garth Hale." During the late 1920s Cunningham also wrote some mainstream novels under his own name prior to turning exclusively detective fiction in 1939.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Singing Clock - Virginia Perdue

THE STORY:  In the middle of the night Jacklin Bogart discovers the dead body of her cousin Antoinette and proceeds to cover up the crime. She is certain she knows who is guilty. We watch her remove the weapon from the scene and bury it far away, then she washes blood off her clothes. Lt. Brady arrives on the scene and is too clever to be fooled by Jacklin's charade. He knows she is shielding someone and perhaps trying to incriminate one of her relatives she so hates. Soon we learn that Jacklin is highly suspicious of nearly all her relatives and suspects someone guilty of not only killing her mother but trying to do in her beloved grandfather. When another murder occurs in the home it is clear to Brady that Jacklin's meddling is endangering the lives of the entire Crandall household.

THE CHARACTERS: Jacklin is one of the earliest renditions of the now tired cliche of "the unreliable narrator".  We never really know whether to believe her outrageous claims that someone not only arranged the accidental death of her father, but manged to drive her mother to commit suicide. Or perhaps killed her and made it look like suicide. Despite her beliefs her parents' deaths are not viewed as crimes by anyone,  but only by Jacklin herself. Her hatred of her relatives infects her every interaction. Her desire to avenge her parents' death affects her close relationship with her grandfather who she also believes is being targeted by the same homicidal manic who killed her parents. Everard Crandall, is an irascible old man who seems to be as misanthropic as his granddaughter. But someone still manages to poison him, a botched attempt to kill him that does not go unnoticed by the police or the relentless killer who will try again later in the story.

David, Antoinett'es former fiance, who had an argument with the murder victim the very night she was killed.  It seems that David whose reputation is tainted by his volatile temper had a prime motive and all eyes turn to him as suspect number one.  Was Jacklin protecting him with her monkey business at the scene of the crime?  Further complicating the case is that fact that Jacklin has an obsessive love for her cousin, Ward, who was training to become a doctor in Germany but was forced to return to the US in 1939 when the war broke out. She dreams of marrying him, and longs to be a Crandall so she get get rid of the odious name Bogart and all the hateful things it reminds her of.

The Crandall household is typical of these GAD fictional homes populated with troubled wealthy people all waiting for an ailing relative to die. The eccentric standout is Aunt Mel, Antoinette's mother. She is a religious zealot obsessed with New Age style movements like the one that celebrates The Great Life Force she is currently proselytizing about. In one of the book's highlights she lets loose with a tirade of invective at Everard accusing him of bringing about her daughter's death and cursing him to die.

Everard's housekeeper Mrs. Wollaston, was at one time his lover and they intended to marry, but the family prevented their union in holy matrimony. Mrs. Wollaston, nevertheless moved into the house to stay by the man she loved and care for him.  But is it possible her love is all a sham and she is actually in love with Everard's money?

ATMOSPHERE: The title of the book comes from a musical antique grandfather clock that has a prominent place in the home. Throughout the novel Jacklin hears the clock chiming an hour and a portion of the lyrics of "My Grandfather's Clock" run through her head. The song itself lodges in her mind like an earworm, and each time the clock chimes a new hour she hears another line of lyrics singing to her. Often the phrases ironically comment on the action that just occurred or will foreshadow future incidents in the narrative. Perdue uses this motif to add an eerie menace as the murder investigation unfolds. The rhyme includes the line "But it stopped short, never to run again, when the old man died" and Jacklin is fearful that if the clock stops it's tune or stops its incessant ticking Everard Crandall will in fact drop dead. She is determined to save him and is on constant watch as people continually enter and exit his bedroom where he spends much of his time.

INNOVATIONS: I thought this was going to be a suspenseful inverted crime novel and that Jacklin was guilty from the start on page one when we follow her destroying evidence and covering up the murder. But The Singing Clock (1941) is in fact a legitimate whodunnit, an ingenious blend of psychological suspense and detection. Filled with shifts in tone, surprise revelations, astonishing secrets and some transgressive touches like marijuana addiction and borderline incestuous love, The Singing Clock is one of the most remarkable crime novels to be published by Doubleday's Crime Club and a minor masterpiece from Virginia Perdue, a sorely underappreciated American crime fiction writer. The last chapter of this book is bonechilling and genuinely thrilling with Perdue's final unexpected shocking revelation. All that preceded suddenly shifts, characters are seen in a new blindingly altered light, and the story all makes perfect sense. The last few paragraphs are literally bloodcurdling with a scene reminiscent of the violent movies of Quentin Tarantino and the nightmarish tales of Cornell Woolrich and Robert Bloch. For me the final chapter of The Singing Clock is utterly ingenious and makes this book a breathtaking pioneering novel of misdirection in crime fiction. I was both impressed and astonished, a rare reaction these days.

THINGS I LEARNED:  I remember "My Grandfather's Clock" as a nursery rhyme from my childhood. My younger brother and I had it on a kid's record and we used to listen to it over and over as we did with the many odd songs in our large record collection. But apparently it's actually a folk tune that dates to the post Civil War era. Written and composed by Henry C. Work the song was published in 1876. Work is also the composer of a march that memorialized Sherman's invasion of Savanaah called "Marching Through Georgia."

According to a Wikipedia article Henry C. Work wrote a sequel to the song in which the narrator "laments the fate of the no-longer-functioning grandfather clock – it was sold to a junk dealer, who sold its parts for scrap and its case for kindling."

A lyric line from the song inspired "Ninety Years without Slumbering" in the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. Similar to what Jacklin believes in Perdue's novel in the TV show Ed Wynn stars as a man who fears his life will end when his antique clock stops ticking.

For those unfamiliar with the song "My Grandfather's Clock" you can hear Johnny Cash do his own rendition. It's the only one I can listen to now amid the sea of annoying kid's versions.

QUOTES:  "Don't think you can get out of it so easily! You've gone too far, Everard Crandall.  Your wickedness and cruelty have offended against the Great Life Stream!" Jacklin felt a mad desire to laugh. At the same time there was a prickling along her spine. It was only a part of Aunt Mel's latest religious fad. Nevertheless, it was rather horrible.

"Nobody can call his soul his own. Not so long as [Everard's] alive."

There was an air of vigorous health about [Aunt Sarah], a country air, as if she were made of good rich soil instead of ordinary blood and nerves.

And I can't resist adding this one in our days of mask phobia and pandemic viruses:

...the other man gave a harsh laugh which ended in a fit of coughing. He really had a bad cold, Jacklin thought with distaste. Why didn't they stay at home when they were sick. It wasn't fair to go around snuffling and coughing and infecting other people.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Slay the Murderer - Hugh Holman

THE STORY: Owner of a wholesale produce company is found stabbed in a locked room in his house. Also found in the room is an unconscious man named Charles Cole. It is believed Cole who recently had a violent argument with the dead man stabbed him while drunk then passed out. Seems entirely cut and dried. But Cole claims innocence and amnesia; he has no idea how he ended up drunk in the room. Why is the room locked with all windows shut tight? And what is that odor of bitter almonds about the corpse?  The autopsy reveals the corpse was poisoned and stabbed after he was dead. Sheriff Macready investigates hauling Cole to every interview (rather than keeping him locked up in jail) and eventually discovers the startling reason for William Deahl's murder and the real killer.

THE CHARACTERS:  Slay the Murderer (1946) is the second appearance of Macready in a short series of only four novels. Being a Southerner he has a colorful way of speaking, peppering his speech with unusual exclamations, a trait seemingly inspired by the detectives of Holman's close friend John Dickson Carr. He's matter-of-fact, but open minded and willing to listen to Charles Cole's story of his innocence. He's trusting enough (and thoroughly unconventional) to lug Cole around the city with him as his suspect in custody. As a result Cole, desperate to clear his name and discover how he came to be drunk and passed out in a locked room with a corpse, becomes a sort of Watson. The suspects are often taken aback at being questioned by Cole but with Macready's insistence all those being interrogated answer both the sheriff and his suspect #1. In addition to his quirky Southern expressions (see QUOTES) Macready offers up frequent bits of sage advice to Cole and others.  Like this eccentric view of arguments: "You know in every argument there's three sides, not just two--the side you're on and the side the other feller's on and the right side. Shucks, folks around here have got enough sense to know you can't decide right off the bat what's right and wrong. The law's like that too."  This tidbit is adressed to his rival for the office of Sheriff -- Lucius Watters. It's election time and Watters is hoping that by not arresting and charging Cole Macready's incumbent status will be tarnished. Watters is eager to expose Cole as the real murderer.

The Deahl household is filled with unusual characters that help liven up the otherwise routine proceedings. Frances Deahl is the blind matriarch who suffers from a delusion that her two sons are impostors. She claims they committed suicide after the death of her husband and were replaced with fakes. Macready is sure she speaks in a metaphoric language and uses this delusion to protect her from having a complete nervous breakdown. She was truly in love with her husband, but once he died under suspicious circumstances (a heart attack after being on a fishing trip with his sons) she lost her sight and a bit of her mind. Still, she rules the household with her iron will and tart tongue.

Her sister, Alicia, suffers miserably. Nursing her old wounds of being dumped by her lover who chose Frances as his wife rather than her Alicia retreats into a mousy personality. She is presented as the archetypical Victorian biddy still living in the past, surrounding herself with mementos of a bygone era and clinging to fond memories of years long passed. She acts as more of a servant to her sister than a real member of the house. Holman tersely describes her as fragile and dainty, a woman who "speaks as if anesthetized."

The two Deahl sons, Willis and Ralph, had an interest in taking over Deahl Wholesale Produce and seemed willing to do anything to control the company. The investigation will reveal a sinister d side to the two brothers and involve a surprise second murder related to their scheming.

Also living with the Deahls is Rupert Pater, a lodger Frances allows to move in in order to get some extra income. Pater seems to be a red herring character, he is a wannabe poet who lives in a room furnished with a "wispy and delicate" motif. We get to read one of his awful poems , an example of the worse purple prose. Holman seems to be hinting that Pater is less than a man, an ineffectual dreamer with his mind trapped in an anachronistic imagination and perhaps implying that he's gay. We are meant to dismiss him entirely because of his less than masculine attitudes and aspirations. But Rupert is in the story for a reason. Hidden motives will certainly be unearthed. Macready is not too quick to strike off Rupert Pater from the list of suspects especially when he discovers a photographic laboratory in his private bathroom and a missing bottle of cyanide from the collection of chemicals.

M.S. Mill & Company, a subsidiary of William Morrow,
 created "Circle Mysteries." The Sheriff Macready books
 were part of this short-lived mystery novel imprint.
INNOVATIONS:  Holman, primarily a literature professor known for his scholarly work on American South writers, uses language and grammar to effect throughout the novel. Twice Charles notices an "improvement in grammar" -- more often a shift in the use of literate vocabulary -- as an indication of Macready's "internal excitement." Macready also talks about the use of grammar when he is interrogating suspects as a tool in understanding character and possible deceit. Another unusual detective skill, very much tied to the Golden Age, is graphology which comes into play at one key moment in the story. The analysis of handwriting as an understanding of personality was a common feature in plots of vintage crime fiction. You don't often encounter it these days as it has been replaced by the techno-wizardy.

This is a strongly plotted mystery with multiple unusual motives among a motley group of suspects. Digging into everyone's past reveals dozens of secrets and skeletons come tumbling out of myriad closets. It is difficult to pinpoint those which are crucial to the solution of the crimes. In that regard the book is a success. The identity of the killer for me was a true surprise and the motivation is sound for the character if not truly mindboggling in conception.

Sadly, the locked room aspect pales in comparison to the rest of the plot. Despite Holman's professed love of "constructors of complex and elaborate plots and impossible crimes" no Carr-like ingenuity lies behind the reasoning or the method of how the murder room became locked. The locked room is used to ill effect in trying to add an extra twist in the finale. Holman didn't really fool me with that twist. However, the real identity of the killer did. For that reason I'd say this was a well constructed mystery with a satisfying conclusion.

Hugh Holman (circa 1946)
QUOTES:  "By the sacred horns of the hoot owl I can get myself into some of the confoundedest messes."

(and again...)  "No, by the sacred horns of Aunt Lydie's hoot owl, no, it ain't enough!"

"Son, I'd rather try to sell quick-freeze units to South Pole penguins than try to sell that yarn to a self-respecting jury."

Dan Comfort, the coroner: "The odor was enough. Odor of bitter almonds mean anything to you, Mac?"
Macready: "Confound it, Dan, first thing I know you'll have me consulting 'the little gray cells.' So it was cyanide, huh?"

They listened...with the indifference of a sleepy opossum, and set off on the search of the house with the enthusiasm of a hound dog tracking its second polecat.

Jed's laughter had all the humor of a Gestapo trial.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Macready talks about someone who went "to the worst dive in these parts and [lost] four dollars and eighty cents playing Kelly pool" late in the book. Had to look that one up. Kelly pool is an old-fashioned term to describe a game of pool similar to Eight Ball. Each player chooses at random one specific numbered ball, keeps this secret from the other players, and must pocket that ball during the game. According to a Wikipedia article the key difference between this game and Eight Ball: "Kelly pool is a rotation game, which means that players must contact the lowest numbered object ball on each shot first until the opportunity to pocket their own is presented." Here's some more tidbits taken from that entry: "Reportedly invented by Chicagoan Calistus "Kelly" Mulvaney in 1893, kelly pool was a popular game during the early to mid-20th century. Mentions of it were at one time common in US newspapers, often painting it in a negative light as its play was considered a stronghold of gambling. Authorities in various parts of the United States at times called for a moratorium on the game's play. Until 1964, in fact, playing the game was a fineable offense in the state of Montana."

I'll be doing a Moonlighting feature on Hugh Holman when I finish reading the other mystery novels featuring Sheriff Macready. For now I'll forgo the author section. Holman is rather popular on the vintage crime blogs these days thanks to TomCat, who is slowly usurping me as the expert on obscure mystery writers, who reviewed Up This Crooked Way also with Macready. This was shortly followed by a review of Holman's debut (without Macready) Death Like Thunder at The Green Capsule blog.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: Burton Keirstead, The Economist & the R.C.M.P.

What a surprise it was to learn that this excellent detective novel was the work of a young economics professor who was teaching at the University of New Brunswick when it was published. Burton Keirstead (writing as B. S. Keirstead) co-authored his first and only novel with D. Frederick Campbell, who apparently was also working at the university though I was unable to uncover anything about him. The Brownsville Murders (1933) is an engaging and fascinating blend of police procedural, a novel of rural Canadian life, a satire of naive thinking, and an eye-opening account of the RCMP in 1930s Canada. Keirstead seems to draw from American pulp writers and the nascent detective novels just beginning to become popular as million copy bestsellers. Well reviewed in the American press The Brownsville Murders showed promise for the young man who wrote only one other detective fiction work published only in serial format, but would go on to make a name for himself as one of Canada's leading economists of the early 20th century.

The Brownsville Murders is set in the titular Canadian farming village sandwiched between Woodstock and Fredericton in the province of New Brunswick. In the opening pages we meet a young couple engaged to be married who while driving to Fredericton come across a body in the middle of the road. Upon close inspection they see it is a man who has been shot in the head. When they go for help and return to the accident scene the body has disappeared. A search ensues and soon another person is dead. And then another!  Only 35 pages have passed and already we have three bodies, one missing, and two young people terrified to have been caught up in a true murder mystery.

Brian Woodworth, the young man driving the car that night, we soon learn is a law student finishing his studies and employed in the office of Lawyer MacPherson whose first name is never mentioned. Macpherson is our narrator and the unofficial detective of the novel. This is a blend of both amateur and professional detective work. Inspector Eccles of the RCMP will eventually take charge of the investigation aided by MacPherson and Sgt. LaTour. Interestingly, MacPherson notes that the young sergeant is the more capable of the two policemen. He describes LaTour as a man of "sheer native wit and shrewdness and insight." In contrast Eccles is an an impulsive and fanciful thinker who MacPherson believes relies too much on imaginative ideas "full of bad psychology." Eccles is certain that two people were responsible for the three murders and the vanishing of two corpses. He cannot envision that one person could carry out all the activity necessary in killing three people and moving the bodies.

The man found dead in the road is identified after painstaking questioning and turns out to be a local named MacLeod with a reputation as a womanizer. In one of the most intriguing fictional inquests I've ever read the Brownsville murder case reveals a torrid lover's triangle heightened by impassioned jealousies and rampant cruelty. We meet a sadistic Fundamentalist Christian farmer who according to gossip beats his daughter. A feeble minded "half-wit" confesses his love for MacLeod's wife and talks of his passion for late night salmon fishing. Finally, we learn of the life and work of the stranger in town, a writer and illustrator named Stephen Jamieson.

Canadian law allows for a police counsel to question witnesses at a coroner's inquest.  In The Brownsville Murders the police counsel is Mr. Des Barres who is determined to implicate Albert Denton, the "half-wit fisherman" who was seen wandering near the site of the shootings. This eyewitness is Mrs. MacLeod, the object of Albert's obsessive affection and also the wife of the murdered man in the road. As MacPherson watches the inquest unfold from the gallery he is suspicious of every word uttered by Mrs. MacLeod. Is it possible that she is perjuring herself in order to escape suspicion and help Des Barres build his case against Albert?

Poor Brian Woodward is also badgered on the witness stand during the inquest. He is advised by MacPherson to keep his temper under control and not allow himself to be bullied into an outburst. MacPherson is sure that Brian will be manipulated and exploited by the shrewd and controlling police counsel. It's all Brian can do to keep from criticizing Des Barres' methods rather than simply answering his questions. At times he cannot speak, rather he sits seething in the witness stand.

The inquest ends with a circumstantial case built against Albert who has been painted as an obsessive stalker angry with MacLeod and protective of his "love" for Mrs. MacLeod. Albert's father is worried that the police will soon arrest Albert and hires MacPherson as his lawyer. The case becomes one of MacPherson trying to save Albert from trial and determined to help Eccles and LaTour find the true murderer of the three shooting victims.

I was completely enthralled with this novel. It's an impressive debut work and all the moreso because the writing duo managed to fool me.  The James M. Cain-like atmosphere of jealous lovers and volatile extramarital affairs was so convincing and so neatly laid out with multiple suspects I was completely taken in. But all the while Keirstead and Campbell had another angle with clues cleverly planted so off-handedly that I dismissed them entirely as red herrings. Much to my embarrassment (and later delight) these supposed red herrings were the real clues leading to the solution. In fact, one bit of investigation about a shack on one of the farms near the initial murder and roadside accident should have been so obvious to me that I was kicking myself for overlooking it.

Young Burton Keirstead, circa late 1930s.
Burton Seely Keirstead (1907-1973) was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick and was the son of Dr. Wilfrid Currier Keirstead, a pastor for the United Baptist Church and a noted professor himself. Dr. Keirstead taught philosophy and social sciences at University of New Brunswick where his son would eventually study and teach.

Burton would choose economics over religion and philosophy and his studies included a stint as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford where he was involved in the Adelphi Club, the Dialectical Society and the Lotus Club. While at Oxford he often entertained students in a salon in his private rooms. One of the most famous salons he arranged included a talk by fellow student E. M. Forster, famed novelist of A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howard's End and Maurice.

Over his lengthy career as an academic and economist Keirstead taught at University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University's Institute of Public Affairs, McGill University and University of Toronto. He was a visiting lecturer at MIT, University of Arizona and The University of West Indies in Jamaica where he studied and eventually published a book on freight rates and the federal shipping service. He published several books on economics throughout his life notably The Economic Effects of the War on the Maritime Provinces of Canada (1944), The Theory of Economic Change (1948), Canada in World Affairs, Vol. VI (1956), and Capital, Interest and Profit (1958).

While The Brownsville Murders is Keirstead's only published detective novel it is not his only contribution to crime fiction. The editor of Maclean's magazine after reading an enthusiastic review of Keirstead's debut mystery novel in a New York newspaper met Keirstead in person to discuss his fiction. Together they came up with a plan to publish Keirstead's second idea for a detective novel as a serial. The first part of Murder in the Police Station appeared in the January 15, 1934 issue. MacPherson, Brian Woodward (now a partner in MacPherson's firm), Inspector Eccles and LaTour all appear in this second work. A nice surprise is that after his success with the Brownsville case LaTour has been promoted to the rank of Inspector in the RCMP. Murder in the Police Station was published in six bi-monthly installments from January through April 1934. The entire serial is available to read at the Maclean's website. I hope to read the whole thing and write a review of that obscure fiction work soon.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

FFB: Murder R.F.D. - Herman Petersen

THE STORY: In the first chapter of Murder R.F.D. a runaway bull is captured just after goring a farmhand. This leads to an investigation as to who let loose the bull and if it was a bizarre act of revenge. While all the bitter relationships on the local farm are sorted out Tom Wykeham is found dead - a bullet to his head. Now the police have both a weird farm accident and a murder to contend with. Or are they two murders? And are the deaths related? Doc Miller, local coroner, Ben Wayne, new to the farm town and new to farming, and D.A. Paul Burns team up to sort out the evidence and determine who the angry killer is.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder R.F.D. (1942) is the second novel to feature Doc Miller, Wayne and Burns. The setting as with the other books by Petersen is upstate rural New York. Ben Wayne is our narrator and the first case he and Miller were involved with -- Murder in the Making (1940) -- is alluded to a couple of times. Ben does some interesting detective work on his own, but it is mostly Miller who sorts through the evidence, discarding one theory after another, then pretty much uncovering the killer.

Doc Miller is a cantankerous man, wise but impatient. He seems friendly with Wayne and Burns but he definitely has an ego. Though Burns at first seems to be in charge, Miller takes over given the opportunity or not. State troopers are present but are mere background characters. The police seem unimportant here and there may not be a police force at all in this upstate New York farm village. The Petersen novels seem inspired by Queen and Van Dine with the presence of a District Attorney and an amateur sleuth.

The murder investigation primarily targets Orville and Agatha Deuel, the wealthy farmer gentleman and his wife, who have a rocky marriage. Agatha was allowed a friendship with Tom Wykeham, a man considerably younger than her, and it seems to have developed into something deeper and romantic though she denies anything physical between the two. Their intimate meetings suggest otherwise. Agatha visited Wykeham frequently at his ramshackle cottage. Her bathing suit is found hanging out to dry in his shack. And she was seen cradling his dead body moments after he was shot. Clues like a woman's white slipper, a burned dress, and blood stained clothing all suggest that one or both of the Deuels are involved in Wykeham's murder. Later some evidence about the use of a boathouse near the murder scene will add another layer of deceit and lies.

Other suspects include Jim Kinney and Pat Gordon, two farmhands who work on Deuel's land. Kinney seems to have been responsible for letting the bull loose as revenge on another farmhand he disliked. Kinney comes off as a passive aggressive whiner, a weak man with a juvenile temper, who couldn't possibly be a killer. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Gordon, a hulking savage, with an intimidating physique and a sadistic personality. He will feature in one of the strangest action sequences in the final third of the book.

Louis Telford is the man who saved the day by single-handedly capturing the rampaging bull. A former cattle rancher from out west, Telford is described as "a wealthy bachelor who liked the bottle and was a connoisseur of women." Ben is mistrustful of Telford. Despite the playboy personality Telford seems eager to help the trio of detectives track down the killer.

Christine Nelson, is Agatha's niece, and she turns up about midway in the book arriving by bus from the big city. She has a few moments of sleuthing on her own and serves as the requisite damsel in distress late in the novel.

INNOVATIONS: It's mostly the rural setting that makes this book and all the other in the brief series so intriguing. It's wartime yet there is little talk of anything outside of the farming community. The characters have plenty to worry about among themselves without thinking of fighting overseas. In essence this is almost like James M. Cain on a farm with a plot heavily focused on a strange affair between an older woman and a younger man that apparently does not involve sex, and jealousies and highly charged emotions.

The detection mostly consists of the usual American countryside mystery fare. Farming routine, property rights, care of animals are always at the forefront. The clues are heavy on tracking footprints and discovering items left behind in tall grasses. A half-wit farmhand named Willie obsessed with American Indians often imagines himself in pursuit of wild men. Of all the characters Willie is the most skilled at following footprints and pathways through the grasslands. All Doc Miller and Ben need do to goad him into helping them is tell him is that they are after an Indian and Willie is set into motion.

Apart from the extensive tracking sequences there are other subtle clues like the discovery of a party line phone in Wykeham's riverside shack and the previously mentioned boathouse and the borrowed boat. But whether or not this can be considered entirely fair play is a matter of debate. A clever reader might be able to piece together all the clues, but the motive barely suggested in some brief theorizing and dialogue on Wayne and Miller's part is not fully brought out into the open until the killer explains his motivations himself in the final pages.

THE AUTHOR: Herman Petersen (1893-1973) spent his entire life in upstate New York. Born in Utica he worked for several newspapers there and eventually settled in the small town of Poolville. For many years he was the postmaster in that village. From 1922 through 1939 he wrote dozens of short stories sand novellas for pulp detective magazines. His affintiy for that action oriented story telling is evident in his novels of the 1940s. Most of his stories appeared in The Black Mask during its heyday when the work of Hammett, Gardner and Chandler appeared in its pages. On occasion Petersen made the cover of a magazine issue so he must have been popular with readers. Other stories were published in Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, Bulls-Eye Detective and Soldier Stories. His final novel published first in the the pulp magazine Two Complete Detective Books (June 1948) was promised to be appear as a full length book from Lippincott but that never actually happened. I managed to score a copy of that issue and will be reviewing his final Gothic sounding novel Night on Castle Hill later this year.

Herman Petersen's Detective Novels (all with Miller, Wayne & Burns except those noted)
Murder in the Making (1940)
Murder R.F.D. (1942)
Old Bones (1943)
The D.A.'s Daughter (1943) - no series characters
Night on Castle Hill (948) - magazine publication only

Friday, June 5, 2020

FFB: The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet - Burton Stevenson

THE STORY: An error in shipping sends a 17th century ornate cabinet supposedly created by André-Charles Boulle to the home of Philip Vantine, wealthy collector of antiques. He did purchase a Boule (sic) cabinet but it is not the extravagantly designed masterpiece that is delivered to his home. Within hours a strange Frenchman is pounding on Vantine's door wanting to talk to him about the cabinet. And just as quickly the mysterious visitor is found dead, a strange wound on the top of his right hand. This is only the first bizarre death that occurs and the beginning of a baffling mystery that will lure other strange visitors to Vantine's home, including a master criminal in search of a secret hidden within the cabinet's intricate compartments.

THE CHARACTERS: The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet (1912) is the fourth detective novel to feature Lester, the narrator lawyer and his friend ex-policeman turned newspaper reporter Jim Godfrey. The two apparently appear together in most of the mystery novels with Godfrey and three earlier adventures are referenced repeated, but thankfully without spoiling any of the books. Though Lester -- whose first name I never saw on any page of this novel -- does some interesting theorizing and mild detective work it is Godfrey, the hard-nosed ambitious reporter with lots of police skills under his belt who is the detective in all the books. For a newspaper reporter he oversteps himself an awful lot, takes the lead when police officers ought to be in charge and follows a police sergeant named Simmonds around to nearly every crime scene offering his input and expertise. He also has it in for Commissioner Grady, a cop Godfrey apparently worked with years ago and in the reporter's opinion deserves no respect. In fact, there has been a concerted campaign to discredit Grady in the press. Godfrey inserts insinuating remarks in his articles in the hope that Grady will be ousted from his position of authority.

But this is no novel of politics and police bureaucracy. Rather, it is a highly melodramatic, incident filled adventure novel with some top notch detective work from Godfrey, Lester and Simmonds. Some French police also make a late entry into the book when the wild crimes and bizarre murders attract the attention of a master criminal who dubs himself "L'Invincible."

Stevenson has a fondness for every character in the book. Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight from the frantic maid who disguises herself to gain entry into Vantine's house to a greedy cousin of Vantine who intrudes on the house after the second death hoping to learn he will inherit a sizeable legacy from his cousin. Supporting characters are described with as much detail and given as much attention as our intrepid detective team. More than enough sinister events lead the reader to suspect everyone, including servants, of being up to no good. At one point I was convinced that this would turn out to be a book where "the butler did it." Stevenson, however, seems thoroughly influenced by the popular French mystery writers of his time like LeBlanc, Leroux and Allain & Souvestre -- authors of the Fantomas series which was still very new to Americans in 1912. Despite Stevenson's dedication to an initialed friend dubbed "a fellow Sherlockian" The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet is mostly an action adventure thriller.  The novel is so steeped in a variety of crimes and action set pieces, not just the insidious and puzzling murders, that is was slightly disappointing to learn that it all leads to yet another master criminal from France.

INNOVATIONS: The most interesting part of the book is the murder means. It should come as no surprise that the gorgeous antique piece of furniture that gives the book its title will feature prominently. Indeed, it is almost a character in its own right. Readers are sure to be reminded of Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" when the talk turns to fang like wounds. I myself was thinking that venomous spiders might be involved. The truth is even more bizarre. Lester and Godfrey know the history of France and they allude to the infamous period during Louis XIV's reign known as L'Affaire de Poisons. When the Borgias come up in conversation the cabinet begins to take on a sinister persona. The two men turn to fanciful romance and imagine the worst. Lester comes very close quite early on in the story to working out the deadly method employed to kill the two men foolish enough to tamper with the cabinet.

Alphonse Bertillon (from his own mug shot)
THINGS I LEARNED: The Bertillon measurement system of classifying criminal types is mentioned as a way to perhaps verify the identity of the unknown Frenchman who dies in Vantine's house. I was unaware that this classification system was so vast. Stevenson has Godfrey tell the NYC police that all criminals in Paris have their measurements taken and filed away. Prior to the widespread use of fingerprints the Bertillon system was the most popular way to keep track of repeat offenders in law enforcement. Alphonse Bertillon, French criminologist, not only developed this early form of criminal anthropometry he also invented the mug shot.

When some valuable items discovered late in the novel need to be stowed away in a safe deposit box prior to being taken with French police back to Europe Jim Godfrey suggests they take a trip to the Day and Night Bank on Fifth Avenue because "it never closes." Once again Stevenson made a mix-up with a name. The true business name was the Night & Day Bank which was located on 5th Avenue and 44th Street. At the time of the novel's publication this 24 hour bank, a brand new concept in American banking, was only six years old. Founded in 1906 the Night and Day Bank was unique for its safety deposit boxes that were stored in a naturally lit chamber with high skylights in order to attract the business of jewelers and gem merchants. They also operated a separate woman's banking service. In the first year of business the bank posted over $3 million in deposits and had 7,000 customers. For more history on the pioneering Night & Day Bank see Dollars through the Doors: Pre-1930 History of Bank Marketing in America (1996) by Richard German.

Bureau brise, a kind of writing table cum cabinet.
Designed & built by André-Charles Boulle, circa late 17th c.
Lester talks about how the Boule cabinet once belonged to Madame Montespan and how that association makes him think of poison and poisoners. I fell down the rabbit hole again when I ty entered her name in to the Google search box and learned her full name was Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise of Montespan, royal mistress of Louis XIV who was linked to the notorious ring of poisoners and murderers involved in the Affair of Poisons. Lester seems to believe that the Marquise was a wicked woman who practically killed all the victims herself. Contemporary historians, however, have found little evidence that she was involved at all. The real villainess was a fortune teller and practitioner of black magic called Catherine Monvoisin (aka "La Voisin") who butchered babies, committed black mass rituals, and poisoned hundreds of people as a murderer for hire. There are dozens of books about this period in French history but I resorted to the Wikipedia page. I hope I got the facts, not the legends.

Burton Stevenson, circa 1930s
(courtesy of ALA Archives)
THE AUTHOR: Burton Egbert Stevenson (1873-1962) began his life in writing as a boy when he built his own printing press and using discarded type from the newspaper where he was a newsboy created his own privately published newspaper. He attended Princeton where he worked in the university printing office using his skills as a typesetter to help finance his way though school. While in college he worked for The New York Tribune and The United Press as a college correspondent. Eventually he veered away from journalism and found his calling in library work. In 1918 he founded the American Library in Paris "to act as a center of information about the United States." He became its director in 1925 and stayed there for five years. Between 1903 and 1939 Stevenson wrote thirteen detective and mystery novels, six featuring Jim Godfrey and Lester whch are listed below. In addition to his fiction he was the author of numerous compilations of quotes and poetry including  The Home Book of Verses (1912),  a massive 4000+ page tome still in print at the time of his death, The Home Book of Quotations (1934), The Home Book of Shakespeare Quotations (1937) and two other books of proverbs and Biblical quotes.

James Godfrey & Mr. Lester Detective Novels
The Holladay Case (1903)
The Marathon Mystery (1904)
That Affair at Elizabeth (1907)
The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet (1912)
The Gloved Hand (1912)
The House Next Door (1932)

Friday, May 15, 2020

FFB: Murder Goes to the Dogs - Timothy Brace

THE STORY: Inexplicably, prize-winning greyhound Sweetheart turns and runs in the wrong direction just as she is about to win the final race at the Everglades Kennel Club racetrack. Moments later Vincent Wells, Associate Judge, is stabbed in the presence of the large crowd. No murder weapon is found and no one seems to have been near the victim prior to his death. Anthony Adams assists the sheriff in figuring out who killed the judge, what happened to the knife, and why the dog ran the wrong way.

THE CHARACTERS: Murder Goes to the Dogs (1938) is the third outing for gentleman criminologist and sometime private investigator Anthony Adams and his faithful manservant Thurber. In this short series Adams and Thurber are often called upon by Sheriff Ernest Chase to help solve baffling crimes that sometimes, as in this case, include impossible crime and locked room elements. In this case Chase and Adams need to figure out how the victim was stabbed in full view of a crowd without anyone seeing anything and find out how the weapon was disposed of since everyone was searched and nothing was found.

Adams belongs to the intuitive school of detectives and will most likely remind readers of Philo Vance and Ellery Queen. He has a vast knowledge of arcane subject matter and likes to speak in a highfalutin manner that is completely out of place in this largely colloquial styled entertainment. His loyal manservant Thurber is one of those wannabe Watsons who begs to be included in the sleuthing. Thurber's previous assists (alluded to throughout this novel) resulted in a second victim and he is reluctant to mention his ideas and theories to Adams lest his suspect also turn up dead. Seems that Thurber has more of a role as legman in this book than in the first two of the series and I thought he did a nifty job in digging up some dirt on some of the suspects. Adams likes to toy with Thurber and has a unlikable way of belittling his employee who risks his life at least twice. There wasn't much to like about Adams in this book. I wonder if he's as patronizing in the other books.

The suspects are a motley group with most of them involved in the world of dog racing. Several dog owners, breeders and trainers make up the rather large cast of suspects. One of the dog breeders is a woman and it's hinted through supercilious description and gossipy dialogue that she is most likely a lesbian. All of the other dog racing characters are men and every one is belligerent, loud mouthed, brash and a heavy drinker. There aren't many nice people in this crowd. The two youngsters -- Peter Lane and his fiancee Frances Warr -- are the only two who resemble real people even if they, too, have shallow personalities.

The most interesting duo consists of Leo Sunday, an actor who is "resting" in Florida (translation: currently unemployed) and his partner Patsy Grant, an aspiring showgirl and actress who works at the local drive-in as a "curbgirl". They are working on an unusual act together and hope to hit the vaudeville circuit soon. Leo despite his charm and easy going nature has a slightly sinister side. He seems to be hiding something. And his extreme good looks disturb Sheriff Chase who distrusts "pretty boys." Thurber is sure that Sunday's act has something to do with the missing murder weapon. Sunday, of course (you've probably guessed), is a knife thrower.

INNOVATIONS: You may not believe this but this is the 17th murder mystery wherein I have encountered knife throwing in the plot. And it was entirely unexpected for a book that deals primarily with greyhound racing, dog breeders and the world of gambling in 1930s Florida. Knife throwing was first discussed on this blog in one of the most popular posts of 2012. In that book there were four knife throwing characters. Still haven't topped that one. In this book there are merely two, but at times it seems there could be more characters with this hidden talent of tossing around cutlery. There are two different scenes in which Leo Sunday shows off his skill and the climax of the book uses knife throwing to entrap the culprit.

THINGS I LEARNED: Dogtrack racing, a form of gambling that is almost completely gone from American culture, was hugely popular in Florida for close to a century. The oldest was in St. Petersburg which began operations in 1925. The only other greyhound dogtrack racing mystery I know of features Mike Shayne, one of the Golden Age's early Floridian private eyes who was based in Miami. In Tickets for Death (1941) he uncovers a counterfeiting ring at the dogtrack with phoney tickets being cashed in for prize money. Murder soon follows. I think there may be a few other mystery novels featuring dog racing but I was unable to confirm the titles after extensive a-Googling.

Adams lectures on the origin of the greyhound telling Thurber the dog shows up in ancient Assyrian artwork, medieval European tapestries, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon in the Bible. He goes on to discuss a treatise on the dog breed written by Xenophon as well as a similar essay by Herodotus. Even Shakespeare, Adams says, "often uses [the dog] as an example of keenness and alertness." I detect an overwhelming whiff of Philo Vance, don't you? There are footnotes all over the novel about dog racing lingo, too.

As of this date dog racing is illegal in 41 states and only four states legally allow greyhound racing: West Virginia, Texas, Iowa and Arkansas. On January 1, 2021 Florida —currently with three operating racetracks —has a new law going into effect banning greyhound dog racing and all tracks will be forced to shut down. The one racetrack in West Memphis, AR will shut down in December 2022. I imagine none of them -- or any gambling establishment, for that matter -- are doing well in this age of COVID-19.

QUOTES: I enjoyed the plot and the unusual relationship between Adams and Thurber. But Adams has a grating pretentious style of speaking no doubt influenced by watching too many Philo Vance movies. Here's a collection of Adams droning on in ersatz sophisticate mode alternating with with clever wise guy mode that not once sounds authentic:

"...surely you have the first crawlings of suspicion. Certainly within your breast there stirs some little worm that bores so irritatingly that it creates a bothersome repression."

"Encroach as much as you want. And bring your encroaching to the car later."

"I feel the need for an excursion. It may clear the functioning of the thing I believed to be my brain."

THE AUTHOR:  "Timothy Brace" is the pseudonym used by Floridian novelist Theodore Pratt (1901-1969), a popular writer of every type of fiction imaginable. He is best remembered for his lighthearted novel The Barefoot Mailman (1943) and the comic fantasy Mr Limpet (1942) turned into a movie in 1964 starring Don Knotts as the title character who transforms into a fish. Those like me who haunt the listings of eBay may recognize his name from the numerous lurid potboilers and paperback originals that crop up for sale. He wrote a slew of them with titles like Handsome (1951), Escape to Eden (1953), Smash-Up (1954), and The Tormented (1950) about a nymphomaniac which unsurprisingly was a huge bestseller.

I uncovered several photographs of Pratt and his wife posing in front of the trailer he built and customized himself. For several years this was their home as they traveled all over Florida while Pratt researched the state's past for what would result in a trilogy of novels about Florida's native people. That unusual habitation surely fueled his imagination for one of the Anthony Adams mystery novels he called Murder Goes in a Trailer. I managed to find copies of all four of his mystery novels and I'll finish up with one more post on Pratt and Anthony Adams in a "Neglected Detectives" post later this year.

Oh, one bit of odd trivia. Apparently Pratt chose "Timothy Brace" for his alter ego to amuse his friends and wife. It turns out to be the name of his pet cat.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Magicians and Mediums and Murder! Oh My!

Magic fans, impossible crime aficionados, and those interested in the parallels between mystery writers' use of misdirection and a magician's sleight of hand talents might be interested in the latest podcast from JJ's on going series "In GAD We Trust." Of course in that punny title the letters GAD stand for Golden Age of Detection.

Not too many recognizable detectives turn up in this discussion because frankly most of the magician detectives from the Golden Age are found in the pages of long forgotten pulp magazines from the the early 20th century. Too few of those thousands of stories have been reprinted in collections for 21st century readers. But we do cover The Great Merlini created by magician mystery writer Clayton Rawson as well as another of Rawson's magician detectives who appeared only in pulp short stories. The impossible crime mystery masterpiece The Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, also a magician turned mystery writer, is discussed with admiration too.

We travel all over the magic in mystery spectrum with a somewhat chronological exploration starting with some pulp stories from the very early days of that business and my discovery that Charles Fulton Oursler (aka Anthony Abbot) had been writing weird mysteries, many with magician detectives, between 1919 and 1929.  Ken Crossen and Bruce Elliott turn up, we segue into talk of seances, mediums and the fraudulent spiritualists of the early 20th century a topic that popped up in many novels of the era. The rarely mentioned, quite forgotten, American mystery writer Henry Kitchell Webster makes a long overdue appearance when I discuss his excellent crime novel The Ghost Girl and the talk of seances and mediums in books gives way to TV shows and movies that feature either magicians or seances.

It's quite a hodgepodge of a discussion. We have a lot of fun, there's much more laughter than in the other talks. (It's the American with no real filter talking, after all.)  And you will finally hear what I sound like, why I'm so odd, and why I have been drawn to macabre genre fiction since I was a child.

Why not have a listen! Click on this link Episode 4: Magic, Mummery, and Misdirection.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

FFB: No Coffin for the Corpse - Clayton Rawson

THE STORY: Dudley Wolff accidentally kills a mysterious man who was attempting to blackmail him. His wife suggest they cover up the crime and bury the body in an abandoned cemetery not far from their Wolff estate. With the help of Dr. Haggard and Albert Dunning, a mousy aide, Wolff gets rid of the body. But soon he is being haunted by visions of the same man in black. Kay Wolff, Dudley's daughter, gets involved and calls on Merlini to prove if the ghost is real or a fake. Ghostly visions and poltergeist activity lead to murder, a locked room mystery, and several other mysterious events all wrapped up in a grand secret about the true identity of the sinister blackmailing man in black and the reason he visited Wolff in the first place.

THE CHARACTERS: No Coffin for a Corpse (1942) is the fourth and final Merlini detective novel. Despite its reputation among diehard locked room fans for being the worst of the four books I found it to be exciting, engaging and intriguing in its abundance of action filled scenes, puzzling events, including a couple of Rawson's signature impossible crimes and miracle problems. Harte, our narrator reporter/playwright, is at the heart of the story with several adventure sequences involving him alone. The illustration on the Dell Mapback version depicts a deathtrap that Harte must escape from underwater during the novel's climax.

A subplot involves Ross trying and failing to get Wollf's consent to marry Kay, Wolff's daughter. Wolff owns the newspaper where Ross works and he threatens Ross with termination he if doesn't leave Lay alone.  There is also the threat of Kay being disinherited.  All of these elements pile up and make Ross and Kay to have motives for murder.

The most interesting characters are found in the supporting cast. Handyman on the Wolff estate, Scotty Douglas, strangely disappears after the burial of the dead blackmailer then just as oddly re-appears. He proves some interesting eyewitness accounts of what actually happened the day of the eerie moonlit graveyard shenanigans. Phillips, is the Wolff butler, who is obsessed with detective novels and has the spooky habit of turning up at the most inopportune moments always when Merlini least expects him. Francis Galt, a psychic whose paranormal research is being funded by wealthy Dudley Wolff, seems to have a hand in the ghostly manifestation. Like Phillips Galt has all too coincidental timing, conveniently popping up just after the manifestations and visions occur.

In a nifty surprise scene that I feel compelled to reveal Don Diavolo, Rawson's other magician detective character, makes a cameo appearance! He is seen rehearsing a stage illusion for a show that Merlini is producing and trying to get last minute funding for. The trick he performs foreshadows the climactic underwater escape that Ross Harte pulls off much later in the book.

INNOVATIONS: Most intriguing about No Coffin for the Corpse is that it starts off as an inverted mystery.  A death occurs, apparently an accident, and we know there is a conspiracy to cover up the crime. When the ghost appears most readers will jump to the conclusion that the blackmailer is really alive, but Rawson does a fine job at making you believe that the death was real and that someone else is trying to make it appear that the corpse came to life. The actual murder problem, the novel's genuine whodunit element, does not occur until well past the first half of the book.  I had no idea who the murder victim would be; a handful of candidates were possible. When the murder does occur I found I had pegged the wrong person as victim.

The reveal of the true identity of the blackmailer is one of the most original parts of the story.  Rawson pulls off a triple twist and a false reveal all at once. I didn't find this a fault. In fact it made me laugh out loud. It was just another example of fooling the reader, but one that may anger others or have them rolling their eyes. Really, most of what will infuriate some rigid traditionalists while reading this complex, trick-laden, and twisty plot are exactly the kinds of inverting of conventions that I enjoy and long for.

The solution to the locked room impossibility is probably a plot trick that will trigger most readers to cry "Foul!" I thought it was the only natural and realistic solution to the problem as the author presented it. While not ingenious or clever it certainly was simple. Rather obvious even! But Rawson has the characters become distracted by what happened to Ross in the same room prior to the discovery of the victim and the other body (he was knocked unconscious, quickly bound, and tossed out the window into the waters of Long Island Sound far below) was handled very well.  I found myself more focussed on why Ross was attacked and thrown into the ocean rather than trying to figure out why there were two people found in the locked room. Even veteran readers can get caught up in the nimble hands of a master manipulator like Clayton Rawson.

I found myself drawing parallels to similar plot devices and motifs in much better known novels. My notes have things like "It's the Deathtrap gambit!" and "I'm getting a Death on the Nile vibe here but who's the other involved?"  Lots of my guesswork and figuring out proved faulty. So Rawson won me over again. When I read mystery novels like this sometimes I more pleased to be wrong, to have been rightly and fairly fooled than to be satisfied by being ever-so-clever in having the correct solution and pointing my finger at the real culprit.

1st US edition (Putnam, 1942)  DJ illustration shows the first ghost
manifestation as witnessed by Merlini and Harte inside the Wolff mansion

THINGS I LEARNED:  Ross Harte tries to trick someone into talking to him and pretends to be calling from Orson Welles office then stops short of impersonating a woman saying, "But I was no Julian Eltinge."  Eltinge was a well known actor who began in theater and then made several silent movies. In the early 20th century he gained fame playing female roles, often starring in plays especially created for him in which he played a male character who must dress as a woman within the construct of the story. At one time he was one of the highest paid male actors in the world.  Eltinge was one of the first megastars who marketed himself tirelessly -- he owned his own magazine, very popular with its mostly women subscribers, promoted a line of cosmetics, designed women's clothes, even had a cigar branded with his name. His ultimate achievement was having a theater built in his honor. The Eltinge 42nd St. Theater lasted from 1914 until 1942 when it was shut down for morality violations and turned into a movie theater. Although Eltinge never performed in the theater named for him it is notable for being the home of The Ninth Guest (Aug - Oct 1930), the Broadway play version of Gwen Bristow & Bruce Manning's detective thriller The Invisible Host.  For more info on this fascinating individual visit, this Newsweek article or the Julian Eltinge tribute page.
Wolff has a photoelectric cell security system installed in the windows of his home. I thought this was a type of invention that came decades after the WW2 era. Clearly I was very wrong. Merlini shows off his knowledge of how photoelectric cells work by preventing the loud alarms going off with a simple trick that requires nothing more than a flashlight.

ATMOSPHERE: Misdirection, theatrical techniques, acting and impersonation all play a role in the story.  In fact, this is one of the few Merlini detective novels that could with some minor adaptation (and elimination of extraneous outdoor action sequences) easily be transferred to the stage. So much of the mystery and illusions require isolated settings, proper lighting and a claustrophobic atmosphere that can be heightened by the confines of a stage and an eager and willing audience.