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 Stevenson's mystery novels and three earlier adventures are referenced repeatedly, 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." As he misspelled the French artisan's surname which describes the cabinet of the book's title Stevenson also made a mix-up with the bank's name. The true business title 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 entered her name into 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)