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.
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.
|Alphonse Bertillon (from his own 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.
|Burton Stevenson, circa 1930s|
(courtesy of ALA Archives)
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)