Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Calling All Mystery Mavens!

Have you ever wanted to be a collaborator?  Here’s your chance. I am, in a word, stuck.

I’m having difficulty finishing some research for a piece that will appear in a new reprint come Spring 2021. My brain is in a fog, my internet searches have turned up little, my reference books are lacking in a cross reference for a specific subgenre. Now I find myself as a last resort turning to my fellow readers and experts for help. Here’s your chance to be a research assistant. No pay, folks, just the minor boost to your ego and my undying gratitude.

Please let me know of any detective novels prior to 1950 that feature as the main story a murder by proxy plot. This is a story in which someone commits a murder for someone else, often the story will include the murder trade-off: “You kill this person for me and I’ll kill someone for you.” This is not the same as a character hiring a hitman to do a murder. No money is exchanged at all. The best known example is Strangers on a Train, but I know for a fact it is not the first mystery novel to use this now very well-known plot device. On my own I came up with only two obscure titles by little known writers, but I would like to know of any others preferably by better known, recognizable names.

So please leave your suggestions in the comments below. Give me the title, author, publication date, and the main plot in summary. Thanks in advance for your help. You may see your efforts in print in 2021!


  1. I'll put out a feeler with Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts, in which two men plan plan a murder for the financial benefit of one of them, the other being the one to actually devise the ruse and carry it out. No "exchange" but definite proxy...

    1. I already had that one, but thanks all the same!

  2. Counterpoint Murder, by the Coles (1940)
    Contemporary press reviews:
    Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 7th December 1940):
    “Original” is a troublesome word for critics to use. They have only to say an
    idea is new for dozens of correspondents to write letters to the editor in a state
    of violent, though inexplicable anger. Yet to one reviewer (ready to confess
    that he has not read all the detective stories ever written) the plot of
    Counterpoint Murder has all the appearance of novelty, and that it is
    refreshingly unusual should not be denied. The Coles have found a puzzle
    worthy of the powers they claim for Superintendent Wilson. After two
    murders have baffled inspectors, a third starts the cry, “A killer is at large”.
    Any tangible links appear trivial until some very fine detection establishes a
    “pattern” which lives up to the promise of the title. For this ingenious plot
    ingenious comic relief is provided in the nomenclature. The old firm of
    Burke and Hare are presented as builders in a very shaky condition: Doolittle
    (name of a famous craftsman, in case you need to be reminded) is concerned
    with finger-print dust: Grace Darling is a secretary who makes appointments.
    Bradshaw’s is a club where the times of ingoings and outgoings are all
    important, and somebody named Vickers consumes nitro-glycerine. There
    ought to be a prize for the complete list.
    Observer (Maurice Richardson, 8
    th December 1940):
    In Counterpoint Murder, Superintendent Wilson patiently investigates two
    apparently unrelated cases—timber-merchant bashed in club, old woman poisoned. The ingenious solution is not original, but the Coles have made a
    thorough, industrious job of it.
    Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 10th January 1941, 70w):
    Shows the Coles at their best again.
    Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 28th January 1941, 120w):
    The curiously disconnected method of telling the story does seem to reduce
    the tension of the tale, since the attention of the reader is so frequently drawn
    to new scenes and characters. But the cleverness with which it is done is
    Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 22nd March 1941, 50w)
    Sat R of Lit (22nd March 1941, 40w):
    In true magician style authors ‘explain’ story in opening chapter, but most
    readers won’t guess solution ’til very end. Excellent.
    Books(Will Cuppy, 23rd March 1941, 130w)
    Springfield Republican (23rd March 1941, 180w)
    NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 20th April 1941, 150w):
    The plot of this story is unusually clever and ingenious. It compares
    favourably with the earliest mysteries by the Coles and is far superior to their
    more recent efforts.
    There's a short story by Baroness Orczy, too, from memory

    1. A bit of overkill, Nick. But appreciated all the same. Not read that one, nor do I ever recall seeing or hearing the title. Thanks!


    Don't know if this is any help but:
    I would argue Bruce's book pre-empts or at least anticipates the hook of Highsmith's novel. In Bruce’s story the obvious suspect for each murder ends up having done the opposite killing, i.e. the one they seemingly have no link to. The key difference is that the killers are working independently of each other.

    Sure Nicholas Blake used the hook too but for a book later than 1950. The title escapes me at the moment.

    1. Intriguing! I have this book but still have not read it. Where is the time? :^D Thanks, Kate.

  4. The Original title to 'Death by Two Hands' by Peter Drax is "Murder by Proxy' - originally published in 1937 but now reissued. Might this be of interest? Here is the blurb:

  5. John, you may not see this on Twitter, but DSP make the following recommendation:

    1. Thanks, JJ. You're right, I am not one of the Facebook crowd (or Twitter, or Instagram or any other social media outlet!) and never would have seen it. But it looks like someone copied it as an Anonymous comment right above you.

  6. You're welcome, though apologies for somewhat spoiling the Bruce book lol

  7. No bright ideas but the Nicholas Blake book was called (in the UK) A PENKNIFE IN THE HEART. When the paperback appeared in 1960, it had an author's note which read:
    "After this book had gone to press, I discovered that the basis of its plot is similar to that of a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on A Train, published in 1950 by The Cresset Press, and later made into a film. I had never read this novel, or seen the film, nor do I remember ever hearing about them. My own treatment of the basic idea – the switching of victims – is very different from Miss Highsmith’s. But two of the chief characters in my story, I found to my consternation, bear the same Christian names as two in hers; and I should like to thank Miss Highsmith for being so charmingly sympathetic over the predicament in which the long arm of coincidence put me."

    1. How about that! Originally published in 1958 so doesn't qualify for my purposes. That quote is the epitome of C. Day Lewis. Thanks for the info!

      Good to see you still stop by, Mike. I thought the Marmite thing last year did me in. :^) BTW, I've read Mr Campion's Séance and will post a review in December. I haven't forgotten about you or your books.

    2. Can't wait to see the THINGS LEARNED section....

  8. It's a long time since I read them, but I think one of Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner tales involves two criminals committing crimes - not necessarily murder - on behalf of one another.