Sunday, September 17, 2023

Murder without Clues - Joseph L Bonney

A dead body in a locked room, a house surrounded by undisturbed snow, all suspects have an alibi but one and yet it seems that one person could not have committed the crime.  Another ingenious John Dickson Carr rip-off?  Well, not quite.  Murder without Clues (1940) is a the ultimate Golden Age homage that does a very good job of honoring the work of not only Carr but Queen and Van Dine.  Joseph L. Bonney, in his debut work as a mystery writer, has also thrown in a couple of wink-wink allusions to Conan Doyle to make this a quadruple homage. Does this mystery succeed as yet another in the impossible crime/locked room subgenre. Hmm...You decide.

Henry Watson, a wannabe novelist, is in search of a new apartment and a roommate and his friend suggests he visit Simon Rolfe who is also in search of new digs. The two meet and Watson can't help but be disturbed by Rolfe's emulation of a certain fictional detective. Rolfe has a mysterious origin that is never fully explained, seems to be independently wealthy, plays the violin, smokes a pipe, lounges around in a smoking jacket, and sees clients with puzzling problems which he solves for a modest fee and does so in a single afternoon.  Bonney has a bit too cutely paid homage to Conan Doyle while at the same time allowing his Sherlock dopplegänger to disparage the entire canon in a four page diatribe in which he deconstructs several of the stories as pathetically obvious. Once this tirade is out of the way the story can take place front and center and we have a classic Golden Age locked room populated by ex-vaudeville performers who are stranded in a snowbound house somewhere in upstate New York.

Wicked philandering dancer Lucille Divine is found stabbed in the back in her locked bedroom at the home of Champ Lister. All of Lister's guests and servants were downstairs at the time she screamed, they rush upstairs, find Lister in the hallway at the wrong door, then break down Lucille's door and find her in her last gasps. One man goes to her tries to help her and hears her say "It was the Champ..."  Then she expires. Has she verbally fingered her killer?  Lister denies he had anything to do with her death.  He didn't even know she was in this other bedroom.  He went to the bedroom across the hallway where she usually stayed.

Young Joseph L Bonney
looking suitably nerdy
on the DJ rear cover
As the title implies - there are no clues, at least as far as physical evidence goes. Plus -- no weapon can be found anywhere, even after all the rooms are thoroughly searched. The only window in the murder room is open a crack (Lucille liked fresh air to sleep at night despite the wintry temps) and can't be opened any further.  How did anyone get in, kill Lucille, and escape entirely unnoticed.  The timing of the guests rushing upstairs seems to eliminate Lister who was seen at the other doorway as they came up the stairs. Also, Lister a former vaudeville performer who stunned people with feats of memory and instant recall, listened to a radio program at the time of the murder. To prove it he writes down all the dialogue from memory.  When the police compare it to the actual broadcast it's nearly verbatim. It's all utterly baffling -- until Rolfe starts questioning the suspects of course.

Rolfe fancies himself a detective of psychology who finds this case with no physical evidence right up his alley. He approaches detective work from a different angle paying attention subtleties in language and behavior.  Though he claims to use deduction most of his conclusions are the result of induction. Still Bonney is clever in how he allows Rolfe to expose lies and get the suspects to reveal things they'd rather keep hidden. I was impressed with the dying clue bit which is very reminiscent of several Queen books.  However, in the end Bonney's explanation is a bit of a stretch.  No matter how many people I polled I couldn't get one person to duplicate what he says happened.

Rolfe is also irritatingly an obsessive student of the French philosopher Montaigne who he quotes repeatedly through the book. Only one quote seems to have anything to do with his work as a detective:  "I do not understand; I pause, I examine."  This might serve as Rolfe's (or any worthwhile detective's) mantra.

In the end it's a intricately detailed investigation, perhaps overly so in the manner of Queen and Van Dine,  with Rolfe sharing the stage with Inspector Charles King and a slew of policemen put on guard throughout the household. In a neat touch Henry Watson (Rolfe actually addresses him as "My dear Watson" too many times) provides quite by accident one of the key observations.  The manner in which the crime is committed is perhaps one of the wickedest I've encountered in a American mystery novel of this era.  there is, of course, another bizarre murder means, not quite as original as Bonney may think it is.  This method belongs to a subset of murder means that I can group into Death by... OH!  Better not mention that.  But it has been used in the work of Carr as Carter Dickson, Burton Stevenson, the Coles, and two obscure books by William Morton, and George R. Fox, all of those books and stories pre-dating Bonney's novel. Was the murder means yet another, albeit obscure, homage?

Some good news:  copies of Murder without Clues are out there for sale! About eight or nine copies by my count. One 1st edition with DJ is absurdly priced at $495. Be aware that the paperback digest edition (pictured at right) is abridged. But in this case that 's a good thing. I can imagine that all the nonsense about Montaigne and Socrates was eliminated to shorten the book. Also I'm sure that the editors cut to pieces the Sherlock Holmes diatribe that tends to spoil some of the content of the stories.

This is an interesting and engaging read in the locked room subgenre.  I thought for sure that I had pegged the killer and figured out how Lucille was done in. I also thought I had figured out the dying clue. But I was wrong on all counts.  It all turned out to be quite a surprise, though I think a bit flawed.

Having many of the suspects come from the world of vaudeville allows for a slew of red herrings, two of which I fell for and one which did not turn up at all. I was disappointed Bonney didn't include the missing aspect. It would have fit in perfectly with the dying clue.  Missed opportunity!  You can expect at least one knife thrower to show up in the cast. After all, knife throwing and vaudeville go hand in hand in the mystery novel. If you aren't acquainted with this hoary cliche of detective novels read my post on the ultimate knife throwing murder mystery here.

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