Baynard Kendrick was a detective novelist and one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, even serving as their first president, but Kendrick's most enduring contribution to the American detective story was his sightless private-eye, Captain Duncan Maclain, who was used by the late Stan Lee as a moden for Daredevil – a blind lawyer and resident superhero of Hell's Kitchen. So you can argue Captain Maclain is the bridge between the (pulp) detective and comic book superheroes.
Captain Duncan Maclain lost his eyesight during the First World War, but "endless hours of rigorous training" sharpened his remaining senses and eventually turned his disability into a strength.
The office of his detective agency is fitted with high-tech recording equipment and has a subbasement, or "Bat Cave," where he practices blind target shooting with his friend and partner, Spud Savage. Over a period of two decades, Captain Maclain had tender fingertips trained in the sense of touch, muscles wracked with disciplined exercise and "keen ears" deafened by "ten thousand shots from an automatic" while he learned "to shoot at sound." And, as an extension of his acquired skills, he has two specially trained German Shepherds, Schnuke and Driest.
In the first novel of the series, The Last Express (1937), Captain Maclain proclaimed he had reversed "the old adage about the land of the blind where the one-eyed man was king," because he had become king in "a land of two-eyed detectives" – none of whom knew how to see as well as he did. However, his blindness is not merely a cheap gimmick. The books are generally very well written and cunningly plotted (e.g. The Whistling Hangman, 1937).
So, after having neglected this series for years, I decided to finally return to it and settled on Death Knell (1945).
Death Knell is the fifth entry in the series and represents an unusual personal murder case for Captain Maclain, because the people involved are friends of the woman he loved, Sybella Ford. A group of people who had unfortunately gotten themselves into "a nasty jam."
The backdrop of the story is a luxury suite, on the fourteenth floor of the Arday Apartments on Tenth Street, which is the home of a popular novelist and gun collector, Larmar Jordan. Jordan lives together with his wife, Lucia, a live-in secretary, domestic servants and a cocker spaniel, Winnie. A homely picture of a sophisticated, highbrow New York household, but during a cocktail party, Captain Maclain notices that not everything is as it appears.
Troy Singleton is "mistress number thirteen," or "is it twenty-four," who unexpectedly turns up at the cocktail party, claiming to have received an invitation, but nobody is aware of takes responsibility for this tactless move and she returns to the apartment the following day – which has fatal consequences. Jordan is all alone with Singleton in the apartment when the latter is shot on the balcony as "the carillon across the street began to chime." The murder weapon is "a single-shot, nine-millimeter German gun" from Jordan's extensive firearm collection and happened to be only person who could have pulled the trigger. So the police arrests him on suspicion of murder, because the involvement of an unknown hand appears to be a physical impossibility.
Captain Maclain is asked by Lucia to prove her husband innocent and this requires him to find a murderer who could not possibly have been there. And the only possible answer is "so crazy" he refuses to confide in the police. However, he says it could have had something to do with "the man in a tower" across the street, but the answer is more original than a simple sniper. After all, Singleton was shot at close range. Captain Maclain has to match the murder method to a number of suspects connected to either Jordan or Singleton and these suspects include a literary agent, Sarah Hanley. A newspaper reporter, Bob Morse, who writes profiles for the Globe-Tribune and Brownie Mitchell, a firearms expert, who's cataloging Joran's weapon's collection. Martin Gallagher is Singleton's husband and she never expected him to "ever get back from the war," but turned up right after the shooting.
So with an impossible murder on the balcony of a fourteenth floor apartment and a troupe of suspects makes this one of the more traditionally-styled, less pulpy, detective stories in the series, but one with more emphasis on the characters than the plot – which is relatively easy to solve. Once you know how it was done, you'll know who was behind it. Nonetheless, the story offers a brief, but interesting, glances in the psyche of Captain Maclain.
Captain Maclain protected himself from melancholy, "always dangerous to a blind man," with "an armor of mental steel," but underneath is a more vulnerable human being who mostly lived for the people around him. Like Spud, Sybella and the dogs. Life had hurt him badly. The book gives a particular touching description of the footsteps of his father and mother, which had become familiar and "something to look forward to." But then they had silenced and "life had gone on." Now this can come across as soap opera writing, but Captain Maclain is an interesting enough character to forgive the dramatic touchings.
There are, however, some more cheerful passages in his life: Captain Maclain can find "utter relaxation in music and talking books" or "the ability to read himself to sleep on long cold nights with a volume in Braille tucked under the covers beside him" and "the quilt pulled up to his chin." You can hardly get more cozy than that!
Anyway, the personal touches fit the story and plot, because it really is a very personal case for the blind detective. There are two attempted murders: leaving Sybella hospitalized and Schnuke injured. This person also left another body in his private elevator with a dagger in his belly. So naturally Captain Maclain feels a little hot under the collar and even threatens to flay the murderer alive. And you don't want to get on the bad side of the man who was the inspiration for Daredevil.
So, all in all, Death Knell was not a bad detective novel with perhaps a plot that was too easily solved, but with an interesting look at the lead character and the story has piqued my curiosity in Blind Man's Bluff (1943). Captain Maclain mentioned that he once met a murderer who discovered "a means of pushing people out of windows" when he wasn't there. So I might tackle that one some time in the next few weeks or months. Or, knowing who I am, sometime in the next two or three.