"People who can be very good can be very bad, too."- Carrie Louise (Agatha Christie's They Do It With Mirrors, 1952)
W. Lacey Amy was a Canadian-born journalist and fiction writer, who published his work under the penname of "Luke Allan," of which the most recognized works belong to a string of Canadian Westerns about the Mounties and "a half-breed" cattle rustler, Blue Pete – who could be a long-lost literary relative of Arthur W. Upfield's Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte. Interestingly, he also scribbled a stack of detective novels with an eclectic collection of uncommon detective-characters.
The series in question has a policeman, Detective Gordon "Gordy" Muldrew, as the headline character, but the inspector is always beset by a pesky newspaper reporter from The Evening Star, "Tiger" Lillie, who's usually accompanied by a coterie of accomplices. A group who refer to themselves as The Gang and consists of "five light-hearted, loyal young friends" who "obtrude themselves into the story and everything else." Together, they appeared in eight novels that were published between 1930 and 1938.
Beyond the Locked Door (1938) is the last book in the series and has recently been dredged from the bowels of obscurity by an independent publisher, Stillwoods Editions, which is solely dedicated to getting the works of Luke Allan back into print – similar to how Richard Simms Publications only reissues the short stories by Arthur Porges. So collectors, genre-historians or regular readers interested in the books written by this obscure (mystery) author might want to take notice, because a good portion of his output is now back in print. Anyway, let's get back to the subject at hand.
Beyond the Locked Door begins with Gordon Muldrew relaying a warning to that pestering reporter, Tiger, who has been publicly chasing the tail of a shadowy mob of racketeers.
The warning letter told Muldrew to rein in his friend at the newspaper, or the town will become too hot for the both of them, ending with the lovely message "to hell with the reformers" and how they'll do their best "to send them there." Their conversation ends when Muldrew is informed that one of the city's most well-known and beloved reformers, Jack Warburton, has been found death at his home. And it had been Warburton who had supplied information to Tiger about the racketeers!
Warburton was a mining engineer, investor and a popular philanthropist whose most well-known charity is providing a second chance to "young men who had gone astray." Reforming these juvenile delinquents had been such a success story that the program had the backing of both the citizenry and the police.
However, Warburton now lay dead behind the locked room and barred windows of an extraordinary untidy, but secure, room crammed with "a clutter of unwieldy things" that range from walls lined with bookshelves to heavy statuary – perched on bulky pedestals. Besides a table, Warburton's body lay crumpled on the floor with an ugly wound in his right temple and a smear of blood on the corner of the table. A smell of whiskey clung to the dead man's mouth. On the surface, it appears to have been a drunken accident inside a locked room, but Muldrew notices a number of peculiar aspects about the case. Such as the bars on the window, an armored car parked in the garage and the fact that the bed appeared to have been slept in, but an undented pillow lay at the head end.
Unfortunately, my interest slowly began to deteriorate once the story passed the halfway mark of the book and was primarily occupied with trying to figure out whether the story took place in Canada and United Stated.
I actually found the answer in the synopsis of the third entry in this series, The Jungle Crime (1931), which mentioned "a metropolitan American city," but there were a couple of peculiarities that would suggest otherwise. One peculiarity is the blatant censorship of the press. Muldrew places a muzzle on Tiger and actually prevents him from carrying out his work as a journalist, because his initial report on the murder had to be approved, and censored, by the authorities – before it was allowed to be printed and circulated. And even the characters themselves refer to this as censorship.
I can't remember, or imagine, a similar situation occurring in a full-blooded American detective novel, of this vintage, in which reporters allowed themselves to be suppressed in their work without even mentioning the First Amendment. It's simply inconceivable.
Another examples happens when Tiger has assumed the role of chauffeur in the Warburton household, halfway through the story, and his friends from The Gang find him sitting behind the wheels of a '37 Packard. One of them, "Beef" Halladay, calls Tiger "a blinkin' toff." A toff? Now I ask you, when have you ever heard an American character in a detective story use British slang like that? Let alone a fat, fussy butt of every joke, like Beef, but here he was briefly bantering like an Oxford graduate.
I know these are minor anomalies in the overall narrative of the story, but, when you notice them, they strike a false, jarring note that break immersion. I found it increasingly hard to believe these characters were big city Americans who came out of the Prohibition Era of the United States.
So the plot failed to hold my attention and the story was populated with largely unconvincing characters, but still had hopes that the solution would place the book in the average, but not too bad, column.
You see, I was very enthusiastic when I learned this obscure impossible crime novel had been republished and hoped to report back that I had uncovered a gemstone. Sadly, that turned out not to be case. The revelation of the murderer's identity and motive were prosaic at best. And the explanation for the apparent impossibility was merely a slight redressing of one of the oldest locked room tricks in the book.
Beyond the Locked Door didn't turn out to be a long-lost gem and the overall story can even be called poor. Something that becomes slowly apparent once the plot passed through the turnstiles of the opening chapters. Nevertheless, I'll give Allan an opportunity to redeem himself with one of his earlier books from this series, which means I'll not be striking The End of the Trail (1931) or The Fourth Dagger (1932) from my massive wish list. But this one will win nobody over.
So my sincere apologies for this piss-poor review and have pulled a highly praised detective novel from my TBR-pile in the hopes of making up for this monumental dud. Coincidentally, the book is also about a peculiar room that becomes the scene of a crime. Hopefully, this one will deliver on its intriguing-sounding premise, but that's for the next post. In the meantime, I'll refer you to my previous review of Bruce Campbell's excellent The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953).