Humble Beginnings

"There are depths beneath depths in what happened last night—obscure fetid chambers of the human soul. Black hatreds, unnatural desires, hideous impulses, obscene ambitions are at the bottom of it..."
- Philo Vance (S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, 1927)
The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) is the first of five detective novels by "Roger Scarlett," a shared pseudonym of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who were part of the flock of American mystery writers that followed in the footsteps of S.S. van Dine during the 1930s – a following that included such luminaries as Clyde B. Clason, Stuart Palmer, Rufus King and Ellery Queen. You can hardly miss the influence Van Dine had on their maiden novel.

Blair and Page had not yet found their own voice and the result is an emulation of Van Dine, which was not badly done, but lacked the originality of the later titles I read.

The Beacon Hill Murders takes place on Boston's Beacon Hill, an affluent neighborhood where the houses are as old as the money of its dignified residents, but the newest denizens of the neighborhood were definitely not a part of the old Bostonian aristocracy.

Frederick Sutton had started life at one of the bottom-rungs of society and accumulated a large fortune as "a stock exchange gambler." So now that he has money he wants to climb to the social ladder, which is why he moved his family to an old mansion in a respectable neighborhood and threw a dinner party for a small, but not unimportant, group of people – one of them being his prim lawyer, Mr. Underwood. Underwood is aware of the fact that Sutton is preparing to "break his way into society" and wanted to use him as "a rung in the social ladder," but he was not in a position to refuse the invitation from his client. And he's quite surprise to find a well-known socialite as one of his fellow guests.

Mrs. Anceney is "a woman of great charm," whose name frequently appeared in the social columns of the newspapers, which makes Underwood wonder why, of all people, she would accept to be a dinner guest of the Suttons. A surprise that becomes a shock when, at the end of the evening, Mrs. Anceney is found standing over the dead body of her host in his private sitting room. She appears to have been the only person who could have pulled the trigger of the gun that was found in the very same room.

So the police is immediately notified and Underwood calls his policeman friend, Inspector Norton Kane of the Boston Police, but, shortly after his arrival, this straightforward murder case morphs into a genuine conundrum when their primarily suspect is brutally murdered – while alone in room with a policeman at the door. I have to pause here to point out that nobody, who commented on this book, accurately described the locked room components of the plot.

Robert Adey listed The Beacon Hill Murders in Locked Room Murders (1991) and described only the second murder as a slaying in a room under police guard. Curt Evans wrote in his introduction that "both killings are essentially clever locked room problems" that should "severely test the acuity of the reader," while Ho-Ling Wong didn't even touch upon the impossible-element of the story in his double review of the first two Scarlet novels. So allow me to clarify: only the shooting of Sutton qualifies as a proper impossible crime.

Sutton was shot when he was alone in a room with Mrs. Anceney. The four windows in the room were locked tight, which means that a third person could have only entered, or left, the crime-scene through the door into the hallway – in which case this person would have been caught in the act. The answer as to how a third person could have a fired the fatal bullet into this room is a variation on a legitimate locked room trick I have seen before (several times, in fact). On the other hand, the room in which the second murder was committed was not constantly guarded and the murderer simply slipped in-and out of the room.

However, the murder of Mrs. Anceney does turn out to play a key role in the murderer's alibi, which was nicely done, if risky.

Japanese edition
So figuring out the murderer's movement, as well as the baiting of a failed trap, takes up the first half of the book. During the second half of the story, the reader is let in on all the potential motives of the family members and dinner guests, even Underwood is furnished with a motive, which is another aspect where this inaugural novel differed from the later ones – because the familial intricacies are far less pronounced here. And that's reflected in the relatively weak motive of the murderer.

The third and fourth title in this series, Cat's Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angells (1932), had both very strong and even original motives, which were adequately clued and sprang from the (hidden) relationships between various characters that had been described in great detail.

The Beacon Hill Murders is slightly more muddled in that regard and the motive was obviously inspired by one of Van Dine's well-known detective novels. Evans called it "a surprisingly dark thread of Freudian psychology" that ran through the motive and explanation of the crimes. The thread in question is, without question, a dark one, but one that dented the fair play aspect of the story, because the murderer was not entirely sane. And a mentally unstable killer always makes it harder for the armchair detective to gauge the truth. I did had an inkling that the murderer may not have been entirely rational, but zeroed in on the wrong person based on something that happened very early on in the book and the circumstances of the second murder.

All of that being said, The Beacon Hill Murders is an imperfect, but promising, debut and could have been better had the authors not so closely imitated the plotting-style of Van Dine. Nevertheless, Blair and Page deserve credit for breaking out of that mold and finding a voice of their own, which resulted in the gem known as Murder Among the Angells. Not to mention that they would go on to exert influence of their own over the development of the Japanese detective story! So that alone makes their maiden voyage an interesting read, but, by itself, it's not that bad of a detective story. Undistinguished, perhaps, but definitely not a bad for a first try!

By the way, Ho-Ling ranks the second entry in this series, The Back Bay Murders (1930), right alongside the first one, on account of them being "quite similar in design," but everything I read about the plot reminds me of the work of Anita Blackmon. So that alone is tempting me to pick it up before In the First Degree (1933). But whichever one I'll pick next, it will not be the subject of my next blog-post. I've now reviewed three of them, back to back, which means there are only two of them left on the big pile and want to save them for the coming months. 

So I have to rummage through that big pile to find something good for my next review, but I can already tell you that, whatever I may find, I'll  be changing my blog-format beginning with that next review. No more cutesy blog-titles or opening quotes. Just the title of the book, name of the author and the usual rambling review, because finding quotes and coming up with blog-titles has become a real chore over the past year or so. Hey, it only took me about seven years to finally start blogging and reviewing like a normal person! :)


  1. I’ll be interested in what you say about Back Bay, I didnt really think Anita Blackmon but we’ll see. There is rather a good poisoning problem in that one, I think, but then I was quite impressed with that second murder in Beacon Hill.

    As I recollect, Back Bay was the only one of the Scarletts where I spotted the murderer, so I have to give the two ladies their due!

    1. You have to wait for the review of The Back Bay Murders until next month, but might take In the First Degree off the shelve before that. I haven't decided yet about the order of the last. However, I'll finish this series before March rolls around.

      Anyway, thanks for your part in bringing this series back into print! At the time, I was a little envious of Ho-Ling when he told how easily available and cheap Murder Among the Angells was in Japan. I'm really glad that these once rare and expensive collector items are becoming available again to lowly peons like myself. :)

      Do you happen to know whether there are any plans to reissue that second (locked room) novel by Tyline Perry?

  2. Thanks for the review, and it's good to know that 'Cat's Paw' and 'Murder among the Angells' were better novels - as I quite enjoyed 'Beacon Hill Murders'. It was by no means perfect, but given that it was a first novel I was happy to be lenient.

    Looking forward to your new/ updated blog. :D

    1. You should not expect too much the new posting format. I'm only dropping the post-titles and opening quotes in favor of just the book title and name of the author as a blog-post title. Followed by the usual review.

      Yes, this certainly was not bad for a first try and you'll see they improved when you get around to reading Cat's Paw and Murder Among the Angells.

  3. Outrageous! That you would give up such an old tradition! I am shocked I tell you, utterly shocked! As the bards of Monty Python said, you're no fun anymore!

    Regarding the locked room mystery element of this book, I think I didn't even bothered to mention it because even within the novel itself, it was treated as little more than a distraction. I mean, the thing was resolved maybe even before the midway point, and even then it wasn't as if the reader had really been invited to do anything with it (Can't remember if Anceney had been proven to be incapable of committing the murder in terms of possibility at that point).

    1. "Outrageous! That you would give up such an old tradition! I am shocked I tell you, utterly shocked! As the bards of Monty Python said, you're no fun anymore!"

      I know, I know! I'm a terrible person for ditching such a time-honored tradition, but it really is becoming a chore at this moment and that's no fun either. Besides, I can't help but cringe when I look back at some of the blog-titles I slapped on my reviews.

      Actually, I think the locked room part of Sutton's murder was solved a little more than a quarter into the book and Norton doubted Anceney was guilty, because there were no fingerprints on the gun found in the room. I only mentioned you glossing over the locked room, because I thought it funny that neither you, Curt or Adey (only ones who really commented on the book) accurately described the story's impossibility. And you know I have a fixation when it comes to impossible crimes.

  4. re: changing your review style

    honestly, i'd rather have your ramblings and posts over stylistic choices. especially if it's getting in the way of your enjoyment. don't want you frustrated over these things.

    please carry on maintaining this blog as long as possible. it's a joy to browse through.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anon. Always good to know people are enjoying these ramblings/reviews.

      Don't think my lack of activity this past week is a sign that my interest in this blog is waning. I was just busy, but rest assured, a new review will be posted in a day or two.