The Strange Death of Manny Square (1941) by A.B. Cunningham

A.B. Cunningham was an American teacher and professor, who taught English for twenty years at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, before retiring in 1945 as a professor emeritus, but, as was not entirely uncommon in those day, he had a secondary career as a mystery novelist – which became a full-time occupation after he retired from teaching. Cunningham wrote roughly twenty detective novels about his series-detective, Sheriff Jess Roden, who serves the people of rural Deer Lick, Kentucky. A county with as high a murder rate as Cabot Cove up there in Maine.

Cunningham was brought to my attention by The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47 (2009), which praises his rural detective stories for its "memorable writing” and "fine regional flavor." Boucher was reputedly quite a fan and called him "an unclassifiable master."

So all that praise caught my eye and, back in 2011, I got my hands on an inexpensive paperback of Death Haunts the Dark Lane (1948) and the slice of rural Americana was definitely the most memorable aspect of the story, but, according to my own review, the plot wasn't all that shabby either – warranting a second look at the series. And, after nearly seven years, a return trip to Deer Lick has been long overdue.

The Strange Death of Manny Square (1941) is the third book in the series and the opening chapters immediately gives the reader a taste of Cunningham's famed regional flavor.

Cunningham begins by looking back at some of the exciting events that had stirred the people of Deer Lick in the past. Such as a "Great Disappointment" when an end-of-the-world prophecy didn't pan out or when Gus Luker had claimed that his grandmother had foretold the assassination of President William McKinley, who had read it in "the webs of spiders," but none of them had generated as much excitement or speculation as the murder of Manny Square. A pillar and leader of the Deer Lick community.

Manny had inherited his farm from his father, Emanuel, who had divided his land and houses between his two sons and their mother. Wayne had been Emanuel's favorite son and he was allowed to pick between two plots of land, but, during "a two-year circus," he had run through in his inheritance and even the bank could no longer finance his lavish house parties – all the while his older brother had doubled the value of his inheritance by turning it into a rolling, fertile farmland. Their mothers, Old Lou, was a woman of the old stock and was described as being of "the caliber that would keep on loading and firing her rifle over the dead body of her son" until "the last redskin lay twitching from her own rifle ball." However, the strong-willed Old Lou had to admit defeat when Manny married a comely, working-class girl, Lizzie Bogle, who Old Lou tried to reinvent as Mrs. Beth Square. She was unsuccessful.

Scene of the Crime

So this sets the stage for when the news reaches Sheriff Roden that Manny had met with a fatal accident in his own stables. Apparently, Manny had been killed by "a smashing kick" to the face by his great white mule, Ligre, who some suspect had simply been biding his time to strike out. Regardless of appearances, Sheriff Roden is terribly suspicious of the situation and, quick and neatly, deduces that Manny had been murdered, which he based on the location and nature of the head wound that showed that not the toe, but the heel, had struck first – demonstrating that the fatal blow had come from above instead of below. And almost as quickly, he works out that the murderer must have wired a mule-shoe to a sledgehammer and dropped it on Manny's head from the overhead mow.

However, the how is only the first step in figuring out who-and why, for which there are more than enough candidates. Wayne is in dire need for money and Lizzie turns out to have a secret affair with one of her husband's hired hands, Fred Sutton, giving them all a rock-solid motive for murder. Then there was a petty, long-standing feud between Manny and his next-door neighbor, Brady Heard, who had refused to place a fence at the summit of his stone quarry and Manny had been too headstrong to do it himself – claiming that it was Heard's responsibility to take the precaution. Every now and then, an animal would fall into the quarry and the same would happen, a day or so later, to one of Heard's animals.

So there you have nearly all of the components of a knotty, complicated detective story, but, in spite of appearances, the observant reader should be able to arrive at the same conclusion as Sheriff Roden without too much difficulty. All of the evidence needed to answer who killed Manny Square, and why, is hidden within the personalities and behavior of the suspects.

The Strange Death of Manny Square definitely qualifies as an old-fashioned, fair play detective novel, however, the main attraction of the book is not its plot, but the writing and backdrop of the story – which reminded me of the writing of Arthur W. Upfield. Roden is even described as "a tracker," who can read and extract information from animal tracks and human footprints, giving him the same qualities as Upfield's half-aboriginal policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. Arguably the greatest tracker in all of detective fiction.

Unfortunately, no matter how good the writing or plot may be, this specific title is never getting reprinted in this day and age. There are three black characters in the story and how they're being portrayed, or talked about, ensures that no publisher today would dare touching it.

I don't remember these attitudes were present in Death Haunts the Dark Lane and John Norris, who reviewed Cunningham's Death at the Bottoms (1942) and The Great Yant Mystery (1943), only referred to the presence of Big Nig in one of them – a character who also appeared in this book. So I assume Cunningham toned it down a bit after the first three or four books, but I can easily imagine how these earlier titles might have prevented his later work from getting reprinted after the 1960s. And that would be a terrible shame, because I would like to read more by Cunningham and in particular his two impossible crime novels. Anyway...

On a whole, The Strange Death of Manny Square is a well-written, decently plotted detective novel, in which the characters (largely) drive the plot, but the portrayal and treatment of the black characters will most likely turn off some readers today. However, if you can read this story within the time-frame it was written, you'll probably be able to admire the positive aspects of this rural detective novel.

On a final note, I was planning to return to Christopher Bush, but a particular locked room mystery arrived in the mail today. So that one is going to be next on the list.


  1. well timed review as I have just bought some Cunningham novels for my vintage mystery book box business, including The Death of a Worldly Woman, which I think is meant to be one of the locked room/impossible crime ones. It is a shame about his depiction of race but hopefully some of his others do not have this issue quite so strongly.

    1. A well-timed coincidence, to be sure! Yes, The Death of a Worldly Woman is one of Cunningham's locked room novels. The other one's Who Killed Pretty Becky Low?, but remember reading somewhere that that title is a pretty rare one.

      Will you be taking a stab at Cunningham yourself?

    2. Not quite sure yet, I'll have to look at the blurbs for the 3 I have. Alas I do not have WKPBL.

  2. Race issues come up so much in southern regional mysteries at that time.