Death's Sober Lamplighter

"Deep in the forest hideaway,
the outlaws made their getaway.
From the sheriff and his men..."
- Opening theme from The Great Adventures of Robin Hood (1990-92)
Clyde B. Clason was arguably one of the brighter, more gifted pupils from the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection, who wrote ten novels between 1936 and 1941, which starred a genial, mild-mannered professor of history as the series character – namely Theocritus Lucius Westborough.

The books are penned in a literate, old-fashioned style without coming across as pretentious and are stamped with all the hallmarks of the Van Dine-Queen School.

First of all, there's an intelligent, well-educated amateur assisting the official police and they operate on a basis of mutual respect. Secondly, the cases often take place on the upper crust of society, where private collectors dwell, or have an industrial background – which provided Clason with more than enough material to put some meat on the bones of his plots to flavor them. 

The Man from Tibet (1938) and Dragon's Cave (1939) are notable examples of stories revolving around dead collectors and artifact-stuffed private "museums," while Blind Drifts (1937) and Poison Jasmine (1940) are interesting specimens of the industrial mystery novel. The latter is, in fact, excellent!

However, The Death Angel (1936) is a departure from rooms harboring privately owned collections and worlds of cutthroat commerce in favor of an English-style country house mystery.

Westborough has come to the estate of a personal friend, Arnold Bancroft, situated in southern Wisconsin and the place is aptly called "Rumpelstiltzken," because the dark woods surrounding the place reminds one "of a German fairy tale."

The plan of Westborough, author of a "ponderous eight-hundred-page tome" on Emperor Trajan, was a spot of relaxation as a guest of his friend, but the region is being disrupted by several events – such as an escaped convict roaming the area and local authorities being tied up in a grim, slowly escalating milk strike. What's about to happen at the estate are soon added to that list.

Bancroft has received several strange, threatening notes and shows one of them to Westborough. It has a few lines of "block capitals" that were "lettered in crayon" saying Bancroft has been cautioned and should now "beware my sting," which was signed "The Firefly." This note of warning is quickly followed by Bancroft's disappearance and the sound of a gunshot emanating from Bowen's Rock, which has a trail of bloody evidence suggesting someone got shot and was chugged into the river below. However, Bancroft isn't the only person who's missing from the house party. So who got shot and why?

Sheriff Art Bell is engaged with "crazy farmers" who "have burned two trucks," spilled "milk over the road from hell to breakfast" and even attempted "to blow up the bridge on the state highway" – showing French truck drivers how to do a strike properly.

The sheriff is short on manpower, resources and time, but is aware Westborough is the "fellow who straightened out those killings at Hotel Equable" and deputizes the professor to carry on the investigation in his absence. Occasionally popping back into the story when there are new developments.

Westborough has his fair share of clues and plot-threads to sift through, which include a bloody handprint, a missing motorboat, a purloined bow and arrows and a stolen saucepan – as well as sorting out alibis in combination with possible motives. This murder-without-a-body investigation absorbs a good half of the book, before other plot-threads begin to manifest itself.

The missing bow and arrows are used in an attempted murder by "a legendary, chimerical figure," a masked archer, "who had vanished in the forest like a phantom" and the firefly is leaving notes again.

But the best part of the plot commences when Westborough begins to extrapolate on the lightening bugs and poisonous mushrooms, which are the main ingredients of a double murder back at the estate – a crime in which the "odds” were “1,542 to 1 against" the victims "receiving all the poisonous mushrooms through chance and chance alone."

I've been arguing with myself if the overwhelming odds, in combination with the logical explanation, makes it qualify as an impossible crime novel, but I can't sway myself one way or the other.

The Death Angel could just as easily be labeled a (semi-) impossible crime as well as a calculated, but botched, attempt at a perfect murder. I decided to tag it as a "locked room mystery" just for the hell of it.

Well, either way, it's was a clever, involved method providing the book with unusual ending concerning the revelation of the murderer and nicely dovetailed with the previous plot-threads – out of which this one arose naturally. Even though, Clason felt compelled to warn his readers that "such complications" arising from multiple, interwoven plots "seem beyond all bounds of credulity." I really thought it fitted nicely together as well as drawing my attention away from the murderer and was completely out of my depth in explaining the odds, which can be as fun as hitting the bulls-eye.

So, yes, I quite enjoyed The Death Angel and just noticed there are only two left in the series to read, which kind of blows. If you haven't had read Clason yet, I'd recommend picking up the previously mentioned The Man from Tibet or Poison Jasmine.


  1. with all the hallmarks of the Van Dine-Queen School

    That's enough for me. I must read this guy!

    1. I recommend The Man from Tibet and Poison Jasmine, if you enjoy Van Dine-Queen School mysteries, because they're really good.

  2. I read this a little while ago and didn't love it, I found Westborough a bit doddery and dry, but can believe Clason is capable of some very good puzzle plotting; thanks for the steer onto Poison Jasmine and The Man from Tibet, shall pick up one of those next in the hope of fairing better.

    1. Clason is, alongside Carr, Roos and Resnicow, one of those writers I have an extremely soft spot for and have enjoyed pretty much everything he wrote - even when it has it weaknesses.

      Murder Gone Minoan tended to resemble a fictionalized textbook at times, Blind Drifts was, plot-wise, somewhat uneven and The Purple Parrot was fairly good until the explanation.

      But, generally, I enjoy Clason and thought The Death Angel was fairly good, especially the poisoning plot.

    2. Definitely with you on Carr and Roos (have yet to get to Resnicow), so I'm sure I'll find something in CLason to commend him!

    3. You also have to account for the fact that tastes differ. So there's always something to disagree about and if you enjoy Roos, you'll probably enjoy some of Resnicow stories from the Gold series.