The Imperfect Cell

"No prison on earth is airtight."
- Richard Michaelson (Michael Bowen's Washington Deceased, 1990)
Donald Bayne Hobart was a productive pulpeteer, who primarily focused on mysteries and westerns, but also wrote comic book stories and he was even credited as a coloring artist, which allowed him to earn a living over the span of half a century – covering the decades between 1920 and 1970. During this period, Hobart also penned a whole slew of novels, mostly westerns, but his output also included a handful of obscure, long-forgotten detective novels. Surprisingly, two of them are easily available!

Back in 2014, Coachwhip reissued The Clue of the Leather Noose (1929) and The Cell Murder Mystery (1931) as a twofer volume. As you were probably able to gauge from the post-title and opening quote, I went for the second book contained within this volume and my reason for this was as simple as it's predictable: Robert Adey listed The Cell Murder Mystery in Locked Room Murders (1991). It's getting tiresome, isn't it?

However, The Murder Cell Mystery has something in common with the previous mystery novel I reviewed, which is that neither can really be labeled as an authentic locked room mystery. Technically, Hobart's take on this particular type of detective story can be considered an impossible crime, but the claim is a shaky one and the explanation probably disqualify it such to many readers – which was both embarrassingly stupid and a blatant cheat. But I'll return to this aspect of the plot presently. Fortunately, the story barely gave any attention to the impossible angle and the first chapter opened with a very different kind of crime: a burglary and a stabbing.

Ted Ames is moving "stealthily through the grounds of the vast, gloomy estate" of Fosdick Martin, a wealthy banker, who is the owner of a famous collection of unset diamonds. A collection Ames was ordered to steal on behalf of a sinister figure, known as "The Lizard," who is "one of the most ruthless and cold-blooded criminals" of the underworld, but the reader is quickly made aware of the fact that there's more than one prowler on the premise – one of them a masked man in the shadow-strewn garden and an unknown woman. And they're both very much aware of Ames' movement. Ames notices some very peculiar activity himself inside the house.

Martin is overheard bitterly quarreling with someone in the study and he sees the banker's private-secretary, Perry Fulson, leaning against the closed door and with one "ear pressed tightly against the panel as he listened to the conversation in the room beyond." So, there are a lot of people sneaking about the premise, but was one of them responsible for seriously wounding Martin with a knife when the room was plunged into darkness? Who was the woman who warned Ames that the police was called?

Enter the Chief of the North City Police Department, John Kenny, alongside his right-hand man, Detective-Sergeant Tim O'Shay, who immediately detain two of the people who were present at the crime-scene as material witnesses. One of them is the private-secretary, Fulson, while the other one, Grant Ellery, was the person overheard fighting with the victim. He was a business partner and Fulson "had hysterically accused Ellery of murdering Martin," but he asks Chief Kenny time to think things over, before making a statement, which ends up costing him his life – as someone managed to gain access to his holding cell and stab him to death. This is where I have the biggest problem with the story.

Chief Kenny is described as "a man to be reckoned with," both mentally and physically, which reportedly made "the best chief of police North City had ever possessed." However, that proved to be a sad comment on the competence of his predecessors.

He never shows to be shocked or is worried that someone, somehow, wandered into his prison cells, opened one of them and killed an important witness in a high-profile case. But it gets worse! The explanation shows this was only possible because Kenny had been very careless in one regard, which eventually led to a second stabbing in those very same prison cells and another prisoner was able to escape from them – resulting in yet another deadly knife-attack. And the killer's method for entering the prison cell and Kenny's mistake were also never hinted at. So don't try and figure it out.

Not a very competent chief of police, if you ask me, and had Ellery Queen known about this case he would've probably been less guilt-ridden about his own mistake in Ten Days' Wonder (1948).

All of that being said, The Cell Murder Mystery is still a well-told, nicely paced and very pulpy crime story with a large, sprawling cast of characters, which does an excellent job at throwing the reader from one situation and revelation into another – clearly showing the author had his roots in the pulps and magazine publications of his time. The emphasis here is obviously on entertaining storytelling rather than crafting an intricate puzzle that poses a tricky challenge to armchair detectives.

So I found the lack of a proper puzzle-plot and the idiotic locked room to be slightly disappointing, but overall, the book was not a drag to read and blitzkrieged through the chapters. I was definitely entertained. It's just a very pulpy kind of mystery and you've to keep that in mind when you pick this one up.

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