A Quartet of Detectives

"Cause and effect rule this world; they may be a mirage but they are a consistent mirage; everywhere, except possibly in subatomic physics, there is cause each effect, and that cause can be found."
- Trevis Tarrant (C. Daly King's "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem," collected in The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant, 2003)
Frederick Irving Anderson was an American newspaper reporter for the New York World and a premier writer of short stories, who regularly contributed to such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post and The Popular Magazine, but only a fraction of his work has been collected since the early 1910s – resulting in four volumes in total. The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914) was published over a hundred years ago, while The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (2016) appeared only last year.

Wedged between these volumes, there is the very obscure The Notorious Sophie Lang (1925) and a widely lauded collection of short stories selected as one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone title of detective fiction.

Book of Murder (1930) consists of ten stories and has a peculiar, overarching structure. Six of the stories are about Deputy Parr of the New York Police Department and Oliver Armiston, "the extinct author," who had stopped writing detective and thriller stories years ago, "at the gentle request of the police," because criminals were plagiarizing his fictional schemes – which proved to be surprisingly successful outside of the printed page. So now the retired placed himself at the disposal of the police. However, it should be noted that the policemen in these stories are not clueless idiots or bunglers. On the contrary!

There are three further short stories with a different set of characters, farmer Jason Selfridge and Constable Orlo Sage, which take place somewhere in rustic New England. Regrettably, the rural backdrop turned out to be the only memorable aspect of these stories as the plots were severely lacking.

The tenth and final story is a crossover bringing all four characters together on the same pages. So that was an unusual, but great, ending to a collection of short stories about a pair of distinctly different series-characters and somewhat made up for the weakness of the Selfridge and Sage stories.

I can understand why Anderson is held in high regard by so many critics and readers, because he could write and was not devoid of imagination. Mike Grost placed him close to the scientific school of Arthur B. Reeve, but not Anderson distinguished himself from that movement by aspiring to "the irony, sophistication and wit" of "such writers as Saki and Oscar Wilde" - something that did not always allow for scientific accuracy or realism. Personally, the stories reminded me of those collected in J.E. Preston-Muddock's Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective (2005), which is both positive and negative.

On the upside, the stories collected in Book of Murder are mostly excellent specimens of the type of crime-and detective stories published during the early 1900s. When the genre was in a transitional period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. However, these stories were all originally published between 1925 and 1929, which almost makes them nostalgia acts during their own time and don't always translate in type of detective story common by the time the 1930s rolled around.

Some of the stories surely tried to aspire to the new standards, but my impression is that Anderson never fully emerged from that transitional period as a full-fledged Golden Age author. But I might be completely wrong about that. So let's take a look at the stories collected in Book of Murder.

This collections opens with one of its better entries, "Beyond All Conjecture," which was first published in the September, 1928 in The Saturday Evening Post and the victim is a wealthy Dutch-American from New York, Cornelius Vlemynck, whose ancestors came from "the delft banks of the Schie" - until an adventurous forebear began to wander and ended up within "the stockade known as Nieuw Amsterdam." Despite his fast wealth, Vlemynck has one simple ambition in life: to die in the house he was born in. A humble wish prevented by a furtive murderer, who administrated a dose of poison, which took hold of its victim when he had posted several letters. And the man died on his way back to his home in the gutter.

An alert medical examiner prevented the death from becoming "a perfect crime" and the two detectives, Deputy Parr and Armiston, expertly unravel the poisoning method. You should immediately know how the poison was ingested, but the details how it ended up in the victim's hand is very clever indeed. Something that made ingenious use of the Dead Letter Office. The relationship between the murderer and victim struck me as an attempt to imitate G.K. Chesterton.

The second story, "The Wedding Gift," was first published in a September, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and the plot shows strains of the scientific detective story.

A dead man was found on a stretch of beach, "as if it had been washed in by the tide with the wind behind it," but the wind wasn't behind the tide on the previous night. The body also lacks any evidence of immersion in salt water and nothing is ever washed up at the beach where the victim was discovered. Parr explains to Armiston that murderer's are usually unaware that "a drowned man has a route" and tries to impress his friend even more by deducing that the body belonged to a left-handed violinist. Startlingly, the victim is identified as Barron Wilkes, the Bull's-Head Bank Defaulter, which throws an entirely new light on the case. One that was satisfactorily resolved and the explanation completely vindicated Parr's deductions.

The third story, "The Japanese Parasol," originally appeared on July 3, 1926 in The Saturday Evening Post and Deputy Parr has a direct hand in an "accidental" coal-dust fire, which has the objective of gaining entrance to an abandoned house belonging to one of the landed families of the island of Manhattan.

A very unorthodox police procedure, but the covert operation yielded result when they find a lead box buried in the cellar, containing human remains, with a tin foot among the pile of bones – positively identifying the body as belonging to Barry Dilk. One of the most unfortunate members of the family, whose mind had "ceased expanding at the age of ten" and had lost a feet when he went "fishing with a stick of dynamite" at the age of twelve, but was nevertheless given "uncounted millions" to squander. So the background of the story is not without interest and the scene of putting out the coal-hole fire was well conceived, but the explanation was pretty common place.

The next three stories, "Dead End," "The Magician" and "A Start in Life," are the New England tales about Jason Selfridge and Orlo Sage, but, as previously noted, the plots of these stories were lacking and really nothing to say about them – except that they were (admittedly) very well written. So on the next story.

One of my two favorite stories from this collection is "Big Time," published in an October, 1927 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, which is a witty impossible crime story that was overlooked by Robert Adey when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991). A well-known musical coach, named Hector Verblennes, was found pinned to the floor of his music room with an African assagai (spear) snatched from a wall decorated with ancient weaponry. There is, however, one problem: all of "the doors were locked on the inside" and "the transoms held accumulations of undisturbed dust."

Anderson wrote an amusing, but original, take on the locked room problem and the method is good for a fun mental image of the murderer working his magic. Something Edmund Crispin could have written (e.g. "The Name on the Window" from Beware of the Trains, 1935).

The next one, "The Recoil," was published on March 23, 1929 in The Saturday Evening Post and takes it cue from Conan Doyle's "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927). The story opens with Armiston playing armchair detective and (sort of) solving the theft of a harp, but the story then moves on to the shooting death of Culpepper Lea. A dueling pistol, "with its muzzle blown away," was found in the waters near the scene of the crime. So this gives rise to the question whether the shooting was a murder or a suicide made to look like murder, because the recoil on the gun could have been used for the latter. Some potentially good ideas here, but nothing of importance was done with any of them.

The next-to-last story, "Gulf Stream Green," was originally published in a June, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and is another one of Anderson's scientific detective stories, but the explanation also appears to be related to the science-fiction genre. A celebrated diva, Leocadie, has "an anonymous lover," or stalker, who threatens her life and seriousness of these threats are demonstrated when her maid, Berthe, is accidentally killed in her place – because she was wearing her employer's Gulf Stream green clothes. A gimmicky, semi-scientific mystery story reminiscent of those found in such collections as Vincent Cornier's The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011) and Max Rittenberg's The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016).

Finally, we have "The Door Key," published in The Saturday Evening Post of December 28, 1929 and begins with a fishing trip up north, which brings Armiston and Parr into contact with Selfridge and Sage. During the first half, the story focuses on the strange behavior of Ensign Belding. Who appears to have suddenly vacated his country house and left a door key in the care of Selfridge, but when they poke around the place they find a lamp is still burning and a note on the kitchen table – ending with the request to "please blow out the lamp." The second part of the story takes place in the city and satisfyingly resolves the problem that had emerged from the first half, which concerns an empty car that was fished out of the river by Sage.

So the story was definitely successful in contrasting the rural setting of the Selfridge and Sage stories with the big city cases, and criminals, of the longer Parr and Armiston series. And a nifty way to tie otherwise unrelated material together in a single short story collection.

On a whole, Book of Murder is not a bad collection of short detective stories and loved two of them, "Beyond All Conjecture" and "Big Time," but personally, I do not consider them to be cornerstones of the genre. As a collective, the stories are simply not good or influential enough to attach such weight to them. However, I'm sure some of you will vehemently disagree with me on that point.

No comments:

Post a Comment