The Back Bay Murders (1930) by Roger Scarlett

The Back Bay Murders (1930) is the second detective novel Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page co-wrote under their shared pseudonym, "Roger Scarlett," which cemented Inspector Kane of the Boston Police as their series-character and had the dubious honor of falling prey to "the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist" – a "word for word copy" surreptitiously published in England. Curt Evans has an interesting piece on his blog about the cover-to-cover plagiarism of The Back Bay Murders in Don Basil's Cat and Feather (1931) with comparable samples. And the plagiarized passages have to be read to be believed. Don had cheek, that's for sure.

The Back Bay Murders opens with Inspector Norton Kane taking his friend and loyal chronicler, Mr. Underwood, to Mrs. Quincy's reputable brownstone boardinghouse in "the formerly sedate neighborhood of Boston's Back Bay."

Mrs. Quincy caters to solitary individuals, "entrenched in respectability," without immediate relatives and offers them comfort, luxury and human society. Only exception to this rule is Arthur Pendergast, a neurotic young man, who lives there with his mother and he has reported unusual case of housebreaking to the police. Pendergast's room had been ransacked and the floor was stained with thick, reddish brown substance, as if "blood had rained down from the ceiling," but even more curious was the white Persian cat playing in the room with a white feather – tossing it around and pouncing on it. A bizarre scene and Kane promises to let him know if anything turns up.

However, Kane and Underwood return to the brownstone the next day when Pendergast has been found murdered in his room. Someone had slit his throat and a white feather was left on the scene.

Inspector Kane is in fine form as he solves Pendergast's murder in short time and identifies a visitor to the brownstone, Alvin Hyde, as the murderer. Hyde came to the brownstone to deliver a record of Saint-Saëne's Danse Macabre to Mr. Weed and they listened to it together, which is when Hyde got out of the room and murdered Pendergast. But this explanation immediately poses another question: who's Alvin Hyde?

Kane reasons that Pendergast was a neurotic man without friends or acquaintances outside of the house, which means that without "a ready-made, practically self-confessed murderer" the police would looking for his killer among his fellow lodgers. So the murderer blazed a path of evidence leading straight out of the front door of the brownstone. And, had the police fallen for this scheme, they would forever be chasing a man who doesn't exist. A scheme as cunning as it's daring and especially liked the red herring of the faked fingerprints. Just one of the many clever little aspects that make up the plot of The Back Bay Murders.

During the second half of the story, Mrs. Quincy is scratched with a deadly dose of hydrocyanic acid in her bedroom and the circumstances of her death makes it a (borderline) impossible crime.

Hydrocyanic acid causes instantaneous death and her husband, who was in the sitting room next door, heard her fall. The bedroom had second, unlocked door that opened into the hallway (see floorplan), but her husband heard no commotion or anything that indicated that a second person had been present in the bedroom – which is by itself not enough to tag this as an impossible crime. However, the murderer turns out to have a perfect alibi and, as Kane observed, it appeared to be "physically impossible" for this person to have killed Mrs. Quincy. And the explanation is a play on a well-known locked room technique.

So I decided to tag this review as a "locked room mystery" and "impossible crime." Even if it is, technically, only a borderline impossibility. Still, a very nicely done and cleverly conceived murder.

Honestly, I did not expect The Back Bay Murders to upstage its predecessor, because the series would not really find its own voice, namely that of a dark, gloomy yakata-mono (mansion stories), until the next novel, but here the authors were already getting comfortable with themselves – slowly emerging from the shadow of S.S. van Dine. This second mystery has a really knotty, complex plot littered with physical and psychological clues and hints, which range from a leaky roof, broken pieces of (crystal) glass and the psychological makeup of the murderer. There's always a hint of Freud in the Scarlett novels.

The personality of the murderer obviously took its cue from R.L. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) and the only drawback is that this made the murderer's identity increasingly obvious as the story progresses.

Nevertheless, everything else was very well handled and showed two mystery writers who were growing and quickly finding their own stride. They would come into full bloom with their next three mystery novels and the result is a lamentably short-lived, but high quality, series of detective stories that simply cannot be recommended enough. Coachwhip and Curt Evans deserve a heap of praise for bringing this series back into print. Because these books belong on the shelves of every enthusiast of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

The Roger Scarlett Mysteries:

The Back Bay Murders (1930)
Cat's Paw (1931)


  1. I read Beacon Hill & Back Bay err... back-to-back, and found them very similar in design (extreme focus on character movement and alibi, the claustrophobic setting that isn't as atmospheric as in later novels, the early/mid plot twist followed by the second murder), so that was both disappointing and slightly tiring: I imagine that putting some time in between would've made Back Bay stand more on its own in my mind, rather than 'it's basically Beacon Hill but different'.

    But on this is on the whole a very entertaining series (with Angells as the masterpiece of course), and it's also a good showcase of an author (authors) who are willing to evolve, picking out the good stuff from their earlier work and using that to come up with a different kind of novel the next time.

    1. You're probably right that it helped not reading them back-to-back, because I didn't think The Back Bay Murders resembled The Beacon Hill Murders all that much. Stylistically, they were cut from the same cloth, but thought the plot and story-telling were different enough to distinguish the two.

      One of the amazing things about this series is how different the first and last novels are. The only thing they have in common is the mansion setting and Inspector Kane.

      By the way, I got myself a copy of The 8 Mansion Murders and look forward to reading it, but you have to wait until early July for the review.

    2. Thanks, and take your time :)

  2. Thanks for the review. :) Now that you've read all of them, I'd be curious to know how you would categorise and rank them in order of merit...?

    1. I would rank them as follow:

      1: Murder Among the Angells (obviously)
      2: In the First Degree (not entirely original, but has a daring, well-handled plot)
      3: Cat's Paw (an excellent, well crafted mystery only marred by the fact that it withheld an important clue from the reader)
      4: The Back Bay Murders (an improvement on the first one)
      5: The Beacon Hill Murders (a good Van Dine-style mystery, but overshadowed and outperformed by the other books in this series).

  3. Hahaha, now your comment earlier this week makes sense -- how's that for serendipity?! I shall be back to add my own reflections after my review goes up tomorrow...

    1. Sure, it fits this situation as well, but I was referring to another recent discovery of mine. I'm almost sure that you're completely unaware of it.

    2. Cool, you have me very curious. I guess we'll have to wait and see...

  4. Well, now we know that we agree on this one, I'm very happy that you also like the second murder. Unlike you I wasn't entirely confident I could list it as impossible, but the timing element probably does just sweep it into such and so I'll go back and change the labelling on my own review in due course.

    and even if it's not fully impossible, the way it's setup and clewed is fabulous (the method comes a bit out of nowehre, but the...other aspect is a beautifully sly piece of giving the reader a key piece of information to disregard).

    1. Yes, the second murder is in that gray, borderland area between the impossible crime and the howdunit, but the method (a classic locked room technique) in combination with the perfect alibi of the murderer made me decide to tag it as an impossible crime. I think it was the alibi that tipped the scales for me.

      I know you like to read series in chronological order, but you should really consider switching Cat's Paw and Murder Among the Angells around for your next Scarlett read. I want to know if you see the same thing in the locked room that I saw.

    2. Sorry, I'm not abandoning my chronological order of these for anything -- I think there's far too much to be gleaned from the gradual improvements Blair and Page make as they go, incrementally working from something they thought they'd ape to something they actually wanted to become. And I'm rather fascinated to watch it all play out, to be honest.

      But we shall compare notes on Angells, we shall, we shall, we shall. Just all in good time.

    3. Just read them back-to-back then. :)