Previously, I reviewed F. van Wyck Mason's Seeds of Murder (1930) and a short story by Paul Charles, "The Riddle of the Humming Bee" (2017), which were long overdue returns to writers I discovered in 2018 and decided to go for the hat-trick.
Last year, I read Murder Most Ingenious (1962) by "Kip Chase," a pseudonym of Trevett C. Chase, who impressed me as a member of that lost second generation of Golden Age mystery writers, but Chase succeeded in getting at least three of his novels published – giving us a glimpse of what could have been had publishers not stumbled in the opposite direction. I blame Julian Symons.
Anyway, the modestly-titled Murder Most Ingenious certainly lived up to its claim with a cleverly handled plot about a stolen painting, shady development deals and the lingering effects of the Korean War. Not to mention a very original locked room-trick and a fascinating detective-character. So more than enough reason to finally return to this unjustly, long-forgotten mystery writer.
Where There's a Will (1961) was the first of only three novels by Chase and was written on "a Remington portable typewriter on the fender of a Ford panel truck," carrying navigational equipment for an offshore geophysical crew, "along the coastline of Trinidad." Chase dictated his next two novels, Murder Most Ingenious and Killer Be Killed (1963), to a tape recorder while commuting to his next job at Vandenberg Air Force.
This short-lived series introduced the first wheelchair-bound detective, Justine Carmichael, preceding both Arthur Porges' Cyriack Skinner Grey and the iconic TV-detective, Robert T. Ironside.
Justine Carmichael is the former, highly regarded chief of the Los Angeles Police Department's Homicide Division, but "a thirty-eight calibre, 158-grain slug" put him in a wheelchair and forced him to retire early from a decorated career in the force – which happened four years before the opening of the story. However, Carmichael is still called upon by his former colleagues as "an unofficial adviser." One of these old colleagues is Louis Delmar, Police Chief of San Margaret, who asks his help with the murder of "a big society grande dame."
Where There's a Will opens with the murder of an incredibly rich widow, Mrs. Constance DeVoors, who enjoyed castigating servants, embarrassing people publicly and took pleasure in knowing people hated her, but "were powerless to do her harm because of her wealth." Obviously, the person who entered her bedroom and strangled her with a necktie proved that was a deadly assumption. So this leaves Chief Delmar with a bunch of oddball house guests, staff and relatives as potential suspects equipped with strong motives and shaky alibis to sort out.
These oddball house guests comprise of a representative of the yogi-cult, Sra Kuru, who received a monthly donation from Mrs. DeVoors. Two phony Russian aristocrats, Count and Countess Ivanov. Mr. Augustus Veblen is a writer and a semi-permanent house guest, of sorts, who "leaves everybody alone and vice versa." Mrs. DeVoors was strangled with the necktie that belongs to her nephew, Dr. Jack Newton, who was cut out of her will after one hell of row, but he claims he was with his father, Old Philip Norton – who's the caretaker of his sister's lodge up in the San Bernardino mountains. Jack claims to have been with his father on the night of the murder, but Philip has gone horseback riding in the woods. And is practically impossible to get hold of until he comes back. Since this is an updated Golden Age mystery, you can't entirely write off the household staff. You have a surely butler-chauffeur, George Awlsen, who loves to talk about his amorous exploits. A tanned, blonde secretary, Miss Elinor Wycliff, who has given her employer looks of "pure venom." Lastly, a bible-reading maid and a perfectly happy cook. All of them have a story to tell, but which of those stories are relevant to the solution?
A classic and traditionally-structured premise for a good, old-fashioned detective story, but Chase tried here, as he did in his next novel, to place the story in the real world. The murder of Mrs. DeVoors is treated as the exception to the rule, because murders are mostly cases of "husband shoots wife, wife shoots husband" or "man gets hit a little too hard in a bar fight" – there's "very seldom any "mystery" about it." A nice example of this is when Carmichael shows his grandson, "Pinkie," who's an aspiring policeman, a report sheet with ninety-nine percent of daily police work (e.g. disturbance calls and runaway juveniles).
Regardless, the solution is still in the grand, fair play tradition of the Golden Age detective story. Admirably, Chase tried to fuse the best of the genre's past and present together, which makes it so frustrating he only got to write three novels, because in my opinion he succeeded. Chase was evidently an avid mystery reader and knew what makes a good plot tick. More importantly, how to put one together himself.
When the details begin to emerge about the provisions in Mrs. DeVoors' scewball will and the circumstances of a second, apparently botched, murder, the perceptive reader should be able to separate the red herrings from the clues – work out what happened, who's responsible and why. Carmichael credits "a dead deer and a baseball player" as the vital clues that solved the case, but the baseball-clue was badly telegraphed. I immediately spotted it and knew how it was going to be used!
So, if you pay close attention to the clues, you can solve the case when you reach the final quarter of the story, but Where There's a Will still stands as a strong debut with an inspired, cleverly handled plot and story that tried to do something new with old tropes. Something the story succeeded in admirably, I think. I especially liked the last, final lines of the story beautifully tiptoeing between the classic detective story and modern crime novel. What I appreciated the most was the inspired plotting that reminded me of early Christopher Bush with something I can only describe as negative or reverse alibi. You know what I mean when you figure out or read the solution.
A long story short, I recommend Chase's Where There's a Will and Murder Most Ingenious unreservedly as rare examples of finely crafted detective novels from the sixties not written by an established Golden Age writer. And in a normal, rational and functionally world, Chase would have went on to become a leading light of a Second Golden Age we never got. Once again, I blame Julian Symons.