The Whistling Hangman (1937) by Baynard Kendrick

This year, Otto Penzler's American Mystery Classics is reprinting one of my two favorite Baynard Kendrick detective novels, Blind Man's Bluff (1943), which I read a few years ago and called it a pulpier version of John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) – nearly as good as the other favorite, The Whistling Hangman (1937). The book that introduced me to Kendrick and his blind private eye, Captain Duncan Maclain, who appeared in twelve novels and several short stories. I found The Whistling Hangman impressive enough at the time to seek out more and did not forget about it when compiling "The Updated Mammoth List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." And while having enjoyed Kendrick's detective fiction, only Blind Man's Bluff came close to matching The Whistling Hangman.

So with the news of more Kendrick reprints in the works, I wanted to revisit The Whistling Hangman to see if my favorable first impression can stand a second look.

Baynard Kendrick's The Whistling Hangman is the second novel featuring his former Intelligence officer and sightless detective, Captain Duncan Maclain, who had been "blinded in the war more than 20 years before," but, through "indomitable persistency and unrelenting work," he had beaten the darkness – becoming New York City's greatest detective. Three times a week, Captain Maclain practices blind target shooting in a bat-cave-like subbasement followed by "long hours spent improving hearing, touch, and the closely allied senses of taste and smell" in addition to exercising and disciplining his "memory until it seldom failed." However, he does not stand alone. Samuel "Spud" Savage is Captain Maclain's partner and close friend "who had piloted the captain through dark years after the war" and married his secretary, Rena Savage. They guarded him with "a loyal, fierce intensity which was almost fanatic." And then there are the two German shepherds ("one named Schnucke, to guide him from the left; and the other, a trained police dog named Dreist, to protect him, from the right"). On top of that, the office is crammed with early 20th century recording and even photographic equipment ("everything said in his office is recorded on an Ediphone record").

I mentioned in previous reviews Captain Maclain occupies a rather unique spot in the genre as links the traditional detective story to the pulp magazines and comic books. The link to the comic books was not done intentionally, but came after the facts when Stan Lee used Captain Maclain as the model for Daredevil ("if a man without sight could be a successful detective, think what a triumph it would be to make a blind man a comic book superhero"). But due to the darker, pulp-style trappings of the series, you can easily imagine the stories taking place in an alternate Gotham without costumed vigilantes or villains running amok. Regardless of all of that, the series never comes across as a gimmicked one. On the contrary. 

The Whistling Hangman is not a pulp-style thriller (The Last Express, 1937) or a WWII spy thriller (The Odor of Violets, 1941), but, more or less, a regular who-and howdunit. The setting of the story is Doncaster House Hotel, a luxurious apartment hotel made up of "is a collection of beautiful homes housed in a single building" with a reputation as spotless as their linen. When the story begins, the staff is awaiting the arrival of a most desirable guest, Dryden Winslow. A once bankrupt stockbroker who left the United States and carved out a second fortune in Australia, but left behind his two children, Baxter and Gertrude. They have not seen their father since they were small children and Winslow has arranged a family reunion, of sorts, at the Doncaster House Hotel and rented six furnished apartments. These are for his son and daughter. A niece and a nephew, Rose and Emmet Black, and two maiden aunts, Marcia and Purcella Forrest, who raised Baxter and Gertrude. So a desirable guest list, but there's a reason to be anxious as the hotel receives notice that Dryden Winslow is "incurably ill" and has come home to die.

This is very much a so-called hotel mystery as a large part of the story concentrates on the hotel, its staff and how the murder affects the well-oiled routine of such an establishment ("it seemed incredible that the standards of years could disintegrate completely under the touch of murder..."). So you get some keyhole snapshots of how the hotel is run and some humorous observations ("guests so inconsiderate as to die were smuggled downstairs via a service elevator, and always late at night"), but it's really the characters of the hotel staff who stand out here. There's the hotel manager, Rudolph Bleucher, who's a friend of Captain Maclain and his assistant manager, Thomas Fralinger, but the most important character here, storywise, is the head housekeeper, Mrs. Colling-Sands – who has "20 years of hotel experience and wore it proudly as a badge of merit." You get to see a lot of the characters and incidents in the story from her point-of-view as well as trying her hands a bit of sleuthing herself. But not before witnessing the seemingly impossible death of Dryden Winslow. Mrs. Colling-Sands was in apartment 608 she heard "a soft call of two notes rising and falling" followed by a crack ("which might have been a small-sized gun") merged with a strangled scream. Next thing she sees is Winslow's battered, broken body landing on the balcony of 608. Winslow had fallen from one of the apartments he had rented on the top floor of Doncaster House, but was it an accident or suicide?

Captain Maclain was playing chess with Bleucher when it happened and is immediately guided to 608 to make a primarily investigation and comes to a startling conclusion. Dryden Winslow was hanged! But how could have possibly have been hanged ("...his neck was broken too") without a rope or when taking Gertrude's statement into consideration. She was talking to her father when he suddenly stopped, went out on the terrace and disappeared over the railing before her eyes. A few seconds later, Mrs. Colling-Sands saw him land on the balcony of 608 ten floors below.

I believe this to be a legitimate impossible crime, or an open-air locked room mystery, as there appears to have been no possible way someone could have either pushed or hanged Winslow from the terrace of his apartment. Somehow, The Whistling Hangman is omitted from both Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) and have only seen it referred to as "a borderline impossible crime." I suppose the trick has some hints of Kendrick's pulp-roots to perhaps place it closer to the weird menace stories, but John Dickson Carr used two variations of this trick in a short story and radio-play. While the trick might feel a touch out of place in an otherwise straitlaced, 1930s detective story, Kendrick uses the bizarre circumstances surrounding the murder and method to great effect. I liked there was room for Inspector Larry Davis and Sergeant Aloysius Archer, of the New York Homicide Squad, to give their take on the problem and provide the story with a false-solution – one that got demolished in a practical demonstration. There are more aspects for Captain Maclain to consider.

Why did Winslow request a Gideon Bible to be brought to his apartment? Who or what frightened the maid, Carrie Ritter? What role does Gertrude's fiance, the Hon. Paul Holden, O.B.E., who also book an apartment at Dorcaster House play in the case? Or how does another guest, Dr. Lorenzo Ynez, figure in it or at all? Despite all these complications and two impossible murders, The Whistling Hangman is a pleasantly clear, uncomplicated, but solidly plotted, detective story with the strange clueing standing out on my second read. Firstly, there are the sound-based clues that accompany the partially witnessed murders and recall the impossible crime from Kendrick's Death Knell (1945). This again may sound like a gimmick in a series about a blind detective, but it never feels forced and naturally something a detective who largely relies on hearing to focus on. Secondly, the clues to the murderer's identity and motive come not the form of a trail of breadcrumbs with one, or two red herrings along the way, but a growing list of requirements that can only fit the whistling hangman ("Spud and I have spent a frantic day trying to fit all those requirements onto the same person"). It works as far as fair play goes and a tell-tale clue is never even acknowledged (SPOILER/ROT13: xrrc lbhe rlrf bhg sbe vavgvnyf), but it feels like there's something slightly off about the detective story element. Not broken. Just slightly askew like a painting hanging crooked on the wall. But it really fitted the tone of the story. You can even say it complimented the rest of the story.

I can see why The Whistling Hangman impressed me so favorably on my first read. It feels like a fresh and original treatment of the traditional, fair play detective story without breaking or deconstructing it. The Whistling Hangman holds up as an excellent and fine example of the American Golden Age detective novel, but it pulp roots and well realized main character gives the series an atmosphere all of its own that makes it stand out. And inspiring the creation of a beloved comic book hero only adds historical interest to the series. Highly recommended! You can expect some of the lesser-known titles from this series, like You Die(t) Today (1952), The Aluminum Turtle (1960) and Frankincense and Murder (1961), to be moved up the big pile.


  1. I love these post-GAD puzzle plotters, so thanks for bringing Baynard Kendrick to my attention yet again! This is a great review of a fairly promising detective story, so I'll absolutely have to go check Kendrick out as soon as possible, thank you. You have yet to fail me with Douglas Clarke, Robert Innes, D. L. Champion, and Roger Ormerod, so, hey!

    By the way, a little off topic but I'm reading and reviewing INNOCENCE OF FATHER BROWN as we speak, and assuming I can stay focused on a single task for more than three seconds it should be the next post I pump out. I really like some of the stories so far, like "Queer Feet", and "Honour of Israel Gow", though I'm not quite certain I consider Chesterton a favorite yet. I hated "Invisible Man(!)", thought "The Wrong Shape" was a fairly 6.75~7.25/10 impossible crime muddied by flagrant and uncomfortable racist, and was merely whelmed by "Flying Stars" and "Blue Cross". "The Sins of Prince Saradine" was... okay? "The Secret Garden" I thought was obvious, but I love the inspiration of using an obvious decapitation trick and repurposing it into creating an impossible crime, instead of normal identity misdirection, so even if I figured it out immediately it stands as one of the more clever Father Browns I've read!

    I'm reading "The Hammer of God" and was wondering if there were any stories coming up that might convert me into a diehard Chestertonian. I don't dislike him so far, I just don't quite feel him growing on me as a dedicated favorite like he has some other people... Besides these stories, I've also read "The Oracle of the Dog", which is similar to "The Wrong Shape" in that it's a lame locked-room trick obfuscated by a brilliant piece of misdirection and I really enjoyed it too.

    1. I can't guarantee this recommendation will turn you into a convert, but some of the best stories can be found in The Incredulity of Father Brown.

      Beside “The Oracle of the Dog,” it includes the influential locked room story “The Arrow of Heaven” and my personal favorite, “The Miracle of Moon Crescent.” “The Dagger with Wings” is simply one of the best stories in the series. Some would even call it a classic.

      But remember my comment on your review of Tsumao Awasaka's “Fox's Wedding.” Chesterton's importance and influence on the development of the detective was not necessarily producing genre classics, but moving the detective story away from the strictly naturalistic and logical detective story of the 1800s and early 1900s by gifting it a soul and imagination. A different way to look at things (where's the best place to hide a body?). So while a story like “The Invisible Man” may look a little shabby today or time blunting the tip of “The Arrow of Heaven,” the influence they wielded over writers like Carr and Christie makes them important work. I think that needs to be kept in mind when judging the Father Brown stories as they were as important as the Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes stories.

    2. Actually, as I was reading your comment, I'd just finished reading "The Eye of Apollo" and thought it was superb, though I did basically figure it out immediately because I had a stray thought/observation that helped me quickly piece together the alibi plot.

      But you're right, I suppose since Chesterton was still pre-Golden Age, expecting him to produce stone-cold classics back to back is a bit much... Still, since so many people named him a favorite, I expected I'd like a lot more of his stories in a void. I anticipate I'll probably enjoy the A Aiichirou stories more in a void (so far, I think Fox's Wedding is already my favorite story from either series I've read).

      "The Arrow of Heaven" was spoiled for me by Nick Fuller's blog, in which he pretty openly points out which Agatha Christie novel specifically borrowed the impossible trick, but I'll still read it to see how the trick is utilized! I'm excited to read the other two as well, since they specifically are considered very highly...

      (also I didn't like "Hammer of God", thought it was obvious and the explanation for why the conundrum was even a conundrum unconvincing).

    3. Carr improved on the central ideas from “The Arrow of Heaven” and “The Hammer of God” by combining them into a single trick and carted it out in several short stories, radio-plays and novels (ROT13: “Gur Fvyire Phegnva,” “Gur Fgerrg bs gur Frira Qnttref” naq Cnavp va Obk P) with varying degrees of success. Christie did something similar in Zheqre va Zrfbcbgnzvn. Chesterton's fingerprints and DNA are all over the Golden Age.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of Baynard Kendrick. I have read The Scent of Violets and thought it was so-so, with a Nazi plot etc. I really enjoyed The Whistling Hangman despite having read a John Dickson Carr that explained some things. I'm half way through Blindman's Bluff now.

    1. Hope you enjoy Blind Man's Bluff! It's a great one and you might like it more on account of the solution to the impossible falls being very different from those in The Whistling Hangman (i.e. not used by Carr).