The Clue in the Air (1917) by Isabel Ostrander

Isabel Ostrander was an American socialite from a well-to-do New York family, of Dutch descent, who traveled and lived all over the world at various times, but she disappointed her parents when she decided to study drama and married a Broadway songwriter – before embarking on a writing career. Not without success! Ostrander prolifically wrote short stories and serial novels for the early (pulp) magazines, which widely read and made her something of a household name. You might not have read any of her stories or even heard of her name, but you have likely read Agatha Christie's short story collection Partners in Crime (1929). One of the short stories, "Finessing the King" (1924), parodies Ostrander's McCarty and Riordan series. A parody blunted by Ostrander's plunge into obscurity, but it goes to show how well-known her work was in the 1910s and '20s. More importantly, she was something of a trailblazer.

Ostrander created one of the first blind detectives, Damon Gaunt, preceded only by Clinton H. Stagg's Thornley Colton and Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados. Ashes to Ashes (1919) is credited with being one of the first inverted crime novels predating Anthony Berkeley's "Francis Iles" crime novels by a dozen years. The Clue in the Air (1917), today's subject, has been known to me as a proto-1930s detective novel listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) for ages. Somehow, The Clue in the Air proved to be remarkable difficult to find for a book that should have been in the public domain for the past twenty or thirty years.

So it was a welcome surprise to learn The Clue in the Air finally got a proper, long overdue reprint as part of "Otto Penzler's Locked Room Library" series. A new, hopefully long-running series with a so far unusual, but interesting, selection of titles – mostly covering relatively obscure titles from the 1920s. This first badge comprises of Anna Katharine Green's Miss Hurd: An Enigma (1894), Eden Phillpotts' The Grey Room (1921), Arthur J. Rees' The Moon Rock (1922), Louis Tracy's The Passing of Charles Lanson (1924), W. Adolphe Roberts' The Haunting Hand (1926), Ronald A. Knox's The Three Taps (1927) and Ostrander's The Clue in the Air. They are in the public domain, but that doesn't always mean they're readily available or undeserving of a proper edition. If this is the route this reprint series is taking, I can only hope obscure, hard-to-find public domain locked room mysteries like Fred M. White's serial "Who Killed James Trent" (1901), W.A. Mackenzie's Flower O' the Peach (1916), Charles Chadwick's The Cactus (1925) and Ostrander's Above Suspicion (1923), published as by "Robert Orr Chipperfield," are next in line to be reprinted. In the meantime, I'll pick and choose from this first round of reprints from Penzler's Locked Room Library.

The Clue in the Air introduces Ostrander's series-detective, ex-roundsman Timothy McCarty, who resigned from the police force when "the death of a prosperous, saloon-keeping uncle had made him financially independent" to become a prosperous landed proprietor and gentleman of leisure – which proved empty and monotonous. That all changed one sultry, summer evening when McCarty is out for a stroll in the city and bumps into an old colleague, Cunliffe, out on patrol. They chat a little how nothing ever happens in that quiet district of the city, but McCarty reminds him that, when he was still on the force, "all the brawls in the tough wards put together didn't give us half the trouble of one crime pulled off in a residential section." A remark thick with foreshadowing!

McCarty continued his leisurely stroll when he hears "a sharp, choking cry from somewhere overhead" and "a swift rush of air as something hurtled down and fell with a hideous crashing impact on the pavement at his feet." What crashed on the sidewalk of an apartment building is the quivering, broken body of a dying woman uttering the cryptic words, "the—flying—man," through smashed lips and broken teeth. A dying message!

I already noted Ostrander was something of a trailblazer in the 1910s, creating a blind detective and experimenting with the inverted crime, which can be extended to The Clue in the Air. The story is a prototype, or premonition, of things yet to come. A Van Dine-Queen detective novel written a decade before either S.S. van Dine or Ellery Queen arrived on the scene and has the added distinction of being the first detective novel known to use the "dying message" device. Only example preceding it is "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (1891) from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891). That would have been impressive enough for a surprisingly fresh, very readable mystery novel written/published in 1917, but the deadly fall is eventually revealed to be a locked room problem and the ex-roundsman has to contend with a Sherlockian rival sleuth. So someone gets to play the fallible detective and provide the story with a false-solution, of sorts. The Clue in the Air probably deserves more credit for its part in shaping the American detective story of the 1920s and '30s, but more on that in a moment.

Inspector Druet, officially leading the investigations, asks McCarty to come back to the force in some capacity, but tries to resist the urge to get involved without much success ("I'm not able to get the thing out of my mind at all since the poor thing fell at my feet") considering the whole situation is festooned with question marks – starting with the identity of the victim, Marion Rowntree. She's stepdaughter of the noted banker, Stephen Quimby, who's the executor of the estate left her by her mother until she became of age. In two weeks time, Marion would have turned twenty-one and her stepfather would have been compelled to turn everything over to her. And that might have been a problem for obvious reasons. However, Quimby apparently has an alibi. There are other questions: What was Marion doing at the apartment building? Where was she pushed from? What's the meaning of her dying words? Who else in the apartment building could have pushed her? "Was it the blonde lady on the third floor, or the seemingly frank and straightforward young inventor, or the bizarre couple who were his immediate neighbors?" Or was it perhaps someone else ("match wits with Ellery Queen and see if you guess whodunit").

So, as the soon to be Special Officer becomes more involved, McCarty enlists his lifelong friend and (here, anyway) armchair Watson, Dennis Riordan. A city firefighter and enjoyed their little chats at the firehouse, but otherwise, Riordan's role in the story is very limited compared to the previously mentioned rival detective, Wade Terhune, "the renowned crime specialist" who's "record of success is unique in the annals of criminal investigation." Terhune is a parody of Sherlock Holmes with all the “charm” of Philo Vance and all the "scientific facilities" of Dr. John Thorndyke or Craig Kennedy. McCarty is speechless the Great Detective and subjects him to a series of observation, which turn out to be spot on ("mere observation once more, and a little deduction"), but even more interesting are Terhune's scientific gadgets. Mostly notably, Terhune hooks all the suspects to a lie-detector to scientifically measure their responses to a series of pictures ("...you have each irrefutably recorded your emotions by the pulse beats in your wrists, in pressing upon the pneumatic cushion"). Terhune and his gadgets sometimes push the story dangerous close to science-fiction and a hybrid mystery ("I have adjusted a vibratometer, a small apparatus which, as the subject sits facing the hearth, will measure the vibration of his breath"), but McCarty's ordinary, everyday common sense prevails over Terhune's spyglasses, tape measures and "machines with jaw-breaking names." So... about that ending.

Ostrander was certainly ahead of the curve and perhaps knew in which direction the detective story, and novel, was slowly headed. The Clue in the Air is an early example of the direction in which the detective novel was slowly taking, but it simply wasn't there yet. Not even close! Ostrander evidently had an idea how it would look and feel like, but the last quarter of the story and ending throws all of that out of the window. Nick Fuller said it best, "impressive because it is ahead of its time, disappointing because fair play is still in the future." However, the twist preceding this change is actually somewhat clued and something you should be able to anticipate, because it has been done before and beaten like a dead horse since.

After this point, The Clue in the Air goes from the ancestral mother of the American detective story to just another pulp story littering the popular magazines of the day. And it finally reveals why the book secured a spot in Adey's Locked Room Murders. But don't expect anything grandiose, unless you have a taste for dated, pulp-style impossible crimes. I can enjoy a bizarre, pulpy take on the locked room mystery, but this needed to be more than just pulp. This is like watching a runner collapse with the finish line in sight.

That being said, the high rise building and period setting helped to punch up the locked room angle and scenes. If only Marion's dying message had been (ROT13) "gur—fcvqre—zna," which is more accurate and funny today, but unfair to expect the book to be a complete conduit into the future. Ostrander was farsighted, not clairvoyant. The Clue in the Air is admirably enough as a premonition of the American detective novel of the coming decades. Likely served as a blueprint for some of those writers that would emerge in the coming decades, even though Ostrander is largely forgotten today. So recommended as a not unimportant genre curiosity.

A note for the curious: Isabel Ostrander died a little over a century ago, aged 40, on April 26, 1924, of "heart failure after an illness of several weeks." She was only 40 when she died in 1924 and would have been in her early fifties when the Golden Age was in full swing in the mid-1930s. I now wonder what Ostrander might have written had she seen what others can do with a detective novel like The Clue in the Air.


  1. The couple of Ostrander books I have read (The Twenty-Six Clues, How Many Cards?) have been frustrating; as you point out, they're blueprints for the American Golden Age. She gets the form right: the situations are intriguing; the investigation is in-depth and detailed, and very much like early Carr (night-time scenes, reconstruction from baffling clues); she even has surprise solutions. But she doesn't play fair yet: the reader isn't given access to all the clues, so can't compete with McCarty. And that makes it less fun!

    1. When you sum it up like that, she really came frustratingly close to nailing it. Only needing that one essential component and she might have become the figurehead of the American detective story, instead of Van Dine and Queen.