Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Eric Heath : Murder of a Mystery Writer, 1955


There are very few autobiographical sources about him (Maspléde does not even mention them): some sources speak of his birth in 1897 and his death in 1979, but there is no certainty. Nothing else. Only his works, 4 novels: Death Takes a Dive (Hillman-Curl, 1938, hc) [Cornelius Clift, Jr.; Los Angeles, CA]; Murder in the Museum (Hillman-Curl, 1939, hc) [Cornelius Clift, Jr .; California]; Murder of a Mystery Writer (Arcadia, 1955, hc) [Wade Anthony; California]; The Murder Pool (Arcadia, 1954, hc) [Wade Anthony; Los Angeles, CA]. Which authorizes us to think that it is a pseudonym.

To remove the veil of oblivion, the American writer and critic Bill Pronzini thought about it years ago, who spoke extensively about it, regarding the novel we will deal with today, Murder of a Mystery Writer (1955), in his very interesting essay, Gun in Cheek : An Affectionate Guide to the Worst in Mystery Fiction. Pronzini referred to Heath as "a writer with talents that can only be described as awesome."

Murder of a Mystery Writer, could be seen as a sort of self-plagiarism if it did not change the places and the typing of the characters, leaving the plot almost unchanged: in fact it would be a rewritten version of Death Takes a Dive from 1938. In this first novel , Heath places the action at a party in Beverly Hills (where the characters are Hollywood types, but the dwarf is missing), where the action is narrated by a beautiful female detective, Winnie Preston, while the solution is entrusted to the criminologist Copey deriving Winnie's eternal love. Everything else in the plot is the same.


Dr Anthony Wade criminologist, psychologist and amateur detective is touring the United States in search of a calm and beautiful place to find inspiration for one of his books, and in this he is accompanied by his faithful secretary Penny Lake. Wandering through the Sierra Nevada, he comes across a fairytale landscape: a series of pine trees that stand out in the sky, covered with snow and which form the corollary of an oval sapphire lake nestled between the mountains. Nearby there is a rather gloomy mansion, the Mystery Boarding House, a hotel that its owner, Antrim Zarzour, wanted to give a gloomy atmosphere dedicated to the Mystery. Furthermore, he qualifies as an avid collector and reader of detective stories, having the largest collection of mystery books in the world.

The hotel immediately appears so horrible that Wade and his companion would decide to leave if they were not held back by the snow that begins to fall: in the immense atrium a huge oil painting depicts Satan intent on enjoying the spectacle of the damned who they arise from a lake of boiling lava; in the living room, from an immense fireplace in which a huge log burns, a stuffed crocodile with its jaws open looks at the visitors, while in one corner an Egyptian sarcophagus dominates, the floor is covered with carpets with the symbols of the zodiac, with a pentacle and a ram with a human head and from the ceiling hangs a huge candlestick formed by long silver tentacles that hold a brass circle from which hang almost coiled snakes, in whose jaws there are bulbs; the stairs leading to the rooms on the first floor are illuminated by niches at regular intervals in which skulls contain bulbs inside them; on the first floor a hideous four-legged animal, with skin made up of scales, a partly human and bestial head from which fangs come out and in which phosphorus-colored eyes open, runs to meet them. Penny lets out a cry of terror, but this too is a trick: it is Zarzour's cat appropriately made up, with the name that says it all, Balzac. Why such a name? Because “the more you study it, the less you understand it”.

But the frightening surprises for the secretary do not end there. She entered her huge bedroom, with a mammoth double bed in the center, in front of which a painting depicts a bust of a man with one arm raised, brandishing a long dagger with a blood-stained blade, in whose face shocked by the madness two crazy eyes are turned to the pillows (and therefore to whoever leans his head on it), he sees a cantaran who has depicted, just under the keyhole, two large hypnotic eyes painted with a sense of reality. When she opens the wardrobe in which a mirror is framed by carved snakes, she jumps back in terror: there is a man pointing a revolver at her. This is also a joke: it is a human-sized puppet, dressed in evening dress and with an expression so evil that he can identify himself as a demon. Shortly after, Wade enters and immediately afterwards, a dwarf with enormous shoulders and head knocks on the door, whose name is a whole program "Gargoyle", which brings their suitcases.

Zarzour invites Wade to visit the premises in the cellar where he builds state-of-the-art electronic devices. In the hotel, Wade and Lake soon find not only an atmosphere in which they initially struggle to find inspiration, although it was created precisely for the purpose of provoking it, but also an assorted meeting of writers who have decided to meet there, 'Association Writers of Yellow Books, a very important cenacle according to Zarzour which brings together the greatest writers of detective novels and which meets once a year, and which this time precisely in the Pensione del Mistero have decided to meet: of these, only six have arrived at the hotel a few days ago. They are: Ferdinand Lang, Otto Oswald, Charles Martenson, Merril Atwell, Arnold Fox, Cora Courtwright. From the moment they arrive, the skirmishes and teases begin: everyone is disliked by the others and vice versa the others are hated by each, envious and jealous of their success; of them, however, the most offensive and least diplomatic is Ferdinad Lang. Wade immediately senses a tension that winds through the group, which Lang detests; moreover, the writer himself has attracted the ire of the dwarf he laughed at and offended, and those of the landlord, since in his presence he repeatedly made court to his beautiful wife Sonia, with her glacial charm. Sonia Zarzour and her husband Antrim, form a truly unique couple. As much she is of a superlative beauty, so much he is superlatively ugly, two meters tall, frighteningly thin, with a big and pointed head, with eyebrows that join and non-existent lips, and very protruding cheekbones, always dressed in black, and who blows his nose and wipes his sweat with black silk handkerchiefs on which skulls and crossbones are drawn.

Lunch takes place in a room with macabre furnishings: the ceiling is sky-blue, from which hangs a huge chandelier, whose arms have the shape of human arms whose hands have fingers spread like claws almost to grab the hair of the diners; the table is covered with a black tablecloth on which skulls, snakes, monsters are embroidered, and in one part of the room a huge statue of a black cat stares at the shoulders of the diners. The writers immediately enter the subject, discussing the perfect crime: there are those in favor (some diners and the landlord), and those who do not believe that it exists. The fact is that while they are discussing, there is a new fact: a certain Jorgenson was surprised by the snowstorm that is hitting the mansion and the surrounding area. His conditions are serious and therefore Zarzour has one of his chalets available so that it can be cured: it is a well-known draftsman, who became famous because he paints portraits of murderers and defendants during the trials. Immediately this event also produces sensation among those present: Oswald and Martenson hate him, especially the former, since years earlier the designer, who had fallen in love with Oswald's sister, led her to kill himself with his conduct. The evening ends with Lang who for the umpteenth time, in addition to having teased several of his meeting mates, even allows himself to kiss the hostess, which provokes Zarzour's ire.

Well taken Wade conceives an original way to force those present to tell the truth or to betray themselves: he will film the present with a series of cameras that he has in his trailer, in order to put them in difficulty or to study their reactions to his requests. However, the morning after Lang's murder, the Chinese servant Wong whom Zarzour had placed on guard at the Chalet where Jorgenson was resting, arrives out of breath at the mansion, informing those present that the portrait painter is also dead, stabbed: in the inspection, Wade finds under the room desk a mysterious sheet with sketches depicting pens, a curtain and an eagle, Indian symbols. Who in the hotel was afraid that Jorgenson would recognize him as one of the killers he had portrayed during famous trials? It is clear that one or more killers are moving among those present.

Wade will discover the truth after forcing everyone to answer the questions, framed by the cameras, and to simulate a stabbing of the mannequin, to find out who had struck the blow from the bottom up, who was the one who killed Jorgenson; and having discovered in the hotel cellar a hatch hidden in the ceiling, to which a staircase descends, which allows Wade to enter the cavity of the black cat, and to look in front of him at the place that Lang occupied; while Penny will discover an ultrasonic whistle in the same cellar.

Initially the suspects will refocus on the dwarf as accused by Zarzour (Gargoyle will admit  he often entered the black cat to play tricks on bystanders) then they will post on other characters. After all, Wade will have to understand if the murderer is only one or two and in this case if they acted in competition or each for their own purposes


A novel that is a triumph of excess, full of a dense and gloomy atmosphere and at the same time ridiculous and grotesque (think of the skulls, the kitschy furniture, the cat named Balzac), it has a whole series of trappings and references that they frame it as a super detective novel, in which a thousand references are channeled not only to novelists of the time or earlier, but also to facts and technological and musical references: how not to recognize in Sonia Zarzour, wife of the gloomy Antrim, the Morticia of the family Addams that echoed on American TV in those years? Or in Antrim Zarzour, Lurch, the lanky butler with a face that resembles that of Frankenstein's Creature, or a cross as Pronzini says, between John Carradine (Quentin Tarantino's Bill) and Don Rickles? And in the same gloomy house as the Addams, the Mystery Board?


The house is full of technological devices: there are intercoms that allow those present to hear everything that happens in the individual rooms of the complex (with a voyeuristic hint), ultrasonic whistles that regulate the operation of electric valves or guns with specially prepared silencers . And there are grotesque furnishings that refer to certain films by Abbott and Costello of the 1940s or to certain comedians by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (for example, Oliver The Eighth). And how not to recognize in Dr. Wade a Dr. Fell, an American Lord Wimsey, a male Miss Marple, as Pronzini rightly states in his essay: "He is a lean Dr. Fell, an American Peter Wimsey, a male Miss Marple— truly, an AD [1] among ADs…”. Murder of a Mystery Writer (1955) is his finest performance. It is one of those rare books that must be read two or three times to be fully savored and appreciated. On each rereading, new subtleties and nuances reveal themselves, much as is the case with Chandler, Hammett, and other masters "?

A Gargoyle is also connected to an old-fashioned judgment that wanted the dwarves, of beings as well as deformed also with cerebral defects. This judgment Heath makes express to Cora, who attributes the responsibility for Lang's murder to the dwarf as suffering from cretinism and asks the others if they know anything about the possibility that an individual suffering from cretinism can see better than others in the dark. “Cora is particularly pithy in her condemnation: “Does anybody know whether cretinism causes people to see better in the dark than normally built people?”. However, Doctor Anthony is not sure of this, as he thinks that the origin of the crime lies elsewhere: “Dr. Anthony isn’t so sure of Gargoyle’s guilt, though. As he confides to Penny later, “I’m inclined to think that there is a much deeper psychological basis for this crime than a dwarf committing murder to avenge a personal insult.”

How can we forget that there is a Brazilian Parrot, a dwarf named Gargoyle, some Chinese servants, 6 Mystery writers (6 is a number that recurs in several novels of those years: it won't be because 6 is the number of evil, and 666 is the number of the Beast of the Apocalypse of St. John?). And again, how can we forget that Heath even alludes to the Queenian mechanism of the dying message, the Dying Message, in the representation of Native American symbols in the piece of paper found on the ground under the desk in the chalet? Possible killers go to waste: Martenson and Otwald possible killers of Jorgenson, Sonia who would have killed Lang to put the blame on Antrim or Antrim who would have killed Lang to prove the possibility of a perfect crime or even to avenge his honor by dropping the blame on the dwarf, or the dwarf himself eager to take revenge for the rudeness he suffered, or Atwell and Fox offended by Lang who contemplate revenge, and one of them any who is an undercover murderer and who must kill Jorgenson to avoid being recognized by him ; and Copra Courtwright herself, who before Lang is killed, with her poisonous arrows aimed at bystanders is indicated as the most likely victim or even murderer: "I don't know whether that is a compliment or an intimation that I am a murderess at heart, ”chortled Cora. "And yet you may have something there, Zarzour. I will give my friend, Lang. . . a thought to mull over. Could it be true, Lang, that every good mystery writer is giving vent to a repressed desire to Commit murder — or to put it more plainly, is every mystery writer a killer at heart? If he had not turned to writing mystery fiction, would he have developed into a gangster? "

There is even a memory of the atomic bomb, of supreme bad taste, when the murderer discovered, challenges Dr. Wade to find out what poison he has taken, such as to cause a cadaveric pallor, hair loss, and a whooping cough up to the death and Wade after the autopsy reveals that the killer killed himself by taking irradiated phosphorus, bombarded with uranium, dying in the same way as the Japanese in Hiroshima.

And to top it all off, the fact that Lang's murderer underwent a facial plastic, to change his connotations, having escaped from a criminal asylum, as he was obsessed with the fixed idea of ​​conceiving and putting practice a perfect crime. There is ample trace of this too, in films of the 1940s (Dark Passage by Delmer Daves with H. Bogart, for example).

In short, the kitsch of kitsch, in a novel that has remained unique to remember an unknown or almost unknown author, with a very fervent and at the same time very allusive imagination.


Pietro De Palma



1 comment:

  1. I owned this book at one time, but I never read it. I wonder if I still have it? Maybe it's not too late.