Saturday, March 19, 2022

Hugh Austin : It Couldn't Be Murder (1935)

Little or nothing is known about the life of Hugh Austin.

It is known that Hugh Austin Evans was born in 1903 in America and lived until 1964, in New York., And that his wife was called Alice. Nothing else.

He wrote novels with two main protagonists: Peter Quint, Sergeant of the Homicide Squad; and William Sultan.

Of the first, 5 novels were published by the famous Doubleday publishing house

It Couldn't Be Murder (1935)

Murder in Triplicate (1935)

Murder of a Matriarch (1936)

The Upside Down Murders (1937)

The Cock's Tail Murder (1938).

Other his novels, are:

Lilies for Madame, Doubleday 1938.

Drink the Green Water, Scribner 1948 (Wm Sultan )

The Milkmaids Millions, Scribner 1948 (Wm Sultan)

Death Has Seven Faces, Scribner 1949.

The first novel was a great success, and so Austin wrote four more, all with the same protagonist, Homicide Squad Sergeant Peter Quint.


Quint's direct superior wakes him up in the middle of the night, to entrust him with a very delicate investigation: at the home of a famous banker, his wife has died. The nurse called the police to whom the patient was entrusted, because the family members accuse her of the death of their relative due to negligence: in essence, they accuse her of having fallen asleep and therefore not having been able to cope with the heart attack of the banker's wife.

Peter Quint arrives at the Haughton house at 2.25am. And he finds Elizabeth Haughton dead. But he understands from Nurse Mary O'Toole's story that something is wrong; and she was the first to notice. Her sleep, which has normally always been light, that night, the very night her client died, was strangely heavy. In short, to put it short, her coffee was drugged. How did the killer drug her coffee? He did it while the victim sent for the nurse to chase the cat that had snuck into her room, and that was causing her asthma attacks which in her state of severe heart disease could be fatal. Evidently the use of the cat by the murderer is a fundamental fact, and the use of the device through which the killer managed to trap the cat at night, preventing it from meowing, will also be fundamental. After the nurse fell asleep, the killer killed the victim by chloroforming her, and leaving the window open so that the fumes evaporated and dispersed: chloroform had been used long ago to painlessly kill the cat's newborn kittens. , and then placed in the cellar.

Now the very object used to keep the cat good, preventing it from disturbing others with its insistent nocturnal meows, is found in the possession of one of the victim's family members. But soon, Quint, if he had initially framed him as the most likely suspect, must change his mind on the occasion of a second murder, which happens on the same night but which is discovered the next morning: the head of the family Charles P. Haughton is found dead, for gas poisoning, in his room locked from the inside. At first it is thought of an illness, due to careless leakage of gas; then even to a suicide, as Edgar, the Haughton's elder brother, claims that his brother killed his second wife and killed himself. For what reason? To be able to devote himself to her sister-in-law, Cora Lanthrop, Elizabeth's sister, also present in that house. Her son Vincent is in love with and loved by Charles' daughter Catherine; while Ted, Catherine's brother is kind and gallant with Mary O'Toole, the nurse. Everyone lives on the first floor of the villa, while on the second floor the servants live, including Wimitt (a butler who has a disposition to tell lies and "cover up other people") and Marge Wilson (a maid who has in her closet, clothes and shoes great luxury and refinement, unusual in his case). Based on the fact that the nurse, from her point of view, could see any people passing in the adjacent corridor, two of the most prominent suspects up to that moment were removed from the list of suspects for the second murder. Of course Quint must now find out who could have killed Charles Haughton, who did not really want to kill himself, as evidenced by some papers found on his bedside table, and from an open window below: if he really wanted to kill himself, he would have hermetically sealed all of them. Windows.

After the second murder, a third will take place: it will be the reticent butler, Wimitt, to be killed this time.

Quint, after having discovered hatred and grudges in that house of snake relatives, and also secret and undisclosed loves, and after having discovered the blackmailing manias of the maid, will succeed in a long ending, to guess who could be the murderer and kill him while he is attempting to kill for the fourth time.





Austin was certainly a narrator influenced by the Van Dine phenomenon and his followers, at least for this first novel of his (but unbalancing myself, I would say also for the following ones: Murder of a Matriarch, reminds me of the very clear reference to the first murder. in the Greene house). Many factors testify to this, although there is no super cultured protagonist, as instead in the very first novels of Ellery Queen, in the stories of Rufus King, and obviously in the novels of Van Dine (Philo Vance): this is because substantially the novel is from 1935, a era in which in the Mystery the protagonist with the features and culture of Philo Vance is already gone:

first of all the titles which, always presenting the word Murder, follow an identical pattern, as for the titles of Van Dine which present the scheme "The + Name + Murder Case", for the first 10 titles of Ellery Queen that "The + Adjective of nationality + name + Mystery ", for the first six cases of Anthony Abbot" About + the + murder + of + name ", for the first three of C. Daly King" Obelists + name ";

the protagonist, as for Abbot and Daly King, is a policeman;

In the crime scenes, the arrival of the police is witnessed by a number of policemen who search the house, who are identified by name and surname and appear in multiple novels and this happens in both Van Dine and Ellery Queen novels (at least the former, those with Sergeant Velie);

when the cops examine the crime scene, to collect clues, they do not forget to use the vacuum cleaners. The vacuum cleaner, which is mentioned at least in The Scarab Murder Case, as a cleaning appliance, is used in the exact same function mentioned in the Austin novel, already before, in another Vandinian novel par excellence, About the Murder of the Night Club Lady by Anthony Abbot's, a 1931 novel;

the fact that the murder takes place in the house of a subject belonging to the city jet set, as already in many of the early novels by Ellery Queen or Van Dine;

the identification of the murderer is similar in the sequences to that in The Siamese Twin Mystery by E. Queen (1933);

the ballistic reasoning of the bullet fired on the occasion of the butler's murder can be found in Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (1926).

the "Challenge to the Reader", found here, is one of the hallmarks of Ellery Queen's early novels;

always borrowed from the first of van Dine's novels, is the use of chapters, with the time to which they refer.

A characteristic thing of the novel is the locked room: in this regard, I won the bet made between me and myself, that the solution of the locked room, in the end, was what I had imagined, and in fact this happened, already present in British novels. The characterizing element is the gas tap for the radiators. The use of a gas tap in a locked room predates the Austin novel and there are two examples: the first in Ronald Knox's The Three Taps of 1926, and later in Murder at the Women 's City Club by Quentin Patrick, 1932. I can't tell who he was referring to, but it is logical that Knox was much more famous at that time than Quentin Patrick: by 1935, five of Knox's six novels had already been published, unlike Quentin Patrick who was still unknown (which moreover in America had been published by a very small publishing house in Philadelphia, that of Roland Swain, which failed a few years later), even if the description of the solution of the closed chamber with gas in Austin is almost the same as the one used in Quentin Patrick's second novel.

The protagonist of the novel, who solves the intricate story in just forty-eight hours, will repeat himself in the next novel, solving the story in a very short time.

The style is all in all acceptable, even if there is a too recurring use of dialogues often with back and forth that in the long run tire, especially since the novel is weighty and that sometimes the dialogues are centered on minor details: over 291 pages in the Italian edition, 301 in the original of 1935. In any case, I am of the opposite opinion compared to that of Nick Fuller who years ago labeled the novel as illegible, almost not even a "brick" like Etienne Pivenne's Oberman de Senancour: the novel is excellent, very articulate and complex, in the form of a diary: the succession of chapters with the timetable generates a certain tension after all, like The Benson Murder Case,  and clearly it was created by looking at the phenomena Van Dine and Ellery Queen to make tape, but this cannot be made into a drama.



Pietro De Palma



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