Sunday, February 17, 2013

Anthony Abbot: About the Murder of Geraldine Foster, 1930

Among the novels Charles Fulton Oursler alias Anthony Abbot wrote, About the Murder or Geraldine Foster, is the first.
It 's the first novel that imposed the characters by Anthony Abbot, as a major novelist of the early thirties, not very prolific (a bit as Charles Daly King) but developer of plots of the highest qualità, as one of the first great novel, in which we can say  4 major subjects in all history: Thatcher Colt, the investigator, Dr. Maskell, the prime suspect (but there are at least three other suspects); Geraldine Foster the victim, X, the murderer.
This is the plot.
Betty Caldwell, December 27, complains to the police the missing from the three days of her roommate, Geraldine Foster. Geraldine is the secretary of Dr. Maskell, known internist in New York. Has anyone heard a discussion for high voice between Maskell and her, before her missing.
Thatcher Colt, Police Commissioner of New York, is interested in the story. He, at the home of Caldwell and Foster, rummaging in the drawers, founds a fragment of the letter, in which Geraldine blackmails someone for a sum of $ 4000: the handwriting is recognized by Betty. However Colt realizes that the message is written in a different ink from that used in the house. Why is that? In addition, in a jacket in the closet, is found a large key that nobody knows what to open. Later we learn that Geraldine if she needed money she would have been able to easily get from his father, the well-off condition. The boyfriend is cut short because he and Geraldine would marry, after a short fight.
Thatcher Colt goes to the doctor's house, which makes him a revelation: at Christmas Eve, a mysterious woman, with the collar turned up, went to look at his studio Geraldine Foster, then with an apology had been in the store and then had run away by taxi. The thing is fishy to Colt who then finds in a closet, fur and handbag that Gerardine Foster had in the day of her missing. The doctor denies knowing that they were there as he denies knowing more about Geraldine.
The days go by and Geraldine Foster is not. It is revealed in the meantime by the family that the girl had, a year earlier, an association with a so-called Ephraim (which turns out to be a woman in disguise) had revealed the Geraldine’s noble origins.
Meanwhile, Betty, January 3rd, calls the police and announces that she has found other fragments of the letter blackmail, in which it speaks of a house in Peddler's Road. Thatcher instructs Abbot to go, but Abbot instead of going there alone he carries the beautiful Betty of which he has been infatuated: found the place, a small two-storey (thanks to the advice of a boy who is penetrated and says to have seen a ghost of a naked woman covered in blood), they notice how it looks abandoned; moreover, on the ground, are seven pigeons dead, for quite some time, whose feathers on the front look dirty with blood.
Seized with foreboding, Abbot realizes that the door is not locked, and when he enters witnesses a terrible spectacle: there is blood everywhere, on the ground, on walls, on furniture, on curtains, a puddle on the floor, even blood in the fireplace, but the body .. no trace. He finds instead Thatcher Colt and the police. Colt is furious because Abbot was put to flirt instead of following the track: he has already found upstairs other traces of blood, also in the bathroom, in which hangs a curious scent of pine, along with dirty towels in red (blood and lipstick), found in the tub a ladies watch, stopped at 5.10 P.M..
Thatcher says he found a broken window and there near a dead pigeon, and fingerprints of a child.
An agent founds in a small clearing nearby, the newly turned earth: in the light of torches, is found Geraldine Foster, literally to pieces and mutilated. Were noticed three strange things: the body is naked, wet and on is face was put a pillowcase. The body shows no signs of decomposition. The coroner shall determine the death to 36 hours and not more than 48, even if the pigeons seem dead for the longest time.
The same agent fills a bottle with a strange liquid that has collected around the body but that is not blood; two bottles similar to one found in the doctor's office Maskell are also found. Someone said they saw a woman leave with Geraldine, the study of Maskell, in the afternoon of 24 December, carrying two bottles, of three that had been delivered, even if the doctor has denied knowing about.
The key found at the home of Foster opens the door of the house, which they will know be owned by Dr. Maskell, and then it will be assumed that he was being blackmailed. In addition, the personal effects found in his study induce the prosecutors, including the District Attorney Merle Dougherty, to accuse the doctor of murder caused by a fit: the gun found in the house, a double-bladed ax covered in blood, ill-suited to a murder premeditated. However, this is the hypothesis is working Colt, but along another track.
In fact, the doctor to the time of death has an airtight alibi but it will crumble on the basis of a direct reconstruction made ​​by Colt, when the autopsy will reveal that the girl's death took place ten days before. In addition, it is found that the mysterious liquid is tannic acid, extracted from the bark of pine trees, which has the property of delaying the decomposition.
Little by little we understand that Maskell does not want a certain woman becomes involved in the investigation and for her he'll do anything, even to risk his life. Who is she? But more it will be and you will understand: because Geraldine was stripped after death; who was the woman that was touted as an expert on family background and because she had used a false name; who had purchased the tannic acid; what had happened to the other pillowcase unpaired; who had bought those pillowcases; and finally who had the motive, the opportunity and ability to commit the murder, woman or man that he/she was. The final will be overwhelming and unexpected.
The criticism commonly tells that Abbot was a vandinian writer: what evidence would show it?
Abbot as Van Dine (or Ellery Queen) is a fictional character and at the same time a writer of fiction; Abbot as well as being a character of the story, is (as in Philo Vance Van Dine is the) the loyal assistant of Thatcher Colt, Commissioner Police; in the novel there must be an amateur detective and in this novel the investigator is just Colt whose role should not mislead: in America, the Commissioner has not operational functions that instead are purely administrative and he is the connection between the Mayor and the Chief of Police. So Thatcher Colt, being a Commissioner should not have investigative functions of fact: the fact that he has them, marks him as a person who carries out operational functions improperly: he can be treated as an amateur detective.
Finally, if Abbot was vandinian, his investigator should, as Philo Vance have encyclopedic knowledge, and the Thatcher Colt has it, in several areas: scientific and technical (he recognizes at first glance what type it is an ink, and he knows bleaching a human hair; he applies various techniques of scientific investigation: as the examination of two different types of lipstick and the examination of the substances found under the victim's fingernails; the examination of different types of hair; the application of experimental techniques to possible suspects, as the polygraph, which records blood pressure and heart rate based on the emotional state of the subject ;or the truth serum based on scopolamine, which attenuates all of one's senses except the hearing), he is a student Literature and he writes poetry.
Beyond this, the Abbot of propensity to use often in his novels, scientific wizardry is the daughter of his time and is derived from the use which had made such authors as Cleveland L. Moffett, Crofts, Freeman or Connington; in several of his novels, the victims are women, but he is not a writer of the old school, which tends to eliminate "the fairer sex" as a suspect; his novels are typical Procedurals, where investigations are not carried out by a detective, but by the police.
What is peculiar, however, to the highest degree, in this novel, is that of a single crime is based around the castle for clues and evidence: he has no need of another crime to revitalize the attention and the voltage of the reader. Abbot does not hide nor even silent certain truths, then turned out  be important: the solution agrees with all the questions in the course of the novel. Abbot, in a way anticipates Carr and Rawson, diverting the reader's attention from the right direction and turning it in the wrong direction.
It is also to say the same quality as the investigation is of a type vandinian: Colt combines quality survey acutely psychological to techniques of examination purely circumstantial, type sherlockian: so for example explains why the body of Geraldine was completely naked after the child claims to have seen a ghost in the house of a woman covered in blood and naked and after finding fibers woven into the wounds.
The novel also lends itself to another kind of criticism, social criticism:
vandinian detectives are inherently leaders dell'intelleghentia Haute Bourgeoisie, and all the stories in which they are engaged, concerning crimes that accrue only in the most exclusive of the great metropolis, as if the murder more convoluted and more complex could not reside in degraded environment and low class, but instead in a very high.
In this novel, there is a number of examples of this: the High Commissioner is responsible for a crime that involves one of the most well-known professionals in the city, whose brother and sister in law are also among the most brilliant lawyers New York hole. One would expect, therefore, that Abbot parses the most peculiar aspects of this social area. Instead, he shows great disenchantment with the daily life and expectations of small and medium bourgeoisie, dreams shattered by the Great Depression of 1929 and the illusions of social redemption through unexpected inheritance or noble origins. The size of the fiction writer, in my opinion, is better represented than anything else, from the description of a detail of the corpse: "the diamond in an engagement ring around a little finger”. At the horror of the mutilated and buried human remains, what does the ring mean ? At least two things: the wickedness of someone who has denied a dream come true to a girl; the indifference of murderer for that object.
The indifference of the ring with a diamond could mean that social extraction by the murderer or murderess was greater than that of Geraldine Foster, and it means for that a small diamond ring of the type engagement represented a little thing. For this reason, it may have been scorned and left in the bare earth. Instead, if the murderer had been at the same or lower class than the girl , perhaps the value of the diamond would have taken on his/her greed.
The novel, as we see, is a real beauty: an unforgettable novel in its dramatic force, the fine texture of the plot, in the evocative power of writing, in the versatility of the situations, in the multiplicity of false trails that lead the reader to follow of the prerequisites whereas investigative action is directed towards another.
In this way, the ending is fantastic, by rare beauty: it is expected that the murderer is X and instead is Y.

Pietro De Palma


  1. Todd Downing was a huge fan of Abbot's first two books. I read both too and quite enjoyed them.

  2. A nice review, full of interesting observations. I've read just one of the Thatcher Colt novels, and I reviewed it a couple of years ago at my site:

    I'd love to read more books in the series, but I haven't been able to track any of them down. As you note, they're very much cut from the same cloth as Van Dine's nattily tailored suit. And, at least on the basis on reading that one novel, I'd say that Colt marks an improvement on Vance.

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      When I talk about a book, I always try to explain the plot to the fullest.
      For comparison that imposed by Van Dine, surely Abbot evolves the vandinism in his own style: it is a little 'what makes Ellery Queen, of course on a very different scale.
      Other authors tend to slavishly follow Van Dine: a case is the novel of Stacey Bishop (George Antheil), "The Death in the Dark", which is very similar to a famous novel by Van Dine.

  3. I have in the works to bring all the novels of Abbot in my blog, since I read them all, even one (on it is based your article, which I had missed) which has a nice Locked Room.