Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Roger Scarlett : The Back Bay Murders (1930)

Roger Scarlett is a pseudonym behind which there were two writers, a 4-handed couple like Ellery Queen. The writers were called Dorothy Blair (1903-1975) and Evelyn Page (1902-1976). They had not grown up together as one might easily guess, but in two quite different places. In fact, the first, originally from Montana, even though her parents came from Massachussets, had graduated from the State of New York; the second came from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The two girls met by the same publisher “Houghton Mifflin, based in Boston's Back Bay, where the two women met. The couple left Houghton, Mifflin in 1929 ”to create their own character and business name Roger Scarlett. After some time spent writing their 5 novels together, the couple retired to a remote farm in Abington, Connecticut, where they lived together for 50 years (they were a lesbian couple, like Curtis confirmed to me).

The 5 novels in question, written and published from 1930 to 1933 are:

The Beacon Hill Murders (1930)

The Back Bay Murders (1930)

Cat's Paw (1931)

Murder Among the Angells (1932)

In the First Degree (1933)




The Back Bay Murders (1930) essentially speaks of a series of murders in a pensioner, that of Mrs. Quincy.

At first, a strange thing occurs: someone smears the walls and floor of the room occupied by Prendergast, a very excitable young man who lives with his mother, with substance of the same color as blood, probably ketchup. Then a few days later, the thing repeats itself only that it is blood to smear the floor, as Prendersast is killed. And a white feather is found under Prendergast's body.

The investigations are difficult: all the pensioners, occupying rooms on the second and third floors of the building, give depositions which show how essentially no one could have committed the crime, except one person who had gone to see the blind Weed, Alvin Hyde . This person, it must be said, introduces himself to Sergeant Moran who supports Inspector Norton Kane, and gives evidence denying his responsibilities like the others. When Kane realizes that it may have been just him, and the police search the apartment he lives in, they find an envelope with the words "Exhibit A" in a drawer and inside the blood-smeared knife that was used to kill Prendergast. In a closet, also the suit that the suspect wore in front of Sergeant Moran.

However, the police do not issue the search order for Hyde, as Kane is sure to be the person living in Quincy's house, who assumed Hyde's identity through disguise.

The investigations are progressing, but they do not produce appreciable results. Kane elaborates a series of accusatory hypotheses, also based on the gift of a piano roll that Hyde had given to Weed, but while focusing attention on a series of characters, it is not possible to identify the right one.

The investigations take another turn, after the second crime, that of Mrs. Quincy, found dead from a puncture on the arm, in her bedroom, connected by a door to the living room where her husband was staying and through another to the corridor of the house. The husband states that his wife died around 10.30 pm when he normally went to bed: he heard a loud noise, ran, and found his wife dead.

All the other occupants of the house say the same thing, even if they are frightened. Near the place of death, four of the retirees were playing bridge: Lovejoy, Vincent, Wainwright, and Dr. Spinelli. Kane speculates that the culprit may be Wainwright (who would be Hyde) who was absent from the table for a moment and allegedly killed the woman. However since the poison is cyanide, which acts immediately, and not after several minutes, he could not be and this hypothesis falls completely when the cat Sheeba of Weed, who has always purred with Hyde, does not purr near Wainwright .

Then he returns to the starting point. Or rather no. Because Quincy was killed because she had discovered one thing: green glass fragments found in her pocket, initially connected to a spectacle lens or a monocle, then they were instead connected to something else. Quincy had revealed that the night before the Prendergast murder, when she went to open the door for Hyde, he had stumbled and heard the sound of glass breaking so much that he thought at first that the panel had broken. top of the front door. Only later, a pocket watch left guilty on a piece of furniture with broken glass had directed her to the true identity of Hyde, thus signing his death sentence. After a final fireworks display in which three different people are suspected, Kane will be able to identify the right one, not before she commits suicide. And he will also explain how that white feather fits into the solution and identification of the motive for the murder of Prendergast.





I immediately say that the novel did not immediately fascinate me: in fact, I read the first 100 pages in almost a month. Perhaps the style, perhaps the testimonies, perhaps even the expectation of an impossible crime that hadn't occurred, held me back for a long time, so much so that I had started reading another book. The fact is that I noticed some strange things.




I do not know if the layout of the novel is the original one or if the maps on pages 76-77 were originally inserted elsewhere: the fact is that placed in this position they take away a lot of the surprise effect. In fact, if you insert some maps in which the occupants' rooms are drawn and Hyde's is not among those, a reader quite accustomed to the subtleties of a mystery immediately understands that if the investigations are directed towards Hyde and Hyde does not live in the house. , and nevertheless some plans of the house are inserted, it is evident that Hyde is another person. And this when Kane has not yet expressed his doubts that Hyde is in fact the second identity of an occupant of the house.

Beyond this, the rhythm of the narrative acquires considerable weight and speed only after the second crime, which is an impossible crime. Indeed, by conception, it anticipates by many years a very famous one by Agatha Christie, and by a few years one by Vindry. However, there is a certain underlying naivety: using hydrogen cyanide as a weapon, if it is true that it has its undoubted efficacy, nevertheless exposes to a question above the lines that is not considered (nor is obviously answered: how Did the killer get it? Hydrocyanic acid is not easy to find, as it was at the time for example arsenic used to kill mice, as even at that time it was a commodity that only perhaps pharmacists could deal with In fact, for some time I suspected Spinelli, before turning to the real killer, about thirty pages before the explanation.

However, it must be said that, for the average reader, the identification is very problematic since the game of the parts is developed with skill and very intelligently: the tension, except for the detail I mentioned above, never decreases starting from the second crime, even because various accusatory hypotheses are proposed, one followed by another, addressing Wainwright, Lovejoy, Spinelli, and even Weed (in case he is a false blind man, since he retracts when Kane is about to strike his forehead with a ruler) , all supported by their own cause.

To me, however, basically there is only one doubt left: in the mysteries, except perhaps those of Fantomas or Arsene Lupine, the disguise is almost never used. Here a person, it turns out that for years he has built a double identity, also going to live in another house (a bit like the Inspector Belot of Aveline), but he has the nerve to be seen by the mistress of house who receives him in the house as Hyde, but who knows him under another identity, or to introduce himself to Moran and then be seen by the narrator, that is the lawyer Underwood, without all these people realizing that he is others. However, what strangely comes to me is not so much the disguise (and here also the change of some facial features), but the change of the voice: it is possible that all people have never noticed the voice, or it too was changed ? It seems that only I noticed it, since in the novel it is not mentioned at all.

By setting, the conception of the novel and its characters leads us towards the Van Dine novel: the couple of the two authors were certainly very influenced by Van Dine, who over time was the master in America. Not surprisingly, the main characters can be superimposed on the Van Dine characters: Philo Vance here is Norton Kane, S.S. Van Dine is Underwood, Judge Markham is Sergeant Moran, although there is not the amateur super-detective but the detective cop, according to a rib also born from Van Dine, but powered by Abbot and Daly King. Kane, however, although deriving from Philo Vance, is not a faithful clone, and takes the attitudes of Sherlock Holmes: in fact only S.H. he would go on all fours with the magnifying glass to find something that others missed. Well, Kane gets on all fours with a broom and shovel to collect any glass fragments from the watch. However, certain details bring us back to Philo Vance's encyclopedic culture: eg. the somatic characters of cats, and the differentiations within the same breed of Persian cats.

Good novel, appreciated also and above all by fans of Van Dine.


Pietro De Palma

Sunday, March 27, 2022

F. G. Parke : First Night Murder, 1931


The novel was not only published in the USA in 1931 but also in France in 1932. Since then more than seventy years have passed for it to be translated in Italy. And now let's talk about F G Parke: who is he/she? It is certainly a pseudonym. Many years ago I debated this novel with Steve Lewis, an American writer, as passionate as many of us are: he argued that it could have been an unknown novel by Ellery Queen, or the fruit of the collaboration of a man and a woman. I initially espoused his very suggestive hypothesis of him, of another pseudonym besides Barnaby Ross but without having read the book and I thought he was initially right, but then, after reading the book and discussing it with Mauro Boncompagni, an Italian student (who has got one original copy), who argued that the English quality of the writing did not reach the refinement of the two cousins, I was convinced that it was the work of a woman , who sought his role model in Ellery Queen (as did Hugh Austin) and who remained under anonymity.

 I say this with confidence, because for some years we have known her real name: the American geneticist Janet Akaha, revealed on site of Steve,  F G Parke was the pseudonym of “... Rose Pelswick who was the movie critic for the NY Journal American. She chose the pseudonym Parke, because she lived on 67 Park Avenue in New York City, while F G are the 6th and 7th letters of the English alphabet respectively”.

It still seemed this film critic had written only this novel. Instead I discovered that it is not the only her work: Rose Pelswick wrote at least one short story, published in Five-Novels Monthly [v15 # 2, August 1931] ed. John Burr (The Clayton Magazines, Inc., 25 ¢, 192pp +, pulp): Second Hand Stars.




Martin Ellis is a mystery writer who also writes reductions for the theater: Phantom Fingers, his latest work, promises thrills and suspense to the public until the murderer is discovered. What those present do not know is that during the Premiere of the play at the Olympyc Theater, in the third act, while the culprit has been arrested by the detective and everything is about to end with dignity, a piercing scream rises from the audience. There and then those present think of another gimmick, then they realize that something has happened: Julius Brandt, one of the producers of the major Broadway shows, has been found agonizing with his throat slit in his chair in the audience. Time to turn on the lights, and a doctor comes to Brandt, who dies in front of him. It is certain that it is a crime, because the weapon cannot be found. They close the exits, and wait for someone to arrive: Inspector Gradey of the Homicide Squad, begins the interrogations, of who was closest to the producer.

The autopsy reveals that Brandt died too soon to have just been slaughtered, and in fact the analyzes reveal that there was potassium cyanide in the wounds and the same poison had been added to the Brandy that Brandt carried in the flask below and that he had not consumed. .

First a certain Billings is suspected who has a bloodstained handkerchief, and who in the past had had something to do with Brandt: from a version of the facts that would clear him, and besides, his blood type and Brandt's are the same, and so the blood in the handkerchief cannot be attributed with certainty to Brandt.

Then it's the turn of a certain Gas Perino, a gangster: he was in the company of a movie star, Bonnie Adaire, who swears that her man didn't move, even if with acrobatic moves, given his long arms, he could have slaughtered Brandt while remaining in his place: but the evidence is not there. Then there is Ms. Manning, Brandt's ex-lover who didn't want him to marry her daughter and had threatened him with death. And finally, Bonnie Adaire is suspected, who is also the friend of the banker Sterne, who could have killed Brandt due to the fact that Adaire was not taken for a production.

Then unexpectedly the second murder takes place: Bonnie Adaire is found killed in her house in broad daylight, stabbed in the bathroom; and later a third: remains poisoned to death by cyanide, Sam, Ellis Martin's butler, who had dared to drink the brandy that Martin had asked him to bring him, which will be found to have been poisoned with cyanide. Why would anyone try to kill Martin?

Martin, after reflecting, involves police and suspects in a reconstruction of the crime in the hall, assigning each to their own seats in the theater hall, with the sole exception of Burton - who was on the radio that evening - who is given Brandt's chair, and then proceeds after a reconstruction, to the indictment of the murderer, forced to accuse himself in order not to fall victim to the same trap that he had concocted for his partner, who then decides to kill himself.




In the flap of the cover, Martin Ellis is compared to Philo Vance, and even in the same novel, the comparison is repeated. But it seems to me that there is very little, if any, from Van Dine School: Ellis as presented does not have any of the characteristics of Vance (omniscience, belonging to the upper class, friendships within the district attorney, snobbery), but rather it could be it was created by looking at the first Ellery Queen, if it is true that in the novel it is said that he writes detective stories. But beyond this there is nothing else, except that the crime also takes place in a theater, and the fact that the victim's autopsy shows the presence (also) of a poison: here, cyanide; in E. Queen tetraethyl lead (TEL (from English tetraethyl lead)

The fact that the novel was made two years after The Roman Hat Mystery is clearly an attempt to imitate its style. Beyond the attempt, however, there is nothing: when I wrote the comment, I had not yet read the book completely, and therefore I was based on the conjectures of others, even if intriguing; having said that, the style is clearly feminine, as it seemed to me then: there is such smoke, and such a chatter, a talk of environments and stars, an atmosphere of gossip and ill-concealed envy and jealousy, that only a woman could have rendered it so vividly, while missing all those bizarre clues and conceptual reasoning that are typical of the early novels of Ellery Queen (and also of other true Vandinians, such as Daly King, Rex Stout, De Puyer's Rufus King, Anthony Abbot). Here there is only smoke and mirrors, a lot. No real clue, so much so that the discovery of the culprit takes place only after the affair of the titles is revealed, and not by a logical consequence but by analogy, without there being any evidence, based on the identification of the guilty on the his psychological constraint that induces him, in a given circumstance, to accuse himself in order not to be torn apart.



And the same ending, with the discovery of the “modus agenda” of the assassination - mind you it's a little masterpiece by Ellis, which reconstructs the various phases of the assassination, which illustrates the victim's fear of the dark, and how the murderer knew and had arranged for Brandt to sit right there, to hold the armrests in fear, is that it is not only an essay of psychological introspection but also testifies to the writer's imagination and her subtle perfidy - it is certainly not something that brings us to Van Dine or his followers, primarily Ellery Queen: in none of their novels, except a story with Reginald De Puyster by Rufus King,The Weapon That Didn't Exist, and Tragedy of X, do we have recourse to strange mechanisms to kill, which are the legacy of times precedents (see for example the bed of The Grey Room by E. Phillpotts). Moreover, here, resorting to a murderous mechanism, in my opinion, means to cheat the reader, especially since the book is stuffed with a smoky series of clues that have nothing to do with the novel, another and little: there is no it is a systematic progression of investigations with the discovery of clues that can be variously interpreted, but a culprit who literally falls from the sky. It may come to mind I repeat by association of ideas or by analogy that someone has invented something comparable to the opening mechanism of the safe, destining it to kill, but it is nevertheless only a peregrine thought, because throughout the novel the murderer, even though he appears here and there. there, he is not in the least affected by investigations.

And the killer's modus agendi, absolutely disconnected from the investigations carried out and reconstructed only in the writer's mind, because of her quality only of her, indicates her as an author who cannot be inserted for me into the S.S. Van Dine School.


Pietro De Palma

Friday, March 25, 2022

Alan Green : What a Body !, 1949

 For those like me who have diet problems, gyms and a health regimen have always been a bugbear: one would like to have a physique right from birth that a few more pizzas do not necessarily mean heavier weight, an efficient and accelerated metabolism so as to dispose of excess fat, but then invariably falls back into the call of the throat. A novel, therefore, in which we speak of an island in which a health and diet regime is practiced and in which the founder of this oasis is killed, well he could not go unnoticed. Especially since it is a closed chamber!

The author? Alan Green. Born in 1906 and died in 1975, he was an American writer. He wrote only seven novels and one short story with which he began a short but significant career: Beauty on the Beat, 1932, novella; Death on the Limited, 1933 (pseudonym Roger Denbie); Murder to Music, 1934 (pseudonym Glen Burn); How To Do Practically Anything, 1943 (pseudonym Alan Jack); What a Body !, 1949; They Died Laughling, 1952; Mother of Her Country, 1954. Just with What a Body! he won the Edgar for Best First Novel in 1950.

Roland Lacourbe entered What a Body! in his list of 99 Chambers.


The novel takes place on an island where the guru of diets and exercise to the bitter end, Merlin Broadstone has placed his headquarters in a village with hotel, swimming pool, theater and solarium, and where whiskey and smoking are banned and where all those who want to get rid of extra pounds come from all over the States. Merlin lives there with his family, which he dominates with his undisputed personality and with his money; and since not everyone lives happy, but everyone would like a different life from the one that leads there, it ends up that reasons why Merlin would like him dead, so as to ensure unexpected liquidity for his relatives, there are galore. All the more so now that Merlin would even like to open a clinic, and use all the money he has.

In short, in short, on such a day, Merlini, instead of going down for breakfast at seven, does not show up. So his relatives are alarmed, the bedroom is closed from the inside and no response from Merlin to his cries. When he manages to open the door with a passe-partout, he is found dead with a wound in the back: the bullet has reached his heart. Being a colossus, it is clear that for having reached the heart passing from the lower back, whoever shot him did so from below.

Lieutenant John Hugo, a policeman with certainly not brilliant skills, is sent to the scene, especially since he seems a bit the anti-detective par excellence: as soon as he arrives, without even going through the various depositions, he goes to get a crush for one of the major suspects, Sandra Lockhart daughter of Martha (sister of Merlin) and therefore nephew of Merlin, and makes her his assistant in a certain sense, thus betraying every elementary caution. Moreover, he is very clumsy in the investigation.

Of course, it must be said that the investigation is not easy: in fact, besides Sandra, there are all the other heirs to be screened and all, more or less, had reasons to kill Merlin, who was certainly not much loved; in addition there would be the indirect heirs: Arthur Hutch husband of Hester Hutch, sister of Merlin; Nancy, the maid Carl promised to marry (after making her his mistress); Daniel Joyce, Merlin's lawyer, who, in addition to having a grudge against Merlin for a bad deal, should be his will executor and in that case pocket a nice fee; and finally Ned Dumbrow, a Republican senator who is courting Joanna, who, like Joyce, has also been swindled for a real estate speculation gone wrong, indirectly inspired by Merlin. In short, there are plenty of possible killers.

The story is moreover confused due to the same dynamics of the murder: having been hit from the bottom up, it would be assumed that the murderer had hit Merlin while at least crouching if not on his knees or lying down. However, there are two facts to disturb the dynamics even more: first, the room was found locked from the inside (there was the key in the lock which made it impossible to open even with a passe-partout without first dropping the key from the inside. of the room); second, the victim, after being killed, was dressed in pajamas: in fact, it does not have holes in its back. But why did the killer go to the trouble of dressing the body? Meanwhile, other things occurred before the arrival of the clumsy lieutenant and among these there is someone who says he saw a flash coming from the pool at 6.40 am.  

So there is no Locked Room? No, that remains, because no one explains how at the time of the discovery the corpse presented a pajama without the bullet entry hole, a .38 caliber. So it is evident that after the shot, the murderer or an accomplice entered the chamber of Merlin to dress the corpse of the pajamas, then leaving the room closed from the inside

The depositions of the various suspects moreover, instead of clearing the clouds, do nothing but thicken them and moreover, having found the cartridge case, the policeman puts it in his pocket and loses it. Despite everything, the super clumsy policeman will be able to solve the matter. 


I will say the novel right away, it seemed to me a parody, a triumph of parodies, a very successful attempt, moreover, to desecrate a genre and in particular that of the 1930s detective: there he was highly cultivated, expert in numerous scientific branches, fine esthete and collector of the most precious artifacts possible, he was able to probe the human soul through very elaborate processes of psychology (Philo Vance, the first Ellery Queen, Rufus King's De Puyster, Daly King's Lieutenant Lord etc), here instead we find the 'antidetective: very clumsy, wrong all possible hypotheses; instead of keeping the suspects at a distance as Archibald Hurst would do at least, he flirts with one of the most suspicious suspects, informs her of his investigations (but where is the official secret?), even finds evidence with her (the cartridge case they find it together in the pool).

However, Green's desecration embraces several fronts.

It has never been seen before in this novel that the detective, instead of examining the characters and the evidence, starts exercising, having in his pocket, in his trouser pocket, the cartridge case, whom he then loses, and is found by another person he accuses of having stolen it from his pocket; a police officer on duty has never been seen not only drinking whiskey but even getting drunk;

it has never been seen that the police officer who is the one who seems to be the deus ex machina, is put on the right track by his lover's uncle, who becomes so to speak the Sherlock Holmes of history while he demotes to Doctor Watson indeed in Lestrade, even worse.

But if the detective is light and inconsistent, the same thing are all the other characters who move in this ballet, in this operetta where the action is not static, characteristic of the mysteries, but is not otherwise dynamic like the hard-boiled ones: it is a middle ground, because everything happens inside the hotel: here there is the action, but it is the action of room doors that open, close, reopen and close. And the beauty is that like any vaudeville comedy, here as a corollary of the dramatic action (i.e. murder), there is a set of lighter actions, inconsistent like the characters who produce them, and which have no direct connection with the 'homicide; if anything, the very fact of not having links with the action under investigation has the purpose of enveloping the main action like a vaporous but insubstantial cloud, diverting attention from what should be the typical lines of an investigation. But when it abounds in details in the explanation of the guidelines of physical beauty and in dietary rigor, it desecrates the healthy vein of beauty at all costs, of the perfect body, of diets. All with an irresistible rhythm, from turn-of-the-century vaudeville, with countless gags bordering on the comic if not the surreal.

John Hugo is a truly unique character: if he can't be an idiot (because then you would have to think that having become a lieutenant, other people higher than him, would have had to be much more than an idiot to promote him to lieutenant!), He is definitely a character walking on the clouds. Moreover, this levity and surreality is not only characteristic of the main detective, but also of the suspects: their stories, their behaviors, which generate continuous misunderstandings, as in the best comedy at the end of the century, are at the basis of certain events and in the same time cancel the effects of others: eg. the letter that the republican senator writes for Joanna is at the basis of an irresistible subplot, which has nothing to do with the culprit, even if he too has a part in it: the letter that relates to a series of characters, which lead to a situation of generalized chaos.

I would also like to recall a parallelism present in the novel: just as a light character is Lieutenant Hugo, so a light and naive character is the revived illegitimate son Lovechild Jones, who lived for twenty years on his grandfather's farm, huge, muscular and with the sensitivity and purity of a child, who knows animals very well but women for nothing, who appears dressed in a Roman toga and with coturni on his feet (if he were a demigod).  

The surreal plot of this novel and all its variations must also make us consider the fact that if all these narrative segments had been inserted in a comedy, they would not have aroused any surprise, while they generate dismay and amazement if inserted in an enigma detective novel. which should have a certain distinct bearing at least and not grotesque.

Despite this surreal but really funny perspective, the enigma is really interesting, and although the solution of the Locked Room is trivial, how Merlin is killed and how you can explain the pajamas with no trace of a shot, it is brilliant, and brilliant is also the explanation of the real place where the shot was fired, which would refer us to Carrian solutions based on optical physics, if Commings himself had not exactly exemplified the principle on which the solution of this novel is based in one of his stories, explaining in turn thus an impossible disappearance. Surprisingly, the two works, Commings' short story and Green's novel, which resolve bis-location in the same way, were published in the same year, 1949.

Pietro De Palma