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

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