Saturday, April 9, 2022

Harry Stephen Keeler : The Fourth King, 1929




The Fourth King, is the answer to an intriguing plot. The story takes place in Chicago in 1929, but it is not, as the place and time might make it seem, a story of gangsters, in short, hardboiled. No. It is a story with a classic plot, very ... I would say.




A long article is published in a Chicago financial weekly, accompanied by photographs of thirteen kings of finance. After a short time, three of them receive a deck of French cards each marked, from which kings are missing: from the first one is missing, from the second two, from the third three. The missing kings are directly related to the deaths of those to whom the deck was sent: one died poisoned, another by drowning, the third by accident. Nothing suggests, however, that the origin of death could be other. One fine day a letter arrives, accompanied by a pack of French cards marked, like those sent to the other three, to a wealthy Chicago industrialist, J. Hamilton Eaves, who, however, had not been indicated in the 13. The industrialist, of the National Industrial Insurance Company, is advocating the sale of a new device, called a "dictatograph", a complex tape machine, a kind of telegraph, which allows the dictation of something, for example a business letter, to be poured onto tape, making it more ' quick and easy paperwork, and eliminating the presence of a stenographer. He acquired the rights to sell the invention from a certain Shanks, who died, leaving heir to a sick brother, unable to compete with the cunning of the industrialist. In reality, contrary to what Shanks thinks, the invention is a bluff, a red herring, and this is what Eaves and his employee, the technical designer Fowell, are convinced of, who is also involved in demonstrations of the machinery. and who knows its material limits, and who in turn is the inventor of a certain type of phonograph record, destined to make a fortune later on, but still of an unknown purpose.

Eaves, increasingly worried as he has received a threatening letter, calls Fowell and proposes a singular plan to overcome the one who threatens him with death: he asks his employee to take his place and go to his house, while he, Eaves, will wait for the blackmailer in his office, determined to expose him. At stake, for which Fowell accepts, is the return of a certain signed statement in which Fowell accuses himself of the theft of $ 5,100 in stocks and shares, contained in a sealed envelope, which disappeared from the double combination safe. Eaves that only he, the secretary and Eaves himself know. Eaves could not have been because the theft made it impossible for him to complete a project that would have earned him well over  $5,000, and therefore, thinks Fowell, who knows he was not, could only have been the secretary he is in love, whose mother was cheated by Eaves, and who therefore would well have had reason to take revenge. However, the plan does not go through as it should have done: in fact, while Fowell takes the place of his boss at his house and spends the night with Eaves' stepson. He, Eaves is killed. Just Fowell, who went to the office will find him the next morning, killed with a switchblade. A detail that will have its importance is that the box of mints that Fowell had left is almost completely finished and smells like mint not from the telephone receiver located in the Eaves office that can receive but not telephone, but another device.

Fowell knows that Eaves has locked his self-guilt plea in the safe, the combination of which was changed by Eaves after the theft, and therefore is virtually inaccessible unless they break into the safe. What a surprise then, when it is found in the pockets of the deceased! And made public by the police. His status as a thief may, however, fail, because his beauty, whom he got in trouble for, knows everything, and therefore could testify to the police, that one day she had seen, in Eaves' room, after the lunch break. , a fake telephone worker fumbling at the safe: he was a dangerous burglar and thief, who had made other similar strokes. But this time too Fate seems to throw another trick at the poor employee: in fact, his beauty is found drowned. But when she has now lost all hope, her girlfriend materializes in front of her: instead of her she is dead, indeed, it seems she was murdered, her friend of hers, engaged in turn to Eaves' stepson, Pettibon .

Pettibon also tries to lure Fowell: in exchange for the destruction of the famous letter, and the withdrawal of the theft charge, Fowell will have to try to convince Shanks about the paucity of the invention in order to grant him its definitive use, in exchange for a few pennies. But this has no effect, despite Fowell having tried in every possible way to convince the recalcitrant Shanks, and therefore Pettibon does not return the message. At this point Fowell decides to improvise himself as a detective, to get to the head of the matter and save himself: he goes to rummage through the documents in his boss's office and discovers a suspicious obligation and a letter to a non-existent Jeggs. The suspicious paper, headed to a chemical instrumentation company, will lead him to the trail of a former great Russian chemist transplanted to America. Hence another series of vicissitudes up to the end.




Excellent novel by Keeler, The Fourth King, shuns any schematic classification: for example, it does not belong, like many other novels of the time, to the false line of Vandinian novels, but pursues its own design, albeit very bizarre. If we want, the investigation is of the classic type, and the detective is not an esthete, or a bored rich man or a policeman or a scholar or a man of letters, but a person who improvises himself to escape an unjust accusation and to more to an unjust sentence. In a certain sense, it is very similar to certain novels by Mignon Eberhart, in which there is a damsel in danger who improvises herself as a detective or for whom someone takes action; here too there is the person in danger, but it is a man (Fowell) even if the woman in danger exists: only for a moment, because almost immediately the death of Avery is reversed in the death of Roslyn Van Etten, the friendly heiress by Avery. But why would the killer kill the woman? The solution can be found in the nature of the plot of Keeler's novels.

In fact, Keeler, born in 1890 as Agatha Christie, enjoyed a fair popularity in the 30s, but then with the war and post-conflict events, dying in the 60s in complete oblivion, from which he was redeemed following a series of articles by Francis Nevins Jr., the critic who would become most famous after the conquest of the Edgard for the publication of important essays on Ellery Queen.

The fact is that Keeler is the strangest writer who ever lived; and also the most surreal. His imagination was the most delusional that was possible: examples are his novels, in which horror, deformity, physical anomaly, dementia, coincidence, chance, are re-evaluated in detective literature, which inherited pour always the exactness of the Sherlockian mathematical deduction. In this, Keeler's approach is still a sort of revolution, a reaction to the established schemes. Probably the plots so absurdly conceived, with demented or freak elements and full of circus monstrosities, or imaginative solutions but to the highest degree, must have disconcerted the masses, accustomed to quite other novels. The fact is that Keeler's plots, so bizarre, so full of red herrings, false, double and triple identities, coincidences, fit well into the fiction and society of the 1930s, carefree and frivolous, which did not imagine the horrors of war in a few years. So Keeler's horrors, deformities, insanities (interned in a marriage by his mother, after he graduated in electronic engineering) fit well into the context. But in a few years they would be overtaken by much more horrors, and so the streak of surreal madness would no longer be adaptable to a world that grew too quickly and much more leaden.

Coincidences were part of his system: the plots of his novels leave little to description, because they are as dense as ever and indeed full of false clues and traces that seem of no use but which will instead lead to the capture of the culprit.

Also in this novel there is that structure of the plot, which Keeler invented calling it "webwork", a spider web novel:

“It was in fact the so-called“ spider web narrative structure ”, based on complex, convoluted and engineering diagrams that took the place in his preliminary notes of the more banal schematic scales. Keeler's art in fact vented into intertwining implausible and apparently inexplicable stories with other equally unlikely stories and apparently devoid of any connection with the central framework of the story. The author's dizzying ability lay in knotting all the threads of the plot at the end to create a phantasmagoric web of facts or KoinKidenze, as the author himself ironically nicknamed them, able to explain the inexplicable and stun facts and elucidations. even the most fussy and demanding reader. Double or triple identities, unlikely acknowledgments, multiple person substitutions thus dominated, in a singular and kaleidoscopic theater or fair of the absurd, which ultimately had the purpose of creating an ironic and very singular comédie humaine "(Preface by Igor Longo in The Marceau Case by Harry S. Keeler - Shake Editions, Milan, 2009, pp. 8-9).

In fact, there are several coincidences in The Fourth King too: the American heiress, Pettibon's fiancée, is a friend of Avery; Avery's trip to Roslyn's place is canceled due to a novelty; the heiress takes her stepfather's car that had been rigged to release the gas; the killer manages to block the mechanism with an old rusty nail, placed near the pedal of the car; the girl thinks it's an old nail and she throws it away, they restart the trap that clicks and kills it; the dead girl has the same wide eyes as the other person; the label that leads to the whole chain of events, which Fowell sees on a marked deck of cards, is taken from the envelope containing the checks and shares that Pettibon gives to the Russian paying him for silence, of which Fowell remembers because it contained his drawings; and so on.

The characters of Keeler's Romans are never intensely described but barely hinted at: in fact they have no  other nature than the mechanical one, they are puppets placed there to justify the plots of Fate, all that harvest of coincidences and causal facts that determine the strange trend of the plot.

The ending, in line with Keeler's others, is something unexpected: all the threads connect in solving the puzzle.


Pietro De Palma

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Alan Green : They Died Laughing, 1952


Surely after a prodigious debut like that of Green's first novel, which deserved the conquest of Edgar for the best debut novel, it would have been difficult for anyone to repeat themselves at the same levels. Indeed, the underlying verve of They Died Laughing, published in 1952, is the same: brilliant prose. It is certainly difficult, in itself, to be able to blend a brilliant style and comic verve with crime! The result is a black comedy, very black, which ridicules the glossy world of comedians of the twenties, thirties and forties, with their substratum of ineffable vices.


They Died Laughing” deals with a crime that takes place in the context of a television recording of a trio of comic actors, very famous until the Great Depression of 1929, who since then had had ups and downs, to the point of seizing the opportunities given by the diffusion of TV at the American public, agreeing to work in the pay of commercial firms, in real sketches.

The trio is formed by Junior Watkins, Elroy Schneider, and Baby Blue. To the two men who already work in pairs, when you add the woman, success is at home. Of the three, however, the star is Junior: everything revolves around him. For a long time, Junior has even had an affair that everyone knows about with Babe, and even her husband Bo Llewellyn, a former circus athlete, who doesn't give a damn about his wife being in love with the manager, because it's all over for a long time the two spouses are together as a couple, but it's just a screen, even if they respect each other and still love each other.

One fine day, the advertising agent of the firm "Dormer, Porter, Hormer & Plant", that is, Mr. Hormer, who acts on behalf of the Glassay Grocer, who pays them for their television sketches, finances a new one, which it will have to take place at the well-known "St. Bernard" hotel. Actually, the television shooting was an idea of ​​John Hugo, grandson of Arthur Hutch, that whoever had the good fortune to read Alan Green's first novel, What a Body! in 1949, he has already met. In fact in this second novel, some of the characters of the first recur: Arthur Hutch is the owner of the hotel, being the brother-in-law of that Merlin Broadstone, who obsessed with diet and beauty of the body had created a SPA of high level on an island, as well as being the owner of many hotels, he was later murdered, and he, Hutch had become the main heir, being the husband of his sister) had also been the one who he had resolved the matter, yet leaving all the credit to that clumsy inspector John Hugo who had fallen in love with his niece; later, Hugo had also married her, and retired from the police, he had become Hutch's main collaborator in the management of the Hotel. Hugo basically dealt with advertising: he had invented the gimmick of the Saint Bernard dogs who brought a flask of liquor for the use of the Hotel's customers, and now he had proposed to have the television comic trio exhibit, right in the spaces of the Hotel in the middle to the snow, to sponsor its winter activities.

After filming has started, the crime suddenly takes place: Elroy Schneider, warns Huth and Hormer that she has seen through the window, Watkins dead, in his bedroom, locked from the inside; the strange thing is that Watkins was claustrophobic and therefore he would never lock himself in. They break down the door, because in fact the door is closed from the inside, and they find him sunk in an armchair with a bullet hole in the forehead, without any ticket and above all without a weapon. There would also be a way out, but it is a window at the top that communicates with the corridor, but it is also closed.

Almost simultaneously with the discovery of the body, under the door of the vice president of Glassay, Hulburt, a sheet is slipped on which communicates how Watkins had been seen passionately kissing Francy Wilson, a singer and actress with whom he is in love. Watkins was indeed an unrepentant Don Giovanni: in the past Wilson had obtained a job from him, of which he however took a large part of the salary, and moreover she had had to have sex with him to obtain it and be able to pay the debts of housing. He also took unpaid leave with Elroy's and Celeste's daughter, Gloria Ann. And then there was the romantic relationship with Babe Blue. Basically, no one would have had reason to kill Watkins, because with him the greatest form of income would have disappeared and the trio would have dissolved, and therefore only the passionate motive appears, even if this too deflates.

Everything will make sense after the second death occurs: that of Elroy, who apparently committed suicide, with a .38 caliber pistol among those used during the sketches to shoot at the cards. In fact, on the forehead of the victim, in addition to the bullet hole, there will also be a sign, given by the wick of an exploded blank cartridge, like those used in all the shots of the sketches. Why a blank cartridge other than the real one?


The reconstruction of Hutch will once again be the overturning of his nephew's theses, and the following will also assume importance: the contents of tampered blanks, owned by the late Watkins; the health conditions of Babe Blue; a sign stolen from the hotel theater; an attempted robbery in Watkins' room; Watkins' movements in the train, taken to get to St. Bernard. It goes without saying that the killer will come unexpectedly at the end.


Green is always very biting in his social criticism: after all, the trio of comedians, with their husbands, with their lovers, with their vices, with their weaknesses, express the golden world of American cinema and television of that period, following the Great Depression of 1929.

From the point of view of the structure of the detective novel, while not reaching the heights of the first (whose solution was close in complexity and virtuosity to those of Carr), the solution of this second novel is based on an overturning of what is said about two single crimes, so much so that the solution of the first crime and the framing of the fugitive from the room locked from the inside, automatically leads to the solution of the second death, but not in the sense that one would expect.

Very interesting is the question faced with the blank cartridges, and the action of the wick, to overturn an argument made up to that moment, as well as the burglary noticed on some cartridges, to manually remove the mechanically inserted wick, empty them of black powder and fill them with heroin. The trafficking and use of heroin is therefore another subplot in addition to that of Watkins' gallant adventures, which however does not load the novel with the typical atmospheres of the hardboiled novel, because essentially the traffic, limited to the troupe, finds its origin in personal events painful,

In itself, once explained, the locked room solution is trivial; nevertheless, the novel, which up to half has little rhythm, in the last twenty thirty pages, acquires a considerable one, to the point of nailing a clever but also compassionate murderer.

Pietro De Palma

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Ngaio Marsh : Scales of Justice, 1955




Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh is a novel of 1955, and is the eighteenth with Roderick Alleyn, the son of a lady, brother of a baronet, a nobleman who preferred the slow climb of a mistreated but great profession to a diplomatic career: that of the policeman. A noble policeman. There was another, "son" of another of the 4 Crime Queens, Dorothy Sayers: Lord Peter Whimsey. But that is a nobleman who improvises himself as a detective, partly out of snobbery and partly out of passion; here, on the other hand, we have a nobleman who has chosen, as a job, to be a policeman: starting from the ranks, as a simple Inspector. In this novel we find him Chief Inspector, followed like a shadow by his "help" Inspector Brer Fox.

The interesting note is that we find him operating in a fairytale landscape, in a corner of the old British feudal world, in which four families, the Cartarette, the Syce, the Lacklander and Danberry-Phinn, heirs of their traditional blazons for centuries, they are united, more or less firmly. The event that irremediably brings them into contact is the death of the old Sir Harold Lacklander, a very active and highly prestigious ambassador during the Second World War. Before dying he left the burdensome task of publishing his memoirs to his friend, Colonel Cartarette: burdensome above all because the theme of the death of the scion of one of the four noble families, the young Ludovic Danberry-Phinn, will certainly be addressed. he had worked with Sir Harold during the war, getting involved in a leak that had led the Nazis to win the English competition, that is of a hostile power, in the management of a certain affair of a neutral country: his suicide had followed . Now Sir Harold probably wanted posthumously to rehabilitate his memory. But how?

Everyone fears this extreme will of the old man. Mainly the close family of Sir Harold who fear the worst, that is to be directly involved and to pay the dishonor of the death of young Ludovic with the dishonor of someone else.

It is clear that they try to persuade the old Cartarette not to pronounce himself and not to publish the controversial seventh chapter; but the colonel is in one piece, and even if he is threatened with the breakup of the engagement between his daughter Rose and Mark Lacklander, the son of George Lacklander, Harold's eldest son and now a baronet, he does not break down and hold on.

However, he first wants to talk to Octavius ​​Danberry-Phinn, Ludovic's father, who after the tragedy of his son lost himself, also losing his wife and living with a myriad of cats: he has a passion for trout fishing as well as Cartarette, and they often quarrel because the Lacklanders, essentially owners of Swevenings, a small town, have rented to their two friends the stretches of the Chyne, the river that flows through its meadows, whose waters are full of trout. The two are mainly adversaries, both wanting to catch “The Old Friend”, a trout of exceptional weight, over two kilos, which is the damnation of the fishermen.

In the late afternoon that the Colonel has to talk about the manuscript to Octavius, and then to Sir Harold's widow, and then go fishing, the unexpected happens: Nurse Kettle, who lives on the same property Danberry-Phin inhabits, skirting the Chyne near the spot where they go to fish for trout, near some weeping willows, finds the dead colonel, murdered.

After investigations and reconstructions, Alleyn will find the killer he killed for abject reasons and also wore clothes and shoes not his own to blame others. The last scene is one of love between Nurse Kettle and Captain Syce: the captain promises to her not to drink more whiskey and to be worthy of her love for her.

Meanwhile, let's say that among all the novels read by Marsh so far, this is a great masterpiece: I don't know if The absolute masterpiece, but certainly one of his best works. Ngaio, creates a large fresco of the English landed province, talking about four aristocratic families, with an extremely sophisticated writing, but which is very easy to read, and a psychological introspection that leaves little to chance, managing to wonderfully characterize each character. It is an extremely classic whodunnit, a very well-defined formal story, which is very, very much reminiscent of the typical British crime fiction novels of the 1930s and 1940s (in a sense it is an "out of time" novel, like if for Marsh there had not been the War, and the abandonment of the classic whodunnit, even if the Second World War enters the history of smear), set in rural villages, where the military, the reverend, the ladies of good society who participate in social events for charity, the baronet are always subjects who are the masters: in some ways this is Marsh's novel that is closest to those of Agatha Christie.

The novel is chock full of descriptions, and we know that descriptions are Nagio Marsh's trump card: when she describes a corner of paradise, you can be sure that sooner or later something dramatic will happen. Here even, it would seem that the bad omen is contained in a song, a very melancholy motif associated with a romantic vision: two young people united in an unequivocal gaze. The tune is “Come away, come away, death,  And in sad cypress let me be laid. Fly away, fly away, breath;  I am slain by a fair cruel maid. My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,  O, prepare it! My part of death, no one so true  Did share it” (from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare). After all, the marriage between love and death is always present: in this novel it is particularly so. Where there is love or there would seem to be, there is always a wrong note: there is in the union between Kitty and Captain Syce in the past of the two, there is in the union of Kitty with George, of Syce with Kettle, of Kitty with Cartarette, by Mark and Rose.




I would also make a distinction regarding the sexual identity of the characters: male characters, austere, are always unlucky or cursed: Cartarette, a symbol of a past world, is murdered; Octavius ​​is emotionally devastated by losing his son and wife; Syce is also emotionally devastated, having lost his beloved wife to one of his comrades in arms, and moreover he is semi alcoholic; Harold, remorseful of something from the past; George, lost in his extreme vanity, and in the empty defense of a noble prestige, is underestimated by everyone, even his mother. The female characters, on the other hand, are winners: Kettle is the nurse who always bets on something positive; Rose is a woman who would seem helpless because she is romantic but is instead strong in defending her love for her; Kitty is a strong femme fatale; and also very strong is Lady Lacklander, determined to defend her kingdom to the bitter end and the memory of her husband and her family, by all means. If we turn Brer Fox too, Alleyn's shadow is unfortunate, because he makes a half-idea about the nurse in the course of the novel, but then realizes that it is a vain hope. The only strong and successful male character is Alleryn. And some of her subordinates, for example. Sergeant Oliphant of the County Police. I I don't know if this difference between male and female characters, and the winning characterization of female ones, is ultimately due to the fact that Ngaio Marsh was a lesbian.

As always, Ngaio manages to direct a composite orchestra of characters, each with their own personality, managing to make everyone suspect something hidden, as well as what is being affirmed. And this is her extreme virtuosity: she has control of the macroform, which, for example, is lacking in many of her other British colleagues and especially in French novels. And so she invents an extremely complex plot, because it is the result of three subplots, which like three parallel waves with a sinusoid effect, continuously intertwine and interface, throwing the reader into complete amazement. Frankly, the trout thrown there raises the suspicion that fishing has little to do with the death of the colonel; and does the revelation of old Sir Harold's memoirs also come into reality with the crime? But if we get these two subplots out of the way, what are we left with? An investigation like many others, but in which the motives seem to be extremely limited if not absent. And then, here the two subplots return, and it is precisely some of their consequences that shed light on a solar but hidden motive, and to frame a truly despicable murderer: evil, envious, lustful, slothful, angry. It can be said that at least 5 of the 7 deadly sins are in his cords. That he kills, disguises himself to indict others, and gain a different advantage. Who despises other people's behavior, hiding a truly disarming emotional and spiritual misery.

What remains, until the end, is the suspicion that the same nurse Kettle and the same Captain Syce, who it is understood that they are cultivating an affair, are truly innocent and unrelated to the turbulence of events, or somehow they too become part of it. . The captain actually enters it, but in passing, only because his behavior has a decisive importance in the events that happen.

The structure of the novel is circular: in fact it begins where it ends. It begins with the nurse observing the curves of the hills, and the Chyne flowing between them, and the homes of the four ancient families of the place, and at the same time observing the map that she would like to complete, which would become like the one for visiting a certain tourist attraction; and it ends, with Captain Syce realizing what his nurse craved: a figured map.

It is the gift of an announced engagement, between two people each with his age and his history, each of which gives the other a little of his attention and his esteem: the captain does not take into account the social condition of the nurse, but look ahead; the nurse does not look at the condition of alcoholism as a form of depression, of the captain but she wants to see in him the ability to want to stop on the slope of the end, and instead of resuming the climb. This time with her by her side.

There is also in Marsh's novel, and it is very clear, a sort of revaluation of the small landed nobility, that social part that has held the intertwining of the basic values ​​of society in its hands for centuries: it makes a mockery of them, but only to better define the forces of reaction, to make the best subjects spring the will to start over and in any case to give an example to those who are not of noble birth like them. One of the subjects that comes out best from the novel's weaving is the old Octavius: considered a half madman, upset by the death of his son and later of his wife, he vented his pain in love for cats and fishing. But even if he had, humanly speaking, to have a human resentment towards the Lacklander neighbors, he instead forgives, because he wanted his son, a candid soul, who did not betray, but was only negligent, and also when everyone should being against the Lacklanders, he holds out his hand. It is the old Lady, at the end of the novel, who, mindful of something that had broken one day, tightens hers to Octavius's, strengthening a bond, defrauded by betrayal and subsequently strengthened by the esteem and help of the vassal to her. man. It is a bit as if the lord recognized a vassal's merit and promoted him to social status.

And it is also how Ngaio Marsh, New Zealander forever, would affirm with conviction: God Save the Queen!


Pietro De Palma