“It’s time I got to work. I have an idea I’d like to gumshoe a bit around the room in which Sutton departed this life. We may not find footprints in the snow, but there are always the forgotten calling card and the initialed handkerchief to be hoped for. Secondly, I have a growing curiosity to see this lady who has caused my hardheaded lawyer friend to lay his cloak upon the ground. Possibly that may end our adventures, but I have an odd hunch, Underwood, that it may only begin them.”
I had high hopes when Curtis Evans announced the publishing of yet another “rediscovered” GAD author, one whose debut had occurred in 1930. 1930 was a very good year for detective stories in general (Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, Sayers’ Strong Poison, Berkeley’s The Second Shot) and for American detective stories in particular. Fans of the pure puzzle had only to look to S.S. Van Dine, whose The Scarab Murder Case was the fifth in a highly lauded series of brownstone mysteries. Ellery Queen was beginning his ascent with his second novel, The French Powder Mystery, and a young upstart named Carr made the impossible come to life for the first time with It Walks by Night. Fans of more hard-boiled fare need look no further than Dashiell Hammett, whose third novel, The Maltese Falcon, would become etched in the hearts of mystery lovers everywhere, particularly after its third film incarnation appeared eleven years later.
These were just the A-list authors. Imagine all the second tier writers who have been all but forgotten: Henry Wade, John Rhode, JJ Connington, E.R. Punshon – in short, all those authors who have been dismissed as humdrum . . . and if you need me to explain that term to you, then you have not been paying attention to Curtis Evans. I turn your view to his marvelous studies, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery and The Spectrum of English Murder to start you on your way.
The discovery of a “new” forgotten author can be extremely exciting to classic mystery fans. Folks like Harriet Rutland, Norman Berrow, and many more may now grace our bookshelves without costing an arm and a leg. True, these small press releases can be costly, so I don’t always jump on the gravy train. But I did decide to give a look at Roger Scarlett who, between 1930 and 1933, published five brownstone mystery novels featuring Inspector Norton Kane of the Boston Police Department.
Scarlett’s work is being compared to that of Van Dine and Queen, and Coachwhip Publications has brought out the five novels in three volumes, so my first purchase gave me two books for the price of one. I’m only reviewing the debut novel, The Beacon Hill Murders, here. I hope to return with some thoughts on its companion piece, The Back Bay Murders, which the blurb at least hints could involve a serial killer.
Unlike the eccentric armchair detective heroes found in Van Dine and Queen, Scarlett’s Norton Kane operates in an official capacity as a homicide inspector. With no need to display the pompous superiority to the police that Philo Vance and Ellery often show, Kane turns out to be quite a likeable fellow, as his description here attests:
“He seemed a curiously incongruous figure as he sat there. Feature by feature he was so ugly that it was rather a pleasure to look at him, in contrast to the neat conventional man of the advertisements. His thick black hair rebelled against discipline. Beneath it his forehead was heavily lined, and his thick eyebrows seemed startling in the pallor of his face. His eyes were deep-set, and their kindness belied the severity of his nose and chin.”
What’s pleasantly missing is the series of tics and eccentricities that tend to define the typical GAD sleuth. There is no pince nez or cane, no waxed moustaches or affected speech. Is there an argument to be made that his relative ordinariness prevented Kane from stepping out from the pack? Is the way a sleuth presents himself more important than how he detects? It’s an interesting question that deserves some contemplation in another post. For me, the short answer is that readers are drawn to a detective’s striking persona, but if he – or she – doesn’t deliver the goods in terms of a basically fair play set of deductions then the magic isn’t going to last.
Most classic detectives have some sort of Watson, and Kane is no exception. Mr. Underwood is an attorney and the narrator of the first three novels. Beacon Hill opens with Underwood recounting to Kane the events of a dinner party he attended at the behest of one of his clients. The evening ends in the murder of the host, and before the evening is over, a second person will be killed, this time right under the noses of the police! It quickly becomes apparent that Kane does not surround himself with the brightest bulbs in the force. A patrolman named McBeath has the wool constantly pulled over his eyes, while Kane’s second in command, Sergeant Moran, is that typical product of early American detective stories, the dumb cop who exists to make the main sleuth look good:
“Kane . . . was glad Headquarters had sent Moran rather than someone else, since the murder was unexpected enough without having to cope with imagination in a police sergeant.”
Kane may be a policeman, but here he feels much more like the typical private consultant, who spends much of his time steering his myopic underlings in the right direction. Moran constantly leaps to conclusions and is ready to arrest each of the suspects at a different point in the tale. It is up to Kane, with his superior brain, to prevent a miscarriage of justice. So far, exactly what you might hope to find in a GAD mystery.
However, that intellectual acumen might frustrate those readers who like to play along. Based upon just this first novel, I found myself liking Kane as a person but feeling skeptical about his deductive methods. He has a habit of sitting his team down and dazzling them with a new revelation – all based on information we were never given. He also tends to base his ideas on sketchy psychology, particularly when it comes to understanding class differences. He dismisses all the servants as potential murderers because . . . well, because he does! He “just doesn’t see” any of them committing the murder of their odious employer because they are too dull-witted to have the skill or the motive. Although a near priceless jade pendant figures prominently in the plot, Kane claims a servant couldn’t have stolen it because servants simply can’t comprehend jade’s value.
Kane’s snobbery is nothing compared to that of Mr. Underwood, whose concern about the murders is bizarrely outweighed by the offense he takes at the victim’s lack of decorum. (In his smart introduction, Curtis is kind enough to warn us of Underwood’s heightened social consciousness.) From the very start, Underwood is vocal in his outrage at Mr. Sutton’s assault on Boston’s social nobility. Here’s a description of the scene of the crime:
“(It was) typical of the best houses on Beacon Hill, (which) like many of them, had fallen into evil days. Its original owner, endowed with the traditions of good taste and gentle living, could not have imagined that it would fall into the hands of Frederick Sutton, the stock exchange gambler, who had risen from nothing to a huge fortune.”
One begins to wonder whether this is a character trait or if it stems from the beliefs of the authors. Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who wrote under the Roger Scarlett pseudonym, were both well-born ladies with upper-class educations. Underwood finds reason to look down his nose at each of the Suttons, admitting to a fascination at watching such an inappropriate clan grapple with the niceties of a society into which they have stumbled and to which they clearly don’t belong. (“It was a situation to be watched closely and with interest.”) I mean, honestly, it’s not like these were the Beverly Hillbillies!
At the start, Underwood is surprised and delighted that the party includes Mrs. Anceney, a beautiful woman of high social position. He is baffled as to why this great lady would keep company with such upstarts, or why she would seem to have formed a dalliance with the odious Mr. Sutton. When Sutton is murdered, and Mrs. Anceney becomes Suspect Number One, the police – and Underwood especially – accord her such special treatment as to make me wince. Nobody engages in anything so crass as asking the lady her whereabouts or what happened. Underwood notes,
“Then, too, what ever her reasons for her actions, she guarded them tacitly in the privacy upon which it would have been an impertinence to intrude.”
This could be a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the privileged in 1930, but it rankles my democratic heart! Halfway through the investigation, Kane and his team are searching through Sutton’s desk and come upon a series of photographs that Kane sneeringly refers to as “Capitalist and Family, As They Were.” They have a laugh over the hard course taken by Sutton and his family to acquire a look of appropriate grandeur as befitting the new station to which they obviously don’t belong. The mindset that people should stay in their place seems distinctly “Old World” to me; at least in this first novel, this snobbery is never undermined or played for laughs; it just sits there, like the bad fish I ate Sunday night!
The elements of class aside, this case isn’t exactly brimming with exciting developments. There are some early hints that it may be an impossible crime tale, but that element is dashed pretty quickly. Most of the chapters end with the appropriate “astonishing” discovery, and Mr. Underwood proclaims himself aghast on many occasions at the extraordinary events taking place before him. Yet, compared to the early exploits of Carr or Queen, the “bizarre” quotient of Scarlett’s plot is pretty darn low. The solution, when it comes, comes quickly and is not belabored by lengthy explanations. Still, I defy any reader to figure this one out by parsing clues together. Perhaps this is the best solution that Scarlett could have come up with, but it does not feel imbued with what Scott K. Ratner would call retrospective inevitability. A reader should feel like this person, and this person alone, could be the killer, and I don’t get that feeling here. (Sorry, Scott, if I misuse your term, but I hope you get what I’m saying.)
While I can’t say the debut of Norton Kane filled me with the same excitement I got when I was introduced to Helen McCloy’s Dr. Basil Willing or got my first taste of Harriet Rutland, it’s true that not all debuts show off an author at their best. I do have The Back Bay Murders to look forward to. So for now, let’s just say . . . we’ll see.