Sometimes our good fortune is a result of mere proximity. I discovered Carr sitting on the bookstore shelves to the left of Christie, and I found Patrick Quentin to the right of Queen. Regarding the latter: at the time, all that was available were the first six Peter Duluth mysteries, published with these nifty Avon covers featuring deceptive females. The covers – and the fact that the titles all began with “Puzzle for . . . “ – accentuated for me a kinship with Queen’s “Nation + Prop” series; so, in retrospect, does the news that it took twoauthors, under one sobriquet, to write both series (Queen = a pair of cousins; Quentin = a number of pairings, but the most significant were two men who became lovers, Richard Webb and playwright Hugh Wheeler). Admittedly, I did not know this about either Queen or Quentin when I first read the books, nor did I completely understand the complicated histories of these teams and how their respective work would shift and change for a number of reasons.
Now, thanks to mystery historian Curtis Evans, Quentin’s fascinating but unfairly obscured career and work has resurfaced with a whole slew of e-books, courtesy of the Mysterious Press, that encompass not only the Duluth series (and there were more than six) but the novels written under various other pseudonyms (Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge), and it’s a treasure trove of GAD riches, most of which I haven’t read . . . yet!
And now, with Curtis’ and Doug Greene’s help, Crippen and Landru, the foremost publisher of short mystery fiction, has gotten in on the act by publishing a second collection (after The Puzzles of Peter Duluth) of Patrick Quentin’s short stories. This new volume assembles the twenty-two shorter cases of Lieutenant Timothy Trant, who featured in three novels published under the name Q. Patrick. (Two of these, Death for Dear Clara and Death and the Maiden, are available as e-books; I don’t know about The File on Claudia Cragge.)
Trant falls into that illustrious category of the “gentleman policeman.” Raised with wealth and good breeding and educated at Princeton, Trant gave up a career in the law because he found his calling in police work. Many of the stories focus on Trant’s involvement with other upper-class people, often while he is off duty. He is a handsome dog and the complete ladies’ man – as only a pair of gay lovers could have drawn him. Equally attractive is his personality, a combination of intelligence, wit and sympathy for the persons in the case, even the murderers – especially when they are lovely females.
What becomes clear as you read – and as Curtis points out in his fine introduction – is that the Trant tales are beautiful examples of Webb and Wheeler’s ability to write fairly clued and snappily written puzzle mysteries to challenge the lucky reader. And so I decided to take Q. Patrick up on his challenge to see how I fared as an armchair detective – even if the tales contain no overt Queenian “Challenge to the Reader”. As I read, though, I enjoyed so much what I was reading that I figured I should get the word out on this collection sooner rather than later. And so, I have stopped at the halfway point. What follows is a rundown on the first ten stories, comprised of the following:
- Synopsis: no spoilers, I promise;
- Rating: one to five “Q”s;
- The challenge result: whether this armchair Poirot did or didn’t solve the case.
She Wrote Finis
The first Trant short fiction is the longest in the book, a novella in fact, that brings Trant into the Broadway theatre world to investigate the murder of an odious young woman. As the detective himself puts it: “Believe it or not, it’s not always pleasant being a policeman. We have decent feeling. And one of my most decent feelings is a very wholehearted dislike for Miss Minna Lucas.” Minna has invited a group of “friends” – including a best-selling author turned playwright, a director, a starlet, an agent, and a lady publisher – to a party at her lavish apartment. But when they arrive, there is no sign of their hostess. When she is found in her studio upstairs, shot to death, Trant is called in to determine which of seven desperate people did the dirty deed.
Rating: QQQQ – I’m not sure how much I love the novella length. You can get more done than with a short story, in terms of character development and such, but sometimes it just feels like an edited novel. We get less of Trant here because the tale is told from the point of view of the lady publisher. Curtis calls this one cleverly clued. Maybe it is, but I seemed to see through each clue because . . .
Challenge results: I solved this one easily, and it had nothing to do with the clueing. When you read a lot of mysteries – and read a lot aboutthem – certain patterns and tropes become apparent. This one was solved due to my knowledge of top novels by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Helen McCloy. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I’m so well read!
Echoes of Trant’s education at Princeton appear when he receives Angela Forrest, his college prom date, at his office. It seems that somebody is doing away with each family member on his or her birthday and is commemorating the event with an early delivery of the titular flowers. And now it’s Angela’s birthday, and she is gathering the remainder of the clan at her house for a celebration that she hopes Trant can prevent turning into a wake for her.
Before you ask why these doomed people keep giving themselves birthday parties, remember they’re all descended from a man who laid out his will in the form of a tontine! In other words, this is GAD World, and victims act stupidly; it has to be so.
Rating: QQQQ (The mystery rates three, but the insight into “Trant, the Man” adds a star.)
Challenge result: I win! It was one of those stories where everything was made clear to me as events unfolded rather than afterwards.
The Plaster Cat
Trant is summoned to the prestigious Ruskin School for Girls. Following a school dance, the daughter of a noted diplomat was found dead. The headmistress is pushing the theory that her death was an accident, but Trant finds plenty of evidence that this was murder.
Rating: QQQQQ – This story is pure evidence of the golden days when a mystery writher could pack all the plot twists and emotional heft of a novel into a 23-page long tale. If one element of the motive creaks a bit as a product of its time, the story builds upon itself to a rich and satisfying finale where good is rewarded and evil gets its just desserts in ways we may not have predicted.
Challenge result: I lost, and I’m a happier man for it!
The Corpse in the Closet
Trant’s imposing sister Freda (a recurring character) summons him to a cocktail party to meet the beautiful and vacuous Celia Prentiss, but he is more attracted to her mystery writing roommate. Add a couple of beaus for Celia and a mysterious note stuffed the roommate’s purse as you wind up with a sort of impossible crime. Trant knows that three of the four suspects couldn’t have been responsible for the corpse in the closet because he himself is their alibi. And yet he is leery of arresting the fourth suspect, even though the man has no alibi!
Rating: QQQQ – I’ve seen solutions like this before, but that’s not to say that Patrick doesn’t render his version with flair. Freda is a fun character, and so is Trant’s boss, who hates our hero because of his classy shoes. Too bad the suspect list is a bit more wooden than usual.
Challenge results: I lost. (Does recognizing an old pattern afterthe fact count? I thought not.)
Another theatrical cast – and for the second time in this collection, Trant allows the leading lady to hurry to the theatre in order to make her curtain while he investigates the murder of her estranged husband. This drama director approves! J
Rating: QQQQQ – Highly enjoyable and almost completely fairly clued. Quentin was a pro at etching sharp characters with a modicum of space. Here, the victim “didn’t look as if he’d been a pleasant person. He was huge and too well fed. Trant could imagine him buying the right suits, the right hair tonics, exuding specious joviality – and not paying his bills.” This one also gets high marks because it contains one of those emotional final line twists that I love. (See He Who Whispers.)
Challenge result: I had it all worked out, and I was completely . . . wrong. I love when that happens!
The Wrong Envelope
Curtis defines this second longer piece as a novelette – the step between a short story and a novella – but unlike She Wrote Finis, the length here is perfect. The plot is the perfect combination between whodunnit and psychological suspense. Curtis likens it to something by Mignon G. Eberhart, which makes sense given the feminine viewpoint, but it’s more taut than MGE and filled with great dialogue. Trant is barely in this one, but everything he says and does matters. The main character here is Kate Laurence, a sort of plain heiress, who through a chain of circumstances I leave you to discover, finds that she cannot trust anyone in the small circle of beloved friends upon whom she depends. This leads to murder and an ever-tightening web around Kate that only Trant can unravel.
Rating: QQQQQ – This is a tale very much of its time, so Kate comes off as a bit helpless. But the emotional heft of the plot surrounding her, coupled with the way the author makes your suspicions jump from the handsome fiancé to the trusted advisor, from the beloved best friend to the world-weary war hero, makes for great reading.
Challenge result: Alas, I figured the whole thing out. Again, too much reading of this stuff, and a much-beloved later Christie made the method shout itself to the rooftops. But I feel that allof Mignon G. Eberhart’s novels should have been novelettes, and Patrick’s work here is Exhibit A for my cause!
Murder in One Scene
Yet another letter hinting at criminal behavior afoot is slipped into the wrong envelope and this time wends its way to Trant’s own apartment, luring him into an upper crust murder case.
Rating: QQQQQ – I give this one high marks for two reasons. The first couple of pages offer a cogent look into Timothy Trant, private citizen: his relationship with his high society mother, his love of crime solving (and, peculiar to fictional sleuths, his preference for peculiar crimes), and his dislike of junk mail.
Secondly, this crime is expertly clued, and it’s a delight watching Trant confront the murderer and step by step prove their guilt with his genial logic.
Challenge result: Anything I got right was pure guesswork, so I’m going to chalk this one up as a loss.
Town Blonde, Country Blonde
The killer of playboy Joseph C. Cook has got to be one of the two ex-girlfriends of the title. Trant examines the scene of the crime and solves the case in five swift pages.
Rating: QQQQQ -This nifty short-short reminds me of the best of Ellery Queen. It’s beautifully clued but happens so fast that you can barely catch your breath and solve it.
Challenge result: I lose! (Call me breathless!)
Who Killed the Mermaid?
Trant is sharing a Pullman car with four other gentlemen, each distinguished by the grotesque neckties they are wearing. When one of them is murdered (strangled, of course, with his necktie), Trant thinks quickly to solve the case before the train reaches the next station.)
Rating: QQQ1/2 – I suspect that this trifle isn’t exactly fair play, but it is quite funny, and Trant’s actions before the murder are carefully interwoven into the revelation of an interesting motive, involving a variance on a clue used by Christie.
Challenge result: I cry foul here. For the life of me, I can’t spot an actual clue that eliminates all but the killer.
Woman of Ice
Trant runs into personal friends, the Hunt brothers, in Venice. The younger one went to Princeton with Tim; the older one has married a very rich, unpleasantly hypochondriacal woman. He has also hired a beautiful nurse to care for her, which in mystery parlance means this family is RFD: a Recipe for Disaster. And why is this nursemaid – the Woman of Ice – so familiar to the Lieutenant?
Rating: QQQQ – It was an enjoyable read of Trant being abroad and acting as a civilian sleuth; yet a couple of plot holes make it a lesser effort.
Challenge result: I was getting there, but it all happened so fast!!!!
My Score So Far
3 solved, 6 not solved, 1 draw called on account of mermaid. That leaves twelve more tales to read, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to savor the rest. Meanwhile, I hope that what you’ve read here has whetted your appetite for this delightful compilation and for sampling more of the work of Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick, one of the best all-but-forgotten American mystery writers out there.