“The whole thing was as unbelievable as Episode Six of The Perils of Pauline.”
Greetings, ghoul lovers! If you were with me at this same time last week, you know that I am playing along with Flex and Herds, the genial and tack-sharp hosts of Death of the Reader, the Australian podcast dedicated to reading and unpacking criminal lit from across the spectrum of 20th century mystery fiction. Their latest foray is Theodore Roscoe’s pulpy nightmare of a whodunnit, Murder on the Way, and their guest star and guide through this book is none other than the book’s editor, the host of the blog The Invisible Event, and my long-lost Dutch uncle, Jim “JJ” Noy. (The “JJ” stands for “Just JJ.”)
Today we’re covering chapters five through nine of the book, after which I need to present my final solution to the problem. I will also let you know in the most general terms how well my ideas are jibing with those of Flex and/or Herds. So far, Flex and I have lined up pretty well together.
All right, let’s dive in!
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“’It’s like a book,’ I snarled. ‘This sort of thing happens in detective novels. Alice in Wonderland as Poe might have written it if he were drunk; if he’d been drunk one night and didn’t care about form.’”
The discovery of the corpse of one of Uncle Eli‘s heirs at the end of Chapter Five has provided a spooky but appropriate finale to the evening’s events and put our young heroes, Edwin Cartershall and Patricia “Pete” Dale deep in the soup. Now dawn has broken, and everyone hears the call of the cook: “Breakfast am served!” Chapter Six, pointedly and succinctly titled “Next!”, reveals Roscoe at his pulpy best and, incidentally, justifies my own preoccupation, through thick and thin, with food:
“I sing the restaurant business. It is here to stay. War and dictators, death and taxes – we eat in spite of them. The ship sinks, but cookey brings hot Java from the galley, let the stove be six feet under brine. Napoleon marches an army on its stomach, pampering the commissariat. Henry the Eighth beheads his latest wife and goes out to consult with his chef. Murder makes its abode in an old château in dark Haiti; the library is a morgue, but the pantry carries on.“
The suspects gather in the dining room, “a combination Sing Sing, dime museum, and Paradise Lost.” We are treated to a glorious scene where Cartershall finds himself trapped at the table between two of the more insidious suspects (if you’re really trying to rate these creeps), the Navy deserter known as The Ensign and Manfred von Murda, the . . . well, the Nazi. After a scalding climax, Cartershall and Pete are dragged into Uncle Eli’s office with Lieutenant Nemo Narcisse, who interrogates them and makes it known that he suspects them of all the murders they couldn’t have possibly committed.
What follows from that moment and for the next three chapters makes what happened before seem like teatime with Miss Silver. We have two locked room murders – Ti Pedro found lying on a flaming rug in the office, shot through the top of his head, followed by Ambrose in the billiard room, splayed by a cue that has been sharpened into a lance, with a billiard ball stuffed in his mouth announcing that he is “number 3!” The house is struck by a hurricane, and the police are called away by news of a military insurrection rumored to be led by a zombie!! Then comes a duel to the death on the stairs between a mother and her son!!! This is followed by a thrilling chase through the grounds as Cartershall engages in a three-way slaughterfest with the remaining heirs and tries to find Pete who has disappeared!!!!!!!!
The whole thing is hilarious!
My favorite part in this section, to be honest, is when Cartershall, who is being framed by the Ensign for all the murders that have taken place, begs Narcisse to believe that he is not a former gangster escaped from a Florida prison, that he is not a serial killer bent on paving the way for his girl to inherit this horrible property and all that goes with it, that he is, in fact, a humble painter. And so Narcisse drags Cartershall and Pete up to their rooms, points to the canvas that they brought with them, shoves a machine gun in Edwin’s ribs, and growls, “Paint!”
It does not go well.
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And that’s where we are left at the end of Chapter Nine. Oh, there’s one other thing. In the final moments, Cartershall is battling the winds and rain and trying not to get shot at by the Ensign or von Murda – hey, I accidentally typed “Murder” there! Coincidence, or clever pun?? – who are also trying to kill each other. However, it seems there is another person in the midst, for the Ensign is felled by mysterious shots, and the Nazi runs screaming out of the compound. Cartershall gives chase back into the house and manages to catch the tail end of a figure slipping through the secret passage in Uncle Eli’s office. We leave Part II of Roscoe’s phantasmagorical murder show with Edwin about to step through the panel and plunge into the hidden depths of the house.
As I suspected, the group of heirs seem to have existed to provide fodder for a killer rather than a legitimate suspect list. I can’t say that any new clues have struck me to confirm my original theory, but I will stick to it. I think Uncle Eli is alive and
kicking killing. If I’m expected to explain all the impossibilities and Eli’s motive, I probably have to sacrifice most of the points that are usually awarded when Herd and/or Flex gets the correct solution. Maybe Eli got in too deep with a group of rum smugglers and wanted to clean house. Maybe he wanted to lure Pete to the island and get even with her for refusing his, ugh!, marriage proposal when she was his teenaged ward.
As for how Eli did it . . . well, there are secret passages everywhere. But I am reminded of two other stories, one by Ellery Queen and one by Nigel Morland. In the Queen tale, a man bets that he can disappear from a house and not be found, then return at his own cognizance. The police stand guard, but the man does indeed disappear. The cops swarm all over the place from basement to rooftop, hoping to catch the man in the act of trying to return, but they fail to find him. Turns out they were blind to what was right in front of them: the man had donned a police uniform and merged into their ranks.
The Morland solution? I won’t even mention it because it is so incredibly racist. But, as racism seems to permeate Roscoe’s book, I wonder if Uncle Eli has been wandering amongst the others in some sort of blackface. Forgive me for even suggesting it, but given the pulpiness and the rudeness found here, I wouldn’t put it past Roscoe to offer this up as part of the solution.
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Be sure and listen to the next episode of Death of the Reader, (which I’m linking to you via The Invisible Event) as I just did, to see how Flex and Herds reach a solid conclusion. (Hint: they agree with me!) Listen to JJ scold them about laying out the entire solution, including the “how” of that pair of murders in adjacent locked rooms. I’m always bad at the “how,” so I’m impressed with the theories they came up with. I cheerfully give all the points to JJ and ask you to join me next week when we gather together to quell the half-hearted zombie uprising and bring the killer – it’s Uncle Eli, I’m sure of it!!! – to justice. I also predict that Carter will win the painting contest and the hand of his beloved Pete . . . hopefully still attached to the girl!