Sun 29 May 2011
HERBERT KERKOW [VAL LEWTON] – The Fateful Star Murder. Mohawk Press, hardcover, 1931.
Just about anyone who admires vintage black and white films, in particular those made during the 1940s, is familiar with the name Val Lewton.
From 1942 to 1946, while head of the horror unit at RKO Pictures, Lewton (born Vladimir Leventon) produced nine memorable films that, despite their low budgets and often lurid, studio-mandated titles, were of considerable quality, including: Cat People and Curse of the Cat People (made even though or possibly because Lewton had a morbid fear and hatred of cats), The Leopard Man, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim.
Not quite so many aficionados are aware of the fact that Lewton published several novels prior to taking a writing job with MGM in New York and eventually migrating to Hollywood. These appeared under an array of pseudonyms: Cosmo Forbes, Carlos Keith, Herbert Kerkow, and Val Lewton. Most had contemporary settings, at least one was a historical, all were distinguished (if that’s the right word) by their explicit sexual themes, and all are exceedingly scarce.
Very few people at all, I’ll wager, know that the novel published as by Herbert Kerkow is a detective story. Fortunately, it was Lewton’s only foray into the field. I say fortunately because The Fateful Star Murder is of a distinct alternative bent, though not quite bad enough to join the classic titles at the top, or rather the bottom, level of the pantheon.
The most interesting thing about this lumbering, disjointed mess of a mystery is its kinky and remarkably graphic (for 1931) sexual content. There are enough lustful elements in its 239 pages to make the stories in the Spicy pulps seem tame by comparison, and to make this reader wonder how the novel managed to escape the wrath and censorship crusades of the era’s blue noses.
Possibly what saved it was the fact that its publisher, Mohawk Press, was an obscure outfit whose offerings had miniscule printings. (The only other mystery published by Mohawk during its short life was Stuart Palmer’s first and rarest book, the gangster saga Ace of Jades.)
The “fateful star murder” victim, one Dawn Loyall, is a nymphomaniac who,we are told, is so obsessed and debased that she enjoys sleeping with clients of one of Seaside City’s most notorious whorehouses free of charge. Her nineteen-year-old sister, Sybil, having been deflowered at age 13 by the same sexual predator who deflowered Dawn, is either casually or desperately promiscuous (it isn’t clear which) and in danger of becoming a nympho herself.
One of the suspects in Dawn’s death by shooting, drowning, and/or poison is the aforementioned sexual predator, a middle-aged politician whose hobby is molesting prepubescent girls. Another suspect is a “cured” sadist who gets his jollies by beating up and burning women of all ages. And one of the nominal protagonists has a girlfriend named Gwenie who operates a whorehouse and is “a queen between the sheets.”
As if all of this wasn’t enough to satisfy the most prurient reader, there are two gratuitous on-stage sex scenes between Sybil and her newspaperman lover, Maurice Martin, both of which are described in what for its day was explicit detail.
In the second of these, for good (or bad) measure, Martin coldly and calculatedly interrupts his lovemaking at a crucial moment to accuse Sybil of bumping off her sister.
The rest of the novel is made up of: Chapters and events that don’t quite connect with one another. Some highly dubious psychological observations and motivations. Ridiculous methods of amateur detection. A questionable explanation of the effects of ricin, the poison extracted from castor beans. The activities of a low-life gangster of (gasp!) Italian extraction, Giacomo the Wop.
More: A gratuitously poisoned Siamese cat, on the corpse of which the protagonist gleefully performs an autopsy in his office. And some pointless astrological commentary, possibly tossed in to justify the title, for Dawn is said by her mother’s live-in lover to have been“murdered under a fateful star.”
The autopsy-performing “hero” of the piece is one Luigi Rothmere, an allegedly eminent psychiatrist who thinks nothing of confiding intimate personal details about his patients to anyone who’ll listen, and who predicts Dawn’s violent demise by claiming “the woman who is a spendthrift of her love courts death.”
He is given to making other “learned” observations throughout, such as this little gem of cerebral insight: “Women are the most savage murderers. Criminology teaches us to look first for a woman when we find that the victim’s body has been brutally mutilated or dismembered.”
Rothmereis aided in his sleuthing by a pair of newspapermen, neither of whom is introduced until a third of the way through the book. Maurice Martin, Sybil’s lover, a horny columnist who once dreamed of being a “male harlot” so he could have all the women he wanted; and Henry Deal, a dipso reporter so far gone that he needs to consume a quart of brandy in the morning (!) in order to steady his hands so he can tie his tie.
Dr. Rothmere, Martin, and Deal conduct their investigation by eliminating one suspect after another through mostly illogical reasoning, until only one name is left on the list – the most likely suspect with the least satisfying motive for dispatching Ms. Roundheels.
Do Rothmere and his cohorts then turn the murderer over to the police for due process? They do not. The good doctor self-righteously knocks off the villain himself to ensure that justice is done, after which his friend, a politically ambitious District Attorney, absolves him of any wrongdoing.
The pair then collude to officially write off the shooting, drowning, poisoning death of Dawn Loyall as a suicide so as to protect the remaining members of her family.
And there you have The Fateful Star Murder. An alternative mystery, to be sure. Deserving of only two stars, though, because of a low risibility factor.