William F. Deeck

J. H. WALLIS – Murder by Formula. Dutton, hardcover, 1931.

J. H. WALLIS Murder by Formula

   During a meeting of the elite Aristoi Club, the Hanging Committee — art, let me hasten to say — discusses crime novels. Several members urge Andrew Wingdon, best-selling author who writes, according to one character, “readin’ books,” to write his own detective novel, or “trash” book. The formula proposed to Wingdon, as he iterates it:

   Story gripping, distracting, entertaining, but not grief-producing — no reality of death; a murder early in the book — first or second chapter, followed by at least one more to prevent loss of interest; the murdered a person or persons of consequence in the story … continual atmosphere of menace to principal surviving characters … no wholesale murders, no use of madmen, animals or artificially bred humans; the guilty always in full view and prominent; the detective supplied no more information than the reader; London and Scotland Yard or Manhattan and the new York police; and a beautiful girl wooed and won by the end of the story.

   Wingdon begins making notes and the others depart. The next morning Wingdon is found dead in the club, killed more or less in the manner discussed the previous evening.

   At the end of his novel, Wallis claims in verse that he himself followed the formula. For the most part I agree with his contention, particularly since fair play was not a criterion.

   The investigation by Inspector Jacks, in the first of several novels featuring his alleged abilities, is slipshod or negligent. For example, Jacks is unaware that apartments and houses have rear entrances and that a murderer might use them.

   A locked-room murder occurs that is given no thought by Jacks and is explained in one unlikely sentence during a most unlikely denouement. Jacks gives Wingdon’s widow, with whom he is smitten — see the last sentence in the formula — an automatic to protect herself at a meeting she shouldn’t attend but provides no instruction about use of the weapon, though this may be excused, I suppose, because the automatic turns out to be a revolver.

   Maybe in his later novels Wallis either is more careful with his plot or writes more persuasively. Maybe.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.

        The Inspector Wilton Jacks series —

Murder by Formula. Dutton 1931.
The Capital City Mystery. Dutton 1932.
The Servant of Death. Dutton 1932.
Cries in the Night.Dutton 1933.
The Mystery of Vaucluse. Dutton 1933.
Murder Mansion. Dutton 1934.

   J. H. Wallis has four other works of crime fiction listed in Hubin, including Once Off Guard, which was the basis of the film The Woman in the Window (1944), directed by Fritz Lang. Dan Stumpf reviewed both the book and the film here earlier on this blog.