William F. Deeck

JAMES CORBETT – Murder Minus Motive. Herbert Jenkins, UK, 1943. No US edition.

   Though not up to Mr. Corbett’s usual standards of wonderfully awful, Murder Minus Motive nonetheless demonstrates what he is not capable of even when he tries. In this alleged thriller, a medical doctor murders a total stranger for no apparent reason except the way the stranger carries his umbrella. The doctor, a law-abiding citizen — well, obviously for the most part — turns himself in. He claims that he is not insane and was not afflicted with temporary insanity.

   To test the good doctor’s opinion of his own sanity, the police have him examined by Dr. Julian Buxton, an eminent pathologist. (Yes, I’m quite aware this isn’t the role of a pathologist, but the author probably isn’t.) Dr. Buxton, of course, is aware of the difficulties of such an examination and admits that it might take “an hour, an hour and a half — perhaps two hours or longer, even.”

   Dr. Buxton, however, does do a thorough job. Examining the killer the next day, he does blood-pressure tests, finding that the killer had not recently “undergone any great mental stress.” Thus he concludes that the killer is sane now and was sane then.

   Another murder is committed of the same type, this time by a mild-mannered clergyman. When he is examined by yet another pathologist, he, too, is found to be sane and not to have suffered from temporary insanity when he committed the crime. We can be sure that this examination was also a thorough one because the pathologist uses “a pair of stethoscopes.” Blood pressure, strangely, is not mentioned.

   An expert criminologist sums the situation up: “It’s like this — no motive, no murder. No murder, no death-sentence. On the other side; same again. No insanity, no asylum. Deadlock, and there’s only one answer to that — Acquital. Therefore, our master-murderer gets off scot-free.”

   The novel has to be read not to be believed. To employ one of my favorite quotes from Corbett’s works: “The whole thing is so fantastic as to appear incredulous.”

— Reprinted from CADS 12, November 1989. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.