Thu 22 Jan 2009
The opening of Isabel Ostrander’s The Clue in the Air (1917) is a full intuitionist detective novel. There is a Dying Message. There is a description of a whole apartment building, and the suspects living on various floors and corners — a description that could have served as a blueprint for the many Golden Age novels which have elaborate floor plans in their stories.
The detectives also investigate alibis and time tables. Unfortunately, this does not lead to a classic puzzle plot. Ostrander unravels all the threads of her story, but does not show any great ingenuity in the Christie tradition.
Still, the whole tone of the novel anticipates the storytelling of Christie, Queen and other intuitionists of the Golden Age. Ostrander, like other American women writers such as Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells, was writing intuitionist detective novels at an early date: in the 1910’s, and long before the famous British writers like Christie and Crofts, who allegedly started the Golden Age in 1920.
Thayer and Wells dealt with the domestic realm in their tales: a house full of suspects, whose motives sprung from their personal relationships with each other and the deceased. This was in marked contrast to the public realm writers of the American Scientific school, where motives spring from business relationships, theft, politics and civic corruption.
Ostrander has plenty of domestic motives. But she also has a young inventor and his plane. A typical scientific school, business type issue. Similarly, in At One-Thirty (1915) we have domestic motives for some characters (a tangle of jealousy and adulterous relationships) and business issues motivatingothers (a detailed look at a Wall Street swindle).
Business issues in Christie et al tend to be somewhat perfunctory. Someone will threaten to kill someone because they are double crossing them in a business deal. The motive is not developed into a major story, the way the American Scientific School would do it.
For example, everything about the missing cashier and the embezzlement in The Circular Staircase is elaborately plotted. Ostrander straddles both traditions in her books.
Another difference between the two schools. The intuitionists play attention to the crime scene, and the movements of the suspects around it during the crime. This is not generally true of the American Scientific School. A possible exception: Cohen’s Six Seconds of Darkness.
This motion around the crime scene probably is a consequence of impossible crimes: one cannot have a Zangwill-Chesterton rearrangement in space and time, without tracking the characters’ movements.
But it spreads to writers that are not always impossible crime oriented, such as SS Van Dine, Anthony Abbot, and Ellery Queen. It was also found in Doyle, in stories like “The Naval Treaty.” This was before the main impossible crime movement.
The central mystery plot of Ostrander’s At One-Thirty (1915) is a straightforward imitation of Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913). This shows that Ostrander was reading British mystery novels.
Ostrander’s book is very similar to Golden Age mystery fiction to come, with murder among a closed circle of suspects in a wealthy home. Here as elsewhere, Ostrander introduces a whole slew of suspects, each with a different subplot.
Servants tend to be prominent characters in Ostrander, just as they are in Bentley. They do not tend to be the anonymous functionaries of Christie, who fade into the background. Instead they play major roles in the stories.
Ostrander’s The Tattooed Arm (1921) has her police detective hero Sergeant Miles go undercover into a wealthy Long Island home as a servant, and much of the story is narrated from the servants’ hall and point of view.
Scientific School writers sometimes paid close attention to issues of spousal abuse. These stories are fully feminist, and remind one of the attention that the women’s movement focused on this issue in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ostrander also continues this tradition. At One-Thirty has a very detailed look at the problems of an abused wife.
At One-Thirty centers on blind detective Damon Gaunt. Ostrander does a vivid job of evoking his world of sound, touch and smell. Gaunt makes many brilliant deductions from these senses, in a way that evokes Sherlock Holmes’ numerous deductions about his clients.
Gaunt’s main detective work centers around flashes of insight into the situations in front of him. Ostrander makes it clear that he solves mysteries by pure thinking. This is definitely in the intuitionist tradition, and recalls both Sherlock Holmes before him, and such Golden Age intuitionist writers to come as Christie, Milne and Queen.
Bibliographic data: [Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin.]
OSTRANDER, ISABEL (Egenton). 1883-1924. Pseudonyms: Robert Orr Chipperfield, David Fox & Douglas Grant. (Books published under the latter three pen names are not included here.)
At One-Thirty (n.) Watt 1915
The Crevice [with William J. Burns] (n.) Watt 1915
The Heritage of Cain (n.) Watt 1916
The Clue in the Air (n.) Watt 1917 [Timothy McCarty]
Island of Intrigue (n.) McBride 1918
Suspense (n.) McBride 1918
Ashes to Ashes (n.) McBride 1919
The Twenty-Six Clues (n.) Watt 1919 [Timothy McCarty]
How Many Cards? (n.) McBride 1920 [Timothy McCarty]
The Crimson Blotter (n.) McBride 1921
McCarty, Incog (n.) McBride 1922 [Timothy McCarty]
The Tattooed Arm (n.) McBride 1922
Annihilation (n.) McBride 1924 [Timothy McCarty]
Dust to Dust (n.) McBride 1924
Liberation (n.) McBride 1924
The Black Joker (n.) McBride 1925
The Neglected Clue (n.) McBride 1925
The Mathematics of Guilt (n.) McBride 1926
The Sleeping Cat (n.) McBride 1926
The Sleeping Cop [with Christopher B. Booth] (n.) Chelsea House 1927
Please see Mike Grost’s website A GUIDE TO CLASSIC MYSTERY AND DETECTION for more essays such as this on the history of Detective Fiction. If it’s your first visit, you’re bound to stay quite a while — and to come back often.
For further discussion of Carolyn Wells and Mary Roberts Rinehart, among other contemporaneous authors, see the comments that follow Bill Pronzini’s review of Carolyn Wells’ novel, The Wooden Indian.