A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins:

ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Covici Friede, US, hardcover, 1931. UK title: The Crime of the Century, Collins, hc, 1931. Also published as: Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress. Popular Library #286, 1950.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   Fulton Oursler is best remembered as a magazine editor, for Liberty in the 1930s and Reader’s Digest in the late Forties and as the author of the religioso blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949). But in younger days he also contributed to the mystery genre, using the by-line Anthony Abbot for eight detective novels starring New York City police commissioner Thatcher Colt.

   The format of the first six is clearly borrowed from S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance series. Each title falls into rigid About the Murder of pattern; Colt is portrayed as wealthy mandarin intellectual; his cases are narrated and signed by his faithful male secretary; his familiars include a stupid district attorney, a crusty medical examiner, and dignified butler; the novels tend to begin with a body found under bizarre circumstances, with strange clues pointing to a host of suspects; the investigation is punctuated by conferences at which, in the spirit of Socratic debate, the detectives offer alternative reconstructions of the crime; and a second murder usually takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book.

   Like those of the young Ellery Queen, Abbot’s variations on the Van Dine framework are better written and characterized and somewhat livelier than the Philo Vance books themselves, although Abbot unfortunately followed Van Dine in declining to play fair with the reader.

ANTHONY ABBOT Clergyman's Mistress

   The second and perhaps best in the Thatcher Colt series was About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress, which like many Van Dine novels was based on a famous true crime. In this version of the Hall-Mills case of the 1920s the bodies of a respected Episcopal minister and of a beautiful singer in his choir are found floating down the East River in a rowboat.

   Colt quickly takes over personal command of the investigation, with a huge assortment of peculiar clues — nine dumbbells, a bloody-pawed cat, Chinese sumach leaf, a bag of dulse — implicating various members of the minister’s and the singer’s households.

   Staying in full control of a stupendously complex plot, Abbot also treats us to vivid glimpses of early-1930s New York and to a sardonic portrait of the WASP clergy.

   Most of the Thatcher Colt novels are cut from the same pattern, including About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930), which launched the series; About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932), with its background of a circus playing Madison Square Garden; and About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935), with its intimations of the occult.

   The last two Anthony Abbot titles, The Creeps (1939) and The Shudders (1943), lack Van Dine elements and are believed to have been ghosted by another writer.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Editorial Comment: The other writer has been tentatively identified as Oscar Schisgall. See the comment following the previous review.