HULBERT FOOTNER – Sinfully Rich. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted as a Philadelphia Inquirer “Gold Seal Novel”: August 3, 1941. Hardcover reprint: Books Inc., 1944. British edition: Collins Crime Club, hc, 1940.

   Hulbert Footner was a Canadian-American writer who, nearing the age of forty, began publishing mystery tales about the time World War One ended.


   He soon made a good name for himself in the field, particularly with his tales of an early female detective, Madame Rosika Storey. (Madame Storey is who he is remembered for today, when he is remembered.)

   Many of his novels and stories are more accurately characterized as thrillers; and even his tales of putative detection seem more “mystery” than detection, with the author not paying scrupulous attention to the fair play concept (allowing the reader the chance to solve the mystery for him/herself through deciphering clues fairly provided by the author).

   Still, Footner’s works often have “zip” and are entertaining enough, just not necessarily mentally over-rigorous. A good example of his style is one of his later works, Sinfully Rich (1940).

   In Sinfully Rich, a sixty-seven year old millionaire’s widow who has been living it up in New York City smart society after the death of her tightfisted husband is found dead after a big night, all her jewels missing.

   The police and medical examiners think she died naturally and then was robbed, but ace journalist Mike Speedon (who is to inherit a modest sum of $100,000 dollars from the “old dame”) shows the experts what for (journalists — what don’t they know?). He proves the millionairess was murdered (disappointingly so, as the putatively amazing murder method is taken lock, stock and barrel from Dorothy L. Sayers and Unnatural Death, published a dozen years earlier).

   In the classical British manner there is are two wills, a missing nephew, a dubious lawyer, a scheming gigolo and household full of suspicious employees and servants (personal secretary, personal maid, first housemaid, butler and “second man”).

   What more could a mystery fan ask for? Well, a more clever plot, perhaps, but maybe that is being uncharitable on my part. There were many, many mystery novels published in those days, and one cannot reasonably expect sheer brilliance from all of them.


   What is most enjoyable about the book is the interactions of the characters up to the resolution of the mystery. Footner casts a wryly amused glance over the foibles of the wealthy, who have, seemingly, a great deal of time and money to burn.

   Footner treats his readers to glimpses of the high life, US version, but he also encourages them to mock what they see, through the focal character of the cynical, clever, manly reporter, such a classic figure in American film and literature from this period. If it’s rather like a watered-down Dashiell Hammett highball (The Thinner Man, say), at least it goes down smoothly, with no unpleasant aftertaste.

   There is investigation, but no really satisfying ratiocinative process. (I was rather reminded in this respect of the British novelist J. S. Fletcher, whose mystery novels probably were more popular during the Golden Age in the United States than they were in his native Britain.)

   Because there really isn’t fair play, Footner is able to maintain until the end of the novel suspense concerning the question “Whodunit?”; yet some of the fun, for me anyway, is lost.

   If, as Robert Frost opined, free verse is like playing tennis without a net, so is a mystery that does not practice fair play. You can still enjoy it, but you feel a bit cheated! Still, I’ve read far worse mysteries from the period than Sinfully Rich. (See my Carolyn Wells reviews!)

Editorial Comment: A list of the “Gold Seal” novels published in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer (mid-1930s to late 1940s) can be found online here. Many of them were mysteries; others appear to be straight romances.