William F. Deeck

JAMES Z. ALNER – The Capital Murder. Knopf, hardcover, 1932.

JAMES Z. ALNER The Capitl Murder

   Gathered at the Serpentine Club — considering the plot, one wonders whether the author named the club playfully — five men of various talents and one nonentity who chronicles the investigation are discussing crime. They are Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist; Henry Selden, one of the three commissioners of Washington, D.C., where the novel takes place; Lieut. Runy O’Mara, U.S. Navy; Dr. Basil Ragland, eminent psychiatrist about whom more later; and Lance Starr-Smith, the famous architect.

   An odd event occurs during their discussion, and then Commissioner Selden is told that a woman some of them knew had died shortly before under suspicious circumstances. Stoke discovers how and who, none of it coming as any surprise to the reader, who in addition has been anesthetized by the many unlikelihoods that take place.

   The author was acquainted with various famous fictional detectives of the time. It’s a pity he didn’t learn from their creators how to write better. Oh, there are a couple of good similes — “Empty as a dime-novel detective’s head” and “Open as a Congressman’s mouth” — but that’s about it. Unfortunate also is the 1930’s view of blacks, about whom the “eminent psychiatrist” says:

   The crime was carefully planned. A negro does not do that. When a negro commits murder, as unfortunately does happen, it is either in a drunken frenzy or in an impulsive brawl. A mulatto might plan a homicide, but more likely against one of this own race, if he did it at all.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1991.

Bibliographic Note:   This was the author’s only published work of crime fiction.