CHARLES J. DUTTON – The Clutching Hand

A. L. Burt; hardcover reprint, no date stated [1929]. First Edition: Dodd Mead & Co., 1928.

   It does no harm, I don’t imagine, to begin with a list of Dutton’s mystery novels. Taken from Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, the one that follows is in chronological order, and does not include British editions.

DUTTON, CHARLES J(udson) (1888-1964)

* The Underwood Mystery (n.) Dodd 1921 [John Bartley; Connecticut]
* Out of the Darkness (n.) Dodd 1922 [John Bartley; New York]
* The Shadow on the Glass (n.) Dodd 1923 [John Bartley; Rhode Island]
* The House by the Road (n.) Dodd 1924 [John Bartley; Vermont]
* The Second Bullet (n.) Dodd 1925 [John Bartley; New England]
* The Crooked Cross (n.) Dodd 1926 [John Bartley; New York]
* Flying Clues (n.) Dodd 1927 [John Bartley; New England]
* The Clutching Hand (n.) Dodd 1928 [John Bartley; Connecticut]
* Murder in the Dark (n.) Brentano’s 1929
* Streaked with Crimson (n.) Dodd 1929 [Harley Manners; New England]
* The Shadow of Evil (n.) Dodd 1930 [Harley Manners; U.S. Midwest]
* Murder in a Library (n.) Dodd 1931 [Harley Manners]
* Poison Unknown (n.) Dodd 1932 [Harley Manners; New York]
* The Circle of Death (n.) Dodd 1933 [Harley Manners]
* Black Fog (n.) Dodd 1934 [Harley Manners; New England]

   Dutton did other writing as well as mysteries, including a biography of Oliver Hazard Perry in 1935, a book that’s apparently still in print, and a book entitled The Samaritans of Molokai: The Lives of Father Damien and Brother Dutton Among the Lepers. (Joseph Dutton worked as a Catholic lay missionary at Kalaupapa, Molokai Island, Hawaii. He arrived on Molokai in 1886, working with Father Damien until Damien’s death in 1889, and remaining on the island until the time of his own death in 1931.)

    Of Harley Manners, I know nothing. Of John Bartley, The Clutching Hand represents the final of nine appearances, and in all honesty, it is not an impressive outing. His companion on this case, a man named Pelt, says of him, taken from pages 2-3:

   Though for many years Bartley had been considered the most noted criminologist of the country, yet for many years he had been going into what might be called semi-retirement. There were several reasons for this — reasons which were not surprising if one only knew his background and his personal inclinations.

    First of all, he wished to find time to write books — books for which he had been gathering materials for years. [ … ]

    But there was also another reason why his name had not appeared in the papers for many months. Crime had changed, he said. That there was more crime now that ever before he would agree, but the class of criminals had changed with the increase in crime. Youths crazed by poor liquor, or their courage whipped for a moment by cocaine, were now our murderers and lawbreakers, and for an intelligent man the game was hardly worthy of the chase.

The Clutching Hand

   This, however, is primary a case (no pun intended) of tell but not show. Here’s another excerpt, this one from page 122, after the case of the clutching hand has begun in earnest. Bartley is talking:

    “We all have the opinion, Miner, that in every murder we must have some clue, as you put it, before we can solve the crime. That is correct, but not in the way you think. Scotland Yard, for instance, does not build up a theory about a crime from a clue alone. They investigate hundreds of small things, throw out what they do not need, keep what is of value. It is like a puzzle. You fit together hundreds of little bits of wood before the design becomes clear. So with a crime of this type. It means the gathering together of many things before we can say who is the guilty party, or why it happened.”

    “But we do not have even a theory,” was the retort.

    “At present a theory is the last thing we wish,” was Bartley’s answer. “In too many cases the police start with a theory, and then they try to fit every fact to it. We will have our theory of the crime after we have been able to arrange and discard certain facts which will come out. Just now we have no theory at all, that is one which we must make every fact fit into.”

    The doctor gave a little laugh, then assured us we knew one fact — that Van Dike was dead, and that he had been murdered.

   The murder had occurred — to back up just a little — on a dreary, rain-drenched outpost of an island in Long Island Sound. Van Dike was a famed criminal lawyer with many enemies. After Bartley and Pelt had found the body along in a car, and with Pelt waiting alone for Bartley to return with the authorities, the death apparently (at first) a suicide, Pelt spies a hand reaching into the window to clutch at the dead man’s coat. He gives chase, but loses whoever it was in the mist along the shore.

   It was “a lonely place on a dark rainy night.” The very words are found on page 105.

   It’s hard to say too much about Bartley’s abilities as a detective. He does have the answers at the end of the book, but he does not confide much in Pelt, a man who — and I do hate to say this — is as dumb as a stump. He takes in each day, or so it seems, with the countenance of a new-born babe.

   Clues are not so much found (see the quote above) as, well, here’s an example. On page 123, all seems lost, as far as the investigation is concerned. “So far we knew nothing,” Pelt tells us, the reader, “not the slightest thing of value. And I wondered if we would ever know anything.”

   The chief of police, in attendance at this meeting of minds, pauses and pondering this, says, “I found out one thing which seems odd.” As if it happened to casually occur to him at that very moment, and of course it is exactly what is needed to generate another burst of major barnstorming on the case. Everything seems to happen in slow motion, including a trip by Pelt to a nearby island to visit a gambler’s den there, a trip long in detail, but not much is made of it later on.

   There is a woman named Lura who is involved, and so are some letters. Could it be the same Lura, a woman who also lives on the island? Pelt is greatly puzzled over the possibility that the two could be one and the same. You would think that Lura were as common a woman’s name as Lorraine or Linda.

   The case concludes with a confrontation with the killer, with Bartley outlining the case against him in hypothetical fashion. It is a solid case, an iron-clad one, but Pelt is amazed, absolutely stunned when he/she in fact really turns out to be the killer. From page 287, Pelt says to the reader:

   Astounded, I had sunk back in my chair. It could not be possible; it was absurd that […] should say [ he/she ] had killed Van Dike. And yet, I remembered the conversation. […]

   Or perhaps this was meant to be the double-switcheroo of an ending, but no, not so. Bartley was no Ellery Queen, and Pelt is no Watson.

— March 2007