ANTHONY ABBOT – About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1937. No paperback edition.

   A writer who was once tremendously popular, Anthony Abbot, is no longer read today. That is unfortunate because a recent reading (or in some cases rereading) of his books, published between 1930 and 1943, shows them to be still quite readable. In addition to a nostalgic look at New York in the past, there are plots far more imaginative than many conceived today.

   The general caliber of writing is not good, but there are some touches that are surprisingly effective. For example, in the book reviewed below, Abbot describes a police lab, drawing an analogy to the medieval attempts to turn baser metals into gold. “Here, instead, men sought to turn human flesh and blood into grand jury indictments.”

   Abbot, the pseudonym of Fulton Oursler, author of the best seller The Greatest Story Ever Told, is usually lumped with another pseudonymous writer, his contemporary, S. S. Van Dine. There are definite similarities, although Oursler eschewed the erudition and footnotes which caused Ogden Nash to threaten to kick Van Dine’s creation [Philo Vance in the pants]. Abbot’s Thatcher Colt, like Philo Vance, is larger than life, but he is easier to take. Both authors have “Watsons” whose names are the author’s pseudonyms and who record the adventures of their employers. Each series has a somewhat dense District Attorney.

   Another similarity is the use of real murder cases for many of the novels. There was a time when mystery novelists like Van Dine, Patrick Quentin, Anthony Boucher, John Dickson arr, and Abbot were very knowledgeable about the great true crimes of the past. In the first Thatcher Colt book, Abbot has the detective, who owns a library of 15,000 true crime books, ask, Ïf our criminals plagiarize from the past, why not our detectives?

   Much has been written about Abbot’s second mystery, About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress (1932) and its basis in the Hall-Mills case of 1922. I do not recall anyone pointing out that a lesser-known Abbot, About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937) is based on the William Desmond Taylor case, subject of two recent popular nonfiction books, though it clearly is.

   Man Afraid of Women has Thatcher Colt due to get married in a few days and frustrated by such problems as auto deaths, lack of adequate gun control, and pervasiveness of drugs in New York City. There is also a reference to air pollution. (Sound familiar?) Of historical interest is the attitude of the characters toward blacks, an outrageous racism as prevalent as the anti-Semitism found in British novels of the period between the wars.

   Colt’s fiancee sends him the problem of a secretary with a missing boyfriend, and that soon leads to the titular murder victim. The puzzle is a difficult one, and while the solution is not totally satisfactory, there is some real misdirection along the way and an exciting, albeit melodramatic, ending.

   Sometimes the writing is overheated, as when Abbot refers to this case as “the greatest of crime problems.” It’s not, but it’s a good puzzle nonetheless.

   Besides plot surprises, there is some dialogue that we would not expect. Coitus interruptus in a mystery written in the 1930s! Colt’s “Watson,”Anthony Abbot, is upset by Colt’s impending marriage and retirement. He asks his wife, Betty, “Why had a woman come back into the life of the greatest detective of all time?” Abbot’s wife claims he is jealous and sits on his knee. We read, “I spanked her and took her to bed. And then came one of life’s embarrassing moments, for shortly thereafter the telephone rang. Thatcher Colt was at the other end of the wire.”

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring 1991.

NOTE:   For Mike Nevins’ review of About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress earlier on this blog, go here.