William F. Deeck

FRANK SHAY – The Charming Murder. Macaulay, hardcover, 1930.

   This is Frank Shay’s first attempt, and that is indeed the operative word, at a mystery novel. There is a fine plot here, one worthy of Queen, Carr, or Christie. As it is worked out, however, it is unworthy of almost anyone.

   Dr. Jack Charming is an unhappy man, for several undeniable reasons: He is a millionaire and he is irresistible to women. Both of these drawbacks are getting in the way of his practice of medicine, his simple rounds in the hospital, and his marrying the not-yet-divorced fourth wife of a bounder. She appears to be no great catch, but such apparently is love.

   Charming has invited seven friends — and with friends like his he has no need for enemies — for cocktails and a buffet. At about 9:45 p.m. off they all go to the theater, followed by drinks at a nightclub, and then back to the doctor’s apartment. The doctor sends in his guests and keeps the taxi to take home the woman he wants to marry. The guests go into the apartment to discover the police, who inform them that Dr. Charming was shot dead in the apartment while they — well, most of them; things are a bit unclear here — were all there about 9:30 p.m.

   A nifty puzzle to work out, eh? Does the author accomplish the feat? Yes. Is it satisfactory ? No.

   The first-person narrator, a newspaperman of the not-too-bright breed that was prominent in those days, tells the reader in a prologue that “no one, save these same guests and his servants,” had access to Dr. Charming’s apartment at the time of the murder. He lies. At least five others did, and there was only one servant.

   The stage presentation that the group goes to see is Professor Proteus, an impersonator. During his act, he impersonates George Washington delivering his “Farewell Address to his Generals” — no, I hadn’t known about this either. His impersonation is “pure genius,” although how anyone would be able to judge is beyond me.

   Getting closer to the present, Proteus makes himself up like Abraham Lincoln and delivers the Gettysburg Address. The audience stamps on the floor after this performance, presumably in approval. Perhaps some of them were there for the original and remember it well.

   Finally, in the here and now, Proteus makes himself up to look like Charles Lindbergh standing in front of the “Spirit of St. Louis.” No remarks this time — what would they be? — but the house shakes with applause. A little authorial license here, one presumes. Proteus is obviously on to a good thing with this group.

   Then, as a departure from his regular act, Proteus says he will make himself up to look like a member of the audience. Dr. Charming is chosen, and Proteus does such a good job that even Charming’s friends can’t tell him from the good doctor.

   It turns out that Proteus has been paid by one of the Doctor’s party to impersonate him. Why? I don’t know, Proteus doesn’t know, and if the author knows, he isn’t splitting.

   A police sergeant, the newspaper reporter, and the widower of the woman Dr. Charming wanted to marry — yes, she’s dead, too, murdered about the same time as the Doctor but In a different place — are returning from the dead woman’s apartment. The widower won’t answer the sergeant’s questions, so the sergeant turns a flashlight on him and discovers that the man’s pupils do not respond to light, which means he’s either dead or the sergeant thinks he is. The sergeant gets out of the taxi an d tells the driver to take the corpse to the morgue, Ah, those were simpler days!

   The doctor’s apartment, joined to his office, is on the ground floor. In one of the many summings-up by police lieutenant Daniel (Deedee) Donor, he has one of the suspects going upstairs. One of the suspects is shot and killed while in the apartment, apparently by someone who thought he and the victim were on the second floor.

   Four people enter the apartment through a door that only the police have noticed. The reason it has not been noticed is that it is blocked by a steel cabinet. The question of how that group got through the steel cabinet is never raised.

   The group of four contained a gangster, his hit man who was supposed to kill Charming, and two people who were to play other roles but would have made excellent witnesses to the murder, something that seems not to have occurred to the gangster. Something else had not occurred to the gangster, and who this time can blame him? “I hears someone in the bathroom and when I whispers to ’em to lay quiet the guy with the gun lets it go off.” Good hit men have always been hard to find. Luckily for the gangster, someone else had already shot Charming.

   The man impersonating Charming — not Professor Proteus, remember — was dubious about being able to do the job successfully, but after “trailing” Charming for several days he is able to fool Charming’s friends, Charming’s mistress, and Charming’s would-like-to-be mistresses under the most testing of circumstances.

   The narrator becomes drunk and starts slurring his words, except when the author forgets to have him do it.

   Those who enjoy what Bill Pronzini deems “alternative classics” ought to appreciate this novel. Others should shun it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.

Bibliographic Note:   There was a second case that was solved by the same detective, that being chronicled in Murder on Cape Cod (Macaulay, 1931). A quick search on the Internet suggests that the second book is more difficult to obtain then the first.