Reviewed by BILL PRONZINI:

LESLEY FROST – Murder at Large. Coward McCann, hardcover, 1932.

   One would suppose that a daughter of renowned poet Robert Frost would have inherited some of her father’s literary skills, and in fact Lesley Frost Ballantine (1899-1983) seems to have received a certain amount of talent. She was the author of one collection of poetry, a collection of collegiate journals, and several children’s books, as well as numerous essays, lectures, and correspondence pertaining to her father’s work.

   Ah, but in her youth she was also responsible for Murder at Large.

   In the 1920s she and her older sister Marjorie managed a bookshop in Pittsfield, MA, during which time she developed an affinity for detective stories. So naturally she decided to write one of her own. The result is pure alternative gold – a novel I wish I’d known about when I was doing the Gun in Cheek books.

   The basic premise of Murder at Large requires considerable suspension of disbelief. To quote the jacket blurb: “David Whittaker, in the prime of life, has been sentenced to die of cancer, and it is his strange and demoniacal whim … to expose in name and deed the intimate friends with whose hidden crimes he has had a confessor’s acquaintance. To allow them a terrible moment in which to flavor their own ruin, he asks them for a week-end of celebration and, as the starting gun, informs them of the Memoir [sic; it’s actually a Diary] he is about to release for publication. In case of trouble, and as an added twist of cruelty, Ordway Belknap … a famous amateur detective and criminologist, is invited to be present and to share in the excitement.”

   Belknap is no ordinary detective. No, indeed. “His friends claimed for him a sensitive, reserved nature that shed humankind with reluctant cynicism for lack of a better method,” while the world in general “found him definitely uncommunicative, or, when communicative, ironic, which is a turn of speech that leaves the hearer not much the wiser.” He solves his cases by “jumping to insane conclusions in the intuitive manner that was his strongest claim to distinction.” While in the past he assisted the police in minor matters, he “had really fastened his teeth into nothing worth the candle.”

   So being “weary of women [and] stale with an overdose of detective fiction,” he happily accepts Whittaker’s invitation. “‘Something thrilling for me to do?’” he says. “‘You’re going to put me wise? Oh, I see: give me an opportunity to get wise. Of course. Any old thing for a change.”

   Soon Belknap and eight of Whittaker’s “favorite respectable killers” – four men, and four women (one with the inspired name of Romany Monte Video) – are gathered at his Long Island estate. And it doesn’t take long for Things to Happen.

   The Diary mysteriously vanishes after Whittaker gives a sample reading to the assemblage. An attempted murder is followed by a series of actual murders in rapid succession, five in all, by stabbing, shooting, poisoning, and drowning. There is much skulking around among the survivors and a gaggle of policemen. Belknap and two of the cops, Lieutenant Berry and Sergeant Stebbins, lock horns – a battle of wits among battling twits. Sliding panels, “secret attics,” and a coded message also play minor roles in the melodrama.

   The surprise revelation of the murderer’s identity and the true motive behind the mass slayings requires more suspension of disbelief than anyone except an alternative junkie like me is likely to grant. As does this explanation of the “damning articles of trade” found hidden on the culprit’s person:

   Whittaker’s Diary in an inner pocket; several varieties of poison in neatly labeled pill-boxes; a pair of suede gloves; a very exquisite six-inch dagger with an inlaid handle of silver and lapis; a kit for the designing and manufacture of keys; a veritable armory of revolvers, six; a cunningly contrived combination tool that in its various transformations became a screw-driver, a hammer, an auger and bit, a saw, and God knows what else.

   As wonderfully bad as the story itself is, the true alternative genius of Murder at Large lies in Ms. Frost’s prose. As suggested by the above quotes describing Ordway Belknap, she was a master (mistress?) of the “Huh?” style of writing – passages of narrative and dialogue that stop the reader cold and require rereading one or more times in order to decipher their meaning, if any. The novel fairly bristles with such nuggets as:

   â€œThank you, James,” murmured Belknap in a tone modulated to the atmosphere of the room; while James [his valet], with the smooth precision of the Roxy Orchestra being lowered, sank from view, the den being a floor to itself.

   He listened with one ear to the swish of the tires in the gravel roadbed, and with the other to the cicadas making the mad sound of a semi-anaesthetized brain among the oaks.

   Nadia Mdevani was dangerous… Her ability to ‘clinch,’ as she was doing now, with a power greater than her own, and cut her way free from within, had won her many a hand-to- hand encounter that if taken blow for blow would have seen her downed long ago.

   Only Julian and Joel, looking worlds at each other, plus suns and moons and stars, still seemed a little stupidly blind to what was happening.

   He was pale, his eyes bloodshot, his voice somewhere in his shoes.

   â€œThe house is fairly creeping, Julian. I wish it would get to its feet and walk off. Perhaps in the sense of very strong cheese, it will eventually.”

   Whittaker … silently studied the trembling, haired-up curls of Romany’s disheveled head.

   â€œIn all your fancy detective work, Mr. Belknap, haven’t you caught on that when it’s one murder you act quick, when it’s two you jump into it, and when it’s three greased lightning shouldn’t have a look-in.”

   Swinging on his heel he made an imperious, inclusive gesture that swept the room clean of momentarily irrelevant persons.

   Belknap’s invulnerable self-complacency … stirred in the Sergeant a confused, stubborn rage, such as the English peasant feels for the arrogant huntsman heedlessly taking his fences, even though the hunter does no actual damage.

   Apparently she was so bewildered by the catastrophe that was falling upon the family she let another catastrophe present itself head over heels.

   So when Stebbins was severe with him, chronically severe, he took refuge in an india-rubber persiflage.

   â€œâ€¦ We promised to keep our heads. Our promises again! [Romany] said the rain where she was made her remember your night rains. Neil! Neil! What does that do to our rains, our trains, our meteorites, our – our – Oh!”

   Her nerves were like the antennae of a beetle or the search-light rays of a battleship, reaching out and feeling It somewhere between her and the terrace windows.

   â€œâ€¦ Death, whose name you so often take in vain, is on the qui vive in the house tonight.”

   I don’t know if Robert Frost shared his daughter’s affinity for detective novels. But if he read Murder at Large, as he surely must have, he may well be the reason why she never wrote another one.