ROBERT PORTNER KOEHLER – Sing a Song of Murder. Pecos Appleby #1. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1941. No paperback edition.

   According to Al Hubin’s monumental bibliography Crime Fiction IV, Robert Portner Koehler was the author of fifteen mysteries between 1933 and 1948, all but the first for Phoenix Press. The latter was in my opinion the best of the lending library publishers over that period, but they put out many an absolute clunker too. Over the years, there are quite a few I have given up on after only a chapter or two, and once in while it’s taken one or two pages to tell me I’d be better off spending my time reading something else.

   I’m happy to say, though, that Sing a Song of Murder is one of Phoenix’s better ones. It’s best, though, if you take that statement in the proper perspective.  Koehler’s name is hardly one that more than a handful of mystery readers have ever heard of, either now  especially, or quite possibly even then.

   The detective on the case is one Pecos Appleby, who even though this is his first recorded adventure, comes with a sense that he’s been around for a while. As a weather-beaten man in his forties, he introduces himself to the owner of a trading post and tourist lodge in the middle of a Navajo reservation as a special investigator for the New Mexico police.

   It seems he is on the trail of a woman who abandoned her car along a lonely stretch of desert highway. She in her turn seems to have turned up at the lodge without a care in the world. Or, perhaps not, for she is soon found dead, the victim of a killer who can only be one of the several people who are staying there.

   This is obviously a very common setup for a Golden Age detective story, and until the end, when the explanations get a little muddled, Koehler does a better than average job of it. He in fact takes one of the oldest tropes in detective fiction and turns it around to good advantage. When asked if he knows who did it, Appleby says yes, but I can’t prove it. When pressed, however, instead of demurring, as is the usual in situations such as this, he decides to go ahead and explain the case as he sees it to his superior, and in detail.

   Problem is, this comes some sixty pages before the end of the book. What he right or wrong? Well, I can’t tell you, but I liked what the author was doing here, and you can use your imagination, I think. As for the title, it comes from the fact the local Navajo tribe doing a sing, a healing ceremony, near the post all the while Appleby’s investigation is going on.

      The Pecos Appleby series —

Sing a Song of Murder (n.) Phoenix 1941
Here Come the Dead (n.) Phoenix 1942
Some Try Murder (n.) Phoenix 1943