WILLIAM JOHNSTON – The Affair in Duplex 9B.  George H, Doran, hardcover, 1927. Previously serialized as “Duplex Nine” in six installments in Flynn’s Weekly between January 8 and February 5, 1927. Also published in the Sunday newspaper supplement for the Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger, dated Sunday, December 16, 1934.

   According to Hubin, William Johnston wrote a, total of nine mystery-novels published between 1910 and 1928 (he died in 1929), but if I were to say he is unknown today, it would be the understatement of the year. Pulp collectors might like to note that this particular novel was previously serialized in Flynn’s Detective Fiction Weekly in early 1927, however, and this is probably the only reason I picked this one up when found it in a used bookshop not too long ago.

   Johnston is no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, though, and you needn’t go out of your way to find any of his other books, either. (Still, he also wrote a book called The Fun of Being Fat Man, and while it’s not one of his mysteries it does sound interesting.)

   His hero in this book is Hugh Chilton, a young assistant district attorney who is on the scene when a famous diplomat mysteriously collapses and dies at a party, It is there that Chilton also falls in love (at first sight) with the equally young (and pretty) singer who otherwise should have been the chief suspect in the case. Hard as nails, he’s not.

   And he’s no detective, either. Every so often the action stops as he (and the author) go over the case and clues that have been gathered up to that point, and no matter how he shifts them around, he never does come up with a satisfactory theory for the affair. Only a grizzled old reporter named Taylor seems to be actively pursuing the case, as he keeps coming up with stories for his paper, using facts that the police have just gotten to themselves.

   The underworld in the late 20s was a glitzy sort of place that the rich and famous flocked to in droves, and dope smugglers are  eventually  discovered to be the key to the crime. If it weren’t for the only slightly stilted way of telling the story, it would be nearly as up-to-date as today’s newspapers.

   But as a detective story, it lacks a strong finale. Chilton is outwitted by Taylor at nearly every turn, and he’s not likely to ever have been given such a big case again — but on the other hand, he does end up with the girl. More than that, maybe it’s impolite to ask.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.