FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE - Mystery Commentary by Mike Nevins.

    No one ever heard of regional mystery novels back in the 1930s, but I’ve recently reread four superb specimens from that period, all of them written by Baynard Kendrick, who is best known as creator of the blind detective Captain Duncan Maclain.

    Blood on Lake Louisa (1934) is a non-series whodunit, while The Iron Spiders (1936), The Eleven of Diamonds (1936) and Death Beyond the Go-Thru (1938) feature the lanky and ever-hungry private eye Miles Standish Rice, a character who might have been played effectively by the young Jimmy Stewart if he, rather than Duncan Maclain, had made it into the movies.

    Much of The Eleven of Diamonds takes place in and around Miami, but the others are set in the rural Florida of the Thirties and are full of local atmosphere.  I  am lucky enough to own copies of all four, which are hard to come by today and haven’t been reprinted in generations. 

    The Iron Spiders takes place on Broken Heart Key, a coral islet 50 miles north of Key West which serves as winter quarters for a paralyzed millionaire banker and an assortment of his relatives and hangers-on.  Two detailed  diagrams of the upper and lower stories of the main house are supplemented (if you’re lucky enough to own the Dell mapback edition) by an artist’s rendition of the entire Key that seems quite faithful to Kendrick’s descriptions. 

    There are plenty of enigmatic clues and suspects (perhaps a few too many?) and much less fairness to the reader than in, say, an Ellery Queen novel of the same period.  On the other hand most of the minority characters are treated with great respect.  In the last paragraph of the novel, Stan Rice describes the half-black half-Seminole who’s been prominent from the early chapters.  “This is his country,” Rice says.  “It belongs to him and his people.  They understand its colors, its heat, its storms, and its death.  The whites have never really taken it away.  With his tribe dwindling, and everything he worshiped gone, he is still a man...”

    It’s hard to believe that such contemporary-sounding words were written more than seventy years ago.


    Who perpetrated the following lines?

    1. “Once he got settled he didn’t move and looked like a big toad squatting in his ambush.

    2. “‘....(H)e’s got no more honor than a toad....’

    3. “It was twenty minutes to four when I finally scored.  The cabby I scored with look like a toad.

    4. “...Wally looked considerably like a toad.

    5. “He looked sort of like a toad, but his voice had the rich timbre that professional voices have.

    All five were written by Robert B. Parker and can be found respectively in Mortal Stakes, Promised Land, Ceremony, Pale Kings and Princes, and Crimson Joy.  What Parker has against those useful and sweet-singing little amphibians, and why the toad is still the most hated animal in literature, remains a mystery.


    “Confusion?  Who this Confusion Mist’ Chan always talkin’ ’bout?”

    If you remember the Charlie Chan movies — not the earlier pictures from 20th Century-Fox, but the abysmal ones released by Monogram in the middle and late Forties – you’ll remember any number of lines like that, delivered by Mantan Moreland in the role of Chan’s addled black chauffeur Birmingham Brown.

    But nobody in the real world could make a mistake like that, right?  Think again!  Just yesterday I received notice that a visiting professor from Asia would shortly be delivering a lecture about: “The Influence of Confusionism on the Korean Criminal Justice System.”  The immortal Kung Fu-Tse must be whirling in his grave.


    I don’t have as many idle moments as a retiree might be expected to have, but in one of them last week I pulled down my copy of Doug Greene’s anthology Classic Mystery Stories (1999) and reread “The Archduke’s Tea,” the first of H.C. Bailey’s dozens of Reggie Fortune stories and one that I hadn’t glanced at in more than thirty years.
    The story seems to take place before World War I but first appeared in book form in Call Mr. Fortune (1920), the earliest collection of Fortune shorts.  I wouldn’t rank it among Reggie’s top detective exploits but it’s certainly one of the most historically important in the series.

    Why?  Because the climax, where Reggie creates a diversion and switches a poisoned cup of tea  so that the legally untouchable murderer inadvertently poisons himself, was so obviously S.S. Van Dine’s inspiration for the denouement of The Bishop Murder Case (1929), where art connoisseur and amateur sleuth Philo Vance creates a similar distraction – having to do with an artwork of course – to switch wineglasses so that the serial killer poisons himself rather than his next intended victim. 

    “You took the law in your own hands!” says Vance’s outraged friend District Attorney Markham.  “I took it in my arms – it was helpless,” Vance replies.  “...Do you bring a rattlesnake to the bar of justice? Do you give a mad dog his day in court? ... I say, am I by any chance under arrest?”  He isn’t, of course, any more than Reggie Fortune was.  In Markham’s shoes I would have declined to put the cuffs on Vance also, if only because he didn’t refer to the murderer as a toad....


      Other installments of this column can be found by going here.  


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