#357: Dead Man Control (1936) by Helen Reilly

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We are 30 pages into Dead Man Control (1936) when the case is sealed up beyond any doubt: a millionaire shot dead in his study, the door locked and bolted on the inside, his new, much younger wife unconscious on the floor (her fingerprints on the gun, too), no hiding places, and freshly fallen snow on all the window-ledges to preclude the clandestine exit of anyone else who could have been present.  Clearly the wife dunnit, and everyone can go home early today.  So therefore Inspector Christopher McKee has to be summoned back to New York from his holiday in England because…er, it looks too easy?  And as he investigates, secrets there was no reason to suspect begin to spill out…

In a way, this — the book’s raison d’être — is very much the biggest strength and the most ineradicable problem with the ensuing narrative.  McKee’s investigation is skilfully cast in the procedural mould, and is as detailed and forensic in its execution as could be hoped for (the Crofts fan in me was delighted).  But, well, there’s just no need for it, and nothing to justify it except the lady under suspicion possessing a noisy bath — and even the most cursory consideration could dispose with that.  As such, Reilly seems to hurl her own book straight into an agon that it doesn’t need, with exegesis sought in sundry surrounding circumstances which never actually touch the central murder plot.

As such, a narrative gloom is cast by this tenebrous element of her plotting: the investigation is not under any circumstances validated beyond a sort of communal ad hoc disbelief that Katherine Kingston couldn’t possibly have done it (while everyone also admits that it would be perfectly understandable if she had…).  And Katherine herself isn’t helping — nebbishly refusing to say anything beyond a flat and unconvincing denial of her guilt, providing no clarity on the legitimate questions raised, and as such remaining a somewhat nondescript presence at the heart of the puzzle — one who it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting too attached to or defensive about.

Into this adust landscape of zero motivation and seemingly endless police resources Reilly does work a huge amount of incident, it has to be said.  McKee could be anthropomorphically cast as the terrier that his sobriquet “the Scotsman” brings to mind, tirelessly bouncing from the murder to a break-in to suspicious figures in the garden to a second death, interviewing everyone at just the right moment for someone to waltz in and pronounce something meaningful in his earshot, sending him worrying at the heels of some other poor unfortunate.  In this regard, the piling of incident upon event upon disclosure reminded me very much of Carter Dickson’s The White Priory Murders (1934)…with the drawback that here there seems to be no point to it all.  Police departments do no call detectives back across the Atlantic just to stare the gift horse of an open-and-shut case in the mouth.

It is, however, beautifully written:

She was like the wreck of a graceful ship consumed by fire inwardly and about to blow to pieces, but with the hull still intact, the rigging up.  Her history could be read at a glance.  A select boarding school for young ladies, not quite select enough, marriage to a man of promise who had somehow betrayed her, a charming home on the wrong side of the tracks; she would be a good housekeeper, she would have the newest things in furniture and hangings which she would call décor, she would entertain beyond her means, would belong to half a hundred clubs, would have the latest literary-artistic-economic patter at the tip of her tongue, and would be regarded as a model wife and mother by her equally mullet-headed friends.

Eventually, “bullshit” is called and McKee required to explain his belief in Katherine’s innocence…and on both occasions he doesn’t but Reilly simply carries on with the investigation as if he has.  At this point I skipped ahead liberally, my patience worn thin, to the moment of elucidation in the final chapters, only to discover that there’s no real clewing, no real chain of evidence, no reason for the guilty party to be suspected or to confess (which they do, off-page, as McKee gathers everyone in a different location and then retrodicts everything that happened to make it point at that person).  It’s not even really an impossible crime if we’re being honest — surprising, given that its presence on this list is what brought this to my attention to begin with.

If there was time to read and review something else in place of this I would, because I’m left bored and disaffected by the entire experience.  It gets one star for promise and one for the occasionally superb writing and sporadic diverting weirdness (at one point, it appears that McKee is raising baby crocodiles…have I got that right?).  And even if those appeal, it’s difficult to recommend that you bother with this on any level.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Death in the House of Rain from last week because both feature or imply death in their titles.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Reference to a Man or Woman in the Title.

18 thoughts on “#357: Dead Man Control (1936) by Helen Reilly

  1. Believe it or not, but my only problem with your conclusion is the two-star rating. It deserves only one star and even that’s overpraising it.

    I picked this one up many years ago as my introduction to Reilly, because it had been praised as one of the best locked room mysteries by an impossible crime fan who used to hang out on the GAD mailing group. My experience and opinion mirrored yours, which is the reason why I never really returned to Reilly. I did read one other mystery by her, Mourned on Sunday, which was an improvement on this one, but Dead Man’s Control is the reason why I never took a closer look at the McKee series.

    By the way, there’s a reason why McKee was called back from holiday to handle this apparently open-and-shut case. The victim was an important millionaire and the police department wanted the best man to handle the case, even for an apparently routine case, but don’t remember if that was mentioned in the story. Going by your review, it probably wasn’t.

    • I wrote this review in a mood of great irritation — my language always get more complicated as I get more frustrated, as if the dusty corners of my brain are stirred to reluctant wakefulness to see what the ruckus is about — and had originally given it one star but then thought…well, I’m irritated, and it does showcase a superb deployment of language. But, yeah, we can agree that it’s not a good book, and a baffling inclusion on that list of 99 — these lists by committee often throw light upon the most bizarre corners of the genre!

      And it started so promisingly, too…

  2. Good read then? lol I’ve had mixed experiences with Reilly myself, but I can’t see her being good at an impossible crime story, with its additional plot requirements. Characterisation/setting/writing style are probably the areas she shines in the most when she is writing at her best.

    • Yeah, the plotting of this eludes her greatly. A weird failing in a detective novelist, but she’s hardly unique. And it’s a shame because — something I forgot to mention above — in spite of the pretty large cast, I actually had a very good handle on who was who as soon as we met them…this must be one of the first time I’ve not encountered a character after 40 pages of their absence from the plot and had a moment of “Er, who the hell is that again?”.

      If there’s a better-plotted book in her output then I’d actually love to read it. The question remains whether such a thing can be found, however…!

      • I remember Curtis giving some recommendations out a while ago when I reviewed Murder in the Mews, but can’t remember what they were! Sorry. But out of the two I read I enjoyed The Canvas Dagger reasonably well. Bev might be a good person to ask as I think she’s read quite a few by her.

        • Ah, well, not to worry — I don’t think I’m in any rush to revisit this Reilly again, and have…a few other books to occupy me in the meantime…

  3. Sounds like one I must try . . . I have a vague recollection of reading a Reilly yonks ago and being underchuffed (I think for the same sort of reasons as those you discuss, such as the solution being pulled out of, er, thin air), but she’s definitely overdue a revisit just in case I like her better in my dotage than I did in my yoof.

  4. Nothing – no review, no blurb on the back of a copy I find in a bookstore, no library description – makes me want to read Helen Reilly. Shame, too, because I think she wrote a lot of books! But JJ, your vocabulary! I could make a fifteen-word list for an English class off this little post! I had to look up “retrodict!” And “nebbish” is a noun, but you adjectived it beautifully. I now think the luscious doll on the cover should actually be an underfed, indecisive Jewish man! Could you please dumb it down for us cretins, even though, as you claim above to TomCat, frustration makes you even MORE erudite?!?

      • Yikes, I just had a vision of a naked Hemingway on a clamshell, rising from the foam . . .

        Maybe that’s what you’ll see the next time you’re on Mykonos.

  5. You have this really strange talent for being able to tear apart a book, while at the same time making me want to read it. I’ll trust the combination of both you and Tomcat and steer clear (although I’ll no doubt forget in 5 years and read it since it is on that list…). Pity, as that is a nice cover.

    • The cover is awesome, I agree; maybe pick up a copy and jus read a few random passages — that might be a more rewarding experience!

  6. If you must try another Helen Reilly book at some point, I would suggest Murder On Angler’s Island. I have not read a great deal of her work, and there is a certain amount of “had I but known” writing style but, at the risk of damning with faint praise, I found the plotting reasonable and the setting, characterization and wartime atmosphere interesting.

    • Much appreciated — thanks, Ron. The setting, characters, and atmosphere of this one were spot on, just the plotting failed. Anything which showcases Reilly doing that more effectively is greatly appreciated.

      Alas, now I simply have to find a copy…

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