#363: The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) by Roger Scarlett

Roger Scarlett 1star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars
The classic GAD puzzle plot being the complex and obstreperous beast it is, we should not be surprised that sometimes it took two brains to wrestle in into readable shape (under a single name so as to simplify things) — Ellery Queen, Francis Beeding, Kelley Roos, Patrick Quentin, etc.  Now, thanks to the work of Coachwhip and Curtis Evans, we can all add another collaborative nom de plume to our libraries with Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s Roger Scarlett and their Boston-set country house conundra.  And, as with their distinguished kin, they prove to have an equally troublesome first swing at this while also showing a huge amount of promise.

The first half is rather superb, and it really only falls down due to an insufficiency of clewing in the later stages — a certain amount of “Well, of course, I saw this and knew that and found two of these…” while the reader flips back through 80 pages going Er, was I shown any of that??  Rest assured, you were not.  The one proper clue that is fairly provided is included in a plan of the house at the centre of this narrative, and so staggeringly obfuscated that anyone who says they picked up on it is a liar or better at this than me.

However, it’s not as if Blair and Page are unaware of the lands into which they stray here, with Inspector Kane — I don’t think he’s given a first name in this book, but the back cover calls him Norton — remarking as he ascends to the room where an impossible shooting has just occurred, “We may not find footprints in the snow, but there are always the forgotten calling card and the initialed handkerchief to be hoped for”.  It’s a moment of self-awareness that augurs well for the book to follow, a hint that the authors know the rules of the game, but it does not pay off.  Clues, one feels, are very much to be heard of and not seen.

It must be said, though, that the writing is superb.  We get setup, setting, cast, and framing of problem with laudable efficiency and clarity, and then Kane is summoned to the scene by our Watson, the lawyer Underwood, who invigilates proceedings, tracking our genius from room to room (except when Kane discovers anything worthwhile, which we nearly always hear about retrospectively) and being suitably impressed when a deduction is pulled from nowhere.  In this way, Kane never really feels like the professional detective we’re told he is, coming over much more as a law-unto-himself Holmesian (smoking at a crime scene, t’cha!) than a progress-up-the-ranks man in the Hadley idiom, and it’s difficult not to feel that Kane is made a policeman purely so as to distinguish himself, as if the badge he wears makes any difference.

A second murder follows hard upon — not impossible, in spite of what you might hear elsewhere, as the room is left unobserved on two separate occasions — and I loved an aspect of this one.  Essentially, that person is killed probably because they know who committed the first murder (indeed, it seems very likely they would, given how Kane reveals the initial, impossible shooting to have been accomplished).  However, if they knew, why didn’t they say anything?  Usually the reasons for this sort of reticence are ropey in the extreme, but the contemporary details tied up in the justifications for this silence are the sort of clearly-expressed window on the world at the time that enrich these undertakings when communicated with as much clarity as they are here.

It’s a shame that the second half consists of so much repetition and the hasty joining of plot points that do not join; some of the revelations are great, but some make no sense (the hiding of the…thing in the secret drawer…frankly, what is that about?), and Kane does a lot of “Well, of course, this is how it all happened and what they were thinking and why they did it” which is specious at best and revisionist at its most telling.  Others have commented on the class snobbery, but I don’t think it’s any worse than a lot of what is encountered in this genre in this era, and Underwood being a slightly over-dramatic man feels almost like the two women who created him having a bit of fun at Dr Watson’s expense.  It becomes a curious mix of EIRF and HIBK schools come the end, but by then we’ve veered so far from the puzzle origins that I was simply going to take whatever was served to me and not worry how pleasant it tasted.

This Coachwhip edition — a beautifully-produced physical book, and benefitting from the compendious introduction by Curtis Evans — comes with the second Roger Scarlett novel The Back Bay Murders (1930) included, and I’m very intrigued to see how Blair and Page develop from here.  The flaws that crop up in this debut are undeniable, but so is the promise on display.

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See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: For fans of mysteries with intricate puzzles, Scarlett’s work is definitely something to look out for, with its floor plans and time tabling. This does not make the writing style overly dry and dull, as Scarlett keeps your attention on Inspector Kane in an engaging way. From different points of view, looking at the case, and based on specific revelations the finger of suspicion manages to point to quite a number of suspects and it was only quite near the end that I twigged who the culprit was.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: However, that intellectual acumen might frustrate those readers who like to play along. Based upon just this first novel, I found myself liking Kane as a person but feeling skeptical about his deductive methods. He has a habit of sitting his team down and dazzling them with a new revelation – all based on information we were never given.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: All of that being said, The Beacon Hill Murders is an imperfect, but promising, debut and could have been better had the authors not so closely imitated the plotting-style of Van Dine. Nevertheless, Blair and Page deserve credit for breaking out of that mold and finding a voice of their own, which resulted in the gem known as Murder Among the Angells. Not to mention that they would go on to exert influence of their own over the development of the Japanese detective story! So that alone makes their maiden voyage an interesting read, but, by itself, it’s not that bad of a detective story. Undistinguished, perhaps, but definitely not a bad for a first try!

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Devil Drives from last week because both take place in the North-Eastern corner of the continental United States.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card this fulfils the category Death by shooting.

 

36 thoughts on “#363: The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) by Roger Scarlett

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 For once, I’ve actually read the novel by the time I encounter your opinion – and I think I agree with your rating. I’ve a soft spot for this novel, insofar as it is, after all, a debut, and makes a good stab (no pun intended) at the Golden Age fair-play genre. I agree that some of the clues remain somewhat tenuous, but I have hopes that other entries in the series will prove stronger, even more enjoyable, reads.

    Perhaps more importantly – your next review looks very exciting! Glad that there are more LRI publications coming our way. Are you allowed to say if there are even more titles about to be released? More Halter??? More Japanese mysteries????

    • It makes a good stab at the Golden Age genre, no doubt, but falls down in the fair-play aspect. It does show a remarkable affinity with the circuitous convolutions the genre exhibited at its best — the explanation for the behaviour of a certain person around the second murder is pristine GAD justification, for one. I’m excited to see where they go for here, and if The Back Bay Murders shows even the slightest hint of improvement I’ll be onto the next double-volume reissue like a shot.

      As for LRI, there are definitely more titles planned — John Pugmire works tirelessly to find these obscure and wonderful gems, I wonder if the man even sleeps. As to what is coming, I’m sure he’ll make it known when he’s ready…part of the fun is having these things dropped on you out of the blue…!

      • John Pugmire works tirelessly to find these obscure and wonderful gems, I wonder if the man even sleeps.

        Well, he better not be sleeping on the job! This addiction of ours is not going to feed itself, you know!

        Speaking of obscure, wonderful gems, I recently learned of a Mexican locked room novel, Un muerto en la tumba (A Dead Man in the Tomb, 1946) by Rafael Bernal, which was praised by Anthony Boucher. But the book has yet to make an appearance in English. So… chop-chop, LRI!

        Anyway, good to know I have at least The Double Alibi to look forward to. I hope the title means that this is one of those rare impossible alibi stories?

        • Was Boucher able to read Spanish/Mexican and so read an original, or do we imply from his praise that there has been a translation sometime in the book’s history?

          As for The Double Alibi…it both is and is not an impossible alibi problem. As the title suggests, there is a over-abundance of alibis, but to my reading of it the impossibility doesn’t come from that (though others would argue it does…I don’t think Vindry plays the thread long enough for it to qualify as a full-fledged impossibility). There is, of course, another aspect that has impossible overtones, but I shall not spoil anything here or anywhere else.

          • Yes, Anthony Boucher certainly knew Spanish. In fact, he is the translator of the Spanish story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (original Spanish title: “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”) by Jorge Luis Borges, which appeared in August 1948 issue of EQMM.
            Un muerto en la tumba (A Dead Man in the Tomb, 1946) by Rafael Bernal is written in Spanish.

        • Anthony Boucher was multi-lingual and fluent in seven or eight languages, which included Spanish.

          A detective story with an over abundance of dodgy alibis, you say? Well, it couldn’t have come at a better time now that I’m working my way through Christopher Bush’s detective novels! 🙂

  2. I agree with your conclusion. Not one of the greatest detective novels of all time, but pretty good for debut novel and full of promise. Just you wait until you get to Murder Among the Angells! Or Cat’s Paw and In the First Degree.

    Are you going to read this series in chronological order?

    • My preferred approach to any author is to read the chronologically, and I typically only don’t if they’re books aren’t available thus (see; Carr, Crofts, Brand, etc)…barring, as always, the odd exception (I’m a mercurial soul). So, yeah, since these are all in print I imagine I’ll take them on chronologically.

      From your comment I deduce that you are more of a fan of their later works — but given out history of disagreeing, how will I respond to them, I wonder…?

      • I doubt we’ll disagree on Murder Among the Angells and, as alluded in my review, you’ll find the impossible crime interesting.

  3. Obviously, the choice here is to read them chronologically: given that opinion states the later books are much better, it means we save the best for last. (Kate insists that the last of the three Harriet Rutland’s is her best by far.) But I stumbled when I started Back Bay Murders – or, at least, I was enticed by at least forty of the other books in my TBR pile. I’m sure I’ll get back to it one of these days and then be able to proceed to the better Scarlett titles.

    I agree that snobbism was the mark of the generation. Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Lord What’s His Name Wimsey – but it felt less . . . charming here. I think it’s less evident in the second book, given the change of setting to a boarding house. But that was a quick first impression.

    • The snobbishness others perceive is there, I don’t deny, but maybe this is one of those things that comes down to individual readings (my head-voice forgives quite a lot…).

      There’s a comment made at the discovery of a photograph that I think is more tin-eared than it is snobbish, and any dismissal of the servants as suspects is backed up by a further justification (i.e., it’s not just “Well, a servant wouldn’t possibly be able to countenance the idea of such a crime” — there’s a second, albeit fleeting, reason given).

      I’m not a fan of reading an author twice too close together, so I won’t get to Back Bay for a couple of months (hell, I might get to actual Boston before I get to Page and Blair’s fictional version), but I’m interested to see how they develop…especially as these women weren’t hanging around in the writing of these books. Five in three years, isn’t it? George R.R. Martin would do well to sit up and pay attention…

    • Kate insists that the last of the three Harriet Rutland’s is her best by far.

      Kate is wrong! Blue Murder is great, but Bleeding Hooks is unquestionably Rutland’s best.

      Note for the curious: Rutland is one of the very few writers I actually read in chronological order.

      • I agree about Rutland. In fact, I couldn’t even finish BLUE MURDER. Plodding and so unlike her other two books. Such a let down. I loved her acerbic wit, the unusual setting, plot and pace of KNOCK MURDERER KNOCK, but the identity of the murderer was too easy to figure out based on the well placed but rather obvious clues. BLEEDING HOOKS, on the other hand, is filled with surprises and an unexpected ending.

      • Bleeding Hooks was one I really did not like, so it’s good to know that I can us this as an excuse to not additionally burden by TBR.

      • I agree that Bleeding Hooks is probably the most clue/puzzle-y of her works but the pacing wasn’t all that great and some of the characters really got on my wick.
        Blue Murder on the other hand has the great setting, characterisation and an incredible ending – struggling to see how such an ending can be construed as plodding (John’s criticism). I actually liked the alternative approach that Rutland took in this final novel. So to mirror yourself I will say that TomCat and John are wrong! Then again I am fairly used to holding minority opinions.

    • I think it’s easier to stomach reading the books chronologically in this case since there are only five stories by Scarlett. Plus, all of the ones after this seem to be fairly well regarded, so no harm in reading one mediocre title first. With that said, Tomcat’s review of Murder Among the Angells has me salivating…

  4. I liked all three of the Rutlands, but didn’t like the third one as much the first time I read it–I think the ending made me kind of mad. But on second reading I had to admire more that she really *went there*. I’m just guessing, but I think the war and her divorce made her writing more mordant.

    I didn’t think the first Scarlett book was that exceptionally snobbish, but judgments vary. I am reading a Ngaio Marsh and finding her snobbish and weight-shaming in rather a mean girl way, but then she also does write so well.

    I think my favorite Scarlett is Cat’s Paw, but I can see why people go for Angells. The mansion setting is bravura..

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who isn’t exactly reeling at the perceived snobbery in this. I know head-voice counts a lot, and I like to think I’ve read as widely in the genre as some of the reviewers who made comments about the attitude of Underwood, but I just didn’t see it as that much of a thing.

      I’m really looking forward to reading further into this series; thank-you so much for all your efforts in helping bring these ladies back into print.

      • Thanks, that means a lot to know people are enjoying these books. I am involved constantly in trying to get forgotten books reprinted, knowing how back in the 1990s I was always so avid to find more classic mysteries myself.

        • I’ve been slow in getting to these Coachwhip and Dean Street titles purely on account of the mismanagement of my TBR. But each new reissue is always a cause for great joy, keep ’em coming.

  5. I have been going through the reviews of Murder Among The Angells and I learn that there are as many as 9 floor plans: general house plan, first floor plan, second floor plan, third floor plan, dining room plan, painting room plan, loft plan, basement plan, elevator plan !

  6. Regarding the linguistic skills of Anthony Boucher:
    In addition to English, Anthony Boucher knew 8 languages: German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Russian and Sanskrit !
    (Source: Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography By Jeffrey Marks)

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