#397: The Back Bay Murders (1930) by Roger Scarlett

Back Bay Murdersstar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
Whatever I thought of this book, I was committed to reading more of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page’s Roger Scarlett mysteries as I had already bought volume 2 of the Coachwhip reissues — comprising the novels Cat’s Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angells (1932).  Impetuous?  I prefer optimistic: the promise on display in their debut augured well for their future, and I believed remuneration would be found somewhere in these pages.  So it’s either my own foresight or my stubborn inability to admit a mistake that sees me having a hugely enjoyable time with this one…I shall leave it to the reader to choose.

As with The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) — and, I understand, with the three remaining books from this partnership — we follow Inspector Kane of the Boston Police Department (the back cover tells us his first name is Norton, but I’m pretty sure that’s not mentioned in either of these books) through the eyes of his lawyer associate Underwood in the investigation of a murder, set mainly in one of Boston’s old mansions.  This time it is young Arthur Prendergast, complaining of persecution from some quarter, whose throat is slit the day after his room is defaced with fake bloodstains.  Kane, Underwood, and the obtuse-but-eager Sergeant Moran descend as the denizens of the boarding house begin to adjust to the idea of a murderer in their midst…

As befits a second novel, this is a lot more confident in both its plotting and its character.  Kane is a genius amateur detective in all but amateur status, blessed with “that kind of imagination, the kind that seizes upon a few seemingly disconnected facts and fits them into a clear and logical sequence” which is perhaps predictably necessary at the heart of these plots, but elsewhere we get touches of the unexpected — such as Moran’s casual disdain for a witness shown by his offering Underwood “a rank, five-cent” cigar at a key moment — that are all the more potent by the confidence with which they are left implicitly meaningful.  And the suspects, too, offer up a more diverse set of potentials, from the garrulous Mrs. Balbirnie and the blind Mr. Weed to the aloof Mr. Wainwright whose attitude betrays “a subconscious denial of a society that no longer paid attention to the things he stood for”.

Structurally, too, there’s much more going on here than in their debut, with a similar reliance on alibis flipped somewhat on its head by the halfway stage, and a very, very smart scheme revealed behind events to that point.  Sometimes it’s possible to feel that an author makes their detective overstate the abilities of their quarry in order to raise the stakes, but it’s pretty difficult to disagree with Kane’s summation here that:

“[Y]ou can combat most criminals with pretty dull weapons and come off victorious.  But now and again one appears who threatens to overmatch you.  Then you can draw your keenest blade and feel that the fight’s a fair one. … We’ll have to do our best, or we’re sunk.”

The second murder — no spoiler, that, it’s in the title — is phenomenally clever, and committed in such a way that had me looking in completely the wrong direction.  It’s true that Kane still has a habit of drawing meaningful data and clues from conversations had off-page, but it’s also true that the clewing we do see is far fairer than in The Beacon Hill Murders, and has more than a shade of Christie in its “details gleaned from conversation” aspect.  I’ll admit to putting several things together and narrowing the pool down to three suspects…but I’ll also admit to being thoroughly flummoxed when the guilty party turned out to be a fourth I’d discounted on account of a snazzy piece of misdirection Blair and Page rolled out the red carpet for.  Man, I should have known better.  I may never be allowed to show my face in these hallowed halls ever again.

Motive-wise I can see people having problems with this, but personally I enjoyed the conflation of wider themes and machinations that tied into the why.  Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s novel and something I’ll remember several years from now.  Indeed, the oddness of it is something that commends the book to me, and the slightly-askew view it brings to this genre is welcome when you read as much of this sort of thing as I do (and many of my readers read far more than I do).  It’s unusual and accomplished enough that you can understand someone plagiarising it with a staggering blatancy examined in Curtis Evans’ introduction, a summary of which — complete with speculative developments in the comments — can be found here on his blog.

So a stronger plot, a more interesting cast, a few more surprises, and a real structural improvement over their debut — this definitely counts as a win.  My one hope now is that Blair and Page improve their declaration of clues in the books to come, and given the efforts undertaken here I see no reason to assume that won’t also be addressed.  Man, I’m going to fall in love with these books, aren’t I?  And there are only three of them left, too.  Typical…

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See also

Ho-Ling Wong: If I had to differentiate the two books however, I’d say The Beacon Hill Murders is the one that’ll make a better impression overall, but it does feature a far smaller cast and a very limited setting. The Back Bay Murders features a more varied cast and is arguably more intricately plotted, but many of the plot elements are also rather obvious to the reader, and the reason for the murders is also quite weak compared to that of The Beacon Hill Murders.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: I think that whilst Underwood is present throughout the story, he does not have a lot of presence – which is actually a good thing as it means any of his more annoying traits are kept well hidden. Also as with the first book the pacing is strong and keeps things moving quickly. One thing that I did find intriguing though was that both books ended incredibly abruptly. Once the solution has been delivered, the stories terminate after a closing remark by Kane, the narrative has no interest in telling us what happened to remaining suspects, but then I don’t think these stories foster that sort of character interest. Yet surprisingly this did not dampen my enthusiasm for this second book, as I thought it might have done.

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The Roger Scarlett Mysteries, published by Coachwhip:

1. The Beacon Hill Murders (1930)
2. The Back Bay Murders (1930)
3. Cat’s Paw (1931) [TomCat’s review]
4. Murder Among the Angells (1932) [TomCat’s reivew]
5. In the First Degree (1933) [TomCat’s review]

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The D.A. Goes to Trial from last week because the lead investigators in both eschew cigarettes in favour of smoking a pipe.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Death by knife/dagger/etc.

14 thoughts on “#397: The Back Bay Murders (1930) by Roger Scarlett

  1. Thanks for the review, and I’m glad you enjoyed the second novel better than the first. I think I liked the first novel slightly more than you did, so I look anticipate enjoying the second novel even more. 😁 I gather the next three novels are even better – so a treat is in store!

    • If Blair and Page continued to advance their plotting and writing from book to book with this much success, we’re in for a real treat with the later ones. This has fully converted me from “Huh, that was pretty good, I’ll look forward to the next one” to “Hot damn, the next one will be great!”. And that’s always a nice experience.

      • Hey, JJ, do you see how much easier and more enjoyable life becomes when you follow my lead? 😉

        Anyway, what I wanted to ask you, did you think Back Bay closely resembled Beacon Hill? Ho-Ling read them back-to-back and said the stories/plots were very similar, but I only saw a stylistic resemblance.

        • I saw Ho-Ling’s comment at yours to this effect and I both agree and disagree: they are similar in the ways I state above — the overwhelming majority is based in a boarding house where a murder has occurred among some people who clearly have secrets to hide — and so reading them close together would doubtless magnify this feeling. It would equally be true, I’d wager, of most authors if you read their books back-to-back (to this day, I still get Christie’s Murder is Easy and The Moving Finger confused because I read one immediately after the other and they thematically have a lot in common…hence why I tend to leave gaps of several books between any author’s works).

          However, the structure, the manner of the investigation, the misdirection, the character-work, and the overall sense of competency is far better in The Back Bay Murders, and it’s more than distinct enough to be considered simply a retread of their debut. So — hey! — you and I agree once again.

          Whatever differences arise between us in the future, remember that we always had The Back Bay Murders… 🙂

  2. While last year I was filling my birthday/Christmas wish list with Christopher Bush and Paul Halter novels, this year I suspect I’ll be filling it with Roger Scarlett’s library…..and more Paul Halter! Hmm…I think JFW was saying he gives out GAD novels for birthdays…

    These really sound great and I like the idea that the writing evolves so much over a short series of stories. I suppose the one complaint is that these were released in a compiled format, rather than individual books. I always struggle getting around to reading stories in that form. I have the Derek Smith Omnibus just collecting dust on my shelf – it just somehow never enters my mind that I have those stories available to me since I tend to pay more attention to my actual TBR pile.

      • Well, I can’t very well stick a dictionary sized book into the middle of my TBR pile. It would look out of place and be prone to topple. We need to start a campaign that all modern editions of GAD mystery must be released in 6.5×4 format. While we’re at it, we should mandate classic style cover art, red fore-edge painting, and maps on the back.

    • I do give out GAD novels as presents – but to those who haven’t had much exposure to the genre. ☺️

      Hope you get hold of the titles on your Christmas and birthday wish lists! 😊

      I found lugging around the Derek Smith omnibus somewhat inconvenient, but the one novel I read from it was very good indeed. Enjoy! 🤓

  3. I like the sound of this series and am filing the recommendation away for future reference. There are so many books, films and stuff vying for my attention these days and, unfortunately, the limited nature of both my time and budget mean I have to shuffle some off to the sidelines for the moment.
    In the meantime, I do enjoy reading these reviews and getting pointers towards material I’d otherwise be unaware of.

    • I feel exactly the same way every time John @ Pretty Sinister posts a rave of something that’s been out of print for about 70 years (and those are the easier ones to find…). I feel your pain, though. I’m fortunate in having very few interests and very understanding friends/family who help out come gift-giving times — but for those two factors, I’d be much more limited in what I was able to access.

      And, hell, my TBB of books I’m probably never going to track down is absurd; c’mon copyright, hurry up and expire…

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