For this blog alone — that is, discounting books I manage to fit in which do not feature on here — my reading has in recent weeks seen a degree of decade-hopping it doesn’t normally achieve: 1971, 1948, 2011, 1938, 2018, 1940, 1939, 2018 and now 1932. The upshot of this time travel is a reassurance that I’m still more of a fan of the legitimate 1930s style of murder mystery than I am its more modern second cousin. Even the flaws in this type of story are more enjoyable, partly I suppose because (and it bears repeating) of just how damn difficult a well-clewed puzzle plot is to write. As here, the first swing often makes up in enthusiasm for what it lacks in finesse.
What is especially enjoyable about The Rumble Murders (1932) by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. is the amount of cake being both eaten and had: a mere three years after The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley had laid bare the game-playing inherent to the detective fiction genre, Eliot is equally keen to both poke fun at and indulge fully in such cloistered practices. And so, we have one of our amateur sleuths discovering a possibly oblique clue and reflecting that…
This was the kind of thing solutions hung on in detective stories. Detectives in detective stories, he reflected, always made fun of detective stories.
…or characters reflecting how their own actions come across like the kind of thing a guilty person would do to throw off any presumption of guilt, or — possibly my favourite — a reference to Philo Vance mocking the inclusion of footnotes to assure readers of the veracity of unlikely claims made by characters which is then followed up several pages later by a footnote of quite brilliantly comic proportions.
It’s also pleasing to see a novel not seeking to make mysteries out of trifles. Where the early disclosure of footprints running up the side of a building may be held back for a Surprising Revelation in the work of a less assured writer (and almost certainly fall flat), Eliot has the intelligence and sense to dispel such easy notions quickly and simply, even spinning off a couple of decent deductions in the process. How this all ties into the central mystery of a dead body found stuffed in the rumble seat of a car owned by a wealthy businessman, and then a second found in another car, will unfortunately veer into melodrama and a certain amount of nonsense by the end, but the first two-thirds of the book is a very enjoyable time, enriched by character touches like:
Willoughby was a big, chunky man with a scrubby mustache who looked, thought Ed, as if he feared neither man nor the devil; a good fellow when friendly, but a bad one to have after you; and so thoroughly hard-boiled that Ed had the unfamiliar sensation of feeling like a fragile porcelain cup in close proximity to a large iron kettle.
The entire enterprise is to be applauded for how it doesn’t seek to treat the mystery too solemnly and yet never views it with overmuch frivolity, either. It’s true that most of the characters run together — there’s a group of neighbours and their wives, and a separate group of possibly work colleagues who all rib each other when one of them ends up implicated in some way in the murders, and it’s all jolly fun and ho-hum isn’t everything grand.
The difficulty comes in that a puzzle plot of this nature needs the author to tie everything together, and Eliot makes it wider and wider and wider…and then drops a guilty party on you that you’d never have a chance of picking and explains away the murders via confessional breakdown that brought to mind The Man in the Queue (1929) by Josephine Tey. You can spot the signs of this early on, as there’s far too much speculation around cars and bullets, and a sudden right turn into an old family tree (I hope you have airbags…), and none of it is drawn together with the clarity and control the more seasoned practitioners of the genre would impose upon such a spread of events. And Eliot, too, exhibits a slackness in the placement of his clues that shows he didn’t have quite the necessary handle on his plot, to wit: the cross-stitch. Is that a joke? A comment on the tendency to see clues where there are none? A moment of misdirection? It’s mentioned, dwelt on, explained away, and forgotten…and I’m honestly not sure why. And several aspects are repeated in this way — people turn up declaring the existence of evidence, and yet how trustworthy is any of this?
However, look. This is an enjoyable read, and the Coachwhip edition is gorgeous, but at the same time it’s disingenuous to pretend this is any more than a slightly diverting and flawed stab at a murder puzzle which all but the most avid genre-completists can do without. You’ll notice I’ve made no mention of the author’s connection to T.S. Eliot because, well, I fail to see how that would have any bearing on the book. If famous kin were sufficient to be considered a notable practitioner in the genre, we’d wipe out an overwhelming majority of genuinely brilliant, confounding, and inventive work which the Golden Age produced. Weighed against what else is on offer, this is shown up as minor and lacking, but good fun for a couple of hours.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: A lot of the investigation focuses on the how of the crimes. Not as in the how the victims died, that is soon established, but in the general logistics of the crimes, such as how the bodies came to be where they were found. There is also the issue of the motivation behind these seemingly bizarre crimes and further dramatic elements are interspersed as the narrative progresses, making this an exciting and pacey read, including missing gold, cryptic notes, old documents and even a gun wielding monkey!
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The backdrop of the book comes across as a very real place with its own history, recognizable landmarks (e.g. the hand-shaped tree) and the traces left behind on its landscape by the people who have lived there. One scene has Hubert, Ed and Mike tramping alone the ravine to get to the base of the cliff where a “junked car” lay, but what they found was a boneyard of scattered, rusted-out old automobiles – all of them “in an extreme condition of wreckage.” A nice little to imagine to modern readers, I thought. I also appreciated the long-lost cemetery on the hill with its missing headstones and a looted grave, which turned out to play a key role in the double murder case.