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.