#445: The Rumble Murders (1932) by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. [a.p.a. by Mason Deal]

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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.

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See also

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.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to She Had to Have Gas from last week because both involve a corpse being found in a body of water.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card this fulfils the category At a Country House.

22 thoughts on “#445: The Rumble Murders (1932) by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. [a.p.a. by Mason Deal]

  1. It’s interesting to think about all of the books that were almost excellent. I mean, there are plenty of books that are duds, just ok, or even good. But then there’s this class of books where if they could have just pulled it all together in the end we’d all be raving about them. Actually, I think you’ve teased me for making a similar statement before – something to the effect of “Oh, if the author could have simply given that a killer solution at the end then it would have been a good book…”

    I still stand by it though because these books are incredibly tempting to read. I mean, I read this review and I want to go get the book, even though you say that it doesn’t ultimately come together. I kind of think of a book like Seeing is Believing where the end didn’t quite do justice to the potential, but damn it was a fun ride.

    You can throw a killer solution into any book and it will give you a bit of joy. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a good example – it was a boring read, but it did have a clever little bit that I’ll appreciate. Still, I’m not going to say it was a good book – I’ll simply point out that it had a nice misdirection. Contrast that with The Red Widow Murders – that is an amazing book, but it just didn’t do it for me with the solution. One of these two titles is savable, albeit by the mere addition of a brilliant solution. 😛

    • I get your point over TRWM! I had the right solution, the one that would make this a perfect book. But I had to settle for the one that I figured out almost immediately! It was STILL a great read!

      • The Unicorn Murders is like that for me. The notion of how a man can be stanbed ion the head by a unicorn seems to cause a lot of consternation in the book, and yet the answer was so blindingly obvious that, when revealed, I felt all of the whelm go out of me.

        Everything else — the timing, the framing, the shifting situation, the uncertain identities trickery — all of it is note perfect, except that stupid bloody unicorn stand-in. Grrrr.

          • Yeah, I’m fairly convinced that there are six non-existent novels attributed to Carr in error, purely because I’m unable to vouch for their existence in any of the normal ways. Had Puzzle Doctor not been so kind as to lend me Drop to His Death/Fatal Descent, I’d be convinced it was some sort of internet hoax…

            • Well, you might just be perpetrating the hoax here, for all I know.

              No, wait, I’ve read the book. Ah, dammit, that means the hunt goes on…

          • Okay, well my experience is that it was so blindingly obvious I immediately thought of it. So, uhm, I dunno what to tell you.

            Like, it requires such a specific set of conditions to be fulfilled by…let’s say…an object, that it follows that object can only be one thing. And it is. Woooo. The excitement.

            • I think the impossibility in Unicorn murders is one of Carr’s best because of its simplicity. It also is his most twisty book that I have read with many suprises throughout the way. My only problem with it is…….

              MINOR SPOILER FOLLOWS

              The murderer barely appears in half a chapter before the reveal. That’s just not fair!

    • There are several moments in this where it appears Eliot could be setting something up for a clever reversal — such as people turning up and simply declaring evidence, or one point where a character lets others leave the room ahead of him and could be doing something behind their backs that laters turns out to be relevant — which had me hopeful, but alas they come to nothing. And that’s extra frustrating because the potential seems to be there, just unacknowledged.

      There will be, mark my words, a market in years hence for rewriting the endings of old novels to “improve” them…and most won’t, of course, but this and Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop are prime candidates. And maybe that will finally give me the chance to put my far better ending on Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, too.

      Man, now I think of it like that, hurry in the revolution…!

      • I actually just re-read Sparkling Cyanide in preparation for a review, but I grew disheartened. It would have merely been another case of extolling the beginning and gnashing my teeth over the most ridic- . . . over that ending.

        Maybe, instead of that, we should initiate a contest where people have to rewrite the solution. Winner gets to replace Sophie Hannah (or an iced lolly . . . whatever that is.)

            • You have said this few times before and I am really curious to know what is your solution.

              And I just re-read Halfway House to get ready for the spoiler-post!

            • I keep talking it up, so that everyone can be disappointed when I eventually deliver. No, wait, I’ve got my psychology backwards, haven’t I? Dammit, I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time!!!

              Like, I’m sure, just about every other reader on the planet, I’m midway through the plotting of my own novel (have been for about, oh, six years) and I encoporated my solution for SC into that pretty much lock, stock, and barrel. It’s now just a matter of coming up with the rest of the plot, the setting, the characters, the clues, the language to express it well, the time to actually write it at all, and then the self-belief to show it to literally any other person ever. Expect my finisehd novel, therefore, sometime in, oh, never.

              As for HH, I’m quite excited. I always enjoy a Spoiler Warning post…

          • There’s a lot to like, especially at the beginning: well-developed characters on the suspect list and another victim (like Five Little Pigs) whom you meet only in retrospect and who is slightly different in everyone’s eyes, like that great British movie, the title of which I’m blanking on!

            However, the solution is one of those things where you have it handed to you and you go, “Whoo boy!” And don’t get me wrong: most of the solution works fine – the who and the why. But the rest? Whoo boy!”

        • Brad, can you be more explicit about which aspect of the solution of Sparkling Cyanide you don’t like? Because I loved it! Actually, I will go as far as saying that it is Christie’s second best non-series book only behind you-know-which.

          And if you are desperate to read Unicorn murders, you can nick it off Internet Archive. 🙂

          • Hey, Neil! I think the problem for me is – DON’T READ THIS, BEN!!
            – is the repercussion of that young waiter’s action. I find it so hard to believe that six people would look around them, look down at their plates, look at the people across from them and NOBODY would notice a shift???

            • I agree that’s not probable but then is there any impossibility which is probable?

              Also, I think it was given that :-

              1) The space in front of each chair was identical and all plates were empty. Iris’s bag was the only ‘position-marker’ and she was the first to return .

              2) The chairs were close to each other which means the difference in their point of view was not much. Additionally, they all sat down for only a minute or so before George chocked and they all got up so nobody had sufficient time to notice the change. Infact, even during that minute, George had attracted their attention towards him and away from the surroundings by making a speech about Rosemary.

              As I said above, it is not very likely but I have read much worse cases of “How could anybody not notice that?”. The crooked hinge, for instance….

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