#511: The Stingaree Murders (1932) by W. Shepard Pleasants

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Thirteen people — a publisher and his two grown children, a newspaper editor, a retired General and his wife, a career politician and his bodyguard, a scientist, a lawyer, two servants, and our Everyman narrator — on a houseboat in the Louisiana bayou, intent on a few days of fishing, swimming, and relaxation. Though, naturally, the worries of everyday life never really vanish: a threat against the state Governor hangs over his head, as does his professional association with the scientist, which seems a little strained. With just enough time to get complacent, tragedy strikes, and then there were twelve. And then there were eleven…

I’ve been very eager to read this ever since TomCat’s favourite locked room novels list got me looking into the subgenre in any depth, and Puzzle Doctor was kind enough to lend me his copy — making this a sort of Avengers-style team-up without the egos or the need to be in the same room.  That the novel wears its pulp stylings so garishly on its sleeve — if you’ve lost an exclamation mark or an ellipsis recently, it may have wandered into this book to be amongst its kin — is part of its joy, and yet the fact that it never quite feels as if it escapes those trappings in any meaningful way is one of its saddest failures.  Maybe it’s the constant repetition of who everyone is and how possible they were to be the killer making it feel like a work that was previously serialised, or maybe it’s the way that the answers to some of the conundra herein are simply “Yup, that thing you suggested 200 pages back”…somehow, this underwhelmed me even as it delighted.

There is much to delight in along the way, however.  Whoever W. Shepard Pleasants was, he (I’m going with he — to be explained later) had a great turn of phrase that marks out the best pulp writers in his talent to be both dreamlike (“Mosquitoes were buzzing a morning carol, welcoming the light”) and steel-nosed (“We were to place one of ourselves apart; to stamp him as a monster worthy of the hangman’s noose.  Rightly or wrongly, it was a decision which stabbed at the heart of each man among us”) with equal efficiency.  Once the first murder is committed, and the denizens of the Terrapin find themselves stranded a long way from safety and with no prospect of help coming, Pleasants has moments in which a situation is boiled down beautifully, and with a better editor this would be a far brisker and more striking read.

In the best pulp traditions, the characters don’t really compel themselves as individuals, though it’s surprisingly easy to keep this not-tiny cast distinct: the men are men, the women are to be kept clear of any unpleasantness lest they indulge in embarrassing fantods (hence Pleasants is possessed of either a Y chromosome or a preternaturally parodic mindset), and the servants…well, we’ll get to the servants.  They’re generally a smart bunch — for the most part the confusion that results from the various inexplicable murders is dealt with through intelligent speculation — just a bit too garrulous for my liking.  First a man is stabbed in a boat in a manner that would “require the miraculous ability to throw [a knife] in circles” and, for a bunch of amateurs who deride their own ability to solve the thing, a huge amount of very clever reasoning is done.  Each successive theory blows previous ones to smithereens, and a picture is built up of possible clues and approaches…even though one, having been demonstrated as flawed, is bizarrely returned to again and again for a reason I’m not entirely sure about.

Then a man is stabbed with a knife that was driven into the deck of the boat and could not have been pulled out by mere human strength…and again there’s a lot of talk, mainly about how impossible it would be (and the solution here is…gee-whizz, what a let down).  Of the other deaths, the only one worth discussing is the man pulled (or pushed…) from the deck of the boat by an invisible force with several witness within striking distance and, thankfully, that one’s close enough to the end of the book that it’s not pored over too much (and, hoo, is it a doozy — pure, unadulterated crazy, likely to split readers right down the middle).  Things never really drag as such, but equally there are these lulls, these longeurs, between Events where it just feels like Men are collecting in Groups in order that they might Discuss Things.

And by Men, I obviously exclude the two servants, because this is the 1930s and they’re African-American and Chinese and treated with about as much restraint as you’d expect.  While there’s nothing vituperative in the presentation of them as people — indeed, both are brave, loyal, and only too willing to help in their own ways — there’s a large amount of discomfort to be gleaned not just from the liberal sprinkling of n-words and c-words, but also the phonetic dialogue (“You get stlength back, flish get um stlenght back”, etc) and sweeping generalisations like “Perhaps I’ve been fooled, but it’s contrary to all that I know of the negro race.  They go berserk and kill, but they do not plot murder with such consummate cunning and daring”.  There’s an element of almost meta-investigation of this when Needle, the African-American butler, reflects how fortunate he is that one clue points away from him or he’d likely just be blamed and that would be the end of it, but there’s by no means enough commentary of this ilk to excuse what some will find to be very uncomfortable reading.

This apes the British class consciousness of this era reasonably well, too, with the bodyguard Paul Green typified as “a man who was well-born” but “hasn’t amounted to anything”, and the wonderfully snobbish observation at dinner time that “for a man who occupied the post of personal bodyguard [he] was conducting himself quietly, and in good taste”.  So maybe Pleasants is simply giving us an unvarnished look at the attitudes of the well-to-do in the Southern states at the start of that decade…it certainly all appears guileless enough, and it’s hardly alone in any of these attitudes.  Enough unusual contemporary phrases filter through — most notably that the culprit when unmasked is said to have “builded a great law-breaking machine” in the shape of the gang they head up — that there’s never any doubt you’re reading a period piece, but that doesn’t lessen the bluntness of seeing unpleasant language used so freely, and your response to this will, of course, depend on what you’re willing to accept in your old fiction.

And so this was a fun read, and contains a couple of incidents of very clever clewing and one of the craziest murder methods yet put on paper, but in its repetition and the casual admission of some of its answers it betrays the roots it has no intention of outgrowing and so falls short of true excellence.  If Pleasants never wrote anything else, he at least contributed something unique to the annals of impossible crime novels, but this is one you’re advised to snatch up only if you can find it for a sensible price.  I’m grateful to both TomCat and Puzzle Doctor for bringing this to my attention and providing me with the opportunity to check it out, but other, richer, fare is out there that I’d advise even the moderately curious get to first.


See also

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: The first, the killing of Lacroix is… not very impossible, really, apart from nobody spotting the killer doing it. There is a lovely bit of cluing to the killer, but you have to wonder why SPOILER waits so long before sorting things out. The second is a nice set up, with the guests deciding to prevent the murder weapon from being deployed again by hammering it into the deck, sword-in-the-stone style, but despite its immovability, it is indeed deployed as a weapon. Again, clever and clued but nobody noticed? How big is this boat again? And the final death, as a victim is dragged overboard by an unseen force is… original, I suppose. You could also say mind-blowingly stupid and unlikely to work, but it is at least something different.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I also appreciated the sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach Pleasants took to his plot, turning nearly every character into a detective after one of them remarked that they forgot to bring a detective along for the trip and showcasing an understanding of proper clueing and fair play – which made the revelation of the murderer a bizarre surprise. Pleasants showed a lot of creativity with now overly familiar themes that I did not expect him to pin the murders on a standard character for this role, but that’s exactly what happened and one has to wonder whether that was bad writing or clever misdirection in retrospect?


31 thoughts on “#511: The Stingaree Murders (1932) by W. Shepard Pleasants

    • Yeah, the “you need to see it to believe it” cuts both ways: I don’t think I’ve read a book with so much racist language strewn throughout — sure, a product of the ignorance of the time, but jeepers — and yet Pleasants puts in a lot of good work, especially with that final death. It’s an odd one, but a compelling and interestingly odd one. Many thanks again for the loan!


  1. “…and so falls short of true excellence.

    This is a very fair summation of the book. I would have rated it a bit higher than you did, purely on the strength of no less than three original impossible crimes, but glad you gave the book a fair shake. And recognized its strong points in spite of its flaws. As you said, The Stingaree Murders is something unique in the locked room sub-genre and deserves to be rediscovered, but I still think many readers today will struggle with it.

    By the way, why didn’t you mention the fascinating possibility of the murdered Governor Lacroix being modelled after then Governor Huey Long, the de facto dictator of Louisiana, who was assassinated himself in 1935? This extra historical layer is another reason why the book deserves to be reprinted. Curt could pen a foreword giving historical context (like he did for the reprint edition of James Z. Alner’s The Capital Murder).


    • Oh, I didn’t mention the real life murder because you’d already covered it so well in your own post — so there was no need 🙂

      I’ve already stated repeatedly that I’m anti-bowdlerising out the racist and other forms of ignorance displayed in some of the language from this era, but without a significant amount of editorial alteration I can’t believe anyone would touch this today. And that is a shame, since the stuff it does well — those couple of fabulous clues, that crazy murder, the pacing when it’s not just people standing around talking for hours — deserves a wider audience. If only Pleasants had written something else, right? Then there might be a chance to get him back into public awareness. Alas, it seems this was it, unless Tony Medawar surprises us in the future…


      • Oh, I didn’t mention the real life murder because you’d already covered it so well in your own post — so there was no need 🙂

        But it’s such an interesting part of the story. What did you make of it?

        If only Pleasants had written something else, right?

        This is why Coachwhip is the only hope The Stingaree Murders has of getting reprinted. Well, until it falls into the public domain, that is.


        • There’s a weird prescience to the assassination angle, especially as it seems to’ve happened the wrong way round — usually, novels from this era used real life crimes as their inspiration, not vice versa 🙂


  2. “…one of the craziest murder methods yet put on paper…”

    “…but other, richer, fare is out there that I’d advise even the moderately curious get to first.”

    This is known as talking out of both sides of your mouth. It was $12 on Amazon. Into the pile, it goes.


    • You’ll appreciate that final blast of creativity, I feel. But tell me it doesn’t need a serious edit and I’ll call you a liar 🙂


  3. This sounds like it has enough going for it to be worth a read. Even if there are some weaknesses, I think the positives highlighted here would be enough to keep me interested. I shall definitely keep a lookout for an affordable copy of this.


  4. The whole impossible elemental has me extremely curious. When you describe it as one of the craziest murder methods put to paper, then I know it’s going to be hard to resist tracking this one down. The pulpiness and pacing sound right up my ally, it’s just unfortunate that they’re mixed in with so much ugliness.


      • Can send you my copy when I’m done with it, if you like…it’s not the cool paperbacks you collect, but if it gives you one less title to track down you’re welcome to it.


        • We’ll see… The thrill is in the hunt, but this is an extremely elusive prey. I just can’t imagine ever finding it for a reasonable price. I may end up having to take you up on the offer.


        • I managed to track down a first edition for cheap, albeit sans dust jacket. I have a few pulpy books I’ve been saving for a while, so I suspect I’ll hold on to this one for a year before I read it. Thanks for getting me excited enough about it to track it down!


          • I managed to track down a first edition for cheap, albeit sans dust jacket

            Ben, Ben, Ben, you’re slipping — I’d’ve expected you to discover that it was printed by Dell in mapback form but all copies were pulped before they were relased…except one which you happened across in a flea market for $0.05. Man, when your idols fall they sure do fall hard…

            The pulp impossible crime is something I’m developing an burgeoning fascination with, seeing how freely it can embrace the craziness of a setup without having to go through all the machinations a straight novel of Serious Detection would require. A few years from now, with a bit more research in the meantime, this might even become my new obsession. But let me work through Crofts and a bunch more YA mysteries yet 🙂


            • We’re in agreement on the allure of pulp impossible crime fiction. I picked up the Theodore Roscoe collection Four Corners a while back, but I have this tendency to put off short story collections. I also have his novel Only in New England, and have been tempted to pick up To Live and Die in Dixie, which I’ve seen a few times for a reasonable price. Of course, I’ve never seen a review of either book, so don’t know if they really fall into the sub-genre.

              A post on the blur between pulp and GAD would be interesting. Roscoe, Talbot, and Markham would be obvious candidates, although I feel like some more conventional authors books steps in the pulp direction at times.


            • I have a copy of only in New England and — as a fan of Roscoe — must admit that it’s over-written. I’ve tried to read it about three time, and always come up short. If you’re interested, it’s sort of the era equivalent of true crime podcasting: he’s investigating a murder that happened in a town years before (and probably trying to score a mattress sponsorship in the meantime).

              And for pulp-styled detection, don’t forget Goodnight Irene by James Scott Byrnside…


            • It’s a late one from Roscoe’s career, and you can see how the pulp practice of paying by the word has really infected his writing: it’s very atmospheric, but, dude, isn’t there ever a lot of nuthin’.

              One of these days I’ll best it, but that day has not yet come.


    • A good edit would reduce the events herein by about 15-20% and make it a lot more readable, and the racism could be taken out in the process and make it a generally far better book. Maybe the market at the time was so flooded with this sort of thing that no-one was too worried about tightening it up. Guess we’ll never know, but it remains a curiosity rather than a must-read. I recommend Murder on the Way by Theodore Roscoe for proper pulp-based excitement 😉


      • Story editing to improve readability is one thing, but I don’t want the past to be sanitized. Why close your eyes to history? I would prefer it if Coachwhip reissued the book and give it The Capital Murder treatment with a fore-and afterword by Curt Evans.


        • Oh, sure, I’m with you on not editing the book at all — see my comment above, or possibly below. I suppose my point was that only through such drastic reformatting would this become a) more compelling reading and b) likely to be picjked up by any current publisher. But, yeah, Coachwhip have been pretty fearless in their choices so far (the few I’ve read, at least…sorry, Coachwhip — it’s difficult keeping up!) so maybe they’ll fancy it at some point.


  5. “…if you’ve lost an exclamation mark or an ellipsis recently, it may have wandered into this book to be amongst its kin”

    This made me chuckle! But don’t be so quick to grab all those extraneous punctuation marks. A couple hundred of them have set up a nomadic commune travelling from book to book in the works of Gerald Verner.

    I own all but two of the Mystery League novels after acquiring them like a rabid maniac back in the early 2000s and devoured many of them quickly. A couple of them are cult classics in the genre (THE INVISIBLE HOST and DEATH COMES TO EASTREPPS) but after reading three true duds in a row I abandoned finishing the lot. I guess this is one I should drag out and read one of these days. If you want another “You gotta read it to believe it” Mystery League book try THE CURSE OF DOONE by ultra-hack Sydney Horler. Yikes! I thought it was a comedy after a couple of chapters. The dialogue is absurd and ending is unintentionally hilarious.

    Excited about your upcoming post. Anthony Abbot is sorely neglected among the bloggers (no doubt because his books can’t be found easily or cheaply. If Queen and Van Dine can get reprinted so easily why isn’t a better and more entertaining writer like Abbot reprinted? He was kind of a pioneer in the world of police procedural style detective novels and most of his books are very good, some are ingenious. Out of the Abbot mystery novels I’ve read I like best ABOUT THE MURDER OF A MAN AFRAID OF WOMEN and ABOUT THE MURDER OF A NIGHT CLUB LADY. I don’t remember a thing about …STARTLED LADY so I look forward to reading your post and have a couple of the holes in my Swiss cheese memory filled in.


    • But…John…! If Gerald Verner…is anything like as fond of his punctuation — imagine…! — as Pleasants, then, it would become…difficult…not to hear the voice of …William Shatner narrating the…whole…thing…!!

      I read some Verner a few years back, and remember his fondness for exclamation marks; man, there’s some sort of comparative essay here, I can feel it…

      I’m intrigued by some of the Mystery League titles…though, yeah, mainky the tutles since I don’t know what the plots are. This one was fun, even if it comes up short, and I’d be interested in the thoughts of anyone who’s able to track down a copy. And, well, since you own one already…

      As to Abbot, I’m starting it today, so we’ll see. He’s best known to me for having his name mis-spelled on the cover of EQMM, and I only found this copy of his by chance. No idea what to expect, so I’m torn: if it’s terrible then I’ve spent a long time looking for something terrible, but if it’s great that’s another problem because virtually everything else of his is so hard to find. Aaah, man, it’s lose/lose whatever happens…!


      • He’s inspired by Van Dine and Queen. You’ll see the narrative structure and character similarities immediately. But his prose is less cerebral, his plots and dialogue more cinematic. Lots of emphasis on police techniques since the detective is a police commissioner not an amateur sleuth. I enjoyed all of them though a couple books have histrionic finales similar to the kind of shock endings that you get with Anthony Wynne.


        • Yes, I’m two chapters in and it seems very heavy on police technique — not in a bad way at all. Lovely beginning, so that quandary remains; if it stays like this, I may have to bankrupt myself tracking his remaining books down…


  6. Pingback: The Stingaree Murders – William Shepard Pleasants (1931) – The Green Capsule

  7. I’ve just bought and read this book, mainly for the solution to the problem of the knife that moved in circles, the problem of the immovable knife and the problem of the unseen force. I’ve encountered racism in American literature before – it’s hard not to – but this takes the biscuit. Quite the most casually offensive crime fiction I’ve ever read. And even if it could be redeemed by the puzzles they aren’t all that either.

    Straight in the trash.


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