The name Clifford Orr first came to my attention on account of the Roland Lacourbe-curated ‘100 Books for a Locked Room Library’ list featuring Orr’s second and final novel, The Wailing Rock Murders (1932). So when that title cropped up in this twofer of Orr’s complete output, I snapped it up and just had to wait for sufficient snow to clear from the peak of Mount TBR. And, as it happens, I’m posting this review of his debut novel The Dartmouth Murders (1929) a mere two days after what would have been Orr’s 120th birthday — entirely by accident, as anyone who has met me in real life will be able to attest. Such organisation is not one of my strong points.
Of the 20 chapters here concerned with multiple murders on a college campus, solidly seventeen of them end on the sort of shocking development that would see Midsummer Murders cut to a commercial break, giving the entire enterprise an excitingly propulsive, yet undeniably pulpy, feel — this latter impression heightened by wonderful chapter titles like ‘Blood and Lights’ and ‘Slaughter’. Against that, Orr casually throws in words like “elemosynary” and a perceptive lawyer-cum-amateur sleuth (and chapters entitled ‘Organ Nocturne’ and ‘Sans Souci’) as if to reassure us that we’re getting something intelligent as well. And the book itself emerges as something of a mixed bag as a result of this dichotomy.
In quick order we have the apparent suicide of Dartmouth student Byron Coates, discovered in the morning by his roommate Ken Harris and, since the title gives it away, soon established as murder. For possibly the strangest reason yet conceived in a murder mystery — mainly that he’s a keen amateur and has written two detective novels — Ken’s lawyer father, who happens to be visiting when the death is discovered, is enlisted by the president of the college to investigate the matter…and so away down the good ol’ Amateur Detective paths we go. There’s a brief hat-tip to the importance of consulting the actual authorities where murder investigations go, but with the County Sheriff being a “technical man” and having “always sworn, since I was an arm of the law so to speak, that I wouldn’t be the blundering up-country constable that the investigators from Scotland Yard seem to have to put up with”, well, it’s time for Joe Harris Investigates.
Clearly Orr is keen to work without the need for proper police procedure clogging up his plot — and, hey, it worked for a great many GAD authors — but, even in 1929, some of what goes on here seems too ridiculous for words. No-one — no-one, I tell you — locks their doors, or guards the murder scene(s), or isn’t perfectly happy to go around handling evidence, and again the short-sightedness of this stands in contrast of the intelligence when, say, Harris Sr. holds forth on just how many people could well be suspected of Coates’ murder…which is itself rendered stupid once again when Ken has a sleepless night and mulls over, at eyeball-straining length, the possible motives for everyone in the immediate circle of associates he and Byron had. Good grief, the undulations of the plotting are perhaps the most tense element of this whole affair, since you always feel about one sentence away from brilliant deviousness or stultifying disaster.
The Harrises don’t really qualify as a crime-solving couple, since Sr. does all the investigating and Jr. seems to stumble into one piece of information by accident and is alarmingly obtuse the rest of the time — but don’t be under the impression that the investigation (such as it is) is without charm or merit. It’s true that the people in it are mainly types — the Mendacious Witness Unknowingly Caught in a Lie, the Patriarchal Figure, the Bluff Friend, etc — but Orr has a nice turn of phrase that brings them to life at stray moments: witness how “gleefully” one of the Young Men receives a gun from the sheriff for the showdown, the way Byron is described as so particular in his habits that he wouldn’t even dispose of “proof that he had robbed a bank”, or the lip-smacking delight of the medico reflecting on the “beautifully placed” wound responsible for two of the murders (and, good heavens, any college which handed out…that object so freely would surely be shut down these days).
It’s amusing to reflect that, on account of the Coates’ status and neither Old nor New Money, the denizens of fellow Coachwhip author Roger Scarlett’s books wouldn’t stoop to acknowledge them and that, therefore, these tales could all exist side-by-side in one great GADiverse. Additionally, it’s a sign of how little 1930s American fiction I’ve read that I managed to forget about Prohibition — man, I do so love the way these little details bleed through in casual mentions; you can’t beat contemporary writing for the subtle touches of modern life. The motives when they come out, too, are appropriate for the genre and the era, and while you’re never going to claim everything was there on the page — if you catch the “who” through anything more than ‘Huh, wouldn’t it be funny if…?’ then do please let me know — there’s enough pointers for the “why” even if it could have gone either way (I can’t get into that more without spoiling stuff. I’m afraid, so it shall have to remain maddeningly vague).
So, as a piece of detection this comes up lacking, but it’s a very atmospheric and era-rich piece of writing (fire escapes used to be a length of rope anchored to the floor of your room…) which suffers only by its author’s inexperience. For instance, given that it takes about four second to unpick, I was never sure why the first murder was dressed up as suicide, besides providing a lovely moment of discovery…it’s like Orr heard of the contrary nature of detective fiction and took off like a puppy with more gusto than actual insight, which is perhaps a nice analogy for the book overall. It means well, and you’ll enjoy spending time with it, but after your shoes and chewed and you find it peeing on the carpet you’ll perhaps wonder what the appeal was in the first place. Er, okay, maybe that’s not such a good analogy after all…
Curtis Evans @ The Passing Tramp: In classic tradition, the local sheriff allows the father to more or less run the investigation for him, Ellery Queen or Philo Vance presumably not having been available for amateur consultation that week. Unfortunately, two more deaths will follow the first before a murdering fiend is found. In classic fashion, the trail of the mystery seems to lead to Boston and old sins that have cast long shadows….
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: All of these developments and Orr’s ability to spin a good yarn keeps the reader engaged, but the plot begins to shake and rattle as the final chapter begins to loom on the horizon.