Approximately five years ago, powered by a combination of ego and ignorance, I set about trying get Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe reprinted, based on its reputation as a cracker and its infuriating unavailability. To my frank surprise I succeeded, and it — and Roscoe’s Second World War-predicting I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) — was republished by Bold Venture Press in 2017. Rereading it recently, it seemed due a reappraisal — well, an appraisal, really — since I edited the book without any notion of whether it was any good, and was too fixated on matters typographical to focus all that intently on, like, the plot and stuff.
That plot sees Patricia ‘Pete’ Dale summoned to Haiti follwing the murder of her one-time legal guardian ‘Uncle’ Eli Proudfoot, who has been found shot in the head in his house on his plantation at Morne Noir. Persuaded to attend by her almost-fiancé, portrait painter Edwin ‘Cart Cartershall, on the basis that she is likely to inherit at least some share of $100,000, their arrival in Haiti finds the funeral arragements in full swing and a tousled mob of ne’er-do-wells gathered at Uncle Eli’s property to hear another great Terrible Will of Fiction. Not only does the deceased insist on being buried ten feet below ground and having a stake driven through the coffin — the Voodoo religion talks of souls returning in dead bodies, calling them zombies — he also leaves all his property to a single person, Sir Duffin Wilburforce, provided he remain on Haiti for 24 hours after the reading of the will. Should he fail in this, everything goes to plantation manager Ti Pedro on the same condition, and so on down the line, with Pete at the very end.
And then Duffin Wilburforce is murdered. And then Ti Pedro is murdered. And so it looks like someone is working their way down the line. With Pete at the very end…
I remembered this as a wild ride, barely stopping for breath as it packs in madness on top of madness, and that recollection is essentially correct. Once the cast is introduced and the rules of the setup established, murder follows lunacy as people are shot while alone in locked rooms, or rumours of a bandit uprising sweep the island, and Cart and Pete find themselves increasingly in the frame for murders we know they didn’t commit. And Roscoe’s prose is simply magnificent, full of rich humour — that line about “crack[ing] heads with a bald man” has one of the best pay-offs of the 1930s — and often pulling you short with how damn beautifully he puts things whose meaning isn’t at first clear:
He was opening and shutting his big hands at his sides; his eyes were amber with malevolence; his smeared cheekbone had shaded lavender. I suppose my own cheekbones were shaded with frost. Looking at Manfred, then, I could believe those stories about Socialists beheaded by executioners in tuxedoes. A swift glance at the En-sign would ratify anything discreditable on the part of his associates.
It’s a shame, then, that someone as well-travelled as Roscoe was comes across as somewhat backwards in matters of race: “darkey” is the adjective of choice when referring to a lot of the characters, and while I’m inclined to believe that the repeated references to the colour of the Haitians who fill out the book, and the tendency to drop into phonetic speech when certain of them talk, are in part to force home the sheer bewildering differentness of finding oneself in such a setting…I’m not going to pretend it has aged well. I have defended the reprinting of this type of material in the past, but then I’ve since come to appreciate the contrary perspective and, hey, if I had my time again I’d probably have a conversation with the publishers about trimming or rephrasing a lot of these references…especially as they serve no real purpose and seem to be the one genuine point of complaint that all reviews agree upon.
The characters, too, are generally broad and gaudy, but that’s arguably a combination of purpose and era. The “seven bloodhounds” that the opening epigraph styles the fellow heirs presumptive is apt because they’re each out for their own skin, and some of their introductions are far more brilliant than they have any right to be, such as German warlord Manfred von Murda pinned as “the sort of [ghost] that used to haunt the Allied staffs during the war to end wars, the ghosts that are clanking in Europe today, but precisely the kind you’d not expect in the island of Haiti”. And feel for the Haitian police who must make sense of this madhouse and, in the person of Lieutenant Nemo Narcisse, launch into myriad jeremiads against the tide of superstition and horror that has washed up in his precinct.
Impressively, too, the deliriousness only increases as the book progresses, with a frenzied final third that almost crosses the border into pure horror and must be understood through Cart’s spiralling desperation to hold onto his mind while the situation around him spirals seemingly beyond the ken of mere man.
Roots were invisible hands grabbing from the earth walls to tear at my sleeves. Twice I was thrown headlong. Staggering to my feet I could catch that molelike scurry up ahead, and I trailed it blindly up a corridor as tortuous as the buried track of an abandoned roller-coaster — blindly and furiously. If that tunnel wasn’t hell, it was going there.
The explanation when it comes banishes the demons with the clarity and common sense of the similarly enlightening closing of Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot, a relieving balm bringing shape to the dread that has pursued you. Sure, you’ll doubtless figure out a lot of what’s going on and why, but in finishing this a second time I relived the night when I finally typed up the last two chapters and saw light break through on the design I hadn’t been able to see for having to look too closely. As a piece of pure experience, I think this book takes some beating and, having stumbled with recent fondly-remembered books, I closed this one more aware of its flaws but nonetheless able to delight in its many successes.
Ho-Ling @ The Case Files of Ho-Ling: Murder on the Way! is clearly written as a suspenseful pulp thriller and it works perfectly as such (cliffhanger after cliffhanger after cliffhanger), but if the various mysteries are supposed to be elements used to convey the creepy atmosphere to the reader, then these mysteries should also be considered in more detail, because now I kept on thinking ‘Yes, but you hardly talked about this or that possibility despite earlier events, so I don’t really see what’s so baffling about the situation given the (few) details we’ve been given at this point.’ I doubt anyone will have any real trouble figuring out who the murderer is though, as long as you don’t let yourself be distracted by the speed at which the plot is running.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: If there’s any other writer that can paint a scene like John Dickson Carr, here he is. Every scene is a vivid experience, and the setting of a mouldering jungle mansion in the throes of a tropical storm provides Roscoe with a canvas with which to convey the decay, the deluge, the dark, and the danger. Roscoe can transform a moment on a staircase into carved mahogany, the glint of dust and gun smoke in the air, and the dread of the unknown lurking below. Murder on the Way is absolutely a visceral read; you’ll pant and stumble and bleed your way through the pages.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.
You might be interested to know that the original serialised form of Murder on the Way!, published in the Argosy between 1st December 1934 and 5th January 1935 under the title ‘A Grave Must be Deep’, has also recently become available in a single volume again. Roscoe rewrote significant parts of this original, changing a few events and characters in ways that my memory is a little hazy on, but maintained the same essential structure and intent, and the two make for an interesting comparison. I think Murder on the Way! is the superior version — and, sure, I’m biased — but should you find yourself with a dearth of GAD material to read, it’d be interesting to see what anyone thinks of AGMBD.
Oh, and ‘War Declared!’ (1935), the serialised form of I’ll Grind Their Bones, is also available, having never been published, as best I can tell, in a single volume before. I’ve not read that original version, so am doubly intrigued, and might be tempted into a read-both-and-compare at some stage. But not yet, oh no, not yet. My TBR would never forgive me if I added to it and then immediately swiped those new additions right off the top…
I also had an absolute blast discussing this for Death of the Reader, too; see details of that here.