The hybrid mystery — typically, though not always, a blend of clue-gathering detection and pulse-racing thrills — is a tricky proposition, since it often smashes together two styles of writing and plotting that don’t make the most comfortable of bedfellows. The best example, to my mind, is John Dickson Carr’s underappreciated masterpiece The Punch and Judy Murders, a.k.a. The Magic Lantern Murders (1936), published under his Carter Dickson nom de plume, which solves this oft-discordant clash by keeping the breathless chases to its first three-quarters before revealing itself as a cannily-clued mystery in the closing stages.
This hybridisation of crime fiction arguably emerged when the novel of suspense began to take on a more criminous intent in the mid-19th century — as seen in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and their ilk — but is perhaps found in its greatest density in the pulp detective magazines of the early 20th century. Here, gaudy characters, gunfights, punch-ups, and chases would rub shoulders with a chastened form of ratiocination as a way of assuring the readers that the heroes they encountered were equal to any challenge, mental or physical, that confronted them. Too much thinkin’ might slow the plot down (and, crucially, might take too long to figure out and write), but some was needed so that the protagonists could elevate themselves above the goons who stood in their way. And thus a bevy of lurching, shuddering detective plots that nevertheless entertained, and so propitiated, the readers came shambling from the pages.
That Baynard Kendrick earned his stripes in the pulps becomes very obvious throughout the opening stages of The Odor of Violets (1941), which might well be one of the most purely entertaining books I’ve read in a while. From a rich family in the Connecticut hills, to a crime scene in New York where a man apparently frames himself for murder, to a vignette where men wait for rescue while trapped in a sunken submarine off the coast of New England, to the Manhattan office of the Captain Duncan Maclain — blinded in the last war and always vigilant of the current one raging in Europe — the narrative rarely stands still, and a huge amount of fun is to be had in trying to anticipate what might happen next. Thrills galore unfold, often with a casualness that tells of Kendrick’s commitment to always moving forward (a late abduction, of somewhat crucial importance, takes place off-page)…and every so often Maclain puts his brain to work in an attempt to find the answers behind the pattern.
Maclain is a fascinating presence amidst all the two-fisted patriotism on show because of the way Kendrick works in the little observations that make his blindness such a superb extension of his own intelligence. Sly touches — such as waiting for a visitor in darkness, so that the man will stop at the entrance to the room to switch on the light, enabling Maclain to count his footsteps to a certain chair and estimate the man’s height and build — rub shoulders with a sort of ‘broad experience’ writing that is as vital and brilliant as any Queenian deduction:
A room was always audibly alive to Duncan Maclain. People about him breathed in different tempos; marked themselves by tiny coughs and unnoticed sniffles. Some of them clicked their teeth. Others had bones which cracked sharply when they moved.
Chapter 15 in particular, charting Maclain’s progress through a slightly-familiar house, might be about the most immersive piece of descriptive writing you’ll find in the genre — any Suspense authors among you, take note. It’s a shame that the ultimate deduction around the eponymous scent is so…loony — Kendrick’s pulp roots show through horribly there — because it’s a sudden leap of fortunate guessing rather than the intelligent reason shown elsewhere and, after making Maclain’s blindness far from the handicap it could be presumed and showing his mastery of his situation, something a little more believable would have gone down smoother. One hangover of the pulps: reason is often shown the door.
But, well, t’was ever thus with these sorts of hybrids. That Maclain’s partner in detection Spud Savage is in an entirely different book is more than made up for by the reflections on the difficulties of capturing a spy with a foreign enemy’s full resources at their disposal; that Kendrick writes with an earnestness which is painful at times (“He was blind, but it was the implacable blindness of Justice.”) and makes Maclain the sort of patriot who bleeds stars, stripes, and Thanksgiving barbecues, but this is balanced out by the sort of magnificent prose that could only be written under the diamond-producing pressure of a pulp deadline:
She fought a mad impulse to seat herself at the piano and play. The wild whirl of Tausig’s gypsy dances might do what humans could never do — bring the corpse with the battered head to life; force him to rise in a dance macabre. Anything was preferable to stillness. Madness lay in such finality.
From the perspective of history, the security that the characters feel despite knowing the chaos unfolding across Europe is oddly quaint, and no doubt reflected in the attitudes of the time (hell, the Second World War memorial in Washington, DC has the dates of that conflict as 1941-45…). “Why should that concern us?” is the repeated refrain, with Maclain alone willing to see the broader picture and the inevitable slide into conflict…all the more chilling given that the attack of Pearl Harbour that brought the US into the war more than likely happened after the publication of this book in newspapers and then novel form in the same year (writing for the pulps would school writers in the fast turnaround of plots, but I doubt Kendrick conceived this, wrote it, and got it serialised after 7th December). Hindsight is always perfect, but this is eerily prescient.
Overall, The Odor of Violets is an excellent addition to the American Mystery Classics range, even if you will be performing a sort of literary balancing act throughout — the “tyre-marks in the snow” deduction doesn’t work, but the payoff to the “wardrobe incident” is sublime, etc. — which means that it’s going to fall especially flat for any purists. The best test of your response comes unfortunately too late to be much use, as the showdown between Maclain and the murderer juggles the OTT exuberance of a writer high on confidence, the terror of something out of a horror show, and the stripe of physical comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Marx brothers skit. My advice would be to cut yourself a big slice and swallow it whole, but your mileage will, of course, vary.
A question to finish with: at one point, Maclain says that “The worst murders in the history of crime were committed by a twelve-year-old boy” and provides no other information. Any ideas who he means? I am baffled…
Bev @ My Reader’s Block: [Maclain’s] heightened abilities (other senses) are much more believable than those of Max Carrados (a blind detective who first appeared in 1914). Where Carrados’s ability to smell spirit gum and to read newsprint by touch seem more like parlor tricks, Maclain’s abilities are explained through careful training. The book is an interesting combination of spy thriller and classic mystery. There are definitely clues to be followed and the sharp reader will spot those that identify the killer. Unlike many classic detective stories, the motive is never an issue–the motive is simply spycraft. The spies are Nazis and out to do their worst.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: Kendrick has a lot going on in his plot, with the opening third throwing out several strands. Yet I think his handling of them is controlled effectively and it also means that the reader is provided with a few more pieces of the puzzle to help them figure out what might be happening. Moreover, I think Kendrick uses his characters, in particular scenes, to bring certain parts of the narrative together, without it feeling forced.