The tension at the heart of the likes of the wonderful British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics ranges is that they’re reprinting some genuine classics — Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice, The Bride Wore Black (1940) by Cornell Woolrich — whose authors I’d love to comprise their output for the next few years, but likes of E.C.R. Lorac and Mary Robert Reinhart will sell plenty of books to people who aren’t me, despite me feeling better books are out there. So while it would be harsh to say that The Great Hotel Murder (1934) by Vincent Starrett feels like a wasted opportunity, I can safely say that I’ve now read as much Starrett as I have any interest in reading.
In short order, we have a body in room 940 of a grand Chicago hotel, which turns out not to be the man who checked into the room the night before. Enter Riley Blackwood, an Ellery Queen-type amateur detective — ordinarily the theatre critic for a newspaper, because of course he is, “dividing his undoubted talents (sic) between dramatic criticism and the alluring problems of fantastic crime” — who wanders round the crime scene, makes some observations that are startling only because the police seem to been congenital idiots of the highest order (would they really need to be told to dust for fingerprints?!) and then decides that it’s his remit to investigate. This early scene is, I wager, a good barometer to help determine how much you’ll enjoy this book. If Riley’s little trick with the playing cards and the glass of water amuses or delights you, carry on. If, like me, it strikes you as an author lacking any brilliant insights trying to bolster the reputation of his amateur detective so that you might conflate him with more brilliant examples of the form…well, you can stop there.
As a mystery, The Great Hotel Murder shoots its bolt too early with the body swap. This is resolved quickly, and everything else progresses in a conveniently linear manner that picks up one object or clue, finds an explanation for it, and then picks up another and repeats. This is exactly the kind of detection that came to mind when Alasdair Beckett-King spoke of mystery-solving video games, a sort of point-and-click adventure where everything has one use and must be put to that use before the next thing can be found and utilised for its sole purpose. And this would work if Blackwood’s methods showed any sort of design, as most of the time he simply stumbles into the right answer or happens to have met the right person three chapters ago, like a sort of Serendipity Brown. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, end credits.
However, the enterprise is saved from total ignominy simply by the virtue of how charmingly Starrett writes. In the hands of a less witty author, this would deserve to sink without a trace and would have been a waste in keeping more Craig Rice or Cornell Woolrich from my ever-grasping fingers. While Blackwood is little more than a collection of dilettante quirks — living with his elderly aunt, deferential Chinese manservant on hand, anachronistic home decor and bookshelves (“It pleased him to think that the public didn’t really understand him…”) — Starrett invests his sleuth and situation both with more than enough levity to just about drag you through despite whatever lingering disinterest in events you might feel building up in the back of your mind. There is, naturally, a certain meta awareness (this is the 1930s, after all)…
It should be a fundamental rule — although it wasn’t — that in life, as in fiction, the individual at whom suspicion pointed with most damning finger should be innocent
…but there are also some superb, almost Edmund Crispin-esque, moments of sheer joy:
“I can’t believe it,” said Holabird.
He found no serious difficulty in believing it, however.
Starrett’s sole attempt at any complexity comes in almost endless scenes of Blackwood thinking about or discussing possible motives and explanations for what has happened, and these drag the pace down and deflate most of the suspicion since there’s absolutely no way that he’s solving this with his brains. There’s something about a book relying heavily on speculation to establish possible motives for behaviour that I find stultifying to an almost unbearable degree — surely you could put in some events to provoke these thoughts, rather than simply sitting down and having them — and I won’t deny finding my patience tested despite Starrett’s skill with a quip. I’m not one to dismiss any author after just one book, but this happens to such a large extent here that I’m willing to bet it was Starrett’s raison d’etre and in ample evidence elsewhere in his output.
Beyond that, I don’t know what else to tell you. Blackwood stumbles along, being unerringly correct in this too-simple realisations — let’s not call it deduction or induction or inference or whatever term you prefer — the villain then tries to kill everyone for about 30 pages, and it ends. I’ll maintain to my dying day that the core difference between the American and British Golden Ages is that the Americans favoured events over reasoning — yes, it’s a broad generalisation, please don’t get tedious and insist on exceptions, obviously there are exceptions on both sides — and this is why someone like John Dickson Carr, with a foot in both camps, went on to be the legend he is: he cracked the code on mixing both appropriately. Starrett, then, falls squarely into the American camp here, and it’s entertaining if you like that kind of thing. Those of you wanting some rigour, complexity, character, intrigue, intelligence, and discernment in your books — those of you, in short, who hope that titular adjective applies to the Murder rather than the Hotel — can safely look elsewhere.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: I will say that while this is a puzzle plot, the individual steps of the puzzle are relatively straightforward and typically a problem raised is solved fairly quickly. An early example would be the importance of a pair of binoculars – connecting the evidence to its likely cause is not particularly difficult, even if you can see why its significance might have passed others by as it does not appear to be directly related to the case.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: I would say, the majority of this book is quite dialogue driven, which has its strengths and weaknesses. The dialogue focus initially propels the plot along at a fast pace, yet after the initial discovery of the dead man, lots of conversation, in social settings, involving Blackwood occur, such dinner and boat parties. I felt the pace at this juncture began to lose speed as Blackwood’s questioning lacks direction and there is little new information gained. However, this difficulty is not permanent, and the speed picks up again once new developments arrive, and Blackwood’s questioning becomes more pertinent.