#927: The Great Hotel Murder (1934) by Vincent Starrett

Great Hotel Murder

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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 say that I’ve now safely 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.

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See also

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.

8 thoughts on “#927: The Great Hotel Murder (1934) by Vincent Starrett

  1. I have only read him as a critic but I am always delighted by the confidence of the era that allowed authors to wink at the reader (as with Carr, Queen, Crispin and Philip Macdonald). By the way, I have not seen it but this was filmed in 1935. Or rather, the short story version ‘Recipe for Murder’. Was the novel a bit of a tie-in, perhaps? You can watch it at this link: “https://youtu.be/BjYqGoQHwJg”

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    • I didn’t know he was a critic, maybe that’s what was behind the decision to republish this — much like Boucher’s Baker Street Irregulars from this same series.

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  2. “…those of you, in short, who hope that titular adjective applies to the Murder rather than the Hotel — can safely look elsewhere

    I feared as much. So far, the American Mystery Classics have only published mysteries I’ve either already read or are low on my priority list. The upcoming Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries sounded promising when it was announced, but the selection of stories is uninspired and repetitive. Nearly all of them have previously appeared (more than once) in other locked room anthologies (Rawson’s “From Another World” and King’s “The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem”). Three of the stories appeared together in Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries!

    Oh, well, they’ll eventually reprint something to my liking.

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    • …mysteries I’ve either already read or are low on my priority list.

      There’s a difficulty in being so well-read in this genre, isn’t there?! The general reader will be intrigued by some of the, er, less famous titles on their list — A Taste of Honey, say, or any Phoebe Atwood Taylor or Mary Robert Reinhart — and that’s where series like this make their money and so allow themselves to keep going. Those of us a little deeper in the genre just have to bide our time and be grateful when something we’re really excited for (moreCraigRIce, moreCraigRIce, moreCraigRIce, moreCraigRIce…) comes along.

      Thankfully, I’m reasonably sure you have plenty to read in the meantime 🙂

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  3. “…the core difference between the American and British Golden Ages is that the Americans favoured events over reasoning…” – crowd slowly rises to their feet as a sparse clapping grows to a thunderous roar.

    Man, you nailed it there. My feeble attempt to capture this up to now is that Americans favored things that would play out well on the screen, whereas the British focused on the mystery. That kind of goes back to the topic of whether these fair play GAD novels can really be effectively adapted to the screen (a topic I recently resurrected while reviewing Murder in the Crooked House), and I tend to think the answer is “no, unless you do it really really well”. The best example I can think of is Green for Danger, where someone watching the film who read the book is likely in euphoria at all of those seemingly innocent objects in the background of shots, or the fact that a character walked into a room at a particular moment, and yet a first time viewer is never going to appreciate those details (and I question if they’d catch them even on a back to back watch).

    Then take an American mystery – Patrick Quentin always come to mind, although absolutely not the only guilty party – where there are numerous dramatic clashes throughout the book that don’t quite make sense in the story until you imagine how it might play out on the screen. There’s no value to the actual mystery, but you can imagine the audience being sucked in by the sudden tension.

    And yes, John Dickson Carr seemed to perfectly balance it, and I think it’s because his “events” actually served to move the mystery forward or were part of the sleight of hand that created his misdirection.

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    • The screen analogy is a good one, and might in part account for the cheer volume of classic era American TV in the genre (Perry Mason, Columbo, etc) at a time when British media was producing lots of soap operas and Shoestring.

      The irony of this is, of course, that what seems to be considered one of the best screen adaptations in Green for Danger’ is a British film, right?

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  4. I liked Riley Blackwood – even though I didn’t always quite get what he was doing. As you say, the amusing parts help this go down a little easier. As a mystery, though, this falls flat, and it loses whatever steam it produced pretty quickly. The movie, which was put together soon after the book came out, eliminates all the joyful stuff from the book and was quickly dismissed by critics. This did not inspire me to buy Murder on B Deck, and I’m not sure what Otto Penzler saw in Starrett the novelist to make him re-publish two of his mysteries in such short order.

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    • Given Ellery Queen is a copy of Philo Vance, Blackwood feels like a Queen facsimile that got very, very, very blurred in the process. A few affectations, a job doing something else, and some eccentric behaviour does not a gentleman sleuth make.

      I’m not sure what Otto Penzler saw in Starrett the novelist to make him re-publish two of his mysteries in such short order.

      No, I know exactly what you mean, unless B Deck is a masterpiece of unimagined proportions. But I’m not going to be the one to test those waters and find out…

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