Monday, January 11, 2016

Elwyn Whitman Chambers: Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints, 1935



Elwyn Whitman Chambers (1896-1968), born in Stockton, California, wrote eighteen novels setin San Francisco, the first of which was, in 1928, The Coast of Intrigue. It was a warm start, since just after the release of The Navy Murders (1932), written with Mary Strother Chambers, began writing by jet and until the end of World War II, he published thirteen novels. In 1946 he devoted himself mainly to the movies, going back to writing in 1953: signed three other novels, because he took care of collaborations in television scripts, until his death in Los Angeles.
Dead Men Leave No Fingerprints presents as a subject investigator, not a policeman like Michael Lord by Charles Daly King or a private detective in the manner of Poirot or Philo Vance, but one that instead comes close more to Bill Crane by Latimer and Dashiel Hammett's Sam Spade, as ways of behaving, and that, at the same time, resolves an investigation of classical style.
Namely, a a mystery that in the movements may appear to be similar to a Hard-Boiled.
Stanton Lake is a private investigator who has an agency that shares with his friend Abe Bloom. One day arrives a beautiful blonde, classic kind of femme fatale, Hilda Haan, famous Danish actress, who, secretly to the mass media, and counting on the support of a girl  friend that acts as a stand-in and serves to divert printing, has fled with Theodore Raybourne. Hilda asked Lake to help her own against Theodore, because she understood too late as he does not love her and is attracted only by her money; in addition he holds the compromising papers which, if disclosed, would throw the feed to the press and her private life and, consequently, her popularity would suffer an upheaval.
Lake, along with his partner, then try to sneak by stratagem, in the house where willy-nilly Hilda is forced to remain: pretending to have had a heart attack while swimming in front of the house of Raybourne, and that one who was also at sea by accident (Abe Boom) managed to save it. The Raybourne are a powerful dynasty, and the old Raybourne Rufus, even in spite of the collapse of part of his empire because of a housing development busted, however, is still firmly in place. Lake, helped, is greeted in the house, including the looks concerned and suspicious if not suspicious of the others present: Maurine, the young wife of the old Rufus; Mrs Farley and Rae Amerton, a couple of psychics friends; the daughter Inez with Dr. Pageot her boyfriend; and finally the Chinese butler, Fong Woo.

However Lake should reveal who is, when someone kills Theodore Raybourne with a heavy poker: the reason is that after Wong Foo, down, gave the alarm, and Lake entered the chamber of Raybourne finding his smashed skull, there next  is Hilda Lane that holds newspaper clippings, the compromising papers that held the victim, and now is trying to destroy in a fire. After a fierce fight, she manages to knock the detective and destroy compromising papers. But he, who is bound by an employment relationship with the lovely Lane, must now save her  from imputation of murder, thing he does immediately , trying to dismantle her presence there in that room, in front of the old Rufus, succeeding in part: now, dispel all doubt has to find the real murderer.
He must first identify the fingerprints found on the heavy poker: the old Rufus is well convinced that whatever is the murderer, the death of his son should be avenged, handing the murderer to justice. Even if it would cost the indictment to one of the family members or the present.
All they have to make available their fingerprints, and so, in the end, the fingerprints are compared. Twist, when, however, after that they are not assigned to any of those present in the house (and then even to Hilda), they are from  John Royal, companion of adventures and speculations of the old Raybourne, who nevertheless exaggerated with embezzlement, ending at San Quentin! Is it possible he escaped from prison and now wants revenge on the friend who accused him in court? No, because Royal died a year before and the very old Rufus oversaw that body, embalmed, was buried. Then how do you explain those footprints?
The deputy sheriff Catalin, the grocer that the community of those parties elected to do the sheriff who does not know how to move, is Lenny McManus, an acquaintance of Lake, who for many years has been the deputy sheriff. Just Lenny, Stanton and the beautiful Hilda one night armed with shovels, go to disinter the coffin of Royal to make sure if s him; but, arrived on the spot, after digging, they discover that the coffin was desecrated and the corpse is gone.
Is possible that John Royal is alive and that the corpse belonged to someone, taking and giving his identity? It would be possible, but clashes with the Lake’s conviction that murderer is someone instead of the house: in fact, when Theodor was killed were all at home and very high would be the possibility that a stranger was discovered. How did it Royal?
Now you correlate with the disappearance of the prisoner, the aggression suffered by Lake previously: someone attacked him in the library and then if you snuck out. It is discovered a secret hideaway, hidden in the wall, used in the past as the armory, that friends of Rufus knew, including Royal. Is it possible that after the murder, he has hidden himself  there and only after he escaped?
However soon the self-styled John Royal is reappeared. In fact, Stanton Lake, having no response from the beautiful Maurine, closed room, not down to breakfast, with the cooperation of other, breaks down the door of her bedroom and is prone on the bed, her face bluish and one of her stockings knotted at his neck so closely for almost not to see that his node, in the flesh swollen. The strange thing is, however, that the bedroom does not have other outlets that the door closed from the rear, and the window, well locked from the inside: how did the murderer to go out?
Stanton Lake manages to find a trapdoor in the closet of clothes, wondering what it is doing there a chair: Lenny hoisted, without touching the panel, and penetrated into the attic, he soon found another hatch, dropping in the room of Dr. Pageot: is possible that the boyfriend of the daughter of Raybourne killed Maurine? And why? Soon he  discovers that the two had an affair, lived a story of sex: in fact the beautiful Maurine was found wearing the negligee more transparent than all the transparent negligees. She was probably waiting for her lover, who in fact admits to be gone, but only to find her dead.
Lake, by the idea he has made, he tends to give credit to the confession by Pageot, nothing but a bleak fortune hunter: however, without finding the way how the murderer has gone out, he couldn’t  show the strangeness of  the adventurer.
Meanwhile, after an embalmed corpse was found in the sea, half eaten by shellfish, and after that Abe was sent from Lake to obtain the dental board to ensure that that body is or is not by Royal, a third murder occurs at that dwelling: is found murdered, with a dagger driven into the heart, the old Raybourne. And once again, Lake will face the shadow by John Royal, because once again his fingerprints are found on the handle of the dagger.
But who is John Royal? And  is he dead or alive? And if he's dead, how can be there those footprints , on the knife and on the  heavy poker?
Lake will solve the mystery and he will exonerate Pageot and Hilda Lane, meanwhile fallen in love with the investigator.
Memorable final: Hilda begs him not to leave her, but Stanton who also knows he is weak against her, does not want to lose his subjectivity and become only "the husband of Hilda Lane". 

And for this he gets out, and goes to the train, without looking behind.
 

Hard and pure.

Beautiful novel, retains a voltage unchanged throughout its duration, which is kept very high, thanks to a plot extremely crackling and never dull: a lot  of events disrupt the investigation and until the end you can not figure out who would be the killer, if John Royal or another, and then how his fingerprints are finished both on heavy poker and on the handle of the dagger.
Nice also the Locked Room, whose solution although a change of method already discovered by Carr, is nevertheless very intriguing for the fact that to discover it, you have to look from the outside and not from within, and from outside is not easy do it, because you're out of a window without a balcony, high at least six meters from the boulevard below.
The investigator could be a clone of Sam Spade: hard, sometimes even contemptuous, that uses the hard way, for example by crushing Pageot to induce him to talk about after the death of Maurine; weak with women, but at the same time proud of his individuality ; and Hilda Lane, is the so-called “Femme Fatale”, ready to lose the head to a man, but also to lose her when he instead ardently desire her, rejects her; and Inez Raybourne, the heiress, is the so-called “helpless woman” prey of attention of people attracted by her money, which simulates being in love with her but then instead has a history of sex with the girl's stepmother.

The Chinese butler is a classic, as a classic is also the replacement of one body with another (had not for the first time experienced it Edmond Dantes by Dumas?).

And even the elderly husband, betrayed by his wife having sex with another young, which in turn betrays his girlfriend very sensitive; and also the fake mediums, which ensnares the gullible.
The corpse that disappears, may have also influenced the Latimer of The Lady in the Morgue (1936), ie a year later than the novel by Chambers), and No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson (the disinterment). But in turn it could have taken something, perhaps, from The Greek Coffin Mystery  by Ellery Queen (1934) in which is unearthed a coffin in which there should be a body embalmed; or from Into Thin Air (1929) by Horatio Winslow and Leslie W. Quirk, in which is unearthed a body to see if there is or not an object.
In short, a great novel, which you read passionately.

Pietro De Palma

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Alan Thomas : The Death of Laurence Vining, 1928



That The Death of Laurence Vining Alan Thomas is a masterpiece of the genre "Locked Room", it is an indubitable fact. However, it is structured in a unique way, and for this I want to analyze it in its entirety.
First, we look at how the various novels written by Thomas (born in 1896 and died in 1970), this, his first feature, is considered the best among all: Thomas began with a bang, but then, as often happens, it could not be repeated with his other works. Among these fifteen others, as stated in the notes in the flap of the novel, "only eight can be considered real mysteries, while the others have a mystery implication only marginal." The account seems to me very important because I will use this statement to explain my point of view about it. In fact, in my opinion, absurd as it may seem, this novel could be part of those in which the mystery implication has a marginal importance: in fact it seems to me that Alan Thomas, when he wrote the story, interested more writing a fictional story than a true crime novel. In this there is no doubt that there is a profound difference between a novel by Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr and one, in this case, of Alan Thomas. While in the early the mystery texture takes the whole book and the rest of the coins, in Thomas is the opposite seems to me: basically the plot of mystery in itself, its presentation and solution, occupies the two extreme parts, while in the middle space is the part of the fictional text, in which Thomas is to get carried away from wanting to tell, from the show that he  knows narrate. Oh, not that he does not concern the plot, but however the substance is not treated with the same force and tension of the opposing sides and extreme!
Then we let's better understand what it's about.
Lawrence Vining is an amateur detective who has helped on various occasions Scotland Yard to extricate themselves in cases of special mangy, and therefore has a prominent reputation. However, outside of his superior instincts turned to pure deduction and problem solving more complex, Lawrence Vinig is a ruthless man, ambitious, without moralizing, which operates as a function not of the common good but of self-interest: as well as he deliveries to executioner John Plunket, accused of killing a businessman during a robbery, crushing him in a series of accusations and suspicions, which will be followed in manufactured artfully, but not true in an absolute sense. What matters is having identified a possible culprit, not that it was the only effective. He will leave to mourn the sons who will hate from that moment the first father’s executioner.



Lawrence, however, is not alone, but was helped in the investigation by his assistant, Dr. Benjamin Willing; indeed these, collected clues that allowed the "great man" to analyze them and come through them to incrimination of the suspect. Willing is the shoulder of Vining, it can be said, in a sensible comparison, which for him is like the Watson of Sherlock Holmes.
Vining has an adopted son, Jack Ransome, and wants he becomes a surgeon; but that instead is more inclined to horses and women, rather than books, and so between the two is not good blood flow, until Vining, knew the intention of the adopted son to marry his secretary, Pamela, claims to want to disinherit. At this point enters a friend of Vining, Colonel Robinson, who takes the side of the adopted son of Vining, however, unable to change his mind friend. You will see later in the story is the same as both Jack Robinson had good reason to hate Vining, and not necessarily the same.
In short, Vining, is not that it is loved by all. And so it happens that someone wishes to eliminate him. And he does it with a very spectacular crime: Vining takes the elevator Metro Hyde Park, to reach the train, but if when he enters into the elevator, he is live, where he is completely alone, when it gets to destination and opens, Vining collapses face down dead with a dagger driven into the shoulder in the cab, there is no one besides him. Who could ever have been and how particularly did he manage?

Of the spectacular crime has instructed the Inspector Widgeon, who begins to investigate. It is helped, in fact  is he who accepts to be supported by Dr. Willing, however, that, together with the conductor, is the only witness who saw the victim get off the elevator (he was at the scene of the crime by accident) and was he who witnessed the death. For him, Willing will operate the same as he had in many cases alongside Vining: it is the best way for him to help his friend dead, assist the inspector in his investigations.
Widgeon investigates, but from the survey nebula, do not emerge at first sight facts that could explain the death of Vining, as an endless series of clues and anecdote that appear to have no connection with the case. So he learns that Vining probably was lured into a trap by a "Red Hat". Who is? He will find that a red cap was wore by the maid of Vining, Grace, who has a love affair with the conductor of the metro station Hyde Park (despite this is already married), one of the two witnesses of the murder of Vining. And then you will come to know that Captain Jack Ransom, who works as a medical practitioner in Georges Hospital has disappeared, and with him the Vining’s domestic Malaysian, also; coincidentally the room where Ransom was resting in the hospital, is located very close to the site of the murder; the dagger nailed in the shoulder of Vining, up to the handle, is a Malay kris, stained, with ivory handle, which has a history that refers to the Far East: it was stolen, apparently from Vining to a sultan, so that he added it to a number of valuables eastern whom Vining collected: an another possible motive, in addition to the interest, and vengeance, he adds the honor. And another possible killer: the domestic Malaysian. Which in turn disappears. His fingerprints are found on cabinet at Vining house, at which was guarded the Malay dagger. But was really he who he who killed Vining? And how?
If before some seem guilty and instead will be found innocent and others seem innocent but they will be convicted, even if only of complicity, he will come to the identification of the real culprit. However he will escape to justice because the inspector, although he realized who may be, will not be able to collect evidence of his guilt. The perfect crime, will be revealed in the last part of the novel, in the pages of the diary of the murderer, he remained unpunished but later died from other causes, once his executor will have provided the last will.
The solution is highly spectacular, truly one of the best locked rooms read in the last years: once again we are dealing with a hoax, which from the beginning wants to upset the plans of the police: it is not a crime that by accident it becomes a Locked Room, but a crime that wants to be recognized from the outset as a Locked Room. Because the order has to be that it remains unresolved.
Why?
I would say that once again it is connected to Lawrence Vining: the killer wants to insult the memory of the detective who solved all cases impossible, making sure that his own death is not resolved.
Interesting the structure of the novel. Three are the protagonists, and three the sections of the novel in which they play a predominant role: in the first, in which are narrated the events of Vining is he the protagonist; in the second, in which they speak about his death and about the investigation, the protagonist is the inspector; in the third, where there is the confession in retrospect, the protagonist is the murderer of a perfect crime.
Who is the murderer? It is a person who has learned to hate Vining and hated him more and more up to devise a plan so perfect and so free from nicks, the inspector will recognize him but could not accuse him about the murder. He is not a murderer rained from the sky, but a person who is present throughout the novel, which is presented under other garments and only finally confesses, though to himself (his diary) to be the culprit. This manifests his true purpose: that is not revenge, not honor betrayed, not monetary interest, but advertising, becoming famous in turn, emerge from anonymity, and even in death to steal to Vining the limelight.
The only flaws of a perfect plan are two trivial details: the raincoat whom Vining had on the shoulder before he entered into the elevator; and the train ticket, whose absence in the cabin, convinces the inspector that the facts are otherwise. But these details, for the perfection of the central construct of the plan, will not be of any help.
The novel is also interesting for some irreverent and sarcastic vein present in it.
When Widgeon visits Robinson and comes to his home and waiting makes considerations about his interests, in particular about his novels by literary crime, he muses that since there so many crimes on real life he does not understand how some writer should joke above; he most of all hates them because they usually when talk about the police at Scotland Yard they hatched usually the policemans  "like a bunch of idiots." The irony is obvious: Alan Thomas quotes himself, and his novel, and his last end. In fact at the end Widgeon will appear, in front of the killer (and the reader), a complete imbecile. Although it will not be at all easy flush out the killer. The vein desecrating it seems to me, however, that it is even finer: in his novel Thomas celebrates the death of Sherlock Holmes, dressed as his ideal successor (Vining); and even he reverses the same dichotomy Sherlock Holmes-Dr Watson, in that Dr. Willing-Widgeon. In fact the only sensible hypothesis throughout the novel will come from Willing, namely that the crime can be explained with the launch from a distance, of a dagger. It’s as if Dr. Watson / Willing, for a time stole the show to Sherlock Holmes / Widgeon, revealing how another Sherlock Holmes / Lawrence Vining was dead. But this will not be the exact solution.
The novel is even more a comedy of errors and false leads, and it responds to that kind of novel typical of the twenties, in which the murderer will never be a woman, because a woman is a being who knows only mild fall in love with villains and suffer for the death of an innocent father, but she will never be the one that vibrates the fatal blow; where there are echoes eastern; where there is a story that has its origins in the past (how can we forget just a particular novel with Sherlock Holmes?); where there is a false adoptive father, a colonel false friend, and a true father who is not recognized as such; and a romance of the past ended tragically; where they are detectives in bright light (the two Sherlock Holmes: Widgeon and Vining) and detectives in the shade (Watson and Willing) but no less important; where there are two dead, a real and a virtual, but of the same character: dies Vining andit  is as if died Widgeon, not solving the case. In short, the novel is like the death of the detective novel in its apotheosis: the murderer becomes more important than the detective, as he wins in single combat. It’s a novel in which the murderer wins the detective who is recognized from himself, loser.
But in the anthology of the clues and herrings, it lies a will to tell, that reveals the true purpose by the author: tell a story, or rather many stories linked together into a story, and at the same time connect them to a crime, locked room, which unsolvable as such, claims to have the scene only at the beginning and at the end, that is to be the alpha and omega of the novel. For the rest, a novel too wordy, stretching the broth with exotic narratives and descriptions, however, far from wanting to be a part similar to those of the crime and its solution, it has the task of adding smoke and away with the hypothesis least imaginative the reader from the real culprit, whom the careful if not mischievous reader would have found if not immediately, at least almost.
So if there is not in my view a incredible murderer, and then ultimately the "Whodunnit" is not completely satisfied because the careful and cunning reader could identify the murderer for his behavior and for a screening, the novel instead is characterized as a sample of the kind called "Howdunnit" since the predominant part has explained the "how" the murderer has killed, by implementing an illusion of higher species, because "the killer" before the part final starts, it has been revealed, and who had thought the killer was that person, he finally said, "I knew ..". Illusionism which not only participates the murderer and the victim, but some supporting actors and accomplices, who have key parts of the plan, and that they too disappear and can not be traced by the police. In a sense, this novel by Thomas is the opposite of Tour de Force by Christianna Brand: while here the staging takes place before the crime, and who personifies the victim is before the death of the victim, there who impersonates the victim impersonates him after the murder took place.



In short, another milestone of the "Locked Room" and a novel that is impossible the lover of the genre do not read, at which a lot of things happen (of which I didn’t speak about) and at which, though the tension is palpable at beginning and end, and less in the middle of the novel, however, the narrative relaxes and is easier to read. If anything can turn up their noses to certain readers, the fact that out of the blue, after the impossible crime was presented at the beginning and then in the course of the narrative, nothing has emerged nor has said, in final  it is revealed in great detail. Certain readers bothered Thoman was not completely honest with them, accustomed to the fair play by Carr. But do not correct improper comparisons especially among the weakest:  if Thomas had spoken about the details mentioned by the epilogue, first, surely many more readers than those who are surprised by the final revelation, would arrive long before the identification of the culprit. Essentially then Thomas resorts to the old expedient of lengthening the broth and add a bit of smoke and mirrors, justifying it with the desire, by the inspector Widgeon, reaching the indictment of the culprit away from starting and following a roundabout way, with the continuous interrogation of the other actors in the drama, hoping the real murderer betrays himself. Which it does not happen, and justifies the final revelation of the killer post mortem. Especially the thing that makes perplexing is the fact that Thomas is silent at the beginning and at the end proves to be only a very important detail: that the trains at that station not only pass to the upper level but also the lower one. And so the scale is not only useful to those who have to go to the toilet, but especially useful to those who, not wanting to take the elevator, should take a train passing on the tracks on the floor below.
The rest is to be virtuous of the detective novel, hold the attention of readers and voltage, focusing on a single criminal act; that's because many great authors, when repackage books of a number of pages, to keep fixed the perception of tension, insert multiple crimes in the same novel.
One last note: the Inspector Widgeon, having appeared at this novel, will reappear in another novel by Alan Thomas, Death of the Home Secretary (1933).


Pietro De Palma