Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Skeletal Hand
Levinrew was the penname for Will Levine, an author I couldn’t really find much information on. He was born in 1881 and wrote during the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote a few crime novels but I am only aware of his Professor Brierly series, some of which titles, such as The Poison Plague (1922), are said to have sci-fi leanings. Aside from the two already mentioned the other three Brierly titles are For Sale – Murder (1932), The Wheelchair Corpse (1930), which has been reviewed by Bev at My Reader’s Block and Murder from the Grave (1930), which John at Pretty Sinister Books has reviewed.
The book opens with James Hale, star reporter of the New York newspaper, the Eagle, being asked to take his vacation in Canada, paid for by the paper. What’s the catch? Hite, his city editor wants him to file a story, nothing too arduous of course, – couple of days’ work tops. The story in question is about a reunion held every 4th July at the camp of Judge Isaac Higginbotham, for Civil War Veterans (mostly Confederates but also some Unionists). Out of the original 237, 14 remain and one of the main things which holds them together is a Tontine insurance policy, a policy where the final survivor of the groups scoops all the cash, which is now up to several million dollars. Hale goes to stay with some old friends, Professor Brierly and his assistant and adopted son John Matthews. Brierly is becoming more famous for dabbling in sleuthing, using his scientific background to solve cases. Matthews is also an old college friend of Hale’s.
Very quickly it becomes apparent that there is a dark past involving the veteran group. During the Civil war, certain members of the group attempted a jail break, but their escape was scuppered by an informant/s, who themselves got released on defecting to the Union side. Later on those who failed to escape were released in an exchange and went on to become guards at a new prison. Later these guards become convinced that the people who betrayed them were within a specific batch of prisoners, numbered 14. When the group was later formed (the members being only 17 or 18 years old), a letter is sent around saying: ‘None of you will enjoy the fruits of your insurance any more than you did the unsuccessful jail break. 14.’ Subsequently whenever a member has died a message is sent to each surviving member with the number 14 on. Things become even more sinister when the veterans explain to Brierly and Hale that in the last 2 years, 7 members of the group have died, 5 of which were meant to be suicides. Coincidence or something worse? It seems to be the latter when a series of phone calls come announcing three more deaths, two suicides and a drowning and messages to the remaining 11 are forthcoming.
Whilst Hale has the scoop of a lifetime, the professor has a case to solve and soon gets to work on the supposed suicides, making quick work of a seemingly impossible crime situation. The professor’s suspicions look inside and beyond the group and it is intriguing that there is one member of the original 237 who the group have no proof is dead or still living. Yet this is no ordinary killer and this is a case which will endanger the lives not only of the remaining 11 veterans but also Professor Brierly’s and those closest to him.
On the whole this was a story that I enjoyed. You quickly get drawn to Professor Brierly and his associates and Levinrew has an enjoyable writing style. Brierly is an interesting amateur sleuth. Normally scientific detectives bore me because they become way too technical (see R. Austin Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark (1907). Levinrew though keeps the technical passages mostly short, though I did enjoy the bits of forensic work Brierly does. These lead onto seemingly astonishing deductions about the killer but are all based on the results of tests. Brierly is a bit of Holmes type character, having ‘a passion for pure thought and has the finest analytical faculty of any man […] He can truly be said to “specialise” in a great many subjects.’ He often speaks his mind, giving no regard for rank and ‘to his mind each crime is merely a scientific problem.’ Although we do see a softer side to him in the way he treats a young boy named Thomas. I think the main issue I had with this book is that we don’t get to know any of the 11 veterans. They are pretty much just a list of names. The narrative doesn’t really spend any time with them. Consequently I think Levinrew missed a trick and couldn’t rack up the tension as much with this serial killer plot, in the way And Then There Were None (1939) does. This lack of attention on the veterans also affects the final solution as although it fits the evidence it lacks punch and impact and when reading this I actually came up with what I thought was a more exciting solution. Although I did mention this book had a seemly impossible crime I wouldn’t buy this book for it as this is not much of a howdunit as Professor Brierly is just too good and solves it within a matter of pages. So all in all an entertaining, though imperfect, yarn, which had a setting and backstory which felt quite unusual. I may well return to Levinrew’s work again.