Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Car
Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. only contributed this one novel to the mystery genre, spending a lot of his working life as a research fellow at Peabody Museum researching Near Eastern Archaeology. He wrote this novel under the penname Mason Deal, though nonetheless more than one reviewer hinted at his literary connection of being the brother of T. S. Eliot. His brother was actually quite interested in the mystery fiction genre, even constructing his own set of rules before Knox and Van Dine and an afterword in this edition by David Chinitz explores T. S. Eliot’s interaction with mystery fiction. However in the introduction Curtis Evans as ever gives us an insightful and interesting window into the man behind the book, even including T. S. Eliot’s reactions to Henry’s novel.
The story begins with George Palmerston Gayleigh, (‘the ‘Palmerston’ was silent, in so far as George could preserve silence on that painful infliction,’) arriving at his friend Ed Marsh’s house. Financially he is not doing so great, so being allowed to stay in his friend’s newly converted barn guest house sounds ideal. He envisages a lot of time for working on his latest manuscript. However we all know that is not going to happen! The curious incidences begin with a burglar entering Ed’s silo, (which he has converted into a library and storage unit) and removing one of Ed’s guns. A gathering later that night also shows several neighbours acting suspiciously, especially Harold Klarsen, guest and employee of Ed’s neighbour Hugh Crivington, who conspicuously makes a speedy exit when the police turn up.
Of course the curious incidences we are most interested in are the bodies, both of which appear devoid of personal effects and clothing in the rumble seats of two cars. If you are like me and don’t know what a rumble seat is, then the picture below shows how handy such seats were for a potential murderer keen on getting rid of a body.
Tongues certainly start to wag with the first body found, as it is unidentifiable and is discovered in the car of a very wealthy and also very possibly shady and ruthless financer: J. Clopendyke Clifford. Though Ed is more concerned about the way events are getting him mixed up in the deaths, as circumstantial evidence begins to link him to the deeds. Thankfully he has an enthusiastic amateur sleuth in George and a more reliable hand in his other guest Gil Hubert, an irregular detective of sorts.
A lot of the investigation focuses on the how of the crimes. Not as in the how the victims died, that is soon established, but in the general logistics of the crimes, such as how the bodies came to be where they were found. There is also the issue of the motivation behind these seemingly bizarre crimes and further dramatic elements are interspersed as the narrative progresses, making this an exciting and pacey read, including missing gold, cryptic notes, old documents and even a gun wielding monkey!
One of the biggest appeals of this story for me was the way the case was more widely discussed and theorised. It isn’t just one detective doing all the work, as Ed converses with a lot of friends, including Mike Macy, who is a local newspaper editor. However, Gil, Ed and George are the main investigative figures. This narrative choice consequently leads to quite a fast interchange of dialogue which means information is brought to us in a timely fashion and in small manageable amounts.
In contrast to the film The Women (2008), which has no male characters except a baby at the end, The Rumble Murders (1932) features a predominantly male cast of characters. There are about three proper female characters but all of them don’t appear very much in the narrative. In a way I thought this was a shame as from the small glimpses we do get of them they are an intriguing trio. For instance Hugh’s wife, Ann is set up in quite the femme fatale way when she is first seen:
‘framing herself in the doorway, as if the room were a box at the opera, and dressed accordingly […;] a type […] that still launches an occasional ship. A roving eye, veiled by an affectation of languor; a woman almost totally unable to converse with men without flirtatious implication.’
Yet this dynamic nature isn’t allowed to be explored any further and therefore feels a little redundant. Whilst women are talked about and discussed during the case, they rarely appear in the flesh to interact with our male sleuthing figures.
One query I did have with this book was about the narrator. To be honest I don’t know who the narrator was. Though it reads mostly in the third person and thereby suggests an impersonal and omniscient narrator, there are sections which are in the first person. All I can deduce is that this narrator is a friend of George, yet is not physically in the events of the story itself. Although a little confusing, these moments don’t occur very often and should therefore not hinder the reader in anyway.
On the whole this was a good read and I think it is a shame that Eliot only wrote the one mystery novel as this story shows he has talent for creating intriguing and clever mysteries, as in this story he crafts a very intricate and complex case, yet predominantly ensures that it all makes sense and fits into a solution at the end and more importantly does all of this with an engaging and lively writing style, which often has an underlying and gentle tone of comedy. Consequently I would definitely recommend this entertaining read to all golden age detective fiction enthusiasts.