Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Arthur B. Reeve, as David Brawn intimates in his introduction to the Harper Collins reprint, was a household name during his writing career in the early 20th century. In particular he was well-known for his serial and scientific sleuth, Craig Kennedy, who was dubbed ‘the American Sherlock Holmes’ and his adventures were adapted for film, stage and even comic strips. Like every good Holmes figure, Kennedy has his Watson in narrator Walter Jameson, a newspaper reporter.
Kennedy’s use of scientific methods and inventions in order to capture criminals was one of the main reasons for his popularity as a character and the scientific principles Reeves talks about were up to date for the times he was writing in. Even Thomas Edison complemented him on this very aspect, which is high praise indeed. And it has to be said in The Adventuress (1917), that technology and scientific gadgets are prominent, being used by both the criminals and the sleuths.
This mystery centres on the death of Marshall Maddox, who had recently got his troublesome relations to agree to give him control of their family’s company, Maddox
Munitions and allow him to buy them out. This agreement was reached on his brother’s, Shelby, yacht. However the next day Maddox is found dead and the plans and model of a dangerous new piece of technology, the telautomaton, has been stolen. Few tears are shed for Maddox though; estranged from his wife due to the allure of another woman and his own relatives are far from mournful either. Within this group of people you could say more interest revolves around Shelby as two women fight for his affections, one of whom is the titular adventuress. But is that all there is to it? Whilst this case lacks a police presence this is more than made up for by various members of the secret service who support Kennedy in his investigation. Observation, tailing and shadowing are the name of the game and it seems it is not just the sleuths who are doing these activities, making it hard to decide what everyone is really up to. Whoever is behind all of these criminal activities it quickly becomes apparent that they are prepared to attack using a variety of weapons, if they feel threatened by the investigative team, making this case quite the health hazard for Kennedy and his friends.
One of the things I enjoyed about this story was Kennedy. I wouldn’t say he hugely resembles Holmes in some ways, he has a much less acidic demeanour and manner, but like Holmes the story begins with a client coming to see him – though Reeves manages to give a this event some extra oomph. Whilst Jameson is quite deferential to Kennedy, I don’t think they have quite the same relationship as Holmes and Watson do; after all there are no biting comments about Jameson’s sleuthing abilities, even when he does nearly die when he tries to do a spot of independent investigating.
So all in all a very good start to the book and I equally enjoyed how Reeves teasingly unfolds the central mystery to us. Furthermore, I think he does set up a number of interesting characters, especially Paquita, the adventuress. Her entrance into the book foreshadows the complex role she will take in the story, when Reeves writes that:
‘a petite, frilly, voluptuous figure stood in the doorway. She had an almost orchid beauty that more than suggested the parasite […] For the born adventuress is always a baffling study.’
Whilst on the surface she may seem to conform to certain negative stereotyping, even Jameson eventually realises there is more to her than this, when he says that:
‘as I watched her my former impression was confirmed that the notoriety which she courted was paradoxically her ‘cover.’ She seemed to seek the limelight. In so doing did she hope to divert attention from what was really going on back-stage?’
Not until the end will the reader finally resolve who or what she is, though personally I think Reeves could have fleshed out her character/role a little more.
The technological aspects of the book, as vouched for by Edison, are first rate, but for me, ever character focused, I think Reeves could have given his readers a little more in depth exploration of his suspects. Whilst mystery readers are not unfamiliar with family members who are far from upset their relative has died, what did strike me as odd was the sheer amount of silence from the family members in regards to the case, taking stone walling to a whole new level. There are moments where you wonder if they are even bothered or surprised that their brother is dead and a hugely valuable invention stolen. In some ways this is more a story of the sleuths talking with pithy interjections by witnesses. In addition I think in order to accommodate the various pieces of technology Reeves wants his detective to use, the narrative has more a thriller feel to it, lacking in the beginning an obvious line of investigation to follow. Moreover, the way the identity of the main culprit is thrown at the reader in the final line of the book with no explanation, suggests that Reeves was also not trying to write a conventional whodunit.
Given the time it was written in, the story does have its dose of non-PC language when it comes to race and the Secret Service are very keen on the theory that the guilty parties are of foreign extraction, which they back up with the idea that WW1 has caused all of the major European criminals to emigrate to America. However I think it would be fair to say that Reeves through Jameson does acknowledge the tendency of humans to be biased against those they do not understand and seem different. This is a failing Jameson recognises in himself as well as others, which I think made this book’s depiction of race relations less clear cut.
Consequently whilst this book was not a perfect read it was still an action packed yarn, with explosions, rockets and poison galore, and I think readers who love inventions, gadgets and science will get on famously with Kennedy, who is a very likeable and engaging sleuth.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Revolver