There are many reasons why an author may be forgotten, one of which is due to a small output. That is perhaps the reason for the title under review today, as it is Lippincott’s only crime novel. Although that said it was made into a film in 1936. It seems to have been released under two names. The first is the book’s title, but it appears to have also been named Criminal Within. I was surprised to learn that this was Lippincott’s only book, as the way he sets up his protagonist of accidental/retired professional, Francis Holt, gives the impression that Holt has been involved in many cases before. After all, we are told he worked in the secret service and that in more recent times he had solved the death of the local’s judge’s cousin. However, that judge is off on his travels and Holt is using his home as a quiet space for writing his memoirs. In the story that follows Holt has a very different case to contend with…
‘The Randels of Glen Athol were a strange clan, a group of people torn by inner stress and hatred. The focal point of their trouble was the ruthless, predatory Muriel Randel, a woman with a distorted and warped nature. Within her were those traits which must inevitably lead to an outbreak of violence in the family-an outbreak of sudden death which comes to an end only when Holt penetrates behind the veil of false clues consciously planted to deceive him. After that grotesque dinner party when the two murdered bodies were discovered, it was obvious to Holt that it was an inside job, but he found a family united against him-a family which hindered rather than helped his investigation. In the end he overcame even their opposition and was able to determine why a beautiful wanton had been murdered because a man had carelessly hung his coat on an accessible nail, and to explain what the selection of a Boston debutante’s gown had to do with the solution of the murder of a man and woman in western Pennsylvania.’
With this synopsis in mind, our thoughts as readers, begin this book keenly awaiting the first awful example of behaviour from the Randel family. Yet Lippincott starts his story in a different vein, with our narrator, Francis, initially presuming them to be like any other family, even if one of them is rather garrulous and gossipy about his own relations. There is also Francis’ first encounter with the infamous Muriel, and we quickly discover the kind of fire she is playing with. That is one woman who gives other people a lot of reasons for bumping her off!
The combination of guests for the upcoming dinner party is certainly a toxic one, yet if anything the dinner itself seems a bit anticlimactic, in that ripples of tension arise, but no fireworks are set off, metaphorically speaking. This gives the narrative a ticking time bomb effect, waiting for the first body to fall, (which bathetically ends up being someone fainting). Nevertheless, our patience is rewarded, and late at night death strikes in a blunt and forceful fashion.
A convenient suspect is to hand at the scene of the crime, so for the police this case seems a desultory affair. But spurred on by one of the guests, Francis gets involved to prove the person’s innocence. This is not a quintessential weekend party murder mystery, as Lippincott gives this mystery mould something of a hard American shakeup. There is greater focus on Francis’ actions than on building up the relationship dynamics between the suspects. Moreover, the author keeps his protagonist busy, in particular having to defend himself against the attacks of a local bootlegger who is attached to the case. Kidnap and gun fire are par for the course. Francis gets lots of opportunities to use the skills he no doubt acquired in the secret service and I think on balance this mystery is more of a thriller, in which he has to respond to events as they occur, including the times when various characters offer him information. Are they telling the truth? Or are they telling him something which will help their own agenda? Lippincott does a good job of making it hard for Francis to know who he can trust, which helps aid the suspense for the reader too.
The main thing which would have improved this mystery is if it had greater psychological and emotional depth, as I think we are kept a bit removed from many members of the Randel family. This means some pieces of information are reported rather than heard verbatim and this has some bearing on the trajectory of Francis’ investigation. Given the complex and dysfunctional nature of the family relationships, an increased emphasis on their personalities would have added to the piece and made the interestingly unsettling ending even more dramatic than it is. In a way the denouement is wonderfully cinematic, and I am intrigued to see if the film adaptation keeps that element in.
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)