Today’s read is my latest foray into the American Mystery Classics reprint series and my first experience of Starrett’s work. The introduction is written by Lyndsay Faye, who is enthusiastic about both the writer and his story. The Great Hotel Murder originally started out as a shorter work known as Recipe for Murder (1934), which was published in Redbook Magazine. In the following year it was expanded, given a new title, and printed in the Doubleday Crime Club series. In 1935 it was also adapted for film, starring Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen, and Faye notes that ‘Starrett liked to quip that the film differed enough from his novel that he was as surprised by the ending as anyone else…’ He began writing with short stories and only turned to novels in 1929. Like his amateur sleuth, Riley Blackwood, he was a reporter and then a critic.
Whilst I enjoyed Faye’s warmth in describing this book and author, I think she stumbles when she tries to explore the interaction between this book and Ronald Knox’s Decalogue. The problems begin when she describes the Decalogue as ‘ten hard and fast rules,’ a label which misunderstands why Knox wrote the rules in the first place, (to give some shape to a developing genre which distinguished it from other writing style,) and overlooks some of the tongue in cheek tone they were originally imbued with. Faye then homes in on rule number 5, clipping the rule down to two words: ‘no Chinaman,’ when in fact the full rule is this:
‘No Chinaman must figure in the story. Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind – there are probably others – is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.’
Makes a bit of a difference in meaning doesn’t it? However, with her clipped version Faye proceeds to suggest that the rule was racist and then decides that Starrett defies this appalling rule by including a Chinese servant in the book. A servant who gets two brief impersonal mentions and at one point is described as ‘the deferential China boy.’ I’m not sure that is really a poke in the eye for racism, but there you go… Anyone else think there should be a moratorium on referencing Knox’s Decalogue, for say ten years minimum?
Incidentally JJ writes a much fuller exploration of this rule in his series on Knox’s Decalogue, which I recommend everyone reads, if they haven’t already.
‘When a New York banker is discovered dead from an apparent morphine overdose in a Chicago hotel, the circumstances surrounding his untimely end are suspicious to say the least. The dead man had switched rooms the night before with a stranger he met and drank with in the hotel bar. And before that, he’d registered under a fake name at the hotel, told his drinking companion a fake story about his visit to the Windy City, and seemingly made no effort to contact the actress, performing in a local show, to whom he was married. All of which is more than enough to raise eyebrows among those who discovered the body.
Enter theatre critic and amateur sleuth Riley Blackwood, a friend of the hotel’s owner, who endeavours to untangle this puzzling tale as discreetly as possible. But when another detective working the case, whose patron is unknown, is thrown from a yacht deck during a party by an equally unknown assailant, the investigation makes a splash among Chicago society. And then several of the possible suspects skip town, leaving Blackwood struggling to determine their guilt or innocence–and their whereabouts.’
With the early surprises and developments in its opening chapter, I can see why this book was snapped up to be made into a film. The hotel setting is also very appealing, and these days would have quite a nostalgic feel.
Riley Blackwood is an interesting dilettante amateur sleuth whose day job as a theatre critic does not stop him from poking his nose into crime scenes. He is described as a ‘tall, loose-jointed young man, with horn-rimmed spectacles’ and who ‘bore a faint resemblance to the published portraits of Mr Aldous Huxley – although without the moustache.’ His first appearance in the book is memorable in which he uses a magic trick to demonstrate the possibility of how something may have been stolen from someone. There is a touch of Lord Peter Wimsey about him in passages such as this:
‘In private, Mr Riley Blackwood was somewhat less of a poseur than his numerous acquaintances imagined. He was, indeed, a serious-minded youth, who dropped his cloak of motley when he entered his apartment and closed the door behind him.’
Although unlike Wimsey, Blackwood seems less troubled by the ethical ramifications of mystery solving: ‘A mystery fascinates me; I’m unhappy till I’ve solved it. The morality of it all concerns me less, I’m afraid, than the excitement of the problem.’ I think nods to S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance are also made, which can be seen in the way some characters respond to him: ‘He was very clever, she was sure, but she was certain she was going to dislike him. That faintly superior, faintly satirical way he had of speaking was really a little bit infuriating.’ In addition, he likes the older furniture in his living room/library, which he inherited from his grandfather: ‘It gave him a sense of detachment from the present, which he found restful if not always stimulating. The world was sometimes too much with him – at any rate, the flesh and the devil.’
I would say, the majority of this book is quite dialogue driven, which has its strengths and weaknesses. The dialogue focus initially propels the plot along at a fast pace, yet after the initial discovery of the dead man, lots of conversation, in social settings, involving Blackwood occur, such dinner and boat parties. I felt the pace at this juncture began to lose speed as Blackwood’s questioning lacks direction and there is little new information gained. However, this difficulty is not permanent, and the speed picks up again once new developments arrive, and Blackwood’s questioning becomes more pertinent. He does not work hand in hand with the police, (who in fact take more of a back-seat role in the book), and he does not pass on the new information he finds to them. However, the reader is not kept in the dark and he is consistent in articulating his ideas as the shape of the case materialises. Blackwood is not an infallible sleuth, so his theories concerning the murder, undergo changes, as new clues are revealed.
The mystery has some interesting features to it and determining the culpability of various suspects is not straight forward, with the case alternately incriminating and exonerating them. Blackwood, at times, becomes a vehicle for metafictional comment upon the mystery genre, such as when he muses that:
‘It should be a fundamental rule – although it wasn’t – that in life, as in fiction, the individual at whom suspicion pointed with most damning finger should be innocent. Mr Blackwood liked his mysteries complex, his denouements surprising.’
Well Starrett’s denouement certainly manages surprise! A change in scene and style occurs 30-40 pages before the end of the book, with Blackwood revealing Pulp-tinges. He goes into what may be a trap set by the killer, treating it as a jolly lark, but his mood quickly becomes more sombre. A number of reversals occur at this point and it is hard to decipher who Blackwood can trust, and who he cannot. Given Blackwood’s previous wandering around salubrious places idly questioning people, this change in setting and tension levels can seem a bit out of the blue, but overall is effectively dramatic. The solution has a slight Scooby-do feel to it and The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review, gave it a ’50-50’ rating, commenting that it had ‘Too many threads in plot confuse the unravelling. Good talk and exciting finish about balance scales.’