This is a writer I have known about for a while, but have never been able to try until now, due to the lack of availability of his work. Very unlike me I am starting at the beginning of a series with this being the first Thatcher Colt mystery. Colt is a New York Police Commissioner.
‘This is one of the secret chronicles of Headquarters in New York City, the first of a series of adventures of Thatcher Colt, Police Commissioner of New York City. Mr Abbot was Mr Colt’s friend and secretary, and tells here the baffling case of a beautiful girl found hacked with an axe and buried nude in a shallow grave behind a bungalow in the woods. Nearby was a stream where pigeons came to drink, and seven pigeons were found dead, with red stains on their white breasts. They had drunk from the brook that ran red with the blood of Geraldine Foster. The Medical Examiner said the girl had been killed only two days – but the pigeons had been dead two weeks. That was what Thatcher Colt started with in his strange quest for the murderer.’
Before I discuss the novel itself, my edition begins with a preface which sets up the idea of Abbot being Colt’s righthand man, who has finally persuaded him to let the case be written up, for the purposes of showing how competent the police can be. The remainder of the preface develops this point, taking the amateur sleuth down a peg or two:
‘It is all too true that the public does not sufficiently appreciate its police. There is a romantic fallacy that the Force is hopeless when faced with a clever crime; indeed many persons hold the departments of the country in contempt and derision. From short stories and novels they seem to have gained the impression that puzzling crimes are solved only by brilliant amateurs. These whimsical creatures of the story-teller’s imagination, a printed army of amiable dilettantes of the current fiction, are gentlemen of inexhaustible knowledge and accomplishment. They are experts in chemistry and astronomy, psychoanalysis and firearms; they know rugs, music, chess and wines; they are languid fellows with a great fund of humour, and a mischievous liking for cryptic utterances until they are ready to put a delicate finger on the malefactor. Their avocation is to catch elusive murderers, when the police detectives are ready to confess their utter ineptitude for their own business. Of course there are no such detectives in real life. Yet the crimes of reality are infinitely stranger than the fanciful misdeeds which these imaginary detectives are asked to unravel.’
Yet interestingly, the preface’s description of Colt still manages to make him sound like an expert superhero amateur:
‘a man born to wealth, family and position, he made crime his hobby while he was still in college. He knows the modern criminology in all its schools, from Lombroso to Adler. He is never afraid, as you will see, to try new methods, and preserves an open mind until all the evidence is in his hands. More, Thatcher Colt is an historian of crimes, often an invaluable asset to a detective. It is amazing how many crimes are duplicated, especially murders – killers seem to plagiarise from the past. The details of a thousand bloody old deeds are at Thatcher Colt’s fingertips.’
The opening of the story also provides the reader with further information about our sleuth. Abbot writes that the newspapers assume that Colt’s personal interest and involvement in cases is attention seeking publicity, but Abbot refutes this, stating that Colt ‘really wanted to be a musician and poet […] but unfortunately nature had made him a detective, and, as the once told me, with that quirkish smile of his, “Not even my duties as Police Commissioner shall keep me from the business of solving crimes.”’ Abbot adds that his boss and friend was also ‘afraid of being exposed in his true personality as a sentimentalist. He despised all emotion as a weakness, and he got angry when I assured him that the cold reason he brought to bear upon his daily work was also an emotion of another kind, a type of orgiastic mental frenzy.’ It is parts like this which add to the Sherlock Holmes vibe Colt gives off at times and Abbot is always keen to boost his friend’s image like a true Watson. Colt equally smokes a pipe, wears a dressing gown whilst interviewing a suspect at home, and is also an expert in jiu-jitsu, which he teaches at the Police College. There is also a brief nod to Lord Peter Wimsey in that Abbot supposedly fought alongside Colt during WW1 and we also learn that Colt has a broken love affair in his past, with the woman having dumped him for a duke. I did begin to wonder if Abbot was throwing everything in to establishing Colt as a character, including the kitchen sink, when we are told that Colt has a special car ‘equipped with many secret devices from the Triplex non-shatterable glass of its windows and wind-shields to the two concealed sub-calibre Thomson machine guns.’ Alas none of these features are utilised in this story.
The author sets up the disappearance of Geraldine Foster well, providing us with suspects/witnesses who are not telling all that they know and a dramatic last phone call from the victim, who is suspiciously said to be blameless and innocent. Naturally, Colt’s firm prodding eventually reveals quite a few reasons why someone might have removed this less than perfect woman. Once Geraldine is finally found murdered, the plot then begins to turn up many puzzling features: the conundrum of the different inks, the water in the grave despite the negation of rain, the smell of pine trees even though there are none in the area, as well as the aforementioned pigeons who have drunk the victim’s blood, yet seemingly died days earlier than her. This last query is made by the blurb to be the crux of the mystery but upon reading the story I felt this was not the case. The time frame for the death of the pigeons and Geraldine is rapidly resolved and it is the other timings involved in the murder which become trickier for Colt to figure out.
One of the reasons I found this to be an interesting read was due to the later mysteries it reminded me of, in particular two novels by Dorothy L. Sayers and one by Christie, the latter mirroring a principle in Abbot’s book, but putting her own spin on it. I can’t talk about two of the three links as they fall into spoiler territory but one I can discuss is Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930). I am not sure whether it was published just before or just after Abbot’s novel but both include the idea of relationships outside of marriage. In Sayers’ Harriet Vane is in danger of being condemned for a murder she did not commit because she had been living with the victim until quite recently before his killing. In Abbot’s novel the victim’s brother, Bruce, had been at odds with his sibling because he believed her to be leading an immoral life and that she had slept with her fiancé and Colt describes this activity as a ‘trial marriage,’ which he feels is an increasingly common phenomenon.
Most of the story is concerned with one obvious suspect, who you just know is being set up as a scapegoat by someone else. Nevertheless, Colt is not convinced of his guilt, despite the circumstantial evidence, yet the District Attorney still goes on to arrest this person. The interactions between these two are entertaining and it seems to me that this type of character dynamic is one American mystery fiction used a lot at this time one way or another. Although I would say Abbot makes things more amicable between the two than some later writers would.
Colt’s investigation is thorough, as is his explanation of the solution. Reading it has something of a dizzying effect given the elaborate nature of the killing. Whilst Colt does not withhold evidence from us, and we do see him using both a lie detector and a truth serum, I don’t feel he helps us to connect up the dots as well as he could have done. The choice of killer equally felt a bit peripheral, which made the motive as a consequence appear more tacked on, as there is no run up to it.
Challenge for Moira: I came across this description of a suspect and the mind boggles as to what the outfit looked like as a whole: ‘squirrel coat, saucy blue hat and the smallest snake-skin shoes’.