I first came across this title when I read The Anthony Boucher Chronicles, which collects Boucher’s reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle between 1942 and 1947. He wrote of this title that: ‘Clever new murder method raises hell among research biologists until psychologist Whitney Wheat solves the puzzle of the tiger, the termites and the termagant. Good enough.’ I was suitably intrigued and finally managed to run to earth a copy. Jeremy Lane (1893-1963) was an author new to me, but thankfully there was a short Wikipedia page about him. It seems he was originally called Herman Dale Schuchert, but he changed his name legally to his penname Jeremy Lane, to circumvent anti-German prejudice after WW1, as around that time he was starting out in the music and writing industries. He wrote for the pulps including: The All-Story Weekly, Top-Notch Magazine, The Smart Set and People’s Favourite Magazine. Psychologist Whitney Wheat was his series sleuth, but I don’t know if he appears in all of his novels. The other mysteries I know he has written are: Death to Drumbeat, Murder Spoils Everything, Kill Him Tonight, The Left Hand of God and Murder Has Bright Eyes. I doubt this is a complete bibliography though. Today’s read is dedicated to Jeremy’s wife, Betty, who like many other mystery writer spouses, was not that interested in the genre: ‘To Betty who doesn’t like mysteries, but likes me because I’m no mystery to her.’ The Criminal record in The Saturday Review describes this book as ‘hectic’ and as a ‘frenzied mixture of “science,” crime, emotional outbursts and lurid action – especially at finish.’ What had I let myself in for?
‘The sudden death of Dr Boeck, one of the scientists working in the arthritis laboratory at Cottsborough, was presaged by a strange warning given him by the frenzied dogs on the nearby Welker estate. Then the dogs, and also the laboratory rats, grew panicky at the sight of Dr Hawkswirth-Bayne, and soon that gentleman was mysteriously dead of what had appeared to be a simple cold. Yet throughout everything Frieda Welker’s private zoo of a Bengal tiger, an Australian bear and a black leopard remained tranquil. And Whitney Wheat had to find out what subtle emanation of murder could make tame animals wild and still not affect their jungle brethren.’
In the manner of Anthony Abbot, Jeremy Lane has his book narrated by a Watson chronicler who shares the same name as the author. What is more it seems that Wheat had helped Lane the narrator a lot in the past, when as a famous musician he suddenly suffered from severe stage fright. Interestingly Jeremy Lane the writer, according to good old Wiki, also ‘led a small dance band known as The Symphonic Step Stimulators which toured the Midwest from the early 1920s into the 1940s.’
Wheat and his devoted sidekick Lane are invited to the laboratory at Cottsborough by one of the lab technicians there, a woman named Georgine Alderson, who Wheat knew previously. It seems that the death of one of the scientists at the facility has everyone on edge. Doctor Boeck seemingly died from his cold, but before this he had had an unnerving experience with the laboratory rats, who all descended into panicked frenzy when he walked past them. His death occurred soon afterwards. In his final words, he directs attention back to those rats. How had they predicted his demise? The remaining scientists are all getting on each other’s nerves and the disappearance of a syringe full of poison does not help. Yet when another scientist in the group develops a cold and goes the say way, fear levels rise.
The book takes places over a three-day period and each chapter covers a specific time period. In that time death and other puzzling events occur and possible motives for terrorising the scientists also emerge. Money is a very big factor, not least because the relations of the now dead man who funded the arthritis research originally, get back hundreds of thousands of dollars if scientists leave the team. Death is certainly one way of making this happen.
Trying to figure out what the victims even died of, let alone how, is a key part of the investigation for Wheat, and it is by no means an easy task to complete. Autopsies prove important, though initially they provide conflicting evidence. The victims had all been struggling to breathe before death and needed supplementary oxygen. But in the autopsies their lungs were not particularly bad. There is no suggestion of foul play such as with poison, yet their stomachs show signs of lesions. The final solution is quite well done and involves a very good blind or red herring. This part of the book made me feel it was a John Rhode like mystery, if he had written American pulp novels.
Whilst this story is not out and out pulpy or hard boiled, it is no one’s cozy crime either. This comes across in what aspects of the narrative get the most attention, which is reflected in the abrupt nature of the denouement that leaves a few character-based loose ends. The couples in this piece give off a modern-day Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream’s kind of vibe, with partners mis-managed, yet this part of the tale is not as paramount as others. There is not a lot of violence in the novel but there are pockets of it. Jeremy Lane the narrator comfortably fits the Watson mould and at times he has a go at trying to solve the mystery of what is making the animals react so weirdly, independently. Naturally this does not go well. Yet he is an important cog in the machine as Wheat is not a man who gives much away. However, his actions at times do reveal to the reader, if not the Watson narrator, what lines of enquiry he is working on.
So all in all an unusual read if you can find a copy.