This is a read I had to postpone due to it being selected as January’s choice for my book group. So I am very glad it is finally time to read it! I first came across this author when I was researching my talk on animals in crime fiction, for the International Agatha Christie festival. Otto Penzler’s introduction, to the American Mystery Classics reprint, provides further details on how Kendrick came to create his blind detective. When visiting a friend in hospital, a fellow soldier who lost his eyesight during the conflict of WW1, Kendrick also encountered a British soldier who was blind like his friend, yet he ‘had the remarkable ability to tell Kendrick things about himself that exceeded what a sighted person might have known.’ Kendrick’s interest in sight loss stayed with him and during WW2 he ‘was a consultant to the staff of the Old Farms Convalescent Hospital for Blinded Veterans’ and he also ‘once served as the only sighted advisor to the Blinded Veterans Association.’ Kendrick’s series sleuth is Duncan Maclain, who ‘taught himself to shoot, guided only by sound.’ He runs his detective agency with Spud Savage, (a nod to the hardboiled here I think) and he has a guide dog named Schnucke and a protection dog named Dreist. Both are German shepherds I believe.
‘Meet Captain Duncan Maclain. Blinded during his service in the first World War, Maclain made up for his lack of vision by sharpening his other senses, achieving a mastery of the subtle unseen clues often missed by those who see only with their eyes. Aided by his dogs Schnucke and Driest, the Captain puts the intelligence-gathering techniques he learned in the Army to work, making a name for himself as New York City’s most sought-after private detective. Now it’s 1940, there’s a second World War breaking out, and Maclain is pulled into a case unlike any he’s investigated before. The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.’
Otto Penzler sets up the book in an interesting way in his introduction. I must admit genre and subgenre are high interest topics for me currently, and the way writers blend them together. Some of Penzler’s comments suggest something of the kind takes place in The Odor of Violets:
‘The tone of Kendrick’s novel was darker than most of his work, no doubt due to the fact that the world was at the brink of war and the book combined the pulp-inspired tropes of the hard boiled private eye story with a spy story […] Although The Odor of Violets is a genuine whodunit, its plotting has its roots in the pulp fiction magazines of the time, with a protagonist who has many of the characteristics of such pulp heroes as Doc Savage. Not only is Maclain highly intelligent, but his other faculties have been so profoundly enriched that they appear other-worldly. Add to that his highly attractive physical appearance and his ability to easily dispatch adversaries in frights and he becomes as close to a superhero as the Golden Age detective can be.’
I found these ideas interesting, pre and post reading. Before I began the book this section intrigued me as my only other experience of Maclain is within a short story which can be found in the anthology Golden Age Detective Stories (2021), which Penzler edited. In this short story he is without his trusty canine sidekicks and very much has to rely upon himself. Consequently, I had a more vulnerable perception of Maclain, so was surprised to see him described here as near superhero like. Having now read the novel, I think Maclain does have some extraordinary skills, but I am not sure I would describe him as a superhero. The denouement of the book, which is an extended showdown, places Maclain in a much weaker position, either requiring the help of others or functioning more as a heroine in jeopardy who on his own has to avoid getting killed in a remote house. This second aspect has its cinematic qualities, and it is a narrative trajectory we have all encountered either in print or in film.
Looking at the types of subgenres, Penzler says Kendrick is working with, I did wonder if this book would be quite my cup of tea. However, I am pleased to say it very much was. The opening of the story is surprisingly domestic, beginning in the household of Thaddeus Tredwill and his fourth wife is having unpleasant memories about her first husband and the shock that he might be entertaining her stepdaughter propels the plot forward, straight into murder in Greenwich Village. I assumed the reason for this setup was to provide two characters who will quickly fall under suspicion but eventually be shown to be innocent after a lot of misunderstandings and some heart to hearts. The typical fodder of suspense fiction, in which the character or characters run head long into the danger of incrimination. So I was quite surprised when this piece of information did not come out for a while and that when it did it had far less impact on the subsequent plot. This is not a deficit by any means, but perhaps shows that this style of mystery is concentrated in the opening sequence and that other styles come to the fore as the novel unfolds. Nevertheless, I like how Kendrick brings the war and espionage into the Tredwill household, as the two pleasingly contrast. Duncan Maclain sums it up well when he says this of the Tredwills home: ‘The Crags has become the battleground of a war.’
The revealing of the first body is very well executed, and I like how it complicates our picture of the ne’er-do-well first husband of Norma. Furthermore, Kendrick makes the crime scene more tantalising by having a third-party tamper with it, as the reader then has to puzzle out what their intentions are and why they have done what they have done. Maclain when he arrives equally realises that he has been duped earlier in the story, tripped up by his over-reliance or perhaps over-confidence in his special skills. If these skills are known by others, then there is the chance they can use them against him. Kendrick has a lot going on in his plot, with the opening third throwing out several strands. Yet I think his handling of them is controlled effectively and it also means that the reader is provided with a few more pieces of the puzzle to help them figure out what might be happening. Moreover, I think Kendrick uses his characters, in particular scenes, to bring certain parts of the narrative together, without it feeling forced.
Although the tone is darker and more hardboiled in places, that does not mean the narrative is without humour and I enjoyed the comic moments the writer offers us. One example can be found when the police join Maclain, with his dogs, at the Greenwich Village crime scene and we are told that:
‘Sunk down in a large easy chair, Sergeant Aloysius Archer was nervously trying to outstare Dreist. He had heard somewhere that dogs would turn away if you looked at them hard enough. It wasn’t working out with Dreist. The Captain’s police dog glared back at him unwaveringly from a point of vantage on the floor.’
The best humorous incident though, involves the revealing of a thvarn cvt (in ROT13 Code). I won’t say any more but those who have read the story will know which bit I mean. I enjoyed how it upends a particularly hardboiled episode.
Another strength of the book is how Kendrick stages a scene from the perspective of Maclain, as in describing it with the information of the room he can gather without sight. This is not overdone but the times it is deployed, are very effective. One scene in particular creates a brilliant shock for the reader, which we might not have had if the narrative had been focused on what could be seen. Smells, as the title suggests, are also a key element of the story, which pervade the case and I liked how something so fragile and innocent is turned into something which adds tension by its presence and an increasing lurking sense of danger.
The final 40% of the plot is one of action rather than cerebral thought. The matter of realising something important, but is it too late? It is a time to react rather than plan out. Kendrick crafts this series of events well and keeps you firmly on the edge of your seat. Just when you think everyone is safe, terror and danger strike once more! In addition, this sequence has lots of interesting aspects to it, such as a new use for a Christmas tree and the medieval armour also adds an unusually dramatic touch to the denouement. I wouldn’t say this book is 100% ‘genuine whodunnit,’ though it does have its moments. I think the noir/espionage style can at times reduce the amount of suspect interviewing that goes on, yet we still see Maclain following up new leads.
So I think it is fair to say that book group have started off the year with a brilliant read. Hopefully our next pick will be as good, and I also hope American Mystery Classics reprint more of Kendrick’s work as I would really like to explore this series further.
Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics)