It has been a long time since I have read anything from the Patrick Quentin penname, so in the end that tipped the scales in its favour, for getting read first out of my pile of review copies. This book is a collection of four novelettes and includes an introduction by Curtis Evans. Many of you will know that Patrick Quentin was a pseudonym for Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, yet Curtis reveals that these four novelettes were only penned by Hugh. The introduction looks at the disintegration of the relationship, both personal and professional, of Webb and Wheeler, as well as looking at how Wheeler’s lifestyle fed into this quartet of stories.
Mrs B.’s Black Sheep (1950)
The original title for this story was ‘Passport for Murder,’ and was published in The American Mystery Magazine. Arguably the nature of this magazine influenced the settings of all four stories, which include celebrities, socialites, and glamour. The title this story is printed under in this collection, came from its reprint in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1967.
This 40–50-page story whisks us through Paris, Venice, and Capri, as the widowed Laura Black takes a gaggle of American debutantes through the culture spots of Europe, all the while trying to figure out who has it in for the group. It starts with an item of jewellery disappearing and then reappearing in murderous circumstances, but then the threat to life reaches the door of Laura herself. Who can she ask to help her? Her trusted friend? Her ex-boyfriend? How can she stop scandal from attaching to the tour company, and thus collapsing the business?
Death Freight (1951)
Laura Black, the protagonist, according to Curtis, is based on a real-life friend of Wheeler and Webb called Olivia Pattinson Hemingway Kammerer. She too was a well to do woman who needed to earn a living and she began conducting similar tours in Europe after WW2. I think Wheeler does a good job of using the increasingly dangerous and suspicious events to keep the finger pointing at more than one possible suspect. The reader might spot a red herring or two along the way, but they may not alight upon the true culprit. Laura does get one black mark against her though for choosing to walk by herself on top of an isolated ruin. Looking back on this story I would say it is akin to the bones of a film script. There is a lot of action but perhaps not enough time to take in each event. Furthermore, if this was made into a film then I think the characters would come through a little better.
Death Freight (1951)
This story takes place on board the S. S. Elihu Bonner. It has set sail along the East African coast and is heading to Zanzibar. An American writer names Jake Tinker is on the freight ship, and it is not long before he realises that a recent, but old, flame is also onboard, accompanied by her wealthy new husband. By the end of the first day someone goes overboard. Who is it? Who will be next? And how does a consignment of smuggled diamonds fit into it all?
A theme which crops up more than once in this collection is the question of who the protagonist can trust, and Wheeler is adept at picking the right person to be the guilty one. In this tale, a more hardboiled edge is given to this challenge.
Once again, the pace is quick in this story, yet I think this time round we get a better sense of what the characters are like. Perhaps because the setting is a boat, the story feels more intimate. Jake is an engaging and effective protagonist and accidental sleuth, whose actions partially stem from the fact that certain evidence would incriminate him if it became known. This facet upped the stakes in this narrative and the tension becomes palpable. Jake’s approach to finding out the truth is to pose questions to people, whilst revealing pieces of information that he has garnered, so he can then gauge reactions. In turn he receives various versions of the truth.
Wheeler increases the tension as the story heads for the finishing line. The only wrong note for me were the final few pages which felt a bit anticlimactic. But in some ways, I think this ending is a nod to cinema at the time, which felt the need to conclude romantically to a degree. However, I must commend his use of the trope of the killer confession. Normally, this an element I dislike, but Wheeler deploys it in a very effective fashion. Maybe there are no boring tropes, just boring ways of using them?
The Scarlet Box (1951)
Wheeler’s third story is set in Rome and involves the murder of an American film director and several celebrity suspects, including members of the Italian nobility. Our viewpoint comes from Robert Miller, an artist who has been painting the victim’s portrait. Despite not being involved in the crime, Miller ends up in trouble up to his neck, trying to untangle who is the guilty party. His loyalty is sorely tested when it comes to two female suspects.
The reason the victim is in Rome is because he is making a new film, Roman Romance and Curtis makes this interesting remark about this detail of the story:
‘’With his imaginary flick Roman Romance, Hugh Wheeler seems to have been anticipating Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted screenwriter of the Oscar-winning 1953 film Roman Holiday […] Had he heard about its developments during one of his stays in Hollywood?’
Wheeler had Hollywood connection, so it is certainly a possibility.
The crime and the investigation of it, place big demands upon Miller, as the father of one of the female suspects, a powerful Italian nobleman, is keen to do whatever it takes to ensure scandal does not mar his daughter’s forthcoming marriage. Moreover, Miller also has to face the fact that circumstantial evidence keeps building up against the other female suspect, who he has fallen head over heels in love with. As new information comes in, Miller must keep on re-evaluating the situation. In the end the truth is reached through a process of elimination, with Miller working through each possibility until he strikes gold. The cinematic influence can also be seen in one sequence of the story when Miller is being chased in the dark over and under some of Rome’s most iconic landmarks such as the Coliseum, the Forum, and the Palatine Hill.
The Laughing Man (1953)
The title of this story was added to when it was reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1963, being named ‘The Laughing Man Murders.’
This story is set in San Francisco and sees Inspector Martin Field having to solve a series of murders, committed by a serial killer, who is said to laugh whilst he murders. Field is told by a witness the names of three other people who are also on the killer’s hit list, yet they are only first names. How can he find these people? Can he save them? And can he figure out what links them all together?
This story is perhaps my favourite from the collection, and it certainly has the makings of a strong full-length mystery. Both the opening and the denouement have high impact, with the latter being remarkably heart wrenching, (if you ignore the minor note of romance). Nevertheless, there is something wonderfully hard in the killer’s reaction to being caught. It is this lack of regret that makes the ending as poignant as it is.
Pacing is one of Wheeler’s strong points and he uses it to good effect in this story as the bodies keep falling and Martin Field’s stress mounts, as well as his frustration at the witnesses he has to work with. One feature I particularly enjoyed was the use of a blind witness who is able to recall the sound of the murderer’s footsteps. The author utilises this element really well and again like other stories in this collection, this mystery would do well as a TV drama.
I am not sure when this collection is available to buy, as I can’t find any links to it online, but when it finally arrives, it is certainly one to look out for. The novelette format makes it ideal for dipping in to.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)