“And what a simple explanation, if that were all of it! Simple and natural – and surprising. The good old formula. The sort of thing that lay concealed beneath the red-herring trickery of all good fictional problems, then bobbed up at the end to knock the cock-eyed reader cold with astonishment..”
It’s Week Two of the ROY Awards, Kate Jackson’s brainstorm in which a number of chummy bloggers each nominate two classic works of crime fiction that saw anew the light of day this year (and created some of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak 2020.) Last week, I offered for your consideration one number out of a great canon of Perry Mason novels. I certainly hope you are all planning to give The Case of the Lonely Heiress one of your votes. That’s right, I said one! You get two votes in this contest, so I’m offering up my second recommendation and ask that you vote for this one, too. If I win, Kate will send me the grand prize: a pair of Man Booties knitted from wool shorn off her softest goat and a year’s supply of Vegamite!! In other words, I need this win!!
As with our first selection, this week’s entry arrives courtesy of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press, this one the latest in the American Mystery Classics series. Unlike Gardner, whose entire canon has been faithfully reissued every few years, Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder is a true find. Originally published as a novella in Redbook Magazine in 1934, Starrett expanded the tale (and changed the title) as a selection for Crime Club. He sold the rights to Fox Studios, and the following year the film version was released. The book received better notices than the movie – Starrett himself claimed bafflement at the changes wrought in his story – but after a few reissues in the 30’s and publication in France, The Great Hotel Murder pretty much disappeared until now.
Which is a bit odd because Vincent Starrett*, while not exactly a household name, had a long and varied career as a writer. I’ll confess that I knew next to nothing about him before reading this, which is a shame, since his early life was gloriously crowded with incident. Born in 1886 in Toronto, his family moved to Chicago when he was three. At 19, he became a cub reporter for a Chicago newspaper, switched to crime reporting two years later, and then became a war correspondent in Mexico. Eventually, he became a much-respected book critic for the Chicago Tribune, publishing a weekly column for twenty-five years.
At the same time Starrett was a stalwart contributor to pulp magazines, penning something like five hundred stories in both the mystery and science fiction genres. His most prolific character “the intrepid gentleman detective” Jimmie Lavender, was a denizen of the pulps. Starrett also wrote several novels featuring an amateur sleuth named Walter Ghost. All of these works pale next to the contribution the author made to the memory of his favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes: Starrett wrote pastiches and an unauthorized biography, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which became such an enduring contribution to Holmesian lore and is said to have inspired the rise of various societies devoted to studying Sherlockiana and worshipping that fabled denizen of 221B Baker Street.
I can’t speak for the natures of Lavender or Ghost, but what to make of Riley Blackwood, the dilettante sleuth who appears in the story, novel, and film versions of Recipe for Death/The Great Hotel Murder and then evidently fades into obscurity? He evidently bears a lot in common with his creator, in terms of appearance and occupation: both are long and lean and write for newspapers (Riley is a theatre critic), and both have a way with a snarky comment. The first page of the Redbook novella introduces the sleuth in this way:
“Introducing Mr. Blackwood of Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, a whimsical and a resourceful gentleman who bids fair to outdo the greatly lamented Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and who solves a perfect crime.”
To be honest, Riley Blackwood didn’t remind me of Holmes at all; rather, he seemed more of a pastiche of a Van Dine-ian style detective, right down to the obnoxious qualities of Philo Vance that Ogden Nash suggested “needs a kick in the pance.” He has the enthusiasm and youthful egotism of early period Ellery Queen as well, who by 1934 was rounding the corner of his internationally themed cases (The Chinese Orange Mystery appeared in 1934): both men are lean and boyish amateurs, a little too impressed with their own brilliance, but eminently likeable. Ellery lives with his father, the Inspector, who grudgingly feeds his son’s insolence by relying on the lad to solve the most bizarre and puzzling crimes that face the Homicide Squad. Riley lives with his aunt Julie, who is dismissive of his abilities, (“My nephew has a good mind, if only he would learn to use it.”) and is likewise derided by his newspaper colleagues, who call him “Hawkshaw,” the name of a popular detective from an early comic strip:
“But they made no serious call upon his abilities. He was too much the facile theorist – the dilettante – for his superiors; there was always the danger that he would plunge the paper into a libel suit.”
Starrett hammers home Blackwood’s credentials as a sleuth in the classic vein, often to comic effect. When the ingenue suspect asks him why he dabbles in solving murders, Riley’s answer could describe every dilettante detective created between 1920 and 1940:
“I’ve that kind of mind, that’s all. 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 used to be a reporter.”
Indeed, the most enjoyable aspect for me here was watching Riley try and jam his muddled “real-life” investigations into the more effective – and interesting – work of one of the many fictional detectives he admires. Interviewing a bellboy and frustrated with the lad’s answers to his questions, Riley asks him, “Do you ever read detective stories?” He rarely displays any self-doubt in his own dubious abilities, which makes for some delightfully meta-cognitive moments as when he begins to work hard to disprove the case against the most obvious suspect simply because he is the most obvious suspect:
“Artistically considered, Trample’s complicity must have been regarded as atrocious: he was too outstandingly the obvious suspect. 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 dénouements surprising. The play writers were aware of this.”
The other thing I truly enjoyed about the book was a glimpse into the glittering milieu of 1930’s Chicago – not the most common setting I have come across for cosmopolitan mysteries. The Hotel Grenada (and its rival, the Hotel Jamaica, right across the street), the swanky clubs, the dinner parties, the yachting parties, are all nicely rendered. The set-up for the mystery is also fast-paced and exciting: beautiful Blaine Oliver comes to the Grenada to meet an old family friend, renowned toxicologist Horace Trample, for breakfast. When she is seemingly stood up, she decides, with the assistance of a handsome sort-of-beau she runs into in the lobby, to investigate. Up in Dr. Trample’s room, they discover a dead body in the bed – except it isn’t Trample! Soon, the bedchamber is stuffed with hotel managers and house detectives, the good doctor is found sleeping a little too soundly in the victim’s actual hotel room, and madness reigns until the author gives his detective hero a finely tuned dramatic entrance:
“In the corridor . . . somebody was whistling the staccato melody of the Habanera from Carmen, and doing it remarkably well. Moffat jerked suddenly. ‘Riley Blackwood!’ he exclaimed, as if the name were a profane expletive. ‘And the Big Boss,’ he added, ‘is probably with him.’ He shrugged, and for the first time since he had been called from his more usual duties a smile played for a moment about the manager’s lips. It would have been difficult for a stranger to say whether it was a smile of pleasure or dismay. ‘Just a minute, gentlemen,’ he continued, holding up a hand. ‘You are about to witness an exhibition of detective work that will curl your hair and eyebrows.’”
I guess the problem for me with The Great Hotel Murder is that the case simply cannot live up to this introduction, especially when we come to realize that Riley Blackwood is, to all intents and purposes, faking it as a sleuth. After poking about for quite a length of time, made all the longer for Riley’s desire that the solution not let him down by being too easy to find or too mundane, he literally stumbles upon the truth in a manner that would most displease Father Ronald Knox, who makes the use of accident as a means of solving a case a major no-no in his famous decalogue. As writer Lyndsay Faye points out in her introduction to the novel that is included here, this is not the only one of Knox’ Commandments to fall by the wayside.
If you go into The Great Hotel Murder looking for a charming romp with a great deal of period flavor and more than a nod and a wink to GAD conventions, then I think you will have a lively time. If you’re looking for a deductive puzzle or the locked room mystery that some of the advertisements for this title have mistakenly labeled this to be, then you should turn around and find another hotel. I could recommend Bertram’s, but ultimately Starrett’s lodgings provide a lot more fun.
*I got most of my information about Vincent Starrett from a terrific website, Studies in Starrett, curated by Ray Betzner. I highly recommend it.