“‘We are at war’ he whispered into the darkness. ‘Every combatant in the world is against us – fighting our peace with every weapon they know.’ He sat up suddenly and shook his fist into the darkness. ‘I’ll beat you,’ he exclaimed so loudly that Schnucke stood up and came to the bedside. ‘You think you’ve wrecked me with blindness – but I still have a brain. Your weapons of death and terror are helpless against it.’ He lay back on the pillow, then reached down and petted the dog beside him. ‘Go lie down, Schnucke, you need your sleep – you and a blind man versus a world full of fools!’”
Happy New Year to my Book Club, that zany bunch of GAD-loving misfits who meet on Zoom every third Sunday to accomplish two aims: 1) discuss this month’s book without getting too bloodied, and 2) select next month’s book without a similar rout occurring. Toward the end of last year, we worked together to tweak our selection process, and already it’s paying in spades because we are off to an auspicious start. New author, new detective, and a choice merging of the classic whodunnit, the bloody American pulp novel, and that most intriguing subset, the World-War-II-Espionage-Spydunit!
In June of 1941, Agatha Christie published Evil Under the Sun, a book that could just as easily have been written in 1931 for all the mention it made of the current political turmoil facing Europe. And yet, any thoughts that Christie seemed poised to ignore the war in her writing were dashed later that same year with N or M, the best of the Tommy and Tuppence novels and possibly her best thriller. And it was timely: it actually dealt with Nazi spies infiltrating the genteel resort areas of the British seaside.
Christie wasn’t the only author to utilize this trope of upstanding citizens betraying their neighbors and families for a rotten cause. I believe one member of our book club is going to devote time this year exploring such titles, and they will certainly be heartened in their purpose our January book, The Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick, which also happened to appear in 1941.
Born in Philadelphia in 1894, Kendrick was the first American citizen to travel to Canada and enlist there to fight in World War I. The blinding of a fellow Philadelphian during battle led to Kendrick visiting his friend at St. Dunstan’s where he met another blinded soldier, a Londoner who was able to use his other senses to reveal much information about those around him. This encounter inspired in Kendrick a lifelong interest in the blind and their ways of coping with the challenges they faced. He later became a novelist and, four books in, he invented Captain Duncan McClain, handsome, urbane, intellectual, a savvy private eye who also happened to need a seeing eye dog.
With the aid of his assistant Spud Savage, his secretary Rena (who would quickly marry Spud) and his two German Shepherds, the gentle Schnucke and the fierce Driest, McClain captured the public’s imagination through twelve novels and three novelettes and later became the inspiration for the popular TV hero, blind insurance investigator Mike Longstreet. In his introduction in the recent American Mystery Classics reprint, Otto Penzler suggests that Violets is the best – and the darkest – of the McClain mysteries. It is dark at times – and it’s a really great read.
Most of the novel takes place at The Crags, nestled in the Connecticut Hills on the outskirts of Hartford in a hamlet called Tredwill Village. Owner Thaddeus Tredwill is a wealthy and vital older man who, among other things, has dabbled in theatrical production. Through this, he met his much younger second wife, Norma, a retired actress, and they live at the Crags with Thad’s three children, the older son’s French wife, and a young protégé of Thad’s named Cheli Scott who writes plays.
Norma gets along with everyone except Thad’s beautiful daughter Babs, and the strain of their relationship takes a dark turn when Norma discovers that Babs is being wooed by former actor Paul Gerente, who was married for one terrible year to . . . yup, to Norma. Suspecting that Babs is up to no good on a supposed Christmas shopping spree to New York with her little brother Stacy, Norma follows her to the City and straight to Gerente’s apartment where she sees Babs leave in a hurry. Buzzing her way into the building, Norma enters Gerente’s apartment to find her former husband lying dead before the fireplace, a bloody poker nearby.
Expertly woven through this domestic crime plot is a thrilling story of foreign spies and secret treachery. It seems Gerente was working for the government. And then there’s Babs’ older brother Gil, an engineer who is coming up with secret plans for something in the family basement. And it isn’t long before Captain Maclain is drawn into both problems with the full approval of the American Secret Service. As one higher-up says,
“I hope you understand how invaluable you can be – a trained intelligence officer who can move around in darkness as well as in the light; a man who knows every street of this vast city.”
Kendrick does a wonderful job illustrating how Maclain operates, both on the case and in daily life. And even though this is, I believe, the third or fourth Maclain novel, we get wonderful insight into how he feels as he faces the challenges of permanent darkness and the squeamishness most people seem to feel when they come in contact with a blind man.
Kendrick also does a great job expanding this story to show how the machinations of the enemy agents is affecting the progress the U.S. is making in the war. There’s a terrifying short scene on board a submarine that has been fatally damaged by sabotage where the crew’s mental state starts to crumble as they slowly realize they are all going to die. And there are wonderful teases as to what might be going on as we flutter around different characters, all bound by one thing: the titular scent of violets. Given Maclain’s own heightened sense of smell, this is a great clue upon which to hang a tale.
Side by side with the GAD-style clueing and characterization is the brutal violence one associates with pulp fiction, much of it coming by total surprise. Kendrick seems as comfortable with the dark impulses of humanity as he is with the cultured enclaves of East Coast society. It all combines well in this engaging mystery.
There was an attempt soon after its publication to create a film series of Maclain’s adventures. After a weird first attempt in 1938, where the detective’s debut novel, The Last Express, was adapted (with Maclain having no vision problems whatsoever), MGM launched a series with Edward Arnold cast – at 52 years and quite rotund, he was miscast – as Captain Maclain. It’s low budget enough that the two dogs are combined into one (and renamed Friday.) You can watch it on YouTube. It’s not a terrible thriller on its own, but the book deserved a better and more faithful adaptation, and after a second film was poorly received, MGM shuttered the series.
As you might expect, Kendrick has been long out of print and finding some titles can be next to impossible and/or cost you a bundle. I have a feeling some of this might have to do with some unfortunate stuck-in-its-time characterization. Still, I managed to score a nice Dell mapback of Death Knell, the next Duncan Maclain adventure, which I think has been well received. After my charming introduction through The Odor of Violets, I look forward to revisiting the good Captain and his canine pals.
My only question is – and I ask this because I found myself snickering every time Maclain sternly issued the command, “Forward, Schnucke!” – is it pronounced shnook???