Frank Froest's pre-WWI police detective tale, The Grell Mystery, is an unexpectedly delightful read. The author, a retired Scotland Yarder himself, in the guise of New Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Department's (CID) Executive Chief Heldon Foyle, sets out to solve the murder of Robert Grell, American explorer, at the dead man's house at Grosvenor Gardens, London ... the butler found him. There are dozens of twists and turns, starting with the revelation almost at the outset that it's not Grell who was murdered at all though the body was found in Grell's study, wearing his clothes, and carrying his identification.
Occasionally one glimpses Froest's own agenda peeking out from behind the curtains. This was the age of Sherlock Holmes, who was still hugely popular and solving new cases in The Strand Weekly. Froest admonishes us that his detective "rarely wore a dressing-gown and never played the violin". Froest attempts to remove the glamour from detective work and, thankfully, fails: his hero, Heldon Foyle, is constantly front-and-centre, solving riddles, taking death-defying chances in opium and gambling dens, and, since his Watson is entire field force of detectives, giving orders to his agents across London and the countryside.
There is one breathtaking aspect, quite apart from the sheer fun of the plotting, and that is the ripe anti-Semitism which rears its head briefly among the thieves den of the Whitechapel ghetto Foyle enters single-handedly. But that was a reflection of the world in 1913, and of British culture. Nonetheless, the views are so matter-of-factly stated, to modern ears and eyes it is a bucket of cold water. It is, however, quite incidental to the main story and should not deter anyone from investigating an unjustly forgotten detective writer's oeuvre.
Delightful -- and part of the five part omnibus originally published in 1910. This one's a "locked murder room mystery" and shows off Joe Muller's deductions and methods with great charm. Perhaps WWI hampered the future acceptance of this unexpectedly curious character.
This is what was said of the full omnibus in its original publication in 1910:
New York Times, 28 May 1910 - Section Saturday Review of Books, Pg BR11
AN AUSTRIAN DETECTIVE
ANOTHER detective of genius has made his bow in literature. He belongs to the Imperial Austrian police and his creator is Frau Augusta Groner, an Austrian novelist. Several instances of his cleverness in ferreting out the doers of evil are translated into English, with some adaptation, by Grace Isabel Colbron, author, literary critic, and single-tax lecturer. The volume bears the title, "Joe Muller: Detective" (Duffield & Co., $1.50). He differs so much, in personality and endowments, from other famous detectives of fiction that Frau Groner must be credited with the creation of a new character. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, he does not reason out his conclusions, but seems rather to be forced into them by instinct, to be impelled along his course from one discovery to another by inspiration. Unlike Monsieur Lecocq, in his methods he is neither brilliant, startling or melodramatic. He is just a quiet, plain little man, unduly humble, who edges his way along the precarious path of a secret-service detective, and only on rare occasions feeling pride in his powers and achievements. Frau Groner gives him a number of apparently simple cases to unravel, which his genius soon finds to be anything but simple. But having set his nose to the trail, his hound's instinct leads him through twisting and complicated ways to surprising ends. The stories have surprising cleverness, both in the portrayal of Muller's character and methods and in the complications and slow revelations of incidents and motives. But the detective's superiors in the police department seem to be unnecessarily stupid.
I haven't been able to discover much about the author -- William Levine aka Will Levinrew -- who wrote a number of murder mysteries mainly in the early 1930s. He also wrote short stories including at least one published in The Phantom Detective pulp (Vol 1 No 1) the same year as this 1933 novel.
In this tale, elderly scientist Professor Herman Brierly is called in to solve the case of the serial murders of octogenarians with his assistant -- rugged blue eyed adopted son John Matthews -- and Jimmy Hale, crack reporter for the (now long defunct but real) New York Eagle newspaper. It's a nice set-up: 200-odd men share a history during the US Civil War. Every 4th of July they have a reunion and many years ago it was agreed that a fund would be created, paid into by the survivng members that would be eventually paid out to the final sole survivor. Now, 65 years have passed since the Civil War and the 17 and 18 year olds are all in their 80s. A mere 14 survive. Mysteriously, one by one, their numbers dwindle during this year's reunion. Is it a sudden rash of suicides? Or are they being stalked? Enter Professor Brierly and his crew.
OK, so it's not literary fiction but it is a fun, breezy read with lots of action. It's very much a male thing -- there is only a single woman in the entire cast and no love interest at all (she's a recent widow, the sister to Jack). But it is charming in its 1933 view of how the world works and is set on a charming lakeside in Quebec (Lake Memphremagog which also borders on Vermont).
Delightful pulp fiction set in late 40s Chicago. This is not literary fiction, so expect lots of action.
It's also a coming of age story for a young man who loses his father in a mysterious murder (or was it random back alley bad luck?), getting a second chance to discover who his dad was through reuniting with his uncle in order to solve the case.
And for old typographers, the bits of linotype history scattered throughout is a fond tribute to that bygone era ... written when the era was very much alive.
And all this in a "first novel".