Merlda Mace (psd. of Madeleine McCoy)
Motto for Murder (1943) was one of a trio of murder mysteries written by Merlda Mace during the 1940's. The detective she deploys in this story is Timothy J. O'Neil better known as Tip to his friends. He is a 26 year old "special investigator" for Barnes and Gleason, a New York City investment firm. How he got this job is one of the big mysteries of this book since he readily admits that he is not much of an investigator and his performance during the story bears this out.
This is, in essence, a country house mystery. The house is an isolated mansion located in the mountains of northern New York State near Lake Placid. The controlling and quite unpleasant matriarch of a wealthy family has gathered her extended family to tell them that she has screwed them out of their inheritances. A snowstorm descends on the region and several murders occur during a long Christmas weekend.
This seems to me like a combination of a mediocre Mignon G. Eberhart mystery and a bad Ellery Queen mystery. The author can put words and sentences and paragraphs together in a coherant manner but the book, on the whole, is a disappointment. The physical and character clues are not first rate and the author employs a HIBK technique that serves no valid storytelling purpose. Since the characters insisted on wandering around in the dark, leaving their bedrooms unlocked at night and napping in vulnerable spots, the killer did not have too much trouble carrying out the murders. The "mottos" from the title of the story refer to fortune-cookie type candies wrapped in little papers containing sayings which play a small part in the solution.
Apparently, "Tip" O'Neil is not a series character. Mace/McCoy's other two mysteries seem to utilize a female sleuth called Christine Anderson although I have not been able to verify this information.
(Posted to the GAD site 09/2009)
Marco Page (psd. of Harry Kurnitz, 1909-1968)
Page/Kurnitz wrote or co-wrote 33 screenplays for Hollywood movies between 1938 and 1966. He wrote or adapted 4 plays for the stage between 1954 and 1963. More importantly for the purposes of this review, he wrote 4 mystery/detective novels between 1938 and 1955. Fast Company (1938) was the first of these. Of his screen work, Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) are the most telling of his style because Page's detecting couple in Fast Company is obviosly based upon Nick and Nora Charles from Hammett's novel The Thin Man (1934).
The plot of Fast Company revolves around some dirty business going on in New York's rare book trade. A frame-up and an elaborate scheme for stealing, altering and re-selling valuable books are the main plot-drivers in this fast-paced mystery. Rare book dealer Joel Glass (with help from his wife, Garda) discovers that working for insurance companies recovering valuable stolen books is more remunerative than depression-era bookselling. The characters make prodigious amounts of wisecracks and drink prodigious amounts of liquor before the story is concluded. One would not think that so much gunplay, knife-throwing, fist-fighting, kidnapping, head-conking, pistol-whipping, bookstealing and fem-fataling was going on in the 1930's New York rare book milieu.
The best way to describe Page's writing recipe is as follows: Combine one part Hammett's Nick and Nora with one part screwball comedy with one part thriller-ish action and then add a tiny dash of fair-play clueing.
One plot point that really annoyed me was that, one day after a character is shot in the shoulder, he manages to free himself from being tied up, beats up a crook and jumps out of a second story window. It's almost as if Page forgot that the character had been shot.
To be fair to Page, the general consensus of COC and Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers is that Fast Company is probably the weakest of his four mystery novels. Still, it was good enough to win Dodd Mead's Red Badge Prize and it got him to Hollywood where three movies were made based on the lead characters of Fast Company.
A very good review of Fast Company written on 05/09/08 by "prettysinister" on the LibraryThing website indicates that it was one of the earliest American bibliomystery novels.
Posted to the GAD site 07/2009
F (rederick) Britten Austin (1885-1941)
British writer Austin was a prolific author of various types of short fiction (adventure, military, supernatural, mystery, detective, etc.) in the early decades of the 20th Century. He wrote a series of six stories about PI Quentin Quayne that appeared in the Strand and the Red Book magazines in late 1924 and early 1925:
"The Vanished Duke" ss The Red Book Magazine 09/1924
"The Fourth Degree" ss 10/1924
"The One-Eyed Moor" ss 11/1924
"A Paris Frock" ss 12/1924
"The Great Mallett Case" ss 01/1925
"Diamond Cut Diamond" ss 02/1925
"The Fourth Degree" was reprinted in Thwing's The World's Best 100 Detective Stories (1929). "Diamond Cut Diamond" was reprinted in Sayers Omnibus of Crime (1929).
Quayne owns a detective agency in Piccadilly Circus (the Q. Q. Agency). Mr. Creighton is his assistant. Quayne is usually called "Chief" by his employees and "QQ" by his friends. The two stories I read (Fourth Degree and Diamond) were mediocre but the series had potential. I wonder if anyone has read all six of the Quayne stories? Most interestingly, I found a Quentin Quayne parody published in a Canadian boys private school magazine sometime in the late 1920's. It was quite amusing and the chap who wrote it poked some good-natured fun at Austin's characters and writing style. I may post it here at a later date.
Lawrence L. Lynch psd. of Emma Murdock Van Deventer (1853-1914)
Lynch wrote about twenty novels between 1879 and 1912. They seem to range from mysteries to detective stories to adventure tales to romances...and a combination of all four types. Her works seem to have been very popular at one time both in the US and England. Nobody reads her now but here are my thoughts on one of her books featuring an early female detective: Madeline Payne, the Detective's Daughter (1884).
Madeline Payne is a young woman of 17 or 18 when the story opens. Her father was Lionel Payne, a celebrated detective nicknamed "The Expert" for his ability to unravel complicated mysteries. Lionel was shot and killed by a criminal when Madeline was an infant. Her mother remarried a few years later, then soon after, died of heart disease. Her mother made a poor choice for her second marriage because Madeline's stepfather proved to be both cruel and greedy.
Madeline, recently graduated from a convent boarding school, returns home (home being a country house in a small town a two hour train ride outside of New York City) for the first time in several years. Her stepfather wants nothing to do with her and, in fact, has concocted a scheme to marry Madeline off to an old geezer acquaintance to satisfy a gambling debt. In the short time Madeline has been home, her youthful good looks have captured the interest of a handsome stranger who suggests an elopement to NYC. The naive Madeline agrees to the elopement. Just before departing, Madeline discovers that she, not her stepfather, is the true heir to the country house and small fortune left by her mother. Madeline vows vengeance on the man who made her mother's last years a hardship and kept her inheritance a secret.
Madeline's fiance turns out to be a rogue and gambler who had no intention of marrying her. Madeline engineers an escape from the bounder but the excitement of her daring flight causes Madeline to fall ill (possibly a weak heart like her mother?). She is rescued by two benefactors, met by chance, and is nursed back to health. Once recovered, Madeline vows vengeance on her ex-fiance for taking advantage of her innocence.
The above events take up the first quarter of this 125,000 word Victorian melodrama. The balance of the story narrates Madeline's successful transformation into an undercover detective (using disguises, of course) as she unravels the schemes of no less than three fortune hunters (one being her ex-fiance). The unlikely coincidence that these three fortune hunters have separately or together harmed the lives of her benefactors or their families is quite unbelievable. Madeline pieces together the mysterious events that have tied these seven or eight people together and winds up freeing a falsely imprisoned man, brings justice to the three fortune hunters, saves a young woman from a rogue, saves a middle-aged woman from the same rogue and expels her stepfather from her mother's house after rescuing him from a murder plot. Madeline is, naturally, exhausted by these efforts so at the end of the book she decides to travel to Europe for rest and a change of scene.
Madeline and some other characters from this book return for s sequel seven years later in Moina; or Against the Mighty, Detective Story (1891). I have only managed to read an excerpt of this book.
A publisher's blurb in 1884 describes Madeline Payne as "One of the most fascinating of modern novels. It combines the excitement that ever attends the intricate and hazardous schemes of a detective, together with as cunningly elaborated a plot as the best of Willkie Collins' or Charles Reade's."
Lynch/Van Deventer's writing style is a cross between Anna Katherine Greene and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lynch's plotting and inventiveness is not as good as Greene's and her subject matter is not quite as sordid as Braddon's. Like many of her Victorian contemporaries, Lynch is overly wordy and is prone to allowing her characters to make long, tedious, melodramatic, self-righteous speeches.
I eventually began looking forward to the sections featuring the criminals because those characters exhibited a bit more complexity and depth compared to the "good/noble" characters with whom the author seems more enchanted. The criminals tended not to make long speeches and, quite frankly, their conversations were more interesting than those of the "good" characters.
Lynch came from a prominent Chicago area family and apparently spent her entire life in the Chicago vicinity. Because of that fact, I found it surprising that she set this novel in and around New York City and the city of Baltimore because her descriptions of the local geography, buildings, streets neighborhoods, cities and small towns were so generic that the settings could have been in almost any large or mid-size American city. It almost seemed that Lynch had never been to the East Coast and was using maps and travel brochures to help her visualize her locations.
In a final thought, Lynch falls into the common trope that Kathleen Gregory Klein writes extensively about in her book The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre (1988). Like many female PI's of the late 19th and early 20th Century, Madeline solves the "mystery plot" but fails to solve the "marriage plot" successfully for herself.