Yesterday at Book Club, we made mincemeat short work of our latest selection and got down to talking. I meet monthly with a distinguished group of folks. There’s Kate, from Cross Examining Crime, who has published two insanely enjoyable puzzle books through the British Library. And we have the Puzzle Doctor, from Classic Mysteries, who single-handedly has re-introduced Brian Flynn to an unsuspecting world.
And we’re also fortunate enough to include my pal, occasional fellow podcaster and frequent source of inspiration – JJ from The Invisible Event. JJ was instrumental in getting the two detective novels of pulp author Theodore Roscoe reprinted, and great excitement swirled especially around Murder On the Way!, a fantastical 1935 whodunnit tinged with supernatural horrors. Of course, I couldn’t wait to get to that book and celebrate JJ’s accomplishment.
That was, oh, four years ago. I’ll admit that one of the things we talked about in Book Club yesterday was my tendency to procrastinate. I pick a book from my staggering TBR pile and vow to finish it, but then I read another friend’s blog or see something glittery on my shelf – why, it’s another title! And it’s better!! – and I switch books. And then once I do finish a book and get down to post about it, I get sidetracked from the main purpose by sharing one story after another.
So here’s the thing: I hereafter vow to get better at Sticking To The Plan, and I have decided to begin by reading . . . . . yep! Theodore Roscoe’s Murder On the Way! Why?
Well, that brings me to a story . . .
My latest podcast pleasure comes from Down Under where two enthusiastic young crime fiction lovers who call themselves Flex and Herds have a weekly show called Death of the Reader. They have been known to chat about the occasional genre-related film or video game, but generally speaking they’re talking books, both classic and modern. They chat quite a lot about Australian mysteries, and they seem to have a special love -as who doesn’t? – for honkaku and other Japanese crime stories.
The typical format finds Flex and Herds covering a book over a three week period, challenging each other to solve the case. One week, Flex will choose a book he has read and puts Herds on the hot seat. They’ll go over the first part of the book, and Herds will offer his deductions as to who the culprit may be. The following week will find them much deeper into the story, giving Herds a chance to fine-tune his proposed solution, and then the final episode will show how strong a sleuth Hurds proved to be. And then it’ll be Flex’s turn to play armchair detective.
I have only listened to episodes regarding books I’m familiar with, and I have to tell you that Death of the Reader is terrific fun. Not only do the hosts do a great deep dive into the books they read but their enthusiasm is infectious. Many episodes also include interviews with a wealth of authors and fellow crime enthusiasts, and they have scored some incredible names – like David Suchet, who they interviewed during their discussion of Murder on the Orient Express.
And now here’s where my two stories collide. I first learned about the podcast from JJ who told me that he would be discussing Murder on the Way with Flex and Herds. The first episode has just dropped, and I thought this would be the perfect first opportunity for me to play along with these guys and cross another item off my list (“I will read Murder on the Way immediately.”)
So here’s how it will work on my end: I’m going to read the book along with Flex and Herds. Today’s assignment is Chapters 1 – 5. I’ll record my impressions of the novel and then offer my first stab at a solution. Then I will listen to the podcast and see where the same reading takes the boys.
I don’t intend to reveal much about what goes on there. You should definitely listen to Death of the Reader for yourselves. (JJ has posted a link here.) But I will let you know in general terms how much, if at all, my theories align with Flex and/or Herds. I will then repeat this process next week for Part Two and post that here. On the final week, we will discover if my solution was correct. If it IS, I will -spoiler alert! – let you know. If I’m wrong, I won’t say what the correct solution is, but I’ll let you know if the boys got it right. (They are remarkably good at this!)
Obviously, you’re probably better off sticking with me if you have already read Roscoe’s book. One way or another, you should find Death of the Reader wherever you get your podcasts, scroll down the episode list to find a title you’ve read, and give them a listen. You’ll find yourself wanting to play along.
Alright, Bradley, that’s enough procrastinating: let’s dive into the first five chapters of Murder on the Way!.
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First, the good and bad news about reading Theodore Roscoe. The good? He has all the charm of a successful pulp writer, a great eye for description and atmosphere, especially when it comes to places, and a wonderful turn of the humorous phrase. (“Rain fell with gravity on the skylight, and the room had gone cheerless as wallpaper peeling in a Russian novel.”) The bad news? There’s no getting around the stuck-in-its-time-iness of Murder on the Way! If you’re going to read it, you need to come prepared for the racism. Half the characters are black and – granted that these are meant to be grotesques, with the white characters painted in equally disgusting terms, but by the end of Chapter Two, I gave up counting how many offensive terms racial terms I could find. I warn you: it never stops and it’s a rotten distraction.
We begin our tale in New York City, in the art studio/apartment of Edwin Edward Cartershall, our hero and narrator. He is hanging out with his girlfriend/almost-fiancee Patricia Dale, affectionately called Pete, when he should be working on the portrait of her that he hopes to enter in a contest. If he wins, he feels he will be set for life as an artist. But, like brilliant bloggers everywhere, Cartershall is procrastinating!
They are interrupted by the arrival of the first grotesque, a Haitian dwarf named Maitre Pierre Valentin Bonjean Tousellines, LL.B., Comte de Limonade. This guy is the lawyer for Elijah Proudfoot, the owner of an estate in Haiti called Morne Noir, who also happens to have been for several years Pete’s guardian after her father died. Pete paints a disturbing portrait of this old creep:
“I can still remember how his lips would sort of purse when he’d kiss me. I was ten. When I was seventeen he tried to make love to me – asked me to marry him. One of those horrible, superannuated old Romeos. I couldn’t stand it. I slapped his face with a riding whip and ran away.”
And now, years later, Uncle Eli has become just another body in the library, shot in the head and discovered by his attending physician Dr. Cherubin Sevestre. What’s more, Uncle Eli has named Pete as one of his heirs, on condition that she follow the lawyer to Haiti to attend his funeral and the reading of the will. Pete is reluctant, but Cartershall insists she go with him accompanying her. He packs his Luger in case of trouble. Whoo boy! A Luger’s not gonna help you, buddy . . .
This opening is really fun, and despite all the derogatory descriptions of the Comte de Limonade, at least the lawyer is depicted with some respect according his education and position. Once the two Americans arrive at Morne Noir, however, they are surrounded by human monsters in the form of the seven other potential heirs, each more horrible than the last. There’s the British overseer and the Nazi personal guard, the gangly albino and the Dominican without a tongue, and – well, you get the idea. To be honest, none of them really stands out from the ugly pack: they are meant to be a herd of heirs and, we can assume, future murder victims.
For Uncle Eli’s will is the typical tontine-like disaster you expect to find in a murder mystery. The eight heirs have been lined up in a legal row, where the first in line inherits everything – the property and a great deal of money ($100,000 was worth $1,996, 839.42 in 1935) – “provided the heir so named does not leave Morne Noir in any way, shape or manner for twenty-four hours after the driving of the stake in my grave.”
The funeral is a spooky affair, performed in an outdoor setting that sounds like a Universal Pictures monster movie set. Uncle Eli is buried in a ceremony that seems created to prevent his being transformed into a zombie, including driving a huge stake through the coffin. What are the odds that I got to read two zombie mysteries nearly back to back, but at least – as JJ points out in the introduction he wrote for the novel – these are 1930’s Universal Studio zombies rather than George Romero flesh-eaters. The original zombie was a person trapped between life and death, forced to work mindlessly for the rest of its pitiful existence – the Caribbean form of cheap labor.
The murders start almost immediately after everyone returns from the funeral and scatters around the mansion to prevent alibis from forming. The first victim is poor Dr. Sevestre, shot to death in the courtyard seemingly with the same gun that killed Uncle Eli, the gun owned by the Nazi guard, Manfred von Murda. (Oh, the pulpy names!!) The police swarm onto the scene, and the lead investigator, Lieutenant Nemo Narcisse, in the long GAD tradition of the police boob, barks questions at everyone with very little information spewing forth.
The next murder follows, and it’s a great scene. Edwin wants Pete to stay up with him, but she is exhausted and retreats to her room to get some sleep. He vows to sit up with his Luger but falls asleep reading an old French book about voodooism. He is roused by Pete’s screams and rushes out to find her.
All the guests have been put in rooms on the bottom floor except for Cartershall and Pete, who occupy two of the three bedrooms in use upstairs. The third room belonged to Uncle Eli, and it is here that Edwin finds Pete, pointing a gun at a terrifying figure standing in Eli’s wardrobe in the dark. The figure intones:
“Do not remain in Morne Noir! Go straight away. I am the ghost – the ghost of the wronged – the ghost who returned and killed your Uncle Eli – “
Then comes the sound of a scream and a gunshot, and something hits the floor. The door opens and in comes Narcisse, followed by the heirs, only to find Sir Duffin Wilburforce, the British overseer and first in line to inherit, shot to death. Both Pete and Edwin are holding their guns, and yet neither weapon killed the man. Moreover, we know that all other weapons belonging to the rest of the suspects have been locked up in the office safe downstairs. Finally, Narcisse examines the wardrobe and discovers a secret passageway that leads down to Uncle Eli’s office.
And that’s where Roscoe leaves us at the end of Chapter Five!!!!
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My guess at this point? To be honest, it’s only a guess. As I mentioned, none of the heirs stand out particularly as viable suspects; I believe they are merely meat for the offing. And this is, after all, a novel presumably including the living dead. So here’s what I think:
Here’s how the lawyer described the discovery of Uncle Eli’s body:
“M’sieu Proudfoot had retired to the library. The household was out. Dr. Sevestre found M’sieu Proudfoot seated in a chair, book in lap, face streming blood and a bullet in the head. I entered not ten minutes later and was horrified to discover the doctor plucking the bullet from the forehead of the deceased. Dr. Sevestre covered the face with a handkerchief, together we carried the corpse to a bedroom where the doctor set about preparing it for the burial.”
In other words, Dr. Sevestre – the now deceased personal physician to Uncle Eli – had total control over the finding and handling of the body. The tableau that the Comte de Limonade comes upon in the library seems awfully reminiscent of one we will come upon four years later in a much better another novel. And even though I can’t really imagine that Agatha Christie picked up a Theodore Roscoe mystery and recalled this point, and even though I don’t know yet how it was managed, I would venture to guess that Uncle Eli is not dead. Rather, he has faked his death with the help of his doctor in order to get all his “heirs” together and kill them for some reason. Having himself “buried” with a stake in true anti-zombie fashion insured that Uncle Eli couldn’t be easily “dug up.”
That’s all I can come up with now. It’s time for me to listen to Death of the Reader, find out what Flex and Herds think, and get my next reading assignment. Wait for me . . . right . . . here!
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What an enjoyable episode! JJ sounded great – I’m glad I gave him those elocution lessons for his birthday. And there’s even a special guest star talking about a book that I’m very much looking forward to reading.
This time around, Flex and Herds are competing against each other before they have to come up with a joint theory of the solution to appease JJ. Herds and I are clearly aligned in thought, but the alternate proposed theory by Flex is fascinating – and just a tad more ludicrous than anything else found in this book. Give it a listen, and then come back next week when I discuss Chapters 6 – 9 of Murder on the Way!