Willie Wang: "I don't get it, Pop- was there a murder or wasn't there?"Sydney Wang: "Yes, killed good weekend! Drive, please."- Murder by Death (1976)
Over the past week, this blog took a cosmopolitan perspective to the detective story with an excess of alien trimmings that would've driven Inspector Cramer up the wall. But today, we're back on familiar turf with a book that has, as he would've said, a good old "American murder with an American motive and an American weapon."
Nope. Contrary to what the opening of this blog entry suggests, this is not a book review that casts a critical glance at one of Rex Stout's novels or bundle of novelettes, but another assessment of Patrick Quentin – a collaborative posse of writers who've gone up and up and up in my estimation! However, the novel that is today's subject of discussion, Puzzle for Puppets (1944), is merely an excellent attempt in lieu of the absolutely brilliant stuff I was exposed to in their last few novels – but it's one of those fun stories in which they took a sadistic pleasure in placing their protagonists in severe peril. I once read someone comparing the Peter Duluth tales to intelligently written soap operas, and I couldn't think of a more fitting label to attach to this series.
The backdrop of the story is nighttime San Francisco, during those dark days when a raging war torn the continent of Europe asunder, where Peter Duluth, now and up-and-coming naval officer, plans to spend his weekend leave with his wife, but an acute rooming shortage threatens to wreck all of their romantic plans – when a kindred spirit, named Mrs. Rose, who's on the threshold of her second marriage, comes along and promptly relinquishes her hotel room to the youthful couple. Problems solved? Nah. Their troubles have only began piling up in front of them. At first glance, Iris is commonly mistaken for her cousin, Eulalia Crawford, a renowned puppeteer, which in itself is innocently enough, but when Peter visits a sauna, to stop a developing cold dead in its tracks, his uniform is stolen – and the clues all point to a lisping man and the scent eventually leads to a drunken man with a beard who spouts riddles ("the red rose and the white rose mean blood. I warned you on page eighty-four. The elephant hasn’t forgotten. Life or death").
This exhilarating madcappery, inconvenient though it may be, appears to be harmless on the surface, until the trail stops at the front door of the puppet-strewn apartment of Eulalia Crawford – and Peter and Iris discover her blood-spattered body, scattered with roses, slumped on the floor behind a desk with a knife handle projecting from her chest and the last person to be seen entering her abode was a uniformed naval officer. The thief from the sauna has assumed Peter Duluth's appearance in order to commit a murder!
Plans for an amorous weekend? Thoroughly wrecked! It's very hard, if not impossible, to romantically canoodle in your room when the police are in the progress of organizing a massive, state-wide manhunt and allowing a second murder to be committed, on your watch, doesn't exactly help, either. Fortuitously, for them, they have the backing of two local private detectives, who assist them in tailing suspicious persons and tucking them away from the police, which allowed them the freedom needed to backtrack the blood-dripped, rose-scattered chain of murders to a huge circus – where a frantic dénouement causes a near stampede and would've not disgraced the pages of a Sir Henry Merrivale novel.
In spite of the admirably executed climax at the circus, it's paradoxically also the part that keeps the book from joining Death and the Maiden (1939) and Black Widow (1952) at their top-spot in the first ranks. The solution feels too slight for such a baffling problem and the grand revelation comes at 2/3 of the book, which was far too early, even if it was filled up with an interesting and extensive account of past events leading up the double murder case, but it just doesn't measure up to first part of the book – and even the final, "Ha! Gotcha!," twist didn't elevate the story to its original heights.
Still, this is a fine and solid effort from a vintage brand name in the genre and falls only just short of being a great mystery novel, but it's unfair to expect that every book that bears their nom-de-plume on the cover is a towering achievement in the field. Yes, this a book has its fair share of problems, but there's more than enough to look pass those blotches and enjoy another trying tribulation in the turbulent marriage of Peter and Iris Duluth. Their agony, is our joy!
All the books I reviewed by these writers:
Puzzle for Players (1938)
Puzzle for Puppets (1944)
Death and the Maiden (1939)
Black Widow (1952)