Who Killed Geraldine Foster?

"Chemists employed by the police can do remarkable things with blood. They can weave it into a rope to hang a man."
- Margery Allingham.
When I open the yellow pages of a venerable paperback or a timeworn hardback, I always gaze briefly at the dedication in front and ponder what forgotten, often domestic, stories prompted a writer to permanently inscribe a book to a Peter or Mary. Every now and then, these inscriptions are accompanied with a cursory explanation, "in memory of a perfect holiday" or "as a token of appreciating for allowing me to draw on your expertise of the poisonous Golden Dart Frog," or the person on who this diminutive honor is bestowed was a rather well known personality himself – in which case the story pretty much tells itself. But they seldom, if ever, have any bearing on the content of a book, nevertheless, I couldn't help but think of the people to whom Anthony Abbot dedicated The Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930) as I went from chapter to chapter – and I will divulge the reason for this near the end of this post. 

The grisly murder of Geraldine Foster began as a routine missing persons case when a young woman, Betty Canfield, reports that her room-mate has gone missing and since the declarant is a niece of a friend of Thatcher Colt the case ends up on his desk. 
But before I continue, I have to make an annotation here on Thatcher Colt who's crudely drawn character in his first recorded outing. In the previous novel I read, About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935), he was a sharply dressed, upper class commissioner of police – who relied on thorough police work and sound forensic science to bring a case to a satisfying conclusion. He's still one of the best-dressed, most sophisticated policeman on duty, but here he depends on third-degreeing information from an unwilling suspect and questionable pseudo-scientific methods.

This unfortunately ended up devaluing an otherwise class-act detective story with a dazzling plot from superb to merely excellent. It didn't help, either, that Colt was making a series of incredible, rarely substantiated, assumptions deductions like working out what brand of ink was used on a letter by merely glancing at it – turning him into a Philo Vance or Ellery Queen clone with a badge. But let us return to the story. 

With an official report to set the wheels in motions, New York's finest begin sifting through the last reported moments of the missing girls life, questioning family members, interrogating friends and putting everyone else even loosely connected with the case under the gravest of suspicion as they slowly, but surely, uncover a slew of bizarre clues – ranging from a torn-up blackmail note to the cadavers of six doves stained with human blood. These clues all point like a neon-sign post to an abandoned house, where the walls are covered blood, and a shallow grave near the site in which the murderer deposited the denuded body of Geraldine Foster – hacked to death with a double-bladed ax with a pillow-case wrapped around her head.

The elaborate plot is pleasingly entangled in its complexity and the inducement for the murderer to make a bloody mess with a clumsy ax, strip the body and dress her split face with a pillow case before dumping her in a shallow hole in the ground are logically explained – and really is what you hope to find when you begin flipping through the pages of a detective novel. What holds this book down are the aforementioned third-degreeing and exploration of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. I wouldn't have been surprised, or shocked, in the least if Colt would've whipped out a volume of Cesare Lombroso's theories and a ruler to measure facial features in search for hereditary traces of guilt.

But what really casts a dim-light on these proceedings, is the fact that the commissioner has an incredible dense district attorney looming over his shoulder, whose mind runs along a single, unbending track with as only destination strapping someone in the electric chair to further his career, making this even a bit of an uncomfortable read at times – which made me wonder throughout these portions of the story what the people on the dedication page thought of this book. 

Abbot dedicated to the book to the standing army of New York City, the police department, but what did these men think of a police commissioner pumping a suspect full of truth serum after keeping him up all night – hoping to break-down the strong minded, individualistic personality of this person? It was noted in this very book that third-degreeing and intimidating a suspect were already frowned upon as an investigative method and inadmissible in a court of law, but nonetheless incorporated them into the plot and making them run the risk of tainting a possible case against the actual murderer. Not really reflective of proper policework.  

Plot-wise, it comes dangerously close to being absolutely brilliant, but the modus operandi of Thatcher Colt is problematic to say the least. Still, if you're a fan, like me, me of those elaborately plotted mysteries from the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection than the plot of this book warrants your full attention.


  1. I liked this one quite a bit. It had so many good elements and a teasing puzzle plot that can be solved. Agree about the third degree-it was worse than offensive--it was tiresome! In a Chandler book it might be relevant. Here it just seemed like tedious filler--and it made one lose respect for the investigators. Julian Symons should have loved it as an expose though: He criticized the GA English detective novel for never showing cops physically abusing suspects. Never say the good old U S of A never did anything for you, Julian!

  2. I wouldn't have minded the third-degreeing so much if they just socked him in the jaw and told him to spill the beans, but these so-called scientific experiments on a sleep deprived person were just embarrassing – which is why I kept thinking of the dedication page of the book. This definitely made Thatcher Colt a less likeable and respectable character than the later incarnation I met in Startled Lady and Creeps.

  3. I haven't read Anthony Abbott. Just haven't gotten particularly interested, is all. This review hasn't gotten me particularly interested, to be honest. The plot doesn't sound particularly brilliant and the problems you cite don't help matters. Overall a good review.

  4. Well, you're at fault in presuming that the plot doesn't come across as particular ingenious. Believe me when I say it's a tightly knotted affair with enough fair play hints to anticipate the solution. It's just the investigative methods that is very off-putting.

    But About the Murder of a Startled Lady (early forensic science and fake spiritualism) and The Creeps (more fake spiritualism and country-house setting; a retired Colt fills the role of amateur detective) are better books to start off with.

    There's an early review of mine, on The Creeps, up on the GADwiki, but whoever copypasted it forgot to assign my name to. Maybe I'll reupload to this blog.

  5. I also read this book just a couple of days back and followed it up with Clergyman's Mistress. Geraldine Foster is one of the better clued books I should say as he has a tendency to hold back the vital clues in his later works. Agree that it's a bit tedious to go through a third degree questioning, a lie detector test and then the truth serum, one after the other - I wonder whether he introduced the truth serum test only to show that it was being used for the first time in a detective novel? Colt himself alludes to the fact that it has been used before in other cities like LA & Boston. Colt uses the third degree questioning in one other later novel though Abbot defends(the police force) that it's very much essential in some circumstances.

  6. Arun,

    I never came across truth serum before, this early in the genre anyway, but I assume you can find examples in Fu-Manchu-type pulp stories.

    Abbot (the character who narrates the story) also defends third-degreeing in this book by stating that only professional, cut-throat criminals are physically roughed up during interrogations – as if that's any better than drugging a sleep deprived person.

  7. I can't say I enjoyed the investigative methods of the novel either, but it's still a quite enjoyable experience. The best I can say about it is that I have read much worse ways of obtaining information from the suspects.

    While I much prefer to see the detective outsmarting a suspect to gain his information, I still prefer pseudo-science and hardboiled investigation methods to authors who simply say that their detective extracted information offscreen when it's clear he would have had great difficulties to do so. It's probably a pet peeve of mine, but I feel rather...cheated perhaps? It's not a perfectly logical feeling, but I dislike when detectives obtain information through seemingly non-justifiable(unless the setting allows for those ways). It makes him feel like less of a detective, and more of a protagonist.

    Investigative issues aside, I enjoyed it very much.

  8. HL,

    I think it depends on how the information was obtained while the reader was absent from the proceedings. When a detective opens a chapter stating that he came into possession of valuable information, without divulging how it was secured, the writer is just being plain lazy. But when these scraps of information were gathered, for example, through off-page police work it becomes a different story. This is basically how Nero Wolfe works. He lets other gather all the plot strands and bring them to his office.