Duplicate Death, by Georgette Heyer (1951)

Duplicate Death,  by Georgette Heyer (1951)

UnknownAuthor: Georgette Heyer was a prolific author of romances (44) and detective novels (12). Wikipedia tells us that she “essentially established the historical romance genre and its sub-genre Regency romance”. I understand that it’s difficult to know much about her life, and the reason is clear; she’s quoted as saying, among other things, “as for being photographed at Work or on my Old World Garden, that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary. My private life concerns no one but myself and my family.” Since she lived before the days of TMZ, she appears to have managed her personal information quite effectively. I urge you to try the Wikipedia article, found here; they have collected more information than I had ever heard, and the material about her tax problems and her plagiarists, apparently including Barbara Cartland, is fascinating stuff.  This is probably as good as it gets for personal information.

In her dozen mysteries, four feature Scotland Yard Superintendent Hannasyde, four feature his one-time subordinate Inspector Hemingway, and four are non-series.

41h2V+596TLPublication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Heinemann (UK), 1951; a number of paperback editions exist, mostly from England, and an electronic version is available today on Amazon. I have a couple of paperback copies of this book, and an e-book, but I relied primarily upon an audio book version that I got from the library (I use them as company when I go walking for exercise).

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

thThe book starts by taking a leisurely chapter to introduce Mr. James Kane and family; Mr. Kane is not particularly a character in this book, believe it or not. This is actually a re-introduction since I gather that Mr. Kane first appeared as a teenager in They Found Him Dead (1937) (I’ve been unable to check this with an actual copy of the book), as did his younger brother Timothy. Timothy will be considerably more prominent in this book. In fact, Timothy is now 27, a Cambridge graduate and a fledgling lawyer, and is in love with a young woman who has an extremely mysterious background, named Beulah Birtley. Miss Birtley, at the beginning of Chapter 2, refuses Timothy’s hand in marriage, apparently because she doesn’t wish to discuss her background or “her people”. Beulah is employed as a secretary by Mrs. Lilias Haddington, a wealthy bonne vivante who is much in society and is bringing out her 19-year-old daughter Cynthia, a spectacular beauty. Since Timothy has both money and aristocracy in his family (I can’t figure it all out, but his mother’s name is Lady Harte) the predatory Mrs. Haddington had considered him as a potential suitor for the vacuous Cynthia; indeed, Timothy met Beulah while pursuing the acquaintance of Cynthia, and soon changed his mind. The full extent of their involvement is not known to Mrs. Haddington, but it’s hard to imagine how she could be any more bitchy about it than she already is. Beulah, in fact, is the subject of constant verbal abuse from Mrs. Haddington, and it is obvious to everyone, including Timothy, that Beulah would have resigned a long time ago if she were able. Something funny is going on.

We spend the next while observing the vaguely squalid details of the Haddington home, which has been established with much more money than taste. There is a full staff, including a supercilious butler, Thrimby, who toadies to Mrs. Haddington in return for a handsome salary. Mrs. Haddington is something of a social mystery; we get the picture of an extremely polished and completely emotionless — save for viciousness and self-interest — lady who came from nowhere. Her sister Miss Pickhill, a minor character, establishes that Lilias (or “Lily”, as the sister tells us she was born) has hauled herself out of mediocrity by her bootstraps; her husband Hubert is deceased, but his estate is said to have been very large. She does keep a man around the house, one Dan Seaton-Carew; a kind of well-dressed hair-oiled lounge lizard who appears to be the romantic interest of both mother and daughter simultaneously. Mrs. Haddington has somehow managed to attract the friendship and assistance of former society flapper Lady Nest Poulton and has thus been catapulted into the higher reaches of society; although it’s speculated that Mrs. Haddington somehow bought her way in, Lady Nest’s husband, a financier, is enormously wealthy. She seems to have sponsored a society ball for the debutante Cynthia out of the goodness of her heart.

7787166296_a5e29fee0cThe story truly begins upon the day that Mrs. Haddington is preparing to give a duplicate-bridge party at 9 PM, and the day is not going well. Beulah has a series of errands including to Covent Garden to buy flowers, and to go to see Miss Spennymoor, the household’s on-call alterationist, to come and make adjustments to Cynthia’s frock for the evening’s party. Mrs. Haddington learns that one of her card players has to cancel, and she determines, much against her better judgment, to invite Mr. Sydney Butterwick to take his place.  Mr. Butterwick is a high-strung and eccentric “homosexual” who appears to have a crush on Dan Seaton-Carew and the last time he was in the Haddington home, caused a scene. Next Beulah and Thrimby get into a fight about her having left the tools of her flower arrangements misplaced, including a coil of wire that ends up in a bathroom. And then Beulah is seated with Miss Spennymoor the alterationist; Miss Spennymore has plenty of old gossip including some about one of Cynthia’s suitors, Lord Guisborough. The day lurches from disaster to disaster, but finally settles down and the card-party begins.

Duplicate bridge involves a number of tables of four players at a time who all play the same hands, and compare the scores. As you can imagine, the four players at the table are focused quite strongly upon the bidding and play of the cards. So although there were 51 people in the house, including servants, most of them were in constant view of other people who would be very certain of precisely who was at their table. Dan Seaton-Carew is called to the telephone midway through the game; when he is discovered to have been strangled with a piece of picture wire, there are only a few people who could reasonably have committed the crime.

2302468569Chief Inspector Hemingway arrives with his subordinate, Inspector Grant, a Scot who sprays words of Gaelic throughout his conversation. Hemingway re-establishes that he knew Timothy years ago and soon begins a penetrating investigation. The circle of suspects soon reduces to a few, Mr. Butterwick chief among them. (Mrs. Haddington, Beulah, Lord Guisborough and Thrimby are most of the remainder.) Mrs. Haddington reveals that the victim had recommended Miss Birtley’s services to her; the police soon realize that Miss Birtley has recently done nine months for embezzlement and forgery, and that Mrs. Haddington and Seaton-Carew had been holding this fact over her head for unspecified reasons of their own.

The investigation continues; Hemingway interviews everyone and they continue to interact among themselves. We learn that Seaton-Carew is implicated in the “white drugs” trade (at which point the reader begins to realize why Cynthia Haddington has been so annoyingly insistent upon getting back her favourite petit-point compact, which has been missing for days). The next day, Lady Nest Poulton goes into a nursing home for reasons that her powerful husband will not mention, but are obviously to do with cocaine withdrawal. We meet Lance Guisborough at home with his Communist sister Beatrix (“Trix”), who asks to be called “Comrade” and wants her brother to give up his title, which he cherishes. Beulah continues to skirmish with Mrs. Haddington. When she forgets her employer’s cheque and has to return to the house one evening, Thrimby insists upon telling Mrs. Haddington, but discovers that Mrs. Haddington has been murdered in the same way in the same place in the same room.

075510885xAt this point, the investigation goes into high gear. Lilias’s censorious sister Miss Pickhill is called in to be Cynthia’s guardian; Cynthia, however, may have more problems with drug withdrawal after her supply is cut off. Hemingway and his staff re-interview a number of people and learn two interesting things, that are mostly buried in a morass of tiny details; Mrs. Haddington said an odd thing to her lawyer at her last visit, and Miss Spennymoor’s chatty ramblings have actually contained a tiny kernel of useful truth. Armed with the might of having put two and two together, Hemingway calls all the suspects together at the scene of the crime and reveals a quite unexpected solution. We finish with Mr. Kane, the vanished subject of chapter 1, observing that Timothy and Beulah are about to get married.

Why is this book worth your time?

To be honest, I’m not absolutely sure that this book is worth your time. My general feeling is that any book by an important author is worth your time; Georgette Heyer is certainly an important author to the historical romance genre, but not especially so to connoisseurs of detective fiction.  I have to say that this seems to me to be a second-rate mystery by a second-rate mystery writer.

I can definitely defend “second-rate mystery”. If you’ve read the extensive plot summary, above, you’ll see that there are a couple of major plot threads that can be summed up by the knowledge that Dan Seaton-Carew was somehow in league with Lilias Haddington to circulate drugs among the wealthy members of high society. There is a problem that seems common among detective stories of this vintage; the writers seem not to understand the economics of drug-taking in any reasonable way.  In chapter 11, for instance, Hemingway remarks, “The stuff’s worth a blooming sight more than its weight in gold …” He is referring to cocaine, and from references to the way that valuable amounts of it are concealed within cigarettes, tiny packets of “boric acid” for eyewash, and Cynthia’s powder-compact, it would seem to be worth — perhaps $500 per gram in present-day terms. (My understanding is that that is ten or so times the current street price, some 60 years later.) It’s hard to tell, but there’s definitely the idea that it’s only very wealthy people who can afford any of the stuff to begin with. The thing is, though, that the users who are depicted are somehow using about 1/100th the effective dose to produce the same effect. Cynthia’s powder-compact might hold two or three grams of cocaine; it’s lasted her what might be six months of constant use. My understanding of the present day is that an experienced user can go through a gram in a weekend or less. Something is just not adding up. The stuff costs ten times as much as it should, and it lasts ten times as long as it should, and it seems to be about ten times as addictive. (Cynthia is not quite addicted after using perhaps two grams, it seems.) I have to admit that the economics of drug-taking in the 1950s were certainly based upon a much, much smaller supply chain than is presently in operation, and no doubt prices were considerably higher; but really the whole thing to me is sounding like those police departments in the 1970s who used to announce that they had seized half a pound of marijuana with a street value of nearly a million dollars.

Added to which, it does seem quite stupid of a criminal who is apparently making as much money out of his situation as Dan Seaton-Carew to risk breaking it off with his partner in crime by dint of not only romancing his partner’s daughter but addicting her to cocaine in the process. It is perfectly obvious to everyone that Cynthia uses drugs — the author makes this quite clear to even the most unacute reader — and thus this would be a bone of contention between Lilias and Dan. Why would a drug dealer go out of his way to addict an overwrought and spoiled young girl who would immeasurably increase his chances of being caught? I don’t believe it. I really don’t believe most of this book; I don’t believe that Georgette Heyer knew anything much about the economics of drug-taking or its circumstances, and never bothered to think through the protective actions that a professional criminal would take to conceal his activities. In fact, she means the entire drug plot to be fairly obvious.

I’m also finding it very difficult to believe the plot with respect to Beulah Birtley. She is presented as being an unjustly convicted criminal whose innocence was not believed; and then, it seems, Dan Seaton-Carew had some sort of idea that he would enlist her to assist in his drug-dealing schemes. It’s not clear, but it seems as though he felt she was too instinctively honest and so passed her over to Lilias Haddington to use as a slavey. The part that is especially difficult to believe is that a 27-year-old small-time aristocratic lawyer like Timothy would fall in love with a convicted criminal. There is vague talk about having the case reopened to demonstrate her innocence, but really, it seems as though nobody cares. Lady Harte is said to be ready to welcome the girl into the family and Timothy has no shred of thought that marrying a convicted criminal could be a bad idea for his legal career.

This, to the modern eye, is not all that much. I’m sure most of us know someone who’s been convicted of something; it’s no longer the impediment to one’s social and professional life that it once was. So Beulah is a criminal, and apparently that doesn’t matter to society, which is accepting.

The problem with this is that it goes directly against another major development in the plot, and I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t discuss this without being very clear about the identity of the murderers — yes, the two crimes were committed by different people. Lilias strangled Dan Seaton-Carew precisely because he was addicting her beloved daughter to cocaine and taking the chance of ruining their drug-selling career. Lilias’s one concern in life is to make a good marriage for her daughter, and she wants her to have a titled husband. But Lilias, on the afternoon of her death, has consulted a lawyer and asks an odd question about the details of the Legitimacy Act. In fact, Lord Guisborough’s parents were not married at the time of his birth, as Miss Spennymoor has rattled on about with no one listening, and his birth certificate is stamped “legitimated”. It’s hinted at that this would ruin his social career, and that he should take good care to keep the information from Lilias Haddington. The trouble is that according to the Legitimacy Act, he cannot inherit the title and, when he learns that Lilias Haddington has worked this out and intends to prevent the marriage to a title-less gentleman, he murders her and tries to make it look as much as possible like the first killing.

But you see the problem. Beulah’s criminal acts are easily redeemed by society — the mere circumstances of Guisborough’s birth are ruinous to his future. It’s as though Heyer is trying to make two contradictory points about similar sets of circumstances. Either society is forgiving or it’s cruel, but trying to indicate that it’s both at the same time is not very sensible.

For the rest of it, the solutions are so completely out of the blue that — well, it’s fair, it’s just not structured properly. The attentive reader wise in the ways of detective fiction will have been paying attention to Miss Spennymoor’s rambling chatter, but unless you have specific knowledge of the contents of the Legitimacy Act (U.K.) as at 1951, you’re pretty much out of luck. I have to say this is very, very much like Cyril Hare’s An English Murder of the same year, but where His Honour worked the details of the relevant legislation into the story gently and intelligently, Heyer just plops the answer into place, like it or lump it. Admittedly it is reasonable that Lilias should have killed Dan. One problem on that score is that there are very few other people who can seriously be considered, at least the way Heyer shapes the novel. The only real suspects are Beulah and Mr. Butterwick. But Mr. Butterwick is so completely over the top effeminate that it seems impossible that he would strangle a man whom he is said to love, and Heyer has spent so much time building Beulah into a sympathetic character that it would be ridiculous to undo all that and make her the surprise murderer. Lilias is the only character who has the nerve and the desire to kill her partner in crime, so it really sticks out a mile from the outset. It’s then clear that someone has killed her for a different reason, one that shouldn’t have anything to do with drugs. Heyer just pulls in the Legitimacy Act out of the blue. If I had been more familiar with the relevant legislation, it would have been obvious. After all, how many peers of the realm do you know who are strongly determined to keep their inherited title, even in the face of sharing a house with a Communist sister who constantly berates you for the inequality? We even see the distaff branch of the family, who have plenty of money but no title. It stands out a mile because it’s such a huge stretch of the social structure. When you have a character whose only claim to a beautiful girl is the title he has to offer — it’s very likely that the potential loss of that title would lead to murder. No one else seems to have any secrets worth keeping; Beulah has told all, all the drug addicts are packed off to rest cures, and Mr. Butterwick seems unconcerned that the Superintendent has problems dealing with homosexuals.

I have to say that I was surprised to see a character in a 1951 detective novel referred to so casually as a homosexual. The police express distaste for him, but it seems to be concerned with his potential for hysterics and dramatic scenes than any possible illegality inherent in his non-existent sex life. He is a figure of fun, start to finish, and it’s quite distasteful to see a caricature this grotesque offered as being even remotely believable. I understand that this was the social tone at the time, but so was Stepin Fetchit considered funny in his milieu, and today we find him extremely distasteful. I’m actually happy to say that this is one of the few distasteful appearances of the comedic homosexual in detective fiction; by and large, Golden Age detective fiction seems to have avoided this cliche. Whether that’s merely for fear of not amusing the audience, or sheer ignorance, I can’t say, but I’m happy that my favourite authors have by and large avoided this offensive solecism. This instance is quite ugly, and it spoiled a lot of my enjoyment immediately.

Another reason why this is a difficult book to enjoy is the writing style. As I understand is common in Heyer’s writing, almost the entire novel is told in the form of conversation, with most major events described in flashback in later speech. This is good, in the sense that you have plenty of opportunities for people’s speech to reveal their character. After a while, though, it becomes quite maddening that one never really gets to see anything happen. The discovery of the body, for instance, in both cases, is re-told by a character some hours later, and I’m not sure why. Is it that Heyer felt she couldn’t write action scenes? Is it that Heyer felt she was wonderful at writing dialogue? (Well, she sort of is. She has a good ear for the way people actually speak, and then she takes it one step further.)

In fact, as my regular readers will know, I have a feature in my blog called “100 mysteries you should die before you read”, and I seriously considered this novel for inclusion in that august category. What stopped me is that there are two features about this book that, taken together, seemed to me sufficiently redeeming as to lift the book from the truly awful to the merely very poor. One is, as I noted, that Heyer has a good way with dialogue. The other is that this book has some truly good work with respect to, of all things, the descriptions of furnishings. Just like she uses dialogue to show character, she also uses portraits of living spaces to show character, and it’s very effective.

Here is a very long passage, for which my apologies, but I thought it built so effectively that you should have it all. This is our first view of the expensive but not excellent house against which Mrs. Haddington displays the beauty of her daughter.

“The house in Charles Street which was rented by Mrs Haddington differed externally hardly at all from its neighbours, but was distinguished internally, according to young Mr Harte, by an absence of individual taste which made it instantly remarkable. Nothing in the furnishing of its lofty rooms suggested occupation. From the careful arrangement of expensive flowers in the various bowls to the selection of illustrated periodicals, neatly laid out on a low table before the drawing-room fire, the house reminded the visitor of nothing so much as an advertisement of some high-class furnishing emporium. Sofas and chairs of the most luxurious order were upholstered in the same material which masked the tall windows, and were provided with cushions which, embellished with large tassels, were exactly placed, and incessantly plumped up, either by her butler, or by Mrs Haddington herself.
The entrance hall and the staircase were carpeted with eau-de-nil pile. A Regency sidetable stood under a mirror framed in gilt, and was flanked by two Sheraton chairs whose seats were upholstered in the exact shade of green to match the carpet. A door on the right of this broad passage opened into the dining-room – mahogany and wine-red brocade – and beyond the discreet door which gave access to the basement-stairs was one leading into an apartment built out at the back of the house and furnished as a library. Two tall windows, fitted with interior shutters, and draped with curtains of studious brown velvet, looked out at right angles to the dining-room on to a yard transformed into a paved garden with a sundial and several flower-beds, which displayed, at the appropriate seasons, either daffodils, or geraniums. Standard authors in handsome bindings lined the walls; a massive knee-hole desk, bearing a blotter covered in tooled leather, a mahogany knife-box converted to accommodate writing-paper and envelopes, and a silver ink-stand, stood between the two windows; and all the chairs were covered with oxhide leather. Above this apartment, and having access on to the half-landing between the ground and first-floors, was a similar room, dedicated to the mistress of the establishment, and known to everyone except Miss Birtley (who persisted in calling it Mrs Haddington’s sitting-room) as the Boudoir. It was of the same proportions as the room beneath, but decorated in quite another style. Diaphanous folds of nylon veiled the two windows by day, and opulently gathered ones of lilac brocade, drawn across the shallow embrasures, shut out the night. A low table of burr walnut, bearing an alabaster cigarette-box and an ashtray en suite, stood beside a day-bed furnished with cushions of lilac and rose silk. There were two arm-chairs, upholstered in lilac satin; several others, described by their creators as incidental, filling gaps against the panelled walls; a carpet of purple pile; and, in the corner between the door and the first of the two windows, a spindle-legged table bearing on it a telephone (cream enamel) and a reading-lamp, shaded in rose silk. Thoughtfully placed beside this table was a low, cabriole-legged chair, its lozenge back and sprung seat upholstered in the same delicate shade of lilac brocade which hung beside the windows. The floral decoration of the room was provided by an alabaster bowl on a torchére pedestal, filled in summer with roses or carnations, and, in winter, by honesty and sea-lavender.”

Now, the other reason I provided such a huge wad of description is that, deeply buried in this enormous mass of detail of colour and use and household routine, there is a tiny piece of useful information. In the final few lines, you learn where the telephone is, and the circumstances of its situation on a table; that becomes important later when both victims are strangled while seated at the telephone. And this is how a good writer buries that information.

If you really had to, you could draw a diagram of what you’ve seen, and put into position such colours as the eau-de-nil carpeting in the entryway and the studious brown curtains in the library. And that magnificent attention to insignificant detail is what separates this book from the truly awful. Yes, the plot is silly and uninspired, and turns on a trick the basis of which would be known to few. Yes, the characters range from uninspired to cardboard. But the dialogue runs from good to sparkling, and the descriptions of rooms and furniture border on the obsessive, and that’s kind of interesting. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone actually read this book, but at least if they do, they will find some interesting information about domestic furnishings in the middle of the 20th century, as opposed to nothing worthwhile at all.

As a postscript: I originally picked out this book for review because I am a dedicated bridge player and wanted to know what Heyer had to say about bridge. There is no bridge in this book, not even a description of people actually playing a card. There is a delightful moment just before the first body is discovered when two women get into a quarrel about the play of a hand, and this will be painfully familiar to every bridge player; it is this that makes me think that Heyer may have actually seen the game played, for nothing else gives any indication. I think it would be enormously difficult and expensive to set up approximately 11 bridge tables in a private home and have a duplicate bridge movement, but not impossible; I wish we could have seen more of how it was arranged. (Miss Birtley is required to refill the cigarette boxes halfway through the evening, which to me would have meant that the rooms were unbearably smoky, but that’s an entirely 21st century perspective.) Many of the book’s cover artists in the past seem to have assumed that “duplicate” has to do with the duplicated circumstances of the two corpses, both seated in the same place. If you’re coming for a bridge mystery, though, look elsewhere.

5322336455_3136414e02_zNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is Heinemann, 1951 and is apparently difficult to get with a decent jacket, as is so often the case with books of this and earlier vintage. The best two copies of this book on abebooks as of today are each just under US$100, including shipping and handling; the jackets are VG+. If you don’t insist on a jacket and merely wish a first edition, that might set you back $10 or $15. Interestingly enough, I selected a romance title of hers from the same period and the best first on the market is — just under US$100. I can’t say this is definitive, but it makes me wonder; I’d always thought first editions of her romances were worth much more than her detective stories. There are some peculiar outliers in the pricing; some recent and undistinguished hardcover editions are selling for twice the price of a first. I expect there’s a reason for this, I just don’t know what it is. Libraries?

There are many paperback editions but none of them very distinguished, save perhaps an early Pan edition with a cover by Carl Wilton which I’ve shown you here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1951 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “E”, “Read one book set in England.” This book is set in England and wouldn’t have worked under any other legal scheme. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.



The Wall Street Mystery (1931)

The Wall Street Mystery

Author: The authorship is credited prominently to S.S. Van Dine, writer of the Philo Vance novels. “Adaptation and dialogue” by Burnet Hershey, for whom IMDB gives 65 writing credits, almost all of which are short subjects.  Hershey wrote a bunch of other entries in the 12 short subjects instigated by Van Dine.

S.S. Van Dine is worth reading about but Wikipedia has done such a thorough job there is no need for me to repeat it here.

Other Data:  November, 1931, according to IMDB.  Directed by Arthur Hurley, who also appeared to specialize in short subjects, for Vitaphone (Warner Brothers).

SS Crabtree 2Cast: Donald Meek (see left) as Doctor Crabtree, hero of 11 of the 12 short films that Van Dine wrote between 1931 and 1932.  John Mailton as Inspector Carr (who appears in all 12), Frances Dale, Hobart Cavanaugh, and a black man I am unable to identify who deserved better than the comedy-relief role of the elevator operator.

About this film:

I believe this to be the second of 12 shorts written by S. S. Van Dine, featuring Donald Meek as Doctor Crabtree in all but one.  It is 17 minutes in length and there’s not a lot of time to get anything across to the audience except the bare bones of what’s going on.  Two stockbrokers are found shot to death in their Wall Street office; a beautiful secretary is found locked in a closet in the office, and a disgruntled investor had had an appointment with one of the stockbrokers the night of the crime.  “There’s nothing mysterious about a killing in Wall Street,” chuckles Dr. Crabtree, criminologist.  “I know — I made one myself.”

The story is not especially mystifying and the solution really depends entirely on forensic evidence — the angle of the bullet wound in one of the victims. In fact, none of the hugger-mugger with the other suspects is even necessary since a competent CSI would have solved the crime in no time flat.  But everything is competently handled by the director, writer and cast and my interest was sustained for the entire 17 minutes; difficult not to be!

Donald Meek will be very familiar to fans of old mysteries; most of the rest of the cast is unknown to me. The script, unfortunately, descends to the use of a comedic African-American elevator operator with amusing speech patterns and a general air of cowardice. He is really the most interesting character in the film, at least to me, because I was trying to figure out what the point was of his being in the film in the first place. He offers no evidence and seems meant as comedy relief — of course, this sort of comedy relief is extremely painful to the modern viewer by dint of its racism. It’s just incomprehensible to me because I am not old enough to have been immersed in a cultural milieu which cheerfully accepts its own horrific racism, and even uses its victims as figures of fun. Most such characters I’ve seen were played by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland; this actor is not credited and IMDB does not identify him.

The film uses an interesting and noteworthy technique, considering that it’s 1931. As Dr. Crabtree is explaining both who- and how-dunnit, the actors are seen as phantom figures — the background is solid but the actors are transparent. They act out the crime before our eyes while Meek, in voice-over, describes the action.

Notes For the Collector:

This film is extremely scarce and I have never seen it before; I recorded a copy quite by accident the other day when I was recording a copy of The Mystery of Mr. X on TCM and this short subject filled the space until the next film started. Of the dozen Van Dine shorts, this is only the second one I have managed to see; TCM also showed “Murder in the Pullman” within the last couple of years. Unfortunately TCM does not to my knowledge announce in advance what its short subject offerings are going to be, except as a forum post a week or so in advance. No copies are available on Amazon — nor are any of its 11 brothers. If anyone from TCM is listening, please PLEASE package these 12 shorts for purchase; I badly want to see what S.S. Van Dine had to say in them, based on the two I’ve managed to view.  I have not even managed to find still photographs from the film to illustrate this piece and could only provide a photo of Donald Meek from something similar.

Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)

I have to admit, I love almost all the Charlie Chan movies.  Certainly they vary in complexity and difficulty, and the occasional one (mostly from among the later ones with Roland Winters) doesn’t make very much sense. But I enjoy the character and the situations in which he finds himself.

Charlie Chan in Rio, a 1941 entry in the long series is, I’ve always thought, a particularly good one. Chan (Sidney Toler) is accompanied by number two son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) to Rio as he visits Harold Huber, whose clones are apparently police officials everywhere from Monte Carlo to Rio.  Singer Lola Dean  does a musical turn on a nightclub stage, gets engaged to a wealthy young man, then visits a sinister hypnotist, then invites all her frenemies back to her home to celebrate and to provide plenty of suspects when she turns up dead.  It all goes back to Lola’s boyfriend’s murder in Honolulu, which is how Charlie Chan comes in — and, indeed, this is a remake of 1931’s The Black Camel, which takes place on Honolulu and goes back to a murder case in Boston.

They find Lola laid out on the floor with an array of clues helpfully provided, neatly arrayed to one side.  The plot itself is quite intelligent and tricky, and you won’t be solving this one unless you keep a sharp eye on the characters’ comings and goings from the moment they arrive at Lola’s mansion.  And if you think the butler did it — sorry, no, he’s victim #2.  Mary Beth Hughes is particularly good as a drunken socialite, and Iris Wong is charming in a small role as a Chinese maid with whom Jimmy Chan falls in instant lust.  Kay Linaker (in blue, bending over Lola’s body), as Lola’s assistant, is so omnipresent that she should have had higher billing, and is quite convincing when she delivers her lines with an air of amused hyper-confidence.  Victor Jory is so wonderfully sinister as the mysterious hypnotist that he makes the rest of the suspects look bland every time he’s on screen.

I have to admit that the ending of this is a bit weak, and the film stops every once in a while for either a musical number or a bit of  “comic” racist/sexist byplay between Jimmy and the maid.  But part of the charm of these old films is their attempt to leaven the action with levity, however mishandled (the later Chan films are responsible for bringing Mantan Moreland to prominence, which set race relations back ten years, and one early one, Charlie Chan in Egypt, features Stepin Fetchit, about whose performance the less said the better).  Here, there are no comic Negroes and Harold Huber keeps the eye-rolls to a minimum.  And one or two of the situations are actually funny.

It’s reasonable to assume that this high-concept film got greenlit easily (It’s a remake, we’ve already got the script, and this will cash in on the samba craze!)  Frankly, the samba part of it won’t be of much interest to a modern audience, whereas contemporaneous Americans were being encouraged to support South American culture.  And the central premise of hypnosis assisted by drugs is just unworkably silly.  But as both a piece of filmic history and an interesting mystery, it’s a diverting way to while away an hour.  And as the big running gag at the end — Jimmy Chan gets drafted!!  Which must have been hilarious in 1941, I guess, but the reactions to which are just incomprehensible to the modern viewer.  But everyone laughs, and the movie ends, and then they play a hot-cha-cha samba over the closing credits!!  Just the thing to burn the theme song into your brain and let you forget the plot immediately.

I’d recommend this one over a number of contemporaneous Chans, but there are better ones.  I’ve come across my archives of the old Chan films and I’ll be reviewing them sporadically here.