Friday, December 1, 2017

Escape from Mystery Manor

『随筆 黒い手帖』(松本清張)

"I wanted to release the detective novel from the haunted house, into the realism outside."
"Essays: The Black Notebook" (Matsumoto Seichou)

It might be a mistaken impression of mine, but I have the feeling many of my fellow blogging collegues and aficionados consider the impossible mystery, and especially the locked room mystery, as what is perhaps the pinnacle of the mystery genre. I myself never got so deeply engaged with the locked room mystery to be honest. While I definitely enjoy a good impossible mystery, I have always preferred the emphasis on the process of solving a mystery through logical reasoning as seen in the whodunit novels by Ellery Queen. This does not mean the locked room mystery is incompatible with the logical whodunit school, but this fusion usually shifts the focus from the locked room situation itself to questions of who could've created the situation and for what reasons.

Van Dine was of course also one of the figures strongly associated with the logical school and it's his hand you mostly sense at first sight in Roger Scarlett's first two novels. Roger Scarlett was the pen name of  Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair, and they debuted as Roger Scarlett with the 1930 novel The Beacon Hill Murders, followed in the same year by The Back Bay Murders. The two novels are quite similar in design, but also differ in some key elements. Both books show the influence of Van Dine right from the start though. Both of them are narrated by the attorney Underwood, who is friends with the brilliant Inspector Norton Kane, who in turn often works together with Sergeant Moran, who also serves as a part-time rival, part-time friend to Kane. This triforce naturally remind of the triangle featured in Van Dine's novels, which had narrator S.S. Van Dine, the master detective Philo Vance, and the official forces as personified in District Attorney Markham and Sergeant Heath. The difference is of course that in Scarlett's books, the master detective is actually a police detective himself, so the Markham and Heath characters from the Van Dine novels are basically mashed together in Sergeant Moran. Underwood is an incredible snob in the first novel by the way, with Kane having some of the smooth talking of Philo Vance, though that softens a bit in subsequent books for both characters.

The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders are both set in the city of Boston, but feature very different settings. The Beacon Hill Murders starts with a murder on Frederick Sutton, one of the nouveau riche and client of Underwood, and the subsequent investigation is completely focused on the Sutton residence and the rich family who lives there. The Back Bay Murders on the other hand is about the colorful lot in a boarding house. Arthur Prendergast is a neurotic young man who wants Kane to investigate a malicious prank someone left in his room, but not even Kane could've known that it would end in murder. While the settings of a rich family's home and a boarding home with various inhabitants couldn't be more different, the execution in both books is actually quite similar.

In my reviews of the fourth and fifth novels written by Roger Scarlett (Murder Among the Angells and In The First Degree) I noted how the buildings themselves were important factors in their respective stories: there was a distinct, dooming quality to them that gave them a silent presence in the story, which was emphasized by the abundant use of floorplans throughout the stories. Floorplans are also richly used in The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, though I'd argue that as buildings themselves, the Sutton house and Mrs. Quincy's boarding house have less importance than in subsequent Scarlett novels. Instead, the design of the floorplans themselves become more important, because The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders both focus on one thing in their whodunnit plots: the alibi.

The investigation into where everybody was at the time of the murder is what drives both books. Little time schedules are given from time to time to show where everybody was at what time, and the floorplans therefore become significant in showing the movements of each and every character and how each of them could vouch for other people. This emphasis on the alibi however does make the middle part of both books rather dull, as you're constantly reading about people talking about where they were when. The Back Bay Murders does slightly better in that regard due to an early twist, but even then it's only barely better than The Beacon Hill Murders. It's interesting to see how these floorplans in these two books were more a tool to assist the alibi-oriented stories, while in later Scarlett novels, the floorplans, and the buildings themselves grew into something bigger than that (especially in Murder among the Angells). The emphasis on alibis is not particularly something Van Dine-ish, though even Van Dine experimented witth some interesting cases, for example with the chess game alibi in The Bishop Murder Case.

The emphasis on alibis is also what makes both The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders somewhat underwhelming, as both books don't go far beyond poking around alibis. The Beacon Hill Murders manages to do something more interesting with the focus on alibi investigation I have to admit, while The Back Bay Murders is rather predictable in terms of execution. Aosaki Yuugo's Suizokukan no Satsujin certainly wasn't perfect in terms of doing an alibi-oriented story: following the alibis of eleven suspects down to the minute was quite tiring, but it at least also had more than just that, and the alibis were tightly connected to those other elements. In these two Scarlett novels however, alibi is the star, and it's a rather dull star most of the time. The focus on character movement within the respective settings also means there's a highly claustrophobic atmosphere in both books, but as the buildings themselves are not as unique as the one in Murder Among the Angells, this pressing feeling is little more than just that, rather than a supporting element in a grander picture.

If I had to differentiate the two books however, I'd say The Beacon Hill Murders is the one that'll make a better impression overall, but it does feature a far smaller cast and a very limited setting. The Back Bay Murders features a more varied cast and is arguably more intricately plotted, but many of the plot elements are also rather obvious to the reader, and the reason for the murders is also quite weak compared to that of The Beacon Hill Murders.

The overall similarities between The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders and the fact that they are now available in one handy volume is why I reviewed these books together, but I'd advice against reading them back to back actually, as they are quite similar in atmosphere. I know that Murder Among the Angells and In The First Degree do feel quite different from each other and these first two books, so that makes me curious to the third book in the series. Anyway, these two books are not particularly impressive mystery novels on their own, but as part of the short Roger Scarlett bibliography, it's interesting to see how the focus in their writing style would shift from the alibi to the setting.


  1. Thanks for the review. :) I've read the first Scarlett novel, and I enjoyed it as a 'promising' rather than 'great' mystery. Looks like the third and fourth novels are the ones that are truly worth reading - and therefore saving for the last. :)

    1. Yeah, I have the feeling the second volume of these reprints (with books three/four) will turn out to be the MVP of this series. I only have the third novel left, but I'm already looking forward to reading it.