This piece appeared in the July 15, 1927 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature.
Poor Scotland Yard!
FALSE FACE By SYDNEY HORLER. New York: George H. Doran Company. 1926. $2.
THE BENSON MURDER CASE. By S. S. VAN DINE. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1926. $2.
THE MALARET MYSTERY By OLGA HARTLEY. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. 1926. $2.
SEA FOG By J. S. FLETCHER. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1926. $2.
THE MASSINGHAM BUTTERFLY By J. S. FLETCHER. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. 1926. $2.
Reviewed by DASHIELL HAMMETT
He would have liked "False Faces;" it is different from any imaginable sort of day's work. Scotland Yard promises to "safeguard the safety" (page 29, if you think I spoof) of an American inventive genius who has business with the British government. Arrayed against him and it is a medley of scoundrels—a "shuddersome" Communist with "a smile that revolted," a hyphenated "brute-beast" of a German, a Russian Baron who has "the air of a world cosmopolitan," and so on, including a nameless skeptic who doubts that a certain blueprint is an original drawing. Everybody moves around a good deal, using trains, motorcycles, automobiles, airplanes, submarines, secret passages, sewers, and suspended ropes. Most of the activity seems purposeless, but in the end dear old England is saved once more from the Bolshevists.
Alvin Benson is found sitting in a wicker chair in his living room, a book still in his hand, his legs crossed, and his body comfortably relaxed in a lifelike position. He is dead. A bullet from an Army model Colt .45 automatic pistol, held some six feet away when the trigger was pulled, has passed completely through his head. That his position should have been so slightly disturbed by the impact of such a bullet at such a range is preposterous, but the phenomenon hasn't anything to do with the plot, so don't, as I did, waste time trying to figure it out. The murderer's identity becomes obvious quite early in the story. The authorities, no matter how stupid the author chose to make them, would have cleared up the mystery promptly if they had been allowed to follow the most rudimentary police routine. But then what would there have been for the gifted Vance to do?
This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong. His exposition of the technique employed by a gentleman shooting another gentleman who sits six feet in front of him deserves a place in a How to be a detective by mail course.
Mr. Van Dine doesn't deprive his officials of every liberty, however: he generously lets them compete with Vance now and then in the expression of idiocies. Thus Heath, a police detective-sergeant, says that any pistol of less than .44 calibre is too small to stop a man, and the district attorney, Markham, displays an amazed disinclination to admit that a confession could actually be false. This Markham is an outrageously naïve person: the most credible statement in the tale is to the effect that Markham served only one term in this office. The book is written in the little-did-he-realize style.
"Sea Fog," in spite of its rather free use of happenstance, is by far the best of this group. To the coast of Sussex comes a boy bound for the sea. In a deserted mill he spies on Kest and his map, in the morning fog he sees Kest killed, in the days that follow he sees more dead men. If toward the end these dead men turn up with almost mechanical regularity, Mr. Fletcher's skill keeps it from being too monotonous a process. But even that skill doesn't quite suffice to make the forced ending plausible. Poor old Scotland Yard is put up to silly tricks again. However, "Sea Fog" offers more than two hundred decidedly interesting pages.
Most of the fifteen stories in "The Massingham Butterfly" deal with crime in its milder forms. They are all mild stories, some of them obviously written long ago. There is no especial reason for anyone's reading them.
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