Tuesday, April 10, 2018

TNB: The Great Detectives (Professionals on the Prowl)

As I noted last week, when The Tuesday Night Bloggers heard that a book called The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, edited by Eric Sandberg and including contributions from various writers – including our own Kate Jackson was coming out to educate the unsuspecting about some of the best detectives in the business, we were excited. But then as we sat and munched on toasted crumpets and sipped our tea, we decided to revive our weekly meetings and discuss the detectives we think ought to be included in any list of the "Greatest" detectives. Because no matter how good Eric Sandberg is, he's bound to miss somebody worthwhile. We also wanted to include some of the really good detectives who don't get as much press as say a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Jane Marple or (ahem) Hercule Poirot [many press clippings for our Belgian sleuth may found over at Brad's place Ah Sweet Mystery Blog aka "The Shrine To Agatha Christie"].

As Moira mentions over at Clothes in Books, some of us have decided to divide our detectives up into categories--including yours truly. This week on the Block I am turning the spotlight on some outstanding professional detectives who may not be as familiar to detective fiction fans. Up first is Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte, featured in the novels of Arthur W. Upfield. Bony is an unorthodox, half-Aboriginal, half-white detective who works out of the Queensland police force, although his investigations take him to various places in Australia. He is particularly self-assured for a man who might well have found his mixed heritage to be a burden rather than an asset. He states in The Bachelors of Broken Hill: "I always finish a race, always finalise the case I consent to take up."And it is often mentioned that he has an unblemished record when it comes to solving the cases to which he is assigned. 

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His spotless record is good for keeping him employed--because sometimes his self-assurance gets him into trouble with his superiors. He has a habit of going his own way and often finds himself sacked for disobeying orders. But that never last long, because his commanding officers know that his is intelligent, has the patience to unravel the most snarled case, and has charm enough to get evidence from those who don't want to give it. His mixed heritage allows him to work equally well in the outback as well as in more suburban areas and his pride and stubbornness keep him on the case until the culprit his brought to justice because he doesn't want to lose that perfect record.

Helen Reilly's Inspector Christopher McKee is on the other side of the world, heading up the Manhattan Murder Squad in New York City. In the early novels, he is an efficient leader of men with a strong personality, a vast storehouse of facts in his memory, and who strikes an imposing figure when confronting suspects. He figures in one of the earliest police procedural series by a female author and his stories feature the line-up, the radio room, the morgue, the mysterious depths of the fingerprint department--all the varied and exciting activities of one of the greatest police departments in the world on full view in mysteries of the 1930s. This is especially true of the case related in McKee of Centre Street.

In [this novel] you will meet Inspector McKee, tight-lipped, cold-eyed, a hunter of men and the most absorbing sleuth since Lieutenant Valcour; listen with him as the telephone call that is the first information in the case of the murdered dancer comes into Spring 7-3100; watch as he throws out swiftly the far-flung net for a subtle and brilliant killer. [from my copy of the book] 
The story revolves around the murder of Rita Rodriguez, a beautiful dancer in a high-tone speakeasy. The murderer takes advantage of the dim lighting, the audience's attention to the silver-clad beauty dancing on the stage, and the spotlight which oh-so-conveniently brings his target into sharp outline. Although the police are called in immediately by the ultra-alert spotlight handler, there are still fish which escape the net and it is McKee's job not only to sift through the statements of everyone still within the establishment, but also to try and discover who is missing.

When he is finished he's left with a small group of suspects. There is the missing waiter; the rich playboy, his wife, and step-son; the wife's very attentive friend, the colonel; the young woman found hiding in the phone booth; and the couple who can't quite decide where they were when the dancer fell to the floor. As he follows up their stories (and amended stories), he soon discovers that there are connections between the characters that lead back to the past....with blackmail and stolen emeralds lurking in the shadows.

What follows is a detailed account of how the police department of the 1930s operated. The reader follows closely on McKee's heels and is given what is described as "real inside information, high-pressure thrills, suspense." Reilly manages to deliver without boring the reader with those details. I have read other (later) mysteries by Reilly and was a bit disconcerted by the description of McKee as a tight-lipped, cold-eyed hunter of men. This didn't really connect with the McKee I had met in these later novels. Granted, this earlier version of McKee is a bit more steely and there is far more procedural detail given, but in the end he is the same detective I recall...showing a good deal of compassion and humanity in the closing scenes. Not quite the cold hunter of men that the blurb served up.

My last professional detective is most certainly the least well-known and will probably be completely unknown to many. His author, Harold Kemp certainly is: According to Classic Crime Fiction, Death of a Dwarf (1955) is the fifth in a mystery series by Harold Kemp and features Detective Inspector Jimmy Brent and his team of sleuths. Like me, the folks at CCF have found very little information about Kemp out on the interwebs. If anyone has any information beyond his birth year (1896) and short bibliography (seven titles in all), I'd love to hear about it. 

Detective Inspector Jimmy Brent was first introduced to me when I discovered the near-pristine, dust-jacketed Death of a Dwarf sitting on the shelf of Half Price Books. I mean, who could resist a vintage mystery with a title like that?  But I wasn't sure whether I should be glad to have brought it home or not. 

The story is quite good with a standard motive given a nice little twist. Fairly clued--it's certainly not Kemp's fault that I completely forgot a little tidbit that he prominently displayed for me back in the early chapters. Likeable characters--the interactions between Jimmy Brent and his superiors, colleagues, and underlings are delightful and supporting characters from the village are just as good (save for a few suspects...but then we're not supposed to like them). There's even a knowing little old lady calmly knitting in her little apartment--but none appear to be stock characters used purely for effect. Finely drawn surroundings--nice country village and there's even (see the cover) a menacing castle with ruins. My uncertainty lay in the fact that I was quite sure that future installments of Brent and company are going to be rather difficult to come by (unless I want to break down and search for him through internet sellers). I did manage (through the generosity of my boss--who doesn't mind using the internet to buy books and who got it for me as a present) to get hold of a second Jimmy Brent novel--Red for Murder.

Brent is an educated man, having been at York, St. Peter's and Cambridge, where he had taken his B.A. He is still in his thirties, but has risen rapidly through the ranks due to his native wit, determination, and integrity. He has a quirky sense of humor and an easy relationship with both his superiors and his assistants Gregg and Lewis. He brings a fresh point of view to a division that is made up of policeman who have less imagination and no eye for the unusual. Brent certainly isn't one to accept an easy answer just to close a case quickly and if he has to sort out vicars who hide under hedges and tell unnecessary lies as well as doctors who feign hearing loss to avoid answering questions, then he's perfectly willing to do so to ensure that justice will be served. His investigations are straight-forward, though the circumstances surrounding them rarely are and the clues are readily available to the reader which makes for interesting reading. Brent is another detective whose greatness lies in the fact that I have been left wanting more of his adventures and may have to resort to internet treasure hunting to fill that need.

1 comment:

Clothes In Books said...

Loving the sound of the Helen Reilly, this I must get hold of!