Sunday, December 15, 2019

Murder Breaks Trail

Murder Breaks Trail (1943) by Eunice Mays Boyd is the first of three detective novels featuring mild-mannered grocer F. Millard Smyth and set in Alaska. Smyth's debut finds him on a plane tour of the region in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. He is with a group that includes a Senator, his secretary, and his daughter, a Congressman (who happens to be attached to the daughter), a mayor, and the pilot and his radio operator. When the Senator indicates that it's time to set down and have lunch, they spot a lake with a small collection of cabins. Red (the pilot) isn't familiar with a settlement in the area and is puzzled by the smoke they see briefly coming from the clearing. By the time the plane lands, the smoke is gone and they find the settlement deserted--with contradicting evidence of habitation. On the one hand there are clothes and other objects that are obviously from the 1890s and materials that make it seem like everyone in the area just laid down whatever they were doing and vanished. On the other, there is one cabin that shows recent habitation and is filled with canned goods and supplies to last several months (this will prove to be a very good thing....). 

Just as the plane landed, they discover that their radio is no longer working and they can't notify Fairbanks about their stop. No one is worried though--the plane's in good condition and there's no reason why they can't take off again after lunch and head back. Except...while they are exploring the settlement somebody empties the planes gas tanks and there's no way anybody is going anywhere. But again, they're not too worried. After all, once home base realizes they've lost contact with a plane carrying such important persons, the search parties will come find them and all will be well.

Except...the days turn into weeks...and finally into months without a sign of a search plane. Winter closes in and to add to the danger the mysterious person whose stores they have taken over keeps zipping in and out of the settlement on the only skis there are--stealing back food stuffs and kerosene. The Senator falls ill and has to take to his bed and then one morning he is found stabbed to death in his bed. Has the mysterious stranger decided to get rid of them by whatever means possible? And why doesn't he want to be seen? Smyth is appointed the unofficial detective and he begins to investigate. He really begins to get concerned when the anonymous notes start showing up:

Ask Tony Weber [the secretary] why he isn't in the army.

Ask Mick O'Hara [the Congressman] what he knows about the Mt. Zion tunnel.

Ask Red Bailey what happened to his first plane, the one he bought with Irv Cramm's money.

Ask Hope Mullen [the radio operator]how her aunt is living....

Ask Kilkenny Lee what she knows about the handkerchief that was found on her father's floor.

He discovers that the scandal monger is the mayor, Guy Fletcher, and begins to wonder about him. In the middle of the scandal campaign, the group manages to catch the mysterious skier and soon find out that he's a Nazi spy. They are sure they've caught the murderer as well. But then Fletcher is killed while the spy is tied up and it becomes apparent that the killer is one of them. Will help arrive before anyone else is killed? Or will Smyth be able to put the pieces together in time to save them? You'll just have to read the story and find out.

[Spoilers ahead--reader beware!]

One of the most interesting parts of this story is the look Boyd gives us of Alaska during the war years and before the territory became a state. Smyth is not, perhaps, the swiftest of detectives--but he certainly does get there in the end and comes up with a plan to flush the murderer out (in lieu of direct of evidence). I did appreciate the set-up of the stranded party and thought the way they handled their situation was realistic and probable--with nerves fraying just the right amount and petty squabbles seeming more important than they should. On the other hand, I found the thrusting of Nazi spies into the mix a little over-the-top--especially when the murderer wound up being a spy as well, but then the motive had absolutely nothing to do with the spying business. One spy was plenty and even that thread of the story seemed a little unnecessary.

One other [non-story-related bit I found interesting was the author's postscript "About the War." She explains her reasons for taking to mystery-writing:

I'm not doing as much as the women on the production line in the airplane factories and shipyards, but morale is important too, and that's my job. When I get to stewing about my small contribution, I pound another page of a mystery story out of my typewriter. I write about Alaska because I lived there twelve years, and maybe you'd like to ead about Alaska because your son or father, your boy friend or husband, your brother or cousin, is a soldier in Alaska now.

A very interesting snapshot of the war years with a mystery flair. ★★ and 1/2

Deaths = three stabbed
Mystery Bingo:
Weapons - Axe/Hatchet
Crime Scenes - Pathway/trail; Beach; Bedroom
Clues & Cliches - Provision in will; Anonymous message; Monogram; Stopped clock/watch; Knife found
Red Herrings - Someone tied up; Knitting/sewing


J F Norris said...

My goodness! Wherever did you find a copy of this book? Is that yours pictured? Lucky you, if true. Finding them with DJ's is very difficult these days, let alone finding any of them at all. I have all three of them. Tried this one years ago and was not hooked at all. I set it aside unfinished. I can't remember if I ever read any of the others. Her MURDER WEAR MUKLUKS was picked up as a reprint for the Dell Mapback series and I think that's the only one that gets paid attention to since its the easiest to find. I wrote a brief article on her on my blog ages ago because Steve Lewis at Mystery*File had posted a review on her books and didn't have the complete set of first edition DJs for his blog. So I supplied them all in a brief post about Eunice and her unique mysteries set in Alaska.

Good to know that this one is worth reading all the way to the end. I'll have to read them all. I'll plan to do that for 2020.

Kate said...

Despite it only gaining 3.5 stars from you, there is just something about this plot which makes me want to give it a go. It certainly has me intrigued, though I imagine getting a copy might be on the tricky side.
Thanks for your review.

Bev Hankins said...

John: Yes, when I looking for info on the books and on Boyd, I came across your post (and comments about not making it through this one). It's certainly not an intricately-plotted piece but I did find it fun and interesting (especially the look at Alaska pre-statehood).

I lucked into my copy through our Friends of the Library Used Bookstore--which means I paid $5 (tops) for it.

Kate: It is fun in an off-beat kind of way. How many grocers do we know in mystery-land who are amateur detectives? If I run across another copy, I'll be sure to snatch it up and set it aside for you.

Kate said...

Thanks Bev! That would be amazing and you're right, the grocer part did pique my interest.

Unknown said...

Hi - I am Eunice Mays Boyd's godchild and she left 4 unpublished murder mystery manuscripts that I am planning to self publish this year as retro-mysteries. One of them is the fourth and last in the F. Millard Smyth series. The next two are set in San Francisco in the 1950's and the last in Carcassonne in the late 1960's and finished just before her death in 1971. Does anyone have an opinion on whether there is a benefit to also include her three published works as part of the series so that they are more available? Your thoughts and comments are welcomed. Elizabeth Aden

Bev Hankins said...

Hello, Elizabeth. I would definitely think that it would be good to bring out the earlier books in the Smyth series. I have this one and Murder Wears Mukluks, but haven't been able to find the third. And would absolutely love to be able to read the unpublished fourth book. What a treat that would be.