Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murder Off Miami (1936)


When I laid out the ground rules of the Dennis Wheatley Project in my introductory post, I wrote the following:

Of the non-fiction, I will certainly be including his studies of Charles II (Old Rowley, 1933), the Russian Revolution (Red Eagle, 1937) and the history of Satanism (The Devil & All His Works, 1971), but will mention only in passing the 'crime dossiers' (1936-9) and the greater part of his autobiographical writings, for the time being at least.

The inclusion of the crime dossiers in the list made little sense, in that they were not works of non-fiction, and in truth, the only real reason I opted to give them a miss was because I didn't have them, and assumed they'd be hard to get hold of. (The remaining three still might be.)
But just as I was about to embark on a reading of Contraband, a reader with the splendidly Wheatleyesque name of Zack Urlocker called my bluff, and compelled me to rethink my decision and track down what he considered a delightful piece of the Wheatley jigsaw.
Duly shamed, I acquired a second hand copy of the book that actually came next in sequence: not Contraband, but Murder Off Miami.

Lest any readers be unfamiliar what these crime dossiers were, they were an unlikely collaboration between Wheatley and his friend J. G. Links, not the sort of chap one might have expected to have any great interest in murder stories, or in Wheatley for that matter, being a highly respected art historian, world expert on Canaletto, and author (my wife reminded me this morning) of that delightful guide book Venice For Pleasure. Links and Wheatley had in fact been close personal friends since they met when the former was still a teenager; in Drink and Ink Wheatley describes him as one of his "Jewish lifelong friends" and adds "I am very proud to have had such a man as an intimate friend for over fifty years."
According to his account in the same book, the two were engaged in literary speculation in the mid-thirties when Links suddenly opined that there should be a detective story that abandoned all flights of narrative fancy and instead just stuck to the raw material of the investigation. Wheatley, intrigued by the idea, then suggested that as well as being composed of 'undramatised' police reports, interviews, statements and the like, the book could also include actual physical evidence, as well as facsimiles of letters, postcards, telegrams and all the other materials relevant to the investigation. By arranging all this material in sequence, a narrative will therefore emerge, stripped of all but its essential components.

It was a brilliant idea, although anathema to those who felt that the English detective novel should be setting its sights at high literary status: to such an outlook Wheatley's and Links's notion was retrograde indeed. But to those who savoured such books specifically for the intellectual exercise of pitting their wits against the criminal, and by extension the author, the idea was a brilliant one. You can imagine Sherlock Holmes turning gratefully to such a concept in the lulls between cases: a more sensible alternative to the cocaine bottle as remedy for lack of mental stimulation.
Therefore, it seems, Links set about devising the whodunnit plot - for which Wheatley admitted he had little aptitude - while Wheatley concentrated on the narrative structure and dialogue. (It remains to be questioned how accurately he maintains the lingo of thirties American cops and robbers: much of the transcripts play fair by the linguistic rules of a Warner Brothers gangster movie, though occasional references to characters being 'befogged' and 'no better than they should be' perhaps qualify as lapses.)
Delighting in their task, they assembled a rich assortment of realistic documents, on various types of paper in varying colours, thicknesses and sizes, and interspersed them with samples of hair, a discarded match and a piece of bloodstained curtain. (A measure of the fun they must have been having is indicated by the fact that a copy of 'No Ordinary Virgin', the first novel published by Wheatley's wife Joan under the pseudonym Eve Chaucer, is clearly visible in the police photograph of the victim's state room.)

The result was so plainly original that they seemed assured of success. What they hadn't accounted for, however, were the various practical obstacles to successful publication.
The complicated physical nature of the work would make it extremely expensive and time-consuming to produce, with a specially-employed staff to insert the samples of evidence, all of which would have to be separately provided - they would need a lot of hair, fabric and matches, even for a relatively modest print run! And then, because the book was presented as a dossier, in a cardboard folder, it was difficult for book shops to stock and display. Furthermore, the fact that the solution was revealed in a sealed section at the back, and various pieces of evidence were included in packets, meant that it was difficult for lending libraries to keep satisfactory copies. And all this in addition to the question of whether readers would take to the notion in the first place: it all added up to something of a risky venture.
In the event, by Wheatley's count, the book sold 120,000 copies in six months, despite initial scepticism from booksellers. ("Hatchards took only six copies," Wheatley notes in Drink and Ink, before adding triumphantly, "Queen Mary came in on the day it was published and bought the lot.") Declaring itself "a new era in crime fiction" on the cover, and dedicated inside to publisher Walter Hutchinson ("who always has the courage to back a new author of promise or a new idea"), it was deemed another spectacular success for Wheatley.

Set entirely aboard a pleasure boat, the book details the police examination of what is at first thought to be the suicide of eccentric soap magnate Bolitho Blane. But when heel marks are spotted on the missing man's carpet, consistent with his body being dragged to the porthole, and sponged-out patches of blood found on the curtains, Florida's ace Inspector Kettering decides to investigate more deeply, and uncovers a deadly rivalry between Depression-struck businessmen desperate to corner the world soap market. Even Japan is interested, in the form of inscrutable Inosuke Hayashi of the Shikoku Products Company, suppliers of soap to the Japanese armed forces. Could he have killed Blane to get his hands on his suds?
And what of the boat's owner, himself a soap tycoon fallen on hard times, or his pretty daughter, or the weird Bishop who faints when people enter the room, or the feckless married couple, the Honorable Reggie and Mrs Jocelyn, travelling with her wealthy mother, the formidable Lady Welter, whose fortune, with which she finances a string of loss-making Christian evangelical newspapers, is all tied up in - yes! you earn yourself a gold star! - soap.

Clearly, there are three angles from which to judge the book: as a technical exercise, successful or not on those specific terms, as a crime mystery in its own right, and as a Wheatley book.
On the first count the book is a delightful if superficial exercise in structural inventiveness. It's great fun to work one's way through the documents and consider the samples of evidence, but we don't actually learn anything from looking at a real sample of hair that we wouldn't glean from the accompanying description: no actual revelations are contained within the 'authentic' components, and the book would be just as clear and effective as a narrative if reissued without them (as it apparently has been). They're cute but not actually clues in themselves, and the novelty of their inclusion remains just that.
As a murder mystery it is pretty effective, I thought: I like to think of myself as no soft touch to a wily novelist intent on sleight of hand, and the revelation came as a complete surprise to me, at least. I think it's fair to say that all but the most practiced mystery buffs will feel as useless as Inspector Kettering, who declares himself "completely at a loss" in his report's final summing-up to his superiors, only to then receive the cable from Florida Police Lieutenant Schwab that opens the final, sealed section of the book, and begins: "To Detective Officer Kettering, Solution of murder perfectly clear on evidence submitted..."
The clues are all there and I certainly didn't spot them - I'd love to hear from any other readers who did.

Obviously, if viewed as a Wheatley novel Murder Off Miami can only be counted a pleasing diversion, albeit an extremely pleasing one. The characters are at best sketches, and I found myself longing for Wheatley's authorial voice to blunder inappropriately in and give us his true measure of them, especially when they are so obviously Wheatley characters in all but the degree to which we are able to get to know them. From their names (Carlton Rocksavage, Nellie Orde, Silas Ringbottom) to their interests (a copy of 'The Saint In New York' is passed around between them, earning Leslie Charteris his second name check in a Wheatley adventure), they read like the working sketches for characters in some forthcoming, 'real' Wheatley novel.
In particular there is the delightfully typical figure of Count Luigi Posodini, an Italian nobleman and playboy, revealed almost instantly to be one 'Slick' Daniels, a sharpie and all-round bad egg, no more Italian than anyone else on board. (One of his many aliases, it is interesting to note, is 'George Gordon-Carr', an echo, conscious or not, of Wheatley's shady friend and mentor, the late Eric Gordon-Tombe, himself never short of an alias or two.) Not dissimilar to Nicolas Costello in They Found Atlantis, or for that matter to any of Wheatley's other selfish, immature and excitable Latin types, he surely merits true fictional immortalising. ("Fire away, friend, fire away!" he cheerfully exclaims when Inspector Kettering, having discovered his true identity, suggests a few further questions.)

The same goes for perky young Miss Ferri Rocksavage who, as the only entirely blameless suspect, ends up a virtually unknown quantity, whereas in a straightforward novel she would presumably take centre stage as the heroine. (As to who would be the hero for her to pair off with at the end: well, none of this crowd, that's for sure: presumably Wheatley would have taken the pleasure cruisers out of radio range and beyond police assistance, and rewritten Inspector Kettering as an amateur sleuth already on board.)
I wanted more than a mere thumbnail sketch, too, of the dodgy Bishop of Bude, terrified of having his part in a frustratingly unspecified 'unsavoury episode' in 1917 revealed to the world. Indeed, all the characters cry out for a full Wheatley pen portrait, especially when they come immortalised in such delightful staged photographs.
There's lovely Ferri Rocksavage, looking confidently at the camera, a thoroughly modern cigarette smouldering unapologetically in her raised hand. Smiling a little too raffishly for my liking is the Hon Reggie Jocelyn, a pair of noisy checked socks prominently on display. His wife Pamela is certainly lovely in her slicked-backed Kay Francis hairdo, but unlike Ferri is photographed in uncommunicative profile - what has she to hide? For my money Mr Hayashi looks about as Japanese as Count Posodini is Italian, and I challenge anyone to hold the intimidating gaze of the terrifying Lady Welter for more than a second.
And as for the oddball Bishop... well he's posing a little too nonchalantly for a man of the cloth, I'd say, bald but for a few patches of white hair but sporting a fine pair of jet-black eyebrows. Under normal circumstances, Wheatley the novelist would surely have drawn our attention to those.