THE THEATRICAL WORLD has always been a serviceable background for detective stories, with Golden Age authors like G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Ellery Queen exploiting it for all it's worth. In today's story, it will take two murders to get to the implications of a . . .
By Hugh Pentecost (Judson Philips, 1903-89).
Illustrations by Charles Chickering (1891-1970; HERE).
First appearance: Blue Book, May 1941.
Novella (28 pages; 9 illos).
Online at Archive.org (HERE).
"I'm on the job about four hours, and a murder is committed right under my nose."
When a bodyguard utterly fails to guard his own body, another bodyguard reluctantly sets out to solve his death—but not, unfortunately, before another murder. The solution, when it comes, is embedded in a card gambit: "The pattern of this crime is like the pattern of the trick I just showed you." . . . .
Main characters in order of appearance:
~ Richard Gaunt:
". . . felt beads of sweat break out on his forehead."
~ Robert Royden:
"There's no one like him."
~ Marcia Royden:
"I think he's dead!"
~ Gary Lloyd:
". . . stood back of Marcia's chair, his jaw belligerent."
~ Danny Cayle:
". . . was known as the Lloyds of New York."
~ Donovan (a.k.a. Harvard):
"I think that without doubt this is the damnedest proposition that's ever been brought in here."
~ Joe Strega:
"He's a bodyguard. Royden insults people, and Strega does the punching."
~ Harold Caldredge:
"It was a nice play until you cut all the other parts out of it but your own."
~ Carla Warlen:
"Playing detective, Mr. Donovan?"
~ Ted Havilock:
". . . a pathetic, broken-down actor."
~ Lilli Paville:
". . . an actress, first and last."
~ John Taylor:
"I was in this room every second, Inspector, until—well, until just before it happened."
~ Inspector Moran:
"You did say you'd been reading detective stories. Playing a hunch? They always play hunches in books."
"The moment" when it all becomes clear:
"Donovan sat bolt upright in bed. His throat was suddenly dry. He felt beads of sweat standing on his forehead."
Comment: The story has faint echoes of a Nero Wolfe-Archie Goodwin type of character dynamic, with this "Wolfe," a big-time gambler, more ruthless than the Montenegrin.
References and resources:
- "Bottom Deal": Not recommended if you're playing for money, unless you're very good at it—or well-armed:
"Bottom dealing or base dealing is a sleight of hand technique in which the bottom card from a deck of playing cards is dealt instead of the top card. It is used by magicians as a type of card illusion, and by card sharps and mechanics, and as a method of cheating in poker or other card games" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "Joe Louis": For several decades his name was a synonym for "boxing champ":
"Joseph Louis Barrow (1914–1981) was an American professional boxer who competed from 1934 to 1951. Nicknamed the Brown Bomber, Louis is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential boxers of all time. He reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1937 until his temporary retirement in 1949. He was victorious in 25 consecutive title defenses, a record for all weight classes. Louis had the longest single reign as champion of any boxer in history" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "baby was in need of a new pair of shoes": Beginning in 1914, an idiomatic expression that has enjoyed a long lifetime:
"A phrase said aloud when one is hoping for good luck in a game of chance, especially before a dice roll" (The Free Dictionary HERE).
- "Fade me again?": If you're not doing well rolling the bones, it sure can help:
"When you're playing in a open game of craps (not in a casino), you need someone to put up money against what you're betting. The person putting up that money is 'fading' you" (Urban Dictionary HERE). "Shoot craps, Mr. Donovan?" (Wikipedia HERE). "Honest dice" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "prussic acid": Less commonly called hydrogen cyanide:
"Hydrogen cyanide, sometimes called prussic acid, is a chemical compound with the chemical formula HCN. It is a colorless, extremely poisonous, and flammable liquid that boils slightly above room temperature, at 25.6 °C (78.1 °F).
. . . "Cyanide poisoning is poisoning that results from exposure to any of a number of forms of cyanide. Early symptoms include headache, dizziness, fast heart rate, shortness of breath, and vomiting. This phase may then be followed by seizures, slow heart rate, low blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and cardiac arrest. Onset of symptoms usually occurs within a few minutes. Some survivors have long-term neurological problems" (Wikipedia HERE and HERE).
- "Napoleon brandy": In our story it becomes a weapon:
"Brandy thought to be of great age or merit" (Lexico.com HERE). "Courvoisier’s reputation as a Cognac for the elite dates back to their beginnings when a small wine and spirits shop owned by Emmanuel Courvoisier and Louis Gallois was visited by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. They soon became a supplier of Cognac for the Emperor, followed by royal families across Europe" (Cognac Expert HERE).
- "Phi Beta Kappa key": They say—and Carla seems to believe—that if you have one you probably possess a lot of smarts:
"The Phi Beta Kappa Society (ΦΒΚ) is the oldest academic honor society in the United States, and is often described as its most prestigious one, due to its long history and academic selectivity. Phi Beta Kappa aims to promote and advocate excellence in the liberal arts and sciences, and to induct the most outstanding students of arts and sciences at American colleges and universities. It was founded at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776 as the first collegiate Greek-letter fraternity and was among the earliest collegiate fraternal societies.
"Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης (Philosophia Biou Kybernētēs), which means 'Love of learning [lit. wisdom] is the guide [lit. helmsman] of life'" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the inferiority complex": From all appearances Royden has one:
"In psychology, an inferiority complex is an intense personal feeling of inadequacy, often resulting in the belief that one is in some way deficient, or inferior, to others.
". . . An inferiority complex may cause an individual to overcompensate in a number of ways. For example, a person who feels inferior because they are shorter than average (also known as a Napoleon complex) may become overly concerned with how they appear to others. They may wear special shoes to make themself [sic] appear taller or surround himself with individuals who are even shorter than they are. If this is taken to the extreme, it becomes a neurosis.
"It may also cause an individual to be prone to flashy outward displays, with behaviors ranging from attention-seeking to excessive competitiveness and aggression, in an attempt to compensate for their either real or imagined deficiencies" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "went down in the crash": The stock market crash of 1929:
"The Wall Street Crash of 1929, also known as the Great Crash, was a major American stock market crash that occurred in the autumn of 1929. It started in September and ended late in October, when share prices on the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. It was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, when taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its aftereffects" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "the odor of cordite": Fell out of favor after World War Two:
"Cordite is a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. Like gunpowder, cordite is classified as a low explosive because of its slow burning rates and consequently low brisance. These produce a subsonic deflagration wave rather than the supersonic detonation wave produced by brisants, or high explosives. The hot gases produced by burning gunpowder or cordite generate sufficient pressure to propel a bullet or shell to its target, but not so quickly as to routinely destroy the barrel of the gun" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "making sure you weren't heeled": You've got to wonder how this idiom evolved:
"Slang. armed, especially with a gun" (Dictionary.com HERE).
- "a single bright light burning in the middle of the stage": The scene of many triumphs and tragedies:
"There are several types of stages that vary as to the usage and the relation of the audience to them. The most common form found in the West is the proscenium stage" (Wikipedia HERE). "just got into the wings": "Areas that are part of a stage deck but offstage (out of sight of the audience). The wings are typically masked with legs. The wing space is used for performers preparing to enter, storage of sets for scenery changes and as a stagehand work area. Wings also contain technical equipment, such as the fly system" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "impersonate The Shadow": At the time a very popular radio program:
"The radio version of The Shadow is less ruthless than his pulp counterpart, preferring to capture his foes more often than gun them down. He sometimes openly shows compassion for his enemies, even at times criticizing society for creating circumstances that lead to certain crimes and cause some people to lose hope and support" (Wikipedia HERE).
- "a white scarf knotted Ascot fashion": Not as common as in days of yore:
"An ascot tie, ascot or hanker-tie is a neckband with wide pointed wings, traditionally made of pale grey patterned silk. This wide tie is usually patterned, folded over, and fastened with a tie pin or tie clip. It is usually reserved for formal wear with morning dress for daytime weddings and worn with a cutaway morning coat and striped grey formal trousers" (Wikipedia HERE). "The ascot is a type of neckwear that looks like a cross between silken scarf and necktie" (Bows-N-Ties.com HERE).
- Our latest meeting with Hugh Pentecost was several years ago with his Collier's story "The Case of the Killer Dogs" (HERE).
- Murder mysteries presented as plays—unlike today's story, in which the murders are associated with a play—have a long history. Nearly a century ago George Jean Nathan, a perceptive drama critic, had his own ideas of what theatrical mysteries should be like; go (HERE) for those.
Alexander Woollcott, another critic, had some ideas to offer as well; see his "Murder at 8:30 Sharp" highlighted (HERE).
Augustus Thomas's melodrama "Nemesis" dealt with fingerprint evidence; see more (HERE).