Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Shape of Fear by Hugh Pentecost

Currently investigating the Pierre Chambrun series by Hugh Pentecost. How have I missed these books? I vaguely recall reading some of the Julian Quist stories by Pentecost but have no memory of this series set in the luxury Hotel Beaumont in New York City. Pentecost is the pseudonym of Judson Pentecost Phillips, who has some 12 mystery series to his credit under one or the other name. He received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1973, which was certainly warranted for output alone, if nothing else.

The Chambrun books mirror the John Putnam Thatcher books by Emma Lathen in many ways. They span the same time period and they both offer ensemble casts of characters in large public-facing commercial organizations. Pentecost released 21 books and one collection of short stories in the series between 1962 and 1988. Thatcher and the staff of the Sloan Guaranty Trust first appeared in 1961 for a total of 24 books. I did not notice the scathing Lathen wit in the Chambrun books I’ve read so far but the plotting, dialog, and characterization are excellent.

The Shape of Fear (Dodd Mead, 1964) is the second book. The story is told from the perspective of the hotel’s new public relations director. Questions from a recent addition to the staff is a great way to justify detailed descriptions of setting and personnel roles and personalities, clever device.

As the book opens, Mark Haskell, the new PR director, has a potential bombshell tossed into his lap, how to seat three individuals at war with each other at an important international political dinner. Two of the three automatically warrant places at the head table because of their position; the international guest of honor has requested the third also sit there as his guest. The three cannot be expected to get through the event without some sort of eruption. Mr. Murray Cardew, the hotel’s long-term resident and expert on social behavior and protocol, was called in to consult on the conundrum. Later in the evening Cardew calls Haskell and asks him urgently to come to his room. Haskell is delayed a few minutes and when he arrives, find Cardew dead of an obvious head injury. Hotel manager Chambrun and the staff are shattered, as the victim was genuinely loved and admired.

Some probing police interviews reveal the suspicion that the hotel is unwittingly being used in the movement of heroin into the country; everyone supposes Cardew saw or heard something about it, which led to his death. Between the political conspiracies that surround the international guest of honor and the suggestion of drugs in his hotel, Chambrun is furious. Add the local police and representatives of the federal narcotics force who are in and out and a movie star who demands constant attention, and the hotel is seething with tension and worry. A completely unexpected development at the very end wraps it all up smoothly and surprisingly.

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