Friday’s Forgotten Book: Odds-On Murder by Jack Dolph

Jack Dolph is the pseudonym of John Mather Dolph (1895-1962). He was a race horse trainer, an American writer of pulp crime novels, radio producer, television scriptwriter, and actor. He published five mysteries between 1948 and 1953, mostly about horseracing, then turned his attention to radio and television.

His first book, Odds-On Murder (William Morrow, 1948), introduces James Connor, MD, a recent veteran still recovering from the trauma of the war and lacking motivation to do much of anything. He has taken up a lackadaisical medical practice in New York City, seeing patients in his apartment/office in a questionable part of town. Doc is known to be willing to treat anyone, regardless of their status with the police, making him one of the few people the less law-abiding denizens of the neighborhood feel safe with, which is how he is pulled into the aftermath of the murder of a smalltime grifter. In practically no time, he is in trouble with his good friend, Eddie Marsh, a homicide lieutenant; frightening his girlfriend Katie Storm, a popular radio host; and swept off at gun point to perform surgery on a grievously wounded young man in an isolated country house with only a few medical instruments and pans of boiling water. Somewhere in there he figures out who actually committed the murder.

The snapshot of daily New York City life in the 1940s was as absorbing as the story. Much of the detail surrounding horse racing was familiar, so that does not seem to have changed much. On the other hand, I was aghast when Doc said he had taken two adjacent apartments and inserted a door in the wall between them, so that he could use one as an office. I envisioned hair-raising conversations with the landlord. Either he actually bought the two apartments rather than renting them, or land owners and neighbors were considerably more relaxed about property damage then. Let’s not even think about building codes.

These period pieces always make me do a little research. Taxi dancers and dance halls were still around, although on their way out to disappear completely by 1960; the dancer mentioned here earned $16 a night, which is about $175 in 2021 US dollars. The ten thousand-dollar bills found on the victim would be worth about $110,000 now. (What does a thousand-dollar bill look like? I didn’t know one existed. It had Grover Cleveland on it and was discontinued in 1969.)

This initial title in the series was released a few times and then fell out of print for over 50 years. The first US edition came from William Morrow in 1948, then the 1949 UK edition from Boardman, who reprinted it in two more editions, 1950 and 1953. The Unicorn Mystery Book Club printed it in one volume in 1948 with Blood on the Bosom Devine by Thomas Kyd, I Am the Cat by Rosemary Kutak, and The Trial of Alvin Boaker by John Reywall. (I have never heard of any of these authors, more research ahead.) That was it until Coachwhip released it again in 2021.

I found this foray into pulp fiction well worth my time. Recommended for readers of the genre or those interested in mid-20th century mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Deductions of Colonel Gore by Lynn Brock

Lynn Brock (1877-1943) was the pseudonym of Alister McAllister, an Irish writer. He first wrote plays as Anthony Wharton and then turned to crime fiction using the name Lynn Brock. He created the character of Colonel Gore who starred in five books and a recently reprinted novella and wrote an early psychological crime story. T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers were among his fans. He wrote 13 books in all.

The Deductions of Colonel Gore, published by Collins in 1924 and again in 1932 as The Barrington Mystery, introduces the eponymous detective. Colonel Wickham Gore returns to his home town of Linwood after a successful military career and producing a film of Africa that was popular in England, which made him something of a celebrity. Many of the friends of his youth are still there, including the woman he loved unrequitedly. Now married to an established physician, she is one of the first people he notifies of his return. She promptly invites him to a small dinner party, where he meets more of his former friends and learns that his hostess is being blackmailed.

She enlists his aid in retrieving embarrassing letters and Gore is trying to do so when her blackmailer conveniently dies, apparently of a heart attack but maybe of something else. Gore is relieved for a short time, thinking the threat had evaporated, until he learns that the blackmailer’s colleague has stepped in to take over and expects to continue draining a number of residents of their cash.

A surprising 274 pages, long for a Golden Age mystery, the intricate plot needs a good bit of space to unfold all of its layers. What takes up most of the room though is Gore’s careful processing of the information he has at various times, which points first at this character and then another as the culprit. Readers looking for action will be disappointed, as most of the action is in Gore’s methodical and logical brain.

I really liked this book. I felt it needed editing and then upon a quick review decided I could not see what could have been eliminated without damaging the plot. It is very much of its time and place: Gore persists in referring to grown women by their childhood diminutives (Pickles! Roly-Poly!) while addressing the men of the same generation by their surname, acknowledging their adult status. I know I am viewing this dissonance through the distant lens of 100 years but I still find the contrast jarring. Another sign of the times is the reference to his camera, which was large enough to cause comment and required a stand and plates. Mine of course is in my telephone. And then there are the pejorative references to minorities that are unacceptable these days. However, these are minor considerations. The mystery plot is impeccable and the writing polished and amusing. I understand why T.S. Eliot, that consummate stylist, was enamored. Essential reading for any student of Golden Age mysteries.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hopjoy Was Here by Colin Watson

I finally got around to picking up another title in the Flaxborough Chronicles by Colin Watson. Why I waited so long I do not understand. I loved the first one I read and I loved Hopjoy Was Here (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962), the third in the series of 12 gently sardonic and clever police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Walter Purbright and Detective Sergeant Sidney Love in the prosperous market and port town of Flaxborough in East Anglia. Flaxborough is supposedly a fictionalized version of a town in Lincolnshire where Watson was a journalist.

In the time-honored manner and very much in Flaxborough style, an anonymous letter writer advised the Flaxborough police that something was amiss in the house owned by Gordon Periam, who rented a room to a commercial traveller named Brian Hopjoy. When Detective Inspector Purbright learned about the letter, he decided it deserved more than the casual glance such missives generally get, as he and Chief Constable Chubb were aware that Hopjoy was in fact part of Britain’s intelligence service, agency unnamed, working undercover in the region. Since no one seemed to be home either time the police visited, they felt justified in entering the house to ensure all was well. They found indisputable evidence that a substantial amount of organic material had been dissolved with acid in the bathtub, leaving insufficient amounts to determine who or what had been destroyed. That neither man had been seen for a week supported the suspicion that one of them was now in the many test tubes collected by the police from the bathtub drain and the other was on the lam.

To complicate matters, two representatives of Hopjoy’s agency appear to relay that their now-missing colleague had reported dubious activities in the region, leading them to believe he was a victim of counterintelligence forces. They could not provide more details because the information was classified but they wanted to know everything that Purbright and his colleagues learned. This lopsided arrangement did not endear them to the Flaxborough team.

This book is a delight. Watson pokes fun at just about everything and everyone while laying out a solid police procedural with some nice red herrings. His skewering of the British spy of film and fiction is particularly juicy. Written about the time the first James Bond movie was released, Watson spoofs the stereotyped secret agent who is irresistible to every woman he meets and points out not at all subtly that when an undercover scout is sent out on his own, his supervisors really have no idea how he spends his time. Highly recommended.