Thursday, July 28, 2016

Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of Geraldine Foster

Charles Fulton Oursler (1893-1952) wrote eight detective novels under the name Anthony Abbot. All feature New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt. The first four were published in quick succession between 1930 and 1932. The second batch of four, which are apparently slightly different in tone, came out between 1935 and 1943. About the Murder of Geraldine Foster was the first of the Thatcher Colt mysteries.

Abbot is generally regarded as belonging to the S.S. Van Dine school of detective fiction. There’s some truth in this, at least superficially. Like Van Dine’s books Abbot’s are set in New York and the crimes usually take place among the wealthy and educated classes. The plotting is complex and the murder methods are often bizarre and unusual. Like Philo Vance Thatcher Colt is wealthy, well-educated and cultured. 

On the other hand Thatcher Colt bears little genuine resemblance to Philo Vance. He lacks Vance’s affectations and artistic tastes. Colt’s home contains a vast library but all of the thousands of books on the shelves involve crime in some way. Colt is more like Sherlock Holmes in this respect - his knowledge of criminology is encyclopaedic but he seems to have a limited interest in any other subjects. Abbot’s prose is lively but his tone is more straightforward than Van Dine’s (although that’s not to suggest that his prose is lacking in humour).

Perhaps most importantly, Thatcher Colt is a policeman and not an amateur detective. Of course in reality a Police Commissioner is usually more of a politician than a real police officer but Colt always manages to get himself involved in the actual investigations. He just can’t help himself. It is vital to bear in mind however that he works within the system and he makes use of all the resources of the police department in his investigations. He is most definitely not a lone wolf and his methods are those of a professional police detective. He does not rely on wild leaps of intuition. 

One of Abbot’s strengths as a writer is his eye for detail. He has an enthusiasm for describing painstaking routine investigative methods that would warm the heart of Freeman Wills Crofts.

About the Murder of Geraldine Foster begins with the disappearance of a young woman. Geraldine Foster works as a doctor’s receptionist and is about to be married. Recently she has seemed rather upset and has quarreled with her fianc√©, her employee and her flatmate. 

The missing persons case soon turns into a homicide investigation. The murder is horrifyingly savage. There are a number of suspects but one suspect in particular seems to stand out. He becomes the main focus of the investigation and the police use every possible method to induce the suspect to confess, including not only the notorious third degree but also some new-fangled high-tech methods - lie detector tests and truth drugs. Despite all this Thatcher Colt is still no closer to solving the mystery. The prime suspect may or may not be guilty, the motive remains obscure and the exact sequence of events remains uncertain.  

About the Murder of Geraldine Foster is thoroughly enjoyable intelligent and literate entertainment. As a first novel it’s extremely impressive indeed. Very highly recommended.

Abbot’s About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress and About the Murder of the Circus Queen can also be unhesitatingly recommended. The latter is especially good.

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