Friday, July 25, 2014

About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress

Charles Fulton Oursler (1893-1952) wrote a number of detective novels in the 1930s and early 1940s under the name Anthony Abbot. These novels featured his series detective Thatcher Colt. Published in 1931, About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress (also published under the abbreviated title The Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress) was the second of the Thatcher Colt mysteries.

Abbot seems to be generally regarded as belonging to the “S.S. Van Dine School” and his approach is certainly not dissimilar to Van Dine’s. In fact if you’re a person who enjoys almost everything about Van Dine’s novels apart the character of Philo Vance then you’re probably exactly the sort of person who will enjoy Anthony Abbot’s work. Thatcher Colt is as brilliant as Vance, and like Vance he is a man of education and wide reading. He does not however have the Philo Vance mannerisms that irritate so many readers.

While Colt is clearly an educated man he lacks Vance’s aristocratic pretensions. Van Dine’s novels take place mostly among the upper classes. This is also true of About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress, although perhaps to a slightly lesser extent.

Thatcher Colt is the New York Police Commissioner. Police Commissioners do not usually involve themselves in the actual investigation of crime but Colt is the exception. He is the sort of man who would have been an enthusiastic amateur detective and being Police Commissioner allows him to indulge this enthusiasm. 

The novel opens with the discovery of two bodies in a dinghy. One of the deceased is an Episcopal clergyman, the other is an attractive young woman. Thatcher Colt wants to preserve the crime scene intact so he has the dinghy, with the two bodies still in it, transported to the city morgue. Colt is in possession of several important clues although they are clues that everybody else seems inclined to dismiss as being obviously of no importance. When Colt insists on fingerprinting a cat that was found (very much alive) in the murder dinghy his colleagues think he must be losing his grip but he knows that the cat is a material witness, and Thatcher Colt does not believe in overlooking any material witness.

As is customary in the detective novel there is a wide choice of suspects. At one point Thatcher Colt advances half a dozen different theories involving half a dozen different hypothetical murderers merely to illustrate the dangers of jumping to conclusions.

This is very much a story that adheres to the puzzle-plot formula. And the author proves to be very adept indeed at that formula.

That’s not to say that he neglects characterisation altogether. If it is true that an excessive concentration on characterisation is a disadvantage in a puzzle-plot detective story it is also true that it is very useful for the writers of such tales to have the ability to offer the reader quick sketches of the characters of the actors in the drama. It is even better if the author can make those sketches colourful and vivid. Abbot does this rather successfully.

An odd but interesting feature is that on occasions the novel shows sign of veering towards the police procedural format as the author explains some of the latest forensic policing techniques. Readers will be amused by the account of the “false doorknob” technique used to collect fingerprints at a time when the police had no authority to take fingerprints from suspects. We are also treated to a quite extraordinary piece of knowledge (assuming that it is accurate) when Colt requests the assistance of New York’s City Forester in identifying a leaf found in the murder dinghy. Colt is, perhaps rather optimistically, hoping to use the leaf to find the actual scene of the murder. The City Forester is able to offer the remarkable assurance that his department knows the location of every tree in New York City. All ten thousand of them.

Abbot adopts the tried and tested method of having as first person narrator a relatively minor character who plays no active role in the plot but who is nonetheless in a position to witness all the important events of the novel. In this case the narrator is Thatcher Colt’s private secretary and trusted confidant. 

The plotting is intricate but Abbot is never in danger of losing control and he is always careful to maintain believability even when things get very complicated. He is able to tie things together very successfully to produce an ending that is both satisfying and plausible. Abbot’s prose is stylish without succumbing to Van Dine-like excesses.

Overall a very fine detective yarn by a writer who appears to be most unjustly neglected. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed it very much. I've read a couple of others. I just wish I could find more Thatcher Colt books that are affordable.

    Incidentally, this book is based on the real-life Hall-Mills murder case of 1922 (aka "the minister and the choir singer").