Sunday, February 1, 2015

Q. Patrick's S.S. Murder

S.S. Murder is a 1933 mystery novel by Q. Patrick, an author with a complex and confusing series of identities. Q. Patrick was in fact a writing team, usually comprising Hugh Callingham Wheeler (1912-1987) and Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966) but at times also including Mary Louise White Aswell (1902-1984) and Martha Mott Kelley (1906-2005). Some of the books were written by Wheeler alone, other by varying combinations of the other writers. And just to ensure the maximum of confusion the books were published under the names Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick, Jonathan Stagge and even Quentin Patrick.

S.S. Murder was one of their early efforts, written by Webb and Aswell.

The entire novel consists of a series of journal entries by newspaper reporter Mary Llewellyn, intended for her husband-to-be Davy (also a reporter). Mary has taken passage on the liner S. S. Moderna, bound for Rio de Janeiro. Mary is recovering after surgery and has been ordered to take things easy. Since she cannot participate in many of the shipboard activities due to her convalescence she eases the boredom by keeping a journal for the benefit of Davy, left behind in New York.

The epistolary novel was immensely popular in Victorian times but by 1933 was somewhat out of fashion. Its chief advantage was that it allowed the author to tell a story from several different points of view using multiple narrators. In the case of S.S. Murder there is only one point of view and one narrator. The technique was presumably chosen to give a sense of immediacy and to heighten the suspense (after all if the novel consists entirely of journal entries we cannot be absolutely certain that the narrator is not going to end up being the murderer’s final victim). There was most likely another reason for using the technique. It allows the authors to mimic, in a rather witty way, the celebrated “challenge to the reader” feature of the early Ellery Queen mysteries. In this case Mary Llewellyn informs Davy, in one of her later journal entries, that she has supplied him with all the information necessary to solve the crime and that she hopes he has been successful in doing so.

The epistolary nature of the novel is yet another example of the willingness of golden age detective fiction writers to experiment with structure and technique.

Shipboard settings could be, and were, used very successfully by a number of golden age writers, most notably Rufus King who set no less than three of his mysteries on board ships. A ship offers all the advantages of an isolated country house - the murderer has to be one of the passengers or crew and having committed the murder or murders he cannot physically escape but can only hope to avoid detection.

S.S. Murder doesn’t take long to get to the murderous action. One day out from port a man keels over dead during a game of bridge. The ship’s doctor immediately suspects poison, a suspicion confirmed by an autopsy. The circumstances make it clear that the killer had to be one of a fairly small number of people although the question of alibis will later become rather complicated.

Being a reporter Mary Llewellyn naturally senses the possibility of a scoop. She and Davy had covered murder cases in the past so she fancies her chances as an amateur detective. She does not however carry out the investigation single-handed. To complicate matters the two people with whom she collaborates in her investigation are both suspects, and as far as they are concerned she might well be a suspect also.

This will not be the last murder that enlivens the voyage of the S.S. Moderna, murder being more popular than deck tennis on this particular ship.

The plotting is reasonably solid and the unbreakable alibi angle is handled well. There is a certain weakness in the plot but  I won’t risk a spoiler by hinting at what it might be.

I would not place it in the top rank of golden age mysteries but S.S. Murder is a brisk and entertaining mystery of the second rank. Recommended.

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