Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rufus King’s Murder Masks Miami

Murder Masks Miami, published in 1939, was the last of Rufus King’s eleven Lieutenant Valcour mysteries. Rufus King (1893-1966) wrote mysteries featuring featuring three other series detectives as well. In his day he was an immensely successful writer, certainly one of the big guns of American detective fiction. His subsequent eclipse is puzzling to say the least.

King wrote three excellent nautical mysteries in the early 1930s and Murder Masks Miami could easily qualify as being at least a semi-nautical mystery, with the story reaching its climax on board a luxury yacht.

Two women are murdered in Miami. One is a wealthy socialite, the other a slightly disreputable gold digger. Lieutenant Valcour on the New York Police Department had been trying to enjoy a welcome holiday in Miami but like so many fictional detectives he finds that murder seems to follow him even on vacation.

The wealthy socialite’s eccentricities, love of controlling other people and of course her money mean that suspects are quite thick on the ground. Especially so since she was the only member of her family with serious money. 

The local chief of police, an amiable soul by the name of Goodfriend, frankly admits that he is out of his depth and so he is more than happy to let Valcour do most of the investigating. Even though he really would have enjoyed a peaceful vacation Valcour is willing to do so. It’s difficult for a homicide cop not to get interested in what seems likely to be a fascinating and complex case and Goodfriend is such a nice guy Valcour is unwilling to leave him in the lurch.

There are plenty of clues, including a plethora of blonde wigs. 

Valcour is an appealing detective hero and, for a professional New York cop, a rather civilised one. He is reasonably comfortable moving among the upper classes which is just as well since most of his cases involve murder among the rich and famous.

Superficially King might appear to be of the school of S.S. Van Dine but King established himself as a writer at about the same time as Van Dine so it appears that rather than King copying Van Dine they were probably both influenced by the emerging British school of murder among the upper classes detective fiction. Valcour is a less colourful although possibly slightly more complex character than Philo Vance and he lacks the Vanceian mannerisms that annoy some readers.

King’s style is urbane, polished and witty and at times quite amusing. There is, fortunately, little in the way of overt social criticism here. The upper class settings provide glamour and while King is a shrewd observer of human foibles he has no political axes to grind.

I’ve read three of the earlier Valcour mysteries, Murder by Latitude, The Lesser Antilles Case and Murder on the Yacht and they’re all immense fun. 

Murder Masks Miami will be a delight to all fans of golden age detective fiction. Highly recommended.

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