Friday, February 26, 2016

Clyde B. Clason’s Murder Gone Minoan

Murder Gone Minoan is the seventh of American writer Clyde B. Clason’s Theocritus L. Westborough mysteries. It was first published in 1939. In just five years, from 1936 to 1941, Clyde B. Clason (1903-1987) penned ten detective novels featuring his amateur detective Theocritus Lucius Westborough. Clason continued to write but after 1941 there would be no more detective stories.

Westborough is an elderly historian specialising in Roman history although he appears to be widely versed in other historical periods as well as having a wide knowledge of art and literature. As a sideline he has assisted the police in a number of murder investigations, with great success. A pal of his in the LA PD has recommended his services to millionaire department store owner and eccentric art collector Alexis Paphlagloss. 

Paphlagloss possesses a priceless Minoan statuette, three-and-a-half thousand years old, or at least he did possess it until it was stolen. Westborough’s task is to get that statuette back.

There are only a limited number of suspects. The statuette was stolen from a room in Paphlagloss’s palatial home on an island off the California coast. Palatial is no exaggeration - the house is as big as a miniature palace and its owner has named it after the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete. The statue could only have been stolen by a member of Paphlagloss’s family or one of a number of house guests.

Westborough immediately becomes aware of a good deal of tension on the island. Paphlagloss’s daughter Ione is the centre of a romantic web with no less than three suitors for her hand. As the sole heir to her father’s fortune she is quite a catch - it would be like marrying a princess. And her father really does behave like a king, hence his nickname of Minos (after the Minoan king). All is not well however in this modern-day royal family - Alexis does not get on with his wife Jennifer, his wife and daughter (Jennifer is Ione’s stepmother) do not get on and Jennifer’s son Marc (Alexis’s stepson) is a complicating factor.

The house guests include a rival department store magnate and his son (who is one of  Ione’s less welcome suitors), an impoverished painter who has been commissioned to do a fresco in the Minoan style and noted scholar and expert on Minoan culture Dr Arne Nielson.

The case puzzles Westborough and it becomes more perplexing when the butler is murdered. Why on earth would anyone want to murder the trusted, long-serving and popular butler?

This is a classic example of the setup so beloved of golden age detective story writers, with a small group of people, one of whom must be the murderer, cut off from the outside world (the island does not even have a telephone connection with the mainland). Since the setup is so familiar the trick to making it work is to make the setting original and interesting (and this book certainly achieves that) or to make the cast of characters colourful and interesting (and this story succeeds on that count as well).

Of course it’s also necessary to have the mechanics of the plot work effectively. On that count Murder Gone Minoan is reasonably successful. There’s one plot element that seemed to me to stretch credibility much too far and there’s a clue that perhaps reveals too much but otherwise it works well enough. 

The book’s greatest strength is Clason’s ability to use the background details as essential plot elements, the background details in question being not only Minoan culture and religion but also Marc’s profession as an archaeologist specialising in the culture and religion of the Native American tribe who once inhabited this island off the Californian coast. The strange things that are occurring on this island appear to suggest that someone is trying to revive either the Minoan religion or the Native American religion. Westborough’s own specialised knowledge plays a vital role in his solution of the puzzle, rather than just being a means of showing how clever the detective hero is.

The romantic sub-plot is also quite prominent. This is an element that is often regarded as being (and often is) a disastrous and tedious distraction but Clason handles it very skillfully indeed so that we end up actually caring how the complex emotional entanglements will work themselves out.

Clason can be considered to belong to the Van Dine School of detective fiction in the sense that he has a cultured highly educated amateur detective whose knowledge of art, literature and history assists him in the solving of crimes and the crimes take place among the wealthy elites of American society. Clason is certainly at the more literary and literate end of the detective fiction spectrum. His style is polished and erudite and filled with literary allusions, and there’s some gentle humour.

Westborough’s range of knowledge rivals Philo Vance’s but Westborough is certainly a more amiable and less astringent personality. Westborough belongs to the class of amateur sleuths who rely to a certain extent on being under-estimated by evil-doers. He’s nearly 70 and he’s a somewhat frail white-haired rather bookish old man. Of course he’s also as sharp as a tack and he has the understanding of human nature that comes with age so under-estimating him can prove to be a serious error.

You don’t need to be a professor of ancient history to read this book but Clason does assume that the reader has at least a vague acquaintanceship with the overall chronology of the ancient Mediterranean world and has a reasonable familiarity with literature. He assumes that the reader knows where the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations fit into the timeline, knows about the Ottoman occupation of Crete, has at least read The Iliad and The Odyssey in translation, knows who Theseus and Ariadne were and won’t be bewildered by references to Sheridan or Pope. When Rue Morgue Press reissued this title it might have been worthwhile to include a few footnotes.

I personally think that Clason’s eighth Westborough mystery, Dragon’s Cave, is somewhat better but Murder Gone Minoan is a very polished effort and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. You can’t ask for much more than that. Highly recommended.

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