Friday, August 24, 2012

Maneaters: Murder by Latitude (1930), by Rufus King

Valcour sat beside Captain Sohme at the forward end of the small lounge.  The leaden sky and air made of it a cubicle of murk which the ceiling lights, that had been turned on, scarcely affected at all, and the sea was a woman's glass with the ship a tense, unhappy atom creeping, turn by turn, along its flat insensate floor.... (Murder by Latitude, 1930)

For a short period in the early to mid 1930s there were, in the eyes of a number of mystery critics and readers of the time, two reigning monarchs of American classical detective fiction, Ellery Queen and Rufus King.  If Ellery Queen's reputation has faded (most unjustly) among the mystery masses, Rufus King's has vanished into air. I have only read a few novels by Rufus King, but in my view on the strength of his fifth mystery novel, Murder by Latitude, his name should be not merely recollected but lauded.

Certainly Murder by Latitude at least should be in print!  It's one of the major American works within the detective fiction genre from the period between the two World Wars.

a novel as stylish as its dust jacket

Murder by Latitude is one of those novels with a plot so suspenseful that one really must be careful in the name of aesthetic justice of writing too much about it.  Broadly speaking, Murder by Latitude, as the title indicates, is an ocean liner mystery, one of early vintage.  There is a very early yacht mystery, The After House (1914), by Mary Roberts Rinehart and I know Carolyn Wells did one typically mediocre effort in the 1920s called The Bronze Hand that takes place on an ocean liner. There also are a number of later examples, including several others by King himself.  One of the best known of these is John Dickson Carr's The Blind Barber (1934).  However, King's maiden effort in this sub-genre made a great splash at the time--and deservedly so.

On the ship in Murder by Latitude is a remarkably ruthless murderer.  He--or she?--has killed once already and kills again on board the liner Eastern Bay as it makes its tortured way from Bermuda to Halifax.  Indeed, the novel opens in quite an attention grabbing manner with a description of the strangling of the ship's wireless man.  This savage slaying has the effect of preventing the ship from getting messages from the New York police, who now have a description of the murderer for Lieutenant Valcour, King's series detective, who is also on board the ship, trying to catch the culprit.  Now Valcour is left groping in the dark, and the murderer has not yet completed his (her?) work....

the English edition of King's novel

Murder by Latitude is something one doesn't come across every day: a real page turner.  I read over 200 pages in one sitting, something I very rarely do these days.  It's superbly suspenseful (why are those objects disappearing?), evocatively written (you really get the sense of a ship at sea), modern in tone and well-characterized (more below) and, best of all for a 'tec fiction fiend, it boasts a really clever solution, masterfully twisted by the hand of a storytelling virtuoso. 

in the book it's the stiff that's deshabille
--though the dame indeed is a blonde
Mike Grost, who has written rather extensively on the internet about Rufus King (Grost and other bloggers who have written about King are linked below), argues that Latitude is also notable for its "gay sensibility."  I have to say I agree with Grost's assessment.

For example, the middle-aged, much married Mrs. Poole is a maneater who harpoons (Valcour's word) much younger men as husbands.  She is on board with husband number five, Ted Poole, who is constantly portrayed in an objectified manner by the author. "It was a pity he had his clothes on," thinks Mrs. Poole, as she looks over at her much younger husband "wriggling" on a deck chair.

There is also a movingly portrayed relationship between two crewmen on the ship that is, as Mike Grost has written, rather Melvilleian in tone.  Then there's that queer Frenchman, Mr. Dumarque, a remarkable epigram-tossing aesthete.  Latitude is not a "gay mystery," but it does seem as though it might have been written by a gay man.

Currently very little is known about Rufus King, even though he was a popular and prolific writer within the mystery genre for many years, publishing twenty-three mystery novels and short story collections between 1927 and 1951 and three more genre books between 1958 and 1964.  He died two years late in 1966, at the age of 73.
 
King graduated from Yale in 1914, then spent a few years at sea, enjoying "a romantic life of rolling ships and strange ports."  He also spent some time as a workman in a Paterson, New Jersey silk mill.  When the United States entered the Great War he served in it as an artillery lieutenant. King's first mystery novel did not appear until ten years later, when King was 34, but he quickly made a name for himself in the field.  His breakthrough detective novel, Murder by the Clock (1929), was adapted into a well-regarded film in 1931 (the other best-known Rufus King film is the Fritz Lang directed The Secret Beyond the Door, 1947).

the derelict Delaware and Hudson Railway Station at Rouse's Point, New York
where Rufus King regularly would have stopped off


During his life King annually resided part of the year at Rouse's Point, New York, located on Lake Champlain a mile south of the United States-Canada border.  He was a good friend of the Oscar-nominated gay actor Monty Wooley, a fellow New Yorker and Yalie.  I believe both his life and his books are worth exploring.

Links to other bloggers on Rufus King:

Mike Grost (detail on plots)

John Norris (Murder by the Clock)

TomCat (The Case of the Constant God)

Pietro De Palma (Murder by Latitude--SPOILERS!!) Pietro calls it a "masterpiece" and I agree!

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link to my Rufus King review, my friend. I thought this was the one that Dell retitled Murder Challenges Valcour for their mapback series, but it turns out that is The Lesser Antilles Case. I will have to find a copy of this one. I have so many King's books but not this one. I'd like to review them all on my blog (where's the time?). I think King was a true original; a real wordsmith with a knack for turning a phrase and creating perfect atmosphere. Plus his characters rise above the usual stock in trade for detective novels of his era. He wrote women characters very well - so unusual and complex.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My thanks for introducing me to the mysterious Mr King. I admit that I knew his name only through my ongoing hunt for Basil King titles. If I encounter him, I'll make certain to pick up Rufus when next looking for Basil.

    ReplyDelete
  3. John and Brian,

    Will be doing another post on King soon, have some interesting information on him. I agree he was good at writing about women, Mrs. Poole is the pivotal character in Latitude and the whole sexual psychology of the book is fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I told about Holiday Homicide by Rufus King, also.
    The link, is :

    http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/2012/05/rufus-king-holiday-homicide-1940.html

    Pietro

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh well, after reading this review, you know I have to get my hands on this book, P.T. I'll scour the internet if I have to. It just sounds SO good! I love this sort of story - well, you already knew that. :)

    I admit it, I've never heard of Rufus King (though that is a wonderful name, I think, for a mystery writer - I used to have a dog named Rufus - but that's a story for another day).

    I will search high and low and will report if and when I find it. Thanks for writing about this guy.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Yvette,

    Thanks for stopping by. It was a very popular book and was reprinted in paperback by Popular Library in 1950. There actually are fifty copies on Abebooks.com, for example, ranging from $4 for a paperback to $475 for a signed first edition.

    Good luck! I'm reaching King's Murder on the Yacht now, which is about as good.

    I don't think I ever knew a Rufus, human or otherwise! Very old name.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Pietro, thanks, will check that out. You might be interested to know "Rufe" was Todd Downing's favorite mystery writer, even more so than Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I groped to respond to your question by saying that, in my opinion, Rufus was preferred to the other for his mastery in generating tension, pure suspense, that others do not generally have.
      A Rufus was enough to even insinuate a doubt here and there, because the narrative tension was increased.

      Delete