The next year Ellery Queen produced in The Siamese Twin Mystery a tale of people trapped in a house on a mountain gradually being engulfed in a forest fire who just happen to have on their hands a murder case as well; while in 1934 and 1935, respectively, Todd Downing (whose favorite mystery writer was Rufus King) and Newton Gayle (an American-English duo) produced mysteries, Murder on the Tropic and Murder at 28:10, in which hurricanes played major roles in the story lines. Since then, I suppose the device has been using many times, but these are some of the most important early instances.
|Will Crusader make its destination?|
Crusader is owned by New York millionaire Anthony Bettle. He is on an unspecified mission to the Ragged Island of Jumento Cays, "a forgotten group of islands rimming the southern edge of the 330-mile-long great Bahama bank in a hundred mile arc." Only Ragged Island is inhabited (by fewer than 100 people). What is Bettle up to? Valcour doesn't know.
Also on the ship are Bettle's wife Helen (a society matron type who married Bettle in the classic exhange of position for money); their son John; Helen's dilettantish brother Wharton Luke; Horatio Barlowe and his lovely red-haired daughter Freda; Freda's companion Miss Singlestar; Peter Moore, nephew of Bettle's attorney Waverly Hedglin; and Carlotta Balfe, famous medium and spiritual guru of sorts to Anthony Bettle. There's also a complement of crew, several of whom are quite nicely sketched in as individuals and not the usual comic "servant" throwaways that you find all too often in Golden Age mysteries.
Waverly Hedglin was on the yacht but apparently disembarked and has since disappeared. Valcour thinks Hedglin was murdered on the yacht. Is he right?
|many dangers fill the deep|
From this point on, this narrative never lets up and the suspense is something extra. Soon the hurricane strikes and Valcour is left giving the traditional drawing room exposition in truly unique circumstances.
Characterization again is excellent, with each named person distinctive, and some quite memorable. Dialogue is sparkling, descriptive writing evocative.
There's an interesting theme too about the hubris of the American moneyed class in the 1930s. Rufus King himself came of money, of parents who lived in a posh Manhattan townhouse and wintered in Florida and could send him to a fine prep school and to Yale (where King most distinguished himself playing women's parts in Yale Dramat. musicals.); but in this novel, published in the early throes of the Great Depression, King takes a dim view of the mental effect that masses and masses of money can have on people:
He thought: Just as love makes you blind so does wealth, and of the two blindnesses wealth is the worse because of the incalculable harm it is able to do to people other than yourself. Bettle was wealth. And Bettle was stone blind.
This is mystery genre writing of unusual sophistication, either in the Golden Age or today or any other age, in my view. Why on earth (or sea) have Rufus King's books dropped out of the canon?