Saturday, November 10, 2012

Death Panel: The Catalyst Club (1936), by George Dyer

"The single 'master mind' of crime detection, so popular in fiction up to now, is at last dead.  You will find writers still clinging to the picturesque lone-wolf fighter against the underworld, of the type devised by Poe, developed by Collins, Gaboriau, and Doyle, and carried to the present by scores of others, but the facts no longer justify his existence.  Outside of books, real life crime has become too complicated to be dealt with by an individual.

Crimes arise from so many motives, are perpetrated by so many types and occupations of people, and are surrounded by so many highly technical clues, that, when the fictitious detective understands the implications of every single scene of violence he comes upon, he is showing more learning than is humanly possible.

We have reached and passed a milestone in this field of endeavor, and of literature, and the writer with any respect for the verities is going to be forced to recognize that the bureau, or group of intelligent specialists, is the only fit antagonist for the criminals of the twentieth century.  Everybody but the writers has realized this for years.  What do you find meeting illegalities now?  Unassisted individuals?  No!  You have New Scotland Yard, and our own Federal Bureau of Investigation.

However, able as these organizations are, they must suffer by comparison with such a group of gifted amateurs as The Catalyst Club...."

formidable detection
George Bell Dyer (1903-1978) was a distinguished fellow as go Golden Age detective novelists (rather an interesting lot I find).

Dyer was the great-grandson of George Washington Dyer, grandson of U. S. Navy Commodore George Leland Dyer (1849-1914), once territorial governor of Guam, and son of U. S. Navy Commander and Ivy League footballer George Palmer Dyer (1876-1948), who was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, where his father was stationed.

The Catalyst Club is dedicated to George P. Dyer, "the third George Dyer, in gratitude for incalculable help with this book as with all the others."

George Bell Dyer, the fourth George Dyer, graduated from Philips Academy and Yale University.  In the late 1920s he briefly worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner before becoming a freelance writer, in which capacity he produced seven detective novels and crime thrillers between 1931 and 1940.  He married Charlotte Leavitt in 1930 and the couple moved two years later to New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.

George Palmer Dyer
father of the author
who gave his son
"incalculable help"
with his mysteries
During World War Two Dyer served as an intelligence officer on General George Patton's staff, while his wife was an officer in the Women's Army Corps (both of them also served in the Korean War).  After WW2 Dyer taught political science at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania and founded the Dyer Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (in the 1960s the New Left magazine Ramparts claimed the school trained CIA spies, which the Dyers denied).

Dyer also continued to write--though sadly only concerning politics and history, rather than the favorites of your Passing Tramp, crime and detection.

Dyer's mystery The Five Fragments (1932) was adapted into the film Fog over Frisco (1934), which co-starred Bette Davis.  Three of his seven crime novels concern the activities of The Catalyst Club, a San Francisco-based panel of distinguished experts in various fields that helps the California police solve baffling murders (reflecting the times, it's one of those men only clubs).  This group is introduced, appropriately enough, in The Catalyst Club (1936).  The Long Death (1937) and The People Ask Death (1940) followed.

the scene of the crime
I found The Catalyst Club a tremendously enjoyable detective novel.  Like the novels of Ellery Queen, S. S. Van Dine, and the so-called Humdrums, this tale focuses on an interesting puzzle problem, in this case the death of the beautiful but bad college co-ed daughter of a tough-as-nails millionaire businessman.  She was found on the lawn of her father's estate, quite brutally and bafflingly slain.

The material detail of the Club's investigation is fascinating, but Dyer does not stop there, introducing psychological factors as well.  The Club members themselves advance differing theories of the crime and separately investigate it.  Their various investigations and their banter among themselves makes engrossing and entertaining reading.

I must note that I missed the "how" solution until disgracefully late in the day!

We even get a map of the estate (who doesn't love maps) and photo plates of crime exhibits.  And, shades of Philo Vance, some footnotes!  For fans of Golden Age detection, The Catalyst Club is a cornucopia, filled to overflowing with good things.  I look forward to reading the other two novels in this series.


  1. The Catalyst Club in Italy has never been published. I spoke with Mauro time ago and he praised the novel, telling the story briefly. I derived for roughly what was a sort of "Black Widowers Association", which solved puzzles. As part of the novels of Dyers, I have yet The Five Fragments, published in Italy by Mondadori, during the fascist period, back in 1935. It is quite appealing as it gives a novel of the same offense five different points of view, as the five witnesses.
    A movie a few years ago, Vantage Point, directed by Pete Travis, analyzed a terrorist attack on the basis of eight different points of view, giving the same fact, eight different angles that put together the same truth recomposed.


  2. Pietro,

    I think you would really like the other Dyers! Dyer does seem to have wanted to tell his tales a but differently.

    I've heard of Vantage Point but have not seen it.