Friday, December 21, 2012

Murder and Smoke: Smoke Screen (1935), by Christopher Hale

A 1930s detective novel about murders that take place amid a group of people cut off from the rest of the world by a raging forest fire?  That would be The Siamese Twin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (one of my favorites mysteries)...right ?  Actually, no.

the other Golden Age forest fire mystery
In this case it's Smoke Screen, by Christopher Hale, pseudonym of Frances Moyer Ross Stevens (1895-1948), who during her lifetime published ten mystery novels, all of them, I believe, set in Michigan (a final novel, published posthumously in 1949, finds Hale's Michigan police detective, Bill French, encountering crime in Florida, where he is on vacation).

Smoke Screen was the first Christopher Hale detective novel, and while it's not in the class of The Siamese Twin Mystery--one of the great Golden Age detective novels--it has its own merit.

Like John Norris (see his comment below), I'm a great admirer of the dust jacket art on Smoke Screen, which does look like that for a Western novel, and also a WPA mural, I think.

There's also a great endpaper map of the Michigan lake peninsula (Bois Blanc Point--admittedly rather phallic-looking) where the story takes place.  Though some people today sneer at such Golden Age mystery paraphernalia as maps and plans I think we true fans of the period in fact can't get enough of them!

We're told this particular map hangs over the fireplace in the living room at Tall Timbers, the vacation home of Lewis Romney, a cousin of the young copper Bill French, who is visiting Romney and his wife Ruth when the novel begins (yes, it is odd that in 2012 I happened to read an obscure 1935 novel, set in Michigan, that has a main character named Romney).

the scene of the crime(s)

Besides Bill French and Lewis Romney, the other main character is the eighth-blood Chippewa Pete (no one bothers to assign him a last name).  These three men all are pictured on the dust jacket above.

Pete's an interesting character.  We learn that he got a law degree and was admitted to the bar, but could only get "riffraff" for clients.  Embittered, he "went native" in a little cabin on Bois Blanc Point, where he makes a living selling milk and eggs to his wealthier neighbors (as the map shows, there are eight households on the peninsula, plus the abandoned Dower Farm). Pete sometimes even indulges in Tonto-like "Indian" speak before the locals, much to their exasperation, as they know he actually is highly acculturated.

Todd Downing, the 1930s Oklahoma mystery writer who was one-eighth Native American himself, didn't like this character, but Pete is something different for the period, certainly.  And Hale makes clear that Bill French, at least, sympathizes with Pete over the discrimination he has been subjected to in his life.

here, inspiration burns brightest
In general the characterization in Smoke Screen is rather good, though more time could have been spent on it.  And the plot is pretty good as well, though narrative tension is somewhat lacking, especially compared to Ellery Queen's brilliant take on the same subject matter (deathly forest fire and simultaneous murders).  Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery manages, in fact, to be both far more tense and densely clued mystery than Smoke Screen, which is a pretty impressive trick, but then that's Ellery Queen for you.

Too much of Smoke Screen is devoted to Bill and Lewis wandering around the peninsula on foot (frequently arguing with Pete) as the fire rages in the distance (someone has wrecked the boats and siphoned the gas).  A deadly forest fire mystery should never be lacking in tension, but somehow Smoke Screen frequently does.  We never really feel like this could be THE END for all these characters, as we do in The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Still, Smoke Screen is an interesting detective novel, with enough good stuff in it to make one wish it was even better than it is.  Knowing that this is a first novel, I am interested in reading more by Christopher Hale.

Coming (I hope!) for Christmas Eve: a special Golden Age Christmas mystery review!


  1. Great DJ! That's got to be a scarce one. Though it looks like it's advertising a western. Never read any Hale, but I have a few. HANGMAN'S TIE in the Bart paperback and some of the Dell mapbacks. None in hardcover or with DJ.

  2. I didn't know also you liked "The Siamese Twin Mystery" by Ellery Queen, Curtis.
    I enjoy it!

  3. SIAMESE TWIN is one of my most favourite QUEEN novels (and that's saying something) - never heard of this one though Curt - cheers.


  4. I read a long article about on my blog. Why don't you read it, Sergio?

  5. I'll post links to Siamese Twin Mystery reviews. It is my favorite Ellery Queen.

    John, yeah, it's a neat jacket, though if it weren't for that gun and the question mark on the spine it doesn't look like a mystery at all (and the title doesn't help).