|the other Golden Age forest fire mystery|
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|
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!