Monday, September 3, 2012

Reefs: The Lesser Antilles Case (1934), by Rufus King

I've been enjoying reading Rufus King very much, so expect to see more of his stuff here the rest of the year.  But, bear with me, I won't turn this into the Rufus King blog.  After this one will come books by Ian Rankin and George Bellairs (both police procedurals, I would say, no matter how much the term "Tartan Noir" is thrown out concerning Rankin).

However, back to the matter at hand, Mr. King!

The Lesser Antilles Case is the third of three maritime mysteries starring King's series detective Lieutenant Valcour that appeared between 1930 to 1934 (Valcour also solved two non-maritime mysteries in this period).   

Chart your course for death!
 Antilles has a different structure from the earlier two, Murder by Latitude (1930) and Murder on the Yacht (1932).  Instead of starting with Valcour joining the passengers on a maritime craft to try to catch a murderer on board, Antilles begins with survivors of a maritime disaster--the foundering of a yacht, Helsinor, on a reef in the Lesser Antilles--returning to New York unhappily to face the bright, invasive flashes of press cameras.

We learn that while on a lifeboat the survivors may have been drugged with chloral and two of their number--the New York millionaire and owner of the yacht, Lawrence Thacker, and yacht third mate Leighton Klein--pitched by some malign individual off the boat into the shark-infested sea.  A publicity-seeking numerologist, Lillian Ash, is doing all she can to trumpet the word "murder" to the press and Valcour is asking questions of the survivors informally.

Curses! The old hydrocyanic acid
in the highball trick!
For a (non-lethal!)
whiskey highball recipe
see the great cocktails website
 When one of the heirs to the Thacker millions himself dies unnaturally (hydrocyanic acid in his highball), Valcour's investigation becomes official.  This being a Rufus King novel, the only thing to do is to gather Valcour and the survivors of the disaster on board another yacht, Helsinor II, to go back to the scene of the disaster.  Valcour plans to stage a diving expedition to recover clues from the sunken Helsinor.

This part of the book recovers some of the high tension of the earlier pair of maritime mysteries, particularly during the nail-biting diving expedition.  However, the first half of the book is compelling as well, a fast-paced, smoothly-written investigation in New York City locales both high and low of events in the near past.

There are several interesting women characters in the novel, particularly the aforementioned Lillian Ash (though she rather resembles Carlotta Balfe from Murder on the Yacht); Erika Land, the young heiress; and Land's society matron aunt, Helen Whitestone.  Often an exaggerated target of lampoonists, the 1930s society matron in Rufus King's hands becomes a character of surprising depth.

beautiful but deadly
King also does the "lower orders" (the servants and the sailors) well, never stooping to attempts to extract cheap laughs from the reader at their expense.  All in all, King's facility with characterization, I think, matches that of the British Crime Queens.

Neither Antilles nor Murder on the Yacht really has what Mike Grost and I both found in Murder by Latitude to be notable gay subtext.

However, King does include this circumspect though suggestive exchange between Valcour and Mr. Pritchett, butler to the poisoned Edmund Gateshead:

"I wonder whether I'm right about Mr. Gateshead."
"In what way, sir?"
"In seeing him as a man who possessed an intense desire for beauty, a man of strong, few, and perhaps curious friendships.  His life with women confined itself almost exclusively to those of an age with or older than himself."
Pritchett said carefully: "That is about correct, sir."

King has a nice way with words all round.

With that almost terrifying facility of the very rich, to think, with Miss Whitestone, was to act....

She did not think, and never had thought, that sunken bathtubs (possibly from some early Roman connotation) were quite nice.

The word murderer hit her with a sickening physical blow.  It was useless to argue with herself that well-bred people didn't do such things.  She thought irrelevantly that Cain must have been, for his time, well bred.

She did something strange with her lips, under the curious delusion that she was managing a smile.

And to top the whole thing off, the plot is classical, clever and fair play!  What more can a mystery fan ask for, really?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. John said:

    Just read this and was going to do a John Rhode analogy in my review. The poisoning bit is right out of a Rhode novel, don't you think?...Not as odd as VEGETABLE DUCK, though.

    I liked the diving sequence and the suicidally desperate diver who takes the job to locate the wrecked yacht. Lillian Ash, the numerologist is another of his unusual female characters. She was one of the best parts of the book, IMO. Aunt Helen was another of the matrons who seem to be a sort of King staple the more I read his early books.

    Though there may be no "gay subtext" the women are the stronger characters here and the dialog has a tendency to get acid tongued and a bit bitchy. That's pretty close for me.

    1. I thought perhaps I went too far. No offense taken. A lot of people think I write spoiler ridden reviews and have told me outright they skim most of what I post on my blog. Oh well.

    2. I thought it was a great point, but worried it revealed too much of the murder method. People always tell me they hate the spoilers. Sometimes I feel I don't give enough detail in blog reviews because I've become so spoiler-phobic!

  3. John,

    I deleted your comment because of what I thought was something of a spoiler and copied it, minus the spoiler, above. Hope that's okay! When I did my Humdrums book I went through the whole thing posting spoiler warnings for the final draft!

    I thought the poisoning very clever and it did remind me of Rhode and also another author.

    I thought the diver was a great character and was going top quote a bit from that chapter, but got lazy! I liked King's portrayal of the relations between the upper and lower classes in the 1930s.

    Murder by Latitude seemed to me to have really strong gay subtext (Mike Grost thinks so too and calls it King's "tragic gay novel," as opposed to his humorous one, Murder Masks Miami). Antilles seemed not nearly as striking to me in that regard, though he certainly does have acid tongued characters! Like I said in my first piece on King, I suspect he's one of the lost gay mystery writers from the 1930s.

    I hope you do somethign on King. I need to leave off his books here for a while, but was really enjoying them. He's a great find, although some of his others books that I had read earlier I hadn't liked as much as these maritime ones.

    Thanks for the comment, appreciated as ever.

    1. I got MURDER BY LATITUDE in the mail last week -- purchased because of your rave -- (don't you wish you got kickbacks from the online booksellers? I do!) but wanted to read LESSER ANTILLES... first since I thought perhaps you hadn't realized it was one of the maritime books. I was hoping I might sneak in a review before you. My psychic powers failed me obviously. And I was in Florida for Labor Day weekend so I hadn't a chance to write anything. I have MURDER MASKS MIAMI, I think the last in his sea/shipbound detective novels of the 1930s and will be reading that fairly soon. I'll see what I can unearth about King and his work that you haven't already dug up. He's one of my favorite discoveries this year and I've enjoyed reading your posts on him.

    2. Look forward to it, John! I will leave off King for a bit (I've now blogged three of the eleven Valcours!). Anyway, I've still got nearly 300 pages of an Ian Rankin book to finish (oh, these long modern crime novels!).

  4. At a long article I wrote two years ago for Mondadori Blog in Italy, I plugged the story of the diver in The Lesser Antilles Case, to "Headed for a Hearse" by Jonathan Latimer, which uses a diver to retrieve the gun. Latimer's novel was written a year after that of Rufus King. Nothing remains that he could have used that reference to his novel. Moreover Latimer was a great re-user of subject of others. But it does not end here. The character of the diver is in another Rufus King novel "seafaring", Holiday Homicide, a novel that looks at Rex Stout. It seems that, in turn, Rufus King has used the subject of Latimer, because the diver "locates" at the bottom of the sea a gun, which is rather the bluff which diverts police attention from the real object that the diver brings up .


    1. That's interesting, Pietro, I haven't read all the Latimers so didn't know that.

      I'm wondering just how many of the King books involved sailing, seems like a large number.

  5. If I remember correctly, Rufus King was radio operator during the First World War. This explains his knowledge of life on ships.

  6. Dear gentlemen, John and Passing Tramp,
    I am thrilled to be reading in your blogs about Rufus. He was a dear family friend, and I can remember him saying, while laughing heartily, a propos of Murder on the Yacht, that he had a letter from a reader saying, "You're a damn fool -- you have that yacht in the middle of Texas." This was a reference to a latitude and longitude given in the story.
    Rufus was a Yalie, a few years younger than my father. His world was that of the affluent East Coast establishment, -- and he loved to write about gangsters and relished their lingo! A good example of this combo can be found in The Deadly Dove. I am a murder mystery fan, and still find that Rufus's plots are fantastically original.
    I have several of his books, inscribed, and one of them to my mother has the following inscription. (She, knowing him, had said, "Now Rufus, please write something I can show to my dignified friends.") So he wrote, "For Jane, to show to her dignified friends, with love to her and nuts to them."