Friday, October 12, 2012

Just Deserts: The Affair in Death Valley (1940), by Clifford Knight

Clifford Reynolds Knight (1886-1963) authored twenty-four crime novels between 1937 and 1952, beginning with the Dodd, Mead Red Badge prize winning The Affair of the Scarlet Crab and ending with Death and the Little Brother:

Clifford Knight was the son of Wesley Charles Knight, a Houghton, Massachusetts native who as a young man migrated West, where he was employed as a St. Louis-San Francisco Railway station agent in Missouri and Kansas.

Clifford Knight was born in what surely is one of the least populated places to produce a Golden Age detective novelist: Fulton, Kansas (Pop. 163 in 2010).  He moved to Los Angeles, married, worked as a journalist and traveled a good deal in California, Nevada, Arizona, Mexico and the Pacific, which explains what was considered the most distinctive feature of his mysteries: exotic murder settings.

Characters in the novel stay at Death Valley Junction's famed
Armagosa Hotel and Opera House
Certainly its setting is the most notable element of Clifford Knight's The Affair in Death Valley.  In the novel Knight mentions numerous ghost towns, buildings and natural features of Death Valley, California (a map really would have been nice).

The novel's puzzle plot, which entails three murders and another attempted murder, is highly classical, if on the far-fetched side. 

These are the positive features of this novel.  Less positive features are the cardboard characters and snail's pace of the narrative.  And I say this is a fan of the British "Humdrums"!  But, truth be told, John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington typically have better pacing in their novels than one finds in Knight's tale.  It helps too, I think, that they usually offer denser material clueing, something on which Knight rather skimps.

Knight's amateur detective, California English professor Huntoon Rogers, is one of the least memorable amateur detectives I have ever encountered in my reading.  Again, Street, Crofts and Connington all created more interesting sleuths.  Some amateur detectives may have too much personality (Philo Vance), but "Hunt" Rogers has too little.

Despite the drab writing, there is this gem: "Let's go and see if we can find the bullet....Since it isn't in Dick's skull, it ought to be in the room somewhere."  This has an ingenuous ring of Carolyn Wells to me.

a deadly climate
Admittedly, it took me several days to finish The Affair in Death Valley.  One could fairly say it is put-downable.  On the other hand, it's a solid enough classical mystery story, and if you enjoy that kind of thing, as I do, you should enjoy this one too.

First editions of Clifford Knight's books tend to be scarce and highly collectible (the exceptional dust jacket art on many of the titles surely doesn't hurt).  Happy hunting!

Note: I hope you forgive the pun in the title to this piece, "Just Deserts," because it's going to be the title as well of the next piece, a review of Agatha Christie's Mary Westmacott novel Absent in the Spring (1944).  There's more affinity between this mainstream novel and Christie's crime fiction than people might think.--TPT.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Several of the novels Knight takes place in exotic places if not strange. For which reason I would have expected from someone like you, who has just delivered to his publisher a certain text, which you had put in relation with Clifford Knight, Todd Downing, for some traits they have in common.
    I agree with you that some of his novels have extremely classic features. I would add to what you said, that surely, though not commonly called a vandinian, he is. Membership was succinctly outlined by Mike Grost. I would add that the line of union between the two writers are right in the etymology of a noun. In Van Dine there is a "Scarab" at The Scarab Murder Case (1929);in Knight there is a "Crab", at The Affair of the Scarlet Crab (1937). It seems to me an extremely interesting thing to point out that I've noticed that the Greek word "karabos" means not only Crab, but also Scarab. Non only.
    If you see well, SCARAB = (S)C(A)RAB, i.e. SCARAB (AS) CRAB.

  3. Pietro,

    The specific impetus for my reading Clifford Knight in fact was Todd Downing, who seems to have liked Knight. I have one Knight book that has a Mexican setting. I think he wrote two novels with such.

    That's interesting about Scarlet Crab and Scarab. Yes, Huntoon Rogers and his sidekick Joe seem to be emulating Philo and Van (and of course Holmes and Watson), although Knight's pair is very bland.

    I hope to look at a few others by him. Many of his books are hard to find.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. True. The three novels by Knight which I possess, are in fact of the 40s and 50s

  6. If ever there was a true Humdrum it was Clifford Knight. THE AFFAIR OF THE CIRCUS QUEEN is one of the most boring, unexciting mysteries out there. It was such a painful experience I have never been able to read another book by Knight. Like you it took me several days to get through it, though it seemed like months. I've heard certain writers described as unreadable who aren't (Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr and Anthony Wynne come to mind), but IMO Knight is the epitome of the unreadable mystery writer. The book I read wasn't even fun as an "alternative mystery" it was just soporific.

    This is one of the examples of collectability in the world of detective fiction being a true mystery to me. Why bother looking for these books or paying high prices for them? The artwork on the DJs isn't all that "exceptional" compared to other books of the same era if you ask me. Look at the one for ...Death Valley.