Saturday, May 18, 2013

Murder of the Honest Broker (1934), by Willoughby Sharp

After the appearance in print of Murder in Bermuda (1933), Willoughby Sharp published one additional detective novel,  Murder of the Honest Broker (1934).  This is another good one, and makes one regret that it was Sharp's last published mystery tale (however, it may not have been the last one he wrote; see below).

ticker tape
Evidently unable to imagine creating yet another fictional crime wave in the rather pacific Bermuda, Sharp for his second novel shifted his setting in his second book to a locale much more used to murder: New York.

In Murder of the Honest Broker, Sharp also introduced an interesting new lead detective, Inspector Bullock.

An acerbic, tough guy cop, Bullock is endowed by his creator with an abiding hatred for the cloud of fictional super detectives, such as Philo Vance (naturally, don't you know) and Drury Lane, who plague New York, snapping up clever clues like hungry locusts and making fools of the police in the process:

"I'd like to run up against one of those mincing, namby-pamby, know-it-alls just once....Detectives!  Bah!  They and their Egyptian mummies and their stuffed fish and their underground passages and their Chinese hatchet men.  They give me a great big pain and I'll give you one guess where!"

The "honest broker" of the title is stockbroker Philip Torrent.  He dies on the floor of the Stock Exchange, from, evidently, some form of poisoning.  Unfortunately, Philo Vance is not available to solve what turns out to be a bookish crime indeed.

Classically, Sharp spends the entire first chapter providing some half-dozen people with motives to kill Torrent.  We have:

1. the brokerage partner, Temple Hastings, who has been defrauding Torrent
2. the unfaithful wife, Mary Torrent, who has been carrying on an affair with
3. the stockbroker Jack McDonald, who is madly in love with Mary
4. the debauched nephew, Howard Torrent, who wants the money his uncle holds in trust
5. the discarded mistress, Lucy Luverne, who is vowing vengeance upon Torrent
6. the partner in a dying speakeasy, Chipo Marinelli, who can't return Torrent's funds

Not only Philip Torrent meets his death by curare that day, however.  Bizarrely, another broker, Sandy Harrison, expires from the same cause as well.  Who had motives for slaying both men?  It's a thorny problem.

Inspector Bullock is, shall we say, short of sympathy for slain stockbrokers:

"Two members of the Stock Exchange have been poisoned."
"Whee!" whistled the Inspector.  "Ain't that what they call the perfect crime?  Somebody beat me to it!  I've had my eye on that job myself ever since the time I lost five hundred dollars in Anaconda Copper back in '29."*

*(this refers to a real life stock market debacle involving the Anaconda Cooper Mining Company and share pushing by Percy Avery Rockefeller)

 Bullock's hostile attitude spills over into his questioning of an Exchange assistant secretary, Mr. Barton:

an honest-to-goodness material clue
 "Will the head waiter be there [at the Luncheon Club] now?" asked Bullock.  "It's five o'clock."
"Yes," smiled Barton.  "It's another one of the blessings of Repeal [of Prohibition].  This time two years ago the club was deserted after three o'clock but now the members like to linger in our new bar and lately they've even taken to ordering dinners there."
"That's a funny thing," said Inspector Bullock.  "The exact same thing happened in my club, the McGillogolly Social Association of Brooklyn.  Lately we've has to throw the boys out on their pants at the closing hour."
Mr. Barton's face lost its affable smile.  "Oh, yes, quite," he finally managed to reply.

Inspector Bullock also is dubious about a case involving poisoning by curare:

"Don't tell me it's a strange, oriental poison known only to the high priests of an obscure tribe in the upper Himalayas.  Don't tell me that, 'cause I'm way behind on my Fu-Manchu stories."

Inspector Bullock is blunt in his injunctions to his underlings:

"That you, Mulligan?  Your troubles aren't over.  Go back to the Alden Apartments, sit downstairs in the lobby and if that girl goes out tonight you stick to her tighter than a chorus girl's brassiere."*

*(this passage is especially interesting in light of Sharp's marriage to chorus girl Muriel Manners, to whom the book is dedicated; one gathers Mr. Sharp knew his way around chorus girls every bit as much as he did the stock exchange).

Admittedly, the suspects in the novel are pretty stock (though Chipo Marinelli is that rarest of things in Anglo-American Golden Age mystery, an Italian male who doesn't spend all his time speaking in exaggerated dialect, gesticulating wildly and threatening people with death by stiletto; and the author should be duly credited in this case for eschewing an invidious Golden Age stereotype).

However, Inspector Bullock, bless his heart, is what we might term a real live one. Love him or hate him, you will remember him.

And the mystery plot is quite good too.  How the poisonings were brought about and who accomplished them are tricky questions, but the author plays fair. Bullock finally has to think like a Great Detective to solve the case!

Additionally, the setting seems authoritatively done--certainly Sharp had his experience with this milieu--and the book itself is beautifully designed (the same is true of Murder in Bermuda; see the illustrations on the left).

"Good reading and an ingenious solution," pronounced Kirkus Reviews back in 1934, of Murder of the Honest Broker.  The Saturday Review, on the other hand, inexcusably gave away a major plot point.  Avoid perusing this latter review on the internet, because--heads up!--Willoughby Sharp's two detective novels will be in print again before the end of the year.

There was supposed to be a third Willoughby Sharp detective novel in 1935, The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules, but it never appeared. What happened to this book?  Join me at my next stop at Willoughby and find out.

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