Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Hanging at Hanover: The Dartmouth Murders (1929)

Could there be a thriller
in this gent's pocket?
After a long hiatus the Passing Tramp has returned!  I have a bit of news about this year's writing projects, but I will let that wait for a few days, because I think a review is long overdue.

And since in the United States the New Hampshire primary for both major political parties is today, what better choice than a vintage detective novel set in New Hampshire?

I think many people today regard classical, or so-called "cozy" detective fiction, as something appealing more to middle-aged and older readers, so it's interesting to note that during the Golden Age of detective fiction, between the two world wars, classic mystery was seen as something of a college campus craze, like wearing raccoon coats and swallowing goldfish.

In the United States, detective novelists John Dickson Carr (1906-1977), Todd Downing (1902-1974) and Milton M. Propper (1906-1962), for example, were avid mystery readers in college, as was another detective novelist I hadn't written about on the blog before, Clifford Orr (1899-1951), Dartmouth, Class of '22.

Clifford Orr (1899-1951)
All four of these men published their first detective novels at relatively young ages for neophyte authors, as you can see by the publication years:

Carr, It Walks by Night (1930)
Downing, Murder on Tour (1933)
Propper, The Strange Disappearance of Mary Young (1929)
Clifford Orr, The Dartmouth Murders (1929)

Carr was only 23 when his first novel detective novel was published, Propper a year younger.

Downing and Orr, on the other hand, knocked about a bit after college before settling down to novel writing: Downing attended graduate school, earning an MA, and became an instructor at the University of Oklahoma, while Orr after college worked for the Boston Evening Transcript newspaper and the publishing company Doubleday, Doran before going freelance as a writer in 1928.

After publishing The Dartmouth Murders, Orr would publish The Wailing Rock Murders  in 1932 and the same year he was said to have The Cornell Murders in preparation, but the latter novel never appeared (too bad, a line of college titled mysteries could have kept Orr in gravy for some time).  Orr later went on to become an editor at the New Yorker, where he remained until his untimely death in 1951.

The Dartmouth Murders was filmed as A Shot in the Dark in 1935, a poverty row production that nevertheless has its modern admirers.  Orr's first novel holds up well for fans of classic mystery, though his second one, Wailing Rock Murders, is, in my view the superior book of the pair. The latter novel is extremely rare, but happily a new edition is forthcoming from Coachwhip, who will be publishing the novel as a twofer with The Dartmouth Murders.

North Mass, Dartmouth
(setting of the first death in
The Dartmouth Murders; note modern fire escape)
The Dartmouth Murders starts with the suicide--or is it?--of well-liked student. Rather gruesomely he is discovered hanging from a rope fire escape outside his living quarters (the real life North Mass, where Orr himself was a resident). Somewhat like the Ellery Queen mysteries, which debuted the same year, we have something of a father-son investigative team, the son being the dead boy's roommate and best friend and the father a rather meddlesome and officious attorney who just happens to be visiting the Dartmouth campus on the fatal weekend.

In classic tradition, the local sheriff allows the father to more or less run the investigation for him, Ellery Queen or Philo Vance presumably not having been available for amateur consultation that week.  Unfortunately, two more deaths will follow the first before a murdering fiend is found.  In classic fashion, the trail of the mystery seems to lead to Boston and old sins that have cast long shadows....

Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth
(scene of the second murder in
The Dartmouth Murders)
The Dartmouth Murders is an enjoyable mystery tale (one key element in the murders anticipates a John Dickson Carr novel, as I recollect) and, better yet, fans of classic mystery will soon be able to read it right in the same volume with The Wailing Rock Murders, one of the rarest Golden Age mystery titles around.

I'll have a separate post on the latter novel coming soon!


  1. Welcome back, Curt! I'm one of the fans of the 1935 Chesterfield production, which makes up for in enthusiasm what it lacks in production values. A strange story in many respects. Thanks for calling it to mind; I'll have to see if I can dig up my copy!

  2. I love mysteries set on college campuses, so this sounds like a two-fer well worth purchasing! Welcome back to the blogging fold, Curt! Let's all pause for a moment of silence that sanity will prevail in New Hampshire today (more so than on that murderous campus 80 years ago!)

    1. Yes, I'm really sorry he never wrote The Cornell Murders. It's one of those things where you wonder whether there is a manuscript out there somewhere....

  3. Hi Curt - I'm trying to reach you by email, but messages to the email address I have for you are bouncing. Would you kindly write to me at editor@pgwodehousesociety.org.uk? Thanks, Elin (and apologies for contacting you this way)

  4. Writing from Orford, New Hampshire on the day after the primary. Even 1935 looks pretty good this morning. Just to clarify for those who don't know Dartmouth, "North Mass" is North Massachusetts Hall. Dartmouth students only look like a seething mass. There are actually a lot of very nice individuals in there.

    1. "seething mass"

      Very clever Heidi! Best not to get me started on the NH primary, though. ;) However, I will have a vintage political mystery of sorts coming up soon.

  5. I liked THE WAILING ROCK MURDERS a lot, and I bet there will be a lot of fans of that one since it has an interesting impossible crime. I predict comparisons to early John Dickson Carr for its eerie atmosphere, very odd detective, and the locked room bit. But I have never managed to finish this one. I tried twice! Compared to the weirdness of WAILING ROCK Orr's debut was just too mundane. Should I try a third time? I don't want another experience like I had with LAMENT FOR A MAKER. I'll probably *never* finish that book.

    1. Yes, John, I agree with you, Dartmouth is more mundane compared to Wailing Rock. Given the horrible murders, it's a bit too much on the sedate side. But Orr must have been reading some Carr by the time he wrote Wailing Rock, because he gets the atmospheres down much more. One thing in favor of Dartmouth is that it's a short novel of about 60,000 words and it does not, for me anyway, overstay its welcome. Lament for a Maker has much more to wade through!

  6. "I think many people today regard classical, or so-called "cozy" detective fiction, as something appealing more to middle-aged and older readers"

    Since golden age mysteries seem to be making a comeback today, with so many publishers re-issuing so many titles, it would be fascinating to know who exactly is buying these books. Is it mostly ageing Baby Boomers with fond memories of devouring Agatha Christie paperbacks during their formative years? Or are these books being bought by Millennial urban hipsters?

    I'd also love to know the breakdown of readers by sex.

  7. Hi Curt,

    Can you drop me a line?