|voting can be murder|
The state's governor, progressive and patrician Republican Gifford Pinchot, who that year had lost to Vare in the GOP senate primary, refused to certify Vare as the winner, leading to a three-year Senate investigation of the contest. Having barely survived a stroke in 1928, the partially paralyzed Vare was summoned to the Senate the next year and informed that he would not be seated.
"The fraud pervading the actual count by the division election officers is appalling," the investigating Senate committee concluded. "The average Philadelphia voter had a one-in-eight chance of having his ballot recorded accurately on Election Day."
|Allies: Sheriff "Big Tom" Cunningham with|
Boss Vare (right); a railway porter looks on
These recent events inspired the writing of Propper's seventh detective novel, The Election Booth Murder (1935), about the shooting murder of a reform political candidate on Election Day in Philadelphia. (This being a Milton Propper novel a plan of the murder scene is included.)
|UPenn student Milton Propper|
when he was around 19 years old, a few
years before he published his first novel
Certainly when Propper writes that "To Philadelphians, for the last quarter of the century, there was only one boss--Harvey Warren, erstwhile national senator, party leader of the Regulars, and the unchallenged czar of politics in eastern Pennsylvania," state mystery fans reading the book would easily have recognized the allusion to Willam S. Vare.
As I discussed in my previous blog piece, Francis Nevins in a 41-year old article in The Armchair Detective castigated Milton Propper as a snobbish, police-worshiping authoritarian, while Propper's sister insisted to the contrary that her brother was a political idealist full of in admiration, as were so many young people at the time, for the sweeping New Deal reforms proffered by the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I think Propper's sister had a better grasp in the facts than Nevins, who never knew the man and was writing about him at second-hand fifteen years after his death in 1962.
|Milton Propper in later life|
(after he lost weight evidently)
Today of course we would be more likely to see Republicans criticizing urban Democratic "machines," but in the Philadelphia of Propper's day it was the Republicans who were running the show and long had been, though their machine was facing what would prove, seemingly, permanent breakdown. (The GOP elected its last mayor in Philadelphia in 1947.)
In 1935, the year of Propper's publication of The Election Booth Murder, the GOP faced a strong challenge in the mayoral race this year, the Democratic nominee being popular John B. "Handsome Jack" Kelly, Sr., brother of playwright George Kelly, father of future actress and princess Grace Kelly and himself a wealthy contractor (though one, unlike Vare, of Irish Catholic descent).
|Handsome Jack Kelly, father of grace|
The Kellys, incidentally, resided in a handsome colonial house built by Handsome Jack in 1929, the same year his daughter Grace was born, located about a mile from the colonial house where the Proppers lived in Roxborough. It was recently purchased by Princess Grace's son, Prince Albert II, with the plan of turning it into a house museum. (The Propper home is now a children's daycare center.)
To me this historical background detail adds a lot of resonance to Milton Propper's mystery. Like his model Crofts, Propper may not have been strong on characters, but he was always pleasingly precise with his Philadelphia settings.
When Detective Tommy Rankin of the Philadelphia police force is sent to help monitor voting at the 52nd Ward station in South Philly (trouble is expected from gangs of toughs at the polls), this is how Propper describes the scene:
Like many houses in that vicinity, [the voting station] was untenanted and dilapidated, in temporary use only, for the elections. On the corner, it fronted Mifflin Street, with a weathered porch of sagging boards, unpainted for years. It was two stories high, of faded red brick; the windows were dirty and many panes were missing. A thin line of patiently good-natured people trickled into its murky interior. Outside, the walls and convenient posts held their usual placards, pictures of respective candidates, instructions for balloting, and assessors' lists. Little groups gathered on the pavement: neighbors passing the time of day; loungers inevitable attracted to the polls; and politicians, embryo or otherwise, pressing their special interests on bewildered voters.
Shortly the Popular DA candidate is shot through a window as he votes, however, and all hell breaks loose! Is Detective Rankin up to solving this seeming political hit job?
|South Philly rowhouses|
Is this as good a mystery as Propper's One Murdered, Two Dead, which I reviewed here four years ago? I think not, as I was able to put my finger on the culprit as soon as s/he appeared, on what you might call general mystery principles.
|scene of the crime|
the similarity to the rowhouses pictured above is evident
To be sure, Robert Van Gelder complained in the New York Times that in the novel Milton Propper had placed too much emphasis on "reportorial exactness," but then this is a proto-police procedural sort of detective novel; and you will either like that or you won't.
For me The Election Booth Murder made for a pleasant brief diversion and provided an interesting faded snapshot of a place in time. Sure, I could have done without the heavy dialect speech which Propper, following Crofts, felt compelled to convey; but then I feel the same way about Dorothy L. Sayers' scrupulously but rather tediously rendered Scottish accents in The Five Red Herrings. To which I can but say och!