Thursday, February 21, 2019

Serpentine! The Capital Murder (1932), by James Z. Alner

Take it from Alfred A. Knopf or leave it; but he has published a book by an author whose name he doesn’t even know.  It is a detective story, called “The Capital Murder,” and the name given is James Z. Alner, freely acknowledged to be just a nom de plume.
            The only address accompanying the manuscript was New York General Delivery.  And checks are cleared by this “Mr. Alner” through the Chase National Bank.  The contract was signed by mail and all communication has been through the good offices of the U. S. Postmasters General and his able staff.
            The leading character in the story is an epidemiologist, which gives rise to the theory that the author is a scientist.  However, he might be a stone mason or an actor at leisure or even the long-absent Judge Crater, for all Mr. Knopf knows.  It is very mysterious and puzzling and has aroused the interest of the Knopf office no end.  However, it is very likely that when a statement of royalties falls due, Mr. Knopf will have little trouble in reaching the anonymous writer.  That always brings them around, as fish food brings the goldfish and delphinium catches the worms.[1]

     --Contemporary Article on The Capital Murder (1932), by James Z. Alner
Death devours Beatrice Sigurda
--the striking dust jacket design of
Dr. James Alner Tobey's The Capital Murder
Remaining unknown for 85 years was the true identity of the author of The Capital Murder, published in 1932 by the pseudonymous James Z. Alner.  Mystery fiction expert Allen J. Hubin suggested that James Zalner, a Lithuanian immigrant who resided for decades in Binghamton, New York, might have been the man behind The Capital Murder, but here I can confidently assert that Dr. James Alner Tobey was the gentleman in question.
            James Alner Tobey was born on July 15, 1894 in Quincy, Massachusetts to Rufus Tolman Tobey, a jeweler and amateur horticulturist descended from generations of Maine farmers (including James Shapleigh, a first lieutenant in the Maine militia for whom James Tobey had been named and who served as the basis for his 1915 admission into the Sons of the American Revolution), and Mary Ann Sherry, daughter of English immigrant William Alner Sherry, a fresco painter and partner in the prominent Boston interior design firm Wallburg & Sherry.  An energetic and industrious scholar, James Tobey was extensively educated at the Roxbury Latin School, the oldest school in continuous existence in North America; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as both the vice president of the chess club and a lieutenant in the Cadet Corps; George Washington University Law School; and American University.  During much of the First World War, he was employed with the Board of Health in West Orange, New Jersey.
            In 1918 Tobey, while on leave in Manhattan from mosquito eradication work in Charleston, South Carolina, wed Lena May, daughter of a farmer from Catskill, New York.  The couple, who would have two children together, resided in Washington, DC, before settling in the well-healed community of Rye, in Westchester County, New York, boyhood home of Founding Father John Jay.  After the Second World War, Dr. Tobey and his wife moved for a time to affluent Newtown, Connecticut, made tragically infamous in 2012 by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; there in 1955 the ever-prolific Dr. Tobey published yet another book, The 250th Anniversary of Newtown, Connecticut, 1705-1955.  They would later return to Rye, where Dr. Tobey passed away at the age of 86 on November 23, 1980.
            Though still a young man in the 1920s, Tobey by that decade had established himself as a prominent public health official in the northeastern United States, serving with numerous public and private health organizations and publishing myriad books and articles on the subject of wellness and disease eradication.  Among his serious works are Riders of the Plagues: The Story of the Conquest of Disease (1930); the pioneering Cancer: What Everyone Should Know About It (1932), which includes a forward by H. L. Mencken, to whose magazine The American Mercury Tobey was a frequent contributor; and Public Health Law (1947), deemed by scholar Edward P. Richards the “last great public health law treatise.”[2]  His many health and medical articles spanned such topics as “Common Colds,” “Cancer Quacks,” “Facts about Milk,” “Heart Disease,” “White Bread Versus Brown,” “The Control of Human Sterility,” ”The Modern Concept of Leprosy,” “The Truth about Acidosis” and “The Army and Venereal Disease.”  Another piece provocatively asserted, “We Could Eat Acorns and Weeds.”  Clearly in many respects Dr. Tobey was a man ahead of his time.  
            Like other advanced Progressive thinkers of his day, Dr. Tobey in the 1920s and 1930s advocated, to quote from one of his monthly columns in the newsletter of the American Public Health Association, “the centralization of federal health work” into one vast Department of Health.  This vision finally would be realized in 1953, when the United States Congress and the administration of the newly-elected President Dwight Eisenhower created a cabinet level Department of Health, Education and Welfare, since 1979 the Department of Health and Human Services. 
            Around the time of the writing of The Capital Murder, Tobey forcefully challenged Ray Lyman Wilbur--secretary of the interior under Republican president Herbert Hoover and later a prominent exponent of “rugged individualism” and critic of Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal--when Wilber sanguinely pronounced, amidst the agonizing throes of the Great Depression, that the health of the country’s children would likely benefit from economic crisis, by inducing lax parents to tighten their belts and prioritize their children’s care.  “Anxiety, fear, discouragement and other effects of economic strain can and do lead to mental troubles, which may adversely influence the health and well-being of individuals,” countered Dr. Tobey, reasonably enough.[3]
            No doubt when the eminent Dr. Tobey in 1932 submitted the manuscript for The Capital Murder to the prestigious publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf, he believed he had a public reputation to protect and thus circumspectly sought to conceal his sole contribution to classic crime fiction in a cloak of protective anonymity.  (Tobey dedicated the book to his father, hiding his father’s name as well, behind the initials “R. T. T.”)  To be sure, Knopf’s stable of mystery writers at the time included the estimable hard-boiled icons Dashiell Hammett and Raoul Whitfield and the popular English writer J. S. Fletcher, viewed by many Americans at the time (however improbable this may seem to us today) as the most distinguished mystery writer from the British Isles since Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes; yet Knopf’s stable also harbored admittedly far lesser detective fiction lights, which likely emboldened Dr. Tobey to make his lone mystery writing venture.  Certainly Dr. Tobey would have been far from alone among highly educated and professionally accomplished persons at the time in having both the yen for reading detective fiction and the desire and the will to try his own hand at it; for this was the era when the detective story was considered “the normal recreation of noble minds,” in the words, we are told, of English barrister and author Philip Guedalla.


W. Taylor Birch House at 3099 Q Street, Washington, D.C.
James Tobey’s sole published detective story, The Capital Murder, is set in--it should not surprise readers of this introduction to learn--Washington, DC, capital of the United States of America, where James Tobey resided in the 1920s, when he attended George Washington University Law School and American University and later served as administrative secretary of the National Health Council, a nonprofit association of health organizations founded in 1922.  The novel concerns the strange demise of a beautiful, enigmatic blonde, Beatrice Sigurda, late of the Argentine.  With two tiny puncture marks in her neck and a “look of inexplicable horror” on her face, she is found quite eerily dead while seated fully clothed on the “rich red divan” in the “luxurious sitting room” of her house on Q Street, located just a few blocks from the Serpentine Club in N Street,  where regularly gather five distinguished men—Commissioner Henry Selden, of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia; Lieutenant Runy O’Mara, of the United States Navy; Doctor Basil Ragland, an eminent psychiatrist; Lance Starr-Smith, a famous architect; and Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist with the federal health service—to discuss murder and other fine arts.  Also in the company of the accomplished men, is “Jim,” an utter nonentity conveniently on hand to chronicle the tale as Trevor Stoke’s “Watson.” 
            Although all of these men play a role in the investigation and elucidation of the case, the star detective, as it were, is Trevor Stoke, of whom Jim worshipfully writes:

No serious outbreak of disease could occur anywhere in the country without Stoke, who would appear calmly on the scene sooner or later.  If the epidemic involved interstate affairs, the Government sent him in; if it was purely a local matter, the state health authorities invariably invited his services.  Typhoid, cholera, typhus, septic sore throat, and other maladies yielded to his uncanny ability to run down the true causes of outbreaks….He developed into the greatest of sanitary detectives.
            Stoke was no sallow scientist, but a virile individual.  His war record had brought him a medal or two for bravery under fire when he was supposed to be behind the lines in his laboratory, and his civilian career had shown him to be resourceful and courageous.  Although well built, he was of medium size and rather ordinary in appearance, neither handsome nor homely, but simply an alert, normal person who enjoyed life and worked hard for an indifferent salary.

            It likely will have occurred to readers that this is something of a fulsomely flattering self-portrait rendered by Dr. Tobey, but then if Dorothy L. Sayers could place herself into her Lord Peter Wimsey detective saga as the clever and alluring mystery novelist Harriet Vane, why should Dr. Tobey not have been able to play detective as Trevor Stoke?  And, truth be told, the fiendish murder of Beatrice Sigurda proves a most appropriate case for an epidemiologist sleuth.  As some readers of vintage mystery no doubt will discern, The Capital Murder slightly anticipates a celebrated slaying in a debut detective novel by a vastly better-known mystery writer who also debuted in the 1930s.
            In his only known detective novel Dr. Tobey evinces familiarity with detective fiction of the classic era, referencing not only the great Sherlock Holmes, of course, but Dupin, Lecoq, Max Carrados, Reggie Fortune, Peter Wimsey, Anthony Gethryn and Philo Vance.  Trevor Stoke’s self-effacing chronicler, Jim, is, to be sure, every bit as forgettable as Philo Vance’s wallflower amanuensis, Van; and it is amusing indeed when, at the climax of the novel, the cornered culprit snarls to Trevor Stoke, “Yes, I killed…Beatrice Sigurda…and now I’m going to kill you, you and that nincompoop toady of yours!”  Seldom has even a lowly Watson been afforded so little respect.
            Not amusing at all, though it is regrettably revealing of the times, is the noxious casual racial and ethnic prejudice expressed by several characters in the novel, including Jim himself (see my next post).  Yet readers who at the time enjoyed Dr. Tobey’s essay in fictional foul play, of which the “method used by the murderer of Beatrice Sigurda” was praised as “ingenious” by the New York Times Book Review, must have regretted that Jim never actually chronicled Trevor Stoke’s second case, concerning the matter of the US congressman’s corpse “found crammed in a locker of a leading golf club in the District of Columbia.”  Intrepid Trevor Stoke canceled his impending errand to battle a plague of hookworms in the Virgin Islands in order to solve this baffling case, which concerns yet another dastardly crime masterminded by a member of the most diabolically lethal species of them all: man!

Note: The Capital Murder was reprinted last year by Coachwhip.

[1] The Jimmy Hoffa of the Thirties, Judge Joseph Force Crater was a New York State Supreme Court Justice with suspected Tammany Hall connections who vanished on August 6, 1930.  He was declared legally dead nearly a decade later, on June 6, 1939.
[2] See “Historic Public Health Law Books” at
[3] “Child Health in the Depression,” New York Times, 1 December 1932.


  1. Another impressive job of genealogical and biographical detective work. That's a very striking DJ illustration, more lurid than usual for Knopf who liked to think of themselves as the home of the literary detective novel. That alone might get me to read the book but the review you quote is just as enticing. Who wrote that and where did it come from? No citation or footnote for that!

    1. Anonymous news article, nice and gossipy! It's cited in the book.

  2. Dorothy L Sayers showed more self-control in creating her alter ego than a lot of male writers have done with theirs. (James Bond for instance.) "Alluring" isn't a word that should be applied to Harriet, anyway. Sayers made a point of describing her as not being pretty, and being too blunt and truthful to make a good femme fatale.

    1. There was something alluring about her to Lord Peter! And she had to be literally alluring when she was out to vamp the murderer in Have His Carcase. ;)

      On the other hand, Henry Wade wrote Sayers he couldn't see the appeal of that Harriet at all:

      "At times she is a rather common tomboy, at others she is ravishing Wimsey, a man of taste and experience. I can't understand why he should be so overwhelmed with her."

      I think it's certainly true that women mystery writers of that era get criticized for Mary Sueing their books, but you're absolutely right, the men do it too and often do it worse.