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Locked Room Reviews:
A Very Odd Locked Room Tale!
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Note to my readers: This is not a spoiler alert, as this review does not expose the solution. However, it does briefly summarize the general direction of two-thirds of the plot. I do not believe this will influence the reader’s enjoyment of this twisted web of a story, as I barely skim the surface, but if you only like reviews that cover the opening chapters, you may not want to read this before tackling the text.
Reviewers have long been struggling to find the appropriate critical box for this very offbeat, gritty, near noir, locked room mystery – and this is hardly a surprising fact. The Devil Drives is a very unique novel that simply defies normal mystery classifications. Several different influences have been suggested, and all have some value, but the truth is that none of theses comparisons come close to the central conclusion – that this is really just pure unadulterated Virgil Markham.
The Devil Drives is actually quite a remarkable tall tale that changes atmosphere at the drop of a hat and just when you are finally sure that all those false trails Markham has carefully laid can never be reunited – they suddenly all fall together like the pieces of a warped jigsaw puzzle! The title is taken from ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, Act 1, Scene 3, “My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives.” However this book is certainly no comedy, with little or no humour of any variety, and it soon becomes quite clear that All’s Not Well And May End Quite Badly.
Virgil Markhan (1899-1973) is a rather interesting character. He was the son of the poet, Edwin Markham, and long remained in his shadow. Even after his father’s death in 1940, Virgil was best known as the custodian of his father’s literary reputation. There is little detailed information available on his life. We know he travelled in Europe in 1925, then published a picaresque historical novel, ‘The Scamp’, in 1926. He continued to use European settings in six of the eight mystery novels he published between 1928 and 1936. We also know that he received his B.A. from Columbia University and an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, writing his 1923 thesis on ‘The Satirical Method of Addison and Steele’. In the 1920s he briefly taught at UC Berkeley’s, Cora L. Williams Institute for Creative Education, and the University of California Extension Division. In the history of the mystery genre, one of his most important contributions was teaching the first university level course on mystery literature in 1929. Markham had only one recurring character in his mystery novels, Myles Rusby, though he does not appear in ‘The Devil Drives’.
The basic plot of this rambling novel is not easy to summarize. The only constant in the plot is the always shifting character of the protagonist George Lawson Peters, initially the warden of Franklin Penitentiary in New Jersey. He is portrayed as being both too young and too good looking to have been made warden of one of only two state prisons with an electric chair – referred to as the ‘hot seat’ – and the plot soon proves this assertion. In the opening chapters, Peters thwarts a jail break by a death row inmate, who is headed for the chair when he pulls a gun, only to be shot by the pistol packing warden who also captures his would be rescuers. This supposedly ‘framed’ inmate, Frank Holborn, had already offered to let the warden in on a sweet scheme, but Peters had refused to promise that he would keep the prosoner’s secret. Still, despite all the adventures contained in this short opening section, Peters soon decides that he is not cut out to be stuck behind desk, and begins to look for new challenges.
This is the situation, when a wealthy local racketeer and politician, Sam Aldrich, begins to anonymously send him packets of correspondence between a young girl, initially referred to only as ‘Pat’, and an adventurer known only by the alias ‘Dubrosky’. These intriguing letters describe a whirlwind romance between these would be lovers, apparently thwarted only by the girl’s parents. Over the course of this secret relationship Dubrosky builds her an elaborate ‘doll house’ and also involves the girl in a plan to bury a bogus treasure chest. Aldrich eventually sends for Peters and reveals more of the story. The educated and gentlemanly Holborn, before being framed for murder, had been trying to track down the source of this correspondence for this rich treasure hunter. Aldrich also reveals that the letters had been found near the scene of a gangland killing, and contained one final undelivered piece of correspondence, which clearly suggests that the lost treasure was real – and sufficient for ten lifetimes! The envelope had been addressed to a clearly ficticious pen name, ‘Miss Philadelphia Boston’, and Holborn’s research had further discovered that a minor mobster, one Clever Julian, was at the time involved with the girl’s family. Holborn had managed to get only this far in his long attempt to identify the correspondents, but Peters immediately throws himself into the hunt, deciding to get himself fired from his position at the prison. “I want my picture to be in every paper in the East. I want every crook to get an eyeful of it. Then I won’t be recognized when I wear a disguise.” Despite the extremely flawed logic of this plan, this is exactly what he does, and he soon ends up on the streets of New York City, with two new bogus identities, John Williamson, shoe store clerk, and Terry Furtz, wannabe mobster.
The treasure hunt begins in earnest when Peters follows a ‘yegg’ (slang for safecracker), for motives that are never clearly revealed, which leads him right to the mobster Raffy the Guk, the brother of gangster Clubfoot Jake Sabati, who had coincidently been murdered at the time and place where the letters had been recovered. Peters-Furtz then manages to slip into Raffy’s headquarters and attempts to get the gangster’s help in locating the elusive Clever Julian. To prove himself, he is first required to get himself in with a nasty blackmailer, one Gray Mason, who is about as sleazy as they come, despite his outward respectability. Mason even has the goods on Raffy the Guk! Still, Peters-Furtz proves up to the challenge, and stages a nearly successful heist of the compromising photos, before his investigation runs into a literal dead end and he is left as a moving target for Raffy and Company!
Fortunately, and far too coincidently, at that very moment his eye is caught by a small ad in the church section of the newspaper, which ties back to yet another reference in the letters, and he is soon off to the small community of Middlehaven, nestled on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. It is here, two thirds of the way through this tangled web of a novel, that all the strands, most not covered in this too brief summary, start to be resolved through the locked room murder of one Captain Philip Hearnshaw, found drowned by the waters of the lake, while safely locked and bolted inside his “fo’c’s’le”, a tiny shipshape cabin well above the tideline. While Peters remains the chief protagonist, the arrival of Inspector Veen and the reappearance of a Countess associated with Mason’s household, quite dramatically change the tone of this hitherto gritty underworld adventure tale!
This novel was written in 1932, but clearly looks back many years to this part of northern New York State in the last half of the 19th and the early days of the 20th century, when it was known as “The Burned Over District”. During this period, this was the home of what has been called ‘The Second Great Spiritual Awakening’ (see Wikipedia: Burned-over District), well know for an intense prolonged invasion by loony spiritualist groups and other fringe religious cults, which finally provide Peters with the proper context for the tale of Pat and Dubrosky, so many years earlier.
There are two main boxes that the critics have attempted to apply to ‘The Devil Drives’. The first notes that it clearly shares some common structure with the works of a rather zany American author, Harry Stephen Keeler, who has written seven locked room mysteries. He has been on my list for quite a while now, and I have read his best known work,’The Amazing Web’, but all of his locked room titles are out of print and far too pricey! Yet as Charles Shibuk notes in his 1001 MIdnights Review (Mystery File Review) “(The Devil Drives) is somewhat reminiscent of Keeler’s Amazing Web (1929), but is shorter, slighter, less ambitious, more straightforward, and, though complex enough in plot, lacks the unbelievable convolutions and ramifications of the Keeler work.” Only those who have read ‘The Devil Drives’ will be able to fully appreciate this comment. Few books have a plot as complex and twisted as ‘The Devil Drives’, but the ‘Amazing Web’ is clearly in a class of its own!
The second box has been forged mainly by mystery critic Mike Grost who views it as “a story somewhat out of its time”, with the air of a long rambling Victorian – Edwardian melodrama, which leads him to conclude that “This gives Markham’s story the flavor of a story written nearly twenty years before 1932.” This is perhaps made most evident in two of Inspector Veen’s references. The first is to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Return of Imray’ (1891) which has a very similar atmosphere and shares several plot devices, and the second is to Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s famous ‘Marjorie Daw’ (1878), an early mystery experiment which was similarly developed through a series of letters which created great expectations. There are also a few similarities, as noted by Grost, with the prison scenes in Jack Boyle’s “Boston Blackie’s Mary” (1917), and the quite interesting underworld adventures of Frank L. Packard’s ‘The Adventures of Jimmie Dale’ (1914), which also involves disguises, safe cracking, and journeys into the underworld. Still, it is hard to miss the modern, dark and gritty, hard boiled, noirish atmosphere of the mean streets of the New York City mobs, which is not unlike the prose of Dashiell Hammett. Grost asserts that “there is little sign that Markham had ever read Black Mask, or absorbed any of its conventions of hard-boiled writing”, but some level of influence seems undeniable. Grost is also quite correct when he notes that “The Devil Drives also completely fails to observe the conventions of the Golden Age novel, with an opening murder, a detective, and a closed circle of suspects. Indeed, for its first half no murder is committed at all; the hero instead tries to track down a secret which seems like a plot device out of a romantic melodrama.”
Where I find Grost’s analysis lacking is in his failure to recognize the basic function of the locked room sub-plot. I would suggest that the sudden change of atmosphere that arrives in fictional Middlehaven, is exactly what the name implies. This is a well crafted retreat which insulates the reader from all those slimy mob monsters and too cruel streets of depression era New York. Markham combines several elements to create this effect, drawing on cosy aspects of the Golden Age mystery, creating a Wilkie Collins style damsel in distress, and adding other brief glimpses of familiar Gothic tales and a pulp fiction locked room device – all designed to set the reader at ease. This novel does not follow the usual rules of the mystery road, simply because the purpose of this haven is not to build a stand alone plot, but rather to create a story within a story (another common Keeler trick), as a device which allows a fairly rapid resolution of all those lost strands of this sprawling plot which have been piling up since the very first page. Once Inspector Veen arrives on scene, we are no longer in Grost’s rambling Edwardian adventure, or the mean streets of hardboiled crime, or some formulaic Golden Age crime scene, instead we are in a very unique space – the resolution phase of a ‘webwork’ plot, such as those touted by Harry Stephen Keeler in his 1927 series of articles on plot theory, entitled “The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction.” Of course this still remains a ‘middle’ haven, because it is only a temporary device. Markham’s message remains clear throughout this novel. There can be no true escape from those mean gritty streets, no sophisticated country house murder exists in real life, and Peters must therefore soon reemerge into the gritty streets for one final exhilarating whirl.
Purely as a locked room novel, this plot is only of minor interest. To the best of my knowledge the solution is quite unique, and reasonably fair as the reader is certainly given good reason to think of this possibility. Unfortunately, this solution also breaks one of Dr.Fells’s cardinal rules, as laid out in the Hollow Man, though, in all fairness, that locked room lecture would not set the standards of the genre until three years later.
As a mystery novel it is even more difficult to classify. It is not a good example of noir or hardboiled, nor is it a typical Golden Age classic, or even your average Edwardian or Victorian mystery suspense. In fact it is quite impossible to compare it to anyone else, which makes it extremely difficult to rate. On the negative side, this plot is far too complex and has way too many sub-plots and loose forays for my taste. The first half and more of this novel is far too gritty and slow paced to be an appealing read in my opinion. However, once Markham finally brings all those impossible strands back together in a very bizarre, but fairly convincing solution, the reader should be duly impressed by this quite remarkable feat. There is also an ingenious clue trail that is spread through every imaginable corner of this work, which demonstrates incredible planning. I also cannot find it in my heart to entirely dismiss the locked room solution, as it is just too sweet to be derided, despite Dr. Fell’s all important point. However, in the end, this is not even close to being a great novel, and is finally saved only by its unique style, which has no peer. It should probably only get three stars, but there is something quite undefinable in the affair of Pat and Dobrosky that gently tugs the heartstrings just enough to eke out a weak four, especially when we also remember that, even with all these flaws, this novel is still on our locked room lists and bookshelves – 83 years after it was first published! That is a pretty good recommendation!
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