Friday, 24 August 2012

Forgotten Book - Murder at 28:10

Newton Gayle is one of the most obscure writers to have been elected to membership of the Detection Club during the Golden Age. In fact, the pseudonym conceals the identities of two writers: the American poet Muna Lee and the British businessman Maurice Guinness. Their third joint effort, Murder at 28:10, is my Forgotten Book for today.

The strange title refers to barometric pressure, and this is surely the only crime novel to feature a series of barometric charts. They were no doubt intended to increase the sense of realism in a story about a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico. But I rather think they were unnecessary, because the writing is highly effective in evoking the terror caused by the hurricane, and some of the descriptive passages rank with the best descriptions of setting to be found in mysteries of the 30s (this book appeared in 1936.)

The politics of the day play an important part in the story, but didn’t mean a great deal to me. An attempt is made to murder an “internationalist and anti-imperialist” and, when the hurricane strikes a lonely mansion, the culprit takes advantage of the chance to finish the job. The setting provides a closed circle of suspects, and the build-up of tension is very well done. But although the plot is sound, I felt that the characterisation was the flimsiest part of the book – for instance, a promising suspect, a woman novelist, is never adequately developed. I was also rather disappointed by the murder motive. Had the people in the story, including Greer and Upwood, been more memorable, this would have been an outstanding book.

My guess is that Lee did the writing and Guinness the plotting, though I’m not sure about this. Nor do I have any information as to whether either of them ever played any part in the activities of the Detection Club – I doubt very much whether Lee did, though Guinness (whose cousin, a literary agent, was the ex-wife of Sir Hugh Greene, and engaged to Raymond Chandler at the time of Chandler’s death) may have done. But on the evidence of this novel, “Newton Gayle” was certainly a capable writer.

7 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - What an interesting choice for a book! And what an interesting choice for a writing duo too. I've never read a book that focused on barometric charts and on that score alone I should read this.

seana graham said...

Never heard of 'him'. Thanks for the tip.

Doug Greene said...

I see that Gayle became a Detection Club member in 1937, along with 3 very capable writers -- Nicholas Blake, E.C.R. Lorac, and Christopher Bush. Even though the Club continued to meet until the early days of the war, they didn't admit other new members until 1946. i have no idea what (if anything) all that means.

John said...

A while ago I learned that Lee was for a time married to the first elected governor of Puerto Rico who also happened to be a poet. I reviewed THE SENTRY BOX MURDER on my blog back at the start of this year. Curt, I think, has a post planned for his blog on hurricanes in detective fiction. He was soliciting titles that came earlier than this one. I could only think of Mignon Eberhart's HOUSE OF STORM (1949). It looks like this might be the first "disaster mystery."

P.S. Perhaps you should fix the title in the post headline.

polecat said...

An “internationalist and anti-imperialist” sounds like the character might have been based on the most famous person of that description at the time, Leon Trotsky (who was incidentally sentenced to death by his former chums in absentia that very same year, 1936). It seems curious that Trotsky was eventually murdered in Mexico - i.e., not that far from Puerto Rico.

I have been following and enjoying your blog for a while but this is my first comment, so a good occasion to thank you, among other things, for so many interesting reviews of mostly obscure but fascinating books.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm looking forward to reading another Gayle soon.
Doug, me neither!
John, thanks for the tip, amendment duly made.
Polecat - very good to hear from you and thanks for the mention of Trotsky - thought-provoking...

The Passing Tramp said...

I thought this was great until the solution, which seemed over the top. But it's interesting to see a classical GA detective novel with a more leftward political slant (Symons and Watson would have us believe such a thing is as impossible as a crime in a John Dickson Carr novel).

Concerning hurricane mysteries, both Rufus King's Murder on the Yacht and Todd Downing's Murder on the Tropic take place before this one. Yacht at this time is the earliest I know of, but perhaps someone else knows better.

I thought the map stunt was cute, but then I like maps anyway. But there was something scary about the visual representation as well.