By Thomas F. Schwartz
Lawrence Saunders (a pseudonym for the married couple John Burton Davis and Clare Ogden Davis, not the Lawrence Saunders of The Anderson Tapes) and Harry Stephen Keeler are relatively unknown today but were rather well-known mystery writers in their day. The Columnist Murder (1931) was dedicated to Walter Winchell, the infamous gossip columnist, and contained the following quote from Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Horace]: “The man of pure and upright life has naught to fear from the Tabloid papers.” The plot begins at the opening of a sold-out play with standing room only. At the end of the intermission, the leading theatre critic is found dead, shot in a phone booth near the restrooms. This sets the stage for the remainder of the mystery.
Both John and Claire Davis worked as news reporters with John serving briefly as drama editor for a New York daily in the mid-1920s. Clare also worked on a New York paper in the 1920s writing columns on child psychology and the celebrated Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Walter Winchell began his career as a Broadway reporter and critic before he gained national attention as a gossip columnist and radio show host. His reputation of being able to make or break careers was used as the fictional character J.J. Hunsecker performed by Bert Lancaster in the 1957 film, Sweet Smell of Success. Few people mourned the murder of Thomas Cary Twitchell in the mystery as all the suspects had motive. The plot has a nice added twist with the addition of a fireman, Nels Lundberg, who found the body and is recruited by the police to help solve the crime. The mystery makes an illusion to a leading social topic with one character uttering: “Marriage is like prohibition: only the poor respect it.”
Harry Stephen Keeler was born in Chicago and used the Windy City as the backdrop for many of his mystery novels. It is unclear why his mother committed him to an insane asylum, but the impact was to leave Keeler with a fascination with madness and irrational behavior. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering working in that profession by day and writing science fiction and mysteries at night. He married the writer Hazel Goodwin, and often used her writings as elements within his own novels. Keeler’s style is to constantly misdirect the reader, leading them on elaborate but futile trails. This technique is like Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the MacGuffin where the viewer focuses on what is thought to be the main plot element, only to realize it is something else.
The Matilda Hunter Murder (1931) begins with the dedication: “Mrs. Matilda Hunter was, unfortunately, murdered by premeditation, the actual method used and the identity of her real murderer being unknown. For a considerable length of time after her murder, because Mr. Tuddleton Trotter, with his empty pockets and his encyclopedic brain, in solving all these three questions, has become exceedingly real to me in this triple-length detective story, I think it but fair to dedicate this, my 10th novel to him!” The mystery begins with the initial belief that Matilda Hunter died by a Z-Ray with information offered based on Einstein’s physics. Tuddleton Trotter, a polymath called upon by police to help solve murders, is brought into the case, and soon uncovers plots using poison, missing palladium, and a love story involving color blindness. At page 590, the reader is informed that all the clues to solve the mystery have been revealed. Readers are urged to fill out an insert provided and submit their guess as to “who done it.” The book proceeds for another 151 pages before tying up all the loose ends.
One could see why the Hoovers enjoyed reading about a gossip columnist being the victim of a murder given all the false gossip they read daily about themselves in the national press. The Kessler mystery also held appeal since it dealt with science and geology wrapped in a mystery, topics near to their own interests. Those who are seeking an unconventional mystery writer should pick up any of the Harry Stephen Keeler novels.