Dead men tell many tales in this Starrett mystery from 1931
A man has died.
How do we know this? The killer thoughtfully left a note on the front door of the deceased’s business.
“Dead Man Inside,” it read.
Thus begins a story. In fact, it is the beginning of what I think is one of Vincent Starrett’s best novels. It’s also an odd book, because:
- It has a detective who hates being a detective and spends a lot of time comparing himself unfavorably to the idealized version of a mystery novel detective.
- There are more misleading clues, loose ends and improbable events than in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
- The book is perhaps Starrett’s most humorous. That’s surprising, because he normally is not a comic writer.
- It also has the best dust jacket of any of his mysteries.
Let’s pull it down from the shelf.
The dust jacket with its unattributed art is among my favorites from any of Starrett's mysteries. The shocked looks of the good people of Chicago as they press their faces to the shop window tell their own story. Just look at that little boy in the center of the illustration, with his eyes open almost as wide as his ears.
What’s got their attention?
It’s the body of Amos Bluefield, the owner of an expensive haberdashery shop. Or, as Starrett tells it:
On a gilded throne, in his own shop window, Amos Bluefield, a modest enough executive, who was ordinarily somewhat difficult to see, sat quite still, looking off with blind eyes at the mounting congestion of the boulevard.
Taped to the front door of the shop was a square of white paper that read:
DEAD MAN INSIDE!
I AM DEAD. THIS STORE WILL NOT OPEN TO-DAY.
Published in 1931 by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. under their “Crime Club” series imprint, the novel was the second of three featuring laconic amateur detective Walter Ghost. An esoteric scholar of apparently unlimited means, Ghost is a most appropriate name for a fellow who floats through the story leaving little impression.
He doesn’t even show up until page 93 (one-third of the way through the novel), after two other murders have been committed.
Just two pages before his first appearance, one of several Chicago residents whose life is affected by the murders says, “Amateur detectives give me a pain.” Except it is Ghost who was having the pains, and they turned out to be appendicitis. By sheer coincidence, his surgeon was a friend of one of the victims. And that’s how Ghost gets involved in the Dead Man Inside murders.
But Ghost doesn’t want to do anything about the murders, except hang out with a friend whose daughter might have seen the murderer in action and therefore could be in danger. All Ghost really cares about is going to the Newberry Library to research what island Columbus landed on thinking he had discovered the New World.
“It is one of a number of subjects upon which I am a bit of a crank,” Ghost explains. “Having nothing better in the world to do, I go around trying to disprove the conclusions of other men. I seem to have that kind of a mind.”
Later he explains he has no real profession. “I’m somewhat of a dilettante, I’m afraid. Too much money has spoiled me for world. I do only the things it interests me to do.” (See the first time in The More You Know, below.)
Although Starrett loved his adopted city of Chicago, Ghost hates being stuck in the Windy City: “He had no love for Chicago — a gray, cold place in the late autumn, with few attractions for a citizen of the world. At this moment he should have been en route to dinner at his favorite club in New York.”
And while Starrett held Sherlock Holmes in highest esteem, Ghost was having none of it.
“I won’t be seen crawling about on my hands and knees, and I would positively refuse to disguise myself, even if it were possible,” announces Ghost early in his appearance.
Indeed, the novel is almost meta in the way in which it discusses mysteries, detection and detective stories.
The local police detectives are, of course, as successful as Lestrade in sorting out the mess. Their lackadaisical attitude towards the job is almost comical.
As one police detective says, “One must begin some place to investigate a mystery, and often one clue is as good as another. The main thing is to keep busy and to keep the reporters satisfied.” Starrett, a former newspaper reporter, had covered city crime and detectives in his salad days and he knew the ways in which police courted the media.
(Or as another detective put it, "The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.”)
Speaking of Holmes, Starrett makes a passing reference to him in relation to "real" detectives. It should be remembered that in 1931, when he was writing Dead Man Inside, Starrett was also preparing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes for publication in 1933.
A reporter by the name of Saxon watches as a pair of Chicago's finest combs a murder scene at a local playhouse:
"Nothing Holmesy about those dicks," he observed. "They wouldn't know a steamfitter from a country parson by his coat lapel; but if one of the actorettes has anything on her conscience you can bet these birds will pry it loose."
His companion agrees.
"A couple of rat terriers in a roomful of mice. They know their business though."
"Rat terriers" has an echo of that description of Lestrade from A Study in Scarlet: "a little sallow rat-faced, dark-eyed fellow."
In fact, the cops are more Keystone than clever.
“Well, well, and well!” (said the police chief to his deputy.) “Wilk, I’ll bet that fellow’s a crook!”
“No!” cried Wilk, scandalized.
“Yes, sir,” said the chief of police, “I’ll bet he’s a crook.”
“Tchk, tchk, tchk!” deprecated Wilk, humorously ironic. “Then he’s the thirteenth known crook in the city. We’ll be getting a reputation first thing we know.”
Later, the brother of the dead man is brought in for questioning after having “been found in lodgings so close to a north side police station he might have put his head out of a window and watched the squad-room patrolmen at their pinochle.”
And even though it’s the height of Prohibition, police detectives Sheets and Kelly hang out in a local speakeasy, where they’re more scandalized by the lack of pretzels than the fact that they’re breaking the very laws to which they’ve sworn allegiance.
Go back a sentence. Did you catch those names: Sheets and Kelly? Starrett’s having a bit more fun here. Jumble up a few letters and you get Keats and Shelly.
There’s more: Ghost is a Shakespeare expert, so it’s no surprise when one character shows up named John Gaunt, another is Lear and a third is Tempest.
And the slowest thinking character, a college professor, has the last name of Moment, when Hour (or maybe Eon) would have been more appropriate.
Indeed, the only disappointing point (and it is a big one) is the mystery and its solution. The case is packed with enough herrings to feed the population of Denmark.
And the conclusion is so convoluted that I had to read it twice before making any sense of it. The warning that is on the last page of the book asking the reader to not divulge the solution would seem to be unneeded.
Even so, the opening and closing scenes are strong enough to make this the most memorable of the three Ghost novels, in my view. And there was more than a twinkle in Starrett's eye as he wrote this. I think he had a grand time parodying his old friends in the police department and the newspaper reporters who covered them.
Contemporary reviewers were mixed. (And here I must once again thank Mattias Bostrom for his help in finding reviews from the 1930s.)
“Scot Yard” at the Richmond Times Dispatch was impressed. “Half a dozen of these showy murders are perpetrated in Vincent Starrett’s exciting mystery which will give addicts of this kind of story a full two dollars’ worth of shivers. Mr. Starrett, who is literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, has profited by the mistakes of all mystery writer whose slow tales he once had to review.” (See The More You Know #3.)
H. Allen Smith, the book reviewer for United Press, called Dead Man Inside, “a murder story that send cold shivers up the spine of the average reader. … It should be rated near the top of Starrett’s many good mystery stories.”
An anonymous reviewer whose work was syndicated in several papers notes that “The motive behind this succession of horrors, when it is finally explained, scarcely seems adequate, but it is then too late for the reader to complain that he has not been highly entertained in the meantime.”
And a review in the Wichita Daily Times notes that “It’s all very unbelievable, but somehow you keep on reading it right to the end — which, very likely, is all that matters.”
So we are at the end of Dead Man Inside, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?
The More You know
- Ghost made his first appearance in 1929 in Murder on B Deck, and would show up again several months after Dead Man Inside in a third novel, The End of Mr. Garment. As he explains in his memoir, Born in a Bookshop, Starrett had planned to use his detective Jimmie Lavender for Murder on B Deck, but "for some reason" invented Ghost instead.
- Dead Man Inside is dedicated to Scott Cunningham, who must have been quite close to Starrett in the late 20's and early 30's. Cunningham owned an inscribed copy of The Unique Hamlet, which is now in the University of Texas collection. He also owned several other inscribed copies of Starrett's books. Cunningham wrote a bibliography of Harlem historian Carl Van Vechten. But how did he and Starrett meet and why were they so close? I've not sorted it out yet.
- It’s a nice coincidence that the next item in the Richmond Times Dispatch deals with Dr. Logan Clendening, who “has just arrived in New York from Kansas City to complete arrangements for the publishing of his new book, The Care and Feeding of Adults,“ It will be remembered that Dr. Clendening sent Starrett a box of valuable Holmes related materials after Starrett had to sell off his collection to pay debts.