Enter Riley Blackwood

Part 1 of III

The cover of the November 1934 Redbook, featuring Starrett's story.

We’re going to try something a little different here at Studies in Starrett: our first three-parter.

For the next three posts, we’re going to consider the most successful Vincent Starrett work you’ve never read: Recipe for Murder, or as it was later known, The Great Hotel Murder

This weekend we’ll look at the story as it first appeared in Redbook magazine.

In two weeks, (I'm taking a Thanksgiving break) we will continue with the novelized version in all its various editions, including some great French paperbacks.

And the following week, we will discuss the movie version, also titled “The Great Hotel Murder.” It's the only film that was ever made from one of Starrett's books, and it's a doozy.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead

I’m not going to give away every plot device, but over the three parts of this study, secrets will fall as easily as leaks in Washington. If you want to be surprised by the whodunit aspects of the story, then you need to stop reading now, hunt down a copy of the magazine or book, read it, and then come back.

Click on this illustration: You should really see it as large as possible. It's very handsome and features one of the many Frank Godwin illustrations for the tale. He did several "headshots" of the main cast that we'll feature later.

A New Detective

By the fall of 1934, Vincent Starrett had established a firm reputation as a mystery writer of the Sherlock Holmes school — with an American twist, of course.

His Jimmie Lavender short stories had been coming out for nearly two decades by this point. Lavender’s cases showed Starrett could handle the formulaics of a detective tale while ringing a variety of changes on the basic elements.

And then something different happened. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, who went from short stories to novels with his mystery tales, Starrett took the opposite track.

Starting in 1929, he began producing a small number of mystery novels, featuring a new sleuth, amateur detective Walter Ghost: Murder on ‘B’ Deck, Dead Man Inside and The End of Mr. Garment. While they weren’t racing up to the top of The New York Times best sellers list, the novels sold well enough, and drew good, if unremarkable, reviews.

Starrett liked his progress, but decided the time had come to create a new series detective. The new sleuth bore a striking resemblance to a younger Vincent Starrett. More about that in a minute.

Before we go on, take a look at that full-page introduction. Notice the reference to a certain Baker Street sleuth. Conan Doyle had died four years earlier and there was a lot of juggling for his successor.

The title page for Starrett's story, which takes up 31 full pages of Redbook magazine.

A Taste of Murder and Our Hero Appears

It was 1934 in Chicago. The Century of Progress was in full swing for a second and last season, Chicago’s hotels were packed and the young and pretty Miss Blaine Oliver is going somewhat apoplectic in the lobby of the Mardena Hotel. (The hotel’s name, like many others, will change as the story evolves into different media. We will deal with that next time.) She is meeting an old family friend, one Dr. Trample, for breakfast. He’s late and she’s starving. She runs into another friend, the not-so-old and very handsome Harry Prentiss. The two decide to take action. They eventually get the hotel staff to enter Trample’s locked room, only to find Trample dead on the bed.

Except it isn’t Trample. Miss Oliver faints. (Why she stayed upright when she thought the old family friend was a goner and passed out only when she discovered the corpse wasn’t his is just one of this mystery’s many mysteries.)

As Miss Oliver, Mr. Prentiss, the house detectives, the hotel manager and doctor along with a few of Chicago’s finest (this must have been a VERY big hotel room), huddle around the corpse to figure out who the dead man was and how he died, a curious figure comes down the hallway.

"(F)or an instant everybody paused and listened. In the corridor, beyond the closed door, a whistle was heard approaching—the 'Habanera,' from 'Carmen.' Meffat (the hotel manager) jerked suddenly. 'Riley Blackwood!' he explained, as if the name were a profane expletive. … 'Just a minute, gentlemen,' he continued, holding up a hand. 'You are about to witness an exhibition of detective-work that will curl your hair and eyebrows.' ”

Had trumpets blown and angels sung, you could not have constructed greater anticipation for an amateur detective’s entrance.

For the next 50,000 words or so, Riley Blackwood tries to sort through a growing list of suspects and motives. The action shifts between two of of Chicago’s grand hotels, then out onto Lake Michigan aboard a rather nice yacht, and then into the wild woods of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

Theories rush past like trains on the “L”.

Blackwood finds himself ahead of the police (who appear to do very little), but is constantly bewildered. He has lots of puzzle pieces, but finds it impossible to fit the bits together into a coherent whole.

Who is Riley Blackwood?

So many mysteries to be solved by our Mr. Blackwood.

And who is Riley Blackwood anyway? Despite the standard “all the characters and incidents of this tale are entirely fictitious” warning, it’s pretty clear that Riley Blackwood is a stand-in for Vincent Starrett, with dashes of Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey sprinkled in.

The murderer runs from Prentiss, Miss Oliver and Riley Blackwood.

When he shows up, the third person narrator calls Blackwood “that admirable wastrel, who divided his undoubted talents between dramatic criticism and the alluring problems of fantastic crime.” Riley has “a long angular figure” and is “perhaps 30” years of age.

He certainly acts like a Sherlockian detective at times. When listening to the facts of the case, “Riley Blackwood listened with a sphinxlike not-there-ness that must have been exasperating. His eyes, during the recital, continued to rove about the room in causal examination of its contents.” And when he walks out of the room, “He vanished around the corner of the door, leaving behind him an almost visible sense of his mocking shadowy smile.”

Riley's single, and a bit of a scamp with the ladies, except for his aunt. Chapter Four opens on this domestic scene, with Riley at home with his Aunt Julia.

“He was, indeed, a serious-minded youth, who dropped his cloak of motley when he entered his apartment and closed the door behind him. (I)t pleased him to think that the public didn’t really understand him.”

We learn a bit more during his talk with Aunt Julia. Blackwood’s full name is John Riley Blackwood, and his Aunt Julia calls him Johnnie. His newspaper colleagues and editors know about his penchant for crime solving, but prefer not to talk to him about it.

He loves poetry, but more often cites doggerel like, “A little murder now and then is relished by the best of men: that’s a poem, you’ll observe.”

And he enjoys Vaudeville rhymes like:

“Two lovely black eyes—
O what a surprise!
Only for kissing another man’s wife
I got two lovely black eyes.”

which seems to be a variation on this ditty.

Let’s stop here and reflect on the similarities between the puppet and his maker.

Riley is long and angular. So was Starrett.

Riley started out as a newspaper reporter and now works as a theater critic for the fictitious Chicago daily, Morning Chronicle. Starrett started out as a newspaper reporter and became a book reviewer for the very real Chicago Tribune.

Riley’s first name is John and his aunt calls him Johnnie. Starrett’s first name was Charles and his family called him Charlie.

Riley and his Aunt Julia (who doesn’t appear enough for my tastes) “discussed together such clamorous and timely problems as the mystery of Dickens’s Edwin Drood and the influence of Ibsen on the English language.” Starrett wrote an introduction to Drood and was fascinated by attempts to solve the master writer’s mystery. Both men enjoy poetry.

Blackwood is described as “an impatient observer of the human comedy, and frequently a bitter commentator.” Starrett’s penchant for snark was well known by his friends.

A portrait of Starrett by Chambers Studio of Chicago from the early 1930s, when he wrote Recipe for Murder, later The Great Hotel Murder. Starrett would later jokingly call this his "dying poet" photo.

Of course, there are significant differences. Starrett was in his late 40s when he wrote this; Blackwod is “perhaps 30.”

Riley is financially well off. Starrett was almost always on the edge of insolvency.

And where Starrett wrote and collected mysteries, Blackwood took it a step further:

“His flair for mystery—and its solution—was his principal enthusiasm; and it was genuine. More so, perhaps, in literature than in life; he recklessly identified himself with the great fathomers of fiction. But his passion of justice, while less a reasoned conviction than a literary tradition, was sincere enough.”

I could go on, but I think the case is made. While not a copy, there are more similarities here than could be considered accidental.

Riley Blackwood was created to be a fictional stand-in for Vincent Starrett,.

In birthing Blackwood, Starrett followed the oldest saw about creating fiction: "Write what you know." We will see how that both helps and hurts the story next time.

Next time: Magazines, books and the French.