Archive for the 'country noir'

Old Bones – Herman Petersen

Herman Petersen I gather was a postman in upstate New York for most of his life based on what he has written in Country Chronicle, a combination autobiography and history of his homestate. He also contributed several stories in a variety of genres to fiction magazines during the 1940s. Based solely on his last mystery novel Old Bones (1943) I think he is deserving of our attention.  He knew how to construct a gripping story, create unusual settings, populate those settings with distinctly original characters and wrap it all around an engrossing and puzzling mystery. Not bad for a letter carrier, right?

Old Bones is the last of three detective novels featuring a sharp witted coroner Dr. Thaddeus Miller. In the short series of books Doc Miller is often assisted by Ben Wayne, a farmer, and Paul Burns, the local D.A. The setting is central New York (the reader can infer somewhere in Madison County fairly close to Utica since a train to that city is mentioned frequently) where pea farming seems to be one of the big agricultural industries. The opening scene take place on such a farm with a fight breaking out between a volatile supervisor and a crooked farmhand who is fired for cheating the farm in his bushel counts. Already we get the sense that hidden tempers will lead to sudden violence.

The scarce UK edition (Gerald Swan, 1950)
Ben's wife, Marian, goes off in search of old wood for a project of hers. She visits an abandoned grist mill and quite by accident discovers human skeletal remains in the mill's standpipe. But when Ben and Doc Miller return with Marian to retrieve the bones they have seemingly vanished. Someone who had no doubt been watching Marian got to the bones first.

Some clever detective work, mostly on the part of Doc Miller, leads them to a bundle tied up and stashed in a dark area of the large mill. Miller studies the bones and notices that there is a large break in the skull leading him to believe that the person died a violent death. Furthermore, some of the ribs show a break and set that Miller recalls can only have been performed by himself on Nate Wight, one of the many members of a wealthy local farming family, who supposedly left town five years ago. When a thorough search of the mill following even more clever detective work uncovers a bundle of clothes and a watch that belonged to Nate, Miller is more than convinced they are faced with a murder and a cover-up. The story then becomes a twisting and involved, almost Southern Gothic, tale of family secrets and gruesome revenge.

This is an excellent example of the rural detective novel. There is a lot of examining of footprints and movement in dust as is usual in Golden Age detective novels. But the identification of the body by examining the bone breaks, the subtleties in the dead body's personal effects are some of the more imaginative touches that set it apart from other books of the period. It may be one of the first forensic pathology mysteries long before such a branch of criminology was formerly accepted. And Doc Miller achieves his results without once using a microscope or looking at DNA patterns. That's real detective work. Even better are details like the bundle of bones that has been tied with the unusual "miller's knot" that helps to identify some of the parties involved in the murder and cover-up. Additionally, the behavior of horses, how they are tied up, what the grass looks like where the horses were grazing, all make this the kind of unique mystery that can only take place in the countryside.

Bill Pronzini has said in his 1001 Midnights review of Old Bones that the book "drips with atmosphere." It certainly does. Like A.B. Cunningham one of the preeminent writers of rural mysteries during the 40s and 50s Petersen has a real love for the Gothic. The grist mill is one of the creepiest murder scenes I've come across in my reading this year. The forbidding mill at one time had several windows, now all boarded up requiring the use of flashlights even in the daytime. There is a hidden entrance and a hole cut out for a cat to enter and leave at will. Surrounding the mill is a treacherous swamp in which several foot chases will lead to dangers and perils for the team of sleuths. Later in the book they come across an old tramp's camp site in a forest that reeks of the corpses of dead animals he has captured and slaughtered for food. Several of the carcasses are seen hanging from the trees making for a grisly and olfactory offensive visit. One of the female characters is often referred to as a witch and the appearance and disappearance of the appropriately black cat that visits the mill only adds to the superstitious belief that she is a supernatural being with transformative powers. How's that for dripping atmosphere?

Herman Petersen wrote only four mysteries, the first three featuring Doc Miller and his two partners Ben Wayne and Paul Burns. His final book is set in New England with a completely different set of characters. Old Bones is probably the best of the lot. It's cleverly structured, suspenseful in all the right places, and holds your attention from it shockingly violent start to the surprising finish. As an early example of what I like to call country noir it ranks among the absolute best from the 1940s.

The Mysteries of Herman Petersen
Murder in the Making (1940
Murder R.F.D. (1942)
Old Bones (1943)
The D.A.'s Daughter (1943)

The Scarecrow Murders – Frederic Arnold Kummer

Anthony Morrison, son of businessman w/ gangster contacts, is found brutally beaten and shot in the cornfields bordering his father's estate. What makes the crime doubly strange is that Morrison's body has been prominently displayed on a scarecrow's scaffold with his arm pointing ominously at his father's home. Stuffed in the pocket of his jacket is a slip of paper with the famous biblical quotation "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Morrison's facial injuries reveal a punched in eye socket and some missing teeth. The very same day the body is discovered Dick Bowley turns up at Dr. Richardson's office with a sprained wrist and an ugly gash on his face requiring multiple stitches. Bowley was the rival in a war of affection over Mary Lee Perrin, a freelance stenographer who was often hired by Tony Morrison. Local police chief Lem Purnell lists Bowley as the prime suspect in Morrison's death. Judge Tyson thinks otherwise.

There is some good detection in The Scarecrow Murders (1938), a much later work by Kummer who began his career as a writer for the various popular fiction magazines (All-Story Weekly, Blue Book, The Cavalier, among others) where his old-fashioned, complex crime stories were originally serialized. He was a prolific writer who was one of the smart guys who learned to change with the times in order to sell his work. This novel is markedly different from something like The Ivory Snuff Box (1912), one of his earliest books published under his pseudonym Arnold Fredericks. The dainty manners, quaint dialog and relatively civilized criminal characters of the early 20th century are replaced by volatile emotions, harsh speech and vicious bloody murders that characterize the tougher crime novels that were in vogue in the late 1930s.

This is the first appearance of Judge Henry Tyson who also does detective work in a sequel, The Twisted Face (1938). Here he teams up with Dr. Richardson doing most of the real detective work while Chief Purnell stubbornly stick to his theory that Bowley is responsible for the murders. Bowley's belligerent and confrontational manner only serves to reinforce Purnell's suspicions. Tyson instead is more interested in Hart, a mysterious car salesman who visited Mary Lee Perrin's office. He and his car have vanished but he leaves a trail behind him like a smoking gun. Is he really a used car salesman or perhaps a private detective digging up dirt about Morrison's shady business practices?

The US paperback edition
The Scarecrow Murders is one of the unusual American detective novels that uses a rural setting as opposed to the frequent urban locations found in the genre. The rural setting is accompanied by rural mores, class distinctions and prejudices. The most striking part of the book is that a pair black servant characters (lamentably referred to by the usual racial slurs) are seriously considered as suspects. Rarely have I encountered this in a 1930s novel set in the rural American south. Black servants usually appear, as they did in films of the era, as stereotyped comic characters. Not so here. Mrs. Taylor (no first name!) is an attractive light skinned black woman and there is a rumor that Morrison may have been interested in her sexually thus igniting a jealous ire in her husband. When Amos is also found dead in the cornfield, his face blown off with a shotgun, the Judge and Purnell are worried that they may be a homicidal maniac on the loose.

Kummer does good work here and I'd say if you come across this odd mystery novel you'd do well to check it out as a better example of an early form of country noir. It often turns up in the paperback digest edition at a usually affordable price. There are currently a few copies for sale on the internet.