Taking a break from all the doleful and depressing news running riot in the MSM and the Internet and from around the nation and world, and also from reading a superb book on the Montesorri System which I will review later, I have decided to post a sampler of Rational Scrutiny: Paradoxes and Contradictions in Detective Fiction (Patrick Henry Press, 2014), which is available as a print book, on Kindle, and as an audio book. (With the odd exception of The Pickwick Affair, the print editions also are all available at Barnes & Noble, if you prefer to give them your custom instead.)
In this Sampler I highlight some of my prefatory remarks on the four Chess Hanrahan detective novels and on the seven Cyrus Skeen novels. To wit:
In this volume of nonfiction I present excerpts from novels featuring my own two fictional private detectives who take the "intellectual" approach to solving crimes: Chess Hanrahan, who specializes in solving "moral paradoxes," and Cyrus Skeen, a denizen of the third decade of the last century. Both are college graduates and veterans of the New York City Police Department. Hanrahan went to Fordham University, quit the force after a tongue-lashing by a district attorney, and became a private detective. Skeen is a World War I era Yale graduate who spent a short time on the force as a plainclothesman before following his avocation of writing short stories, and moved to San Francisco where he gleaned most of his story ideas from his private investigations.
Readers of the print and Kindle editions of their stories (and also patrons of the audio book editions) will be familiar with their "inner narrations" or spells of introspection as they sort through a whirlpool of facts, appearances, and chimeras. Hanrahan operates on a motto he culled from a philosophy student's test paper: Nothing that is observable in reality is exempt from rational scrutiny. Skeen has no motto, and later in his series is moving away from short story writing to publishable essays that plumb the motivations of the criminal mind.
Hanrahan's motto could just as well have read: Everything that is observable in reality is subject to rational scrutiny. However, the negative form of the question or proposition better emphasized a universal rule of investigation for the paradox-busting sleuth than did the positive form. Hanrahan, introduced in With Distinction as the chief of police of a university town, is still licking his wounds after being called on the carpet by a district attorney and the press over his killing a criminal who was about to do him harm. In the course of investigating the murder of a philosophy professor at the school, he befriends a graduate student who instructs him in the importance of philosophy. The lesson enables Hanrahan to revive his self-confidence enough that he returns to New York City and opens his own investigation agency. I developed and "matured" Hanrahan in each subsequent title as I went along.
Here, one by one, I encapsulate the problems with which Chess Hanrahan and Cyrus Skeen are presented:
Chess Hanrahan, chief of police of East Auberley, Massachusetts, home to Sloan University, receives a call that a philosophy professor has been found dead in his office. Hanrahan determines almost immediately that it was not a suicide, as was originally suspected, but a murder. What he does not understand is why anyone would want to murder a philosophy professor. As he progresses in his investigation, he begins to develop a respect for the murder victim and philosophy.
I never met a philosophy teacher who wouldn’t look down his nose at students or laymen because they couldn’t make sense of his screwy symbolic equations, or grasp the import of his quotation from some super word salad system of a modern thinker. And I never met one whom I didn’t suspect felt smug and safe about it, either.
Back in New York City and having opened a private investigation agency, one of his first major "paradox-busting" cases involves the obvious murder of a novelist, Gregory Compton, who has won a major literary prize – but who has apparently rejected the prize. He is hired by the foundation that awards the yearly prize to find Compton, who has gone missing. In the course of the story, Hanrahan gets a peek into the literary and publishing world and doesn’t much like what he observes. Along the way he encounters some pleasant people but more unsavory ones. In the beginning, he speaks with Edgar Atherton, head of the Granville Foundation.
I obliged and had a seat. There were magazines on a glass coffee table and also a pile of long gray pamphlets. Under the silhouette of a unicorn were the words, in flowing script, The Eunice Davies-Granville Memorial Foundation. I picked one up and read it.
It was a history of the organization with a statement of its goals and a list of the past winners of the Prize and of its grant awardees for the previous year. Some of the Prize winners’ names I recognized; most I didn’t. And I’d never heard of any of the people who’d won the grants. Under each name was a description of the project the grantee had been given money to complete. The projects included such things as “A Study of the Culture, Language, and Customs of Southern California Surfers,” “A Photo-History of Political Campaign Buttons in the United States,” “The Evolution of Basque Cuisine,” and “A Portrait of Agricultural Life in Pre-Colonial Tanzania.”
The third novel featuring Chess Hanrahan pits the detective against an especially challenging nemesis: The State Department; he is faced with the paradox of a peace treaty that concedes all the advantages to an enemy of the United States, in this case, the Soviet Union (the novel was finished in 1987, not published until 2010). The murders of a friend and his fiancée in the very beginning sends Hanrahan on a quest to identify the murderer and his motive. It brings him face to face with another insulated priesthood – diplomats – and in conflict with Soviet strongmen and the FBI. The dedication page of Presence of Mind, appropriately for the novel and for this volume, quotes Edith Hamilton in her The Echo of Greece:"The Greeks did not want the transcendental and the mysterious. They wanted the truth and they never thought it could be found by escaping from the real."
But he first encounters an old high school flame, Fay, in an art museum. He reaches back into his youth.
Fay uttered a pensive hum, then said, “Have you any idea how mad I was at you when you asked me out and I turned you down, and you said ‘Suit yourself’? after that long pause, and then walked away? I was furious! You did it in such a way that I felt I'd been sentenced to the gallows, or condemned to go dateless until dead. And you never spoke to me again. Just ignored me. Our entire senior year. You always had that attitude problem, Chess. I think it’s even worse now.”
In this last Hanrahan case, the detective clashes with the theater world and Hollywood. By story's end, he is also injured – almost mortally – but his reward is marriage to a siren of stage and screen. His curiosity is piqued when he sees the name of a respected biographer of historical persons in the credits of a film farce about Galileo, Falling Bodies, as the screenwriter. He has read several of the historian's works, and cannot believe the man had anything to do with the film. He learns that the putative screenwriter had been murdered. But why? It was a paradox.
But first, he angers a client, a wealthy widow and philanthropist, by telling her that he found her missing son but will not tell her where he is. His dislike of philanthropists is evident.
The Sismonds of San Francisco were very wealthy. George L. Sismond, five years deceased, had made millions long ago in Pacific shipping, then retired to live long enough to establish, apparently at his wife’s behest, the George L. Sismond Foundation for Social Concerns and Problems. His wife succeeded him as chairman of its board of directors. That is, she alone identified concerns and established problems….
Mrs. Sismond then explained the goals of her foundation, and how a possibly scandalous incident might damage its reputation. I was familiar with the Sismond Foundation for Social Concerns and Problems. It was a very wealthy, and very loopy organization, as such organizations go. It was famous for donating money in equal sums to antithetical causes. It subsidized the legal expenses incurred by opposing parties in libel suits, class action suits against small companies, and discrimination suits against private clubs and associations. It contributed to classical ballet and avant-garde dance and “movement” companies, to realist and abstract schools of art, to traveling folk art collections, and to classical music academies and folk music festivals. It donated generously to public television stations and to programs to house hobos and programs to “reeducate” juvenile delinquents.
Cyrus Skeen debuts in this novel, set in San Francisco in December 1928. He is a scion of Eastern wealth, independent in means, a reluctant and controversial member of San Francisco "society," and a short story writer under a closely guarded penname. He is opposed to Prohibition, knows many bootleggers and is concerned about the expansion of government controls over the country, exemplified by the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Amendments. He has just returned from a European tour and notes with delight a change in look in his secretary, Dilys Jones, who works at his detective agency.
Skeen is better prepared to observe reality and subject it to rational scrutiny than is Chess Hanrahan. He does not thrive in a culture that discourages thinking and the pursuit of justice; Hanrahan endures his culture; Skeen has free reign in thought and deed. Political correctness in speech and in action is unknown to Skeen. He is as worldly as Hanrahan, but his mind is not solely focused on crime.
Skeen also has a pair of friends from his Yale days; both are critics of the stage and screen. When he meets them for an anniversary dinner, he walks in on an acerbic spat between them over the winner of a controversial play, Olympus Deferred. Here Skeen exhibits his knowledge of the culture. He is asked by one of his friends what he thought of the play.
I choked on that play,” said Skeen, “because it had nothing to do with me.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean that Olympus Deferred is the slickest paean to transcendentalism I’ve ever seen, Herb. Ninety percent of the serious drama penned and produced — and a significant volume of sly boots comedy — says the same things as does Olympus, but not nearly as well. Olympus answers no questions, takes no sides, and resolves no issues. It hands approval to both the hero, who isn’t one, and to the anti-hero, who isn’t anything. It bequeaths happiness to the weakling and pain to the misanthrope. In a deft sleight-of-hand it sustains — not challenges — the very conflict you’d expect it to resolve. It preaches tolerance for the coward and the frightened, and tolerance for the loner. It rations equal portions of value between the manqué and the firebrand. It’s a vehicle of nihilism, Herb, the best yet to walk a stage and send people’s minds abuzz. Everybody goes away happy; nobody is asked to take sides; nothing is affirmed or denied. In that respect, Olympus is not controversial.”
Skeen is approached by a famous (or notorious) defense attorney to find incontrovertible evidence that his client, Enoch Paige, did not brutally slay his ex-wife over the possession of rare Hiram Powers bust of the head of Athena. Paige is a famous (or notorious) lecturer on atheism and religion. Skeen, an atheist who does not flaunt his unbelief, takes a disliking to Edgar Freund, the attorney, but agrees to investigate.
In the course of the story, he has a conflict with Detective Sergeant Robert Hoile, a Catholic whose fiancée was kidnapped and murdered by gangsters years before and hates atheists; with Oswald Hoxley, a Protestant preacher; and with wealthy Donald Nugent, who was once the lover of Esmee Planchet, Paige's ex-wife. Skeen has a new secretary, Lucy Wentz, who is in love with her employer but knows he is devoted to his wife, Dilys, who is back East visiting relatives. Skeen begins his investigation by reading recent newspaper accounts of the sensational murder of Esmee Planchet. But first he is first approached by Edgar Freund during a concert.
Skeen had indeed heard of him, and now recalled the face from newspaper snapshots of him from past articles. Edgar Freund was one of the most notorious trial attorneys in the country.
He lived in the city but spent much of his time in other parts of the country representing defendants other lawyers were reluctant to touch, such as indicted politicians, murderous gangsters, and psychopathic killers. He did not win all his cases; in those he lost, he usually managed to win a reduction of charges or sentence for his clients. He was a founding member of the Christian Trial Lawyers Association, and a noted advocate of judicial reform and the direct election of all justices, from county circuit judges on up to the Supreme Court — and of all U.S. senators. He had written a book a few years ago, Monkeyshines, which blasted Clarence Darrow’s politics and his conduct at the Scopes trial. The book had sold well. He and his partners had offices on Drumm Street, on the fringe of the financial district, where they maintained a very lucrative corporate law practice.
When Charles Gilchrist, the director of the Daedâlus Society, a private all-men's club, asks Cyrus Skeen to attend its annual summer encampment near Monte Rio, California, north of San Francisco to investigate possible trouble, the detective agrees to attend the event. His only clues are cryptic notes sent to the director inveighing against tariff legislation awaiting action by Congress. Appended to the bill is a rider that would ban the importation of questionable foreign books and literature. The Society boasts the membership of dozens of prominent businessmen, politicians, academics, and other public figures. The potential trouble may be just a prank – or it might mean an assassination plot. Skeen’s job is to find out which, and, if possible, to prevent it.
It is the summer of 1929. Skeen travels up to the Daedâlus Grove on his first case outside the city. The Grove is set in the middle of a Redwood forest, and the hundreds of attendees are assigned cabins to share with others. Skeen quickly adjusts to the bucolic and casual ambience of the place. He identifies several potential pranksters, but no credible assassins, but he does meet several politicians to whom he takes an instant dislike, and they to him. These are U.S. Senator Brand Olcutt of Nebraska, a bible-thumping sponsor of a new tariff bill, and his ally in Congress, Abraham Voland, a U.S. Representative for a San Francisco district. In the Society director’s office, Skeen and Gilchrist discuss the Society itself. Gilchrist apologizes for the Society's reputation as a Dionysian frolic.
Skeen chuckled at the man’s discomfiture. “Pardon me, Mr. Gilchrest, but the Daedâlus Society has all the reputation and good name as had the Hellfire Club of old Britain.”
Gilchrest shook his head and clucked his tongue. “I can assure you, Mr. Skeen, that the stories that circulate about the Society are exaggerated and pure fiction. Malicious gossip perpetuated by newspapers and radicals and others of that sort.”
Skeen said nothing. He had been told stories about the pranks and behavior of Society members by tipsy, boastful members of the club at past Nob Hill parties. But, even discounting exaggeration and inebriated memories, nothing he had heard about the Society reflected a sterling reputation above reproach. He smiled at the chairman in tactful dismissal.
“Well,” said Gilchrest with some relief that Skeen had not tried to rebut him, “I will admit that occasionally, during these retreats, some of our members allow their high-jinks to get out of hand and go beyond a modicum of decency and decorum. occurs that deserves the besmirching of the Society’s name. Its charity and philanthropic works should more than eclipse such mean, spiteful talk.”
“I’m sure they do, sir.”
Skeen was willing to drop the subject. But the chairman was too annoyed by Skeen’s doubts. “Besides, the time spent by our members and their guests in the refreshing embrace of the great redwoods serves a therapeutic purpose. For a while, they can discard the cares, duties, and responsibilities of their public lives and careers.” Gilchrest smiled. “Who can blame some of them for becoming pickled on occasion?”
Skeen smiled. “You mean that they can relive their care-free, careless boyhoods, without fear of the restraining hands or the leather straps of their parents. Smoke behind the wood shed, curse without censure, and look at French postcards.”
In November 1929, Lucian Maxey, president of Maxey Motors in San Francisco, seems to have committed suicide by putting a gun to his head. The recent stock market crash may have moved him to join the hundreds of other businessmen who committed suicide after their financial ruin. The medical examiner, however, and the police have written off the death as a suicide. But Maxey Motors is solvent. Why would he commit suicide? Here, Skeen interviews the dead man’s son.
Eugene Maxey, the son, a professor at Stanford University, meets Skeen in Palo Alto, and hires him to prove that his father was murdered. But then Skeen discovers that the man who hired him is not the real Eugene Maxey, but an imposter. The check given to him as an advance on his expenses, bounces. He is drawn into a bizarre conspiracy that leads to a twisting trail of lies and a bushel of half-truths, connected with strange organization based near Cambridge University in England, an organization with ties to the burgeoning Nazi Party in Germany.
"Fascinating," remarked Skeen. "Now – Why don't you think your father committed suicide?"
"Because he wasn't the suicidal type. He hated guns more than he hated me. He never owned one. He wouldn't even allow me to have a child's cap pistol inside his home." Maxey paused. "It was alleged that he used one on himself, in his office."
"Yes, I know. I've read all the newspaper accounts. " Skeen took another sip of his coffee.” The police were confident that he shot himself."
"He supposedly killed himself in the evening, long after hours. Everyone in his office had left, and except for the night watchman, my father was the only one left in the entire building. At least, that's what the night watchman said. He wasn't discovered until the next morning, when his secretary came in."
Skeen tamped out his cigarette. "Did he leave a note?"
"No. Not in his office, nor at home."
"What is it you wish me to do, Mr. Maxey?"
"Prove that someone murdered him, and identify that person."
Skeen hummed in thought. "Why do you say your father wasn’t the suicidal type?"
Maxey sat back in his seat. "Whatever else I may have thought about his character, I would concede he was too vital a man. I mean, he was too alive. He may have been harsh with me and Jonah, and could be cruel beyond description, but he was never, well… dark. Or given to moods, or to depression."
"I don’t believe in suicidal 'types,' Mr. Maxey."Depending on the circumstances, anyone, even a person imbued with the maximum of vitality, can commit suicide."
Fast on the heels of rooting out and exposing the existence of a circle of Nazi sympathizers in Palo Alto and of a national organization of them, the beginning of 1930 sees Skeen abruptly confronted with a cadre of Communist agents planted in San Francisco by the Soviet Union. He and Dilys meet a charming but, when the occasion justifies it, a tart-tongued sculptress during a Nob Hill soiree, Fiona Nesbitt. She inexplicably leaves Skeen a claim ticket to a parcel that turns out to be a list of Soviet agents in the American and British governments. She is subsequently and inexplicably murdered. Skeen learns she was a British spy.
He commits himself to solving her murder, knowing full well that he might be wading into something far over his head and beyond his capacity to act upon or against. Untarnished and unafraid, and being a man of honor, he steps into the "mean streets" of international espionage.
At the soiree, a glittering affair of tuxedos, gowns, and ample alcohol, Skeen engages some attendees on the subject of President Herbert Hoover and what he should do about the stock market crash in October and the catastrophic effects on the country.
"But, what do you think Hoover should do?" asked the first man.
Skeen chuckled. "Admit that the government has done a poor job of managing the economy, and chuck the Federal Reserve, rein in the Treasury, and let the market take its course, to let it separate the wheat from the weeds. But, that won't happen. He's a committed humanitarian. I fully expect he will introduce some petit fascist programs, per his associationalist creed. He's all for government-business partnerships."
Two of the men gasped in surprise. One protested, "What a terrible thing to say about a man whose heart is in the right place!"
"His heart may be in the right place, sir, but you will eventually pay the price for it. And, some day, someone will take him seriously and go whole-hog with that associationalism."
"Like that Roosevelt fellow in New York?" mused another man. "He's angling for the White House, so I've heard."
"Yes, I think he is," said Skeen, nodding. "That was one thing I learned from the Maxey affair last November. And you can be sure that Roosevelt would have little use for Mr. Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. Not that Mr. Hoover listens to him much. I wouldn't be surprised if some political cabal was cooked up to oust Mr. Mellon. The charges against him would be specious, of course, anything that would cast a shadow of a doubt over his character and policies, a little thing blown up to gargantuan proportions. 'Mr. Mellon is known to kick his dog, imbibe whisky in the rose garden, and is reputed to be stingy when leaving gratuities to waiters in the best restaurants.' That level of thing, you see, whether true or founded on mere back-fence gossip, would be enough. They'd form an investigating committee and subpoena his valet and grocer for damning testimony."
The man who welcomed Skeen to the group chuckled. "You have the most entertaining way of pole-axing our politicians, sir!"
In February 1930, Skeen is already investigating, on his own time, with no charge to his client, a horrendous murder when he is drawn into another investigation of a similarly gruesome killing. The first case involves the savage murder of a young Jewish girl. After some breathing room from his last case, which pitted him against Communist spies and fifth columnists, Cyrus Skeen is confronted with a new problem and a new peril: Islam.
When the police are unable to solve the girl's murder, her father privately asks Skeen to investigate and possibly find the killer. The crime is of a nature and hideousness unknown to Skeen or any of his colleagues, or even to the city, and he fails. But then a new murder is reported, of a maverick newspaper reporter on the run from vengeful religious police, and Skeen is able to link the two murders. Is the relic the murdered man stole genuine, or a fake?
Set in San Francisco in February 1930, Skeen moves around in a familiar milieu dampened by the Depression and the growth of Hooverville shanty towns of foreclosed and impoverished men in the shadow of the city's wealthier neighborhoods. "Reality," Skeen tells his wife, "has called in its markers" of inflation and fatal government management of the economy. Dilys, his wife, is beginning a new painting, and Skeen's first political article has been accepted in a prominent cultural magazine. At the end of The Chameleon, Skeen had told his wife that "Something wicked this way comes." Skeen has been reading up on Islam. He and his wife over breakfast are astonished by its eclectic practices and mythology.
"Did you know," Skeen asked casually over breakfast the next morning, "that Mohammedans, when they go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, must walk counter-clockwise around the Kaaba seven times, and run between some hills looking for water, and perform a schedule of other rituals, all designed to make them feel like silly, worthless asses?"
"Kaaba?" asked Dilys, who was paying only half attention to her husband. "Sounds like a Greek dish, smothered in the finest feta cheese sauce, and best served with ouzo." She was reading the morning Observer-World. She had fixed a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Skeen had just poured himself a second coffee and was on his first cigarette of the day. He was reading from notes he had made last night in his study and had passed the newspaper over to Dilys.
"The Kaaba," read Skeen, "is a cube-like structure smack in the middle of an open-air mosque about the size of Kezar Stadium, about forty-four feet high and fifty in length. Other scholars reverse the dimensions. It is built of granite on the outside, marble on the inside. It sits on a spot, according to Mohammedan lore, that Allah designated that Adam and Eve should build a temple, or an altar." Skeen paused. "Of course, that story must have been concocted after the Kaaba had been a pagan shrine for an undetermined number of centuries, housing scores of other deities. Allah's own genealogical antecedents seem to be rooted in a moon god of fecundity."
Dilys looked up from the newspaper. She said, wearing an incredulous but amused frown, "You're making that up."
Skeen shook his head, and smiled wickedly. "Great material for a stand-up comedy monologue at the Fantasma Theater."
While Cyrus Skeen operates his private investigations during the Prohibition Era, he has never tangled directly with bootleggers, rumrunners, or even with Revenuers, or agents of the Bureau of Prohibition. He knows bootleggers and rumrunners, and has contacts in the organizations that bring in contraband alcohol to the city. They are the source of his own stock of illegal liquor in his office and at home. They, like him, are partly motivated by a defiance of government diktats and assertions that "good citizens are sober citizens."
But, when he and Dilys, on an adventure, take a week-long round-trip bus to Seattle and back to San Francisco, the super bus is diverted and held up just outside of Medford, Oregon, by what appears to be gangsters armed with Tommy guns. Before the hold-up becomes more perilous to the passengers, Skeen acts and foils the operation, killing most of the gangsters with a gun he had taken from the gang's "inside man." What he eventually learns from the deputy sheriff of the county – and it is not much of a surprise to him – is that nearly all the gang members were Revenue agents. It was an open secret of the time that most Revenue agents, regional directors, mayors, and even police forces, seized the stocks of illegal liquor for resale through their own contacts in the business, and that graft and extortion were rife.
He learns that, because there was no liquor being secretly transported on the bus, the gangsters were after one of the passengers, a master bootlegger who had been hurting the smuggling business of the Revenuers' own gang. That man suddenly walks into his office, seeking help. Over dinner that night, the man says:
"It's my opinion that the populace is paying for the mistakes and errors in judgment committed by every member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union – WicTooers, as those of us in the trade like to call the rank and file of that pernicious organization, the chief mover behind the whole prohibition movement – who hooted and hollered about their husbands' drinking excesses. After all, the members of that ignoble outfit were the ones who married their drunkard, spendthrift husbands in the first place. Instead of divorcing the louts, or taking a frying pan to them, they arm-twisted politicians into punishing the whole country for their spouses' inordinate forays into states of semi-consciousness.
"The penalty should fall upon those ladies and harridans, and not upon the whole country!"
"I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Early," said Skeen. "With this reservation: All that hooting and hollering meshed very nicely with the Progressive program of eventually turning this country into a patronizing nanny state."
"Armed with castor oil and a yardstick with which to thwack miscreants," added Dilys.
Valda Redfern chimed, "I've never seen a single picture of one of those sour-pussed biddies who didn't look like she'd rather be an axe-wielding spinster and killjoy anyway."
§ § §
Cyrus Skeen and Chess Hanrahan are problem solvers. Each subscribes to the efficacy of reason. Unlike many other fictional detectives, they do not rely on “instinct,” gut feelings, intuition, or haphazard guess work to solve problems. Each is focused on the problem, while his subconscious feeds him stored information and past observations germane to the problem. His mind sifts through that information which aids him in his clue- and evidence-collecting and syllogistic tasks. Often Skeen and Hanrahan are faced with the paradox of an A being a non-A at one and the same time. In exploding the paradox, they illuminate the contradiction. Justice is done.
Hanrahan and Skeen are thinkers and doers, “neither tarnished nor afraid,” fully committed to reason and reality. The “mean streets” they venture onto are often horrible and fraught with peril to themselves. But nothing can deter them from pursuing the answers that challenge their rationality.