The Owner Lies Dead – Tyline Perry (1930)

When Coachwhip Publications reprinted The Owner Lies Dead in 2017, it was definitely one of the Golden Age reprints receiving a lot of buzz at the time.  The reviews full on caught my attention, promising a rare mine-set mystery combined with a vexing impossible crime.  It made my Christmas wish list that year, and has inexplicably sat unread ever since.

Well, not that I haven’t tried to read it.  I’ve taken several trips through the southwest United States since obtaining this book, and each time, The Owner Lies Dead has traveled with me.  Through legendary old mining towns like Silverton, Ouray, Durango, Telluride, and Idaho Springs, the book has jostled along.  Of course I have this bad habit of always packing two books too many when I travel (wouldn’t want to get stuck dry), and somehow I never got around to reading it.  I’ve even driven past Genesee, Colorado (where the Coachwhip publication states the book is set) multiple times with the book tagging along with me (Genesee is located just outside of Denver near Red Rocks amphitheater – you’ll inevitably unknowingly drive past it if you’re ever in Colorado to ski).  While the book does take place in a mining town named Genesee, I’m not convinced that the town is supposed to be set in Colorado (although author Tyline Perry was a resident of the mountain state), because at several points in the story, it seems to be implied that New York City is relatively close by.

Anyway… oh yeah, the actual story.  The Haunted Mine (great pulpy name, but unfortunately not capitalized on for creep factor) is on fire, with seventeen men trapped below.  The son of the owner rushes inside to save them, but doesn’t make it back out.  With the rescue effort abandoned, the entrance to the mine is sealed with cement in an effort to put out the blaze.  Five weeks later, the mine is reopened, and the owner’s son’s body is recovered.  But he didn’t die from smoke or the fire – he died from a bullet in the back.

I honestly think this might be one of the best setups to a Golden Age mystery, and you can understand why I was so eager to buy this one when I first read the reviews.  Unfortunately you have to take the impossible crime angle with a coal-sized nugget of salt.  The solution comes less than midway through the book, in one of those “well, why didn’t you mention that thing that makes this not at all impossible?” moments.  Ignore the disappointment of the impossibility though, and you still have an absolute labyrinth of twists and turns…… if only they weren’t all so damn obvious.

Look, the last thing that I want to do is to solve a mystery when I’m reading it.  I mean, I want to try to solve the mystery, but I want the author to be several steps ahead of me and ultimately sucker punch me with a twist I didn’t see coming; a twist that reframes everything that came before.  With The Owner Lies Dead, I saw all of the twists coming from a mile away.  To be clear, that’s not bragging; it’s absolutely unfortunate.  And the funny thing is, you have epic levels of misdirection going on here.  This is the stuff of Death Watch or The Seventh Hypothesis – in which the reader reads one set of events while a completely different set are playing out – and yet the comparison breaks down because this one is so easy to see through.

I mean, normally when I “solve” a mystery, it means that I’ve seen through the general puzzle, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve come close to putting all of the pieces together.  I saw through the core impossibility in John Dickson Carr’s The Unicorn Murders, but I still couldn’t have explained 90% of the rest of the solution to that baffling crime.  With The Owner Lies Dead, I honestly think I’ve never read a story where I could fill in the background gaps with such certainty.  Not just who did it and how they did it, but everything that happened along the way.

Which is so unfortunate.  I hope that you read this book and it fools you, because it would probably be one of the best mysteries you’ve read if it succeeds.  Tyline Perry’s writing is effortless and enchanting, and I have to hope that someone decides to republish her only other novel-length offering to the genre (The Never Summer Mystery), or collects her various pulp stories.  Perry is so successful in building up the town of Genesee and the core cast that it’s easy to get swept away in the story.  There’s an element that almost feels like a grown up children’s novel – think Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice – that allows you to get lost in the story despite the obvious mysteries.

And man, Perry’s got the talent for it, and I swear with a few more novels under her belt should could have put out some classics.  She knows how to lay out a mystery, but she just doesn’t yet know how to anticipate what the reader will suspect.  Perry spins a web of false plot lines and solutions, which would have the naive reader tying themselves in knots, but it grows tiresome when you see through it all and just have to wait it all out.  I’m reminded of John Dickson Carr’s words in his final novel, The Hungry Goblin:

“Be fair with your readers; tell ‘em everything.  But don’t tell ‘em everything in a simple minded way.  First decide what the average reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him.  Then decide what the clever reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him.  Thus, all openly, you prepare your thunderbolt for the end.”

Still, this was a top notch read, and although the mystery element may have been the weakness, everything else hit the mark.  I’m glad this book was brought back to life, and Coachwhip sets the tone perfectly with one of the nicest covers that I’ve seen for a modern reprint outside of the Bryan Flynn reissues.

10 thoughts on “The Owner Lies Dead – Tyline Perry (1930)”

  1. Glad you liked it and congratulations on your Great Detective moment. Those moments are as satisfying as when a good detective story succeeds in pulling the wool over your eyes. I was only able to identify parts of the solution and wonder if it’s (ROT13) gur obbx gvgyr gung tnir gbb zhpu njnl. It sort of works as a road sign pointing the reader in the right direction.

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    1. Ah, no, it wasn’t that for me. It was just that there were a few twists that seemed like reasonable possibilities and it was fairly easy to confirm them. When I first figured the twists out there was a bit of that Great Detective moment excitement and a feeling that the story was rather clever. That was soon followed by “I have 100 pages left of false threads…” Which is too bad, because the plotting was excellent and I’d gladly read more of Perry’s work.

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  2. Thanks for the review, especially since I’ve read it recently and so am still curious to hear what others think. I think I had a similar experience to you, in that I thought the main twist (ROT13: gur vqragvgl bs gur pbecfr) and the twist after that (ROT13: jub gur npghny xvyyre vf) seemed rather transparent. To the point that I even speculated a third, additional twist to the plot (ROT13: gung Znggurj’f jvsr qvfpbirerq gung ur nyybjrq uvf arcurj gb or senzrq, naq gurersber xvyyrq uvz)!

    And so while the writing was good, the narrative felt somewhat drawn out, and I didn’t entirely enjoy the main character drift further and further down the wrong course.

    Incidentally, was it you who made a comment on JJ’s review of ‘Woman in Wardrobe’, listing ‘Malinsay Massacre’ as a hard-to-obtain classic? I gather there are quite a few second-hand copies floating around – if it’s the novel by Dennis Wheatley you have in mind? Not sure if we’re referring to the same novel?

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    1. Yeah, I clued in on your first twist fairly early – it’s bound to pop into the head of any reader of the genre. A bit later I started noticing stuff that led me to the second twist. It’s a well written book, so I don’t know that you can quite blame it for this, but once you catch on to those two bits, the rest of the book drags when it really shouldn’t. I mean, tons of stuff is happening, but it all seems pointless if you’ve seen through it. I guess that would be the case for any mystery perhaps, but there was this dire sense of “no, don’t chase that theory!!!”

      As for The Malinsay Massacre – I actually just got my hands on a copy (having completely forgotten that I ordered it when I posted that comment). Bear in mind that I try to limit my spending on a book that I really want to around $8 (although I find myself more and more creeping towards spending $12). And so when I say it’s hard to find an affordable copy, that basically means it took me months to track down an $8 copy. The Sleeping Bacchus on the other hand is flat out hard to find at any price, along with some of those other books I listed.

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  3. I’ve read this, I’ve reviewed this, and yet I remember very little about it — it’s wonderfully written, but the plot was slight, the disclosure rushed, and the central puzzle something of a let down…though in terms of details I’m rather vague. I do remember feeling that this was a novel very much on sympathy with Wilders Walk Away by Herbert Brean: treat as an exploration of a town and some potentially shaggy dog stories for best results; detection and plot fiends need not apply.

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  4. I’ve come rather late to reading the mysteries of the Golden Age, reading in the genre for only about thirty years now, and am very grateful for my fellow (younger) enthusiasts who continue to inform me of the wealth of great writers from that time. The growing number of blogs and other sites give me something to truly want to wake up for every day. I’ve decided that if there are no Mysteries in the afterlife, I won’t go, I’m staying. Thanks for the work you do and for all the beguiling tales directed my way at The Green Capsule. Talk about a kid in a candy store. That’s me.

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      1. I’ve decided that if there are no Mysteries in the afterlife, I won’t go, I’m staying.

        Good news! Some of us have hypothesized that there must be a Phantom Library where all the lost, unpublished manuscripts of detective novels and short stories once they cease to exist here. After Life is the most logical location for this library. There’s just one snag. Can you imagine browsing the shelves of the Phantom Library with our friend, JJ? 😉

        JJ: You know, Talbot’s The Affair of the Half-Witness is only half as good as his published novels, but better than Commings’ One for the Devil. What?
        Me: You’re lucky you’re already dead!

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