I stumbled across this novel after reading a review over at Dead Yesterday. I’m not sure that I’ve heard of Rufus King, but the book had a definite allure: a mystery involving diving in the West Indies. I’m always down to shake things up, and some 1930’s undersea chicanery sounded interesting. Plus hey, there’s a Dell map back edition of the book. I couldn’t resist.
I should note that the story is actually called “The Lesser Antilles Case”, but my Dell edition trumpets “Murder Challenges Valcour”, and that’s the only title shown on the spine. So I’m going to call it that.
The “Valcour” in the title refers to Lieutenant Valcour of the New York police: the type of detective where you could no doubt read five novels and still not be able to describe a single trait of the character. How Valcour gets involved in a murder set in a chain of islands two thousand miles away is somewhat of a stretch, but I’ll ignore that, as it’s an excuse to get us into a promising setting.
The core crime actually takes place before the story starts. A yacht named Helsinor runs into a reef at night, and in the confusion, only a third of its passengers and crew make it ashore a small uncharted island. With a dwindling water supply, the survivors eventually pack into their lifeboat and attempt to make a run for nearby Grenada. The remaining water turns out to be drugged, and the cast awakens far out at sea with two of their members having disappeared. Was it murder?
The survivors eventually end up rescued and return to New York, and Valcour somehow becomes involved because of the suspicious circumstances, even though the crime was committed far out of jurisdiction. Valcour pokes around “unofficially”, but the survivors evade all questions about what happened aboard the lifeboat. Everyone is upper crust, and there’s a concern about scandal, and in that way much of the story feels like a typical high society NYC mystery.
One of the survivors finally spills the beans that a murder did in fact occur and they know who committed it… but in stereotypical fashion decides to wait to make their announcement. Best to hold off until after a party featuring all of the remaining survivors. Wouldn’t you know that the key witness ends up poisoned, although seemingly nobody had an opportunity to put anything into the victim’s drink.
If you’ve read more than a dozen Golden Age mysteries, you’ll no doubt spot the killer immediately, figure out the key misdirection, as well as see through the trick poisoning. The story becomes somewhat fun though when the whole cast decides to journey back to the Caribbean island where the original crime occurred – I’m not quite sure why everyone agreed to come – in order to locate a key piece of evidence that Valcour believes to be in the sunken wreck of the Helsinor. We’re well into the final third of the book when this happens – pretty much everything takes place in NYC aside from some flashbacks – but we’re finally headed to the Caribbean!
A diving suit comes into play – as featured on the cover – and I was hoping for some impossible crime where the diver is stabbed while underwater, but unfortunately the story offers nothing of the sort. Instead the brief portion in the Caribbean is a bit predictable, and aside from the unique locale, there’s nothing new to be seen here.
Murder Challenges Valcour is mostly a middling detective novel of the era. Scratch the entire sunken wreck bit and exotic destination and this is your typical NYC mystery that offers nothing new. But, there is the whole sunken wreck bit and the exotic locale, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Rufus King keeps things interesting throughout with multiple murders, some tense scenes of peril, and a mix of crimes of the present and the past. It’s a story that keeps moving and constantly throws in new excitement, but if you’re like me, and reading for the major revelation, you’re not going to get the satisfaction.
I don’t see myself actively seeking out additional Valcour mysteries. I’m sure they’d be fine, but I want to read better than fine. Still, you could do a lot worse than this book, and hey, it’s got a map back…
Speaking of the map back, it really adds nothing, other than showing the relative sizes of the various boats featured in the story. The wreck of the Helsinor seems to be way too close to the uncharted island compared to what’s described in the story. It isn’t really a map of anything, but it’s colorful and has that map back flair. A cool item to have.