A group of tourists are engaged in a treasure hunt on the grounds of El Morro, a historic fort in Old Juan (and now the only national park on that island commonwealth). Among the participants we find Senator John Monarch; his wife, movie actress Melita Avery; Monarch's lawyer and Melita's sometime lover, Fergus McKelvie; Monarch's nephew Elmer; Stella Tophet, a strident American housewife; Jim Greer, ex-British Secret Service agent; and Robin Upwood his friend and an agent in the British Foreign Office. The treasure hunt ends abruptly when someone quite literally stumbles upon the corpse of the senator in the location of the title. He has been shot in a room with only one entrance, two windows that are no more than slits in the masonry, and that was being watched by two guards. An impossible murder! More Carr influence at work? Well, not quite.
The book is narrated by Upwood and while he is involved in the action and we get to follow him along on his creepy adventures in the dungeon during the treasure hunt, the true detective of the piece is Jim Greer. Because Upwood is the first person narrator we only know of Greer's activities if the two of them are together. However, Greer is offstage a lot for much of the first part of the book and we only learn of his findings through dialogue exchanges with Upwood. This was beginning to bother me because I prefer fair play detective novels in which the reader and detective discover clues together. But later Greer will team up with Upwood and we get to follow the detection first hand via Upwood's narration.
|The now inaccessible haunted sentry box at El Morro|
While the Puerto Rican characters are allowed to speak Spanish with Upwood acting as sometime translator (he is practically fluent in the language), there is the other end of the spectrum embodied in the character of Félise, a maid from the Virgin Islands. She speaks in heavily rendered phonetic dialog and is thrown in as the usual black character intended as an object of ridicule. With her "dems" and "dose" and her talk of spooks and superstition it's the most off putting part in a book which for the most part is very modern and sophisticated. Here's a sampling of Félise's words of wisdom, some keen advice for anyone investigating mysteries (with or without ghosts):
"Dar does be tings dat you believes and tings dat you doesn't believe. Sometime it seem a long way out but den you take a little jump home and it coom."There is ample amount of detection but most of Greer's energy seems to be focussed on extraneous matters. A packet of shirts found in the bushes with odd scribbling on the cuff on the left sleeves, the search for the owner of a mysterious British accented voice that threatened Monarch with a terrible vengeance, and some strange verse-like scribblings left in a hotel room are only a sampling of the numerous clues that monopolize Greer's investigation. All of these seem to lead to the murderer and I was convinced I had nailed the culprit only to have the rug pulled out from under me in the final paragraphs of the penultimate chapter. While I was disappointed in the identity of the real murderer I must allow a tip of the hat to Gayle in fooling me by leading me down to the garden path to the false culprit. No mean feat for a novice mystery writer. This was, after all, the second book of a total of five.
|Aerial view of the entire park enclosing El Morro|
More interesting than the book are the biographies of the two people who authored it. "Newton Gayle" is the pseudonym of a writing duo made up of Muna Lee and Maurice Guinness. Lee was a well known poet from Mississippi whose early career included work with the U.S. Secret Service as a confidential translator where she censored mail written Spanish as well as in Portuguese and French. She married another poet from Puerto Rico, Luis Munoz Marin and the two moved to Puerto Rico. While living there she collaborated with Guinness, a Shell Oil executive, on five detective novels most of which feature Jim Greer. Not surprisingly both their backgrounds come into play in their books. Death Follows a Formula deals with a man who discovers an alternative fuel to gasoline and his eventual murder. Their third book, Murder at 28:10 (1936), is also set in Puerto Rico. For more about Lee see this detailed article about mystery writers from Mississippi.
This is my first successfully finished book in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Crampons and ice pick were not necessary on this leg, though they may be required later in the year as I scale the hazardous peaks in the mini-mountain range I call my TBR pile.