When Darwin L. Teilhet’s first book, Murder in the Air, was published, The New York Herald Tribune recommended the book “for fans who like their news stories done into fiction.” The novel was based on the 1928 disappearance of the Belgian financier Alfred Lowenstein from a small airplane over the English Channel. Though eventually Lowenstein’s body was discovered in the channel, Teilhet developed a far more elaborate plot involving the impossible vanishing of a man from a locked plane in midair.
The Talking Sparrow Murders
This interest in current events as sources of fiction led to Teilhet’s most important novel, The Talking Sparrow Murders, published in 1934. At a time when most novelists, whether writers of mysteries or mainline fiction, looked on Adolf Hitler as merely a German nationalist bent on redressing the inequities of the Treaty of Versailles, Teilhet was almost alone in understanding the terror that the Nazis were creating. He had spent 1928 and 1929 in Heidelberg, and his impressions of what was happening have all the vividness of a young man’s views. What he felt was not only the terror of the times but also the sadness of the loss of a great past. Later, in explaining why he introduced controversial themes into his stories, Teilhet said that a writer must “have something deep in [himself] and . . . the need to express it. They say that applies to the important novels, to the big serious efforts and it may be true, too, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps it can apply to anything a man feels he has to write. . . .” Teilhet believed that he had to write about the rape of the Germany he loved, and he did it in a formal detective story.
The Talking Sparrow Murders, which takes place in Heidelberg, begins with an extraordinary mystery. How can a sparrow talk, and why is the man who reported the loquacious bird immediately murdered? Mystery follows mystery, not only of sudden death but also of the man who solemnly bows to a pine tree. Yet, unlike writers who used bizarre events primarily to create interest on the part of the reader, Teilhet writes of talking sparrows and other strange phenomena to introduce the theme of the story: that Heidelberg is a part of a world going mad. The Nazis are consolidating their power, and the left wing responds with equally irrational violence. How can rational detection, indeed how can humane people, exist in such a situation? Herr Polizeidirector Kresch attempts to unravel the mysteries, but one of the major suspects is the head of the local branch of the Nazi Party. Teilhet’s point is that people must remain human even if ultimately they cannot control what is happening. Teilhet did not look on fictional murder as merely providing an intellectual puzzle. Witness the opening to the chapter titled “The Live Cat and the Dead Jew,” which must be quoted in order to understand the depth of Teilhet’s anger:It was a dead Jew, all right. . . . Most of the man’s body was a pulp of cloth and blood with a great gaping place where the cat had been at him after the Nazis finished. . . . They had thoughtfully burned the swastika sign on the Jew’s forehead before finishing with him and tossing him out in the Friedrichsallee as one of their amusing little signs of the cultural revival of Germany. Except for the mark on the forehead and a bruise below the right eye, the Jew’s face had not been touched; it was strong and intelligent, with a sensitive nose and a firm mouth flicked up at the corner by a final frozen grimace of agony or, perhaps, the last physical indication of a refusal to be either humiliated or frightened by torture. . . . From somewhere in the distance a clock struck out mellowly and with a curiously haunting sadness, as if it were a relic of a long forgotten past, two hours in the morning.
Such passages were strong stuff in the detective novel of the 1930’s; indeed, they would be strong stuff in novels of any time—not merely because of the repressed brutality of the language but also because, by setting the Nazi murder against a Heidelberg symbolized by the bells of an ancient clock, Teilhet shows that Nazism and fascism are modern evils, evils of propaganda and technology and hatred directed by party and state.
It is remarkable that Teilhet uses such elements to develop the plot of a fair-play detective novel. The incident of the dead Jew foreshadows a later episode in which the narrator reads a newspaper that reports three other murders. Two of the victims are named Rosenkrantz and Jacobson: “You can tell by their names what happened to them. . . . Jews attacked by the righteous Nazis.” The third victim however, has the good German name Schmitz, and because he was killed near the site of the talking sparrow, his death proves to be connected with the mystery.
Teilhet’s narrative style in The Talking Sparrow Murders is unusual. Occasionally the colorfulness of his prose becomes what Bill Pronzini, in...
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