(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Lawrence Treat received a much better education than the typical mystery writer, and the positive and negative effects of it are evident in his writings. His first mystery novels feature Carl Wayward, a college professor with marked tendencies toward social and intellectual snobbishness. Wayward is not exactly an amateur sleuth, the favored protagonist of the classic school of mystery fiction; he specializes in criminology, which gets him involved in cases as a consultant, not unlike the great Sherlock Holmes. Yet Wayward seems to be perpetually on sabbatical, and his supposed knowledge of criminology rarely surfaces during his investigations. He is indistinguishable from the typical amateur sleuth, who takes up investigations out of idle curiosity or sympathy for someone involved and whose immensely superior intellect enables him to make fools of the bumbling police.

“H” as in Hangman

“H” as in Hangman (1942) is probably the best and most characteristic of the four Carl Wayward novels. It is set in Chautauqua, the famous resort founded in the nineteenth century to bring enlightenment to the masses. Wayward is there to lecture on criminal psychology; his professional contempt for this system of popular adult education is such, however, that it is difficult for the reader to understand why he has chosen to participate at all. Most of the principal characters are American equivalents of the upper-and upper-middle-class types found in typical British mysteries of the classic school, such as those of Agatha Christie. They lounge on porches sipping tea and lemonade, discussing highbrow subjects or gossiping rather viciously about absent acquaintances. The few who are not being supported by relatives or inherited property are vaguely involved in “stocks and bonds” or some other elitist occupation that pays well without demanding much of their attention. Wayward himself is able to spend most of his time leaning against something with his left hand in the side pocket of his tweed jacket. It is a closed environment, the sine qua non of the classic school, which conveniently limits the number of suspects to a manageable handful of known and socially acceptable individuals when the first murder is committed.

The victim, an elderly music professor who has been a leader in the Chautauqua movement for decades, is found hanged in the bell tower shortly after he or his murderer has alerted the whole community that something dastardly was afoot by playing the bells at an ungodly hour. The carillon performer did not choose anything vulgar such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” but played a portion of “Ase’s Death” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (1867). Instead of a rope, the dead man was hanged with a cello string. Such “smart aleck kills,” which Raymond Chandler reviled, are characteristic of the classic school of detective fiction. The leisure-class characters, the circumscribed setting in which the soon-to-be suspects are almost formally introduced, the tidbits of culture and arcane information, the gothic overtones of the modus operandi, and the incompetent sheriff who begs Wayward for help are some of the features that mark the Wayward novels as derivative ventures. They also strike the reader as an excessive display of knowledge.

Treat’s Wayward novels show intelligence and literary talent. He had started with aspirations to write poetry and quality mainstream novels and, like Ross Macdonald in later years, had had to step down in class for pragmatic reasons. Critics recognized the quality of his writing and praised his Wayward novels. Nevertheless, he dropped his intellectual hero unceremoniously in 1943; two years later, he produced a mystery novel that not only represented a quantum leap forward in his writing career but also became a landmark in the genre.

“V” as in Victim

“V” as in Victim, published in 1945, is regarded as the first police procedural. It is such a dramatic departure from the Wayward novels that it seems not to have been written by the same person. Set in the heart of Manhattan, it conveys a feeling not unlike...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)