(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Critics have received Octavus Roy Cohen’s detective fiction with mixed emotions. Anthony Boucher considered Cohen, in his early phase, one of the precursors of “the tough, realistic school”; others have been less sure of his contribution.

The uncertainty stems in part from the fact that Cohen was not an innovator. Rather, he was a skilled re-creator of an established formula who used some interesting variations that seem to prefigure other later techniques. His best-known creation, Jim Hanvey, remained squarely within the tradition of what Julian Symons calls the detective as “Plain Man.” Unlike the detectives modeled on Sherlock Holmes, the Plain Man had no superhuman powers of ratiocination; nor did he share the Holmesian detective’s lack of “emotional attachments and . . . interest in everyday life.” Hanvey is a clever and resourceful man, but his investigative ability—like that of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe—is more the result of a large store of common sense, an excellent memory for faces, and an acquaintance with most of the important members of the criminal world.

Even his childlike enjoyment of the simple things—especially all things related to eating—precludes his membership among Symons’s “Superman” detectives. The crude Hanvey can often prove embarrassing to his more refined companions. In “Common Stock,” for example, Gerald Corwin, whose “every cultured gesture” marks him “unmistakably a gentleman,” is appalled by Hanvey’s habit of “sitting by the hour toying with his [gold] toothpick.” When someone mentions that “the weapon might better be concealed,” Hanvey is honestly surprised that anyone would want to hide “absolutely the swellest toothpick in captivity.” Then, too, his table manners are less than desirable, since “eatin’ ain’t no art with me. It’s a pleasure.”

The Crimson Alibi

The Crimson Alibi (1919), the first novel in the David Carroll series, contains—although the suspects all seem to be wronged innocents, who, in the best tradition of mystery fiction, would be more than justified in killing the unpopular and unscrupulous Joshua Quincy—a backbone of corrupt, highly placed citizens and tough-minded investigators that would later be fleshed out in the American subgenres. Quincy’s lawyer, the eminent Thaddeus Standish, though less than fully involved in his client’s less savory schemes, nevertheless knew of them—though not “in an official capacity.” The police, though considered honest public servants, delight in grilling suspects and using snitches.

The murder, too, foreshadows those of later fiction. Neither mysterious poisons nor other exotic manners of dealing death are employed: Quincy is felled by a silver dagger, his own possession, which has been wiped...

(The entire section is 1157 words.)