Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) by Rufus King


This book by an author foolishly forgotten has everything you'd want in a mystery and then some. I began reading - not really knowing what to expect - and didn't/couldn't stop until I was over half way through and the only reason I did finally stop was that is was four in the morning. I am now proposing we start a Rufus King Fan Club - with myself as president.

Rufus King (1893 - 1966) was an American mystery writer born in NYC and already seven years old at the dawn of the exciting twentieth century with its influx of new-fangled inventions sprouting right and left and two World Wars on the horizon. He lived long enough to see the advent of most of what we take for granted today. In his time, King was as famous and sought after a writer of whodunits as Ellery Queen and the rest of the American Golden Agers. But have you ever heard of him? Probably not. I had only vaguely done so and have just recently read this one book of his - the others being a bit pricey online.

First a bit of bio from Mike Grost at gadetection:

He [King] was educated at Yale, joined the army in 1916 and later went to sea as a wireless operator. During the 1920's he originated the upper-crust detective Reginald De Puyster in a series of magazine stories. A more famous character, Lieutenant Valcour, appeared in his first novel, MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1929). A further series centered on Stuff Driscoll, a criminologist in a sheriff's office. He [King] also wrote humorous plays with detective themes.

MURDER BY LATITUDE (1930) is one of several sea-faring whodunits written by King and features his laconic NYC cop, Lieutenant Valcour. This time out, Valcour is on board the Eastern Bay's scheduled voyage from Bermuda to Halifax, on the trail of a murderer whom he suspects is on board. Well, you know, this sort of mystery - murder on board ship - is like manna from heaven for me. I fairly leaped into the book. Don't you love when that happens?

The plot:  A chap named Gant, the ship's wireless operator (and incidentally, the ONLY crew member on board who knows how to use the necessary contraption), is ruthlessly murdered after receiving an important message - from NYC police headquarters - which would have given Lieutenant Valcour an eye witness description of a killer. Since of course the killer has destroyed the initial message, Valcour is in a quandary, with several suspects among the passengers and even, perhaps, the crew.

Among the passengers is the enigmatic Mrs. Poole, an older woman in stubborn defiance of her true age, honeymooning with a new and sexy young hubby (her fourth or fifth) whom she's picked up on a Bermuda beach. Though in reality she is only as young as surgery and make-up can make her, she is rolling in dough and, as we know, good looking young men without inclination to earn a living, must have means.

As Valcour surmises, the mystery centers around Mrs. Poole and her convoluted family history. In New York, the initial murder victim was Poole's first husband, an event which does not seem to upset the lady over much.

The other passengers on board the Eastern Bay - an eccentric bunch - are several young men of various attitudes and looks, a couple of spinster sisters, an elderly husband and wife, and a guy who wears high heels. Now I don't know about you, but high heels on a man - even a man obviously meant to be gay, seems a bit much. I can't remember when high heels were ever worn with men's clothing (by men, that is) even way back when. But I'm assuming the author means men's shoes with a raised heel? Not, I assume, women's pumps. I was never sure. But anyway, it's only a minor point. And the guy who wears 'em makes no apology for this idiosyncrasy, so it's soon forgotten and/or accepted as the killer strikes yet again.

Note: At one point in the book, Valcour must decide if the murderer is a woman masquerading as a man or a man masquerading as a woman. Hint: Mrs. Poole had an 'adopted daughter' who she'd tired of and given away when the child was nine years old, never to be seen or contacted again except through yearly drafts from lawyers.

Sexual identity is the unusual main theme of MURDER BY LATITUDE and Rufus King handles this very well. He makes no secret of the fact that Gant, the radio operator, had a close pal among the crew, a pal who is grieving and hoping for revenge. With his help and that of the Eastern Bay's voluble captain, Valcour will use his wiles to ferret out a canny killer who seems always to have luck on his side.

I am duly smitten with Rufus King and Lieutenant Valcour and hope I've convinced you to try this book which is one of the easiest to find online for hardly much money at all. Abe Books is currently my 'go-to' for 'cheap' vintage and I always think if I can't find it there at reasonable cost, it probably doesn't exist. I'm not talking about collectible copies, of course - just decent readable ones.

And for another look at MURDER BY LATITUDE, from another Rufus King admirer, check out The Passing Tramp's earlier review.

Also, we musn't forget John at Pretty Sinister Books, who is also a Rufus King aficionado. Here's his review of King's MURDER MASKS MIAMI, Lieutenant Valcour's last case.

And Vintage Pop Fiction's review of King's, 'Very highly recommended'
MURDER ON THE YACHT.

26 comments:

  1. I used to read his Stuff Driscoll books.

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    1. Even more obscure and hard to get, Gram. But I'm going to keep on trying to round up as many King books as I can find. Well, as much as the budget allows, at any rate. :)

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  2. Thanks for the link, Yvette. You read at least one of my other reviews a long time ago (there's a comment with your name on it) and that's why his name is vaguely remembered, I'm sure. The first book I reviewed by Rufus King was MURDER BY THE CLOCK back in 2012. I also reveiwed his play INVITATION TO A MURDER which served in part as the basis for the movie The Hidden Hand. If only his books were eBooks we'd easily have a Rufus King fan club. But since hardly anyone buys books from used bookstores anymore they'll just sit on the shelves and in boxes for the next couple of decades. His books are probably languishing on the shelves of several public libraries too.

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    1. You're welcome, John. Well, I always try to read your reviews, so I'm not surprised I read one a long time ago. :) I can't understand why King's books are not e-books - everyone else's seem to be. Is there anyone around we can influence with our enthusiasm???

      Well, at the very least, we can keep his name alive online here at our blogs. Maybe at the end of the year we can do a 'To Good To Be Forgotten' Round-up post at all our blogs on the same date. How's that sound?

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  3. Well this just sounds too fun. I will definitely be looking this up!

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    1. Copies are available at Abe Books and free shipping, Picky. You'll love it. It's just the sort of mystery to wile away a cruelly cold winter evening with.

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  4. Well, very highly recommended all 'round. Seems I'm going to find a copy post haste as the saying is. Thanks for the great review!

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    1. You're welcome, Richard. I hope you do get a copy. It's always a delight to discover another Golden Ager mystery great. How this guy slipped under my radar, I just don't know. But I vow to make up for my slight. :)

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  5. I definitely crown you Queen of the King club Yvette! I must try him, I am nothing if not a dutiful follower of royalty :)

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    1. It's nice to be the Queen. :) Yes, you must try Rufus King and as Les informs us, MURDER BY LATITUDE is available as an e-book at Amazon. I hope you can get it on your side of the big pond.

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  6. Yvette (and John), the Kindle store on Amazon has e-book versions available of MURDER BY LATITUDE and also MALICE IN WONDERLAND: THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES OF CHIEF BILL DUGGAN. Rufus King hasn't been on my radar; looks like it's past time for me to make his acquaintance. Thanks (I'm not sure about that!) for adding yet more titles to my TBR pile...

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    1. Good news, Les. I haven't read the Bill Duggan book - I'm assuming it's short stories, but I will definitely take a look. So glad to hear that MURDER BY LATITUDE is available, at least, as an e-book. Though I found a very nice hardcover copy at Abe Books for little money and free shipping. Yes, I know sound like a tout - but believe me, I get nothing from Abe for recommending them. Just being a book lover.

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  7. Yvette, you are right, I don't think I'd heard of Rufus King and so I definitely haven't read him but with such high praise from you, I will be looking for some of his books including this one reviewed by you as well as Curtis over at The Passing Tramp, and the one by John.

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    1. Well, I hope you can find at least one of them, Prashant. Rufus King is worth searching for. At least, as far at this one example goes. I really was surprised by how good MURDER BY LATITUDE was. So I'll be looking for more of his books as well.

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  8. Interesting. Abe Books has more titles by King at reasonable prices. Also, Amazon has a few, too.

    Sounds like just the right pastime for freezing, snowy evenings.

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  9. Yeah, I went down the list but I don't like to pay more than four or five bucks for Vintage. :) With free shipping of course. :) Occasionally I will take a splurge though, but not without plenty of research. Gotta' have a good reason for jiggling the budget. Ha. I really enjoyed MURDER BY LATITUDE and paying less than four bucks was nice. Especially for a hardcover copy. I'd always much rather have a hard cover if at all possible.What a joy it is to discover a previously unknown to me author who is this good.

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  10. Hi Yvette, I hope I am not getting senile, but TV is so awful. I have movies I watch over and over, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, the orig,
    Goodbye Mr Chips, and so on. Can't read much eye problems. Just oil
    painting things I like . Last night I came down with something, very sick. Touch base latter.stay warm. yvonne

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    1. Oh I hope you're feeling better really soon, Yvonne. Rotten time to be sick. I agree with you about television. I don't have cable anymore and I hardly miss it. I have Netflix, but to tell the truth, I hardly ever use it. There just doesn't seem to be anything to interest me either. I'd rather read. Have you tried audio books? Perfect if you have eye problems. Thankfully I can still read, but I also love audio books. A friend got me a Kindle and of course, there you can adjust the type size easily. I'll stay warm, don't worry. You do too, m'dear.

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  11. I love mysteries on a boat, and I love mysteries that you tend to love, so I'm so going to find this one.

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    1. I hope you love it as much as I did, Ryan.

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  12. Sounds fantastic! I'm off to AbeBooks to look around, Yvette. All these old hard to find books will be the death of me yet!

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    1. I know exactly what you mean, Peggy Ann. Luckily, they're not so hard to find anymore. :)

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  13. Great review! I'm convinced and I'm on the hunt for the book. I think it will make a great addition to my new (self-imposed) ABCs of Crime Fiction reading challenge at my blog, Beyond Eastrod. Please stop by and offer me suggestions as I fill out my alphabetical gameplan. Now, without further delay, I'm on the search for Rufus King books.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, RTD. Been reading vintage mysteries by the bunch lately - even more than usual, that is. I hope you'll enjoy King's books as much as I did. Of course I've only read two, but more are sure to turn up.

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  14. Interesting I love mysteries.Is Boston gettin snow tomorrow? My Daughter is flying in, then to Rockland. Please God let the Sun come out. yvonne

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    1. Hope all went well on your daughter's visit, Yvonne. I'm also hoping we've seen the end of snow season. :)

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